King’s Theatre

Abigail’s Party

16/04/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Mike Leigh’s 1970s drama is one of those pieces everyone just seems to know. I was only six when it was first screened in 1977, far too young to have seen it then, and yet it feels like something I have grown up with, ever-present, with Alison Steadman’s Beverly the towering icon at its heart.

For those few the play has eluded, or whose memories need a jog, Abigail’s Party is a dark comedy, an agonising depiction of social embarrassment. When painfully polite divorcee, Sue (Rose Keegan), needs somewhere to spend the evening while her wayward daughter, Abigail, has the titular party, Beverly (Jodie Prenger) seizes the opportunity to play host, inviting gauche new neighbours, Angela (Vicky Binns) and Tony (Calum Callaghan), to make up the numbers. Beverly’s overworked estate agent husband, Laurence (Daniel Casey), is reluctant – he has business calls to make and has to be up early in the morning – but Beverly prevails. It’s clear that Beverly always prevails. And nothing will stand in the way of her desire to show off her cocktail cabinet and leather three-piece-suite.

It’s a sturdy piece of work, and one that stands the test of time, with far more to offer than the kitsch 70s-pastiche set and costumes might suggest. But these are just a kind of shorthand, a means of settling the audience comfortably into a recognisable time and place, before discomfiting us with the hubris and frailty of the characters on stage.

The acid nature of the couples’ relationships and their collective lack of self-awareness drive the humour here; we, like Sue, are baffled outsiders, blinking at the awfulness of the people before us. Rose Keegan is adroit at conveying a sense of mounting horror, her pleasant manners becoming an ever-less effective method of keeping Beverly at bay.

Prenger, as Beverly, is of course the key to the whole play, and she’s a formidable performer, who has the chops for the part. I can’t help wishing there was less of Steadman here though; director Sarah Esdaile asserts that “Alison is inextricably linked with Beverly’s voice” – she helped create the role – and I know that’s true, but I would prefer to see a different incarnation of Beverly, a new interpretation of this monstrous creature. After all, there are Beverlys everywhere.

Vicky Binns does a cracking turn as the gawky Angela, gamely weathering her taciturn husband’s scorn, and desperate to impress. The saddest moment in the play for me is when she decries her parents’ dreadful marriage, seemingly unaware that her own is a carbon copy; the funniest is her dance. At first, I find her style a bit declamatory but, as the drama progresses, it works: Angela is performing for Beverly.

Calum Callaghan might not have showy stuff to do as Tony, but his dark mood effectively puts a dampener on the evening, quelling every moment of  light-heartedness or potential joy. And Daniel Casey’s Laurence is a fascinating study, almost likeable, but for his desperate snobbishness, and his vengeful urge to humiliate his wife.

An excoriating social satire, Abigail’s Party might press the nostalgia buttons, but it’s still very relevant today.

4 stars 

Susan Singfield

 

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Art

11/02/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

I’ve been going to the theatre for a very long time now and, over the years, I must have seen literally thousands of productions.

But I’ve never seen Art. Which is faintly puzzling when you consider how ubiquitous this clever three-hander is. Written by French playwright Yasmina Reza and translated by Christopher Hampton, it first hit the UK in 1996, and enjoyed a residence at London’s Wyndham Theatre that lasted for eight years. Since then, it has had many revivals in a variety of locations and featured a whole host of celebrity names. But, for whatever reasons, I have somehow comprehensively failed to catch up with it – so this touring production from the Old Vic provides an ideal opportunity to rectify the situation.

Serge (Nigel Havers) has recently bought a painting, an original by a much celebrated contemporary artist. What’s more, he has paid two hundred thousand pounds for it, much to the disgust of his long-time friend, Marc (Dennis Lawson). When he looks at the picture, all he can see is a large white rectangle, which he immediately brands as a piece of ‘white merde.’ Marc wants Serge to admit that he’s been duped and, to this end, he enlists the help of their mutual friend Yvan (Stephen Tompkinson, in what is arguably the play’s showiest role) to convince Serge of his mistake. Yvan is one of those mild-mannered souls who basically wants to please everybody all of the time, so it’s a delight to watch as he attempts to walk a precarious tightrope strung between his two best friends’ unshakeable egos. There’s one nervy extended monologue from him that earns a round of applause all of its own.

This is a play about art, about how we perceive it in different ways. It is also, to some extent about class, but it’s mostly about friendship and the importance of having people we can trust. And how, oddly, our friends’ responses to a plain white canvas can feel uncomfortably personal, a judgement on us all.

As the three old friends embark on a doomed attempt to enjoy a night out, their various differences come looming like flotsam to the stormy surface and the result is fast, frenetic and very funny. There’s an extended silent sequence where the three men sit in Serge’s living room eating olives that is so perfectly delivered it has me in fits of laughter at every clink of an olive pit.

Don’t go the King’s expecting a slow, leisurely unfolding of the plot. This is a lean, lively sprint, peppered with witty dialogue and delivered by three seasoned actors who have clearly played these characters enough times to know them like old friends – which, in a way, is the raison d’être for seeing this.

It’s only taken me twenty-two years to catch up but I’m glad I’ve finally ticked this one off my ‘to see’ list. Don’t leave it as long as I have.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Cat in the Hat

06/02/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

We went to the theatre to see a new show:
The Cat in the Hat – we were happy to go!
The venue was heaving with Dr Seuss fans,
Lots of kids and their parents, who’d clearly made plans
To have a good laugh and a really nice time –
And this being Suess it was mostly in rhyme.
Now I know that I’m old and the stuff on the stage
Was aimed at those fans of a much younger age,
But the thing about Seuss (and the cast get this right) –
It needs to be pacy and racy and light.
The staging was clever, the effects were supreme
(Though the songs weren’t as catchy as they might have been).
The parts that worked best were the bits that were busy,
When Things One and Two made us all feel quite dizzy!
And the Cat in the Hat had to clean up the mess
That was causing the little ones so much distress.
I’d say this works best for the youngest ones present
(The older kids may not find things quite so pleasant).
So if you have youngsters who need entertaining,
You could do much worse – on a day when it’s raining!

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Glasgow Girls

23/01/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

If you were told you were going to see a play about asylum seekers threatened with deportation, I doubt you’d imagine an exuberant production, but that’s exactly what Glasgow Girls is. A vibrant, pulsing, emotional whirl of a musical, with a vital message and a warm, fierce heart.

The girls in question are real: this piece, written by David Greig and directed by Cora Bissett, is based on their real struggles, their real lives.   They’re a disparate group, hailing from Somalia and Poland, Iraq and Kosovo, but they all end up in Glasgow’s Drumchapel High School. Here, they are brought together via Mr Girvan (Callum Cuthbertson)’s ESL class and, when Agnesa (Chiara Sparkes) – a Roma refugee from Kosovo – is threatened with deportation, they learn that the local community is on their side. As local matriarch, Noreen (Terry Neason), tells us, the working classes are often lazily depicted as racist or bigoted, but here the girls find true allies, prepared to pay far more than lip service to their cause.

The music makes sense: these are teenagers, as loud and demanding as they ought to be, with strong opinions and clear beliefs. If something’s wrong, they want to put it right. Theirs is, fundamentally, a simple tale. They are Scotland’s children now. And they are clearly shown here as more than just their troubled pasts, as more than numbers, more than problems, or outsiders. They’re people, with the same hopes and dreams as the rest of us, and surely – surely? – the same right to live good lives.

So of course they sing; of course they dance – why wouldn’t they? And the music complements the story well. There are upbeat, sassy, kick-ass songs and sombre ballads to temper them. The immigration officials’ robotic sequences are cleverly handled, and the voices are all commanding, bold as well as vulnerable.

I laugh as much as I cry, and I cry a lot while I am watching this. It’s a timely piece,  serving not just as a reminder that asylum seekers should be met with kindness rather than hostility, but also, actually, a call to action. If six school kids can make a difference, then why can’t we? We can all be Glasgow Girls.

4.3 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

 

 

Beauty and the Beast

 

05/12/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

I’ve long been fascinated by pantomime. Accounting for 45% of all theatre tickets sold in the UK, its popularity is clear. But why? It’s an odd beast – cobbled together from Commedia dell Arte, music hall, drag, variety and pop – but it holds a very special place in the British public’s hearts.

I’ll nail my colours to the mast and state: I love it. I love the juxtapositions, the silliness, the stock phrases and characters, the magnification of everything blaring at us from the stage. I love ramshackle amateur and kids’ productions, and provincial professionals with ex-soap stars in the lead.

I love the nostalgia it evokes even as it embraces the zeitgeist.

But most of all I love this: the King’s Theatre’s panto-plus, where the ante is well and truly upped. Here, in the hands of director Ed Curtis and actors Allan Stewart and Grant Stott (Andy Gray, the third member of the triumvirate, is absent due to illness this year, but plans to return in 2019; get well soon, Andy!), we are 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’s so funny – even the oldest, daftest jokes have me roaring with laughter; it’s all in the delivery.

Much of the wow factor here is in the tech: the designers achieve wonders. This contrast between the traditional painted cartoon-village flats and the state-of-the-art pyrotechnics is at the heart of what makes panto work, I think: the comfort of the familiar jarring with the pizzaz of the new. Ingenious lighting (by Matt Clutterham) hides the mechanics and makes the whole thing magical. Did I mention I love this? I do. It’s awesome. Really, it is.

The supporting cast all do a sterling job, but there’s no doubt this show is a vehicle for Stewart’s Dame (Auntie May) and Stott’s villain (Flash Boaby). Special mention also to Jacqueline Hughes as the Enchantress, whose singing voice is truly a lovely thing.

There’s panto – and then there’s panto at the King’s. Don’t miss it. It’s a real treat.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Rebus: Long Shadows

09/10/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Edinburgh’s most famous detective is making his theatrical debut, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how the iconic character fares in his home town. But we spend all day unsure if the play is going ahead after lead actor Charles Lawson was taken ill on-stage last night – the sort of dramatic twist nobody wants to experience. We wish him a speedy recovery. In the meantime, we’re relieved to hear that understudy Neil McKinven has stepped into the role, and that the show will go on.

Long Shadows is a new, original Rebus story, co-written specifically as a piece of theatre by Ian Rankin and Rona Munro. It’s a sensible decision: instead of shoe-horning a complex novel into a two-hour slot, this tale is suited to its form, and pared down, free of the literary clutter that scuppers so many adaptations. It fits into the novels’ time line though: this is retired Rebus, unable to let the job go, still haunted by the ghosts of all the crimes he didn’t solve.

In this incarnation, though, the ghosts are made flesh, with murdered teenagers Maggie (Eleanor House) and Angela (Dani Heron) given a formidably physical presence, a sort of chorus of the dead. I like this device: it gives the girls a voice, makes them real characters instead of mere victims, showing us their combined strength instead of focusing on their frailty. There’s also wit in using these ghosts as stage hands, making the scene transitions seamless, and emphasising the idea that the girls help shape the narrative.

We’re in cold case territory. DI Siobhan Clarke (Cathy Tyson), Rebus’s longterm sidekick, finally has the chance to see known killer, Mordaunt (played tonight by Andy Paterson), pay for his crimes. Technology has improved, and there’s DNA evidence tying him to Angela’s murder, twenty-five years ago. He’s got away with it so far, and Siobhan is determined not to let any loose ends threaten this opportunity to take him off the streets. She visits Rebus to see what he remembers, to see if he has any idea what the defence might have hidden up its sleeve.

Inevitably, all roads lead to Cafferty, Rebus’s Moriarty, played here with great aplomb by John Stahl. He’s exactly as I imagine him from the books, all machismo and panache, charm and thuggery. And Maggie’s death, seventeen years ago, is woven expertly into the mix, brought to mind by the arrival on Rebus’s stair of her teenage daughter, Heather. It’s a clever plot, with twists and turns that keep me guessing. I can’t deny it’s all quite expositional, a lot of telling-not-showing of the past; we’re watching people sit and talk about events rather than seeing them unfold before our eyes. But it’s enlivened by the presence of those ghosts, the gobby teenagers who won’t be shut up, and by strong performances all round.

McKinven does a sterling job. In the first act, he’s faultless: the role belongs to him. He does have a script in the second act, but he doesn’t refer to it often. It makes sense: the first act is much more of an ensemble piece, and McKinven, in his usual multiple roles, clearly knows this section well. But the latter half is essentially a three-hander between Rebus, Cafferty and Clarke; presumably McKinven has habitually spent this time in his dressing room, relaxing, before appearing briefly in the concluding scene. No matter, the script stuffed into his pocket doesn’t look out of place – Rebus is always carrying case files around. And he only seems to need it to place what’s coming next: he’s acting the dialogue, not reading it. And maybe, by tomorrow, he won’t need it at all. Either Lawson will be back, or McKinven will have learned the lines.

The set, designed by Ti Green, is perhaps my favourite thing about this whole production. I love the simplicity of it, the economy. There are no unnecessary props or pieces of scenery; it’s as uncluttered as the script. But it’s wonderfully evocative: Edinburgh’s tall grey walls and winding paths, tunnels and closes, stairs and bridges, all there at once, their purpose and atmosphere changing with the light. It’s almost breathtaking when the streets of the Old Town are turned instantaneously into a glass penthouse on the Quartermile by the stupidly simple method of lighting the side panels from behind. It’s a revelation as remarkable as those related to the crime.

So, a welcome addition to the Rebus pantheon, and certainly a must-see for fans of the irascible ex-detective.

4 stars

Susan Singfield