Love Song to Lavender Menace (Lyceum Studio: 12 – 21 October ’17)

16.(L-R) Matthew McVarish and Pierce Reid. Photo credit - Aly Wight

Matthew McVarish and Pierce Reid. Photo credit – Aly Wight

“A delightful gem of a show”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Bookshops, especially independent ones, often have a comforting and homey feel to them, providing a peaceful sanctuary and hidden paradise of worlds waiting to be explored. Indeed, that’s what Lavender Menace proved to be for many of those that visited it back in the 1980s, as Edinburgh’s foremost seller of LGBT and feminist literature – and that same feeling is what James Ley’s latest play captures in his moving and comical tribute not just to that shop, but to Edinburgh’s gay scene at the time, and the colourful characters that made it.

Set during the night after the shop’s final day’s trading, we meet two of its employees, Glen (Matthew McVarish) and Lewis (Pierce Reid) who spend the night packing away the books, while reminiscing and creating an homage about the place to perform for its founders the next morning. The pair recount how the bookshop came to be, the antics that occurred, and how their own friendship has developed during that time. It’s a simple setup, and while a little lacking in dramatic tension to really drive the piece forward, the stories themselves are easy to engage with, Ros Phillips’ direction keeps everything moving at a decent pace, and there are many laughs to be had throughout the various capers presented.

What’s most delightful about this performance is the vitality and honesty that oozes from its stars Reid and McVarish. The duo are instantly likeable storytellers, while their skill at multi-roling with speed and dexterity must also be applauded. Watching a full-length play with just two actors can sometimes be a bit of a slog, but this one flies by like an evening spent with good friends. Ley’s writing on the whole is very natural, providing some genuinely lovely snapshots of the shop’s history, but it’s Reid and McVarish who really bring those snapshots to life.

It’s a shame the structure of the play goes a little awry in the second half with various seemingly random changes in time, place and character. While such devices work smoothly early on in the production, seamlessly weaving together the different stories, it becomes much harder to follow as the piece progresses. Perhaps something around the hysteria of the characters, who have clearly been up most of the night by this point kicks in, but the tightness of Ley’s writing does unravel somewhat. For me, the love story between the two also seems a little shoe-horned in for dramatic effect, though its resolution is ultimately satisfying.

Overall, this is a delightful gem of a show, which, like a well-loved bookshop, might not be as glossy and polished as the more mainstream ones, but is definitely one I would be happy to visit again.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 13 October)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Jury Play (Traverse: 3-7 October ’17)

“The fourth wall isn’t so much broken as shattered”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Sometimes the power and excitement of a show begin long before you take your seat, and remain with you for several days after. For Jury Play, a detailed email briefing is circulated in advance of the performance/court appearance, creating intrigue into what the evening will entail: it’s worth saying at this point that this is in no way like your standard trip to the theatre. The excitement only builds as you go through “security”, enter the (optional) ballot to become a jury member, and start to leaf through your court information pack while taking in Emily James’s impressive and sizeable courtroom set.

Yet what, on the surface, appears to be conceived as an interactive courtroom drama, where the prosecution and defence present facts about a given crime and a resolution is reached by the audience/jury, what Jury Play peels away at is what effect the trial process has on individual members of the jury, specifically for trials that last for weeks.

At various points during the trial, voiceovers expressing jury members’ thoughts are overlaid with the action, which include worries about getting children to school, paying bills, what specific legal terms mean, and even staying awake. Snippets of video conversation between writers Dr Jenny Scott and Ben Harrison about the performance also add a pleasingly Brecthian feel and help break up some of the monotony of the trial itself. So far, so so. Everything changes in Act ii, however, when the formal trial is over and the power lies in the jury’s hands. I won’t give away all the spoilers, but I shall simply reveal that organised chaos ensues, and the meat of the piece really comes out as an intelligent, human, and common sense discussion into the way we conduct trials.

When it comes to the performance it is John Betts as Judge who commands the show, and with his hilarious doddery asides and sensitive chairing of the discussion in the second half of the piece, you feel like you’re in his space, and he decides at any given point how comfortable anyone is to feel. Helen Mackay is also excellent as the conscious “everyman” figure Janis, who just wants to do her duty, and the cast as a whole make the performance very accessible: the fourth wall isn’t so much broken as shattered, with a piece of it distributed to each and every person in the room.

For me, though perhaps a reflection on the subject matter it discusses, Scott and Harrison’s script is too laboured and lengthy at points – missing some crucial details to aid comprehension in the first half, and dragging out its point in the second. The ending, while interesting and fitting stylistically with the piece, also feels like a bit of a cop-out and rather abrupt – as if the ideas just ran out at that point and there was nowhere else to go.

Overall this is a fascinating insight into the legal system, what it’s like to be a jury member, and how seemingly unfit for purpose the whole setup is – especially for people like me who have very little knowledge of its intricacies. Jury Play is absolutely worth taking part in, if there’s any room left in the public gallery.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 5 October)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Fag/Stag (Underbelly, Cowgate: 3-27th Aug: 16.00: 60mins)

“A triumph… top marks”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

When it comes to producing good theatre, sometimes the most simple ideas are the most effective. Fag/Stag is a case in point. It follows the lives of two best friends (Corgan and Jimmy) in the run up to a mutual friend (and former crush)’s wedding and is staged with just two actors – each playing one of the friends – and two stools, plus a couple of token props to help set specific scenes. What unravels is an absolute masterclass in story-telling, from both the written and performed perspective.

While structured as two interweaving monologues, the script contains clever overlaps allowing both characters to present their respective accounts of specific incidents: often to humorous effect, (tempering self-indulgent exaggerations) yet sometimes to fill in poignant details the other may have been too ashamed of (or drunk) to share.

And therein lies the power of this piece – the frankness of story-telling. We get to see the full picture of both characters’ insecurities and weaknesses, either from their own mouth or from the mouth of their friend, which means we get to know and empathise with them very quickly. It’s both comfortable and compelling to watch.

What’s most touching about this performance is how it beautifully and understatedly presents a relationship not often seen on stage – a straight man, Corgan (Chris Isaacs), and his gay best friend Jimmy (Jeffrey Jay Fowler). Theirs is evidently a true and caring friendship, with late night emergency calls to rescue each other from sticky situations, an ease with they can talk about really personal issues, and a bluntness in dealing with each others’ misdemeanours head on-on. Their differing perspectives on specific situations is often amusing, but what comes across most emphatically is the importance of sticking up for your buddy, whoever they are.

The plot itself sees Jimmy try and come to terms with his break-up with his long-term partner, and Corgan’s attempt to deal with the fact his former love is marrying another man. It’s fairly emotive in parts, with longer monologues drilling down into details and feelings, yet performed with the vibrancy and sensitivity required to keep it captivating throughout. There are also plenty of laughs to be had, most notably regarding a certain scent of air freshener referred to on multiple occasions

By keeping the design and direction very simple throughout this piece, The Last Great Hunt allow the story and quality of acting to really shine through. This really is a triumph in getting the basics of a show absolutely right, and many other companies can learn from this production. Top marks.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 24 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Columns (theSpace on the Mile: 14-26th Aug: 10.55: 60 mins)

“A really joyous production”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

If there were an award for theatre company I most want to be friends with, The Wax House (formed by Laura Day and Alexander Hartley) would win it hands-down. Their smiles, personalities and passion for what they do is infectious, and that’s what’s most resounding about this performance of new work Columns. It feels more like you’ve popped round to a mate’s house for fun story time than a converted hotel function room on the Royal Mile, and the atmosphere of the piece really does transport you to a happy place.

The story follows two main characters: Sophie (Day), a personal trainer with an estranged mother and rather volatile relationship with her father; and Joe (Hartley), a pot-plant enthusiast whose parents upped and disappeared without a word almost two years ago. At its heart is a theme of reconciliation and helping others come to terms with loss.

The mainstay of the story is Sophie’s quest to help Joe deal with his parents’ unexplained disappearance, and the questionable moral choices (such as impersonating his mother in a voicemail message) she makes along the way in so doing. It’s a simple and effective approach to create tension and drive the piece along, as we do follow her thought process and qualms at each step, though it’s a shame how easily it all turns out in the end: some of the journey and struggle is cut short, cheating the audience of a full feeling of satisfaction.

Indeed, what is rather frustrating about Columns overall is the number of loose ends and glossings over of facts that are rather central to the story: proof of a certain phone call, and Sophie’s motivation to undertake her first piece of exploration being key examples. Yet what is there is performed with such warmth and vivre that these flaws are almost forgotten by the end.

The company make clever use of carboard boxes as their set and props throughout, each painted with different patterns and images on each side, and which are then variously arranged to create different scenes. This action adds to the playful, happy nature of the piece, as do the audio interludes accompanying each scene change, seemingly capturing unplanned snippets of Day and Hartley in discussion about the show.

The performance I saw was a relaxed one, adapted specifically to suit those who find the traditional theatre environment too formal to sit still and quiet in for an hour. Day and Hartley certainly make the space welcoming and friendly one to be in, encouraging us all to be ourselves and respond however we felt comfortable to. I’d never been to a relaxed performance before, but would absolutely recommend it for those who might face barriers to access theatre normally.

Overall this is a really joyous production, but needs more work on the script and details of the story to take it to the next level.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 24 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

#JeSuis (Zoo Southside: 16-26th Aug: 20.30: 45 mins)

“Hugely powerful…all this show needs is an audience”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

#JeSuis isn’t just a stunning piece of contemporary dance from Aakash Odedra Company. It’s a galling political movement in response to the global media disparity in coverage of the growing number of displaced people worldwide. And what hits hardest in this performance is the sheer determination and resilience of a group desperate to have their voice heard.

On a basic level #JeSuis presents the hopeless waiting, the loneliness, danger, shaming and stigma of being a refugee, through a series cleverly woven scenes and images that are at once beautiful and brutal. The piece starts slow, as we see the performers wait for something, anything to happen, and when a grizzly authority figure enters and the phone rings, desperation boils over and violence erupts. The use of structural and architectural lighting in this section reflects the harsh rules and boundaries displaced people often find themselves within, adding an extra layer of discomfort as dancers are enclosed within small spaces of light, thrown away from the light, or have a spotlight shone directly in their faces.

The movements are frantic and jagged – as if each limb is under remote control of a six-year-old child on speed – and the quality signifies the alarming lack of control the individuals have over their situation. The imagery created is stark: we see dancers desperately attempt to move freely, to being physically wrapped in layers of cling film while they continue to fight, to the more aggressive restraining of an individual who reaches for the ever-present microphone to one side of the stage. But perhaps most powerful in the early part of the performance is an apparent sexual assault conducted by the authority figure, leaving his victim broken while the others can only look on.

Yet it’s not all darkness and depression – a sense of comradery builds between the group to over-throw their oppressor towards the second half, with rousing unison sequences and a role-reversal as they hold back the authority figure from achieving his own goals. The token use of sung and spoken word are a perfect complement to all the other ways the dancers attempt to express themselves throughout the piece, and it’s evident that something has to give. Yet even as the next chapter emerges at the show’s climax, it’s with a distinctly bitter-sweet sentiment, as the rigid unison once again feels like overbearing control of a different kind.

This performance of #JeSuis is a work in progress, with further development scheduled for the second half of the year, though from here it’s hard to see how much better it can get. From a theatrical perspective seeing some of the individual characters and journeys developed would help build a greater empathetic connection with their stories, otherwise all this show needs is an audience. Even as a work in progress this is a hugely powerful piece of contemporary dance, perhaps made all the more poignant given the fact it is unfinished, like many of the struggles faced by those it represents.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 22 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Fragile Man (theSpace on the Mile: 10-26th Aug: 11.50: 50mins)

“The structure and story are a stroke of genius”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Suicide is a topic that’s difficult to talk about on all fronts. It is the biggest killer of men in the UK under the age of 50, and this alarming trend doesn’t appear to be fading away any time soon. It’s refreshing, then, that some shows at the Fringe this year approach the issue in a sensitive, accessible way, and Fragile Man is one of them.

Set on a remote hilltop at dusk we meet two men, one apparently on the verge of committing suicide and one who steps in just in time to save him. It seems like a fairly predictable set-up, yet what unfolds is an attempt at reconciling a frank discussion into the hard-hitting issue of male suicide with a thrilling dramatic play. The two sound like they shouldn’t work together, but they almost do. Almost.

While several elements of David Martin’s script are quite clunky and cliched, the overall structure and story Fragile Man follows are a stroke of genius, cleverly peeling away at the layers of the two characters to reveal a gripping and thought-provoking heart. Only in the last few minutes does it all “click” into place, and with some polishing in the sticky areas, the writing could be the basis of a really intelligent piece of theatre.

As an emotive and challenging two-man show, with a hefty amount of multi-roling, it’s a big ask from actors David Martin and Richard Miltiadis to sustain the tension for a whole hour. They make a commendable effort and absolutely give it their all, but at times both seem a bit out of their depth with the magnitude of the piece, often resorting to overly emotional responses and exchanges, when at times a more withdrawn and subtle approach would help create more contrast and power. Though for new company performing a debut piece, I should perhaps cut a little slack.

When it comes to Jacqs Graham’s direction, the physical nature and more stylised elements of the performance, while creative, sometimes feel disingenuous, not aided by the quite choppy scenes and dominating set the actors variously crawl in and out of during the transitions. For me, a simpler approach to both the direction and design would be more effective to maintain a consistent and honest feel throughout. In saying that, some of the cutaways from the main story – including the confession scene and direct address in the lecture – do work very well, flowing seamlessly and maintaining the integrity of the set-up, and it’s a shame the whole piece isn’t performed at this level.

This is an important and interesting play, which, if not quite worth shouting about, should, like the subject it addresses, at least be talked about far and wide.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 22 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Two Sides of the Curtain (theSpace on the Mile: 14-19th Aug: 19.05: 50 mins)

“Emotive and gripping”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars:

Two Sides of the Curtain follows the struggle of Ada and Erich – lovers on either side of the “curtain”, who long to be together, but, for whatever reason, can’t. At least that’s what I think it’s about. I’ll admit I’m no expert on the history and politics surrounding the Cold War and the specific reasons why people were and weren’t permitted access to certain places, but even by the end of the performance I didn’t feel much the wiser.

Erich seems to have a job that gives him quite a lot of political and practical clout, including the freedom to travel around the country (presumably Germany) as he chooses, while much of Ada’s reluctance to run away with him seems to come from lack of will rather than fear of being caught in the process, though it’s never particularly clear why she makes the decisions she does. Indeed, it’s quite frustrating how little we get to learn about both characters throughout the piece, making it hard to empathise with them at any given moment.

Shifts in time and place are also difficult to comprehend – I spent much of the show trying to work out when and where the action was taking place, with very few clues – in either the script, direction or design – to assist. Token pieces of props or set – had there been any – may have helped to some extent, but it’s the lack of detail in the script which is the main problem. If writer Jack Kelly aims to create a thick fog of mystery surrounding the piece he certainly succeeds, but more detail up front would definitely help laymen like me wade through it with him, rather than being left languishing in an ignorant abyss.

In saying that, the play does have commendable ideas: the struggle of two lovers on either side of a dangerous line is emotive and gripping, as are the twists that develop in the closing couple of scenes – it’s a shame this all comes so late on. The performances are solid: Rachael Naylor as Ada is very natural and easy to watch, while Andrew Crouch as Erich shows great emotional range and charisma. There is potential here to make a really gripping show.

Overall this is a good effort from Sussex University Drama Society, but the flaws and holes in the script just make it too difficult to fully engage with. If you like a show where you have to do a lot of guessing and detective work to piece together what’s going on, or perhaps are a lot more clued up on what it’s like to live in Cold War Berlin than me on any given Saturday evening, this show might be for you. But I’m still trying to work out who, where and when I am.

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 19 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED