Hay Fever (Lyceum: 10th March -1st April ’17)

Rosemary Boyle, Susan Wooldridge, Charlie Archer. Photo credit – Mihaela Bodlovic

“Susan Wooldridge is sensational as Judith Bliss”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

The overarching theme in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever is one of contrast: theatre vs real life; keeping up appearances vs showing your true colours. And while capturing a lot of the inherent comedy in such situations, this latest production from the Lyceum Theatre Company and the Citizens Theatre, for me, goes one contrast too far in creating a production of paradox which ends up being somehow less great than the sum of its parts.

Without the traditional curtain opening at the start of the show, Tom Piper’s stark and stripped back set, which exposes a lot of the “backstage” area, is immediately visible. On first impression, it feels cheap and unfinished, leading me to worry I’ve walked into the theatre a week too soon. It does, however, create a rugged bohemian mood, which seems to make a lot more sense as the piece progresses.

When the action begins, much of it early on feels quite forced, with the first scene in particular a mass of very obvious stage directions with vases, cushions and sitting down. Thankfully, Rosemary Boyle as Sorrel allays many of my fears by capturing that much-needed sense of balance between theatricality and reality, with charming facial expressions, tone and timing all making her compelling to watch. In contrast her on-stage brother Simon (Charlie Archer) consistently leans towards being melodramatic, and it’s only in the final scene where his character starts to blend with the rest of his family that he feels like part of the same play as everyone else.

Indeed, this sense of mismatched acting styles also applies to the guests. Pauline Knowles brings a wonderful Jordan Baker coolness to Myra, with a clear journey in mood as she resists the madness around her, while Nathan Ives-Moiba (Sandy) seems quite content to bark his lines at anyone and everyone, with little subtlety or variation throughout.

Considering all of the above, perhaps what jars most about this production is how difficult it is to believe any chemistry or relationship between the family members and their guests. Susan Wooldridge, who is sensational as Judith Bliss in the second half of the piece, with commanding presence and vitality, is perhaps too old and withering to be believed as Sandy’s obsession, while Benny Baxter-Young’s frustrated and frumpy David seems the exact opposite of what Myra and Jackie would endure a trip to this house for. Individually the characters work, but together they don’t.

Hywell Simons and Katie Barnett. Photo credit – Mihaela Bodlovic

In saying that, there are some moments of brilliance. My personal highlights include the hilariously awkward arrival of Jackie and Richard – deftly played by Katie Barnett and Hywel Simons – which captures just how amusing British politeness can be to the outside eye, while Clara (Myra McFadyen) dazzles every time she sets foot on stage, particularly in the unexpected interlude. Even more unexpected (for everyone concerned) in this performance was the breakfast trolley’s stage direction to topple over, which though admirably covered by quick-fire improvisation, perhaps most deftly sums this production up: funny but off-balance.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 14 March)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

A Step In Time (The Magnuson Centre, Edinburgh Academy: 10th & 11th March ’17)

“The group demonstrates all the qualities that make show choirs eminently lovable”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

In large part thanks to a popular American TV series from the 00s, being in a show choir has become a lot more socially acceptable – even “cool” in some circles – in recent years, so it was great to see a packed house for Edinburgh University Footlights’ latest show, and a stage full of diverse young people who love being there.

In A Step In Time the group demonstrates all the qualities that make show choirs eminently lovable: fun renditions of upbeat popular tunes, killer vocals, show-stopping choreography and smiles big enough to fill the room. But behind all the glitter and grapevines, did the performance itself deliver a knock-out punch? In my opinion, not quite.

Opening number Step in Time set the scene well as a lively and energetic introduction to the night’s proceedings with some clever, subtle changes in lyrics and arrangement to make the song feel like the choir’s own. Accompanied by full-on intricate choreography, it says something about the fitness and dedication of the group that they were even able to breathe for the next ten minutes, let alone perform song after song, complete with dance routines.

For me, it was a shame there was significantly more focus on the “show” rather than the “choir” elements of the performance, with complex choreography and numerous costume changes detracting from the vocals throughout. Harmonies and power were often lost in the frantic flailing of arms and apparel, and what remained was at times imprecise and unnecessary. The flow of the performance was also quite stilted, with some uncomfortable lengthy pauses between songs, hindering the overall enjoyment of the night.

However, it was in the simpler and more stripped backed numbers where the group really excelled: the 90s medley, Seasons of Love and the 00s medley in the second half really showcased the strength and depth of the choir’s vocal talents, and it’s a shame we didn’t see more consistent top quality vocals and arrangements like these from the choir as a whole throughout the show. There were also some beautiful stand-out solo and small group performances (specifically Believe, She Used To Be Mine and I Know it’s Today) which highlighted some really gorgeous individual voices.

I would have preferred more quality over quantity in terms of the choreography, using it cleverly in specific numbers to give wow-factor, with greater focus on the basics of group singing as the overarching emphasis. Overall I think the group tried to do too much too often, which left the lily not just gilded, but smothered in cream and cherries too.

Still, it was an entertaining performance from a talented bunch of young people, that was, on the whole, very enjoyable. I look forward to the next one.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 10 March)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Lyceum Variety Nights (Lyceum: 26th Feb ’17)

“A fab night of quality entertainment”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

“This is a night of pure joyful entertainment,” co-host Sian Bevan tells us in her opening gambit. And entertaining it absolutely is, with another excellently curated programme of work from seven fine artists across music, spoken word and theatre.

The Lyceum’s Variety Night, though, is more than about just going to see a selection of snippets of work from talented acts. What makes it extra special is the joy and level of informality of proceedings that sets a tone somewhere in between your regular night at the Lyceum and a slightly drunken party. And there’s a raffle.

Bevan and the programme’s producer Jenny Lindsay, who act as comperes throughout, seem genuinely excited to be there and by the acts they are about to introduce, and they are a very natural pairing. Once again, it’s a shame not to hear more from them by way of warm-up to the main event, but with such a packed a programme it’s understandable why they want to crack straight on with the action, which flows professionally and smoothly from one act to the next.

This night had a very noticeably Scottish feel to it, with Gerda Stevenson and Rachel Sermanni sharing some absolutely gorgeous and ageless poetry and song, while Aidan Moffat and Colin Maguire performed rather more masculine musings on ex-girlfriends and bed, among other things.

It was only Adele Hampton, right at the end of the evening, who perhaps brought that real sense of “variety” to proceedings. Hailing from Washington DC and with a very international flavour, her work stuck out both for its gentle, flowing lyricism, and engaging quality of never really feeling like she was performing, rather just talking to friends. The Creative Martyrs also shone with their cabaret-style double-act with a slight political message – easily the most risqué act in a relatively tame programme.

It’s a little rough around the edges – some of the performers use notes, there’s some coarse language thrown in from time to time, and the low-tech stage-sharing brings a sense of rawness and individuality to this unique show, but all of that makes it infinitely more likeable in my book. Everything about how the night is put together gives a sense of being part of something really special and celebratory, and as a one-off show it’s a real treat to know you’re witnessing something unique, like being part of a secret club.

Perhaps this was a little safer, with slightly less wow-factor than the opening instalment three months ago, but overall it was still another fab night of quality entertainment. I’m already looking forward to the next one.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 26 February)

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Lyceum Variety Nights (Lyceum, 6 Nov. ’16)

“Left me genuinely begging for more”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

One of the first things they teach you about writing reviews is not to gush: to keep your mass of uncontrolled instant reactions behind a dam and only let through those considered, pertinent and articulate comments that are most valuable to the reader. The Lyceum’s first variety night, however, attacked my stiff upper lip of a dam with such force as to make gushing almost inevitable, with an evening of real high quality and passionately delivered entertainment.

It feels very wrong to pass a simple two sentence judgement on each of the seven acts who graced the stage simply for the sake of wordcount – suffice to say every single one dazzled, entertained and left me, genuinely, begging for more. Author Christopher Brookmyre’s reading of a tale about a group of teenagers on an outing to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream transported us to that very place, creating wondrous magical moments; Luke Wright’s poetry had many audience members cheering before he’d even finished performing, with the gutsy IDS, a poem about Iain Duncan Smith, constructed using only words contain the vowel sound “i” being a real triumph of wordplay and wit. Jenna Watt’s excerpt from solo show Faslane beamed with all the relevance, energy and honesty of her five-star Fringe run earlier this year, and Glasgow band A New International brought the house down with some of their greatest theatrical gypsy folk pop songs, which was an uplifting and triumphant finale.

The acts themselves were all excellent – professional, well-prepared, and comfortable in the kind of setting where the audience is a bit more vocal than they might normally be. But the evening was hosted and compered by Sian Bevan and Jenny Lindsay who brought a wonderful human and sensitive likeability to their role. At times their witterings seemed a little underprepared, and it would have been nice to see them perform some of their own material, but it was easy to feel comfortable and inspired in their presence.

While pitched right in my personal sweet spot, it’s worth saying that at times the content was a little unashamedly left-leaning, and it’s a shame that there was quite a bit of similarity between some of the acts (for a real variety night I would have loved to have seen some more diverse art forms in there as well (for example: dance, art, circus, puppetry, maybe even a short film) but the relatively low-tech, one-night nature of the beast may well bring such limitations. One can only hope the format proves popular enough to make this event a more regular and extended feature within the Lyceum’s calendar.

Based on round one, I would urge anyone with any sort of passing interest in the arts to get themselves along to the next event on 26th February. I’ll be first in line.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 6 November)

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One Thinks of It All as a Dream (Traverse: 25-29 October ’16)

“Euan Cuthbertson as Syd shows great range and dexterity”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Competent, solid, predictable: words probably rarely used to describe Pink Floyd’s music, but to me the most apt in summarising One Thinks of It All as a Dream – the latest instalment in the Traverse Theatre’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint season. The play, which follows the band’s early years, in particular Syd Barrett’s influence, is interesting for those that know little of the history, but in all other respects doesn’t give much to shout about.

For a theatre piece about such a genre-defining and experimental band, one might expect an edgy or original approach to form and structure to creatively fit the subject matter (drugs and mental illness are common themes), but instead this production follows a simple linear narrative and style typical of (and there have been so many) a musical star’s biopic.

It is structured well in giving nods to all the necessary turning points and dramatic moments to keep interest in the narrative, and the second half flows very naturally in terms of building up tension and allowing the actors to really sell the story. Early on the dialogue is quite forced to convey necessary information – in particular in one party scene the characters all sit around discussing what’s just happened, which comes across as very stilted.

The more engaging parts of this show are the longer and more developed scenes – the first television interview, Roger’s meeting with a psychiatrist and the final few minutes in particular enable the development of more emotional involvement with the action. As quite a pacy piece covering several years it’s quite hard to build a connection with each moment: before you know it you’re off somewhere else again, trying to keep up with who’s who and where and when we are.

The acting is good, Euan Cuthbertson as Syd shows great range and dexterity, particularly in scenes with his father, and the other actors give credible support to keep the action moving. Jonathan Scott’s design should also receive special mention, creating a flexible yet stylish space for the actors to move around in and facilitate a smooth performance.

It’s a perfectly passable show, but not a great show. For me, another brick in the wall.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 25 October)

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Mischief (Traverse: 11-15 Oct ’16)

“Life-affirming and devastating in equal measure”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Ronnat and Brigid, mother and daughter, live alone on a small island, save for some cows that they tend to for a group of monks on a neighbouring island. But when the handsome young sailor Fari washes up on their beach, their little world is set to be changed forever. For his own good, Fari is sent off to live with the monks with the next dispatch of milk, but he soon becomes responsible for transporting the milk back and forward, meaning frequent visits to the women on the island, which have deeper effects on them all than any of them initially realise.

It’s a simple but intriguing set up, and Ellie Stewart’s writing creates a believable world and relationship web between the three characters that slowly unfurls as the play progresses. The plot is full of changes in direction and power between each one, keeping the tension alive throughout, and leading to a final scene and denouement that’s both life-affirming and devastating in equal measure.

While covering quite a “serious” overall topic, a fair amount of comedy is woven in, largely through quite overt sexualisation. Such moments are generally amusing, though do perhaps cheapen the play and divert attention away from the main drama, which is the piece’s real strength. Traditional singing and movement are also used throughout which in some ways add to the sense of history and ritual one would expect from such a setup, but in others seem a bit gratuitous in trying to cram in too many devices. Overall I think Mischief (a slightly misleading title) tries a bit too hard to do too much in such a short space of time.

What would make this play more effective would be a greater sense of stillness and time – there are quite a few scenes and scene changes as the story progresses at a pretty rollicking pace, but given the life-changing themes and choices presented, Gerda Stevenson’s slick direction never really gives enough opportunity for the situation or newly revealed facts to just hang and be absorbed. The young cast, in their earnestness, also seem very keen to over-emote and play up to stereotypical roles, when a subtler and more grounded approach would help make the play’s decisive moments stand out.

It’s a moving and captivating piece that’s cleverly written, but not realised to its full potential in this production.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 11 October)

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Breaking the Ice (Traverse: 4-8 Oct ’16)

“[Why no] Danish pastries at a convention attended by the Danish?”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

The Arctic. Surrounded by seven of the world’s most prosperous and empire-building countries, and ripe for colonisation – if they can all agree on the best way to approach it. Breaking the Ice is set during The Arctic Council’s General Assembly 2016, where negotiations are to take place, and Frank, geologist and stand-in scientific advisor to the big dogs, is due to address the delegates upon the potential impacts of various courses of action. That’s if he manages to find his speech and get his suit dry-cleaned in time after spilling yogurt down it at breakfast.

From the opening few lines it’s clearly a comedy piece, with discussions into the lack of Danish pastries at a convention attended by the Danish and the merits of embossing on business cards, setting the tone somewhere between Dario Fo and Fawlty Towers. Steven McNicoll as Frank is a commanding and charismatic storyteller, and, dressed in a bath robe throughout (due to the yogurt debacle), can clearly be trusted to tell it as it is rather than giving any politico spin. He’s vulnerable, likeable, with a sense of being completely out of his depth but enjoying the ride anyway.

What’s disappointing though, is that as the play progresses (with kidnappings, arrests, and encounters with locals and lawyers), McNicoll’s tone and demeanour show very little variation or development, and by the time he finally gets to address the conference (late, and still in his bathrobe), he appears to be in no way affected by all that has gone before, approaching it as he would making a cup of tea. There is a distinct lack of build-up in tension towards the climax (which in itself fizzles into nothingness), meaning the whole thing feels a bit pointless.

That’s not to say the structure doesn’t facilitate a suspenseful build-up. Throughout his morning Frank encounters many different characters, all of whom have a different point of view on the conference and proposed developments, and all of whom try to persuade Frank to consider theirs when making his speech. It’s a great device to get these viewpoints across, but their rapidity, comic delivery and minimal effect on Frank make them seem like little more then neighbours passing comment about the Jones’s new car than individuals whose livelihoods are set to be deeply affected by the outcome of the conference. It doesn’t quite fit together.

McNicoll as Frank is certainly clear and engaging, if quite one-dimensional in his journey. Jimmy Chisholm is more impressive with his range of characters, creating strong contrasts to communicate the complexity of the situation, yet Nicola Roy’s more melodramatic style seems to be at odds with everything else on stage resulting in a bit of a mismatch in interpretation of the script and lack of consistency throughout.

While there are plentiful very witty lines, some of the dialogue seems quite forced in order to shoe-horn in the humour – in particular, a discussion into an environmental activist’s kidnapping prowess smacks of being thrown in for comic effect, given how little it adds to the overall piece. I spent much of this performance wishing they would just get on with it.

Ironically, Breaking the Ice does quite the opposite – merely skimming the surface of the debate into the economic and geological future of the Arctic, without ever prodding deep enough to build a strong connection with the issues to leave a lasting impression. Much like an iceberg, this production feels like there could be much more to it, but we’re not able to see it.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 4 October)

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