Monthly Archives: October 2011

Davidson vs. Whiteford: An Ugly, Discreditable Labour-SNP Spat That Reflects A Politics In Decline – Column 28.10.11

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 28.10.11
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FIDDLING WHILE ROME BURNS: it’s been a favourite occupation of third-rate politicians throughout the ages, and we have seen some royal exhibitions of it at every level, this week. In Brussels, the elected leaders of 17 great European nations, with a population of almost 300 million people, have been bickering, grovelling, and raiding the pockets of ordinary taxpayers once again, in obedience to the demands of capital markets that should have been reined in, reformed, and put under proper democratic control within weeks of the 2008 crash.

And at Westminster – well, if there has ever been a more lamentable week in the history of Scottish representation in the UK parliament, then I would hate to hear of it. The Scots, let’s be clear, are not the only group of Westminster MP’s gripped by mindless tribalism, or by various forms of chauvinist delusion; this week’s mass Tory rebellion on Britain’s membership of the European Union came as a sharp reminder of that.

There is no doubt, though, about the single most depressing spectacle at Westminster this week; and it lies in the ugly row, in the House Of Commons Scottish Affairs Select Committee, between the committee’s chair, the Labour MP Ian Davidson, and SNP member Eilidh Whiteford. Without question, Davidson is the prime culprit in this affair. Unreconstructed to a fault, and prone to outbursts which go well beyond the bounds of civil or useful debate, Davidson represents a style of Scottish Labour politics that has always been objectionable, and is now completely out of time; this is the man, remember, who in recent Commons speech referred to the SNP as “neo-fascist”, a phrase which suggests that he lives in a world of self-reinforcing prejudice completely divorced from the current realities of Scottish politics.

Anyone who has taken part in Scottish public life will have met some men of this old school, most of them Labour, some Tory, some representing other traditional interests; men whose language is full of violent imagery, who think it clever or even amusing to make bullying threats, and to whom feminism – and all the changes in thinking and language it entails – is largely a foreign country. The remark Davidson allegedly made to Eilidh Whiteford – about “getting a doing” for leaking information about the committee’s work – is thuggish, stupid, inept and unacceptable; and it raises the most profound questions about the calibre of the people being sent to Westminster by the Scottish Labour Party, questions to which that failing organisation currently has no answer at all.

The truth about this sad affair, though, is that in a gloomy microcosm of current Scottish politics, the SNP emerge from it smelling of roses only because the performance of the other parties is so lamentable. In their handling of the Davidson affair, the SNP have in fact been indulging in political games-playing of a pretty contemptible sort, and have made at least two decisions that show them in a less than flattering light. In the first place, they have encouraged ambiguity about what a “doing” in fact means to a politician like Davidson, and have whipped up a fine head of steam among leading Scottish feminists about the gender implications of Davidson’s remark. The bitter truth, though, is that this phrase implies nothing but physical violence – a beating-up – and is likely to be used to both men and women, in bullying situations. Whiteford is right to object strongly to it, and right to demand an apology; but there can be little doubt that Davidson would be capable of using the same language to a young male MP, in similar circumstances.

And then secondly, they have used this incident as a pretext for what is beginning to look like a complete withdrawal from the Scottish Affairs Committee, a body whose existence irritates them, and which they wish to undermine. There is no chance of Davidson resigning from the Chair of the Committee at the SNP’s behest, or of Labour women at Westminster – many of them seasoned feminist campaigners – accepting tenuous arguments about the gender dimension of this dispute from a party with a much less impressive record than Labour, when it comes to real action on women’s issues; so the deadlock seems absolute, and the scrutiny of a bill whose detail may be vital to Scotland’s immediate future will suffer as a consequence.

Add to this litany of poor behaviour the kind of infantile bickering in which the parties indulged on Wednesday evening’s edition of Newsnight Scotland, and there seems little cause for anything but despair. The relationship between Labour and the SNP in Scotland is bad enough, and a source of misery to many voters, who can often, on major social and economic issues, see little dividing the parties except knee-jerk tribalism.

At Westminster, though, this relationship now seems to have turned wholly toxic, to the point where both sides are behaving in ways which call into question their emotional and moral fitness for public office; there now seems, for example, to be no practising politician, on either side of the Labour-SNP divide, mature enough even to reach that elementary first stage of conflict resolution which involves a recognition that not all the blame rests with the other party.

To say that Scottish voters deserve something better than this is to state the obvious. What is most alarming, though, about the current state of Scottish politics, is that it is not untypical of a political class that has largely surrendered its power, over the last two decades, to the lords of international finance; and is now left bickering, in chancelleries and comittee-rooms across the planet, over how to manage the detail of the decline made inevitable by its own misjudgments. Small wonder that the calibre of people attracted into politics is declining. And small wonder that so many politicians now waste our time and theirs on a dumbed-down, personalised politics of grandstanding and insult; while the big decisions are made elsewhere, in boardrooms far beyond the reach of democracy, by those who long since learned how to shape the whole political process to their own ends.

ENDS ENDS

27

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on 27 at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 28.10.11
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3 stars ***

ALTHOUGH IT’S OFTEN difficult to trace its outline, there is a drama lurking somewhere at the heart of Abi Morgan’s new play 27, which opened at the Royal Lyceum on Wednesday in a lavish new co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland, directed by Vicky Featherstone. The play is set in a convent somewhere in Britain, so far north – if such a place exists – that rivers routinely freeze all winter; the community is ageing, thirteen of the sixteen sisters are over 75, and the routine of their days is shaped by cooking, gardening, prayer, and a heavy addiction to TV quizzes and soap-operas.

So when a team of scientists arrive, anxious to use the elderly nuns as a study-group for research into Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, the chance to be useful seems irresistible; not least to the incoming Mother Superior, Sister Ursula, a tempestuous type of 50 or so who struggles with her own demons of doubt, and is increasingly distraught by the sudden and rapid mental decay of her mentor and predecessor, the brilliant Sister Miriam. Ursula’s story is the living centre of the play, as she deals with with the crushing grief of Miriam’s decline and death, and wrestles with the implications of her increasingly intense friendship with Richard, the eminent scientist who leads the research group; and there are moments, dotted through a long evening of two hours and 40 minutes, when her struggle comes sharply and beautifully into focus.

Sadly, though – and despite a compelling performance from Maureen Beattie in this key role – Morgan’s play is so poorly constructed, and so inclined to ramble off into long sequences of half-baked speculation about life, science, exploitation and everything, that the shape of the story is often buried in a waste of tedious Radio 4-style chat, particularly among the four scientists. Marooned with the rest of the cast in a massive concrete-look bunker of a set that muffles sound, sucks vitality from the action, and hides part of the stage from large sections of the audience, Nicholas Le Prevost and Benny Young give a couple of eye-wateringly dull performances as the two older scientists; and from a cast of nine, only the core group of four nuns – also including the wonderful Colette O’Neil as Miriam – have anything significant to say about the play’s central debate between a continuing commitment to faith, and the godlessness that often leads to despair.

Given the dramaturgical resources available, it’s surprising that the NTS and Lyceum should have involved themselves in staging a piece of theatre so turgidly old-fashioned in form, and astonishing that they should have done so little to knock Morgan’s text into a more interesting and dynamic shape. This is not a wasted evening of theatre; the play’s themes are important, and some of the performances well worth seeing. At the moment, though, 27 looks less like a finished play, and more like a confused and unedited work in progress, now overwhelmed by the weight of a huge production that it cannot match, in strength, structure or substance.

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A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg, One Man Two Guvnors, Dirty Dancing

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JOYCE McMILLAN on A DAY IN THE DEATH OF JOE EGG at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, ONE MAN TWO GUVNORS at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, and DIRTY DANCING at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 27.10.11
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A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg 5 stars ****
One Man Two Guvnors 4 stars ****
Dirty Dancing 3 stars ***

THE 1960’s: love them or hate them, these were the years that defined the social world we now inhabit; the decade when British society ceased to be governed by national and religious pieties, and began to adopt a new moral code that prioritised fun, freedom, and the joy of “doing your own thing.” So it’s perhaps not surprising that as the booming consumer economy of the last half-century begins to crash and burn, more and more theatre-makers are revisiting the decade that made us; for fun, for reflection, and to offer a salute to the free creative spirits of that time, who dreamed dreams that still seem radical today.

And of those creative souls, none more richly deserves recognition than the playwright Peter Nichols, whose great 1967 play A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg has now been revived at the Citizens’, on the stage where it had its world premiere 44 years ago. Nichols is now 84 years old; but he was present, and in fine form, for last weekend’s opening of his best-known play, which famously deals with one of the toughest subjects imaginable, in that it portrays the desperate struggle of a young married couple, Brian and Sheila, to care for their hopelessly handicapped ten-year-old-daughter Josephine, known as “Joe Egg”.

Brian is a long-suffering schoolteacher; and heartbreakingly but all-too-believably, his main strategy for coping with the situation lies in a bitter and ferocious black humour. In the first half, Nichols’s play offers a moving and sometimes shocking portrait of a marriage bound together by love and desire, yet collapsing under intolerable pressure; in the second half, a cast of tragi-comic supporting characters appear, in the shape of Sheila’s drama-club friends Freddie and Pam, and Brian’s hilarious, impossible and smothering mother, played here by the great Miriam Margolyes.

If the casting of Margolyes is a stroke of genius, though, it’s only the first of many in Phillip Breen’s flawless and sometimes brilliant production. Miles Jupp and Sarah Tansey, as Brian and Sheila, are both superb and heartbreaking; and Max Jones’s claustrophobic, box-sized 1960’s living-room set advances and retreats to superb effect, as the characters both act out their tragi-comic situation, and move forward into the spotlight, centre-stage, to appal and entertain the Citizens’ audience with the black comedy and vaudeville of their situation.

And in the end, this play achieves the miracle of all great drama, by delving so deep into the reality of its own time that it somehow speaks to all time. It’s Brian and Sheila’s tragedy to be trapped by a huge and crushing obligation at a time when society all around them is talking of freedom. Yet the dilemmas they face still surround us every day, when it comes to the care of those who cannot care for themselves; and in some ways, given our shifting demography, are even more pressing and contested now, than they were in 1967.

And if A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg offers an unforgettable backward glance at the 1960’s, it’s almost equalled in brilliance, and easily surpassed in sheer hilarity, by Nicholas Hytner’s dazzling National Theatre production of One Man Two Guvnors, playwright Richard Bean’s inspired 1960’s version of Goldoni’s great 18th century farce, Servant Of Two Masters. Set in a 1960’s Brighton full of wide-boys, chancers, and people in love with money – “criminals, gangsters, Princess Margaret”, as one character describes the clientele at his nightclub – the play stars TV comedy icon James Corden, in irresistibly fine form as the cash-strapped minder-cum-valet Frankie Henshall, who takes on two jobs in the hope of being paid for at least one of them.

In truth, though, Corden’s magnificent, audience-teasing efforts in the leading role are more than matched by a uniformly brilliant cast, including Suzie Toase as the sexy gangland book-keeper of Frankie’s dreams, and a memorable Tom Edden as Alfie, an ancient waiter whose presence generates what must be some of the funniest physical comedy ever seen on a British stage. Add a 1960’s set and costumes to die for, and an onstage skiffle-group called The Craze (all sharp suits and Buddy Holly specs), and you have a truly magnificent celebration of all the joys and skills of good old-fashioned English variety theatre, whipped up into one of the wittiest reworkings of a classic text it’s ever been my joy to experience.

As for the new touring production of Dirty Dancing, which arrived at the King’s in Glasgow last week – well, let’s say that as a representation of the 1960’s, this good-hearted but clunky show is slightly cast into the shade by this week’s other offerings. As s stage spin-off of the wildly popular 1987 film starring the late Patrick Swayze, the show offers a decent attempt to combine juke-box musical with a story that reflects, at least superficially, on the class and racial politics of 1963, the year in which it’s set.

For my money, the script is a little leaden, and the dancing a shade disappointing, apart from some breathtaking work from Charlotte Gooch as leading dance teacher Penny Johnson. Yet in the end Eleanor Bergstein’s stage version does exactly what it sets out to do, in terms of offering a live celebration of a hugely popular film phenomenon; and it delights its mainly female audience, who literally shriek with pleasure at every familiar line, in an evening enlivened by a little dirty talk and plenty of fine music, chosen from the mighty back-catalogue of the decade that – whatever else it achieved – still shapes our concept of popular music, 50 years on.

A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until 12 November. One Man Two Guvnors at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until Saturday, 29 October. Dirty Dancing at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, until 12 November, and on tour to Aberdeen and Edinburgh in 2012.

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McAdam’s Torment

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on MCADAM’S TORMENT at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 26.10.11
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3 stars ***

IF SCOTLAND in the 18th century was a nation torn between dawning enlightenment and a lingering fear of its own barbarism, then no story came to represent that tension more clearly than the terrible tale of Sawney Bean, the thief, murderer and cannibal who, two centuries earlier, was said to have terrorised the Galloway coastline, along with his cave-dwelling gang of family and associates. This new monologue-with-music by Dublin writer Audrey Devereux – presented as part of a two-play exchange between Oran Mor and Bewlay’s Lunchtime Theatre in Dublin – is a passionate and shapely retelling of the story, as seen from the point of view of a well-to-do lawyer, McAdam, who loses a favourite manservant to Bean’s ravages; and is left with a sense of horror, and of self-disgust at his own failure to take revenge, that will haunt him for the rest of his life.

Paul Cunningham, in superb form, plays McAdam at the end of his lfe, recalling the terrible experience that still torments him; and if the style of the monologue is a shade stately and quaint, in a conventional period manner, and sometimes a little repetitive, the narrative is lifted and shaped, in Graham Eatough’s production, by a creative and complex use of the figure of the fiddle-playing musician. In this shape-shifting role, Rab Handleigh morphs powerfully through the show from doomed manservant, to a series of inn-keepers, to the looming figure of Bean himself, while knocking out a jagged series of accompanying sounds and tunes, of his own devising. With both leading actor and violin heavily miked, the show becomes an interesting duet of music and language, punctuated by the sharp or laboured sound of human breath; and although Devereux’s play finally adds little to our knowledge of this notorious tale, it tells it well, and with commendable style.

ENDS ENDS

Happy Days In The Art World

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on HAPPY DAYS IN THE ART WORLD at the Tramway, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 24.10.11
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3 stars ***

IF YOU’VE ever been to a major political or professional conference, you’ll know that there’s always some jolly band of delegates who take it on themselves, towards the end of proceedings, to present a conference cabaret, stuffed with in-jokes and knowing pastiche.

And if you want to understand the mood of this new 80-minute experiment in theatre by Berlin-based visual artists Elmgreen & Dragset, which previewed briefly at the Tramway over the weekend, then you could do a lot worse than imagine it as the conference cabaret of the international art-fair crowd. The play is, of course, an artistic cut above the ordinary, in its sources and casting. The form it chooses to pastiche is the two-handed drama of Samuel Beckett, Waiting For Godot with faint hints of Happy Days; and in Joseph Fiennes and Charles Edwards – who play the two-man team of artists at the centre of the drama – it enjoys the services of two of the finest actors on the British stage, suave, skilled, and subtle.

Trapped in some limbo furnished only with two narrow bunk-beds, the two therefore bicker petulantly about where they might be, and toy with extended jokes about the international anonymity and infinite gullibility of the conceptual art world. The biggest laughs come – from an industry-based audience – when they make harsh jokes about curators; and occasionally, as in Waiting For Godot, they receive messages from outside, not least from a tubby courier played and sung with terrific flair by Kim Criswell.

This is, in other words, a piece of bourgeois theatre par excellence, smooth, beautifully performed, perfectly self-obsessed, and completely insignificant. Its success seems almost certain. But there were reasons why Beckett, when he wrote Waiting For Godot, made his leading characters two old tramps surviving on carrots, rather than spoiled and self-pitying artists; and of those reasons, Elmgreen & Dragset seem to know little, and understand less.

ENDS ENDS

Love Hurts

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on LOVE HURTS at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 21.10.11
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3 stars ***

STAGED AS PART of this year’s Glasgay! Festival, which opened this week, Johnny McKnight’s new 55-minute monologue is a strange show, almost perfect in form, yet slightly unsatisfying in content. Set in a leafy Glasgow suburb, Love Hurts is the story of Susie, a young married woman with a history of mental illness, who becomes fascinated by the apparently glamorous couple who live across the road. Val and Nicky are childless, well-to-do and sexually adventurous; and while Susie’s policeman husband grunts unresponsively in the background, and net curtains twitch along the road, she becomes heavily involved with them, first venturing into new sexual territory with Val, and then falling in love with Nicky, who seems to offer the masculine tenderness her husband deliberately withholds.

The story ends badly and violently, as Susie finally loses touch with reality; but along the way, McKnight handles the narrative with an impressively light touch, combining sharp observational comedy in the style of early Liz Lochhead – for Susie is not slow to bitch over other people’s colour-schemes – with a dark sense of the violence implicit in loveless sexual thrill-seeking. In the end, this story of suburban swingers seems more 1970’s than 21st century, and its point is far from clear. Yet the show is presented with terrific wit and skill by actress Toni Frutin, to the sound of a memorable dark score by Alan Penman; and there’s a sense that once McKnight finds a subject worth his steel, there will be no stopping him, as writer, director, and all-round man of the theatre.

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Politics Moves On, But Does The SNP? The Occupy Movement, The Eurozone Crisis, And Scotland’s Party Of Government – Column 21.10.11

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 21.10.11
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ON MY WAY TO THE STATION from the Tron Theatre, on Wednesday night, I turn the corner into George Square, and there they are: the Occupy Glasgow group, gathered in a huddle of a dozen or so small tents, with some larger communal ones in the middle.  Most of them seem young, like a bunch of students; it’s a cold night, but they’ve chalked peever squares on the ground, and are skipping around to keep warm.   Their banners carry messages: they say “We are the 99%” or “Who took the money?” – or, most memorably, “Live for each other, think for yourself.” 

And although it’s not a particularly impressive demonstration  – there are only a few dozen people there, if that – it seems like a straw in the wind, a harbinger of changing times; and one that should be much in the minds of Scotland’s governing party, the SNP, as they gather this weekend for their annual conference in Inverness.  In the last week, there have been gestures like this – or much bigger – in cities all across the planet, as the Occupy Wall Street movement goes global, and young people, in particular, begin to question the whole basis of the economic system that is now destroying their life-chances to pay the bills for its own excesses. 

What’s troubling about our situation here in Scotland, though, is that we have a Government which both benefits from this mood of disillusion with mainstream politics, and consistently avoids actually stating its position on the crises now shaking the global financial system.  As the singer and activist Billy Bragg was moved to point out this week, Alex Salmond’s SNP Government has become something of a beacon of hope for centre-left people across Britain, since the election of the new UK coalition last year; if Scotland is about to suffer a serious financial squeeze, we at least face that trial with a sense that we know roughly what our values are, and where we draw the line when it comes to the privatising impulse now dominant in Westminster politics.

The question, though, is whether a general sense of a slightly different set of priorities and values is going to be enough to carry us through, as the European and global financial crisis intensifies.  Ever since the 1980’s, after all – when the SNP leadership had to rethink their strategy, in the aftermath of the first “Scotland’s oil” campaign – the idea of Scotland In Europe has been central to their image as a modernising, outward-looking, and pluralistic national party.  Their concept of independence is founded on the presumption of full EU membership; and it is the party’s policy that an independent Scotland, after a transitional period when we would continue to use sterling, would aim to join the Eurozone.

Yet now, this European Union which they SNP has used so long and so skilfully, to soften and nuance the idea of independence, is facing the most profound crisis in its history.  Time and again, the discredited financial gurus of the Anglo-Saxon world lecture the leaders of the Eurozone about the need to “get their act together”; that is, apparently, to tax the ordinary voters of France, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands until those countries’ domestic ecomonies stall completely, in order to create a huge bail-out fund for those banks – French, British,  American – which have over-invested in dodgy government bonds from Spain, Italy or Greece. 

Yet if these financial experts had any sense of politics at all, they would understand that what they are asking is neither possible nor reasonable.  The protection of banks cannot be the central long-term purpose of government, however much recent UK and US administrations may have given that impression; and the imposition of a decade of austerity on the Eurozone can only be sustained, politically, if governments also take back the power to offer their people some sense of fairness, and of hope for the future, alongside the brutal end to the recent consumer boom that now seems inevitable.   What is destabilising Europe, in other words, is not the failure of European governments to impose enough austerity on their people, but their failure to think politically as well as economically, and to take back sufficient control of the financial and monetary system to be able to make a credible political offer to ordinary citizens, as governments so successfully did in the decades after 1945.

Yet in Inverness this weekend, all we are likely to hear from the SNP leadership, about the vast political and economic crisis  now facing the governments of Europe, is a vague commitment to restoring conventional  “economic growth” as soon as possible, a routine litany of complaint about UK government cuts, and a continuing refusal to enter into any direct discussion of what the word “Europe” might actually mean, ten years from now.  The party continues to benefit, in other words, from the increasing failure of the mainstream UK parties, over the last 20 years, to represent the people, rather than the wealthy corporate interests now so dominant at other party conferences; operating at the margins of UK politics, the SNP is the one that got away, the party that is still allowed to talk the talk of British social democracy.

It remains to be seen, though, whether the SNP’s general commitment to the welfare of the people of Scotland will finally  be enough to propel it into a whole new radical age of politics, involving a rigorous confrontation, at European and global level, with the dying ideology of a financial elite which has increasingly lost the political plot. Or whether, a decade from now, those young people now demonstrating in George Square will be writing the SNP out of political history along with all the other failed parties of our time – the ones who lacked the vision to imagine the age of reduced material consumption and high creative fulfilment into which we must now move, and who finally made one compromise too many with a global system that was broken, and needed not another bail-out, but radical and profound reform.

ENDS ENDS            

Days Of Wine And Roses, Baby Baby, Juicy Fruits

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, BABY BABY at Menzieshill Community Centre, Dundee, and JUICY FRUITS at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts 20.10.11
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Days Of Wine And Roses 4 stars ****
Baby Baby 4 stars ****
Juicy Fruits 3 stars ***

THE TRAIN BACK from Glasgow to Edinburgh, after the first night at the Tron, is not a pretty sight. There’s been a big football match; and although most of the fans are fine, others are so drunk that they scarcely know where they are, staggering around the train accosting strangers, or collapsing in foul-smelling heaps.

Asked about it tomorrow or the day after, though, they will probably say they had a “great night out”; and it’s this extraordinary tolerance and celebration of alcohol, in our culture, that the Northern Irish writer Owen McCafferty seeks to highlight, in his 2005 stage version of Days Of Wine And Roses, the acclaimed 1958 television play by J.P. Miller. Now revived in a co-production by the Tron and Theatre Jezebel, McCafferty’s version is ruthless in exploring the special relationship between so-called “Celtic” cultures and alcohol; he reworks the story of the play, set in London in the 1960’s, so that the young couple in this two-handed drama are incomers from Belfast, liberated from the strict social norms of their hometown into the social atmosphere of the early swinging Sixties.

So Donal and Mona meet at Belfast airport on their way to the big city; and once there, they fall in love, marry, have a child, while Donal pursues an increasingly successful career as right-hand-man to a wealthy bookmaker. The job, though, entails unlimited boozy socialising; and by the time baby Kieran is a few months old, both of his parents are hopeless alcoholics. Under threat of losing his job, Donal begins to clean up his act, with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. But Mona is furious and desperate at what she sees as Donal’s rejection of a love built on drink-fuelled fun; and as the marriage fails, her life slides onto what looks like a hopeless downward path.

McCafferty’s two-hour dramatisation of this story, in a dozen scenes set between 1962 and 1970, is hardly a perfect piece of work; towards the end, it develops a dragging, de-energising tendency to keep repeating and elaborating in words – fine, poetic, unnecessary – what has already been demonstrated in the action.

In Kenny Miller’s production, though – lifted by his own glinting, glass-and-steel modern design – Donal and Mona are played by Keith Fleming and Sally Reid with such passion, skill, and depth of feeling that the play is often shattering in its emotional impact. And in the end, this feels like a play that everyone should see; if only because it looks back to that crucial moment, barely two generations ago, when our society’s old defences against the “demon drink” finally crumbled under the pressure of modernity, leaving us vulnerable to the impact of the most charming and insidious drug of all.

One of the underlying themes of Days Of Wine And Roses involves the divergent impact of parenthood on Donal and Mona; and it’s perhaps significant that two of this week’s other major shows also explore the complexity of the experience of parenthood, and the tensions it can generate. At community centres around Dundee, the Rep company are reviving their 2008 show Baby Baby, a brief, beautiful 75-minute double monologue, adapted by Vivien French from her own book of the same title, about how two very different teenage girls – a young Goth called Pinky, and pretty, conventional April – cope with the experience of becoming mothers at fifteen.

In this revival, the play seems a shade too strongly focussed on the highly-charged relationship between the two girls, and particularly on April’s obsession with Pinky as a kind of magical free spirit. In its second half, though – as the two babies are born, and April and Pinky start to experience the dangers, the terror and the unexpected joys of real-life motherhood – the show’s sheer emotional directness and compassion becomes irresistible. Jemima Levick’s production draws a particularly heart-stopping performance from Kirsty McKay as April, an unhappy, timid girl surprised into joy by her overwhelming love for her son; and it’s small wonder that many of the women in the audience at Menzieshill were moved to tears, by a play that finally transcends all the cliches of anti-teen-pregnancy propaganda, to achieve something far more complex, and more true.

In Leo Butler’s Juicy Fruits – the lunchtime play at Oran Mor this week, and the Traverse next – the ambivalent experience of motherhood is made flesh, in the cafe conversation between ex-university friends Nina and Lorna that forms the first two-thirds of the play. Lorna is a young mum, happily married to a well-to-do barrister, but struggling with the demands of suburban motherhood, as she cares for a bruising eight-month-old son who rejected her breast-milk from the start. Nina, by contrast, is just back from an extended adventure in the jungles of Borneo, trying to protect a threatened species of orang-utan; but it soon becomes apparent that Nina’s story is far more complex than she admits, and that she is on the verge of complete psychological breakdown.

Juicy Fruits is an ambitious play that struggles to work out its own complex themes in just 55 minutes, and finally soars into an almost surreal meditation on the relationship between western humanity and the planet we have ravaged. For much of its length, though, the play comes across as an extended post-graduate joke about the kind of old university “friends” who haven’t seen each other for years, despise each other’s recent life-choices, and in fact hate each other’s guts. And despite superb performances from Clare Waugh as Lorna and Denise Hoey as Nina, the play’s emotional impact is finally muted by uncertainty about whether it truly wants to explore the tragedy of its characters’ lives; or simply prefers to send them up, as fundamentally ridiculous.

Days Of Wine And Roses at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until 29 October. Baby Baby at the Kirkton Community Centre tonight, Finmill Centre tomorrow, and the Adler Complex, Dundee, on Saturday. Juicy Fruits at Oran Mor, Glasgow until Saturday, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, next week.

ENDS ENDS

The Enchanted Forest

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE ENCHANTED FOREST at the Explorers Garden, Pitlochry, for The Scotsman 19.10.11
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3 stars ***

IT’S NOT FOR nothing that Perthshire describes itself as Big Tree Country, home of Scotland’s remaining ancient forest; and if you want to see a whole hillside of those magnificent trees from a new and often thrilling perspective, then you could do worse than join the other 24,000 people who are confidently expected, this month, to visit the spectacular Enchanted Forest event at the Explorers Garden beside Pitlochry Festival Theatre, now in its ninth successful year.

Enchanted Forest is a sound-and-light event, staged in the dark autumn evenings. This year’s show – titled Transitions, and created by lighting designer Simon Wilkinson and composer/sound designer R.J. McConnell – leads us gently around the whole length of the hillside, inviting us to look again at the shapes, the grandeur, the exquisite detail of the trees around us, lit by sweeping laser arcs, or by quiet swathes of unexpected colour, from blood-red to deep turquoise; the centrepiece of the event is a majestic and often moving ten-minute son-et-lumiere display staged in the deep gorge around the burn that runs through the garden.

The event also includes smaller installations, though, including a colourful “sound harp” that allows children to trigger sounds among the trees by brushing their hands over a photo-cell. To my mind, the show is slightly confused in its mood and approach; it markets itself as family fun, attracts huge numbers of young children, and seems to encourages its adult audience members to view the whole event through a lens, as a kind of family photo opportunity.

Yet at its best, it actually meets a relatively inward and adult need to contemplate, and re-connect with, the magnificent complexity and grandeur of the natural world around us. “D’you want your picture taken on that big pine cone, Samantha?” said a Glasgow Dad to a little three-year-old, as I passed. “No,” said Samantha firmly. “What’re you like?” said Dad. And it’s a question that this show leaves unanswered; about what children are really like, and where their tastes truly coincide with those of the grown-ups, many of whom might gain more from this experience if – like a critic – they had the privilege of visiting it alone.

ENDS ENDS

There Was An Old Woman Who Lived In A…. , Of Two Minds

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE OLD WOMAN WHO LIVED IN A…. at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh, and OF TWO MINDS at the CCA, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 18.5.11
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The Old Woman Who Lived In A…. 3 stars ***
Of Two Minds 3 stars ***

SHE GAVE them some broth without any bread, and whipped them all soundly, and sent them to bed. That’s what they say about the old woman who lived in a shoe; but the familiar words contain whole worlds of pain and trauma, reaching back to an age when cruelty to children was routine, and the damage it caused simply passed on to the next generation, unspoken and unexamined.

And for all these reasons, Elements World Theatre’s show based on the old rhyme makes an intriguing contribution to this year”s Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, running across Scotland until 24 October, and based around the theme of dreams and memories. In theory, artists have every reason to be wary of events which instrumentalise the arts in this way; but in practice, so much great art deals with dreams, memories and altered states of mind that the festival becomes a kind of general celebration of the healing power of imagination. In The Old Woman Who…, writer/director Lee Gershuny invites her audience to a kind of cabaret of forgotten dreams, where pairs of survivors of the old woman’s fierce childhood regime – played with terrific verve by Corinne Harris and Robert Williamson, with Pete Baynes as their musical host-cum-waiter – confront their own rage, anger and damage in different tragi-comic ways; and towards the end, begin to realise not only that they must forgive the old woman, but must begin to recognise her as part of themselves.

Vanessa Coffey and John Payne’s Of Two Minds, by contrast, is a tiny fragment of performance designed to explore the experience of bipolar disorder. At less than 30 minutes, it barely has time to begin its story; and so much of its short text consists of deliberate repetition that it seems even shorter than it is. The effect, in the end, is more like a powerful short dance piece with a verbal score, than a fully-fledged piece of theatre; but it’s beautifully performed by Coffey and Payne, in perfect unison, then sometimes in harmony or dissonance, finding a form that makes us think again about the disorder it describes, in all its jarring tensions, and occasional ecstasies.

ENDS ENDS