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

Reviews: Out of This World, MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling & Each Other, Tramway, Glasgow

PHYSICAL THEATRE / DANCE REVIEWS

 

Out Of This World,

Seen at MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling;

touring UK until June 10

 

Each Other,

Tramway, Glasgow,

Run ended

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Out of This World
Sarah Swire in Out of This World. Photo: Jane Hobson 

The month-long Dance International Glasgow (DIG) festival opened at the Tramway venue last weekend. Its diverse programme includes works by Tim Etchells (of acclaimed English performance company Forced Entertainment), experimental Icelandic choreographer Margret Sara Gudjonsdottir and Scottish Dance Theatre. Once again we find a contemporary dance programme that blurs the old distinctions between art forms.

Out Of This World, the latest show from performance spectacle director Mark Murphy is a case in point. The piece, which will play the DIG festival on May 19 and 20 (in addition to dates in Inverness and Edinburgh), is defined by Murphy’s V-tol company as “genre-defying action packed theatre.”

Murphy (who directed the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014) has created a theatre piece built around the story a young, newly-wed couple, Ellen and Jonathan, who are admitted to hospital with serious injuries following a car crash. The drama, in which we experience the aftermath of the crash from within Ellen’s mind, is slightly reminiscent of Anthony Neilson’s great play The Wonderful World Of Dissocia.

There is quasi-surreal dialogue, Lecoq-style physical movement and aerial work on wires, all wrapped up in an extensive series of projected graphics, which shift continuously between representations of the hospital and abstract expressions of Ellen’s thought processes. What there is not is anything one could really refer to as dance.

The combination of the projections with the aerial work is truly impressive at times. Murphy’s script, on the other hand, is decidedly variable, not least in its sentimental conclusion. One need not be especially hard-hearted to find the denouement more than a little emotionally manipulative.

Which is a pity, as the production boasts some strong performances, not least from Sarah Swire, who is compelling and charismatic as Ellen. As so often with such multimedia performance works, V-tol’s piece is stronger on spectacle than narrative.

Each Other
Each Other. Photo: Andy Ross

Narrative is effectively dispensed with in Each Other, a new work by Netherlands-based choreographers Uri Ivgi and Johan Greben, which was presented by Scottish Ballet on the opening night of the DIG festival. A large cast of dancers dressed in ragged costumes descends on a set strewn with shoes.

At first there is a disquieting disconnect between the human figures and the sheer volume of the shoes, which appear like the aftermath of the liberation of a Nazi death camp or of the Cambodian killing fields. However, as the people collect and assemble the footwear one is reminded of the untold numbers of our fellow human beings around the globe (the late, great John Berger wrote of them as the “rag pickers”) who our “economic order” has reduced to scrabbling a living among garbage mounds.

There is particular poignancy in the image of the shoes being built into a partition separating one group of people from another; even though both groups are, to all intents and purposes, identical. It is hardly surprising, given the piece’s quiet, abstract humanism, that the choreography is at its most transfixing in its dynamic ensemble moments.

Yet, whilst the work moves us with its focus on collective suffering and resilience, it also recognises the profound singularity of the human condition. The excellent, beat-driven electronic score and the clamour of the human mass give way, ultimately, to the vulnerability and fortitude of the individual human spirit.

For details of the Dance International Glasgow programme, visit: tramway.org

Tour details for Out Of This World can be found at: outofthisworldtour.co.uk

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on April 30, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Voices In Her Ear, Oran Mor, Glasgow

THEATRE REVIEW

 

Voices In Her Ear

Seen at Oran Mor, Glasgow:

at Traverse, Edinburgh, April 25-29

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Voices In Her Ear
Alison Peebles as Betty in Voices In Her Ear. Photo: Leslie Black

There is no question that the lunchtime theatre A Play, A Pie And A Pint, created by the late producer and theatre maker David MacLennan in 2004, is a good deed in a naughty world. Staging no fewer than 38 new plays each year, it is, by a distance, Scotland’s biggest producer of new work.

There is an admirable sense among P, P & P’s loyal Glasgow audience that it doesn’t much matter if any given play doesn’t quite pass muster, there’ll be another one along next week. There is also an inevitable eclecticism in the Oran Mor programmes, with some commendably weighty dramas peppering the lighter theatrical fare.

It is important, however, that A Play, A Pie And A Pint be seen as a welcome supplement to, rather than any kind of replacement for, Scottish theatre’s new writing infrastructure. That, surely, is what MacLennan intended.

Scotland’s currently underpowered new theatre writing cannot rely too heavily upon the 50-minute, lunchtime format. Very few dramatists have Samuel Beckett’s facility for writing profound, very short dramas, and even fewer can pen them specifically for audiences who are scoffing Scotch pies and downing glasses of lager or Merlot as they watch the play.

Don’t get me wrong, many a fine piece has emerged from the basement theatre of the Oran Mor, but, inevitably, the lunchtime season has its limitations and a certain sense of disposability. P, P & P is doing its particular job fabulously, but, as I wrote recently on these pages, we need others in the Scottish theatre sector to step up to the plate with a broader strategy for new work.

As if to prove this point, Voices In Her Ear, David Cosgrove’s new play for the Oran Mor (which transfers to the Traverse, Edinburgh next week) is a pretty unmemorable dark comedy. Imagine Brian Friel’s Faith Healer (in which the titular travelling curer-cum-charlatan negotiates the space between self-belief and shame) crossed with any of the light comedies popularised by Dorothy Paul.

A late-middle-aged Scottish “psychic”, by the inevitable name of Betty, is working a lucratively huge auditorium. Meanwhile her young assistant, Siobhan (who has a clipboard full of information garnered from punters’ letters to Betty), is feeding her lines via her earphone.

We’re treated to some of the more unpleasantly manipulative tricks of Betty’s dodgy trade before she heads backstage for a money making “private consultation” with Mark, a bereft young man who has a very special reason for wanting to meet the celebrity psychic. The ensuing confrontation is a mixture of what Donald Rumsfeld might call entirely predictable known knowns and only slightly less predictable known unknowns.

Betty is forced by the anguished Mark to defend her “profession”, deny her fraudulence and, like Friel’s faith healer, face up to the relationship between her commercial motivation and her supposed “gift”. Sadly, however, Cosgrove lacks entirely Friel’s moral and psychological subtlety, instead laying out the scene like the ethical equivalent of paint-by-numbers.

The ever-superb Alison Peebles (a hardened, cynical, yet vulnerable Betty) and Neshla Caplan (an impressively sharp-tongued and sarcastic Siobhan) put in better performances than the play deserves. Indeed, Cosgrove’s drama (despite its brevity) even contrives to run out of steam towards the end; a fact which doesn’t reflect well on the directing of River City actor Libby McArthur, who seems to have simply allowed the script to meander off in its own, weary direction.

There are, in fairness to Cosgrove, a few neat lines. However, his play never really gets beneath the surface of its chosen subject. Nor does it justify its less-than-surprising final twist.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on April 23, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Coriolanus Vanishes, Tron Theatre, Glasgow

THEATRE

CORIOLANUS VANISHES

TRON THEATRE, GLASGOW

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

Coriolanus Vanishes
David Leddy. Photo: Niall Walker

Scotland-based theatre maker David Leddy has taken us into the political and moral complications of the relationship between Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears (Susurrus) and a brutal-yet-theatrical world of Victorian gothic (Sub Rosa). His latest work, Coriolanus Vanishes, is set in a 21st-century British prison, by way of the plush office of a company executive.

A monologue written, directed and performed by Leddy himself, the piece tells the story of Chris, until recently a senior management figure in one of Britain’s major arms firms. Suffering three major bereavements in quick succession and in prison facing undisclosed charges, Chris has had a colourful life of late, to put it mildly.

There are pen portraits of Chris’s wife, his adopted son, his dying father and Paul, his lover. It is notable that the detail of these portraits ascends in that order, from the barely outlined “wife” to the ever-present Paul, whose emotional tenderness, forceful sexuality and political morality are foremost in the mind of the incarcerated former arms dealer.

Leddy wears the pin-striped suit of Chris’s former position, and appears, variously, behind, on, under and beside the ex-executive’s wooden desk. As he speaks, the stage lighting changes constantly.

The desk notwithstanding, stage designer Becky Minto’s set is a blank, angular canvas which lighting designer Nich Smith bathes in bright and garish colours. Shafts of light criss-cross Leddy as he performs.

At certain moments Minto closes off our view of parts of the stage, as if altering the aperture of a camera. At others, Leddy produces various stylish, pre-digital means of voice amplification from within the drawers of the desk.

The effect of all of this activity is, perversely, to highlight the decided lack of theatricality in both text and performance. There is a certain crispness in Leddy’s writing and in his diction, but, with every shift in colour and shape, the clash between theatrical technique and prose fiction becomes more pronounced.

The script itself is also riven with contradictions. Leddy’s political observations vis-à-vis UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia are far from original. Consequently, the text relies for its drama upon the writer’s penchant for the often seamier aspects of sex and death.

As to the title. It smacks more of an attempt to bask in the reflected glory of Shakespeare than any real similarity between Leddy’s character and the Bard’s Roman general.

 Until April 22. tron.co.uk

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on April 19, 2017

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/coriolanus-vanishes-tron-theatre-glasgow-review-unhappy-clash/

© Mark Brown

 

Review: A Number, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

THEATRE REVIEW

 

A Number,

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh,

Run ended

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

A Number
Brian Ferguson and Peter Forbes. Photo: Royal Lyceum

Caryl Churchill is one of the most fascinating and, to my mind, frustrating of modern English playwrights. Resolutely modernist, radically socialist and feminist, her oeuvre includes undeniable classics (such as Top Girls and Cloud 9) and works in which her desire to express her politics clashes uncomfortably with her avant-garde aesthetics (as in Drunk Enough To Say I Love You?, which had an excellently acted production at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow recently).

The frustration with the Lyceum’s staging of her 2002 play A Number is not with the writing, but with the exasperatingly short run (of only a little over a week). Directed with tremendous focus by leading Scottish playwright Zinnie Harris and designed with a painterly sparseness by Fred Meller, it is an utterly compelling hour of theatre.

Set in an unspecified, but none-too-distant, future, the drama entails meetings between Salter (a man who had his son, Bernard, cloned) and three of the young men affected by his intervention in reproductive technology. Salter (a brilliantly riven Peter Forbes) attempts to negotiate the boundary between his own guilt and the culpability of the scientists who created more clones of his child than was intended.

Brian Ferguson gives a performance (or, rather, performances) of deep emotional intelligence as Bernard 1 (the original son), Bernard 2 (his intended clone) and Michael Black (one of the additional clones). The play is quite extraordinary in its capacity to deal both with the millennia-old debate regarding nature and nurture, while also turning to the emotional implications of biologically identical people being created, not by nature, but by science.

A tragedy wrapped in a captivating emotional, psychological and political enigma, A Number is Churchill at the top of her theatrical game. Arguably the best production of David Greig’s period as director of the Lyceum, it demands, appropriately enough, to be revived without alteration.

This review was originally published on the website of the Sunday Herald (heraldscotland.com) on April 16, 2017

© Mark Brown