Traverse Theatre

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

Within Sight

05/03/20

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Ellen Renton’s Within Sight is a beautifully written piece, following a disabled athlete’s failed attempt to qualify for the paralympics. Like Renton, the protagonist has albinism, and is angry at the way the world seems set to trip her up.

Renton is clearly a talented poet: the language is rich and rhythmic, engaging and provocative. The video projections (by filmmaker Kiana Kalanter Hormoz) complement the narrative well, providing sighted members of the audience with a sense of the protagonist’s experience. And I like the running, the physical exertion, the beats that match the words. There’s a real sense of battle here, of exhaustion, of how it feels when simple, everyday actions are rendered difficult.

If there’s a problem, it’s that there’s not quite enough of anything: the play is very short (about forty minutes), and there’s certainly space within the story for more detail, more emotion, more elucidation. There’s plenty of scope for another twenty minutes’ worth, I think – although Renton might not relish the extra running that would entail…

Nevertheless, this is a thought-provoking performance, drawing much needed attention to the casual able-ism that permeates society.

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Home is Not the Place

21/02/20

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

 

In Home is Not the Place, poet/dramatist Annie George explores the story of her own childhood and that of her grandfather, the Malayalam poet, PM John. If his name doesn’t exactly resonate with contemporary audiences, that’s hardly surprising. He died in 1945 at the age of 40 and, a couple of years later, nearly all of his writing was destroyed in a house fire. As a novelist myself, the idea fills me with horror – I still have a huge trunk of my early work, which I have stubbornly dragged from location to location. It’s unpublishable but losing it would be a nightmare.

And it’s this lack of substance that makes for a slightly frustrating experience – the sections that deal with George’s own story are far more compelling than the slightly nebulous narrative concerning her grandfather. We hear recollections of George’s childhood journey to London from India, how she eventually found refuge in the more nurturing nature of Scottish society and how she developed as a writer herself. But of PM John there are only vague impressions, built around an old portrait of him, which has been badly ‘restored.’ (I would have loved to hear one of his poems, for instance, which would give a clearer picture of who he was and what he represented. Presumably this absence is even more irksome for George.)

HINTP uses still images, short pieces of film and atmospheric bursts of Indian music to illustrate the various themes. The central thrust of the narrative is about the way our experiences shape us as individuals and about what the term ‘home’ really means to each person. This comes through eloquently. George is a compelling narrator and once she’s settled into her stride, she pulls me into the poignant sweep of the piece. 

But I’m left wanting to know more about PM John – I spend some time afterwards fruitlessly searching for more information about him on the internet. Perhaps that’s been George’s intention all along.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Trojan Horse

12/02/20

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

This is the second piece of work we’ve seen by LUNG, the verbatim theatre company that works to ‘shine a light on political, social and economic issues in modern Britain using people’s actual words to tell their stories.’ Last year, Who Cares? –  a heartbreaking play about Manchester’s young carers – succeeded in raising our awareness of the plight of 700,000 youngsters nationwide; tonight, Trojan Horse lifts the lid on a controversial news story we’d all but forgotten.

In 2013, an anonymous letter was sent to Birmingham city council, implying that there was a Muslim conspiracy to ‘Islamify’ state schools in Birmingham: a deliberate and concerted effort to force out non-Muslim staff and governors and implement a hard-line agenda. Clearly, such an allegation had to be investigated. Equally clearly, the investigation needed to be fair, objective and professional, as well as robust – and certainly free from political baggage.

Sadly, this was not the case. Park View’s OFSTED ranking went from Outstanding to Inadequate overnight. Teachers’ and head teachers’ careers were destroyed. The children – from one of the most deprived areas in Britain – emerged as collateral. An ideological war was being fought, and they were caught in the crossfire.

In this compelling drama by Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead, hundreds of hours of interviews are distilled into composite characters, representing teachers, governors, pupils, council workers and inspectors. While contemporary narratives focused on the accusers’ perspectives – with tabloids shrieking about compulsory prayers and segregation – Trojan Horse gives us a chance to hear voices from the other side, from those directly implicated and affected by the claims. And it’s a shocking story.

Some concerns, it seems, were justified. Even by his own words, Tahir Alam (Qasim Mahmood) seems to have misunderstood the remit and parameters of what a governor should do, taking credit for turning schools around and creating an aspirational culture. There’s no doubt that Park View was transformed – with an A*- C GCSE pass rate that leapt from 4% to 76% – but surely any accolades belong to the leadership team and staff; surely it’s their hard work and dedication that will have made the difference?

Other issues, however, were clearly fuelled by Islamophobia. In-class gender segregation, for example, was deemed to be a problem. But, as council worker Jess (Komal Amin) points out, no one was complaining about entirely separate schools attended by boys and girls in predominantly white catchment areas. It was claimed that the curriculum was being narrowed, with music and drama sidelined in favour of more academic subjects such as English and maths. The schools disputed this but, even if it were true, this was – ironically – in line with Michael Gove’s own plans: arts subjects have been systemically demoted in the state system over the last decade. To be clear, I truly believe both segregation and a lack of arts provision are wrong. But they’re not more wrong in Muslim schools than they are anywhere else.

Such is the power of this piece that, even here, I find myself focusing on the issues raised rather than reviewing the drama. But I suppose this points to its success. Yes, it’s well acted; yes, the direction is nimble and fluid. But the point, surely, is to let us hear from those who have been silenced, and to open our eyes to the agenda that shape the news we read.

Trojan Horse is currently on its second tour of the UK, which will culminate in a potentially cataclysmic performance in Westminster. I wonder if Gove will dare to attend?

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Heroine

30/01/20

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Heroine is not for the faint hearted and the various trigger-warnings posted around the foyer of The Traverse are not just for show. This powerful one-woman drama, written and performed by Mary Jane Wells, is the true story of Danna Davis, a lesbian who joined the American army in the 1990s – before the infamous ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy was repealed. While stationed in Germany, she was subjected to a horrific rape at the hands of four fellow soldiers, one of whom was her commanding officer. Davis then had to serve alongside the same men in combat situations in Iraq, until eventually, she was badly wounded and discharged from the Army.

Wells’ drama takes the form of a monologue as she recounts the awful attack and then examines the long and arduous fight that came in its aftermath, as Davis struggles to come to turns with what has happened to her. It’s a raw and compelling performance and is made all the more stark when we learn that the situation is distressingly common in the American armed forces (there are 19,000 cases of sexual assault a year), and even has its own official terminology: MST (military sexual trauma).

This is nobody’s idea of a pleasant evening at the theatre – indeed, it’s shocking and brutal, a shaming indictment of the army’s policy – but it’s also an important subject that fully deserves to be exposed and explored. In the era of #MeToo, Davis’s story is finally reaching wider audiences. Heroine, created and developed with help from the King’s and Festival Theatre in Edinburgh is soon to be staged at the John F. Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington DC.

Tonight there’s an after-show discussion which examines the case of a British soldier who after reporting a similar incident, had her allegation summarily dismissed and tragically took her own life. Only the intervention of Emma Norton (lawyer for soldier’s rights firm, Liberty), managed to ensure a proper investigation. The more light that can be directed at such injustice, the more chance we’ll have of ensuring it can be identified and dealt with.

So, do go and watch this harrowing and challenging piece of theatre.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Strange Tales

03/12/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Strange Tales is clearly a passion project. Pauline Lockhart – who co-directs, co-wrote and co-stars in the production – was looking for a venture that could combine three perennial bedfellows (folk tales, the supernatural and, naturally, martial arts), when she came across Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. In collaboration with Ben Harrison, and supported by a whole raft of partners, including the Confucius Institute for Scotland and the RSC, she has created a quirky, dreamlike piece of theatre that lingers in the mind long after the applause.

Lockhart resolves any notion of cultural appropriation, both by being upfront in asking, “Is it okay for me to tell these tales?” and – more importantly – by casting Chinese and Malaysian Chinese actors Luna Dai and Robin Khor Yong Kuan to work alongside her. This three-hander, set on a stage that breaches the first few rows, breaks the fourth wall in a casual, almost familial way, as the performers tell us what the tales mean to them. For Lockhart, they are a recent discovery, but Dai remembers her grandmother telling them to her, while Kuan not only read the book, but watched a TV adaptation too. ‘Everyone knows Pu Songling, right?’ he asks us, the tumbleweed response making us confront a simple truth – that borders limit our knowledge.

There’s a delightful playfulness to this production, with humour taking precedence over terror. The tales are, indeed, quite strange, with ghosts and demons and fox-spirits moving between the living and the dead with apparent ease. The three actors perform a whole host of roles with consummate skill, and the action is cleverly enhanced by puppetry, video and choreographed movement. The sound effects are spectacular, and there’s a little bit of magic or illusion too, with a couple of vanishing acts that genuinely bewilder me. How did they…? Huh?

These are morality tales without obvious morals, highly entertaining and most unusual (to me, and this Scottish audience, at least). I’ve never seen anything quite like them.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Hope and Joy

01/11/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Ellie Stewart’s Hope and Joy is a quirky, absurdist piece of whimsy, set in a near future where environmental change has wrought a radical shift in nature. A shift so radical, in fact, that the opening scene shows Hope (Kim Gerard) giving birth to an egg. The father is a Whooper swan, we learn, and her son, Magnus (Ryan Havelin), a human-swan hybrid – costumed, delightfully, in a fabulous winged hoody. Hospital cleaner Joy (Beth Marshall) sees the boy’s ability to fly as a definite plus-point, but – as he grows up – the kids at school are less accepting of his differences. Hanging out with a gang of dissolute pigeons only makes things worse, and Magnus soon realises he needs to spread his wings (sorry…), and seek the company of others who are more like him.

It’s a fun play with some serious points underlying the humour, such as the letter Joy receives regarding her mum’s social care. The melting ice caps are, of course, a real cause for concern, and this fantastical imagining of where we might end up serves to highlight how unknown and precarious our planet’s future is. Themes of friendship, parenthood, otherness and isolation are also clear throughout, although rather superficially explored.

Becky Minto’s set is as wonderful as you might expect if you’ve seen her work before: a jagged white hospital bed/house/pole -dancing stage surrounded by stark black tree trunks. Caitlin Skinner’s direction is lively and dynamic, and – for the most part – works in harmony with the set, although I’m not convinced by the actors crouching off-stage, half-hidden in the woods; I think they need to be either properly concealed or more explicitly visible.

The performances are strong: Gerard and Marshall inhabit their roles effectively, creating bold, sympathetic characters, and Havelin is engagingly awkward as the diffident teenage bird-boy. The section in the pole-dancing club is less believable however: it’s an interesting twist, but the posing and spinning need to be more carefully choreographed, and delivered with more precision and control if they’re to be convincing.

Hope and Joy is throughly entertaining and an absolute pleasure to watch: an enjoyable way to spend an hour.

3.4 stars

Susan Singfield