Friday, May 28, 2010

Still a Bigot, Federer Versus Murray, The Third Policeman theatre reviews

Published in The Scotsman




ON ELECTION day, Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre staged Gordon Brown: A Life in Theatre, a hastily written, quickly rehearsed and very entertaining play about the outgoing prime minister. Running all the way through, like a motif in a tragic drama, was the phrase: "They should never have put me with that woman."

Personally, I'm not convinced Brown's encounter with Mrs Duffy from Rochdale – aka "that woman" – was as damaging to his electoral performance as the press made out. I happen to like the idea of a politician prepared to condemn prejudice where he finds it, even if he might have missed the mark on this occasion. And, whatever the rights and wrongs, it is clear the question of bigotry is not going to disappear anytime soon.

Despite the topicality, however, it is an anaesthetised, even nostalgic version of bigotry that is drawing in the crowds to Glasgow's Pavilion for James Barclay's Still a Bigot. In its rambling tale of Andra Thomson, a die-hard Protestant and Rangers fan, this broad comedy does not challenge the idea of sectarianism and racial prejudice so much as treat it like a loveable character quirk; misguided, yes, but cute with it.

Unlike Des Dillon's similarly popular and far superior Singin' I'm No a Billy He's a Tim, this comedy is set at a safe distance – the 1970s – when Thomson's bigotry seems like an odd characteristic of the times rather than a divisive social issue. But, actually, toothless politics is the least of Still a Bigot's failings; its heart, after all, is in the right multicultural place and it would be hard to leave thinking Thomson, a poor man's Alf Garnett, has the right idea.

No, the problem is its implausibility. It just isn't possible to accept that a man who can't bring himself to say the word "Pope" could ever have married a Catholic, still less to have stood by while his son went into a seminary. Neither can you believe the same man would consider, even momentarily, a flirtation with the Communist Party. These are no pedantic objections. Situation comedy arises from truthful observation, not bizarre digressions that exist only to serve the plot, and it is hard to laugh when you don't recognise the basic premise.

Take one of the most feeble jokes (and there are many). Thomson tells his wife he has been made Rangers' official poet and shows her the letter to prove it. She reads it and sees the club has barred him and not made him a bard. In case you don't get it, they spell out B-A-R-R-E-D and B-A-R-D a couple of times.

If the pun was worth the effort, you could maybe forget to question how Thomson could have so badly misread the letter, why he hadn't shown it to his wife already and why he does not regard being barred from his beloved club as a catastrophe. As it is, the short sequence throws up these inconsistencies for no worthwhile reason. If Barclay can't be bothered to believe in his hero's dilemma, why should we?

Gallantly, the cast – led by John Murtagh and Barbara Rafferty – have the generous spirit to romp through the material regardless of its substandard gags, unconvincing plot turns and endless repetitions (do they have to react like that every time the doorbell plays The Sash?) It is thanks to the actors and their all-round cheeriness that the audience goes home happy.

You could say the same about Maureen Beattie and Gerry Mulgrew at this week's offering from A Play, a Pie and a Pint, though the material in Gerda Stevenson's Federer Versus Murray is of vastly superior quality.

Using last season's Wimbledon battle as a metaphor for marital tension, Stevenson portrays a couple suffering a deep unhappiness. On the surface, they squabble over his post-redundancy idleness, her long hours on the hospital nightshift and the mystery gentleman caller who has been leaving her flowers. Their real source of discontent, however, is the death of their soldier son in Afghanistan and an inability to process their grief. By the time they have painted their faces in the colours of the Saltire and the Swiss flag to watch the big match, they are channelling global political forces, whether it is her "Mills & Boon nationalism" or his conspiracy-theory war protests.

There is lots of meaty stuff here, all batted back and forth across the net by Beattie and Mulgrew like the pros they are, but Federer Versus Murray shares the weakness of so many plays where death is the starting point. In dramatic terms, grief is inert. It doesn't develop and it can't be resolved. The real action has happened before the play begins and, although Stevenson produces some fine rallies and shows acute human insight, it's never really clear where the play is heading.

Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman also starts with a death – a murder, in fact – but it is one that sets in motion a surreal chain of events affecting the unnamed wooden-legged narrator played here by a cross-dressing Sandra O Malley. O'Brien is known for his absurdist postmodern humour, but director Niall Henry, working with Sligo's Blue Raincoat Theatre Company and an adaptation by Jocelyn Clarke, chooses to present The Third Policeman as a Kafkaesque nightmare in which the leaps of logic are less funny than frightening.

The five actors perform with an intense, high-velocity attack, their deadpan delivery, dark suits and eccentric use of space recalling a piece of avant-garde Polish theatre. If it had been performed in Polish I might have liked it more, for it certainly looks good. In English, however, it is like being hit on the head with the book for 90 minutes. Banishing whimsy, the company hits a pummelling pitch that is admirable in its conviction but hard to enjoy, so that even the inventiveness of half-human bicycles and journeys into eternity wear you down.

• Still a Bigot is at the Pavilion, Glasgow, until Saturday. Federer Versus Murray is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Sunday. The Third Policeman is at the Tron, Glasgow, until Sunday and at the Traverse, Edinburgh, from 3-5 June.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sweeney Todd, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Sweeney Todd

Dundee Rep
5 out of 5

Confirming its status as Scotland's first theatre of musicals, Dundee Rep gives a modern-dress take on Stephen Sondheim's story of the demon barber of Fleet Street that is as stunning in its musical accomplishment as it is exemplary in its stagecraft.

James Brining's production reminds you that, for all its throat-slashing gore, Sweeney Todd owes as much to the arc of Greek and Shakespearean tragedy as it does to Victorian melodrama. Like Macbeth, the murderous Todd is defeated by the same compulsion that brought him greatness in the first place.

Played by David Birrell, he is a figure of unruffled determination. Far from being a music-hall villain, he is cool and enigmatic, a self-contained obsessive, focused on revenge. Like a gambler, he takes no pleasure in his victories, and engages emotionally with others only to the extent that it serves his chilling purposes. He also sings beautifully.

The same is true of the entire large cast, from star performers such as Ann Louise Ross playing Todd's partner-in-pies Mrs Lovett, to cameo turns such as Richard Conlon playing rival barber Pirelli. As an ensemble, under the musical direction of Hilary Brooks, they tackle Sondheim's complex, inter-weaving melodies with awesome force.

All this is performed with the 10-strong band high up on a gantry against the exposed back wall of the theatre. Designer Colin Richmond places the action in and around a set of shipping containers, avoiding the usual cliches of 19th-century London – this is a dirty, industrial city of unhygienic back-street cafes and back-of-the-lorry salesmen; a place where the rich wield power over a disenfranchised poor.

Keeping pace with the through-composed score as it switches from bedlam to bedroom, the seamless production is rich, vivid and rewarding.

Until 12 June. Box office: 01382 223530.
© Mark Fisher 2010

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Monday, May 24, 2010

One Million Tiny Plays About Britain, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

One Million Tiny Plays About Britain

Citizens, Glasgow
4 out of 5

Ros Philips brings Tardis-like powers to her inspired staging of Craig Taylor's miniature dramas, originally serialised in the Guardian and now brought vividly to life as the plays they always aspired to be. The warping of the space-time continuum is partly in Jason Southgate's design, which makes resourceful use of the small upstairs studio, transforming the space ingeniously from a city park to a commuter train, from an estate agent to a kebab shop, from a prayer room to a hospital.

It is also in the unfathomable distance Philips covers in just 90 minutes. Taking Taylor's geographical stage directions at their word, she whisks us from Portsmouth to Pilton, from town to country, interspersing each short, sharp scene with recorded chatter from Geordies, Scousers and Glaswegians.

Working tirelessly and with absolute concentration, Sushil Chudasama, Mark McDonnell and Pauline Turner show chameleon-like gifts for transformation. Taylor's skill is to create striking characterisations in the smallest amount of dialogue. It must have been tempting for the actors to turn the hen-night Wonder Woman, the pompous IT man and the light-jumping bike thief into caricatures, but although the show is very funny, they never ham it up. Barring the odd sketch-show moment, they treat each character with honesty and compassion.

Together, their confrontations and misunderstandings form a mosaic of modern multicultural life. Even the funniest tend to also be poignant. Whether it is the old lady in desperate need to talk, the Muslim and Christian making futile attempts to understand each other or the young marketing managers laying off one of their "old-school" staff, this is a Britain not of great dramatic moments but of everyday cruelties. If by its nature, the show is not big on emotional depth, it nonetheless skims the surface with wit, flair and surprising insight.

Until June 6. Box office: 0141-429 0022.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Friday, May 21, 2010

Behaviour, Arches theatre review

Published in The Scotsman

Behaviour festival review





IT'S SATURDAY afternoon and I bump into a friend in the bar of Glasgow's Arches. She's talking animatedly to another woman whom I assume to be a friend of hers. I should have known better. The two have only just met, but it has been in an extraordinary circumstance. They have been part of the audience of Internal, a phenomenal production by the Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed.

Ever since this show played on the Edinburgh Fringe last year, I have been observing the odd effect it has on people. Even those who haven't enjoyed this cross between a speed-dating encounter and group-therapy session seem compelled to discuss it with strangers. On Saturday afternoon, a passing Arches usher comes over and tells us how much she has enjoyed it.

Meanwhile my friend is talking with as much irritation and bewilderment as she is enthusiasm. It is clear, however, that the show has got right under her skin. That doesn't surprise me. Nine months after seeing it, I'm still processing this half-hour show, trying to figure out whether it offers genuine interaction between spectator and actor or whether it is just a clever script in which the performers, as usual, have all the power.

This is the kind of question the Arches is asking this month during its Behaviour festival. In a 21st-century world mediated by computers, TV monitors and smartphones, we have started to put a premium on theatre's capacity to explore the personal, the intimate and the spontaneous. Whether it makes you feel alarmed or alive, the experience of an actor looking you in the eye and asking your opinion is something you'd be hard pressed to find anywhere else.

Certainly, it would make no sense for Adrian Howells to make a movie version of Won't Somebody Dance With Me? The whole purpose of the event (to call it a performance would be stretching a point) is for each of us to have a close encounter with a man who, in previous shows, has massaged his audience's feet and washed their hair. The room is set out with purple balloons and party poppers as if for a rather depressing wedding reception. When the spirit takes you, you leave your table and approach the solitary Howells to ask for a dance, supposedly the last smoochie number of the evening.

I can't complain about my twirl with him, the two of us embracing to the sounds of Dusty Springfield, but neither does it reveal some missing intimacy in my life or say anything I don't already know about the mixture of sadness and longing that characterises the last dance. For the rest of the 50 minutes, I end up in yet more conversation about Internal.

In How Soon Is Nigh? actor Gary McNair isn't trying anything so transgressive, although he does give me his ice-cream to finish, and that never happens at the pictures. One of the winners of Platform 18, the renamed Arches new work award, McNair performs a wry illustrated lecture on the theme of the apocalypse and his obsession with the end of the world. In a genial, offbeat show, he gets us to contribute our own ideas about what we would do if we had only minutes to live. Despite this, the show doesn't make the full leap between McNair's long-standing personal interest in the subject and existential questions of our own.

Back in more unsettling territory, Marlene Dandy One-to-One is the show my late mother warned me about. A seductive figure in corset and suspenders, gorgeous except for the soft fur of a beard confounding the feminine body language, greets you at the top of the stairs and leads you into her dressing room.

She is all fluttering eyelashes and sweeping black feathers, with the forbidden sexual charisma of a Marlene Dietrich. She is about to go on stage and wants to run through her lines – it's hard to take them all in, but there is a lot of stuff about her being a curiosity and living in a transitional place, the dressing room becoming a metaphor for subversive change and transformation. It lasts only 15 minutes, which is about as much as a poor boy can take.

Not that it's all about intimidation. Hand Me Down is a life-enhancing show by Glas(s) Performance – the other Platform 18 winner – with a very simple idea at its heart.

Directors Jess Thorpe and Tashi Gore have brought together ten women from an extended family in Port Glasgow. They are sisters and cousins, granddaughters and aunties, and their stories are of childhood and parents, memories and mementoes, affectionate anecdotes about one another and of other matriarchal figures long since passed.

There is no great drama underscoring the lives of these women. Unlike the work of German company Rimini Protokoll, which has worked with real policemen and real muezzins who call the faithful to prayer in Cairo, there is no big issue to be discussed.

Yet what quickly emerges, as the women talk in their own words in a series of beautifully directed vignettes, is an overwhelming sense of life as it is lived, the emotional value of community and the power of family bonds. The six-year-olds play, draw and sometimes join in; the older ones show the cakes they've baked; one plays the bagpipes and they all have a bit of a dance.

Their conversation is affectionate, never more than gently teasing, generally unsentimental and made up of details that are significant only to the women themselves. Yet somehow, this collage of everyday experience is tremendously nourishing, heart-warming and affecting. Like life itself, you want it to go on for ever.

Hand Me Down and How Soon is Nigh? are at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, tonight until Sunday; Won't Somebody Dance With Me? and Marlene Dandy One-to-One have both ended their runs. The Behaviour festival is at the Arches, Glasgow until 29 May.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Before I Go, theatre review

Published in The Scotsman

Before I Go **

CHARLES Baudelaire was a 19th-century wild child who believed art should be free of morality. His romantic spirit is in ironic counterpoint to that of Nolan in this lunchtime three-hander by Rab C Nesbitt's Ian Pattison.

Played by Ryan Fletcher,this young man is a dealer on the Cardonald crack circuit and his rebellious rejection of conventional ideas such as conscience and consideration for others is entirely self-serving. There is no poetry in his drug-pushing lifestyle.

It seems unlikely that Ellen, his mother, would approve even if it was poetic. Despite having a large portrait of Baudelaire on her living room wall and a rather unlikely habit of slipping into French from time to time, she is no hedonist and dearly wishes Nolan would change his ways before her newly diagnosed lung cancer takes its toll.

You'd think death, drug-dealing and decadence would make weighty themes but, despite the evidence, the stakes never feel very high in Before I Go. Ellen's ultimatum to Nolan to give up his gangster ways seems no more serious to us than it does to him.

The return of Jon Morrison's Ross, Nolan's absent father, has little effect on the emotional balance, despite him being a policeman well versed in his son's activities. And Ellen's grand Robin Hood gesture with Nolan's stolen cash comes too late to animate the story.

It makes Baudelaire look like an after-thought in an otherwise familiar death-bed study of minor regret and missed opportunity that is sensitively observed but uncompelling.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Address Unknown, theatre review

Published in The Scotsman


OF ALL the traumas associated with the Second World War, one of the hardest to come to terms with is how people of good character could have thrown their support behind Hitler. Their betrayal produced, on a very big scale, the kind of shock caused by a lover who chooses a new partner; to the rejected party, it is as if there has been an inexplicable personality change. In the case of Germany, it is so difficult to explain that, over 60 years later, we are still trying to process it.

Address Unknown does not provide a definitive answer, but it gives some indication of the psychology involved. It is taken from a story by Kressmann Taylor published in 1938, which she said was based on a genuine exchange of letters. In the form we have it here, it is about two old friends and business associates. One, Max, is a Jewish art dealer living in San Francisco. The other, Martin, has just returned from the USA to his native Germany.

Related in epistolary form by Benny Young and James MacPherson, the story begins with an air of genial prosperity, the men confessing their moral scruples as one profits from wealthy art collectors and the other finds himself among Munich's rich elite. We're a couple of letters in before Hitler's name is even mentioned and, then, in disapproving terms.

But slowly Martin's language hardens, his expedient tolerance of the National Socialists turning into patriotic enthusiasm and, most chillingly, outright rejection of his old friend. Max's incomprehension and despair seems as intense as our own when we look back today, although his calculated revenge seems too much like poetic justice to be true.

Andy Arnold's production is straightforward and measured, making a thoughtful, if static, addition to his Mayfesto season of political drama.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Pondlife McGurk, theatre review

Published in Northings

Church Hill Studio, Edinburgh, 13 May 2010, and touring

THE way this show by Edinburgh's Catherine Wheels is set out, you get a good chance to look at the audience. The younger members (it’s aimed at the 9–13 range) sit on four carpets divided by two corridors patrolled by actor Andy Manley. The less supple among us sit on benches on the perimeter of the playing area.

And should your attention slip from Manley at any point, you will see that everyone, young and old alike, has the look of a wide-eyed two-year-old. It is as if Manley is a shaman, enchanting his acolytes with magical words, beguiling them into a dream-like state. They stare at him with abandonment and absorption, trusting him, needing him to complete his tale. They are under his spell.

Yet the words he says, written by Rob Evans and co-created with Gill Robertson, are not so fantastical. Indeed, the scenario must be very familiar to this audience. It is about new-boy Martin who has arrived in a Scottish P6 from his old school in Birmingham. The other children have no time for him, unless it means calling him “Bummie”, and he'd be left on his own if it weren't for Simon, the one boy who shows him any attention. They become the closest of friends.

The tragedy comes not with a sudden blow, but in increments, as circumstances – in particular Martin's gift for football – tear them apart. The transition leads to a betrayal that haunts Martin for the next 30 years, much as any of us might be bugged by some rash act committed at an age when we were too young to understand our own behaviour, let alone control it.

In Manley's hands the tale is mesmerising. He is a calm and centred actor, a storyteller who draws us into his world not with grand gestures or extravagant characterisation, but with the sure and steady focus on what he has to say. Moving between and around us, he sketches the classmates, teachers and parents that populate the boys' world and, most movingly, captures the sense of helplessness as a perfect friendship goes perfectly wrong.

In lesser hands, Pondlife McGurk would be a crude morality play about bullying. Here it is a much more sophisticated consideration of the complex pressures of school, where alliances are made and broken at a price and only the most independently minded can resist the pull of the crowd. The company is touring to a Shetland school that was unable to make the journey to Edinburgh. Those children are getting a very good deal indeed.

Pondlife McGurk visits Shetland for two school performances and one public show at Bells Brae School, Lerwick, on 27 May 2010 (7pm).

© Mark Fisher, 2010

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Drumhead, theatre review

Published in the Scotsman


WHEN people do bad things it is often language that pays the first price. Cruelty sounds more palatable when dressed up in a fancy phrase. That's why the character played by Frodo McDaniel in this bleak drama tells us he is not involved in torture but "enhanced interrogation".

The enhancement, as we see for ourselves in Rhymes With Purple's site-specific production, includes such techniques as water-boarding, sensory deprivation and the playing of excessively loud music. But McDaniel, embodying the banality of evil, treats them all with the disinterested calm of a professional. He could be a warden doling out parking tickets for all the concern and compassion he shows.

Meanwhile the victim, played by Ben Allison, who alternates roles nightly with McDaniel, pulsates in bewildered agony as he tries to figure out what the question is, let alone how to answer it.

To witness this unpleasant scenario, we have been bussed to a warehouse and guided to the kind of bleakly anonymous room where terrorists imprison Jack Bauer. There is none of the glossy entertainment value of 24 in Drumhead, however. Written by the actors, it is a study in discomfort and calculated fear that tries our patience almost as much as it inflicts legally sanctioned pain on the prisoner. There are times when the banality of evil is banal to watch.

The strength of the play, staged as part of the Tron's Mayfesto season of political drama, lies in its exposure of a Guantanamo-era society that sanctions interrogation methods akin to medieval witch-hunting. Its weakness, despite the realistic setting, is it is not real enough. To raise our indignation, we have to know whether we are watching fact or fiction, and here the line is blurred. Of course torture is a bad thing, but at whom are we pointing the finger?

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Whisky Kisses theatre review

Published in Northings

Whisky Kisses
Perth Theatre, 14 May 2010, and touring

YOU'VE GOT to salute the determination of the Whisky Kisses team. They’ve been plugging away at this musical since 2005 when they first heard about the Highland Quest competition run through Eden Court in Inverness. They didn’t win, but they were heartened by the public response and managed to get it staged in 2008 with students from Glasgow's RSAMD on the Edinburgh Fringe, where I last saw it.

Back then this story of a big-shot American money-man determined to buy the very last bottle of a malt whisky called Glenigma was imperfect, but showed cask-loads of promise. So now here it is again, with a professional company, Right Lines Productions, a seven-strong cast with live music and a circuitous tour of Scotland.

It's still not perfect, but it shows more promise still, and if the standing ovation it gets from sections of the audience on a Friday night in Perth is an indication, it is going down extremely well.

The big improvement comes in the more fully developed second half, when writers Euan Martin and Dave Smith get to grips with the show's deeper theme. The opening joke is that the Highlands have been romanticised out of all recognition by a group of New Yorkers with a misty-eyed love of Tartan Day and a belief that the tower blocks and streets of Manhattan somehow resemble the mountains and glens of Scotland.

The culture-clash comedy sustains the show for a while, as George Drennan's wheeler-dealer Ben, Kinny Gardner's put-upon assistant Jeff and Masashi Fujimoto's rival bidder Yomo come to Scotland and try to make sense of a land of bed-and-breakfasts and poor mobile phone reception.

What now emerges more forcibly out of this is a commentary on the collector's instinct, the heritage industry and nostalgia for an imagined past. Alyth McCormack's distillery owner Mary is interested only in living in the present, to enjoy what she has when she has it and not to turn her culture into a museum or a rare product to be bargained for.

It's an important political argument for the Highlands, a region increasingly dependent on tourism and the service industry, and there's a fascinating tension in the way composer James Bryce plays off the essentially American form of the musical with the ceilidh culture of Scotland.

All of this is delivered with tremendous musical energy by the cast, led by musical director Karen MacIver and graced with fabulous vocal arrangements. This is where the show's force lies, and you forgive the less persuasive moments of acting because the whole thing is done with such heart.

Disappointing, in Ian Grieve's production, is the low-budget set, which lacks flair and imagination, and makes what is presumably quite an expensive show look cheap. Also in need of work is the under-written character of Yomo, the rival Japanese entrepreneur: if they parody American attitudes to Scotland, why not Japanese attitudes too?

A better developed story would make Yomo a more powerful adversary and avoid the clichÈ of the mysterious Oriental gentleman. And finally, the writers should succumb to the conventions of the Hollywood musical and give Ben and Mary a decent love story instead of the half-baked relationship they have now.

Nitpicking? Maybe, but it goes to show what a demanding form the musical is and what impressive ground the company has covered so far. Whisky Kisses is an enjoyable night out, but it could be a great one yet.

Whisky Kisses remaining tour dates are at Strathpeffer Pavilion on 19 May, Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, on 20 and 21 May, and the Macphail Centre, Ullapool, on 22 May 2010.

© Mark Fisher, 2010

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Friday, May 14, 2010

Bank of Scotland Imaginate children's theatre festival review

Published in The Scotsman

Imaginate round-up review



RAWUMS (:) ****







IT'S SCARCELY 10:30am on a Monday morning and already I'm being subjected to a barrage of sex and violence. It can mean only one thing: The Bank of Scotland Imaginate children's theatre festival is back and, as ever, treating young audiences with the same respect their parents take for granted. Festival director Tony Reekie tells me that he hasn't got the bottle to programme the fantastic Dutch show he saw that featured the suicide of a tomato but, in among the daftness and the fun of this year's line-up, he is providing plenty of themes that even grown-ups would find chewy.

The sex and violence comes courtesy of Shona Reppe, the radiant Scottish puppeteer whose one-woman Cinderella has been dazzling the world since 2002. That I've missed it all these years is inexcusable and I strongly recommend you catch up with it too. It's the only way you'll appreciate how raunchy she can make two hands appear as she kits them out in red and orange gloves – with a cheeky feather edging – to become the not-so-ugly Ugly Sisters. In a kind of reverse striptease, Reppe uses the most precise movement and the sparest amount of language to give life to these hilariously vulgar creatures.

What a contrast to poor Cinderella herself, an all-but-colourless puppet made out of raggedy cloth, whose tireless domestic drudgery is minutely inspected by her cruel stepsisters. When I say "cruel", I mean they're the kind who will dunk her head in a pail of water, dangle her upside down from a height and threaten to throw her in the fire. This show is for the over-fives, but I've never seen the heroine treated so mercilessly.

It's rare, too, to see a Cinderella told with such visual flair and deadpan wit. We see nothing of the pumpkin and little of the renamed Prince Alvin, but the black-light dance at the ball is charming and dream-like and Reppe's own transformation into the good fairy, with flickering feather duster standing in for wings, is a delight. The children are captivated by such a fresh retelling of a familiar tale; the adults no less so, plus they get the added bonus of appreciating Reppe's incidental gags, such as her description of the glass slippers: "How beautiful yet impractical."

After assault and battery for primary school children, we come to Newtonian physics for two-year-olds. In Rawums (:), German double-act Florschütz & Döhnert focus on an audience that has not long got to grips with gravity. They know hats are supposed to stay on heads, that birds can fly even though eggs cannot and that houses are resolutely earthbound. When Melanie Florschütz and Michael Döhnert put these assumptions to the test, however, they upturn the laws of nature to hilarious and beguiling effect.

We have a good laugh when Florschütz's hat keeps floating upwards and when Döhnert can't figure out why a feather takes longer to hit the ground than a heavy bag. But things take on a magical dimension when the balloons come out and, with small pegs for ballast, they give floating, dancing, drifting life to the paper man, woman, bird and house they support. The young audience claps repeatedly, as if applauding the wonder of gravity itself.

Like much of the best children's theatre – and, indeed, much of the best adult theatre – Rawums (:) is built on a simple idea. The same is true of Chit-chat, a piece of choreography by the French company Cie étantdonné that is all about anatomy. At the back of a dark stage a wide letterbox of light appears and in it, two sets of feet. To a bossa nova soundtrack, the bodiless limbs perform a funny tango, complete with optical illusions and sight gags. The focus switches to the upper-body before the dancers break out onto the whole stage for a teasing routine of acceptance and rejection.

For as long as it's all about feet, necks and shoulders, Chit-chat has a clear sense of purpose. A fluttering sequence set to a score of real birdsong works particularly well. But after the striking opening scenes, the show grows less coherent and meanders to an indifferent conclusion.

Waiting for the audience to arrive for One Thousand Paper Cranes, actors Julia Innocenti and Rosalind Sydney keep up an inspired improvised routine about sports training, Innocenti performing gruelling laps of the studio theatre while Sydney holds the stopwatch. The air of joviality is as infectious as it is misleading. Despite the knockabout fun, this superb production by Scotland's Lu Kemp and Abigail Docherty turns out to be about a ten-year-old with a terminal illness.

Effectively telling the same story as Catherine Wheels' Pobby and Dingan, one of the nominees in the shortlists for the Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland announced today, One Thousand Paper Cranes is a deeply moving consideration of how to deal with childhood death. Innocenti plays a Japanese girl whose athleticism proves no match for Hiroshima's nuclear fallout. There is no avoiding her fate, but the play shows how her friend can start to come to terms with her loss by understanding the value of love and creativity in the form of a theatre that explodes to life with the paper cranes of the title.

I found it very touching and the audience was transfixed, although I'm not sure children are as bothered by death as adults. Faced by a very sickly goose in Catherine Wheels' Martha, for example, one child shouts out, "He's dead," but sounds only vaguely disappointed rather than traumatised.

In comparison to this week's weighty themes, Martha's moral about the value of friendship doesn't seem so urgent – and Gill Robertson is too generous an actor to make an entirely convincing curmudgeon – but there's no denying the entertainment value in this much-loved show about a truce between a recluse and a loose goose.

Cinderella runs until 16 May; Rawums (:) tours Scotland until 19 May; Chit-Chat, run ended; One Thousand Paper Cranes runs until 16 May; Martha transfers to the Traverse, Edinburgh, until 16 May. For full listings for the Imaginate festival, tel: 0131-228 1404;

© Mark Fisher 2010

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A Most Civil Arrangement/Jordan, theatre review

Published in The Scotsman





AFTER blasting off last week with incendiary visions of Iraq and Palestine, the Tron's new politically minded season, Mayfesto, looks closer to home. The two one-woman shows at the Changing Room consider same-sex marriage and domestic violence and, if neither quite upturns our preconceptions, both do a valuable job at giving a voice to the alienated.

The joke in Colin Hough's A Most Civil Arrangement is that the character you expect to be the most reactionary is the most liberated. Anne Lacey plays Isobel, a middle-aged mother whose daughter Kelly is about to get married. She gets a laugh when she mentions the betrothed is called Janice, but the joke is on us. For Isobel has no reservations about her daughter's choice of partner and even goes so far as to reconfigure a cake decoration so it features two brides.

Her husband is infuriated at the idea, but as the big day approaches and hen night follows pre-wedding jitters, it transpires the most prejudiced is Kelly herself. She can't cope with her mother's open-mindedness and the sight of her line-dancing in a lesbian bar. And she's the one who needs her father to give her away in the old-fashioned way.

The more eccentric the play becomes, the funnier Lacey gets, not least in the closing sight gag. It's a breezy, throwaway piece with many sharp one-liners and shows a refreshingly off-beat view of an older generation's attitudes to love and lesbians.

Director Alison Peebles takes a loose approach to the staging, giving Lacey full range of the low-budget set, even to the extent of letting her wander over to turn the house lights on and off. It adds to the relaxed charm of the play but denies the performance some precision.

Certainly, when you see the long opening sequence of Gappad Theatre Company's Jordan, in which a young woman sits stock still beneath a severe spotlight, you are made aware of a very different directorial approach. Director Robert Przekwas brings a particularly Polish austerity to this punishing true-life story of a woman brought so low as to murder her own child.

And although the company makes no attempt to change the context of the play, written by Moira Buffini and Anna Reynolds in 1992, it is impossible to see the inflected performance by Magdalena Kaleta and not think of Eastern European immigrants and the poverty so many have suffered.

For the dark, unrelenting play makes clear this mother's terrible act is a product of social circumstance, her seemingly inhumane behaviour an instinctive, even maternal, response to a damaging situation. As the happy-ever-after story of Rumpelstiltskin plays out in ironic counterpoint to her own tale of child sacrifice, Kaleta never lets up on the intensity, building to a chilling performance.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

From the West Bank, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

From the West Bank

Tron, Glasgow
4 out of 5

After blanket coverage of the intricacies of the British political system, how refreshing to be reminded of the wider world. And how invigorating, in this opening salvo of Mayfesto, a two-week programme of politically inspired drama, to see it done so consummately.

In three short and substantial plays, actor-directors Cora Bissett and Ewan Donald – joined on stage by an equally authoritative Benny Young – take us to a Palestine where righteous anger vies with philosophical resignation as the only workable response to an unjust occupation. Performed with grace and clarity, these vignettes capture the rage, bewilderment and hope-against-hope that is born out of oppression.

It opens with An Imagined Sarha, a new adaptation by David Greig of a memoir by Raja Shehadeh, whose When the Bulbul Stopped Singing he adapted for Edinburgh's Traverse in 2004. As in that play, Shehadeh comes across as the wise and urbane Palestinian, this time bridging a seemingly impossible cultural divide as he joins a hashish-smoking Israeli settler in the Ramallah hills and, transcending prejudice, discovers a common humanity.

In contrast to Shehadeh's guru-like patience, the Bedouin refugee in Franca Rame's An Arab Woman Speaks is a fiery activist with no tolerance for injustice. Superbly played by Bissett, she tells a distressing and inspirational true story that makes the link between the oppression of women and the subjugation of a people.

It is a story that ranges from domestic violence to political assassination, a narrative arc that is hard for the outsider to contemplate. It is this sense of disconnection that Greig captures in the third play, Ramallah, a wry sketch in which a playwright finds himself incapable of communicating his tourist's eye view of the Middle East to his wife. In her indifference and his effusiveness we see our own conflicted response to the region.

Until 22 May. Box office: 0141-552 4267.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Friday, May 07, 2010

Blue Hen, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Blue Hen
Citizens, Glasgow
2 out of 5

They haven't made plays like Des Dillon's Blue Hen since the early 1980s. Its black humour recalls that era's working-class playwrights, such as Bleasdale, Godber and Russell. Its theme about male loss of dignity in a post-industrial world echoes the gizza-job camaraderie of The Boys from the Blackstuff. And its meat-and-two-veg presentation harks back to a time when you could throw on a play without worrying about fancy stagecraft.

It might feel as if time has stood still since the days of Thatcherite rebellion, but the production is warmly greeted by a sellout crowd. The plucky NLP company (motto: "Theatre for people who don't do theatre") has a sure grasp of its audience's tastes and preoccupations, offering broad demotic comedy that switches from the raucous to the tender, from the violent to the sad, with a humane, leftish politics to counteract the bleakness.

In Blue Hen, Paddy and John are neighbours with little left in their lives. They have lost their job and their wives; John has nearly lost his mind and is still on medication; and they have just lost an old workmate to suicide. Dillon makes it clear that their woes are caused by economics, just like the market for drugs that is ravaging their Coatbridge housing scheme. Yet from this infertile ground emerges an Odd Couple-style comedy in which the men bond, like husband and wife, over the common pursuit of raising chickens, a labour of love that compensates for their lost love of labour.

Scott Kyle and Charlie Lawson give credible performances, but the show's pace lurches erratically, with strange moments of inaction between the comic banter, and a script that tends to ramble. As a result, the play is neither as funny nor as poignant as it aspires to be – even if its heart is in the right place.

Until tomorrow. Box office: 0141 429 0022.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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