Lysistrata (Kings: 27 – 28 Jan.’17)

Cait Irvine, centre (Lysistrata) Photo: Greg Macvean

Cait Irvine, centre (Lysistrata)
Photo: Greg Macvean

“5th Century revel disarms ‘Call of Duty’”

Editorial Rating:  3 Stars: Outstanding

This is a tumultuous inaugural production by the Attic Collective. It has that shameless tumescent quality that really would ‘Make Greece Great Again’. Athens/Attica was still big in 411 BC but had been sorely bashed in Sicily and was hurting. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata must have been excruciating, urgent fun back then and it is remarkable that – in the right hands – it can still have the same effect.

As a play it’s less in-your-face than in-your-crotch. Just look at the tall curvy door, upstage centre, and reckon, pretty confidently, that it’s all about Pussy Power. Then there are the phalluses, not one of leather, but several of rubber and latex, and all impressive, but none more so than the Spartan emissary as gauche walking dick. Naturally enough there is supplication to Zeus for relief from priapism.

The men suffer because the women have crossed their legs. Lysistrata leads a women’s revolt that denies sex to husbands (and wives) until the Peloponnesian War ends. They occupy the Treasury – a smart kick in the balls –  and wait for their men to come to their senses, as it were. They are finally brought to it by the body beautiful of Kim Kardashian, aka. Aristophanes’ figure of Reconciliation. Of course, the women are frustrated too and invent desperate, hilarious, excuses to return home.

Conor McLeod (Men's Leader) and Megan Fraser (Statyllis)

Conor McLeod (Men’s Leader) and Megan Fraser (Statyllis)

This is when a 5th Century revel disarms ‘Call of Duty’. ‘Tits not Targets’ is the message. It’s summery: the men are in a uniform of white shirts, cropped chinos and canvas slip-ons. Not a spear or bronze helmet in sight. Just helmets from the Urban dictionary. Cinesias (Adam George Butler) has his shades. Their leader (Conor McLeod) is a dapper, convinced and convincing kind of chap. Meanwhile the women are a riot of colour with their white faces and ‘war paint’ and they soak the men with Water Blasters. It’s loud too, especially when Charlie West hits his box drum.

Arguably the on-stage debate is one-sided. Determined Lysistrata (Cait Irvine) and cocky Stratyllis (Megan Fraser) reduce the men to defensive huddles and oddly impotent hakas. Deciding  to dump the split Choruses of the old men and women of Athens does tilt the balance in favour of the youthful and the libidinous (no real loss!) and the sense of the words can go AWOL in dionysiac chant and jabber but there’s no doubting the drive and sense of the piece as a whole. Director Susan Worsfold and Musical Director Garry Cameron succeed in sustaining dramatic form, resolved in celebration, from a plot that is about as carnal and abandoned as it gets.

By the by, a Belgian lady senator called for a sex strike in 2011. It was meant as a provocative joke but it excited the Christian Democratic opposition to remark that “Politicians are not there to strike. On the contrary, politicians are there to arouse the country.” Hear! Hear! (Aristophanes).

outstanding

StarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 27  January)

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Mack the Knife (Bedlam: 25 – 26 Jan.’17)

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“Lady, ‘the hottest ticket in town’”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

There’s a virtual Hall of Fame in this show: Brecht, Weill, Lotte Lenya, to start with; and a few music greats – Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Sinatra – and then Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin with the title song. If you want more, there could be Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’s The Lady is a Tramp and a passing literary reference to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.

Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller would channel them all through his play. It’s a clever and applaudable conceit but the interference is too much. Too many signals from too many sources.  A mellow jazz intro’ – nice – leads into Oh, Lady Be Good which given what follows is practically hilarious. ‘Lady’ sings that she’s ‘all alone in this big city’ but for all her lonesomeness she is plainly making out just fine. It helps that the competition in the other clubs is thinning out, alarmingly so in fact, and the police appear clueless.

Detective Foster (Paddy Echlin) likes his work. He’s had lessons in psychological profiling and Jack the Ripper is on his mind rather than Georgia but he’s a poor sap. He has the sharp trench coat and the 50’s trilby but is not the hard-boiled character that he thinks he is. More a marshmallow with a toy gun.  Deacon (Jacob Brown), Lady’s trumpet player, is more on the case and knows a set-up when he sees one but unfortunately his incredulous WTF’s don’t help him. As for Lady, ‘the hottest ticket in town’, Jo Hill enjoys herself. She’s sassy at the mike, sings confidently, and is audacious beyond reckoning.

And here’s the rub. Lady’s luck – call it ‘cool’ if you must – is something else. It turns tension into the comic macabre, not least when she kneecaps herself and stays on her feet. Maybe her aim was off but even a flesh wound must hurt like hell. Then there’s the absolute gift of a police detective who ‘packs heat’ like Clouseau on holiday.

Will Briant on piano and Vebjorn Halvfjierdvik on bass give the piece a tempo and style that if extended – for the Fringe, say – could lift the play into the lighter, skilful register that Brimmer-Beller is reaching for.

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 25 January)

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Ten Years of Taylor Swift (The Mash House: 14 Jan ’17)

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“A fun and fantastic showcase”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Not being a huge Taylor Swift fan myself I was slightly apprehensive before the show. However, I must admit I was very pleasantly surprised. This gig was set up by 16 year old Lisa Kowalski, who with some help from mum managed to put on an entertaining evening any event organizer would be proud of.  The three hour set – a good length! –  showcased a range of Taylor Swift’s material – from her younger country days to newer pop songs.

Before the show there was an excited buzz around the room and I could immediately tell I was surrounded by some devoted Swifties. There was not much in a way of an introduction before singer Matthew Gibb, together with the backing band, started off the night with his original version of ‘Blank Space’.

Soon it was clear to see that despite their young age these are all very talented singers and musicians including The 45 and Beth Swan. Although the backing band added an extra kick of enthusiasm to the night I was glad that there was an acoustic session in the middle, where you could clearly hear each performer’s voice.

Each act enjoyed great stage presence but there were three performers who really stuck out – Ashleigh Burns, Olivia Dawn Haggerty and Lisa Kowalski herself.

17 year old Ashleigh from Glasgow gave an impressive performance with her versions of ‘Love Story’ and ‘Trouble’. Her strong, soulful voice in combination with a charming presence and confidence on stage made it a great set. Olivia impressed with her beautiful ballad version of ‘All Too Well’ whilst Lisa was not only good at talking to and entertaining the crowd, but vocally she also did well, with a good range and a convincing ‘attack’. Although not pitch perfect at all times these girls have serious energy and potential.

All night everybody’s enthusiasm was so contagious that I couldn’t help bopping along and I even got caught up in the whole sing-along spirit of the night! I can only recommend this particular show if you are a big Taylor Swift fan but I really loved the whole idea behind it – celebrating an artist together with lots of like-minded fans. The whole event was brilliantly organized and you could clearly see the huge effort put in from all parties. It was definitely a fun and fantastic way to showcase young talent from across Scotland.

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

Reviewer: Iona Young (Seen 14 January)

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Jekyll & Hyde (Church Hill Theatre: 22 – 25 Nov ’16)

Stephen Quinn as Jekyll (& Hyde) Photos: Erica Belton

Stephen Quinn as Jekyll (& Hyde)
Photos: Erica Belton

“The talent neither stops at the singing, nor at the bounds of the principal cast.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

I was part of an unfortunate, if very narrow, generation whose first encounter with Robert Louis Stephenson’s monstrous Mister Hyde was the opening of a terrible Hugh Jackman movie. As a result, questions of the duality of man, the nature of morality and the dangers of unrestrained passion didn’t really factor in for a while. It seems fitting therefore that EUSOG’s latest outing follows the pattern of contrast underscored by its source material: it’s a collection of both dizzying highs and curiously disappointing lows.

Jekyll & Hyde loosely follows Stephenson’s original work, with a few new emotional complications thrown in. It is a musical exploration of the ambition, suffering and fear associated not only with the fraught Henry Jekyll, but its effects on his friends, family and even the city of London itself. And to begin –  as usual – with the ability on display, it’s considerable. The singing talent in this show can’t be denied, ensemble included. Ellie Millar and Giselle Yonace in particular offer utterly breathtaking solos as Emma Carew and Lucy Harris, culminating in a duet that could shatter glass for precision.

And the talent neither stops at the singing, nor at the bounds of the principal cast. Special props go to Kirsten Millar as the world’s most entertainingly jovial prostitute; and to Jana Bernard, whose rare mix of graceful flexibility and natural showmanship lead to an array of angles that’d make an architect weep. Despite the occasional desync in a dance, the ensemble did their job with gusto and skill.

But any praise would be incomplete without hailing new face Stephen Quinn as the titular duo. Powerful voice aside, I found myself extremely taken with his portrayal of Henry Jekyll: he balances ambition, humanity and (perhaps most importantly) a genuine vulnerability during his two hour tenure as the good doctor, and it certainly stuck. Often, mild-mannered Jekyll is the more under-realised of the two, and it was refreshingly welcome to see such care put into his characterisation.

The question then, I suppose, is why this show only has three stars – and why have I personally left it unrated?

Despite the considerable strength of the cast, there are distinct elements of this show that detract from the overall fabric of the performance. Most glaringly, perhaps, is the way in which they handle Edward Hyde. At its core, there simply wasn’t enough contrast or intensity: often, the only difference between the two selves seemed to be his ragged choice of jacket, rather than any significant change in manner. The visceral glee, passionate brutality and utterly malevolent hedonism which typifies Hyde seems to get lost somewhere in the mix – and this is certainly not helped by fight choreography which is so floaty and strangely force-less that it occasionally comes off as comical rather than dramatic. Sitting next to the fantastic choreography of song numbers such as ‘Bring on the Men’, it seems worlds apart.

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And, most unfortunately, that fundamental element of violence and rage, which seems to be missing from much of the production, runs deeply through its other elements. Without that relish of cruelty, many scenes feel strangely bland for want of a contrast which just isn’t there. Combine that with mics which popped in and out more often than a first year halls cleaning lady and with variable volume levels, which would put Brexit indecision to shame, even when the show was at its strongest, then it was unsurprising that at times I could not hear a damned – or virtuous – thing.

That said, if you’re looking for a collection of entertaining and ear-pleasing song numbers, you’ll like what you get. However, if you’re wanting an exploration of human nature, brutality and debauchery, and a spot or two of vanquishing, then …. No. Upfront this is a strong production but it is let down by its emotional backdrop. For those who aren’t as pedantically focused on its content as I am, it’s certainly not going to sour your night – but walking home through the cold Edinburgh air I couldn’t help but think that Mister Hyde just didn’t show up.

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 22 November)

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Blackbird (Bedlam: 16-17 Nov ’16)

“Powerful and moving”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

I was quite apprehensive before taking my seat, as to how Edinburgh University Theatre Company would present the strong, emotive themes of trauma, abuse and love in David Harrower’s intense two-hander. With the entire play focusing on one conversation between the two central characters Ray and Una, how well would the actors sustain and communicate this challenging piece?

The plot sees Una (Sophia Dowson-Collins) seek out Ray (Benjamin Aluwihare) to confront him about the sexual relationship they had fifteen years prior – when she was only a 12 year old girl whilst he was a grown man of 40. She wants to face the past but he is at first unwilling to speak to her. As the play progresses they both go through a range of emotions, sometimes screaming at each other and at other times talking calmly about trivial things, creating a dramatic if at times, confusing dynamic.

The script is complex, taking a while to build and reel the audience in before taking a deeper and darker turn. We get to piece together more about the identities and personalities of both characters, and some surprising twists and turns reveal the truth of what happened fifteen years ago and how both characters have dealt with their experiences since. The silent captivation from my fellow audience members throughout told its own story: at times there was perceptible discomfort, and I personally found the whole thing quite awkward and difficult to watch, but only because the performance felt so real.

Although both performers did well I was particularly impressed by Dowson-Collins’s performance: at times there were long streaks where only she would speak – sometimes to Ray but often more like she was speaking to herself. She was captivating and consistent throughout, bringing a great sense or realness to her character. Aluwihare seemed nervous and awkward for the most part and although fitting with Ray’s character, it was difficult to tell how much “acting” came into play.

The set was perfectly suited to the action: it was very simple with just a couple of seats, a table and some office lockers, making the actors do the work to convey the story. In saying that, what didn’t work so well was the use of a plastic sheet hanging behind Una and Ray, from behind which a girl would appear to represent Una becoming a ghost of herself through everything she had experienced. Although I could see what the production was trying to do I felt like this distracted from the dialogue between Una and Ray, and a more creative way of expressing this idea could have been used to greater effect.

All in I was very impressed by the performance. The themes may not be to everyone’s taste, but it was still a fascinating watch.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Iona Young (Seen 16 November)

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RSNO: SONDEGARD, SOLLIMA (Usher Hall: 18 Nov ‘16)

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 “Was this the new Russia? Who cares? The music was amazing.”

Editorial Rating:  3 Stars

“Football is a game of two halves” as the crass saying goes. The intimation is, there is a good half, and a bad half. Friday’s RSNO concert can be explained in such terms. Relatively speaking, the first half disappointed, the second enthralled.

Cellist Giovanni Sollima was the soloist for the Dvorak Cello Concerto, and, to kick the evening off, in his own piece Violoncelles, vibrez! (in fact a duo for two cellos and orchestra) he shared the soloist platform with Aleksei Kiseliov, the RSNO’s principal cellist. Written to mark the tenth anniversary of the death of Sollima’s teacher, Antonio Janigro, and dedicated to Sollima’s fellow student Mario Brunello, one might have expected a deeply personal, even reflective work. It was, however, rather light, and reminded me in places of works by Max Richter, barely in the classical genre. The first movement did contain some long melodic lines but the work was neither unpleasant nor particularly demanding. The orchestra gave good support.

Then came the Dvorak. Dvorak as a concerto composer has never satisfied me as much as his fine symphonic or string quartet writing. Plainly, the orchestration is there, but the solo pieces (less so in the violin concerto) just do not seem to fit in so well, the exact opposite, for example, of Chopin. This facet of the work was exacerbated by some less than convincing playing by Sollima. The long orchestral opening of the opening Allegro was masterfully handled by the RSNO, who played their part with relish, sometimes, indeed often to the detriment of the overall balance with the soloist. Sollima did not seem particularly in command, Sondergard was standing in at short notice. The end of the first movement, much of the second and the majority of the third were a more comfortable experience. Sollima’s encore left one in no doubt as to his virtuosity.

I was looking forward to hearing Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony again, and to see what the RSNO, in such good form this season, would make of it. They did not disappoint. Much has been said and written of the political background to the composition of this symphony under Stalin’s gaze, “A Soviet Artist’s reply to just criticism” but to me this is largely irrelevant: Shostakovich was a pragmatist, the symphony is an outstanding work and for many people its relative accessibility makes it a welcome introduction to the oeuvre of one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers.

Meticulous, sparse playing brought out all the fear and austerity suggested by the opening Moderato, quickly followed by woodwind and brass creating a marvellous, confident orchestral sound. This was just the beginning. Powerful basses and cellos introduced the subsequent Allegretto as the work grew increasingly manic. The third movement Largo was electrifying, and the Allegro non troppo finale bursting with optimism and confidence. Was this the new Russia? Who cares? The music was amazing.

 

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 18th November)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Dr Johnson Goes to Scotland (Traverse: 1 – 5 Nov. ’16)

l to r. Lewis Howden, Gerda Stevenson, Simon Donaldson, and Morna Young. Photo: Kirsty Anderson

l to r. Lewis Howden, Gerda Stevenson, Simon Donaldson, and Morna Young.
Photo: Kirsty Anderson

“Comic effect knocks against an open coffin on Iona”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Would Samuel Johnson, heroic dictionary maker, essayist, critic, and celebrity wit ever have appeared on ‘Strictly’? Perhaps. He was, after all, prone to nervous shakes and tics and he would have been mercilessly brilliant at discombobulating the judges. Anyhow, in the last of the current season of a Play, a Pie, and a Pint, the big man is in polished boots and plaid and he steps up to a jig and seems to enjoy it.

And verily this is the same Dr Johnson, who noticed that ‘the whole [of Edinburgh] bears some resemblance to the old part of Birmingham’. Writer James Runcie continues his rehabilitation of the arch English nationalist by rowing him thoughtfully and fondly over the sea to Skye (and to Mull and Raasay). A Word with Dr Johnson – at the Traverse in October last year – was about the man, his wife, and his English dictionary; this time (1773) he’s in the boondocks and the heather and the Gaelic. For the proto London-centric it’s an ear-bending peregrination in a land where ‘you have more words than people’, which could well have been its chief attraction.

Lewis Howden plays Johnson sympathetically, of splendid girth and with orotund voice, and with a baffled interest in all things Scottish. An exploration of Fingal’s Cave, lantern in hand, leaves him only dimly enlightened but his enthusiasm for Thomas Braidwood’s school for the deaf and dumb is obviously sincere.  His companion throughout is, of course, the amiable James Boswell (admirable by Simon Donaldson), who treats us to evocative latin from Dunbar’s ‘Lament for the Makars’, whilst guarding his distinguished author friend from the sublime and local peril of being called a bampot.

So then, a pleasing trot through good old Scottish ways ? Runcie even brings on ‘Macbeth’ and the Bonnie Prince, which is fine until their comic effect knocks against an open coffin on Iona and a poem of freedom in earnest pursuit of the Scottish nation. Supporting roles by Gerda Stevenson and Morna Young are amusing and/or tuneful but my distinct impression was of looking in at the tartan themed windows of discount booksellers, The Works, on Princes Street. The learned Dr.’s eye would take in a remaindered copy of his  ‘A Journey to the Western Islands’; he would harrumph, say “I’m deeply obliged”, and move on.

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 1 November)

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