Monthly Archives: December 2012

Inequality In The UK: Politics Paralysed, In An Age Of False “Austerity” For The Many, And Colossal Wealth For The Few – Column 28.12.12.

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 28.12.12.
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“NOWELL, NOWELL, nowell, nowell sing we loud/ Christ today has poor men rais-ed/ And has cast adown the proud.” It’s a chorus written by the great designer, artist, writer and utopian socialist William Morris, towards the end of the 19th century, for his fine carol Masters In This Hall; and it captures an element in the Christmas story – the one about passionately siding with the poor, and pointing out how damn nearly impossible it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven – that has been assiduously ignored by many establishment Christians down the centuries.

Yet if ever there was a nation in need of some vigorous casting down of the proud – and of some “raising up” of almost everyone else, as we struggle to keep abreast of our food and fuel bills – then it is the UK, at this turn of the year 2012. For despite efforts in some quarters to argue that wealth differentials are being squeezed, as the coalition government increases some rates for higher earners, in fact the reverse is the case; simply because earnings at the top end of the British economy continue to romp upwards with merry abandon, while almost everyone else has to make do with static or declining real earnings, at best.

At the end of 2011, for example, figures emerged showing a general rise of 3.2% in earnings, but a rise of 50% in remuneration for directors of FTSE 100 companies. In 2011, the failed banking sector, comprehensively bailed out by British taxpayers, paid out some £14 billion in bonuses. And a couple of weeks ago, it emerged from the accounts of Rupert Murdoch’s News International that former Chief Executive Rebekah Brooks received a compensation package of £10.8 million, after she resigned as a result of the criminal proceedings against her; a sum which means that as a mere pay-off, on top of years of high salary, this silly and possibly wicked woman has received more money than most senior nurses could earn in three hundred – yes, three hundred – years.

And it’s against the backdrop of this wholesale looting of the economy by a tiny privileged class that we have to understand the rot being talked about austerity by the current British government. It used to be argued, with some force, that the wealthy are such a small group that taxing them until their pips squeak is pointless; that even if the wealthiest 1 per cent gave up all their wealth, it would only be a drop in the ocean of the national or global economy.

In this second decade of the 21st century though, the wealth of the top 1% has shot up to such an extent that that has simply ceased to be true. Yesterday, for example, The Scotsman carried a story about how new mothers are set, by 2015, to lose some £180 pounds each in benefits and allowances, under new arrangements introduced by George Osborne – a small sum, but one that will mean a lot to low-earning mothers.

Yet that cut, insofar as it affects Scottish mothers, could be wiped out for a whole year by Rebekah Brooks’s severance payment alone; or deferred for 20 years, across the whole of the UK, if the government had the nerve to claw back this year’s City bonuses, some £2.3 billion. The BBC World Service, perhaps still the world’s most respected source of broadcast news, is having to sack significant news-gathering staff, and risk its reputation for world-class journalism, in order to achieve token annual savings of less than £50 million, a sum equivalent to a handful of top bankers’ bonuses; and as for the decision of Newcastle City Council to stop funding arts organisations altogether – well, that will save about £1.5 million a year, or about an eighth of a “rebekah”, as any sum around £10 million should perhaps now be known.

Nor is there much doubt in the minds of most centre-left observers that wealth inequality in the UK has reached seriously damaging levels, across our public life. The proportion of the national wealth being channelled away to offshore tax havens is fast becoming a public scandal. The incompatibility between huge wealth inequalities and a functioning system of representative democracy becomes ever more obvious, as wealthy donors buy up the allegiance of political parties and MP’s. And it is instructive, too, to try the parlour game of observing British public debate for a week or two, and trying to asses just how many voices you hear that do not come from that top 1% – i.e. people earning £150,000 a year or more, often with a range of political views to match.

So what is to be done? Well, in the widest historical perspective, a challenge to these reactionary terms of debate is bound to come eventually, from one source or another. Human societies can only bear so much injustice and inequality, before something snaps. In the 1930’s, a failed approach to economic depression among European governments led eventually to the biggest and most destructive war humankind has yet seen; it took a trauma on that scale to spawn the new global finance system created at Bretton Woods, and the more equal and self-consciously egalitarian western society of the decades between 1945 and 1975.

Yet for the moment, our politics seems incapable either of transforming any existing party into a genuine movement for renewed social injustice, or of generating new movements with the organisational power to change the debate. Even the SNP, here in Scotland, tends to mince its words when it comes to challenging the cult of extreme profit and unearned privilege among 21st century leaders of business and finance. And if we want to avoid the terrible human suffering and agony implied in the phrase, “it will have to get worse before it gets better”, then we need to become much more inventive, both politically and culturally, about what may prove the key task of the first half of the 21st century; the task of moving towards a more just, democratic and sustainable global economy, without first passing through the kind of nightmare of social collapse and destruction that history should – if we have any wisdom at all – have taught us to avoid.

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The End Of The World (for one night only)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE END OF THE WORLD (FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY) at Summerhall, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 22.12.12.
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4 stars ****

THE END of the world was going well, when I had to tiptoe away and leave it. Much longer than advertised, this one-off winter solstice event designed to celebrate the Mayan prediction of the apocalypse emerged as a startlingly rich sequence of music and theatre, played out over the whole range of spaces in the thrilling, rambling arts lab that is Summerhall. When I left, the whole audience of 150 or so was gathered in the main hall, listening to a terminal concert of three new short pieces by young classical composers Hanna Tuulikki, Colin Broom and Gareth Williams; Broom’s piece Post-human, beautifully played by John Harris and the Red Note Ensemble, was weaving fragments of speech and surges of string music together to create a tremendously powerful meditation on the fragmentary evidence of our existence the human race may one day leave behind.

We had found our way there, though, in four or five smaller groups, each led in a different sequence through space after space, lecture theatre after library, where a cast of six actors – backed by a young ensemble of more than 20 – would each tell us a different story, set in Edinburgh on the day that the world ends. Shadowy figures fretted and moaned in corridors and courtyards, and in the rooms we heard stories of love and death, youth, old age, and mathematics, all interrupted by sudden oblivion, all written by Oliver Emanuel – from a concept by Gareth Williams – with the kind of sinewy linguistic strength that binds together all the best promenade shows. The whole event was directed by the Tron’s Andy Arnold, with his usual bold, exploratory energy. And in the end, it seemed like an explosion not only of creative invention, but of beauty; never to be repeated, maybe, but full of the kind of promise that makes the end of the world seem unlikely, after all.

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Cinderella (Dunfermline)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on CINDERELLA at the Alhambra Theatre, Dunfermline, for The Scotsman 22.12.12
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3 stars ***

THE ALHAMBRA at Dunfermline – long used as a bingo hall, but now reopened in all its glory – is a very handsome theatre, with a large stage and more than 1000 seats. It’s therefore a delight to see it once again staging its own full-scale, Fife-inflected Christmas panto, and a real pleasure to see that panto in the hands of Liam Rudden, who recently helped make the Musselburgh pantomime into a strikingly successful local Christmas show.

In some ways, the sheer scale of the theatre seems like a bit of a stretch, for the friendly, rowdy version of Cinderella Rudden has written and directed this year. With just five dancers on stage, plus a team of local children, the show sometimes looks a little lost on the big stage; and there are some bumpy moments when the cast look uncertain and under-rehearsed – even the white ponies pulling Cinders’s coach seem slightly unsure of their next move.

There are plenty of compensations, though, in a show full of rousing popular songs, from this year’s universal panto anthem Edge Of Glory, to an energetic Gangnam sequence. James Mackenzie and Colin McCredie make a classy double-act as Prince Charming and Dandini, even if the jokes about McCredie’s previous life in Taggart become a shade wearisome. And with plenty of local jokes, a raunchy pair of Dames, and a lovely Fairy Godmother in Jane McCarry of Still Game, the show powers its way to a glittering conclusion, cheered by a Dunfermline audience who are clearly glad to have their theatre back, at last.

ENDS ENDS

Snow White (Byre)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on SNOW WHITE at the Byre Theatre, St. Andrews, for The Scotsman 21.12.12.
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3 stars ***

LIKE MANY of the Shakespeare shows he creates for Glasgow’s Bard In The Botanics season, Gordon Barr’s first panto for the Byre Theatre is a vivid mix of the brilliantly inventive and the slightly misjudged. The story is Snow White; but although Gillian Ford’s gloriously nasty queen looks every inch the conventional glamorous villainess, it‘s clear from the start that Barr’s Snow White, as played by Stephanie MacGregor, is no ordinary simpering princess. Instead, she’s a teenage rebel with her nose in a book, not over-impressed by Prince Valiant’s flashing teeth and muscular good looks; and there are plenty of laughs, and some genuinely touching moments, in the evolving romance between these two, which ends with the Princess, as hero of the story, having to kiss her comatose Prince back to life.

All of which might be enough, for one inventive 21st century take on a familiar tale; but Barr also throws in everything but the panto kitchen sink, including a jolly but slightly redundant Dame played with gusto by Alan Steele, a long-winded Buttons-figure in Muddles the jester, a Fairy Of The Mirror who doubles as a text-speaking comedy turn and leader of delightful fairy dance troupe the Mirrorettes, and the wholesale replacement of the seven dwarfs with a gang of feral woodland kids, played, like the Mirrorettes, by local youth theatre talent.

At times, in other words, it’s all just a bit self-consciously clever and over-ingenious, in an art form whose cheerful chaos swirls best around a clear, simple central narrative. If the kindly old Christmas spirit is sometimes lacking, though, this remains a good-looking, witty show, with theatrical energy to burn; and audiences at St. Andrews are clearly delighted to see the Byre get its panto mojo back, after years of children’s Christmas shows that were often too polite by half, for the jolly old season of misrule.

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Tragedy at Newtown: But Millions In The US Are Still Convinced That Security Comes From The Barrel Of A Gun – Column 21.12.12.

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 21.12.12
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TO ANYONE who was here in Scotland, at the time of the Dunblane shooting of 1996, there’s been something almost unbearably familiar about the pattern of horror, disbelief, and searing grief surrrounding last week’s shocking massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. The image of little, bright-eyed children gunned down at the very start of their lives, and of brave teachers taking the bullet to defend them, is one that never leaves the mind, once it has entered there; this week will have stirred terrible memories for many people, and given an extra edge to their passionate sympathy for those greiving families in Newtown. One cartoonist said it all, with an image of Santa’s sleigh stopped in the snow, while the old man covers his face and weeps; a shatteringly powerful drawing,of a moment of happiness and anticipation turned to utter despair.

So now, it falls to America’s newly re-elected President to “do something”, to try to make sure that no such horror can happen again; and there has been no shortage of advice on what should be done. With a gun-related death rate of just over ten per 100,000 people per year, the United States is certainly among the most violent of developed western nations; the rate in the UK is at least forty times lower. And it’s becoming difficult even for America’s wealthy and influential gun lobby to resist the argument that this has something to do with the sheer number of guns in circulation in America; almost one for every American, man, woman and child, where in Britain there is barely one gun for every thirty people.

Yet as President Obama begins to move towards proposals for tighter gun control, it already seems unlikely that such changes will provide all the protection people seek. This is not to say, of course, that reforms in gun control – and in the availability of health care for people with mental problems – are not worth pursuing; if even one mass shooting could be prevented, the effort would be worth while.

What such measures cannot do, though, is to change the fundamental texture of American society towards something more like the UK model; nor is it clear that most Americans would want it to. As one Swiss commentator pointed out this week, the idea that free citizens should have a right to bear arms is not some American eccentricity; it has a long and respectable history in the theory of republicanism, and the Swiss – who recruit every male citizen to an armed militia – are prepared to tolerate a high gun death rate, by European standards, as the price of that principle. Even if President Obama succeeds in banning assault rifles, in other words, he will still have to contend with the simpler hand-guns used in the vast majority of shootings; and the nation will still be armed to the teeth, by the standards of most western countries.

And this is because the idea of life as a battle, in which each citizen has to be prepared to fight for his piece of land, his family, and his chance in life, is written so deep into the DNA of the United States, particularly in those States where the idea of the frontier still lies relatively close to the surface. In the aftermath of last week’s shooting, one of the comments circulating widely on the internet made what seemed like a pretty sharp observation. “One failed attempt at a shoe bomb,” it said, “And we all take our shoes off at the airport. 31 shootings since Columbine, and no change in our regulation of guns.” Yet this argument precisely misses the point about the double-edged nature of America’s relationship with the gun; that it represents both a terrible external threat, and – in the minds of millions of Americans – a vital form of protection, an aspect of security.

So it’s perhaps here – in challenging the old American assumption that security grows from the barrel of a gun – that President Obama can best use his political capital, over hs remaining years in the White House. On his visit to Newtown earlier this week, he made a start; he challenged the individualism of much American thinking about the family, and invited people to acknowledge that no matter how much they love their children, they cannot fully protect them unless they conbine with other citizens to ensure that they live in a peaceful and civilised community.

The gun-toting right, of course, argue that the answer lies not in fewer guns, but more of them; an assault rifle in every teacher’s desk. Nor is America the only nation attracted to the illusion that we can make our complex 21st century societies more “secure” by making them more intrinsically violent; across the world, since 2001, societies have tended to react to increased threats by introducing ugly and bullying “security” procedures, discarding civil liberties, and threatening violence to any citizen who objects.

Yet America now has a President who seems fully to understand that the most profound kind of security comes from the experience of living in a just and reasonably well-organised society, where the law is enforced, where violence is rare, and where people are either at peace with themselves, or able to express their restlessness through creation and invention, rather than destruction.

And although we will never know what strange, distorted psychodrama was playing in the brain of the gunman Adam Lanza, as he walked into Sandy Creek last Friday, we can know this: that the Christ-figure whose birth we celebrate next week, and who is venerated by so many millions of Americans, was unambiguously on the side of patience rather than vengeance, of peace rather than war, and of openness and vulnerabiilty, rather than armed self-defence. So much so, that he came to earth as a tiny, helpless child, born in a stable because his gentle earthly father was in no position to demand a room at the inn; an image not of the brittle illusions of human strength and invincibility, but of the mutual need and dependence that binds humanity together, and out of which we can begin to build worlds worth living in, and the faint, glimmering possibility of peace of earth.

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Review Of 2012 In Seven Great Moments

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on GREATEST MOMENTS IN THEATRE IN SCOTLAND 2012 for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 20.12.12.
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28 April Pacific Quay, Glasgow Enquirer

The Scottish theatre year always starts quietly, with a long hangover from the pantomime season. By the end of April, though, the spring season is at its height, and has brought us to this top floor of an empty office-block at Pacific Quay, Glasgow. Brilliant evening light slices through the building, as the sun sets; across the river stands the Finnieston Crane, once the scene of George Wylie’s great Straw Locomotive memorial to Glasgow’s lost heavy industries. This is the brilliantly-chosen space where we gather to watch a fine National Theatre of Scotland ensemble – directed by co-creators Vicky Featherstone and John Tiffany – mourn another dying industry; print journalism, and all that it has meant to public life in Britain, both positive and negative. It’s one of the most timely shows of the year, given the continuing Leveson Inquiry. It also turns out to be Vicky Featherstone’s last NTS production before she announces her departure, two weeks later; a poignant and brilliant example of the “theatre without walls” she has championed, during her eight years in Scotland.

2 June Krapp’s Last Tape/ Footfalls Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow

It’s a quiet Saturday night, when I troop into the Citizens’ Theatre to watch this double bill of short plays by the mighty Samuel Beckett; but the show soon reveals itself as a five-star example of the change of mood that has swept through the Citizens’ since Dominic Hill arrived as artistic director last year, bringing his own quiet brilliance as a reinterpreter of classic texts. Here, Beckett’s disgruntled elderly hero Krapp – recording his regular birthday tape for posterity – is played with unerring genius by Gerard Murphy; to watch him wallow in Krapp’s incredulity at the pretentiousness of his younger self, pick up the word “viduity” from an earlier tape and roll it disdainfully round his mouth, is to watch the pure essence of human tragedy and comedy, distilled almost into a single breath.

4 July Mies Julie Rhodes Box Theatre, Grahamstown, South Africa

When I arrive in Grahamstown, I’ve been travelling for 28 hours without sleep; yet ten minutes into this radical, rewritten version of Strindberg’s Miss Julie – from the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town, heading for the Edinburgh Fringe – I am wide awake and transfixed by some of the fiercest political drama I have ever seen, as writer and director Yael Farber transforms this familiar play into a terrifying essay on the politics of land, race and sex in 21st century South Africa. Later in the year, Mies Julie plays to packed houses in Edinburgh, and becomes a huge hit in New York; but in that fmoment in Grahamstown, I’m at the very heart of the huge web of international connections spun by Edinburgh’s Festival and Fringe, so important to artists across the world, yet often taken for granted by those of us who live here, all year round.

23 August Les Naufrages Du Fol Espoir (Aurores) Lowland Hall, Ingliston

It’s a great 2012 Festival in Edinburgh, with a mighty new Fringe venue at Summerhall, and many of the world’s greatest directors lined up in an outstanding Edinburgh International Festival theatre programme. The most memorable night of all, though, comes with the opening at Ingliston of Ariane Mnouchkine’s Paris-based Theatre Du Soleil in their amazing epic about war and peace, cinema and reality, art and life, nationalism, socialism and hope, in 20th century Europe. The show not only occupies the great Ingliston stage for four hours, but transforms the whole building; and in the area where we can watch the cast at their dressing-tables, behind swathes of lace curtain, I turn and find myself looking into the eyes of Mnouchkine herself, now over 70, perhaps the finest woman director European theatre has ever produced. It’s a strange moment, full of the special pulse of history that comes when we brush against greatness; then Mnouchkine smiles and nods, and passes on.

25 September The Guid Sisters Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Almost 25 years on from Michael Boyd’s first production of this great Scots version of Michel Tremblay’s 1960’s Quebecois classic about a woman and her trading stamps, director Serge Denoncourt comes from Quebec to direct this new version for the NTS and the Royal Lyceum, and delivers a dazzling, surreal curtain-raiser to a Scottish autumn season dominated by all-female casts and woman-led productions. Tremblay’s play is a famous mix of motor-mouthed working-class comedy and fierce feminist protest; and there’s a chilling moment when Karen Dunbar – comedian and actress extraordinary – steps forward to tell the story of a lifetime of marital rape, exposing for a moment some of the sheer human misery, behind the laughter.

2 November Glasgow Girls Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow

The press night of Glasgow Girls, Cora Bissett’s rip-roaring new musical about a bunch of real-life Drumchapel teenagers who campaigned, half a decade ago, against the cruel immigration rules that were snatching their asylum-seekers schoolmates from their homes, and condemning them to imprisonment, or worse. Almost as striking as the upbeat energy of the show, though, is the audience; crowds of teenagers pouring into the Citizens’. Love it or hate it – and some have called it sentimental – Glasgow Girls stands in a long Scottish tradition of vivid agitprop theatre; not subtle, but full of the kind of direct appeal that can inspire whole generations, and change their view of what’s possible, in the place where they live.

12 November Oran Mor, Glasgow Operation Phantom Fury

It’s an ordinary Monday lunchtime, at the phenomenon that is David MacLennan’s Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime theatre season. Earlier this year, it celebrated its 250th new play since 2004; and today, we are watching a short double bill about the impact of Britain’s recent wars. As soon as the second play begins, though – a tiny cameo from Ken Loach scriptwriter Paul Laverty, about an Iraq veteran haunted by the American bombardment of Fallujah with uranium-tipped weapons – something in the performance, by actor Michael Nardone, stuns the audience into rapt silence, as he describes a life tormented by the images of the dreadfully deformed chldren who were born in the aftermath of the attack. And towards the end, Nardone stands and quietly sings the whole of the familiar song A Scottish Soldier, giving full weight to every word. Theatre can often be a showy art-form, large-scale, glitzy and spectacular. At heart, though, it comes down to this: the words, the human voice, the perfectly-focussed performance; then the crystalline moment of silence from the audience, before they burst into a roar of recognition, and applause.

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Mother Goose (Perth)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on MOTHER GOOSE at Perth Theatre for The Scotsman 20.12.12
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3 stars ***

IT”S SAID that Elaine C. Smith once called Mother Goose “the Hamlet of pantos”, and it’s easy to see why. It’s the story that requires a bit of subtle acting from the Dame, as she acquires sudden wealth, and morphs from a contented old lady to one who longs for love, and for the eternal youth and beauty she thinks will help her to find it. As panto stories go, it’s relatively complex; and it’s therefore slightly puzzling to find Perth Theatre complicating it much further, by throwing in an Italian circus setting, a good fairy who’s really a teacher from a local posh school, and a huge role for the villain Diavolo, who seems to be hogging much of the action long before Mother Goose has undergone the change that makes her vulnerable to his evil.

Under the circumstances, it’s therefore not surprisng that Barrie Hunter, as Dame and leading lady, looks exceptionally anxious throughout; it’s almost the interval before Priscilla the goose, oddly played by a gangly six-foot bloke, even gets to lay a golden egg. A few narrative misjudgments apart, though, this is a jolly, colourful and slightly exotic panto, with plenty of talent among the ensemble, and among the tiny dancers from local schools. There’s no shortage of traditional panto routines – including egg-citing egg jokes – and the audience participation goes with a swing; and if the mood is a little less convivial than it might be, that’s because we see too much of the villain, and not enough of the unambiguous forces of sweetness and light, that finally defeat him.

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Jack And The Beanstalk (SECC)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on JACK AND THE BEANSTALK at the SECC, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 20.12.12.
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4 stars ****

STAR QUALITY: it’s not something the Scottish panto scene is overly concerned about, although it has its share of well-known performers. So it comes as a bit of a shock to encounter a panto as thoroughly ablaze with that elusive quality as this big, no-holds-barred Qdos show at the SECC; not only because of the ever more confident and charismatic stage presence of its leading man, John Barrowman, but because of the perennial comic cheek of the Krankies, Ian and Jeanette, great survivors of the variety tradition still stomping the panto stage with the best of them.

What’s more, there’s an added twist to this year’s drama, in that the last time the Krankies ascended a Glasgow beanstalk – at the Pavilion, some years ago – they suffered a serious fall; cue Barrowman as Jack, and Jeanette as his wee brother Jimmy, climbing the Beanstalk on wires that enable wee Jimmy to fall off perilously into space, to the sound of many jokes about past mishaps.

Add to all this some fantastic song and dance numbers, plus an exceptionally feisty and appealing Princess Apricot in Lisa-Anne Wood, and some long but extremely effective 3-D sequences that make Jack’s adventures in Cloudland seem more like a film than a live show, and you have a big 21st century panto that hardly ever misses a trick. Some much-loved detail of the panto tradition is lost in transit, and some of the jokes are a little on the raunchy side. With the Krankies around, though, audiences would expect nothing less; and it’s a measure of this big, accomplished company’s spirit and professionalism that when a backdrop stuck firmly half way up, blocking our view of the final wedding scene, they all just dived underneath it and sprang up in perfect order to take their bows, and share a laugh with their increasingly enthusiastic and adoring Glasgow audience.

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Vicky Featherstone Leaving

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on VICKY FEATHERSTONE for The Scotsman, 18.12.12.
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IT’S EIGHT YEARS since Vicky Featherstone was appointed the founding Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Scotland; eight years since the day when she found herself alone in an unfurnished office in Hope Street, Glasgow, with nothing but a mobile phone, a few scribbled notes, and – she adds – a fundamental belief in the power of theatre to transform lives.

Fresh from the job of running the London-based new play company Paines Plough – and without having in lived in Scotland, since a brief few years in Alloa when she was a young child – Vicky Featherstone had been given the task not only of creating Scotland’s national theatre, but of doing it according to a revolutionary 21st century model drawn up by Scotland’s theatre community itself. She was to build a theatre without walls and without a permanent company, a commissioning body with a strong artistic leadership, but working through and with existing Scottish companies and artists. And she freely admits that if she had known then what she knows now – about the weight of expectation of a nation that had landed on her shoulders – she might have been tempted to turn round and walk straight back out again, into the rainy Glasgow street.

Almost a decade on, though, Vicky Featherstone is leaving Scotland – to become the next artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre in London – amid a storm of accolades, and declarations of gratitude, affection, even love. At her leaving party in the Tramway last week, the playwright David Greig even offered up a celebration ode, in the style of Scotland’s famously terrible poet William Topaz McGonagall; and there was no shortage of tributes to the many world-beating shows the NTS has created in its early years, from global hits Black Watch and The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart to mainstage versions of Peer Gynt and Men Should Weep, and dozens of inspiring smaller-scale projects that have played in theatre and halls across Scotland. “A theatre built without walls,” wrote Greig in his ode, “in pubs, in tower blocks, village halls/ In big pros-arches like the Lyceum/ And places where only a few people got to see ‘em./ Nothing impossible, no barriers, no fences/ A theatre to delight the senses/ Intellect and heart./ And that’s what she dreamed/ Way back at the start.”

“So why am I leaving?” says Featherstone, blinking back tears, as she pours tea in her little office on the Port Dundas industrial estate, just north of the M8 in Glasgow’s city centre; her decision to go to the Royal Court, after all, involves uprooting her whole family – her husband Danny Brown, and their two children aged 11 and 13 – from a city where they have been tremendously happy, and where her children have lived most of their lives. “It’s purely because of the Royal Court job coming up, and that is the only reason. In effect, I’m leaving several years before I would have thought of it, or wanted to do it.

“But once this job came up, and people started talking to me about it, I thought – well, if I don’t go for this now, what is the next move? At heart, I am a new play director. I am obsessive about working with playwrights, and that’s what the Royal Court job is all about. So in the end, I thought that it was much better to leave and have a broken heart, when I’m still in love with this job and with Scotland, than to wait until a time when things might have started to go wrong.

“Could I have moved to another job in Scotland? Well, in theory. But in practice, I don’t think Scotland has seen much of that kind of sideways movement in top arts jobs. In terms of the Scottish scene in general, I think Boards are often not very confident about appointing people whose main experience is in Scotland. In fact, I often ask myself why so many Boards in Scotland seem to assume that a person from England knows better, even though I’m from England myself.”

All of which casts an interesting light on Featherstone’s experience as the first artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland, given the current row about the number of non-Scots in leadership roles in Scottish cultural life. Featherstone says that she has encountered no anti-English prejudice in her face-to-face dealing with people at NTS, although she did have a moment of crisis over press criticisms of her programming policy which raised the issue of her English background, including those by veteran nationalist campaigner Paul Henderson Scott, who felt the NTS’s leadership was ignoring traditional gems of the Scottish canon like Ane Satyre Of The Thrie Estaites.

“I was starting to feel really defensive and embattled about it,” says Featherstone now. “But I thought – well, you can’t just run away from this, you have to talk to people about it. So my colleague Graham McLaren and I went to Edinburgh and met Paul, and we had tea, and I asked him why it mattered to him so much that we do The Thrie Estaites. He told me all about the Tyrone Guthrie production of 1948, and what it had meant to him, to hear the Scots language on stage, and I suddenly realised we were speaking exactly the same language, about voices and stories that hadn’t been heard, finding expression through theatre. It was a revelation to me, and a real turning-point.

“So what have I learned about this business of nationhood, through being NTS director? Well first, I’ve learned not to be afraid of national identity, and to recognise that I am English. I came here thinking that I was British; I come from that part of the British left that would just reject the idea of English national identity, because it’s imperialist. So it’s been liberating to learn about national identity in a context where it’s generally not like that, where it’s not generally destructive or exclusive.

“The question I’ve always asked in this job is, what are the stories that need to be told? And I think it’s striking that our most stand-out work has happened when we’ve gone from the most intimate and personal experiences of people in Scotland, and worked outwards from that to ideas about community, or nation, or the world; and that would be the same anywhere.

“So now, I think that England’s traditional lack of need to understand its own nationhood is an arrogance, a lack of awareness. And it’s exciting to be taking that knowedge with me to the Royal Court, at a time when England is maybe beginning to examine itself in a different way, at last.”

“And so far as the negative aspects of nationhood are concerned – well I think they all have to do with the impulse to define things, and to narrow the national story down. Scotland has a great tradition of easy, defining negatives about itself, and I have really come to hate them – “tall poppy syndrome”, “kent his faither”, that sort of phrase. They just don’t describe the energy and creativity I’ve found here. And yet when people generalise about Scotland, they often still say these dismissive, negative things.”

So now, Featherstone moves on and away; but there’s a sense that Scotland has changed her, at least as much as she has changed it. She describes herself as the “biggest convert” to the experience of being directly funded by the Scottish Government, for example, and is hugely relieved that the NTS has therefore not been caught up in the recent row surrounding Creative Scotland, although she has been deeply concerned about the crisis, and describes it as “deeply depressing”; receiving a prize as Scotland’s top “cultural ambassador”, at the organisation’s recent awards ceremony, she said she was leaving Scotland “with baited breath, and fingers crossed” that Creative Scotland can make the changes necessary to win back the trust of artists.

And although she is gradually handing the NTS over to her recently-named successor, Laurie Sansom of the Royal & Derngate Theatre at Northampton, she is passionate about some aspects of her legacy here. “I don’t know Laurie well,” she says, “but he has been up here for a couple of weeks, talking to people. I suppose I want to make sure that the values of the organisation are in his DNA, before I leave, and I think they are. I think he also appreciates the team we’ve built up here, a huge expertise in running a very, very complex operation. And – well I can’t give too much away beyond next year, which is already pretty well programmed, but let’s just say I’ve been delighted by his response to some of the projects we’ve got lined up beyond that, and his enthusiasm to get on with the work. So I think the NTS will be in very good hands.

“And as for being one of the few women in a top theatre job – well, I am a very strong feminist, and I do think constantly about being a woman in the world. But I’m honestly not sure that I think much about being a woman in my job. It never seems to present a problem, and I think that’s to do with my upbringing, and my own attitude. I’m not actually very ambitious – I know people won’t believe that, but it’s true, I’ve never had a career plan or anything. But I am quite fearless, and I always feel quite strong. In the end, I just don’t take things personally; and I think that’s a great source of strength.”

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To read the rest of David Greig’s fine ode on Victoria Leaving, click here http://www.front-step.co.uk/

Cinderella (King’s Glasgow)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on CINDERELLA at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 18.12.12.
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4 stars ****

AH, THE WORLD OF PANTO. So many strands, so many ingredients, so much that can go wrong. Sometimes, though – by good luck, and sheer inspiration – it all comes together in a formula that becomes a real embodiment of Christmas joy and conviviality; and something like that happens at this year’s big Glasgow panto in the King’s, a gorgeous, sparkling version of Cinderella designed to make little kids breathless with the magic of it all, while grown-ups roll in the aisles with laughter.

By comparison with the much shorter Edinburgh King’s panto, this glorious show – served up by traditional panto specialists First Family Entertainment, and directed by Tony Cownie – delivers the full panto package, and takes almost three hours to do it. There are two hilariously ghastly Ugly Sisters in Gordon Cooper and an inspired Gavin Mitchell. There’s a real handsome Prince with a fine singing voice in in Kieran Brown. There’s a fine new young Buttons in Des Clarke; and above all, there’s Karen Dunbar’s irresistible Fairy Godmother, plucked from the audience in raincoat and bobble-hat, and transformed into the mouthy but increasingly gorgeous presiding spirit of the whole show.

The result is a show stuffed with terrific old jokes delivered with relish, and new ones that nail the absurdity of our celebrity-obsessed age; with a perfectly spun-out ghost scene, and a great traditional song-sheet and singing competition. And above all, there’s a transformation scene to bring a tear to the most jaded eye, complete with little white ponies and real, glittering pumpkin coach. So hang your cynicism on a coat-peg, beg, borrow or steal a few tickets, and head for the King’s. It’s not a perfect panto, and it’s sometimes just a shade self-indulgent; but it captures the very essence of topsy-turvey Christmas magic, and it does it in memorable style.

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