The Belle’s Stratagem (Lyceum: 15 Feb. to 10 March ’18)

Angela Hardie as Laetitia.
Photo. Mihaela Bodlovic.

“Jaunty, diverting and quick. A noteworthy woman playwright is not short-changed”

Editorial Rating:  3 Stars Nae Bad

There was gleeful mention of the ‘shit wagon’ and of the reeking ‘Nor Loch’ but these early New Town characters keep their stockings a blinding white and the hems of their fancy gowns spotless. It’s that kind of play: a slight comedy of appearances. Or should that be ‘sleight’?

The Belle’s Stratagem is a jaunty piece, giddy even. Its leading man is Doricourt (Angus Miller), although he’s led by the nose, and he has ‘l’air enjoué’ of a chap with too many Air Miles and too many hours in Club class. Well, he would have, except this is 1788 when Gold Cards and guineas were more likely gifted by pedigree than work. He’s back in Edinburgh after his ‘Grand Tour’ of assorted lounges, demoiselles and signorinas and finds himself betrothed to Letitia (Angela Hardie), known almost from birth and now two years out of boarding school, and he’s not impressed. She, Letitia, is pissed at this – vulgarity clearly crossed Princes Street – and is determined to have her man love her or lose her. Meanwhile, Sir George Touchwood (32 and of the Jacob Rees-Mogg brigade, benign branch) is back in town with his lovely, guileless, wife, Lady Frances. Beware! Cad about, Courtall by name (geddit?), who will have the lady.

Tony Cownie has adapted Mrs Cowley’s Belle’s Stratagem of 1780 and removed the whole play to Scotland, aka that ‘subjugated bunch of hills north of Berwick’. Deacon Brodie is stealing about; Doricourt and the honourable Saville (John Kielty)  are soft Jacobites; Laetitia’s father is Edinburgh’s Provost and Laetitia (in disguise) wins Doricourt’s heart and the audience’s with an aching ‘Will ye no come back again?’ The best joke of the evening is Courtall’s as he goes off to France for an assignation with the Revolution.

Theatre history is all over this piece, if you look for it. The big brother of Cowley’s original has to be George Farquhar’s Beaux Stratagem from 1707. Farquhar had arrived in London in 1697 from Dublin’s wonderfully evocative Theatre Royal at Smock Alley. Cowley’s play opened at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden. Nicola Roy’s Kitty, a prostitute with a proper sense of what’s decent, would fit well into those dodgy streets. She’s the key to foiling Courtall’s foul intrigue. The two widows, Racket (Pauline Knowles) and Ogle (Roy, again) give lechery a good name by repeatedly calling out the hypocrisies of male behaviour but enjoy eyeing the men themselves.

Helen Mackay as Lady Frances and Grant O’Rourke as Sir Edward.
Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

Historians place The Belle’s Stratagem at the endpoint of a period when the Comedy of Manners went bourgeois. Marriage and compatibility within a marriage become a pair and so enter Sir Edward and Lady Frances, who (for me) are more interesting and entertaining than an infatuated Doricourt and the infantile Laetitia of the first half and the minx Laetitia of the second. Grant O’Rourke plays the country squire (ok, laird) as if to the manor born. He’s a kind fellow, whose daft helplessness (check O’Rourke’s real comic quality in the Venetian Twins) rallies to the call of defending his wife. He ends up an endearing character and – a near no-no in the Restoration comedy of times past – a deserving husband. And Lady Frances (admirably done by Helen Mackay) is bold enough to love him true once she has established her own rights, which again is rather refreshing. The New Town will be all the better for their rectitude during their three months residence in town! Laetitia’s father, the Provost, is more typecast as the lookout for a wealthy son-in-law but Steven McNicoll gives the part considerable warmth and humanity, not least in a party dress.

There’s pretty music, dancing, a masquerade, numpty grumpy footmen, and squeaky clean, impressively silent Heriot Row facades but all the same I longed for some ruggedness, more spit and bite. The gossip columnist, Flutter, is played by an impish John Ramage and that gets close, but finally it’s light and undemanding. The ‘modern’ script is frequently diverting and quick, actors help it on enormously, and a noteworthy woman playwright is not short-changed, but the intrigue unwinds too rapidly and I found much of the humour either forced or slack.

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 21 February)

Go to The Belle’s Stratagem at the Lyceum

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FAME! The Musical (Church Hill Theatre: 6-10 Feb ’18

“Plenty of individual noteworthy performances”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Fame! The Musical follows a group of performance arts students through their formative years at the “Fame” high school, and is full of vivid characters, energetic dance numbers, and show-stopping songs. Largely an ensemble piece, it’s the perfect choice and platform to allow Edinburgh University Footlights’ members to present their considerable talents as actors and singers, and there are plenty of individual noteworthy performances throughout.

Mimi Joffroy demonstrates all the ingredients of a stellar leading lady as Carmen, most evident in the goosebump-inducing In L.A.; Matt Galloway delivers a laugh a line as the charismatic Joe, and dance captain Connie McFarlane proves she’s a genuine triple threat in the gospel-tinged Mabel’s Prayer. Alice Hoult and Adam Makepeace show great chemistry as romantic leads Serena and Nick, and Mhairi Goodwin serves up a killer belt as Miss Sherman in These Are My Children. Liam Bradbury never quite convinces he’s actually a hip-hop dancer as Jack, though comes into his own during the character’s signature song Dancing on the Sidewalk.

Yet given all this obvious talent, what holds this production back is being able to effectively embrace the script’s very bitty nature, made up of lots of short scenes taking place over a number of years. EU Footlights’ simple set proves very constraining to this end, often dragging the action to the back of stage, while there’s precious little to link each part and show progression over time. There are pleasing teases of getting it right during Think of Meryl Streep, as action continues behind the singer, so it’s slightly frustrating not to see more creativity in the presentation of each scene throughout to make it feel like one cohesive piece.

Additionally, Fame! is a show that is chock-full of dancing, requiring much more from a cast and choreographer than your average production. The company certainly give it their all during this performance and there are some wonderful moments during the dances (especially some of the daring lifts!), but there’s also a scrappiness to the performance – particularly in the ballet sequences – which, although charming at times, more often detracts from a lot of the other great things happening on stage. Some extra time spent in brushing these up would go a long way to adding to the quality of this production.

Overall, Fame! is a feel-good show with plenty to enjoy, and EU Footlights should be very proud of the job they’ve done with it. Though one can’t help but feel that we ain’t see the best of them yet.

 

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 7 February)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

The Arabian Nights (Lyceum: 30 Nov ’17-6 Jan ’18)

The Arabian Nights. Photo credit - Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

“Visually stunning”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

The Arabian Nights is based on the well-loved book of the same name, and is adapted for stage here by Suhayla El-Bushra. Presented largely as a collection of short stories told by the central character (Scheherazade) in order to impress the Sultan who holds her mother captive, it’s a simple concept that all ages can find something magical in.

And there are several moments of wonderment and enjoyment to be had in the stories, which introduce many fantastical characters and scenarios: from people who get turned into animals, and vice versa; wives who love to shop and spend their husband’s ill-earned money; and, of course, spirits with the ability to grant wishes. El Bushra’s script stays faithful to many of the tales within the book, and also scatters some pleasingly modern references to keep the performance relevant to today’s audiences. A couple of interesting gender-blind casting choices also make for great amusement!

The show is performed by a ten-strong cast of multi-talented actor musicians who variably act, sing, play instruments, do puppetry and create all kinds of magic on stage, and for me it’s Rehanna MacDonald who really stands out as central character Scheherazade. A captivating storyteller: she impresses equally well on a bare stage as when there is a huge box tricks erupting behind her, and it often feels like she is the glue holding everything else together. A special mention also to Humera Syed and Brian James O’Sullivan as the hilarious, musical talking goats – my personal highlight of the show.

Visually, this production is stunning – no mean feat for a show with numerous changes of location, time and mood – yet designer Francis O’Connor’s set manages to achieve a great deal to marvel at, creating a sense of awe throughout.

The main downfall of this production, however, is its length, and therein much of the magic is lost as the performance drags on, with noticeable and frequent dips in quality and clarity with scene after scene after scene. It’s also a shame that for an adaptation of such magical stories, which does impress with its stagecraft at many points, there is such a reliance on actual fart jokes for cheap laughs, while the odd moments of audience interaction throughout the show are so half-baked they’re practically raw.

At times this production is spell-binding, but it’s very hit and miss, so to fully enjoy this bumpy carpet ride adults and kids alike will need to sit tight, listen in, keep up and just go with the flow…

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 1 December)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Hansel and Gretel (Roxy: 9-11 November ’17)

“A futuristic and fantastical interpretation of the age-old story”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

One of the many charms of fairy tales is their enduring relevance, and the Grimm Brother’s Hansel and Gretel is no exception. In their production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s fairly short opera of the same name, Le Petit Verre attempt to present a futuristic and fantastical interpretation of the age-old story, which, while daring and creative, often gets a bit lost in its own figurative forest.

Given its simple set-up and small cast it’s a wise choice of show for this new student company to flex their imagination and demonstrate their talent, and they certainly go all out with intricate theming and design of almost every aspect of the production.

Yet while some of the company’s artistic choices bring a pleasingly modern and relevant twist to proceedings (Hansel’s choreography and overall styling as a street-wise teenager, for example), unfortunately most of the creative elements suffer from a lack of congruence resulting in a rather disjointed production.

The programme notes and opening lyrics of the piece place the action firmly in a modern (potentially post-nuclear war) poverty-stricken household with no food, and where children are left alone to do chores for hours on end. It’s somewhat confusing, then, to see the all performers in glittery costumes with elaborate hair and make-up – and it’s never clear how these two themes are reconciled. The ad hoc appearance of a robotic masked chorus certainly doesn’t ease any of the comprehension.

Musically though, the assembled 40-piece orchestra makes an impressive sound and the singing on the whole is well-matched to the instrumentation, though it’s a shame the lack of microphones prevent the vocals from really being able to soar throughout the production. Patrick Dodd impresses most as the Father with his rich, warming baritone voice, while the rare duet moments between Hansel (Claire Lumsden) and Gretel (Alexandra Elvidge) are delightful to listen to. Hebe James is charming as the Gingerbread Witch and Deborah Holborn brings great characterisation to the role of the Mother.

Underneath all the gloss and glitter of this production there are lots of lovely things going on, and it’s great to see young companies coming through and taking risks with their work. While this one is a little too rough and unready, there are plenty of positives to take away from this debut production, and I look forward to Le Petit Verre’s next show.

 

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 11 November)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Hedda Gabler (Festival Theatre: 17-21 October ’17)

Photo. National Theatre, London

“Glistens with sparkling elements”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

I wonder if there is a word, other than bewilderment, for the reaction to a writer who receives praise despite mediocre work. This is what Patrick Marber’s writing stokes inside me. His re-writing of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is by far the most lamentable element of this National Theatre production, which sometimes glistens with sparkling elements, but includes far too many misjudgments at the head-in-hands level .

To name a few: Leonard Cohen’s lovely yet done-to-death “Hallelujah” plays over a somber transition. Pale blue lights shine intermittently on the assembled actors, for no apparent reason. Physicality is dishearteningly overplayed at times, making the performers appear more like wet marionettes than characters telling a story. And yet, Marber’s script outdoes them all.

The play concerns itself with a day and a night in the apartment of academic wet blanket Tesman and the eponymous Hedda, his new, unfulfilled wife. Friends and former lovers of theirs come and go to moan and wail about their various woes, from dead-end marriages to unrequited love to jealousy over academic rivals’ successes. There are intriguing elements to these episodic entrances and exits, most compellingly when Tesman’s semi-rival Lovborg lays out his plan for his next work. This is what most frustrates about this show: there are so many glimmers of intriguing theatre, many stemming from Ivo Van Hove’s smart (yet here unexceptional) direction, but they are all but snuffed out by Marber’s tone-deaf phrasing and (I hazard) self-importance.

Hedda, a groundbreaking and fresh character in 1891, is nowadays much less extraordinary. She is the daughter of a prestigious general, and a young woman with many suitors, yet lacks any real goals or interests in life. This “poverty of spirit” as the play decides to call it, leads her to seek out increasingly sadistic means of exerting some kind of power over something, whether it be tearing up flowers or firing her father’s pistols at unsuspecting guests, and eventually much worse. This kind of bourgeois-fetishizing story creates just the sort of middle-of-the-road tension and intrigue that should be right up Marber’s alley. Is Tesman going to get his professorship? Is Hedda fulfilled? What is that maid doing there? Yet Marber seems to think he doesn’t need to convince an audience to care about these central questions of the script. So he fails to.

Much like in his magnum opus, Closer, Marber’s word choices can prove unfortunate and even unpleasant. The storyline is treated with such carelessness that it is unclear whether it is satirizing its own pomposity or reveling in it. It looks like Ibsen’s text has suffered a form of quantitative easing and the original is struggling to get back into shape. Certain big monologues (that strain the runtime for no apparent reason) are answered by brief ironic retort: when one character loses the precious, handwritten single draft of his upcoming masterpiece, he waxes poetic for no less than five minutes about his loss — to which another character quietly quips: “It’s just a book.” Somehow, this self-awareness gets squashed and replaced with showiness and shiny things.

There are many shiny things. The set is the unfurnished apartment owned by Hedda and Tesman and is immaculately underdressed. Hedda’s costume is a shiny nightgown. The lights gleaming out of an impressive side window are shiny, as is the display Hedda creates as she plays with the blinds out of increasingly aggressive boredom. The two handguns on show in their upstage glass case  are shiny, and even shinier when they are — spoiler alert — fired at certain characters. But shiny objects do not tell good stories by themselves. We seem to have a production that thinks having a smooth set and glossy production values can make up for a certain percentage of the narrative. They cannot. Some more work on character dynamics and relationships and a little less time stapling roses to walls would have helped quite a lot.

That being said, there is still much to be appreciated in the production. For their stamina alone, the actors deserve some credit. Wading through these lines with such patience must have been hard. Lead actress Lizzy Watts gives Hedda some delightfully cruel ticks, from turning her back on anyone she finds unworthy, to consciously tormenting her guests with their worst vices. Her dynamic with Richard Pyros, playing Lovborg, was the most electric to watch, especially as she toys with his teetotalism in the most vicious way. Adam Best as corrupt judge Brack is the most bombastic onstage presence by far, and his was a refreshing performance. Annabel Bates is good at looking sad, that’s for sure. Abhin Galeya waves his hands around far too much, but otherwise is a solid Tesman — though the character seemed meant to be much more pathetic than the relatively proud man Galeya has created. Christine Kavanagh is a charming red herring at the beginning, as her Aunt Juliana character deftly introduces the audience to the show, then disappears — which is a shame, as Kavanagh’s energy was possibly the best-measured. Madlena Nedeva is a solemn and well-crafted presence as Berte, the maid, yet her character is so untapped that she quite literally becomes more a piece of furniture than a participant.

Overall, an underwhelming and overwritten production of an important play. It is surprising and disappointing that others have eaten it up nonetheless.

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller  (Seen 17 October)

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Pleading (Traverse: 3 – 7 October ’17)

Kim Allan and Daniel Cameron
Photo: Oran Mor

““Everything is negotiable””

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Pleading is the first up of five plays in this season’s ‘A Play, A Pie and A Pint’. This is a spiky three-hander by Rob Drummond, surely a playwright on a roll; and there is something of a wrestling bout to its twists and holds. Heard as a radio drama on BBC4 in January, Pleading comes to the stage – but call it a mat – with a narrative thwack.

Michael (19) and Freya, his girl next door /one-time sweetheart, have been banged up in a foreign jail for three weeks now. They are brought together to talk to their assigned lawyer, Amelia Singh. Where exactly they are  is not given but they do face the death penalty for attempting to smuggle Class 1 drugs. That fate – and their flight itinerary: Singapore > Perth > Brisbane > prison – would suggest Malaysia or Thailand. No worries (really?), for Freya’s dad is a QC and in that part of the world “We’re not foreign, we’re British.” Er …? Cue Boris Johnson and the Road to Mandalay?

If ever a defence lawyer was gobsmacked and keeps talking, then it’s the calm and collected Amelia (Nicole Cooper). How to convince her jumpy clients to plead guilty and serve a prison sentence? Maybe then Daddy can come and flap his silk. “Everything is negotiable”, declares Amelia, but it helps if you keep your story straight and consistent. So, over 50 minutes, Freya and Michael ‘negotiate’ the possibilities of how heroin ended up in her backpack. It is conceivable that the truth is told at the end but who can tell? It’s always salutary to be reminded of our talent for lying.

It is an unsparing and sweaty tussle that is ably performed. Freya (Kim Allan) is more in control but her account is the more wayward. Michael (Daniel Cameron) is more fragile, even desperate. At the close they are hanging onto each other for support and the law is somewhere else entirely.

Director David Ian Neville has a good play for voices to work with. Movement is conspicuous and time parcelled out by Amelia’s visits to the remarkably quiet prison. There is credible tension and there is sympathy and anxiety but as a drama I felt it wanted more fear and a lawyer on the ropes.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 3 October)

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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.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 24 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED