Edinburgh

Cabaret

06/11/19

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

I think I know Cabaret because I’ve seen the movie. I love the movie. But tonight, at the Festival Theatre, I quickly learn that the stage version is very different. At first I’m disappointed. One of the things I like most about the movie is that it’s a musical where the songs are all supposed to be songs, performed in a club or at a rally. Here, characters sing instead of speaking, break into song to declare their love. In short, it’s a more traditional musical. And, as it goes on, I come to appreciate it.

Cabaret the movie is very much Sally Bowles’ story – and, of course, it’s Liza Minelli’s film. Here, Sally (Kara Lily Hayworth) has to share the limelight with two other leads: Emcee (John Partridge) and Fräulein Schneider (Anita Harris). It’s New Year’s Eve, a breath away from 1931; we’re in Berlin – and American wannabe novelist, Cliff (Charles Hagerty), is seeking inspiration.  At the train station, he meets the charming, erudite Ernst Ludwig (Nick Tizzard), who recommends Fräulein Schneider’s boarding house, and arranges to meet him at the bawdy Kit Kat Club, where English Sally is a dancer. It’s an intoxicating, hedonistic place,  but – even within these walls – the creeping march of Nazism cannot be avoided forever…

The choreography (by Javier de Frutos) is stunning: sexy, vibrant, funny and spectacular. Indeed, in the first act, the big number club scenes almost eclipse the story. Standout routines include the lewdly hilarious Two Ladies and the unsettling Tomorrow Belongs to Me. The orchestra are integrated with the action, on an upper tier, visible when we’re in the Kit Kat Club, but otherwise behind a screen. This works well, implying that they’re employees of the club.

The relationship between Sally and Cliff seems a bit muted, which makes sense, I suppose, as – in this version – she’s only staying with him because she’s lost her job and has nowhere else to go. Of course, he’s gay and she’s not one for commitment, so it was never going to be a forever thing, but I would like to see a bit more spark. Otherwise, Hayworth makes a lovely Sally – all wit and vivacity, with a beautiful singing voice – and Hagerty does a decent job as Cliff.

The storyline between the elderly Fräulein Schneider and her beau, Herr Schulz (James Paterson), is particularly emotive, their tentative steps towards romance thwarted by anti-Semitism. Harris and Paterson are nicely understated in these roles: they show the fortitude of those who’ve learned not to expect much; they’ve already survived one war and lived through hyper-inflation. Their pragmatism is heartbreaking, and provides an interesting counterpoint to both Cliff’s naïve idealism and Sally’s determined ignorance.

The second act is more compelling than the first: by now, we care about the characters, and the Nazi undercurrent is getting stronger. Partridge’s Emcee is getting visibly more edgy, his playfulness takes on a desperate tone. And we watch, horrified, as it all unravels, waiting for the inevitable horror we know must come.

The final scene is awful in the truest sense; it’s a powerful set piece, exemplifying Rufus Norris’ directing prowess. I won’t describe it here, because I think its impact relies on some element of surprise; suffice to say, the applause is accompanied by a sense of unease, the usual whoops and cheers that follow a rumbustious musical take a little while to erupt. And it takes a craftsman to achieve that.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

 

The Exorcist

05/11/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Pah! Who needs to see a bonfire and fireworks in November in Edinburgh? There’s a surfeit in August and at New Year – and The Exorcist is on at the King’s. Yes, The Exorcist. So how can I resist that?

William Peter Blatty’s 1971 schlocky horror story seems quite old-fashioned now, but it’s still pretty compelling. For those who’ve never read the book or seen the film, it’s about a girl called Regan (Susannah Edgley), who – on her twelfth birthday – is possessed by a demon. Her film star mother, Chris (Sophie Ward), is at a loss: what has happened to her sweet daughter? She calls in doctors and psychiatrists, but they make little progress. So Chris appeals to the Catholic church, begging them to arrange an exorcism. Father Merrin (Paul Nicholas) has met Regan’s demon before, and the battle to save her is a brutal one. Pubescent girls are a recurring theme for horror writers, from Snow White (and yes, I contend that is a horror) to Carrie, but Blatty’s depiction of emerging sexuality is the least subtle I know. I’m pleased to report that this adaptation doesn’t shy away from the more blatantly shocking elements, indulging the demon’s potty-mouth and the misuse of Christian imagery. Bravo.

Technically, this production is very good indeed. The lights (by Philip Gladwell) are utilised to excellent effect, blinding the audience during some jump scares, and creating a queasy, uncomfortable atmosphere. Likewise the sound (by Adam Cork), which perpetuates a sense of uneasiness throughout. The special effects are cunningly achieved, and the timing of the voiceovers is impressively precise. This ensures the all-important scare factor, without which this play would die a death.

There are some issues though. The set, although it looks magnificent, seems unnecessarily complicated, with stairs leading up to a bedroom that is clearly beneath them. I like the two-storey idea, and both the stairs and the attic space accommodate important dramatic moments, but the pointless complexity of the lounge and bedroom being on separate floors is both disorientating and distracting.

There are also a few too many characters. In the novel and film versions, this doesn’t feel like a problem, but here, the stage feels cluttered with people who don’t add much to the tale. Both Joseph Wilkins (Father Joe) and Stephen Billington (Dr Strong) perform well, but their presence seems extraneous.

The second act is tighter than the first, maybe because the story is more distilled here, and there’s less of a disconnect between the highly technical production and the hokey dialogue and plot.

Whatever. It’s not perfect. But it’s a genuinely engaging, scary piece of theatre – and that’s not easy to achieve.

3.7 stars

Susan Singfield

Gaucho

Gaucho looks as though it were built primarily to illustrate what the word ‘sleek’ might look like. It’s a combination of dark grey and mirrored surfaces, glitzy lights that hang low over the diners, quiet Latin American music pulsing in the background. It’s early evening in Edinburgh on a particularly dreich night, and we arrive like two half-drowned cats, dripping helplessly onto the carpet. A friendly attendant takes our coats and brings us a couple of tall glasses of Prosecco, which we consume in the upstairs bar, before descending to the dining area. Here, our waiter brings us a tray, where various cuts of meat are laid out for our inspection, so we can properly appreciate the differences between them.

We are brought a plate of bread and some herb butter. The slices of wholemeal are fine but there’s a couple of crunchy white rolls that have a satisfyingly homemade flavour to them, particularly when they’re plastered in that butter.

I start with a potato and salmon salad – the salmon flakey and perfectly poached, surrounded by crispy Ratte potatoes, endives and onion purée, the whole thing drenched in tangy lemon mayo. It’s an excellent start. Susan opts for an Empanada, a dainty pastry parcel filled with sweet corn and mozzarella. This is also nice, though I suspect mine is the more satisfying of the two

Next up, for me it has to be a steak. I choose what the Argentinians call a chorizo, which is just a succulent sirloin, served medium rare and bordered by a strip of juicy crackling. It cuts easily with an ordinary knife (always a good sign) and has a pleasing strip of crispy fat along one edge. I’ve certainly had more impressive steaks than this around Edinburgh, but I make short work of it and have no complaints. It’s accompanied by a side of chips, cooked with the skin on and there’s  a pleasantly spicy pepper sauce. There’s nothing wrong with Susan’s chicken Milanese, topped with a fried egg and garnished with rocket and Parmesan, but it’s perhaps a little too redolent of the deep fat fryer for her taste. 

We both order a side of mac’n’cheese – I know, I know, it doesn’t really go, but we’ve have a crap couple of days and we both feel like being indulgent. These are fairly hearty portions and perfectly nice in their own way, but not quite as spectacular as those offered at The Bruntsfield Chop House, where the sauce is thick and gooey and loaded with cheese. (You don’t order this dish for its health benefits.)

However, when it comes to the puddings, ‘indulgent’ is definitely the word to choose when describing them. My sticky toffee pudding comes with a generous helping of dulce de leche sauce, a dollop of clotted cream and delicious chunks of honeycomb. It’s absolutely mouthwatering. Susan’s salted dulce de leche cheesecake is also a winner, super sweet and so filling, I have to help her with the last couple of spoonfuls. (I’m useful like that).

We’re thoroughly sated and reluctantly head back out into the downpour as full as two ticks. 

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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

Fibres

29/10/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Fibres is Frances Poet’s ‘heath and safety’ play, an emotive response to her discovery that an acquaintance had lost both parents, six months apart, due to asbestos poisoning. Poet’s perception of asbestos as ‘something dangerous from the past’ was exposed as a fallacy; subsequently, she learned that more people die of asbestos-related illnesses each year than die in traffic accidents, that the NHS will be footing the bill for corporate greed/negligence until 2040. Mesothelioma takes between twenty and fifty years to develop, and even brief exposure is enough to kill.

Indeed, the brevity of exposure is a key feature of this play. Jack (Jonathan Watson) only works as a shipbuilder for a few days; he’s nervous about the asbestos dust he’s been warned about, so takes a pay cut and becomes an electrician. He thinks he’s dodged a bullet. His wife, Beanie (Maureen Carr), washes his overalls, a simple domestic act fraught with symbolism, as the fibres enter her lungs too.

As you might expect from Poet, there are many layers to be unravelled here; it’s not a simple polemic. There are parallels drawn between the asbestos fibres and the impact of traditional gender roles on a relationship: a slow, invisible poisoning.

Despite the subject matter, it’s not all doom and gloom. Jack and Beanie are a believable couple, muddling through as best they can. They’re facing the horror with fortitude and humour: Jack loves a bit of comedy, and has a catalogue of cringey jokes. Their daughter, Lucy (Suzanne Magowan), is struggling, but her breakdown is shown through a series of bleakly humorous, hide-your-eyes-behind-your-hands-while-your-toes-curl moments.

Breaches in health and safety protocol are given a human face, in the form of Lucy’s boss, Pete (Ali Craig). They work for a fibre optics company, and he’s up against it, trying to meet the demands of a contract while allowing his workers their requisite study days and sick leave. He’s fed up with the union rep’s ‘unreasonable’ demands, preventing him from getting the job done. We’re shown how it happens, how decent people can be pressured into repeating old mistakes. But Pete is given a chance to learn: his fondness for Lucy redeems him.

If this all sounds a bit po-faced, don’t be misled. This plays as a cleverly written domestic tragedy, with a window onto larger political issues. The actors switch between narration and performance; the set (by Jen McGinley) is a fluid, symbolic space, where the characters flit between life and death, the past and the present, dark humour and even darker anger. Jemima Levick’s assured direction ensures that there is no confusion: we always know where and when events are taking place, the pace allowing us time to digest what’s happening.

Fibres is a vital, heartbreaking play with an important message at its core.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Barber Shop Chronicles

24/10/19

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

There’s a different vibe in the Lyceum tonight: a youthful, energetic atmosphere. We take our seats fifteen minutes early, but the party’s already in full swing, with audience members invited up on to the stage, where the twelve-strong cast are dancing, chatting and miming cutting people’s hair. A couple of teenagers from the front row run up the steps self-consciously; within seconds they’re in barbers’ chairs, laughing with the actors standing behind them. A middle-aged man tries in vain to copy some dance moves; he’s having a great time. An actor wanders through the auditorium, shaking hands, making daft jokes. This immersive opening has a clear message: Barber Shop Chronicles is an inclusive piece of theatre, and we’re meant to be more involved than mere observers.

Inua Ellams’ play was first performed two years ago at the National Theatre (who co-produced it with Fuel and Leeds Playhouse). Since then, it’s been on tour, and its success is well-deserved. An intimate piece that spans six countries; a politically-charged play that doesn’t proselytise; a comedy that brings its audience to tears: Barber Shop Chronicles is nothing if not original.

The conceit is simple: a barber is not just a man who cuts his clients’ hair. He is also a counsellor, his shop is a confessional. And, if this is true, if men really do open up to their barbers, then what can we glean if we listen in? London-based Ellams’ research took him to South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana, and he returned with sixty hours of recordings on which he based his play. The authenticity of the voices rings true throughout, exploring the experiences of black men in Africa and the UK. We flit between time zones and hairdressers, the clocks whizzing round at double speed to take us between continents. In each shop, they’re watching the same football match (Chelsea vs Barcelona), each disparate group united by their interest in the sport.

There’s a lot to take in; under Bijan Sheibani’s direction, everything happens at breakneck speed. I like this: sure, there’s not always time to absorb one idea before another comes along, but the overlapping stories and fragments of ideology feel wonderfully realistic, adding to the impression that we’re listening in to what real people have to say.

The performances are exuberant for the most part, but quiet and heartfelt when required. This is true ensemble work, with a real sense of a team creating something together. The scene transitions are fascinating, the choreography both lively and precise.

The best thing, though, is the wide-ranging conversation, encompassing little-heard persepctives on everything from Nigerian Pidgin to Mugabe, from high performance cars to fatherhood. It’s densely packed – and never dull.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

The Monstrous Heart

23/10/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Oliver Emanuel’s The Monstrous Heart takes place in a remote log cabin in the wilds of Canada, where Beth (Charlene Boyd), recently released from a long prison stretch in England, reconnects with her mother, Mag (Christine Entwhistle). It’s clear from the outset that this is not going to be a warm family reunion. The two women have unfinished business, business that relates to the little girl in the next room – and the threat of physical violence hangs heavy in the air.

There’s another protagonist in this story in the (very realistic) form of a dead grizzly bear, stretched out on the kitchen table, where it’s in the process of being stuffed by Mag, who, after an alcoholic past, has somehow rebuilt her life and now works as a respected taxidermist. The bear is a great big metaphor and its massive frame dominates the set, in some cases (perhaps deliberately?) blocking the sight-lines for some of the story’s action. Director Gareth Nicholls does his best to orchestrate the ensuing antics and, to give the actors their due, they subit powerful performances here. Boyd offers a devilish, gleefully nihilistic Beth, while Entwhistle’s Mag is a parcel of twitching uncertainty, never more compelling than when she tells her daughter exactly what she thinks of her.

But the script isn’t as assured as it needs to be and simply leaves too many unanswered questions, rendering the characters somewhat unbelievable. Around the midway point, there’s a scene that is surely intended to transform everything we’ve seen so far, as the bear does a bit more than just lie around – but sadly, it doesn’t quite come off.

Also, this is an extended riff on the plot of Frankenstein; there’s no mistaking it, as it’s  heavy-handedly referenced at one point, just to be sure we’ve got the message. Of course, it’s not this production’s fault that the last play we saw was Rona Munro’s sprightly adapation of that classic tale, but it certainly doesn’t help matters that this incarnation feels somewhat lumbering by comparison.

The Monstrous Heart is all about nature versus nurture, how creators can become as twisted and unpredictable as their creations. It certainly isn’t dull and it keeps me hooked right up to its violent conclusion.

But I am left wanting a little more substance, a little more depth.

Nice bear, though.

3 stars

Philip Caveney