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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

 

 

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Theatre Bouquets 2016

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We’ve been lucky enough to see some amazing theatre again in 2016. Here, in order of viewing (and with the benefit of hindsight), are our favourite productions of the year.

Hangmen – Wyndham’s Theatre, London

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An excellent start to the year’s theatrical viewing, Martin McDonagh’s play was absolutely superb: funny, frightening and thought-provoking with an outstanding central performance by David Morrissey.

The Girls – The Lowry, Salford

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This was the biggest surprise of the year for us: on paper, it sounded a million miles away from the sort of thing we usually enjoy, and we went along reluctantly. But it was a truly delightful production – flawlessly realised.

The Merry Wives – The Lowry, Salford

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Northern Broadsides version of The Merry Wives of Windsor was a rambunctious, irreverent take on the tale, with the inimitable Barrie Rutter clearly relishing the role of Falstaff.

I Am Thomas – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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A strange and eclectic production, telling the tale of Thomas Aikenhead, the last person in Scotland to be hanged for blasphemy, this was essentially a series of vignettes and musical interludes, with an ensemble taking turns to play the eponymous role.

King Lear – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

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Michael Buffong’s King Lear was a tour de force, a gimmick-free yet undeniably modern production. Don Warrington was well-cast in the central role, but it was Pepter Lunkuse’s Cordelia who really stood out for us. She’s definitely one to watch!

Stowaway – Home, Manchester

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Analogue Theatre’s troubling tale of a stowaway falling from a flying aeroplane and landing in the car park of a DIY store was fascinating, depicting a moment where worlds collide and understandings begin to take root. A thought-provoking, political play.

Royal Vauxhall – Underbelly Med Quad, Edinburgh

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A quirky and irreverent musical, telling the true story of when Freddie Mercury and Kenny Everett dressed Princess Diana in drag and took her to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London for a night out, incognito. We loved this production.

Wonderman – Underbelly Potterrow, Edinburgh

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Based on the short stories of Roald Dahl – and incorporating a true incident from his eventful life – Gagglebabble’s collaboration with the National Theatre of Wales was a sprightly mix of drama and music with a deliciously dark heart.

Cracked Tiles – Spotlites, Edinburgh

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This beautifully crafted monologue, written and performed by Lorenzo Novani, was the downbeat tale of a young man who inherits a Glasgow fish and chip shop from his father Aldo. Novani was quite staggering as Riccardo.

Dear Home Office – Underbelly Med Quad, Edinburgh

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This was the story of unaccompanied minors applying for asylum in the UK, performed with touching vulnerability by eight refugee boys. The play was an amalgamation of the performers’ own experiences, blended with fictional accounts. A raw and truthful exposé.

The Suppliant Women – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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It’s a rare thing indeed when you go into a theatre and are treated to something unique – but that is the word that kept coming to us, as we sat entranced in the stalls of The Lyceum, watching David Greig’s production of The Suppliant Women. Truly brilliant.

Grain in the Blood – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

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A real one-off, this was a stark, unnerving chiller, at once contemporary and classical, with dialogue that was taut and ultra-modern in style, all fragments and silences and unfinished thoughts. This was a complex, angular, unwieldy play – a fascinating watch.

Jack and the Beanstalk – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

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By far the best panto we have ever seen, this was a standout production, with fantastic performances from King’s Theatre regulars Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott. It brought the year to a celebratory end.

Susan Singfield

HOME

30/12/16

Queensferry Street, Edinburgh

Maison Bleue at Home is a restaurant with a mission: to provide for the homeless. On Monday afternoons, it opens its doors to those of no fixed abode, and training and employment opportunities are also available for some of Edinburgh’s most disadvantaged people. A quarter of the staff working here have been homeless at some point in their lives, and all profits go to Social Bite’s parent charity. In short, it’s a business with a heart.

It’s also a very good restaurant. It’s Philip’s birthday, so there are four of us out celebrating, and we are off to a good start with a complimentary glass of fizz in honour of the day. It’s a special occasion, so we’re planning on indulging ourselves by going à la carte, but it turns out we all want things from the keenly priced set menu (£29.90 for three courses), so that works out well. We have olives and bread and wine while we’re waiting. We’re happy.

I start with a shellfish bisquewhich has such depth of flavour that I feel like I could dive right into it. It’s delicious. Philip opts for the Saigon beef, redolent with the flavours of soy and sesame, and he clearly enjoys every mouthful. His daughter and her boyfriend both have the fondue de Camembert; they allow us to sample a mouthful and we’re glad we do. It’s a creamy, indulgent delight.

For his main, Philip has the North African lamb tagine. The lamb is mouthwateringly succulent and tender, and the dish is robustly spiced. The rest of us all go for the Châteaubriand filet steak (which carries a £5 supplement). I like mine rare, and this is perfectly judged, very pink indeed but nicely warm and soft enough to cut without a special knife. It’s served with fondant potatoes and a ratatouille, both of which are bursting with flavour. The pepper sauce is a bit too peppery (I like a punch, but this is a more like a kick in the teeth) but it’s our only criticism, so that’s okay.

For pudding, two of us take the sticky toffee option, and it’s everything you’d hope for it to be. The other two sample the Xmas pudding brûlée, which is a festive delight, with Christmas spices adding an interesting twist to an old favourite.

The service is excellent: warm, friendly and relaxed. And of course we take up the offer to pay it forward, adding twenty pounds to our bill to pay for two homeless people’s Monday meals. It’d be wrong not to, wouldn’t it?

This is a lovely place to be. Try it. If it’s good enough for Leonardo di Caprio, then surely it’s worth a visit?

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

The Oresteia

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07/11/15

Home, Manchester

I’ve read a lot of Greek theatre (I did a Theatre Studies degree) and seen performances of some classic plays (Lysistrata and Phedra, for example) but I’ve never seen it done so… thoroughly… before, with a large chorus fully utilised, and the strophe and antistrophe physicalized on the stage. It’s like having pages of my text books brought to life, and I wish I’d seen it while I was studying.

This is a fascinating production – all modern dress and regional accents – and Ted Hughes’ adaptation of the script is as fluid and accessible as you’d expect. This very deliberate modernity contrasts spectacularly with the traditional techniques: the choral speaking, the off-stage action – and it really, really works.

Make no mistake, the story is preposterous. Of course it is. It’s all heightened over-reaction and soap-opera plot – affairs and murder and long-lost kids. While Agamemnon has been fighting in Troy, his wife, Clytemnestra, has taken Aegisthus as a lover. She wants revenge on Agamemnon because he’s sacrificed their daughter to the gods, and a bloody, convoluted family drama thus ensues, albeit with the input of Apollo and Athene.

The acting is uniformly strong, but it’s the chorus that stands out. Split into three parts (men, women and Furies), the ensemble admirably fulfils its function, narrating, commenting and advising the characters. The choral speaking is beautifully precise, an object lesson in how it should be done. The men in particular create a kind of filter for the audience; they stand in the auditorium, leaning on the stage in their jeans and trackies, like a group of blokes in their local pub, checking out what’s going on. At times they’re in the dress circle too, shouting down to the characters, deploring what they do.

It’s an accomplished piece of theatre, and excellent to watch. Do try to catch it if you can.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs)

6 - Dominic Marsh as Macheath in Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) by Kneehigh Theatre @ HOME Manchester (11-26 Sept 2015). Photo (c) Steve Tanner 5 - Rina Fatania as Mrs Peachum in Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) by Kneehigh Theatre @ HOME Manchester (11-26 Sept 2015). Photo (c) Steve Tanner

15/09/15

Home, Manchester

Kneehigh’s reputation precedes them: we know before the show begins that we are in for an energetic, multi-disciplined, high-octane experience, and are well-prepared to be dazzled by what we see.

We’re not disappointed. With Dead Dog in a Suitcase, Kneehigh have successfully reinterpreted The Beggar’s Opera, restoring its original status as an anarchic polemic, using theatre as a means to rage against the machine, revelling in – as well as reviling – the writhing underbelly of our messed-up world.

There’s a veritable roll-call of notorious baddies: a corrupt politician, a ruthless businessman, a manipulative wastrel, a charming gangster. They’re all here, gloriously exaggerated and strutting their stuff. There’s a whole host of victims too, and they’re just as vociferous as the scum in charge. This is, as you might expect, as much a celebration of the underclass, as a vilification of those who oppress. It’s a radical reworking, but its roots in John Gay’s “low-born mucky people doing low-born mucky things to each other” original are clear for all to see.

And it’s relentless: at times, there is so much happening on stage that I don’t know where to look. This is disorienting, yes, but it’s also oddly exciting, and I spend the whole performance sitting forward in my seat, determined not to miss a thing.

In a show with this much going on, it’s hard to single out particular ideas, but the puppet show is certainly worth a mention, especially the cradle full of illegitimate babies. The meta-theatrical linking of Punch with Macheath underlines the heartless, senseless nature of the crimes Macheath commits. The scenes in the strip-club, The Slammerkin, have a similar effect, with grotesque, dilated bodies revealing the nasty truth about the venal punters who go there. It’s a frantic, furious and fabulous ensemble piece, and the story builds and builds until it’s almost unbearable.

And the music! Oh. It’s so riotous and infectious that it’s impossible not to get involved. It assaults and envelops the audience, encompassing a whole range of styles and working in an almost primal way. The violin, played by Patrycja Kujawska, is breathtaking in itself, and the cataclysmic, all-stops-out ending leaves me genuinely awe-struck.

If there’a quibble it’s a minor one: this play is actually quite exhausting to watch. A little tightening here and there to bring down the running time, would benefit both players and audience, I think.

But this is a mesmerising slice of theatre, and definitely one that you should catch before it heads off on tour.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield

45 Years

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12/09/15

45 Years is a compelling film, laying bare the emotional complexities that lie beneath the surface of any relationship. Here, Geoff and Kate’s plans to celebrate their forty-fifth wedding anniversary are suddenly derailed by the arrival of a letter, informing Geoff that the body of his former girlfriend has been found in Switzerland. Perfectly preserved in the glacier that killed her, Katya is transformed into an idealised Sleeping Beauty of a woman: an embodiment of youth and the heady rush of first love. As Geoff retreats into the memories of what he has lost, Kate is left bereft, struggling to cope with what she knows is an irrational jealousy – because what’s the point in being jealous of a ghost?

It’s subtly done. Tom Courtenay portrays Geoff as vulnerable and conflicted. His love for Katya is as well-preserved as her body, but he loves Kate too, and doesn’t want to hurt her with this visit from the past. “It feels like it happened to another person,” he tells her, and it’s clearly true. But Kate, played with wonderful nuance by Charlotte Rampling, is thrown by the revelation that Geoff would have married Katya – if she hadn’t died – and this threatens to undermine their whole relationship. “Was she blonde?” she asks, hopefully. “No,” Geoff tells her, “She was dark.” “Like me.” The fear of being second best, of being the consolation prize, erodes Kate’s confidence in everything that they have built.

And it’s heartbreaking. Two people, who have enjoyed and endured so much together, who have shared their lives for almost half a century, whose caring is so ingrained it’s become routine, can still be unsettled and rendered insecure. It’s heartbreaking – and it’s beautiful. The whole film feels somehow very real.

The Norfolk Broads make a convincing backdrop, and the cluttered house is a nice reminder of the baggage the pair have accumulated throughout the time they’ve shared. The photographs Geoff has hidden in the attic have always been there for the finding, but it’s only now that they have come to light.

And it’s an absolute delight to see a film about old people that isn’t about impending death or comic ineptitude. This is a love story – with sex and tears and tenderness. And it’s just as affecting as any young romance.

It’s well worth watching, if you get the chance.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Amy

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4/07/15 

Home, Manchester

We all think we know the story of Amy Winehouse – a staggeringly gifted teenage singer/songwriter makes waves on the jazz scene, rises meteorically after the recording of breakthrough album Back To Black, then plunges into a tragic downward spiral fuelled by addiction to drugs and alcohol. And yes, that’s pretty much what we get in Amy. But director Asif Kapadia allows us to see her story through fresh eyes, to fully appreciate what a tragic waste of talent was here. Kapadia’s approach (as with his much acclaimed motor racing doc, Senna) is to painstakingly assemble an intricate collage of material from every stage of his subject’s life, incorporating interviews with all the major players in her story, from those who evidently loved and cherished her to those who fed shamelessly on her rising star and hitched it to their own particular wagon. It’s a labour of love that took three years to assemble.

It’s all here, from grainy home movie footage of a young Amy, already displaying exceptional talent as she performs Happy Birthday for her best friend, a lithe fresh-faced Amy performing brilliantly in the intimate setting of a jazz club, to the tragic scene of her stumbling onstage at a massive outdoor festival, drunk and unwilling to perform a single note. Through the course of the film, heroes and villains inevitably emerge. Original manager Nick Shymansky clearly worshipped the ground she walked on, but had to step aside when she demanded that he leave his employer, Simon Fuller, to concentrate on her. Bessie mate, Juliette Ashby was clearly always there to fight her corner, no matter what she had done. Her husband Blake Fielder-Civil professes he only had her best interests at heart, but with every word reveals himself as an opportunistic freeloader – and the less said about Amy’s father, Mitch, the better. A scene where he brings a camera crew to the remote holiday island she has fled to, (mostly because of unwelcome press intrusion), is frankly one of the film’s most shocking moments. Mitch has loudly complained that the documentary has ‘stitched him up’ but the truth is right up there on the screen, for all to see. And then, of course, there’s the paparazzi. Scenes of Amy fleeing from a pack of rabid cameramen amidst a blizzard of flash photography, make the hackles rise and almost instil a sense of shame that we belong to the same species as these creatures. How can they live with themselves? Didn’t they realise they were hounding her to her own destruction?

A word about the venue. Home has taken over from the Cornerhouse as Manchester’s home for independent cinema (as well as boasting two theatres, several bars, exhibition space and a cafe) and what a fine job it’s doing! It has five state-of-the-art screens with prices far more reasonable than the multiplexes and the friendliest staff I’ve ever encountered. This special showing took place in the spacious setting of Cinema One (air conditioned – a blessing on one of the hottest days of the year) and was followed by a Q and A with co-producer George Pank. Annoyingly, a pressing engagement elsewhere precluded us from actually staying on for this, but it’s hard to know what it might have added. Any questions we may have had about the career of Amy Winehouse are answered comprehensively in this brilliant, hard-hitting and ultimately heartbreaking documentary. Don’t you dare miss it.

5 stars

Philip Caveney