RSNO. Sondergard, Williams: Beethoven, Mahler, Sibelius (Usher Hall: 21 April ’17)

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Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

“Their playing of Sibelius’s Finlandia was one of the best, if not the best, I have ever heard, live or recorded. “

Editorial Rating: : 4 Stars: Nae Bad

One of the excitements of live music is that you never know quite how it is going to turn out on the night. You think you’ve got it at rehearsal, but performance is something different. Only a very few orchestras turn out a consistently really high standard, time after time.

After two years in Edinburgh I am becoming increasingly impressed by the quality of the local bands, and Friday’s concert contained some excellent playing in a well chosen, thoughtful programme that while relatively well supported was deserving of a larger audience. Clearly the Florida sun has sown benefits. It was a very good concert indeed.

The RSNO’s opening numbers are sometimes a little shaky before they get into their stride. Not so tonight. Their playing of Sibelius’s Finlandia was one of the best, if not the best, I have ever heard, live or recorded. The opening chords of the brass were well rounded and melodic whilst still conveying the angst of the Russian threat to the mother country in this highly nationalistic piece. Not a trace of blaring or vulgarity. The mournful strings provided a similarly well-rounded tone in what was a very well executed opening number, convincing and moving. Applause was loud and long. Deservedly.

It was a very interesting choice to follow with Mahler’s Der Knaben Wunderhorn, a less austere work than Kindertotenlieder, or, for example, Das Klagende Liede.   Five songs were selected from the original 24 settings, covering nature, folklore and soldiers’ tales. Baritone Roderick Williams gave a well-executed performance in which the orchestra again shone, but perhaps a little too brightly. There were issues of balance between soloist and orchestra and one would have preferred the soloist not to have referred to his music.   This notwithstanding, the intriguingly named “St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fish” was sung and played beautifully, and was well balanced. Also, “Where the Fair Trumpets Sound” was the star of the set with gentle orchestral backing, melodic singing.

After the interval it was back to Sibelius and The Oceanides. I confess I had not heard this 11 minute miniature before and I loved it. It started with a most unusual but effective piece of string writing that reminded me of sea mists and tides, to be followed by the increasingly effective flute section before building to something stronger involving the whole orchestra evoking the ocean’s sheer vastness and permanence. Commissioned and first performed in America, one critic described the new work (1914) as “the finest evocation of the sea which has ever been produced in music”. Well, there is plenty of competition for that, not least Debussy’s La Mer, but it certainly stands the comparison.

Our evening was brought to a close by Beethoven’s Symphony No 1 in C Major. Critics have often categorised his first two symphonies as Mozartian, with the composer coming of age with the Eroica. I am not so sure. The first few bars’ shifting harmonic sands alone, quite startling in early 19th century Vienna, point to something more revolutionary, and although there is a classical theme overall  – such as can be found in both Mozart and Haydn –  as Tovey said, the symphony has “more of the 19th century Beethoven in its depths than he allows to appear on the surface.” This contention was certainly supported by Thomas Sondergard’s interpretation, which was mature and grounded in what was a hugely enjoyable performance by an orchestra that was clearly loving what it was doing. So did we.

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 21 April )

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A Number (Lyceum: 6 – 15 April ’17)

(L-R) Peter Forbes and Brian Ferguson
Photo: Aly Wight

“If a play can have a cell line, this is it”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Presented in partnership with the Edinburgh Science Festival

Caryl Churchill’s A Number is 15 years old. It’s still Sci-Fi though, as opposed to science history. Yes, Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned mammal born on 5 July 1996, is now referenced as Exhibit Z.2003.40 in the National Museum, but there’s still no comparable human ‘display’. And if ‘it’ does appear – when it appears? – it might well provoke some distress amongst its close relations. So, there’s the scenario.

Bernard 2 (35) finds out that he is one of an unknown number of cloned Bernards. He’s not at all happy about it and his father doesn’t help by saying that he doesn’t know how many ‘things’ are out there either. Dad, for painful reasons, thought he’d signed off for one, not a whole batch. At which point you might idly recall Miller’s All My Sons or, better, Huxley’s Brave New World and the Bokanovsky Process that could, on average, produce 72 embryos from a single egg. However, Dad hasn’t read the book. No chance. Dad is far less interested in informed consent than in what an able lawyer can do for him, for them even, and he has a point …

A Number opened at the Royal Court Theatre in London on 23 September 2002. The public inquiry into unauthorised organ retention at Bristol Royal Infirmary and at Alder Hey hospital, Liverpool, had delivered its final report in January 2001. By early 2003 families of the victims at Alder Hey accepted an out-of-court settlement of £5 million. The Human Tissue Act (Scotland) followed in 2006.

If a play can have a cell line, this is it: 50 minutes of tightly sequenced work by two actors; five exacting scenes between father and son(s) played out within a small bare room beneath a naked bulb. It’s stark and clean, with wallpaper from the DNA Helix collection. There is no warm light until the appearance of the affable Bernard 3, aka Michael Black. Scenes divide suddenly as the ‘family’ multiplies.

As Balvennie in the James Plays Peter Forbes grabbed land and titles with all the appetite of a lesser man on the make. In A Number he’s the father, Salter, and he’s on the defensive in a sympathetic study of the ethically dispossessed. Brian Ferguson plays three differently consituted Bernards: searching, angry, and content. It’s a nimble and impressively disciplined act, even when toppling a chair across the stage.

Smartly directed by Zinnie Harris, this is a brisk and absorbing production of a play that always invites critical admiration. Churchill does not offer any way out of the cloning debate but she certainly moderates it. Next time that you shop for a Little Gem Lettuce you will – (!)cos of this play– examine it a tad more specifically, wondering not ‘How many?’ but ‘Is that me?’

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Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 8 April)

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Girl in the Machine (Traverse: 3 – 22 April ’17)

Rosalind Sydney as Polly.
Photos: Mihaela Bodlovic

“Galvanising”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Time was when wireless simply meant a radio and Mr Chips taught Latin and Greek. Now we’re practically Wi-Fi dependent and it’s definitely ‘Goodbye, Mr Chips’ and ‘Hello’ Citizen Chip. Soon enough you’ll be living beyond 120 and if you’re lucky the worst you’ll suffer physically is an itchy forearm when your chip is updated. Mentally, however, you might get fried.

That’s where Stef Smith’s galvanising new play has us: in the near enough future when ‘the gap is getting smaller between the human and the hardware’. ATMs now ask how you’re feeling and robots are cleaning up on the wards. Owen, a Charge Nurse, might be out of a job soon. The only ‘shit’ left to deal with is what his lawyer wife, Polly, does for a living, for the outside world is going down the pan big time. Stress is a plug-in on her iPad Pro. Polly is not in a happy place, although she does love Owen and he loves her. He’s just brought her a present in a black box to help her feel better, which it does, but she really should have just stayed with the nice hot bath, the scented candles and a glass or two of Merlot.

It’s a container load of a drama, ingeniously designed and neatly packaged. Owen and Polly inhabit a rectangular box, complete with geometric floor covering and modular seating. It’s a neutral, pastel space inside a post-industrial shell. It must have been tempting to put an Amazon Echo (or Samsung Smart TV) centre stage; as it is, Polly is freaked out by a data file eavesdropped from her memory of better days whilst Owen appreciates how ‘our house looks much bigger with no electricity in it’.

This must be the angst of a neo-Millennial generation – and not that of those who worry whether their passports should be blue or burgundy. Polly (Rosalind Sydney) and Owen (Michael Dylan) are in their 30s, see their neighbour as a man ‘whose face looks like a smashed circuit board’, and yet wonder at their growing inability to feel for each other. Polly is digitally hooked, ‘twitches’ for a connection and finally, fatally, makes one. Owen resists the circuitry. That this is a loving relationship in crisis is never in doubt – such is the quality of the performance – but that the destruction of an intelligent woman is caused by a gadget on speed is more of an ask. The script also suffers from some philosophical surges that are best characterised by Polly’s despairing repetition of ‘I can’t stop thinking’.

Michael Dylan as Owen.

The villain of the piece is the arch voice of the Black Box programme. It seduces indiscriminately and without mercy, because it’s a rogue bot. The hero is certainly Orla O’Loughlin whose sympathetic, human, direction moves her two actors every which way along a traverse stage, not least to the killing beat of Kylie’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ (!), and who also holds them together in still exchanges that in less capable hands could sound derivative and forced.

Back in 1934, in Mr Chips’ last days, Black Magic chocolates were a year old. He probably gave Mrs Chipping a box of them and didn’t worry a jot about their tantalising centres. And then came the digital age and a virtual Raspberry Heaven (or Caramel Caress).

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 5 April)

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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