Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

The Ugly One

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE UGLY ONE at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 8.7.19.
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4 stars ****

TOWARDS THE BACK of Becky Minto’s superb set for The Ugly One – a hyper-modern dream-turned-nightmare in acid pinks, greens and pale blues, against glaring white walls – a black conveyer belt rattles along, suggesting both an industrial process, and one of those game shows designed to taunt contestants with alluring parades of consumer goodies. It’s a visual image that provides a perfect context for Marius von Mayenburg’s 2007 comedy, a breathlessly fast-moving 75 minutes of post-millennial absurdism in which a man called Lette is abruptly informed, one day – by his capricious boss Scheffler – that he will not be leading the public presentation of a ground-breaking new electric plug he has invented, because he is simply too unbearably ugly.

Cue a series of ever-more-grotesque 21st century tropes and impostures, as poor Lette – brilliantly played throughout by Martin McCormack, with the same harmless face and baffled expression – mounts the conveyor belt to undergo experimental plastic surgery, and ends up with a face so handsome that he is constantly besieged by lustful admirers of both sexes, but then finds that his surgeon has decided to cash in by giving his gorgeous face to any customer who can afford it. In no time, poor Lette goes from bust to boom to bust, passing through an entertaining rock-star phase en route; while his long-suffering wife – played with equal brilliance by the inimitable Sally Reid – moves from affectionate tolerance of his hideous looks even though she cannot bear to look at him, through wild desire for the new handsome Lette, to a growing taste for adlterous liaisons with Lette lookalikes.

What emerges, in other words – from von Mayenburg’s brilliant text, as translated by the great Maja Zade, and from Debbie Hannan’s hilarious and pitch-perfect production – is a tremendous satire on the new age of the visual image we now inhabit, after humankind’s brief and productive flirtation with the written word; a world where we say that looks are only skin deep, but constantly act as if outward and inward beauty were the same thing. By the end of the drama, ever deeper questions are being asked about looks and identity, as if the borrowing of a face really does represent a complete replication of the self; and with Helen Katamba acting up a storm as both boss and surgeon, and Michael Dylan offering superbly satirical support as Lette’s scheming colleague Karlmann and others, The Ugly One races to a brilliantly ambiguous conclusion, for which the word thought-provoking is hardly strong enough.

Until 20 July

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Henry V

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on HENRY V at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 6.7.19.
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4 stars ****

AMONG MANY OTHER things, Shakespeare was the great poet of early-modern English nation-building. Through his two great cycles of 15th century history plays, he marked out the boundaries of the land, scorning the French as the eternal enemy, and cheerfully mocking the Welsh for their accents, wizards and leeks; and in Henry V – the last of the plays, written around 1599 – he writes his greatest celebration of English military success against vastly superior continental forces, and of victory won through an endearing combination of humble, down-to-earth leadership, and plucky determination on the part of a motley and not over-disciplined fighting force.

As many analysts of the Brexit phenomenon have pointed out, these ideas about England’s national identity have become part of the bloodstream of the nation over the last 400 years, reappearing time and again at moments of national crisis, not least during the Second World War, when Laurence Olivier created his famous film of Henry V. And now, here come the Bard In The Botanics team with a version not only set during the Second World War, but staged by a group of Enid Blyton-style schoolchildren, all hole-y jumpers and falling-down socks; children who will, if they are lucky, become the 70- and 80- year-old voters of today.

What’s thrilling about Jennifer Dick’s adaptation and production, though, is that it not only sets the play is this uniquely resonant context – with the kids clutching their gas-mask boxes and running for cover as the sirens wail – but also ensures that once the action starts, brilliantly steered by Lynsey-Anne Moffat’s bustling chorus, a series of profoundly serious grown-up performances emerge, not only from Adam Donaldson as Harry (clad in boy scout uniform, but a deadly warrior nonetheless) but – perhaps most significantly – from Natalie Lauren as Queen Katharine of France, no arrogant French villain (unlike her brother Louis, played with relish by Alan Mirren), but a wise princess, worthy, in the end, of the love Henry offers her, as a gesture of peace.

No playwright is more fiercely conscious than Shakespeare both of the glory and excitement of war – “Cry God for Harry, England and St. George!” – and of its cruel destructive horror; and this is a version of the play subtle, exuberant and thoughtful enough to make us ponder both the warlike energy this play famously celebrates, and the final quest for peace in Europe, symbolised by the marriage of Henry and Katharine, that remains a disputed part of England’s destiny, even today.

Until 13 July.

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As You Like It

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on AS YOU LIKE IT at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 1.7.19.
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4 stars ****

GENDER FLUIDITY may be a relatively new term in 21st century western culture. The thing itself, though, has always been present; and no playwright is more powerfully aware of it than Shakespeare, who worked for a theatre in which all female parts were played by young men, sometimes – so we’re told – with disturbing brilliance.

Of all Shakespeare’s great female roles, none is more dazzling than the part of Rosalind, the brave, witty and beautiful heroine of As You Like It; and this year’s Bard In The Botanics season kicks off with an outdoor production by Gordon Barr that switches the genders of minor characters with a joyful sense of freedom, but is strongly built around Stephanie McGregor’s gorgeous and complex performance as Rosalind, the daughter of the exiled duke who, with her loving cousin Celia, leaves her uncle’s corrupt court dressed as a boy, to seek her father and his followers in the greenwood.

The production’s weakest link perhaps lies in its slightly cavalier way with the play’s strong lyrical sense of the beauty of the natural world. Only one of the songs – Under The Greenwood Tree – is given anything like its full weight, and too many actors are inclined to throw away Shakespeare’s beautiful and perfectly-weighted lines.

With the wonderful Nicole Cooper playing a lady Jaques, though, some of the play’s finest poetry shines through brilliantly. And almost everyone in the cast seems to get the joke of Shakespeare’s merriest comedy with terrific clarity; offering audiences in the Botanic greenwood a gentle, funny, and celebratory evening of Shakespeare reimagined but always honoured, just as he would have liked it.

Until 13 July.

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Them!

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THEM! at the Tramway, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 1.7.19.
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4 stars ****

WHAT DO WE do when the familiar narratives of our lives are disrupted, and thrown all over the shop? That’s the question at the centre of Pamela Carter and Stewart Laing’s remarkable show-cum-installation Them!, produced by the National Theatre of Scotland at the Tramway; and to make its point, it uses two all-too-familiar narrative structures, smashing them both across an invisible boundary, into the unknown.

The first narrative belongs to the 1954 Hollywood science-fiction B movie Them!, a classic cold-war drama about the eventual destruction of a breed of giant ants unleashed by the nuclear age; the second belongs to a modern Oprah-style chat-show based on uplifting tales of personal trauma and transformation, chaired live by the fabulous Kiruna Stamell. Her first guest is the director, Stewart Laing, who is making a film inspired by Them!, but refuses Kiruna’s hopeful questions about the mid-life crisis she thinks must have inspired the project; he leaves, to be replaced by a fictional and much more amenable version of himself, suavely played by Ross Mann.

This new director’s narrative is disrupted in turn, though, by Zachary Hing as the Prof; then by a group of five young AI robots claiming to represent the future; and finally by a figure called Toni (an impressive Rosina Bonsu) who takes over the chat-show host’s chair. All of this is accompanied by music from a terrific five-piece band led by composer-performer Carla Easton, and by film clips from both version of Them!; and it’s no surprise at all when Toni finally invites us to leave the theatre-studio, and move on into a night-club of noisy transformation, followed by an exhibition of the complex communal lives of leaf-cutter ants, and a tot of whisky.

All of which sounds crazy enough; but also brilliantly makes its point that whatever the future of humanity holds, our old ways of trying to tidy up our experience are going to be of little use to us. The “Them!” experience is delivered with astonishing flair and class throughout, with Kiruna Stamell blazing brilliantly as the chat-show host, Pamela Carter writing like an angel, and every element of the show superbly co-ordinated by Stewart Laing and his team. And if it ends with a shared moment of respect for the rich and complex collective lives of ant colonies, that makes plenty of sense, in an age when our relationship with other species must change or die; as does the suggestion that in order to get through any of it, we will need a stiff drink, and a strong measure of conviviality, discovered anew.

Until 6 July.

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Blithe Spirit, The Crucible, Amélie

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on BLITHE SPIRIT and THE CRUCIBLE at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and AMELIE THE MUSICAL at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 29.6.19.
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Blithe Spirit 4 stars ****
The Crucible 3 stars ***
Amelie The Musical 4 stars ****

THERE’S A POWERFUL initial shock, in seeing Noel Coward’s great 1941 comedy Blithe Spirit briskly moved forward into the age of mobile phones and i-pads; yet in this second show of Pitlochry’s summer season, the theatre’s former associate director Gemma Fairlie, and a terrific seven-strong cast, make a brilliant job of demonstrating just how how much Coward’s searing insights into love, sex and marriage still have to tell us,about the way we live now.

So on a crisply minimalist set by Adrian Rees, a modern-day Ruth and Charles Condamine, dressed like the owners of a successful tech start-up, start to dabble with spiritualism in a recognisable 21st century spirit of slightly reckless cynicism. Enter Deirdre Davis as the medium Madam Arcati, like a former Scottish schoolteacher gone full new-age; and enter also, after an experimental seance, the pouting blonde ghost of Charles’s late wife Elvira, brilliantly clad by Adrian Rees in a searing scarlet that cuts straight across Ruth’s tasteful range of green-blue smart-casual outfits.

Cue some brilliantly well-observed marital by-play, as Ruth at first believes she is being gaslit and lied to as part of some ploy to end the marriage. Claire Dargo is superb as Ruth, bringing a whole 21st century feminist awareness to her struggle to grasp what is happening; Ali Watt is equally impressive as a young but brilliantly observed Condamine. Add a male assistant called Eddy – played with flair by David Rankine – in the role of the blundering maid, Edith, and you have a Blithe Spirit to remember; one that gives full weight to the epic battle of the sexes at the centre of the drama, and is all the more powerful for it.

This year’s Pitlochry production of The Crucible – directed by new artistic director Elizabeth Newman – is even more ambitious. Featuring a cast of 17, and a set by Adrian Rees based around a full-size model of Pitlochry’s Shoogly Bridge, the production tries to give both a local edge and the occasionally riff of contemporary rhythm to Arthur Miller’s great 1953 drama, set in 17th century Massachusetts, about the psychology of the witch-hunt, and how quickly such attempts at moral “cleansing” can descend into homicidal madness.

At a moment when the need to understand this kind of thinking has never been greater, though, this Pitlochry production achieves many moments of high drama, without finally bringing as much clarity or insight as it seems to promise. The production is exceptionally strong in evoking the village community of Salem, and its shocked reaction to the sudden violence of the threat from the young girls who have begun to denounce local women as witches. It’s less effective later, though, in finding its way towards the full significance of farmer John Proctor’s final sacrifice; and often visually confusing, not least in a final image which seems to consign Proctor and the heroic Rebecca Nurse to the flames of hell, before sending the audience home to the spectacularly incongruous sound of high Anglican Victorian hymns being sung, in some English cathedral.

In Edinburgh, meanwhile, Amelie The Musical, at the King’s Theatre, involves absolutely no attempt to engage with reality, in this century or any other. Instead, the show – based on Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s much-loved 2001 film – offers a soft-focus millennial dream, set in 1997, of a world in which people are always falling towards each other, guided by the force of love; and where even super-shy Amelie, a waitress in an eccentric Montmartre cafe, is inspired to perform anonymous acts of kindness, which eventually lead to her own happy ending.

All of this is ravishingly staged, in a production originally from the Watermill, Newbury, on a magically romantic Parisian set by Madeleine Girling, and by a company of 16 brilliant actor-musicians, hammering their way through Daniel Messe’s score on a wonderful collection of 20th century European instruments. For myself, I ran out of patience with the show’s long-drawn out romantic story well before the end, and found the warbling sub-Sondheim lyrics of some of its 35 songs increasingly hard to take. But I seemed to be in a minority of one, among a delighted audience; and the infinitely talented cast, led by the lovely Audrey Brisson as Amelie, certainly deserved every moment of the loving and rapturous ovation they received.

Blithe Spirit and The Crucible in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until September; Amelie The Musical at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, today, and King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 19-24 August.

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The Macbeths

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE MACBETHS at Dundee Rep, for The Scotsman 6.10.18.
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4 stars ****

WHEN LUCIANNE MCEVOY took the Traverse stage by storm as the furious young Northern Irish playwright Ruth, in this year’s festival smash-hit Ulster American – or appeared there this spring, as the desperately anxious young mother in Frances Poet’s Gut – few in the audience might have imagined that their next chance to see her would be in the role of one of Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes, Macbeth.

In 2018, though, the tide of cross-gender casting is sweeping through the Shakespeare canon, celebrated in shows like the current joyous Seventies-style Twelfth Night at the Lyceum; and in creating this touring revival of his acclaimed 70-minute nightmare version of Macbeth, first seen at the Citizens’ last year in a breathtakingly intense studio performance by Keith Fleming and Charlene Boyd, Dominic Hill has decided to transform the Macbeths into a female couple, with Boyd reprising her award-nominated performance as young, beautiful, ambitious yet strangely naive Lady Macbeth, and McEvoy stepping into the role of the warrior leader whose fatal act of ambition finally takes her life.

Set entirely around the Macbeths increasingly bloodstained bed, this brief, taut and unforgettably vivid version of the play, adapted by Hill and Frances Poet, focusses brilliantly on the nightmarish world of moral darkness conjured up in the Macbeths’ great soliloquies; so that although much of the play is cut, we miss almost none of its most memorable moments. Beneath the bed are four drawers containing, like mementoes, the objects that link the Macbeths to the world beyond their room; the tiny clothes of their lost child, the surveillance tapes recording the growing horror of Macbeth’s rule, and one drawer full of dark, clotted blood.

And if the relationship between the couple on the bed lacks some of the animal ferocity of the union between Fleming’s big, testosterone-charged Macbeth and Boyd’s sensual lady, McEvoy’s performance – still a little tentative both physically and vocally – is already brilliant in capturing the intensity of Macbeth’s imaginative inner life, and his or her deep vulnerability to it. It’s not clear, at this stage, whether much is gained by the occasional adaptation of the text to suggest that Macbeth is a woman, rather a man played by a woman. What is clear, though, is that McEvoy is a superb actor, with much to bring to one of Shakespeare’s great tragic roles; and that Boyd’s performance in this extraordinary adaptation has lost none of its rich, knife-edge glamour, as the Citizens’ company – currently in exile from its Glasgow home – sets off on tour across Scotland.

Paisley Arts Centre tonight and on tour until 27 October, including the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 16-20 October.

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Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort Of)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on PRIDE AND PREJUDICE* (*SORT OF) at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 2.7.18.
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4 stars ****

THE SELF-DEPRECATING title may be necessary, to persuade reluctant audience members that they’re not facing a three-hour essay in prissy manners and Regency bonnet styles. In truth, though, there’s nothing “sort of” about Isobel McArthur brilliant new re-telling of Jane Austen’s breathtakingly frank and witty tale about financial desperation among gentlewomen without property in early 19th century England.

Raging around the stage in a punked-up version of Regency costume that switches in seconds from the simple shifts worn by the ever-present, storytelling servants, through female gowns flouncy or restrained, to the elegant frock-coats of the gentlemen suitors, McArthur’s five-strong all-female cast – directed by Paul Brotherston, and led by McArthur herself as both a nerve-wracked Mrs Bennett, and an entirely convincing Darcy – offers up a rare version that is so profoundly faithful to the detail of the story, and to its radical, questioning female spirit, that fans of the novel will find themselves howling in recognition, despite McArthur’s complete 21st century rewrite of Jane Austen’s exquisite prose.

In a cast so brilliantly at one with each other and the material, it makes no sense to talk of stars. Apart from the brilliant McArthur, Meghan Tyler is superb as the heroine Lizzie, with Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Tori Burgess and Christina Gordon all equally funny and fluent in a dazzling range of roles. And with a wild karaoke score of 20th and 21st century love anthems driving the story along, and forging ever closer links between our time and Miss Austen’s, this Pride And Prejudice delivers a summer show to remember; clever, funny, feminist, and not even shy, in the end, of a few powerful moments of true romance.

Until 14 July.

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