Review: Il Trovatore, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

OPERA REVIEW

Il Trovatore

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

until tomorrow,

then touring until June 13

Reviewed by Mark Brown

In Scottish Opera’s latest work, Verdi’s great opus Il Trovatore, the Count di Luna has lost comprehensively to his love rival, Manrico. Yet, despite being widely reviled, the aristocrat refuses to accept his defeat and will stop at nothing in pursuit of his heart’s desire. Any similarities with the former MP for Renfrewshire East are, of course, purely coincidental.

Inadvertent though this contemporary political resonance may be, director Martin Lloyd-Evans’s production wins the audience’s vote with a handsome majority. It does so by keeping the opera resolutely in a late medieval Spain which is riven by civil war and in which superstition and hatred of gypsies are rife.

The Count (leader of the King of Aragon’s army) is driven by his jealous hatred of Manrico (the titular “troubadour” and officer in the rival army of the Prince of Urgel). To the Count’s rage, Manrico is beloved of the beautiful lady-in-waiting Leonora.Il Trovatore

The jealous aristo has inherited a vicious ruthlessness from his father. The old Count it was who had a gypsy woman burned at the stake on trumped charges of bewitching his baby son, thus setting in a train a calamitous chain of events.

A tragedy of witch burning, war and violent jealousy, this opera demands a bleak grandeur, both in design and performance. The inventive and memorable set design – which, intriguingly, is extrapolated from a design concept for Scottish Opera’s 1992 production – fits the bill marvellously.

Dark, brooding and premonitory, yet surprisingly versatile, it is dominated by monolithic, curved structures which stand in equally well for the stone exterior of a castle, the interior of a nunnery and what seem like the wooden confines of the Count’s jail. Impressively receptive to projected images, the design lends itself brilliantly to the elemental illusions of smoke and flame.

Such visual atmospherics would count for little, however, without performances to match. Both cast and chorus measure up abundantly.

Roland Wood sings the role of the Count with a forceful arrogance and cruelty, whilst Claire Rutter’s Leonora breaks one’s heart when she sings the great aria Tacea la notte placida (The peaceful night lay silent). The delivery of the famous Gypsy Chorus is truly invigorating.

As to the troubadour himself. Gwyn Hughes Jones sings with a combination of spine-tingling power and magnetic sympathy.

He wanders the stage like a ragged rebel leader, more akin to the defiant partisan who faces the firing squad in Goya’s great painting Third Of May, 1808 than a royal soldier of 15th-century Spain. Both a lover and a fighter (albeit one who outrageously doubts Leonora’s constancy during the opera’s anguished conclusion), his performance epitomises a production which is simultaneously robust, vital and splendidly accomplished

For tour details, visit: http://www.scottishopera.org.uk

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 17, 2015

© Mark Brown

Review: Rites, Tron Theatre, Glasgow (Sunday Herald)

THEATRE REVIEW

Rites

Seen at Tron Theatre, Glasgow;

at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh,

July 26-30

Reviewed by Mark Brown

When it comes to making work addressing major socio-political subjects, there are few among Scotland’s theatre artists who are as brave, or as creative, as Cora Bissett. In previous, critically acclaimed pieces she has considered the trafficking of girls and young women into prostitution in the UK (Roadkill) and a famous campaign against the deportation of child asylum seekers from Scotland (Glasgow Girls).

Now, in Rites, a work she has co-created with Yusra Warsama for the National Theatre of Scotland, she tackles the complex and anguished issue of female genital mutilation (FGM). However, whether verbatim drama, in which previously spoken words are edited into the shape of a play, is the best theatrical form for this subject is debatable.

Verbatim theatre was made famous by such plays as The Colour Of Justice (about the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry) and Justifying War (based on the Hutton Inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr David Kelly), both by journalist Richard Norton-Taylor. Rites is a very similar piece of work.

A fine, five-strong cast speak the words of a variety of British-based interviewees, from survivors of FGM to lawyers and health workers who are involved in the issue. This enables Bissett and Warsama to successfully educate their audience in the complexities of this vexed and emotive subject and to challenge some dangerous myths surrounding it.

One admires the work’s commitment, both to the campaign against FGM and a principled stand against any effort to turn that campaign into an attack on particular ethnic or religious groups. However, as so often with verbatim theatre, the piece lacks the pace and energy required by live theatre.

Ultimately, one can’t help but feel that the immense research and political engagement involved in the show would be better served by TV or film documentary.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 17, 2015

© Mark Brown

Preview: Imaginate international children’s theatre festival 2015

As Tony Reekie, director of the acclaimed Imaginate children’s theatre festival prepares for his 21st and final programme, two of Scotland’s leading children’s theatre makers talk about his influence. By Mark Brown

The annual Imaginate international festival of theatre and dance for children, which begins in Edinburgh tomorrow, is celebrated around the world and showered with critical bouquets on a regular basis. This is down, in huge measure, to the extraordinary work, over the last 21 years, of the festival’s director Tony Reekie.

Under Reekie’s leadership the festival moved, in 1997, from Inverleith Park in Edinburgh into the city’s theatres. It rapidly became the biggest, most prestigious children’s theatre festival in the UK.

The secrets of the event’s success are numerous. Firstly, Reekie has curated the festival to the highest level, bringing shows of excellent quality from many parts of the world.

More than that, however, while he has been on his travels, the director has been an advocate for Scottish children’s theatre. Indeed, he even developed outreach programmes which enabled Scotland’s children’s theatre makers to experience work abroad, thereby enhancing their own practice.

Scottish children’s theatre is in fairly rude health, with various companies, from established group Catherine Wheels to relative newcomers Grinagog, creating work at a high level. It is no exaggeration to say that the most important figure in this scenario is Reekie.

Shona Reppe, creator of numerous much-loved children’s shows, including the wonderfully inventive The Curious Scrapbook Of Josephine Bean, is one theatre maker who attests to Reekie’s significance. “Tony has been pivotal in my career”, she says.

“He’s been incredibly supportive of me, and represented me all round the world, in the context of talking about Scottish children’s theatre more generally.”

For Reppe, it is even more important for Scotland’s children’s theatre makers to play Imaginate than it is to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe. The reason being that it attracts so many top international practitioners, producers and programmers.

“People come to Imaginate knowing that the quality of the work will be excellent”, she says. “It represents so many different styles of children’s theatre.”

Andy Manley, whose acclaimed work includes the award-winning White (co-created with Ian Cameron for Catherine Wheels), is equally appreciative of Reekie’s role. Not least because he was a beneficiary of one of Reekie’s international outreach programmes.

“I went to Denmark”, Manley remembers. “I saw something like 23 shows in four days. “That was a really mind-blowing experience for me.”

For Manley, one of the greatest things about Imaginate under Reekie has been its artistic ethos. “It’s about approaching children where they are, in terms of their real lives. That’s what we expect of our art as adults, why should it be any different for children?”

Reekie takes his leave of Imaginate with a typically impressive programme. This year’s offerings include The Bockety World of Henry and Bucket, an acclaimed piece of comic theatre from Ireland designed for kids aged four to eight years old.

Spain’s El Patio Teatro bring By Hand (A Mano), a promising work of object theatre about “love, small failures and a potter’s wheel” for children aged six plus. There’s classical drama, too, as London’s Unicorn Theatre stages an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry The Fifth for audiences aged eight and upwards.

Add top Scottish work, such as Imaginate commission The Lost Things, by Tortoise In A Nutshell theatre company and Oliver Emanuel, and it’s clear that the festival has lost none of its vigour.

The next festival director will be announced shortly, but we can be sure Reekie is leaving Imaginate, one of Scotland’s great artistic success stories, in safe hands.

The Imaginate festival runs in Edinburgh, May 11-17. For further information, visit: http://www.imaginate.org.uk

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 10, 2015

© Mark Brown

Review: Hup, Falkirk Town Hall

THEATRE

Hup

Seen at Falkirk Town Hall

Playing Imaginate Festival (North Edinburgh Arts Centre), May 12-16,

then touring until July 4

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Hup, the new show by Starcatchers and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, is a delightful little production aimed at very young children, from babes in arms to two-year-olds . It features an endearing raccoon which is eager that its three guests, two violinists and cellist, be transformed to look like its stripy self.

Composer Abigail Sinar (who co-created the show with theatre-maker Hazel Darwin-Edwards) has created a beautifully simple musical score. It both reflects the action nicely and, in the CD which is gifted to every child, stands alone as a piece of chamber music for young ears.

Sadly, however, the show, which Karen Tennent has designed variably (lovely costumes, disappointing orange Perspex trees), is not well-pitched to everyone in its intended audience. Whilst it delights toddlers, who danced and, in one hilarious instance, conducted during the Falkirk performance I attended, it is difficult to see what it does for babies.

Theatre for children aged under 12 months is, as great practitioners such as London-based Oily Cart have proved, abundantly possible. What it requires is not only a benign environment, which Hup enjoys, but also an aesthetic which is both immersive and eschews narrative (which, of course, small babies’ brains have not yet developed to comprehend).

Despite its good intentions, Hup is still too traditional in playing to, rather than with, its audience. A tagged-on 15 minutes of interactive play at the end of the performance is almost an acknowledgement of this shortcoming.

 

For tour details, see: www.starcatchers.org.uk

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 10, 2015

© Mark Brown

Review: Judy: The Songbook of Judy Garland, Playhouse, Edinburgh

THEATRE

JUDY: THE SONGBOOK OF JUDY GARLAND
PLAYHOUSE, EDINBURGH

Judy Garland is many things to many people. To some she is the greatest Hollywood entertainer of all time. To others, a tragic heroine of showbiz and a gay icon.

To Lorna Luft, star of this touring production, Garland was simply “Mom”. Needlesss to say, the show is built around this tangible connection to the Garland legend.

Luft, now in her sixties, and in fine voice, features strongly in a production which rattles through almost 30 famous numbers from Garland’s career.

Like her mother, the singer has the winning absence of false modesty that’s needed of any show business star. At one point she opines, with a smile, “I know I’m talented”.

There’s also time, in a show which combines the singing of Garland’s songs with film clips of the legend both performing and speaking about her life, for a few anecdotal reminiscences from Luft. The most delicious concerns a stay at London’s Savoy hotel, during which Garland and her young daughter played a mischievous trick on the patrons who had left their shoes out for cleaning.

The main business of the evening, however, is the performing of the songs by a cast which includes celebrated West End performer Louise Dearman, X Factor star Ray Quinn and dance group The Boyfriends. The numbers are sung well, but this is not a show for those who like their music live.

There are a pianist, a drummer and a bass player on stage, but most of the Garland songbook requires a big band. The solution creative director Arlene Phillips arrives at, having the singers and musicians accompany a recorded soundtrack, looks very much like a case of making a virtue out of a necessity.

Too often the musicians seem to be on stage for cosmetic purposes, to give the illusion of live performance. In one particularly egregious case, the dancers carry fake wind instruments, pretending to play the recorded music that is being piped in.

If the heavy reliance upon recorded music disappoints, so too does the often uninspired format of the show. From the opening moments, in which dancers with two-dimensional representations of movie cameras cavort around the singers in an evocation of Garland’s stellar film career, there is a predictability to the structure of the production.

The show is saved, nevertheless, by a number of moments which are guaranteed to delight Garland fans. Humorous footage of the star talking about playing California’s insect-infested open air Greek Theatre in summertime is bettered only by touching film of her singing a specially written song to a very young Lorna.

Arguably, however, the highlight of the show is the pairing of Luft and Dearman to perform the famous duet between Garland and a then little known young performer called Barbra Streisand. Perched on bar stools, like the musical stars of yesteryear, the pair sing a medley of Get Happy, Happy Days and Hooray for Love which almost raises the roof off the theatre.

Ending with a reverential screening of the young legend singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz, Judy is an undoubted winner for Garland aficionados.

Touring until August 1. For details: judygarlandsongbook.com

Mark Brown

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on May 9, 2015

© Mark Brown

Review: Rites, Tron Theatre, Glasgow (Daily Telegraph)

THEATRE

RITES

TRON THEATRE

GLASGOW

The National Theatre of Scotland has achieved a well-deserved reputation for broaching emotive and controversial subjects, from infanticide (in the Flemish play Aalst) to the deportations of child asylum seekers (in Glasgow Girls). That reputation can only be enhanced by Rites, a co-production with Contact Theatre, Manchester about the vital and difficult issue of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

The piece is directed and co-created (with Yusra Warsama) by Cora Bissett, the woman behind both Glasgow Girls and Roadkill, the award-winning play about the trafficking of young women into prostitution in the UK. It is a very necessary, well-researched and culturally sensitive docudrama in the verbatim theatre tradition of plays like The Colour of Justice (the dramatisation of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry) and Deep Cut (which considered the death of  four young soldiers at the Deepcut army barracks in Surrey).

Rites, another hard hitting play from the NTS. Photo: Sally Jubb

The script is constructed from accounts given by a diverse group of people engaged in the FGM issue, from survivors of the various procedures known euphemistically as “female circumcision”, to campaigners, health workers and lawyers. A talented cast of just five actors bring us an array of voices from around the UK and from such disparate societies as Somalia, Nigeria, Egypt and Kurdistan.

The work ranges from moments of essential gynaecological, historical and cultural education to deeply personal stories. The insights of a white, English, male London QC, who warns against a crude demonisation of people from cultures which practise FGM, are sobering. So, too, is a reminder that forms of FGM continued in the UK and US, under the dubious auspices of psychiatric treatment, well into the 20th-century.

Perhaps the strongest, certainly the most inherently dramatic, moment in the piece comes when a Gambian student in Scotland intervenes to prevent her young niece being taken from the UK to Gambia where she is at risk of FGM.

Such moments are rare, however. Although the show succeeds admirably in its portrayal of the complexities of the issue and its knowledgeable advocacy against FGM, it is, in essence, a work of campaigning journalism.

Neither the projected imagery and texts nor the self-consciously “dramatic” music can mask the fact that, typically of verbatim drama, the piece lacks theatrical momentum. Ultimately, Rites seems better suited to TV documentary than to theatre.

At Tron Theatre, Glasgow until Saturday, then touring to Manchester, Bristol and Edinburgh. For tour details, visit: nationaltheatrescotland.com.

Mark Brown

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on May 7, 2015

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Fever Dream: Southside, Citizens, Glasgow & The Venetian Twins, Lyceum, Edinburgh (Sunday Herald)

THEATRE REVIEWS

 

Fever Dream: Southside

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

Until May 9

 

The Venetian Twins

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Until May 16

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

Fever Dream: Southside, the latest play by Douglas Maxwell, is a theatrical love letter to the vibrant, ethnically and socially diverse communities of Glasgow that sit south of the River Clyde. Set during a baking hot summer, the piece ushers forth a panoply of colourful characters who struggle, in their own distinct ways, to cope with both the oppressive heat and the premonitory atmosphere.

At the now waterless Govanhill Baths (saved from closure by an unforgettable community campaign) an arts event seeks to raise awareness of a young woman who’s gone missing. Like the gates of Queen’s Park, which (in Neil Warmington’s impressive set design) loom menacingly over the stage, it’s an ominous reminder of the appalling rape and murder of Moira Jones in 2008.

If the play’s various narrative strands encompass the best and the worst of the Southside, so, too, do its characters. Demi (Kirsty Stuart) is determined to do her bit for community activism, despite the demands of a sleepless baby and her hapless husband, Peter (Martin McCormick).

Landlord Raj (Dharmesh Patel), by contrast, is an over-confident, neo-Thatcherite scumbag with the dress sense of a 1980s nightclub owner. Mentally distressed, young American missionary Joe (Martin Donaghy) is pulled hither and thither by his imaginary twin (Scott Reid) and Terry, a menacing, Glaswegian pterodactyl (a brilliant puppet, created by Gavin Glover and voiced by Harry Ward).

The problem is, Maxwell throws this vivid, human carousel into an almost formless chaos. This is, no doubt, a conscious attempt to evoke the disordered charms and trepidations of the Southside, but it fails.

The weak structure does nothing for the writer’s attempts to knit together tragedy and comedy. The play lacks both the pathos of his moving Decky Does A Bronco and the consistent comedy of his hilarious A Respectable Widow Takes To Vulgarity.

Despite the best efforts of Citz director Dominic Hill, dramaturg Frances Poet and a really excellent cast, the piece resists all attempts to lend it coherence or momentum. Sagging under the weight of its own shambolic form, Fever Dream dissipates into a frustrating redundancy.

There are no such issues of structure in The Venetian Twins, director and adaptor Tony Cownie’s new version of Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte classic for the Lyceum. It is difficult to imagine a better 21st-century rendering of this comedy of Italian manners in which the titular twin brothers, the dim-witted country bumpkin Zanetto and the gentrified, chivalrous Tonino, inadvertently create havoc in an unsuspecting 18th-century Verona.

The identical appearance of the twins befuddles and upsets their wives-to-be, Zanetto’s betrothed, the dippy Rosaura (Dani Heron, deliciously stupid in lurid pink), and the clever and emancipated Beatrice (the fabulously indignant Jessica Hardwick), fiancé to Tonino. As it does so, Cownie’s new text bridges the two-and-a-half centuries since the play was written with an impressively mischievous and hilariously modern rudeness.

There are superb performances all over the place. Kern Falconer is side-rippingly funny as accident prone, Irish publican Flozzie, while Steve McNicoll’s moustache-twirling, devious priest Pancrazio makes Molière’s Tartuffe look like a paragon of virtue.

However, the success of any production of this comedy rests overwhelmingly on the casting of the brothers themselves, and Cownie’s choice of the talented Grant O’Rourke is inspired. The actor nails the dual role as he races on and off Neil Murray’s wonderful, two-dimensionally panto-ish set, disappearing as one sibling, and reappearing, amusingly transformed, as the other.

In many ways, Cownie’s script does for Goldoni what Liz Lochhead has done for Molière. Little wonder, then, that his production is as funny a night out at the theatre as you are likely to have all year.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 3, 2015

© Mark Brown