Arctic Oil (Traverse: 9-20 Oct.’18)

Photo: Roberto Ricciuti

“An intelligent piece from an ambitious team.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

In the genre of ‘home drama’ (call it neo-kitchen sink realism), blood relatives screaming devastating jabs and hurling haunting revelations back and forth feels oddly natural; what kind of play would deny an audience their fair share of soul-baring conflict and painful familial reconciliation when there is literally a functioning washbasin onstage? Claire Duffy’s new play Arctic Oil both soars and drops as it follows this particular approach to dramatic storytelling. It goes high, with its airtight atmosphere and its dialogue’s sweeping scope, and achieves a good deal. 

However, Duffy’s script, while clever and relevant by all means, flaps a few times too often, mixing stale melodrama into its more striking twists, and thereby takes the air out from under it. Not much harm comes of this, for actors Neshla Caplan and Jennifer Black are very capable of holding the audience’s attention and heartstrings as necessary, and imbue their respective characters with internal torments and desires. 

Caplan is Ella, an activist and young mother struggling with existential guilt for staying at home to raise her baby, Sam, rather than fight the forces of capitalism alongside her more daredevil comrades. Black is Margaret, Ella’s entirely different-minded mother — or so it initially appears — a woman so concerned that her daughter’s activism will cause irreversible damage to herself and her son that she takes her worry to uncomfortably strict lengths. Set on “a remote Scottish island,” it’s all contained within a pristine bathroom, in which Margaret has chosen to lock Ella and herself so that Ella does not pursue what might be a fatal mission protesting an oil rig. As with any home drama worth its salt, while the characters spar and try to explain their side, accusations of abandonment, betrayal, and shoddy parenting fly, harrowing family secrets are uncovered, and certain thematic topics are eventually revealed to have been proxies for familial resentments and personal demons. Climate change gets a number of notable and nod-worthy statements, but the political discussions melt away fairly quickly into allegories for generational divide and reconciliation with past wrongdoing between mother and child. The effect is literary, but rather loses the environmental focus of the first half.

Director Gareth Nicholls builds the rage and personal angst but once the initial shock of the play’s claustrophobic setting has worn off, and apart from one or two sharper later moments, a sense of what is important goes missing. In particular, one ill-measured fakeout sequence near the middle is so hammed up that whatever energy the play had been coasting on is visibly squashed for no discernible reason, other than melodrama.

Visually, Nicholls does well to trap the viewer in this oppressive box of anger and anxiety, with considerable credit due to his and Kevin McCallum’s cleverly imposing set design, a warped construction of a modern bathroom that looms over both the characters and audience to morbid effect. Duffy’s script also generously offers moments of levity that land well, most memorably in the head-turning line: “The truth? You wouldn’t know the truth if it farted in your face.”

Less successful is the uneven and unnecessary musical underscoring. The soundtrack mostly consists of glum electronic hums and whirs, which does set the tone at the beginning, layering the fateful onto the domestic surfaces. Frustratingly, these sounds are brought back again and again and again, undercutting some interesting dialogue and generally siphoning the clarity out of the show . The use of music seemed like a safeguard against the audience possibly not understanding that a conversation was ‘Important’, but in reality, Duffy’s characters and the skilled performances are capable enough on their own without the heavy-handed signaling. 

Arctic Oil uses mother and daughter in conflict to cut through to political topics of current consequence. Its conversations are difficult and compelling but do force inconsistencies into the drama.  It is, regardless, an intelligent piece from an ambitious team.

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 11 October)

Go to Arctic Oil at the Traverse

Go to Edinburgh49‘s Traverse archive.

 

Edinburgh Quartet (Queen’s Hall: 7 Oct.‘18)

Photograph by Cecil Beaton

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

“This work, [Britten’s String Quartet No 3] unknown to me, was the event of the evening”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

 

The Edinburgh Quartet, one of the country’s longest standing musical ensembles, has been through many changes, but perhaps none so great as in the three years past that I have been writing about them. Personnel changes, obviously, but changes in performance strategy as well. A move away from formal, evening concert giving to less formal lunchtime and afternoon recitals, working with makars and artists, educating, and, splendidly, offering internships to aspiring musicians to actually take a desk for a period of concerts with them. All this makes it difficult to achieve an enduring opinion of their actual playing together as a combo, and I have not written about them for almost a year.

Sunday afternoon’s concert at the Queen’s Hall featured only one member of more than a year or so’s standing, 10 year veteran cellist Mark Bailey. Tijmen Huisingh has taken over the 1st Violin desk after a year of guests; with Tom Hankey and Catherine Marwood on 2nd violin and viola respectively.

A further unusual aspect of the quartet’s branding is choosing a theme for each season. This year it is ‘Exile’. These themes in my view have always been a little contrived and in his chat after the Beethoven Tijmen Huisingh did confess that they had to be “broadly interpreted”. Exile from deafness in the case of Beethoven, homesickness form England in the case of American based Britten, and yearning for Bohemia from Dvorak whilst in America. Hmmn.

The programme notes were sparse but learned. Deep analysis of the works in question, but with no mention of the players or their biographies. Pleasingly, no advertisements. A puzzling frontispiece titled “Death in Venice” and a reference to phrases quoted in the final movement of the quartet to Britten’s opera. Helpfully, there is an attractive and up to date website to provide further information. 

The Quartet, continuing their very pleasing custom of not fine tuning on stage but getting right down to it, kicked off with an early Beethoven Quartet, Op.18 No 3, a competently despatched if not especially inspiring rendition of an unspectacular early work.

There followed Britten’s String Quartet No 3, a more mature, introspective work, to which the players brought everything they could, from the desolate duets at the beginning between first violin and cello, some breathtaking first violin playing in the highest positions with barely a couple of inches of metal to derive a sound from, lively ensemble playing in the Burlesque finishing with bold pizzicato leading to a sublime conclusion in the final La Serenissima. This work, unknown to me, was the event of the evening.

Tijmen Huisingh had explained earlier that they were unable to play the published Dvorak String Quartet in E flat major, no 10 op.51, through lack of practice owing to illness. Instead we heard Dvorak’s String Quartet no 14 op.105, played in previous recitals. A melancholy opening in the first movement Adagio non troppo – the work was started in America and completed in Bohemia –  it grew livelier and more entertaining as it progressed. In the second movement Molto Vivace – Trio we were obviously back in Bohemia, there was some rich tonal playing in the lento e molto cantabile and in particular masterful cello playing in the final Allegro non tanto as the Quartet showed their evident bonding notwithstanding a relatively recent coming together.

 

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

 

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 8 October)

Go to the Edinburgh Quartet

Go to Edinburgh49 at the Queen’s Hall archive.

Signals (Pleasance Courtyard: 1-27 Aug: 13:10: 50 mins)

“A mature hour of philosophy and high-grade workplace dramedy.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Until we know for sure, which might never be the case, the extraterrestrial is endlessly fascinating. One some level, the entirety of human existence is hinged on this question: is there anyone, anything else out there? Footprint Theatre’s engaging two-woman show Signals asks this question with an intelligent script, grounded performances, and an excellent climax, and while it is not exactly pulse-pounding, this production is a mature hour of philosophy and high-grade workplace dramedy.

Eve Cowley and Immie Davies play two data analysts on the night shift at a facility dedicated to scanning the cosmos for alien contact. For the majority of the play, they simply sit and swap comments about their co-workers, life in general, and whether their job is completely meaningless. The set is commendably simple yet effective; with only two desks and a rat king of wires and plugs, the feeling of a dingy office is created very well. Cowley and Davies’ performances are also well-suited to the piece; all their interactions, from casual chats to fiery arguments, are enjoyable to listen to and cleverly written. 

Overall, however, the show itself cannot quite muster any significant feeling other than ‘enjoyable’ for the first two thirds. While the stillness of the show is nicely reminiscent of naturalistic theatre trends, its interludes where nothing happens are overlong considering the theme of the show. Thankfully, the portion of the events when alien contact is actually realised is fabulously crafted, and genuinely thrilling — especially the two workers’ disparate reactions to the possibility that we might actually answer the ultimate existential question. This is, without a doubt, the best part of the show, and I can confidently say the final third is an excellent piece of theatre.

The rest, however, does not do the ending justice, and while the technical and performative aspects are solid, the runtime is not as well-measured as it could be. If the establishing segments of Signals took a few more notes from its ending, this still, gradual approach could have come across with a bit more verve than it currently does. This is a well-made production, but it could be much sharper, and with an injection of just a bit more energy it could be a seriously impressive two-hander. 

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

Alfred Hitchcock’s Writers’ Room (theSpace on North Bridge: 13-18 Aug: 12:05: 50 mins)

“Admirably boisterous, with plenty of breathless comedy flowing from every scene.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Reading University Drama Society has made a delirious, heartily amusing comedy out of a sharp and clever setup. The show revolves around the four members of Hitch’s Los Angeles writers’ room in 1961: the well-dressed socialite Kevin (Thomas Sparrow), the mousy, prim Lila (Rebecca Penn), the stringy jittery Scott (Conor Field), and the snarky, forward Maya (Jess Davies). A hapless rookie detective (Luke Cox) introduces the show, blustering through some exposition about a former member of the writers’ room who has turned up disfigured and murdered in the L.A. river. From there, the detective hides — in one of the show’s funniest running jokes — just behind a sofa and barely out of view as the writers go about their business. As they share their ideas of new scripts, the four of them act each out, donning wigs and swapping accents with reckless abandon and generally putting on a flamboyantly silly show of it all. Needless to say, there are Hitchcockian jokes and references aplenty, and it is certainly recommended to have seen more than a few of the films in question if you want to laugh along with the lion’s share of these parodic sequences.

Writers Ades Singh and Cameron Gill clearly take great pleasure in their cinematic references and endlessly silly humour, which to their credit, are both exceedingly well-suited to the Fringe atmosphere. In his role as director, Gill has commendably let the performers have oodles of fun with and the performers, who in turn each give a high-energy performance.

Indeed, there’s plenty of boisterousness all round, with breathless comedy flowing from every scene. Unfortunately, though many of the character moments are well set-up for big laughs, even the performances cannot save some of the lazier impulses of this show. Some of the earlier jokes are clever — such as Davies’ scene-stealing personification of a haunting mother character who is totally not a rip-off from Psycho, or Sparrow’s charming, standout smugness as he explains his own ‘brilliance’ — the play eventually just has the same punchlines over and over: the script seemingly intentionally falls apart into improvisations, repetitive shrugs about why what is happening is happening, and the apparent hilarity of just saying the word “bitch.” In addition, the amount of fourth-wall-breaking becomes tiresome after the first joke of its kind, not to mention to fifth. Thankfully, this is possible to overlook in favour of appreciating the fanciful character comedy on display, such as Cox’s amusing John-Candy-esque slapstick, or Penn’s clipped and funny diary scene, or Field’s admittedly hilarious impression of a pigeon.

It should also be noted that, the three-sided venue Alfred Hitchcock’s Writers’ Room is staged in makes more than half of the play and its gags completely invisible to anyone not in the front row of the centre of the room, not to mention anyone unfortunate enough to be sitting in the eyeline of one of the blindingly bright, oddly low-hung lights. Choose your seat wisely.

Overall, this is a clever setup with a disappointing payoff, that could be helped with a little tightening of the actual story and a few more jokes that aren’t just naughty-word-humour. Credit where credit is due, however, the ensemble — Thomas Sparrow and Jess Davies in particular — turn in such vivacious performances that this reviewer would be curious to see what this team does next. 

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 17 August)

 

The Understudies (Bedlam: 13-19th Aug: 14:00: 60 mins)

“Fantastic creativity under pressure”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

There’s a very laid-back feel to The Understudies as they take to the stage dressed with a Breakfast Club vibe. Indeed, it’s quite a pleasing difference to the high octane energy of some other groups out there, and the introduction to the troupe and process of selecting a show title from audience suggestions is very personable, winning the audience over straight away.

It takes a special kind of person to be able to get up and improvise a show to a room full of strangers – moreso when there’s singing involved. The group opening number is a chance for each player to have their moment in creating a verse of the ditty on the spot, and it’s a positive start as to what to expect from the rest of the show – even though it’s disappointing this is one of precious few occasions that all players appear on stage together to demonstrate their prowess as a company.

Particularly amusing elements throughout the show are when two players are mid conversation in a scene, and MD Sam Coade just starts playing, forcing one of the players to begin a song about whatever they were talking about. Indeed, the strength of the Understudies is in the individual players themselves who display fantastic creativity under pressure and an ability to commit to their personal stories throughout.

In saying that, what holds this troupe back is their cohesion as a group – in this performance the players seemed to contradict each other or get too bogged down in their own storylines, which led to a lot of loose ends, changes in direction, and an almost competitive rather than collaborative feel. Indeed, at points there was a reticence from some players to jump on stage and save their counterparts at difficult moments, rather than relish in the opportunity to create more fun. There were some attempts at backing dancing and vocals to create more depth and variety in the numbers, and it’s a shame these never came to very much.

The Understudies is a good fun show packed with all the giggles you would expect from a completely improvised musical. It lacks the professional edge of some of the other companies out there doing similar things, but a good value show all the same – there are far worse things you could do with your afternoon.

 

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 14 August)

Visit the Bedlam archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

EH16: Pyre (theSpace Triplex: 3-11 Aug: 20:40: 45 mins)

“Commendable artistry.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Edinburgh-based company Nevermore Theatre has crafted a varied, conceptually rich take on three haunting stories with EH16: Pyre. The stories are brutal and unsettling examples of institutional cruelty towards women, made all the more horrifying given that they are all true. Yes, Agnes Samson was immolated in a witch trial; Jessie King was indeed involved in a tragic infanticide business and hanged for it; Violet Foster was devastatingly treated and denied assistance to the point she was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. The performances are deft, the subject matter is affecting, and the show certainly lives up to Nevermore’s description of it as a “post-modern, feminist horror.”

Maegan Hearons, Gillian Bain, and Megan Travers — respectively playing Samson, King, and Foster — deliver solid turns as each haunted woman. They all utilise their physicalities intriguingly, and display some commendable artistry as they move about in carefully choreographed ways to create scenes and visuals to assist the stories being told. Haerons particularly delivers an arresting performance as the chronologically oldest subject Agnes Samson, whose only crime was performing abortions for young North Berwick girls who had no other way of carrying on. The desperation and calamity evoked in Haerons’ performance stands out in the intentionally uncomfortable approach of the production.

Bain and Travers turn in commendable performances as well — Bain’s facial expressions are certainly arresting as she describes her horrifying practice, and the fragility of Turner’s performance is heartbreaking as she embodies Foster’s tragic demise — yet overall, the production is let down by constant interruptions of its own high-quality elements. The beginning of the show is a questionable rendition of Destiny’s Child’s ‘Survivor,’ which comes across as hokey rather than haunting, and is accompanied by an overlong dance sequence that seems misplaced for the ultimate tone of the rest of the show. In fact, though a lot of the choreography is graceful, too often the movements become tediously wiggly and over-produced, resulting in numerous dances that would benefit from some cutting down. During the third or fourth musical interlude one begins to wonder why EH16: Pyre spends so little time on the women’s actual stories, which are certainly fascinating, yet unfortunately under-discussed in this play dedicated to them.

This show is an interesting one, with a solid idea and commendable performances all around, yet unfortunately not quite enough structure to leave a deep impact. With some editing, however, Nevermore could have a deeply intriguing production on their hands, and haunt viewers deeply. The talent is there – it just needs a few more steps for the haunting to really stick.

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 9 August)

 

skirt (Royal Scots Club: 6-11 Aug: 18:30: 90 mins)

“Current and compelling”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Becs is leader of the opposition party in Scotland, and first choice of its head honchos to take over as party leader at Westminster (with a good chance of becoming Prime Minister at the next general election). But when opportunity knocks, she’s got to act quickly, and what unfolds is the story of how Becs reaches her decision to follow her dream to lead the country – or not. She must consider her mother’s degenerative disease, her children (one of which is fostered), her best friend’s family breakdown, and the fact that she’s single – wouldn’t having a partner make her so much more electable?

The themes and issues presented in skirt are very current, and it’s compelling to see how the various conflicting interests might be resolved in today’s social climate. The overt opinions of her political colleagues elicit their fair share of gasps and giggles, though her personal politics and views are barely mentioned – that’s not what’s important here. Indeed, the wider discussion of the piece is about choice and the power we (especially women) have over our own destiny.

While Becs’s is the primary storyline within the play, the main scene (which makes up the bulk of the 90 minutes running time) is a birthday party for one of her friends, attended by a host of characters who all share their personal woes. Throughout this scene it’s quite challenging to keep on top of who everybody is, how they are related, and how their story connects to the main narrative. Some interesting scenarios and tensions are shared, but as the characters leave one by one, it feels like there are many loose ends still to be tied up.

Indeed, what’s most frustrating about this performance is how many extraneous branches and avenues Claire Wood’s script attempts to sidle along simultaneously – for me there are simply too many characters and threads running through the piece detracting from the most important one, which could be expanded to give more depth and tension to the dilemma faced by the central character. There’s a lot of excess chat, meaning that important decisions and revelations come about far too quickly to be wholly believable.

From a performance perspective, it’s a tough ask for Helen Goldie as the leading lady to cut through the very busy scenes – especially early on – but in the quieter moments and political meetings she comes across as very natural and personable, carefully balancing sensitivity with authority. In addition, Leanne Bell impresses as moody teenager Bea, Gregor Haddow brings a pleasing calmness to proceedings as Toby, while Dan Sutton is wonderfully repugnant as politician TM.

Overall, it’s really encouraging to see a new piece of feminist writing on this topic being developed in Edinburgh, and while this version isn’t perfect, there is so so much potential for it to become a powerful piece worthy of large audiences. I hope this isn’t the last we see of it.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 9 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED