Monthly Archives: December 2010

Cricket, Lovely Cricket: And The Decline Of The UK Political Parties As Forces For The Union – Column 31.12.10

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 31.12.10
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FORGIVE ME IF IT HAS ESCAPED YOUR ATTENTION so far; but earlier this week, on the other side of the world, the England cricket team won a match, retaining the Ashes in Australia for the first time in almost a quarter of a century.  The scenes of rejoicing among British media types were intense.  The item dominated the BBC’s morning news bulletins; and the Prime Minister was hauled out of a family Christmas gathering into some Witney lane, to make a few boys’-own-paper confessions about how he had taken his mobile phone to bed with him, so as not to miss a moment of this great national triumph.

Like all major sports, of course, cricket – lovely cricket – is a strange mixture of big business, meaningless play, and highly-charged proxy warfare.  For many Australians, this particular failure clearly represents a national trauma of a very familiar type.  For them as for some Scots, England are the old enemy, or at least the old colonial power, and defeat at their hands is peculiarly painful; “Long To Reign Over Us”, wailed one bitter Australian headline, after the match.

And as for the multiple meanings of this English victory for the current state of British politics – well, at this turn of the New Year, they indicate choppy waters ahead, in the long story of the United Kingdom.  It’s not that Scots generally begrudge England this particular victory.  Scotland lacks a major cricket team of its own, and Scots have often played in the England side; back in the 1970’s, the England team was even captained by a Scot, Mike Denness.

The brute fact, though, is that most Scots don’t give a damn about the sport one way or the other; and that sets them apart from a British media and political class which simply assumes that an Ashes victory is a cause of rejoicing to the entire nation.  And although this is a small matter in the great scheme of things, it seems somehow symptomatic of a wider collapse of understanding about the nature of the state we live in, among our major UK political parties.

There was a time, after all, when all three main UK parties, in their different ways, represented major cohesive forces between Scotland and England.  The old-fashioned Tories spoke for aristocratic, landowning and business interests which were well aware of the geography of Britain, and owned assets in all parts of it.  The Liberals were the traditional party of progressive opinion in Scotland, and retained strong support outside the central belt even after the emergence of the Labour Party.  And the Labour Party was founded on a tradition of working-class solidarity that scorned national boundaries, and sought to build a real community of interest among working people, across the UK, and beyond.

Now, though, all three parties have largely abandoned those cohesive principles.  The Tories, since the 1970’s, have become an ideological alliance of free-market believers, much more popular in the mercantile south-east than in other parts of Britain.  The Liberal Democrats have gone into alliance with the Conservatives, changing the political landscape for good.

And the Labour Party has walked away from its trade union roots, in a culturally-driven attempt to appear as middle-class, as bland, and as London-media-friendly as the other two mainstream parties; so much so that the prominence of half-a-dozen Scots in the Labour administration of 1997-2010 now seems like a doomed last hurrah for regional variety in British government, unlikely ever to be attempted again.

What seems to be happening, in other words, is that even as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland advance deeper into the long experiment of devolution, Westminster culture is becoming ever more indifferent to the existence of any part of Britain outside the M25 beltway.  That this is dangerous to the Union is self-evident.  Just as Tory indifference to Scottish opinion made devolution almost inevitable by the end of the 1990’s, so the devolution-blindness of the present administration, in areas from student finance to electoral reform, is bound to provoke a growing sense of alienation.

In the end, though, the growing cultural indifference of the British establishment to the rest of the nation is damaging in ways that go beyond party politics.  In the past week, I have seen two episodes of that powerful television programme Who Do You Think You Are?, in which two bright, upper-middle-class sprigs of the modern media establishment – the gardener Monty Don, and the comedian David Mitchell – discovered to their increasing emotion that they were descended respectively from the great Keillor’s jam-making family of Dundee, and from the Mitchell family who farmed the huge sheep-run of Ribigill in Sutherland after the Highland clearances.

Of course, it’s easy for the London media now to raise a cheap laugh by doing what another programme did this week, sending three London-based comedians around Scotland to flirt with the camera, while reducing the place to a few facile stereeotypes. The value of Who Do You Think You Are?, though, is that it compels metropolitian types who may never have given a second thought to their cultural identity to understand that some other place in the UK – Scotland, or Wales, or the north – is not some comedy “other” to be sent up and mocked, but a deep and serious part of themselves and of their story.

And the more our cultural elites turn away from that knowledge into a thin and arrogant insularity, the weaker, the less resilient, and the less well governed British society will be.  Which may, in the end, be good news for the SNP at the ballot box.  Yet it also tends to  impoverish us all in much more subtle ways, at the time of year when we link arms to ask whether auld acquaintance should be forgot, or cherished and remembered; and not only for the sake of Auld Lang Syne, but for the future of our deep social union on these islands, which will endure, no matter what constitutional path we finally decide to tread.

ENDS ENDS

Cinderella, Aladdin, Sleeping Beauty

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on CINDERELLA at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, ALADDIN at Perth Theatre, and SLEEPING BEAUTY at Dundee Rep, for Scotsman Arts 30.12.10
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Cinderella   4 stars ****
Aladdin   3 stars ***
Sleeping Beauty  4 stars ****

SOME THEATRES ARE MADE for producing pantomimes; and Pitlochry Festival Theatre – as it was bequeathed to the next generation by its late, great director Clive Perry – is now undoubtedly one of them.  Spread out along the western bank of the River Tummel, it has scene-building and costume-making workshops galore, a fine large stage, and a gorgeous glass foyer double-glazed for winter warmth; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Christmas tree glitter more convincingly than the 20-foot beauty in the bar at Pitlochry, silhouetted against last week’s snowy landscape outside.

So despite the ravages of the weather – which kept many Perthshire theatregoers snowbound this month – there’s a fine sense of fulfilment about this year’s first-ever Pitlochry pantomime, directed with flair and feeling by the theatre’s current boss John Durnin, and delivered with fine festive goodwill by a top-flight ensemble company who know one another well from recent Pitlochry summer seasons.  John Durnin’s choice is that great panto classic, Cinderella; and in a genial way, he takes full advantage of the story’s legendary themes of poverty and hard work in the kitchen, matched with snobbery and cruelty upstairs, to poke some gentle fun at attitudes to poverty and wealth in David Cameron’s Britain.

So Sandy Batchelor’s Prince Charlemagne is a handsome but vacuous toff who wants to be charitable to the poor, but does more harm than good; his parents the king and queen – brought to life with hilarious distinction by Crawford Logan and River City’s Deirdre Davis – are a pair of giggling reactionaries who think helping the peasantry only encourages them.  Jacqueline Dutoit’s wicked stepmother is an Ivana Trump-style Russian oligarch who wears outrageous designer clothes, and wants to turn the grounds of Hardup Hall into a luxury golf course.  And as for her two ghastly daughters, Danny and Cheryl – well, you can imagine the rest, as Alan Steele and George Rae galumph around the place in an ever more horrendous series of costumes, as a memorable pair of Ugly Sisters.

So far, so topical; but all  this is set in fine traditional style against a Perthshire baronial backdrop evoked with humour and affection by designer Adrian Rees, with familiar skylines and plenty of dry local humour.  Lorna Gold is a lovely Cinderella, pretty, down-to-earth and likeable as she sings her way through Stuart Watson’s effective original score.  And in Gavin Wright, John Durnin has found a truly inspired Buttons-figure, effortlessly at one with the booing, cheering audience, and promising great things for the future.  Unlike most of the other big pantos this year – Glasgow and Edinburgh, Stirling and Perth – Pitlochry has no chorus of  local children or young folks, adding to the chemistry between stage and audience.  In every other way, though, this is a panto to celebrate; and although it was the first at Pitlochry, I trust it won’t be the last.

Down the road in Perth, meanwhile, it’s a huge pleasure to find Perth Theatre also back on the panto trail, after a couple of years of gloomy children’s shows.  Ian Grieve’s jolly Aladdin suffers from weaknesses in the writing; despite strong efforts to include local jokes, and to give the traditional story a modern “makeover” twist featuring a couple of fierce television fashionistas in highland dress, the jokes seem a shade leaden, and there are moments when the dialogue seems trapped at a tight corner of the story, without any means of escape.

If this Aladdin is sometimes rough-edged and hesitant, though, it’s also full of spirit, with a thigh-slapping female Aladdin in Lorna Craig, brilliantly-coloured panto sets and costumes by Trevor Coe – not tasteful, but fun – and a jolly villain, Abanazar, in Tom McGovern.  And the show’s use of local children is inspired, with a chorus of tiny tots and older kids contributing brilliantly to most of the big musical numbers, and also helping the dialogue along.  It’s not subtle, it’s not smart, and it’s not really satirical; but it’s a good old local panto of the kind Perth hasn’t seen for a while, and the audience cheered it to the echo.

If panto isn’t your style, though, then one of the most elegant Christmas shows of the year is Dundee Rep’s dramatic version of Sleeping Beauty, featuring no audience participation at all.  Charles Way’s version of the story is a Celtic one, in which two sister sorceresses – the lovely Brigid, all in white with flowing blonde hair, and the wicked Cailleach, twisted with bitterness and envy – confront one another over the fate of the baby girl Brigid has given to the childless king and queen; while the shy young Prince Owain – like many of this year’s male  heroes – struggles to find his courage, and his life-giving capacity for love, in time to save the Princess.

Jemima Levick’s lyrical production – with slightly over-elaborate design by Alex Lowde – is sometimes a little lacking in pace and drive; and although Irene Macdougall’s performance as the wicked Cailleach is terrifyingly complex and brilliant, it sometimes seems almost too much for the tiny tots in the audience.

What it lacks in pace, though, the production makes up in beauty, as Alasdair Macrae’s music – delivered live on stage – ripples through the onstage landscape of woods and marshland, and the lovely Emily Winter, as Brigid, hatches benign conspiracies with her grunting sidekick, a scaly little half-dragon played with flair by Kevin Lennon.  And if this is not the most cheerful Christmas show in the Scottish pantosphere, it is one of the most thought-provoking.  Alyth McCormack and Robert Paterson, as the king and queen, offer a disturbingly vivid portrayal of doting parents whose love somehow misses the mark; and Helen Darbyshire’s Briar Rose is an inspiring heroine, finding her way through to happiness, despite them all.

Cinderella at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until this weekend, with a final performance at 5.00 p.m. on New Year’s Day.  Aladdin at Perth Theatre, and Sleeping Beauty at Dundee Rep, both until 8 January.

ENDS ENDS

Privacy In Our Time: Wikileaks, the Vince Cable Tapes, and the Tommy Sheridan Verdict – Column 24.12.10

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 24.12.10
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SO THIS IS CHRISTMAS; and for most of us, it marks the one time of year when – for a few days, at least – we are not only allowed but expected to retreat into whatever we think of as our private lives.  That this is a complicated business goes without saying; for every person blessed with a happy family, and looking forward to a jolly week of presents and party-games, big family meals and winter walks, there is another who finds the whole business lonely or problematic, fraught with conflict, or downright painful.

Most of us, though, can rest assured that whatever we get up to during this private time, our exploits will not find their way into the 24-hour media that increasingly shape our world.  We are not as certain of that as we used to be, of course, with every decent mobile phone now capable of making instant short movies that can be transferred to the internet in seconds.  Mostly, though, we can still feel fairly confident that our unguarded moments and drunken musings will not be made public; if only because we are not important enough for our off-duty activities to interest anyone but ourselves.

For those who do rank as important in our society, though, there can no longer be any such confidence; and it’s perhaps significant that three of the biggest stories in the news this Christmas all have to do, in different ways, with the exposure and publication of material that would once have been considered private.  There is the continuing story of Wikileaks, and of its charismatic founder, Julian Assange.  There is the agony of the Liberal Democrat ministers – led by business secretary Vince Cable – who have been caught out telling Daily Telegraph reporters, posing as as sympathetic constituents, exactly what they think of some of their Tory coalition colleagues, and of their plutocratic friends.

And there is the long-running case of Tommy Sheridan, the former MSP and Scottish Socialist leader who was yesterday convicted of perjury at Glasgow High Court.  Whatever the full truth of the Sheridan case, it is clear that most of the material published about him by the News Of The World had to do with his private sexual conduct; yet because of his political career, he was marked down as “fair game”, and subjected to a massive and bruising intrusion into his private life.

So it’s perhaps time, as we take our annual break from everyday routine, to start thinking a little more sharply and analytically about what is going on, in this age when a public “right to know” is increasingly held to trump every other consideration; and it strikes me that there is one very positive aspect to this change, and two of which we should be more wary.  In the first place, the “right to know” culture clearly reflects a society much less deferential, and in that sense more egalitarian, than it used to be.  Once upon a time, there were those deemed fit to know the detail of what went on in government and among the ruling class, and those who – in general – were kept in almost complete ignorance.  Sexual hypocrisy was rife, with the boss class routinely proclaiming one set of moral rules, and living by another; and in terms of gender politics, from the British royal family to President John F. Kennedy, the whole system reeked of male complicity and lies, in a world of power from which women were often excluded.

If it is difficult to mourn the passing of that world of governmental secrecy and deference, though, there are still two major areas of concern.  The first relates to the experience of ordinary people – not power-holders, leaders or celebrities, but ordinary citizens like, for example, the parents of Madeleine McCann – who find themselves caught up in the same processes of exposure that are now often applied to public figures, with consequences that are often as cruel as they are unacceptable.

And then secondly – in the wake of the Vince Cable affair – we need to ask ourselves some tough questions about why politicians, in particular, are subjected to such a relentless barrage of intrusion and scrutiny.  Of course, they are people who choose to stand for election, and to take part in public life.  Yet as one former senior Liberal Democrat put it this week, we increasingly seem to live in a world where polticians have all of the accountability, and very little of the power.  As the roasting of Vince Cable demonstrates, today’s leading politicians are, in fact, a pretty pathetic bunch, barely able to resist the lobbying of the wealthy and powerful at any turn.

Yet even the most influential lord of commerce, hundreds of times wealthier than the richest politician, is rarely if ever subjected to the kind of intrusion that is commonplace for front-line politicians; indeed, when the BP chief executive Tony Hayward was briefly hauled over the public coals this year, after the massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, his whole demeanour bespoke a kind of outraged bewilderment.

For a culture of openness to work as a force for democracy and freedom, in other words, it has to be even-handed, and to hold power to account wherever it lies, rather than simply colluding with a sustained right-wing attack on the power and credibility of elected politicians.  And it also has to know its limits, in terms of intrusion into the private lives of those who – whether or not they are in public life – have never sought to legislate for the private lives of others.  So as we withdraw into the joy or sorrow of our own private worlds this weekend, we might pause just for a moment to ask ourselves exactly whose privacy we regard as sacrosanct; and whether it could ever be right – or “in the public interest” –  for anyone to intrude into our own private conversations; whether we’re murmuring sweet nothings into a mobile phone this Christmas, or just exchanging a bit of banter around the Christmas tree, after a lavish dinner, and a few too many glasses of wine.

ENDS ENDS

Hairspray, Flo White

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on HAIRSPRAY at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, and FLO WHITE at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts 23.12.10
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Hairspray  4 stars ****
Flo White   4 stars ****

EVERY GOOD CHRISTMAS SHOW NEEDS A DAME, according to tradition; and although some, these days, manage to get by without a big man in a dress setting up the seasonal mood of anarchy and laughter, this year’s festive show at the Edinburgh Playhouse follows the tradition to the letter, and reaps its reward in roars of approval from a packed audience.

It’s not that Mark Shaiman’s cult-hit show Hairspray – a 2002 musical based on the original John Waters film of the 1980’s – is exactly a traditional pantomime. Set in Baltimore in the early 1960’s, it’s a jolly high school show about how a chubby but gorgeous and talented kid called Tracy Turnblad overcomes various kinds of fascism – the body fascism of the pretty girls in her class, and the racism of pre-1960’s white America – to win herself a musical career that crosses the old barriers of race in a segregated society on the cusp of change, and defies the convention that only thin, blonde girls ever get the guy.

In its feel-good atmosphere, though – as well as its clear-cut battle between good and evil, and its jolly music-theatre format – Hairspray is more like a pantomime than some of its fans might think.  And if you throw in the classic drag act at the centre of the show, with Michael Ball – in this touring production – taking on the key role of Tracy’s burly but vulnerable mother, Edna, then the resemblance becomes so pronounced that it wouldn’t be surprising if the audience started to shout “they’re behind you” whenever the story’s twin racists, Velma and Amber Von Tussle, appear on stage.

Like any pantomime, Hairspray treads a fine line between enjoyable naughtiness and bad-taste sleaze; and there are one or two moments, in Michael Ball’s scenes with charming ex-Monkee Micky Dolenz as doting husband Wilbur, when the body language verges on the embarrassing.

For most of the show, though, Ball walks this line with flair, and looks lovely into the bargain.  The Sixties look and sound of Jack O’Brien’s production, matched by Jerry Mitchell’s tight, bright choreography, are hard to fault.  And with a dozen or so decent songs in the score, a cast of almost 30 on stage, and lovely Laurie Scarth delivering a flawlessly spirited central performance as Tracy, this is an admirably well-crafted Christmas treat of a show, enjoyable, good-hearted, and completely professional, in the best sense of the word.

A few years ago, the famous meta-pantomime at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow – designed not only to contribute to the Scottish panto scene, but also to send it up something rotten – suffered a major disaster, with the sad death of the much-loved Tron dame, Bob Carr.  This year, though, the theatre has found a stunning replacement in the wonderful Alasdair McCrone, director of Mull Theatre, and a fine comic actor in his own right; and as McCrone takes the stage in a shiny figure-hugging space-suit, as Captain Flo White of the starship Pantoprise, it’s clear that a formidable new Scottish Dame is about to be born.

Although the story of Flo White bears some distant relationship to the more familiar  tale of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs – currently on stage at the King’s in Glasgow – it should be said that the Tron panto-writers Gordon Dougall and Fletcher Mathers have put the story through a profound transformation, moving it into hyperspace, and compelling Sally Reid’s lovely Snow White to share the stage not only with her mother – that ageing but curvaceous starship captain – but with a wicked queen who shoots through space in a starship called the Mingin’ Maiden, a friendly robot who wants to be a real boy, and a prince whose pointy ears suggest Spock-style origins.

All of this, of course, is only an excuse for a torrent of rude jokes about Scottish theatre and popular culture.  There are multiple references to the X-Factor and Barry White, and a spoof guest appearance by Meatloaf with Lady Gaga, in her famous meaty dress.  The dwarves are replaced by a cut-out of an about-to-re-form ancient boy-band called The Seven Sausage Suppers; and so it goes on, ever more silly, surreal and enjoyable.   Sally Reid and Darren Brownlie make an adorable Cinderella-and-Buttons pair, masterminding the song-sheet in terrific style.  And if the jokes about the King’s panto seem a little less harsh this year, that’s perhaps because the spirit of the late, great Gerard Kelly – the famous star of the King’s panto – survives as much at the Tron, in this loving and detailed send-up of the whole panto tradition, as it does at the King’s, where Kelly  strutted his stuff in such style.

Hairspray at the Playhouse, Edinburgh until 9 January; Flo White at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until 8 January.

ENDS ENDS

Review Of The Year 2010

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THEATRE IN SCOTLAND 2010     for Scotsman Arts, 23.12.10
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IT’S BEEN A STRANGE, STRONG, paradoxical year in Scottish theatre; and when I let my mind roll back over it, three or four powerful  images flash into focus.  In the first, from the beginning of the year, I am in an echoing hall at the SECC in Glasgow, clambering up into the drum-shaped fairground booth where the Ken Fox troupe, the last family group of wall-of-death riders in the Britain, rev up the mighty engines on their bikes, and show us what it means to defy gravity by riding at right-angles to the ground, 30 feet below.  This is the National Theatre of Scotland’s opening show of the year, Wall Of Death; and as I climb, I am not only asking all the obvious questions about whether this is theatre or not, but also admiring the sheer courage of the NTS’s director, Vicky Featherstone, in her determination to reshape the concept of what a National Theatre might be, and to challenge the very boundaries of the art-form that most national theatres accept without question.

In the second, I am sitting pressed against the wall of a basement flat at the corner of London Road in Edinburgh, watching three actors and a brilliant production team – design, writing, direction, sound – bring to life an aspect of my city that I have known of, but never before felt on my own skin; the horrific trafficking of girls as young as 14, to work as slave-prostitutes in our booming sex industry.  This is Ankur Productions’ Roadkill, the multiple-award-winning top show of the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe; and it was made in Glasgow and Edinburgh, through the drive and energy of one of Scotland’s most remarkable actor/director/musicians, Cora Bissett.

Then in the last image, from the end of the year, I am sitting in the stalls at the Royal Lyceum, one of Scotland’s most traditional spaces, being surprised by joy – and by the sheer exuberance of theatre – at Mark Thomson’s autumn production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest; one of the most brilliant and familiar comedies in the canon, recycled with wit and elegance and an anarchic youthful energy that fairly takes the breath away.

They say – quite rightly – that rules in theatre are only made to be broken; but all the same, this has been a year so full of contradictions as to be almost baffling.   It was a year when our National Theatre kicked against conventional definitions of the art-form in ways that seem vital for the future;  yet somehow failed to excite audiences in Scotland with its two big mainstage shows of the year, David Greig’s dark, Scottish-set version of Peter Pan and – during the Edinburgh Festival – Alistair Beaton’s Caledonia, a show which replayed all too accurately the triumph, disaster and tragi-comic embarrassment of the great Darien expedition of 1698-1700.

It was a year when the great boom in site-specific theatre sometimes seemed to be running out of steam.  Mainstage shows like The Importance Of Being Earnest at the Lyceum, and both James Brining’s Sweeney Todd and Jemima Levick’s stylish Doll’s House at Dundee (imagine Ibsen’s Nora as Betty Draper) suddenly seemed to fulfil a deep need for lush and authoritative collective experience, with no more messing about; or when well-made new plays – from Daniel Jackson’s smash-hit My Romantic History at the Traverse, to David Harrower’s spine-tinglingly brilliant lunchtime short Good With People at Oran Mor, and Alan Bennett’s visiting hit The Habit Of Art at the Theatre Royal – held audiences spellbound through their  sheer skill and eloquence.  Yet nonetheless, some of the most vivid and satisfying shows of the year were site-specific ones, from Roadkill itself to Huxley’s Lab, a great and imaginative collaboration between Edinburgh site-specific stars Grid Iron and Lung Ha’s Theatre Company for adults with learning difficulties, staged in the new Informatics Centre at Edinburgh University.

It was a year when Scottish theatre seemed more productive than ever before, with more than 300 shows in my diary, at least half of them made in Scotland; when the Edinburgh Festival boomed again, defying the recession, and the Scottish government’s imaginative Expo Fund helped Scottish companies make an ever-increasing impact on Fringe and Festival stages.  Yet it was also a year when the nation’s theatre scene often seemed diffuse, fragmented, lacking in self-confidence, overshadowed by big music and visual events like this year’s hugely successful Glasgow International, which spawned a rare, 13-hour art-and-theatre collaboration in Linder Sterling’s Darktown Cakewalk event at the Arches.  It was a year, let’s not forget, when theatre companies had to wait until November to learn that arts budgets in Scotland would not, after all, be savagely slashed for next year, at least by central government; and that the culture minister, Fiona Hyslop, had played a sound game in winning stability for a sector that could play a key role in revitalising our economy, and reimagining Scotland’s post-recession future.

And most strikingly of all, it was a year when Scottish theatre had a rare series of chances to revive and celebrate its achievements of the last half-decade; yet when it seemed ever more urgent and essential to move on, and not to be trapped in old definitions of “the new”.   In the autumn, the NTS staged another touring revival of its great 2006 hit Black Watch, still in huge demand across the world; Dundee Rep rolled out another tour of its beautiful 2007 Proclaimers tribute show, Sunshine On Leith.   And in November, the International European Theatre Meeting visited Glasgow, provoking revivals of a whole range of shows, from the Traverse’s gorgeous 2008 musical romance Midsummer, to Nic Green’s third-wave feminist masterpiece, Trilogy, first seen at the Arches two years ago.

Yet the sense of changing political times in Britain – the scale of the economic crash, the coming of the coalition government – made at least some of those shows, for all their brilliance, seem like work from an age already slipping into history.  Out there on the edge – in shows like David Ireland’s Tonight David Ireland Will Lecture, Box And Dance at Oran Mor, or Chris Hannan’s inspired satirical Traverse Christmas show The Three Musketeers And The Princess Of Spain  – there are signs of a different avant garde emerging; absurdist in spirit yet sharply and pointedly satirical in content, less inclined to borrow legitimacy from other art-forms, increasingly resistant to the fragmentation of theatrical experience, no longer in love with the modish brutalism of the in-your-face years, and unashamedly verbal and clever, once more.

It’s as if – as in that fine and significant Importance Of Being Earnest – the very act of being smart and stylish with language and form, and of respecting the past masters of that art, represents a form of theatrical resistance to the dumbed-down reality culture of the last decade.  And it’s a form of resistance we need to cultivate now, as never before; in a world where the gods of consumption have failed, and where the shared human quest for clarity, conviviality, laughter, insight, and beauty begins to emerge from the margins of our world, and take its rightful place, centre stage.

ENDS ENDS ENDS

Gender Divide

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on GENDER DIVIDE at the Tramway, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 20.12.10
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4 stars ****

THE ANIMALS WENT IN TWO by two; and since the subject is gender, there’s two of almost everything around Junction 25’s new show, presented as part of the Fresh Faced event at the Tramway, and marking the end of this award-winning youth company’s longest and most ambitious project so far.

So we enter the audience through two separate doorways – one for men, one for women – and sit in two separate banks of seating, facing each other, although the space is sometimes  divided by a black curtain.  The show has two casts – ten young women, seven young men – performing in two slightly different shows, close, but not quite the same.  And the cast-list comes in two columns, men to the left, women to the right; the female project is led by Glas(s) Performance stars Jess Thorpe and Tashi Gore with Rosana Cade, and the male one by Nick Anderson, Thom Scullion and Gary Gardiner.

And what does the show say? Well, it admits that it offers questions, rather than answers, about the qualities traditionally assigned to the two genders, and about the absurdity of trying to apply those generalisations to individual boys and girls.  There’s a great scene in which Francesca and Scott circle one another, discussing who is best at what, and finally exploding into a ridiculous race; and a magnificent sequence in which Nathan and Becca open their heavily gendered Christmas presents, hers suffering from the tyranny of pink, his from the tyranny of black and khaki.  And if the show doesn’t quite soar to the lyrical heights of Junction 25’s great piece about love, I Hope My Heart Goes First, it has exactly the same sense of restless inquiry, sharp choreography, classy scriptwriting, and explosive collective energy.  Oh yes, and a powerful sense of freedom; which for kids growing up in 2010, is perhaps the most significant quality of all.

ENDS ENDS

The Student Finance Row: And Why “Unionists” At Westminster Need To Consider The Devolution Dimension, Or Expect Trouble – Column 17.12.10

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 17.12.10
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THE MINISTER HAS MADE his announcement, and the headlines are screaming blue murder.  “Even EU students will pay less than the English,” yells the Daily Mail, along with “Punished For Being English”; meanwhile, the comment strands rave about British  ‘apartheid’, and throb with furious postings from English taxpayers tired of paying – as they see it – for more generous public spending elsewhere.

I’m not reflecting, though, on Education Secretary Michael  Russell’s launch of his higher education Green Paper, yesterday in the Scottish Parliament, but on the blistering row that surrounded the Welsh Assembly Government’s announcement on higher education funding, made in Cardiff a couple of weeks ago.  The Welsh government, of course, approaches this issue from a starting-point different from the Scottish one; students at Welsh universities are already paying fees of £3,290 a year, financed for those who live in Wales by subsidised loans.

Faced with the UK goverment’s determination to raise fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year, though, they have decided both to introduce those same higher fees at Welsh universities, and to make sure that no student domiciled in Wales actually pays them.  The Welsh Assembly government will make up the difference between old and new fees for all Welsh-based students, wherever they study; and because of EU equality legislation, they will have to offer the same subsidy to students from other EU countries.  And that essentially means that English-based students, from the land which gave us the new £9,000 fee, will end up paying almost three times as much as any other UK or EU student for the same course at a Welsh university.

So it’s perhaps hardly surprising that those of a Unionist persuasion are to be seen quivering apologetically, or roaring in outrage, over a university funding policy that so emphasises the growing divergence of policy under devolution.  It’s already clear, following this week’s signals from the Scottish government, that the debate in Scotland is heading in the same direction, as the Education Secretary repeats that he cannot allow Scottish universities to become a “cheap option” for incoming English students.  And meanwhile, all over the UK, young people approaching the end of their schooldays gaze about them like the baffled children of divorce, unable even to guess which university courses will offer them the best chance of graduating without a huge burden of debt.

So what can be done to resolve the university funding dispute in a way that maximises choice for those hundreds of thousands of youngsters?  The Daily Mail’s implied solution, of course, is simple; close down those uppity devolved governments, and give the Scots and Welsh their marching orders – i.e. that they should apply the same high-fees policy as the Westminster government, or sling their hook and leave the Union.

The first thing to grasp about this debate, though, is that this will not happen, and not only for reasons of low politics; for the divergence in policy over tuition fees reflects a real difference of principle and culture, which cannot be overcome by mere Blairite or Tory bluster about “getting real”, and accepting market solutions.  For every person in the UK who believes that university education is a private good, to be paid for by the individual, there is another who sees it as a public investment, to be supported by the state for reasons of wisdom and equity; and if the second group are slightly more dominant in Scotland and Wales, then they have a good right to see the devolved administrations reflect their views.

What is going on, in other words, is another phase in the long adjustment to the coming of devolution, for which new ground-rules are needed.  First, it needs to be accepted that the Scottish and Welsh governments are right to conclude that under devolution, students domiciled in England must be subject to the funding policies of the UK government, while the devolved administrations are responsible for the education of young people living in Scotland and Wales, and for the future of the universities within their own territory.

Secondly, if the consequences of that judgment seem hard, then the blame should attach to those who decided to make such a radical shift in the basis of English higher education funding, without even attempting to achieve a UK-wide consensus; and on their arrogant presumption that they could simply strong-arm Scottish and Welsh universities into going down the same route.  Forgetting about devolution, and failing to factor it into policy debate, has been a besetting sin of Westminster government ever since 1999.  And if the Tories and Liberal Democrats are the true Unionists they still  claim to be, what they will be learning from the student fees row is that if they want to avoid exacerbating Anglo-Scottish and Anglo-Welsh tensions, they should get back into discussion with the devolved administrations, revive the neglected Joint Ministerial Committees, and try, in future, to avoid policy conflicts that corrode social relations between the countries of the Union, rather than enhancing them.

For what is clear, finally, is that it’s not only the Welsh and Scottish people who have decisions to make about the future of the Union.  Alex Salmond and Mike Russell are not perfect politicians, by any means.  But they know this much: that Scots will not tolerate the debasement of higher education into a mere cash commodity, to be bought by wealthy parents for their overprivileged children, or purchased by those less fortunate at the cost of a lifetime of debt.  And the point about David Cameron is that if he is serious about being Prime Minister of the UK, and not just of the Thames Valley stockbroker belt, he will make it his business to know that too, and to take it into account.  Or he will run the risk, ten years on, of finding his country several hundred miles shorter than it was; and lacking four out of six of its most ancient universities, the ones founded in Scotland, between 1413 and 1582, for the education of young people of ability, regardless of their background, family, or wealth.

ENDS ENDS

The Secret Garden, Jack And The Beanstalk, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE SECRET GARDEN at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, JACK AND THE BEANSTALK at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, and SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 16.12.10
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The Secret Garden   4 stars ****
Jack And The Beanstalk   4 stars ****
Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs   4 stars ****

IF THERE’S ONE THEME that all good Christmas shows have in common, it’s the idea of regeneration and rebirth, after a long dark winter of the heart.  It’s because it fits this pattern so perfectly that Francis Hodgson Burnett’s great children’s story The Secret Garden, first published exactly 100 years ago, makes such a fine foundation for a Christmas show, despite it lack of traditional festive trappings; and it’s good to report that the Festival Theatre’s ambitious new production of the Broadway musical version of the book – first seen in New York in 1991 – emerges as a gorgeous, polished, haunting, intelligent and deeply dramatic piece of music theatre, spectacular in scale, beautifully performed, and powerfully directed by Anna Linstrum, with fine design and lighting by Francis O’Connor and Tim Mitchell.

Set in Yorkshire around the turn of the 20th century, Hodgson Burnett’s novel famously tells the story of young Mary Lennox, orphaned – and bereft of the Indian servants who have really cared for her – when a sudden overnight cholera epidemic kills all the adults in the Indian colonial settlement where she has been living with her parents.  Sent to stay at the bleak Yorkshire home of her mother’s sister’s widowed husband, Archibald, she finds herself in a place haunted  – literally, in this production – by the pale ghosts of all the adults who died in the epidemic, and of her Aunt Lily, whose death has driven her uncle half-mad with grief.

Mary is a difficult child at first, chilly, arrogant, and damaged.  But gradually, the kindness of Martha the maid who cares for her, of the garden boy Dickon who shows her the beauty of the moors, and of the gardener Ben, still secretly caring for the locked garden Lily once loved, enables her to bring the secrets of the house into the light of day, and to restore the whole family to life and joy.

It’s a complex story, that deals in a subtly radical way with a whole range of issues, from the English class structure – and the way it is reflected in language – to the racial politics of Empire; and Marsha Norman’s script and lyrics do full justice to the seriousness and joy of the story, catching most of its nuances with impressive energy and invention.  Lucy Simon’s music is slightly less successful; some of the music is overwritten, its Lloyd-Webber-romantic timbre becomes a shade repetitive, and there are about three songs too many, particularly in a second half that is slow to change the mood from haunted elegy to forward-looking adventure.

If the ghosts of the secret garden hang around a shade too long, though, there’s no faulting a superb series of performances from Anna Linstrum’s wonderful 20-strong cast, led at the performance I saw by a magnificent Sophie Kavanagh, of Mary Erskine’s School, as little Mary.  Siobhan Redmond is an elegant housekeeper, Lauren Hood a gorgeous Martha, Caspar Phillipson a memorably haunted Archibald.  And Francis O’Connor’s great Victorian-gothic set whirls and revolves in tremendous Broadway style, as this fine, moving and haunting show sets off on what could be a long international journey, beginning in Toronto, next year.

After so much dramatic intensity among this year’s Christmas shows, though, it’s something of a relief to turn to a str4aightforward feelgood pantomime like this year Jack And The Beanstalk at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh.  Sticking to its tried-and-tested formula of a short, brisk show dominated by Allan Stewart’s exuberant performance as Dame, the King’s panto this year welcomes back Stewart’s traditional sparring-partner Andy Gray, in the role of dopey King Crumble.

The show therefore strikes a much happier dramatic balance than in recent years, romping happily through this great panto story on a fine set by Scarborough panto-makers Qdos, marred only by the usual embarrassingly intrusive sponsorship from Churchill the insurance dog.  Andrew Scott-Ramsay makes a glamorous debut as Jack, Jo Freer is a pleasingly plump Princess Apricot.  And there’s the usual cheerful barrowload of local jokes about the tram fiasco, much appreciated by the rollicking Edinburgh audience, along with fine, energetic performances of all this year’s top panto songs, from I Gotta Feeling (Tonight’s Gonna Be A Good Night), to the Glee anthem Don’t Stop Believin’.

Following the sad death of Gerard Kelly back in October, the King’s panto in Glasgow is inevitably a slightly more sombre affair; and, it has to be said, a slightly less slick, sharp and enjoyable one.  The story is Snow White, featuring a traditional team of seven short people playing the dwarfs; and if their performance is sometimes embarrassingly self-conscious, Darius Campbell’s pop-star-to-opera-star appearance as the handsome Prince is far more wooden than the painted trees in the forest surrounding the dwarfs’ cottage.

What the show lacks in pace, taste and slickness, though, it gains in sheer heart, as Glasgow actor Gavin Mitchell steps gallantly into Kelly’s old role of Muddles the jester, and the whole theatre rises to a five-minute standing ovation when Mitchell dedicates the performance to Kelly’s memory.  And what’s most encouraging is that in taking over the role, Mitchell is already beginning to develop the tradition, as all the great panto performers do.  Sometimes, he become Kelly, all bendy knees and wild threats to the old ladies in the front row.  But at other times, he is himself, forging his persona in the white heat of performance, a new panto star being born in front of our eyes; and if you want a midwinter image of regeneration, and rebirth, then this is one that really matters, for the future of the great Scottish pantomime.

The Secret Garden at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, until 8 January.  Jack And The Beanstalk at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until 23 January.  Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, until 9 January.

ENDS ENDS

Sleeping Beauty (Oran Mor)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on SLEEPING BEAUTY at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 16.12.10
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3 stars ***

IT’S A GREAT THING to have a panto tradition so robust that it can sustain not only itself, but a flourishing tradition of satirical meta-pantos, including shows as cheerfully political and raunchy as this no-holds-barred version of Sleeping Beauty, conjured up for the loyal Oran Mor audience by those old masters of radical theatre, David MacLennan and Dave Anderson.  In past years, Anderson and MacLennan have created Oran Mor pantos of striking satirical and political brilliance, including last-year’s fierce and hilarious post-crash version of A Christmas Carol.

This year, though, the mood is less hard-hitting and the atmosphere naughtier, with a few references to the evil of “cuts” grafted lightly on to a cheerful reworking of the Sleeping Beauty story, with scenes from the classic movie version of The Wizard Of Oz.  Juliet Cadzow therefore plays three good fairies, the wicked witch, and an entire robber band of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men, with the aid of a couple of seaside-style cutouts into which she can stick her comely face.  Dave Anderson romps and frolics as the court jester.  Playwright Sandy Nelson plays the dis-inherited Prince, hilariously unable to use any adjective, noun or verb that doesn’t begin with the syllable “dis”; and young Catriona Grozier gives a truly eye-popping performance as an uncontrollably randy Dorothy, lashing herself with her pigtails in a sado-masochistic frenzy.

For myself, I could have done with a slightly more coherent political parable, and a little less tromfoolery.  But the whole event is good-natured, wickedly humorous, and beautifully presented, honouring all the great panto traditions even as it sends them up; and with a pie and a drink thrown in, this short but hilarious show is arguably the best-value entertainment for adults in the whole Scottish  pantosphere.

ENDS ENDS

A Bottle Of Wine And Patsy Cline

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on A BOTTLE OF WINE AND PATSY CLINE at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 15.12.10
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4 stars ****

THE BOTTLE OF WINE, it’s true, is only tiny, one of those little glass-and-a-half jobs.  That’s the only short measure, though, in this straightforwardly delightful tribute show to one of the mighty stars of country music, playing to packed crowds of singing, swaying fans at Oran Mor every weekend in the run-up to Christmas.  Patsy Cline was born in Winchester, Virginia in 1932, into a poor working-class family led by her indomitable mother, Hilda, and died just 30 years later, in a plane crash, as she headed home to her husband and two young children in Nashville after a charity concert.  Yet into that famously short life, she packed a stunning singing career, illuminated not only by her heartbreakingly beautiful and powerful voice, singing iconic hits like Crazy, Walking After Midnight, and Sweet Dreams Of You, but also by her striking determination to create a career on her own terms, despite public and private pressures from the men in her life.

And all of this is faithfully and powerfully captured in Morag Fullarton’s two-hour show, which is essentially a first-person monologue account of Patsy’s life, accompanied by music and occasional dramatic interventions from the four supporting cast members, including musical director Dave Anderson, and guitarist George Millar.  There’s nothing fancy about the script, which could afford to be shade more analytical about the working-class roots of country music, and the special dimension brought to it by Cline’s voice.  But a glowingly pregnant Gail Watson gives a beautiful and powerful performance as Cline, who was herself a young mother throughout most of her active career; and she not only sings the songs with an almost breathtaking accuracy and feeling, but seems to embody in herself the deeply female combination of vulnerability, passion and strength that characterised all Patsy’s great songs of heartbreak and survival, and that still has audiences crying and cheering, half a century on.

ENDS ENDS