The King’s Theatre

A Monster Calls

05/06/20

Old Vic/YouTube

Looking back through my diary of another life, in another time, I note that I was due to see the touring production of this play at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, in early April 2020. It now seems unlikely that this was ever a possibility. Sitting in a crowded auditorium, enjoying a live performance? Is that really how we used to carry on?

Some productions have added resonance because of personal experience. Back in 2006 when I’d just embarked on my career as a children’s author, I was fortunate enough to meet Siobhan Dowd, when our respective debut novels were nominated for the same award. She was utterly charming and I had no inkling then that she was only a year away from her untimely death from breast cancer. A Monster Calls was an outline for a future novel that she didn’t live long enough to deliver to her publishers. It was subsequently completed by Patrick Ness and became a huge success in 2012.

I also loved the film version, directed by J A Bayona in 2017, which (another coincidence) featured one of Susan’s drama school pupils in the lead role (although she didn’t actually teach him). Even without these connections, this would still be a powerful and affecting story. I remember leaving the cinema, red-eyed from weeping.

This production, filmed onstage at the Old Vic in 2018, is now available for a limited run on YouTube. Though perhaps not as slickly filmed as many of the recent  ‘live’ theatre performances, there’s no doubting the emotional heft of the story. The central premise, clearly inspired by Siobhan’s own circumstances, is utterly heartbreaking.

Thirteen-year-old Conor McGregor (Matthew Tennyson) is in meltdown. His beloved Mother (Marianne Oldham) is gradually succumbing to cancer and he doesn’t know how to handle it. Estranged from his father (Felix Hayes), who now lives in America with his new family, Conor has nobody to confide in. He is being perpetually bullied at school and is resisting all attempts by his well-meaning grandmother (Selina Cadell) to make him accept that his life is about to undergo a massive change.

When his mother points out an ancient yew tree near to the family home, Conor begins to experience a series of bizarre visitations from The Monster (Stuart Goodwin) who lives within the tree. He relates a series of bizarre fairy stories and encourages Conor to face up to an awful truth…

There’s so much to relish here: the exquisite staging which ranges from stripped-back simplicity to explosions of almost pyschedellic colour; the ingenious use of ropes to evoke a whole series of images and settings; and there’s a sumptuous electronic soundtrack played live by Will and Benji Bower that adds a lush, dreamlike quality to the proceedings. The thirteen-strong cast all offer exemplary performances, though of course it’s Tennyson, in the lead role, who carries the heaviest load.

Is it as good as witnessing the play live? No. Am I glad it exists? Damn right!

Those who haven’t experienced A Monster Calls should catch this while it’s still available (you have until 12th June). And those who already love it could do a lot worse than indulging in another helping, just to relish those bitter-sweet flavours.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Oor Wullie: The Musical

28/01/20

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Jings and crivvens!

Wullie and I are old acquaintances. He appeared every week in the comics I read as a child back in the 1960s, but he first saw the light of day in 1936 and has endured over the decades, recently clocking up his eightieth anniversary. Last year, his image made millions for charity with the Big Bucket Trail, which featured individually decorated statues of the iconic kid from Auchenshoogle in various locations around Scotland.

This musical, by the same team who brought The Broons to the stage, features  a sprightly and raucous collection of songs in a wide range of styles. The simplicity of the storyline would seem to make it a good fit for a younger audience. Indeed, the kids in the auditorium tonight are clearly enjoying the proceedings (especially when Wullie’s pet mouse, Jeemy, makes an appearance), but the majority of the audience are older people, here to reconnect with something fondly remembered from their childhoods.

Wahid (Eklovey Kashyap) is a teenage boy, born in Scotland to Pakistani parents. He’s having a hard time fitting in, forever being asked if he ‘likes his new home.’ Well-meaning neighbours ask him where he’s really from, while the school bullies enjoy making fun of him at every opportunity. Wahid is Scottish, but somehow, ‘not-Scottish,’ and he’s beginning to struggle with his own identity.

In the school library, he meets up with the mysterious librarian (George Brennan), who gives him an Oor Wullie annual to read, telling him it’s the perfect introduction to ‘being Scottish.’ Wahid is somewhat taken aback when Wullie (Martin Quinn) appears in his bedroom, claiming to be in search of his famous bucket, which has unexpectedly gone missing. Wahid remembers that he saw just such a bucket in the school library, so the two of them set off in search of it.

It isn’t long before Wullie is joined by his gang – Bob (Dan Buckley), Wee Eck (Grant McIntyre), Soapy Soutar (Bailey Newsome) and Primrose (Leah Byrne). They are not surprised to discover that the bucket has been purloined by arch enemy, Basher McKenzie (Leanne Traynor), and the kids enlist their old adversary PC Murdoch (Ann Louise Ross) to help them retrieve it. In the second half, the comic book characters take Wahid into the fictional world of Auchenshoogle, where their clothes transform from black and white into full colour.

Valiant attempts are made to make Wullie more relevant to a modern day audience. There’s a song that features him performing a duet with Alexa, for instance and there’s a nice bit of inclusivity where the cast put on saris and leap about to a bhangra-style tune. PC Murdoch gets an opportunity to strut his stuff to a rock song and there’s some funny interplay between him and an amorous teacher (Irene MacDougall).

If there’s an over-riding problem, however, it’s that the drama fails to generate any genuine sense of peril. Wullie wants his bucket back, but we’re never entirely sure why its so important to him, nor indeed what will happen if he doesn’t get it. The result is never less than knockabout fun, but here’s a musical that doesn’t seem entirely sure about what kind of audience it’s trying to appeal to.

To my mind, it’s surely one for the kids, assuming you can get them away from their phones and tablets for a couple of hours. Wullie has been an enduring character over the decades and there’s no reason why a new generation of youngsters shouldn’t fall for his charms, given half a chance.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Goldilocks & the Three Bears

04/12/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s that time again. (Oh no it isn’t!) Well, yes it is actually and, as ever, when you’re talking about pantomime, the King’s Theatre does it better than just about anybody else in the business. This year feels particularly important, as it sees the return to the fold of  panto stalwart Andy Gray, prevented from appearing at last year’s show by serious illness. The extended applause he receives when he walks onstage at the King’s for Goldilocks & the Three Bears is heartwarming, to say the very least.

It feels as though the whole enterprise has had a bit of a reinvention this year. For starters there’s no mention of Christmas, and not a glimpse of the white-bearded man in the red suit. Instead, the theme here is the circus – the greatest show on earth – which gives the producers the perfect opportunity to throw a couple of high class circus acts into the mix. There’s a superb juggler, Alfio, who does things with hats you won’t quite believe, and The Berserk Riders, a motorcycle stunt troupe, who whirl dangerously around inside a metal globe. At one point, they literally have me holding my breath and crossing my fingers.

The plot: Dame May McReekie (Allan Stewart) and her husband, Andy (the aforementioned Mr Gray), run a circus where all the animals are allowed to run free. Meanwhile, their daughter, Goldilocks (Gillian Parkhouse), sings up a storm, and is all too aware that Joey the Clown (Jordan Young) is carrying a torch for her.

But not all circuses are quite so charming. Baron Von Vinklebottom (Grant Stott, channeling Boy George) runs a rival enterprise, where he keeps his animals in cages and enjoys brutalising them at every opportunity. Boooo! When he claps eyes on the three talking bears who are to be the McReekie’s new headliners, he obviously wants them for his own show. Much hilarity ensues – and I really mean that. There are times here where I’m laughing so hard I have tears in my eyes and it’s mostly the result of the skilful interplay between the three lead players. Stewart in particular is a consumate comedy powerhouse.

As ever, the razzamatazz is cranked up to number eleven – and the lush production values on display challenge anything you’ll find in London’s West End. It’s also heartening to witness how subversive this uniquely British art form can be. Where else will you find silly humour aimed squarely at the youngsters, punctuated by risqué remarks about Prince Andrew and other topical subjects, directed at their parents? Whatever happens to hit the zeitgeist is picked up and added to the brew.

And of course, this being set in the world of the circus, there are animals galore – elephants, giraffes, monkeys and (naturally) bears, all lovingly rendered amidst a joyful  onslaught of sound, colour and general exuberance.

If a top quality pantomime is what you’re looking for, your search is over.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

A Tale of Two Cities

08/11/16

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

There’s something reassuringly old-fashioned about this stylish adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic story of friendship and sacrifice. There are no gimmicks, no updates, no references to current political circumstances. Instead, Mike Poulton’s skilful adaptation plays things absolutely straight. That’s not to say that it’s dull. The story is brilliantly and effectively staged, the narrative slipping effortlessly back and forth between London and Paris, without ever prompting us to ask, ‘where are we now?’

In the story’s opening scene, Charles Darney (Jacob Ifan) finds himself in court, accused of treason against the British Crown. Barrister Sidney Carton (Joseph Timms) brilliantly defends Darnay, using the fact that quite by chance, the two men resemble each other. Though Darnay doesn’t much like the dissolute Carton, he acknowledges that he owes the man a great debt and agrees to a kind of friendship, one that is complicated by the fact that Carton has fallen in love with Lucie Manette (Shanaya Rafaat), Darnay’s fiancé.

Meanwhile, over in Paris, the French Revolution is gathering momentum – and the fact that Darnay is a French émigré and the rightful heir to the estate of the hated Maquis St Evérmonde (a wonderfully spiteful Christopher Hunter) means that Darnay soon finds himself back in court  – and this time, he’s a potential candidate for an encounter with the guillotine.

This story has endured for a very good reason – it’s a powerful tale of mankind’s ability to do wonderful things in terrible circumstances – and this is a fine example of how a great novel can also make a great stage play. Director James Dacre handles it all with aplomb and special mention should be made to the Royal and Derngate workshops, who created the scenery, set, props, costumes, wigs and makeup for the show. At times it feels uncannily like we are looking at a series of classic paintings from the period.

Fans of Dickens – and there are many of them – should get themselves along to the King’s Theatre, where A Tale of Two Cities is showing until Saturday 12th November.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney