Matthew Lenton

The Dark Carnival

06/03/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The Dark Carnival is all about death. If that sounds a bit off-putting, let me add that it somehow contrives to be a great big warm hug of a production (all about death). It’s brilliantly written by Matthew Lenton and gloriously performed by a fourteen-strong cast. Throw in the excellent Kurt Weill-ish songs of the charismatic Biff Smith, plus the music of urban folk band A New International and you have something that is as close to unique as it’s possible to be in a contemporary theatre. Oh, did I mention that the witty script is delivered entirely in verse? Well, it is – and that’s quite a feat all on its own.

The action mostly takes place below ground in Dickinson’s Brae cemetery, Glasgow, where many of the inhabitants enter and exit from their respective coffins, but there’s also a raised proscenium arch which gives occasional glimpses into what’s happening above the soil. It even offers tantalising glimpses of the doorway to heaven, though – due to austerity – that door is now kept well and truly locked, guarded by a fag-smoking, wine-imbibing angel (Natalie McCleary), intent on keeping out the riff-raff.  There’s a clever socialist edge to the narrative and I love the observation that the only deceased who have any hope of lingering in the memories of the living are those that have statues and shrines devoted to them.

We are greeted first by a narrator (Elicia Daly), who has some delightful interplay with members of the audience – Fraser, I’m sure she was exaggerating your exploits! – before introducing us to the other characters. There’s Mrs Eugenia Mark (Ann Louise Ross), a whisky-swilling Victorian lady; Major Montgomery Toast (Harry Ward), who has traded his military exploits for an electric guitar; and there’s the restless John (Malcolm Cumming), who still has unfinished business above ground. We are also introduced to tragic new member of the Necropolitans, Little Annie (Olivia Barrowclough, who uncannily inhabits the persona of a bewildered young child with total conviction).

There’s so much here to enjoy that I find myself increasingly dazzled by the scale and ambition of the piece, which has been drilled to perfection. The design, the lighting, the sound: it’s all spot on. The creators describe it as a ‘music and theatre spectacle’ and I’d say that pretty much hits the coffin nail on the skull. Suffice to say that my attention doesn’t wander for a moment and I leave the theatre humming the final song.

On the night we attend, The Traverse is pretty rammed but, if there are still tickets to be had, grab them now before the carnival moves on in the direction of Dundee.

Don’t miss this. It’s a spirited production in every sense of the word.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

 

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Charlie Sonata

02/05/17

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Some playwrights tell their stories in straightforward terms – others prefer to take a more mysterious route, leaving you with several unanswered questions – and Douglas Maxwell’s Charlie Sonata falls very definitely into the latter category. And it’s all the more intriguing for it – if more difficult to pin down in a review. The play, brilliantly directed by Matthew Lenton, is an enchanting, magical tale that flirts with seemingly unconnected ideas: the concept of time travel, a famous fairy story and the era of Britpop.

Chick (Sandy Grierson), a hard drinking but immensely affable drifter, returns from London to his Scottish hometown when he hears that the teenage daughter of his old pal, Gary (Kevin Lennon), is in a coma following an accident. Chick hopes to reconnect with Gary –  and with his other best friend, Jackson (Robert Jack), but events keep getting in his way and he continually finds his thoughts shunted unexpectedly back to earlier, happier days at Stirling University, when the three young lads had no responsibilities. Jackson is fond of expounding his “non-negotiable” theories about time-travel. Chick is about to discover how negotiable they really are.

Pretty soon, Chick is back in the present day, hanging around the hospital, where he encounters mysterious ‘bad fairy’ Meredith (Meg Fraser), who is struggling with her own issues. Can she and Chick work together to release Gary’s daughter, Audrey (Lauren Grace), from her ‘Sleeping Beauty’ coma?

Nothing here is ever quite what it seems and, as the narrative switches effortlessly backwards and forwards in time, the scenes are linked by a commentary by The Narrator (Robbie Gordon), which adds to the story’s mythical feel. Grierson plays Chick with just the right mixture of vulnerability and intoxication – I’ve rarely been so convinced by an onstage ‘drunk’ – while the inventive production design by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita and the ethereal lighting by Kai Fischer, keep creating moments of real wonder that help to reinforce that all-important sense of magic.

This is a challenging but ultimately rewarding piece of theatre, based around – in Douglas Maxwell’s own words – ‘a fairy tale wish for another chance to make everything right.’ The audience’s enthusiastic response seems to confirm that this production has achieved its aims.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney