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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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Blog Archive

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Too Many Penguins?, theatre review

Published in the Scotsman
MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling

YOU know that feeling when you've invited the relatives over for Christmas and it seems more and more keep showing up? You just don't know where to put them all.

That's the dilemma faced by little Penguina in Frozen Charlotte's delightful show for the under-threes.

She's happily sharing her wintry landscape with Mr Polaro, an unusually tolerant polar bear in charge of the upkeep of the lighthouse, when a tiny penguin drops by in a hot air balloon. There's ample room in her tent for this one but, before she knows it, there's a car-load of fluffy penguins driving up and then still more disembarking from a boat.

Played with eccentric charm by Nicola Jo Cully, Penguina is the hospitable type and she gamely does what she can to accommodate them all. But we've already seen she can be a bit of a scamp herself, and it's not long before the penguins are everywhere but where they should be.

In Heather Fulton's quietly inventive production, they show up spinning on Mr Polaro's record player, in his drawers and underneath his armchair. How they find their way there on Katy Wilson's Arctic set, with its red-and-white stripes echoing the black-and-white penguin, is a little bit of theatrical magic.

As every two year-old knows, however, there's no such thing as too many penguins and, as the creatures multiply like the brooms in Disney's Fantasia, the children's pleasure grows accordingly. They need little persuasion to join a rock'n'roll penguin dance for the happy, cuddly finale.
Rating: ****

© Mark Fisher, 2011
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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Sleeping Beauty, theatre review

Published in the Guardian
King’s Theatre, Glasgow
Three stars

AS Karl Marx nearly said, history repeats itself – the first time as pop music, the second time as panto. Whoever would have thought, watching Altered Images on Top of the Pops in 1981 that, 30 years later, we would see Clare Grogan in a spangly purple witch costume singing Happy Birthday to Princess Beauty, the night before the girl comes of age, with only a phalanx of dancing toys to foil her evil plan? When she segues into Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), only those of us of a certain age can remember it wasn't even one of hers.

Call it celebrity casting if you like, but Grogan adapts pleasingly well to the role of bad fairy Carabosse, turning in an imperious performance and relishing every wicked spell and curse. "In my kingdom, we don't get old, we stay like this for ever," she says, and every ex-Smash Hits reader is more than ready to believe it.

But if the star is holding back on the Gregory's-Girl-next-door charm, there are many other people on this stage eager to win our affections. Rather too many, in fact. Are we to root for Karen Dunbar's sneaker-footed Nanny Moira McClonky, good with a corny gag and her love of a singalong? Or should we be backing Arron Usher's cheery-if-perfunctory Jimmy Jingles the Jester? Should we, indeed, be seduced by Tony Roper's bad-boy Hector, who ends up with many of the show's best lines?

The answer is uncertain, which makes it hard to locate the heart of the production (it's not in the insipid romance, at any rate). The show is full of the customary King's generosity, raucousness and joy and, in Eric Potts's script, it has proper respect for the story, but it doesn't hit that extra level of sublime silliness of which this team is capable.

© Mark Fisher, 2011
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The Tree of Knowledge, theatre review

Published in the Guardian
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

DAVID Hume is getting maudlin. He has found out that, far from liberating the workforce, the free market has turned the workers into drones. Three centuries after the Enlightenment philosopher's birth, that's not the way he hoped things would turn out.

Adam Smith sees things differently. He has discovered ecstasy and the iPhone, and is delighted the market is giving humanity undreamt of pleasures. Only 12 years Hume's junior, the founding father of modern economics is looking the more sprightly by decades. Casting aside his work-ethic repressions, he legs it to the theatre bar in pursuit of anonymous sex.

These are the two impulses driving Jo Clifford's funny and wordy drama, low on action but high on discursiveness, in which the great 18th-century Edinburgh thinkers find themselves propelled into a contemporary world of microchips, instant messaging and cameraphones. That it's also a world of violence, alienation and atomisation is a conundrum they find hard to resolve.

The contradictions of capitalism perplex us all. That's why, in Ben Harrison's cleanly staged production, the house lights come up and Gerry Mulgrew's ever-inquisitive Hume gives the audience the once over. From his point of view, we are in a place "where people's creative energies have been set free by commerce". But as Neil McKinven's Smith discovers, it's a freedom eroded by the market's intrusion into our private lives. Money can't buy him love.

As the fallout from the banking crisis continues to grip Europe, Clifford contends we should neither continue in the same way, nor condemn our post-Enlightenment advances. Refusing to apologise for tasting the fruits of Eden, Joanna Tope's modern-day Eve exonerates Smith and Hume of responsibility for the market's excesses and reminds us of the deep humanity that underscored their vision. And you can't put a price on that.

© Mark Fisher, 2011 (pic: Robbie Jack)
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Hansel and Gretel, theatre review

Published in the Guardian
Two stars
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
IN his Christmas shows for the Citz, playwright Alan McHugh has shown a particular fascination for the character the author Christopher Booker identifies as the "dark mother". The stepmother in his Cinderella verged on the psychotic, while the creature in his Beauty and the Beast was haunted by the witch who had transformed him.

Those plays tapped into the deep archetypal forces of the originals and were rich and troubling. In taking a similar approach to Hansel and Gretel, by contrast, McHugh throws the story off kilter.

Instead of the tale of two youngsters forced to make their own way in a dangerous world, he favours the story of a 1,000-year-old witch who will die unless she tricks the children's father into falling in love with her. Having turned their mother into a wolf, this magpie-like Vanya dominates the first half as she wheedles her way into their cottage. She is equally inescapable in the second half as the owner of the edible house.

Her overbearing presence casts an air of pessimism over Guy Hollands's production; what hope of freedom can poor Hansel and Gretel have? It's not helped by Jennifer Harraghy's decision to play Vanya as Victorian melodrama, all over-emphasis, endless cackling and heavy signalling of her every deceit. A psychologically credible approach would have been more frightening.

The lush arrangements of Claire McKenzie's live score add moments of reflection, but though her songs are well-sung, they only delay the opportunity to follow David Carlyle and Gemma McElhinney into the forest.

The show works best when focusing on these two bickering children, and the two actors generate much sympathy. Even at the end, however, Hansel and Gretel survive thanks not to their own resourcefulness but to their father's last-minute intervention. That is symptomatic of a play that is too concerned with the grownups.

© Mark Fisher, 2011 (pic: Richard Campbell)
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Tuesday, December 06, 2011

A Christmas Carol, theatre review

Published in the Guardian
Five stars
WICKED witches and angry giants may be stalking stages across the land, but none can be as terrifying as the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future that haunt this tremendous adaptation of the Dickens novella.

The first venture into the seasonal market by the National Theatre of Scotland, Graham McLaren's production begins in an atmosphere of prank-playing jollity as the cast welcomes us into the offices of Scrooge and Marley, tearing up our tickets and showing us to our seats, but switches into the realm of gothic horror once it's time for Scrooge to face his demons.

Performed in a small room in the former Govan Town Hall, the walls stacked high with ledgers and scrolls, the show brings us distressingly close to the story's terrors. Benny Young makes an austere Presbyterian Scrooge, gaunt, grubby and humourless; the last man you'd ever feel sympathy for. Yet when Gavin Glover's superlative puppets magically appear through the apparently solid walls of the set, they have such a fearsome, otherworldly demeanour, you can only feel for the guy.

The spirit of Jacob Marley, manipulated by three of the five-strong ensemble, is a rasping, skeletal creature, wrapped in bandages that seemingly stretch down into the underworld. Accompanied by a rumbling live score by Jon Beales, his is the first of a series of visitations: a floating, ethereal Ghost of Christmas Past; a towering, silent Ghost of Christmas Future; talking shadows on the walls, and a sad vision of a blue-faced Cratchit family.

It is rare to see horror so intensively evoked in the theatre, but it's not only for effect. Rather than being a sentimental portrait of a man who doesn't like Christmas, this is an evocation of an unjust society - the true horror of Dickens's tale - and a powerful broadside against anyone who thinks there's no such thing as society.

© Mark Fisher, 2011 (pic: Peter Dibdin)
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Clare Grogan and Karen Dunbar interview

Published in the Scotsman

KAREN Dunbar is remembering her very first entrance in the panto at the King’s, Glasgow. It felt like she was covered in bubble wrap, she says. For all her experience doing karaoke and comedy, she had never performed anything quite like it. Her nerves made her dead to the world.

That was in 2007, when she played Nanny Begood in Sleeping Beauty, a role she took to – nerves or not – like she was born to it. She matched the late Gerard Kelly laugh for laugh and turned in several songs to boot. She was right to be nervous because of the place the King’s panto has in the hearts of Glasgow audiences but, in the end, she needn’t have worried.

Today, sharing a couch with Dunbar in a rehearsal break, is Clare Grogan – and all this talk of stage fright is making her uncomfortable. As she prepares to make her own panto debut, the Gregory’s Girl star looks at Dunbar with a mixture of admiration and awe. Knowing Dunbar was in the cast was one of the reasons she agreed to do the show (“I think she’s amazing”), but rehearsals are intense and she’s feeling the pressure.

“The first couple of days in rehearsals, my head was exploding with ‘How am I going to do this?’” she says. “It’s much harder than I thought it was going to be. For me, it’s such a different discipline.”

As the King’s returns to the story of Sleeping Beauty – this time scripted by Ayrshire-born Coronation Street star Eric Potts – it is once again fielding Dunbar as Nanny and, this time, placing her opposite Grogan as the wicked fairy Carabosse. Also in the cast is Tony Roper, playing Grogan’s evil henchman Hector.

Now it’s Grogan’s turn to feel the trepidation Dunbar experienced four years ago, but she is taking heart from the fond memories she has of her own panto-going days.

“What was really lovely about the first few days of rehearsal was there was a lot of talk about the history of panto and our own experience as children going to pantomimes,” she says, recalling trips to the King’s and the Pavilion where she would see Francie and Josie, Rikki Fulton and Stanley Baxter.

“The more you think about it, the more affectionate you feel about it. It does take you back to being that child and the magic of that big night out. But it’s bloody hard work. It all looks like a laugh, but that laugh is very, very carefully orchestrated.”

After her own panto debut, Dunbar went on to star in Cinderella and Aladdin, but skipped last year because she was performing in Men Should Weep at the National Theatre in London. She’s delighted to be back.

“The panto pulled all my assets together,” says Dunbar, who rose to fame in Chewin’ the Fat. “Jumping up and down, telling bad jokes, pulling faces, singing at the pitch of my lungs and overacting. I was born for it. I knew I would enjoy it, but it far exceeded my expectations of how much I would enjoy it – and how much hard work it was.”

For Grogan it has been most fruitful to draw not on her acting work but on her early-1980s career with Altered Images. Her last stage appearance was in Lobster and Vantastic, a double-bill of plays by Russell Barr at London’s Ovalhouse theatre, where the audience numbers 250. Sleeping Beauty is on an altogether different scale.

“My singing experience and playing those big arena tours is the thing that helps me, because you have to connect with the big audience,” she says. “Your performance has to be so much bigger. You really do have to find that person at the back of the auditorium who’s not quite into it. I just can’t have that: I will find those people and force them into engaging. Otherwise, why are you there?”

Adding to the challenge, Grogan has had to hot-foot it to Bristol every time she’s had a day off from rehearsals. She’s starring in the next series of Skins – playing Shelley, the fun-loving mother of Mini McGuinness (Edinburgh’s Freya Mavor) – and when shooting overran she had to find a way of squeezing in filming around her commitments in Glasgow. “Why would it have to be Bristol?” she laughs. “We couldn’t get farther apart.”

For those of us who grew up in love with Grogan as the fey young singer with Altered Images, singing ephemeral pop songs about birthdays and being happy, it takes some adjustment to realise she’s now playing mothers of teenagers and pantomime villains. Also newly in the can is The Wee Man, a film based on the life of Glasgow gangster Paul Ferris, played by Martin Compston, with Grogan as his mum. She, however, is unfazed by her own altered image.

“Playing a naughty mum is not too much of a stretch,” she says. “When I told my daughter [seven-year-old Elle Lucia] that I was going to be in Sleeping Beauty my poor, gorgeous, lovely little girl was so excited because she presumed I was going to be the beauty! I had to tell her it came as a bit of a shock to mum too that I’m no longer eligible even for consideration for that role. But it honestly doesn’t bother me. I like it.”

For one thing, it shows she is not being cast for her reputation alone: “I started acting in earnest after I made Comfort and Joy [Bill Forsyth’s 1984 film about warring ice-cream vendors]. Up until that point, I was the pop star that was being allowed to make the Bill Forsyth films. From that point, I really wanted to be a jobbing actress. It was really tricky, but I feel at last people are seeing me as a character. I feel proud of that. I’m getting to play all these different parts and they’re not based on how you look.”

Playing against type or not, she’s relishing the chance to play the wicked fairy. She says she was never interested in having to look nice and this is a role that allows her to look quite the opposite. “I’m interested in how far I can push it because I really want to terrify the kids. The baddies are the best. I’m flattered and bemused that everyone has said they can’t imagine me playing the baddie. Believe me: I’ve got a lot of evil and bitter-and-twisted in me and I’m getting my chance to unleash it.”

So, finally, does Dunbar have any words of wisdom for newbie Grogan? “If there was any worthwhile advice, I would say don’t arrange to see anybody,” she laughs. “I’m a big ball of energy, I’m like a five-year-old, but I tire out so easily on this. In fact, I sleep in between the shows. I slept in the rehearsal room under the radiator yesterday for 20 minutes. It does feel like the marathon of jobs. At least in Chewin’ the Fat or The Karen Dunbar Show, I got to go home at night. With this, bed becomes the loveliest thing you’ve ever seen – and clean sheets on the bed … ah!”

• Sleeping Beauty is at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, until 8 January.

© Mark Fisher, 2011
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Elaine C Smith on the HMT panto and SuBo musical

Published in Scotland on Sunday

IT WOULD be no surprise if Alex Salmond was the butt of a pantomime joke or two this season, but only at His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, can you see a routine that comes at the First Minister's personal request.

As the MSP for Aberdeenshire East, Salmond takes a special interest in the HMT panto and, this time, he got a suggestion in early.

"The last couple of years he's come to see the show and brings all his office staff," says Elaine C Smith, who stars as Fairy Flora MacDonald. "He loves pantomime - he loves Parliament, what's the difference? - and he said, 'If you're doing Aberdeen, you should do The Quine Who Does The Strip At Inverurie.' It was by June Imrie, who was a famous Grampian TV newsreader and she did this song at New Year. He prodded us in that direction and when I listened to it, I thought, 'We could do something funny with that.'"

So after a sketch in which she makes a mangled attempt at getting her chops around a few choice phrases in the Doric, Smith will be launching into a reworked version of the comic song, discarding bloomers and sundry panto garments as she goes, before revealing an Aberdeen football strip. Let's hope Wee Eck approves.

It's Smith's third year in the city and she has become something of an institution, although the prospect of the Rab C Nesbitt star returning for a fourth consecutive year is uncertain. Having been cast to play Susan Boyle in a forthcoming stage bio-drama, she is likely to find herself tied up for some time.

Telling the rags-to-riches story of the Britain's Got Talent singer, I Dreamed A Dream launches in Newcastle in March for an initial 11-city UK tour that includes Aberdeen and Inverness. Boyle herself will appear on stage for the show's finale.

At some point after that, the show is set to go international. Thanks to the power of YouTube, SuBo's Cinderella-like story is a global phenomenon, and news of the show even made the New York Times. Edinburgh-trained producer Michael Harrison is in discussion with US promoters about taking it over there, perhaps with simultaneous productions on both sides of the Atlantic and in Australia. More dates in the UK and a run in the West End also seem likely.

It means that Smith, who has agreed not to talk in detail about the show until the press campaign in February, will either be otherwise engaged or catching her breath come the next panto season.

Her involvement came after a chance remark made by Boyle in a TV interview. She was asked who she'd like to play her in a film of her life and, being a long-time fan of Mary Doll in Rab C Nesbitt, she gave an answer that sent Smith's website into overdrive. "I joked to Michael Harrison that we should do the stage show," says Smith. "He laughed then phoned me back ten minutes later and said we should do it now."

However well known Smith is, her fame is nothing on a SuBo scale and the level of attention generated by the story made her think carefully about the responsibility. "I never think it's a shoo-in," she says. "It's got to be theatrical, it's got to be relevant and it's got to connect."

Only two years ago, Smith was bringing the house down with a SuBo routine in Cinderella, her first HMT panto, and now she'll be playing her straight. The panto connection doesn't end there. Alan McHugh, Smith's co-writer on I Dreamed A Dream, is the writer of Jack And The Beanstalk and stars as dame Heather MacBlether. He'll also have a part in the SuBo show. Meanwhile, in Kennedy Aitchison, the two shows share a musical director.

This is the tight creative team - plus director Alex Norton - that prompted Scotsman theatre critic Joyce McMillan to call the HMT production "probably the best traditional panto in Scotland". "I feel very creative in this environment," says Smith, who insists the principal performers have an extra week of rehearsal. "It drives me crazy that the most expensive and technically difficult shows of the year get two weeks to rehearse."

Smith, after all, takes her panto seriously. When she took time out to do a BA in drama at Edinburgh's Queen Margaret University a few years ago, she wrote her thesis on the history of pantomime. Sitting in the HMT's glass-fronted restaurant, she talks unprompted for a healthy ten minutes on her love of this vibrant popular tradition, name-checking everything from an 1811 panto called Harlequin in Leith to the razzamatazz of Stanley Baxter and the off-beat reinventions of Borderline and Wildcat theatre companies.

"There is a notion that because it's fun and because it looks easy, the skills involved are not the same skills that are involved in doing an Ibsen, but they are," says the actor, who'll be making a spectacular entrance flying over the heads of the audience. "The skills are very important and very few people can do them. Loads of panto actors can do straight, but put that the other way round, it doesn't necessarily work. If Irn-Bru's our other national drink, then panto is the other national theatre."

From her point of view, a show such as Jack And The Beanstalk will work only if she throws caution to the wind. "You've got to come down to the audience and go, 'I'm going to make an arse of myself,'_" she says. "If you're vain, forget it. When I look at myself in the mirror in my Beyoncé outfit or whatever, the question is, 'Is it funny? Yeah. We'll do it.' If you start being vain about it, you'll lose the audience."

And there's nothing Elaine C Smith likes more than keeping an audience on side. "I said to Alex Norton a few years ago, 'Do you think I'm psychotic?' He said, 'Why?' I'd walked on to the stage of the King's and the theatre was empty and I said, 'Because I feel more at home here than I do in the rehearsal room.'"
• Jack And The Beanstalk is at His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, until 7 January;
• I Dreamed A Dream is at His Majesty's Theatre, 3-7 April and Eden Court, Inverness, 11-16 June

© Mark Fisher, 2011

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Monday, December 05, 2011

Cinderella, Dundee Rep, theatre review

Published in the Guardian
Three stars

CINDERELLA? You know, the one set on a boat with a bunch of retired magicians living on the top deck. They're a bit like the old folk in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; cute, mischievous and wise. Young Cinderella, who does all the work in their floating retirement home, is forever being teased by them.

Ring any bells? Me neither. But that's the setting for Phil Porter's unorthodox version of the fairytale, first seen at London's Unicorn. It's one that tries to sharpen up the familiar archetypes with a dash of psychological realism.

Kirsty Mackay's big-hearted Cinderella, who with real-life conjurers on board has no need of a fairy godmother, is less constrained by her stepsisters than by her desire to do her late mother proud. Meanwhile, Kevin Lennon's charming Prince Daniel, who is really an orphan from the Butterfly Republic, is searching for a girl who'll just be honest with him.

It's intriguing stuff but, in diverging from the formula, Porter loses some of the tale's elemental force. The extra detail distracts us from the urgency of the plot. 

At the same time, the play gets stuck between the narrative richness of a Christmas show and the broad brushstrokes of panto, and ends up as not quite either. The ugly sisters, for example, look set to provide some knockabout comedy, but that's not possible after Natalie Wallace's Tixylix attributes her ill-treatment of Cinderella to her own experience of being bullied. This is psychologically credible, but narratively disruptive.

Neil Warmington's two-tier revolving set asks a lot of the actors, who have too little time to change costumes. But James Brining's production is full of vigour, and, at the end, it comes ashore with a romantic union that is touching, deserved and no longer all at sea.

© Mark Fisher, 2011 (pic: Douglas McBride)
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Monday, November 28, 2011

Jackie and the Beanstalk, theatre review

Published in the Guardian
MacRobert, Stirling
Four stars

IF anyone still thinks panto is a throwback to a misogynist past, they need to take a look at the MacRobert's glorious giant-slaying romp. Here, the fairytale is fuelled by a fiery female energy, with self-styled "panto-feminist" Jackie helping unmask a Wizard of Oz-style baddie who is little more than a boy with a broken heart. However ridiculous the women look, they are never so inadequate as the men.

Played by Helen McAlpine, this Jackie can sing and dance like the best of them, but she's determined to grow up into her own woman, unlike her soppy sister Jilly, played by Natalie Toyne, who can't wait to become the romantic lead. Jackie's path to independence looks assured, until her prepubescent suspicion of sex is upturned by a sudden lust for her sister's boyfriend, Billy Bisto.

The tug-of-love Billy (Paul James Corrigan) would rather shed his baddie persona and become a Buttons-style heart-throb in the manner of the late panto legend Gerard Kelly.

In other words, none of these characters is comfortable in the stock roles they have been given. 

Even Jilly, with her overeagerness to burst into insipid song, is too quirky to be a conventional leading lady, while Jo Freer has an uncommon gutsiness as Fairy Mary Christmas, as likely to tamper disastrously with the plot as to sort things out with a wave of her magic wand.

At the raucous heart of this joyful show is Dot Von Trott, the one figure who's happy in her own skin (frequently, quite a lot of skin). Played by honorary woman Johnny McKnight, writer, director and star, this dame is a delirious lord of misrule. She is rude, waspish and funny, absolutely in her element in our austerity economy, and able to make you feel as if you are the only girl in the world.

© Mark Fisher, 2011 (Pic: Douglas McBride)

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Panto and Christmas show preview

DECEMBER is the busiest month in the theatre calendar, as everyone from community groups to the National Theatre of Scotland adds their bit of festive cheer. Sweets will be thrown and baddies will be booed, but there's a good deal more than that going on. Here is how the land lies this season.

If you like 'em lavish, large-scale and raucous, then Glasgow is your city. Here, at any rate, is where the battle for the panto pound is at its most intense. Taking pride of place is Sleeping Beauty at the King's (2 Dec-8 Jan), which is fielding a terribly tempting line-up of Karen Dunbar, Clare Grogan and Tony Roper. Expect strong support too from Steven McNicoll and Kath Howden as the king and queen.

Competition - or "compemetition", as the late Gerard Kelly used to have it - comes from the SECC, new kid on the panto block, which is reuniting last year's successful partnership of John Barrowman and the Krankies for Robinson Crusoe And The Caribbean Pirates (17 Dec-7 Jan). Whatever your memories of the Krankies from 1980s TV, you have to see them live to appreciate their fan-dabi-dozi appeal.

Over at the Pavilion, former stomping ground of the Krankies, you can expect an extra helping of rough and tumble as Jim Davidson takes on the role of Captain Hook in The Magical Adventures Of Peter Pan (30 Nov-21 Jan).

You'll find similar spectaculars all over the place, prime among them being Jack And The Beanstalk at His Majesty's, Aberdeen (3 Dec-7 Jan) with Elaine C Smith starring as Fairy Flora McDonald, and Cinderella at the King's, Edinburgh (3 Dec-22 Jan), starring firm favourites Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott.

It's hard to satirise a form that revels in its own ridiculousness, but there are a handful of shows that add an extra level of irony. Sitting closest to the borderline between the traditional and the subversive is Jackie And The Beanstalk at the MacRobert, Stirling (until 7 Jan), the latest caper written, directed and starring Johnny McKnight. Known for his work with Random Accomplice, McKnight plays Dame Dot Von Trott who, with her two daughters, has to reunite the pantosphere with its stolen Christmas spirit.

The template for McKnight's alternative spin on the traditional panto was set out at Glasgow's Tron which, this year, is revisiting Mister Merlin: A Pure Magic Panto (2-31 Dec). Last seen at the Tron in 1989 under the title of Peter And Penny's Panto, Alex Norton's rewritten show is about two puppets who have to retrieve Merlin's stolen magic. The top-notch cast is led by Jimmy Chisholm, who was also in the 1989 production.

There are likely to be similar levels of irreverence in Scrooge: The Panto at the relaunched Cottiers in Glasgow (7-31 Dec). Set in a modern-day pawn shop, it promises "music, singing and some very basic dancing". Alternatively, if you can dedicate no more than a lunch hour to the panto form, your only option will be Snow White And The Seventh Dwarf, the seasonal offering at A Play, a Pie and a Pint (Òran Mór, Glasgow, 5-24 Dec). Expect a fun-filled, no-budget romp by Dave Anderson and David MacLennan about Snow White's little-known relationship with her favourite dwarf.

Perhaps you want something of the magic of a traditional panto but could do without so much of the clamour of the big city-centre shows. If so, you shouldn't have to travel far to find what you're after. At Perth Theatre, for example, Jack And The Beanstalk (9 Dec-7 Jan) by Alan McHugh (whose work can also be seen in Glasgow and Aberdeen) drafts in local youngsters to join a cast of professionals including Sandy Batchelor as Jack, Anne Kidd as the queen and Peter Kelly as the king.

At Musselburgh's Brunton, writer and director Liam Rudden is back, turning his attentions to Aladdin (29 Nov-7 Jan), cramming it with local jokes and bringing in 25 young East Lothian performers to help Widow Twankey and Wishee Washee defeat the evil Abanazar. From Kirkcaldy to Cumbernauld, Motherwell to St Andrews, the same kind of merriment is going on.

More local still is Snow White And The Seven Leithers (19-23 Dec), a panto set in Leithuania by Leith Community Theatre at the South Leith Parish Hall.
Look out too for youth theatre shows, which have their own special energy. Edinburgh's Strangetown is fielding an impressive set of five all-new shows, including Alan Gordon's Snow White And The Seven Delinquents and Dunan Kidd's Beauty And The Beast, at the Scottish Storytelling Centre (8-11 Dec). 

Meanwhile, at Aberdeen's Lemon Tree, Scottish Youth Theatre is performing Jack And The Magic Beans (5-24 Dec).

Christmas spirit
After shouting yourself hoarse with your cries of "He's behind you", you could be ready for something a little more sedate. Christmas shows recognise the appetite for seasonal entertainment but prefer rich storytelling to stock plots. This year, the National Theatre of Scotland is entering the December fray for the first time with an intimate retelling of A Christmas Carol at Film City in Govan Town Hall (30 Nov-31 Dec). Director Graham McLaren is giving the Dickens story a particularly spooky staging that makes use of sinister life-size puppets alongside the cast of five. For another take on the same story, you can check out Tommy Steele in the musical Scrooge at Glasgow's Theatre Royal (28 Nov-3 Dec).

Several of the major rep theatres head in the same direction. Whether it's Phil Porter's Cinderella at Dundee Rep (29 Nov-31 Dec), Stuart Paterson's Beauty And The Beast at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (25 Nov-31 Dec) or Alan McHugh's Hansel And Gretel at the Citizens, Glasgow (3 Dec-7 Jan), these shows draw on the archetypal power of the classic fairytale to provide satisfying drama.

Introducing a brand new tale, writer-director Jonathan Stone takes us on Sergeant Cracker's Christmas Quest at the Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline (30 Nov-26 Dec). This competition among the baubles to get to the top of the Christmas tree promises audience participation and elements of pantomime, but also deeper themes about tradition versus modernity and the acceptance of getting older.

Younger audiences
Thanks to the pioneering work of Scottish theatre companies such as Starcatchers, there is a growing market for shows aimed at the very young. Stirling's MacRobert has a great record for this kind of work and this year is fielding two productions for tots. Polar Molar (29 Nov-31 Dec) is an icy tale for the over-threes about Captain Scot Scott's mission to find the world's last polar bear, while Too Many Penguins? (7-24 Dec) is a hands-on chance for the under-threes to discover how many penguins can squeeze into a tiny space.

Other shows aimed at a similar audience include The Night After Christmas, in which two elves prepare a feast for the hard-working Father Christmas, at Glasgow's Tron (3-23 Dec); Rudolph, a CATS-nominated show about trying to fit in, at Glasgow's Arches (2 Dec-3 Jan); Little Ulla, an interactive show about a mountain goat, at Glasgow's Citizens (10 Dec-7 Jan); and The Lost Sock Princess, about what happens to the partners of all those odd socks in your drawer, by Puppet Lab at Edinburgh's Traverse (14-23 Dec).

At Edinburgh's Scottish Storytelling Centre there are a couple of festive events based on Diana Hendry's The Very Snowy Christmas. First, the author herself reads a selection of her tales (16 Dec), then Blunderbus Theatre Company presents a staged version (23-24 Dec) of the story of Little Mouse learning about snow.

For a subtle take on a traditional fairytale, there is Scottish Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty, which opens at Glasgow's Theatre Royal (17-31 Dec) before dates in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness in January. Ashley Page's production, set to a live performance of Tchaikovsky's score, was first seen to acclaim in 2008 and features stunning designs by Antony McDonald that take us from 19th-century Russia to 20th-century London.

For those who say, "Bah, humbug," to all this festive cheer, but who still fancy a good night out, Edinburgh has three tinsel-free options. First is The Tree Of Knowledge, a new play by Jo Clifford at the Traverse (8-24 Dec) in which David Hume and Adam Smith find themselves catapulted into the 21st century and are dismayed to see how their ideas have been put into practice. Gerry Mulgrew, Neil McKinven and Joanna Tope star in Ben Harrison's production.

After that, your choice is between the pomp of The King And I, the classic Rogers and Hammerstein musical, at the Festival Theatre (14 Dec-7 Jan) and the bombast of We Will Rock You, Ben Elton's tribute to the music of Queen, at the Playhouse (29 Nov-7 Jan). Whether these are pantomimes in all but name is for you to decide

© Mark Fisher, 2011

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Going Dark, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Three stars

YOU see a pinprick of light. It could be the beam of an optician testing your peripheral vision. Or it could be the twinkle of Andromeda, a mere 2.5m light years away and the nearest spiral galaxy to our own. This is the shift in perspective, from closeup to long shot, that Sound and Fury plays with in Going Dark, a show that transports us from the unfathomable depths of outer space to the encroaching darkness of a man losing his sight to retinitis pigmentosa.

The great strength in this immersive one-man play - by the team behind the submarine drama of Kursk - is in its technical precision. We are sitting in a miniature planetarium, the arc of the Milky Way above our heads and a low-level soundtrack of the natural world breezing in from all sides. There is almost no colour in the picture created by directors Mark Espiner and Dan Jones, and frequently there is no light. It has the effect of intensifying our senses of sight and sound, as we strain to appreciate every glimmer and whisper.

Actor John Mackay gives a finely judged performance as a single parent and planetarium guide losing sight of his six-year-old son at home and of the entire universe at work. To keep his bearings, he grips the sides of a light box from which projections and images magically emerge. A crumpled piece of paper in his hand starts to glow like a miniature sun. A photograph in a dark room develops before our eyes.

Hattie Naylor's script is full of the head-spinning facts that make astronomy both frightening and fascinating, but the play lacks the kind of metaphorical dimension of, say, Robert Lepage's Far Side of the Moon, that would give a sad but routine story the cosmic dimensions to which it aspires.

© Mark Fisher, 2011

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Traverse Autumn Festival 2001 preview

Published in Scotland on Sunday

ARTISTIC director Dominic Hill may have switched his address from the Traverse to the Citizens, but his spirit is still being felt in Edinburgh, where the Traverse Autumn Festival 2011 is about to begin. Introduced by Hill three years ago, the ten-day event is an attempt to widen the creative palette of a theatre known primarily as a home for playwrights.

Like January's Manipulate puppet festival, the Autumn Festival brings into the building a set of artists whose starting point is something other than the spoken word. They include choreographers, musicians and puppeteers, and their techniques embrace everything from video to ceilidh dancing.

The programme includes The Shoogle Project, a tremendously enjoyable collaboration between Plan B dance company and folk band Shooglenifty. One minute it's a gig, the next it's a dance show, then before you know it, it's a hooley for the audience.

Likewise, although dance is at the heart of Company Chordelia's Miranda, music and visual theatre are integral too. Similarly, Shona Reppe is often described as a puppeteer, but her excellent show for children, The Curious Scrapbook Of Josephine Bean, owes as much to visual art and video technology as it does to object theatre.

Overseeing the season at the Traverse, literary officer Jennifer Williams says the festival is a way of bringing other artforms and other audiences into the building:" "All these artforms entail collaboration on some level - even a traditional collaboration between a dancer and a musician - and once we get these more form-busting collaborations it becomes more exciting."

Williams has a particular interest in Noisy Words, a collision between her own year-round Words, Words, Words programme that gives writers a chance to hear their work read aloud in an informal setting, and John Harris's Noisy Nights, which does the same thing for composers. In Noisy Words, Williams and Harris will come together with five writers and five composers for an intensive weekend collaboration, culminating in a performance with three actors. "We wanted to compress the collaboration into a tight space of time to raise the intensity," she says. "We've got an amazing quality of submissions, so the kind of work we get out of people, even in such a short time, should be really exciting."

Elsewhere in the ten-day season, choreographer Liv Lorent of balletLORENT is blurring the boundary between audience and performer in La Nuit Intime, a study of intimacy performed in the most intimate way. The show takes place in the Traverse bar (you can also see it tomorrow at the Arches in Glasgow) with ten dancers appearing at close range to an audience that is free to move, chat and drink as they would on any other night. "La Nuit Intime is me wanting to share with audiences the best seat in the house that I have, which is inches away from the dancers," says Lorent.

If you like blurred boundaries, look no further than Glasgow's Cryptic, which long ago dropped the "Theatre" from its name because its productions had become impossible to define. At the Traverse, the company is presenting Little Match Girl Passion which, true to form, fields not only a cello and a choir, as you'd expect from a piece of contemporary music, but also a dancer and a video artist.

"I mainly call myself an artist as opposed to a director or a designer, because it can be quite limiting," says Cryptic's Josh Armstrong, who has worked as a director, dancer, choreographer and designer. "I see the performance as live art rather than theatre and I don't worry too much about genres. In essence, Little Match Girl Passion is two staged concerts, taking pieces of music and making them theatrical."

Armstrong and Williams agree there is nothing implicitly superior about mixed media performance and that the desire to work in this way has to have an artistic motivation. "The danger comes when people feel they need to use other artforms just to get funding or to market a show in a particular way," says Williams. "That's when you get shows that have way too many television screens and the audience is thinking, 'Why is there all that stuff? Just act!' Equally, artists can get stuck in one performative box and I would hope the work we're doing here is giving people a bit of support and saying cross-platform work is welcome if they feel that's the right way for them to express themselves."

"I wouldn't say collaboration is a good thing by itself," adds Armstrong. "Unless it works there's no point. There has to be a reason behind it."

As Williams points out, the influence of the Autumn Festival can already be seen throughout the year at the Traverse, in its relationships with John Harris's Red Note Ensemble, the Manipulate festival and several dance companies. It will be interesting to see how these strands develop once Hill's successor as artistic director Orla O'Loughlin takes her post in January. In the meantime, Williams is encouraging the exchange of ideas by inviting both artists and audiences to a party after the performance of Little Match Girl Passion on 22 November. "It's a great time of year to have another festival in the building," she says. "And the party is a chance for everyone to get together and talk about what they've been seeing."
• The Traverse Autumn Festival 2011, Friday until 27 November.

© Mark Fisher, 2011

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

27, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Four stars
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

MAUREEN Beattie enters with her hair dripping wet. It's not a conventional way for an actor to come on, still less so when playing a would-be mother superior. As she sets off for a daily swim in the icy waters beyond the convent's brutalist concrete walls, Sister Ursula Mary is not your stereotypical stage nun: someone calls her the "rock star of the ecclesiastical world".

Playwright Abi Morgan, returning to the theatre in between The Hour and The Iron Lady, paints Ursula as garrulous, witty and intelligent - too questioning to live comfortably with a religious life. That she insists on swimming perilously far from dry land is a metaphor for her willingness to stray from the certainties of her faith and venture into the frozen waters of the unknown.

If not faith, she does have a steely dedication, one matched - albeit with less charisma - by Nicholas Le Prevost as a scientist for whom the convent's seclusion, documentation and demographic is ideal for the study of Alzheimer's disease. Like Ursula, he is in it for the long run, motivated not by short-term profit but the slow and steady pursuit of truth. For both of them, their commitment comes at the cost of loneliness.

Given a lively staging by Vicky Featherstone for the Lyceum and the National Theatre of Scotland, the overly wordy play prefers discussion to true dramatic action, but it does a better job than many at dramatising the effects of a degenerative brain disease. For that, no small thanks go to Colette O'Neil who gives a brilliant performance as the elderly Sister Miriam, whose sprite-like energy cannot counter the loss of a once brilliant mind. Beattie's grief-stricken roar makes you shudder as the play becomes a touching lament for the absolute in a volatile world.

© Mark Fisher, 2011 (pic: Richard Campbell)

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, theatre review

Published in the Guardian
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

IN 1967, an unknown playwright called Peter Nichols sent a script on spec to the Citizens theatre. Remarkable not only for its subject matter but also for its tone, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg was a comedy about a couple caring for a physically disabled 10-year-old girl. After its premiere in Glasgow, it went on to be a West End hit, gallows humour and all.

The play still feels unsettlingly frank in its depiction of carers under stress. Bri and Sheila, the parents, use the driest of black humour as a coping mechanism. That they are the ones doing the work allows them to give voice to dark desires that, even in today's world of taboo-busting comedians, still seem a daring inclusion in the play.

It's an unusually structured work that builds from a two-hander with the feel of an improv workshop to a six-person sitcom that anticipates the social awkwardness of Abigail's Party. In Phillip Breen's production, the first half lacks comic spark. With regulation schoolteacher corduroy and chalk dust on his elbows, Miles Jupp works hard as Bri, but is more a genial man with a dry sense of humour than a parent driven to the vicious comedy of desperation.

Sarah Tansey provides an effective foil as his self-denigrating wife, but the balance between shock and laughter seems uncertain until after the interval, when the production comes into its own and the clash of public sentiment and private trauma is at its most pronounced. With Miriam Margolyes doing a cameo as Bri's overbearing mother, it gets funnier as it gets bleaker, making the central dilemma seem more intractable still.

© Mark Fisher, 2011 (pic: Pete Le May)

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Saturday Night, theatre review

Published in Northings

Tramway, Glasgow, 8 October 2011, and touring

SILENT MOVIES survived for decades before audiences got to hear what the actors were saying, so perhaps we shouldn't be so surprised by Vanishing Point's Saturday Night. Like its companion piece Interiors, from 2009, this international co-production is entirely wordless. It's like theatre for the pre-talkies generation.

The 90-minute performance is not mime either. The actors do appear to be talking to each other, it's just they're on the other side of a windowpane and we can't hear them. As in a silent movie, they communicate primarily through gesture and facial expression.

There's no sense of this being a game of charades. We follow the story of a young couple moving into a flat as if we are eavesdropping, piecing together our own account of events from the incomplete information we glean.

As we watch them carrying furniture and belongings into their new living room and bathroom, we gather that the friend who's helping them is a well-meaning dropout and that the upstairs neighbour is eccentric and temperamental. We understand that the young wife is pregnant, that the husband is fond of his electric guitar and that they have to take delivery of a pizza they didn't order.

A lot of this is funny. Seen in the privacy of the home, the characters behave in ways they never would in public, whether it's Sandy Grierson cavorting naked in his new flat or Gabriel Da Costa as his friend doing press-ups in the bathroom. But there's much more to Saturday Night than observational comedy.

With the mood set by Mark Melville's soundtrack of pop songs offset by ominous rumbles, we can tell something's not right. It's in the way the door to the garden swings open by itself and in the way the imagery from the television of the old lady upstairs seems to spill out into the whole house. Lara Hubinont as the new home owner goes out one door and mysteriously finds herself at another. Later she finds herself nine months pregnant without any time appearing to pass.

As vines creep in from the garden and the living room switches briefly into a pop video, the scene takes on the heightened realism of a David Lynch movie. The whole thing is like a confused dream - half TV documentary, half life that might have been. The contrast of the activity going on downstairs and the stillness of the old woman sitting upstairs makes a touching commentary on loneliness and the passage of time. Real or imagined, these are her memories and they haunt the house.

Looking stunning on Kai Fischer's set and performed with tremendous precision by the six-strong cast, it adds up to a production that is as captivating as it is unusual.

© Mark Fisher, 2011

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Monday, October 17, 2011

The Salon Project, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

IS it a fancy-dress party? An elaborate cabaret? A rerun of The Good Old Days? An esoteric piece of durational art? It's impossible to compartmentalise Stewart Laing's three-hour evening of immersive theatre - if you can call it theatre. Easier to say it is extraordinary, intellectually provocative and tremendously good fun.

For the participant, The Salon Project begins several weeks before the event when you have to submit your neck, waist and leg measurements. By the time you get to the Traverse, there's a costume for you ready to be fitted by a professional wardrobe supervisor.

The first half-hour is a kind of ritualistic performance as the men get kitted out in waistcoats, tailcoats and bow ties, and the women put on trailing gowns, necklaces and fascinators. Makeup artists whiten faces and darken eyebrows for that sepia look.

Duly transformed in the garb of the 19th-century Parisian salon, we enter a large white room with chandeliers, a grand piano and three gramophone players on which Donna Rutherford will perform the Victorian equivalent of a DJ set. Before that, we're left to make polite conversation with our fellow guests.

Already something odd is happening: we are not in character, but the stiff formality of the dress seems to engender a higher-minded level of chit-chat. Someone mentions the salons he's been reading about in Proust; an educationalist tells me how much she hates the education system; and I have a brief conversation with Laing himself on the nature of decadence. It is this kind of exchange of ideas the director is aiming to encourage, using the costumes to evoke a spirit of inquiry.

It is also to build a commentary on the nature of time. Just as Rutherford's 78rmp DJ set straddles the centuries, so a series of interventions play with the concept of past, present and future. Several of the naked figures in a tableau vivant are watching the future played out in 2001: A Space Odyssey; Graham Leicester, director of the International Futures Forum, gives a talk on the inert past and existential present; and, as our voices build to an amplified cacophony, a video imagines a cataclysmic future for the very room we are in.

After such heady pursuits, returning to the sloppy informality of your 21st-century clothes is like putting on the wardrobe of a more trivial age.

© Mark Fisher, 2011 (Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan)

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Saturday Night, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

FOR a mesmerising 90 minutes, we don't hear a single word from the six actors in Saturday Night, a new work from the company Vanishing Point. They appear to hear each other, but, being on the other side of a glass window – a palpable fourth wall – we have to guess what they are saying. In Kai Fischer's monumental set, we peer voyeuristically into an old lady's sitting room, a young couple's living room, and even their bathroom.

It was a technique the company pioneered in 2009's Interiors, a reworking of a Maurice Maeterlinck play. Here, the results are not as poignant, but there is a similarly touching sense of life as it is lived, like a silent comedy of manners, with the added frisson of a surreal nightmare.

As with the company's adaptation of the Czech movie Little Otik, this is a world in which the division between civilisation and nature becomes blurred. On one hand, it's a funny portrait of an urban couple moving into a new house, dealing with eccentric neighbours and a leak in the ceiling. On the other hand, vines are creeping in from the garden where great apes roam, while the newlywed gives birth in the bathroom.

The rational explanation for this, which we piece together by the end, has a certain sentimental appeal. But the whole thing works better when it's mysterious, like an off-centre David Lynch movie. Either way, with its high-precision performances and commanding soundtrack, it leaves you happily lost for words.

© Mark Fisher, 2011

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The Hunted

Published in Northings
Scottish Youth Theatre, Glasgow, 8 October 2011, and touring

DESPITE the enormous changes brought about by the industrial and technological revolutions, we have never stopped being spellbound by the fairy story. The world of woodcutters, wolves and forests should mean nothing to the modern child, yet the archetypal narratives of Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel and Snow White remain potent.

It is as if these ancient folk tales exist in a perpetual present tense: "Once upon a time there is," and not, "Once upon a time there was". It is with these same present-tense words that JC Marshall's three-hander for teenagers begins. The Visible Fictions production evokes several classic fairytales in its coming-of-age story of an orphan girl who is lured into the dark forest by the prospect of becoming a hunter only to find herself turned into bait for the mythical white wolf.

Like the classic bedtime tales, The Hunted is a metaphor for our journey towards adult independence. As she escapes the clutches of her guardian to join the village hunter on his night-time sortie, the girl discovers that not every grown-up can be trusted, that with rights come responsibilities, that vengeance is different from justice, and that the closer you get to self-knowledge, the more you're ready to fall in love.

The playwright understands that every one of these discoveries is timeless, as pertinent now as it has been for generations. She takes the idea a step further, however, by throwing in some amateur quantum mechanics. I doubt her theory would pass muster with the editorial board of New Scientist, but for the purposes of the play, she makes us believe that a twist of the girl's kaleidoscope makes it possible for a modern-day boy to get wrapped up in her story. Thus, "Once upon a time there is" runs in parallel to "Once upon a time there was".

The boy's story is lightly sketched - he's a teenager reacting ferociously to his father's domestic violence against his brother - but it's enough to suggest modern-day children have to go on just as much a journey of self-discovery as Little Red Riding Hood. It also introduces the kind of mind-expanding Doctor Who-style sci-fi that goes down well with the target age range who are especially attuned to life's wondrous possibilities.

All of this is strikingly done in Douglas Irvine's production on a set (co-designed with Becky Minto) of dangling light bulbs, illuminating or obscuring the way through the dark forest. Kirsty Stuart is bullish as the girl, more aware of her strengths than conscious of her weaknesses, and a determined foil for Billy Mack's faithless hunter and Roddy Cairns' shell-shocked time-travelling boy. The science may be fanciful but the impulses run deep in an engrossing production.

© Mark Fisher, 2011

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Monday, October 10, 2011

Apocalypse: A Glamorously Ugly Cabaret

Published in Northings

CABARET is the artform we associate with decadence and a kind of end-of-the-world desperation. Perhaps the Emperor Nero was its first practitioner as he fiddled while Rome burned. Most commonly, it is the form we attribute to the nightclubs of 1930s Berlin when the Nazis were on the rise, as related in Kander and Ebb's musical Cabaret.

Now in 2011, playwright John Clancy has found himself drawn to cabaret again. He has observed the spate of earthquakes, tsunamis and man-made catastrophes that have beset the world in recent times, as well as the related trade in prophesies of doom from religious extremists. More pertinently, he has noticed the majority of the world's population is living in poverty, many fear for their lives because of war or famine, and global warming is starting to take its toll. At the same time, a western elite - by which he means you and me - continue to enjoy a level of wealth far in excess of nearly everyone else on the planet.

This to him is decadence, even if the people burning up fuel, donating to good causes and signing right-on petitions don't realise as much.

So although Apocalypse: A Glamorously Ugly Cabaret takes the form of bright and breezy burlesque entertainment, its content is dark and polemical. We sit round cabaret tables with our drinks, while actors Catherine Gillard and Nancy Walsh deliver songs and sketches on a small stage complete with its own red curtains. They could be performing throw-away gags and whimsical chart-toppers, but in fact, they are digging up uncomfortable truths about the huge imbalance of global wealth and the apparent complacency of the privileged who are content not to do anything about it.

Looking like they've already survived the warning shots of an impending apocalypse, their faces a mess of smeared make-up, Gillard and Walsh alternate between being cabaret divas, counting down the minutes to the end of the world, and middle-class liberals, admitting their commitment to good causes is only skin deep (and in the case of race relations, not even as deep as that).

As satire, it raises questions rather than giving answers (I don't imagine Clancy has renounced his own decadent western ways) and it runs the risk of making the audience feel powerless. At its best, though it is both blackly funny and polemical. On the opening night of this debut production by the Occasional Cabaret, formed by ex-members of the defunct Benchtours, it also seems under-rehearsed. There are moments when Gillard and Walsh get under the material, but moments too when they stumble. It means the comedy can be muted and the script's potential not fully realised, although it's likely to get slicker as the show tours north. (Pic: Marc Marnie)

© Mark Fisher 2011
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Friday, October 07, 2011

Apocalypse: A Glamorously Ugly Cabaret, theatre review

Published in the Guardian
Tron, Glasgow
Three Stars 

IT'S the end of the world as we know it and Catherine Gillard and Nancy Walsh feel fine. The two actors are washed up on a tiny cabaret stage for one last vaudeville turn before the apocalypse. Their makeup is smeared and the showbiz sheen has been knocked off their padded costumes, but they have songs and sketches and every chance of being sent to a better place when the Grim Reaper arrives. They're determined to go out smiling.

This is the scenario for the debut production by Occasional Cabaret, collaborating here with New York writer John Clancy, who has a penchant for actor-centred drama with a fierce political bent. His starting point is the religious zealots who treat every earthquake, plague and economic blip as evidence of our impending fate and use arcane biblical scholarship to calculate the date of the apocalypse (27 May next year, apparently). Clancy throws this thinking back in the faces of the prophets of doom by questioning the lifestyles of those who claim to lead an ethical life.

In between musical numbers laced with the darkest of black humour, Gillard and Walsh take turns to quiz each other as if completing a questionnaire at the gates of heaven. Is it really enough to recycle your cans, join the odd antiwar march and make an annual donation to charity when the global median income is $2,000, millions have no roof over their heads, and various ills - from racism to terrorism - continue unabated?

As satire, it's not subtle, but it is pointed, and Clancy punches it home with a vicious wit. What Peter Clerke's production lacks, though, is the subversive sassiness of cabaret. Despite all the direct addresses, Gillard and Walsh look frightened by the audience, and their performances, although good-natured, lack the slickness of the seasoned burlesque star.

© Mark Fisher 2011
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Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Interview: James Corden

Published in Scotland on Sunday
THERE was a familiar face on Doctor Who last week. It was a character called Craig Owens, who we'd previously met as the Doctor's flatmate in series five.

Back then, the time lord had become Craig's lodger in order to figure out why so many people were disappearing from the flat upstairs. In due course, the Doctor put a stop to the guilty aliens before zipping off in the Tardis.

Now, in series six, Craig has a baby boy called Alfie, and is on baby duty alone. The last person he expects to find on his doorstep is the Doctor. In a way, it's a blessing, because the time traveller's gifts include an ability to understand baby language. So the Doctor can tell Craig exactly what the wee man wants.

He can also tell him when the boy is being critical. Like when Alfie says his dad should have more belief in himself. "Great," says an exasperated Craig. "So now my baby's reviewing me."

All of this made it a particularly funny episode. It was also particularly pertinent. Because the actor playing Craig Owens was James Corden, a man who knows all about getting bad reviews.

"In the past five years, I couldn't have been heaped with more praise or more criticism in so short an amount of time," laughs the Gavin & Stacey star.

Indeed, he'd come in for such a battering from the press that he was all prepared to ignore the reviews for his latest show, at London's National Theatre.

He could tell the audiences were enjoying One Man, Two Guvnors in the preview performances.

The last time he'd heard such a roar of appreciation was when he starred in Alan Bennett's The History Boys, so he knew that even if a dozen critics didn't like it, there were 900 people a night who did. Reading the reviews would only rattle him.

That was the theory. In practice, it didn't work out like that. Updated to the 1960s by playwright Richard Bean, Carlo Goldoni's farce is about a sacked musician who says yes to two job offers, then spends the rest of the play stopping his employers from finding out about each other.

Yes, it's daft. Yes, it's improbable.

But with its manic pantomime energy and air of improvisational chaos, it is also hilarious. And the reviews were not just good, they were ecstatic. The Guardian's five-star rave said it was "one of the funniest productions in the National's history".

On BBC Radio 4, Mark Lawson called it "the single funniest production I've ever seen". It simply wasn't possible for the 33-year-old to ignore them. "My plan was not to read the reviews, and then I woke up to a barrage of texts saying they were unbelievable.

I said, 'Unbelievable in what way?' So I thought I'd treat myself to a couple, and I'm blown away by it."

As he sits in an office in the National Theatre, his blue eyes well up.

"I'm completely … I'm, I'm … I'm gobsmacked," he says, momentarily lost for words. "When you do the work that I've done in the last few years, you get used to people sitting down with perhaps a negative frame of mind before something has started. I don't think I've ever been represented badly because, at the time, I was probably representing myself quite badly.

But I worried, as anyone would, because I'm aware of what an honour it is to play a lead in this building. It's not lost on me. You just walk along the corridors and you see picture after picture of Jim Broadbent, Simon Russell Beale, Helen Mirren … it can be quite overwhelming. So to get those reviews – it's terrific."

The man sitting opposite me, dressed down in black T-shirt and jeans, is not the James Corden of repute. No hint of the commitment problem that led to him being sacked from the film of Martin Amis's Dead Babies in 2000.

No sign of the headstrong character who thought he could maintain a wild social life – falling out of clubs in the early hours, being photographed with soap stars and X Factor winners, going on a ten-day bender – without letting the quality slip.

Instead, the James Corden I meet is garrulous, honest and undefensive. He's as friendly as you'd expect Smithy from Gavin & Stacey to be, and with none of the coarse Essex booziness.

More accurately, he's the genial actor who made his mark on stage long before small-screen fame. When he suggests we should hook up again for a meal when the play tours to Edinburgh, it seems genuinely friendly, like something one of your mates would say. He doesn't even seem to mind the negative press.

"I've had nothing close to the criticism that would have been aimed at David Beckham or Gary Barlow or Coldplay," he says. "It's inevitable. You can't keep writing, 'That person we said was good, they're still good.'"

But by his own admission, he was not always so well-balanced. "I was being a bit of a tit a lot of the time," he says.

"I was a bit lost. I'd been in a relationship for eight-and-a-half years – a brilliant relationship, very solid – and that ended. I had a series of unsuccessful, quite toxic relationships and I was single for the first time in my adult life, and a little bit famous.

"That's not a healthy concoction. At that first influx of fame, you need those anchors, and mine had been cut away so I was just drowning. I felt rooted my whole life, except for that point, which was probably about a year-and-a-half.

"I enjoyed it. I had a great time. It wasn't all bad, it was a lot of fun, but I'm pleased that I didn't get lost in that world. It would have been easy because it's very intoxicating. You feel like you're at the centre of something, but what you realise is you're at the centre of something that doesn't exist."

It was his turn to fall from grace and, after the rush of popular and critical acclaim for Gavin & Stacey, he was knocked by the reception of 2009's Lesbian Vampire Killers ("There isn't a funny gag in the whole film," complained the Sunday Times) and, in the same year, the sketch show Horne & Corden ("About as funny as credit-default swaps," said the Daily Telegraph).

He'd taken on too much, and the cracks were starting to show. "You can't do anything without making mistakes," he says today, without malice.
"My character in the play says, 'Only the man who never does anything never makes any mistakes.' It's a very easy thing to sit and say, 'Oh, you shouldn't have done that.' Of course, if I had my time again, I would do things differently. What I've learned is nothing is gained from rushing. You have to take your time."

He gives his own career as an example. "If I think about how long series one of Gavin & Stacey took from when we typed our first word to when we shot it, it was probably 2? years. When we made that sketch show (Horne & Corden], it was 2? months.

"You can't fast-track those things. You've got to work out what it is, what's going to make it different and special. I don't think it's any surprise that a lot of people's best work is their first work, because it's the stuff they've worked on for a long time and they were never thinking, 'What will people say? How will this be judged?' So it's no shock that you would falter after having such a bona fide success as Gavin & Stacey."

He takes the criticism on the chin and has emerged with a clearer sense of perspective.

"As a person. I'm better for all those experiences." As a born actor, he craves attention, but he has developed enough self-awareness to admit it.

Consider the knowing title of his newly published autobiography, May I Have Your Attention, Please?, in which he recalls a litany of look-at-me tactics, from upstaging his sister's christening as a precocious four-year-old to playing the class clown in preference to studying, while single-mindedly pursuing the goal of becoming an actor.

Among the book's revelations is the story of his television debut, which he made while bunking off school and phoning up This Morning with Richard and Judy, claiming to be a bullied 14-year-old too scared to leave the house.

Not exactly an auspicious start to a TV career, but an early indication of the direction he was heading in. By the time he dropped out of school, still 17 and with only two GCSEs to his name, he had landed a part in the chorus of Martin Guerre. Roles followed in Shane Meadows' Twenty Four Seven, a Tango ad (withdrawn because of sensitivities about bullying fat children) and Mike Leigh's All or Nothing.

He writes about living the high life in New York in 2006 while starring in The History Boys, as well as carousing with Lily Allen and hanging out in fashionable London media haunts such as the Groucho Club.

The phenomenal success of Gavin & Stacey – written with his Fat Friends co-star Ruth Jones and earning best newcomers gongs at the 2007 British Comedy Awards – added fuel that his ego did not need.

Today, he can see the funny side. In a promotional video for the book, he portrays himself as a needy celebrity frustrated at not being recognised by the general public. Even dressing up as Smithy and cracking open a can of beer fails to get him noticed. Only when he sees a woman laughing out loud as she reads his book does he relax.

But his lost weekends are behind him, and seemingly too his insecurities. He has been steadied by his relationship with fiancée Julia Carey, a charity worker, and the birth of their son Max in March. That was a couple of weeks after Corden recorded last week's Dr Who episode – so, no, Alfie was not his real son – and immediately before rehearsals began for One Man, Two Guvnors.

He also attributes his new-found balance to the support of his parents. His background in middle-class High Wycombe, where he was a member of the Salvation Army, with a Bible salesman for a father, has proven a foundation firm enough to cope with the whims of a showbiz lifestyle.

"My mum and sister are both social workers," he says. "All I have to do is spend some time with them and it puts a few bad reviews into perspective. 'Oh, I got a bad review in the Observer,' is a high-class problem. I grew up in a very loving, supportive, caring environment. My world is very strange for them, but they're incredibly supportive as a family. They enjoy the nice bits of it – when I got to take my two sisters to the Brits, they were on cloud nine, talking to Adele and Take That. That makes me think this is great."

So in 2011, it feels right to find Corden not in some glitzy watering hole but at the National Theatre, being directed by no less a figure than artistic director Nicholas Hytner in a play that's destined for a lengthy run on the West End after its UK tour. "Lots of actors will tell you that they dreamt of playing Hamlet," he says. "This is all I ever dreamt of."

Despite his affinity to comedy (and in One Man, Two Guvnors he is very funny indeed), Corden regards himself as an actor and not a stand-up comic. He is at his most enthusiastic when talking about the "complete actors" he admires, all-round performers such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robbie Coltrane and Matthew Macfadyen, who is one of his co-stars in The Three Musketeers, a 3D adventure movie released later this month.

He hopes he can demonstrate similar versatility and that his career can be as varied. "I've never considered myself to be a comedian, ever," he says.

"Anyone can be funny for ten or 15 minutes at a charity benefit, but an hour is a whole other thing. There are lots of people who are brilliant at it, and I'm not one of them. Acting is all I've ever done, and everything else I do I just see as fun. The hosting of shows and things like that, it's a blast, it's a joy. If you're doing a charity gig at the Albert Hall, great, but I would never feel comfortable taking money for it. I've had offers where people have said, 'Why don't you come and do an arena tour?' I just think, 'Are you mad?' What have I got to say?"

Back in last week's episode of Doctor Who, Corden's Craig has found the courage to foil the Cybermen. Through the power of his fatherly love, he saves the world. This time, his baby boy is impressed. He gurgles and the Doctor translates. "That was another review," he says. "Ten out of ten."

May I Have Your Attention, Please? is published by Century; The Three Musketeers goes on general release on 12 October; One Man, Two Guvnors, Kings Theatre, Edinburgh, 25-29 October; James Corden is at Waterstone's Princes Street, Edinburgh, on 25 October, and at WH Smith, Argyle Street, Glasgow, on 28 October
© Mark Fisher 2011
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