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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me @markffisher and @writeabouttheat I am an Edinburgh-based freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian, Scotland on Sunday and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success, published in February 2012 and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers published in July 2015. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide. See my website for more information and comprehensive Scottish theatre links.
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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Takin' Over the Asylum, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Citizens, Glasgow/Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh co-production

Three stars

WE'RE in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest territory – but instead of Jack Nicholson finding method in the madness, here we have Eddie, a hospital radio DJ, discovering the insanity of the psychiatric system.


Like Ken Kesey's book, Donna Franceschild's bittersweet comedy, based on her own 1994 TV series, stands as a metaphor for authoritarian oppression. When the self-styled Ready Eddie: the Soul Survivor starts playing his treasured collection of Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke originals at St Jude's psychiatric hospital, he realises the main obstacle in his path is not anyone's bipolar disorder, OCD or schizophrenia, but the psychopathic control of the institution.

Every chance the residents get for therapeutic self-help – be it petting kittens, cleaning windows or letting their voice be heard on the station – is quashed by a system more concerned with budgets, health-and-safety rules and bureaucratic efficiencies. Takin' Over the Asylum doesn't have the revolutionary fervour of Cuckoo's Nest, but its heart is in the same place.

More touchingly, it illustrates the fragility of the human psyche. Franceschild shows how much behaviour is explicable in social as well as medical terms. Like the alcoholism of the supposedly sane DJ, the patients' self-harming and obsessive cleaning are symptoms of life experiences. Behind Franceschild's brash, confrontational jokes is a plea for understanding of the damage done by circumstance.

If there's a weakness, it's that the stakes rarely feel high enough. The show is funny and sad, but the story fights shy of the extremes of comedy and tragedy. Mark Thomson's Citz/Lyceum co-production, however, is blessed with a strong ensemble cast, including lively performances from Iain Robertson as the downtrodden DJ and Brian Vernel as his hyperactive sidekick Campbell.
© Mark Fisher, 2013
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Running on the Cracks, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Three stars

YOU couldn't fault this adaptation of Julia Donaldson's novel for being short of themes. In 90 minutes, it ticks off bereavement, child abuse, missing people, drug addiction, mental illness, multiculturalism and the search for identity. Throw in a cat-and-mouse chase across the country, and you have the kind of sensationalist narrative that plays well to the target teenage audience.


Katie Posner's production, in this Tron/Pilot collaboration, is at its best when the stakes are high and Jessica Henwick's beautiful Leonora Watts-Chan, a 15-year-old runaway, struggles to know which way to turn. After being orphaned, she has fled the home of her predatory uncle in Bristol to go in search of an estranged Chinese grandfather in Glasgow. With tremendous physical presence, Henwick captures the sense of adolescent righteousness, passion and confusion of a girl trying to create order in an unfair universe.

For as long as the show focuses on her dilemma, it remains gripping. Things get uneven when Donaldson's other themes take over, particularly when Leonora falls into an odd netherworld of well-meaning but erratic psychiatric out-patients.

Stuck awkwardly between comedy and tragedy, these scenes are a distraction – largely because the story is not about mental illness. As with the other themes, it is an idea appended to the narrative and not fundamental to it; more like a topic for classroom discussion than a dramatic device. The same is true of the abusive uncle. He functions as a symbol of an unreliable adult word, but is too sketchily portrayed to be more than a gratuitous bogeyman.

What the story is really about – Leonora and her Little Red Riding Hood journey of self-discovery – is obscured by the extraneous material from the novel. It is a weakness compounded by the unresolved ending, one that lessens the impact of the excitement that has preceded it.
© Mark Fisher, 2013
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Monday, February 04, 2013

In an Alien Landscape, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Birds of Paradise
Two stars

HALF an hour along the Clyde from Glasgow, the Beacon is a handsome new arts centre with a 500-seat main auditorium and a 100-seat studio. The artistic director of the £9.5m waterfront complex is Julie Ellen who, by a happy accident, is also the director of this opening production by the touring company Birds of Paradise. With its all-white set by Kenny Miller and abstract video projections by Neil Bettles, it shows off the studio to good effect.Unfortunately, Danny Start's script is rarely as interesting as the story that inspired it.

It is about Albert Quinn, a 50-year-old hardman who, like Start's real-life friend Tommy McHugh, has suffered a double brain aneurysm. When he comes round after the long operation, he has an irresistible urge to paint, sculpt and write. This rare "sudden artistic output" syndrome turns a semi-criminal drug user into a compulsive creator at large "in an alien landscape".

As a neurological phenomenon, this is fascinating. As a piece of drama, it has nowhere to go. Once we have established Quinn has woken up a new man, then what?

Start's solution is to go backwards. In the lead role, Paul Cunningham exists in a world of fragmented memory. His head buzzes with voices – father, wife, fellow patient and alter-ego – and with each fractured scene, Quinn shows us the past that he is leaving behind. Theatre, however, is a present-tense medium and none of this reflection moves the story forward.

Morag Stark, David Toole and Cunningham give spirited performances, but the things that interest us most (the man adjusting to a new personality, the outpouring of creativity) are the things we see least.
© Mark Fisher, 2013
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