‘The Steamie’ (Brunton Theatre, 27 – 28 March’15)

Photo: Sam McNab

Photo: Sam McNab

“Out-and-out hilarious .. a cleansing experience “

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Many plays aspire to be immersive, but few could claim that word as literally as Scottish favourite The Steamie. Set in a Glasgow wash-house one 1950’s Hogmanay, this much-loved play is a rhapsody of basins and bubbles – following the gossipy banter of four local women as they look forward to the party to come. And in this out-and-out hilarious version of The Steamie, Lothians-based Quirky Pond faithfully recreate the unique ambiance of the communal laundry – starting with David Rowley’s set that is so realistic, I swear I even smelt the soap-suds in the air.

If the truth be told, Tony Roper’s 1987 script teeters on the borderline between the charmingly nostalgic and the wilfully old-fashioned. Very little actually happens – and while we get to know and love its cast of four indomitable women (plus one hapless man), the directions in which their characters develop are thoroughly predictable ones. So The Steamie will never make for a night of thought-provoking theatre, but it’s a carefree celebration of a simpler and friendlier age, a world which (if it ever existed) vanished down the plug-hole many years ago.

Director Andy Corelli has understood this straightforward appeal, and delivered a production that’s filled with witty detail yet feels uncomplicated too. There are plenty of crowd-pleasing set-pieces, while a constant bustle of physical activity sets the scene for a joyful gallop through Roper’s dense script. All of the cast display impeccable timing – faultlessly selling the humour Roper extracts from the unlikeliest of topics – and Sam McNab’s effective lighting creates some highly believable vignettes, bringing scenes from the characters’ imaginations right into the eponymous wash-house.

Among a uniformly strong cast, Alice T Rind deserves special note for her portrayal of Mrs Culfeathers – the steamie’s ageing matron, whose single-minded monologues underpin much of the script’s most memorable humour. But all of the characters are rounded and developed, avoiding the stereotypes which might bedevil a lesser treatment of Roper’s script. And there’s no doubting that the audience – some of whom knew the play so well they were reciting favourite lines a few seconds ahead of the cast – loved every minute of it. One of Rind’s best punchlines even triggered that ultimate accolade, a show-stopping round of spontaneous applause.

As a Steamie first-timer, though, I spotted a handful of minor issues. The opening scenes seemed a little rushed, especially as my Edinburgh-tuned ears struggled to adjust to full-throated Glaswegian. It was difficult to visualise the world outside the wash-house – they could surely have made more of their 1950’s soundtrack to help set the scene – and, churlish though it might be to comment on this, I sometimes sensed that the actors were enjoying themselves just a tiny bit more than I was. The fourth-wall-busting opening, which saw the whole audience joining in to get the party started, set an expectation of camaraderie which the rest of the play never quite managed to match.

These, though, are details. This is a laugh-aloud treatment of a laugh-aloud script, and a play which somehow contrived to make me nostalgic for a time I can’t even recall. And more than that, it’s reminded me of the importance of blether and friendship. This play about laundry is a cleansing experience for even the most jaded of souls.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Richard Stamp (Seen 27 March)

Visit Quirky Pond and the Brunton, Musselburgh, here.

‘Chess’ (Church Hill Theatre: 10 – 14 March’15)

The Chess game between Anatoly Sergievsky (Kenneth Pinkerton) and Freddie Trumper (Ali Floyd). Photo: Alan Potter, StagePics.co.uk

The Chess game between Anatoly Sergievsky (Kenneth Pinkerton) and Freddie Trumper (Ali Floyd).
Photo: Alan Potter, StagePics.co.uk

“Gorgeous creativity”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Outstanding

 

Fifteen years ago, in what can only be classed as a folly of youth, I went all the way to Frankfurt to see a production of Chess. I tell that anecdote to highlight two key points: firstly, that performances of this musical aren’t that easy to find, and secondly that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Chess nut. You can trust me, then, when I say it’s worth the bus trip to Morningside – because Edinburgh Music Theatre’s interpretation of the story is among the best I’ve seen.

Since its West End opening in 1986, Chess has had an appropriately chequered past. Written by Tim Rice and – of all people – Benny and Björn out of ABBA, it’s a 1970’s tale of Cold War intrigue set against the backdrop of a world-championship chess match. Being a musical, however, it’s also a schmaltzy love story; the juxtaposition doesn’t quite work, and the book’s been through a string of revisions in an attempt to find a winning endgame. Yet for all the plot’s faults, the soft-rock score ranks among my favourites, and there’s a sly humour to be found underpinning some of Rice’s more preposterous rhymes.

Without a doubt, the greatest strength of Edinburgh Music Theatre’s version is its engaging and hard-working ensemble. When they fill the stage, their voices truly fill the room, and I loved the little story vignettes that were often built into their tableaux. It’s a huge group of people, yet they’re made to seem even more numerous by a slew of rapid costume changes: far from the black-and-white styling you might be expecting, we’re treated to an unashamed riot of lumberjack shirts, sparkly pom-poms, leather hot-pants and flamboyant jeans.

There’s a gorgeous creativity to Mike Davies’ direction too – not just in the broad sweep, but in the minor detail, bringing out insights that are unexpected and new. A trivial example will show you what I mean: there’s a particular moment in a particular song when every director has the cast stamp their feet. It’s what the music seems to demand, and it captures the menace inherent in the East – vs – West storyline. But in this production, when the time comes, they look towards each other with cloying false smiles – turning the number on its head, to uncover a glorious comedy of manners.

Unfortunately though, the sheer size of the chorus occasionally overpowers the production. The iconic Anthem, for instance, is all about solitary defiance – and the impressive Kenneth Pinkerton was perfectly capable of holding the stage for it, without having twenty-odd singers troop into the foreground. More significantly, the chorus and the principals sometimes seemed to be in competition, with the leading actors’ lyrics often drowned out by a swelling accompaniment.

Among the other principals, it took me a while to warm to Ali Floyd as the American grandmaster Freddie Trumper; he lacked some of the boorish aggression his lyrics seem to imply. Still, he comprehensively won me over with his character-defining solo ‘Pity The Child’, which he performed with both vicious anger and electrifying restraint. Josephine Heinemeier also delivered some show-stopping moments as his partner Florence, while Lauren Gracie made an all-too-brief appearance as the Soviet grandmaster’s wife Svetlana. Gracie has a stunning voice, and it’s just a shame that the script (which, to be honest, isn’t all that big on women) makes us wait so long to hear it.

In the end though, the crowning achievement of Edinburgh Music Theatre’s production isn’t the solos or even the set-pieces, but the way it tells the story. The pace occasionally slips, but at their best they segue seamlessly from song to scene to song – building a sense of coherence and immediacy that even professional musical productions often lack. The climactic number ‘The Deal (No Deal)’ is genuinely exciting, presided over by a mischievous pair of god-like figures who delight in the havoc they’ve wrought. So if you’re tempted by this one, be sure not to miss it – that would be a folly at any age..

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer:  Richard Stamp (Seen 12 March)

Go to Edinburgh Music Theatre here

Visit the Church Hill Theatre archive.

‘The Effect’ (Summerhall: 11 – 14 March’15)

Cameron Crighton as Tristan and Scarlett Mack as Connie All photos: Firebrand.

Cameron Crighton as Tristan and Scarlett Mack as Connie
All photos: Firebrand.

“A well-thought-out and faultlessly-delivered show”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Set across the four-week span of a clinical drugs trial, The Effect (2012) is a play which tackles perhaps the highest concept of all: our ability to assess and analyse the workings of our own mind. Penned by Lucy Prebble , best known for writing the briefly-sensational ENRON, it’s revived here by Borders-based company Firebrand Theatre. Ironically though, Firebrand’s clinically-excellent performance throws into focus a few pronounced oddities in the script.

The “effect” of the title is the placebo effect – the powerful medical phenomenon which says that if we think we’re taking a drug, we’ll experience at least some of its benefits. Prebble explores that concept through two parallel storylines: a young couple who may or may not be falling in love, and a doctor who may or may not be depressed. Intellectually, I can see how this all hangs together, but it still felt like I was watching two plays uncomfortably squashed into one. “What is love?” and “Do antidepressants work?” are just very different questions, and I’m not sure it’s possible to tackle them both while doing full justice to either.

Much more successful, for me, were the human tales. On the one hand, there’s a sweet boy-meets-girl story – with the requisite courtship, predictable crisis, and the hope of a reconciliation by the end. It’s a time-worn formula, but it’s well-executed, and the tale has a twist that’s genuinely startling yet fully justified by the plot. Actors Scarlett Mack and Cameron Crighton do a fine job delivering characters we can love, with Crighton’s physical restlessness also adding plenty of interest to a series of otherwise quite static scenes.

Pauline Knowles as Lorna

Pauline Knowles as Lorna

Jonathan Coote as Toby

Jonathan Coote as Toby

Alongside them we have Pauline Knowles’ acerbic but secretly-warm-hearted doctor, who provides a lot of deadpan humour but clearly has a vulnerable side too. Knowles impressed me with her ability to inject subtle emotion, as did Jonathan Coote, playing the pharmaceutical-company manager with a secret in his past. It’s hinted early on that these two characters have met before, and the details of their relationship are revealed in carefully-measured doses – an ongoing mystery which underpins the first act of the play.

Fine acting and direction are complemented by an effective design. The whole production is stark and monochrome, filled with medical whites and impersonal greys, a choice which serves to highlight rather than diminish the colourful humanity on display. Every now and then the cast break off into stylised sequences set to a techno-inspired soundtrack, punctuating the wordy script while skipping lightly over the duller parts of the plot. At times it all grows a little protracted – and I certainly wouldn’t have minded if they’d cut the last ten seconds of the sex scene – but all in all, Firebrand Theatre do well to thread a coherent path through a complex storyline.

In the end, the effect of The Effect was a mildly frustrating one: the script tries too hard to draw connections, and ends up feeling both crowded and languid at the same time. But that’s no reflection at all on the production company, who once again (see our reviews of Outlying Islands and of Blackbird) have laid on a well-thought-out and faultlessly-delivered show. All in all, this one’s well worth catching on its remaining dates at Summerhall – for the questions it poses may be disjointed, but they’re still intriguing ones.

 

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Richard Stamp (Seen 11 March)

Go to Firebrand & Summerhall here

Visit the Summerhall archive.

‘Long Live The Little Knife’ (Citizens, Glasgow: 24 – 28 Feb.’15)

Neil McCormack as Jim Wendy Seager as Liz Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Neil McCormack as Jim Wendy Saeger as Liz. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

 

“Exquisite performances”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars Outstanding

nb. Long Live The Litte Knife is now on tour and plays at the Traverse  this Saturday, March 7, at 7.30pm.

This is a show about having balls, which might explain our curious ‘2* Outstanding’ rating, but it doesn’t. That’s down to great acting.

Ballsy, I maintain. Both literally – the “little knife” of the title is the one used to emasculate castratos – and figuratively, too. So here’s a ballsy statement of my own: despite playwright David Leddy’s reputation, despite compelling and committed acting, and despite the plaudits heaped on the show during its run at the Edinburgh Fringe … it isn’t actually very good.

There’s just far, far too much packed in. The play’s themes include love, loss, art, infertility, deception, class, and modern slavery – all tackled at breakneck pace, with alternating comic and tragic tones. At the very end, Leddy brings out the darkest topic of all – one that’s proved more topical than he can possibly have feared when he penned the script back in 2013. But by that point, and perhaps to my shame, I was so overloaded that I couldn’t bring myself to care.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s fine for a script to seem anarchic, as long as there’s something constant threaded through it, something you can recognise and grab onto. The problem with Little Knife is that there’s no central premise – unless you count a foggy concept that things aren’t ever what they seem. The principal characters are confidence tricksters, and the script is pulling a kind of trick of its own: persuading us that, because we’re feeling slightly confused, there must be something deep going on.

But I’m sorry, there isn’t. And that’s a big shame – because there are the outlines of some thought-provoking themes visible through the murk. At one point, it seems that Leddy’s about to deconstruct the whole concept of verbatim theatre, an exercise which could be both entertaining and genuinely profound. But it goes nowhere: there’s some off-the-wall dialogue between an actor and a techie, then the theme is quietly dropped, never to be discussed again.

The avant-garde clichés are abundant – that on-stage techie, actors who announce that they’re actors, stage directions read aloud – and there’s an over-worked set-up for a final flourish, which on the night I attended was thoroughly ruined by a glowing fire-exit sign. As I write this, they’re tweeting that they bought all their equipment from a builder’s yard. So?

Neil McCormack as Jim Wendy Seager as Liz Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Neil McCormack as Jim Wendy Saeger as Liz.                                   Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

What redeems the show, however, are exquisite performances from Wendy Saeger and Neil McCormack, who acquit themselves with considerable distinction in extremely challenging roles. Out of character, they’re friendly and welcoming; once the story begins, they keep the energy high as events become more and more absurd. And on the few occasions they’re allowed a little time, they show intense sensitivity, dropping the mood in an instant as the pain in their past is revealed.

Saeger is particularly powerful when her character recalls a dying son; McCormack, meanwhile, endures a wince-inducing crux scene, which very few actors could make so horribly real. It’s worth watching the background, too, as their reactions to events are often as compelling as the cavorting in centre-stage. So it’s five stars for them – but alas, even stellar performances can’t counteract a thoroughly frustrating and self-indulgent script.

outstanding

StarStar

Reviewer: Richard Stamp (Seen 25 February)

Go to Fire Exit here (!).

Visit the Traverse archive.

‘Dear Scotland’ (Scottish National Portrait Gallery: 24 April to 3 May)

Sally Reid as the unnamed woman in the 'Poets' Pub'. Photo: Peter Dibdin Painting by Alexander Moffat (1980)

Sally Reid as the unnamed woman in the ‘Poets’ Pub’.
Photo: Peter Dibdin
Painting by Alexander Moffat (1980)

‘Finely-honed, finely-tuned productions … You’ll have to go twice – because the twenty short plays are split into two groups of ten, performed on alternate days.’

Editorial Rating:Nae Bad

A National Theatre of Scotland production.

Dear Scotland provokes some complex responses, but the concept underpinning it is a wonderfully simple one. As you’re led round the National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street, you’ll find actors stationed in front of portraits – each of them cast as the man or woman portrayed in the work of art. Each actor delivers a script penned by a different playwright, in the form of a letter addressed to the nation. So you might hear, for example, the unmistakeable voice of Liz Lochhead … but spoken by a man, in the persona of Robert Burns.

The actors are paired with portraits without reference to their looks, or (hilariously) even to their gender. Colin McCredie as the Queen is a particular highlight; in some ways, he better captures our image of the monarch than the unflattering portrait hanging behind him. Such an overt mismatch avoids some moral issues, too. Playwright Johnny McKnight isn’t putting words in Her Majesty’s mouth, but offering an alternative Queen – one who tells us things the real Elizabeth would never be so gauche as to say.

Another piece, written by Peter Arnott, pulls the same trick the other way around; this time, he has Walter Scott lay bare the things we think, but don’t dare to mention. A gender inversion again works well, with Lesley Hart offering a memorable performance as a thoroughly modern Sir Walter. But to see both the pieces I’ve mentioned, you’ll have to go twice – because the twenty short plays are split into two groups of ten, performed on alternate days.

It’s worth a second visit, since seeing the same actors re-cast in different roles presents some intriguing juxtapositions and parallels. The scenes explore a fine range of the gallery’s exhibits too, from an exalted king to a nameless woman and from photographs through paintings to sculpture. There’s even, bizarrely, a monologue delivered by a dancer’s knee (though mercifully it’s played over loudspeakers).

Colin McCredie as James Boswell Photo: Peter Dibdin Painting by George Willison (1765)

Colin McCredie as James Boswell
Photo: Peter Dibdin
Painting by George Willison (1765)

So the individual pieces are often compelling, but does the whole show hang together? Overall, yes; the itineraries are finely-honed, finely-tuned productions. The actors’ dress and poses subtly echo the portraits – enough for you to notice, but not so much that it starts to feel mechanistic or trite. And the logistics are impeccable too, with an array of assistants escorting the audience through the gallery, in groups which feel like they move at their own pace yet somehow never collide.

But inevitably perhaps, for a work built from so many different pieces, there’s a clumsy repetitiveness to some of the themes. “Tour B” in particular shoe-horns a discussion of independence into each and every vignette – as though the whole of Scottish consciousness can be reduced to a “yes” or a “no”. “Tour A” explores a wider view of society, and feels much more subtle and thoughtful as a result.

Across both nights, the most striking scenes were those which challenged our complacent assumptions – dared to suggest that some of our nation’s faults might originate from within. Zinnie Harris’ script for a chorus of forgotten women will linger in the memory, touching a type of pain that lives inside us all. And Nicola McCartney’s complex, riddling monologue, spoken by a bystander, opens with a welcome yet carries a bitter sting in its tail.

At the end, you’re invited to write your own note to the nation – so here is mine: ‘Dear Scotland, let’s remember how to have this conversation; not just till September, but onward, into whichever future we choose. Let’s carry on learning about our past, and speculating about our present; because, with this elegant production, the National Theatre of Scotland shows just how entertaining that thought-provoking dialogue can be.’

 nae bad_blue

Reviewer: Richard Stamp (26 & 28 April)

Visit Dear Scotland homepage here.

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (King’s: 16 – 19 April)

Chris Myles as  Bottom Photo: Nobby Clark

Chris Myles as Bottom
Photo: Nobby Clark

‘unambiguously, unashamedly, unpretentiously hilarious’

Editorial Rating: Nae Bad

When I was a child, I couldn’t understand why half of Shakespeare’s plays were described as “comedies”; they seemed so resolutely unfunny. I wish I could have seen Propeller back then – because whatever else you might think of their Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s unambiguously, unashamedly, unpretentiously hilarious. There’s one particular scene which might just be the most entertaining five minutes I’ve ever spent in a theatre, and if they just stood and read from scripts for the rest of the running time, it would still be worth the ticket price for those moments of joy alone.

But of course, that’s not what they do. The director’s notes highlight a “rigorous approach to the text”, but his style and presentation are unashamedly modern. The piece is filled with bold, striking images – and it’s performed very much in three dimensions, with actors clambering and capering on ledges across the backdrop. The literal high point comes when Oberon and Titania first confront each other, perched on matching thrones far above the other actors’ heads, divided by the chasm of the stage.

The physicality of Propeller’s performance adds a lot to the humour, but it has a serious edge to it too. Joseph Chance’s Puck delivers just the right mix of the carefree and the sinister. The Rude Mechanicals are re-invented with a dash of Dad’s Army, though their comic play-within-a-play arguably suffers a little in comparison to the earlier scenes. And it’s all set off by an appropriately other-worldly soundscape – intriguingly created by the actors, live on stage.

But of course, Propeller’s work is best known for a completely different reason: specifically that the actors are all men. And surprisingly, it’s here that the sense of effortless coherence begins to break down, with their approach to Shakespeare’s women feeling distinctly variable. At one end of the scale, Will Featherstone plays Hippolyta convincingly as a female, while James Tucker’s punkish Titania is a fascinating creation – the perfect equal for Darrel Brockis’ magnificent, half-crazed Oberon. But with other characters, the gender inversion seems more of a parody, and seeing a male actor mincing and flouncing is a major part of the humour.

Humour, perhaps, is enough. But you can’t quite divorce Propeller’s concept from the gender politics of our modern day – and I’d been hoping for something more than that, some surprising sudden insights which a mixed cast simply couldn’t provide. As it is, I’m not sure they do quite enough to justify their most defining artistic decision. Still, this has to rate as one of the most entertaining Midsummer Night’s Dreams you’re ever likely to have – and a comedy that proves itself still worthy of the name.

nae bad_blue

Reviewer: Richard Stamp (Seen 16 April)

Visit Propellor at King’s homepage here.

The Last Bloom (Traverse: 15 – 19 April’14)

Anni Domingo as Cynthia and Cleo Sylvestre as Myrtle in The Last Bloom. Photo by Lesley Black

Anni Domingo as Cynthia and Cleo Sylvestre as Myrtle Photo by Lesley Black

” … questions about the alternative lives we all could have led, and whether it’s so very wrong to seek solace in them”

Editorial Rating: Unrated

In an old folks’ home somewhere in Jamaica, two elderly women squabble over the room they’re forced to share. Myrtle is fussy, inflexible, used to getting her way; Cynthia likes to please, but quickly turns prickly when she’s pushed too far. Myrtle’s the type who knows everyone else’s business, while Cynthia has a secret or two she’d really rather hide. The two have been sharing the room for three days now … and yet, they’ve only just got round to learning each other’s names.

It sounds like the set-up for a sit-com, and there are indeed some delicate moments of humour in this softly-spoken production. But as soon becomes clear, the bickering’s not quite as inconsequential as it seems: there’s a tragedy, perhaps two tragedies, developing before our eyes. It’s something we can easily imagine happening to people we love. It’s something which, one, day, might happen to ourselves.

Anni Domingo is striking as the newcomer Cynthia, deftly introducing the almost-imperceptible moments of confusion which hint at a weakness in her ageing mind. Later, when she starts to flash a child-like smile, it’s hard to know whether to feel deepest sorrow or purest joy. Cleo Sylvestre, meanwhile, perfectly embodies a character we all think we recognise – cantankerous and obstructive, yet soft and tender inside her shell. But the young-looking actors don’t quite capture the physical decay implied by the script; there are some stiff joints, admittedly, but the true bone-weariness we’re told they feel never quite comes through.

There are some interesting ideas in Amba Chevannes’ script: questions about the alternative lives we all could have led, and whether it’s so very wrong to seek solace in them. There are terrifying insights, too, into the future that might await us, and the possibility that the one thing we hold most precious might be stolen away.

And in a year when Scotland has its eyes turned inward, it’s refreshing to see the Traverse stage a play that’s set in Jamaica. The women’s shared patois is challenging at first, but soon develops into a well-judged point of interest – an insight into life that’s an ocean away, yet very much the same as our own.

Ultimately, though, the script leaves too much unexplained or unexplored. At times it feels like there’s a missing scene; at one point, an inconceivably terrible wrong is forgiven and forgotten in the blink of an eye. And the brief epilogue, though poignant, returns to the generic – doing little to crystallise or resolve the tumult that’s gone before.

It’s a shame, because this is a play which speaks of personal experience, and it feels like Chevannes has an elusive message she’s hoping we might hear. But still, there’s plenty to ponder. And perhaps it’s appropriate – when the play’s so much about lying – that it isn’t too specific about what we’re meant to believe.

Reviewer:Richard Stamp (Seen 15 April)

Visit The Last Bloom homepage here.