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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me @markffisher and @writeabouttheat I am an Edinburgh-based freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian, Scotland on Sunday and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success, published in February 2012 and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers published in July 2015. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide. See my website for more information and comprehensive Scottish theatre links.
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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

Cinderella

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

Cinderella
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