Category Archives: Edinburgh 2014

Blood Orange

THEATRE
Blood Orange
3 stars ***
Summerhall (Venue 26)

IT’S A fiercely ambitious show, this first Summerhall outing by Electric Theatre Workshop of Dumfries.  In a fast, furious hour, writer/director Graham Main’s play sets out to tell the story of a teenage boy, mourning the death of his mother, who falls under the influence of the leader of the local right-wing SDL group, takes part in the savage bullying of a local Asian shopkeeper’s daughter, and – once he realises what he has done – becomes involved in a nightmare journey through the streets, in a doomed attempt to put things right.

There are echoes of Berkoff and of Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet, as the prowling SDL leader tries to drive a wedge between bofriend and girlfriend, and Main’s text flares into ambitious rhythms of verse and rhyme – there’s no routine in-your-face naturalism here.   In the end, the pitch and pace is just too intense, the story a shade confusing, and the tone oddly pitched between contemporary political street drama, satanic fantasy,  and dangerously stylish gangster movie.  It’s inspiring, though, to see Main’s young cast throw themselves at this difficult subject with such colossal energy, both physical and emotional; and with a little more light and shade in their theatrical style, Electric Theatre Workshop could emerge as an important new voice in Scottish theatre, and an impressive creative force.

Joyce McMillan
Until 24
p. 285

ENDS ENDS

Blood At The Root

THEATRE
Blood At The Root
4 stars ****
Assembly George Square (Venue 17)

WHEN THE United States elected its first black president, in 2008, many people hoped that his inauguration might draw a line under the long history of racial injustice, oppression and inequality in America. The record suggests, though, that history moves more slowly than that; and this month’s events in Ferguson, Missouri come as a sharp reminder that there are still parts of America where being a young black man is enough in itself to attract official suspicion, and even violence.

So it’s both interesting and inspiring to see the Penn State School of Theatre bring to the Fringe this powerful and timely new play by Dominique Morrisseau, based on a real-life incident, which examines what happens when a black student at a mixed high school in deep-south Louisiana decides to question the unspoken “rules” that still govern the uneasy interaction between black and white students.  In no time at all, racial tensions flare, with fights in the canteen and demonstrations in the schoolyard; and six young black students face the threat of a lifetime in prison, after an attack on a white classmate.

Featuring a vivid mix of dialogue, movement and sound, Blood At The Root makes its points with a graphic, open-hearted clarity that sometimes seems a shade obvious.  Yet Morrisseau’s play is not afraid to tackle some of the more complex aspects of racial politics in the USA, from the ambivalent attitude of some black students who want to put the racist past behind them, to the shocking bias that is evident in the criminal justice system.  And the level of commitment and understanding from Steve Broadnax’s young six-strong cast is unfailingly impressive, in a show that revolves around a terrific central performanc from Stori Ayers as Raylynn, the black student who decides that the old rules are no longer acceptable, and who risks paying a high price for her civic courage.

Joyce McMillan
Until 25
p. 285

ENDS ENDS

3000 Trees, 3000 Trees: The Death Of Mr. William MacRae

THEATRE
3,000 Trees
3 stars ***
Gryphon@West End  (Venue 109)
3,000 Trees: The Death Of Mr. William MacRae
2 stars **
Sweet Grassmarket (Venue 18)

WITH SCOTLAND’S independence referendum just four weeks away, there’s huge dramatic potential in the story of the strange death, 29 years ago, of the leading Scottish nationalist William McRae, flamboyant Glasgow lawyer, ardent whisky drinker, and passionate campaigner against Britain’s nuclear industry.  MacRae was fatally injured on Good Friday 1985, while driving north from Glasgow to his cottage at Dorrie.  He was found in his car with a bullet wound to the head, and the gun some 60 feet away; documents related to nuclear waste dumping at Dounreay had disappeared from his briefcase.  Yet his death was officially listed as suicide.

It’s difficult to glean even this much information, though, from the two plays about MacRae’s death playing in Edinburgh this month.  George Gunn’s 3,000 Trees – presented by his own Grey Coast company – avoids the documentary approach altogether, in favour of an imagined final encounter, in a village shop on the road, between a MacRae-like figure called Willie Mackay, the sinister secret service man pursuing him, and the young woman staffing the shop, an old family friend of Willie’s.  The dialogue is well-shaped, intense and mystical, as Willie foresees his death, and the other two characters sing verses from Hamish Henderson Flyting O’ Life And Death; yet despite three fine performances from Jimmy Chisholm, Helen  Mackay and Adam Robertson, the effect is less to reopen the unresolved questions surrounding MacRae’s death, and more to remind us of how much Scottish nationalism has changed, in the decades since MacRae stood for the leadership of the SNP.

Andy Paterson’s 3,000 Trees: The Death Of Mr. William MacRae takes a more straightforward approach, offering a monologue spoken by Willie himself from the limbo that followed his death, and including a roughly factual account of events.  Produced by Teatro Magnetico of Glasgow, the play is delivered with terrific intensity in a tiny room at Sweet Grassmarket, as Willie’s restless shade downs the best part of a bottle of whisky.

In truth, though this version of 3,000 Trees – named, like Gunn’s play, for the forest planted in MacRae’s memory in Israel, where he had been a visiting professor – seems too short even to begin to encompass the complexity of MacRae’s character, from his campaigning brilliance to the allegations of  concealed homosexuality that haunted his political life.  And the time is made even shorter by the fact that at various points in the story, the actor playing Willie is obliged to burst into ill-advised original  song, accompanied by a karaoke tape.  In such a tiny space, the effect is unintentionally comic; but perhaps the show will play better in larger rooms, on its planned 2015 tour around Scotland.

Joyce McMillan
Until 24,24
pp. 359, 359

ENDS ENDS

Tea Time Story

THEATRE
Tea Time Story
2 stars **
Zoo Pleasance (Venue 124)

SET MAINLY IN a Chinese labour-camp in 1969, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, Heather Lai’s monologue Tea Time Story tells of a young girl and a slightly older woman forming a friendship under the most difficult circumstances; and reflects on the meaning of freedom, which these characters can only glimpse in rare moments of love or respite.

The problem with this tightly-interwoven story, though, is that Lai and her director, Tea Poldervaart, struggle to find a way of communicating its full range and meaning through the monologue form.  Switching constantly between characters with the aid of a single piece of cloth, on a stage drenched in flour to represent the domestic world where the two women meet, Lai rarely has the chance to settle into any of the play’s many voices.  And the huge mess created by the flying clouds of flour eventually becomes distracting; in a production that has plenty to say, but that needs to say it with much more calmness and clarity, and with a stronger sense of the primary relationship, in solo theatre, between the performer and the audience.

Joyce McMillan
Until 25
p. 356

ENDS ENDS

Merry Christmas Ms Meadows

THEATRE
Merry Christmas Ms Meadows
4 stars ****
Pleasance Dome (Venue 23)

IT’S SEVERAL YEARS, now since Belarus Free Theatre first exploded onto the Edinburgh scene, bringing news, images and a huge charge of creative energy from the country often described as the last Stalinist dictatorship in Europe.  This year, they turn their attention to the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people; and although there are hundreds of shows in Edinburgh this month that touch on this subject, I doubt if there is any that ranges across such a broad sweep of cultural and political landscapes, or that brings documentary material to life with such a wealth of theatrical inspiration and flair.

So the show begins with the six-strong cast sitting in rows schoolchildren, whle they tell the story of Lucy Meadows, the transsexual primary school teacher who took her own life in Lancashire in 2013, after being vilified by sections of the press.  The show soon moves beyond the UK, though, to conjure up – through a text delivered in Russian with surtitles – a huge range of gay and transgender experience, from the Hijra tradition in India to the dedicated female “men” of Albania, and the fitful availability of gender reassignment surgery in Belarus itself.

Often driven along by live guitar riffs played by one of the cast, the show is heavy on research, and sometimes seems like a memorably raunchy piece of theatre-in-education.  Yet it can also soar in an instant from text-heavy fact-sharing to breathtaking moments of theatrical invention and beauty, movement and imagery.  And in its final scenes, the show offers a powerful glimpse of the choice that now faces us – between the return to rigid and repressive heterosexual norms that seems to be taking place in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, or a historic shift to a world in which people are free at last to move along the whole rich spectrum of gender and sexual expression, without fear, concealment, or lies.

Joyce McMillan
Until 25
p. 330

ENDS ENDS

Raymondo

THEATRE
Raymondo
4 stars ****
Summerhall (Venue 26)

IT’S VISIBLY inspired by the world of burlesque; and there are echoes, too, of the brilliant magic-realist voice of Angela Carter. Yet  as Annie Siddons takes the stage to tell the story of Raymondo, she’s also weaving a completely original 21st century tale of inspiration, exploitation, love and death.  With long hair flowing and gorgeous basque tightly laced, Siddons shares the space with guitarist Daniel Green (playing a score by Marcus Hamblett), with her own little harmonium keyboard, and with perhaps 20 glowing table-lamps of varous sizes, all heavily shaded and fringed; the mood is late-night, dusky, sometimes erotically charged.

Yet the story Siddons tells – of her hero Raymondo and his vulnerable younger brother – is all innocence and strangeness, the tale of two boys who escape from a nightmare childhood of want and imprisonment thanks to a magical cloak of their own devising.  They wander the world finding and losing love; and finally sell their most precious creation for hard cash, only to find themselves exploited, and worked to the brink of death, by the factory-owner who now also owns their idea.

This is the kind of story, though, in which a single glimpse of love matters more than lifetime of mere survival.  And it’s written with a rich, wild and precise poetry that breathes a colossal and sometimes angry humanity, even while its style defies the representation of ordinary human life, and conjures up a world much more magical and strange, poised somewhere between reality and dream, or perhaps between life and death.

Joyce McMillan
Until 24
p. 343

ENDS ENDS

13 Sunken Years

THEATRE
13 Sunken Years
4 stars ****
Assembly Rooms   (Venue 20)

THERE ARE SO MANY things wrong with this UK premiere production of 13 Sunken Years – by Finnish playwright Paula Salminen – that it’s tempting, at first, to dismiss the whole project out of hand.  The acting is uneven, some of the staging ideas barely work, the venue is unsympathetic to Jan Bee Brown’s slightly over-elaborate set, and the play itself shudders to a sudden halt in a way that is more irritating than poised.

Yet for all that, there’s an insistent, pulsing energy in Maria Oller’s production, staged jointly by Stellar Quines and Lung Ha’s, Scotland’s company that works with adults with learning difficulties.  The play tells the story of a family of women without men, living in a small riverside town in Finland, whose lives reach a crisis on the day when the granddaughter, Eva, is about to leave school and head for university.  On that day, her mother, Helena, suddenly disappears, and her grandmother, Ursula, shows the first signs of dementia; and for the next 13 years, Eva’s life goes into suspended animation, as she cares for her grandmother, rages silently at her absent mother, and watches her schoolmates’ lives overtake hers.

Over 75 minutes Eva’s story is told through a winding narrative that nonetheless inches forward through the years; and the play is illuminated by a bold trio of central performances from the great Anne Lacey as Ursula, Louise Ludgate as a flamingly sexy Helena, and Lung Ha’s actor Nicola Tuxworth as a stubborn, vulnerable Eva.  By the end, Eva seems set to continue the family tradition of single motherhood; and if her relationship with her own possible father, touchingly played by Billy Mack, remains unresolved, there’s a sense of a tough, caring female energy moving on into the future, with or without any serious help from men.  “They have their stories, we have ours,” says Ursula; and she is not wrong.

Joyce McMillan
Until 24
p. 359

ENDS ENDS

Broke

THEATRE
Broke
4 stars ****
Pleasance Dome (Venue 23)

IF BRITAIN IS ENDURING a serious cost-of-living crisis – and the statistics suggest that it is – then it’s not an issue that has made much impact on this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.  One exception, though, is this passionate and thoughtful  show by Paper Birds of Leeds, playing to packed houses at the Pleasance Dome, which begins by reflecting a range of verbatim interviews with people living on low incomes, but finally homes in on just one character, a 28-year-old single mum called Sally with a son she adores, but without the means to give him the material things that our society considers “normal”.

The show’s playful, slightly nursery-like style sometimes grates against the harshness and importance of the stories being told; Jemma McDonnell and Kylie Walsh are touching and effective in the role of Sally and several other characters, while Shane Durrant lurks under a bunk-bed with a keyboard like some irritating  children’s television presenter.

Despite these tonal dissonances though – and a venue in which large parts of the show’s visual imagery are invisible to most of the audience – there’s no resisting the passion with which this young company, dedicated to radical verbatim theatre, exposes the painful lies about poverty in this country that make the lives of people on low incomes so unbearable.  From the myth of our “generous” benefits system to the big lie that being in work means earning a living wage, Paper Birds take apart the  falsehoods which have helped drive recent changes to the social security system, every one of them helping to create a world of hidden suffering.  “I’ve seen well-dressed people opening the cans we give them and eating the food in the car park, because they’re starving,” says a woman staffing a food bank.  “Trouble is, in a country like Britain now, you can’t tell who’s hungry, just by looking at them.  Can’t tell at all.”

Joyce McMillan
Until 25
p. 287

ENDS ENDS

Fringe First Winners 2014 – Week 3

Hand Made In China: Moons, Migration and Messages Hua Dan – Dumpling Dreams Theatre and Migration Project at Summerhall
Letters Home by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Kei Miller, Christos Tsiolkos and Kamila Shamsie Grid Iron and Edinburgh International Book Festival at Edinburgh International Book Festival
No Guts, No Heart, No Glory by the company Common Wealth at Sandy’s Boxing Gym, Craigmillar
Pondling by Genevieve Hulme-Beaman Guna Nua at Underbelly, Cowgate
Spine by Clara Brennan FoolsCap at Underbelly, Cowgate .
Travesti by Rebecca Hill Unbound Productions at the Pleasance Dome.

Sirens

THEATRE
Sirens
4 stars ****
Summerhall (Venue 26)

THEY ARE THE whining, terrifying alarm signals that precede air raids and natural disasters; and then again, they are the gorgeous seductresses of ancient myth, with a song so beautiful that they lure passing mariners to their doom.  And both aspects of the idea of the siren are present in this challenging new 60-minute show from Ontroerend Goed of Belgium, in which six young female performers, dressed in gorgeous ballgowns and standing at music-stands, examine their own attitudes to feminism, more than 40 years on from Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch.

What emerges – from a script written by the performers and directed by Alexander Devriendt – is a vividly episodic show, in which sequences of pure voice, wailing, singing and shrieking at sometimes ear-splitting volume, alternate with a range of reflective monologues and images.  There are glimpses of male sexuality at its most gross (with accompanying porn video), of the kind of everyday sexism and brutal misogynistic “humour” women still endure, and of the struggle of this generation of young women to square their sexual needs and fantasies – which may include graphic Fifty-Shades-style fantasies of submission and abuse – with their sense of themselves as the absolute equals of men.

The play finishes with a monologue by Charlotte De Bruyne that sums up some of these tensions, and should perhaps have been the show’s starting-point, rather than its ending.  Yet despite what sometimes seems a disturbingly confused line of thought, Sirens emerges as a tremendously vivid piece of work about young western women in the early 21st century, checking their privilege, identifying the battles still unwon, insisting on the right to express their own blazing sexuality; and using their voices in ways that break new theatrical ground, and mark this show out as a fantastic theatrical experiment, perhaps still searching for the text that would do full justice to its astonishing performance style.

Joyce McMillan
Until 24
p. 350

ENDS ENDS