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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

Friday, February 24, 2012

An Appointment with the Wicker Man, theatre review

Published in the Guardian
His Majesty's, Aberdeen
Three stars

MENTION The Wicker Man and people tend to snigger. Something in the movie's anachronistic juxtaposition of Scottish island setting, English folklore and early 70s period detail - not to mention Britt Ekland's naked frolicking - make it a guilty pleasure. But a pleasure it is, giving a genuinely creepy edge to the story of the policeman who stumbles into a pagan enclave where the population is hungry for human sacrifice. It may be uncool to admit it, but it is quite compelling viewing.

In adapting Robin Hardy's film for the stage, Greg Hemphill and Donald McLeary have understood this embarrassed snigger. In this National Theatre of Scotland production, which tours Scotland before a run at the Edinburgh fringe, they laugh at the silliness of the soft-focus sex, the mechanics of the scary story and the dated air of the hippy-folk soundtrack. At the same time, they do not entirely dismiss the idea that, even in modern-day Britain, it is possible for a backwater community to exist in such haunting isolation.

Rather than a straight adaptation, An Appointment with the Wicker Man is a play within a play presented by the Loch Parry Players, a fictional amdram troupe that has brought in professional actor Rory Mulligan (Sean Biggerstaff) to play the policeman in its staging of The Wicker Man. Just as the islanders in the film are unnervingly silent about the missing Rowan Morrison, so these actors are mysteriously tight-lipped about Roger Morgan, the club member who should have played the policeman. Mulligan becomes an unwitting method actor as the villagers' secretive behaviour gets under his skin off-stage and on.

Much of this in Vicky Featherstone's production is very funny, with characteristically comic performances by Sally Reid, never doubting her credentials as the new Ekland; Johnny McKnight, seeing no contradiction in adding a Glee-style chorus line to his "spooky glam" production; and Hemphill himself, pompously controlling the Loch Parry company he has run for 20 years.

It has a touch of the self-referential amdram send-up of the Farndale Avenue plays by David McGillivray and Walter Zerlin Jr, but it is done with verve, wit and generosity. What is missing is a satiric intent. It is an enjoyable show - and no harm in that - but it doesn't feel very necessary, offering neither re-evaluation of the film nor commentary on the characters, who become more cartoon-like as it goes on. It is fun while it lasts, but fun is its chief purpose, and there is little going on beyond the silliness.
© Mark Fisher, 2012 (Pic: Manuel Harlan)
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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Attic

Published in Northings
Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy

I HAVE a vivid childhood memory of an episode of Bill and Ben in which the two flowerpot men left their usual patch of land and ventured through a door in the garden wall. 

Something about it stayed with me. It was partly the breaking of a tiresome routine, partly a sense of danger and transgression, but more importantly, I think, it was the sense of possibility. Who knows what imaginative vistas will open up once you step beyond the familiar?

Forty years later, I'm reminded of this in Hazel Darwin-Edwards' show for Starcatchers, the company specialising in early-years theatre. After meeting us outside the theatre, Darwin-Edwards takes us to a place that is not forbidden exactly, but has the air of the exotic, the mysterious and the undiscovered. It is the attic of her grandmother and it is piled high with trunks and hat boxes, each one promising a journey further into the unknown.

That's especially so in Karen Tennant's set which pushes the show gently into the surreal. Played with benevolent eccentricity by Carol Ann Crawford, this grandma has a penchant for knitting that extends all the way into the contents of the various boxes. Her granddaughter discovers pompoms in ever larger sizes, strange, misshapen garments, woollen vegetables and an assortment of knitted cakes.

Like many attics, this one is full of memories - the quaint teacups, the framed photograph of a long-gone husband and hundreds of hats from who-knows-what occasion - of a past that must seem like ancient history to the three-year-olds in the audience.

The relationship between girl and grandmother is playful and affectionate. In Heather Fulton's production, they continually test each other's limits; grandma teases, while granddaughter treads a line so close to naughtiness that only her broad smile can save her. Hungry for discovery, she can't wait to look inside the boxes, especially the one forbidden to her - the suitcase belonging to her grandfather. When finally she sees inside, the stars come out for a little piece of theatrical magic.

With a score by David Paul Jones, played live by Keith McLeish, the show is perfectly pitched at an age group for whom one of life's great dilemmas is the choice between a sweet and a surprise. The surprises win out, but it's touch and go. And by letting us finish with our own tea party - hats, knitted cakes, the works - Darwin-Edwards and Crawford make us feel welcome in the same imaginative world.

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Double Nugget

Published in Northings

JOHNNY McKnight is a fly one. As a playwright, he makes like everything is a big laugh. The two one-hour plays brought together here by Random Accomplice are all gossipy and effervescent, quick-witted jokes and gallus patter with an air of camp. Like the candyfloss shared by Jenny and Leyla at the close of the first play, Mary Massacre, they appear bright, sugary and insubstantial.

It's a big ruse. McKnight knows the breezy comedy is what will draw us in, but he also knows it'll take something more weighty to send us away satisfied. The plays fizz and crackle so much we're powerless to resist when they turn dark. In the second one, Seven Year Itch, he literally sticks the knife in, writing perhaps the world's only postmodern homicide comedy.

The first one has a similarly dark edge. Delightfully acted by Julie Wilson-Nimmo and Mary Gapinski in Julie Brown's production, Mary Massacre shows us two corners of a love triangle involving an Ayrshire woman who cracks her husband's computer password and discovers the adulterous plans he's been hatching on

For the most part, it's a brash and brassy sequence of alternating monologues as the two women are drawn unknowingly into each other's orbit. The tone is hard-drinking, man-bashing and irreverent; Jenny is not the sort to be walked over by her unseen husband and, even if love rival Leyla is more romantic, she is nobody's fool either.

What the characters say and what they feel, however, is not the same thing, and the closer McKnight gets to a revenger's comedy, the more the underlying tragedy pushes through. Jenny's sharp talk and waspish humour are a shield to protect her from devastating grief.

As if to demonstrate his own technique, McKnight gets all meta-theatrical in Seven Year Itch, in which Julie Brown and Martin McCormick play themselves playing actors playing characters who may or may not have existed in a real Chicago office. Stepping in and out of their various personas, the actors repeatedly interrupt the humdrum business of nine-to-five life with subtextual interpretations of what's really going on and suggestions of how they could have performed each interaction.

This kind of self-referential stuff could easily come across as indulgent, but it is written with enough wit and performed with enough spark to be both funny and head-spinning. And, as with the first play, McKnight's technique turns out to be a smoke screen for a more troubling story; in this case, a murder provoked by homophobia and religious intolerance. If that sounds like an unlikely subject for a knockabout comedy with extra helpings of Dolly Parton jokes, it's a testament to McKnight's powers of deception.

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Mwana, theatre review

Published in the Guardian
Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Two stars

THE scene is a house in Harare where preparations are nearing completion for a wedding. The excitement is all the more intense because of the return of Mwana, the groom's brother, just off the plane from Glasgow in the company of Kirsten, his Scottish girlfriend. Mwana is the family's golden boy, the son destined to join his father's medical practice when his graduation papers come through.

Like so many golden boys before him - Biff in Death of a Salesman, Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - Mwana is destined to let his family down. In Tawona Sitholé's debut play for Ankur Productions and the Tron, Mwana arrives full of western promise, knowing it is only a matter of time before his failed degree catches up with him.

So while Kirsten, an aspiring anthropologist, is being delighted by Zimbabwe's pre-nuptial rituals, Mwana is in a social limbo. Having turned his back on one culture, he has been rejected by another.

Sitholé's play has sequences of great lucidity - particularly the sweetly drawn scenes between Denver Isaac's Mwana and Mairi Philips's Kirsten - but dramaturgically, it is all over the place. Rather than get its teeth into the culture clash dilemma, the play restlessly shifts in and out of focus - an inconsequential domestic discussion here, an irrelevant wedding conga there - so we never get the measure of the issues at stake.

No one seems much concerned that Mwana's profligacy has nearly brought the wedding to an end, and the young man never fully articulates what his displacement means to him. Shabina Aslam's production is full of colourful details - projections, video sequences and incursions of apple sellers into the audience - but such extravagances only add extra layers of uncertainty as to what this play is truly about.

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Monday, February 13, 2012

Barflies, theatre review

Published by Northings
Barony Bar, Edinburgh, 8 February 2012, and touring

YOU'RE sitting in your local and everything looks familiar: special offers chalked on the blackboard, neon advertising signs above the till, the various beer logos on the pumps.

But look closely and all is not what it seems. Those are not the usual brands of ale on sale, but a feisty selection with names oozing sexual innuendo. The sign you thought said "sloe gin" says something altogether more rude. It's like a parallel-universe local.

Every real-life pub on this Grid Iron tour is being subtly reconfigured to match the vision of Charles Bukowski, the hard-drinking beat-generation poet and story writer. In the hands of adapter and director Ben Harrison, bars such as Hootanannys in Inverness, where Barflies plays on Sunday and Monday, become dark, edgy, dangerous outposts of the author's reckless imagination.
Bukowski's alter ego Henry Chinaski is the kind of guy whose night hasn't started before downing a couple of bottles of wine plus whisky chasers. Played with grimy abandon by Keith Fleming, he is no mere hedonist, but a dedicated pursuer of existential excess. He is a sensual life-force hell bent on self-destruction.

Because of this, you couldn't call Barflies a celebration of alcohol - it's too bleak and desperate for that - but neither is it a condemnation. Rather, it is an evocation of the state of child-like freedom brought on by excessive drinking.
Chinaski has reached a point of inebriation that makes him open to anything, willingly accepting any opportunity, whether it promises terror or exquisite pleasure. Instead of casting judgement, the production captures the violent, impecunious, wretched side of alcoholism as well as its heady, sensuous joy.

It's a combination echoed and enhanced by the live piano accompaniment of David Paul Jones, switching from the flamboyant arpeggios of the silent-movie player to the boozy lament of Lilac Wine. And it is matched mood-for-mood by Charlene Boyd, who plays a hapless series of girlfriends, from rock chick to literary groupie, all trying to take a bite of Chinaski's charismatic nihilism.

The piece is more clearly shaped than I remember it from its debut on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2009, although I still feel it lacks a big dramatic question for the story to wrestle with. Barflies does a great job at capturing the compulsive thrill of alcohol (never touch the stuff myself, of course), but the story it tells has little development; bottle follows bottle, girl follows girl, hangover follows hangover. Like drink itself, however,  the performance is a sensory pleasure, vivid, vigorous and in vino veritas.
© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Friday, February 10, 2012

The Port Glasgow family who made a five star theatre hit

Published in the Scotsman

WHEN Jess Thorpe and Tashi Gore put the advert in the paper, they had no idea what to expect. They knew they wanted to do a show involving different generations of women from the same family and they imagined they'd find perhaps a grandmother, a daughter and a granddaughter who'd be up for it. So the email they received came as a shock.

It was from a woman called Margaret Hendry who sent them a poem about her Port Glasgow family. It described the close-knit core of around 11 women, all direct relatives, who would meet every Thursday for a catch-up. That number rose to around 50 if she cast her net a little wider. She said she was really keen to get involved in Thorpe and Gore's project. "Never in a million years did we think we'd find a family of 11 women," says Gore. "We got this email out of the blue and we had to say, 'This is the one. This is going to make something extraordinary.'"

The result of their meeting was Hand Me Down, a five-star evocation of the women's lives, their triumphs, their disasters, their laughter, their losses and, above all, their sense of community. Starring the women themselves, it played at Glasgow's Arches in 2010 and was one of my personal highlights of the year. These sisters, cousins, granddaughters and aunties shared stories of memories and mementos, creating an overwhelming sense of life as it is lived, the emotional value of community and the power of family bonds.

But for Thorpe and Gore, co-directors of Glas(s) Performance and also the youth-orientated Junction 25, there was unfinished business. It was great to play at the Arches, the result of a Platform 18 commission for new directors, but Hand Me Down was a show about a specific community. Not until the women performed it on their home turf in Inverclyde did the directors feel their work would be done.

"It never felt like it was finished," says Thorpe. "It was like them coming up to Glasgow to go to the theatre, but the show is interactive, it's about seeing themselves and their granny on stage."

Step forward Julie Ellen, recently appointed artistic director of the Beacon, the forthcoming home of Greenock's Arts Guild, who recognised the importance of giving the show a second lease of life. Thanks to her support, Hand Me Down is making a welcome return for an unconventional tour that takes in Greenock (the nearest theatre to Port Glasgow), Easterhouse and Kilmarnock over the next three months.

"The dream has happened in that we're taking the show back to the community where it was made," says Thorpe. "They've got a bit older, reflected what the show means to them and are wanting to put a new energy into it. But also, it's a different feeling because it's for their local community. That's what Tashi and I are most excited about. The places they talk about are places the audience will know. It starts to become much more pointed."

Gore agrees: "Because it's in Greenock they want to reference where each story happened; not just the story, but the street that it happened on."

The willingness to let Hand Me Down change in this way says a lot about the attitude the directors have to their work. Their raw material is real life - whether it is the elderly Glasgow couple who formed the basis of Life Long or the teenagers who appeared with their parents in From Where I'm Standing - and they happily accept there is no such thing as a definitive performance. What they care about is not only a truthful expression of their actors' lives - something that can change from day to day - but also an honest acknowledgement of the audience's place in sharing their stories.

"It's human beings in a room together and that's what's exciting about it," says Thorpe. "When everybody feels stretched because of the economy and the cuts, being in a room with other people is a radical act. This is theatre as an act of community, even before you've said anything."

In Hand Me Down that radicalism extends to the implicit feminism of the piece. Although it is a play rich in everyday moments rather than tub-thumping speeches, the cumulative effect of the women talking about the mothers and grandmothers who have gone before them, and remembering the things one generation has handed down to the next, is a powerful sense of female solidarity.

"It's about the histories of women in Scotland and how often we hear about the men's histories because they are better documented," says Thorpe. "In Hand Me Down, we just love the female piper. When she plays the pipes for the family, the feminist in me says this is a statement."

None of this is explained as baldly as that in the production, which affects you not through the poignancy of any one image, but through the cumulative impact of the women's words. "One of the guiding principles is about it not being one story," says Thorpe. "It is many narratives coming together. We think of it as a collage. We love layering things on top of each other and tracing threads through. The collective is what's important; the fact that many people have many experiences of the same idea. Our job is not to tell an audience how to feel or what to think, but to present our truths in this tapestry. Maybe you reach more people that way because they come as active participants in the process."

A performance about real life changes as life itself changes. The fluidity of the directors' approach means Gore and Thorpe readily embrace the company's fresh perspective on the material. Above all, they can't wait to see how it plays to the home crowd. "Hand Me Down in Greenock is going to feel like a really good night out, a real family event," says Thorpe. "And the women are over the moon about doing it."
Hand Me Down is at the Arts Guild Theatre, Greenock, 11 February; Platform, Easterhouse, 2-3 March; and Palace Theatre, Kilmarnock, 5 May.

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Thursday, February 02, 2012

The Captain's Collection, theatre review

Published in Northings
YOU probably heard the fuss kicked up by fans of the Smiths in the run-up to Christmas. They were outraged with department store John Lewis for using one of the indie band's finest songs, 'Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want', as the soundtrack to an advert. What greater insult than using a song of heartbreaking yearning as a way to get people to buy things?

If Smiths fans were up in arms, just think how Jacobite sympathisers must have felt about Captain Simon Fraser. The early-19th century soldier and musicologist thought he was doing the world a service by anthologising the great Scottish folk music from the period 1715-45. Given how many of those tunes are played in ceilidhs to this day, you can see he had a point.

Rather more problematic, however, was the way he treated these songs. Eager to make his fortune, he was determined to keep in with the pro-Union Scottish establishment of his day, a class whose romanticisation of the Highlands did not extend to a tolerance of rebel songs. If ever he came across a politically sensitive lyric, he stripped the piece back to its melody alone.

"It is not my business to publish such sentiments," he says in Hamish MacDonald's play. "I seek to improve not to debase."

It means there's a fierce dramatic idea at the heart of The Captain's Collection, the play that launched the Inverness-based Dogstar Theatre Company in 1999 and is now being revived by the same team for a Highlands and Islands tour in May. The story of a man who has two songs, "one in his heart and one in his mouth," has rich potential to explore the schism inside that man and the struggle of a nation to be at one with itself. What's odd is the way this idea drifts in and out of view in a script that's more inclined to describe the conflict than have it played out before us.

More interesting is the play's ceilidh-like structure. There are some odd juxtapositions (scenes written in the past tense running alongside others written in the present and others still, sounding like they've been copied straight from a history book), but in Alison Peebles' fluid production, there is a lively eclecticism, as monologue gives way to ballad, storytelling, puppetry and dance.

It's purposefully performed by Matthew Zajac as Fraser and Alyth McCormack as his various friends and adversaries, with Jonny Hardie on fiddle and Ingrid Henderson on keyboard and harp. The sweetness of the singing, the freshness of the playing and the inventiveness of the staging go a considerable way to compensating for a play that doesn't give teeth to its own powerful conceit.
© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Mark Fisher on The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide

Mark Fisher, author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide Pic: Lotte Fisher
Published in The List
The theatre critic's new book delivers some essential advice to aspiring Fringe performers

1 Choosing a title takes ages
It's as straightforward as they come, yet The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide was a title born of months of discussion. The subtitle, How to Make Your Show a Success, was arrived at no quicker. My editor couldn't believe it.
2 The Edinburgh Fringe is the most exciting place on Earth
Actually, I knew this already, but the process of researching the book really brought it home. Not only were all the actors, comedians, directors, producers and publicists I spoke to passionate about the Fringe, but they reinforced the sense of it being unique. No festival on the planet has such a combination of scale, discovery, opportunity, unpredictability and exhilaration. That's why it's addictive.
3 You don't have to mortgage your house
No question the Fringe is costly and no question it's only the elite few TV-name comedians who make money, but I heard relatively few stories of financial ruin. Whether you treat it as an expensive holiday or a long-term investment in your career, you should be able to come up with a manageable budget. If you have a clear grasp of costs and a realistic projection of income - plus a bit of fund raising - you should be able to break even.
4 Flyering works
To you, it looks like a load of waste paper, but time and again, performers told me how much difference well-targeted face-to-face marketing made to their audience numbers.
5 Overdoing it the night before can do more than ruin your show
Among the book's horror stories is the time comedian Ed Byrne stayed up all night, nodded off at Edinburgh Airport and missed his flight to the Reading Festival.
The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide (Methuen) is published Thu 16 Feb.

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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