Traverse Theatre

Break My Windows

27/09/22

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

In an economy dominated by ‘funnel the capital upwards’ juggernauts like Uber, Yodel and Deliveroo, Eric (Tom McGovern)’s new company, Bring Me Wheels, is the logical conclusion. They all require drivers, right? So why not combine them, and concentrate even more money in a single pair of hands?

Speaking of hands, Eric has his fingers in a lot of pies, but Bring Me Wheels is especially close to his heart. He’s using it as an excuse to rebuild his relationship with his twenty-three-year-old son, Brandon (Ross Baxter), who hasn’t – as yet – got much to boast about on his CV. What better way to set him up than to make him manager of his dad’s shiny new start-up? But Brandon’s boyfriend, Sam (Jamie McKillop), has a lot to say about the inequities of late-stage capitalism, which puts a spoke in the Bring Me wheel. A bit of reading soon convinces Brandon that he’s not too keen on the business’s exploitative practices, although he does like living in a fancy flat and driving a brand new Tesla…

David Gerow’s script is nicely paced, and there’s plenty of humour to lighten the outrage. Directed by Ken Alexander, Break My Windows is as much an exploration of relationships as it is of the gig economy, and the chemistry between the three actors is palpable. At times it’s horribly tense, with Eric and Sam both entrenched in diametrically opposed views, and Brandon caught unhappily in the middle, snarked at by both of them, and repeatedly told to “keep your feelings out of this”. The politics are a little simplistic, perhaps, but that seems realistic too: you don’t have to spend too long on Twitter to see how binary and glib so-called debate can be. McGovern’s Eric is particularly funny – and strangely appealing, despite the odious views he espouses.

This thought-provoking piece is part of the latest A Play, a Pie and a Pint season, and it’s very fitting for a slice of lunchtime theatre.

3.7 stars

Susan Singfield

Laurel & Hardy

08/06/22

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The central figures of the Lyceum’s latest production are incredibly familiar. Their expressive faces and distinctive costumes are known to people who weren’t even born when they were strutting their stuff. In the opening moments of this affectionate play, Stan & Ollie wander onto a grey stage that looks like a representation of limbo, and are quick to remind us that they are now dead (something they’re not particularly happy about) and that it’s high time the public knew about the real men behind their onscreen personas.

It’s ironic then, that the late Tom McGrath’s play, first performed at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in 1976, goes on to tell us very little about their actual lives. There are snippets, told rather than shown, but we see very little of the genesis of these two great comedians, the influences that shaped them as they grew up.

There’s no doubting the authenticity of the performances. Barnaby Power (Stan) and Steven McNicoll (Ollie) are revisiting roles they debuted at the Lyceum back in 2005 and claim that that have relished the opportunity to revisit Stan & Ollie now they are older themselves. They have clearly studied every tic, every mannerism, every nuance of the titular duo. Accompanied by pianist/straight man, Jon Beales, they dutifully run through some of their most iconic scenes. But perhaps it’s possible to be too comfortable in reprised roles.

Laurel and Hardy’s greatest secret was that they made it all look so easy. Considerable effort came disguised as a walk in the park, but it was in there, hiding in plain sight. The comics’ physicality was always disguised by their meticulous timing.

Tonight, something feels a little off. It’s a little too polite, too mannered. There are ripples of laughter from the audience, but not the helpless guffaws you might expect – and while the recreations of past triumphs occasionally jolt into life (a silent-movie sequence animated by the flicker of strobes is a particular highlight), they just as often play out without making enough impact, as though the two actors are simply walking through the action.

Power and McNicholl occasionally have to step out of their main roles to portray other figures from the period, but there’s little to differentiate them and, once again, I am left wanting to know more – about the things we’ve never seen onscreen. Furthermore, it’s also true to say that some of the lines, which may have passed muster in the 1970s (or, indeed, the 1940s), don’t fly too well in this day and age. “How do you keep a married man at home? Break his legs.” Hmm.

Hardline Laurel & Hardy fans will doubtless have fun with this. As an impersonation of two great comedians, it is well executed – but as an occasional fan of their work, I am left wanting to know much more about them.

Laurel & Hardy may run like clockwork – but it doesn’t say enough about what made them tick.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

Wilf

10/12/21

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

James Ley’s latest offering is about as far away from a ‘Christmas play’ as it could be. In fact, there’s only one nod towards the festive season: a decorated tree in the corner of the stage. Tree aside, this is more of an antidote to Yuletide than an evocation of it. And that’s fine, because there’s plenty of the traditional stuff on offer at other venues in the city. Wilf is a December play for those who want something… else.

And it really is something else. Where to start? Calvin (Michael Dylan) is struggling. He’s bipolar – in the midst of a manic episode – and everything is going wrong. He knows he needs to leave his abusive boyfriend, Seth, but there’s no one who can help. Not his mum: she’s left for a new life in the American bible belt, and has cut him out of her life. Not his driving instructor, Thelma (Irene Allan), because – after a mere 104 lessons – Calvin has passed his test, and the ex-psychotherapist is pleased to be rid of him. So where can he turn?

The answer soon presents itself: Wilf. Wilf is an unlikely saviour, not least because he is a car. Specifically, Wilf is a beaten up old Volkswagen, so there’s more than a hint of Herbie about him – although Wilf’s antics are more colourful than his predecessor’s. And by colourful, I mean sexual. Calvin and Wilf’s relationship is intense.

To be fair, Calvin’s pretty intense all round. With his shiny new driving license and his battered old car, he finally finds the courage to break away from Seth, but he’s a long way from feeling okay. A road trip around Scotland, staying in Airbnbs and cruising graveyards for anonymous sex, seems appropriate. And, with Wilf’s help, Calvin might just make it.

This tight three-hander, directed by Gareth Nicholls, is equal parts quirky and charming. Dylan is immensely likeable as Calvin, and treads the line between comedy and tragedy with absolute precision. The soundtrack is banging – who doesn’t love a bit of Bonnie Tyler? – and the simple set (by Becky Minto) makes us feel like we’re with Calvin all the way: inside the car; inside his head.

Allan brings a powerful energy to the role of Thelma, while Neil John Gibson, as everyone else, represents a gentler, more nurturing humanity, especially in the form of Frank.

All in all, Wilf is a gloriously weird concoction, and a most welcome addition to the winter theatre scene.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Adam

15/03/21

BBC iPlayer

Trans men must be one of the most under-represented groups in the UK. I read a lot of news; I watch a lot of films and, when there are no pandemic restrictions, I am an avid theatre goer. But, despite the (anecdotal) fact that I know more trans men than I do women, I very rarely see them referred to; their stories largely seem to go untold.

Adam, then, is important not just because of what it says, but because it exists at all – and on a mainstream platform too. The BBC is under fire at the moment, but we shouldn’t forget what it offers us. If commercial viability is the only factor by which content is judged, marginalised people remain invisible to the masses, their experiences rendered forever ‘fringe.’

Indeed, Adam premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017, a National Theatre of Scotland production at the Traverse Theatre, where it was highly acclaimed. This new version, written by Frances Poet and directed by Cora Bissett and Louise Lockwood, again stars Adam Kashmiry as himself, and chronicles his experiences as an Egyptian trans man, alone and frightened in a Glasgow flat, awaiting the results of his asylum application. Adam can’t return to Egypt: revealing his true identity there could result in his death. But he can’t use his gender identity to claim asylum in the UK until he transitions, and he can’t transition until he is granted asylum. Trapped in this double bind, no wonder Adam struggles to cope…

This hour-long film is beautifully constructed. It does always feel more like a play than a movie, but that’s not to its detriment. Yasmin Al-Khudhairi appears as Adam’s female-looking outer self, and offers us an occasional and understated glimpse into how others perceive him. The rest of the supporting cast is strong too, especially Neshla Caplan as a sour-faced immigration officer. But this is Adam Kashmiry’s story, and it is his film too: his performance is compelling, haunting – and heartwarming. Because, although this story is one of unimaginable hardship and pain, it’s also one of triumph over adversity. Here he is: a free man, telling his own tale.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Removed

29/09/20

Traverse Theatre Online

Written by Fionnuala Kennedy, originally performed at The Brian Friel Theatre in Belfast and subsequently shown at the Dublin Theatre Festival, Removed is based on a series of interviews the playwright conducted with young people in care. The result is this searing monologue, poignantly performed by Conor O’Donnell as Adam.

Adam’s story is sadly an all too familiar one. When his alcoholic mother is unable to provide the right level of care for Adam and his younger brother, the boys find themselves consigned to the tender mercies of a whole series of foster parents and unsuitable homes. As time progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that the powerful bond between them is being eroded and the two of them are destined to be separated. Adam’s attempts to maintain the relationship all come to naught.

O’Donnell’s disarming charm is deceptive; behind that confident smile we are allowed glimpses of the pain that Adam has suffered over the years – the humiliation and regret. This is a powerful narrative that will occasionally push viewers to the edge of tears. The simple but effective production design by Conan McIvor ensures that this never feels like ‘just another worthy monologue.’

The systematic failings of the care system are vividly displayed here along with its many contradictions. Of course children cannot be left with parents who are incapable of looking after them, but the alternatives need to be far better than those currently offered. As Adam details the many ordeals he is obliged to face on a daily basis, his story kindles a powerful sense of outrage. Is this really the best solution that society can offer to people like him? Is this honestly a suitable response from a so-called civilised society?

Removed is a truly affecting drama that deserves to reach the widest possible audience. It’s available to watch online, right now.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Declan

26/08/20

Traverse Theatre Online

First seen by B&B  at The Traverse Theatre in June 2018, Mouthpiece by Kieran Hurley scored a five star review from us and, some time thereafter, went on to a run of acclaimed performances at London’s Soho Theatre.

Now, lockdown has spawned a companion piece, once again written by Hurley and starring Lorn Macdonald, who, in this pithy, foul-mouthed monologue, offers the same basic story from a different perspective, that of the antagonist. 

Like so many lockdown projects, this thirty minute film has necessitated an inventive approach from the production team in order to make it so much more than just a static talking head scenario – and they’ve delivered big time. There are gorgeous animated cartoon inserts by Nisan Yetkin in the style of Declan’s distinctive artwork, and a series of exterior scenes shot in some memorable Edinburgh locations. 

Furthermore, there are scenes featuring ‘Declan’ (Angus Taylor), who we understand is playing the character in the fictionalised account of his story as written by Libby, the woman the other Declan meets on Salisbury Crags, who befriends him and then ‘steals his life.’

 As the play proceeds, we become increasingly unsure which of the two men is actually real. ‘Fuckin’ meta,’ as Declan is so fond of saying. (Especially, as – of course – they’re both actors and ‘Declan’ is as much of a construct as he ever was…)

This is a striking piece of filmed theatre. I’m not certain that a knowledge of the original play is absolutely essential to the enjoyment of it, but I think it helps. Having seen and loved Mouthpiece, I can’t unknow it  (which is quite meta all by itself). But one thing’s for sure, you certainly won’t be bored by this. McDonald and Taylor are clearly actors to watch out for in the future and Hurley too, is a major talent (as anyone who saw his underrated feature film Beats will surely attest). 

Short, punchy and inventive, Declan is well worth your attention.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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

Songs of Friendship 3: Revelations

13/03/20

It’s likely that James Rowland’s trilogy will be the last stage performance we see for a while, thanks to a certain wee virus up-ending life as we know it. As mass gatherings are banned and large theatres begin to shut, we’re here, slathered in hand-sanitiser, hoping that the small, clean Traverse 2 is a safe enough space.

This is part three of the trilogy, but – at the time of watching – we hadn’t yet seen part two. That has now been rectified, which is good because it means I’m writing with full knowledge of the story – but bad because it’s playing havoc with our house-style of writing in the present tense…

Anyway.

Revelations is about an older, sadder James. The shock of losing a best friend to cancer; the awkward sadness of an inevitable break-up – these heartaches belonged to a young man, not quite fully-fledged, whatever his birth certificate might have said. This final instalment is altogether more grown up, although, of course, James is still James, so ‘maturity’ isn’t the first word that springs to mind. Still, he’s forced to confront some pretty adult issues, and there’s an endearing frankness to the way he details his response.

The main focus is parenthood, specifically the idea of being a sperm donor for his best friend and her wife. He wouldn’t be the baby’s father (it would have two mothers), but he would be an active presence in its life. And, he worries, maybe too active a presence: is he getting in the way of Sarah and Emma’s relationship?

This final instalment is, without doubt, a tragedy, albeit told with humour – and without clothes. Yes, that’s right – without clothes. Because Rowland spends the last twenty minutes stark-bollock naked. It’s a shame that we need trigger warnings (and I do understand why; I’m not arguing against them in principle) because the shock-factor is somewhat undermined by a ‘THIS SHOW CONTAINS FULL-FRONTAL NUDITY’ poster that greets us as we enter. Instead of being startling, the undressing is more: ‘Oh, okay then; here it is…’

It’s definitely brave, although I’m not sure why he doesn’t pop on a dressing gown after the key moment of revelation. Except that there’s a sense throughout the trilogy of a character who always pushes things too far, and maybe this is just the final iteration of that trait.

All in all, Songs of Friendship establishes Rowland as an accomplished and empathetic storyteller, whose friendly bumblings through life will retain a place in many hearts.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Songs of Friendship 2: A Hundred Different Words For Love

14/03/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Actor/writer James Rowland presents the second part of his Songs of Friendship trilogy, although we’re seeing it out of sequence, having already seen parts 1 and 3.  Though it employs pretty much the the same techniques, it feels decidedly gentler and much more light-hearted than either its angst-ridden predecessor or successor.

The music also reflects this softer feel. Once again, Rowland uses a looping device to build up layers of melody, but the mellow-sounding keyboard he uses creates a lusher sound than we heard in either of the other parts.

In this episode, James’s best friend, Sarah, is getting married to her partner, Emma, while James himself is going through the throes of a passionate, but ultimately doomed romance with an un-named woman. As before, Rowland plays all the roles, flitting from one character to the next with ease. He effortlessly draws his audience into the story and there’s some nice interplay between him and us. The story is very funny in a Richard Curtis sort of way – something that Rowland happily refers to during the telling – and he scampers around the stage, dispensing observations and even, at one point, sporting a very fetching red dress.

For my money, this is the most successful chapter of the trilogy. It doesn’t try to shock or challenge too much, but just envelops me in a warm glow and sends me on my way with a smile on my face.

Philip Caveney

Songs of Friendship 1: Team Viking

11/03/20

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Writer/performer James Rowland is on stage at the Traverse, dressed in a shabby suit and telling us a delightful shaggy dog story. This is Team Viking, the first part of a trilogy, though we are assured that each one is stand-alone. (We’re booked in to see the other two as well – although, because of other commitments, not in the right order.)

Rowland is an aimiable and affable storyteller, who knows how to handle a joke and has us laughing at some pretty unlikely events. Somebody’s mother being run over and killed by an ambulance? That’s not funny! And yet… somehow… you don’t want to laugh but…

James relates how, eight years ago, his best friend from childhood, Tom, was diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer (also not the kind of thing that comedy gold is generally inspired by)  – and how Tom’s dying wish was to be given a proper funeral, just like the one Kirk Douglas’s Einar had in the 1958 film, The Vikings. You know the kind of thing. A longboat drifting out to sea, set ablaze by fiery arrows while that unforgettable theme music plays. He assigns a very reluctant James and another friend, Sarah to organise it for him.

So, no pressure there.

Exactly how they achieve this memorable send-off provides an hour of pleasurable storytelling, with Rowland breaking off every so often to add another layer to a looped song he is gradually putting together as the tale unfolds. There’s a message in the song, but we won’t fully appreciate it until the end…

As it’s fairly unusual to be reviewing a trilogy, we’ll wait until we’ve seen the next two instalments to issue the requisite stars. Those who would like to immerse themselves in the full experience can book to see the complete trilogy on Saturday night.

Team Viking is an encouraging start – and, considering recent world events, this cheery, relaxed session may be just the kind of thing we’re all in need of.

Philip Caveney