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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, December 20, 2012

The Arthur Conan Doyle Appreciation Society, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Traverse Theatre
Three stars
IN THE bar at the Traverse, there's a blackboard where the audience can vote on whether they believe in the afterlife or not. At my last count, the sceptics had the majority. But, even as an atheist, you feel a bit of a spoilsport for chalking up your belief that this is as good as it gets.

There's a similar sense of ambivalence inside the theatre, where artistic director Orla O'Loughlin has drafted in touring company Peepolykus to consider the strange case of Arthur Conan Doyle. On the one hand, the Edinburgh-born author invented one of fiction's greatest rational minds in the shape of Sherlock Holmes; on the other, he was a Christian spiritualist who wrote a credulous book called The Coming of the Fairies. Harry Houdini called him "a wonderful but gently gullible man".

In Peepolykus's spin on this theme, a PhD philosophy student called Jennifer McGeary (a suitably earnest Gabriel Quigley) tries to deliver an illustrated lecture entitled "Why Do We Continue to Believe in the Afterlife?", yet repeatedly undermines her own scepticism by attempting to communicate with her dead grandmother. Meanwhile, the two actors she has hired for the occasion – Peepolykus mainstays Javier Marzan and John Nicholson – try not to be spooked by the flickering lights, mysterious bumps and magical illusions.

In the vain hope of one day staging The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes, Marzan and Nicholson insist on acting out scenes from The Reichenbach Falls and The Hound of the Baskervilles to demonstrate McGeary's points. As genuine historical research gets muddled with knockabout comedy, the show takes on the chaotic air of a Peter Glaze sketch from Crackerjack. At times, it is very funny, but at other times, only mildly amusing, meaning the show never quite finds the level of comic delirium – or post-Enlightenment debate – to make it compelling.
© Mark Fisher, 2012

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Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Snow Queen, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Dundee Rep
Four stars
AT this time of year, even the more sober-minded shows play to the gallery with fart gags and slapstick. The distinguishing characteristic of Jemima Levick's production of The Snow Queen, by contrast, is just how seriously it takes the classic tale. Her staging has warmth and humour but, as any child in the audience will tell you, the stakes are too high to waste time clowning around.

This is especially true in Mike Kenny's adaptation, which is attuned to the dark transformative power of Hans Christian Andersen's story. He understands the mysterious horror of Kai changing overnight from sweet young boy to bolshie adolescent after a shard of broken mirror enters his heart. He understands the importance of the setting – a world in icy deadlock, heartless and cruel, where the Snow Queen symbolises the frightening allure of adult sexuality, and her kiss sends a ripple of dull colour across the sky. He understands, too, the bittersweet moral that life does not stand still, winter turns to spring, children become grownups and friendship turns into love.

He is also sensitive to the way fairytales enlist animals to help the young heroine. Ann Louise Ross exudes wisdom and hope as she morphs from grandmother to snowman, sunflower, crow and penguin, guiding Gerda on her journey to rescue Kai. Played by Molly Vevers, Gerda is wholesome, vulnerable and determined, and we never doubt the danger and importance of her task.

As Emily Winter's creepily seductive Snow Queen pounds the stage on stilts, leaving Martin McBride's Kai mesmerised, we are so gripped by the adventure that the merry, Slava's Snowshow-style finale almost seems like a distraction.
© Mark Fisher, 2012 (pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan)

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Sleeping Beauty, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Citizens Theatre
Three stars

AS pantos across the land ramp up the contrast, volume and colour, the Christmas show at the Citz is refreshingly austere. Against a backdrop of naked winter trees, this Sleeping Beauty plays out in a nightmarish, monochrome landscape, the half-light alleviated by no more than a flash of gold or a blood-red dress.

It's a bleak world, somewhere between Samuel Beckett and Tim Burton, a place where the Prince (Owen Whitelaw) and Beauty (Lucy Hollis) have to battle with uncommon ferocity to achieve their liberation. In its simplest form, Sleeping Beauty is a metaphor for the passage from childhood to maturity. The Prince awakens Beauty into adulthood and effectively frees her from parental authority. But in Rufus Norris's adaptation of Charles Perrault's original, the end of Beauty's 100-year sleep is merely the beginning of a long struggle towards release and renewal.

This becomes a parable about the failure of an older generation to relinquish control over the next. Beauty's family conflicts are nothing compared to those of the Prince. His mother, played by Mark McDonnell, is an ogre with a taste for human flesh. Having suppressed her appetite for her son, she is now ravenous for her grandchildren. It means Kathryn Howden, as the poor Fairy Goody, has to keep her magical powers on the go throughout Beauty's sleep and into the battles to come.

This is psychologically fascinating, and director Dominic Hill is fully committed – perhaps too committed – to the bleakness of Norris's vision. Paddy Cunneen's low-pitched songs do nothing to lift the spirits, nor does Naomi Wilkinson's set suggest any green shoots of recovery. There is enough stomping about by John Kielty's towering Ogre to keep the children thrilled, but the production pursues its theme so relentlessly that it denies us the happy ending we yearn for.
© Mark Fisher, 2012

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Aganeza Scrooge, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

WHEN Charles Dickens conceived the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, it is unlikely that he had in mind a large woman in a spangly leotard, bejewelled shoulder pads and curly black wig. But in Johnny McKnight's raucous revision of A Christmas Carol, the writer, director and star makes a convincing case for Scrooge as Dame.

As an avaricious money-lender and sole proprietor of Marley & Me, this Aganeza Scrooge has survived the loadsamoney era to become the epitome of bah-humbug misanthropy. Selfish and merciless, she spends much of the show chatting up terrified audience members. Sharp-tongued, waspish and given to ad-libbing, she is also very funny.

This larger-than-life creation inhabits an all-female landscape that's a dizzy amalgam of Victorian London (all mockney accents, decaying teeth and fatal childhood illnesses), modern-day Glasgow (the Ghost of Panto Present is a perfectly realised Jimmy Krankie lookalike) and Strictly-style dance routines ("Get that, Lisa Riley"). If Kenny Miller's baroque black-and-white designs weren't quite so tasteful, you'd call it uncouth.

Where McKnight is a vision of heightened callousness, the others revel in exaggerated pathos. Anita Vettesse's Cratchit contemplates a Christmas dinner featuring a sparrow-sized turkey yet refuses to hear a word against her employer, while Sally Reid's Tiny Tim hobbles around on crutches and sees the good in everything. That's when the two of them, along with Michele Gallagher and Helen McAlpine, aren't doubling as 1980s throwbacks, Sally Bowles-style cabaret singers or 1960s soul queens in their efforts to teach Aganeza her lesson. 

The tongue-twisters, corny jokes and sweet-throwing are about as far from Dickens as you can get, yet so brilliantly does McKnight fuse the contradictory strands – bittersweet social commentary and pugnacious panto – that by the end, when Aganeza finally sees the error of her ways, he strikes a chord of genuinely warming Christmas cheer.
© Mark Fisher, 2012

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The Ugly Duckling, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Arches/Catherine Wheels
Four stars

IT'S not so much the spirit of Christmas birth as of Easter resurrection that possesses this Hans Christian Andersen adaptation by Catherine Wheels. It begins, delightfully, in a farmyard-cum-maternity unit where first pig, then horse, and finally mother hen are bringing their young into the world. Two piglets wobble out from beneath Gill Robertson's skirts, a floppy foal appears in Laurie Brown's field and, after much concentration, Veronica Leer fills an egg box with little white ovals. They're followed by another the size of a football – a misfit from the start.

Springtime renewal comes easy to the newly hatched ducklings, perching prettily on Leer's head as they learn to swim before being hung out on the washing line to dry. For the ugly duckling, by contrast, rebirth is a tougher call.
Played by Brown in school shorts and grey balaclava, he'd just love to stretch his enormous wings and walk tall to a blast of flamboyant disco music. But his siblings are having none of it. If you've never felt intimidated by a rubber duck, you haven't seen this lot, lined up on the rooftop and squeaking in unison, a chilling vision of bullying intolerance.

So off goes the ugly duckling to find himself, seeing if he can fit in among moles, pedigree dogs or scavenging foxes. Whether they're hospitable or eager to eat him, he feels forever out of place.

Created by Andy Manley and Shona Reppe, this show for younger audiences could perhaps push the ugly duckling's sense of helpless despair even further (touching though the scene of wintry isolation is), but offers instead a charming metaphor about sexual liberation. This swan's awakening comes complete with a mirror-ball crash helmet and a wings-in-the-air dance to the Village People, a celebratory finale in which he is joyously allowed to be himself.
© Mark Fisher, 2012 (Pic: Niall Walker)

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Thursday, December 06, 2012

White Christmas, theatre review

Published in Northings

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

ON the first preview performance, the audience entered on an ordinary winter’s evening and left, so I’m told, to see the first snowfall of the season. We knew the Pitlochry technical team were good, but choreographing the weather is something else.

By the time I get there on the press night, the snow is lying thick on the ground and it’s impossible to think of a seasonal show better pitched at the Pitlochry audience. For the theatre’s third ever Christmas production, artistic director John Durnin has capitalised on the recent success of his summer musicals and fielded a bright and breezy backstage romance that feels just right for the time of year, despite lacking even the merest hint of panto.

By Durnin’s own admission, White Christmas is not the most sophisticated of stories. Based on the Bing Crosby/Danny Kaye movie of 1954, it is about the generation of American men who had to find their feet back home after serving in the second world war. While Vermont hotelier General Henry Waverly (James Smillie) struggles to adjust to civilian life without a battalion to command, his former army entertainers Bob Wallace and Phil Davis (Grant Neil and Simon Coulthard) respond in their contrasting ways to the sudden availability of adoring female fans.

The narrative requires only that Waverly comes to terms with his retirement, Davis settles down with a steady girl and Wallace finds true love after a misunderstanding. By the time the three strands come together, just before the curtain goes up on the closing concert, you get the impression even the writers have lost interest. All they ever needed was a framework to hang Irving Berlin’s fabulous songs on. The story is just an excuse.

And I doubt anyone’s complaining. From the moment Hilary Brooks’s ten-strong band strikes up, this is a big crowd-pleaser of a show. With no ambition to change the world, it’s an uncomplicated celebration of ensemble dance and pre-rock’n'roll popular song. And what songs! White Christmas . . . Sisters . . . How Deep Is the Ocean . . . they just keep on coming.

Some of the acting is less persuasive than the singing and, by going for a more generic West End-style cast, Durnin loses the quirky individuality that has distinguished some Pitlochry musicals. But Martine McMenemy and Grant Neal make adorable romantic leads, choreographer Chris Stuart-Wilson keeps the movement brisk and entertaining, and the whole show sends the audience home with a happy festive buzz.
© Mark Fisher, 2012

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Monday, December 03, 2012

Cinderella, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Three stars

IT'S impressive enough that Johnny McKnight is writing, directing and starring in Aganeza Scrooge at Glasgow's Tron this season, but somehow he has also managed to field two Cinderellas. At the MacRobert in Stirling, there's an updated revival of his 2007 panto, while here in Edinburgh, he has turned in a musical version set – for reasons best known to himself – in modern-day Paris.

The concept is that Martin McCormick's unfeasibly hunky Prince Pierre is on the hunt for a partner to join him in a reality TV show. Chief among his acolytes are the trashy sisters, superbly played by Nicola Roy and Jo Freer who, with telepathic precision, deliver half their lines in unison and totes make the most of McKnight's OMG teen-speak. Equally besotted is Julie Heatherill's otherwise level-headed Cinderella, who fails to see through the prince's self-centredness, even when he interrupts her mid-duet to say he's "not quite finished yet".

All this, in Mark Thomson's production, makes for bright and brash entertainment, but the show is caught between competing traditions. It has the exuberance of panto, but without the silliness; and it has the narrative ambitions of a more serious Christmas show but not the psychological complexity.

A case in point is Cinderella's stepmother. As a witch who draws her power from unrequited love, she is a standard-issue panto baddie, and Jayne McKenna plays her as such. But how much scarier would it have been for the little girl if her father had chosen this woman willingly, rather than being bewitched? Cinderella is not a story about fanciful supernatural powers but about the irrationality, unfairness and excesses of a very real adult world. This show misses a trick by not taking Cinderella's quest seriously enough.
© Mark Fisher, 2012 (Pic: Eamonn McGoldrick)

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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Theatre highlights: Christmas Crackers

Published in the Scotsman



IT'S the busiest month in the theatre calendar – oh, yes it is – and every company has something different to offer. Whether you’re after traditional glitz, subversive fun or a break from the Christmas overkill, there’s a show out there for you.

IF YOU LIKE TO GET IN FIRST
Look, kids, it’s not a race. There’s plenty of time before the big day. You can open your presents in good time. But if you really can’t wait to boo the baddie, dance in your seat and join in the community singalong, there are three companies as eager as you are to make merry. The most eager of all is Motherwell Theatre, which launched its Aladdin (until 5 January) nearly a week ago. Snapping at its heels is the Palace Theatre, Kilmarnock, which yesterday Snow White opened (until 30 December). It all makes this Tuesday’s opening of Puss In Boots at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh (27 November–5 January) look positively sedate.

IF YOU LIKE JOHNNY McKNIGHT
We’ve been calling him the rising star of Scottish panto for a few years, but it’s pretty clear Johnny McKnight is now well and truly risen. Whether as writer, director or dame – or all three at once – the mainstay of Glasgow’s Random Accomplice embodies everything that’s great about Scottish pantomime. And this year, he’s everywhere. At Stirling’s MacRobert, he has updated his version of Cinderella (28 November–31 December); for Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum, he’s written a musical version of the same story (29 November–29 December); and at Glasgow’s Tron, he is writing, directing and starring in Aganeza Scrooge (30 November–5 January), a sideways take on Dickens with a cracking female ensemble of Anita Vettesse, Michele Gallagher, Helen McAlpine and Sally Reid.

IF YOU LIKE BIG-CITY GLAMOUR
For generations of theatregoers, pantomime is synonymous with the lavish ­variety shows at the King’s theatres in Glasgow and Edinburgh. If you want an introduction to the raucous humour, colourful costumes and showbiz dance routines that define a traditional Scottish pantomime, these are the places to start. In Glasgow, the King’s is presenting Cinderella (30 November–6 January) with the fabulous Karen Dunbar, Des Clarke and Gavin Mitchell. In Edinburgh, audiences are treated to Mother Goose (1 December–20 January) with the dream-team regulars of Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott.

Too Many Penguins
IF YOU LIKE SOMETHING FOR THE WEE ONES
Knockabout entertainment is all very well, but it can go over the heads of very young children. That’s why the supply of tot-friendly theatre is increasing by the year. Best place to start is Stirling’s MacRobert, which is offering The Polar Bears Go Wild (4–30 December), an adventure for the under-fives by Glasgow’s Fish and Game, as well as Multi-Coloured Blocks From Space (4–24 December), an art and sound installation for babies and toddlers. First seen at the MacRobert last year, the CATS award-winning Too Many Penguins will now delight a very young audience at Edinburgh’s Traverse (11–22 December). Also recommended is The Christmas Quangle Wangle by Lickety Spit at North Edinburgh Arts Centre (6–15 December), The Ugly Duckling by Catherine Wheels at the Arches, Glasgow (30 November–30 December) and two shows by Grinagog Theatre Company: Twinkle Bell at the Citizens, Glasgow (8–30 December) and Little Ulla on tour (28 November–23 December).

IF YOU LIKE TV NAMES
On telly, she’s famous as Rab C Nesbitt’s Mary Doll. On stage, she’s famous as Susan Boyle in I Dreamed A Dream. And in Aberdeen, she’s famous as the lynchpin of the HMT panto. Elaine C Smith is back again this year in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1 December–6 January) written by Alan McHugh, who’s also responsible for Mother Goose at Perth Theatre (7 December–5 January). If celebrity-spotting is your thing, you could check out John Barrowman and the Krankies in Jack And The Beanstalk at the SECC, Glasgow (15 December–6 January); various stars of CBBC, River City and Still Game in Cinderella at the Alhambra, Dunfermline (19 December–6 January); and faces from River City, Gary: Tank Commander and the Irn Bru blind date advert in Sleeping Beauty at the Adam Smith Theatre in Kirkcaldy (7 December–12 January). Fact fans may note that Mother Goose at Eden Court in Inverness (4 December–6 January) is written by Iain Lauchlan and Will Brenton who created the Tweenies.

IF YOU LIKE A GREAT STORY
Putting emphasis on the fairy-tale narrative can produce a more emotionally satisfying show. That’s what you can expect at Glasgow’s Citizens, where Dominic Hill is directing a Sleeping Beauty (1 December–6 January) described as “Tim Burton meets Shrek”, and at Dundee Rep, where director Jemima Levick takes us to the icy heart of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen (4 December–5 January). Meanwhile, Pitlochry Festival Theatre is going down the musical route with a staging of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (30 November–23 December).

IF YOU LIKE AN OLD STORY UPTURNED
Nobody ever visited Glasgow’s Pavilion for its reverential approach to the classics, so don’t be surprised if The Wizard Of Never Woz (28 November–19 January) takes a liberty or two with a favourite story. In this version, Radio Clyde’s Shebahn Littlejohn stars as Dorothy setting out not from Kansas, but Govan, meeting Scatty Scarecrow, Tarnished Tin Man and Scardie Cat Lion along the way.

IF YOU LIKE FAMILY-FRIENDLY DANCE
Choreographers love Christmas as much as the rest of us, hence the popularity 
of Robert North’s version of The Snowman, back for another run at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre (13–30 December) and Ashley Page and Antony McDonald’s staging of The Nutcracker for Scottish Ballet at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal (8–29 December and on tour in January).

IF YOU LIKE IT AT LUNCHTIME
It’s been another triumphant year for Glasgow’s lunchtime theatre season, A Play, A Pie And A Pint, so time for a well-deserved knees up with Aladdin And Wee Jeannie at Oran Mor (3–22 December). Expect silliness, irreverence and political satire courtesy of Dave Anderson and David MacLennan.

IF YOU LIKE IT UP-CLOSE AND PERSONAL
Last year, the National Theatre of ­Scotland built a complete room in the old Govan Town Hall to lend an especially intimate and spooky air to A Christmas Carol. Graham McLaren’s awesome production won two CATS awards and is back in the same room but a different location: the Old Kirk, Kirkcaldy (7–30 December). Highly ­recommended.

IF YOU LIKE THE RETURN OF AN OLD FRIEND
Ayr’s Gaiety Theatre has been out of action for nearly four years, so Cinderella (11 December–6 January) will be especially welcome. Audiences will get a first look at the refurbished and re-imagined building as River City’s Gary Lamont leads the cast as Prince Charming.

IF YOU LIKE VALUE FOR MONEY
Why settle for one story when at Cumbernauld Theatre you can get ten? Ed Robson’s The Night Before Christmas (30 November–24 December) retells favourites such as Hansel And Gretel, Puss-in-Boots and The Emperor’s New Clothes in a single sitting. And no ticket costs more than a tenner.

IF YOU LIKE IT YOUTHFUL
Christmas may be for the kids, but that doesn’t stop young people entertaining the grown-ups with shows of their own. Scottish Youth Theatre is at the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen with It Wasn’t Me, It Was Goldilocks (3–24 December) as well as at its base in Glasgow with Oh Crumbs, Scary Biscuits (30 November–24 December). Edinburgh’s Strange Town has a five-show residency at the Scottish Storytelling Centre with tongue-in-cheek seasonal offerings including 1001 Nights at Widow Twankey’s B&B (8 & 9 December), Dick McWhittington And His Cat (6 & 7 December) and Whatever Ever After (8 & 9 December). Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s Lyceum 
Youth Theatre is branching out into fashionable Summerhall with two shows going under the banner of Deck The (Summer) Halls (14 December) and you can expect extra helpings of youthful ­energy in PACE’s 25th anniversary production of Jack And The Beanstalk at Paisley Arts Centre (30 November–31 December).

IF YOU LIKE SOMETHING LESS SEASONAL
So you fancy a good night out, but 
you’re not big on fairy-tales and audience participation. Step forward ­Edinburgh’s Traverse, where artistic ­director Orla O’Loughlin is teaming up with Peepolykus for The Arthur Conan Doyle Appreciation Society (6–22 December), a not-entirely-serious investigation into why the creator of Sherlock Holmes had such a belief in spiritualism.

© Mark Fisher, 2012

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Theatre preview: The Arthur Conan Doyle Appreciation Society

Published in the Scotsman

A Traverse Theatre preview


IT’S April 2007 and the Duchess Theatre in London is packed for the West End opening of The Hound of the Baskervilles. The show has already been a sell-out hit at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, but with the capital’s theatre critics out in force, this particular performance has much riding on it.

So when they get to the bit where a corpse drops from the ceiling, director Orla O’Loughlin has reason to be alarmed. The next 15 minutes of business depend on the body landing on the stage. And tonight of all nights, the mechanism fails. There is no body. 

“It was our big moment,” says O’Loughlin, now artistic director of Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre. “They just did the scene anyway and everybody thought it was meant to happen.”

For the actors, such mishaps are part of the thrill of live theatre. Javier Marzan and John Nicholson, the core members of Peepolykus, are steeped in a clowning tradition that values spontaneity as highly as careful preparation. When a corpse doesn’t drop, they just carry on regardless. “If something goes wrong, it’s an opportunity, it’s not a crisis,” says O’Loughlin.

Fast forward to the last night in the West End and, once again, things are not going to plan. Marzan is in full flight as Sherlock Holmes – his heavy Spanish accent only adding to the show’s playfulness – when he notices the audience being distracted by something at the front of the stage. “What’s going on, it’s raining?” he says, staring up at an increasingly heavy drip coming down from the ceiling. “So much for Victorian engineering,” he ad-libs.

Spurred into action, the actors go into improvisational overdrive. By the time the audience is forced to evacuate, they have led a round of Happy Birthday to You and performed a tap dance. “Of course, everyone thought it was part of the show,” says Nicholson today. “The audience went out for about 25 minutes and when they came back, they were even more supportive.”

Wind the clock forward again to 2012 and O’Loughlin has invited Peepolykus to Edinburgh to create another helping of Baskervilles-style fun. The Arthur Conan Doyle Appreciation Society, she thinks, will be a perfect fit for her first Christmas show as Traverse artistic director. “It feels like an appropriate seasonal offering without covering everything in tinsel,” she says. “Because of Arthur Conan Doyle’s connection to the city and the structure of the show as an illustrated lecture, it all feels so Edinburgh.”

Before all that could happen, however, Marzan and Nicholson had to find another actor to work with them. The ideal candidate would be one who would be unfazed should a corpse fail to drop or ready to go with the flow if the rain seeps in. It’s not everyone’s idea of a low-pressure job.

That’s why an audition for Peepolykus can be unorthodox. There are actors who would be freaked out to find they are in the midst of an improvisation the moment they set foot in the door. Others would be plain puzzled to be acting out a script with Nicholson while he deliberately starts dropping his lines.

Scotland’s Gabriel Quigley is not one of them. As soon as Nicholson switched into playful mode at her audition, she followed suit. “We played a game where we said we’d talk about what we did last night,” says Nicholson. “I said, ‘You stripped and climbed up a lamppost,” and she said, ‘Yes, God, it was terrible,’ and immediately understood that game.”

O’Loughlin agrees: “You’ve got to be a yes person and delight in that game and not knowing where you’re going.”

This same air of playfulness will characterise The Arthur Conan Doyle Appreciation Society, says Nicholson: “There always has to be that element. Not all the way through, because that can get tiresome, but we always like to introduce ourselves and, with this show, it’s that taken to an extreme. It’s an illustrated lecture with a lot of detail about the relationship between the three actors who are putting on the show, so we needed to find a way to just talk like we would in a rehearsal room.”

The company’s approach means you never get the same show twice, but that isn’t to say The Arthur Conan Doyle Appreciation Society lacks structure. On the contrary, the script by Nicholson and Steven Canny is as tight as any new play O’Loughlin has worked on. By the time they went into rehearsal, it was on its fifth draft. 

What’s different is that underpinning the structure are a series of games. It’s the job of the actors to play by the rules of each one. “It’s quite a different rehearsal process,” says O’Loughlin in a lunchtime break. “It’s more fluid. It was a really rigorous writing process, but since it got into the rehearsal room, it’s undergone a lot of editing and additions we could only work out in the room.”

To create the illusion of freeform chaos requires serious rehearsal and discipline. “We have to be reined in, says Nicholson. “We would be hopeless without a director. We need a mum in the room!”

Neither is the show without substance. Peepolykus does not take itself too seriously, as those who have enjoyed such Edinburgh Fringe hits as I Am a Coffee, Mindbender, Let the Donkey Go and All in the Timing will attest, but there’s method behind the madness. 

In this case, what fascinates Nicholson about Arthur Conan Doyle is that, despite having created so perfect a rationalist as Sherlock Holmes, he was captivated by the supernatural. The Edinburgh-born author’s degree in medicine and his early career as a doctor did not suppress his willingness to believe in otherworldly phenomenon. Having suffered the deaths in close succession of his wife, son, brother, two brothers-in-law and two nephews, he was drawn to the beliefs of Christian spiritualism and the idea of the afterlife. 

He was attracted also to the possibility of other types of beings living among us and, in 1922, wrote a book called The Coming of the Fairies, inspired by the photographs (much later revealed to be a hoax) of two girls from Cottingley in Yorkshire playing with fairies. “If we could conceive a race of beings which were constructed in material which threw out shorter or longer vibrations, they would be invisible unless we could tune ourselves up or tone them down,” he speculated.

The contradiction struck a chord with Nicholson: “There’s something interesting in the dichotomy of Sherlock Holmes being this pragmatic mind and Arthur Conan Doyle having an interest in spiritualism. It reflects where we’re at today with fantastic advancements in science, yet at least half the world, it would seem, believe in the afterlife and the idea of the supernatural. 

“From my point of view, unless I can engage with ideas and use theatre to explore those things I feel passionate about, then I think I would give up. With this one, I think people will say, ‘Oh God, they’re actually being serious with this bit here.’ The lecture isn’t just a springboard into comedy – it is a lecture – but it is a lecture that is a bit off-piste.”
•  The Arthur Conan Doyle Appreciation Society is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 6-22 December. www.traverse.co.uk

© Mark Fisher, 2012 (pic: Laurence Winram)

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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Astonishing Archie, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

A Play, a Pie and a Pint, Oran Mor, Glasgow
Three stars

THEY discovered Elvis, they discovered sex, they discovered material wealth. Now the baby boomers are discovering death. The results can be maudlin and introspective – but not in the case of Astonishing Archie. Not only is Bill Paterson's three-hander perfectly pitched at a sell-out audience, but it is witty, self-aware and quietly observant about the way death makes us reflect on life.

Big Archie Martin has breathed his last, and bequeathed a problem to his two friends: what song to play at his funeral. His dying wish was simply to astonish him. For younger brother Allan, played with characteristic warmth by Paterson himself, it seems obvious that only a piece of vintage rock'n'roll will suffice. By contrast, elder brother Ronnie (played by Kenny Ireland) has no doubt Archie shared his love of Sinatra.

Paterson plays with a contradiction. On the one hand, two men fighting over their favourite records is comically pathetic. The funeral gives their bickering a greater intensity, but their argument is essentially trivial. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter whether Archie goes out with Hound Dog or My Way. On the other hand, though, those records can have a profound presence on people's lives.

The tone of the play is light and funny, but in between the gags, Paterson deftly describes how Ronnie's generation embraced the easy-listening romance of the rat pack, while Allan's generation hungered for the raw energy of rock'n'roll. In this sense, those songs are not trivial at all – at the point of death and reflection, they define a whole life.

Sharon Small presides over the fraternal dispute as a leather-jacketed Church of Scotland minister, and director Marilyn Imrie uses a thrust stage to bring the action into the audience, giving the production extra body and the breezy comedy extra weight.

© Mark Fisher, 2012 (pic: Leslie Black)

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Friday, November 09, 2012

The Artist Man and the Mother Woman, theatre review

Published in the Guardian
Traverse Theatre
Three stars

THE wag who described Morna Pearson as the Dr Dre of Scottish theatre was probably exaggerating. The Elgin-born playwright is no gangsta rapper, though you can't deny the social dysfunction and casual violence of her view on the world.

Her 2006 play Distracted was about a boy damaged by the death of his junkie mother and preyed on by a sex-starved older woman. Likewise, her latest, The Artist Man and the Mother Woman, a vivid 100 minutes, deals with incest, assault, stalking and murder.

For all that, it's less Straight Outta Compton than an episode of Ronnie Corbett's Sorry! reimagined by David Lynch. Pearson gives us grim human behaviour aplenty, but offsets it with toe-curlingly black comedy and an air of heightened weirdness.

We meet Geoffrey Buncher, a thirtysomething art teacher, who is frozen in a state of pre-adolescent naivety by Edie, his obsessive-compulsive mother. Like one of Enda Walsh's more neurotic characters, Edie has dealt with her fear of the outside world by sticking to a rigid routine. Meals are toast and jam, washing is in lavender bubble bath, bedtime is strictly 8pm. So far, she has kept Geoffrey under similar control, but now, his belated sexual awakening is unleashing forces neither of them can cope with.

The strength and weakness of the piece is in its cartoonish distortion of reality. Pearson's universe is compelling, yet at one remove from our own. The play has a captivating internal logic, but as a reflection of behaviour we may actually recognise, it is fanciful. As a result, it tapers to a conclusion that should be explosive.

In her debut production as artistic director, Orla O'Loughlin allows the strangeness to be constrained by an overly literal set, but her cast, led by Garry Collins and Anne Lacey, are superb, rooting Pearson's ear for Doric poetry in a disturbingly credible world.
© Mark Fisher, 2012 (pic: Robbie Jack)

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Thursday, November 08, 2012

Glasgow Girls, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Three stars
AS the librettist for the forthcoming musical adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, David Greig knows all about the demands of a traditional West End show. By contrast, Glasgow Girls, the playwright's current song-and-dance outing, refuses to play by conventional musical rules.

In this co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland, the Citizens and Theatre Royal Stratford East, he tells the true story of seven pupils from Drumchapel high school who, in 2005, launched a campaign against dawn raids, child detention and deportations of asylum seekers. Yet, for all their success in getting press coverage, a debate in the Scottish parliament and, indeed, a musical written about them, the girls have yet to reach the happy ending they deserve. "Our story is mostly about photocopying," says one in a characteristically sardonic assessment.

Although Glasgow Girls fizzes with sisters-doing-it-for-themselves energy, it resists the genre's pull towards sentimentality. A case in point is the concerned neighbour (played by Myra McFadyen in one of a series of delightfully deadpan cameos), who explains she would rather be expressing her political anger in words than in music. Only then does she give us the song.

The soundtrack, too, with its world-music arrangements and pop sensibility, is free of showbiz schmaltz. With a more rigorously commercial approach, the producers might have dropped the songs that don't move the plot forward. They might also have demanded a bit more plot.

That, however, would be to underestimate the emotive power of a story driven by righteous adolescent anger. We are moved by the truth of the real-life story, the thrill of political engagement and, in a production conceived and directed by Cora Bissett, who also contributes several songs, the infectious girl-power feistiness of her young company.
© Mark Fisher, 2012 (pic: Drew Farrell)

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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Midsummer Night's Dream, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Three stars

TOWARDS the start of Shakespeare's comedy, the fairy queen Titania tells her lover Oberon how their quarrel has turned nature upside down. "The seasons alter," she says, and the "mazed world … knows not which is which." Much later, as the play nears its conclusion, would-be husband Demetrius confesses that his love for Hermia is now "melted as the snow".

Neither line usually catches the attention, but here in Matthew Lenton's production, both leap out. This particular Midsummer Night's Dream is set in the depths of winter: fairies in white toss snowflakes into the air, the "rude mechanicals" huddle in their overcoats and, at moments of greatest tension, blizzards blow up. To prove their mettle in front of Helena, rivals Demetrius and Lysander strip down to their bare chests in a feat of icy endurance.

It's an idea that minimises the play's sense of feverish midsummer madness, but replaces it with a vision of rebirth and renewal. With the return of sanity come spring flowers pushing through the frozen stage and the promise of a fertile future. The image is reinforced in a framing device, in which Jordan Young's excellent Bottom sits at his wife's hospital bedside, waiting for signs of recovery. The whole play is his dream – complete with the funny and surreal image of his fellow mechanicals doubling as fairies during his transformation into a donkey – and its resolution offers him personal hope.

Despite these arresting ideas – often realised with striking beauty on Kai Fischer's set – the production scores less well in making you care about the lovers. Dressed in primary colours, like extras from a 1970s sci-fi series, they do better at comedy than romance. Because we don't fall in love with them ourselves, their eventual union carries no special frisson.
© Mark Fisher, 2012

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The Authorised Kate Bane, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Grid Iron at the Traverse, Edinburgh
Three stars

"I'M at home and I feel homesick," says the character of Kate Bane, explaining her unresolved anguish to the boyfriend who has come to meet her parents. Or rather, in Ella Hickson's new play for Grid Iron, it is one version of Kate Bane; whether or not she is the authorised version is hard to tell. Either way, she is a young woman trying to make sense of her past.


Bane has an incomplete record, however: disputed family anecdotes, hazy recollections and photographs that don't quite connect then with now. Playing a series of meta-theatrical games, Hickson teases us with the idea that memory is provisional. The stories we tell about ourselves are just that – stories. We not only write our history, but rewrite it as well. Every so often in Ben Harrison's production, the action stops and actor Jenny Hulse switches from Kate the protagonist to Kate the playwright, redrafting scenes that are not to her liking and testing out exchanges that might have been.

The Authorised Kate Bane couples the uncertainty of Six Characters in Search of an Author with the soul-baring family revelations of a minor Tennessee Williams play (minor because this particular family has suffered no trauma worse than an unhappy divorce). It is also an examination of how stories dominate our lives, affecting not only the way we understand the past, but how we project our future. If she is to be married, Kate must reconcile with her history and accept the possibility of a "happily ever after" ending.

There are times when the play drifts away from its central thesis, leaving some ideas dramatically unprocessed, but the clever concept holds it together, as does Hulse's impassioned central performance.
© Mark Fisher, 2012

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Friday, October 19, 2012

Sex and God, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Magnetic North
Four stars


IMAGINE a string quartet, but with actors instead of musicians. In place of a score, a set of overlapping monologues. As they riff on similar themes, they could be from a family of musical instruments, each with her own timbre and pitch, but each part of the ensemble. Phrases echo like a melody from one performer to another, sometimes dissonant, sometimes in harmony, taking on different meanings according to their setting.

That's what Linda McLean's beguiling new play for Magnetic North is like. Not for the first time, McLean has expressed her artistic purpose through the form of her work. She conducted similar experiments in 2010's Any Given Day, which communicated the sensation of loss by dropping two main characters after the first act, and 2007's Strangers, Babies, which showed different aspects of one woman's character by placing her in a series of unrelated scenes.

Here, in a production directed with a conductor's attention to detail by Nicholas Bone, she tackles themes such as pregnancy, domestic violence, male domination and female independence in an impressionistic collage of voices. Her four characters speak out from different points in the 20th century; they have no direct relationship to each other, but are united in a shared female experience of struggle against the odds.

Their stories are ordinary, but as they resonate with each other, they say something bigger about the female experience of sexuality, motherhood and survival. The strands of the play are not always easy to follow, but in the moment, it is as beautiful and delicate as a chamber concert.

© Mark Fisher, 2012 (pic: Colin Hattersley)

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Lifeguard, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

National Theatre of Scotland/Arches/Govanhill Baths Community Trust

EVEN a trip to the swimming baths is full of ritual. First comes the initiation ceremony of changing room, wire basket and wristband – just as it is here in Adrian Howells's literally immersive performance in the out-of-use Govanhill Baths, Glasgow. We prepare for this show just as we prepared for childhood visits to the local pool: clothes off, trunks on, towel at the ready.

And it is with a ritualistic poise that Howells joins us as we sit on benches around the teaching pool. Seemingly in a world of his own, he manipulates the long brush to clean the tiled surface, stands alongside the lithe form of swimmer Ira Mandela Siobhan and gazes across the water with its rippling projections of bodies torpedoing by.

It takes time to adjust to the meditative pace of this National Theatre of Scotland and Arches production. For a while, it seems Howells has little more to offer than a minor childhood anecdote about being pushed into the deep end by his father.

Gradually, however, the impressionistic images take hold, be it the rough-and-tumble of dive-bombing boys, or the dreamy memory of standing naked in an Aegean rock pool. We are in the world of the civic amenity, but sometimes Lifeguard recalls the shimmering beauty of David Hockney's Californian poolside paintings.

By the time we meet a man who learned to swim in Govanhill Baths (now under the management of a community trust), and applaud a young learner as he completes a couple of lengths, our minds are awash with the memories of water. It is then with a joyous sense of communal sharing that we put our towels down and enter the pool ourselves.

Before home time, there are two more rituals left: a mug of hot chocolate and a teeth-chattering return to the changing rooms.
© Mark Fisher, 2012 (pic: Peter Dibdin)

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Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Medea, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Citizens/Headlong/Watford Palace

HE ENTERS in socks, tracksuit bottoms and faded grey T-shirt. Her blood-red hair is a shade away from the glossy surfaces of her fitted kitchen. Her son has just been dropped off by one of the neighbours.

None of this fits the archetypal image of Medea, which is what makes Mike Bartlett's version of the Euripides classic initially so arresting. Behind the photorealist facade of Ruari Murchison's suburban set, we find not a spurned wife in Corinth, but a single mum living in a new-build residential street just beyond the London commuter belt.

This Medea, played by Rachael Stirling with a take-no-prisoners wit, lives in a world of Richard Curtis movies and Wii Fit games. Defiant and more than a little deranged, she runs rings around her prim, middle-class neighbours (strong turns from Lu Corfield and Amelia Lowdell), as she denies them the security of polite conversation. She can switch in an instant from making a cup of tea to listing the ways she'd like her estranged husband to die.

The contrast is shocking and funny. This Medea is too big for a place like this, her passions too intense, her intelligence too vicious, and in Bartlett's own production, there are an unexpected number of laughs.

Those laughs can quickly turn to distress, however, as Stirling reveals Medea to be a woman suffering severe emotional trauma. She denies being mentally ill, but it's hard to know how else to interpret the behaviour of someone who locks herself in her room, plunges her hand into a pan of boiling water and takes a knife to her only child. As writer, Bartlett doesn't just transfer Euripides to the modern world – he exposes him to the full weight of post-Freudian psychology.
Despite all this illumination, however, the 2,000-year leap from ancient Greece to gossipy middle England comes at a price. It isn't only Medea who is confined and reduced by these circumstances. The play itself seems to get smaller. 

Instead of a conquering hero, Adam Levy's Jason is nice but dull in a business suit. His complaints about Medea's behaviour are perfectly reasonable; in these 21st-century terms, she is being over the top and he's right to protest. At such moments, the play becomes a soap-opera episode about a woman reacting badly to a messy divorce, her fate seeming to be more private misfortune than archetypal tragedy.
© Mark Fisher, 2012

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Guid Sisters, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Royal Lyceum
Five stars

Kathryn Howden in The Guid Sisters
CANDADIAN playwright Michel Tremblay's Les Belles SÅ“urs, translated here as The Guid Sisters, is one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, remarkable on many levels. Fifteen women are on stage, all cramming into the working-class Montreal kitchen of Germaine Lauzon, who has won a million Green Shield stamps in a competition – and needs help sticking them in to the books. Tremblay shows great skill in orchestrating such a number, keeping their characters distinct, their banter hilarious, and their private tragedies true.

The play, premiered in 1968, was revolutionary in its use of joual, the Quebec working-class dialect that's been turned into pungent Glaswegian by Martin Bowman and Bill Findlay. Even if the use of joual isn't so controversial now, the play retains its political clout. On the one hand, the women are restrained by their Catholic faith; on the other, they are teased by capitalism's get-rich-quick promises. To compensate for the drudgery and repression, they have the dream of a win on the bingo.

Throwing in images of the last supper and a crucified Christ in a superb production for the Lyceum and the National Theatre of Scotland, director Serge Denoncourt grasps not only the play's social context, but also Tremblay's instinct for theatrical poetry. Whether performing a choral rap on the subject of housework, or taking the spotlight for a heartbreaking interior monologue, the women step beyond domestic realism into a more complex dimension.

Leading an exemplary ensemble, Kath Howden plays Germaine like a queen bee, too delighted with herself to see the envy she is arousing, too immersed in her own small victory to see herself as what she is: a victim of a system that cultivates impossible dreams. A closing round of A Man's a Man for a' That, by Burns, reminds us of the hollowness of the consumerist promise.
© Mark Fisher, 2012 (photo: Richard Campbell)

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Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Incredible Adventures of See Thru Sam, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Random Accomplice at the Tron
Three stars

WE don't normally regard slipping into the background as an attribute, but 15-year-old Sam McTannan thinks being a wallflower is his greatest gift. He likes not being noticed, he enjoys escaping attention and is unsurprised when Violet Morgana, the girl of his dreams, still does not recognise him after three years of school together.

As a Superman obsessive, he treats this cloak of invisibility as a superpower and, in Johnny McKnight's teen-friendly play for Random Accomplice, he is naturally distressed when his ability suddenly fades. The moment his parents die in a car crash (like many a comic-book adventure, this tale has tragic origins), he becomes the centre of attention. See-through no more, he is the boy noticed by everyone – from earnest home-economics teacher to fussing relative and jealous school bully. Losing his parents is bad enough, but this is an introverted teenager's worst nightmare.

Persuasively played by James Young, Sam has not only the stumbling inarticulacy of your typical teenage boy, but a rich interior life defined by his love of superheroes and the memory of his parents. One of the strengths of the script, with its mix of direct audience address and regular dialogue, is its sensitivity to Sam's many faces: gawky adolescent, vivid fantasist, best mate, lover-in-waiting. When he mumbles incoherently in front of the teacher, the audience understand the complexity of what he would like to say.

In his own production, McKnight offsets the serious themes with the multi-role-playing fun of Julie Brown and James Mackenzie (particularly terrifying as love-rival Chunk) and the running commentary of Jamie Macdonald's black-and-white animations. Despite the playwright's way with a one-liner, however, the production is not as funny as you might expect, partly because the coming-of-age story is more familiar than subversive, but it does build to a touching and surprisingly tragic conclusion.

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Cone Gatherers, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

His Majesty's Theatre
Four stars
YOU can imagine a stage adaptation of Robin Jenkins's sublime 1955 novel turning out like Of Mice and Men. Set during the second world war on a remote Highland estate, it's about two brothers hired to gather pinecones for seed before the forest is felled. Like Steinbeck's Lennie, Callum is a child-like innocent with a love of nature who, arousing suspicion and ridicule, relies on the protection of a more worldly man – in this case, his brother Neil.

But here playwright Peter Arnott shifts the focus on to the gamekeeper, Duror, who, like Steinbeck's Curley, is threatened by the newcomers, for his own reasons. Played by Tom McGovern, blunt and self-justifying, he is a man under severe mental stress who shows signs of paranoid schizophrenia. He stands for something bigger than himself, however. The image of Adolf Hitler flickers onto a newsreel, just as Duror is giving a delusional speech about the evil in society. It harks back to Arnott's opening line: "This story happens in the world and the forest." At a time of global persecution of minorities, Duror's campaign has a wider resonance.

Arnott is also alive to the novel's vision of a ruling class no longer able to sustain its sense of superiority. John Kielty's Neil is an angry egalitarian, refusing to take orders from Jennifer Black's Lady Runcie-Campbell, a decent woman who is ill-equipped to deal with a changing social order.

While designer Hayden Griffin creates an illusion of the forest's enveloping darkness by projecting images on to rows of vertical ropes, director Kenny Ireland builds enough tension for the tragic ending to draw audible gasps.
© Mark Fisher, 2012 (picture Donald Stewart)
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She Town/The Mill Lavvies, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Dundee Rep
Three stars
IT'S all go in Sharman Macdonald's She Town. The Dundee mill-workers are angry because their wages are being cut; the choir is auditioning to accompany Paul Robeson, the singer and civil rights activist, at his concert in the city's Caird Hall; and the politically committed are preparing to go and fight the fascists in the Spanish civil war.


With a background of child mortality, teenage pregnancy and squalid living conditions, the play identifies a potentially revolutionary period in Dundee's history, not least since a major part of the workforce was female. Appropriately, director Jemima Levick has brought together 44 women in this professional/community collaboration and with striking results: they move about the stage in the shadow of Alex Lowde's towering tenement set, creating the impression of a city teeming with life.

A shame, then, that it comes across as so joyless a play. The women are always bickering (about what, it's often hard to say); but worse, they are downtrodden rather than fervent, their anger too easily cowed by reactionary ideology. When the mill-owner's wife accuses them of "politics borne of envy", adding, "that's no politics at all", they are oddly quick to agree. With so many people on stage and with such polemical material, you would expect something celebratory and defiant. This seems muted and humourless.

That's not a charge you could level at Chris Rattray's The Mill Lavvies, which has no political ambitions but offers much jolly banter as it follows the working day in a cloth factory from the perspective of the gents' loos. Set 30 years after She Town, when it's the Beatles who'll be playing the Caird Hall, it's a minor comedy made special by the songs of Michael Marra, given spirited performances by the six actors in Andrew Panton's good-hearted production.
© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Why has Creative Scotland been under sustained fire during 2012?

Published in The List
 
THE appearance of Creative Scotland’s chief executive Andrew Dixon in front of the Scottish Parliament’s education and culture committee on Tuesday 18 September reflects the arts community’s deep concern about the competence of the national funding body. 

Creative Scotland, which replaced the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen in 2010, has been under sustained fire for some time; in particular, since the publication of its review of flexibly funded organisations in May. The attacks have come from many directions, but at their heart is the alarm caused by a change in the way Creative Scotland plans to fund many arts organisations.

As of 2013, the funding body will receive £2m less from the Scottish government, but will have more money at its disposal from the National Lottery. The problem is that lottery funds can be used only for one-off projects. Creative Scotland’s solution is to switch its support of 49 arts organisations from the relative security of two or three-year funding to the insecurity of project grants.

It’s a change that raises several questions. The first is technical. The National Lottery Act of 2006 specifies that lottery money should not be used to replace existing government funding. Even if Creative Scotland can demonstrate it is not using lottery money in this way, it will have a harder job to persuade people it is operating in the spirit of a law designed to protect charities from the vagaries of scratch-card sales.

A more pressing question is to do with the uncertainty the changes have introduced. Companies of the international stature of Vanishing Point, Grid Iron and Stellar Quines need to maintain a year-round artistic team and will not function for long if funded only on a show-by-show basis. All of them fear for their future, not least because they cannot apply for the same lottery funding twice. It is not clear how Creative Scotland plans to support these organisations a year or two down the line.

Artists are also worried the shift puts too much control in the hands of the funding body. An organisation funded for two years is free to follow its artistic instincts; an organisation funded a project at a time can do only what its paymasters allow. It’s a system that could turn Creative Scotland into the country’s de facto artistic director. That’s why culture secretary Fiona Hyslop recently gave warning that ‘it is not for administrators, bureaucrats or governments to tell artists what to do’.

Many more questions are being asked of Creative Scotland, including how it is making decisions without artform advisory panels and whether it will change its policies in the light of the unprecedented level of criticism.
© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Monday, September 17, 2012

My Shrinking Life, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

NTS, three stars

Alison Peebles is one of Scottish theatre's most striking figures. With high cheekbones, feline eyes and a confident swagger, she has a winning combination of wit, intelligence and glamour. As it happens, she describes herself in similar terms in My Shrinking Life – except in this National Theatre of Scotland production, it's in the past tense. It comes out as a eulogy.


The distancing is deliberate. In 2001, Peebles was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and, although she has maintained a steady workload as performer and director in the intervening decade, she knows it is only a matter of time before she'll need more than crutches to get around. The wheelchair that sits at the back of the stage is an ominous portent.

Directed by Lies Pauwels, the show is a collage of the actor's responses to disability and a reflection on what it means to play a part in which she was unwillingly cast. As Peebles says, it's "not really dramatic, but adventurous"; a non-linear series of scenes that juxtapose her stumbling, asymmetrical walk with the leaps and pirouettes of three beautiful young dancers, while presenting her as a latter-day Arkadina from Chekhov's The Seagull, a supposedly famous actor finding it impossible to square the romance of the stage with the reality of disability.

Peebles is on excellent form through all this, ranging from dry and ironic to belligerent and angry, and always too proud to ask for our sympathy. She'd rather the challenge of crossing the stage in high heels than admit defeat and, if there's something unresolved about this patchwork production, it is very like the uncertainty of a woman not yet ready to make the transition from the spotlight to whatever lies off stage.

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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