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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
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.
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Monday, October 13, 2014

Theatre review: Three Sisters

Published in the Guardian

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

WATCHING John Byrne’s new adaptation of the Chekhov classic, it’s hard to put aside the memory of Alasdair Gray’s notorious “colonisers and settlers” essay. This was the pre-referendum broadside in which the novelist used the loaded language of imperial Britain to describe incomers to Scotland. As Gray saw it, there were those who used the country as a stepping stone for a career elsewhere and those who stayed to make a lasting contribution.
Seen in these terms, Byrne’s three sisters, renamed Olive, Maddy and Renee Penhalligan, plus brother Archie, are instinctive colonisers. They’re an upper-class English military family at the start of the 1960s, shored up in small-town Dunoon because of its proximity to the Holy Loch submarine base, but wishing all the while to be in London. Circumstance, however, makes them settlers. They may dream of the big city, they may be bored by provincial life, they may quote Rupert Brooke’s line about “some corner of a foreign field” being “for ever England”, but, whether as teacher or as district councillor, they are slowly becoming rooted.
If anything, it’s the locals who are most damaged by the dysfunctional relationship. Somewhere off stage, an officer’s wife is making suicide attempts, while Louise McCarthy as Archie’s new wife Natasha replicates the class power structure as she goes from Wemyss Bay innocent to tyrannical lady of the manor. With Byrne’s characteristic wit, she takes on a strangulated hybrid Anglo-Scots accent as she does so.
Elsewhere, the Anglophone setting minimises the opportunity for Byrne’s most baroque language, but director Andy Arnold does the adaptation tremendous justice in a beautifully controlled staging that’s loaded with fine performances. With their radiant red ringlets and sliding scale of accents, Muireann Kelly, Sally Reid and Jessica Hardwick make a compelling central trio, all dry wit and tough sisterly honesty, resignedly tolerating Jonathan Watson’s touchingly ineffectual Archie.
© Mark Fisher 2014 
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Thursday, October 02, 2014

Theatre review: Outlying Islands

Published in the Guardian
Seen at Heart of Hawick
Three stars

WHEN civilisation finally catches up with Shakespeare’s Prospero and Miranda in The Tempest, there’s the assumption that they’ll leave their island behind. This magic and wildness is all very well, but it’s no match for society. Heading back to Italy, with all its order and discipline, is taken as read.
There’s a similar conflict between the tame and the wild in David Greig’sOutlying Islands. First seen in 2002 and now revived by director Richard Baron in a quietly absorbing production for the Borders-based Firebrand company, it begins with two young men from the ministry showing up on an Outer Hebridean rock.
This is 1939 and, with war breaking out in Europe, the island could be the wilderness the authorities need to carry out their anthrax tests. That’s news to James Rottger’s buttoned-up John and Martin Richardson’s libertarian Robert. As far as they’re concerned, they’re here to conduct an ornithological survey. To spend a few weeks in such a pristine environment has been their lifetime ambition.
As in The Tempest, it’s assumed they’ll go back home at the end of their stay. But what would happen, speculates Greig, if nature overwhelmed their stiff-upper-lip reserve? What if the island’s Miranda – Helen Mackay’s wide-eyed Ellen – offered an alternative way to live with her seductive mixture of innocence and sexual freedom? What if the opportunity to swim naked, to be unobserved, to be as unburdened by morality as the animals, became too great to resist? Why leave the island at all?
In this way, John and Robert are opposing aspects of our own personalities. We empathise with the self-restraint of one, but envy the lack of inhibition of the other and, once they’ve seen off the paternalistic hand of Crawford Logan as Ellen’s uncle, it’s hard to see why they shouldn’t answer the call of the wild.
© Mark Fisher 2014 
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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Theatre review: Hamlet

Published in the Guardian
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

SOMEWHERE at the back of the open stage, Ben Onwukwe, as the ghost of the old king, stands in silhouette beneath a fierce white light, his voice compressed and crackly like an analogue broadcast. Nikola Kodjabashia’s live score, a cacophony of strummed piano wire, open strings and rumbling percussion, has risen to a formidable volume. At the point of greatest intensity, the focus cuts abruptly to Brian Ferguson’s Hamlet. Downstage, warmly lit, with a sea of darkness behind him, it’s as if he’s stepped into the room with us.
And you can imagine him doing that. With his sensible suit, black glasses and air of studiousness (his preferred reading is Dante), this Hamlet is not a natural hero but an ordinary young man placed in extraordinary circumstances. He’s prone to the occasional outburst but, more typically, he’s thoughtful and considered. Yes, he vacillates, but only as much as anyone would if they suspected the poisoner of their father to be Peter Guinness’s Claudius. He is an unnerving mix of the sleazy and the diplomatic.
What emerges in Dominic Hill’s exhilarating production is the story of a good man’s struggle against a society full of corruption and suspicion. A flank of reel-to-reel tape recorders suggests an era of cold-war surveillance. The speed with which Cliff Burnett’s Polonius changes character – from a bumptious bon vivant with a Paul Raymond moustacheto a brutal patriarch keeping his daughter, Ophelia, in line – suggests a male-dominated society that has little place for Hamlet’s sensitivities, let alone female values.
No wonder Meghan Tyler’s strident Ophelia turns to drink and dies the vodka-induced death of a 1960s rock casualty. It’s the only way to cope with the pressure. With Roberta Taylor’s Gertrude reduced to a defeated mumble, Hill’s lucid production is a study of the forces that drive fathers and sons to destruction.
© Mark Fisher 2014 
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Theatre review: Kill Johnny Glendenning

Published in the Guardian
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Three stars

ONE of last year’s biggest Scottish theatre hits was David Harrower’s Ciara, a monologue about a woman born into a Glasgow crime family and doing all she can to get out. With Kill Johnny Glendenning, playwright DC Jackson is in similar territory, only this time he plays it as farce. Where Harrower gave us a subtle meditation on the difficulty of cultural change, Jackson offers a Tarantino-esque bloodbath of violent excess and a script of machine-gun hilarity.
Set in a farmhouse hideaway – or, as Jackson’s colourful turn of phrase would have it, a “sub-human shit-shack in the anus of Ayrshire” – the play is about the kidnapping of an investigative reporter caught up in a gangland feud over the proceeds of a heroin shipment. In the flashback second act, which cleverly gives us the motivations behind the seemingly random killings of the first, we learn that one of the kidnappers is married to the mob. His wife, like Harrower’s Ciara, is determined to get out.
The world she’s escaping is one of cartoonish bravado, shaped by the romantic glamour of the gangster movie and the mystique of the celebrity criminal. One of the kidnappers wears a suit inspired by Al Pacino in Scarface, while the rival crime bosses boast of the number of books written about them.
Like the others in Mark Thomson’s full-blooded production, David Ireland gives a scarily funny performance. As the eponymous lead, he always carries an air of psychopathic menace (despite Johnny’s love of reggae stalwarts Aswad). I laughed a lot, but kept feeling the play was only ever as good as the last joke. Despite its echoes of Glasgow’s real-life ice-cream wars, Jackson’s comic universe has more murderous exuberance than satirical bite.
© Mark Fisher 2014 
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Theatre review: Still Game

Published in the Guardian

Hyrdo, Glasgow
Three stars

THE last time I saw Still Game on stage was at the Brunton in Musselburgh, a theatre with a capacity of 300. That was in the late 1990s and now, after six television series, sundry seasonal specials and a seven-year hiatus, Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill have built up the pulling power to play a 21-night run at the Hydro in front of 12,000 people a time.
This is theatre on a scale I have never seen. It’s so big, I’m not even sure theatre is the right word for it. The stage is dominated by three giant screens showing a sophisticated live edit of the sitcom action below. Even in the posh seats, it feels more like being a studio audience.
With voices echoing, Gavin Mitchell’s Boaby the barman opens up at the Clansman in time for his regulars, while Sanjeev Kohli’s Navid sets out the value pies in the corner shop. The audience – or is it a rally? – roars its approval with every arrival, not least when everybody’s favourite geriatric jesters Jack and Victor finally show up in Jack’s front room.
So far so cosy, but then something extraordinary happens. Sensing the untheatrical nature of their own TV love-in, Kiernan and Hemphill move from self-referential jokes about the inadvisability of comeback gigs to a meta-theatrical discussion about the fourth wall. Before we know it, they’ve switched to direct audience address and full-on standup patter.
They transform the energy in the room and, although the show settles back into sitcom familiarity for a story about Jack giving a drunken, transatlantic, father-of-the-bride speech, the stakes have been raised. All it takes is for Jane McCarry’s rosy-cheeked Isa to drink some magic mushroom soup and the stage becomes a hallucinogenic Bollywood spectacular. It’s a thrilling end to Michael Hines’s production and a narrow theatrical victory.
© Mark Fisher 2014 
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Theatre review: The Glass Menagerie

Published in the Guardian

Dundee Rep
Four stars

"THINGS have a way of turning out so badly," runs the caption along the top of Alex Lowde's set. It's the most telling of a series of quotations from the Tennessee Williams classic that flash up throughout Jemima Levick's production. It is the director's way of reminding us of the theatrical artifice.
Levick takes her cue from the playwright's opening monologue, in which Tom Wingfield tells us about the play ahead, outlining the construction, conceits and symbolism of his autobiographical tale of an overbearing mother, a pitifully shy sister and the narrator himself, a Shakespeare-in-waiting.
Played by Robert Jack with still and steady control, he brings on a microphone to address us directly, like a self-aware performance artist. The set behind him is raised as if it too were in quotation marks, something to be examined like poor Laura Wingfield's collection of glass trinkets. Levick's introduction of movement sequences, choreographed by Joan Clevillé, are too intrusive an attempt to turn the domestic into the poetic, but you can see what she's driving at.
In most productions, Amanda Wingfield is a larger-than-life matriarch with a delusional memory of her upbringing in the American south. Here, Irene Macdougall is very much life-size, a woman already defeated by her fall into single parenthood, cheap fabrics and an apartment that's all dowdy autumnal colours. Mark Doubleday emphasises the gloomy air by lighting the room with the heavy shadows and harsh highlights of an Edward Hopper painting. Amanda's level of self-deceit escalates, but her hopes for Laura's first and only gentleman caller are born of sad desperation, not real belief.
Opposite a personable Thomas Cotran as the dinner guest, Millie Turner plays the fragile Laura with an eagerness to please that makes her luckless story even sadder. For all the self-consciousness of the staging, it remains a touching and tender tale.
© Mark Fisher 2014 
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Theatre review: Ubu and the Truth Commission

Published in the Guardian

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Three stars

"WHAT is it that you wash away?" says Busi Zokufa's Ma Ubu as she once again catches her husband spending too long in the shower. Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi is a scatological send-up of Shakespeare's Macbeth, but in this retelling, it is the tyrannical Pa Ubu (Dawid Minnaar), who has trouble ridding himself of that damn'd spot.
As he stands in the shower cubicle, still in his unbecoming vest and underpants, we see an animation by director William Kentridge that illustrates in scratchy white-on-black the guilty secrets he is trying to cleanse himself of. Tumbling towards the plughole is a torrent of human skulls and bones.
In Ubu and the Truth Commission, South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company, famed for its work on War Horse, reframes the Jarry original work in terms of the post-apartheid truth and reconciliation commission. Ma Ubu thought her husband was out philandering, but he was actually running a death squad – represented by a three-headed puppet dog – with the complicity of the state. In her blinkered naivety, she seems to regard this as a lesser crime.
Pa Ubu isn't convinced he has anything to apologise for as the new South Africa is born, but for safety's sake he feeds his incriminating documents, video tapes and instruments of torture to a paper-shredding crocodile. His amoral indifference is in contrast to the first-hand testimonies we hear about police brutality, translated from the original languages and accompanied by Kentridge's darkening images. The implication is that he and his establishment cronies have got off lightly.
Ubu would seem more gruesome in a production with more anarchic energy, and the play surely can't pack the same political punch as it did on its 1997 premiere, but it is a fascinating response to an extraordinary time.
© Mark Fisher 2014 
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Theatre review: Helen Lawrence

Published in the Guardian

King's Theatre, Edinburgh
Two stars

PERHAPS you're a fan of the theatre. What you like is the moment-by-moment thrill of seeing actors perform and a story unfolding in your imagination. Or maybe you're more of a movie buff. You prefer to be immersed in a cinematic dream. Either way, you'll be frustrated by Helen Lawrence, a multimedia hybrid from Canadian Stage that is expensive, hollow and neither one thing nor the other.
The technique, developed by director Stan Douglas, is impressive. His actors inhabit a featureless blue landscape where they are picked out in the golden warmth of Robert Sondergaard's lighting. We see them through a gauze screen that, simultaneously, shows them projected in closeup. With the help of blue-screen compositing, Douglas matches these larger-than-life images to the backdrops of the story.
Now the actors we can see on the empty stage appear on screen seeming to lean over the check-in desk in a hotel lobby, to take a trip in the back of car, to venture to an illegal abortionist in a down-at-heel alley or to sleep off a cocktail of booze and pills in a seedy bedroom. It's a trick pulled off with considerable precision.
So, although we take note of the actors on stage, our eyes are repeatedly drawn to the black-and-white images on the big screen. These allude to the film noir of the 1940s – all fedoras, cigarettes and three-piece suits – although only rarely do they capture the high-contrast richness of the genre's shadowy atmosphere.
Likewise, the story, scripted by Chris Haddock, spins a postwar, B-movie yarn involving corrupt cops, backstreet gamblers and the eponymous femme fatale in a semi-lawless Vancouver. It's a world of hat-pin murders, protection rackets and blackmail.
The purpose of the tale, however, is not to reflect on any thematic concerns, but merely to showcase the production's technical ingenuity. Although it takes in greed, deception and exploitation, it has nothing to say about those subjects. Its primary purpose – to emulate a period movie – is of novelty value alone. Despite spirited performances from Haley McGee as a sexually ambivalent bell boy, Lisa Ryder as the glamorous visitor from out of town and the rest of the large company, Helen Lawrence is too flimsy to satisfy as either theatre or film.
© Mark Fisher 2014 
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Theatre review: The James Plays

Published in Variety
Edinburgh Festival Theatre

IF IT'S true there was much at stake for the early kings of Scotland as they tried to establish order in turbulent times, it is equally true that everything is riding on playwright Rona Munro’s trilogy of historical 15th-century dramas, “The James Plays.” Not only are these three premieres the centerpiece of the theater program of the 2014 Edinburgh International Festival, but they mark the first collaboration between the National Theater of Scotland (NTS) and the National Theater of Great Britain. Happily, apart from a wobble in the middle play, the gamble has paid off. “The James Plays” take a little-known period of history and turn it into a bold, gripping and funny piece of theatre.

Think of history plays and it’s impossible not to think of Shakespeare. It’s a mark of Munro’s ambition — and her tongue-in-cheek irreverence — that the first major character we see on stage in “James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock” is Henry V. Rather than the high-minded rhetorician of Shakespeare’s play, however, this English king is a foul-mouthed fighter, the muscular equal to the prisoners in his charge who jeer at him like soccer hooligans. The monarchy of 1420 was not the refined system of order and deference we know today but, as the playwright presents it, a brutal and fiercely contested expression of power.

The journey across the three plays, from the return of James I to his native Scotland after 18 years of imprisonment through the birth of the child-king James II in 1430 and the reign of James III from 1460, is the story of a monarchy slowly defining itself. When James I (a romantic fully capable of cruelty in James McArdle’s performance) claims the Scottish throne, it’s a major effort to persuade the lords and nobles even to kneel to him. Forever jockeying for power, they are not given to regarding anyone as their social superior. This James may be an educated, poetry-loving aesthete but, in a semi-lawless land, he knows only brute force can bring about change. Two generations later, however, we find James III (flamboyant, hard-edged Jamie Sives) living the life of a spoiled brat in narcissistic pursuit of pleasure.

There are more Shakespearean echoes in “James II: Days of the Innocents,” in which the maturing king, emotionally damaged yet purposeful in actor Andrew Rothney’s hands, severs his childhood friendships in the same way Shakespeare’s Henry dissociates himself from Falstaff. The conduct of kings is one of Munro’s themes; so too is the birth-pangs of a modern nation, the way a poor, feudal, violent society can begin to find stability and common cause. It’s no coincidence that, a month away from Scotland’s referendum on independence, “James III: The True Mirror” culminates in a galvanizing speech about self-determination and taking a leap into the unknown.

That speech is delivered by Sofie Gråbøl, a cult favorite in the UK thanks to her lead role in the original Danish series of “The Killing” and a compelling presence here as the Danish Queen Margaret, who has limited tolerance for the self-pity and self-indulgence of her husband James III. Along with Blythe Duff, star of long-running UK cop show “Taggart,” she is part of a forceful female presence across the trilogy, which is punchily acted throughout.

Performed on an imposing set (by Jon Bausor) that’s part bear pit and part castle ramparts, with audience members sitting on the stage to create the in-the-round feeling of public spectacle, all three parts are magnificently lit by Philip Gladwell. Helmer Laurie Sansom, making his debut as NTS artistic director, employs the space dynamically, using the full height and width of the set to create a sense of the epic scale of the narrative. If he fails to find coherence in the fragmented and ill-defined second play, he brings tremendous storytelling energy to the magnificent first and third installments, fully justifying the scale and ambition of the project.
© Mark Fisher 2014 
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Interview: Andy Bell (Erasure)

Published in the Guardian
Edinburgh Fringe preview

THERE comes a point in every electro-popster's life when the call of the theatre becomes too great to ignore. It happened to the Pet Shop Boyswhen they collaborated with Jonathan Harvey on Closer to Heaven in 2001. It happened to Marc Almond when he teamed up with Mark Ravenhill for Ten Plagues in 2011. And now it's happened to Andy Bell, the golden voice of Erasure, who is hitting the Edinburgh fringe with a theatrical song-cycle written by Barney Ashton-Bullock.
According to the show's Facebook page, Torsten the Bareback Saint is a piece of "sub-operatic theatrical cabaret pop/performance art", in which Bell plays a semi-immortal, pansexual troubadour who is only 42, despite being born in 1905. "He's going round and round, but he doesn't feel trapped," says the singer. "He's still a flirt."
It all sounds very Dorian Gray but, despite having turned 50 earlier this year, Bell regards the show not as a symptom of a midlife crisis but as one more project in a prolific and open-ended musical career. "I'm doing it to keep myself interested," he says. "You can't possibly think you're going to maintain any of that popsy superficiality. That's for young people. You have to diversify and find other interests."
He adds: "Fifty's quite a good age because it's kind of in the middle. Within a human lifetime, it could seem like you've been here forever, but if feels like you've got quite a long way to go as well. I've got a lovely life at the moment, so I'm looking forward to at least the next 30 years."
Bell slips into an anecdote involving STDs, false teeth and an orgy in a nursing home – an indication that age is no barrier to a colourful sex life.
Rather than mourning a lost youth, he prefers to dream about a future of supernatural reinvention. "One time I had a psychic experience, which is going to sound mad, but I was hoping in my heart of hearts to be able to see fairies. All of a sudden, I started seeing these dark shapes coming up out of the ground. I feel like it's another level of consciousness. They're completely metamorphic and they just change all the time. They're never in one form. Maybe that's where humans are heading."
When it comes to theatre, Bell remembers seeing Alan Cumming in the original run of Cabaret; he enjoyed Jonathan Pryce in Edward Albee's The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? and, inadvertently, has seen Phantom of the Opera three times. His greatest theatrical influence, however, comes from the alternative cabaret scene.
"My bravado came from drag queens," says Bell. "During the homophobic mid-80s, I used to feel my drag was a protective shield. I'd go on and say: 'Here I am – if there's anything you want to say, say it now.' I suppose I was the teddy-bear version of that."
The 22 songs of Torsten the Bareback Saint, illustrated by Ashton-Bullock's monochrome videos, will take Bell into uncharted emotional territory as he plays a man who remains eternally young while his lovers come and go. "The songs are something Erasure would never write, because they're so raw," he says. "I'm not violent, I've only hit two people in my life and they both wore glasses, but Torsten gives me a vent to show some of that aggression."
© Mark Fisher 2014 
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Theatre review: Beowulf

Published in the Guardian
Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

GRENDEL is dead. Beowulf is victorious. The mood is of celebration and so, in Seamus Heaney's taut and muscular adaptation, King Hrothgar calls for a bard to commemorate the defeat of the monster. What is needed, he says, is a work that links "a new theme to a strict metre".
It is the observance of Heaney's own strict metre that distinguishes Lynne Parker's consummate staging of this Old English poem. Billed as a dramatic reading, her austere, controlled and gripping production splits the text between Helen McAlpine, Lorraine McIntosh and Anita Vettesse, a Greek chorus in muted greys who strike every syllable with urgent authority.
Although their vowel sounds are warm and rounded, and their consonants kick and click, there is nothing here to suggest a poetry recital. On the contrary: they have a compelling tale to tell, one with all the violence and excitement of an action movie, and with unwavering focus they exploit Heaney's robust language for every bit of its narrative drive.
On the cracked slates and crumbling pillars of Charlotte Lane's set, enhanced by the modulating tones of Sergey Jakovsky's lighting and the near-subliminal echoes of Denis Clohessy's score, they make a formidable ensemble.
It's tempting to say that, in casting three women as narrators, Parker feminises the poem, but that isn't quite right. You couldn't accuse them of underplaying the fight scenes or skipping over the monster's gory excesses. Rather, by presenting the women as neutral observers, connected to the society but not active participants in the story, Parker makes Beowulf reflective as well as thrilling. There is something in the actors' plain-speaking acceptance of all the story's extremities – of a world where Christian belief is an insurance against unknowable dangers, where everything beyond the mead hall is strange – that makes it more mysterious still.
© Mark Fisher 2014 
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Theatre review: The Tin Forest

Published in the Guardian
South Rotunda, Glasgow
Four stars

DID Graham McLaren conceive his adaptation of The Tin Forest on a rainy day? That would have been in keeping with the gloomy interiors that characterise his gorgeously detailed promenade performance. As with A Christmas Carol, his last National Theatre of Scotland collaboration with puppeteer Gavin Glover, The Tin Forest is bleak, barren and wintry.
On a day when the temperature has soared to 27C and the lithe athletes of the Commonwealth Games are sprinting by outside, it is all the more of a leap to process the director's rich and desolate blend of art installation, puppet show, storytelling and folk gig. Based on the children's book by Helen Ward and Wayne Anderson, The Tin Forest is a tale of post-industrial regeneration in which an old man brings new life to an arid environment of iron railings, lampposts and tin cans.
Like the similarly inspired Huff by Shona Reppe and Andy Manley, you experience the show in a small party, moving from room to spooky room to piece together the story. It begins in a David Lynch-like hotel corridor where a bank of old-fashioned telephones beckon you to listen. It's an alienating introduction to a lonely world, made only marginally more welcoming in the subsequent rooms: a hut stuffed with mechanical antiques, a workshop where a glassy-eyed puppet tries to get a metal bird to fly and a museum where Angela Darcy plays a curious cross between a German showgirl and a gallery attendant.
It feels as if there's a scene missing after we see the first signs of natural life in a garden shed, but there's a striking finale in the main hall, where a vast image of St Kilda is projected around the curving rotunda wall and four musicians play jigs, reels and Glasgow folk favourites – a sign that life has bloomed once more out of this barren wasteland.
© Mark Fisher 2014 
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Theatre review: Grit - the Martyn Bennett Story

Published in the Guardian

Tramway, Glasgow
Three stars

IT BEGINS in darkness. Through brief bursts of light, we capture the fleeting movement of running figures as the acoustic strum and wailing lament of Martyn Bennett's Move gives way to the fuzzed-up urban rhythms that characterised the composer's thrilling fusion of the ancient and the modern. In bold capitals, the words "MOVE" and "SHIFT" flash across the back wall of Kai Fischer's open set.
This is Cora Bissett's tribute show at its best. With a punkish energy, the director captures the sense of open-ended excitement generated through the music of Bennett, who died in 2005 from Hodgkin's lymphoma.
She celebrates his deep respect for the traditions of Scottish folk and his equal love for the rave beats that animated the Glasgow club scene of the 1990s. He was a piper who dared to reinvigorate the old folk forms, not as a gimmick or with any "misty-lensed fanciful garbage about Scotland", as he says here, but with an honesty that leaps out in the recordings he left behind.
Bennett was 33 when he died, and his life story appears to have been entirely without conflict. As told here, in a script written by Kieran Hurley in collaboration with Bissett, his greatest obstacle was a music teacher who asked him to rein in his experimental tendencies. As a result, Grit is always one step away from soap-opera banality, well-acted though it is by Sandy Grierson as a dreamy Bennett, Hannah Donaldson as his ever-smiling wife and Gerda Stevenson showing her versatility in a range of supporting roles.
With too many indifferent dance sequences, it's left to the very great force of the music itself to give the show its punch.
© Mark Fisher 2014 
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Theatre review: News Just In

Published in the Guardian
Arches Theatre
Three stars

IF YOU'RE on the streets of Glasgow this month, you'll feel naked without a lanyard around your neck and an outsized ID card sporting the logo of the Commonwealth Games 2014. Things are similarly brash in the subterranean Arches, where Random Accomplice are attempting an audacious marathon of their own.
Not content with rehearsing one show and then sticking to it, the Glasgow company are generating a new script by the night, working in games-related gags right until the last minute and throwing the whole thing on stage with the hell-for-leather energy of a 100m sprint.
The setting is a tacky TV studio, decked out in a bad-taste tartan that matches the puce haircut of Clyde, this year's creepy official mascot. Here, a narcissistic bunch of presenters and producers play status games during the advert breaks of Tartan Tonight, before turning on the small-screen smarm for a series of sports news updates.
There's a new lead writer every day, a team of daily contributors, and an exuberant cast made up of Julie Brown, as a hair-fixated egotist; Jordan Young, as a perma-tanned lothario; Johnny McKnight, as a gay weatherman in pink shorts and gold lamé sneakers; Rosalind Sydney, as a 1986 Commonwealth ping-pong contender; Gavin Jon Wright, as a put-upon floor manager; and Julie Wilson Nimmo, as a tyrannous producer – not forgetting Sally Reid lurking at the back to do the live voiceover.
The joke in McKnight's opening episode is that the games are still under wraps, leading to much speculation about the Queen's relay-baton message, the lineup of the opening ceremony and the uniforms of the "lazy" volunteers. There's a little too much reliance on scatological insults, but the closer the outside broadcasts and autocue one-liners get to current events, the sharper and funnier it gets, promising much merriment in the performances to come. Not yet gold, but a worthy bronze.
© Mark Fisher 2014 
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Theatre review: In My Father's Words

Published in the Guardian
Dundee Rep (seen at the Tron, Glasgow)
Four stars

THERE is only a short distance between Dr Louis Bennett and his elderly father, Don, but the men are separated by a voyage of Homeric proportions. They've been estranged for 15 years and, after the old man has been found wandering in the rain, Louis has returned to this self-built house in Ontario to care for him. He says it's more out of common humanity than filial affection.
Justin Young's three-hander, produced by Dundee Rep as part of the 2014 Commonwealth Games' cultural programme, looks as though it's going to be another sentimental play about dementia, but it turns out to be a good deal more sophisticated. Don is losing his memory and is keeping Flora Thompson, who's newly arrived from the care agency, fully occupied. But In My Father's Words is actually about memory, identity and sacrifice – and the near impossibility of true communication.
In an odd side-effect of his condition, Angus Peter Campbell's Don has started speaking Gaelic (translation by Iain Finlay Macleod), a language coincidentally shared by Muireann Kelly's Flora. So while Louis (Lewis Howden) lectures on the theme of memory at the University of Toronto and struggles to translate the 12,000 lines of Homer's Odyssey, the story of one man's quest to get home, his own father is drifting ever further away from him.
In this respect, the play mirrors Hollywood's obsession with ambitious sons and dysfunctional fathers (think everything from Star Wars to Ratatouille, but Young has richer things to say about the trauma of cultural separation and the irreplaceable poetry of dead and minority languages. The ending is abrupt and the scene changes could be more elegant, but Philip Howard's strongly acted production bridges the gulf between the domestic and the mythological as it shows two men standing on "two sides of the same rain".
© Mark Fisher 2014 
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Theatre review: Perfect Days

Published in the Guardian
Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Three stars

The hair salon co-owned by Barbs Marshall in Liz Lochhead's midlife-crisis comedy is called Razor City. That's not an accident. When Perfect Days premiered at Edinburgh's Traverse in 1998, we were still adjusting to Glasgow's post-capital of culture makeover. A city once best known for gang violence had been rebranded as a fashionable hangout for the cappuccino and wine-bar set.
Thus it is that 39-year-old entrepreneur Marshall lives in a warehouse conversion in Merchant City, a town-centre invention of the urban planners. That's not the only way she is a product of her times. Marshall typifies a generation of 1990s women who had chosen to delay marriage and children in favour of a high-pressure career – in her case, as a daytime television celebrity as well as a trendy hairdresser.
It means that although this belated revival of the play has been given only a light-touch update, its move to the present day detaches it from one of Lochhead's original ideas. Likably played by Helen Logan, Marshall is now rather more ordinary; she's less the symbol of a flashy era in which image triumphed over substance, than an everywoman hitting a stalemate in her relationships. You can picture her as a hairdresser, but not as a frothy TV star.
And just as the glitz has gone out of the play, so has much of the humour. The six-strong cast in Liz Carruthers's production has a good grasp of Lochhead's west-coast rhythms, but with the exception of Scott Armstrong as Marshall's gay friend Brendan, they hit too few of the laugh lines.
It turns Perfect Days into a surprisingly sober drama about the urge to have children and the challenge of keeping family bonds intact. It's still touching when Lochhead's plotlines come together in the closing scenes, exposing secrets and renewing friendships, but it's a slow build.
© Mark Fisher 2014 
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Monday, May 26, 2014

Commonwealth Games inspire sport and theatre link-up

Published in the Scotsman
Preview of sports-themed shows

THE COMMONWEALTH Games are still a couple of months away but the spirit of athleticism is already galvanising the world of theatre. Not only in the official Commonwealth Culture 2014 programme but also in outbursts of activity beyond, theatre makers are taking the idea of competitive sport and running with it. Some are also pedalling with it.

Among them is actor Tam Dean Burn who is currently in training for The Marathon Storytelling Cycle Challenge (14 June to 3 August), in which he will get on his bike to follow the Queen’s Baton Relay across Scotland, stopping off to read from all 184 of Julia Donaldson’s books and plays as he goes.
By the time he finishes, the English company HandleBards will be cycling from venue to venue on the Scottish leg of its three-month UK tour of Macbeth and The Comedy of Errors (19 July to 10 August).

The four actors are carrying their eco-friendly set with them on their 2,000 mile trek, which will produce 45.6 tonnes fewer CO2 emissions than the same journey by car.

“Getting to see the amazing British countryside is also a huge benefit to cycling and performing in outdoor venues,” says tour manager Paul Moss. “I’m particularly excited about performing Macbeth on Dunsinane Hill, which might very well be one of this year’s highlights.”

But why stop with the actors being on bikes? Glasgow children’s theatre company Visible Fictions is taking to the parks of Scotland to stage The Spokesmen, a mobile comedy that a small audience of over-eights will follow on two wheels.

The company has got hold of 40 bikes and helmets of various sizes from Raleigh and will be showing up in popular spots such as Almondell Country Park in Livingston and the Cammo Estate in Edinburgh to perform the two-man comedy.
“All these wonderful memories of being on your bike as a kid come hurtling back,” says writer and director Douglas Irvine, who is loving the excuse to get on his own bike again. “That sense of freedom and the possibility that you can go on any adventure anywhere. It’s a freeing way to travel. Hopefully this show will get some other people back on their bikes again.”

In the promenade production, Alan McHugh and Simon Donaldson play two clown-like characters leading the audience on a guided tour of their local park. What starts out as a legitimate cycling tour takes an unexpected – and funny – turn as their relationship with their home turf turns out not to be all it seems.
Because no two parks are the same, Irvine has had to give the play a flexible structure, allowing the order of scenes to change even as the overarching narrative remains the same.

“We’ve had to create different endings for each scene depending on the order,” he says. “You want it to feel it belongs to this park – it’s important to be celebrating the place. If there’s something in the park that the company can refer to or respond to, that must and should happen. Every day it will be different and the two actors are just brilliant improvisers.”

There’ll be a pleasure, meanwhile, simply in following the show around. “We were concerned about how you maintain a narrative tension when you’re going from location to location,” he says. “But when we tried it, everyone said, ‘But Dougie, we just want to enjoy the cycle. You’ve taken us to a beautiful park, so let’s enjoy it.’”

Among the summer’s other shows on a sports theme are Tell Me What Giving Up Looks Like (Arches, Glasgow, 25 June), in which actor Robert Softley and athlete Joe Brown contemplate disability and sport; Endurance (Arches, Glasgow, 24–27 July), in which Catrin Evans looks at the changing role of women in competitive sport; and News Just In, a theatrical soap opera by Random Accomplice that will take place every night of the Games.

But first, after a marathon-level of co-ordination, Glasgow’s Citizens’ Theatre has commissioned more than a dozen writers to share their memories of school competitions for a theatrical anthology called Sports Day.

Leading lights including Davey Anderson, Peter Arnott, Lynda Radley, Alan McHugh, Linda McLean, Ian Pattison, Gary McNair, Johnny McKnight, Julia Taudevin, Liam Harkins, Nalini Chetty, John Kielty and Douglas Maxwell have provided mini plays to be performed by a 60-strong community cast. They’ll be led by professional actor Joyce Falconer as a school janitor on her leaving day after 25 years in the job.

“We’ve put the plays very broadly into a chronology,” says co-director Guy Hollands. “So there’s stuff about preparing for a sports day, about the staff who are in the midst of organising it very close to the day itself and then at the end are the actual races. There are also leftfield contributions: Daniel Jackson, for example, sent a beautiful two-pager about a man watching the school sports day from a distance and running a book on it, which is a brilliant idea.”

Unlike several of the playwrights he has commissioned, Hollands is a keen sportsman and a fierce advocate for the role of sport in education. “I have nothing but positive memories about sport, which was a big part of my upbringing,” he says. “I’ve always been a believer in the value of sport. It’s a hugely important thing for a lot of young people who may not be excelling in other areas. Sadly, it still doesn’t feel like sport has its proper place within the school system.”

Adding a few more layers to the production, he has commissioned five songs from a prestigious line-up of composers including Eugene Kelly of The Vaselines, Alun Woodward, formerly of The Delgados, and Jill O’Sullivan of Sparrow and the Workshop.

“Those songs have a wry, looking-back sense of not being able to do it very well,” laughs Hollands. “But the tone is light. We wanted this to be a celebratory event about what is an upbeat, positive happening in the lives of schools.”
Our prediction? This show will run and run.

© Mark Fisher 2014 
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Theatre review: Woman in Mind

Published in the Guardian
Dundee Rep
Four stars

I RECENTLY spent a week in a hotel in Eastbourne. At the end of my stay, I felt that I had a better understanding of Alan Ayckbourn. Previously, I'd encountered his class of characters only on the stage. I'd half suspected that his particular breed of privileged home-counties ladies and blimpish retired colonels didn't actually exist for real. However, in Eastbourne, they certainly did.
So it's all the more fascinating to be back in Scotland watching Marilyn Imrie's tremendous production of the playwright's 1985 comic drama and find her putting Ayckbourn's middle-class Englishness at one remove.
Susan, the woman we find concussed on the back lawn at the start of the play, has all the attributes that Ayckbourn gave her – she's witty, self-deprecating and under extreme psychological pressure – but she's also Scottish.
And when she comes round, hemmed in by the silver birches of Ti Green's set, looming like a sinister extension of her troubled mental state, something significant has changed. She has acquired a pristine English accent.
As Ayckbourn wrote it, her mental breakdown is expressed in terms of a retreat into an idyll of champagne breakfasts and jolly tennis matches. Here, there's an extra level of dislocation because her hallucination takes place in a semi-mythical England. It makes Ayckbourn's strange Englishness seem stranger still.
Coming across like a companion piece to Anthony Neilson's The Wonderful World of Dissocia, Woman in Mind is a funny and unsettling vision of mental ill health, its cosy rituals of family life acting as a thin veneer to cover Susan's awful inner torment.
In the lead role, Meg Fraser switches gracefully between deadpan putdown, breezy charm and emotional terror. It's a superb performance, given excellent support from Neil McKinven, bringing a Chekhovian level of ineptness to the doctor, and Richard Conlon as a husband who is alone in finding his own jokes funny.
© Mark Fisher 2014 
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