Festival Theatre

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

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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

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

 

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