Legally Blonde, The Prince: The John Thomson Story, God Bless Liz Lochhead, The Absence Of Women

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on LEGALLY BLONDE at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, THE PRINCE: THE JOHN THOMSON STORY at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, GOD BLESS LIZ LOCHHEAD at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and THE ABSENCE OF WOMEN at Perth Theatre, for Scotsman Arts, 8.9.11
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Legally Blonde 4 stars ****
The Prince: The John Thomson Story 3 stars ***
God Bless Liz Lochhead 2 stars **
The Absence Of Women 4 stars ****

THE POWER OF PINK; once, it might have been a gay rights slogan, but today it represents the triumph of a marketing campaign that has sought to persuade a whole generation of girls that their main role in life is to wear as much pink as possible, while hanging around like “little princesses”, waiting for their prince to come.

Now, though, the “pink” generation has its own vaguely feminist heroine, in the shape of the lovely Elle Woods, heroine of the 2001 film comedy Legally Blonde, and now of the stage musical based on the movie. And although it goes without saying that not all young women have bought into the culture of pink, Elle’s story is recognisable enough to make a roaring, girls’-night-out success of the stage show, which moved on this week from the Theatre Royal in Glasgow to the Edinburgh Playhouse.

The story is simple, and often ridiculous; Elle is a rich, empty-headed California girl, all big blonde hair and glittery pink outfits, who is dumped by her ambitious boyfriend Warner when he heads off to study law at Harvard. She resolves to get even – and get her man back – by going to Harvard Law School herself, and startles everyone by showing a common-sense grasp of the law that eventually makes her into a star pupil, while also finding herself a better and more supportive man. The biggest cheer of the night, though, comes when she throws away her sober legal suit, and resolves to conduct her key cross-examination in her own style, wearing shocking pink.

Legally Blonde is a bright, daft, feel-good show that features 20 instantly forgettable musical numbers, and a plot so implausible that it borders on the absurd, in all senses of the word. Yet it boasts a seriously witty script by Heather Hach that turns even the worst of the nonsense into a damned good joke; I loved the moment when Elle’s Dad warns her against leaving California for the alien east coast, where “all the girls have different noses.” And Faye Brooks gives a truly gorgeous central performance as Elle, bright as a button, lovely to look at, and dangerously blonde; but in the end, not dumb at all.

If Legally Blonde is a pink and glittery embodiment of the famous can-do spirit of America, then The Prince: The Johnny Thomson Story – a brand new musical co-produced by AO Ltd. and Celtic Football Club – is a prime example of Glasgow’s talent for mythologising and sentimentalising its own tragedies, often to slightly downbeat effect. Co-written by Brian McGeachan and Gerard McDade, The Prince tells the story of legendary young Celtic goalkeeper Johnny Thomson, born in Fife in 1909, signed for Celtic at the age of 17, and tragically killed, at only 22, while diving for a save during an Old Firm match at Ibrox in 1931, 80 years to the day before Monday’s premiere at the King’s, Glasgow.

As theatre, The Prince is rough-and-ready. Given the power of the football singing tradition, the five-strong cast often seem oddly uncertain of the tunes; and the show’s linking strand of comic banter – involving two present-day fans who commune with the heroes of history – is often frankly feeble. The show benefits, though, from a powerful use of period films and visual images. And there’s no faulting its vigorous stance against all forms of sectarianism, hatred and bad sportsmanship; even if, by the time the lights come up, there have been so many tear-soaked final moments, farewells and funeral speeches that the whole theatre seems set to float off down Bath Street, on a tide of tears shed by its audience of veteran Celtic supporters.

The Prince seems like an orgy of positive sentiment, though, compared with this week’s lunchtime offering at Oran Mor, a 55-minute in-joke about the alleged tribulations of the Scottish theatre community. Written by Martin McCardie – a writer usually given to serious forms of social engagement – God Bless Liz Lochhead is a spoof on the current state of touring theatre, dedicated to the fundamentally false proposition that Scottish theatre is somehow in decline, compared with the glory days of 25 years ago. And although the writer and cast – led by a superb Andy Gray as ageing actor Danny – squander lavish amounts of talent on this idea, none of it can prevent the first show of this autumn’s Play, Pie And Pint season from emerging as a disappointing piece of luvvie navel-gazing, self-pitying, self-obsessed, and dull.

Which makes it all the more enjoyable to turn to Perth Theatre, where new artistic director Rachel O’Riordan kicks off her first season with a brief visit from the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, whose production of Owen McCafferty’s The Absence Of Women she directed last year. The two characters at the centre of McCafferty’s 70-minute dialogue have every reason for self-pity; they are two elderly Belfast men down and out on the streets of London, living in a hostel, and regretting their profound failure to make anything much of their lives. Yet here, the poetry, energy and humour of their encounter transform pathos into something deeper, a true meditation on the meaning of emotional damage both individual and collective, on the wounds that link masculinity to silence and dysfunction, and on the resilience of some kind of human spirit, despite it all. And if Peter Gowen and Ciaran McIntyre sometimes allow the speed, ferocity and occasional drunkenness of the text to drown the detail, this is still a memorable contribution to the great Irish tradition of down-and-out dialogue, which stretches back to Samuel Beckett, and beyond.

Legally Blonde at the Playhouse, Edinburgh until 17 September. The Prince: The John Thomson Story at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, and God Bless Liz Lochhead at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 10 September. The Absence Of Women at Perth Theatre, last performance tonight (8 September).

ENDS ENDS

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