Assembly Roxy

That Face

22/03/18

Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

I have to say, I’m not a great fan of Polly Stenham’s debut play. Written when she was only nineteen, it certainly shows prodigious promise – there are some gloriously grotesque characters here – but it’s all just so much sound and fury, with a payoff that is curiously flat. That said, Edinburgh-based Anais Productions make a decent fist of it, with some strong performances. They’re playing to a packed house, with a younger, more vocally appreciative audience than we usually see, and successfully create the sense of claustrophobic isolation so central to the play.

We first meet Mia (Dora Davies-Evitt) at boarding school, where, along with classmate Izzy (Sara Harvey), she has drugged and tortured a younger student (Jane Link). This is a fascinating opening gambit, and I wish Stenham had given it more space within her play; instead, it’s just a springboard into Mia’s family, as she’s expelled, and has to return home.

And home is a strange place indeed. Her mother, Martha (Hannah Churchill), is an alcoholic, addicted to valium and manipulative in the extreme. She has no time for Mia, whose very presence she sees as an interruption, but is utterly devoted to her son, Henry (Barney Rule). Abandoned by her husband, Hugh (Michael Hajiantonis), Martha makes impossible demands of Henry, who is expected to take his father’s place as carer, protector and even lover. He drops out of school and focuses all his attention on his mother, whose warped expectations fuel a monstrous co-dependency.

Churchill and Rule perform these roles with real panache, clearly relishing the chance to explore such complex, twisted characters. Churchill is utterly engaging as Martha, her mirthless smirk particularly unnerving, and Rule brings such intensity to Henry’s suffering that we cannot help but empathise. They’re hampered only by the perennial problem of student productions, i.e. they’re all about the same age, so – if you didn’t know the play – it might take a while to realise that they’re mother and son, and some of the intergenerational oddity of the relationship is lost. (Similarly, Mia is a less sympathetic character than she might be if she were visibly younger, her vulnerability more apparent.)

The weak point is the final third, when Hugh arrives from Hong Kong to deal with his daughter’s expulsion. Michael Hajiantonis plays the part convincingly, but it’s a disappointingly ordinary denouement after all the high drama, and undermines the weirdness of all that has gone before. He seems to be the scapegoat, as if his leaving is the reason for Martha’s predatory ways. The play flounders here, and never really recovers.

Still, apart from some over-extended blackouts – which, for some reason, this particular audience sees as an opportunity for chat – this is a competent production, and a welcome chance to engage with a divisive, challenging play. Do take the opportunity to see it while you can.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

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25/08/17

Assembly Roxy

We were attracted to this particular show because the premise sounded so intriguing. This play by Andy Gilmartin features a different performer every day, who reads through the script alongside mainstay, Ross (Alan MacKenzie). The guest performer has never seen the script before and is required to read all the sections highlighted in a certain colour. This, we are told, is an attempt to reflect the ever-changing nature of the nation’s mental health. On the day we attend, the guest actor is Kim Allan, who handles the situation with aplomb. She’s clearly been hand-picked, because she never puts a foot wrong.

Ross talks about cosmology and bran flakes and his partner, Fi,  who is working away in China. He asks the audience questions and gets them to applaud when the answer is ‘yes.’ But the questions are not particularly challenging. ‘Have you ever made a decision? Have you ever eaten bran flakes?’ Umm… okay, but… where is this going exactly?

McKenzie is a confident performer and he plays his character nicely… but… the play itself ultimately promises so much more than it actually delivers.

For all that it presents itself as an audacious, risk-taking project, the format is far too controlled to offer the guest performer anything interesting to do. There’s no room for improv here, they can only read the lines exactly as written. We’re told that the script continually develops, that this is actually the forty-ninth draught of it, but of course, as reviewers, we can only respond to what we witness and, for me at least, this is somewhat underwhelming. Potentially interesting subjects are mentioned in passing – mental health, compulsive obsessive disorder, the fear of experiencing unwanted desires, but these themes are never really developed and, at the play’s conclusion, I left feeling that I’ve seen two decent performances, but not much more than that.

A shame, because there’s probably a satisfying play in here somewhere – but this isn’t it.

2.3 stars

Philip Caveney

A Bench On The Road

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15/10/16

Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

A Bench On The Road, is quite clearly a passion project for writer/director Laura Passetti – and how gratifying it must have be for her to see the Assembly Roxy packed (almost literally) to the rafters with tonight’s eager and appreciative audience. This is a slice of verbatim theatre, based on the testimonies of female immigrants who travelled from Italy to Scotland to begin new lives. Here are their stories plucked from different points in one hundred years of history – twenty five million Italians left their homeland between 1850 and 1950 and thousands of them chose to settle in Scotland – and yet, with what’s currently happening in the Mediterranean, this really could not be a more prescient production, examining exactly what it means to be a migrant, how it feels  to leave the land of your birth in search of a new life. As Passetti (an Italian immigrant herself) told me during the brief chat we had earlier this month, history has a habit of repeating itself.

Perhaps the play’s most effective sequences are those set during the Second World War when the rise of fascism under Mussolini impacted on those Italians who had already relocated to Scotland, where parents were forcibly separated from those children who had been born in their new homeland.

Simply but effectively staged, by Charioteer Theatre, the play features three Italian and three Scottish actors with accordian player, Caroline Anderson Hussey. Jaunty Italian dance songs are counterpointed by plaintive Scottish airs, cleverly underlining the clash of cultures. The performances are all exemplary and the harmonies as the six actors join together in song are sometimes exquisite. If there’s an occasional problem with catching lines of dialogue, it’s more to do with being perched right at the back of the sizable theatre space than with any shortcomings on the actor’s part. This is powerful stuff and my only regret is that we caught it at the very end of its short tour, instead of at the beginning, where we could have urged more people to see it..

The performance concludes to an ecstatic standing ovation and I can’t help feeling that this is a production that deserves a wider audience. Looking around at the delighted faces of tonight’s crowd, there’s every reason to believe that A Bench On The Road could just find it.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Orchid and the Crow

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20/08/15

Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

In a hard-to-categorise show, Australian musician and cancer survivor, Daniel Tobias offers a meditation on a variety of subjects: the Jewish Faith, Father Christmas, Lance Armstrong and testicular cancer. These may seem unlikely bed fellows but it’s all expertly stitched together and along the way we are offered songs in a variety of styles – some jaunty rock n roll, a cabaret-style piece with a guest appearance from God and most effective of all, an Italian aria about the loss of one of the artist’s testicles, accompanied by a short film. It’s a quirky collection of ideas, never less than entertaining and in several places, it’s surprisingly informative – did you know, for instance that the word ‘orchid’ and the word ‘testicle’ have the same etymology? No? Me neither.

This show was a winner at the Ottawa Fringe Festival and it’s not hard to see why. Tobias has a likeable stage presence, and a decent voice, while the illustrative songs, written with various collaborators are of a suitably high standard to please the pickiest of crowds. If you’re looking for something a bit different than the usual Fringe fare, this would be a good bet.

4 stars

Philip Caveney