Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Chelsea Belladonna

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE CHELSEA BELLADONNA at Inchmarlo Gardens, Kincardineshire, for The Scotsman 31.7.12
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4 stars ****

FOR YEARS, shoestring companies like Chapterhouse, Illyria and Heartbreak have been exploring the market for outdoor summer theatre at stately homes and gardens around Britain; and now, Scotland’s own arts funding agency weighs into the business, celebrating the Year Of Creative Scotland by inviting Square Peg Productions of Yorkshire to work with Scotland’s Stellar Quines on a new show designed to tour around properties supported by Scotland’s Gardens.

Square Peg’s work focusses on “unsung northern heroines”; and in this 85-minute show, which opened at the glorious Inchmarlo Gardens on Deeside before a tour which will take it from Blairgowrie to Peebles, their in-house writer Anna Carlisle tells the story of an unsung Scottish heroine in the shape of Elizabeth Blackwell, illustrator and compiler of the greatest reference-book on herbal medicines ever published in 18th century England. Blackwell was an Aberdeen girl who, in her teens, eloped to London with her tearaway cousin Alexander. Alexander soon ended up in debtor’s prison; and the crisis compelled the clever, strong-minded and talented Elizabeth to mend her fortunes by seeking the support of Sir Hans Sloane, patron of the great Chelsea Physic Garden, and beginning to create her magnificent book.

Rushing, arguing, kissing and debating around the glorious woodlands and flower-gardens of Inchmarlo, Irene Allen and Kenny Blyth – with director Wendy Seager – make a fine, tightly-focussed job of conjuring up the spirits of Elizabeth, Alexander and Sloane, despite torrential rain-showers that compel frequent retreats to a small, open-ended marquee. And although the audience for the performance I saw was tiny – raising questions about how well the ground has been prepared for this tour – they seemed hugely appreciative; both of the straightforward, vigorous feminism of Carlisle’s script, and of Irene Allen’s heartfelt performance as Elizabeth, a woman burdened by am increasingly hopeless husband, but determined, in the end, to save her own life.

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Ratcatcher etc.

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JOYCE McMILLAN on RATCATCHER/INVISIBLE EMPIRE at the
Arches Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 30.7.12
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3 stars ***

THE WEATHER may be changeable; but this week, Glasgow celebrates its annual weekend of explosive street art, with the Merchant City Festival in full swing both indoors and outdoors, and the Surge/Conflux international gathering of street art and physical theatre at the Arches. When I arrived in Glasgow on Friday evening, the Merchant City Festival had the magnificent giant puppet known as Big Man Walking working its magic around George Square and Ingram Street, arousing ancient dreams of lost leaders and returning heroes; but along at the Arches, achievements were more mixed, as the Surge Festival played host to a couple of emerging works.

Ali Maloney’s Ratcatcher is a 45-minute piece for two actors about the grotesquery of poverty; it seems set in some mediaeval, Bosch-like dystopia where people produce children only to eat them, and all rulers are fierce tax-grubbling tyrants. Moloney’s idea is strong, and his poetry shows occasional flashes of pure brilliance. In terms of dramatic development over 45 minutes, though, Ratcatcher seemed stuck in a single theatrical gesture of loud disgust; so that its chosen performance style – a tired mixture of limp satire and Ubu-like absurdism – only distracted from the poetry in hand.

Company of Wolves’s gorgeous work-in-progress Invisible Empires seems much more promising and contemporary, using deep resonances of choral music, performed by a superb company of seven, to explore contemporary ideas about isolation and alienation. At only 25 minutes, the piece is still embryonic. Yet the atmosphere is clear, adult, humorous yet serious; and the sound is simply sensational.

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Judge Not, That You Be Not Judged: A Bad Week For The Catholic Church In The Same-Sex Marriage Debate, As Archbishop-Elect Fails To Show Compassion Or Humility – Column 27.7.12

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 27.7.12
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IT WAS just a year ago, on 20 July 2011, that the Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny stood up in the Dail to make his speech on the publication of the Cloyne Report, into the abuse of children by c Catholic clergy in Ireland. It was an astonishing address, described by many commentators – both in Ireland and far beyond it – as the political speech of the year; for in 12 short minutes, in simple, hard-hitting language driven by the kind of conviction rarely heard in modern political discourse, Kenny effectively ended the deference to the church that had shaped the life of the Irish republic since its foundation in 1921.

Kenny’s argument was straightforward, and amounted to this; that in failing to protect the children in its care, in covering up for abusive priests, and in allowing them to continue to damage vulnerable children and young people under cover of clerical authority, the church had effectively prioritised its own status and power over the suffering of children, and betrayed its founding principles of “radicalism, humility and compassion”. And he added that the “pilgrim church” of the past now needed to become a church truly and deeply penitent, for the horrors that it had perpetrated, hidden and denied.

It was a brave speech, clearly delivered from conviction rather than calculation; yet in its aftermath, the Taoiseach’s approval ratings soared, as people responded to the rare sound of an elected politician speaking truth to unaccountable power. And I thought of Kenny’s mighty speech this week, as I sat watching something probably best described as its polar opposite; the mumbling, indirect, ill-informed, and strikingly heartless anti-gay insinuations of the Archbishop-elect of Glasgow, Philip Tartaglia, delivered on camera during a debate in Oxford.

Tartaglia suggested, without naming names, that the recent death at 44 of gay Labour MP David Cairns might well have been a consequence of his homosexual way of life. To the great distress of Cairns’s bereaved family and partner, he made this insinuation without factual evidence, apparently under the influence of a current campaign, by the global homophobic right, to suggest that same-sex relations are not only morally wrong, but are instantly punished with a spectacular series of health problems, hushed up by liberals in the medical profession. And as Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced the Scottish Government’s bold decision to go ahead with the legalisation of same-sex marriage, Bishop Tartaglia and his spokesman Peter Kearney contrived, between them, to create a picture of the Catholic hierarchy in Scotland that might have been designed to fit Enda Kenny’s unflattering description of their Irish counterparts – arrogant, dysfunctional, and intellectually and morally discredited by their determination to prioritise the power and status of their own institution, over the elementary demands of truth and compassion.

For the more I consider the conduct of the Catholic Church in this debate, over the last few years, the clearer it becomes that this is not simply a matter of disagreement over whether same-sex relationships are right or wrong. Archbishop Tartaglia, like Bashir Maan of the Glasgow Islamic community, believes that homosexual relationships can never be right; he will not sanction same-sex marriages in Catholic places of worship, and the new law will not compel him to do so.

What is truly chilling, though, and almost embarrassingly ill-judged, is the self-centred arrogance of the church’s conduct in this affair: first in their high-handed attempts to suggest that they have a right to define the meaning of marriage for believers and non-believers alike; then in the sheer intellectual incoherence of their slide from moral condemnation to cheap health-scare mongering; and finally, most shockingly, in the lack of basic compassion and respect for gay people that was most tellingly revealed in Archbishop Tartaglia’s hurtful and inaccurate speculations about the death of a man he knew, and at whose funeral he helped to officiate.

For the truth is that even if David Cairns’s death had been associated in some way with his own life decisions, it would not be the place of Philip Tartaglia to make public comments on the matter, at such a time. None of us, after all, can be sure which aspects of our lives may contribute to our eventual deaths; the Archbishop himself looks as if he might be guilty of the occasional act of gluttony, but if he were to suffer a heart attack tomorrow, I am sure no one would be so lacking in compassion as to suggest that his death was the result of his own moral depravity.

And beyond that – well, just where is that profound humility that is one of the bedrock of the faith, and that, as Enda Kenny so eloquently pointed out, is particularly required of the Catholic Church at this time? To put it bluntly, if the Catholic hierarchy led by Benedict XVI had any living grasp of the faith they claim to represent, they would now be somewhere in the middle of a long decade of repentance and reflection, during which they would refrain – as a matter of decency – from pronouncing on the morality of others, until they have paid the price of their own abject failure. The New Testament is riddled with warnings to this effect; to attend to the beam in your own eye, before denouncing the mote in someone else’s.

Yet when I listen to the pronouncements of Scotland leading Catholic churchmen, I often wonder how long it is since they actually read those words; or left the embattled circle of their own colleagues and ardent supporters, to engage with a society which increasingly rejects their narrow and sexually obsessive definition of morality. In Ireland, the church seems to have reached some kind of endgame, as the state begins to seize church property, in order to pay compensation to victims of abuse. And in Scotland – well, we shall see. But a faith based on a petulant and confused defence of old social prejudices, combined with the recycling of cheap conspiracy theories, seems unlikely to thrive. And the church in which Philip Tartaglia now plays a leading role needs to return to the better principles on which it was founded; or to accept that it is finally running out of time.

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deviator

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on deviator at the Arches, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 25.7.12
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4 stars ****

HI, THIS IS DEVIATOR JOYCE here, high score 121. And if you want to know what I was doing, a few hours ago, chucking a wet sponge at an effigy of a banker on the corner of Gordon Street, or lying on my stomach on a yellow dot in the tarmac of George Square, or muttering an exorcism at a mobile phone shop on St. Vincent Place, then you should know that – at the behest of the pvi collective of Perth, Australia – I was pursuing the theory that it’s only through deviation from buttoned-up social norms that progress can take place.

The show, part of this week’s Glasgow Surge Festival of street art and physical theatre, is based on play theory, the kind of idea loved and popularised by Scotland’s own singing social philosopher Pat Kane. And although the technology is a bit of a faff – you need a smartphone with the deviator app downloaded, a large pair of headphones, and a superhuman ability to spot the QR codes for the various games, stuck to rubbish bins and crossing lights – once you get the hang of it, it’s both enjoyable and slightly other-worldly, as you wander among the rush-hour crowds listening to a different urban soundtrack on your headphones, and see the odd playful provocateur from the pvi company skipping around you, drawing peever squares or smiley faces on the pavement.

The thought the show provokes is about the odd tension, in 21st century urban life, between the infantile and the desperately over-controlled; between leisure lives that seem increasingly childish, and public and professional lives ever more grimly focussed and dehumanised. The value of deviator is that it bridges that gap, and reminds us that rich full lives demand a more integrated sense of humanity; both play that is less mindless, and a public life that is more playful, more creative, and less dismal.

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The G4S Scandal, And Why We Need To Disentangle Our Government From These Hugh Private Providers – Column 20.7.12

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 20.7.12
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PICTURE, IF YOU WILL, the scene in the Scotsman office, late on a Thursday afternoon. The comment editor is at his desk, expecting the imminent arrival of columns from the contributors of the day; but instead, from me, he receives a polite email, explaining that I have found myself unable to marshal the required physical and intellectual resources to write the piece, and am instead sending something shorter, which will not fill the space available.

Despite this abject failure, though, I express every confidence that he will not cancel my fee, or indeed sack me on the spot, with my professional reputation in tatters. Instead, I expect a friendly statement asserting that I have been jolly honourable in confessing to my inability to do what is required; even if it is only five minutes to deadllne, and I have been delivering misleading reports of my progress, all day long.

Well, in my dreams: for I am a self-employed writer, on pretty average earnings, and for us, when we mess up on the job, few allowances are – or should be – made. Things are apparently different, though, for the likes of the giant security corporation G4S, which last week confessed, just 16 days before the opening ceremony, to making a complete mess of delivering on its contract to provide security for the 2012 Olympics. The Home Secretary was obliged to draft in the army to fill the gaps; but the Sports Secretary Jeremy Hunt could not find it in his heart to be cross. It was all fine, he said; and it’s almost touching to imagine the intensity of the thank-you message he must have had from G4S’s beleaguered £1 million-a-year boss, the aptly-named Nick Buckles.

The point of all this, though, is that although mocking Britain’s government-contract fat-cats has become easy, in recent years, actually removing their snouts from the trough seems all but impossible; and G4S’s intimate relationship with government – across a whole contnuing range of contracts, from policing and prisons to welfare-to-work schemes – raises profound questions about the growing involvement of the private sector in delivering what were once, in the UK, exclusively public services. In England, even some aspects of front-line policing are about to be put out to contract; the delivery of the English NHS budget into the hands of the private healthcare industry is already well advanced. And this is a change which has, to a very large extent, slipped through without much public debate; driven by private-sector lobbyists, and by ministers of both parties who have been heavily persuaded that privatisation equals “reform”, they have rarely been subjected to the level of public debate they require, and demand.

For in truth, the drive towards the outsourcing of major publc services rases at least three sets of questions, none of which has ever been adequately answered. The first is about competence, and exactly what sanctions can or will be applied to companies which land these immensely lucrative contracts, and then fail to deliver on them. One glance at G4S’s failure over the Olympics, or the multiple administrative disasters presided over by Capita (the company immortalised in Private Eye as “Crapita”), or the shocking story of the colossal £12 billion failure of IT company CSC’s effort to create an NHS records system for England, makes it crystal clear that we have no effective remedy against these failures; every one of these companies are still in existence, and still blssfully coining it at the taxpayer’s expense.

Then secondly, in a culture where corporate earnings have soared beyond any level with which public salaries can compete, the close relationship between governments departments and private contractors raises serious questions about the probity of relations between companies, ministers, and civil servants; indeed the revolving door between such companies and Whitehall departments has become one of the most notorious aspects of British government. To put it bluntly, it costs these companies mere peanuts – in their own terms – to buy the loyalty and enthusiasm of British politicians and public servants with hints of lucrative future jobs and directorships; in a world where people like former Labour Home Secretary John Reid now sit on the board of G4S, at substantial non-Executive salaries.

And then finally, there is the question of what it does to a nation’s soul, to take functions that used to be carried out by the state on behalf of the people, and to make them once again the province of private profit. Even Margaret Thatcher famously hesitated to privatise the service known as the Royal Mail; and when I consider the selling off and visible prostituting of what were once glorious British public buildings, during my adult lifetime, it is genuinely difficult not to feel that the loss of places like the BBC’s Bush House, or London’s County Hall, or the mighty central post offices in Edinburgh and Glasgow, is in some way symbolic of a decline in the nation’s collective strength, and in its sense of itself as a proud and effective community.

It may be true, of course, as Conservatives argue, that the British state in the postwar years tried to do too much, too directly. What is clear, though, is that whatever size of state we have, it is scarcely worth having one at all, if it cannot preserve sufficient integrity and independence to legislate in the interests of the people as a whole, to regulate commerce with some firmness and justice, and to stand properly aloof from the large commercial interests that would woo and corrupt it.

And insofar as a state whch can no longer do these things becomes a mere symbol of national decline, it has to be said that the British state is beginning to look pretty far gone. Which might be good news for the SNP, here in Scotland; if only it did not share so many of the Britsh state’s obsequious attitudes to the might of big business; and did not seem so vague, and so lacking in intellectual radicalism, about the model of 21st-century state and government it has in mind, for the new Scotland of which it dreams.

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As You Like It, Communicating Doors, Five Minute Theatre (Youth)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on AS YOU LIKE IT at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, COMMUNICATING DOORS at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and FIVE MINUTE THEATRE, all over Scotland, for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 19.7.12
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As You Like It 4 stars ****
Communicating Doors 4 stars ****
Five Minute Theatre 4 stars ****

IT’S WORTH quoting in full, the first verse of the first great song in Shakespeare’s fabulous pastoral comedy, As You Like It. “Under the greenwood tree,” sing the usurped Duke’s men, camping in the forest, “who loves to lie with me, and tune his merry note, unto the sweet bird’s throat? Come hither, come hither, come hither. Here shall you see no enemy, but winter and rough weather.”

Rough weather has been the order of the day, at this year’s Bard In The Botanics season. Last weekend, though, the clouds parted, and evening sunlight poured through the trees; creating a perfect space for Gordon Barr’s long, faithful yet rewarding promenade production of a play which, in some ways, marks the start of the great English obsession with the green countryside as a place of truth, authenticity and kindness, compared with the lies, cruelty and deception of city and court. The play’s two heroines – the lovely Rosalind, tall daughter of the true Duke, and her sidekick and cousin Celia, daughter of the usurper at court – are both on the side of the angels; and when they arrive in the forest of Arden, Shakespeare’s Warwickshire version of Arcadia, it’s with a real sense of relief, particularly when they realise that everyone they care about is already there with them.

So for two-and-a-half merry hours, we in the audience follow the characters around the lovely woodlands of the Botanics – from the glasshouses that represent the court, to the lovely spreading tree under which the Duke and his men are camped – in a production that has no obvious point to make, and is a little long-drawn-out in parts.

What the show lacks in speed and brilliance, though, it fully makes up in the sheer quality of its loving attention to the text; and it’s refreshing to see a production whch simply goes with the flow of this strange, and beautiful play, as it plays around with gender, and wanders off into oddly contemporary reflections on our right – or not – to slaughter animals for our food. In Kirk Bage, the show has a world-class melancholy Jacques, his sideways relationship with the rest of the company perfectly played for comic effect. In the end, though, the production revolves around the sheer beauty and intelligence of Nicole Cooper’s Rosalind; as one of the most powerful and dynamic heroines in all of Shakespeare woos her man, secures his love, and sorts out the fate of everyone else in the forest, before delivering an epilogue to remember, in the fading light of a summer dusk.

There’s also some real woman-power on view in Alan Ayckbourn’s 1994 play Communicating Doors, revived at Pitlochry Festival Theatre in the most absorbing and entertaining show of the season so far. Set in the same London hotel-room today, twenty years ago, and twenty years in the future, this deeply optimistic fantasy-drama imagines what might happen if the three female victims of a wealthy man’s murderous and manipulative business partner found themselves able to travel in time, and to forewarn one another of the terrible fate in store.

It’s a strange plot, which requires a large stretch of the imagination from both audience and characters; and it’s not helped, at Pitlochry, by yet another clunky and literal set. There’s something about the story, though, that seems to bring out the best in the women of the company, with Jacqueline Dutoit acting up a storm as the feisty middle wife Ruella, whose intelligence and determination drives the story, the lovely Kate Quinnell in glorious form as first wife Jessica, and Jo Freer soaring to some real heights of subtlety and poignancy as the call-girl Poopay and her alternative self Phoebe, the one whose life is comprehensively saved, forty years on.

There were angry women around, too, in the latest edition of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Five Minute Theatre, streamed online from locations all over Scotland on Saturday afternoon, and built around the theme of youth. One of the key preoccupations seemed to be the pressure on teenage girls to achieve a certain look; and although none of the plays I saw managed a full dramatic expression of this idea, I was struck by the vehemence of a trio of girls from the Love Drama group, slithering around in a messy bedroom on piles of celebrity-and-beauty magazines.

The online audience for this nationwide Five Minute Theatre was low compared with previous editions, rarely rising above 60 people; and it looks as though the NTS, having established this ground-breaking format, now needs to think hard about how to increase its impact and reach, as a contribution to Scottish life.

Yet there were still some real gems of miniature theatre here. Douglas Maxwell’s musical monologue 162 Bars Out, performed by students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, is a delicious celebration of a young percussion-player in an orchestral group, praying that his brief drum solo will attract the attention of the girl he loves. 9 a.m. Monday Morning is a glorious brief operetta by Judith Hastie for two demented dental receptionists haunted by the sight of a floating grey hair. And in the day’s finest piece of writing, young Elliot Cooper, sitting cross-legged on a floor at the MacRobert Centre, delivers a superb monologue, by himself and Kiana Kalantar-Hormozi, about the heartland of teenage pressure and angst, and the endless inner conversation through which it magnifies and complicates itself, until something has to give.

As You Like It at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, until 28 July. Communicating Doors in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 11 October. Five Minute Theatre (Youth) now available online, at .

PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK

This summer, RSAMD-trained actress Nicole Cooper confirms her place as the leading lady of the Bard In The Botanics company, with a glorious star performance as Rosalind in As You Like It. Her command of the verse is perfect, her voice is beautiful, her performance is an intelligent and forceful as it is womanly and sexy; and on a fine night, her farewell song to the audience offers a completely magical moment of beauty and poise, of the kind only the greatest art can ever achieve.

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Entartet

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ENTARTET at the CCA, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 16.7.12
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4 stars ****

IN EVERY FREE society, it’s vital to have a continuing, vigorous debate about what constitutes good art; in Britain, over the last two decades, the debate has tended to focus on conceptual art, and on the creative validity of found objects. The achievement of Kai Fischer’s small but potent installation and performance at the CCA, though, is to remind us of the horror that can follow when one side comprehensively wins the argument about art, and begins to throw all the weight of the state into the project of crushing one kind of work, and promoting another.

So in what at first seems a completely dark room, Fischer’s installation invites us to approach a series of stands, each one topped with a small, empty lit space. As we approach, a recording is activated; the words are powerful, vivid, fllled with hatred and contempt, and they come from the introductory catalogue of the original exhibition of “Degenerate Art” staged by the Nazis in Munich in 1937, as a terrible warning to the German people about the wrong turning they believed modern art had taken.

What is chilling about this is the familiarity of some of the language; many of the same thoughts recur in public and private conversations about art, across our society, every week. And the impression is reinforced when, as we finish our tour, we are buttonholed by a perfectly reasonable-looking young woman – brilliantly played by Rosalind Sydney or Pauline Goldsmith – who repeats the same fiercely authoritarian and controlling thoughts, in a tone which suggests that no sensible person could really disagree. Mercifully, we still live in a society where varying views about artistc excellence can flourish. Yet Fischer’s important and disturbing installation reminds us of how fragile that freedom can be; and how the top of that short slide towards horror and repression is always much closer to us than we think.

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Alice In Poundland

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ALICE IN POUNDLAND at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 13.7.12
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2 stars **

IN WEATHER like this, a cheering lunchtime summer panto at Oran Mor is just what a rain-soaked audience needs; and at first glance, David MacLennan and David Anderson’s latest effort – directed on this occasion by Jimmy Chisholm – looks set to be a memorable addition to their recent series of cheeky satirical pantos for grown-ups. Strolling smugly down Byres Road one day, the show’s feisty little Alice falls down a manhole; and finds herself spiralling down through Glasgow’s retail class-structure, all the way to Poundland in Partick. Once there, she meets all sorts of victims of Britain’s collapsing economy; as well as a few repellent members of the boss-class, including a Tweedledum and Tweedledummer who look exactly like David Cameron and George Osborne.

The problem with all this, though, is that despite some excellent satirical ideas, the show never quite pulls itself together, in two important ways. In the first place, there’s an art to using a familiar story and characters without simply assuming that everyone in the audience knows all the detail; and this show repeatedly gets it wrong, presuming too much, and explaining too little.

Then there’s the pace, which is literally all over the pound-shop; the show rambles on until 2.15, largely because it fails to cut minutes of material that add nothing to the story or comedy, and because it indulges Anderson’s habit of corpsing most charmingly every couple of minutes. Add a final collapse of inspiration when it comes to the closing song – no satirical words, just a soppy choral version of Together Wherever We Go – and you have a panto that comes in well below the Play, Pie and Pint season’s best; although a sharply sardonic Clare Grozier as Alice, and George Drennan as assorted heralds and trumpeters, still turn in some fine comic riffs, and a few memorable moments.

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Economic Inequality And Political Disillusion: Why South Africa, 18 Years On, Offers A Graphic Insight Into A Global Crisis – Column

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 13.7.12
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SUNDAY MORNING in Johannesburg; and with a couple of hours to spare before my next appointment – a revival of the great anti-apartheid show Woza Albert!, at the Market Theatre – I saunter out to have a look at the area around my hotel. I’m not unaware of the dangers of sauntering in Johannesburg; high crime statistics, keep your hand on your purse, anyone who has visited has heard the warnings.

Yet the young comedy producer I interviewed on Saturday night told me that in this area, those restrictions don’t apply; because this is Melrose Arch, a brand new European-style urban area built for affluent people who don’t need to steal each other’s money. And although the gates are usually open, Melrose Arch – like many other new areas in Johannesburg – is essentially a gated development. There’s a nine-foot barrier at the entrance that could snap shut in an instant, if anyone without the right credentials tried to get in. And when I wander out into newly-built nexus of half a dozen tree-lined streets and squares, I’m not surprised to see high, spiked fences at the end of every artificial street; with the land beyond dwindlng away into suburban scrub, and traditional low-rise housing.

For what I’m seeing, in Melrose Arch, is the face of South Africa’s new social divide, not quite as rigid as the historical separation of races known as apartheid, but often as fierce in its impact on those who feel themselves excluded. The credentials for entering Melrose Arch are not racial, although a high proportion of those inside the enclave are white. Essentially, what’s needed for access is a fat credit card and a smart car, like the one driven by the young comedy producer; he laughs as he tells me how the new class of prosperous, upwardly-mobile black people are called “Benzies”, in tribute to their preferred mode of transport, the Mercedes Benz.

The trouble is, though, that the vast majority of black South Africans – and some people from other racial groups too – are being left behind in this wild dash towards affluence, which is often fuelled by personal connections in government, as much as by personal enterprise or effort. And out on Johannesburg’s freeways – packed with large, smart cars – South African society has an increasingly American look, with a wealthy elite pulling away from an increasingly hard-pressed lower-middle and working class; and with many young people, particularly in the black townships, increasingly angry and restless over the blatant inequality of opportunity and wealth that disfigures their society.

And if some of that seems familiar, despite the unique conditions of recent South African history, then there’s also something recognisable about the levels of political disillusion that accompany these shifts. Back in 1994, when South Africans voted for the first time in a free, fair and non-racial election, the process of generally peaceful political change led by Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress seemed little short of a miracle.

18 years on, though, the ANC is widely regarded as a travesty of the movement Mandela once led, with ministers accused of corruption, rape, and an entrenched culture of sexual misconduct; and down at the Market Theatre, after the performance of Woza Albert!, the two actors in the show offer me another glimpse of the reasons why. The play, written back in 1981, is a “poor theatre” piece about two black workers, and their adventures on a strange day when the Saviour, or “Murena”, arrives in South Africa, to answer the prayers of the people; a global sensation 30 years ago, not least in Edinburgh, it’s now a set text in South African schools.

Yet according to the actors, the young people from expensive private schools who come to the show tend to react with disbelief, and to question the need to revisit “all that old apartheid stuff”; whereas the few chldren from state schools who make it to the theatre – the representatives of the vast majority of South Africans – instantly recognise the story as a reflection of their own families’ township struggle for survival, barely changed over the last 30 years.

And as the actors talk, I recall the words of the fine Cape Town writer, actress and singer Thembi Mtshali-Jones, whose show Mother To Mother, about the brutal killing of a white American student in a black township in 1993, will also be in Edinburgh this August. “It’s not that there are no good people,” said Thembi. “There are wonderful people, often women, doing terrific work in communities all over South Africa. Yet those people will never go into formal politics. The political leadership is just not trustworthy; and the way they abuse the old slogans of the struggle to justify their power, and to encourage intolerant attitudes among young people, is really dangerous.”

And I guess, to those involved in community work in Scotland, some of that will seem familiar too. As always, the South African story is more violent, more graphic, more extreme. Yet where in the world, now – outside the best-regulated Nordic countries – can we see a society that is really prepared to tackle and reverse the growing economic inequality that is destroying social solidarity, and undermining any hope of real social justice; and where can we see a people who really trust their political class to stand up for ordinary citizens and voters, rather than defending the interests of the wealthy.

Here in Scotland, as in South Africa, we have had a chance of a new start, with the coming of our parliament in 1999; and we may have another chance of a new beginning, in the next decade. Yet the likelihood is that those new beginnings will turn into false dawns, for most people in our society, unless we – alongside the people of South Africa, and ordinary citizens everywhere – can find a way of reversing the economic trends of the last 30 years, and refounding our societies on that basis of solidarity, sharing, and basic human empathy that makes all things possible; while its absence makes life empty and brutal, even for those enclosed in their fortresses of privilege, surrounded by kitsch decor that reeks of artificiality and lies, and by people with smart clothes, and frighteningly empty eyes.

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Stones in His Pockets

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on STONES IN HIS POCKETS at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 12.7.12
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4 stars ****

MARIE JONES is one of the most commercially successful playwrights Ireland has ever produced.  Yet it’s never wise to underestimate the sharp political intelligence and sense of purpose that underpins her work; and her colossal London and Broadway hit Stones In His Pockets, first seen in Northern Ireland in 1996, is no exception.

Created for a cast of just two actors, and revived in an engaging if slightly low-key summer production at the Tron, the play is an immensely ingenious miniature epic about a small village on the west coast of Ireland invaded by a Hollywood film crew.  Switching by the second from character to character, the two actors play disgruntled local extras Jake and Charlie; and also several members of the film crew, other villagers, and the star of the movie, the lovely Caroline Giovanni.

The skill involved in this endless shifting of roles is entertaining in itself, and perfectly engineered by Jones, in a tour-de-force of theatrical construction.  Yet it also emphasises her central point, which is to expose the huge and growing divergence of power and wealth, in western societes, that increasingly damages our common humanity; and is often bridged only by a hopeless yearning for fame and celebrity.

And it’s here that Andy Arnold’s production – featuring Keith Fleming as Jake, and Robbie Jack as Charlie –  sometimes seems to lack political focus and clarity, as the actors tumble around on a hyper-realistic astroturf clifftop, rather than a simple studio-theatre floor.  Yet if Fleming and Jack sometimes lack the dazzling precision and energy that won multiple awards for the show’s original cast, they still tell Jones’s increasingly tragic story with skill and feeling; as they speak up for ordinary folk everywhere, driven off the land, and left to fend for themselves in a labour market that often offers them little security, and no dignity at all.

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