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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.
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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

Sunday, August 24, 2008


© Mark Fisher - published in Scotland on Sunday
National Theatre flagship fails to live up to billing

365, The Playhouse Two stars

FEW shows have opened at the Edinburgh International Festival with a greater weight of expectation.

Here was the National Theatre of Scotland, the company that brought us Black Watch, tackling another contemporary issue – the question of what happens to teenagers when they leave state care – in an equally bold theatrical style.

Staged by artistic director Vicky Featherstone, 365 is written by David Harrower, author of the internationally acclaimed Knives In Hens and Blackbird.

What’s more, the two of them were working in the seat-of-their-pants, semi-devised manner of Anthony Neilson, whose Realism and The Wonderful World Of Dissocia were major hits for the company.

No show could compete with such sublime achievements, but even taking our inflated expectations into account, 365 is a letdown.

The problem with this two-hour play is that it can’t decide what story it wants to tell.

According to the publicity, it’s about a practice flat, an intermediary home where children brought up in care can prepare for adult independence.

But we quickly realise the production doesn’t have much to say on this subject, beyond the observation that making a cup of tea is a big deal when you’ve never done it before.

Instead, the show explores the emotional vulnerability of children in care.

There are fragmented tales of abusive friendships, neurotic fire-raising and dysfunctional families, much of it rather lost on the cavernous Playhouse stage and little you couldn’t get from a slightly racier Tracy Beaker.

Surely we don’t need a play to tell us that living in care is tough.

Yet in among all this, Harrower is on to something. The author of the haunting narratives of Blackbird is fascinated by the importance of stories on our lives.

The lack of such stories, he suggests, is the greatest deprivation of children in care.

When files go missing, when memories fade, nobody is there to resolve their incomplete sense of identity.

The irony is that a play about broken narratives is itself so reluctant to tell us a story.

Trying to create an impressionistic collage, it darts about all over the place, unable to settle on one idea.

As if to compensate, Featherstone comes up with a series of theatrical tricks – from the appearance of a Hansel And Gretel forest to a room that tilts on one corner – that have more to do with expensive stagecraft than anything going on in the play.

The production dearly wants to give a voice to a silent minority, but in choosing a format that’s not quite verbatim theatre and not quite a conventional play, it fails to draw us in.

Only in the closing moments do we get a sense of its political purpose.

Suddenly countless teenagers stream onto the stage, supplementing an already large cast, to stand silhouetted against the practice flat as it snaps shut like a doll’s house.

It is a symbol of our social blindness and a brief glimpse of the play that might have been.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Once and for all we're gonna tell you who we are so shut up and listen

© Mark Fisher - published in Variety

Once and for All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen

Traverse Theater, Edinburgh, Scotland; 110 seats; £16 $30 top
An Edinburgh Fringe, Ontroerend Goed, Kopergietery and Richard Jodan Prods. presentation of a play in one act by Joeri Smet and Alexander Devriendt. Directed by Devriendt.

With: Charlotte De Bruyne, Ian Ghysels, Helena Gheeraert, Christophe De Poorter, Barbara Lefebure, Aaron De Keyzer, Dina Dooreman, Febe De Geest, Nathalie Verbeke, Koba Ryckewaert, Edouard Devriendt, Edith De Bruyne, Ekues Van Renteghem.

Once we reach adulthood our concept of teen culture tends to oscillate between "High School Musical" and "Rebel without a Cause." In most cases, our idea of youth theater is similarly narrow. That allows our preconceptions to be delightfully challenged by 13 teenagers presenting a complex vision of adolescence, while demonstrating the thrilling creative possibilities of theater by young performers. An overnight sensation on the Edinburgh Fringe, "Once and for All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen" heads to London in October and is being courted by producers from Los Angeles to Dublin. Anyone who sees it will never look at street-corner gangs the same way again.

Created by helmer Alexander Devriendt of Belgium's Ontroerend Goed, working in collaboration with Ghent youth theater Kopergietery, the show is the product of a lengthy program of workshops involving the performers, whose ages range from 14 to 18.

It was Devriendt's intention to capture the wild energy of adolescence, to present it not as a threat or problem, but as a life-force to be relished and enjoyed. This he achieves with contagious force in a brilliantly structured hour of theater that plays to the young cast's capabilities, allowing them to meet an adult aud on their own terms.

It starts in apparent chaos. Even before the house lights have dimmed, a chorus of offstage jeering and chanting suggests we are in the company of a lawless mob. The impression is reinforced as the 13 performers take to the stage, crowding onto a row of hard-worn school chairs at the back of an empty space before fidgeting, fighting and fooling around in ways only teenagers can.

Two girls fall off their chairs and explode in a fit of giggles. Two boys flick each other with deflated balloons. Gaining confidence, they move into the space, variously playing, wrestling, kissing, chalking, skating, applying make-up to someone in the front row and generally enjoying themselves with a boisterous lack of restraint.

It's worth detailing this opening salvo because it precedes something remarkable. An alarm bell sounds, the youngsters clear up after themselves and leave the stage. When they return, it is to repeat their actions in precise detail. What appeared to be a scene of random playfulness -- anarchic and spontaneous -- proves to be nothing of the kind. Suddenly we must view the teenagers not as loutish miscreants, but as highly disciplined performers entirely in control of their actions.

Thus the pattern is set for the rest of the extraordinary performance. Each successive scene is a reinterpretation of the first, throwing new light on the same basic idea in the way an artist might reproduce a single image in pencil, paint, print and photography.

They perform it as a classical ballet, as an actor-less piece of object theater and as a drug-induced fantasia. They show themselves as sweet and loving, wild and violent, passionate and sexual. They are variously childish, mature, chilled out and ebullient.

In short, they are rich and complex human beings -- exactly as we were ourselves at that age -- and their abundance of energy, their need to take risks and their wild physicality are not things to be feared but celebrated. It's a radical idea expressed in the simplest terms, making the show not just an infectiously enjoyable performance but one that affects our view of every teenager we meet from now on.

Set and costumes, Sophie De Somere; dramaturgy, Mieke Versyp. Opened Aug. 12, 2008. Reviewed Aug. 13. Running time: 1 HOUR.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Thursday, August 14, 2008


© Mark Fisher - published in Northings, Hi-Arts

(Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 13 August 2008)

14 August 2008

MARK FISHER admires the imagination and inventiveness behind Vox Motus’s combination of puppetry and live actors.

SLICK IS a show that arrives in Inverness after opening in the midst of an Edinburgh Fringe that has been dominated by misery. Theatregoers in the capital have endured scenes involving gas chambers, exploding passenger jets, suicide bombers, mass executions and accidental death. After that lot, you'd expect to be more than ready for the cartoon capers of a daft satire on cruelty, greed and casual violence.

Yet, much as I'm impressed by the visual inventiveness and sophistication of this show by Glasgow's Vox Motus in a Tron Theatre co-production – half-Punch and Judy, half-Biffa Bacon – I find myself wishing that such a talented team of actors and technicians had put their skills to something with more depth.

Call me a killjoy – and judging by the warmth of the show's opening night reception, there are those who will – but Slick strikes me as a show that's high on comic exuberance and low on purpose.

Yet it needn't be so. The story of a hard-up Glasgow family who discover oil spouting from their toilet, setting in motion a plot involving big money and bigger guns, has the potential to parody the politics of everywhere from Texas to the Middle East and – right now – Georgia.

But such is the superficial nature of the plot – in which nine-year-old Malcolm Biggar (Jordan Young) struggles free of his tyrannical parents only to face his duplicitous neighbours in a life-and-death shoot out – that such political resonances are merely cosmetic.

Where the production does score, however, is in a clutch of superb performances, a smattering of funny gags and a novel presentation in which the actors' heads and hands poke out from puppet bodies, allowing them a cartoon-like freedom of movement.

Expertly synchronised with Graham Sutherland's soundtrack, the show takes imaginative journeys to places a regular performance could not, whether it be a high-speed skate-board journey or an intimate operation on an elderly lady's nether regions. For this, it is well worth seeing, even if there's more concept than content.

Slick is at the OneTouch Theatre, Eden Court, on 29-30 August 2008.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

The Pipers' Trail

© Mark Fisher - published in Northings, Hi-Aarts

THE PIPERS' TRAIL (George Square Theatre, Edinburgh, 12 August 2008)
14 August 2008

MARK FISHER checks out the Army’s venture into theatre

THE THING that made Gregory Burke's Black Watch feel so radical when it was premiered by the National Theatre of Scotland in 2006 was that it put the voices of ordinary solders on stage. Here was a war play that was less about the rights and wrongs of combat than about the squaddies whom we pay to do a job in our name. Although it raised important questions about the invasion of Iraq, its greatest political challenge was in taking the soldiers seriously.

This, you would expect, would normally be the job of the army itself which presumably accounts for the arrival of The Pipers' Trail, a play designed to showcase the army's "virtues of teamwork, individual excellence and a proper focus on collective endeavour".

Introducing the play, Lieutenant Colonel Stephanie Jackman admits the forces have been "remiss in engaging society" and explains The Pipers' Trail has been put together as a way of reminding us that the military is a part of society, not something separate from it.

Staged by director Bryan Lacey for ImpAct Theatre Company, it is part of a cultural package that included a series of piping and drumming workshops organised by the army on a 470-mile journey from Shetland to Edinburgh, via Orkney, Inverness, Stirling and Glasgow.

Of course, there is something mildly comical about the army putting on a play – especially one that seeks to promote the institution's "values and standards" – but the production has a simple honesty and a fresh-faced energy that make it hard for us to be too cynical.

A morality tale about the 16-year-old Jamie (Gary Morrison) who journeys from Shetland to Glasgow to compete in the World Pipe Band Championship, it suffers from clunky lessons about courage, discipline and respect, but compensates with a brisk pace and frequent musical interludes.

I'm too far beyond the target market to tell whether it would serve as an effective recruitment tool – my guess is any savvy 16-year-old would see straight through its moralising – but tourists and families in the mood for a bit of old-fashioned conservatism will be gently entertained. As for the rest of us, well let's just say the army is not about to steal the National Theatre of Scotland's thunder.

© Mark Fisher, 2008

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Whisky Kisses

© Mark Fisher - published in Northings, Hi-Aarts

WHISKY KISSES (George Square Theatre, Edinburgh, until 25 August 2008)
12 August 2008

MARK FISHER finds the RSAMD students dishing up an enjoyable show, but wonders if it loses its bite after a strong start

THERE'S A great premise behind Whisky Kisses, one of the front-runners in the Highland Quest for a New Musical competition, now being given a full production by students from Glasgow's RSAMD. We're in a swanky Manhattan office where high-flying executive Ben has spotted the chance to fill a gap in his whisky collection.

The last remaining bottle of Glenigma, a 100-year-old single malt, has come on to the market and is about to be auctioned. Although it is the day before Tartan Day ("It's my favourite time of the year"), he has no choice but to fly to the foot of Ben Igma to compete with a Japanese collector for the "ultimate dram".

The scene is set for a culture-clash comedy in which the romantic fancies of second-generation Scottish ex-pats rub up against the realities of Highland life. Book and lyric writers Euan Martin and Dave Smith start to stake out this territory, showing the locals deliberately tartanifying the distillery for the benefit of the foreign visitors who, in turn, are perplexed by the idiosyncrasies of bed and breakfast hospitality and the wild power of the landscape.

But for Whisky Kisses to have real satirical life, they need to push this idea further. Until the auction, the plot is driven by the characters and their avarice, which makes them strong comedic targets, but things go wrong through no fault of their own (things are scuppered by the intervention of the Malt Whisky Preservation Society) and after that, they are no longer calling the shots and there is a good deal less to send up.

It remains a reasonably enjoyable show thanks to the strong choral arrangements of Jim Bryce's score and the joyful singing of the young cast. But the subversive tone of the opening scenes fades in favour of clunky gags and a less inspired boy-meets-girl plot, suggesting that in this clash of Broadway convention and Highland quirkiness, it is the same-old-same-old that triumphs.

When the artistic team returns to the rehearsal room to develop a full two-act staging, it'd be good to see them having the courage of their convictions and giving the show its bite back.

(Remaining performances on 12, 14, 16, 19, 21, 23 and 25 August 2008)

© Mark Fisher, 2008


© Mark Fisher - published in Variety


Pleasance King Dome, Edinburgh, Scotland; 182 seats; £9.50 $18 top

A Richard Jordan Prods. and Pleasance presentation, in association with Baxter Theater Center, U. of Cape Town, of a play in one act written and performed by Omphile Molusi. Directed by Tina Johnson.

With: Omphile Molusi.

South African theater has reached the outside world in waves. First came the Apartheid plays by Athol Fugard and the Market Theater of Johannesburg. Next were stories of elation and hope -- epitomized by the joyful harmonies of the Soweto Gospel Choir. Now, playwrights have begun facing the realities of a less than perfect freedom. Like Paul Grootboom and Presley Chweneyagae, whose 2006 "Township Stories" exposed South African poverty, Omphile Molusi in "Itsoseng" depicts a country in which the slow pace of change is crushing the old political idealism. If the writer-performer's message lacks the dramatic highs and lows of earlier post-Apartheid theater, it is no less pertinent.

The production -- which has enjoyed sell-out seasons at two venues in its U.K. debut in the Edinburgh Fringe and will transfer to London's Soho Theater for a September run -- could scarcely be more simple. The stage is empty but for 24-year-old Molusi, his suitcase and a scattering of discarded trash.

The actor leaves us in little doubt, however, about why he was selected as the recipient of a life-changing scholarship from the Royal Shakespeare Company that allowed him to receive classical training at Stratford-Upon-Avon.

Under the eye of helmer Tina Johnson, Molusi is a dynamic stage presence, his sense of life and movement creating a solo show that feels as if many more actors are involved. There's a captivating rhythmic quality to his performance -- a dance-like, loose-limbed physicality in his delivery as he circles the stage, draws in to the center and adopts the quirks and qualities of the characters he describes in this tale of 14 years of township life.

Molusi has a love of language and engrosses us with the energy of a man whose story needs to be heard.

That story is told in front of a shopping complex in the township of Itsoseng (which translates as "wake yourself up"), where a character called Mawilla describes the changes of the post-Apartheid years. There is a gentle irony in the setting; even at their most prosperous, the stores of Itsoseng would hardly have been a tourist attraction. But Molusi makes it clear how important they are as a focal point of the community and how much is lost when economic collapse forces such businesses to close.

The shopping center has a further significance: It was here in the months leading up to Nelson Mandela's rise to power that the people indulged in a frenzy of looting -- a rebellious and self-destructive gesture against their "stinking capitalist enemies." That, concludes Mawilla, was the "beginning of our curse." For all the radical change in South Africa, it could never have been rapid enough to stop the food from running out.

As the years go by, it becomes clear that poverty is the greatest enemy and that, coupled with local government inertia, is what precipitates the decline of a once vibrant township.

Molusi gives a human face to this in the sad stories of a political radical who has the revolutionary spirit knocked out of him, and of Dolly, Mawilla's teenage sweetheart, drawn into prostitution. "Soon the people's anger will boil over," he says, suggesting it won't be the last we hear from a country where so much has changed.
More than one option

Lighting, Richard James. Opened July 30, 2008. Reviewed, Aug. 7. Running time: 1 HOUR, 15 MIN.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Lucky You

© Mark Fisher - published in Variety

Lucky You

Assembly Halls, Edinburgh, Scotland; 740 seats; £20 $39 top
A Katharine Dore for Magic Key Prods. and Jon Plowman presentation of a play in one act adapted for the stage by Francis Matthews and Denis Calandra from the novel by Carl Hiaasen. Directed by Matthews.

JoLayne Lucks - Nicola Alexis
Shiner - Josh Cohen
Demincio, Moffitt - Geff Francis
Trish, Kate - Alexandra Gilbreath
Chub, Judge Batenkill - Corey Johnson
Amber, Shiner's Ma - Kristina Mitchell
Bode, Sinclair - Paul Reynolds
Tom Krome - Trevor White

Getting the rights to stage Carl Hiaasen's 1997 "Lucky You" wasn't easy. The Florida novelist has turned down purposed adaptations of his works since being disappointed by the 1996 movie made of his "Strip Tease." It took producers Katharine Dore and Jon Plowman and helmer Francis Matthews three years and a private performance in Hiaasen's home to get the go-ahead. But although the production -- which preemed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and has its sights on London --is bright and bubbly, it's hard to see why they were quite so determined to get such a throw-away piece of theater on stage.

Hiaasen has made his name writing pacy fiction gently infused with liberal-left politics -- as well as a particular concern for the environment. Like British novelist Christopher Brookmyre, he gives weight to his humor by satirizing reactionary forces in society, although never to the detriment of his lively plots. It's a feelgood formula that led to one commentator calling him "America's finest satirical novelist."

What comes across most strongly in Matthews' adaptation of "Lucky You" are the colorful, cartoonish characters and the knock-about narrative. This is the story of the sassy and independent-minded young woman, JoLayne Lucks (Nicola Alexis), whose numbers come up in the Florida lotto. A socially minded animal lover, she immediately sees her opportunity to save her neighboring Simmons Wood from being turned into a shopping mall and parking lot ("Like the Joni Mitchell song") by buying it herself.

The future of the planet -- and her 40 turtles -- would be assured were it not for the two red-neck patriots whose numbers have also come up in the lottery. With the warped logic of white supremacists, they reckon they have a claim on Lucks' share of the $28 million and set about stealing it.

The theft is a threat not only to Lucks, who is too self-effacing even to report it to the police, but to the very environmental health of the state. In this way, Hiaasen locks his readers into sharing the same green goals as his heroine.

Throw in a besotted investigative reporter, a jealous judge, a Hooters waitress, a wayward government agent and sundry other larger-than-life characters and the way is set for a comic cross between a road movie and a crime caper.

Matthews' cast has a feel for Hiaasen's broad-brushstroke humor, turning in a bright set of primary colored performances given added theatrical zest by their doubling and fast costume changes. Alexis is a no-nonsense Lucks who shows a warm heart beneath the self-reliant exterior. So eccentric is everyone else that it's hard to distinguish between friend and foe, although Corey Johnson and Paul Reynolds as her adversaries are such prime examples of dull-witted conspiracy theorists that their fall-guy status is in little doubt.

So far, so jolly -- and on a set framed by a giant license plate, the metal ripped in two, with four old-fashioned televisions adding to the imagery, there is an amiable air of fun. The original songs and incidental music by Loudon Wainwright III bolster the atmosphere of knowing irreverence.

But, like many stage adaptations of novels, the narrative begins to dominate, allowing no room for the kind of character development and metaphorical resonance that you expect from an original play. The closer Lucks comes to getting her money back, the more inconsequential the story seems, leaving us with an enjoyable but forgettable experience.

Set, Leslie Travers; costumes, Yvonne Milnes; lighting, Tim Lutkin; original music and songs, Loudon Wainwright III; video, Jonathon Lyle. Opened July 31, 2008. Reviewed Aug. 5. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Deep Cut interview

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

Edinburgh festival: No easy ending

Can a play get to the truth about what really happened at Deepcut barracks? Mark Fisher talks to one private's parents

In November 1995, Private Cheryl James became the second of four soldiers to die of gunshot wounds at the MoD's now infamous Deepcut training barracks in Surrey. She was reportedly found in woodland with her rifle by her side, a single gunshot wound in her forehead. James, who was just 18 years old, had been in the army for six months.

More than a decade on - after two police investigations, one police review, one defence select committee investigation and one governmental review - her parents, Doreen and Des, are no closer to knowing exactly what happened to their daughter. "I used to refer to people who carry the opinions I carry today as cynics and conspiracy theorists," says Des, seated next to his wife at Sherman Cymru theatre in Cardiff. "The experience has made me extremely cynical of the police force, the government, the MoD and the establishment."

What is most striking about this genial pair - Doreen is a former nurse, Des a human resources director - is not their tears or their anger, but their simple desire to know the truth. Playwright Philip Ralph is on a similar quest, and he is currently telling their story in Deep Cut, a verbatim drama playing at Edinburgh's Traverse theatre. The work is a compendium of first-hand interviews, public statements and source material from soldiers, lawyers, journalists, forensic experts and bereaved parents.

Ralph, who took three years to distil all this into a play, was originally commissioned by the Sherman Cymru to write about the army. He soon found the story of James, born in Llangollen, north Wales, and decided it should be a piece of documentary theatre. "I let the story people wanted to tell me lead me to the play," he says. "I never asked a leading question and was careful to get people to tell me what they wanted to tell me. It's an important story. It goes into every area of the state: the government, the judiciary, the police, the army and the MoD."

The Deepcut deaths raise troubling questions as to whether these four soldiers took their own lives, as the official version has it, or whether they were murdered. "If it was suicide, what made these four children do it?" says Doreen. "There must have been something going on to make four apparently happy and healthy people do that."

The first death was that of Sean Benton from Hastings, who apparently fired five bullets into his own chest in 1995. James died less than five months later, weeks after her 18th birthday. Then, in 2001, came the death of Geoff Gray from Durham, with two shots fired into his forehead, at an angle unusual for suicide. The following year James Collinson, from Perth, died of a single shot through his chin. Although Des and Doreen initially accepted the army's version of events, they became increasingly perplexed. The coroner recorded an open verdict on James's death, but an army board of inquiry later decided it was suicide.

Media attention, including a BBC Frontline Scotland investigation, put pressure on the Surrey police to reopen its investigation which, in turn, was reviewed by the Devon and Cornwall constabulary. Finally came a review of all the official investigations by Nicholas Blake QC, who in 2006 concluded there was no need for a public inquiry, saying that "on the balance of probabilities" the deaths were self-inflicted. In Deep Cut, Ralph refuses to jump to any conclusions. "I do have opinions," he says, "but I wouldn't dream of telling you what they are. I've looked at all the available evidence in the way that Nicholas Blake did in his review. My ideas hold no more water than his. In my opinion, unless you were standing there when it happened, you don't know."

Deep Cut is not the only play to have been written about the barracks. In October, a dramatisation of the story of Geoff Gray - called Geoff Dead: Disco for Sale - will open at Newcastle's Live theatre. "The play is focusing on the parents' quest for justice, rather than speculating on what happened," says writer Fiona Evans. "They know their own children. They were such happy-go-lucky boys and suicide wasn't in keeping with the way their lives were going. They are adamant their children didn't commit suicide - so it follows that someone else killed them."

Des and Doreen are holding out for a public inquiry, but the lack of publicly available evidence means they can only speculate. Des believes the barracks were out of control. "Anarchy on the campus prevailed," he says, pointing to evidence of bullying. "It was subdued after the first two deaths, but it rose again in 2001 and 2002, when you have a similar situation: mysterious deaths and, more to the point, no investigation. That shows the culture in the camp is at the core of this."

For Ralph, the power of his play lies in its lack of an ending - the audience is left to wrestle with many unresolved questions. That's fine for an audience, but do the parents have any hope of closure? "Absolutely," says Des. "It is an appalling wrong, in a civilised society, that four kids can die and we can allow our government to dance around justice in the way that they have. I don't think it's something I can walk away from."

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Tailor of Inverness

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

THE TAILOR OF INVERNESS (Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh until 24 August 2008; touring February-March 2009)
05 August 2008

MARK FISHER admires Matthew Zajac’s interweaving of the personal and the historical in his new one-man show

MATTHEW ZAJAC'S father used to tell a story about how to catch a fox. The method is to get the creature in the open then circle it. As long as you complete the circle, the fox will stay grounded. Then you spiral inwards and take your prey.

Zajac does something similar to his father. In The Tailor of Inverness (or Krawiec z Inverness), the writer and actor slowly closes in on the Polish-born Zajac senior, giving him enough space to tell his life story in his own way, but not so much room that the old man escapes, fox-like, with his distortions, evasions and rewriting of history.

The one-man show for the Inverness company Dogstar is at once a son's affectionate tribute to a man who maintained his generous spirit despite suffering the privations of war and exile, and a level-headed analysis of how the great movements of history shape us into the people we are.

The play is being showcased on the Edinburgh Fringe before a Highlands tour next year, which will be very much worth catching. By rights, it should be a part of the Edinburgh International Festival, so closely does it fit in with artistic director Jonathan Mills’ theme about borders.

Zajac's father was born in a part of Poland that became the Ukraine, was drafted into the armies of both Communist Russia and Nazi Germany and fled – depending on whose story you believe – across most of Europe before settling in Glasgow and finally Inverness. Even before the added poignancy of the personal discoveries made by the actor after his father's death, the story brilliantly encapsulates the effects of war on individuals, families and societies across place and time.

Under the direction of Ben Harrison – famed for his site-specific work with Edinburgh's Grid Iron company – Zajac proves a compelling storyteller, capturing the fractured English and have-a-go enthusiasm of his father before weaving himself into an increasingly layered narrative.

As the truth becomes less and less certain, so the fracturing impact of the war grows more tangible, lending this touching personal story the grand metaphorical weight of 20th century history. All this and live fiddle too.

© Mark Fisher, 2008


© Mark Fisher - published in Variety


(Traverse Theater, Edinburgh, Scotland; 110 seats; £16 $32 top)
A TEAM and National Theater of Scotland Workshop presentation of a play in one act written by the company in collaboration with Davey Anderson, Nathan Wright, Dave Polato and Lucy Kendrick Smith. Directed by Rachel Chavkin.

Margaret Mitchell,
others - Jessica Almasy
Rhett Butler, Josh,
others - Frank Boyd
Simon, Oasis Melly, Melanie
Hamilton Wilkes, others - Jill Frutkin
Carrie Campbell, others - Libby King
Henry Adams, Franklin Delmore
McKinnley, others - Jake Margolin
Scarlett O'Hara, Caroline Dixon,
others - Kristen Sieh

In previous Edinburgh Fringe successes "Particularly in the Heartland," "A Thousand Natural Shocks" and "Give Up! Start Over!", Gotham's the TEAM has proved itself a brilliant chronicler of the chaos and contradictions of modern America. Joining forces with the National Theater of Scotland for "Architecting," the dynamic young company once again shows a happy disregard for the unities of time and place, straddling "Gone With the Wind" and Hurricane Katrina with cut-and-paste recklessness. But despite the dynamic performances and theatrical inventiveness, "Architecting" is hampered by an unwieldy script that seems weighed down by its source material.

We are in the Deep South in a space that is variously a country and western bar, a sleepy truck stop and an architect's office about to be demolished to make way for Phoenix Meadows, a 220-acre TND -- or traditional neighborhood development -- where a genuinely traditional neighborhood once stood.

Jill Frutkin welcomes the audience with a self-pitying ballad ("Why has it been 50 f***ing years since I heard a good patriotic song?"), while clips from "The Price Is Right" flicker on the TV monitors above a building-site backdrop.

In a manner reminiscent of the Wooster Group, the company juxtaposes seemingly disparate elements only to reveal the hidden connections beneath the surface. Thus, historian and presidential grandchild Henry Adams (Jake Margolin) constructs a cardboard cathedral, while novelist Margaret Mitchell (Jessica Almasy) bashes away at a Remington typewriter to produce "Gone With the Wind" and a young property developer sizes up the land in a post-hurricane New Orleans.

These characters inhabit the same imaginative space as the film crew putting together a 21st century remake of the Scarlett O'Hara/Rhett Butler classic with a plot doctored for our politically correct era.

"It's very difficult to be a historian if you stop believing in sequences," says one character in a line that could be an ironic comment on the company's creative approach. Helmer Rachel Chavkin delights in picking apart old sequences and building them anew, allowing us to make fresh sense of a world crippled by information overload.

In the cross-cultural scrapbook of "Architecting," a theme about the deep roots of racial discrimination emerges via the historical revisionism of the "Gone With the Wind" movie remake which, the producer hopes, will be made more palatable by the addition of a rose-tinted subplot about the grandfather of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

What also emerges is a theme about the cycle of construction, destruction and renewal, a pressing issue for a generation facing an uncertain future. The show links the Atlanta fire of the 1939 movie to the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina and the city's subsequent rebuilding.

Talking in the third-person, Libby King's pragmatic architect says, "Out of sites of devastation, she imagines new beginnings," seemingly oblivious to the cultural richness that has been swept away.

Clearly there is no shortage of ideas in "Architecting" and plenty of evidence of a company tackling the complexities of modern life with boldness, intelligence and wit. As it stands, however, the play needs streamlining. The deeper it goes into "Gone With the Wind" territory, the less clear its purpose, and we are a long way into the two-hour running time before the cultural collisions start making sense.

There are many diversions to compensate -- the always compelling Almasy as Margaret Mitchell, the occasional number on acoustic guitar and a surreal game of cards propelled by an electric fan -- but as it stands, there is more in this mix than can be easily digested.

Set and costumes, Nick Vaughan; sound, Matt Hubbs; lighting, Jake Heinrichs; video, Brian Scott; associate director, Davey Anderson. Opened July 31, 2008. Reviewed Aug. 1. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Fall by Zinnie Harris

© Mark Fisher - published in Variety


A Traverse Theater presentation in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company of a play in two acts by Zinnie Harris. Directed by Dominic Hill.

Kate - Geraldine Alexander
Evener - Cliff Burnett
Guard - Brian Ferguson
Liddel - Kevin McMonagle
Pierre - Darrell D'Silva
Kiki - Meg Fraser
Howard - Paul Hickey
Justine - Samantha Young

Zinnie Harris couldn't have wished for better timing. As Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic faces a pre-trial hearing before the war crimes tribunal in the Hague, where he must answer charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, the playwright is looking at the awkward question of post-war reconciliation. Completing her war-themed trilogy that began with the Royal Shakespeare Company's "Solstice" and "Midwinter," "Fall" dares to ask how a newly peaceful nation should deal with the ugly legacy of civil war. At the hands of helmer Dominic Hill, the play is as somber and austere as it is gripped by moral urgency.

Where "Midwinter" (2004) took place at the close of a war in some unnamed foreign land and "Solstice" (2005) a decade earlier as that same war approached, "Fall" looks at the realpolitik of a nation taking its first shaky steps toward post-war democracy. Darrell D'Silva's Pierre is a popular prime minister, but feels himself little more than a figurehead whose charisma disguises his political inadequacies.

During an evening of drunken self-pity, he accidentally stumbles on a solution to the problem of dealing with the nation's imprisoned war criminals: If a representative of the people condemns them to death, it will make the government look less callous.

Who better to order the executions than Kate (Geraldine Alexander), a woman whose own husband has been exposed as a notorious war criminal? It is with Kate that the heart of Harris' play lies.

She is a woman of compassion and almost endless understanding, who is so willing to face up to her late husband's newly exposed crimes that she makes repeated visits to the cell of Evener (Cliff Burnett), a character with the same caged ferocity as Dr. Hannibal Lecter and a similarly chilling lack of repentance.

There is no denying this country has been the scene of vicious bloodshed and even humanitarian Kate reaches the limits of her liberal tolerance when she is forced to listen to the evidence against the war criminals. Her agreement to their executions comes as a shock to those of us living in pleasant places where capital punishment is a thing of the past, but Harris convincingly portrays the circumstances in which further violence seems like the only route to a lasting peace.

It makes for chewy, serious drama and helmer Hill, on his debut as artistic director of the Traverse, does all he can to intensify the mood of impending terror. With Tom Piper's colorless set of sliding panels and Chahine Yavroyan's restrained lighting, he creates something of the atmosphere of Eastern European theater, all shadows and grim illumination, and a pace that, for all its boisterous outbursts, is typically ruminative.

His cast is excellent, be it Meg Fraser's out-of-her-depth First Lady, Paul Hickey's Machiavellian prime minister's deputy or Kevin McMonagle's weak and humane lover of Kate. Whether powerful or powerless, they have the flavor of real people swept up in the great tide of contemporary politics in a play that worries away at issues that have repercussions around the world. It is a dense, knotty drama, unafraid to address the big issues of our time head on and a triumphant completion of Harris' trilogy.

Set and costumes, Tom Piper; lights, Chahine Yavroyan; sound, Dan Jones. Opened July 24, 2008. Reviewed Aug. 3. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.