The Threepenny Opera (King’s Theatre: 15-16 September)

“A charming production full of talent”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

The musical legacy of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s vibrantly satirical ‘play with music’ The Threepenny Opera is a curious one. Its opening anthem, “Mack the Knife,” has subsequently gained far more acclaim and recognition as a jazz standard in English since its debut in 1928 Berlin. The sultry refrain still tells of the deliciously violent antics of the notorious Macheath — every bit as much a bloodthirsty criminal as a salacious womanizer — but the original Socialist criticisms of capitalism and societal greed inherent in the original context of the character have somewhat faded. However, in their current production of Weill and Brecht’s piece, The Attic Collective yank the socialism and social Darwinism back into focus with grandiosity and verve to spare.

The assembled talent has carefully chosen a threadbare aesthetic and a frantic tone, both of which are appreciated considering it’s nearly three-hour runtime. The blocking, choreographed by Dawn-Claire Irvine, is frenetic, with bodies and props being hurled around the stage with sometimes dizzying energy. The set, managed by Tony King, is almost completely empty, save the minuscule bandstand area and temporary furnishings wheeled on to create a sense of space, which is accomplished well. The band is led with both humour and talent by Simon Goldring, whose musical direction fits well into the play’s dingy background. The most remarkably funny aspect of the stagecraft is the use of projected slides to flatly assert location. Before most scenes, white typeface bluntly explains context, and briefly puts up an Edinburgh equivalent of where these London-set scenes might take place, eliciting many a laugh for their timing and matter-of-factness. Had these been paired with a more self-serious, pretentious production, they would seem tacky; had they been employed by a less dynamic, more straightforwardly silly group, they’d be out of place for their dry humour. But to their credit, The Attic Collective’s decisions like this strike exactly the right tone (more often than not), between gormless and grandiose, threadbare and thrifty, funny and frank.

Max Reid is excellent as the appallingly villainous Mr. Peachum, particularly for the bombast he brings to his first scene, directly after the chorus’s “Mack the Knife” introduction. Reid successfully guides the audience from the familiar sounds of the standard to the viciously satirical tone of the rest of the production, which is no easy feat. As (occasionally) the cruelty and pitch-black comedy of Brecht’s script might come off as too much to find funny, it is particularly commendable that director Susan Worsfold has chosen to emphasise the comedy wherever possible. Toby Williams, as a hapless and clueless beggar, is hilarious with excellent timing, and Hannah Bradley as Mrs Peachum displays a genuinely impressive talent for balancing daft operatic turns of plot and phrase with an accomplished singing voice and terrific stage presence. And this is all the first scene.

Charlie West’s Mack the Knife takes time to get used to, but ultimately shines as the play pushes his character farther and farther from the archetypal ladykiller/people-killer role. His singing is good, and well-suited to the choppiness of Brecht’s plotting, as some intentionally off-kilter scenes and character dynamics look and sound more grating than polished. Given the tone of the production, these are presumably meant to be that way. West also displays nice comedic timing, but the truly gifted comedic dynamic was found more frequently among his criminal posse: Lewis Gribben, Elsa Strachan, John Spilsbury, Mark O’Neill and occasionally Conor McLeod. They all display real camaraderie and genuinely funny quips whenever present: another respite given the sometimes exhausting length of the proceedings.

Mack’s various women, played by Kirsty Punton, Megan Fraser and Sally Cairns, are characterised well, and each command the stage when given the opportunity. Special note goes to Cairns’ exquisitely gauche costume. In fact, the behind-the-scenes decisions are some of the most impressive aspects of the show: the use of the King’s Theatre’s actual boxes during a brothel-based interchange in particular is an inspired choice, delivering further hilarity.

The political and societal implications, are however, noticeably muddled, from the greediness and homoeroticism within head of police Tiger Brown (Andrew Cameron), to the jarring humour on display while Mack languishes in a prison cell waiting to be hanged by the distinctly humourless guard (Adam Butler). The spaces crafted by mime and sparse prop work, including a very funny use of a ladder as all-things-jail-call, but frequently have their implied rules broken, from doors switching to windows, walls vanishing entirely, locks fitting into keyholes where previously there was nothing, and entire crowds miraculously appearing and disappearing: the staging too often does not make any sense. Granted, these are aspects of Brecht’s dismantled view of theatricality in general, but when the plot twists and turns so freely it would have help to define spaces a little bit more.

Overall, The Threepenny Opera is a charming production full of talent and featuring some particularly inspired choices and aesthetics. There could be a little more there in the way of clarity, but hey, it’s Brecht. Most charmingly, it gives a whole lot of context for the flawless “Mack the Knife” standard itself, and for a superfan like myself that’s welcome. And if you weren’t a fan of the song beforehand, you will be once the curtains have closed.

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller  (Seen 15 September)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

 

What Shadows (Lyceum: 7 – 23 September ’17)

Ian McDiarmid as Enoch Powell
Photos: Mihaela Bodlovic

“A remarkable performance, as unsettling as it is astonishing”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Outstanding

Shadows cast? Shadows fleeting? Shadows lengthening? Take your pick as you find your way back and forth through the many scenes of Chris Hannan’s timely play upon the redoubtable life of Enoch Powell (1912 -1988), for whom – archly – it is ‘in fog [that] you feel England all around you’. As it is what you see is a beautiful copse of silver birches.

This is the standout Birmingham Rep’ production from 2016 directed by Roxanna Silbert. Ian McDiarmid (Powell), Paula Wilcox and Waleed Akthar reprise their roles. McDiarmid, especially and importantly, gives a commanding performance as the radical, absolutist Conservative whose proudest, indisputable claim was that he always spoke for his constituents of Wolverhampton South West, and as their MP from 1950 to 1974 that meant speaking his formidable mind about immigration. For the classical scholar, poet, and theologian whose idea of total Englishness was ‘sunken lanes in Shropshire’, immigration is as unpoetic – but as necessary – as it gets. Lamentable too. For Powell’s close friend, local newspaper editor and Quaker Clem Jones (Nicholas le Prevost), ‘England’ is more subtle – ‘Gary Sobers bowling his slow Chinaman’: surely one, nowadays, for the British Citizenship Test.

What Shadows moves between 1992 and 1967/68. Powell’s notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, that closes the first half of the play, was given at a Conservative Association meeting in Birmingham on April 20 1968. Twenty-five years on two feuding Oxford history lecturers, one black, one white, Rose Cruickshank (Amelia Donkor) and Sofia Nicol (Joanne Pearce), see a research paper, maybe a book, contextualising that speech, interviewing Powell, and hitting upon Insights-to-Racism-and-How-to-Stop-It. Parody did not seem far away, particularly in their self-righteous, point scoring tones; and they’re certainly no match against Powell, even at the end of his life and shaken by Parkinson’s.

Ameet Chana as Sultan and Amelia Donkor as Joyce Cruickshank

Hannan’s invention is both amusing and accurate. 1967 is a Powell picnic, with his wife Pamela (Joanne Pearce) at her supportive best; it is also a hostess trolley at an awkward New Year’s Eve party, where Grace Hughes (Paula Wilcox) is a white landlady of two Punjabis, the gauche Saeed (Waleed Akthar) and the jovial and appealing Sultan (Ameet Chana), whose war service in Burma included learning ‘I Love a Lassie’ from the 1st Battalion Seaforth Highlanders. 1968 is the Powells leaving an RSC production of ‘King Lear’ at Stratford and being buttonholed by Sultan. “England must be cured of Empire” pronounces Enoch. There’s even a passing reference to the late and great Alan Howard.

In this show, though, it’s Ian McDiarmid whom you must applaud. It is a remarkable performance, as unsettling as it is astonishing. Go to Youtube for Michael Cotterell’s 1995 film portrait of Powell, ‘Odd Man Out’, and realise how close the actor is to his subject. Obviously the words, their clarity, and the curiously accented speech can be the same but there is the tight smile, the nodding assent that is as sympathetic as it is probably dismissive. Powell nearly usurped the Tory party on principle and McDiarmid shows how he did it, without quite turning the man into the near demon / archangel of the Left and Right respectively. Enoch in carpet slippers and dressing gown is still the insurgent and not some benign ambassador for the National Trust.

The ending looks to the future, to whatever England makes of itself. It probably has to be a tad romantic and suffused with colour to offset the gloom of the present day.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 12 September)

Go to What Shadows at the Lyceum & to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Visit Edinburgh49 at The Lyceum archive.

Fag/Stag (Underbelly, Cowgate: 3-27th Aug: 16.00: 60mins)

“A triumph… top marks”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

When it comes to producing good theatre, sometimes the most simple ideas are the most effective. Fag/Stag is a case in point. It follows the lives of two best friends (Corgan and Jimmy) in the run up to a mutual friend (and former crush)’s wedding and is staged with just two actors – each playing one of the friends – and two stools, plus a couple of token props to help set specific scenes. What unravels is an absolute masterclass in story-telling, from both the written and performed perspective.

While structured as two interweaving monologues, the script contains clever overlaps allowing both characters to present their respective accounts of specific incidents: often to humorous effect, (tempering self-indulgent exaggerations) yet sometimes to fill in poignant details the other may have been too ashamed of (or drunk) to share.

And therein lies the power of this piece – the frankness of story-telling. We get to see the full picture of both characters’ insecurities and weaknesses, either from their own mouth or from the mouth of their friend, which means we get to know and empathise with them very quickly. It’s both comfortable and compelling to watch.

What’s most touching about this performance is how it beautifully and understatedly presents a relationship not often seen on stage – a straight man, Corgan (Chris Isaacs), and his gay best friend Jimmy (Jeffrey Jay Fowler). Theirs is evidently a true and caring friendship, with late night emergency calls to rescue each other from sticky situations, an ease with they can talk about really personal issues, and a bluntness in dealing with each others’ misdemeanours head on-on. Their differing perspectives on specific situations is often amusing, but what comes across most emphatically is the importance of sticking up for your buddy, whoever they are.

The plot itself sees Jimmy try and come to terms with his break-up with his long-term partner, and Corgan’s attempt to deal with the fact his former love is marrying another man. It’s fairly emotive in parts, with longer monologues drilling down into details and feelings, yet performed with the vibrancy and sensitivity required to keep it captivating throughout. There are also plenty of laughs to be had, most notably regarding a certain scent of air freshener referred to on multiple occasions

By keeping the design and direction very simple throughout this piece, The Last Great Hunt allow the story and quality of acting to really shine through. This really is a triumph in getting the basics of a show absolutely right, and many other companies can learn from this production. Top marks.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 24 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

The Gun Show (Space Triplex: 4-26 Aug: 19.40: 60mins)

“Vin Shambry is one of the most powerful and talented performers at this year’s Fringe.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Of all the takeaways from E.M. Lewis’s one-actor project The Gun Show, there is none clearer than this: lead actor Vin Shambry is one of the most powerful and talented performers at this year’s Fringe. As the sole actor, his voice, mannerisms, physicality, and humor are magnetic, charming, and immensely human; he could be talking about throw pillows or breakfast cereal for an hour and it would probably still warrant a standing ovation.

But in this play Shambry talks about guns. He talks about them over five stories, which are delivered with grace and rhythm, but written with a somewhat vague sense of pace and subject matter. From a charming opening anecdote comparing the blood-soaked climax of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs to modern gun-filled headlines, the tone is set as one of culturally relevant iconoclasm. The plot overall weaves personal stories – such as a retelling of a harrowing  robbery at gunpoint – and very public true ones, including a shocking reenactment of professional lunatic Alex Jones defending the Second Amendment days after the Sandy Hook massacre. Shambry’s performance throughout is engrossing and electric, with clever audience interaction that entertains and commands the room.

The play at first seeks a deceptively simple point about guns in America: that the conversation has devolved into two sides that insult and deride each other without helping anyone. Lewis writes of the Whole Foods-shopping, Rachel Maddow-listening left, and the gun-toting, NRA card-carrying right, lamenting that the vastly larger middle ground opinions are drowned out or ignored. Stories of the responsible, sensible use of guns are convincing, as are cautionary tales and assertions about how guns can be used for true destruction and terror. Points raised later in the play are strikingly personal, and to director Shawn Lee’s credit, masterfully withdrawn.

There is a moral stickiness to elements of the overall approach, however, that one cannot shake. Shambry performs specifically as Lewis, whose identity and backstory are revealed slowly and subtly throughout the performance, and there is a vague sense of a plot-twist as it becomes apparent that Shambry is not playing himself, but speaking of experiences from people of differing genders, race, age, and background. The Gun Show exists on at least three planes in this sense. Firstly, there is Shambry delivering a powerful spoken essay on gun violence and the complexity of personal firearms. Secondly, there is Lewis, writing as a woman who has intentionally chosen a vessel very unlike herself to deliver these statements. Thirdly, there is a back and forth actor/writer dialogue, at times literally shining a light on Lewis, who is present in the audience, with recognisable moments of mutual understanding that he is playing her, and she is writing for him, yet as herself. This aspect of the performance is both disorienting and brilliantly simple.

The stickiness, however, comes from the misleading qualities of the advertising and format. On the poster, Shambry’s face, as a Black man, juxtaposed against an American flag with the tagline “What the hell is happening in America?” seems geared towards a specific set of issues that will be discussed, specifically race-related gun violence. Yet The Gun Show never once addresses the innumerable and unnecessary deaths of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement, instead favouring a much more general take on the gun conversation, written specifically by a white woman. While the play itself does not necessarily suffer for it, this bait-and-switch from a topic as devastating and unjust as racial inequity can’t help but feel slightly distasteful, as if these stories are teased but minimised in favour of a separate issue. That’s acceptable, given Lewis’s admittedly gripping stories, but The Gun Show will leave a sense of unease in your stomach if you expected something else.

This show commendably begins the conversation of just what the hell is happening in America, and – for Americans and non-Americans alike – proves the conversation is well worth having. The writing could be sharper, and the points broader, but when you’re hearing them from someone like Vin Shambry, it’s simply unmissable.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

The Great Ridolphi (Underbelly Cowgate: 3-27 Aug: 13.25: 55mins)

“Steve Turner delivers a real tour-de-force”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

The Great Ridolphi follows the story of Victor O’Meara, only son of the now deceased (or is he?) eponymous grand illusionist, as he seeks to unravel the hidden messages his father left him to find a missing painting: the inheritance he thought he would never get. Following an unexpected visit from a scrupulous investigator, Victor must solve the clues to uncover the mystery before anyone else can get there.

It’s a rather rollicking adventure from the quill of Chris Isaacs (not unlike a stage version of an episode of TinTin), as Victor chases across countries and meets some rather exotic characters to reach his goal. While the pace is great and the 50 or so minutes of the show absolutely fly by, it is at the expense of some of the mystery and suspense – revelations, deductions and beautiful moments are often over before they’ve barely been set up and it feels like a little bit of the joy of the story is squeezed out too soon. For an ordinary man, Victor is miraculously very good at solving puzzles, riddles, and taking risks without much thought and it is disappointing not to see more of his struggle in this regard.

The tension is helped along, however, by a couple of clever sub-plots: calls from his wife, escalating in desperation the longer he’s away; and his deteriorating health – we start to wonder whether he might drop dead himself before finding what he’s looking for. Both bring a genuine human element to the story, often missing from adventure tales, so it’s pleasing that these details are included – it helps the production feel more grounded in the here and now. There’s also the omnipresent investigator tracking Victor wherever he goes, though it’s never quite made clear whether he’s meant to be trusted or not. It seems to make little difference given the rather rushed ending, so this device feels rather wasted, and greater development of this character would add to the sense of foreboding throughout.

Victor (and indeed every character present on stage) is played by one of the piece’s co-creators Steve Turner, who delivers a real tour-de-force throughout. His performance is confident, clear and honest, never feeling like it’s all one big showman superhero act, but a man simply following his calling and interacting with whatever crosses his path. He shows great dexterity in the swift changes of scene and character, though for me he could go further to explore and expand on some of these to create more drama and individuality.

This is a witty and warming (if a little wild) performance, charming to the last second. One for the shortlist.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 16 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Jane Doe (Assembly George Square Studios: 2-28 Aug: 3.00: 60 mins)

“Thought-provoking and sincere”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Eleanor Bishop’s Jane Doe is a thought-provoking and sincere piece of theatre looking at the subject of rape culture. The performance is entirely led by trained lawyer and theatre maker Karin McKracken, who up until recently was a specialist educator for the Sexual Abuse Prevention Network. Her ease with and care for the audience are apparent from the get-go as she introduces herself and welcomes each person – we know this is going to be a safe space and some difficult subjects are going to be covered.

The show begins with some innocent musings about being a young girl and all of those exciting yet scary experiences everyone goes through – the first time a boy asks you to dance, that first kiss etc. The narrative is endearing and at times amusing, the atmosphere is relaxed, and a sense of reminiscence about one’s own awkward teenage moments is encouraged: this is very much a show for everyone and anyone, at any time, with any amount of experience.

Soon the show takes on a more serious note, getting straight to the main issue of sexual assault and consent. The main story covers a real-life incident involving Jane Doe, a young girl who goes to a party, has too much to drink and is later sexually assaulted by male comrades of a similar age to herself.

Throughout the performance attitudes and boundaries to his incident are explored. We experience the trial after the assault, where different parts of the official transcript are read out by volunteer members of the audience. This device of audience participation helps reassert the feeling of this show and issue being relatable and necessary to and for everyone. It brings a sense of togetherness and mutual support amongst the audience, which is rare and uplifting.

In addition to the live performance element, there are several interludes of recorded video and audio, including shocking recordings of media coverage of sexual assaults by high profile characters such as Piers Morgan. These act as a great contrast to highlight the different responses and attitudes to the subject matter being discussed, and the difficulty of gaining clarity on the issue.

At one or two points during the performance the audience is given a small breather, where everyone is invited to submit anonymous messages about their thoughts and feelings via an online form. All the messages are then displayed on the screen at the back of the stage, so we can see what other people are feeling. This is another interesting device which helps build unity and support within the room, and allows for a genuine conversation. These sections work well in making the show seem less like a performance and more like an open discussion, which ultimately was the aim. Personally I find the topic of rape culture and sexual assault difficult to talk about, as do most, and I guess this is one of the main issues we have in our society.

Although at times the show is emotionally overwhelming, it is incredible how Karin McKracken takes any awkwardness away with her calm and open personality. She broaches a difficult subject in an honest manner, making us feel completely at ease. This may not be one of the more pleasant and glitzy shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, and at times it is frustratingly stringy with the amount of content actually performed, but it’s absolutely an eye-opening experience and an important watch.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Iona Young (Seen 10 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Three Tales of Life and Death (Assembly Front Room: 3-26 Aug: 15.50: 65mins)

“A witty, tender, well-written, exquisitely acted philosophical tour.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

The first scene in Craig Lucas’s new play, Three Tales of Life and Death, is deceptively simple. The lights go up on an old man and an old woman. They trepidatiously flirt and arthritically move through the motions of intimacy, and though the scene is the shortest of the five total that make up this 65-minute production, it sets up this witty, tender, well-written, and exquisitely acted philosophical tour perfectly. The show repeatedly features deceptively quaint situations like this one, then digs deeper, revealing hidden meanings along the way that are both truly affecting and genuinely entertaining.

The play is presented as a triptych. Section 1 is labeled ‘Life,’ Section 2 is ‘Death,’ and Section 3 is ‘The Afterlife.’ The same two actors tag in and out, playing different characters in each scene, from partners in dialogue to solo performers in monologue and back again.

It is paramount to credit actors Pamela Shaw and Richard Kline for the joy of watching Three Tales of Life and Death. Director Hunter Bird makes commendable choices in numerous set and costume details, but it is these two that elevate the play with their magnetism. To single out their age as a defining characteristic of their performances would be too simple — at any age, the power of Kline’s sympathetic face and voice, and Shaw’s sparkling eyes and affecting smile cannot be denied. Though some plays can feel claustrophobic when staged in venues as teeny as the literal shipping container that is the Assembly Front Room, Three Tales of Life and Death is well-placed. Even when an actor stands facing away from a section of the audience, and sightlines become quite slim, the power of the scene is not lost, due to the vocal and physical power of the performers, even with the simplest acts like unfurling an umbrella or a shake of the head.

The subject matter struggles ever so slightly to keep up with the raw talent of the performers from time to time — some scenes are better-staged and more dynamically-written than others, essentially. Lucas’s play takes on some daring subjects, from the aftermath of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture to the AIDS quilt being displayed on the National Mall, and though not everyone may agree with the opinions voiced within it, the play’s insinuations do tend to remain on the side of legitimately profound rather than preachy or narrow-minded. Observations on mortality, parental relationships, aging, regret, art journalism, and septuagenarian fellatio are both entertaining and relatable, where a lazier team might have resorted to cheap jokes or a more morose approach.

But the assembled talent is anything but lazy, and I am challenged to think of a play as humble and effective as this one, with a central duo as charming. If nothing else, go to see Kline and Shaw at work. It is refreshing to see seasoned actors performing for intimate audiences, and with material this sensitive and well-handled, these are tales certainly worth hearing.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED