Local Hero (Lyceum, 14 March – 4 May ’19)

Katrina Bryan as Stella, with that telephone box at her elbow.
Photography by Stephen Cummiskey

“Expert and smooth”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Nae Bad

 This is one to admire, less with wonder perhaps than with unbounded appreciation: a musical with perspective and high-flying credits to match. With its ‘Book’ by pre-eminent film maker Bill Forsyth and David Greig, new music and lyrics by Mark Knopfler, and directed by John Crowley, this Local Hero is pitched at anyone who has seen Forsyth’s film, which after 36 years is a lot of delighted people, and at anyone who would put the planet above getting filthy rich. By now, of course, Local Hero is circling above and beyond Scotland. Al Gore, American vice-president and author of An Inconvenient Truth, reckoned on Oprah that it was up there as his favourite film. This is generational stuff that could be set on an interstellar trajectory. Next point of passage, London’s Old Vic.

… Houston, We Have a Problem

Once upon a time it was boom time for the black, black, oil and Knox Oil and Gas of Houston, Texas, is looking to build a refinery in Ferness on the north west coast. Young exec. ‘Mac’ MacIntyre – of Hungarian descent naturally – flies in to make the deal, effectively to buy out the village, lock, stock and lobster pot. Down on the beach, old Ben holds out for more. By sly congruence, he’s called Knox too. Ben is one laid-back negotiator who would tell you how many grains of sand that he can hold in one hand but what really counts are his astronomical records, sightings of events that go back a hundred plus years. There’s no limit, it appears, to an oil bonanza until you factor in the beauty of the Northern Lights and celestial messengers. And then, down on earth and in the MacAskill Arms there’s kindred folk and community, the love of a hard but beautiful land.

 

By rock and water and that iconic telephone box it could be wistful and charming and a homage to a great soundtrack. However, today we have Spotify Connect, of control and play, and whilst this production is very easy to listen to, with a proper fusion score where Dire Straits meets ceilidh, yearning and lament, it’s the neat switch to solid musical theatre that is most impressive. It may be a long haul: ten numbers in each half, no duds, with the whole show lasting 2 hours and 25 minutes – but it is expert and smooth, with standout lighting and atmospheric projection where the sky’s the limit, literally. Ferness is a tiny line of houses arranged along a curve of the harbour wall. The 15 strong cast has a wide dance floor to work with and the band is nearly always backstage,  invisible (regrettably) within an outsize grey ‘hillside’.

Lets get ‘Filthy Dirty Rich’

Character is in plain sight. Mac (Damian Humbley) may have an option on a new Porsche but he is always going to fall in love with Furness and an ardent blow-in from Glasgow. She, Stella (Katrina Bryan), is the principled romantic whilst flexible Gordon (Matthew Pidgeon) could launch himself onto the 54th floor of any oil company. Viktor (Adam Pearce), the burly Russian trawler skipper with share portfolio, is vigorous and fun. Ben (Julian Forsyth) is especially heroic as he’s wrapped in a tartan rug in his armchair and withstands his removal to a retirement home by the village lovelies.

 

The company sings ‘That’d Do Me’ in anticipation of the good folk hitting pay dirt. The prospect of being served langoustine rather than packing them is rather fine. And then, with Mac and Stella and Ben, you’re gently steered onto a kinder, Greener, more responsible course. That was always the tricky bit of make-believe, now advanced by nostalgia. Still, the fond passion and dollars of Knox Oil president Felix Happer give Ben a backstop and Furness is saved, again, which has to be counted a blessing. When that telephone rings is it Mac calling or Heaven?

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 26 March)

See Local Hero at the Lyceum

Go to Edinburgh49 at its Lyceum archive.

Lost In Music (North Edinburgh Arts: 1-2 Mar.’19)

Emily Phillips, Claire Willoughby, Alex Neilson (obscured!) and Jill O’Sullivan.
Image from Neil Cooper’s review in the Glasgow Herald.

“Glorious, ‘Everything else just fades away ..’ “

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

‘… and Orpheus raises his guitar’. As lines go that’s a cracker but not really a first as there’s Val, in his snakeskin jacket, in Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending, ‘the tale – as Williams put it – of a wild-spirited boy who wanders into a conventional community of the South and creates the commotion of a fox in a chicken coop’. In the first scene Val picks up his guitar and starts to sing Williams’ Heavenly Grass but stops, ominously, in the middle of the song.

 

No clamour, no interruptions in Magnetic North’s Lost In Music and the snake coiled in the grass ain’t on no jacket. This is a one hour truly excellent self-styled ‘gig-theatre show’, with four musician / performers singing and talking of Orpheus and Eurydice, but in a totally different (youthful?) key, celebratory rather than savage or tragic. It is expressly about music and music-making and how that plays about our lives, particularly young lives, often to glorious effect.

 

Its theatre may be in the sound and the visuals – just admire the micro-cinema of clouding memory loss – but the narrative still compels attention, as you’d hope, given the pre-eminence of its story. Why does Orpheus look back? In this telling it’s because he is doubtful of the Gods’ word but also, unspoken, it has to be because he cannot bear the unaccompanied silence behind him.

 

And so back to the music and the soundscape to which the whole production is dedicated. Clustered instruments gleam under Simon Wilkinson’s lighting; microphone stands, rests, and props are festooned on Karen Tennent’s green, glowing, set. Costumes are colourful and free flowing. Jill O’Sullivan opens up on guitar and vocals and one by one the others play their parts: Emily Phillips (Clarinet / Orpheus); Claire Willoughby (Saxophone / Eurydice); and Alex Neilson (Percussion). Halfway, thereabouts, there is an important pause as each briefly explains what music means to them and at the close they are joined for a swelling finale by a further six players – from neighbouring Craigroyston Community High School.

 

Kim Moore and Nicholas Bone wrote and direct an inspiring show that has rightly attracted support from Creative Scotland, the City Council, the PRS Foundation and – for Orpheus was the hardy Argonaut who charmed the Sirens – the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. If Lost In Music looks for a place in the Festival or on the Fringe, then it should be a shoo-in.

 

Find Lost In Music in Glasgow this week at

Platform
1000 Westerhouse Road, Glasgow G34 9JW
Wednesday 6 March, 7pm
Thursday 7 March, 1.30pm

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 2 March)

Go to the Magnetic North

9 to 5 (Pleasance: 5-9 Feb.’19)

“A damn good show .. poetry in a big, shiny sequined dress”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars Nae Bad 

 

l-r: Anna Sheen as Violet, Jemma Lowcock as Judy, & Alice Hoult as Doralee.
Images: Andrew Perry

Dolly, Dolly, Dolly. What is there to say about the undisputed Queen of Country that hasn’t already been said? Other than the fact it’s what I blast during weightlifting 80% of the time (so now if you see me, congrats, you know!), it’s hard to come up with praise that hasn’t been done to death. I thought I’d get lucky when I got to talk about something Parton-adjacent, but unfortunately for me and very fortunately for everyone else in the audience, the praise vocabulary has a lot of overlap.

9 to 5 tells the story of Violet (Anna Steen), Judy (Gemma Lowcock) and Doralee (Alice Hoult): three embattled women struggling to stay strong in a world designed to keep them down. That world is typified by their boss, Franklin Heart Jr, neatly summed up as a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot”. After a chance encounter with the devil’s lettuce, the three heroines find themselves in far deeper than they intended, but with a chance to change both their lives, and the lives of their co-workers, for the better.

From the outset, I need to make it clear: this is a damn good show, with damn good performers. If the star rating wasn’t enough to tip you off, Footlights’ production of 9 to 5 is one to be proud of. The lynchpin of that success was the central trio of Hoult, Lowcock, and Steen. It’s not often that I get to see talent on the student stage that would fit seamlessly into a professional production, but then again, it’s also not often that you see not one but three vocalists who can not only sing to character, hit notes right in their centre zone and (as my opera teacher used to say) throw their voices out so hard you could hammer a nail with them. Even better is the obvious talent at play outside the soundtrack: Steen balanced great comedic sensibilities with an unexpectedly genuine reflection of the struggles faced by powerful women; Lowcock threw levels of vulnerability and hidden nerve into what could’ve easily been a cookie-cutter “beaten down protagonist in a musical” role; and Hoult could basically get a job as a Dolly Parton impersonator – sometimes it was genuinely difficult to tell the difference from sound alone.

‘Around Here’

And that’s even more satisfying when supported by a keenly talented secondary cast. Daniel Stansfield’s Franklin is a wonderfully grotesque, gurning gargoyle of a man, whose revelry in his own personal toxicity is almost a treat (almost); Mhairi Goodwin’s fawning office drone Roz was not only a brilliantly half-sympathetic secondary antagonist, but probably had my favourite performance in the entire production (you’ll know it when you see it); and special props go to Brett McCarthy Harropin a stunningly chameleonic performance as both a dancer, and the show’s sleeper comedy MVP, Josh. Honestly, most of this review could just be praise for the acting. Even if you are not mentioned here, please rest assured: I noticed you, and you were glorious.

Of course, what’s an actor without blocking? And although certain productions on the Pleasance Stage have erred towards A-Level Drama sensibilities in the past, this is certainly a welcome break. I was unable to find a fully-titled choreographer, but whoever in this production created the movement should be very proud of their work: the dancework has the precision of a watch movement. Every part of the stage had its own novel and interesting motions, fully cohesive to the overall pitch and wave of the beat. Darn good to watch, especially the opening number.

To round off the positives, many that there are: this is a musical. Not just a musical, but a Musical. If you’ve watched one or two, you’ll be very familiar with the emotional beats, levels and general plot. But parts of this show felt like I was seeing the familiar tropes for the very first time. When this production gets going and finds its stride, it’s poetry in a big, shiny sequined dress.

Doralee enjoys a Cowgirl’s Revenge

However, this gem is not without flaws. These seem most glaring behind the scenes: whoever was on sound needs to review their operations. The levels between the band and singers were usually abysmal for the first half of most songs, which makes it feel as if whoever was on script watch was distracted. In between the constant volume switching, and a feedback boom in the first half that could have blown fillings out, it ultimately came off as sloppy and far less than what a production like this should be capable of. Although fixed by due diligence, it was disappointing that such a big feature was handled so poorly.

That said, my one large criticism of what I was seeing directly onstage was that the opening number didn’t set my expectations high. I can’t tell if it’s a comparative lack of rehearsal or some mistake on the night, but the all-important 9 to 5 number sounded off key, off time and sluggish for maybe half of the time. Luckily the show recovered soon after, but I distinctly recall being viscerally afraid the rest would be much like it.

I wish I could’ve given the show an ‘Outstanding’, but these two issues  – mostly the former – marred it enough that the entire experience didn’t reach the heights I knew it could have, given the rest of its parts.

However, the above flaws should be fixable, and even if not, I would still recommend this show. The sheer spectacle of a good musical is really hard both to organise and act in, but the levels of talent at play here are exactly what Edinburgh’s come to expect from the university’s Footlights in recent years. Despite the factors holding it back, 9 to 5 is a credit to the cast and team that have brought it to Pleasance, and it deserves every seat sold. In a world that’s all takin’ and no giving, this production definitely bucks the trend.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 6 February)

Go to 9 to 5 at the Edinburgh University Footlights

Visit Edinburgh49 at the Pleasance.

 

RENT (Gilded Balloon @ Rose Theatre: 16-26th Aug: 17:15: 2 hrs)

“A production bursting with raw talent, featuring some of the finest vocals on Edinburgh’s amateur stage”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

RENT is a searing rock musical from the 1990s that was only recently knocked out of Broadway’s top 10 longest running musicals of all time by Wicked. It follows the story of a group of friends dealing with love and loss against a gritty New York backdrop, and is loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème.

Local company Captivate Theatre’s version is a slick and minimalist endeavour, editing out many of the smaller roles and songs to focus more on the main characters themselves, rather than the community of artists they move within. Yet what’s lost in pulsing power in some of the bigger moments is made up for in subtle sensitivity and slickness elsewhere, making this a clean and refreshing take on a musical that’s been doing the rounds for decades. This stripped back approach also spawns some interesting interpretations in the musical numbers, such as Today 4 U, which is almost unrecognisable as a nigh-on a capella song, though somehow works within Director Tom Mullins’ overall vision.

Yet while the minimalist ideology of this production creates many unexpected delights, the main downfall of this show is the staging and use of space, which is far too small to effectively mount a musical of RENT’s epic stature – even with the cuts and styling carried out. Unfortunately, this results in too much awkwardness on stage too often, given how important movement and isolation are to several scenes. At times Mullins makes the action work well within the constraints – in Santa Fe and La Vie Boheme in particular, the scale of the choreography matches the music, space and overall mood, but more often than not, the overwhelming feeling is one of potential – how great this show could be in a venue where it could breathe and run free.

Despite this, this is a production bursting with raw talent, featuring some of the finest vocals on Edinburgh’s amateur stage. Megan Grace in particular delivers a real powerhouse performance in every scene and song as Joanne – not to mention nailing that riff in Seasons of Love. Alex Peters as Roger and Anna Macleod as Mimi combine to create some spine-tingling harmonies in their duet moments, and it’s a shame Grace Cowley doesn’t get more time to sparkle as Maureen after her raw and gutsy Over the Moon.

RENT will always be a fantastic show, and this slick and super-streamlined version is packed with highlights and the heart needed to make it soar. But I’d love to see it return with more depth and detail in a bigger venue to really be blown away.

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 19 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

The Understudies (Bedlam: 13-19th Aug: 14:00: 60 mins)

“Fantastic creativity under pressure”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

There’s a very laid-back feel to The Understudies as they take to the stage dressed with a Breakfast Club vibe. Indeed, it’s quite a pleasing difference to the high octane energy of some other groups out there, and the introduction to the troupe and process of selecting a show title from audience suggestions is very personable, winning the audience over straight away.

It takes a special kind of person to be able to get up and improvise a show to a room full of strangers – moreso when there’s singing involved. The group opening number is a chance for each player to have their moment in creating a verse of the ditty on the spot, and it’s a positive start as to what to expect from the rest of the show – even though it’s disappointing this is one of precious few occasions that all players appear on stage together to demonstrate their prowess as a company.

Particularly amusing elements throughout the show are when two players are mid conversation in a scene, and MD Sam Coade just starts playing, forcing one of the players to begin a song about whatever they were talking about. Indeed, the strength of the Understudies is in the individual players themselves who display fantastic creativity under pressure and an ability to commit to their personal stories throughout.

In saying that, what holds this troupe back is their cohesion as a group – in this performance the players seemed to contradict each other or get too bogged down in their own storylines, which led to a lot of loose ends, changes in direction, and an almost competitive rather than collaborative feel. Indeed, at points there was a reticence from some players to jump on stage and save their counterparts at difficult moments, rather than relish in the opportunity to create more fun. There were some attempts at backing dancing and vocals to create more depth and variety in the numbers, and it’s a shame these never came to very much.

The Understudies is a good fun show packed with all the giggles you would expect from a completely improvised musical. It lacks the professional edge of some of the other companies out there doing similar things, but a good value show all the same – there are far worse things you could do with your afternoon.

 

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 14 August)

Visit the Bedlam archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

A Very Brexit Musical (La Belle Angele: 2-26 Aug: 17:00: 60 mins)

“Freddie Raymond as Joris Bohnson impresses with scene-stealing buffoonery, powerful vocals and a shining stage presence”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

It’s no surprise to see many Brexit-themed shows at the Fringe this year, and A Very Brexit Musical is a newly developed work from students at Robinson College, Cambridge. While for any student group it’s a tremendous achievement to start from scratch to compose, write, produce and bring to Edinburgh an hour-long musical, the end result in this case, leaves a little to be desired.

To begin with, the narrative of this show is about as convincing as the argument for Brexit itself – painfully thin. Journalist at the Maily Dail, Peter (Rory Russell), is caught between wanting to please his editor, Roland (Will Debnam), and office crush, Jen (Emily Webster), by producing pro-brexit propaganda articles, while staying true to his own values – and potentially losing his job and lover in the process. As a set-up it’s a pleasing way into the political argument, but in reality, the development of this storyline (and characters within it) is so limited and lost in amongst the other stage capers that it almost becomes worthless.

Many of the key political figures surrounding the vote are characterised and given scenes and ditties, though few of these add anything to the artistic merit of the piece, other than being somewhat amusing. Figel Narage and Joris Bohnson (no points for guessing which real-life people these characters are based on) seem to be constantly trying to meet on the down-low to sing bad-guy songs, Cavid Dameron bemoans not knowing what to do, and Mheresa Tay positions herself as the sexy bad girl perfectly placed to take over as the leader of the party. Were this production a Brexit cabaret, such interpretations and stand-alone songs would make for witty entertainment, but in the context of a narrative musical, it’s all very disjointed and seemingly thrown-together for the sake of it.

Overall the score is pretty good – there’s some nice variety from tune to tune, though lyrics could pack more punch and help drive the narrative. There are also some impressive attempts at choreography, including an unexpected tap routine, and while not everyone in the cast is a natural dancer, movement sequences are delivered with enough panache to be enjoyable.

In terms of performance it’s Freddie Raymond as Joris Bohnson who impresses most, with scene-stealing buffoonery, powerful vocals and a shining stage presence. Jessica Philips turns in a sassy and controlled performance as Mheresa Tay, while Will Debnam also elicits several chuckles as Maily Dail editor, Roland.

Overall, this is quite a fun show if you’re not expecting anything too deep or intelligent from it, but given its lack of convincing narrative, purpose or call to action, unfortunately, for me, it’s uninspiring.

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 11 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Elizabethan (theSpace @ Surgeon’s Hall: 3-11 Aug: 12:05: 50 mins)

“A healthy serving of bawdy silliness “

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Elizabethans aren’t particularly well-known for their musical theatre prowess, so developing a one-man (is it fair to call it a juke-box?) musical comprising songs only from the turn of the 17th century sounds like a risky move, but a compelling concept for those of us who enjoy a bit of both history and musical theatre.

The resulting Elizabethan follows the loves and losses of one Tobias Bacon, who comes of age after his father dies in 1599. Yet though it’s billed as a musical, what’s delivered is much more like a comedy cabaret – a lot of chat and period puns, with the odd musical ditty thrown in – but with very little in the way of narrative or emotive development. Disappointing if you’re expecting to be wowed by a 17th century equivalent to Tell Me on a Sunday, but packed with laughs and merriment – especially if you’re a fan of historical wordplay.

Elizabethan is created and performed by David William Hughes, who accompanies himself on the lute for each song. This stripped back musical simplicity of man and lute certainly works for the more melancholic moments, while attempts to rock out and mix up the vocal styling do go some way to adding interest and excitement to the subtle nature of the music when required. Hughes is clearly a gifted musician, but more complex arrangements and variety in style would help keep the songs more engaging while maintaining the integrity of its renaissance roots.

Hughes also shows himself as a very competent improviser in relation to audience reactions, which is where perhaps the biggest risk of this production becomes apparent. Hughes requires several audience members to participate in this production (though – thankfully! – nobody is asked to sing or play the lute), and these contributions make up a good bulk of the comedy and tension within the performance. While willing subjects make the show fresh and funny, it does rely rather too heavily on their good grace and humour for my liking.

On the whole, Elizabethan is a healthy serving of bawdy silliness with a couple of nice (though fairly samey) songs thrown in. It’s good for a giggle, though somewhat lacking in depth.

 

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 5 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED