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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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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – review

King's, Glasgow

3/5
It's rare to get a standing ovation at the end of a show these days – and it's almost unheard of for one to be given for an actor who's not even present. But such was the level of goodwill towards Gerard Kelly, who died at the age of 51 after a brain aneurysm three weeks before rehearsals of this show began, that the audience rose as one and applauded at the mention of his name. And this on a Saturday matinee.

Gamely taking Kelly's place as the lovable jester is Gavin Mitchell. "My name is Muddles," he says at the start of the show, wearing lilac half-length trousers, an unkempt blond wig and a daffy grin. "But, as a dear old friend of mine used to say, 'Hiya pals.'

This was Kelly's catchphrase, which he modifies to "Hiya gang" – a gesture typical of his approach to the role. By his own admission, this is a transitional performance (Kelly did the job for 20 years), and he makes this Muddles a familiar blend of manchild fun and foolishness, cheeky but good-hearted. He does a persuasive job, but it's not until the community song that he shows signs of making the part his own, bantering with the audience and showing himself to be a gifted comedic actor with a ready wit.

Elsewhere, the show is well plotted, with Barbara Rafferty's Queen Morgiana immediately establishing herself as a force of evil, and Pop Idol's Darius Campbell (formerly Danesh) looking – and sounding – every inch a handsome prince worthy of Julie Matheson's Snow White. The dwarfs are an amateurish bunch whose lines tend to get swallowed up, but what's really missing is a dame to add some raucousness to a show that's big on love and short on danger.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Beauty and the Beast, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Beauty and the Beast

Citizens, Glasgow

Actor Alan McHugh has been developing a sideline as the writer of a strand of psychologically disturbing Christmas shows at Glasgow's Citz. Where last year's Cinderella was a dark tale about absent mothers, this year's Beauty and the Beast is a rich metaphor about acquiring self-knowledge and taking a leap into the sexual unknown.

In a neat twist of convention, Gemma McElhinney's Beauty is all the things you expect her to be – generous, hard-working and true to her word – but also too squeaky-clean for her own good. Willingly clearing up after her father (a Dickensian merchant with a penchant for upturned aphorisms) and never passing judgment on her fun-loving sister, she represses her own animal urges in an Apollonian drive to do the right thing.

It can't last. "The wildness beats within me," she admits in one of the songs in Claire McKenzie's excellent jazz-Latin live score, before venturing off to meet the Beast in his house in the forest. She tells herself she is there to fulfil a promise made by her father, but really it is to embrace the thing of which she is most afraid.

The creature – a raggedy wolf-man played by Jim Sturgeon on Philip Witcomb's brooding, haunted-house set – is forever accompanied by the jealous witch who transformed him as punishment for his womanising ways. It means Beauty must navigate past her father's authoritarianism, her sister's hedonism, the witch's duplicity and the Beast's dark sexuality. By sticking to her principles and learning to love herself, she also manages to transform the other characters for the better.

The result, in Guy Hollands's serious-minded production, is lush, dreamlike, creepy and emotionally satisfying.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Jack and the Beanstalk, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Jack and the Beanstalk

King's, Edinburgh

To see what's good about this show, consider the scene where the baddie recruits four soldiers, gives each a stick and puts them through their military paces. The more incompetently they deal with their weapons, the more infuriated he becomes and – cue laughter – the more faithfully they imitate his every move. There's no reason for this stock panto sketch, nor even any originality in the way they stage it, but such is the actors' rapport with the audience that it's a hoot.

Meanwhile, a couple of slipped lines – and one slipped stick – give Andy Gray an excuse to make a dig at the part-time nature of DJ Grant Stott's acting career, for Stott to counter with a quip about Gray's three-year absence from this panto ("I've been all over the world – and Glasgow") and for Allan Stewart, the most natural of dames, to keep the banter going through the crossfire.

This team's humour is built on funny voices, silly catchphrases and ridiculous pop-culture pastiches (Wagner from The X Factor; a Gillian McKeith fainting fit), and rarely so much as a double entendre. Jo Freer as a full-bodied and full-voiced princess, Moyo Akandé as a glamorous fairy and Andrew Scott-Ramsay as a handsome Jack provide great support and mean the show can't be faulted for positive energy. Their efforts, however, are badly let down by the script. It makes Jack a peripheral figure who does most of his work off stage. It casts the giant as a disembodied voice, cutting dead the momentum with every speech. And it sets up the romantic pairings at the start, denying the sense of wish fulfilment. All of this robs the story of emotional engagement, making the persuasiveness of the performances seem doubly impressive.

Until 23 January. Box office: 0131-529 6000.

© Mark Fisher 2010

 

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Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Three Musketeers and the Princess of Spain, theatre review

The Three Musketeers and the Princess of Spain

Traverse, Edinburgh

If there's a rule to be broken about family-centred theatre, playwright Chris Hannan breaks it. His brilliant version of the Alexandre Dumas stories is rude, anarchic, witty, intelligent, irreligious and coarse – the more so in Dominic Hill's production, designed by Colin Richmond to look like a scene of plague-ridden theatrical dilapidation in sore need of a good revolution.

If you're looking for conventional role models, you won't find one in Beatriz Romilly's Princess of Spain who, although "as posh as a pineapple", is pregnant to an unnamed father. Thrillingly, no one finds this a problem, least of all Alexander Campbell's gloriously effete King of France, who is so smitten with her that he changes the new baby's nappies. And if you're looking for conventional swashbuckling heroes, you won't find them in Porthos, Athos and Aramis. These musketeers are a merciless portrait of masculinity in crisis: obese, drunk and narcissistic.

Throw in an extended farting scene, gags about front bottoms, excrement and womanising, and a vision of the church as a bastion of immorality, and you should find yourself a long way from child-friendly entertainment. This is no show for tots – Rachael Canning's creepy skeletal puppets will see to that – but it is underpinned by such a keen sense of good-versus-bad, and enlivened by so many breathless sword fights and a great live folk-punk score, that it holds the entire audience.

Above all, what we get in Oliver Gomm's D'Artagnan and Cynthia Erivo's Constance is a compelling existential journey towards self-discovery in which the hero strives to breach the two-dimensional constraints of his comic-strip character. When finally he says the word "love", it makes you cry.

Until 24 December. Box office: 0131-228 1404.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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The Snow Queen, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

The Snow Queen
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
4 out of 5

Theatregoers in Scotland used to have a simple choice at this time of year. Either they went to a traditional pantomime or to one of Stuart Paterson's Christmas shows: big-hearted fables that preferred psychological realism to slapstick and narrative complexity to stock plots. About five years ago, for no obvious reason and despite their popularity, Paterson's plays all but disappeared.

In this, the coldest winter of all, it seems all the more appropriate that the Royal Lyceum has rediscovered The Snow Queen, even if the play's promises of better weather to come draw desperate cheers from an audience a little too familiar with the snow flurries Paterson calls "the swarming of the white bees".

In this telling, the chilling Hans Christian Andersen tale becomes a great feminist saga. Less interested in the coming-of-age journey of Mark Prendergast's Kay, Paterson focuses on Helen Mackay's Gerda. Her pure-hearted attempt to rescue her friend from the sexually warped clutches of Allison McKenzie's blue-lipped Snow Queen demands courage and valour. She is serious, likable and true.

Paterson's nods to panto-style comedy can seem stiff and half-hearted (though this show has a particularly funny band of robbers), and he could have explored more fully the relationship between Gerda and Kay. But Mark Thomson's production picks up a breakneck pace as it hurtles towards the interval, paving the way for an unsettling second half in which Paterson, drawing deep on mythology, introduces talking animals and voices from the dead to add to the gravitas of little Gerda's quest.

It is not as lavishly presented as the Lyceum's Patersons of a decade ago, but the performances enliven a deep and urgent story, reminding us of what we've been missing.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Monday, November 29, 2010

Gavin Mitchell, actor, interview

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Gavin Mitchell, actor, interview

Three years ago, I wrote a review of Sleeping Beauty that compared the comedy legs of Gavin Mitchell with those of Gerard Kelly. Mitchell was playing Norval, the witch's son, in the Glasgow King's panto and it looked as though his pins were ready to give way beneath him. Kelly, of course, was the high priest of knock-kneed hilarity and, as Chester the Jester, gave his legs a life of their own. I suggested Mitchell had been paying attention to Kelly's technique.

Apparently, the review sparked off a running joke between the two actors. Having threatened each other with lawyers ("I've got someone in every night watching you," growled Kelly), they proceeded to compete with each other for rubber-limbed comedy on stage every night.

"There was a scene where he was dressed in drag and I quite fancied him and we would watch each other's legs all the way through and would outdo each other," says Mitchell. "We'd have this wobbly leg competition, so much so that I would come out and take photographs of his legs. I'd say, 'I've got a lawyer as well, Kell.'"

He laughs at the memory but we can't ignore the poignancy in the room. Just a few weeks ago, Kelly died at the age of 51 and it has fallen to Mitchell to take his friend's place as the lynchpin of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

"He was an incredible man," says the 45-year-old, his eyes welling up with emotion. "I miss him so much. I learned so much from his professionalism, his pragmatism, his craftsmanship, his belief and energy. He gave his all. He belonged to the public. He was theirs."

In his 20-year reign at the King's theatres in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Kelly – or "Kells" as Mitchell calls him – built up tremendous audience affection. Tireless and big hearted, he got all ages on side with his cry of "Hiya pals!" and made the panto his own. "He was a brilliant company man and that defined him," says Tony Cownie who directed him in all the recent pantos. "He loved people and that's why they loved him."

Mitchell, who starred alongside Kelly as an ugly sister, a knockabout soldier and the evil Abanazar, thinks that in this year's show it would be a mistake to act as if nothing had happened. "It has to be addressed," says the actor best known as Boaby the barman in Still Game. "The audience has a lot of expectation this year and we're all in a lot of pain, we're grieving and it's all very raw. But if I was a member of the audience, I would like it to be addressed. They want to be part of it and to pay a tribute."

In rehearsals, they have had much agonised discussion about the most sensitive way to go. For instance, should Mitchell inherit Kelly's trademark "Hiya pals," which Kelly, in turn, inherited from Jack Milroy? Yes, is Mitchell's answer: "It's a tradition and something that should live on and be remembered. But how far do you take that? It's such a difficult line. We're having a good time, but we shouldn't forget Kells."

Barbara Rafferty has come forward to play the wicked queen, freeing Mitchell to take on Kelly's role of Muddles. He is stepping into a very big pair of Dr Martens but, having watched Kelly at close quarters for the past five years, he has a better idea than most what he is in for. In particular, he can draw on the experience of 2007 – the year of the competitive legs – when Kelly suffered a bad case of sciatica a fortnight into the run, amazing his fellow cast members with his resilience. "Kelly, no matter what state he was in, to his own self-detriment, would always go on," says Mitchell. "He went through incredible pain that year. It was astonishing. He would never disappoint."

Even Kelly had his limits, however, and come Hogmanay, he asked Mitchell to take over the community singalong, prefaced by the audience chant of "bring doon the cloot", for the remaining three weeks of the run. "I knew it must have been bad if Kell couldn’t do Hogmanay," says Mitchell. "He gave me one chance to see it. There were certain things he kept a mystery, that you never saw. You'd always hear the song sheet on the Tannoy but you'd never see it. He asked me to go up and watch it – once. So I stood at the side of the stage and he gave me a quick glimpse in the wings and then he carried on. That was my rehearsal! I didn't sleep. I was trying to learn this song. I was going off my head.

"I got through it, but I don't remember much. At the end of it, I was just panting and shaking, and Kelly came down for his bow and gave me an OK sign and a wink. Then afterwards he said, 'You'll no' be doing that for too much longer. I'm watching you.' He allowed me to do it to the end. I asked him on the very last night if he'd like it back, because he was quite superstitious, but he said, 'No, it's yours now.'"

It is big deal picking up where Kelly left off, but Mitchell also knows he is inheriting a tradition that predates them all. "Kells was very firm about that tradition," says Mitchell, who saw his first pantomime at the King's in 1974 and is still awestruck from his costume fitting as an Ugly Sister in 2008. "You pull a shoe out and it's got 'SB' on it and you go, 'SB? Oh my God, Stanley Baxter!' You start thinking of the people who have walked on that stage before you: Jimmy Logan, Jack, Rikki, Stanley . . . it's mind-blowing."

There was a time, however, when his enthusiasm would have shocked him. Starting out at the Citizens Theatre, he fell in with a crowd of old-school actors who would look down on anything as coarse as pantomime. "It was all 'terribly, terribly, let's go for supper,'" he says, affecting a plummy accent. "People did look down their nose at panto and I fell into that trap: 'That's some silly thing that people do, it's not a Wilde or an Ibsen, that's where the really testing stuff is . . .' which is a nonsense."
It was not an attitude he could maintain for long. He is a gifted mimic of RP, but having grown up in Springburn, Coatbridge, Glenboig and Airdrie, he is far from being posh. On the contrary, his childhood was so troubled, it's a miracle he survived at all. By the time he was 13, he had lost a father and a step-father (they died within a year of each other) and seen his mother abandon the family home, leaving her debts and domestic responsibility behind. He hardly saw her again. Only thanks to the intervention of his older brother was he not taken into care.

In difficult circumstances, he did moderately well at school, but took the wrong subjects to pursue his dream of art college and, after a breakdown from which he says he has never completely recovered, found himself working as a scene painter at the Citizens. Egged on by a friend, he volunteered as an extra and discovered his love of acting. He knows it's a psychological cliché, but it suits him to have a job where he can pretend to be someone else.

As well as appearing at the Citz, he has played Casanova for Suspect Culture, an Elvis impersonator for the Tron and Humphrey Bogart in a stage version of Casablanca which he plans to revive next year. He has a great love of Still Game, but is equally animated about his straight roles in the forthcoming You Instead by David Mackenzie set at T in the Park and a film project with the artist David Shrigley.

It's a prolific and varied output, one explained in part by his need for discipline. "Work does help, because you just have to do it," he says as he is called for afternoon rehearsals. "Your own personal life is such a mess and you come in and you go, 'Hey, I'm very organised because I can do two shows a day, I know when I eat, I know when I leave, I know exactly what I'm doing from now until 9 January.' So it has always given me a structure, which I do like."

Nervous about the task ahead, he is reassured by the thought that Kelly himself would tolerate no self-indulgence or maudlin behaviour: "The show must go on – that certainly would be Kelly's adage. He'd be giving me a big slap across the face: 'Get on with it and dry your eyes.'"

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, King's Theatre, Glasgow, 3 December–9 January.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Three Musketeers preview

Published in The Scotsman

Interview with fight director Renny Krupinski

IT'S ONE thing the Traverse deciding to put on a non-festive family show at Christmas. And it's one thing getting acclaimed playwright Chris Hannan to write it. It's another thing, however, to bring to the stage the swashbuckling adventures of the Three Musketeers and to be sure all the swordplay will look convincing. To get that right, the Edinburgh company knew who to call: fight director Renny Krupinski.

For the second time this year, Edinburgh audiences are getting to enjoy the authentic punch of Krupinski's work. He won a Scotsman Fringe First in August for his play Bare, which he wrote, directed and starred in. He also choreographed the all-too-believable bare-knuckle confrontations that were the centrepiece of this underworld story about illegal fight clubs.

Despite the audience sitting at close quarters on three sides of the stage, he made it look as though the actors were doing it for real. This, he says, is down to a technique he developed while working at the Manchester Royal Exchange, a theatre famed for being "in the round" with the audience on all sides.

"I realised all the techniques I'd learned were dreadful in the round," says Krupinski, who played badguy Sizzler in Brookside in the 1980s and is a frequent fight arranger on Coronation Street. "There was daylight between the fist and the face. I thought there had to be a better way. I teach stage combat at drama school, so I used my students as guinea pigs - and I have to say, no students were hurt or killed in the making of this …"

His aim was for the actors to make contact and to produce the right sound, but not actually to injure each other. "I hated the fact that when the violence comes, the audience had almost to excuse what was going on as being 'just pretend'. The fight is as much a part of the play as any other part. If a playwright has put a fight in, they've put it in for a reason. So I developed these contact slaps and punches and they absolutely work."

It is a technique convincing enough to be effective from only inches away, as his actors discovered when they were drumming up audiences on the Royal Mile during the Fringe. He keeps the exact secret close to his chest, but admits it involves the same kind of misdirection used by magicians. "The quickness of the hand deceives the eye," he says "It's making the watcher look at the wrong thing - and it works every time."

So important was the sword fighting to The Three Musketeers, in which D'Artagnan attempts to save Paris (and a Spanish princess) with the help of his trusty colleagues, that director Dominic Hill had Krupinski by his side from the very earliest auditions.

It is all very well an actor looking the part, but if he is an unconvincing or, worse, a dangerous fighter, the production could either lose its dramatic tension or acquire the wrong kind of tension altogether.

"People who couldn't fight didn't get the job," says Krupinski. "Dominic would like certain people and I would say, 'They just can't fight'. In my auditions, I'm looking for someone who, when they pick up the sword, doesn't terrify me, someone who can control his blade. You get lots of people who can swish a blade about but have no control over it and they're a danger to anyone who's on stage with them. If you don't know where the sword is going to go, they're a liability."

He says it is the equivalent of spotting whether someone can ride a horse: you can sense it just by the way they approach the animal without needing to see them in the saddle. "When someone picks up the sword, before they've even fought with it, I'll know if they're going to be really good or a disaster," he says. "You get an instinct."

Ultimately, his job is to control a given scene with the precision of a choreographer. "It's not just a question of slipping in a few kicks and punches here and there," he says. "You've got to have a shape to it, you've got to be able to let the audience watch what you want them to watch and you've got to make it safe. It's always a creative process. You build it up and, just like a picture, you add a bit of colour here, take away a bit of colour there, until you end up with an artistically pleasing scene."

And whether he's dealing in stunts, punches or swords, Krupinski's guiding principle is the same: "You can't leave anything to chance. I'm not interested in phoning for ambulances. It doesn't get you repeat business."

• The Three Musketeers and the Princess of Spain is at the Traverse, Edinburgh, 5-24 December. www.traverse.co.uk

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Habit of Art preview, interview with Desmond Barrit

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Theatre preview: Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art

IF YOU struggle to think who Desmond Barrit reminds you of in The Habit Of Art, don't blame yourself. The actor's inspiration for the part of WH Auden comes from such an unlikely source you would never guess it. "Nicholas Hytner, who directed the play, said to me: 'Think Maggie Smith,'" says the actor. "That was my note about how he should sound. A bit like WH Auden and a bit like Maggie Smith."
And the subject matter of Alan Bennett's play is even more unlikely. Set in 1972, The Habit Of Art is about a fictional meeting between Auden, the celebrated English poet and polemicist, and the composer Benjamin Britten. In real life, the two men collaborated with each other on a couple of song cycles in the 1930s, but in Bennett's version, we find them 25 years after their last meeting, and a year before Auden's death, discussing Britten's forthcoming opera, an adaptation of Thomas Mann's Death In Venice.

It sounds like box-office suicide. Who else but Bennett could get away with such an esoteric sounding subject? It doesn't help that it's not just about Auden and Britten, but also the two actors who play them on stage. Yet far from being an elitist curio or a theatrical in-joke, The Habit Of Art is a run-away hit. On its London debut at the National Theatre last year, the Daily Telegraph called it "an absolute cracker", the Independent said it was "hilariously provocative" and now it is doing storming business on a UK tour. Some have suggested it is even better than The History Boys. At 75, Bennett is still performing the unexpected, challenging preconceptions and taking audiences with him.

"If you went to a play that had Auden sitting on one side of the stage and Britten on the other and it went on for two-and-a-half hours, then it could be soporific," says Barrit, who played Hector in the stage version of The History Boys. "But what the audience see is a brick-by-brick replica of the number one rehearsal room at the National Theatre. You see them rehearsing this play which is about the meeting of Auden and Britten, but it keeps dropping out to the actors talking, so there are lots of theatrical devices. That makes it much more accessible."

Just as you don't have to know anything about single-sex grammar schools to appreciate The History Boys, you don't have to be an expert on either of his new play's protagonists to enjoy The Habit Of Art. It tells you enough about the men to give a flavour of what they were like and leaves you to fill in the details in your own time. Rather than get bogged down in minutiae, Bennett uses their relationship and his play-within-a-play conceit to consider such universal themes as sexuality, creativity and ethics.

"One character says acting is like being a soldier, you've got to fight for your existence, and as you get older, the fighting gets harder," says Barrit. "That's exactly what it's like. Life doesn't get any easier as you get older. You're not out to impress quite so much, but you're very concerned about what people think of you in your career. There's somebody on the stage that everybody can identify with and that makes Alan's plays accessible."

Hard to overlook in the story is a theme the once closeted Bennett would have tried to sidestep. Although very different personalities, both Auden and Britten were gay. Auden openly enjoyed the company of prostitutes and pursed an active sex life, while Britten had an unconsummated passion for young boys and channelled his repressed sexual energy into his music.

In the play, the composer frets that the theme of Death In Venice, which depicts an older man's passion for a young boy, reveals too much about himself. Auden, meanwhile, confuses his biographer for a rent boy.

"He doesn't give an opinion about their sexuality - he just reports it," says Barrit. "It's not an issue, but it's discussed. The other thing Auden was preoccupied with was time. After 6pm, he can't have sex. You're just going to have this big sex scene with a rent boy, the clock strikes six, and he says, 'Too late.' Once people get over the shock, they're laughing."

They are also revelling in the language of a writer who has acquired the status of national treasure.

"It's very distinctively Alan Bennett," he says. "Of all the playwrights in the country, Alan Bennett and Shakespeare are the most recognisable. If you were given two lines, you wouldn't have to know much about the plays to know it was Bennett."

Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Tuesday until Saturday. www.ambassadortickets.com/Theatre-Royal-Glasgow

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Maids, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

The Maids

Tron, Glasgow
2 out of 5

It is a particularly sour pair of ugly sisters who primp and preen around their mistress's boudoir in this all-male staging of the Jean Genet play for the Glasgay festival. Derek McLuckie's lanky, shaven-headed Solange and Wullie Brennan's portly, shuffling Claire are two working-class Glasgow housekeepers whose hatred of their place in the social pecking order has become a poison that eats away at them.

The maids have murderous designs on Richard Pears's Madame, but it is they themselves who seem to be the real victims. They are bitter narcissists, joylessly dressing up in their employer's clothes in ritualistic role-play games that have lost all meaning.

Sadly, the joylessness spills over into the production itself. The idea of men acting like women acting like their social superiors should be ripe with camp irony and subversive delight. But the performances are so laden with self-hatred and gloominess, so bereft of the wit and warmth that might make us want to spend time with these characters, that the play becomes a trial. Lines that could sparkle are delivered with a note of grumbling frustration, giving us pure moroseness instead of black comedy.

Director Pauline Goldsmith enlivens the proceedings with a continual swirl of movement around Colin O'Hara's minimalist Japanese set. The actors, however, complicate matters by fluctuating their delivery with little regard to meaning. McLuckie in particular peppers his performance with curious physical-theatre gestures, jutting out his tongue, giving high kicks and striking vampish poses with his long arms, while switching his tone from effeminate treble to brutish bass by the line. You see an actor working hard but communicating little, adding extra layers that puzzle rather than amuse, not least because he and Brennan make the relationship between the sisters so hard to pin down. The production comes across as purposeless and leaves you deflated.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Enron, interview with Rupert Goold

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Enron, interview with Rupert Goold

LIKE the stock exchange itself, Lucy Prebble's Enron has had its highs and lows. When the play premiered in Chichester last year it earned rave reviews and, after transferring to London and winning a clutch of awards, it broke box office records at the Noel Coward Theatre. All was set for a triumphant run on Broadway, but when Rupert Goold's production opened in May, this play about the fall of a mighty American company met with a tepid-to-hostile reception and closed almost immediately.

Six months later, Enron's stock is rising again as it sets out on a UK tour. "When we opened, it was the first hit of the credit crunch and nobody knew whether it meant the end of the world," says Goold. "When we were in New York, we were at the height of Obama pushing through new financial regulations, which Democratic New York couldn't bear, and it played in a very different political context. I went to see it in Sheffield last night and now, in the age of austerity, the audience really felt much angrier again."

Even before the cuts, Enron's relevance was far reaching. The day after I saw it in London a few months ago, I met a woman on her way to work. She was looking forward to seeing the play, she said, because it was thanks to Enron she had so much boring paperwork to do. Being American, her company was subject to the increased bureaucratic stringency introduced by the US government in reaction to Enron's exploitation of loopholes in the system. If it signed a deal with another company, that company had to be more than a figment of an accountant's imagination.

It is this kind of direct experience that makes Enron a play for our times. Prebble presents a rise-and-fall tragedy that we cannot dismiss as a one-off story.

The masterminds of Enron's scheme - Jeffrey Skilling, the chief executive officer and Andy Fastow, the chief finance officer - were guilty of paving the way for the biggest collapse in corporate history, but the play makes it clear they were not isolated mavericks. They were part of a greed-driven system, technically no different from others like them, except they were very good at what they did.

"If anything, it's an indictment of a system and certainly not of a character," says Goold. "Skilling is human and has many redeeming qualities, as indeed Enron had as a company: it wasn't voted most innovative company for all those years in a row for nothing."

One of the reasons for the play's success is that it avoids being a simple anti-capitalist rant. There is something alluring about the charismatic captains of industry when, in the first half, the Enron share price rockets and it seems they can do no wrong.

"Of course, we all know corporate finance is corrupt, greedy and unpleasant, but there is also something really sexy, dynamic and galvanising about it," says Goold, whose playful staging features everything from barber shop singing to hi-tech video, from dinosaurs in the basement to great chorus-like images of the trading floor.

Skilling's complex scheme involved banking on theoretical future profits, abandoning the need to trade in real commodities and burying the bad debt in an all-but-fictitious company. It is only in the second half that the folly of his faith in the market becomes evident. "We had this debate when we were developing the piece about whether it should be the fall of Rome or Richard III," says Goold. "We pushed strongly that it should be like a Renaissance tragedy and that Skilling should be a classical tragic over-reacher."

What he did was wrong - as the thousands who lost their jobs, savings and pensions will attest - but it sprang from the corporate culture that many in the Edinburgh audience will recognise because it is the same gung-ho attitude that led to the banking collapse. Skilling was exceptional in the magnitude of his rise and fall, but he was also a product of his times. "In any walk of life, we push a bit," says the director. "Skilling did that very brilliantly - and ultimately corruptly - but I hope it is a thought-provoking piece."

One of Prebble's great achievements is to make dramatic sense of accounting practices that can leave even trained economists bewildered. "Audiences are hungry to learn as long as it's not too heavy going," says Goold. "One of the things I'm proudest of is that here we are going up and down the country with no star names and yet we're playing to packed houses with a piece of political theatre."

Enron, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, Tuesday to Saturday www.eft.co.uk

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Saturday, November 06, 2010

The Monster in the Hall, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

The Monster in the Hall

Citizens, Glasgow
4 out of 5


Where Midsummer was a lo-fi indie b-side and Yellow Moon an extended blues lament, David Greig's The Monster in the Hall takes its cue from shimmering 60s girl-group pop. In its story about a 16-year-old whose mother died in a motorbike accident, it nods to the melodramatic roar of Leader of the Pack, except, where the Shangri-Las gave us baroque teen tragedy, Greig gives us social-work leaflets, internet roleplay games and a hard-rocking Norwegian anarchist. Every time the four actors drop into Phil Spector harmonies, it's a fair bet the story will take a decidedly unromantic – if funny – turn.

The monster in the hall, as a meta-theatrical voiceover helpfully explains, is both a metaphor for the young girl's fear of the unknown and a reference to her dad's vintage motorbike, which he cares for rather better than his mouse-infested kitchen. The bike is an excuse for generation-gap comedy as well as being a rev-driven smokescreen for a fragile portrait of a young carer coping uncomplainingly with her father's worsening multiple sclerosis.

Where many a writer would have tackled this theme sanctimoniously, Greig treats it with heady irreverence, acknowledging the truth of the dilemma while recognising a teenage girl has other matters to deal with – not least the effeminate boy who wants a simulated blow-job outside the chip shop. Life was never so complicated for the Shirelles.

All this, in Guy Hollands' TAG theatre production, is brilliantly realised in bare-bones narrative style by Gemma McElhinney, David Carlyle, Beth Marshall and Keith Macpherson, working at high velocity and accompanying each other with amplified sound effects. They are a tightly drilled ensemble, passionate, playful and yet serious, gripping us one minute, cracking us up the next, before melting our hearts with a happy ending of pure girl-group dreaminess.
© Mark Fisher 2010

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Thursday, November 04, 2010

Spring Awakening, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Spring Awakening

Traverse, Edinburgh
4 out of 5


It must have been tempting to go down The Inbetweeners route. However outrageous the E4 teen comedy gets, there is little in its portrayal of adolescent angst that Frank Wedekind didn't do first in Spring Awakening. By using translator Douglas Maxwell, a playwright with a catalogue of coming-of-age dramas, Grid Iron theatre company could have opted to refashion Wedekind's 1891 play (banned in the UK until 1965), as a modern-day black comedy about sexual repression and ignorance.

Instead, director Ben Harrison's reference points are of an older sort in this Traverse co-production. He evokes the austere schoolroom of Kantor's Dead Class, the labial illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley and – for light relief – the teacher in The Bash Street Kids comic strip, black mortarboard and all. Far from the world of social networking, the landscape these children inhabit is as colourless as Ali Maclaurin's monochrome set, a place of black-and-white adult certainty where it is easier to deny bodily passions than confront them in their Technicolor variety.

Maxwell's version gives the play a Scottish west-coast inflection (they read Confessions of a Justified Sinner instead of Faust) and makes some nips and tucks to cope with a reduced cast size, but needs make no adjustment to give the scenes of masturbation, flagellation, abortion and homosexuality their troubling edge.

In a rare departure from site-specific performance, Harrison brings the kind of actor-centred resourcefulness for which Communicado was once famed. The first-rate cast turns the desks into a pack of howling dogs, creates props by drawing chalk lines on the stage and uses blackboards to suggest everything from weapons to wanking. There is a cheeky, understated wit at work as every chalk penis – drawn with schoolboy relish – ends up positioned in front of the actors' groins. It is this lightness of touch, echoed in the performances of Gail Watson as a lusty middle-aged mother and Gavin Marshall as a head teacher from hell, that offsets the intensity of the teens' troubled sexual awakening.

As Philip Pinsky's score swings from pretty melodies to ominous rumbles, the production pulls us from amusement to concern, taking us confidently towards the supernatural conclusion. Staged without an interval, the play reveals its shocking modernity even as it describes a bygone era, capturing the head-versus-heart tension that occupies us still when private desire meets social decorum.

Until 13 November. Box office: 0131-228 1404.

© Mark Fisher 2010 (Picture: Richard Campbell)

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Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Gerard Kelly obituary

Published in the Guardian

Gerard Kelly obituary

Everyone loved the mop of black hair, the half-length trousers, the bright Dr Martens and the cry of "Hiya pals", but you could spend hours figuring out exactly what made Gerard Kelly such a physically funny pantomime star. It was something to do with the knobbly knees, the way one leg would drag coyly behind the other, and the impression of Kelly having feet that headed in opposite directions. The actor Karen Dunbar, who appeared alongside him in three Christmas shows at the King's theatre in Glasgow, has her own theory. "I think it came from his hips," she said. "He used his whole body."

Whatever his secret, Kelly – who has died aged 51 after a brain aneurysm – was a consummate performer who reigned supreme at the King's theatres in Glasgow and Edinburgh for 20 years. To do this for a dozen performances a week required formidable energy. A fortnight into Sleeping Beauty, at the King's, Glasgow, in 2007, he began suffering from sciatica and amazed his colleagues by carrying on regardless of the pain.

Typically, Kelly played the Buttons-type character, a lovable clown who never got the girl but endeared himself to the audience with his rascally grin, gift for comedy and unerring democratic instinct. His generosity of spirit was addictive. Kelly could keep everyone, from children to pensioners, on side. "He knew exactly how to play the audience," said the director Tony Cownie, who staged several of the pantos. "You couldn't direct him. The minute Gerard walked on to the floor, I just sat back. You can't tamper with genius."

A private man who kept a low media profile, Kelly was a team player and commanded tremendous affection. Born Paul Kelly (he changed his name when he got his Equity card), he was brought up in a family of five children in working-class Cranhill, in the east end of Glasgow. His father, Charlie, ran a chip shop, and his mother, Rose, was a hotel waitress. A teacher at St Gregory's secondary school in Glasgow encouraged him to act. From the age of 12, he landed parts with the help of the agent Winifred "Freddie" Young. He appeared in adverts and the TV adventure The Camerons (1974), for the Children's Film Foundation.

Kelly built an accomplished television career, with early work including a part as a teenager with learning difficulties in Donal and Sally, written by James Duthie, which was broadcast in the Play for Today strand on BBC1 in 1978. That year he auditioned for The Slab Boys, John Byrne's celebrated carpet-factory comedy, at the Traverse theatre in Edinburgh, but was considered too young for the part. He was, however, cast as the designer Spanky Farrell in the Play for Today adaptation of The Slab Boys in 1979. He returned to the role at the Traverse in 1982 in all three instalments of what had become a trilogy (with Cuttin' a Rug and Still Life). That production transferred to the Royal Court in London and was a major success.

In Scotland, Kelly is fondly remembered for his leading role as Willie Melvin, a bank-teller with literary pretensions and dodgy friends, in the 80s sitcom City Lights, set in Glasgow. He made many guest appearances in programmes such as Rab C Nesbitt, Victoria Wood: As Seen On TV, The Comic Strip Presents and Juliet Bravo, and was a regular on the sketch show Scotch and Wry, starring Rikki Fulton. In 2006, Kelly teamed up with Tony Roper in Rikki and Me, a stage tribute to Fulton.

After bad-boy parts in EastEnders, as the violent Jimmy in 1994, and in Brookside, as gangster Callum Finnegan from 1997 to 2000, Kelly turned in a viciously funny performance as Ian "Bunny" Bunton, a camp panto director, in Ricky Gervais's Extras (2005). His other stage appearances included Neil Simon's The Odd Couple in 1994 (revived in 2002) for the touring Borderline theatre and Iain Heggie's A Wholly Healthy Glasgow in a production that opened at the Royal Exchange in Manchester in 1987 before transferring to the Edinburgh festival and the Royal Court.

Intelligent and politically engaged, Kelly ran the radical 7:84 theatre company in Scotland with David Hayman for three years in the late 80s. He directed Hector McMillan's sectarian drama The Sash (1989); Raymond Briggs's When the Wind Blows (1989), about a nuclear attack; and an anti-poll tax farce, Revolting Peasants (1991), for the company, whose name derives from a statistic that 7% of the population of the UK owns 84% of the wealth. He also appeared in Labour party election broadcasts.

He had been due to revive his role as the narrator in The Rocky Horror Show at the King's in Glasgow. The part will now be taken by his friend and City Lights co-star Andy Gray. "He knew what worked," said Gray of Kelly's pantomime work. "I don't think 'Hiya pals' will ever be said again. He did it year in, year out, but 'Hiya pals' worked every time because he did it with such gusto and conviction."

He is survived by his sister, Liz, and his brothers Stephen and Neil. Another brother, Charles, predeceased him.

• Gerard (Paul) Kelly, actor, born 27 May 1959; died 28 October 2010

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Monday, November 01, 2010

The Importance of Being Earnest, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

The Importance of Being Earnest

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
4 out of 5

It's not every day you get to see a new Oscar Wilde comedy. You will be familiar, of course, with The Importance of Being Earnest – handbags, epigrams and all – but not quite as it is seen here in Mark Thomson's polished production. I'm referring not only to the lines that seem as if they could have been written this week: when Jack Worthing says he is a Liberal Unionist and Lady Bracknell replies, "Oh, they count as Tories," it gets one of the biggest laughs of the evening.

But more than that, I'm referring to Thomson's decision to return to the four-act draft of the play Wilde wrote before actor-manager George Alexander requested the three-act version we know today. Three months after the first night, Wilde was imprisoned for homosexuality and never revised his original. Thomson has done the job for him and merged the two versions.

The most obvious addition is a scene in which a solicitor, Mr Gribsby, arrives at the manor house to reclaim an unpaid restaurant bill from Algernon, who is masquerading as Ernest Worthing. Threatened with jail in Holloway, he counters: "I really am not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for having dined in the West End."

The novelty of such material gives renewed sparkle to the more familiar one-liners, not least when delivered with the imperious precision of Alexandra Mathie's Lady Bracknell and the coquettish subversion of Melody Grove's Gwendolyn. Kirsty Mackay loses laughs as Cecily by appearing permanently bewildered by her own dialogue, while Ben Deery gives little sense of Jack's tearaway side. They do, however, make lively sparring partners for Will Featherstone's Algernon in an intelligent, good-looking and funny staging.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Doll's House, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

A Doll's House

Dundee Rep
4 out of 5

If Henrik Ibsen had been around to set A Doll's House in the 1950s, as it is here in Jemima Levick's excellent production, perhaps there would have been no need for Mad Men with its polarised genders and conspicuous consumption. The pre-1960s world this Nora Helmer comes to reject is a chic, modernist place, all white walls, spindly furniture and Bing Crosby on the radio, with clear demarcation of roles for husband and wife: business for him, children for her. As Nora skips in with her big skirt and her Christmas shopping, you get a taste of the consumer boom to come. As she stomps out, leaving her children, you feel the first articulation of feminist revolution.

All this looks stunning on a two-level set by Alex Lowde that lets us see half-a-dozen rooms through skeletal windows, conveying a sense of the life of the house beyond the immediate action. Like the ominous rumble of Jon Beales's sound design, the looming presence of other people – the children at the top of the stairs, the husband in his office – reminds us of the impending tragedy. It makes us see how the schemes Nora dreams up in the living room will affect the whole family; a family framed by the clean lines and cool spaces of each room like figures in an Edward Hopper painting, striking, isolated and trapped in time.

The shift in setting from 1879 is surprisingly seamless, appearing anachronistic only at the height of Torvald Helmer's tirade about the social shame of his wife's unorthodox money-raising methods. For the most part, the play is liberated from its usual period trappings, freeing the actors to be less formal and making the sexual politics less one-sided. This is not a polemic about oppressive men and put-upon women, but a subtle drama in which neither party is guilty.

The complexity extends to the supporting roles. Kevin Lennon's Krogstad starts out weasely and nervous, and ends up merely misunderstood, while Irene Macdougall's Kristine is an austere figure of moral rectitude who, seeing a chance with Krogstad, acts with callous self-interest.

At the heart of the play, Emily Winter's kittenish Nora – all twirls, spins and giggles – and Neil McKinven's affable Torvald establish a warm and genuine relationship that makes their eventual separation seem not of their own making but of social movements beyond their control, a catastrophe equally shared.

Until 6 November. Box office: 01382 223530.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Clockwork Orange, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

A Clockwork Orange

Citizens, Glasgow
3 out of 5

In his swansong production as artistic director of the Citz, Jeremy Raison goes to some efforts to give Anthony Burgess's tale a modern-day spin. He stages it on Jason Southgate's set, a striking concrete and aluminium structure that suggests the most soulless 21st-century car parks, apartments and wine bars. As if to comment on the state of our nations, he casts actors from London, Manchester, Liverpool, Dublin and Glasgow. And, at the height of Alex's Pavlovian brainwashing, the doctor's litany of state-sanctioned violence includes a reference to Guantánamo.

But it doesn't quite ring true as a play for today. A naive older generation, an unaccountable medical profession and controlling state are not without their present-day parallels, but it says more about the mods-and-rockers era of post-50s social change when the story was written than about today. It's hard to see Jay Taylor's Alex as a figure of satire or subversion when he could be another media-sanctioned rebel in the mould of Pete Doherty.

And, although their fruity Nadsat slang gives the play a Jacobean flourish, Alex and his droogs have all the menace of a gang of Russell Brands. With their mix-and-match costumes and cartoon grins, they make unconvincing thugs who never seem equal to their acts of violence. Alex's lawlessness should fascinate and appal in equal measure, so when, in the second act, he is turned into a neutered shell, we should find ourselves mourning his anarchic spirit in spite of the cruelty that come with it. But it is hard to feel bothered about the loss of this angry young man.

Still, it is all put together with a lively theatrical eye, a disregard for Kubrick iconography and, in the hospital scenes, a suitably dystopian chill.

Until 6 November. Box office: 0141-429 0022.
© Mark Fisher 2010

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Zoe Strachan and Louise Welsh, interview

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Interview: Zoe Strachan and Louise Welsh, writers

THE directions Louise Welsh has given me to her Glasgow flat are so precise I feel like I'm a character in one of her novels. "Go through an underpass… climb the stairs… cross the square…"

They are fail-safe instructions and get me there just as her partner and fellow writer Zoe Strachan is arriving home. We climb the stairs together, past the plant pots on the top landing and into their neatly kept flat where Welsh awaits us, the bookcase taking pride of place in a sunny, TV-free living room.

Strachan, it transpires, is the map reader of the household. Welsh is not, hence the precision of her directions. Her most trusted method of navigation when abroad is to carry a postcard of her hotel and to show it imploringly to strangers. People feel so sorry for her they tend to help, she laughs.

Now, in a rare artistic collaboration, the two novelists are venturing beyond the Glasgow backstreets where Welsh's shabby auctioneer Rilke goes on a solitary quest in The Cutting Room; and beyond the West End launderette where Strachan's Myrna risks meeting a nasty end in Spin Cycle.

In a jointly written play, Panic Patterns, they are taking us to a remote island in the far north of Scotland for a suspense drama involving dead radios, looming disaster and bird watching.

"We're interested in the tension between nature and technology," says Strachan, sitting on the living-room floor.

"I like the country," says Welsh, settling on the couch. "But I wouldn't want to be out there at night on my own. We see this couple and the dark outside could potentially have some menace."

Commissioned by Glasgay, Panic Patterns is about ornithologists Jacq and Fay ("birds that like birds," says Welsh) who have spent three days waiting for their boat off the island, getting more tense the longer they are delayed. The changing migration patterns of the birds and the illumination of the supposedly decommissioned lighthouse only add to their discomfort.

"It is not horror, but we're engaging with a lot of those conventions," says Welsh. "You're not quite 100 per cent sure what's going on. That's a sensation I really like: I don't quite know where we are, but I'm enjoying this."

Ask them where the idea came from and they are unable to say. The theme of isolation is something they have idly chatted about for years, as is the idea of something post-apocalyptic. When they started thinking about the play in earnest a year ago, those ideas belonged equally to them both.

Now rehearsals have started and the script is going through the usual last-minute tightening up, neither can remember who wrote what. "When a line gets cut, you never think, 'Ha-ha, that was your shit line that got cut,' or 'Oh dear, that was mine,' because you can't actually remember," says Welsh, delighted to be working with their director of choice Alison Peebles and actors Veronica Leer and Selina Boyack.

The uncertainty is because, as collaborations go, this one could not have been closer. Like partners in a small family business, Strachan and Welsh would set off every morning for Sauchiehall Street, where they had desk space in the Playwrights' Studio Scotland. Welsh had read that it is more sociable to sit at right angles ("you're not looking each other in the eye"), so they set up their computers accordingly and agreed to write one line at a time, ping-ponging back and forth from one to the other.

"There were moments that were a bit like an improvisation," says Strachan. "Because there were two of us, we could play around with ideas and try things out (in a very non-actorly way). At points, we brought out a flip chart and Magic Markers."

"I loved the flip chart," says Welsh. "We've both collaborated with composers before, but never writers. With another writer, trust was much more to the fore and you had to try to put your ego to one side. There were things that were faster because you had somebody there. You could really brainstorm and bounce ideas around and we often resolved things quickly that might have taken me a day or two to work out on my own."

"But it wasn't any less tiring," says Strachan. "And I don't think it actually did take less time. The process of working things out was a bit more fun, but it wasn't necessarily easier."

It helped that they had already spent a lot of time imagining the characters, sketching out the plot and discussing the themes. And although they would never use the same technique to write a novel, it seemed to make sense for a play.

"There were various motifs and metaphors that we were really aware of all the way through and we would bring it back to those and check that it all fitted together as a whole," says Strachan. "Things like the images of the birds, the sound, and the island that the women are trapped on. We thought about those things a lot."

Initially they laughed all the time. The play is not a comedy, but they amused each other with implausible plot twists and the simple joy of creating something together. Inevitably, there was tension too.
"This is one of those Hello moments," jokes Welsh when I ask if they are pretending to be a couple just for my benefit.

"Although we were writing together, there were moments when we would both sit quietly," she laughs. "Each of us would write something and then we'd come back and look at what we'd got. Quite often, we hadn't got it – but it was a way of opening up discussion again. Then sometimes, one of us would have written something and you'd say, 'That's it.'"

Their hard day at the office done, they would head out for a "decompression" drink. But the pub was rarely enough to stop them bringing their work home.

"We just talked about the play," says Strachan. "It didn't leave us. We got lots of ideas and had to bring out our notebooks – all of these after-a-glass-of-wine ideas that we looked at in the morning and thought, 'Forget that one.'"

They are quietly confident about the results and the experience has only whetted their appetite for theatre. Both have written lunchtime plays for A Play, a Pie and a Pint (and Welsh has enjoyed seeing other people's adaptations of The Cutting Room and Tamburlaine Must Die) and they enjoy the novelty of writing for a form in which, as Strachan has it, the "subtext is the subtext". They have also both written for Scottish Opera's annual Five:15 programme and Welsh is currently working on a full-length libretto. "Writing for different mediums is really stimulating," says Welsh, nonetheless itching to get back to novel writing.

Strachan, who has recently completed her third novel, is particularly enthusiastic about the dramatic form. "I'd love to do another play," she says. "I love the difference between sitting in a little room working away on my own and seeing the actors bring the words to life and the excitement of the audience. I'm really enjoying it."

Panic Patterns is at the Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, Tuesday to 30 October www.glasgay.co.uk

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Sea and Land and Sky, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Sea and Land and Sky

Tron, Glasgow
2 out of 5

Abigail Docherty's play about nurses in the first world war is light on plot and heavy on reflection. At its best, it captures something of the carnage of Sarah Kane's Blasted and the desolation of Brecht's Mother Courage and her Children. Its strength is in the strange, hallucinatory air that undercuts the period realism, although it is a quality that alienates as much as it intrigues.

The winner of the Tron's Open Stage competition, the play is based on the diaries of nurses sent to the Russian front in 1916. It begins in familiar culture-clash territory as volunteers from different social backgrounds are thrown together and left to cope with each other, the journey to the frontline and the demands of a taxing job.

This is a conflict in which limbs are severed, dysentery is rampant and blood is everywhere. One nurse warms her hands by plunging them into a dead man's innards. Even with the unconvincing corpses of Andy Arnold's production, this is a vile and violent vision.

By focusing on the women, Docherty highlights not the politics but the messy, corporeal consequences of war. She takes it a step further by examining the fighting's toll on mental health, breaking with stiff-upper-lip convention to suggest the women would make rash sexual advances on the soldiers, go on suicidal rescue missions and generally display Lady Macbeth-style neuroses. Despite the play's factual basis, much of this is historically implausible but, as the whole piece takes on a delusional air, it does have a metaphorical power. Less satisfying is the way the characters blur into one beneath their various psychoses, and develop hardly at all once the madness sets in.

Until 23 October. Box office: 0141-552 4267.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Friday, October 08, 2010

Dirty Paradise, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Dirty Paradise

Tron, Glasgow
3 out of 5

It has the hallmarks of a run-of-the-mill one-woman show. Inspired by a Gabriel García Márquez story? Check. Woman going on a voyage of self-discovery? Check. Flashbacks to troubled adolescence? Check. But there is something else going on in this 75-minute monologue, and it's not just the vibrant performance by writer Leann O'Kasi.

It takes a while to figure out what it is; why director Alison Peebles has made Steve Bain's excellent sound score so intrusive, and why O'Kasi's first-person narration should turn more inward-looking still. The answer is that her character, Maria Cruz, is not just another holidaying Londoner seeking reinvention amid the sexy rhythms of Brazil. Much more unsettlingly, she is a woman who is plagued by voices in her head. In its moments of greatest intensity, Dirty Paradise brilliantly conveys what a disturbing and dislocating condition that must be.

In one poignant scene, Maria makes a drawing of how it feels to hear the sound of unseen people crying, hectoring and squabbling. By the end of the speech, the paper is a scribbled mess.

O'Kasi, who has proved herself an incisive director in productions such as Topdog/Underdog at the Citizens, shows herself to be equally intelligent as a writer and actor in a supple, vivid and assured performance. She holds the attention on Arlene Wandera's car-wreck set every step of the way.

After its initial promise, however, the story pulls its punches: the cacophony of Brazil not only eases the noise inside Maria's head, it lessens the emotional impact of her fear, stigma and isolation. The concluding psychological explanation for her condition is too convenient a way to resolve a dilemma that has been so disturbingly evoked. Having unleashed such dark forces, O'Kasi could have rattled us even more before claiming her happy ending.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Monday, October 04, 2010

Good With People, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Good with People

Oran Mór, Glasgow
4 out of 5

Say what you like about David Harrower, but the author of Knives in Hens is not known for big laughs. Yet, here in the 199th lunchtime show produced by A Play, a Pie and a Pint (this time with Paines Plough), he uses his talent for high-precision dialogue to very funny effect. He also continues to explore the way the past haunts the present, as he did in Blackbird, and introduces a theme that recalls the political tension at the heart of Elvis Costello's Shipbuilding.

In George Perrin's razor-sharp production, Blythe Duff is brilliantly deadpan as a Helensburgh hotel landlady, hilariously hidebound by petty regulations. She maintains a professional front until she realises the guest now checking in is Evan Bold, the boy who bullied her son at school.

As the guilty party, Andrew Scott-Ramsay points out that his victim's name, Jack Hughes, sounds awfully like Zola's "J'accuse". Evan is not as innocent as Alfred Dreyfus, the court-martialled soldier championed by the French novelist, but, as one of the "Faslane kids" brought into the area because of his father's job on the nearby nuclear naval base, he had cause to resent the locals' frosty reception.

Covering considerable ground in 50 minutes, Harrower moves deftly from linguistic games to social commentary, and a touching study of two characters learning to free themselves from their past. It's a tremendous piece of work.

Also doing a five-city tour and also well worth seeing are Fly Me to the Moon by Marie Jones, a crime caper about two care workers, which has the throwaway charm of an Ealing comedy, and In the Pipeline by Gary Owen, which adopts the interlinking monologue format pioneered by Brian Friel to observe the impact of global economics on a Milford Haven community.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Interiors, theatre review

Published in Northings

Interiors
Tramway, Glasgow, 29 September 2010, and touring

IT SEEMS odd to praise the acting in a production in which nobody speaks, but in Vanishing Point's remarkable show, the performances are of a very high standard indeed. I'd go further and say Matthew Lenton's actors are the best ensemble on stage in Scotland this side of Black Watch.

So how can this be?

Well, the idea of this immaculately presented show, inspired by a play called Interior by Maurice Maeterlinck, is that we are looking through glass windows into the living room of some northerly house where a dinner party is taking place on the longest night of the year.

We can hear nothing of the guests' conversation (although we do get to share in the sounds of ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ as the evening gets into its stride) and instead, we follow what is going on by observing their body language, with helpful hints from a disembodied voice giving a spookily all-knowing commentary.

So we take note of the initial conversational awkwardness, the sexual manoeuvres and the building camaraderie. We see moments of embarrassment, passages of abandonment and scenes of awkwardness and irritation.

It is often very funny, but it is also beautifully observed and cleverly understated. We realise what we are watching is not a drama of heightened emotion and extraordinary intensity, but one of everyday joys and disappointments. It is played in the same minor key as a comedy by Anton Chekhov or Mike Leigh and – speaking or not – the actors invest their roles with a touching and honest humanity.

If it went only that far, you could call it whimsical or even a gimmick, like a soft-centred silent movie. But Interiors goes much further than that. As the party wears on, so the shadow of death looms ever larger. We realise the disembodied voice is not a dispassionate narrator but an absent protagonist, and the play takes on a universal dimension.

Slowly we see that the rituals, the foibles and the failures might be minor in themselves, but they are what make the characters the people they are. By reminding us of our mortality, the play becomes a moving celebration of ordinary life.

Along with Kai Fischer's unforgettable domestic set, complete with ghostly video projections and an emotive score by Alasdair Macrae, this partially recast production justifies every one of its three gongs in the 2009 Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland. Audacious, nourishing and poignant, it is essential viewing.

Interiors is at the OneTouch Theatre, Eden Court, Inverness, on 8-9 October 2010.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Friday, September 24, 2010

Interview with Simon Stephens about Punk Rock

Published in The Scotsman

Interview: Simon Stephens, playwright

WHEN Simon Stephens graduated from York University at the start of the 1990s, his instinct was to head north. His friends were all moving to London, but this Cheshire-born playwright felt a pull in the opposite direction. That is how he came to fetch up in Edinburgh where he would live for a "defining" two years.

Once there, he did what any aspiring playwright would do: he took a job in the café above the old Edinburgh Bookshop on George Street, came home after his evening shift and wrote into the night.

It wasn't the only work he did. He also set himself up as a DJ and has never forgotten the embarrassment of his first gig – an 18th birthday party where nobody but close family turned up. But the memory that really stays with him is his daily walk past the King's Theatre in Tollcross. "I used to walk to work past the dock door of the King's Theatre," he says. "When they were doing a get-in or a get-out, you could look through the dock door and see that space. I used to fantasise about writing a play that'd be playing at the King's."

Now, more than 15 years later, his ambition is being realised. Having won rave reviews at London's Lyric Hammersmith, his Punk Rock is on a national tour that reaches the King's next week. Stephens, now living in London with his wife and three children, says he'll find it hard to resist returning to Edinburgh to see it for himself.

The inspiration for Punk Rock lies not in Edinburgh, but with an even earlier memory. Stephens grew up in Stockport and went to secondary school at an all-boys comprehensive, known prosaically as Stockport School. Immediately over the road was Stockport Grammar, a 500-year-old fee-paying school for which pupils had to sit an entrance exam. The young Stephens would look enviously at the grand red-brick building and fantasise about what life would be like inside. It dominated his teenage imagination.

"There's so much of me in this play and so much of my childhood and particularly my teenage years," says Stephens who, even today, has never set foot in the grammar school. "It's a synthesis of an imagined world, an experienced world and a researched world. My school was the worst of both worlds. There was none of the civilising influence of the girls and a lot of tension and aggro. The grammar school was always the imagined 'other' that I never experienced."

It continued to haunt his adult imagination, which is why he thought it would make a perfect setting for a play about the simmering pressures of today's goal-driven society. Punk Rock fits in with a pattern of Stephens's plays that, typically, worry away at the stresses of 21st-century life and those headline-grabbing global events that seem so inexplicable.

In Pornography, which was named best play in the Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland in 2009, he framed the London bombings of 7 July, 2005 in terms of the wider alienation of a world of sexual opportunism, racism and narcissism. In Sea Wall, seen at Edinburgh's Traverse last year, he considered the problem of believing in God in a world that is both beautiful and cruel. For this year's Fringe, he wrote a short play, T5, superbly performed by Meg Fraser at the Traverse, in which a woman reels from the shock of witnessing a meaningless teenage stabbing in a local park.

Here, in Punk Rock, he uses a Columbine-style high-school massacre to question society's drive for academic success. For all their learning, the sixth-form students are as fearful of anyone outside their privileged bubble as they are neurotic about their exam performance. For at least one pupil, the sweet-natured William Carlisle (winningly played by star-in-the-making Rupert Simonian), the pressure is too great to cope with.

"A lot of the play was a juxtaposition of my imagined future of my kids' schooling experience with the sense of the terror of something like a Columbine massacre," says the playwright.

"Although the massacre happened in 1999, it seems emblematic of the start of this century – that schism in morality, that kind of transgression, that kind of horror. At the heart of these plays is the nature of transgression, people living in a culture of fear, trying to live with dignity and grace. What Pornography, Punk Rock and T5 share is the seductive nature of transgression. It's the fear one has when holding a baby of deliberately dropping them, when on the edge of train track of jumping in front of it just to see what it's like. Those possibilities are constantly there for everybody."

His fears about the dangers of the modern world were intensified as soon as he became a father. "I suddenly became much more sensitive to the political and economic environment we were living in," he says. "I was working as a schoolteacher at the time and I remember almost overnight changing my attitude to some of the kids who were giving me a really hard time, because I saw their inner baby. A lot of artists use their creativity to make sense of things they're afraid of. Columbine is frightening, even though it happened in America, because of the possibility that it might happen in my kids' school."

With its young cast and fusty academic setting, Punk Rock comes across as a slightly more with-it version of The History Boys. Surprisingly, Stephens makes no bones about his debt to the celebrated Alan Bennett play. In fact, he is uncommonly open about all his influences. Where many writers would deliberately shut themselves off from any artwork that dealt with a similar theme, lest they be overly indebted to them, Stephens embraces them as a source of inspiration and challenge.

"I'm really indebted to other playwrights," he says, quite serious when he adds that Punk Rock is structured like a 1940s Terence Rattigan play. "Punk Rock is informed by Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening and I was very aware of The History Boys when I was writing it. There are other plays like Brukner's Pains of Youth, which inspires the sexuality of the play, and films like Lindsay Anderson's If.... and Gus Van Sant's Elephant. The first part of any writing for me is about absorbing information and consciously looking for inspiration."

In the same way that Pornography was not directly about pornography, Punk Rock is not directly about punk rock. Where the earlier play used pornography as an unspoken metaphor for a degraded society, this one uses punk as an unspoken metaphor for middle-class rebellion.

"For me, punk is not so much that specific era between 1976 and 1978 so much as a spirit of defiance and aspiration for something more," says Stephens. "It is a spirit of wanting to get out and destroy the uncreative, of wanting to be dissident and to buck against the system. When you look at the musicians who made the great punk rock music, quite often they were middle-class art school boys, so there's a deliberate juxtaposition of that title and this middle-class grammar school."

• Punk Rock is at the King's Theatre, Edinburgh, 28 September until 2 October

© Mark Fisher 2010

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