King’s Theatre

Sleeping Beauty

01/12/21

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

The King’s panto is an Edinburgh institution, and this year’s is extra special for a number of reasons. It’s the first one since the pandemic forced the theatres to go dark. The last one before the King’s closes for refurbishment. And the first one since the demise of Andy Gray, one third of the beloved triumvirate synonymous with Christmas theatre in this city. This Sleeping Beauty isn’t just a pantomime; it’s a tribute to him too.

There’s nothing new here. If you think you’ve seen it all before, well, you probably have. This is a tried and tested formula. Elaborate tongue-twisters? Check. Queen May hovering over the audience on a cantilever? Check. That thing they do with the chocolate bars? Check. It’s all there, like a greatest hits album. And thank goodness for that. Because this is as warm and familiar as a comfy cardy or a mug of hot chocolate – exactly what we need on a cold winter’s night.

The theatre is busy and bustling, but it feels relatively safe. People are taking the mask-wearing seriously; we’re all used to it now, and it doesn’t seem to impede the fun or mute the atmosphere. Anyway, we’re all putty in Queen May’s hands: Allan Stewart is a consummate comedian, and he knows how to work an audience, proving the adage that it’s not the joke, it’s the joker. Even the cheesiest of cheesy lines is funny when he utters it.

Grant Stott is here too, of course, and he’s a towering presence, playing Queen May’s – ahem – identical sister, Carabosse. In this version of the story, she’s the villain who curses Princess Aurora (Sia Dauda), dooming her death when she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel. The Good Fairy (Nicola Meehan) isn’t powerful enough to reverse the spell, but she can modify it, and Aurora falls asleep instead…

It’s nice to see the fool conflated with the love interest. Jordan Young plays Muddles, the jester whose heart belongs to Aurora. He delivers a wonderfully energetic performance, and appears to be having the time of his life as he hurtles from one ridiculous moment to another.

Andy Gray might be gone, but he’s not forgotten. His daughter, Clare Gray, has picked up the family panto-mantle, playing punky Princess Narcissa. She must be proud as punch when the audience applauds ‘King Andy’ – the affection is sincere and profound.

As ever, the King’s panto is a real treat, and not to be missed.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Death Drop

17/11/21

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

There’s nothing subtle about Death Drop. This pantomime-style murder-mystery spoof is as big, bold and spangly as a sequinned frock, and there are plenty of them in evidence too. Director Jesse Jones has embraced the ostentatious, which is, let’s be honest, the only option for a show with an international cast of Drag Race stars.

The set-up is familiar: we’re in a spooky manor house on a remote island. It’s 1991 and Lady von Fistenburg (Vinegar Strokes) is hosting a party in honour of Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s tenth wedding anniversary. Okay, maybe not all of it is familiar. Blue, Brie and Spread Bottomley (three sisters – or peas, named after cheese – all played by writer Holly Stars) have been engaged to do the catering for an eclectic mix of guests. These are: has-been pop starlet, Shazza (Willam); TV weather girl, Summer Raines (Ra’Jah O’Hara); odious newspaper editor, Morgan Pierce (Karen from Finance); Tory MP, Rich Whiteman (Richard Energy), and film-maker, erm, Phil Maker (Georgia Frost). But – oh no! – there’s a storm! Cue OTT sound and lighting effects from Beth Duke and Jack Weir. The phone lines are down, the electricity’s playing up and a fallen tree has blocked the only bridge to the mainland. And, one by one, the guests begin to die. Someone is clearly intent on murder. But who?

I spend the first ten minutes thinking I’m going to hate this show. I like drag, but the humour here is way beyond broad. They’re establishing the context, so there are lots of 90s references, but it’s all a bit sub-Peter Kay. I mean, just mentioning ‘Anne Diamond’ shouldn’t be enough to get a laugh, should it? I want my comedians to work harder than that: tell me a joke about Fray Bentos; don’t just say the words.

But it soon hits its stride, and I find myself laughing with everybody else. The assembled drag artists strut their stuff with aplomb, and the silliness is disarming. There are a few songs thrown in to good effect (penned by the ever-marvellous Flo and Joan), and these really help the carnival atmosphere. I’m less familiar with the work of drag kings than I am drag queens, but they make perfect sense: like their counterparts, they focus on exaggerated gender and cartoonish caricatures.

Holly Stars is a standout: her deadpan delivery guaranteed to entertain. Richard Energy’s Rich Whiteman is noteworthy too, a study in extravagant characterisation. I like Karen from Finance’s Morgan Pierce; it’s a peach of a part and Karen aces it.

There are a few issues. The second act is baggy, and the payoff isn’t strong enough. Death Drop peters out instead of climaxing, and – in a show as dependent on innuendo as this – that really matters. Nonetheless, this is fun. If your three favourite things are Drag Race, The Play That Goes Wrong and panto, then this is your dream production.

3.4 stars

Susan Singfield

The Enemy

20/10/21

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Ooh. I’m VERY excited about this one. I’m an avid admirer of Ibsen – what self-respecting theatre-lover isn’t? I’m in awe of the way he combines theatrical innovation and political conviction with accessible story-telling. I’m also a fan of Kieran Hurley’s work (Chalk Farm, Mouthpiece and Beats are all excellent), so I’m fascinated to see what he and director Finn den Hertog do with the Norwegian’s masterpiece, An Enemy of the People.

In fact, Hurley doesn’t change much at all, plot-wise. This 140-year-old play is uncannily prescient. The difference is all on the surface: in the modes of communication, and the cadence of the dialogue – and it’s beautifully done. The story shifts easily to a contemporary “once-great Scottish town,” where a new spa resort promises regeneration, and offers hope to the poor and dispossessed who live there. But Dr Kirsten Stockmann (Hannah Donaldson) is concerned: a sickness bug is spreading, and she’s almost certain the town’s water supply has been contaminated. But how? Could blame lie with council-approved shortcuts, aimed at bringing forward the resort’s opening? Maybe. If so, it’s more than a little awkward, because the provost is Kirsten’s sister, Vonny (Gabriel Quigley). Still, surely she will be grateful for the heads up, pleased to be able to avert a public health disaster, no matter what the cost? But no. Vonny has no qualms: without the resort, the people have nothing. They’re not sick because of poison, she tells her sister; they’re sick because they’re poor. She has a point.

Although the story remains unchanged, the staging is bang up-to-date: video designer Lewis den Hertog has created a multi-media piece à la Katie Mitchell, with ‘live cinema’ (where the onstage action is filmed and projected simultaneously onto a large screen) a key feature. There are pre-filmed sequences too, such as a jarringly upbeat advert for the new resort, and a series of enthusiastic vox pops on the local news. And there are text messages, and YouTube videos, and Skype and BTL comments a-plenty. It’s Ibsen with all the socials. It works. There’s a dizzying sense of things spiralling out of control, with Kirsten in the middle, alone, holding on to the damning test result – a dreadful talisman.

But Kirsten isn’t quite alone. She might have broken ties with her sister; her friend, Benny (Neil McKinven), and local celeb, Aly (Taqi Nazeer), might have sidled away – but her teenage daughter, Petra (Eléna Redmond) is firmly on her side. And so, perhaps, is Derek Kilmartin (Billy Mack), who has a proposal for Kirsten to consider…

It’s wonderful to see creative theatre projects taking shape again (I’ve nothing against old favourites, and it’s clear to see why theatres are being cautious post-pandemic, but it’s definitely time for something new). This particular project seems like a canny move, combining Ibsen’s timeless appeal with something bold and fresh. It’s almost guaranteed to get bums on seats, while simultaneously allowing playmakers the chance to experiment. Good call!

For the most part, it pays off. I have a little trouble hearing some of the dialogue, especially in the first act. I’m sitting quite far back in the stalls, which might have something to do with it, but I wonder if it’s more about the actors delivering their lines to cameras rather than to the auditorium. But this is my only gripe. The performances are natural and convincing, the relationships well-defined.

The message is clear: the truth matters, however unpalatable. It’s a timely homily. We need to heed the experts. The only problem is, we all think we’re Kirsten Stockmann.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield


Dial M For Murder

24/02/20

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

For a playwright who purportedly ‘hated writing,’ Frederick Knott has certainly had a lasting impact. True, he didn’t write a lot but his 1951 stage thriller, Dial M For Murder, is still packing in the punters almost seventy years after its creation, and is a classic of its kind.

Predictably, the King’s Theatre is full tonight; this one is almost guaranteed to be a crowd-pleaser. But it’s subtly done: Anthony Banks’ direction avoids the arch high-campery that’s all-too pervasive in period crime dramas these days. Sure, he embraces (and even highlights) the nonsensical aspects of the plot, but not at the expense of credible characters.

Still, there’s no getting away from it: this is a schlocky tale of murder and intrigue. Beautiful heriress, Margot (Sally Bretton), has been having an affair with dashing young writer, Max (Michael Salami), and has worked hard to keep her tennis-player husband, Tony (Tom Chambers), in the dark. She has no intention of leaving her marriage, and thinks she can keep everyone happy. But Tony is onto her, and has a yearning for revenge… His plan is cunning and convoluted; can he contrive the outcome he desires?

The four-strong cast (Christopher Harper, dual-roling as Captain Lesgate and Inspector Hubbard, completes the quad) deliver slick, believable performances, even managing to sustain my interest in the overly-expositional opening half hour. After that, things become more action-packed, and we’re less reliant on hearing the detailed back story.

I really like the bold lighting and sound design (by Lizzie Powell and Ben and Max Ringham respectively), which works especially well in the scene transitions. The passing of time following the fateful incident at the core of the play is beautifully evoked, and the use of The Beatles’  Tomorrow Never Knows is perfect here.

So yes, Dial M For Murder is a well-worn piece, and it won’t win any innovation prizes in 2020. But it’s a classic for a reason, and this production does it proud.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

The Exorcist

05/11/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Pah! Who needs to see a bonfire and fireworks in November in Edinburgh? There’s a surfeit in August and at New Year – and The Exorcist is on at the King’s. Yes, The Exorcist. So how can I resist that?

William Peter Blatty’s 1971 schlocky horror story seems quite old-fashioned now, but it’s still pretty compelling. For those who’ve never read the book or seen the film, it’s about a girl called Regan (Susannah Edgley), who – on her twelfth birthday – is possessed by a demon. Her film star mother, Chris (Sophie Ward), is at a loss: what has happened to her sweet daughter? She calls in doctors and psychiatrists, but they make little progress. So Chris appeals to the Catholic church, begging them to arrange an exorcism. Father Merrin (Paul Nicholas) has met Regan’s demon before, and the battle to save her is a brutal one. Pubescent girls are a recurring theme for horror writers, from Snow White (and yes, I contend that is a horror) to Carrie, but Blatty’s depiction of emerging sexuality is the least subtle I know. I’m pleased to report that this adaptation doesn’t shy away from the more blatantly shocking elements, indulging the demon’s potty-mouth and the misuse of Christian imagery. Bravo.

Technically, this production is very good indeed. The lights (by Philip Gladwell) are utilised to excellent effect, blinding the audience during some jump scares, and creating a queasy, uncomfortable atmosphere. Likewise the sound (by Adam Cork), which perpetuates a sense of uneasiness throughout. The special effects are cunningly achieved, and the timing of the voiceovers is impressively precise. This ensures the all-important scare factor, without which this play would die a death.

There are some issues though. The set, although it looks magnificent, seems unnecessarily complicated, with stairs leading up to a bedroom that is clearly beneath them. I like the two-storey idea, and both the stairs and the attic space accommodate important dramatic moments, but the pointless complexity of the lounge and bedroom being on separate floors is both disorientating and distracting.

There are also a few too many characters. In the novel and film versions, this doesn’t feel like a problem, but here, the stage feels cluttered with people who don’t add much to the tale. Both Joseph Wilkins (Father Joe) and Stephen Billington (Dr Strong) perform well, but their presence seems extraneous.

The second act is tighter than the first, maybe because the story is more distilled here, and there’s less of a disconnect between the highly technical production and the hokey dialogue and plot.

Whatever. It’s not perfect. But it’s a genuinely engaging, scary piece of theatre – and that’s not easy to achieve.

3.7 stars

Susan Singfield

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

 

21/10/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Frankenstein is an integral part of our cultural landscape, its imagery known to all, even those who’ve never read the book or seen a movie version of the tale. I love it, but it’s been adapted and interpreted so many times that I’m almost reluctant to see it again. What else is there to say? Playwright Rona Munro had the same misgivings: ‘What version of Frankenstein hadn’t I seen already?’

Her conclusion – a version that places a punky teenage Shelley (Eilidh Loan) on stage with her creations – is inspired, extending the duality so central to the novel. For who is Mary if not Victor Frankenstein (Ben Castle-Gibb)? Is she not the creature’s maker, alongside the young scientist? All the hubris Frankenstein displays (the frenetic, obsession with his work; the rejection of accepted norms; the willingness to unleash horror to realise his dreams) is Mary’s conceit too. And if the monster (Michael Moreland) represents the darkness in the doctor’s soul, he surely also embodies the destructive nature of the writer who conceived them both.

In a weird way, the horror is both negated and amplified by Shelley’s presence: we always know it’s a fiction, each death or salvation dependent on a scribble from a pencil pulled impatiently from the writer’s hair – and yet, as we’re reminded, this monster really lives; he is immortal, long outlasting both of his creators.

Becky Minto’s design is gorgeously stylised, all stark and glacial, with bare white roots and branches used to hint at wires, hearts and veins. The monotone costumes add to the abstraction; there’s a suggestion of the period, but no attempt at naturalistic portrayal. Patricia Benecke’s direction makes clear that this is an exploration of the novel’s heart, not a faithful retelling of the story as it stands.

Occasionally it feels a little rushed; the scene where the creature meets the old man (Greg Powrie) suffers particularly in this respect. And Natalie McCleary (who plays Elizabeth) feels a little under-used: she has a strong stage presence and her character could easily be given more to do. The only other issue for me is the excessive use of dry ice. It’s one thing to create a misty, creepy atmosphere, but come on… It’s October; half of the audience are struggling with colds. It doesn’t seem sensible to tickle our throats to this extent.

Despite these minor niggles, I’m really impressed by this play. Munro’s quirky adaptation exposes and illuminates ideas I hadn’t thought of in a story I thought I knew too well.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

The Worst Witch

07/05/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Jill Murphy’s Worst Witch has surely earned a place on the ‘children’s classic’ list by now? First conjured into print in 1974, Mildred Hubble has been casting her spell over children for nearly five decades, with film, television and now stage adaptations all helping to extend her reach. Her guileless exuberance and gauche clumsiness are a heady mixture; she’s a relatable heroine – her fallibility as important as her courage and warm heart.

This production, adapted by Emma Reeves and directed by Theresa Heskins, has much to commend it. It’s a sprightly dash through key elements of the eight novels – focusing on Mildred’s breathless arrival at the school and the countless scrapes she gets into – and there’s enough energy and zeal here to keep even the youngest audience members engaged.

The conceit is that the students of Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches are putting on a play, written by fifth-former Mildred (Danielle Bird) about her early days at the school. The metadrama allows for some deliciously lo-tech creativity, and the school-show-style solutions with their implicitly small budget are both charming and effective. I like the silliness of the blue blankets to denote invisibility, for example, and the broomstick-swings for the ill-fated flying display. The sock-puppet cats are also a delight: a daft idea that works remarkably well.

The characters are nicely drawn. These are adults playing children, but it doesn’t feel too much of a stretch. The structure means that they’re supposed to be sixteen, after all, playing at being their younger selves. Rosie Abraham stands out as uber-snob Ethel: her smug demeanour is perfectly portrayed, and funny rather than threatening. Bird is a suitably scatty and likeable Mildred, and Rachel Heaton’s embodiment of Miss Hardbroom is marvellous. The incorporation of Mildred’s classmates and teachers into the on-stage band is neatly done, with Miss Bat (Molly-Grace Cutler), Miss Drill (Megan Leigh Mason) and Fenella (Meg Forgan) rocking out convincingly. The first act is, well, first-rate.

I’m not so keen on the second act, where the action moves backstage. Despite a powerful performance from Polly Lister, the Miss Cackle/Evil-Twin Agatha sequence dominates to such an extent that it feels unbalanced; this is no longer Mildred’s tale. The transition from school play to ‘real life’ is a little fudged, and some of the children around us are confused, asking their parents to clarify. I like the sequins and campery, the panto-villain strutting and the body-swap routines, but the pyrotechnics and video projections just don’t work as well as the homespun stuff in the first half. They’re not magnificent enough to impress, and lack the bravura inventiveness of the earlier ideas.

Still, this is a fun piece of theatre, and well worth seeing. Mildred Hubble is a truly lovely character, and it’s easy to see why she has endured.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

The Verdict

30/04/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

The Verdict might have started life as a novel by Barry Reed, but it’s David Mamet’s 1982 film adaptation that lingers in the public memory. With five Oscar nominations, this courtroom tale was a startling success, so it’s little wonder that it’s become part of the reviving-old-movies-into-plays phenomenon.

Director Michael Lunney (who also appears as Irish barman, Eugene Meehan) has created a slick production, which holds the audience’s attention despite its wordiness. The moral dilemma at the story’s heart is compelling and, despite the fact that we are rooting throughout for Frank (Ian Kelsey), we can still retain some sympathy for the defendants in the case. They’re doctors, accused of negligence; a young mother lies in a persistent vegetative state after (allegedly) being administered the wrong anaesthetic. But, while they’re clearly positioned as ‘the bad guys’, we are also invited to understand how easily an accident might happen; it’s the shameless cover-up that exposes their villainy, not their original mistake.

This is definitely Frank’s play, and Kelsey does a good job of portraying the dissolute lawyer, a borderline alcoholic, with just enough vestiges of morality to take on such a daunting case. He’s tempted by an early offer to settle out of court – he needs the money badly – but he knows that this time he has to do the right thing.

There’s a large cast (almost too large; surely it would make sense for some of these actors to multi-role?), and the characters are deftly drawn, creating a real impression of the community in which Frank lives and the circumstances in which he works. Josephine Rogers shines as mysterious barmaid, Donna St Laurent, and Denis Lill is marvellous as Moe Katz, Frank’e erstwhile mentor and proto-parent, and perhaps the production’s most sympathetic character.

The set is hyper-realistic, with a photographic backdrop and detailed interiors. In fact, if I’ve a criticism, that’s it: I don’t think this piece is theatrical enough. It feels like a film performed on a stage; it hasn’t really been adapted to the form. No one’s having fun here, experimenting with the possibilities of theatre, exploiting the advantages of live performance. There’s a moment when Frank addresses the jury, speaking out to the audience, which hints at how much more inclusive this whole experience could have been, but it’s fleeting, and then we’re back to watching something framed and distant, as if it’s behind glass.

Still, I can’t deny that I’m engrossed throughout, and this is a snappy, engaging piece of work. Courtrooms and theatres aren’t so very different, after all.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

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

 

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