Daily Archives: November 14, 2015

Chrysalis: Scotland’s New Festival Of Brilliant Youth Theatre

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on CHRYSALIS for The Scotsman magazine, 14.11.15.
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IT’S A GLOOMY NOVEMBER Saturday in Edinburgh, and rain is beating down on the city centre. Underground at the Traverse, though, there’s nothing but warmth, enthusiasm, and a glow of creative energy, as youth theatre companies from Scotland and beyond gather for the second day of Scotland’s first-ever Chrysalis Festival, designed to bring together companies from the fast-growing youth theatre sector, and to offer them a chance not only to experience each other’s work, but to debate and discuss it, in the context of Scotland’s wider theatre scene.

The Chrysalis Festival has been brought together – after four years of thought and preparation – by Youth Theatre Arts Scotland, the Edinburgh-based umbrella body for youth theatre groups across the country. The festival is co-curated by Viviane Hullin, producer with the award-winning Junction 25 young company at the Tramway in Glasgow, and a former J25 member herself; and the shows represented this year include two from Scotland, and two from leading companies in Manchester and Liverpool.

The Scottish-made shows are Junction 25’s 2014 hit I’d Rather Humble Than Hero, and the Citizens’ Theatre Young Company’s Southside Stories, a brave and impressive verbatim piece with music about community tensions in Glasgow’s hugely diverse Govanhill area. And they are matched by Headz, a selection of three breathtakingly vivid urban monologues from a series of eleven written by Keith Saha in collaboration with Liverpool’s 20 Stories High company, and the Contact Theatre of Manchester’s Young Company in Under The Covers, a wise, bold and funny devised piece about sex in the 21st century.

All four shows are fine pieces of theatre, mainly co-created and devised by youth theatre members in the 15-19 age range; but what’s especially thrilling about watching them in the context of Chrysalis is the sheer intensity and warmth of the young people’s reaction to each other’s work, as they crowd into the Traverse’s two auditoriums to watch and learn, and then emerge in an excited buzz of critical chat and response. And to help the conversation along, the festival also features discussion sessions – one on reviewing youth theatre, led by critics Mary Brennan, Mark Fisher and Thom Dibdin, and one on international exchange and collaboration in youth theatre, with speakers including Casper Niewenhuis of the Like Minds company in Amsterdam, and Simon Sharkey of the National Theatre of Scotland.

“Essentially, our aim with Chrysalis is to widen the audience for the best of youth theatre in Scotland and beyond, raise people’s aspirations, and open up critical discussion about youth theatre,” says Viv Hullin, “and this festival feels like a really, really successful first step in bringing people together and starting those conversations.

“I think it’s in the nature of youth theatre work – which is often fitted in around a very busy time in young people’s lives – that they get very little chance to see other people’s work, or to reflect on what they’re doing in a wider context. And I think you can feel from the extraordinary atmosphere in the Traverse over the weekend how much people welcome that opportunity, and how much they’ve enjoyed it.

“For the future, I think we’d like to do more on how shows emerge, and the different working processes used by youth theatre companies. And we’re interested in different models of performance that might allow shows to tour to a wider audience – Headz, the Liverpool show, is an interesting example of that, with a huge flexibility about which monologues appear at any one performance.

“On the whole, though, we’re just delighted that this first Chrysalis festival has come together so successfully. Chrysalis is funded for three years, up to 2017; so we hope that over that time, we’ll be able to develop the idea much further, and start to make a real positive difference both to the ambition and achievement of youth theatre, and to the quality of debate it inspires, in Scotland and beyond.”

The next Chrysalis Festival will take place on 11-13 November, 2016.

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Mack & Mabel / Happy Hour

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on MACK & MABEL at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, and HAPPY HOUR at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 14.11.15.
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Mack & Mabel 4 stars ****
Happy Hour 4 stars **** 

THE STORY of the film industry in the United States is so dramatic in itself  that it has inspired many fine stage shows; and none sadder or sweeter, than Jerry Herman’s 1974 musical Mack & Mabel, which chronicles the true-life romance between inspired silent movie director Mack Sennett – the man behind the Keystone Cops – and his delightful leading lady Mabel Normand, who, for a brief decade until 1918, lit up his films with her gorgeous comic presence.  Their relationship was a complex one, constantly disrupted by Sennett’s obsession with movie-making at all costs; they never married, their working relationship eventually broke down, and Normand went on to die heartbreakingly young, at the age of 38, in 1930. 

It’s a mark of the sophistication of the partnership between Herman and lyricist Michael Stewart, though, that their show never flinches from the darker aspects of the story, while also fully capturing the sheer exhilaration of the early days of the movie industry.  In this touring Chichester Festival Theatre production, Michael Ball gives a terrific performance as Sennett, charismatic, moving and beautifully sung.  Rebecca LaChance is a delightful Mabel Normand, and the 24-strong cast  – backed by a 14-piece orchestra – sing and dance magnificently.  And if songs like I Won’t Send Roses aren’t quite the normal fare of musical comedy, their fine melodic subtlety more than matches the story they tell; in a rare musical entirely made for grown-ups, and thoroughly enjoyed by them, too.

Despite its title, actress Anita Vettesse’s brilliantly assured debut play for the Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime season is another show in which unambiguous happiness is in short supply. The play is set in the back-room of a pub, the scene of a far-from-amicable meeting between recently widowed Anne, the wife of the pub’s late proprietor Jim, and her hopelessly spoiled daughter Kay, a Glasgow West End dilettante all too used to persuading her late Dad to finance her many vanity business projects.

They are soon joined by Kay’s brother Tom, who has fled his fractious family to become an aid worker in Africa; and with Jim also present in the form of his ashes, on the table in a shoebox, Anne proceeds to drop her bombshell announcement that she is not, after all, going to pass on the proceeds from the pub sale to her children, but intends to hang onto them and enjoy them herself.

If Tom seems indifferent to this news, though, it provokes an explosion of rage and desperation in Kay, whose current business is about to go bust; and for a scintillating 50 minutes, this ill-assorted family lay about one another in merciless style, eventually brawling so vehemently that poor Joe’s remains are scattered across the room. Anne Lacey, Hannah Donaldson and Stephen McCole give a terrific trio of performances, in this beautifully shaped family drama; and it comes laced with a surreal and bitter comic sharpness, in the writing, that announces the arrival of a major new talent, not to be ignored.

Mack & Mabel at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, until 21 November; Happy Hour at Oran Mor, Glasgow, final performance today.

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The Importance Of Being Earnest (Bunbury Players)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 14.11.15
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3 stars ***

IN AN AGEING society, there are many ways of dealing with the fact that so many existing plays centre on the romantic entanglements of the young; you can, for example, write wry and rueful new plays about romance among the elderly, and hope that audiences approaching the same age will lap them up.

There’s none of that nonsense, though, in this jolly and memorable touring production of The Importance Of Being Earnest, either for the astonishing company of eight leading British actors performing the play – whose combined ages amount to almost 550 years – or for their fictional counterparts in the Bunbury Company of Players, a band of retired thespians who get together every year to create a much-loved traditional production of Oscar Wilde’s greatest comedy.

There are moments, during Lucy Bailey’s production, when I could frankly have done without this play-within-a-play device, which features extra material penned by Simon Brett. With Nigel Havers, Martin Jarvis and the great Sian Phillips offering a veritable master-class of comic acting in the key roles of Algernon, Earnest and Lady Bracknell, it might have been more exciting simply to go for Wilde’s great text without explanation or apology, and let the audience make what it would of the obvious incongruities. William Dudley’s country-house set – conjuring up a rehearsal at the home of two of the actors – is downright annoying in its cosy conventionality. And while I was interested to see how middle-aged actresses Carmen Du Sautoy and Christine Kavanagh would handle the roles of teenage beauties Gwendolen and Cecily, I really didn’t need to know that Kavanagh’s Ellen – a gorgeous and super-smart Cecily – was conducting a surreptitious affair with Nigel Havers’s Dickie, playing Algernon.

It speaks volumes for the wit and elegance of Wilde’s great play that it triumphantly survives this slightly awkward treatment; experience counts, and there’s a rare joy in seeing actors as seasoned as Havers and Jarvis sparring their way through Wilde’s superb opening dialogue, or Havers and Kavanagh making light work of the absurdist romance between Algernon and Cecily.

If the trend for older actors playing young roles is to continue, though, we need to consider how far we expect audiences simply to accept what Dickie calls “the illusion of theatre”; and how far we need the kind of framing devices that can open up endless possibilities, but sometimes only seem to patronise the audience, by offering one explanation too many.

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, final performances today; and the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 24-28 November.

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