Review: High Society, Pitlochry Festival Theatre

THEATRE REVIEW

 

High Society

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Various dates until October 14

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

High Society
Helen Mallon as Tracy Samantha Lord. Photo: PFT

In the early-20th century the Scottish theatre landscape looked very different from its current ecology. Although the country had many new theatre buildings, much of the work staged in them was on tour from England, often from London. Theatre in Scotland was still, to a considerable degree, part of the “provincial” touring set-up of Victorian Britain.

There is one area of present day Scottish theatre that continues to stubbornly resemble the situation of 100 years ago. When it comes to the stage musical, which is not short of fans in Scotland, the scene continues to be dominated by touring shows from south of the Border.

This, no doubt, has much to do with the economies of scale required to provide the glitz and glamour that lovers of the West End and Broadway musicals have become accustomed to. However, the relative lack of home-grown product remains one of the anomalies of Scottish theatre in the early-21st century.

Thank goodness, then, for Pitlochry Festival Theatre. The “theatre in the hills” has well-and-truly established itself as Scotland’s leading producer of stage musicals.

The north Perthshire playhouse offers two musicals each year, one as part of its famous summer season, another at Christmas time (look out for Singin’ In The Rain in December). This year’s summer programme opens with a production of Cole Porter’s High Society.

Porter’s music and lyrics were originally written for the famous 1956 film starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra (and including a notable performance by Louis Armstrong). This stage version, with a book by Arthur Kopit and additional lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, premiered on Broadway in 1998.

The story takes us to a post-Second World War incarnation of the world inhabited by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. The high society of the title is that of the stinking rich Lord family of Long Island.

Like many of the characters in Fitzgerald’s tales (or, for that matter, the plays of Noel Coward), socialite Tracy Samantha Lord combines an objectionable sense of entitlement with, her saving grace, a certain loucheness. Separated from her debonair ship designer ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven, Tracy is on the brink of marrying the dull and conservative company executive (and wannabe politician) George Kittredge.

The play is set in the Lords’ mansion on the eve of the wedding, with a huge party in the offing, and reluctant hacks from a scandal sheet on the premises as fake guests. The apparently unscheduled arrival of Dexter Haven puts the proverbial cat among the pigeons.

The ensuing comedy (which involves more than a touch of Cowardish farce) is lubricated by a score that includes such well known numbers as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and Well, Did You Evah?

The acting performances are universally strong, even if the same cannot quite be said of the singing, which is variable. That said, Sara Clark Downie is delightful as Tracy’s mischievous younger sister Dinah, while Cameron Johnson impresses as journalist Mike Connor.

The undoubted star of the show, however, is Helen Mallon who gives a fabulous performance as Tracy. Exuberant, despicable, even a little tragic, Mallon sings as splendidly as she acts in the demanding central role.

Director John Durnin runs a pretty tight ship, even if there were a few microphone problems towards the end of the show on opening night. Adrian Rees’s set (which neatly conflates the columns of the Lords’ grand house with those of a wedding cake) is the quintessence of intelligent design. All in all, it’s a pretty swell party indeed.

For performance dates, visit: pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 4, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Glory on Earth, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (Sunday Herald)

THEATRE REVIEW

 

Glory On Earth,

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh,

Until June 10

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Glory on Earth #3
Shannon Swan, Fiona Wood, Christina Gordon, Rona Morison (Mary Stuart), Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Kirsty McIntyre, Christie Gowans. Photo: Drew Farrell

Glory On Earth, which is receiving its world premiere at the Royal Lyceum, is a play with an impressive provenance. Its subjects, the battle for the religious soul of Scotland in the 16th century and the ultimate demise of Mary, Queen of Scots, have previously been dramatised by our former Makar, Liz Lochhead (in Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off) and the great German playwright Friedrich Schiller (in Mary Stuart). Linda McLean, author of the Lyceum play, is the award-winning writer of such dramatic works as Strangers, Babies and Riddance.

Staged by the Lyceum’s artistic director, the acclaimed playwright David Greig, the piece finds Jamie Sives’s glowering John Knox (forbidding spearhead of Scotland’s Protestant Reformation) surrounded by a cast of seven female actors. It is a suitably ironic position in which to place the man who famously entitled his polemic against female governance The First Blast Of The Trumpet Against The Monstrous Regiment Of Women.

The primary target of Knox’s treatise was Elizabeth I, who had recently been installed on the throne of England. However, its unambiguous misogyny was soon being applied to Mary Stuart (played here by Rona Morison), who returned to Scotland in 1561, at the age of 18, with the intention of becoming the Roman Catholic monarch of an increasingly Calvinist nation.

It is a history which, from the sectarian strife of modern Scotland to the constitutional debate in which we are currently engaged, did much to shape our nation and culture. Frustratingly, however, many of the production’s efforts to connect the events of the 16th-century with our own times seem glib and contrived.

Modern French song is employed liberally to refer to Mary Stuart’s Gallic upbringing. Composer Michael John McCarthy arranges rock tracks for classical instruments for no apparent reason. Mary Stuart and her six ladies-in-waiting (an expansion of the “Four Marys” who attended her in her French exile) show us “how they dance in France” with a pointless and cringe-inducing choreography.

Karen Tennant’s costume designs, a collision of 16th and 21st-century dress, are similarly hollow. The same cannot be said of her fine, minimal sets, however. A chopping block, a throne, the enormous arches of a church are variously wheeled and flown onto a stripped-back stage to tremendous visual effect (if only Greig didn’t feel the need to cloud the designs with smoke effects on such a regular basis).

The disappointing consequence of many of the director’s choices is that the piece rarely achieves the moral weight required by the history it depicts. It is, as English theatre critic Kenneth Tynan wrote in a very different context, frivolous, even when it is being serious.

The pity of this is that one can almost see the better production this could have been struggling to emerge. McLean’s script is often poetic, witty and robust, even if it makes too many concessions to its own sense of modernity (not least in Mary Stuart’s collapse into adolescent petulance).

Sives gives us a compelling Knox, Talibanesque in his ravings against the evils of dancing; even if his granite-like implacability is more archetype than character. Morison’s Queen is fragile in both characterisation and performance, but conveys the necessary sense of pride, trepidation and defiance.

The young, six-strong chorus (who narrate key events in the lives of the monarch and play all of the additional characters, both female and male) is a laudable innovation. However, often speaking as one, like the voice of the cautioning populace of a Greek tragedy, one can’t help but feel that they are a little overawed by the demands of both play and production.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 28, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Glory on Earth, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (Daily Telegraph)

THEATRE

 

GLORY ON EARTH

ROYAL LYCEUM, EDINBURGH

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Glory on Earth #1
Rona Morison as Mary Stuart. Photo: Drew Farrell

Linda McLean’s Glory on Earth, which is receiving its world premiere at the Royal Lyceum, revisits the nation-altering conflict between Mary Stuart, Scotland’s Roman Catholic monarch, and John Knox, the custodian of the Calvinist Reformation. From the very outset one senses that its director, David Greig, has set out to defy the great significance of its subject.

Even before curtain up, Jamie Sives’s grim, statuesque Knox stands front stage scowling at the arriving audience while French popular songs (including Charles Trenet’s evergreen La Mer) play incongruously in the background. This strikes a frivolous, somewhat gimmicky tone which afflicts the production throughout its often troubled two hours.

Rona Morison’s brittle (and, finally, disappointingly adolescent) Mary Stuart is surrounded, not by the famous “Four Marys” who were the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, but by a chorus of six attendants who share her name; and who also play all of the other characters, male and female. It is an audacious choice, but one which asks too much of the young sextet, who struggle under the historical weight of the play.

Glory on Earth #2
Jamie Sives as John Knox. Photo: John Knox

This lack of gravitas is compounded by a general sense of uncertainty (or, perhaps, insufficient rehearsal) among the cast on opening night. More deleterious still is composer Michael John McCarthy’s drearily postmodern clashing of Scottish rock band The Jesus and Mary Chain (arranged for violin and harp) with the singing of the psalms by the devout Protestants of the Reformation.

The pity of all this is that one can see a better play, and a better production, lurking under the surface of Greig’s offering. McLean’s language is often elevated, rich and crisp; even if Knox’s impressive (if predictably austere) 16th-century vernacular grates against Mary’s irritating descent into simplistic, 21st-century speech. At one point, she asks the misogynistically dismissive Reformer, “Do you think I’m a bad person?”

Karen Tennent’s designs are as frustratingly inconsistent as the production itself. The costumes are a crude collision of period and modern dress. The minimalist sets, by contrast, are beautifully evocative, not least when great arches are flown in to create the interior of a church.

A couple of jokes regarding Scotland’s relations with both England and Europe nod towards recent political events. Ultimately, however, this production lacks the grandeur and dramatic tension demanded by the history it portrays.

Until June 10. lyceum.org.uk

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on May 24, 2017

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/lacks-grandeur-story-demands-glory-earth-royal-lyceum-edinburgh/

© Mark Brown

 

Reviews: Night Light, Perth Concert Hall & MamaBabaMe, Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock

CHILDREN’S THEATRE REVIEWS

 

Night Light,

Seen at Perth Concert Hall;

touring until June 4

 

MamaBabaMe,

Seen at Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock;

touring until June 17

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Night Light
Andy Manley in Night Light

The Edinburgh International Children’s Festival has long made a very strong claim to being Scotland’s most consistently impressive theatre and performance festival. It brings together work by Scotland’s small, but increasingly excellent, children’s theatre sector with productions from across Europe and beyond.

In addition to the Festival itself (which plays at various venues in Edinburgh between May 27 and June 4), a number of productions from the programme tour venues throughout Scotland. One such is Night Light, a beautiful Festival commission for children aged three to six by leading Scotland-based artist Andy Manley and acclaimed Danish company Teater Refleksion.

A one-man show directed by  Bjarne Sandborg and performed by Manley himself, this is a delicate and delightful work of object theatre. Mr Night (a cross between Wee Willie Winkie and God) is looking over the city, making sure that everyone is going to bed.

The people live in a variety of charming pieces of miniature furniture, which are splendidly designed by Mariann Aagaard. A baby cries from within a chest of drawers. Cutlery hangs, somewhat surreally, inside the body of a grandfather clock.

As Mr Night blows out the last of the city’s electric lights, one child still cannot get to sleep. Reluctantly, the benign dictator agrees to give the little insomniac a tour of the city at night.

The gorgeously intricate set comes to life courtesy of the fabulous technical work of Morten Meilvang Laursen. Meanwhile Manley’s gentle and engaging performance is enhanced by a lovely use of sound and music.

The only criticism one might make of Night Light is that, like most Scottish children’s theatre for pre-school children, it lacks an interactive dimension. This is problematic for some three-year-olds, I suspect; although Manley can’t be held responsible for the adults who brought restless children younger than three to the Perth performance I attended.

 

MamaBabaMe
MamaBabaMe

There is some, limited interaction in MamaBabaMe, the latest performance piece (for children aged 18 months to three years) from Scottish pre-school theatre specialists Starcatchers and Edinburgh-based physical theatre outfit Curious Seed.

The very young audience, and their accompanying adults, are arranged around the outside of a padded circle. A cellist (who provides the live dimension of the sumptuous musical score) reveals two performers (Nerea Gurrutxaga and Hannah Venet) who swirl around the space in an affectionate, tactile journey of mutual discovery. Innocent and enchanting, the choreography (by director Christine Devaney and the cast) is a deliciously stylised representation of the relationship between mother and newborn.

Gurrutxaga and Venet display tremendous physical dexterity as they express the play of babies at the crawling stage. As they do so, cellist Robin Mason plays a suitably evocative tune, while singing simple, descriptive lines, such as “upside down” and “roly poly”.

The performers then find their feet, appearing like marionettes as they begin to toddle tentatively. A sheet is put to various uses, including in a tug-of-war and, after much wrapping (and to the delight of some in the young audience), as a nappy.

The piece is brilliantly conceived, wonderfully choreographed and beautifully performed. However, its interactive element doesn’t really come into its own until the end, and some little audience members were, understandably, showing signs of distraction some way short of the show’s 45 minutes.

Impressive though the piece is in many ways, I can’t help but observe (again) that Scotland’s makers of theatre for the very young could learn a thing or two about interactivity from the great London-based children’s theatre company Oily Cart.

For tour details for Night Light, and the entire Festival programme, visit: imaginate.org.uk

For tour details for MamaBabaMe, visit: starcatchers.org.uk

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 21, 2017

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Travels With My Aunt, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow & The 306: Day, Station Hotel, Perth

THEATRE REVIEWS

 

Travels With My Aunt,

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow,

Until May 20

 

The 306: Day,

Seen at Station Hotel, Perth;

touring until June 3

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Travels With My Aunt
Travels With My Aunt. Photo: Pete Le May

In 1989 the Citizens Theatre presented a highly-acclaimed staging of Graham Greene’s 1969 novel Travels With My Aunt. Adapted by the theatre’s (already by then) legendary artistic director Giles Havergal (who also featured in the four-man cast), the piece delighted audiences with its tongue-in-cheek re-telling of the story of Henry Pulling, a retired London bank manager turned unlikely global adventurer.

The play is revived now under the fine directorship of Phillip Breen, a rightly celebrated associate artist of the Citz. Retaining the piece’s all-male line-up, its glorious, satirical wit and its gently subversive, camp aesthetic, it feels, simultaneously, like a richly-deserved homage to Havergal and the most vibrant production currently appearing on the Scottish stage.

Attired in, by turns, the sombre black suite required by Pulling’s mother’s funeral and the lighter garb demanded by South America (but always with a red dhalia, our protagonist’s favourite flower, in their buttonholes), Breen’s outstanding cast bring us the full panoply of Greene’s characters. Whether it is outrageous and irrepressible Aunt Augusta or her devoted and decent lover Wordsworth (an African cannabis dealer some years her junior), the piece is unerring in its presentation of (that wonderful paradox) the three-dimensional caricature.

Thanks to Aunt Augusta, these larger-than-life characters are engaged in a world in which illicit sex, espionage and highly improbable coincidences intermingle as readily as cigarette smoke and the smell of expensive, smuggled whisky. As we traverse the planet, including, inevitably, a journey on the Orient Express, we find the metrosexuality and radical politics of the Sixties seeping out of the most unlikely of figures (such as the daughter of a CIA agent).

This is a genuine ensemble piece, in which veteran actors Tony Cownie, Ian Redford and Joshua Richards (who is particularly memorable as Wordsworth) are assisted impressively by their younger colleague Ewan Somers. All-in-all, a compellingly told, perfectly paced and gorgeously humorous evening’s theatre.

306 Day
The 306: Day. Photo: Marilyn Kingwill

The same cannot quite be said of The 306: Day, the second part in the National Theatre of Scotland’s First World War trilogy. The play is based, like its predecessor (Dawn) upon the true story of British soldiers executed for cowardice, but since pardoned on the obvious grounds that their mental health had been shattered by the horrors of war.

Co-produced with Perth Theatre (which is currently closed for refurbishment) and Stellar Quines (Scotland’s women’s theatre company), the show opened its tour at the Station Hotel, Perth; in which, it must be said, the noise-bleed from the restaurant into the performance space was a regular distraction. Set to play in civic halls throughout Scotland, Oliver Emanuel’s drama focuses on women working in a Glasgow munitions factory.

Nellie, a leading activist in the Women’s Peace Crusade, has a husband in prison as a conscientious objector. Gertrude’s husband, Harry, is among those shot for desertion.

The ensuing tale unfolds in an uneasy combination of almost naive, soap opera-style dialogue, expository, often polemical song and self-consciously emotive live music (played on piano and violin by the Red Note Ensemble). The recurrence of disagreements which lead to melodramatic fist fights (one almost expects a character from Eastenders to run in shouting, “leave it, she’s not wurf it!”) does Emanuel no credit at all.

The story of the Women’s Peace Crusade and other socialist and pacifist opponents of the Great War is one which demands to be told. Whether, in 2017, it is best expressed in the direct, naturalistic style of 1930s Scottish playwright Joe Corrie is another matter. More, even, than its predecessor, The 306: Day, is in danger of patronising its audience.

For tour details for The 306: Day, visit: nationaltheatrescotland.com

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 14, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Charlie Sonata, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

THEATRE REVIEW

 

Charlie Sonata,

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh,

Until May 13

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Charlie Sonata
Sandy Grierson as Chick in Charlie Sonata. Photo: Drew Farrell

Charlie Sonata is one of those guys whose life didn’t quite move on. Like a needle getting stuck on a record, he watched his friends’ lives blossom, but he never found himself, in the words of David Byrne, “in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife”.

In fact, Charlie Sonata (Chick to his friends) is one of those Scottish alcoholics who drift around London providing TV scriptwriters from Islington with an ever-reliable stereotype. University educated, his articulacy drowned in booze, he is back in Scotland because Audrey (the teenage daughter of his divorced friends Gary and Kate) is lying, dangerously ill and comatose, in a hospital bed.

Set in this moment and at various points in Chick’s past, Douglas Maxwell’s new play emerges through a surrealistic haze. Like his 2005 piece If Destroyed True, the dialogue often has the sense of a poetic prose fiction; indeed, the playwright even goes so far as to introduce an uncertain (and, in truth, superfluous) narrator, who begins his expositions on Chick’s life by asking us: “Can this be right?”

Scrolling back through Chick’s past, Maxwell shows us the unlikely hero hiding in a London phone box as Mo (a screwed-up Cockney he thought was his girlfriend) incites her male companion to kill the Scotsman. Back in the present, Charlie finds himself in a hospital drama that is part Holby City, part Tchaikovsky’s ballet of Sleeping Beauty.

In the latter, Meredith, the mentally unsteady and decidedly unballetic sister of hospital consultant Mr Ingram, appears costumed as the wicked fairy Carabosse. Assigning parts from Sleeping Beauty to everyone concerned, she insists that Chick is destined to play the role of the life-restoring Prince to Audrey’s insentient Princess Aurora.

There is, in such scenes, a sense of the novels of Carlos Fuentes colliding with those of Irvine Welsh. Following on from 2015’s ambitious, but flawed, play Fever Dream: Southside, Maxwell is well and truly establishing his credentials as the latest exponent of a Caledonian Magical Realist theatre; a genre we have seen only rarely, in works such as Chris Hannan’s Shining Souls (1996) and David Greig’s stage adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s great novel Lanark (2015).

The play is directed by Matthew Lenton, founder of acclaimed modernist theatre-makers Vanishing Point. Frustratingly, however, Maxwell’s script is just a little too unruly, even for Lenton’s talents.

As we shift between the student bars of Stirling University in the 1980s and the metaphorical possibilities of Castleland, the soft play centre which employs Jackson (university chum of Chick and Gary, who is now in a relationship with Kate), the piece begins to sag. Although the drama has a tighter structure than the blancmange-like Fever Dream, it still lacks momentum; and, at more than two hours long, it does not benefit from the absence of an interval.

If the piece meanders at times, that is despite the best efforts of a truly outstanding cast. It is almost invidious to single out any performances, but Sandy Grierson inhabits Chick utterly in his disappointment, desperation and decency, while Meg Fraser is a tragicomic joy as Meredith (although just why her brother has a south-east of England accent, while she has the lovely brogue of the north-east of Scotland, is never explained).

The structural weaknesses of play and production are exasperating because Charlie Sonata demands to be a better drama than it is. Warm, witty, beautifully humane (albeit with an ultimate pathos that might be a tad sentimental for some tastes), it is maddeningly close to a return to form by the author of the still-resonating drama from the year 2000, Decky Does A Bronco.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 7, 2017

© Mark Brown

 

Review: Monstrous Bodies, Dundee Rep

THEATRE REVIEW

 

Monstrous Bodies,

Dundee Rep,

Until May 6

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Monstrous Bodies
Rebekah Lumsden as Roxanne. Photo: Jane Hobson

Monstrous Bodies, the new drama written and directed for Dundee Rep and Poorboy theatre company by Sandy Thomson, is, at two hours and 35 minutes (including interval) a little longer than the average stage work. There’s a simple reason for that, it’s actually two very distinct plays which have been forced together in the most uncomfortable way imaginable.

The first (set in 1812) is a fairly conventional, but interesting, bio-play about the young Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (who would later write the famous novel Frankenstein under her married name of Shelley) and her time in Dundee. The other is a worthy, but astoundingly unsubtle, political soap opera (set in 2016) which tackles the serious subject of sexist hate crime on the internet.

The two stories alternate uncomfortably, connected only, and tenuously, by the prevalence of misogyny in both and the fact that Roxanne (the Dundonian schoolgirl targeted by a cyber bully) is set to give a school presentation on Wollstonecraft Godwin. The breakneck gear changes between the two scenarios are filled with routines in which schoolkids in uniform perform cringe-inducing slow-motion choreographies to hip hop tracks; as a means of fulfilling the production’s stated intention to “encourage young people into theatre”, this is about as patronising as it gets.

There are decent performances from Rep Ensemble members, such as Irene MacDougall and Billy Mack (who play Wollstonecraft Godwin’s rich-but-radical Dundee guardians, the Baxters) and Rebekah Lumsden (as Roxanne). However, any skill or nuance in the piece is all but drowned out by the crude polemic of the modern day scenario; which is replete with teenage stereotypes, leering workmen, a playback of Donald Trump’s “locker room” celebration of sexual assault and, for good measure, an instructive school assembly speech about sexual equality.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on April 30, 2017

© Mark Brown