Monthly Archives: December 2009

Harry Potter, Richard Hannay And Other Heroes: Don’t Underestimate The Complexity Of Scotland’s Long Love-Affair With Britishness – Column 26.12.09

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 26.12.09
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IT’S CHRISTMAS TIME, and a traditionally snowy one at that; time for a bit of cultural nostalgia and political stock-taking, particularly on the tenth anniversary the global celebrations of the new millennium.  A few days ago, one London newspaper chose to mark the occasion by choosing ten iconic figures of the past decade, real and fictional, good and bad; and an interesting bunch they were, ranging from Osama Bin Laden to Britney Spears.

The arts writer and broadcaster Mark Lawson, though, chose to write about Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling’s superstar boy wizard, with his low-key swotty glamour, and his strangely archaic boarding-school setting, all gothic architecture and access by steam train.  He noted, in passing, just how many of the great British heroes whose image recurs in popular entertainment around this time of year – Peter Pan, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, as well as Harry Potter –  were actually created by Scots; and it’s easy enough to think of other examples, from John Buchan’s Richard Hannay to Kenneth Grahame’s Toad, fast-driving king of the Thames Valley idyll.

It’s a sharp observation, and one that’s worth mulling over, as we in Scotland reflect on ten years of devolution, and look forward  to yet more change.  For if there’s one thing that’s clear about the current political scene, it’s that the politics of union between Scotland and England remain deep and complex, and are not going away any time soon.  In the past week alone, we’ve seen a major row over the SNP’s exclusion from the planned series of television debates among mainstream party leaders; and a minor one over the views of Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, on how sterling interest rates would be determined following Scottish independence.  And this kind of prickly debate and renegotiation can only intensify, with the likely arrival of a new Conservative government at Westminster, and a referendum bill at Holyrood.

So as we enter this new period of constitutional uncertainty, it seems to me a good idea that we should strive, this time round, to be ever more fully aware of the cultural density and richness of the bonds we are renegotiating, and of the strange forces that can be unleashed – with a truly Potteresque whoomph! – when we change the structures that support them.  Last time around, many Scots were taken aback, and even distressed, by the force of the sudden cultural backlash against the new Scottish Parliament, during its early years.  After the initial euphoria of the opening, in 1999, there was a period of cruel emotional let-down and self-laceration, in which hideously snobbish and dismissive things were written about MSP’s, their calibre, their accents, their clothes and their weight.  Some of this came as a rational response to the mismanagement of the Holyrood project, and the protracted row over the new parliament building.

Some of it, though, was a profound and visceral backlash, from middle-class Scotland, against the unfamiliar sight of Scottish decisions being taken by a parliament of ordinary-looking modern Scots.  We were used, at the deepest level, to being governed by a parliament that was “other” to ourselves, and that we had been trained to regard as “better”; larger, more commanding, better spoken, less provincial and – in its heyday – the beating heart of the greatest empire the world has ever seen. And the fictional British heroes created by Scots, often at the height of that love-affair with imperial Britain, reflect the depth of admiration, of aspiration, of yearning and even of desire unleashed in many able Scots by this promise of access to the great British stage.

J.M. Barrie in Kensington Gardens, Kenneth Grahame in the Thames Valley, Conan Doyle in his fictional version of Baker Street, even post-modern J.K. Rowling, wryly acknowledging the enduring strength of the old British  boarding-school narrative – all of them reflect the exhilarated, dream-come-true sense of coming from the periphery to the very centre of the world.  And the heroes they create are projections of all that that journey means to them; which is why only outsiders can create such heroes, observing and idealising the detail of the culture they represent with an eager, lover-like intensity.

And of course, all that is coming to an end, now.  The Empire and its glittering opportunities are long gone.  Westminster has blotted its ancient copy-book, making Holyrood shine by comparison; and the love-affair with Britishness was always a middle-class thing in Scotland, often passed on – as throughout the Empire – by ardent schoolteachers, to that minority of children who had ears to hear the beauty of Shakespeare, or of Tennyson.  It never penetrated Scottish popular culture; and it never wholly devoured those powerful strands of distinctively Scottish literature and thought that have gradually reinvented themselves, over the last century, to create a new, post-modern Scottish voice in world culture.

But we would be fools – at Christmas or any other time – to deny the intensity of the cultural ties that have bound our two nations together, and the depth of the emotions that can still be aroused by apparent threats to them.  These are not, of course, arguments against independence.  In some sense, the very complexity and archaism of the ties that bind us to England makes it the more important that we unravel and examine them, and make clear decisions about how to express them in the 21st century; this, I think, is what SNP politicians mean when they talk about the enduring “social union” between England and Scotland.

In a wider sense, though, it’s worth remembering that just as love makes the world go round, so it’s the yearning for the “other”, in a political and cultural sense, that fires up aspiration, that drives change, that creates great art and ideas, and gives birth to new times.  Scotland’s affections may be shifting, now.  But it’s the power to both to love ourselves, and to love what is not ourselves, that keeps any nation or human being alive; and if we can remember that truth, from our long history on this island, then our future will be brighter and richer for it, and more open.

ENDS ENDS

Sleeping Beauty

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on SLEEPING BEAUTY at the MacRobert Centre, Stirling, for The Scotsman 24.12.09
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4 stars ****

IF YOU WANT A glimpse of the future of Scottish panto, then you could do a lot worse than visit Johnny McKnight’s rip-roaring satirical version of Sleeping Beauty, at the MacRobert until Hogmanay.  It’s not that this is a perfect show: oh no it’s not!  It’s a fiercely post-modern take on the story, in which the baby princess’s parents are a pair of cash-crazed celebrities called Tosh and Pecs, the Dame is called Kylie, and the script is so stuffed with satirical references to modern celebrity culture – and send-ups of near-dead panto traditions like the thigh-slapping Principal Boy – that it’s often difficult to know exactly what McKnight is on about, never mind when the story is actually going to get back on track.

But if McKnight’s panto recipe is more fancy tiramisu than traditional pud, it still retains, at its core, all the key elements of panto, from cross-dressing to a serious mix of romance, slapstick and sheer buffoonery.  Kenny Miller’s wacky designs excel themselves, particularly in McKnight’s astonishing poster-paint-coloured costumes as a rotund but raunchy Dame Kylie; and the show boasts no fewer than three teams of fifteen local youth theatre performers, playing hacks, palace staff and good fairies – Fairies Aloud, naturally.

A live band would add to the fun, and to the show’s legibility.  With the songs carrying so much satirical content, there are constant sound-balance problems; and Andy Manley’s production, helpess in the blast of McKnight’s frolicking creativity, makes a couple of serious narrative mistakes, notably in blowing the final romantic moment.  “Just kiss her”, the kids yell raucously from the stalls, while the hero sings a mopey and ill-placed romantic number.  But the fact is, they care enough to yell, and to keep yelling till they get a happy ending; and that’s the very essence of panto, forging on into the 21st century.

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The Snow Queen

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE SNOW QUEEN at Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline, for The Scotsman 22.12.09
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3 stars ***

SMALL-SCALE, MODESTLY resourced pantos tend to fall into two groups.  There are the ones that think it’s important to have visibly live music, even if it’s just a single musician with a piano; then there are the ones that go for recorded sound, robbing the performance of a whole dimension of joyful, hand-knitted fun.

Matthew Lenton’s Snow Queen at Dunfermline takes the second option; and despite the kind of weather that fits Hans Christian Andersen’s story like a sparkling fur glove, it’s just one of a few decisions that slightly undermine the seasonal spirit of the show, and leave it looking subdued.

It’s not that Lenton hasn’t assembled a formidable cast.  With Pauline Goldsmith as the wicked Queen, Robert Jack as her victim Kai, Grant Smeaton as his old Granny, Barrie Hunter as Santa Claus, Owen Whitelaw as a  cowardly reindeer, and the lovely Jenny Hulse as plucky heroine Gerda, there’s Glasgow talent to burn on stage; and Lisa Sangster’s single set of slightly art-deco-looking windows and doors – cleverly lit by Kate Bonney – is elegant and stylised without obscuring the story.

What the show lacks, though, is joy, and a strong, shared moral centre.  For most of the show, Hulse’s Gerda struggles to represent virtue and courage alone, while Smeaton pursues a disturbingly ambiguous take on the hostile old granny.  Despite some interesting songs, there are no dancing local schoolkids; as for Lenton’s script, it simply lacks poetry.  Panto is a mixed bag of magic and raunchiness, of course.  But the secret of success lies in knowing how to separate the strands, so that the magic and poetry can truly glow, alongside the irreverent fun; and until Lenton can pull off that trick, he should go back to beautiful existing texts like Stuart Paterson’s Snow Queen, and see what he can learn from them.

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“Honour” Killing: Let’s Change The Language, And End This Patriarchal Thuggery – Column 19.12.09

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 19.12.09
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MORE THAN 60 years on from the beginning of the end of the British Empire, it’s sometimes depressing to note just how far the life of the global village is still scarred by the memory of old colonial wrongs.  Watch the current BBC version of Andrea Levy’s beautiful novel of postwar England, Small Island, and you’ll receive the sharpest possible reminder of the shaming levels of racism experienced by black ex-servicemen who migrated to the “mother country” in the 1940’s and 50’s, and of the legacy of rage on our streets today.  Look at the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, and you’ll see a planet divided and bickering along old colonial faultlines, even on the brink of a catastrophe which – governments say –  could threaten the very future of human life on earth.

And look even closer to home, into the Old Bailey courtroom where a jury this week convicted Mehmet Goren, a man originally from Turkish Kurdistan, of the murder ten years ago of his own 15-year-old daughter Tulay, who had fallen in love with a man from the “wrong branch” of Islam; and you’ll see the traces of a British judicial and policing system left almost powerless to protect innocent human life by its own confusion over how to express respect for diverse cultures, while upholding basic law and order.

There is, of course, no question of what should have been done in Tulay Goren’s case.  Her father is a psychopathic bully whose violence extended far beyond his relationship with Tulay; Tulay should never have been left at his mercy.  But the failure of the police to protect Tulay reminds us that the enduring scars of colonialism and race politics run through our own minds, as well as between our minds and those of others.  Were the police as concerned about Tulay as they would have been about a similarly distressed “English” girl?  Possibly not.

But were they also inhibited by their membership of an ex-imperial culture lately shocked into a neurotic unwillingness to impose ethical norms on anyone who claims cultural exemption from them? Quite possibly; even when those norms clearly have nothing to do with the specifics of western culture, and everything to do with such universal moral basics as the idea that “thou shalt not kill.”

What should be crystal clear from the story of the Goren case, in other words, is that in failing to protect women like Tulay, we in the west go far beyond a simple betrayal of our own best values.  It is true that over the last century, western society has made giant  strides towards real gender equality, in which we can take some pride.  It’s worth noting, though, that well within living memory, entrenched patriarchal assumptions about everything from women’s work to domestic violence – including strict social rules about covering the head in certain public places – were prevalent everywhere in British society; and feminism itself has lately become such a traduced and unfashionable cause that in many areas of public life, the position of women is actually deteriorating once more.

And just as mainstream British society has less reason to be smug about gender equality than it sometimes imagines, so it is wrong to assume that minority cultures and faiths somehow sanction, permit or encourage the kind of pathological violence shown by Mehmet Goren to his family.  In the first place, this casual assumption that unfamiliar or “foreign” faiths permit horrific practices is racist in itself, based on the old idea that other cultures are “primitive”, whereas ours is more civilised and well-developed.  No faith with as long, complex and learned a history as Islam – to name only the most obvious example –  should ever be viewed in such a simplistic and pejorative way.

Secondly, and much more directly, such assumptions betray those brave men and women within minority communities – particularly women like the mother and sister of Tulay Goren, who finally spoke out about her terrible death – who are fighting every day, in the Britain of the 21st century, to free women from the kind of ignorant patriarchal bullying that has reared its head at different times within every cultural tradition on the planet, and is particularly characteristic of the moment when a traditional rural culture is placed under stress by a traumatic encounter with modernity.  Most families, in every tradition, manage to negotiate this dangerous corner without descending into the nightmare of domestic murder that engulfed the Gorens.  But every student of the social history of Britain’s own industrial revolution knows that behind the closed doors of its miners’ rows and tenement flats, fists often flew, as damaged men took their revenge on those whom they could control, in a world increasingly unfamiliar and threatening.

In that context, the idea of the bullying, control and occasional murder of women as a source of “honour” for men is nothing but an organised form of the same thuggery, a distorted reflection of village tradition sharpened by the stress of social change, and embraced by a minority who can find no other way to achieve a sense of power.  No religion sanctions it, no faith requires it, no tradition excuses it.

In even using the words “honour killing” to describe it, we therefore accord it too much respect.  It has nothing to do with honour, everything to do with the deliberate oppression of women purely on grounds of their sex, and with unchecked bullying leading to criminal violence.  And the honour in this case lies entirely with two fine women, Tulay’s heroic mother Hanim and her sister Nuray, who would not let the waters close over the head of their beloved daughter and sister; and with all those, of all faiths, who helped them to their victory on Thursday, reaching out across every kind of divide between cultures to serve an ideal of justice and human equality that finally matters more than any of them, and is bigger than them all.

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Pinocchio (Perth)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on PINOCCHIO at Perth Theatre, for The Scotsman 18.12.09
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2 stars **

THE MORE I SEE OF stage versions of Carlo Collodi”s Pinocchio, the more it seems to me that the much-mocked Disney film – with its cute little hero, its Jiminy Cricket, and its determined prettifying of the story – is the only dramatisation of it that has ever really worked as children’s entertainment.  Anything that sticks closer to Collodi’s strange original tale tends to be too dark, disturbing and bafflingly epsodic for younger audiences.  So it’s perhaps not surprising that Perth Theatre’s Christmas version of the tale is a joyless and gruelling effort that completely misses the seasonal mark; although it does it in a style that truly sets the teeth on edge.

The problem is not with the technical quality of Ian Grieve’s production.  It boasts an excellent cast (led by Liam Brennan as the old shoemaker Geppetto and Tom McGovern as The Fox) who sing and dance with great elegance, and do their best to build a relationship with the audience.  It also has a beautiful if ludicrously pretentious set by Becky Minto, a kind of surreal dream bedroom which never looks remotely like any of the settings of the story.

No, the show’s failure is almost entirely down to Irish writer Paul Boyd’s camp, tasteless and unfuriatingly self-absorbed  musical adaptation  of the story, full of incredibly louche double-entendres, and overlong, over-clever sub-Sondheim songs stuffed with tedious Broadway showbiz  references.  In a loft in Greenwich Village, in front of an adult audience of self-obsessed theatre professionals, this version of Pinocchio might go down a storm.  But in Perth on a winter’s night, this awful combination of prissy, pretentious chldren’s drama and up-itself theatrical camp could hardly be less relevant or more boring; and the staging of it is the kind of misjudgment that should be chalked up to experience, and left behind.

ENDS ENDS

Review Of The Decade, 2000-2009

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE NOUGHTIES: A DECADE OF CULTURAL QUESTIONING AND MELTDOWN, WITH A NATIONAL THEATRE  TO MATCH or Scotsman Arts, 17.12.09
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LOOK BACK down the theatre trail from this Christmas to the turn of the millennium, and there’s no doubt which of many magical moments stands out most strongly in the memory.  The year was 2006, the month was August, the place was not a conventional theatre, but the old Edinburgh University Drill Hall in Forrest Road; and the show was Black Watch, the greatest of all the 25 productions and projects staged by Scotland’s new National Theatre during its now-legendary first year of operation.  The show was big, and beautiful, and magnificently staged; it was a state-of-the-art piece of theatre in every respect.

What made it truly great, though, was something which no theatre director – not even Vicky Featherstone of the National Theatre of Scotland, nor her associate John Tiffany who directed Black Watch – can ever entirely predict or plan; and that was the perfect coincidence between Gregory Burke’s script, based on detailed interviews about the experience of ordinary Scottish soldiers in Iraq, and the explosive moment of mounting concern and anger over the war in which it appeared, first in Scotland, then across the world, from Sydney to Los Angeles.

Black Watch became, in other words, one of the key artworks of a uniquely strange and disturbing decade, one that began at the height of a glittering and apparently endless economic boom,  and that ended in the most spectacular economic bust since 1929.  What’s more, Black Watch came from a small country that had seen it own roller-coaster decade, beginning in a mood of celebration over the opening of the new Scottish Parliament, rapidly decaying into an orgy of national exasperation and self-disgust over the Holyrood building project and other disappointments, then gradually beginning to achieve a new equilibrium.

And it belonged, absolutely and completely, to a decade which has seen what is possibly the greatest communications revolution since the invention of the printing-press; the decade that saw the internet establish itself as the key global public arena of our time, and begin to challenge all other traditional means of cultural exchange, from bookshops and music stores to newspapers themselves.  In that environment, theatre can never rest on its laurels, or assume that it will always attract an audience by churning out a diet of well-made plays.  It has to offers levels of engagement, excitement, surprise and live interaction that are not available on screen or on line; and shows like Black Watch, with their “total theatre” involvement of all the human senses, help – among many other things – to make the case for the art-form itself.

In that sense, Scotland’s new National Theatre – which began operations in February 2006, following a decision by the Scottish Government almost three years earlier – has emerged as an iconic 21st century institution, born of the times we live in.  With no theatre building base, and no permanent company of actors, the NTS functions as a light-touch commissioning `and co-producing company, with a strong creative drive; and its flexible structure  has opened the way to what is, by national theatre standards, a formidably experimental programm.  Ever since its explosive opening night in 2006 – when the NTS created no fewer than ten site-specific shows on the theme “Home”, staged in found spaces from a ferry in Lerwick harbour to a tower block in Glasgow and a drill hall in Dumfries – the company has tended to specialise in new work, site-specific theatre, ambitious children’s shows, and a dazzling range of well-funded youth and community work.  Of almost 70 NTS projects and shows in the last four years, only about twenty have been conventional main stage or small-scale touring shows for adult audiences.  This is not, in other words, the National Theatre of which conventional campaigners dreamed; but it is arguably the right National Theatre for our time, and one that has put Scotland at the cutting-edge of international theatre culture.

It’s worth remembering, though, that the NTS has been able to make such a substantial impact only because of the richness of the theatre scene into which it was born.  Back in 2000, for example, Scotland already had – and still has – at least two outstanding companies in the emerging field of site-specific theatre, in Angus Farquhar’s NVA, and Jude Doherty and Ben Harrison’s Grid Iron.   In the Traverse, it had – and still has – one of the world’s leading new play theatres, producing a steady, brilliant and politically challenging stream of new writing through the decade, from Gregory Burke’s dazzling 2001 debut with Gagarin Way, to David Greig’s Damascus in 2007.

In Glasgow, Scotland already had the Arches, one of the most exciting cross-art-form venues in Europe, linking young theatre-makers to worlds of music, clubbing, visual arts and new media; if this has been the decade of any one Scottish venue, it has been the age of the Arches, the venue most able to break down and challenge traditional forms.  And if Suspect Culture, icons of Scotland’s 1990’s zeitgeist, finally called it a day – as did the last remnants of the once-great 7:84 Scotland Company – Wildcat veteran David McLellan reinvented himself, and the whole business of new-play production in Scotland, with the 2004 launch of his now-legendary Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime theatre at Oran Mor in Glasgow, which has produced no fewer than 168 new short plays in five years.

This decade of reinvention and formal challenge has not, by contrast, been a vintage period for mainstage theatres like the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh and the Citizens’ in Glasgow.  But there have been ten years of memorable achievement for the ensemble company at Dundee Rep, who produced both the greatest classical revival of the decade in Dominic Hill’s 2007 NTS co-production of Peer Gynt, and the most exuberantly successful new Scottish musical, in the joyous, beautifully-staged Proclaimers tribute show, Sunshine On Leith.  And at end of the decade, perhaps in response to economic recession, new and traditional forms of music theatre began to take shape all over Scotland, with David Greig and Gordon McIntyre’s beautiful miniature musical Midsummer emerging as one of the surprise smash hits of last year.

As the decade ends, though, it’s worth sounding a warning in one key area.  The long-running debacle over the merger of the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen, and the setting up of the new Creative Scotland, has cast a pall over the second half of the decade, and created a dangerous psychological gap between the National Theatre of Scotland – which is directly funded by the Scottish Government – and the rest of Scotland’s large and medium-scale theatre groups, who have been subjected to the kind of prolonged period of uncertainty that inevitably breeds paranoia and mistrust.  The result is that at a time of unprecedented central government investment in the art-form, when our National Theatre has won huge respect on the world stage, and when levels of achievement in Scottish theatre have arguably never been higher, many sections of the industry are more depressed and fearful about their future than ever before, and more inclined to look outside Scotland for work.

This is the cost of government carelessness about the arts, as a key element of  national life.  And it highlights the laziness of any assumption that if the National Theatre of Scotland is all right, then the nation’s theatre culture is all right.  For in fact, the reverse is the case; and it’s only steady support for Scotland’s wider theatre life, in all its richness and variety, that will sustain the NTS through the storms of the coming decade, as a representative not only of itself, but of a nation full of strong creative centres, and one that finally knows how to value its own unique contemporary genius.

ENDS ENDS

Aladdin (Glasgow)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ALADDIN at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 17.12.09
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4 stars ****

THE TROUBLE WITH hugely talented panto performers is that they tend to become ever more dominant in the show’s relationship with the audience, if only because of the sheer cumulative strength of the audience response to them.  Gerard Kelly is a star of that brilliance, skipping and wobbling onto the stage of the Glasgow King’s every year in the role of one gormless Buttons-figure or  another, and effortlessly sweeping all 1500 members of the audience along with him in his hapless quest for love, money, and a bit of peace from his Mammy’s scolding.

It therefore says a great deal for the depth of the Glasgow talent pool that despite Kelly’s ever-strengthening bond with the audience, the big annual panto at the King’s – a familiar-looking version of Aladdin, with Kelly in his classic role as Wishee-Washee – stills seems like a pretty well-balanced effort, largely thank to Karen Dunbar’s emergence as a gorgeous, funny and beguiling female Dame, perhaps the first Widow Twankey ever to adopt a look that’s as much post-punk single Mum as ageing Victorian washerwoman.

For a Glasgow pantomime, this Aladdin – like last year’s Cinderella – is strangely bereft of Glasgow jokes and references; the accent and mood is there, but not the content.  And Any Dream Will Do star Keith Jack makes a hesitant Aladdin.  But there’s plenty of strong, effective showbiz talent in the company, from John Ramage’s pompous little emperor on down.  And when Ms. Dunbar girds up her skirts and belts out her tranformation version of the theme from Fame, accompanied by a great  little chorus of singing, dancing Glasgow kids – well, the old King’s panto becomes irresistible again; and ready to defend its corner in any coming Glasgow panto wars, as commercial giants Qdos begin a massive advance marketing campaign for next winter’s rival Aladdin, at the SECC.

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