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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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