Traverse Theatre

In Other Words

01/03/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

‘A play about dementia set to the music of Frank Sinatra.’

On paper, it doesn’t sound like the most appealing proposition, does it? But this clever piece, written by Matthew Seager, is an affecting study of the ways in which dementia, that most insidious of illnesses, can gradually overtake someone’s life. It also examines the pressures placed upon partners, who increasingly find themselves becoming carers. I have some personal experience here, because the last ten years of my mother’s life were affected by Alzheimer’s – and watching the way Arthur (Seager) and Jane (Angela Hardie)’s close and  loving relationship is gradually destroyed by the inexorable onset of dementia is, of course, tragic and compelling.

We first encounter the couple at their clumsy introduction in a bar, back when they were young and carefree – and we watch their first tentative dance to the titular Sinatra song, the one that is destined to become a touchstone in their lives – but, almost immediately, we slip forward to their harrowing present as Arthur deteriorates before our eyes, transforming into a mute, quivering figure in a chair, the unpalatable reality signalled by a flickering standard lamp and ominous, echoing sound effects. The performances from the two leads are exemplary, and the simple but effective staging works well, snapping me backwards and forwards in time without ever confusing me. It’s poignant to see present day Arthur suddenly transform to his younger, more vital self.

If there’s anything missing from the story, it’s a look into the the characters’ external lives. We learn very little about what they do outside of their relationship. Where, for instance, do they work? What are their interests (other than the music of Mr Sinatra)?And there’s only one brief scene that has a passing reference to any friends they might have. Perhaps Seager wants to concentrate all his attention on the couple’s mutual dependency, but it’s harder to mourn what’s been lost when we haven’t been shown a full picture of it. I’m also a little unsure of how old Arthur is supposed to be when he first begins to exhibit signs of the illness.

But there’s no doubting the sincerity of the story or the fact that it tackles a very important subject with sensitivity and understanding. Seager first became interested in the idea when he worked alongside people with dementia and noticed how regular exposure to music served to calm their mounting terrors. I also know from personal experience that people in the grip of dementia can be perfectly lucid about events that happened decades earlier, but have no memory of what happened minutes ago – a condition that is expertly conveyed here. I cry quite a lot during this performance as it evokes personal memories.

After this brief showing at the Traverse, In Other Words moves on to The Tron Theatre in Glasgow. See it if you can and be prepared to weep.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Theatre Bouquets 2018

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

Another year, another plethora of exciting theatre. We’ve been moved, motivated and mesmerised by so much of what we’ve seen. And here, in order of viewing, are our favourites of 2018.

The Belle’s Stratagem – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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This production looked ravishing, the brightly-hued costumes blazing against the simple monochrome set. Fast, furious and frenetic, this was a real crowd-pleaser.

Rhinoceros – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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A truly glorious production, as witty and vivacious as it was prescient. There were some great comic turns, and the sensual, Middle Eastern-inflected music added to the mood of transformation.

Creditors – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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We thought we’d seen all we wanted of Strindberg, but Creditors made us think again. Because this production was a prime example of the director’s art: the realisation of a vision that illuminated and animated the playwright’s words, breathing new life into old ideas.

Sunshine on Leith – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

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Sunshine On Leith was an absolute charmer. From the opening chords of the climactic I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), the entire audience was delightedly clapping hands and stamping feet with a force that seemed to shake the beautiful old theatre to its very foundations.

Home, I’m Darling – Theatr Clwyd, Yr Wyddgrug

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A clever play, with a lot to say. Katherine Parkinson starred as Judy, a woman obsessed with the 1950s. Through her brittle fetishisation of the past, the script laid bare the problem with rose-tinted reminiscence and looked at the present with an eye that matched Judy’s gimlet cocktail.

Not in Our Neighbourhood – Gilded Balloon, Rose Theatre, Edinburgh

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This powerful and compelling production, written and directed by Jamie McCaskill, tackled the difficult subject of domestic abuse and featured an astonishing central performance from Kali Kopae. We saw some superb acting at the Fringe this year, but this was singularly impressive.

Six the Musical – Udderbelly, Edinburgh

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An inventive and exuberant pop-opera, which felt like the most exciting, vibrant history lesson ever. The band and actors powered effortlessly through a whole range of different musical styles, from straight pop to power ballad, from soul to Germanic disco. The songs featured witty lyrics which related the women’s experiences in modern day terms – and we’ve been obsessed with them ever since.

The Swell Mob – Assembly George Square, Edinburgh

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The most genuinely immersive theatrical experience we’ve ever been part of. We were free to wander the 1830s tap room, replete with a real bar, and mix with a whole host of extraordinary characters: a crooked American doctor, a fortune teller, a soldier, a card-player… The more we engaged, the more was revealed… Superb and truly innovative.

Macbeth – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

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We were relieved and delighted that this touring production was so good. We knew that this interpretation of the play had been quite controversial, but it really worked for us. It captured the very essence of Macbeth and illuminated the themes and characters with great clarity.

The Unreturning – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

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A tale about young men and the shattering effect that war can have on them, simultaneously a requiem for the past and a chilling warning for our potential future. The haunting prose was augmented by incredible physicality as the actors ran, leapt, clambered and whirled around the stage in a series of perfectly choreographed moves.

Beauty and the Beast – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

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There’s panto – and then there’s panto at the King’s, where the ante is well and truly upped. Here, we were treated to an absolute master class in the form: there’s an art to making the precise look shambolic, the crafted seem accidental. And it was so funny – even the oldest, daftest jokes had us roaring with laughter.

Mouthpiece – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

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Powered by searing performances from Neve Macintosh and Lorn MacDonald, Mouthpiece was, quite simply, an astonishing play. Kieran Hurley’s ingenious circular narrative eventually brought the two protagonists head-to-head in a brilliant fourth-wall breaking climax.

Susan Singfield & Philip Caveney

 

 

Mouthpiece

 

06/12/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

When an author creates a character for a play, to whom does that character belong? The writer, yes? But what if the character is based on a living person – somebody who exists outside of the fiction? Does the author then have a responsibility to that person? And, if they change certain details of the character’s life, does that constitute a betrayal of trust?

It’s questions like this that permeate Kieran Hurley’s powerful and compelling play, Mouthpiece. As a creator of fiction myself, I find it particularly intriguing, though – judging by the intense silence in the Traverse Theatre on the evening I attend – I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.

Libby (Neve McIntosh) is a struggling playwright, recently returned to her home city of Edinburgh. Once fêted as the ‘next big thing,’ she has lost her way in London and is back living with her mother, unsure of what to do next. Her unhappiness leads her up to Salisbury Crags, where, fuelled by liquor, she rashly decides to fling herself from the heights and be done with it. But she’s been observed by disaffected teenager, Declan (Lorn Macdonald), who pulls her back from the edge. Declan too is unhappy, angry with his brutish stepfather’s treatment of his mother and of the infant daughter that Declan dotes on. He has come up to the Crags to work on one of his surreal drawings, undisturbed. The last thing he needs is this kind of interruption.

Fascinated by the boy, Libby seeks him out the following day, asking if he’ll meet up with her again, ‘just to talk.’ Already, her writer’s instincts have kicked in and she is beginning to plan a new project, one in which Declan will figure prominently.

Powered by searing performances from Macintosh and Macdonald, and simply staged within a skewed rectangular frame (which seems to perfectly showcase the ‘head-movie’ evolving in Libby’s mind), Mouthpiece occasionally breaks aside from the action for Libby to deliver short lectures on how successful plays are put together – and we start to notice how the writer changes those elements of Declan’s life that don’t quite fit with her plans. Even the parts lifted directly from reality must be reshaped, restructured, the jagged edges smoothed. This is how fiction is created and, it’s clear, these observations have been arrived at through personal experience.

Hurley’s ingenious circular narrative eventually brings Libby and Declan head-to-head in a brilliant fourth-wall breaking climax. As Declan sneeringly observes, it’s ‘all really meta.’

And, you know what? It is. And it’s wonderful to behold.

By this point I am absolutely riveted by what’s unfolding in front of me, barely daring to draw breath, in case I miss a word. Hurley has created something very special here, something that deserves to reach the widest possible audience.

It’s quite simply one of the best new plays I’ve seen in quite a while. Should you go and see it? Yes, I really think you should.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

McGonnagall’s Chronicles (which will be remembered for a very long time)

06/12/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The McGonagall of the title is, of course, William Topaz McGonnagall, the infamous ‘Bard of Dundee,’ widely celebrated as the worst poet of all time. A weaver by trade and a jobbing actor for a short while, McGonnagall embarked on his writing career in 1877, inspired by a ‘heavenly visitation’ and, by the time of his death in 1902, had left a legacy of over 250 (admittedly dreadful) self-published poems. In his declining years, he was treated with scant respect by the citizens of Dundee, where he was reduced to appearing in a circus tent, reading his poems aloud while members of the public pelted him with ripe fruit and rotten eggs.

As the name suggests, this show, written and performed by Gary McNair, with musical accompaniment from James O’ Sullivan and Simon Liddell, offers us a chronological history of the great man’s life from birth to demise. Fittingly enough, the play is delivered entirely in verse and McNair gleefully takes every opportunity to make his recitation appear as clunky and wince-inducing as the work of the great man himself.

It’s in the final third where the major surprises come. I’ve been fully expecting to laugh at McGonnagall’s exploits, but am quite unprepared for the overpowering tragedy of his hard-knock life. What comes across most strongly is the man’s indomitable self-belief: his determination to struggle on in the face of overwhelming ridicule. It probably boils down to yet another poorly-educated working-class man desperately trying to better himself, while the toffs around him look on and snigger.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

McNair has his own cross to bear during this afternoon’s performance, when a gentleman in the front row leaps suddenly to his feet and scuttles out of the nearest exit. McNair, interrupted mid-verse, has his concentration well and truly shattered, but deals with the interruption playfully (and in rhyme!) before regaining his momentum.

This is an enjoyable and thought-provoking romp through one of history’s most peculiar stories, and it’s a show well worth seeking out. As for McGonnagall himself, well, he has the last laugh. Hundreds of years after his death, his poems are still widely available in print, which is more than can be said for many of his contemporaries. As McNair and his musicians take their well-earned bows, I’m half convinced I can hear the sound of triumphant cackling from somewhere high above the audience… but, hey, maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about that sub-title, look up the Bard’s masterwork, The Tay Bridge Disaster and all will be explained.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

There is a Globe Stuck in my Throat

15/11/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

There is a Globe Stuck in My Throat is an unusual piece of work, devised by Germany’s Junges Ensemble Marabu, and presented by the Traverse as part of the Chrysalis festival. The festival is in its fourth year, and has an exciting remit: to offer a platform to young theatre makers, allowing them to experiment with form and content in a professional environment.

On the form side, There is a Globe… certainly shakes things up successfully: we ricochet from conference to competition, from space-hopper silliness to images of tragedy. The Junges Ensemble Marabu are an engaging crew, their costumes all colour and sparkle, their space-age make-up both startling and oddly distancing. The direction is deft and confident, and there are some strong images created: the drone ‘copters flying in coloured clouds of oxytocin; the lines of children-in-need photographs that stretch across the stage. This is something of a scattergun approach, but it’s bold and fresh; I like the look and feel of it.

The content, however, is less persuasive: there is a rambling and sometimes incoherent quality that offers little new insight. Of course, this seems to be the point: that we in the privileged western world sit around talking, prioritising our own feelings, doling out charity and shrugging our shoulders, unable to distinguish between real tragedy and the dog shit in the street. Meanwhile, elsewhere, millions are starving; thousands are displaced and seeking refuge. We switch off the TV and look away; we fiddle while Rome burns. But this is clear from the first twenty minutes; after that, it’s all just more of the same, dressed up in different clothes.

I’d have liked the ideas to have been pushed further: to dig deeper, say more.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

The Last Witch

 

10/11/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s 1727, and Janet Horne (Deirdre Davis) is eking out a living in the Scottish Highlands with her teenage daughter, Helen (Fiona Wood). Times are tough: they have no peat for their fire and very little food. But Janet knows what to do: a few incantations, some good luck charms and a venomous tongue are all she needs. If the neighbours think she’s a witch, then they will try to keep her sweet…

And, by and large, it seems to work. The people of Dornoch might fear Janet, but they like her too, for her healing hands and her lively spirit. Even the local clergyman (Graham Mackey-Bruce) seems content to turn a blind eye her way. But, when Douglas Begg (Alan Steele)’s cattle succumb to sickness, he blames Janet and, in his anger, reports her to the sheriff, David Ross (David Rankine). And the wheels are set in motion for what turns out to be Britain’s last ever legal execution for witchcraft.

This revival of Rona Munro’s 2009 play has been designed by Ken Harrison, with two huge discs dominating the acting space. The first forms a stage, raked at a steep angle, cracked like dry earth; the second is suspended above, a moon, sometimes reflecting the ground below, sometimes projecting other images. It’s stark and atmospheric, ingenious in its simplicity – and the brutal beauty of the final scene is really something to behold, especially the light on Elspeth Begg (Helen Logan)’s face as she shouts her cryptic message of support.

Deirdre Davis is superb in the lead role, a beguiling, unapologetic rebel, forging her own path. Janet Horne is a strong woman: sensual, clever, brave and charismatic – and Davis’s performance brings her forcibly to life. She might cling a little too closely to her daughter, afraid to let her go, but she loves her fiercely nonetheless; she only wants to keep her safe. Because the world – as Janet knows – is cruel, and Helen’s claw-like hands and feet will be seen by some as the devil’s mark. Their spiky relationship is delightfully depicted, Fiona Wood subtly teasing out Helen’s frustration and naivety. Little wonder she’s such easy prey for the enigmatic Nick (Alan Mirren).

Richard Baron’s direction is faultless: this is a fluid, unsettling piece, carefully choreographed and visually arresting. But the real magic lies in the writing, Munro’s lyrical script an absolute delight.

It’s a shame that this is such a short tour. There’s only one more chance to see this production; if you’re free, head to the Traverse tonight. Otherwise, you really have missed out.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Stuff

06/05/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Sylvia Dow’s Stuff, the story of Magda, a woman who struggles with a hoarding disorder, really resonates with me. Not that I have the same affliction – I don’t; I’m definitely on the ‘minimalist’ side of the spectrum – but I did have an uncle who lived a life a lot like hers. The play reminds me of him, and it makes me sad. Mainly because I miss him, but also because of how much he missed out.

Directed by Muriel Romanes, this is a subtle, nuanced piece, told with tenderness and care, and never judgemental: not about Magda and her teetering piles of junk; not about her daughter, Chrissie (Romana Abercromby), who’s never once phoned since she left home; not about Jackie (Pauline Lockhart), the social worker assigned to ensure Magda clears her home because the neighbours have complained.

Carol Ann Crawford’s Magda is at the centre of the piece, and it’s a lovely performance. Magda’s sadness and vulnerability are palpable throughout, but so are her humour and her humanity. And Rosemary Nairne’s opera-singing Mama-ghost adds an extra dimension, physicalising the memories Magda can’t let go, not least her childhood in war-torn Ukraine. The singing is haunting and beautiful.

The set is rather special too. It doesn’t seem so at first: just a pile of boxes and scattered sheet music. But the boxes begin to reveal a doll’s house of recollections, cleverly constructed miniatures, designed by John and Jeanine Byrne. There’s a graveyard, a grand piano, a teetering pile of chairs: eight boxes, eight spaces, eight specific memories. No wonder Magda struggles to give up her precious things.

Tonight is Stuff‘s last night at the Traverse, and it’s sold out – but, if you can get hold of a return ticket, it’s certainly worth your while. This is a thoughtful, thought-provoking play, and I know that it will stay with me.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield