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


Preview: Manipulate festival – interview feature, plus highlights

Ahead of the pack

Scottish theatre group Company of Wolves present their show The End Of Things at this year’s Manipulate festival. Mark Brown spoke with artistic director Ewan Downie

The End of Things. Photo: Brian Hartley.

The Manipulate festival of visual theatre is currently celebrating its 10th birthday. Held annually at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, it has become an important part of the Scottish performing arts calendar.

A genuinely international event, it showcases physical theatre, and puppetry from Scotland and across the world.

Glasgow-based group Company of Wolves is typical of the festival’s internationalism. Established by Ewan Downie and his joint artistic director Anna Porubcansky in 2012, the Wolves are inspired by the “laboratory theatres” of the great Polish theatre maker Jerzy Grotowski and his successors.

Indeed, Downie was, for six years, a member of acclaimed Polish company Song of the Goat. That group is known to many Scottish theatre lovers on account of its numerous appearances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

I meet Downie at the Tramway arts venue in Glasgow to talk about his company’s latest show, The End Of Things (which goes on an extensive tour after it plays at Manipulate). The piece emerged, he tells me, from a niggling sense of something that needed to be done.

   “For me the creative process always starts with an irritant”, he explains. “It’s what [English dramatist] Howard Barker calls ‘the sand in the oyster’s gut’. It always feels like an itch.

“In this case it was to do with endings. We knew we wanted to do something about that subject, but we didn’t know what it was exactly.

“As I started to think a bit more about the piece I realised that endings, for me, are a human concept. It’s something to do with our experience of change.

“We think things end, but they only end from our perspective. There are the same number of atoms in a dead body as in a live body.

“Then we started to think about the stories that we tell each other about endings and beginnings. You remember your first date, your wedding, the birth of your child.

“You remember these important stories. The starting point of the show was that.”

This sounds like the basis for a production that is more about generating profound personal emotions than articulating a thought. Which, if you’ve ever seen a performance by Song of the Goat, you will know is no bad thing.

In the Polish theatre of the body and the voice we are often offered a deeply affecting experience in which we feel more than we understand.

For Downie, this profundity comes from the methods of theatre making pioneered by Grotowski. “When we work with a group of performers, it changes with each show”, he says.

“I often feel that, through the training, we’re putting the performers in contact with a stream of their own imaginations… Then we introduce whatever is the material of the performance… So, the results are not that predictable.”

It is essential, says Downie, that work such as his, which has its roots in the European avant-garde, has the support of a festival like Manipulate. He is full of praise for the festival’s artistic director Simon Hart and its projects manager Jen White.

” Once they see your work and are interested in it, they’re just 100 percent behind you”, he comments. Indeed, Downie was particularly impressed to discover that Manipulate is  bringing a group of high level producers from around the world to see this year’s programme.

All of which suggests that, after a decade of programming, Manipulate is having no little success in bringing international work to Scotland and Scottish work to the world.

The End of Things plays the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh as part of the Manipulate festival on January 31. It then tours until March 18. For tour details, visit:



Poli Degaine. Photo: Compagnie La Pendue

Poli Degaine

January 28, Lemon Tree, Aberdeen

January 30, Traverse, Edinburgh

French puppet theatre masters Compagnie La Pendue offer us their distinct take on  Pulcinella (better known as Punch to you and me), the international mischief maker of puppetry who began his life in 18th-century Naples. This show has played to acclaim in more than 30 countries. Join La Pendue as they revel in a character who “laughs at everything. Even death.”



January 28, Traverse, Edinburgh

February 3, Lemon Tree, Aberdeen

Scottish visual theatre company Tortoise in a Nutshell’s new show explores themes of “depression, dependence and desolation” in this poetic and metaphorical piece. The story of a man in desperate straits on the ocean, and his unlikely relationship with a fish, it is a co-production with Danish new writing centre Teater Katapult.



January 27, Lemon Tree, Aberdeen

February 1, Traverse, Edinburgh

One actor using only a table, a camera and some objects conjures up imaginary cities in this show by Theatre De La Pire Espece from Quebec. If you saw this company’s unhinged Ubu On The Table at Summerhall during last year’s Fringe you will know what to expect from this crazy and creative form of object theatre.


The Manipulate festival plays at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, January 27 to February 5. Some shows tour elsewhere in Scotland. For full details of the programme, visit:

Compiled by Mark Brown

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 15, 2017

© Mark Brown

Interview feature: Declan Donnellan on The Winter’s Tale

A Tortured Heart In Winter

Acclaimed theatre director Declan Donnellan talks to Mark Brown about his new production, The Winter’s Tale, and about his debt to Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre.

The company of The Winter’s Tale. Photo: Johan Persson

When I speak with Declan Donnellan, internationally acclaimed theatre director and co-founder of the famous company Cheek By Jowl, he is in Chicago. Audiences and critics in the Windy City are responding well, he tells me, to his latest production, a staging of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.

In fact, the show (which is performed in English and makes its UK premiere at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre later this month) has been receiving enthusiastic plaudits throughout an international tour that has taken in venues in France, Spain, Italy and Luxembourg. When it visited Madrid, in February of last year, the Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa wrote a glowing review for the Spanish newspaper El Pais.

“It is some time since I have seen a play that has kept me almost in a trance for the nearly three hours that it lasted”, wrote the Peruvian author. Not even Cheek By Jowl’s Russian-language staging of the Bard’s play Measure For Measure, he continued, “gave me that sensation of beauty and originality, of craftsmanship and absolute perfection.”

For Scottish audiences, this comment should be a source of excitement. Donnellan’s Measure For Measure was the deserved toast of the Edinburgh International Festival’s 2016 theatre programme. If, as Vargas Llosa believes, his Winter’s Tale exceeds it, we are in for a real treat.

The Winter’s Tale is known as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”. It is so called on account of its uneasy combination of regal tragedy and pastoral comedy; the former caused by King Leontes’s false accusation of an affair between his pregnant wife, Hermione, and his blue-blooded friend, Polixenes.

How, I wonder, does Donnellan approach the problem? “It’s really a play about abandonment”, he says. “Leontes is mad, but what is the source of his madness?

“He convinces himself that Hermione is having sex with Polixenes, and takes cruel revenge, trying to kill Polixenes, having the baby, his own child, abandoned. I think the fact that he chooses abandonment is significant.

“Leontes, we can infer, suffers from a terror of abandonment so overwhelming that he cannot see it. Like the monster standing behind you, so tall that you can’t see him.”

This psychoanalytic approach is interesting. This is Leontes, not as a tragic, Ancient monarch, but as a modern man, with an unconscious, Freudian fear.

For Donnellan, the road into the mind of a man of power, such as Leontes, is through our common humanity. The King can be compared, he says, with the guy in the pub who kicks off when it’s closing time.

A barman in his younger years, Donnellan says he has observed the kind of man who, “anaesthetised” against his feelings of loneliness and abandonment, isn’t even aware of why he suddenly flies into a rage. “Instead [of articulating his feelings] he’ll pick a fight”, comments the director.

“He may turn round to the next guy and yell, ‘what are you looking at?!’ Imagine that sort of apparently random rage coming from… someone with power. Imagine it in a king.”

Vargas Llosa was impressed by the modernity of Donnellan’s production. It is, he wrote, “absolutely a reflection of our time, our conflicts, a work which denounces the absurdity and the wickedness [of]… our politicians.”

Donnellan agrees that his approach to the play, and to theatre more generally, has political implications. Which is not to say that he has ever subscribed to the polemical style of those who look at a stage and see a soapbox.

In the 1980s, he remembers, there was a lot “Political theatre” (with an emphatically capital P) going on in the UK in response to Thatcherism. “Everyone sitting in the theatre was a convert”,  he remembers. “It felt slightly creepy.”

Instead of such redundant certainties, Donnellan’s theatre has always been one of possibilities and implications, be they political, moral, psychological or erotic. It’s a style of theatre that will be familiar to theatregoers of a certain vintage who remember the golden age at the Citizens Theatre (1969-2003) under the great directorial triumvirate of Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse and Robert David MacDonald.

Indeed, it’s a style that has, in many regards, been revived at the Citz in recent years by the Glasgow theatre’s current artistic director Dominic Hill.

It is appropriate, therefore, that Cheek By Jowl’s latest production should make its British premiere at the Gorbals playhouse. Not least because of the importance of the Citizens to both Donnellan and, joint artistic director and co-founder of Cheek By Jowl, Nick Ormerod.

“The Citizens under Giles, Philip and Robert had a great influence on Nick and I”, says Donnellan. “With its bravura, it’s internationalism, it’s sense of the epic gesture, it’s loathing of twee-ness,  I think the Citz was actually the most Scottish theatre.

“That was because it brought Scotland into the world and the world into Scotland. Glasgow wasn’t interested in building some kind of inward looking national identity, it was looking outwards, it wanted to be the best theatre in the world.”

If Cheek By Jowl, which was established in 1981, owes a debt to the extraordinary aesthetic innovations of the Citz in the 1970s, there’s also much to be said, Donnellan notes, for “the apparently little things.

“Giles inspired us humanly, he was always there, keeping a warm presence, in the foyer, human, approachable. He has been a great inspiration to us. ”

The Winter’s Tale is at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, January 24-28.

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 8, 2017

© Mark Brown

Preview feature: Scottish Performing Arts Highlights in 2017

Performing Arts Highlights in 2017

by Mark Brown


Picnic At Hanging Rock. Photo: Pia Johnson



January can be a little quiet in Scotland’s theatres. As the extraordinary number of pantomimes and Christmas family shows close, it often feels that the theatrical year is slow to get started.

2017 is a bit different, however. January offers real gems, with two major theatre productions by acclaimed visiting companies.

First up, as ever, is Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre. The capital city’s repertory theatre hosts Picnic At Hanging Rock (January 13-28), by Australian groups Malthouse Theatre and Black Swan Theatre Company. The play is based upon Joan Lindsay’s novel, famously popularised by Peter Weir’s 1975 film, about a group of schoolgirls who go missing during a picnic in the Australian state of Victoria in 1900.

Not to be outdone, Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre also welcomes one of the world’s great touring companies. London-based Cheek By Jowl’s production of Shakespeare’s “problem play” The Winter’s Tale, staged by acclaimed director Declan Donnellan, makes its UK premiere at the Citz (January 24-28).

The drama is, by turns, tragic and comic. It will be fascinating to see what Donnellan makes of it.

It is worth noting that, having waited some time for a production of The Winter’s Tale on the Scottish stage, two are coming along in quick succession. The Royal Lyceum will present its own take on the play next month (February 10 to March 4).

   In February, the Citizens Theatre stages Cuttin’ A Rug, the second part of John Byrne’s much loved Slab Boys Trilogy. Caroline Paterson directs the classic comic play which takes us to Paisley Town Hall, circa 1957, for the annual staff dance of carpet manufacturers A. F. Stobo & Co.

   Later in February, Dundee Rep’s Associate Artistic Director Joe Douglas tackles one of the most iconic plays in the American canon. Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Death Of A Salesman (February 22 to March 11), which charts the decline and demise of travelling salesman Willy Loman, is widely considered to be the single greatest drama about the hollowness of the American Dream. Douglas has assembled an interesting creative team for this production, including excellent composer Nikola Kodjabashia.

In March, Glasgow’s Tron Theatre offers an intriguing production of French playwright Yasmina Reza’s God Of Carnage (March 9-25). Reza is best known for her opinion-splitting hit play Art; an hilarious satire of abstract art and its collectors or a grating work of philistinism, according to one’s taste. Like Art, God Of Carnage, a tale of middle-class parents trying to arbitrate in a fight between their two sons (which is better known to cinemagoers as Roman Polanski’s 2011 American movie Carnage), is likely to divide audiences and critics.

I sometimes feel that I am alone in my continuing scepticism about the theatre of Noël Coward (who I can’t help but compare unfavourably with the great Oscar Wilde). It will be fascinating, therefore, to see what Scotland’s leading theatre director, the Citizens’ Dominic Hill, does with Hay Fever (Lyceum, March 10 to April 1; Citizens, April 5-22), Coward’s sideways glance at self-styled English Bohemia.

In June, the Lyceum stages Peter Handke’s avant-garde, wordless play The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other (June 1-30 June). A bold and brave piece of programming by the Lyceum’s artistic director David Greig, the piece, which will be directed by the superb Wils Wilson, is “narrated by music and animated by unspoken interaction”. Open minds and receptive senses are required.

   The programmes of the Edinburgh International Festival and Festival Fringe won’t be launched until March and June, respectively. However, the second half of the year is already shaping up quite nicely.

A pair of new sibling plays from the National Theatre of Scotland look particularly interesting. Staged as part of the Traverse Theatre’s Edinburgh Fringe programme, Eve (by Cora Bissett) and Adam (by Jo Clifford and Chris Goode) are two very different dramas that explore the realities of being transsexual in the modern world. Following their Edinburgh Fringe run, both plays will transfer to the Citizens, Glasgow in August and September (dates to be confirmed).



The opera season gets off to a fascinating start, with Scottish Opera’s presentation of The Trial (Theatre Royal, Glasgow, January 24, 26 and 28; King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, February 3 and 4). Based upon Franz Kafka’s extraordinary novel about Josef K, a man caught up in a terrifying system of senseless, unaccountable bureaucracy, the opera boasts music by the great minimalist composer Philip Glass and a libretto by acclaimed playwright Christopher Hampton.



Leading contemporary dance company Scottish Dance Theatre tours a double bill of Dreamers, by Anton Lachky, and TutuMucky, a new work by Botis Seva, an emerging talent in British dance. SDT promises, “an evening of high energy, humorous, and engaging work.” The double bill opens at Dundee Rep Theatre on February 11 before going on extensive international and national tour (for details, visit:

For its part, Scottish Ballet’s 2017 programme includes an enticing Autumn season. Homage is paid to Sir Kenneth MacMillan, on the 25th anniversary of his death, with a presentation of his Le Baiser de la Fée, which is danced to music by Stravinsky. There is more of the great Russian composer in the companion piece, Scottish Ballet artistic director Christopher Hampson’s choreography for The Rite of Spring. The double bill tours Scotland in October and November (for details, visit:

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 1, 2017

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Christmas theatre 2016, week 3 (Sunday Herald)




King’s Theatre, Glasgow

Until January 8



SECC Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow

Until December 31


Dick McWhittington

Perth Concert Hall

Until December 26


Hansel & Gretel

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

Until January 7


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Gregor Fisher & Tony Roper as the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella.

The pantomime at Glasgow’s King’s Theatre, once the jewel in the crown of Scottish Christmas theatre, has suffered something of an identity crisis in recent years. Since the untimely passing of the Clydeside theatre’s master of revels Gerard Kelly six years ago, the Yuletide show has, with varied success, featured a number of big name stars, ranging from Karen Dunbar to Greg McHugh (aka Gary: Tank Commander) and, last year, Gregor Fisher.

In truth, even Fisher couldn’t save the 2015 offering, Snow White And The Seven Dwarves, from its own lack of conviction. This year’s show, Cinderella, in which Fisher and his long time collaborator Tony Roper play the repugnant Ugly Sisters, is an improvement, of sorts.

Director Morag Fullarton’s production for pantomime specialists First Family Entertainment ticks most of the King’s Christmas show boxes, from high kicking dancers to cute Shetland ponies. Fisher and Roper are delightfully ludicrous in a series of increasingly absurd costumes, even if Roper seemed a tad under-rehearsed on opening night. The double-entendres were coming thick and fast from writer Eric Potts’s script, until Roper slowed proceedings down by forgetting a line.

One can’t help but feel that, once again, despite Des Clarke busting a gut in the jester role, the King’s panto isn’t quite firing on all cylinders. Which makes the hilarious and assured performance by Gary Lamont (River City’s Robbie Fraser) as the Prince’s manservant Dandini all the more of a stand-out.

If the King’s show lacks a bit of energy, the same cannot be said of Aladdin, starring Marti Pellow as baddie Abanazar. Which is just as well, as the production, from major pantomime producer Qdos Entertainment, needs all the vigour it can get in order to generate some atmosphere in the unforgiving, cavernous venue that is the SECC Clyde Auditorium (aka “The Armadillo”).

The SECC Christmas show is a relative newcomer to the Scottish panto scene. Like its competitor over at the King’s, it has gone through some turbulence in recent times.

Last year, David Hasselhoff famously replaced John Barrowman  in the lead role. This year The Krankies, who seemed to be permanent fixtures in the SECC show, have departed south, where they’re back with Barrowman in the Birmingham Hippodrome’s panto.

The Armadillo show (which is co-authored by Michael Harrison and prolific Scottish panto writer Alan McHugh) won’t be beaten for glitz, glamour or theatre technology. Its 3D animation (in which we encounter all manner of scary animals and ghouls on our way to Abanazar’s Egyptian hideout) is something to behold, as is the illusion that Aladdin (Michael Colbourne) and his daft brother Wishee Washee (Johnny Mac) are actually flying on a magic carpet.

Pellow (who is, of course, an experienced musical theatre performer) acquits himself well, and, like co-stars Wendy Mae Brown (The Empress), Frances Mayli McCann (The Princess), Shona White (the beneficent spirit Scheherazade) and Colbourne himself, the former Wet Wet Wet frontman is in excellent singing voice. Indeed, the focus of the production seems to have shifted from comedy to song. The sprightly Mac (with his witless catchphrase, “I’m enjoying myself!”) and the talented, but over-burdened, dame Iain Stuart Robertson (Widow Twankey) struggle to fill the comic gap left by The Krankies.

There are no such problems at Perth Concert Hall, where Ian Grieve directs top dame Barrie Hunter and a superb cast in a fabulously crazy production of Dick McWhittington (written by the seemingly ubiquitous McHugh). In this Caledonian version of the famous tale, Dick (John Winchester) has to be persuaded to give up his dreams of going to London to win The X Factor, as Perth is in danger of being overrun by the evil Queen Rat (Eleanor Griffiths) and her verminous army.

The baddies are soon facing Dick and his fearless sidekick Kitty the cat (a cross between Top Cat and Hong Kong Phooey, played with great verve and charm by Helen Mackay). Meanwhile Hunter’s sweety shop manager Senga McScruff (mother to Harry Ward’s wonderfully comic panto dafty Sandy) has the hots for her boss Stanley Mills (the excellent Ian Bustard as a dodgy dealing, Arthur Daley type who seems to own half of Perth).

As if this isn’t bonkers enough, Stanley has done a ludicrous deal to export sweets to the blue-blooded Moroccan Sultan Vinegar (Ryan Paterson) and his Cockney daughter Babs (Camrie Palmer). Cue a cruise, en masse, to North Africa, on which Hunter reconfirms his place as Scotland’s finest panto dame with a gloriously over-the-top performance.

While Perth, once again, makes a strong case for being the best pantomime in the country, Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre is upholding its tradition of producing lively, stylish and brilliantly acted works of family theatre at Christmas time. This version of Hansel & Gretel, staged by the Citz’s acclaimed artistic director Dominic Hill, is the famous German fairytale, but not quite as you know it.

Stuart Paterson (adaptor of many a children’s story for the Yuletide stage) has brought the cosmic battle between good and bad magic (wizard Orin versus witch Banshee) into the story. Indeed, Banshee (aka La Stregamama) lives, not in a gingerbread house, but in the deliciously sweet fortune teller’s caravan of a circus in which she holds the performers hostage.

Thanks to Paterson’s mastery of structure, this narrative holds together surprisingly well, and the circus characters (who also perform live music) provide splendid colour to the show. Needless to say, the abandoning of the poor siblings Hansel and Gretel (Shaun Miller and Karen Fishwick on splendidly innocent-yet-intrepid form) remains at the very heart of a tale well told.

Rachael Canning’s designs (not least a terrifying, massive puppet of the witch queen and beautiful costumes for the circus performers) exemplify another top class Citz Christmas show.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on December 18, 2016

© Mark Brown

Review: Hansel & Gretel, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow (Daily Telegraph)






Review by Mark Brown

Gretel and the circus folk in Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Tim Morozzo

Arrive at the Citizens Theatre for its production of Hansel & Gretel and one is greeted, not by a deep, dark forest or the modest home of the titular siblings’ woodcutter father, but by the beautifully costumed members of a circus. There’s a juggling clown, a stilt walking harlequin, an acrobat and a bunch of musicians dressed to perform in a big top.

One could be forgiven for thinking that one has walked into the wrong show. After all, the scene seems a million miles from the age-old German fairytale that was popularised by the Brothers Grimm.

Yet, Hansel & Gretel it is, albeit reimagined by Stuart Paterson, Scotland’s prolific author of plays based upon children’s stories. In this retelling, the intrepid children find themselves abandoned in a forest in which the queen of the witches Banshee (aka La Stregamama) is in command.

Posing as a Gypsy fortune teller in the circus, the cannibalistic witch lives, not in a gingerbread house, but in a caravan made of all manner of cakes and sweets. As in the original version of the tale, Hansel and Gretel are the victims of the wickedness of their stepmother (Irene Allan) and the naivety of their father (John Kielty). However, here they are also assisted by the good, but weakened, wizard Orin (John O’Mahony).

This narrative may sound a little convoluted, but, in the hands of Paterson, the Citizens’ acclaimed artistic director Dominic Hill and a fine ensemble, it all fits into place nicely. As so often in Hill’s productions, live music and sound are used to great effect, enhancing the story’s sense of fun and adventure, and, when necessary, creating a premonitory atmosphere of menace and danger.

Karen Fishwick (Gretel) and Shaun Miller (Hansel) have all the innocence, energy and courage necessary to prove correct Orin’s insistence (borrowed, it seems, from  Franklin D. Roosevelt) that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. By contrast, Allan is brilliantly loathsome, both as the wily and seductive stepmother and the vicious, but hilariously vain La Stregamama.

The set, costume and puppet designs by Rachael Canning make complete a production that exudes class in all departments. From her bleak forest and colourful circus, to impressive puppets (an adorable monkey and a terrifying, gargantuan witch queen), her work is tremendously attuned to the demands of another stylish and enchanting Citizens Christmas show.

Until January 7.

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on December 13, 2016

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Christmas theatre 2016, week 2 (Sunday Herald)




Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Until December 31


Scrooge: The Musical

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Until December 23


The Snaw Queen

Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Until January 7


Black Beauty

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Until December 24


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Tam Dean Burn and Alan Francis in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photo: Drew Farrell

If any Scottish dramatist was a shoo-in to adapt and direct Lewis Carroll’s much loved book Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland for the stage it was Anthony Neilson. His most critically acclaimed play, The Wonderful World Of Dissocia (2004), is a Carrollesque fantasia (albeit one for adult audiences) that occurs within the mind of a young woman suffering from dissociative disorder.

In turning Carroll’s tale into a work of family theatre, Neilson and his team have created the classiest, most beautiful, most engaging production imaginable. Designer Francis O’Connor, in particular, has created costumes and sets that will be remembered for many years to come.

From the gloriously nervous White Rabbit to the Mad Hatter (who has a huge, mainly loose, screw on top of his head), every character is brought to the most effervescent visual life. The uncluttered, yet fabulously detailed, set designs are equally impressive.

The smooth scene changes transform the stage wonderfully time and time again, whether it is the kitchen of Alan Francis’s brilliant, cross-dressed Duchess or the croquet lawn of the Queen of Hearts (who is played with delightful crazinesss by Gabriel Quigley). It is rare that a show on the Lyceum stage matches so perfectly the opulence of this grand, Victorian auditorium.

Neilson has assembled a top class ensemble led by Jess Peet, whose Alice is a superb combination of wide-eyed curiosity and precocious self-assertion. There’s a decidedly trippy Caterpillar (Zoe Hunter) and a fantastically nutty Hatter (Tam Dean Burn), not to mention a charmingly droopy Dormouse (Isobel McArthur).

The music and songs, by Nick Powell, draw marvellously on a variety of sources, not least The Beatles in their more hallucinogenic phase. Which only adds to the sense of this story as a gorgeous dream that unfolds in the mind of a particularly imaginative and intrepid child.

From Neilson’s enthralling, carefully honed script to O’Connor’s unforgettable designs, this production turns Carroll’s book into a beautifully paced, often hilarious and deeply memorable piece of theatre.

From the dream of a child to the nightmares of a shrivel-souled, old skinflint in Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s staging of Leslie Bricusse’s Scrooge: The Musical. The “theatre in the hills” is to be commended for establishing itself so firmly as Scotland’s premier producing house for musicals. A reputation which this fine production reconfirms.

Based on his own screenplay and music for the 1970 movie Scrooge, starring Albert Finney in the title role, Bricusse’s 1992 stage show bristles with such popular songs as ‘I Like Life’ and ‘Thank You Very Much’ (the latter of which, famously, turned up in a TV advert for chocolates). Director Richard Barron stages the piece with considerable gusto here, drawing on PFT’s strengths in live music, ensemble performance and design.

Dickens’s great curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge is played intelligently by Philip Rham, as not only a detestable miser, but also a vulnerably human, almost pitiful figure. His London is, in the hands of designer Adrian Rees, a picture postcard of yuletide Victoriana (although, in contrast to the Lyceum show, the set appears a little cumbersome in its moments of transformation).

As Scrooge is shown Christmases past, present and future, the all-singing, all-dancing ensemble present some lovely recreations of great Dickens set pieces. As Mr Fezziwig (Robin Harvey Edwards on fabulously avuncular form) throws his famous party, we are reminded that Dickens wrote his vivid prose to be performed (principally by himself).

There are, in truth occasional blemishes in the production. For a start, not everyone in the cast sings and dances as well as Lee Dillon-Stuart (even if his Cockney lad Tom Jenkins does veer into Dick Van Dyke territory), and the less said about the flimsy puppet that represents the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, the better.

That said, this is, ultimately, a confident, assured and, in Scrooge’s final, energetic transformation, totally heart-warming staging of a justly celebrated work of musical theatre.

It’s not just hearts that are being warmed at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre, where men’s laps are also feeling the heat; mainly because they’re being sat on by the irrepressible force of nature that is Johnny McKnight. Whoever coined the term “as camp as Christmas” clearly hadn’t foreseen McKnight’s The Snaw Queen (which is written, directed and, in no small measure, performed by the man himself).

Now firmly established as the Tron’s Mr Panto, the writer and performer reprises his unlikely Santa drag queen Kristine ‘Cagney’ Kringle. A goodie she may be, but Kringle (whose taste in pop culture and progressive politics is, one suspects, uncannily close to McKnight’s own) makes for a very unorthodox Santa indeed.

The gender switch to Mother Christmas is the least of it. Kringle lays into audience members, commenting bitchily on their hair and their fashion sense like a camp Frankie Boyle after too many glasses of Prosecco.

Playing fast and loose with Hans Christian Andersen’s story of The Snow Queen, McKnight and his excellent cast turn the Danish tale into a gallus, Glaswegian pastiche pantomime. The ever-excellent Darren Brownlie also drags up brilliantly, as he is transformed by a malignant shard of glass from the cute, inexplicably Irish Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer into the high-kicking, splits-performing, malevolent glamourpuss that is the Snaw Queen.

There’s royalty on the Glasgow subway, a-not-so-evil penguin sidekick (the hilarious Christopher Jordan-Marshall) and the intrepid Elvira (a sort of Weegie Wonderwoman, played by Louise McCarthy on typically top comic and vocal form). All of which points to yet another Christmas hit for the talented McKnight and chums, even if, like the Tron’s postmodern pantos of yore, it seems better suited to adults than younger children.

Andy Cannon (left) and Andy Manley in Black Beauty. Photo: Traverse Theatre

A show that definitely is for kids is Black Beauty at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre. Created by the top Scottish children’s theatre team of Andy Cannon, Andy Manley and Shona Reppe, and performed by the two Andys, it is a delightfully quirky show for audiences aged six and over.

Black Beauty is, perhaps, best known in the UK as the 1970s TV series inspired by Anna Sewell’s 19th-century novel about an adventurous and fearless horse. Here the story is placed in the hands of “equestrian illusionists” (that’s pantomime horse performers to you and me) the McCuddy brothers, Andys Sr and Jr.

The lads are down on their luck, on account of theatres’ latter day preference for panto cows. Stuck in a lay-by, having had to sell their car, they are left with nothing besides a horse trailer and a tandem.

As they take refuge in Sewell’s book, they are assisted by a wonderfully nostalgic, horsey soundtrack (including, of course, the theme tune from the ITV Black Beauty series and the clip-cloppy music that used to accompany the BBC’s equestrian coverage).

Played on Reppe’s ingenious, versatile, slightly bonkers set, the piece is performed with great invention, humour and affection by Cannon and Manley. Indeed, the pair make a great double act, with Cannon playing the protective, authoritative figure to Manley’s dopey younger brother, who, given the chance, invents a hilarious story in which Black Beauty marries My Little Pony.

Very funny and deliciously unique, this Black Beauty isn’t just for young children. Even my son (a 16-year-old Glaswegian) was impressed. “It was”, he said, “neigh bad”.

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

© Mark Brown