Monthly Archives: October 2012

Spooky Shorts

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on SPOOKY SHORTS at the Village Pub Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 29.10.12
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4 stars ****

EDINBURGH, the Friday before Hallowe’en. During the day, the capital’s young shoestring artists gather at Creative Scotland to help shape the future of arts funding; but at night, they get on with the job anyway. The formula for Leith’s Village Pub Theatre is simple – no money, loads of talent, some home baking, and a two-hour slot in a friendly pub room, decorated for the occasion with dancing paper cut-out skeletons.

Friday night’s Hallowe’en programme contained no fewer than six “spooky shorts”, each about ten minutes long; and the list of writers was impressive, offering Traverse playwrights Catherine Grosvenor and Morna Pearson, as well as James Ley, Louise E. Knowles and Colin Bell. There was a delicious Hallow’en tale by Grosvenor about a 13-year-old who wants to bake a cake for his dead mum, and a truly weird two-hander by Pearson about a woman who will only have relationships with men who share her belief in “foraging” for food; there was a also a disturbing fragment by James Ley about the “dark forest” of the internet, and what happens there in terms of neediness and abuse.

And if the writing was fine, varied and searching, the acting and direction were at least as good, with Steve McMahon, Belle Jones, Adam Tomkins and Steven McIntyre turning in a series of clever, insightful performances, script in hand. The tickets cost £3, the pumpkin pie was terrific; and in an age when spontaneity and freshness often thrill audiences more than predictable polish, Edinburgh’s established theatres should take note.

ENDS

Donald Trump, The SNP, The Unionist Parties, And Why Scottish Voters Now Face A Grim Choice Between Bad And Worse – Column 26.10.12

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 26.10.12
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ON SUNDAY EVENING, along with more than a million people across the UK, I sat down to watch the first-ever television screening of Anthony Baxter’s award-winning documentaryYou’ve Been Trumped, about Donald Trump’s famous attempt to build a new golfing resort at Menie in Aberdeenshire. The coastline at Menie features a magnificent natural dune system, and is categorised as a Site of Special Scientific Interest; from the outset of the project, environmental organisations like the RSPB have been urging caution over any development there, despite the substantial support in the area for any initiative that might bring new jobs and prosperity.

Yet as the film shows, over a period of years Donald Trump’s organisation was allowed to brush aside objections not only from environmental groups and local residents, but from Aberdeenshire Council itself, whose initial refusal of planning permission was called in and reversed, in 2008, by the Scottish Government. Worse than that, local residents opposing the development were allegedly subjected to serious harrassment; and Grampian Police, according to the protestors, seemed mainly concerned to facilitate the smooth progress of Donald Trump’s plans, at one point actually handcuffing and detaining the film-makers for trying to record interviews.

It’s a shocking film; and the broadcast came in the middle of a bruisingly bad week for Alex Salmond and his SNP Government, following a series of negative poll results, a passionately divisive conference debate over NATO, and the growing storm over Alex Salmond’s apparent suggestion that the Scottish Government had clear and positive legal advice on an independent Scotland’s EU membership, when no such advice had been formally sought.

In the aftermath of the showing of the film, many former SNP supporters took to the social media to declare that they would never vote for the party again. And many others, of all persuasions, expressed a sense of shame that such a desperate capitulation to wealth and power could take place in Scotland; as if they had somehow managed to convince themselves that, in a world increasingly driven by the attitudes of capitalists like Trump, Scotland and its government were somehow categorically different and better, and more resistant to the blandishments of overweening power.

Well, that’s one political illusion that has been comprehensively shattered this week; and now, the parties of the Union are piling in, to take advantage of the First Minister’s sudden weakness. The new line of the Better Together campaign is that Alex Salmond is a born chancer, who wil say anything to persuade people to vote for independence. The clear implication is that his alleged prevarication over the EU legal advice, combined with his questionable relations with assorted plutocrats from Rupert Murdoch and Brian Souter to Trump himself, render him unfit to lead the nation; and that we had better revert to voting for the trusty old Unionist parties, on whose word we can depend.

Except that, of course, we can do nothing of the sort; indeed there is something infinitely ridiculous about the high moral tone now being taken by the UK parties whose betrayal of ordinary voters, over a whole range of issues, drove many Scots into the arms of the SNP in the first place. The Labour Party, after all, is the one that delivered its soul to Blairism, and sold to the nation the false prospectus on which we went to war in Iraq. The Liberal Democrats are the ones who attacked the Brown government from the left during the 2010 election campaign, and then threw in their lot with one of the most right-wing Tory governments of the past century. And as for the Conservatives – well, the most serious of many charges against them is the increasingly well-documented allegation that their entire exaggerated narrative around the scale and causes of the British deficit is simply false, a kind of Shock Doctrine scam designed to bamboozle the British people into agreeing to a fresh round of lucrative privatisations, and a drastic shrinking of the state.

And it’s against this background of a near-universal collapse of trust in our political class that Alex Salmond’s undoubted failures must be measured. The time may indeed be coming when the First Minister – a man approaching retirement age, and increasingly scarred by the compromises of office – has to think about whether his party, and the independence campaign, would fare better under the leadership of his increasingly formidable deputy, who had her work cut out covering for him this week.

Yet we must still ask ourselves, when the chips are down, whether those who are interested in a more just and sustainable future for Scotland have any real reason to switch their political allegiance away from the SNP, this weekend. The Unionist parties may be enjoying their moment in the sun, as they put the boot in to their old enemy; and there is certainly a high likelihood that their overwhelming chorus of negatives – no you can’t, you can’t afford it, stick to what you know – will win the day in 2014, with apprehensive and undecided voters.

Yet the truth is that the prospect they offer us, on the morning after their referendum victory, is an utterly miserable one; a farrago of scaremongering designed to crush hope, to reduce expectations, and to secure our compliance with a discredited neoliberal orthodoxy. What Scotland needs now – either from the SNP in Scotland, or from the Labour Party in London – is a radical reinvention of social democracy for the 21st century, one that moves on from the old paternalism of the 1945 settlement, but that is still willing to confront and control unaccountable economic power, as no major political party of the last generation has done. At the moment, there is no sign of either party producing anything of the sort. And if they do not, then the choice we will face in 2014 will be a desperate one, between bad and worse: between a national party that has tried to give us a 21st century social democracy, and been undermined by its own evasions and contradictions; and a gaggle of unionist parties united only in their desire to preserve the status quo – however unjust, however reactionary, and however bereft of hope.

ENDS ENDS

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Lyceum), American Idiot, Arsenic And Old Lace

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, AMERICAN IDIOT at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, and ARSENIC AND OLD LACE at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 25.10.12
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A Midsummer Night’s Dream 4 stars ****
American Idiot 4 stars ****
Arsenic And Old Lace 3 stars ***

MIDSUMMER, MIDWINTER. Near the beginning of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, there’s a long, magnificent speech in which Titania, Queen of the Fairies, describes to her estranged lord, Oberon, the terrible consequences of the breakdown of their love. She conjures up a world in which the climate has changed, with the seasons out of order, fierce watery floods everywhere, and flowers budding in midwinter; and it’s typical of Matthew Lenton’s beautiful and haunting new production, at the Royal Lyceum Theatre for the next four weeks, that it hears and responds to that speech with the kind of detailed, astonished attention that this familiar play rarely receives, while feeling free to react to it in completely new ways.

So in an echo of Lenton’s recent controversial Edinburgh Festival show Wonderland, this Dream offers what is sometimes a dark journey through the looking-glass between reality and fantasy, into an Athenian forest of ice and snow where the characters shiver in the cold blast of winter; only at the end, when Titania and Oberon seal their reconciliation with a kiss, does a sudden spring sweep across designer Kai Fischer’s austere, dream-like landscape.

And Lenton also hears, with a rare intensity, the story of the rude mechanicals. He sees how their desperate bid for theatrical fame connects with our 21st century X-Factor culture; and he listens to the speech in which Shakespeare calls the events of the night “Bottom’s dream”, wrapping the story in a framework which imagines Bottom the weaver’s own life at a sad crisis, when a white-clad team of fairies arrive to transport him to the forest. In this dream, the four lovers – normally in the foreground of the story – therefore appear more like brightly-coloured avatars from an online game-world; they leap onto the stage, in Mark Melville’s terrific sound design, with the sharp zapping sound of science-fiction characters switching dimensions.

For all this bold and sometimes melancholy interplay between different levels of reality, though, Lenton’s production remains both richly comic, and strikingly faithful to Shakespeare’s verse; his young company follow the text as if it were a golden thread guiding them through this wildwood of deception and illusion, and it richly repays their efforts. Jordan Young offers an extraordinary central performance as Bottom, the working man with the soul of a poet; Flavia Gusmao rises to shimmering heights of poetry as Titania. And in the end, the laughter that greets the mechanicals’ play also has a rich dimension of pity and sorrow; for in the winter journey of this Dream, we come to know just how much this creative effort means to them, both as the chance of a lifetime for a little fame and prosperity, and as an escape from an everyday reality that is sometimes almost unbearable.

The new tribute musical American Idiot – built around the 2004 Green Day album of the same name – also features a coming-of-age drama about a group of young people venturing away from home. This time, though, the journey takes three smalltown friends, Johnny, Will and Tunny, and follows them from the blandness of suburban California – “Jingletown, USA” – into the drug-crazed urban jungle of the city, the hell of war in Iraq, or the emotional rollercoaster of teenage parenthood.

Presented by Work Light Productions, with a cast straight from California, this is a rare show among tribute musicals, bursting with the energy of a hot-off-the-press original production, faithful to the fierce post-punk music of one of America’s most powerful bands, backed by a wall of flickering televisions screens full of apocalyptic early 2000’s news bulletins, and shaped more like an intense, sung-through rock oratorio – on the lines of Quadrophenia – than a conventional musical.

What really grabs the attention, though, is the alternating lyrical sweetness and sheer punk ferocity of the music – including great Green Day anthem Boulevard Of Broken Dreams – matched every step of the way by the inventive energy of Steven Hoggett’s choreography, and some terrific ensemble work from Michael Mayer’s twenty-strong cast. It’s an intense musical and visual experience; and in its anger, its despair, and its sense of a helpless tension between numb conventionality and garish self-destruction, it seems to speak for a generation, and for our time.

There are plenty of American idiots in Joseph Kesselring’s classic 1940’s comedy Arsenic And Old Lace; or at least, an entire traditional American family, living in old Brooklyn, who turn out to be barking mad, and given to homicide. It’s an odd fact about Kesselring’s grand old play that despite its surreal comic energy, it seems oddly well-grounded in a sharp perception of the strange mix of neighbourly piety and murderous violence on which America’s fortunes are founded; at any rate, the tale of the maiden-aunt Brewster sisters, their psychopatic brothers, and their strangely normal nephew Mortimer, is a Rolls Royce of comic drama, and should deliver an effortless evening of almost continuous laughter.

The problem with Richard Baron’s autumn production at Pitlochry is that instead of simply trusting the text, almost everyone in the cast – with the exception of an immaculate Sally Grace as Miss Abby – wastes a huge amount of energy trying and failing to be super-funny, mugging, mocking, and throwing themselves around the stage like clowns. It’s an approach that disrupts the play’s comic rhythm, and shows a sad lack of confidence in Kesselring’s beautifully-constructed text; and although there’s plenty to enjoy in Ken Harrison’s handsome Victorian-Gothic set, and in the sheer wit of the play, the result is a mildly entertaining evening, rather than one of joyous, uninterrupted comic pleasure.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 17 November. American Idiot at the Playhouse until Saturday (27 October). Arsenic And Old Lace at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 3 November.

PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK

Jordan Young has been one of the rising stars of Scottish theatre for the last half-decade, in shows ranging from Black Watch to Vox Motus’s terrific puppet-show Slick. He excels himself, though, in his powerful and moving performance as Bottom in the Lyceum’s Midsummer Night’s Dream; not only acting as linchpin of the drama and teller of the tale, but also speaking Shakespeare’s mighty verse with an intimacy, and a depth of understanding, that makes this familiar text new again, for a fresh generation of theatre-goers.

ENDS ENDS

The Ballad Of Pondlife McGurk

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE BALLAD OF PONDLIFE MCGURK at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 25.10.12
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4 stars ****

IN THE Changing House studio at the Tron, a group of primary school children sit on four pieces of carpet, one in each quarter of the room. A criss-cross path runs between them; and at one end stands lone actor Peter Collins, ready to use this strange playing-area – observed from every angle by the watchful eyes of the chldren – to tell an unforgettable 50-minute story about loneliness, friendship, betrayal, and the eventual chance of making amends.

This is The Ballad Of Pondlife McGurk, a Catherine Wheels show first created in 2008 by director Gill Robertson, writer Rob Evans, and writer/performer Andy Manley; yet still looking fresh, powerful and necessary four years on, as it completes its current tour. Within a simple flashback structure – starting with a scene of two grown men walking towards one another in a busy airport lounge – it tells the story of young Martin, a lad from Birmingham facing loneliness and bullying on his first day in a Scottish primary school, and Simon McGurk, a strange, eccentric boy with a terrific talent for art, who soon becomes his best and only friend.

The tale of what happens to this friendship is an utterly gripping one, about the dark process by which a boy who has once been bullied and ostracised finally seizes the chance to become a bully himself; it touches gently but firmly on some very raw issues, including anti-English bullying in Scottish schools, and the potentially baneful influence of macho games like football. And it also contains a fine streak of poetry, not least in Martin’s ecstatic memories of their first summer together as friends, and of Simon’s brilliant drawing of it; an image so powerful that decades later, it propels Martin to seek out Simon on the internet, and to take a first step in trying to restore the friendship he once so cruelly discarded.

ENDS ENDS

Demons

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on DEMONS at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 23.10.12
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3 stars ***

WITH NO fewer than thirteen writers involved, this new political cabaret at Oran Mor looks a bit like a show designed by a committee. It was put together by the same team who created the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Show earlier this year, as the 250th play in David MacLennan’s remarkable Play, Pie and Pint series; this time around, though, the show is less well focussed around a single theme.

So it begins as its name suggests, with a briliant song about how the forces of reaction stay in power by inviting us to blame one another, rather than them. With the help of a stuffed scapegoat, a pitchfork, and a little red pair of horns, the five performers – led by Wildcat veterans David Anderson and George Drennan, with Kirstin McLean, Cat Grozier and Brian James – demonstrate how we are invited to demonise first women, then strangers and the poor – the “peely-wally gie’s-a-swally” underclass. In no time, though, the show veers off into a different and less sure-footed strand, in which McLean and James, as Marx and Engels, put on Groucho faces, and offer up sketchy lectures on Marxism distractingly peppered with Marx Brothers jokes.

Between these interludes, though, there are a few more excellent songs, including a Lion’s Den style version of the notorious disability assessment regime, and a fierce satire on British attitudes to the monarchy in which McLean, as the Queen, yells out Monarchy In The UK, a lethally convincing top-down version of the Sex Pistols’ greatest hit. And at the end, dammit, David Anderson makes us cry, by calling up the spirit of John McGrath, and leading a new generation of Scottish theatre-makers in his great anti-Tory anthem, Get Them Out. So that with all its flaws, Demons comes as sharp reminder of how much we need this kind of angry, commited theatre; and how much we miss its sharp wit and acute political awareness, when it’s not around.

ENDS ENDS

The Weakness Of “Yes” As A Single-Party Campaign – Between Now And 2014, Can The SNP Find Major Allies In Scottish Society? – Column 19.10.12

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 19.10.12
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SCOTLAND’S FIRST MINISTER is not a very frequent tweeter; but here he is on my laptop screen, as I sit down to write, offering up a breezy black-and-white image of himself and his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon posing by the river in Perth, as they arrive there for this weekend’s SNP conference.

Alex Salmond will, I am sure, be his usual upbeat and confident self, as he takes his place in the conference hall; accentuating the positive has become his political trademark. Yet there’s no denying that Scotland’s governing party has suffered a series of sharp and unexpected reversals in recent weeks, culminating in a batch of opinion polls which show support for independence down to 30% from a high of almost 40% just nine month ago. Up to a point, of course, these kinds of fluctuations in the polls are to be expected; the SNP is an incumbent party struggling with an intractable recession, and this autumn was always likely to mark a low point in support for independence, following Britain’s triumphant Olympic summer.

Yet there’s a sense, this autumn, that the tectonic plates of Scottish politics have shifted in a way that is not to the SNP’s advantage. For many years, the SNP has been in the comfortable position of appearing to be the “middle” party in Scottish politics, not so right-wing as the Tories, not so wedded to old working-class interests as Scottish Labour; it has been able to present itself as all things to all people, business friendly on one hand, strongly social-democratic on the other.

Now, though, Johann Lamont’s sharp shift to the right – in moving to question the culture of universal benefits, and to subject Scotland to the cold shower of “austerity” thinking – has placed the SNP in an entirely different position, well to the left of all the other mainstream parties. For those of us who assumed that the Labour party was moving slightly leftward again, after the end of Blairism, the shock of this strategic Scottish Labour swerve to the centre-right has been difficult to absorb.

Now, though, for the first time since the mid-1970’s, all three Unionist parties are attacking the SNP on the same flank, denouncing its policies as unrealistic, extravagant and unsustainable; and the poll evidence suggests that, however debatable its substance, this concerted Unionist attack on the SNP position is already having an impact on Scottish public opinion.

All of which would be serious enough, for the SNP, if it simply meant a likely short-term decline in their own electoral support. This time around, though, the isolation of the SNP also means the isolation of the “yes” campaign for independence. For if there is one signal difference between the constitutional debate today, and the devolution debate of the 1990’s, it is that the argument for constitutional change now belongs solely to one party, and lacks a broad range of support in Scottish civil society. A few weeks ago, for example, at New College in Edinburgh, I attended the launch of the late Stephen Maxwell’s fine book Arguing For Independence, which makes the case for an independent Scotland as the best arena in which to continue the good fight for peace, democracy and human rights, to which Maxwell dedicated his life.

It was an excellent event, and a warm tribute to a life well lived; but as I listened to the First Minister’s short speech, and looked around the room, I couldn’t help remembering the varied, multi-party quality of the many civic meetings at which Stephen Maxwell spoke in the 1990’s, and the range of groups that were involved. By comparison, this 2012 event seemed like a single-party rally, instinctively hostile to all those not in the SNP fold; and it struck me then that the SNP has not a hope of winning a referendum “yes” to such a mighty change in Scotland’s constitutional status, on the basis of such a narrow single-party campaign.

The unanswered question that hangs over the Scottish politics this weekend is therefore whether there is any force in Scottish society, outside the SNP, which is likely to come to the party’s aid over the next two years, in making the progressive case for an independent Scotland. The SNP certainly needs to find new international allies, to counter the tired arguments against social democracy now being fielded by all three unionist parties; if the Better Together campaign wants to portray the SNP as a lonely advocate of mad fiscal extravagance, the party needs to marshal the evidence from across northern Europe that its policies are in fact normal, and eminently sustainable. And the Scottish Green Party is already there, of course, within the “yes” campaign.

The list of other possible supporters within Scotland is short, though, as civil society groups – conscious of the deep divisions among their members – remain reluctant to take sides. There is a small but infliuential SNP-supporting business lobby. There are some local environmental groups, convinced that Scotland has a better chance than the UK of moving to a sustainable post-carbon future. There are Scotland’s writers, painters, poets, musicians, theatremakers, currently fighting a briliant campaign for the kind of national arts agency they want, and increasingly inclined to support independence, as the best choice for a creative future. And – most intriguingly – there is what is left of Scotland’s labour and trade union movement, once the heart and soul of the devolution campaign, now increasingly dismayed by the behaviour of Labour leaders, and inclined to look kindly on the independence option.

For the moment, in other words, it looks as if the SNP has been outmanoeuvred by the forces of unionism. Yet two years is a long time in politics; and many of Scotland’s most articulate and active citizens – inside and outside the SNP – continue to yearn for a more just and enlightened society than the current British state seems able to offer. The question is whether they will be silenced and alienated by the arid party battle that has dominated the independence debate over the past 18 months; or will begin – between now and 2014 – to make themselves heard, and to shift the debate away from the sterile party battle at Holyrood, into the heart of Scottish society itself.

ENDS ENDS

Ulysses

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ULYSSES at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 18.10.12
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4 stars ****

RICH, STRANGE, uneven, complex, imperfect, foul, beautiful, and absolutely charged with the glorious and terrible pulse of life: this is Andy Arnold’s new stage version of James Joyce’s Ulysses, built round a text first written almost 20 years ago by the great Irish novelist and playwright Dermot Bolger, but now given its first full production by the Tron Theatre, along with the Everyman in Cork, and the Project Arts Centre in Dublin.

It’s completely impossible, of course, to do full justice to Joyce’s mighty quarter-million-word novel in a two-and-a-half-hour stage show. The act of selection has to be fierce and brutal, and Bolger’s vision of the events of 16 June 1904 – when Joyce’s hero Leopold Bloom sets off on his strange odyssey around the streets, strands, bars and dimly-lit whorehouses of Edwardian Dublin – is not the same, in balance or mood, as Joyce’s. His Bloom, poignantly played by Jean-Paul Van Cauwelaert, seems a lonelier man, less surrounded by drinking companions, and more vulnerable to anti-semitic attack and to horrific scenes of sexual nightmare than Joyce’s original character.

At the centre of it all, though, there’s Muireann Kelly’s dazzling Molly Bloom, sprawled on her big brass bed at the heart of Charlotte Lane’s beautiful set, with its swirling coil of a polished wood floor. For if Bloom is the traveller in the story, Molly is the life-force that he both seeks and runs from, a woman who asserts the power of her desire with a force that remains almost as revolutionary today as it was a century ago. And when this stage version of Ulysses focusses – as it does towards on the end – on the rhythm of Joyce’s own poetry, in Bloom’s long walk home with Stephen Dedalus towards the big bed where Molly waits and speaks – then yes, this is a piece of theatre to remember, as rich and glorious as an old scratched ruby, lying at the bottom of some infinitely cluttered drawer.

ENDS ENDS

The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice (KE), The Authorised Kate Bane

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE RISE AND FALL OF LITTLE VOICE at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, and THE AUTHORISED KATE BANE at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 18.10.12
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The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice 4 stars ****
The Authorised Kate Bane 3 stars ***

IT’S EXACTLY twenty years since Jim Cartwright’s jagged and beautiful play The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice was first seen at the National Theatre in London. In that time, it has become one of the best-loved stories in modern British theatre, and the subject of a magnificent film version, starring Brenda Blethyn and Michael Caine as the heroine’s rowdy mother Mari, and her latest fancy-man, the ageing would-be showbiz agent Ray Say; and it’s not difficult to see why.

For at the core of the story – in the character of Mari’s fragile teenage daughter, Little Voice – there lies an exploration of the long, passionate love-affair between the British working class and the popular music of the mid-20th century, most of it American in impulse and origin. Up in her bedroom, in the little back-to-back house she shares with Mari in a fading Lancashire mill-town, Little Voice tends devotedly to her dear, dead fathert’s precious record collection of classics by great female singers, from Judy Garland to Shirley Bassey. She rarely speaks, and never goes out. Yet she can sing all of those songs, perfectly imitating the voices of the greats; and when Ray Say hears her, he thinks he has found the showbiz goldmine he’s been looking for.

The path Cartwright navigates through this story – now revived in a touring production directed by the playwright himself – is not a simple one, despite the show’s huge popular appeal. LV’S relationship with her own gift is complex, and not resolved at the end of the play. The portrayal of Mari, the gobby, vicious, strangely poetic character at the heart of the drama, veers between impassioned sympathy, and frightening levels of misogynistic disgust. And the play undoubtedly belongs to the 1980’s, the decade in which it was conceived, rather than to the world we live in now.

Yet throughout, the play blazes not only with the odd glimpse of LV’s talent, but with a fierce, comic-grotesque vision of the energy of English working-class life in the 20th century, its possible squalor, its precarious living, its sudden fierce bursts of glamour and yearning. Cartwright’s production takes the story slowly, without any great sense of driving pace; and it seemed to fall prey, on its opening night at the King’s, to a few technical gremlins.

Yet it makes space for a fine, complex performance from Beverely Callard as Mari, and for some dazzlingly glamorous musical outbursts from Jess Robinson’s slightly comic-ironic Little Voice. And the whole social-club setting is splendidly recreated by a cast of six extra players, led by Duggie Brown as club compere Mr Boo. There’s bingo in the interval, raffle tickets for sale in the stalls, music for those who love it, and a real drama about how narrow, limited lives give rise to fierce emotional violence. And there’s also one of the sweetest love-stories in all 20th century theatre, as Little Voice and her admirer Billy, a junior phone engineer, finally rise above it all on his little fork-lift van, into a new world of song and light.

At the Traverse, meanwhile, the award-winning Edinburgh company Grid Iron – most famous for their explorations in site-specific theatre – comes thudding down to earth with an elegant but oddly uninteresting new play by Ella Hickson, whose superb collection of short monologues Eight propelled her to Fringe stardom just four years ago. The Authorised Kate Bane is a play by a young playwright about a young playwright, and essentially shows what we know to be a fictionalised version of a weekend encounter between Kate, her boyfriend Al, and her parents, a long-separated couple called Ike and Nessa.

As the action unfolds, we see Kate sometimes taking part, and sometimes sitting at her desk, tapping out and reinventing the scenes on her laptop; at the heart of the drama is her desperate need – before she can commit herself to Al – to come to some resolution of her tortured relationship with her needy and pretentious father.

All of this is realised with tremendous technical skill, over 100 minutes of continuous action, in Ben Harrison’s immaculately -directed production, which flicks effortlessly between different levels of reality, using both Becky Minto’s storage-box set and Alberto Santos Bellido’s ever-changing light; there’s also a searingly honest and beautiful central performance from Jenny Hulse, fresh from her triumph in Vanishing Point’s controversial Edinburgh Festival show Wonderland.

What remains, though, is a question mark about whether this intense middle-class drama really carries enough meaning to be worth the effort. Hickson’s drive to get to the heart of the damage inflicted by bad marriages and broken homes is impressive, and in that she probably speaks for a generation who have known too much material privilege, and too little emotional security; there’s also a flicker of something wider and more political, in the final confrontation between a mother born in the 1950’s who has rejected marriage and monogamy, and a daughter born in the 1980’s who yearns for both.

That scene, though, seems like the ghost of a bigger, better play, flitting through the texture of an intense but self-absorbed struggle with a very specific set of problems; and compared with the dazzling range of voices Hickson created in Eight, this play seems to exist on a very narrow canvas indeed, like a deftly-presented 21st century version of the kind of drawing-room drama that could have been written any time in the last half-century.

The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until Saturday; The Authorised Kate Bane at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 26 October, and at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 30 October-3 November.

PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK

She’s most famous for her role as Liz McDonald in Coronation Street; but this week, actress, writer and fitness guru Beverley Callard acts up a storm at the King’s in Edinburgh, as loud-mouthed mother Mari in The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice. It’s a show for those with strong stomachs, and a taste for the extreme; but in the end, Callard makes something truly memorable of this once-glamorous wreck of a woman, drunk, nasty, foul-mouthed and bullying, but also – at the deepest level – heartbroken by the failure of her life, and by the narrowness of a world that could never cope with her blazing energy.

ENDS ENDS

Faith Fall

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on FAITH FALL at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 16.10.12
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4 stars ****

FOR nine-tenths of its length, Frances Poet’s new play for three voices is about as perfect a show as you could hope to see, in the lunchtime Play, Pie and Pint season. It brings together three searingly vivid characters; there’s Christina, a beautiful young woman with terminal cancer, a cynical young journalist called Adam who falls in love with her despite himself, and an older man who seems to be the minister at a nearby church.

The problem is that as the relationship between Adam and Christina deepens, he becomes convinced that he is being stalked by Satan, a kind of sleazy onlooker who knows all about his cheap initial reasons for taking on a woman without a future. The story of his growing obsession is brilliantly delivered straight to the old-fashioned mike, in a strikingly polished production by Graham McLaren that features three terrific performances from Molly Taylor, Gareth Glen and Benny Young. And despite the format – with all the actors in evening dress, like the cast of a 1950’s BBC radio play – there are searingly theatrical moments of interaction between the three, as vivid as they are sharply-written.

Sadly, the show is undermined, at the end, by a jokey supernatural twist which suddenly strips away the rich layers of possible meaning around which the story is built. But for as long as we can feel we are really learning something about fear, grief and loss, and the tricks they can play on a mind surprised by love, this is a play well worth watching, presented with terrific flair.

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The Farmhouse

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE FARMHOUSE at the Malmaison, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 15.10.12
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3 stars ***

The Malmaison Hotel in Leith is a glamorous setting for a theatre show; but there’s no hint of the pleasant or reassuring pre-dinner entertainment about this latest production from Andy Corelli’s bold Edinburgh-based shoestring group, Siege Perilous.

Set in a remote farmhouse in Highland Perthshire, John C. Gilmour’s new play is a real psychological shocker about unhinged patriarchal aggression, and its horrific impact on the life of a bright but vulnerable young woman. Claire – beautifully played by Clare Ross – is heavily pregnant when she arrives at the farmhouse with her partner Anthony, after their car breaks down in the hills. The lonely farmer, Lachlan, helps out, but then persuades the young couple to spend the evening with him; and as the night wears on, secrets and lies about all three characters begin to emerge like a series of monsters, raging around the kitchen table.

There’s something uneasy about the structure of this 65-minute play, which does little to prepare us, in the first 45 minutes, for the strange, nightmarish dream-sequence into which it moves towards the end, and then for the pure sadistic horror of its finale; a risk, at worst, of appealing to those who enjoy misogynistic violence for its own sake. There’s some fine acting on view, though, in this fast-paced, brave and inventive production; and a gripping hour of theatre, for those willing to face the pity and terror of a very serious 21st century tragedy portrayed in fierce close-up, and never fully contextualised or resolved.

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