Daily Archives: August 17, 2012

Fringe First Winners 2012, Weeks 1 and 2

Proud to present our 2012 Scotsman Fringe First winners so far… more next week!


ALL THAT IS WRONG   Ontroerend Goed, Traverse Theatre
JUANA IN A MILLION    Pleasance Dome
MARK THOMAS: BRAVO FIGARO!    Traverse Theatre


AS OF….  DANIEL KITSON   Traverse Theatre
EDUCATING RONNIE   Assembly George Square
THE LIST    Summerhall
MIES JULIE    Assembly Mound
THEATRE UNCUT   Traverse Theatre

Better Together? Why Gordon Brown Is Inviting Us To Stay In A Britain That No Longer Exists – Column 17.8.12


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 17.8.12

LAST WEEKEND, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the former Labour First Minister of Scotland, Henry McLeish offered up the view that independence might, after all, be the shock to the system that Scotland needs, to generate a sense of national self-confidence, and to motivate the nation to tackle its major social problems. McLeish remains a Labour man, of course; and he still prefers the idea of Scotland remaining within the UK, as part of a “transformed Union”.

At a deeper level, though, it sounds as if McLeish – like many other thinking Scots on the non-nationalist left – is moving towards the view that independence might be a better option, for Scotland, than a constitutional status quo in which victory is claimed by the current “no” campaign; and if you want to understand why, then there is no need to look further than Gordon Brown’s high-profile speech on the same subject, delivered at the Book Festival on Monday.

Now first, let’s be clear that as advocates of the Union go, the former Prime Minister and Chancellor is a cut above average; in his speech on Monday, he certainly offered something slightly more than the usual scaremongering establishment bluster. The strongest section of his speech involved a reflection on the idea of common citizenship across the nations of the UK, and an argument that the British state actually offers a more egalitarian and inclusive model, with more effective transfers of wealth, than either the United States or the European Union. Break that up, says Brown, and the four nations could become involved in a dismal “race to the bottom”, seeking to outbid one another in terms of low tax and poor workers’ protection, in order to attract inward investment.

The difficulty with Brown’s argument, though – apart from its typical switch from a promising positive to a threatening negative – is that it only works if we can sustain the vision of the UK as a progressive nation, marching firmly along the path of ever-greater opportunity and equality. In the afterglow of the UK’s Olympic triumph – and of Danny Boyle’s remarkable opening ceremony – it is relatively easy to make the case for the UK as a successful multicultural society, in which people from all sorts of backgrounds can achieve glittering success; in his speech, Brown even argued that “Scottish values” have been instrumental in shaping this progressive and democratic Britain, and that we shouldn’t give up on the idea.

The brute fact is, though, that in the world of real politics, Britain itself has largely given up on that project over the last generation, choosing time and again to elect leaders who reject the post-war settlement celebrated in Boyle’s opening ceremony. Instead, all of Britain’s elected Prime Ministers since 1979 – Thatcher, Major, Blair and now Cameron – have favoured a regression towards Victorian-style laissez-faire capitalism, a process which, in true Orwellian style, they call “reform”.

And if Gordon Brown did not share their instinctive hostility to the public sector, he still bought in to the idea that light-touch regulation of Britain’s huge financial services industry, and a high tolerance for soaring income inequality and ballooning debt, represented the keys to continuing prosperity and growth. With hindsight, his major contribution to the wellbeing of ordinary British families came from his willingness, through family credits, to use public money to subsidise bad employers paying poverty wages; and as this week’s employment figures showed, Britain is now a country not only of high unemployment, but of working-class employment so insecure, so scanty, and so badly paid, that it often simply cannot support a decent, relaxed and convivial family life.

If you add to that the increasing corrosion of free public provision in England, the casualisation of employment opportunities so that connections matter more than ability, and the consequent marked decline in social mobility, then it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the progressive Britain our parents and grandparents set out to create, in 1945, has been largely undermined since 1979; first by a succession of Conservative governments, and then – alas – by the New Labour government in which Gordon Brown served.

So when it comes to a “race to the bottom” in terms of the proper regulation of business, it simply makes no sense to accept lectures from the man who, between 1997 and 2007, allowed London to become the arrogant and unaccountable wild frontier of global finance, with all the consequences that we now suffer. And when it comes to the Union – well, there is little doubt that all the negative arguments mustered by the Better Together campaign will probably secure a “no” vote, come 2014.

Yet even Gordon Brown must be able to see that the humiliation of Alex Salmond on that day will do nothing for the morale or the future of the Scottish people, unless there is a radical shift in the options offered by the “no” camp. If it is true, as Brown argued on Monday, that Scots cannot afford to go it alone without massive tax hikes, then we will be voting “no” in a spirit of dangerous self-contempt, just so that we can keep holding up the begging bowl to Westminster. And if it is true that Scotland could manage perfectly well outside the Union, but chooses to stay – well then, we would be sacrificing that possible future for the sake of a progressive idea of the Union that the present UK government seems hell-bent on destroying.

What Gordon Brown is doing, in other words, is asking us to bet our futures on a Danny Boyle vision of Britain that is no longer really represented by any major UK political party, and that now seems incapable of winning victory in a UK general election. And in the end, we will probably fall for that argument; not because it offers us any real future, but because of our sense of connection to all the millions of people, up and down the UK, who still mourn that vision of a postwar nation worth building; and of a Britain that in its high commitment to the health, wellbeing, and education of its own people, once made a little sacrifice – even of Scotland’s national sovereignty – seem like the right choice, in a bold new world.


Wojtek The Bear

Wojtek The Bear
3 stars ***
Hill Street Theatre (Venue 41)

IF ONE OF THE key roles of Fringe theatre is to retell great stories that have almost been lost to history, then this new play by Raymond Raszkowski Ross has found a magnificent subject. Wojtek was a Syrian brown bear bought in Iran by Poiish servicemen fighting on the allied side in the Second World War. He became a kind of regimental talisman, travelling with the men up through Italy, where he played a legendary role in the battle of Monte Cassino, and finally ending up in Scotland, and – to the grief of his devoted master, Piotr – in Edinburgh Zoo.

There’s some kind of metaphor in action, in Ross’s intensely poetic and anthropomorphic account of Wojtek’s story, in which John McColl plays Piotr, and James Sutherland the bear; about the agony of those exiled by war, perhaps about Poland itself, certainly about the relationship between humankind and animals. The play is heavily overwritten, and finally lays on the pathos with such a heavy trowel, over at least four endings, that half the audiences sobs aloud, and the other half loses all patience. The show makes fine use of music, though, provided live by violinist Sue Muir; and there’s a terrific tale there to be told, given a little less gushing emotion, and a little more reflection, of the kind that shapes and refines.

Joyce McMillan
Until 27 August
p. 336


Glory Dazed, Bitch Boxer, One Hour Only

Glory Dazed
4 stars ****
B*tch Boxer
3 stars ***
One Hour Only
3 stars ***
Underbelly, Cowgate (Venue 61)

A BRITISH SOLDIER returns from war in Afghanistan to brutalise the ex-wife and kids he says he loves. A girl in South London seeks solace for the death of her much-loved Dad by becoming a champion boxer. A client arrives to meet the prostitute he has hired for an hour, only to find that she is not quite what he expected.

And if those three situations sound like classic cliches of contemporary radio and screen drama, then their sheer familiarity goes a long way to explaining the slightly tired, televisual feel of the Old Vic New Voices season at the Underbelly, which – to judge by these three shows – lies quite a distance behind the cutting-edge of 21st-century performance. Cat Jones’s Glory Dazed – set in a pub in a northern town – is by far the strongest play of the three, featuring two blazing lead performances from Samuel Edward-Cook as returning soldier Ray, and Chloe Massey as his emotionally and physically bruised ex-wife. The situation is dramatic, the pace is brisk, the dialogue strong and credible; but even here, the arc of the play is predictable, covering well-worn ground on the agony of men traumatised by war, and unable to leave that ferocious culture of violence behind.

Charlotte Josephine’s Bitch Boxer is a completely charming monologue about a feisty, unusual south London girl who enjoys her boxing, and throws herself into it with renewed fervour when the single Dad who always encouraged her dies suddenly. The show has nothing new to say about anything much, from boxing to bereavement to the power of true love; but it floats along on the strength of Josephine’s huge charisma as a solo performer, and on the sheer physical vigour she brings to the show.

In Sabrina Mahfouz’s One Hour Only, a guy called AJ is strangely surprised to find that the prostitute whose services he has booked is not the exotic East European she pretends to be, but a forensic biology student called Marly. Instead of having sex, the two talk for an hour, about their dreams, aspirations and fears; there is one inspired and quietly erotic theatrical moment when AJ, a would-be civil engineer, shows Marly how to build a bridge with her own body. For the rest, though, the play consists mainly of unremarkable dialogue, irritatingly smart on her side, often inaudible on his; and if Mahfouz’s play wades briskly and competently into one of the most familiar situations in the book, it never quite succeeds in transcending it, and creating something brand new.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26 August
pp. 281, 260, 306