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

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Too Many Penguins?, theatre review

Published in the Scotsman
MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Mark Fisher, 2011
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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Sleeping Beauty, theatre review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in the Guardian
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Christmas Carol, theatre review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in the Scotsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Scotland on Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Mark Fisher, 2011

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Monday, December 05, 2011

Cinderella, Dundee Rep, theatre review

Published in the Guardian
Three stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Mark Fisher, 2011 (pic: Douglas McBride)
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