Reviews: Pride and Prejudice (Sort Of), Tron Theatre, Glasgow, and Travesties, Pitlochry Festival Theatre (Sunday Herald)

THEATRE REVIEWS

 

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (SORT OF)

Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Until July 14

 

TRAVESTIES

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Various dates until October 10

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Pride & Prejudice (sort of) - Meghan Tyler & Hannah Jarrett-Scott, credit John Johnston
Meghan Tyler & Hannah Jarrett Scott in Pride and Prejudice (Sort Of). Photo: John Johnston

An ironic, all-female, 21st-century deconstruction of Jane Austen’s most famous novel, Isobel McArthur’s Pride And Prejudice (Sort Of) sounds like the kind of show one would expect to find on the Edinburgh Fringe in August. However, rather than being the quick-witted, fleet-footed hour of theatre its concept might suggest, director Paul Brotherston’s Tron Theatre production is a full-scale production which runs to two hours and 45 minutes.

McArthur’s central idea, that the sexual and class relations of Regency England exposed by Austen (and, by logical extension, the iniquities of our own supposedly more enlightened times) are ripe for feminist satire, is a perfectly good one. Unfortunately, the means she has chosen are far from path-breaking.

The piece straddles the early 19th century and early 21st with a far-from-subtle, knowing irony. Period dress is juxtaposed with modern props. The parlance of today crashes into the Regency drawing room (not least when Meghan Tyler’s Elizabeth Bennett tells Tori Burgess’s embarrassing clergyman Mister Collins to “f*** off”).

The show is peppered with modern pop songs, more often than not in the context of Austen’s characters standing on a plastic beer crate, in front of flashing disco lights and singing along to a karaoke machine. The Shirelles’ 1960 hit Will You (Still) Love Me Tomorrow and Sony and Cher’s chart-topper I Got You Babe (from 1965) are among the tracks inserted meaningfully into McArthur’s adaptation.

Like the comment by Tyler’s sharp-witted Elizabeth that “love’s irrelevant, we’re talking about marriage”, the musical playlist is carefully selected to take a tongue-in-cheek swipe at misogynistic gender relations. It isn’t just the male characters (the inveigling Charles Bingley, the misunderstood Fitzwilliam Darcy) who are sent up, there are stern characterisations for the women who put themselves at the service of patriarchy and snobbery.

Lady Catherine do Bourgh (here, inevitably, aunt of “composer” Chris de Burgh) is, as performed by Christina Gordon, a bigoted monster of epic proportions. McArthur herself plays Mrs Bennett (and Darcy besides), casting the desperate matriarch as both victim and perpetrator in a social system that demands that young women subjugate their talents to the exigencies of a marital cattle market.

It’s impossible to disagree with the politics of all this. However, good politics doesn’t necessarily make for good theatre.

The postmodern devices employed here are narrow in their aesthetic scope, timeworn and predictable. There is something frustratingly unedifying about seeing such tropes repeated endlessly throughout almost three hours of theatre.

There’s frustration, too, in the unevenness of the comedy. There are some genuinely lovely comic moments, such as a life-size, plastic horse (called Willy) being wheeled on-stage for Jane Bennett’s journey to the Bingley household.

However, not even the show’s knowing irony can justify its stream of innuendos (from the “huge” size of Darcy’s library to Jane being told to “go outside and mount Willy”).

The piece is performed with skill, energy and observable camaraderie by the impressive, five-strong cast. It’s just a pity that it is so short on originality and too long by almost two hours.

Travesties
Graham Mckay-Bruce and Mark Elstob in Travesties. Photo: Douglas McBride

There’s a very different treatment of history in Tom Stoppard’s 1974 play Travesties. Set, through the dubious memory of British diplomat Henry Carr, in Zurich during the First World War, the drama revels in a period when the Swiss city was at the heart of revolutionary events in European politics and culture.

Thanks to Switzerland’s legendary neutrality, wartime Zurich was awash, not only with embezzlers and spies, but also artists and political radicals. The great modernist novelist James Joyce made his home in the city, as did Tristan Tzara (founder of the Dadaist art movement) and Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin.

All three, Joyce, Tzara and Lenin, appear in a play which is topped and tailed by the senile, somewhat verbose recollections of Carr (played with a perfect self-regard and bitterness by Mark Elstob). There is more than a little reference to a production of Oscar Wilde’s great comedy The Importance Of Being Earnest, in which the real Carr did perform in Zurich, and after which the diplomat did fall out with the real Joyce, who was the real business manager on the Wilde production.

A Wildean dimension, and a Wildean wit, are introduced to the play, as are the characters of Gwendolen and Cecily (both borrowed from Wilde’s comedy and played with great humour by Camrie Palmer and Lucie-Mae Sumner). In true modernist style, we are duly warned that the play’s depictions of events in Zurich fall very firmly into the category of unreliable evidence.

All of which adds to the fun of a piece in which Joyce (played with neat comedy by Alex Scott Fairley) turns into a Celtic-dancing leprechaun of a man and Tzara (the mercurial Graham Mackay-Bruce) arrives at Carr’s house carrying a urinal identical to the one that Marcel Duchamp “created” as an art work in 1917. Meanwhile Lenin (a transformed and implacable Alan Steele) is busily analysing imperialism, plotting insurrection and inspiring the local librarian to throw off the shackles of capitalism.

Playing cleverly with form (the play is laced with modernist repetitions and variations) and drawing upon the lives of fascinating people at a fascinating time, Travesties is, despite its moments of comedy, a drama more of the mind than of the emotions. Director Richard Baron is keenly attuned to both its creative aesthetics and its cerebral discourse, and has created a production which does justice to a much-loved, early Stoppard.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 8, 2018

© Mark Brown

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Reviews: Antony & Cleopatra and Romeo & Juliet, both Botanic Gardens, Glasgow

THEATRE REVIEWS

 

ANTONY & CLEOPATRA

and

ROMEO & JULIET

Both at Botanic Gardens, Glasgow

Both until July 7

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Nicole Cooper as Cleopatra in Antony & Cleopatra, Bard in the Botanics 2018, photcredit TOMMY GA-KEN WAN
Nicole Cooper as Cleopatra and Andy Clark as Antony. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

One never ceases to be impressed by Bard In The Botanics, Glasgow’s annual mini-festival of Shakespeare (and, occasionally, his contemporaries). There’s something gloriously defiant in its insistence that high quality productions of classical, Renaissance dramas can be staged, virtually on a shoestring, both outdoors in the unreliable Glaswegian summer and in the beautiful, but not inherently theatrical, Kibble Palace glasshouse.

It takes a considerable degree of inventiveness to adapt Shakespeare’s epic Antony & Cleopatra from a play with a cast of more than 40 to a coherent drama with just nine characters. It is more ingenious still to incorporate seamlessly into that adaptation fragments of John Dryden’s play All For Love.

That is what Bard In The Botanics’ artistic director Gordon Barr has done with this compelling production. Performed in the Kibble, it boasts not only a clever, engaging script, but also excellent performances by lead actors Nicole Cooper and Andy Clark.

The sightlines in the narrow walkway in which the audience is seated aren’t great, the sets are, by necessity, minimal, and the acoustics leave something to be desired. Yet, like the warrior actors they are, Barr’s cast deliver the play with a powerful directness, as if injecting it straight into one’s bloodstream.

Cooper plays the Egyptian queen Cleopatra with a brilliantly balanced combination of aristocratic arrogance, sensual persuasiveness and passionate recklessness. Clark’s Roman leader Mark Antony is like a man constantly on the verge of being ripped in two, so torn are his instincts between the politic (the demands of Rome) and the erotic (his desire for Cleopatra).

Barr’s version of the story cuts excellently to the heart of the matter. Octavius Caesar (like Antony, one of the triumvirate who replaced the slain emperor Julius Caesar) confronts Antony’s inconstancy with, by turns, diplomatic and military means.

Laurie Scott plays Caesar with a straight bat. Although sneeringly certain of his power, he also seems jealous of the great passion between Cleopatra and Antony.

As his military fortunes collapse, Clark’s Antony appears like a more cerebral, more callous version of Macbeth in his final hours. Raging like a wounded bull, his arbitrary decision to have his loyal friend Enobarbus flogged chills the blood.

Indeed, this act of vicious despotism is rendered all the more affecting by Adam Donaldson’s fine playing of the wretched Enobarbus. Veering between disbelief and dignified suffering, Donaldson’s performance manages to render believable his character’s continued sense of honour and loyalty.

A word, too, for Leonora Cooke, a young actor currently training at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, who shows great promise in her performance of Octavia (Caesar’s unlucky sister, who finds herself in a political marriage to Antony). Cooke shows a strong facility for Renaissance language, not least in her great, self-asserting “I have a soul” speech (taken from Dryden’s play).

All-in-all, this production (which comes in at a little over two hours) is impressively well paced, with nice, minimal, quasi-period design (by Carys Hobbs) and a memorable use of dramatic music and song. When it reaches its bloody conclusion (complete with poisonous asp), one feels that this smart staging has avoided the pitfalls of melodrama and expressed much of the timeless tragedy of Shakespeare’s play.

The same cannot be said, sadly, of the drama’s companion piece, director Jennifer Dick’s production of Romeo & Juliet, which is presented on the festival’s outdoor stage in the gardens. In fairness, despite the recent fine weather, opening night (Friday, June 22) was not the best evening on which to begin the run. It was deceptively cold as Dick’s largely young cast took to a graffiti-covered stage dominated by the word “Verona”.

As the audience shivered, there was little in this staging of the Bard’s famous love story to warm us up.

If, like the great Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, you believe that young love is a mere preparation, a learning for the deeper love of the coming years, the story of Romeo & Juliet is as improbable as it is dramatic. This production does nothing to persuade us otherwise.

Its cross-casting (Esme Bayley plays the ill-fated Mercutio, among a number of feminised male roles) and cross-dressing nod towards current debates around gender. However, this is as close as this ambiguously modern(ish) production gets to anything thematically coherent.

There is a strong emphasis on the comic, not least in the role of Angel, a character built from the role of Juliet’s Nurse, as written by Shakespeare. A camp, working-class Glaswegian guy who knows how to run in high heels and can clearly kick his own height, it is not the most challenging role the talented Darren Brownlie will ever play (and he performs it with hilarious and sympathetic aplomb).

Elsewhere, however, the production suffers from both its lack of a convincing, over-arching idea and an unevenness in its casting. The reimagining of the disastrous meddler Friar Laurence (who is a Franciscan monk) as a female, Protestant minister (played ably by Linda Duncan McLaughlin) begs more conceptual questions than it answers.

The soundtrack (a rough assemblage of modern pop music, including Radiohead and Massive Attack) is too obvious in its emotional instructions, and the various fight scenes are weak. Dylan Blore’s Romeo shifts between adolescent playfulness and teenage angst, but lacks moral weight.

Rebecca Robin’s promising performance as Juliet is more nuanced and more knowing, but she is swimming against the tide of a generally misconceived production.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 1, 2018

© Mark Brown

Review: Pride and Prejudice (Sort Of), Tron Theatre, Glasgow (Daily Telegraph)

THEATRE

 

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (SORT OF)

TRON THEATRE, GLASGOW

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Pride and Prejudice (Sort Of)
Meghan Tyler and Hannah Jarrett-Scott in Pride and Prejudice (Sort Of). Photo: John Johnston

“There is nothing new under the sun”, the Good Book tells us, and it is certainly true of this tongue-in-cheek, all-female take on Jane Austen’s most celebrated novel Pride and Prejudice. Isobel McArthur’s liberal adaptation is so knowingly ironic that it seems, for the most part, as if it should be performed in huge inverted commas.

Director Paul Brotherston’s young cast (which includes McArthur herself as various characters, including Darcy and Mrs Bennett) deconstruct Austen’s early-19th century England, purposefully reconstructing it for our own times. The outrageous sexual politics and snobbery observed by Austen (and, by implication, the continuing social inequalities and hypocrisies of today) take a very deliberate pasting.

Period costumes collide with modern props, Regency English mores clash starkly with a very contemporary, expletive-laden language. At one point, the excellent Meghan Tyler’s Elizabeth Bennett comes on-stage in a 19th-century frock eating from a box of Kellogg’s Frosties.

The piece, in which a karaoke machine and a plastic beer crate are key props, is peppered copiously with modern pop music (both recorded and performed live). Candi Staton’s disco classic Young Hearts Run Free gets an outing, as does Something Changed by Pulp.

A scene in which Elizabeth is admonished by the cartoonishly monstrous Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Christina Gordon) includes the aristocrat introducing the latest composition by a member of her family, The Lady in Red by Chris de Burgh.

There is no question that British culture’s attachment to the lavish costume drama (not least on television) is ripe for satire. It is also long overdue, given the theatre’s history of men playing women on stage due to misogynistic prohibitions, that male characters should be performed by women in an entirely female cast.

Not only that, but the actors are impressive to a woman, not least in the play’s moments of neat comedy (such as McArthur freezing in a suddenly appearing picture frame to represent a portrait of Darcy). However, the show’s inclination to almost farcical levity problematises the scenes in which it attempts to generate a real sense of pathos.

Ultimately, one can’t help but feel that one has been here many times before, and that the play is simply repeating a very narrow repertoire of postmodern devices. The production has the feel of a short fringe show, and is certainly too long at two hours and 45 minutes.

Until July 14

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on June 30, 2018

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/pride-prejudice-sort-tron-glasgow-review-tongue-in-cheek-pop/

©Mark Brown

 

Review: Bill Murray, Jan Vogler and Friends, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Murray mince

BILL MURRAY, JAN VOGLER AND FRIENDS

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Touring internationally until November 17

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

BillMurrayJanVogler&Friends 15
Bill Murray (left) and friends. Photo: Greg Macvean

The warning signs were there even before Bill Murray and musical company came on-stage. In the second row of the Festival Theatre stalls sat a pair of fans wearing bright red beanie hats identical to those worn by Murray in Wes Anderson’s film The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.

In other words, this show, in which Murray reads excerpts from selected texts and sings to musical accompaniment, is very much for the American actor’s devoted fans. Not, you understand, for the millions (such as myself) who consider him to be a brilliant movie actor, but for those whose admiration has tipped into hero worship.

Only such an audience would accept a production that is as lazy and self-indulgent as this one. A disjointed, loosely arranged assemblage of words and music, ranging from James Fenimore Cooper to Mark Twain, Franz Schubert to George Gershwin, it makes a mockery of its claim to “showcase the core of American values”.

Unless, that is, the “American values” in question are cashing-in on your fame and taking your audience for granted.

The readings, which touch upon slavery in the United States and the US Civil War alongside lighter subjects, are delivered straight in Murray’s fine actor’s voice. It is in song, however, that the movie star really comes into his own.

Let’s not beat around the bush: Bill Murray is a supremely awful singer. His croaking of Loch Lomond, in a dreadful accent that sounded more Irish than Scottish, should have seen him run out of town.

Here, however, this disappointingly sentimental, blatant attempt to ingratiate himself with his audience led to a standing ovation. That said, one couldn’t help but feel that this crowd would have got to its feet if Murray had simply sat on stage reading from a telephone directory.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 24, 2018

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Chicago & The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, both Pitlochry Festival Theatre

THEATRE REVIEWS

 

CHICAGO

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Various dates until October 20

 

THE RISE AND FALL OF LITTLE VOICE

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Various dates until October 13

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Chicago
Niamh Bracken (centre) and the cast of Chicago. Photo: Douglas McBride

Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s new artistic director was announced on Thursday. Elizabeth Newman, a young director who has garnered many plaudits for her leadership of Bolton’s Octagon Theatre, takes over from John Durnin, who led PFT for a successful 15 years.

Ms Newman takes charge of not only one of the most beautifully located theatres in the UK (if not the world), but also Scotland’s undisputed leader in the production of stage musicals. Richard Baron’s staging of the famous 1975 musical Chicago (book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, music by John Kander), which opens this year’s summer season at Pitlochry, can only help to maintain that reputation.

A tale of murder, show business and legal skulduggery in 1920s Chicago, the play takes a decidedly lighthearted approach to the homicidal crimes of passion of vaudeville star Velma Kelly and ambitious chorus girl Roxie Hart. Velma murdered her husband and sister when she found them in bed together. Roxie shot her lover when he threatened to end their illicit affair.

Both women are to be represented in court by celebrity attorney Billy Flynn (a state of affairs which leads to a bitter rivalry between them). Nonetheless, with a fawning press only too keen to buy Flynn’s tales of blameless stage beauties driven to terrible acts by despicable (and, fortunately, dead) men, you wouldn’t bet against Velma and Roxie being found not guilty.

It’s fanciful stuff, bearing a greater resemblance to a glitzy dream of the Windy City in its gangster heyday than to anything approximating its brutal reality. Thankfully, set and costume designer Charles Cusick Smith and lighting designer Wayne Dowdeswell are on hand to make Cook County Jail (the open prison in which much of the action is set) look decidedly similar to a vaudeville playhouse, complete with the title “CHICAGO” emblazoned in garish stage lights.

The visuals of the production, which are, by turns, moodily dark and glitteringly glamorous, strike the perfect tone. So, too, do musical director David Higham and his band, who belt out the show’s much-loved numbers, such as ‘All That Jazz’ and ‘All I Care About Is Love’, with tremendous aplomb.

The casting of the leads impresses, too; which is not an easy proposition when you are, as PFT always is at this time of year, building an ensemble that will present no fewer than six plays in repertory over five months. One cannot, therefore, expect the kind of cast one would see in a production in the West End of London.

That said, the fine Lucie-Mae Sumner plays the “Liza Minnelli role” of Roxie with all the necessary sass and fake coyness, while Carl Patrick is positively reptilian as the cynical lawyer Flynn. Meanwhile, Irene-Myrtle Forrester channels the great blues singer Bessie Smith in the role of the redoubtable prison matron ‘Mama’ Morton.

The star of the show, however, is Niamh Bracken, whose powerfully-voiced, brilliantly-danced, high octane performance as Velma is worthy of any production of this blockbuster musical.

There’s a considerable gear shift between Chicago and the second show of the summer season at Pitlochry. Although I can see the emotional attraction of Jim Cartwright’s 1992 drama The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice (which was famously released as a film starring Jane Horrocks in 1998), I confess, it is not a play I can grow to love.

The drama tells the story of LV (Little Voice), a quiet, reclusive, young, northern English, working-class woman who hides in her room, which is a sanctuary from her vulgar, promiscuous, heavy-drinking mother Mari. There, LV pines for her dead father and takes refuge in the classic record collection he passed on to her (which includes such iconic singers as Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and Shirley Bassey, all of whom LV can mimic brilliantly).

LV’s private talent is dragged painfully into the open when Mari’s latest boyfriend, small-time “artiste promoter” Ray Say, overhears her singing in her room.

The play boasts, without question, a central character one can root for (LV is the kind of gifted, marginalised underdog the producers of Britain’s Got Talent would kill for). It also, of course, has a brilliant, off-the-shelf musical score.

What it doesn’t have, however, is anything approximating a fully-fledged, well-rounded character. Cartwright’s creations are two-dimensional, at best; a fact that director Gemma Fairlie’s Pitlochry production cannot alter, despite fine performances across the board.

We can, for example, see the underlying desperation in the life of middle-aged, underpaid, widowed factory worker Mari. However, she is such as a monstrous caricature that even Deirdre Davis’s excellent, dynamic performance cannot save her from being a dubious stereotype.

Likewise Carl Patrick’s playing of Ray Say, which, although chilling in its predictable outburst of vicious misogyny, can’t escape Cartwright’s characterisation, which seems ripped off from Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 play A Taste Of Honey.

The play’s most objectionable caricature, however, is Mari’s friend and neighbour Sadie (played by Irene-Myrtle Forrester, who, presumably, drew the short straw). Malodorous and unable to say much beyond “okay”, she is, surely, one of the most unpleasant portraits of a person with learning disabilities in modern drama.

All of which is a pity, as Laura Costello, who is making her professional stage debut in this Pitlochry season, is a star in the making. Playing the role of LV with the required pathos, she sings with a range and power that threaten to salvage a reasonable production of a bad play.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 10, 2018

© Mark Brown

Review: Quality Street, Pitlochry Festival Theatre (Daily Telegraph)

THEATRE

 

QUALITY STREET

PITLOCHRY FESTIVAL THEATRE

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Quality Street
Alan Mirren and Fiona Wood (centre) in Quality Street. Photo: Douglas McBride

J.M. Barrie’s 1901 comedy Quality Street has been somewhat neglected in his homeland of Scotland. The Scottish Theatre Archive shows no professional production of the drama since 1953.

This is a strange state of affairs, as this four-act play is neatly constructed, often very funny and entirely open to modern observations on gender politics. That is certainly true of Liz Carruthers’s clever staging for Pitlochry Festival Theatre (PFT), which, while remaining within Barrie’s frame of Georgian England, is shot through with 21st-century wit and irony.

The drama is set, in 1805 and immediately after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, among the marriageable young ladies and “old maids” of a small English town. There, the eligible gentleman Valentine Brown unwittingly breaks the heart of the widely admired Miss Phoebe Throssel by announcing, not that he wants to marry her, but that he has enlisted for the war against Napoleon.

What begins as a demure romance comedy, soon becomes a thoroughgoing farce. Valentine returns from the war entirely unaware that his financial advice of a decade before was so dreadful that it has forced Phoebe and her sister Susan to turn their house into a “school for genteel children”.

Valentine’s ungallant observations of Phoebe as a tired, ageing schoolmistress force her to rekindle the vivacity of her youth in the guise of “Miss Livvy”, Phoebe’s niece. With the war victory ball at the local barracks in full swing, “Miss Livvy” leads the officers, including Valentine, on a merry dance.

Carruthers’s production executes all of this with a knowing wink to modern mores. Designer Adrian Rees’s sets, which are dominated by three chocolate box Georgian paintings, are characterised by an ironic detachedness. His period costumes are a picture postcard delight.

The performances themselves combine the gentle satire of Barrie’s script with a contemporary tongue-in-cheek comedy. Fiona Wood is hilarious, playing Phoebe as a justifiably outraged, avenging feminist, while Alan Mirren is on sardonically cartoonish form as the dashing-yet-blundering Valentine.

A special mention must go to young Laura Costello, who is making her professional stage debut as part of the current Pitlochry ensemble. She impresses in the supporting role of Fanny Willoughby in Quality Street, but she deserves particular plaudits for her skilfully acted, brilliantly sung performance as LV in PFT’s current production of Jim Cartwright’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice.

Various dates until October 12

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on June 10, 2018

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/quality-street-pitlochry-festival-theatre-reviewhilarious/

©Mark Brown

Review: Edinburgh International Children’s Festival 2018

A Feast for the Senses

From toddlers to teenagers, the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival offers a world class programme of theatre and dance, finds Mark Brown

 

Stick by me 4 c. Mihaela Bodlovic_preview
Andy Manley in Stick By Me. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

To attend the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival is not only to join audiences of youngsters from throughout Edinburgh and beyond, it is also to take one’s place alongside international delegates (children’s performing arts creators and producers) from around the world.

There’s a good reason why the Festival attracts such global interest. It is not only the largest festival of its kind in the UK, it is also, to my mind, the highest quality, most carefully curated performing arts showcase in Scotland.

This year’s Festival (which ends today) has boasted work for all age groups (from babies and toddlers to teenagers), from countries as diverse as Germany, New Zealand and South Africa. Festival director Noel Jordan can be proud of a world class programme which has impressed immensely, both in its imaginative scope and its splendid production values.

A very definite case in point is A Feast Of Bones by Irish company Theatre Lovett. Designed for kids aged nine to 15, the piece is a beautifully radical reworking of the fable of Henny Penny, the paranoiac chicken who inadvertently led her friends to destruction at the jaws of Foxy Loxy.

This might sound a little basic for its target audience, but consider that writer Frances Kay and director Muireann Ahern have relocated the tale to a French restaurant in Dublin named Le Monde Bouleverse (The World Turned Upside-down). Consider, too, that we find ourselves in 1918, in the immediate aftermath of the Great War.

The restaurant is, as its name suggests, a decidedly odd one. The eatery boasts a knife-sharp waitress (Lisa Lambe), a pair of French musicians who are refugees from the War (composer Nico Brown and Martin Brunsden) and a single customer (an energetically eccentric, somewhat foxy gastronome by the name of Rennard).

The restaurant’s menu seems to have been inspired by the story of Henny Penny. However, at Le Monde Bouleverse, we are dealing, not with paranoia, but with a world in which the sky did fall in for four terrible years.

Superbly inventive though the storytelling is, it is the exquisite theatricality of the show that makes it a genuinely great piece of live drama. Every aspect of the work, from the clever stage and lighting design to the memorably marvellous music, is gorgeously stylish.

Smartly acted throughout, the show’s piece de resistance is the playing of Rennard by Louis Lovett. A cleverly complex character, Lovett’s Rennard is a likeable, if egotistical, clown. Snobbish, self-important and less educated than he supposes, he has, despite his apparent cheerfulness, a dark war story of his own.

Lambe gives a perfectly pitched performance as the waitress, simultaneously engaging, mysterious and just a little sinister. As she turns the tables, she also turns the famous fable into a moving tale of revenge and redemption.

Theatre Lovett describes itself, not as a children’s theatre company, but as a creator of “works for all”. A Feast Of Bones bears brilliant testimony to its skill in making cross-generational theatre.

A very different highlight of the Festival was Stick By Me, a work for three to six-year-olds by Scotland’s own Andy Manley and Red Bridge Arts. Performed by the always brilliant Manley, the piece is the deliciously off-centre story of the friendship between a man and a small stick (which looks suspiciously like a coffee stirrer).

Think Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape meets One Man And His Dog, but with a wee stick standing in for the dog, and you’re (possibly) getting somewhere close to the concept of this delightful little piece. Sitting behind a Victorian-style school desk, Manley’s lone character is confined by reproving voices from leaving the square space in which he lives.

Only through the playful imagination, and with the help of his wee wooden friend and some adhesive tape (of which, luckily enough, there is an abundance), can Manley finally escape a decidedly sticky situation. It’s bonkers, of course, but delightfully funny and utterly charming.

There’s charm, too, in Toddler Room, a beautifully gentle, enchantingly designed dance piece for babies and toddlers by Dybwikdans of Norway. The show is presented in a lovely, little white pod in which dancer Marie Ronold Mathisen interacts wordlessly with her very young audience using nicely choreographed movement, big red balloons and a large, but appealingly benign, bird puppet.

Mbuzeni 2_preview
The cast of Mbuzeni

I was intrigued to see Mbuzeni, a play for kids aged 12 and over by the South African company Koleka Putuma. The piece tells the story of four homeless orphan girls who are separated from the nearby community, not only by their marginal status, but also by their fixation with playing burial games in the town cemetery.

This is a traditional society, and the girls’ seeming disregard for the rituals of death sets them further apart. The story, which deals with death boldly and is unafraid of a sad ending, is a powerful one.

The singing and dancing are engaging, as is the combination of the Xhosa language with English. However, the piece relies too heavily on the easy humour of adult actors playing child characters.

As the Festival goes into its final day, I can recommend the outstandingly brilliant Baba Yaga (for children aged 7-12) and Ogo, a delightful puppet play for kids aged two-and-a-half to six, which I was fortunate to catch in Quebec last summer.

Details of the programme for the final day of the Festival can be found at: imaginate.org.uk

This reviews feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 3, 2018

© Mark Brown