Bus Stop, Spamalot, Tartuffe

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on BUS STOP at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, SPAMALOT at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, and TARTUFFE at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 17.6.10
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Bus Stop  4 stars ****
Spamalot  4 stars ****
Tartuffe   5 stars *****

EVERYONE HAS SEEN THE twin masks of comedy and tragedy  that adorn so many theatre buildings around the world.  Yet it’s still worth recalling, from time to time, just how interdependent  those two aspects of theatre are; and how often they come to us not in separate plays, but closely entwined, in the same show.

William Inge’s classic 1950’s comedy Bus Stop, for example, is recognised today mainly as the inspiration for Joshua Logan’s fine 1956 film, starring Marilyn Monroe.  Type its name into your search engine, and you’ll find images of the film everywhere, along with a synopsis suggesting that the story is about “a naive but stubborn cowboy who falls in love with a saloon singer, and tries to take her away against her will to get married and live on his ranch in Montana.”

Yet in Ken Alexander’s fascinating Pitlochry production – perhaps the first professional staging in Scotland of a play by Inge – Bus Stop emerges as something much more complex than that: a tale of the American midwest that lies somewhere between Oklahoma and Sam Shepard, in its evocation of eight characters trapped by a snowstorm in Grace’s Restaurant, a roadside diner in Kansas that doubles as a long-distance bus halt.

The characters certainly include Bo Decker, the untamed cowboy, and the lovely Cherie, the saloon singer he has dragged onto the bus against her will.  But there’s also Grace, the world-weary restaurant-owner, and her schoolgirl assistant Elma.  There’s the local sheriff, Will Masters.  There’s the bus driver, Carl, with more than a passing interest in Grace’s mature charms.  There’s Bo’s quiet friend, Vergil; and there’s Dr. Lyman, an elderly teacher on the run from the law for the sleaziest of reasons.   All of them are searching for love, after a fashion; and although Bo and Cherie finally end up in each other’s arms, everyone else’s future seems much less certain.

All of this is beautifully captured in Alexander’s vibrant production, which shapes each of the play’s three short acts into a rough-edged nugget of unfolding character-development.  Like a scene from Northern Exposure, Charles Cusick Smith’s fine set captures the folksy warmth and wood-lined comfort of the diner, without glamorising its limitations; above, the walls soar like the cages around a state penitentiary.  The music is solid  country and western, the classic prairie music of yearning and loss.  And although the performances vary in their ability to capture the sheer emotional rawness of the characters, there’s acting to remember from Amanda Gordon as Cherie, from Jennifer Rhodes and Jacquline Dutoit as Elma and Grace, and from Greg Powrie as Vergil, the guitar-playing cowboy who finds himself alone again, as his friend Bo finally gets his girl, and moves on into a new life.

If Bus Stop is a prime example of a comedy full of tragic undertones, the smash-hit Monty Python musical Spamalot – in Glasgow this week, as part of a UK tour  – is a show so genial in mood, and so innocent of darkness, that’s it easy to account for its colossal box-office success in difficult times.  The show describes itself as being “lovingly ripped off” from the film Monty Python And The Holy Grail, although it also borrows the classic Life Of Brian theme tune, Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life; and with radical stand-up star Marcus Brigstocke centre-stage as a geeky but elegant King Arthur, it musters just enough satirical energy to transcend mere mediaeval spoofery, and to keep the comedy moving along nicely.

In the true 1970’s spirit of Python, the show imagines the English peasantry as a bolshie bunch, given to challenging King Arthur’s right to rule on the say-so of some watery wench who hands him a sword, and rolling out anarcho-syndicalist arguments about democracy; wishful thinking, perhaps, but it makes an entertaining contrast to the sheer political vacuousness of most current musicals.  The songs are witty, the staging is clever, the singing is startlingly powerful, and the whole show has an air of good humour and grace that is altogether rare in post-modern entertainment; small wonder that audiences adore it, and respond by singing along with a will, and roaring for more.

If you want to see the art of comedy brought to a startling pitch of hard-hitting excellence, though, then Oran Mor at lunchtime is the place to be, this week.   The current show in the summer series of cut-down classics is a 50-minute version, by the playwright herself, of Liz Lochhead’s terrific 1985 adaptation of Moliere’s Tartuffe, a play which takes one of the most serious and tragic subjects in the book – unreasoning religious fundamentalism, and the oppression of women that often goes with it – and makes it into radical comedy that punches like a prizefighter and sparkles like champagne, all in the same moment.

I don’t know whether Tony Cownie’s production at Oran Mor has gained an extra edge of passion from the tragic backdrop to this week’s performances; they are dedicated to the memory of  Lochhead’s much-loved husband, Tom Logan, who died last week, aged only 55.  I do know, though, that I have never seen a top-flight cast of Scottish actors – including Andy Clark, Steven McNicoll, Molly Innes and Gabriel Quigley – give a sharper, funnier, or more explosively brilliant comic performance.  It’s a small production, but a glittering tribute to the sheer quality of Lochhead’s writing, which nails our homegrown brand of religious hyposcrisy to the wall, once and for all; and those who care for the work of this finest of Scotland’s playwrights and poets should rush to see it, between now and Saturday.

Bus Stop in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 14 October.  Spamalot at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, until Saturday, at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 16-21 August, and at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, 18-23 October.  Tartuffe at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday.

ENDS ENDS

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