Reviews: Crude, Port of Dundee & Walking on Walls, Oran Mor, Glasgow



Crude: An Exploration Of Oil

Port of Dundee

Until October 23


Walking On Walls

Seen at Oran Mor, Glasgow;

transferring to Traverse, Edinburgh,

October 18-22


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Crude, by Grid Iron. Photo: Eoin Carey

“Money”, as the song has it, “makes the world go round”. However, as we are reminded by Crude: An Exploration Of Oil (the latest show by Scotland’s site-specific theatre specialists Grid Iron), the modern, globalised economy runs on the fossil fuel that is both capitalism’s most controversial and most ubiquitous commodity.

The play is performed in a cavernous, metal shed in the Port of Dundee; to which, having had their photo IDs checked, audience members are bussed from a city centre car park. On arrival at the port, we are met with the impressive sight of an illuminated oil rig (currently harboured on Tayside for maintenance work); indeed, one suspects that the rig, rather than the shed in which the production is presented, is the primary reason for writer/director Ben Harrison’s choice of location.

Inside the shed itself, illuminated hard hats guide us to our seats and to a huge stage that is dominated by a representation of an oil well and a massive screen (on which we see a counter giving us the burgeoning figure for the number of barrels of oil extracted worldwide since our buses pulled into the port at 7.55pm). The show that unfolds is a very well researched, but frustratingly uneasy, combination of documentary drama with disjointed playlets that explore diverse issues relating to the international oil industry.

A Scottish oil contractor is kidnapped in the Niger Delta (where rage about the economic and environmental price of the oil industry has created an African “Wild West”); an abseiling environmental activist is charged with “terrorism” offences in Russia; a North Sea worker’s marriage begins to implode under the pressure of his absences. As these stories, and others, are played out by a talented ensemble, we are also offered an array of (often sobering) facts about oil and a series of horrifying recollections from survivors of the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster in which 167 North Sea workers died.

It is coincidental, no doubt, that Crude is being staged while the Dundee Rep Ensemble are touring their production of John McGrath’s famous play The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil. There is no coincidence, however, in the fact that one of the leading characters in Grid Iron’s show is a Stetson-wearing American oil man called Texas Jim; a figure who, according to one’s taste, has either been reverently borrowed or shamelessly stolen from McGrath’s drama.

One admires the ambition of Crude, but, in contrast to Roam (the piece inspired by the airline industry, which Harrison directed inside Edinburgh International Airport for Grid Iron and the National Theatre of Scotland in 2006), this makes for an overloaded, incoherent and (thanks to its choice of venue) uncomfortably cold 90 minutes of theatre. The production’s attempts to impress with video work, aerial performance and song founder on both the show’s structural weaknesses and its poor choice of venue.

The capacious shed has such dreadful, reverberating acoustics that (despite the actors wearing microphones) much of what is said and sung is lost. For an experienced site-specific company such as Grid Iron to select such an unsuitable venue really is difficult to forgive.

Andy Clark and Helen Mackay in Walking on Walls. Photo: Oran Mor

There’s a different kind of unevenness in Walking On Walls, Morna Pearson’s new drama for the famous lunchtime theatre season A Play, A Pie And A Pint. This mini-play is what one might call, on account of its front-loaded frivolity, a comitragedy.

Set in a typical, open plan office, director Rosie Kellagher’s production finds irresponsible dog owner Fraser (Andy Clark) trussed up by Claire (Helen Mackay), an obsessive statistics analyst who seems to be colliding neighbourhood watch activism with the exploits of the characters from Marvel comics. As the “gender neutral”, would-be superhero SHP (Super Helpful Person) and her unfortunate captive wait for the understandably tardy cops to arrive, we are treated to a play of sometimes pleasing silliness and occasional flashes of wit (not least a very decent gag about Mary Poppins).

Claire, it transpires, is the kind of person who helpfully calculates people’s life expectancy in relation to their current alcohol intake. As she boasts of the inevitably rigorous tidiness of her workstation, her assertion that she is “not a nerd” grows flimsier by the minute.

Although the piece is light on its feet, there is obviously something lurking in both the recesses of Claire’s mind and a troubled past she shares with Fraser. Like a latter day Aesop, Pearson pulls out the morals (regarding the impact of school bullying and the need for people in glass houses not to lob stones) with a touch that is somewhat less-than-subtle.

Nevertheless, Walking On Walls is a painless, if not particularly memorable, 50 minutes of theatre; and one that is certainly blessed to have, in Mackay and Clark, two of the best actors currently working in Scottish theatre.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 16, 2016

© Mark Brown

Preview: Home Away festival, National Theatre of Scotland at Tramway, Glasgow

Theatre Without Walls, and Borders

The National Theatre of Scotland’s Home Away programme of “participatory arts” brings together community and professional artists from throughout Scotland and the world. By Mark Brown

Glasgow Bangladeshi piece MEMORi. Photo: Peter Dibdin

When the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) began, as a “theatre without walls”, 10 years ago, it commissioned 10 productions in 10 locations throughout Scotland, each to take as its starting point the idea of “Home”. Now, in celebration of the NTS’s first decade of work, and as a reflection of the company’s international connections, it is presenting a performance programme entitled Home Away.

Curated by NTS associate director Simon Sharkey, and performed over five days at Glasgow’s international arts venue Tramway, the programme brings together community performers and theatre makers with established artists. The work comes from 10 Scottish and global locations, ranging from Dundee to Rio de Janeiro.

As Sharkey explains, when I meet him at the NTS headquarters in Glasgow, the purpose of the project is to ask what the word “community” means in our world of globalised communication. There is much more to community arts than the local amdram society, and Sharkey’s career is evidence of that.

Inspired by the community work of Scottish companies such as TAG (Theatre Around Glasgow) and Theatre Workshop in Edinburgh, he joined the Washington Street Arts Centre in Glasgow as a teenager. At the age of 15 he was performing in an opera and touring Belgium.

“I’m a product of these enlightened people who say, ‘we can have a dialogue with Belgian artists in this age group'”, he explains.

Influenced by this kind of experience, the NTS Learn department, which Sharkey heads, wanted to bring community artists into the heart of its process of exploration.

The director gives as an example MEMORi, a transcontinental piece created by the Bangladesh Association of Glasgow (BAG) and theatrEX of Bangladesh. BAG was established in 1971, by Bangladeshi people who came to Glasgow seeking refuge from the war in what was then known as East Pakistan.

Sharkey, who is one of the writers on the project, remembers a key moment in the creation of the piece. He was sitting talking with the Scots-Bangladeshi artists at the moment when the terrible photograph of the drowned Kurdish-Syrian child Alan Kurdi first appeared on television.

“We all just stopped talking”, he recalls. “They [the Glasgow Bangladeshi performers] just opened up with this memory that they’ve never shared, about them as kids escaping the 1971 war. I was just blown away by it. I thought ‘this story has got to be told’.”

Sharkey wants audiences coming to the Tramway event to be aware that productions such as MEMORi will be very different in their theatrical form from the kind of work Scottish theatregoers are used to seeing. Bringing together community performers from BAG with professional theatre makers from the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, the piece will reflect the tremendous geographical and cultural journey Glasgow’s Bangladeshi community has made over the last 45 years.

Fuaigh (which translates into English as “Interweaving”) from South Uist relates to a different journey. Looking back at the life of the Gaelic writer Dòmhnall Mac an t-Saoir (Donald MacIntyre), who was known as the “Paisley Bard”, it considers the consequences of losing language and aspects of one’s culture.

In 1962, as Sharkey explains, MacIntryre, who hailed from South Uist, but lived much of his life in Paisley, “was chucking all of the stories and poems that he’d brought with him from South Uist literally into the fire.

“He didn’t feel that he could integrate into this community. His daughter saved a lot of it, but the Gaels are still living with what happened.”

The piece, which, in the director’s words “brings together South Uist Gaels with urban Gaels”, seeks to explore that moment of crisis for MacIntyre, and what it meant, and continues to mean, to the Gaedhealtacht. Created by the Fuaigh Arts Collective, it brings together language, performance, music and stage visuals.

Sharkey is particularly pleased to be presenting Antes Que Tudo Acabe (Before Everything Ends) by the Nucleo de Artes Integradas of Rio de Janeiro. The almost apocalyptic title relates, perhaps, to the social crisis in Brazil, in which the luxurious lives of the rich contrast starkly with the grinding poverty that pertains in the sprawling slums known as favelas.

It is, says the director, a “spectacular” piece of performance art. “It opened with a three-week run in Rio”, he explains. “They’re saying in Brazil that they haven’t had this kind of work there for over 30 years.”

Before Everything Ends has a political edge, Sharkey continues, which gives it an added piquancy in the current political climate in Brazil. The recent impeachment of leftist former president Dilma Rousseff and the replacement of her administration with a government of the right has exacerbated the political divisions in a country with a history a right-wing military juntas.

The company is making a bold statement, says Sharkey. “They’re going, ‘hey Brazil! We’re being invited to Scotland to tell them what it’s like to be a Brazilian artist. This is what we’re going to tell them.”

Elsewhere in the programme there are shows such as The Hidden House, which involves projected visual artworks, storytelling, poetry and music from the isolated rural community of Tomintoul and Glenlivet in Morayshire. “Not many people know about Graeme Roger”, comments the director. “He’s a brilliant video artist, a graduate from Duncan of Jordanstone [College of Art and Design, in Dundee].

“Graeme’s making theatre up there that’s just stunning, because it comes from a visual art background.”

Home Away also offers a remarkable performance launching The Adam World Choir, a group of more than 100 transsexual and non-binary singers from around the world who have come together through an online forum. Their Glasgow show will mark their first performance together in the same place.

The Choir, says Sharkey, exemplifies the project, which seeks to offer, “a theatre of possibility and opportunity in which artists and audiences can gather together in a space and genuinely have a dialogue.” The 2016 programme is, he insists, “only the beginning.”

For details of the Home Away programme, visit:

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 2, 2016

© Mark Brown

Review: Richard Alston Dance Company (Autumn 2016), Festival Theatre, Edinburgh



Richard Alston Dance Company

Seen at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

At Theatre Royal, Glasgow, November 3


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Vidya Patel and Liam Riddick in An Italian in Madrid. Photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou

This autumn tour by the Richard Alston Dance Company can only enhance the group’s reputation for contemporary dance that is simultaneously stylish, virtuosic and diverse. It is comprised of seven short pieces, four of which were presented at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre.

An Italian In Madrid is testament to an admirable gentility in Alston’s work. A narrative choreography about the lives of the Neapolitan composer Domenico Scarlatti and his student, the Portuguese princess Maria Barbara, it seems more like the stuff of classical ballet than of contemporary dance.

Given the pressure on choreographers to be “cutting edge” and “controversial”, there is something almost daring in Alston’s choice of such refined subject matter. The keyboard sonatas the Italian composer wrote for his royal pupil (which are played live by the splendid pianist Jason Ridgway) are undeniably Baroque, yet also infused with the unmistakeable passion of the Andalusian music Scarlatti encountered in Spain.

As we witness the princess’s romantic encounters with her betrothed, the Spanish prince Fernando, the music proves particularly well-suited to Alston’s graceful duets and charming solos.

The company’s programme in Glasgow (on November 3) will be somewhat different from that presented in Edinburgh. However, there are two pieces from the Festival Theatre performance, namely Alston’s Mazur and Stronghold, by the company’s associate choreographer Martin Lawrance, that will also be seen on Clydeside.

Mazur, which takes as its subject Chopin’s anguished exile from Poland, is built around expressive solos and pas de deux which reflect the solidarity of the composer and a fellow refugee.

Stronghold is a stripped back, minimalist work for five female and five male dancers. Danced to Julia Wolfe’s music (for eight double basses) of the same name, it is as invigorating in its creative use of light and shadow as it is in its energetic, well-ordered choreography.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 2, 2016

© Mark Brown

Preview: The Suppliant Women, Lyceum, Edinburgh

Gimme Shelter

Aeschylus’s The Suppliant Women, a 2,500-year-old play about refugees, promises to be both shockingly relevant to our times and startlingly strange in its performance. By Mark Brown


When, in May of this year, acclaimed playwright David Greig announced his first season as artistic director of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, there was widespread excitement about his choices. Perhaps the greatest appreciation, and surprise, was reserved for his programming of The Suppliant Women by the great, Ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus.

Although we know Aeschylus, on account of master works such as The Oresteia and Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliant Women is far less familiar to modern theatregoers. That’s because, as the only surviving part of a trilogy, it is very rarely performed.

Yet, telling the story of The Daniads, 50 Egyptian women who seek refuge in the Greek city of Argos, it could hardly be more resonant with our times.

Greig has written a new adaptation of the drama for a co-production by the Lyceum and the London-based Actors Touring Company (ATC). As he says, when I meet him in Edinburgh, the play “feels as if it could have been written yesterday.”

Indeed, as he began reading the play, the playwright found himself astonished by just how close this foundation myth of Ancient Argos is to the current migration crisis in the Mediterranean: “One of the opening lines goes: ‘We are women of Egypt, neighbours of Syria, who left the Nile on a boat.'”

The Lyceum production brings together the same team who created the 2013 play The Events. In addition to Greig as writer, Ramin Gray of ATC directs, while composer John Browne creates the music.

The common currency between the three is an interest in the theatre chorus. “The chorus [who represent the titular refugees] is the protagonist” in the play, Greig tells me. “That’s unusual in Greek theatre. In fact, it’s unusual in theatre in general.”

As with The Events, the new production, which will tour to Belfast and Newcastle-upon-Tyne after its Lyceum performances, is built around a chorus of local performers. In each city the show will feature an amateur chorus of 50 women who have volunteered for a pretty intensive period of training. This is, says Greig, “the Ancient Greek model”, in which an amateur, well-trained chorus interacted with professional actors.

The great excitement about Aeschylus’s play for Greig is that, when returned to its dramatic origins, it is a very different proposition from the kind of modern play one might expect to see written about the migration crisis.

“Ancient Greek work generally, and this play in particular, are pre-Judeo-Christian and pre-Hollywood”, he says. “The Greeks ruthlessly counterpose thesis and antithesis, and they refuse to make things easy for the audience.”

Most significantly, that means The Suppliant Women does not have a comforting, redemptive resolution. Instead, the play requires its audience to face up to some stark realities regarding human societies and democracy.

The story of The Daniads was a well-known piece of folklore in the Athens of 463 BC. For Aeschylus’s audience the story came from a distant past.

In the play the King of Argos is faced with what he thinks is an irresolvable moral and political conundrum. On the one hand, he fears that his people are so xenophobic that allowing the refugee women into the city will lead to civil war.

On the other, he is troubled by the morality of refusing them asylum. Barring the door to the Egyptians would, he says, risk enraging the gods and bringing pestilence upon Argos.

Although the second and third parts of Aeschylus’s trilogy are lost to us, we know the remainder of the narrative from surviving fragments of the texts and from contemporary accounts, by the theatre critics of the day, among others.

Greig believes that the Lyceum audience “needs to know what the Greek audience would have known” about the story. “I want our audience to enjoy the play, but with the ironies that the Greeks would have experienced”, he says. Consequently, Lyceum patrons can expect additional material, written by Greig, that places the drama in the context of the wider narrative.

For Greig, Gray and Browne, presenting such a little-performed classical play is an opportunity to “revisit Greek theatre as an experience in music, rhythm, ritual and strangeness.” This is particularly true of the use of the aulos, the Ancient Greek double pipe instrument which, Gray believes, has not been heard since Aeschylus’s day.

Greig acknowledges that there is “a risk” in trying to return the play – chorus, ritual, aulos and all – to its Ancient performative roots. “I don’t know how people will take it. We will not try to make it familiar.

“Our theory is that if we honour the play’s foreignness [from 21st-century theatre] then the audience will experience how an utterly Ancient culture can speak to us across 2,500 years.”

The Suppliant Women is at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, October 1-15. For more information, visit:

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 25, 2016

© Mark Brown

Review: Trainspotting, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow (Sunday Herald)




Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

Until October 8


Reviewed by Mark Brown




It’s 22 years since Harry Gibson’s stage adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s famous novel Trainspotting premiered in the Citizens Theatre’s stalls studio. Now the play has graduated to the Citz’s main stage.

It may or may not be coincidental that this major production, directed by Gareth Nicholls, comes shortly before the release (next year) of T2, Danny Boyle’s much-anticipated sequel to his celebrated screen adaptation of Welsh’s novel. What is certain, however, is the influence of Boyle’s 1996 film over Nicholls’s show.

As he paints Trainspotting’s tragicomedy of drug addiction and drug dealing across the stage, Nicholls turns repeatedly to the iconic hyperrealism of the film.

Whether it’s “The Worst Toilet in Scotland”, which sits front stage in all its scatological glory, or Spud standing, nervously, in his girlfriend’s kitchen clutching his “carry out” of fouled bed sheets, the production seems tailor made for fans of the movie. The characters themselves, from Lorn MacDonald’s brilliantly loquacious heroin addict Renton to Owen Whitelaw’s high-octane psychopath Begbie, look like they’ve been drawn from the film.

In fairness, the Citz isn’t laying claim to imagistic originality. Its online advert for the production is an homage to Boyle’s movie. Even the promotional material, which features Renton disappearing down the cludgie in pursuit of his opium suppositories, is resplendent in the bright orange that is synonymous with the film.

When the piece does attempt to be more theatrical, the results are decidedly mixed. The use of a curtain towards the back of the stage is a neat scene-changing device. However, movement director EJ Boyle’s choreography in the nightclub scene was, surely, not intended to make the clubbers appear like robotic zombies.

None of which is to say that this is a bad production. In fact, it is as smooth, well-produced and well acted as the movie itself.

The problem is, in being so reverent to Boyle’s screen version, Nicholls’s piece takes on the atmosphere of cult theatre. Although not quite reaching Rocky Horror Show proportions, the more exuberant members of the opening night audience responded to their favourite bits the way rock music fans greet their most-loved songs.

Which is great for the initiated, but not so great for those who hoped that, 23 years after Welsh’s novel was originally published, we might be due a more reflective and creative staging of Trainspotting.

An abridged version of this review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 25, 2016

© Mark Brown

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