Monthly Archives: March 2009

Seven Year Itch

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on SEVEN YEAR ITCH (Random Accomplice at the Arches, Glasgow) for The Scotsman 31.3.09
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4 stars ****

IT’S SEVEN YEARS since the brilliant Glasgow performance artist Johnny McKnight, and his gifted stage partner Julie Brown, first began to work together; and now, to celebrate their anniversary, they’ve put together a short but tremendously vivid show, in which layers of narrative jostle together with such complexity and playfulness that it fairly takes the breath away.  Seven Year Itch is essentially a play about a man and woman who work together; but it refers not only to Brown and McKnight’s own partnership, but also to a shocking real-life story of an office murder that took place in Chicago seven years ago, when a gay man murdered his devout and homophobic female colleague.

Then there’s a third layer of narrative, the one called “the pub story”, which is a jokey sitcom version of the Chicago narrative; and between these three strands, Brown and McKnight weave a fascinating light-touch reflection on the tragedy, comedy and risk involved in trying to deal with working relationships of great day-to-day intimacy, while keeping them within professional bounds.  The show features an unobtrusively excellent script that turns on a sixpence between looming tragedy and brilliant comic one-liners, a playful way with multiple cultural references, and some striking ironic choreography by Karen Martin; and, in a final stroke of genius, it also features the voice of Miss Dolly Parton, the woman who once gave the idea of the office nine-to-five such a distinctive twist that it never seemed quite the same again.

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Royal Reform And The End Of Protestant Britain – Column 28.2.09

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 28.3.09
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OF ALL THE BRITISH INSTITUTIONS touched by the force of the current economic meltdown, the monarchy is, by and large, the one that seems least involved.   Urgent questions need to be asked – and answered – about the actions and the accountability of everyone from the senior bankers who brought their institutions to ruin, to the government which lost the political will to regulate; not to mention the massed ranks of the media, almost all of whom seemed to agree, until the eleventh hour and beyond, that light-touch regulation was just what the economy needed.

But as for the monarchy – well, amid this chaos, it seems as if it’s the one element of the constitution still being run by a boss of the old school, utterly reliable, a little stuffy, and implicitly trusted; which is perhaps why, in an effort to distract us from the litany of disaster now surrounding the government, Downing Street let it be known, towards the end of the week, that it has been conducting negotiations with Buckingham Palace about a possible reform of the Act of Settlement of 1701.  Under this venerable piece of legislation – which constituted the height of modernity in its time – male heirs to the throne take precedence over their elder sisters; and Catholics are not only barred from the throne itself, but are effectively prevented from marrying any royal who wishes to retain the right of succession.

Now it is, of course, easy to dismiss this government move as a pathetic piece of spin, utterly irrelevant to the nation’s current plight.   There is in any case something laughable about the attempt to apply principles of equality and human rights to an institution based entirely on the idea of inherited power and status; and so far as gender is concerned, since the queen’s eldest child is male, and has only male heirs of his own, there is little chance that any change would make a practical difference to the succession for at least another two generations.

When it comes to the removal of the bar on a Catholic succession, though, the idea of reform moves into more interesting symbolic territory, and begins to carry a small amount of weight.  In practice, this reform is unlikely to happen, given the huge complexity of the legislation involving the relationship between the monarchy and the Church of England.  But there’s no doubt that this ancient prohibition is still noted by British Catholics, and seen as a last remaining trace of the much wider forms of exclusion they once suffered.   Only last week, in the Middle East, I heard a British actor, in front of a bemused audience of Syrians, denying all knowledge of British post-colonial guilt, on the grounds that he came from a Catholic family in the west of Scotland, and therefore was not part of that British past.  “In our country,” he added, “we’re not even allowed to be king or queen”; and insofar as that old sectarian wound still continues to damage our society, a move towards formal equality would seem like a good idea, at least in principle.

In making that move, though, it might be wise for people in Britain to give a final thought to the tradition we are leaving behind, in giving up the 320-year-old idea of Britain as, by definition, a Protestant state.  It goes without saying that that idea is now largely discredited, in part by the systematic social  prejudice against Catholics that disfigured so much of British life in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and above all by the bigoted  excesses of militant Ulster Protestantism, with which people in Scotland, England and Wales no longer wish to be associated.  It is also true that in institutional terms, the British Protestant churches now seem like weak representatives of the Christian faith, by comparison with the mighty global Catholic communion, whose hierarchical structures mesh better with our global celebrity culture.

But in the week when the Edinburgh International Festival’s director, Jonathan Mills, launched a 2009 event entirely built around the theme of Enlightenment, it is perhaps worth remembering also the positive aspects of Britain’s Protestant heritage, not least the powerful free-thinking  and rationalist strand, within the Protestant tradition, that helped to create the conditions for the great 18th-century flowering of scientific and political thought that we now call the Scottish Enlightenment, and which still provides the philosophical bedrock of the whole concept of modernity, in societies across the world.

The Protestant Reformation in Britain was a messy business, of course, triggered partly by a genuine popular  revolt against religious authoritarianism and church corruption, and partly by an ageing English monarch’s desperate need to engineer a divorce.  But whatever its origins, it spawned a mighty culture of hard work, high literacy, self-discipline, social responsibility, relative democracy, and independent thought, as well as the bigotry we have come to recognise so well.  Now, the British Establishment seems to be moving at glacial speed towards the moment when a Catholic might ascend the throne once again, for the first time since the day in 1688 when a coalition of Lords and bankers got rid of the last Stewart monarch, and whistled up instead a chap from the Netherlands called William Of Orange, who understood that the old Catholic idea of the Divine Right of kings was dead, and that in future kings would rule by consent, or not at all.   But if we are wise, we will take time – not least during this year’s Festival – to remember and cherish the positive elements of our reformed religious inheritance; even as the idea of Protestant Britain finally fades into the history books, where it increasingly belongs.

ENDS ENDS

The Book Of Beasts

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE BOOK OF BEASTS (Catherine Wheels at Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh) for The Scotsman 26.3.09
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4 stars ****

THE IDEA OF THE CHILD who becomes king or queen for a day is one of the keystones of children’s literature; it’s not so long, for example, since TAG Theatre delighted audiences with their version of Janus Korczak’s powerful political parable, King Matt.  But long before Korczak began his career, the English writer E Nesbit – Fabian, free-thinker, and author of The Railway Children – had published her Book Of Beasts, in which a little chap called Lionel receives an unexpected call from the Prime Minister, and finds himself not only crowned king, but given access to the royal library, and to a very strange book indeed.

By their own standards, Catherine Wheels’ new stage adaptation of Nesbit’s story – now on a long Scottish tour, including this year’s Imaginate Festival – is relatively straightforward, old-fashioned stuff.    On a stage set with a few simple props, a cast of three (including Ian Cameron as the Prime Minister, and Catherine Wheels’ boss Gill Robertson as Lionel’s nurse) lead us through a classic illustrated narrative.  The two adults tell us the story of Lionel’s adventure, while a recorded version of David Trouton’s vigorous nursery-rhyme score fanfares away in the background; and Scott Turnbull  – as the increasingly troubled boy – learns some tough lessons about curiosity, risk, and the hard business of taking responsibility for your own decisions.

There’s real magic, though, in the show’s use of simple physical materials, and subtle shifts in Lizzie Powell’s beautiful lighting design, to evoke a dramatic story of dragons and monsters, political disaster and recovery, with such a light touch.  The narrative is crystal-clear; and the little children in the audience are rapt throughout, visibly gripped  by the idea that when you open the pages of your favourite book, anything can happen, and sometimes does.

ENDS ENDS ENDS

Curse Of The Starving Class, The Ching Room, Poem In October

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, THE CHING ROOM at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, and POEM IN OCTOBER at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts 26.3.09 ______________________________________________________

Curse Of The Starving Class 4 stars ****

The Ching Room 4 stars ****

Poem In October 3 stars ***

THE TITLE SONG OF the great 1940’s musical Oklahoma says it all, about the role of land in the American Dream. “We know we belong to the land,” roars the chorus, “and the land we belong to is grand!”. But that sense of postwar hope and self-belief proved hard to sustain, for many thinking Americans; and by the late 1970’s, the great playwright, screenwriter and actor Sam Shepard was churning out a memorable series of dystopian dramas about an American world gone wrong, in which the dream of popular land ownership has turned sour, and the Little House On The Prairie has become a run-down shack on the edge of oblivion, about to be sold off to the spivs of the development industry. Curse Of The Starving Class is one of the least known of Shepard’s plays, first seen in New York in 1978; but to judge by Mark Thomson’s vivid revival at the Royal Lyceum, it’s a brave and fiercely energetic piece of American absurdism, that deserves a much wider audience. The play is set in the kitchen of the Tait family’s crumbling farmhouse near the Mexican border, where the huge refrigerator is always symbolically empty, and the family’s loud denials that they belong to the “starving class” are accompanied by a near-total lack of food. The father, Weston, is an ugly, discontented drunk who drops by only rarely. The mother, Ella, is a deceptively fragile-looking nut-case, a woman who dreams of escape, like a robust and randy version of one of Tennessee Williams’s ageing southern belles. The son, Wesley, is a visionary drifting towards the edge of real insanity, as he wanders the stage naked, with a large live lamb in his arms; the pubescent schoolgirl daughter, Emma, claims to be the sanest of the four, but is soon riding a horse into her father’s favourite drinking-den, and opening fire on all present. Curse Of The Starving Class is a kitchen-sink drama that never looks truly naturalistic, and soon takes off into the realms of the surreal and the ridiculous. But it’s a tribute to the wild poetry of the play itself, and to every member of Thomson’s cast, that the show succeedes in negotiating its oblique, absurdist relationship with reality, without ever losing its sense of satirical connection with the unrelenting, cash-driven world in which, over the last three decades, Americans have increasingly had to live. Familiar television faces Christopher Fairbank and Carla Mendonca turn in powerful performances as Weston and Ella, bound together in a hate-driven marriage from hell. Alice Haig is outstanding as their daughter Emma, shifting in a psychopathic moment from bright-schoolgirl conformity to raging lunacy; there’s strong support from a series of Scottish-based actors – Neil McKinven, Stewart Porter, Mark McDonnell and Jordan Young – as assorted lawyers, chancers, policemen and gangsters. And Georgia McGuinness’s luridly-lit white set – with a jagged neon lightning-flash overhead – captures exactly the right sense of a familiar reality distorted and made strange; as if God had somehow left his American heaven, never to return. There’s a strong touch of the surreal, too, in both of the current Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime productions, each of which involves a dialogue with a character who seems part human, part ghost or demon. In Alan Bissett’s The Ching Room – now at the Traverse, following its transfer from Glasgow – our hero Rory (Colin McCredie, of Taggart fame) rushes into a toilet cubicle in a Sauchiehall Street nightclub, only to find it occupied by someone called Darren, who is not so much a drug-dealer, as a high priest of the religion of cocaine-induced euphoria. It’s a strange and complex conceit for a short play, and even over 40 minutes, the dramatic structure sometimes creaks slightly at the seams. But if the character of Rory sometimes seems overloaded with background detail, the piece is completely redeemed by the subtle depth of its meditation on drug culture as a tragi-comic form of transcendence, where squalid episodes of violence and abuse coexist with fleeting glimpses of poetry, eternity, and true communion; and by a completely thrilling performance from Andy Clark as Darren, a demon for our times, full of those shape-shifting transitions from bullying to beseeching, friendship to ferocity, that have characterised all the best devils since the days of Faust. In Robert Forrest’s Poem In October, meanwhile, the hero’s familiar spirit has an instantly recognisable voice, Welsh, poetic, and relentlessly frank. In this beautifully-written lyrical monologue, our hero Walt – a retired man in poor health – finds himself haunted by the rowdy spirit of Dylan Thomas, not his favourite poet, but one whom he loved in his youth. Walt is sitting on a park bench with pills and a hip-flask of whisky, contemplating the end of life; Dylan helps him do in style, with the right measure both of rage, and of vivid sensual memory of those intense moments that shape our lives, and that we imagine we will recall in our dying moments. In the end, Forrest’s play pushes its long elegiac moment a shade too far. It has too many fine last lines; and it looks too much like a collision between Thomas and Sam Beckett, at his most dryly deathbound, to achieve much originality. But Finlay Welsh turns in a magnificent performance as the fading Walt; and if one of the tasks of middle age is to begin to reflect upon death, then this brief but beautiful play marks a classy step along the way. Curse Of The Starving Class at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 11 April. The Ching Room at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 28 March; Poem In October at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 28 March, and at the Traverse, Edinburgh, 31 March-4 April. ENDS ENDS

Boeing Boeing

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on BOEING BOEING at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 25.3.09
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3 stars ***

THESE ARE NOT HAPPY times; so it’s perhaps not surprising that the collective imagination seems increasingly inclined to loop back a generation, towards the world of television shows like Life On Mars or Mad Men, and the style and atmosphere of the 1960’s and 70’s.

Matthew Warchus’s smash-hit 2007 revival of the huge 1960’s success Boeing Boeing is a case in point, a bright-as-a-button re-run of a show first seen in London in 1962, about a man in a Paris flat  who manages his relationships with three separate fiancees – all airline stewardesses – through an intimate knowledge of airline timetables.  First written in French by Marc Camoletti, the show’s English-language version scored an astonishing seven-year West End run, and it’s not difficult to see why.   It’s a beautifully-constructed farce, full of slamming doors, split-second timing, and priceless laconic comments from the middle-aged maid.   And it perfectly captures the exhilaration of that post-war moment when  long-haul global travel became a reality, and a universal symbol of a longed-for modernity and sophistication.

Despite an ironic curtain-call well worth waiting for, though, Warchus’s production does very little with all this material beyond faithfully reproducing its old-fashioned sexual and national stereotypes, and more or less getting the timing right.  Martin Marquez is unnecessarily hyperactive as the hero Bernard, John Marquez is physically brilliant as his country cousin Robert, Sarah Jayne Dunn of Hollyoaks is particularly radiant as the American fiancee Gloria.  Basically, though, it’s just depressing to see an audience in 2009 laughing their heads off at the idea that the main function of a woman is to wiggle her bottom in a tightly-tailored uniform, and the main characteristic of a German is to be shouty and authoritarian.  That was then, this is now; and for better or worse, we need to move on.

ENDS ENDS

Josef Fritzl And The “Othering” Of Austria – Column 21.3.09

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 21.3.09
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FORGIVE ME IF I SOUND A LITTLE IRATE.   But it’s something of a culture-shock to return from a visit to Syria and Lebanon with David Greig’s play Damascus – much of it spent, at the behest of the British Council, debating how people in power often use enemy-images of some frightening “other” to strengthen their own position – only to find elements of the British media indulging in an astonishing display of “othering” over one of the major news events of the week.

The story was that of Josef Fritzl, the man imprisoned for life in Austria on Thursday for one of the most horrific crimes of familial sexual abuse ever recorded.  During the trial, one of the jurists involved said that the case – whose shocking details hardly need repetition – was all about “absolute control over the family”; and that, it seems, is about as close to an explanation for Fritzl’s behaviour as we are likely to get.

But instead of reflecting in sadness on the horror of such extreme asnd destructive family passions, and commending the Austrian judicial system for disposing of this hideous case with such speed and restraint, some elements of the British media fell to complaining that more detail had not been exposed, and that Elisabeth Fritzl had not been paraded before the world’s cameras.  Worse, they went on to imply that this case reflected some kind of essential flaw in the Austrian social system; a small-town cronyism that leaves crime undiscovered, and a claustrophobic society that somehow lends itself – in the Natalie Kampusch case as in this one – to the imprisonment of young women in cellars.

Now it’s pretty obvious that this is self-serving nonsense.  If there is one thing almost all human societies have in common, it’s the existence of a small hard core of male psychopaths for whom total control over their  women is an overwhelming compulsion.  And if two young women in Austria have been held in cellars by such psychopaths, that’s largely because so many Austrian houses, by government regulation, have large concrete bomb-cellars; spaces which provide sex criminals with opportunities to imprison and abuse.

British society, after all,  offers its own particular opportunities for the abuse of young women.  There are the drugs, the drink, and the late-night taxi-driving used by the Croydon rapist John Worboys, who was finally convicted this week after committing some 85 assaults on women passengers over 7 years; there is the role of trusted family babysitter, abused by the long-term Dumfries rapist David Hiddleston, also sentenced this week.   And if you scan the British press over a few months, you will not have to look far for the most common contemporary British type of “control” atrocity; the murder of young children by their separated fathers, who would apparently rather kill their own children, and themselves, than allow their former partners to move out of their control and into new lives.  Add to those extreme cases the frighteningly high apparent incidence of  low-level domestic violence against women, and it becomes pretty clear that Britain has plenty of beams to pick out of its own eye, in terms of pathological male behaviour towards women, before it starts lecturing Austrians about the motes in theirs.

And as for the Arab world in which I have spent the last week – well, if Austrians can still become “others” at the drop of  a hat, Arab and Muslim people are now relentlessly stereotyped in the west as the prime enemy of “our way of life”, including our generally liberal attitude to women’s rights.  Yet a single glance at the social scene in Arab cities like Damascus and Beirut is enough to suggest that the picture is far more complicated than the usual western stereotypes suggest.  It’s not only that some women wear veils, and some do not, preferring big back-combed hair, and glittering lipstick.   It’s that even those women who are veiled do not always conform to the stereotype of submission.   Many work in high-powered jobs, with terrific commitment and focus; and some young fashion-victims, veils firmly in place, load the visible parts of their faces with enough botox, lipstick, and eye make-up to confuse every man within 50 yards.

And if this is a time of immense complexity for Arab and Muslim women, about which few generalisations can be made, then their position is also more familiar than we in the west pretend.   As the vehemence of the backlash against feminism often reminds us, our societies themselves are still little more than a generation away from a world where women were legally subject to their husbands, and where – well within living memory – they could bring intense social shame to their families not only by having sex outside marriage, but by leaving the house, or entering the church, with an uncovered head.

Which is to say that if we look for long enough at any group we regard as “other”, then sooner or later we will find we are looking at parts of ourselves; parts we have lost and wish we could regain, or parts we wish we could repudiate completely, but which remain etched in the hidden places of our minds.  To separate ourselves from those parts of ourselves we do not like, and to try to attach those qualities to some other group, is a profoundly immature reaction; it leads to a dumbing-down of our own complex perceptions, and finally to the possibility of war, in all its murderous stupidity.  Yet still, we do it.  As if Josef Fritzl’s crime could be explained by his nationality, and by specific failures of the Austrian social services; and as if anyone but a fool could be satisfied by an explanation so shallow, so limited, and finally so wrong.

ENDS ENDS

To Damascus: David Greig’s Damascus In Syria And Lebanon

JOYCE MCMILLAN on TO DAMASCUS: DAVID GREIG’S DAMASCUS IN SYRIA AND LEBANON
for Scotsman Arts, 19.3.09

It’s late on Thursday night when I arrive in Damascus, the ancient city
sprawling its way up the dramatic slopes of Mount Quissoun; and although
their second performance in Syria is in full swing, at the municipal
theatre in the middle-class suburb of Dummar, the Traverse company are
still reeling from the shock of the ferociously mixed reception they
received the previous evening.

As playwright David Greig and director Philip Howard are only too aware,
bringing a play called Damascus to the city of Damascus was always going to
be a high-risk enterprise. It was a play that Greig wrote reluctantly, for
the Traverse’s Edinburgh Festival programme of 2007, after several years of
work with young playwrights across the Arab world had made him acutely
aware of their need to find their own voice, rather than see themselves and
their society defined through western eyes. And it was a play written
almost entirely for British audiences: the story of a Scotsman who travels
to Damascus to sell English language text books for schools, and encounters
three characters – the beautiful career woman Muna, the disillusioned
academic Wasim, and the troubled hotel desk-clerk Zakaria – from whom he
learns too much about the deadness of his own life, the depth of his
ignorance of other cultures, the vagueness of his politics, and his lethal
inability to hear others speak across the gulf of culture and power.

To audiences in the UK, in other words, Damascus looks like a searing
piece of self-criticism directed against the well-meaning but ineffectual
westerner abroad. To audiences in the Arab world, though, it inevitably
looks like a thumbnail sketch of their entire culture, summed up in three
troubled characters; and no-one was more surprised than Greig and Howard
when, following a positive response from an Arab delegation in Edinburgh,
the British Council decided to take Damascus on a ground-breaking tour of
its Near East and North African region, opening in Damascus itself, and
travelling on to Beirut, Amman, Cairo, Tunis, and Ramallah, in the
Palestinian West Bank.

Nothing, though, had quite prepared the company for the explosive reaction
to the play on its first night in Syria. First there was the performance,
received with huge warmth and responsiveness, much laughter, and even a
small standing ovation.Then there was the post-show discussion, in which a
series of distinguished academics, and some younger commentators, queued up
to accuse Greig, in particular, of everything from crass neo-colonialism
and insults to Arab womanhood, to grotesque stereotyping and sheer
artistic incompetence.

Controversy swirled in particular around the character of the desk clerk
Zakaria, who finally kills himself when Paul fails to help him achieve his
last desperate hope of becoming a writer in the west. Some young Syrians
saw him as an iconic figure; other voices condemned him as a a hopeless
stereotype of Arab victimhood. And these divisions were repeated at a
major British Council seminar on Saturday, when some speakers expressed
rage that a British playwright should be able to command such significant
resources to caricature their culture on an international stage; while the
leading Egyptian critic Mehna Al-Badawi, of Al- Ahram in Cairo, argued that
if she had been given the script of Damascus in Arabic, she could well have
believed that it was the work of a young Syrian writer, so clearly did it
express the situation of many who are struggling for self-expression in
societies full of cultural tension and political uncertainty.

After the seminar, David Greig headed off into the Old Town of Damascus, to
spend a last evening with the young Syrian playwrights whose work he has
already helped to present in London, before a brief return to Scotland.
And the rest of us climbed into a small bus, and rattled off over the
mountains, through mist and rain and grubby border check-points, on the
100-mile drive to Beirut, down by the Mediterranean. It was a journey
that seemed to take us from east to west, from a place still dominated by a
combination of rich Islamic culture and old-style mid-20th century
socialism, to a war-scarred city once known as the Paris of the Middle
East, where battered concrete tower blocks pierce the Mediterranean sky,
and our hotel jostles branches of the Body Shop and La Senza.

Yet this, too, is a Middle Eastern city full of contrasts, where some of
the women go modestly veiled, and others present spectacular displays of
big hair and bling. And here, too, although the tone of the post-show
discussion was more relaxed, the same tensions emerge, between those who
are irritated and insulted by this apparent western attempt to sum up the
Arab world, and those who feel Greig has perceived truths that need to
be spoken.

Behind these debates, of course, lie some of the most profound questions
facing our 21st century world. There is the debate between former
colonising powers, and the countries they once used and manipulated for
their own ends; a debate still full of well-justified rage and resentment.
There is the debate about how far the whole western model of civilisation –
with its alluring dreams of freedom and self-fulfilment – can and should be
extended across the globe. And there is the eternal dialogue between power
and relative powerlessness, reflected in every struggle for
self-determination the world has ever seen.

Sometimes, in these dialogues, there comes a moment – like Nora’s great
slamming of the door in Ibsen’s Doll’s House – when the less powerful
partner has to walk away, and find his or her own voice, before dialogue
can begin again. If the tour of Damascus to the Middle East and North
Africa helps provoke young writers in the region to demand for themselves
the same voice, the same resource, and the same national platform that
Scottish playwriting has enjoyed, in finding its own voice over the last
generation, then it will have done much of its job; and whether it does it
by arousing their fierce objection, or their passionate admiration, will
finally hardly matter at all.

ENDS ENDS

Only When I Laugh

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ONLY WHEN I LAUGH at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 13.3.09
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2 stars **

AS AN ACTOR, JACK SHEPHERD was involved in some of the most thrilling and radical British drama of the last 40 years, from Bill Bryden’s Mystery Plays at the National Theatre, to Billl Brand on television. So it’s not surprising that his latest play, now on tour around Britain, is built around a strong idea for a story about the tension and terror of life as a working-class northern comic in the middle of the 20th century.

Only When I Laugh is set in the late 1950’s, in a run-down Leeds theatre where the old variety tradition is dying on its feet. To replace an ailing act, the management in London has sent a young female crooner, famous for her records and radio appearances; and her arrival brings unavoidable conflict with the top-of-the-bill comic Reg Henson, comic genius and ugly drunk. Reg has jested for the people of the north – his people, the class he comes from – through all the rough years of depression and war; but now harassed theatre manager Stanley (played by Shepherd himself) has to mediate between old and new worlds.

The problem, though, is that Shepherd’s massively over-complicated play, for a cast of eight playing a dozen characters, takes so long to arrive at the crux of the drama that audiences could be forgiven for losing interest half an hour before Reg makes his first entrance. And Nick Henson’s production features so much terrible wig-acting in minor roles, that it’s difficult to grasp the point of the story even then. Jim Bywater turns in an interesting performance as the troubled Reg. But there’s something about the form of this play, and the style of the production, that doesn’t match the content; and leaves a potentially powerful story struggling to make itself heard.

ENDS ENDS

The Naked Truth, Kyoto

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE NAKED TRUTH at Perth Theatre, and KYOTO at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 12.3.09
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THE NAKED TRUTH  3 stars ***
KYOTO   4 stars ****

FIRST, LET’S GET ONE THING CLEAR.  In The Naked Truth, no-one actually gets naked.  There’s plenty of filthy talk about sex; and at one point Abi Titmuss gets into a sparkly black basque, and twines herself most attractively round a pole.   But this latest product of the girls’-night-out theatre boom – beginning a long UK tour in Perth this week –  is a show that understands its niche market to perfection; and it knows that while it can say almost anything it likes, real nudity would finally tip the balance from saucy comedy to outright voyeurism, in ways that would disturb the cosy hen-party atmosphere.

For what we have, in The Naked Truth, is something like the perfect girls’-night-out product; so much so that the script sometimes seems like a computer-generated text, in which a few dozen raunchy jokes about men and their wedding tackle are mixed into dialogue full of ultra-predictable emotional cliches sampled from generations of small-screen heart-to-hearts.  Written by Dave Simpson – the man behind the show called Girls’ Night Out – the play is set in a church hall in the north of England, where five women and their teacher (the lovely Gabby, charmingly played by Abi Titmuss) gather for a pole-dancing class.

All five, and perhaps Gabby too, are searching for that lost self-esteem – a sense of completeness and self-acceptance – that seems so elusive for 21st century women.  Overweight Bev, played with great physical and vocal boldness by Lisa Riley of Emmerdale, is outwardly loud, funny, foul-mouthed, happy and promiscuous, but inwardly lonely.  Tricia (Julie Buckfield of Hollyoaks) has a supposedly idyllic marriage, but is neurotically obsessed with making herself physically perfect.  Rita has a bullying husband; frumpy Faith, the baby of the class, has never had a bloke at all.   And as for nice, middle-class Sarah (Trudie Goodwin of The Bill) – well, she is facing a real crisis, in the shape of a life-threatening illness that eventually gives the show its slim thread of a plot.

Girls’ night out theatre is, of course, the ultimate feelgood genre, full of yes-we-can optimism about what women can achieve, with some help from their girlfriends.  So it’s no surprise to find that in the end, all six women learn how to escape from their psychological prisons, and reach out for a happier ending; and there’s no disguising how much huge audiences of women, from Perth to Penzance, still seem to need and enjoy this kind of raunchy pep-talk of a show.

In the end, though, it’s difficult not to be a shade depressed by the predictable sentimentality of the play’s structure, the cliche-ridden quality of the dialogue, and the sheer crudeness of a  sexual politics often tinged with the false assumption that liberation involves being as crass and dehumanising about men as they are – or once were –  about women.   This week in London, the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch – now almost three years old – stunned the pundits by picking up a dazzling total of four Olivier Awards, for its first London run last summer.   The achievement of that show is that it combines the flair, directness, humour and sheer theatricality of popular theatre with a backbeat of serious, disturbing argument and questioning about the war in Iraq, its human cost, and the meaning of military servce in our divided society.  And we will know that the girls-night-out show has come of age when someone writes a script of that quality for a piece of popular theatre about the lives of ordinary women in Britain now; instead of patronising female audiences with this kind of theatre-by-numbers sentimentalism, which even the best efforts of a hard-working cast can barely disguise.

There’s never much risk of superficiality in the work of David Greig, now widely recognised internationally – and even here at home – as one of the leading young playwrights of the age of globalisation through which we have just lived.  This week, Greig’s 2007 Edinburgh Festival hit  Damascus sets off for a ground-breaking tour of the Middle East; and meanwhile, his latest short play, Kyoto, becomes the first of five from the Oran Mor Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime season to make the leap from Glasgow to the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, where it will appear next week.

Kyoto is a typically thoughtful 30-minute fragment, played out in the moonlit darkness of a bedroom in the conference hotel  where the scientists, diplomats and lobbyists of the climate change crisis have gathered for their latest futile get-together.  Dan and Lucy, two Brits who have been fancying one another across the negotiating-table ever since Kyoto in 1994, stumble into the room, determined to get it together at last, before middle age sets in.   At first, their middle-class obsession with material detail and status – the power-cuts, power-games and locked mini-bars which keep distracting them from the business in hand – seems merely irritating.

But as the play builds to its conclusion, it makes a Greig-like poetic swoop into a much deeper place, in which the paralysis of these two individuals, and their inability to act on their own life-force and fight to create the shared future they could have had, becomes a metaphor for a much more ominous and frightening failure, now looming over us all.   In the end, Dan and Lucy damn  themselves for having lived like children who thought the grownups would sort things out, when in fact there were no grownups.  And if there is a glimmer of hope in the final moments, it’s one that she seems eager to seize; but he still seems inclined to defer, until it’s too late.

The Naked Truth at Perth Theatre until 14 March, and at the Pavilion Theatre, Glasgow, 11-13 June.   Kyoto at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 14 March, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 17-21 March.

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Dreamboats And Petticoats

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on DREAMBOATS AND PETTICOATS at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 11.3.09
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3 stars ***

ONCE, THEATRE was an art-form in its own right; but now, for a growing army of promoters, it mainly exists to trade on songs, stories, titles and performers made famous in other media.  At the Playhouse in the past year, we’ve had many shows based on films, and even a show based on a website.   Now, here’s the show of the compilation CD; and it’s a tribute to producers Bill Kenwright and Laurie Mansfield, and to the writers – the famous Marks and Gran – that Dreamboats And Petticoats emerges not as a cynical piece of exploitation, but as a likeable celebration of the rock’n’roll moment, that captures some of the spirit of the London music scene in the early 1960’s.

The story is set in 1961, the year of Cliff Richard’s The Young Ones, and of  London’s biggest-ever CND demonstration.  Down at St. Mungo’s youth club in Essex, though, the only thing that counts is what’s top of the hit parade, which bloke stands a chance of pulling youth club sex goddess Sue, and who becomes lead singer with the local band.  And as skinny teenager Bobby grows into a man – via a traumatic trip to Southend, and a blossoming romance with song-writing schoolgirl Laura – the jukebox score belts its way through no fewer than 44 contemporary pop classics, from Bobby’s Girl to Da Doo Ron Ron.

The acting is more good-natured than subtle; and the sound quality sometimes imitates the rough, noisy blare of that church-hall hop sound all too accurately.  But the atmosphere created by Bob Tomson’s eighteen-strong company is as jolly as it is affectionate; and if those who were teenagers in 1961 are now drawing their pensions, the songs are strong enough to remain imprinted in all our minds, just waiting for the singalong moments that this show provides by the dozen.

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