Lyceum Theatre

The Arabian Nights

07/12/17

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The Arabian Nights is unusual: a children’s Christmas show that never mentions Christmas. Of course it doesn’t – this is a collection of mainly Middle Eastern and Indian stories – but they’re wonderfully apt for the festive season, as marvellous and magical as can be. Suhayla El-Bushra’s script is sprightly and engaging, and nicely complemented by Joe Douglas’s lively direction. This is a delightful production.

At its centre is Scheherazade  (Rehanna MacDonald), a young girl who has fallen foul of the tyrannical Sultan (Nicholas Karimi). Desperate to stay her impending execution, she regales the taciturn leader with tales she has learned from her storyteller mother (Neshla Caplan). Despite professing to hate stories, the Sultan is beguiled, demanding more and more. And, as time goes by, the two develop an unlikely friendship.

The staging is lovely: simple but evocative, brightly coloured and celebratory. And the stories are beautifully told: there’s puppetry and music, shadow-play and song. It’s zesty and energetic, the stories tumbling across the stage as quickly and impressively as the acrobats. It could be chaotic, but it’s not, even when we are faced with a sequence of four (or is it five?) tales within tales, each left open as the next begins, a masterful piece of writing if ever there was one. The actors are fantastic too: a true ensemble, most performing many roles with humour and precision.

Accessible yet profound; moving yet funny; sophisticated yet full of fart jokes: this is perfectly pitched for a family audience.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

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Cockpit

10/10/17

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

If you want to see the Lyceum in a completely different light, then now is the time to do so, as the whole place has been transformed for a timely production of Bridget Boland’s Cockpit, a challenging political piece set in the aftermath of World War Two.

It’s hard to make truly immersive theatre in a Victorian proscenium arch, but the design here is radical. There is raked seating on the stage, facing the auditorium, making the performance space effectively traverse. There are suitcases spilling their guts onto random seats; ladders leading up to (and down from) the boxes; the gantry is exposed. Even the trap-room is utilised. And yet, despite being rendered almost unrecognisable, the theatre building is also given a central role in this production, which is – cleverly – site-specific. For we are all (actors and audience) cast as displaced people (DPs), released from prisons and concentration camps across Germany but not yet able to celebrate our liberation. Instead we are cooped up in a provincial German theatre, which has been requisitioned by the British Army to serve as a holding pen before we are repatriated.

There’s a strong reminder here of the complexity of war: the common enemy may have been defeated but there are other grievances just as entrenched, which may never be resolved. This exploration of European history and relations seems especially prescient, as – outside the theatre – we try to navigate the choppy waters of Brexit. Divisions within our own country are deep and rancorous; our relationships with others have yet to be determined. Cockpit feels as though it could have been written last week, although in fact it was penned in 1948. These are interesting times in which to consider the notions of idealism versus pragmatism, hope versus despair.

Cockpit  is a witty, clever play. Forcing people of different nationalities and political persuasions to co-exist in a confined space allows the arguments put forward to appear spontaneous and natural, while the plot device of a suspected plague outbreak ensures we also see the characters’ common humanity, as they put aside their differences to focus on survival. The enormity of the task faced by Captain Ridley (Peter Hannah) is made very clear. A workable exit strategy seems nigh on impossible, as tensions rise between the various factions, and no one is prepared to compromise.

There is comedy here too: Dylan Read (who also plays French farmer Duval) excels as Bauer, the uptight stage manager, who prizes saving his beloved building above all else. His pomposity is funny: he fusses over petty details, takes great delight in providing props, bristles at the suggestion he might be ‘front of house.’ Through him, Boland also explores the redemptive power of theatre, a thread which culminates in an awe-inspiring performance from La Traviata by singer Sandra Kassman. Bauer might seem ridiculous, but preserving art and culture is important, we are shown.

Director Wils Wilson has served up a fascinating piece of theatre, which, if not exactly enjoyable, is nevertheless arresting and thought-provoking. It’s provocative and demanding; it’s not an easy piece to watch. But it’s certainly worth the effort, and will have you thinking long after the curtain falls.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Hay Fever

HayFever

14/03/17

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The world of Noel Coward is arguably an overly familiar one – a world of tennis whites and champagne cocktails, of country houses and French windows. Perhaps the word most associated with his work is ‘arch.’ If you’re going to have a crack at the plays of ‘The Master’, you’d better be sure that quality is there in abundance.

Luckily, this co-production from The Lyceum Theatre and Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, under the astute direction of Dominic Hill, gets it just right. Hay Fever is the story of the Bliss family, four eccentric bohemians co-existing in their country retreat and planning a bit of a bash at the weekend. The father of the house, David (Benny Baxter-Young), is a successful novelist, currently hard at work on his latest opus, The Sinful Woman. His wife, Judith (Susan Woolridge), is a former grande dame who has never quite lost her flair for the theatrical and is happy to utilise it whatever she’s doing (even she’s simply rearranging flowers). And then there are the kids, Sorel (Rosemary Boyle) and Simon (Charlie Archer), both bored to distraction, endlessly bickering and always ready to make a little mischief. When it transpires that each member of the Bliss family has invited a different house guest down for the weekend, it’s clear that the stage is set for some farcical encounters… but who, you might ask, will get to sleep in the Japanese room? And why does it seem to matter so much?

I’ve rarely seen Coward done better than this. The social awkwardness of the various visitors is played for maximum effect. The scene where hopelessly-out-of–her-depth Jackie Coryton (Katie Barnett) is obliged to interact with pompous Richard Greatham (Hywel Simons) is almost painfully funny. On the night we attend, an onstage accident, which results in a hostess trolley tipping over complete with everyone’s breakfast, is skilfully incorporated into the proceedings and gets some of the biggest laughs of the evening. I also enjoy the brief interval where housekeeper Clara (Myra McFadyen) treats us to a brief selection of Coward’s greatest hits.

This is a delightfully frothy confection and, even though it’s set in the 1920s, the awkward toe-curling moments it offers for our entertainment are still just as relevant today. Go along and treat yourself. These days laughter like this is in perilously short supply.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Lyceum Variety Night 2

26/02/17

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Those enterprising people at Flint & Pitch have been busy putting together another night of  entertainment at the Lyceum Theatre, featuring the best of spoken word, theatre and music. Hosted by genial regulars Sian Bevan and Jenny Lindsay, this eclectic second helping kicks off with the jazz-inflected rhythms of Pronto Mama, a band who revel in slippery time signatures and who soon have everybody bopping along in their seats.

Next up, poet Aidan Moffat treats us to some of his wry and rather saucy poems (plus some rather wonderful extracts from his son’s diary). He finishes his section with a dedication to all the people he’s canoodled with down the years, complete with a raised can of Tenants Lager at the end. I’ll drink to that!

Actress/musician/singer/author Gerda Stevenson offers us a varied selection of items – a traditional Scottish ballad accompanied by one of those strange droning instruments that resembles a wooden suitcase (and which I’ve annoyingly never learned the name of), a trio of prose pieces commemorating great Scottish women, and a final song for which she enlists the help of a couple of friends for the harmonies.

After a short break, festival favourites, The Creative Martyrs take to the stage, looking like a cross between Estragon & Vladimir and Laurel & Hardy. Incredibly, they soon have us chanting along to the suggestion that we should ‘Burn The Books’, while their song about drowned refugees is also incredibly provocative and revealing, the final line leaving the audience temporarily too stunned to applaud. These two performers are really quite brilliant.

Tonight being the anniversary of Johnny Cash’s death, singer/songwriter Rachel Sermanni kicks off her segment with a haunting cover of one of the great man’s most famous songs, A Thing Called Love, and then offers a couple of songs of her own. Her voice is remarkable – ethereal, haunting, quietly amazing. I fully expect to hear more of her soon.

The advertised act, Don Paterson, is down with the flu, but Colin McGuire fearlessly steps in at the last moment to give us an extract from his work-in-progress play, which is all about that most important of subjects – sleep. He goes down a storm with the Lyceum audience.

Last up, American poet (and BBC slam-champion), Adele Hampton offers us some of her wry and distinctive poems. She admits that she is feeling a little nervous but despite that, acquits herself well with tales of weight-lifting and belonging. She leaves the stage to heartfelt applause.

It is left to Pronto Mama to finish off the night, which they do not with the usual pounding rock song, but with a plaintive acapella tune, which sends everyone home feeling happy and thoroughly entertained.

The next variety night is penciled in for Sunday 4th June. Miss it and you’ll only have yourselves to blame.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Winter’s Tale

14/02/17

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The Winter’s Tale is famously a play of two halves, and Max Webster’s production for the Lyceum exaggerates and develops this juxtaposition in every possible way – and the result is thrilling.

This is an modern-day version of the play: ‘Sicilia’ is now Edinburgh; ‘Bohemia’ is Fife. Although Leontes (John Michie) and Polixenes (Andy Clark) are still ostensibly ‘kings’, they are presented more as middle-class business men, rich and successful, with teams of staff assisting them. The set design helps to cement the contrasts between them: Leontes’ apartment, slightly raised and framed in black, looks exactly like the glass boxes lining Edinburgh’s Quartermile; a walled-off sound-booth reinforces this image. It’s an inspired idea: those apartments look like stage-sets anyway, their fourth walls removed to allow us to peep in. And they are sterile and hard, seemingly perfect but ultimately lacking – just like Leontes’ relationship with Hermione (Frances Grey). The pastoral scenes, on the other hand, are deliberately hokey. The fake grass is rolled out before us: there is no attempt at realism here. The props are more panto than serious Shakespeare, all bright-bunting and shopping trolleys and rickety wooden stuff. The costumes  all look hand-made, in a local am-dram kind of way. It’s hard to imagine we’re watching the same play. Polixenes  is a big fish here, but he’s in a very different kind of pond.

The contrasts are further underlined by both dialogue and acting style. While acts one, two, three and five retain Shakespeare’s original language, act four has been recast in Scots, an audacious undertaking performed with evident delight by writer James Robertson. The performances are mismatched too: whereas the Sicilian scenes are very serious and actorly, the Bohemian scenes are played for laughs, with comedic exaggeration and audience interaction; it’s beautifully done.

If I’ve a criticism of this play – and I haven’t much – it’s that the fayre goes on too long, without adding much to the plot. It is a lovely interlude, and the scene-setting is vital, but it starts to drag after a while: we want to know what happens next.

The performances here are universally strong, but Maureen Beattie’s Paulina is a definite stand-out; she imbues the character with warmth, vitality and strength. The musicians, led by composer Alasdair Macrae, deserve a mention too: their on-stage accompaniment is integral to the story-telling, and their presence adds a strange unearthliness that really elevates the play.

Do get yourself along to the Lyceum to see this: it’s really rather wonderful.

4.9 stars

Susan Singfield

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

Alice in Wonderland

09/12/16

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The Lyceum’s Alice is a sumptuous affair, with a gorgeously decadent design aesthetic. Of course, the imagery is all there in the source material (by which I mean both Lewis Carroll’s novel and John Tenniel’s original illustrations), but it’s beautifully realised here by designer Francis O’Connor, with a set and costumes that are at once familiar and completely new. The script focuses on some of the lesser-known scenes from the book – that is to say, those not immortalised by Disney: the duchess and the pig-baby; the mock-turtle and the gryphon – but sensibly includes the most dynamic moments too: we’re not deprived of the tea-party, nor the ‘off-with-her-head’ trial. And the special effects are truly mesmerising, with Alice’s final transformation a particular delight.

If there are problems, some of them lie with the tale itself: it’s an episodic story, famed more for its eclectic characters than for any narrative thrust. This Alice doesn’t even seem too bothered about finding her way home and, without this aim, the play is lacking any real drive; there’s just no sense of peril here. Some scenes work well anyway – giant Alice trapped in the rabbit’s house, for example – but others are somehow lacklustre, let down in part by the music, which just isn’t toe-tapping enough for a children’s show (although it might sound better if the singers were mic’d so we could actually hear the lyrics properly).

Jess Peet, making her professional debut here, is a lively and appealing Alice. And the ensemble cast work well together, convincingly populating Wonderland, although there are only nine of them. Their brief moments of audience interaction feel a little grafted-on, but all-in-all this is a decent show, and the kids in the audience certainly seem enthralled.

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield