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

Photos. Erica Belton

” A hoot from start to finish”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars Nae Bad

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 28 March)

Go to EUSOG, the Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group

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

“Genuine wow-factor”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 15 March)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

FAME! The Musical (Church Hill Theatre: 6-10 Feb ’18

“Plenty of individual noteworthy performances”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Fame! The Musical follows a group of performance arts students through their formative years at the “Fame” high school, and is full of vivid characters, energetic dance numbers, and show-stopping songs. Largely an ensemble piece, it’s the perfect choice and platform to allow Edinburgh University Footlights’ members to present their considerable talents as actors and singers, and there are plenty of individual noteworthy performances throughout.

Mimi Joffroy demonstrates all the ingredients of a stellar leading lady as Carmen, most evident in the goosebump-inducing In L.A.; Matt Galloway delivers a laugh a line as the charismatic Joe, and dance captain Connie McFarlane proves she’s a genuine triple threat in the gospel-tinged Mabel’s Prayer. Alice Hoult and Adam Makepeace show great chemistry as romantic leads Serena and Nick, and Mhairi Goodwin serves up a killer belt as Miss Sherman in These Are My Children. Liam Bradbury never quite convinces he’s actually a hip-hop dancer as Jack, though comes into his own during the character’s signature song Dancing on the Sidewalk.

Yet given all this obvious talent, what holds this production back is being able to effectively embrace the script’s very bitty nature, made up of lots of short scenes taking place over a number of years. EU Footlights’ simple set proves very constraining to this end, often dragging the action to the back of stage, while there’s precious little to link each part and show progression over time. There are pleasing teases of getting it right during Think of Meryl Streep, as action continues behind the singer, so it’s slightly frustrating not to see more creativity in the presentation of each scene throughout to make it feel like one cohesive piece.

Additionally, Fame! is a show that is chock-full of dancing, requiring much more from a cast and choreographer than your average production. The company certainly give it their all during this performance and there are some wonderful moments during the dances (especially some of the daring lifts!), but there’s also a scrappiness to the performance – particularly in the ballet sequences – which, although charming at times, more often detracts from a lot of the other great things happening on stage. Some extra time spent in brushing these up would go a long way to adding to the quality of this production.

Overall, Fame! is a feel-good show with plenty to enjoy, and EU Footlights should be very proud of the job they’ve done with it. Though one can’t help but feel that we ain’t see the best of them yet.

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 7 February)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Rabbie (Basement Theatre, Rose Street: 23-27 Jan ’18)

“It’s almost impossible not to find yourself engaged in every moment”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

For a musical about one of Scotland’s best-loved poets – many of whose works are also well-known songs – it’s hard to fathom why Rabbie hasn’t already been doing the rounds for years. Yet given Captivate Theatre’s impressive revision of it, I’m sure we’ll soon see this show becoming something of a tradition on stages around the country.

Loosely following Burns’ life and loves in chronological order, the action is also punctuated by toasts from a modern day Burns supper, which help give context and relevance to the action. Structurally it’s a fairly whistle-stop tour of the main turning points of the poet’s short life, and it’s a shame not to get more depth and drama from some of these, though the through-line about Burns’ love Jean Armour does go some way to adding that much-needed integrity to the piece.

The action often veers slightly too close to the edge of bawdy and crowd-pleasing for my tastes, but underneath the simple folksy style is a good musical – there’s a pleasantly surprising amount of harmonic complexity and variety in the numbers, and plenty of laughs to be had throughout. It all moves along at a rollicking pace so there’s never a chance for the energy to dip, and while I would have preferred more development in some of the scenes and characters to get to know them better, it’s almost impossible not to find yourself engaged in every moment.

The staging of this production is somewhat rough and ready, and director Sally Lyall’s decision to spread the action around the space perhaps isn’t the best given the setup of the Basement Theatre (if you’re sat in the front you’ll have to turn your ahead a lot!) but in a different space with more… space, and greater attention paid to the overall production values this could very easily be a show-stopping piece.

The cast are a talented bunch, and can’t be faulted when it comes to sheer gusto and conviction in their performance throughout. The nine-strong troupe play numerous characters between them and blend in and out of spotlight very well. A special mention to Charlie Munro who is hilarious as one of Burns’ publishers, Creech, while Meg Laird Drummond brings a wonderful sensitivity to Burns’ long-suffering wife Jean.

Like Burns’ own work, Rabbie may not be the finest example of writing ever to grace Edinburgh, but it’s certainly worth raising a glass to, in this, his celebratory week.

 

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 24 January)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

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!

 

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 9 December)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Oliver! (Pleasance Theatre: 28 Nov-2 Dec ’17)

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Cast of Oliver! Photo by Andrew Perry.

“FSELRES_382c628d-c6dd-48a3-859b-dfb8d567e430SELRES_d4a5f1dc-f027-48ef-8ada-6aca7f57b286SELRES_d0508c34-80ff-4d1c-9452-b9a4c366ffeaSELRES_007f217a-44d6-4932-8fa1-3d14d5861ee5FFull of EUSOG’s trademark heart and powerful vocalsSELRES_007f217a-44d6-4932-8fa1-3d14d5861ee5SELRES_d0508c34-80ff-4d1c-9452-b9a4c366ffeaSELRES_d4a5f1dc-f027-48ef-8ada-6aca7f57b286SELRES_382c628d-c6dd-48a3-859b-dfb8d567e430

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Lionel Bart’s classic musical, Oliver! is an iconic story of cruelty, deceit and murder set in Victorian London, and features some of the best-known songs in musical theatre. Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group (EUSOG) first performed this show in 1988, and almost 30 years on they’re back with a fresh, youthful take on the traditional tale.

While some of the company’s creative and casting choices in this revival absolutely do work in keeping the show relevant to today’s young people, unfortunately others are over-reached and not as well realised. Early on, the choreography and staging seem unnecessarily stompy and frantic, while some of the fight and chase scenes come across as a little under-rehearsed and clumsy.

But let’s start with the positives, of which there are many. In no particular order, Grace Dickson’s Nancy is a real highlight of the show, and her human, emotive rendition of As Long As He Needs Me deservedly gets the biggest cheer of the night. Rebecca Waites shines as Charlie with terrific energy throughout, and Ashleigh More is also excellent as the Artful Dodger, with a commanding stage presence and exquisite voice and physicality. In fact, the whole Consider Yourself scene More leads is the first where everything – choreography, vocals and direction – really falls into place to present the kind of show-stopping number that EUSOG are so good at.

What student productions – and EUSOG in particular – also tend to do very well is unearthing a script’s hidden comedy, especially with smaller characters. In this production, Kirsten Millar stands out as the Sowerberrys’ maid, Charlotte, bringing life and humour to each of her scenes, while Richard Blaquiere gives a hilarious geeky awkwardness to the role of Mr Bumble. Ewan Bruce as Mr Brownlow and Niamh Higgins as Mrs Bedwin also deserve a special mention for bringing a sense of calm maturity and experience to their older characters – a pleasant contrast from the energy of some of the other scenes.

In addition to casting females in some of the other main parts, EUSOG also opt for a female Fagin, which, unfortunately doesn’t prove as successful. Kathryn Salmond certainly gives it her all in this challenging role, though the songs (in particular You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket or Two) are very low in her register, meaning a lot this character’s authority is lost and at times it’s a struggle to follow the dialogue. I almost wish the company had gone one step further to make Fagin a female character to see what dynamic that would bring to proceedings. Yann Davies pleases in the title role with a purity and innocence to his voice, though something about the way this show is put together makes it seem like the character of Oliver is almost a bit part – his presence often gets lost in among everything else going on on stage.

Overall this show is full of EUSOG’s trademark heart and powerful vocals, with some wonderful individual performances, but lacks some polish and pace to be a truly spectacular production.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 29 November)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

 

The Threepenny Opera (King’s Theatre: 15-16 September)

“A charming production full of talent”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

The musical legacy of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s vibrantly satirical ‘play with music’ The Threepenny Opera is a curious one. Its opening anthem, “Mack the Knife,” has subsequently gained far more acclaim and recognition as a jazz standard in English since its debut in 1928 Berlin. The sultry refrain still tells of the deliciously violent antics of the notorious Macheath — every bit as much a bloodthirsty criminal as a salacious womanizer — but the original Socialist criticisms of capitalism and societal greed inherent in the original context of the character have somewhat faded. However, in their current production of Weill and Brecht’s piece, The Attic Collective yank the socialism and social Darwinism back into focus with grandiosity and verve to spare.

The assembled talent has carefully chosen a threadbare aesthetic and a frantic tone, both of which are appreciated considering it’s nearly three-hour runtime. The blocking, choreographed by Dawn-Claire Irvine, is frenetic, with bodies and props being hurled around the stage with sometimes dizzying energy. The set, managed by Tony King, is almost completely empty, save the minuscule bandstand area and temporary furnishings wheeled on to create a sense of space, which is accomplished well. The band is led with both humour and talent by Simon Goldring, whose musical direction fits well into the play’s dingy background. The most remarkably funny aspect of the stagecraft is the use of projected slides to flatly assert location. Before most scenes, white typeface bluntly explains context, and briefly puts up an Edinburgh equivalent of where these London-set scenes might take place, eliciting many a laugh for their timing and matter-of-factness. Had these been paired with a more self-serious, pretentious production, they would seem tacky; had they been employed by a less dynamic, more straightforwardly silly group, they’d be out of place for their dry humour. But to their credit, The Attic Collective’s decisions like this strike exactly the right tone (more often than not), between gormless and grandiose, threadbare and thrifty, funny and frank.

Max Reid is excellent as the appallingly villainous Mr. Peachum, particularly for the bombast he brings to his first scene, directly after the chorus’s “Mack the Knife” introduction. Reid successfully guides the audience from the familiar sounds of the standard to the viciously satirical tone of the rest of the production, which is no easy feat. As (occasionally) the cruelty and pitch-black comedy of Brecht’s script might come off as too much to find funny, it is particularly commendable that director Susan Worsfold has chosen to emphasise the comedy wherever possible. Toby Williams, as a hapless and clueless beggar, is hilarious with excellent timing, and Hannah Bradley as Mrs Peachum displays a genuinely impressive talent for balancing daft operatic turns of plot and phrase with an accomplished singing voice and terrific stage presence. And this is all the first scene.

Charlie West’s Mack the Knife takes time to get used to, but ultimately shines as the play pushes his character farther and farther from the archetypal ladykiller/people-killer role. His singing is good, and well-suited to the choppiness of Brecht’s plotting, as some intentionally off-kilter scenes and character dynamics look and sound more grating than polished. Given the tone of the production, these are presumably meant to be that way. West also displays nice comedic timing, but the truly gifted comedic dynamic was found more frequently among his criminal posse: Lewis Gribben, Elsa Strachan, John Spilsbury, Mark O’Neill and occasionally Conor McLeod. They all display real camaraderie and genuinely funny quips whenever present: another respite given the sometimes exhausting length of the proceedings.

Mack’s various women, played by Kirsty Punton, Megan Fraser and Sally Cairns, are characterised well, and each command the stage when given the opportunity. Special note goes to Cairns’ exquisitely gauche costume. In fact, the behind-the-scenes decisions are some of the most impressive aspects of the show: the use of the King’s Theatre’s actual boxes during a brothel-based interchange in particular is an inspired choice, delivering further hilarity.

The political and societal implications, are however, noticeably muddled, from the greediness and homoeroticism within head of police Tiger Brown (Andrew Cameron), to the jarring humour on display while Mack languishes in a prison cell waiting to be hanged by the distinctly humourless guard (Adam Butler). The spaces crafted by mime and sparse prop work, including a very funny use of a ladder as all-things-jail-call, but frequently have their implied rules broken, from doors switching to windows, walls vanishing entirely, locks fitting into keyholes where previously there was nothing, and entire crowds miraculously appearing and disappearing: the staging too often does not make any sense. Granted, these are aspects of Brecht’s dismantled view of theatricality in general, but when the plot twists and turns so freely it would have help to define spaces a little bit more.

Overall, The Threepenny Opera is a charming production full of talent and featuring some particularly inspired choices and aesthetics. There could be a little more there in the way of clarity, but hey, it’s Brecht. Most charmingly, it gives a whole lot of context for the flawless “Mack the Knife” standard itself, and for a superfan like myself that’s welcome. And if you weren’t a fan of the song beforehand, you will be once the curtains have closed.

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller  (Seen 15 September)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED