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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Scottish Theatre On The International Stage

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on SCOTTISH THEATRE ON THE INTERNATIONAL STAGE for The Scotsman 23.2.19.
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IF YOU HEAD for the Traverse Theatre this weekend – or any evening next week – you’ll have a chance to catch the theatre’s own production of David Ireland’s latest play Ulster American, a smash hit, and winner of a Scotsman Fringe First Award, during last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Born of the #metoo moment, the play deals explosively and outrageously with a crisis in the three-way relationship between a young female Northern Irish playwright, her clueless young London director, and a big male Hollywood star who wants to play the lead in her next show; there is gender politics aplenty, but also a level of sheer, crass cultural misunderstanding, around the politics and history of Northern Ireland, that gives the play an extra vicious topical edge. And the sheer brilliance of the play and production has not gone unnoticed beyond Scotland; its short Traverse run, this month, is a prelude to a tour which will take it to Adelaide in Australia and Auckland in New Zealand, as well as to Dublin and Belfast.

Nor is Ulster American alone, in hitting the international trail over the next few weeks. The Royal Lyceum’s recent production of mountaineering classic Touching The Void, for example – co-produced with Bristol Old Vic, the Royal & Derngate in Northampton, and London producers Fuel – is on stage tonight at the City Hall Theatre in Hong Kong, as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival. Anything That Gives Off Light, the National Theatre of Scotland’s co-production with the New York based company TEAM, is about to start a short American tour; the 2018 Traverse hit What Girls Are Made Of, written by and starring Cora Bissett, will be seen in Sao Paulo, Brazil, later this spring.

And beyond the costly business of whole productions from Scotland touring outside the UK, there is also the growing international reach of the latest wave of new writing from Scotland. A Scottish Playright’s Studio/Scottish Society of Playwrights survey covering 2016-2017, for example, found that in those two years 69 existing plays, by 26 Scottish-based playwrights, had had productions outside Scotland, most of them outside the UK. In January this year, the leading Scottish playwright and director Zinnie Harris had three different plays opening across Europe in a single weekend, at the Royal Dramaten in Stockholm, in Rome, and in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Stef Smith, whose new take on Ibsen’s Doll’s House, called Nora, is set to open in a Citizens’ production at the Tramway on 15 March, has seen her 2015 Traverse play Swallow run for three years in Istanbul; Swallow, a study of three troubled women in a 21st century urban landscape, has also had productions in six other countries, and has been translated into a dozen languages. The relationship between Scottish and Turkish theatre is particularly intense at the moment, revolving around a strong connection with DOT Theatre of Istanbul; David Greig’s Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart is currently running there, and Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair’s Fringe First winning 2018 play Square Go has also been seen in Istanbul. And all of this represents only a fraction of the international work in which Scottish-based playwrights are involved, in a scene that ranges from Jo Clifford’s Gospel According To Jesus Queen Of Heaven – now a symbol of resistance to the right-wing Bolsonaro presidency in Brazil – to the National Theatre of Scotland’s parkour-based Jump project in Jamaica, celebrated at the Glasgow Film Festival tomorrow in the documentary film Run Free.

So what are we to make of the international reach of Scottish theatre artists? In the first place, it is worth noting just how low-profile much of this work has become; no organisation has any particular responsibility for keeping a record of, or publicising, the global reach of Scottish theatre work, and the vital organisations which underpin Scotland’s strong presence on the international scene – from the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe to the British Council – have other key priorities.

Secondly, though, it is possible that the Scottish theatre community could find more effective ways of celebrating Scottish theatre’s huge international reach, and of sharing the experience with their home audiences. A once-a-year event at a major Scottish theatre venue, featuring film and stories, visual images and debate, and involving some of Scottish theatre’s international partners, might help to raise awareness of existing projects, and to create new possibilities for creative co-production and two-way traffic, including more Scottish productions of new plays from elsewhere.

As for the impact on writers of seeing their work performed internationally, all playwrights and theatre-makers seem to agree that the effect can be incalculable. Both Stef Smith and Zinnie Harris have noted the intensity of the current Turkish response to plays featuring gay or transgender characters, as the Erdogan government moves to ban such plays completely; and both feel they have learned a great deal from their experience of director-led theatre cultures, more likely to play fast and loose with text.

“The whole experience makes the world seem both much bigger, and much smaller,” says Stef Smith, “in very positive ways. You get a sense of all these huge cultural possibilities, but also of the fact that if you write from the truth of your own vision, then people everywhere will respond.”

And Harris agrees. “The bottom line, really, is that by allowing the play to be staged elsewhere, you have to trust the creatives working in a different theatrical culture to stage it in the way that will resonate best. It means you have to let go of your vision a little; and that’s why this part of my work has been so important to me. It’s the chance to connect and learn from theatre makers and audiences across the world, and – through the medium of theatre – to become more outward looking and responsive, in every way.”

Ulster American at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 2 March; Touching The Void on tour to Perth and Inverness from 6 March.

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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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Scotsman Fringe First Winners 2018

Here, for your enjoyment on the final weekend of the Fringe, is the full list of this year’s fabulous Scotsman Fringe First winners. With huge thanks to the other members of our great judging panel – Mark Fisher, Susan Mansfield, Jackie McGlone, David Pollock, Fiona Shepherd and Sally Stott, plus Festival editor Andrew Eaton-Lewis, and Scotsman arts editor Roger Cox.

WINNERS WEEK 1

ANGRY ALAN by Penelope Skinner Francesca Moody with Underbelly at the Underbelly
THE BASEMENT TAPES by Stella Reid, Jane Yonge, Thomas Lambert and Oliver Morse, Zanetti Productions at Summerhall
CLASS by Iseult Golden and David Horan Abbey Theatre, Dublin at the Traverse
FIRST SNOW/PREMIERE NEIGE by Davey Anderson, Philippe Ducros and Linda McLean National Theatre of Scotland, Theatre PAP and Hotel Motel at the Canada Hub, King’s Hall
STATUS by Chris Thorpe Chris Thorpe, Rachel Chavkin, China Plate and Staatstheater Mainz at Summerhall
ULSTER AMERICAN by David Ireland Traverse Theatre Company at the Traverse
WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF by Cora Bissett Traverse Theatre Company and Raw Material with Regular Music, at the Traverse

WINNERS WEEK 2

DRESSED by Josie Dale-Jones, Lydia Higginson, Nobahar Mahdavi and Olivia Norris. This Egg, MadeMyWardrobe, Untapped Underbelly and New Diorama at the Underbelly, Cowgate
DUPed by John McCann Ambergris at Sweet Grassmarket (Apex Hotel)
MARK THOMAS – CHECK UP: OUR NHS AT 70 by Mark Thomas Lakin McCarthy at the Traverse Theatre
MY LEFT RIGHT FOOT – THE MUSICAL by Robert Softley Gale, Scott Gilmour & Claire McKenzie, and Richard Thomas. Birds of Paradise and the National Theatre of Scotland at Assembly Roxy.
ON THE EXHALE by Martin Zimmerman China Plate and Audible at the Traverse Theatre
SQUARE GO by Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair Francesca Moody at Roundabout @ Summerhall
UNDERGROUND RAILROAD GAME by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard Soho Theatre and Ars Nova of New York at the Traverse Theatre

WINNERS WEEK 3

ARCHIVE OF EDUCATED HEARTS by Casey Jay Andrews Lion House Theatre at Pleasance Courtyard
IT’S TRUE IT’S TRUE IT’S TRUE Breach Theatre, Untapped by Underbelly and New Diorama at Underbelly Cowgate
POWER PLAY: FUNERAL FLOWERS by Emma Dennis-Edwards Power Play at Pleasance Pop-Up: Power Play HQ (Broughton St.)
TROJAN HORSE by Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead Lung & West Yorkshire Playhouse at Summerhall
UNSUNG by Valentijn Dhaenens Skagen/KVS, Big In Belgium, Richard Jordan, TRP and Summerhall at Summerhall
VALERIE by Robin Kelly, Cherie Moore and Tom Broome Last Tapes Theatre Co at Summerhall

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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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McGonagall’s Chronicles, This House

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on MCGONAGALL’S CHRONICLES at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and THIS HOUSE at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 31.3.18.
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McGonagall’s Chronicles 4 stars ****
This House 4 stars ****

IT’S A STRANGE fact about William Topaz McGonagall that although he is acknowledged as Scotland’s worst-ever poet, he is also one of the best known; and it’s an irony not lost on award-winning writer and performer Gary McNair, as he sets out to chronicle McGonagall’s strange life for Play, Pie And Pint audiences in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Born in Scotland or Ireland some time around 1825, McGonagall grew up in Dundee, followed his Irish parents into the weaving trade, and took to poetry only during the great weaving slump of the 1870’s, when he was already over 50. And if he could not earn money by being a good poet, it seems he was prepared to earn it by being a notoriously bad one – even if that meant standing on stages across the land, being pelted with rotten vegetables by ruffians in the stalls.

This is the ineffably sad yet defiant tale told by McNair in his latest brilliant theatrical monologue, enlivened on this occasion by on-stage exchanges with musician and actor Brian James O’Sullivan, while fellow-musician Simon Liddell keeps his own counsel at the keyboards. With even the programme notes – as well as the entire play – written in McGonagall-esque rhyming doggerel, McNair is clearly in explosively creative mood; and what he produces, in the end, is a portrait of a man so desperate for any scrap of monetisable recognition that he will literally tolerate any humiliation to achieve it.

Although McGonagall is an extreme case, there is something painfully recognisable about his plight, not only to any artist, but to anyone who has ever suffered the pains of unemployment and socio-economic oblivion. And although the story is a sad one, McNair also captures his subject’s tremendous, vivid energy, as he defiantly pursues his chosen path. There are songs, there is verse, there is a perfectly-pitched production by Joe Douglas; and behind the story of McGonagall, there is a backbeat of sadness about the struggle of Scotland’s working class people to achieve any real recognition in a literary culture that is never quite their own, and in which McGonagall – a painfully poor Scotsman of Irish origin – enjoyed the kind of triple disadvantage that would have silenced many a man with more talent, and less purblind determination.

One of the tragic threads in McGonagall’s story concerns his touching faith in the wisdom and bounty of Queen Victoria, to visit whom he once walked from Dundee to Balmoral, and back again, after being refused entry. And for all its superficial satirical energy, there’s something of the same mystical attachment to fabled British institutions in This House, young playwright James Graham’s acclaimed play – first seen at the National Theatre in London in 2012 – about the high drama played out at Westminster between 1974 and 1979, when the Wilson-Callaghan Labour government, with a parliamentary majority of just three, was trying to fend off the resurgent Tories, and prevent the arrival of the Thatcher era.

There’s no faulting the huge energy and sharp choreography of Jeremy Herrin’s spectacular production, which takes place on a wood-panelled stage lined with audience members sitting on Commons-style green beaches, under a huge Big Ben clock-face; and there are a series of fine, vigorous performances from the half-dozen actors playing the party Whips, in whose offices most of the drama unfolds. Martin Marquez and James Gaddas are outstanding as chief Labour whip Bob Mellish and his deputy Walter Harrison, Matthew Pidgeon excellent as future Speaker Jack Weatherill, and Natalie Grady all too convincing as first-ever woman whip Ann Taylor, who just wants to be one of the boys.

The minor characters, though, are played as such a series of grotesques, with extreme regional accents and dreadful Little Britain wigs, that the overall effect is – as usual with British establishment drama – to make the posh chaps in the Tory Whips office look like the voice of reason and constitutional wisdom, when in fact they are often anything but. It’s an entertaining evening, in other words; but in the end, it treats the real issues dividing British society in the 1970’s a little too lightly for comfort, and therefore has far less to say than it should, about the grim political plight in which we find ourselves today.

McGonagall’s Chronicles at Oran Mor today, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 3-7 April. This House at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, final performances today.

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Ceilidh

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on CEILIDH at the Tron Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 12.3.18.
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4 stars ****

AMID ALL the mayhem of the recent Creative Scotland funding round, Scotland’s fairly-new Gaelic-language touring company Theatre Gu Leor emerged as one of the winners, newly raised to regularly funded status. So it’s perhaps fitting that the latest show from this woman-led ensemble is about nothing less than the return of the repressed, in the shape of a Gaelic language and culture so despised and marginalised over the centuries that by the start of the story, it has dwindled into little more than a cheap advertising slogan in the arsenal of global capitalism.

The scene – well impersonated by the Tron’s Victorian Bar – is an executive function suite in Glasgow, where anxious-looking Lisa, all designer tartan and perfect make-up, is trying to flog off shares in a planned corporate leisure resort on the Harris landscape where she was born. The proceedings are soon interrupted, though, by a rowdy revenant from the 17th century, one Mairi Ruadh, a mouthy storyteller and poet who isn’t about to let this desecration pass, without some stout cultural resistance.

What emerges is a surprisingly complex tale – given its 75-minute length – about women’s lives then and now, about mothering children not our own, and about the obligation to pass on and cherish our own stories, rather than let them be silenced by harsh economic pressures. There’s plenty of song, and four richly enjoyable performances from Mairi Morrison as Lisa, MJ Deans and Calum MacDonald as young folk Eilidh and Eddie, and the mighty Muireann Kelly as Mairi Ruadh; along with a final burst of ceilidh storytelling from the next generation of Gaelic speakers, to remind us that the old language is not dying, but showing signs of new life.

On tour this week to Islay, Lochaber, Inverness, Aberdeen, Edinburgh; and across northern Scotland until 31 March.

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