Daily Archives: September 5, 2015

The Year Of The Solo Show – Edinburgh 2015

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on 2015 – THE YEAR OF THE SOLO SHOW for the Scotsman Magazine, 5.9.15.
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IT WASN’T obvious to me at the time: but when Simon McBurney of Complicite opened the Edinburgh International Festival theatre programme, four weeks ago tonight, with his superb audio-driven monodrama The Encounter, he was signalling a Festival and Fringe more dominated by solo performance than any I can remember. In the international festival, McBurney’s show was followed in short order by Robert Lepage’s 887, a beautiful and absorbing solo account of a childhood shaped by the reviving Quebec nationalism of the 1960’s, and by Untitled Projects’ Paul Bright’s Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner, a bravura solo lecture-performance by actor George Anton.

And meanwhile, out on the Fringe, there were moments when it seemed as though the show witth more than one performer was becoming an endangered species. There were plenty of big shows, of course, in the musical and entertainment sections of the programme; also among student companies, and among companies based in Edinburgh, who can avoid soaring festival accommodation costs.

In the part of the Fringe programme where the Scotsman Fringe First awards operate, though – seeking out high-quality new work brought to the Edinburgh Fringe from all over the world – the solo show now dominates the field. In recent years, the proportion of solo shows among our Fringe First award winners has been hovering just below the 50% mark. This year, though, almost two-thirds of our winners were solo performers. Show after show that promised – and often delivered – big drama on big themes turned out to feature only one actor; and the Amnesty International Freedom Of Expression Award chose an outstanding, Fringe-First winning solo show – the wonderful A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, unforgettably performed by Aoife Duffin – as its winner.

So what is going on here? The obvious answer lies in the high cost of staging a Fringe production in Edinburgh, particularly when cast accommodation costs are taken into account. Theatre-makers have observed the huge success of the Fringe’s leading comedy stars, and have realised that if the quality of the show is high enough, audiences are willing to pay as much to see one performer as they are to see six, or even 20.

There’s no doubt, though, that however brillliant many solo performances are, there’s something wrong with a cost structure that increasingly limits the range of theatre available, particularly where new and more high-risk work is involved; and those who have successfully launched other initiatives to support companies on the Fringe – such as the Made In Scotland initaitive – should perhaps be thinking about how to help ambitious companies bring shows with the full cast size the work demands.

Even if thoses practical issues were resolved, though, it seems to me that there’s something about the mood of our time that seeks out the solo show, regardless of cost. Indeed the presence of those three huge solo theatre pieces on the Edinburgh International Festival programme, where resources are relatively plentiful, shows that the decision to perform alone is not only a practical one, but one that reflects a profound shift in the aesthetic of 21st century theatre.

It’s perhaps partly a question of theatre carving out a distinctive “live” role, in an age when multi-character drama is increasingly defined by television and film; audiences seem to have an increasingly low tolerance for live theatre in which no-one speaks to them directly, as solo performers always do.

In the end, though, I think there’s also a shift that goes even deeper than that. And I suspect that even if a special stream of funding to support larger casts appeared tomorrow, many writers and producers would still choose the solo show; because at some level, this is the voice of our time, the theatre of the age of the “selfie” – telling stories, playing with perceptions, and dismantling and reassembling the self, as it’s reflected back to us not only by other people, but also by the live electronic screens, large and small, that increasingly dominate our lives.

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The Cameo

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE CAMEO at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 5.9.15.
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3 stars ***

THE LIGHTS GO UP, and on stage, at the bar of what looks like a pub, sits a well-fed chap in his forties wearing a smart lounge-suit jacket, and a pair of union jack underpants. He is soon joined by a harassed-looking woman called Kate, superbly played by Molly Innes, an assistant director on a notoriously dreadful Scottish soap called Gallus Palace. And it quickly becomes clear that our hero, John Dumfries – portrayed with wicked accuracy by Steven McNicoll – is a recently-rejected unionist MP, now calling in a favour from the old friend who runs the television company, in the shape of a chance to play a cameo role in the show, and thereby start to rebuild his political career.

So far, so good, in the brilliant set-up for this autumn’s first play of the season at A Play, A Pie And A Pint; and for half an hour or so, like the best kind of television comedy writing team, co-playwrights Kieran Lynn and DC Jackson keep the sharp comic dialogue coming thick and fast, as Kate – who turns out to be a bit of a poet in the field of bitter media cynicism – tries to deal with the creative chaos caused by the unseemly effort to shoehorn John’s scene into a normal soap episode, featuring big-hearted barmaid Angela, as played by Jane McCarry.

In the end, there’s just not enough of a play here to fill out even the 50 minutes of an Oran Mor lunchtime; the scene is no more than a sketch, and barely sustains its 40-minute length. As a blast of short-form satire against Scotland’s recently-rejected political class, though, The Cameo has plenty to recommend it; and if you want to be represented again by the kind of New Labour politician who literally can’t order a pint without caling his political adviser, then perhaps John Dumfries – or someone very like him – is the candidate for you.

Oran Mor, Glasgow, final performance today.

ENDS ENDS

All My Sons (2015)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ALL MY SONS at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 5.9.15.
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3 stars *** 

BEST KNOWN FOR TOURING workmanlike but unremarkable revivals to a wide range of venues across Scotland, Michael Emans’s Rapture Theatre raised a few eyebrows, last year, when it was promoted to the ranks of Creative Scotland’s regularly funded organisations, over the heads of one or two companies producing far more exciting, internationally-acclaimed work.

Whatever the reservations about that decision, though, no-one could have wished Rapture Theatre the kind of bad luck which haunted the premier, this week, of its first large-scale touring production under the new funding deal. When Emans’s production of All My Sons opened at the Theatre Royal on Wednesday night, it was not only making do without its lead actor, Paul Shelley – who was to have played the troubled patriarch Joe Keller, and was replaced after a last-minute illness by company member David Tarkenter – but had to face a second crisis when Trudie Goodwin, playing Joe’s wife, keeled over and fainted during her biggest second-act scene; the curtain had to be lowered for ten minutes while she recovered.

So if Rapture’s version of All My Sons – the first of two autumn productions designed to mark Arthur Miller’s centenary – fails to scale any great heights of interpretation or originality, it certainly deserves recognition for dogged professionalism in the face of adversity. Miller’s great 1947 play never loses relevance, of course. Its central conflict between Joe Keller – who has saved his business by shipping out defective aircraft cylinder heads at the height of the war, costing the lives of 21 young airmen – and his younger son Chris, an idealistic ex-army man, is one that still haunts western society, as the claims of “business” continue to trump those of basic humanity and solidarity.

In Emans’s production – staged on an attractive back-yard set by Neil Murray that evokes the comfort of the Kellers’ middle-class Ohio life – Chris is played with great insight and commitment by Robert Jack, with David Tarkenter stepping up effectively to the role of Joe Keller. And if this is the kind of production where individual performances have to find their own way, rather than being swept along by the production’s own purpose and dynamic, there’s still plenty to enjoy in this earnest and heartfelt staging of one of the greatest plays of the 20th century; with a fine family storyline that stlll draws gasps of shock and recognition, as Miller’s mighty plot unfolds, to its tragic end.

Theatre Royal, Glasgow, final performances today. Then on tour to Inverness, Kirkcaldy and Stirling, and at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 21-26 September.

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