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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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Blog Archive

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Mystery of Irma Vep

Published in The Guardian © Mark Fisher

The Mystery of Irma Vep
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
2 out of 5

The biggest mystery of Irma Vep is why such an ephemeral piece has been revived in the first place. The show's producers would have been bolstered, perhaps, by the oft-extended run of Charles Ludlam's horror send-up when it was staged in New York by the author's Ridiculous Theatre Company in 1984. They also must have been delighted to have found a showcase for the comic talents of Andy Gray and Steven McNicoll. But none of this explains how they summoned up the energy to read to the end of the script, let alone pool the resources of the Royal Lyceum and Perth Theatre to put it on.

The play has two jokes. The first is the parody of the horror genre, complete with country house, werewolves, mummies and vampires. The second is that two actors play all eight characters, resulting in rapid costume changes, cross-dressing and awkward off-stage banter. In this production, neither seems purposeful.

When Ludlam performed The Mystery of Irma Vep himself, he twinned an ironic deconstruction of the horror genre with a high-camp celebration of it. This sense is absent in Ian Grieve's production. Not only is the director vague about the play's film and literary references, but he fails to make clear why anyone should want to spend two hours lampooning such a self-evidently silly genre.

If you want a masterclass in the double take, look no further than Gray and McNicoll, who play every melodramatic moment to the max. But a joke about theatre's poverty of resources that seemed fresh in the 80s is now overfamiliar thanks to hit shows such as Stones in His Pockets and The 39 Steps. If there's any chance of Ludlam's play carrying greater weight than an extended episode of Acorn Antiques, it needs to be about more than the actors' facility for funny voices and silly walks.

© Mark Fisher, 2009

Friday, February 20, 2009

Baby Baby

Published in Northings © Mark Fisher

Baby Baby

BABY BABY (North Edinburgh Arts Centre, 19 February 2009, and touring)

WELCOME TO the post-Juno era. Gone are the days when we had to treat teenage pregnancy as a sign of society's moral decay. Now we can admit that, yes, it’s unfortunate but, hey, these things happen. Especially to teenagers.

That's the underlying principle of Vivian French's teen-friendly play, produced in a three-way deal between the young Perissology theatre company, Shetland Arts and Stellar Quines.

My own 15-year-old daughter picked up immediately on the refusal of Baby Baby to play the sanctimonious card. A teenage audience is perfectly able to see that pregnancy at such a young age is ill advised without having some grown-up spell it out for them.

For that reason, they're likely to appreciate the honesty of French's vision of two girls drawn together in spite of their differences through their early experience of motherhood. This honesty, informed by the playwright's experience running a workshop for teenage mums, extends in all directions.

Just as she presents the two pregnancies as foolish but understandable mistakes, so she is up front about the excitement of independence and the joy of motherhood, and clear about the hardships, stresses and emotional weight that the experience entails.

In fact, the reason Baby Baby works as well as it does is that, rather than making an issue of the pregnancy, it makes its focus the fraught relationship of the two girls. Hannah Donaldson plays April, a well-behaved frequenter of coffee shops who is in awe of Ashley Smith's rebellious goth Pinkie. In turn, Pinkie is convinced April, like the rest of the world, is sneering at her.

Leaving aside my daughter's observation that April talks and dresses too much like a chav to be part of the middle-class coffee-shop set, the scene is set for a coming-of-age drama in which only the shock of childbirth can make the girls realise how much they have in common.

Under Jemima Levick's lively direction on an almost bare stage, it makes for a piece of deft storytelling theatre with a quiet emotional punch. Where a more moralistic playwright would have hammered home a lesson about learning to be yourself before you give birth to others, French hooks us with a sympathetic tale of teenage vulnerability, brazenness and the need to be loved.

Deep down, Baby Baby has a moral of its own about judging people for who they are not what they appear to be. Such a view might not help at the family planning clinic, but it could make for a better adjusted society and it certainly makes for an engaging 90 minutes in the theatre.

Baby Baby is at the OneTouch Theatre, Eden Court, Inverness, 23-24 February 2009; Plockton High School, 25 February 2009; Red Shoes Theatre, Elgin, 27 February 2009; Lyth Arts Centre, Wick, 28 February 2009.

© Mark Fisher, 2009

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Defender of the Faith

Published in the Guardian © Mark Fisher

Defender of the Faith

Tron, Glasgow
2 out of 5

The first defender of the faith was Sir Thomas More. Unwilling to sign up to Henry VIII's Protestant church, he was beheaded. For his commitment to Catholicism, he was made a saint. Fast-forward 450 years to Stuart Carolan's play and another Thomas is born. His role as defender of the faith, however, is altogether less high-minded. This is the Northern Ireland of 1986 and Thomas is in an IRA cell run by his ferocious father, Joe, who has become convinced there is an informer in their midst.

The fate of informers during the Troubles is well documented, so it's no surprise things end gruesomely for two of the leads. As the executioner of one, Thomas assumes the role of his namesake, but the faith he is defending is a dull echo of the religion for which More gave his life. The world Carolan paints is one of loveless brutality, the men's culture defined not by any positive virtue, but by hatred of an unseen enemy. Not even the informers appear motivated by altruism; their betrayals are the opportunistic acts of men with neither love nor loyalty.

Tellingly, the only woman referred to, Thomas's mother, is hidden away in a mental hospital. This is a world where masculine values have run rampant, unchecked by the traditionally feminine qualities of empathy and kindness. When Joe starts a row about a misplaced spoon, it is as if he has latched on to a symbol of a domesticity for which he has no instinctive feeling. If he is fighting for a cause, it is one he is incapable of articulating.

All this is communicated with an appropriately hard edge in Andy Arnold's naturalistic production, Lewis Howden bringing a fiery rage to the part of Joe, and Martin McCormick capturing Thomas's transition from idealist to zealot. If only the script wasn't so laboured. It lasts just 90 minutes, yet every scene is twice the length it needs to be, with too much talk and too little action. With more twists, it could have been a thriller; and with more insight, a psychological drama. Being neither, it meanders to an ending that is far from incendiary.

© Mark Fisher