Reviews: The Red Chair, touring & If I Had A Girl… , touring

THEATRE REVIEWS

 

The Red Chair

Seen at Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Touring until March 31

 

If I Had A Girl…

Seen at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Touring until March 16

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Red Chair
Sarah Cameron performing The Red Chair. Photo: Christopher Bethell.

Much has been said and written about the crucial role played by the Scottish storytelling tradition. During the centuries when theatre was either prohibited by the Calvinist Reformation or recovering, slowly, from that stern proscription, the telling of tales sustained our culture’s connection to language in performance.

It is to that rich history that one’s mind turns on encountering The Red Chair, writer and performer Sarah Cameron’s remarkable dramatic monologue.  First performed in 2015, and revived now for an extensive Scottish tour, this self-described “faerytale” is written and performed in a deep, lush Scots-English.

Simultaneously contemporary and timeless, it tells the tale of a wealthy young man (Godwin Moir Williamson Caractacus) who, following his marriage, becomes so obese that he cannot rise from his chair. Growing into the seat, he literally becomes part of the furniture.

As he does so, the life of his long-suffering wife Andrula is subsumed by his morbid appetite. Extremely slender, on account of her growing revulsion at food, she is a slave to her husband’s gargantuan demands.

The story is told by an eloquent third person narrator and in the desolate-yet-poetic prose of Godwin’s neglected daughter Queanie (aka “The Inveesible Child”). In time, mother and daughter become bound together in their powerful resentment of the corpulent authoritarian.

What transpires next is best discovered either in attending one of Cameron’s performances or in reading the published text (an adaptation of Cameron’s original story co-authored by Suzy Willson and Cameron herself). Suffice it to say that it is the kind of Scots-Gothic tale that might have emerged from a collaboration between Robert Burns and Edgar Allan Poe.

Performed over a brilliantly sustained 90 minutes (which includes brief interludes for samples from Godwin’s larder), the piece is a masterclass in monodrama. Cameron has not only a startlingly evocative facility with language, but also a tremendous capacity in physical and facial expression.

Whether she is describing Godwin’s burgeoning rotundity or evoking Queanie’s stark hopelessness, the performer uses language, space and body with an expertise that is utterly compelling.

The use of sound, music and lighting is (for the most part) beautifully attuned to both text and performance. The “inveesibility” of Queanie, for example, is illustrated in Cameron being only partially illuminated on a pitch black stage; at one point, we see only her mouth, as if the actor were performing Beckett’s famous monologue Not I.

The only slight lapse in judgement comes late on in the performance, when the story turns to the international news coverage of the strange case of the disappearance of the very fat man. A short moment, in which we hear the recorded chatter of 24 hour news media, creates a distracting breach in the show’s otherwise perfectly-sustained atmosphere.

Such a complaint seems almost cavilling, however, given the general excellence of this superb, highly distinctive dramatic monologue. Produced by the London-based Clod Ensemble, this Scottish tour is a very welcome celebration of the Scots tongue, storytelling and theatrical performance itself.

There is a very different contemplation of the abuse of women within marriage in If I Had A Girl…, a verbatim drama from the Glasgow-based organisation Amina – MWRC (Muslim Women’s Resource Centre). Performed by a five-strong cast of four women and one man, the piece bravely and boldly addresses the issue of the violence against women within Scotland’s Muslim communities.

Written by Mariem Omari, and based upon the often harrowing firsthand accounts of Scottish Muslim women, the piece achieves a crucial balance between giving voice to the women’s experiences whilst making no concessions to Islamophobic stereotypes. Much of the violence, denigration and controlling behaviour recounted here will be familiar to many  non-Muslim women who have found themselves in abusive relationships.

However, there are also elements in the experiences of the women interviewed by the Amina organisation that are particular to the Muslim community. A case in point is that of a young Scots Muslim woman who remembers her family’s attempts to marry her off, at the age of nine, to a 31-year-old second cousin in Pakistan.

There are re-enactments of sickening acts of violence and scenes playing out issues of wider social pressure, such as parents pressurising women to remain in broken marriages for fear of divorce bringing “shame” on the family. There are also examples of tremendous bravery on the part of the women themselves, and some encouraging instances of solidarity with them.

There can be no doubt that public discussion of vitally important issues such as these is very much needed in our society. There is also no question over the tremendous commitment and courage of Amina, the cast of this production and the women whose testimonies are woven into the play.

With the best will in the world, however, what one cannot say is that this is well-made theatre. The text itself has little by way of dramatic rhythm, whilst the dramaturgy (swaying from side-to-side to represent a Hebridean ferry journey, for example) lacks imagination.

Verbatim dramas often feel like television or film documentaries trapped within plays. So it is here.

The stories Amina wants to tell are extremely important, but one can’t help but wonder whether theatre is truly the best medium in which to deliver them.

For tour details for The Red Chair, visit: http://www.clodensemble.com

For tour details for If I Had A Girl…, visit: http://www.mwrc.org.uk

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 12, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Death of a Salesman, Dundee Rep

THEATRE

 

Death Of A Salesman,

Dundee Rep,

Until March 11

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

DEATH OF A SALESMAN, Dundee Rep, Dundee, Britain - 21 Feb 2017
Billy Mack as Willy Loman. Photo: Jane Hobson

The plays of the late, great Arthur Miller seem to have found a new currency in the days of President Trump. Few, if any, of his great, socialistic tragedies seem more pertinent today than his 1949 drama Death Of A Salesman, the story of Willy Loman, the titular merchant who embraced the American Dream with a fervour that US capitalism never reciprocated.

Director Joe Douglas’s production for the Dundee Rep Ensemble goes directly for the agonising gulf between myth and sobering reality. We experience the increasingly delusional salesman’s memories through a dream-like, Technicolor haze.

Ground down by his failures and by his sons’ lack of success, Loman retreats into an idyllic family past and the glories of his venture capitalist brother Ben (played with tremendous cinematic shine by Barrie Hunter). Ewan Donald and Laurie Scott (Loman’s sons Biff and Happy), reflect brilliantly both the gilded illusions and the crumbling actualities of the merchant’s life. Irene MacDougall is almost too painful to watch as the salesman’s despairing wife, Linda.

Designer Neil Warmington’s set (a neo-Brechtian construction of domestic naturalism on metatheatrical metal platforms) plays to the dreamlike state beautifully. However, frustratingly, its muddy gravel and steaming trashcans are gratuitous.

Composer Nikola Kodjabashia’s score (premonitory sounds and music played live on stage, mainly on a naked piano) is typically effective.

The success or failure of any production of Death Of A Salesman rests, first-and-foremost, on the casting of Loman himself. Douglas is blessed, in Ensemble member Billy Mack, with an unforgettable merchant.

In his character’s moments of energetic desperation, the actor generates enough pathos to fill five auditoriums. In his heartbreaking mental and emotional decline, Mack seems to diminish physically, almost to the point of vanishing before our eyes. It is a truly exceptional lead performance in a very strong production.

An abridged version of this review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 5, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time, touring

THEATRE

 

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time,

Seen at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh,

Touring the UK until September 16

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

curious-incident
David Michaels (Ed) and Scott Reid (Christopher Boone). Photo: Brinkhoff Mögenburg

Simon Stephens’s play The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time, based upon the best-selling novel by Mark Haddon, has, in a little over four years, become a huge international success. As evinced by the sell-out crowd for Wednesday’s performance in Edinburgh (part of a UK tour that takes in Aberdeen and Glasgow later in the year), the show has the virtue of attracting large numbers of young people to the theatre.

It isn’t difficult to see the attraction of the National Theatre (of Great Britain)’s production for adolescents and late-teenagers, in particular. The chief protagonist, Christopher Boone, is a brilliant mathematician in his mid-teens who suffers from a behavioural disorder. He has been plunged into profound confusion and anxiety by the seeming death of his mother and the brutal killing of his neighbour’s dog.

Much has been made of Christopher (who has a pronounced capacity with numbers, a distrust of fiction and a dislike of being touched) seeming to suffer from an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This despite Haddon’s insistence that he is no expert on ASD and that he wrote the character more broadly as a metaphor for the many young people who feel themselves to be square pegs who do not fit into the round holes society seems to have allocated to them.

All of which makes the casting of the lead role absolutely crucial. Director (and creator of the original 2012 production) Marianne Elliot has been fortunate to secure the services of excellent young Scottish actor Scott Reid (who shares the part with his English counterpart Sam Newton on this extensive tour).

Reid, a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, is best known for his hilarious playing of Methadone Mick, the latest addition to the cast of TV comedy Still Game. However, as anyone who has followed his stage career will testify, he is a tremendously accomplished actor with an impressive emotional and psychological range.

Reid brings that range to bear in every aspect of this portrayal. Whether it is the Wiltshire teenager’s obsessive, sometimes comic detective work over the murder of the dog or his terrible disorientation when he arrives in London, the actor’s clever, nuanced playing embodies Christopher in all his fear, anguish, bewilderment, innocence and intelligence.

Elliot’s production itself is slick and handsome, thanks in no small part to the projection of smart graphics onto a set that is inspired by the central character’s penchant for mathematics. The supporting cast, which includes the superb Lucianne McEvoy (an actor well known to Scottish theatre audiences) as Christopher’s adored school mentor Siobhan, also impresses.

Fine though it is in many regards, however, one can’t help but feel that there is a certain amount of hyperbole in the rave reviews for this production; led, needless to say, by the critics in London and New York. There is an element of bells and whistles about this staging which grates against both the power of Haddon’s narrative and the subtleties of Stephens’s script.

Not for the first time do I find the choreography of Frantic Assembly’s Steven Hoggett (who directs the movement with colleague Scott Graham) to be overly literal; at times it descends into an inadvertent parody of the mime of Marcel Marceau. The electronic stage effects take on an increasingly prominent role, becoming more self-consciously “spectacular” in the second half than the story requires.

Ultimately, it is Haddon and Stephens’s controlled-yet-emotive portrait of Christopher, and the rendering of him by a fine actor such as Reid, rather than its flamboyant stage effects, that account for the success of this play.

For tour details, visit: http://www.curiousonstage.com/tour

An abridged version of this review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 26, 2017

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Cuttin’ A Rug, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow & The Winter’s Tale, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

THEATRE REVIEWS

 

Cuttin’ A Rug

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

Until March 4

 

The Winter’s Tale

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Until March 4

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

cuttin-a-rug
Louise McCarthy and Mark Barrett in Cuttin’ A Rug. Photo: Tim Morozzo

It’s almost 40 years since John Byrne’s famous Slab Boys Trilogy took to the stage. Set in Paisley in the late 1950s, and following the fortunes (and misfortunes) of those who work at the carpet factory of A & F Stobo and Co., these humane comedies have long since established themselves as Scottish cultural icons.

The plays may seem robust, as if they had been chiselled out of granite, but they are, in fact, beautifully constructed works of art which should be treated with care. The Citizens’ disappointingly uneven 2015 production of the eponymous first part of the trilogy (directed by David Hayman) stands as testament to what can happen if Byrne’s dramas are not presented with due diligence.

The Gorbals theatre makes considerable amends for that let down with this fine, new staging of Cuttin’ A Rug, the second in Byrne’s trilogy. Director Caroline Paterson’s production takes us to Stobo’s annual staff dance with great style.

Much of that style comes by way of Kenny Miller’s fabulous costume and set designs, in which dashes of ’50s colour punctuate the cool monochrome of, by turns, the cludgies and the terrace of Paisley Town Hall. It’s an image of the former textile town grand enough to lift the spirits of even a disheartened St Mirren supporter (such as myself).

In Act One, which switches back-and-forth between the “ladies” and the “gents”, the sexes prepare for the wooing, and the sexual, class and generational battles, to come. In the second half, as alcohol begins to lubricate proceedings, comic conflicts and human vulnerabilities come to the surface with a lyrical comedy and a poetic pathos that lift the play above mere nostalgia.

As the dodgy equipment of local band The Largie Boys short circuits the Town Hall electrics, the comedy is exemplified by the mismatch of middle-class uni boy Alan Downie (an appropriately awkward Shaun Miller) and no-nonsense glamour girl Lucille Bentley (Helen Mallon on deliciously sharp form). The laughter is laced, however, with Byrne’s acute, humanistic social observation, not least in Ryan Fletcher’s superb, newly unemployed slab boy Phil McCann who belies his supposed “hooligan” status with a beautiful speech about the power of art.

Indeed, across the piece, Paterson’s casting is as carefully considered as a teddy boy’s hairdo. Laurie Ventry is as a upright as a starched shirt in the role of design room gaffer Willie Curry, while Anne Lacey gives a touchingly layered performance as the disappointed-in-life Miss Walkinshaw.

There are fine shifts, too, from Scott Fletcher (making a welcome return as luckless slab boy Hector McKenzie) and Barbara Rafferty (factory tea lady Sadie, recently patronised by toffs and in a justifiable rage).

If there is a stand-out performance, it is surely Louise McCarthy’s Bernadette Rooney (best pal to, and chief competitor with, Lucille). A temp at the factory, her hair made-up like a Mary Berry creation, she is every inch the gallus, head-turning west of Scotland lass whose tongue is as sharp as her fashion sense.

As if that weren’t enough, this excellently balanced production boasts a soundtrack that includes the likes of Bill Haley and Little Richard. This, one suspects, is the kind of show the late John McGrath was thinking of when he talked about theatre being “a good night out”.

There’s music aplenty, too, in the Royal Lyceum’s new production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Created and, along with his band, played by the ever-excellent actor-musician Alasdair Macrae, the compositions play a variable role in director Max Webster’s bold, modern dress production.

John Michie’s carefully calibrated Leontes (King of Sicily) puts the kibosh on the family Christmas by turning with wildly mistaken jealousy upon his blameless queen, Hermione, and his equally innocent friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia. As he does so, the director introduces what he, presumably, considers to be a clever device.

On the left of the stage, separated from the main performance space by a panel of glass, is the booth of a recording studio. There Macrae and the band perform a score that mixes live and recorded music that often overwhelms the action of the play, to say nothing of the distraction of performers coming in and out of the booth throughout acts 1 and 2.

Webster’s penchant for characters brandishing mobile phones is equally annoying. Presumably the Sicilians receive no news from the royal counsellor Antigonus (sent by Leontes to abandon the “bastard” baby Perdita) because he couldn’t get a signal in Bohemia.

All of which is a great pity as the performances are good and Macrae’s music comes into its own in the excellent second half. The misplaced recording artists become an entirely appropriate ceilidh band at the splendidly Scottified sheep shearing carnival in Bohemia; at which Jimmy Chisholm is hilarious as a manky, modern version of the petty criminal Autolycus, complete with shopping trolley and filthy tracksuit.

Maureen Beattie (the earnest and indignant noblewoman Paulina) and John Stahl (switching brilliantly between Antigonus and the very funny Old Shepherd) shine in a very strong cast. Meanwhile, excellent designer Fly Davis’s rendering of the play’s final, credulity-straining miracle is a thing of beauty,

Ultimately this production of The Winter’s Tale stands up well beside the world famous Cheek By Jowl company’s staging of the same drama, which played at the Citizens in Glasgow just three weeks ago. It’s just a pity that the opening acts are blighted by such a forced directorial concept.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 19, 2017

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Still Game Live 2, SECC Hydro & Made In India, touring

THEATRE REVIEWS

 

Still Game Live 2,

SECC Hydro, Glasgow,

Until February 16

 

Made In India,

Seen at Tron Theatre, Glasgow;

at MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling, February 14,

and Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, February 16-18

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

still-game-2
Greg Hemphill & Ford Kiernan in Still Game Live 2

Last time Still Game Live came to The Hydro, back in September 2014, the city of Glasgow had just woken to discover that, although it had voted Yes to Scottish independence, the country had voted No. This time it arrives as the newly installed President of the United States is turning the White House into a very dark farce. If they ever announce Still Game Live 3, my advice is head for the nuclear shelter!

Fair play to Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill (aka Jack and Victor), though. They have an uncanny knack for timing their live shows to coincide with historic moments when many of us are in serious need of being cheered up.

And cheered up we certainly are by a production that is bigger, bolder and even better than their 2014 hit show. A play of two very distinct halves, it sees the Craiglang posse leaving Scotland (courtesy of a bleakly hilarious act of vengeance against Tam for years of outrageous tight-fistedness) and setting off on a Mediterranean pensioners’ cruise.

The evening begins with a dubious, and very funny, safety video presented by the latest addition to the Still Game cast, Methadone Mick. Young actor Scott Reid is currently playing the lead in the tour of West End hit show The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, so his dodgy recommendations about what to do in the event of fire are a smart way to include him in the proceedings.

As with the previous Hydro show, the 2017 production thrives on its liveness. Jack and Victor’s big arrival, walking through the audience, high-fiving like Bruce Springsteen and Bernie Sanders at a Dump Trump rally, sets the tone.

They’re soon followed by Navid on a flying carpet, Isa with a pyrotechnic mop, Boabby in rock star mode and Winston flying about like a one-legged, septuagenarian Peter Pan.

The script is like a Still Game TV screenplay on steroids. The sexual comedy, often built around Isa’s innocence (and, indeed, her lack of it) is laugh-out-loud funny and goes some way further than the sitcom can venture on telly.

The Craiglang sets are, as in 2014, reassuringly familiar (if slightly difficult for the stagehands to manoeuvre at times). If the designs in part 1 are straight out of the TV show, the second half, set on the deck of the liner, looks like a Noel Coward play adapted as an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

Which is appropriate, as the expansion of the show includes a troupe of dancers, who are written neatly into the storyline (Jack and Victor are on the boat as professional dancers to entertain the widowed ladies). However, the high-kickers are also a humorous parody of the glitz and glam of Broadway.

The enlarged cast allows director Michael Hines to bring in a panoply of Scotland’s top comic and acting talent. It’s great to see the show’s favourites, Gavin Mitchell (Boabby), Jane McCarry (Isa) and the rest, joined by the likes of Bruce Morton (outstandingly funny as Malky, a gas fitter trying to pass himself off as a GP), Lorraine McIntosh (as sultry, 50-something cruise singer Yvonne) and Mark McDonnell (a delightfully inebriated and lascivious ship’s captain).

Still Game Live 2 really is a brilliant follow-up to the 2014 success. Now as then, the tremendously funny Sanjeev Kholi (Navid) ends the show in a costume so fabulous it should be in Glasgow’s People’s Palace museum alongside Billy Connolly’s Big Banana Feet.

It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast with Kiernan and Hemphill’s huge stage comedy than Made In India, Satinder Chohan’s powerful new drama for London-based touring company Tamasha and the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. Set in a surrogacy clinic in Gujarat, the play sees widowed, English PR consultant Eva arrive on the eve of a government ban on foreign women coming to India for surrogacy services.

Commercial surrogacy, in which one woman is paid to carry and deliver the child of another, remains a vexed moral issue. Add to that the dynamics of westerners using poor Indian women as surrogates, and the moral complexities become virtually impossible to negotiate.

Chohan’s brave three-hander, in which Eva seeks the services of Dr Gupta (who owns the clinic) and Aditi (a young surrogate from a Gujarati village), is wise to offer more questions than it answers. Eva’s talk of women’s freedom of choice and of the economic benefits of surrogacy to women like Aditi may be self-serving and conscience-salving, but they also contain certain undeniable truths.

Similarly, Dr Gupta, who enjoys the label of “feminist entrepreneur”, is balanced between a mercenary ruthlessness and her righteous resentment of patronising, western, neo-colonial attitudes. Only Aditi, who is also widowed, and trapped between her poverty and the opprobrium of her family, is truly innocent in a drama that puts global and national inequalities to the fore.

If that makes the play seem a little schematic, that’s because it is. From the naturalistic script to the simple set design (some movable partitions, occasional video projections and pointless neon strips), director Katie Posner’s production is short on theatrical imagination.

The subject is so emotive, however, and the performances by Ulrika Krishnamurti (Aditi), Syreeta Kumar (Dr Gupta) and Gina Isaac (Eva) so credible that one is thoroughly engaged. Indeed, towards the end, there is a heart-breaking image of the bereft Aditi that gets to the agonised heart of this most painful of subjects.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 12, 2017

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Wonderland & Fisk (both touring)

THEATRE REVIEWS

 

Wonderland

Seen at Playhouse, Edinburgh

Touring until August 19

 

Fisk

Seen at MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling

Touring until February 28

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

wonderland
Kerry Ellis as Alice in the musical Wonderland

Wonderland, the major musical based upon Lewis Carroll’s much-loved tales Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Alice Through The Looking Glass, recently had its British premiere at Edinburgh’s Playhouse theatre ahead of a lengthy UK tour. Its American creator (Frank Wildhorn) is fortunate that Carroll is no longer with us. If he was, I suspect he would sue.

In this UK adaptation of Wildhorn’s show, Alice is, not a young girl in a garden in Victorian England, but a 40-year-old woman living in a dodgy tower block in contemporary Britain. Her life collapsing around her ears, she descends into Wonderland, not via a rabbit hole, but in the hitherto broken elevator that used to serve her high-rise building.

Indeed, Alice’s journey underground is not in pursuit of her own curiosity, but that of her teenage daughter, Ellie, who has already taken the lift down with the White Rabbit. Oh, and Alice’s quest to find Ellie isn’t conducted alone, she has Jack, her besotted neighbour, in tow.

As narrative reinventions go, this is jaw-droppingly bad stuff. In 30 years of serious theatre going, I have seen some ludicrously misconceived productions (Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet set in outer space, Lorca’s The House Of Bernarda Alba relocated to the garish home of a contemporary Glaswegian gangster), but few have been quite as disastrous as this.

The basis for such mangling of Carroll’s tales is Alice’s need to discover that the estranged husband she has pining for was actually an emotionally abusive despot. This might have more credibility as a work of 21st-century feminism if the Alice we meet at the beginning wasn’t represented reductively as a woman willingly accepting her misogynistic husband’s demands that she give up teaching and writing.

If the characterisation of Alice is two-dimensional (at best), the contemporary setting has a catastrophic impact on the stage and costume designs. The delightful imagery of John Tenniel’s illustrations for the Alice books is replaced with utterly awful collisions of contemporary dress with costume elements that point towards characters (think a White Rabbit with prodigious ears, but wearing a pair of sneakers, or a Caterpillar in a shiny, green suit who looks like an over-confident nightclub owner from the 1980s).

Wonderland is a musical almost entirely without redeeming features. The songs are unmemorable, the sentiment is saccharine (even by the sugary standards of the stage musical), and the narrative and design concepts rip the magic from Carroll’s stories as thoroughly as a dog extracting the marrow from a bone.

If there is a glimmer of hope in this artistic black hole it is in the talents of certain members of the cast, not least Kayi Ushe (the Caterpillar) and Kerry Ellis (guest starring as Alice in Edinburgh, among other venues on the tour). One has to admire Ellis’s capacity to give an energetic, powerfully sung performance despite the glaring dreadfulness of the show.

Let’s hope, for the sake of Scottish audiences, that Rachael Wooding is as impressive when she takes up the role for the performances in Aberdeen and Glasgow in May and July, respectively.

From a brash, big stage flop of a musical to an intimate, emotive work of visual theatre. Fisk, created by Scottish company Tortoise In A Nutshell, in co-production with Teater Katapult of Aarhus, Denmark, is a subtle and affecting portrait of a man on the brink of committing suicide.

Devised and performed by Alex Bird and Arran Howie, the piece is built around the metaphor of a man lost at sea. The sense of disconnectedness and despair of the potential suicide is evoked beautifully by the character’s floating along in designer Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s ingenious and fragile paper boat.

Bird’s performance as the man is deeply touching. To his profound sense of isolation he adds physical performance that evokes his character’s extreme frustration at his inability to function in what seem like straightforward social and practical tasks.

Into this world of sometimes chaotic, sometimes tranquil loneliness comes a fish (played by Howie). A very large, very human, female fish, but a fish nonetheless.

Her enthusiastic friendship is not requested by the man. However, although her companionship is accompanied by encouragements shouted through a megaphone and a loud blast of Club Tropicana by Wham, it helps to reconnect the man, gradually, with himself as a social being.

In truth, one does wonder if the contrast between contemplation of suicide and affirmation of life could have been achieved more delicately. However, director Ross MacKay and his team (particularly movement director Darren Brownlie and dramaturg Kirstine Christensen) are to be commended on the sensitivity and thoughtfulness with which they approach such an important and difficult subject.

In the end composer Jim Harbourne’s gentle music and Simon Wilkinson’s appropriately subdued lighting design accompany a simple, quiet image of human connection. A work which could so easily have become trite or cliched concludes with a moment of realistic compassion.

For those, such as myself, who have watched a loved one suffer from the “black dog” of depression or, even, be pulled down into suicide by their emotional and psychological demons, Fisk offers some humane, measured hope. One can only imagine its impact upon those who are actually struggling with depression.

For Wonderland tour details, visit: wonderlandthemusical.com

For Fisk tour dates, visit: tortoiseinanutshell.com

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 5, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Picnic at Hanging Rock, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (Sunday Herald)

THEATRE REVIEW

 

Picnic At Hanging Rock

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Until January 28

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

picnic-for-sh
Photo: Pia Johnson

Best known in its cinematic incarnation (Peter Weir’s famous 1975 film adaptation), Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel Picnic At Hanging Rock is a remarkable work of Australian gothic. The book tells the story of three girls and a female teacher from an exclusive boarding school who disappear mysteriously during a trip to a well known beauty spot in Victoria state.

The novel (which Lindsay suggested, somewhat dubiously, was based on real events from 1900) is a mystery wrapped within an enigma. The dubiety of the tale’s provenance is not lost on director Matthew Lutton or writer Tom Wright, creators of this exceptional stage version by the Malthouse and Black Swan State theatre companies (from Melbourne and Perth, respectively).

Performed by a cast of five young, female actors, the piece begins with all five dressed in school uniforms and narrating the tale in the third person. They speak from an empty stage, surrounded by black painted, wooden panels.

Towards the back of the stage, above the performance space, suspended horizontally, is an ominous, tightly bound bundle of logs and twigs. The music and sound (including the insect and bird noises of the Australian bush) only add to the disquieting atmosphere.

The initial, seemingly straight storytelling of the piece outstays its welcome, and deliberately so. Just as we begin to worry that the 80-minute production will be constituted of nothing more than five schoolgirls narrating excerpts from the novel, the production begins to shift its perspective.

As Lutton suddenly plunges his stage into darkness, and, equally quickly, re-illuminates it, our narrators start to assume characters and costumes. Playing out of their age range (such as the ultra-English school principal Mrs Appleyard) or opposite their sex (the intrepid, young Englishman Michael Fitzhubert), the actors’ changing roles emphasise the disturbing uncertainties embedded within the story.

The girls’ lives are hemmed in with mutually reinforcing notions of feminine deportment and bourgeois, Anglo “civilisation”. With these supposed values comes a profound, fearful hostility towards the Australian landscape and, by obnoxiously logical extension, a deep, racial terror and hatred of the Aboriginal people.

The disappearances at the rock shock society not only because of the sex, status and perceived innocence of the missing girls, but also because they reinforce Anglo Australia’s deepest fears about the land it has colonised. Rather than being brought under control, the wild terrain of Australia seems to have swallowed some of the most precious fruit of the Empire.

The precariousness of a colonial identity that was hitherto considered unshakeable is expressed brilliantly in the relations between Mrs Appleyard and Sara, an orphan girl whose attendance at the school was sponsored by patron who has since vanished. Persecuted by Appleyard, who kept Sara back from the picnic, the girl is driven to distraction by the disappearance of fellow pupil Miranda (whom she adores).

The principal’s antipathy towards Sara, who she considers immune to the school’s civilising influence, is epitomised in the horrifying moment when Appleyard calls Sara an “albino” (a racial slur implying that the distressed girl is, effectively, a white Aborigine).

Lutton’s production boasts superb performances across the piece and a number of extremely memorable images; not least in the traumatised return from the rock of Edith, a schoolgirl who split from the party that disappeared. Highly-stylised and assiduously non-naturalistic, the piece achieves a remarkable paradox, being, simultaneously, emotionally detached, yet psychologically compelling.

The director’s modernist techniques (complete with Brechtian texts flashed above the stage) create a kind of aesthetic onomatopoeia with the disquieting instability of the subject matter. It is a fascinating and expansive take on Lindsay’s novel, and a penetrating contemplation of the construction of Australia.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 22, 2017

© Mark Brown