Monthly Archives: October 2015

Our Man In Havana

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on OUR MAN IN HAVANA at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, for The Scotsman, 31.10.15.
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4 stars ****

THE SHOW begins in the foyer, at Pitlochry’s autumn production of Our Man In Havana; not with one of those unexpected pre-show interludes, but with a loud rustle of appreciation, as the audience browses the pages of a tabloid-sized programme all in the style of a 1950’s newspaper, completely with cheeky vacuum cleaner advert (“It sucks like a dream…”) and new-look fashion sketches.

It’s an undeniably light-touch experience, Clive Francis’s ingenious stage version for four actors of Graham Greene’s great 1958 novel; it highlights the comedic and absurdist aspects of Greene’s story of a hard-up British vacuum-cleaner salesman living in Havana who, at the height of Cold War paranoia, somehow finds himself posting entirely fictional intelligence to MI6 in return for large amounts of cash.

If this is an adaptation that never digs too deeply into Greene’s ever-present undercurrent of darkness, though, Richard Baron’s production whips it up into a delicious, witty and highly satirical entertainment, featuring a suitably vague central performance from Andrew Loudon as our hero Wormold, with Roger Delves-Broughton, Steven McNicoll, and the astonishingly clever and gorgeous Jessica Guise whirling around him in a whole range of roles, from his foot-stamping Lolita of a teenage daughter to the sinister chequers-playing police chief, Segura.  Ken Harrison’s set designs are as effective and witty as the programme; and although the story’s romantic conclusion, back in rainy London, involves a touch of wishful thinking, we’re left in no doubt that long before the phrase “dodgy dossier” was ever coined, Graham Greene had the number of Britain’s security services, and was not entirely impressed. 

Until 14 November.  

ENDS ENDS         

And Then There Were None

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 31.10.15.
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3 stars ***

IF EVER ANYONE saw Agatha Christie as a mere entertainer, conjuring up English upper-middle-class life at its most superficially thrilling and ultimately reassuring, then this stirringly effective Joe Harmston touring production for the Agatha Christie Theatre Company should finally set that myth to rest.  

Set in a large island house off the coast of Devon, this iconic Christie story brings together a group of eight house-guests – plus butler and housekeeper – who find, to their shock, that the host and hostess who invited them are not there.  Instead, they are confronted with a recorded accusation that they are all complicit in various murders; and then with a night of horror, as one by one, members of the group begin to die, picked off in a ruthless and mysterious application of the death penalty.

At one level, this is all delicious spine-chilling hokum;  the dramatic style is old-fashioned – despite a gorgeous art deco set by Sam Scullion – and the mechanics of the plot creak a little, as an austere-looking Paul Nicholas, as distinguished judge Sir Lawrence Wargrave, leads the cast through its twists and turns.  

There’s something bracingly bold, though, about the ruthlessness with which Christie exposes the pervasive underlying violence of the apparently peaceful British society evoked in stories like her Miss Marple mysteries; and with Kezia Burrows and Ben Nealon acting up a spirited storm as the night’s last two survivors, this is a Hallowe’en thriller that offers some food for thought, as well as its share of hair-raising moments.

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, final performances today; and His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, Tuesday-Saturday next week.

ENDS ENDS   

Tipping The Velvet

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on TIPPING THE VELVET at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 31.10.15.
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4 stars ****

ITS CULTURAL roots are very different, and its subject reflects a kind of gender politics that was just beginning to find its voice, back in the early 1970’s. Yet all the same, not since John McGrath and 7:84 engineered a brilliant collision between the form of the ceilidh and a piece of sharp socialist agitprop about land ownership in Scotland, has any company achieved a more joyful, purposeful and entertaining blend of popular culture and heartfelt political theatre than audiences will find in this exhilarating stage version of Sarah Waters’s Tipping The Velvet, created at the Lyric, Hammersmith by director-of-the-moment Lyndsey Turner, and co-produced by the Lyceum Theatre.

The popular form in play here is not ceilidh but old-time music hall; and those who are old enough to remember Leonard Sachs, his gavel, and the brio with which he used to introduce the acts on the BBC’s Good Old Days, will immediately recognise the cultural territory being opened up by our chairman David Cardy, as he appears in top hat and tails before a rich red plush curtain, and begins to usher us through the dramatic tale of young Nancy Astley, an oyster girl from Whitstable whose life of adventure begins when she falls in love with a theatrical male impersonator called Kitty Butler, becomes her dresser, and follows her to London.

In the big city, fame and heartbreak beckon, as Nancy’s picaresque journey leads her from the ecstasy of first love, through success as a music-hall star, to interludes as a prostitute and a rich woman’s plaything.

It’s a story that walks a tightrope between cheerfully knowing titillation on one hand, and gay and feminist agitprop on the other; but in Laura Wade’s adaptation, it keeps its balance beautifully throughout, thanks to its streak of pure, open-hearted romance, and its hugely witty score by Michael Bruce, which deploys a whole range of recent songs, from Bronski Beat’s Runaway to These Boots Were Made For Walking, to remind us of the feedoms that have been won so recently, and of the role a new, music-driven 20th century pop culture played in that liberation.

Sally Messham turns in a brilliant star performance as Nancy, Lizzie Clachan’s quick-change set designs are as vivid as they are witty. And at the end, when Nancy finally seizes the gavel from the leering old Chairman and starts to shape her own fate, the audience is ready to cheer her to the echo, along with the powerful 14-strong company who help conjure up her story for us, in words, music and song.

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 14 November.

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A Hallowe’en Column On Going Backstage – Into The Mysterious Side Of Theatre

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on GOING BACKSTAGE for Scotsman Magazine 31.10.15.
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IT’S LATE AND DARK on an October Friday evening, and I’m standing in a crowd of people at the top of a long, bleak staircase, looking down at the floor beneath my feet. Something about its texture catches my attention – very old boards, nailed into place 130 years ago, darkened by layers of dust, creaking slightly to our footsteps; and just for a moment, there’s a dizzy feeling of moving back in time.

The place is the top of the balcony stairs at the Royal Lyceum, the place where audiences once filed up to the “gods”, and still do, on occasions; and we’re there to experience a remarkable show called Hidden, put together by the Lyceum Youth Theatre as part of the company’s 50th birthday celebration. Theatres have always offered backstage tours, of course, to audience members fascinated by the secrets of theatre production. In Scotland at the moment, you can buy or book a ticket for a backstage tour around the Citizens’, the King’s in Edinburgh, Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and many more; and they cater to a fascination with the mechanics of theatre, rather than its meaning, that I’ve always found vaguely irritating.

Hidden, though, is a show that takes that fascination further, into a dark and hugely imaginative exploration of the atmosphere that clings around the backstage areas of an old Victorian theatre like the Lyceum. Devised by a company of 60 young people and four directors – including artistic director Mark Thomson – the show leads us, over 65 minutes, through ranges of old dressing-rooms, down to the stage where fretful performers prepare for curtain-up, into the depths beneath the stage where strange children – or are they theatre mice? – play and rant in some kind of imprisonment, and then up those haunted back stairs to the gods, where competing deities fight for the soul of a boy who is strongly advised, in the end, to rely only on his own heart and creativity.

It’s a powerful show, which perhaps takes some inspiration from David Leddy’s unforgettable backstage promenade piece Sub Rosa, first seen at the Citizens’ in 2009; and it’s to be hoped that audiences will have a chance to see Hidden again, during the Lyceum’s anniversary year.

Yet in this Hallowe’en week, the show also raises questions about just why we see the backstage spaces of theatres as such spooky and ambiguous spaces; and why theatre history is so haunted by the figures of those who have died in the act of performance – like the renowned magician The Great Lafayette, burned to death at the Empire Theatre, Edinburgh (now the Festival Theatre) in 1911.

It’s as if we feel, somewhere, that the intensity of theatrical experience is a kind of devil’s bargain, which demands that performers sacrifice something vital of themselves, in order to create the spectacle on stage; so that backstage, after the show is over, all the regret and pain associated with that sacrifice – whether of family, respectability, wealth, peace of mind, or life itself – gathers and waits to claim the next generation of artists driven to live the same life.

And although, in 21st century theatre, that sacrifice is mercifully much less than it was – and most of our talk today is of artistic achievement, workable business plans, decent working conditions, health and safety, and the huge positive contribution a great theatre can make to the life of a community – perhaps this is the one week of the year when we can make a brief nod to the more mysterious side of the business: to its strange, brief intensities, to the roar of applause that seems to seep into the walls of an old theatre building, to the millions of dreams, hopes and yearnings that have flowed through its spaces over the decades; and to the ghosts that haunt the galleries and backstairs of every self-respecting theatre, brought to life in shows like Hidden, and then – in our age of reason – firmly sent back to sleep again, until the next All Hallows’ Eve.

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This Week’s Tax Credits Row Between The Commons And The Lords Demonstrates How The Unfair Westminster Electoral System Distorts UK Politics, And Blocks Other Constitutional Reforms – Column 30.10.15

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 30.10.15
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EARLIER THIS YEAR, soon after the general election, the Electoral Reform Society published a well-argued report pointing out the extent to which the result of that election failed to reflect the reality of the votes cast across the UK.  The first-past-the-post system, so beloved by Britain’s two main parties, had awarded an overall Commons majority to a party that won less than 37% of the vote, caused the apparent complete humiliation of a Labour Party that ran in barely six points behind them, and failed to reflect voting intentions in Scotland to the extent that the SNP won 95% of our seats with barely 50% of the vote; to say nothing of the plight of UKIP, which won 12% of votes, but only 0.2% of seats – one MP out of 650.

The Electoral Reform Society can, of course, be expected to point out these anomalies, with a slightly monotonous regularity.  This time around, though, they were right to argue that the distortions inherent in first-past-the-post had reached new extremes.  And one phrase used in the report is beginning to ring ever more true, as the story of David Cameron’s majority Conservative government unfolds; the election result, said the ERS, represented “a return to single party government… but not necessarily a return to stability.”

For there was no disguising the anger and discomfiture of the Conservative front bench, this week, as a House of Lords alliance – composed mainly of Labour and Liberal Democrat peers, bishops, and cross benchers – united to defeat their key proposal on the drastic reduction of tax credit payments to low-earning households, from next April.  That the policy itself is a bad one, involving an extremely harsh attack on the incomes of the government’s beloved “hard working families”, now seems almost beyond dispute.

The truth is, though, that British governments have become unused to having their policies rejected simply because they make no sense; the cult of “strong government”, encouraged by our electoral system, means that they routinely expect to be able to force them through regardless.  And although the Prime Minister tried, in a well-spun phrase, to dismiss this week’s Lords defeat as an alliance of “the unelected and the unelectable”, the whole debate nonetheless exposed both the very slender size of his Commons majority, and the wider truth that the politics offered by Cameron and Osborne do not really command majority support in the country; indeed it’s an uncomfortable fact that the current composition of the House of Lords – with 249 Tory peers, 212 Labour ones, 112 Liberal Democrats, and 244 assorted “others” – actually comes closer to reflecting the real party preferences of the British people than the Commons does.

Now of course, this is not an argument for the continuation of the Lords in its present form; if their Lordships’ party allegiances happen to reflect public opinion relatively accurately, the Lords are hopelessly unrepresentative in many other ways, and their method of appointment highly questionable.  What’s clear, though, is that a House of Commons elected by such a disproportional system is both in desperate need of the balancing power provided by an upper house, and unable to sanction any reform of the Lords that would involve it being elected by a method visibly fairer than that used for the Commons.  The Commons’ traditional electoral system not only distorts the outcome of its own elections, in other words, but acts as a permanent barrier to meaningful Lords reform; and the furious reaction of the government, this week, only demonstrates just how rare it is for the Lords to succeed in striking any serious blow against  government policy, however flawed.

Yet if this has been an uncomfortable week at Westminster for the Tories, it also poses difficult questions for Britain’s centre-left parties, who have this week found themselves cheering on the unelected house, as a last line of defence against Tory excess.  Labour, as the UK’s main opposition party, has no coherent policy for the reform or replacement of the Lords, precisely because of the issues such a move would raise about the democratic credentials of the Commons itself.

And the SNP, which supports electoral reform at Westminster, and has no truck with the Lords in its present form, shares with all the other mainstream parties in Scotland an apparently complacency about the functioning of our own parliament, and about the limits of what can be achieved through electoral reform, that reflects little credit on any of them.  The people of Scotland would be well advised, of course, not to take for granted, or to cease to protect, the Bundestag-style electoral system included in the devolution settlement of 1999, which ensures that the balance of parties in the chamber will broadly reflect their real electoral preferences.  

Yet it’s also true – and should surely be of interest, if anyone at Westminster cared to analyse the Scottish experience since 1999 – that proportional representation alone does not guarantee the close scrutiny of legislation, or, in itself, provide fail-safe constitutional checks and balances.  A more powerful Scotland might well need an upper chamber of its own, to help refine legislation and hold government to account; and it’s certainly arguable that despite the electoral system, the current Scottish Parliament is just too small, and perhaps too complacent, to operate the kind of powerful and autonomous committee system once envisaged for it, as a vital check on executive power.

For the moment, though, all sensible talk about constitutional improvement seems to be suspended, replaced at Westminster by an ugly mix of rampant traditionalism and government aggression, and at Holyrood by a general intellectual laziness, accompanied by occasional calls either for complete independence, or for a complete end to the independence debate.  And while organisations like the Electoral Reform Society work away at the task of suggesting improvements that might actually strengthen our  democracy, we scan the horizon in vain for a major political party prepared to take up the cause; or to learn serious progressive lessons from events like this week’s tax credit row, rather than simply rejoicing at the sight of George Osborne being briefly unseated from his austerity high horse, before he climbs back aboard, and resumes the hunt.

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Hector/A Word With Dr. Johnson

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on HECTOR at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, and A WORD WITH DR. JOHNSON  at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 26.10.15.
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Hector   3 stars ***
A Word With Dr. Johnson  3 stars  ***

THE BRITISH EMPIRE always prided itself on its ability to absorb into its ruling class the occasional talented individual from a humble background; its problem, then as now, was that it also tended to tolerate a great deal of bigotry and mediocrity from those born to rule. 

David Gooderson’s powerful new touring play about the decline and fall of Major-General Sir Hector MacDonald – born on a croft in Ross-shire, and a popular hero after Queen Victoria bestowed a knighthood on him – portrays a man caught at the heart of that contradiction, a great battlefield soldier who was nonetheless openly critical of Lord Kitchener’s methods during the Boer War, and contemptuous of the self-indulgent Ceylonese expat community he was expected to join, when he was posted there after his fall-out with Kitchener.

Gooderson’s thesis is that MacDonald, who committed suicide in a Paris hotel in 1903, was framed – in a series of flimsy allegations about his relations with young boys – by a bunch of imperial snobs in Ceylon who simply wanted rid of him. And without delving too deeply into MacDonald’s psyche, Kate Nelson’s six-strong ensemble presents this sympathetic  story of his downfall with an almost tragic sene of inevitability, with Steven Duffy turning in a persuasive leading performance.

A modern audience is bound to wonder, of course, whether the allegations were entirely false; we have our own crisis of truth and falsehood to deal with, when it comes to historic sex abuse.  But this eloquent and interesting play – co-produced by Eden Court, Comar and Ed Littlewood – certainly deserves the wider audience it will find, on a tour that takes it from Woodend Barn at Banchory to the Ambassadors Theatre, London, over the next six weeks. 

James Runcie’s latest lunchtime play for the Play, Pie And Pint season, by contrast, has none of the intensity of Gooderson’s drama; it’s more of a sketch, a light-touch 50-minute musical entertainment about Dr. Samuel Johnson’s great effort to produce the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language, with the help of a slightly fractious team of mainly Scottish scribes.  Like Hector, though, Runcie’s play touches on the fraught subject of Anglo-Scottish relations within the UK, exploring both genuine differences of culture, and a few well-worn cliches about Scottish gloom and drunkenness.

All of this is highly entertaining, although it’s a bit of a stretch to accept the moments when Johnson’s scribes burst into couthy Scottish song.  The play is at its best, though, when it focusses on Johnson’s own fine and moving words about life, literature and language, beautifully conveyed by Mark McDonnell in the title role; and above all, on his profoundly affectionate relationship with his wife, Tetty, played by Gerda Stevenson with such grace and poignancy that it’s hard to believe that within a couple of minutes, she’s once again back in breeches and tam o’shanter, playing Dr. Johnson’s favourite Scotch assistant, Mr. Sheils.

Hector on tour until 20 November, including the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 11-12 November.   A Word With Dr. Johnson at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, tomorrow until Saturday.            

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Midsummer (2015)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on MIDSUMMER at the Bharatiya Ashram, Dundee, for The Scotsman, 26.10.15.
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4 stars ****

WHEN DAVID GREIG and Gordon McIntyre’s delightful play-with-songs first appeared at the Traverse in the gloomy autumn of 2008, it featured just two actors, a bed, and a couple of guitars.

It’s perhaps a measure of the hidden depths of this apparently lightweight rom-com, though, that for this year’s tour around community venues in Dundee and beyond, director Ros Philips and the Dundee Rep Ensemble have almost effortlessly transformed it into a show for a company of eight, in which six of the actors form a kindly chorus to the main action, while also playing a huge range of minor parts.

Set in Edinburgh at midsummer 2008, Midsummer is partly the no-holds-barred story of a whirlwind weekend romance between slightly battle-scarred thirty-somethings Bob and Helena,  and partly a passionate, lyrical love-song to Scotland’s contradictory old capital, and its 21st century cityscape.  The initial tone of Bob and Helena’s romance – which begins with a pretty desperate bout of drunken, no-strings sex – is both raunchy and unforgiving, in its portrayal of a joyless culture where fun only means booze, and casual, loveless coupling.  

Yet Martin McBride and Jo Freer, as Bob and Helena, strike just the right note of suffering, hopeful humanity caught beneath a thin crust of lifeworn cynicism; and as their relationship stirs into
life on a tide of beautiful, thoughtful writing, perfectly conveyed by this rich, deep Dundee Rep chorus in both prose and song, we’re privileged to watch something ordinary and a bit squalid gradually transfigured into beauty, by the sheer force of art, love, and hope. 

On tour to community venues in Dundee and Angus, until 31 October.

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The Devil’s Larder 2015

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE DEVIL’S LARDER at Customs House,Leith, for The Scotsman 24.10.15. ________________________________________________________

3 stars ***

THRE ARE MOMENTS when it certainly looks and feels like a giant larder, the old Customs House at Leith. It’s cold, dank and northerly, with slamming doors and echoing corridors; and its large, austere spaces cast a strange pall of bleakness over this ten-years-on revival of The Devil’s Larder, based on Jim Crace’s “cumulative novel in 64 parts” about food and its meanings, and first created by Edinburgh-based site-specific company Grid Iron for the Edinburgh Fringe of 2005.

Back then, the predominant impression created by the show was of heat, including the body-heat of the tightly-packed Fringe audience; in the winding spaces of an upper floor of Debenham’s on Princes Street, it was all lust and greed and hellfire, an intense theatrical journey around the things we yearn for, but which may also kill or damn us.

Ten years on though, things are chillier, more diffuse, and much less luscious to look at, as the audience of 40 or so moves from staircase to balcony to a series of dingy, almost classroom-like spaces in which the flame of sensuality struggles to make itself felt; not until this production moves on to the three other venues on its forthcoming tour will it be clear whether that sense of coldness and loss belongs to the Customs House, or to this latest version of the show itself.

If the overall impact of the show is muted, though, there’s still a great deal for the imagination to feast on in director Ben Harrison’s latest version of Crace’s fascinating text. Over 13 scenes – with an introduction from a gleaming devil and his lady demon, glamorously played by Johnny Austin and Charlene Boyd – the audience travel from the hotel corridor where a migrant room-service maid lingers over discarded trays of food, through a 1970’s fondue party that suddenly starts to swing, to the final resonant story of a hotel fishing holiday gone wrong. David Paul Jones’s music – performed and sung live, with Mary McMaster on harp – is a haunting collage of old songs and harmonies; the four-strong acting company, which also includes Ashley Smith and Antony Strachan, conjures up dozens of characters, weird, grotesque and poignant. And even if the thrilling heat of the inferno is missing this time, this Devil’s Larder is still a place well worth a visit; for those who have never been there yet, and for those who went once before, and may now be surprised at how the place has changed.

Customs House, Leith, tonight, and on tour to Selkirk, Oban and Melvich, until 15 November.

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Tipping The Velvet At The Lyceum, And A New Age Of Co-Production

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on CO-PRODUCTION – A THEATRE SOLUTION, OR A WHOLE NEW SET OF PROBLEMS? for Scotsman Magazine 24.10.15.
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TAKE A LOOK AT THE LYCEUM THEATRE’S autumn programme for this 50th anniversary year, and you’ll see a short season book-ended by the recent smash-hit Lyceum production of Waiting For Godot, and the forthcoming Christmas show, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe.

In the middle, though – and set to open next week – there’s something else entirely: the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith’s stage version of Sarah Waters’s Victorian lesbian romance Tipping The Velvet, which opened in London four weeks ago, to a delighted audience response. The show is directed by Lyndsey Turner, who has recently won international fame as the director of the controversial Barbican Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch; and its presence in the Lyceum’s in-house programme raises all sorts of questions about the new culture of co-production and partnership between theatres which funding bodies seem so eager to encourage, as an obvious way of reducing costs.

For even quick glance at the detail of how Tipping The Velvet was put together is enough to suggest that the process of co-production is far more complex than that. It’s clear that Tipping the Velvet is a Lyric Hammersmith show, conceived there, cast there, and rehearsed there. Yet the Lyceum organisation has been involved in discussions about the project from the outset. The scale of the production is dependent on resources the Lyceum has been willing to bring to it, in both cash and kind (some of the set has been built at the Lyceum’s Roseburn workshop), and the concept has partly been shaped by the idea of creating a show set in and around the world of Victorian theatre, for two exquisite Victorian auditoriums.

“It is emphatically not all about saving money,” says the Lyceum’s executive director Alex McGowan. “Tipping The Velvet is actually a more expensive show for us than, say, Faith Healer, the opening Lyceum production of this year; what the co-production does is to enable us to stage a bigger show, with a larger cast and a more complex set, than either theatre could afford on its own. If you’re doing a co-production project for the right reasons, though, then the upsides of it are huge, and not only for the audience, who get to see a wider range of work. It helps people working in theatre to expand their horizons, and to get to know – and be known by – different organisations; it’s great for career development, and for making you think in fresh ways about your own organisation.

And all of this points to what Mark Thomson, the Lyceum’s outgoing artistic director, says is the most significant thing he has learned about co-production; that the project has to be based on a genuine creative impulse, and not on some imposed structure that requires routine co-production. “That kind of structure,” he says, “leads rapidly to either to a lowest common denominator, or a kind of servitude, and neither of those is good. It’s also not good if co-production just becomes a way of reducing the total amount of work created; that reduces opportunities for actors, writers, designers, directors, and takes away the distinctiveness of each company’s work.

“On the upside, we’ve done a huge amount of successful co-production in recent years, both as the lead producing house and in projects led by others; we led on last year’s production of Pressure, which was co-produced by Chichester Festival Theatre, whereas Crime And Punishment, for example, was led by the Citizens’. But you simply can’t afford to get locked into a co-production routine that makes you into a receiving house, for part of the year, rather than a producing theatre. It has to be about fun, about the work, about the creative stimulus of working with different people in a different company with different ideas. And it can’t be about obligation; because obligation is never, ever a good basis for art.”

Tipping The Velvet at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, 28 October- 14 November.

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Rebecca 2015

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on REBECCA at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 24.10.15. ________________________________________________________

4 stars ****

THERE HAVE BEEN many stage adaptations of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca in the past, and there will be many to come; but I doubt whether fans of this great romantic novel will ever see a staging more wildly inventive and creative – and yet more passionately in tune with the powerful narrative backbeat of the story – than this brilliant touring version from Kneehigh Theatre of Truro.

On a stage lusciously bedecked by designer Leslie Travers with the cobwebby ruins of Manderley, the great Cornish house at the centre of the story, the drama unfolds with not the smallest pretence at naturalism, as the novel’s emotional subtext explodes across the stage in the form of a chorus that morphs effortlessly from a platoon of dancing domestic servants to a oilskin-wearing lifeboat crew, while delivering a roster of south-western songs and shanties that only a Cornish company would think of grafting onto Du Maurier’s lush high romance.

Amid all this theatrical sound and fury, though, adaptor and director Emma Rice never for a moment loses sight of the central story, with Imogen Sage turing in a gorgeous, perfectly-pitched performance as the new Mrs. De Winter, gradually evolving from frightened girl to ruthless power wife, while Emily Raymond’s excellent Mrs. Danvers finally decays into madness. And the story’s class politics – always present in Du Maurier’s novel – are here fleshed out into a witty and vivid physical element of the story; as is Maxim de Winter’s beloved hound, played by a gorgeous puppet dog that steals the audience’s heart, and all but steals the show.

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, final performances today; His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, next week, and the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 2-7 November.

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