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.

If you want to search the site for something specific, type your key word(s) into the space on the right, and press return.

To come back to this main page at any time, just click on “joyce mcmillan – online” at the very top of the page. Enjoy!

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© Joyce McMillan 2011

The Devil Wears Primark

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE DEVIL WEARS PRIMARK at Dundee Rep, for The Scotsman 6.4.15. _____________________________________________________

2 stars **

FIRST, let’s be clear about one thing.  If you like your evening of theatre to include a bit of sexy, acrobatic fire-eating, delivered by a slim and muscular blonde who – for added excitement – uses a welding-torch to strike sparks from her own metallic thong, then The Devil Wears Primark is the show for you, as it tours across Scotland this month.

If, on the other hand, you are looking for a coherent stage sit-com with a few decent belly laughs, then perhaps you should try elsewhere; for this super-grotesque tale of the London-Greek-Cypriot agony aunt from hell, written by and starring the talented Kathleen Ruddy, starts out by sending up Aunt Athy’s ludicrous right-wing misogyny, as purveyed on her morning radio show, and ends up producing a portrait of a monster middle-aged mother that’s as savagely misogynistic as Aunt Athy’s own broadcast advice.

Around this bulging figure, Athy’s family revolve as best they can, with John Ritchie as feeble son Aris, Dawn Chandler as chubby daughter Maria, Mark McDonnell as husband Nico, and Penni Tovey as Mina, the fire-eating possible daughter-in-law, all squeezing the odd laugh from the play’s ferociously ambivalent dialogue.  In the final scenes, we’re invited to laugh at the idea of Athy having a stroke, and yet to cheer when she rises from her wheelchair to scupper Aris and Mina’s romance one more time.  Reader, the sheer garishness and confusion made my mind hurt; and it wasn’t that funny, either.

Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, 17 April; Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline, 18 April; and on tour until 25 Aprll.

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On The Edge – Easter Play

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ON THE EDGE at Princes St. Gardens, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 6.4.15. _____________________________________________________

3 stars ***

THE ANNUAL EASTER PLAY in Princes Street Gardens is becoming something of an Edinburgh institution; and not because it repeats the story of the passion in reassuringly familiar ways.  Last year – thanks to playwright Rob Drummond – it set the story of the crucifixion against the disturbingly recognisable background of a country divided by a turbulent debate over independence; and this year, Scotsman writer Susan Mansfield has created a brand new two-hour play, for director Suzanner Lofthus’s 20-strong community company, in which we see the story from the perspective of eight relatively minor characters, “on the edge” of the tale.

So as the audience of almost 500 move around the gardens in four groups, we hear from David MacBeath as Longinus the Roman centurion, from Colin Wallace as Simon the Cyrene who helped carry the cross, from Elaine Palmer as Pilate’s wife Claudia, from an eloquent Lyzzie Dell as Martha the housework-bound sister of Lazarus, and from four others, plus a chorus of four more.  And although the acting is not always quite strong enough to carry the power of the writing, Mansfield’s bold leaps of imagination and empathy produce some impressive moments of theatre, as ordinary people going about their business are stopped in their tracks by the presence of “this man Jesus”; and two teenage girls from Bethany – beautifully played by Fiona Binns and Emma Archibald – look up from their mobile phones to tell us how one of them died of a sudden illness, and truly and mysteriously, thank to Jesus the Nazarene, came back to life.

Run completed

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The Straw Chair

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE STRAW CHAIR at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, for The Scotsman 6.4.15. _____________________________________________________

4 stars ****

IN THE ONE TOUCH THEATRE at Eden Court, there’s a packed audience for Hirtle Productions and Borderline’s touring revival of Sue Glover’s 1988 play The Straw Chair, set almost three centuries ago on Hirta, the main island of St. Kilda.  All over the world – and not least in the Highlands – people are fascinated by this wild Atlantic outcrop, and by the people who, until 1930, found a living there.  And no story in its history is stranger than the tale of Rachel, Lady Grange, held prisoner on St. Kilda after her husband of 25 years – a powerful Edinburgh establishment figure – grew tired of her jealous rages, and frightened of her sharp intelligence when applied to his secret political dealings, and had her forcibly removed from children, home, and – he hoped – from life itself.

Yet Rachel survived, and was transferred to St. Kilda, where she drank, complained, noisily asserted her high rank, and tried to smuggle out letters; and it’s this not entirely unsociable exile that forms the backdrop to Glover’s conventionally-structured but richly enjoyable play, in which the catalyst for the drama is the arrival from Edinburgh of a young minister, Aeneas Seaton, and his 17-year-old newlywed wife Isabel.

As young Isabel gets to know Lady Grange – with her high drawing-room manners, filthy clothes, and precious straw chair, the only one on the island – she learns a thing or two, not least about sex; meanwhile, in the background, Rachel’s gentle St. Kildan minder Oona sews and cooks, and gradually persuades  Aeneas that the islanders understand far more about Christianity than he has ever done.

There’s something here about the classic split in the Scottish psyche between intense religious respectability and something much wilder; also something about lusty married sex, as a largely unexplored area of life and theatre; and beyond that, a political story about powerless people caught up in the corrupt machinations of state power.  In Liz Carruther’s gentle, sensitive, and carefully-paced production, punctated by the the soaring psalms and soft dance music of the islands, Selina Boyack turns in a stunning performance as Rachel, on the brink of madness, but still funnier and more truthful than anyone else on stage; and she is beautifully supported by Pamela Reid as young Isabel, Cait Kearney as Oona, and Martin McBride as Aeneas, in a play that demands attention for bringing so many unheard and marginalised  voices – Gaelic, St. Kildan, and intensely female – to the very centre of the stage

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 23-25 April, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, 2 May, and on tour.

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The Dust Of Everyday Life – A Groundbreaking Conference On The Arts And Mental Health

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE DUST OF EVERYDAY LIFE –  A GROUNDBREAKING CONFERENCE ON ARTS AND MENTAL HEALTH for Scotsman Magazine 4.4.15.
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IT’S HALF PAST TEN on a Thursday morning at the CCA in Sauchiehall Street, once known as the Third Eye Centre; and on stage, waiting to begin the first session of the day, sits a panel of four key people in the story of the Glasgow Girls, the true-life tale – ten years old now – of how a group of teenage girls in a Glasgow secondary school launched a historic campaign against the immigration and asylum laws that had led to one of their friends being taken from her home at dawn, and held in the notorious Yarls Wood detention centre.

The panel includes Amal Azzudin, one of the original Glasgow girls, who now works for the Mental Health Foundation in Scotland; there’s also Cora Bissett, who created the triumphant stage version of Glasgow Girls at the Citizens’ Theatre in 2012, Lindsay Hill, who made the original Glasgow Girls television documentary, and Brian Welsh, who directed the Glasgow Girls television drama.  The occasion is Scotland’s first-ever conference on the arts and mental health, organised by the Mental Health Foundation, by the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival (which has now been running successfully each autumn for 10 years) and by See Me, the MHF’s current Scottish campaign to end discrimination against people with mental health problems.

And although many of the 120 people present may be wondering, as the session starts, just what this story has to do with mental health, it soon becomes clear that there are many layers of connection with the whole issue of mental well-being.  At the most obvious level, it’s about how inspired storytelling can help to change public perspectives, encourage empathy, and remove the stigma attached to excluded groups, whoever they may be.

At  the same time, Amal Azzudin’s work with women asylum seekers suffering mental health problems offers a sharp insight into how huge geopolitical forces, and the way they are handled by governments, can profoundly affect  the mental welfare of individual people. And at the deepest level, there are questions about the power of storytelling to help heal a painfully fragmented society; if Charles Dickens could use fiction to make a harsh Victorian bourgeoisie empathise with starving young pickpockets in the streets, then what can we do, with art and fiction, to heal some of the most obvious wounds in our own society?

And that was only one session in a day which covered six areas of the relationship between mental health and the arts, from the portrayal of mental illness on screen, and the myth of the mad genius, to Gail Porter’s thoughts on how writing her memoir helped her deal creatively with the experience of bipolar disorder.  There was also a session on the work and legacy of the remarkable Glasgow-based theatre-maker Adrian Howells, who died last year after a lifelong struggle with depression, and who pioneered unique forms of one-to-one theatre – including his internationally-acclaimed work Foot Washing For The Sole, in which he washed the feet of audience members all the way from Glasgow to the Middle East – that tried to heal what he saw as the chronic lack of intimacy, gentleness, and time for each other, that plagues our fast-moving urban culture.

And if hard-and-fast conclusions were difficult to reach, one thought emerged clearly from the day: that with one person in four now suffering mental illness at some point during life, the experience of mental ill-health has become part of everyday living – part of the “dust of everyday life”, to quote the conference title; not so much a subject for theatre or any other art to tackle, but part of the essential landscape of the society that art addresses, reflects, and sometimes tries to change.

Podcasts of the conference sessions will be available soon at http://www.mhfestival.com/.  The next Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival will take place in October 2015.

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The Absence Of War

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE ABSENCE OF WAR at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 4.4.15. _____________________________________________________

4 stars ****

THE PACE OF the production is as dynamic and driven as the story it tells; but there’s no lack of depth or thought in David Hare’s great 1993 play The Absence Of War, or in Jeremy Herrin’s brilliant and timely revival of it for the acclaimed Headlong company, co-produced by the Rose, Kingston, and Shefffield Theatres.  In terms so precise and prescient that it’s hard to believe this text is completely unaltered since 1993,  the play shows a fictional 1990’s Labour leader, a charismatic Yorkshireman called George Jones, failing to win a vital general election because of what seem increasingly like inescapable contradictions between basic Labour principles and the nature of the British state – including, as the title suggests, its obsession with past moments of national glory and military triumph.

The play tells this story, though, through something like a political family drama, as the tides of long-term history and short-term political panic sweep through George Jones’s kitchen cabinet, replete with the usual complement of spin-doctors, minders, and disloyal colleagues.  Herrin’s production – with a fine big-stage design by Mike Britton that anchors the story firmly in the age of Ceefax and pagers – features a range of fluent and completely persuasive performances from a fine cast of twelve, led by Reece Dinsdale as the failing leader.  And at the end, as a new generation of leaders gathers at the Cenotaph, a heretical thought occurs; that only when our leaders remember past wars with less self-congratulation, will the people of these islands finally have a chance to move towards a new politics of progress.

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Last Dream (On Earth)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on LAST DREAM (ON EARTH) at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 30.3.15. _____________________________________________________

4 stars ****

LEAVING PLANET EARTH, seeking new worlds; as humankind circles helplessly around the issue of climate change, it’s an image that recurs ever more often in the work of the current generation of artists.  It was there in Grid Iron’s 2013 Edinburgh Festival show Leaving Planet Earth; it’s at the Traverse this weekend, in Curious Directive’s Fringe First-winning Pioneer.  And it’s the shaping force behind this beautiful and thoughtful new show by the Glasgow-based designer and theatre-maker Kai Fischer, in association with the National Theatre of Scotland, which is set to tour on from Glasgow to St. Andrews, Paisley, Lerwick and Inverness.

Not so much a play as a beautifully-shaped one-hour meditation in words, music and occasional visual images, Last Dream (On Earth) takes the form of a sound-sculpture performed live by two musicians and three actors, to an audience wearing headphones for the full, intense effect.  Fischer’s script – researched over many months of visits to key sites of the immigration crisis in the Mediterranean – brings together two narratives: one based on the personal stories of African migrants who risk their lives to reach an imagined new world in Europe, and the other following the cockpit recordings of the messages between ground controller Sergei Korolev and the world’s first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, as he became the first human being ever to see the earth from space.

Both texts are beautiful, full of an intense sense of humanity stretched to its limit, facing unimaginable extremes of danger and exhilaration in the quest for a new future.  In Fischer’s own production, actors Tyler Collins, Mercy Ojelade and Adura Onashile pitch their voices perfectly to the texture of the story, while musicians Gameli Tordzro and Ryan Gerald produce an extraordinary range of music and sound, on guitar and percussion, as they bring to life Matt Padden’s extraordinary soundscape.  And the whole show reminds us with terrific force of this truth about human history: that where we can go, some of us will always have the courage to go, particularly when crisis or oppression makes life at home intolerable – and the risk of oblivion a better option than inaction, as we head into the unknown.

Last Dream (On Earth) at the Tron Theatre tonight, at the Byre Theatre, St. Andrews, 9 April, and on tour until 18 April.

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