Reviews: Alice in Weegieland, Tron Theatre, Glasgow & A Christmas Carol, Dundee Rep



Alice In Weegieland

Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Until January 7


A Christmas Carol

Dundee Rep

Until December 31


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Alice in Weegieland (2)
Jo Freer as Dora and Daisy Ann Fletcher as Alice in Alice in Weegieland. Photo: John Johnston

It’s 12 years since Forbes Masson hung up his Santa hat and departed his role as master of festive revels at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre. If we remember fondly such uproarious pastiche pantomimes as Aladdie and Weans In The Wood, we do so in the seasonal certainty that Johnny McKnight, the Tron’s current Father Christmas, has proved a very worthy successor to Masson.

McKnight is currently over at the MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling donning psychedelic frocks in his self-written, self-directed panto extravaganza Chick Whittington (he’ll be back on the Tron stage next Christmas in Mammy Goose!). This year at the Tron, however, he has placed his latest Glasgow pantomime, the utterly gallus Alice In Weegieland, in the very capable hands of director/designer Kenny Miller.

Yorkshire lass Alice (Daisy Ann Fletcher on splendidly knowing form), flees her failure at the hands of fearsome ballet mistress Fraulein Rot. She follows her feline friend Dinah (Lauren-Ellis Steele) down a cat hole into the weird underground world of Weegieland.

This strangely familiar subterranean paradise is ruled by a malevolent, vain, thin-skinned narcissist from Cathcart (namely, The Queen of Hearts, played by the preposterously fantastic Darren Brownlie). Her Majesty is like Donald Trump, but with a faux posh Scottish accent and an ability to kick her own height. In her queendom, the fashion house of choice is Burberry, statues wear traffic cones on their heads and the local delicacy is a deep fried sausage supper.

In her quest to find Dinah, Alice encounters Catty the Caterpillar (played hilariously by Julie Wilson Nimmo), whose many feet are, she says, “lowpin”. Then there’s Jo Freer’s outrageously brilliant Dora the Dormouse, who lives in a wee hole, but is, in the Gallowgate style, as wide as a barn door (not least when denouncing the Queen as a “rocket”).

However, the real obstruction to Alice’s mission is her love interest Neve (pronounced “Navy”), aka the Knave of Hearts. A cocky young buck with freckles and Newton Mearns vowels, the Queen’s put upon son is given a lung-burstingly funny, fabulously over-the-top characterisation by Scott Fletcher.

Even before curtain up, when we are confronted with a giant letter A in pink neon, one can tell that Miller is the show’s designer. Weegieland itself is, as one would expect of him, as black and white as a St Mirren shirt and as garishly colourful as a party at the late Liberace’s house.

Composer Ross Brown sprinkles the show with a series of cleverly comic songs, including a Queen-style rock opera number for the arrival of the Queen of Hearts and an innuendo-laden, Carry On-style love song.

When McKnight is playing in the MacBob panto, his absence is felt at the Tron. That said, the six-strong cast of Alice In Weegieland does a tremendous job of filling his high heels collectively. Even if the production, which has no closing audience participation number, is completely clootless.

Whereas it is the Tron’s festive function to turn the panto dial up, Spinal Tap-style, to 11, Dundee Rep tends to serve up a Christmas feast of stylish family theatre. That’s certainly the intention this year with director Andrew Panton’s decidedly musical staging of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (in a stage adaptation by Neil Duffield).

Led by Ann Louise Ross as a female Scrooge, the production is a frustratingly uneven Yuletide offering. Richard Evans’s stage designs set the tone, with their almost meaningless, collage-style backdrops and Scrooge’s flown-in counting house, which struggles to find its identity in the midst of the set’s profuse paraphernalia. The less said about the supposedly sinister Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (which Evans attempts to evoke by means of lights for eyes and a couple of huge wings swung over the audience by highly visible stagehands) the better.

Yet, in other moments, Evans brings Dickens’s much-loved tale to abundant life. Lewis Howden is Christmas cheer itself, both as the brightly-attired Mr Fezziwig and the evergreen, Santa-style Ghost of Christmas Present. Irene Macdougall’s Mrs Fezziwig is dressed like an ultra-elaborate Bake Off-winning cake.

Scrooge herself is given an unusual characterisation by Ross. A tad understated in her repetitive “humbugging” at the outset, she nevertheless has a very effective line in purse-lipped parsimony (like a particularly Thatcherite Theresa May defending benefits sanctions). Upon her conversion to Christian humanitarianism, Ross’s Scrooge is as energetic a philanthropist as you are likely to see.

Elsewhere, the Rep Ensemble do director Panton proud. Macdougall (who plays no fewer than four characters) is a frighteningly Calvinist, feminised ghost of Marley, rattling the chains of greed she fashioned during her miserly life on Earth. Howden is a similarly versatile and impressive actor, playing Mr Fezziwig with the perfect combination of generosity, empathy and moral rectitude, and the Ghost of Christmas Present as the very image of benevolence and ethical instruction.

There is no Christmas Carol, of course, without Bob Cratchitt and family. Ewan Donald is, as Dickens requires, so forgiving of his skinflint boss, Scrooge, that one wants to give him an almighty slap, seasonal goodwill notwithstanding. He is ably assisted by Emily Winter (Mrs Cratchitt) and various members of the Ensemble and the young company as Bob’s long-suffering family.

For all its inconsistencies, the production wins one round, not least with its regular recourse to the Christmas songbook. Indeed, there’s a lovely surprise in the closing number, which sends the audience home filled with festive good cheer.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on December 17, 2017

© Mark Brown


Reviews: Cinderella, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow & The Arabian Nights, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (Sunday Herald)




Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

Until December 31


The Arabian Nights

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Until January 6


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Cinderella - Citz
Sinead Sharkey (Cinderella) and Nicholas Ralph (the Prince), centre, in Cinderella. Photo: Tim Morozzo

With this Cinderella (as told by the superb Scottish writer Stuart Paterson), Dominic Hill (director of Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre) achieves a near perfect balance between quality family theatre and festive fun. A beautiful, stylish, brilliantly performed staging of the centuries-old folktale, the production succeeds in eliciting the participation of its audience as and when required.

Designer Gabriella Slade sets the tone for the show by framing the stage with a gorgeous, thematic construction inspired by the workings of a clock. The splendidly-costumed cast is led by a Cinderella (the excellent Sinead Sharkey) who, far from her winsome, pantomime caricature, is strong of mind and independent of spirit.

Indeed, Hill’s production boasts a genuinely exceptional cast. In Peter Collins (the hilarious and big-hearted master chef Sergeant Puff), Irene Allan (the loathsome stepmother Claudia) and Malcolm Shields (who plays both Cinders’ misguided father and the delightfully doddery King) the show has truly top rate actors.

A classy and thoughtful retelling of the story, the production is also very funny. Allan’s Claudia (who is like a female Iago from Kilmacolm) and her hilariously garish daughters Claudette and Claudine (Caroline Deyga and Hannah Howie) take us into panto territory at just the right moments (oh yes they do!).

Regular Citz composer Nikola Kodjabashia has created a smart and varied musical score which has a lovely and surprising jazz thread running through it. Lighting designer Lizzie Powell’s shifting tones provide the piece with just the right amount of gothic atmosphere.

Were I to divulge playwright Paterson’s unconventional denouement I would deserve to be turned into a pumpkin at midnight. Suffice it to say that, given the choice between Callum (a courageous fellow prisoner in the kitchen, played with tremendous attitude by Jatinder Singh Randhawa) and the amusingly sparkle-toothed and self-regarding Prince (Nicholas Ralph), Cinders proves herself to be no Meghan Markle.

Arabian Nights
Rehanna Macdonald, Nicholas Karimi and Nebli Basani in The Arabian Nights. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

If the Clydeside theatre achieves a neat balance between high-end children’s theatre and panto antics, Edinburgh’s repertory theatre, the Lyceum, goes out on something of a limb, programming The Arabian Nights as its Christmas show. Based upon the famous Middle Eastern tales of The One Thousand And One Nights, director Joe Douglas’s production is a thing of beauty.

The play is set, by turns, in a Baghdad street market, the palace of the authoritarian Sultan and, courtesy of some clever logistics, the locations of a selection of the tales told by the beautiful, young storyteller Scheherazade. This version of the over-arching narrative (which, like an impossibly abundant Russian doll, contains stories within stories) has been shorn of its sinister exterior.

Here, thanks to writer Suhayla El-Bushra, Scheherazade is not the latest virgin facing execution by a Sultan who is a genocidal misogynist. Rather, she is telling her stories in order to charm the Sultan into releasing her mother (a fellow storyteller) who is rotting in his prison.

Rehanna MacDonald is wonderfully engaging as Scheherazade, whilst Nicholas Karimi’s Sultan (who goes to bed with his favourite teddy) turns out to be more fun than fearful. The supporting cast, who burst into life as each new tale is told, are superb. It is a particular delight to enjoy the skills of actor, physical theatre performer and puppeteer Tim Licata  (one of Scotland’s finest total theatre artists).

Unlike the Citizens show, the Lyceum production’s attempts at panto-style, participatory theatre are unexpected and random. Consequently, they fall somewhat flat.

That said, the toilet humour of the Arab tales (which is remarkably similar to the lavatorial aspect of British comedy) lends itself to a flatulent dog (represented by an impressively mangey puppet) whose regular eruptions proved a crowd-pleaser on opening night.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on December 10, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: The Arabian Nights, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (Daily Telegraph)






Reviewed by Mark Brown

Arabian Nights #2
Tim Licata and Rehanna MacDonald in The Arabian Nights. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

The Lyceum’s Christmas show, a new version of the famous Arabian Nights written by Suhayla El-Bushra, reminds us that Britain is far from alone in its tradition of toilet humour. The play opens with two talking dogs (represented by puppets), one of whom, Abu Hassan (aka “Stink Bomb”), breaks wind prodigiously throughout the show.

The creature was once, we discover, an ageing, widowed merchant who shamed himself through flatulence on the day of his wedding to a young bride. Unable to escape his ignominy, the mortified merchant eventually threw himself on the mercy of a sorcerer who turned him into a dog.

This canine twist is El-Bushra’s, but the tale of Abu Hassan itself belongs to the great, centuries-old collection of folk tales known as The One Thousand and One Nights. The dogs are just one of a number of innovations that El-Bushra has introduced to repackage the sometimes gruesome stories of The Arabian Nights for a family audience.

Here, for example, Scheherazade spins her tales for the feared Sultan, not to prevent her execution (as has happened to a procession of deflowered virgins before her), but in an effort to free her storyteller mother from the malicious monarch’s prison. The Sultan himself is not a misogynistic serial killer spurred on by the infidelity of his wife, but a bereft man who, in his sadness, has turned his face against stories.

Moving from the market place to the palace and back again, director Joe Douglas’s fleet-footed production enjoys lovely and ingenious design by Francis O’Connor. The multitudinous cast of Scheherazade’s tales emerges from behind splendid, hanging carpets. The Sultan’s opulent bed is turned, in a moment, into a fisherman’s boat.

The liveliness of the narration and re-enactments is matched by composer Tarek Merchant’s eclectic musical score, which veers from Arabic folk influences to a kazoo and ukulele number straight from the British music hall tradition. Fine though much of the music is, some of the narrative songs are sung so quickly as to be largely inaudible.

The show is led impressively by Rehanna MacDonald, who is a captivating, humorous and sympathetic Scheherazade. Nicholas Karimi’s humanised Sultan (who goes to bed with his favourite teddy bear) shines in the midst of a fine cast, as does the accomplished performer Tim Licata as Abu Hassan (and various other characters).

Until January 6. Details:

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on December 6, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Singin’ in the Rain, Pitlochry Festival Theatre






Reviewed by Mark Brown

Singin' in the Rain
Singin’ in the Rain. Photo: Douglas McBride

One could be forgiven for thinking that the marketing department of Pitlochry Festival Theatre (PFT) is endowed with extraordinary powers of foresight. Months before the opening of its new production of Singin’ in the Rain (on December 2) the Perthshire playhouse was advertising the show with posters splashed with star ratings from the critics, including a perfect five stars from this newspaper.

Sad to say, the unconventional publicity campaign owes nothing to clairvoyance and everything to PFT’s dubious practice of advertising its shows using star ratings awarded to previous, entirely different productions of the same play by other, unrelated theatre companies.

If the marketing of the production has been somewhat unorthodox, the show itself is unashamedly conventional and nostalgic. Smart, slick and sometimes splashy, it is the show with which artistic director John Durnin takes his leave of the “Theatre in the Hills” after a successful 15 years at the helm. Blessed with an excellent cast and a fine live band, it is a memorable rendering of, not the 1985 stage production directed by Tommy Steele, but the original MGM movie (starring Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds) from 1952.

Set in the late 1920s, as cinema made the transition from silent films to “talkies”, the play portrays an unrecognisably innocent image of Hollywood. Here, there is nothing more sinister going on than the bad behaviour of Lina Lamont, the diva of the big screen whose voice is most definitely not made for the advent of sound recording.

The famous songs come thick and fast, from Make ‘Em Laugh to You Were Meant for Me and Good Morning. All are performed with a joyful crispness that reconfirms PFT’s position as Scotland’s leading producer of stage musicals.

Fine-voiced and twinkle-toed, Grant Neal (playing movie star Don Lockwood) is every inch the matinee idol. Meanwhile Mari McGinlay is perfect as the talented singer and actress (and Lockwood’s off-screen love interest) Kathy Seldon. Helen Mallon is hilarious as the deluded Lamont (she of the unbearably squeaky voice).

The one slight fly in the ointment is the occasional clumsiness of the set changes (which involve the very visible moving of some pretty cumbersome objects). However, it would take a lot more than a few uncomfortable manoeuvres in the dark to dampen the audience’s enthusiasm for Durnin’s excellent farewell production.

Until December 23. Details:

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on December 5, 2017

© Mark Brown

Feature: The Dolls, SEC pantomime 2017

Hello Dollies

Their comic double act The Dolls has been a hit on stages throughout Scotland and beyond. Now Gayle Telfer Stevens and Louise McCarthy take their gallus Glasgow cleaners onto the big panto stage. By Mark Brown.

The Dolls #1
The Dolls – Louise McCarthy and Gayle Telfer Stevens. Photo: Kirsty Anderson / Herald & Times

When I arrive at Glasgow’s famous “Armadillo” auditorium to interview The Dolls (aka Gayle Telfer Stevens and Louise McCarthy), the comedy duo are already in costume and larking about with the photographer. For two people at their work, they’re having way too much fun.

This will come as no surprise to their legions of fans. Since The Dolls, Agnes and Sadie (west of Scotland cleaners with a solid and uproarious friendship), began their meteoric rise in the spring of 2015, they’ve been having a laugh in full houses all over Scotland, and elsewhere in the UK.

Now the pair are bringing their riotous brand of comedy to the Armadillo’s pantomime Jack And The Beanstalk, in which they star alongside Greg McHugh’s much-loved creation Gary: Tank Commander. The 3,000-seater auditorium at the rebranded SEC (Scottish Events Campus) is the biggest panto venue in Scotland; previous Christmas shows have starred such big names as John Barrowman, David Hasselfhoff and The Krankies.

For Telfer Stevens (who plays Caitlin McLean in the TV soap River City) and McCarthy (currently appearing as DC Andrea McGill in the police spoof Scot Squad) the mega-panto is a wonderful and unexpected opportunity. “We never thought it would get this big this quickly”, says McCarthy of The Dolls’ success.

“I never thought beyond the end of the week”, adds Telfer Stevens. At that, the friends crease up with laughter, which, it must be said, is an infectiously regular occurrence throughout our interview.

The Dolls are a fascinating phenomenon. Very much referencing a golden past of Scottish music hall, they are, surely, the most successful Scottish, female double act since Fran and Anna. Indeed, one might think of them as a female equivalent of Francie and Josie, the glaikit Glaswegian characters played by the late, great Jack Milroy and Rikki Fulton.

What, I wonder, accounts for the irresistible rise of The Dolls? “I think we’re at a point now where people are looking for nostalgic things”, McCarthy suggests.

“Things are really tough for people just now. People are saying, ‘do you remember when it used to be good?’, because just now things are pretty crap. I think what Gayle and I do is nostalgic, but with a modern twist.”

“There’s also an element of us being a female comedy duo coming out and saying, ‘here we are world! We don’t really know what we are, but we’re here to have a good time'”, adds Telfer Stevens.

Agnes (Telfer Stevens) and Sadie (McCarthy) are, she continues, influenced by “our heritage and our upbringings, the working-class families we were brought up in.” Telfer Stevens (36) hails from the village of Renton, in the Vale of Leven, while McCarthy (33) was raised in Maryhill in north-west Glasgow.

The success of their act is, Telfer Stevens believes, down to she and McCarthy inadvertently tapping into the zeitgeist. “There is”, she says, “nothing else like that just now.”

Dolls audiences split, they reckon, about 80/20 women to men, and they are most definitely up for a good night out. “When women are out together, we’re worse than men”, says Telfer Stevens.

“The behaviour’s off the scale”, she adds, with a laugh. “We encourage it, I think”, McCarthy chips in. Cue the kind of laughter you’d expect from Glasgow schoolgirls when the teacher’s out of the class, or from women factory workers when the foreman’s slipped out for a cigarette.

If The Dolls’ fan base is overwhelmingly female and working class, it is also cross-generational. “Our audience goes from 16-year-olds to women in their eighties. It spans that far”, comments Telfer Stevens.

“It’s like a kitchen party”, adds McCarthy. “Women from our kind of working-class families, you’d go to a kitchen party with your grannies, your aunties, your mum.”

The Dolls #2
Gayle Telfer Stevens and Louise McCarthy. Photo: Kirsty Anderson / Herald & Times

The Dolls began as an old-style, music hall routine, combining stand-up comedy with humorous songs. They started their career, in May 2015, in the less-than-auspicious surroundings of the Easterhouse masonic hall.

The act may have been rooted in a proud tradition, but the venue’s management reflected a less wholesome kind of heritage, which hangs on tenaciously in many Scottish communities. “They wouldn’t allow my second name on the poster”, remembers McCarthy.

The man arranging the booking at the hall told them he would, “need to put a piece of black tape” over McCarthy’s Irish, Catholic surname. And so, in a moment of sinister comedy, The Dolls began their professional life as “Gayle Telfer Stevens and Louise.”

From that, decidedly odd, opening gig, the duo went on to play numerous clubs, including a memorable appearance at the Grampian Club in Corby in Northamptonshire. The former steel town is famous for its massive Scottish diaspora (around half of the town’s population are either Scots or of Scottish descent).

“It’s full of Scots”, says Telfer Stevens. “They’re all cutting about in their Rangers and Celtic tops as if they’re in Glasgow.”

It was in Corby, McCarthy remembers, that the duo realised they’d made it. “The queue was round the block, we sold it out. There were folk round the corner going, ‘we’ll sell you a Dolls ticket for 50 quid.’ The tickets were £10!”

Which is not to say that the pair want their fans being ripped off by ticket touts. In fact, they enjoy a close relationship with their audience. Sometimes it’s a bit too close.

“After we played the Fairfield Centre in Govan”, Telfer Stevens recalls, “(what a mental night that was!), this woman contacted us, and she said, ‘listen hen, I had diarrhoea on Sunday, can I get a ticket for another one of your shows?'”

The performers laugh uncontrollably at this (as, I confess, dear reader, do I), until McCarthy adds, “I take comfort in that. That’s our audience. They’re like family members.”

From sectarian blanking out on their posters in Easterhouse, to inflated black market ticket pricing in Corby, and too much information about the bowels of a fan in Govan, the rise of The Dolls has been unconventional, to say the least. 2017 has been their breakthrough year, with sell-out performances of the show The Dolls Abroad (co-written by the Telfer Stevens, McCarthy and fellow comic actor Fraser Boyle) and, now, a major Christmas show staged by the UK’s biggest pantomime producer, Scarborough-based Qdos Entertainment.

“It’s been fantastic”, comments Telfer Stevens. “It’s been a riot”, adds McCarthy. “It has been a riot”, her partner agrees. “And a lot of pressure, I think, when you put a show like that out.

“It’s been mental. We never ever envisaged it becoming this big. We’ve just found ourselves here. That’s the point.”

As the cliche has it, it takes a lot of hard work to make an act like The Dolls seem so effortless, and no-one can doubt the serious graft the pair have put in to land where they have, on the Armadillo stage with Gary: Tank Commander.

Telfer Stevens has worked with Greg McHugh, recording an episode of the army comedy. “He’s a nice guy”, she says. “He’s very talented.”

“I remember watching him on youtube, before he ever went to TV”, McCarthy adds. “It was just him on a chair being interviewed by somebody, and I remember going, ‘this is the funniest thing I’ve seen in years.’ I think we’re going to have a good time.”

Telfer Stevens agrees. The combination of Gary Tank’s camp-as-Christmas humour and The Dolls’ outrageous working-class comedy is, she says, a “no brainer”

The pair profess themselves somewhat “lucky” to have enjoyed such a stratospheric rise with their double act. However, they know their success is based on something much more fundamental.

“I’ve never worked with anyone that I’ve had this kind of chemistry with”, says Telfer Stevens. “It’s a special bond, and that’s not just about friendship, that’s about what we do together on stage. It’s about someone having the same values and the same ethic.

“It’s about saying, ‘We’re not going down here without a fight. I’m going to die here on this stage, I can’t give any more.’

“But there’s that person across from me going, ‘we can do this’, it’s in the eyes. I’ll never give up for her, and she’ll never give up for me. That’s it in a nutshell.”

“We love to kick our height and do the splits. That’s it!”, adds McCarthy. “An opportunity has presented itself, we’re going to go for it and have a laugh.”

Jack And The Beanstalk is at the SEC Armadillo from December 16 to January 7:

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on December 3, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Chick Whittington, Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling University


Chick Whittington
Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling University
Until December 31

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Chick Whittington
Johnny McKnight (centre) and the cast of Chick Whittington. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

They like to get the Christmas season started early at the Macrobert Arts Centre. This year’s pantomime, Chick Whittington, came flying out of the theatrical traps like a reindeer on a jetpack.

The show is written, directed and performed by the irrepressible Johnny McKnight. The writer pens the Christmas shows for both the Macbob and the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, and he pops up on the stage at one or the other each year.

This season, it’s Stirling’s turn to enjoy the considerable talents of an actor who, alongside Barrie Hunter at Perth Theatre and Alan McHugh at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, is keeping alive the proud tradition of the Scottish pantomime dame. As many a six-foot-something male will tell you, catching the eye of McKnight’s Technicolor dame can only mean one thing, involuntary audience participation, combined with a liberal sprinkling of single-entendres.

The Macrobert show involves a ludicrous mangling of the story of Dick Whittington, by way of a nod to Doctor Who, to enable McKnight’s panto to emerge (courtesy of a red, non-copyright infringing version of the Tardis) in the 1960s. Chick Whittington (Emma Mullen), intrepid daughter of deceased hero Dick, and her crazy mum Alice Fitzwarren-Whittington (McKnight) find themselves on a quest.

It turns out that Dick signed a contract giving Chick to the evil Queen Rat (Helen McAlpine) on his daughter’s wedding day. Bang goes Chick’s nuptials (she’s supposed to be marrying the tech specialist Dr Rick tomorrow), unless they can get back to the Sixties and stop Dick signing the fateful document.

If this all sounds a tad convoluted, bear in mind that this is the simplified, synopsised version. Daft, sometimes confusing, though the storyline is, it does serve its primary purpose (namely, allowing designers Kenneth MacLeod and Alison Brown to go all psychedelic with the Swinging Sixties sets and costumes).

McKnight’s costumes, in particular, are a delightfully dreadful set of multicoloured creations, matched only by the inimitable garishness of his performance. McAlpine shines in the midst of a fine cast as the funny, improbably sexy Queen Rat, as does Robert Jack as Chick’s hilarious, numpty brother Slick.

As ever at the Macbob, the cast are supported by a willing and energetic chorus of child performers. Which is a tad ironic as, if the show has a weakness, it is that its script seems to leave children behind a little too often.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on December 3, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Tabula Rasa, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (Sunday Herald)



Tabula Rasa

Seen at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh;

Playing Tramway, Glasgow

November 22-24


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Tabula Rasa 1
Sarah Short (left) and Pauline Goldsmith (right). Photo: Niall Walker

From the moment it was established in 1999, it was clear that Glasgow-based theatre company Vanishing Point was part of a tradition of distinctly European, modernist work which was still relatively new among Scottish theatremakers. Like their predecessors, the great (now, sadly, occasional) touring company Communicado and the celebrated (now defunct) group Suspect Culture, director Matthew Lenton and his collaborators placed an emphasis on the tremendous possibilities of the visual imagination and the power of music in the theatre.

There have been excellent successes, such as the glorious fantasia Lost Ones (2005-06) and the charming biographical play The Beautiful Cosmos Of Ivor Cutler (a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland in 2014-15). Interiors (which enjoyed considerable international success between 2009 and 2016) gave expression to the company’s imagistic brilliance.

However, there have been times when the form has been much stronger than the narrative content (such as Wonderland in 2012) or when the work has seemed simply misconceived (Little Otik, another co-production with the NTS, in 2008). Whether their shows have been stunning successes or accomplished failures, Vanishing Point’s work has always been ambitious, brave and original.

Music (from rock opera to Bela Bartok) has long played an important part in the company’s work. It comes as little surprise, therefore, that it is now collaborating with the classical string group the Scottish Ensemble in making Tabula Rasa, a music-theatre piece inspired by and incorporating live performance of the music of the extraordinary Estonian composer Arvo Part.

The 82-year-old’s profoundly spiritual music no doubt owes a massive debt to his relationship with his Christian faith (like the late English composer John Tavener, Part is a convert to the Russian Orthodox Church). However, the expressions of wonder, moral elevation and pain in his compositions are both human and humane, making them ripe for a secular staging such as this.

The show (which is directed by Lenton and co-authored by him and, lead actor of the piece, Pauline Goldsmith) isn’t so much musical theatre as a concert of Part’s music interspersed with theatrical meditations, or vice versa. Goldsmith narrates in the character of a woman recently returned from the funeral of a close friend. Her thoughts on the life and death of Peter, and upon our society’s uneasy relationship with death and dying, are put on hold from time-to-time to allow the Ensemble and pianist Sophia Rahman to play pieces from Part’s oeuvre.

The effect is genuinely soothing. It is not difficult, after all, to connect one’s own experience of bereavement and grief with the transcendence which is implicit in the composer’s music.

Lenton and Goldsmith’s text walks a careful line between conventional observation and poetic language. Speaking a monologue that is flecked with no-nonsense humour, Goldsmith’s nicely weighted, neatly played character has shades of the hostess in her acclaimed one-woman show Bright Colours Only.

Engaging, touching and gently comic though the script is, it is almost inevitable that it seems a little insubstantial when placed beside the boundless spiritual possibilities of Part’s music. Astronauts have spoken of their sense of insignificance when set against the vastness of the universe. Similarly, the theatrical offering here feels uncomfortably slight when compared with the beautifully played compositions.

The design (by Lenton and, his longstanding collaborator, lighting designer Kai Fischer) displays the combination of exquisite subtlety and visual spectacle one has come to expect of Vanishing Point. The opening up of an ethereal hospital room at the back of the stage, where Sarah Short’s sympathetic nurse reads to Peter (represented by a glowing, white mannequin), creates the show’s most memorable visual image.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on November 19, 2017

© Mark Brown