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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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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

Topdog/Underdog

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