Review: Mies Julie, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh



Mies Julie

Assembly Rooms

Until August 27


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Mies Julie
Bongile Mantsai and Hilda Cronje in Mies Julie. Photo: Evi Fylaktou

Since it premiered on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012, South African dramatist Yael Farber’s adaptation of Strinderg’s classic Miss Julie has gained international plaudits. They are, as this welcome return to Edinburgh attests, richly deserved.

The piece is written and directed by Farber, and staged by the Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town. Colliding the impossibly distorted class and gender relations of the Swedish bard’s late-19th century drama with the uneasy racial politics of post-apartheid South Africa, it is, surely, one of the most powerful theatre productions of the past decade.

Set on an oppressively hot, Afrikaner-owned farm, it explores the mangled relationship between Julie (the landowner’s daughter) and John (the black farm worker who has known her since she was born). From the moment the brilliant Hilda Cronje’s Julie first comes on stage, sweating from the heat of the Western Cape, the piece is consumed by the tragic, timeless dance between sex and death.

Played on a bleak, minimalist set, the production is enveloped by a rumbling, premonitory soundscape and the atmospheric sound of a live saxophone. As the lethal attraction between Julie and John plays out, desire and affection conflict brutally with fear and racial resentment.

Farber has an extraordinary, unerring ability to make Strindberg’s metaphors serve the context of the new South Africa in its painful birth pangs. The piece ingeniously evokes the conflict between the ancestral agony of dispossessed black South Africans and the supposed property rights of the Afrikaner landowners; not least through the anguished attachment to the land of John’s mother, Christine (the excellent Zoleka Helesi), and the plaintive, haunting song of Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa.

Built around the superb pairing of Cronje and Bongile Mantsai (a resoundingly conflicted John), this is Fringe theatre at its very best.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 13, 2017

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Krapp’s Last Tape & Meet Me At Dawn, both Edinburgh International Festival



Krapp’s Last Tape

Church Hill Theatre

Until August 27


Meet Me At Dawn

Traverse Theatre

Until August 27


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Krapp - Barry McGovern
Barry McGovern in Krapp’s Last Tape

Krapp’s Last Tape, Samuel Beckett’s great monodrama in which an old man remembers his life, has attracted some of the greatest actors of the modern age. The late John Hurt famously committed the character to film, as did Harold Pinter.

In my time, I have had the good fortune to see such outstanding actors as Michael Gambon, Gerard Murphy and Rick Cluchey of the San Quentin Drama Workshop (a Beckett protege) give memorable stage performances of the play. Just as every young actor is said to have to find their “inner clown”, many a great, older actor is compelled to discover his “inner Krapp”.

The key to any strong performance of this articulate, irascible, splendidly flawed Everyman is finding what Virginia Woolf might have called “a Krapp of one’s own”. There can be no doubt that the fine Irish actor Barry McGovern has done precisely that in this intelligent and moving production, directed by Michael Colgan.

There are, of course, certain givens embedded in Beckett’s text. Krapp should always have, as McGovern’s delightfully nuanced performance has, a balance between the ruefulness of age and an almost adolescent pleasure in language (“spoool”, “viduity”).

However, such is the brilliance of Beckett’s writing, Krapp also lends himself to a wide variety of interpretations. McGovern’s rendering is strong on frustration, with old age, life, love, sex, and, deliciously, the “stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago”. There is a particular violence in this Krapp’s irritations (in one moment the spools of tape are thrown forcefully across the floor) which contrasts affectingly with the man’s playfulness and contemplation.

Like all great Krapps, McGovern’s individualism achieves a profound evocation of every theatregoer’s own personal life. That is the great paradox of this extraordinary play, and one realised beautifully here.

Meet Me At Dawn
Neve McIntosh and Sharon Duncan-Brewster in Meet Me At Dawn

Contemplation and an evocation of inner life are also the prominent features of Meet Me At Dawn, the latest play from leading Scottish dramatist Zinnie Harris. A play for two actors and one character, the piece finds Robyn (Neve McIntosh) confronting the death of her lover, Helen (Sharon Duncan-Brewster).

Set in an indeterminate psychological space (somewhere between a desolate shore, an uninhabited island and the kitchen of the home the couple once shared), the play traces Robyn’s journey through the stages of grief: namely, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

There is a risk that, in fitting this well-established theory of psychotherapy to a dramatic situation, Harris might have created a theatre work that verged on the schematic. However, there is a heartfelt humanity, in both the writing and the acting, that overcomes this danger.

The play is a gentle, anguished consideration of grief, of letting go, holding on and moving forward. Over its 85 minutes, it insinuates its way into one’s emotions and psyche, becoming a close-fitting metaphor for any kind of loss one has suffered in one’s own life.

That it does so is testament not only to Harris’s writing, but also to the acting of McIntosh and Duncan-Brewster, and the directing of Orla O’Loughlin. McIntosh’s Robyn is utterly convincing in the rawness of her grief, particularly when she argues angrily with Helen, who is, moment by moment, slipping away from her and reforming as memory.

Duncan-Brewster has an equally challenging task, playing a character who is, simultaneously, herself and a creation of another character’s imagination. Existing, as it were, on both banks of the River Styx, she achieves an emotive balance between the corporeal and the ethereal.

O’Loughlin’s production is suitably gentle and subtle, all the better to allow the play to move through one wave by humane wave.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 13, 2017

© Mark Brown

Edinburgh Festival Feature: Zinnie Harris interview, plus Festival highlights

The absurd and the sublime

Playwright Zinnie Harris has three productions in this year’s Edinburgh International Festival programme. She spoke to Mark Brown about a trio of very diverse works

Zinnie Harris

When I meet acclaimed playwright Zinnie Harris at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre she is “very pleased, excited and nervous”. As well she might be. The author of such outstanding plays as Further Than The Furthest Thing and Midwinter, Harris is having no fewer than three productions of her work staged as part of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival (EIF).

First up is Rhinoceros (Royal Lyceum, until August 12), Harris’s adaptation of the great Franco-Romanian writer Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist classic in which political and social conformism transforms the people of a tranquil little French town into rhinos. A co-production between Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum company and DOT Theatre of Istanbul, it is directed by Murat Daltaban, founder of the Turkish company.

That is followed by Meet Me At Dawn (Traverse, until August 27), a new play by Harris which traces the physical and emotional journeys of two shipwrecked women who are washed up in a strange land. A drama about loss and grief, it is “lightly inspired” by the ancient story of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Finally, in the last week of the Festival, there is a revival of This Restless House (Royal Lyceum, August 22-27), Harris’s award-winning version (first staged at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow last year) of Aeschylus’s great, classical play cycle The Oresteia.

Such a celebration of a playwright’s work at a prestigious international festival is an honour usually reserved for dead writers, such as Shakespeare or Beckett. However, the mini-festival of Harris plays is more than justified.

A multiple award-winning theatremaker, she received the Best Director award (for her staging of Caryl Churchill’s drama A Number) at the 2017 Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland (CATS) and Best New Play (for This Restless House) at the 2016 CATS. She also teaches in theatre studies at the University of St Andrews, at which she recently became a professor.

This platform for Harris’s theatre is typical of the bold programming of EIF director Fergus Linehan who has, since taking over at the 2015 Festival, brought a fresh perspective to the drama offering. In particular, he has abolished the old restriction that Scottish theatre’s input to the Festival be only one production, and a world premiere at that.

Harris is grateful for Linehan’s faith in her work, and pleased by his approach to Scottish theatre. “It used to be that the Scottish production was a sitting duck”, she says, remembering how Scottish premieres used to be up against celebrated, well-established shows from around the world.

There is pressure, she acknowledges, in having three productions staged in the same Festival. That is alleviated somewhat, however, by the inclusion of This Restless House.

“I’m enormously proud of it”, she says. “It’s tried and tested. We just have to get it back on its feet the way it was last year.”

An adaptation of a modernist classic (Rhinoceros), a new version of a classical, Greek tragedy (This Restless House) and a new play that nods towards a Greek myth (Meet Me At Dawn). I suggest to Harris that the three works exemplify her theatrical output, which has one foot in modernism and the other in classicism.

“I think you’re right”, she says. She has always been attracted, she continues, to, “the big movements of myth”, and plays in which, “you don’t just hurt someone, you gouge their eyes out.

“I’m so drawn to that big canvas, both in terms of its theatricality and as a way of interpreting the world now.”

In the case of Rhinoceros that means an ostensibly comic event (people turning into rhinos) which has a powerful political resonance, not least in director Daltaban’s homeland of Turkey, where President Erdogan is in the midst of shutting down voices of dissent.

“What it’s about is the rise of populism”, Harris suggests, “suddenly you look around your neighbours and you don’t recognise them.

“It’s absurd, it’s funny. At moments we’re laughing at how ridiculous the rhinoceroses are. At other times we’re horrified… What Morat has brought is a profound sense of sadness.”

When it came to writing Meet Me At Dawn, Harris originally envisaged the lead characters being a man and woman (like Orpheus and Eurydice). “Every play is a notebook to your life”, she comments. “Maybe it was because of stuff that was going on with me, that the play had started to be about differences between men and women”, the playwright adds, referring to the sudden breakdown of her marriage (to composer John Harris) last year.

However, as the writing progressed, Harris realised that she didn’t want the play to be tied up in gender politics. The drama she has written is, she believes, “a gentle play” which is “purely about grief and love”.

In This Restless House Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War to find his wife, Clytemnestra, enraged. His daughter, Electra, (rather than his son Orestes) is the spear tip of the anger against him for his sacrificing of another of his daughters, Iphigenia, to the gods.

For Harris, the Oresteia trilogy was ripe for a modern reinterpretation. “What if Clytemnestra is not already evil? What if she’s a mum who’s had to live through her daughter being sacrificed by her husband, and she knew she lived in a time when she wouldn’t get justice for that?”

Questions which This Restless House answers with stunning, dramatic power. Theatre lovers who missed the play cycle in Glasgow last year are in for a treat.


Festival highlights

Mies Julie #1
Mies Julie

Mies Julie, Assembly Rooms, until August 27

The welcome return of Yael Farber’s excoriating version of Strindberg’s classic Miss Julie, presented on the Fringe by the Baxter Theatre Centre of South Africa. Bringing the Swedish bard’s tale of mangled gender and class relations into the context of race in modern South Africa, it is one of the truly great theatre productions of recent times.

Krapp’s Last Tape, Church Hill Theatre, until August 27

Beckett’s brilliant, bleakly comic monodrama is performed as part of the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) programme by the superb Irish actor Barry McGovern and directed by Michael Colgan, artistic director of Dublin’s famous Gate Theatre.

How To Act, Summerhall, until August 27

Written and directed by Graham Eatough (one of the founders of the celebrated Scottish company Suspect Culture), How To Act plunges a fictional, male theatre director and an aspiring, young actress into the cauldron of a contested masterclass. Presented on the Fringe by the National Theatre of Scotland, this new play promises shades of David Mamet’s acclaimed drama Oleanna.

Real Magic, The Studio, August 22-27

Internationally renowned, Sheffield-based avant-garde performance company Forced Entertainment take to the EIF stage with a production which collides popular culture with deeper, underlying social, political and personal concerns. Described by the company as “part mind-reading feat, part cabaret act, part chaotic game show”, it seems set to be an hilarious, thought provoking and emotive evening’s theatre.

Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid, The Hub, until August 27

The European premiere of this “subversive cabaret” take on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale, by Australia’s “post-post-modern diva” Meow Meow and Malthouse Theatre of Melbourne. A hit at last year’s EIF for her take on the Weimar songbook (performed with Barry Humphries), Meow Meow’s show is a shoo-in for cult Festival status.

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 6, 2017

© Mark Brown



Review: FIAMS international puppet theatre festival, Saguenay, Quebec, 2017

No strings in Quebec

From existential human drama to the wonders of the childhood imagination, Mark Brown acclaims the FIAMS puppet theatre festival in Saguenay

Scottish theatre audiences know the theatre of Quebec. We have for many years delighted in the work of Quebecois theatre luminaries such as Robert Lepage, Michel Tremblay, Jeanne-Mance Delisle and Catherine-Anne Toupin.

However, we are barely acquainted with Quebec’s strong tradition in puppet and object theatre. Indeed, it is only thanks to the annual Manipulate festival in Edinburgh, and to children’s theatremakers such as Shona Reppe and Andy Manley, that Scotland can hold its head up in the international puppet theatre community.

The place to see Quebec’s puppet theatre (and puppet work from France, Brazil, Norway and elsewhere) is Saguenay. A tranquil, well-heeled city with a population of around 145,000 (similar to that of Dundee), Saguenay is the home of FIAMS (the biennial Festival International des Arts de la Marionette), which ends its 14th edition today.

Some five hours north of Montreal by road, through the extraordinary Canadian wilderness (I had the good fortune, I kid you not, to see two black bears together as we sped along the highway), Saguenay is not the kind of city one might typically associate with an international theatre festival. Yet here it was that I encountered the world premiere of the exceptional show Memories Of An Hourglass.

A co-production between La Torture Noire (from Quebec) and Luna Morena (from Mexico), this piece is, like more than half of the FIAMS programme, aimed at adults and teenagers (rather than younger children). A poetic meditation on time, and, I think, on the special precariousness of the current human condition, it is full of powerful visual metaphors.

Memories Of An Hourglass

A woman is tied to threads that suspend a series of clocks in the air. In her hand is a spinning wheel around which the threads of time are woven, and in which an unfortunate man finds himself caught up. It is, surely, an image inspired by the early scene in Akira Kurosawa’s great 1957 Macbeth movie Throne Of Blood, in which a mysterious old man (standing in for the witches) spins time while offering fateful prophecies.

In another scene, there is a grotesquely comic play on the kind of public dissections of the human body that were common in Europe in the 19th-century. From this emerges, as if created by a latter day Dr Frankenstein, a half-man, half-puppet.

Struggling on crutches at first, he finds his feet, and even engages romantically with a female dancer, before he, quite literally, loses his head and falls apart. However, when his limbless torso is opened, another puppet, in the shape of a boy, emerges.

Such images are repeated again and again in a work which collides the analogue (an old gramophone player) with the digital (the show’s computer technology is wheeled across the stage, becoming a player in itself). Are we, the piece seems to ask, subsuming the corporeal and the tangible (indeed, our essential humanity) in the burgeoning virtuality of our increasingly digital existence? As the play (which would, surely, be a fine addition to the Manipulate programme) ends with the sound of a ticking metronome, it feels like the sort of work Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley would make for the 21st-century.

If the Quebecois/Mexican co-production was the highlight of the opening days of the festival, it was not the only show to impress. Landru, by French theatremakers Yoan Pencole and Cie Zusvex, combines various forms, including shadow puppetry and lifesize, representational puppetry, to consider the continued fascination with the serial killer Henri Desire Landru, aka “Bluebeard”.

Landru’s disembodied head finds itself transformed from a sculpture into the live subject of a court trial. There, the judge speaks from within a picture frame and the prosecution lawyer has no head. Bleakly humorous and startlingly inventive, the piece is testament to the possibilities puppetry offers to the visual imagination.

Likewise Nomadic Soul, another piece making its world premiere in Saguenay. Created entirely in monochrome, it is performed solely by its creator, Quebecoise artist Magali Chouinard.

The work is mindful of the nature-oriented belief systems of the First Nations peoples who populated this land long before European colonialists labelled it “Canada” or “Quebec”. The images of the raven and the wolf appear as aspects of Chouinard’s own human character. So, too, do female figures in old age, middle age and childhood.

Indeed, assisted by puppets, sculpture, projected film and animated illustration, the performer puts herself within the extraordinary masks and costumes of all three female figures and the wolf itself. It is a highly original, aesthetically exquisite and movingly humane piece of theatre.

A Heart In Winter. Photo: Michel Pinault

Children are by no means neglected at FIAMS. Much of the programme is dedicated to young theatregoers, including The Heart In Winter, by Quebecois company Theatre de l’Oiel. A retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of The Snow Queen, this charming play transforms the ill-fated boy Kai and his friend Gerda into modern day Quebecois kids, represented by delightful little puppets.

Also for young children, French company Le Clan des Songes offer Bella, a lovely exploration of the childhood imagination. Superb use of light to illuminate the puppets, but not the puppeteers, clashes a little with some kitsch elements in the representation of clouds and rain.

From a little French girl getting lost in a daydream to a deep rumination on 21st-century humanity at the existential crossroads, the FIAMS festival is testament to the immense potential of puppet theatre. May Scotland’s puppet theatremakers take heart.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 30, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Measure For Measure, Botanic Gardens, Glasgow



Measure For Measure

Botanic Gardens, Glasgow

until July 29


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Measure for Measure - Kirk Bage
Kirk Bage in Measure For Measure

One’s admiration for Glasgow’s annual Shakespeare festival, Bard In The Botanics, grows year-on-year. Artistic director Gordon Barr has progressively developed the summer programme of four plays from an impressive, but uneven, pro-am affair into an undeniably professional festival with an excellent ensemble of experienced and young actors.

The Bard Ensemble (as we might call them) are warrior actors, something like the travelling troubadour poets of medieval France. When they are indoors, in the beautiful Kibble Palace glasshouse (as they are in this Measure For Measure), the actors are in frighteningly close proximity to the audience. It takes a tremendous combination of skill and nerve to pull off such close quarters stagings of Shakespeare’s complex dramas.

The success of the festival isn’t down entirely to the considerable talents of the actors, however. Barr and his associate director Jennifer Dick deserve plenty of laurels for their stewardship of the programme, and, in particular, for their clever adaptations of the Bard of Stratford’s plays.

The current presentation of Measure For Measure is a particularly strong example of the festival’s skill in abbreviation. Barr has taken a play which Shakespeare wrote for more than 30 characters and reduced it to a sharp and intense drama of just five.

The director cuts, not to the chase, but to the quick as he feminises the wretched Claudio, who is sentenced to death for lechery by Angelo, the viciously puritanical deputy to the seemingly absent Vincentio, Duke of Vienna. Here it is Claudia (played movingly by Esme Bayley, who doubles splendidly as the rejuvenated and feminised court official Escalus) who is set to die, along with her unborn child, for the sin of becoming pregnant out of wedlock.

Particular praise is due to Adam Donaldson, who has, at the eleventh hour, stepped into the role of Angelo (replacing the indisposed James Boal). When the punitive functionary is faced with the novice Isabella (an anguished performance from the superb Nicole Cooper), pleading for the life of her desperate sister, Claudia, he finds himself lusting after the trainee nun. One can almost see his soul tear as Donaldson’s Angelo flagellates himself, in a fruitless attempt to stop himself from trying to blackmail Isabella into his bed.

As this brilliantly condensed intrigue unfolds, Kirk Bage’s Vincentio is going about Vienna disguised as a friar. Bage gives a typically excellent performance, full of regal authority and moral indignation, all the better to shock us in the play’s famously “open” ending; which Barr resolves with a powerful denouement that is in-keeping with this Bard season’s challenge to male-centrism and chauvinism.

It would take a ludicrously pedantic critic to ask why the Roman Catholic Viennese of the drama pray before an Eastern Orthodox cross. So I will.

However, this little flaw in the continuity of designer Carys Hobbs’s minimal set notwithstanding, this intelligently reduced Measure For Measure is a potent and captivating triumph.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 23, 2017

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Casablanca: The Gin Joint Cut, Oran Mor, Glasgow & The Lying Kind, Tron Theatre, Glasgow (Sunday Herald)



Casablanca: The Gin Joint Cut

Oran Mor, Glasgow

until July 23


The Lying Kind

Tron Theatre, Glasgow

until July 22


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Casablanca cast downtime
The cast of Casablanca in their spare time

It is some 13 years since the late, and much-missed, theatremaker and producer David MacLennan established the 1pm theatre programme known as A Play, A Pie And A Pint at Glasgow’s Oran Mor venue. Over that time MacLennan’s brainchild has become a veritable legend in its own lunchtime, creating more than 400 miniature dramas, many of which have gone on to have considerable success in other places.

Few have achieved quite the level of acclaim of Casablanca: The Gin Joint Cut, writer/director Morag Fullarton’s affectionate spoof of the great 1942 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Since it premiered at the Oran Mor in 2011, the show- in which the excellent trio of Gavin Mitchell, Jimmy Chisholm and Clare Waugh play no fewer than 12 characters from the film – has been showered with plaudits, both at the Edinburgh Fringe and in Paris, where it played the famous Theatre Dejazet.

   Fullarton’s production works because it manages to be both a beautifully-wrought farce and a faithful homage to Michael Curtiz’s movie. Gavin Mitchell is tremendous as Rick Blaine, the debonair American who fled Paris to escape both the Nazis and a broken heart. His representation of Bogart combines lovely impersonation with hilariously deliberate overplaying, all the better to lampoon Bogey’s self-conscious, matinee idol posing.

Waugh cuts rapidly, expertly and implausibly between the romantic female lead Ilsa Lund (the Bergman role) and the vicious Nazi Strasser, among others. Chisholm has even more costume changes, playing five parts, including those of French police chief Captain Renault (he of the well-greased palms) and heroic Resistance leader Victor Laszlo; the scene in which he plays both Renault and Laszlo in rapid turn is an uproarious comic delight.

Praise is also due to designer Imogen Toner Grant, stage manager Sooz Glen and choreographer Marianne McIvor. Without their combined work, the show (which plays extremely humorously with the miniaturisation of the set and the abbreviation of the story) simply couldn’t achieve its outrageously fast pace and its near perfect sense of timing.

Remarkably, notwithstanding its cutting of the movie’s narrative to around an hour, and despite its very funny playing with the conventions of farce, the production still manages to do real justice to the story. The audience leaves the theatre not only thoroughly entertained and (in the famous Marseillaise scene) actively engaged, but also well acquainted with the film’s tale of espionage, anti-fascism and a strained love triangle.

The most notable departure from the original lunchtime version of the show is the addition of a short, nicely sung opening set of 1940s numbers (including Casablanca’s signature song As Time Goes By) by chanteuse Jerry Burns. This is combined with some lovely comedy, as the actors prepare their costumes and try to get Burns off the stage.

However, the lengthening of the show does have the unintended drawback of reminding the bum-numbed, sardine-crammed audience just how uncomfortable the Oran Mor’s creaking chairs have become.

Not that this affected patrons’ abundant enjoyment of the production. I haven’t heard a Scottish crowd cheer this loudly since Iceland beat England 2-1 in last year’s European nations football tournament.

Lying Kind
Martin McCormick, Gavin Jon Wright and Michael Dylan in The Lying Kind. Photo credit: John Johnston

By contrast, The Lying Kind, by celebrated Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson, is a dark farce with a far less consistent comic hit rate and a weaker grasp of its chosen form. Originally performed, as an alternative Christmas show for adults, at the Royal Court theatre in London in 2002, the play unfolds from the increasingly disastrous efforts of hapless cops Gobbel and Blunt to impart very bad news to an old couple late on Christmas Eve.

Neilson’s best known work, The Wonderful World Of Dissocia (a drama, from 2004, that reflects the wild and colourful imagination of a young woman with a dissociative disorder), is characterised to a considerable degree by its brilliant, highly original comedy. The Lying Kind is a much more conventional piece, however.

The cops are a fairly straightforward double act, compared by theatre critic Michael Billington to Laurel and Hardy, and by actors Michael Dylan and Martin McCormick (who play Gobbel and Blunt here) to Father Dougal and Father Ted, respectively. There’s nothing wrong with the idiot/straight man formula, if only Neilson was giving his characters consistently funny material.

As it is, neither the satire (provided, to a large degree, by crazed paedophile hunter Gronya) nor the slapstick (think the Carry On films by way of Viz comic) are funny enough, often enough; and one’s credulity is stretched to breaking point by growling caricature Gronya’s  ability to threaten, intimidate and disregard two officers of the law.

As modern farces go, The Lying Kind lacks the density, pace and cohesion of, to take a recent example, Enda Walsh’s brilliant The Walworth Farce. Some of Neilson’s jokes (such as a riff on Blunt’s disastrously short marriage) raise a smirk, rather than a laugh, while others (such as the blundering policemen’s need to hide the evidence of their screw ups) are just too obvious.

The production does boast a universally fine cast, with typically strong performances from the likes of Dylan, McCormick, Anne Lacey (old lady Garson) and Peter Kelly (her husband Balthasar). Nevertheless, the play is not the finest two hours of either Neilson or director Andy Arnold.

Tron audiences had the right to expect better when they learned that Christmas was coming early to their theatre.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 16, 2017

© Mark Brown

Reviews: People, Pitlochry Festival Theatre & PUNocchio, Òran Mór, Glasgow




Pitlochry Festival Theatre

various dates until October 12



Oran Mor, Glasgow

Until July 22;

transferring to Gaiety Theatre, Ayr

July 27-29


Reviewed by Mark Brown

People PFT
Margaret Preece and Valerie Cutko in People

If you are a fan of the two eminent Alans of contemporary English theatre (i.e. Messrs Bennett and Ayckbourn), the summer season at Pitlochry Festival Theatre (PFT) usually obliges with a play by, at least, one them. This year’s programme offers a double dose, with productions of Bennett’s People and Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular.

I should, in fairness, declare my hand on the subject of the two Alans. Benedict Nightingale (the now retired theatre critic of The Times) once memorably expressed his contempt for “some worthily incomprehensible play by Howard Barker, Howard Brenton, or Howard something else.” In the same spirit of critical honesty, I have to say that I would take the potent, European poetics of the Howards over the conventional English naturalism of the Alans any day.

Encountering director Patrick Sandford’s production of People for PFT was, for me, very much like past experiences reviewing other prominent plays in the Bennett oeuvre, such as the famous classroom drama The History Boys or The Habit Of Art (a fictional encounter between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten). There is no doubting the playwright’s erudition, but there is on Bennett’s part a crushing lack of desire to exercise his imaginative muscle. It’s like having Picasso round for tea and finding that he has done nothing more than draw moustaches on the politicians photographed in the newspaper.

Like Ayckbourn, Bennett stands in a tradition of English theatrical realism which was forged in the 19th and early 20th centuries (by the likes of the Scottish writer JM Barrie, whose play Mary Rose is also part of the 2017 PFT summer season). This tradition prides itself on its ease of access, and lives in terror of being accused of intellectual “elitism”.

So it is with People, a drama set in the crumbling stately home that is Stacpole House in South Yorkshire (historical seat of the aristocratic Stacpooles, whose name boasts one ‘o’ more than their mansion). The play alights upon the conflict between the house’s primary resident, former catwalk model Dorothy Stacpoole, and her sister, the non-resident June (an archdeacon in the Church of England). Bennett’s drama unfolds as a schematic contemplation of the clash between the “modernising” forces of Thatcherite neoliberalism and the English self-image (a curious amalgam of the aristocratic and the egalitarian) which preceded the Iron Lady’s “revolution”.

Dorothy, who intends to live out the rest of her life in the country house. but would like adequate heating and bathroom facilities, is minded towards the offer of the cynically ambitious auctioneer Bevan. June, by contrast, wants to turn the decaying property (and its repair and running costs) over to the National Trust, even if it means sanitising the place and transforming her sister into a tourist attraction.

Having set up his themes with absolute clarity in the first act, Bennett is free, in the second, to have a bit of fun. Cue Theodore, an old flame of Dorothy’s, and a porn film director. The inevitable coming together of erotic artistes with June’s guest, the short-sighted Archbishop of Huddersfield, owes a palpable debt to the Carry On films and the innuendo-driven comedy of the likes of Dick Emery and Benny Hill.

The clunky gear shift between exposition and farce underlines the grinding obviousness of Bennett’s approach to theatrical form. Director Sandford has little choice but to play it straight, with an impressively realistic set by Charles Cusick-Smith and neatly archetypal performances from the likes of Irene Allan (as Dorothy’s “companion” Iris) and Dougal Lee (the oily-yet-earnest Theodore).

The production comes painfully close to succeeding on its own terms, but is let down by Valerie Cutko’s decidedly inflexible playing of Dorothy. Lacking the necessary emotional and psychological nuance, her acting reflects too little of the tragedy of a woman who knows she is being “metaphorised as England”, but is powerless against the twin, distinctly neoliberal powers of the Anglican Church and the National Trust.

Kirstin McLean, Frances Thorburn and Darren Brownlie in PUNocchio

There is another, stark combination of comedy and politics in PUNocchio, the latest summer pantomime at the Oran Mor, home of Glasgow’s lunchtime theatre A Play, A Pie And A Pint. Written by Gary McNair, this cross-gendered reinvention of Carlo Collodi’s much-loved children’s tales transforms the titular puppet boy (somewhat inexplicably) from an incorrigible liar into an impulsive punmeister.

Frances Thorburn’s Punocchio runs about asking “wooden you like to know?” and talking about his “no strings” relationships. Meanwhile Dave Anderson’s Jan Petal (a feminised Geppetto, geddit?) comes over all political, taking down Theresa May with her own punny joke about the International Money Tree Fund.

In fact, the flagrant (sorry, fragrant) Ms Petal’s opening salvos are just a taster of what’s to come. When Kirstin McLean isn’t playing the Scottified Hingmy Cricket, she’s appearing as Hard Brexit-loving Bear-is Johnson. Likewise Darren Brownlie, who plays not only the fabulous Fairy Odd Mother, but also the xenophobic feline Faragio the Cat. Which is to say nothing of Anderson’s second character, Trumpoli the circus master (who has, for reasons best known to the actor, a Texan accent).

Like any good panto (and, to think of it, any bad one), director Ron Bain’s production is full of songs (such as the memorable opener ‘Panto in July’) and audience participation – oh yes it is! Hilariously rough-and-ready, McNair’s script wears its back-of-a-fag-packet credentials proudly on its sleeve. All the better for its talented and funny cast to make it up as they go along.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 9, 2017

© Mark Brown