Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Salmond That Slipped Through The Net: How Scotland’s First Minister Became Britain’s Politician Of the Year – Column 30.12.11

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 30.12.11
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IT’S A LOW BLOW, as New Year gifts go: but something tells me the First Minister will survive it. For as every Scot not on a festive media-break knows, on Tuesday of this week the Times newspaper declared Alex Salmond its Briton Of The Year, in one of those acts of wily flattery and co-option at which the British establishment once used to excel. Internet commentators of all stripes were not slow to complain, protesting that the First Minister did not even believe in Britain, so could hardly be a Brit of any sort, never mind a prize-winning one.

The SNP, though, took the smarter line, holding true to the notion that Britain will remain a “social union” regardless of constitutional change; and declared itself “delighted” by this latest honour bestowed on its remarkable leader, who has lately been flavour of the moment on the London media, sauntering from One Show sofa to World At One studio with his usual aplomb. In making the award, the Times described Alex Salmond as perhaps the most formidable incumbent politician in Britain, one who had defied the odds to win a stunning electoral victory, largely by offering an optimistic world-view that no other party could match. And as Alex Salmond rests on his laurels this weekend, it is worth reflecting on just why the leader of the SNP is now able to display so many positive political qualities that seem beyond the reach of other party leaders, both in Scotland and elsewhere.

For as the detail gradually emerging from Leveson Inquiry makes ever more clear, the overarching truth about Alex Salmond and the SNP is that they are the significant UK political party who got away; the ones who have largely escaped unscathed from the long, steady campaign of bullying, intrusion, subversion, deracination and disempowerment, by powerful media and economic elites, that has gradually reduced the main London-based parties to such a bland and timid series of smooth-faced political ciphers. The reason for the SNP’s escape is simple, and lies in the monumental self-absorption of Britain’s metropolitian elites. Over the last three decades, the Murdoch press and the other arbiters of power in London simply have not cared enough about the SNP to try very hard to bully it into conformity, to bribe and subdue it with massive party donations, or to hack into the phones of all its leading members, in the hope of being able to tear apart their private lives over several pages of newsprint.

And as a result, Scotland now has a governing party that possesses much more political weight and character than its carefully de-natured political opponents. Unlike the Labour Party, the SNP has not been style-advised to the point where all its leading members look as if they are wearing the same designer suit, or sporting the same regulation fortysomething family life. On the contrary, the First Minister is unfashionably mature at 58, clearly continues to eat more than his share of pies, stays resolutely married to a woman more than a decade his senior, has no children, and discusses his private life with no-one; in all these respects, he is his own man.

Then, much more importantly, the SNP has not been browbeaten into detaching itself from its own roots. The Labour Party is a party founded by trade unions, to provide parliamentary representation for working people; yet over the past three decades, it has become so intimidated by the right-wing terms of debate set up by hostile elites that it has increasingly sought to distance itself from the very movement that is its fundamental source of political knowledge and strength. The SNP has not been asked to make any such mistake; and as a result, it still has a grassroots strength-in-depth, and a living connection with the lives of communities in many parts of Scotland, that the Labour Party now struggles to match.

The SNP, in other words, remains a party rather than a brand, and – to some extent at least – a voice of the people, rather than a mere mouthpiece for reconciling the people to existing power. The consequence is that it has, in its tone of voice, a strength, a resilience, a down-to-earth humour, an optimism, and a lack of deference, now largely absent from the discourse of other UK political parties; and as even The Times has noticed, this makes the SNP much more interesting and persuasive, as a political presence, than almost all of its competitors.

If the great British establishment is increasingly struck, though, by the lack of such positive qualities in other parties and polticians, then it should perhaps – before it grows any older – spend some time musing on its own role in destroying the spirit of diversity in British politics, which once boasted such a rich range of regional and working-class voices, and such a wide spectrum of ideological difference. They should ask themselves just who it was who mocked men like Neil Kinnock out of UK politics, and insisted that no politician of a more radical cast should be taken seriously at Westminster. They should remind themselves exactly whose interests have been best served, until now, by the growing sameness, rootlessness and timidity of the whole UK political class; and they should ask themselves whether, in pursuit of their obsessive anti-state ideology, they did not deliberately seek that end.

And then they should hang their heads in shame, for the damage they have done to the reality of democracy in this country. One result – among others – is the grotesquely unrepresentative Cabinet of millionaires under whose rule we in the UK live today. And provided Alex Salmond can slip through the net again, and avoid the hostile or insidious elite attention his growing prominence is likely to attract, it is also increasingly likely to result in the break-up of Britain; not least because, in their effort to destroy the politics of the left, those shady powers and principalities in London have fatally weakened the centre-left UK parties who should now be making the progressive arguments against Scottish independence – but who no longer have the organisational strength, the ideological coherence, or the positive vision, to be able to do anything of the sort.

ENDS ENDS

2011 In Review!

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on 2011 IN REVIEW! for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 29.12.11
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IT WAS THE BEST of times, it was the worst of times. On one hand, the Scottish theatre scene was busier – and in total more richly funded – than at any time in its history; in the course of the year, this particular Fairy Godmother saw and reviewed more than 270 shows, the vast majority of them made here in Scotland.

Yet fear stalked the land, as local authorities faced swingeing cuts, and the main funding body Creative Scotland prepared for a theatre review widely expected to mean curtains for some familiar companies. Only the National Theatre of Scotland – funded directly by the Scottish Government, along with the other national arts flagships – escaped the mood of apprehension and gloom; and was often rewarded for its jollity with the snarling ill-will of the rest of the Scottish theatre community.

So what happened in Scottish theatre in 2011? Well, if you kept your eyes on the stage, an untold feast of weird, wonderful and straightforwardly brilliant theatrical riches; here are the headlines, and they don’t tell you the half of it.

The National Theatre Of Scotland Celebrated Its Fifth Birthday – and did it with a packed programme of work, beginning in February with its gorgeous, magical pub show The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart (a 21st century tribute by David Greig to the great Border Ballads tradition), and ending this month with its first-ever Christmas show, a version of Dickens’s Christmas Carol, staged in an old schoolroom at Film City, once Govan Town Hall. There was a powerful mainstage version of Ena Lamont Stewart’s 1947 classic Men Should Weep, starring Lorraine McIntosh and Michael Nardone and directed by Graham McLaren, that toured across Scotland to great acclaim in the autumn; a bold revival of Greig’s Dunsinane at the Lyceum in the Spring; and a rich range of smaller shows. And throughout the year, the NTS ran what was often an electrifying series of debates and events on the story of Scottish theatre. Highlights included a star-studded session on the works of John Byrne at the Traverse in the spring, a packed celebration of panto with Alan Cumming at the Theatre Royal in November, and – just this month – a brilliantly-curated evening at the Scottish Parliament on the history and future of political theatre in Scotland, partly put together by that increasingly important father-figure of the Scottish stage, David MacLennan.

The Kids Were Alright – both in the shows they performed themselves, and in a fine year for theatre made for young people by professional companies. One of the outstanding events of the year was the National Theatre of Scotland’s Extreme project in Aberdeen, culminating in a mind-blowing promenade theatre show, Nothing To See Here, in which small groups of audience members were led by young actors through the bowels of a soon-to-be-demolished community centre, and into a range of ever more extreme and thrilling experiences. Towards the end of the year, again for NTS, John Retallack of Company of Angels produced a fine touring show called Truant, about troubled teenagers, seen and debated in community centres across Glasgow. Edinburgh’s Lyceum Youth Theatre delivered a memorable and timely production of James Graham’s hard-hitting play Bassett, about the town that – until this year – commemorated Britain’s war dead from Iraq and Afghanistan; and in the autumn, two shows backed by leading children’s company Catherine Wheels – Rob Evans’s new version of the story of Kes, and Shona Reppe’s delicious mini-show The Curious Scrapbook of Josephine Bean – thrilled young audiences across Scotland.

Scotland Welcomed Some Brilliant Visitors – and not only during the Edinburgh Festival; although this year’s Asian-facing festival featured a quiet masterpiece in Stephen Earnhart and Greg Pierce’s version of Haruki Murakami’s beautiful novel about urban alienation in modern Japan, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and the Traverse Fringe played host to the brilliant TEAM of New York in their wild, cabaret-like elegy for the American dream, Mission Drift. A great year for touring shows visiting Scotland began in January, when cutting-edge visual theatre company 1927 brought their superb The Animals And Children Took To The Streets to the Traverse; it also included Derek Jacobi’s King Lear in Glasgow in March, and reached a pinnacle of perfection in October, when the King’s in Edinburgh played host to Nicholas Hytner’s inspired Sixties-set version of One Man Two Guvnors (Servant Of Two Masters), starring James Corden.

Artists Smashed The Boundaries Between Art-Forms – not least in Stewart Laing’s fabulous Salon Project, at the Traverse in October, a cross between social event, installation, performance and debate in which the entire audience of sixty people were dressed kill in superb period costume by an inspired team of dressers and make-up artists; and then unleashed into the strange white world of an elegant salon built on the Traverse stage, to contemplate the nature and end of civilisation. Rob Drummond’s Wrestling, at the Arches in the spring, was a theatre show turned wrestling match. Vanishing Point’s Saturday Night – at the Tramway and the Traverse in October – was also part-installation, a lyrical and chilling wordless meditation on change and memory created with an international European company. And towards the end of the year, both Magnetic North’s hilariously operatic cook-show farce Pass The Spoon, at the Tramway, and Cryptic’s exquisite Little Match Girl Passion, at the Tron and the Traverse, merged movement, music, dialogue, design, oratorio and song to mind-blowing effect.

And Amid All The Experimentation, The Main Stages And New Play Theatres Still Produced Some Gems – with hits ranging from Muriel Romanes’s terrific Stellar Quines/Royal Lyceum production of the suffragette story Age Of Arousal back in February, to a wonderful Phillip Breen staging of Peter Nichols’s 1967 masterpiece A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg, at the Citizens’ Theatre in October. It was a good year all round for Nichols, whose brave 1972 play a Privates On Parade also received a fine production at Pitlochy. In what was sometimes a disappointing year for new writing, the Tron and Traverse played host to one 24-carat classic of a piece , in David Harrower’s exquisite double monologue of modern Scotland, A Slow Air. And at Oran Mor in Glasgow, David MacLennan’s miraculous lunchtime Play, Pie And Pint seasons powered on, presenting almost 40 short plays in the year, allowing new talent to find its feet and old stagers to spread their wings, finding new partners and imitators from Philadelphia to Moscow; and now preparing to celebrate the 250th play in the series, due sometime in February, 2012.

ENDS ENDS

Lost Sock Princess

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on LOST SOCK PRINCESS at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 23.12.11
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3 stars ***

WHERE DO ALL the lost socks go? it’s one of the great unanswered questions of our civilisation; but Edinburgh’s Puppet Lab make a jolly and enjoyable attempt at answering it, in this modest but attractive Traverse Christmas show for tots aged between three and seven.

Preceded by a sock-puppet workshop in which the kids get to make little imaginary friends out of their own spare socks, the show uses some powerful techniques to unleash the children’s imagination, first inviting them to suggest three magical worlds that the show could visit, then creating a simple sketch of each world on a flip-pad, and eventually – magically – building each new world out of simple cardboard shapes stacked around the stage. In our case, the quest for a lost sock led us to a forest world, a farm world, and a bouncy castle soft-play world; and although neither performer seemed wholly comfortable with the amount of improvisation demanded by this format, the kids were visibly delighted by the idea that they could help shape the story unfolding in front of them.

Like previous Puppet Lab shows, Lost Sock Princess seems to lack rigour, as if it needed its rought edges knocked off by a much larger and more robust audience than it had at the Traverse on Wednesday; and the performers need to work harder, with director Simon Macintyre, to create brisk, funny and well-shaped sequences of dialogue that can be fitted into most scenarios. There’s some lovely harmonious movement in this show, though, as well as a bold celebration of the joys of improvisation; and if the narrative has its bumpy moments, it was gripping enough on Wednesday for one little girl to stage a loud protest at the end, announcing that she just didn’t want the story to go away, because she loved it so much.

ENDS ENDS

Vaclav Havel’s Vision And The European Crisis – Column 23.12.11

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 23.12.11
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THE YEAR was 1990, the place was the Obecni Dum, the beautiful art-nouveau municipal house in the centre of Prague; and on the occasion of the first meeting of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly – a network of citizens for peace, democracy and human rights whose membership extended, in those heady days, from Vladivostok to Vancouver – the new Czech President, Vaclav Havel, came to address our opening session. To the assembled civic activists, Havel was more than a leading politician welcoming us to his country and city; he was also one of the co-founders of our network, and the source of many of its key ideas about citizenship, transparency, and the need, in his famous words, to “make a real political force out of the phenomenon of human conscience.”

What I remember most clearly about him, though, is not what he said on that day, a year or so after the mighty Velvet Revolution he had led in such a remarkable, unassuming style; instead, I remember the set of his shoulders, as he walked through the crowd, up to the podium. For he did not walk like a king, or even a politician; he moved diffidently, like a busy working man, or a craftsman with orders to complete. No wonder that they called him Citizen Havel, both then and now, at the moment of his death; for although his own family was not a humble one – they were artists, architects, leading Czech intellectuals – it was as if he had adopted the unpretentious character of the Good Soldier Schweyk, the mid-European everyman who is the most famous of Czech fictional characters.

Havel’s death, though, comes at a moment when much of the hope that surrounded his peaceful revolution, two decades ago, seems to have crumbled away. Although Havel was Czech to his fingertips, he always spoke the language of common humanity, and of a Europe restored to its rightful unity, after the long years of separation during the Cold War; and in the years after 1989, he helped drive the Czech Republic swiftly into membership of the European Union. To nations emerging from the dark years of Soviet domination and totalitarian communist government, the European Union seemed like a beacon of hope, a community of nations that combined political and economic freedom with growing prosperity, real democracy, and strong social values. “Hello Europe”, said many of the banners in Wenceslas Square, back in 1989; and many of the leading activists of Havel’s generation saw the Velvet Revolution as a homecoming, to that Europe that had been denied them for so long.

It’s therefore more than painful to imagine how many of those activists must feel now, as the European Union on which they pinned such hopes begins to creak and fail, under the pressure of economic recession. The other week in Krakow, I met a fine Polish woman of 50 or so whose eyes flashed with disdain when I gave her my negative assessment of how the European crisis was going, and assured me that it wasn’t for this – this mixture of political cowardice, junk neoliberal economics, and sheer lack of guts in defending the European ideal – that the Poles fought their way out from under the Communist yoke.

With hindsight, it seems clear that both east and west Europeans underestimated the extent to which the peace and prosperity of the EU, and its generous social model, were dependent on the inherited post-colonial wealth and trading links of west European nations, and the pre-eminence in commerce and technology which they retained for many decades after 1945. And now that the European cake is shrinking, it seems that voters in many leading European countries – including France, Germany and the Netherlands, as well as David Cameron’s UK – are increasingly retreating into unpleasant forms of retro-nationalism, mainly involving a sub-rational belief that “foreigners” are at the root of all the nation’s problems.

And yet, and yet. To have met some of Vaclav Havel’s generation of middle-European dissidents is to have met people who are Czechs or Poles or Ukrainians, yes, but Europeans too, with friends and comrades across the continent, and no doubt of their ability to make common cause with them. And to travel across Europe, with eyes and ears open, is to recognise the strange paradox of a continent that has known many projects of Union in the past, from the Roman Empire on; and whose rich diversity of languages and nations often conceals a deep cultural similarity. Every town from the Urals to the Atlantic seems to have its Market Street, its Old Bridge, its Castle Wynd, and its cluster of churches named after the same saints, often with the same Latin inscriptions. And at this time of year, they all have their Christmas stars and lights, their markets full of spiced wine, their images of St. Nicholas, their children bright-eyed with the promise of presents, either on 25 December, or some other magical midwinter date.

To David Cameron’s backbench Tories in London, in other words, the current resurgence of old national antagonisms in Europe may seem like a healthy development, a reassertion of what is “natural” and “real” after decades of Europhile delusion. To know Europe well, though, is to understand it as a place where unity and diversity are always in tension, as much one big human and cultural community artificially divided during the age of nation-states, as 27 nations artificially forced into Union.

And as Vaclav Havel famously said, human beings should seek to “live in the truth” of those powerful and complex connections; rather than in the miasma of divisive lies created by the powerful for their own ends. So as the people of the Czech Republic lay their citizen President to rest, this Christmas, we in the west of the continent should perhaps prepare to be surprised again: not least by the refusal of millions of thinking East Europeans to give up on the European dream that sustained them through the hardest of times; and that – for them – represents not some false ideal of Union imposed by a faceless bureaucracy, but a long-suppressed truth of shared history and experience, finally made real and tangible again, in their everyday lives.

ENDS ENDS

The King And I, Jack And The Beanstalk (Aberdeen), Robinson Crusoe And The Caribbean Pirates

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE KING AND I at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, JACK AND THE BEANSTALK at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, and ROBINSON CRUSOE AND THE CARIBBEAN PIRATES at the SECC Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 22.12.11
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The King And I 4 stars ****
Jack And The Beanstalk 4 stars ****
Robinson Crusoe And The Caribbean Pirates 4 stars ****

THIS WEEK at the United Nations, governments are still arguing about whether the equality of women and gay rights are basic human rights, or just new forms of western imperialism. So it’s doubly impressive and moving to have a chance to marvel, this Christmas season, at the power and prescience of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s great 1951 musical The King And I, now setting off on tour around the UK, in a lavish and thoughtful production first seen last year in Leicester.

Set in the court of the King Of Siam in the early 1860’s, the show famously tells the story of the difficult friendship between the King and Anna Leonowens, a young widow who arrives at the court with her son, to act as governess to the king’s many children. His hope is that his family and country will learn the best of western ways, and become more scientific and modern, without losing their own heritage and traditions.

As the story evolves, though, it becomes clear that this balance is achingly difficult to achieve. Anna’s influence brings the King to the point where he can no longer countenance traditional forms of brutality and sexual violence, particularly towards women; but he pays for that loss of certainty with his life, since the loss of traditional male pride essentially breaks his heart.

All of this is beautifully brought to life, in Paul Kerryson’s powerful and intelligent production, which features two memorable leading performances from a thoughtful, slightly self-mocking Ramon Tikaram as the King, and a forceful and beautiful Josefina Gabrielle as Anna. Say “musical theatre”, of course, and most people will think of something light, frothy, sloppily romantic. This spectacular production, though – the first from Music & Lyrics, the new company of ex-Festival Theatre boss John Stalker – comes as a powerful reminder that this is a show which soars to heights of romance unknown to contemporary theatre, while containing within it a whole Siamese-style opera based on the anti-slavery story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And just as the King imagines himself as an opponent of slavery while holding his women as mere possessions, so we today deceive ourselves if we think the buying and selling of human flesh is a thing of the past; Anna’s fight for human dignity, combined with respect for all cultures, is one that never ends, and is movingly captured in this glorious show.

On Scotland’s other main stages, meanwhile, the great annual pantosphere continues to revolve and evolve at dizzying speed, with many theatres reporting record box-office takings. Jack And The Beanstalk at His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, is probably the best and jolliest of this year’s traditional city pantos, with the ubiquitous Alan McHugh in fine form as both author and Dame, and Elaine C. Smith pulling out all the stops as Fairy Flora, in a performance far more witty and generous than her Glasgow King’s persona ever seemed to allow.

There’s the odd quibble around the detail of the show; despite Elaine C.’s big comedy number I’m The Quine Who Did The Strip At Inverurie – apparently added by special request of the First Minister, an Aberdeen panto regular – the show seems slightly less rich in local references than in previous years. For panto traditionalists, though, this is one that contains almost all the classic elements, while giving them a strong local and contemporary twist; and this Qdos production also boasts the best beanstalk and giant in the whole pantosphere, the one joyfully lush and pneumatic, the other just memorably huge.

The biggest shock of the season, though, comes at the Clyde Auditorium of the SECC, where the big UK panto company Qdos’s stages its Glasgow rival to the traditional panto at the city’s King’s Theatre. Last year, their version of Aladdin – featuring a flu-hit John Barrowman, and two pretty perfunctory Krankies – was a smutty and joyless affair, which seemed to hold little promise for the future.

Now, though, the same team has picked itself up, given some serious thought to how best to use the available talent, rustled up some tabloid publicity through the Krankies’ eye-watering claim to have been 1970’s swingers, and created a version of Qdos’s Robinson Crusoe And The Caribbean Pirates that is a naughty, spectacular delight from start to finish, with a powerful local twist, and unfailingly high production standards.

Co-directed by Qdos’s Jonathan Kiley and Barrowman himself, and co-written by the selfsame Alan McHugh, the show features Barrowman as Robinson Crusoe, with Jeanette Krankie as his identical twin brother Jimmy (a dirty wee boy), and Ian Krankie as his dad Captain Crusoe; and through this hilariously improbable family relationship, the Krankies are reborn as a seriously dynamic comic duo, as they join Barrowman in defeating the classic panto villain, Blackheart the pirate.

The real revelation of the show, though, is Barrowman himself, who emerges this year as a true panto star. Last year, the jokes about his really-gay sexuality were a bit of an embarrassment; this year, he cheerfully swings both ways, fancying Jeremy Fontanet’s gorgeous Man Friday, yet adoring the beautiful Magic Mermaid. And the result – note this, analysts of sexual mores – is the best panto kiss of the whole season, as Barrowman finally gathers his lovely mermaid into his arms. it’s as if, in the world of 21st century, the well-sorted-out gay guy is free to be the complete romantic hero; while the straight guy, still struggling like the King Of Siam with false ideas about macho power and strength, has to send himself up, or feel like a sap.

The King And I at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, and Robinson Crusoe at the SECC, Glasgow, both until 7 January. Jack And The Beanstalk at His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, until 8 January.

PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK

John Barrowman’s impressive Robinson Crusoe at the SECC, generous and glamorous as they come. He sings and dances brilliantly, shows a real gift for self-deprecating comedy, and – most startlingly – begins to look like the man best placed to carry on where Gerard Kelly left off, in developing a warm, rich, teasing and reciprocal live relationship with the great Glasgow panto audience.

ENDS ENDS

Aladdin (Musselburgh)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ALADDIN at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, for The Scotsman 22.12.11
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4 stars ****

SCOTLAND has its share of pantos that boast big budgets and major star names; but if ever you wanted proof that money isn’t everything, in panto-land, then Liam Rudden’s fine Brunton Theatre production of Aladdin is the show for you. Staged on a budget, with a chorus of simply-dressed local youngsters, a couple of recycled backdrops, and a lone musician – musical director “Uncle Jim” Bryce – in the pit, the Musselburgh panto starts with few advantages. Yet it knows what many flashier pantos have forgotten; that if you focus on the story, get the timing right, deploy a few good local jokes and all the best panto devices, and believe just enough in the magic of it all, then you can create a good panto from the simplest of ingredients.

So here, we have a small seven-strong professional ensemble that rarely misses a trick, in a version of Aladdin which starts off on the right foot by imagining Musselburgh as a Scottish enclave in old Peking, its Chinatown-type ornamental gate decorated with thistles and saltires. Here lives Colin Carr’s sprightly, skinny young Widow Twankey, together with her son Aladdin – a slightly glaikit-looking Derek McGhie – and her gormless younger boy Wishee Washee, played with great flair by Scott Hoatson.

In no time at all, Aladdin’s wicked uncle Abanazar has whisked him away to the cave of delights, to find the fortune that will enable him to marry Julie Heatherill’s gorgeous Princess Thistle Blossom, by far the finest female juvenile lead in all of Scottish pantoland. They’re helped on their way by two genial spirits, in Robert Read’s chubby genie of the lamp, and Isabella Jarrett’s beautiful and glamorous genie of the ring. No opportunity for fun is missed, from opening number to closing walk-down. And the whole Brunton team – including ingenious designer Francis Gallop – deserve the warmest Christmas applause, for one of the least pretentious and most enjoyable pantos of the year.

ENDS ENDS

Jack And The Magic Beans

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on JACK AND THE MAGIC BEANS at the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, for The Scotsman, 21.12.11
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4 stars ****

THEY SAY that a good piece of theatre should open up a new world for audiences, and invite them straight into it; but it’s rare to see a show that explores that idea so thoroughly, and so magically, as this year’s Lemon Tree show for younger Christmas audiences, aged around four to eight. Co produced by Aberdeen Performing Arts and the Scottish Youth Theatre, Jack And The Magic Beans is a variation on the Jack And The Beanstalk story, made to accompany this year’s big panto at His Majesty’s Theatre; and if it begins hesitantly – with a long introduction from Brad Morrison’s slightly tentative Merlock The Magician – it soon opens up, with a wonderful small coup-de-theatre, into a real promenade theatre experience for younger children, in which we follow Merlock into the world inhabited by Jack, beautifully played by Scott Miller, and his cheerful Mum (Michelle Bruce), always ready with a song and a hug.

The magic beans provided by Merlock don’t always behave in predictable ways, in this version of the story; they’re not above producing a giant spud instead of a beanstalk, and suddenly expanding to the size of a brightly-coloured beanbag. If the narrative sometimes seems convoluted, though, the use of music, songs and spells is near-perfect, drawing the audience straight into the action, whether we’re stirring a pot of giant stew, planting the magic beans, or accompanying Jack on his daily march down to the shed once once inhabited by his beloved cow. And director Fraser MacLeod and his team can take pride in a show that obviously loves the tale of Jack and the beanstalk, even as it works out a few bold variations on it; and is perfectly designed to give audiences of children a gorgeous, three-dimensional theatrical experience, designed specially for them.

ENDS ENDS

Sleeping Beauty (Pitlochry)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on SLEEPING BEAUTY at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, for The Scotsman, 20.12.11
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3 stars ***

LAST WEEK, I made my first-ever Christmas cake. It didn’t go badly, but the final result seemed like a case of too much fruit, not enough cake; and John Durnin of Pitlochry Festival Theatre – once a summer-only venue, now open all year round – seems to have run into a similar problem with his second family panto for the theatre, after a fine Cinderella in 2010.

His new version of Sleeping Beauty – traditional at first, increasingly wacky as the story develops – is stuffed with ideas, some of them brilliant; I particularly enjoyed Helen Logan’s fine turn as Morvern The Minion, the wicked fairy’s trainee, constantly complaining about the junk apprenticeship she’s been handed at the Job Centre in Dunfermline. There’s a difference, though, between an idea that fits firmly into the story, and one that never quite seems to belong; and when, after the interval, the show wanders off into a long time-travelling riff on the late-1970’s war between punk and disco, it seems to be addressing a demographic so narrow that most of the audience look frankly bewildered.

The odd misjudgment apart, though, Pitlochry’s sleeping Beauty is a strong, good-natured family show, with the special advantage of being created from scratch, to very high production standards, in the theatre’s own design and costume workshops. The dramatic relationship between Alan Steele’s promising Nurse Nancy, and Gavin Wright as her gormless son Fester The Jester, needs a sharper focus; both need to be on earlier, and to forge a strong and immediate bond with the audience, before the panto can proceed at full speed. Amanda McLaren makes a lovely Princess Beauty, though, pretty and feisty, never bland; and with Deirdre Davis in fine form as a scatty Good Fairy, the current Pitlochry ensemble deliver an imperfect but jolly slice of panto fun, adding a rich and welcome new dimension to the great Scottish panto scene.

ENDS ENDS

Rudolf

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on RUDOLF at the Arches Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 19.12.11
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3 stars ***

THIS IS A big year for Christmas shows aimed at very small people; and the Arches Theatre – with its own long-standing commitement to festive fun for the under-5’s – draws on the growing strength of the tots tradition with a gently enjoyable revival of Andy Manley’s Rudolf, first seen at the MacRobert in 2008.  Based on the story of Rudolf The Red-Nosed Reindeer, the show is a simple two-hander, featuring Rob Evans as Rudolf, and Ross Allan as everyone else.  The set is a homely shack somewhere in the northlands; and the story follows Rudolf from his conception and birth, through a troubled childhood (in which he is bullied by Olive The Other Reindeer, no less), to that famous foggy Christmas Eve when no-one else will do, to pull Santa’s sleigh.

It would be good to be able to report that the show achieves the flawless grace of some other Andy Manley productions; but alas, Rob Evans sometimes overdoes the knowing camp style, the story fizzles out without the final singalong of the Rudolf song it needs, and the final triumphant flight is marred by a visual effect so feeble it should have been sent straight back to the drawing board.

Matt Addicott’s production has plenty of compensating virtues though, particularly in the lovely, burgeoning friendship between Rudolf and his new chum, the Ugly Duckling.  And it’s good, towards the end of the show, to see the tiny tots dancing in the aisles; even though their little heads barely come up to the backs of the seats, in the Arches’ studio theatre.

ENDS ENDS  

Staging The Nation: Nursing The Thistle Of Scottish Political Theatre

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THORN IN THEIR SIDE: NURSING THE THISTLE OF SCOTTISH POLITICAL THEATRE at the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 17.12.11
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4 stars ****

IT WAS THE KIND OF event that leaves everyone with a favourite moment or memory. For some, it would be the songs of Arthur Johnstone, the veteran singer of Glasgow working-class life who recently appeared between acts in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Men Should Weep. For others, it will be the sound of Liz MacLennan, widow and lifelong partner of the great John McGrath of 7:84, reflecting on just how busy her brilliant husband would be if he were still alive in the age of the Occupy movement. For me – well, I’m torn. There was rising star playwright Kieran Hurley with an unforgettable riff on the radical legacy of Gil Scott Heron, or Peter Arnott’s testy dialogue with his fellow-dramatist Bertolt Brecht, or a great song about prejudice against asylum-seekers from Cora Bissett’s forthcoming show Glasgow Girls; or half a dozen other brilliant insights into the special energy that drives artists who choose to engage directly with the rights – and especially with the wrongs – of the society they live in.

Presented as part of the National Theatre of Scotland’s hugely successful Staging The Nation series about the story of Scottish theatre, Nursing The Thistle was superbly curated by director Graham McLaren and 7:84 and Wildcat veteran David MacLennan, now the producer of the Play, Pie and Pint seasons at Oran Mor, who put together the series of three-minute live interventions from a huge range of current Scottish theatre artists that gave the whole evening such a sharp creative edge.

The session was a little short on analytical answers to the underlying question of why Scotland creates so much strong political theatre, and about whether our sense of ourselves as a nation defined by opposition to power would change with independence. What it achieved, though, was a rare balance between paying tribute to a remarkable past, and celebrating the new wave of radical thought and energy now pulsing through Scottish theatre, and often driven by artists well under 30. There was the occasional lament for the demise of the Scotland-wide touring circuit built up by 7:84 in the 1970’s, and of a range of companies who once toured the best professional work across all of Scotland. David MacLennan, though, refused to indulge in nostalgia. If there have been losses to the Scottish radical theatre since the 1970’s, there have also been huge gains, in the coming of venues like Oran Mor and the Arches, of a new National Theatre built on a radical model, and of the Parliament itself, where decisions about the funding of Scotland’s cultural life are now made. And in the end, I think my favourite moment came when the plywright Nicola McCartney listed the three most important things she had learned, back in the 1990’s, from her great mentor, John McGrath – that your politics has to be in your life as well as in your art; that if you love Scotland, you will stay in Scotland and make your creative life here; and that theatre is always a dialogue between the work and the audience – or it is nothing.

ENDS ENDS