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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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.

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller  (Seen 17 October)

Go to Hedda Gabler at the Festival Theatre

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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)

Go to Pleading at the Traverse

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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

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

“The structure and story are a stroke of genius”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

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

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

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

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with the magnitude of the piece, often resorting to overly emotional responses and exchanges, when at times a more withdrawn and subtle approach would help create more contrast and power.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

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

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

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 22 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Sister Act (theSpace @ Surgeon’s Hall: 14-20 Aug: 16.10: 1hr 45mins)

“Energetic, harmonic and full of the gospel spirit this whole show embodies”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

In my experience, condensed versions of musicals generally go one of two ways: they either trim the fat from the full version and present a slick and sizzling highlights reel (as in EUSOG’s Spring Awakening last year), or they come across as a slightly misshapen patchwork quilt of musical moments. Unfortunately, Edinburgh University Footlights’ production of Sister Act falls into the latter camp. However, some of its musical moments are really rather magical.

We all know the story of the show: aspiring and audacious nightclub singer Deloris Van Cartier has to hide away with a group of nuns for her own protection, and in so doing transforms their choir into a team of sensational songstresses. Sarah Couper certainly gives it her all as Deloris, with hugely likeable sass and personality, which is more than capably offset by Tayla Steinberg’s harsh but witty Mother Superior.

It’s Alice Hoult as the timid Sister Mary Robert who vocally steals the show though, with a flawless rendition of the rousing The Life I Never Led. A masterclass in control, it’s a shame some of the other numbers lack the overall quality and power of this one: it really stands out as something special.

Yet when this production hits the sweet spot, it really does soar. The Raise Your Voice scene in particular is energetic, harmonic and full of the gospel spirit this whole show embodies. Caili Crow’s choreography is stylish, intricate and very deftly delivered, and for a few minutes here and there the performance really sparkles.

The main strength of this production overall is comedic characterisation, and director Ansley Clark has done a great job in bringing the best out of each individual throughout the performance. Nicola Frier is a revelation as the excitable Sister Mary Patrick, delivering laughs aplenty with every utterance; Adam Makepeace is a wonderfully dorky TJ; and Mhairi Goodwin brings a whole new level of vibrancy to Sister Mary Lazarus that I didn’t think was possible.

This production is quite hit and miss though, making it difficult to stay fully engaged with it throughout. While I won’t go into details of the technical issues which unfortunately blighted this production, other factors such as the (at times) awkward staging, the very choppy nature of lots of different quick scenes, and lack of palpable tension in the big moments all detract from what has the potential to be a really outstanding show. It all feels a little rushed and a bit too rough around the edges.

This a very commendable effort from the cast and company, but perhaps slightly too ambitious too pull off.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 15 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED