One Duck Down (Pleasance Courtyard : Aug 5-19, 21-26 : 10:30 : 1hr)

“A magical, wholesome family show.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

It is a not-generally-acknowledged truth that toddlers are jolly good at wrestling. You wouldn’t think, watching them sit shoving Pom Bears into their gob that – at any moment – they can turn into a match for Hulk Hogan.

Each has their own technique. Some favour ‘’The Mummy’’ were they tense every muscle in their body and go completely rigid. Others favour the opposite, and manage somehow to loosen every joint in their body making them impossible to carry. This is the jellyfish. My youngest, whilst not averse to either of these generally favours two similar techniques: either the octopus which sees her grappling around your limbs as you try to manhandle her into a buggy or Ikea high chair; or its close cousin the ‘’cat going to vets’ where she scraps like billy-o and grabs hold of nearby objects with a death grip.

A nightmare of every parent is having to fight any of the above in public. None of us come away from public wrangling looking like parent of the year. Most of us are just desperately trying not to swear.

I was worried about all this because I took my youngest to one of her first shows this morning. She’d been to stuff in previous years but she had – happily for the Marrs wallet – been a ‘’babe in arms’’. The problem with any show is that you just don’t know how they will react to being in a very different environment for an hour. So it was with a sense of trepidation I took my seat at One Duck Down. She looked at me. I looked at her. She promised to be a good girl. I handed over a packet of gingerbread men.

Happily the cast took any lingering worries away. One Duck Down had both of my youngsters entranced from the first moment. The story is one of the oldest in town brought bang up to date: a young man from a small-town fancies a woman who is a wrong ‘un. She sets him a series of challenges to win her heart from making seagulls sing the national anthem through to counting pebbles on a beach. Eventually she sets him the challenge which is the show: find me the 7,000 rubber ducks that have escaped from a shipping container and my heart is yours. Anyone who has seen Blue Planet will know that 7,000 rubber ducks actually did plop into the ocean a number of years ago, and have helped us understand the ocean currents as we see them wash up now and again.

The hero of the piece is the highly likeable Billy, who sets off in a bathtub to track the ducks down. As he does so he meets a series of colourful creatures – some seagulls who are besotted with an albatross who only has eyes for himself; a polar bear who loves rock and roll; some smelly crabs and some pirates in L-plates. He slowly but surely accumulates all but one.

The team behind the show manage manage to make it small-p political without becoming a party political broadcast: balancing important messages (the effects of global warming; plastic pollution; and what we can all do to make things better) with a fun story that the children enjoyed.

There was real cleverness here. Double-entendres, clever word-play, catchy (well-sung!) songs throughout and fun, well-crafted characters. Not many shows will have a bearded lady, a huge blue whale made out of plastic bags (a real highlight) and a sword fight on a carousel. More probably ought to! The cast put in a real shift changing role after role after role.

I enjoyed it all and not just because there were enough jokes pitched above the eyelines of the children to keep the adults amused.

I usually bemoan children’s shows being an hour as most of them could be a little tighter. A 50 minute show would probably lead to fewer casts having to battle with a kid having a meltdown. One Duck Down managed to keep most of the children’s attention for that time – no mean feat. My two were talking about it hours later. Both were bopping away to the songs, clapping at all the right points and enjoyed rocking along to Scozzie the Polar Bear.

Songs, clowning, puppetry and a lot of fun that keeps your kids spellbound for an hour. All in all, a real winner and a magical, wholesome family show.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Rob Marrs (Seen 5 August)

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The Taming of the Shrew (Pleasance: 12-16 Mar.’19)

Michael Hajiantonis as Petruchio and Anna Swinton as Katherina.
Photo: Maia Walcott

“The command to ‘Kiss me, Kate,’ is no tender joke.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

As title challenges go, here’s a biggie: the Edinburgh University Shakespeare Company presents The Taming of the Shrew. Rhymes with ‘Me Too’, helpfully, and for my money chimes with Rudimental and Ed Sheeran’s ‘Lay It All On Me’:

 

‘So if you’re hurting babe
Just let your heart be free’

 

Director, Tilly Botsford, would know her audience and on the night that audience was overwhelmingly female and young and had to be with Katherina (Kate) Minola all the way to Padua and back. Right at the start callow and earnest Lucentio is advised to ‘Study what you most affect’ and Botsford takes it from there. This is not the oddball ‘pleasant comedy’ that might ‘frame your mind to mirth and merriment’; no, it’s that other version, where bladdered Christopher Sly and the play-within-the play are cut and Petruchio lectures on misogyny.

 

The idea, of course, is that you walk out of the theatre with Katherina, a ‘foule and contending Rebel’ against Petruchio’s cruel dominion, and much is shaped to that end. An empty set consists of stepped black blocks and shiny scaffolding poles and costumes are kept plain and unremarkable: braces over white shirts and roomy trousers for gentlemen suitors and servants; with gowns for elegant swishing from Bianca (Jessica Butcher) and impudent flouncing from Katherina. The second half features harsher lighting. Nothing here of Italian colour, or period, despite the frequent mention of Pisa, Mantua, Venice. My favourite? Tranio’s sailmaker father is from Bergamo. It looked like a reaction to the vivid, beer stained, palette of last year’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Music, when it sounded, was a necessary relief and was, I think, under-played.

 

If it’s desolate at its close, this ‘Shrew’ still has its several entertaining scenes. Send for Biondello, bag carrier and fixer, and Callum Pope will have you smiling in a moment as he sorts out another fine mess. Thomas Noble’s beard and size give Hortensio unmissable stature and disguised (not!) as music teacher Licio he’s a nimble, comic treat. Will Peppercorn is the smitten Lucentio and also looks a prize chump as the elongated Cambio. Sally Macalister’s Grumio may give a knockabout performance but it’s well turned and always engaging. When Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller eventually turns up as Vincentio, humour gains a suave, ironic, dimension. Standout and habitual tailoring from Milan or DC? Tranio (Levi Mattey) is another more than capable servant-as-master and dear ‘old’ Gremio (Henry Coldstream) has the delightful, crestfallen, tribute to the ‘Great British Bake Off’, ‘My cake is dough’.

 

So, to risk the extended analogy, what does rise to the occasion?  There is no showstopper here; tonally, politically, the play is now a nightmare, and (therefore?) the technical challenge of how to sort its language is significant. ‘Coney catcher’, anyone? There is, notwithstanding, an appalling build to the fact that Katherine has had to marry a brute. Her father, Baptista (Michael Zwiauer), has no conscience. Petruchio is not, in this production, the roistering six-pack article. Michael Hajiantonis plays him straight, out for what he can get. He’s clever and vicious and unlovable, punto e basta! The command to ‘Kiss me, Kate,’ is no tender joke. Katherine is unnerved to destruction and Anna Swinton has that closing, stupefying, monologue to prove it.

 

For my part, I miss Christopher Sly, Madam wife at his side, and with him the opportunity to pretend that ‘The Shrew’ is a piece to enjoy and applaud while the sorry world slips by. All credit then to Tilly Botsford and an excellent cast for going at the real thing, at pace and with conviction.

 

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 13 March)

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Freeman (Pleasance Courtyard: 1-27 Aug: 17:00: 60 mins)

“Brutal, fascinating, and extremely impressive.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

Freeman is stuffed with brilliant ideas; it fires on all cylinders, incorporating hypnotic physical choreography with breathtaking performances and devastating portrayals of harrowing true stories. The performers of Strictly Arts Theatre Company produce deeply affecting characterisations and movements, breathing life into Camilla Whitehall’s tapestry of compelling episodes from history that truly deserve a closer look from today’s civilisation. The final result, as directed by Danièle Sanderson, is brutal, fascinating, and extremely impressive, though its most affecting methods are so raucously intense, the outcome is more chilling than perhaps was intended.

The narrative is principally anchored in the mid-nineteenth century story of William Freeman, a New York man treated in horrifically unjust way by the ‘justice’ system he moved in, and whose story intertwines with both the histories of institutional racial prejudice and the varied legal interpretations of mental conditions. Through this story and five similarly gripping tales, this production raises a profound and chilling question: How do we shape narratives when we bring up mental health? When has it helped? When has it made things worse?

Strictly Arts has adopted a fascinating approach to exploring these themes: after a lengthy yet graceful physical sequence set to trance-like music, the show opens in a setting recalling purgatory. Six souls regard each other in confusion, yet seem to understand they need to ‘tell their story’ so that they can all move on to whatever lies beyond. And so each illustrates their tale, as the other company members provide gorgeously crafted support to each respective retelling. They contort and combine their bodies in various shapes and figures to augment the narratives, which are both impressive and thrillingly creative each time they appear. Their recreations of a horse for William Freeman to ride, and a car during the dramatisation of Sandra Bland’s arrest are particularly riveting — and yes, Sandra Bland’s story is in this show. The stories stretch as far as 1840s Scotland, 2015 Texas, 1949 Leeds, and 2016 London, which combine for a bone-chillingly convincing assertion: when it comes to racial injustice and the horrific unfairness that non-white individuals have to face — particularly when it comes to appreciating their mental health — “nothing has changed.”

Perhaps the greatest aspect of Freeman’s 60 minutes, however, is the as-yet unparalleled talent of this acting ensemble. They are a genuinely captivating bunch, and credit must go to both Sanderson and Strictly Arts Artistic Director Corey Campbell for instilling this cast with a monumental cohesion onstage. Campbell himself brings William Freeman to life in an unforgettable performance, and he is not let down in the slightest by the surrounding cast members. In particular, Marcel White as Nigerian immigrant David Oluwale and Kimisha Lewis as Bland provide breathtaking characterisations. White delivers a compelling and heartbreaking turn as he charts Oluwale’s descent from optimism and ambition into desperation and bewilderment, made all the more tragic as the darkness of his story directly follows a sudden and joyous dance interlude set to Little Richard. Lewis’ portrayal of Bland’s doomed encounter with a fascist Texas police officer is played as a truly horrifying sequence where the remaining cast evoke the terror and pain of the thousands of Black individuals mistreated by law enforcement — this is without a doubt the most heart-wrenching moment I have experienced at the 2018 Fringe Festival. 

Yet the immense impact of this sequence and moments like it result in disorientation from scene to scene. While the show seems frenetic to the point of being intentionally jarring to experience, this becomes at times unfortunately inconclusive, and certain twists and wrenches of the narrative evoke hopelessness and confusion perhaps more than they ought to. The dance sequence that introduces Oluwale’s segment, for example, is so rich that the brutal physical violence that follows it feels garish, and somewhat cheaply vicious. Of course, these are true stories that evoke genuine anguish, so this is less a criticism of the narrative than a comment on the chilling effect on the viewer — Freeman includes lighter moments where we are given a moment to catch our breath, but in an odd and perhaps slightly misjudged order, such as early in the production, when the story of Daniel M’naghten is interrupted for some cacophonous silliness. 

Understanding those oddities of the production, this is nevertheless a fabulous piece of theatre, with unique points to make. M’naghten’s scene, in fact, contains a profoundly venerable commentary, delivered beautifully by Campbell as Freeman himself. M’naghten, played commendably by Pip Barclay, was a Scottish white man and the first person defended in court by the insanity defence; when it is his turn to tell his story, he refuses to take the exercise seriously, and decides to play around instead, until Freeman explains that while he can mess around and not care about these stories of racial disharmony, as they did not affect him, the rest of the characters, all black, are required to listen to white stories like his in order to be given a platform to tell theirs. It is a graceful, nuanced moment for which Sanderson, Campbell, and the entire company deserve immense credit for crafting so beautifully. 

Keiren Amos and Aimee Powell also deliver layered, compelling turns, as tragically-fated Michael Bailey and uncomfortably recently deceased Sarah Reed, respectively, both of whom were treated incompetently by the British justice system due to their mental health conditions. Their chapters are more factual than artistic, mostly, yet they are valuable additions to the narrative, and both Amos and Powell deserve credit for their resonantly realistic performances. 

This show is deeply important, strangely complex, and disorienting at times. But it is a vibrant and graceful hour, with a commendable amount of nuance, structure, and deep intelligence. This deserves its standout status at this year’s Fringe, and I would highly recommend it, possibly above all others, as the show not to miss, despite the thousand-yard-stare you will most likely be left with. Bravo to Strictly Arts.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

The Half (Pleasance Courtyard: 1-26 Aug: 14:00: 60 mins)

“A superbly well-acted, intelligently measured two-hander.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

This new play from Danielle Ward is a bleak yet richly rewarding hour; it picks many scabs and asks many fascinating questions of audiences — not only audiences of this show in particular, but audiences of comedy acts in general. Anna Crilly and Margaret Cabourn-Smith make up the onstage presence, as former members of a popular comedy double act, Anderson and West, a duo that achieved some success until their goals became too distanced from each others’. Over the course of this frequently hilarious hour, Ward explores how such formerly good friends and fruitful collaborators could fall so far out of amicability, and has some damning implications for the demands of show business itself. 

West (Crilly) opens the show as she prepares for a live charity event in which is she is to be forcibly reunited with her former comedy partner Anderson (Cabourn-Smith). The two have not spoken in ten years, for specific, shocking reasons that Ward wisely conceals until the play’s remarkable concluding moments. Crilly is grounded and sympathetic as the ostensibly weaker, more shameful West, opposite Cabourn-Smith’s dissimilar Anderson, whose comedy career has been skyrocketing for years. As they meet again, pleasantries are quickly swiped aside in favor of vicious indictments of each other’s characters — made all the more incisive by their cool, collected deliveries and artfully verbose wordings. Anderson in particular is given some excellent lines and jabs that she capably stabs in West’s direction, from mocking her brief career as a vacuum-cleaner spokeswoman to bemusedly grimacing past the failed comedian’s explanation of her lamentable new interest in podcasting.

Beyond the lines, The Half features some laudable aesthetic and technical choices, such as frequent flashbacks that prove affecting both in form and content. These flashbacks, which ultimately retell the story of how the two comedians met, are carefully crafted, so that both actresses effectively sound and appear younger and conspicuously less world-weary, which is achieved with great success. Cabourn-Smith in particular changes her characterisation with commendable grace; to be fair, for reasons that might spoil the show’s excellent ending, it is understandable why Crilly leaves more of West’s characteristics constant through the time-jumping progression. Formally, there is a similarly intelligent choice made in how the flashbacks occur: the ‘modern day’ story, of the two women awaiting this reunion show in a dressing room, is intermittently frozen by a recollection of an old memory, and each time, Anderson moves downstage right and waits for West to dutifully fetch the costumes and props necessary to perform the recollection in question. Crilly’s expressions are excellently measured for these moments, as she imbues West with both a morbid interest in reliving what happened all those years ago, and a marked agony in having to accept that she was destined to be the underachiever between them. 

Yet, to its credit, The Half makes the viewer question whether terms like ‘underachiever’ or ‘success’ in show business ought to mean at all. There are excellent ruminations on resistance, resilience, dignity, and concession in the arts, particularly for female artists, which build with growing intensity for a conclusion that is on par with the most dramatic offerings this Fringe has to offer. Accompanied by a haunting repeated musical cue, the ultimate climax and denouement of The Half are horrifyingly effective, almost to a fault, for the downward spiral is so all-encompassing that all the admittedly razor-sharp comedy of the previous minutes feels unwelcome in one’s memory — such is the effect of the chosen ending for Ward’s narrative.

Overall, however, though the tone leaves the viewer on some possibly too-sudden misery, the ride as a whole is well worth the high drama; this is a superbly well-acted, intelligently measured two-hander that deserves a wide audience.

 

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

Ladykiller (Pleasance Courtyard: 3-27 Aug: 13:00: 60 mins)

“Evokes the absolute best of bloodthirsty entertainment.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Why is it the darkest thoughts so often provide the funniest gags? From legendary one-liners (“I’m having an old friend for dinner”) to literary works (calling J. Swift) to entire theatrical movements (the Grand Guignol made this their bread and butter for over 60 years), the most twisted material has consistently charmed audiences throughout centuries of culture. Writer Madeline Gould, making her Fringe debut with one-woman show Ladykiller, appears to fully understand how fruitfully funny and fascinating the macabre can be, and has created a delightful exploration of a particularly bloodthirsty protagonist, played with captivating energy by Northern Irish actress Hannah MacClean. Director Madeleine Moore provides deft, minimalist direction, which provides some splendidly gripping moments and risible humour for the most part — with a slight tightening of the meanderings of the show, Gould’s piece could be a serious golden goose in the Gripping Female Monologues canon.

Ladykiller veers from the dramatic to the iconoclastic to the squeamishly depraved with breakneck speed, which results in both well-timed tone shifts and some narrative whiplash. The piece opens with a body on the floor — as so many excellent things do — and a wide-eyed hotel maid covered in a remarkable amount of viscera and trembling with disbelief and regret. She delivers a heartfelt, hopeless, victimised plea to the darkened audience, and perhaps to a higher judgement, insisting that she would never commit such a heinous act without provocation, and proceeds to desperately lay out how exactly she wound up holding the knife and the deceased wound up deceased. This opener soon slides towards the melodramatic, which ultimately serves Gould’s approach excellently, for MacClean cathartically reels it all back in to explain why we’re really sitting through an hour of this blood-splattered protagonist. For the maid is not at all as she appears, much less a gain-based killer, (simply killing to protect herself), but rather one of the myriad more complex and captivating types of murderer. Over the course of Ladykiller, the maid not only lays out her favourite and most revered killers and killer types, but explains various methods and methodologies in great, gruesome detail. 

In truth, though Ladykiller is frequently very funny — mainly owing to MacClean’s masterful grip on comic timing and goading of the audience — though its subject matter gets possibly too worshipful of the ‘art’ of murder to leave a nice taste. This ought not to be at the front of anyone’s mind going to see a show with quite such a blood-soaked poster, but the casual references to legendary serial killers and their unthinkable deeds start to drift from explanation to hagiography, yet without enough consistency to hold together quite right. The history lesson segments of the piece are at once both too brief to leave a firm impact (unless you too have memorised the gamut of notorious murderers so well you can recall their significance instantaneously) and too long-winded to convince a newcomer to jump aboard the murderer hype train. 

Of course, to a certain extent, the intricacies of murder psychology are reliably fascinating, and Gould has done well to document them so extensively; perhaps some more character work on the maid and her preferences within murder scholarship would make the piece seem less like a TED talk at times. That being said, MacClean is an enthralling presence onstage, with a fabulously personable way of engaging with words and tone. The way the words “students,” or “intellectual masturbation,” or “femininity” slither out of her grinning teeth evokes the absolute best of bloodthirsty entertainment, and rest assured, no matter the subject matter, MacClean’s delivery keeps the audience in good hands the whole way through.

The notion of femininity and its relation to all this is a fascinating undercurrent in Ladykiller, and Gould has included some excellent meditations on how the gender of the killer (or killed) affects understandings of power, victimhood, and responsibility. There are excellent points made concerning why female killers are automatically considered less crafty or intentional than male ones, and even whether these assumptions ultimately enable female murderers more than anything. These questions are excellent fodder for further consideration, and though Ladykiller has its uneven elements, if you are looking for some violent delights delivered by a knockout leading woman, look no further. 

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 6 August)

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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.

 

nae bad_blue

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

 

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 28 March)

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Romeo and Juliet (Pleasance: 6 -10 March ’18)

Eliza Lawrence as Juliet and Douglas Clark as Romeo.
Photo: EUSC.

“A very appealing production “

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Outstanding

 

Can Romeo and Juliet be refreshing? Deffo.

For a start, as with Heineken, there’s the beer. Verona’s birra is Mastro Matto’s; in 1594 quite possibly a thriving business for either the house of Montague or of Capulet. Beer is liberally served in this production. The Prologue opens Act 2 truly blattered, heels in hand. The invitation to the Capulet party is ‘Pray come and crush a cup of wine’ [… or bottle of lager].

Downstage right and centre there’s a café. Mercutio and Benvolio are often in there, sitting down with a beer and talking lewd. You can forget how this high romantic tragedy starts way down low and mucky with the bawdy Sampson thrusting women –  ‘being the weaker vessels’ –  to the wall. However, no chance of that in this production: the Prince and the Friar are women, the Nurse is on man-topping form and Juliet is a very self-possessed #MeToo 16 year old.

Romeo sits ‘off’, to the side of the platform stage, appalled yet entertained, as Mercutio summons Rosaline’s ‘scarlet lip’ and ‘quivering thigh’. He’s then up on the platform, facing forward, for the balcony scene with Juliet behind him at the front of the main stage. It’s a terrific, captivating effect, each speaking to the other but straight at the audience as well. A window on wheels turns around to frame, alternatively, either the inside or the outside of Juliet’s room. This works well as an occasional framing device and is typical of Director Finlay McAfee’s ‘eye’ on his audience and how it will see and interpret the action.

What with body bags on a stark blue- grey set, Love looks ‘death-mark’d’ from the start, but this is not, I felt, a certainty. There is more immediacy and irresolution in the course of this production than in many, which is always appealing in a play whose awful end is common knowledge. The fighting –  tricky when Health & Safety shrinks rapier to titchy (plastic?) dagger – relies on fist, boot, and head bashing which looked sufficiently dangerous to make you realise how fatal accidents are so often juvenile and hot-headed. Mind you, Romeo’s dispatch of Tybalt is definitely murder.

Michael Black as Benvolio with Douglas Clark, Romeo.
Photo: EUSC.

Eliza Lawrence is Juliet and does indeed ‘teach the torches to burn bright’. (Probably not accidental then that Mercutio and Romeo play around with an LED lenser.) This Juliet may be sweet but you can believe that her suicide is the result of an extraordinary love and not momentary despair. Douglas Clark plays  Romeo with the same verve and assurance that he brought to Alan in Equus three years ago. That does make his wrecked helplessness with the Friar at the news of his banishment close to unbelievable but this is still (another) outstanding performance. Kirsten Millar’s programme profile says she is ‘immensely excited’ to add another old lady to her ‘eclectic portfolio’ and you can only admire her cracking truthfulness! Esmée Cook is a Friar whose diction over the whole piece is admirably steady, which helps in a play that can pitch and yaw from one scene to the next. Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller’s Capulet has attractive style – his jacket and shoes combo do half the talking – until he slaps his Juliet right across the face. Bam! And Will Peppercorn as Mercutio poses the usual problem: once he’s dead what’s to do without all that wit and energy? The draining effect of rainfall upon Romeo’s sleeping-bag in Mantua is actually genius!

As well as the yoof n’beer, it was Romeo sitting on the bed tying up his trainers after his few hours with Juliet that confirmed it. This is a very appealing production of Romeo and Juliet. Its effects may appear natural but are the result of new thinking and creative rehearsal. The musical score by Madison Willing – electro brooding Michael Nyman strings with grim rumbles – does ‘Tragedy’ proud, whilst the casual modern dress even gives it something of West Side Story. The Capulet ball, simply yet ingeniously staged, could have been in the Pear Tree. Does it serve Mastro Matto’s L’Ultima?

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 7 March)

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