Daily Archives: November 7, 2015

Threads (2015)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THREADS at Mac-Arts, Galashiels, for The Scotsman, 7.11.15.
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3 stars ***

SPINNING, MEASURING, CUTTING. The figures of the three Muses, forever repeating these three timeless acts of making and unmaking, are a recurring presence in Sylvia Dow’s new play, now finishing a week-long tour of the Borders; and they emphasise both the ancient link between the ideas of spinning, weaving and storytelling, and the profound place of textile-making in the history of Borders’ women.

Inspired by a Hawick-based project called Knit2Together – which encouraged women (and some men) from the region to come together for sessions of knitting, reminiscence and storytelling about Borders life and industry – Dow’s play, produced with immense loving care by Stellar Quines of Edinburgh, is perhaps too short, at just an hour, to do full justice to the rich layers of meaning suggested by its subject. The play contains just one fully-realised character – a poverty-stricken 19th century Hawick woman, beautifully played by Molly Innes, who stole yarn from the local mill out of sheer desperation – and has to content itself, otherwise, with brief sketches, short quotes and enjoyable send-ups.

If the play slightly undersells the weight of its subject-matter, though, Muriel Romanes’s production is both impressively cast, and memorably beautiful to look at, as old images of Borders textile-making merge, in Jeanine Byrne’s lighting and costume design, into rich walls of imagery, colour and light. And with musical diretor Robert Pettigrew at the piano, the five-strong company spend a good part of the show singing out great Borders songs of work, joy and suffering; in an evening that suggests possible bigger plays to come, on this theme, but is still richly enjoyable in itself.

Final performance tonight, Smailholm Village Hall.

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Eden Court: Time To Turn A Spotlight On Scotland’s Most Northerly Big Theatre

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on EDEN COURT for The Scotsman magazine, 7.11.15.
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AS THEATRE LOCATIONS GO, it’s perhaps the best in Scotland; right at the heart of the country’s fastest-growing city, yet perched in gorgeous parkland, on the banks of the fast-flowing River Ness. Anyone who visits Eden Court Theatre in Inverness is bound to admire its elegant modern building complex – first opened in 1976 – and its fine river views.

Yet despite its annual £5 million budget – which makes it one of the largest theatre organisations in Scotland, surpassed only by the National Theatre of Scotland and the Kings’ and Festival Theatres trust in Edinburgh – Scotland’s most northerly large-scale theatre is often overlooked in public discussion about the Scottish arts scene, in terms both of its actual performance, and its huge potential.

Since it reopened in 2007 after an extensive refurbishment, Eden Court has one large 840-seat theatre, one smaller 250-seat theatre, two small but excellent cinemas, and two studios, as well as a bar and restaurant, and extensive conference and function space. The theatre offers a jam-packed programme, ranging from daytime educational activities – Eden Court runs the largest theatre-based arts education programme in the UK, with team members all over the Highlands, and is the only theatre actually to teach Higher Dance and Drama – through large-scale and small-scale theatre, classical music, opera and ballet, to blockbuster musicals like Hairspray (due to visit in March), the beloved annual panto produced with commercial company Imagine, and a thriving cinema programme, including this weekend’s Inverness Film Festival.

And although it mainly functions as a receiving theatre, Eden Court is gradually becoming a stronger presence in theatre production. Earlier this autumn, the theatre produced Philip Howard’s touring production of Not About Heroes; and it has also co-produced David Gooderson’s Hector, about the disgraced Highland military hero General Sir Hector MacDonald, which appears at the Traverse next week.

It’s therefore not surprising that an audience member recently told Colin Marr, the theatre’s chief executive since 1997, that Eden Court was like “all the theatres, cinemas, and concert halls in Edinburgh rolled into one, with just a little bit of each of them”; and it’s easy to see how this massive programme – straddling not only the commercial and subsidised sectors, but also very different scales of work, and most art-forms within the subsidised arts – makes it difficult for the theatre to project a clear image of its work beyond Inverness, where it has become a completely essential part of the cultural and entertainment landscape, with few competitors.

Questions remain, inevitably, about how Eden Court might move forward in future, and how – beyond its much-admired educational work – it can best use the £1 million pounds of public money it receives. Could it invest more than its current £45,000 or £50,000 a year in producing new work? Could it open up a strand of new work for children created by its multi-talented education team, who already produce a hugely popular Christmas show for tiny tots? Could it perhaps, at some point, afford to produce its own home-made Highland panto? And could it – should it – develop a more closely-integrated and mutually supportive relationship with the Highland Touring Network, which brings professional theatre and music to community venues across the region, rather than simply competing with them for the best small-scale shows?

For the time being, though, it’s steady as she goes on the banks of the Ness, where the Eden Court operation is thriving and growing as never before. And whatever decisions are eventually made about its future, the theatre’s current success in earning more than 60% of its income at the box office forms a strong basis for those choices; and gives Eden Court the potential to play an ever more creative role in the life of the Highlands, a region already rich in grassroots cultural life, and capable of becoming steadily richer.

For details of the Eden Court programme, including this weekend’s Inverness Film Festival, see . Hector is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 11-12 November, and on tour.

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After The Cuts

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on AFTER THE CUTS at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 7.11.15
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4 stars ****

AS EVER, there have been good plays and less impressive ones, in this year’s Play, Pie And Pint autumn season; but none of them has been, in a quiet qway, quite so weirdly, unsettlingly radical as this latest piece from the pen of playwright and brilliant solo performer Gary McNair. In After The Cuts, he has written a simple two-hander, set thirty years hence in the late 2040’s, for a hard-up middle-aged Glasgow couple called Agnes and Jim. Jim, played with a left-field, self-deprecating brilliance by George Docherty, is our narrator, although most of the 55-minute show consists of dialogue scenes between him and the irrepressible Aggy; and the story he tells is a simple one, of a devoted couple facing the fact that Aggy has been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, in an age when the health service as we know it no longer exists.

Yet instead of diverting into political polemic, or dwelling on the experience of working-class Americans right now, McNair’s play takes an extraordinary lunge into drama and fantasy, as Jim – unable to pay for Aggy’s treatment – makes a desperate decision to go for a do-it-yourself option. The idea is wildly theatrical, tragic and comic, and not every aspect of it works, as the audience begins to laugh hysterically. But with both Docherty and the wonderful Maureen Carr delivering pitch-perfect performances, this is a play that engraves itsef on the memory; preposterous, extreme, yet immensely moving, and – to our horror – strangely credible, too.

Final performance today.

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Handbagged

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on HANDBAGGED at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 7.11.15
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4 stars ****

THEY ENTER TO A round of applause, the two great ladies of recent British history; although it’s difficult to know whether the applause is for them, or for the actors who evoke them so precisely. Susie Blake’s Queen Elizabeth is the steel-haired elderly lady with the waspish sense of humour who still goes about her royal duties today; Kate Fahy bears an uncanny resemblance to the smartly-suited Lady Thatcher of the declining years.

And then, they enter all over again, as their younger fiftysomething selves, in the shape of a lively Emma Handy as “Liz,” and a domineering Sanchia McCormack as “Mags”; and begin to lead us through the story of the most dramatic and defining years in British politics since the Second World War.

Moira Buffini’s Handbagged began life at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, and its roots in smaller-scale radical theatre are sometimes visible here. Richard Kent’s simple set of receding white door-frames conjures up, without fuss, the grand palace setting where Queen and Prime Minister enjoyed – or failed to enjoy – their routine weekly private conversations. More to the point, Buffini’s script filters the story of Margaret Thatcher’s years in Downing Street through the lens of what she imagines – with some evidence – as a slightly fraught relationship between the ideologically driven Prime Minister and the monarch, who is framed here as an old-style British social democrat and champion of the post-war settlement, privately appalled by the divisiveness of Mrs. Thatcher’s policies.

It’s a measure of the quality of Buffini’s writing, though, and of the sheer significance of the events it describes, that it scales up effortlessly to the main stage of the King’s. There’s plenty of amusing by-play with the two actors hired by the grand ladies to play all of their attendant lords, footmen and husbands, not least when they drop the mask to play themselves, badly-paid actors with plenty of reservations about the Thatcher legacy; and Indhu Rubasingham’s production combines a light touch with a formidable grasp of the issues at stake.

Plays featuring the Queen often portray her as the wise, all-seeing figure we meet here; and sometimes the effect is merely cosy and reassuring. Here, though, Moira Buffini uses the device to brilliant effect, to expose how the Thatcher years fractured the postwar Britain into which she was born. And although her play sparkles with brilliant one-liners, and offers a hugely enjoyable night out, its subject is an immensely serious one, handled with both sharpness and subtlety; perhaps, for those of us who live in Britain, the most serious of our time.

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh; final performances today.

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