Douglas Maxwell

Scenes for Survival

27/08/20

BBC iPlayer/YouTube

Scenes for Survival is a series of short digital artworks created by leading Scottish theatre and screen talent, co-produced by the BBC and the National Theatre of Scotland.

It’s a mixed bag, that’s for sure, a veritable cornucopia of ideas, all inspired by or relating to lockdown. Their variety is their strength; there is a sense of universality, of common suffering. Some of them are frustratingly short: the briefest of glimpses into a situation or psyche, and – inevitably – some are better than others, although they’re all high quality, as they should be, with actors, writers and directors of such calibre.

The obvious standout so far (they’re still being made) is Fatbaws, written by Douglas Maxwell and performed by Peter Mullan. It’s a simple, cheeky little idea – a man being bullied by the birds in his garden – but the writing is exquisite and Mullan’s performance is jaw-droppingly good, a masterclass in character acting. No mean feat when two of the characters are a crow and a pigeon.

I also like Larchview by Rob Drummond, where Mark “Ubiquitous” Bonnar plays a disgraced minister making a public apology for breaking lockdown rules. His progression from phoney contrition to peevish defensiveness is deftly conceived, and there’s redemption too, as he begins to hear the emptiness of his excuses, and a real sense of remorse emerges. It’s cleverly humanising – and Lord knows our politicians need a bit of that.

Alan Cummings stars in Johnny McKnight’s twisty three-parter, Out of the Woods. It’s a shaky hand-cam thriller, depicted as a series of FaceTime calls between a man and his mother and his child. He’s creeping through the woods to his estranged partner’s house; he’s picking up their daughter, but her other dad is not to know…

But honestly, even if these don’t appeal, there are so many to choose from, there’s something here for everyone. Retired Inspector Rebus (Brian Cox – not that one) puts in an appearance, courtesy of Ian Rankin, and there are contributions from many of Scotland’s best-loved creatives, including Val McDermid, Elaine C Smith and Janey Godley.

So, take a peek. See what tickles your fancy. Because strong original content has been a rarity for the past few months, and these are a real treat, as well as a vital documentation of our times.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

I Can Go Anywhere

10/12/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Douglas Maxwell’s I Can Go Anywhere takes its title from The Who’s 1965 single, Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere, one of the earliest musical celebrations of Mod identity. This sharply written two-hander also explores identity, but approaches the subject from a refreshingly original angle.

Stevie Thomas (Paul McCole) is a disillusioned college lecturer, the author of a barely read book called Beat Surrender, a study of mod culture. He is currently going through the worst ordeal of his life. When his doorbell rings, he’s hoping that his partner might be having second thoughts about leaving him. But instead, he’s confronted by Jimmy (Nebli Basani), a mod – well, not just that, but a young man who Stevie asserts looks like he’s escaped from the 1981 room of the Paul Weller Museum. He has the works: the oversized fishtail parka, a fitted mohair suit, even a pork pie hat. “Even his socks are works of art.”

Asylum seeker Jimmy has tracked Stevie down via the jacket blurb on his book, and wants his help with something. In three days’ time he has a hearing at the Home Office to establish whether he will be allowed to stay in the UK. Jimmy wants Stevie to write him a letter of recommendation, one that asserts his ‘mod-ness,’ which Jimmy believes will be enough to assure him a rightful place in British society. Stevie is doubtful. But as the two men talk over the situation, it begins to emerge that Jimmy has very powerful reasons for not wanting to return to the country of his birth… and they go far beyond the world of youth culture.

I Can Go Anywhere is a compelling play, that crackles and fizzes with witty dialogue. The two actors offer telling performances. At first, I feel that Basani is rather overstating Jimmy, who initially appears to be a twitching, gurning mass of neuroses – but, as the story develops, I begin to appreciate exactly why he’s the way he is, and I warm to him. McCole is assured too, showing us a man on the verge of losing everything, unwillingly pushed into a corner by this insistent, assertive youth, who has burst into his fractured life with all the delicacy of a drum kit falling down a flight of stairs. As Stevie seeks refuge in several glasses of red wine, so his true nature begins to rise to the surface.

The other bonus here is the music; even the songs that play while we’re waiting for the show to start are a series of brilliant offerings: the Kinks, the Small Faces… Spot on, man! I also like the fact that the play doesn’t give you too much information. We never learn which country Jimmy comes from, or even his real name; though the horrors he has experienced in his youth are never spelled out, they are nonetheless tellingly glimpsed.

This is a little gem. Those who are already suffering from a surfeit of festive offerings might prefer to opt for this menu instead. It offers a tasty alternative.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Charlie Sonata

02/05/17

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Some playwrights tell their stories in straightforward terms – others prefer to take a more mysterious route, leaving you with several unanswered questions – and Douglas Maxwell’s Charlie Sonata falls very definitely into the latter category. And it’s all the more intriguing for it – if more difficult to pin down in a review. The play, brilliantly directed by Matthew Lenton, is an enchanting, magical tale that flirts with seemingly unconnected ideas: the concept of time travel, a famous fairy story and the era of Britpop.

Chick (Sandy Grierson), a hard drinking but immensely affable drifter, returns from London to his Scottish hometown when he hears that the teenage daughter of his old pal, Gary (Kevin Lennon), is in a coma following an accident. Chick hopes to reconnect with Gary –  and with his other best friend, Jackson (Robert Jack), but events keep getting in his way and he continually finds his thoughts shunted unexpectedly back to earlier, happier days at Stirling University, when the three young lads had no responsibilities. Jackson is fond of expounding his “non-negotiable” theories about time-travel. Chick is about to discover how negotiable they really are.

Pretty soon, Chick is back in the present day, hanging around the hospital, where he encounters mysterious ‘bad fairy’ Meredith (Meg Fraser), who is struggling with her own issues. Can she and Chick work together to release Gary’s daughter, Audrey (Lauren Grace), from her ‘Sleeping Beauty’ coma?

Nothing here is ever quite what it seems and, as the narrative switches effortlessly backwards and forwards in time, the scenes are linked by a commentary by The Narrator (Robbie Gordon), which adds to the story’s mythical feel. Grierson plays Chick with just the right mixture of vulnerability and intoxication – I’ve rarely been so convinced by an onstage ‘drunk’ – while the inventive production design by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita and the ethereal lighting by Kai Fischer, keep creating moments of real wonder that help to reinforce that all-important sense of magic.

This is a challenging but ultimately rewarding piece of theatre, based around – in Douglas Maxwell’s own words – ‘a fairy tale wish for another chance to make everything right.’ The audience’s enthusiastic response seems to confirm that this production has achieved its aims.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney