Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

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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Tom, A Story Of Tom Jones – The Musical

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on TOM, A STORY OF TOM JONES – THE MUSICAL at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 19.3.16
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3 stars ***

IT WAS THE AGE of The Beatles, of mop-top groups and new-born guitar pop, when London agents and bookers just weren’t interested unless you came from Merseyside, home of the beat. Yet somehow, during those same Sixties years, a singer emerged who seemed like a throwback to the 1950’s, a big balladeer who looked like an adult rather than a teenager, who moved like Elvis, and who sang everything from Ray Charles to Irving Berlin classics.

His name was Tom Jones, born Tommy Woodward in Pontypridd in 1940; and he proved to have such a voice, and such showbiz staying-power, that if you search the internet today for Theatre na nOg of Neath’s touring tribute musical about Tom’s early days – written by Mike James, directed by Geinor Styles, and first seen in Wales in 2014 – you’ll find just as many references to the big man’s current tour of Australia and New Zealand.

In a series of scenes so tightly focussed on those early years that they become slightly repetitive, the show therefore begins with a classic mining valley vista of tiny terraced houses, before leading us – via asides to the audience and lightly caricatured short scenes – through Tom’s youth as a Saturday-night pub singer, and his successful local career with a band called The Senators, to swinging London, and the year of grinding failure the band endured there before Tom,and Tom alone, finally reached the Number One slot with It’s Not Unusual, in March 1965.

And give or take a rousing final medley of Tom’s greatest hits, that’s it, for this show; Kit Orton, in the leading role, makes a fine job of capturing Tom’s voice and presence, Elin Phillips gives a star turn as his ever-supportive teenage bride Linda, and the four actor-musicians who make up The Senators play brilliantly, particularly in the rock-and-roll sequences of the first half.

And although this show inevitably attracts an audience who were there when all this happened, 50 years ago, it’s fundamentally a story about youth, in a time when being young was far tougher and more thrilling than it is now; a time when it took oceans of self-belief for a working-class kid to break through into any kind of media at all, but when the rewards of fame, when it finally arrived, were more far-reaching and spectacular than anyone can easily imagine, in these days of diffuse online communities pursuing their own musical enthusiasms, and rarely – if ever – coming together at all.

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, final performances today.

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Shrapnel

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on SHRAPNEL at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 14.3.16.
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4 stars  ****

WHERE ARE WE, in the early scenes of Catrona Lexy Campbell’s bold new stage version of the 2006 novel Shrapnel, by her father Tormod Caimbeul? There’s a hospital, there are nurses, there are people speaking Gaelic, with projected surtitles flitting across the set. And there seems to be a bar, or perhaps an Italian restaurant, where an ugly Friday-night fight has taken place, resulting in the serious injury of a notorious retired police officer known as Shrapnel, and a strong police interest in our young hero, a Lewis man called McLugrin.

In fact, as we gradually work out, we are in Leith; and it’s arguable that given the linguistic and visual complexity of what Catriona Lexy Campbell and director Muireann Kelly are trying to achieve in this new show from Theatr Gu Leor – with a cast of six, and a strong creative team in sound, design and music – it might be worth making that starting-point a little clearer, before we plunge into McLurgan’s Dante-esque journey through the underbelly of late-20th urban Scotland, and out into the landscape of his chlldhood.

If Campbell’s adaptation is sometimes slightly hard to follow, though, what it achieves without question is to make a thrilling case for Tormod Caimbeul’s novel, as an astonishingly bold and surreal narrative poem, almost like Alasdair Gray’s Lanark in its ambition, about a Gaelic soul half-lost in urban Scotland, but still deeply aware not only of his heritage, but of how it connects with so many deeper strands in human culture, from the Greeks and Shakespeare to Buddhist mysticism. There’s a chilling performance from Iain Macrae as Shrapnel, a mighty bullying monster of macho violence and bigotry; and a superb one from young Gaelic actor Iain Beggs, who carries the complexity and truth of Caimbeul’s story on his broad shoulders, to its strangely peaceful and moving end.

At the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh, this week (15-16 March), and on tour across northern Scotland, Barra and Lewis until 2 April.

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Peter Pan (Eden Court), When The Winter Wind Blows

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on PETER PAN and WHEN THE WINTER WIND BLOWS at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, for The Scotsman, 21.12.15
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Peter Pan 4 stars ****
When The Winter Wind Blows 3 stars ***

DO YOU BELIEVE IN fairies? Traditionally, at panto time, almost all of us do, except some naughty boys in the stalls. When it comes to Peter Pan, though – and the famous moment when we all have to clap and cheer to save Tinkerbell from death – it’s easier to conjure up that mood of magic when you’re dealing not with Alan McHugh’s current short, heavily-edited and brutally comic pantomime version on show in Aberdeen and at the SECC), but with Will Brenton’s much more leisurely adaptation, favoured by the Coventry panto producers Imagine Theatre, and, this year, by Eden Court in Inverness.

The downside of Brenton’s approach is that once all the classic panto elements have been added – the comedy cook Nanny McSmee, two increasingly rare kitchen slapstick sequences, an excellent ghost scene, and plenty of song, dance and fight-sequences featuring teams of young cast members from Inverness and the Highlands – it makes for a long evening of almost three hours; some of the comedy sequences, centring on Ian Wotherspoon’s rather ladylike Nanny McSmee, seem a little laboured.

Everything else about this pantomime Peter Pan goes with a swing, though. A fine Smee (Ross Allan) and a truly world-class Captain Hook (Greg Powrie) lead us through the booing, hissing, and hiya-pals audience participation with terrific skill; the sets are pretty, and in this version, the story is allowed a hint of resolution, as the scene returns to the children’s bedroom, and Pan promises to visit, at least sometimes. It hasn’t, and never will have, the same feelgood effect as a traditional panto ending, complete with wedding bells; but it’s tremendous fun, all the same, generous, spectacular, and impressively true to the spirit of Barrie’s original tale.

Upstairs in the Jim Love studio, meanwhile, lucky children under five – and this year, sometimes as young as just one – are being drawn gently into the world of theatre by a gorgous 40-minute show called When The Winter Wind Blows, put togther by Eden Court’s own in-house creative team, which runs the theatre’s vast Highland-wide programme of classes and activities. Devised by the team and directed by the theatre’s Creative Manager Katyana Kozikowska, the show is set in a snowy Arctic wonderland complete with a little igloo that opens up to show the domestic world inside, and features a girl called Kaya, beautifully played by Lorraine Hemmings, who gets the chance, on her birthday, to tell six wishes to the winds that rush round her home, represented in big swirling dance movments by Louise Marshall and Laura Johnston.

Using almost no English words – just “wish” and “wind” – the story leads us through the essential elements of a vast-vanishing Inuit way of life: the bird, seal, husky dogs, owl and reindeer that Kaya wishes to meet, along with a beloved lost grandma, and the simple household tasks – sweeping, fishing, sledge-pulling, drying the fish for the winter – she has to carry out in between wishes. And at every point, the children get a chance to help; in a magical encounter with the far north that might just fire their imaginations for a lifetime, made just for them, at Eden Court.

Peter Pan Until 10 January, When The Winter Wind Blows untio until 31 December.

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Peter Pan (SECC)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on PETER PAN at the Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 19.12.15
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3 stars ***

FROM BAYWATCH to the Broomielaw, the SECC panto’s new celebrity star, David Hasselhof, makes his journey into the strange world of Scottish pantomime with a certain wounded elegance that pretty well fits his character, Captain Hook. He looks superb, cheerfully sends himself up, and delivers a touching version of My Way as he’s finally swung over the side of the Jolly Roger into the jaws of the ticking crocodile; and if he isn’t exactly John Barrowman – the all-singing, all-dancing small-screen hero he replaces – well, let’s face it, not many people are.

The truth about Hasselhof’s Glasgow panto debut, though, is that it still looks like a showbiz experiment that hasn’t quite settled in yet. With the Krankies and Michelle McManus also on stage – as the Smee brothers and Mimi the Magic Mermaid respectively – this Qdos panto features almost exactly the same Alan McHugh script, and spectacular special effects, as this year’s offering in Aberdeen. Apart from one fairly mind-blowing visual gag featuring Jeanette Krankie as a surfing Pamela Anderson, there’s a surprising lack of good Baywatch jokes; and the slight nervy stiffness of Hasselhof’s performance tends to slow the pace.

There’s still plenty of fun and glitz around, though; Michelle McManus emerges as a real all-round panto star, making a fine job of her traditional “whit fur” comic routine with the Krankies. And with director Jonathan Kiley and musical director Anthony England orchestrating a 20-strong team of singing, dancing Lost Boys and Pan’s People, the show delivers a fine night out – a little hesitant in places, but never short of visual sparkle, and sheer entertainment value.

Until 3 January.

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