JOYCE MCMILLAN on VANITY FAIR at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, LITTLE VOICE at Perth Theatre, and OUT ON THE WING at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Review, 21.3.08
Vanity Fair 3 stars ***
Little Voice 3 stars ***
Out On The Wing 3 stars ***
AS OUR CIVILISATION hurtles towards possible extinction on an apparently unstoppable tide of greed, consumerism, and bling, William Makepeace Thackeray’s great satire Vanity Fair should be a story to make us shiver, even while we laugh. Set in the roistering, get-rich-quick Britain of the early 19th century – the age of the Napoleonic wars, and vast fortunes made and lost in the Indian empire – it tells the tale of the penniless but beautiful and quick-witted Becky Sharp, who emerges from her Chiswick boarding-school determined to make her way in social circles where worthwhile work is rare, and prostitution of various kinds almost universal. There are wars, rumours of wars and deaths in battle, banking crises and huge financial losses, and a fierce undertow of moral sleaze, in a world where the young and unfunded have little to sell but themselves. It’s topical stuff, in other words, and when Declan Donnellan’s smart Fringe-style stage adaptation first appeared in 1983, it was widely seen as turning a sharp satirical eye on the greedy loadsamoney ethos of the early Thatcher years.
25 years on, though, Donnellan’s version has lost its edge, even though its themes seem more timely than ever; and Tony Cownie’s slick and beautifully-choreographed production at the Royal Lyceum struggles and fails to breathe any real dramatic life into the story, even while it provides an entertaining display of theatrical skill. The problem lies entirely in the style of the adaptation, which – like other major adaptations of the period, notably David Edgar’s Nicholas Nickleby – looked fresh and radical at the time, as it brought poor-theatre Fringe techniques onto the West End stage, but now just seems like series of tricksy theatrical cliches. From the constant intrusive narration to the twirling parasols that represent carriage-wheels, it’s all routine stuff for 21st century companies trying to make a virtue of having seven actors play several dozen characters; and far from giving the production a radical edge, it seems cutesy, distracting and slightly trivialising, as if the method of telling the tale were somehow more important than the tale itself.
Within these constraints, there are some fine performances on view, notably from Steven McNicoll as a range of cash-grubbing imperial buffoons, and Matthew Pidgeon as Becky’s royally abused husband Rawdon Crawley, the one character on stage whose tragedy momentarily shakes the complacent surface of the show’s style. But overall, this looks like an impressively well-executed piece of English heritage theatre, reminding us of a brief early-80’s moment in London stage history; and it’s difficult to see why anyone thought it worth reviving now, on the stage of Scotland’s premier rep.
There’s far more raw theatrical energy on show, thank goodness, in Miichael Harrison’s new production of The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice, created for Elaine C. Smith’s RPM Arts touring company, and starring Elaine herself, with her fine theatrical sparring-partner Andy Gray. Written by hard-edged northern poet Jim Cartwright back in the early 1990’s, and immortalised in a superb film version starring Michael Caine, Little Voice famously tells the story of a teenage girl in a northern town with a huge vocal talent and a mother from hell. Egged on by her latest lover, a sleazy third-rate talent agent called Ray Say, the loud-mouthed, drunken Mari tries to propel her shy daughter into high-earning showbiz; predictably, the whole effort ends in tears and destruction, at least for her.
This upfront Scottish-inflected touring production, currently in Perth before moving on to Edinburgh, is not for the faint-hearted. The language is brutal, the middle-aged drunken sex is grossness itself, and it takes a strong man – or woman – to stand up to the eye-watering sight of Elaine C., as Mari, in a series of ever more garish crotch-tight sparkly leggings and low-cut tops.
Just as the play survives, though, by offering us heartbreaking glimpes of the lost potential beneath the wreckage of Ray and Mari’s middle-aged lives, so both Elaine C. Smith and Andy Gray rise impressively to the challenge of capturing that complexity for the audience. In the end, the absence of live music robs Debbie Saloman, as Little Voice, of the chance to make the big, exhilarating theatrical impact that balances the play; but this is still a vigorous evening’s theatre, full of the noisy, messy pulse of life.
There’s plenty of energy on show, too, in D.C. Jackson’s latest short play for the Oran Mor Play, Pie and Pint season. Out On The Wing is certainly a much less polished affair than Jackson’s coming-of-age hit The Wall, currently on tour in a near-perfect Borderline production by Gregory Thompson. Set in a small-time radio studio inhabited by a bored woman producer and two football talk-show hosts who cordially loathe one another, it describes their rat-like response to the news that a leading Scottish footballer has come out as gay in the Scottish media. The play loses momentum towards the end, when their labyrinthine dealings with various newspapers begin to dominate the plot; and Jackson’s script plays so boldly with the ugly detail of the underlying homophobia of Scotland’s sporting culture that it sometimes misses the comic mark. But this is a brilliantly lively short drama on a vital theme for contemporary Scotland; and with actors Louise Ludgate, Stewart Porter and Barrie Hunter in superb form, Ken Alexander’s production is something of a small-scale treat.
Vanity Fair at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 12 April. Little Voice at Perth Theatre until 29 March, the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 31 March-5 April, and on tour. Out On The Wing at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until tomorrow.