Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

The Brothers Karamazov

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 16.10.17.
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4 stars ****

IT’S THIRTY-SIX years since playwright Richard Crane and director Faynia Williams were commissioned to create a stage version of The Brothers Karamazov for the 1981 Edinburgh Festival; and if Dostoevsky’s great 1880 novel is itself a timeless classic, then over the years Crane’s adaptation has also acquired a certain classic status, enjoying many revivals, from America and Australia to Russia and Romania.

Now, to celebrate its 35th birthday, the Tron has invited Faynia Williams – its founding artistic director in 1982 – to create a new production for Glasgow, in 2017.  And the result is a beautiful, thought-provoking, but sometimes slightly baffling show, in which the novel’s great and ever-relevant themes – the clash between religious faith and scientific rationalism, the nature of morality itself – swirl powerfully round and through a cast of four who sometimes rise magnificently to the challenge, and sometimes seem almost overwhelmed by the complexity of a narrative in which all four Karamazov brothers take turns to play their corrupt old father simply by donning his great fur cloak, and also play many other characters of dream and nightmare. 

Sean Biggerstaff is impressive in the key role of the middle son Ivan, increasingly contemptuous of faith in a savage world; Tom England gives the play a compelling moral centre as the youngest, Alyosha.  And with Carys Hobbs’s towering lecture-theatre set providing a fitting arena for Dostoevsky’s dissection of human lives and morals, Stephen Boxer’s fine choral music helps to propel the play to a climax of fierce humanistic passion for its characters; despite some moments when drama seems about to be crushed by theory, and by Dostoevsky’s mighty avalanches of prose.

Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until 28 October.

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Love Song To Lavender Menace

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on LOVE SONG TO LAVENDER MENACE at the Lyceum Theatre Studio, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 16.10.17.
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4 stars ****

THE PART of Edinburgh where I live is changing; rents have soared, and the dead hand of air b&b creeps up the street, gradually corroding community. Yet in this area around Broughton Street, change – both intensely local, and linked to much wider global trends – has always been the name of the game; and that was never more true than in the 1970’s and 80’s, when it became home first to the headquarters of the Scottish Minorities Group, campaigners for homosexual rights, and then to the Lavender Menace Bookshop in Forth Street, now celebrated in this nostalgic, slightly rambling and yet absolutely life-packed play by James Ley, at the Lyceum Studio in Grindlay Street.

Lavender Menace – run by the double-act of Bob Orr and Sigrid Neilson – grew from humble origins as a book stall in the SMG office to become one of the true centres of Edinburgh gay life during the vital early-80’s years of the AIDS epidemic, the club dance boom, and the emergence of the modern LGBTQ movement; and Ley’s two-handed play seeks to capture its story through a multi-stranded narrative set mainly on the day in 1987 when Lavender Menace finally closed, and moved out of the basement to become West & Wilde in Dundas Street.

Young Lewis, who works in the shop, can’t believe this isn’t the end of a rare moment of gay liberation; his friend Glen is more optimistic. And as they work through a long night to pack up the remaining books, they both act out the story of the bookshop’s origins (and its sci-fi and disco inspirations), and receive some strange hints of a future when full gay equality will at last become possible.

In a reminder of why the bookshop was so sorely needed, Ley’s two-hour play also includes a series of poignant monologues by an outwardly straight young Edinburgh man who gains strength just by walking past the Lavender Menace sign. And if director Ros Phillips and actors Pierce Reid and Matthew McVarish sometimes adopt a throwaway, diffident performance style that weakens the play’s pace and impact, this is still a play for our time that speaks volumes about cities and change, about the freedom they offer and the price they demand, and about those magic, unrepeatable moments when a social revolution is in the air, and some people find themselves at the living centre of it, in San Francisco, in London, or in a basement off Broughton Street, here in Edinburgh.

Lyceum Theatre Studio, until 21 October; also at Dundee Rep 23 October, Lemon Tree Aberdeen 25 October, MacRobert Stirling 26 October, Paisley Arts Centre 28 October, and Platform, Glasgow, 29 October.

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Coriolanus (Botanics 2016)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on CORIOLANUS at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 27.6.16.
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5 stars *****

THE PEOPLE have voted, and the ruling elites are aghast at what they have done. The people demand not only relief from hunger, but the immediate punishment of arrogant rulers who have scorned their opinions for too long; including one who dismisses their views as “the yea or no of general ignorance”, and demands that the Senate ignore or reverse their decisions.

This is the high political drama that plays out in Shakespeare’s mighty 1609 tragedy Coriolanus; and it’s perhaps not surprising that the atmosphere in the Kibble Palace was electric, on Friday night, as the audience began to feel just how powerfully Shakespeare – apparently still a living playwright, 400 years on – had imagined, understood and dramatised exactly the kind of clash between elite opinion and ordinary voters that is shaking the British state this weekend.

In normal times, the main talking-point in director Gordon Barr’s spare, intense and unforgettable two-hour version might have been the fact that the great general Coriolanus is here a woman, played with breathtaking skill and passion by the magnificent Nicole Cooper. This weekend, though, the question of gender is simply overwhelmed by a tide of mighty poetry about statecraft and its perils that could hardly be more timely and absorbing if it had been written yesterday. Janette Foggo is superb as Coriolanus’s lion-hearted mother Volumnia, Alan J. Mirren full of warrior glamour as her great enemy Aufidius. And will the state “cleave at the midst and perish”, as Shakespeare’s desperate senators fear? Perhaps; but in the meantime, here is a piece of theatre worthy of the historic moment in which we find ourselves, and one that demands to be seen.

Until 9 July.

Ring Road

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on RING ROAD at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for the Scotsman, 9.4.16.
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4 stars ****

IF THE PLAY were a situation comedy, the scene would be about as familiar as they come. Lisa and her brother-in-law Mark, who have always liked each other, have sneaked away to an unromantic hotel on a ring-road, to spend an illicit couple of hours together; and the atmosphere of nervous anticipation, as they look around the room, is exactly what we would expect.

The situation is not quite what it seems, though, in this latest Play, Pie and Pint drama by actress and playwright Anita Vettesse; and the genre is not comedy but quiet contemporary tragedy, as a tale unfolds of lives that have lost their joy, and of people who – unable to find the courage to start all over again – are trying to patch things up as best they can, and simply trying to bear the damage that results.

The play, in other words, is quite painfully true to life; and although elements of the sex comedy survive – and are cheerfully carried throughout by Martin Donaghy as Mark – it’s the underlying grief and desperation of Lisa’s situation that burns itself onto the mind, in a terrific performance by Angela Darcy. And there’s also a bonus, in the form of an unseen voice-over performance from Robbie Jack as Lisa’s absent husband, Paul, each of his mobile phone calls more poignant than the last. It’s a short play, in other words, but one that contains a little slice of the real music of humanity; and just a couple of years into her writing career, Anita Vettesse is proving herself a playwright well worth watching.

Oran Mor, Glasgow, today; and the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Tuesday-Saturday next week.

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Lost At Sea

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on LOST AT SEA at Summerhall, Edinburgh, for the Scotsman, 9.4.16.
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3 stars ***

THERE’S BEEN A REAL feast of children’s theatre associated with this year’s Edinburgh International Science Festival; and one of this week’s highlights was Catherine Wheels’ Lost At Sea, a vivid short show about our oceans – and about the big currents that surge through them – from one of Scotland’s leading children’s theatre companies.

Written by Morna Pearson, Lost At Sea is inspired by the true story of 7,200 plastic ducks that spilled from a giant container ship in the Pacific Ocean in 1992, and, over many years, gradually found their way around the world. On a giant floor map (by designer Karen Tennant) that shows the five huge ocean “gyres” circulating water, weather, and – increasingly – plastic rubbish around the planet, the play tells the matching stories of a girl in Harris, and a boy whose life takes him from Australia to Alaska and Hawaii; both love the sea, and their lives are strangely linked by the story of the ducks, which he experiences directly when he start to find dozens of them on a beach in Alaska.

At just 50 minutes, Lost At Sea seems almost too short to deal with the many issues it raises, from loss and bereavement to marine pollution and the fascinating world of oceanography; the awkward jump-cuts in the story seem a little exposed, the ending too abrupt. But performers Ashley Smith and Laurie Brown make a delightful job of bringing the story to life; and it would be a fine thing if a slightly longer, richer version of Lost At Sea were to have a further life, now that its Science Festival run is over.

Run completed.

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Rapture Theatre

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on RAPTURE THEATRE for the Scotsman Magazine, 19.3.16.
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WHEN MICHAEL EMANS was a boy growing up in East Kilbride, in the 1970’s and 80’s, it was the experience of seeing Scotland’s famous touring companies roll up to the Village Theatre, and deliver some memorable “good nights out” to the local audience, that first inspired him to get involved in theatre. “7:84, Wildcat, Borderline – they all used to come,” says Emans. “The shows had such a vibrancy to them, and I just loved the idea of them coming to meet people in their local communities – I think I decided there and then that that was what I wanted to do, to create touring theatre and bring it to people in the places where they live.”

The hallmark of Michael Emans’s career as a director, though, has been something quite different from the radical, cabaret-style activist theatre that 7:84, Wildcat and often Borderline used to pursue, 35 years ago. Instead, as he graduated from the directing course at Rose Bruford College in Kent, and returned to Scotland, he found himself increasingly drawn to a repertoire of substantial classic drama, or tried-and-tested newer plays from Scotland and beyond, presented in a fairly straight-text-based style, with a strong emphasis on ensemble acting.

In 2002, he and his partner, designer Lyn McAndrew, launched Rapture Theatre as a Glasgow-based touring company, working in small-scale venues at first, and presenting classic plays by writers ranging from David Mamet to Gregory Burke, John Byrne and Arthur Miller, who featured in their Miller centenary season of autumn 2015, with productions of All My Sons and The Last Yankee. And it’s the choice of that familiar repertoire, and a relatively conventional theatrical style, that has made Emans a slightly controversial figure in Scottish theatre, particularly when the much-debated Creative Scotland funding round of October 2014 awarded his Rapture Theatre the status of “regularly funded organisation” – although at the very modest level of £125,000 a year – while rejecting applications from more artistically acclaimed and innovative companies such as Stewart Laing’s Untitled Projects.

Yet despite the odd brickbat – and a critical response that is often lukewarm – Rapture Theatre seems to go from strength to strength, battle-hardened by the 13 years of project funding they endured before becoming a regularly funded organisation, and tightly focussed, as always, on building an ever-stronger relationship with the paying theatre public across Scotland, as well as with future audiences, through an extensive programme of schools workshops. This week, they announced that their autumn production will be the Scottish premiere of Michael Frayn’s award-winning 2003 play Democracy, about the relationship between 1970’s West German chancellor Willy Brandt, and his secretary and friend Gunther Guillaume, whose exposure as a communist spy led to Brandt’s resignation; with a cast of 10, the play will rival last autumn’s production of All My Sons in scale, and will tour to 23 venues across Scotland, ranging in size from the Theatre Royal in Glasgow and the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, to the Eastgate Arts Centre in Peebles.

“I think the secret of Rapture’s success is that they offer something our audiences are enthusiastic to buy,” says Julie Ellen, artistic director of the MacRobert Theatre in Stirling, who is asssociate producer of Democracy, as well as hosting its opening performances at the MacRobert in September. “It’s a solid repertoire of proven plays, delivered to a standard that easily matches most of the mid-scale classical work we can bring in from south of the Border; and there is a huge appetite for that.

“After all, our main rep companies in Scotland – the Citizens’, the Lyceum, Dundee – don’t tour, or only tour very rarely. So a touring company providing a programme of strong modern classics, made in Scotland, is clearly filling a gap. Rapture has been really well received here at the MacRobert, and we’re just delighted that they’re coming to us again, with a play that has such modern relevance.”

As for Michael Emans, he remains his genial and diligent self, at the eye of any storms that blow up; the company even survived a real show-must-go-on disaster, last September, when the lead actor in All My Sons had to be replaced just three days before opening night, and the lead actress fainted spectacularly during one of her biggest scenes, taking 10 minutes to recover.

“Well, we had terrific support from the Theatre Royal over that,” says Emans, “and in general, we’re really delighted with the company’s progress at the moment. The feedback on the Arthur Miller season was tremendously positive, from all kinds of audiences – more than 50 school parties saw All My Sons in the five venues it visited, for example. And we’re really excited to be staging the Scottish premiere of Democracy, which is such a timely play – about Europe, about what we mean by democracy, and about the pressures on politicians who are fallible human beings.”

And is Emans worried at all by his company’s self-imposed distance from the creative centre of a Scottish theatre scene often driven by the energy of current writers, and the the pursuit of ever-newer kinds of new work? “Not really,” he says. “We’re increasingly confident of our relationship with our audience across the country, and I can honestly say that the most negative response we’ve had, in recent years, was when some peple were taken aback by the language in Catherine Johnson’s Bay City Rollers show Shang-A-Lang.

“It’s true that Scottish theatre is often all about new work, and we are not about that, although we hope to bring plays that are often new to Scottish audiences. But on the day the regular funding decision was announced – well, I just remember the great atmosphere in the Briggait in Glasgow, where we have our office, alongside Conflux the circus skills company, and Mischief La Bas which specialises in outdoor performance, and the Barrowland Ballet. We all received regular funding on that day, and there we all were celebrating – four companies that could hardly be more different in approach and style, but all making their own contribution to the scene; and, of course, giving each other a lot of support along the way.”

Democracy on tour across Scotland, 2 September-12 October 2016.

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Billy (The Days Of Howling)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on BILLY (THE DAYS OF HOWLING) at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for the Scotsman Magazine, 19.3.16. ______________________________________________________

4 stars ****

IT’S NOT the most theatrical show you’ll see this year: presented straight to the audience, by three actors who barely interact throughout, it comes across more as an intense trio for radio, than as a theatre piece.

Yet for all that, it’s hard to a imagine a more timely play – in the age of the rise of Donald Trump – than Fabien Cloutier’s fierce Canadian study of ordinary middle-class rage and loathing in our time. The three characters are Alice’s Mum, an intent, uptight middle-class working mother driving her daughter to nursery, Billy’s Dad, a working-class bloke who pauses to eat donuts on his way to the school, and Admin Lady, a school bureaucrat who cannot get anyone to install a new pin-board in her office.

And while Billy’s Dad is a relatively genial soul, both Alice’s Mum and Admin Lady are possessed by rage, partly against everyone different from themselves (cyclists, ethnic minorities), but particularly against fat people, whom they suspect of stuffing their faces to the point of disability, then sponging off the welfare system.

Needless to say, the cruel assumptions both women make turn out to be false; and Alice’s Mum pays a tragic price for her final uncontrolled outburst of fury. What matters about this play, though, is its fearless exploration of the rise of toxic hatred among what looks like a fairly comfortable and privileged western population. Bureaucracy, alienation – something is driving these people mad. And we need plays like Fabien Cloutier’s to help us explore that truth, before it is finally too late.

Oran Mor, Glasgow, final performance today; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Tuesday-Saturday next week.

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