Reviews: The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, Theatre Royal, Glasgow & The Dolls – Dragged Up, Playhouse, Edinburgh

THEATRE

By Mark Brown

 

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Playing King’s Theatre, Edinburgh,

May 14-18

Bank Robbery #2
The Comedy About a Bank Robbery. Photo: Robert Day

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is the latest show from Mischief Theatre (the people who brought you the smash hit The Play That Goes Wrong). Like its predecessor, it is a fast-paced farce exploding with technical brilliance, physical dexterity and wonderfully silly comedy.

Or, at least, it becomes this in its unforgettable second half. Unlike The Play That Goes Wrong (in which the superb visual and physical comedy kicks off good and early), the new play takes some time to get going.

The difference, simply, is narrative. The former play, to all intents and purposes, doesn’t have one, and can cut straight to the high octane farce. The Comedy About a Bank Robbery (in which an accident prone gang in 1950s Minneapolis seeks to steal a gem belonging to a Hungarian prince), on the other hand, requires a bit of setting up.

The blistering second half more than makes up for the slightly slow start, however. As the gang, led by escaped convict Mitch Ruscitti (Liam Jeavons), closes in on the diamond, the play becomes an uproarious farce of impersonation, mistaken identity and outstanding physical and visual comedy.

In the rented apartment of Ruscitti’s appropriately named girlfriend Caprice (Julia Frith) and the Minneapolis City Bank anything that can go wrong does go wrong. The slapstick humour (including comic violence and the almost obligatory loss of trousers) is deliciously daft and reassuringly reminiscent of the work of Charlie Chaplin.

Mischief Theatre’s calling card is its technical prowess, and this production boasts a truly breathtaking example. It would be a crime greater than the nicking of a diamond to give it away; suffice to say that, when we suddenly see the bank’s backroom from the perspective of the thieves who are crawling through the air vent, the show gives a spectacular and hilarious new meaning to the phrase “bird’s eye view”.

This memorable scene is a genuine coup de theatre, and almost worth the ticket price on its own.

 

The Dolls – Dragged Up

Playhouse, Edinburgh

Touring until November 24

The Dolls - Dragged Up
The Dolls. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Reviewing the latest show by The Dolls (aka Gayle Telfer Stevens and Louise McCarthy) for a family newspaper is a bit like trying to catch an eel with your bare hands. If there is a single gag in this unapologetically vulgar evening’s entertainment that can be repeated on these pages, I confess, I missed it.

Telfer Stevens (best known as Caitlin McLean in River City) and McCarthy (who has just received a Scottish BAFTA award for television comedy Scot Squad) are the Jekyll and Hyde of Scottish drama.

In their mainstream TV and stage careers, they are wholesome family entertainers. Stick a couple of old-style cleaners’ headscarves on them and call them Agnes and Sadie, however, and they become a pair of foul-mouthed, scatological demons.

In The Dolls – Dragged Up we find our heroines in the ludicrously unlikely situation of pretending to be men pretending to be women in a Glaswegian drag queen contest. Add to this a secretly gay, Italian chippie owner, a pair of real (i.e. male) drag queens and a spectacularly crude representation of the female anatomy (when Sadie provides Agnes with some far-from-professional cosmetic surgery).

All of which amounts to a fascinating, modern, female twist to the Scottish, vaudeville comedy tradition. The Dolls estimate that their overwhelmingly working-class audience is split roughly 80/20 women to men; this was certainly borne out by an Edinburgh crowd which, encouragingly, gave fulsome backing to the show’s pro-gay, pro-trans politics.

With their brazen, highly accomplished performances, taboo-busting single entendres and comic songs (signature line: “we like it up the close”) Telfer Stevens and McCarthy have created a genre all of their very own. Let’s call it scurrilous, 21st-century, Scottish, female music hall.

Tour dates: robertckelly.co.uk

These reviews were originally published in The Herald on Sunday on November 11, 2018

© Mark Brown

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Reviews: Macbeth, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh & Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen

THEATRE & DANCE

By Mark Brown

 

Macbeth

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Playing His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, November 7-10

and Theatre Royal, Glasgow, February 19-23

NT Macbeth 1 - photo Brinkhoff Mogenburg
The National Theatre’s Macbeth. Photo: Brinkhoff Mogenburg

“Fair is foul and more is less” should be the witches’ proclamation in Rufus Norris’s large scale, but shambolic Macbeth for the National Theatre (of Britain). With its cast of 19 and a maximalist set comprised of large moving pieces (most notably a massive, arched wooden walkway that looks like half a bridge), it is an overwrought disappointment.

Indeed, if we needed proof that size isn’t everything, The Macbeths, Dominic Hill’s much reduced, two-handed adaptation for Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, which was revived for a recent tour, is a better production by far.

The NT staging would be set, we were promised, in a post-apocalyptic Scotland envisioned by designer Rae Smith. However, anyone expecting something akin to the frighteningly bleak aesthetic of John Hillcoat’s remarkable 2009 film The Road (based upon Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name) will be bitterly disappointed.

What Smith has created is, not a vision of the world following an ecological catastrophe or a nuclear war, but, rather, a confused, shadowy, green nightscape that might be best described as mouldy, modern Gothic. The young witches (whose uninspired make-up and transparent plastic capes, courtesy of costume designer Moritz Junge, make them look like unenthusiastic Halloween partygoers) epitomise the disastrous design; although they are trumped by the distracting, cumbersome props (including a fragment of a modern house, complete with cavity wall insulation) which are rolled constantly around the stage.

Spare a thought, in the midst of all this, for fine Scottish actor Michael Nardone, whose muscular and, ultimately, nimbly insane Macbeth could have shone in a less silly production. As it is, this is simply the ugliest, clumsiest, most badly conceived Shakespeare production I have seen since, 18 years ago, Michael Bogdanov’s English Shakespeare Company set Romeo and Juliet in outer space with the Montagues as aliens and the Capulets as humans.

 

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake

His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen

Playing King’s Theatre, Glasgow, March 5-9

Swan Lake
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. Photo: New Adventures

The promotional material for this revival of Matthew Bourne’s innovative 1995 choreography of Swan Lake describes the show as a “legend”. For once, the advertising people are not over-hyping their “product”.

There are few artists who bestride the gap between commercial success and artistic integrity quite so impressively as Bourne (the English choreographer is, perhaps, similar to American musical theatre master Stephen Sondheim in this regard). His Swan Lake has given generations of dance lovers an unforgettably different perspective on the iconic Russian ballet.

Most notably, Bourne’s choreography exemplifies his quest to draw more boys and men into professional dance (whereas the theatre needs to cross-cast leading roles to give more opportunities to female actors, dance has, thanks to outdated notions of gender and sexuality, found itself short of men). The transformation of the swans of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, from hyper-feminine, tutu-wearing archetypes into images of graceful, dangerous (often hissing) masculinity, is as brilliant as it is simple.

Bourne’s intent is clear from the very beginning, in which The Prince (danced in Aberdeen last Saturday afternoon by the excellent Dominic North) has an intense, homoerotic dream about The Swan (danced by the extraordinary Will Bozier). The ensuing ballet, with its gently satirised Royal Family (complete with corgi on wheels) and fabulously scuzzy nightclub (to say nothing of the Prince’s ludicrous, Sloane-ish girlfriend), is a bold, modern, comic triumph.

It takes great audacity and skill to create such a radical re-envisioning of a ballet which is as famous and revered as Swan Lake. Yet, Bourne and designer Lez Brotherston (whose sets and costumes are gloriously unrestrained) succeed utterly in creating a dance work that is constantly worthy of the great, swirling emotions of Tchaikovsky’s music.

This latest restaging is performed gorgeously throughout, not least in the audible, as well as visible, energy of Bourne’s bevy of beautiful swans.

These reviews were originally published in The Herald on Sunday on November 4, 2018

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Rigoletto, Theatre Royal, Glasgow & Gagarin Way, Dundee Rep

OPERA & THEATRE

By Mark Brown

 

Rigoletto

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Touring until November 24

Rigoletto - Lina Johnson as Gilda in Rigoletto. Photo - Julie Howden
Lina Johnson as Gilda in Rigoletto. Photo: Julie Howden

Matthew Richardson’s staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s great opera Rigoletto, which he created for Scottish Opera in 2011, and which he revives now, is memorable and distinctive. A tale of skulduggery, injustice and the impunity of the “higher orders” (did someone mention The House of Saud?), the opera sings both of Verdi’s personal tragedy (the composer’s wife and young children died while he was still in his twenties) and his egalitarian antipathy towards the aristocracy.

The opera is based upon the play Le roi s’amuse by Verdi’s fellow radical liberal Victor Hugo. It tells the story of Gilda, daughter of the titular court jester Rigoletto, who has the misfortune to become the latest conquest of the dissolute Duke of Mantua.

Rigoletto (played last Sunday by Stephen Gadd, standing in splendidly for Aris Argiris) is a widower who guards the chastity of his daughter. In this, as in the justice of his cause and the severity of the vengeance he seeks, he resembles Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

Richardson’s telling of this tale is a boldly modern clarion cry against lecherous misogyny. Designer Jon Morrell’s imagery (in which women and store front mannequins become almost interchangeable) is strikingly unambiguous. His stark, minimalist sets and 20th-century dress enjoy tremendously evocative light and shadow.

Tenor Adam Smith makes his Scottish Opera debut as the loathsome Duke, playing the aristocrat with the appropriately cocky swagger of a man whose life is, finally, spared, due to his good looks. He is also blessed with the wonderful aria La donna e mobile, which he sings with suitably confident excellence.

Norwegian soprano Lina Johnson, who is also making her debut with Scottish Opera, gives, if anything, an even finer performance in the role of Gilda. In both voice and gesture, the young Scandinavian offers us a powerfully moving combination of innocence, credulousness and, ultimately, pathos.

This revival, which boasts a fine chorus (representing a vile pack of male chauvinists), is as welcome as it is timely.

Tour details: scottishopera.org.uk

 

Gagarin Way

Dundee Rep

Until November 3

Gagarin Way
Ewan Donald and Barrie Hunter (foreground) in Gagarin Way. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Gagarin Way, Gregory Burke’s dark comedy about globalisation, which premiered at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh in 2001, is one of the best Scottish plays of the new millennium. Set in a storeroom in a factory in Fife, the drama finds Eddie (a self-confessed violent psychopath) and Tom (a hapless, young security guard) taking delivery of a kidnapped executive of the multinational company for which they work. The man doing the delivering is Gary (a former Communist who has turned to anarcho-syndicalist terrorism).

In the premiere production, the loquacious and erudite thug Eddie was played memorably by Michael Nardone (who is currently performing the eponymous lead in the National Theatre’s touring production of Macbeth). Here the role is taken on by the impressive Ewan Donald, who plays the part with the necessary casual menace (even if he passes too quickly over Burke’s excellent gag about Jean-Paul Sartre being comprehensively burgled by his friend Jean Genet).

Director Cora Bissett’s production (which is designed with appropriate banality by Emily James) succeeds in capturing both the political truth and the gloriously ludicrous comedy of the play. Gary (performed brilliantly by Michael Moreland, who played the role of Tom in the 2001 premiere) is the embodiment of the anger of workers who resent their bosses, but are frustrated by (in 2001 as today) the historically low level of industrial action.

Strutting about in a greatcoat (which, he supposes, makes him look like one of his Russian anarchist heroes), Moreland’s Gary is, as Burke surely intended, more like Citizen Smith with a death wish than Bakunin. Ross Baxter’s Tom is deliciously green and imprudent, while Barrie Hunter achieves a perfect balance between fear, dignity and confessional honesty as Frank, the boss who is emphatically not from Tokyo or Los Angeles.

These reviews were originally published in The Herald on Sunday on October 28, 2018

© Mark Brown

Reviews: The Macbeths, MacRobert Arts Centre, University of Stirling & The 306: Dusk, Perth Theatre (Herald on Sunday)

THEATRE

By Mark Brown

 

The Macbeths

Macrobert Arts Centre, University of Stirling

Touring until October 27

Macbeths #1 - Lucianne McEvoy as Macbeth and Charlene Boyd as Lady Macbeth. Photo - Tim Morozzo.
Lucianne McEvoy and Charlene Boyd in The Macbeths. Photo: Tim Morozzo

Last year Dominic Hill, artistic director of the Citizens Theatre, staged The Macbeths, his reduced, two-handed version of Shakespeare’s “Scottish play”. Played in the circle studio of the famous Glasgow playhouse, with the superb Keith Fleming as the murderous monarch and the equally brilliant Charlene Boyd as his ill-fated wife, it attracted richly merited plaudits.

Now, with the Citz closed for major refurbishment and the company’s main house productions being presented at the Tramway venue, Hill has revived his abbreviated Macbeth for a Scottish tour. With Fleming currently playing in Hill’s wonderful rendering of Cyrano de Bergerac, the director has made a tantalising and brilliant change to the cast of The Macbeths, bringing in the fabulous Lucianne McEvoy (fresh from her success in David Ireland’s excoriating satire Ulster American during the Edinburgh Fringe) in the role of the regicidal ruler.

Such gender switching is a neat solution to the problem of the predomination of male lead roles in classical drama, up to and including the present day. Not only that, however, this kind of cross casting can bring fascinating new dimensions to well known plays.

Instead of Lady M seeking to, famously, “unsex” (i.e. masculinise) herself, the casting of two women overturns the gendered suppositions of the play. Here the two female characters take on the full range of human capacities, and violence is shorn of its supposedly essential masculinity.

McEvoy’s Macbeth captures powerfully the frenetic energy, self doubt and, ultimately, the deranged certainty of the bloody usurper. It is as if the murderous resolution of Elizabeth I had been combined with the insane sense of entitlement of Imelda Marcos and the moral abdication of Aung San Suu Kyi. Boyd reprises the Lady M role with the same emotional and psychological urgency as before, not least in the play’s resonating emphasis on her loss of a child early in its life.

Impressive and purposeful in its recasting, as intense as its celebrated predecessor, this restaging of Hill’s adaptation makes one feel as if one is mainlining Shakespeare’s play.

Tour details: citz.co.uk

 

The 306: Dusk

Perth Theatre

Until October 27

306 - Dusk#2
Danny Hughes in The 306: Dusk. Photo: Drew Farrell

The 306: Dusk is the culmination of a trilogy of musical theatre pieces by Oliver Emanuel (writer) and Gareth Williams (composer) about the 306 British soldiers executed by the British Army for cowardice, desertion and mutiny during the First World War. Like its sister plays Dawn and Day, this concluding drama is staged by Perth Theatre in co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland and 14-18-NOW (the organisation responsible for cultural commemoration of the centenary of The Great War).

Set, only slightly in the future, during the Armistice Day ceremony in France on November 11, 2018, the play seeks to connect the catastrophe of World War I with more recent conflicts involving Britain’s armed forces. The piece is constructed of three interwoven monologues, by Rachel (a history teacher whose grandfather returned from the war traumatised, played by Sarah Kameela Impey), Keith (a veteran of the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, initially played by Ryan Fletcher, now replaced by Ali Craig) and the ghost of Louis Harris (one of the executed 306, played by Danny Hughes).

The play has moments of undeniable poignancy. Keith’s life is in tatters as a consequence of our society’s neglect of his PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder); the very condition which, during World War I, was, at best, diagnosed as “shell shock”, or, at worst, considered the capital crime of “cowardice”.

However, the structure and balance of the monologues is uneasy, preventing the piece from developing a sense of rhythm or momentum. Similarly, Williams’s music (played by a quintet of piano and strings, and accompanied by a choir and the, it must be said, variable singing of the cast) flips between the emotive and the decidedly saccharine.

These reviews were originally published in The Herald on Sunday on October 21, 2018

© Mark Brown

Pauline Knowles: an appreciation

Pauline K
Pauline Knowles as Sverdlosk in Lot and His God, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, 2015

Like so many people connected with Scottish theatre, I am devastated and deeply saddened to learn of the horribly untimely death of Pauline Knowles (pictured here in the role of Sverdlosk, wife of Lot, in the Citizens Theatre Company’s production of Howard Barker’s Lot and His God in 2015, directed by Debbie Hannan; a role in which she excelled). Pauline was one of the most brilliant Scottish stage actors of her generation (no-one who saw the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh’s production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the 2015-16 Christmas season will forget her extraordinary, seductive playing of The White Witch; and her reverberating performance as Clytemnestra in Zinnie Harris’s This Restless House won her the richly deserved Best Female Performance award at the 2016 Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland). Pauline brought immense grace, emotional and psychological depth, and real presence to every role she played.

Although I am a dedicated ‘Barkerista’, I was unable to review Lot and His God due to its run being too short for the demands of my Sunday Herald deadline. I did, however, write to Pauline privately to tell her how superb I thought her playing of Sverdlosk was, and also to compliment her performance in the musical theatre piece The Garden by Zinnie Harris and John Harris (in addition to being an exceptional actor, Pauline was also possessed of a singing voice of real beauty and range). Pauline replied to me in typically modest terms, writing: “2015 was a very good year for me (they don’t come around very often, if ever) and it was great to have a run of parts I could get my teeth into, Sverdlosk being the highlight. Your lovely letter acknowledged that and will help keep me going when work is not quite so generous.”

My thoughts are with her friends, family and everyone in the Scottish theatre community. We have lost one of our finest.

©Mark Brown

Review: The 306: Dusk, Perth Theatre (Daily Telegraph)

THEATRE

 

The 306: Dusk

Perth Theatre

Reviewed by Mark Brown

306 - Dusk
The 306: Dusk. Photo: Drew Farrell

It is appropriate that the National Theatre of Scotland and 14-18 NOW (the organisation established to commemorate the centenary of the First World War) should have collaborated with Perth Theatre on the major trilogy The 306. The city of Perth is, after all, home to the British Army’s famous Black Watch regiment (now a battalion of The Royal Regiment of Scotland).

Following on from its sister plays Dawn and Day, dramatist Oliver Emanuel’s The 306: Dusk seeks to bring into the present day the story of the 306 British soldiers executed for cowardice, desertion and mutiny during The Great War. The drama is set in the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, at the culmination of the 2018 Armistice Day commemoration in the battlefields of France.

Here, where so many men died in the fields of the Somme, teacher Rachel puts symbolically regenerative flowering plants in the soil. The granddaughter of an emotionally scarred veteran of the War, she has brought her students to the remembrance ceremony.

Keith, a severely traumatised veteran of the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, has come to show his respects and, hopefully, make peace with himself.

Crucially, the ghost of Louis Harris (one of those shot for desertion) emerges from the mud. Racked with guilt after he had, on a fearful night patrol, killed a young German soldier, the youthful Harris abandoned his post.

These stories are told by way of three interwoven monologues which are conveyed through speech and, occasionally, song. The three actors are accompanied by a choir and a chamber quintet of strings and piano which plays original compositions by Gareth Williams.

The impact of these diverse elements in director Wils Wilson’s production is variable. The structure of Emanuel’s script is problematically uneven; for instance, we go far deeper into Keith’s experience than into that of Louis Harris.

Similarly, the music and song are frustratingly inconsistent. Williams’s score is, in certain moments, arrestingly emotive. However, in others (not least the choral interventions), it is overly-sentimental.

A strong cast of Ryan Fletcher (Keith; who is replaced by Ali Craig between October 21 and 27), Danny Hughes (Louis Harris) and Sarah Kameela Impey (Rachel) do heart-rending justice to the play’s momentous subject matter. However, the play itself seems somewhat uncomfortable in its dramaturgical skin.

Until October 27

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on October 14, 2018

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/306-dusk-perth-theatre-review-frustratingly-inconsistent/

©Mark Brown

 

 

Reviews: Ballyturk, Tron Theatre, Glasgow & Arctic Oil, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

THEATRE

By Mark Brown

 

Ballyturk

Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Until October 20

Ballyturk#
Simon Donaldson and Grant O’Rourke in Ballyturk. Photo: John Johnston

Ballyturk, by the extraordinary Irish dramatist Enda Walsh, is a bleakly and brilliantly humorous play. Directed for the Tron with admirable precision and balance by Andy Arnold, it portrays two nameless men (called simply 1 and 2 in the script) who are, seemingly, trapped in an existential limbo.

Confined to a dog-eared room (which is splendidly envisioned by designer Michael Taylor), the pair construct and perform scenes from the lives of the people of the imagined town of Ballyturk. This little conurbation could be the village of Llareggub from Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, if it was relocated to Ireland and conceived by someone who’s tripping on acid.

If Thomas seems present in Walsh’s phantasmagoria, one could be forgiven for wondering if the great modernist dramatists Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco had collaborated in the writing of the play from beyond the grave. The dismal and affecting co-dependency of 1 and 2 is pure Beckett.

Their seemingly arbitrary and surreal storytelling (including a tale about a rabbit with curiously human characteristics known as the “malevolent bunny”), is punctuated by voices heard through the walls and explosions of pop music from the 1980s. It all appears like the inspired, absurdist invention of a 21st-century Ionesco.

When Ballyturk made its world premiere at the Galway International Arts Festival, 1 and 2 were played by the outstanding actors Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi. Arnold (who, entirely reasonably, nods to the existential abstraction of the piece by playing it in Scottish, rather than Irish, accents) has secured the services of the talented double act of Simon Donaldson and Grant O’Rourke.

Donaldson is fabulously manic as the terror-stricken 1, who engages in the repetition and variation of the men’s rituals with a scorching urgency. O’Rourke’s performance, larger-than-life, hilarious in its characterisations and reverberating in its pathos, is truly virtuosic.

In the genuinely emotive conclusion to the play, a character known only as 3, arrives, suited, booted and sucking menacingly on a cigarette. Played by the fabulous Stephen Rea in the premiere production, the role is feminised interestingly and fruitfully here by the fine Wendy Seager. The choice she offers the wretched friends makes for a truly powerful denouement to a beautifully constructed production.

 

Arctic Oil

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Until October 20

Arctic Oil
Jennifer Black and Neshla Caplan in Arctic Oil. Photo: Roberto Ricciuti

More than once on these pages I have lamented the fact that too many new plays staged in Scotland in the new millennium (and, inevitably, often staged at our self-defined “new writing theatre” the Traverse) have lacked the necessary imagination, ambition and theatrical vigour. Far too often we see dramas that seem to be written to a “soap opera with a twist” formula in which “naturalistic” dialogue is collided with melodrama and an issue-driven quest for socio-political relevance.

Clare Duffy’s short, new play Arctic Oil is, sadly but emphatically, such a drama. The piece is a heavy-handed throwing together (in a bathroom in a house on a northern Scottish island) of the most urgent contemporary politics with a crudely drawn, soap opera-style family drama.

The role of fossil fuels in the global ecological crisis is combined clumsily and predictably with the relationship between Jennifer Black’s unnamed climate change sceptic and her (also nameless) environmental activist daughter, played by Neshla Caplan. Issues of the daughter’s mental distress, the mother’s physical health and the alcoholism of the deceased husband and father are also thrown into the mix.

Fresh from his Edinburgh Fringe success with David Ireland’s blistering satire Ulster American, Traverse associate director Gareth Nicholls tries and (unavoidably) fails to bring some energy to a script that is unimaginative, insipid and lacking in conviction.

The great English theatre critic Kenneth Tynan famously defined a good play as “a means of spending two hours in the dark without being bored.” The pity of Duffy’s drama is that it manages to induce tedium in just 65 ponderous minutes.

These reviews were originally published in The Herald on Sunday on October 14, 2018

© Mark Brown