Review: Voices In Her Ear, Oran Mor, Glasgow

THEATRE REVIEW

 

Voices In Her Ear

Seen at Oran Mor, Glasgow:

at Traverse, Edinburgh, April 25-29

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Voices In Her Ear
Alison Peebles as Betty in Voices In Her Ear. Photo: Leslie Black

There is no question that the lunchtime theatre A Play, A Pie And A Pint, created by the late producer and theatre maker David MacLennan in 2004, is a good deed in a naughty world. Staging no fewer than 38 new plays each year, it is, by a distance, Scotland’s biggest producer of new work.

There is an admirable sense among P, P & P’s loyal Glasgow audience that it doesn’t much matter if any given play doesn’t quite pass muster, there’ll be another one along next week. There is also an inevitable eclecticism in the Oran Mor programmes, with some commendably weighty dramas peppering the lighter theatrical fare.

It is important, however, that A Play, A Pie And A Pint be seen as a welcome supplement to, rather than any kind of replacement for, Scottish theatre’s new writing infrastructure. That, surely, is what MacLennan intended.

Scotland’s currently underpowered new theatre writing cannot rely too heavily upon the 50-minute, lunchtime format. Very few dramatists have Samuel Beckett’s facility for writing profound, very short dramas, and even fewer can pen them specifically for audiences who are scoffing Scotch pies and downing glasses of lager or Merlot as they watch the play.

Don’t get me wrong, many a fine piece has emerged from the basement theatre of the Oran Mor, but, inevitably, the lunchtime season has its limitations and a certain sense of disposability. P, P & P is doing its particular job fabulously, but, as I wrote recently on these pages, we need others in the Scottish theatre sector to step up to the plate with a broader strategy for new work.

As if to prove this point, Voices In Her Ear, David Cosgrove’s new play for the Oran Mor (which transfers to the Traverse, Edinburgh next week) is a pretty unmemorable dark comedy. Imagine Brian Friel’s Faith Healer (in which the titular travelling curer-cum-charlatan negotiates the space between self-belief and shame) crossed with any of the light comedies popularised by Dorothy Paul.

A late-middle-aged Scottish “psychic”, by the inevitable name of Betty, is working a lucratively huge auditorium. Meanwhile her young assistant, Siobhan (who has a clipboard full of information garnered from punters’ letters to Betty), is feeding her lines via her earphone.

We’re treated to some of the more unpleasantly manipulative tricks of Betty’s dodgy trade before she heads backstage for a money making “private consultation” with Mark, a bereft young man who has a very special reason for wanting to meet the celebrity psychic. The ensuing confrontation is a mixture of what Donald Rumsfeld might call entirely predictable known knowns and only slightly less predictable known unknowns.

Betty is forced by the anguished Mark to defend her “profession”, deny her fraudulence and, like Friel’s faith healer, face up to the relationship between her commercial motivation and her supposed “gift”. Sadly, however, Cosgrove lacks entirely Friel’s moral and psychological subtlety, instead laying out the scene like the ethical equivalent of paint-by-numbers.

The ever-superb Alison Peebles (a hardened, cynical, yet vulnerable Betty) and Neshla Caplan (an impressively sharp-tongued and sarcastic Siobhan) put in better performances than the play deserves. Indeed, Cosgrove’s drama (despite its brevity) even contrives to run out of steam towards the end; a fact which doesn’t reflect well on the directing of River City actor Libby McArthur, who seems to have simply allowed the script to meander off in its own, weary direction.

There are, in fairness to Cosgrove, a few neat lines. However, his play never really gets beneath the surface of its chosen subject. Nor does it justify its less-than-surprising final twist.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on April 23, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Coriolanus Vanishes, Tron Theatre, Glasgow

THEATRE

CORIOLANUS VANISHES

TRON THEATRE, GLASGOW

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

Coriolanus Vanishes
David Leddy. Photo: Niall Walker

Scotland-based theatre maker David Leddy has taken us into the political and moral complications of the relationship between Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears (Susurrus) and a brutal-yet-theatrical world of Victorian gothic (Sub Rosa). His latest work, Coriolanus Vanishes, is set in a 21st-century British prison, by way of the plush office of a company executive.

A monologue written, directed and performed by Leddy himself, the piece tells the story of Chris, until recently a senior management figure in one of Britain’s major arms firms. Suffering three major bereavements in quick succession and in prison facing undisclosed charges, Chris has had a colourful life of late, to put it mildly.

There are pen portraits of Chris’s wife, his adopted son, his dying father and Paul, his lover. It is notable that the detail of these portraits ascends in that order, from the barely outlined “wife” to the ever-present Paul, whose emotional tenderness, forceful sexuality and political morality are foremost in the mind of the incarcerated former arms dealer.

Leddy wears the pin-striped suit of Chris’s former position, and appears, variously, behind, on, under and beside the ex-executive’s wooden desk. As he speaks, the stage lighting changes constantly.

The desk notwithstanding, stage designer Becky Minto’s set is a blank, angular canvas which lighting designer Nich Smith bathes in bright and garish colours. Shafts of light criss-cross Leddy as he performs.

At certain moments Minto closes off our view of parts of the stage, as if altering the aperture of a camera. At others, Leddy produces various stylish, pre-digital means of voice amplification from within the drawers of the desk.

The effect of all of this activity is, perversely, to highlight the decided lack of theatricality in both text and performance. There is a certain crispness in Leddy’s writing and in his diction, but, with every shift in colour and shape, the clash between theatrical technique and prose fiction becomes more pronounced.

The script itself is also riven with contradictions. Leddy’s political observations vis-à-vis UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia are far from original. Consequently, the text relies for its drama upon the writer’s penchant for the often seamier aspects of sex and death.

As to the title. It smacks more of an attempt to bask in the reflected glory of Shakespeare than any real similarity between Leddy’s character and the Bard’s Roman general.

 Until April 22. tron.co.uk

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on April 19, 2017

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/coriolanus-vanishes-tron-theatre-glasgow-review-unhappy-clash/

© Mark Brown

 

Review: A Number, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

THEATRE REVIEW

 

A Number,

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh,

Run ended

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

A Number
Brian Ferguson and Peter Forbes. Photo: Royal Lyceum

Caryl Churchill is one of the most fascinating and, to my mind, frustrating of modern English playwrights. Resolutely modernist, radically socialist and feminist, her oeuvre includes undeniable classics (such as Top Girls and Cloud 9) and works in which her desire to express her politics clashes uncomfortably with her avant-garde aesthetics (as in Drunk Enough To Say I Love You?, which had an excellently acted production at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow recently).

The frustration with the Lyceum’s staging of her 2002 play A Number is not with the writing, but with the exasperatingly short run (of only a little over a week). Directed with tremendous focus by leading Scottish playwright Zinnie Harris and designed with a painterly sparseness by Fred Meller, it is an utterly compelling hour of theatre.

Set in an unspecified, but none-too-distant, future, the drama entails meetings between Salter (a man who had his son, Bernard, cloned) and three of the young men affected by his intervention in reproductive technology. Salter (a brilliantly riven Peter Forbes) attempts to negotiate the boundary between his own guilt and the culpability of the scientists who created more clones of his child than was intended.

Brian Ferguson gives a performance (or, rather, performances) of deep emotional intelligence as Bernard 1 (the original son), Bernard 2 (his intended clone) and Michael Black (one of the additional clones). The play is quite extraordinary in its capacity to deal both with the millennia-old debate regarding nature and nurture, while also turning to the emotional implications of biologically identical people being created, not by nature, but by science.

A tragedy wrapped in a captivating emotional, psychological and political enigma, A Number is Churchill at the top of her theatrical game. Arguably the best production of David Greig’s period as director of the Lyceum, it demands, appropriately enough, to be revived without alteration.

This review was originally published on the website of the Sunday Herald (heraldscotland.com) on April 16, 2017

© Mark Brown

Reviews: And Then Come The Nightjars, Byre Theatre, St Andrews & His Final Bow, Oran Mor, Glasgow

THEATRE REVIEWS

 

And Then Come The Nightjars,

Seen at Byre Theatre, St Andrews:

touring until April 29

 

His Final Bow,

Seen at Oran Mor, Glasgow:

touring to Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh,

April 18-22;

and The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen,

April 25-29

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Nightjars
Finlay Welsh and Nigel Hastings in And Then Come The Nightjars. Photo: Steve Barber 

A play focused upon a Devon dairy farmer and a veterinary surgeon during the devastating outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001 does not, I admit, sound particularly prepossessing. Nevertheless, Bea Roberts’s drama And Then Come The Nightjars (currently touring Scotland courtesy of Perth Theatre, among others) soon justifies its past acclaim.

It is appropriate that the play, which is set in farmer Michael’s barn, should begin its Scottish tour at the Byre Theatre (the symbol of which is a happy cow, jumping over the moon). There’s no such joy on Michael’s farm, however. Despite the best efforts of his dear friend Jeffrey, the head vet for the area, his uninfected herd of cows will not be spared in the government’s desperate attempts to prevent the rapid spread of the disease.

The cull puts immense strain on the friendship between the two men. Michael (Finlay Welsh on wonderfully indignant-yet-sympathetic form) cannot accept the slaughter of his healthy “girls”, whilst Jeffrey (Nigel Hastings, excellent as the outsider “gone native” in Devon) is duty bound to facilitate the destruction of the herd.

Through this narrative Roberts weaves a touching, often very funny story of male co-dependency. Michael’s beloved wife died shortly before the disease outbreak, while Jeffrey is an alcoholic whose family life is on the verge of implosion. Like Gogo and Didi from Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, the men take refuge in each other.

Director Paul Robinson’s production maintains a lovely balance between Roberts’s comedy and the real, life-changing events that are the basis for the play. Designer Max Dorey creates a detailed and naturalistic barn, all the better for the unlikely scene depicting a wedding reception, complete with dodgy disco.

As the men’s cantankerous friendship strengthens and deepens, Roberts’s modest, but impressively well-made, play expresses the impact of the 2001 crisis in British farming through unashamed nostalgia, beautifully observed humour and, ultimately, undeniable poignancy.

His Final Bow
Alex Fthenakis & James Mackenzie in His Final Bow. Photo: Leslie Black

There’s another male two-hander set in a barn in Peter Arnott’s new lunchtime play His Final Bow. It’s April 26, 1865, and we meet John Wilkes Booth (famous actor and Confederate sympathiser, turned assassin of President Abraham Lincoln) and his companion, Davey, hiding on a farm in Virginia.

Arnott is a clever writer with a taste for both history and politics. As he proves here, he also has a considerable facility for satirical humour.

Booth (the son of English Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth, who emigrated to Maryland) is presented as a hellish combination of unbearable, thespianic self-regard, vicious racism and gargantuan delusions of grandeur. James Mackenzie plays the assassin in tremendously bold, comic outline, as he rages against the indignity of being forced to sleep in a barn in, of all places, Virginia, where he should be welcomed as a hero of the struggle against the “tyranny” of the North.

Assisted excellently by Alex Fthenakis (as the energetically sycophantic Davey), Mackenzie offers the most deliciously cartoonish mockery of a 19th-century Southern racist I have seen since Tarantino’s 2012 movie Django Unchained.

Arnott’s script bristles with 21st-century references, whether in Booth’s imagining of the “chaos” of a black president or Davey’s dismissal of the press’s hostility to Booth, and his promise of “alternative facts”. The play loses momentum for a short time, while Arnott gets slightly bogged down in historical exposition. That is only a small blemish, however, on what is a smartly written, nicely acted and, thanks to Ken Alexander, tightly directed historical comedy.

Tour details for And Then Come The Nightjars can be found at: bearoberts.com

A slightly abridged version of these reviews was originally published in the Sunday Herald on April 16, 2017

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Girl in the Machine, Traverse, Edinburgh & Dr Stirlingshire’s Discovery, Edinburgh Zoo

THEATRE REVIEWS

Girl In The Machine

Traverse Theatre,

Edinburgh

Until April 22

Dr Stirlingshire’s Discovery

Edinburgh Zoo

Ends today

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Girl in the Machine
Rosalind Sydney (foreground) and Michael Dylan in Girl in the Machine. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

There’s an elephant in the room when it comes to public discussion of theatre in Scotland. The unveiling of a new play (Girl In The Machine by Stef Smith) in the main performance space at the Traverse Theatre is as good a time as any to point it out.

New theatre writing is the most essential, and the most difficult, element in any theatre culture; this is particularly true of Scotland, which, thanks to the proscriptions of our Calvinist Reformation, has little by way of a theatre tradition. Now, in the second decade of the new millennium, new theatre writing in Scotland is not good enough often enough. We need to examine our national theatre strategy and the place of the Trav, which self-declares as “Scotland’s new writing theatre”, within it.

I don’t say this because Girl In The Machine (which is directed by the Traverse’s artistic director Orla O’Loughlin) is a bad play; it’s actually a reasonable drama, albeit that it never really threatens to set the heather alight. I say it, rather, because the staging of Smith’s piece reminds one, yet again, that we need a national conversation about the role of the Traverse.

I’ve never enjoyed fence sitting, so allow me to declare my hand. I don’t think there is enough good, new theatre writing in Scotland to justify the Traverse’s dedication to world premieres. In fact, this was true even in the 1990s, the decade of Scottish theatre’s golden generation of playwrights: David Greig, Zinnie Harris, David Harrower and Anthony Neilson.

The Trav would, in my opinion, be better widening its remit to include established modern classics, both Scottish and international; the highly successful staging of Edward Albee’s The Goat, by O’Loughlin’s predecessor Dominic Hill, in 2010 remains a high point in the theatre’s recent history. Rather than simply nurturing writing talent, the Trav’s new writing remit also puts undue pressure on writers, new and established, to come up with the goods.

There is, in my experience, considerable private agreement on these issues within the Scottish theatre community, and yet we plough on, as if the Trav’s self-imposed brief was some kind of sacred cow. The questions I raise here are not only for O’Loughlin and her team at the Traverse, but for the whole of the Scottish theatre community, including funding body Creative Scotland, writers’ development organisation the Playwrights’ Studio and, of course, audiences themselves.

Which brings me back to Girl In The Machine. Although its subject (the fatal digitisation of humanity in a dystopian near future) is ambitious, it feels like a modest studio play which has been given a main stage billing it can’t quite carry off (indeed O’Loughlin has, not for the first time, reconfigured the seating in Traverse 1 to reduce its capacity and increase its intimacy).

The play takes place in an Orwellian society in which people have “citizen chips” embedded in their arms; these personal data banks are regularly updated by the State. Polly (a woman in her thirties who works in the hi-tech industry) receives Black Box, a supposed, computerised relaxation tool, from her husband Owen (who’s a nurse). The machine (a digital headband) updates itself with increasingly sophisticated, and intrusive, software, until, all over the world, it is able to ask its wearers the sinister question: “Do you want to live forever? Yes or no?”

As Black Box works its way into Polly’s psyche, playing on her burgeoning despondency about the future of humanity, the battle between human and machine turns into a popular uprising on the streets.

Powerful though this premise is, and despite strong performances from Rosalind Sydney and Michael Dylan, both play and production underwhelm. Smith’s script does have occasional poetic flourishes, but, for the most part, the dialogue is so prosaic and the future-gazing so predictable that the piece resembles a sci-fi soap opera.

None of this is assisted by O’Loughlin’s directing, which swings irritatingly between a boring physical stasis and pointless running about (inserted, no doubt, by choreographers White and Givan). There is, without question, something genuinely chilling in this play, but, like too much of the Traverse’s output, it fails to fulfil its promise.

Dr Stirlingshire 2
Antony Strachan and Nicola Tuxworth in Dr Stirlingshire’s Discovery. Photo: Pete Dibdin

Head west from the Traverse to Edinburgh Zoo and you will find another, entirely different piece of new Scottish theatre. Dr Stirlingshire’s Discovery, by Morna Pearson, takes us on a wild goose chase for The Something Or Other, a newly discovered, large mammal which has escaped, leaving only huge dollops of purple poo around the Zoo as evidence of its existence.

Performed in the Zoo after closing time (when, be warned, most of the animals are in their beds), the piece brings together site-specific theatre company Grid Iron and Lung Ha, Scotland’s leading theatre company for people with learning disabilities. The play is a family drama in which the Zoo’s manager Henry Stirlingshire (played with hilarious haughtiness by Antony Strachan) invites his sister, “cryptozoologist” Dr Vivienne Stirlingshire (the unerringly eccentric Nicola Tuxworth), to exhibit her latest finding; he does so in the hope and belief that the unveiling will be a humiliating failure.

As we join the hunt for the missing beast, the Lung Ha chorus offer us an array of humorous characters, from parading penguins to scatter-brained zookeepers. Like a cross between Dr Seuss and Monty Python, the show is great fun, especially for young theatregoers.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on April 9, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Dr Stirlingshire’s Discovery, Edinburgh Zoo (Daily Telegraph)

THEATRE

 

DR STIRLINGSHIRE’S DISCOVERY

EDINBURGH ZOO

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Dr Stirlingshire
Antony Strachan (right) as Henry Stirlingshire. Photo: Pete Dibdin

A co-production between site-specific theatre specialists Grid Iron and Lung Ha (Scotland’s leading theatre company working with people with learning disabilities), Dr Stirlingshire’s Discovery offers a trip to Edinburgh Zoo with a difference. Opening as the Zoo closes for business, it takes its audience on a journey in pursuit of a newly-discovered species known only as The Something or Other.

The play tells the story of the seemingly unhinged “cryptozoologist” Dr Vivienne Stirlingshire, author of a number of books (including Are We There Yeti?) which chart her failed attempts to track down the big beasts of popular mythology. This time, however, she assures us that she has brought back to Scotland a previously unknown, purple-haired mammal.

The unveiling of The Something or Other has been organised by the good doctor’s brother, Henry, who is manager of our fictionalised Zoo. A gesture which, truth be told, is not entirely brotherly.

The siblings have been at loggerheads since childhood. Henry has organised the ceremony in the certainty that he will be humiliating his sister, whose “discovery” will, he feels sure, be nothing special or, indeed, nothing at all.

Anyone hoping to combine attendance at the performance with some animal gazing is likely to be disappointed; aside from a few sleepy chimpanzees and some small, wide-eyed primates peering curiously from inside their den, the Zoo’s residents are safely in bed before show time. Which is not to say that Morna Pearson’s Pythonesque script doesn’t have some weird and wonderful creatures up its sleeves.

As we walk around the Zoo in pursuit of The Something or Other (which has escaped), we encounter some blokes with antlers on their heads, apparently celebrating their friend’s forthcoming nuptials. They are, needless to say, the “stags”.

We also come across some zookeepers busy working on a stock-take. They have to start again when their boss points out that sparrows, squirrels and ants aren’t actually part of the Zoo’s collection.

If the jokes are good, so are many of the performances. The humour of the Lung Ha chorus is a delight, while the talented Antony Strachan gives a deliciously over-the-top performance as the pompous, but ultimately conciliatory, Henry Stirlingshire.

A modest tale, told simply, Dr Stirlingshire’s Discovery is very much a family show made with younger children in mind. Just take care not to step in any purple poo!

Until April 9: lungha.com

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

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/dr-stirlingshires-discovery-edinburgh-zoo-review/

© Mark Brown

 

Review: My Country; a work in progress, National Theatre (GB) tour

THEATRE REVIEW

 

My Country; a work in progress,

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow,

Run Ended

 

At Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh,

May 11-13

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

My Country
My Country. Photo: National Theatre (GB)

Opening in Glasgow just as Theresa May was triggering Article 50, the National Theatre (of Great Britain’s) response to Brexit made a timely debut on the Scottish stage. Entitled My Country; a work in progress, the piece is a verbatim drama created by the UK’s poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and the NT’s director Rufus Norris.

The work is dedicated to the memory of Jo Cox, the Labour MP who was murdered by neo-Nazi terrorist Thomas Mair during the EU referendum. That dedication is, sad to say, the only really good thing about what is a truly terrible evening’s theatre.

A 21st-century Britannia (who knows she looks stupid in her plumed helmet, shield and trident) convenes a meeting of the nations and regions of the UK. Britannia speaks for the leading (England-based) politicians of the Brexit debate (most notably impersonating Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage), while the others speak the words of random citizens.

Duffy and Norris pepper the vox pops with jokes and a few songs related to the countries and regions concerned. The fact remains, however, it is entirely unimaginative and anti-theatrical to simply assemble a bunch of quotes and stick them under such as headings as “immigration” and “identity”.

Like a work of undergraduate sociology, the piece reveals such gems as: many residents of Derry don’t feel British and carry an Irish passport; a lot of Scottish people want independence; and some people in the UK talk like a Daily Express editorial when you ask them for their views on immigration.

One citizen’s observation that Theresa May “will make a good Maggie Thatcher” offers a rare moment of satirical pleasure. Otherwise, this 80-minute show is shallow, redundant and intellectually insulting. Forget about Brexit – I wanted to run for the exit.

For a complete list of tour dates, visit:  nationaltheatre.org.uk

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on April 2, 2017

© Mark Brown