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

The Strange Case Of Jekyll & Hyde (Lung Ha)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE STRANGE CASE OF JEKYLL & HYDE at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 23.3.15. _____________________________________________________

4 stars ****

IT’S ONE OF THE MOST striking features of Robert Louis Stevenson’s great 1886 story of Jekyll and Hyde that it contains no named female characters at all; it’s a tale of men living in a patriarchal society where animal impulses are suppressed, until they re-emerge in lethal and uncontrollable forms.

What’s thrilling about Morna Pearson’s new play inspired by the original story, though, is that it fully explores what this repressive society meant for women; and when its demands begin to bear down on Pearson’s feisty heroine Miriam Jekyll – crushing her interest in her father’s scientific work, and compelling her into an unwanted marriage – it’s perhaps not surprising that the the pressure splits her personality in two, spawning a bold “dark lady” doppelganger, Hyde.

As one of Europe’s leading companies working with adults with learning difficulties, Lung Ha Theatre Company works here with Drake Music Scotland to achieve its usual impressive production standard, transferring the action to Stevenson’s native Edinburgh, and featuring an outstanding, lyrical and pensive musical score by Greg Sinclair, played live by six-piece band.  Yet there’s even more than this, in Caitlin Skinner’s fine production; in the huge commitment shown by the 17-strong cast, and in a powerful series of central performances, led by a moving and witty Emma McCaffrey as Miriam, and inspired by a deep feeling for a story which, in this version, becomes a passionate cry against the prejudice that would confine people to lesser lives, because of an accident of birth.

Final performance at Dundee Rep, 25 March.

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Buzzcut 2015

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on BUZZCUT at the Pearce Institute, Govan, for The Scotsman 21.31.15. _____________________________________________________

4 stars ****

WEDNESDAY EVENING IN GOVAN; and in the dark back yard of the Pearce Institute, something stirs.  A man in a military camouflage jumpsuit prowls restlessly round a domestic space that sits precariously against a high, cold courtyard wall; a bedroom, a few battered but cosy pieces of furniture, and a man who – we can see from his body language – is about to do some serious damage, to everything that comes into the path of his rage and despair.

There are no words in American performance artist Jamie McMurray’s new 45-minute performance piece, Soiled; just this visual image of a domestic environment taken apart, and a complex pattern of sound, as McMurray groans into a microphone, plays the occasional scrap of music, and rattles, grinds, shakes and shatters everything, from metal chains to buckets of liquid paint and and flying table-lamps.  It ends in fire and transformation, as McMurray emerges into a white suit, and  sets the bedding alight.  And there’s something unforgettable about this reflection on the fierce post-traumatic stress of a generation of veterans; made all the more memorable by the uninvited sounds of a weekly Govan gospel group sing-song, drifting down from elsewhere in the building.

This is just one show of dozens in Buzzcut 2015, playing this weekend at the Pearce Institute; and although the Pearce is one of Scotland’s most venerable community centres, it can rarely have witnessed such a rich, thoughtful and laid-back explosion of creativity, spreading from the central MacLeod Hall – where there’s food, drink, and a chance to experience half-a-dozen installations and one-to-one shows – through to the Mary Barbour Room and beyond.  The infant child of Glasgow’s late, great Review Of Live Art, Buzzcut is curated by Nick Anderson and Rosana Cade, and is not for those who like their art finished and predictable.  The aesthetic in generally tentative, often deliberately hand-knitted; the audience is largely made up of others with a professional interest in performance.

Yet with a pay-what-you-can ticket price – and a growing if still wary relationship with a wider Govan audience – Buzzcut generates a memorably rich and relaxed atmosphere, pulsing with ideas about the way we live now.  Over two evenings, I see not only Jamie Mcmurry’s show, but – for example –  Laurie Brown’s scorching new solo work-in-progress The Daily Grind, about gay sex in the internet age; Mamoru Iriguchi’s haunting, whimsical reflection on how we understand  the life of Marlene Dietrich, driven by some brilliant use of laptop technology; and a strange 40 minutes in which performance artist River Lin paints bright red cochineal on his lips, and “kisses better” the sorest parts of the bodies of all 21 people in his audience.

Audience participation is rife, in other words, conventional uninterrupted performance rare.  Yet as Anderson and Cade put it in their opening remarks on Wednesday, after the excitement of the referendum debate Buzzcut represents “a space where we can still come together collectively, to work out new ways of being together collectively”; and I guess you have to be there – wandering the installations, waiting for the next show announcement, and eating the slow-simmering student curry – to understand just how good that can sometimes feel.

Buzzcut continues at the Pearce Institute until tomorrow evening, 22 March.

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The History Boys, The King’s Speech

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE HISTORY BOYS at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, and THE KING’S SPEECH at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 21.3.14. _____________________________________________________

The History Boys   4 stars ****
The King’s Speech   4 stars ****

STANDS BRITAIN where it did?  Obviously not; in this election year, the very idea of Britishness is being questioned with a rare intensity.  This week in Scotland, though, there’s a chance to see two big plays of recent years that at least encourage us to reflect on deep questions about the culture and history of the state we live in.

Staged this time round by ambitious young touring company Sell A Door, Alan Bennett’s fine 2004  play The History Boys is set in a single classrooom in a Sheffield boys’ grammar school during the 1980’s.  The central character is Hector, a 60-year-old English teacher whose methods are unconventional in more ways than one.  He not only teaches the boys whatever comes into his well-furnished head, with a blithe disregard for exams; he also likes to get a little too close to his pupils, particularly on the pillion of his elderly motorbike.

There’s always something slightly-too-idealised about Bennett’s portrayal of these boys, a dazzlingly bright bunch who understand Hector’s weakness, and simply forgive it.  Yet Kate Saxon’s vivid production – with an excellent cast of 12, led by a Richard Hope as Hector – does full justice to the play; and to the sheer elegiac power of Bennett’s portrayal of a civilisation whose ability to transmit its best thoughts is finally threatened by its own hidden history of sexual unhappiness, dishonesty, and abuse.

The King’s Speech, by contrast – already famous from the 2010 film – is an idealised constitutional romance of a tale, in which an ailing monarchy, with a feckless heir about to abdicate, a growing threat of Nazism in Europe, and a bullying king who has reduced his younger son to a stammering wreck, somehow rediscovers its strength and destiny through a revived connection with the people, represented by the growing unlikely  friendship between the stammering new king, George, and irreverent Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue.

If the play presents a romantic view of a key moment in British history, though, it does it with plenty of irreverent wit, sharp observation and well-founded historical research; and Roxana Silbert’s graceful, beautifully-choreographed touring production highlights all of these brisk, satirical qualities in the play.  Raymond Coulthard is grumpy but poignant as Bertie, Jason Donovan utterly delightful as the shabby, irrepressible Logue; and you can catch the play in Edinburgh in May, as it continues its UK tour.

Final performances today. The King’s Speech also at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 18-23 May.

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Hero Worship

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on HERO WORSHIP at Perth Concert Hall, for The Scotsman 16.3.15.
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3 stars ***

PERCHED RIGHT on the border between reflective 65-minute stand-up set and full-blooded solo theatre, Hero Worship is the latest in a series of monologues by acclaimed young writer-performer Kenny Boyle, set to play the Glasgow Comedy Festival tonight, after a brief  tour.  Our hero is a 21st century everyman in his early 20’s, frightened by his own ordinariness, and traumatised by the childhood loss of his mother, but with a mind full of superhero imagery from comics and films – during the show he refers to Spiderman, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Thor, Batman, Iron Man, and half a dozen more.

If an encyclopaedic knowledge of superhero literature is helpful in picking up every nuance of Boyle’s script, though, anyone with half a heart can appreciate the intense poetry of his hero’s rooftop attempts to escape the pain of every day life, and his burgeoning relationships both with an insistent little puppy called Found, and with a magical girl for whom he has, after all, some super-powers of his own.

The play finally indulges in too many endings, sliding towards sentimental homespun philosophy; and Boyle needs a demanding director to stop him swallowing some of his best lines, and to bring his delivery right up to the thrilling standard of his best writing.  Despite the odd lost phrase, though, Boyle’s presence is as charismatic and memorable as his storytelling imagery; and he inhabits the inner world of generation superhero with a creative passion and humanity that’s hard to resist, and even harder to forget.

At Webster’s Theatre, Glasgow, tonight, and Eastwood Park Theatre, Giffnock, 21st March.

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Beating McEnroe

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on BEATING MCENROE at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 14.3.15.
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2 stars **

BACK IN THE LATE 1970’s, Bjorn Borg bestrode the world tennis scene like a colossus, winning five successive Wimbledon Men’s Championships, and thrilling millions of armchair sports fans with his Nordic coolness, short white shorts, and  apparently invincible skill.  Until, that is, his reign was ended by a fiery New York kid called John McEnroe, whose outraged cries of “You cannot be serious” rang around the world.

The children who were rising five back then are forty now; and one of them is writer and performance artist Jamie Wood, whose brief meditation on masculinity, and on the role of those mighty tennis stars in shaping his childhood ideas of how to be a man, plays at the Traverse this weekend.  Performed by Wood in a cosy jumpsuit and lion hat – soon discarded in favour of a white vest and tutu – Beating McEnroe is a light-touch patchwork of childhood memory, beguiling graphics, thoughtful text, stylised dance-like movement, and slightly over-insistent audience participation, all put rogether in the hand-knitted and intensely self-conscious style currently fashionable among Fringe performance artists.

At just over 50 minutes, Wood’s show is too laid-back for my taste, long on ironic self-awareness, short on substance and drive.  The subject, though – a gentle boy’s struggle with the competitive element of conventional masculinity – is a strong and touching one; and although it’s a slight evening for a full-whack ticket price, there’s undoubtedly a growing market for this kind of participatory theatre, where the artist involved doesn’t so much present a show, as invite us, very gently, to start rehearsing one with him.

Traverse Theatre, final performance tonight.

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Leviathan, Hame

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on LEVIATHAN at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and HAME at The Shed, Shawlands, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 14.3.15.
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Leviathan  3 stars ***
Hame    3 stars ***

THE SCENE IS THE back garden of a council house in Wales; there’s a railway passing by, a view of the mountain, and a woman of called Maeve – late Fifties, sharp-tongued, unstoppable – trying to hold things together.  The main problem is her daughter Karen, a psychiatric nurse who has slumped into a catatonic state following an incident at work, of which we gradually learn through her fierce internal monologue, which we hear, although Maeve cannot.

And then there’s Karen’s beautiful 20-ish daughter Hannah, who’s been out partying all night, and who has clearly inheritewd some of her grandmother’s feisty spirit,  but whose life is also shadowed by misery, illness and an unwanted pregnancy – everything to do with her promiscuous lifestyle, nothing to do with her rich 42-year-old boyfriend, who’s “had the snip”.

It’s not always an easy play to watch, this piece by emerging Welsh writer Matthew Trevannion; it lays on the misery just one layer too thick, and in Rachel O’Riordan‘s slow-moving production, Maeve and Hannah shuffle awkwardly around Karen’s armchair, rather than whirling around it like twin storms round a vortex.

What’s striking, though, is the ferocious quality of Travannion’s writing, veering from sharp comic dialogue to exquisite psychological observation, in Maeve’s denial of the depth of her daughter’s illness; and then plunging into a strange, almost epic poetry at the heart of Karen’s monologues, as she longs to merge into the woodlands and become a tree, like Daphne of the Greek myth.  And for all its slightly awkward twists and turns, the play offers three beautiful, haunting performances from Siw Hughes, Claire Cage and Gwawr Loader, as three women without men, except where men push roughly into their lives changing and destroying them, and leaving Maeve – with her cheap clothes, tiny income, and cans of lager – to get on with picking up the pieces.

At the Shed in Shawlands, meanwhile, packed audiences are turning out for Hame, Phil Mac Giolla Bhain’s St. Patick’s Festival family drama about a Glasgow Irish family living through Scotland’s referendum year.  Presented by Sweet For Addicts, a community company working with people impacted by drug problems either directly or through their families, Mac Giolla Bhain’s play is rough, raw and sometimes sentimental, as it moves through a year in which old grandad Jimmy O’Donnell suffers a massive stroke with all the consequent problems, his quiet son Michael tries to help by bringing in the shopping, and hid highflying grand-daughter Annmarie returns from her lucrative job in London ever more frequently, as she tries to support her ailing grandad, and gradually becomes drawn in to the referendum yes campaign.

For all its cheesy soap-opera moments and long blackouts between short scenes, though, Hame tackles some of the realities of Scottish life over the past year with a directness and  energy that seems to elude better-known and better-funded companies.  There are rows about the referendum, bad nights at  Parkhead, crises over old Jimmy’s homecare, a touching recovery powered by the soft Irish singing of one of his carers, and a cast of 12 all working hard to deliver a thoughtful story of Glasgoe life now.  And at rthe heart of the play, there are two gorgeous performances from Ali Holmes and Gill McGowan as Annmarie and her friend Kirsty; two Glasgow women from different traditions glimpsing the chance of a different Scotland, and throwing themselves into the cause, while the older generation stand by counselling caution, or mourning lost glories.

Leviathan at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until today, and at the Traverse, Edinburgh, 17-21 March.  Hame at The Shed, Shawlands, final performance tonight.

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