Review: Casablanca: The Gin Joint Cut, Òran Mór, Glasgow (Daily Telegraph)

THEATRE

 

CASABLANCA: THE GIN JOINT CUT

ÒRAN MÓR, GLASGOW

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Casablance - Oran Mor
The cast of Casablanca: The Gin Joint Cut

Since it was established by the late producer David MacLennan in 2004, Glasgow’s immensely successful lunchtime theatre A Play, a Pie and a Pint has presented more than 400 mini-dramas. Few have enjoyed greater audience and critical acclaim than Casablanca: The Gin Joint Cut, writer/director Morag Fullarton’s affectionate, comic homage to Michael Curtiz’s famous movie.

A palpable hit in Glasgow and on the Edinburgh Fringe since its premiere in 2011, the show was celebrated when it played Théâtre Déjazet in Paris in 2014. It returns now as an evening entertainment at its home venue, the former church that is Glasgow’s Òran Mór venue.

We are treated to an appetiser of 1940s songs (including, of course, As Time Goes By), sung by the fine-voiced chanteuse Jerry Burns. However, as Ms Burns nears the end of her short set, the sight of half-naked actor Gavin Mitchell wandering across the stage, a steam iron in one hand, a pair of trousers in the other, is a sign of things to come.

Mitchell (who is best known to many as Boabby the Barman in the BBC sitcom Still Game) is joined by excellent actors Clare Waugh and Jimmy Chisholm in a fabulously funny retelling of the Second World War thriller.

Much of the humour derives from the play’s miniaturisation of the film. All three actors play numerous characters, and Chisholm’s frenetic costume changes make for particularly delightful comedy; culminating, as they do, in the hilarious scene in which he plays the disreputable police chief Captain Renault and the Resistance hero Victor Laszlo at the same time. Waugh is similarly brilliant as she cuts improbably between romantic heroine Ilsa Lund (the Ingrid Bergman role in the film) and the menacing Nazi Major Strasser.

There’s no Casablanca without Bogey, however, and Mitchell is simply outstanding as Rick Blaine, the heartbroken American trying to see out the war by running a gin joint and gambling den in Morocco. Assisted by his trusty pianist Sam (well, a small, wooden statue of Sam), Mitchell offers a deliciously exaggerated parody of Bogart’s performance in the movie.

Fast-paced, inventive and gloriously silly, this slick farce also manages, somehow, to tell the story of love, espionage and the fight for liberty. Six years on from its premiere, this much-loved spoof still has its audiences cheering it to the rafters.

Until July 23

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on July 8, 2017

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/casablancathe-gin-joint-cut-glasgowsoran-mor-remains-gloriously/

© Mark Brown

Review: Available Light, Palace Theatre, Manchester

DANCE

AVAILABLE LIGHT

PALACE THEATRE, MANCHESTER

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Available Light
Available Light. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes

Since it was established in 2005, the Manchester International Festival has claimed its own distinct and valued place in the global arts festival circuit. The programming of Available Light, a dance work of genuinely world historic significance, speaks to the Festival’s burgeoning stature.

First staged, at the opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, in 1983, the piece brings together three towering figures in American late modernism, namely: choreographer Lucinda Childs, composer John Adams and architect Frank Gehry. Starkly minimalist, assiduously abstract, yet delightfully human, it achieves a brilliant symbiosis between the visions of three great artists who had not met before this project, and did not collaborate again after it.

The piece is performed on a truly spectacular stage architecture. A defiant, almost monolithic, post-industrial structure, it comprises a vast platform, which rests upon five pillars made of vertical and diagonal strips of metal. Two long sets of stairs carry the dancers from the performance floor to the platform, making their approach impressively grand, almost like that of a Roman emperor.

The tension between the simplicity of Gehry’s design and its sheer scale is, no doubt, intentional. It is just one of many pleasing paradoxes that run through the work.

Adams’s electronic score plays to an early-1980s sense of modernity, while also harking back to a classical musical heritage (including the organ music of Johann Sebastian Bach). As in the work of his fellow American minimalists Steve Reich and Philip Glass, there is an invigorating power in the variations which are flecked through Adams’s repetitions.

In Childs’s choreography, a dozen superb dancers (dressed variously in red, white and black) evoke, by turns, the mechanical dimension in modern life, and (not least in clever and humorous plays upon classical ballet) the defiant unpredictability of human experience. Perfectly synchronised, carefully calibrated movement by one group of dancers is juxtaposed with stasis, or an entirely different motion, on the part of another group. The consequence of this tension between self-discipline and creative freedom is dance of hypnotic beauty.

Ultimately, the enduring importance of this work lies in its reflection of the United States’ contribution to artistic modernism since the Second World War. It could hardly be more redolent of this great tradition were it to be danced in front of the paintings of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

Until July 8.

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on July 7, 2017

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/dance/what-to-see/hypnotic-beauty-available-light-palace-theatre-manchester-review/

© Mark Brown

 

 

Reviews: The Taming Of The Shrew? & Timon Of Athens, both Botanic Gardens, Glasgow

THEATRE REVIEWS

 

The Taming Of The Shrew?

& Timon Of Athens

Both at Botanic Gardens, Glasgow

until July 8

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Taming of the Shrew
Stephanie McGregor and James Boal in The Taming Of The Shrew?

There are occasions when an outdoor performance at Glasgow’s annual Bard in the Botanics festival makes for the most pleasurable of evenings. One can sit in beautiful surroundings, the sun going down on a fine summer’s day, watching a witty rendering of a Shakespeare play, whilst sipping wine in flagrant disobedience of the ban on drinking alcohol in the city’s open public spaces.

However, there are also times (such as Saturday evening of last weekend) when, regardless of the quality of the theatre, the experience is something to be endured more than enjoyed. Pity the audience which had to brave plummeting temperatures, occasional drizzle and (alas, sitting directly behind me) a pair of Prosecco-swigging twentysomethings who chattered loudly and relentlessly throughout the show until, after many fruitless admonitory stares from fellow theatregoers, yours truly finally snapped and told them to kindly shut up.

None of which provided the ideal platform for director Gordon Barr’s adaptation-cum-amalgam entitled The Taming Of The Shrew? (note the addition of a significant question mark). The opening production of what Bard in the Botanics is calling its “Headstrong Women” season, Barr’s piece collides Shakespeare’s famously misogynistic comedy The Taming Of The Shrew with The Tamer Tamed, Or The Woman’s Prize, by the Bard’s contemporary John Fletcher.

Played against a backdrop of outrageously sexist adverts from the second half of the 20th century, Barr’s adaptation turns the tables on Petruchio, the Veronese nobleman who has come to Padua to “tame” the supposedly “shrewish” Katherina. The director does so, it must be said, with a humour and a lightness of theatrical touch which work in excellent harmony with his feminist political intent.

Stephanie McGregor’s feisty, dungaree-wearing Katherina stands in bold, pleasingly comic contrast to the other female characters, who are attired as if they have just stepped off the set of a Hollywood movie in the 1950s. Her distinctly anti-matrimonial bent, not to say her defiance of the notion that she should assume the position of a doormat, are at odds with a soundtrack that includes Love And Marriage as sung by Frank Sinatra (a man who liked marriage so much he had four wives).

Playing opposite McGregor in Barr’s predominantly young cast is James Boal, a recent graduate from the acting programme of Edinburgh Napier University (and a young man with a theatrically illustrious surname, which he shares with the late, great Brazilian theatremaker, and founder of the Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal). His is an hilariously rumbustious, thigh-slapping, blithely chauvinist Petruchio.

Having Boal play the role straight, as a man enjoying his attempts to abuse and starve Katherina into submission, is a smart move. The disparity between his Shakespearean japery and the increasingly wretched (and determined) condition of McGregor’s “shrew” gives this adaptation (a sex war revenger’s comedy if ever there was one) an essential sinister dimension.

McGregor’s comic energy finally gives way to a powerful resolution worthy of Nora Helmer in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. She and Boal are backed by a generally strong supporting cast (which includes the fine actors Beth Marshall and Finlay McLean) who coped admirably with a malfunctioning door, which constantly swung open stage left last weekend. In the end, however, neither the defective set, the Glaswegian summer nor the reprobate tipplers could spoil what is an interesting and entertaining approach to the Bard’s woman-hating comedy.

Timon BiB
Nicole Cooper in Timon Of Athens. Photo: Tom Duncan

Meanwhile, indoors at the Botanics’ splendid Kibble Palace glasshouse, director Jennifer Dick is staging another audacious twist on a play by the man of Stratford. Her production of Timon Of Athens involves, not a text by another author, but some significant cross-gender casting, particularly in the title role. Fresh from receiving the Best Female Performance accolade at the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland for her feminised rendering of Coriolanus in last year’s Bard programme, the ever-excellent Nicole Cooper turns her hand to the soon-to-be-disillusioned Athenian philanthropist Timon.

In truth, this is a less radical gender switch than Coriolanus. Whereas the Roman warrior is tied up with centuries of macho ideology (still today our society recoils from the idea of women taking up frontline combat roles in the military), the notion of a wealthy female benefactor is less foreign to us.

More significantly, perhaps, there is something universally human, rather than merely male, in Timon’s dreadful discovery that those he loved and lavished riches upon were mere fair weather friends. In Dick’s production, the suspicious philosopher Apemantus (whose warnings to Timon fall on deaf ears) is played by fine Canadian actor EmmaClaire Brightlyn; a gender shift which (like Brightlyn’s playing of an Athenian senator) is simultaneously modern and timeless.

The play is relocated in time from Ancient Athens to an unspecified Western society in 1929, just as Wall Street is crashing through the good time delusions of the Roaring Twenties. Cooper’s Timon plunges powerfully from ballroom bon vivant in a flapper dress to desperate down and out, raging against humanity from her cardboard home on a beach.

In addition to memorable playing by Cooper and Brightlyn, a generally strong cast is illuminated by the acting of Kirk Bage (the fiery, morally outraged warrior Alcibiades) and Rebecca Robin (Timon’s anguished steward Flavia). In truth, the production struggles to sustain its two-and-a-half hours and sags from time to time. Ultimately, however, it is another admirable take on a lesser known Shakespeare play by a summer festival which continues to go from strength to strength.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 2, 2017

© Mark Brown

Feature: Preview, The Lying Kind, Tron Theatre, Glasgow

A Comedy Of Errors

Glasgow’s Tron Theatre is staging Anthony Neilson’s dark comedy The Lying Kind this summer. Mark Brown talked to lead actors Michael Dylan and Martin McCormick

Lying Kind boys
Martin McCormick and Michael Dylan. Photo: Mark F Gibson

Did you ever hear the joke about the Irishman and the Scotsman who visited the warring old couple on Christmas Eve to give them some very bad news? If you did, you already know about the Tron Theatre, Glasgow’s forthcoming production of Anthony Neilson’s dark comedy The Lying Kind.

First played at the Royal Court Theatre as the London playhouse’s alternative Christmas show in 2002, the drama tells the story of two hapless cops, Gobbel and Blunt, who have drawn the short straw. It’s getting late on Christmas Eve, and they’ve been assigned to visit the intriguingly named senior citizens Balthasar and Garson (a couple for whom the love has observably long gone) with a terrible report about their daughter.

The problem is, try as they might, the bumbling Bobbies can’t quite impart the information. Their inept attempts at softening the blow only lead them into a series of ever more egregious cock-ups.

Add to this the antics of self-appointed community activist Gronya, a woman with a News Of The World-style obsession with rooting out paedophiles, and you have a very bleak farce indeed. Which, it should be said, is no less than one would expect of Neilson, the acclaimed Scottish playwright whose oeuvre includes such brilliant-but-unsettling dramas as Penetrator, The Censor and Stitching.

The Tron already has Christmas covered; every winter the theatre draws huge audiences for its pastiche pantos, written by the irrepressible Johnny McKnight. This year will be no different, with theatregoers already eagerly anticipating Alice In Weegieland.

Consequently, while many other Scottish theatres go quiet in anticipation of the Edinburgh festivals in August, the Tron, contrarily, is staging Neilson’s Christmas comedy in midsummer.

The cast will be lead by the aforementioned Celtic duo of Irish actor Michael Dylan (who plays Gobbel) and his Scottish counterpart Martin McCormick (Blunt). Dylan will be remembered fondly by Tron audiences for his fine playing of the priest Father Welsh in last year’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Lonesome West.

McCormick, for his part, has become one of Scotland’s most celebrated stage actors, not least for his role in Dragon, the much-loved Scots-Chinese co-production for young people. He is also an award-winning writer, having received the Best New Play prize at the 2015 Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland for Squash, his excellent contribution to the lunchtime theatre at Glasgow’s Oran Mor.

When I meet the two actors during rehearsals at the Tron they are relishing their double act in director Andy Arnold’s production of The Lying Kind. “They are total archetypes”, McCormick explains. “They’re like Father Ted and Father Dougal.”

“They try their best at their job, but they mess up a lot”, Dylan adds. “The thing I like about it is, if Blunt messes up, Gobbel comes in and saves the day, even if he doesn’t mean to, and vice versa. They’re lovable idiots.”

Blunt is, says McCormick, the “straight man” to Dylan’s more overtly comic character. However, like Father Ted, the play relies on the characters’ absolute obliviousness to their own absurdity.

“To achieve the maximum effect, it’s all got to be done with 100% sincerity”, the Scottish actor continues. “It’s got to be rooted in truth. Otherwise it just becomes panto.”

The play stands in a long and illustrious tradition of comic dramas in which uncomprehending characters disappear down a hole of their own digging. Shakespeare named the entire genre when he titled one of his plays The Comedy Of Errors.

“It could happen to anyone”, Dylan says of Gobbel and Blunt’s series of mishaps. “It starts with a little misunderstanding, then, suddenly, these two are in deep trouble. They don’t want to upset anyone, offend anyone or lose their jobs, but it just spirals down into chaos.”

“You catch yourself laughing and you think, ‘Oh God, I shouldn’t be laughing at that!”, McCormick adds.

“That’s the comedy that I like the most”, says Dylan. “When you’re thinking, ‘This is horrific, but it’s hilarious’, and you can relate to it.

“I know people who are like the people in this play. Old couples who hate each other. Or people like Gronya, who are on a mission to save the community, when they should be looking after themselves.”

Dylan and McCormick have worked together before, when Arnold had to re-cast his production of The Lonesome West for dates in Russia last year. However, they first met in their student days, when Dylan was training at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and McCormick was at the RSAMD (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) in Glasgow.

They bumped into each other during a student drama programme at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. “They put all the students up in a youth hostel”, McCormick remembers.

“It was like Lord Of The Flies! It was a bunch of drama students all getting pissed and up to no good.”

Some might say these are the perfect origins for actors who are performing together in an Anthony Neilson comedy. The pair are certainly enjoying building the cataclysmically comic relationship between Gobbel and Blunt.

A fact that, they explain, has a great deal to do with director Arnold’s approach to making theatre. “Coming into work at the Tron is just lovely”, says Dylan. “Andy creates a space where you can just play. It’s like coming in and having a laugh.”

The Lying Kind plays the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, July 6-22. For details and tickets, visit: tron.co.uk

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 25, 2017

© Mark Brown

Feature: Interview with actor Nicole Cooper re. Bard in the Botanics 2017

The Queen of Bard Behaviour

As Glasgow’s Bard in the Botanics festival prepares to open its new season, Mark Brown talks to its award-winning actor Nicole Cooper.

Nicole Cooper as Timon
Nicole Cooper as Timon Athens. Photo: Tom Duncan

Last Sunday the prize-giving ceremony of the annual Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland (CATS) was held in Edinburgh’s splendid Festival Theatre. Of the many recipients of awards few were more palpably delighted than Nicole Cooper, winner of the prize for Best Female Performance.

The actor was recognised for her clever and enthralling performance as a feminised Coriolanus in last year’s Bard in the Botanics festival in Glasgow. Being nominated for the gong was of almost life-changing significance, Cooper tells me when I meet her at the botanic gardens, where she is currently in rehearsal for the forthcoming Bard season.

Born and raised in Zambia, the daughter of a Zambian mother and a Greek father, Cooper has lived in the UK ever since she was sent to boarding school in Oxford at the age of 11. Now 38, and married (to a Glaswegian) with three young daughters, she lives here in Scotland on the Greek nationality she inherited from her dad.

Although she trained in Glasgow (at the RSAMD, now called the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) and has pursued her acting career here, she has been feeling uncertain about her place in Scotland of late. “Over the last 12 months, pretty much since the Brexit result, I’ve genuinely wondered whether I have a place here, in Scotland, in the UK, as an artist, as a performer”, she explains.

“I’ve thought about it a lot. I went home to Zambia back in January, and when I got back I had a lot of conversations with my husband about moving back to Zambia with him and the girls.

“I know it sounds silly, and I know Scotland is very different from the rest of the UK, but I did genuinely feel, after Brexit, that my Europeanness wasn’t wanted or wasn’t valid. I then questioned: ‘do I have a place in Scottish theatre? Does anyone even notice my work? Does it ever have any sort of impact on anyone?”

Which is where her CATS award comes in. Just being nominated, she says, felt like winning.

“It couldn’t have happened at a better time”, she continues. “It was exactly the nod that I needed as an actor. It made me think, ‘no, you’re okay, you’re not going under the radar.'”

As any regular patron of Bard in the Botanics will tell you, Cooper’s insecurity regarding the importance of her acting was misplaced. A stalwart of the Glasgow Shakespeare festival (which stages productions both outdoors in the gardens and in the beautiful Kibble Palace glasshouse) since 2008, the actor exudes skill, emotional power and psychological depth.

Playing at the Bard festival is not for the faint-hearted. The outdoor performances place particular demands on the voice and the body, while the Kibble performances bring actors into very close proximity with the audience.

Cooper has proved to be outstanding in both contexts, not least when coming face-to-face with theatregoers in the glasshouse. Her Coriolanus, which was performed in the Kibble, avoided notions of masculinity and androgyny, and created instead an absolutely convincing, uncompromising female warrior.

This year she opens the festival in another feminised rendering of one of Shakespeare’s great male roles, Timon Of Athens. I suggest to her that Timon, the beneficent Athenian gentleman whose largesse leaves him impoverished and friendless, is an Everyman character. The character is, surely, a symbol of the human condition, rather than anything specifically masculine.

“I’m so glad you said that”, she replies. “When I first read the script I said to [Bard co-director Jennifer Dick], ‘this is like the [15th-century] play Everyman’, in the sense that a lot of the characters in Timon are symbolic of a part of society.”

Coriolanus’s hubristic contempt for the masses gave last year’s production a very contemporary resonance. Cooper believes that the Bard festival’s staging of Timon (which director Dick has relocated to the year 1929, in the immediate aftermath of the Great Crash) will also feel very timely.

Pointedly, Dick places the drama’s contemplation of human avarice, selfishness and disloyalty in the midst of the most catastrophic crisis yet to afflict capitalism. “You see very clearly who Timon is pre-Crash”, says the actor.

“You see her generosity, her philanthropy and her being a benefactor of the arts. You see where it comes from, this really lovely, genuine place. It’s incredibly human and really quite touching.

“You have moments at the beginning of the play where you think, ‘she genuinely believes that these people care about her and love her as much as she cares about and loves them. Then the Crash happens, and that makes people go to desperate places.”

It’s a fair distance from Shakespeare’s Roman general, Coriolanus, to Timon, the Athenian philanthropist whose faith in humanity is shattered. However, such a year-to-year shift is meat and drink to Cooper, who also plays the novice nun Isabella in Measure For Measure in the forthcoming season.

Indeed, Bard in the Botanics is growing increasingly confident in its cross-gender casting. In addition to a female Timon, the 2017 programme also includes Queen Lear, with the fine actor Janette Foggo in the lead role.

As Cooper says, far from being a “quirky Shakespeare festival in the park”, Bard in the Botanics “stands up against any theatre that’s on in Glasgow.”

The Bard in the Botanics festival runs from June 21 to July 29. For details and tickets, visit: bardinthebotanics.co.uk

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 18, 2017

© Mark Brown

Reviews: The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui, touring & Mary Rose, Pitlochry Festival Theatre

THEATRE REVIEWS

 

The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui

Seen at Kirkton Community Centre, Dundee

touring until June 17

 

Mary Rose

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

various dates until October 11

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Arturo Ui - Dundee Rep
Brian James O’Sullivan as Arturo Ui. Photo: Dundee Rep

At the end of Dundee Rep’s staging of Bertolt Brecht’s famous parable The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui, Brian James O’Sullivan (who plays the title role) removes his little, black toothbrush moustache and, in his own, Scottish voice, speaks Brecht’s memorable warning following the demise of Hitler: “Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard/ The bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

This note of caution is as chilling in 2017 as it was when it was first spoken on stage in 1958. The electoral resurgence of fascism in countries such as France and Austria, to say nothing of the would-be stormtroopers of Jobbik in Hungary or the rise of ultra-nationalism in Poland, give Brecht’s play a sharp and continuing pertinence.

Watching director Joe Douglas’s urgent production playing in an uncomfortably cramped space to a very small audience in the Kirkton Community Centre (which is a short journey from the Dundee Rep Theatre), I couldn’t help but wonder about the logic behind this tour of community venues. Surely, in the case of Kirkton at least, it would have been better for both audience members and actors if resources had been expended on taking the community to the theatre, rather than the theatre to the community.

It is a tall order for the talented Rep ensemble to give full expression to their effervescent and musical production with two stanchions from the lighting rig planted in the middle of the performance area. That said, they tell Brecht’s story (in which the brutal twists and turns of Hitler’s rise to power are compared to the gangsterism of early-20th century Chicago) with both the starkness and the sardonic humour intended by the author.

The regular cross-gender casting of characters (such as Irene Macdougall as the Hindenburg stand-in Dogsborough and Martin McBride as the outwitted bourgeois Betty Dullfoot) fits nicely with the play’s emphatic theatricality. The consistent boldness of performance (not least by O’Sullivan as the increasingly fascistic Ui) exemplifies Brecht’s remarkable capacity to combine entertainment with uncompromising political commitment.

Mary Rose - PFT
Mary Rose. Photo: PFT

It is ironic that Dundee Rep should be touring Brecht’s great fable while, an hour northwest of the City of Discovery, Pitlochry Festival Theatre is staging JM Barrie’s Mary Rose. First presented in 1920, the Scottish writer’s ponderous ghost story belongs to the kind of turgid, 19th century theatrical realism that Brecht’s modernism set out to destroy.

A metaphorical contemplation of the tyranny of loss, Barrie’s supernatural tale involves the disappearance of the eponymous little English girl, who vanishes while at rest on a tiny island in the Outer Hebrides. Her father, the upright Mr Morland, dismisses the fearful local folklore about “the island that likes to be visited” as silly superstition. However, on his return to the islet after a fishing trip, he finds that his young daughter is, inexplicably, nowhere to be found.

The drama appeared dry and outdated when it was staged by the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh in 2008. Despite the best efforts of director Richard Baron, it is similarly uninviting now.

The fault is entirely the author’s. The requirement of an expository narrator (played, as Barrie himself, by the ever-excellent Alan Steele) underlines the tedious, novelish structure of the piece.

Designer Neil Warmington taps into the ethereal nature of the subject matter quite brilliantly, with a set comprised of absent walls and a solitary, sinister door. However, neither the design nor the uniformly fine actors (including Sara Clark Downie as an impressively uncomprehending Mary Rose) can overcome the inherent dreariness of Barrie’s theatrical form.

For tour details for The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui, visit: dundeerep.co.uk

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 11, 2017

© Mark Brown

 

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