Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Until January 3
TRACKS OF THE WINTER BEAR
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Until December 24
Reviewed by Mark Brown
Imagine, if you will, that Bertolt Brecht, that great innovator of 20th-century theatre, had taken time out from railing against the evils of war and fascism and set to work on the Grimm Brothers’ retelling of the great fairytale Rapunzel. Throw in a bit of Marx (the madcap comedy of Groucho, that is) and you have something approximating director Lu Kemp’s fabulous Christmas show for Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre.
The show begins on a stripped back stage, onto which are brought only those props, puppets and musical instruments that are required by the story. Then there are the meta-theatrical gags; such as blue-blooded suitor Patrizio asking the stage manager if there’s time for one more kiss with his beloved Rapunzel.
In Annie Siddons’s delightfully unhinged adaptation of the Grimms’ tale, the evil emanates from a full-time herbalist, Mother Gothel (Wendy Seager on fine form), who dabbles in a bit of witchcraft on the side. Having raised the abandoned Rapunzel as her own, she promptly locks her up in a tower the moment that adolescence arrives.
What follows is a slightly insane, often picaresque adventure in which the rogue Ambrosi (a wonderfully funny performance from Peter Collins) is at least as heroic as Ewan Somers’s sympathetic and tragic Patrizio. Audacious live rock music, played by superb musician Cat Myers and the universally excellent cast, is as bright and bold as the characterisations.
All of which would mean little without a great Rapunzel, and Kemp has one in the shape of acclaimed, young actress Jessica Hardwick. Endearingly rumbustious, Hardwick’s heroine is hilarious in her unbridled passion for Patrizio (whose face seems in danger of being kissed off).
However, she is also tremendously empathetic, taking us with her in the play’s bleaker moments, when Patrizio searches for his love in darkness.
Daring, extremely funny, unafraid of the cruelty in the Grimms’ story, and quite unique in its theatrical approach, this is a family production worth climbing a tower for.
Alternatively, if you’re not taking children with you, Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre has established itself as the place to go for live drama aimed at adults during the Christmas season. This year’s offering, Tracks Of The Winter Bear, pretends to be a two-act play with two distinct writers. What it is, in fact, is a double bill of two very distinct short plays.
The first, written by Stephen Greenhorn and directed by Zinnie Harris, is a moving story of a working-class, lesbian couple from Edinburgh who have been separated by illness. Although it shifts back-and-forth in time as if it were an early Tarantino movie, River City creator Greenhorn’s writing rarely strays from soap opera-style naturalism.
There is a powerful, uncomprehending sadness in Deborah Arnott’s playing of Shula (the lover who is left behind). Her encounters with would-be Samaritans who, ultimately, reconfirm her solitude are painfully realistic.
The second playlet, by Rona Munro (author of the acclaimed play Iron and the opinion-splitting James Plays) and directed by Orla O’Loughlin, is a darkly comic affair. A dodgy Winter Wonderland theme park in northern Scotland is plunged into crisis when its polar bear escapes.
The bear (a lovely performance from Caroline Deyga) can talk, both in its own voice and those of the people it has eaten. Its encounter with Jackie, the Wonderland’s newly unemployed Mrs Claus (the ever-fantastic Kathryn Howden), becomes a journey into Jackie’s soul.
Ending, poignantly, back on the streets of an Edinburgh housing scheme, and, like Greenhorn’s piece, blessed by beautifully simple set and lighting designs (by Kai Fischer and Simon Wilkinson), Munro’s mini-play is an emotive and highly original piece of alternative Christmas theatre.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on December 13, 2015
© Mark Brown