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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, 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.

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.

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.

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
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).

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.

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).

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

© 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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