The Traverse Theatre

Bravo Figaro

14/05/20

Go Faster Stripe and Traverse Theatre

Mark Thomas is always a delight to watch: standup, storyteller, activist – all of these terms can be applied to him and all seem to fit perfectly. We missed Bravo Figaro at last year’s festival, so this seems like a welcome addition to our lockdown entertainment options, streaming live on YouTube for just £5, with a percentage of ticket purchases going to the Traverse theatre.

Business is pretty much as usual here, as Thomas ambles onto a sparsely furnished stage and begins to unfold the story of his father, Colin, a hardworking family man, a builder by trade who, unusually for a working class chap, developed a fervent passion for opera. Thomas pulls no punches in his depiction of a man who was never slow in using his own fists when angered and who clearly ruled his wife and chidren with a rod of iron. But, when he was stricken by a rare form of degenerative illness, Colin became a shadow of the man he used to be – and his son had to look for ways in which he might remind his father of the things that used to motivate him.

This clever and moving story, draws a compelling narrative, interspersed with occasional recorded pieces featuring the voices of his parents in conversation.

It’s testament to Thomas’s considerable skill as a raconteur that he manages to flit effortlessly in and out of the various scenes, between genuinely funny observations and heartwrenching moments of realisation. Not everything here quite hits home as surely as it might, for example, a brief passage where he explains to the younger people in the audience what vinyl is seems like a misstep – they are the hipster generation, after all.

But that’s a minor quibble. This is a charming and perceptive piece, that provides an excellent way to fill an hour of lockdown. I look forward to seeing him again, preferrably in a packed theatre, with the laughter of others ringing around me.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff

27/02/20

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The Young ‘Uns are a curiously named trio of singers, three middle-aged guys in plain shirts and jeans, who amble amiably onto the stage and explain that they first acquired their name many years’ ago, when they really were the youngest members of a Teeside folk club. Then they start to sing in glorious three part harmony and it’s easy to see why Sean Cooney, David Eagle and Michael Hughes have already won three prestigious folk awards. The sound they make together is sublime.

But who is Johnny Longstaff, you may ask? He was a teenager from Stockton-on-Tees who, back in the 1930s, found himself unemployed and hungry. Along with thousands of others, he took part  in the infamous hunger marches to London,  protesting the plight of the Northern working classes. Later, he participated in the Mass Trespass movement and the battle of Cable Street, where he and his friends violently opposed the marches of Oswald Mosely’s Brown Shirts. And later still, he was one of the many who volunteered to fight Franco in the Spanish Civil War only to find, after Franco’s eventual victory, that their very existence had been erased from history. It’s a memorable story even without the music.

We hear testimony from the man himself via a series of recordings he made when he was in his sixties – and his recollections are punctuated by pieces from the trio ranging from stirring marching songs, to rambunctious drinking ditties and melancholic melodies. As they perform, a series of carefully chosen images appear on the screens behind them. A particular high point for me is the plaintive ballad that unfolds as an old photograph of Longstaff and his comrades gradually filters onto the screen. As the image finally comes onto focus, there’s the chilling realisation of how young the protagonists of this story actually were – and of the horrors they endured in the name of freedom.

This is more than just a folk concert. It’s a powerful slice of gig theatre, that deserves attention from a wider audience than just the folk purists – and judging by the packed crows at the Traverse, it appears to be reaching one. The Young ‘Uns are only around for a couple of days before they march triumphantly on to Hull and Liverpool. Grab some tickets if you can get them.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

I Can Go Anywhere

10/12/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Douglas Maxwell’s I Can Go Anywhere takes its title from The Who’s 1965 single, Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere, one of the earliest musical celebrations of Mod identity. This sharply written two-hander also explores identity, but approaches the subject from a refreshingly original angle.

Stevie Thomas (Paul McCole) is a disillusioned college lecturer, the author of a barely read book called Beat Surrender, a study of mod culture. He is currently going through the worst ordeal of his life. When his doorbell rings, he’s hoping that his partner might be having second thoughts about leaving him. But instead, he’s confronted by Jimmy (Nebli Basani), a mod – well, not just that, but a young man who Stevie asserts looks like he’s escaped from the 1981 room of the Paul Weller Museum. He has the works: the oversized fishtail parka, a fitted mohair suit, even a pork pie hat. “Even his socks are works of art.”

Asylum seeker Jimmy has tracked Stevie down via the jacket blurb on his book, and wants his help with something. In three days’ time he has a hearing at the Home Office to establish whether he will be allowed to stay in the UK. Jimmy wants Stevie to write him a letter of recommendation, one that asserts his ‘mod-ness,’ which Jimmy believes will be enough to assure him a rightful place in British society. Stevie is doubtful. But as the two men talk over the situation, it begins to emerge that Jimmy has very powerful reasons for not wanting to return to the country of his birth… and they go far beyond the world of youth culture.

I Can Go Anywhere is a compelling play, that crackles and fizzes with witty dialogue. The two actors offer telling performances. At first, I feel that Basani is rather overstating Jimmy, who initially appears to be a twitching, gurning mass of neuroses – but, as the story develops, I begin to appreciate exactly why he’s the way he is, and I warm to him. McCole is assured too, showing us a man on the verge of losing everything, unwillingly pushed into a corner by this insistent, assertive youth, who has burst into his fractured life with all the delicacy of a drum kit falling down a flight of stairs. As Stevie seeks refuge in several glasses of red wine, so his true nature begins to rise to the surface.

The other bonus here is the music; even the songs that play while we’re waiting for the show to start are a series of brilliant offerings: the Kinks, the Small Faces… Spot on, man! I also like the fact that the play doesn’t give you too much information. We never learn which country Jimmy comes from, or even his real name; though the horrors he has experienced in his youth are never spelled out, they are nonetheless tellingly glimpsed.

This is a little gem. Those who are already suffering from a surfeit of festive offerings might prefer to opt for this menu instead. It offers a tasty alternative.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Thick Skin, Elastic Heart

26/10/10

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Thick Skin, Elastic Heart is billed as ‘a hybrid poetry/drama production’ and I’ll admit, based on that description, my expectations are not particularly high. Let’s just say, I’ve been somewhat underwhelmed by such shows in the past. You know the kind of thing. Short pieces of poetry, thoughtful silences, and smatterings of polite applause…

And when I learn that the theme of the show is ‘millennials,’ I’m not exactly overjoyed. I seem to have heard people banging on about that subject a lot recently…

Which only goes to show how wrong you (I) can be.

Touring company Sonnet Youth make a point of showcasing some local talent at every performance so tonight we open with a selection from young poet, Catherine Wilson, who delivers a series of wry, amusing, observational pieces that range from the sweet and poignant, to the downright hilarious. Wilson is a confident, engaging performer and this gets eveything off to a strong start.

And it only gets better.

The pieces that follow, all written by Drew Taylor-Wilson, offer observations on the complexity of modern life: the awful paranoia of job interviews, the tribulations of sexual relationships, a deeply affecting piece about miscarriage… this runs the gamut of the emotions, each successive piece contrasting with the last, so there’s never a sense of repetition – unless it’s deliberate. The show is performed with considerable alomb by Charlotte Driesler, Robert Elkin, Danielle Jam and Cameron Fulton. And it’s not just a series of poems delivered one after the other. Lucy Wild’s choreography has the four performers moving effortlessly around the stage, sometimes delivering monologues, often speaking in unison, augmenting each section with simple costume changes and skilful interaction. To say that I’m spellbound would perhaps be an understatement.

I’ve rarely seen this kind of thing done so well and it exerts a powerful grip on my attention from start to finish. The applause at the end is anything but polite.

After just two nights at The Traverse, the show is moving on for a series of one-off engagements across Scotland. If this should happen to land anywhere near you, do yourself an immense favour and grab a ticket.

I’m confident you’ll be as pleasantly surprised as I was.

4. 4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Monstrous Heart

23/10/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Oliver Emanuel’s The Monstrous Heart takes place in a remote log cabin in the wilds of Canada, where Beth (Charlene Boyd), recently released from a long prison stretch in England, reconnects with her mother, Mag (Christine Entwhistle). It’s clear from the outset that this is not going to be a warm family reunion. The two women have unfinished business, business that relates to the little girl in the next room – and the threat of physical violence hangs heavy in the air.

There’s another protagonist in this story in the (very realistic) form of a dead grizzly bear, stretched out on the kitchen table, where it’s in the process of being stuffed by Mag, who, after an alcoholic past, has somehow rebuilt her life and now works as a respected taxidermist. The bear is a great big metaphor and its massive frame dominates the set, in some cases (perhaps deliberately?) blocking the sight-lines for some of the story’s action. Director Gareth Nicholls does his best to orchestrate the ensuing antics and, to give the actors their due, they subit powerful performances here. Boyd offers a devilish, gleefully nihilistic Beth, while Entwhistle’s Mag is a parcel of twitching uncertainty, never more compelling than when she tells her daughter exactly what she thinks of her.

But the script isn’t as assured as it needs to be and simply leaves too many unanswered questions, rendering the characters somewhat unbelievable. Around the midway point, there’s a scene that is surely intended to transform everything we’ve seen so far, as the bear does a bit more than just lie around – but sadly, it doesn’t quite come off.

Also, this is an extended riff on the plot of Frankenstein; there’s no mistaking it, as it’s  heavy-handedly referenced at one point, just to be sure we’ve got the message. Of course, it’s not this production’s fault that the last play we saw was Rona Munro’s sprightly adapation of that classic tale, but it certainly doesn’t help matters that this incarnation feels somewhat lumbering by comparison.

The Monstrous Heart is all about nature versus nurture, how creators can become as twisted and unpredictable as their creations. It certainly isn’t dull and it keeps me hooked right up to its violent conclusion.

But I am left wanting a little more substance, a little more depth.

Nice bear, though.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

TWA

24/05/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

TWA is a quietly compelling piece of work, a collaboration between the loquacious writer, Annie George, and the silent artist, Flore Gardner. While Gardner mutely adds red line-drawings to the edges of a vast white canvas, George weaves together two disparate tales: Philomela’s mythology of violence and retribution, and a contemporary story of love and loss. Cruelty, we see, has many forms, but so do revenge and power – and there’s more than one way to find your voice.

George is a persuasive storyteller, combining diffidence with a calm authority. She engages without seeming to do very much, just telling her tales, drawing us in. The presence of Gardner, back turned, illuminated by the doodle-style animations constructed and deconstructed as the stories unfold, is at times unsettling, at others reassuring. She’s a comfort to George, brings her wine and clears up after her, but she’s also forceful, confronting us with the graphic imagery of her drawings. We cannot turn away.

The starkness of the red and white colour palette works well here: it’s a simple idea, but so unremitting in its application that it cannot be ignored. Indeed, the whole piece is built on simplicity, duality and juxtaposition – and therein lies its strength.

TWA is undoubtedly unusual: an ambitious, intelligent production that exerts a strange hold over its audience.

Susan Singfield

4 stars

 

Keep on Walking Federico

09/05/19

Keep on Walking Federico is a monologue, written and performed by Mark Lockyer and apparently based around an experience from his own family history. There’s a simple set: a chair, a table, and a floor covered in sand, from which Lockyer periodically unearths items that relate to the story he unfolds. This is all about incidents buried in the past, so that makes perfect sense.

After a family tragedy, Mark arrives in a sleepy little Spanish village, where he has gone to attempt to find a resolution to his sorrows. Lockyer is an accomplished raconteur and he skilfully embodies the various people he encounters during his stay, flitting effortlessly from one to the other: the worldly-wise proprietor of the local bar; the mysterious handsome GP who appears to have criminal connections; a tragic flamenco-dancing female neighbour and a portly Dutchman with a liking for baklava and Miss World pageants. Lockyer also offers us conversations with his mother, who, we slowly begin to realise, is the source of much of Mark’s distress.

Though the performance is strong, the material is perhaps a little too introspective, a little too precious. Though this offers a pleasant enough diversion for an hour or so, it’s conclusion doesn’t really carry sufficient resonance to make it truly memorable.

As for the title, you’ll have to wait until the very end for an explanation.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney