Festival Theatre

How the Grinch Stole Christmas: The Musical

26/11/19

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Goodness, is it that time of year already? That time when entire families run franticaly around the shops loading up on presents for the family? That time when baubles, tinsel and unecessary plastic objects appear in every window? Bah! You know, when I think about it, the Grinch and I have quite a bit in common.

However, one Christmas tradition well worth preserving is the annual family trip to the theatre and, this year, first off the starting block in Edinburgh is the Festival Theatre, with this lush and lively adaptation of the Dr Seuss classic, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Of course, the problem with Seuss is that his slim volumes are so deceptively simple, they manage to effortlessly pack each complex tale into just a few cartoons and some amusing verse. This can create problems for those seeking to adapt his work for the stage. In order to achieve the necessary running time, it can often feel like too much padding has been added to the mix. But tonight, this is not the case: a musical is clearly an ideal way to spin the format out without loads of repetition.

First off, there’s a short introduction from Gregor Fisher, who reads a few pages of the book to a bunch of youngsters recruited from the audience. It’s not a particularly auspicious start, because the children aren’t really given anything to do but sit there and listen. However, as soon as the music strikes up and the Whos dance onto the stage, it’s clear that we’re in for an exhilerating ride. The songs are charming, and the choreography a delight. The costumes are eye-popping and the set design (based on the good Dr’s distinctive illustrations) provides a riot of festive colours.

Then on comes Old Max (Steve Fortune), the Grinch’s faithful hound who tells us the story of when he was Young Max (Matt Terry) and how, one fateful night, he was enlisted to aid the Grinch (Edward Baker-Duly) is his devious plan to kidnap Christmas and leave the Whos of Whoville bereft of Christmas cheer. Suess’s central message about the perils of consumerism is properly conveyed, together with the conclusion that Christmas should be (and can be) something much deeper than a mere trip to the shops. Whenever there’s a danger of it all becoming a little too sentimental, the script manages to pull things back to the right side of the line.

Baker-Duly gives us a splendid Grinch, slyly snarky and deliciously devious, thrilling the youngest members of the audience, while sneakily throwing in jokes for their parents. Special mention should be made of Isla Gie, playing Cindy Lou Who on the night we attend. The Grinch in me hates to use the word ‘adorable,’ but after some consideration, I really can’t think of a more apropriate one, and Gie comes dangerously close to walking off with the entire show.

As you’d expect from any Christmas production, TGWSC has all the pyrotechnics you could reasonably ask for, including a pretty convincing snowfall (I’d hate to be handed the task of cleaning it up afterwards).

Those looking for an enchanting festive night out for all the family will surely find what they want right here.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

On Your Feet

 

07/10/19

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

On Your Feet is the story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, following the well-trodden path of using bands’ back catalogues to create a musical. Unlike its precedessors however, Miami Sound Machine’s greatest hits are not playfully shoe-horned into a corny piece of fiction; instead they’re used to illustrate the band’s history.

It’s partially successful. There’s no denying the rousing nature of the music: the feel-good, toe-tapping, hip-swinging joy of it. This is an extravaganza of a show, with dazzling costumes (by Emilio Sosa), fizzing dance routines and a sense of well-earned pride in what the Estefans achieved. There’s a buzz in the auditorium; people are excited to be here, enjoying themselves.

Their history is interesting: as Cuban immigrants living in Miami, Gloria and Emilio struggled to break into the American music scene, despite their huge success in South America. But their fusion-tunes made a lot of sense, reflecting both their heritage and their assimilation. Their dedication to proving there was an appetite for ‘cross-over’ music is heartening to see realised.

The storytelling is somewhat artless though – surprisingly so from Alexander Dinelaris, the writer of Birdman – a chocolate-box depiction of the band’s rise to fame. The dialogue is clunkily expository in places, and perhaps there’s not quite enough plot. Gloria’s near-fatal traffic accident in the second act is supposed to provide the jeopardy, I suppose, but – as told here – it doesn’t have enough dramatic resonance, and the self-congratulatory tone of her recovery is truly cringe-inducing. Do we really need to have sycophantic fan letters read (and sung) aloud to us?

Still, there are some gutsy performances here tonight, not least from Philippa Stefani as Gloria. The ensemble work is beautifully choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, and the on-stage musicians are  seriously good.

We head out into the night singing and smiling – and that really can’t be bad. In the end the rhythm gets us.

3.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Theatre Bouquets 2018

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

Another year, another plethora of exciting theatre. We’ve been moved, motivated and mesmerised by so much of what we’ve seen. And here, in order of viewing, are our favourites of 2018.

The Belle’s Stratagem – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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This production looked ravishing, the brightly-hued costumes blazing against the simple monochrome set. Fast, furious and frenetic, this was a real crowd-pleaser.

Rhinoceros – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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A truly glorious production, as witty and vivacious as it was prescient. There were some great comic turns, and the sensual, Middle Eastern-inflected music added to the mood of transformation.

Creditors – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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We thought we’d seen all we wanted of Strindberg, but Creditors made us think again. Because this production was a prime example of the director’s art: the realisation of a vision that illuminated and animated the playwright’s words, breathing new life into old ideas.

Sunshine on Leith – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

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Sunshine On Leith was an absolute charmer. From the opening chords of the climactic I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), the entire audience was delightedly clapping hands and stamping feet with a force that seemed to shake the beautiful old theatre to its very foundations.

Home, I’m Darling – Theatr Clwyd, Yr Wyddgrug

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A clever play, with a lot to say. Katherine Parkinson starred as Judy, a woman obsessed with the 1950s. Through her brittle fetishisation of the past, the script laid bare the problem with rose-tinted reminiscence and looked at the present with an eye that matched Judy’s gimlet cocktail.

Not in Our Neighbourhood – Gilded Balloon, Rose Theatre, Edinburgh

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This powerful and compelling production, written and directed by Jamie McCaskill, tackled the difficult subject of domestic abuse and featured an astonishing central performance from Kali Kopae. We saw some superb acting at the Fringe this year, but this was singularly impressive.

Six the Musical – Udderbelly, Edinburgh

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An inventive and exuberant pop-opera, which felt like the most exciting, vibrant history lesson ever. The band and actors powered effortlessly through a whole range of different musical styles, from straight pop to power ballad, from soul to Germanic disco. The songs featured witty lyrics which related the women’s experiences in modern day terms – and we’ve been obsessed with them ever since.

The Swell Mob – Assembly George Square, Edinburgh

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The most genuinely immersive theatrical experience we’ve ever been part of. We were free to wander the 1830s tap room, replete with a real bar, and mix with a whole host of extraordinary characters: a crooked American doctor, a fortune teller, a soldier, a card-player… The more we engaged, the more was revealed… Superb and truly innovative.

Macbeth – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

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We were relieved and delighted that this touring production was so good. We knew that this interpretation of the play had been quite controversial, but it really worked for us. It captured the very essence of Macbeth and illuminated the themes and characters with great clarity.

The Unreturning – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

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A tale about young men and the shattering effect that war can have on them, simultaneously a requiem for the past and a chilling warning for our potential future. The haunting prose was augmented by incredible physicality as the actors ran, leapt, clambered and whirled around the stage in a series of perfectly choreographed moves.

Beauty and the Beast – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

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There’s panto – and then there’s panto at the King’s, where the ante is well and truly upped. Here, we were treated to an absolute master class in the form: there’s an art to making the precise look shambolic, the crafted seem accidental. And it was so funny – even the oldest, daftest jokes had us roaring with laughter.

Mouthpiece – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

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Powered by searing performances from Neve Macintosh and Lorn MacDonald, Mouthpiece was, quite simply, an astonishing play. Kieran Hurley’s ingenious circular narrative eventually brought the two protagonists head-to-head in a brilliant fourth-wall breaking climax.

Susan Singfield & Philip Caveney

 

 

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

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