EUSOG, HMS Pinafore (Assembly Roxy, 21 – 25 March ’17)

Photos. EUSOG.

“Every member of the cast should be pleased with their committed, lively, fun and engaging performance that made for a great night out”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

It is a moot point whether the restraint of trade as practised, for example in the Middle Ages by the City of London Livery Companies, and more recently by some trades union through the closed shop, protects the integrity of the brand through quality control, or acts merely as an effective way of cornering the market, but the arrangement between Arthur Sullivan and W S Gilbert with Richard D’Oyly Carte, whereby the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company held exclusive performance rights to their entire operettic oeuvre for 90 years must be one of the most spectacular coups de theatre in the history of the genre. Of course, it was all about the money, including staging at the Savoy Theatre, and served both parties well.

The D’Oyly Carte licence expired in 1961 and unleashed a torrent of enthusiastic amateur productions while the D’Oyly Carte Company managed to maintain brand leadership amongst the professional shows. The relative ease of the music to play and sing, along with its catchy tunes (alas, poor Arthur Sullivan with his longing to be a serious composer: he actually wrote some quite good serious stuff)) gave the works a new lease of life. In 1962 this writer played the Sergeant of Police in a prep school production of the Pirates of Penzance, other G&S triumphs followed …..

So it would be some surprise to Gilbert and Sullivan that the Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group would exist at all. However I am sure they would have been delighted, as was I, with the spirited and enthusiastic performance they are currently giving of HMS Pinafore at the Assembly Roxy.

Director Holly Marsden’s interpretation aims to criticise the British class system and to question what it is to be British through setting it in the modern era aboard a cruise ship. As she rightly claims, this mimics Gilbert and Sullivan’s original intentions, for they were ruthless satirists, but had such a light touch that their politically immune audiences considered it merely “poking fun”. Conceptually the production can bring nothing other than the enduring relevance of  “Englishness” and class, but that’s powerful stuff in a Scotland (re)considering independence and/or Brexit.  ‘Class’ may be an Edinburgh thing but it seems pretty resplendent around my way. Yet, and again to the director’s credit and in the spirit of the original, this was not some heavy handed student left wing rant, but a joyous fun filled romp played for laughs which came aplenty.

The orchestra struck up the familiar overture sounding small in number but large in enthusiasm, perhaps rather too like a ship’s orchestra before they settled in, and then the “ship’s company” took us through the opening ensemble “We sail the ocean blue” and we set off on a cruise of musical merriment that lasted the entire evening without a drop. The liveliness of the cast was engaging, honourable mentions going to Angus Bhattacharya’s wonderfully effete and arrogant Sir Joseph Porter, complete – naturally – with pelvic thrust, and to Talya Stenberg’s Buttercup, whose Californian accent was delightfully incongruous before she got under way. The most musical voice on stage that night belonged to Biomedical Sciences student Livi Wollaston, who should seriously consider switching to a degree in Vocal Studies at the Conservatoire.

The mentioning of a few should not disappoint the many who made such an effective contribution to the show.  Every member of the cast, and creative team,  should be pleased with their committed, lively, fun and engaging performance that made for a great night out.

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 22 March)

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Twelfth Night (Teviot House, 21 – 25 March’17)

l. Olivia Evershed as Viola; Francesca Sellors as Olivia and Ben Schofield as Orsino.
Publicity Photos taken at Gladstone’s Land by Gavin Smart.

“Thoughtful, fresh-faced and enjoyable.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Is it possible to hitch up one’s doublet and hose? Indeed it is. It’s a slightly awkward procedure, quaint even, especially when you’re not used to wearing breeks. And in this play, when marrying ‘down’ means to wed a ‘yeoman of the wardrobe’, there are all sorts of dress signifiers going on. Crestfallen Orsino (Ben Schofield), Duke of Illyria, has a feather in his floppy hat, for instance; while Feste (Kathryn Salmond), in shiny booties, is a fly dude of a clown.

All credit to the University’s Shakespeare Company to have gone to town for its costumes. It provides for a lot of show and leg, swagger and poise. Sir Andrew Aguecheek may reckon his galliard would slay them on the dance floor but nothing in ‘Strictly’ comes close to his curly golden wig. Once upon a time – in 1601 say – it hung lank like ‘flax on a distaff’, but male grooming continues to come on in leaps and bounds. Sir Toby Belch’s (Thomas Noble) broad chest is festooned and Antonio (Benjamin Aluwihare) is a silver pirate. Meantime, across the divide, the Countess Olivia’s gown is lovely, Viola / Caesario is demure in a wee cape, and Maria (Isabel Woodhouse) is a sexy spirit in a homespun skirt. It is, all in, a colourful procession.

Unsurprisingly and fittingly it is individual performances that catch the eye. Callum Pope is blindingly good as an Aguecheek crossed with Mr Bean. Olivia Evershed embodies Viola’s virtue and predicament simply by standing still and speaking well. Charlie Ralph’s Malvolio is at its best when hurt and humiliated while Francesca Sellors’s Olivia is always believable, from her sharp and ironic, ‘Are you a comedian?’ asked of Caesario, to her wonderful ‘Oh!’ when Sebastian (Michael Zwiauer) is simply delighted to be ruled by her …

Thomas Noble as Sir Toby Belch and Michael Zwiauer as Sebastian.
Production photo by Gavin Smart.

This production almost suits its venue to a T. The University’s Debating Hall is grand and wood panelled and lofty enough to accommodate Aguecheek’s kickshawses and capers. A narrow gallery runs around three sides and director Lauren Stockless might have wondered how – in the absence of an upper stage – she could use the higher space. As it is, a musical trio plays against the left wall and a few scenes are played in the orchestra pit and there is frequent usage of entries (& exits) through the auditorium itself. Unfortunately the seating is not raked so sightlines are sometimes obstructed. On the stage itself – and in the best Elizabethan tradition – there is no furniture, only a large and dark oblong box, which kept having its white coverings rearranged by fussy ducal servants. Black drapes hang upstage with white sheeting in the middle for heads to pop through at just the right comic moment.

Charlie Ralph as Malvolio with Francesca Sellors as Olivia.
Publicity photo by Gavin Smart

‘A natural perspective that is and is not’, exclaims the dumbfounded Orsino upon seeing the identical twins, Viola and Sebastian, and that’s what you’ll observe, kind of. As it happens brother and sister are not dressed the same, which if you don’t know the play (Anyone?) can be tricky, but more to the point you will see Twelfth Night in period costume, laugh as ever at the gulled Malvolio, enjoy the confusion of identities – a bonus feature is Fabian (Tom Whiston) as a woman –  and still be none the wiser about Feste: superannuated Fool or proto-Leonard Cohen?

This is not as ‘brisk and giddy paced’ as its times and mood require – and that you must hope for from a professional company – but as a student production it’s thoughtful, fresh-faced and enjoyable. As you wonder what it’s all about, best to side with the ever fazed Sir Andrew and just enquire, mildly, ‘Wherefore sweetheart, what’s your metaphor?’

At the close, as the stars come out on the backcloth, I would have Feste’s prayer to boot, ‘Now, the melancholy god protect thee, and the tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta’.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 21 March)

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The Marriage of Figaro (Assembly Roxy: 1st, 3rd and 4th March ’17)

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I have seen grander productions of The Marriage of Figaro… but not better ones.”

Editorial Rating: : 4 Stars:  Nae Bad

It’s hard not to enjoy Figaro. The tunes are familiar, the plot is a delightful melange of innocent deceit and caprice, and all ends happily. It is true, however, that the subject matter of powerful men demanding sex from young women who are effectively in their thrall has deeply unpleasant contemporary undertones. However the sheer good nature of the plot, the cunning of the women involved in cleverly winding up and trapping the men (aided and abetted by the master of cunning himself, Figaro), allows us to dismiss any politically correct concerns. It’s a lot more female friendly than The Benny Hill Show, and overall is a happy opera that allows us to laugh at the foibles of human nature as we re-attach ourselves to the finer strands of love, forgiveness and commitment. Cosi Fan Tutte it is not.

This production is staged by Edinburgh Studio Opera: a well-established group of University music (and other disciplines) students who team up with musicians starting out on their professional careers, and on the whole is a very successful follow-up to last year’s triumph, Carmen.

It uses a number of quite clever production devices in its storytelling in order to compensate for its stripped back set (a necessity of student productions!) – just clothes hampers and a door. We are led to believe we are watching an opera audition to start with, with cast getting into their costumes on stage. Quite why the chorus is dressed in black with grotesque make up in the manner of a Greek Chorus such as in Bacchae, is harder to understand, but arguably acts as a reminder that at this moment there are three entities in play; us, the audience; such actors as were robed; and the chorus being aspirant players hoping to get in on some of the action (which ultimately they did).

For me, this device works because the opera starts off with just two people on stage and the full company arrives only later on.  For the guise to return just as the interval and finish approach, as the chorus cast off their (over) garments on stage and wheel them off in laundry baskets is .entertaining but puzzling.  Again, perhaps a reminder that we were watching an audition, but could have been more thoroughly explored to make a clearer through-line. Other charming (if a little bizarre) moments are when the chorus also act as a very animated set of trees in the forest scene, a humorous foil to the shenanigans going on between the Count and Cherubino.

The libretto is sung in English with a commendable clarity that engages from the start. There is some fine solo as well as ensemble singing, with Jessica Conway (Rosina) delivering a couple of demanding arias very close together more than capably, while Jonathan Forbes Kennedy’s Count and Timothy Edmunson’s Figaro bring just the right balance of authority and vulnerability to their parts both vocally and with their acting. But for me, the star of the evening without doubt is Sarah Gilford’s Susanna, who not only sings beautifully, but acts with coquettish smiles, joyful humour and a streak of kind cunning. The Count never had a chance.

The production runs until the 4th March and I strongly recommend it for its inventive, professional approach. Ingenuity and creativity, allied to committed singing, acting and orchestral playing soon make one forget the necessarily stripped production. It is a joy from start to finish, and played for laughs which come aplenty. I have seen grander productions of The Marrage of Figaro, but not, in terms of sheer engagement with the work, better ones.  It feels as if the company really are giving it all they have, perhaps in the absence of more luxurious proscenium arch props, which sprinkles it with an extra layer of magic.

 

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes(Seen 28 February)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Lyceum Variety Nights (Lyceum: 26th Feb ’17)

“A fab night of quality entertainment”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

“This is a night of pure joyful entertainment,” co-host Sian Bevan tells us in her opening gambit. And entertaining it absolutely is, with another excellently curated programme of work from seven fine artists across music, spoken word and theatre.

The Lyceum’s Variety Night, though, is more than about just going to see a selection of snippets of work from talented acts. What makes it extra special is the joy and level of informality of proceedings that sets a tone somewhere in between your regular night at the Lyceum and a slightly drunken party. And there’s a raffle.

Bevan and the programme’s producer Jenny Lindsay, who act as comperes throughout, seem genuinely excited to be there and by the acts they are about to introduce, and they are a very natural pairing. Once again, it’s a shame not to hear more from them by way of warm-up to the main event, but with such a packed a programme it’s understandable why they want to crack straight on with the action, which flows professionally and smoothly from one act to the next.

This night had a very noticeably Scottish feel to it, with Gerda Stevenson and Rachel Sermanni sharing some absolutely gorgeous and ageless poetry and song, while Aidan Moffat and Colin Maguire performed rather more masculine musings on ex-girlfriends and bed, among other things.

It was only Adele Hampton, right at the end of the evening, who perhaps brought that real sense of “variety” to proceedings. Hailing from Washington DC and with a very international flavour, her work stuck out both for its gentle, flowing lyricism, and engaging quality of never really feeling like she was performing, rather just talking to friends. The Creative Martyrs also shone with their cabaret-style double-act with a slight political message – easily the most risqué act in a relatively tame programme.

It’s a little rough around the edges – some of the performers use notes, there’s some coarse language thrown in from time to time, and the low-tech stage-sharing brings a sense of rawness and individuality to this unique show, but all of that makes it infinitely more likeable in my book. Everything about how the night is put together gives a sense of being part of something really special and celebratory, and as a one-off show it’s a real treat to know you’re witnessing something unique, like being part of a secret club.

Perhaps this was a little safer, with slightly less wow-factor than the opening instalment three months ago, but overall it was still another fab night of quality entertainment. I’m already looking forward to the next one.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 26 February)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

RSNO: Remmereit, Bryan. Vaughan Williams, Martin Suckling, Ravel. (Usher Hall: 3 Feb ’17)

The Lark Ascending

“In Katharine Bryan we heard some of the finest flute playing around today”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

The RSNO chose interesting, offbeat fare for their Sir Alexander Gibson Memorial Concert on Friday night, by way of complete contrast to what will be an immensely popular Rachmaninov/Tchaikovsky melange this coming week. Good for them, and I am sure that the great man, who brought so much to the RSNO in his extraordinary twenty-five year tenure and yet died at the relatively young age of 68, would have thoroughly approved.

The first piece was not without controversy: Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending transposed for flute by the RSNO’s Principal Flautist, and soloist on the night, Katharine Bryan. This well known work – indeed, it is number one in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame (make of that what you will) – while for some overexposed, is to me almost sacred. I first heard it as a schoolboy played in a concert in Dorchester Abbey in Oxfordshire by one of my peers, Richard Deakin, who went on to teach music at the Royal Academy and found the Orchestra of St John’s Smith Square. An early summer evening by the Thames with the fading sun streaming through the Abbey’s stained glass windows … and the piece moved onto my spiritual and emotional hard drives for ever.

To transpose it to flute had me and a number of others worried. Yet for me, full of reservation, it was a triumph. The warmth and roundness of the flautist’s timbre brought a new dimension to the work outwith the capacity of the violin. Bryan’s playing was exquisite: her control of her breathing in long passages extraordinary, her phrasing superb, her control and precision utterly convincing. So much so that I shall buy the recording. Now there’s a compliment in this age of streaming and downloads.

Composer Martin Suckling came on next to introduce his world premiere performance of our next piece,  The White Road. Interesting as this prologue was, it later became clear  – as our flautist returned  in a shimmering white dress rather than her earlier red version –  that this was a fill in. No matter, it gave the next quite difficult fifteen minutes some context.

Notwithstanding the composer’s aspirations the work essentially was a back and forth between sharp musical bites from the flute echoed by percussion, with minimal brass, wind and string support and unconvincing body bops by the soloist to accentuate the to and fro with little added value from the microtones. Melody went missing until the end of the work and I found it unremarkable. Fairly typical of the modern genre, I suppose, but it really only came into itself at its close.

Our nerves were soothed by Bryan’s blissful rendering of Massenet’s Thais as an encore, accompanied only by harp. Luscious.

Following the interval we were treated to Daphnis and Chloe Suites No’s 1 and 2. This piece is a conductor’s nightmare in terms of its fluidity and apparent lack of time signature, so it would be timely to point out that the baton was being held on the night by Arild Remmereit standing in for the indisposed Peter Oundijan. A fine job he made of it (and for the rest of the evening, too). You never felt the orchestra were out of control and their disciplined playing impressed. The work opened with a flute solo and lo and behold, there was Katharine Bryan again, now in black dress, back in her familiar principal flute’s chair. The Danse Guerriere at the conclusion of the first suite showed real verve and the Lever de Jour opening Suite No 2 was well realised and convincing. Remmereit got everything he could out of the band in the Danse Generale which ended our evening with a – or rather, several – bangs.

So in conclusion,  this was a concert that entertained with the familiar, challenged with new takes on familiar themes, and also with new material. Sir Alexander would have been proud of his orchestra’s playing and in Katharine Bryan we heard some of the finest flute playing around today.

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 3 January)

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Picnic at Hanging Rock (Lyceum: 13 – 28 January ’17)

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“It’s cool, it’s chilling and it shocks”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Do you approach Hanging Rock expecting to see corsets hanging in mid-air? Well, in which case you will have noted that the excised last chapter of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 book provides this astonishing feature. Either that or you’re wandering in a Dreamtime of your own (adolescent) imagination, set about with eucalyptus trees and hot flushes from Peter Weir’s 1975 screenplay. Now here comes the wake-up call, a dramatic restorative, if you will.  It’s cool, it’s chilling and it shocks.

This Picnic at Hanging Rock is a stylish outing, to say the least, from Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre and Perth’s Black Swan Theatre Company. That’s Perth, Western Australia, and that’s a collaboration over 2170 miles, but who’s counting? This is Tom Wright’s adaptation but as in Lindsay’s story distance is of no consequence and time is suspended, ‘running out and spooling in’, between grey black panelling topped with brushwood. No rock is visible and there is no interval.

There is thunder and a blackout and five schoolgirls suddenly appear, side by side across the stage, in immaculate uniform ready for Speech Day 2017. They tell the story, their shared creepy story, of what happened on St Valentine’s Day, 1900, when a daytrip from Appleyard College went to Hanging Rock and four girls and one teacher disappear. One of them, Irma, is later found, close to death, and with absolutely no memory of what happened. It is, at its opening, a composed and perfectly disciplined account that you realise is the sure and safe way to rationalise the irrational, the unknown and the dangerous. It is a long introduction but necessary, for in this telling you understand that an ancient landmark is an abcess to be swabbed away for the sake of white Australians everywhere and young ladies from proper schools can never be too English. Whatever happened, dear, it’s really too, too bad that it happened in the state of Victoria.

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There are parasols to ward off the sun, a grand aspidistra to maintain respectability, and – figuratively – there must be ‘lino, asphalt, and axminster’ to hide the red earth. Mrs Appleyard, founder and Headmistress, remembers Bournemouth but dreams of the  intimate touch of her (?dead) husband. Irma, returns to the school before leaving for a stay in England and is viciously attacked by girls suffocating in their own propriety. Director Matthew Lutton works to challenge perceptions: angling the girls in contorted positions, immobilizing their movements in successive freeze-frame ‘shots’, subjecting the narrative to enigmatic surtitles over frequent blackouts. How else to refresh, even subvert, what has become an almost mythological text, complete with panpipes?

It is actually without humour – an unusual and tense achievement over eighty-five minutes – but the performances of the several characters are still appealingly unaffected and distinct. Amber McMahon cross-dresses as the young Englishman, Michael Fitzhubert, but there’s no caricature here. Elizabeth Nabben is Mrs Appleyard and builds a fragile role to its last despairing moment; Nikki Shiels suffers as Irma, whose fate it is to keep her nightmares under control, whilst Arielle Gray and Harriet Gordon-Anderson are in supporting roles that they make important.

Is an audience bushwhacked by theatrical device and intelligence? I think so, but it is performed with considerable respect for its source and the script is smart, spare and ingenious. Technically it works a treat with outstanding lighting and sound and this is probably one production where the ‘best’ seats, for the best effect, are probably at the front of the Upper Circle and you should definitely read the Director’s and Writer’s programme notes after the show because they’re too helpful. The play’s the thing.

[FYI. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play at Hanging Rock on Saturday 11 February. You simply cannot keep a good place down!]

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Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 14 January)

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Edinburgh Quartet, Beethoven (St Andrew’s and St George’s West: 11 Jan. ’17)

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“The Edinburgh Quartet have some magic dust around them that creates real homogeneity and synergy”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars

I saw on Facebook that a friend of mine was going to Wednesday’s Edinburgh Quartet Rush Hour Concert, and “ticked’ that I was going too. “They’re playing the Rasumovsky Quartet”, he enthused, virtually. “Which one?”, I replied. “Eh?”, came the rejoinder. For not many people know that there are in fact three, all commissioned by Count Andres Rasumovsky, the Russian Ambassador to Vienna, with the stipulation that they should contain Russian themes. Well actually, the one we heard, the third and arguably the finest, didn’t, but it contained an awful lot of interesting new approaches to the genre.

The Edinburgh Quartet bring a pleasingly creative approach to their programming and tonight we heard from Edinburgh Artist Erik Petrie, who was working alongside them this week at their Residency at the Ocean Terminal and just hours earlier had completed a magnificent, colourful violin scroll canvas which the Quartet proudly displayed. Second violinist Gordon Bragg discussed the intriguing relationship between quartet and artist with Erik before the concert started.

The Edinburgh Quartet have recently adopted a practice of having a theme for their concert series, and the theme for this early part of the New Year is “Revolution”. For certain, the works by Mozart (French Revolution) and Shostakovich (post Russian Revolution and very influenced by Stalin) could be deemed as appropriately covered by this banner, but for Beethoven in 1808 it was stretching a point, other than that the Rasumovsky Quartet, Op.59 No.3, is certainly revolutionary in construction.

The first movement Allegro opens with a series of diminished sevenths punctuated with silences that set off an atmosphere of wonder and mystery, resolving into C major and we are away in more conventional quartet form. Quite a shock for its audience then and quite a surprise today. Comparisons and styles can legitimately be made to `Mozart’s “Dissonance” Quartet.

The Andante con moto employed a lot of pizzicato and if Beethoven was trying to persuade his sponsor that the quartet contained a Russian theme it would be here, with its intimations of folk song.

Come the third movement Allegro we found ourselves listening to a cheerful minuet, yet just as we were beginning to relax and take it easy we barnstormed into the final Presto at breakneck speed. The players did not make one slip in these very demanding passages which they delivered with real verve. One felt the spirit of troubled Beethoven, hounded by deafness and in the process of beginning to admit it to his brothers and close friends. On the early sketch of this movement he had written “Let your deafness be a secret no longer – not even in art.”

Yet again, despite a number of personnel changes, the Edinburgh Quartet have some magic dust around them that creates real homogeneity and synergy, giving the impression they had been playing together for years. We had a relaxed yet assured, inspired performance. The tight, together playing we have become accustomed to, and sheer listen-to pleasure, was joyfully experienced tonight as always.

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 11 January)

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