Theatre

Around The World In 80 Days

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19/07/14

Around The World In 80 Days (Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester) is a brilliant adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic novel, expertly pitched to appeal to the widest possible audience. I can’t remember when I last laughed so hard (and so often) at a theatrical presentation. Of course, any production of this story is going to stand or fall on the quality of its Passepartout and here, he’s played by Michael Hugo, who clowns (and occasionally improvises) his way through a breathless series of set-pieces, whilst maintaining an assured partnership with Andrew Pollard’s stiff-upper-lipped Phileas Fogg.

Though undoubtedly the star here, Hugo is only the jewel in a supremely talented cast. Six other actors take on all the remaining roles, which averages out at around twenty characters apiece! Between them they take on accents, characters and at one point even submit some breathtaking gymnastics. The constantly changing locations are achieved with a minimum of fuss and the use of some everyday objects – in one scene a (surprisingly convincing) Indian elephant is expertly conjured with the use of a grey raincoat and some sound effects.

And it doesn’t stop there. At various points we share the experience of travelling by train, ocean liner and ice sledge and it really feels like we’re doing it! Throughout proceedings, Hugo maintains a fabulous rapport with the audience, at one point even involving younger members to help him to evoke the feel of a ship at sea. A scene where he channels his inner Jackie Chan to offer some kung-fu style choreography was a particular delight. At the play’s conclusion the applause was absolutely ecstatic and little wonder, as this is a production that seems intent on redefining the word ‘entertainment.’ If you see only one play this summer, I urge you not to miss this. It really is THAT good. Those of you with young children can confidently take them along in the certain knowledge that they won’t be bored for a moment.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

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Woyzeck

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17/08/14

Gilded Balloon Teviot, Edinburgh

Splendid Productions’ version of Woyzeck is a real triumph. I have a head full of superlatives, and don’t know where to start.

Well, unlike Splendid, I’ll start at the beginning. The actors are on stage, not in-role, and interacting with the audience. They greet us, make sure we’re comfortable, ask someone to hold a mirror while they finish their make-up. They explain what they are doing (“We’re setting it up so that we can make a tonal change in a minute”), and there is such wit and warm-heartedness in the approach that it’s impossible not to smile.

And then they go to the end. The murder scene. There’s a numbered caption board telling us that this is scene 23, and what happens in it, and there are three actors and there’s a stage full of props. Sound effects are produced on stage in front of us. Costume changes too. The caption cards change with every scene, and the chronology is all over the place. There’s music and singing, and audience participation. We are made to feel complicit in the killing and in Woyzeck’s destruction; why don’t we intervene and stop it? And it’s marvellous, all of it. Brechtian brilliance. Fourth wall ripped away. Lively, confrontational, exciting and joyous. The best thing I’ve seen at this year’s Fringe.

Thank you, Splendid. I’ll be coming to see this again when you go on tour.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Austen

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16/08/14

The Space on the Mile, Edinburgh

I’ll be honest; this one started at a disadvantage: I don’t really like musicals very much. It’s not a blanket prejudice (I think Matilda is delightful, Little Shop a lot of fun and Cabaret bloody brilliant) but it’s not my favourite theatrical genre. I’m also aware that a small Fringe production can’t be expected to have the same impact as those big-budget West End shows I’ve mentioned above, and yet… It could so easily have been much more than it was.

We saw a musical two-hander last year (I Need a Doctor), which was lively and charming and used its size to its advantage. Austen, with four actors, always felt too small.

The conceit has potential: two students researching Austen discover that the spinster author had a love life of her own. The action cuts between the students in the present day, and moments depicting Jane’s relationships in the past. Sadly, it doesn’t really work. The songs all sound the same as one another, with no shift in tone for the modern day. A single piano is used for each of the bland ballads, and the lyrics are oddly anachronistic (most of the dialogue is faux-Austen in style, but there’s a song which repeats the very modern refrain ‘You’re so special’ so often that it’s utterly nauseating, and makes you long for Radiohead to complete the idea). 

And the story itself is weak. It might surprise the two students to discover that Jane Austen had relationships, but it surely doesn’t surprise anyone who’s read her books or even looked her up on Wikipedia. She did live in the real world and enjoy some social interaction. And, in truth, her putative affairs weren’t really very interesting: a flirtation, a friendship and a rejected proposal. So what? Why do they care? What do they think it says to them?

There are spurious links made between the people Austen encountered and the characters in her books. We are not allowed to make these connections for ourselves, but have them pointed out to us in some clunky exposition: “Oh, he must be the inspiration for Wickham!” Mrs Austen is conflated with Mrs Bennett; it’s all just too pat and convenient.

It wasn’t all terrible; the actors did their best with the turgid script, and they could all sing rather well. The scene with the royal librarian was funny and engaging. But, all in all, this is one to miss.

0.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Lysistrata

09/08/14

C Venue 34, Edinburgh

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Christopher Adam’s loose adaptation of Aristphanes’ classic comedy – the tale of a prototype feminist who instigates a ‘sex strike’ in an attempt to gain more rights for women – brings the story bang up to date and sets it against Greece’s recent bailout by the IMF, an intriguing premise that really pays dividends (ha ha!). The four cast members work really hard to depict nine characters between them and largely pull it off, playing both genders with confidence, while Louisa Hollway is a striking, memorable Lysistrata, but if only they could have had the luxury of a couple more actors to take care of some of the minor roles! There were some problems on the night we viewed the play with the rather shonky set (a clothes drier that seemed to possess a life of its own and a rug on a polished floor that seemed like an accident waiting to happen) but these are minor niggles. Bringing contemporary issues like the economic crisis and trolling on social media into the action, breathe new life into the play and make it seem incredibly prescient. After a brief run of disappointments, this one redressed the balance.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts

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08/08/14

Northern Stage at King’s Hall, Edinburgh

According to their publicity material, “The Secret Theatre Company is a 20-strong ensemble of actors, writers, directors and designers created to challenge the way theatre is produced and presented in Britain.” They promise exciting, dangerous, risk-taking performances, and “never the same show twice.”

In reality, this translates into a group of young actors dressed in their PE kits, sitting at the edge of a stage, until an audience member chooses that night’s ‘protagonist.’ This, it seems, is the extent of the risk: the actors don’t know which of them will be called upon to perform the lead role. Oh, and there are lots of improvised bits, where one actor has a list of questions to read, and another has to respond spontaneously. So far, so drama workshop exercise.

There isn’t much of a narrative, and ‘protagonist’ seems an odd choice of word to describe the main actor, as there is nothing so traditional here as a character. There’s just a name (tonight’s was Cara), and a series of barely linked scenes. OK, so there’s some pretty full-on wrestling, some clothes swapping, a decent soundtrack and a bit of Romeo and Juliet quite nicely spoken. And, of course, there’s those “impossible tasks” – bending an iron bar, licking your elbow, eating a whole lemon. All made easier, it is revealed, with a little help from your friends. “What was tonight’s show about, Cara?” asked one of the actors. “Exhaustion,” replied Cara, “Exhaustion and friendship.” These words were added to the other – equally bland – statements scrawled on a whiteboard at the back of the stage, presumably the themes ascribed to previous shows.

In truth, this didn’t seem to add up to much. It didn’t feel risky, dangerous, innovative or vital – or any of the other epithets quoted on the publicity posters. It all just felt a little bit… so what?

1 star

Susan Singfield

The Fair Intellectual Club

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07/08/14

Studio 2, The Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh

The Fair Intellectual Club is comedian Lucy Porter’s first foray into play writing, and it’s certainly a promising start. It tells the true tale of three young women who, in 1717 – at the dawn of the Scottish Enlightenment, set up an illicit club with the aim of studying literature, science and philosophy, determined not to be kept in ignorance merely by virtue of their sex. This was a risky venture, with social censure and reputations at stake, and Porter cleverly conveys a sense of genuine peril and brave rebellion.

The director’s light touch means that we focus on the actors (Samara MacLaren, Caroline Deyga and Jessica Hardwick), who convey their respective characters with exuberance and wit. The three girls have a convincing rapport, with all the love, anger, misery and jealousy of a real friendship beautifully portrayed. There are moments of real heartbreak – and of untamed laughter; this play is definitely one to watch. It has a contemporary resonance that should not be ignored.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Lear’s Daughters

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01/08/14

C Nova Venue, Edinburgh

Lear’s Daughters (Footfall Theatre Company) offers an interesting premise. What would Shakespeare’s famous play look like presented from the point of view of his daughters, Regan, Goneril and Cordelia? Presented in the rather unprepossessing C Nova venue (complete with occasional distracting bleed-through from a raucous performance next door) the production delivered rather less than it promised. The performances were pretty good overall, with Goneril a stand-out, but the lack of a programme prevents me from identifying any of the four actors featured. Shakespeare’s dialogue (including lines by the play’s other characters) is assigned to the daughters, who constantly bicker about their father’s needs. Lear himself is represented by an empty wheelchair and the character of the Fool is now a nurse, who sings (seemingly unrelated) songs throughout the performance. This is either going to be A) a refreshing novelty or B) an irritation, and sadly I leaned towards the latter. When the Fool/Nurse continued to sing whilst being blinded, I started to feel disengaged from the proceedings. I think at the end of the day, if you’re going to mess with the bard of Stratford On Avon, you’d better have something pretty amazing up your sleeve and I’m not convinced that Lear’s Daughters actually did. But the performers acquitted themselves well under quite trying conditions, so I’ll be lenient.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney