The Curious Scrapbook Of Josephine Bean, Top Hat, Bite The Bullet

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE CURIOUS SCRAPBOOK OF JOSEPHINE BEAN at Howden Park Centre, Livingston, TOP HAT at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, and BITE THE BULLET at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 24.11.11.
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The Curious Scrapbook Of Josephine Bean 4 stars ****
Top Hat 3 stars ***
Bite The Bullet 4 stars ****

THE TRAVERSE THEATRE is still waiting for the arrival, in the New Year, of its new artistic director, Orla O’Loughlin. In the meantime, though, the building is full of a rich and beautiful range of sights, sounds and sensations, in the shape of its 2011 Autumn Festival, designed to melt the boundaries between art-forms. The Festival has already featured gaudy nights with Ballet Lorent and Company Chordelia, and Cryptic’s beautiful, conscience-stirring music-theatre miniature, The Little Match Girl Passion. And this weekend, it plays host – among other gorgeous events – to a truly beautiful show for children aged around 6-9, in Shona Reppe’s latest object-theatre piece, The Curious Scrapbook Of Josephine Bean.

Best known as a talented puppet artist, Reppe is increasingly a mistress of a whole range of theatrical forms of expression involving direct performance, objects, light and sound; and in this show, her skills find a near-perfect expression in the story of a scientist – a white-coated, precise type called Patricia Baker – whose job it is to lead us into her onstage lab, and to show us how she tackles the investigation of a very strange old scrapbook. Amid a clinical tangle of anglepoise lamps, display-cases, and small pieces of evidence pegged up in plastic bags, she opens up the big book, which seems to belong to the very early 20th century, and begins to decode its contents.

A close-up camera, projecting images of the contents onto a little screen, helps us to see the detail; and following a breathtaking, magical moment when she pricks her finger on what at first appears to be a splinter, she finally unravels the tale of a lonely Edinburgh watchmaker, Artemus Moon – an ageing man with a special interest in seaweed – and his loving romance with a tiny, half-inch-high woman he discovers inside a strange “sea bean” on the beach at Elie.

The twists and turns through which this story emerges are completely enthralling, like a gossamer-light, fairytale version of a TV pathology show. And every physical and emotional detail of the show has been shaped with such love and care that it not only produces the most satisfying gasps of amazement and excitement from the children in the audience; but is also bound to touch the hearts of the most hardened grown-ups, with the sheer, sweet radiance of its invention, and the generosity of its spirit.

If Shona Reppe’s show involves a loving recreation of seaside Scotland a century ago, Irving Berlin’s Top Hat takes us straight back to the year 1935, when Hollywood responded to the gloom of the Depression by churning out that famous series of feather-light romantic comedies starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, the most glamorous, witty and gorgeous screen dancing partnership of all time.

76 years on, the current touring stage version of the show arrives at the Playhouse in Edinburgh with two basic problems. The first is its excessive running time; it’s notable that the famous 1935 film took 101 minutes to tell this gossamer-light story, whereas the show runs for just under 3 hours, with an increasingly lame script barely able to limp to the finishing line. The other is a pair of strikingly wooden performances from the show’s stars, Tom Chambers and Summer Strallen, both over-promoted by television fame, and often outclassed, in charisma and stage presence, by the members of their own chorus-line.

These shortcomings apart, though, the show provides a good-looking, enjoyable showcase for some superb Irving Berlin numbers, including Cheek To Cheek, Let’s Face The Music And Dance, and Top Hat itself, with one of the great middle-eight riffs of the 20th century. The chorus are brilliant, dancing their way through some joyous theatrical moments. And when the team of ten gorgeous male dancers first appear in their gleaming top hats and tails, to soar and tap their way through one of the most elegantly exhilarating numbers in American musical history – well then, you can’t help understanding just a little more about how the best response to economic oppression is to create, create, and create again; to dance, and never to stop dancing.

Dance against the machine, or rage against it; for if 1930’s nostalgia is in fashion, then so is nostalgia for the 1980’s, the last time young people in Britain felt the kind of cosmic fury against the system that now seems to be building again. In this week’s Oran Mor Play Bite The Bullet, by Sandy Nelson and Keith Warwick, Carl and Les are two survivors of the post-punk Glasgow band scene, once a successful duo called The Tell Tales – very big in Japan – but now lost in middle age; songwriter Carl is a wedding photographer and Dad in suburban Scotland, sidekick Les flogs golfing holidays in Dubai.

Like so many bands from their era, though, The Tell Tales are now under pressure to re-form, for an awards gig in Tokyo; and the debate about whether they should accept the offer triggers a series of flashbacks to their glory days of twenty-odd years ago, including memories of Zara, their tartan mini-skirted manager, a brilliant young woman whom they both loved, and lost.

In a sense, the arc of the flashback story is predictable; there’s the drugs, the drink, the sex, the excess, the arguments, the breakup. Along the way, though, this 55-minute play contains three performances to treasure – from Nelson as Carl, Warwick as Les, and a superb Gabriel Quigley as Zara – as well as some terrific comic dialogue, rich in cultural wisdom; and, as an added bonus, there are a couple of seriously fine songs, to remind us that amid all the celebrity nonsense of the rock scene, great music sometimes gets made, roaring out the truth of our time.

The Curious Scrapbook Of Josephine Bean at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Saturday 26 November. Top Hat at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, and Bite The Bullet at Oran Mor, Glasgow, both until Saturday.

ENDS ENDS

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