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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me @markffisher and @writeabouttheat I am an Edinburgh-based freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian, Scotland on Sunday and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success, published in February 2012 and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers published in July 2015. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide. See my website for more information and comprehensive Scottish theatre links.
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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Sub Rosa

Published in the Guardian © Mark Fisher

Sub Rosa
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
4 out of 5

Was ever a penny dreadful as lurid as David Leddy's Sub Rosa? A site-specific journey into the bowels of a theatre built in 1878, it is as if a rococo Victorian melodrama has been laced with the ugly authenticity of the in-your-face playwrights of the 1990s. By offsetting a story laden with murder, sexual exploitation and back-street abortions with a romantic promenade through wardrobes and scenery stores, Leddy creates a show that is as ravishing as it is unpleasant.

The phrase "sub rosa" denotes secrecy, and applies to this series of interlinking monologues in two ways. First, in structure: the play leads small parties of theatregoers into the secret corners of the building, revealing the undecorated places where stage magic is created. Second, in content: it is about the tight-lipped tolerance of a company of 19th-century music hall entertainers for whom continued employment is worth any amount of ill treatment. There's an implicit understanding that anything these characters tell us, in tones varying from the hushed to the hysterical, is off the record.

Leddy's is not the first site-specific trip around the building once known as the Royal Princess's Theatre - 10 years ago Grid Iron attempted something similar in Monumental - but lengthy negotiations with the licensing authorities mean that Leddy can now take us to some extraordinary places. Even without the chilling power of the script, it would be worth taking the Sub Rosa tour just to see the tiny upper-circle bar that has been out of use for decades, the ancient trapdoor mechanisms and the remarkable chasm that allows a low-level view of the back of the stage.

Such spaces have weighty atmospheres of their own, which Leddy enhances with mood lighting, music and period props scattered along our route. In this way, the characters who emerge from the gloom - the wig-fitter, the novelty double-act, the strong man - are like theatrical ghosts trapped in the wings until summoned to tell their story.

That story starts off jauntily as we hear about the arrival of Flora McIvor, a 12- year-old runaway excited to be taking on the life of a variety performer, but grows increasingly dark as details emerge about the theatre manager's psychotic reign of terror. The gothic sensationalism is tempered by exquisite performances, notably by Alison Peebles, Finlay Welsh and Louise Ludgate, which add a human vulnerability to the Victorian excess.

© Mark Fisher

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Be Near Me

Published in Northings, Hi-Arts Journal © Mark Fisher

BE NEAR ME
(Palace Theatre, Kilmarnock, 16 January 2009, and touring)

IF IAN MCDIARMID had set out to write a play about a priest accused of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy, there's a strong likelihood it would have turned out like David Harrower's Blackbird or David Mamet's Oleanna.

Those two plays question the black-and-white certainties that underlie newspaper headlines about paedophilia (Blackbird) and sexual harassment (Oleanna), and send the audience home in animated debate about the rights and wrongs of a situation they previously thought was clear-cut.

Be Near Me wades into similarly contentious territory in its story of an English priest, Father David Anderton, who takes on an Ayrshire parish where he becomes unhealthily caught up in the lives of a gang of teenagers. But because McDiarmid's play is based on the novel by Andrew O'Hagan, there's a lot more going on than if he had written a straight "issue" play from scratch.

The story of the priest's debauched evening of drink, drugs and the fumbled kiss that leads to his prosecution is a central strand of the book, but it is only part of O'Hagan's broader meditation on the nature of identity.

The author ensures that Anderton and the tearaway Mark, for whom he develops an impossible crush, could not be more different. There are over 40 years between them; one is Scottish, the other English; one middle-class, the other working-class; one Oxford-educated, the other a virtual drop-out. Add some commentary on the sectarian divide and left-right politics and the story of the priest's misplaced sexual desire becomes part of a complex theme about community, belonging and being adrift in the world.

What this means in John Tiffany's spare, stripped-back staging for the National Theatre of Scotland is a play rich in absorbing debate, but relatively muted in terms of the tense drama stirred up in Blackbird and Oleanna. We are not stirred to condemn or condone the priest even though – or perhaps because – we have been engaged in the to and fro of ideas that precede his downfall.

McDiarmid, best known as the Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars series, takes the lead role himself and does a fine job of capturing Anderton's combination of narcissism and charm. We enjoy being in his presence (which is just as well, seeing as he's hardly off the stage), even though there's something frivolous and untrustworthy about him.

There is excellent support, too, notably from Blythe Duff, giving a strong and poignant turn as the terminally ill housekeeper Mrs Poole, and from Richard Madden as Mark and Helen Mallon as his classmate Lisa.

Yet for all Tiffany's song and dance interludes and the fluidity of his open staging, Be Near Me is less an evening of animated passion than of sober contemplation.

Be Near Me is at the Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 7-11 April 2009, and Perth Theatre, 21-25 April 2009

© Mark Fisher

Be Near Me

Published in Variety © Mark Fisher

Be Near Me
Palace Theater, Kilmarnock, Scotland; 496 seats; £8 $12 top)

A National Theater of Scotland and Donmar Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Ian McDiarmid, adapted from the novel by Andrew O'Hagan. Directed by John Tiffany.

Mr. Nolan, Mr. McCallum, Mr. Hamilton - Jimmy Chisholm
Mrs. Poole - Blythe Duff
Mrs. Nolan, Angela, Mrs. Fraser - Kathryn Howden
Father David Anderton - Ian McDiarmid
Cameron, Father Damian - David McGranaghan
Mark - Richard Madden
Lisa - Helen Mallon
Mrs. Anderton - Colette O'Neil
Mr. Poole, Voice of the Sheriff - Benny Young
Mr. Dorran, Bishop Gerard - Jimmy Yuill

It's a tantalizing proposition: John Tiffany, helmer of the world-conquering "Black Watch," teaming with Ian McDiarmid, vet actor and former director of London's Almeida Theater, on an adaptation of an acclaimed novel by Andrew O'Hagan. If the results are not as explosive as that lineup portends, the National Theater of Scotland production of "Be Near Me" is nevertheless an absorbing, thoughtful drama, as befits a story of loneliness, self-deception and misplaced sexual desire. It also recalls the knotty theatrical arguments of Ibsen, Shaw or Miller.

Published in 2006, O'Hagan's novel concerns an English Catholic priest, Father David Anderton (McDiarmid), who takes on the parish of the fictional Dalgarnock, an economically deprived town in Ayrshire in southwest Scotland. In his late 50s, Anderton has never recovered from the accidental death of his homosexual lover when they were students at Oxford. Paying visits to the local school, he projects his unfulfilled desire onto 15-year-old Mark (Richard Madden), an ill-educated youth with a love of drink, drugs and fast living. After sharing a night of hedonistic excess, the priest makes a drunken pass at the boy and finds himself charged with sexual assault.

The material is there for a debate, in the manner of David Mamet's "Oleanna" and David Harrower's "Blackbird," that explores the gray area between acceptable behavior and criminality.

Anderton's actions are ill advised, inappropriate and foolish -- and certainly immoral for a man of the cloth -- but he has some justification in his refusal to regard his quick drunken kiss as an assault. The reaction of the community, which labels him a "peedo" (slang for pedophile) and sets fire to his house, is disproportionate to his misguided but ultimately quite human action.

In performance, however, this narrative comes across as just one of a number of oppositional debates. Although it builds to a second-act courtroom scene, the production does not trade on our sense of justice in the manner of "The Winslow Boy," "Twelve Angry Men" or "The Crucible," even if the community reaction carries echoes of the hysteria in Miller's play.

Rather than sparking off a did-he/didn't-he drama, the central encounter between Anderton and the boy symbolizes a series of broader cultural clashes -- the meeting between young and old, English and Scottish, working-class and "posh," educated and ignorant. And it's part of O'Hagan's wider discussion of cultural identity and tribal loyalty, whether it be in the left/right divisions of politics or the Catholic/Protestant distinctions of Christianity.

By punctuating the scenes with sweetly sung hymns better known as violent sectarian chants sung on soccer terraces, Tiffany reinforces the sense of the sharply defined community against which Anderton's otherness is measured.

Taking the lead role in his own lucid adaptation, McDiarmid (a 2006 Tony winner for "Faith Healer") adds to the ambiguity by presenting a priest whose attractive qualities -- a joie de vivre and a passion for food and drink -- are offset by a coquettish, supercilious manner and a tendency to act like a precocious child. We may disapprove of the reactionary forces in the community, but Anderton is hardly an ideal alternative.

The strength of the adaptation lies in its absorbing discussion of these themes but, even with Tiffany's assured direction on an open stage backed with a wall of corrugated iron, the theatrical energy is muted (and not helped by the unforgiving Palace Theater auditorium).

In addition to McDiarmid's performance, there are strong turns from Blythe Duff as his housekeeper and Madden and Helen Mallon as his teenage friends; they help to build a production that is quietly satisfying rather than dramatically thrilling.

The play transfers to the Donmar in London later this month.

Set and costumes, Peter McKintosh; lighting, Guy Hoare; original music, Davey Anderson; sound Gareth Fry. Opened Jan. 14, 2009. Reviewed Jan. 16. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

© Mark Fisher

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Man who Had all the Luck

Published in The Guardian © Mark Fisher

The Man Who Had All the Luck
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
4 out of 5

It's the Arthur Miller play that slipped through the net. Having lasted three days on Broadway in 1944, The Man Who Had All the Luck took nearly 50 years to cross the Atlantic and is even now a Miller rarity.

There are reasons for its neglect. Some passages are underwritten, such as the oddly cool reaction to the death of the neighbourhood patriarch in a car accident, and the play as a whole never quite settles on the tragic trajectory it promises. Yet it is more than just a curiosity for Miller fans, much as they will appreciate the themes of aspiration, social responsibility and the American dream that would define his later work. As well as featuring his trademark dialogue - compelling, funny, full of ideas - it is also a grand experiment in which the playwright reverses the usual journey of a tragic hero.

This is the story of one man, 22-year-old David Beeves, whose good luck never lets up. While those around him suffer everyday failures from redundancy to infertility, this self-taught mechanic only prospers.

Now, as the UK slides into recession, his dilemma seems more acute. In 2009, there is so much camaraderie in failure that to admit success is impolite. Even in America, the land of opportunity, Beeves feels ever more alienated from his community the more his business thrives. As an audience, we end up willing some disaster to befall him.

If the ending seems a cop-out, it is not the fault of the Royal Lyceum's excellent ensemble, led by Philip Cumbus (hard-edged yet sympathetic as Beeves) and under the taut, driven direction of John Dove, who treats the play as the classic it aspires to be.

© Mark Fisher

Monday, January 05, 2009

Feet First review

Published in The Guardian © Mark Fisher

Feet First
High Street, Edinburgh
3 out of 5

It's not every show that sends you home with a duster, a cuddly rat and a certificate promising extreme optimism for the year ahead. Such is my haul from the Market of Optimism, a series of stalls trading in feel-good commodities purchased with 10 Neuro notes withdrawn (at no cost) from a human cash machine. I could have splashed out on a personal guardian angel or picked up a packet from the Spice Up Your Life stall, where the flavours include grace, passion and glamour.

The theme of hope is picked up all over the Royal Mile, where 18 companies have come together under the Feet First umbrella for a one-off night of street theatre. Whisper your desires into the extended ears of the Wish Gatherers, a trio of wicker creatures illuminated by fairy lights, and out pops a packet of Love Hearts. Wander into the courtyard of the City Chambers and see a collection of dreams projected on to the walls to a soundtrack of All You Need Is Love.

On the way there are curiosities such as the delightful Forest of Bells, a multitude of tinkling strings straddling an adjacent close, and Graham Tydeman's Aquaphon, an elaborate pipe organ powered by plumes of water. Joined by Orkestra del Sol, he gives an eccentric rendition of Midnight Sun Over the Black Sea.

Plenty of sideshow fun, then, but Feet First lacks a main event. Plutôt La Vie's Flik Flak, a good-versus-evil exchange across the street, is in severe need of a script; Cora Bissett's Deep Breath, a high-level musical vignette, is spirited but slight; and the finale, Wishbox, a huge white cube dangled from a crane, is an elaborate excuse for some ordinary aerial routines. In intimacy and variety it's a lively night, but it's short on punch.

© Mark Fisher