Category Archives: Edinburgh 2007

The Psychic Detective

THEATRE
The Psychic Detective
4 stars ****
E4 UdderBELLY’s Pasture (Venue 300)

IN A ROUGH-AND-READY way, this latest piece from the Scottish-based company Benchtours is one of the most stylish shows your likely to see on this year’s Fringe. Staged in a louche-looking red-painted container parked in George Square, it’s a brief 55-minute essay in film noir imagery, scripted by new-to-theatre writer Helen Smith, that brings an X-Files twist to a classic West Coast tale of dames, car-chases, and shady motels where gangsters drink champagne from the shoes of expensive ladies. Its hero – a gloomy private detective played by Peter Clerke, with middle-aged angst and crisis etched on his face – finds himself mugged, thrown into a dock, and on the point of drowning. But instead, he falls through a time-warp from the present day into a classic 1940’s mystery involving a doomed dame who strangely fascinates him; and becomes haunted by the feeling that he must solve the mystery in time to win his own life back.

Once that point is made, The Psychic Detective – subtitled And Those Disappeared – has nowhere much to go; the story remains as trapped in a lost corner of time as our hero. But with the action played out entirely behind a little cinema-screen-shaped window at one end of the narrow space, it’s fascinating to watch how Benchtours’ director Pete Brooks, designer Laura Hopkins, and lighting designer Jeanine Davies, use the tiny space available to create strange, surreal images with a magical sense of perspective, to change locations with a flick of the lighting-state, and to play around with the relationship between filmic imagery and live action. Smith’s script is a slender piece of pastiche, that struggles to find a persuasive ending; but the presentation is a haunting and sometimes moving exploration of the film noir aesthetic, and of the feeling of doom that haunts it, then and now.

Joyce McMillan
Until 27 August
p. 217

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American Poodle

THEATRE
American Poodle
3 stars ***
Assembly @ George Street  (Venue 3)

REMEMBER THE CURATE’S EGG, the one that was good in parts?
American Poodle, presented by Guy Masterson and TTI, is a two-part show that suffers from a chronic imbalance – in brilliance, originality and poetry – between one half and the other.  In the first 30 minutes, Masterson himself offers a brisk, spirited but unremarkable humorous account of relations between Britain and the USA around the time when the transatlantic colonies struck out for independence.  It’s a fascinating piece of history, full of British imperial bluster and absurdity, and Masterson tells it well; but it remains stranded somewhere between a stage show and a good O-Grade history lesson.

The second half, though, is much more wild and strange, as the inspired American actor David Calvitto takes the stage in a short monologue by New York satirist Brian Parks.  Splayfoot is a brief stream of consciousness about a contemporary American businessman visiting London, his head full of absurd mediaeval imagery about castles and monarchs and pale-faced urchins.  The joke is that nothing he sees in modern London really does much to shift his naive preconceptions; the language is superb, visionary, fantastical, and Calvitto gives a splendidly surreal performance, as a man so full of the world-making bullshit of a dominant culture that he simply can’t see what’s staring him in the face.

Joyce McMillan
Until 27 August
p. 171

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This Piece Of Earth

THEATRE
This Piece Of Earth
3 stars ***
Underbelly (Venue 61)

A COUPLE OF years ago, Ransom Productions of Belfast scored a huge Fringe hit  with a storming tribute to snooker ace Hurricane Higgins, starring Richard Dormer in an award-winning performance.  Now, Dormer himself has written a play, inspired by recent commemorations of the great Irish famine of the 1840’s, and by the poignant discovery – in a bog near one of Ireland’s emigration ports – of the bodies of a couple, embracing in death.  For a heartbreaking 50 minutes, Dormer’s play leads us through an imagined last conversation between this couple, whom he casts as a bookish middle-aged country schoolteacher and his beautiful young wife, pregnant with their first child; and it’s certainly a dark, unrelenting experience for anyone expecting the theatrical thrills, fireworks, and bursts of comedy that made Hurricane such a success.

For connoisseurs of heartlfelt writing and fine acting, though, This Piece Of Earth is a rich experience, full of a fresh, raw sense of the absurdity of death.  This couple are in the middle of their lives, full of dreams and hopes and humour and their own uniqueness; it seems absurd that a mere avoiidable shortage of food could be about to bring it all to an end.  Lalor Roddy and Claire Lamont give two memorable and moving performances, in Rachel O’Riordan’s finely-paced production; and although Ireland is no longer stalked by famine, it’s worth remembering that this terrible scene of human potential needlessly snuffed out is re-enacted for real, every day, somewhere on our troubled planet.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26 August
p. 230

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Best Western

THEATRE
Best Western
3 stars ***
Assembly @ George Street (Venue 3)

IF AMBITION WERE all it took to create a great playwright, then the stand-up comedian Rich Hall would already be up there with the stars.  Last year, he launched his play-writing career with a crazy but bold show called Levelland; this year, he tries again with Best Western, a big play for seven characters that strains against the limitations of an 80-minute Fringe slot.

Once again, Hall sets up a situation full of potential; the scene is a run-down Montana motel about to be bulldozed for a new highway, the atmosphere a cross betwen Sam Shepard and Joe Orton.  The cast of characters involves the grizzled female motel-owner Delvita, her heavily pregnant teenage daughter Ryvita, the transport agency bureaucrat, Ed, who is strangely drawn to Ryvita, and a mysterious old geezer holed up in one of the bedrooms, who keeps shooting his  television dead.

The plot advances intriguingly for a while, but then stutters to a halt, as if Hall, like the rest of us, had no time to work out what to make of it all.  But there are some strong performances, notably from a fabulously laconic Dagmar Doring as Ryvita.  And if Rich Hall can keep this up for another couple of years, I suspect he may finally crack the playwriting business; and produce a big, absurdist critique of American society today that will make the whole theatre world sit up and take notice.

Joyce McMillan
Until 27 August
p.189

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Beowulf

INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL
Beowulf
4 stars ****
The Hub

THE LIGHTS DIM, candles glow on either side of the small stage, and a stocky man in a dark tunic appears, holding a little six-string harp specially made to reflect all that is known about the the instruments used by the bards of northern Europe more than a thousand years ago.  The man strikes a chord, and begins to speak, his voice sometimes soaring into song, and sometimes – with a pause in the music – reverting to the everyday rhythm of bar-room chat.  His story is the great surviving epic of Anglo-Saxon England, the tale of the terrible, flesh-devouring monster Grendel, and his epic battle with the hero Beowulf.  And he tells the tale not in modern English, but in the original Anglo-Saxon with Engish surtitles, striving to the best of his profound knowledge and instinct to give us the text as it would have been performed by the bard who first created it, against a background of strummed rhythms that help reflect and support subtle shifts of mood in the verse.

This is Benjamin Bagby’s Beowulf; and it’s superficially tempting to dismiss it as a meticulous, beautifully crafted curiosity of an event, of interest only to specialists.  Yet the truth is that Bagby’s performance repays close attention with such a rich series of echoes and resonances that it’s impossible, by the end of the evening, to avoid the feeling that this is a vital, if ancient, piece of popular entertainment, rich in everyday wisdom, thrilling acts of violence, sensational narrative power, and the kind of flexible, shifting relationship between words and music associated today with genres like rap and hip-hop.

There’s certainly something about the highly formal, classical-concert atmosphere of the main hall at The Hub that does not flatter Bagby’s performance.  As a popular epic, Beowulf perhaps needs a rougher atmosphere, and a simpler, more informal way of letting audiences hear the old language, while making its meaning accessible.  In the end, though, there’s no escaping the sense that this great poem is one of the historic cornerstones of our culture, as rich as any of the other great myths in this year’s Festival programme in its sense of humankind struggling for survival in a capricious or indifferent universe.  And Bagby’s performance is not only a technical tour-de-force, but a shining labour of love for the great story it tells, and for the original, inimitable sound of its telling.

Joyce McMillan
Until 22 August
EIF p. 26

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LA DIDONE

INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL
La Didone
4 stars ****
Royal Lyceum Theatre

EVERY STAR-TREK fan knows that space is the final frontier; and it’s often said that for the people of the Renaissance, the ancient adventure-stories of the Odyssey and the Aeneid – with their distant worlds full of gods and monsters – played the same role in the public imagination as fictional space-travel did in the mid 20th century.  But simple though this basic idea may be, you will never see another show that gives such bold and brilliant expression to it as the Wooster Group’s La Didone, playing in Edinburgh until Wednesday.

Set on a stage full of modernist glass walls and shadowy moving machinery – like a still from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, with a splash of post-modern colour flickering from video screens –  the show represents a head-on collision between Francesco Cavalli’s 1641 opera version of the story of the doomed love-affair between Dido, Queen of Carthage, and the fleeing Trojan hero Aeneas; and the 1960’s cult Italian B-movie Planet Of The Vampires.  The two stories are played out simultaneously, on the same stage, with two parallel sets of surtitles; and in theory, the combination could – perhaps should – be chaotic and silly.

In reality, though, the effect is startling, revealing, and often beautiful, as the silvery aesthetic of baroque masque meshes with the supernatural adventures of a space-crew stranded on an alien planet, to create a weird but persuasive ironic meditation on courage, adventure, love, and human minds possessed by cosmic forces beyond their  control.  It’s not that the show never tilts towards the absurd.  Wooster Group icon Kate Valk, as space-girl Sanya, enjoys swanning about in her silver suit far too much, sometimes injecting a note of pure send-up that seems out of place; and some of the costumes inflicted on the minor male characters invite nothing but ridicule.

In the end, though, the show storms to a decisive success, thanks to three key elements.  It features a series of superb vocal and dramatic performances, notably from the glorious, poised and poignant Hai-Ting Chinn as Dido.  The quality of the singing and acting is matched by a magnificent reinterpretation of Cavalli’s score, for a four-piece band which includes an electric guitar briliantly used to bridge the gap between two different worlds of western music.

And above all, the show is staged by Elizabeth Le Compte with a perfect, minutely-detailed sense of pace that keeps Cavalli’s music moving steadily and beautifully through the whole experience, while every other aspect of the show is precisely pitched so as not to disrupt that rhythm, but to provide a strange and intense dramatic backdrop to it.  Opera fans, in other words, will hear this beautiful baroque score sung with a beauty, intelligence and sense of focus rarely found in more conventional productions.  And fans of theatre in all its forms will experience a mind-blowing vision inspired by the moment when opera itself was the most strange and experimental of cutting-edge art-forms, filtered through the wit, intelligence, and sheer cross-cultural genius of one of the great experimental companies of our time.

Joyce McMillan
Until 22 August
EIF p. 21

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GAME THEORY, SUBWAY

THEATRE
Game Theory
4 stars ****
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
Subway
4 stars ****
Traverse 3 Drill Hall (Venue 358)

TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION; the question of how to achieve it is everywhere on this year’s Fringe.  No show is likely to look in more searing detail at the heart of the matter, though, than the latest production from Ek Performance of Glasgow,  an intense three-handed drama, co-written by director Pamela Carter with writer Selma Dimitrijevic, which opened at the Traverse earlier this week.

Like a slow-moving sonata in three movements, Game Theory asks its audience, over 100 minutes or so, to circle round a series of images of the aftermath of a conflict, all staged on a single set that looks like a war-damaged schoolroom.  In the first sequence, we see three peace negotiators barely able even to begin to draft a statement about the fact that they are meeting.  In the second, two brothers and a sister revisit their dead parents’ home, and become drawn into an ever-more intense re-enactment of the moment before a massacre.  And in the third, a woman indirectly responsible for a series of shocking human rights violations, and the man who was her main victim, move steadily towards the moment when they will be asked to confront one another, in anger or forgiveness.

Pamela Carter’s production is sometimes so achingly slow and detailed that it tests the audience’s patience; there are moments when it completely loses the kinetic energy, however low-key, that’s essential to stage drama.  In its final closing scene, though, Game Theory packs the kind of dramatic punch that makes the whole experience richly worthwhile.  And although John Paul Connolly and Alexis Rodney turn in immaculate performances as the victim and counsellor, it’s Meg Fraser’s stunning performance as the perpetrator that transforms this bleak, grey show, in its final moments, to something like pure gold.

Vanishing Point’s Subway – the latest production from Matthew Lenton’s gifted Glasgow-based group – is also a show about reconciliation, although of a more familiar and personal kind.  Written by the company with playwright Nicola McCartney, Subway is a “musical adventure” that picks up where the last scene of Trainspotting leaves off, as a young guy born and brought up in Leith returns home to Scotland on a mission to find his old dad, and to have just one meaningful conversation with him before it’s too late.  The twist is that this is not today’s Leith, but the Leith of 2030 or so, where the rising waters of the Forth lap round the lower stories of the shoreline tower-blocks, the cityscape is dominated by a massive new private hospital, and ordinary guys like our hero are constantly supervised by spookily well-informed and bossy security cameras and vending machines.

All of this dystopian detail is blissfully funny and well-observed, and Matthew Lenton brings his usual barrage of theatrical briliance to the telling of the tale, which involves a seven-strong on-stage Kosovan band, a simple but telling design by Kai Fischer, and a typically brilliant central performance from Vanishing Point’s favourite star actor, Sandy Grierson.  The story loses impetus in the end, dissolving into a sentimental joke about the smoking ban that doesn’t quite measure up to the earlier intensity of the tale; and at the performance I saw, the sound-balance was appalling, with the music swamping many of the monologues it accompanies.  But Subway has barrowloads of style, haunting futuristic imagery, and a fine anarchic spirit; and if it fails to continue Vanishing Point’s huge success in making theatre that effortlessly attracts younger audiences, then my name’s Irvine Welsh.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26 August
pp. 193, 227

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