King’s Theatre

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

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