Cockpit (Lyceum: 6 – 28 October ’17)

Photo. Mihaela Bodlovic

“Director Wils Wilson goes all out to create predicament and danger”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Albert Camus’ La Peste was published in June 1947. The first Edinburgh International Festival was in August 1947. Bruno Walter conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in the closing concert and reckoned that “Here human relations have been renewed”. Bridget Boland’s Cockpit opened at the Playhouse, London, in February 1948 and mashed pestilence and optimism together. Now it’s back, thanks to David Greig, and fit for purpose: a raw and vehement history play, but without princes and kings.

London’s Cockpit theatre was on Drury Lane. It was probably another ‘Wooden O’, built around an actual cock pit. Boland’s play goes one better than Shakespeare’s Henry V, her ‘swelling [and vicious] scene’ holding not only ‘the vasty fields of France’ but the whole of Europe. Cockpit is actually set in a theatre. You get the immersive idea pretty quickly when you notice that the Lyceum has been commandeered by the ‘Allied Government’. It’s late 1945, it’s punishingly cold, and there’s still the reverberation of pulverising bombardment. We’re in the British Zone of Occupied Germany and a theatre is being used as an assembly centre for displaced persons (DPs), hundreds of them. They’re even huddled on the stage. Cast-off clothes are over the backs of the seats. There are ladders from boxes, screened by sacking, to the Stalls and – we’re told – German corpses in the boiler room. Transport is being arranged to take you home (whether you want to go back or not …).  You in the Dress Circle are going West. Those of you in the Stalls are going East. Jiri, on stage and silent, is from Lidice and has no home left. Willkommen im Umwelttheater!, as ingeniously constructed by designer Ana Inés Jabares-Pita.

It is a babel of Slavic voices and trouble. But surely a British officer can sort this lot out, provided he has a desk and reason on his side. Young Captain Ridley has been detached from his regiment because he has School Certificate German. He does have his service revolver. His sergeant, Sergeant Barnes, has no German, just loud Geordie and a Sten gun. Between them they put on a brave ‘show’ – in the choice Army sense of the word – but there’s a limit to how long they can just ‘Carry on’.

Conflict starts with ‘Who’s pinched my sauce pan?’ and very quickly turns serious, not least because the Poles hate the Jews ( – ouch!) and the Russians will kill the Poles and the Chetniks will kill anybody, especially socialist partisans. A French collaborator – but forced labour would qualify that – is certain that Marie, a Resistance fighter, will falsely denounce him. Add infectious disease and Capt. Ridley is in a desperate jam. There is some rallying round but a different kind of ‘show’ is needed to relieve the tension; after all, we’re in a playhouse. When it comes, two thirds through, we get an operatic cloth and a bravura performance from Sandra Kassman.

(L-R) Nebli Basani, Peter Hannah, Dylan Read (Bauer), Sandra Kassman (stairs), Kaisa Hammarlund (stairs) and Adam Tompa. Photo. Mihaela Bodlovic

This is Boland’s brilliant conceit. When the German stage manager, Bauer, says “You will need the theatre – afterwards”, you believe him. And when faced with the possibility that his theatre – probably one of the few buildings left standing in his flattened city – might be burnt down to halt contagion, the man is stricken with sadness. Bauer (Dylan Read), as comic denizen of his place, living in the flies, and true Propsmeister, is almost the only source of laughter in an otherwise sombre drama. Read also plays Duval, whose occasional spoken French, is so good that you appreciate the difficulties of staging a script that demands heavily accented English from several characters. Whatever ‘European’ means, this cast is it.

Director Wils Wilson goes all out to create predicament and danger. A chant is either angry or sorrowful and certainly incomprehensible (unless you’re Romanian). Rush and hurry can subordinate the personal stories. There is a stretch of choreographed movement for the whole company that would express the plight of the displaced anywhere, at any time. The excellent music by Aly Macrae is often discordant and broken, except for the quiet piano at the beginning of the second half. Capt. Ridley (sturdy by Peter Hannah) might be resolute, almost heroic, but it’s not enough. There is a passing mention of a major somewhere else but the chain of command appears well and truly absent, which will irritate Army types.

Cockpit is bold work, both then and now. It is theatrical but – more importantly – it’s humane. A Russian DP proclaims “20 million Russians died. It must not happen again”. That’s from the Stalls, going East. Primo Levi, after Auschwitz and going West, got it exactly right: ‘It happened, therefore it can happen again’.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 10 October)

Go to Cockpit at the Lyceum

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Columns (theSpace on the Mile: 14-26th Aug: 10.55: 60 mins)

“A really joyous production”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

If there were an award for theatre company I most want to be friends with, The Wax House (formed by Laura Day and Alexander Hartley) would win it hands-down. Their smiles, personalities and passion for what they do is infectious, and that’s what’s most resounding about this performance of new work Columns. It feels more like you’ve popped round to a mate’s house for fun story time than a converted hotel function room on the Royal Mile, and the atmosphere of the piece really does transport you to a happy place.

The story follows two main characters: Sophie (Day), a personal trainer with an estranged mother and rather volatile relationship with her father; and Joe (Hartley), a pot-plant enthusiast whose parents upped and disappeared without a word almost two years ago. At its heart is a theme of reconciliation and helping others come to terms with loss.

The mainstay of the story is Sophie’s quest to help Joe deal with his parents’ unexplained disappearance, and the questionable moral choices (such as impersonating his mother in a voicemail message) she makes along the way in so doing. It’s a simple and effective approach to create tension and drive the piece along, as we do follow her thought process and qualms at each step, though it’s a shame how easily it all turns out in the end: some of the journey and struggle is cut short, cheating the audience of a full feeling of satisfaction.

Indeed, what is rather frustrating about Columns overall is the number of loose ends and glossings over of facts that are rather central to the story: proof of a certain phone call, and Sophie’s motivation to undertake her first piece of exploration being key examples. Yet what is there is performed with such warmth and vivre that these flaws are almost forgotten by the end.

The company make clever use of carboard boxes as their set and props throughout, each painted with different patterns and images on each side, and which are then variously arranged to create different scenes. This action adds to the playful, happy nature of the piece, as do the audio interludes accompanying each scene change, seemingly capturing unplanned snippets of Day and Hartley in discussion about the show.

The performance I saw was a relaxed one, adapted specifically to suit those who find the traditional theatre environment too formal to sit still and quiet in for an hour. Day and Hartley certainly make the space welcoming and friendly one to be in, encouraging us all to be ourselves and respond however we felt comfortable to. I’d never been to a relaxed performance before, but would absolutely recommend it for those who might face barriers to access theatre normally.

Overall this is a really joyous production, but needs more work on the script and details of the story to take it to the next level.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 24 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Fragile Man (theSpace on the Mile: 10-26th Aug: 11.50: 50mins)

“The structure and story are a stroke of genius”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Suicide is a topic that’s difficult to talk about on all fronts. It is the biggest killer of men in the UK under the age of 50, and this alarming trend doesn’t appear to be fading away any time soon. It’s refreshing, then, that some shows at the Fringe this year approach the issue in a sensitive, accessible way, and Fragile Man is one of them.

Set on a remote hilltop at dusk we meet two men, one apparently on the verge of committing suicide and one who steps in just in time to save him. It seems like a fairly predictable set-up, yet what unfolds is an attempt at reconciling a frank discussion into the hard-hitting issue of male suicide with a thrilling dramatic play. The two sound like they shouldn’t work together, but they almost do. Almost.

While several elements of David Martin’s script are quite clunky and cliched, the overall structure and story Fragile Man follows are a stroke of genius, cleverly peeling away at the layers of the two characters to reveal a gripping and thought-provoking heart. Only in the last few minutes does it all “click” into place, and with some polishing in the sticky areas, the writing could be the basis of a really intelligent piece of theatre.

As an emotive and challenging two-man show, with a hefty amount of multi-roling, it’s a big ask from actors David Martin and Richard Miltiadis to sustain the tension for a whole hour. They make a commendable effort and absolutely give it their all, but at times both seem a bit out of their depth with the magnitude of the piece, often resorting to overly emotional responses and exchanges, when at times a more withdrawn and subtle approach would help create more contrast and power. Though for new company performing a debut piece, I should perhaps cut a little slack.

When it comes to Jacqs Graham’s direction, the physical nature and more stylised elements of the performance, while creative, sometimes feel disingenuous, not aided by the quite choppy scenes and dominating set the actors variously crawl in and out of during the transitions. For me, a simpler approach to both the direction and design would be more effective to maintain a consistent and honest feel throughout. In saying that, some of the cutaways from the main story – including the confession scene and direct address in the lecture – do work very well, flowing seamlessly and maintaining the integrity of the set-up, and it’s a shame the whole piece isn’t performed at this level.

This is an important and interesting play, which, if not quite worth shouting about, should, like the subject it addresses, at least be talked about far and wide.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 22 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

For The Love of Cousins (Various: 13 May-24 June ’17)

Jack Elliot, Taylar Donaldson and Christie Russell Brown

“A very commendable effort”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Funerals are often melting pots where far-flung family members are reunited for the first time since the last significant event, and in For The Love of Cousins, we see seven semi-friendly cousins meet just before the funeral of their mutual and much-loved grandmother. They are a mixed-bag of characters, with different stories and relationships with each other, and as the piece unravels, we learn more about each one – their secrets, their prejudices, and vulnerabilities.

While there is no compelling narrative overall, where Blazing Hyena’s production really succeeds is in the overall feel of the piece and the clear sense of family the company really creates – the use of repetitive jokes, the ganging up and snipping at each other all feel very genuine. Truths come out and perspectives change over the course of the action, all of which are presented humanely and sensitively.

For a play that centres around family members about to attend a funeral, it is packed full with jokes, and while the cast weren’t afraid to go for the laughs, sometimes the focus on the comedy aspect detracts from the realness of the situation, which some cast members are more guilty of than others. For me it is Jack Elliot as David, Rosie Milne as Dayna and Gillian Goupillot as Ronnie who are most impressive in maintaining the integrity of their characters throughout (while still being funny) and deliver fine performances.

Jack Elliot’s script, while commendable in its weaving of different characters and perspectives, is structurally a little rough around the edges – comings and goings of each character could be have more significance, while the closely intertwined nature of the dialogue sometimes makes it difficult to follow specific streams of narrative and relationships. A few tweaks here and there could make it very special indeed.

Catherine Exposito’s direction capably keeps the action slick, with respect to the light and shade required to keep the piece engaging throughout. Sometimes the staging and specific actions seem rather forced (I lost count of how many times a tablecloth was unnecessarily rearranged as a time-filler), so I would have liked to see the company use more creative ways to explore the natural “low” moments in order to maintain authenticity.

Overall, it’s a very commendable effort from this young company – especially given the adaptability they have to perform in different venues each night as part of this, an extensive Scottish tour. Do try and catch it on one of their future dates if you can. Full details here.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 16 May)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Edinburgh Academy Musicians (Queen’s Hall: 28 April ’17)

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 “Almost three hours of glorious, live music, from the promising to the near professional”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Nae Bad

That the Edinburgh Academy hires the Queen’s Hall for their Summer Concert is not just a capacity issue but a fitting testimony to the quality of their music.   Yes, perhaps the venue shed a little magic dust over gifted performers, but in turn they rocked the joint in in an eclectic programme that ranged from Vivaldi to Katy Perry and kept us engaged all evening.

Parents, whether it is for amateur dramatics or any other of the performing arts, are a loyal, enthusiastic and forgiving lot, but there was no need for any suspension of the critical faculties or parental indulgence here.  The students acquitted themselves magnificently.  Every moment of the evening was a pleasure, none a duty.  Some of it passed for professional standard. As the evening progressed it became clear that many of those performing were talented musicians who just happened to be at school, not students who just happened to take the music option.

As I found my way to my seat I was accompanied by the merry chink of ice in glasses as stressed out, end of the week parents – and benign grandparents – found comfort and delight in the Queen’s Hall’s bar. I noted no less than eight acts and 18 works in the programme. It would be wrong to exclude any from commentary.

The orchestral pieces comprised the first part of the evening and ranged from a disciplined Junior Orchestra who concentrated hard and demonstrated good phrasing and tempo, with some really effective pizzicato in the Shrek Medley and some good underpinning by the violas and cellos. Lily Penman, in particular, deserving an honourable mention on the cello front desk, and – to no one’s surprise –  appearing latterly in the senior orchestra. The Ragtime rendition got a good swing rhythm going.

 

 

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Next up we heard the String Orchestra with Timothy Wong delivering an assured rendering of the Allegro from Haydn’s Violin Concerto in G major with good bowing and attack, followed by Hugh Cameron playing Vivaldi’s Concert Sonata No 5, who once in his stride showed great feeling and in the Allegro demonstrated an assured and well executed piece of playing. Confident violins led us into the beautiful melody of Allegro piacevole from Elgar’s Serenade for Orchestra Op 20, sensitively played with a good melodic line.

The Senior Orchestra then came on to tackle three early concerto pieces and an ensemble. First up was Ross Macnaughton playing the Allegro from the Bassoon Concerto in B flat Major by Mozart. Ross got great tone from this difficult instrument and made it look easy. It isn’t. He demonstrated an extraordinarily well executed cadenza including a couple of splendid Mozartian farts in the lower register. Great keywork and phrasing with terrific breathing. Matthew Black followed on with Mozart’s Andante in C K315 for flute. Matthew has a very clear, pure tone and the orchestra brought a real sheen to some of their playing and good pizzicato.   Jean-Claude Hubert’s clarinet brought a beautiful rich tone to the Weber Concertino, demonstrating real mastery of the keys in the Allegro. The orchestra were at their best in the concluding Pomp and Circumstance march no 1 in D by Elgar, causing one member of the audience to sing along and this writer and his companion to sway a little, Proms style.   Perhaps late nineteenth and early twentieth century music is best for developing orchestras, earlier compositions leaving things a little exposed.

 

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Following the interval it was Band time. The Junior Concert Band punched above their weight with a warm, expansive tone in Brian Balmages’s Rain. The Senior Concert Band kicked off with Copland’s Variation on a Shaker Melody, with a spot on trumpet opening, echoed by the clarinets in a thoughtful, competent and uplifting piece of playing. The rock solid rendition of the Star Wars theme provided a lively, brass driven contrast.

Now it was time for the Voice. The G2 Choir, so young in years, demonstrated an early grasp of the discipline of choral singing: immaculately presented, eyes on the conductor, no music, and purity of youthful sound making up for any relative loss of volume. Big shout out for the soloists as well, and a good sense of rhythm in both Wade in the Water and Electricity (from Billy Elliott).

Sophie Penman and Kirsten Taylor gave a clear and assured performance of the Laudamus Te from Vivaldi’s Gloria, backed by a string quartet, playing standing as is often the Chamber style. Intriguing to hear this large-scale work played in miniature. It worked.

The Chamber Choir were a joy. The best was plainly being kept until last. Very clear diction, focus and precision with a good balance between soloists and ensemble was shown in Billy Joel’s The Longest Time. Eric Whiteacre’s Sleep, in pure musical terms, was the event of the evening: beautiful tone colours, effortless moving up and down the dynamic range, unforced, quietly confident with assured handling of the dissonance, this moving piece was not so much sung as painted. The choir concluded with a clever and sensitive arrangement of Katy Perry’s Chained to the Rhythm by their conductor/director Angus Tully, who actually stopped and restarted them when they temporarily lost their way in a difficult piece that they were singing without music. I have only seen this done once before and that was by Nigel Kennedy! Nobody minded. It was great to get this unofficial encore.

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If musically the Chamber Choir was the act of the evening, the Big Band topped the bill for sheer entertainment value. Masses of noise in Starsky and Hutch, huge musical laughs in the Pink Panther, with the finale of Quincy Jones’s Soul Bossa Nova No 2 bringing the house down. Terrific solos on Sax by Jean-Claude Hubert and Freya Scott, drums by Niclas Coli, Daniel Jourdan on vibes and others, I am afraid, too numerous to mention. A very talented bunch.

 

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So there we have it, not so much a concert but a festival of almost three hours of glorious, live music, from the promising to the near professional. Philip Coad and his team played a blinder and the musicians themselves should be proud. In an age where the teaching of music is in danger in many schools, the Edinburgh Academy provides a beacon to how it should be done. “Grounded in Scotland, ready for the world” was emblazoned on the school van as I walked back down the alleyway from the rear entrance to the Hall. Yes indeed, the future of live music, whether in Scotland or even perhaps the world, is safe in the hands of those gifted young people we heard tonight.

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 28 April)

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RSNO. Sondergard, Williams: Beethoven, Mahler, Sibelius (Usher Hall: 21 April ’17)

Image result for Sibelius pictures

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

“Their playing of Sibelius’s Finlandia was one of the best, if not the best, I have ever heard, live or recorded. “

Editorial Rating: : 4 Stars: Nae Bad

One of the excitements of live music is that you never know quite how it is going to turn out on the night. You think you’ve got it at rehearsal, but performance is something different. Only a very few orchestras turn out a consistently really high standard, time after time.

After two years in Edinburgh I am becoming increasingly impressed by the quality of the local bands, and Friday’s concert contained some excellent playing in a well chosen, thoughtful programme that while relatively well supported was deserving of a larger audience. Clearly the Florida sun has sown benefits. It was a very good concert indeed.

The RSNO’s opening numbers are sometimes a little shaky before they get into their stride. Not so tonight. Their playing of Sibelius’s Finlandia was one of the best, if not the best, I have ever heard, live or recorded. The opening chords of the brass were well rounded and melodic whilst still conveying the angst of the Russian threat to the mother country in this highly nationalistic piece. Not a trace of blaring or vulgarity. The mournful strings provided a similarly well-rounded tone in what was a very well executed opening number, convincing and moving. Applause was loud and long. Deservedly.

It was a very interesting choice to follow with Mahler’s Der Knaben Wunderhorn, a less austere work than Kindertotenlieder, or, for example, Das Klagende Liede.   Five songs were selected from the original 24 settings, covering nature, folklore and soldiers’ tales. Baritone Roderick Williams gave a well-executed performance in which the orchestra again shone, but perhaps a little too brightly. There were issues of balance between soloist and orchestra and one would have preferred the soloist not to have referred to his music.   This notwithstanding, the intriguingly named “St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fish” was sung and played beautifully, and was well balanced. Also, “Where the Fair Trumpets Sound” was the star of the set with gentle orchestral backing, melodic singing.

After the interval it was back to Sibelius and The Oceanides. I confess I had not heard this 11 minute miniature before and I loved it. It started with a most unusual but effective piece of string writing that reminded me of sea mists and tides, to be followed by the increasingly effective flute section before building to something stronger involving the whole orchestra evoking the ocean’s sheer vastness and permanence. Commissioned and first performed in America, one critic described the new work (1914) as “the finest evocation of the sea which has ever been produced in music”. Well, there is plenty of competition for that, not least Debussy’s La Mer, but it certainly stands the comparison.

Our evening was brought to a close by Beethoven’s Symphony No 1 in C Major. Critics have often categorised his first two symphonies as Mozartian, with the composer coming of age with the Eroica. I am not so sure. The first few bars’ shifting harmonic sands alone, quite startling in early 19th century Vienna, point to something more revolutionary, and although there is a classical theme overall  – such as can be found in both Mozart and Haydn –  as Tovey said, the symphony has “more of the 19th century Beethoven in its depths than he allows to appear on the surface.” This contention was certainly supported by Thomas Sondergard’s interpretation, which was mature and grounded in what was a hugely enjoyable performance by an orchestra that was clearly loving what it was doing. So did we.

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 21 April )

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A Number (Lyceum: 6 – 15 April ’17)

(L-R) Peter Forbes and Brian Ferguson
Photo: Aly Wight

“If a play can have a cell line, this is it”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Presented in partnership with the Edinburgh Science Festival

Caryl Churchill’s A Number is 15 years old. It’s still Sci-Fi though, as opposed to science history. Yes, Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned mammal born on 5 July 1996, is now referenced as Exhibit Z.2003.40 in the National Museum, but there’s still no comparable human ‘display’. And if ‘it’ does appear – when it appears? – it might well provoke some distress amongst its close relations. So, there’s the scenario.

Bernard 2 (35) finds out that he is one of an unknown number of cloned Bernards. He’s not at all happy about it and his father doesn’t help by saying that he doesn’t know how many ‘things’ are out there either. Dad, for painful reasons, thought he’d signed off for one, not a whole batch. At which point you might idly recall Miller’s All My Sons or, better, Huxley’s Brave New World and the Bokanovsky Process that could, on average, produce 72 embryos from a single egg. However, Dad hasn’t read the book. No chance. Dad is far less interested in informed consent than in what an able lawyer can do for him, for them even, and he has a point …

A Number opened at the Royal Court Theatre in London on 23 September 2002. The public inquiry into unauthorised organ retention at Bristol Royal Infirmary and at Alder Hey hospital, Liverpool, had delivered its final report in January 2001. By early 2003 families of the victims at Alder Hey accepted an out-of-court settlement of £5 million. The Human Tissue Act (Scotland) followed in 2006.

If a play can have a cell line, this is it: 50 minutes of tightly sequenced work by two actors; five exacting scenes between father and son(s) played out within a small bare room beneath a naked bulb. It’s stark and clean, with wallpaper from the DNA Helix collection. There is no warm light until the appearance of the affable Bernard 3, aka Michael Black. Scenes divide suddenly as the ‘family’ multiplies.

As Balvennie in the James Plays Peter Forbes grabbed land and titles with all the appetite of a lesser man on the make. In A Number he’s the father, Salter, and he’s on the defensive in a sympathetic study of the ethically dispossessed. Brian Ferguson plays three differently consituted Bernards: searching, angry, and content. It’s a nimble and impressively disciplined act, even when toppling a chair across the stage.

Smartly directed by Zinnie Harris, this is a brisk and absorbing production of a play that always invites critical admiration. Churchill does not offer any way out of the cloning debate but she certainly moderates it. Next time that you shop for a Little Gem Lettuce you will – (!)cos of this play– examine it a tad more specifically, wondering not ‘How many?’ but ‘Is that me?’

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Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 8 April)

Go to A Number at the Lyceum

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