Priscilla Queen Of The Desert (2015)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT at the Playhouse, Edinburgh for The Scotsman, 19.12.15
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4 stars ****

IT’S NOT A PANTOMIME – oh no, it isn’t! Yet there’s never been a panto produced in Scotland that boasted as many dames to the square inch as Simon Phillips’s much-loved touring production of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert, this year’s Christmas show at the Playhouse; or dressed them in so many fabulous panto-style costumes, from a whole chorus full of dancing paintbrushes, to a sextet of giant cupcakes complete with little inbuilt umbrellas, for a chorus of Someone’s Left The Cake Out In The Rain.

Like all the best pantos, too, Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott’s stage musical – based on Elliot’s 1994 film of the same name – combines outrageous cross-dressing spectacle with an element of genuine, rebellious agitprop, as the show’s three principal dames – a group of performing drag queens from Sydney, led by Jason Donovan as bisexual Tick – set off on a road trip from Sydney to Alice Springs on a ramshackle bus called Priscilla. Along the way, they encounter vicious levels of transphobia and homophobia, as well as unexpected moments of kindness , and sing out loud and proud for a new world of transgender tolerance beyond old rigid boundaries – like the one that for six years, has kept cross-dressing Tick away from his secret wife and son in Alice.

If this powerful strand of 1990’s gender politics helps to hold the show together, though, much of its theatrical appeal is about the sheer extravagance of the spectacle, as not only Donovan, Simon Green and Adam Bailey, as the three main characters, but also a whole dancing chorus of dames, and three fabulous female divas led by Lisa-Marie Holmes, belt their way through a vital play-list of late 20th century classics closely bound up with the history of personal and sexual liberation, from Petula Clark’s Downtown, throug an entire Kylie sequence, to anthems like I Will Survive.

For the Edinburgh dates, the cast also includes Karen Dunbar in the cameo role of redneck barmaid Shirley, and Gavin Mitchell, Still Game’s Barman Boaby, in the key role of Bob, the straight-talking bus mechanic who starts up a tender romance with Simon Green’s transsexual Bernadette. And although the sequence involving Bob’s Vietnamese “mail order wife” – a former exotic dancer addicted to popping ping-pong balls out of unexpected places – perhaps strikes a slightly bum note (in every sense), by 2015 standards, everything else about this over-the-top and hugely enjoyable show has its heart in exactly the right place; including a central performance from Jason Donovan that strikes just the right balance between showbiz brashness, and a touching, shy determination, when it comes to re-discovering his precious relationship with his long-lost son.

Until 2 January.

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This Week’s Scottish Budget Reminds Us That Governments Can Now Do Little But Pass Their Disempowerment Down To Communities And Individuals; Paradoxically, Re-Empowerment Has To Begin From The Bottom Up – Column 18.12.15

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 18.12.15
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IN A SMALL PARLIAMENT of just 129 members, in a small northern country, the finance minister stands up to deliver an annual budget statement for an age of “austerity”. He’s a good enough technician, this finance minister; and he delivers a budget that balances the books within the legal parameters of his job. There’s no evidence, of course, that he wants to make most of the spending cuts he is making; indeed less than year ago, his gifted party leader ran a stunningly successful election campaign based entirely around their party’s total opposition to the cult of austerity. Yet he makes them anyway, slashing local authority spending here, trimming the arts and culture budget there.

And although the pressure of day-to-day politics compels the opposition parties in the chamber to talk as though these cuts were entirely the consequence of this particular government’s malice and incompetence, the truth is that this finance minister is not alone. All across Europe, since 2008, this kind of scene has been played out in many small nations and national regions, often with far greater levels of despair and acrimony; in Greece during the summer of 2015, or in Ireland in the bitter winter of 2010-11, when a nation that had once fought so doggedly for its independence had to watch as the high officials of the IMF and European Central Bank walked into their corridors of government, and started – as a condition of the nation’s bailout – to ask the most detailed questions about why they had not cut this rural bus service, or that element of GPs’ pay.

There was, of course, no real “need” for any of these cuts; if Europe had adopted the same path of mild expansion taken by Barack Obama’s United States in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, most of these corrosive attacks on basic household incomes and essential social infrastructure could have been avoided. Instead, though, Europe – including the semi-detached UK – chose to make the public sector, and the poorest citizens who depend most on it, pay for the failures of the world’s largest financial corporations and institutions; and the scene was set not only for the humiliation of Greece and Ireland, but for the much less dramatic – but perhaps equally humiliating – scene played out in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday.

And the question that arises now is exactly how those of us who reject the austerity mantra – including what now seems ike a majority of the world’s senior economists – can do to help governments at any level escape from this trap of institutionalised miserabilism. The opposition parties at Holyrood, of course, would say that the answer lies in John Swinney’s own hands; he has the power to raise the basic rate of income tax, and should use it. Yet the fact that that is his sole other major policy option only highlights his impossibly small room for manoeuvre; a rise in the basic rate of income tax hits hardest at average earners, and after three decades during which any surplus value in our economy has been steadily shifting from ordinary wages into bonuses and dividends, average earners often now struggle to make ends meet.

The truth is, in other words, that for all the talk of “new powers” for Holyrood, it’s a stench of fundamental disempowerment that hangs over most of our elected political authorities today. And it’s no accident that John Swinney’s most striking single act, in this year’s budget, was simply to pass that misery on down to the next layer of increasingly discredited government, Scotland’s once-proud local authorities; now utterly bereft of their own financial powers, hemmed in by regulatory and financial restrictions, and largely reduced to the status of an under-funded delivery agency for central government policy.

And if it’s at local level that the consequences of this negative cycle of disempowerment can be seen most clearly, then it’s also at local level that the fightback against it has to start. At the moment, the parlous state of Scotland’s local authorities – often mirrored across the UK – has a profoundy negative effect on the self-esteem of citizens; they come to believe that they live in a community of numpties represented by numpties, that they and their neighbours are powerless to improve their own shared lives, and – in a profoundly authoritarian and anti-democratic shift – that we are therefore better to leave decision-making to the big boys of the planet, such as the Westminster and US governments, and their friends in the corporate world.

Yet as we learned during last year’s Scottish referendum campaign, there is also positive alternative to that vicious downward spiral of disempowerment, in which ordinary citizens – once they glimpse the possibility that they might actually be able to change their communities for the better – unleash huge waves of political energy, capable of transforming political landscapes, re-empowering the politicians who represent them, and, given the right alliances, perhaps even eventually winning the changes we need in global and international structures. No one imagines, of course, that harnessing and sustaining those energies will be easy, particularly in a nation sharply divided over the issue of independence.

Yet if we want a resilient, progressive and democratic politics for the 21st century, there is no other route than to rebuild it from the bottom up. At the grassroots, Scotland is a nation with strong civic traditions, and huge potential for local action in areas from green energy to food poverty, and the loving care of the elderly. And if we want to reclaim some element of power over our shared lives – through revitalised and much more “local” local institutions, through a Scottish government that gains positive power from the people rather than passing negative decisions down to us, and through more democratic and creative layers of government beyond that – then the grassroots is where we have to start: first, by saying a firm internal “no” to the authoritarian technocrats of the current world order, who tell us our role is to stay at home and take our medicine; and secondly, by putting our feet on the ground in the communities where we live, believing in the dignity, capacity and creativity of the people around us, and getting to work.

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Tracks Of The Winter Bear

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on TRACKS OF THE WINTER BEAR at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 12.12.15
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4 stars ****

GENTLE SNOW IS FALLING, in this latest Christmas show at the Traverse; but not everyone is dressed for the weather, as we enter a world that’s both magical and brutal, and full of down-to-earth comic realism. Tracks Of The Winter Bear is a double bill of new one-hour plays by leading Scottish playwrights Sptehpen Greenhorn and Rona Munro, separate but deeply intertwined, in theme, imagery and even setting. And like all the Christmas productions Orla O’Loughlin has staged since she became artistic director of the Traverse, this is a show with a strong local twist, full of familiar, streetwise Edinburgh voices.

So in Act 1 – written by Stephen Greenhorn and directed by Zinnie Harris – the play begins at the top of Arthur’s Seat, where Shula is waiting for the first flakes of snow, while Avril circles round her, oddly sunlit in a sleeveless summer dress; it takes a few minutes for us fully to recognise that Avril is gone, her presence a ghostly one.

After that, though, Greenhorn’s script takes us on a powerful, winding flashbck journey through Shula and Avril’s secret love story, perhaps a little flat and over-written around the middle, but illuminated by a fierce central performance from Deborah Arnott as Shula, rough-edged, passionate, and on the brink of dire poverty; but transfigured by love, and faced with the ultimate question of whether she has the strength to walk on alone, without even the closure of being able to say goodbye.

And then, in Rona Munro’s Act 2, we see a similar drift of snow begin to settle on Bear – a mangy female polar bear just escaped from a shabby Highland “winter wonderland” – and on Jackie, inappropriately dressed in an acrylic Mrs. Santa Claus outfit with high-heeled sparkly boots. Like Shula, Jackie is a middle-aged woman destined to be left alone and poor in Abbeyhill. The bear has already eaten Ian, Jackie’s Regent Bar chum, and fellow temporary worker in Santa’s grotto; and her prospects look grim, until the bear starts to form a strange bond with her, eventually running and swimming her all the way back home to Edinburgh -”Oh look! There are the bridges!”

The play that emerges is a small-scale gem of stage poetry, illuminated by two terrific performances from Caroline Deyga and Kathryn Howden, and by the characters’ shared capacity to define emotions by taste; safety, it seems, tastes of biscuits, baked by someone who loves you. Orla O’Loughlin’s production is pitch-perfect; and with austere but beautiful lighting and design by Simon Wilkinson and Kai Fischer, and a gorgeous soundscape of silence, sound and music by David Paul Jones, this Traverse winter show emerges as the most beautiful and rewarding alternative to panto in town.

Until 24 December.

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Beauty And The Beast

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on BEAUTY AND THE BEAST at Perth Concert Hall, for The Scotsman, 14.12.15
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5 stars *****

PERTH’S THEATRE company may be in exile from its lovely home in the High Street, closed for redevelopment for at least another two years. Yet its annual traditional panto, staged at the Concert Hall with the help of a mock Victorian proscenium arch, has been racing up on the rails, in recent years, to challenge the big boys in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow; and now, Perth absolutely hits the bullseye, with a hilarious, beautifully-cast version of Beauty And The Beast set in the wee Perthshire town of Auchendreich, where the Beast has his castle.

This brisk panto version of the tale, written by the great Alan McHugh, dispenses with Beauty’s family back-story and dear old Dad. Instead, it cuts straight to the heart of things, where aged retainer Angus McFungus – last servant to remain loyal to the Beast after the witch’s curse – patrols Auchendreich High Street in search of a girl with a heart big enough to break the spell with her love, and meets Belle, on an ill-fated surfing trip with her daft friends Betty Blumenthal the cook, and Betty’s even dafter son Boabby; cue a chorus of Surfing Stanley Bay, a nearby dent in the River Tay. Also on the trail are Ugly Sisters Deadly Nightshade and Poison Ivy; Nightshade the very witch who cursed the Prince when he rejected her, and Ivy her put-upon wee sister, doomed by Nightshade’s spell to kill any man she snogs.

So it’s off to the castle for two-and-a-half hours of riotous fun, song, dance, ghoulies, ghosties and romance, as Belle wins the Beast’s heart, Betty and Boabbie pure josh him into keeping them alive, and a brilliant team of young dancers in 17th century finery spring out of the family portraits to join in the nightly fun. The success of Ian Grieve’s production depends, at heart, on the Rolls-Royce quality of his cast. AmyBeth Littlejohn is a gorgeous, humorous Belle, the Beast is rising star actor-playwright Martin McCormick, Amanda Beveridge is superb as Deadly Nighshade, her wee sister is Angela Darcy of Janis Joplin Full Tilt fame, Tom McGovern plays McFungus, and Betty is the remarkable Barrie Hunter, now quite possibly the best traditional Dame in Scotland.

If the casting is superb, though, there are also terrific original set and costume designs by Ken Harrison, easily the finest so far on this year’s panto circuit; along with joyous choreography by Lynne Bustard, and music, from the three-piece Perth Panto Orchestra, that not only drives the show from start to finish, but often becomes a real convivial part of it, at the heart of this beautiful home-cooked Scottish panto, done to perfection.

Perth Concert Hall, Horsecross, until 26 December.

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Peter Pan (HMA), Ladder To The Stars

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on PETER PAN at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, and A LADDER TO THE STARS at the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, for The Scotsman, 14.12.15
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Peter Pan 4 stars ****
A Ladder To The Stars 3 stars ***

THERE’S NO DOUBT that J.M. Barrie’s original Peter Pan is a great Christmas play; but it often seems to me that even the genius of a gifted panto writer like Alan McHugh – who not only wrote the Q-dos version that forms this year’s panto at His Majesty’s, but stars as usual as its gap-toothed Dame – is not enough to transform this strange tale of adulthood deferred into into the right material for a pantomime. There’s no real space for the normal comic characters of Dame and daft laddie; there’s no happy ending, nor any strong sense of resolution.

And as for the character of the kindly Magic Mermaid, played here by Elaine C. Smith – well let’s just say that in order to accommodate her voluptuous fishy presence, whole swathes of the plot have to be discarded. What’s left is a slightly uneasy explosion of essential plot elements, big musical numbers, and spectacular effects, wrapped up in raw local humour, and some spectacularly fine fish jokes, culminating in Elaine C.’s no-holds-barred version of I’m All About That Bass, No Haddock, with the bass pronounced as in the fish.

There’s still plenty of fun to be had, though, in a glamorous show that features an outstanding panto trio in Smith, McHugh and daft laddie Jordan Young. Scott Fletcher is a superb if slightly underwritten Peter Pan, Maggie Lynne a lovely Wendy Darling; and the wee lads playing her little brothers John and Michael are terrific, Michael clutching his teddy bear throughout. And if some of the fishy Salmond-and-Sturgeon political jokes fell strangely flat, on a night when Alex Salmond himself was in the audience – well, Scotland is divided, at the moment, on whether our leading politicians are wicked villains, or lovable national treasures; and no amount of panto fun, alas, can do much to change that.

At the Lemon Tree, meanwhile, Aberdeen Performing Arts and Visible Fictions offer up A Ladder To The Stars by Simon Puttock, a 45-minute show for under-5’s that starts briliantly, as performers Hannah Howie and Ronan McMahon tell the story of a little girl – an instantly lovable puppet-figure in a red dress – who is celebrating her 7th birthday, and receiving a lovely dancing-star music box as a present.

The problem, though, is that after the little girl makes her birthday wish to go dancing with a star, she soon vanishes from the story. The new protagonist is the star itself, a less well-defined character; and as he moves through an over-long (and confusingly ladder-less) quest to help the little girl fulfil her wish, the children in the audience grow restless.

And finally, at the point of resolution, the play abruptly decides to take on issues of ageing and death. Too much, too suddenly introduced, I’d say, for such a young audience; and although there’s some magical storytelling and design along the way, at the end there’s not even a chance to meet the two puppets who embody the transition that has robbed us of the little girl, but replaced her with an old lady who still has the same venturing spirit, and brave heart.

Peter Pan until 3 January; A Ladder To The Stars until 24 December.

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After The Storm – Arts On Mull

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on AFTER THE STORM – ARTS ON MULL for the Scotsman Magazine, 12.12.15.
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IT’S BEEN A STORMY SEASON ON Mull, and not only in terms of the weather. Back in July, something like a popular rebellion broke out on the island, after Comar – the new organisation combining the island’s two arts institutions, Mull Theatre and An Tobar gallery and music centre – announced a new management plan which involved maintaining the posts of creative director and chief executive, but getting rid of the organisation’s two long-standing artistic leaders, Alasdair McCrone of Mull Theatre, and music man Gordon Maclean.

So protest meetings were held, an elected shadow board was set up, the previous board resigned, and last week the Transition Board announced that McCrone and Maclean would be reinstated, with Alasdair McCrone taking over the job of Creative Director, and acting Chief Executive. Now, the grassroots Comar members’ organisation has begun the process of electing and appointing a new board; and as McCrone – a talented actor as well as a director – takes the stage as the Dame in the Tobermory community panto this week, it’s tempting to see the whole story as something of an island fairytale, in which the good people of the village triumph over the dark forces of modern management-speak, and top-heavy administration.

As he settles into his new role, though, Alasdair McCrone is under no illusions about an easy happy ending; on the contrary, he is well aware of the financial pressures that led the previous board to conclude that top jobs in the organisation had to go, and is clear that the levels of spending that were possible during the founding phase of Comar – when the organisation benefited from transition grants – cannot be built into its long-term plans.

“Essentially, we have a Creative Scotland grant of £416,000 a year, which represents between 70% and 80% of our income,” says McCrone, “and that’s just a little bit more than the total the two organisations had, before the merger. So my starting-point is that we should be able to maintain our level of creative activity, across theatre, music and the visual arts, and then look for ways to improve our income and expand Comar’s work, in a gentle, organic way. We’re hoping, for example, that Mull will start to benefit greatly from the new road equivalent tariff that’s just been introduced, which will slash car-ferry fares; so one priority for me would be to reinstate some kind of summer season on Mull, to meet demand from visitors.”

The idea of a summer season, of course, represents a nod to the history of Mull Little Theatre, founded at Dervaig in 1966 by actors Barrie and Marianne Hesketh; but as director of Mull Theatre – now based at Druimfin, near Tobermory – McCrone’s pride and joy is his programme of newly-commissioned plays, funded by Creative Scotland to tour throughout the country, which in 2016 is set to include Peter Arnott’s new play Unspotted Snow, about the ill-fated Franklin expedition to the Arctic, and Robert Dawson Scott’s The Electrifying Mr. Johnston, about wartime Secretary of State Tom Johnston, the visionary founder of Scotland’s Hydro Electric Board. First up, though, will be a revival of a gorgeous nostalgic play, Movietime, written by the late island bookseller David Pitman, and set in the projection booth of a 1940’s Glasgow cinema.

“I think the point about this organisation is that to make it work, everyone has to multi-task a bit. Gordon Maclean, our music director, is also a working musician, and a great technician. I’m happy to take on the responsibility of being Chief Executive, but I also direct plays, act and write; the same applies to the visual arts. And hopefully, if we keep our focus on the organisation’s creative output, we’ll be able to come together to make the idea of Comar work really well, both for Mull, and for the whole Scottish arts scene. Because in the end, the work we produce is the only reason we’re here; and so long as we remember that – well then, I’m optimistic.”

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Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (King’s, Glasgow), Flora’s Fairy Challenge

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on SNOW WHITE & THE SEVEN DWARFS at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, and FLORA’S FAIRY CHALLENGE at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, for the Scotsman 12.12.15.
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Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs 4 stars ****
Flora’s Fairy Challenge. 3 stars ***

IN THE FOYER at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, stands a model of Gerard Kelly’s famous panto boots, fashioned in gold. It’s just five years since Kelly’s sudden death robbed the Glasgow panto of its greatest ever ‘daft laddie’. Yet the presence of the boots is a measure of this panto’s special role as a bearer of the great Scottish pantomime tradition; and this year’s glorious version of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs – funny, picturesque, good-hearted and perfectly-pitched – reveals that tradition in thriving good health.

It’s not that this year’s panto, written and directed by Eric Potts, is short of contemporary references. The seven dwarfs, for example – played here by super-talented small performers – are involved in a Britain’s Got-Talent-type show; and there are a few Nicola Sturgeon jokes.

The show’s great strength, though, lies in its terrific core ensemble of players, led by Des Clarke as the “daft laddie” Muddles – channeling Gerard Kelly down to fine details of the body-language – with a magnificently glamorous and witty Juliet Cadzow as the wicked Queen Morgiana, and a quietly hilarious Gregor Fisher as the useless palace servant Hector. The sets are like something out of a pop-up fairytale book, Jenny Hayley-Douglas is a delicious Snow White; and some of the best panto traditions are played out with terrific gusto, including a superbly daft ghost scene, and a great final song-sheet, led by Des Clarke, that almost literally raises the roof.

Down among the tiny tots, meanwhile, Scotland now has a booming Christmas show scene for children aged six and under; and this year, the Citizen’ Theatre rolls out another brand new studio show for younger children. Written by Andy McGregor and Marianne Yeomans, Flora’s Fairy Challenge tells the beguiling tale of Flora from Auchtermuchty, played with terrific energy by Stephanie McGregor. Flora is a sturdy but often fearful girl in a sweater, who sets off for the North Pole in the hope of getting a selfie with Santa to add to her collection, only to be waylaid by the information that Santa’s sleigh has run out of the fairy dust that makes it fly, and all the world’s children are relying on Flora to find some more.

Theatrically, Andy McGregor’s solo staging of the story misses a couple of slightly obvious tricks, notably the magical chance to show a little puppet Santa-sleigh flying off successfully at the end; and the set for the North Pole Factory where Flora finally concocts the fairy dust has a slightly strange relationship with the narrative, offering so much information that a feisty audience of five year olds spent most of the show well ahead of the story.

The show scores magnificently, though, when it comes to audience participation, drawing the children into the heart of the adventure as helpers, advisors and cheerleaders; and there’s a truly blissful moment when the fairy dust recipe finally works, and little magic flakes of it begin to fall from on high, dropping a seasonal blessing on us all.

Snow White at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, until 10 January; Flora’s Fairy Challenge at the Citizens’, Glasgow until 31 December.

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