Reviews: We Are In Time, Perth Theatre & Smile: The Jim McLean Story, Dundee Rep

Theatre

 

We Are In Time

Perth Theatre

Touring until March 6

 

Smile: The Jim McLean Story

Dundee Rep

Until March 7

 

By MARK BROWN

We Are In Time (s)
We Are In Time. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

As a work of music theatre, We Are In Time (a co-production by the ever-inventive string orchestra the Scottish Ensemble and the acclaimed, experimental theatre company Untitled Projects) is so audacious, in conceptual terms, that it feels almost indecent to receive it with anything other than unalloyed praise. Taking as its subject a heart transplant operation, it is an accomplished, but somewhat uneasy, combination of string concert, chamber opera and elementary medical lecture.

New music by acclaimed Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurdsson is partnered to text by leading dramatist Pamela Carter. The piece is directed by the excellent director-designer Stewart Laing, whose stage is a typically stylish, pared-back approximation of an operating theatre. On-stage the 12-strong Scottish Ensemble is joined by narrator Alison O’Donnell (who, tablet computer in hand, keeps us up to speed with the history and process of the heart transplant), and singers Jodie Landau (Jay, the donor) and Ruby Philogene (Stella, the recipient).

The subject matter – death and the fear of death, the giving of life – is inherently dramatic and as old as human culture itself. Such existential material is the very stuff of artistic expression precisely because it resides in the realm of what Albert Einstein called “mystery”.

There is, therefore, a tension in this production’s attempt to combine that mystery with clinically unambiguous medical language. One suspects the artists are aware of this tension, and have sought to make of it something creatively jagged (like a painting by Georges Braque or a string quartet by Béla Bartók).

The attempt is admirable and, often, affecting, but, ultimately, it fails. Sigurdsson’s score, which is played gorgeously by the Ensemble, is by turns beautifully harmonic and dramatically discordant. However, moments of bald, medical precision, such as the Ensemble singing the words “organ donation and transplantation hub operations”, are (the alliteration notwithstanding), not so much dissonant, as distractingly clunky. Violinist Jonathan Morton’s brief, but grating, speaking of the words of the head surgeon is similarly avoidable.

Which is a pity, because Landau performs the role of Jay with a touching sense, both of his character’s regrets and of his calm familiarity with death. He sings the part with a gentle, almost understated informality.

By contrast, the superb opera singer Philogene sings Stella in an altogether higher register, which raises the emotional stature of the piece. She plays the modern day Lazarus with a tremendous combination of gravity, wry humour, boundless relief and profound gratitude; one only wishes that her operatic singing (in which, inevitably, some words are lost) was accompanied by supertitles.

With so much creative and performative talent at its disposal, We Are In Time promised to be a truly great work of music theatre. Sadly, however, it fails to resolve the contradictions inherent in its conception, leaving one feeling frustratingly unfulfilled.

Smile (s)
Chris Alexander (left) and Barrie Hunter in Smile. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan 

If Sigurdsson and Carter are dealing in matters of life and death, Dundee Rep’s latest play, Smile: The Jim McLean Story, turns its attention to something that, as the philosopher Bill Shankly explained, is “much, much more important than that”; namely, football. That being so, I feel it is my professional duty as a theatre critic to avoid any clichés associated with the beautiful game.

I will not, therefore, suggest that Philip Differ’s biographical drama plays to the tangerine half of the city of Dundee, or that it tackles the life of Dundee United’s greatest ever manager. It’s more than my byline’s worth to throw-in the observation that the fine and versatile actor Barrie Hunter proves himself to be an agile utility man or opine that debutant main stage director Sally Reid has turned out to be a star signing who has achieved her goal with an assured production.

Joking aside, Differ’s play is very much for the fans. The piece is presented on a set which represents the interior of a dilapidated tenement (a nod to McLean’s trade as a joiner) and is dominated by Oscar Marzaroli’s marvellous photo of Celtic supporters (a sleight-of-hand designer Kenny Miller gets away with on account of the picture being in black and white).

The drama deals in McLean’s personal history, his family life, his famously dour persona, and, of course, his towering achievements as manager of United. Hunter (ably assisted by Chris Alexander in an array of supporting roles) is excellent in his portrayal of the man’s often comical, sometimes sinister rage, his regrets and his underlying decency.

The piece is deliciously funny at times, but can also be a tad saccharine; not least when Differ imagines McLean saying: “I was born in Lanarkshire, but I was made in Dundee.” It also makes too little of the fact that the future footballer and manager was raised in the strict Protestant sect The Plymouth Brethren.

Finally, only an outrageously fanatical, St Mirren-supporting critic would point out that the Buddies beat McLean’s 1987 UEFA Cup finalists in the Scottish Cup Final of that year. So I won’t.

For tour dates for We Are In Time, visit: scottishensemble.co.uk

These reviews were originally published in The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National on March 1, 2020

© Mark Brown

 

Reviews: The Secret Garden & Mark Thomas: 50 Things About Us, both Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Theatre & comedy

 

The Secret Garden

Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Touring until March 8

 

Mark Thomas: 50 Things About Us

Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Touring until May 1

 

By MARK BROWN

Secret Garden (s)
Ixtaso Moreno and Sarah Miele in The Secret Garden. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

Scotland’s small, but accomplished, children’s theatre sector has a fine track record of creating imaginative productions that thrill and fascinate their young audiences. Few companies have contributed more in this regard than Red Bridge Arts (producer of such brilliant shows as Stick By Me, Space Ape, Night Light and Black Beauty).

The North Queensferry-based company would appear to have another hit on its hands with Rosalind Sydney’s new adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s much loved story of The Secret Garden. The play is, in some ways, a decidedly modern take on Hodgson Burnett’s tale of an orphan girl from colonial India who is sent to England to live in the grand house of her rich, reclusive uncle.

For a start, the little girl, Mary (who is played splendidly by Itxaso Moreno), has been orphaned, not by a cholera epidemic, but by a war. When she arrives in the palatial abode of Mr Craven, she is not only far from home, but also unable to speak English (she comforts herself by singing a folk song in the Basque language, which is Moreno’s mother tongue).

Lonely and afraid, Moreno’s Mary faces the redoubtable housekeeper Mrs Medlock (Gavin Jon Wright) and the well-intentioned housemaid Martha (Sarah Miele) with a wonderfully comic truculence. The actor imbues her character with such boldness, in both personality and physicality, that she creates an almost instant rapport with the young audience. That identification is palpably constant throughout Mary’s journey from bereaved sullenness to the joys of friendship and discovery in the late Mrs Craven’s beautiful garden.

Played by a cast of just three, necessity (as so often in Scottish theatre) proves to be the mother of invention as actors gender shift between roles. Wright doubles up as Martha’s intrepid, younger brother Dickon, and Miele plays Mr Craven’s sickly, and comically paranoid, son Colin.

The Secret Garden is a story well-suited to our anxious times, directed, as it is, towards human solidarity in the face of fear and loss. This strong staging of it enjoys tight co-direction by Sydney and Ian Cameron, smart, semi-minimalist design by Karen Tennant, excellent, atmospheric sound and music by Danny Krass, and delightfully exuberant movement direction by Robbie Synge.

Mark Thomas
Mark Thomas

For those of us (in Scotland, a clear majority) who are still reeling from the victory of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson in December’s general election, Mark Thomas’s latest show, 50 Things About Us, promised to be something of an antidote. The Prime Minister – who equates Muslim women wearing the niqab with “letterboxes” and calls gay men “tank-topped bum boys” – is, the self-proclaimed “ex-anarchist” comedian and activist proclaims, like an “alcoholic Hugh Grant in a fat suit”.

The “us” in the title of the show (which plays Dundee and Stirling next month) are the peoples of the UK. The “50 things” are those aspects of the state and the folk who live in it which Thomas loves and hates.

One of the things he hates, as he made clear first off in Glasgow, is English nationalism. If or when the people of Scotland vote for independence, it will, Thomas thinks, be like we’re finally leaving an abusive relationship.

Other targets include Tory barrow boy MP Mark Francois (an “EDL Care Bear”) and land use in the UK (six per cent is given over to grouse moors, he says, which is more than for domestic dwellings). The things he loves include the Daily Mail-confounding fact that the London Bridge attacker was stopped by someone armed with a narwhal tusk and a prisoner on day release.

Typically of Thomas’s stage shows, there is an impressive amount of research and a prodigious memory behind what almost seems like a stream of consciousness. Typically, there’s also time for some asides.

He loves the Glasgow Film Theatre, but hated the movie he watched there (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks, is “so saccharine it’s got diabetes”). He’s also not a fan of theatregoers lighting up the auditorium with their mobile phones during the performance (“Tory behaviour”), and, un-Britishly, challenged a patron who was doing so.

We have become accustomed to Thomas’s stage works (such as Showtime from the Frontline and 100 Acts of Minor Dissent) having conceptual, theatrical and technical elements that distinguish them from stand-up comedy. In truth, 50 Things About Us, in which the comic speaks with only the occasional aid of a tablet computer, is much closer to a comedy club routine (and it’s none the worse for that).

As ever, Thomas’s intelligence, mischief and anger are a winning combination. If only he could be granted his wish to become director of the British Museum, whereby he’d return its imperial plunder and open not one, but two rooms dedicated to the late Ian Dury.

For tour details for The Secret Garden, visit: redbridgearts.co.uk

For tour details for Mark Thomas, visit: markthomasinfo.co.uk

These reviews were originally published in The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National on February 16, 2020

© Mark Brown

 

Reviews: After Chekhov & Island Home, Manipulate Festival, Edinburgh

Theatre

 

The power of three

 

After Chekhov

The Studio, Edinburgh

 

Island Home

Summerhall, Edinburgh

 

By MARK BROWN

After Chekhov
After Chekhov by Samoloet

The annual, week-long Manipulate festival (which ended in Edinburgh yesterday) has become an indispensable part of the country’s theatre ecology. Indeed, beyond the Edinburgh festivals in August, it is Scotland’s most important showcase of international visual theatre, puppetry and animation.

The beautiful, wordless piece After Chekhov is a fine example of why the programme (which is produced by Puppet Animation Scotland) is a proverbial good deed in a naughty world. This 65-minute work is a gorgeously impressionistic, almost ethereal meditation on the titular siblings of Anton Chekhov’s famous play Three Sisters.

A delightful, intriguing and compelling work of theatrical art, the piece all but dispenses with narrative. Dramas such as this befuddle the traditional British conception of theatre as something which is defined by language, story, plot and unambiguous meaning.

Franco-Russian company Samoloet stand in a different tradition, one in which theatre can be as abstract and evocative as a string quartet by Anton Webern or a painting by Kazimir Malevich. So it is that we encounter the sisters, each a mirror of the other, shifting between seasons, moving through childhood into youth, in a simple, enchanting approximation of the petit-bourgeois, rural Russia in which they were raised.

Carefully considered, minimal set design combines with subtle lighting, shade and shadow to evoke a shared life of spiritual and emotional discovery. Through physical performance, puppetry and object theatre, the three performers draw us ever closer into the almost hermetically sealed world of their characters.

The use of music and sound is equally, and wonderfully, atmospheric. At the outset of the play we hear a military band departing, leaving behind them a world of classical piano music and Russian folk tunes. The indeterminate noise of a single, unknown person, busy doing who-knows-what, gives way to the howling of dogs and the cooing of doves.

When the sisters are not represented by the performers, they are manifested by little puppets or dolls. As autumn turns to winter, tiny Christmas trees and associated paraphernalia of the Yuletide season emerge, in miniature, from inside leather suitcases.

When the sisters peer inquisitively from their house into the pastoral wonderland in which they live, they do so through elegantly wrought metal windows that will, in a later scene, fold, endearingly, into little beds. There are many such moments of ingenuity.

A photo album is opened and memories tumble out of it. Soon, photos are being arranged on the floor, fitting cleverly into the rectangular shadows that are cast through the spaces in the album (which itself will soon become a bleak, grand dacha with many windows).

After Chekhov is an exquisite, emotive, sometimes surprisingly humorous, and timeless work of theatre. As our culture is increasingly saturated by the digitised and virtualised, there is something reassuringly human about a work of live drama that is so defiantly, and paradoxically, spiritual and material.

There is a strong spiritual, and, indeed, abstract dimension in Island Home, a 40-minute series of narrative vignettes by the Slovakian theatremaker Katarini Cakova, who is known as Katanari. Figures appear on walls, illuminated from little torches; a townscape pops up from the pages of a book; the woman who is the subject a simple, symbolic story is represented by a puppet comprised only of a head and arms.

A succession of tiny, diverse objects, puppets of various kinds and sizes, masks and handmade props appear as Katanari speaks her series of very short stories about spiritual and physical journeys. These range from the tale of a young woman who doesn’t want to travel (her journey being within herself) to a simple evocation of the lives of the many thousands (refugees from war, persecution, climate chaos and poverty) who take to the oceans in search of sanctuary.

Deliberately slow burning and episodic, the piece moves from moments of darkness to little, table top scenes, often illuminated by a small, adjustable reading light. The texts themselves, which are like prose poems, are similarly intermittent.

In truth, in the English language, at least, Katanari’s speech is somewhat stilted and lacking in expressiveness. One can’t help but wish that her inventive, artisanal theatre making was joined to a linguistic proficiency that was, if not necessarily akin to that of an actor, then, at least, more lyrical.

The Manipulate festival may be over, but one of its headline shows, Fault Lines by English company Two Destination Language, continues touring until next Saturday (including performances in Selkirk and St Andrews). Set on a fashion catwalk, featuring five female characters, the show allows you to choose your own soundtrack (courtesy of a smartphone app and a pair of headphones). A fashion show unlike any other, it promises to combine reality TV show America’s Next Top Model with the work of the great cultural theorist Susan Sontag.

Fault Lines tours until February 15. For details, visit: twodestinationlanguage.com

These reviews were originally published in The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National on February 9, 2020

© Mark Brown

Reviews: The Lion King, Edinburgh Playhouse & Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of), Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Theatre

 

Edinburgh gets the lion’s share

 

The Lion King

Edinburgh Playhouse

Until April 18

 

Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of)

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Until February 15

 

By MARK BROWN

The Lion King
Richard Hurst (Scar) and Matthew Forbes (Zazu) in The Lion King. Photo: Disney

The phenomenon that is the award-winning stage musical The Lion King has arrived in Scotland, and so successful has it been that its run has already been extended into mid-April. Adapted from Disney’s much-loved 1995 animated movie, the show, which is the biggest grossing musical in Broadway history, is currently playing in nine cities on three continents.

It isn’t difficult to see the basis of its success. The movie, in which the cheated and violently bereaved lion cub Simba ultimately returns in a heroic quest for justice, has been transformed into a genuinely spectacular piece of theatre.

From the very outset, as we are treated to a pageant of impressive, large puppets of African animals – including elephants, a rhinoceros and zebras – it is clear that we are in for a performance of tremendous visual and technical accomplishment. Add to that an array of adored, anthropomorphised animal characters, and the celebrated songs of Elton John and Tim Rice, and it is little surprise that tickets are selling like proverbial hot cakes.

The show is, as one would expect of such a massively successful Disney show, straightforward in narrative, decidedly saccharine in sentiment and exquisitely put together. Whilst the performances of the huge cast are close to flawless, it is the work of the design and technical teams that leave the greatest impression.

The mask for Scar, the none-too-subtly named, evil brother of Simba’s ill-fated father Mufasa, is a thing of ergonomic and dramatic beauty, jutting forward menacingly, as it does, whenever actor Richard Hurst strikes an aggressive pose. The puppets, from birds flying over our heads on flexible poles to a little mouse represented by the ancient art of shadow puppetry, are a constant delight.

The large-scale puppets, which are operated by performers inside them, are the most memorable. Perhaps most ingenious are the giraffes, in which the performers move on legs built around stilts and have long necks connected to their shoulders.

That said, the antelopes, which dance through the savannah on bicycle wheels, speak to a low-tech theatrical ingenuity that we don’t usually associate with big stage musical theatre.

None of this works without actors, of course, and this production boasts a fine, international cast. French performer Jean-Luc Guizonne’s Mufasa strikes the perfect balance between kingly gravitas and reassuring paternalism.

Thandazile Soni (who was a big hit in the Chicago production of The Lion King) plays the elderly mandrill Rafiki as a redoubtable, kind-hearted and hilarious South African auntie. When American actor Dashaun Young and South African performer Josslynn Hlenti arrive on stage as the grown lions Simba and Nala, they take over the characters from the tremendous, young performers Kieron Bell and Kayne Muhumuza.

Hlenti shines as a singer of notable range and power. Matthew Forbes (the hornbill Zazu) and the double act of Steve Beirnaert and Carl Sanderson (as the meerkat Timon and his flatulent warthog friend Pumbaa) add comedy to the tragedy and heroism.

As family stage musicals go, they don’t get more accomplished, or more successful, than The Lion King. The production currently resident in Edinburgh provides ample evidence as to why.

Pride & Prejudice (sort of)
Isobel McArthur in Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of). Photo: Royal Lyceum

A very significant gear change is required to shift from Disney’s theatrical juggernaut to Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of), the hit, all-female Jane Austen spin-off by Scottish theatre company Blood of the Young. I confess, when it premiered at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre in 2018, I was not particularly impressed by this decidedly postmodern, ultra-ironic, feminist take on the famous novel.

The show has earned itself critical acclaim, audience adulation and, now, a major revival.

Seeing this new staging (which has picked up a string of major co-producers, from the Lyceum to Birmingham Rep, Leeds Playhouse and plenty more besides), I feel compelled to revise my opinion somewhat.

A theatre critic should never feel uncomfortable in standing against prevailing critical opinion, and I certainly don’t. However, by the same token, I distrust critics who claim that there are never occasions on which they reconsider an earlier review.

I still think that the show – which has had its cast expanded from five to six, but is, otherwise, little changed – is too long (at two hours and 45 minutes). I also continue in the view that its self-conscious postmodern devices (a karaoke machine, microphones and 20th-century pop songs clashing with an approximation of Regency period costumes and furniture) are somewhat hackneyed and far less inventive than some of the show’s admirers seem to think.

That said, as this production (which, in atmospheric terms, fills the Lyceum auditorium with apparent ease) attests, the piece (which was written by Isobel McArthur and directed by Paul Brotherston) has energy to burn. Add to that a constant and good-natured line in jaunty, sometimes jagged, humour and you’re heading towards a winning combination.

Perhaps the show’s greatest strength, however, is its ability (despite its attachment to heavily signposted, postmodern irony) to maintain the emotional essence of Austen’s novel. This is particularly true of the central romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy (which is played with a brilliant, and unlikely, combination of sardonic distance and palpable feeling by Meghan Tyler and McArthur).

These reviews were originally published in The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National on February 2, 2020

© Mark Brown

 

Review: The Steamie, SSE Hydro, Glasgow (Sunday National)

Theatre review

 

The Steamie

SSE Hydro, Glasgow

 

By Sunday National theatre critic MARK BROWN

The Steamie 2 - Christopher Bowen
The female cast of The Steamie. Photo: Christopher Bowen

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Scotland’s biggest indoor arena, the SSE Hydro (which opened its doors in 2013), was built for the purpose of hosting huge pop concerts and big name stand-up comedy shows. It was never intended to provide a home to a little comic play written by a Scottish actor-turned-playwright back in 1987.

Yet, between December 27 and 30 that is exactly what it did, when Tony Roper’s much-loved drama The Steamie took up residence. Yes, The Hydro had already staged a trilogy of live shows based on hit TV sitcom Still Game, but bringing the aimless chat of four women in a Glasgow public washhouse on a New Year’s Eve in the 1950s into the immense arena was an altogether more daunting prospect.

At face value, there’s just no way that The Steamie has the potential, in atmospheric terms, to fill this enormous venue. However, that would be to reckon without the capacity of this big-hearted, unashamedly nostalgic drama to fill any room, no matter how large, with good-natured, working-class humour.

It would also be to overlook the tremendous affection in which The Steamie is held by generations of, predominantly female, Scots. On arriving at the venue, surrounded by crowds dominated by women and girls of all ages, one could sense that this was a gathering of a very dedicated fan base. Even with certain areas of the cavernous auditorium blocked off to make the seating more akin to that of a conventional theatre, this production (which Roper directed himself) was playing to more than 7,000 people per show.

Having secured his audience, how would Roper pull off the more difficult trick of filling The Hydro, not only with people, but with enjoyment and laughter? The answer comes, in part, in the introduction of a talented, 13-strong ensemble of musical theatre performers who get the show off to a bright start with Roper’s new opening song, an unapologetically wistful number about a Glasgow of shipyards and cheerful Bobbies on the beat. We will see this chorus again, singing and dancing their way through some of the original musical numbers written by Dave Anderson for the premiere production of the play (for Wildcat Theatre Company) in 1987.

However, for all that the show has been given a bit of West End musical theatre razzmatazz, the real winner remains the script itself. From the Magrit, Dolly and Doreen’s uncomprehending musing on men’s obsession with football, to old Mrs Culfeathers’s hilariously long-winded blethering about Galloway’s mince, each comic scene is welcomed by the audience like a familiar friend.

It helps that Roper has secured the services of a superb cast. The excellent Mary McCusker (Mrs Culfeathers) and Fiona Wood (Doreen) have performed the drama before, and play it here with the same sense of timing and bonhomie you would expect in any of Scotland’s smaller theatres. It’s hugely to the show’s benefit that they are joined by the fabulous, often uproariously funny duo of Louise McCarthy (Magrit) and Gayle Telfer Stevens (Dolly), and the very talented Harry Ward (delightfully comic as boozy washhouse engineer Andy).

In truth, it takes a little while to get used to the fact that this essentially intimate five-hander is being performed by mic’d up actors and with huge video screens on either side of the stage. However, the gentle humour of Roper’s script, a set of fabulous and fearless acting performances and a truly wonderful set (a quintessential series of washhouse stalls, created by leading stage designer Kenny Miller) combine to tame the beast that is The Hydro, and make this ambitious big arena show a very palpable hit.

Run ended

This review was originally published in the Sunday National on January 5, 2020

© Mark Brown

Review: The Steamie, SSE Hydro, Glasgow (Daily Telegraph)

Theatre

 

The Steamie

SSE Hydro, Glasgow

By Mark Brown

Steamie 1#
Louise McCarthy and Fiona Wood in The Steamie. Photo: Christopher Bowen

Tony Roper’s 1987 stage comedy The Steamie, which has just completed a short run at Scotland’s biggest indoor arena, the SSE Hydro, is a Scottish cultural phenomenon. Set in a public washhouse in Glasgow on a New Year’s eve in the 1950s, it was made into a smash hit TV drama, screened by the Scottish Television channel on Hogmanay in 1988.

Unashamedly nostalgic and evocatively resonant of the lives of working-class women in the Fifties, the play follows the reminiscing, the hopeful dreaming and the hilarious, free-ranging conversations of four women from three generations. The chat is combined with a bit of illicit, Hogmanay tippling with Andy, the wash-house’s self-romanticising engineer.

The Steamie has attracted some of the biggest names in the Scottish acting profession, including Elaine C Smith, Dorothy Paul and Peter Mullan. This new production, which is directed by actor-writer Roper himself, takes on a West End musical dimension.

In addition to the play’s five famous characters, this staging has an all-singing, all-dancing chorus. Dave Anderson’s songs (written for the original Wildcat Theatre Company production in 1987) are supplemented by a new, nicely executed opening number (also by Anderson), which is a shamelessly rose-tinted celebration of the Glasgow of yesteryear, replete with a huge model tram gliding across the stage.

Roper’s big stage “upgrade” was essential if the drama was to succeed in making the transition to the cavernous Hydro. The venue was designed, first-and-foremost, for rock concerts and big name stand-ups. Even with some seating areas blocked off, this Steamie (in which the actors are mic’d up, of course, and in which the stage is flanked by two giant screens) was playing to upwards of 7,000 people.

In truth, given the essential intimacy of the play, the reverberating, amplified voices and the sheer size of the venue give the production a disconcerting, surreal aspect during the first 10 minutes or so. Remarkably, however, the combination of a top notch cast and Roper’s irresistible writing (and, indeed, designer Kenny Miller’s gorgeously accurate, seemingly time-worn set) manage to restore quickly the drama’s legendary rapport with its predominantly female audience.

Actors Mary McCusker (the elderly, hard-pressed and hard-working Mrs Culfeathers) and Fiona Wood (young dreamer Doreen) are past masters of Roper’s script. They are joined by the ever-excellent duo of Louise McCarthy and Gayle Telfer Stevens (as middle-aged friends Magrit and Dolly), and the fine actor Harry Ward.

The quintet gives a near flawless, often jaw-achingly funny rendition of a play that is so well known that the audience often reacts in anticipation of favourite set pieces; such as the “Galloway’s mince” scene, in which Mrs Culfeathers spins glorious nonsense on the theme of the minced beef and potatoes that she cooks for her husband.

Transposing this modest, yet fabled, five-hander from the theatre stage to the Hydro arena was an ambitious proposition. It is a great credit to Roper and his outstanding cast that they have carried it off.

Run ended

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on December 31, 2019

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/steamie-sse-hydro-review-glorious-new-staging-cult-washhouse/

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, SEC Armadillo, Glasgow; Goldilocks and the Three Bears, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh; and Ali the Magic Elf, Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Theatre

 

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

SEC Armadillo, Glasgow

Until December 31

 

Goldilocks and the Three Bears

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Until January 19

 

Ali the Magic Elf

Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Until December 31

 

By MARK BROWN

Armadillo HR #2
Doon Mackichan as Queen Lucretia in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Photo: Peter Byrne

The SEC Armadillo, which is the biggest pantomime auditorium in Scotland, has, over the years, achieved a Christmas line-up that is about stable as St Mirren’s ever-changing back four. Over the last six years, the show has been headlined by John Barrowman, David Hasselhoff, The Krankies and, in 2017, Greg McHugh (aka Gary: Tank Commander).

This year (with The Krankies, sadly, retired from the pantosphere), McHugh returns, in the nominal role of Gary the Court Jester, in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. However, from the moment he arrives on stage in a baby Sherman tank, it’s reassuringly clear that he isn’t going to stray far from his much-loved TV persona.

McHugh is a safe pair of hands in which to place this big stage panto. His performance is, reliably and hilariously, camp as a proverbial row of tents. His blinged-up musical number Blame it on the Gary (a fabulous parody of Mick Jackson’s 1970s disco hit Blame it on the Boogie) is a memorable highlight of the show.

McHugh’s co-star Doon Mackichan (who takes the role of uber-baddie Queen Lucretia) brings a welcome, cleverly creative twist to proceedings. The Two Doors Down star has long been an innovative force in British comedy (from the path-breaking, female-led sketch show Smack the Pony to the brilliantly bonkers Toast of London). Here, she plays the morally degenerate witch with a delicious, self-confident loucheness that is usually the preserve of male actors.

Many of the show’s designs (Mackichan’s superb, Devil wears Prada costume aside) are decidedly lacklustre; the rubbish animal suits and masks, for example, would embarrass an average am-dram production. Its script also gets the balance wrong between family entertainment and end-of-the-pier vulgarity.

The ever-impressive Frances Thorburn is in fine voice, but her Snow White is costumed as if by Disney, and given a disappointingly traditional lack of personality. Ultimately, this is a big auditorium panto which has some nice set pieces, but too little momentum to overcome the venue’s lack of theatrical atmosphere.

Goldilocks - andy-grant-and-allan-in-goldilocks-photo-douglas-robertson
Andy Gray, Grant Stott and Allan Stewart in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Photo: Douglas Robertson

If the SEC show takes family theatre into unnecessarily lewd territory, the Edinburgh King’s Goldilocks and the Three Bears indulges itself, almost constantly, in the kind of banal (and for the parents, carers and teachers of young children, embarrassing) single entendres that would make a Carry On film producer blush.

There’s a school of thought that this sort of material is perfectly permissible because it goes over kids’ heads. As a parent of two, now grown-up, children, I beg to differ. You don’t have to be a prude to think that our big theatres can do better than this type of low grade, trashy humour at Christmas time.

That said, the Edinburgh panto is not without its qualities. As bad luck would have it, I attended a performance on the solitary day on which King’s favourite Andy Gray was missing due to ill-health. The cast, led by Grant Stott and Dame Allan Stewart, handled the absence with admirable professionalism.

The show resets the story, with glorious improbability, to an Edinburgh circus, which is home to the talented Gillian Parkhouse’s Goldilocks. Stott is hilarious as the evil, terribly accented, German (yet Hibs-supporting) circus master Baron Von Vinklebottom.

Jordan Young’s clown, Joey, brings great energy to an excellently (and colourfully) designed (if somewhat male-dominated) production. It’s just a pity that the show is so wedded to the bawdier side of the music hall tradition.

Ali -Ramesh-Meyyappan-2-Ali-the-Magic-Elf-credit-Eoin-Carey
Ramesh Meyyappan in Ali the Magic Elf. Photo: Eoin Carey

By stark contrast, Ali the Magic Elf, director Andy Arnold’s show for three to six-year-olds at the Tron Theatre, is quintessentially classy theatre. Built around the prodigious talents of the brilliant Ramesh Meyyappan, it is an absolutely enchanting production.

Ali (like Meyyappan himself) is Deaf. So, the children have to communicate with him using a few basic elements from British Sign Language. This clever and gentle form of audience participation helps the charming, but somewhat hapless, elf to make the toys in time for them to be loaded onto Santa’s sleigh.

Before that’s achieved, however, Meyyappan (who is, in his skilful physical comedy, like a cross between Charlie Chaplin, Peter Sellers and French theatre master Jacques Lecoq) treats us to a wonderful series of mishaps. Whether it’s his problematic breakfast (in which spoons bend and eggs appear in unlikely places) or his humorously failed attempts to make, by turns, a wooden toy elephant, an electric car and a balloon sausage dog, Ali’s fiascos are a rib-tickling delight for young theatregoers.

The piece is played in adorably stylish costumes on a truly lovely elf’s workshop set (all designed by Jenny Booth). Meyyappan is assisted more than ably by excellent actor-musicians Christina Gordon and Simon Donaldson, whose enchanting musical arrangements are played on a range of instruments (including, most beautifully, a harp).

By the time the audience is ringing Santa on his way, one is certain that Ali the Magic Elf is a very special piece of theatre indeed.

These reviews were originally published in The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National on December 22, 2019

© Mark Brown