King’s Theatre

Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

10/04/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

I’ll admit it: I’ve a soft spot for Victorian potboilers, the more sensational and melodramatic the better. And Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1884 novella – about a doctor experimenting with a serum that transforms him into another man, thus allowing him to indulge in  vices without fear of tarnishing his reputation – ticks all those boxes, whilst also managing to be a deliciously clever treatise on the duality of human nature, our public and our private selves.

So I’m excited to see this stage version, adapted by David Edgar and starring Phil Daniels in not one, but both of the eponymous roles. I like this single casting, by the way – it’s much more expressive of the story’s heart than a double act could ever be. And Daniels performs the role with aplomb, at first clearly delineating between the gentlemanly Jekyll and the seamy Hyde, before slowly merging the two together as the lines between them blur.

This production, directed by Kate Saxon, has an old-fashioned, naturalistic charm: it’s very wordy, with characters expounding theories in long, uninterrupted speeches – much like the source material, I suppose. But it works. What they’re saying is fascinating, and I’m more than happy to listen hard and concentrate when I’m in the theatre, especially if the story is this exciting, with murder and mayhem at every turn (although this is made considerably more difficult by the family sitting in front of us, who keep getting up to go the toilet, and whose mobile phone rings during the first transformation scene).

The set is a triumph – a two-storey feat of ingenuity, allowing three completely different rooms to be depicted with a simple slide and turn of scenery, as well as a convincing outside street. Rosie Abraham’s singing over the transitions is haunting and evocative, reinforcing the unsettling atmosphere.

The supporting cast are all very good – Polly Frame as Jekyll’s sister, Katherine, and Grace Hogg-Robinson as Annie are especially affecting – but this is Daniels’ play, and he owns the stage. Of course he does; he’s Phil Daniels; we know he’s got talent. I’m extra glad he’s so good in Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde because it means I can proudly show off to my friends, “I worked with him, you know” (okay, so it was way back in 1987, when I was fifteen, and I had a very small part in Screen Two’s Will You Love Me Tomorrow, and I had precisely zero scenes with him, but still…).

Check this out! It’s exactly as chilling and unnerving as it should be.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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The Weir

20/02/18

Conor McPherson’s much-acclaimed play premiered at the tiny upstairs theatre of the Royal Court in 1997 and was something of an overnight sensation. Over twenty years later, it’s still going strong. This touring production from Colchester’s Mercury Theatre has much to recommend it, but, in the spacious environs of the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, it inevitably loses some of its intimacy. Predicated upon the Irish love of storytelling, it’s the tale of four men living in the wilds of County Leitrim – and a lone woman, who is invited into their most sacred stronghold, the titular local bar.

Jack (Sean Murray) is a garage owner, a cantankerous old batchelor with a fondness for Guinness and Silk Cut. Jim (John O’ Dowd) is his regular mechanic. Young Brendan (Sam O’ Mahoney) is the landlord of The Weir, which is replicated in every grimy detail and will be totally familiar to anyone who has ever experienced such establishments in rural Ireland. Finbar (Louis Dempsey) is a successful businessman and what passes for a big shot in these parts. He brings along Valerie (Natalie Radmall-Quirke) to introduce her to his friends. She is a ‘blow-in’, recently moved down from Dublin. The other men are convinced that Finbar, a married man, regards the new arrival as a potential romantic conquest, but that’s mostly conjecture on their part – and, as it turns out, she has other matters on her mind…

The scene is set for a series of unsettling ghost stories, recounted by each of the customers in turn. These are subtle affairs, brief inexplicable encounters, the kind of incidents discussed by drinkers the world over and ones that hint at the powerful pagan beliefs that still lurk behind the facade of modern sensibility. There are excellent performances from all five cast members and the characterisations seemed to me to be absolutely bang on. Sadly, however, it’s during these stories that I am most aware of the physical distance between the actors and large parts of the audience. I find myself holding my breath in an attempt to capture every word and, given that all the characters except Valerie deliver their lines in a broad Irish brogue, it isn’t always easy to be sure you’ve heard everything.

What’s the answer? A little more poke on the microphones, perhaps? And a little less of that eerie background music as each story approaches its conclusion? Hard to say. For sure, I want to be right up close to the actors, to feel that I am sitting in that bar alongside them, sharing the drink and the conversation.

Still, if a larger venue means the play is seen by a wider audience, then that’s no bad thing – and it may just be a worthwhile trade-off.

3.7 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Pressure

13/01/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

The most momentous affairs of mankind can be influenced by the most unexpected elements. Take the weather, for instance. The British are seemingly obsessed with it and we all complain when the weathermen get it wrong – but some forecasts are way more important than others. Pressure tells the story of one of the many unheralded heroes of World War Two. It’s 1944 and Group Captain James Stagg (David Haig) is the meteorologist charged with the onerous task of predicting the conditions for D Day. He approaches the job weighed down by the certain knowledge that, if he gets it wrong, he could inadvertently cause the death of thousands of young allied troops.

This play, written by Haig and directed by John Dove, gives a fascinating insight into a little known historical incident. Stagg is presented as a gloomy and uncommunicative Scot, always reluctant to give a definitive answer (like most weathermen, I suppose) and simultaneously going through some personal pressures of his own. He lives in a world of isobars and barometer readings and has to answer directly to General Eisenhower (Malcolm Sinclair), who has 350,000 men standing by, waiting for the order to invade France. Luckily, Stagg also has Ike’s level-headed secretary Kay Summersby (Laura Rogers) on hand to guide him through the challenge of coming to the right decision and to help him argue against Ike’s own personal weatherman, who has a much more gung-ho approach to his work,

It’s to the play’s immense credit that all the talk about weather fronts and the constant unfurling of isometric maps never becomes boring – indeed the dialogue here often crackles with suspense and, as the time ticks steadily away towards D Day, we fully appreciate the enormity of Stagg’s ultimate decision, even though of course, history tells us that everything turned out all right in the end.

This is an absorbing story, cleverly told, and nicely acted by an ensemble cast – it’s well worth your time and money.

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

Cinderella

06/12/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s hard to believe but the pantomime season is already upon us! In Edinburgh, of course, that can mean only one thing: the annual Christmas panto at the King’s Theatre, presented once again (in fact, for the thirteenth year in succession!) by the ‘gleesome threesome’ of Allan Stewart, Andy Grey and Grant Stott. If you were worried that their enduring domination of this seasonal slot might have led to a certain sloppiness, don’t be misled. Cinderella is just as assured a production as ever, and the ease of the three performers with each other is evident from the off-set. The highest compliment I can give them is that they make this look so easy, when in fact pantomime is one of the hardest theatrical disciplines to get right.

Mind you, they don’t mind subverting some of the established rules of panto either. Why not have four dames, for instance? A nice one (Stewart as Fairy May), a mean one (Stott as Baroness Hibernia Hardup), and two that are … well, women (Clare Grey and Maureen Carr as the Ugly Sisters)? And who ever said that Cinderella (Gillian Parkhouse) and Prince Charming (James Darch) can’t be involved in some of the funniest scenes? Meanwhile, it’s left to Grey to deliver his usual dim-witted, prat-falling persona as Buttons. Okay, so some of his material may have sailed into Edinburgh with Noah, but my goodness, he makes me laugh!

So, what we get is a fine festive banquet, replete with colourful costumes, energetic dance routines, double entendres, local banter and lashings of general silliness. Any mistakes that occur are gleefully pounced upon and incorporated into the hilarity and there’s plenty of skilful audience interplay – anyone would think these guys know what they’re doing.  Just when I’m thinking ‘this is great but there’s nothing here to rival last year’s stunning ‘helicopter’ sequence’, the special visual effects team unleash a creation that has large sections of the audience – me included – gasping out loud in a ‘how did they do that?’ kind of way. 

If you and your family are looking to get into the festive spirit, this would be a really good place to start. Cinderella runs until January 21st and there are still some tickets available at time of writing, but please don’t hang about… they’re selling like the proverbial hot mince pies!

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Duet For One

31/10/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Tom Kempinski’s Duet for One has enjoyed considerable success – both critical and commercial – since it was first staged in 1980. And this production, directed by Robin Lefevre, has much to recommend it, not least an incredibly detailed set showcasing Dr  Feldmann (Oliver Cotton)’s extensive music collection.

But, somehow, it leaves me cold. I don’t think it’s the acting. Belinda Lang is wonderfully acerbic as Stephanie, the famous violinist struggling to cope after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She’s funny and sad, strong and brittle, and her bravado and vulnerability are beautifully played. Cotton has a lot less to do as Feldman – this is undoubtedly Stephanie’s play – but he makes a decent fist of it, manipulating the many long silences expertly. And there’s a delicious awkwardness created by the direction, a horrible claustrophobia in Feldmann’s office, highlighted by Stephanie’s frustrated wheeling around the space in her motorised wheelchair, sitting staring at blank walls, turning her back on Feldman (and on us).

The problem, for me, is the play itself. I don’t think there’s enough in it, and what there is doesn’t quite convince. It all seems a bit one-note; nothing changes – not really. Sure, Stephanie is forced to confront reality, her façade of ‘getting on with it’ steadily eroded so that she has to finally face the truth of her situation, but it doesn’t feel like enough. Where’s Feldmann’s development? What does he learn from Stephanie? What’s the point of depicting a relationship like this one if there’s nothing symbiotic there?

In the end, it all feels too didactic (the lines about citalopram and venlafaxine in particular are as clunky as can be), like an advert for therapy, pop-psychiatry in play-form. It’s terribly earnest – dare I say, pompous? – and, despite those excellent performances, it really doesn’t work for me.

2.9 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

The Real Thing

 

 

25/10/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing is an arch examination of what we mean by ‘truth’ – in love, in life and, of course, in theatre. Despite the linguistic flourishes, however, the central premise – that reality is a shape-shifter, subject to narrative perspective – is pretty bluntly hammered home.

It starts well, with the initial confrontation between husband and wife slowly exposed as fiction: a scene from playwright Henry (Laurence Fox)’s House of Cards. The blurred lines between reality and fantasy are underscored by the revelation that Charlotte (Rebecca Johnson), the cheating wife in the first scene, is – in fact – married to Henry. Her on-stage husband, Max (Adam Jackson-Smith), visits with his real-life wife, Annie (Flora Spencer-Longhurst), and things are further complicated when we discover that Henry and Annie are having an affair. It’s the stuff that farce is made of, and it’s rather nicely done – even if it does at times seem a little too wordy and pleased with itself.

But I’m not sure we need the constant reinforcement of what is, at heart, a straightforward idea. Henry’s Desert Island Discs choices don’t reflect his real musical taste; Charlotte has never been a faithful wife. Brodie (Santino Smith), Annie’s ‘good-cause’, is not the wronged war hero she pretends he is. Most of Billy (Kit Young)’s dialogue is taken from ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore: he’s rehearsing with Annie; they’re acting the part. It’s all very meta, and interesting to watch, but it does seem to over-complicate an essentially simple premise.

Henry and Charlotte’s daughter, Debbie, is nicely played by Venice Van Someren, but I really don’t understand the character’s function. The role doesn’t add anything to the piece.

The performances are good: the play is dialogue-heavy, but the actors make the most of the sprightly humour, and the verbal jousting is entertaining throughout. Fox’s voice seems a little strained at times, but he plays the part with relish and, particularly in the second act, imbues Henry with real depth.

Stephen Unwin’s direction is clear and unfussy, each scene separated by a choreography of moving furniture, which serves to underline the theatricality. But I think perhaps more layers might have been unearthed had the actors multi-rolled, further calling into question the whole notion of reality. As it is, it’s all a bit one-note, and something of a missed opportunity.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield