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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Thursday, 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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Interview: Matthew Lenton

Published in the Scotsman
MATTHEW Lenton is telling me about the new Vanishing Point show, Saturday Night, when he leans over and shouts to a passing actor.

"Lara, est-ce que tu as une cigarette?" he says.

It's not the way he'd ask for a fag back home in Glasgow and, given we're sitting in an outdoor café in Porto, not the language he'd normally use to get one here in Portugal either.

But this is Lenton's pan-European world, in which a show destined for Scotland starts off with dates in Porto, Lisbon and Guimaraes. Here, it is normal for Vanishing Point collaborators such as designer Kai Fischer and actor Sandy Grierson to be joined by performers from Portugal, Belgium and France. It's only because a festival in Italy had its funding cut that Lenton is not also working in Naples this year.

As it happens, Saturday Night is entirely wordless, which means the audience need never know about the cast's multinational origins. The play is a sister piece to the company's CATS-award winning Interiors, which caused a sensation in 2009 and again in 2010. In that show, the action took place through a dining room window, with the audience peering in like voyeurs, imagining what was being said. It was as brilliantly done as it was unusual, conveying powerful emotions through gesture alone. Rather than move on, Lenton felt there was more mileage in the technique yet.

"The desire to do this came from a genuine artistic curiosity," he says. "I was in love with that world, I thought it was beautiful and I wanted to stay in it."

Thus, in Saturday Night, we find ourselves outside a modern-looking house with a voyeuristic view of the bathroom, an old woman's living room and the empty flat into which a young couple are about to move. This time, there is not even a narrator to guide us through the action; we're left to figure it out for ourselves, to guess the meaning of the apes in the garden and the spaceman through the window, to piece together the relationships of lovers, neighbours and friends, as well as of older and younger selves.

"This is much more disparate visually than Interiors," he says. "You have three rooms, there's no narrator's voice and the audience are looking in different places even more than they were in Interiors. It allows the audience to sit back a bit more."

As well as Interiors, the show makes reference to the gothic nightmare of Little Otik, a Czech film adapted by the company in 2009, creating a sense of the natural world being about to encroach on suburban normality. The result is funny, surreal and a little creepy.

To explain why he likes working in this multinational way, Lenton recalls a development week here at the Teatro Nacional São João (TNSJ) earlier in the year.

He got to the end of the week feeling their work had been chaotic and inconclusive. He had no confidence it would add up to anything. That the season posters listed his name alongside theatre gurus Pina Bausch and Peter Brook only made him feel more out of his depth.

On the plane home, he read a short story by Raymond Carver and had an instant vision about how he could adapt if for the stage. He could imagine exactly how he'd rehearse it and put it on. It was tempting to change tack and do Carver instead, but he knew it wouldn't be right. "If I knew I could do it at the beginning, I wouldn't want to do it," he says. "It's scary when you do a show at the National Theatre in Portugal, starting four weeks ago with a set of a house, an idea of what you're going to do, but no script and no structure."

But scariness is what he thrives on. It is this desire to step outside his comfort zone and to expand his horizons that explains how he is now sitting in a square beside one of Portugal's two national theatres with his name in big letters down the front. "My ambitions were always to work internationally," he says. "Part of that is to do with being curious, inquisitive and wanting to have new experiences. It's about never wanting to plateau. The day I feel I'm doing that is the day I'll become a lobster fisherman in Cornwall."

It is a sentiment echoed by Nuno Carinhas, TNSJ's artistic director, who likes to present Portuguese work in a global context. "Theatre is a universal question," he says, when we meet the next day. "It's not just a local reality. And the reaction to Saturday Night has been very positive."

Being in Portugal opens Lenton's eyes to a different way of working, but he sees the collaboration less as a chance to draw on different performing traditions and more as a way of widening the range of people he can work with.

"Actors are actors, wherever they're from," he says. "All the ones I've worked with have been able to communicate with each other as actors; they share the same work ethic and the same desire to get to the bottom of whatever they're trying to do. I haven't noticed much difference between actors from different countries, it's more what they're like as individuals. Flávia from Lisbon or Gabriel from Brussels, they just have different life experiences, just as people, and they can bring those experiences to a process. Those experiences may be more diverse and rich than if I was working with a group of actors who always worked in Scotland."

As for his developing strand of visually led storytelling, he says it chimes with the way he makes sense of the world. There are people who journey through life being guided by language, whether spoken or written, but Lenton finds his brain works differently. "If I ask someone for directions and they tell me, I won't have a clue where to go," he says.

"If they draw a map, then I'll understand it."

Saturday Night is at Tramway, Glasgow, from 8-15 October and on tour until 30 October.
© Mark Fisher 2011
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Calum's Road, theatre review

Published in the Guardian
Four stars
IT'S a road that really exists. Nearly two miles long, it goes from South Arnish to Brochel Castle on the Inner Hebridean island of Raasay. Built in the 1960s, it is the single-handed work of Calum MacLeod, an islander who grew so frustrated with the council's failure to construct a road that he just did it himself.

The story is told in Roger Hutchinson's 2006 book Calum's Road and adapted here in a lyrical, musical and elegiac ensemble production by Gerry Mulgrew for Communicado and the National Theatre of Scotland, on tour with Mulgrew's equally rewarding children's show Tall Tales for Small People.

The appeal of MacLeod's feat is in its classical audacity. Played by Iain Macrae, he is a single-minded man who never stops working and never sits down. He uses the routes taken by sheep to chart his course, gets materials by picking apart ancient walls and uses nothing but hand tools to boldly go where no man has gone before. Like a Greek hero, he is one part awe-inspiring, one part hubristic.

The tragedy, in David Harrower's gorgeous adaptation, which circles in on itself like the twists and turns of a Highland road, is as much ours as his. MacLeod is driven by his desire to halt the island's depopulation but, by the time the council finally surfaces the road, he and his wife are the only ones left in Arnish. His achievement is astounding, and too late.

Seen from the perspective of MacLeod's daughter and her childhood sweetheart, now living far away, the construction of the road is the dying gasp of a condemned culture. Like the Gaelic they no longer speak, it symbolises a way of life that eludes them. It is not just a road but, like this spirited production itself, a poignant reminder of our collective loss. (Pic: Richard Campbell)
© Mark Fisher 2011
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Calum's Road, theatre review

Cumbernauld Theatre, 1 October 2011, and touring

WITHOUT telling anyone, the National Theatre of Scotland has mounted a mini-festival of the work of Gerry Mulgrew, the celebrated founder of Communicado.

By day, you can see a revival of his Tall Tales for Small People, an exuberant show for children (and adults with good taste) that the director first staged in 1995. By night, you can see Calum’s Road, Mulgrew’s latest work, performed by the same six-strong ensemble.

And what a special show it is. Based on the book of the same name by Roger Hutchinson, it tells the true story of Calum MacLeod, who grew so weary of the council’s failure to build a road on his native North Raasay that he set about building it himself. Stone by stone, he spent a decade laying a one-and-three-quarter mile route between Arnish, where he lived, and Brochel Castle. Eventually, the council acknowledged his efforts and surfaced the road.

It was a formidable, not to say foolhardy, task, and the first challenge for Mulgrew is how to create the impression of ten years’ hard labour on an Inner Hebridean island using only the resources of a studio theatre. One way he achieves it is in the continual flow of movement about Gordon Davidson’s set of small boxes, which the cast repeatedly spread out then gather, pile up then rearrange. According to his daughter, MacLeod was a man who never sat down and, indeed, it’s with a sense of alarm when we see actor Iain Macrae slumped in his wheelbarrow, finally exhausted.

The actors are supported by the back projections of Evanton-based video designer John McGeoch, who films Highland roads, ferry boats, island houses and painted portraits of the characters to enhance the reality of the story. It’s a technique that could easily have overwhelmed the production, but the images are simple enough not to be distracting and elemental enough not to usurp the theatrical imagination.

With strong musical input from Alasdair Macrae, it is a performance built around the ensemble even though it tells the story of such a solitary and single-minded endeavour. That’s because the repercussions of MacLeod’s enterprise are widespread. On one hand, the construction of the road is a monumental solo feat; on the other, it is a symbol of romantic futility that affects us all. To build a road single-handedly might seem impossible, but what is really impossible is keeping people living on the island.

The road is the grand gesture of a man who loves the landscape, culture and language he has grown up with. His adult daughter, played by Ceit Kearney, and her childhood sweetheart, played by Finlay Welsh, also feel that love but, having moved to the central belt, they can no longer be properly part of the place. Like the Gaelic language, the island is easier to love than commit to. It means the road is both awe-inspiring and tragic, a mighty accomplishment that failed in its primary aim to regenerate the island.

These contradictions, along with the evocation of island life in David Harrower’s excellent adaptation, help make the production rich, vivid, humane and sad. (Pic: Richard Campbell)
© Mark Fisher 2011
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Tall Tales for Small People, theatre review

Published in Northings

Cumbernauld Theatre, 1 October 2011, and touring

IN ESSEX the row is rumbling on at Dale Farm where the local council is trying to evict 86 Traveller families from what it is says is an unauthorised site.

On a smaller scale, there is a similarly frosty reception for the family that pulls up its caravan on a patch of former common land in Tall Tales for Small People. Night may be drawing in, but the game keeper wants them to move on. There is no alternative site nearby, but the family must pack up.

But then the father, played by Finlay Welsh, comes up with an unorthodox solution. Like Shahrazad in 1001 Nights, he suggests he should tell the game keeper a story. He has no money for rent, but he can pay for the site in kind.

Thus begins this warm, wild and witty adaptation of three traditional tales, as told by the late Duncan Williamson. First staged by Communicado in the mid-1990s, Gerry Mulgrew’s entertaining production has been revived in collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland and is performed by the same actors and musicians who are appearing in Calum’s Road.

They tell us the one about the hunchback who befriends the birds and elopes with a swan, the one about the girl fleeing from body snatchers like something out of Tam O’Shanter, and the one about the baby who is swapped by fairies for a howling monster. These are earthy, raw and unsanitised stories, taking place in an unforgiving climate where the protagonists must take extreme measures to survive. It’s a place where adults get drunk, misfits are ostracised and you never know quite who you can trust.

In Mulgrew’s hands, it is also full of vigorous life. Written with tremendous lyricism and rhyming wit, the tales are not simply recited but fully dramatised in that fluid, inventive and resourceful style for which Communicado is famed. All it takes is for Alasdair Macrae to take his arms out of his jumper and he transforms into an owl. Thanks to a trapdoor in Karen Tennent’s hand-cart set, a doll instantly mutates into an outsize grey-haired devil baby. When they need a waterfall, out comes a roll of blue material.

Throw in Macrae’s live score for a variety of instruments and the all-hands-on-deck contributions of the rest of the six-strong ensemble and you have a set of tall tales not just for small people, but big ones as well. (Pic: Eamonn McGoldrick)
© Mark Fisher 2011
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Twelfth Night, theatre review

Published in Northings

Perth Theatre, Perth, 30 September 2011

IF IT'S a bold start you're after, you can't fault Rachel O'Riordan. Making her debut as artistic director at Perth Theatre, the former choreographer from Northern Ireland is fielding upwards of 14 actors in the company's first Shakespeare for six years. It sets her inaugural season off to a confident, unapologetic start, but unfortunately, not a wholly satisfying one.

On paper, this Twelfth Night has a tremendous amount going for it. Beneath a brooding sky of grey clouds, designer Diego Pitarch lines up a mix-and-match assortment of front doors, as if in readiness for the most chaotic of farces, while a grand staircase sweeps down the middle of the stage allowing the actors to play at multiple heights.

Lighting designer James Whiteside does a classy job at picking out the actors and when Count Orsino says, "If music be the food of love, play on," it is none other than Conor Mitchell at the baby grand. He recently scored Ten Plagues for Marc Almond on the Edinburgh Fringe and is in particularly florid form here.

There are some strong performances too, notably from Laura O'Toole as Viola, the lady who disguises herself as a man after being washed ashore in an unknown land, only to be mistaken for her identical twin brother whom she had presumed drowned. With her inter-war short-back-and-sides, O'Toole has an androgynous charm and an endearingly earnest manner as she finds herself falling for Martin Ledwith's gruff and uncharismatic Orsino, while Samara MacLaren's frisky Olivia falls for her.

Sadly, it takes more than confidence to kick-start a play into life and, despite the better efforts of the various talents involved, this one largely misfires.
It's a consequence of O'Riordan playing it for maximum psychological realism. It is an approach that can work and it does give the characters considerable integrity, but here, it also robs them of their comic potential. This is a play inspired by festive cross-dressing and confusion. It is an anarchic carnival in which convention is upturned, pomposity pricked and romantic delusion exposed. But in this production, everyone takes things so seriously the story seems more traumatic than comic.

This is true even in the most obviously knockabout scenes between Steven McNicoll's Sir Toby Belch and John Paul Hurley's Sir Andrew Aguecheek. The object of their derision, Tom Marshall's Malvolio, is so moderate in his behaviour that their plot to humiliate him comes across as bullying instead of comic comeuppance. When he is tricked into dressing preposterously in front of Olivia, we find it more sad than funny.

It leaves us with a mature, slick and polished production, but too wistful and elegiac to do justice to the comedy. (Pic: Eammon McGoldrick)

© Mark Fisher 2011
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