Forbidden Stories (Traverse: 17/18 May ’18)

“You can almost smell the emotion”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Cyprus. A country torn apart by colonisation, occupation and civil war throughout the 20th Century – the repercussions of which are still deeply felt by its people today. The aptly titled Forbidden Stories is part documentary, part theatre piece bringing new life into the previously untold stories of many of those affected by the political situation on the island over the last 50 or so years.

The stories presented are an equally heart-wrenching and heart-warming collection, with comical, childish moments positioned alongside angry, confused and overjoyed perspectives from all sides of the conflict, dating from the 1960s until the early 2000s. And as a collection it feels like a fair representation of the truth, without ever swaying towards bias for any group or individual.

Much of the staging is basic, reflecting the sense of people at a loss with minimal possessions, and while the presentation in this performance sometimes verges on feeling a bit too low-budget and ill-conceived, the power from this piece comes from the delivery of the stories by the ensemble. Given the strength of the multi-talented and multinational cast, the sense of individual voices comes powering through – you can almost smell the emotion of families being forced to leave their homes or being reunited with their communities, thanks to the subtlety of the acting and deep personal connection with the text. At times it’s almost impossible to consider that they are indeed actors sharing someone else’s words rather than their own experiences.

Yet what a strictly Verbatim-style piece brings an emotional honesty, it can lack in cohesion and narrative, so while there is much insight to be gained from each story, the piece as a whole feels very fragmented, and some of the stories a little hard to follow. What’s disappointing from a theatrical angle is not being able to see individual stories and characters evolve over the duration of the piece to create more narrative drive – I really wanted several of the characters presented to come back and share more of their journey to bring a greater sense of resolution – though the chronological structure of the piece does go some way to completing this loop.

As an educational documentary production, Forbidden Stories is a unique and personal way to learn about the history of Cyprus from the people who lived through it, and it really hits the mark in that respect. As a theatrical performance in its own right, it feels somewhat unfinished and rough around the edges, but still very much worth watching.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 17 May)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Gut (Traverse: 20 April – 12 May ’18)

Kirsty Stuart and Peter Collins.
Photos. Mihaela Bodlovic.

‘Feel it!’

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

 

Turning over a toy box can be messy but upending the presumption of innocence is in an altogether different ballpark. What happens when a nice kind man in the queue at a place to eat helps grandma out and takes your three old to the toilet? You’re allowed a gut feeling about this one and it’s probably the right one? But are you sure, really, really sure?

OK, it’s not The Place to Eat up in John Lewis’ – writer Frances Poet can only go so far – but it might just as well be. As it is, Fisher-Price’s Laugh and Learn puppy takes the biscuit for product placement. Dad, Rory, another nice bloke, hasn’t found puppy’s On-Off switch and its happy-happy tune is doing his head in. It is not so funny for Mum, Maddy; not funny at all, for where there’s an edge in this ninety minute drama she is well and truly over it. And there’s no soft play area on the other side. Is it The Stranger who pushed her or did she do it all by herself?

It could not happen to a more ordinary, youngish, couple, which is precisely the point. We even have a Glasgow address: 65 Kelvindale Road – and Joshua (3) goes to Nursery and Granny Morven (Rory’s mother) helps out a lot, to begin with. First it’s the baby monitor and then it all goes wrong, which is where is the creative team get it just right. There’s a broad set, minimally dressed: a table and three chairs stage left, and a garden swing stage right; large rectangular panels, one of gauze, at the back. Colours are muted, contemporary greys and creams. The exceptional lighting design by Kai Fischer marks off areas that quickly isolate and focus attention. Various Strangers cast shadows, open to frightening doubt, that contrast with the chilling white of Maddy’s psychiatric stay. Michael John McCarthy’s music is spare and quietly ominous while Zinnie Harris’ direction is one keen judgement call after another. The overall effect is a silent ‘House’ in the grip of a familiar, media churned nightmare that cannot be shaken off.

George Anton and Kirsty Stuart.

The script is conversational, inviting immediate and natural responses that seem at odds with the enveloping paranoia. Kirsty Stuart as Maddy is never more convincing as a loving mother than when she details her appalling behaviour. Rory (Peter Collins), who loves her to bits, can sort out toy trucks forever and still not get close to her. His mother, Morven (so believable by Lorraine McIntosh) can only be bewildered and hurt. George Anton is seven different Strangers, sympathetic in one light, scary in another. Presence is all and Anton delivers each time. The impassive concern of his police officer is especially alarming.

The initial setup is a little shaky, rather plastic. Can Maddy be that brittle? But if that’s a weakness the stage work carries it all the way. Gut succeeds in demonstrating that once parenting turns into child protection then it is a nervy, mind shredding issue. Feel it! Stand behind a swing and you risk getting your teeth knocked out but you can get thrown off a see-saw and bang your head just as easily. That, for me, is the audience’s experience. Up and down, up and down, see the Stranger, and then it’s touch-and-go (so to speak) whether it’s playtime or, ‘Wallop!’ “Mum’s out of it”.

 

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 24 April)

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The Sorcerer, EUSOG (Pleasance: 27 – 31 March ’18)

Photos. Erica Belton

” A hoot from start to finish”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars Nae Bad

 

As one who grew up when the D’Oyly Carte closed shop was in full swing this writer was perhaps somewhat of a trailblazer in being one of the first to take part in an independent production in 1962 while at prep school (the copyright on Gilbert’s words having expired in 1961). I was the Sergeant of Police in The Pirates of Penzance, probably the one and only time this Bass part has been sung by a Treble. It was thus with almost a sense of ownership that I went along to see the Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group’s presentation of the relatively unknown Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, The Sorcerer, set  in 1969’s Summer of Love. (Well, that was ’67 if you went to San Francisco, Ed.)

There is a long history of The Savoy Opera Group introducing topical elements into the songs and dialogue. However a “modern dress” production (albeit from the 60s) is rarer, more common in Shakespeare or Grand Opera, perhaps like the new production of Cosi Fan Tutte premiering at the Met in New York this very Saturday that is set in Coney Island ten years earlier.

So. A relatively unknown work. A hippy production (I show my age).  A student company. In a word, a risk. Did it work?

The costumes paid only a passing reference to 60’s fashion: the occasional mini skirt, Aline’s dress, floral crowns for the female company and the occasional floral shirt and scarf for the men. Not a single hipster bellbottom or Zapata moustache in sight. But actually none of this really mattered and was presumably a way of keeping down wardrobe costs. After all, this was essentially pantomime. And it was a hoot from start to finish.

The Sorcerer made its debut in 1877 and was the first Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration in which the two had complete control of the production. It was highly successful for its time, which encouraged the author and composer to continue working together and expanding the possibilities of satiric operetta. The Sorcerer introduced the comic duet, the patter song, the contrapuntal double chorus, the tenor and soprano love duet and the soprano showpiece aria that became staples of all the G & S productions that followed.

The Sorcerer also introduced W. S. Gilbert’s passion for satirizing the excessive focus of the English on class differences with a plot that turns the entire social order upside down. As the operetta begins, the villagers of Ploverleigh are celebrating the betrothal of Alexis, son and heir of Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre, to the only maiden of suitable rank in the neighbourhood, Aline, daughter of Lady Sangazure. Alexis and Aline sign the marriage contract, but it appears that Alexis, despite the fact that he loves Aline, does not share his father’s outmoded notions that only men and women of equivalent rank should marry, without regard to such nonsense as romantic inclination.

Alexis has, in fact, hired a sorcerer, John Wellington Wells, to test his theories. Wells casts a spell and creates a love potion that is administered to all the villagers through tea poured from a large teapot during the banquet following the betrothal. All who drink it immediately fall asleep, just as Wells has predicted. When they awaken, he promises, each will fall madly in love with the first person he or she sees (shades, obvs, of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and why not of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club too?). Those who are already married are conveniently immune.

As we might anticipate, when the villagers awaken at midnight, chaos ensues. Sir Marmaduke himself, much to his son’s displeasure, falls in love with the lowly and elderly Mrs. Partlet, the pew opener. Lady Sangazure falls in love with the sorcerer himself, who spends most of the second act trying to elude her grasp. Even Alexis’ own betrothed, the lovely Aline, drinks the potion and falls out of love with Alexis and in love with the vicar of the village. Order can be restored only by the sacrifice of either Alexis or Mr. Wells …… But does it work out OK? Well, go and find out for yourself, but you can probably guess.

Did the players bring it off? Yes they did. Right from the start the opening ensemble inspired one in their confident, loud singing and homogeneity. I thought they were all miked up, such was the pleasing volume level, but, no, that was only the Principals. The chorus sang and acted enthusiastically, convincingly and were thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, particularly when the yummy potion took effect.

As for the Principals, I do question the choice of a female playing Alexis and dressed ambiguously with fitted shirt, trousers and cravat – again token costuming –  and Tilly Botsford handled the lower register singing only adequately, but acted convincingly. The finest singing came from Julia Weingartner’s Lady Sangazure with some hilariously over the top potion-induced amorous attention paid to the wickedly well played John Wellington-Wells (Angus Bhattaharya). The other Principals, Olivia Wollaston (a suitably pure Aline), Gordon Home (a well portrayed Pointdextre), Georgia Maria Rodgers (a frustrated adolescent Constance), Ewan Bruce (a suitably troubled and decent Dr Daly) and Niamh Higgins (a scream as Mrs Partlet) all drew us into the performance and had us rooting for them.

This was an evening of huge entertainment. Great singing, convincing acting, and tremendous fun. Everybody from Producer to orchestra member should take a bow.

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 28 March)

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SCO: Ticciati, Martin (Usher Hall: 22 March ’18)

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Robin Ticciati

“Edinburgh’s loss is Berlin’s gain”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Nae Bad

I started checking the website the previous evening. And every couple of hours on the day. Would the great man show up? He has been plagued by back problems, and has publicly announced he is “doing less, to give himself more space”. Tell that to Valery Gergiev. A number of recent concerts have been missed.

 

Well he did, and well he had to, didn’t he? For this was the official farewell concert of Robin Ticciati as Principal Conductor of the SCO having taken up the position of Music Director of the Deutches Symphionie-Orchester Berlin. Pleasing that as Rattle leaves the BPO another Brit takes over at the DSO. Lucky Berlin to have such talented Brits.

 

As expected, there was a full house. Everybody knew they were in for something special. Robin and the band did not disappoint. Whilst mainstream repertoire was chosen, it was played with insight, intuition and zest. This was not a case of bashing out a few lollipops to keep the punters happy.

 

That having been said, the choice of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No 4 in D did not in my opinion sit well with the post romantic nature of the rest of the programme. It was played enthusiastically and fluently, notwithstanding the somewhat stilted, staccato-esque scoring. The standing violins and violas reminded me of Christopher Warren-Green’s London Chamber Orchestra and like them played from memory. This gave an effective theatrical turn to the interplay between solo first violin and viola, creating an atmosphere of baroque’n’roll.

 

Unusually scored for strings, harp and piano the Copland Clarinet Concerto is a hybrid work in the classical/jazz idiom akin to some of the music of Leonard Bernstein.   In two movements and but 18 minutes long, it is a work of depth, intensity and contrasts. The first movement “Slowly and expressively” was exquisitely played by Maximiliano Martin and is a real tearjerker akin to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Seldom has the harp and viola introduction been played so sensitively intoned, followed by the lyricism and restraint of the soloist. Following a demanding and striking cadenza the second movement, “Rather fast – trifle faster” was virtually jazz (it was written for Benny Goodman) and was delivered with aplomb by Martin, light on his feet as if he were the Pied Piper. With much applause Martin stood next to the game pianist and granted us an encore.

 

Following the interval it was time for the party piece, Dvorak’s Symphony No 9 ‘From the New World’. These accursed titles do one no good in trying to get in touch with the music. Like the Moonlight Sonata they are publishers’ whims to help with their marketing. The work is a wonderful example of post-romantic symphonic form (1893), well constructed in four movements, tuneful and melodic throughout. And while there may be influences of Native American music and American Folk Song, it is on record that Dvorak thought that there was nothing much to distinguish between Native American, African –American or even Scottish music. We take the music on its merits, which are considerable.

 

The piece is so well known it is difficult to avoid cliché, but the orchestra played with such convincing phrasing and freshness that there was nothing hammy or schmaltzy at all, it was almost as if listening with fresh ears, albeit to a superbly classic interpretation. A wonderful note for Robin Ticciati to go out on, save for the lyrical “Song without Words” encore.

 

Robin Ticciati will be back conducting the SCO in the Brahms symphonic cycle for the Edinburgh Festival. In the meantime, Edinburgh’s loss is Berlin’s gain.

 

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 22 March)

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SCO: Emelyanychev, Spacek (Usher Hall: 15 March ’18)

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Josef Spacek

“If it were a blind tasting you would be definitely getting a taste of premier cru”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

 

 

The winter season has been cruel to the fans of the more well known soloists booked by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Thursday’s concert, the latest of three I had planned to attend, was, for the third time in a row for me, blighted by the non-appearance of not only the soloist but also the conductor. The SCO points out in its no-show apology that there are no refunds because they have the right to substitute artists. Other Scottish orchestras take a less severe line. I had wanted to see Schiff a few weeks ago, I had wanted to see Tetzlaff on Thursday. I wanted to see Ticciati. That’s why I put the concert in the diary. All pulled. Ticciati’s on-going back problems deserve sympathy and should be recorded here. One hopes he can make it for his farewell concert next week. For the others, one wonders.

 

I decided to stay, not least because I feared that opportunities to review the SCO were proving elusive. I am glad I did, because that fickle spirit, Live Music, triumphed, and I learnt a lesson.

 

The B Team were young, but what they lacked in experience they made up for in enthusiasm, technical competence, and considerable depth of interpretation beyond their years. The concert was a joy from start to finish, melodic, engaging, very well played, relaxed and entertaining. Maxim Emelyanychev stood in for Robin Ticciati. A student of Rozhdesvensky and the Moscow Conservatory he has, at the tender age of 29, yet to conduct a first rank orchestra, but is booked next season for the Royal Philharmonic, the St Petersburg Philharmonic and at Glyndebourne with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. So tonight we were shown a window into a promising future.

 

Perhaps Josef Spacek, standing in for Christian Tetzlaff, has a few more pips on his shoulder. He has appeared not only with his native Czech Philharmonic, but also, among others, the Philadelphia Orchestra, Bamberger Symphoniker, Rotterdam Philharmonic and Netherlands Philharmonic. This was his first gig with a British orchestra. The 32 year old did well.

 

And so to the music. Of the three concertos written by Dvorak, I would put the piano concerto in the second division, the violin concerto at the bottom end of the first, and the cello concerto as a masterpiece. I personally prefer the Romance for Violin and Orchestra to the concerto, but of course the latter is a more substantial work. Spacek took immediate control with confidence, smooth phrasing, great tone and sufficient volume even way up high on the E string, standing out from the orchestra notwithstanding the limitations of his instrument.   Emelyanychev kept the orchestra in balance but brought everything out of the piece in a conducting style that was confident and far from laid back. The orchestra was competent and supportive after just the slightest waver on the fiendishly difficult and exposed horn opening, and one was in no doubt as to the natural synergy between the triad of orchestra, soloist and conductor, completely forgetting that two of them were stand-ins.

 

I cannot write about Schubert’s 9th Symphony without a reference to my then eight year old daughter chatting to a violinist from the London Philharmonic Orchestra during the interval at a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, just before playing the work. He said that he and his colleagues called it “The Great Sea Monster” and that is what the Great C Major has been in our household ever since.

 

The symphony is not without its challenges to the listener. The key of C has its limitations, and for Schubert it is relatively long. There is plenty of melody, but also quite a bit of ‘fill’. The solution, as rightly executed by Emelyanychev, is to take it at a cracking pace.  The SCO was melodic, cohesive, disciplined and played it better than many. I should give a special mention to the timpanist who unusually was given an opportunity to demonstrate his considerable expertise. Overall it was a very accomplished performance by both orchestra and conductor.

 

The lesson for this writer is, once again, with live music you never know what you are gong to get. Stars can disappoint, relatively unknowns can surprise and impress. To mix my metaphors, while the names tonight were perhaps more Naxos than DG, if it were a blind tasting you would be definitely getting a taste of premier cru.

 

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 15 March)

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Footloose (King’s Theatre: 14-17 March ’18)

“Genuine wow-factor”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

When the stage musical of Footloose (based on the 1984 film) hit Broadway in 1998 its critical reception was mixed. But this week in Edinburgh the Bohemian’s Lyric Opera Company are cutting it loose with a near-perfect interpretation, with plenty of positives to shout about.

Following the story of a young man who moves to a new town that’s banned dancing for being a bad influence on children, it’s a fairly mediocre plot, but it’s a show packed with punch, heart and fun to get anyone’s weekend off to a good start.

What makes or breaks a show like Footloose – where dance is what the whole show is about – is being able to sell the choreography, and boy, do the Bohemians do just that: it’s hard to spot a foot or fingernail out of place in this full-on production. And what’s most impressive is that whether there are five or fifty dancers on stage, everything is slick, polished and performed with smiles. Dominic Lewis’s excellent choreography not only captures the overriding sense of freedom vs. containment throughout the show, but it really works to the strengths of this amateur company, creating complex patterns with simple moves that result in a genuine wow-factor.

Leading man Ren McCormack (Ross Davidson) brings all the charisma and light-footedness required for the out-of-towner who dares to be different, while Felicity Thomas as Ren’s love interest Ariel More is honest, likeable and very impressive vocally throughout the show. The main comedic moments are delivered by Willard Hewitt (Thomas MacFarlane), whose gawky brashness brings a lightness and joy to proceedings whenever he is on stage, while Christopher Cameron shows great authority and control as anti-hero Rev. Shaw More.

Musically, this show won’t be to everyone’s taste: there’s a real 80s vibe to the score, which to me makes the standout upbeat songs quite poppy and obvious, leaving the others feeling a little bland in comparison. In saying that, on the whole, everything is very capably sung with some stunning vocals on display – especially from the female leads. Cathy Geddie in particular brings tear-jerking emotion to Can You Find it in Your Heart, and Charlotte Jones pumps up the party diva-style with Let’s Hear it for the Boy. But it’s when Felicity Thomas, Cathy Geddie and Ciara McBrien combine in the spine-tingling Learning to be Silent that you know you’re watching something very special.

The only downfalls in this show are a few pitching and power issues with some of the male soloists, and a tendency for some of the duologue scenes to dip in energy following big production numbers, creating a sense of imbalance from scene to scene. On the whole though, this is a very polished production, so lose your blues and go and see Footloose!

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 15 March)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Romeo and Juliet (Pleasance: 6 -10 March ’18)

Eliza Lawrence as Juliet and Douglas Clark as Romeo.
Photo: EUSC.

“A very appealing production “

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Outstanding

 

Can Romeo and Juliet be refreshing? Deffo.

For a start, as with Heineken, there’s the beer. Verona’s birra is Mastro Matto’s; in 1594 quite possibly a thriving business for either the house of Montague or of Capulet. Beer is liberally served in this production. The Prologue opens Act 2 truly blattered, heels in hand. The invitation to the Capulet party is ‘Pray come and crush a cup of wine’ [… or bottle of lager].

Downstage right and centre there’s a café. Mercutio and Benvolio are often in there, sitting down with a beer and talking lewd. You can forget how this high romantic tragedy starts way down low and mucky with the bawdy Sampson thrusting women –  ‘being the weaker vessels’ –  to the wall. However, no chance of that in this production: the Prince and the Friar are women, the Nurse is on man-topping form and Juliet is a very self-possessed #MeToo 16 year old.

Romeo sits ‘off’, to the side of the platform stage, appalled yet entertained, as Mercutio summons Rosaline’s ‘scarlet lip’ and ‘quivering thigh’. He’s then up on the platform, facing forward, for the balcony scene with Juliet behind him at the front of the main stage. It’s a terrific, captivating effect, each speaking to the other but straight at the audience as well. A window on wheels turns around to frame, alternatively, either the inside or the outside of Juliet’s room. This works well as an occasional framing device and is typical of Director Finlay McAfee’s ‘eye’ on his audience and how it will see and interpret the action.

What with body bags on a stark blue- grey set, Love looks ‘death-mark’d’ from the start, but this is not, I felt, a certainty. There is more immediacy and irresolution in the course of this production than in many, which is always appealing in a play whose awful end is common knowledge. The fighting –  tricky when Health & Safety shrinks rapier to titchy (plastic?) dagger – relies on fist, boot, and head bashing which looked sufficiently dangerous to make you realise how fatal accidents are so often juvenile and hot-headed. Mind you, Romeo’s dispatch of Tybalt is definitely murder.

Michael Black as Benvolio with Douglas Clark, Romeo.
Photo: EUSC.

Eliza Lawrence is Juliet and does indeed ‘teach the torches to burn bright’. (Probably not accidental then that Mercutio and Romeo play around with an LED lenser.) This Juliet may be sweet but you can believe that her suicide is the result of an extraordinary love and not momentary despair. Douglas Clark plays  Romeo with the same verve and assurance that he brought to Alan in Equus three years ago. That does make his wrecked helplessness with the Friar at the news of his banishment close to unbelievable but this is still (another) outstanding performance. Kirsten Millar’s programme profile says she is ‘immensely excited’ to add another old lady to her ‘eclectic portfolio’ and you can only admire her cracking truthfulness! Esmée Cook is a Friar whose diction over the whole piece is admirably steady, which helps in a play that can pitch and yaw from one scene to the next. Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller’s Capulet has attractive style – his jacket and shoes combo do half the talking – until he slaps his Juliet right across the face. Bam! And Will Peppercorn as Mercutio poses the usual problem: once he’s dead what’s to do without all that wit and energy? The draining effect of rainfall upon Romeo’s sleeping-bag in Mantua is actually genius!

As well as the yoof n’beer, it was Romeo sitting on the bed tying up his trainers after his few hours with Juliet that confirmed it. This is a very appealing production of Romeo and Juliet. Its effects may appear natural but are the result of new thinking and creative rehearsal. The musical score by Madison Willing – electro brooding Michael Nyman strings with grim rumbles – does ‘Tragedy’ proud, whilst the casual modern dress even gives it something of West Side Story. The Capulet ball, simply yet ingeniously staged, could have been in the Pear Tree. Does it serve Mastro Matto’s L’Ultima?

outstanding

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 7 March)

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