Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Sound of My Voice

© Mark Fisher

An edited version of this review appeared in The Guardian

The Sound of My Voice
Citizens', Glasgow
Emerging a few years after Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City and predating TV's Mad Men, Ron Butlin's short novel is part of a subgenre of alcohol-fuelled, mid-life crises in the workplace stories. But where the American equivalents are set in the glamorous worlds of magazines and advertising agencies, Butlin's debut revolves around a biscuit factory. It's a typically British white-collar setting – dull, downbeat and self-important – that helps explain, with wry humour, the hero's descent into an alcoholic breakdown.

In Jeremy Raison's good-looking studio adaptation, a welcoming tray of custard creams sets the mood somewhere between triviality and desperation. Morris Magellan is a family man and successful company executive, skilled enough at his inane job to disguise his dependency on brandy, even if the strain is beginning to show at home. Played by a dexterous Billy Mack, squirming in his suit like an inebriated Lee Evans, he is all charm and charisma, despite the self-loathing. It's a fine, fluid performance that manages to make a repellent character endlessly watchable.

In his adaptation, Raison emphasises Magellan's dislocation by casting a fresh-faced Rebecca McQuillan not only as wife, secretary, daughter and colleague, but also as an echoing inner voice, capturing both the sense of drunken blurriness and, more importantly, the lost child hiding within the frightened adult.

What's missing, perhaps inevitably in 2008, is the taste of self-interested mid-80s Thatcherite greed – a cultural context to make this more than the story of one man's personal struggle with the bottle. Equally, however, it avoids coming across as an advert for Alcoholics Anonymous, even if Butlin's flashbacks to a fraught father-son relationship seem a little pat. Thanks to superb lighting and sound by Graham Sutherland on Jason Southgate's off-kilter mirrored set, the show creates a vivid theatrical journey with the simplest of means.
Mark Fisher
Until June 7. Box office: 0141 429 0022.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Wild Honey

Pitlochry Festival Theatre
©Mark Fisher
Imagine a cross between Uncle Vanya, Noises Off and Don Juan with a touch of Hamlet's indecision thrown in for good measure. This is the mongrel territory of Michael Frayn's mid-80s reworking of Anton Chekhov's novice play, usually known as Platonov, which comes across as a midsummer night's sex comedy tempered by moments of existentialist despair, not all of it serious.

Launching the six-play summer repertoire season at Pitlochry, John Durnin's production boasts a number of spirited performances, but it falls in the middle ground between pathos and farce. It is neither serious enough to explain the characters' frustrated desires nor funny enough to show the ridiculous tragedy of their empty lives.

As in later Chekhov, things have grown so desperately dull in well-to-do provincial Russia that the slightest deviation from the norm causes untold excitement. Thus when Mikhail Vasilyevich Platonov, a school teacher with a vaguely unconventional streak, returns to his in-laws' country house for the summer, he becomes the subject of irrepressible sexual yearning. A man primarily in love with himself, he is forced to juggle the advances of three women while his misunderstood wife is indoors with their baby.

Part of the joke is that Platonov is unworthy of such attention; he's just a big-headed dreamer with thwarted ambitions. Even so, it doesn't make sense for actor Greg Powrie to project so weak an impression of the charismatic student Platonov once was or of the "spirit" that is ascribed to him. He is genial and self-absorbed rather than a maverick, which makes it hard to see why the women are attracted to him, especially in the absence of any sexual chemistry on stage. As a result, the comedy of a man besieged by women never sparks into life and the play seems long winded where it should be fleet of foot.
Mark Fisher
Until October 18. Box office: 01796 484 626.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Drawer Boy

**** Tron, Glasgow

© Mark Fisher

Andy Arnold begins his artistic directorship of the Tron where he left off in his old job - with stories. His swansong at Glasgow's Arches was a production of Tom Murphy's Bailegangaire in which two daughters crave the completion of their mother's favourite story so they can achieve resolution in their own lives. Now Arnold turns to Canadian writer Michael Healey's The Drawer Boy, a warm-hearted well-made play also about the way stories give us self-definition.

It's inspired by the occasion in 1972 when Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille ventured into rural Ontario to research a play called The Farm Show. Healey eases us in with a gentle mismatch comedy about a naive young actor, Miles, getting to grips with the life-and-death realities of country life. But his deeper purpose is to look at how the fiction of The Farm Show was able to articulate, for the farmers, a revelatory sense of their own experience.

He conveys this through two men whose relationship, like George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men, is one of mutual dependency. The stoical Morgan keeps his brain-damaged friend Angus on track by endlessly retelling their life story; Angus, in return, uses his undiminished mathematical skills to do the books. The story is interrupted by a third party, Miles, whose theatrical tales resonate more strongly with Angus as he searches for certainty in a troubled mental world.

Although the play is a little like one of those Canadian beers that boasts of having no aftertaste, it is beautifully observed and subtly constructed in its journey from comedy to pathos. Above all, it is exquisitely acted by Brian Ferguson, Benny Young and Brian Pettifer, and promises more powerful stories to come under Arnold's regime.

· Until May 24. Box office: 0141-552 4267.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sandy Grierson interview

Published in Scotland on Sunday: 18 May 2008

IF THEATRE was a gamblers' game, you'd want to keep your money near Sandy Grierson. The Edinburgh actor has form. It isn't only that he walked away with the gong for best actor in last year's Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland (CATS) thanks to his "shape-changing" performance in Communicado's Fergus Lamont, it's that he was subsequently in two shows that have just been nominated for this year's CATS, the winners of which will be announced on June 15.

Published today, the nominations include Vanishing Point's Subway for best use of music, and the Royal Lyceum's The Wizard Of Oz for best show for children. Grierson was in both – in one, playing a young man returning to a dystopian Leith, and in the other, a loveable Tin Man – during a year in which everything seemed to go right for him.

"It was a terrifying year simply because it was jam-packed with things I was delighted with," he says during a rare afternoon off while the lights are focused for Little Otik, his latest show with Vanishing Point and the National Theatre of Scotland. "It was a brilliant year."

His output over the past 12 months gives a clear sense of Grierson's range and level of engagement. Not only has he taken on roles as diverse as the socially climbing Fergus Lamont and a tortured Orestes in a one-man Oresteia (standing stock still with his arms in the air for a full 50 minutes), but he has made major creative contributions to the work itself. Subway, for example, began life in a less than sober improvisation involving Grierson and director Matthew Lenton, and by the time a fabulous band of Kosovan musicians had been drafted in, it had become an exuberant tale of social injustice in which Grierson and co-star Rosalind Sydney syncopated their dialogue to the rhythms of the band.

"Subway was very close to my heart," he says about the show in which he played a man searching for his father in a Leith that had been gentrified beyond recognition. "It wasn't autobiographical, but my dad's voice was very present in his wit and banter. It was a show that was close because a whole part of it did come from my and Matt's experience. The musicians were such a great bunch and to perform with them behind you was a joy every time."

Throw in a key role in a Wizard Of Oz that broke all box-office records at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum ("It was great fun," he says) and you have a run of shows that were as successful as they were varied. It's an achievement that reflects the unconventional route he took into theatre in the first place. Grierson is a child of the more exotic fringes of the Edinburgh festival, having been taken in the Nineties by his mother to see Today Is My Birthday by legendary Polish director Tadeusz Kantor and, later, a protégé of Kantor's, Zofia Kalinska, with whom he trained. While his contemporaries went off to drama school, Grierson was soaking up the techniques of Eastern European theatre, something he has continued in his work with David WW Johnstone of the experimental Lazzi Performance Lab.

The eclecticism continues this week with Little Otik, a stage adaptation of the unsettling Czech movie by the acclaimed filmmaker Jan Svankmajer. Released in 2000, it's a mesmerising film, part social document, part fairytale, in which a childless woman starts to nurture a tree stump carved to look like a baby. What could have been a sad tale about infertility takes a gothic turn when the tree stump comes to life and unleashes its voracious appetite.

As the story veers into territory somewhere between black comedy and psychological horror, you understand how the surrealist Svankmajer came to be such an influence on Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam.

It was Vanishing Point's designer Kai Fischer who first had the notion that Little Otik could work on stage, not only because its Prague-born director trained in theatre and puppetry, but also because the film's heightened quality distinguishes it from cinema's everyday realism. What seems theatrical on film is not necessarily theatrical on stage, however, and the challenge for Vanishing Point has been to find a true equivalent in the new medium.

"The difficulty of transferring it to the stage is not the monster," says Grierson, who plays Karel, the tree stump's less-than-willing adopted father. "It's the complexities of the relationships of the other people. In a film you can take so many shortcuts. Things can be quite fleeting. In theatre everything has an entrance and an exit. You have to give characters a reason to be present but you can't overload it because the thrust of it has to be this fable."

A co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland, featuring a top cast that includes Pauline Goldsmith, Louise Ludgate and Ann Scott-Jones, Little Otik has an advantage over many film adaptations in that the original is an art-house favourite and not a mainstream hit that everyone knows. Unlike the Royal Lyceum's Wizard Of Oz, which trod a careful line between the familiar and the new, Little Otik does not have to worry about upsetting the purists.

"You have got your Svankmajer fan club, but it'd be impossible to mimic the film," says Grierson. "We're trying not to let it have too much of that Eastern European aesthetic, but equally you're not going to see an entirely different story or different characters."

Like all good fairy stories, Little Otik resonates with people of all ages. Based on a traditional story collected by the 19th-century Bohemian writer and folklorist Karel Jaromír Erben, it plays on adult fears of childhood. The way Svankmajer treats the arrival of the tree stump-cum-baby recalls the nightmare birth in David Lynch's Eraserhead. As the stump grows into a monster, it is another child – a neighbour's daughter – who befriends it and aids its reign of terror. "It's about adult fantasies about childhood, whether it be a fantasy that a child of your own could change your life or that a child is complicit in a series of murders," says Grierson. "The neighbour's child herself feels a maternal instinct towards the creature. It's a fantastic modern myth."

Vanishing Point's collective way of creating theatre, in shows such as Man Cub and Lost Ones, means Grierson is comfortable with the idea that a show can change from night to night. "A lot of the work we do is in preparation for that," he says. "With every show we've done, you could do another show out of the cuts we've made. Everyone is kept on their toes and that can be hellish at times, but it's partly what keeps us going and gives the show a heartbeat."

Little Otik, Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, Wednesday until May 31 and on tour; Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland, Òran Mór, Glasgow, June 15

Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland: shortlists

The shortlists for this year's Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland have been released.

See here for details:

Friday, May 16, 2008

Theatre criticism – how to relish a moving target

Published in Press Gazette

I once sat behind a novice reviewer in a tiny theatre during the Edinburgh Fringe. The show had not begun and the stage was empty, but for a chair. I saw the reviewer make a note and wondered what could possibly have caught his attention. Peaking over his shoulder, I saw what he had written. It was the word “chair”.

It made me laugh, but I recognised his dilemma. What prompted him to note such a banal detail was the fear of a blank page. It’s a fear that never subsides, because, for the theatre critic, there really is nothing to say until the performance happens.

This is why theatre reviewers are an intrepid sort. Not for them the certainties of the cinema, where the seats are in straight rows, the films look like real life and the actors never forget their lines. Not for them the home comforts of the book reviewer, who can read at leisure and refer endlessly back to the written word. And not for them the predictability of the lone artist whose work changes little from gallery to gallery.

Instead, the theatre reviewer needs to relish a moving target. They must accept that the rules of the game are rewritten every night. They must understand that a first-night West End gala is a different beast to a wet Wednesday matinee; that Macbeth in communist Romania is not the same as Macbeth on Broadway.

It means that however much preparation reviewers do – reading the book of the play, researching the history of the production, boning up on the artistic team – their efforts will be wasted if they are not alive to the moment. It’s a scary thought, but one that makes the job exhilarating and, if you are reviewing overnight, more exhilarating still.

In the face of so much uncertainty, it helps to have a clear idea of your aims.

Irving Wardle’s Theatre Criticism is out of print, but seek out a second-hand copy and it will become your constant friend. He talks about questions a review should seek to answer, broadly summarised as: What is the production trying to do; how well did it do it; and was it worth doing in the first place? Answer the first two and you’re doing the job of a reviewer; address the third and you’re turning into a critic.

Then comes the vexed question of who you’re writing for. Theatre is an intimate artform, playing to small numbers at a time. Unlike the film, pop or TV reviewer, you can’t assume your readers will have the chance to experience the event for themselves. Yet some will have been in the audience with you and are looking for a second opinion. It means you must write for novice and initiate alike, producing copy that is as informative as it is insightful. If you can do that with passion, wit and enthusiasm, conveying a sense of the unique qualities of an artform that is never the same twice, so much the better.

© Mark Fisher 2008

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Funding drama spells disaster for student actors

Mark Fisher

It's as if someone read about the terrible employment figures for Equity members and decided to fix the problem their own way. Instead of having to cope with all these resting thesps, wouldn't it be better if we just stopped training actors in the first place? Well, of course it wouldn't - the theatre, TV and film industries would dwindle away without a steady flow of versatile young recruits - but that's the likely effect of the cutbacks troubling Scotland's two leading drama schools.

Continued here

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland

Tickets are now on sale for the
Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland
Sunday 15 June 2008

Oran Mor, 731 Great Western Road, Glasgow

(inc VAT & booking fee)
includes wine and light refreshments

Online from:
Tickets Scotland

in person:
239 Argyle Street, Glasgow (next to the Arches)

by phone:
0870 220 1116

Come and mingle with the rising stars of the Scottish stage as the nation's critics make their annual awards across ten categories, from Best Actor and Actress to Best New Play - and drink a couple of glasses of bubbly with the winners!

Presented in association with:

The West End Festival
Oran Mor
Glasgow, Scotland with Style

Nova Scotia review

** Traverse, Edinburgh

Mark Fisher
Tuesday May 6, 2008
The Guardian

The problem with Nova Scotia is the same problem faced by its central character, Phil McCann. The first time we met this irascible artist was as a quick-witted young colour mixer in The Slab Boys, John Byrne's late-70s comedy set in a 1957 carpet factory. Then McCann was the centre of attention, an angry young man full of violent potential, cornered by the deadening restrictions of the adult world. Fifty years on, the opposite is true. His most creative years are behind him, his younger wife is a Turner prize nominee and his best mate, Spanky Farrell, has enjoyed a far more interesting life as a hedonistic rock star.

So while McCann still has plenty to be frustrated about, he is no longer master of his own destiny. It opens up interesting ground for a comedy about an active but aging generation - Nova Scotia is full of frank gags about illness and death - but it also leaves a dramatic hole at the centre of the play.

There is no shortage of frenetic action as a film crew arrives to shoot a pop video, an arts reporter tries to conduct an interview and long-lost friends appear out of the blue, but McCann's role is passive. He initiates nothing.

So despite Byrne's vivid characters and first-rate performances in Paddy Cunneen's production, Nova Scotia never gets to the point. The action is propelled not by McCann's dilemma, but by a series of farcical accidents, missed planes and lost mobiles. The result is that the climactic revelation of McCann's incestuous parentage carries no dramatic weight; it is a private shock for the character (excellently played by Paul Morrow), instead of a bombshell to turn the play upside down.

· Until May 24. Box office: 0131-228 1404.

Educating Agnes review

*** Citizens, Glasgow

Mark Fisher
Friday May 2, 2008
The Guardian

A standard translation of Molière's L'Ecole des Femmes is a clunky thing. The French playwright's Alexandrine couplets sound awkward in English, the rhythms mechanical, the rhymes forced. But not so in Liz Lochhead's new version, the first major Scottish translation of the play since 1948, when Robert Kemp inspired a generation of McMolières with Let Wives Tak Tent.

In Lochhead's hands, the rhymes dance around this most wordy of comedies, fuelling it with energy, where others would drag it down. Occasionally, she will make a joke out of a blatant rhyme, but more typically she scores her laughs by swinging from highfalutin' to commonplace in a single phrase, making the rhymes a delightful surprise.

"It's a really crap idea," says Sean Scanlon's Chrysalde with comic bluntness in one such moment. He's just heard Arnolphe's plan to marry the virginal Agnes, believing her innocence will protect him from cuckoldry. From there on in, the script is characteristically magpie-like, as likely to reference Desperate Housewives and self-help manuals as to take poetic flights of fancy.

As a result, there is many a laugh in Graham McLaren's production for Theatre Babel, even if it doesn't scale the pantomime heights of a truly delirious occasion. As Arnolphe, Kevin McMonagle has the right balance of sleaziness and pomposity, pursuing his ridiculous experiment in social engineering with unstoppable arrogance. But impressive though his performance is, he doesn't have that crowd-baiting verve that, presumably, Molière himself brought to the part in 1662.

There are strong turns by newcomer Anneika Rose as Agnes and by Maureen Carr, her sharp-tongued servant, but you still come away feeling that the star of the show is the script.

· Until Saturday. Box office: 0141-429 0022.

Yarn by Grid Iron

**** Verdant Works, Dundee

Mark Fisher
Thursday May 1, 2008
The Guardian

Edinburgh site-specific company Grid Iron specialises in after-hours trips into half-familiar spaces - airports, department stores, play parks - always immersing the audience in a world somewhere between reality and make-believe. Each location brings its own costumes, but nowhere has the idea of dressing up been so much to the fore than here in Verdant Works, a jute museum built in a former cloth factory. Working with Dundee Rep, the company interpret the idea of textiles in two ways. One is as storytellers, spinning a line, telling a yarn. A thread of red cotton marks our journey through four spaces, while a metaphorical thread sews together the patchwork of monologues, anecdotes and sketches performed by the six-strong company.

The second theme is about the way we are defined by what we wear. Out of the dressing-up box come stiff Victorian suits, as constricting as presbyterianism; Elizabethan motley that is comically cumbersome, and a floor-length woollen scarf, a symbol of carefree youth. We see clothes full of sexual potency, whether it is the ledger-keeper's Freudian nightmare about his mother, or the woman who uses her burka as a means of erotic liberation. All this is underscored by the child in an Indian sweatshop, realised in puppet form, who dreams of escape while sewing cheap garments for the decadent west.

It is more static than many of the company's promenade shows, but no less inventive. Rich in ideas, vivid in execution, this Yarn forms a delightful fabric that takes time to unravel.

· Until Saturday. Box office: 01382 223530.