Traverse Theatre

Theatre Bouquets 2022

After the slim pickings of the last two years, 2022 feels like a palpable return to form: finally, emphatically, theatre is back! We’ve relished the wide range of productions we’ve seen over the year. As ever, it was difficult to choose our particular favourites, but those listed below have really resonated with us.


Singin’ in the Rain (Festival Theatre, Edinburgh)

Singin’ in the Rain is a delight from start to finish. It never falters, never loses pace and manages to honour the great film that inspired it. One of the most supremely entertaining shows I’ve seen in a very long time. Slick, assured, technically brilliant – it never puts a hoof wrong.

Wuthering Heights (King’s Theatre, Edinburgh)

In this Wise Children production, Emma Rice strips Wuthering Heights down to its beating heart, illuminates its essence. This is a chaotic, frenzied telling, a stage so bursting with life and energy that it’s sometimes hard to know where to look. It’s dazzling; it’s dizzying – and I adore it. 

Red Ellen (Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh)

Red Ellen is a fascinating tale, ripped from the pages of political history. Wils Wilson’s propulsive direction has Ellen hurtling from one scene to the next, which keeps the pot bubbling furiously.

Prima Facie (NT Live, The Cameo, Edinburgh)

This is a call to action that walks the walk, directly supporting The Schools Consent Project, “educating and empowering young people to understand and engage with the issues surrounding consent and sexual assault”. It’s also a powerful, tear-inducing play – and Jodie Cromer is a formidable talent.

Feeling Afraid as if Something Terrible is Going to Happen (Roundabout @ Summerhall, Edinburgh)

Samuel Barnett inhabits his role completely, spitting out a constant stream of pithy one liners and wry observations with apparent ease. Marcelo Dos Santos’ script is utterly compelling and Matthew Xia’s exemplary direction ensures that the pace is never allowed to flag.

Hungry (Roundabout @ Summerhall, Edinburgh)

This sharply written two-hander examines the relationship between Lori (Eleanor Sutton), a chef from a relatively privileged background, and Bex (Melissa Lowe), a waitress from the local estate. This is a cleverly observed exploration of both class and race, brilliantly written and superbly acted. Hungry is a class act, so assured that, even amidst the host of treasures we saw at this year’s Roundabout, it dazzles like a precious gem.

A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings (Summerhall (Main Hall), Edinburgh)

It’s hard to encapsulate what makes this such a powerful and moving experience, but that’s exactly what it is – a spellbinding slice of storytelling, so brilliantly conceived and engineered that it makes the incredible seem real. You’ll believe a man can fly.

The Tragedy of Macbeth (Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh)

Let’s face it, we’ve all seen Macbeth in its various shapes and guises – but I think it’s fairly safe to say we’ve never seen it quite like this. This raucous, visceral reimagining of the story captures the essence of the piece more eloquently than pretty much any other production I’ve seen.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh)

This was Martin McDonagh’s debut piece and, while it might not have the assuredness of his later works, it nonetheless displays all the hallmarks of an exciting new talent flexing his muscles. The influence of Harold Pinter is surely there in the awkward pauses, the repetitions, the elevation of innocuous comments to a weird form of poetry – and the performances are exemplary.

Don’t. Make. Tea. (Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh)

Don’t. Make. Tea. is a dystopian vision of an all-too credible near future, a play laced with dark humour and some genuine surprises. Cleverly crafted to be accessible to the widest possible audience, it’s an exciting slice of contemporary theatre.

Susan Singfield & Philip Caveney

Once Upon a Snowstorm

09/12/22

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Described as a play for children aged 5-8 and their families, Once Upon a Snowstorm is based on the popular picture book by Richard Johnson. It tells the tale of a boy (Fay Guiffo) and his dad (Michael Sherin), who live in a woodland cottage. One day, they go out to hunt in the snow, but are separated and the boy is lost. Eventually, he ftakes shelter in a cavern and falls asleep. When he awakes, he finds himself surrounded by friendly animals, who teach him all about their ways…

It’s a charming – if slight – tale. Although Jo Timmins’ adaptation includes dialogue, it retains the quiet solemnity of Johnson’s wordless original, as well as the gentle pace. It feels true to the book, capturing its tranquil, earnest tone, and illuminating the boy’s sense of wonder. I’m especially entranced by the music (composed by David Paul Jones), and the way Guiffo’s violin is integrated seamlessly into her performance.

Traverse 2 has been reconfigured for this show, and it’s good to see it being used imaginatively. The acting space is tented with crumpled white sheets, and the seating comprises rows of ‘tree stumps’ (covered stools) and cushions, presumably intended for the wee ones to sit on and, at the back, a single row of adult-sized chairs. On entering, we’re asked to hang up our coats and remove our shoes, which somehow adds to the sense of occasion: something different is happening here. Largely, it works well, although there are some issues with the sight lines. There’s no one organising the smallest children to the front rows, and not enough full-sized seats for the grown-ups accompanying them. I can understand the wish to create something intimate, with no clear boundaries. But it might make sense to place the beautiful model house on a higher plinth, so that we can actually see it, and for the boy not to spend quite so much time sitting or lying on the floor.

Sherin and Guiffo embody all the different animals, and their performances are enchanting. Perhaps there’s a little too much repetition for me (the same route through the audience; three different lots of projected images), but the target audience seem to lap it up and, at forty-five minutes, there’s no time for this to flag.

Once Upon a Snowstorm is a sweet, simple tale, with some beautiful imagery.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

Cell Outs

24/11/22

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

As true stories go, the plot of Cell Outs is a remarkable one. Written and performed by Harriet Troup and Ella Church and directed by Grace Church, it’s the tale of two naïve drama school graduates who enlist on a new scheme that promises to allow them to bring their social justice dreams to light in the prison system. Sounds exciting, right? They eagerly sign up and, after just six weeks of basic training, they find themselves enrolled as… prison warders, working in two adjoining gaols. Troup is based in a male prison (delicately titled HM Prick for the purposes of this drama) while Church works at the women’s prison (HM Pussy).

They quickly learn that opportunities to use their drama skills are nonexistent. Instead, they must negotiate the endless litany of drug dealing, scrapping, tongue lashings and suicides that are part and parcel of everyday prison life. At first, they’re appalled by what they witness but, as the days roll inexorably by, they become increasingly hardened to the horrors, inured to the misery around them and in serious danger of becoming everything they dislike about the system.

Troup and Church are engaging performers and they attack their roles with gusto. We are presented with a series of sketches chronicling their descent into the abyss, interspersed with voice recordings from inmates and fellow workers. They also perform occasional musical interludes, which – it must be said – vary in quality. A clever parody of ‘Doe, a Deer,’ utilising prison vernacular is a particular highlight, but some of the rap-inflected offerings feel more generic.

If there’s a major issue here, it’s the play’s story arc, which starts bleak and funny and, without really developing, soon becomes just plain bleak. Furthermore, many of the major dramatic occurrences later in the drama are told rather than shown; for the true tragedy to strike home, we need to see a climactic incident played out before our eyes, rather than just hear about it.

Cell Outs is a unique story with a powerful central message, but it’s a message that occasionally feels a little obfuscated in its delivery.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Crocodile Rock

25/10/22

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Seventeen-year-old Stephen McPhail feels marooned in his tiny island hometown, Millport. Sure, the mainland is only a short ferry-hop across the water, but the distance seems insurmountable. Stephen’s faither owns a pub, and his maw a B&B, and he’s expected to follow them into the family businesses. But the blokey banter at the bar leaves Stephen tongue-tied and blushing, and he dreams of something more. It’s only when handsome newcomer Henry Thomas arrives that Stephen finally figures out why he doesn’t fit in: he’s gay. The realisation brings him little comfort: Henry not only rejects him, but also makes sure he’s ostracised by his peers. Because being gay in 1997 – especially in a small town, and even more especially when you’re still at school – is a long, long way from easy. Things only improve when the annual Country and Western festival rolls into town, and a keyboard-playing drag queen offers Stephen a way out…

Andy McGregor’s one-man (and a band) musical is a delight. The writing nails the open homophobia still so prevalent in the late 90s; I was a teacher then, and Clause 28 was crippling. Coming-out tales are far from rare, but this one soars: the songs are bold yet nuanced, and actor Stephen Arden really brings to life the young man’s loneliness and yearning. It’s always apparent that Stephen is a caterpillar, waiting to grow his wings, and – when he does – his exuberance is catching. There’s a real sense of celebration in the final act, and we leave smiling, sharing some of Stephen’s catharsis. Arden has an impressive vocal range, and the three-piece band (Kim Shepherd and Simon Donaldson, led by musical director Andy Manning) produce an impressively full sound. Arden acknowledges their presence, interacting with them occasionally, so that they are seamlessly integrated into the play.

The set (by Kenny Miller) is simple but very effective. A large photograph of Millport’s famous but – sorry – undeniably awful Crocodile Rock serves as a background, contrasting wonderfully with the sequinned glamour Stephen eventually embraces. The photo not only hides a sliding door, but also some hinged boards that open up to show us Stephen’s cartoon-themed bedroom, reminding us of just how young he is, poised on the cusp between boy and man.

Crocodile Rock is on tour. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’ve missed your chance in Edinburgh, but you can still catch it at the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen on 4th November. It’s a real treat.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

Don’t. Make. Tea.

06/10/22

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Chris (Gillian Dean) is feeling understandably nervous. It’s the year 2030 and today she’s having her assessment. Chris has OPMD, which means that she is partially sighted, has trouble walking and is in constant pain. This rare condition is degenerative, so things are only going to get worse – but, under a recently implemented system, claimants are assessed ‘positively’, i.e. on what they can do rather than on what they can’t do.

The process will be depressingly familiar to those who have been through a PIP assessment. Points are awarded throughout the frustratingly opaque interview. If Chris scores five, she will be expected to take on part-time work. Score ten and she can go full-time! All Chris knows is that she has no money in her account and her electricity supply is set to switch itself off when the meter hits zero. She’s desperate. Meanwhile, her life is supervised by ‘Able’, an Alexa-like hub that offers a commentary on everything she says and does… and may just be capable of informing on her should she ever step out of line.

Enter Ralph (Aidan Scott), the sly, smirking interrogator who will determine Chris’s future. ‘We listened,’ he keeps telling her, and then proceeds to turn her words against her. His questions are cunningly designed to trip her up and he’s on to all the received wisdom that has served her up to now (‘be you on your worst day’; ‘don’t show them you can make a cup of tea’).

This clever and prescient piece from Birds of Paradise Theatre, written by Rob Drummond and directed by Robert Softly Gale, is designed to be as accessible as possible. Able’s irksome commentary acts as a kind of audio description, while on a huge TV screen that dominates one wall, Francis (the engagingly comic Emery Hunter) helpfully translates everything into sign language. An overhead video display also offers viewers the text. I’ve rarely seen audio-visual aids so skilfully integrated; indeed, they are characters in their own right.

It’s a show of two halves. The first is essentially a taut two-hander as Chris and Ralph go through the various hoops and hurdles of the assessment. The narrative becomes increasingly adversarial and the interview builds to a frantic conclusion. As the lights go down for the interval, I ask myself where this can possibly go next.

The second act is an entirely different kind of beast, a high-powered slice of farce as new figures appear, seemingly out of nowhere. It would be wrong to give too much away but there are some wildly funny moments here, though the piece never forgets that it has an important message about disability rights to get across – something it skilfully manages without thumping me over the head.

Don’t. Make.Tea. is a dystopian vision of an all-too credible near future, a play laced with dark humour and some genuine surprises. Cleverly crafted to be accessible to the widest possible audience, it’s an exciting slice of contemporary theatre.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

He Who Opens the Door

04/10/22

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The ‘Play Pie Pint’ season continues, and this week’s offering is a dark comedy by Ukrainian playwright, Neda Nezhdana. The morgue where Vera (Louise Stewart) works is situated in an underground bunker, originally built as a bomb shelter. For Vera, this is just a normal, boring nightshift, babysitting the dead: filling out paperwork, flicking through a magazine and half-heartedly exercising – anything to pass the time. But then Vika (Yolanda Mitchell) stumbles from the freezer into the office, still drunk from the night before. She doesn’t know where she is, or why there’s a tag on her foot. Vera faints at the sight of a walking corpse and, when she comes round, she’s confused. Is Vika alive, or is Vera dead? Suddenly, shockingly, the two women realise the doors are locked and Vera’s phone has no signal. And then the landline rings…

He Who Opens the Door has been adapted by John Faradon, and – although the setting is still Ukraine – there’s a distinctly Scottish flavour to this production. I can see what director Becky Hope-Palmer is aiming for but, for me, this muddies things somewhat. It’s a metaphorical play, “reflecting the limbo for some people in eastern Ukraine, caught between opposing forces”, but I’m not immediately aware of where I am supposed to be: the signs, flags and magazine title tell me one thing, while the tone tells me another. Likewise, the programme says ‘present day’ but that’s not quite true: the script pre-dates the Russian invasion. This adds to my confusion, as I try to piece together what it all means. Not all of the jokes land, either, although the more serious points are eloquently made. I have to confess I’m a bit uncomfortable with Vera’s anti-abortion rhetoric (in particular, the assertion that women are always damaged by the process), and I’m not sure how this particular revelation contributes to the discourse. Still, this is only one idea amid a kaleidoscope of other, more enticing hypotheses about autonomy and independence.

In truth, there’s a lot of good stuff here. Both Stewart and Mitchell deliver strong, compelling performances, and it’s a lively, engaging piece. There are echos of Beckett in the waiting and uncertainty, and of Pinter too: those enigmatic phone calls reminiscent of the notes the dumb waiter delivers to hitmen Ben and Gus. Impressively, Hope-Palmer manages to convey a sense of time passing inexorably, as the women await their fates, while simultaneously offering us a play that gallops along at pace. Amidst the existential dread, there is dancing and singing; in the darkness, there is light.

He Who Opens the Door is not an easy play, but it is a fascinating one, and I can’t think of a more fruitful way to spend a lunchtime.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

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