Becky Minto

Wilf

10/12/21

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

James Ley’s latest offering is about as far away from a ‘Christmas play’ as it could be. In fact, there’s only one nod towards the festive season: a decorated tree in the corner of the stage. Tree aside, this is more of an antidote to Yuletide than an evocation of it. And that’s fine, because there’s plenty of the traditional stuff on offer at other venues in the city. Wilf is a December play for those who want something… else.

And it really is something else. Where to start? Calvin (Michael Dylan) is struggling. He’s bipolar – in the midst of a manic episode – and everything is going wrong. He knows he needs to leave his abusive boyfriend, Seth, but there’s no one who can help. Not his mum: she’s left for a new life in the American bible belt, and has cut him out of her life. Not his driving instructor, Thelma (Irene Allan), because – after a mere 104 lessons – Calvin has passed his test, and the ex-psychotherapist is pleased to be rid of him. So where can he turn?

The answer soon presents itself: Wilf. Wilf is an unlikely saviour, not least because he is a car. Specifically, Wilf is a beaten up old Volkswagen, so there’s more than a hint of Herbie about him – although Wilf’s antics are more colourful than his predecessor’s. And by colourful, I mean sexual. Calvin and Wilf’s relationship is intense.

To be fair, Calvin’s pretty intense all round. With his shiny new driving license and his battered old car, he finally finds the courage to break away from Seth, but he’s a long way from feeling okay. A road trip around Scotland, staying in Airbnbs and cruising graveyards for anonymous sex, seems appropriate. And, with Wilf’s help, Calvin might just make it.

This tight three-hander, directed by Gareth Nicholls, is equal parts quirky and charming. Dylan is immensely likeable as Calvin, and treads the line between comedy and tragedy with absolute precision. The soundtrack is banging – who doesn’t love a bit of Bonnie Tyler? – and the simple set (by Becky Minto) makes us feel like we’re with Calvin all the way: inside the car; inside his head.

Allan brings a powerful energy to the role of Thelma, while Neil John Gibson, as everyone else, represents a gentler, more nurturing humanity, especially in the form of Frank.

All in all, Wilf is a gloriously weird concoction, and a most welcome addition to the winter theatre scene.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Hope and Joy

01/11/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Ellie Stewart’s Hope and Joy is a quirky, absurdist piece of whimsy, set in a near future where environmental change has wrought a radical shift in nature. A shift so radical, in fact, that the opening scene shows Hope (Kim Gerard) giving birth to an egg. The father is a Whooper swan, we learn, and her son, Magnus (Ryan Havelin), a human-swan hybrid – costumed, delightfully, in a fabulous winged hoody. Hospital cleaner Joy (Beth Marshall) sees the boy’s ability to fly as a definite plus-point, but – as he grows up – the kids at school are less accepting of his differences. Hanging out with a gang of dissolute pigeons only makes things worse, and Magnus soon realises he needs to spread his wings (sorry…), and seek the company of others who are more like him.

It’s a fun play with some serious points underlying the humour, such as the letter Joy receives regarding her mum’s social care. The melting ice caps are, of course, a real cause for concern, and this fantastical imagining of where we might end up serves to highlight how unknown and precarious our planet’s future is. Themes of friendship, parenthood, otherness and isolation are also clear throughout, although rather superficially explored.

Becky Minto’s set is as wonderful as you might expect if you’ve seen her work before: a jagged white hospital bed/house/pole -dancing stage surrounded by stark black tree trunks. Caitlin Skinner’s direction is lively and dynamic, and – for the most part – works in harmony with the set, although I’m not convinced by the actors crouching off-stage, half-hidden in the woods; I think they need to be either properly concealed or more explicitly visible.

The performances are strong: Gerard and Marshall inhabit their roles effectively, creating bold, sympathetic characters, and Havelin is engagingly awkward as the diffident teenage bird-boy. The section in the pole-dancing club is less believable however: it’s an interesting twist, but the posing and spinning need to be more carefully choreographed, and delivered with more precision and control if they’re to be convincing.

Hope and Joy is throughly entertaining and an absolute pleasure to watch: an enjoyable way to spend an hour.

3.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

 

21/10/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Frankenstein is an integral part of our cultural landscape, its imagery known to all, even those who’ve never read the book or seen a movie version of the tale. I love it, but it’s been adapted and interpreted so many times that I’m almost reluctant to see it again. What else is there to say? Playwright Rona Munro had the same misgivings: ‘What version of Frankenstein hadn’t I seen already?’

Her conclusion – a version that places a punky teenage Shelley (Eilidh Loan) on stage with her creations – is inspired, extending the duality so central to the novel. For who is Mary if not Victor Frankenstein (Ben Castle-Gibb)? Is she not the creature’s maker, alongside the young scientist? All the hubris Frankenstein displays (the frenetic, obsession with his work; the rejection of accepted norms; the willingness to unleash horror to realise his dreams) is Mary’s conceit too. And if the monster (Michael Moreland) represents the darkness in the doctor’s soul, he surely also embodies the destructive nature of the writer who conceived them both.

In a weird way, the horror is both negated and amplified by Shelley’s presence: we always know it’s a fiction, each death or salvation dependent on a scribble from a pencil pulled impatiently from the writer’s hair – and yet, as we’re reminded, this monster really lives; he is immortal, long outlasting both of his creators.

Becky Minto’s design is gorgeously stylised, all stark and glacial, with bare white roots and branches used to hint at wires, hearts and veins. The monotone costumes add to the abstraction; there’s a suggestion of the period, but no attempt at naturalistic portrayal. Patricia Benecke’s direction makes clear that this is an exploration of the novel’s heart, not a faithful retelling of the story as it stands.

Occasionally it feels a little rushed; the scene where the creature meets the old man (Greg Powrie) suffers particularly in this respect. And Natalie McCleary (who plays Elizabeth) feels a little under-used: she has a strong stage presence and her character could easily be given more to do. The only other issue for me is the excessive use of dry ice. It’s one thing to create a misty, creepy atmosphere, but come on… It’s October; half of the audience are struggling with colds. It doesn’t seem sensible to tickle our throats to this extent.

Despite these minor niggles, I’m really impressed by this play. Munro’s quirky adaptation exposes and illuminates ideas I hadn’t thought of in a story I thought I knew too well.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

20/12/15

The Lyceum, Edinburgh

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a well-loved and familiar tale with a guest spot for Santa Claus; no wonder it’s become a staple family Christmas show. And the Lyceum’s production starts off wonderfully; the design (by Becky Minto) is breathtaking: the all-important transition from Britain to Narnia eliciting an audible response from the audience.

The parallels between the two worlds (and Narnia’s appeal) are highlighted by the double casting: both places are being torn apart by war but, while in the real world the children are bystanders, exiled from their home with no option but to wait things out, in Narnia they play an active role; they are no longer helpless children, sidelined and ignored.

It’s a shame, then, that some elements of the play seem almost perfunctory. Peter’s battle with Maugrim, for example, lacks any real sense of menace. Some scenes, most notably Aslan’s murder – but there are others too – are crying out for a chorus: ‘Come, every spirit, every wraith,’ chants the White Witch, played with wonderful malevolence by Pauline Knowles. But no one comes, or hardly anyone: three makes for a very sparse crowd. In Manchester, student choruses seem quite the thing; we’ve seen actors-in-training from local universities employed in several professional productions there and this might have been an idea here. The Lyceum’s Narnia would be more convincing if it were more densely populated.

The children’s delivery is a bit stage-school and declamatory for my taste; they’re not actually kids, of course, but young adults, which might account for the vocal tics as they try to make themselves sound more youthful. And I wish that Aslan were more than just a man in a fur suit.

That said, it’s still a magical show in places, with spark and vim enough to keep a young audience entranced. The final battle scene is beautifully done, all lights and ribbons and roaring sound effects. At its best, this play is very good indeed. It’s just a bit uneven, I suppose.

3 stars

Susan Singfield