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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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Thursday, February 25, 2010

The National Review of Live Art 30th anniversary

Published in The List

The National Review of Live Art 30th anniversary

It all seems wrong. The National Review of Live Art has built its reputation on change. It never looks back and never stays still. The annual bonanza of what used to be called the avant garde has doggedly embraced the disconcerting, the deviant and the dumbfounding. Even in format it has been restless; switching cities from Nottingham to London to Glasgow; switching venues from the CCA to the Arches to the Tramway (and this year all three); and switching time of year from autumn to spring.

For this festival to have reached its 30th birthday feels like a betrayal. You want the NRLA to be forever young, mocking the passage of time like a performance art Peter Pan, ushering in the shock of the new, not the complacency of the middle-aged. That it is commemorating the occasion with something perilously like a retrospective is more alarming still. This is an event where you have to brace yourself for women becoming body-builders as part of their ‘artistic practice’ (Francesca Steele) and others simulating an 860-mile endurance cycle race (Kate Stannard). You don’t expect candles and birthday cake.

Yet take a look at the line-up. It’s full of names such as Alastair MacLennan, who has been on the scene since graduating from Dundee’s Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in the 1960s and who created a non-stop 96-hour performance/installation for the NRLA in 1987. Or there’s Ron Athey from Los Angeles who launched his career in the 1980s with a group called Premature Ejaculation before moving on to what he called a ‘performance torture trilogy’. Nice.

These and more than 100 former darlings of the NRLA will be back in town for a five-day anniversary bash made up exclusively of artists who have played a part in its history. But fear not. It will be the same bonanza of innovation as it ever was, says Neil Bartlett who graduated from being ‘mistress of ceremonies’ at the NRLA in the late-80s to running the Lyric Hammersmith for ten years and is even now finishing off a script for the National Theatre in London.

‘When people tell me I’m mainstream, I say, “Hmm, yes, did you see my show at the Vauxhall Tavern?’” he says, denying that a return to the NRLA is a backwards step. ‘It’ll be absolutely the opposite. No one’s going to go, “Ah, let me tell you about the wonderful old days.” Everyone’s doing a piece of new work. I’ve been talking since 1983 about how “mainstream” is a redundant category. If you look at the roster of artists working at any mainstream venue, then you will see people who were labelled deviant, dissident or uncategorisable in the 1980s. The theatrical languages of the 1980s have completely permeated into the mainstream.’

His only concern to do with his NRLA appearance is about getting back into drag. ‘I’m worried about my feet,’ he says. ‘My legs are as good now as they were, but the challenge was always the sheer physical pain of wearing shoes for that long. My feet used to bleed.’

Bartlett is part of a programme that ranges from a man making a meal from human tissue (Zoran Todorovic) to a woman sticking hair to her face to make her look like political figures from the Middle East (Oreet Ashery). Helping us make sense of it all is Ian Smith, mainstay of Glasgow street theatre company Mischief La-Bas, who is making his 14th appearance as MC. ‘I think of it as a big swimming pool that I jump into now and again,’ he says. ‘“Density of experience” is the phrase that comes to mind. It’s very intense. Dare I say like a trip? The beauty is that it is so varied. It’s like the components of a meal: individually you wouldn’t want to live off them for the rest of your life, but put together it’s a banquet.’

For Tim Etchells of Forced Entertainment, who made his NRLA debut in 1985 with The Set-Up, part of the festival’s value is its historical perspective. ‘It’s one of those places where you realise the community of connections is broader than you thought,’ says the director of this year’s Void Story. ‘At some of the first festivals we went to there were artists like Alastair MacLennan who was from a previous generation of performance artists. It was tremendously important to me to see that this was not entirely a game for kids, not just something you do when you come out of college, but that experiment in art and performance is a thing that can sustain itself over a long time.’

With 35 years of experiment under its belt, Forkbeard Fantasy will be on hand to compensate for all the body art and durational installations with a shot of multimedia surrealism. The Colour of Nonsense is an Emperor’s New Clothes-style comedy about the theft of an invisible artwork. ‘It’s humorously autobiographical,’ says the company’s Tim Britton, who has been bringing his cartoon humour to the NRLA since its earliest days. ‘It’s about these has-beens who are still clinging on to the cutting edge while all the young Turks are queuing up trying to knock them off. I’ve seen some fantastic work at the NRLA over the years – and some of it very funny, perhaps more edgily funny than what would go down with a traditional audience. The festival is a wonderful hotbed of experimentalism and there aren’t enough of those places.’

The NRLA, in other words, will offer as rich and varied a feast as ever. The only thing not on the menu is nostalgia. ‘The artform itself has evolved so it would be crazy to stay where we were ten years ago,’ says artistic director Nikki Milican, one of a rare breed to have been awarded an OBE for ‘services to performance art’. ‘You have to keep moving one step ahead of the game. Thirty years is a good psychological moment to put a full stop and move on. It’s not the end of anything, it’s the beginning of the next phase …’

National Review of Live Art, various venues, Glasgow, Wed 17–Sun 21 Mar.

© Mark Fisher 2010

The City, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

The City

Tron, Glasgow
4 out of 5

Martin Crimp's 2008 play is defined by political movements way beyond the suburban garden of Chris and Clair. No exchange between this professional ­couple is complete without some allusion to torture, warfare and abuse. The strain on their relationship – which goes from frosty to frigid in the taut ­performances of Ronnie Simon and Selina Boyack – is a consequence of a social order in which brute power is everything.

The tension that grows between them has the familiar symptoms of jealousy and vulnerability, but its causes are the violence of an inhumane society. When Clair tells Chris to impose his will – just as he is at his lowest, most emasculated ebb – it is a demand that calls to mind the soldiers who have brutalised the population of an unnamed foreign city and of the indifferent capitalist system that has robbed him of his job.

In this, The City sits between the fashionably dystopian visions of Simon Stephens's Pornography and Torben Betts's The Unconquered with its own quality of enigmatic strangeness ­compelling us forward in Andy Arnold's stark studio staging. Is Chris a benign victim or a sadist, voyeur and abuser? What are we to make of the allusions to prisons? And why do the abducted child, the daughter and the neighbour all wear pink trousers?

Crimp's resolution has a touch of "then I woke up and it was all a dream" about it, but his theatrical blurring of fact and fiction only reinforces the sense of psychological damage caused by a dysfunctional society. With Gabriel ­Quigley's neighbour adding to the atmosphere of creepy calmness, it makes for a riveting and troubling 70 minutes.

Until 6 March. Box office: 0141 552 4267.

© Mark Fisher 2010

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Heaven, Traverse/Play, Pie, Pint review

Published in The Guardian


Òran Mór, Glasgow
3 out of 5

I had assumed Simon Stephens would have reworked his short two-hander since the summer when the Traverse gave it a breakfast reading on the ­Edinburgh fringe. But here it is in a fuller but still bare-bones production for A Play, a Pie and a Pint, the lunchtime theatre season, with the same oddball charm and the same feeling that its deeper meaning is just out of grasp.

On balance, this is a good thing, not least because Heaven's combination of character comedy, plot revelations and philosophical reflection suit the ­laid-back lunchtime format. Give or take the odd fudged line, Dominic Hill's production makes a lively, if elliptical start to a five-play run of Traverse co-productions.

The scene is a departure lounge where two strangers awaiting a flight to Turin fall into a dispute over some ­litter. Kyle (Sean Scanlan), a 67-year-old former pianist is just the sort of ­busybody the younger Sean (Robert Jack) would sooner avoid as he makes a break for freedom from his job in a North Berwick hotel.

What starts as an amusingly pedantic struggle moves into less certain territory. Behind Kyle's fuddy-duddy appearance lies a bit of a radical – and perhaps something of the deus ex machina – although not radical enough to embrace Sean's decision to escape his idyllic ­family life. In place of a predictable kind of heaven, the father of two has opted for the thrill of the unknown.

The unsettling comedy finds a resolution of sorts in Kyle's incongruous rendition of Heaven, the trippy ode to celestial emptiness by Talking Heads. Whether from a beauty spot or an airport, Sean is escaping from a "place where nothing ever happens", like an artist searching for life whatever the personal cost.

Until Saturday. Box office: 0844 477 1000. Then at Traverse, Edinburgh (0131-228 1404), 2-6 March.

© Mark Fisher 2010

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

What We Know theatre review

What We Know
Traverse, Edinburgh
We live in a society disconnected from death. For a certain generation this messy inevitability takes place unseen in far away hospitals and care homes. When finally it intrudes, as intrude it must, it generates a sense of outrage in the bereaved, as if it had no right to be there. This is why so many contemporary plays treat death as the starting point of a study of mourning and not, as in the less sentimental classical tradition, the end point of a tragedy.

Pamela Carter's What We Know, co-produced by her Ek Performance company, is in this territory, but she escapes the most indulgent pitfalls in two ways. The first is to make the death unexpected, turning the play into an exploration of shock as much as of grief. The second is to construct the play in such a way that the audience feels the jolt with a similar intensity to the bereaved woman at the story's heart.

In a technique reminiscent of the second act of Anthony Neilson's The Wonderful World of Dissocia, Carter kicks off the play with a scene of such ultra-realistic banality that the switch into a more metaphysical realm is genuinely disorientating. One minute, the excellent Kate Dickie and Paul Thomas Hickey are making a meal together in real time - onions, tomatoes, chit chat and all - the next minute, Dickie is having an enigmatic conversation with a 16-year-old boy, then hosting a dinner party for three guests she didn't know she'd invited.

Not all of this works perfectly. The first scene is too long and the second too elliptical. The third, however, is superb, a comedy of excruciating social awkwardness worthy of Mike Leigh, boasting brilliantly observed performances by Anne Lacey, Pauline Lockhart and Robin Laing and topped by a raw and moving portrait of grief by Dickie herself.
Mark Fisher
Until February 27. Box office: 0131 228 1404.

© Mark Fisher 2010

The Beauty Queen of Leenane, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
4 out of 5

What you notice about the audience for The Beauty Queen of Leenane is how ­vocal it is. No surprise that people laugh at the jokes, of course. Martin ­McDonagh's writing sparkles with ­deadpan irony as he tells the tale of Maureen Folan, a 40-year-old woman trapped by her ­cantankerous old mother, Mag, into a life of barren ­inertia. The dialogue is as funny as the situation is bleak.

Less expected is the reaction to the story itself. More than once the plot twists produce gasps from the stalls – all the more surprising given that the playwright's technique is straight out of melodrama. His play had its premiere in 1996, but audiences in 1896 would have recognised a storyline in which the heroine fails to receive a crucial letter, and the baddie gets her comeuppance in a scene of sensational violence.

So what is it about this play that so convincingly persuades us of its ­vitality? It is partly that McDonagh knows exactly what conventions he is using, just as he deals consciously with the established themes of Irish drama, from language, exile and religion. His speech patterns owe a debt to JM Synge, his ­questions of emigration recall the plays of Tom ­Murphy and Brian Friel, and the relationship of cruel co-dependency between mother and daughter is like that of Hamm and Clov in Beckett's Endgame.

You could go further, and see Mag Folan as a symbol of Ireland itself, a pre-tiger economy figure of ­repression, denying the next generation its sexual freedom, forcing on it a choice to flee or stagnate. Maureen's tragedy has as much to do with the age-old allure of England and the US as it does with the stultifying atmosphere of her mother's kitchen.

But none of that is what makes an audience draw breath. This is created by McDonagh's skill as a storyteller, the unsentimental drawing of his ­characters and his ability to make us empathise with Maureen's dilemma. In this, much credit must also go to a ­flawless cast in Tony Cownie's finely judged ­production. We long for every moment of Cara Kelly's time on stage, so ­compelling is she as Maureen. ­Playing the script with a musician's ear for incidental detail, she is waspish, witty, passionate and vulnerable. We are no less delighted to be in the company of Nora Connolly's ­manipulative Mag, John Kazek's Pato and Dylan Kennedy's Ray, each helping the pot-boiler plot to catch us unawares.
Until 13 March. Box office: 0131-248 4848.

© Mark Fisher 2010

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Clutter Keeps Company theatre review

Published in Northings

Clutter Keeps Company

Tramway, Glasgow, 17 February 2010, and touring

THIS IS the second play on the trot in which writer Davey Anderson has used storytelling as his key technique. Like his spirited version of the adventures of Zorro at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre before Christmas, Clutter Keeps Company requires the actors to slip in and out of character and take turns as a narrator.

It means all the action happens in a "he said/she said" frame, an approach that plays to theatre's strengths. It encourages direct audience address, fast scene changes and a dressing-up box atmosphere that allows us to accept an actor as a middle-aged mum one moment and a teenager the next.

Fellow playwright David Greig has used the same technique, most recently in his hit comedy Midsummer and also in his teenager-friendly Yellow Moon. It is this play that Clutter Keeps Company most closely resembles, and not only because actor Keith Macpherson starred in both.

The two plays concern a son trying to reconnect with a long-lost father after a spot of criminal behaviour (in this case more imagined than real) and a trek to a far-away Scottish destination (Greig chose a Highland estate, Anderson goes for Millport). They both regard teenage experiences as worthy dramatic material.

But where Greig used his story to explore the pressure on teenagers to conform or rebel, touching on big issues such as self-harm along the way, Anderson is much less clear about what is at stake for his characters.

Money is tight for Nicola Miles-Wildin's single mother, but you could hardly regard her treatment of her children – Stevie (Scott Fletcher) and Julie (Jo Freer) – as neglect. Julie's romance with fairground worker Jim (Macpherson) looks like it will lead her into trouble, but he is not as sleazy as he at first appears and nothing comes of it. The arrival of a family of Mormons next door is similarly without friction.

The only possible source of dramatic tension is Stevie's Asperger syndrome, but even this amounts to little more than a penchant for tidiness and a liking of big numbers. You could argue his obsessive behaviour triggers the events of the play – he gets into trouble after trailing his sister to Jim's deserted fairground – but it would be harder to say that the story resolves anything, either to do with his medical condition or his family relationships.

This failure to establish a central dilemma makes Clutter Keeps Company seem purposeless, which in turn, despite the lively presentation by Birds of Paradise, makes it feel much longer than the 80-minute running time.

Clutter Keeps Company visits Mull Theatre, Tobermory (23 February); Taynuilt Village Hall (24 February); An Lanntair, Stornoway (26 February); New Deer Public Hall, Turriff (2 March); Dornie Hall, Dornie (4 March); Hopeman Memorial Hall (6 March); Tullynessie & Forbes Hall, Alford (16 March).

© Mark Fisher 2010

The Government Inspector theatre review

Published in The Guardian

The Government Inspector

Tron, Glasgow
4 out of 5

The gag about Barclays bank is not strictly necessary. The modern relevance­ of Nikolai Gogol's small-town satire has hit us long before the actor's­ off-the-cuff quip about bankers' bonuses­. Such is the atmosphere of venality­ in Gerry Mulgrew's hilarious Communicado­ ­production that, despite the period setting, we are never far away from ­financial profiteers and expense-fiddling MPs. By the time Andy Clark's Ivan Khlestakov­ gallops away from the provincial­ town where he has been ­profitably mistaken for a government inspector, we have a strong sensation of a society ­spinning off the rails through its own self-­serving greed. His cry of "Where are you ­racing to, Russia?" – in the late Adrian ­Mitchell's sparkling ­translation – today sounds like a ­premonition of late-­capitalist catastrophe.

The punchline of Gogol's play is that Khlestakov is no better than the fawning townsfolk who take him to be an important St Petersburg official. The brilliance of the writing is that he is no worse. He is guilty of opportunism­ – and what hungry man wouldn't be? – but they are still guiltier, for sustaining a system­ they know to be corrupt.

Mulgrew's production takes its cue from the frenetic polkas performed by the cast. With the same energy and ­mismatched community­ spirit, the ensemble hit a balance between caricature­ and a sense of emergency. Unembarrassed­ by their lavish lives­, but shocked to be found out, they pull together through raw self-interest.

Leading the rabble is John Bett, on top form as the police governor, ­switching between smooth-talking complacency and wild panic. He is the authority figure whose bluff has been called, and he's all the funnier for it.

© Mark Fisher 2010

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Backbeat theatre review

Published in The Guardian


Citizens, Glasgow
3 out of 5

Theatre is ill-equipped to ­represent other art forms. It can cope with ­portraying a brilliant painter, but ­struggles to show off a brilliant ­painting. It can convince us that a play's ­characters are in a top pop group, but risks shattering the ­illusion the moment they start strumming their guitars.

That is why it is bold for writer and director Iain ­Softley to bring his 1994 movie to the stage. Not only is ­Backbeat about the early days of the Beatles in the seedy clubs of Hamburg where they honed their sound from rough-and-ready skiffle to world-conquering rock'n'roll, but it is also about original bassist Stuart ­Sutcliffe, who traded stardom for art school before his death in 1962, aged 21. For the show to have a chance of working, Softley has to ­convince us of the lost genius of ­Sutcliffe the painter, as well as the primitive potential of a band that would redefine popular music.

Softley does an impressive job on both counts. The walls of industrial sheet metal on Christopher Oram's set create a gritty monochrome ­atmosphere, as well as serving as a screen for Timothy Bird's dynamic projections. When Alex Robertson's Sutcliffe is at work in his studio, we get a real feel for the intensity of his abstract painting: great splashes of blood-red paint appear behind him, a technique grimly repeated when he finally ­collapses from a brain haemorrhage.

Sutcliffe and his bandmates kick up an equally credible musical racket, all jangly guitars and chirpy harmonies, as they storm their way through Johnny B. Goode, Please Mr Postman and other period standards. For a show trying hard not to be seen as just another jukebox musical, Backbeat gives a convincing impression of the raw sound of early-60s rock'n'roll, even if Andrew Knott's vocals can't match the abrasiveness of the young John Lennon.

The transition from screen to stage is not entirely successful, however. Unlike the film, the play sometimes seems to be ticking off the key moments in the real-life story, when it could be ­delving deeper into the love triangle at its heart. It would take more exploration of the relationship between Sutcliffe and ­Lennon for us to understand the ­psychological tension caused by the appearance of German photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Isabella Calthorpe). The result is that Sutcliffe's death comes across more as dry historical fact than emotional turning point, and that in turn makes the band's show-closing medley seem less celebratory than ­chillingly indifferent.

© Mark Fisher 2010

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Promises Promises, Random Accomplice theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Promises Promises

Tron, Glasgow
4 out of 5

You could say this play was purpose-built for readers of this newspaper's ­Education and Society sections. ­Margaret Ann Brodie has just arrived as a supply teacher in a London school when she discovers a community group is about to perform an exorcism on one of her pupils, a six-year-old Somali girl who is an elective mute. The scene is set for a debate about classroom control and multiculturalism: should tolerance of beliefs extend to summoning devils before playtime?

Yet it would be wrong to call ­Douglas Maxwell's gripping monologue an issue play, though it shares much of the ­turbulent uncertainty of ­Blackbird or Oleanna. Promises Promises is based on a true story, but the drama is less about the rights and wrongs of ­witchcraft or the challenges of a ­multilingual ­classroom, and more about the ­character of Brodie herself.

When the head teacher, a fellow Scot, incorrectly refers to The Pride (sic) of Miss Jean Brodie, he ­inadvertently gets this Miss Brodie right. With 40 years' teaching behind her, she is past her prime – even if actor Joanna Tope invests her with a sassy ­sexuality – but it is pride that brings about her ­downfall. Many of her instincts are good, but her snooty "it wasn't like this in my day" attitudes turn a bad ­situation into a catastrophe.

Having started with Muriel Spark, the play passes through the ­doppelganger worlds of Robert Louis Stevenson and James Hogg, as ­Brodie recognises aspects of her own ­childhood in that of the little girl. With that, Maxwell's easy comedy hits dark psychological waters, like ­something by Edgar Allan Poe, as it slowly exposes the damaged woman behind the brusquely efficient teacher. Tope rides the transitions superbly in Johnny McKnight's ­haunting ­production for Random Accomplice, leaving us ­unsettled by a class act.

© Mark Fisher 2010

Promises Promises, Random Accomplice theatre review

Published in Northings

Promises Promises

(Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 4 February 2010, and touring)

TEACHING IS all about living up to a promise. So said an old associate of Maggie Brodie, the supply teacher at the unsteady heart of this excellent one-woman play by Douglas Maxwell. The teacher promises to teach and her job is to fulfil that promise one short lesson at a time.

The promise Brodie keeps, however, is altogether more gruesome. This is a play that starts off as a classroom comedy and ends up as a dark psychological horror story. On the way, it has all the slippery twists and turns of a gripping page-turner.

Promises Promises, produced by Random Accomplice, was inspired by a true story from a London school. A six-year-old Somali girl was refusing to talk, so a community leader was allowed into the classroom to perform a ritual to rid her of devils. In Maxwell's version, Brodie is outraged by this intervention but, as the supply teacher, is powerless to stop it.

With 40 years' teaching under her belt and the shadow of her father's religious zealousness looming over her, she regards the exorcism as an intrusion on her professional territory and an indulgence of superstitious faith. In this it is easy to sympathise with her, but she also has something of the indignation of a Daily Mail reader, a reactionary sense of superiority tinged with unspoken racism.

This premise could have led to an issue-based drama in which the merits and challenges of religion, multiculturalism and modern teaching methods were debated and ticked off one by one. But, although Maxwell touches on all of these questions, he labours none of them, preferring instead to pick apart the character of Brodie herself.

Like her namesake in the Muriel Spark novel, she is guilty of the sin of pride, but it is a flaw that covers a much more serious malaise. The deeper she leads us into the story, the more we see her not as the controlled figure of authority but as a vulnerable woman whose dependence on sex and alcohol stems from an abuse similar to that suffered by the Somali girl.

By the end, nothing is as it seems. Not the bright comedy, replaced by gothic horror; not the exorcism, which is more of a benign ritual; and not the actions of Brodie, which don't square with the tabloid description of a "race-hate miss", although they are no less shocking. It makes for a turbulent, unsettling 90 minutes, not least because of the assured swagger and deadpan playfulness of actor Joanna Tope in Johnny McKnight's atmospheric production.

Promises Promises is at the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, on 17 February; OneTouch Theatre, Eden Court, Inverness, on 24 March, and Woodend Barn, Banchory, on 25 March, 2010.

© Mark Fisher, 2010

Backbeat, Citizens Theatre preview

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Backbeat preview

RINGO Starr said Backbeat got the sound of The Beatles exactly right. That was a big compliment for Iain Softley, but also a surprising one. The writer and director of the 1994 movie had set out to capture the spirit of the Fab Four in early 1960s Hamburg rather than attempt a note-perfect tribute. For Ringo to say he got it right suggests Softley's instinct was spot on, even though authenticity was never his aim.

"What I wanted was to recreate the impact these guys had on the people that saw them," he says. "We just picked musicians who had a similar attitude – at the time, it was Dave Grohl from Nirvana, Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth and Mike Mills from REM. The result was that when Pete Best (The Beatles' original drummer] did his documentary, he used our soundtrack as the best indication of how the band sounded. The funny thing was we didn't set out to do that at all."

Softley is taking the same approach to the stage version of the film, which has its world premiere this month at Glasgow's Citizens' Theatre before a hoped-for London transfer. As we approach the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' first trip to the low-life nightclubs of the Reeperbahn, he is aiming to create a sense of the rough-and-ready excitement the band generated, without being too concerned about historical accuracy.

"It's not straitjacketed in history," he says. "It's not trying to be a reproduction, a restaging or a tribute. I've taken the energy and the essence of the story and I've launched the actors and musicians at this idea."

He knows a show like this will depend on the conviction of the musicians, which is why band rehearsals began as long ago as December. It's also why they've been warming up with live appearances at clubs including Glasgow's McChuill's. With sometime Oasis guitarist Paul Stacey as musical director, the creative team is putting everything into perfecting the energy of raw rock'n'roll.

"I went to see them rehearse, it was only the third time they'd played together and they were fantastic," says Isabella Calthorpe, who plays Astrid Kirchherr, the German photographer who captured the heart of original bass player Stuart Sutcliffe in 1960. "I couldn't believe they hadn't been playing together forever to have a real chemistry so early on. It was really exciting."

Softley agrees. "They are a great rock'n'roll band now. Paul Stacey has honed them into a fantastic performing unit. They ripped the place up in their Glasgow gig. The difference between the film and the play is you're in the same room as the guys playing."

The director, however, is quick to point out that Backbeat is no jukebox musical. He chose to launch the show at the Citizens' because of its reputation for straight drama.

Far from being a lightweight sing-along-a-Beatles show, his play focuses on the tragic story of their bass player. Sutcliffe had stunning looks but was no great shakes as a musician and, having fallen in love with Kirchherr, he left the band to pursue his vocation as a painter. It was a vocation cut cruelly short by a fatal brain haemorrhage at only 21.

"At the same time as the electric atmosphere created by the music, the experience is of the dramatic story," says Softley. "It's about the choice Stuart Sutcliffe has to make between his best friend, John Lennon, and his girlfriend, and between rock'n'roll and art."

Coming hot on the heels of Sam Taylor-Wood's Nowhere Boy, about Lennon's childhood – not to mention the hype of The Beatles Rock Band video game – Backbeat is a historical record that can still connect to a young audience. For those familiar with the story, what this retelling offers is an insight into the band's eventual transition from teen sensations to sonic pioneers. Hamburg gave them more than the mop top haircuts that defined their early image. It also gave them a taste for art, not least through their friendship with Kirchherr and her ex-boyfriend Klaus Voormann, who would go on to design the sleeve for Revolver.

"The band was honed in the creative furnace of Hamburg, both musically and in terms of the exposure to the bohemian art world and the ideas of Astrid Kirchherr and her German art school friends," says Softley. "It created the first art band. A few years later they commissioned Peter Blake to do the cover of Sgt Pepper and almost immediately John Lennon was moving away from the idea of being a conventional performing act. The play will show people visually what the world was, but it will feel as if you've gone back in a time machine and it is happening in the present."

Backbeat, Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, Tuesday until 6 March

© Mark Fisher 2010

Monday, February 08, 2010

Wall of Death, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Wall of Death: A Way of Life

SECC, Glasgow
4 out of 5

In April, the National Theatre of ­Scotland is staging Peter Pan. If that production is half as ­weightless as the Ken Fox Troupe riding the Wall of Death, it will be breathtaking. ­Harnessing the properties of ­centrifugal force, this ­family of old-school ­entertainers ride their low-slung Indian motorcycles around a vertiginous drum with heart-stopping panache. You will believe a boy can fly.

When they tell you to keep your ­fingers from the edge as you peer into their cylinder down a sheer six-metre wall, you assume it is all part of the end-of-the-pier patter. You can imagine these grungy "vertical riders" as part of the creepy funfair in Something Wicked This Way Comes, and you expect a bit of showbiz hyperbole.

But it is nothing of the kind. In turn, the four riders rev their engines, circle the wall and mock the laws of gravity as they breeze past our noses with a combination of reckless abandon and choreographic grace. This is a show not to be missed.

The event, however, has its ­questions. We all know the NTS is a theatre without walls, but in this ­collaboration with the artist Stephen Skrynka, it is also theatre without actors or playwrights. Despite her credit, Vicky Featherstone is not even a ­director in the usual sense.

This break with convention is part of what makes Wall of Death so ­exciting. If you wanted to get ­theoretical, you could place it in the tradition of the ­Grassmarket Project and Rimini ­Protokoll – companies that put real ­people on stage – but it is enough that the Ken Fox Troupe are just great at what they do.

The production is part of a strand of genre-defying NTS work that includes the rural art installations of Half Life and the country-and-western storytelling of Long Gone Lonesome. The question is not whether this is legitimate ­territory for a theatre company so much as whether the NTS is making the most of the opportunity.

Some aspects of Wall of Death are underdeveloped, as was the case with Long Gone Lonesome. Skrynka, rechristened "Skidmark Steve" for his efforts in learning to ride the Wall of Death, is an endearing but low-key host and, despite his diverting zoetrope sideshow and big-screen interviews, it is the Ken Fox Troupe who are the main event. That event is unquestionably thrilling, but it could have been more exhilarating still with a less earth-bound presentation.

Until Friday. Box office: 0844 395 4000. Then touring.

© Mark Fisher 2010

Friday, February 05, 2010

Birds and Other Things I Am Afraid Of, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Birds and Other Things I Am Afraid Of
Lansdowne Parish Church, Glasgow
3 out of 5

A site-specific show in a 19th-century church offers lots of ­tantalising possibilities: all those empty pews, echoing galleries and haunted corners. They are not, ­however, ­possibilities that concern Lynda ­Radley, whose one-woman show for Poorboy and the Arches takes place ­almost ­exclusively in a wooden shed ­constructed on the Lansdowne's altar.

After a preamble, in which we get a brief glimpse of a congregation of framed sepia portraits fading into the gloom, she leads the 12-strong audience into the shed, which doubles as the secret junk room in the family home of one Alice Macleod. There are shelves of glass jars, a filing cabinet laden with laundry, boxes of family photographs and an old cassette player – all loaded with clues to a half-remembered past.

The story she tells is as small-scale as the room. On the cusp of ­adulthood and independence, Alice yearns to ­connect with the mother whose funeral she was forbidden to attend as a little girl. With the cautious help of her ­librarian boyfriend, she ­rummages through the mementoes like a ­detective. If she can come to terms with her past, she will have the strength to fly the nest, like the birds that flutter in and out of the story.

It is minor, coming-of-age stuff, but Radley captures the sense of a self-absorbed only child; her sweetly voiced performance has a quirky charm that's enhanced by Sandy Thomson's ­inventive direction. The emotional ­terrain is gentle, however, and the story more particular than universal. That is why the beautiful closing image – in which she releases a balloon up into the church ceiling, as she finally lets go of her childhood – does not resonate with the grandeur the setting deserves.

© Mark Fisher 2010