Review: Tribes, Byre Theatre, St Andrews, and touring


Seen at Byre Theatre, St Andrews

Touring until October 22


Reviewed by Mark Brown


Glasgow-based Solar Bear theatre company seeks to make work for and about neglected and marginalised communities in our society. Its latest play, Tribes by Nina Raine, is an intriguing drama about Billy, a young man who was born deaf into an argumentative, intellectual, middle-class, English family.

In the somewhat overcooked first half, we meet Billy’s father, a retired linguistics lecturer, an egregiously sarcastic, opinionated caricature. Billy’s brother Daniel, who is working on a thesis on linguistics, is similarly two-dimensional and disagreeable.

We can see all too clearly the irony, that this family, who are so obsessed with language and verbal communication, have chosen not to learn British Sign Language (BSL). Consequently, in their delusion that Billy has adapted successfully and happily to life without BSL, they have left him in a condition of extremely restricted self-expression.

By the interval director Gerry Ramage’s production feels like a cross between a cerebral, if somewhat histrionic, soap opera and a well-intentioned lecture. Matters improve in the second act, however, when Billy plunges into the capital “D” Deaf community of his new girlfriend, who is going deaf, and gets a job lip-reading for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)

The piece explores a massive ethical issue in Billy’s work for the CPS and the complexities of the politics of Deaf community organisations. However, the real drama comes in Billy’s confronting his family, including his sensitive yet uncomprehending mother, about their refusal to learn BSL.

Although things pick up in the second half, even a brief outline of the play indicates that Raine has attempted to squeeze too many issues into one drama. Well acted, combining speech and BSL effectively, and with an intelligent use of subtitles and projected images, it is an often cleverly written, occasionally moving, but frustratingly uneven piece of theatre.

For tour dates, visit:

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 4, 2015

© Mark Brown

Short critical notice: The Notebook, by Forced Entertainment. Seen at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh.

Based upon the novel by the late, great Hungarian novelist Ágota Kristóf, Forced Entertainment’s staging of The Notebook is a very different animal from the brilliant and extraordinary adaptation by Flemish company De Onderneming that played the Edinburgh International Festival in 2001. The book tells the psychologically fascinating and emotionally compelling tale of young twin boys who survive the Second World War in the squalid cottage of their tough, uncouth grandmother (who is believed to have poisoned their grandfather).

Whereas the Belgian piece relied very strongly on its choreography and physicality, acclaimed English performance company Forced Entertainment minimise the movement; two male readers, scripts in hand, dressed identically, sit and, occasionally, stand or walk part way across the bare stage. They are characterised by calm, stoical stasis.

Anyone who has seen both productions can’t help but note how evocative they are in their simplicity. This is a great testament to the power of Kristóf’s writing, but also to the methods of both companies.

In the case of Forced Ents, the innocence and (impressive and sinister) knowingness of the boys is, paradoxically, enhanced and magnified by the modesty of a beautifully realised, two-actor performance which insinuates its way into one’s psyche and emotions.

Touring until January 30, 2016. For tour details, visit:

This notice was published exclusively on

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Waiting for Godot & What Goes Around (Sunday Herald)



Waiting For Godot



Until October 10


What Goes Around


Touring until October 8


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Bill Paterson and Brian Cox in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Alan McCredie
Bill Paterson and Brian Cox in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Alan McCredie

Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its company in style. First came the exciting announcement that leading dramatist David Greig is to be its next artistic director, and now this superb production of Waiting For Godot.

Greig will inherit a company which has, since 2003, charted a strong and steady course, and enjoyed a remarkable late flourish, under out-going artistic director Mark Thomson. It is worth noting that, arguably, the two finest productions of Thomson’s tenure have been Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search Of An Author (2008) and Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle (earlier this year). This Godot confirms me in my opinion that Thomson has a particular talent for European Modernism.

It’s hard to imagine a better Scottish cast for Beckett’s most famous play than Brian Cox (Vladimir), Bill Paterson (Estragon), John Bett (Pozzo) and Benny Young (Lucky). By turns clownish, mordantly hilarious, bleakly sympathetic and profoundly articulate, they are, as Estragon says of the prone and blind Pozzo, “all humanity”.

The world inhabited by Cox and Paterson’s hapless tramps is, in Michael Taylor’s extraordinary stage design, like a desolate chalk mine. A steep incline leads to a solid, white horizon, its enclosing capacity emphasised by the two doorways on either side of the stage.

We often think of the co-dependent Didi (Vladimir) and Gogo (Estragon) almost as two sides of the same character. It is refreshing to see the differences between them accentuated, as they are here.

Cox’s Didi plays the humorously bustling optimist to Paterson’s defiantly lugubrious Gogo. They are, in their contrasting moods and affecting pathos, a compelling double act. Beckett, one suspects, would have approved.

The tramps’ existentialist ramblings are interrupted by Bett’s wonderfully aristocratic Pozzo and Young, appropriately inscrutable as his bag carrying slave Lucky. The latter’s monologue, a great torrent of human experience uttered when he is commanded to speak, is, to my mind, one of the finest speeches in 20th-century theatre. Young delivers it as it should be, with purposeful rhythm and poetic meaning.

One should leave a good production of Godot feeling that one has seen this beautiful and abundant tragi-comedy afresh. The Lyceum’s presentation achieves this, both in style and substance.

From a classic to a new play, Liz Lochhead’s What Goes Around, that is based, liberally, on a classic. It isn’t difficult to see what attracted our Makar to La Ronde, Arthur Schnitzler’s satire on sexual and class relations in late-19th century Austria. The play carries the same kind of biting social commentary as the works of Moliere, which Lochhead has adapted often and with great success.

Her new piece, which is directed for Cumbernauld Theatre by Tony Cownie, plays on the circularity of Schnitzler’s drama. Not only do the sexual infidelities of 10 characters form a perfect circle, as they do in the Austrian play, but the chain of events is touched off, by an experienced, middle-class actor and a young, working-class actress, during rehearsals of La Ronde.

All 10 characters, which include the actress’s lovelorn landlord and the actor’s outraged, professional wife, are played brilliantly by Keith Fleming and Nicola Roy. However, although it is an often funny sex comedy, Lochhead’s play lacks the political punch of Schnitzler’s original.

Recent allegations about the youthful high jinks of the Prime Minister and fellow initiates of the Piers Gaveston Society remind us that  it would have been nice to see the adaptation spiral, as Schnitzler’s play does, into the upper echelons of society. Sadly, however, Lochhead’s comedy (which is performed on Neil Murray’s appropriately drab, but frustratingly dull, rehearsal room set) never takes a swipe at the truly rich and powerful.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 27, 2015

© Mark Brown

Review: Waiting for Godot, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (Daily Telegraph)




Reviewed by Mark Brown

Bill Paterson and Brian Cox as Gogo and Didi. Photo: Alan McCredie
Bill Paterson and Brian Cox as Gogo and Didi. Photo: Alan McCredie

When Samuel Beckett’s existentialist masterpiece Waiting for Godot had its English-language premiere, at the Arts Theatre, London, in 1955, the critic Kenneth Tynan famously compared it to a “pilgrim from Mars”. In the 60 years since, this once alien drama, with its philosophical tramps Estragon and Vladimir, has become a familiar friend to much of the theatre going public.

For those who have not seen it before, Godot’s defiance of dramatic conventions still has a remarkable ability to surprise. For the rest of us, the pleasure lies in the capacity of a good director and a talented cast to draw something fresh from the fertile depths of Beckett’s opus.

The omens were good for this Royal Lyceum production. It opens the 50th anniversary season of the Edinburgh company and begins the final season of its acclaimed artistic director Mark Thomson.

The director will take his leave of the Edinburgh playhouse next year, after 13 years in the job. His production boasts a stellar cast, led by two of Scotland’s finest actors, Bill Paterson (Estragon, aka Gogo) and Brian Cox (Vladimir, or Didi).

The duo makes for a contemplative, emotive and often sardonically humorous double act. They bring to the tramps a greater moral weight than we often see; Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart (for the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in 2009), for example, were noticeably lighter of foot.

Rarely do we see the differences between Gogo and Didi expressed so emphatically. Paterson’s Gogo is positively melancholic, frustrated almost beyond endurance by the infernal wait for the elusive Godot.

Cox, by contrast, is, in Didi’s more optimistic moments, like a cross between Oliver Hardy and a counsellor for the Samaritans. Together, they articulate the play’s humanism with rewarding profundity.

If Paterson and Cox impress, so does the casting of fellow veterans John Bett (a splendidly posh Pozzo) and Benny Young (Lucky, meaningfully rhythmic in his great monologue).

Michael Taylor’s set, a white curved wall with apertures to either side of the stage, is the best I have seen in more than 25 years of Godots. Suggesting both detention and void, caking the unfortunate characters in off-white mud, it is a thing of symbolically infertile beauty.

This major anniversary for the Lyceum company demanded a major Godot. This splendid production ensures that it has one.

Until October 10. For more information, visit:

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on September 23, 2015

© Mark Brown

Review: The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil




Review by Mark Brown

In 1973, the socialist theatre company 7:84 Scotland toured a play by its founder and artistic director, the late John McGrath. Entitled The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, it was so successful that it was hailed by many as the most important Scottish play ever staged.

The piece is a combination of historical narration, verbatim drama, music hall comedy, political polemic and, crucially, ceilidh (Scotland’s still thriving tradition of social gatherings involving live music and dancing). It tells the story of the Highlands of Scotland, from the brutality of the Highland Clearances to the controversies of oil exploration in the 1960s.

McGrath famously said that even the most avowedly political theatre should provide audiences with “a good night out”. Few doubt that the legendary success of his 1973 production was down, in almost equal measure, to the engaging style of its performance and its capturing of the Scottish political mood.

Dundee Rep’s revival of the play in 2015 is intriguing. One assumes that the theatre’s management reckoned that the political atmosphere in Scotland today, with its surge in support for the unambiguously left-of-centre Scottish Nationalists, is similar to that of 1973. If the standing ovation given to the production following Friday’s press night performance is anything to go by, they may well be right.

Which is not to say that director Joe Douglas relies on political sentiment alone. His Cheviot, which boasts wonderful live music by actor-musician Alasdair Macrae and his band, is certainly a good night out.

The Rep ensemble, for their part, play McGrath’s script with admirable gusto. Like a troupe of music hall Marxists, they lament the victims of the Clearances, lampoon the grouse-shooting landowners and deride the American money men who profited from Britain’s North Sea oil.

What they don’t do, however, is make the play particularly topical. There are a few nods to recent political events, but nothing of real substance. For instance, a skit in which a beach ready David Cameron is represented as a member of a “mega-rich shooting party” will cause the Prime Minister less embarrassment than his own ill-considered joke about the people of Yorkshire.

Nevertheless, despite its moments of soap box rhetoric and its relative lack of up-to-date material, this production will be remembered for its vitality, satirical humour and genuine pathos.

Until September 26. For more information, visit:

This review was published exclusively on

© Mark Brown

Preview: The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (Sunday Herald)

As Dundee Rep stages John McGrath’s famous play The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil, Mark Brown considers the drama’s place in Scottish theatre history

When Dundee Rep theatre announced its autumn programme, there was considerable excitement that the Tayside playhouse would be opening the season with a production of John McGrath’s famous 1973 play The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil. Written for McGrath’s own, socialist company 7:84 Scotland, this politico-historical work of ceilidh theatre came to be seen by many as the most important Scottish play ever staged.

It traces Scotland’s turbulent political history, from the Highland Clearances to the discovery of North Sea Oil. More than most stage works, The Cheviot seems to epitomise the cliched notion of “a play of its time”. Yet, like the socialist radicalism of Jeremy Corbyn, it seems set for a resurgence.

There are, of course, those who dissent from the idea that The Cheviot marks the pinnacle of Scottish theatrical achievement. Some say that Sir David Lyndsay’s 16th-century drama Ane Satyre Of The Thrie Estaitis is Scotland’s greatest play.

Others that John Tiffany’s production of Gregory Burke’s Iraq War piece Black Watch has superseded McGrath’s opus. Other sensitive souls, myself included, place the poetics of David Harrower’s Knives In Hens and Zinnie Harris’s Further Than The Furthest Thing above the rest of the Caledonian canon.

One thing is certain, however, The Cheviot is an iconic play in modern Scottish theatre history; and, let’s face it, thanks to the prohibitions of our Calvinist Reformation, we have very little theatrical history to speak of prior to the 20th and 21st centuries.

Indeed, McGrath, who hailed from Merseyside, recognised the relative absence of a Scottish theatre history. The Cheviot draws instead upon the country’s distinctive musical and variety performance traditions. Fuelled by live music, irreverent, satirical comedy and audience participation, the play exemplifies McGrath’s insistence that even the most political play should offer “a good night out”.

Interestingly, there are parallels between The Cheviot and, some say its natural successor, Black Watch. Both address the major political questions of their time; albeit that Black Watch is more narrowly focused on the Iraq War.

Both, crucially, speak in a Scottish working-class vernacular, while drawing upon Scottish musical tradition; the unaccompanied Gaelic song used in Black Watch during the scene in which we see Scottish soldiers blasted by an improvised explosive device still sends shivers down the spine.

There is a more direct connection, too. It is impossible to imagine the satirical scene in Black Watch, in which Lord Elgin recruits young Fifers for the “Great War”, without the army recruitment scene from The Cheviot, in which The Duke of Sutherland, his fortune made by the Clearances, is told by a bolshie Highlander: “since you have preferred sheep to men, let sheep now defend you.”

There is no question that the original 7:84 Cheviot in 1973 fulfilled McGrath’s ambition, a sort of socialist Reithianism, to inform and entertain. Every photograph from the time shows enraptured audiences singing and laughing along with the ensemble.

It is just such a connection with the audience that director Joe Douglas (who re-directed the 2013 world tour of Black Watch) and his cast will be seeking to achieve with this new production. Much has changed since 1973, not least the loss of much of Scotland’s heavy industry.

The trick for the Dundee Rep ensemble (Scotland’s only permanent troupe of actors, which includes fine actors such as Irene Macdougall and recent addition Billy Mack) will be to try capture some of the energy of the original staging, whilst bringing the politics of the piece into the present day.

Goodness knows, from last year’s independence referendum, to land reform, disputes over the quantity of oil left in the North Sea and the election of a Tory government at Westminster, there is no shortage of political material for an updated Cheviot. The danger of failing to update McGrath’s script is that a play that was created to speak to its political times ends up looking like a mere museum piece.

Such, in fact, was the opinion of then 7:84 artistic director David Hayman when Wildcat theatre company staged the play in 1991. As McGrath wrote later, Hayman thought the Wildcat production, which was directed by John Bett (a member of 7:84’s Cheviot company in the Seventies), was a “re-hash” of the original.

Indeed, Hayman criticised Bett’s staging for what he perceived to be its crudely polemical approach to the play. It was ruined, he said, by “the red mallet of ideology”.

However, as McGrath noted, with considerable pleasure, “the public thought otherwise”. The Wildcat production was a box office success in Clydebank, Glasgow and the Edinburgh Fringe.

Why, McGrath wondered, with so much great international theatre on offer during the Edinburgh Festival, were audiences packing out the circus tent on The Meadows to see a socialist play from the Seventies? The answer, he suggested, was that: “People love the comedy, the music, the variety, but particularly they love the fact that it is saying something about Scotland today, something direct and passionate.”

That, then, is the task ahead of this new production. To honour one of the most important plays in the history of Scottish theatre, not by recreating famous productions of times past, but by staying true to its commitment to speak to the politics and culture of Scotland in the here and now.

The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil runs at Dundee Rep until September 26. For further information, visit:

This preview was originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 13, 2015

© Mark Brown

Reviews: All My Sons & My Name Is…



All My Sons

Seen at Theatre Royal, Glasgow;

touring until September 26


My Name Is…

Seen at Cumbernauld Theatre;

touring until October 2


Reviewed by Mark Brown


Michael Emans, director of Glasgow-based touring company Rapture Theatre, must have felt cursed on Wednesday’s press night of his production of Arthur Miller’s superb tragedy All My Sons. It was hit, not only with the illness of actor Paul Shelley (in the lead role of war profiteer Joe Keller) a few days before opening, but also a fainting fit, late in the final act, which afflicted Trudie Goodwin (playing Keller’s wife, Kate).

After a short intermission, the brave Goodwin was able to continue, her unsteadiness strangely appropriate to her character’s increasing distress. Even more impressive was the excellent playing of Keller by David Tarkenter, who stepped into the lead from his supporting role as Dr Jim Bayliss (a part that was taken on admirably by Stewart Porter).

One hopes, of course, that Shelley makes a rapid and full recovery. However, as long as he is away, Emans is blessed with a fine stand-in as Keller. Tarkenter is compelling and visibly diminishing as the businessman who, although exonerated, is still widely suspected of sending faulty parts to the US Air Force during the Second World War (leading to the deaths of 21 airmen).

Emans’s presentation is very much in the American-British tradition of faithful, realist renderings of classical texts. Neil Murray’s set, a whitewashed, middle-class American house with a carefully maintained front yard, is emblematic of the production’s steady approach.

The acting, however, is decidedly uneven. Robert Jack (Chris) and Bryony Afferson (Ann Deever, Chris’s love interest, and daughter to Keller’s imprisoned business partner) give strong performances. There is less assured playing in some supporting roles, not least Michael Moreland, uncertain and dubiously accented as Ann’s brother George, and Lyn McAndrew, who overacts neighbour Sue Bayliss.

There could hardly be a greater difference between All My Sons (a work of tragic theatrical imagination) and My Name Is…, Sudha Bhuchar’s verbatim drama for London-based Tamasha Theatre. It has often been said that verbatim theatre, in which, typically, political issues are explored by way of words spoken by the real people involved, is the result of “the failure of journalism”.

This is, perhaps, truer of Bhuchar’s piece than of any other verbatim play. Stephen Lawrence drama The Colour Of Justice (to take one notable example) was, arguably, necessitated by journalism’s failure to pursue the guilty.

By contrast, Bhuchar’s piece is about a story which received more than enough attention from the British press. The 2006 case of the Scots-Pakistani girl, known as both Molly Campbell and Misbah Rana, disgraced much of UK journalism.

When, following the breakdown of her parents’ marriage, Molly (the name she now lives under) went to Pakistan with her father, Sajad Rana, the UK mass media exploded with stories of her “abduction” and likely “forced marriage”. When Molly appeared on TV declaring that she had gone to Pakistan of her own free will and wanted to remain there with her father, sections of an embarrassed media changed tack, with lurid stories of Louise Campbell being an “unfit mother”.

Bhuchar conducted interviews with the three protagonists, and her play (in which names are fictionalised) is well-acted and scrupulously fair. Its integrity should chasten those elements in the media that were guilty, not only of sensationalism, but also of Islamophobia and racism.

That said, there is little director Philip Osment can do to make Bhuchar’s essentially journalistic work into something truly theatrical. Like so many verbatim dramas, one cannot help but feel that the right platform for it would be a TV documentary, rather than a stage.

For tour dates for All My Sons visit: For My Name Is… visit:

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 6, 2015

© Mark Brown