War in America (Former Royal High School/King’s Theatre: 24-27 May ’17)

Connor McLeod as Mr Slype. Photo by Greg Macvean

“Some fine performances from the young cast”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

War in America’s revival in the build-up to the current UK General Election is very apt – and almost feels as if it is written especially for this moment, though it is now over 20 years old. The narrative sees the rise of a female political leader (known only as “She”), who hides behind a variety of lies, disguises and games in order to get to the top. Meanwhile, in a pleasingly Orwellian set-up, our little man Mr Slype (a rather spineless MP) is bullied by rival parties to vote for a law he neither wants nor doesn’t want, and some rather underhand tactics see him inadvertently give his vote to She, handing her the reins of the country. What happens after gets a little confusing.

Given the setup and opening few scenes where the main characters and topics are introduced, the first fifteen minutes of this production really makes it feel like a cutting-edge, gripping political drama – not too dissimilar from Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, which I reviewed last year. Jo Clifford’s dialogue is cutting, intelligent and witty, Susan Worsfold’s direction is slick, and there’s palpable tension between rival factions to keep us on our toes. The production loses its way somewhat in the second half, however, and tries to cram in too much with too many characters and melodramatic revelations, that it becomes more of a slog to sit through.

That being said, there are some fine performances from the young cast, most notably Andrew Cameron as the cunningly-named and deftly acted Mr Fox, who is very charismatic and convincing and throughout. Scenes with him and his assistant Alfred (Mark O’Neill) were among the most compelling of the performance, and I could easily picture them on a bigger stage receiving great acclaim. Connor McLeod is also strong as Mr Slype, with great variation in swagger and guilt from scene to scene.

It is, however in the more dramatic scenes where the tension and integrity of the piece slips. She’s relationship with her estranged daughter fails to ring true throughout the piece – distinctly missing the deep emotional connection needed to be convincing, and its climactic resolution is very sloppy compared to the polish evident in other areas. Indeed, many aspects of the show like this come across as rather rushed, when a more considered approach would be more powerful. While in general it’s a gutsy effort from the young cast (and great for them to be getting involved with works on important subjects like this), I think in some cases it would have been beneficial to have some more experienced actors to give the brutal narrative the necessary punch it needs.

And the “too controversial” content, which led the show’s initial production being cancelled 20 years ago? For me that must have been a lot of fuss over very little, as the more overt elements were perfectly pitched within the overall mood of the piece, never seeming gratuitous or unnecessary. Indeed, the scenes with sexual content were handled and incorporated very well, and while spawning a few titters, were powerful insights and metaphors into the darker side of politics. If anything, I think these elements could be pushed further.

Overall this is a show with fantastic potential, and with some more development could be very special indeed.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 26 May)

Visit the King’s Theatre archive.

Glory on Earth (Lyceum: 20 May – 10 June ’17)

(L-R) Christina Gordon, Rona Morison, Kirsty Eila McIntyre
Photos: Drew Farrell

“Evocative, imaginative drama”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Outstanding

You’re 18 and you don’t know the 2nd Psalm. Well, that’s you written off. You do know a good few dance moves but that doesn’t cut it. Your stock is worthless, you’re ignorant; best go home little girl.

Ah, but where’s home? And who are you calling cheap?

Ans: Mary Stuart, born Linlithgow, brought up in France from the age of 5; Queen of Scots and actually in Scotland from 1561 to 1568, forced to abdicate, kept ‘safe’ under house arrest in England for 19 years and then beheaded, aged 44, in February 1587. Mother, via the union of the crowns, of James VI and I.

So much for dates and titles – but that’s not to dismiss their grip, far from it – it’s just that Linda McLean’s new play creates evocative, imaginative drama from the baleful encounters of the young, attractive queen with the almighty John Knox. He’s there from the off, in front of the curtain, in clerical black and giving new definition to the reproving stare. God’s word, you understand very, very quickly, is “non-negotiable”.

At least Mary has the support of her ‘Marys’, six of them in this telling, who attend her, dance freakpop with her (… really liked that!), and review her suitors in a modern, OMG/ “Awkward”, kind of way. There’s a disciplined choric role in there too, in whispers, gesture, and half lines, as well as the harmonious choral interludes, mostly in French. In other, opposed, parts the Marys are privy councillors and reformers. Queen Mary’s life is here, opened and closed by the executioner’s block, but the tawdry and the sensational (& the melodramatic) are absent: no Darnley, no Rizzio, no Bothwell – just her searching and bold question to Knox, “Do you see a bad person, Sir?”

(L-R) Jamie Sives, Shannon Swan, Christie Gowans, Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Christina Gordon, Fiona Wood, Kirsty McIntyre, & Rona Morison

James Sives, as Knox, is too cool to rise to the question. And he’s damnably clever, in or out of his pulpit in St Giles. Hear Sives and hear the preacher’s ‘History of the Reformation’, righteous and utterly fearless. He walks on stage and kills the dancing stone dead. An unexpected and rather wishful soundtrack of France’s finest minstrels: Piaf, Francoise Hardy, Christine and the Queens (sic), cannot stand. However, Brel’s ‘La chanson des vieux amants’ probably does touch him, as he grieves for the loss of his first wife, but then Brel was Belgian.

Rona Morison, as Mary, has the sympathetic part, the level gaze (female) and the appealing voice. More principled and upright than pliant or weak, and so much younger, this Mary is an important addition to the historical strumpet/martyr and – should you browse Netflix – an invaluable corrective to the endless episodes of CBS’s  ‘Reign’.

David Greig directs with a clear eye on what mattered then and should still matter now. Knox won and Mary failed. The austere and the severe are there in the steel blue lighting and the greys of an uncluttered set and in Knox’s strict delivery. Where there’s a wide and colourful tapestry, there’s dancing and short-lived levity. Elizabeth I, speaking through a mask, is both laughable and ominous and maybe the scheming Scottish nobility could have used the same distancing device. The disrobing of the queen at the end has its own proper and tragic significance.

‘Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.’    From Psalm 2.

You won’t fall to your knees but Glory on Earth will make you give thanks for new writing and live theatre.
.

outstanding

StarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 23 May)

Glory on Earth is at the Lyceum

Visit Edinburgh49 at The Lyceum

Edinburgh Quartet (Queen’s Hall: 27 March’17)

Painting by Erik Petrie

“The band’s playing being bolder and more committed as they got into their stride”

Editorial Rating:  3 Stars

The life of a professional musician has always been tricky, whether you were Mozart churning out prodigious quantities of glorious music against impossible deadlines and demanding creditors, Shostakovich keeping Stalin and his apparatchiks at bay, or even today as a rank and file player with the necessity often to freelance and keep several irons in the fire, both for the benefit of professional development and regular employment.

All these aspects were present at Monday’s Queen’s Hall recital by the Edinburgh Quartet. First, the line up. The first violin desk has been filled by a variety of (very talented) artists since Tristan Gurney left for London last year and was tonight filled by Zoe Beyers. Second violin Gordon Bragg also plays for the RSNO and is currently touring with them in Florida, his place being taken on the night by Tom Hankey. Catherine Marwood ably took the viola desk on behalf of Fiona Winning, leaving only Mark Bailey on cello as part of the regular band. I am afraid, notwithstanding good individual playing, it showed – a bit. Talented individuals do not necessarily an ensemble make.

The evening started with Mozart’s String Quartet in D Major K575. Composed towards the end of his life and published posthumously it is an enjoyable work that allows each member of the band to show off their individual talents, a wise choice here in that their experience of playing together is limited. It made for an easy to get into start to the evening, with Catherine Marwood’s viola to the fore supported by Mark Bailey’s Cello.

There followed Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 1 in C major. A short (fourteen minute) romantic work, yet of some intensity but also tunefulness, it surprised and pleased the audience as not coming as too much of a shock after the Mozart; the band’s playing being bolder and more committed as they got into their stride.

The evening concluded with Beethoven’s String Quartet in C major No 3 ‘Rasumovsky’ one of three so named after its sponsor, the Russian Ambassador to Vienna. Again, the work offers plenty of scope for the individual players to respond to, as well as some good ensemble playing as the Quartet were by now fully warmed up. There was real verve in the opening movement, particularly in the Allegro vivace, smooth togetherness in the Andante con moto quasi allegretto supported by well despatched cello pizzicato and really good ensemble playing in the Menuetto. The work was brought to a close with a high sprirted, high speed Allegro molto.

The concert was part of the Edinburgh Quartet’s season branded ‘EQ:Revolution’ and as before an artist from a different genre offered a complementary interpretation. In this instance it was Erik Petrie who went on stage, as he has done at others, to describe three colourful artworks, influenced by music and revolution, commissioned by the Quartet. The theme is certainly applicable to Shostakovich but more nuanced elsewhere. Petrie is an artist and was a little uncomfortable talking, understandably so when mentioning that the artworks were available for sale, albeit with the very noble cause of thereby providing financial support to the Quartet.

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 27 March)

Go to the Edinburgh Quartet

Visit Edinburgh49‘s Queen’s Hall archive.

Further than the Furthest Thing (Bedlam, 14 – 18 March’17)

Tiffany Garnham as Mill and Oscar Gilbert as Bill

“… a fascinating and celebrated play “

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

These days Little Englanders have never had it so good, which of course sticks in the craw. Well, it might, and it should, particularly if you’re from Tristan da Cunha and want to get home. You won’t get far via Google maps – try it: Edinburgh, Scotland, to Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, furthest South Atlantic. Add it up in stages: Edinburgh to Cape Town is 8,900 miles and then from the Cape to the UK’s most remote overseas territory is another 1746; a total of 10646 miles. Zinnie Harris’  fascinating and celebrated play certainly goes the distance and has considerable appeal and for a student company to attempt the same without the scenic resources of the professional theatre is quite some going. This is intrepid work by directors Jess Haygarth and Aggie Dolan.

‘Drips and drips’ begin the first half of Further than the Furthest Thing and then there’s a homecoming. Francis, 20 something, comes back to Tristan and to the girl he left behind. The tiny population lives off its potato ‘Patches’ and from its crayfish catch. Resources are scarce and timber has had to be taken from the church roof to make a coffin. Wistful cello, flute and violin accompany the sound of the waves but this is not Eden. There’s rumbling thunder and something is definitely not right up on the mountain. Bill Lavarello, a village elder, has heard the lake churning, and that is a bad, bad sign. Perhaps God is angry for what the islanders did some twenty years ago; but for now a businessman, who got off the ship with Francis, has a plan for them all. Then nature expels him and everyone else.

Mr Hansen is the unsmiling factory owner who can make eggs disappear. Harry Richards plays him as an Economics major, disciplined, good with manila folders and with a dismal hold on emotional intelligence. Nevertheless, Hansen would seem to offer change and prosperity and he almost does.

Variation-on-Kraftwerk’s Robots opens the second half in Hansen’s UK bottling plant. Young Geographers will know that the characters have left the global south. Sociology freshers will recognise anomie, although This is England it ain’t. Folk are displaced when work is directed from behind desks. Bill is told that he has a ‘good’ job tending pipes in the boiler room and his wife Mill is offered the almighty vision of a fitted kitchen in affordable housing. A younger couple, Francis and Rebecca, determine to return to their ‘Village’, to that other Edinburgh far, far away, but have they missed their ‘time’?

Bill (Oscar Gilbert) and Mill (Tiffany Garnham) are at the play’s centre. Bill has faith (and guilt) whilst Mill is shrewder, more adjusted. “We is from England now”, she says, employing the island dialect that characterises their speech and their shared past. There is a plain innocence to them and to their relationship that young actors can respond to very well. Francis (Rufus Love) is their strapping nephew who, whilst away in South Africa, is horrified and hurt by common, filthy, English usage. He is the conflicted one but it’s probably Rebecca who suffers the most and Anna Swinton acts her heart out in the role.

You may gather that this is a BIG and serious story for a small stage. Go deep, as poor Bill does, and you’re into the Book of Genesis; stay at the shallow end as I did, intrigued by the utter Englishness of folding picnic chairs, and you’ll hear Lennie in Of Mice and Men asking ‘How it’s gonna be .. [&].. tell how it is with us’. And so, uncomfortably, as scene follows scene (reckon on 25 plus) it is all in the telling. Should it sound quite so educative? Earnest speech delivers premonition just as effectively as the horrific promise that Rebecca demands of Bill, and the speech is unrelenting. The drama just gets too wound up, is constantly interrupted by shifting table and chairs, and looked far from easy. It became long and portentous and beyond what an EUTC production, however devoted, should attempt. Only sardonic tea with Mill, Rebecca and Francis provides light relief, that and the happy injunction to ‘Feel like Britons’, even when naked.

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 14 March)

Go to EUTC

Visit Edinburgh49 at Bedlam

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)

Visit the The Lyceum archive.

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

Benedetti; Oundjian; RSNO (Usher Hall 10 Mar.’17)

Image result for RSNO Images

“I was happy to leave the concert hall with a spring in my step and wish them bon voyage on their long flight to Orlando”

Editorial Rating:  3 Stars

The RSNO are rounding off their glorious 125th Season with a tour of the USA, Florida to be exact. Why Florida? Because classical music’s largest constituency is older people, and Florida is a state where they are legion, both full time residents and the “Snowbirds” who go for the winter. And Florida has more world-class concert halls than any other state in the USA. Five, no less. They played their final concerts in Glasgow on Thursday, and Edinburgh on Friday. There was a real whiff of excitement in the air. The last time they toured the States was 1992, before the fabulous Nicola Benedetti was born.

So Friday night’s audience, loyal to their orchestra and adoring of their favourite soloist, were in no mood to be troubled by the niceties of musical criticism, they were there to have a good time, and they did. Alas, it is the job of the music writer to point out the subtler issues.

The first half of the concert was, on paper, a romantic’s dream, Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, followed by the ultra romantic Bruch violin concerto. This writer anticipated both eagerly. Both disappointed.

Principal flute Katharine Bryan led off the Debussy confidently and competently in what is an extremely exposed solo in a difficult register. The orchestra answered in a well played ten minute exposition of the theme, but only on a fairly superficial level. This work has mystery, shades of eroticism and soul, and we didn’t get this. Indeed, in the entire first half of the concert Peter Oundjian’s baton was there for the score, but too restrained in the exposition.

By all accounts Nicola Benedetti had given a bravura performance of the Brahms’s Violin Concerto in Glasgow the previous evening. Tonight we were all well up for the Bruch, arguably the most romantic violin concerto ever written, if not as great a work as the other three German concerti: by Beethoven, Brahms, & Mendelssohn. While one doesn’t want the soloist – or orchestra – to wear their hearts on their sleeves, there was much more that could have been brought out of the work by the soloist in terms of phrasing, power and sheer bravura of performance. Competently executed and, yes, restrained, we were left feeling puzzled and short changed. The presence of sheet music tucked away on a stand suggested a performer perhaps a little weary before the USA trip, allied with, unusually, no encore. Yet, of course, in the eyes of the RSNO claque she can do no wrong, and was applauded enthusiastically. The orchestra played well.

Live music is a fickle mistress and often provides the unexpected, both disappointing and pleasing. What on earth could the RSNO bring to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and what new is there to write about it?

Well, the RSNO brought a fresh, lively approach to the work from the beginning of the well known opening theme. It was as if they had received a half time pep talk. They made a lively pace throughout, notably the cellos in the andante con moto, along with the cleverest, anticipatory build up to the final Allegro. Clearly a game of two halves, I was happy to leave the concert hall with a spring in my step and wish them bon voyage on their long flight to Orlando

 

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 10 March)

Go the the RSNO

Visit Edinburgh49 at the Usher Hall