Reviews: Cuttin’ A Rug, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow & The Winter’s Tale, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh



Cuttin’ A Rug

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

Until March 4


The Winter’s Tale

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Until March 4


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Louise McCarthy and Mark Barrett in Cuttin’ A Rug. Photo: Tim Morozzo

It’s almost 40 years since John Byrne’s famous Slab Boys Trilogy took to the stage. Set in Paisley in the late 1950s, and following the fortunes (and misfortunes) of those who work at the carpet factory of A & F Stobo and Co., these humane comedies have long since established themselves as Scottish cultural icons.

The plays may seem robust, as if they had been chiselled out of granite, but they are, in fact, beautifully constructed works of art which should be treated with care. The Citizens’ disappointingly uneven 2015 production of the eponymous first part of the trilogy (directed by David Hayman) stands as testament to what can happen if Byrne’s dramas are not presented with due diligence.

The Gorbals theatre makes considerable amends for that let down with this fine, new staging of Cuttin’ A Rug, the second in Byrne’s trilogy. Director Caroline Paterson’s production takes us to Stobo’s annual staff dance with great style.

Much of that style comes by way of Kenny Miller’s fabulous costume and set designs, in which dashes of ’50s colour punctuate the cool monochrome of, by turns, the cludgies and the terrace of Paisley Town Hall. It’s an image of the former textile town grand enough to lift the spirits of even a disheartened St Mirren supporter (such as myself).

In Act One, which switches back-and-forth between the “ladies” and the “gents”, the sexes prepare for the wooing, and the sexual, class and generational battles, to come. In the second half, as alcohol begins to lubricate proceedings, comic conflicts and human vulnerabilities come to the surface with a lyrical comedy and a poetic pathos that lift the play above mere nostalgia.

As the dodgy equipment of local band The Largie Boys short circuits the Town Hall electrics, the comedy is exemplified by the mismatch of middle-class uni boy Alan Downie (an appropriately awkward Shaun Miller) and no-nonsense glamour girl Lucille Bentley (Helen Mallon on deliciously sharp form). The laughter is laced, however, with Byrne’s acute, humanistic social observation, not least in Ryan Fletcher’s superb, newly unemployed slab boy Phil McCann who belies his supposed “hooligan” status with a beautiful speech about the power of art.

Indeed, across the piece, Paterson’s casting is as carefully considered as a teddy boy’s hairdo. Laurie Ventry is as a upright as a starched shirt in the role of design room gaffer Willie Curry, while Anne Lacey gives a touchingly layered performance as the disappointed-in-life Miss Walkinshaw.

There are fine shifts, too, from Scott Fletcher (making a welcome return as luckless slab boy Hector McKenzie) and Barbara Rafferty (factory tea lady Sadie, recently patronised by toffs and in a justifiable rage).

If there is a stand-out performance, it is surely Louise McCarthy’s Bernadette Rooney (best pal to, and chief competitor with, Lucille). A temp at the factory, her hair made-up like a Mary Berry creation, she is every inch the gallus, head-turning west of Scotland lass whose tongue is as sharp as her fashion sense.

As if that weren’t enough, this excellently balanced production boasts a soundtrack that includes the likes of Bill Haley and Little Richard. This, one suspects, is the kind of show the late John McGrath was thinking of when he talked about theatre being “a good night out”.

There’s music aplenty, too, in the Royal Lyceum’s new production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Created and, along with his band, played by the ever-excellent actor-musician Alasdair Macrae, the compositions play a variable role in director Max Webster’s bold, modern dress production.

John Michie’s carefully calibrated Leontes (King of Sicily) puts the kibosh on the family Christmas by turning with wildly mistaken jealousy upon his blameless queen, Hermione, and his equally innocent friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia. As he does so, the director introduces what he, presumably, considers to be a clever device.

On the left of the stage, separated from the main performance space by a panel of glass, is the booth of a recording studio. There Macrae and the band perform a score that mixes live and recorded music that often overwhelms the action of the play, to say nothing of the distraction of performers coming in and out of the booth throughout acts 1 and 2.

Webster’s penchant for characters brandishing mobile phones is equally annoying. Presumably the Sicilians receive no news from the royal counsellor Antigonus (sent by Leontes to abandon the “bastard” baby Perdita) because he couldn’t get a signal in Bohemia.

All of which is a great pity as the performances are good and Macrae’s music comes into its own in the excellent second half. The misplaced recording artists become an entirely appropriate ceilidh band at the splendidly Scottified sheep shearing carnival in Bohemia; at which Jimmy Chisholm is hilarious as a manky, modern version of the petty criminal Autolycus, complete with shopping trolley and filthy tracksuit.

Maureen Beattie (the earnest and indignant noblewoman Paulina) and John Stahl (switching brilliantly between Antigonus and the very funny Old Shepherd) shine in a very strong cast. Meanwhile, excellent designer Fly Davis’s rendering of the play’s final, credulity-straining miracle is a thing of beauty,

Ultimately this production of The Winter’s Tale stands up well beside the world famous Cheek By Jowl company’s staging of the same drama, which played at the Citizens in Glasgow just three weeks ago. It’s just a pity that the opening acts are blighted by such a forced directorial concept.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 19, 2017

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Still Game Live 2, SECC Hydro & Made In India, touring



Still Game Live 2,

SECC Hydro, Glasgow,

Until February 16


Made In India,

Seen at Tron Theatre, Glasgow;

at MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling, February 14,

and Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, February 16-18


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Greg Hemphill & Ford Kiernan in Still Game Live 2

Last time Still Game Live came to The Hydro, back in September 2014, the city of Glasgow had just woken to discover that, although it had voted Yes to Scottish independence, the country had voted No. This time it arrives as the newly installed President of the United States is turning the White House into a very dark farce. If they ever announce Still Game Live 3, my advice is head for the nuclear shelter!

Fair play to Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill (aka Jack and Victor), though. They have an uncanny knack for timing their live shows to coincide with historic moments when many of us are in serious need of being cheered up.

And cheered up we certainly are by a production that is bigger, bolder and even better than their 2014 hit show. A play of two very distinct halves, it sees the Craiglang posse leaving Scotland (courtesy of a bleakly hilarious act of vengeance against Tam for years of outrageous tight-fistedness) and setting off on a Mediterranean pensioners’ cruise.

The evening begins with a dubious, and very funny, safety video presented by the latest addition to the Still Game cast, Methadone Mick. Young actor Scott Reid is currently playing the lead in the tour of West End hit show The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, so his dodgy recommendations about what to do in the event of fire are a smart way to include him in the proceedings.

As with the previous Hydro show, the 2017 production thrives on its liveness. Jack and Victor’s big arrival, walking through the audience, high-fiving like Bruce Springsteen and Bernie Sanders at a Dump Trump rally, sets the tone.

They’re soon followed by Navid on a flying carpet, Isa with a pyrotechnic mop, Boabby in rock star mode and Winston flying about like a one-legged, septuagenarian Peter Pan.

The script is like a Still Game TV screenplay on steroids. The sexual comedy, often built around Isa’s innocence (and, indeed, her lack of it) is laugh-out-loud funny and goes some way further than the sitcom can venture on telly.

The Craiglang sets are, as in 2014, reassuringly familiar (if slightly difficult for the stagehands to manoeuvre at times). If the designs in part 1 are straight out of the TV show, the second half, set on the deck of the liner, looks like a Noel Coward play adapted as an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

Which is appropriate, as the expansion of the show includes a troupe of dancers, who are written neatly into the storyline (Jack and Victor are on the boat as professional dancers to entertain the widowed ladies). However, the high-kickers are also a humorous parody of the glitz and glam of Broadway.

The enlarged cast allows director Michael Hines to bring in a panoply of Scotland’s top comic and acting talent. It’s great to see the show’s favourites, Gavin Mitchell (Boabby), Jane McCarry (Isa) and the rest, joined by the likes of Bruce Morton (outstandingly funny as Malky, a gas fitter trying to pass himself off as a GP), Lorraine McIntosh (as sultry, 50-something cruise singer Yvonne) and Mark McDonnell (a delightfully inebriated and lascivious ship’s captain).

Still Game Live 2 really is a brilliant follow-up to the 2014 success. Now as then, the tremendously funny Sanjeev Kholi (Navid) ends the show in a costume so fabulous it should be in Glasgow’s People’s Palace museum alongside Billy Connolly’s Big Banana Feet.

It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast with Kiernan and Hemphill’s huge stage comedy than Made In India, Satinder Chohan’s powerful new drama for London-based touring company Tamasha and the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. Set in a surrogacy clinic in Gujarat, the play sees widowed, English PR consultant Eva arrive on the eve of a government ban on foreign women coming to India for surrogacy services.

Commercial surrogacy, in which one woman is paid to carry and deliver the child of another, remains a vexed moral issue. Add to that the dynamics of westerners using poor Indian women as surrogates, and the moral complexities become virtually impossible to negotiate.

Chohan’s brave three-hander, in which Eva seeks the services of Dr Gupta (who owns the clinic) and Aditi (a young surrogate from a Gujarati village), is wise to offer more questions than it answers. Eva’s talk of women’s freedom of choice and of the economic benefits of surrogacy to women like Aditi may be self-serving and conscience-salving, but they also contain certain undeniable truths.

Similarly, Dr Gupta, who enjoys the label of “feminist entrepreneur”, is balanced between a mercenary ruthlessness and her righteous resentment of patronising, western, neo-colonial attitudes. Only Aditi, who is also widowed, and trapped between her poverty and the opprobrium of her family, is truly innocent in a drama that puts global and national inequalities to the fore.

If that makes the play seem a little schematic, that’s because it is. From the naturalistic script to the simple set design (some movable partitions, occasional video projections and pointless neon strips), director Katie Posner’s production is short on theatrical imagination.

The subject is so emotive, however, and the performances by Ulrika Krishnamurti (Aditi), Syreeta Kumar (Dr Gupta) and Gina Isaac (Eva) so credible that one is thoroughly engaged. Indeed, towards the end, there is a heart-breaking image of the bereft Aditi that gets to the agonised heart of this most painful of subjects.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 12, 2017

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Wonderland & Fisk (both touring)




Seen at Playhouse, Edinburgh

Touring until August 19



Seen at MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling

Touring until February 28


Reviewed by Mark Brown


Kerry Ellis as Alice in the musical Wonderland

Wonderland, the major musical based upon Lewis Carroll’s much-loved tales Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Alice Through The Looking Glass, recently had its British premiere at Edinburgh’s Playhouse theatre ahead of a lengthy UK tour. Its American creator (Frank Wildhorn) is fortunate that Carroll is no longer with us. If he was, I suspect he would sue.

In this UK adaptation of Wildhorn’s show, Alice is, not a young girl in a garden in Victorian England, but a 40-year-old woman living in a dodgy tower block in contemporary Britain. Her life collapsing around her ears, she descends into Wonderland, not via a rabbit hole, but in the hitherto broken elevator that used to serve her high-rise building.

Indeed, Alice’s journey underground is not in pursuit of her own curiosity, but that of her teenage daughter, Ellie, who has already taken the lift down with the White Rabbit. Oh, and Alice’s quest to find Ellie isn’t conducted alone, she has Jack, her besotted neighbour, in tow.

As narrative reinventions go, this is jaw-droppingly bad stuff. In 30 years of serious theatre going, I have seen some ludicrously misconceived productions (Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet set in outer space, Lorca’s The House Of Bernarda Alba relocated to the garish home of a contemporary Glaswegian gangster), but few have been quite as disastrous as this.

The basis for such mangling of Carroll’s tales is Alice’s need to discover that the estranged husband she has pining for was actually an emotionally abusive despot. This might have more credibility as a work of 21st-century feminism if the Alice we meet at the beginning wasn’t represented reductively as a woman willingly accepting her misogynistic husband’s demands that she give up teaching and writing.

If the characterisation of Alice is two-dimensional (at best), the contemporary setting has a catastrophic impact on the stage and costume designs. The delightful imagery of John Tenniel’s illustrations for the Alice books is replaced with utterly awful collisions of contemporary dress with costume elements that point towards characters (think a White Rabbit with prodigious ears, but wearing a pair of sneakers, or a Caterpillar in a shiny, green suit who looks like an over-confident nightclub owner from the 1980s).

Wonderland is a musical almost entirely without redeeming features. The songs are unmemorable, the sentiment is saccharine (even by the sugary standards of the stage musical), and the narrative and design concepts rip the magic from Carroll’s stories as thoroughly as a dog extracting the marrow from a bone.

If there is a glimmer of hope in this artistic black hole it is in the talents of certain members of the cast, not least Kayi Ushe (the Caterpillar) and Kerry Ellis (guest starring as Alice in Edinburgh, among other venues on the tour). One has to admire Ellis’s capacity to give an energetic, powerfully sung performance despite the glaring dreadfulness of the show.

Let’s hope, for the sake of Scottish audiences, that Rachael Wooding is as impressive when she takes up the role for the performances in Aberdeen and Glasgow in May and July, respectively.

From a brash, big stage flop of a musical to an intimate, emotive work of visual theatre. Fisk, created by Scottish company Tortoise In A Nutshell, in co-production with Teater Katapult of Aarhus, Denmark, is a subtle and affecting portrait of a man on the brink of committing suicide.

Devised and performed by Alex Bird and Arran Howie, the piece is built around the metaphor of a man lost at sea. The sense of disconnectedness and despair of the potential suicide is evoked beautifully by the character’s floating along in designer Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s ingenious and fragile paper boat.

Bird’s performance as the man is deeply touching. To his profound sense of isolation he adds physical performance that evokes his character’s extreme frustration at his inability to function in what seem like straightforward social and practical tasks.

Into this world of sometimes chaotic, sometimes tranquil loneliness comes a fish (played by Howie). A very large, very human, female fish, but a fish nonetheless.

Her enthusiastic friendship is not requested by the man. However, although her companionship is accompanied by encouragements shouted through a megaphone and a loud blast of Club Tropicana by Wham, it helps to reconnect the man, gradually, with himself as a social being.

In truth, one does wonder if the contrast between contemplation of suicide and affirmation of life could have been achieved more delicately. However, director Ross MacKay and his team (particularly movement director Darren Brownlie and dramaturg Kirstine Christensen) are to be commended on the sensitivity and thoughtfulness with which they approach such an important and difficult subject.

In the end composer Jim Harbourne’s gentle music and Simon Wilkinson’s appropriately subdued lighting design accompany a simple, quiet image of human connection. A work which could so easily have become trite or cliched concludes with a moment of realistic compassion.

For those, such as myself, who have watched a loved one suffer from the “black dog” of depression or, even, be pulled down into suicide by their emotional and psychological demons, Fisk offers some humane, measured hope. One can only imagine its impact upon those who are actually struggling with depression.

For Wonderland tour details, visit:

For Fisk tour dates, visit:

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 5, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Mary Chapin Carpenter, Royal Concert Hall, Gasgow






Reviewed by Mark Brown

Mary Chapin Carpenter

American singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter is almost as well known for her humanitarian work and her political activism as for her music. It came as little surprise, therefore, that she took the opportunity, early in her set at Glasgow’s massive Celtic Connections music festival, to share her feelings about the first 10 days of the Trump administration.

Following early outings for Why Walk When You Can Fly? and Something Tamed, Something Wild, she explained her choice of opening numbers. “I wanted to start with two songs of hope and resilience”, she said, “to counter-balance the freak show going on back home.” A comment that elicited considerable approval from her Scottish audience.

There would be more commentary on the new President as the show progressed. Little lyrical innovations, referring to Trump’s penchant for tweeting and his well-publicised attitudes to women, found their way into established songs from the 58-year-old’s voluminous back catalogue.

If this performance is any indication, Chapin Carpenter’s anger at her new Commander-in-Chief has galvanised her, rather than put her off her stride. Supported by an excellent three-piece band , she played a set that reflected her influences, from country to rock ‘n’ roll and blues, with tremendous warmth and assuredness.

Her songs have always combined thoughtful autobiography with a broader, humanistic sensibility. Nowhere were these elements more evident than in the recently recorded Oh Rosetta, a gentle and reflective conversation with her heroine Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the great African American singer-songwriter and guitarist.

In addition to tracks from last year’s album The Things That We Are Made Of, there were warmly received renderings of old favourites such as I Feel Lucky and Shut Up and Kiss Me. The affection of the Celtic Connections crowd for Chapin Carpenter was both palpable and reciprocated.

That said, the audience had already been well warmed up by two excellent support acts from the Scottish and Irish traditional music scenes. Scottish Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis and her band performed a sparkling and charming set, before making way for justly acclaimed Irish group Altan.

Chapin Carpenter takes the name of the festival very literally, she tells us. All the better to invite her Celtic friends Fowlis and Altan back on stage for a suitably up-beat encore of her 1992 hit He Thinks He’ll Keep Her.

The Celtic Connections festival continues until February 5. For more information, visit:

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on February 8, 2017

© Mark Brown


Review: The Trial, by Scottish Opera



The Trial

Seen at Theatre Royal, Glasgow,

Run ended;

At King’s Theatre, Edinburgh,

February 3 & 4


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Daniel Norman (Guard 1), Michael Druiett (the Inspector), Paul Carey Jones (Guard 2) and Nicholas Lester (Josef K). Photo: James Glossop.

When it comes to adapting prose fictions for the stage there can, surely, be few works that present more formidable challenges than Franz Kafka’s great psycho-political novel The Trial. When they transformed the book into an opera (for Music Theatre Wales in 2014), American minimalist composer Philip Glass and librettist Christopher Hampton were joining an honourable tradition that includes Steven Berkoff’s acclaimed 1970 theatre version.

It isn’t difficult to see the attraction of the novel for dramatists of various kinds. Kafka’s story of Josef K, a middle-ranking bank worker who is arrested on charges that are never disclosed remains one of the most frighteningly resonant novels in world literature.

Written during the First World War, it is a bleakly comic, almost surreal portrait of an unaccountable, inhumane, bureaucratic state. Like George Orwell’s 1984, it stands as one of the great premonitory art works of the 20th century.

This Scottish premiere (co-produced by Scottish Opera, Music Theatre Wales, The Royal Opera, London and German company Theater Magdeburg) reminds us that Glass’s piece, which the composer calls “a pocket opera”, is inherently paradoxical. In rendering The Trial as a stage drama, Glass and Hampton seek to create a performance work out of an intensely psychological novel.

All of which places a particular burden on the show’s designer Simon Banham. How to represent the impact upon the mind of Josef K of a Byzantine state and its labyrinthine legal system?

Banham opts, reasonably enough, for a minimal set (a “pocket” design, if you will). The entire story is told from within Josef’s non-descript bedsit in which items of clothing appear through gaps in the walls and police officers emerge from within a cupboard.

There is, in director Michael McCarthy’s production, an appropriate sense of early-twentieth century absurdist theatre. The cops who arrest Josef look, in their bowler hats and handlebar moustaches, as if they could have stepped out of a play by Eugene Ionesco.

Josef himself is played superbly by Australian baritone Nicholas Lester. The richness of his voice combines fascinatingly with his estimable height to expresses and embody the seeming self-worth and certainty of a middle-class functionary.

It is a perfect mask for the character’s human fragility. This is Josef as a conventionally upright, decent man who is, apparently, appalled by the moral and sexual degeneracy he discovers in the legal bureaucracy; a characterisation that is all the more effective given his abundant susceptibility to the sexual temptations his trial puts in front of him.

Lester is supported by an excellent cast, not least Emma Kerr as the dissolute washerwoman and Gwion Thomas as the debased Lawyer Huld.

Glass’s music is intriguing in its diversity. In one moment, its instantly recognisable repetitions and variations reflect the seeming pettiness of the situation; an innocent bank clerk caught up in a, surely to be quickly resolved, case of mistaken identity.

However, in the moments when the universality of Kafka’s theme becomes most apparent, and we see in the state what Hannah Arendt would later call “the banality of evil”, the score takes a radically different tone. Blasts from wind instruments burst through the harmonic interplay between keyboards and strings creating moments of discordance that speak both to Josef’s personal panic and the immense political danger his plight represents.

The production, inevitably, cannot match the psychological intensity of the novel, and one can’t help but feel that Banham’s ingenious set loses in thematic scale what it gains in claustrophobia. That said, it draws enough upon Kafka’s genius, and upon the brilliance of Glass and Hampton, to create a rewarding evening’s opera.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 29, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Picnic at Hanging Rock, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (Sunday Herald)



Picnic At Hanging Rock

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Until January 28


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Photo: Pia Johnson

Best known in its cinematic incarnation (Peter Weir’s famous 1975 film adaptation), Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel Picnic At Hanging Rock is a remarkable work of Australian gothic. The book tells the story of three girls and a female teacher from an exclusive boarding school who disappear mysteriously during a trip to a well known beauty spot in Victoria state.

The novel (which Lindsay suggested, somewhat dubiously, was based on real events from 1900) is a mystery wrapped within an enigma. The dubiety of the tale’s provenance is not lost on director Matthew Lutton or writer Tom Wright, creators of this exceptional stage version by the Malthouse and Black Swan State theatre companies (from Melbourne and Perth, respectively).

Performed by a cast of five young, female actors, the piece begins with all five dressed in school uniforms and narrating the tale in the third person. They speak from an empty stage, surrounded by black painted, wooden panels.

Towards the back of the stage, above the performance space, suspended horizontally, is an ominous, tightly bound bundle of logs and twigs. The music and sound (including the insect and bird noises of the Australian bush) only add to the disquieting atmosphere.

The initial, seemingly straight storytelling of the piece outstays its welcome, and deliberately so. Just as we begin to worry that the 80-minute production will be constituted of nothing more than five schoolgirls narrating excerpts from the novel, the production begins to shift its perspective.

As Lutton suddenly plunges his stage into darkness, and, equally quickly, re-illuminates it, our narrators start to assume characters and costumes. Playing out of their age range (such as the ultra-English school principal Mrs Appleyard) or opposite their sex (the intrepid, young Englishman Michael Fitzhubert), the actors’ changing roles emphasise the disturbing uncertainties embedded within the story.

The girls’ lives are hemmed in with mutually reinforcing notions of feminine deportment and bourgeois, Anglo “civilisation”. With these supposed values comes a profound, fearful hostility towards the Australian landscape and, by obnoxiously logical extension, a deep, racial terror and hatred of the Aboriginal people.

The disappearances at the rock shock society not only because of the sex, status and perceived innocence of the missing girls, but also because they reinforce Anglo Australia’s deepest fears about the land it has colonised. Rather than being brought under control, the wild terrain of Australia seems to have swallowed some of the most precious fruit of the Empire.

The precariousness of a colonial identity that was hitherto considered unshakeable is expressed brilliantly in the relations between Mrs Appleyard and Sara, an orphan girl whose attendance at the school was sponsored by patron who has since vanished. Persecuted by Appleyard, who kept Sara back from the picnic, the girl is driven to distraction by the disappearance of fellow pupil Miranda (whom she adores).

The principal’s antipathy towards Sara, who she considers immune to the school’s civilising influence, is epitomised in the horrifying moment when Appleyard calls Sara an “albino” (a racial slur implying that the distressed girl is, effectively, a white Aborigine).

Lutton’s production boasts superb performances across the piece and a number of extremely memorable images; not least in the traumatised return from the rock of Edith, a schoolgirl who split from the party that disappeared. Highly-stylised and assiduously non-naturalistic, the piece achieves a remarkable paradox, being, simultaneously, emotionally detached, yet psychologically compelling.

The director’s modernist techniques (complete with Brechtian texts flashed above the stage) create a kind of aesthetic onomatopoeia with the disquieting instability of the subject matter. It is a fascinating and expansive take on Lindsay’s novel, and a penetrating contemplation of the construction of Australia.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 22, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Picnic at Hanging Rock, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (Daily Telegraph)





Reviewed by Mark Brown


Picnic at Hanging Rock. Photo: Pia Johnson.

Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock remains one of the cornerstones of Australian literature. Popularised globally by Peter Weir’s acclaimed 1975 movie, it tells the purportedly true story of a picnic in Victoria state in 1900 in which three schoolgirls and one female teacher from the Appleyard College boarding school go missing on the spectacular, but sinister, natural attraction known as Hanging Rock.

This stage adaptation, by the Malthouse and Black Swan State theatre companies of Australia, focuses sharply on the ambiguities and uncertainties of Lindsay’s fiction. Presented on an assiduously minimalist stage, dominated by three wooden walls painted in matt black (an inversion, it seems, of a Victorian Australian schoolroom), director Matthew Lutton’s production is a work of jagged, disturbing innovation.

Played by an excellent, five-strong, young, female cast, the piece begins with the quintet dressed as schoolgirls. Static and facing the audience, they act as third person narrators of Lindsay’s story.

However, as Lutton punctuates their speech with sudden blackouts, the actors transform, gradually, from narrators into character actors. Their school uniforms are, on certain occasions, replaced by the period costumes of key characters.

Chapter titles are flashed, Brecht-style, above the stage. One, quoting Karl Marx, reads, “All that is solid melts into air”, an accurate description of the seeming certainties of the Appleyard school and of Anglo Australia.

We are, here, on very shaky ground. As the fruitless search for the missing people goes on, the terrible episode begins to dissolve the minds of head teacher Mrs Appleyard and pupil Sara (who had been kept back from the trip to Hanging Rock).

Throughout the play, the disappearances, with their dreadful, imagined horrors, take on a metaphorical symbolism. Australia, the demonic “anti-Eden” that must be “brought to heel” by the civilising influence of British values, appears to have taken a terrible revenge.

This fear of, and hostility towards, the Australian landscape is replicated in an insidious racial politics. Mrs Appleyard’s description of Sara as an “albino” is shocking in its implication that the girl (who, the head teacher says, is “beyond all saving”) is actually a white Aboriginal.

Lutton’s production boasts some powerful images and fine, premonitory music and sound. Although he sometimes over indulges in his staging techniques, the director has, nevertheless, created a memorable work of unsettling events and unsettled psychology.

Until January 28. For further information, visit:

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on January 16, 2017

© Mark Brown