Angus Miller

The Duchess (of Malfi)

21/05/19

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

As we take our seats in the Lyceum, we’re aware of an almost palpable air of expectation. After all, this is John Webster’s most infamous play and it’s a dead certainty that, by curtain down, the pale grey set is going to be liberally splattered with Kensington Gore. I’m expecting a wild ride, and I’m glad to note that, in this adaptation by Zinnie Harris, the feel is definitely sprightly – and I’m grateful for the huge illuminated titles, that introduce all the main characters as they enter, making it very easy to keep track of the ensuing mayhem.

When we first meet The Duchess (Kirsty Stuart), she is attempting to sing, her voice faltering at first but rapidly growing in confidence, until she is rudely interrupted by the arrival of her manipulative brothers, Ferdinand (Angus Miller) and The Cardinal (George Costigan). We quickly learn that The Duchess is a young widow, newly liberated from a loveless marriage. She is young, she has money and she’s ready to express herself in a male-dominated world. Her brothers, on the other hand, want her to make a suitable marriage, to somebody rich and respectable, in order to enhance her (and their) status. However, she is in love with her humble young secretary, Antonio (Graham McKay-Bruce), and – all too aware that her brothers will not approve of the union – she marries him in secret, aided by her maid, Cariola (Fletcher Mather). All is well and good until The Duchess falls pregnant with twins; when her brothers learn of the deception via their carefully planted spy, Bosola (Adam Best), their desire for revenge has no limits…

This is beautifully staged and cleverly directed. Stuart is a delight in the title role and I particularly relish George Costigan as the oleaginous Cardinal, outwardly devout and sanctimonious, yet happy to quote the scriptures even when performing the most depraved of acts on his unfortunate mistress, Julia (Leah Walker). The play’s first half positively scampers along, and – dutifully reinforced with a glass of something alcoholic – we return for act two, where carnage promptly ensues.

I mean it in the nicest possible way when I say it works in spite of the hokey material – and largely by virtue of the fact that the bloodshed is played as the darkest of comedies, the rapidly rising body count coaxing laughter from the audience rather than silent dread. This is, I think, the only way to play it in these unshockable times, a sort of Comedy of Terrors. It’s left to hired hand Bosola to salvage something from the chaos he has engineered on behalf of his wicked employers, and it’s his redemption that lies at the very heart of this rollicking revenge tragedy.

It’s all here. Romance, comedy and lashings of Type O. How can you resist?

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

Advertisements

The Belle’s Stratagem

21/02/18

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The chances are you may not have heard of playwright and poet, Hannah Cowley. I certainly hadn’t until I read the programme for the Lyceum’s latest offering. Back in the 1700s, however, her work was in great demand and, in 1780, her biggest success, The Belle’s Stratagem (a witty repost to George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem), was selling out the 2000 seater Drury Lane Theatre in London. Over the ensuing centuries, her name has passed into obscurity, so it’s particularly satisfying to see her work brought once more to the public attention in this sprightly adaptation, written and directed by Tony Cownie. The action has been relocated to Edinburgh, where the New Town is taking shape, and where the villainous Deacon Brodie is gleefully helping himself to the belongings of its inhabitants.

The belle of the title is Letitia (Angela Hardie), who is betrothed to the wealthy and handsome Doricourt (Angus Miller), much to the delight of her father, Provost Hardy (Steven McNicholl), who welcomes the financial advancement this will bring. But though Letitia is head-over-heels in love with Doricourt, he seems quite indifferent to her charms, so she devises a devious stratagem that will make him fully appreciate her qualities. The first step, however, is to make him despise her…

I don’t want to give the impression that this is a single-strand narrative. There are subplots aplenty, not least the story of Sir George Touchwood (Grant O’ Rourke), who has been deliberately keeping his naive wife, Lady Frances (Helen Mackay), away from the distractions of high society. There’s the newspaperman, Flutter (John Ramage), an unabashed gossip-monger, who loves nothing more than writing about the outrageous events of the well-to-do and who has no compunction in inventing much of his juicier material, and there’s Mrs Racket (Pauline Knowles), who is adept at arranging and organising the running of everyone’s lives from behind the scenes.

Cownie handles his material with a deft touch, consistently bringing his audience to gales of laughter as the various blunders, pratfalls and witty one-liners are unleashed. The production looks ravishing too, the brightly-hued costumes blazing against the simple monochrome set. Though many of the cast double up on their roles, there’s never any doubt about who is who at any given time and, as the events hurtle towards the delicious possibilities of a masked ball, the stage seems to virtually pulsate with energy. Fast, furious and frenetic, this is a real crowdpleaser. It’s also strangely prescient, as the women in the story refuse to conform to the conventions they’re constrained by, and forge their own paths towards happiness and fulfilment.

Don’t miss this – its a riotous and gleeful experience that will send you on your way with a great big smile on your face.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Trainspotting

14/11/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s hard to believe that it’s twenty four years since Irvine Welsh’s collection of short stories first recounted the adventures of Leith junkies, Renton, Begbie, Spud and Sick Boy – and twenty years since the iconic film version took the world by storm.

Tackling such a classic brings inevitable problems. The first half of this Citizens Theatre production has an air of over-familiarity about it, perhaps amplified by the fact that the characters and sets are styled very much like the movie. At times, it feels almost like we’re watching Danny Boyle’s Greatest Hits. All the best-known scenes from the film are present and correct – the hopeless work interview, the dead baby, the suppositories in the toilet (this scene evens receives a round of applause, which is weird, when you think about it – what are we actually applauding?).

None of this is the fault of the cast who deliver uniformly excellent performances – Lorn MacDonald is a superb Renton, Martin McCormick a brilliantly foul-mouthed Begbie… it’s just that I found myself longing for a few surprises.

Lucky for me then, that the second half actually supplies them, hewing much closer to Welsh’s original vision, managing to offer some scenes I’ve never seen before and some interesting variations on the ones I know by heart. Angus Miller takes on the dual roles of Sick Boy and the doomed, Tommy, while Gavin John Wright actually seems to be channeling Ewan Bremner as the hapless Spud. But perhaps its Chloe-Ann Taylor who has the most difficult job here, switching effortlessly from Alison, to Dianne and even, during the infamous ‘going cold turkey’ scenes, Renton’s Ma.

It’s not usually done to give a special mention to the set design (take a bow Max Jones) but the final scenes play out in an ingeniously designed London hotel room, which somehow glides slowly onstage like a kind of hallucination, creating a ‘wow’ moment all by itself.

Overall, this is an assured production; and when I think about it, maybe those familiar scenes just need to be there – otherwise it’s like going to see your favourite band in concert and them neglecting to play any of their best-known songs. A game of two halves then, Boyle versus Welsh. Whichever half you prefer, this is well worth your time and money.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney