Daily Archives: October 31, 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.  

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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.

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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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