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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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

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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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

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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+3 Review: Criminology 303 (Venue 13: 6-27 August: 21.30: 35 mins)

“An intriguing drama”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

Criminology 303 is an interesting concept – flipping between alternate scenes 40 years apart. Initially we meet retired detective Norma Bates (Jilly Bond) in 2016 reflecting on an unsuccessful investigation from her past, before the action reverts to 1976 where she is in the thick of it. We learn early on how this (the only unsolved case of her career) clearly still haunts her, so an intriguing drama is set up as to whether she might finally solve it on our presence.

Bond does a great job in switching between the two ages of her character – the crabby older version is a distinct progression from her greener and more confident younger self. And although prone to some overacting (I think her initial terror at the power point presentation misbehaving is a bit extreme), she shows great skill and stamina to drive the action in both scenarios.

This production’s main downfall, however, is its length. At barely half an hour, it feels like it only just gets going before very abruptly ending. There is no satisfactory resolution, no real sense of progression in either story beyond some scene-setting, and consequently the whole thing feels a bit pointless.

I would have liked to see the 2016 scenario develop into a discursive and positive look back at the case with a view to at long last solving it, rather than being a very rushed ghost story that scares Bates away from her own lecture. The pace of Bates’ descent into terror in this part feels very disingenuous, subverting the strength her character should have had (after 40 years in the force), so to me a more subtle and drawn-out approach here would have been more powerful.

In the flashback scenes Julian Gartside is commandingly creepy as Mr McLeod, yet Tommo Fowler’s direction has him physically touch and overpower Bates as detective on more than one occasion, which again feels forced and comes across as a cheap way to demonstrate status quickly, when other techniques would have had greater impact. The scene-setting and background to the background of the case in this scene is very well developed and delivered by Gartside, if seemingly a little irrelevant from the main story, but again I can’t help but feel this all would have been so much more effective if we got to see more about how the action panned out in the end – it is a frustrating beginning to a chapter that ends mid-sentence.

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 24 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: The Gin Chronicles: A Scottish Adventure (artSpace@StMarks: until 25th Aug: 18.30: 1hr)

“Just as stylish and enjoyable as the previous instalment”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

I was hoping that for this review I might be able to save myself a little work and effectively copy and paste most of my glowing review from the first chapter of The Gin Chronicles and that would be job done. Yet while much of what I loved about last year’s show is back – the overall premise and style of the piece, as well as many of the same faces on stage, for me, chapter two isn’t quite as fulfilling – Interrupt the Routine once again serve up a high quality gin but have perhaps skimped a little on the tonic.

Presented as a group of actors performing a radio play in 1947, it’s a very similar setup to the last outing – with four actors delivering a live broadcast of a radio play, and Luke Lamont more than capably producing all the sound effects live. With a note from the sponsor, a break midway through the action, and period set, props and costumes this piece really does have a lovely feel about it.

What Interrupt the Routine do very well is characterisation, in particular, slick and seamless transitions from one to the next. The cast of four play well over ten characters between them, and while some might only get a couple of lines, each one feels real and just as well-developed as the last. In saying that, it was a little disappointing that in this performance some of the regional accents (in particular Scottish and Spanish) seemed to slip on more than one occasion.

In terms of narrative, we see the useless but likeable amateur detective John Jobling (Robert Blackwood), once again supported by his rather more astute housemaid Doris Golightly (Helen Foster), trying to solve a gin-related crime. It’s all light-hearted stuff, but it’s only really towards the end that any sort of tension or detecting seem to come into play, and it’s a shame this isn’t brought in sooner, in favour of cutting some of the very nice but slightly unnecessary character vignettes in the first half of the production. The writing feels just a little lazy in places (references to “red lorry, yellow lorry” and an over-reliance on the name of “the Scottish play” being two examples) and the banter between the actors comes across as a little forced.

It’s still a very good show – just as stylish and enjoyable as the previous instalment – but for me lacks that extra garnish to make it really special.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 24 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: Care Takers (C, 3-29 Aug: 18.35: 55 mins)

“Astonishingly powerful”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

They say good things come in threes. To me, good theatre must have three essential ingredients: good concept, good script, good actors. Many shows have one or two of these, but this show has all three – and then some – making it very good indeed.

Care Takers analyses a simple conflict between a secondary school teacher who suspects one of her pupils is being bullied and the Deputy Head who will do nothing about it unless there is hard evidence. The tension is palpable, but a complex relationship between the pair unravels during four private meetings on the subject over a period of several weeks. What makes this show so engaging is the balance of how both sides of the story are played out – I found myself agreeing with both perspectives on more than one occasion, and power shifts from one to the other throughout to keep suspense all the way through.

From the opening phone calls she takes in her office, it’s immediately obvious that Deputy Head Mrs Rutter (Penelope McDonald) is busy: juggling budgets, workloads, staff, curriculum, and of course, her own career. She has experience and authority, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Cue the entry of Ms Lawson (Emma Romy-Jones) a newly qualified teacher: great at her job and genuinely concerned about the children in her care. The conflict that follows goes beyond what is best for an individual child, scraping away at personal prejudices, and questioning the very nature of what is best, and for whom.

McDonald and Romy-Jones both deserve awards for this performance, portraying characters so real that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a play. McDonald is infuriatingly powerful and charismatic as Mrs Rutter, giving the most compelling acting performance I’ve seen at the Fringe so far this year, while Romy-Jones creates a perfect balance as underdog Ms Lawson, with a more subtle approach to her character.

The acting is superb, but the script is also first class – seamlessly and succinctly giving the titbits of information needed to develop the story and create a situation that makes you want to jump on stage and sort it yourself. The dialogue is very natural, with each interaction sounding like a genuine conversation that tries hard to keep professional though personal tensions clearly want to take it elsewhere. Narrative development is a bit on the slow side, though I wouldn’t sacrifice this for the amount of depth we get to see from each character.

When things turn more dramatic towards the end of the play, the question arises – who’s to blame? Did the individuals involved really do all they could? It’s the kind of production where everyone will have an opinion that makes for a very lively discussion in the bar afterwards – and that’s exactly what makes this a five star show.

It’s a tense and gripping piece of theatre, which, although occasionally verges on being a little bit samey, has the potential (moreso than many of the shows I’ve seen this year) to make a big impact in the commercial market. I’d love to see it picked up by the Traverse or another producing theatre to take it further and watch it soar. With a few small tweaks it really could be very special indeed.

Care Takers is astonishingly powerful – a must-see for anyone working in secondary education or with responsibility for children of that age.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 17 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED