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

Seven Hungers

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on SEVEN HUNGERS at Summerhall, Edniburgh,  for The Scotsman 20.10.14.
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3 stars ***

IN THE AGE of the Great British Bake-Off, the question of hunger – and what it is we really hunger for – has never been more significant. We watch cookery programmes but do not cook; we eat ourselves into obesity as a solace for other yearnings our society no longer seems able to meet.   So it’s thrilling to see the Scottish-based physical theatre ensemble Company Of Wolves turn their attention to the idea of hunger; five powerful performers flexing their muscles, raising their voices, and filling the Main Hall at Summerhall with strange, magnificent eddies of sound.

The one-hour show itself sometimes seems a little less than certain of its direction.  It often hints at a link between our disturbed relationship with food and our bleak or problematic sexual lives, but never quite achieves the choreographic intensity that would bridge the gap between the two; it slides too easily towards the current cliche of thought and movement  which suggests that human beings are really just animals, or insects, or half-formed foetal creatures.

The sound, though – created by Anna Porubcansky – is something else, a stunning mixture of the elemental and the human that uses sampled wisps of human voice alongside thrillingly-sung traditional songs from Circassia, Chechnya and Ukraine to give full expression to the height and range of human yearning, physical, emotional and spiritual.  In that sense, Seven Hungers often looks like a work-in-progress, still searching for the shape that would give its ideas their fullest value; but as it travels on this week to Easterhouse, Rothesay and Arrochar, it looks set to make a profound impression on everyone drawn into its circle of experience.

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3, 6 & 36

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on 3, 6 & 36  at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 20.10.14.
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4 stars ****

SARAH LONGFIELD is 36, and her little sons, Ben and Ollie, are 6 and 3; and in the summer just past, they had the most wonderful time enjoying Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games, and all the activities surrounding them.  It takes a performer in a thousand, though, to realise that two little lads as young as Ben and Ollie are perfectly capable of rehearsing, learning and performing a gorgeous 50-minute show about their experience, alongside their mum.  And so in the little Citizens’ Studio, we hear them talking us through their family films and pictures, offering up their own version of the opening ceremony (with spoon puppets), discussing the issues arising from the Games (Ben is particularly good as a range of Glasgow taxi drivers), and cheering on little Ollie as he indulges in the Olympic toddler sport of waking up Mum at 6.30 in the morning.

The show that emerges is really the most glorious hymn to the pure joy of motherhood.  Sarah Longfield adores her gorgeous boys; and it’s impossible to resist a show that reveals an outwardly ordinary woman so transfigured by love and joy. Yet this beautiful little show also tells us a great deal about the Games, and about the strange, transforming summer through which Scotland has just lived.  And it’s inexpressibly moving to hear that summer described in the small, joyful voices of the generation that have most to gain and lose from the decisions we make each day; and not only from the huge political choice we faced, in the magical year when Ollie was 3, Ben was 6, and Sarah was 36.

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Squash

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on SQUASH at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 18.10.14.
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4 stars ****

IN A TOWER-BLOCK flat in some bleak Scottish city, Bald and his mother – known only as Ma – are eyeing the boy Bald has just grabbed outside the flats, and taken prisoner.  Their accusation is that the boy, Paul,  has stolen Bald’s precious shiny bicycle; but it’s not long before it becomes clear that the bicycle is at best a fantasy, and at worst a metaphor for something much darker, and more frightening.

Set in the kind of dystopian urban badlands where working-class white people like Bald and Ma increasingly lurk at home, nursing hostile fantasies about the “ethnics” who live around them – while middle class kids like Paul may well indulge in even more lethal forms of veiled racism – this latest short play by writer and actor Martin McCormick is a truly disturbing black tragic-comedy of grotesque and dysfunctional relationships, not only between a superbly weird and damaged Keith Fleming as Bald, and Anne Lacey as his all-consuming mother, but also in society at large.

Finn den Hertog’s Play Pie and Pint production – which moves on to the Traverse next week – races along with an impressive, unsettling intensity.  And McCormick’s writing often achieves an almost Philip-Ridley-like nightmare quality, as he conjures up image after image of a society in meltdown, clinging to tiny fragments of meaning in ever more embattled domestic spaces, while steadily succumbing to the madness of a world bereft of the idea of safe public space,  and obsessed with recurring images of violence and threat that make half-crazed prisoners of us all.

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Arches Live! 2014

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ARCHES LIVE! at the Arches, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 13.10.14.
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4 stars ****

THE WORD ‘POWERS’ is all around us this month, as Scotland  debates its new post-referendum political settlement. So it’s perhaps a sign of times that the concept of power seems to underpin almost all of the shows in this second-week crop of Arches Live! productions, one of the most varied and impressive in the venue’s recent history; although for Arches’ artists, the approach to the subject is never obvious.

F K Alexander’s Recovery, for example, is not so much a show as a sustained 50-minute piece of 21st-century music and sound, performed to an audience lying on the cold floor of the Arches Playroom, on an array of cushions, under slightly magical swinging lights.  Yet the sound – a combination of electronic soundtrack and exquisite ringing bowls and gongs, played by the fairy-like Alexander and four other musicians – is so intense that it seems to lead us deep into the inner place where human beings find the strength to face up to the onrushing crises of life.  The bowls used in the show, significantly, are the same ones brought back from Tibet by NVA for their ground-breaking 2000 show The Path, at Glen Lyon; and it’s that kind of continuity that adds a strange richness to Scotland’s compact, energised creative life.

There’s sharp satire on the whole idea of purely personal empowerment in Thomas Hobbins’s entertaining and beautifully-crafted spoof motivational show, Max Powers Says; and a gradual edging towards wider societal history in Amy Conway’s beguiling interview-based piece 30:60:80 – co-created with Victoria Beesley – about Amy herself, her mother and her grandmother, all of whom celebrated big birthdays this year.  There’s Hey, I’m Alive! by the young Edinburgh-based group Creative Electric, a brief half-hour experience which explcitiy seeks to give a higher profile to the issues faced by young cystic fibrosis sufferers, but achieves its aim by delving deep into their private experience, and encasing four of its five young performer in huge plastic bubbles that evoke their powerful sense of social and physical isolation.

There’s the personal and political journeying involved in  Stephanie Eiaine Black’s hugely powerful and sorrowful fragment Dowry, which uses both visual and sensual imagery to involve each audience member in the experience of women veiled, laden in gold, and bartered away in marriage.  And in a final, breathtaking burst of explicit politics, there’s Emilia Weber and Claire Healey’s There They Carved A Space, in which two brilliant young women, standing at microphones, take a long look through text and visual imagery at the political history of space, land ownership and housing in Britain.

What emerges is a richly poetic litany of theft, and of profiteering on a common asset, from the enclosures of the 18th century to the recent story of Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games development; and a fierce, unapologetic lament for the period of the welfare state, the “truce between capital and labour”, when just for a while, spacious and striking homes were built by government for the people, and rented to them at prices that did not mortgage them for life to a system never designed to serve their best interests.

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A Play, A Pie And A Pint – Moving On

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on A PLAY, A PIE AND A PINT – MOVING ON   for the Scotsman Magazine, 11.10.14. ________________________________________________________

IT’S A WET Monday lunchtime on Byres Road; outside on the street, faces are dour and traffic is sluggish.  Yet downstairs in the Oran Mor nightlclub space, there’s barely a seat to be had, as a packed audience of students, theatre folk and West End regulars pick up their pies and pints, and squeeze into their seats to watch the opening performance this week’s new play, the fifth of thirteen in the current season.

It’s ten years this autumn since the Wildcat veteran David MacLennan launched the Play, Pie and Pint phenomenon, in this converted church at the heart of the West End.  And seven months after his sad death in March of this year, the theatre season he left as his legacy is powering on into the future, under the direction of Susannah Armitage, who arrived at A Play, A Pie And A Pint as MacLennan’s right-hand woman in 2008, and has now become his successor as Producer, with Sarah MacFarlane in the associate producer role.

“It’s been a really hard time in many ways,” says Armitage after the show.  “Yet the support we’ve had from our audience has just been astonishing, and we’re now regularly selling out four or five of our six lunchtime performances each week.

“In terms of how I do the job, I think I just learned so much from David about how to work as a producing team, with everyone on board for the whole creative project.  So at the moment, I tend to look after most of the forward planning, while Sarah takes care of the day-to-day process of performance and rehearsal.  And of course, we both read scripts, all the time.

“Overall, we’re in no hurry to change a formula that has worked so well; we’ll carry on staging around around 30 new plays a year including two pantos, and we also want to maintain the Wildcat tradition of staging the odd musical, and some topical pieces of agitprop and political cabaret.”   Armitage offers the current Oran Mor show – due to arrive at the Traverse next week – as an example; it’s Mrs. Barbour’s Daughters by A.J.  Taudevin, a political memory-play with songs about the legacy of Glasgow’s great 1914 rent-strike campaigner Mary Barbour.

If Armitage is intent on steering A Play A Pie And A Pint steadily through this critical year, though, there are also plenty of new initiatives on the horizon.  As well as pursuing successful existing partnerships with the Traverse Theatre and Aberdeen Performing Arts, A Play, A Pie and A Pint is about to launch a new relationship with Sherman Cymru theatre in Cardiff, now under the direction of former Perth Theatre boss Rachel O’Riordan.  Next spring, the season will include three new international plays from Russia and Ukraine.  And although David MacLennan launched A Play, A Pie And A Pint with a vow never to tangle with Scotland’s arts funding bodies again, before his death he helped to prepare a three-year regular funding application to Creative Scotland.

“Any funding we receive will still be a relatively small proportion of our budget, though,” says Armitage, “because basically, we are funded by our audience, which is a terrific strength.  So far as the wider Scottish theatre scene is concerned – well, it’s always possible to imagine improvements.  But I do think the scene here is now exceptional, in the number of different avenues there are for people to have new work presented and developed.  There’s so much talent out there; and we feel very supported, too, by all the many people in Scottish theatre who have offered to help in every way they can, over the last months.  And although there were times when David was ill when I felt that I just wouldn’t be able to do this without him, now that he’s gone I feel determined to carry on the good work – and really excited about everything we’re planning, for our next few seasons.”

Mrs Barbour’s Daughters at Oran Mor today, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 14-18 October.

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Mrs. Barbour’s Daughters, Linwood No More

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on MRS BARBOUR’S DAUGHTERS at Oran Mor,   Glasgow, and LINWOOD NO MORE at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 11.10.14.
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Mrs. Barbour’s Daughters  4 stars ****
Linwood No More    2 stars **

THE POLITICAL LANDSCAPE of Scotland may shift and quake; but the nation’s theatre community have always played a key role in reminding us where the main landmarks are, and ensuring that unsung heroes and heroines are not hidden from history.  Mary Barbour – celebrated in A.J. Taudevin’s new 50-minute play for the Play, Pie And Pint season – was one of those heroines, the woman who led the Glasgow rent strike of 1914, after tenement landlords tried to impose massive increases on the wives and families of serving soldiers; and who went on to become a city councillor, and a hugely influential campaigner for the welfare of women and children in Scotland’s cities.

It’s good to report, though, that Taudevin’s play is no simple act of hagiography, but a complex reflection on family history, in which 87-year-old Mary – named after Mrs. Barbour – reflects on a life shaped by he own bitter reaction against the family radical tradition, represented by her older sister Grace.  Cared for by Grace’s robust daughter Joan, who cheerfully tolerates her abuse, Mary revisits the 1930, the 1940’s and the 1950’s; and although she wants only to hear the easy-listening tunes on her battered radio, Grace’s voice brings another kind of song back to her troubled mind, songs of struggle and liberation which finally swell into a magnificent choral conclusion.

Mary’s stubborn bitterness perhaps persists too far into the drama; the play needs to seem more like a journey, less like a sudden volte-face. Yet the powerful texture of Taudevin’s writing supports a fine trio of performances from Anna Hepburn as Mary, Gail Watson as Grace, and Libby McArthur as both Joan and Mrs. Barbour; and lunchtime audiences at the Traverse next week can look forward to a thought-provoking piece of radical history, with an added chance to join in the final chorus of Bella Ciao.

Paul Coulter’s Linwood No More, playing briefly at the Tron, is a 45-minute monologue built around another vital piece of Scottish working-class history – the short, sad story of the huge Linwood car plant which opened with such high hopes in 1963, and closed with the loss of more than 13,000 jobs just 18 years later.  The sole character in Coulter’s play is one of the victims of that closure, now a down-and-out glimpsed on a Glasgow park bench 19 year on, at the turn of the millennium.

Coulter’s text is too brief to achieve much depth, and too straightfoward in its intention to do much more than state what should be obvious – that people end up on the streets not because they are different from the rest of us, but because they are the same, and often just unlucky in the fierce combination of disasters with which they have to deal.  Yet Vincent Friell delivers a heartfelt and very moving performance, in a show that serves to remind us of the profound human tragedy behind the phrase “Linwood no more”, which the Proclaimers went on to write into our cultural history.

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