About Me

My Photo
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.
View my complete profile


Blog Archive

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)

More coverage at

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

More coverage at

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

More coverage at

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

More coverage at