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

Wildcat Legacy Should Inspire New Generation

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JOYCE MCMILLAN: WILDCAT LEGACY – CAN THESE SHOWS BE REVIVED? for the Scotsman Magazine, 15.11.14.
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THE TEMPTATION to nostalgia was strong, as Scotland’s theatre community gathered at the Citizens’ last Sunday night to say farewell to David MacLennan, veteran of 7:84, co-founder of Wildcat Stage Productions, and founder and producer of A Play, A Pie And A Pint at Oran Mor.  The great former director of the Citizens’, Giles Havergal, opened the evening with a powerful tribute to “a switched-on, brilliantly informed political human being, and a great man of the theatre”.  And then one by one the stars came out to sing David’s songs and tell their stories, led by his old musical partner David Anderson with the Wildcat Band, Elaine C. Smith (in stunning form with the title song from the 1984 miners’ strike show, Dead Liberty), Liz Lochhead, Mel Giedroyc, David’s sister Liz MacLennan, his wife Juliet Cadzow, and dozens more.

Yet as I left the theatre – after a short three hours, brilliantly orchestrated by director Morag Fullarton – I found myself thinking less of the past, and more of what Scottish theatre might do now, in the 21st century, with the tremendous body of work MacLennan created in his lifetime.  For the plays and playwrights he nurtured at Oran Mor,  in the last decade of his life, there are at least some established ways forward; the plays exist as scripts, and the playwrights can – with luck – move on to win commissions elsewhere.

Yet Sunday night’s show came as powerful reminder of the sheer strength of the work Anderson and MacLennan themselves produced for Wildcat, and the subtlety and beauty of their greatest songs; and of the fact that the nature of Wildcat’s work – driven by the politics of the moment, jotted down on paper in the age before laptops – means that it is often preserved mainly in the memory, of both performers and audience.

So of almost 70 original Wildcat shows created between 1978 and 1998, only one – Tony Roper’s The Steamie, which started life as a standard playscript – has been revived since 1998; and even then, the director of  a recent production discovered that David Anderson’s superb and much-loved songs for the show only existed as a set of rough notes in a plastic carrier bag.

And even where scripts from this vital period of Scottish theatre exist – as in the early Wildcat scripts held at Glasgow University’s Scottish Theatre Archive – it’s clear how little they would lend themselves to straightforward revival.  A few years ago, teaching 7:84’s The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil to students in Edinburgh, I was struck both by how much they loved the text – its energy, style, themes – and by the extent to which even that great piece of theatre would now need radical creative reworking to restore the sense of topicality it had back in 1973.

And so there is a vital job to be done here, at least as important as the one John McGrath did back in the early 1980’s, when he began to unearth great neglected Scottish plays like Men Should Weep and In Time O’ Strife.  There are scripts to be pieced out and published, and songs to be saved and recorded, beyond the small Roadworks collection of Wildcat lyrics published by the Third Eye Centre in 1987.

More importantly, though, there is theatre to be made that finds completely new ways of using this legacy, not so much of plays, but of attitude, ideas, stories, and songs.  Just occasionally, in a show at Oran Mor, David Anderson will recycle the odd song from Wildcat’s heyday, such as the terrific That’s The Way The River Runs, from the 1985 South American show Business In The Backyard.  This is a legacy, though, that deserves a richer, fuller life than that; and that could now inspire a whole new generation of Scottish theatre artists to do as MacLennan always did – thinking outside the box, challenging assumptions about theatrical form, and forever searching out new audiences, in Scotland, and beyond.

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Whisky Galore 2014

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on WHISKY GALORE at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 15.11.14.
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4 stars ****

TWO DECADES old and counting, Mull Theatre’s glorious production of Whisky Galore has never pretended to offer more than a joyful evening of classic Scottish comedy, set in a traditional 1950’s Home Service drama studio, and based by playwright Paul Godfrey on Sir Compton Mackenzie’s own radio adaptation.  Yet rarely in Scottish theatre can there have been a more perfect match between company and script; and if you simply want a good theatrical night out to warm your heart on a chill November evening, then it’s hard to beat Alasdair McCrone’s pitch-perfect production, with elegant art deco set by Alicia Hendrick.

There’s more going on in Whisky Galore than initially meets the eye, of course. The story of the island without whisky, and of the wreck on its shore of the SS Cabinet Minister carrying 50,000 cases of the stuff, is set amid the wartime command economy of 1943, and involves some powerful comic reflection on the eternal tension between puritanical joylessness and Bacchanalian self-indulgence that runs through both  Scottish and English culture, causing endless headaches to those who fancy themselves in authority.  McCrone’s five-strong cast – led by Barrie Hunter as male lead Garth Hemlock, and Helen McAlpine as luscious leading lady Karen Wadrick – exude skill, charm and wit throughout, splashing and panting their way through the sound-effects to hilarious effect.  And they finally send the audience off into the night with the warm feeling of having had a memorably good laugh, but also of having seen a show that might actually matter, to our understanding of Scotland and Britain at a vital moment in their story.

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The Kite Runner, Bridge

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE KITE RUNNER at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, and BRIDGE at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 15.11.14.
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The Kite Runner 4 stars ****
Bridge   4 stars ****

GIVEN THE SHEER prominence of the conflict in Afghanistan in our news bulletins, over the last decade, it’s perhaps slightly shaming that the real substance of the conflict, and its impact on Afghan lives, has featured so little in theatre in Britain.  So it’s a huge pleasure to see the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh welcome Matthew Spangler’s The Kite Runner, adapted from the best-selling 2003 novel by Khaled Hosseini, perhaps the first big main-stage drama I have seen that deals with the tragedy of Afghanistan from an Afghan perspective.

Like all the best novels, Hosseini’s story starts not with politics, but with the intensely personal tale of two boys growing up together in a big house in Kabul in the 1970’s.  Amir is a rich man’s son, Hassan is poor, the son of a house servant; but they fly kites together, play together, are firm friends, until the darkening political mood in Kabul leads Amir to an act of betrayal and cruelty that drives them apart for ever.

In outline, Hosseini’s novel is a slightly sentimental story of redemption, as Amir wins a chance, decades on, to make amends for his betrayal.  What makes The Kite Runner  an outstanding experience, though, is the detail of Afghan lives it highlights, as the story sweeps from Kabul to San Francisco, and Amir and his complicated, troubled father become refugees from the 1970’s Russian invasion, scraping a living alongside other exiles in a Californian flea-market.

Giles Croft’s fine, eloquent production – with superb live music from tabla-player Hanif Khan – dramatises all of this in a flowing, lyrical style, full of understated dance and glowing visual images.  And if the plot becomes slightly far-fetched as the Taliban takes over in Afghanistan, and Matthew Spangler’s overlong adaptation finally surrenders too much to the rambling self-absorption of the first-person narrative, The Kite Runner remains an impressive and deeply moving show, presented with memorable passion by a 12-strong cast, and remarkable in its power to evoke both the beauty and resilience of Afghanistan, and the sheer human heartbreak of its recent history.

Compared wih The Kite Runner, Donna Franceschild’s Bridge, this week’s Play, Pie And Pint drama at Oran Mor, is a tiny play, without ambition to move beyond the bridge in Glasgow where the action is set.  Yet it, too, has the gift of showing human lives in the context of the big social and political changes that shape them; in this case, a young woman broken by the combined pressures of motherhood, addiction, and social isolation, and a lonely unemployed man who sees her sitting by the bridge, and guesses at her motive for being there.  The talk-down from a suicide threat is not an original scenario for a short play.  Yet Franceschild shapes her drama with such skill and feeling – and such layers of truth, lies, intimacy and danger between her two characters – that she creates a riveting 50 minutes of 21st century drama; illuminated by superb performances from Eilidh McCormick as the woman, and Iain Robertson as Davy, the kindly man who decides not to pass by.

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Ed Miliband Makes A Strong “Comeback” Speech: But Blairites In His Party, And Meltdown In Scotland, Are Not On His Side – Column 14.11.14.

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 14.11.14.
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YESTERDAY MORNING, in a lecture hall somewhere in London, Ed Miliband stood up to make what had been widely advertised as his “comeback speech”, after a torrid week or two in Westminster politics.  The “comeback” was necessary because – after a lacklustre Labour Conference back in September, and a recent storm of fiercely personal criticism  in some sections of the media and of his own party – Ed Miliband’s leadership was said to be in doubt.  Voters, when approached by opinion pollsters, had  started obediently to mirror the view that Ed is “weird” and “not prime ministerial”, creating a classic Westminster feedback loop of rumour and speculation; and meanwhile many of Ed’s supporters started to complain about pejorative media coverage designed to undermine his position, and misrepresent his character.

The irony of this chorus of complaint was not lost on “yes” supporters in Scotland, of course, many of whom felt moved to ask where Labour was during the referendum campaign, when Alex Salmond and the “yes”camp were subjected to the same kind of treatment, often by the same sections of the media.

Yet it’s perhaps also important not to lose sight of the larger truth that if the “Yes” campaign came under attack because it was perceived as a threat to the Westminster system in its present form, then Ed Miliband may now be coming under attack for roughly the same reason.  For  yesterday morning the Labour leader made a powerful centre-left speech of the kind UK politics now urgently needs, denouncing the Tories for their devotion to a form of free market economics that has long since ceased to serve the interests of ordinary people in Britain, confronting UKIP and their “wildly wrong” answers to Britain’s problems, and promising a comprehensive list of centre-left policies designed to create a fairer Britain, incluing 200,000 new affordable homes a year, a steady increase in the minimum wage, and the repeal of the Coalition’s notorious Health And Social Care Act of 2012.

Whether Ed Miliband will ever have the chance to implement his programme, though, is far from clear.  As he points out, the election of a Labour Party with this kind of manifesto will be bitterly opposed both by the “vested interests” he vows to confront – notably the banks and the giant power companies – and by sections of the UK media that are used to getting their own way when it comes to elections, and to “monstering” Labour leaders who step out of line.

The Labour leader’s greatest difficulty, though, is likely to come not from obvious external enemies, but from those in his own party who have never fully accepted his leadership, and who show little sign of agreeing with his view that the age of neoliberalism – and therefore of the privatising “reforms” beloved by Blairites – is over.  It’s fairly obvious, from any kind of historical perspective, that the two main media charges against Ed Miliband are nonsense. The Labour leader is certainly not unusually “weird” or unelectable; he gives every appearance of being a more intelligent , capable and caring politician than the present Prime Minister, and as for “weirdness” – well, some of us can remember just how “weird” Margaret Thatcher was as leader of the opposition, both in dress and manner, and how convinced many of her opponents were that her presence as leader in 1979 made the Tories unelectable.

What the media mischief-makers will not point out about Ed Miliband, though, is that the main ideological dividing-line in contemporary politics – between serious social democracy for the 21st century, and a stubborn Bourbon adherence to the current neoliberal orthodoxy – now runs clean through the middle of the party he purports to lead, and is reflected in the daily whining of those who would rather have seen his much more Blairite brother as leader.  And if you add to this complex problem of leadership the debacle now facing the party in its traditional Scottish heartland, then Ed Mliliband’s task in leading Labour to anything like a convincing victory in 2015 begins to look much more difficult.

Ed Miliband may not have grasped it yet; but in aligning his Scottish Labour Party so closely with a “No” campaign founded on little but reactionary scaremongering and a few rash promises, he and his colleagues made a possibly fatal betrayal of the Labour home rule tradition in Scotland, which was much more accurately reflected in the position of the trade union movement – i.e. vote for Scottish independence if you like, but continue to fight for social justice no matter what.  The result is that Labour seems likely, on present poll ratings, to lose upward of a dozen seats in Scotland next May.  And even if some Scots eventually make the traditional Westminster shift back to the Labour fold, Ed Miliband  remains stuck with a Scottish party divided and demoralised after an ill-fought referendum campaign; and now faced with a leadership choice between the arch-Blairite Jim Murphy – who seems more like an aspect of the problem, than any kind of  solution –  and two left-leaning contenders neither of whom articulates Ed Miliband’s kind of 21st century social democracy as well as Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s SNP First Minister in waiting.

In terms of wresting power away from those who gave us the 2008 crash, in other words, and restoring some kind of economic and democratic balance to our society, an alliance between Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon would be something to see.  For that, though, Labour would have to drop its ingrained allegiance to the British state in its present form, open its mind at least to the possibility of Scottish independence, and start forming new progressive alliances that would have seemed unnecessary or unthinkable, just a few years ago.  For the moment, it seems unlikely that those who have been  briefing against Ed Mliiband over the last fortnight will ever give him the space to pursue any such solution.  Yet with the tectonic plates of UK politics finally on the move, it would be a foolish observer who now said “never”, to the idea of a future in which a restored Labour Party and the SNP might begin to map strikingly similar paths, towards more just and sustainable times.

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The Voice Thief

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE VOICE THIEF at Summerhall, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 10.11.14.
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3 stars ***

IF YOU’RE looking for a company with the nerve to take theatre for older children into the dark places of the mind and heart, then the work of Catherine Wheels – based in Musselburgh, acclaimed on the international stage – is for you.  Last year, artists Shona Reppe and Andy Manley, with Catherine Wheels, produced the memorable installation-show Huff, a version of The Three Little Pigs that also touched on the horror of war.

And now, in the labyrinthine basements of Summerhall, the Catherine Wheels team – led by artistic director Gill Robertson – have created a promenade show that deals with nothing less than the chill hand of oppressive patriarchal power, robbing girls and young women of their voices, their anger, their indidviduality.  Co-created by Robertson with designer Karen Tennant and performer Ian Cameron, The Voice Thief is a 70-minute experience that occasionally struggles to match the strength of its central idea, as the audience are invited by a pair of spooky twin girl retainers into MIEVH, The Mackenzie Institute For The Encouragement Of Vocal Harmony.

At first, all is sweetness and light.  Cameron’s Dr. Mackenzie is an endearing, singing Willie Wonka figure in a white coat and explosive wig, the walls lined with reassuring pictures of the celebrity speakers he has helped; and for rather too long – almost 35 minutes – we are led through a series of experiences that seem more like design ideas than dynamic contributions to the narrative, as we’re invited to don masks, pass through a human car-wash, lie down in a soothing pink tent, and finally settle in a lecture theatre for an explanation of the doctor’s work.

It’s at this point, though, that the story darkens, as the doctor’s lovely daughter Beatrice, beautifully played by Jenny Hulse, begins to rebel against his increasingly controlling instructions, and to lead us into her own magical cave of secretly-saved voices. The power of the metaphor in this final sequence is almost overwhelming, as Beatrice searches for the beautiful voice of her dead mother, and strives to make her escape.  And if the slightly predictable text often seems to have been added as an afterthought to the rest of the drama, the central idea is magnificently realised both in Tennant’s superb design for the laboratory at the heart of Mackenzie’s darkness, and in Danny Krass’s unforgettable soundscape, which captures the full horror of oppression through a subtle symphony of half-muffled squeals and brief soaring notes, in a show that should be irrelevant to the world of 2014, but sadly still seems both timely and necessary.

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Symphony

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on SYMPHONY at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 10.11.14.
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3 stars ***

IT’S A FAMILIAR world, the one evoked in this 70-minute gig-cum theatre show by nabokov and Soho Theatre, which appeared briefly at the Traverse over the weekend.  It’s the world that often features in Radio 4 comedy, peopled by childlike young adults who are wryly ironic about themselves, and driven by a series of “first world problems” which are not about war, or  poverty, or environmental disaster – but rather about the ups and downs of everyday life in a joyless work-driven culture, and the age-old search for love, as the one force that can give meaning to ordinary lives.

So in a Welsh-accented show, performed with great flair and charm by actor-musicians Jack Brown, Liam Gerrard, Iddon Jones and Katie Elin-Salt, we hear three stories by Tom Wells, Ella Hickson and Nick Payne.  The first is the tale of young Jonesy, an ill-starred schoolboy with asthma who nevertheless dreams of success on the sports field.  The second is Hickson’s Love Song For The People Of London, in which two young folk in the big city encounter one another on a bus, and go their separate ways; the theme is familiar, but there’s some luscious writing here, full of wit and magic.  And the third is Payne’s My Thoughts On Leaving You, a slightly tedious failed love story enlivened by the powerful weaving of the band’s rough-edged music into the texture of the narrative.  There’s plenty of charm here, and not much substance; but it’s a delightful way to spend an hour,  delivered with the kind of energy and skill that should perhaps be seeking a bigger canvas, and more challenging themes.

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