About Me

My Photo
Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
View my complete profile


Blog Archive

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Published in The Guardian. © Mark Fisher

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
3 out of 5

There's something of the Jennifer Saunders about Meg Fraser's White Witch. Her combination of haughtiness and vulnerability recalls the Absolutely Fabulous star at her most rattled. Arriving on a towering sledge, with her underworld menials slavering at her feet, she is formidable, yet not quite in control. Although this brings a comic edge to the antihero of CS Lewis's Narnia adventure, the overall effect is to make her more scary still: she's not just evil, she's erratic.

Fortunately, in Mark Thomson's dark staging for the older child, Fraser has an even more fearsome foe in Daniel Williams as the Christ-like Aslan, the lion. When his roar reverberates around the theatre, it leaves both friend and enemy in awe. And no one wants to mess with a creature prepared to be crucified for someone else's sins.

But thrown into relief by this archetypal good-versus-evil battle are the four children, evacuees from the war against Hitler, whose claim to righteousness is based more on breeding than real moral worth. Their ascension to the throne is the fantasy of a writer who was too keen to assert the hierarchical values of a dying empire. Only kid brother Edmund goes on a true journey of enlightenment, betraying his sister to the White Witch and living to pay the price. He earns his reward, while the others simply claim it, notably older brother Peter who succeeds in combat mainly because he is posh.

All of this means that, despite the forces unleashed by Thomson's production, the conviction of the performers and the magical transformations of Ken Harrison's set (which the young audience love), the story offers too little sense of elation when good triumphs over evil.

© Mark Fisher 2008

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Snow Queen

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

The Snow Queen
Arches, Glasgow
2 out of 5

You don't need to scratch far beneath the icy surface of Hans Christian Andersen's Snow Queen to find an unsettling metaphor for the transition between childhood innocence and adult sexual knowledge. In the character of Kay, who is seduced into the dark realm of the Snow Queen after a shard of enchanted ice lodges in his eye, Andersen presents a boy on the brink of adolescence, all too eager to reject the love of his mother and best friend Gerda in exchange for wilder pleasures. Like Barrie's Peter Pan, it is a story loaded with nostalgia for infant purity and fear of adult corruption, which is why it still holds a spell over readers young and old.

It is disappointing, therefore, that playwright Megan Barker shows so little interest in this dimension of the story. She quickly dispatches Joe Arkley's Kay to the Snow Queen's palace and shifts her attention to Charlene Boyd's Gerda, sending her on a rescue mission that, confusingly, borrows elements of Sleeping Beauty, the Princess and the Frog and Cinderella.

Her purpose, as Gerda rejects the egotistical advances of the prince, is to create a plucky and independent-minded female role model. It's a worthy motive, but one that trivialises Andersen's darker theme and, seeing as Gerda is unchanged by the adventure, offers no transformative dimension in its place.

Barker and director Al Seed are regular fringe theatre practitioners at the Arches, and it's good to see them tackling more mainstream fare. But despite some spirited performances and imaginative use of the basement space, both script and production are uneven. The show stumbles from storytelling to drama to poorly animated shadow puppetry, pausing for some weak songs and clumsy comedy. Such eclecticism can be a strength of children's theatre, of course, but here it seems less inventive than restless.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Mother Bruce

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

Mother Bruce
Tron, Glasgow
3 out of 5

To say this year's Tron panto is conventional would be misleading. Any version of Mother Goose that, instead of a bird, features an Australian spider could hardly be called run-of-the-mill. And only at the Tron would you find a scene in which the cast of The Wizard of Oz at the nearby Citizens (or are they from The Wizard of Never Woz at the Pavilion?) alight at the wrong stop on the panto express and get caught up in the story. That's before the principal boy from Aladdin at the Edinburgh King's starts rubbing her lamp.

Such details are what makes the annual caper by Gordon Dougall and Fletcher Mathers a jewel in the tarnished pantosphere. All those self-aware references to Christmas show traditions provide amusement for the adults without diminishing the pleasure for the children.

The Tron has always had a genuine love of panto even as it takes delight in sending it up. Mother Bruce is pretty much the genuine article, however, with relatively little of the subversive cheek of previous Tron pantos. The spider notwithstanding, it sticks closely to the Mother Goose plot, complete with its moral about the perils of vanity, and is rather more mainstream than it cares to admit.

Viewed on that level there is plenty to love. The music is especially strong, with some great vocal work, notably the blues-influenced tones of Natalie Toyne's spider and the powerful tenor of Mark Prendergast, who works hard as Mother Bruce's son and a jovial leprechaun. Add the high-density rhyming of Stewart Porter's baddie, the vigour of George Drennan's dame and the quirky charm of Katrina Bryan's female lead, and you have a show that entertains in a surprisingly traditional way.

© Mark Fisher, 2008


© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

King's, Glasgow
4 out of 5

If there's merit in Malcolm Gladwell's contention that genius requires 10,000 hours of practice then, when it comes to the community singalong, Gerard Kelly has surely reached that level of sublime perfection.

Over the years, the actor has clocked up countless hours leading audiences through this arcane ritual: the silly words, the sillier actions, the crowd's inability to join in, the cry of "bring down the cloot" (the backdrop cloth that displays the lyrics), the competition between two sides of the auditorium, the cheers, the boos, and finally the whole thing sung at double speed.

It is the same routine from year to year and from panto to panto. We do not applaud Kelly for innovation, on the contrary, we do it for his wholehearted upholding of tradition, right down to the way he always says "compemetition" and curls his leg in that coyly juvenile way. To see him go through this ridiculous rite with such eagerness and animation, knowing he'll be doing it again at a matinee tomorrow, is bizarrely uplifting. You could call it genius.

In Cinderella, the King's fields a most formidable cast. Not only Kelly, as the perennial Buttons, but Andy Gray with an octave-dropping Baron Hardup, Karen Dunbar pulling off an impressive alter-ego double-act as the Fairy Godmother and the Wicked Stepmother, and Gavin Mitchell and Steven McNicoll playing thuggish Ugly Sisters. If anything, there is too much talent for everyone to get a decent look-in and, certainly, the dance routines look tawdry in comparison with so much cartoonish comic energy.

It's a shame to see Dunbar's comic patter reined in, but her baddie, based on Edna E Mode in The Incredibles, is entertaining, her goodie beautiful, and her singing voice unmatched.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Ceilidh Tree

© Mark Fisher - published in Northings, Hi-Arts Journal

THE CEILIDH TREE (North Edinburgh Arts Centre, 1 December 2008, and touring)

TEACHERS! SHOW some sensitivity. If you take your class of P1s to a show with a strong element of interactivity, the least you can do is expect them to interact.

And when the children are clearly engaged by the performance – and they certainly are by this delightful piece of storytelling by Giant Productions – it is as unnecessary as it is disruptive to spend the whole time shushing them to be quiet. Leave the strong-arm tactics in the classroom and show a little trust.

It isn't only that Vivienne Graham is an actor thoroughly in control of her material and easily capable of keeping an audience on side. It's also that The Ceilidh Tree is, from the start, a participatory experience. You can't wrap the audience in blankets and ask them what they imagine will take place around the bare winter tree without expecting them to give you some answers – and to continue to do so all through the show.

And so they do, which is exactly what makes director Katrina Caldwell's production such an easy-going treat. The children understand that. It's the three teachers who repeatedly break the spell.

Graham, however, is unfazed and delivers a spirited and focused performance that is never less than captivating. Her story, which she devised with Caldwell and David Topliff, is simple and unpretentious, with no laboured moral or educative purpose, but perfectly pitched at its 3–5-year-old market.

Sitting down beside us, Graham introduces us to her forest and a pretty tree she's never seen before. It's the longest night of the year and all kinds of winter creatures are at large. There's the robin who hops from head to head across the audience; the badger who gets stuck up the tree in a fruitless search for a better view; and the beautiful snowy owl with a penchant for telling tall tales.

Things are never as scary as the owl makes out, but they get hairy for a hedgehog caught in a plastic bag and swept up by the wind, for the children when they get to look after a silvery chain of slugs and for Graham when she gets on the wrong end of the earth from a rabbit's hole.

Topliff's music and songs enhance the air of gentle exploration and Graham rounds off the 40-minute show in appropriately interactive style by giving the audience a chance to try out the puppets for themselves. The children are enraptured, as anyone can see. Back of the class for the teachers. Full marks to Giant.

The Ceilidh Tree is at Universal Hall, Findhorn, on 5-6 December 2008.
© Mark Fisher, 2008

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Heer Ranjha (Retold)

© Mark Fisher - published in the Guardian

Heer Ranjha (Retold)
Tramway, Glasgow
2 out of 5

Heer Ranjha has survived since the 15th century because it is a tale of archetypal dimensions. Popularised in 1766 by the Punjabi poet Waris Shah, it is a tragic love story in which the beautiful Heer plays Juliet to Ranjha's roaming Romeo. Faced by the repressive forces of the older generation, they are repeatedly frustrated in their romantic aspirations until, after a journey that brings them closer to spiritual maturity, they are foiled once more and united only in death.

This battle between the purity of youth and corruption of old age engages our imaginations on a fundamental level. We have a deep need to see a new generation flourish with its idealism intact, overturning the prejudices of the establishment and thus rejuvenating society. This is why it is disappointing that playwright Shan Khan chooses to retell the myth not with the grandeur of an epic, but with the banality of a soap opera.

That he has updated the story to modern-day Glasgow is not in itself a problem. In this version, Heer is the "face and voice" of Five Rivers, the most successful chain of restaurants in Scotland, while Ranjha is an under-qualified drop-out who has only once ventured outside the city. Her being a Sikh and him a Muslim only makes things more awkward.

What is a problem - aside from working out why Nalini Chetty's confident Heer would ever be attracted to Taqi Nazeer's low-charisma Ranjha - is that the challenges they face are so pedestrian. Too little is at stake in Khan's overly explanatory storytelling to make us care for this commonplace romance. There are compensations, however, in Daljinder Singh's lively staging for Ankur Productions, with its inventive use of space, well-drilled performances, modern nods to Bollywood and forceful music by Tigerstyle.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Monday, November 24, 2008

Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us

© Mark Fisher - published in the Guardian

Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us
Traverse, Edinburgh
3 out of 5

You can tell Paul Higgins has spent time on the set of The Thick of It. The first-time playwright, who played a hate-fuelled press officer in the vicious political satire, rarely lets a line go by without a wounding barb or a sardonic put-down. His language, in this bleak comedy about a dysfunctional working-class family on the cusp of meltdown, is driven, argumentative and brutal.

As a result, Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us is pugnaciously funny, not least in John Tiffany's sharply modulated production. But, along with the three plays preceding it in the National Theatre of Scotland's series of Traverse Debuts, it has such a fear of the future that Higgins can find no escape from the self-destructive world he creates. As domestic banter gives way to morbid gloom, the play's search for tragic redemption achieves only a sense of deflating despair.

The principle cause of the friction is the family's father, a back-seat socialist and bar-room poet whose authoritarian hold over his wife and grown-up children is a front to disguise his being a pathetic alcoholic. Superbly played by Gary Lewis, he is a slippery character able to turn on the charm, or the tyranny as it suits him. With his wife (a hard-bitten Susan Vidler), he has passed on not only intelligence but also impotence to his three children. Despite their talents, they seek quick-fix answers in religion, gambling and drink.

The plot centres on the attempt by the eldest son (a surly Ryan Fletcher) to repay his debts by risking more stolen cash on a high-stakes game of snooker. This attempt to escape his financial problems is a projection of his desperate desire to flee the home - and ultimately, it is just as futile. Meanwhile, after dropping out of the seminary, his younger brother (an amusingly unpriestly John Wark) can no longer promise a life in the hereafter as a release from their earthly torments, and it's not certain that even kid sister Cath (a loveably slow-witted Carmen Pieraccini) believes in communing with the dead.

Higgins deals with all this with a keen sense of theatrical dynamics, vigorous dialogue and ready wit. But, though he has something to say about our society's poverty of expectation, his scenario of an authoritarian father and a young man's crisis of faith is surely a generation out of date, and the story's dead-end despair communicates helplessness more than hope.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Dogstone/Nasty Brutish and Short

© Mark Fisher - published in the Guardian

The Dogstone/Nasty, Brutish and Short
2 stars / 3 stars

If new plays are a measure of the times, the National Theatre of Scotland's series of Traverse Debuts tells us these are depressing days. After Sam Holcroft's unsettling Cockroach, with its gloomy prognosis that war is a Darwinistic inevitability, we have a double bill of Kenny Lindsay's The Dogstone, about the slow demise of an unemployed alcoholic, and Andy Duffy's Nasty, Brutish and Short, a snapshot of callous exploitation among a disenfranchised underclass. Although different in tone, these two short plays, directed by Dominic Hill, proclaim the death of optimism.

That is specifically the case in The Dogstone, in which Andy Gray plays Danskin, a Highland Don Quixote whose dreamy love of Celtic myth grows increasingly pathetic the more dependent on drink he becomes. His son, played with assurance by Scott Fletcher, grows from the wide-eyed credulity of an eight-year-old, beguiled by his father's tales, to a disillusioned teenager embarrassed by this self-destructive behaviour.

In its favour, The Dogstone paints a vivid portrait of Oban life and a poignant picture of a man's decline. But the picture would be more poignant if Lindsay had given the myths full dramatic life and made a deeper connection with his story, instead of just telling them straight.

Rarely has a title been as apposite as Nasty, Brutish and Short, a throwback to the in-yer-face generation of the 1990s. With a rumbling soundtrack and water-logged design, it is as if Shopping and Fucking had been directed by David Lynch. Hill brings an ominous intensity to this bleak story of a homeless young man seeking help from his brother, who signs him up for an armed robbery and rapes his girlfriend. It is a gothic and disheartening sketch, but Duffy's chillingly credible vision of a soulless manipulator promises powerful things to come.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

King Lear

© Mark Fisher - published in Variety

King Lear
Everyman Theater, Liverpool

A Liverpool Everyman, Playhouse, Headlong Theater presentation in association with the Young Vic of a play in three acts by William Shakespeare. Directed by Rupert Goold.

"King Lear" is the most mythic of Shakespeare's tragedies. With none of the specificity of Elsinore or Glamis, it has the archetypal appeal of a fairytale. So it's a surprise to see a production given such a concrete setting as Great Britain in the early years of Margaret Thatcher's government. But while this decision by helmer Rupert Goold (whose staging of "Macbeth" made a splash on Broadway last season) puts the play's political machinations into interestingly sharp relief, it takes a toll on the tragedy's majestic scale.

The production begins with a voiceover that draws us back to Thatcher's victory speech of May 1979. "Where there is discord, may we bring harmony," said the new prime minister, quoting St. Francis of Assisi. Ironically, her premiership would be characterized by the disharmony of urban riots, union strife and war, so here, her speech serves as a portent of the social breakdown about to be ushered in by Pete Postlethwaite's Lear.

Goold's idea is not always an easy fit with the play, nor is it arbitrary. This co-production with the helmer's own Headlong company is one of the last major events in Liverpool's year as European City of Culture, a program that has helped redefine the city's identity after decades of post-industrial decline. That decline was at its most acute during the Thatcher years, when a left-wing city council did battle with a right-wing central government and, in 1981, the residents of the deprived Toxteth neighborhood took to the streets for a weekend of rioting.

You feel these resonances in Giles Cadle's set of weed-strewn steps leading not to some grand civic building as might be expected, but to a shield of corrugated iron. More explicit are the period film projections and, in the closing scenes, the arrival of soldiers in riot gear. Goold builds a powerful impression of an empire in decline, from rampaging soccer hooligans and the loveless sex of Jonjo O'Neill's Edmund to the "Dallas"-style power dressing of Caroline Faber's Goneril and Charlotte Randle's Regan.

The atmosphere of moral disorder is intensified by the violence of the blinding of Gloucester (John Shrapnel), during which Regan appears to end up with an eyeball in her mouth. It's illuminating to see Lear's madness coincide with this social malaise, but to link his story so closely to a period of British politics -- however bleak -- is to limit the full range of his journey.

Although Postlethwaite has a bushy white beard worthy of George Bernard Shaw, in his 1970s man-made fibers he looks more librarian than king. Arriving to a chorus of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" and quoting Frank Sinatra, he's less patriarch than team leader. This diminishes the magnitude of his subsequent disappointments and the depths of his fall from grace.

It isn't so much a matter of the actor's interpretation -- which is lucid and earthy, showing an easy relationship with the audience -- as of the context in which he finds himself. This is a world of small-town councilors, not a regal court, and the open heath on which Lear wanders is no more desolate than the urban wasteland he leaves behind.

As a result, the production has too steady a tone and too muted an emotional range. But it does display the spark of creative energy that explains why Goold is London's hottest young helmer.

The man responsible for the recent hits "No Man's Land" and "Six Characters in Search of an Author" -- not to mention a forthcoming "Oliver!" -- directs with clarity and wit, whether he's showing Edgar (Tobias Menzies) as a marathon runner doing laps of the theater or putting the deranged Lear in a flowery dress. It makes for a lively production weighed down by the imperfect fit of its own concept.

Set, Giles Cadle; costumes, Nicki Gillibrand; lighting, Howard Harrison; original music and sound, Adam Cork; movement, Georgina Lamb; fight direction, Terry King; video, Lorna Heavey. Opened Oct. 30, 2008. Reviewed, Nov 7. Running time: 3 HOURS, 45 MIN.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Monday, November 10, 2008

4.48 Psychosis

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

4.48 Psychosis
Cumbernauld theatre, Cumbernauld
4 out of 5

There are three players in Adrian Osmond's audacious staging of Sarah Kane's swan song. The first is you. To enter the theatre, audience members are taken individually into the dark by an usher wearing night-vision goggles. Having stumbled to your seat, you are clueless as to your surroundings. It negates the social aspect of theatre and turns you inwardly on yourself.

The second player is a tape recording. Working with sound designer Kenny MacLeod, Osmond recorded Kane's text before rehearsals began. Rather than using one voice, he fragmented the script into a panoply of speakers, ranging in age, gender and class. The intention is to turn the playwright's private evocation of a mind in deep depression into something universal, reminding us that mental illness can affect anyone.

It is only after we have come to terms with all this that the third player comes flickering into view. Actor Keith Macpherson emerges from the gloom, standing in a bare room with a rope hanging from the ceiling and window frames looking out at our anonymous gaze. Whether he is calmly shaving or writhing in mental anguish, Macpherson is haunted by the tape's interior soundtrack, a man replaying the day's events in the loneliest hours of the morning.

In juxtaposing these three players the production adds an unsettling quality to an already disturbing play. Your own isolation widens the gulf between you and Macpherson even though the voices pull you in the opposite direction to suggest his experience is not unique. At the end, after the naked actor has gone to his watery grave, we do not applaud. It is partly because of the bleak subject matter, but largely because we have been made incapable of collective action. We leave, as we entered, alone.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Otter Pie

© Mark Fisher - published in Northings, Hi-Arts journal

Otter Pie (Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, 5 November 2008, and touring)

LOCAL IDENTITY is a nebulous thing. We all know what we mean when we talk about the character of place, but try and pin it down and it slips away. Not everyone in Glasgow is friendly, not everyone in Edinburgh lacks generosity and not everyone in Liverpool has a great sense of humour. Yet these are the images of each city that persist.

It's the same with nations, few more so than Scotland where the desire to forge a collective definition is strong enough to have produced a whole year-long marketing campaign in the form of 2009's Homecoming.

Typically, people shape their national definition through cultural talismans. Scotland's love of Runrig and the Proclaimers, for example, goes far beyond mere music. Another such talisman is Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song, a book not only voted the nation's favourite in a recent poll, but also assuming its place as a very cornerstone of the country's identity.

This is where Glasgow theatre company Fish & Game comes in. A mixed group of young Scottish and English performers, they've noticed that the world Grassic Gibbon so poetically describes has almost nothing to do with their own experience. These 21st century city-dwellers have no real feel for the Aberdeenshire countryside of 1912 with its sense of community, hand-to-mouth living and primitive farming methods. So for all the book's many qualities, it speaks to them less directly than, say, a Michael Jackson record.

Recognising this, they've created Otter Pie, a show that sits – a little uncomfortably – at the interface between popular theatre and performance art, deconstructing Sunset Song with a mixture of deliberately clunky acting and abstract movement sequences.

What's frustrating about the show is it only sporadically capitalises on its amusing premise. Despite a long period of development, too much of it feels like workshop exercises displaying an abstruse connection with the main theme.

When it gets into stride, however, Robert Walton's production is refreshingly daft. The performers show more energy than technique, but they have a loveably self-deprecating sense of humour and a subtle awareness that Grassic Gibbon's novel is both distant and close to them. It's a bit of a curiosity – as you'd expect with a title like Otter Pie – but with just enough oddball entertainment to be worth a look.

Otter Pie is at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, on 11-12 November 2008

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Traverse at Polmont Young Offenders Institution

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

A rewrite? Of course I've got time ...

In a room in Polmont young offenders' institution, two men have dropped a tab of acid and are starting to hallucinate. "See that tree?" says one, staring at a pot plant in bewilderment. "See that goblin in the garden?" counters the other. Paranoia ensues - "It's the tree, man, I swear to God it's controlling me" - until the first throws up and the second wets himself.

It's not the kind of behaviour usually sanctioned by the prison - the largest of its kind in Scotland, where more than 650 young men between the ages of 16 and 21 serve sentences for everything from burglary to murder and drug crime. But then, Polmont doesn't usually open its high-security doors to a project like OutWrite. Led by playwright Alan Wilkins, this Traverse theatre scheme is designed to get six inmates, most of whom have never been to a theatre, to write their own scripts. The programme culminates in two performances: one by professional actors in the prison, and one for the public at the Traverse in December.

The acid-induced goblin fantasy is the work of Chrissy, a good-humoured inmate with a knack for punchlines, with improvised additions by actors Tom Freeman and Martin McCormick. Today is the midway point in a three-month programme, and it's the first time the writers have heard their words spoken by actors.

Chrissy feels a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. "This one's pure shite," he says defensively before the reading begins, but the look on his face as the actors start tells a different story. In this drab classroom, with its strip lights and soul-destroying view of a barbed-wire fence, his words are coming to life. He roars with laughter.

"You have to applaud them for taking their masks off," says the prison governor, Derek McGill. "In prison, the mask says, 'I'm a hard character, I can cope with this, I can take anything anyone wants to throw at me.' The reality of writing is that you expose your soul, your innermost thoughts. Your enemies can turn that against you, so you need to be a strong character to get involved with this."

Of course, theatre in prison is not new. More than 50 years ago, director Herbert Blau staged Waiting for Godot in San Quentin state prison, and today, Birmingham's Geese theatre company continues its issue-based work behind bars. But there is little precedent when it comes to prisoners having their work staged by professionals. "It is exactly the same process as developing a play at the Traverse," says Freeman, "and they deserve no less."

The prison's only stipulation is that inmates should not write about their own crimes. One script is about an inheritance row and a hitman; another touches on domestic violence; a third is set in a world of pickpockets and knife-slashing. Even the jungle fantasy adventure has an air of menace.

Their language has a vigour all too rare in the classroom. "They've written fantastic dialogue," says director Cheryl Martin. "Usually, the problem is that you can't get that flavour of real speech, but these plays really flow. They just wrote what they heard without worrying about it, and it sounds fantastic. The stories are a bit violent, but a lot of us get our aggression out through our writing."

These young inmates are not only writing scripts, but rewriting them. During the session, Joseph, author of marital breakdown drama Northern Lights, starts scribbling. There was a discussion after his reading about whether the play could end with something other than knives ("guns", quipped Chrissy), and now he is trying to put this into practice. "I've done an extra three pages," he says. "Hearing the actors just gave you more confidence in yourself."

Banned from watching television as a punishment for some misdemeanour, Joseph has been making the most of his free time. "I've been writing in my cell," he says. "I thought, I'm in the jail anyway, so I'll just finish it. It's turned out pretty good. I enjoyed it."

Michael, author of the family feud drama Graveyard Shift, was also motivated by a need to pass the time. "It gives you something to think about when you go back to your cell," he says. "You get the jail for doing something wrong, and then we get to do stuff we couldn't do before. If I was outside I'd never have thought about it."

As far as the prison service is concerned, the Traverse project is a success. "We've seen an increase in confidence and self-esteem," says Ruth Facchini, assistant manager of the prison's learning, skills and employability centre. "Some of the boys have committed dreadful crimes, but a lot of them are victims themselves, and this has been a real opportunity."

The governor is a long-time advocate of using the arts to initiate change. This Christmas, Glasvegas will be performing at Polmont, with a prison band in support. "The more music and drama that comes in, the more we can encourage these people to participate, the more we see behavioural change," says McGill. "And if we don't try to change behaviour, who will?"

• OutWrite is at the Traverse, Edinburgh, on December 4. Details: 0131-228 1404 or

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Monday, November 03, 2008

Suddenly Last Summer/Like the Rain

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

Suddenly Last Summer/ Like the Rain

Tron, Glasgow
3 out of 5

There is every reason to be impressed by the British Film Institute's 14-film Tennessee Williams retrospective coming up in London, but that shouldn't eclipse the achievement of the Tron. Andy Arnold's company is ticking off five of the playwright's shorter works on a single evening. If, after that, you still want more, you can follow a Williams strand in the citywide Glasgay! festival.

The centrepiece of the evening is 1958's Suddenly Last Summer, in which a domineering New Orleans mother attempts to suppress the story of her late son's homosexuality by arranging a lobotomy for her niece, the one witness to his death. Arnold's production underplays the grandeur of the Deep South setting, with Jessica Brettle's cardboard set suggesting economy more than wealth. At its centre are two steely performances by Morag Stark as the cruel matriarch and Clare Yuille as a decidedly sane outpatient from a mental home.

The viciousness of their relationship echoes across the evening, whether in the catty chat of the opening piece, A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot, in which two women make merciless comments about each other's bodies, or the trio of low-life plays under the heading Like the Rain, in which alcoholics, sex workers and neglected children seek solace from a tough world. Life has been unkind to these characters, but Williams reveals their tragic beauty.

A strength of the evening is the chance to see the actors take on different roles. Yuille excels again as an abused orphan in This Property Is Condemned, while Jill Riddiford convincingly plays both frumpy mother and brothel-keeper. On the downside, it's like a buffet that never fills you up. When Suddenly Last Summer ends without a second act, it leaves you full yet wanting more.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Friday, October 31, 2008

Midsummer (a play with music) review

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

Traverse, Edinburgh
3 out of 5

It is not every day you see a raucous pop musical set on the streets of Edinburgh. But right now, there are two. Later this week, Stephen Greenhorn's Sunshine on Leith returns to Dundee Rep, offering a joyful soap opera of ageing, adultery and falling in love, set to the songs of the Proclaimers. But first we have Midsummer, with similar themes, by playwright David Greig and musician Gordon McIntyre, of indie band Ballboy.

Where the Greenhorn show is big, brash and primary-coloured, Midsummer is scuzzy, delivering comedy, pathos and romance with a lo-fi aesthetic. Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon, playing bar room strangers whose one-night stand turns into a lost weekend, don't so much perform the songs as busk them on acoustic guitars. The simple soundtrack matches the rough-and-ready immediacy of Greig's tale, in which this Bonnie and Clyde redistribute £15,000 of stolen cash on the shortest night of the year.

In its storytelling style it recalls Greig's children's play Yellow Moon, and has a similar what-happens-next appeal. In theme, it is as if we have caught up with two twentysomething characters from Timeless, Greig's first contribution to the Edinburgh festival in 1997. In that play, they struggled to find a perfect moment in a fast-moving world; 10 years on, Bob and Helena still feel life is passing them by, but their sense of impotence is intensified by mid-life panic.

Greig, who also directs, drives the show forward with knockabout humour and a happy complicity with the audience. The lovable leads deserve their happy ending, and the evening offers the private pleasure of a rare indie B-side.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Grid Iron in Stavanger

This article was published in edited form in Scotland on Sunday, 26/10/08

Here's the full version:

Mary Miller used to be the Scotsman's music editor. After that she ran the Northlands Festival in Caithness, then the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, Connecticut. Now she's in charge of Stavanger 2008, a less boisterous companion for Liverpool as one of this year's two European Cities of Culture. It's in that capacity that she invited Edinburgh's Grid Iron theatre company to Norway to create Tryst, a play performed on a tiny island in the fjord that forms Stavanger's harbour.

"Last night there were real fisticuffs with people trying to get tickets," says the Wick-born director in her city centre office. "It was a very still night and you could hear the heartbeat from that old boat as it approached and there was an amazing feeling of something about to happen."

A couple of hours later, I'm standing on the waterfront at Skagenkaien, one of the world's prettiest harbours, flanked by wood-fronted restaurants and converted warehouses. Dusk is falling and a smattering of people are hanging around on the quayside, uncertain if they're in the right place.

As theatrical entrances go, I've never seen better. True to Miller's description, we hear the steady chug-chug of an unseen ferry boat and catch fragments of a mouthorgan melody carried on the evening air. At the last minute, the Hundvaag 1 swings into view, a 40-seater ferry little bigger than a tug boat. Silhouetted on deck are Grid Iron's director Ben Harrison and producer Judith Doherty. Spotting me on shore Doherty gives a naval salute.

The second great entrance of the night comes when we're on board. We're taking the brief journey over to Engoyhomen, the island home of a boat-building yard dating to the 1830s, when the sound of banging interrupts Conrad Ivitsky Molleson's mouthorgan melodies. The noise is coming from inside one of the benches and, when the passenger stands up, out comes David Ireland, playing a bushy-bearded fisherman with a tale about being left high and dry on a desert island. It's a classic Grid Iron moment when fact and fiction blur.

The third memorable entrance is our own as we disembark beneath the gaze of actor Nicola Harrison, fluttering on a rocky outcrop like a mermaid in blue, as spotlights pick out a row of sails to one side and a newly built boat on the other. On Sunday, as you read this, that pristine boat will be launched, rolled along logs to the water in the traditional manner. Tomorrow the Engoyhomen team will provide another boat-in-progress for the Grid Iron actors to perform in front of.

The boatyard is a pioneering social resource that takes on disaffected teenagers and trains them in the art of boat-building. To have Grid Iron looking at the three-storey structure with fresh eyes, rediscovering rooms that had silted up with junk, relishing the paraphernalia of fishing nets and anchors, has been an inspiration. Director Ketil Thu says he will do all he can to keep in place Becky Minto's beautiful wave installation of glittering rocks hanging from the wooden beams long after the Scottish company has left.

"Site-specific theatre is not a known thing here," says Miller. "In Stavanger, it would never have occurred to people to have something in Engoyhomen. There's an honesty and openness to Grid Iron's work, an approach to collaboration, which is not the way that art is presented here. It's that triangle between sense of place, audience and performer and when that works you have something extraordinary."

Earlier in the afternoon, director Ben Harrison, who has staged shows everywhere from the haunted Mary King's Close to Edinburgh airport, is enthusing about the boatyard's theatrical potential. "It has exceeded expectations," he says. "The more you sit in it, the more you discover. There's so much stuff in there, one of the design challenges has been to rearrange that stuff and to add just enough to make it link with the text."

Tryst is the major event of the North Sea Project. Emphasising the connections between the coastlines of Norway and the UK, this strand of the Stavanger 2008 programme has initiated exchanges between artists, poets and musicians, in many cases leading to further commissions. Still to come are Nina Næsheim and Maritha Nielsen appearing at the Scottish Storytelling Festival in Edinburgh (October 29-31) and an exhibition by Scottish and Norwegian artists opening on November 6 in Stavanger.

"There is a shared history," says Edinburgh curator Angela Wrapson. "By the 1600s, Scotland had chopped down its forests and Scottish sea captains used to sail to the northern part of the Stavanger region to buy timber. John Knox's house in Edinburgh is framed with Norwegian timber."

Back at the boat yard, the audience is following the action up narrow wooden staircases to discover the actors – three from the UK, one from the city's Rogaland Theatre – playing drinking games over a fish tank, sleeping between two sails or turning a fishing net into a wedding veil. Set to the rough acoustic textures of Molleson's score, the play tells a back-to-front story of death, adultery and the mythic power of the sea. Drawing on watery writing by Oscar Wilde, William Golding and Alexander Trocchi, Harrison's script splashes against this evocative building like the tide itself.

"Boats are in the foreground," he says. "We go to the island by boat, it's a place where boats are made and boats are hanging in the spaces. It allows us to compare the beauty of the structure of a boat with the difficult mess of human relationships. It would be lovely to bring it back to Scotland and re-imagine it, because of course Scotland lives by the sea as well."

All those great entrances deserve a great exit. Thus it is, as the applause fades, we return to the Hundvaag 1 and sail back to the certainties of dry land beneath a full Norwegian moon. Doherty salutes once more and the ferry chugs off, like a fading memory, into the dark night.

Tryst, Stavanger, until October 25; Scottish Storytelling Festival, Edinburgh, October 24-Nov 2

© Mark Fisher 2008

Little Light review

© Mark Fisher - published in Northings, Hi-Arts journal

Little Light (Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, 29 October 2008, and touring)

SORRY, TOO LATE. If you're able to read this, you're no longer in the market for Little Light. Quite considerably beyond it, in fact. Produced by Edinburgh's Star Catchers in association with the Byre Theatre, Little Light is a show for 0-3 year olds. If you're out of nappies, you're already too old.

That's a shame for the rest of us because it's an exquisite show, one that keeps not only the tots but also their carers spellbound for a dream-like half hour. Created by Andy Manley and Vanessa Rigg, it has real integrity, neither patronising the young audience nor dazzling them like some primary coloured children's TV show. Rather, it creates its own atmospheric world and, with grace and gentleness, lets us share in its quiet magic.

It begins as the audience settle on cushions in front of a set bathed in blue light. There is no expectation they will remain still, yet I have seen plenty more restless audiences of adults in my time, so engrossing are the performances of the two actors, Itxaso Moreno and Lois Creasy.

What they offer is less a story than a journey of exploration with, oddly enough, a little light as the hero. The glowing ball appears in the hands of the wonderfully dextrous Moreno, prompting a simple chant: "Little Light high, Little Light low, Little Light fast, Little Light slow."

That's about as verbally complex as the show gets, the company understanding that for this age group, there is most value in repetition, visuals and music. So unimportant is language, in fact, that Moreno occasionally slips into her native Spanish and causes no confusion.

Accompanied by Stephen Deazley's excellent score, the actors play with simple shapes – a big white moon, a huge balloon – and recognisable items from the natural world – a butterfly, a feather and flowers that really smell. With Little Light, we travel from the sea to the sky, experiencing the textures and sounds of the inventive procession of props emerging from the actors' baskets, some of them finding their way into the audience.

It is subtle and finely judged, so much so that the closing round of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ almost seems like a cynical crowd-pleaser. It's nothing of the kind, of course, being a fitting tribute to the Little Light which has taken its place in the heavens, paving the way for the audience to take to the stage to begin explorations of their own.

Little Light is at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, on 21-22 November 2008)

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Caretaker review

© Mark Fisher - published in the Guardian

The Caretaker
Citizens, Glasgow
4 out of 5

A few months ago, the talk was all about white, working-class males feeling alienated in a multicultural society. Whatever the merits of that analysis, Harold Pinter was on the case first, nearly 50 years ago. In Davies, a tramp who suffers the double-edged hospitality of two brothers, the playwright offers us a character whose fortunes are never so low that he can't take a pop at the neighbourhood "blacks". This derelict, who scarcely has a pair of shoes to call his own, has too much pride ever to think himself on the bottom of the ladder.

His new acquaintances are little better. Whether it's the mild-mannered Aston, who brings Davies back to his dilapidated apartment, or the menacing Mick, the men cling to the idea that they have a meaningful place in society. As we head towards recession, it is chilling to be reminded that it is work that provides us with that meaning. The three men are without employment, yet all claim to have some offer of a job, some contact to meet, some business to be undertaken, to make sense of their lives.

Phillip Breen's careful production draws us quietly into this sad portrait of male loneliness. Tam Dean Burn is a twitchy Davies, in contrast to Robert Hastie's mesmerisingly still Aston, as much a symbol of 1950s British reserve as a product of electric shock therapy. As Mick, Eugene O'Hare is a warped music-hall act in a Joe Orton leather jacket, undermining Davies with double-talking repartee, but hiding behind no less of a front. The Caretaker retains not only its elliptical strangeness but also its ability to resonate with the times.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Cockroach review

© Mark Fisher - published in the Guardian

Traverse, Edinburgh
3 out of 5

No one could accuse Sam Holcroft of lacking ambition. Her full-length debut is an attempt to marry Darwin's theory of evolution to the male propensity for war, suggesting that the violence in our society, from rape to genital mutilation, is a consequence of our preprogrammed need to ensure the survival of the fittest. What starts off like a routine episode of Grange Hill mutates into a radical feminist answer to Lord of the Flies. Although erratically structured, it features one image of such disturbing intensity that Holcroft has to be taken seriously as a compelling theatrical voice.

Kicking off a series of four plays by first-time writers in a joint venture between the Traverse and the National Theatre of Scotland, Cockroach is set in a secondary school biology lab where the usual teenage love tussles are intensified by an ever-decreasing pool of boys. While Meg Fraser's enthusiastic teacher instructs the unruly pupils in the principles of natural selection, the boys are being called up to fight in some unspecified conflict. The more the girls are left behind, the more they are driven by the urge to reproduce.

Looking increasingly like some separatist society, the girls evoke the "founder effect", the theory that a small population increases the likelihood of genetic mutation. Holcroft's position is unclear, but she at least entertains the idea that war provides a necessary cull of male aggression, paving the way for some non-violent future.

It's a reductive view of human behaviour and, as the play lurches from classroom realism to battlefield fantasy, not an entirely coherent one. But the play's central image, in which the girls clean the torn and bloodied uniforms of dead soldiers, is hauntingly powerful, and the excellent performances reinforce the impression of a playwright brave enough to do battle with the big ideas.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Monday, October 13, 2008

David Greig and Gordon McIntyre interview

© Mark Fisher - published in Scotland on Sunday

Two in the bed - David Greig and Gordon McIntyre

DAVID GREIG is improvising his new play as if it had been written by Harold Pinter.
"– Let's go to the Grassmarket.

– Shall we?


–I don't know, why shouldn't we?

–Should we?

–I don't know.

–I'd rather go to Canonmills where there is a pub I know."

That, he assures me, is what Midsummer will not be like. At this point in 2008, the prolific playwright is not in the mood for the weighty and the enigmatic. A better starting point would be something light and frivolous like a pop song. And if it were a pop song it would be something lo-fi and literary, like a track by the Edinburgh band ballboy.

Exactly like that, in fact, because sitting next to Greig in the café-bar of Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre is Gordon McIntyre, Mr ballboy himself, his collaborator on Midsummer. "The whole show is a ballboy song," says Greig. "Because the characteristic ballboy song has a story that's particular, eccentric and full of detail, it has a driving emotion and it has a chorus that captures that emotion. The show is like a long song that keeps breaking out into choruses of singing."

The show's subtitle is "a play with music", which can be read in two ways: one, that it is a musical (though not like they make them on Broadway); and two, that the team are playing with music, having fun, doing what they like. "We decided to do it entirely for our own pleasure," says Greig, whose translation of August Strindberg's altogether more serious Creditors has just opened to considerable acclaim in London. "Gordon doesn't need to be doing theatre, he has ballboy. I had plenty of work, I didn't need to be doing another show. So the only point of doing this was if it would be a laugh or pleasurable for us."

Greig first got in touch with McIntyre when he was editing a book in which Scottish writers explained what they liked about England. He'd been drawn to ballboy's homespun storytelling and was particularly taken with a number called 'I Hate Scotland'. He asked the musician for an essay, but secretly had something bigger in mind. "I was listening to a lot of lo-fi and new folk and wondered why theatre music is never the sort of music I listen to," he says. "I lobbed that question gently towards Gordon and we found we were both interested in that notion: what would a lo-fi, indie musical be like?"

With the help of some seed funding from the National Theatre of Scotland, they spent a couple of weeks in a rehearsal room developing ideas with actors Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon. The story (about a couple's lost weekend after a one-night stand in Edinburgh) and the rough-and-ready, low-budget approach sounded just like what the Traverse's artistic director Dominic Hill was looking for when he declared his intention to use the studio theatre for more experimental productions. "It's very small scale, with just two actors playing the instruments on stage," says Greig, who is also directing. "The budget is minuscule. I haven't worked on a budget this low since I was a student. That's good because it keeps the sense of play. Playing is at the heart of this whole project."

They agreed McIntyre's songs would not attempt to move the story forward but, in the best pop song tradition, would deal in emotions and amplify the mood of the moment. "We were never going to get theatrical music out of me," says McIntyre, who is making use of the existing ballboy track 'There Are Only Inches Between Us, But There Might As Well Be Mountains And Trees' and an instrumental arrangement of 'Above The Clouds The Sun Is Always Shining' in an otherwise all-new score.

"There isn't the sense of singing the story forward that you get in some musicals. I've written a huge amount of love songs for ballboy that I've had to explain to people: 'Well, that didn't actually happen to me. The falling in love did, but the storytelling bit didn't.'

"The songs in this show are more like that: using completely different scenarios to illustrate the point that we're talking about."

Greig says: "I would call him up and say: 'I need a song of people wanting to hurtle towards oblivion.' By the next morning there it was, and it's a cracking song."

For McIntyre, who is weighing up whether to introduce the new songs into the ballboy set or to record them as a sideline project, it has been a revelatory experience.

"The great thing about being in a band is you write your own songs and you do your own thing," he says. "I would never want to trade that, but it's a great intellectual exercise to write songs this way. It's a challenge, but I like working close to the deadline and I'm quite good at self-editing. Also, in this environment I'm quite open to handing over the songs and having them tweaked. That's new to me. I'm really enjoying that part of the process where it's a team effort."

Greig predicts the tone will be somewhere between that of Caledonia Dreaming, the happy piece of devolutionary Edinburgh satire he wrote for 7.84 in 1999, and Gobbo, the delirious CATS award-winning piece of children's entertainment he wrote for the National Theatre of Scotland in 2006.

"It's a romantic comedy," he says. "This couple come together at midsummer and have a lost weekend. They're in the midsummer of their lives; after this point the days are drawing in. Midsummer is a bittersweet moment for all those reasons.

"So, if the question is can you have a lo-fi indie musical, I think the answer is yes. It's not going to be a searing analysis of why Wall Street is in the mess that it's in. It doesn't have a take on Iraq. This show is nakedly emotional. If you would like to have a Pinter version, hie thee elsewhere."v

Midsummer (A Play With Songs), Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, October 24-November 15,

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Six Acts of Love

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

Six Acts of Love
Tron, Glasgow
3 out of 5

Katherine is a woman in need of a story. For much of the time in Ioanna Anderson's gentle comedy, though, you don't notice her dilemma because the fiftysomething Dublin mother of four seems to be surrounded by stories. There is the story of her husband Tom, who has run off with a young artist and started a new family; the stories of her grown-up sons and the lives they are forging for themselves; and the endless torrent of stories told by her mother Dorothy, desperately hanging on to her memories as dementia sets in.

But for Katherine herself, in a glowing performance by Barbara Wilshere in Andy Arnold's production, the narrative has come to an end. Every encounter with Tom (Benny Young), as he enjoys his second youth, only reminds her of a life once lived and now completed. It doesn't help that a legal hitch means the only way they can get divorced is to re-enact their marriage ceremony, like a cruel exhumation of the past. Nor that Katherine appears in none of the family photos dug out of storage to trigger the failing memory of Dorothy (Una McLean).

She is a woman who might never have existed; unrecognised by her mother, legally denied by the state and deserted by her husband and children. By the time all the other stories are wrapped up and she is left alone in an empty kitchen, she is a blank slate.

Six Acts of Love is a play, like On Golden Pond or The Memory of Water, that you can imagine being taken to heart by West End audiences pleased to find their middle-aged concerns reflected back at them. So, too, can you imagine it being despised by those for whom its mushy sentimentality and low-stakes drama deny any real theatricality. As with many plays where the characters are fixated on the past, every move forward requires several steps back, depriving the production of energy.

However, as heart-on-your-sleeve bourgeois theatre goes, Arnold's production is beautifully executed - not least McLean's proud portrayal of a woman losing her mind, which reaches a heart-breaking conclusion when her devoted husband (Des Braiden) sends her off with another story. It won't be to everyone's taste, but Six Acts of Love has every chance of becoming a summer-season staple.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Something Wicked this Way Comes

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

Something Wicked This Way Comes
Dundee Rep
4 out of 5

As every reader of Pinocchio knows, there is not a boy who can resist the pull of a funfair. When the carnival comes to town it brings the promise of something magical, transgressive, illicit; the possibility of escaping everyday life for easy rewards and sensual pleasures. That is the allure of Cooger and Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show when, heralded by the smell of candyfloss and a midnight lightning storm, it arrives in an Illinois backwater in Ray Bradbury's classic 1962 novel.

Who would not want to see themselves reflected a hundredfold in the mirror maze or watch the tattoos writhing on the skin of the Illustrated Man? But this funfair has a more sinister promise: a Faustian opportunity to meddle with time in return for your soul. For teenagers Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway, that could mean fast-forwarding to adulthood; for Will's dad, it is a chance to reclaim his youth.

The wickedness, in other words, is not only embodied in the form of the tattooed Mr Dark, creepily realised here by Andrew Clark like a malevolent Willy Wonka, but also in the good guys who must wrestle with temptation before finding the strength to laugh at their own mortality.

On stage, the battle between good and evil edges the story towards pantomime, but such is the meticulous attention to detail of Gill Robertson's production for Catherine Wheels and the National Theatre of Scotland that we never lose sight of the seriousness of the struggle. Whether it is the Bible that bursts into flames, the nightmarish back-projections, the moody laments of the live score or Karen Tennent's wooden set which so seamlessly mutates from suburban street to evil merry-go-round, every aspect of the production is consummately realised to create a haunting and heartening piece.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Andy Goldsworthy

© Mark Fisher - published in The Scotsman

Artist Andy Goldsworthy - Knowing his place

Artist Andy Goldsworthy’s work embraces the landscape and is lauded wherever he has worked around the globe. So a new project near his Dumfriesshire home is particularly close to his heart, he tells Mark Fisher

ANDY GOLDSWORTHY is sitting in his Dumfriesshire home framed by a painting made of sheep shit. It’s a piece I last saw at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in a major retrospective of the artist’s work last year. To create it, he placed a bucket of feed at the centre of a canvas and let the sheep walk all over it. The result: an earthy splatter painting with a luminous circle of white gleaming through the mud where the bucket once sat.

It’s a reminder that even in the comfort of his cottage, sitting in front of a desk strewn with folders, large-format transparencies and CDs, this artist is never far from nature. Whether it’s the slate sculptures that line his driveway, the conical cairn that welcomes you into his village of Penpont or the delicate curtains of horse chestnut stalks he pins together with blackthorns, Goldsworthy is fascinated by the Earth’s raw materials. “It’s very important to keep my roots in where I come from, which is farming and an agricultural landscape of which people are a part,” he says, his gentle Yorkshire accent undiminished after 20-odd years in Scotland.

It was at that Yorkshire Sculpture Park exhibition I first saw his Striding Arches, a set of free-standing structures made from great wedges of sandstone. Back then, freshly cut and positioned in front of the exhibition hall, they were tame and tidy. Now they’ve reached their intended home on the peaks of three hills in nearby Cairnhead, they are rugged and rooted, looking as much a part of this man-shaped landscape as the Forestry Commission pines.

“It’s great to see them in a place like this where they do really feel part of that landscape,” says Goldsworthy. “They have this undulating feel. It’s like being in a sea of hills and this wave of an arch breaks the calm of the sea.”

A day earlier, I’m with Jan Hogarth, project manager for Dumfries & Galloway Arts Association and the Gingko consultancy, to trek across the fells and see the Striding Arches for ourselves. “It’s not described as a walk, it’s described as a walking adventure,” she says, as we stumble down a marshy slope. To get here, we’ve taken a winding single-track road from the village of Moniaive before taking to the hills of Dalwhat Glen. The route is largely up to you – which is what makes it an adventure – seeing as no official path exists to link the arches, sitting within sight of each other at the highest point of three hills.

“The path is made by people walking,” says Goldsworthy, who is interested in nature’s relationship to human beings. “The work isn’t finished until the path has been made. Those arches need a line and the line is as much a part of the work as the arches. And people are as much a part of the work as stone. So it’s now waiting for that to happen. I don’t want to be prescriptive about it.”

This is not the first time the 52-year-old sculptor has built arches. Ten years ago in Montreal, he constructed his first for Cirque du Soleil made from 80 tons of the same stone the early Scottish settlers brought with them as ballast for their ships. He’s built ice arches at the North Pole, a stone arch sheltering an elm tree at Witchita University and 11 arches lapping up out of the sea in New Zealand. But these Dumfriesshire arches are extra special to him, being designed for his own neighbourhood.

“That has a huge significance,” he says, enjoying the stunning views beyond his six-acre field to the southern uplands. “My home is really important to me and is the origin of many of my ideas and feelings towards the land. So it’s great to be able to make a work of this scale near to my home.”

Of course, building something in his own back yard means he can’t escape from it, something he last experienced with the Penpont cairn he built to mark the new millennium. “I kept seeing that little hill outside the village and how it had a sense of guarding the road,” he says. “It was such a strong place to make the work, but I kept thinking, ‘Andy, do not make it there; your kids have to pass it every day in the school bus; they are going to have to suffer this sculpture for the rest of their lives, let alone me.’

“Also, I do get a lot of resistance where I make works – it’s part of an artist’s life. I’m prepared to fight the fight, to be pilloried, attacked and sometimes loved. Your home is somewhere you can retreat from those battles, but I can’t retreat from this one. So there was a real sense of concern there, but ultimately, as with the cairn here, the artist kicks in and you just know you’ve got to make the strongest work possible, no matter what flack you get.

“One of the reasons I love this area and have stayed here for 20-odd years is the broadmindedness of the people who live here. I’m English living in a small Scottish village and I’m an artist; that’s two reasons to be treated as an alien. But right from the beginning when I first moved here and I had the smallest house in the village – a two-roomed house, I was incredibly poor – there was such an open-mindedness and tolerance which I really liked. That’s developed over the years into a genuine interest and support. The farmers come across me making these things on the land all the time and they become my friends as well as critics and have seen more of my work than anybody.”

He hopes to raise funds for further arches to add staging posts in the nine-mile circular journey. He’s also built a fourth, on lower ground, wittily forcing itself through the window of a byre, so the building itself becomes part of the artwork. The hope is that this expansive piece of land art will contribute to the regeneration of a region still recovering from the restrictions imposed after the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001.

“It’s very rare that I do anything on top of a hill,” he says, on a visit home in between trips to France and San Francisco. “In some cases, the promontory seems to have appeared just because I put a work on it. There’s a round arch that I made nearby here called Touchstone North which is not really on a hill, more of a field, but once I put the work there, it became a hilltop. But, for the Striding Arches, these were definitely hilltops to begin with and I think it’s the first time I’ve taken on the idea of breaking the skyline.

“I’m very conscious of the impact even a person has on the skyline and the attendant sense of arrogance that comes with placing something on a hill. There are enough monuments in this area where the Victorians have built some great phallic pile on top of a hill. It’s a very domineering, arrogant gesture. That’s made me very cautious about making works that do that.

“Nonetheless, there comes a time when you feel you want to use that sense of seeing from a distance and breaking the skyline. If you’re going to do that, there has to be a reason for it. In this case, there’s the spatial relationship between one and the other. You don’t have a sense of the distances between things until you put something there that defines them.”

Although he sometimes creates work for gallery spaces, Goldsworthy is in his element in the great outdoors, where he tunes in to the rhythms of the landscape and lets nature subject his sculptures to a process of continual change. “The beauty of the cairn and I hope the arches too is that it’s a different work every day you pass,” he says. “Having the works around has taught me a lot about change. I went up the hill in winter when one arch was made and it was snowing. It was like it was floating. That’s a very different sculpture to the middle of summer. If people go up there and just come across the arches, I hope they see the way they pick up on the surrounding landscape, the sense of flow, the glacial movement, a sense of geological change and the human nature of that changing landscape.”

• For more information on Andy Goldsworthy’s Striding Arches project, visit

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Cherry Blossom

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

Cherry Blossom
Traverse, Edinburgh
4 out of 5

The disorientation we feel watching Catherine Grosvenor's Cherry Blossom is the disorientation of her characters. They are economic migrants, venturing from Poland to the UK with more drive than language skills. In this co-production between the Traverse and the Polish company Teatr Polski Bydgoszcz, Grosvenor weaves their sense of confusion - of understanding only one side of the conversation - into the very fabric of the play. Writing in both Polish and English, she makes a monoglot audience strain to keep up.

Director Lorne Campbell adds to the air of uncertainty by rotating the characters between the four actors. All four of them - Scotland's John Kazek and Sandy Grierson, and Poland's Marta Scislowicz and Małgorzata Trofimiuk - take on, for example, the central role of the Polish mother who finds a job in an Edinburgh meat factory to pay for her daughter's education. As well as introducing a surreal theatricality (the heterosexual love scene between two male actors is particularly effective), the technique turns the story from the individual to the universal. Theirs is the loneliness, bewilderment and fear of all immigrants.

Set against this everyman tale is the true story of Robert Dziekan´ski, a construction worker who, having left his native Poland in October last year, died in Vancouver airport after a 10-hour ordeal of miscommunication. It's a curious story - delivered straight by the actors reading from clipboards - but one that becomes more comprehensible when put in the context of Cherry Blossom's evocation of linguistic confusion.

This evocation is the play's strength. Without it, the central story would be as banal as a soap opera. That is also why the 90-minute production seems a couple of scenes too long; the characters' fate is less interesting than the turmoil they experience along the way. But it is tremendously acted by the bilingual cast, with the passion of the Polish actors making a fiery contrast with the underplayed reserve of their Scottish counterparts.

The real star of the show is the set by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer, the much-touted team behind the innovative multimedia company 59 Productions, and the youngest ever associates of London's National Theatre. It's a crazy-paving of white oblongs laid flat across the stage, on to which they project a tumbling collage of words, translations, scene-setting illustrations and video footage. Not only is it a technical wonder, but it also plays a fully integrated part in building the production's dizzy atmosphere of dislocation.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Ioanna Anderson interview

© Mark Fisher - published in The Herald

End of a not so beautiful relationship

If you want a lesson on modern Scottish identity, look no further than Ioanna Anderson. The 38-year-old playwright is a walking embodiment of 21st-century multiculturalism.

The first clue is in her name: Anderson is from her Irish father; Ioanna (pronounced Yo-anna) is from her Greek mother. The cultural cross-currents don't stop there. Having spent her childhood in Edinburgh, where she was expelled from school for spending too much time in the cinema, she headed to Dublin's Trinity College - the only place that didn't care about her references - to study English.

After a short stint in London, she settled in Dublin, working as an administrator for a number of small-scale theatre companies. When one of those companies, Greenlight Productions, was looking for a new play, she was in the right place to turn her hand to writing a monologue, so beginning a second career as a dramatist. One critic described Words of Advice for Young People, her debut with Rough Magic theatre company, as an "auspicious introduction of a writer with a great deal to say and exceptional skills with which to say it".

All of which means, 20 years on, Anderson is routinely described as an Irish playwright. "Because I started writing in Ireland, I mysteriously became an Irish writer," she says in an accent that carries echoes of Edinburgh and Dublin. "I was writing for Irish voices and I'd lived there for quite a long time and so everyone called me an Irish writer. I was like, No, I'm from Scotland', but it's too complicated to explain."

Things don't get any easier now she's making her Scottish debut at Glasgow's Tron Theatre while plotting the move "home" to Edinburgh with her husband and 18-month-old daughter. She'd blithely assumed Six Acts of Love was the kind of play that could take place anywhere, but as soon as director Andy Arnold put it in front of a cast of talented Scottish actors - including Una McLean - it became clear how much of an Irish play she'd written.

"Andy Arnold and I decided it was a universal play with universal themes and there'd be no problem transposing it to Scotland," she says on a flying visit to Glasgow. "Then we went away and phoned each other and, in the same breath said, Actually, it's not going to work.' There are specific times that created these characters. There are versions of them over here, but you would have had to change some key points to make it fit - and still people would be trying to identify exactly where they came from. It's more specific than I thought, so, yes, for a while I was an Irish writer."

Written for Dublin's Abbey Theatre during an unhappy time when more plays were being workshopped than staged, Six Acts of Love was like a "play going round and round on an airport conveyor belt" with nobody claiming it as their own, until Arnold seized on it as the perfect way to launch his inaugural season as artistic director of the Tron. It's a bitter-sweet comedy about a woman deserted by her husband and saddled with a mother losing her mind.

As well as the subconsciously Irish rhythms, the play's Irishness is most apparent in the true-life story that inspired it. "My mother- in-law had a great story about a friend of hers who had to do a peculiarly Irish thing," she says. "To get a divorce, she discovered she was never legally married. Although bizarre, it has happened to many people in Ireland. When they got married in the Catholic church, there was no registry office and they had to sign a civil document. A lot of the time it wasn't produced - the priest would forget. Divorce was only made legal in 1995 and then it was discovered that the documentation didn't exist. To get divorced, they had to go to the same priest with the same witnesses and re-enact the original marriage. It is peculiarly Catholic and of the moment."

The opening of Six Acts of Love coincides with You Are Here, a site-specific play she's written to be performed in an apartment in the Dublin Theatre Festival. If she times it right she can just see the first nights in both cities. All of which will be a good starting point as she makes the move back to her native Scotland and establishes herself as a bona fide Scottish playwright.

"I am actually writing a play for Scottish actors," she says. "That's been interesting. You have to come home and listen to people's voices and read the paper again. Scotland is at a totally different moment to when I left; politically, socially, everything has changed. It's a very dynamic moment here, which I hope to gatecrash."

Six Acts of Love, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, tomorrow to October 11.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


© Mark Fisher - published in Northings - Highlands & Islands Arts Journal

MACBETH (Mallaig and Morar Community Centre, 17 September 2008, and touring)

POWER CORRUPTS and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But watching Alan Steele in the title role of Macbeth, you see power also does a few things in between.

First, it sends you off the rails. Not only do you see visions of your dead victims, but you start clutching neurotically at your robes, panicking at the presumption of your claim to the throne. Then, once it looks as if you're succeeding regardless of your insecurity, power goes to your head. You develop a messianic self-belief and think yourself infallible – after all, who ever heard of a walking wood or a man not born of woman? That's when power turns you into a fully fledged tyrant.

Steele marks these transitions clearly, letting us see that his violence is a front for his inner weakness. He might have had a reasonable claim to kingship had his honourable qualities not been undermined by his own moral decline. He lashes out because of fear not courage.

Interestingly in Alasdair McCrone's atmospheric production – a revival of the last ever show at Mull Little Theatre in 2006 – the power behind the throne is not only Beth Marshall's lucid Lady Macbeth, but also the mysterious forces of darkness embodied by Sarah Haworth. A lingering presence throughout the show, Haworth plays all three witches – thanks to the concealed mirrors of Alicia Hendrick's turret of a set – as well as various bit parts, until she lays Macbeth to rest in the final silent moments.

It gives her the status of puppet master – albeit a deranged one – dreaming this tragic parable into life. She is less a supernatural being than a shaman warning us of what can happen when a good man ventures into the dark side.

Performed beneath a fog of dry ice, the production makes a virtue of its small cast, not only in the efficient doubling of the six actors, but also in creating an air of no-nonsense directness. It's a real achievement to give such a full account of the play with so few actors and it is this, rather than any startling insights, that gives the production its distinctive energy.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Don Juan

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

Don Juan
Citizen's, Glasgow
2 out of 5

It worked for John Simm in Life on Mars, so why not for Mark Springer in Don Juan? Like DCI Sam Tyler in the TV series, John D is a modern-day man who, thanks to some jiggery-pokery in the space-time continuum, finds himself in a bygone era. The production doesn't make clear whether he is a Max Clifford-style media manipulator or a pop celebrity, but by the time he wakes up in the 1730s, it's plain he is a real Don Juan.

The idea behind director Jeremy Raison's version of the story, reworked from Robert David MacDonald's Goldoni translation, is to underscore its 21st- century relevance. It has the opposite effect. By going back in time, this Don Juan puts the play in quotation marks. It's as if we're seeing this world of frisky country maids, impotent men and sexually repressed ladies from the outside. We are detached observers, which means however many ideas Raison throws at the production - and there are a lot - and however well it is acted, the characters remain at one remove.

It isn't that Goldoni's play no longer speaks to a modern audience. A vain-glorious man concerned only with his libido could easily be a product of today's sexualised society. But the challenges Don Juan faces here are not of 2008. What woman would insist on marriage after a single night? Who would hunger for a Don Juan to rescue her from an arranged marriage? When Springer asks, "What did I do that was so bad?" you have to wonder yourself, because his violations only make sense in an 18th-century context.

His egotism makes him a bit of a prat, but in today's terms he's doing little worse than playing the field, which means, without the irony of Life on Mars, the play ends up stuck in time.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Friday, September 19, 2008

One Giant Leap

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

One Giant Leap
Caol Community Centre, Fort William
4 out of 5

Professor Michael Reiss should have bided his time. Instead of causing all that hullabaloo over creationism in science lessons, the Royal Society's now ex-director of education should simply have prescribed One Giant Leap for every school in the land. Though the head-spinning production by Wee Stories and the National Theatre of Scotland does not address creationism head on, in its humanist inquiry into 2,500 years of scientific thinking about space, it persuasively argues that the greatest enemy of knowledge is foundationless religious dogma.

The giant leap of the title is a reference to the small step taken by Neil Armstrong nearly 40 years ago when he set foot upon the moon. But the giant leaps that most interest performer Iain Johnstone are those taken by history's freethinkers, the people who upturned religious and scientific orthodoxy to present a new vision of our place in the cosmos.

The hero of his story is Aristarchus of Samos, the ancient Greek astronomer who suggested the Earth spins on its axis and revolves around the sun. It was an idea that remained at best forgotten, at worst heretical, for 1,700 years, until Copernicus thought he'd give it another spin. Those ideas inspired Giordano Bruno, a rebel Dominican friar, who was burned at the stake for his ungodly beliefs only 400 years ago. There is real anger in Johnstone's performance as he describes the church's stranglehold on knowledge, while back projections make an ironic link between the flames that destroyed Bruno to the burn that propelled Apollo 11.

As if mocking themselves for their own lecture-room earnestness, Johnstone and his collaborators Andy Cannon and David Trouton present the show before a school blackboard next to a library of forbidding books. It is a classroom of the imagination, however, one in which the chalk stars magically move across the black emptiness of space and in which a teacher describes the size of the solar system in terms of an unfurling toilet roll.

Wee Stories has produced more joyful shows, and some of Johnstone's jokes are tentative. But any play that requires the audience to join in a plainsong chant about the Earth being at the centre of the universe gets my vote. As with the company's The Emperor's New Kilt earlier this year, the inspirational message is that sceptical inquiry is more wondrous than blind faith.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian


Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
3 out of 5

Liam Brennan is alone on the stage when, as Macbeth, he first mentions the idea of "assassination". The very word catches him unawares; he breaks off mid-sentence, looks nervously around in case he has been overheard, then continues sotto voce

It is the key to an interpretation that shows the aspiring king of Scotland not as a merciless warlord, but as an introspective thinker with little appetite for bumping off his enemies. He is more a Hamlet than a man of action - racked with indecision, his monologues measured, calm and reasoned. Allison McKenzie as Lady Macbeth is on the mark when she refers to his "heart so white", although her sleepwalking scene and his visions of the murdered Banquo suggest the pair have equally delicate psychological make-ups.

On the face of it, Brennan's is a brilliant, lucid, intelligent performance: his initial low-key approach allows him gradually to extend his emotional range, and his delivery is exquisite. He plays us Macbeth in an unfamiliar key, revealing the contemplative poet behind the power-hungry tyrant. This is fascinating, but it does make Macbeth seem too reasonable a bloke to warrant the ire of the whole English army. He is a politician who has made a few policy misjudgments, rather than a monstrous despot - something that lessens the necessity of his death.

This effect is heightened by Lucy Pitman-Wallace's staging, which attempts to avoid directorial gimmickry with an 11th-century setting of broadswords and sackcloth tunics. Not only does this come across as old-fashioned - the witches in their rags look like something from a 1950s drama-school exercise - but it negates the drama's political resonances, giving it the pleasant air of a BBC costume drama such as Robin Hood, rather than the urgent bite of a play for today.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Monday, September 15, 2008


© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian


Tron, Glasgow
4 out of 5

There are three good reasons why Fleeto should not work. One, it is written in blank verse and inspired by the Iliad, surely a recipe for deadly modern theatre. Two, it is on the topic of knife crime, a subject of interest chiefly to tabloid editors. And three, after its initial success as part of last year's A Play, a Pie and a Pint season, it has been revived for a UK tour with the backing of the Scottish Prison Service's violence reduction week, which gives the impression of an instructional piece of agitprop.

It is a tremendous accomplishment that Paddy Cunneen's 80-minute drama overrides all such reservations, offering a gripping portrait of inner-city violence that lends a mythic resonance to what could have been a simplistic knives-are-bad message.

Drawing on Homer's story of the bereaved King Priam confronting his enemy Achilles, Cunneen vividly portraits the intensity of a senseless gang attack, the horror of a motiveless murder and the wider social causes and effects of knife crime. He does this in a way that strips away the banalities of naturalistic speech, using instead the heightened monologues of the Greeks to explore the human emotions generated by grand social forces.

Performing on a bare stage with only the raw power of Cunneen's language for ammunition, the four actors never lose the attention of a young audience. Jordan McCurrach is especially mesmerising as the assassin with a guilty conscience, tough talking but as helpless as a tragic hero.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Friday, September 12, 2008

Sunset Song

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

Sunset Song

His Majesty's, Aberdeen
4 out of 5

Straight through the heart of his protagonist, Chris Guthrie, the author Lewis Grassic Gibbon drew the line between modernity and the past. At the radiant centre of his 1932 novel, Sunset Song, and its sequels Cloud Howe and Grey Granite, Chris represents a schism that would divide the nation.

As the daughter of turn-of-the-century Aberdeenshire farmers, she is of the land, yet her education causes her to see her upbringing with the detachment of an outsider. As a teenager on the cusp of maturity, she is both child and woman, while the onset of motherhood represents the transition from freedom to responsibility.

This duality haunts the book as it paints a romantic yet unsentimental portrait of the land. "You hate it and love it in a breath," says Hannah Donaldson, a sturdy, luminous Chris at the still centre of Alastair Cording's fluid adaptation, reworked since its first airing in the Edinburgh festival of 1993. The further she moves from her childhood independence, the closer looms the first world war and the end of the old countryside ways. Neither she nor the village of Kinraddie, nor indeed the world, will ever be the same again.

Kenny Ireland's production is the first in-house drama at Aberdeen's His Majesty's Theatre for nearly 50 years. Appropriately for a story so rooted in community, it is a lively ensemble piece, moving deftly from the choreography of spring ploughing to the sweet harmonies of a winter wedding, and so on through the novel's key moments. Accompanied by live music, the cast create instant vignettes of sturdy carthorses, marching soldiers and toiling labourers, sometimes in a manner that's too self-consciously arty, but more typically managing to give a full sense of the novel's tapestry of life.

Inevitably, given the constraints on time, the adaptation glosses over the languid poetry of the original, becoming more about events than atmosphere, and rattles along at too speedy a pace in the earlier scenes. As the production gets into gear, however, it does much justice to Grassic Gibbon's rich north-eastern language and, with the ever-shifting watercolour landscapes at the back of Hayden Griffin's open set, creates a vivid sense of the countryside and all its cruel beauty. With strong supporting roles from Rod Matthew as her bullish father and Finn Den Hertog as her rebellious brother, Donaldson gives a central performance that, like the novel voted Scotland's favourite read in 2005, is both rooted and romantic.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Friday, September 05, 2008

Outlying Islands

© Mark Fisher - published in Northings - Hi-Arts Journal

OUTLYING ISLANDS (Pitlochry Festival Theatre, 3 September 2008)

FIVE YEARS after Outlying Islands made its debut at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre in 2002, playwright David Greig translated The Bacchae by Euripides for the National Theatre of Scotland. This was the show in which Alan Cumming played Dionysus, the god of good times, upturning the prim and proper world of Pentheus, played by a buttoned-up Tony Curran.

With this in mind, it's fascinating to return to Outlying Islands, superbly staged by Ken Alexander as the last show of the Pitlochry season, and see that it is about exactly the same struggle between order and chaos, the head and the heart.

The play is set on the outermost of outlying islands off the Scottish west coast where the pre-war Ministry of Defence is considering testing the new anthrax virus. Unaware of this plan, two young Cambridge graduates, Robert and John, have been stationed on the deserted outcrop by the ministry to study the birdlife for a month. Their hosts are a curmudgeonly old sheep farmer and his attractive niece. Apart from them, they have the island to themselves.

In terms Euripides would have understood, Greig uses this extreme no-man's land to test our twin impulses towards Dionysian freedom and Apollonian restraint. An outlying island is a symbol for our desire to escape; the characters are drawn there by its wildness, its distance from civilisation, its air of danger. Even the abandoned chapel is a place of pagan, not Christian, worship.

Grant O'Rourke's Robert is most forcibly attracted by the island's destructive beauty, a reaction to the repression of his public school upbringing. Joel Sams' virginal John finds it harder to shake off the values imposed by his social class, so must wrestle valiantly with himself the more he is smitten by the sexuality of Claire Dargo's sonorous and beautiful Ellen.

The tension, in other words, comes from more than just the comedy of manners as stuck-up toffs meet earthy locals; it comes from the clash of interests between "gamblers and savers", the reckless and the rational, that is forever at play in our psychological make-up. When John and Ellen finally get together, breaking free of social protocol, embracing the Dionysian, it is the cue for Robert to push himself even further into the wild unknown.

Along with Martyn James, giving a brilliantly dour performance as old farmer Kirk, the cast make a flawless ensemble, catching the humour, intelligence and narrative drive of Greig's play with warmth and understanding.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Mums and Lovers

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

Mums and Lovers

Oran Mor, Glasgow
3 out of 5

A Play, a Pie and a Pint is the most unlikely success story of Scottish theatre. Run by David MacLennan, a veteran of the 7:84 and Wildcat theatre companies, it has been attracting sizeable lunchtime audiences for the past four years. Indeed, so many people turned up to claim their pie and pint before curtain-up on Monday that the performance was forced to start late.

It isn't only audiences who are keen. The forthcoming 14-play autumn season includes directors such as Paines Plough's Roxana Silbert, writers with the standing of Chewin' the Fat's Ford Kiernan, and actors of the calibre of Gabriel Quigley, Julie Austin and Shonagh Price - the stars of Mums and Lovers. This raucous girls-night-out comedy is written by no less a figure than Ian Pattison, whose best-loved creation, Rab C Nesbitt, will be back on BBC2 for a one-off special later this year.

Part of the appeal is the lack of formality. Writers can try things out in a congenial atmosphere (Pattison has a full-length version of Mums and Lovers ready to roll should this week prove a success), and audiences don't complain if the set amounts to no more than a table and a couple of bar stools, as it does here. Even though Pattison's comedy breaks no new ground, it is bright, brisk and funny, and feels like a lunchtime well spent.

We're in the territory of Women On the Verge of HRT and of Shirley Valentine, as three old school friends gather for their weekly Thursday drink and bemoan the state of their loveless marriages. That they miss sex is understood; what they hunger for most, however, is validation. In the forbidden fruit of a bar-room flirtation, they see something they can't get from their suburban barbecues.

The idea of the frustrated housewife is not new, but few have been represented with as much feistiness as Pattison's tough-talking trio. "He probably uses cake tongs to take a pee," says Austin's Louise, dismissing the pompous husband of Quigley's Elspeth with typically surreal vulgarity.

Pattison can't resist a wisecrack where sometimes a human truth would do better - which might account for the occasional overplaying of the comedic lines - but he excels in scatological one-liners and keeps the audience laughing. If his full-length version finds room for poignancy as well as gags, he could have a hit on his hands.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Ian Pattison interview

© Mark Fisher - published in Scotland on Sunday

The return of Rab C Nesbitt

IT'S A couple of years ago and Ian Pattison, Gregor Fisher and Colin Gilbert are tucking into a swanky meal at an upmarket Glasgow restaurant. The writer, actor and director are discussing the possibility of bringing back Rab C Nesbitt, the string-vested lowlife philosopher who kept them on top of the comedy heap through eight series until 1999.
Pattison is not keen and he can't help but see the irony. "We're talking about bringing this character back and look at this lunch we're eating," he tells them. "It's about £200 worth. What right have we to revisit this territory?"

The table goes silent.

Some months later, Pattison is watching the television news in a hotel room in Hungary as a terrorist jeep crashes into the glass frontage of Glasgow Airport. He surprises himself with his own reaction. "I wish Rab was back now," he thinks. "He'd have something to say about that."

The thought is enough to persuade him to write one more 45-minute script, which means Govan's most famous street philosopher will be back on our screens by Christmas.

"Going back to Nesbitt is a double-edged sword," says Pattison when we meet in Òran Mór where his new comedy Mums And Lovers is launching the autumn season of A Play, A Pie And A Pint lunchtime theatre. "It's easier because you know thoroughly who all these characters are and how they behave in any situation. But against that, there's more pressure because it's a success and people are already sharpening their claws. It's probably a stupid decision to bring him back, but one that was inevitable."

Pattison has good reason to be cautious. When he first brought Nesbitt to life in a Naked Video sketch in 1986, the writer was in his mid-30s, still a lowly sketch writer, and his memories of his own Govan childhood were strong. These days, however, the success of Rab C Nesbitt, which routinely played to six million people, means he's most at home in Glasgow's fashionable West End, a milieu he wrote about in Looking At The Stars (2006), his third novel, set between Scotland and Hollywood.

"Roughing it for me these days means having no lemon slice for my Earl Grey tea," Pattison deadpans.

He has also learnt to his cost what can go wrong when you don't write from experience. Living in Lambeth at the start of the decade, he decided to write a sitcom about the Caribbean people he saw every day. He submitted the script of The Crouches to the BBC under a pseudonym, certain they would reject it if they knew it was by a white man from Scotland, and didn't reveal his identity until they'd given it the go-ahead. That's when the problems started. It was a culture he simply didn't know well enough.

"I was entirely naive," he says. "It wasn't a particularly good sitcom. I made mistakes. I had to learn the moral lines as I went along. The cast were great and so supportive. It was very difficult for them because they had to justify this white writer to their own people and at the same time be supportive to me. It's a very political issue. I bailed out of The Crouches, which made everybody's life easier. The second series was all black writers."

Luckily, it is less controversial for a man to write about women, as he has done in Mums And Lovers. Starring Gabrielle Quigley, Julie Austin and Shonagh Price, the comedy is about three married women who find themselves tempted to stray on a night out.

"People will recognise the characters and, yes, to some extent they are based on people I know," Pattison says. "In true sitcom tradition, the characters are trapped. The three women are offered a quickening of the pulse, which has been missing from their lives, but it comes at a cost and they have to make that calculation about whether it's worth doing."

If this week's run goes down well, he has a full-length version ready to roll. He always liked writing for Elaine C Smith and Helen Lederer in Naked Video and relishes the chance of putting feisty language into the mouths of the actors. "I find writing for women liberating because you have a licence to say outrageous things," he says. "I don't imagine that I'm some kind of surrogate female, but I can bring the directness of male speech to female communication and that works quite well."

As with Rab C Nesbitt, he has tried to root the play in reality, without forcing a political argument on it. "If you don't bring in the external world, it always seems like half a play," he says. "I don't like things to be too self-contained and self-referential. I want to know what's happening outside that door and what happened before these people arrived at that table.

"The politics should be implicit. If they're not bedded in, these things tend to sit on the play like congealed lard on a stew; ill-fitting. Everything must come from character. If you feel instinctively that you're crowbarring a line into a character's mouth, that small voice will find you out at some point."

He can't bring himself to call Mums And Lovers a comedy in case nobody laughs, but we can reasonably assume they will. Ask him about Glasgow humour, however, and this writer, whose name is synonymous with Rab C Nesbitt, says he doesn't believe it is unique.

"I really don't think there's a Glasgow sense of humour," he says. "I used to think it was class-bound and that working-class humour was pretty much the same up and down the country.

"Then I thought maybe we have something more akin to American humour because it's more direct. When Cheers was shown originally, it had a higher audience figure in Scotland than in the whole network. A lot of the comedy we were being fed on the network was class-bound; it was about the comedy of repression, about people not saying things. Working-class and American humour is in-your-face. If somebody's got an attitude about you, out comes the line."

Whether Glasgow is a uniquely funny place or not, he believes it's time to care less about image and more about real social issues. The man who so brilliantly satirised the values of Glasgow's European City of Culture in 1990 – and provoked one councillor to demand Rab C Nesbitt be axed for projecting a negative image – is adamant that the city should look at the reality, warts and all.

"We caught that mood of change back then," Pattison says. "Here was the old Glasgow clashing with the new, which creates a tension, which creates comedy. What worries me is when the reality is continually flossed to hide everything that's a problem. We should be mature enough to say we have big social problems. Let's admit them."

He is keeping tight-lipped about the plot of the new Rab C Nesbitt script – saying only that "he's an older individual and it would be remiss of me not to take that into account" – but Pattison is keeping open the possibility of more to come. "It'll probably be a one-off, but who knows?" he says. "I suppose it's in the viewers' hands." v

Mums And Lovers, Òran Mór, Glasgow, tomorrow until Saturday

© Mark Fisher, 2008