Caged, Saint Catherine’s Day, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on CAGED at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, SAINT CATHERINE’S DAY at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and THE HITCH HIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY at the Ramshorn Theatre, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 31.3.11
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Caged 4 stars ****
Saint Catherine’s Day 4 stars ****
The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy 2 stars **

THE EASTER HOLIDAYS appear on the horizon: and suddenly, in Scottish theatre, it’s all fun and games, comedy and fairytales. It would be a mistake, though, to imagine that Catherine Wheels’s new show Caged – created by one of Scotland’s leading children’s theatre companies, and designed for audiences of any age over seven – is in any way a lightweight piece. It lasts only an hour, and its atmosphere is full of magic and romance; but at heart, it’s a serious reflection on one of the most powerful of all fairy tales, the story of Beauty And The Beast, and on its extraordinary resonances for an age increasingly obsessed with the idea of physical perfection.

The idea behind Rob Evans’s version of the tale is to strip it down to its essentials, in the two-way confrontation between Beauty – a young girl who has saved the life of her beloved father, briefly imprisoned by the Beast, by promising to spend a year in the Beast’s castle – and the Beast himself, a handsome prince trapped in the body of a monster. In a sense, this decision slightly unbalances the story, and gives it an unusually claustrophobic air; the tension between Beauty’s love for her father and her growing attraction to the Beast is at the heart of the tale, and Evans’s version struggles to express that tension through imagery and monologue, in the physical absence of the drama’s third character.

Given a brilliant and sometimes disturbing central performance from Rosalind Sydney, though – well supported by Andy Manley as the Beast – Gill Robertson’s production eventually achieves an intense and fascinating focus on the slow evolution of Beauty’s feelings, as she learns to love the Beast for the poetry in his soul. The story is troubling in that it feeds the dark male fantasy – reflected in many modern news stories – of being able to break a woman’s sexual resistance by keeping her “caged” in a secret place; yet it is also extraordinarily beautiful, in its sense of a beast made human, and set free, by Beauty’s brave refusal to succumb to his beastliness, and by the true love for her that takes root in his heart.

In that sense, the show achieves a fine balance between the sinister and the beautiful, richly expressed in Karen Tennant’s simple touring set – a lush mixture of gothic glory and threatening decay – and in David Paul Jones’s deeply romantic score and soudscape, full of the echoing sound of great love-songs, from La Vie En Rose to Etta James’s At Last. And if a question looms somewhere in the background about whether a female beast exists, and could ever be redeemed from her ugliness in the same way – well, that’s a question for another day; and for an even more ambitious version of a story that has already seen one powerful reinterpretation in Scotland this year, in Alan McHugh’s Christmas show at the Citizens’, and has now inspired another, smaller in scope, but even more intense.

There’s plenty of beauty and ugliness around, too, in this week’s lunchtime show at Oran Mor, the first fruit of a new collaboration between Play, Pie and Pint and Dundee Rep; although here, the chances of redemption seem more accident-prone. Written by the great Michael Marra, sage and songster of Dundee, Saint Catherine’s Day is a slightly surreal musical comedy about a day in the life of a Daniel-O’Donnell-style Irish ballad singer called Columba Carnoghan, who starts out at the St. Agnes of Prague Eventide Home – where his geriatric fan-base can hardly contain their excitement at his presence – and proceeds through a disastrous radio interview, to a strange encounter with his showbiz hero, an older singer called Casey Collins.

Like Brian Friel’s great monologue drama The Faith Healer, Marra’s play concerns itself with the strange borderlands between fraudulent showbiz tat, and genuine, transforming inspiration; and that tension is brilliantly captured in Richard Conlon’s superb central performance as Columba, part cynical showbiz chancer, part seriously talented man, with a wicked wit and a beautiful voice. The show also features an inspired Ewan Donald, playing every other character from Columba’s ever-optimistic manager to the killer queen of radio presenters, Agnes Brash; and Michael Marra himself on keyboards, as singer, narrator, and the weary but brilliant voice of creative wisdom, in all its contradiction and complexity.

There’s more fun to be had, too, at the Ramshorn Theatre’s Glasgow Comedy Festival production of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, adapted and directed by Susan Triesman and Bruce Downie from the original text by Douglas Adams. As a co-production between Strathclyde Theatre Group and the Radio Theatre Group, the show essentially re-creates the six episodes of the original radio series, using the fourth-wall-busting technique of treating the audience as onlookers in a radio studio, where a team of nine actors are busy generating all the drama and sound-effects for Adams’s famous inter-galactic satire.

There are some fine performances on view, notably from a cool but alluring Karen Bartke in the key role of The Book. The show, though, eventually falls flat on its face by showing no sense of when to shut up. At 90 minutes, it would have been fine, one of the great jokes of the late 20th century well retold. At three hours, though, it’s just ridiculous, increasingly repetitive, self-indulgent and tiresome; and an object lesson in the need to quit while you’re winning, if you want to make theatre that leaves a lasting impression.

Caged at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, tonight and tomorrow, at the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, on Saturday 2 April, and on tour across Scotland until 5 May. Saint Catherine’s Day at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday, and at Dundee Rep, 5-9 April. The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to The Galaxy at the Ramshorn Theatre, Glasgow, until Saturday.

ENDS ENDS

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