Traverse Theatre

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

 

Advertisements

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

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

 

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