A Bottle of Wine and Patsy Cline (Rose Theatre: 1-30 Dec ’17)

“Everything about this production oozes quality”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

For the uninitiated (like me), Patsy Cline was an American country music singer who found fame in the late 1950s/early 1960s, and went on to become one of the most influential, successful and acclaimed vocalists of the 20th century. Her life was tragically cut short at the age of 30, and this production represents a fresh (and fitting) celebration of the star and her work as part of Gilded Balloon’s winter programme at the newly revived Rose Theatre.

Created by the team that introduced Doris, Dolly & The Dressing Room Divas to the world at the Fringe in 2015, A Bottle of Wine and Patsy Cline is a hilarious new musical play featuring all the classic songs fans will love. Yet the only wine you’ll see is the free (mini) bottle you get as part of your entry to the show…

Written as a whistle-stop tour of Cline’s short life, Morag Fullerton’s script slickly presents the turning points in her career and personal life, squeezing in the hits, plenty of laughs and a few of the sadder moments along the way. I would have liked to see more detail in some moments and more creative risk taken with the structure of the piece – it’s safe, straightforward biographical narrative ticks along at a consistent pace – but otherwise everything about this production just oozes quality.

Giving Cline new life in this production is local gal Gail Watson: one of the most accomplished performers currently working in Scotland. Not only a supremely talented singer and impressionist in her own right, Watson commands the stage as the title character and delivers a knockout performance, demonstrating stamina and vocal control performers half her age dream of. Her standing ovation is well-deserved.

Watson is more than capably supported throughout the performance by Sandy Nelson and Hannah Jarrett-Scott, who not only play numerous roles between them, but also act as band and backing singers during the musical numbers. Given the teases of brilliance they demonstrate, it’s a shame we don’t get to see more of each and the wonderful cameo roles they play throughout the show.

Beware – some audience members like to sing along with every song. Those who prefer a silent audience may cringe and crush their plastic cups at the thought, but it’s the kind of show where some formalities can be overlooked. In short: you’d be Crazy to miss it!

 

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 9 December)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

RSNO: Gomez, Sunwoo (Usher Hall:10 Nov.’17)

Yekwon Sunwoo
Photo: Philadelphia Chamber Music Society

“Sunwoo’s opening was utterly assured in its relaxed confidence, disposing of the keys with easy liquidity so that we were leaning forward in our seats to capture every nuance of interpretation”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars Outstanding

 

I have written before of the RSNO’s skill in concert programming, often successfully juxtaposing contrasting yet somehow complementary works. Friday’s concert was to be a full blown Romantic affair in the Russian 20th century genre starting with the exquisite and rarely performed Vocalise, but, alas, illness, so common in the concert world at this time of the year, forced a programme and artist change. No Vocalise. Instead, we got Zulu, by British composer Daniel Kidane (b.1986). Quite a change.

 

Yet after the initial upset there was no room for disappointment. Jose Luis Gomez stood in for the indisposed Christian Macelaru at the last minute and arrived from America with a score of the symphony in his pocket. “Who doesn’t travel with Shostakovich 12?” His credentials were impressive, Assistant to Paavo Jarvi at the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and in 2010 winner of First Prize in the Solti Conducting Competition. Currently he is Music Director of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra.

 

Prize winning credentials were also the order of the day for piano soloist Yekwon Sunwoo, prizewinner at the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and the programme change from Rach 2 to Rach 3 was in fact a welcome change from the much played second concerto to its slightly less well known, but in every other way equal sibling.

 

So on to the playing. Zulu was five minutes of noise. Enthusiastic brass playing, well orchestrated, good rhythm and momentum. Composer Daniel Kidane has studied at the Royal Northern, Royal College and privately at St Petersburg. The work was chosen from his participation in the RSNOs Composers’ Hub. It was a conceptual stretch to include it in the programme, but it made for a lively opening.

 

Next up was Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor. I have seldom heard this work played so well, certainly not in the hands of a 21 year old. Sunwoo’s opening was utterly assured in its relaxed confidence, disposing of the keys with easy liquidity so that we were leaning forward in our seats to capture every nuance of interpretation. As the first movement Allegro ma non tanto developed so did Sunwoo’s attack, holding nothing back yet stopping way short of pastiche. You do not have to wear Rachmaninov on your sleeve to get the best out of of it. The RSNO accompanied him with playing that was glorious in its phrasing and intensity. The work has long solo and barely accompanied passages, not exactly cadenzas, but close. Time and again Sunwoo nursed and coaxed freshness of interpretation from this well known, much loved piece. Notwithstanding 45 minutes of bravura playing we were treated to an encore. The quiet and restful interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Autumn Song from the Seasons lasted a full five minutes bringing the dramatic first half of the evening to a relaxing, introspective close. If you don’t know it, find it here on You Tube.

 

The second part of the evening was an assured, storming interpretation of Shostakovich’s 12th Symphony The Year 1917. Written in 1961 when Shostakovich was still not out of the political woods it is obviously a political work but without taking anything away from its inherent musicality. “Revolutionary Petrograd” started with typically haunting, bleak cellos and basses suggesting barren topographical (and political) landscapes full of desolation and foreboding before being joined by the upper strings in a more purposeful and positive timbre. Played continuously for 40 minutes the demanding work gave the whole orchestra, from expertly played woodwind soloists to stunning percussion, the opportunity to give the best possible account of themselves, which they did. The work built up though tableaux such as “Razliv” (Lenin’s revolutionary headquarters), “Aurora” (the battleship that fired the opening shots of the Bolshevik coup) and, finally the optimistically named “Dawn of Humanity” which was at least in musical terms a summation of all the themes that had gone before, and gave the orchestra the opportunity to demonstrate fluent, assured playing that whilst on occasions very loud, was never forced.

 

I have often said that one of the reasons live music is so exciting is the risk of failure. Here we had a last minute change of two out of the three pieces in the programme and a conductor no one had met or played under before the previous day. The result? Perhaps the most exciting and enjoyable concert I have been to this year. The RSNO continues to improve and impress

 

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 10 November)

Go to the RSNO, Scotland’s National Orchestra

Visit Edinburgh49 at the Usher Hall archive.

The Girl Who Jumped Off The Hollywood Sign (Assembly Roxy: Until 28 Aug: 11.30: 70 mins)

“Hartstone inhabits her characters (male and female) much as Liz Taylor was supposed to have simply been Cleopatra”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

We enter to the strains of Arthur Dooley Wilson singing As Time Goes By. The mood is glamorously sombre. On stage is the top half of the ‘H’ of the Hollywood sign. Onto it steps a figure in black dressed as though for a funeral. How did she get here? What (and who) have pushed her to this?

The story which writer and performer Joanne Hartstone has to tell is eerily familiar. Evelyn Margaret Edwards (or Evie Edwards, to use her stage name), is a naive young lady seeking to change her rags into riches through the magic of the Hollywood limelight. She has dreamed of becoming a star all through the Great Depression, from the stock market crash, via a Hooverville, and the unending grind of a hand-to-mouth existence. But without a fairy godmother her dreams are outshone by the stark realities of the entertainment industry.

A few days back I was interviewing the star of an American Civil Rights drama. With tongue firmly in cheek I asked if she was grateful to President Trump for helping to keep the issues she tackles relevant. “We’ll he’s great for my ticket sales!” she replied with a sad grin. We reflected on the truth that tragedy and suffering are the Fringe writer’s bread and butter – no one ever paid to see a play about contented people happily pottering through an uneventful life.

The good writer tells a tragic story in its time and place. The brilliant do that too, but they also say something universal about the human experience at all times and in all places. Hartstone has written a piece that falls squarely into the latter category. Her script is at once an insider’s tour of Hollywood’s Golden era (for ‘insider’ read, ‘black and white movie nerd’). It is also a profound reflection on the use and abuse of women – their ambitions, their independence, their bodies and souls.

The delivery is paced, but pacy – never lagging or getting ahead of itself. The story unwinds like a spool of luxury cloth under an exacting tailor’s expert eye. Though this is a one-woman show Hartstone inhabits her characters (male and female) much as Liz Taylor was supposed to have simply been Cleopatra while Richard Burton played at being Mark Anthony.

Hartstone is also possessed of a fine, evocative voice which conjures up the spirit of the age in sparkling speech and song. The movement is minimalist, the set perfectly scaled to allow Hartstone to ascend and descend from the ‘H’ with a minimum of fuss. You can honestly imagine that this is the staging Evie Edwards would have designed to best tell her story from.

The Girl Who Jumped off the Hollywood Sign is Fringe theatre at its best – profound without being maudlin, sassy, smart, and above all edgy. This is an iron fist of a script nestling in a velvet glove.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 24 August)

Visit the Assembly Roxy archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

#JeSuis (Zoo Southside: 16-26th Aug: 20.30: 45 mins)

“Hugely powerful…all this show needs is an audience”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

#JeSuis isn’t just a stunning piece of contemporary dance from Aakash Odedra Company. It’s a galling political movement in response to the global media disparity in coverage of the growing number of displaced people worldwide. And what hits hardest in this performance is the sheer determination and resilience of a group desperate to have their voice heard.

On a basic level #JeSuis presents the hopeless waiting, the loneliness, danger, shaming and stigma of being a refugee, through a series cleverly woven scenes and images that are at once beautiful and brutal. The piece starts slow, as we see the performers wait for something, anything to happen, and when a grizzly authority figure enters and the phone rings, desperation boils over and violence erupts. The use of structural and architectural lighting in this section reflects the harsh rules and boundaries displaced people often find themselves within, adding an extra layer of discomfort as dancers are enclosed within small spaces of light, thrown away from the light, or have a spotlight shone directly in their faces.

The movements are frantic and jagged – as if each limb is under remote control of a six-year-old child on speed – and the quality signifies the alarming lack of control the individuals have over their situation. The imagery created is stark: we see dancers desperately attempt to move freely, to being physically wrapped in layers of cling film while they continue to fight, to the more aggressive restraining of an individual who reaches for the ever-present microphone to one side of the stage. But perhaps most powerful in the early part of the performance is an apparent sexual assault conducted by the authority figure, leaving his victim broken while the others can only look on.

Yet it’s not all darkness and depression – a sense of comradery builds between the group to over-throw their oppressor towards the second half, with rousing unison sequences and a role-reversal as they hold back the authority figure from achieving his own goals. The token use of sung and spoken word are a perfect complement to all the other ways the dancers attempt to express themselves throughout the piece, and it’s evident that something has to give. Yet even as the next chapter emerges at the show’s climax, it’s with a distinctly bitter-sweet sentiment, as the rigid unison once again feels like overbearing control of a different kind.

This performance of #JeSuis is a work in progress, with further development scheduled for the second half of the year, though from here it’s hard to see how much better it can get. From a theatrical perspective seeing some of the individual characters and journeys developed would help build a greater empathetic connection with their stories, otherwise all this show needs is an audience. Even as a work in progress this is a hugely powerful piece of contemporary dance, perhaps made all the more poignant given the fact it is unfinished, like many of the struggles faced by those it represents.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 22 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: Oskar’s Amazing Adventure (Gilded Balloon Teviot: Until 27 Aug: 11.50: 40min)

“The highest praise I can think of is to jump up and down in my seat squealing ‘Again! Again!'”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

It’s the middle of a hard winter in Switzerland. The little house on the top of the mountain is snowbound. Oppressed with cabin fever, fun loving puppy Oskar runs off in search of new friends to play with.

The show is based on the picture book by celebrated children’s author Colin Granger. Colin is of course a part owner of Komedia Brighton, and (once upon a time) was the author of the Heinemann English Grammar (which is yet to be dramatised for the stage). All the original characters are present, including Oskar, his friend the Marmot, the hungry Fox, Grandma, the chickens, the other puppies. The only exception is Mrs Goat who lost her seat on the tour bus to Colin.

We enter to find an alpine backdrop hung from rustic timbers. In front is a canvas pyramid with three of the four sides painted with a particular scene from the narrative that is about to unfold. With the occasional turn of this pyramid by performer Natasha Granger, Oskar’s story is revealed. Not since the Pharaoh Khufu walked out of Dunbar and Sons onto Morningside Road, having just purchased the ultra deluxe funerary care package, has a pyramid been put to such effective use.

This production is a grace and flavour mansion giving Colin Granger’s charming narrative a home away from home. The grace is delivered by his daughter Natasha whose fluid movement melts in and out of the liquid lighting and soundscape. The flavour is unmistakably alpine – crisp, simple, elegant. The interplay of stagecraft and performance is balanced and nuanced. The puppetry (including some shadow play on one side of the pyramid) empowers rather than overpowers. The effect is hugely satisfying, whether this is your first ever show or simply your latest.

It’s a safe bet that the Children’s section of the Fringe guide is the growth area to watch and shows like Oskar’s are in the vanguard. A glance at the reviews on EdFringe.com reveals where that vanguard will encounter the sharpest slings and arrows. Audiences love this show (as they should). The “professionals” are noticeably less excited. Why would they be? It’s fairly obvious that they weren’t accompanied by a reliable preschooler.

You might have noticed that it’s really quite expensive to come to Edinburgh in August and this is true for pundits as well as for producers and punters. Bringing a kid along too (without the support of local grandparents in residence) is a big ask, but it must be better answered. As the children’s section of the Fringe guide grows, reviewers and their publishers need to be much better at reflecting the artistry and talent that shows intended for younger audiences are already delivering.

This was my own preschooler’s first ever live show and I am so massively grateful to Theatre Fideri Fidera for making it such a positive and memorable experience for us both. Oskar’s Adventure may not strike a jaded 20-something as particularly amazing, but for preschoolers first noticing the big wide world (and for those of us privileged to attend them on their journey) the perspective offered is just right. The highest praise I can think of is to jump up and down in my seat squealing “Again! Again!”

outstanding

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Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 23 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Woke (Gilded Balloon Teviot: 4-28 Aug: 14.00: 60mins)

“Quite possibly the best presentation of the nuances of race relations from the unjustly-treated point of view one can experience today.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

Given the many difficulties faced by millions of people around the world in our current climate, every civil rights-focused spotlight is worthy of attention. Apphia Campbell’s Woke, however, is not just another “worthy” civil rights-focused show decrying injustice for being injustice — it cuts deeply into the structures, limits, hypocrisies, and evils that allow racism, injustice, disorder, and oppression to continue and continue and continue. If you have ever claimed or had the urge to claim that the current racial climate is “not that bad,” please let Woke wake you up.

These issues are never simple. Many pop culture statements have garnered great praise, and some rightful ire, for presenting race relations too simply. From Zootopia/Zootropolis to Crash, mainstream outlets seem to eat up stories that are easy to swallow, that present problems as apparently easy to fix. Campbell’s play soars above simplicity by presenting the sometimes charming, sometimes harrowing stories of two black women, one speaking from 2014 onwards, the other speaking from the Black Panther Party of the seventies. She masters not only the nuances of storytelling but of stagecraft as well, as lighting, sound effects, props, and choreography are all of the highest creative quality.

The audio introduction repaints the mental pictures of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, and from there Campbell segues into an absorbing rendition of Bessie Smith’s “St. Louis Blues.” The transition, spanning decades yet recalling the same geographical location, Missouri, offers foreshadowing for the overarching structure and central observation of the show — just how far have we come since the ‘Civil Rights Era?’ According to Campbell, certainly not far enough.

What is most striking about the plotting of Woke, is that both characters Campbell breathes life into are not only vividly characterised, with engrossing nuances (credit to director Caitlin Skinner) but also experience a noticeably, tragically similar hardening. Ambrosia, who speaks of 2014, initially believes in the righteousness of the police and questions the legitimacy of the Black Lives Matter movement in her Washington University classes. Yet over time, she experiences so many abusive, prejudiced cruelties at the hands of police officers and the law writ large that she, and the audience, have no choice but to accept that society still fails to treat people like her as equal citizens. The pacing of these developments is gradual, yet her hellish experiences continue and worsen with a palpable, sickening sense of inevitability. Campbell’s writing does well to put the audience in the shoes of Black citizens’ everyday anxieties, from questioning one’s trust in the police to fearing for one’s safety where other citizens would never.

The other character Campbell focuses on is a well-known figure, Assata Shakur, who was convicted of the murder of a state trooper in 1973, and fled to Cuba after escaping prison. The legitimacy of this conviction is dismantled with brilliant progression, as she establishes Shakur’s positivity, righteousness, and honour, before displaying her growing terror as establishment forces seek to slander and imprison her.

The genius of Woke is in its building unease, the sure feeling that something terrible is at play. The steps of injustice are on full display, so the audience can understand it is never just one slight or careless comment that perpetuates racism, but a seemingly impenetrable societal structure. This approach encapsulates the fear at the heart of being “woke” — defined, in my opinion, as learning about, following and speaking out on the injustices faced by disenfranchised members of society. The fear is that one might uncover too much to comfortably continue as a member of society anymore; that understanding the truth of the horrors that white-dominated civilization has inflicted on non-white individuals, it will be too hard to ignore their lasting effects.

In my opinion, Campbell’s production is quite possibly the best presentation of the nuances of race relations from the unjustly-treated point of view one can experience today. Theatrically, it is worth a run of standing ovations. Thematically, it is a revelation. Societally, it is required viewing. Ultimately, Woke is a statement that deserves to be lauded in every way.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

A Girl and a Gun (Summerhall: 2-27 Aug: 18.00: 60mins)

“A greatly rewarding hour of insight and grace for cinephiles, feminists, and iconoclasts everywhere.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

Louise Orwin is one savvy film buff and her one-woman show, A Girl and a Gun (the title of which is derived from Jean-Luc Godard’s notorious quote “All you need to make a film is a girl and a gun”) is sixty minutes of finely crafted satire/tribute/criticism/fun on that very notion. For cinephiles and non-cinephiles alike, A Girl and a Gun offers laughs, thrills, and intimate insights into some of popular culture’s most beloved genres and setups within film, while asserting a masterfully subversive message.

Orwin is an electric performer, constantly keeping the audience guessing and engaged as she flits from scenario to scenario as “Her,” representing the interchangeable, lazily written female in so many Hollywood films. She is accompanied onstage by an unspecific male counterpart, as “Him,” a random actor who had responded to the show’s online call for male performers, and who is a different person every night. “Him” reads his lines from a teleprompter, and is, charmingly, just as surprised, shocked, amused, and impressed at the show’s content as the audience is at every turn. For Orwin has created an amalgam of sorts, of every misogynistic and abusive male-female dynamic presented in male-ego-centered films, to prove how toxic and destructive masculinity in popular culture can be.

“Him” is scripted to seduce, kiss, betray, bully, abuse, physically hit, and generally mistreat “Her” in carefully structured ways, so that sometimes he has free reign to strut around and take advantage of the audience and damsel in front of him, and other times he has no real choice but to act like a heel. Her commentary is strikingly simple, as she uncovers the terrible unfairness and cruelties beneath many a male/female action hero/damsel dynamics.

What is most impressive and reassuring about the show’s approach is the level of research evident behind the faithful recreations of the films it satirises. It is presented in a format all Tarantino fans will recognise; divided into chapters with pseudo-poetic titles like “Cherry Picker” or “Why You Don’t Have to be American to have an American Dream,” which is a particularly impactful one. Taglines, catchphrases and devices from lots of Tarantino’s writing are featured, including dances reminiscent of Pulp Fiction and Death Proof, and the opening theme from Kill Bill – indeed the piece is chock-full of cinematic observations and criticisms that are spot-on if you are a fan of the retro-worshipping, Western-esque American odysseys Orwin comes after. There is a particularly impressive and hilarious sequence in which Orwin and the male actor recite all the typical names of “Him” and “Her” in these films, like Charlie, Bobby, Big Charlie, Big Bobby, Tommy, Tony, Big Tommy, Big Tony; Suzie, Jenny, Little Suzie, Little Jenny, et cetera.

Points like these are also, in a larger sense, what makes Orwin’s show so clever and incisive; there are no individual films or even individual scenes that are criticised on their own. Rather, A Girl and a Gun takes aim at the sheer repetitiveness and laziness of re-used, tired tropes, with great success. One of the most memorable sequences comes near the ‘end’ of the experience, when “Him” has forsaken “Her” and she must, as she does in so many films, die. Orwin’s “Her” dies at least ten times in a row, in various gruesome fashions, from being shot with numerous types of firearms to being tied to a train track and run over. Her point lands with a surprising amount of grace, as we recall so many female characters who have been extinguished simply to prove the male protagonist’s point, and it is the sheer quantity of such deaths that packs the greatest punch.

The attention to detail in this show is also commendable, from the use of projection and subtitling to recall a movie being written and filmed, and on-screen directions for “Him” to don various costumes, play with numerous prop firearms and “act like he is in an action movie”. This device in particular leaves a meaningful impression, presenting both “Him” and “Her” as pawns of the written scripts, and suggesting it is not necessarily inherent to a man’s composition that he acts so cruelly — he is written that way, much as many men may have learned their behaviour from movies where that very same behaviour got the girl and saved the day.

A Girl and a Gun presents an ingenious deconstruction of male ego, cinematic influence, and the truth beneath the beauty of so many of society’s favourite films. It is a greatly rewarding hour of insight and grace, plus a goldmine for cinephiles, feminists, and iconoclasts everywhere.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED