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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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Monday, December 14, 2009

Curtain Up: 40 Years of Scottish Theatre exhibition preview

Published in The Scotsman

The National Library of Scotland aims to bring back memories of Scottish theatre with new exhibition - Curtain Up: 40 years of Scottish Theatre

We're standing in a storage room a few floors down in a secret corner of Edinburgh's National Library of Scotland. It's full of musty box files, metal shelving and neatly catalogued CDs. But that's not the whole story. In the middle of the low-ceilinged room, hanging from an empty shelf, there are two dresses in vibrant 1950s colours, and a regal off-white gown that could have been worn by Elizabeth I. There's even a ruff lying in a nearby plastic bag.

Just along the row, Sally Harrower, the library's manuscripts curator, is running her hand over a gold lamé kilt. "Alan Cumming," she says dreamily.

It is indeed the same gold lamé kilt sported by the Aberfeldy-born Hollywood and Broadway star when he appeared in the National Theatre of Scotland's production of The Bacchae in 2007. It was this very piece of fabric that flapped down provocatively to reveal the actor's bare buttocks as he made his entrance from above, head first, a particularly cheeky god descending from the heavens. Righting his matching gold lamé jacket, he paused, grinned to the stalls and said, "So Thebes, I'm back."

Today the outfit looks incongruous beneath the exposed pipes of the manuscript strongroom, but soon it will be united with a host of other such theatrical memorabilia from the library's archives in Curtain Up, an exhibition to celebrate 40 years of Scottish theatre. The nearby dresses are from the Traverse Theatre's 2003 revival of John Byrne's The Slab Boys, while the regal gown is the one worn by Siobhan Redmond playing Elizabeth in the National Theatre of Scotland's Mary Stuart in 2006. "Our strongrooms have never looked so glamorous," says Harrower.

They are all part of a display that will take us from the socialist rallying cry of 7:84's The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil to the world-conquering Iraq drama of Black Watch in 2006. In six "scenes" it tells a story of the plays, playwrights, actors and crew who have made Scottish theatre the formidable force it is today.

On the shelf behind Harrower is a collection of oddities: the gnarled wooden monster, half-baby, half-tree, of Vanishing Point's Little Otik; a designer's set model for Desire Under the Elms at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow; a soldier's combat fatigues from Black Watch; and a wolf puppet from The Wolves in the Walls, both by the National Theatre of Scotland. Opening a folder of archive material, she discovers the perfect last-minute addition to the exhibition: a publicity photograph from a 1991 production of Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui featuring a fresh-faced David Tennant and an equally radiant Ashley Jensen mugging for the camera with their heads positioned among a sea of cauliflowers. "We could use that in scene six," says Andrew Martin, curator of modern Scottish collections and co-curator of the exhibition.

Harrower bends down and hands me a 7:84 badge from an envelope stuffed with the things. She has more than she knows what to do with. The National Library of Scotland is home to the company's official archive, which is why, as well as the publications and scripts you would expect to find in a library, Harrower is responsible for all manner of theatre ephemera. She shows me the company ledger from the 1973 tour of The Cheviot … with the names of director John McGrath and actors Bill Paterson, John Bett and Alex Norton neatly written in ink, all of them earning an egalitarian £20 a week although, because of some quirk in the tax law, the women paid a few pennies' less tax than the men.

Earlier this year she took the final delivery of material from 7:84, which called it a day after more than 30 years of left-wing flag-flying, having lost its funding from the Scottish Arts Council. "That was a really sad day for me," she says. "All these odds and ends came in, like a great bag of badges – because they were a very badgey company – and a marching banner."

An even less likely thing to find in a library's store is the original set for The Cheviot … which, unsurprisingly, does not fit on the bookshelves and causes raised eyebrows from other curators. Designed and painted by John Byrne – and kept in working order by stage manager-cum-fiddler Allan Ross – the set was made from strengthened cardboard and conceived as a giant pop-up book with new scenes emerging with each turn of the page. At 8ft x 10ft, it was the right size to squeeze onto the stages of village halls on its pioneering Highland tours. It will take pride of place in the exhibition after a spell with the library's conservation team.

"The Cheviot … was the major theatrical moment of my life," says Bill Paterson. "It made an impact on all our lives." For that reason, the play is the perfect place to begin the exhibition's survey of four decades of Scottish theatre, just as Gregory Burke's Black Watch is the perfect place to end it. The two plays were landmarks, not just in Scotland but around the world. Certainly, the influence of McGrath's play has been profound, both in its political content and artistic form. Described on the original posters as "a ceilidh play with scenes, songs and music of Highland history from the Clearances to the oil strike," it dramatised the history of capitalist exploitation in the Highlands, but it did so in a way that had more in common with music hall and folk traditions than with conventional theatre.

From there, Curtain Up takes us through a series of thematic stages, covering the playwrights, the major theatres, the representations of Scotland on stage, the country's international reach and the development of the National Theatre of Scotland. The library's second major theatrical archive comes from the Traverse, the Edinburgh institution that has been promoting new plays since 1963. Harrower is responsible not only for the produced scripts plus associated photographs and paraphernalia (such as the black bonnets worn by the actors in Sue Glover's 1991 international hit Bondagers and the old Traverse Theatre sign from its days in the Grassmarket), but also for the welter of unsolicited manuscripts that have come the theatre's way. In total, she has catalogued 3,000 scripts and reckons she still has as many again to work through.

One of the challenges facing Harrower and Martin has been to capture a sense of the theatre even though, as an artform, it is built to be ephemeral. The scripts, images, newspaper cuttings, ticket stubs, programmes and costumes evoke the activity of the stage, but they are merely echoes of the living and breathing actors whom, as Shakespeare said, are now "all spirits … melted into air".

The impact of the theatre is easier to capture, however. You can see it, for example, in the letters written by theatregoers to the 7:84 company after witnessing the energy, excitement and polemics of The Cheviot …. "I couldn't say a word of thanks to you yesterday, because I was afraid I should burst into tears," writes one correspondent. "I realised that feeling strongly about this situation, no matter how sincere you are, isn't enough and I wondered what kind of positive action I could take," asks another.

You can also see it in Scottish theatre's ability to reach out across the world. Theatregoers at home often have little sense of how well Scottish plays have travelled, but in the last few weeks alone, there has been a production of David Harrower's Knives in Hens in Dublin, another of his Blackbird in Pittsburgh, one of Liz Lochhead's Good Things in Texas and another of Anthony Neilson's The Wonderful World of Dissocia in Boston (the polar bear toy from the original Edinburgh International Festival production is on show here, as well as a copy of the script in Portuguese). "I don't think people realise that David Greig and David Harrower are names that mean something in London and beyond," says Martin.

As successes go, there has been none more high-profile than Black Watch, which stormed the Edinburgh Fringe of 2006 before a tour of duty that took in New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, Wellington, Toronto and London. It put the National Theatre of Scotland on the map in its inaugural year and served as a vindication for all those who had campaigned for such a body since the early years of the 19th century. "We end with Black Watch as an example of a big success," says Martin. "The exhibition was a good opportunity to exploit Sally's archives. I think people will be surprised that we've got a lot of this material. It will look very eye-catching and dramatic."

Curtain Up: 40 years of Scottish theatre, National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, 19 December - 3 May 2010.

© Mark Fisher 2009

Sleeping Beauty, MacRobert Arts Centre review

Published in The Guardian

Sleeping Beauty

Macrobert, Stirling
3 out of 5

Is it Stirling's central location that makes its panto such an amalgam? Or is it that writer Johnny McKnight has a magpie appetite for good ideas, whatever their provenance? Either way, Sleeping Beauty looks broadly for inspiration and, panto being the bastard artform it is, comes out looking bright and distinctive in its own right.

From the Christmas shows of Stuart Paterson, it takes a respect for narrative and an appreciation of character. From the postmodern pantos of Glasgow's Tron, it takes the idea that those characters are always likely to wander off stage and into another show in the pantosphere. From the annual spectacular at the Glasgow King's, it takes the "Hiya, pals" camaraderie developed by actor Gerard Kelly and fashions it into the short-trousered shape of Ross Allan. Throw in the Citizens Theatre glamour of designer Kenny Miller and McKnight's love of pop culture, and you have a healthy hybrid that nods to tradition without being bound by it.

The mix can be uneven. Portraying Sleeping Beauty's mother as a fame-hungry narcissist scores on laughs and topical satire, but it makes her look no better than the bad fairy, who has at least got a justifiable grievance. And by turning the good fairy into the dame, McKnight rules out the possibility of any serious moral battle.

But what it lacks in consistency, the show makes up for in raucous energy. With an unbecoming Kylie fixation – outsize hot pants and all – McKnight is a brilliantly abrasive dame, brimming with infectious good humour and off-the-cuff ribaldry, and still capable of pulling off a smoochy, half-tempo I Should Be So Lucky.

He makes it look like so much riotous nonsense, yet the final-curtain union between Charlene Boyd's Beauty and Ross Allan's Jester is truly touching, a testament to the careful plotting that has gone on behind the fun and flamboyance.

Until 31 December. Box office: 01786 466666.

© Mark Fisher 2009

Friday, December 11, 2009

Zorro, Visible Fictions/Traverse review

Published in The Guardian


Traverse, Edinburgh
4 out of 5

Zorro, it often seems, is simply not there. He's just a swish of a sword and a swoop of a cape, a blur of movement perplexing his enemies and thrilling his audience. At other times, he is a cardboard cut-out, perching on a rooftop that has suddenly appeared from nowhere on Robin Peoples's pop-up book of a set (which gets its own spontaneous burst of applause). At other times still, he is no superhero at all, but plain old stable boy Don Diego de la Vega, played by Sandy Grierson with a humility that contrasts with the swagger he brings to the masked swordsman.

Zorro, in this Visible Fictions/Traverse co-production, is an enigma, an ideal, a man of perfect athleticism and flawless morals, as sexually potent as he is awesome in combat. Yet this is also a story with loud echoes of The Ugly Duckling. Playwright Davey Anderson shows us the powerless boy behind the mask, an orphan whose inner strengths go unappreciated, not least by Claire Dargo's Isabella. When she tells Zorro he is "deeply misunderstood, like me", the line resonates with irony.

In Douglas Irvine's production, Richard Conlon adds a streak of Iago-like malice as a duplicitous Captain Esteban, driving the plot forward as he threatens chastity, innocence and honour. Borrowing the style (and one of the jokes) of David Greig's 2008 musical Midsummer, this is a compelling piece of third-person storytelling in which the three actors create a vivid sense of a pre-gold rush California with the swashbuckling pace of an adventure movie.

In the best Saturday matinee tradition, it even ends with the possibility of a sequel – and this is one Zorro who deserves to fight another day.

Until Christmas Eve. Box office: 0131-228 1404.

© Mark Fisher 2009

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cinderella, Citizens Theatre review

Published in The Guardian


Citizens, Glasgow

4 out of 5

Most archetypal stories keep their psychological significance buried beneath the surface. Not so this Cinderella. As playwright Alan McHugh has it, this is a tale about the need for a good mother. And to underline the point, the mother shows up from beyond the grave.

Like every Cinderella, Helen McAlpine has to cope with a domestic imbalance. Her stepmother verges on the psychotic; her stepsisters are preening narcissists; and her father is either absent or ineffectual. Nothing is as it should be, apart from Cinderella, whose turn-the-other-cheek goodness stops just short of passive-aggressive. "Why are you so nice to us?" asks one of the stepsisters, mystified.

What is different here, however, is that Angelica, the fairy godmother, is not a fairy at all. Instead, she is the fading ghost of Cinderella's own mother, unable to find peace until her daughter and husband are content. She represents not simply good fortune, but a symbol of the moral qualities absent in her daughter's life.

It means the union between Cinder-ella and her prince is less a fluke win for the servant girl than a victory for the maternal values of nurture and love. It's what makes the conclusion of Jeremy Raison's production so affecting, even as Cara Kelly's wicked stepmother gets her eyes pecked out by crows.

It sounds maudlin, but the children are too hooked on the storytelling to notice the darker strands and, although some of the comedy falls flat, it is a lively and inventive production. With a lush, romantic live score by Claire McKenzie and a gorgeous circular set of Freudian doors opening onto a dark and dangerous wood by Jason Southgate, it is as sober as it is nourishing.

© Mark Fisher 2009

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, review

Published in The Guardian

Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates

King's, Edinburgh
4 out of 5

Allan Stewart and Grant Stott in Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates at the King's Theatre, Edinburgh. Photograph: Douglas Robertson

For many years, the King's fielded an invincible panto double act in the shape of Allan Stewart, the consummate everywoman dame, and Andy Gray, a hangdog foil with a genius for working the crowd. Gray's departure a couple of years ago (this season, he's at Glasgow's Oran Mór) left Stewart carrying the show. If anything, he was too capable of this, exerting such control that he even ended up in the cave with Aladdin, which kept the laughs coming but negated the point of the boy's coming-of-age story.

Happily – and, indeed, hilariously – order has been restored in Robinson Crusoe, a thoroughly enjoyable romp that, barring an out-of-place appearance from the dog in the Churchill Insurance adverts, gets everything right.

There is no doubt Stewart is still the star. He is a man so comfortable in a woman's skin – neither camping it up nor sending it up – that it seems genuinely odd when two excited children in the audience refer to him as "him", prompting a rally of funny "him/her" ad libs from the cast. Whether he is imitating Susan Boyle, getting his mouth around a potentially filthy tongue-twister or rattling out corny puns, you are always delighted to see him on stage.

But there are two more reasons this show works so well. One is the healthy quotient of topical gags, which, in Edinburgh, means a broadside against the city's interminable tram works and wisecracks about Tiger Woods.

The other is the strength of the cast. Grant Stott is looking more comfortable than ever as Blackheart the Pirate, Jo Freer makes a feisty, fast-talking mermaid, Johnny Mac strikes a funny balance between fall guy and romantic lead, and even Charlie Cairoli's old-school clowning adds to the surreal fun.

© Mark Fisher 2009

Friday, December 04, 2009

Ya Beauty and the Beast, Tron Theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Ya Beauty and the Beast

Tron, Glasgow
3 out of 5

There was a time when you could attribute the Tron panto's usual blend of the traditional and the ironic to the postmodern sensibilities of writers Fletcher Mathers and Gordon Dougall. But today, the word "postmodern" no longer does its panto justice. It's as if it has been sucked into a black hole, thrown out the other side, and reconfigured in its own eccentric universe. Panto has eaten itself and Ya Beauty and the Beast is the result.

"If only I were a feminist instead of a panto principal girl, maybe I would be able to understand it all," deadpans the excellent Sally Reid, but she is not the only one struggling to keep up with this warped reworking of the myth. The plot involves a pansy who is losing her petals, an eager-to-please kangaroo, a circus with naff novelty acts, a girl who is turned into a dog, and a shark-driven race across the sea. The romance, such as it is, turns out to be between Andy Clark's hard-as-nails dame, Bunty Beautox (aka Ya Beauty) and George Drennan's cursed monster Barfolemew Beastie.

I'm not even sure if the internal logic holds up in any of this, but it is staged with such irrepressible good humour – terrible puns and all – that it hardly matters. In previous years, the songs have been funnier, the sets more striking and the meta-panto satire more subversive, so the final curtain decision to put the show to bed for a 100 years is sad but probably wise. All the same, I've put a date in my diary for December 2109.

© Mark Fisher 2009

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Interview: Julie Brown on Little Red Riding Hood

Published n The Scotsman

Little Red Riding Hood

THE books we read as young children live to haunt us. Even if we forget the stories, we can never quite shake off the intense feelings evoked by the pictures. That is certainly the case with Julie Brown, who, as soon as she was invited to direct Little Red Riding Hood at Glasgow's Arches Theatre, thought back to her formative Ladybird "easy reading" book and its pictures of the girl in the gingham dress and red cloak, basket over her arm, being tempted by a wolf, half-playful, half-sinister.

"I still have all my Ladybird books from when I was wee," says Brown in a rehearsal break. "My mum and dad kept them all for me. So when Little Red Riding Hood was decided upon, I looked out my old books – I'd obviously been playing libraries at some point because they had library cards in them – and, as soon as I started to leaf through the book again, it was the pictures that I remembered. I knew what was coming next. It was the colour and the atmosphere from the images that I remembered."

It was that kind of visual intensity she wanted to recreate in her adaptation of the story for the Arches Christmas show, which she is directing for the first time, having acted in the subterranean theatre's productions of The Water Babies, Hansel and Gretel and The Little Mermaid in previous years. Working with designer Hazel Blue, she is transforming the whole theatre space, almost as if it were an art installation.

"I was remembering that colourful visual element that the original Ladybird books had for me when I was a child," she says. "Hazel and I both realised we wanted to have the sense of a real fable and to envelop the studio space. I was really keen that, from the moment you enter the doorway of the studio, you've crossed into this other place. As you come in you will pass through Little Red Riding Hood's house. Visually, it was about finding something stimulating, bright and not too naturalistic to give it the sense that this is a story that we're telling."

For the text, she turned not to the Ladybird book, but to the Brothers Grimm version, although, mindful of a target audience that ranges from three and up, she has been careful not to let things get too frightening. Natalie McConnon, fresh from her acclaimed Edinburgh Fringe performance as Sandy in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, will guide the audience into the woods in the title role, as she sets out to see Mary Gapinski as the sick granny. Playing the big bad wolf, Aly Macrae will wear his grizzly mask on his head – Lion King-style – to reassure younger viewers he is only an actor, although Brown is giving him leeway to get more creepy if he senses the audience can take it.

"I felt it was important that we still had that element of fright and scare in there, not wanting to dumb down, but just being aware of who it's for," she says, adding that McRae has also written the music, which will be performed live by the actors. "Although the wolf is sinister and wicked, we're giving him more of a sense of fun and play, so that our younger audiences can still listen to what he's saying and go on the journey with him without being perturbed by how he looks and what he's about to do to granny. But, physically, we can change it so that if our audience are older and he gets the sense that we're fine, he can change his physicality so that we only see the wolf. If it's a younger audience, we can always remind them, it's OK, there's only an actor here."

For the rest of the year, Brown is one half on the team behind touring theatre company Random Accomplice – the other half being Johnny McKnight, who is playing the dame in the MacRobert's Sleeping Beauty this season – and she is known for creating raucously funny shows that refuse to take themselves too seriously. She has carried that sense of fun into the rehearsal room, although she is being careful not to forget the seriousness of Little Red Riding Hood.

"There's always a lovely vibe in rehearsals at this time of year," she says. "When we're in the rehearsal room, we're just playing with the words and enjoying the story again. I can bring the Random Accomplice element of fun into the rehearsal room, not being afraid to try things out. So there will be elements of daft humour in the show, yes, but I don't want it to be farcical or panto-like. I want to stick to the traditional fable and the telling of the story."

• Little Red Riding Hood is at the Arches, Glasgow, from tomorrow until 3 January

© Mark Fisher 2009

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Peter Pan, Royal Lyceum theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Peter Pan

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
4 out of 5

Peter Pan is the only play where the pre-show announcement about switching off watch alarms applies as much to the characters as it does the audience. One too many ticking clocks and the time-sensitive Captain Hook will be forced to leap overboard.

Here, the message is read out very sweetly by the children of composer Philip Pinsky, just as the colourful front cloth and the Chinese dragon-style crocodile are the work of two youngsters who share a surname with designer Francis O'Connor. It's an entertaining touch and a reminder that, as we approach the 150th anniversary of the playwright's birth, JM Barrie's 1904 classic offers a vision of childhood from the perspective of the young as well as the old.

Nowhere is this tension more keenly felt than in the relationship between Peter and Wendy. In Jemima Levick's lively production, Scott Fletcher portrays the boy who wouldn't grow up with a complete absence of self-reflection. That he has no memory of the past and no interest in the future is expected. More surprising is that he shows only the scantest awareness of the present. No time for the thigh-slapping enjoyment of living in the moment: he just gets on with his adventures as if in a dream-like void.

Kim Gerard's Wendy, by contrast, is aching to make the transition from childhood to sexual maturity. She is less delighted by Peter's antics than impatient for them to come to an end. His is a world she is leaving behind – flying, pirates, mermaids and all – and what makes the final sequence so touching is the conflict between her understanding that time moves on and his innocent belief that childhood lasts for ever.

It is a good-looking production – all skewed angles, outsize furniture and a fair amount of magical flying – in which the actors deliver sections of Barrie's elaborate stage directions as well as their lines to give the show a story-telling flavour. The most striking departure from tradition is Samuel Dutton's interpretation of Tinker Bell as a wild commedia dell'arte-style sprite, complete with walking boots, tutu and flying goggles, who talks in gobbledegook, shattering every memory of Disney schmaltz. If it diminishes the force of the usually touching scene in which the audience wills the poisoned fairy back to life, it gives the production a ribald energy that does much to counter Barrie's sentimental streak.

Until 3 January. Box office: 0131-248 4848.

© Mark Fisher 2009

Zorro: interview with Douglas Irvine and Davey Anderson

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Zorro preview

WHEN artistic director Dominic Hill decided it was time Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre entered the Christmas market, he was faced with the dilemma of what kind of show to put on. His rival theatres have carved out their own niches – panto at the King's, musicals at the Playhouse, the more traditional storytelling of Peter Pan at the Lyceum – and there was no point in playing them at their own game.
He turned to Douglas Irvine, artistic director of the children's company Visible Fictions, who suggested that what they needed was the equivalent of a Saturday afternoon family film.

"I thought it would be something people might not expect you to try or that might not even be possible to put on stage," says Irvine. "We rumbled around Indiana Jones and The Great Escape and then we landed on Zorro."

The swashbuckling masked outlaw – created by Johnston McCulley in 1919 in The Curse Of Capistrano and reinvented in countless comics, films and TV shows – seemed to be just what they were looking for. So Irvine called on playwright Davey Anderson to re-imagine the adventures of Don Diego de la Vega (Zorro's real identity) for the stage – sword fights and all – in a piece of family entertainment for six-year-olds and up.

By chance, they found the Robin Hood-style escapades were a perfect match for the seasonal spirit. "Zorro is like this mysterious benefactor, which seems to tie in to Christmas time," says Irvine. "It's got all the stock elements – the romance, the adventure, the goodie, the baddie – that make it feel like a Christmas show, but it's undoubtedly a play."

Anderson, whose play Liar won the gong for best children's show in this year's Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland, realised that Zorro offered him tremendous flexibility in terms of a story. Unlike many action hero tales, there is no definitive version and not even a consistent set of characters. This freed him to come up with his own fast-moving interpretation, one that made space to explore the man behind the mask as well as the feats of derring-do.

"Zorro is one of these characters you're aware of but you don't know the details, unlike Superman or Batman," says Anderson, who in his parallel career as a musician is working on the score for the National Theatre of Scotland's forthcoming Peter Pan. "I had a huge marathon of watching all the Zorro films that were ever made and reading lots of the books. He has been constantly rewritten as time has gone on, so this gave me a chance to write a classic family adventure story without being tied to doing an adaptation. Essentially I came up with a new story, but it should feel like an old one."

The story of this Zorro, then, is of a man learning how to become a hero and facing the moral choice of whether to become a vigilante or to fight for the greater good. "Diego de la Vega, who is the daytime identity of Zorro, should be just as interesting a character as Zorro," says Anderson. "A big part of the love interest comes in the triangle between Diego, the girl that he loves, Isabella, and this masked man she is enamoured of, not realising he is the same guy."

It's this emotional story that puts the play into more complex territory than a straightforward thrills-and-spills adventure, although there will be plenty of that as well. With Sandy Grierson playing Zorro – sharing the stage with Richard Conlon as a military captain and Claire Dargo as Isabella – the production aims to match the excitement of an action movie with a fast-paced theatrical style of its own.

When composer David Trouton saw the rehearsals he described it as "a living cartoon". "You see this guy wrestling with who he is and what he's about, which goes beyond that boys' story, but there is an action feel about it," says Irvine.

Anderson was delighted by the opportunities the story opened up. "It's so unusual as a writer to be given the brief to write action sequences," he says. "It was very brave of Dougie to ask me to write something that was impossible to stage. How do you write a horse chase or how do you write a sword fight at the same time as there's something dramatic going on?

"It's about finding a visual logic that suggests some of it and gives some of the pictures, but still leaves a lot to the imagination. That's what makes it theatrical rather than a movie version. The fact that there's three storytellers brings a joy to it."

"We're trying to make it an all-round family experience," says Irvine.

"Boys and their grannies," chips in Anderson.

"Or daughters and their dads," counters Irvine.

Zorro, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Friday until 24 December

© Mark Fisher

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Interview: Johnny McKnight, pantomime dame

Published in The Scotsman

Johnny McKnight in Sleeping Beauty

IF YOU'RE planning on seeing Sleeping Beauty at Stirling's MacRobert this season – and all the omens suggest you should – don't set too much store by the advertised running time. Last year's festive offering, Mother Goose, lasted anything between two hours and two hours 40 minutes depending on how carried away writer and star Johnny McKnight became during any given performance.

"I got into a wee bit of trouble for that," laughs McKnight who, at 32, is at the vanguard of a new generation of great Scottish dames. "The longest show was when I caught two wee wifies on a matinee with a bottle of vodka in their bag, literally mid-pour. You can't not rip them apart for a whole show. That's what makes the show: wee Ina and Betty sitting there half-cut on a Monday afternoon at one o'clock. I love that."

It sounds a riot, but if the Ayrshire-born McKnight has blossomed into what last year The Scotsman called "a sparkling new Scottish panto star", it was far from inevitable. For a start, the teenage McKnight was nearly put off panto for life by a spot of exuberant audience participation on a P7 theatre trip to the Ayr Gaiety. "I remember the two dames coming into the audience to get somebody up and I was terrified," he says.

Then, having developed an interest in theatre in spite of this formative trauma, he went on to take a place on the RSAMD's contemporary performance practice course – a programme better known for turning out avant garde experimenters than mainstream dames. "When we came out of drama school, we thought we were going to be pure radical live artists," he says. "We did shows with baked beans, if I remember right."

Things might have continued along the same leftfield path, with McKnight and fellow graduate Julie Brown running their own small company Random Accomplice, had director Andy Arnold not spotted his potential as a cross-dressing leading lady when he met him at an interview for the Arches Theatre's directors' scheme. "I thought, 'Should I be insulted by that?'" he laughs.

A season as an Ugly Sister at Loch Lomond gave him a taste for the panto life and, after a series of shows in Dunfermline working with Tony Roper, he joined the cast of The Wizard of Oz in Stirling. "I played the lion like a dame," he says. "I think that's the only character I'm able to play: myself and myself with stilettos on."

Before he knew it, though, he was running the whole show. Sleeping Beauty is his fourth MacRobert panto as dame and his third as writer. They have been successful enough to travel: this season, the Byre Theatre in St Andrews is doing his Mother Goose and Platform in Easterhouse is doing his Cinderella. "I did a performance course where you learn to play yourself and that's quite handy being a dame," he says. "The dame's not unlike me and I'm quite good at being myself. Just before I graduated, I started going to pantos because I had pals who were in them and I really got it. It's quite like live art because there's no fourth wall and you interact. I came to the realisation that theatre is all about entertainment. That's its primary function. If I go to it and I'm bored, it's not worked." His background makes the MacRobert show an invigorating fusion. On the one hand, it has the traditional variety elements that make pantomime such a popular force in Scotland. As well as McKnight's dame, inspired by the sharp-talking women in his own matriarchal family, this show even features that dying breed, a female principal boy in the shape of Michelle Gallagher (cue a round of "I Kissed a Girl and I Liked It"). All the boos, hisses and he's-behind-yous will be firmly in place.

On the other hand, the show has borrowed the cheeky self-referential elements from Glasgow's Tron pantos with their knowing subversion of convention. This is a world where characters train at Panto Academy to become principal girls and where the wicked witch turns out to be a pretty good mother.

In addition to that, McKnight is a strong believer in the power of narrative. "I get really frustrated when I see pantos and they aren't telling a story or the story is superfluous to the tricks," says McKnight, who sets to work on each script as early as January. "You need to make your story clear and you need to have characters. If you're writing a baddie, why are they a baddie? In Sleeping Beauty, why does she cast a spell on a new born baby? I need to find a logic for why she would do that."

What it means is that his experience on stage in Stirling does not feel so different to his high-camp adventures with Random Accomplice in autobiographical comedies such as Little Johnny's Big Gay Musical. "With the Little Johnny shows and with the pantos, you've got to charm the audience and take them on a journey with you," he says. "They're quite similar. You know the audience is there, there's no fourth wall and everybody's in this together. All my stuff puts the audience first."

He promises more Little Johnny japes later in 2010 when his company collaborates with the National Theatre of Scotland, but first there is another gear change.

Four days after the last night of Sleeping Beauty, he goes into rehearsals as director of a new play by Douglas Maxwell. Promises Promises is a dark classroom thriller about a supply teacher, played by Joanna Tope, and a six-year-old Somali girl who is accused of witchcraft. "It's a really different style of play for Douglas and for us as a company," he says.

"It's theatre noir, horrific and brilliant. When I read the script, I thought if I don't do this justice, I will hate myself for ever."

Sleeping Beauty, MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling, today until 31 December

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Autobahn, theatre review

Published in The Guardian


Tron, Glasgow
4 out of 5

As we move from car to car in Neil LaBute's series of six two-handers, the road seems to get wider, the possibility of escape more remote and the conversation more disturbing. Performed for the first time in the UK by the newly formed Theatre Jezebel, the Autobahn journey starts off light with a sinister edge, and ends up plain sinister.

The playwright doesn't exactly blame the roads for his catalogue of stalkings, gang bangs and child abuse, but he uses cars – "our bubbles of glass and steel" – to exemplify the social atomisation that lets such things happen. It might not have the misanthropic shock value of the London hits that have earned LaBute his bad-boy reputation, but beneath each of these compelling exchanges lies a dark seam of dysfunctional behaviour.

It would be wrong, however, to give the impression of an evening of gloom and malaise. This is for two reasons. The first is LaBute's spare dialogue, which gives away just enough and no more, meaning you're never certain you've come to the right conclusions, though invariably you have. Autobahn is as much about the keenly observed interplay of the characters – the gaps in communication, the evasions and the status games – as it is about society's ugly underbelly.

The second reason is the production by Mary McCluskey and Kenny Miller, a masterclass in acting. With some parts cross-cast to reveal intriguing gender possibilities, each dazzling performance seems to outshine the last. Sally Reid, with Mickey Mouse ears, shows the psychopath behind the dumb date; Candida Benson is a mess of neurotic tics, as she searches for the words to say sorry; Alison Peebles disguises a night of debauchery behind her shades; and so on, until Johnny Austin delivers a stunning exercise in silence and stillness as his wife, played by Angela Darcy, uncovers his one last terrible secret.

Until Saturday. Box office: 0141-552 4267.

© Mark Fisher 2009

Monday, November 09, 2009

Derevo's Natura Morte theatre preview

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Natura Morte by Derevo/Akhe/Conflux theatre preview

IF YOU go down to The Arches this week, you're in for a big surprise. The show you see in the subterranean Glasgow theatre will be of your own choosing. It might not even be the same as the show your friends see.

That's because at 20-minute intervals during Natura Morte, a promenade performance in the rarely used basement-level arches, you will be asked to decide where to go next. All the time, there are seven or eight scenes running in parallel. Unless you return on successive evenings, you will see only three of them. "Even husband and wife will be divided," says director and performer Anton Adasinskiy. "One room will be a dance show, in another a piece of storytelling, in another a clown piece."

Adasinskiy is the founder of Derevo, the Russian-German physical theatre company that has built a formidable cult following on the Edinburgh Fringe. Natura Morte is a collaboration between Derevo and another Fringe favourite, Akhe, a visually ravishing company from St Petersburg. Where previous visits have allowed us to see established productions from their repertoire – Fringe First- winning shows such as Akhe's White Cabin and Derevo's Once – this is a rare opportunity to be in at the start of one of their productions, and one custom-built for this remarkable space.

"The work will be very experimental," says Derevo's Elena Yarovaya, sitting in the Arches restaurant after an intense day of rehearsal and discussion. "It's the first time we have collaborated with performers who are not from our style of theatre. We have a long relationship with the Scottish public, but this is the first time we are trying to do something together."

She is referring to Conflux, a new project dedicated to the development of street theatre and circus in Scotland, which is the third part of the creative team. Not only is Natura Morte an opportunity for Scottish practitioners to work at an international level – the show goes to Dresden after Glasgow – but it also opens up possibilities for Derevo to work in a new way. "They're all professional, they're all great, but they're very different," says Adasinskiy. "We're improvising every day, then Elena and I will choose the best pieces and the best people and combine the groups and start to put things together. All the material will come from the artists and they'll be happy to play because they will have created it themselves. My task is to press people to make sure they produce only diamonds."

"When we start to work together we create a common atmosphere," says Yarovaya. "We call it a soup, boiling in a pan. It's interesting to see how the Scottish performers can be part of our soup."

To bring together such a varied ensemble – 21 artists in all – Adasinskiy has devised a loose story into which the different elements can sit. It is about the Weatherman, a magical figure who can influence the weather. Nobody can see him, but he is always just around the corner, leaving traces of his presence. "He spends years to make himself an expert in different art forms," says Adasinskiy. "He is a good dancer, musician, mime, singer and clown. He doesn't want to show himself, but he will show his art. So the artists play different parts of his soul. All their different styles speak about one man."

For the director, it's a way of talking about the capacity within us all to pursue different avenues in life. It's a reminder that, whatever age we are, we are never too old to return to the ambitions we had in our youth. "The main message of the show is that there's still time to change," he says. "There's still time to go left or right, to return to your dream when all doors were open."

The choices that we make as an audience, deciding what show we see, remind us of the choices we have in life. It is, he says part of a renewed interest in narrative, that he plans to develop further in Harlequin, a new show that Derevo will bring to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2010. "Sometimes I see a dance show and I can't decide what they're trying to say," says Adasinskiy, whose shaven head and gaunt looks make him ideal casting as Mephistopheles in Alexander Sokurow's Faust, which he recently finished shooting in Iceland. "Who put that movement on the stage? Why did some people jump all together? I want to go back to a time when theatre was very understandable, like a fairytale. I want to make a simple, beautiful, lyrical story for people and this will be my next show. It's important for me to get back on the stage with an open heart."

• Natura Morte is at the Arches, Glasgow, 10-13 November.

© Mark Fisher 2009

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Peter Pan and JM Barrie

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Peter Pan and JM Barrie

PETER Pan might be the boy who wouldn't grow up, but he has no trouble proliferating. As we approach the 150th anniversary of the birth of JM Barrie, our appetite for the Kirriemuir writer's most famous creation appears to be insatiable. The boy from Neverland is everywhere.
In a year when Scottish audiences have enjoyed productions of Peter Pan by Glasgow theatre company Visible Fictions and New York's Mabou Mines, Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum is about to stage it again as a Christmas show. "Every man wants to be Peter Pan," says director Jemima Levick, who wants to explore new dimensions to the story, "but I'm interested in Wendy and Hook." Meanwhile, the second best-selling show in London this summer was a high-tech staging of Peter Pan in Barrie's old stomping ground of Kensington Gardens directed by Ben Harrison, famed for his work with Edinburgh's Grid Iron theatre company. So successful was this multimedia spectacular that it is about to open for a pre-Christmas run at London's vast O2 arena and plans are under way for productions in San Francisco and Australia.

All this is before the National Theatre of Scotland takes on Peter Pan for a UK tour to coincide with the Barrie anniversary on 9 May next year. Staged by four of the team who brought us Black Watch, it is being relocated to Victorian Edinburgh by playwright David Greig. Director John Tiffany calls it "the most influential story ever written by a Scottish writer".

So what is it about this story, first staged in 1904 and put on the cinema screen by Walt Disney in 1953, that continues to capture our imagination? In the year when Michael Jackson, the self-styled Peter Pan of pop, tragically proved himself a boy who really couldn't grow up, what does our obsession with this myth tell us about our own times? And in an era when no-one can get near a child without the approval of the Independent Safeguarding Authority, what are we to make of Barrie himself, a man who openly revelled in the company of little boys?

As far as Barrie biographer Lisa Chaney is concerned, Peter Pan is a play of timeless genius. "It is one of the great – and profoundly underestimated – works of art of the 20th century," says the author, whose Hide-And-Seek With Angels: A Life of JM Barrie was published in 2005. "His contribution is enormous."

Chaney's enthusiasm is echoed by Ben Harrison. "It's up there with Waiting For Godot – and there's more flying," says the director. "It's an endlessly fascinating myth and, just like Peter himself, it is always slightly beyond your grasp."

If Peter Pan has been underrated, it is because of the patronising assumption that the story is for children and therefore lacks seriousness, an assumption bolstered by pantomime versions that pile on the swashbuckling action and cut out the profundity. At it's best, however, the play talks to people of all ages not simply about battles with ticking crocodiles and pirates with hooks, but about creativity, the passage of time and the elusive nature of childhood.

"It's about unfulfilled desires of all sorts," says Liza Lorwin, writer and producer of the heartbreaking Mabou Mines production in this year's Edinburgh International Festival. "When I read it as a teenager, it was the atmosphere of the book that got me, its adolescent yearning and unfulfilled desire. As I looked at it again as the mother of a five-year-old, it was more about that moment when you re-experience your childhood through your child and then they start to fly away."

For Chaney, Peter Pan plays on the tension between having to grow up and the fear that adulthood will steal our imagination. Barrie relished the creative spirit, but knew we deny adulthood at our peril. "Michael Jackson is an example of how, when you don't listen to that message, terrible things happen to you," she says. "Jackson tried to deny time and when you do that, you become a tragic monster. Peter Pan doesn't become physically monstrous, but the tragedy for him is that, when he flies back, the bars are up and he can't get in the room. He is condemned to be youthful for ever."

What it says about today, suggests Chaney, is that ours is a society reluctant to face the responsibilities of adulthood. "Intuitively, Barrie was trying to understand the West becoming an industrial society," she says. "Nineteenth-century man began to dislike adulthood because adulthood meant accepting the age that he lived in. You escape that subconsciously by becoming a child. Today there are many Peter Pans and there are many different ways in our society of people not accepting what it means to be a true adult. It's just too painful. Peter Pan becomes more relevant every day."

But Barrie's insight came at a price. Haunted by the death of his 13-year-old brother, yearning for his mother's affection and forced to grow up quickly when he was sent away to school, he developed a fixation with childhood that, to modern eyes, seems unhealthy. He was not alone in this. As author Philip Pullman sees it, Barrie was one of a generation of turn-of-the-century male writers with a highly romanticised view of childhood.

"Barrie is the extreme case (of arrested development] but that sort of feeling was very strong in a number of British writers of around that period," says Pullman, citing also Kenneth Grahame and AA Milne. "I've got a complete set of Punch from the 1920s when Milne was an assistant editor and the cartoons, which are beautifully illustrated, have a feeble joke and some half-dressed little nymphet standing there looking appealing and saying something winsome to a fondly adoring mother. You think, this isn't a joke – there's something weird going on here."

Exactly how weird, in Barrie's case, we can only speculate. Was his friendship with the Llewelyn Davies family – as played out in the 2004 film Finding Neverland with Kate Winslet and Johnny Depp – merely the act of an avuncular thirtysomething? Or was there some more troubling motivation behind his affection for Sylvia's five sons? When his wife, Mary Ansell, said he was impotent, did she mean he was asexual or that his passions were directed elsewhere?

And when we read The Little White Bird, a precursor to Peter Pan, with its descriptions of a man undressing a little boy before bathing him and sleeping with him, is it really only our post-Freudian sensibility that causes us to raise an eyebrow? "I placed him on my knee and removed his blouse," Barrie writes with unsuppressed excitement. "This was a wonderful experience."

Psychologist Lorraine O'Sullivan says it is impossible to know if Barrie loved childhood or children, but his behaviour – like that of Jackson, who named his ranch Neverland, invited boys to play and once declared "I am Peter Pan" – would alarm any child protection expert today.

"The question people ask about Barrie is was he trying to corrupt children with an adult desire or was he trying to rejoin them in the innocence of childhood?" she says. "But you can't join children in the innocence of childhood when the power balance is not equal. He was a wealthier man than the family he was involved with, so he was able to buy them gifts and had financial influence as well."

We would call that grooming, but Chaney argues it is wrong to project our values onto another era. After all, Nico Llewelyn Davies, the youngest brother, saw nothing underhand in the behaviour of "Uncle Jim", saying Barrie "was the least interested in sex... he was an innocent".

"I think he was non-sexual," says Chaney. "I put Michael Jackson in the same category. I think he probably did have kids in bed with him and I do not believe he did anything more than cuddle them, just as I don't believe Barrie did anything more. I don't think either of them was capable of it. Barrie couldn't be normal, but that doesn't mean he was a sexual freak. He loved the children with a smothering love because he didn't understand emotionally how to be a proper adult."

That, says O'Sullivan, could be just how sexual predators would like us to think of them. What better disguise than to write openly about your desires? "People who behave in a predatory way towards children create their own norms. As far as they can push it, they get society to accept their norms. By saying things in a matter-of-fact way, you're saying, 'This is normal and it's innocent.' People get away with an awful lot when the inveigle their way into families. That's what grooming is about: you think, 'Am I over-reacting if I think this is wrong, because everybody else seems to think it's OK?' I could never say one way or the other about Barrie, but when you have a male in a position where he's wanting to play in an innocent way with children, it's either incredibly naive or it's manipulative because the power balance is so different."

What all this should mean for our enjoyment of his work is debatable. Like the music of Michael Jackson – at least before he turned messianic – Barrie's Peter Pan remains a towering achievement whatever his sexuality. It has endured because it affects us on the deepest level. "At its heart is the idea that growing up is the most exciting and most terrifying thing," says Tiffany. "And that makes Peter Pan the ultimate tragic figure."

A literary life

BORN in Kirriemuir, 20 miles north of Dundee, on 9 May, 1860, James Matthew Barrie was the son of a weaver and the second youngest of ten children.

At an early age he was packed off to Glasgow Academy, where two of his siblings taught, and continued his education in Forfar and Dumfries. While studying at Edinburgh University, he began writing theatre reviews and went on to spend 18 months as a journalist on the Nottingham Daily Journal before returning to Kirriemuir and turning his mother's stories into publishable works of fiction.

These kick-started a literary career that began with his debut novel, Auld Licht Idylls, in 1888. He developed a parallel career as a dramatist, enjoying his biggest successes in the early-1900s with Quality Street, The Admirable Crichton and Peter Pan. The theme of the boy who wouldn't grow up continued to haunt him and, in 1911, he published Peter And Wendy, a more sophisticated reworking of the play in novel form. He married actor Mary Ansell in 1891, a childless marriage that ended 18 years later after she had an affair. He died of pneumonia on 19 June, 1937.

© Mark Fisher 2009

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Curse of the Demeter, Visible Fictions theatre review

Published in Northings.

The Curse of the Demeter

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 26 October 2009, and touring

TO CREATE an atmosphere of terror on the stage takes some doing. To do it with only two actors is a greater accomplishment still. But that's what Visible Fictions manages in this edge-of-your-seat staging of Robert Forrest's teen-friendly play inspired by the section of Bram Stoker's Dracula in which the Transylvanian vampire stows away on the good ship Demeter and stalks the crew on their voyage to England.

On Lisa Sangster's simple wooden set of gangways and drawers, Jonathan Holt and Gavin Kean play all the characters from captain to 12-year-old recruit, marking the changes by instant switches in status and accent, always with the utmost clarity.

So effortlessly do they appear to populate the ship that they are able to conjure up Dracula by his absence more than his presence. For much of the play, the vampire is a suspicion, a fear, an uneasy feeling. Even when the men start disappearing, their fate is not entirely certain; an uncertainty that intensifies the air of horror.

When the unwelcome passenger does show himself, he speaks into a microphone like some malevolent narrator, both distant and controlling. It is technical tricks such as this that distinguish Douglas Irvine's production. Like his similarly spooky 2004 production Into the Dark, The Curse of the Demeter has a touch of The Blair Witch Project about it, this time evoked by the actors using a hand-held video camera to pursue each other round the set in the most dangerous moments. Not only does the screen imagery unsettle us with its shakiness, but also it creates the illusion of a much bigger boat than the set alone can convey.

It does this without letting the technology take over. There is no question the show works in theatrical terms. Yet by, for example, focusing the camera on one actor's eyes at a point of greatest terror, it exploits the capacity for a cinematic close-up to maximum dramatic effect.

Throw in a suitably haunting score by Daniel Padden and you have a grippingly executed exercise in fear.

The Curse of the Demeter’s remaining tour dates include Gordonstoun School, Elgin (3 November 2009) and Universal Hall, Findhorn (4 November 2009).

© Mark Fisher, 2009

Topdog/Underdog, Citizens Theatre review

Published in The Guardian


Citizens, Glasgow
3 out of 5

One brother is called Lincoln, the other Booth, products of an errant father with a mischievous sense of humour. Their names should give a clue to how Suzan-Lori Parks's two-hander turns out, not least because Lincoln has a job in an American amusement arcade for which he must dress up as the president on the day of his 1865 assassination, while unemployed younger brother Booth stays at home with a handgun for protection.

The scene is set for a metaphor. Not only was Abraham Lincoln instrumental in the abolition of slavery, but it is his face that stares out from every $5 bill. Two centuries after his birth, Lincoln and Booth – both black – are now slaves to the cash economy: one in an insecure job that requires him to dress as a white man and be shot at; the other harbouring dreams of mastering the three-card Monte trick and earning some easy money.

As president, Lincoln helped set them free; as a symbol of capitalism, he has ensnared them in poverty. The metaphor, however, remains latent in Topdog/Underdog, which, despite the allusions, never seems to stand for anything greater than its story of urban deprivation and fraternal rivalry.

Happily, in Leann O'Kasi's studio production, the tale is grippingly told. Played by Nicholas Pinnock with quiet authority, Lincoln has confidence where Tyronne Lewis's more ebullient Booth has only bluster. Over two hours, they build a vivid portrait of hope against the odds, even if the play fails to articulate the broader political vision it promises.

© Mark Fisher 2009

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Elephant Man, Dundee Rep theatre review

Published in The Guardian

The Elephant Man

Dundee Rep
4 out of 5

The first time we see John Merrick he is caught beneath a spotlight that cuts through the Victorian gloom and grandeur of Alex Lowde's superb set to cast an unforgiving shadow beneath his chin. But that's the only time Kevin Lennon relies on trick lighting to become the Elephant Man in Bernard Pomerance's sad and wise drama about disability, exploitation and power.

For the most part, Lennon conveys Merrick's disfigurement through the effort of his movement. With his voice a staccato treble, he shows the sideshow-freak-turned-medical-wonder as a proud man who refuses to be inconvenienced by the awkwardness of walking and the fatal risk of lying down. Once he's got past the uncertainty of the underwritten early scenes and engaged in the meaty encounters with Irene Macdougall as a well-connected star of the stage, Lennon flourishes, creating a character who, for all his graciousness, lets no one – least of all the audience – patronise him.

On the surface, the play is a critique of a social order that depends on putting others in their place. Even a benign character such as Robin Laing's doctor, Frederick Treeves, has a patrician sense of superiority over Merrick, an attitude we connect to the flawed values underpinning the British empire. But the play's emotional heart lies in its tragic variation of the Ugly Duckling story. Merrick represents the unfulfilled potential of all those who feel repressed by society's norms.

On her debut as Dundee Rep's associate director, Jemima Levick takes authoritative control of the space, allowing actors to make lengthy entrances along the high-level gantry and metal staircase, to create a fluid staging as atmospheric as it is poignant. Until Saturday. Box office: 01382 223530.

© Mark Fisher 2009

Monday, October 26, 2009

Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Royal Lyceum theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Confessions of a Justified Sinner

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
3 out of 5

The premise is worthy of Hollywood. A man believes that his place in heaven is secure, and that nothing – not even murder – will change that. Nearly 200 years before FlashForward, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner considered how our behaviour might be affected by knowing our own fate.

James Hogg's purpose in this landmark novel, however, was to satirise the doctrine of predestination. "What possibilities now that it is impossible to fall from the grace of God," says the mysterious tempter Gil-Martin to the young zealot Robert Wringhim, as Hogg savagely sends up the Calvinist notion that heaven has a preordained guest list. The man who most loudly proclaims his righteousness turns out to be the most dangerous of all.

Mark Thomson's adaptation emphasises the supernatural aspects of the story, setting it among Edinburgh's looming tombstones, with billows of mist drifting over Neil Murray's revolving set. It has the atmosphere of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and, indeed, Robert Louis Stevenson was influenced by the duality at the heart of Hogg's book. Of near-identical stature, Ryan Fletcher's Wringhim and Iain Robertson's Gil-Martin could be two sides of the same person.

On stage, the trail of murders recalls that of Macbeth, though Fletcher, with his wide-eyed uncertainty, is less driven by ambition than possessed. This makes him more like a Faust whose conquests give him no satisfaction, while his companion walks a parallel journey from slippery-smooth sophisticate to suicidal wretch. As ever, though, the devil gets the best tunes, and Gil-Martin remains a more interesting character than his one-dimensional adversaries who have right on their side but rarely get much pleasure from it.

Until 7 November. Box office: 0131-248 4848.

© Mark Fisher 2009

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Long Gone Lonesome, National Theatre of Scotland review

Published in The Guardian.

Long Gone Lonesome

Tolbooth, Stirling
3 out of 5

Ever since it started in 2006, Vicky Featherstone's National Theatre of Scotland has sought to redefine theatre. The company launched with a string of site-specific events in Aberdeen flats and Stornoway shops – and is now staging a show that is more country-and-western hoolie than conventional play. On an extensive Highland tour, Duncan McLean's Long Gone Lonesome is a curious hybrid of music and theatre that recalls the ceilidh spirit of John McGrath's The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil.

Where grander musical shows pay tribute to cultural giants such as Abba, this one is a homage to one of the most obscure. Thomas Fraser was a Shetland fisherman born in 1927 who spent his 50 years on the island of Burra where, even by the standards of that quiet corner, he was considered a loner. Convalescing from childhood polio, he fell in love with country music and, as soon as electricity reached the island, invested in a tape recorder on which he laid down hundreds of songs until his death in 1978. It would be another two decades before his captivating arrangements – more Jimmie Rodgers than Jimmy Shand – were discovered and released to the world.

Performing behind a reel-to-reel recorder with his Lone Star Swing Band, McLean promises to skip the "lilting laments" before launching into a rousing set of blues-tinged Americana standards that, with fiddle and slide guitar, make the connection between windswept island and lonesome prairie. It is genial more than funny, descriptive more than dramatic but, with its understated championing of art for art's sake, it is both a defiant riposte to the cult of celebrity and a yodelling hoedown in its own right.
© Mark Fisher 2009

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Dark Things, Traverse Theatre review

Published in The Guardian

The Dark Things

Traverse, Edinburgh
4 out of 5

In this arresting new play by Ursula Rani Sarma, the characteristic gesture of actor Brian Ferguson is a hand held like a stop-sign against an encroaching world. He plays Daniel, a gifted young artist who is one of only two survivors of a horrific bus crash. The experience has left him emotionally raw, his post-traumatic distress compounded by guilt at being alive. In a compellingly troubled performance, Ferguson squirms on the spot and lets no one get close.

Like Simon Stephens's Pornography, The Dark Things looks at a meaningless act of cruelty that strikes at an already alienated society. The accident is an amalgam of the London bombings and the attack on the twin towers (the lorry that collides with the bus is carrying toy aeroplanes), but it could stand for any natural disaster that reminds us of the arbitrary nature of death.

The play suggests that a society fragmented by commodification – from the sex industry to the art market – finds it especially hard to respond to such tragedies. Its atomisation makes it incapable of collective healing. Trying to do justice to his experience, Daniel switches from abstract paint to documentary realism but, having been embraced by the money-making art business, is still accused of exploitation.

In Dominic Hill's excellently acted production, Karl is the really exploitative one, capitalising on the low self-esteem of Daniel's sister Steph to become an abusive boyfriend. Steph looks to the wrong person for help, as does LJ, who can no more get the love she needs from Daniel, her fellow survivor, than he can get satisfaction from Gerry, his alcoholic psychiatrist. It ends not quite with tragedy or redemption, but Rani Sarma brings enough wit, empathy and vigour to make a morose subject almost life-affirming.

© Mark Fisher 2009

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

That Face, Tron Theatre review

Published in The Guardian

That Face

Tron, Glasgow
3 out of 5

Someone once said the most alarming thing about Trainspotting was the thought that Begbie could be prowling the streets in real life. The same is true of Martha in That Face, a character who, like her namesake in Who's Afraid of ­ Virginia Woolf?, is recklessly charismatic, hopelessly drunk and frighteningly believable.

She is the best thing about this debut play, written by Polly Stenham when she was just 19, and a hit for London's Royal Court in 2007. Excellently played here by Kathryn Howden, she is both seductive and horrific, with an incestuous lust for her son Henry, a half-boy, half-man played with tremendous sensitivity by James Young. They share a claustrophobic bedroom in a Glasgow flat (the play is relocated north for Andy Arnold's production), with Henry believing he has the power to rescue her from drink-fuelled decline, and Martha exploiting his good will to extend her reign of narcissistic indulgence.

Their scenes together are compelling; so, too, are those when they are joined by newcomer Hollie Gordon as tearaway daughter Mia. Together they create such a vibrant sense of chaos that Phil McKee's estranged father Hugh seems like a spoilsport when he tries to restore order. Despite her destructiveness, Martha is an irresistible life force.

Partly for that reason, the scenes outside the bedroom pale in comparison, especially as they are inelegantly arranged in awkward corners of Adam Wiltshire's set. And, though Stenham has created a troubling vision of a dysfunctional family, the fate she metes out to the monstrous Martha is ultimately disappointing.

© Mark Fisher 2009

Monday, September 21, 2009

New Works, RSAMD/One Academy theatre review

Published in The Scotsman

New Works

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

THE Traverse used to take a break after the Edinburgh Festival Fringe , but not any longer. Just a few weeks after the curtain fell on the theatre's last festival season show, the Traverse is back in action with exactly the kind of mix that makes it's programme such a magnet in August.

Vox Motus has been attracting big crowds for Bright Black (now on tour); Traverse artistic director Dominic Hill is already in rehearsal for The Dark Things and, in the studio for three days, the RSAMD's One Academy company has been staging works in progress by Linda McLean, Douglas Maxwell and David Harrower.

These three plays are something of a mid-term report both for the student actors making their first steps towards a professional career, and for the writers who, thanks to a collaboration with the Playwrights' Studio, have been able to give their unfinished plays an early airing. The programme recalls the exciting The World Is Too Much series of early-morning readings during the Fringe, which gave audiences a first-draft insight into the creative process.

In Reminded of Beauty, Linda McLean is in the same troubling territory of traumatised children and dysfunctional adults she established in Riddance and Strangers, Babies. Here she juxtaposes scenes of violent child abuse with the story of an estranged couple haunted by the death of a daughter. At this stage, we don't know the connection between the two, but the answer could be in the strange sock puppet whose benign presence brings comfort to her distressed characters.

David Harrower's Ashes Blood, by contrast, is unlike anything he's done before. The author of Knives in Hens and Blackbird switches between narration and straight drama to tell a compelling story of a young man desperate to do right by his father in the family coach-hire business. It'll take another act before we find out what led to the suicide attempt that opens the play, but the very promising first half certainly leaves us wanting more.

Which is also the case with Douglas Maxwell's The Fever Dream: Southside, a funny, hallucinatory thriller with an apocalyptic atmosphere, set in a present-day Glasgow where a serial killer is at large. The only one of the three plays that appears to have been written with the cast in mind, it shows promise for the future – and is also a thoroughly accomplished hour of theatre right now.
© Mark Fisher 2009

The Beggar's Opera, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

The Beggar's Opera

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
2 out of 5

You have a great idea. You imagine John Gay's 18th-century satire could be set in some cyberpunk future, where the highwayman Macheath is now a "super-thief" at large in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. It would be an oversexed society in which the outlaw's girlfriends, with their nostalgic obsession for early 21st-century designer gear, would be motivated by lust, while the older generation would care only for money. At the age of 121, Madonna would be the last surviving celebrity from the time of the global floods, and the world would have descended into dog-eat-dog violence.

You realise that instead of using the musical arrangements of Johann Pepusch or Benjamin Britten, you could bring in Glasgow's A Band Called Quinn for an authentically grungy blast of Goldfrapp-style electro-pop. And you know designer Kai Fischer would dream up a stunning set, a literal underworld beneath a root-strewn ceiling with a large skylight through which you could see Finn Ross's comic-book animations. It would be bold, adventurous and of-the-moment, and would break the rep theatre routine for the Royal Lyceum as it launched its autumn season.

Indeed, Matthew Lenton's hugely ambitious production for Vanishing Point achieves all of these things – but entirely at the expense of the play.

The actors can't be blamed for looking lost, and not only because many are performing from behind gas masks or up to their ankles in sand. It's also because the black-and-white certainties of the production's Bladerunner world leave no room for characterisation, making most of them look like hammy pantomime villains.

They are not helped by an updated script that sets out to be witty but comes across as plain vulgar: Macheath, says one, is "an absolute fucking turn-on". This is a production that, despite ticking all the fashionable boxes, has nothing to say about today.

© Mark Fisher 2009

The House of Bernarda Alba, NTS review

Published in The Guardian

The House of Bernarda Alba

Citizens, Glasgow
3 out of 5

With not an Andalusian plain in sight, this House of Bernarda Alba is not exactly as Federico García Lorca imagined it in 1936: it's less about pre-Franco oppression than post-credit-crunch neurosis. The closest we get to Spain is a Royal Doulton figurine of a flamenco dancer. And even that smashes on the plushly carpeted floor of Bernadette Alba's all-beige Glasgow living room as soon as the play begins.

Beneath the family's penthouse apartment, meanwhile, the El Paso nightclub is gearing up for a same-sex wedding reception. And outside, camera crews are queuing up to find out who shot Bernie's husband, a crime boss and father to the five sisters who are just back from the funeral in their designer mourning gear.

However, Rona Munro's bold translation for the National Theatre of Scotland is not the gimmick it may sound. This is a portrait of an all-female household cocooned from the outside world by a domineering mother (a sharp-tongued Siobhan Redmond) and fear of the paparazzi. With only one man – the son of a local mobster – to share between them, the daughters let claustrophobia and sexual frustration get the better of them. By staying loyal to the family, they repress their instincts until something has to give.

But although the relocation does not jar, it cannot match the brooding intensity of the original. Having swapped Spanish austerity for consumerist comfort, these women are more grumpy than desperate. When things get tough, they can always lie back on the sofa and escape into an episode of Gossip Girl. That might make us smile, but it doesn't elicit our sympathy. And, refreshing though it is to see Lorca played with humour, John Tiffany's production strikes an uncertain note. It looks like a raucous all-girls-together comedy – especially with Munro's waspish language – but it pulls us in the opposite direction, towards tragedy.

The approach works well in the communal scenes, as the strong cast engage in a delicate tussle for power. It is less successful in quieter moments, however, when the actors' energy is muted by Laura Hopkins's enclosing white box of a set. The result is a 21st-century family drama with a conclusion that is bitter and bloody, but lacks any sense of cruel inevitability.

© Mark Fisher 2009

Monday, September 07, 2009

Edinburgh Festival and Fringe critic's notebook

Published in Variety

Edinburgh critic's notebook

Such is the power of the Edinburgh Intl. Festival and Fringe that the population of the Scottish capital doubles during August. The city pulses with cultural tourists, and the relationship between actors and audiences is at its most intense. This summer, that relationship emerged as a theme in itself.

In some cases this was explicit. In "The Event," given simultaneous productions in Edinburgh and in Gotham’s Intl. Fringe Festival, playwright John Clancy picked apart the act of staging a play in forensic, postmodern detail. Thesp David Calvitto (Matt Oberg plays the part in New York) spent an hour telling us about being an actor in the play we were watching, but before the metatheatrical games were through, he turned the tables to accuse us of treating real life as a similar kind of spectator sport.

Nobody questioned the role of the audience more unsettlingly than Belgian company Ontroerend Goed. In "Internal," five audience members lined up in front of five actors and found themselves paired off for a one-on-one speed-dating session. After 15 minutes of animated conversation -- or embarrassing silence, depending how well each couple hit it off -- the 10 people reconvened for some group therapy.

If you clicked, you could find yourself in a passionate embrace with a pretty actor. If the sparks failed to fly, you sat there squirming. Either way, you left in a state of emotional turbulence, quite unable to determine where reality had blended with artifice.

One of the most talked about shows on the Fringe was "Trilogy" by the young dancer and theatermaker Nic Green. In an effort to re-engage with feminist ideas -- most notably those expressed in "Town Bloody Hall," a landmark debate involving Germaine Greer and Norman Mailer in Gotham, 1971 -- Green invited a group of local women to dance naked with her.

By the end of the performance, many women in the audience accepted her invitation to remove their clothes for a rousing (but not arousing) chorus of "Jerusalem," a startling example of women reclaiming their bodies from the tyranny of the male gaze.

It sounds shocking, but Green made it feel natural, as did playwright David Greig when, during a rehearsed reading of "Brewers Fayre," he asked the early-morning audience to play the part of the chorus. The relevant lines were projected onto a screen and the audience performed with surprising gusto. It was a clever way of exploiting the unspoken pact between spectator and performer, and made this funny new play about adultery all the more engaging.

Edinburgh audiences have grown used to site-specific theater and thought nothing of dressing in white kimonos for David Leddy’s intimate "White Tea," about a woman reconnecting with her estranged Japanese mother. Likewise, they freely accepted a drink from the bar for Grid Iron theater’s "Barflies," based on the stories of Charles Bukowski and performed in a real-life watering hole.

This also meant auds were primed for Mark Watson’s "The Hotel," possibly the world’s first example of site-specific comedy, in which the audience played guests in a "Fawlty Towers"-style inn run by a neurotic staff with no concept of customer relations or health and safety regulations.

You expect such experiments on the Fringe, but similar realignments were made in the Intl. Festival as well. In Silviu Purcarete’s majestic "Faust," once Ilie Gheorghe’s scholar and Ofelia Popii’s sexually ambiguous Mephistopheles had made their pact, the back wall disappeared from behind them revealing a carnival-like vision of hell taking place in a massive hangar-like space. Ushered out of their seats, the audience joined an increasingly skeptical Faust among the theatrical fireworks and flames.

More subtly, Brian Friel toyed with our suspension of disbelief in "The Yalta Game" -- one of three of his plays staged consummately by Dublin’s Gate Theater -- in which he drew a parallel between the escapist fantasy of a holiday romance and our willingness to escape into the fictional world of the stage.

The Edinburgh Fringe wrapped Aug. 31, while the Intl. Festival closed Sept. 6.

© Mark Fisher 2009

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Dennis Kelly on Orphans and Pulling

Published in Scotland on Sunday

MANY a writer would get to Dennis Kelly's position and say goodbye to the theatre. Once you had written a series as delightfully funny as Pulling and seen it broadcast on BBC3, followed by a Bafta nomination for best sitcom and a British Comedy Award (for co-writer and star Sharon Horgan), you'd want to capitalise with further small-screen projects. But that's not the way Kelly plays it.
"Pulling might open doors, but it depends whether they're doors you want to go through," says the 39-year-old writer when we meet in a London bar. "It doesn't have any effect on me as a playwright. Once I'd written Pulling, I had a lot of people asking me if I'd be interested in writing various comedies and the answer is no, really. I've already written one and I'm quite happy with what we've done. Early on, I decided it wasn't a good idea to repeat myself too much because I would get bored. Pulling probably has opened up doors, but I ain't noticed it."

It's an attitude that means he regards the two series of Pulling – plus the final one-off special – in the same light as any of his work, such as After The End, a claustrophobic thriller seen at Edinburgh's Traverse in 2006, and Our Teacher's A Troll, the riotous children's show performed this year by the National Theatre of Scotland. He sees himself primarily as a playwright, although he is talking to Horgan about doing something else – perhaps a film – together.

"When I started doing Pulling, the question for me was would I be taken seriously in theatre?" he says. "But you've got to do what you believe in at that time. We were lucky because we had a lot of control over it. They basically let us do what we wanted. It was collaborative with the producer and director, much like it is doing a play."

Now he's back in Edinburgh with Orphans, a psychological thriller about a couple whose evening meal is interrupted when the woman's brother shows up covered in blood. Set in a well-to-do house in a rough area, it is a realistic play ("The most traditional I've written") in which the characters have no escape from the intensity of the real-time action. "It's an incredible rollercoaster," says director Roxana Silbert of Paines Plough, who also worked on After The End. "The play is like a hothouse because the characters are under pressure from the beginning. You just see the heat turned up and up."

Kelly admits he would never have the audacity to write a play that presented a thesis, one that carefully argued a case to win people over. Rather, he uses drama to explore unresolved, elliptical questions. "Roxana has this theory that I constantly contradict myself," he deadpans. "Which I don't."

Such an approach would trouble actors trained under the principles of Stanislavski, the Russian director who broke down dramatic characters into a logical series of desires and actions. To Kelly, this method is reductive.

"It denies our ability to hold completely contradictory opinions in the same mind and in the same moment," he says. "We can think that someone is the best person in the world and two weeks later realise we always hated their guts. Narratives say you are one thing or the other, we're going this way or that way, but being a human isn't like that. We love our friends and we're intensely jealous of them. I know I am capable of incredible generosity, but I can be a real arsehole at times."

Fans of Pulling will find themselves in much darker territory with Orphans, though it is not without its gallows humour. "It's happened in plays I've written previously where the comedy happens in the same moment as the dark stuff," says Kelly. "Actually, in Pulling we never really tried to make it funny, we just tried to make it real. We let the funny come out of the situation – as well as the pain the character was going through at the time."

True to form, he contradicts himself almost immediately. "Even though I say we didn't deliberately make Pulling funny, we sort of did. We knew we were trying to write a comedy. I wouldn't come to Orphans expecting Pulling because it's completely different." v

Orphans, Traverse, Edinburgh, 8-30 August

© Mark Fisher 2009

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Mercy Madonna of Malawi - report from Malawi

Mercy Madonna of Malawi - theatre preview

Published in Scotland on Sunday

THIS morning the Kumbali Cultural Village is deserted. It's just us and a cluster of mud huts surrounding a thatched amphitheatre, its stage open to the sky.

A couple of months ago, here on the outskirts of Lilongwe, it was all different. With a flurry of excitement, Madonna, that most Western of pop stars, came to be entertained by a Malawian theatre troupe on this very stage. With press and paparazzi kept well away, she made the short journey down the dirt track from Kumbali Lodge, her upmarket base in Malawi, bringing 24 bodyguards – nine local, the rest from her own staff – to make an unlikely audience for the afternoon show.

The play she watched was about a returning expat who won't stop complaining about the state of Malawi compared with his adoptive home in the West. Only after being seduced by the rhythms of a traditional African dance does he realise how much the lifestyle of the azungo (the Malawian word for white man) has stressed him out. "Azungos do everything by the clock," he says. "Now I'm realising that all the white people have got watches, but we Malawians have got the time."

It was a wise observation, but from the audience, Madonna took it as her cue. "No, you don't have the time," heckled the original Material Girl. "You need to work hard. Money is the answer to everything."

For performer Shambi Banda, Madge's remark summed up the moral dilemma this rich white woman presents. She was in the country to adopt four-year-old Mercy James, a sister for David Banda, yet everything she represents seems at odds with Malawi, one of the world's poorest countries. "Personally, it has brought a lot of drama in my head," he says today. "How many kids are orphans in the world; why has she chosen Malawi? There are some areas where we Malawians are a little bit lazy. Whenever someone wants to tamper with the constitution of Malawi, as long as he or she has got cash, we just say yes."

It is this tension between rich and poor that underscores Mercy Madonna Of Malawi, an upbeat musical coming to the Edinburgh Fringe that gives a distinctively African spin on the pop star's adventures in this far-off landlocked country. Directed by Toby Gough – whose previous Fringe successes include Children Of The Sea, which was performed by survivors of the Asian tsunami – it fuses traditional Malawian dance with Western-influenced music to question the rights and wrongs of a contentious story. Against expectation, the show does not paint Madonna as the villain, however, although having her played by a tall black man in a blonde wig gives you some idea of the play's knockabout irreverence. That's because the disquiet expressed by Banda is far from universal among Malawians. On the show's first public performance in a remote village deep in the countryside near Mulanje mountain, I see this for myself. Quizzed by an actor playing a TV reporter outside the Blantyre courtroom, the audience of villagers are united in their opinion that Mercy James should be allowed to go with the pop star. However hard the actor tries, there is not a single dissenting voice.

"In Malawi we have so many kids suffering, so if we have someone who says she is capable of looking after them, we don't have problems giving them away," says Ben Michael Mankhamba, the country's leading political songwriter, who has contributed a number of songs to the show.

"It's better the kids have a better life than be suffering here. You can't look after everybody, so if somebody comes and picks two or three, it's better for them. Some people are lucky, some are unlucky, so let's not bar the chances for others. People who are graduating from universities all want to leave Malawi, so why should we stop a kid? My only view is that now and then they should be bringing them back to the original country, so they don't forget it."

Such opinions highlight the economic disparity between the developed and developing worlds. Many Malawians see it as a great opportunity to be taken under the wing of a wealthy Western pop star – even if her music is known only hazily ("I knew her from the radio, not from the looks," says Ben Michael). Few are troubled that the supreme court judges effectively exempted Madonna from the law that adoptive parents must live in the country for 24 months as well as be married.

Nobody knows too much about Kabbala, the mystical branch of Judaism to which the star subscribes, but a leftfield religion seems a fair price to pay in return for the work of her Raising Malawi children's charity. Above all, they're glad David Banda and Mercy James have a chance to better themselves in the West – and maybe they'll return one day to make use of their wealth and education.

Talking to people here, you start to wonder if objecting to Madonna is a privilege only rich Westerners can afford. Would the story remind me of the dark days of the colonial slave trade, which David Livingstone campaigned against in this very country, if I weren't an oversensitive white man? After all, Madonna clearly wants to love and care for her children – and she wasn't to know that both fathers are still around – so what harm can it do?

Maxwell Matewere has some answers. He is executive director of Eye of the Child, the campaigning watchdog that objected to both of Madonna's adoptions in court. Over tea in a Blantyre hotel, he explains in lawyerly detail how different such cases look the moment you put the interests of the child at the heart of the argument. "We spend our time trying to change people's attitudes towards children," he says of his organisation. "If you ask most families – even members of parliament – what assets they have, they will say, 'I have a chair, a house, a car and I have children.' So children are counted as part of our assets, meaning you can do anything you want to them."

Although ultimately unsuccessful, he regards Eye of the Child's challenges to Madonna in court as important test cases that will help bring an antiquated law up to date. "I do understand the position of most of the Malawians who think this is a fantastic opportunity, but even if we had millions of orphans, should we say that they should lose some of their rights?" he says, observing that some orphanages use adoption as a way of raising money and one has even tried to auction children on the internet. "Or should we forget our responsibility as adults to care and provide protection? If Madonna comes, should we say she can have as many children as she likes? That's not on."

He believes the parent's contribution to Malawi should not be a criterion for adoption. More important is to know what provision will be made to care for and protect the child once abroad. Better still would be to find a way to support the child within Malawi. "We are afraid if we're not careful that, with this understanding, in order for a foreigner to adopt children there has to be some compensation as part of the process," he says.

"The Supreme Court mentioned that Madonna had demonstrated her commitment to Malawi (by investing in schools]. But if you have to subject adoption to that, what is your interest? Is it to find a family for the child or to find the money to contribute to the shortfalls of our system? We should look into the eyes of the children and come up with a solution to help them. We have so many children who need care, but the best solution is to find ways to care for them locally, not exporting them."

These arguments mean that when the cast gather round a cross-dressed Madonna wearing T-shirts sporting the slogan "Adopt me" with an arrow pointing to their faces, it is both funny and poignant. The show makes no comment on Madge's motives, but uses the situation to reflect – in an infectiously musical way – on a world in which the bonds of family, culture and country can be broken by the brute force of economics.

"Malawi is not as terrible as people make out; it's not a place you have to take people away from," says director Toby Gough, who created the African Julius Caesar in the country in 1998. "It's not a land of death and famine; it's a very vibrant, friendly place. One argument is that Madonna can take the child out because she's got the money to do it. The other argument is she is a woman who cares for the children of Africa and is using her money to help out. I don't think there's any right or wrong answer." v

Mercy Madonna Of Malawi, St George's West, Edinburgh, 7–31 August, 3pm,

© Mark Fisher 2009

Cooking with Elvis, theatre review

Published in the Guardian.

Cooking with Elvis

When Newcastle's Live Theatre presented Lee Hall's black comedy a decade ago, it did so with such a surfeit of charm that you almost didn't notice its taboo-busting excess. Here was a play whose pivotal character was a quadriplegic with head trauma and yet, despite scenes of under-age sex, man-on-man hand-jobs and cannibalism – not to mention a great bestiality joke – it remained giddily funny and surprisingly innocent.

Ten years on, Andy Arnold's production is a welcome addition to an otherwise quiet theatrical summer, but not until its exuberant curtain call – all fluttering bank notes, flickering lights and dazzling fireworks – does it get the measure of Hall's audacious comedy. Grounded by Neil Haynes's boringly literal domestic set, the show is slow to build a comic momentum, preferring domestic realism to cartoon overkill, and manages to be only sporadically funny.

What comes across most forcibly is Hall's bold discussion of bodily desire in a way that is both serious and vulgar. Grunting in his wheelchair, Gavin Mitchell as the paralysed father has been reduced to a machine for eating, pissing and ejaculating. There are strong parallels with his alter ego, a perfectly realised Elvis Presley, with a soft southern drawl and flamboyant wardrobe, who suffers erectile dysfunction and a fatal addiction to hamburgers. But whether as father or Elvis, Mitchell is trapped inside his body.

Meanwhile, hungry for affection, his wife (Deirdre Davis) and daughter (Jayd Johnson) develop a neurotic relationship with food and an unhealthy lust for a man from the cake factory.

That subjects of such sensitivity can be made even vaguely funny is a considerable achievement, but behind Hall's heavily ironic happy ending is an anarchic energy that this production is too tame to release.

© Mark Fisher, 2009