Lyceum Theatre

An Edinburgh Christmas Carol

29/11/19

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Does anything embody the theme of Christmas more perfectly than a generous helping of Charles Dickens? A Christmas Carol remains one of his most popular books – indeed, the images it contains pretty much sum up the British public’s entire concept of Christmas. Victorian costumes, decorated trees, festive feasts and of course, copious snow tumbling from the heavens. Tony Cownie’s spirited retelling of the story adds an extra ingredient: Edinburgh. And it works like a charm.

Actually, there’s solid reasoning behind this addition. There’s evidence to suggest that Dickens found inspiration for his most enduring character during a visit to Canongate Churchyard, where he spotted a tombstone commemorating a certain Ebenezer Scroggie, and even made a note about it as a potential character name for future use. Sadly, the gravestone is no longer there (lost during restorations in 1932), but Dicken’s inventive story still dazzles.

In An Edinburgh Christmas Carol, Scrooge (Crawford Logan) is a dour, curmudgeonly man, forever sneering and rolling his eyes at his good natured clerk, Rab Cratchit (Ewan Donald), and nimbly avoiding all who ask him for contributions to good causes. This sprightly version sticks fairly closely to the original story, but throws in a local legend in the furry shape of Greyfriar’s Bobby, still sleeping on his master’s grave, and in danger of being banned from the city for want of a licence. Would Ebenezer like to contribute to the cost of buying one? Bah! Humbug!

The addition of Bobby is a bit of a master stroke. This is the most family-friendly festive offering we’ve seen at the Lyceum, and the youngsters in tonight’s audience are clearly entranced by the puppet versions of Bobby and Tiny Tim. It’s not all lighthearted. There are those pesky ghosts, for starters. A little girl sitting behind me finds the presence of a headless drummer momentarily overwhelming, but she’s soon back to being delighted by all she sees.

There’s also plenty for older audience members to enjoy, not least the gorgeous set design by Neil Murray, which captures the somber beauty of Edinburgh, and when combined with Zoe Spurr’s dramatic lighting shows off the city to great effect. There’s humour too in the witty dialogue, and those who enjoy a festive singalong are well served by the presence of the Community Choir, who offer a series of rousing carols throughout the production. What else do we need to create a perfect Christmas treat? You want snow? You’ve got it!

Even a dedicated Scrooge like me emerges from this production with a warm glow inside (and I swear it’s not just the mulled wine!). Christmas cheer seems to be in rather short supply this year, so why not head on up to the Lyceum for a much-needed top up? I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy the experience.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Barber Shop Chronicles

24/10/19

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

There’s a different vibe in the Lyceum tonight: a youthful, energetic atmosphere. We take our seats fifteen minutes early, but the party’s already in full swing, with audience members invited up on to the stage, where the twelve-strong cast are dancing, chatting and miming cutting people’s hair. A couple of teenagers from the front row run up the steps self-consciously; within seconds they’re in barbers’ chairs, laughing with the actors standing behind them. A middle-aged man tries in vain to copy some dance moves; he’s having a great time. An actor wanders through the auditorium, shaking hands, making daft jokes. This immersive opening has a clear message: Barber Shop Chronicles is an inclusive piece of theatre, and we’re meant to be more involved than mere observers.

Inua Ellams’ play was first performed two years ago at the National Theatre (who co-produced it with Fuel and Leeds Playhouse). Since then, it’s been on tour, and its success is well-deserved. An intimate piece that spans six countries; a politically-charged play that doesn’t proselytise; a comedy that brings its audience to tears: Barber Shop Chronicles is nothing if not original.

The conceit is simple: a barber is not just a man who cuts his clients’ hair. He is also a counsellor, his shop is a confessional. And, if this is true, if men really do open up to their barbers, then what can we glean if we listen in? London-based Ellams’ research took him to South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana, and he returned with sixty hours of recordings on which he based his play. The authenticity of the voices rings true throughout, exploring the experiences of black men in Africa and the UK. We flit between time zones and hairdressers, the clocks whizzing round at double speed to take us between continents. In each shop, they’re watching the same football match (Chelsea vs Barcelona), each disparate group united by their interest in the sport.

There’s a lot to take in; under Bijan Sheibani’s direction, everything happens at breakneck speed. I like this: sure, there’s not always time to absorb one idea before another comes along, but the overlapping stories and fragments of ideology feel wonderfully realistic, adding to the impression that we’re listening in to what real people have to say.

The performances are exuberant for the most part, but quiet and heartfelt when required. This is true ensemble work, with a real sense of a team creating something together. The scene transitions are fascinating, the choreography both lively and precise.

The best thing, though, is the wide-ranging conversation, encompassing little-heard persepctives on everything from Nigerian Pidgin to Mugabe, from high performance cars to fatherhood. It’s densely packed – and never dull.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

Love Song to Lavender Menace

12/10/19

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Love Song to Lavender Menace is a charming piece of metatheatre: an homage to a book shop disguised as… an homage to a book shop. Not just any old book shop, mind. This is Lavender Menace, the iconic gay/lesbian/feminist book shop that served Edinburgh’s queer community for five years in the ’80s.

Lewis (Pierce Reid) and Glen (Matthew McVarish) are packing up; the shop as they know it is going; it’s being renamed and relocated – and Lewis too is moving on. He’s sad and anxious, so focuses his attention on rehearsing the performance he and Glen have prepared as a parting gift for owners Bob and Sigrid, telling the story of the store and what it’s meant to so many marginalised people. The quirky direction by Ros Philips sees Lewis playing Sigrid ‘as a statue’ – arms aloft – and Glen being inventive with a roll of parcel tape.

The set is delightful: all chalkboard bookshelves backlit with blank white spines. It’s both playful and uncluttered, suggestive of a place where people can write their own lives.

It’s a funny, poignant play, and it’s no surprise to see a packed auditorium as it returns to the Lyceum, this time on the main stage. Playwright James Ley’s affection for Lavender Menace and what it represents shines through in every scene, evoking a sense of nostalgia even for those of us who were never there. For those who were, this must be a powerful draw indeed.

Cleverly, despite the claustrophobic lens through which we view this intimate memoir, we are offered a wider perspective, as Sigrid Nielson’s voice emanates from a cassette deck, ethereal and portentous. It gets better, then it gets worse, she says. Then better, then worse, then better again. We’re reminded of how bad things can be: of Clause 28 and gay-bashing, of the incendiary homophobic rhetoric that prevailed in the ’80s.

Nevertheless, the disturbing backdrop notwithstanding, this is not a tragic tale. It is a buoyant, vibrant celebration of a sanctuary, of a radical space in a conservative city.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Touching the Void

26/01/19

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

I have to confess that my first thought when I see this production advertised is, ‘How the hell are they ever going to put this on a stage?’

Anyone who has read Joe Simpson’s true account of his disastrous misadventure in the Peruvian Andes in 1985 – or seen Kevin MacDonald’s subsequent documentary – will know that Touching the Void is an epic story of adventure and survival against all the odds, with most of the action taking place on the remote peaks of an icebound mountain. The Lyceum has a reputation for inventive staging, but it’s clear from the get-go that this production will necessitate designer Ti Green and his crew to pull out all the stops.

David Greig’s canny adaptation begins – rather disturbingly for those who know the story – in a climber’s pub in Glencoe, where Joe Simpson’s sister, Sarah (Fiona Hampton), welcomes us all to her brother’s wake. She tells us she’s forgotten to make sandwiches and then cranks up the jukebox with a few eighties classics. Joe’s climbing partner, Simon (Edward Hayter), turns up, accompanied by the nerdy Richard (Patrick McNamee), the young man who served as assistant on Simon and Joe’s recent climb, and Sarah asks them for more information about what happened up on the mountain.

Simon begins by trying to explain the allure of mountain climbing by literally showing Sarah the ropes. They start small, by ascending an upended dining table, but pretty soon they are using ropes and winches to scramble up the sides of the proscenium arch. Sarah is astonished to find that she is enjoying the experience, but she still wants to know more…

And then Joe (Josh Williams) appears and, at the rear of the stage, a representation of the Peruvian mountain rears slowly into position so that Joe and Simon can re-enact their climb.

This is the point where the audience’s disbelief must be fully suspended if this is going to work – and I’m happy to report that it doeswork, quite brilliantly. Clambering about on a haphazard construction of metal and paper, the actors somehow manage to generate extraordinary levels of suspense, leading inexorably to the point where disaster occurs. It’s a heart-stopping moment, simply but convincingly staged.

If the play’s second half doesn’t quite fulfil the promise of the first, it is perhaps because it chooses to focus on the concept of solitude as a badly injured Joe is faced with the Herculean task of dragging himself back to base camp, accompanied only by a hallucinated version of Sarah, whose method of encouragement consists mostly of repeatedly whacking her brother’s broken leg with an ice axe. The characters of Simon and Richard are largely forgotten here and it might have helped to involve them a little more in the proceedings. Simon in particular seems poorly served. We never really share the feelings of guilt he must have had over what happened – indeed, we find out very little about what lurks behind his impassive expression.

That said, the story’s powerful conclusion, where we finally see the true grandeur of the mountain itself is undeniably exhilarating, and the four actors fully deserve their enthusiastic applause.

We’re all familiar with that famous quote about climbing a mountain ‘because it’s there.’ This production seems to live by a similar ethos, fearlessly tackling a subject that few theatre-makers would dare to attempt and, for the most part, taking it to dizzy heights.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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

 

 

The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other

01/06/18

The Lyceum, Edinburgh

The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other by Peter Handke is a highly unusual production. Created and performed by a ‘Community Chorus of Edinburgh Residents,’ it features a cast of eighty-six non-professional actors and, watching it, I am filled with admiration for the way in which this complex piece has been so meticulously choreographed, the many costume changes serving to make me believe I am actually watching more than a hundred performers.

The play begins with the curtain rising to show a narrow band, wherein we become aware of feet passing restlessly to and fro – then the curtain opens upwards to show streams of people passing back and forth across a steeply raked stage, sometimes just a few at once, other times a veritable torrent of them, all racing to fulfil their imaginary deadlines. These are characters from – if you’ll forgive the pun – all walks of life. Office workers, business people, street cleaners and ramblers… waiters and prisoners, decorators and soldiers – indeed, the multiplicity of urban existence is written large and restlessly plays out as music and sound effects provide a stirring accompaniment.

Occasionally, something surreal moves across the stage – people struggle to push a gigantic stone sculpture on a wooden trolley, a mystic leads a magical floating contraption from one side to the other. There are elements of slapstick humour too: a hapless street cleaner attempts to brush a barrage of newspapers blowing in the wind; a paint-spattered decorator performs a strange wistful ballet with a ladder – and in one scene, an unmistakably Chaplinesque figure swings a familiar walking stick. There are more forbidding moments too. A highlight for me is the extended sequence, where groups of older actors shuffle inexorably into the wings – and the that ultimately waits for everyone…

There are virtually no words spoken in the entire production and much of what we’re shown here is open to personal interpretation. Why is one character trying to impersonate everyone he encounters? Is he intended to personify an actor at work? Why do characters from Greek mythology occasionally put in an appearance? I’m not really sure, but hey, I’m glad they’re there!  At the play’s conclusion, the huge cast troop out and take their much-deserved bows – and we’re allowed a glimpse of the racks and racks of costumes ranged along the back of the stage, which they have utilised to create their various personae.

I emerge from the Lyceum feeling that I have just viewed something complex , exciting and pretty unique. Directors Wils Wilson and Janice Parker deserve huge plaudits for this. It’s a truly monumental undertaking and, as I can’t help remarking afterwards, something the like of which I’ve never seen in the theatre before. Which surely must be one of the strongest reasons for seeing it.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Creditors

 

 

01/05/18

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Wow. I thought I knew what I was getting here. Strindberg. Bleurgh. I mean, yeah, I know he’s an important playwright, one of the fathers of naturalism, etc., etc., but I’ve always found it hard to actually enjoy his plays. Even Maxine Peake’s 2012 performance of Miss Julie at the Royal Exchange in Manchester didn’t warm me to the material, despite her masterly performance. And then there’s the misogyny – all the Women’s Inferiority to Man stuff; he’s a difficult man to like.

And yet here I am, in the Lyceum Theatre, watching Creditors and loving every minute. I’m laughing, I’m listening, I’m enthralled, engaged. Because this production – by David Greig and Stewart Laing – is a prime example of the director’s art: the realisation of a vision that illuminates and animates the playwright’s words, breathing new life into old ideas. I’m hooked.

It’s a simple story: artist Adolph (Edward Franklin) is lonely. His beloved wife, Tekla (Adura Onashile) is away on business, and he’s missing her dreadfully. His new friend, Gustav (a wonderfully oleaginous Stuart McQuarrie), is a welcome distraction, but Gustav has his own agenda, filling Adolph’s head with doubts about his wife. On her return, Tekla is dismayed to discover that Adolph no longer trusts her, that he feels emasculated by her success. When she finally encounters Gustav, his nasty plan is revealed, and they are all left reeling from the emotional fall-out.

The performances here are all strong: I’m fully invested in all three characters, and there is real emotional heft in their relationships. But it’s the design and technology that really make this production shine, from the forced perspective of the holiday chalets that dominate the stage, to the Bergman-esque black and white  film we see projected live onto a screen, allowing us voyeuristic access to what’s going on indoors. The public exposure of internal, private matters both highlights and validates the introspective nature of the material, and it’s thrilling, actually, to  peep in illicitly.

Then there’s the eerie presence of the girl guides (played by a rotating cast of Lyceum Creative Learning participants), whose robotic uniformity and practicality provides a stark counterpoint to the emotional chaos of the main characters. They’re marvellous in a way that’s hard to pin down: solid yet abstract, staunch and ethereal, all at the same time.

It’s faultless, really – all of it. I can’t recommend this highly enough. And if, like me, you think you’ve seen all you want to of August Strindberg, well, maybe it’s time to think again.

5 stars

Susan Singfield