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!

© Joyce McMillan 2011

Chrysalis: Scotland’s New Festival Of Brilliant Youth Theatre


JOYCE MCMILLAN on CHRYSALIS for The Scotsman magazine, 14.11.15.

IT’S A GLOOMY NOVEMBER Saturday in Edinburgh, and rain is beating down on the city centre. Underground at the Traverse, though, there’s nothing but warmth, enthusiasm, and a glow of creative energy, as youth theatre companies from Scotland and beyond gather for the second day of Scotland’s first-ever Chrysalis Festival, designed to bring together companies from the fast-growing youth theatre sector, and to offer them a chance not only to experience each other’s work, but to debate and discuss it, in the context of Scotland’s wider theatre scene.

The Chrysalis Festival has been brought together – after four years of thought and preparation – by Youth Theatre Arts Scotland, the Edinburgh-based umbrella body for youth theatre groups across the country. The festival is co-curated by Viviane Hullin, producer with the award-winning Junction 25 young company at the Tramway in Glasgow, and a former J25 member herself; and the shows represented this year include two from Scotland, and two from leading companies in Manchester and Liverpool.

The Scottish-made shows are Junction 25’s 2014 hit I’d Rather Humble Than Hero, and the Citizens’ Theatre Young Company’s Southside Stories, a brave and impressive verbatim piece with music about community tensions in Glasgow’s hugely diverse Govanhill area. And they are matched by Headz, a selection of three breathtakingly vivid urban monologues from a series of eleven written by Keith Saha in collaboration with Liverpool’s 20 Stories High company, and the Contact Theatre of Manchester’s Young Company in Under The Covers, a wise, bold and funny devised piece about sex in the 21st century.

All four shows are fine pieces of theatre, mainly co-created and devised by youth theatre members in the 15-19 age range; but what’s especially thrilling about watching them in the context of Chrysalis is the sheer intensity and warmth of the young people’s reaction to each other’s work, as they crowd into the Traverse’s two auditoriums to watch and learn, and then emerge in an excited buzz of critical chat and response. And to help the conversation along, the festival also features discussion sessions – one on reviewing youth theatre, led by critics Mary Brennan, Mark Fisher and Thom Dibdin, and one on international exchange and collaboration in youth theatre, with speakers including Casper Niewenhuis of the Like Minds company in Amsterdam, and Simon Sharkey of the National Theatre of Scotland.

“Essentially, our aim with Chrysalis is to widen the audience for the best of youth theatre in Scotland and beyond, raise people’s aspirations, and open up critical discussion about youth theatre,” says Viv Hullin, “and this festival feels like a really, really successful first step in bringing people together and starting those conversations.

“I think it’s in the nature of youth theatre work – which is often fitted in around a very busy time in young people’s lives – that they get very little chance to see other people’s work, or to reflect on what they’re doing in a wider context. And I think you can feel from the extraordinary atmosphere in the Traverse over the weekend how much people welcome that opportunity, and how much they’ve enjoyed it.

“For the future, I think we’d like to do more on how shows emerge, and the different working processes used by youth theatre companies. And we’re interested in different models of performance that might allow shows to tour to a wider audience – Headz, the Liverpool show, is an interesting example of that, with a huge flexibility about which monologues appear at any one performance.

“On the whole, though, we’re just delighted that this first Chrysalis festival has come together so successfully. Chrysalis is funded for three years, up to 2017; so we hope that over that time, we’ll be able to develop the idea much further, and start to make a real positive difference both to the ambition and achievement of youth theatre, and to the quality of debate it inspires, in Scotland and beyond.”

The next Chrysalis Festival will take place on 11-13 November, 2016.


Mack & Mabel / Happy Hour


JOYCE MCMILLAN on MACK & MABEL at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, and HAPPY HOUR at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 14.11.15.

Mack & Mabel 4 stars ****
Happy Hour 4 stars **** 

THE STORY of the film industry in the United States is so dramatic in itself  that it has inspired many fine stage shows; and none sadder or sweeter, than Jerry Herman’s 1974 musical Mack & Mabel, which chronicles the true-life romance between inspired silent movie director Mack Sennett – the man behind the Keystone Cops – and his delightful leading lady Mabel Normand, who, for a brief decade until 1918, lit up his films with her gorgeous comic presence.  Their relationship was a complex one, constantly disrupted by Sennett’s obsession with movie-making at all costs; they never married, their working relationship eventually broke down, and Normand went on to die heartbreakingly young, at the age of 38, in 1930. 

It’s a mark of the sophistication of the partnership between Herman and lyricist Michael Stewart, though, that their show never flinches from the darker aspects of the story, while also fully capturing the sheer exhilaration of the early days of the movie industry.  In this touring Chichester Festival Theatre production, Michael Ball gives a terrific performance as Sennett, charismatic, moving and beautifully sung.  Rebecca LaChance is a delightful Mabel Normand, and the 24-strong cast  – backed by a 14-piece orchestra – sing and dance magnificently.  And if songs like I Won’t Send Roses aren’t quite the normal fare of musical comedy, their fine melodic subtlety more than matches the story they tell; in a rare musical entirely made for grown-ups, and thoroughly enjoyed by them, too.

Despite its title, actress Anita Vettesse’s brilliantly assured debut play for the Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime season is another show in which unambiguous happiness is in short supply. The play is set in the back-room of a pub, the scene of a far-from-amicable meeting between recently widowed Anne, the wife of the pub’s late proprietor Jim, and her hopelessly spoiled daughter Kay, a Glasgow West End dilettante all too used to persuading her late Dad to finance her many vanity business projects.

They are soon joined by Kay’s brother Tom, who has fled his fractious family to become an aid worker in Africa; and with Jim also present in the form of his ashes, on the table in a shoebox, Anne proceeds to drop her bombshell announcement that she is not, after all, going to pass on the proceeds from the pub sale to her children, but intends to hang onto them and enjoy them herself.

If Tom seems indifferent to this news, though, it provokes an explosion of rage and desperation in Kay, whose current business is about to go bust; and for a scintillating 50 minutes, this ill-assorted family lay about one another in merciless style, eventually brawling so vehemently that poor Joe’s remains are scattered across the room. Anne Lacey, Hannah Donaldson and Stephen McCole give a terrific trio of performances, in this beautifully shaped family drama; and it comes laced with a surreal and bitter comic sharpness, in the writing, that announces the arrival of a major new talent, not to be ignored.

Mack & Mabel at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, until 21 November; Happy Hour at Oran Mor, Glasgow, final performance today.

ENDS ENDS        

The Importance Of Being Earnest (Bunbury Players)


JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 14.11.15

3 stars ***

IN AN AGEING society, there are many ways of dealing with the fact that so many existing plays centre on the romantic entanglements of the young; you can, for example, write wry and rueful new plays about romance among the elderly, and hope that audiences approaching the same age will lap them up.

There’s none of that nonsense, though, in this jolly and memorable touring production of The Importance Of Being Earnest, either for the astonishing company of eight leading British actors performing the play – whose combined ages amount to almost 550 years – or for their fictional counterparts in the Bunbury Company of Players, a band of retired thespians who get together every year to create a much-loved traditional production of Oscar Wilde’s greatest comedy.

There are moments, during Lucy Bailey’s production, when I could frankly have done without this play-within-a-play device, which features extra material penned by Simon Brett. With Nigel Havers, Martin Jarvis and the great Sian Phillips offering a veritable master-class of comic acting in the key roles of Algernon, Earnest and Lady Bracknell, it might have been more exciting simply to go for Wilde’s great text without explanation or apology, and let the audience make what it would of the obvious incongruities. William Dudley’s country-house set – conjuring up a rehearsal at the home of two of the actors – is downright annoying in its cosy conventionality. And while I was interested to see how middle-aged actresses Carmen Du Sautoy and Christine Kavanagh would handle the roles of teenage beauties Gwendolen and Cecily, I really didn’t need to know that Kavanagh’s Ellen – a gorgeous and super-smart Cecily – was conducting a surreptitious affair with Nigel Havers’s Dickie, playing Algernon.

It speaks volumes for the wit and elegance of Wilde’s great play that it triumphantly survives this slightly awkward treatment; experience counts, and there’s a rare joy in seeing actors as seasoned as Havers and Jarvis sparring their way through Wilde’s superb opening dialogue, or Havers and Kavanagh making light work of the absurdist romance between Algernon and Cecily.

If the trend for older actors playing young roles is to continue, though, we need to consider how far we expect audiences simply to accept what Dickie calls “the illusion of theatre”; and how far we need the kind of framing devices that can open up endless possibilities, but sometimes only seem to patronise the audience, by offering one explanation too many.

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, final performances today; and the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 24-28 November.


The Alistair Carmichael Case: Lies, Misdemeanours, And What Politicians Need To Do To Regain Our Trust – Column 13.11.15.


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 13.11.15

THURSDAY LUNCHTIME; and while heavy November skies hang threateningly over the city, the social media remind us that all is happiness and good cheer in Edinburgh’s Rose Street, where the mighty Hollywood mega-star George Clooney has dropped by for a coffee at the Social Bite, a coffee shop which encourages its customers to buy an extra meal or drink for a homeless person, when they pay for their own snacks. Clooney, of course, is not only a hugely successful actor, but a forceful campaigner for human rights; and to say that people love him is to understate the case – indeed if he were to run for President of the United States, he would no doubt win in a landslide.

The truth is, though, that a large part of Clooney’s appeal resides in the fact that he is a showbiz star, and not – for all his campaigning activity – a professional politician; for if successive polls are to be believed, politicians are now the most disliked and least trusted professional group in our society, given even less credence by the general public than estate agents, bankers, or journalists.

This profound contempt for politicians is, of course, partly the result of a long-term campaign against politics itself, conducted by some of the most powerful vested interests in our society. Politics, in their book, is something that can sometimes get in the way of corporate power by actually daring to reflect the views of the kind of “little people” who usually don’t matter; so the more they can sell the idea that politics is bunk, and that all politicians are “just the same” and “in it for themselves”, the less political scrutiny they themselves are likely to face.

If big vested interests are likely to leave no stone unturned in diminishing the respect – and therefore the power – enjoyed by politicians, though, it’s impossible to deny that many politicians play straight into their hands. The Liberal Democrats’ broken pledge on student finance, for example, is still haunting the party, five years on from the 2010 general election; the mass culture of petty and not-so-petty greed and dishonesty exposed by the 2009 MP’s expenses scandal was truly shocking to an electorate struggling with the impact of recession.

And it’s against this backdrop, I think, that we have to understand the current case of Scotland’s sole remaining Liberal Democrat MP, Alistair Carmichael, the former coalition Secretary of State for Scotland who has now been caught red-handed not only authorising the leaking to the press of an inaccurate report of a private meeting – a report which alleged that Nicola Sturgeon said she wanted David Cameron to win the UK general election – but then flatly denying his own involement in that leak, first to Channel 4 News, and then to a Cabinet Office inquiry. A group of outraged SNP supporters in Alistair Carmichael’s Orkney constituency have identified these untruths as a possible breach of the Representation of the People Act, and have crowd-funded a court action against him; cue much tribal grandstanding on either side of Scotland’s yes-no political divide, with SNP sympathisers roaring as if Carmichael’s actions represented perfidy on a previously unknown scale, while some of his supporters – notably the former scottish Liberal Democrat leader Malcolm Bruce – argue that such “bare-faced lies” are the normal stuff of politics, and not to be made much of.

And about this fierce little hurricane in the Scottish political teacup, there are perhaps two things worth saying. The first is that voters probably do not expect complete transparency and honesty from their leaders in all matters. Most doubtless understand the need for confidentiality in some areas of policy-making, and for playing cards close to the chest in certain negotiations.

What’s clear, though, is that voters are also wary of that traditional flexibility with the truth, and inclined to accept it only from politicians who have proved themselves trustworthy in big-picture terms. If Carmichael’s untruths about his effort to smear the First Minister have been received with special outrage, for example, that perhaps also reflects some pent-up anger about the Liberal Democrats’ over-enthusiastic acceptance, in coalition, of a right-wing austerity programme that betrayed many of their own founding principles and priorities.

Then secondly, politicians who feel inclined to defend Alistair Carmichael’s actions should note that the growing reluctance of voters to accept this kind of behind-closed-doors manipulation is reaching a series of tipping-points, of which the two most significant in the UK so far have been the spirited rebellion of 45% of Scottish voters against the politics of shut-up-and-put-up conservatism advanced by the “No” campaign in last year’s referendum, and the hugely decisive election of outsider Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. The truth is that voters across the western world are showing signs of having had enough of the business-as-usual assumptions of the existing political class, including its weary cynicism about the “reality” of human nature and political possibility – a “reality” which in fact amounts to the lazy acceptance of a dominant ideology that is both depressing and reactionary.

To win the long-term trust of voters, in other words – and the room for manoeuvre that comes with it – politicians have to put in the hard work involved in mapping out the way to a better, more sustainable future, and then clearly showing themselves both willing and able to start moving in that direction. And what finally matters here is therefore not whether the judges in the Carmichael case will force a by-election in Orkney.

It’s rather whether UK politics, in the Corbyn era, can now dig itself out of the grave of cynical right-wing thinking to which it has recently consigned itself; and produce a new generation of politicians who – instead of disgusting the public with their ever-more vicious media spats over a steadily diminishing quantum of power – can actually build support among the people for real progressive change, and restore to themselves and the nation the kind of political life in which senior politicians have better things to do than to scan dodgy dossiers of misreported conversations, in a desperate effort to destroy their most lively and vivid opponents, and reduce them to the same banal and depressing establishment greyness they have so comprehensively achieved themselves.


Kath Mainland Leaves The Fringe



IN ALL ITS history of almost 70 years, I doubt whether the Edinburgh Fringe has ever found itself in the hands of a leader who understood it more thoroughly, or nurtured it more carefully and effectively through what could have been difficult times, than Kath Mainland. When she took over the job early in 2009, the Fringe was struggling to recover from the 2008 box-office meltdown which almost destroyed the most vital of all the support services the Fringe Society offers to Fringe companies.

Yet during her time in the job she has not only stabilised the operation in practical and administrative terms.  She has also, despite the deepest recession in recent economic history, presided over yet another period of sustained growth both in the number of shows presented in the Fringe, and in the number of tickets sold, which has grown since 2009 from 1.8 million to almost 2.3 million. And she has also been a strong supporter of initiatives such as Made In Scotland and Escalator East to Edinburgh, which have provided strategic support for companies facing the ever-increasing costs of presenting work in Edinburgh in August.

Questions always remain about the Edinburgh Fringe, of course, notably around the issue of those high costs.  As the co-ordinating body of an open, unprogrammed Festival, though, the Fringe organisation  cannot begin to try to dictate the size of the event, or the detail of who takes parts, without totally destroying the special and often anarchic atmosphere which has made the Edinburgh Fringe the biggest arts Festival in the western world. Kath Mainland  perfectly understands that essential truth about the Fringe; she sought to support, to co-ordinate, to inform,  to publicise, to encourage, but never to direct – indeed the very difficuly of giving a name to the job of running the Fringe, which has morphed over the years from “administrator”, to “director”, to “chief executive”, highlights the sheer uniqueness of the job.  And the most significant danger, in replacing Kath Mainland, will be the temptation to appoint a figure with impressive experience as a Festival diretor, perhaps of one of the world’s many programmed “Fringe” festivals, who does not fully grasp that the Ednibrgh Fringe demands a completely different and more self-effacing range of skills.  For that reason, this is a Festival that often responds well to the appointment of an experienced Fringe figure; Kath Mainland worked for Assembly Productions for many years before she became Fringe boss.  And whoever takes over the job, it’s as well to remember that directing has nothing to with it.  It’s all about responding, nurturing, helping and facilitating; and if that’s not your style, then this job is definitely not for you.

ENDS ENDS         



JOYCE MCMILLAN on VANYA at the Citizens’ Theatre Studio, for The Scotsman, 9.11.15

4 stars ****

YEARNING, LOSS, the idea of fulfilment that haunts and shapes our lives, and yet is often never achieved. Those were Chekhov’s special subjects, in the four great plays that sealed his reputation as one of the world’s greatest playwrights; and Sam Holcroft’s bold 2009 version of Uncle Vanya, for just four actors, distils those themes into a sustained 85-minute howl of pain and longing. The play centres on the figure of Vanya himself, the disappointed middle-aged man desperately in love with his brother-in-law’s beautiful new young wife; but also gives full weight to the characters of his his dutiful niece Sonya, the doctor Astrov whom Sonya adores with an unrequited passion, and the gorgeous Yelena herself.

In Gareth Nicholls’s intense studio production – the last of a series marking the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Citizens’ radical Close Theatre club – Vanya is played by Keith Fleming with a formidable wild-eyed desperation. The dress is modern, as he sinks into hoodie-shrouded depression; but the passions are timeless, leaving the unloved to endure desperate years of toil and emptiness. On a stage dominated by a simple, lamplit work-table, the force of his performance is matched by the vulnerable yet heartbreakingly resolute presence of Helen Mackay’s Sonia; and with Mark Wood and Scarlett Mack delivering fine supporting performances as Astrov and Yelena, this fierce studio drama whirls to its devastating conclusion, in a tribute to all the lives of quiet desperation lived with patience to the end, and to theatres like the Close, which bring us face to face with truths that can only be borne if we sit with others in a small space, and confront them together.