Traverse Theatre

Alice in Wonderland

06/06/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Alice in Wonderland is something of a phenomenon, famous more for its cast of extraordinary characters than for its storyline. Anyone who grew up reading English novels (or watching the films based on them) knows the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee. Lewis Carroll’s 1865 creations are an illustrator’s dream; indeed, John Tenniel’s drawings are at least as powerful as the author’s words, and surely party responsible for propelling Alice to stardom. Responsible too, perhaps, for sidelining the protagonist, who slides into insignificance in many adaptations of the work.

And there are many adaptations of the work. I’m almost weary at the thought of seeing another one. I know the story well: I read both books as a child, and have seen countless stage and cinematic versions. I’ve even directed a school production – the Disney Junior one – so I’m well-versed in its lore.

Esteemed Irish theatre company, Blue Raincoat, are well-versed too: this is a revival of their own 1999 production, adapted by Jocelyn Clark. I didn’t see their original, so I can’t compare the two, but I can say that this interpretation is the closest I’ve seen to the novel, with young Alice (Miriam Needham) placed firmly centre-stage, her internal monologue brought to life by her older self (Hilary Bowen-Walsh)’s narration.

This is a shabby, degraded Wonderland, seen through the adult eyes of a jaded Alice. But the bold, frenetic, questing nature of the child is captured perfectly, as is the perplexity of growing up, where one minute she is like a little girl, the next too big for the confines of her world. The people and creatures this Alice meets are (rightly, I think) peripheral: she’s the hero of her own tale; they exist only insofar as they relate to her. Her intelligence and curiosity shine brightly in this production; she demands answers to everything, but is offered nothing satisfactory. Only when she takes charge and asserts herself is she able to wake up from the dream.

With such emphasis on Alice, it’s safe to say that this is an intense piece of theatre, with both Needham and Bowen-Walsh surely pushing themselves to exhaustion. But the supporting cast are strong as well; the portrayal of the Duchess (Sandra O’Malley) is particularly interesting, especially as her baby morphs into a pig.

The set design (by Paul McDonnell) is ingenious: adult Alice’s basement transformed into Wonderland, all broken picture frames and stepladders and old bits of wood, and (of course) a series of different-sized tables used to great effect.

Under  Niall Henry’s frantic, physically-focused direction, this show is something of a tour de force.  Not a new take, exactly, but certainly a refreshing one.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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Drone

04/06/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

A tiny drone whirs into life and rises smoothly from the studio floor to survey the audience. An instant later, we see ourselves projected onto a big screen at the back of the room, our bemused faces staring straight back at our ourselves. Electronic music throbs and jitters, steadily rising in volume. And then Harry Josephine Giles walks onto the stage and begins to speak…

Drone describes itself as ‘a jam of sound, visuals and poetry,’ but the ensuing show is a lot more controlled than that suggests. Giles’ words tell the unfolding story of ‘a drone,’ part weapons system, part office worker. It explores the central theme both in realistic and abstract terms, while Neil Simpson’s music provides a pulsing sonic backdrop, and the visual designs of Jamie Wardrop are projected onto a screen behind the performers, a mixture of psychedelic landscapes, obscure images and found film extracts.

My first impression is that I’m not going to enjoy this very much – it seems a little too arch, a little too pleased with itself – and yet, inexorably, it pulls me into its orbit and I’m soon entranced by what I’m seeing and hearing. Giles’ assured, controlled performance is compelling, unleashing a torrent of visual metaphors that build to a maelstrom. This, the narrative seems to say, is symptomatic of the age in which we are live, a bleak, compassionless society, hurtling headlong to oblivion.

Sharp, provocative and challenging, Drone certainly won’t be for everyone, but those who seek something truly original and idiosyncratic should find plenty here to enthrall them. When, at the end of the performance, the drone goes haywire and careers into the audience, it’s hard to know if it’s intentional or not – and that, in a strange way, pretty much sums up what this piece is all about.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Shine

16/05/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Actor/rapper Kema Sikazwe is perhaps best known for his role as China in Ken Loach’s, I, Daniel Blake. But the young artiste is busy forging a name for himself in his own right too, first with his music, and now with this autobiographical piece of gig theatre.

Sikazwe is an engaging performer with an appealing vulnerability. This apparent openness lends the work a stark authenticity, and it’s impossible not to feel for the troubled youth in this tale.

Through music and spoken word, Sikazwe takes us through his childhood: his emigration, aged three, from Zambia to the UK; his struggles to adapt to the Geordie accent in Newcastle Upon Tyne; his sense of being an outsider, of never fitting in; the emotional cost of being isolated at home and at school; the discovery of music as a cathartic outlet.

It’s a compelling story, and the music especially is arresting, performed with easy confidence, Sikazwe singing live over a lushly recorded and multilayered backing. It’s not a perfect piece: the script needs tightening up in places – too much repetition, banal phraseology – and, perhaps a rather predictable linear route through the narrative, as Sikazwe struggles to overcome his demons before ultimately finding redemption through the healing power of music.

Nevertheless, it’s a powerful tale, told with real heart, and one which would almost certainly resonate even more with a school-age audience. A schools’ tour might not be where Sikazwe sees this piece going, but it could have a huge impact there.

3.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Locker Room Talk

 

23/04/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Donald Trump’s infamous “you can grab ’em by the pussy” brag caused international outrage: protest marches, column inches, pundits decrying him. But it didn’t cost him anything. The dismissal of his misogyny as “locker room talk” clearly resonated with voters, and he was duly elected president. What chance did Hillary ever have in such a toxic environment?

Gary McNair’s play, Locker Room Talk, is a direct response to this. Are Trump’s words really just banter, typical of what men say when women aren’t around to hear them?  If so, what does that tell us? And what should we do?

McNair set off with a voice recorder, and interviewed a lot of men. The result is an hour-long verbatim piece, performed – crucially – by four women (Maureen Carr, Jamie Marie, Nicola Roy and Gabriel Quigley), each wearing an earpiece and repeating the men’s words exactly as they hear them.

It’s chilling, listening to these words spoken by their subjects, squirm-inducing to hear women articulating the sexism that’s directed against them. The men’s voices are diverse, covering different socio-economic and age groups. But they’re united in their reductive brutality; their points-scoring systems; their adherence to stereotypes of women as sex objects, nags or domestic chore-doers. Spoken by women, the dark underbelly of the badinage is fatally exposed. The performances are stark and illuminating, the portrayals clever and detailed.

Of course this is heavily edited, the most vile and disparaging responses selected for impact. Of course the questions are leading, the responses shaped by what the participants think the interviewer wants to hear. And, of course, there are lots of men out there who’d never dream of saying things like these. But none of this matters here: it’s not a scientific study or academic research; it’s a play, a snapshot of how some men – too many men – talk about women. As a provocation, it’s perfect. We have to challenge this kind of talk; it isn’t good for anyone.

The question and answer session, expertly facilitated by Dr Holly Davis, is billed as a “post-show discussion” but, actually, it’s very much part of the play. This is the point, I think: to stimulate dialogue, to find a way forward.

Because it’s not okay to boast about “grabbing pussies” – is it?

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

What Girls Are Made Of

17/04/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

We missed What Girls Are Made Of at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, which is a shame because Cora Bissett’s autobiographical tale was a First Fringe winner there and enjoyed great word of mouth. This timely reshowing at the Traverse gives us an opportunity to catch up with it and boy, are we glad we do.

From the moment she wanders onto the stage carrying a cardboard box full of ‘memories,’ Bissett has us clutched in the palm of her hand – and she expertly delivers her picaresque story, relating her knockabout schooldays in Kirkcaldy, her early years in rock music and her exciting brush with fame when her newly formed band Darlingheart shared stages with the likes of Blur and Radiohead at the height of the Britpop phenomenon. Bissett is a superb raconteur and she knows exactly how to pull an audience into her world.

If you’re thinking that this is a piece that concentrates only on the good times, let me assure you that it also takes in the darker side of the music industry, demonstrating how a young musician’s hopes and dreams can be ground underfoot by unscrupulous record labels. There’s a reason you may not have heard much about Darlingheart, and Bisset reveals it all in excruciating detail. This part of her story speaks volumes to me: back in my teen years, I too was a hopeful in a rock band, and went through my own long dark night of the soul at the hands of the music moguls.

Lest I give the impression that this is just a solo performance, I should add that the three members of her band (Simon Donaldson, Harry Ward and Susan Bear) not only provide a kicking soundtrack for Bissett’s story, but also take on a multitude of roles, playing key characters on her journey with aplomb, Ward in particular evincing much laughter as her indomitable mother. Ward is an arresting performer, last seen by B&B in the superb Dark Carnival, also at The Traverse.

Bissett eventually emerged from the carnage of Darlingheart, learning how to survive, and finally carving out a career as a writer, performer and director. Her conclusion – that we are all a result of the various obstacles we overcome in our path through life – is cannily encompassed in a final, rousing song.

This is enervating stuff and the standing ovation the four performers receive as the last chords die away is well earned. If you can grab a ticket for What Girls Are Made Of, do so with all haste. It’s often said, but I’m saying it anyway: this is simply too good to miss.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Velvet Petal

23/03/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Velvet Petal, choreographed by Fleur Darkin, is a compelling piece about identity and self-image, emergence and self-discovery. Performed by twelve dancers, it’s as much performance art as it is dance theatre, a series of thematically linked ideas and images, overlapping to create a sensation rather than a story.

Inspired by Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography, Patti Smith’s poetry and the migration of Monarch butterflies, the characters veer between languid and frenetic, assured and tentative. These are young people, in a bedroom or at a house party, trying poses and costumes,  selecting and rejecting a range of personae. Who are they, and how do they want to be seen?

They rarely work together (although when they do, moving mechanically, as if by rote, to a nightclub hit, it is singularly arresting). Instead, the stage is filled with micro-tales, vignettes of love and sex, of sadness and joy, with bystanders occupying the edges, watching or cuddling, or changing outfit for the seventh time. Sometimes, the lighting directs us to a key moment: two lovers slowly removing their clothes, hesitant, making themselves vulnerable; a young woman contorting herself to fit into a suit hanging on a rail, assuming an identity that seems uncomfortable, then summarily swept aside, despite all her effort. At other times, it’s hard to know where to look, there’s so much going on: one thing is certain, no two audience members will have seen exactly the same show.

The dancers’ physical control is extraordinary; for all its sensual punk-rebel attitude, this is a perfectly drilled piece, precise and disciplined. And the soundtrack, from Leonard Cohen to The Cure, is oddly powerful, mirroring and magnifying both anxiety and desire.

My inclination is towards more narrative art forms; I tend to favour story over concept. But when a production is as absorbing as Velvet Petal, I’ll take it exactly as it comes.

4 stars

Susan Singfield