NYOS: Chan, Osborne (Usher Hall: 12 April ’19)

Image result for National Youth Orchestra of Scotland 

“I have never heard Pictures played so well.  Ever.  By anyone.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

 

There is much talk in educational, local political and musical circles about youth and classical music today and where it is going.  I have a slightly different take to those who wish instrument teaching to be free for all, who I think miss the point.  Musical appreciation for all certainly at the infant and possibly early primary stages, but nothing is more likely to put someone off its joys than to learn something because they have to rather than because they want to.  Instrumental technique requires commitment, dedication and practice.  Money that is freely spent on other leisure pursuits can usually be redirected if wanted.

 

Serious youth music is channelled by the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland, which is not so much an orchestra as a movement, comprising three orchestras and two jazz combos, with illustrious patrons such Sir James MacMillan and Nicola Benedetti.

 

It is greatly to the RSNO’s credit that they devote such commitment to youth music, the more so because they integrated the orchestra’s 40th season into their own along with the creation of a new partnership.   The young people had the privilege on the night of being under the baton of the RSNO’s Principal Guest Conductor, Elim Chan, and of accompanying the uber talented Steven Osborne in Rach3.

 

As the players came on stage and warmed up full of brio I knew we were going to be in for a fun evening, even if fuelled on enthusiasm alone.  I was dismayed that the house was only half to three quarters full, but of course every conceivable parent, grandparent and sibling was there.  Often youth orchestras are capable of the very highest standard of delivery.  We would see.

 

Accompanying a soloist requires a different type of playing than when it is an entirely orchestral piece, the dynamics are more accentuated, you have to play quieter than you would wish a lot of the time.  The NYOS clearly understood this under the accessible and supportive conducting of Elim Chan, but perhaps they hadn’t reckoned with the bravura playing of Steven Osborne in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3 In D minor, Op. 30To my utter astonishment, notwithstanding what I have said about Chan’s supportive style, she took the work really fast.  The tempo for the first movement is Allegro ma non tanto.  Clearly Chan forgot or chose to ignore the non tanto.  Boy!, it was fast, and Osborn played both fast and loud.  Very loud, it was an absolute virtuoso performance, but this meant the orchestra/soloist balance was often wrong with the orchestra playing too quietly apart from some confident solo instrumental passages.  As everybody settled in after the mammoth first movement the strings came into their own in the Intermezzo: Adagio with some exceptional pizzicato from the double basses (one of their proud parents was right in front of me and gladly pointed him out).  In the final movement Alla breve everyone had a good time as they brought this monumental, demanding work to a glorious conclusion.  Osborne rose from the piano stool, modestly took no bow alone and immediately referenced the orchestra.  He then treated us to something “quieter and slower”, one of Rachmaninov’s glorious preludes.

 

It transpired, after the interval, that this would be a “concert of two halves”, my slight reservations about some of the playing in Part One swept aside as the band was given their head in a full on performing, rather than accompanying role.  First up was Andrea Tarrodi’s (b. 1981) short orchestral piece Liguria, inspired by the composer’s 2011 visit to six of its small villages.  Dramatic from start to finish it showed off the orchestra’s credentials, enjoyable to listen to in the modern idiom, if somewhat derivative.  The waves depicting Onde reminded me of Debussy’s La Mer.

 

The final work in the programme was Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an ExhibitionThis is a work guaranteed to bring the house down, and what impressed me was the joy, yet discipline and sheer musical accomplishment that the young orchestra brought to it.  Not a hint of vulgarity, clear, taut delivery, and the full gamut of strings, wind, brass (including two bass tubas), percussion (including tubular bells and two harps) giving us the full big orchestra experience.  I slept on this before finally convincing myself of the veracity of the happy note that I wrote before leaving the auditorium:  “I have never heard Pictures played so well.  Ever.  By anyone.”  Well done NYOS, you are a testimony for youth music.

 

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 12 April)

Go to the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland

Visit Edinburgh49 at its Usher Hall archive.

White (St Cecilia’s Hall: 23 – 25 Mar.’19)

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing

“An incredibly important production”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Outstanding

Ah, racial politics. Anxiety-studded star of a few hundred conversations in coffee shops and pubs. It’s not that the constant deluge of injustice and anger in the world is depressing, it’s that it’s utterly depressing. Talking about it at all, let alone making comedy out of it, is like trying to tapdance your way through a minefield. One false slip and you’re either offending, rehashing or – perhaps worst of all – inadvertently punching down. And even if the comedy’s coming from a true, honest voice, the risk of creating “zeitgeist-y” work with little staying power looms ever present. Needless to say, the prospect of reviewing James Ijames’ “White” filled me with tentative hope and cautious apprehension: what I got in return was a wonderfully slanted commentary on modern sociopolitics, and enough comedy to keep me from realizing I was learning until it was far too late to stop.

Based on a true series of events surrounding the 2014 Whitney Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary Art, White tells the story of white artist Gus (Levi Mattey), who hires African American actress Vanessa (Anna Phillips) to present his work as her own, thus defaming an exhibition he was unable to qualify for. From this fairly simple starting point comes a flurry of emotionally charged and often absurd vignettes, examining the morality of racial curation and the various chasms which still exist at the intersections of ethnicity, sexuality, gender and identity.

First and foremost is the skill and timeliness of Ijames’ writing. White, in many ways, is a clever sleight of hand: the charged subject of race never leaves the stage, and yet seems to disappear beneath illusory hand waves of wit and stinging turnaround. Before you know it, you’re considering your own place in the debate, unconsciously picking apart what is satire and what isn’t. It’s the kind of theatre that is sorely needed in a climate that often seems paralysed in the face of despair.

That illusory quality is helped vastly by the show’s comedic direction: energy is the word of the day, and Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller has packed it like gunpowder in an old rifle. Despite the open elliptical shape of  St Cecilia’s Hall, this production turned into bouts of verbal tennis, firing jokes so quickly across the room that distance seemed almost to help it. Of course, with a base of clear talent, it’s easily done: Mattey does an extremely laudable job at portraying a character who seems to flip between main antagonist and protagonist with every sentence, and yet still seem jaw-clenchingly consistent. In a similar vein, Phillips’ pulls triple-duty in a trio of roles (one a role within a role), rolling them out chameleon like: same silhouette, but vastly different vibes and patterns.

Supporting, we have Bradley Butler as Gus’ boyfriend Tanner, and Jess Butcher as museum curator Jane – though to relegate them to ensemble would do them injustice. The production would not be half as good without Butler’s caring, vibrant foil to Gus’ ironclad self-interest; and to say too much about Butcher’s portrayal of Jane would ruin some of the best scenes going – I can say only that themes of duality and hypocrisy are shiningly represented.

So, in such a shiny show, what didn’t go so smoothly? Unfortunately, a few stylistic kinks along the way are enough to turn what could be a smooth ride into something bumpier. Though the comedy seldom suffers from the almost breathless pace of the dialogue, there are times when certain lines, actions or even reactions could have done with more time to breathe. Especially in the third act, when things get heavier than ever, I found myself wanting to wait a little more in the questions before being whisked off to more one-liners.

And it’s that same breakneck paceyness which turns some of the show’s more surreal moments into missed opportunities. Without spoiling too much, part of the joy of this show is how left-field the ending is. But buoyed on its own wild momentum and without enough time to properly clock what was happening, genuinely interesting satire ended up feeling more muddled than biting. Without room for contrast, the energy seems to dip without ever getting lower, like getting used to the temperature of shower water.

And while scenes of sexual intimacy are intimate and very well done, the same cannot be said of the show’s flirtation with day-to-day romance. A very certain scene makes it abundantly clear that Mattey and Butler can play off each other wonderfully, but there seems to be an odd sterility to their interactions in the wider world of the play. The words are right but it lacks passion and force.

So what does this all add up to? And, maybe more importantly, how does this all play into a rating? Put shortly, this is an incredibly important production, marred by a few key flaws. Even if there are elements that could be improved on, White is a show that I wildly encourage everyone to see whilst it’s here – and to endeavour to seek out when it’s not.

The best theatre is the kind that leaves you fundamentally, and almost unwillingly, questioning yourself. By that metric, White certainly doesn’t disappoint.

outstanding

StarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 23 March)

Visit Edinburgh49 at Other venues.

 

A Note of Explanation (Assembly Roxy: 1-3 Mar.’19)

Justin Skelton as Edwin
Photo: Grant Jamieson

“Lively and intelligent”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Nae Bad

 

It fits that A Note of Explanation, a work-in-progress preview, is part of the third Formation Festival at Assembly Roxy. This adaptation of a children’s story by Vita Sackville-West is coming together rather well.

Some Kind of Theatre could argue that their 45 minute production is in kit form: neatly engineered, quick to put up, and soon to be nicely habitable. It is, after all, based upon a very small book in the library of a doll’s house. Yes, a priceless doll’s house with imperial foundations, but director and script adaptor, Emily Ingram, has carefully and respectfully remodelled A Note of Explanation (1924) for our declining and more anxious, times. I believe Sackville-West would applaud, whilst Edwin Lutyens, architect, might question what on earth we mean by ‘modernizing’. However, Lutyens is tutored and charmed by a bright and perky fairy, so all is to the good.

Quercus, ageless sprite of the house, has ‘memoirs’ to enact from standing in the wings of story time. She is forever young and capable (and Scottish) and her tales of Cinderella, the Shellycoat, Bluebeard, and Jack and the Beanstalk, are cheery, cheeky, variants upon the originals. Nothing too scary here, only a silly goose. Cheery but helpful too, as each has an ecological edge; perhaps not as keen as the woodcutter’s axe but good and pronounced all the same. When Quercus accuses Lutyens of imprisoning her within the skeleton of her oak tree the royal architect is truly sorry. Fortunately there is one magic acorn left ….

Ably performed by a cast of three – Gillian Goupillot, as Quercus; Imogen Reiter; and Justin Skelton, as Edwin Lutyens – with support from puppets of tree(s), agile squirrels and a carriage, A Note of Explanation is a lively and intelligent children’s show in the making.  

 

(& by ‘n by, for grown-ups:

Lutyens: https://www.architectural-review.com/essays/the-rise-and-fall-and-rise-of-edwin-lutyens/10029787.article

Robert Graves’ poem, The Stake, in ‘Poems: abridged for Dolls and Princes’, 1922, in the library of Queen Mary’s Doll House.  Haunted, but has an honest oak tree at its centre.)

 

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 1 March)

Enjoy Some Kind of Theatre

Visit Edinburgh49 at the Assembly Roxy

Wendy and Peter Pan (The Lyceum: 29 Nov.’18 – 5 Jan. ’19)

Isobel McArthur (Wendy) and Dorian Simpson (Smee/Doc Giles)
Photos: Mihaela Bodlovic

“It’s a visual treat”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Outstanding

It is not often that I review children’s shows. Luckily, as a twenty-something I’m basically a child in an adult body, pretending I know how to do taxes or what grenadine is. Less luckily, it’s much harder to review a children’s show honestly than it is to convince people at parties you can make a drink other than “rum in a Tom & Jerry mug”. With that in mind, consider this a review in two parts: one for the adults in the audience, and the other for the kids you’ll most likely have alongside you.

If you’re a parent, or just someone who’s interested in the general state of children’s theatre, the outlook is actually pretty good. Ella Hickson’s interpretation of the J.M Barrie classic plays its adaptational cards fairly straight: despite new framing devices and subplots the bones of the original do shine through. Though whilst that may be nothing new, it’s definitely nothing unwelcome.

The production paves its own way in design terms. It’s a visual treat: the vertically focused sets are detailed and interesting enough alone, but when coupled with costume and staging the whole production goes from “act” to “spectacle” on visual merit alone. Particular praise to Ziggy Heath as Peter Pan, for extended service to physical clownery, exhausting even just to watch. Co-lead Isobel McArthur performs an admirable Wendy, managing to keep up almost effortlessly against her more physically dynamic ensemble.

This is also a show, however, that could be accused of over ambition in its writing. Whilst the quality of the dialogue is high, Hickson’s adaptation suffers from trying to do too much at once. By the second half, the story is about accepting the death of a child, and also about becoming an adult, but also a swashbuckling adventure, but also about Wendy wanting to lead, and on and on as such. Just when it seems to be coming to grips with one theme, it switches. And whilst there is something to be said about writing for the often less-than-infinite attention spans of younger kids, as an adult you might be left feeling a little dazed. Despite a very talented cast and that excellent overall design, the story changes momentum so often that it struggles to carry a single cohesive theme.

But it’s all well and good to sit on my high horse and judge: perhaps more important than what I think is what the kids thought. And despite any criticisms levelled previously, there is one overriding factor that makes the difference here: they were enthralled. For nearly the show’s entire run time, silence pervaded over a crowd of people whose average age barely went above double digits. On the way out, it was a sea of smile and fake sword fights, and it’s honestly very easy to see why.

Gyuri Sarossy as Captain Hook

Sally Reid as Tink

Despite being a little clumsy in its execution story-wise, Peter Pan and Wendy succeeds in capturing something essentially child like. Call it something I can’t put my finger on, or hook onto it (geddit?), but it’s obvious that this production understands the motivations, feelings and fears of young children. At the end of the day, it’s going to do its job for its intended audience, and not only do it well, but with sincerity. The performances are big and expressive, but thoughtful too. Funny, even – Dorian Simpson as Smee delivered laughs that had every age bracket rolling, alongside Sally Reid’s wonderfully crunchy portrayal of Tinkerbell.

PeterPan3

… and with Ziggy Heath as Peter

Is it worth going to see if you don’t have kids? Maybe, if you want something interesting to look at for a couple of hours, but aren’t expecting grand narrative. But if you’re looking for something that the younger people in your life might be able to connect with in a really meaningful, fun way? Absolutely.

 

outstanding

StarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 30 December)

Go to Wendy and Peter Pan at the Lyceum

Visit Edinburgh49 at The Lyceum 

 

SCO: Krivine, Chamayou (Usher Hall: 23 Nov.‘18)

Melusine, mermaid to the Plantagenets. A modern “illumination” by Troy Howell.

“Not a question of playing, but interpretation

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

I was very much looking forward to this concert with its collation of beautiful, early Romantic works all written within 35 years of each other and during the afternoon I listened to recorded interpretations to refresh my memory of them: Maria Joao Pires with Daniel Harding and the Swedish RSO for the Beethoven (a 1994 recording), Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (2014) for the Schumann, and Claudio Abbado and the LSO for the Mendelssohn (1988); a good cross section of interpretational styles over the last 30 years.

 

One should not, generally, compare recorded music with live.  One is essentially a photograph whilst the other  is a painting: technical perfection against the raw result of human artistic endeavour.  Yet I wasn’t comparing the playing, but the interpretation, and for this I point the baton at guest conductor Emmanuel Krivine, a musician whose pedigree is considerable, and whose style, at least on the night, was deeply conservative and –  too often – too slow.  I was reminded of Klemperer or Sir Reginald Goodall, but without their depth.  I was not inspired.  Neither was I convinced by the necessity of putting the double basses on the left and separating the horns from the trumpets and trombones either side of the woodwind.  For a very classical conductor, this was a somewhat enigmatic move.

 

I was wryly amused at the passing of time and customs that have led to these three works, Mendelssohn’s Overture The Fair Melusina, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no 4 in G, and Schumann’s Symphony No 4 in D Minor (1851 revision) being put on the same programme , as they were all very badly received at their premieres, but perhaps this has, with the passing of time, become a badge of honour.

 

The legend of Melusina is almost too ridiculous to recount but involves a maiden turning into either a sea monster, mermaid or serpent one day a week as punishment for favouring a knight; make of it what you will.  The piece is meant at times to convey the rippling of the sea and the manliness of the knight, but I don’t go with these interpretations.  Given the storyline it is an eleven minute work of considerable meatiness, if not in the Ruy Blas or Fingal’s Cave class.

 

The SCO’s playing was sound with some notable results from the wind section, but overall the impression was an almost ponderous interpretation lacking spontaneity or attack.  This from the people who gave you a simply amazing rendition of Brahms’s four symphonies but four months ago.  Not a question of playing, but interpretation.

 

Everyone knows Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in G, but I wonder if they realise how revolutionary it was at the time, and remains today.  A brief solo piano introduction followed by a long orchestral interlude; the orchestra attacking aggressively followed by plaintive murmurings from the piano, almost as if piano and orchestra are in separate rooms and we can hear them both.  It is a glorious work and the second movement Andante con moto divine.

 

Bertrand Chamayou’s playing lacked perfect clarity and precision in the solo entrance.  There was a loss of definition in some of the immensely challenging demi-semi-quaver passages and the orchestral accompaniment was a tad muddy.  I was surprised to see music on top of the piano, if only for occasional reference, rather than reading.  Settling down or lack of rehearsal? Perhaps settling down, because the cadenza was brilliantly executed and as orchestra and soloist got used to each other there were some better dynamics.  In the second movement Andante con moto we heard confident, attacking strings pitted against a soulful, responsive piano.  We concluded with a splendid, fresh lively Rondo (justifiably marked Vivace.)

 

Chamayou obliged us with an encore of the second movement of a Haydn sonata, restful, beautifully played, clear and well phrased.

 

The final work, Schumann’s Symphony No 4 in D minor bears the opening remark in my notebook of “Too slow!”. It was a rather pedestrian performance lacking in verve.  It was as if, as for much of the evening, notwithstanding some very good orchestral playing, the music was somehow struggling to get out. The second movement contained some wonderfully rich string playing.  In the Scherzo the horns brought some liveliness to an otherwise rigid interpretation.  The spirited, energised finale Langsam-Lebhaft at last gave one a real lift and the final 20 second coda an insight into what this great little orchestra is capable of.

 

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 22 November)

Go to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Visit Edinburgh49 at the Usher Hall archive.

The Unreturning (Traverse: 24-27 October ’18)

“The third storyline takes place in a (presumably Brexit-induced) war-torn futureworld, where everyone’s information is publicly displayed by the government, people are wanted for ‘Dissent,’ and everything has completely gone to hell.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

The effect of armed conflict on the already fragile male psyche is a deeply fascinating subject. Anna Jordan’s The Unreturning takes a timelessly important issue — the return of the soldier from war — and creatively explores touching and interesting variations on what these returns mean and have meant through time. Told through three constantly overlapping and intersecting storylines, the play paints a gripping and tragic picture of the collision of memory, trauma, and men who will never exist the same way again — for whom a true ‘return’ is impossible. Performers Jared Garfield, Joe Layton, Jonnie Riordan, and Kieton Saunders-Browne take on the production with intense spirit, and compellingly elevate Jordan’s impactful choice of subject matter. One will truly feel moved by the real-life implications of the play’s content, such as meditations on the legacy of war crimes, the role of friends, family, and average people in the return of discharged members of the military, and how truly detached so many of us are from the experience of war. 

This play is produced by Frantic Assembly, a group both admired and infamous for the wall-to-wall physicality of their shows. The Unreturning plays to their strengths in many respects; the extensive and balletic movement all four performers put themselves through over the course of the three stories are a marvel to watch, and embed the stories with clever visual connections. The structure of the show is at its best when the three stories overlap in direct parallel to each other, such as a sequence near the beginning when all three board or initiate their respective transports ‘home’ — home in each case being Scarborough. George (Garfield), boards a train; Frankie (Layton) sits in a cramped plane next to sunburnt tourists; Nat (Riordan) barters with Norwegian boatmen to smuggle him into a war-torn United Kingdom. The parallel is revisited in a breathtaking setpiece following the three men as they wander around the area, each distraught for their own reasons, and deliriously visit Scarborough monuments and landmarks; they stand next to each other onstage, separated by time but alike in their disconnection from what is meant to be their home. George, you see, is returning home after armistice in 1918; Frankie has been discharged for committing a hate crime in Afghanistan in 2013; Nat is searching a bombed-out Scarborough for his brother in 2026. 

Yes, 2026. The third storyline takes place in a (presumably Brexit-induced) war-torn futureworld, where everyone’s information is publicly displayed by the government, people are wanted for ‘Dissent,’ and everything has completely gone to hell. For all the immense emotional intelligence at work in The Unreturning, this aspect of Jordan’s script, along with director Neil Bettles’ over-reliance on the overcomplicated revolving set, render a great deal of the actual stage time irritatingly silly. For although the subject matter is compelling, the tone and pace of the Frantic Assembly approach are a poor match. The breakneck energy, high-bravado set-changes and head-spinning multi-roling repeatedly jar against the profundities of the story, producing deeply unfortunate moments like a floating hat and dress cartoonishly symbolizing George’s lovestruck wife, or the discordant wiggling the company members return to over and over when George experiences haunting flashbacks or Frankie succumbs to substance abuse. 

The show has a lot of wiggling. This is not always a bad thing, of course, though it seems to be Frantic Assembly’s bread and butter. To evoke a shaky memory, the actors wiggle. To show the passage of time or space, the actors wiggle. To recreate a pub or a discotheque, the actors wiggle drunkenly. All this wiggling is finely choreographed and expertly executed, but the main result of it all is a simple: why? Why take so much focus away from the intriguing narrative elements to just move around like spaced out dancers? It is pleasant, impressive movement, but mostly has very little to do with the gravity of the situation — like if a bunch of mourners started breakdancing at a wake. Sure, it’s impressive, but is now the time?

When the wiggles pause, and moments of achingly tender performance are allowed to play out, the talent is notable. Garfield, in particular, imbues George with a brilliantly measured depth, wherein he visibly wrestles with both his wartime experience and anxiously rethinks every aspect of the rest of his life. Jordan’s script detracts from itself, especially early on, by piling far too many profound statements on top of each other in nearly every line, yet Garfield turns most of them into affecting ruminations rather than fortune-cookie-esque dictums — his parable about the Christmas day truce near the middle of the show is the performative high point of the piece, without a doubt. Layton is also an electric performer, who displays expert timing and delivery every time he is onstage; while Frankie has much less multi-dimensionality than George (the supposed ambiguity of his character’s racial crimes are a weaker element of the script), Layton nevertheless leaves a lasting impression as a versatile actor. This is not as true for Riordan, who is outmatched by his fellow actors; the 2026 storyline he leads is, again, incongruously silly, and Riordan deserves credit for the desperation and consistency of his take on Nat’s miserable trajectory, but overall he does not bring enough verve to a storyline already lacking justification. Saunders-Browne, playing various supporting parts, does a solid job bouncing around so many characters and time periods, and in his case, the future-set monologue he delivers late in the show is thankfully not so opaque as the rest of that storyline to overshadow his well-measured delivery. 

Overall, The Unreturning is a curious example of a potentially mismatched writer and company. Yet, aside from the more incongruous choices onstage, the performances are memorable and affecting, the treatment of the subject matter is mostly excellent, and one can easily overlook the weaker elements in favor of a truly noble intention.

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 24 October)

Visit the Traverse archive.

 

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.