Joyce McMillan online…

All my writing on theatre and general social/political issues is available online here.

Everything on the site appears in date order, below, beginning with the most recent column or review.  Most of these pieces are commissioned by, and first appear in, The Scotsman. Ultimate ownership of copyright remains with me, and is asserted here.

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© Joyce McMillan 2011

Maw Goose and The Pokey Hat

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on MAW GOOSE at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and THE POKEY HAT at East Kilbride Arts Centre, for The Scotsman, 12.7.14.
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Maw Goose  4 stars ****
The Pokey Hat   4 stars ****

THE LATE DAVID MACLENNAN may have been stretching a point, a bit, when he claimed to be reviving a grand old tradition of Scottish “summer panto” at A Play, A Pie And A Pint.  It’s true, though, that Scotland once had a great flair for end-of-the-pier summer entertainment; and if you fancy seeing two shows that pay rich tribute to that tradition, while offering some substantial food for thought to 21st century audiences, then you could do much worse than to hurry along both to this year’s Play, Pie And Pint lunchtime summer panto Maw Goose – at Oran Mor until 26 July -  and to the children’s theatre company Grinagog’s delicious current show The Pokey Hat, which is touring car-parks across Scotland in a gorgeous vanilla-and-raspberry-coloured ice cream van.  

As the last panto ever penned by the great Wildcat team of David Anderson and David MacLennan, Maw Goose could have been a show tinged with melancholy.  No chance of that, though, as Dave Anderson and the other three cast members – Juliet Cadzow, George Drennan and Frances Thorburn – seize the traditional, irreverent spirit of the Oran Mor political panto for adults, and give it a vigorous shake by the throat, radiating scorn for “rich bastards” at every turn of the plot. 

Maw Goose is actually one of the more complex panto stories, the  interesting tale of a poor woman with a heart of gold who finds riches when her goose starts to lay golden eggs, but is then distracted by the subtle temptation of vanity; and it has to be said that this Oran Mor panto, set in an around the familiar streets of Glasgow’s  West End, makes a sketchy job of the second half of the tale, after a roistering first act during which Maw Goose describes herself as “no sae much the squeezed middle as the squashed erse” of Britain’s unequal society.

What the show has in abundance, though, is lashings of wit – many of the songs are terrific, including the opening number Cost Of Living Crisis – and a superb central performance from David Anderson as Maw Goose, a pantomime dame of truly memorable complexity and hilarity.  And it’s both poignant and impressive to see how the whole cast – under Ron Bain’s direction – raise their game, focus their energy, and belt out this show exactly as MacLennan would have wanted to see it; right down to the closing singalong, which reminds us to enjoy ourselves, because it’s later than we think.  

The Pokey Hat, by contrast, is a short and simple 35-minute show for children about the joys of ice cream, in which the three performers don stripey waistcoats and straw boaters, and make brilliant use of the spaces in and around their ice cream van to reflect on three different ways in which ice cream is bound up with our happiest memories.  So there’s the scene about playing in the street and running to buy a cone from the van; there’s the scene in a traditional Glasgow Italian cafe; and there’s the scene on a seaside holiday, doon the watter.

Like Maw Goose, The Pokey Hat slightly abandons its storyline towards the end; there’s supposed to be an ice-cream competition afoot, which links only vaguely to the ice-cream stories we’ve heard.  That’s a minor hiccup, though, in a show full of lovely songs and gently persuasive writing; and everyone connected with The Pokey Hat  – from writer Martin O’Connor and director Clare McGarry to the three-strong cast – can take real pride in a little beauty of a show, that radiates such a powerful and loving sense of social history, in such a small space.

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Home Nations Season At The Tron – Preview

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on HOME NATIONS SEASON for Scotsman Magazine, 12.7.14. _______________________________________________________

THINK OF THE COMMONWEALTH, and it’s hard not to focus on the story of empire, and of post-colonial change, that led to the founding of the organisation back in 1949. In Glasgow, as the Games approach, we’ve already seen shows about the impact of Commonwealth immigration to Britain in the 1950’s and 60’s, and about the imperial legacy of homophobic legislation and attitudes in more than 40 Commonwealth countries; in the Merchant City, the Empire Cafe at the Briggait is about to launch a nine-day programme of events designed to explore and acknowledge the role of Glasgow-based merchant companies in the transatlantic slave trade.

At the Tron, though, artistic director Andy Arnold is taking a slightly different perspective on the Commonwealth; and after a Mayfesto event in spring which explored the theme of colonialism, the Tron will celebrate the period of the Games by focussing on the distinctive voices of the four “home nations”, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and on the wide-ranging, border-crossing inspiration of the great poets who speak for those nations.

“The idea really developed out of our feeling that this would be a great occasion to re-stage Liz Lochhead’s 2011 play Edwin Morgan’s Dreams And Other Nightmares, which went brilliantly with audiences, but had a very short run back then. It’s a very Glasgow piece, with a terrific sense of the city about it, so we thought it would be great to stage it during the games. And then out of that, came the idea of celebrating other great poets from the Home Nations at the same time – those terrific voices that really seem to represent a people, and their language, on a world stage.”

So working with Scotland’s Makar, Liz Lochhead, as co-curator, Arnold has put together a programme which opens this weekend with a Tron Theatre Community Company version of Dylan Thomas’s great Welsh classic Under Milk Wood, and then moves on to Arnold’s own production of Edwin Morgan’s Dreams, to a new staging of Seamus Heaney’s acclaimed version of Beowulf by Lynne Parker of the Dublin-based Rough Magic company, and to Cardiff-based Theatre Iolo’s staging of Carol Anne Duffy’s Grimm Tales. And alongside these four shows, there will also be play-readings, a poetry slam, live music, a rehearsed reading (co-produced with the Empire Cafe) of Jackie Kay’s epic dramatic poem The Lamplighter, and a Newsboy evening of short “living newspaper” pieces on the theme of the Commonwealth.

What the season offers, in other words, is both a series of towering and distinctive poetic voices, and a set of infinitely complex, interwoven cultural relationships. Beowulf is an Old English version of a Norse legend in a version by a great Northern Irish poet; Grimm Tales – which will also appear in community centres around Glasgow, before arriving at the Tron – involves German folk stories retold by a Scottish-born writer who is now the UK’s Poet Laureate, and presented by Wales’s leading children’s theatre company; Edwin Morgan’s Dreams celebrates a poet who was himself a great translator, from Russian, French, and other languages. “For me, theatre has always been primarily about the spoken word,” says Andy Arnold. “There is something about the rhythm, the musicality and the lyricism of poetry that is profoundly theatrical. And then when you think about the iconic artists of these four home nations, so many of them are poets; writers like Seamus Heaney, Dylan Thomas, Edwin Morgan who reach out from these nations, to a world audience.

“So in this Home Nations season, we want to celebrate the power of poetry in theatre, and all the different voices of the language we home nations share. We’re exceptionally proud to have been awarded funding to present this programme during the Commonwealth Games; and we hope people will come along during the festival and simply spend some time with us here at the Tron, in Glasgow, at a truly unique time in the city’s history.”

Home Nations at the Tron, 17 July-3 August.

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Another Scandal Laps Around Westminster, Raising Questions About How To Restore Public Confidence In Parliament – And About The Referendum Choice Facing Scotland – Column 11.7.14.

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 11.7.14.
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THE WORLD TURNS, and what was once hidden is revealed to public view; yet few would have guessed, a generation ago, that one of the long-term consequences of the great change in sexual mores that has swept our society since the 1970’s would have been the grim series of revelations about the child sex abuse that is now seeping across British public life. It’s not an exclusively British problem, of course; this week, Pope Francis made a profound personal apology to victims from many countries, over both the conduct of Catholic priests who abused them, and the failure of the church as an institution to act to protect them, rather than itself.

Yet there is no disguising the extent to which British public life has recently been tainted by this problem, as beloved showbiz figures appear in court to answer charges of abuse and harassment, the NHS is accused of colluding in Jimmy Savile’s abuse of hundreds of vulnerable people, and allegations swirl around political figures such as the late Rochdale MP Sir Cyril Smith.

And now, the allegations involving Westminster politicians become more sombre yet, with the revelation that files detailing serious accusations of abuse by senior Westminster figures, dating back to the 1980’s, have somehow been lost or destroyed, removing all evidence of the reasons why no criminal prosecutions took place. Some even talk of a “paedophile ring” at Westminster; and there is an ominous smoking gun in the shape of a recorded BBC interview with the late Tim Fortescue, a Tory Whip in the early 1970’s, who – speaking in 1995 – helpfully detailed how the Whips’ Office, in return for the political compliance of MP’s, would help them “hush up” potentially embarrassing or criminal scandals, including, said Fortescue, scandals involving “small boys”.

At the moment, of course, all of this amounts to no more than a swirling mass of allegations, now the subject of the huge and wide-ranging inquiry announced by the Home Secretary on Tuesday. What this latest breath of scandal is bound to do, though, is to strengthen the strong impression among voters that there is something profoundly amiss with the way the Westminster Parliament works; a growing tendency for not-so-honourable members to close ranks in a crisis, and defend one another both from the rigour of the law, and from the kind of transparency that would make them more genuinely accountable to their constitutents. It would be dangerously complacent, of course, for Scottish-based commentators simply to assue that the Westminster Parliament is an old and corrupt institutions compared with the new Scottish Parliament, and therefore hopelessly resistant to reform; under the current Speaker, John Bercow, Westminster has achieved substantial change, often emerging as a far more lively and welcoming civic building than the security-bound Scottish Parliament.

Yet all the same, a series of recent events involving peers and MP’s – the shocking expenses scandal, the mounting evidence of the huge influence of corporate donors, and now the latest spate of allegations about sexual bullying and even rape – combines to create the impression of a parliament that is out of time, and in need of substantial reform. In the first place, the House of Commons clearly needs a massive new injection of members who are, or have been, ordinary working people, and who therefore see their £67,000 a year salary not as poverty pay requiring massive additional expenses to make it worthwhile, but as the generous middle-class living wage it is.

Then secondly, both Houses of Parliament need to implement far tougher rules on members’ interests. Merely declaring that you have investments in, or are receiving large fees from, some company involved in the security industry or private healthcare, is not enough; members of parliament should divest themselves completely of interests which are likely to influence their judgment on such vital matters, and should retrain themselves in the neglected business of serving the people, rather than re-voicing the arguments of big corporate donors and lobbyists.

And finally, the Westminster Parliament needs to root out whatever traces remain of the sexually repressed and dysfunctional public-school culture that still seems to hang around the place like a long legacy from the Victorian era. Whether electoral reform might help break the traditional power of the Whips, in an intensely adversarial party system, is an open question; the Scottish Parliament certainly has a more open and ordinary sexual culture than Westminster, along with a more representative class-structure, and a higher proportion of women.

What is clear, though, is that any culture of sexual neurosis and furtiveness – including clandestine homosexuality, and covert child abuse – can contribute to a climate of political bullying and control, in which even as great a prize as immunity from criminal prosecution can be traded for political favours. There is substantial evidence – both biographical and anecdotal – that such a culture has existed at Westminster in the past; and we can only hope that the social changes of recent decades have made victims less likely to remain silent, and have empowered most people, including politicians, to find greater happiness and fulfilment in their acknowledged sexual lives.

When we in Scotland come to cast our votes on 18 September, though, this latest potential Westminster scandal is one more factor we will have to take into account. For here, as in so many other areas, we face a decision about whether the best way to achieve positive change in these islands is to stick with Westminster, and try to become part of some new driving force for reform; or to embark on the task of trying to build a different kind of country, born of the age we live in. And this week, it’s difficult not to feel the attraction of nation free at last; not from our own demons, of course, but from the particular cultural hangups of that Thames-side Palace where benches full of chaps still sometimes roar out sexist comments when a woman rises to speak, and where some may perhaps have committed the same cardinal offence as the one for which the Pope apologised this week – the offence of caring more for the prestige of the institution, than for the basic rights of the most vulnerable in the land.

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Hamlet (Bard In The Botanics 2014)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on HAMLET at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 7.7.14.
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3 stars ***

THANKS TO a more-than-awkward error in the season brochure – this shows starts at 7.30, not 8.00 as advertised – I can only bring you a review of four-fifths of this passionate new production of Hamlet, staged by Wilderness Of Tigers as part of the Bard In The Botanics season’s promotion of emerging talent. It’s good to report, though, that on a gorgeously sunlit evening after a day of rain, Alasdair Hunter’s young team of actors delivered a Hamlet to remember, brief, sharply-cut, and fairly conventional in style and costume, but tightly-focussed where it matters, and blessed with some fine leading performances.

Staged on a slope of rich woodland near the garden’s back gate, this Hamlet lacks any visual representation of Elsinore, but still captures a profound sense of light and shade, as actors run from the dark woodland to join the action, and move towards their fate in the gathering dusk. The play revolves around a thrilling central performance from Alan Mackenzie as Hamlet, athletic, youthful, intelligent, lyrical, yet mature enough to capture the tragedy of Hamlet’s destruction in his prime. And if the acting further down the cast is variable, Amy Conway makes a terrific Horatio, Jasmine Main a heartbreaking Ophelia, and Jason Vaughn a suitably sinister Claudius; in a production that, at all the key moments, simply grasps Shakespeare’s great text and lets it lead the actors into the heart of the drama, revelling in its rhythms, its strength, and its unforgettable imagery, which soars out on the evening air like a force of nature in its own right.

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Dementia Plays: Or How One Theme Dominates Current Domestic Drama

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on DEMENTIA PLAYS for the Scotsman Magazine, 5.7.14. _________________________________________________________

TO ORAN MOR, last week, to see the latest in the Play, Pie And Pint summer season of Classic Cuts; in this case, a 50-minute version of Don Quixote adapted by young London-based writer Ben Lewis. The play begins, the setting is a suburban house near Glasgow; and it soon becomes clear that James Smillie’s delightful Don is not the eccentric old knight of Cervantes’s imagination, but a modern British pensioner beginning to lose his grip on reality, mounting fierce battles against the new wind-turbines near his house, treating his grandson Sandy like a hapless squire, and falling madly in love with his exasperated carer, a robust young South African woman with a fondness for beer.

What Ben Lewis has done, in other words, is to transform Don Quixote into a story about dementia, and about an old man’s quest for meaning and dignity at a time when his mind is falling apart; it’s an idea that chimes beautifully with the dream-like atmosphere of Cervantes’s great novel, and it’s beautifully executed by Lu Kemp’s cast. It’s not, though, the first play about dementia I’ve seen that week; Justin Young’s In My Father’s Words, now at Dundee Rep, chronicles the decline of a 90-year-old Canadian who, as his mind fails, suddenly starts to speak again in the Gaelic language of his childhood.

And in recent times, it seems the same theme has been almost inescapable in English-speaking theatre. There have been at least three other plays on the subject in recent Play, Pie And Pint seasons. Matthew Lenton’s Vanishing Point company touched upon it in the recent Beautiful Cosmos Of Ivor Cutler, and opened a new show at last month’s Brighton Festival which revolves specifically around it. When leading Irish playwright Frank McGuinness created his new family drama The Hanging Gardens for the Abbey Theatre, last autumn, it too focussed on the decaying mind of the powerful father of the family. And the acclaimed Scottish theatre-maker Cora Bissett is also working on a project inspired by new approaches to the treatment of dementia.

So what are audiences to make of a theatre scene gripped by such a dominant theme? A few years ago, there seemed to be endless plays that revolved around revelations of child abuse; almost as if playwrights had all attended the same writers’ workshop, and decided that this was the topic of the moment.

Yet it takes only a brief glance at the creative origins of all these projects, and at the time-scale of their development, to see that this is not the case. What we’re looking at is not imitation or group-think, but something much more interesting: the role of theatre in supporting the gradual emergence into collective recognition of social phenomena previously hidden, or in some way under-acknowledged. Dementia is becoming a more widespread problem, as increasing numbers of people live into their late 80’s and 90’s; around 23 million people in Britain – a third of the population – now have a close family member or friend affected by it.

What writers and artists make of a phenomenon like dementia, though, is something that goes far beyond the recording of a social problem. In a post-humanist age when the intrinsic value of human beings is increasingly questioned – and when gravely ill and dependent people are increasingly framed as enduring “undignified”, worthless lives – the act of dramatising dementia opens up a series of profound questions about what we mean by personality, about how we use language to construct our world, and about what remains of us when our mental powers begin to fail. And although the disintegration of the human mind is not a cheerful subject for drama, our theatre-makers are increasingly demonstrating that it is a rich, productive and surprising one; with meanings that soar far beyond the detail of dementia as a disease, into huge, perennial questions about what makes us human, and how we deal, through both tragedy and comedy, with the inevitability of our decline and fall.

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Sent from my iPhone

44 Stories & Blood Lines, One Man Two Guvnors

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on 44 STORIES and BLOOD LINES at the Arches, Glasgow, and ONE MAN TWO GUVNORS at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 5.7.14.
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44 Stories/Blood Lines 4 stars ****
One Man Two Guvnors 4 stars ****

IF YOU IMAGINED that the cultural programme surrounding the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow would be all happy celebration and spectacular dance displays, think again. At the Arches at least, 2014 is an occasion for fierce and self-searching reflection, embodied in this brave, vivid and sometimes mind-blowing double-bill by Arches artists Drew Taylor and Lou Prendergast.

Taylor’s show, 44 Stories, goes straight to the heart of one of the contradictions of the Commonwealth, by highlighting the fact that in 44 of the countries competing in this year’s Games, homosexuality remains illegal, and punishable by imprisonment or even death. In a bold, loud and often furiously camp 75 minutes, Taylor’s inspired cast – Katie Armstrong, Olivia Knowles, Tom Jackson-Greaves and Bugg Vincent – tell the stories of dozens of individuals and organisations, across the Commonwealth, who have struggled for gay rights and paid a price for their courage; the show also makes a brave attempt at analysing how the conventional, patriarchal attitudes that came with Empire often snuffed out much more subtle traditional appraoches to sexual ambiguity.

In the meantime, though, the show also sings, jokes, and dances up an explosively-choreographed storm. And the effect is sometimes confused, but always fascinating; a thrilling mix of burlesque, cabaret and agitprop that deserves to be seen again, and soon.

The show comes in a double-bill with Lou Prendergast’s Blood Lines, a slightly hesitant but searingly important and timely show in which Predergast tells the story of her Dad, a tremendously smart charmer called Harry Prendergast, who arrived in Britain from Jamaica in the 1960’s, and soon came north to Glasgow, to run a drugs-and-prostitution racket there. Lou, her sister, and her mother came too; and now Lou and her sister Sophie tell the tale, along with a ska band featuring two black Scottish musicians with their own story to tell, and their uncle, brother to their mother, “the hippy”.

It’s a complex tale, full of deep resonances that bind Scotland’s great Atlantic city to the story of the Caribbean, and to the slave trade that scarred its history. On the floor, there’s a map of Jamaica, full of Scottish place names; one one side, there’s a glowing blue Mercedes, symbol of the Sixties lifestyle Harry yearned for, and often achieved. And if the presentation of the show is sometimes a little less than smooth, its subject could hardly be more important to the city of Glasgow, as it learns to live with the truth about the imperial trade on which its fortunes were founded.

Oddly enough, it’s easy to imagine Harry Prendergast fitting right into place as a character in Nicholas Hytner’s legendary National Theatre production of One Man Two Guvnors, which briefly revisits Glasgow this week. Based on the Carlo Goldoni classic A Servant Of Two Masters, this version is set by playwright Richard Bean – author of this week’s instant NT play about the phone-hacking scandal – in a 1960’s Brighton full of flash harries, small-time gangsters and slumming princesses. The show has now lost its inspired star James Corden, who created the role of cash-strapped minder and dogsbody Francis Henshall, but gained a more-than-decent replacement in Gavin Spokes. And if the comedy seems a shade more heavy-footed this time round, this remains a superb blend of classic comedy and pure English panto, driven from start to finish by brilliant on-stage skiffle band The Craze, who help to capture that special rock-and-roll moment just before the Beatles came along, and changed everything, for good.

44 Stories and Blood Lines seen on 3 July.
One Man Two Guvnors seen on 30 June.

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