Traverse Theatre

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

Fibres

29/10/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Fibres is Frances Poet’s ‘heath and safety’ play, an emotive response to her discovery that an acquaintance had lost both parents, six months apart, due to asbestos poisoning. Poet’s perception of asbestos as ‘something dangerous from the past’ was exposed as a fallacy; subsequently, she learned that more people die of asbestos-related illnesses each year than die in traffic accidents, that the NHS will be footing the bill for corporate greed/negligence until 2040. Mesothelioma takes between twenty and fifty years to develop, and even brief exposure is enough to kill.

Indeed, the brevity of exposure is a key feature of this play. Jack (Jonathan Watson) only works as a shipbuilder for a few days; he’s nervous about the asbestos dust he’s been warned about, so takes a pay cut and becomes an electrician. He thinks he’s dodged a bullet. His wife, Beanie (Maureen Carr), washes his overalls, a simple domestic act fraught with symbolism, as the fibres enter her lungs too.

As you might expect from Poet, there are many layers to be unravelled here; it’s not a simple polemic. There are parallels drawn between the asbestos fibres and the impact of traditional gender roles on a relationship: a slow, invisible poisoning.

Despite the subject matter, it’s not all doom and gloom. Jack and Beanie are a believable couple, muddling through as best they can. They’re facing the horror with fortitude and humour: Jack loves a bit of comedy, and has a catalogue of cringey jokes. Their daughter, Lucy (Suzanne Magowan), is struggling, but her breakdown is shown through a series of bleakly humorous, hide-your-eyes-behind-your-hands-while-your-toes-curl moments.

Breaches in health and safety protocol are given a human face, in the form of Lucy’s boss, Pete (Ali Craig). They work for a fibre optics company, and he’s up against it, trying to meet the demands of a contract while allowing his workers their requisite study days and sick leave. He’s fed up with the union rep’s ‘unreasonable’ demands, preventing him from getting the job done. We’re shown how it happens, how decent people can be pressured into repeating old mistakes. But Pete is given a chance to learn: his fondness for Lucy redeems him.

If this all sounds a bit po-faced, don’t be misled. This plays as a cleverly written domestic tragedy, with a window onto larger political issues. The actors switch between narration and performance; the set (by Jen McGinley) is a fluid, symbolic space, where the characters flit between life and death, the past and the present, dark humour and even darker anger. Jemima Levick’s assured direction ensures that there is no confusion: we always know where and when events are taking place, the pace allowing us time to digest what’s happening.

Fibres is a vital, heartbreaking play with an important message at its core.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Clybourne Park

04/10/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

According to Rapture Theatre’s artistic director Michael Emans, Bruce Norris’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner is all about “exposing the hypocrisy of middle-class, educated people, who will happily uphold the principles of fairness and equality – unless and until those principles impinge on their own interests.” If this is the intention behind Clybourne Park, then it is wholly successful. This play is tragic, profound, and uproariously funny – but it’s also an uncomfortable watch, skewering the liberal self-image of the typical theatre-goer.

The action takes place in the living room of a large house in a Chicago suburb, with two acts separated by fifty years. In 1959, affluent white couple Bev (Jackie Morrison) and Russ (Robin Kingsland) are selling up. They need to escape the home where their son killed himself; they can’t bear to stay. But their neighbour, Karl (Jack Lord), is dismayed to learn that, because of the cheap asking price, the purchasers are a black family; he doesn’t want ‘colored’ people moving in and lowering the tone – or the house prices.

This first act is easy for a white liberal audience member like me: as expected, I’m appalled by Karl’s racism, embarrassed by his appeal to black servant, Francine (Adelaide Obeng), and her husband, Albert (Vinta Morgan), to back him up. I’m drawn to Bev and Russ, stricken by loss, dragged unwillingly into Karl’s drama.

The second act is both more playful and more challenging. It’s 2009, and the neighbourhood is now mostly black. Young white couple, Lindsey (Frances McNamee) and Steve (Jack Lord) have bought the house; they want to bulldoze it and rebuild from scratch. Community group members, Lena (Adelaide Obeng) and Kevin (Vinta Morgan), have objected to the plans. The neighbourhood has historical significance, Lena maintains. People like Lindsey and Steve can’t just trample over that.

Steve is quick to feel the slight; he’s certain he knows what Lena really means. She doesn’t want them there because they’re white.

And, before we know it, a huge row has erupted, and no one is safe from the fallout. It’s excruciating and toe-curling, as one line after another is crossed.

In essence, Clybourne Park is a comedy of manners, a satirical examination of societal standards and behaviour in the US. Has anything really changed since the 1950s? It would seem not, and the doubling of roles highlights this. Steve clearly thinks all anti-racist talk is fake, a façade belying people’s real beliefs. Lindsey’s painfully right-on posturing is exposed as a fragile edifice, while lawyer Kathy (Jackie Morrison)’s paper-thin skin prevents her from ever seeing beyond her own nose. Lena, on the other hand,  clearly delights in stirring things up; her politeness is only a veneer; she wants to rattle Steve and Lindsey out of their self-satisfaction.

The performances are excellent, Lord in particular wringing every ounce of comic potential from his angry-white-man routine. The script is expertly realised in this production, every line given the space to breathe, each joke and jibe the chance to land.

It’s classy, thought-provoking stuff.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Black Men Walking

18/09/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Eclipse Theatre Company’s Black Men Walking tells the tale of Thomas (Ben Onwukwe), Matthew (Patrick Regis) and Richard (Tonderai Munyevu), three disparate friends on a monthly mountain walk. What they have in common is their race, and their need to connect with other black men living in their area.

The oldest, Thomas, is fascinated by his ancestry, by black people’s place in British history. Matthew, a doctor, is more concerned about his family life: his wife, Vicky, is resentful of the time he’s spending with his friends; she wants him home with her and the kids. Richard is placid, a computer programmer/Trekkie with a penchant for snacks. Sometimes, Richard explains, there are a lot more of them in the walking group. Today’s trio are the hardiest though, or the ones who need the expedition most. Because today’s weather conditions are treacherous.

As the men share stories and bicker and lose their way in the gathering fog, we’re drawn into their world, offered some insight into their experiences. And, just as we’re beginning to wonder where this is all heading, their easy camaraderie is punctured by the appearance of Ayeesha (Dorcas Sebuyange), a teenage rapper who’s fled to the hills for solace, following a racist encounter in a fast food outlet.

Written by Testament and directed by Dawn Walton, this is a lyrical play with a lot to say,  unusual in its positioning of middle-aged black men at the centre of its narrative. The poetic voices of the ancestors add a welcome layer of history to the piece, thrown into sharp relief by Ayeesha’s teenage cynicism and dismissal of Thomas’s most rhapsodic musings.

The staging is unfussy: a green covered slope suggesting a hill: a glass panel that acts, variously, as mirror, fissure and portal; a collection of millstones representing the past. I like the simplicity of the on-the-spot walking that hints at longer distances covered, and the placing of all four in a landscape that is clearly, physically, theirs – an answer to Thomas’s anguished question: ‘How long do we have to be here to be English?’

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

WhirlyGig

 

13/09/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

A one, a two, a one two three four!’

Thus begins the latest family-friendly production by Catherine Wheels, currently celebrating their twentieth anniversary and delighting children and parents alike. WhirlyGig is a rather unique collaboration, created by Daniel Padden and co-produced by Red Bridge Arts, where four talented musicians offer fifty minutes of pure entertainment.

Part of me wants to describe this as ‘silent clowning,’ though it’s anything but silent as Claire Willoughby, Rory Clark, Sita Pieraccini and Rory Haye bring out a collection of weird and wonderful musical instruments, and explore their possibilities. It’s musical clowning, I suppose. The cast don’t exchange more than half a dozen words with the audience but instead, let the instruments speak for them.

And they don’t specialise in tunes, so much as rhythms – rhythms that make us stamp our feet and twitch our shoulders and clap our hands. Moreover, the way they create these rhythms, becomes ever more eccentric, ever more absurd, the foursome working with tireless ingenuity. At one point, each instrument is played by two people simultaneously. If that sounds complicated, don’t worry… it really is! I suspect this show would work even better in a school setting, where children are with their peers rather than their parents.

If there’s any kind of central message in this collaboration, it is, I suppose, that making music together can be fun and that all of its rules are there to be broken. Any parents with budding musicians to entertain should make a beeline for the Traverse Theatre, though – to be honest – children don’t have to be musically inclined to enjoy this show; all the youngsters at the performance we attend are entranced by what’s happening on stage and I find myself in total agreement with them.

So, come on, get with the beat. Book those tickets now, before they’re gone!

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Play of Light upon the Earth: A Reading

05/09/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The Play of Light upon the Earth by Sally Hobson is an unusual piece of writing: a play structured into twenty-seven chapters, representing the psychological fragmentation that follows trauma. For the protagonist, Innocence (Jessica Hardwick), Bloody Friday is the trigger. The shock of this childhood experience, long-repressed, explodes into her adult life, forcing her to confront its impact.

It feels like a genuine privilege to be here at this stage of the creative process: the play is still being developed, still seeking its perfect form. In this rehearsed reading, directed by Muriel Romanes, we get a sense of what it could become. Because there is little movement (the actors are seated behind a trestle table), the focus is inevitably on the language, which is dense and lyrical, packed with literary references, Joycean in its verbal inventiveness.

Maureen Beattie’s reading (as narrator and Mother) is particularly engaging, delivered with intensity and vigour. Benny Young (narrator and Father) is good too: very funny, despite the gravity of what’s being said. There is, in fact, a lot of humour in this play: the light that shows the shade for what it really is.

This is a thought-provoking, intellectually-demanding piece, and I’m fascinated to see how it turns out. Post-show discussion about staging throws up various options, from a grand, large-scale production with a cast of hundreds, to a more minimalist notion, with a few key characters inhabiting a huge stage. I’m struck by the idea of a multi-media approach, which I think might suit this spoken-word/performance-art/play hybrid.

Whatever. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out to see where this goes.

Susan Singfield