Feature: Interview with theatre director Murat Daltaban

In the shadow of Erdogan

Award-winning Turkish theatre director Murat Daltaban talks to Mark Brown about making theatre in his home country and his recent move to Scotland

Murat #2 - CATS 2018
Murat Daltaban (left) with Zinnie Harris and Oguz Kaplangi at the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland ceremony in Perth. Photo: Perthshire Picture Agency

At last Sunday’s Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland (CATS), which were presented at Perth Theatre, the most successful production, by a distance, was Turkish director Murat Daltaban’s staging of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist classic Rhinoceros. Presented by the Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, in association with Daltaban’s company DOT Theatre, Istanbul, the show picked up the prizes for Best Production, Best Male Performance (Robbie Jack), Best Music and Sound (Oguz Kaplangi) and Best Director (for Daltaban himself).

The production, which boasted a brilliantly sharp, flexible adaptation by leading Scottish playwright Zinnie Harris, revived Ionesco’s bitterly comic allegory about conformism and the rise of fascism. In the play, the unlikely hero Berenger clings to his humanity as the people around him transform into rhinos.

The allegory, in which culture, freedom and, ultimately, humanity is trampled under the hooves of a collective social delirium, speaks powerfully to our own times. From the rise of Trump and the so-called “alt-right” in the United States to the election of extreme right, xenophobic parties in such countries as Austria, Hungary and Italy, Ionesco’s 1959 drama appears very much as a play for today.

It also chimes with events in Daltaban’s homeland of Turkey, where the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used the failed coup attempt of 2016 as a pretext for clamping down on democratic rights. What, I wondered when I met Daltaban at the Lyceum Theatre following his success at the CATS awards, was the relationship between his production of Rhinoceros and the current situation in Turkey?

“Politics in Turkey today is like a psychological war between the people and the state”, says the director. “The primary pressure is on the media. The only free media we have in Turkey right now is on the internet.”

Regarding theatre artists, the situation is mixed and complex, Daltaban explains. “There is censorship in the state-funded theatre companies. The government’s logic is that, if you receive government money, you can’t criticise the government.

“This is why I resigned from working with the state theatres”, he continues. DOT Theatre is artistically and financially independent of the state and “does not take any money from the government.”

However, Daltaban points out that Turkish theatre is not under a system of complete censorship. “The government doesn’t have an automatic state censorship system which demands to see scripts, for example. It is not official censorship, but psychological repression of theatre artists.”

One method of indirect censorship within the state theatre sector has been to reject plays by foreign writers, from Shakespeare to Dario Fo, on the basis of a “patriotic” decision to stage only dramas by Turkish writers. The irony of this is that one of the few examples of actual direct censorship has been against a contemporary Turkish writer, Onur Orhan.

Orhan’s monodrama Only A Dictator, which is considered by the state authorities to be a critique of President Erdogan, has faced bans wherever it has travelled in Turkey. Local state authorities cite “public order” concerns as their reason for closing the production down.

“The direct censorship faced by Only A Dictator has an intimidating effect on other theatre artists”, Daltaban comments. “They banned that play wherever it went, in order to create an atmosphere of intimidation that would affect other theatremakers.

“The result is that even artists who are independent of the state theatre system are engaged in self-censorship. This is a response to the psychological pressure exerted by the government.”

Which begs the question of the extent to which Daltaban and his company have been affected by the intimidation of the Erdogan regime. Not only has DOT Theatre been engaged in a major co-production with Scottish companies, but Daltaban and his family, and also his friend, and DOT Theatre’s composer, Oguz Kaplangi, have recently moved to live in Edinburgh.

“Our move to Scotland is not because of the repression in Turkey”, the director insists. “It is something we planned before the current situation developed.

“In order to create the kind of theatre we want to make, we wanted to spend half of our time in Scotland and half in Turkey. However, recent events in Turkey have made the process of relocating to Scotland a bit faster.”

DOT Theatre, which has its own successful and popular theatre venue in Istanbul, will continue its work in Turkey, and Daltaban will move back-and-forth between Edinburgh and Istanbul. He hopes to establish a production office for DOT in the Scottish capital, enabling the company to make more international work, not only with Turkish and Scottish artists, but with others in Europe, not least his contacts in Germany.

The director’s pre-existing plan to relocate to Scotland may have been expedited by the repression in Turkey, but it is rooted in artistic and personal experience. “We have been coming to Scotland for many years”, he says.

“Edinburgh is an international theatre space. Artistically, it is much more than local. I also believe that Scotland is a very happy place to live.”

As to the immediate future of Turkey, Daltaban is concerned, but optimistic about the general election on June 24. “The government has all the media, so the election definitely won’t be fair”, he says.

“However, in the last 10 years the civil society movement has become very experienced in terms of protecting the integrity of ballot papers, and the opposition movement is very strong.”

A slightly abridged version of this feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 17, 2018

© Mark Brown

Advertisements

Reviews: Chicago & The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, both Pitlochry Festival Theatre

THEATRE REVIEWS

 

CHICAGO

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Various dates until October 20

 

THE RISE AND FALL OF LITTLE VOICE

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Various dates until October 13

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Chicago
Niamh Bracken (centre) and the cast of Chicago. Photo: Douglas McBride

Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s new artistic director was announced on Thursday. Elizabeth Newman, a young director who has garnered many plaudits for her leadership of Bolton’s Octagon Theatre, takes over from John Durnin, who led PFT for a successful 15 years.

Ms Newman takes charge of not only one of the most beautifully located theatres in the UK (if not the world), but also Scotland’s undisputed leader in the production of stage musicals. Richard Baron’s staging of the famous 1975 musical Chicago (book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, music by John Kander), which opens this year’s summer season at Pitlochry, can only help to maintain that reputation.

A tale of murder, show business and legal skulduggery in 1920s Chicago, the play takes a decidedly lighthearted approach to the homicidal crimes of passion of vaudeville star Velma Kelly and ambitious chorus girl Roxie Hart. Velma murdered her husband and sister when she found them in bed together. Roxie shot her lover when he threatened to end their illicit affair.

Both women are to be represented in court by celebrity attorney Billy Flynn (a state of affairs which leads to a bitter rivalry between them). Nonetheless, with a fawning press only too keen to buy Flynn’s tales of blameless stage beauties driven to terrible acts by despicable (and, fortunately, dead) men, you wouldn’t bet against Velma and Roxie being found not guilty.

It’s fanciful stuff, bearing a greater resemblance to a glitzy dream of the Windy City in its gangster heyday than to anything approximating its brutal reality. Thankfully, set and costume designer Charles Cusick Smith and lighting designer Wayne Dowdeswell are on hand to make Cook County Jail (the open prison in which much of the action is set) look decidedly similar to a vaudeville playhouse, complete with the title “CHICAGO” emblazoned in garish stage lights.

The visuals of the production, which are, by turns, moodily dark and glitteringly glamorous, strike the perfect tone. So, too, do musical director David Higham and his band, who belt out the show’s much-loved numbers, such as ‘All That Jazz’ and ‘All I Care About Is Love’, with tremendous aplomb.

The casting of the leads impresses, too; which is not an easy proposition when you are, as PFT always is at this time of year, building an ensemble that will present no fewer than six plays in repertory over five months. One cannot, therefore, expect the kind of cast one would see in a production in the West End of London.

That said, the fine Lucie-Mae Sumner plays the “Liza Minnelli role” of Roxie with all the necessary sass and fake coyness, while Carl Patrick is positively reptilian as the cynical lawyer Flynn. Meanwhile, Irene-Myrtle Forrester channels the great blues singer Bessie Smith in the role of the redoubtable prison matron ‘Mama’ Morton.

The star of the show, however, is Niamh Bracken, whose powerfully-voiced, brilliantly-danced, high octane performance as Velma is worthy of any production of this blockbuster musical.

There’s a considerable gear shift between Chicago and the second show of the summer season at Pitlochry. Although I can see the emotional attraction of Jim Cartwright’s 1992 drama The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice (which was famously released as a film starring Jane Horrocks in 1998), I confess, it is not a play I can grow to love.

The drama tells the story of LV (Little Voice), a quiet, reclusive, young, northern English, working-class woman who hides in her room, which is a sanctuary from her vulgar, promiscuous, heavy-drinking mother Mari. There, LV pines for her dead father and takes refuge in the classic record collection he passed on to her (which includes such iconic singers as Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and Shirley Bassey, all of whom LV can mimic brilliantly).

LV’s private talent is dragged painfully into the open when Mari’s latest boyfriend, small-time “artiste promoter” Ray Say, overhears her singing in her room.

The play boasts, without question, a central character one can root for (LV is the kind of gifted, marginalised underdog the producers of Britain’s Got Talent would kill for). It also, of course, has a brilliant, off-the-shelf musical score.

What it doesn’t have, however, is anything approximating a fully-fledged, well-rounded character. Cartwright’s creations are two-dimensional, at best; a fact that director Gemma Fairlie’s Pitlochry production cannot alter, despite fine performances across the board.

We can, for example, see the underlying desperation in the life of middle-aged, underpaid, widowed factory worker Mari. However, she is such as a monstrous caricature that even Deirdre Davis’s excellent, dynamic performance cannot save her from being a dubious stereotype.

Likewise Carl Patrick’s playing of Ray Say, which, although chilling in its predictable outburst of vicious misogyny, can’t escape Cartwright’s characterisation, which seems ripped off from Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 play A Taste Of Honey.

The play’s most objectionable caricature, however, is Mari’s friend and neighbour Sadie (played by Irene-Myrtle Forrester, who, presumably, drew the short straw). Malodorous and unable to say much beyond “okay”, she is, surely, one of the most unpleasant portraits of a person with learning disabilities in modern drama.

All of which is a pity, as Laura Costello, who is making her professional stage debut in this Pitlochry season, is a star in the making. Playing the role of LV with the required pathos, she sings with a range and power that threaten to salvage a reasonable production of a bad play.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 10, 2018

© Mark Brown

Review: Quality Street, Pitlochry Festival Theatre (Daily Telegraph)

THEATRE

 

QUALITY STREET

PITLOCHRY FESTIVAL THEATRE

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Quality Street
Alan Mirren and Fiona Wood (centre) in Quality Street. Photo: Douglas McBride

J.M. Barrie’s 1901 comedy Quality Street has been somewhat neglected in his homeland of Scotland. The Scottish Theatre Archive shows no professional production of the drama since 1953.

This is a strange state of affairs, as this four-act play is neatly constructed, often very funny and entirely open to modern observations on gender politics. That is certainly true of Liz Carruthers’s clever staging for Pitlochry Festival Theatre (PFT), which, while remaining within Barrie’s frame of Georgian England, is shot through with 21st-century wit and irony.

The drama is set, in 1805 and immediately after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, among the marriageable young ladies and “old maids” of a small English town. There, the eligible gentleman Valentine Brown unwittingly breaks the heart of the widely admired Miss Phoebe Throssel by announcing, not that he wants to marry her, but that he has enlisted for the war against Napoleon.

What begins as a demure romance comedy, soon becomes a thoroughgoing farce. Valentine returns from the war entirely unaware that his financial advice of a decade before was so dreadful that it has forced Phoebe and her sister Susan to turn their house into a “school for genteel children”.

Valentine’s ungallant observations of Phoebe as a tired, ageing schoolmistress force her to rekindle the vivacity of her youth in the guise of “Miss Livvy”, Phoebe’s niece. With the war victory ball at the local barracks in full swing, “Miss Livvy” leads the officers, including Valentine, on a merry dance.

Carruthers’s production executes all of this with a knowing wink to modern mores. Designer Adrian Rees’s sets, which are dominated by three chocolate box Georgian paintings, are characterised by an ironic detachedness. His period costumes are a picture postcard delight.

The performances themselves combine the gentle satire of Barrie’s script with a contemporary tongue-in-cheek comedy. Fiona Wood is hilarious, playing Phoebe as a justifiably outraged, avenging feminist, while Alan Mirren is on sardonically cartoonish form as the dashing-yet-blundering Valentine.

A special mention must go to young Laura Costello, who is making her professional stage debut as part of the current Pitlochry ensemble. She impresses in the supporting role of Fanny Willoughby in Quality Street, but she deserves particular plaudits for her skilfully acted, brilliantly sung performance as LV in PFT’s current production of Jim Cartwright’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice.

Various dates until October 12

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on June 10, 2018

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/quality-street-pitlochry-festival-theatre-reviewhilarious/

©Mark Brown

Review: Edinburgh International Children’s Festival 2018

A Feast for the Senses

From toddlers to teenagers, the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival offers a world class programme of theatre and dance, finds Mark Brown

 

Stick by me 4 c. Mihaela Bodlovic_preview
Andy Manley in Stick By Me. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

To attend the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival is not only to join audiences of youngsters from throughout Edinburgh and beyond, it is also to take one’s place alongside international delegates (children’s performing arts creators and producers) from around the world.

There’s a good reason why the Festival attracts such global interest. It is not only the largest festival of its kind in the UK, it is also, to my mind, the highest quality, most carefully curated performing arts showcase in Scotland.

This year’s Festival (which ends today) has boasted work for all age groups (from babies and toddlers to teenagers), from countries as diverse as Germany, New Zealand and South Africa. Festival director Noel Jordan can be proud of a world class programme which has impressed immensely, both in its imaginative scope and its splendid production values.

A very definite case in point is A Feast Of Bones by Irish company Theatre Lovett. Designed for kids aged nine to 15, the piece is a beautifully radical reworking of the fable of Henny Penny, the paranoiac chicken who inadvertently led her friends to destruction at the jaws of Foxy Loxy.

This might sound a little basic for its target audience, but consider that writer Frances Kay and director Muireann Ahern have relocated the tale to a French restaurant in Dublin named Le Monde Bouleverse (The World Turned Upside-down). Consider, too, that we find ourselves in 1918, in the immediate aftermath of the Great War.

The restaurant is, as its name suggests, a decidedly odd one. The eatery boasts a knife-sharp waitress (Lisa Lambe), a pair of French musicians who are refugees from the War (composer Nico Brown and Martin Brunsden) and a single customer (an energetically eccentric, somewhat foxy gastronome by the name of Rennard).

The restaurant’s menu seems to have been inspired by the story of Henny Penny. However, at Le Monde Bouleverse, we are dealing, not with paranoia, but with a world in which the sky did fall in for four terrible years.

Superbly inventive though the storytelling is, it is the exquisite theatricality of the show that makes it a genuinely great piece of live drama. Every aspect of the work, from the clever stage and lighting design to the memorably marvellous music, is gorgeously stylish.

Smartly acted throughout, the show’s piece de resistance is the playing of Rennard by Louis Lovett. A cleverly complex character, Lovett’s Rennard is a likeable, if egotistical, clown. Snobbish, self-important and less educated than he supposes, he has, despite his apparent cheerfulness, a dark war story of his own.

Lambe gives a perfectly pitched performance as the waitress, simultaneously engaging, mysterious and just a little sinister. As she turns the tables, she also turns the famous fable into a moving tale of revenge and redemption.

Theatre Lovett describes itself, not as a children’s theatre company, but as a creator of “works for all”. A Feast Of Bones bears brilliant testimony to its skill in making cross-generational theatre.

A very different highlight of the Festival was Stick By Me, a work for three to six-year-olds by Scotland’s own Andy Manley and Red Bridge Arts. Performed by the always brilliant Manley, the piece is the deliciously off-centre story of the friendship between a man and a small stick (which looks suspiciously like a coffee stirrer).

Think Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape meets One Man And His Dog, but with a wee stick standing in for the dog, and you’re (possibly) getting somewhere close to the concept of this delightful little piece. Sitting behind a Victorian-style school desk, Manley’s lone character is confined by reproving voices from leaving the square space in which he lives.

Only through the playful imagination, and with the help of his wee wooden friend and some adhesive tape (of which, luckily enough, there is an abundance), can Manley finally escape a decidedly sticky situation. It’s bonkers, of course, but delightfully funny and utterly charming.

There’s charm, too, in Toddler Room, a beautifully gentle, enchantingly designed dance piece for babies and toddlers by Dybwikdans of Norway. The show is presented in a lovely, little white pod in which dancer Marie Ronold Mathisen interacts wordlessly with her very young audience using nicely choreographed movement, big red balloons and a large, but appealingly benign, bird puppet.

Mbuzeni 2_preview
The cast of Mbuzeni

I was intrigued to see Mbuzeni, a play for kids aged 12 and over by the South African company Koleka Putuma. The piece tells the story of four homeless orphan girls who are separated from the nearby community, not only by their marginal status, but also by their fixation with playing burial games in the town cemetery.

This is a traditional society, and the girls’ seeming disregard for the rituals of death sets them further apart. The story, which deals with death boldly and is unafraid of a sad ending, is a powerful one.

The singing and dancing are engaging, as is the combination of the Xhosa language with English. However, the piece relies too heavily on the easy humour of adult actors playing child characters.

As the Festival goes into its final day, I can recommend the outstandingly brilliant Baba Yaga (for children aged 7-12) and Ogo, a delightful puppet play for kids aged two-and-a-half to six, which I was fortunate to catch in Quebec last summer.

Details of the programme for the final day of the Festival can be found at: imaginate.org.uk

This reviews feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 3, 2018

© Mark Brown

Performing arts feature: Prague showcase

Prague Spring

The Czech performing arts are vibrant and diverse, as Mark Brown discovered at the recent showcase in Prague

Farm in the Cave 1
Farm in the Cave rehearsing Refuge. Photo: Linda Průšová

The Alfred ve Dvoře Theatre in Prague is not the obvious place to begin a showcase of Czech performing arts. Located in a little courtyard off a quiet side street in the Holešovice district of the city, it boasts a decidedly relaxed underground bar (we are in Bohemia, after all) and a theatre space that looks, from the outside, as if it has been constructed from the metallic shell of a Second World War bomb shelter.

The venue is about as far as it is possible to get, in cultural terms, from the grand buildings of the National Theatre and the Charles University Faculty of Arts which sit proudly by the Vltava River. Yet here it is that the HI PerformanCZ showcase begins its presentation of theatre and performance art to international guests from countries as diverse as Ivory Coast, South Korea and Georgia.

The wartime appearance of the theatre’s exterior is appropriate as we’re at the Alfred ve Dvoře to see the World War II drama Aviators. Staged by the Wariot Ideal company, the piece tells the story of the young Czech men who joined the resistance to the Nazi occupation of their homeland, only to find themselves flying British bombers over Germany.

The most impressive aspect of the show is the design, in particular the beautifully made models-cum-puppets of Second World War bombers and fighter aircraft (RAF and Luftwaffe) which the company has constructed out of wood. The battle scenes (which involve smart movement of the models in cleverly designed lighting) just about manage to avoid seeming like boys playing with their toys.

A modest work, performed with skill, humour and pathos, Aviators is the kind of show that would fit well in the Edinburgh Fringe programme of a producer like Assembly or Underbelly. Indeed, over the course of the four days of the showcase, I would see a number of productions that seemed tailor-made for the sprawling arts extravaganza we call the Fringe.

Perhaps most obviously “Fringe-worthy” is Cross-country Odyssey by comic double act The Trick Brothers. Forget the Chuckle Brothers, think more Sacha Baron Cohen for a family audience.

Performed outdoors as part of the Nuselské Dvorky one-day festival of outdoor theatre and contemporary circus (a lovely event which serves the working-class community of Nusle, which is otherwise somewhat culturally neglected) the show is an absolute delight. In the piece, a pair (later a trio) of clownish characters muck around with ski equipment in a brilliant slapstick performance that is reminiscent of Cohen’s Borat at his physically comic best.

The charming Nuselské Dvorky festival is, in many ways, representative of the independent performing arts scene in Prague. Handmade, yet professional, with a strong emphasis on social inclusion, its performance programme also included the delightfully quirky Nitroscope (a series of avant-garde vignettes offered in the six segments of a circus tent) by Le Cabaret Nomade.

Which is not to say that every production in the showcase impressed. Batachhio, by the successful contemporary circus company Cirk La Putyka, is often impressive in its skill, but disappoints with its puerile line in retrograde, end-of-the-pier physical comedy.

Even more disappointing are Look, The World! (by the resident company of the Minor children’s theatre) and Paperboy (presented at the Minor by the Mime Prague company). If these shows are typical of children’s theatre in the Czech Republic, it would certainly be fair to say that work for young audiences is not the country’s strongest suit.

Very basic in their design and staging, both shows reflect an old-fashioned attitude (which has, thankfully, been almost eradicated from Scottish culture) that theatre for children is, somehow, second class. Unimaginative and built, largely, around simple physical comedy (such as falling over or playing peek-a-boo), neither production would come close to making the cut for the ever-excellent Edinburgh International Children’s Festival (the current edition of which opened yesterday).

The overriding sense from the HI PerformanCZ programme, however, is one of a vibrant and diverse independent theatre scene in the Czech Republic. The scene is exemplified by welcoming, Bohemian venues such as the Vila Štvanice Theatre and Studio Alta.

It is also epitomised by extraordinary artist Marketa Stranska, an amputee (she has only one leg) whose performance work Fly is beautiful, highly accomplished and brilliantly challenging to disablist assumptions.

The highlight of the showcase, for me, was the visit to the superb contemporary arts venue DOX (which is akin, in a number of ways, to Tramway in Glasgow) to see rehearsed fragments from Refuge, the latest work from the internationally acclaimed, Prague-based company Farm In The Cave. Scottish lovers of physical theatre may remember the company from their visit to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006, when they presented the powerful piece Sclavi: The Song Of An Emigrant as part of the late, lamented Aurora Nova programme.

Premiering at DOX on June 4, the show, even just as a work-in-progress, was already looking like something very special indeed. Combining superb live music and sound, with song, acting and the brilliant and emotive physical performance that has become director Viliam Dočolomanský’s trademark, it looks set to become an unforgettable and passionately urgent meditation on the condition of the 21st-century refugee.

Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan could do a lot worse than get himself over to Prague for the premiere. Refuge could well be the kind of show he would like to consider for a future programme.

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 27, 2018

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Baba Yaga, Perth Theatre; Ma, Pa and the Little Mouths, Tron Theatre, Glasgow; and Sunshine on Leith, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (Sunday Herald)

THEATRE REVIEWS

 

BABA YAGA

Seen at Perth Theatre;

Touring Scotland until June 3

 

MA, PA AND THE LITTLE MOUTHS

Seen at Tron Theatre, Glasgow;

At Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, May 16-19

 

SUNSHINE ON LEITH

Seen at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds;

Touring Scotland until June 25

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Baba Yaga
Christine Johnston and Shona Reppe in Baba Yaga. Photo: Matt Turner

From St Petersburg to Sebastopol, from Tbilisi to Tashkent, ask anyone who grew up in the former Soviet Union, and they will tell you about their childhood terror of Baba Yaga.

It’s not that this supernatural, forest-dwelling woman (who flies around in a mortar and carries a pestle) is necessarily evil. Sometimes her intentions are malign, sometimes they’re good.

And that’s the problem. Baba Yaga (one of the great characters of Slavic folklore) is deeply (and terrifyingly) ambiguous.

Imagine, then, that this enigmatic figure (who seems as likely to eat you as to save you from life’s dangers) lived, not in the woods, but in the serviced apartment block where you work as a receptionist. This is precisely what Shona Reppe (one of Scotland’s finest children’s theatremakers) and her Australian collaborators Christine Johnston and Rosemary Myers (of Windmill Theatre, Adelaide) have done.

Welcome to the ludicrously named Poultry Park Apartments (named, perhaps, after the “chicken legs” Baba Yaga is reputed to have) where timid and self-effacing Vaselina (played with beautifully gentle humour by Reppe) is the put upon receptionist. Living (in an appropriately Orwellian reference) on floor 101 of the apartment block, Baba (played with delicious craziness by Johnston) wears a handbag on her head, adores cacti and (to the fury of her neighbours) likes nothing more than playing very loud techno music to her small army of cats.

Vaselina’s professional obligation to confront Baba turns from fear to fascination as the eccentric witch puts the receptionist in touch with her modest, and long-suppressed, childhood dreams (such as to sing and skate). All of this, from Baba’s mad apartment to Vaselina being transported (Willy Wonka-style) through the roof and into outer space, is envisioned using brilliantly inventive projected images.

Fabulously performed, technically outstanding (in music and sound, as well as visuals) and excellently directed by Myers, this world premiere was commissioned by Imaginate, producers of the Children’s International Festival (which takes place in Edinburgh from May 26 to June 3). Aimed at kids aged seven to 12, it begs the question as to why more creators of live drama for adults don’t allow themselves the same kind of imaginative licence as our best children’s theatremakers.

Ma, Pa
Karen Dubar and Gerry Mulgrew in Ma, Pa ans the Little Mouths. Photo: John Johnston

This said, whatever the self-imposed limitations on much new theatre writing in Scotland these days, there are certainly some authors of plays for grown-ups who are exercising their imaginations. One such is actor-turned-playwright Martin McCormick, whose new drama Ma, Pa And The Little Mouths is a delightfully discomfiting work of absurdism.

Set in the dusty and unkempt flat of Ma and Pa (an ageing West of Scotland couple, the former of whom is, improbably, pregnant), the play resides in a fearful dystopia that is both bleakly futuristic and sardonically nostalgic. The writing bears discernable debts to the plays of such modernist masters as Alfred Jarry (creator of Ma and Pa Ubu), Samuel Beckett and, most strikingly, Eugene Ionesco (and, as the late Barry Norman might have said, why not?).

The relationship between Ma and Pa (Karen Dunbar and Gerry Mulgrew on captivating, darkly hilarious form) is characterised by an irascible, contemptuous familiarity. Their comical verbal jousting is interrupted by Neil (an oddly-named young woman, played with appropriate disconcertion by Nalini Chetty), who requires refuge from the feral humanity outside.

The ensuing drama involves interrogation (of Neil, by Ma), memory (Ma of her aristocratic proletarian upbringing, Pa of his childhood photo being in a shop window in Paisley) and fresh custard. Matters come to a head as Neil is compelled to watch Pa’s gloriously preposterous variety act and Ma and Pa contemplate the genuinely horrible, psychologically and socially symbolic fate of the “little mouths”.

If there is any criticism to be made of the play it is that its chaos requires a little more discipline, such are the paradoxical demands of theatrical absurdism. That said, director Andy Arnold does an excellent job of delivering a marvellously funny and implausibly disquieting work of Scottish modernism.

Sunshine On Leith is about as far from Ionesco’s experimental flights of fancy as it’s possible to get. Stephen Greenhorn’s popular Proclaimers musical about de-mobbed soldiers returning from Afghanistan to Edinburgh (which premiered at Dundee Rep in 2007, and transferred to the big screen in 2013) has been revived for West Yorkshire Playhouse by James Brining (who also directed the original production on Tayside).

In his programme notes, Brining makes great claims for the contemporary resonance of the play’s themes of “community, belonging and togetherness”. Someone of a more cynical perspective (i.e. me) might suggest that the real reason for the revival is not that it was Brining’s best work in Dundee (that, surely, was his superb production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?), but, rather, its probable commercial success.

In fairness, there is some fine acting in this rendering of Greenhorn’s formulaic tale of romance (between soldiers and nurses) and strains on a 30-year-old marriage. However, Jocasta Almgill (who plays nurse Yvonne) aside, there’s precious little in the way of good singing.

The show (which begins its Scottish tour at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh on May 22) is lavishly designed and slickly produced. As at the Rep 11 years ago, I confess to sitting in resigned bemusement in the Leeds theatre while the audience gave a standing ovation to this soap opera with songs.

For tour dates for Baba Yaga, visit: imaginate.org.uk

For tour dates for Sunshine on Leith, visit: wyp.org.uk

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 13, 2018

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Eddie and the Slumber Sisters, Corn Exchange, Haddington & Creditors, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (Sunday Herald)

THEATRE REVIEWS

 

EDDIE AND THE SLUMBER SISTERS

Seen at Corn Exchange, Haddington,

Touring until June 3

 

CREDITORS

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Until May 12

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Eddie and the Slumber Sisters
Chiara Sparkes as Eddie in Eddie and the Slumber Sisters

Touring work and shows for children are, in our austere times, too rare within the Scottish theatre firmament. It is a real pleasure, therefore, to see a major national tour (by co-producers Catherine Wheels and the National Theatre of Scotland) of an imaginative new play for kids aged eight and upwards.

   The brainchild of co-creators Gill Robertson (who directs) and Anita Vettesse (who wrote the script), Eddie And The Slumber Sisters is a delightfully original, humorous and humane piece about a little girl struggling with bereavement.

   Edwina (“Eddie” to her family and friends) has been in a bad way since her beloved grandmother died. Robbed of her daily routine of cycling from school to granny’s house to make chicken noodle Cup A Soup and dance to Elvis, Eddie has not been her normal self.

   Upset and distracted at school, she has been getting into fights (and into trouble). More worrying still, at 2.17am every night, Eddie’s sleep is taken over by terrible nightmares.

   We know about the girl’s sleep state with such precision thanks to the Slumber Sisters, a trio of super-heroine a capella singers who monitor children’s dreams and ensure peaceful sleep.

   The audience is seated around designer Karen Tennent’s beautifully envisioned Slumber HQ (think a cross between a comfy home and the TARDIS). There the Sisters, Penelope (Natalie Arle-Toyne), Augusta (Colette Dalal Tchantcho) and Robin (India Shaw-Smith), seek to save Eddie (Chiara Sparkes) from her nightmares.

   The ensuing drama (in which Robin makes an intrepid visit from the world of Slumber to planet Earth) is well-acted, gorgeously sung and deliciously quirky. It is also touchingly engaged with the difficult subject of bereavement in childhood.

   Honest, life-affirming and peppered with moments of charmingly eccentric comedy, this is, needless to say, a dream of a show.

   By very stark contrast, David Greig’s adaptation of August Strindberg’s classic Creditors is a work of dark psychology, and definitely not for children. First staged at the Donmar Warehouse in London a decade ago, Greig’s version of the Swedish bard’s poisonous love triangle is given a powerful new production by superb director-designer Stewart Laing.

   Middle-aged schoolteacher Gustav (Stuart McQuarrie on chillingly cynical form) has travelled incognito to the seaside resort where his younger former wife, and novelist, Tekla (Adura Onashile) and her youthful second husband, and visual artist, Adolph (Edward Franklin) are on holiday. There, in Tekla’s absence, Gustav draws the diffident and credulous Adolph into his mendacious confidence.

   Overcome, both by what he takes to be Gustav’s intellectual brilliance and the teacher’s ideology of sexist fatalism, Adolph loses his faith, not only in his wife, but also in love itself. When Tekla returns, the artist is, on Gustav’s instructions, listening in on the conversation between the novelist and her ex-husband.

   The latter exchange is conducted inside the wooden chalet that dominates Laing’s strikingly ultra-naturalistic set. Therein the action is filmed and projected live, in black and white, onto a screen.

   The effect of this is to draw us, the audience, uncomfortably close to an intimate scene in which Adolph’s devious vengeance masquerades as affection and desire. It is, as we have come to expect of Laing, a perfect matching of technical form to dramatic content.

   The unflinching emotional bleakness of the piece is reflected in universally excellent performances. The narcissism and inconstancy of Onashile’s Tekla reflects boldly the misogyny inherent within the play.

   The disquieting, quasi-otherworldiness of the production is enhanced by the strange quartet of mechanically regimented Girl Guides, whose exploratory activities punctuate the hell being created by the adults in their midst.

For tour dates for Eddie And The Slumber Sisters, visit: catherinewheels.co.uk

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 6, 2018

© Mark Brown