Review: Blow Off, Traverse, Edinburgh, and touring



Blow Off,

Seen at Traverse, Edinburgh

Touring, various dates, until October 22


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Julia Taudevin in Blow Off. Photo: Niall Walker

Julia Taudevin belongs to a generation of Scottish theatre artists (which includes Rob Drummond, Kieran Hurley, Gary McNair and Jenna Watt) whose work is often built around their own stage personas. Blow Off, Taudevin’s latest piece, has her centre stage, but takes her work in a bold, new direction.

Self-described as “guerilla-gig-theatre”, it combines live rock music, narration (in both prose and poetry) and high-octane physical and vocal performance to tell a story driven by radical, feminist, anti-capitalist politics.

As third person narrator/rock singer/slam poet, Taudevin all but inhabits the central character of the story, a woman on the verge of an act of political terrorism. We are, quite emphatically, told nothing about this woman besides her sex and, increasingly, the workings of her mind.

“I’m not going to tell you what she looks like”, says the performer, before reeling off a series of other signifiers (hair colour, skin colour, facial features, body shape, clothing etc.) which she will not divulge. What we do learn, ultimately, about this anonymous woman, who we “wouldn’t notice” in the street, is that she has decided to become a 21st-century urban guerrilla, a one-woman Baader-Meinhof Gang.

What has made her a would-be female Unabomber, rather than a Jeremy Corbyn supporter or an Occupy activist? Insofar as such a transformation can be explained, Taudevin does so by way of her character’s political anger (not least against late-capitalism’s phallocentric symbols of power) being joined to a horrifying experience of physical assault by a man in the street.

The text itself is the stuff of a short story. In this production, however, form is at least as important as narrative content.

Taudevin is a dynamic and skilled actor and singer. Her performance is full of anger, pain and humorous, knowing sarcasm. The ever-present band are equally accomplished, giving the piece a permanently raw, edgy atmosphere.

The same, sadly, cannot be said for the script. For example, a long riff on the various euphemisms for the female genitalia is neither shocking nor particularly funny, but sounds, instead, like an adolescent imitation of The Vagina Monologues.

The twist in the tale should not be spoiled. Suffice it to say that there is a disappointing heavy-handedness in its referencing of important current events which is typical of the piece as a whole.

Blow Off is at Dundee Rep on September20; Traverse, Edinburgh, October 12 & 13; and Paisley Arts Centre, October 22 

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 18, 2016

© Mark Brown

Review: Trainspotting, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow (Daily Telegraph)






Review by Mark Brown

Lorn Macdonald and Gavin Jon Wright as Renton and Spud. Photo: Tim Morozzo

Ever since the release of Danny Boyle’s film adaptation in 1996, it has been difficult to tell where the cult of Irvine Welsh’s famous novel Trainspotting ends and the craze for the movie begins. What is certain is that Harry Gibson’s stage version (which premiered at the Citizens’ Stalls Studio in 1994, the year after the publication of the novel) has long been subsumed within the iconography of Boyle’s film.

Any director staging Gibson’s adaptation has a very clear choice, stick (with the imagery of the movie) or twist (with an attempt at something more original). Gareth Nicholls, director of this major, main stage production for the Citizens, has opted unashamedly for the former.

Those well known characters – articulate heroin addict Renton, violent psychopath Begbie et al – are, from their physical appearance to their personas, closely modelled on those in the film, as is the visual world of Nicholls’s staging. It shares the same cartoonish, Technicolor aesthetic and jars similarly against the bleak realities of drug addiction.

If Friday’s opening night audience needed reminding that the film and, consequently, the play have become a series of visual greatest hits, the over-enthusiastic woman in the front row of the stalls was happy to oblige. Whether it was Renton fishing in “The Worst Toilet in Scotland” for his opium suppositories or Spud with his bundle of soiled bed sheets, she whooped and cheered as if she was watching highlights of her favourite football team winning a cup final.

Which is not to say that Nicholls’s production is a mere stage version of the movie. There are elements, such as the curtain towards the back of the stage (which is used cleverly as a device of concealment and revelation) that are unambiguously theatrical.

Likewise the choreography; although, in the incongruous nightclub scene, it looks as if movement director EJ Boyle has taken her inspiration from the video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

None of which should detract from the accomplishments of a uniformly excellent, five-strong cast. Lorn MacDonald , in particular, is a fine Renton, not least in the hilarious scene in which he convinces an Edinburgh sheriff that he stole a volume of Kierkegaard from a bookshop, not in order to sell it on to buy heroin, but to advance his knowledge of Existentialist philosophy.

A smart, smooth Trainspotting, then, but one unimaginable without Boyle’s famous film, or its still substantial fan base.

Until October 8:

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on September 17, 2016

© Mark Brown



Reviews: Democracy, touring & Hard Times, Pitlochry Festival Theatre




Seen at Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Touring until October 12


Hard Times

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Various dates until October 14


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Rapture Theatre’s production of Democracy. Photo: Richard Campbell

It is ironic that Michael Frayn, the writer behind the metatheatrical farce Noises Off, should also be the author of the Cold War drama Democracy. The latter speaks more to Frayn as a novelist with an interest in espionage than as a playwright with an understanding of the workings of theatre.

A play in which nine West German men in suits (one of whom is an East German spy) are shadowed by an East German agent in civvies, it is a curious choice for Glasgow-based Rapture Theatre’s latest touring production. Telling the story of the rise and fall of West German statesman Willy Brandt (who was, ultimately, brought down by the news that one of his closest aides, Gunter Guillaume, was spying for the Stalinist regime in East Berlin) it is, in the hands of director Michael Emans, a depressingly dull evening’s theatre.

The blame for this dreariness lies partly in the play itself. Unlike Frayn’s Copenhagen (which is based upon the 1941 meeting between the nuclear physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg), Democracy’s fascination with a historical moment is not joined to a truly dramatic conversation.

Rather, Frayn’s play (which, it must be said, was met with some critical acclaim in London and New York in 2003 and 2004) is often one in which narration and the supplying of historical facts masquerade as dialogue. The conversations between Guillaume and his East German handler Arno Kretschmann are particularly egregious in this regard, as the latter imparts the kind of information that could only be intended for those who require to be filled-in on the background to the Cold War conflict between West and East Germany.

However, if the drama makes one wonder why Frayn didn’t write a novel on the Brandt/Guillaume affair instead, Emans’s decidedly static and unimaginative production does itself no favours. The cast (some of whom were occasionally tripping over lines on Tuesday night) are moved around the stage like so many chess pieces.

Even at their best (Tom Hodgkins’s kingly-but-vulnerable Brandt, Neil Caple’s Guillaume, a man of increasingly torn loyalties) the performances are professional, but uninspired. There’s also a distinct lack of inspiration in Richard Evans’s set, which combines the windows of an office with the grey cement and barbed wire of the Berlin Wall.

It is a damning indictment of this production that it relies for its only truly emotive moment on a short blast of Henryk Gorecki’s beautiful Third Symphony. Otherwise, it is, sad to say, an almost interminable three hours in the theatre.

Greg Powrie as Mr Sleary in Hard Times. Photo: PFT

From a play that might have been more successful as a novel to a famous novel that has been adapted as a play. Stephen Jeffreys’s stage version of Dickens’s Hard Times is the latest, and the last, play in Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s 2016 summer season.

Jeffreys is the author of The Libertine, the excellent play about the famously rakish poet John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (which Dominic Hill staged successfully at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow two years ago). As such, one might have hoped for a more inventive approach to the task of transforming a prose fiction into a play.

One wonders why – apart from the obvious commercial appeal of a much-loved title – adaptations of novels are so often preferred to plays. I confess,  whenever an actor breaks from character and steps forward to narrate, my heart sinks.

It is disappointing to see an accomplished dramatist such as Jeffreys succumb to such a conventional mode of adaptation. That said, director Clare Prenton and her fine cast do bring abundant life to Dickens’s tale of class, education and labour in the fictional Lancashire conurbation of Coketown.

Dickens’s had a penchant for meaningful caricature, which Dougal Lee and Greg Powrie deliver in the dubious forms of the joyless teacher-turned-politician Thomas Gradgrind and the blunt, self-important industrialist Josiah Bounderby. Hannah Howie has a more nuanced character in Gradgrind’s intelligent, soul-crushed daughter Louisa, and she gives an appropriately subtle and moving performance.

Spare a thought for Mark Elstob (an actor born to perform the upper class cads penned by Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward) who is required to play on both sides of the class divide. Gamefully, he takes on both the ill-fated, politically confused factory worker Stephen Blackpool and the decadent playboy Harthouse; although, in truth, he seems far more comfortable in the latter role.

Prenton’s production manages to build up some momentum, despite the somewhat stop-start structure of Jeffreys’s script. This is down, in no small measure, to Becky Minto’s minimalist set; a lovely creation, with a series of Victorian pillars and a simple brick wall, which is almost undone by the wheeling around of cumbersome and superfluous panels.

An uneven staging of Dickens’s story, then, but a considerably more theatrical experience than Rapture’s latest offering.

For tour dates for Democracy, visit:

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 11, 2016

© Mark Brown

Review: The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil


The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil

Dundee Rep


Review by Mark Brown

Irene Macdougall as James Loch. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

John McGrath’s celebrated drama The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black Black Oil was first staged, with extraordinary success, by 7:84 Theatre Company in 1973 (the production was then made into a hugely popular TV film for the BBC in 1974). It is what I call a “play-production”. That is to say, a theatre piece which is not complete on the page, but owes its fame at least as much to its original staging as to its written text.

It’s a brave director who attempts to revive such a totemic work. Director Joe Douglas did so a year ago at Dundee Rep, to considerable critical acclaim. Now he’s taking this, slightly altered, version of that production on the road.

The Cheviot, famously, tells the stories of the Highland Clearances, land ownership in the Highlands and the development of the North Sea oil industry. Its attraction, now as then, lies in its being a work of “ceilidh-theatre” which combines popular Gaelic music and dance with music hall comedy and satire.

The piece is better suited to a Highland village hall (or, for that matter, a city dance hall) than a traditional theatre auditorium. Douglas’s production recognises this and gets the performers off the stage and among the audience on a regular basis.

The Cheviot wouldn’t be The Cheviot without live music, and the Rep was fortunate indeed to secure the services of the extraordinary musical director, fiddler and actor Alasdair Macrae. With Macrae at the helm the music plays a fantastically theatrical role, giving the piece momentum, not least at the points where McGrath’s passionately held socialism begins to slip into editorialising.

The play’s accounts of episodes from the Clearances (the burning of a croft with an old woman still inside; police violence against women crofters who resisted eviction) remain heartbreaking and enraging. In the drama’s second half, Douglas has a trickier task, in terms of balancing McGrath’s script with the need for his production to feel politically current.

Last year’s Rep staging slipped a little in this area. The 2016 version is notably improved. Not only do fine actors Ewan Donald and Barrie Hunter enhance the cast, but the new satirical material is much stronger; in particular, the hilarious skit in which Hunter plays Donald Trump, with Mexican backing musicians.

The performances are universally excellent. Billy Mack is a suitably odious Patrick Sellar (the factor who cleared Sutherland with despicable enthusiasm), while the ever-superb Irene Macdougall is the very image of snobbery and oppression as James Loch (commissioner to the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland).

The enduring political power of the original play is underlined by the song We Are The Monarchs Of The Glen, a grimly comic ditty about the continued dominance of Highland land ownership by a rich elite. Performing in front of the huge print of Edwin Landseer’s famous painting of a Highland stag (which dominates Graham McLaren’s smartly utilitarian set), Emily Winter and Stephen Bangs deliver the song with sinister gusto.

7:84 were an openly and avowedly socialist company. Their 1973 tour of The Cheviot reeked of political commitment.

The risk in reviving the play with an established company, such as the Dundee Rep Ensemble, is that such dedication is lacking. It’s to the great credit of Douglas and his cast that this touring production, which received a deserved standing ovation on opening night, feels both heartfelt and of the moment.

At Dundee Rep until September 10, then touring until October 22. For tour details, visit:

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 4, 2016

© Mark Brown

Feature: The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil

A Radical Return

John McGrath’s play The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil made a massive impact on Scotland in the 1970s. As Dundee Rep prepares to tour it again, Mark Brown talks to company members past and present

Alasdair Macrae in The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oli. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

In 1973 the socialist theatre company 7:84 toured a play entitled The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil. Written and directed by John McGrath, the drama explored the history of the Scottish Highlands and Islands from the Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries to the beginnings of the oil industry in northern Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s.

It would become an iconic production in Scottish theatre history. Indeed, for many, it remains the most important and influential work of live drama ever produced in Scotland.

The show played to packed houses throughout the country, including, significantly, the Highlands and Islands, in 1973. The following year it reached a wider audience, as the BBC broadcast a film version as part of its Play For Today series.

It would be difficult to overstate the significance of McGrath’s drama in the Scottish cultural landscape of the 1970s. Coming just a year after a successful miners’ strike against Edward Heath’s Conservative government, the play’s socialist politics chimed with an increasing atmosphere of industrial militancy and widespread scepticism about the exploitation of North Sea oil by big, mainly American, business.

It was, recalls actor-director John Bett, one of the original performers, a production that “hit the right button at the right time”.

More than that, however, 7:84 (who took their name from a statistic published in The Economist magazine, which exposed the fact that 7 per cent of the UK population owned 84 per cent of the wealth) were giving their audiences a shattering history lesson. Their play came 10 years after the publication of John Prebble’s great book The Highland Clearances, but its terrible story was still not widely known.

The Clearances had not been taught in Scotland’s schools and many audience members outside of the Highlands were learning about this brutal period in Scottish history for the first time. McGrath’s play was teaching people about how the Highlands and Islands were violently cleared, and an attempted cultural genocide against the Gaelic-speaking population was perpetrated, to make way for the more profitable cheviot sheep.

Crucially, if improbably, all of this was expressed in a language of popular entertainment. McGrath’s famous contention that theatre, no matter how serious its intent, should offer audiences “a good night out” was delivered by means of what would become known as “ceilidh theatre”.

The 7:84 cast, which included actors, such as Bill Paterson and Alex Norton, who would go on to become household names, played live music and sang songs old and new to and with their audiences. Legendary singer and actor Dolina MacLennan, who hailed from the Isle of Lewis, sang movingly in Gaelic, giving the show a tremendous sense of legitimacy as it toured the Highlands and Islands.

In 1991, actor-director John Bett, who was a performer in the original 1973 production of The Cheviot, proved that the play had an enduring appeal. His production, for left-wing theatre group Wildcat, enthralled audiences in Clydebank, Glasgow and, during the Edinburgh Fringe, in a huge marquee on The Meadows.

Now, some 25 years on, McGrath’s famous play is taking to the road again. A revival of last year’s production by the Dundee Rep Ensemble, directed by Joe Douglas (fresh from directing comedian and activist Mark Thomas’s Edinburgh Fringe hit show The Red Shed), it will take in venues in Dundee, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness and Glasgow.

To get a sense of the explosive significance of the 1973 tour of The Cheviot and the importance of the 2016 production, I caught up with members of both the original 7:84 company and the current Dundee Rep Ensemble.

For actor John Bett, the play had a great personal resonance. His mother came from the Isle of Skye and had faced humiliation and condemnation for speaking Gaelic as a child. He remembers 7:84 receiving a great accolade for the piece even before the tour had begun.

The company was invited to give a rehearsed reading of the piece at a weekend conference of the now defunct left-wing magazine Scottish International. The event was held in the George Square Theatre in Edinburgh, and had as its focus the political future of Scotland.

On the Saturday night of the conference, only two-and-a-half weeks into rehearsals, the 7:84 ensemble took to the stage, with play scripts in their hands. “The f***ing place erupted!”, says Bett, with a laugh.

So, enthusiastic was the response, in fact, that Bett was carried out of the theatre shoulder-high by the great communist poet and songwriter Hamish Henderson, among others. “It was an amazing event”, the actor comments.

“We still had another two weeks to go [before the start of the tour], but we knew then that something special was happening. Given what was happening with the oil, it hit the right button at the right time.”

So it was that 7:84 began to get a sense that the play they were about to tour might be capturing the cultural and political zeitgeist. However, nothing could have prepared them for the welcome they received in the Highlands and Islands.


Entire village populations turned out to see the show, many of them witnessing a theatre production for the first time. On the Isle of Harris, Bett, who was playing the role of Patrick Sellar, the hated factor of the Duke of Sutherland, and the primary architect of the Highland Clearances, had a close shave.

“This old woman came rushing down the aisle with a walking stick, shouting in Gaelic, ‘go to hell, you son of a Devil!'”, the actor recalls. “She was going to have me!

“Very fortunately I had a walking stick to defend myself with. She was so carried away, she’d never seen theatre before.”

Dolina MacLennan remembers the incident well, as she tells me when I meet her in Edinburgh. “I wondered for ages why the Harris woman would know about Patrick Sellar. I only learned in the last few years that Sellar’s son, who was also called Patrick, cleared Harris.”

MacLennan’s considerable cultural status in the north was crucial to the success of the production. “It was very important that people [in the Highlands and Islands] took to it”, she says. “Because there was Gaelic in it, they didn’t feel like they were being preached at.”

Take to it the people of the Highlands certainly did. The show prompted many, often deeply moving, historical memories.

In the village of Bettyhill in Sutherland, for example, MacLennan, as the production’s Gaelic speaker, was approached by an elderly man with a question to ask. Were the company aware, he wanted to know, that they had just performed on the very spot where brave and defiant crofter women had burned writs of eviction during the Clearances?

An important part of the Highland and Islands tour was taking the show into schools. MacLennan remembers performing at the Nicolson Institute secondary school in Stornoway, where she herself had been a pupil.

As a former pupil, she was also asked to address the students in the three upper year groups, and to this day, Lewis people talk to her about the impact of her speech.

“I told them that, first of all you’ve got to love your own culture. Otherwise you won’t be able to appreciate other cultures.

“Over the years I’ve had people say to me, ‘we didn’t realise what you were talking about, we didn’t think we had a culture.'”

The singer talks about such memories with a mixture of sadness and optimism. Regret that Gaelic culture ever faced such repression, and palpable pleasure that the language and culture of the Gaidhealtachd have enjoyed such a proud and confident resurgence in recent decades.

Her own role in that resurgence, as one of the Gaelic language’s most celebrated singers, is an important one. She believes that the 1973 tour of The Cheviot, which was the first major theatre tour of the Highlands and Islands, deserves to be remembered as an important cultural event in the region’s modern cultural history.

I put this point to Joe Douglas, director of the current Dundee Rep production, and cast member Irene Macdougall, when I meet them during rehearsals on Tayside. Is there a sense of weighty responsibility in taking on the first tour in a quarter-of-a-century of, arguably, Scotland’s most important play?

“There was a sense of trepidation”, says MacDougall of staging the play at the Rep a year ago. “Even by the end of rehearsals, even though we were having a great time, we had absolutely no idea whether people were going to take to it or not.

“I still talk about that first preview performance, where we did the last song and the whole audience got to their feet. It was incredibly moving, and it was like that for the rest of the run, every single night.”

For Douglas, the big Yes vote in Dundee (57 per cent, as opposed to 45 per cent nationwide) in the 2014 independence referendum, and the enthusiasm and energy of the Yes campaign across the country, made it the right time to revive the play. “It felt right to me, and very much of the time”, he says.

“But what I didn’t really appreciate”, he continues, “was the theatrical potential of it in performance, and how far you can push that with an audience, in terms of the relationship you can build with them.”

Douglas and the Rep Ensemble knew, of course, about the success of 7:84 in interacting with audiences who clapped and sang along with the performers. It was one thing to know that, however, but quite another to experience it themselves.

Macdougall feels that the success of the Rep’s production is down, in no small measure, to the original production of 43 years ago. “The lovely thing about this play is that it will always belong to those who performed it in its original production”, she comments. “We feel that we’re building upon something.”

Douglas feels a responsibility to make his own distinct version of The Cheviot, whilst also referencing and respecting the great achievements of the 1973 tour. “I’m very conscious of making a production that pays a bit of homage to the original”, he says.

For example, the fiddle playing of acclaimed actor-musician Alasdair Macrae creates an important connection back to the famous opening of the 7:84 production in which the audience is greeted by a fiddler playing them in at the door. Likewise Macrae’s comically satirical performance as the American oil man Texas Jim; a part played by Paterson, with an equally humorous derision, in the original tour.

The importance of the Gaelic element will also be maintained, courtesy of the show’s MC Calum MacDonald. Originally from North Uist, MacDonald made his theatre debut in the National Theatre of Scotland’s  Uisge Beatha gu Leor (the Gaelic version of Whisky Galore).

Douglas’s sense of responsibility in taking on The Cheviot was deepened by his conversations with McGrath’s widow, 7:84 co-founder, Liz MacLennan, prior to her death last year. “She really sounded me out, about my politics as much as my theatre making”, says the director. “It took a couple of one-hour conversations to get to the point where she trusted me.”

For MacDougall, part of the thrill of touring The Cheviot in 2016 is that, in its critique of capitalism, from the glens of the Highlands to the oil fields of the North Sea, “it’s still an anti-establishment play.” Bett remembers the 1973 production as “a living newspaper”, in which the script was being constantly rewritten to keep up with fast-moving political events.

Douglas believes that the approach in 2016 has to be slightly different. “I still believe really firmly that people want to see The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil”, he says.

Audiences for the Dundee Rep tour can expect to see McGrath’s play in all its 1970s glory, with a little bit of 21st-century Scottish politics thrown  in.

The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil plays Dundee Rep until September 10, then tours until October 22. For tour details, visit:

 This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 4, 2016

© Mark Brown

Edinburgh Festival Reviews: The Toad Knew etc.



The Toad Knew


Ends today


Anything That Gives Off Light


Run ended


The View From Castle Rock


Until tomorrow




Ends today


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Toad Knew
The Toad Knew. Photo: EIF

A metal spiral staircase builds itself before our eyes, clinking into shape, step by enchanted step, as if ordered by some unseen magician. Illuminating, red constructions in glass and metal swirl and swoop from the ceiling like upturned, industrial umbrellas.

Meanwhile, below, on stage a young woman sits, slumped, seemingly comatose, at a pianola, which plays itself demonically, while steam rises from a pool of disconcertingly green water contained within a large, glass box with a huge, rusting iron lid. Into this strange and disquieting underworld steps an unkempt, barefooted master-of-ceremonies.

So begins The Toad Knew, the extraordinary production which circus theatre master  James Thieree and his Compagnie du Hanneton has brought to the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF).

Thieree is the son of parents who were responsible for establishing a number of France’s most important circus troupes. His mother, Victoria, is the daughter of Charlie Chaplin, to whom Thieree himself bears a remarkable physical resemblance.

The artist’s fascinating heritage shows in the production that he has conceived, designed and composed the music for. Joined by five other performers of many and varied talents, he creates a weird and wonderful world in which the skills of “cirque nouveau” explode within a surrealist dreamscape.

The wonderfully acrobatic Valerie Doucet and Thi Mai Nguyen appear like an apparition from a film by Tim Burton or Jean-Pierre Jeunet as they transform into one, comically triple (or, perhaps, quadruple) jointed woman. Thieree himself performs moments of great visual spectacle and Chaplinesque physical comedy, often with the assistance of his diminutive, clownish sidekick Yann Nedelec.

A show of immense visual imagination and breathtakingly skilled performance is given further, emotional atmosphere by the affecting song of Sierra Leonean-German performer Mariama. The piece, which comes together beautifully as a complete, if deliberately outlandish, whole, relies heavily on the work of its unseen technical team, who, quite rightly, took their bows before a genuinely ecstatic King’s audience on Wednesday night.

Confusion and disappointment, rather than ecstasy, were, one suspects, the principle audience reactions to Anything That Gives Off Light, the contribution to the EIF of the National Theatre of Scotland, in co-production with acclaimed United States company The TEAM (Theatre of the Emerging American Moment).

The piece is co-authored by no fewer than five writers, including its three performers, leading Scottish actors Brian Ferguson and Sandy Grierson and their accomplished American colleague Jessica Almasy. It seems like a modishly fragmented, yet also unfinished, attempt at a 21st-century sequel to The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil, the late 7:84 Theatre Company’s iconic 1970s play of Scottish history, politics and national identity.

In any Scottish pub, Brian (played by Ferguson) and Iain (Grierson) meet somewhat cliched West Virginian “Red” (Almasy); the Scotsmen confer this nickname (the colour, paradoxically, both of socialism and the US Republican Party) upon her on account of the scarlet daiquiris she drinks. What ensues is a road trip in which the men unfold key events in Scottish history (such as the Jacobite Uprising and the Highland Clearances) for their American guest, while they are pulled, imaginatively, into a US history and a global present that reinforces the obvious truth that we are all, on this planet, interconnected.

However, neither the exceptional abilities of all three actors nor the best efforts of a fine band (who play a folk-rock infused with Scottish and American traditional musics) can hide the show’s weaknesses. Director Rachel Chavkin (of The TEAM) and associate director Davey Anderson (of the NTS) have failed to create a cohesive play out of an assemblage of texts which have little new or interesting to say about Scottish or American identities, or the relationship between the two.

Ironically, Linda McLean’s far more conventional play The View From Castle Rock (adapted from the stories of Alice Munro) achieves a much greater resonance in its reflection on the combined histories of Scotland and North America. Directed by Marilyn Imrie for the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Scotland’s women’s theatre company Stellar Quines, the piece follows the 19th-century journey from Leith to Nova Scotia of the Laidlaws, a family of refugees from the Lowland Clearances.

Against a torrent of dehumanising tabloid headlines, many of us struggle to put human stories to the journeys of refugees stuck in Turkish camps or festering in “The Jungle” on the outskirts of Calais. McLean’s play puts Scottish names and faces to the search for refuge.

“Old James” (Lewis Howden on superb form) is the formidable, Calvinist patriarch who, having led his little tribe to the promised land, cannot tear his heart from his beloved Ettrick Valley. His pregnant daughter-in-law Agnes (the excellent Sally Reid) faces a mid-Atlantic birth with the stoicism of the Lowland weaving stock from which she comes.

Their stories, and those of Old James’s two sons, daughter and grandson, who also travel from Leith, are told in a combination of dialogue, narration, physical performance and music (both live and recorded). In the hands of a lesser writer, and a lesser cast, such theatrical adaptations of prose fictions can become dull and stilted.

Here, however, amidst the splendid surroundings (and fine acoustics) of the St Mark’s Unitarian Church, Munro’s stories take on a vivid, theatrical life. Beautifully acted throughout, and with a minimal design that relies only on period costume, the production concludes with a single, powerful image that articulates the agonising reality of forced mass migration, both in Scotland’s past and our world today.

Camille, by Polish theatre artist Kamila Klamut, in association with composer and assistant director Mariana Sadovska, begins with an image of emotional and psychological agony. The sculptor Camille Claudel, long-time collaborator and lover of Auguste Rodin, sits, impervious to her friend’s attempts to comfort her, in the lunatic asylum to which her brother, Paul, consigned her for three decades.

The show’s creator and primary performer (with actor/musician Ewa Pasikowska), Klamut is co-founder of the outstanding Polish company Theatr ZAR (which stands in the great tradition of theatre master Jerzy Grotowski). This intense and compelling bio-play is testament to the rigour and profundity of Klamut’s Grotowskian practice.

Dialogue, spoken in English, articulates Claudel’s painful and outrageous personal history. However, it is Klamut’s exquisite movement and arresting stage imagery that give greatest expression to the anguish of her incarceration in a prison built of misogyny and bourgeois family pride.

Blessed with brilliantly subtle stage and lighting design, this deeply poignant studio piece reminds us why Poland remains a powerhouse in world theatre. It reminds us, too, why the emergence of Robert McDowell’s Summerhall venue has been so crucially important to the artistic integrity of the Edinburgh Fringe.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 28, 2016

© Mark Brown

Edinburgh Festival Review: The Toad Knew, King’s Theatre (Daily Telegraph)






Review by Mark Brown


Toad Knew #2
The Toad Knew. Photo: Hugues Anhès


The renowned, Swiss-born circus theatre maker James Thiérrée has an exceptional artistic pedigree. The grandson of Charlie Chaplin, his parents, Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée and (Chaplin’s daughter) Victoria, were the founders of a series of leading French circus companies.

This heritage is writ large in The Toad Knew, the show which Thiérrée’s Compagnie du Hanneton has brought to the Edinburgh International Festival.

The piece is performed by a cast of six, including Thiérrée, who is also the show’s creator, stage designer and musical composer. It takes place in an extraordinary netherworld of strangely animalistic machines, steaming water and a sinister pianola.

Thiérrée’s fantasia has a decidedly Gallic flavour. The surrealism of André Breton combines with the cartoonish, post-apocalyptic vision of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro‘s bleakly comic film Delicatessen and the acrobatics of that most French of art forms cirque nouveau.

 The show seems to emanate from a surreal dream world of buried fears and suppressed desires. At one moment, a red-hooded woman transforms into a lizard with illuminated eyes. At another, a woman who is, seemingly, sitting with her back to us, sweeps her hair back over her face, revealing that she has been facing us all along.

Such illusions occur often in a show that interlaces vibrant imagery with tremendously accomplished physical performance. The acrobatics of the piece range from the elegiac aerial work of Thi Mai Nguyen to the improbably gorgeous cartwheels of Valérie Doucet.

Thiérrée, who bears a striking physical resemblance to his famous grandfather, also shares Chaplin’s tremendous skill in physical comedy. In one lovely set piece, he mimes numerous, and futile, attempts to move his diminutive sidekick Yann Nédélec. In another, decidedly Chaplinesque routine, Thiérrée comically purloins a coat from fellow performer Samuel Dutertre, before creating the illusion of his hand entering a pocket of the garment, only to re-emerge in physically impossible places.

The bringing together of such simple, timeless pleasures of popular entertainment with Thiérrée’s bizarre visual imagination and his vivid, often emotive music is masterful. These elements are accompanied wonderfully by the soulful, plaintive singing of Sierra Leonean performer Mariama and the astonishing work of Compagnie du Hanneton’s technical team (who operate an amazing array of mechanical props, lights and aerial equipment).

A genuinely unique theatrical experience, it is little wonder that the Edinburgh premiere of Thiérrée’s beautiful oddity was cheered to the rafters.

Until August 28.

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on August 25, 2016

© Mark Brown