Festival Theatre

Nativity! the Musical

28/11/18

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s that time of year when families go looking for a heartwarming slice of entertainment, something that will be suitable for kids, parents and grandparents alike. There’s always panto, of course, but not everyone enjoys that kind of thing… (Oh yes they do! Oh no they don’t! Sorry.)

That’s when Nativity! the Musical may be just what Santa ordered. After all, what could be more Christmassy than a school nativity play? This of course, started life in 2009 as a successful film starring Martin Freeman. There have been further spin-offs, with the latest landing any day now. The first movie was adapted into a stage musical in 2017 by original author, Debbie Isitt.

This is the story of Mr Maddens (Scott Garnham), former wannabe actor turned primary school teacher, and his rivalry with his one-time best friend, Mr Shakespeare (Andy Brady), who teaches drama at a much more upmarket private school. After the love of his life, Jennifer (Ashleigh Grey), runs off to Hollywood to pursue her dream of being a film producer, his first attempt at a school Nativity receives a drubbing at the hands of a local theatre critic (played here by Jo Brand), and Mr Maddens swears never to direct again – but then along comes supply teacher, arrested adolescent Mr Poppy (Simon Lipkin), who is simply itching to bring his talents to this year’s production – and when Mr Maddens is overheard boasting that he can arrange to bring a ‘film producer friend from Hollywood’ to watch the show, things get a little out of hand…

Despite some worrying implications in the script – I’m sure primary school teachers in the audience aren’t delighted to hear that their chosen vocation is only suitable for those who have failed at loftier ambitions – this is nonetheless guaranteed to win over all but the sternest of critics, mostly by virtue of its irrepressible sense of fun. Lipkin is quite fabulous as Mr Poppy, his seemingly improvised asides earning big laughs from viewers of all ages – but best of all are his interactions with the younger members of the cast, aged from 9 to 12 years, who work their socks off up on the stage and somehow manage to steer a path clear of any saccharine. Twelve of them are local kids, specially recruited for this production and it’s a genuine delight to watch them strutting their stuff so effectively.

I’m usually a bit of a Scrooge about this kind of show, but I have to admit that Nativity! the Musical quickly wins me over. The slick scene changes, the clapalong songs and the general air of exuberance from everyone concerned soon manage to get me onside, which, given my usual levels of Yule-related grumpiness, is no mean feat. There are even a couple of moments where I feel my eyes brimming with something suspiciously like tears. By the end, I am on my feet and applauding as enthusiastically as everyone else.

Those looking for a festive fun night out should look no further than this. It’s a Christmas cracker.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Calendar Girls the Musical

02/10/18

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

As the curtains rise at the Festival Theatre, we can’t help but notice that the look of this production has changed considerably since we first saw it in Manchester in January 2015. Back then, Tim Firth’s latest version of this story was known simply as The Girls, and the set comprised a huge heap of lockers, piled higgledy-piggly one on top of another. Now, we find ourselves looking at a rather fabulous Yorkshire landscape, where a stone wall and a gate overlook a surprisingly convincing valley, complete with woodland and a picturesque cottage. At various points, that landscape opens up wider perspectives, as though stretching itself towards new horizons. The script has been worked on too, though it remains unremittingly focused on a small town in Yorkshire and on the close-knit community that lives there. Calendar Girls is, after all, based on real life.

Annie (Anna-Jane Casey)’s husband, John (Phil Corbitt), is suffering from leukaemia. As he goes steadfastly through chemotherapy, assuring his wife that everything will be fine, she relies heavily on her best friend, Chris (Rebecca Storm), and on the local WI, whose meetings are presided over by the officious Marie (Fern Britton, who – despite never having really acted before – is clearly a natural: funny and charismatic in the role). Marie is strictly old school, a  ‘jam and Jerusalem’ diehard who seems intent on keeping her members strictly in line. But, when tragedy inevitably strikes, Chris comes up with a novel way of raising money for a memorial – but how far are the other members of the group prepared to go in order to back her up?

The truth is, we all know exactly how far: the Knapely WI’s nude calendar was an international phenomenon. So there are no surprises here – but that’s really not the point. What we have is a beautifully articulated tale of humanity: of life and death and love and loss, of generations learning to accept each other, and people working together to support one another, through all the trials and tribulations thrown their way.

There’s a real sense here – more signposted than in the previous version – of transience: the seasons’ passing is illustrated by changing light and blossoming trees; there’s a slow recognition that the current crop of teenagers should be allowed their indiscretions, that time will turn them into adults soon enough; they’ll turn out okay, just like their parents have.  It’s a truly heartwarming piece, with community at its core.

The music complements the story perfectly, illuminating the characters’ lives. And it’s memorable too (well, of course it is: if there’s one thing Gary Barlow knows how to do, it’s how to write a hit song). There are melancholy ballads here – the story demands them, and they’re genuinely emotive – but there’s an overwhelmingly upbeat mood to the whole piece, a lively positivity that means we’re smiling through our tears. Not all of the performers are stellar singers, but it’s cleverly cast, so that the most demanding songs are sung by those who really can do them justice, with AJ Casey, Rebecca Storm and Karen Dunbar (Cora, the vicar’s daughter and reluctant organist) all showing they have exactly what it takes. The choral numbers are impressive too.

This is feelgood theatre at its best – and you’re bound to leave the auditorium humming, with the sound of ‘Yorkshire’ in your head.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

The Last Ship

12/06/18

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

The Last Ship has a new book by director Lorne Campbell to complement Sting’s music and lyrics – and it’s a remarkable piece of work. The earlier version, which opened in Chicago in 2014, enjoyed only moderate success; this latest incarnation perhaps explains why: there’s something so decidedly British about it, it’s no surprise it didn’t quite translate.

Based on Sting’s own experience of growing up in the shadow of a Tyneside shipyard, it tells the story of the workers, who are sold out by management and MPs, victims of the Ridley plan to cut government spending and weaken their trade unions. It’s the 1980s; the miners’ strike has already shaken the country to its core. The ship-builders know they are likely to lose their fight, but they’re resolute: they’ll do what it takes to keep their yard open, to complete the ship they’ve been working on, to prevent it being sold for scrap. Because, as their foreman Jackie (Joe McGann) remind us, it’s all they’ve got, their entire community built around these jobs.

Meanwhile, Gideon (Richard Fleeshman) is back in town, after seventeen long years at sea. He didn’t want to work in the shipyards, so he sailed away instead, even though it meant leaving his girlfriend behind; it was the price he had to pay. He’s surprised to discover Meg (Frances McNamee) is still there, running the local pub these days, as well as a few other businesses – and there’s a greater surprise in store for him, namely the rebellious wannabe musician, Ellen (Katie Moore), the teenage daughter he never knew he had. Awkward.

If the story is a little hackneyed, it doesn’t really matter: it’s a strong enough hook for the action, and the music works its magic, the choral numbers especially rousing and anthemic, with lots of Celtic riffs and foot-stamping to spare. The characters are engaging and their plight adroitly told. I especially like the chorus of working men, who are clearly delineated, a real set of diverse people rather than a faceless mass: there are poets here as well as pissheads, softies as well as swaggerers.

But it’s the design by 59 Productions that really elevates this musical: an industrial shell of a set enhanced by truly awesome projections, their grandeur and precision a thing of real wonder, transporting us in an instant from picket-line to fireside, from stormy seas to cosy pub. There is real mastery in this art.

The closing speech is a stirring one, all the more so because it’s delivered by Ellen, the youngest character in the play. It speaks of hope and direct action, of the people taking back control, refusing to be cowed by fat cats and corporations. All power to ’em, I say. And all power to this show.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

This House

27/03/18

Politics. What’s it all about, eh?

Well, a viewing of This House will certainly make you feel a lot more informed on the subject. Not so much the more visible aspects of it – the ministers themselves –  as those who wheel and deal behind the scenes: the party Whips. There’s a live band up in the gallery, who offer a couple of spirited Bowie songs that eerily echo what’s happening down on the stage and, lest anybody assumes that politics inevitably make for dour viewing, please be aware that this is a lively, engaging piece, utilising humour to illuminate some grim facts. Ultimately, what the production does best is to demonstrate what an outmoded farce our political system is, and it’s very entertaining in the telling.

This play is a fiction, though it references many real players and actual events. It is the whips’ job to ensure that as many members as possible make themselves available to come in to the Commons and vote on the latest motion set before the house. Sometimes, they are called upon to make near superhuman efforts in order to effect a win – in some cases, even calling MPs in from their hospital beds! First performed at the NT’s 400 seat Cottesloe Theatre (or the Dorfman, as it’s now called)  in 2013, This House‘s success has created such demand that it’s now playing much larger venues, which obviously has something of a distancing effect, and I find myself envying the select band of spectators who are seated on green benches on the stage (in the House of Commons chamber) so that they’re woven into the very fabric of the piece. 

The action takes place in the years 1974 to 1979, when the UK famously had a ‘hung’ parliament and where the absence of a single voting member might result in the ruling Labour party having to vacate its seats. Everyone on the red side of the house is horribly aware that a certain Mrs Thatcher is waiting in the wings for her chance to rule the world… Oops, sorry, I mean, country. Obviously.

If the characters on both sides of the divide occasionally come across as caricatures – the Labour team all ‘eh up, lad, what’s ‘appenin’?’, the Tories as suave and slick as their Savile Row suits – I feel that’s entirely intentional on the part of writer James Graham. With such a big cast, it’s crucial that those time-worn divisions are made as broad and accessible as possible. In this, he succeeds admirably. With everybody on stage working their respective socks off, it’s difficult to single out individual performances, but I do like Martin Marquez’s turn as cockney wide boy, Bob Mellish, and Matthew Pidgeon’s ultra-groomed toff, Jack Weatherill, is also eminently watchable. Natalie Grady makes a big impression as the labour team’s ‘token’ female, Ann Taylor, ready to correct anyone who has the temerity to underestimate her abilities.

So, grab tickets for this and, if it’s at all possible, get yourselves as close to that stage as you can – perhaps, if you’re really lucky, even on it. Interestingly, it doesn’t cost more. You just need to ask when you make the booking.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Play That Goes Wrong

14/03/18

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

The clue is most definitely in the title. When we arrive at the King’s, members of Mischief Theatre’s ‘technical crew’ are making frantic last-minute repairs to an elaborate 1920s country house set. A member of the audience is recruited to help them and is furnished with booby-trapped equipment that malfunctions whenever he tries to use it, eliciting much laughter from the audience and serving as an indicator of what is to follow. And then, the lights dim and the leader of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society strides on to introduce, The Murder at Haversham Manor. He explains that the society has recently been the recipient of an unexpected bequest, one that has allowed them to put on a much more ambitious play than their earlier efforts…

Then the  play itself, a hoary old murder mystery in the tradition of Agatha Christie, gets under way – and it’s hardly a spoiler to tell you that yes, it does go wrong in just about every way imaginable – actors forget their lines, a ‘corpse’ keeps making inappropriate noises, important pieces of scenery repeatedly fall down and at one point, a key member of the cast is knocked unconscious and has to be replaced by a stage hand – who is then reluctant to relinquish the role when the original actor unexpectedly recovers.

Ironically, in order to depict a show going so badly, the cast are called upon to maintain absolute control; they display excellent comic timing and, as the play gathers pace in the second half, we are treated to some truly spectacular (and dangerous-looking) disasters, including one that seems to have drawn its inspiration from the work of Buster Keaton.

All right, it’s fair to say, I suppose, that this is all a bit one-note – it does pretty much what it says on the can and repeats the same basic joke ad infinitum – but it’s all presented with such zeal and precision that it succeeds spectacularly on that score. By the time I stumble away into the night, my face is aching from a surfeit of hilarity. Those of you who are in dire need of cheering up – and goodness knows there seems to be plenty of things to feel morose about lately – should look no further than this Olivier Award winning comedy.

It’s a cracker.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Theatre Bouquets 2017

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Once again we have been wowed by some fantastic theatre this year. Here, in order of viewing (and with the benefit of hindsight), are our favourite productions of 2017.

The Winter’s Tale – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The Winter's Tale

This thrilling, modern-day version of Shakespeare’s play was dynamic and audacious – with the whole fourth act recast in Scots. We loved every minute of it, especially Maureen Beattie’s performance as Paulina.

Chess: The Musical  – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Chess

The students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland thrilled the audience with a skilful display of all things theatrical. We loved the sophisticated choreography (often incorporating the real time use of video cameras) and choral singing that sent chills down our spines.

Nell Gwyn – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Nell Gwyn\

This superb production of Jessica Swales’ Olivier Award-winning comedy was a delight in just about every respect. From the superbly realised set, through to the opulent costumes and the lively period music, this was fabulous to behold.

Death of a Salesman – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Death of a Salesman

It was the direction that made this production so good: Abigail Graham did a wonderful job of clarifying everybody’s pain. And Nicholas Woodeson was perfect for the lead role, conveying Willy’s struggle with warmth and vitality.

The Toxic Avenger – Pleasance One, Edinburgh

The Toxic Avenger

A musical in the same vein that made Little Shop of Horrors such a pleasure, The Toxic Avenger was an unqualified delight, romping happily along powered by its own exuberance and the efforts of a stellar cast, who gave this everything they had – and then some.

The Power Behind the Crone – Assembly George Square, Edinburgh

The Power Behind the Crone

This was a wonderful piece of theatre, an exemplar of a Fringe show: beautifully scripted, and acted with precision and panache. Alison Skilbeck had absolute control of the material and created an impressive range of distinct, believable characters.

Seagulls – The Leith Volcano, Edinburgh

Volcano Theatre SEagulls at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

This was the most ambitious, exhilarating piece of theatre we saw this year. Site-specific productions – when the site is as spectacular and relevant as this (we were in an abandoned church, which had been flooded with forty-five tons of water) – can be truly exciting, and this one had a lot to offer.

Safe Place – Rose Street Theatre, Edinburgh

Safe Place

Safe Place provided a sensitive, insightful examination of the uneasy relationship between trans-activism and feminism. It asked (and answered) many questions, all within the framework of a nuanced and intelligent play.

Angels in America: NT Live – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Angels In America

Clocking in at just under eight hours, Tony Kushner’s play offered 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. A truly iconic piece of theatre.

Twelfth Night/Romeo & Juliet – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Twelfth Night

Romeo & Juliet

Merely Theatre gave us some ‘stripped-back’ Shakespeare, performing Twelfth Night and Romeo & Juliet in rep. The plays featured only five actors and the casting was gender-blind. It all made for an interesting dynamic and prompted us to re-examine familiar scenes.

Cockpit – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Cockpit

Cockpit was a witty, clever play, which saw the Lyceum transformed into a truly immersive space.  Director Wils Wilson served up a fascinating piece of theatre: arresting, thought-provoking, provocative and demanding – and it kept us talking for hours afterwards.

Cinderella – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Cinderella

We never thought a pantomime would feature in any ‘best of’ list of ours but, for the second year running, the King’s Theatre’s stalwarts managed to wow us. Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott knew exactly how to work their audience, and the special effects were truly spectacular.

Susan Singfield & Philip Caveney

The Tin Soldier

 

The Studio, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

09/12/17

Bird of Paradise Theatre’s production of The Tin Soldier is an object lesson in the art of storytelling. It’s thoughtful and vibrant and beautifully done.

Jack (Robert Softley Gale) and his friends live in The Place. Based on the Internats, where non-ambulant disabled children were ‘dumped’ in Soviet Russia, The Place is cold, inhospitable and under-staffed. Left to their own devices, the children forge strong ties, creating their own family units. And, central to this bonding process, is the sharing and telling of stories.

The appeal of The Tin Soldier is obvious: the loyal, steadfast toy is one of very few positive depictions of a disabled character in children’s fiction. He might not have a happy ending, but he’s undoubtedly the hero of the tale: dogged, determined, loving and loveable.

But the real beauty of this piece is all in the telling. The multi-media, multi-format approach is beguiling: the story is told simultaneously through spoken word, sign language, subtitles, music and animation. If that sounds chaotic, it’s not. It’s all perfectly choreographed, each form complementing the next, adding subtle layers of meaning and complexity. Caroline Parker, as the aptly-named Dancer, is especially mesmerising, signing the songs centre-stage; it’s visually stunning, even though I don’t know sign language.

Bird of Paradise’s artistic vision is of “a culture where disabled artists are recognised for the excellence of their work” – and Softley Gale, Parker and Joseph Brown (Kipper) certainly merit accolades for these performances.

The music is provided by Novasound, aka Audrey Tait and Lauren Gilmour. It’s lovely: Gilmour’s voice has a plaintive quality that really suits the tale.

The Tin Soldier is playing until the 23rd December, so if you’re looking for a festive family show that goes beyond the obvious, then why not take a look at this? You won’t be disappointed.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield