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

Fringe First Winners 2019 – Final List

FRINGE FIRST WINNERS 2019 – FINAL LIST

WEEK 1

ARTHUR by Daniel Bye and his baby Arthur – on location in people’s homes. Daniel Bye, One Tenth Human, and ARC, Stockton.
ENOUGH by Stef Smith Traverse Theatre Company.
HOW NOT TO DROWN by Nicola McCartney and Dritan Kastrati ThickSkin with Traverse Theatre, Tron Theatre and Lawrence Batley Theatre Huddersfield.
MUSTARD by Eva O’Connor Eva O’Connor at Summerhall
RAVEN by Still Hungry Collective (Berlin). Chamaleon Theatre and Aurora Nova at Assembly Roxy
RICH KIDS: A HISTORY OF SHOPPING MALLS IN TEHERAN by Javaad Alipoor. Javaad Alipoor and HOME Manchester in association with Traverse Theatre

WEEK 2

ARE WE NOT DRAWN ONWARD TO NEW ERA by Ontroerend Goed. Ontroerend Goed, Theatre Royal Plymouth, Vooruit and Richard Jordan Productions in association with Zoo, at Zoo Southside.
BOBBY & AMY by Emily Jenkins. Emma Blackman Productions and Emily Jenkins at Pleasance Courtyard.
EVERYTHING I SEE I SWALLOW by Mary Taylor and Tamsin Shasha. Shasha and Taylor Productions at Summerhall.
LIPSYNC by Kirsty Young with Jenna Watt. Cumbernauld Theatre at Summerhall.
THE PATIENT GLORIA by Gina Moxley. Gina Moxley and Abbey Theatre with Pan Pan Theatre Company at the Traverse
SH!T THEATRE DRINK RUM WITH EXPATS by Sh!t Theatre. Soho Theatre in association with Show and Tell at Summerhall
SUBJECT MATER by Nadia Cavelle Woven Voices at Paradise in the Vault.
UNTIL THE FLOOD by Dael Orlandersmith. Arcola Theatre Production Company at the Traverse.

WEEK 3

THE AFFLICTED by Jake Jeppson and Groupwork. Groupwork at Summerhall
BABY REINDEER by Richard Gadd. Francesca Moody Productions at the Roundabout @ Summerhall
THE DESK Reetta Honkakoski Company in association with Start To Finnish at Summerhall
DISPATCHES ON THE RED DRESS by Rowan Rheingans. Rowan Rheingans at the Scottish Storytelling Centre
E8 by Marika Mckennell. The North Wall, Oxford in association with the Pleasance at the Pleasance Dome

ENDS ENDS

The Ugly One

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE UGLY ONE at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 8.7.19.
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4 stars ****

TOWARDS THE BACK of Becky Minto’s superb set for The Ugly One – a hyper-modern dream-turned-nightmare in acid pinks, greens and pale blues, against glaring white walls – a black conveyer belt rattles along, suggesting both an industrial process, and one of those game shows designed to taunt contestants with alluring parades of consumer goodies. It’s a visual image that provides a perfect context for Marius von Mayenburg’s 2007 comedy, a breathlessly fast-moving 75 minutes of post-millennial absurdism in which a man called Lette is abruptly informed, one day – by his capricious boss Scheffler – that he will not be leading the public presentation of a ground-breaking new electric plug he has invented, because he is simply too unbearably ugly.

Cue a series of ever-more-grotesque 21st century tropes and impostures, as poor Lette – brilliantly played throughout by Martin McCormack, with the same harmless face and baffled expression – mounts the conveyor belt to undergo experimental plastic surgery, and ends up with a face so handsome that he is constantly besieged by lustful admirers of both sexes, but then finds that his surgeon has decided to cash in by giving his gorgeous face to any customer who can afford it. In no time, poor Lette goes from bust to boom to bust, passing through an entertaining rock-star phase en route; while his long-suffering wife – played with equal brilliance by the inimitable Sally Reid – moves from affectionate tolerance of his hideous looks even though she cannot bear to look at him, through wild desire for the new handsome Lette, to a growing taste for adlterous liaisons with Lette lookalikes.

What emerges, in other words – from von Mayenburg’s brilliant text, as translated by the great Maja Zade, and from Debbie Hannan’s hilarious and pitch-perfect production – is a tremendous satire on the new age of the visual image we now inhabit, after humankind’s brief and productive flirtation with the written word; a world where we say that looks are only skin deep, but constantly act as if outward and inward beauty were the same thing. By the end of the drama, ever deeper questions are being asked about looks and identity, as if the borrowing of a face really does represent a complete replication of the self; and with Helen Katamba acting up a storm as both boss and surgeon, and Michael Dylan offering superbly satirical support as Lette’s scheming colleague Karlmann and others, The Ugly One races to a brilliantly ambiguous conclusion, for which the word thought-provoking is hardly strong enough.

Until 20 July

ENDS ENDS

Henry V

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on HENRY V at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 6.7.19.
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4 stars ****

AMONG MANY OTHER things, Shakespeare was the great poet of early-modern English nation-building. Through his two great cycles of 15th century history plays, he marked out the boundaries of the land, scorning the French as the eternal enemy, and cheerfully mocking the Welsh for their accents, wizards and leeks; and in Henry V – the last of the plays, written around 1599 – he writes his greatest celebration of English military success against vastly superior continental forces, and of victory won through an endearing combination of humble, down-to-earth leadership, and plucky determination on the part of a motley and not over-disciplined fighting force.

As many analysts of the Brexit phenomenon have pointed out, these ideas about England’s national identity have become part of the bloodstream of the nation over the last 400 years, reappearing time and again at moments of national crisis, not least during the Second World War, when Laurence Olivier created his famous film of Henry V. And now, here come the Bard In The Botanics team with a version not only set during the Second World War, but staged by a group of Enid Blyton-style schoolchildren, all hole-y jumpers and falling-down socks; children who will, if they are lucky, become the 70- and 80- year-old voters of today.

What’s thrilling about Jennifer Dick’s adaptation and production, though, is that it not only sets the play is this uniquely resonant context – with the kids clutching their gas-mask boxes and running for cover as the sirens wail – but also ensures that once the action starts, brilliantly steered by Lynsey-Anne Moffat’s bustling chorus, a series of profoundly serious grown-up performances emerge, not only from Adam Donaldson as Harry (clad in boy scout uniform, but a deadly warrior nonetheless) but – perhaps most significantly – from Natalie Lauren as Queen Katharine of France, no arrogant French villain (unlike her brother Louis, played with relish by Alan Mirren), but a wise princess, worthy, in the end, of the love Henry offers her, as a gesture of peace.

No playwright is more fiercely conscious than Shakespeare both of the glory and excitement of war – “Cry God for Harry, England and St. George!” – and of its cruel destructive horror; and this is a version of the play subtle, exuberant and thoughtful enough to make us ponder both the warlike energy this play famously celebrates, and the final quest for peace in Europe, symbolised by the marriage of Henry and Katharine, that remains a disputed part of England’s destiny, even today.

Until 13 July.

ENDS ENDS

As You Like It

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on AS YOU LIKE IT at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 1.7.19.
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4 stars ****

GENDER FLUIDITY may be a relatively new term in 21st century western culture. The thing itself, though, has always been present; and no playwright is more powerfully aware of it than Shakespeare, who worked for a theatre in which all female parts were played by young men, sometimes – so we’re told – with disturbing brilliance.

Of all Shakespeare’s great female roles, none is more dazzling than the part of Rosalind, the brave, witty and beautiful heroine of As You Like It; and this year’s Bard In The Botanics season kicks off with an outdoor production by Gordon Barr that switches the genders of minor characters with a joyful sense of freedom, but is strongly built around Stephanie McGregor’s gorgeous and complex performance as Rosalind, the daughter of the exiled duke who, with her loving cousin Celia, leaves her uncle’s corrupt court dressed as a boy, to seek her father and his followers in the greenwood.

The production’s weakest link perhaps lies in its slightly cavalier way with the play’s strong lyrical sense of the beauty of the natural world. Only one of the songs – Under The Greenwood Tree – is given anything like its full weight, and too many actors are inclined to throw away Shakespeare’s beautiful and perfectly-weighted lines.

With the wonderful Nicole Cooper playing a lady Jaques, though, some of the play’s finest poetry shines through brilliantly. And almost everyone in the cast seems to get the joke of Shakespeare’s merriest comedy with terrific clarity; offering audiences in the Botanic greenwood a gentle, funny, and celebratory evening of Shakespeare reimagined but always honoured, just as he would have liked it.

Until 13 July.

ENDS ENDS

Them!

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THEM! at the Tramway, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 1.7.19.
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4 stars ****

WHAT DO WE do when the familiar narratives of our lives are disrupted, and thrown all over the shop? That’s the question at the centre of Pamela Carter and Stewart Laing’s remarkable show-cum-installation Them!, produced by the National Theatre of Scotland at the Tramway; and to make its point, it uses two all-too-familiar narrative structures, smashing them both across an invisible boundary, into the unknown.

The first narrative belongs to the 1954 Hollywood science-fiction B movie Them!, a classic cold-war drama about the eventual destruction of a breed of giant ants unleashed by the nuclear age; the second belongs to a modern Oprah-style chat-show based on uplifting tales of personal trauma and transformation, chaired live by the fabulous Kiruna Stamell. Her first guest is the director, Stewart Laing, who is making a film inspired by Them!, but refuses Kiruna’s hopeful questions about the mid-life crisis she thinks must have inspired the project; he leaves, to be replaced by a fictional and much more amenable version of himself, suavely played by Ross Mann.

This new director’s narrative is disrupted in turn, though, by Zachary Hing as the Prof; then by a group of five young AI robots claiming to represent the future; and finally by a figure called Toni (an impressive Rosina Bonsu) who takes over the chat-show host’s chair. All of this is accompanied by music from a terrific five-piece band led by composer-performer Carla Easton, and by film clips from both version of Them!; and it’s no surprise at all when Toni finally invites us to leave the theatre-studio, and move on into a night-club of noisy transformation, followed by an exhibition of the complex communal lives of leaf-cutter ants, and a tot of whisky.

All of which sounds crazy enough; but also brilliantly makes its point that whatever the future of humanity holds, our old ways of trying to tidy up our experience are going to be of little use to us. The “Them!” experience is delivered with astonishing flair and class throughout, with Kiruna Stamell blazing brilliantly as the chat-show host, Pamela Carter writing like an angel, and every element of the show superbly co-ordinated by Stewart Laing and his team. And if it ends with a shared moment of respect for the rich and complex collective lives of ant colonies, that makes plenty of sense, in an age when our relationship with other species must change or die; as does the suggestion that in order to get through any of it, we will need a stiff drink, and a strong measure of conviviality, discovered anew.

Until 6 July.

ENDS ENDS

Ben Harrison On A Game Of Death And Chance

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JOYCE MCMILLAN: BEN HARRISON ON GAME OF DEATH AND CHANCE AT GLADSTONE’S LAND for The Scotsman magazine, 29.6.19.
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WALK UP Edinburgh’s Royal Mile from St. Giles Cathedral to the Castle, and you might just miss Gladstone’s Land, standing among the jostle of buildings that crowd up the hill. Look more closely, though, and you’ll see one of the most remarkable houses in Edinburgh; stretching upwards over six creaking wooden floors, it was first built in 1550, but modernised around 1620 by wealthy merchant called Thomas Gledstanes, who gave the house its name.

Along with much of the historic Old Town area – then a byword in some quarters for filth, immorality and slum conditions – it was scheduled for demolition in 1934; but it was saved by the National Trust for Scotland, and today operates as a museum and gift shop, offering tours that instantly evoke the atmosphere of Edinburgh’s Old Town in the centuries when it was famous for the height of its buildings, the squalor of the vennels between them, and the jumble of rich and poor folk living on top of one another on the various floors. It’s therefore not surprising that following the success of last winter’s theatre show Enlightenment House, staged at the Georgian House in Charlotte Square, the National Trust has chosen Gladstone’s Land as the next site for its experiment in bringing together history, theatre, and one of the city’s tourist attractions; and once again, the Trust has commissioned Edinburgh-based writer and director Ben Harrison to create the show.

Ever since he graduated from Edinburgh University in the 1990’s – and, together with Jude Doherty, founded the legendary site-specific theatre company Grid Iron – Harrison has been intrigued, inspired, exasperated and thrilled by Edinburgh’s cityscape, and its many unexpected nooks and corners. One of Grid Iron’s earliest successes was the remarkable show Gargantua, which opened up the then unused floors of space now known as the Underbelly in the Cowgate; over the next 15 years, the company’s work ranged across the city, seeking inspiration for shows that, in different forms, often went on to tour the world. And although the focus of the company’s work has moved on – and Harrison now has a wide-ranging international career as a director – he still feels the special fascination of bringing live theatre to a space in Edinburgh that has not seen anything like it before, and of moving an audience through that space, rather than simply sitting them in rows as passive watchers.

“When I first know that I’m going to create a show for a particular space,” says Harrison, “I just go and sit in it for a very long time. I try to immerse myself in its atmosphere, and see what images come to mind. I also do a fair bit of research, particularly with buildings like the Georgian House and Gladstone’s Land. It’s not that I’ve been bound by the factual history in any way that limits the work; the National Trust are great to work for, very open and flexible. The history of these buildings is so fascinating, though, that you don’t have to look far for brilliant characters, and real drama.”

For Gladstone’s Land, Harrison has therefore created a show of just under an hour that takes place in four spaces across the building, and is set in the troubled century between the Union of Crowns in 1603 and the Union of Parliaments in 1707. The story features five characters, including a female publican based on real-life character Isobel Johnston, a wealthy investor who loses his all in the Darien disaster of the 1690’s, the writer Daniel Defoe – who was an English government spy in Edinburgh before 1707 – and two symbolic characters, one representing Scotland herself, to be played by the magnificent Wendy Seager, and another, played by the show’s musician and composer David Paul Jones, representing Death, a force that, according to Harrison, truly stalked Scottish life at the time; hence the play’s title, A Game Of Death And Chance.

“It really is difficult not to feel sorry for Scotland at this point in its history,” says Harrison. “It had lost its king and court to London, and many of its writers, musicians and artists along with it; the church became the most powerful force in Scottish life, and the whole century was scarred by conflict between Episcopalians and Calvinists. In addition, there was plague, foul weather, poor harvests, and the final catastrophe of the Darien Scheme, a massive colonial enterprise that soaked up capital from across Scotland, and ended in utter failure.”

In order to capture the role of blind chance and ill luck during this turbulent time, Harrison has therefore written three versions of each scene, giving each audience an opportunity – the roll of a dice, or the choice of a different drink – to make a decision which will determine which story emerges. And Harrison hopes that the contemporary resonances of the play, as Scotland moves towards the dramatic moment of Union with England, will not be lost on audiences.

“The play ends in Defoe’s drawing-room at the back of the building, with a very English cup of tea,” says Harrison. “There’s a huge irony to it, though; a sense of a nation being driven towards Union by a fierce range of forces, some internal, some external, some just random. I suppose a kind of rebellion against the excesses of Calvinism and Puritanism has been a thread through my work from the beginning; that was certainly the theme of Gargantua, and I hope this show will also have that sensual energy and rebelliousness, bringing this old building back to life. But I hope it will also capture the complexity of what was happening in Scotland at that time; and make people think about the decisions we face now, about the nation’s identity, and its future.”

A Game Of Death And Chance at Gladstone’s Land, Lawnmarket, 16 July-8 September.

ENDS ENDS