Rona Munro

Five From Inside

21/04/20

Traverse Theatre YouTube

We were looking forward to Donny’s Brain at the Traverse, but then along came a global pandemic to scupper our plans. Enter writer Rona Munro, director Caitlin Skinner and the rest of the cast and crew with a plan to fill the gap: a series of five short monologues, free to view on the theatre’s YouTube channel.

Thematically, we’re in all too familiar territory: one way or another, the characters are all trapped, either physically incarcerated or marooned within their own introspection. It’s a ghastly reminder of the zeitgeist.

First up, there’s Jacob (Bhav Joshi), who’s literally locked up: he’s in prison, desperately seeking help from his brother. The off-kilter camera angles create a sense of panic and disorientation; his fear is palpable. Next comes twitchy Fern (Lauren Grace), who’s also being kept against her will, apparently in some kind of clinic. She’s struggling to ‘colour her mood’ correctly with her crayons. ‘I’m normal,’ she keeps insisting, frantically trying to banish her demons.

Mr Bubbles (Michael Dylan) is a children’s entertainer whose career is on the line after an embarrassing live TV bust-up with his partner; he’s trapped in his character, wiping at his make-up, trying to reveal the self below. And Siobhan (Roanna Davidson) is locked in a cycle of resentment against an employer who ostracises her, and refuses to recognise her contribution to the firm’s success.

My favourite of the five is the last one, Clemmy, performed by Suzanne Magowan (last seen by Bouquets & Brickbats in the thought-provoking Fibres), which takes the form of a filmed confession from a mother to her young daughter. She’s caught in a web of her own lies, and her anguish is heartbreaking. The back story is tantalising; this clearly has the potential to be developed into a longer piece.

But there’s no weak link here, and an astonishing tonal mix, considering the self-limiting nature of the project. Although each one is a stand-alone, they work best when viewed together, a series of lives connected by a sense of isolation.

Available until 9pm on 2nd May, these vignettes are well worth fifty minutes of your time.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Theatre Bouquets 2019

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

It’s time again to reflect on the year that has passed, and to reconsider all the wonderful (and not so wonderful) theatre we have seen. What lingers in the memory, cuts through this crowded arena even after many months? Which ideas still keep us up at night; what audacious direction still makes us smile? Here – in chronological order – are our picks of 2019.

Ulster American – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – David Ireland; director – Gareth Nicholls

The Dark Carnival – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (writer/director – Matthew Lenton)

What Girls Are Made Of – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – Cora Bissett; director Orla O’Loughlin)

Electrolyte – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – James Meteyard; director Donnacadh O’Briain)

The Duchess (of Malfi) – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh (writer/director – Zinnie Harris)

Endless Second – Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Theo Toksvig-Stewart/Madeleine Gray/Camilla Gurtler/ Cut the Cord)

Who Cares? – Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Jessica Temple/Lizzie Mounter/Luke Grant/ Matt Woodhead/ LUNG & The Lowry)

Shine – Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Olivier Leclair/Tiia-Mari Mäkinen/Hippana Theatre & From Start to Finnish)

Solaris – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – David Greig; director – Matthew Lutton)

Clybourne Park –  Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – Bruce Norris; director – Michael Emans)

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – Rona Munro; director – Patricia Benecke)

Goldilocks and the Three Bears – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh (writers – Allan Stewart & Alan McHugh; director – Ed Curtis

Susan Singfield & Philip Caveney

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

 

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

18/06/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Louis de Bernière’s novel was a huge hit when it was first published back in 1995, but – despite being something of a bookworm – I didn’t read it. The blurb just didn’t appeal; I’ve never been one for sentimentality. I didn’t see the film either, which – by all accounts – was even more schmaltzy. But, twenty-five years on, I’m feeling a bit more mellow and forgiving, and looking forward to finding out what the fuss was all about.

And I love this theatrical production, adapted by Rona Munro and directed by Melly Still. That is to say, I love the way it’s done: the kooky choreography and Mayou Trikerioti’s ingenious design. I’m not keen on the story – a predictably mawkish affair, covering every war-romance cliché out there – but the telling is rather wonderful.

We’re in Cephalonia, represented here by a huge rumpled metal backdrop, hanging skew-iff above the Iannis’s dainty herb garden, its sharp edges poised to destroy what they have grown. It dominates the stage, with light and video projections capturing the impact of war and natural disasters on the islanders’ lives.

Madison Clare is Pelagia Iannis, a young Greek woman whose first beau, Mandras (Ashley Gayle) leaves the island to join the war. When Cephalonia is occupied by the Italian army, Captain Antonio Corelli (Alex Mugnaioni) moves in to her home, and – despite their initial hostility – the pair soon fall in love.

There’s more to it, of course – this is a saga that spans fifty years – but theirs is the central story, the focus of the tale. Which is a shame, in a way, because some of the subplots seem more interesting: the gay soldiers, for example, or young Lemoni (Kezrena James)’s money-making schemes. Still, both Clare and Mugnaioni give compelling performances, and their affair is tender and believable.

What makes this, though, is the sheer theatricality, the way it revels in its form. The transparent white sheets, for example, that capture the horrific images of soldiers frozen in ice; the lazer-beam-like strings conducting the actors through the caves; the brutality of the firing squad in all its strobe-lit choreographed glory.

I like the animals too: Luisa Guerreiro’s goat, with its plaintive bleating and simple crutch-aided walk; Elizabeth Mary Williams’ lithe and playful pine martin, Psipsina, with its trusting nature and comic responsiveness. These add a light touch to a sad tale, providing warmth and humour, and representing innocence.

The lighting (by Malcolm Rippeth) is inspired: all coppers and golds, evoking the gorgeousness of the Ionian sea and the might of a volcano, the reflections from the metal backdrop rippling across the auditorium.

This is an accomplished production, that soars above its source material.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

 

The Last Witch

 

10/11/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s 1727, and Janet Horne (Deirdre Davis) is eking out a living in the Scottish Highlands with her teenage daughter, Helen (Fiona Wood). Times are tough: they have no peat for their fire and very little food. But Janet knows what to do: a few incantations, some good luck charms and a venomous tongue are all she needs. If the neighbours think she’s a witch, then they will try to keep her sweet…

And, by and large, it seems to work. The people of Dornoch might fear Janet, but they like her too, for her healing hands and her lively spirit. Even the local clergyman (Graham Mackey-Bruce) seems content to turn a blind eye her way. But, when Douglas Begg (Alan Steele)’s cattle succumb to sickness, he blames Janet and, in his anger, reports her to the sheriff, David Ross (David Rankine). And the wheels are set in motion for what turns out to be Britain’s last ever legal execution for witchcraft.

This revival of Rona Munro’s 2009 play has been designed by Ken Harrison, with two huge discs dominating the acting space. The first forms a stage, raked at a steep angle, cracked like dry earth; the second is suspended above, a moon, sometimes reflecting the ground below, sometimes projecting other images. It’s stark and atmospheric, ingenious in its simplicity – and the brutal beauty of the final scene is really something to behold, especially the light on Elspeth Begg (Helen Logan)’s face as she shouts her cryptic message of support.

Deirdre Davis is superb in the lead role, a beguiling, unapologetic rebel, forging her own path. Janet Horne is a strong woman: sensual, clever, brave and charismatic – and Davis’s performance brings her forcibly to life. She might cling a little too closely to her daughter, afraid to let her go, but she loves her fiercely nonetheless; she only wants to keep her safe. Because the world – as Janet knows – is cruel, and Helen’s claw-like hands and feet will be seen by some as the devil’s mark. Their spiky relationship is delightfully depicted, Fiona Wood subtly teasing out Helen’s frustration and naivety. Little wonder she’s such easy prey for the enigmatic Nick (Alan Mirren).

Richard Baron’s direction is faultless: this is a fluid, unsettling piece, carefully choreographed and visually arresting. But the real magic lies in the writing, Munro’s lyrical script an absolute delight.

It’s a shame that this is such a short tour. There’s only one more chance to see this production; if you’re free, head to the Traverse tonight. Otherwise, you really have missed out.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Rebus: Long Shadows

09/10/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Edinburgh’s most famous detective is making his theatrical debut, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how the iconic character fares in his home town. But we spend all day unsure if the play is going ahead after lead actor Charles Lawson was taken ill on-stage last night – the sort of dramatic twist nobody wants to experience. We wish him a speedy recovery. In the meantime, we’re relieved to hear that understudy Neil McKinven has stepped into the role, and that the show will go on.

Long Shadows is a new, original Rebus story, co-written specifically as a piece of theatre by Ian Rankin and Rona Munro. It’s a sensible decision: instead of shoe-horning a complex novel into a two-hour slot, this tale is suited to its form, and pared down, free of the literary clutter that scuppers so many adaptations. It fits into the novels’ time line though: this is retired Rebus, unable to let the job go, still haunted by the ghosts of all the crimes he didn’t solve.

In this incarnation, though, the ghosts are made flesh, with murdered teenagers Maggie (Eleanor House) and Angela (Dani Heron) given a formidably physical presence, a sort of chorus of the dead. I like this device: it gives the girls a voice, makes them real characters instead of mere victims, showing us their combined strength instead of focusing on their frailty. There’s also wit in using these ghosts as stage hands, making the scene transitions seamless, and emphasising the idea that the girls help shape the narrative.

We’re in cold case territory. DI Siobhan Clarke (Cathy Tyson), Rebus’s longterm sidekick, finally has the chance to see known killer, Mordaunt (played tonight by Andy Paterson), pay for his crimes. Technology has improved, and there’s DNA evidence tying him to Angela’s murder, twenty-five years ago. He’s got away with it so far, and Siobhan is determined not to let any loose ends threaten this opportunity to take him off the streets. She visits Rebus to see what he remembers, to see if he has any idea what the defence might have hidden up its sleeve.

Inevitably, all roads lead to Cafferty, Rebus’s Moriarty, played here with great aplomb by John Stahl. He’s exactly as I imagine him from the books, all machismo and panache, charm and thuggery. And Maggie’s death, seventeen years ago, is woven expertly into the mix, brought to mind by the arrival on Rebus’s stair of her teenage daughter, Heather. It’s a clever plot, with twists and turns that keep me guessing. I can’t deny it’s all quite expositional, a lot of telling-not-showing of the past; we’re watching people sit and talk about events rather than seeing them unfold before our eyes. But it’s enlivened by the presence of those ghosts, the gobby teenagers who won’t be shut up, and by strong performances all round.

McKinven does a sterling job. In the first act, he’s faultless: the role belongs to him. He does have a script in the second act, but he doesn’t refer to it often. It makes sense: the first act is much more of an ensemble piece, and McKinven, in his usual multiple roles, clearly knows this section well. But the latter half is essentially a three-hander between Rebus, Cafferty and Clarke; presumably McKinven has habitually spent this time in his dressing room, relaxing, before appearing briefly in the concluding scene. No matter, the script stuffed into his pocket doesn’t look out of place – Rebus is always carrying case files around. And he only seems to need it to place what’s coming next: he’s acting the dialogue, not reading it. And maybe, by tomorrow, he won’t need it at all. Either Lawson will be back, or McKinven will have learned the lines.

The set, designed by Ti Green, is perhaps my favourite thing about this whole production. I love the simplicity of it, the economy. There are no unnecessary props or pieces of scenery; it’s as uncluttered as the script. But it’s wonderfully evocative: Edinburgh’s tall grey walls and winding paths, tunnels and closes, stairs and bridges, all there at once, their purpose and atmosphere changing with the light. It’s almost breathtaking when the streets of the Old Town are turned instantaneously into a glass penthouse on the Quartermile by the stupidly simple method of lighting the side panels from behind. It’s a revelation as remarkable as those related to the crime.

So, a welcome addition to the Rebus pantheon, and certainly a must-see for fans of the irascible ex-detective.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Scuttlers

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10/02/15

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

A brand new play that explores the origins of Manchester’s original street gangs, Scuttlers by Rona Munro, is set in the year 1885, but incorporates echoes of the city’s more recent riots. It’s a big, urgent production, stunningly choreographed by Eddie Kay of Frantic Assembly and featuring a cast of over 40 young actors, who race restlessly back and forth across the Exchange’s circular set, propelled along by Denis Jones’ pulsing, electronic score, which incorporates the clanks and rattles of  machinery.

In the heat of summer, two street gangs are edging closer and closer to violent confrontation. The Bengal Street Tigers, led by Sean (Bryan Parry) are preparing to take on their sworn enemies, the Prussia Street gang. Former Tiger, Joe (Tachia Newall) is now a respectable soldier and the father of a baby with local nurse Susan (Anna Krippa), but he has changed his allegiance and now supports Prussia Street. Meanwhile, ‘Tiger cubs’ Margaret, Polly and new girl Theresa, are every bit as committed to their gang as any of their male counterparts. Then along comes Thomas (David Judge) a seemingly mild-mannered lad, but one who is determined to emulate his dead father and be the ‘King’ of Bengal Street. When the cotton mill that employs virtually everyone in Ancoats closes for a three day break, it’s clear that a final showdown is long overdue…

Scuttlers has much to recommend it, though the story itself has an overly familiar feel and the tragic conclusion isn’t really the shocking surprise it ought to have been. It also doesn’t help that some of the dialogue is occasionally swamped by the score, but that’s doubtless something that will improve as the production settles into its stride. Production wise, there are some real delights here. I loved the central ‘loom’ design that could be adapted to provide suggestions of other locations and the unexpected appearance of a rain storm with real water, definitely had the ‘wow’ factor. I also loved the play’s conclusion as a stream of restless walking characters segued into the present, period clothing giving way to hoodies, trainers and mobile phones.

This is strident exciting theatre, well-suited to a younger audience, which I hope it manages to connect with. I only wish the storyline was as innovative as the wonderful choreography and theatrical effects.

3.7 stars

Philip Caveney