Festival Theatre

The Sunshine Ghost

07/10/17

The Studio, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

The Sunshine Ghost, a co-production between Scottish Theatre Producers and the Festival and King’s Theatres in Edinburgh, is a brand-spanking new musical, performed with wit and vigour by its small cast.

Directed by Ken Alexander, it’s a convoluted, melodramatic tale, featuring love and loss, castles and ghosts – with lots of laughs along the way. We meet the cursed ghost Ranald MacKinnon (John Kielty), two hundred years dead, and doomed to haunt his family’s castle until an old wrong is avenged. And we meet the woman he falls in love with, the very-much-alive American archaeologist, Jacqueline Duval (Neshla Caplan), daughter of billionaire property tycoon, Glen Duval (Barrie Hunter). Before Jacqueline can stop him, her boorish father is buying MacKinnon Castle and shipping it stone-by-stone to the USA, all to curry favour with his latest amour, the repulsive media-astrologer, Astrobeth (played with real relish by Helen Logan). Can Ranald save his ancestral home and break the curse that binds him to it? Can the hapless caretaker, Lachlan (Andy Cannon, who co-wrote the play), do anything to help? Here, nothing is as it seems, and the resolution, when it comes, is sure to take you by surprise.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of musical theatre, hindered only by a peponderance of exposition in the first act, and the inevitable limitations of a single piano (masterfully played by Richard Ferguson, who also wrote the score, but without the depth of a full band or orchestra). It’s a silly spoof, a daft extravagance, and the cast play up these elements with obvious glee. There are lots of cheeky little techniques employed with a knowing wink: a sheet cunningly moved to allow a shock reveal; a homage to Beetlejuice in the possession scene. Helen Logan’s Astrobeth is the standout performance (it’s a gift of a role, perfect for comic exaggeration), but the whole cast works well, and it’s a whole lot of fun.

A most enjoyable evening at the theatre.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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Angels in America

 

 

09/09/17 and 14/09/17

Thank heavens for NT Live. The National Theatre’s 2017 revival of Angels in America sold out within a few short hours. Of course it did! And, although there’s always the tempting possibility of day tickets (available for same-day performances from 9.30am in person from the box office), they’re only really practical if you’re based in London. We are certainly never going to travel from Scotland on the off-chance we might procure a couple of seats. But NT Live means we can experience this landmark production anyway – even though we’re too busy to see the actual live screening in July, the fact that it’s been committed to film bypasses the ephemeral nature of theatre, and gives us the opportunity to catch up with an encore showing at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre, a short walk from our apartment.

Okay, it’s not as good as actually being there, sharing a space with the actors in real time. There’s none of the intimacy or jeopardy of live theatre, but it’s a pretty decent second best and we’re very grateful for it. The Festival Theatre is an excellent venue for such a venture: I’ve only seen these screenings in cinemas before, but being in a theatre adds a level of authenticity, and the screen is huge, the sound quality excellent.

It’s a bit of a marathon, this play, even spread over two evenings. But, my word, it’s worth it. In just under eight hours, Tony Kushner’s script offers us a “gay fantasia on national themes” – a sprawling, painful and searingly funny depiction of New York in the 1980s, fractured and ill-prepared to deal with the AIDS epidemic.

The protagonist is Prior Walter, played here by Andrew Garfield in an eye-opening performance: he is, we discover, an actor with real range. Prior is dying and he’s afraid; his boyfriend, Louis (James McArdle), can’t cope and so he leaves. While Louis weeps and beats his breast with useless, futile public expressions of guilt, Prior begins hallucinating, having visions. He’s visited by an angel and by his long-dead ancestors. And, in his dreams, he collides with another tortured soul, Harper Pitt (Denise Gough), the mentally ill Morman whose husband, Joseph (Russell Tovey), is secretly gay. It’s a convoluted, complex plot, difficult to summarise, but eminently watchable: it all makes perfect sense when it unfolds before our eyes.

I’ve read the play, of course (I’m a theatre studies graduate), and I’ve seen the 2003 mini-series starring Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and Al Pacino. But this production, directed by Marianne Elliott, is something else: it’s genuinely stupendous. Susan Brown’s performance, for example, is impeccable; she plays six roles with utter conviction. And I find myself especially delighted by Amanda Lawrence’s Angel; she’s mesmerising, and beautifully supported by the Angel Shadows, six black-clad actors, who control her wings as well as performing the lifts and balances that make her seem airborne.

The set is a thing of wonder too, although I’d like to see more long shots in the filming, to help me envisage what the piece looks like as a whole; instead, there are a lot of mid shots and close-ups, which allow me to see the actors clearly but don’t give me a true sense of the space. Still, it’s obviously spectacular, all rotating cogs and zooming rooms, a whole world contained within the confines of the stage.

I’m delighted to have had the chance to see this play; it’s a truly iconic piece, challenging and thought-provoking and entertaining to the end.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Whist

22/07/17

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s a rainy morning in Edinburgh, the perfect time to seek escape from reality. Upstairs in the bar at the Festival theatre may seem an unlikely location for such an escape, but it’s soon to be transformed into a landscape of the imagination, courtesy of dance company AOE and some nifty virtual reality headsets. Helpers are on hand to show us initially around what looks like a random selection of rather unprepossessing objects; we are told that, when these shapes are looked at through our headsets, they will unlock a series of sequences inspired by the work of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

So, we allow ourselves to be fitted out with said headsets and we regard the first object we come to and… wow, this actually works! All of a sudden, I am standing mid-air in the centre of a dilapidated room, a room I can see in perfect detail, whichever way I choose to look. I can’t help but notice a rather ominous wooden chest in the corner and, as I watch (rather nervously, it has to be said), a woman emerges from the box and starts to chalk obscure symbols all over the wooden floor…

It’s hard to fully describe the impact of these ‘visions’. There’s a kind of voyeuristic pleasure in observing the various characters that wander in and out of the (seemingly unconnected) sequences and, often, a startling moment when they look directly at me and I become convinced that they know I am here, that they can see me watching them. The scenes range from the creepy to the baffling to the vaguely erotic. In my favourite sequence, I’m standing on a dinner table, my feet resting on a plate of bloody hearts. Around me, three diners are tucking in to the raw meat, drinking wine and shooting me challenging looks. I feel obliged to keep spinning around to make sure I take in all of their reactions. One of them looks a bit handy with a steak knife and I get the distinct impression they don’t much like me standing in the middle of their dinner…

There’s no through-storyline here. Each individual scenario is something that could have evolved from a dream or, more accurately, a nightmare. Birth seems to be a recurring theme and also, the subjugation of women. There’s a moment when I really want to step in to help somebody who is being manhandled, but I can’t, because I’m not actually there even though it feels like I am – and then there’s a moment when I suddenly find myself drifting alone through the cosmos and I nearly cry out with the wonder of it. I look down and it feels like I could fall forever…

The experience lasts an hour (which is probably just about the right duration) and I have to say, it’s pretty intense. For a while after it’s over, I have the conviction that the real word I’ve returned to is pretty damned strange (particularly when I spot Jarvis Cocker standing on the other side of the road) but that feeling soon passes. After all this is Edinburgh and the festival is fast approaching. Why shouldn’t Jarvis Cocker be around? Whist feels decidedly like it should be part of the festival, but it’s here right now and it’s one of the strangest, most immersive experiences I’ve ever had.

I urge everyone who can to pop along to the Festival Theatre and give it a try. It’s there until early August. There’s a limit of twenty participants per show, so get those tickets booked and dive right in. You’ll be intrigued, delighted, maybe even a little bit freaked… but I’m pretty sure you won’t be bored, not for a moment.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Cirque Berserk

07/02/17

Circuses aren’t what they used to be. Take Cirque Berserk, for instance. No big top and sawdust ring for them (although all the performers are well used to that discipline). You’ll find them onstage at the Festival Theatre, until Sunday the 12th February, offering a fabulous selection of circus skills, many of which have been given an intriguing new twist.

I guess the clue is in the name. This is a series of traditional skills taken to the very edge, sexed up with thundering music and state-of-the-art lighting effects, and delivered at a breathless pace. The opening act, Timbuktu Tumblers, race onto the stage and start flinging themselves around like madmen and from there, the show is never allowed to flag. As one act exits, the next comes racing on and the action doesn’t pause until the interval. After a short break, they’re back and the insanity continues…

It would be impossible to mention every act on the bill but tonight’s highlights for me, include Cuba’s Tropicana Troupe, a group of performers who use see-saws to catapult themselves impossibly high into the air: Odka, from Mongolia, who can squeeze herself into a tiny bottle and who can fire a bow and arrow with deadly accuracy, using only her feet: Toni, from Czechoslovakia, who hurls flaming knives at a confidently smiling assistant with uncanny accuracy: and most nerve-wracking of all, The Globe of Death, in which four leather clad motorcyclists hurtle recklessly around the interior of a metal sphere, passing within inches of each other, an act that I must confess I watched whilst chewing my fingernails. One false move and this could end very badly for all concerned.

Just to cover all the bases, there’s Tweedie, a slapstick clown with a penchant for tripping over things and the occasional unexplained appearance by a giant flame-shooting robot. It all adds up to a spectacular (and occasionally jaw-dropping) evening of family entertainment and it would be a picky individual indeed who claims they aren’t being given value for money.

Check out Cirque Berserk before they head off to their next engagement. You may occasionally be terrified, but I’m pretty sure you won’t be disappointed.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney