Category Archives: Edinburgh 2012

The Ugly Sisters

THEATRE
The Ugly Sisters
4 stars ****
Northern Stage at St. Stephen’s (Venue 73)

THEY TAKE NO prisoners, Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen of RashDash Theatre; their shows are loud, brash, often brilliantly-coloured, and fuelled by what they call a “strong, young female identity” – which means that they are often very angry indeed. Their latest show is a hallucinatory rock-opera take on the Cinderella story, in which Greenland and Goalen play the two ugly sisters, wrenched from their peaceful lives as the beloved daughters of a hard-working single Mum when she marries into wealth and celebrity, and introduces them to their new stepsister. We don’t get to meet Cinderella, but she seems to be a simpering type, who has no trouble winning the hand of the Prince, along with global fame and adoration.

Meanwhile, the Uglies are treading the uncomfortable byways of B-list celebrity, hanging around in some duff Find-Me-A-Princess reality show, and learning the hard way that maintaining the look even of a joke celebrity entails huge amounts of effort and maintenance. Whether all of this was inspired by the remarkable appearance of Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie in bizarre hats, at the wedding of Prince William and his super-sweet Kate, is hard to say. What I do know, though, is that this show is presented with fierce energy and pzazz, that it contains three or four terrific songs – co-created with gifted Brighton backing band Not Now Bernard – and that the amazing Ms Greenland sings better, every time she appears on stage. Which is surely enough to be going on with.

Joyce McMillan
Until 25 August
p. 332

ENDS ENDS

NOLA

THEATRE
NOLA
3 stars ***
Underbelly (Venue 61)

THERE CAN hardly have been a show in this year’s massive Fringe brochure that promised more than Look Left Look Right’s NOLA. Staged by a young company from East Anglia that won acclaim on last year’s Fringe, the show confronts the huge and vital subject of the giant BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago, and its colossal impact on the people who live along the south-eastern coastline of the United States.

Researched and edited by the company’s artistic director Mimi Poskitt, the show compiles a great deal of factual evidence, makes extensive use of video material, and follows the stories of what could be some interesting characters, including the lawyer father of one of the workers who was killed in the initial explosion, and others struggling to maintain some kind of livelihood along the coastline, in a situation where the award of compensation seems arbitrary at best.

Despite the best efforts of what should be a strong cast, though, NOLA never even begins to show any real theatrical life. The narrative is weak, the character sketches never take hold, the points made are obvious, and far from fresh. And the show ends up looking like some kind of requiem for the recent wave of verbatim theatre in Britain. The research is there, and so is the subject-matter; but dramatically, NOLA is dead on its feet.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26 August
p. 304

ENDS ENDS

Amusements

THEATRE
Amusements
3 stars ***
Summerhall (Venue 26)

WE ENTER a modern basement lecture theatre at Summerhall, where large, soft headphones lie on the desk in front of each seat. We follow the instructions on a card, put them on, and the technology works like a dream; in moments, we are immersed in the sound-world created by the acclaimed young English-Spanish performance group Sleepwalk Collective. We breathe, we travel, we find ourselves on a beach, while performer iara Solano Arana speaks breathily or with sudden harshness into a microphone, leading us on. Sometimes there is darkness, and sometimes we are allowed to watch her, standing in front of us in a red dress; then beginning to slip off her underwear, as if she was about to plunge into the sea.

So it’s a high score for technical merit, in Sleepwalk Collective’s latest 45-minute piece Amusements; but alas, the artistic impression soon wanders down a cul de sac, as the text dwindles into a circular theoretical meditation on the nature of the audience, as a living, breathing, sentient voyeur. And by the end, Solano Arana is making sweeping statements about how bored we all are by our lives outside the theatre, and how sexy we all are when we are in it, that seem at best presumptuous; and at worst, given how boring some of this show is, downright inaccurate.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26 August
p. 255

ENDS ENDS

Miss Havisham’s Expectations

THEATRE
Miss Havisham’s Expectations
3 stars ***
Gilded Balloon Teviot (Venue 14)

IN THE YEAR of Charles Dickens’s bicentenary, there has been no shortage of work celebrating his extraordinary place in Engish literature; but I doubt if any of them has approached him with a more feisty and sceptical gaze than Di Sherlock’s 70-minute monologue Miss Havisham’s Expectations, performed with terrific panache by the legendary Fringe actress Linda Marlowe.

On a stage furnished only with a caricature of a wedding table, a ruined chair, and a large oval mirror that sometimes becomes a screen, this Miss Havisham not only rages against the man who jilted her, and plots revenge on the entire male sex as represented by Dickens’s hero, Pip; she also – in deliberately anachronistic language – pours a great deal of scorn on her own male creator, who notoriously had his wife declared insane and exiled to the countryside, so that he could pursue his relationship with a teenage mistress.

In the end, the play seems more like a fierce and witty footnote to Dickens’s novel than an original piece in its own right; but Marlowe’s performance is infinitely worth seeing, wild, disturbing, and oddly sexy, in its evocation of the wreckage of a woman who is angry beyond time, still in some lights beautiful, and not quite dead yet.

Joyce McMillan
Until 27 August
p. 299

ENDS ENDS

Future Tales (Sierakowski)

THEATRE
Future Tales (Sierakowski)
4 stars ****
Summerhall (Venue 26)

IF YOU have been wandering the Fringe looking for the perfect companion-piece to Ian Pattison’s hugely entertaining Tommy Sheridan play at the Gilded Balloon, then you may just find it – strangely, unexpectedly, disturbingly – in this bizarre but hugely purposeful 55-minute show from komuna//warszawa, one of the young Polish groups supported on this year’s Fringe by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute.

Like Tommy Sheridan, Slawomir Sierakowski – the subject of their show – is a real person, born in 1979, a leader of left-wing opinion in contemporary Warsaw. Unlike Tommy, though, he is a writer, academic, and expert in neo-Marxist theory, who refuses to involve himself in conventional electoral politics. So komuna//warszawa – in the shape of three singer-performers, and two musicians sitting at electronic keyboards on stage, while also playing guitar and violin – spend a noisy, thoughtful, visionary hour imagining possible futures for Sierakowski, into the middle of our 21st century and beyond.

In one version of the future, he becomes a Buddhist, gives up public life, and lives to a ripe old age. In another, he is elected President of the Republic; in a third, he is killed by aliens in a strange invasion of the planet, round about 2024. There are four songs, mostly loud and quite angry; there is powerful use of film and graphics; and there is a constant, satirical sense that the kind of socialism advocated by Sierakowski is at best insincere and self-indulgent, and at worst a fast track back to some form of totalitarianism. Yet as in I, Tommy, there is also a yearning for the kind of alternative that Sierakowski might provide; in a world where politics is less absurd, less ego-driven, and more truly capable of representing the people.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26 August
p. 280

ENDS ENDS

Small Narration

THEATRE
Small Narration
4 stars ****
Summerhall (Venue 26)

IN ONE OF THE creaking Summerhall lecture theatres, a young man with a shut-down expression and haunted eyes sits on a high stool, reading expressionlessly from a script in which reflects on his experiences of the last few years. His name is Wojtek Ziemilski; and behind him, a screen shows an almost bewildering series of images.

Sometimes, there are pages of text from the report which exposed Ziemilski’s grandfather as a long -term informer with the Communist Security Services; sometimes, there is video of recent operformance art installations across Europe, each one more absurdist in intention than the last. And shatteringly, towards the end, there are a few fragments of film of Ziemilski’s grandfather himself, a shuffling, harmless-looking old man, intercut with black-and-white photograhps of him in his smiling prime.

Ziemlinski’s deliberately blank delivery is not easy to listen to, and no-one could describe this short 45 minute show as entertainment. Yet it has a certain grim beauty of its own; and in the end, it delivers a quietly devastating account of the forces that have compelled a generation to abandon grand narratives and to question the very idea of a search for meaning, in the world of illusions, lies and uncertainties their parents and grandparents have left them.

Joyce McMillan
Until 23 August
p. 320

ENDS ENDS

Pages From The Book Of….

THEATRE
Pages From The Book Of….
3 stars ***
Summerhall (Venue 26)

THERE’S A RULE OF THREE operating in this ambitious show – by the 50 Letters Theatre Company of Rose Bruford College – based on the life and work of the Polish artist, writer and critic Bruno Schulz, shot by the Gestapo in 1942. Devised in collaboration with two surviving members of Tadeusz Kantor’s original Tricot 2 company of the 1970’s, the show tells the story of a mid-20th-century everyman who travels to a strange sanatorium in a distant town in search of his long-lost father; and deploys a huge student company of around 20 actors across a tale of fractured realities that really requires a small cast, and some emotional and intellectual clarity.

The result is a show in which every scene contains three times as many performers as it needs, and therefore lasts three times as long as it should, indulging in far too much repetition along the way. Despite these limitations, though – and what is often an embarrassingly mannered attempt to reproduce Kantor’s white-faced 1970’s style in the world of 2012 – 50 Letters’s production features two impressive lead performances, and looks suitably dingy and handsome throughout. And always, the legacy of Schulz shines through in the story itself, full of an absurd and haunting sense of humanity, even in its most disturbing moments.

Joyce McMillan
Until 24 August
p. 307

ENDS ENDS

Dream Plays 4,5,ands 6 – Rachel’s House, My Loneliness Is Killing Me, Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll

THEATRE
Dream Plays – Rachel’s House
4 stars ****
Dream Plays – My Loneliness Is Killing Me
3 stars ***
Dream Plays – Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll
4 stars ****

ROUND TWO of the Traverse’s breakfast-time dream plays, complete with coffee and bacon roll; and the cast of writers and actors involved grows more impressive by the day. The last of these three plays, for example, was written by Janice Galloway, who just picked up the Scottish Book Of the Year Award for her anti-memoir of her teenage years, All Made Up.

In Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll, directed for Dream Plays by David Greig, she takes us into the numbed yet fantastically dramatic world of a west of Scotland mental hospital, where a cast of half a dozen women – all brilliantly played by Pamela Reid, Louise Ludgate and Lynne Kennedy, under the supervision of Iain Robertson’s male nurse, Victor – fight their inner demons with varying degrees of determination of despair. The title comes not directly from the Ian Dury song, but from a reflection on the wild life of the 1960’s Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi, about whom one of the women is reading; if women are self-destructive and troubled, Galloway seems to be arguing, then giving up their addiction to men like Trocchi – or men who would like to be like Trocchi – would be an important first step to recovery.

Alan Wilkins’s My Loneliness Is Killing Me is a memorably weird and patchy account of solitary existence in a society where increasing numbers live alone. Inspired by the Britney Spears song of the same name, Wilkins creates a 40-minute chorale of satire, meditation, running commentary, self-criticism and occasional bursts of song for a cast of three characters, played here by Gabriel Quigley, Ashley Smith and Steven McNicoll, all on blazing form.

The show is probably at its best when reflecting on the early-onset eccentricity of the long-term single, meditating on the quiet squalor of lives that involve opening solitary tins of canned ravioli in front of the telly, and linking that solitude to the deeper unease of a society that revolves around vacuous consumption, rather than any serious sense of fulfilment or convivialty. Some of the direct political satire, by contrast, falls a little flat; it hits a bulls-eye though, with the key phrase of the morning, from Stevie McNicoll’s irascible character. “We can’t possibly be lonely, can we,” he asks, “when we’re all in this together?”

Despite its much more tentative air, though, it’s Nicola McCartney beautiful piece Rachel’s House that really haunts the mind, from this trio of plays. A brief 35-minute piece based on McCartney’s own verbatim interviews with women in a rehabilitation facility in the United States – part of the prison system, but experimenting with a new approach – the play merges voices and reshapes stories to create three powerful composite characters, magnificently played in Orla O’Loughlin’s scratch script-in-hand production by Anne Lacey, Audra Onashile and Kirstin Murray.

Each woman’s life-story is rivetting in itself; Murray’s Native American woman lost in the justice system, Onashile’s victim of domestic violence. In the end, though, it’s Lacey – as the older woman, the ex-con now in charge of the house, the 60-year-old still searching for a world where justice and morality mean something to women like her – that hauls this brand-new verbatim text into a whole new dimension of intensity and passion; just a few minutes long, and barely rehearsed, her fierce illumination of McCartney’s closing words is set to stay in my mind, as one of the key performances of this year’s Festival.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26 August
p. 274

ENDS ENDS

Monkey Bars

THEATRE
Monkey Bars
4 stars ****
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)

ON A FRINGE FULL of young adults compulsively celebrating their own “childlsh” behaviour – refusing responsibility, clinging to their cuddly toys, and drinking untl they vomit all over their friends – Chris Goode’s exquisite new show Monkey Bars come as a cool, sobering and quietly passionate reality check.

Based on conversations with young children recorded at a school in Kingston-upon-Thames, Monkey Bars uses the simple but devastatingly original technique of having adults play children as if they were serious people, to lead us ever deeper into the real lives of children in Britain today, full of happiness and interest in most cases, but also of a touching, gentle awareness of the pain, tension and anxiety of the adults in their lives, which also makes them anxious for themselves.

Co-produced by Goode’s own company with the Unicorn Theatre, this 80-minute show uses the simplest of theatrical means to tell its story. Naomi Dawson’s design consists of a set of beautiful, glowing luminous white bricks big enough to sit on – part nursery furniture, part smart adult design; and around them, the actors sit and chat, alone or in pairs, or in larger groups, but always aware of the one actor who – at any one time – in playing the listening adult, the man with the headphones and recording machine.

The sense of discipline with which the six-strong company avoid any hint of cliched child-acting is formidable. And the intensity of the process of listening that has shaped this show is both humbling and deeply moving, as Goode quietly dismantles our comforting myths about what “goes over children’s heads”, and reminds us that our stereotyped images of childhood tell us far more about ourselves, than about the real children who live among us, feeing our pain, and wondering – for their own sake and ours – whether we can cope.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26 August
p. 300

Alan Bissett: The Red Hourglass

THEATRE
Alan Bissett: The Red Hourglass
3 stars ***
National Library of Scotland (Venue 147)

ON A SMALL stage at the National Library of Scotland, a man in a hoodie is crouched on stage, pretending to be a spider. The man is novelist, dramatist and short-story-writer Alan Bissett, one of Scotland’s brightest literary stars. And the show is The Red Hourglass, in which, over a swift and entertaining hour, Bissett morphs from an ordinary Scottish working-class house spider into a home-loving Booklyn recluse spider, a fierce, flamenco-influenced tarantula, a ferociously passive-aggressive management wasp, a lethal black widow, and finally the arrogant St. Andrews scientist who keeps all the spiders in a giant glass jar, but suffers a lethal come-uppance.

As fans of his great Moira Monologues will know, Bissett is a terrific performer, funny, flexible, and capable of terrifying high-speed transitions from baby-faced comedy to the most steely macho thuggery. In this show, though, it’s difficult to feel that much is being said, beyond the obvious post-human riff about humanity getting above itself, and underestimating the strength and resilience of the spider kingdom. And in that sense, the title says it all; this is a show which is partly about The Red Hourglass, but just as much about Alan Bissett, his wit, his sharp political intelligence, and his formidable ability to entertain a growing army of fans.

Joyce McMillan
Until 25 August
p. 254

ENDS ENDS