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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 22 March)

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A Step In Time (The Magnuson Centre, Edinburgh Academy: 10th & 11th March ’17)

“The group demonstrates all the qualities that make show choirs eminently lovable”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

In large part thanks to a popular American TV series from the 00s, being in a show choir has become a lot more socially acceptable – even “cool” in some circles – in recent years, so it was great to see a packed house for Edinburgh University Footlights’ latest show, and a stage full of diverse young people who love being there.

In A Step In Time the group demonstrates all the qualities that make show choirs eminently lovable: fun renditions of upbeat popular tunes, killer vocals, show-stopping choreography and smiles big enough to fill the room. But behind all the glitter and grapevines, did the performance itself deliver a knock-out punch? In my opinion, not quite.

Opening number Step in Time set the scene well as a lively and energetic introduction to the night’s proceedings with some clever, subtle changes in lyrics and arrangement to make the song feel like the choir’s own. Accompanied by full-on intricate choreography, it says something about the fitness and dedication of the group that they were even able to breathe for the next ten minutes, let alone perform song after song, complete with dance routines.

For me, it was a shame there was significantly more focus on the “show” rather than the “choir” elements of the performance, with complex choreography and numerous costume changes detracting from the vocals throughout. Harmonies and power were often lost in the frantic flailing of arms and apparel, and what remained was at times imprecise and unnecessary. The flow of the performance was also quite stilted, with some uncomfortable lengthy pauses between songs, hindering the overall enjoyment of the night.

However, it was in the simpler and more stripped backed numbers where the group really excelled: the 90s medley, Seasons of Love and the 00s medley in the second half really showcased the strength and depth of the choir’s vocal talents, and it’s a shame we didn’t see more consistent top quality vocals and arrangements like these from the choir as a whole throughout the show. There were also some beautiful stand-out solo and small group performances (specifically Believe, She Used To Be Mine and I Know it’s Today) which highlighted some really gorgeous individual voices.

I would have preferred more quality over quantity in terms of the choreography, using it cleverly in specific numbers to give wow-factor, with greater focus on the basics of group singing as the overarching emphasis. Overall I think the group tried to do too much too often, which left the lily not just gilded, but smothered in cream and cherries too.

Still, it was an entertaining performance from a talented bunch of young people, that was, on the whole, very enjoyable. I look forward to the next one.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 10 March)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Jekyll & Hyde (Church Hill Theatre: 22 – 25 Nov ’16)

Stephen Quinn as Jekyll (& Hyde) Photos: Erica Belton

Stephen Quinn as Jekyll (& Hyde)
Photos: Erica Belton

“The talent neither stops at the singing, nor at the bounds of the principal cast.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

I was part of an unfortunate, if very narrow, generation whose first encounter with Robert Louis Stephenson’s monstrous Mister Hyde was the opening of a terrible Hugh Jackman movie. As a result, questions of the duality of man, the nature of morality and the dangers of unrestrained passion didn’t really factor in for a while. It seems fitting therefore that EUSOG’s latest outing follows the pattern of contrast underscored by its source material: it’s a collection of both dizzying highs and curiously disappointing lows.

Jekyll & Hyde loosely follows Stephenson’s original work, with a few new emotional complications thrown in. It is a musical exploration of the ambition, suffering and fear associated not only with the fraught Henry Jekyll, but its effects on his friends, family and even the city of London itself. And to begin –  as usual – with the ability on display, it’s considerable. The singing talent in this show can’t be denied, ensemble included. Ellie Millar and Giselle Yonace in particular offer utterly breathtaking solos as Emma Carew and Lucy Harris, culminating in a duet that could shatter glass for precision.

And the talent neither stops at the singing, nor at the bounds of the principal cast. Special props go to Kirsten Millar as the world’s most entertainingly jovial prostitute; and to Jana Bernard, whose rare mix of graceful flexibility and natural showmanship lead to an array of angles that’d make an architect weep. Despite the occasional desync in a dance, the ensemble did their job with gusto and skill.

But any praise would be incomplete without hailing new face Stephen Quinn as the titular duo. Powerful voice aside, I found myself extremely taken with his portrayal of Henry Jekyll: he balances ambition, humanity and (perhaps most importantly) a genuine vulnerability during his two hour tenure as the good doctor, and it certainly stuck. Often, mild-mannered Jekyll is the more under-realised of the two, and it was refreshingly welcome to see such care put into his characterisation.

The question then, I suppose, is why this show only has three stars – and why have I personally left it unrated?

Despite the considerable strength of the cast, there are distinct elements of this show that detract from the overall fabric of the performance. Most glaringly, perhaps, is the way in which they handle Edward Hyde. At its core, there simply wasn’t enough contrast or intensity: often, the only difference between the two selves seemed to be his ragged choice of jacket, rather than any significant change in manner. The visceral glee, passionate brutality and utterly malevolent hedonism which typifies Hyde seems to get lost somewhere in the mix – and this is certainly not helped by fight choreography which is so floaty and strangely force-less that it occasionally comes off as comical rather than dramatic. Sitting next to the fantastic choreography of song numbers such as ‘Bring on the Men’, it seems worlds apart.

jekyllhyde3

And, most unfortunately, that fundamental element of violence and rage, which seems to be missing from much of the production, runs deeply through its other elements. Without that relish of cruelty, many scenes feel strangely bland for want of a contrast which just isn’t there. Combine that with mics which popped in and out more often than a first year halls cleaning lady and with variable volume levels, which would put Brexit indecision to shame, even when the show was at its strongest, then it was unsurprising that at times I could not hear a damned – or virtuous – thing.

That said, if you’re looking for a collection of entertaining and ear-pleasing song numbers, you’ll like what you get. However, if you’re wanting an exploration of human nature, brutality and debauchery, and a spot or two of vanquishing, then …. No. Upfront this is a strong production but it is let down by its emotional backdrop. For those who aren’t as pedantically focused on its content as I am, it’s certainly not going to sour your night – but walking home through the cold Edinburgh air I couldn’t help but think that Mister Hyde just didn’t show up.

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 22 November)

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+3 Review: Penetrating Europe, or Migrants Have Talent (Paradise in Augustines: until 28th Aug: 21:35: 1hr)

“Sandalovych doesn’t simply engage the audience, she immerses us in the tumultuous narrative.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars:  Nae Bad 

Our host (Dave Strudelbar) for this evening’s episode of Migrants Have Talent bounds down the stairs before introducing the evening’s two judges: immigration officer, Nigel Nobson (Uilleam Blacker) as well as glamorous former illegal immigrant, Nigella Smith (Lesya Liskevych).  Nigella explains that she was talent-spotted after five years of cleaning the toilets at Television Centre. She cleaned toilets under her original name, she minor celebs with a new one, changed by deed poll. Together Nigel and Nigella decide who stays and who is deported, with the audience voting in the event of a tie.

There are five contestants. Actor Iaroslav Tsigan’s character is from Ukraine. He traveled to Britain on false Polish papers. A likeable character, his honesty fails to impress the stern judges. Interwoven with the talent show format are the stories of two young people, who relate how it is to travel and cross borders. One is going east to Ukraine for an adventure; the other west, by land and sea, to join family already in Britain.

These paired stories, delivered solo with other cast members playing the role of various officials, are the most effective part of the production.  The contrasting experiences and expectations of the two young people are increasingly moving. Actor Ira Sandalovych compellingly portrays a descent into fear. Sandalovych doesn’t simply engage the audience, she immerses us in the tumultuous narrative.

Most of the large cast are employed in the Migrants Have Talent sections.  Writers Blacker and Olesha Khromeychuk deploy a tongue in cheek style of satire that seeks to lighten what are, in reality, stories of genuine human suffering. At no point are we allowed to forget that not a million miles away from the Fringe, real people are really living through such uncomic tragedies. Still, this is above all a theatre piece. How effective (as opposed to affecting) is it?

The message is crystal clear. Humanity is common: borders and suffering man made.

If there is a problem it’s is one of counterpoint. Does the satire sparkle bright enough against the darkness of the immigrants’ tales? The lighting is handed well and sound, with the ensemble song describing cranes flying away to die in foreign lands (a poem from 19th century Ukraine) is truly beautiful in such a small venue.  However, with such a large cast, the staging does slip into awkward moment but, overall, this is a more than likeable production whose heart is definitely in the right place.
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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Martin Veart   (Seen 23 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: The Vaudevillains (Assembly George Square: 4-28 Aug: 22.10: 1hr 10mins)

“Masterfully performed with moments of brilliance”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Les Enfants Terrible are old hats at making great theatre, with many awards and accolades to their name. On paper The Vaudevillains sits right in their sweet spot of immersive, stylised, historical storytelling – so do they land the killer blow with this one? Almost.

Framed around the murder of the music hall owner before the start of “the show”, the compere (Oliver Lansley) declares that it must still go on, and each of the acts is then introduced and invited to plead their innocence through skit and song – in old fashioned music hall style. It’s a simple concept and powerfully delivered, but, disappointingly, not particularly unique or innovative.

It’s only when the skits start that creativity and individual talents come to light. Each character’s back story is complex and engaging – showing great writing on Lansley’s part – and it’s enjoyable getting to know more about each one. All performers play supporting roles in each of the other’s stories, allowing them to demonstrate their seemingly endless individual skills as performers. My favourite characters are the Cerberus Sisters (stripping Siamese triplets), given their unique characteristics, while for me the standout performer is Tsemaye Bob-Egbe, who gives a simply stunning rendition of her song as Mephisto –a real highlight.

Overall the skits are funny, bawdy with a good variety from the loud and brash to the whimsical and mysterious and everything in between. The pace keeps it entertaining without dragging, and despite being quite fragmented, the show has the sense of being a real team effort. Tomas Gisby’s score also deserves credit – he’s created some great stick-in-your-head songs that stay with you long after the show ends.

After the skits are complete, one expects some sort of Agatha Christie-esque finger-pointing and deduction in order to work out “whodunit” – indeed, I feel that this is what a lot of us were waiting for. However, when the big reveal occurs, I am in no way surprised by the outcome, and let out a small groan at the lack of creativity shown in this respect. I feel that this part of the show lets down the rest, and more work could be done to beef up the suspense.

Overall, The Vaudevillains is masterfully performed with some wonderful moments of individual brilliance and great storytelling along the way, but it is perhaps just a little obvious.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 14 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: Paper Hearts the Musical (Underbelly Med Quad: 5-29 Aug: 18.40: 1hr 15mins)

“Potential to be a real best-seller”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

A musical about finding love in a bookshop sounds like pretty much all of my favourite things in one. And just like everyone’s favourite independent bookshop, the first thing that strikes me about Paper Hearts is how little space there is to move around in on stage.  Unfortunately in this case it doesn’t work in the group’s favour, and if they had been used to rehearsing in a larger space, the translation to this venue isn’t effective enough to overcome many of the obstacles faced by that challenge: the choreography looks clumsy, performers squeeze past each other when moving about and the musicians are a bit too dominant visually – it’s a shame that this is the lasting impression I have of this show rather than the artistic merits, of which there are many.

The story follows Atticus Smith (Adam Small) – a book store manager and hapless writer – who is determined to finish his novel, even though his store is very quickly going out of business and is set to be bought by a corporate giant. But of course, there’s a convenient young writers’ competition he could enter and win to save the day. So far, so so. Throw into the mix a difficult relationship with his father and a chance meeting with the consultant set to take over the bookshop and an intriguing plot unfurls.

What I particularly enjoyed about this show in terms of narrative are the clever parallels between Atticus’s own life and the characters in his book, and the relationship he as a writer has with those characters. Even though the book is set in Russia in the 1940s, Atticus channels his situation through his leading character and inadvertently ends up resolving his own problems.

From a performance perspective, bizarrely it’s the Russian scenes that come across as the most genuine and accomplished, and these are the most enjoyable to watch. Much of the rest of the performance, however, feels very rushed. From the opening scene where characters are introduced, to Atticus’s break-up with his girlfriend, meeting someone else, having a huge argument the next day and winning a writing competition, it all seems quite superficial. There are lots of lovely ideas in there, but, much like the stage, everything is a bit too crammed in.

Liam O’Rafferty’s music and lyrics are tight, with several great original songs. Hot is a fun and sassy number with great personality, Shame is a cutting and comedic look at the flaws of the two central characters, and title song Paper Hearts has a real West End ring to it. All songs featured within the Russian scenes have great folk authenticity, so musically this show has a lot going for it.

I’d love to see Paper Hearts come back as a longer, more developed piece, and performed in a different venue that gives it room to breathe. It has the potential to be a real best-seller.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 14 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: Spring Awakening (Paradise in St Augustine’s: 5-13 Aug: 21.30: 1hr 30mins)

“I’d encourage anyone into musical theatre to go and see it “

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

With the band clearly visible on an otherwise bare stage, looking cool and every inch the 00s rockers in white t-shirts, EUSOG’s interpretation of Spring Awakening feels more like a concert than a traditional musical. The full (Broadway) version runs over two acts and well over two hours, but this is a stripped back, 90 minute version, which I have to say I prefer. It centres on the songs as vehicles to express emotion, with narrative, dialogue and choreography seamlessly fitting in around them. As a performance it’s compact, it’s flowing, it gets to the point and stays there, and to me one of the real triumphs in this production is how each number and scene overlap and blend, rich with energy, tenderness and life.

While musically Spring Awakening may not be as powerful as other rock operas like RENT, this cast do a fantastic job of squeezing every drop of emotion out of each song to make each lyric really hit home, and William Briant’s band let rip with rousing and powerful accompaniment throughout. The company perform every chorus number with great vitality, from the loud The Bitch of Living, to the very delicate and uplifting The Song of Purple Summer. The harmonies are great, the blending on point, and individual solo lines delivered with aplomb.

Some of the acting was a little shaky: Wendla’s rape and Moritz’s suicide didn’t ring as emotionally true as the rest of the performance, but this is a young company dealing with very difficult material, so we must cut a little slack – sometimes the professionals slip-up too.

It’s the power and energy of the cast that make this show a real treat though, demonstrating talent and professionalism far beyond what one might expect from students. Nitai Levi has astonishing control and presence as Melchior, Greg Williamson is a wonderfully pained Moritz with a great pop-rock voice while Isabella Rogers is also beautifully understated as Ilse. Caroline Elms and James Strahan capably perform all the adult roles between them, with great changes in character and authority to make them believable. A special mention to Strahan for his quick turnaround from the emotional funeral scene to playing a completely different character literally seconds later.

It’s such a shame EUSOG’s run ends this weekend, as I’d encourage anyone into musical theatre to go and see it – it really is a masterclass in getting the basics right. If I could, I’d go again.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 10 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED