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

A Christmas Carol (Cits 2014)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Citizens’s Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 8.12.14.
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4 stars ****

IT BEGINS with a gentle Christmas-carol singalong, as the eight-strong cast form themselves into a little Victorian street orchestra.  Yet as Dickens’s old story of the miser Scrooge and his haunting unfolds – in Neil Bartlett’s poetic and deeply serious 1996 version – what’s striking is how fiercely topical and political it sounds, as the current government challenges the consensus about how the nation should treat its citizens that was partly founded on Dickens’s passionate, humanitarian critique of the suffering of the urban poor, 150 years ago.

It’s not that Dominic Hill’s new staging of  A Christmas Carol makes a particularly suitable Christmas entertainment for young children – I would strongly advise against it for any child under 6 or 7.  Yet Hill’s production is a beautifully staged, eloquent and vividly imagined account of one of the greatest Christmas stories of all, set by designer and puppet-shaper Rachael Canning against a dark Victorian London skyline, lifted by a terrific live score of carols, drumbeats and cries by Nikola Kodjabashia, and featuring a fine central performance from Cliff Burnett as Scrooge.  And the story of little Tiny Tim, the most vulnerable victim of Scrooge’s poverty wage policy and conviction that the poor “had better get on and die”, is told so eloquently, through a brilliant interaction of live actors and a puppet, that I actually found myself weeping in the stalls; moved to tears by the sheer strength of Dickens’s belief that every human being on earth shoud be seen as  precious, unique and loved, and by the knowledge that in this winter of 2014, that argument has come so close to being lost, once again.

ENDS

Jack And The Beanstalk (Brunton 2014)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on JACK AND THE BEANSTALK at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, for The Scotsman 8.12.14.
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3 stars ***

IT’S A GREAT old story about poor folks rebelling against the rich and powerful who rob them blind; but there’s not much room for the rich, deep resonances of the Jack And The Beanstalk story in this jolly, primary-coloured romp of a panto at the Brunton in Musselburgh.  Written and directed by Mark Cox, this version belts through the story in an hour and three quarters including a long ice-cream interval, and often barely troubles to impart the basics of the story; the giant, whose raids on the modest property of the people of Musselburgh form the basis of the story, is hardly mentioned until the moment when James Rottger’s good-lookig Jack decides to mount the beanstalk, in an effort to recover the stolen goods.

If it plays fast-and-loose with the story, though, the Musselburgh panto delivers lashings of jolly comedy and rowdy audience participation, right down to the final song-sheet.  It has a distinguished pair of  villains in Richard Conlon and Mark McDonnell as the giant’s henchmen, a gorgeous good fairy in Shonagh Price, a lovable pantomime cow, and a handsome if slightly hesitant Dame in Robert Reid.  And if the absence of the show’s familiar Musselburgh backdrops is much to be regretted, at least this panto ends with a rousing song in praise of “the Honest Toun”, as the Brunton’s indispensable team of tiny dancers hoof away in grand style, and the entire audience sings its heart out, celebrating a community that still seems to know the meaning of the word, and to enjoy it, too.

ENDS ENDS

UZ Events – 20 Years And Counting

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on UZ EVENTS – TWENTY YEARS AND COUNTING for Scotsman Magazine, 6.12.14.   ________________________________________________

IT’S A DARK WINTER afternoon down at the Briggait, next to the Clyde.  Yet around the upper balcony of this magical old market building, lights are glowing in all the little offices of the arts companies based there; and nowhere more so that in the headquarters of UZ Events, Scotland’s leading company in the commissioning of art for outdoor spaces, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this winter.

The company was launched, back in 1994, on a wave of enthusiasm for the kinds of large-scale city arts initiatives that were pioneered during Glasgow’s year as European City Of Culture.  UZ’s artistic director, Neil Butler, had been working in Glasgow for several years, with his street theatre company Streetbiz; and when the then Glasgow culture boss Bob Palmer suggested that the city should have its own company capable of creating large-scale outdoor events, Pete Irvine’s Edinburgh-based Unique Events came together with Butler’s Brighton-based Zap Club to create the new group, UZ.

And for more than a decade, after 1994, UZ was most closely associated, at home in Scotland, with the kind of major set-piece outdoor theatre that became an essential part of many public celebrations during those boom years.  The company masterminded Glasgow’s Millennium celebrations on Hogmanay 1999.  It was a lynch-pin of the much-lamented Big In Falkirk outdoor art festival, which ran from 2000 to 2009, and featured spectacular shows like Improbable Theatre’s Sticky, in 2002.  When the Forth And Clyde canal reopened in 2001, UZ created a barge-based sculpture, Millie the Fish, to delight the crowd; and this year, when Falkirk celebrated the coming of the great Kelpie sculptures, UZ was there again, co-ordinating the show, and creating a series of intimate theatre experiences around the Helix Park site.

Because of the nature of its work, UZ is peculiarly vulnerable, of course, to changes in public policy.  Big In Falkirk has gone, and austerity is decimating municipal arts budgets across Europe, where UZ has played a key role, since 2002, in the 18-country Insitu network of companies involved in outdoor arts.  Butler notes that there are far fewer big, spectacular shows being created and toured across Europe than a decade ago, and he recognises that UZ’s own work is adapting  to meet changing times; UZ is also coming to terms with the death this year of one of the company’s main Scottish-based artistic partners, Ian Smith of the Mischief La Bas street theatre company.

Yet Butler remains immensely positive about UZ’s future.  Just last week, he was in Brussels for the announcement of a new 2 million euro fund to help Insitu artists travel, study and train  across Europe and beyond; and later this month, he leaves for Sri Lanka, where UZ is suppporting an arts centre and a complex new performance project in a community profoundly affected by the great Pacific tsunami, ten years ago this month.

“It is a complex business, art in public space,” says Butler, “and it is affected by political change.  But our policy has always been to start with the artists we want to work with, and then to work outward into the kinds of public spaces that seem relevant to them.  So increasingly, we find ourselves involved in work  based on some kind of public engagement, on long-term interactions between artists and places; there’s also more work involving a range of agencies, like schools or hospitals, rather than a single local authority.

“Essentially, we see ourselves as providing a patform for artists who want to work in public space, and a link between them and  sources of funding.  And so it’s perhaps not surprising that in these relatively tough times, we have never been busier.”  And Butler strides off to “cram in a few more Christmassy things,” before he flies to Sri Lanka on the next lap of a remarkable international career in creative production, marked by huge enthusiasm for the job, and an impressive ability – for himself and UZ – to adapt, reinvent, and survive.

ENDS ENDS

The Emperor’s New Clothes

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 6.12.14.
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3 stars ***

AS SATIRICAL pantos for grown-ups go, this year’s Play, Pie And Pint Christmas entertainment  is the show with almost everything.  Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s Tale about the pretentious Emperor whose nakedness is studiously ignored by everyone except a little lad in the crowd, it’s a terrific parable about group-think, status and power.  And at Oran Mor, David Anderson’s new version of the story  – his first panto penned without the help of his late partner in creative mischief, David MacLennan – comes wrapped in a full set of rich panto traditions, from the rude jokes to the final sing-song, and Anderson’s own superb performance as the Dame, the harassed  Mum of Wee Boaby, who blows the whistle on the naked Emperor.

What The Emperor’s New Clothes lacks, though, is a script that would really tease out and hammer home the contemporary meanings of the story.  After the Emperor’s promising opening song (Because I’m Posh), the satire fizzles out, and by the time we sing our cheesy closing chorus – a take on the Disney Hans Christian Andersen theme tune – it has disappeared entirely.  The panto features a delicious range of performances, though, not only from Anderson but from the gorgeous Frances Thorburn as Wee Boaby, George Drennan as assorted courtiers, and Juliet Cadzow as the nude-suited Emperor, complete with strategically-placed sprig of holly.  And if the substance is a little lacking, in an Oran Mor panto a good ten minutes shorter than usual, the subversive Christmas spirit remains strong, and in raucous good form.

ENDS ENDS

The BFG (Lyceum)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE BFG at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 6.12.14.
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4 stars ****

THERE’S SOMETHING about the current fashion for Roald-Dahl-based children’s shows that always leaves me slightly uneasy. Full of farty jokes and horrible portrayals of wicked adults, his stories often seem morally ambiguous, lurching between corrosive cynicism, and a weird kind of faith in the powers that be; and by choosing Roald Dahl for Christmas, theatres certainly avoid the difficut but rewarding task of tangling with the all the multiple meanings of our midwinter feast, since Dahl has nothing to say about that at all.

If Dahl it must be, though, then there’s no doubt that The BFG – which appears this year at the Royal Lyceum, in David Wood’s familiar stage version – is one the jolliest and most genial of his stories, the tale of little orphan Sophie, and the Big Friendly Giant that she spots outside her window one sleepless night.  The BFG is an exception amongst giants, as Sophie soon learns when he transports her back to giant land.  All the others are bloodthirsty beasts, who raid various countries and eat up children during the night; and in the effort to put a stop to their murderous rampages, Sophie and The BFG approach no less a person than the Queen, who manages, with the help of her navy and air force, to put everything right.

What on earth any 21st century child is meant to make of this eccentric political romance is anyone’s guess; it is as daft as it is enjoyable.  What’s certain, though, is that the story of the BFG has a short but satisfying narrative structure, and a truly gorgeous way with language, as the BFG wrestles with his own unique form of English, explaining to Sophie that while burps are disgusting, “whizzpoppers” going in the other direction are practically a form of music.

Andrew Panton’s good-looking Lyceum production – featuring an eight-strong ensemble company – leads us through Dahl’s story at a brisk pace and with real feeling, even if Becky Minto’s vaguely Nordic set struggles slightly with the challenge of conjuring up Buckingham Palace.   At its heart, it features a truly magnificent BFG in Lewis Howden, relishing every nuance of Dahl’s gorgeous word-play; and with the help of some delightful puppets and animations, and a final medley of Christmas songs to inject some seasonal cheer, this BFG delivers a fine 90 minutes of children’s theatre, fast, funny, genial, and often lovely to look at, too.

ENDS ENDS

Miracle On 34th Street, Miracle On 34 Parnie Street

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on MIRACLE ON 34th STREET at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and MIRACLE ON 34 PARNIE STREET at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 6.12.14.
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Miracle On 34th Street   4 stars ****
Miracle On 34 Parnie Street   4 stars ****

IT WAS FIRST filmed in 1947, with a cast that included Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood; and that date tells you almost all you need to know about the story behind the film and the musical of Miracle On 34th Street, this year’s Christmas show at Pitlochry Festival Theatre.  On one hand, the story of the old man who is employed as a stand-in Santa Claus at Macy’s department store in New York, and who quietly insists that he is the real Santa, is built around a gorgeous strand of Roosevelt-style American postwar idealism; the idea is that by being kind to the customers, and directing them to other stores for better bargains, Santa hits on a form of humane capitalism that actually works better than traditional cut-throat competition.

Yet on the other hand, the show also captures a moment of deep postwar confusion in sexual politics.  The feisty heroine, store events manager Doris Walker, is a hard-working single mother with a dim view of men; one of the finest songs in Meredith Wilson’s not-very-memorable score is the one in which she vows to protect her lively little daughter, Susan, from the pain she has suffered. Yet the hero, next-door-neighbour and ex-army lawyer Fred Gaily, not only befriends little Susan in a manner only possible in more innocent times, but also successfully woos Doris by insulting her, calling her “little girl”, and singing loud, terrible and toe-curling songs about how well he understands “dames”.

If you can tolerate the show’s dodgy gender politics, though, then John Durnin’s Pitlochry production is a veritable feast of sheer theatrical competence and flair, featuring a fine New York skyline set by Adrian Rees, a powerful central performance from James Smillie as Santa, and 18-strong ensemble impressively  choreographed throughout by E.J. Boyle.  In the year 2014, there are aspects of this show that seem more suitable for a post-show discussion than an uncritical round of applause; but John Durnin and his company make a fine job of presenting the story, and of making its case for a little love, joy and faith, at the heart of our political and judicial systems.

70 miles south, meanwhile, at the Tron in Glasgow, it’s truly delightful to see the wickedly brilliant Johnny McKnight – writer, director and star – giving this old story the sharp post-modern shakedown it urgently needs, in his fierce and fluorescent new version set in Glasgow’s own Trongate.  In Miracle On 34 Parnie Street, the story features a loud and proud female Santa, an uptight store manageress with a lisping young son, and a little lesbian love-affair to round off the plot; Ross Brown’s songs are rowdy and hilarious, and when kindly Santa sends T. J. Confuse’s customers elsewhere, it’s not to Gimbel’s of New York, but to the Savoy Centre in Sauchiehall Street.

McKnight’s version of the story actually follows the original very closely, from department-store opening to final courtroom scene, complete with a hilarious jury of kids from the audience.  Yet its no-holds-barred feminist poitics – with all the girls in the audience roaring that “oh yes there can” be a female Santa –  makes it a brilliant counterpoint to the original story, deftly adapted for multi-talented cast of six; and one that, beneath all its cheeky meta-theatrical jokery, still delivers that central message – that if we don’t believe in Santa, and in the values of kindness and conviviality he or she represents, then life becomes an ugly and joyless business, and no fun at all.

ENDS ENDS