Review: High Society, Pitlochry Festival Theatre

THEATRE REVIEW

 

High Society

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Various dates until October 14

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

High Society
Helen Mallon as Tracy Samantha Lord. Photo: PFT

In the early-20th century the Scottish theatre landscape looked very different from its current ecology. Although the country had many new theatre buildings, much of the work staged in them was on tour from England, often from London. Theatre in Scotland was still, to a considerable degree, part of the “provincial” touring set-up of Victorian Britain.

There is one area of present day Scottish theatre that continues to stubbornly resemble the situation of 100 years ago. When it comes to the stage musical, which is not short of fans in Scotland, the scene continues to be dominated by touring shows from south of the Border.

This, no doubt, has much to do with the economies of scale required to provide the glitz and glamour that lovers of the West End and Broadway musicals have become accustomed to. However, the relative lack of home-grown product remains one of the anomalies of Scottish theatre in the early-21st century.

Thank goodness, then, for Pitlochry Festival Theatre. The “theatre in the hills” has well-and-truly established itself as Scotland’s leading producer of stage musicals.

The north Perthshire playhouse offers two musicals each year, one as part of its famous summer season, another at Christmas time (look out for Singin’ In The Rain in December). This year’s summer programme opens with a production of Cole Porter’s High Society.

Porter’s music and lyrics were originally written for the famous 1956 film starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra (and including a notable performance by Louis Armstrong). This stage version, with a book by Arthur Kopit and additional lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, premiered on Broadway in 1998.

The story takes us to a post-Second World War incarnation of the world inhabited by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. The high society of the title is that of the stinking rich Lord family of Long Island.

Like many of the characters in Fitzgerald’s tales (or, for that matter, the plays of Noel Coward), socialite Tracy Samantha Lord combines an objectionable sense of entitlement with, her saving grace, a certain loucheness. Separated from her debonair ship designer ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven, Tracy is on the brink of marrying the dull and conservative company executive (and wannabe politician) George Kittredge.

The play is set in the Lords’ mansion on the eve of the wedding, with a huge party in the offing, and reluctant hacks from a scandal sheet on the premises as fake guests. The apparently unscheduled arrival of Dexter Haven puts the proverbial cat among the pigeons.

The ensuing comedy (which involves more than a touch of Cowardish farce) is lubricated by a score that includes such well known numbers as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and Well, Did You Evah?

The acting performances are universally strong, even if the same cannot quite be said of the singing, which is variable. That said, Sara Clark Downie is delightful as Tracy’s mischievous younger sister Dinah, while Cameron Johnson impresses as journalist Mike Connor.

The undoubted star of the show, however, is Helen Mallon who gives a fabulous performance as Tracy. Exuberant, despicable, even a little tragic, Mallon sings as splendidly as she acts in the demanding central role.

Director John Durnin runs a pretty tight ship, even if there were a few microphone problems towards the end of the show on opening night. Adrian Rees’s set (which neatly conflates the columns of the Lords’ grand house with those of a wedding cake) is the quintessence of intelligent design. All in all, it’s a pretty swell party indeed.

For performance dates, visit: pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 4, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Cast, Doncaster

DANCE

 

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS

CAST, DONCASTER

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

Northern Ballet prides itself on being a pioneer in contemporary narrative ballet. However, in adapting The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (John Boyne’s controversial 2006 Holocaust novel, which was made into a movie by Mark Herman in 2008) the company has made an enormous misstep.

Boyne’s book famously (or infamously, if one is so inclined) tells the tale of Bruno, the nine-year-old son of a Nazi commandant, and Shmuel, the Jewish boy of the same age whom Bruno befriends through the wire fence of the extermination camp at a fictionalised Auschwitz. Due to a series of mishaps, Bruno ultimately ends up dying alongside Shmuel in a gas chamber.

Striped Pyjamas #1
A dancing Nazi in The Boy With the Striped Pyjamas. Photo: Norther Ballet

It is hard to disagree with the novel’s detractors, such as New York-based Rabbi Benjamin Blech, who has described it as a “blatant distortion” and a “profanation”. There were, as Blech points out, no nine-year-old children held in Auschwitz (those below working age were murdered on arrival), and, even more importantly, the idea that any Auschwitz prisoner could have conducted a friendship through the perimeter fence of the camp is a ludicrous and indefensible lie.

Of course Boyne, Herman and, for that matter, Northern Ballet choreographer Daniel de Andrade can claim the right to artistic freedom. However, that freedom does not erase the crassness and vulgarity of the story, which are, if anything, magnified by being transposed into dance.

One watches in open-mouthed incomprehension as Andrade offers a series of grotesque parodies. A choreography for the forcing of Jews into the cattle trucks that would carry them to the death camp is nauseatingly cartoonish. In Auschwitz, the Nazis dance in choreographies inspired by goose-steps and stiff-armed salutes, while the prisoners’ movements are limp with hunger.

 

Striped Pyjamas #2
The choreographed suffering of extermination camp prisoners. Photo: Northern Ballet

In the novel, Bruno childishly mishears the phrase “the Führer” as “the Fury”. This gives rise to Andrade’s most striking innovation, a demonic figure who seems like a cross between Darth Vader and the wicked fairy Carabosse. Danced well by Mlindi Kulashe on Friday night, this horseman of the apocalypse is, at once, too mythical and too disconcertingly sensual to be credible in the context of a Holocaust narrative.

Like its literary and cinematic forebears, this ballet is, no doubt, well intentioned. More even than them, however, it is outrageously insensitive and misconceived.

Ends at Cast, Doncaster, Saturday, May 27, then touring until October 21: northernballet.com

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on May 29, 2017

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/dance/ballet/boy-striped-pyjamas-northern-ballet-outrageously-misconceived/

© Mark Brown

 

 

Review: Glory on Earth, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (Sunday Herald)

THEATRE REVIEW

 

Glory On Earth,

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh,

Until June 10

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Glory on Earth #3
Shannon Swan, Fiona Wood, Christina Gordon, Rona Morison (Mary Stuart), Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Kirsty McIntyre, Christie Gowans. Photo: Drew Farrell

Glory On Earth, which is receiving its world premiere at the Royal Lyceum, is a play with an impressive provenance. Its subjects, the battle for the religious soul of Scotland in the 16th century and the ultimate demise of Mary, Queen of Scots, have previously been dramatised by our former Makar, Liz Lochhead (in Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off) and the great German playwright Friedrich Schiller (in Mary Stuart). Linda McLean, author of the Lyceum play, is the award-winning writer of such dramatic works as Strangers, Babies and Riddance.

Staged by the Lyceum’s artistic director, the acclaimed playwright David Greig, the piece finds Jamie Sives’s glowering John Knox (forbidding spearhead of Scotland’s Protestant Reformation) surrounded by a cast of seven female actors. It is a suitably ironic position in which to place the man who famously entitled his polemic against female governance The First Blast Of The Trumpet Against The Monstrous Regiment Of Women.

The primary target of Knox’s treatise was Elizabeth I, who had recently been installed on the throne of England. However, its unambiguous misogyny was soon being applied to Mary Stuart (played here by Rona Morison), who returned to Scotland in 1561, at the age of 18, with the intention of becoming the Roman Catholic monarch of an increasingly Calvinist nation.

It is a history which, from the sectarian strife of modern Scotland to the constitutional debate in which we are currently engaged, did much to shape our nation and culture. Frustratingly, however, many of the production’s efforts to connect the events of the 16th-century with our own times seem glib and contrived.

Modern French song is employed liberally to refer to Mary Stuart’s Gallic upbringing. Composer Michael John McCarthy arranges rock tracks for classical instruments for no apparent reason. Mary Stuart and her six ladies-in-waiting (an expansion of the “Four Marys” who attended her in her French exile) show us “how they dance in France” with a pointless and cringe-inducing choreography.

Karen Tennant’s costume designs, a collision of 16th and 21st-century dress, are similarly hollow. The same cannot be said of her fine, minimal sets, however. A chopping block, a throne, the enormous arches of a church are variously wheeled and flown onto a stripped-back stage to tremendous visual effect (if only Greig didn’t feel the need to cloud the designs with smoke effects on such a regular basis).

The disappointing consequence of many of the director’s choices is that the piece rarely achieves the moral weight required by the history it depicts. It is, as English theatre critic Kenneth Tynan wrote in a very different context, frivolous, even when it is being serious.

The pity of this is that one can almost see the better production this could have been struggling to emerge. McLean’s script is often poetic, witty and robust, even if it makes too many concessions to its own sense of modernity (not least in Mary Stuart’s collapse into adolescent petulance).

Sives gives us a compelling Knox, Talibanesque in his ravings against the evils of dancing; even if his granite-like implacability is more archetype than character. Morison’s Queen is fragile in both characterisation and performance, but conveys the necessary sense of pride, trepidation and defiance.

The young, six-strong chorus (who narrate key events in the lives of the monarch and play all of the additional characters, both female and male) is a laudable innovation. However, often speaking as one, like the voice of the cautioning populace of a Greek tragedy, one can’t help but feel that they are a little overawed by the demands of both play and production.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 28, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Pepperland, Royal Court, Liverpool

DANCE

 

PEPPERLAND

ROYAL COURT, LIVERPOOL

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Pepperland
Mark Morris Dance Group. Photo: Robbie Jack

It was 50 years ago today (more or less) that The Beatles released their album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. How better to mark this musical milestone than with a festival, entitled Sgt. Pepper at 50, in which the Fab Four’s home city of Liverpool hosts 13 commemorative cultural events (one for every track on the album)?

Such a festival deserves a grand opening, and they don’t get much grander than Pepperland, the world premiere of a specially commissioned work by the internationally acclaimed Mark Morris Dance Group. Combining dance by the New York-based company with a musical score by American composer Ethan Iverson, the show is a truly joyous, celebratory work of art.

The opener, a dance to Iverson’s minimal, jazzy arrangement of the album’s title track, sets the tone perfectly. The relaxed, quasi-operatic singing of splendid baritone Clinton Curtis underlines the innovative distinctiveness of the music.

Meanwhile Morris’s extraordinarily talented dancers perform a choreography that combines balletic precision with deliciously unexpected moments of physical discordance and quirky humour. The delightful exuberance of the dance finds the ideal partner in Elizabeth Kurtzman’s gorgeous costumes, gloriously colourful affairs inspired by the psychedelic pastiche army uniforms worn by The Beatles on the classic cover of Sgt. Pepper.

Iverson’s arrangements of songs from the album are interspersed with his own original compositions, which draw upon contemporary classical and baroque influences. The prominent place given to the electrophonic instrument the theremin is surprisingly satisfying, not least during Morris’s touching choreography for Penny Lane.

The general cheerfulness of the work is punctuated by moments of humanistic reflection. This is particularly true of the response to George Harrison’s song Within You Without You, which was famously inspired by eastern spiritual teaching.

The dance begins, appropriately, with a lone performer, floating across the stage, as if in cosmic isolation. Soon, however, he is replaced by a vibrant ensemble, moving singularly and collectively, embodying Harrison’s reflection that humanity is indivisibly “all one”.

Played on a simple set (designer Johan Henckens’s little mountain of shiny foil cleverly illuminated by Nick Kolin), Pepperland is a wonderful platform for the skill, intelligence and athleticism of the Mark Morris Dance Group. It is also a suitably unique and brilliant homage to one of the great rock albums.

At Royal Court, Liverpool until May 27. For details of the festival, visit: sgtpepperat50.com

 

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on May 26, 2017

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/dance/what-to-see/brilliant-homage-sgt-pepper-beatles-pepperland-royal-court/

© Mark Brown

Review: Glory on Earth, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (Daily Telegraph)

THEATRE

 

GLORY ON EARTH

ROYAL LYCEUM, EDINBURGH

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Glory on Earth #1
Rona Morison as Mary Stuart. Photo: Drew Farrell

Linda McLean’s Glory on Earth, which is receiving its world premiere at the Royal Lyceum, revisits the nation-altering conflict between Mary Stuart, Scotland’s Roman Catholic monarch, and John Knox, the custodian of the Calvinist Reformation. From the very outset one senses that its director, David Greig, has set out to defy the great significance of its subject.

Even before curtain up, Jamie Sives’s grim, statuesque Knox stands front stage scowling at the arriving audience while French popular songs (including Charles Trenet’s evergreen La Mer) play incongruously in the background. This strikes a frivolous, somewhat gimmicky tone which afflicts the production throughout its often troubled two hours.

Rona Morison’s brittle (and, finally, disappointingly adolescent) Mary Stuart is surrounded, not by the famous “Four Marys” who were the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, but by a chorus of six attendants who share her name; and who also play all of the other characters, male and female. It is an audacious choice, but one which asks too much of the young sextet, who struggle under the historical weight of the play.

Glory on Earth #2
Jamie Sives as John Knox. Photo: John Knox

This lack of gravitas is compounded by a general sense of uncertainty (or, perhaps, insufficient rehearsal) among the cast on opening night. More deleterious still is composer Michael John McCarthy’s drearily postmodern clashing of Scottish rock band The Jesus and Mary Chain (arranged for violin and harp) with the singing of the psalms by the devout Protestants of the Reformation.

The pity of all this is that one can see a better play, and a better production, lurking under the surface of Greig’s offering. McLean’s language is often elevated, rich and crisp; even if Knox’s impressive (if predictably austere) 16th-century vernacular grates against Mary’s irritating descent into simplistic, 21st-century speech. At one point, she asks the misogynistically dismissive Reformer, “Do you think I’m a bad person?”

Karen Tennent’s designs are as frustratingly inconsistent as the production itself. The costumes are a crude collision of period and modern dress. The minimalist sets, by contrast, are beautifully evocative, not least when great arches are flown in to create the interior of a church.

A couple of jokes regarding Scotland’s relations with both England and Europe nod towards recent political events. Ultimately, however, this production lacks the grandeur and dramatic tension demanded by the history it portrays.

Until June 10. lyceum.org.uk

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on May 24, 2017

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/lacks-grandeur-story-demands-glory-earth-royal-lyceum-edinburgh/

© Mark Brown

 

Reviews: Night Light, Perth Concert Hall & MamaBabaMe, Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock

CHILDREN’S THEATRE REVIEWS

 

Night Light,

Seen at Perth Concert Hall;

touring until June 4

 

MamaBabaMe,

Seen at Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock;

touring until June 17

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Night Light
Andy Manley in Night Light

The Edinburgh International Children’s Festival has long made a very strong claim to being Scotland’s most consistently impressive theatre and performance festival. It brings together work by Scotland’s small, but increasingly excellent, children’s theatre sector with productions from across Europe and beyond.

In addition to the Festival itself (which plays at various venues in Edinburgh between May 27 and June 4), a number of productions from the programme tour venues throughout Scotland. One such is Night Light, a beautiful Festival commission for children aged three to six by leading Scotland-based artist Andy Manley and acclaimed Danish company Teater Refleksion.

A one-man show directed by  Bjarne Sandborg and performed by Manley himself, this is a delicate and delightful work of object theatre. Mr Night (a cross between Wee Willie Winkie and God) is looking over the city, making sure that everyone is going to bed.

The people live in a variety of charming pieces of miniature furniture, which are splendidly designed by Mariann Aagaard. A baby cries from within a chest of drawers. Cutlery hangs, somewhat surreally, inside the body of a grandfather clock.

As Mr Night blows out the last of the city’s electric lights, one child still cannot get to sleep. Reluctantly, the benign dictator agrees to give the little insomniac a tour of the city at night.

The gorgeously intricate set comes to life courtesy of the fabulous technical work of Morten Meilvang Laursen. Meanwhile Manley’s gentle and engaging performance is enhanced by a lovely use of sound and music.

The only criticism one might make of Night Light is that, like most Scottish children’s theatre for pre-school children, it lacks an interactive dimension. This is problematic for some three-year-olds, I suspect; although Manley can’t be held responsible for the adults who brought restless children younger than three to the Perth performance I attended.

 

MamaBabaMe
MamaBabaMe

There is some, limited interaction in MamaBabaMe, the latest performance piece (for children aged 18 months to three years) from Scottish pre-school theatre specialists Starcatchers and Edinburgh-based physical theatre outfit Curious Seed.

The very young audience, and their accompanying adults, are arranged around the outside of a padded circle. A cellist (who provides the live dimension of the sumptuous musical score) reveals two performers (Nerea Gurrutxaga and Hannah Venet) who swirl around the space in an affectionate, tactile journey of mutual discovery. Innocent and enchanting, the choreography (by director Christine Devaney and the cast) is a deliciously stylised representation of the relationship between mother and newborn.

Gurrutxaga and Venet display tremendous physical dexterity as they express the play of babies at the crawling stage. As they do so, cellist Robin Mason plays a suitably evocative tune, while singing simple, descriptive lines, such as “upside down” and “roly poly”.

The performers then find their feet, appearing like marionettes as they begin to toddle tentatively. A sheet is put to various uses, including in a tug-of-war and, after much wrapping (and to the delight of some in the young audience), as a nappy.

The piece is brilliantly conceived, wonderfully choreographed and beautifully performed. However, its interactive element doesn’t really come into its own until the end, and some little audience members were, understandably, showing signs of distraction some way short of the show’s 45 minutes.

Impressive though the piece is in many ways, I can’t help but observe (again) that Scotland’s makers of theatre for the very young could learn a thing or two about interactivity from the great London-based children’s theatre company Oily Cart.

For tour details for Night Light, and the entire Festival programme, visit: imaginate.org.uk

For tour details for MamaBabaMe, visit: starcatchers.org.uk

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 21, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: La boheme, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

OPERA REVIEW

 

La boheme,

Theatre Royal, Glasgow,

various dates until May 20;

then touring until June 17

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

La boheme 2017
Hye-Youn Lee (Mimi) and Luis Gomes (Rodolfo). Photo: Sally Jubb

It is the measure of Paris’s status as the “City of Love” that even the poverty-stricken artists of the 19th-century are part its romantic iconography. This image (which contrasts starkly with the neglected banlieues of present day Paris) is referenced knowingly by Andre Barbe, designer of Scottish Opera’s new production of Puccini’s La boheme.

Director Renaud Doucet’s production cuts between the Latin Quarter today, replete with baseball-hatted American tourists, and the same streets in the early 1800s. As we meet penniless poet Rodolfo and the impoverished Bohemians who make up his circle of friends, Barbe frames a photograph of the famous rooftops of Paris as a picture postcard, stamped and franked for added irony.

The famous light-footedness of Puccini’s score is reflected in a production which emphasises the comic and romantic dimensions of the opera. As Rodolfo falls in love with the lonely and lovely seamstress Mimi, the singer Musetta (played by the excellent Trinidadian soprano Jeanine De Bique) is reinvented as a version of Josephine Baker, the iconic entertainer of Paris in the jazz age.

Doucet’s staging veers between colourful Christmas carnival (complete with splendidly costumed street performers) and the tribulations of the starving artists. There are fine performances across the piece, not least the nuanced and emotive playing of Portuguese tenor Luis Gomes (Rodolfo) and British baritone David Stout (the painter Marcello).

Inevitably, however, the opera focuses on the increasingly desperate health of Mimi (who is in the grip of tuberculosis). The role of the ailing seamstress is performed with, by turns, touching sincerity and shuddering pathos by South Korean soprano Hye-Youn Lee.

As Mimi lies dying on a sofa, surrounded by the artists who have become her adopted family, Doucet fashions a powerful denouement that honours Puccini’s stated desire to make his audiences weep.

For tour dates, visit: scottishopera.org.uk

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 14, 2017

© Mark Brown