I am an Edinburgh-based freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. My feature writing covers celebrity interviews, human interest stories, restaurant reviews, travel articles and opinion pieces, as well as theatre, music and art reviews. Publications I write for include The Guardian, Scotland on Sunday, the Sunday Times, The Herald and The Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success, published in February 2012. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide. See my website for more information and comprehensive Scottish theatre links.
IMAGINE a bedbound Peer Gynt. That's what Ann Louise Ross brings to mind playing Catherine Miller in Stuart Paterson's free-form poem of a play. It's about a woman stopped in her tracks by a stroke and cast on an epic journey that, due to the disorientation of her condition, blurs the boundaries of past and present, fact and fantasy.
Plays about people at the end of their life often run into the problem of inertia. When all the conflict is in the past, it's hard for the playwright to build momentum. Here, the boss of a road-haulage business may be in a hospital, half paralysed and frequently unable to speak, but like the road that divides the audience in Lisa Sangster's purpose-built set, she still has places to go before she relinquishes control.
Equally, although Cars and Boys appears to be going somewhere, it's not always certain where. Miller is on a quest for resolution, and her head is full of loose ends: lost loves from the 1950s, her grandson's sex life, theScottish independence debate, the future of her business. The confusion is part of the point, but it's hard to know if these disconnected stories have some greater significance.
Paterson's lyricism, playfulness and vigour ward off the impulse to be maudlin or nostalgic. Accompanied by Greg Sinclair's live cello in Philip Howard's good-looking production, it is a dreamlike piece of theatre, more evocation than drama, that never ceases to grip.
No small credit for this must go to Ross, whose hard-as-nails performance reveals a woman who won't easily be dragged down by the ghostly visitations from the past, nor by the attempts of family and staff to stop her being so wilfully herself. As her character ails, Ross remains a dynamic theatrical force.
Published in the Guardian Vanishing Point on tour Four stars
IF THERE was ever an unlikely candidate for a tribute musical it's Ivor Cutler. An acquired taste even in his lifetime, the self-styled "oblique musical philosopher" existed in a hinterland between late-night John Peel, homespun poetry and post-Goons comedy. Seeing him on stage in the 80s, I was always fascinated by a figure who seemed to have invented himself, a performer with neither precedent nor peer.
One of the best things about this marvellous production by Vanishing Point and the National Theatre of Scotland is how it provides the missing context. It's partly the way Sandy Grierson tells Cutler's life story, breaking off for poems, stories and songs en route. He takes us from bullied Glasgow schoolboy to hapless RAF pilot, unfashionably liberal schoolteacher and, after a move to London, his role as Buster Bloodvessel in the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour. In itself, the narrative is unremarkable – certainly less remarkable than the man himself – but it functions as a convenient structure on which to hang his work.
More particularly, the context is fleshed out by James Fortune's live band, which explores the musical pedigree of Cutler's harmonium, drawing out its roots in Scottish lament, Jewish klezmer, calypso and modern jazz. It shows the work to be even richer than you appreciated, even if, like Grierson's performance, the music rises to a level of exuberance that is out of step with the poet's minimalist persona.
This is no Stars in Their Eyes pastiche and yet Grierson captures perfectly Cutler's emphatic cadences, precise enunciation and tone, which was too dry to be droll and too funny to be petulant. Playing opposite a gorgeously contained Elicia Daly as girlfriend Phyllis King, he shows Cutler as an artist straddling the unsettling boundary between the violent and the whimsical, the existential and the surreal. It is the tribute of a true devotee.
Fittingly, director Matthew Lenton prizes the aural as highly as the visual, switching from the radio techniques of the foley artist to Kai Fischer's striking lighting designs as quickly as he moves from spoken word to rock. The production is rich in quirky metatheatrical detail, not least in a series of cameo caricatures by actor-musician Ed Gaughan, which are tempered only a little by the story of Cutler's dementia prior to his death in 2006. Poignancy aside, the result is a big grin of a show, as funny and idiosyncratic as Cutler and every bit as embraceable.
IN THE standard Kafkaesque nightmare, the hero always finds himself trapped in a hell of red tape with no chance of escape. The difference here, in this sweet-natured puppet fantasy for the over-fives, is that fastidious Larry rather enjoys his dreary desk job.
Recalling one of Don Martin's long-faced cartoons from Mad magazine, this happy office worker taps away at his keyboard as he processes the steady flow of tickets that pop up in front of him. Such is his dedication to the task that his colleagues know to keep their distance. Larry's far too busy to break for coffee or lunch.
That's until his routine is broken. In a shocking and funny intrusion from the natural world, the next thing to pop through the slot in his desk (built from a suitcase like everything in this boxed-in world) is a bright green leaf. This call of the wild symbolises everything – beauty, freedom, imagination – that Larry has repressed. His neat-and-tidy absolutism has been challenged.
It's a fine starting point for puppeteer Ailie Cohen, performing alongside Rick Conte, to exploit the creative possibilities of her artform. Larry finds himself taken on a transformative journey from high seas to deep outer space, relinquishing control to the Quarks, a free-floating species of golden-brown suitcase dwellers, who have taken it upon themselves to bring balance to the lopsided universe.
If you find yourself with a lacklustre star, these are the creatures who will restore its sparkle. Where you encounter conflict, they will send a package of love and hugs. And for a man bereft of creativity, they will provide adventure.
Co-written by Lewis Hetherington and with autumn dates already lined up at London's Unicorn, The Secret Life of Suitcases is a quietly inventive tale of discovery in which the good guy confronts his fears and comes out even better.
Published in the Guardian Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh Two stars
WAS THERE a secret clause in the 1707 Act of Union? Did it state that every Scottish historical drama had to be set in a pub off Edinburgh's Royal Mile, populated by ne'er-do-wells, undercover nobles and a poet who would declaim Roman verse whenever the conversation flagged? Was there a further stipulation that no woman could appear unless she were a prostitute or a royal?
If so, then playwright Tim Barrow follows the decree to the letter. But it's not over-familiarity that lets Union down so much as its lack of narrative interest.
Given the urgency of the subject matter, this is odd. Six months before Scotland votes on independence, the play highlights the shaky foundation of the union. With Daniel Defoe acting as a go-between for the English establishment, it shows how Scotland's parliamentarians, financially crippled by the colonial misadventure of the Darien scheme, were bribed to vote in favour of a united kingdom.
Barrow establishes this early on and returns to it at the end. In between, there is little conflict and much extraneous material. You could imagine it adapting well to a House of Cards-style study of realpolitik as nobles are nobbled and favours called in. Instead, Barrow gets distracted by the inconsequential relationship between the poet Allan Ramsay and a prostitute, and by the ravings of a potty-mouthed Queen Anne. Perhaps we're supposed to see the prostitute's abortion as a symbol of Scotland's thwarted ambitions and the queen's miscarriages as a metaphor for England's emotional dead-end, but the ideas are not developed and the scenes hard to justify.
Mark Thomson's cast show flashes of inspiration, but tonally it's all over the place, swerving between serious costume drama and pantomimic satire. And although the fate of two nations is in the balance, it's surprisingly easy to forget what's at stake.
Published in the Guardian Birds of Paradise/Random Accomplice on tour Four stars
JAKE thinks he's in with a chance. After a volley of sexting with an attractive stranger called Laura, he has taken up the invitation for a one-night stand at her Cumbernauld flat. Despite finding her already in bed, bosom heaving and ready for action, he gets less than he bargained for. And when he strips down to his Diesel underpants, so does she.
It's tempting to say that Johnny McKnight's play for Birds of Paradise and Random Accomplice is about the tyranny of body image, the urge for sex, the need for love, and the gulf between erotic fantasy and flesh-and-blood reality. But that would give the wrong impression. Although it is about all of those things, what strikes you most forcibly is how outrageously funny it is.
Big laughs hit you from every direction: from the British sign language interpreter who takes a break to eat a Cadbury Creme Egg at the same time as the actors; from the captions which come complete with cheery emoticons, high-street logos and vulgar graphics; from the audio describer, a privately educated prude who keeps up a withering commentary far beyond the requirements of her job; and, above all, from a cocky yet vulnerable James Young and a defiantly sexy Amy Conachan, who hit joke upon joke as the mismatched couple in this scabrous comedy of manners.
Below the surface, McKnight's play is as liberal and romantic as they come. Through a series of twists that confound expectations, it makes a plea to look beyond physical appearances and job titles to see people as they truly are. At surface level, however, the production, co-directed by McKnight and Robert Softley Gale, has no time for such soppiness; it is rude, ribald and hilariously off-colour, and bodes tremendously well for the new directorship of Birds of Paradise.
Published in the Guardian Stellar Quines on tour Three stars
I BET Christine Lindsay's early-morning dreams are like Dare to Care. If, like her, you had joined the Scottish Prison Service as long ago as 1976, you, too, would have your head filled with the dissonant voices of prisoners and warders. Her play is like a behind-bars Under Milk Wood, a theatrical poem made up of conversational fragments from women who are variously abused, suicidal, deranged and unrepentant. Their voices, which echo along institutional corridors never to be heard beyond the prison walls, are all they have to call their own.
Lindsay's language has an unsentimental authenticity and her characters ask for no special favours; we must take them as we find them. Most commonly, they come across as victims of circumstance, whether it's the fire-raising suffragette we see in flashback or the self-harmer in segregation who was raped by her father. If such characters appeal to our liberal sympathies, it's harder to feel sorry for the loan shark gleefully awaiting release and a return to profit, even if she is one more product of a dysfunctional society.
On the downside, Dare to Care hits one note and sticks to it. There is no plot or character development, and its vision, however brutal and true, is a familiar one.
On the plus side – and it's a very big plus – is Muriel Romanes's production for Stellar Quines. On an open set with microphone and monitors, vaguely reminiscent of the Wooster Group, she choreographs her excellent six-strong cast through an inventive pattern of solos and ensemble pieces. They are isolated beneath Jeanine Davies's high-contrast lighting, its enveloping gloom suggesting no life beyond their closed world, yet when they come together in a series of raps and chants, they drum up a mood of defiant solidarity that does indeed dare you to care.
Published in the Guardian Tron Theatre Three stars
THE LAST time we saw Elaine C Smith, she was sending up Rod Stewart, Gladys Knight and Adele as a Fairy Godmother in the Aberdeen panto. David Greig, meanwhile, has been pulling in the crowds to his adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the West End.
Fans of Cinderella and Roald Dahl are unlikely to be prepared for This Wide Night, a grim slice-of-life two-hander, directed by Greig, in which Smith plays an ex-con. Escapist holiday entertainment it is not.
First staged by Clean Break at London's Soho theatre in 2008, Chloe Moss's kitchen-sink drama is an unsentimental study of two women trying to find a place in the world after they've emerged from the prison system. One, played by Jayd Johnson, is a former drug addict, prone to shoplifting and coerced into prostitution. The other, her old cellmate played by Smith, was inside for murder and, at the age of 50, forlornly dreams of rebuilding her family and getting a job.
When Greig saw a production in New York, he was taken by Moss's portrayal of people who society "too often finds expendable". Although they have paid their dues, you'd hardly call them rehabilitated. They are not defined by their crimes, but neither can they escape them. What sets them apart is their isolation.
For all that, the production shows us too much of their vulnerability and too little of their capacity to survive. The early part, especially, is tentative and in need of some brash theatrical energy to disrupt the quiet, conversational realism. Only as the play goes on, and we realise that their greatest dependency is not on drugs or alcohol but on each other, does their odd couple relationship begin to find its emotional force.
IT'S THE climactic scene, in which Noël Coward's mismatched lovers are at loggerheads. On this morning after an embarrassing night before, they're doing their damnedest to remain civil. Or, at least, as civil as they can be when two of them are not speaking and the other two have been dumped on their honeymoons. In its blend of sexual confusion and social anxiety, it's the missing link between A Midsummer Night's Dream and Abigail's Party.
Director Martin Duncan makes the situation more excruciating still by forcing them, cheek to cheek, on to the same couch. Banging elbows and knocking knees over a cup of coffee, they give their inner awkwardness an outer shape.
Half-comic, half-horrific, the scene encapsulates the play's most telling line: "Has it ever struck you that flippancy might cover a very real embarrassment?" This is not simply a comedy about posh people and their witty aphorisms, but one in which nobody is in control of their emotions.
It opens at the foot of Francis O'Connor's vertiginous art-deco hotel, bathed in the warm light of an encroaching dusk, where John Hopkins as Elyot Chase cuts a figure somewhere between the suave prettiness of Simon Cowell and the square-jawed machismo of Clark Kent. He's a cool sophisticate with a violent temper.
As the Titania to his Oberon, Kirsty Besterman brilliantly captures the performative quality of his ex-wife Amanda, switching by the line from dry to flirtatious, witty to vitriolic. She manipulates others just as her mood-swings manipulate her.
There's always a danger Sybil and Victor can seem bland in comparison, but Emily Woodward and Ben Deery give gutsy renditions that, for all their middlebrow values, show them to be their own people. Grasping the rhythm and melody of the lines as well as the beats in between them, all the performances are of a very high order indeed.
IF YOU ask a class of drama students why they chose their subject, a majority will answer with an anecdote about seeing a heart-stopping production at a formative age. For me, Willy Russell's Blood Brothers wasn't exactly that (when I saw it at the age of 18, I'd already developed a theatregoing habit), but it did make a tremendous impression.
If I'm calculating right, it was Friday 7 January 1983, and I'd managed to buy a ticket for a preview performance in the very back row, upstairs at the Liverpool Playhouse. It must have been the last seat in the house.
At one point in Chris Bond's production, a door jammed and Barbara Dickson, the first Mrs Johnstone, had to make her entrance round the side. The audience liked that. We knew it was a preview and it made it more real. We gave her an extra round of applause.
Back then, Russell's reputation on Merseyside meant a large audience was happy to turn out for an unknown play. Thanks to John, Paul, George, Ringo … & Bert, Our Day Out and Educating Rita, Russell and other Liverpool playwrights had moved new writing out of the studio-theatre ghetto. I'd heard about Blood Brothers because my mum, a teacher, had seen Russell's earlier nonmusical version on a schools tour, but otherwise, it was just a new show by a popular local author that everyone wanted to see.
What excited me at the time was that this was a musical that had everything. Andrew Schofield came on as a narrator who spoke in rhyming couplets ("So, did y' hear the story of the Johnstone twins?/As like each other as two new pins") which gave the show an air of Greek tragedy. It had a narrative arc to match. That could have been pretentious, except this show was also boisterous, earthy and funny.
It had an authentic working-class voice and, in its story about twins brought up on either side of the class divide, it wore its political heart on its sleeve. This was 18 months after the Toxteth riots, the era of Militantcouncils and Boys from the Blackstuff, and to find socialist principles enshrined in a popular musical felt like a tremendous provocation. It wasn't West End glitz, it was theatre rooted in its place and time.
All this, and a set of sweetly melodic songs by Russell himself that reminded us musicals could work in a folk/pop idiom – just as they had done in the golden era of Broadway. I'm Not Saying a Word, Tell Me It's Not True, Marilyn Monroe … has any playwright since Noël Coward doubled up so persuasively as a composer?
Recently, a friend told me he'd seen the show on a UK tour and was shocked by how bad it was. I don't know, I wasn't there. Maybe it became something else after 30 years. But back at the start of 1983, Blood Brothers stood for everything I believed theatre could be.