Review: Edinburgh International Children’s Festival 2018

A Feast for the Senses

From toddlers to teenagers, the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival offers a world class programme of theatre and dance, finds Mark Brown


Stick by me 4 c. Mihaela Bodlovic_preview
Andy Manley in Stick By Me. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

To attend the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival is not only to join audiences of youngsters from throughout Edinburgh and beyond, it is also to take one’s place alongside international delegates (children’s performing arts creators and producers) from around the world.

There’s a good reason why the Festival attracts such global interest. It is not only the largest festival of its kind in the UK, it is also, to my mind, the highest quality, most carefully curated performing arts showcase in Scotland.

This year’s Festival (which ends today) has boasted work for all age groups (from babies and toddlers to teenagers), from countries as diverse as Germany, New Zealand and South Africa. Festival director Noel Jordan can be proud of a world class programme which has impressed immensely, both in its imaginative scope and its splendid production values.

A very definite case in point is A Feast Of Bones by Irish company Theatre Lovett. Designed for kids aged nine to 15, the piece is a beautifully radical reworking of the fable of Henny Penny, the paranoiac chicken who inadvertently led her friends to destruction at the jaws of Foxy Loxy.

This might sound a little basic for its target audience, but consider that writer Frances Kay and director Muireann Ahern have relocated the tale to a French restaurant in Dublin named Le Monde Bouleverse (The World Turned Upside-down). Consider, too, that we find ourselves in 1918, in the immediate aftermath of the Great War.

The restaurant is, as its name suggests, a decidedly odd one. The eatery boasts a knife-sharp waitress (Lisa Lambe), a pair of French musicians who are refugees from the War (composer Nico Brown and Martin Brunsden) and a single customer (an energetically eccentric, somewhat foxy gastronome by the name of Rennard).

The restaurant’s menu seems to have been inspired by the story of Henny Penny. However, at Le Monde Bouleverse, we are dealing, not with paranoia, but with a world in which the sky did fall in for four terrible years.

Superbly inventive though the storytelling is, it is the exquisite theatricality of the show that makes it a genuinely great piece of live drama. Every aspect of the work, from the clever stage and lighting design to the memorably marvellous music, is gorgeously stylish.

Smartly acted throughout, the show’s piece de resistance is the playing of Rennard by Louis Lovett. A cleverly complex character, Lovett’s Rennard is a likeable, if egotistical, clown. Snobbish, self-important and less educated than he supposes, he has, despite his apparent cheerfulness, a dark war story of his own.

Lambe gives a perfectly pitched performance as the waitress, simultaneously engaging, mysterious and just a little sinister. As she turns the tables, she also turns the famous fable into a moving tale of revenge and redemption.

Theatre Lovett describes itself, not as a children’s theatre company, but as a creator of “works for all”. A Feast Of Bones bears brilliant testimony to its skill in making cross-generational theatre.

A very different highlight of the Festival was Stick By Me, a work for three to six-year-olds by Scotland’s own Andy Manley and Red Bridge Arts. Performed by the always brilliant Manley, the piece is the deliciously off-centre story of the friendship between a man and a small stick (which looks suspiciously like a coffee stirrer).

Think Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape meets One Man And His Dog, but with a wee stick standing in for the dog, and you’re (possibly) getting somewhere close to the concept of this delightful little piece. Sitting behind a Victorian-style school desk, Manley’s lone character is confined by reproving voices from leaving the square space in which he lives.

Only through the playful imagination, and with the help of his wee wooden friend and some adhesive tape (of which, luckily enough, there is an abundance), can Manley finally escape a decidedly sticky situation. It’s bonkers, of course, but delightfully funny and utterly charming.

There’s charm, too, in Toddler Room, a beautifully gentle, enchantingly designed dance piece for babies and toddlers by Dybwikdans of Norway. The show is presented in a lovely, little white pod in which dancer Marie Ronold Mathisen interacts wordlessly with her very young audience using nicely choreographed movement, big red balloons and a large, but appealingly benign, bird puppet.

Mbuzeni 2_preview
The cast of Mbuzeni

I was intrigued to see Mbuzeni, a play for kids aged 12 and over by the South African company Koleka Putuma. The piece tells the story of four homeless orphan girls who are separated from the nearby community, not only by their marginal status, but also by their fixation with playing burial games in the town cemetery.

This is a traditional society, and the girls’ seeming disregard for the rituals of death sets them further apart. The story, which deals with death boldly and is unafraid of a sad ending, is a powerful one.

The singing and dancing are engaging, as is the combination of the Xhosa language with English. However, the piece relies too heavily on the easy humour of adult actors playing child characters.

As the Festival goes into its final day, I can recommend the outstandingly brilliant Baba Yaga (for children aged 7-12) and Ogo, a delightful puppet play for kids aged two-and-a-half to six, which I was fortunate to catch in Quebec last summer.

Details of the programme for the final day of the Festival can be found at:

This reviews feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 3, 2018

© Mark Brown


Performing arts feature: Prague showcase

Prague Spring

The Czech performing arts are vibrant and diverse, as Mark Brown discovered at the recent showcase in Prague

Farm in the Cave 1
Farm in the Cave rehearsing Refuge. Photo: Linda Průšová

The Alfred ve Dvoře Theatre in Prague is not the obvious place to begin a showcase of Czech performing arts. Located in a little courtyard off a quiet side street in the Holešovice district of the city, it boasts a decidedly relaxed underground bar (we are in Bohemia, after all) and a theatre space that looks, from the outside, as if it has been constructed from the metallic shell of a Second World War bomb shelter.

The venue is about as far as it is possible to get, in cultural terms, from the grand buildings of the National Theatre and the Charles University Faculty of Arts which sit proudly by the Vltava River. Yet here it is that the HI PerformanCZ showcase begins its presentation of theatre and performance art to international guests from countries as diverse as Ivory Coast, South Korea and Georgia.

The wartime appearance of the theatre’s exterior is appropriate as we’re at the Alfred ve Dvoře to see the World War II drama Aviators. Staged by the Wariot Ideal company, the piece tells the story of the young Czech men who joined the resistance to the Nazi occupation of their homeland, only to find themselves flying British bombers over Germany.

The most impressive aspect of the show is the design, in particular the beautifully made models-cum-puppets of Second World War bombers and fighter aircraft (RAF and Luftwaffe) which the company has constructed out of wood. The battle scenes (which involve smart movement of the models in cleverly designed lighting) just about manage to avoid seeming like boys playing with their toys.

A modest work, performed with skill, humour and pathos, Aviators is the kind of show that would fit well in the Edinburgh Fringe programme of a producer like Assembly or Underbelly. Indeed, over the course of the four days of the showcase, I would see a number of productions that seemed tailor-made for the sprawling arts extravaganza we call the Fringe.

Perhaps most obviously “Fringe-worthy” is Cross-country Odyssey by comic double act The Trick Brothers. Forget the Chuckle Brothers, think more Sacha Baron Cohen for a family audience.

Performed outdoors as part of the Nuselské Dvorky one-day festival of outdoor theatre and contemporary circus (a lovely event which serves the working-class community of Nusle, which is otherwise somewhat culturally neglected) the show is an absolute delight. In the piece, a pair (later a trio) of clownish characters muck around with ski equipment in a brilliant slapstick performance that is reminiscent of Cohen’s Borat at his physically comic best.

The charming Nuselské Dvorky festival is, in many ways, representative of the independent performing arts scene in Prague. Handmade, yet professional, with a strong emphasis on social inclusion, its performance programme also included the delightfully quirky Nitroscope (a series of avant-garde vignettes offered in the six segments of a circus tent) by Le Cabaret Nomade.

Which is not to say that every production in the showcase impressed. Batachhio, by the successful contemporary circus company Cirk La Putyka, is often impressive in its skill, but disappoints with its puerile line in retrograde, end-of-the-pier physical comedy.

Even more disappointing are Look, The World! (by the resident company of the Minor children’s theatre) and Paperboy (presented at the Minor by the Mime Prague company). If these shows are typical of children’s theatre in the Czech Republic, it would certainly be fair to say that work for young audiences is not the country’s strongest suit.

Very basic in their design and staging, both shows reflect an old-fashioned attitude (which has, thankfully, been almost eradicated from Scottish culture) that theatre for children is, somehow, second class. Unimaginative and built, largely, around simple physical comedy (such as falling over or playing peek-a-boo), neither production would come close to making the cut for the ever-excellent Edinburgh International Children’s Festival (the current edition of which opened yesterday).

The overriding sense from the HI PerformanCZ programme, however, is one of a vibrant and diverse independent theatre scene in the Czech Republic. The scene is exemplified by welcoming, Bohemian venues such as the Vila Štvanice Theatre and Studio Alta.

It is also epitomised by extraordinary artist Marketa Stranska, an amputee (she has only one leg) whose performance work Fly is beautiful, highly accomplished and brilliantly challenging to disablist assumptions.

The highlight of the showcase, for me, was the visit to the superb contemporary arts venue DOX (which is akin, in a number of ways, to Tramway in Glasgow) to see rehearsed fragments from Refuge, the latest work from the internationally acclaimed, Prague-based company Farm In The Cave. Scottish lovers of physical theatre may remember the company from their visit to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006, when they presented the powerful piece Sclavi: The Song Of An Emigrant as part of the late, lamented Aurora Nova programme.

Premiering at DOX on June 4, the show, even just as a work-in-progress, was already looking like something very special indeed. Combining superb live music and sound, with song, acting and the brilliant and emotive physical performance that has become director Viliam Dočolomanský’s trademark, it looks set to become an unforgettable and passionately urgent meditation on the condition of the 21st-century refugee.

Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan could do a lot worse than get himself over to Prague for the premiere. Refuge could well be the kind of show he would like to consider for a future programme.

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 27, 2018

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Baba Yaga, Perth Theatre; Ma, Pa and the Little Mouths, Tron Theatre, Glasgow; and Sunshine on Leith, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (Sunday Herald)




Seen at Perth Theatre;

Touring Scotland until June 3



Seen at Tron Theatre, Glasgow;

At Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, May 16-19



Seen at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds;

Touring Scotland until June 25


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Baba Yaga
Christine Johnston and Shona Reppe in Baba Yaga. Photo: Matt Turner

From St Petersburg to Sebastopol, from Tbilisi to Tashkent, ask anyone who grew up in the former Soviet Union, and they will tell you about their childhood terror of Baba Yaga.

It’s not that this supernatural, forest-dwelling woman (who flies around in a mortar and carries a pestle) is necessarily evil. Sometimes her intentions are malign, sometimes they’re good.

And that’s the problem. Baba Yaga (one of the great characters of Slavic folklore) is deeply (and terrifyingly) ambiguous.

Imagine, then, that this enigmatic figure (who seems as likely to eat you as to save you from life’s dangers) lived, not in the woods, but in the serviced apartment block where you work as a receptionist. This is precisely what Shona Reppe (one of Scotland’s finest children’s theatremakers) and her Australian collaborators Christine Johnston and Rosemary Myers (of Windmill Theatre, Adelaide) have done.

Welcome to the ludicrously named Poultry Park Apartments (named, perhaps, after the “chicken legs” Baba Yaga is reputed to have) where timid and self-effacing Vaselina (played with beautifully gentle humour by Reppe) is the put upon receptionist. Living (in an appropriately Orwellian reference) on floor 101 of the apartment block, Baba (played with delicious craziness by Johnston) wears a handbag on her head, adores cacti and (to the fury of her neighbours) likes nothing more than playing very loud techno music to her small army of cats.

Vaselina’s professional obligation to confront Baba turns from fear to fascination as the eccentric witch puts the receptionist in touch with her modest, and long-suppressed, childhood dreams (such as to sing and skate). All of this, from Baba’s mad apartment to Vaselina being transported (Willy Wonka-style) through the roof and into outer space, is envisioned using brilliantly inventive projected images.

Fabulously performed, technically outstanding (in music and sound, as well as visuals) and excellently directed by Myers, this world premiere was commissioned by Imaginate, producers of the Children’s International Festival (which takes place in Edinburgh from May 26 to June 3). Aimed at kids aged seven to 12, it begs the question as to why more creators of live drama for adults don’t allow themselves the same kind of imaginative licence as our best children’s theatremakers.

Ma, Pa
Karen Dubar and Gerry Mulgrew in Ma, Pa ans the Little Mouths. Photo: John Johnston

This said, whatever the self-imposed limitations on much new theatre writing in Scotland these days, there are certainly some authors of plays for grown-ups who are exercising their imaginations. One such is actor-turned-playwright Martin McCormick, whose new drama Ma, Pa And The Little Mouths is a delightfully discomfiting work of absurdism.

Set in the dusty and unkempt flat of Ma and Pa (an ageing West of Scotland couple, the former of whom is, improbably, pregnant), the play resides in a fearful dystopia that is both bleakly futuristic and sardonically nostalgic. The writing bears discernable debts to the plays of such modernist masters as Alfred Jarry (creator of Ma and Pa Ubu), Samuel Beckett and, most strikingly, Eugene Ionesco (and, as the late Barry Norman might have said, why not?).

The relationship between Ma and Pa (Karen Dunbar and Gerry Mulgrew on captivating, darkly hilarious form) is characterised by an irascible, contemptuous familiarity. Their comical verbal jousting is interrupted by Neil (an oddly-named young woman, played with appropriate disconcertion by Nalini Chetty), who requires refuge from the feral humanity outside.

The ensuing drama involves interrogation (of Neil, by Ma), memory (Ma of her aristocratic proletarian upbringing, Pa of his childhood photo being in a shop window in Paisley) and fresh custard. Matters come to a head as Neil is compelled to watch Pa’s gloriously preposterous variety act and Ma and Pa contemplate the genuinely horrible, psychologically and socially symbolic fate of the “little mouths”.

If there is any criticism to be made of the play it is that its chaos requires a little more discipline, such are the paradoxical demands of theatrical absurdism. That said, director Andy Arnold does an excellent job of delivering a marvellously funny and implausibly disquieting work of Scottish modernism.

Sunshine On Leith is about as far from Ionesco’s experimental flights of fancy as it’s possible to get. Stephen Greenhorn’s popular Proclaimers musical about de-mobbed soldiers returning from Afghanistan to Edinburgh (which premiered at Dundee Rep in 2007, and transferred to the big screen in 2013) has been revived for West Yorkshire Playhouse by James Brining (who also directed the original production on Tayside).

In his programme notes, Brining makes great claims for the contemporary resonance of the play’s themes of “community, belonging and togetherness”. Someone of a more cynical perspective (i.e. me) might suggest that the real reason for the revival is not that it was Brining’s best work in Dundee (that, surely, was his superb production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?), but, rather, its probable commercial success.

In fairness, there is some fine acting in this rendering of Greenhorn’s formulaic tale of romance (between soldiers and nurses) and strains on a 30-year-old marriage. However, Jocasta Almgill (who plays nurse Yvonne) aside, there’s precious little in the way of good singing.

The show (which begins its Scottish tour at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh on May 22) is lavishly designed and slickly produced. As at the Rep 11 years ago, I confess to sitting in resigned bemusement in the Leeds theatre while the audience gave a standing ovation to this soap opera with songs.

For tour dates for Baba Yaga, visit:

For tour dates for Sunshine on Leith, visit:

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 13, 2018

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Eddie and the Slumber Sisters, Corn Exchange, Haddington & Creditors, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (Sunday Herald)




Seen at Corn Exchange, Haddington,

Touring until June 3



Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Until May 12


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Eddie and the Slumber Sisters
Chiara Sparkes as Eddie in Eddie and the Slumber Sisters

Touring work and shows for children are, in our austere times, too rare within the Scottish theatre firmament. It is a real pleasure, therefore, to see a major national tour (by co-producers Catherine Wheels and the National Theatre of Scotland) of an imaginative new play for kids aged eight and upwards.

   The brainchild of co-creators Gill Robertson (who directs) and Anita Vettesse (who wrote the script), Eddie And The Slumber Sisters is a delightfully original, humorous and humane piece about a little girl struggling with bereavement.

   Edwina (“Eddie” to her family and friends) has been in a bad way since her beloved grandmother died. Robbed of her daily routine of cycling from school to granny’s house to make chicken noodle Cup A Soup and dance to Elvis, Eddie has not been her normal self.

   Upset and distracted at school, she has been getting into fights (and into trouble). More worrying still, at 2.17am every night, Eddie’s sleep is taken over by terrible nightmares.

   We know about the girl’s sleep state with such precision thanks to the Slumber Sisters, a trio of super-heroine a capella singers who monitor children’s dreams and ensure peaceful sleep.

   The audience is seated around designer Karen Tennent’s beautifully envisioned Slumber HQ (think a cross between a comfy home and the TARDIS). There the Sisters, Penelope (Natalie Arle-Toyne), Augusta (Colette Dalal Tchantcho) and Robin (India Shaw-Smith), seek to save Eddie (Chiara Sparkes) from her nightmares.

   The ensuing drama (in which Robin makes an intrepid visit from the world of Slumber to planet Earth) is well-acted, gorgeously sung and deliciously quirky. It is also touchingly engaged with the difficult subject of bereavement in childhood.

   Honest, life-affirming and peppered with moments of charmingly eccentric comedy, this is, needless to say, a dream of a show.

   By very stark contrast, David Greig’s adaptation of August Strindberg’s classic Creditors is a work of dark psychology, and definitely not for children. First staged at the Donmar Warehouse in London a decade ago, Greig’s version of the Swedish bard’s poisonous love triangle is given a powerful new production by superb director-designer Stewart Laing.

   Middle-aged schoolteacher Gustav (Stuart McQuarrie on chillingly cynical form) has travelled incognito to the seaside resort where his younger former wife, and novelist, Tekla (Adura Onashile) and her youthful second husband, and visual artist, Adolph (Edward Franklin) are on holiday. There, in Tekla’s absence, Gustav draws the diffident and credulous Adolph into his mendacious confidence.

   Overcome, both by what he takes to be Gustav’s intellectual brilliance and the teacher’s ideology of sexist fatalism, Adolph loses his faith, not only in his wife, but also in love itself. When Tekla returns, the artist is, on Gustav’s instructions, listening in on the conversation between the novelist and her ex-husband.

   The latter exchange is conducted inside the wooden chalet that dominates Laing’s strikingly ultra-naturalistic set. Therein the action is filmed and projected live, in black and white, onto a screen.

   The effect of this is to draw us, the audience, uncomfortably close to an intimate scene in which Adolph’s devious vengeance masquerades as affection and desire. It is, as we have come to expect of Laing, a perfect matching of technical form to dramatic content.

   The unflinching emotional bleakness of the piece is reflected in universally excellent performances. The narcissism and inconstancy of Onashile’s Tekla reflects boldly the misogyny inherent within the play.

   The disquieting, quasi-otherworldiness of the production is enhanced by the strange quartet of mechanically regimented Girl Guides, whose exploratory activities punctuate the hell being created by the adults in their midst.

For tour dates for Eddie And The Slumber Sisters, visit:

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 6, 2018

© Mark Brown

Review: Eugene Onegin, Theatre Royal, Glasgow




Seen at Theatre Royal, Glasgow,

Touring until June 30


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Eugene Onegin - James Glossop
Eugene Onegin. Photo: James Glossop

Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin (based upon the verse novel by Pushkin) reflects powerfully the stultifying atmosphere of Czarist Russia. The piece tells the tale of the eponymous, degenerate heir to a country estate and of the young woman, Tatyana Larina, who falls in love with him.

   Bored by the endless soirees that constituted his life in St Petersburg, Onegin arrives in the country, the seeming image of metropolitan sophistication. His excessive self-regard is given remarkable expression early in director Oliver Mears’s excellent production when Onegin rides an enormous horse through a set of French windows and into the sitting room of the Larina household.

   This, and every other action in the opera, is overseen by Tatyana in old age. Returning to her former home, now a picture of decayed grandeur and dereliction, the elderly woman envisions the tragic events that began with Onegin brutally rejecting her as a lovelorn 17-year-old (and, indeed, cynically lecturing her on self-restraint).

   The production’s bleak, carefully illuminated vision is realised beautifully by stage designer Annemarie Woods and lighting designer Fabiana Piccioli. Contrasting powerfully with the opulence and emotion of Tchaikovsky’s music, it provides the perfect frame for Pushkin’s story.

  Australian baritone Samuel Dale Johnson gives a superb performance in the title role. Whether he is the strutting playboy who callously sets his best friend, Vladimir Lensky, on the road to destruction, or the man who returns, years later, broken and regretful, Johnson is the very embodiment of Pushkin’s dubious romantic hero.

   Soprano Natalya Romaniw (who hails from Swansea, but is of Ukrainian heritage) is similarly affecting as Tatyana, both as a heartbroken teenager and, later, a resolute aristocrat. Her singing in the famous letter scene, in particular, exemplifies a production which is as strong on emotion as it is on narrative.

 For tour details, visit:

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 6, 2018

© Mark Brown

Review: Creditors, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (Daily Telegraph)







Adura Onashile and Edward Franklin in Creditors. Photo: Peter Dibdin

In the midst of life we are in debt, or so it seems in August Strinderg’s 1889 classic Creditors. Like the transactional title, director/designer Stewart Laing’s fine, new staging of the play for Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum places a disturbing emphasis on the essential solitariness of the human condition.

In the drama, embittered divorcee Gustav (a Victorian school teacher with the vicious deviousness of Shakespeare’s Iago) seeks an emotionally destructive revenge upon his younger, former wife Tekla (a novelist), and her youthful, second husband Adolph (a visual artist). The play is built around two conversations, the first between Gustav (who is travelling under an assumed name) and Adolph, the other between Gustav and Tekla.

The play is a bleak treatise on the ultimate impossibility of love. Indeed it is arguably even darker in its diagnosis of the human soul than Strindberg’s most famous drama Miss Julie.

Laing (who is celebrated as both a set designer and a theatre director) creates a stark re-envisioning of the bourgeois holiday resort in which Strindberg set the play. Here we are among brightly coloured, wooden chalets by a Scandinavian harbour.

Although the costumes are historically indeterminate, Laing’s painted backdrop (a scene of Nordic pastoralism) gives way, in the distance, to a modern metropolis. The curious punctuation of the play with the regimented activities of four Girl Guides adds a strange kind of modernity (and, perhaps, an innocent cooperation that contrasts with the individuation of adulthood).

In David Greig’s sharp adaptation (which was first staged at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2008) Gustav (played with an unnerving, brutal certainty by Stuart McQuarrie) manipulates Adolph (an affectingly agitated and suggestible Edward Franklin) as if he were a mere mannequin (akin, indeed, to the wooden sculpture Adolph is making as a representation of his wife). The teacher finds the artist an all-too-willing recipient for his poisonous concoction of nihilism and misogyny.

The joy of love (albeit one in which Adolph has been subservient to the iridescent Tekla) is transformed by Gustav’s grim doctrine of accumulated emotional debts and the inevitable penalty to be exacted by the “creditors” of the title.

In the latter scene, in which Tekla (a paradoxically self-assured-yet-vulnerable Adura Onashile) returns from a trip and Adolph has been persuaded to listen in on the conversation between her and Gustav, Laing’s technical experimentalism comes into play. The action takes place within a chalet, where it is filmed and projected live, in black and white, onto a screen.

The effect is appropriately intimate and claustrophobic, and, ultimately, a perfect partner to Strindberg’s catastrophic vision.

Until May 12. Tickets: 0131 248 4848;

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on May 2, 2018

©Mark Brown

Reviews: Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow; Passing Places, Dundee Rep; and Gut, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh




Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

Until May 5



Dundee Rep

Until May 5;

transferring to Citizens Theatre, Glasgow,

May 8-12



Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Until May 12


Reviewed by Mark Brown

LDJIN Citz 2018
Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Photo: Tim Morozzo

Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical family drama Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a classic of American theatre. Written in 1940, but not staged until 1956 (some three years after O’Neill’s death), it burrows into the fractured heart of the family of Irish-American patriarch James Tyrone.

Tyrone is a classical actor who has wasted his talent on a mediocre play to which he bought the rights. Wealthy-but-miserly, his disappointment in his morphine-addicted wife, Mary, and his directionless, resentful sons, James and Edmund (who has tuberculosis), is matched only by his loathing of himself.

Directed deftly by Dominic Hill, this beautifully-weighted co-production between the Citizens Theatre and Home Manchester is as an archetypal play of two halves. The first half is a vivid sketch of the family’s dysfunctions. The second, a turbulent reckoning in which hitherto suppressed and unspoken truths come explosively to the surface with an almost volcanic force.

The anguished truth telling between father and sons is enabled, to a very large degree, by alcohol. In fact, as in that other American classic, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, booze itself becomes a player in the drama.

The ever-superb George Costigan leads a universally excellent cast (which includes fine performances from Brid Ni Neachtain as Mary and Lorn MacDonald as Edmund). Costigan’s Tyrone is every inch the bullish impostor, his bravado pulled so tight across his regrets that it has started to split. His speech about his childhood poverty, the Irish memory of famine and his terror of the poorhouse is simultaneously a cynical device to elicit sympathy and a deep-seated fear dragged up from the depths of his soul.

Tom Piper’s set (which is lit intelligently by Ben Ormerod) is largely constructed of transparent plastic sheeting. It is recognisably domestic nonetheless, and succeeds in being simultaneously functional and symbolic.

Passing Places - Dundee Rep 2018
Passing Places. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

If O’Neill’s play is a classic in the world theatrical canon, Stephen Greenhorn’s Passing Places holds a more modest, but nevertheless enduring, place in the affections of Scotland’s theatre lovers. First staged, at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, in 1997 this evocative and comic “road movie for the stage” is deserving of this Dundee Rep revival.

The play follows working-class Motherwell youths Alex and Brian who, being understandably restless, nick a surfboard from the sports shop where Alex works and head for the surfers’ Mecca of Thurso. Unbeknown to them, the board is valued by Alex’s crazy, gangster boss Binks way beyond its price tag.

As the lads meander through the Scottish Highlands, “finding” themselves a la George Harrison in 1960s India, Binks is in hot pursuit on his motorbike.

Director Andrew Panton’s production achieves the crucial sense of momentum, a fact that owes a great deal to the live music and the sprightliness of the cast. There is a constant sense of energetic movement on and around designer Becky Minto’s deceptively versatile set (which is dominated by a boldly envisioned road that winds backwards from the front of the stage and up the back wall).

On their travels, the guys meet, among others, Mirren (Eleanor House on wonderfully engaging form), a young, Highland lass who is lucky enough to have been named after the runaway winners of the 2017-18 Scottish Championship by her football mad, Paisley-born father. John Kielty illuminates a variedly accomplished cast, playing a series of comic characters of both sexes with Pythonesque brilliance.

Barrie Hunter is gloriously bonkers as Binks, while Ewan Donald (Alex) and Martin Quinn (Brian) play the urban misfits with a winning combination of humour, bitterness and pathos.

Kirsty Stuart and Peter Collins in Gut. Photo Mihaela Bodlovic

Greenhorn’s play may have stood the test of time, but I confess to being doubtful as to the durability of Frances Poet’s latest drama Gut. Co-produced by the Traverse and the National Theatre of Scotland, the play is a coming together of two subjects that are very much in the current frame of the British mass media (namely, paedophilia and mental distress).

The piece plays strongly to those who demand that new theatre works should, first-and-foremost, be socially and politically “relevant”. Not for the first time did I find myself watching a new play and wishing that the latest generation of Scottish playwrights could be locked away for a year, with no access to the news or social media, in a library that holds only the classics of world theatre and poetry.

Which is not to say that the drama, in which young mother Maddy’s anxiety about “stranger danger” descends into a catastrophic meltdown in her mental health, is a bad play. Although it is tilted too heavily towards the banalities of everyday speech, the piece has a stronger emotional drive and a smarter sense of dramatic structure (no doubt assisted by the nuanced directing of Zinnie Harris) than most new plays.

This said, the work is constrained by its naturalism. Despite strong performances across the piece, one can’t help but feel the absence of a real, psychological undertow.

Like a soap opera, the drama seems overloaded with events, but lacking in depth. The exception to this is in the writing of the strangers, all of whom are performed with compelling brilliance by George Anton (who plays the characters, not as themselves, but with the underlying menace that is manifested in Maddy’s mind).

New theatre writing is devilishly difficult to pull off. Although it is not without qualities, I suspect Gut will prove to be another also ran in the annals of Scotland’s live drama.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on April 29, 2018

© Mark Brown