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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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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.

© 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.

© 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

© 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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