Review: Romeo and Juliet (by Northern Ballet), Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

DANCE

ROMEO AND JULIET

FESTIVAL THEATRE, EDINBURGH

When it comes to theatrical design, we are familiar with both the abundant opulence of certain period art movements, such as rococo, and the pared-back elegance of the various manifestations of 20th-century minimalism. However, in Northern Ballet’s new staging of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s acclaimed Romeo and Juliet for Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, we might just be witnessing a new movement, one which we might call abundant minimalism.

From the moment the curtain rises on the superb Giuliano Contadini’s Romeo, lying on the ground, statuesque, as company credits are projected, movie-style onto a curved surface of an unambiguously abstract set, one knows this will not be an R&J of Renaissance splendour. Indeed, intriguingly, the French company has fashioned a design concept which would have been familiar to the ballet’s composer, Sergei Prokofiev, who lived through the revolutionary explosion of Russian Constructivism.

Like Constructivism, the beautifully sparse design is always functional. For example, the adjustable, angled ramp at the heart of the set does more than merely create a series of enigmatic shapes. It serves well, for instance, as a dramatic platform for the enraged Romeo’s vengeful killing of Tybalt (a splendidly arrogant Javier Torres).

The beauty of Maillot’s choreography is that it injects into this creative minimalism a dance of delightful plethora. Here the Dance of the Knights, for example, is not a proudly stepped procession of male power, but a carefully constructed, excitingly energetic collision of Capulet and Montague, men and women.

Likewise, the dance of the lovers’ balcony scene. Martha Leebolt (a genuinely moving Juliet) and Contadini’s splendidly passionate pas de deux is all the more effective for being danced on a set which eschews naturalistic replication for Modernist simplicity.

Curiously, given his undeniable sense of style, Maillot has a penchant for the comedy of people, inadvertently or deliberately, touching women’s breasts. On the first occasion, perhaps even the second, it is humorous. One is surprised, however, to see it become almost a motif, as if we are about to descend into Carry On Ballet.

This peculiar quirk notwithstanding, this is a gorgeously original Romeo and Juliet, presented with a panache of which Northern Ballet should be proud.

At Festival Theatre, Edinburgh until tomorrow (Saturday, February 28). Tickets: 0131 529 6000, edtheatres.com. Transfers to Grand Theatre, Leeds, March 4-12. Tickets: 0844 848 2700, leedsgrandtheatre.com.

Mark Brown

A slightly edited version of this review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on February 27, 2015

© Mark Brown

Review: The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

THEATRE

 

THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE

ROYAL LYCEUM, EDINBURGH

 

A production of a play from the 20th-century avant-garde is something of a rarity in the output of Mark Thomson, artistic director of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum. Which is a pity, as both his award-winning presentation of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (in 2008) and, now, this impressive staging of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle suggest that the classics of European Modernism are his forte.

The play is translated, with political wit and crisp clarity, by Alistair Beaton, and performed in modern dress, with actors playing multiple roles. The result is a Chalk Circle which makes an unarguable case for the continued relevance both of Brecht’s theatrical aesthetics and his allegorical subject matter.

The drama is famously a play of “Chinese boxes”, one story inside another. The Georgian morality tale of the chalk circle – in which the young servant woman Grusha Vashnadze saves the life of child prince Michael in a time of civil war – is told by Soviet peasants in dispute over a strip of land abandoned by retreating Nazi forces.

As the story unfolds, with Grusha weaving her perilous way through a vicious conflict, one is struck by how powerfully the play speaks to the current plights of civilian populations caught up in conflicts such as those in Syria and eastern Ukraine. That is thanks, in no small measure, to the talents of Amy Manson, whose affecting portrayal of Grusha goes directly to the essential courage and selflessness of her character. The heroine becomes, as Brecht no doubt intended, a kind of Everywoman, a universal evocation of the innocent “little person” whose life is turned upside-down by war.

Thomson’s beautifully paced, excellently cast production enjoys similar success in other departments. The live music and song, led by the outstanding Sarah Swire as the singer/narrator, carries out its disruptive-yet-informative purpose whilst combining the disconcerting sounds of Weimar German cabaret with post-punk rock music and country and western.

The production’s many comic touches, such as Jon Trenchard’s grotesque, cross-dressed Governor’s wife, magnify a satirical wit too often overlooked in Brecht’s theatre. By contrast, Karen Tennent’s set, although appropriately non-naturalistic, is too cluttered to really serve the play.

Ultimately, however, this Chalk Circle is another triumph for the Lyceum, and proof positive that Brecht still has much to offer to the 21st-century theatre.

 

Until March 14. For more information, visit: http://www.lyceum.org.uk

Mark Brown

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on February 24, 2015

© Mark Brown

Reviews: The Slab Boys, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow; Romeo and Juliet, Eastwood Park Theatre, Giffnock; & The Typist, The Arches, Glasgow

THEATRE AND DANCE REVIEWS

 

The Slab Boys

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

Until March 7

 

Romeo And Juliet

Seen at Eastwood Park Theatre, Giffnock, run ended;

Touring until March 7

 

The Typist

Seen at The Arches, Glasgow, run ended;

Touring until February 28

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

The Citizens Theatre Company’s revival of John Byrne’s iconic comedy The Slab Boys, the first part in the writer’s much-loved trilogy of the same name, has been eagerly anticipated. Little wonder, then, that one couldn’t turn one’s head on opening night without seeing a famous face, be it First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Makar Liz Lochhead or actor Gavin Mitchell.

Set in 1957, the play focuses on events on a single day in the “slab room” of Stobo’s carpet factory in Paisley. There, the trainee designers, known as “slab boys”, mix the colours for the design department on marble slabs. Or, rather, they would do, were they not having a sly fag, falling at the feet of co-worker (and “every slab boy’s dream”) Lucille Bentley, and generally arsing around.

The production – which is directed by David Hayman (who directed the play’s premiere, at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, back in 1978), assistant directed by his eldest son, David Jr, and stars his second son, Sammy, in the lead role of slab boy Phil McCann – bears many of the hallmarks of a classic Slab Boys revival. This is especially true of the set, designed by Byrne himself, which is a fabulous creation, like a paint explosion inside a museum of 1950s American popular culture.

The play has a tremendous capacity to be simultaneously bold-yet-subtle. Beneath the colourful veneer of its comic creations – not least working-class, Catholic teddy boys McCann and George ‘Spanky’ Farrell – there flow some weighty matters, ranging from the pernicious consequences of Masonic/Orange bigotry to the devastating impact of severe mental illness upon McCann’s mother.

For the most part, the cast embody brilliantly the drama’s combination of comic chutzpah and emotional nuance. Kathryn Howden’s no-nonsense factory tea lady Sadie is a joy, while Jamie Quinn (as smart-mouthed Spanky), Scott Fletcher (hapless slab boy Hector) and Hayman Sr (playing puffed-up manager Curry) are never off the pace.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of Sammy Hayman’s playing of McCann. The recent Royal Conservatoire of Scotland graduate is palpably out of his depth and, consequently, unable to deliver the rhythm of Byrne’s lines. His role requires not only a sense of frustration and rage (which he exudes), but also, and crucially, an endearing, humorous impertinence and a personal charisma (both of which elude him).

McCann and Spanky are the double act around which this superb comedy revolves. It is a great pity that an otherwise impressive production is so badly undermined by an ill-judged piece of casting.

The problem with the Bard In The Botanics company’s touring production of Romeo And Juliet is of a different nature entirely. I have written on numerous occasions in these pages about the short-sightedness of arts funding body Creative Scotland (and its forerunner, the Scottish Arts Council) refusing to fund Gordon Barr’s company. I’m delighted that CS has finally come up with money for a Bard In The Botanics tour, but disappointed in the production Barr has chosen.

The director is right in thinking that, in restaging (and substantially recasting) his 2012 take on Shakespeare’s famous romantic tragedy, he stands a good chance of getting bums on seats. The pity is, the concept (a contemporary teen conflict, performed by a cast of just five, set around the swings in a play park) is far from his best.

The actors, who double, sometimes triple up, lack nothing in guts; even if Terence Rae’s Romeo seems too much like a sulking adolescent. However, Barr’s attempts to give the piece a sense of contemporary relevance, particularly through carefully choreographed violence and hard-edged electronic music, are overwrought and unconvincing, leaving the Bard’s tragedy looking like a sub-standard, 21-st century West Side Story.

Nor is one entirely convinced by Kam-Ri Dance Theatre’s show The Typist. Focused on the life of a left-wing Basque woman who arrived in England as a child refugee from the fascist regime of Francisco Franco, it interweaves dance, live music and song, recorded voice (courtesy of Alexei Sayle, playing an avuncular Liverpudlian friend of the typist) and projected images and texts.

It is almost inevitable that these disparate elements do not cohere as a work of dance theatre. The piece might be better described as an illustrated concert, in a similar vein to Paco Peña’s Patrias, which played at the Edinburgh International Festival last year.

The work jolts between live performance and the imparting of information, including major historical facts and anguished details about the fate of the woman’s loved ones and comrades in Spain. The engaging musical score ranges from flamenco to jazz.

Flamenco singer Olayo Jiménez impresses, as does dancer Raúl Prieto; although his partner, Kerieva McCormick (in the title role) is more accomplished in song than in dance.

Admirably engaged with a period in European history which continues to shape our continent more than we often realise, The Typist is a timely reminder (in these days of rising ultra-nationalist forces from France to Ukraine, Hungary and Greece) of the immense dangers of fascism.

However, even with McCormick (who also directs) being assisted by co-director Ben Harrison (of Grid Iron theatre company fame), the production’s attempts to knit political history together with art never quite come off.

 

The Slab Boys transfers to the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, March 10-14.

Tour dates for Romeo And Juliet can be found at: http://www.bardinthebotanics.co.uk.

Tour dates for The Typist can be found at: http://www.kam-ri.com.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 22, 2015

© Mark Brown

Review: The Slab Boys, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow (Telegraph)

THEATRE

 

THE SLAB BOYS

CITIZENS THEATRE, GLASGOW

 

This revival of John Byrne’s great comedy The Slab Boys (the first play in the famous trilogy of the same name) is a major event in Scottish theatre. Not least because it is directed by renowned actor-director David Hayman (who directed the world premiere in 1978) and designed by Byrne himself.

Set, in 1957, in the “slab room” of a Paisley carpet factory, where the  colours are ground on marble slabs by trainee textile designers known as “slab boys”, the play has hosted some famous names. One Robbie Coltrane, for instance, played designer Jack Hogg in the world premiere at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre.

This time round, Hayman (who also plays pompous factory manager Willie Curry) has opted to make the production something of a family affair. The director’s eldest son, David Jr, is assistant director, while Sammy Hayman (the second of his three sons, who recently graduated from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) plays the pivotal role of slab boy Phil McCann.

There is much to admire in this latest revival. Byrne’s set, for instance, a hyper-real, almost cartoonish mess of paint and late-fifties Americana, is a thing of beauty. Hayman Sr is typically excellent as Curry, marching stiffly around the factory, spinning a self-mythology of wartime exploits in Burma.

There is one distinct flaw in the production, however. The Slab Boys demands careful casting. A young actor in one of the titular roles can be made by his success. However, wrongly cast, he can also be horribly exposed.

Such, sad to say, is the case in Sammy Hayman’s playing of McCann. Like the single loose thread from which a carpet begins to unravel, his casting looks like a catastrophic misjudgement.

McCann and George ‘Spanky’ Farrell (played beautifully by Jamie Quinn), a pair of wise-cracking, working-class teddy boys, complete with brothel creepers, are one of the most brilliantly observed comic double acts in Scottish theatre. Young Hayman nails his character’s underlying bitterness and menace, but has none of the cocky charm and warm humour that are so essential to the role.

Given Hayman Sr’s long and illustrious association with the play, it is a painful irony that his latest production should founder on the casting of his son.

 

At the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow until March 7. Transferring to King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, March 10-14. For more information, visit: citz.co.uk

Mark Brown

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on February 15, 2015

© Mark Brown

Review: To Kill a Mockingbird, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

THEATRE REVIEW

 

To Kill A Mockingbird

THEATRE ROYAL,

GLASGOW

Run ended;

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh,

February 9-14;

His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen,

February 16-21

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

The arrival in Scotland, on Tuesday, of this tour of To Kill A Mockingbird coincided auspiciously with the announcement that the missing sequel to Harper Lee’s opus had been found. Go Set A Watchman, which was written before Mockingbird, is to be published some 55 years after its illustrious sister novel.

The news added a frisson of excitement to the Scottish opening of a production, by Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, which comes adorned with laurels placed upon its head by a number of the London critics. Not for the first time, however, do I find myself thinking that many of my colleagues in the metropolis have been decidedly easy to impress.

Director Timothy Sheader has, indisputably, crafted a sturdy, unerringly faithful retelling of the famous tale of young girl Scout Finch, from whose perspective we see the racism of 1930s Alabama at lethal work in the legal lynching of the innocent, young black man Tom Robinson. What is less certain, however, is that Sheader’s production, or, indeed, Christopher Sergel’s play, succeed in overcoming the difficulties inherent in adapting an episodic novel to the stage.

Sheader’s decision to have the cast narrate, books in hand and speaking in their various British accents, is a bold attempt to make a virtue out of a necessity. As the actors shift back-and-forth between character and storyteller, it is also awkward and anti-theatrical.

There are many fine performances, not least from Ava Potter (one of three young actors playing Scout on this tour), and the second act enjoys the theatricality that comes with any well-written court scene. However, complete, as it was on Tuesday night, with a moment of clumsily dysfunctional design (a piece of garden railing which became more picket than fence), this is theatre very much of the middling sort.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 8, 2015

© Mark Brown

Preview: Manipulate festival of puppetry, object theatre and movement theatre

Puppet and object theatre don’t command they place they deserve in our culture, but the Manipulate festival is trying to change that. By Mark Brown

 

Puppetry, historically speaking, has not enjoyed the highest status in the theatre cultures of the UK. From Punch and Judy (not a British innovation, but one borrowed from Italian commedia dell’arte) to Spitting Image, puppets have been considered either child’s play or the stuff of satirical comedy.

The idea that puppet theatre, or its cousin object theatre, could be seriously artistic has been largely foreign to us. This came home to me particularly strongly a little over four years ago, when I visited the prestigious new puppet theatre in the Russian city of Omsk in Siberia, a venue which towers over the extremely modest Scottish Mask and Puppet Centre in the west end of Glasgow.

It’s true that Scottish puppet and object theatre has come on leaps and bounds in recent times, with shows such as The Curious Scrapbook Of Josephine Bean by Shona Reppe, White by Andy Manley and Catherine Wheels, and A Christmas Carol by Graham McLaren (with puppets by Gavin Glover) for the National Theatre of Scotland. Nevertheless, we still have a long way to go before these fascinating genres enjoy the kind of esteem they command in many other countries around the world.

All of which makes the annual Manipulate festival of puppetry, object theatre, visual theatre and animation, which has just begun and at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, an important event in the Scottish theatrical calendar. Produced by Puppet Animation Scotland, the programme showcases the work of some of the most innovative theatre artists and animators working in Scotland and internationally.

Take, for example, the British premiere of And Then He Ate Me (Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, tonight; Traverse, Tuesday) by acclaimed Vélo Théatre of France. Combining text, movement and object theatre, it grows from the timeless narrative of humanity’s uneasy relationship with the wolf. The company’s poetic, witty and visually captivating form of storytelling has been compared with the works of the great French writer Charles Perrault (creator of Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella) and Tim Burton.

The work evokes the fragility of the human household in the face of the threats, real or imagined, actual or metaphorical, which lurk outside.

In Autumn Portraits (Traverse, Wednesday), puppet and mask artist Eric Bass, from the United States, offers a solo performance representing a series of characters who are in their “autumn years” and are casting their minds back over their lives. Drawing on the techniques of Japanese Bunraku puppetry, which date back to the 17th-century, the piece brings to the fore the deeply emotive possibilities of puppet and mask theatre.

The beauty of Scotland’s many international theatre and performance festivals is that they create opportunities for Scottish artists to collaborate with colleagues elsewhere in the world. Butterfly (Traverse, Thursday; Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, Saturday), a Scottish/Singaporean co-production between acclaimed artists Gavin Glover and Ramesh Meyyappan, is an exciting case in point.

Inspired by the story of Madam Butterfly (itself a meeting of East and West), its wordless combination of puppetry, visual theatre and dance has already led to critical acclaim in Singapore.

Enticing though the entire Manipulate programme is, many visual theatre fans will feel that the festival has left the best until last. Mr Carmen (Traverse, Saturday) is an extraordinary, moving, witty, dream-like work by Russian “engineering theatre” company Akhe.

The show, which travels beautifully through love, rivalry, jealousy and death, was, deservedly, showered with critical bouquets when it played at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012. For my money, Akhe are simply one of the greatest companies in world theatre today.

 

For full details of the Manipulate programme, visit: http://www.manipulatefestival.org

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 1, 2015

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Faith Healer, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh; & Macbeth, Filter theatre company at Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

THEATRE REVIEWS

 

Faith Healer

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Until February 7

 

Macbeth

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

Until January 31

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

The fit between Brian Friel, the great Irish master of theatrical forms, and director John Dove, creator of many nuanced -yet-robust productions, is close to perfect.

We sensed this in Dove’s British premiere of Friel’s Living Quarters for the Lyceum back in 2007. It is confirmed abundantly here, in the director’s fine staging of the Irishman’s fascinating three-hander Faith Healer.

First staged in 1979, the drama takes us into the unlikely tragedies which lie within the relations between Frank Hardy, a travelling faith healer from Ireland, his wife Grace and his agent Teddy. Told by way of four, mutually contradictory monologues (Frank’s stories top and tail the play), the piece offers up a world of dog-eared halls in the depressed former pit villages of Wales and the far flung corners of rural Scotland.

It is here that “the fantastic Francis Hardy, faith healer” welcomes the desperately afflicted, and is caught between an almost messianic belief in his own “gift” and a sense that he’s little more than a failed vaudeville con artist. Sean O’Callaghan gives a superb, compelling performance as the good-looking, charismatic Frank, who is broken and drowning in booze.

On a set (by Michael Taylor) which evokes every cold, neglected church hall you’ve ever been in unfolds an intelligent and emotive play about the construction of truth or, rather, truths. To Frank’s initially convincing sense of self-belief are added the sad, restrained anguish of Niamh McCann’s Grace and the heartbreak and failure of Teddy, a music hall caricature rendered whole by Friel’s writing and the excellent acting of Patrick Driver.

Opening a matter of days after the Lyceum celebrated the life of its late artistic director Kenny Ireland (whose production of Howard Barker’s play Victory for the Edinburgh playhouse back in 2002 remains a Scottish theatrical highlight for me and, I know, many others), it is fitting that the theatre is staging a modern classic, directed by a craftsman such as Dove. Kenny would have approved, I’m sure.

It is somewhat more difficult to approve of London-based Filter Theatre’s “interpretation” of Macbeth; for “interpretation” read predictably postmodern rendition. On a naked Citizens Theatre stage, around a group of tables hosting the equipment necessary for the creation of a live soundtrack of electronic music, noises and recorded/distorted voices, a cast of seven, in informal modern dress, seem to be trying (and failing) to imagine how the Scottish play would look if it was co-produced by the Wooster Group and Forced Entertainment.

Whether it is Ferdy Roberts’s Macbeth, who wanders into the stalls wearing jeans and slurping from a coffee mug, or Lady M (Poppy Miller), making up party bags of Wotsits and cans of Coke for her illustrious guests, one can’t help but feel, as one does with so much self-consciously “ironic” theatre, that one is watching the bastard offspring of the early-20th century avant-garde (Gertrude Stein, some of whose theatre works were, memorably, staged at the Citz in 1994, must be spinning in her Parisian grave).

Nor is there much to be said for the production’s, no doubt deliberately, clashing acting styles; an earnest Macbeth contrasts with an often ludicrously melodramatic Lady M and Alison Reid, slouching and flippant in various roles.

Once again, postmodern theatre arrives promising innovation, only to present another toothless, cold, pseudo-radical production.

 

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 25, 2015

© Mark Brown