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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

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Caged, theatre review

Published in Northings


Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, 28 March 2011, and touring

BEAUTY AND the Beast is an allegory about the union between a man and a woman. On the one hand, we have the beast, a symbol of maleness at its most extreme: hairy, aggressive and emotionally illiterate. On the other, we have Beauty, the epitome of those traditionally feminine qualities of compassion, empathy and love. Thrown together in a castle in the Freudian darkness of a mysterious wood, they slowly learn from each other and, in so doing, experience a romantic awakening.

The story’s archetypal power is undiminished in Catherine Wheels’ superb version, re-titled Caged in Rob Evans’ script, even though there is a shift in the portrayal of Beauty. Despite actor Rosalind Sydney having many of the plus-points any tyrannical beast would look for in a house guest – she always puts on a brave smile, keeps the place well aired and tidy, and does her best to make conversation – she is far from being a push-over. Indeed, there is something shocking about the way she rejects the overtures made by Andy Manley as Mr Hunter, aka the beast, as he makes a clumsy pass at her. Refusing to play the helpless girl-child, she tells him outright there’s no way she would marry him.

Her hard-line stance makes you feel sorry for Mr Hunter, despite his violent temper and lack of etiquette. With his feline movements and animalistic clicks and grunts, Manley is every bit the beast, not just a deformed man but a wild, uncivilised creature without any experience of human interaction. On one level, he is terrifying ­­– which is why the show is pitched at 8 and over – but on another level, he is just trying to make the most of an emotionally deprived upbringing. He is socially inept but he has soul.

We know which way the story is going, of course, but this is a clash of equals and a happy ending will only be on mutual terms. For much of the hour-long show, you’re convinced they’ll never work it out.

The performances are great and so too is Gill Robertson’s production. She uses Evans’ script as a jumping-off point for a rich, atmospheric and polished piece of theatre that communicates its gothic power as much through the music of David Paul Jones and the lighting of Lizzie Powell as it does through the dialogue. Whole scenes, in fact, are wordless, as the two actors run around the marble hour-glass table at the centre of Karen Tennent’s set, suggesting corridors, staircases and starlit vistas with the most economical of means.

It’s a thrilling, gripping, moving performance – genuinely one for the whole family – which falters only in the last moments with a too-speedy ending, but leaves you with the deep sense of satisfaction of an archetypal tale being vividly retold. (Pic: Douglas McBride)

© Mark Fisher 2011

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Rona Munro, playwright, interview

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Rona Munro interview

As dilemmas go, it's a nice one to have. Next month, playwright Rona Munro has to be at two prestigious press nights in one week. On the Tuesday, she'll be at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre for the opening of Pandas, a romantic comedy-thriller set between Scotland and China.

By Thursday, she'll be at London's Hampstead Theatre for the premiere of her space-race drama Little Eagles in a production by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Getting from one to the other shouldn't be too much trouble; the dilemma comes at the other end of the run.

Both shows finish on the same night, so which cast party will she attend and which company will she risk offending?

Thankfully, the decision has been made for her. Fellow Doctor Who screenwriter Stephen Greenhorn is getting married in Scotland the day after Pandas finishes, so for her to be at the Traverse is a "no-brainer".

"It's not the sort of thing you want to moan about because it's a lovely problem to have," she says during a rehearsal break in Leith. "But you end up feeling like you're cheating on one or the other."

To have two such high-profile productions opening in one week would be enough for anyone, but for Munro it is only the start of it. She's also written the screenplay for Oranges And Sunshine, on general release at the beginning of the month.

The Jim Loach movie is about the real-life case of Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson) who uncovered the systematic deportation of thousands of children from British care homes to Australia. Variety magazine has already hailed it as a "deeply moving study".

Meanwhile, actress Fiona Knowles, trading under the name of the MsFits, has just launched an eight-month tour of Mad, Bad And Dangerous To Know, a new Munro comedy about growing old disgracefully.

It is the latest of nearly 20 one-woman shows she has written for Knowles. "The MsFits is the longest small-scale touring company Scotland's ever had," says Munro, who takes the job just as seriously whether the results will be seen in cinemas or community centres.

"It's just different styles and it's lovely to be able to do them all. One is not more important than the other."

Fortunately for her sanity, not every month is as busy as this for the Aberdeen-born playwright.

In fact, she had completed Pandas and Little Eagles before she started writing The Last Witch, the 2009 Edinburgh International Festival drama about Janet Horne, the last woman in Britain to be executed for witchcraft. "Now there'll probably be two years where I'm twiddling my thumbs," she laughs.

For audiences, you would think it could be an opportunity to get the measure of Munro, but it is not easy tracing a connection between her substantial output.
What could possibly link these stories about Cold War cosmonauts, Chinese lovers, social work scandals and inter-generational friendship? Throw in earlier work such as Iron (about a woman imprisoned for murdering her husband), Long Time Dead (about fearless mountaineers) and the ever popular Bold Girls (about the daily lives of Belfast women) and the pattern gets no clearer.

"It's about trying to do something you haven't done before," says the playwright.

"I've done comedies, but before Pandas I'd never actually done the one feelgood play that makes you feel lovely without it being saccharine. With Little Eagles, it was about writing on the scale the RSC can give you because it can afford to put 19-odd actors on stage."

If there was one thing that influenced the writing of Pandas, it was Strawberries In January, a gentle comedy by Quebec's Evelyne de la Chenelière that Munro translated for the Traverse in 2006. It gave her a taste for left-field romance.

"They're both love stories and they both have slightly surreal, absurd humour," she says. "Plot-wise, there's no comparison at all, but there's something about the tone. Having done Strawberries, I was able to do Pandas."

From this emerged a story about three couples caught up in a plot about stolen Chinese rugs and mysterious shootings. "Pandas is a weird one," she says.

"There are plays where you plan it all and have to wrestle with a very structured plot. And there are plays where the characters just start talking and you don't know yourself until it comes together. Pandas is one of those magical ones, and it's got a happy ending!"

Like David Greig's Midsummer, it is a chance for Munro to tell a romantic Edinburgh story to the home crowd, although it is entirely coincidental that pandas really are on their way to Edinburgh Zoo.

"At the time it was commissioned, we were actually thinking about the Beijing Olympics," she says.

"Being able to talk directly to that Edinburgh audience is nice. You hope you're going to get laughs of recognition that you wouldn't elsewhere. The last show I did in the old Traverse was Your Turn To Clean The Stair and the whole title of the play hung on the audience's recognition of getting that notice hung on your door handle."

Of course, although she knows Edinburgh, she has never been to China. For that, she had to trust her imagination and the emotional truth of the characters.

"I desperately wanted to go to China, but never managed it," she says.

"It's ended up being a plus because you then have an imagined China. One of the characters talks about their love for the willow pattern design and one of the others says, well, you know that was just made up by the English potteries, it was never a Chinese fairy story.

"That's the China in the play. It's the dream China - except we're lucky enough to have two really good Chinese actors (Siu Hun Li and Crystal Yu] who root it in reality."

Oranges and Sunshine is on general release from 1 April.

Pandas, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 15 April to 7 May; Little Eagles, Hampstead Theatre, London, 16 April to 7 May. Mad, Bad And Dangerous To Know is on tour until 4 November

© Mark Fisher 2011
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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Somersaults, theatre review 2

Pulbished in the Guardian

Somersaults – review

Traverse, Edinburgh
4 stars
What do you have left when you strip away your home, your personal possessions and your loved ones? For some, it might be a sense of selfhood, spirituality or oneness with the universe. For playwright Iain Finlay Macleod, all that remains is language. And the dilemma for his central character, James, in this poignant and playful drama for the National Theatre of Scotland, is that even the words are disappearing.

One word is particularly bothering him. James is a successful entrepreneur who has made a fast buck from the games industry and is now living the metropolitan life in Hampstead. He feels little pull home to the Isle of Lewis and has no use for his native Gaelic apart from as a debased, spot-the-swear-word party game. Yet it is with a sense of alarm that he realises he no longer recalls the Gaelic word for "somersault".

This is a man who grew up being known not as James but as Seumas. His formative experience was through a language he now uses only when he speaks to his terminally ill father. Losing vocabulary is like losing a family member; a fundamental part of him that can never be replaced. When bankruptcy strikes, his material world is torn down – literally in the case of Kai Fischer's sandpit set, which is surrounded by transparent gauze that falls away with each blow to his sense of identity.

Losing everything, James finds the only thing he truly values is his mother tongue. Played by Tony Kearney with charm and physicality (he can do somersaults even if he can't pronounce them), he embodies the internal conflict of the minority-language speaker trying to square the practical advantages of communicating in English with the deep self-definition that comes with speaking in his own tongue.

In this way, the play's discussion is not simply about nostalgia versus modernity, but about how we value those things that inform our cultural, social and personal identity even if they are of no monetary worth. Eventually, like his language, James disappears from view, leaving us to look at a desolate and empty stage. From the audience, the actors continue the debate, but it is as if the argument has already been lost.

In a world of dying languages, this is not the first time this predicament has been aired but, in Vicky Featherstone's fluid, carefully timed production, Somersaults gives it a wistful, human face. (Pic Drew Farrell)

© Mark Fisher 2011
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Somersaults, theatre review

Published in Northings


WHAT value is there in speaking Gaelic? For entrepreneur James, there is none. He can measure the money he made from the video games industry, he can calculate the price of his up-market London home and he can ask his financial advisor for a figure for his collection of abstract art. Perhaps he couldn’t reduce his wife Alison to pounds, shillings and pence, but there’s a feeling even she is a trophy he has been able to buy thanks to his considerable fortune.

But for all his riches, James isn’t really the materialistic sort. He enjoys the good life, likes a drink and a bit of company and feels at home in a capital city, but he is a man who gave up work, having calculated he had more than he could ever spend and desiring no more. It is this quality that distinguishes him from other self-made men and what makes him especially vulnerable when he hears his father has been diagnosed with cancer back on the Isle of Lewis.

For James was originally known as Seumas, his first tongue being Gaelic and, although there is no call for the language in his metropolitan life, it is a deeper part of him than he realises. The impending death of his father is a symbolic reminder of the impending death of Gaelic, one further break with the life, culture and words of the past. And so, although he can put no value on his mother tongue, although he has no practical use for it and can think of it only in terms of the poetic, the social and the romantic, he feels its importance more profoundly than any of his worldly goods.

So, in Iain Finlay Macleod’s short and sweet drama for the National Theatre of Scotland, it is of great import to him when he realises he is forgetting certain Gaelic words. He can perform a head-over-heals on Kai Fischer’s sandpit of a set, but he can’t find the way to say “somersault”. He has similar gaps in naming the parts of a loom and recalling other vocabulary he used only as a child. This troubles him more than the loss of his possessions when bankruptcy strikes because it threatens the very definition of himself.

By the end of Vicky Featherstone’s dream-like production, James is fading from view like the very language he represents. The drama makes way for a discussion in which the actors acknowledge the  rational arguments against a minority language and defend the emotional tug that binds them to it. Beautifully performed and poetically written, Somersaults is as much elegy as polemic and is all the more touching for it.

© Mark Fisher 2011
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Friday, March 18, 2011

Mother Courage and Her Children, theatre review

Published in Northings

Mother Courage and Her Children

MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling, on tour

TAKING on Bertolt Brecht’s epic play about one woman’s ruthless survival during the 30 Years’ War is not something you want to do lightly. As with much of the radical German playwright’s work, it is a long, dialectical drama, built out of episodic scenes that resist an audience’s desire for sentimentality and happy endings, even as it provides them with songs and moments of black comedy. Politically and theatrically, it is a big beast to tackle.

Above all, in the character of Mother Courage, the play demands a performance of tireless energy and quick-wittedness. This pathologically driven woman not only carries her cart through the battlefields of Europe, she carries the whole merciless play. Rarely off the stage, she is an unstoppable life-force, at once admirable and despicable.

Sadly, on the strength of this showing, Birds of Paradise theatre company is not up to the job. Director Morvern Gregor has assembled a strong company of actors, but appears to have left them to their own devices. It is partly that their mastery of the lines, while adequate, is not good enough to create any sense of fluency; and partly that, as they take on multiple roles, they fall back on accents and characterisations that range from weak to unconvincing.

Gregor shows no feel for Brecht’s rhythms and contrasting styles, no instinct for his key turning points  and too little sense of why she wanted to stage the play in the first place. As a result, good actors are left flailing as if we have caught them in the middle of rehearsals instead of several days into the run.

In the title role, a strikingly dishevelled Alison Peebles brings more than average compassion to a brutalised character. She is a creature governed entirely by economics, a businesswoman who thrives on the privations of war and values her own financial survival higher than the survival of her three children. Peebles reveals the emotional cost of this one-woman brand of free-market capitalism – the famous scene in which she reacts to the death of her son is full of silent anguish – but not enough of the charismatic swagger of a perennial saleswoman living on her wits.

Around her, the acting is uneven: the same actors blow hot and cold depending on how comfortable they are with each part. The play does, however, gather a momentum of its own as, one by one, the cruel consequences of war hit home, not least on Ashley Smith as the sad, silent daughter Kattrin. But this is a production that has lost confidence in itself and it trundles shapelessly to its conclusion with little conviction.

© Mark Fisher 2011

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sweetness, theatre review

Published in the Guardian
3 stars 
One man produces semen that smells like a dead seagull's armpit. On the other side of the valley, the boils on his brother's chest seep fluid that tastes like nectar. As with the cancer that affects one and the heart complaint that threatens the other, it feels as though a metaphor is looming; something, perhaps, about inner decay mirroring the rotten relationship between these two men, estranged since 1959.

In Kevin MacNeil's adaptation of Hummelhonung by novelist Torgny Lindgren, the symbolism is not easy to interpret, but the details add a funny, magical-realist twist to a tale that could otherwise slip into Beckettian gloom. Snowbound, Matthew Zajac's Archie keeps a vengeful eye on the smoke from his brother's chimney, hoping any interruption will signal his death. Bent double with stomach cancer, he refuses medication on the grounds that it would represent a moral victory for his rival.

Looking like a bloated Father Jack from Father Ted, Sean Hay's heavily padded Murdo is a more benign figure, weird bodily habits notwithstanding. "Sweetness sweetens your entire being," he says with a chuckle. His obsession with Archie is no less debilitating, however, as he allows the memory of his dead son and departed wife to fester like one of his scabs.

Lynne Verrall's too-cool Kate, an academic stranded in the snow, hears prosecution and defence from these two unreliable narrators and pieces together the story of their falling out. Her research into the life of St Christopher, a protector against sudden death, places her in the role of heavenly mediator.

The Dogstar production suffers from clumsy transitions, but the vivid and strange characterisations see it through. (Pic: Leila Angus)
© Mark Fisher 2011
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Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Wild Life, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Wild Life
Cumbernauld Theatre

Three stars
We're in the territory of Dennis Kelly's Orphans, a chic middle-class home, kitted out with hi-fi and Wi-Fi, with a sense that behind the venetian blinds is a lawless landscape of baying dogs, delinquent teenagers and rioting mobs. This is not a place professional couple Daisy and Dave care to visit after dark. They prefer to avoid direct engagement with real life by turning to home entertainment, pizza deliveries and their own brand of free association.

That's where Pamela Carter's two-hander for Magnetic North gets interesting. Idly speculating that the ideal child would be one you could feel sorry for, the couple dream into life a feral boy, Victor, and, with a leap of theatrical logic, let him loose on the internet. He is in the mould of the 19th-century wolf-boy of Aveyron and the more recent Oxana Malaya, a Ukrainian girl brought up by a pack of dogs; a creature without language or social graces, no awareness of shameful or illegal behaviour.

He is everything Daisy and Dave are not. Although he is of their own invention, his presence on their laptop gnaws away at their sense of consumerist security, his wildness horrifying them while stirring some repressed animal spirit. The more they fill in his back-story, the less he seems to be a freak of a nature. The more he seems like a product of society, the more they question their Thatcherite taste for separation.

The intriguing premise, however, is not enough to sustain the 80-minute running time. Self-satisfied suburbanites are too easy a political target and, in any case, they can never really be threatened by the virtual Victor. But director Nicholas Bone draws out two superb performances from Lesley Hart and David Ireland, who brilliantly capture the everyday rhythms of Carter's conversational interplay before the dramatic engine runs out of steam.

© Mark Fisher 2011
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Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Girl X, theatre review

Published in Northings

Girl X

Traverse, Edinburgh, 5 March 2011, and touring

“KEEP PARENTS away from decision making,” says Robert Softley as the emotional temperature rises in this fascinating show by the National Theatre of Scotland. The community chorus who stand around him are momentarily lost for words. How could anyone possibly advocate such a thing? Softley backtracks a little, but he is in earnest. As a disability rights activist, he is unconvinced that parents of children with disabilities are the best ones to make choices about their children’s well-being on their behalf.

He is thinking in particular of the case of Ashley X, a little girl who was called a “pillow angel” by her parents because she never moved from the pillow where they left her.  Worried that Ashley would suffer unduly from the onset of puberty and from growing too big to be comfortably cared for, they elected to give her surgery to remove her womb and halt her physical and sexual development. The parents believed they were acting in the interests of their daughter, but as Softley sees it, they were denying her a major part of what it is to be human.

As the subject for a play, the story could have ended up with two polarised extremes – pro-parent versus pro-child – and run out of steam pretty quickly. But Pol Heyvaert’s production is more complex than that. Drawing directly from discussions on internet forums, he presents a tapestry of opinions – contradictory, inconsistent, bigoted, insightful and impassioned – that never lets you rest easy in the belief your own point of view is right. Softley, who has cerebral palsy, delivers many of the most challenging arguments, but he is given a run for his money by the chorus, whose common-sense observations range from the ill-considered to the entirely justified.

Drawn from Glasgow choirs, the chorus has a funny habit of bursting into song ­– “Smoking has no place in porn” being the most memorably daft – and speaks most of the dialogue in unison. It creates an unusual atmosphere as they look straight out at us from Martin McNee’s striking no-man’s land set, with pencil animations by Mario Debaene projected onto its concrete-style surface. This is not a show for those who expect a conventional narrative with their night out. But for anyone who loves the cut and thrust of debate, who is prepared to accept complexity instead of certainty and who is willing to consider a subject usually politely ignored, Girl X is a compelling piece of theatre. (Pic: Drew Farrell)

© Mark Fisher 2011
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By the Seat of Your Pants, theatre review

Published in Northings

By the Seat of Your Pants

Howden Park Centre, Livingston, 4 March 2011, and touring

THERE’S an absurdist play by Eugene Ionesco called The Chairs in which two people fill a room with chairs for a conference of unseen people. By the Seat of Your Pants is like a junior version of this. Performed by three silent-movie style clowns, it is a warm-spirited piece of visual theatre for children, using wooden chairs as the starting point for a series of whimsical sketches. There are small chairs, tall chairs, folding chairs, fancy chairs and collapsing chairs, inspiring everything from romantic waltzes to raucous rounds of – what else? – musical chairs.

Performed by Edinburgh’s Plutôt La Vie and slickly put together by director Magdalena Schamberger, it derives most of its gentle observational humour from the comedy of peer-group pressure. These three men  – the genial Ian Cameron, the eager-to-please Tim Licata and the one-step-behind David Walshe – are forever trying to run with the pack. If two face in one direction, the other feels he should too. If one stands up, the others tell him to sit down. If one yawns and stretches, the others do their best to do the same – even if they don’t understand why.

Inevitably, things don’t go quite right. There’s always a chair missing, a seat breaking or an actor getting the wrong end of the stick. This is right up a young audience’s street. So much of growing up is about learning to socialise, to fit in with your friends and to be liked that it is a big laugh to see these men-children, whether by accident or design, singularly fail to achieve any of these things. For the older people in the audience, there are fewer laugh-out-loud moments, but the 70-minute piece (which feels on the long side for such deliberately slight material) sustains itself on innocence and charm.

Particularly strong is the score for clarinet, double bass and piano, specially recorded by composer Andrew Cruickshank. This is not just incidental music, but an integral part of the show, inspiring many of the visual gags, establishing the comedic pace and setting the tone of easy-going humour with its cool jazz rhythms and occasional classical digressions. The show would not be the same without it. (Pic: Douglas Robertson)

© Mark Fisher 2011
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Monday, March 07, 2011

Lord of the Flies, dance review

Published in the Guardian

Lord of the Flies

Theatre Royal, Glasgow
Three stars

It started this time last year with 170 Glasgow boys and young men getting involved in dance workshops. It ended last week with a mixed cast of two dozen amateur and professional dancers staging an impressionistic version of William Golding's dog-eat-dog classic. Directed by Matthew Bourne and produced by Re:Bourne, the education wing of his New Adventures company, this Lord of the Flies establishes a template that could be used in other cities to help reduce the age-old stigma about boys and ballet.

In the production's most audacious move, the setting is no longer Golding's desert island, but the Theatre Royal itself. With a riot going on outside, an all-male class takes refuge in the building and finds itself trapped behind the dock doors. An advance party goes on a reccy through the dress circle, the boys plunder the sweet stall and overdose on ice-cream and crisps and, as the savagery sets in, the more timid ones hide out behind the costume rails.

The great accomplishment of the production is its seamless integration of amateur and professional dancers. There's no sense of watching a community show. But what is surprising is how little Bourne exploits the young male company's potential for aggression: they start off as a nice bunch of lads, and descend not so much into violence as a vigorous athleticism.

As ever, Bourne excels at the broad brushstrokes of the story, moving a large company clearly through the stages from order to anarchy. This is at the expense of narrative and choreographic detail, providing little sense of the original's dramatic tension, but it is an impressive achievement for a first attempt.

© Mark Fisher 2011

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Girl X, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Girl X
Traverse Theatre
Four stars

Robert Softley is telling the true story of a girl whose parents put her through surgery rather than let her face the onset of an adulthood which, they felt, would only make her profound disabilities worse. The actor is surrounded by a 16-strong community chorus and, as he describes the girl's condition, they break into sympathetic song. With a look of horror, he asks them what they're doing. "We're a choir – that's what choirs do," they reply in unison.

It's one of several laugh-out-loud moments in this politically thrilling production created by Softley and director Pol Heyvaert for the National Theatre of Scotland. "I hate choirs," says Softley as he rails against the mainstream sentimentalisation of people with disabilities. In an already emotive debate about disability rights, he has no time for the manipulative choral soundtracks so beloved of Hollywood.

The actor, however, is outnumbered. When the choir arrive on stage – a brilliantly realised concrete underpass enhanced by pencil-drawn animations – they point in our direction and say they are here with the audience. Softley, a wheelchair user, is taking on the lot of us, with our common-sense opinions ranging from patronising liberal compassion to anti-PC indignation.

What's so compelling about Girl X – adapted from heated discussions on internet forums and frequently going off on funny tangents in the way such discussions do – is the argument never settles. Softley is the most articulate, the best briefed and the most inclined to challenge conventional thinking ("Would you fuck me?" he demands of those who claim to respect him as a human being), but the choir frequently seem more pragmatic and less extreme. The conflicting and contradictory viewpoints create the opposite of agitprop and, in its way, something more politically radical, opening up a complex, unsettling debate that does not stop at the curtain call. (Pic Drew Farrell)

© Mark Fisher 2011
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Thursday, March 03, 2011

Staircase, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Tron, Glasgow
Three stars

Look on Amazon and you'll find a poster for sale for the film version of Staircase.It features Rex Harrison and Richard Burton dancing hand in hand, cocking their legs behind, with the slogan "Whoops!". This was 1969 and the subtext was clear: here were two straight movie icons camping it up for laughs.

Yet Charles Dyer's largely forgotten two-hander, first performed by the RSC in 1966 with Paul Scofield and Patrick Magee, is far from being a gay send-up. In this single-act staging, it proves to be a sad lament to the lives wasted – and sometimes snuffed out – because of the perceived stigma around homosexuality.

Set in an out-of-hours East End barber – crisply captured in blacks, whites and greys by designer Kenny Miller – it shows how even the fantasy life of a gay man can be bound down by his internalised repression. Tron artistic director Andy Arnold plays a former actor who, after being arrested for breach of the peace for dressing in drag and sitting on a man's lap, still insists "there's nothing poofy about me, I'm normal". Playing opposite Benny Young as his apparent lover, he is an unreliable narrator whose egocentric stories seem purpose-built to contradict themselves. Being in denial is his default position.

The character, like the playwright, is called Charlie Dyer and their fantasies are mutual. The world they create – an unsustainable mythology of success and charisma – is a cover for alienation, self-disgust and underachievement. What starts as a bitterly funny bickering session ends as a lonely monologue by a man forbidden to be himself.

Arnold's production gains in stature as it goes on. At first, there is little tonal variation and sourness overwhelms the comedy, but it finishes with poignancy. (Pic: John Johnston)
© Mark Fisher 2011
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Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Marilyn, theatre review

Published in the Guardian


Citizens, Glasgow

Two stars

"Peroxide – that's all it is," says a long-suffering hairdresser working for Marilyn Monroe as she takes up residence in the Beverly Hills Hotel while shooting Let's Make Love. In an adjoining room, her husband, Arthur Miller, is typing out the screenplay for The Misfits; over the corridor, that other big-screen blonde, Simone Signoret, is accompanying her husband, and Monroe's co-star, Yves Montand.

In Sue Glover's new bio-drama, Monroe is all too aware that peroxide is all it is. "I've gotten over acting with my hair," she says before one of her many bouts of self-doubt, as she struggles to feel the equal of her intellectual husband and a match for the European sophistication of Signoret. Yes, she reads Shakespeare for pleasure, but there's a big part of Norma Jeane that loves to play the bubbly good-time girl. Signoret, meanwhile, has the opposite complaint: she resents having to soup up her French accent, dumb down her intelligence and fit in with the Hollywood formula just to be employed in a reactionary USA.

Frances Thorburn captures Monroe down to the last boo-boo-be-doo. Her girlish sensuality would be erotic if it didn't seem so gauche next to Signoret's elegance (a classy performance by Dominique Hollier, though marred by unvaried intonation). But we live in an age saturated with celebrities moaning about the pressures of fame, and this play merely presents two more. However well Philip Howard's production reflects the iconography of Monroe, the script is without dramatic interest: no question to be resolved, no crisis to be confronted and only Monroe's eternal mystique to sustain us.

© Mark Fisher 2011

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