Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Various dates until October 15
Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Various dates until October 13
Reviewed by Mark Brown
It is one of the peculiarities of modern Scottish theatre that it has not developed a strong musical theatre strand. For sure, the likes of Aberdeen’s excellent Sound festival (whose operetta The Garden is currently playing in China) are trying to address the issue. So, too, is the National Theatre of Scotland, with shows such Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour and The 306: Dawn.
The fact remains, however, that lovers of the stage musical are not particularly well catered for in Scotland’s playhouses. Except, that is, at Pitlochry Festival Theatre.
The “theatre in the hills” has, in recent times, become the place to go in Scotland for productions of much-loved Broadway and West End musicals. This year’s summer season is no different, as PFT offers a charming staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s famous show Carousel.
First staged in 1945, R&H’s second collaboration, which was described by Time magazine as the greatest musical of the 20th century, improbably relocates Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar’s 1909 drama Liliom from a Budapest fairground to a coastal resort on the eastern seaboard of the United States. There the upright, young millworker Julie Jordan takes a walk on the wild side as she falls in love with the ill-reputed, but handsome, carousel barker Billy Bigelow.
The rest is pathos, tragedy, a trip to Heaven and one of the most famous songs in the history of the stage musical (a song, indeed, which has found its way into British football folklore).
This Pitlochry production, directed by PFT’s artistic director John Durnin, gives us the show straight. Billy (sung somewhat better than he is played by George Arvidson) is as close as a human being can be to a coin; that is to say that, flip him, and you will find he is bad on one side and good on the other.
Julie (the excellent Anna McGarahan) is a similarly two-dimensional character. Tired of always playing by the rules, she is drawn towards bad boy Billy as a moth is attracted to a flame.
Such broad-brush characterisations are part-and-parcel of the Broadway musical and Durnin and his generally fine ensemble do a fine job of bringing us the show in all its colourful vitality. From the opening fairground scene, complete with a working carousel, constructed before our eyes (and deservedly applauded by the PFT audience, who often express their appreciation of the work of the theatre’s excellent design department), it is clear that we are in for a polished and professional production.
Designer Adrian Rees has created perfectly pitched sets and costumes, with the curious exception of the ugliest trees I have ever seen on a theatre stage. The live band brings us lively renditions of such famous numbers as the timely June is Bustin’ Out All Over and the UK football stadium anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone.
Fans of Celtic Football Club may argue that they have the earlier claim on adopting the song, but it seems pretty clear that it was Liverpool fans who sang it first, shortly after Merseyside band Gerry and the Pacemakers released their cover version in 1963. In any case, the song is given a couple of touching renditions in Pitlochry, and there was neither a football scarf to be seen nor a dry eye in the house.
If Carousel is a theatrical evergreen, one might be forgiven a touch of scepticism as to whether the same can be said of Thark, Ben Travers’s 1927 Aldwych Farce. A comedy of manners, the play deals in a series of gloriously English stereotypes; from the caddish philanderer Sir Hector Benbow (think the late Alan Clark MP, but with more charm and no dodgy arms deals) to the nouveau riche, h-dropping Mrs Frush.
The play is set, by turns, in Sir Hector’s grand house in “town” (i.e. London) and in his recently sold, reputedly haunted country residence, Thark, in Norfolk. Sir Hector’s efforts to get his leg over with the nubile-but-knowing young shop worker Cherry Buck are knocked off course by Mrs Frush’s efforts to undo her purchase of Thark, on the grounds that the place gives her the heebie jeebies.
The play includes many of the staples of British comedy (including Lady Benbow, a killjoy battleaxe who could have been the model for Sybil Fawlty). It’s little surprise that Travers’s play found its way onto cinema and TV screens in the decades after it premiered, starting with a movie made at Elstree Studios in 1932.
The play may look a tad dated, but there’s no faulting director Ken Alexander’s production. There are strong, comic performances throughout, not least from Helen Logan as Lady B and Dougal Lee as the ghoulish factotum Jones.
The linchpin of the whole thing is Sir Hec himself, of course, and Mark Elstob (Pitlochry’s current matinee idol) all but steals the show. As we saw with his standout performance as pampered, rich actor Garry Essendine in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter at PFT three years ago, Elstob excels in playing these over-the-top, upper class characters. His latest, louche performance is a joy.
The only thing that might possibly upstage Mr Elstob is Nigel Hook’s stage design. Both locations (from the Benbow’s Mayfair pad, resplendent in fox hunting designs, to the creepy Thark, complete with racist lampstands) are superb, and the logistics of a major set change in Act 2 are something to behold.
For performance dates, visit: pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com
An abridged version of these reviews was originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 12, 2016
© Mark Brown