Dunedin Consort, Vivaldi’s ‘La Favorita’ (Queen’s Hall: 6 April ’18)

Dunedin Consort: Vivaldi’s La Favorita

“The very essence of live music making”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars: Outstanding

 

Was this going to be, if not too much of a good thing, well, just too esoteric? It was a risk, and, while the stalls were a little over half full and just a few concertgoers in the balcony, such attendance levels are not unusual at the Queen’s Hall for chamber music. With Vivaldi, take away The Four Seasons and the Gloria and what have you got? A series of mostly string concertos that all sound very similar.

 

That is the perception. Friday’s concert by Edinburgh’s own Dunedin Consort proved it wrong. A cleverly chosen selection of seven string concertos from a cache of 27 manuscript volumes of composition discovered in Northern Italy in the 1920s provided a glorious treat of baroque music that whilst not having the gravitas or structure of his German contemporary Bach was a rewarding example of the Italian Baroque, and in many ways gentler on the ear. If Bach is the master of counterpoint, then surely Vivaldi is the master of ritornello? The tutti passages are more rounded.

 

The programme was titled La Favorita and this writer’s wicked sense of humour wondered if it was sponsored by a smart Edinburgh pizza group with its blinding, wood-fired, Cinquecentos. Not so, the title would have referred to one of the star female pupils under Vivaldi’s tutelage at the Ospedale della Pietá in Venice for whom a number of these works were written, possibly the mysterious “Anna” about whom we know very little. The boys learned a trade and had to leave the orphanage when they reached the age of fifteen. The girls received a musical education, and the most talented among them stayed and became members of the Ospedale’s renowned orchestra and choir.

 

La Favorita was reincarnated in a sense in the concert by Music Director and Soloist Cecilia Bernardini, leader of the Consort, who backed by two violins, cello, bass and harpsichord led us though an assortment of musical treats that entertained from start to finish.

 

The band kicked off with “Il Corneto da Posta” (RV 363), a joyful, simple work with a highly effective interplay between soloist and cello (honourable mention to Andrew Skidmore throughout the evening) in the first movement. Each work followed the classic three movement construct that was Vivaldi’s late Baroque hallmark. The Concerto for Strings and Basso Continuo (RV156) did everything it said on the tin and was an excellent, satisfying example of the continuo genre. There followed two Violin Concertos (RVs 387 and 224) where the players brought real verve and commitment to the music that otherwise might have seemed repetitive. We were being treated to some seriously good playing by the ensemble as a whole.

 

Following the interval came three more works, the first, very much in the Venetian tradition, being played up above us in the balcony, with the exception, for logistical reasons, of the harpsichordist. Stephen Farr wittily told us that the music he was reading from his iPad was an early 18th century Venetian model. Well, I guess we were only a few days past April Fool’s day. The Violin Concerto “Il Riposo” (RV270a) was tranquil, calming, and beautiful. A further Concerto for Strings and Basso Continuo (RV 128) and Violin Concerto (RV283) and a charming pizzicato encore brought the evening to a close.

 

In trying to summarise what made this evening so special, when to many a collection of unknown minor works from a late Baroque Italian composer famous only for a couple of numbers might seem at best, obscure, I have concluded that there were two drivers. Intelligent programme selection, and – here I am again extolling the joys of live music – truly excellent, committed playing on the night. The very essence of live music making. Bravo!

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 6 April)

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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

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 15 March)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

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

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 7 March)

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Our Country’s Good (Bedlam: 26 February – 3 March)

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“Bold and disciplined”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars:  Outstanding

Lashings of intelligence here. That and the knowledge that ‘the shoulder blades are exposed at about 100 lashes’. There’s also sand on the stage floor, figuratively blood stained, but handy for gritty effect and for when you want to represent a play as ‘a diagram in the sand’, as proof of what could be and what might be changed for the better whatever the wretched circumstances.

And Lord knows that Australia has been there and done that. In literary terms it’s a swift line of descent: Robert Hughes’ ‘The Fatal Shore’ was published in 1986, Thomas Keneally’s ‘The Playmaker’ in 1987, and Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good opened at the Royal Court, London, in September 1988. Historically it took eight months for the convict transports to get from Portsmouth to Botany Bay, arriving in January 1788. The action in Wertenbaker’s play – by now surely reckoned to be a modern ‘classic’ – is spread over five to six months. It is Edinburgh University’s official English Literature play of the year and this student production does it proud.

Of course, ‘Advance Australia Fair’ it ain’t. Major Robbie Ross (Amelia Watson) sees to that. He bitterly resents being in such an alien and depraved place, orders floggings for impertinence, and fears that any sign of weakness – ie. kindness – will result in revolt. Arguably it’s the toughest role because he is so singularly awful and Watson has the scowl and the whiplash voice to do it. He is opposed by Governor Arthur Phillip (Matthew Sedman) whose far-seeing humanity guides the play beyond the horror of its opening to its near jubilant close. Wertenbaker indicated that her play end with the ‘triumphant music of Beethoven’s 5th’ but perhaps that was felt to be too much for Bedlam on a freezing evening in February.

What Phillip does do is to require the production of George Farquhar’s Recruiting Officer (1706), directed by theatre loving 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Jacob Baird). The fact that Clark only has two copies of the play and that some of his cast cannot read and that Ross regards him as a sorry excuse for a Marine makes it a tall order to carry out. Baird is well cast as officer class decent but his character is frustrated almost to breaking point, emotionally and sexually. The relief provided by The Recruiting Officer is palpable and is far better for him than pining at his fly buttons for his beloved Betsey Alicia back home.

So, here’s the pre-text of late Restoration comedy within a docudrama, with its 22 strong cast list of gentlemen heroes (2), wise man (1) and villain (1), and the rest (several) as good-for-nothing, not! Robert Sideway (brilliant by Domi Ucar), pick-pocket to the gentry, and glorious ac-tor is a scuttling hoot, establishing her melancholy and rehearsing her bow. He is being flogged on deck when the play begins so it is a defining moment when during the second rehearsal scene he completely upstages a brutal Ross. No such joy for Midshipman Harry Brewer (Gordon Stackhouse) tormented by guilt and by his jealous love for his ‘Duckling’ girl (Anna Swinton). Their time together is raw and explicit and (for young actors) pretty impressive. Tiffany Garnham convinces that her Liz Morden, violent, in chains and born to be hanged, can still be redeemed. Jack McConnell is John Arnscott, transported for life, and so pleased that he can ‘be’ someone else. Erica Belton, speaks wonderfully as Ketch, apprentice hangman, who wants to be an actor because he remembers some players coming to his village in Ireland where they were loved ‘like the angels’. Anna Phillips’ shy Mary Brenham owns a precious and appealing dignity from the start. Anubhav Chowdhury’s Caesar is from Madagascar and you have to wonder at the bad luck that got him into a British penal colony but his French accent and daft woes do provide easy laughs. Hannah Robinson manages to be both upper class twit Campbell and illiterate Dabby, bless her, who never gives up on getting back to the soft rain of Devon.

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Matthew Sedman as Wisehammer and Anna Phillips as Mary, behind. Photo: Louis Caro.

Two characters remain: Wisehammer (Matthew Sedman again) and the Narrator, the Aboriginal Australian. Both command attention but Sedman is outstanding. In this production the Narrator (Sophie Boyle) plays a signature phrase on the violin and her few linked lines are a reminder of the tragic consequences for her people that followed this European ‘entertainment’. Wisehammer, as you can guess, is something else: almost a gentle philosopher, certainly a writer, and Sedman’s careful Northern delivery nail the words, especially his simple Prologue that gives the play its title and it is intoned twice for effect. The fact that Ralph Clark reckons it would give Major Ross apoplexy is a quality judgement.

Our Country’s Good is serious drama and directors Luke Morley and Jane Prinsley take it seriously. This production is bold and disciplined, barely cut – if at all – and its actors work a demanding script with real attention. Yes, there’s some yelling – you would too if you’re being whipped – and it drowned Wisehammer’s astonishing, ghastly opening description of men and women ‘spewed from their country’. Naval uniform is in short supply and despite its appeal the thrust stage doesn’t work, but the actors being constantly visible, on or ‘off, does; and the onstage set design by Natasha Wood and Bryn Jones of a short mast, sail cloth and crossed spars is all that is needed.

I’m with Governor Phillip’s: ‘We will laugh, we may be moved, we may even think a little’. There’s a conviction worth upholding.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 26 February)

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RSNO: Steffens. Ionita (Usher Hall: 9 Feb.’18)

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Karl-Heinz Steffens

“This was as close to perfection as live performance gets”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

 

With Valentine’s Day approaching the RSNO presented a programme on Friday of overtly romantic music: Schumann, Elgar, and, yes, Britten. They were under the baton of Karl-Heinz Steffens, a conductor of a rising reputation throughout his native Germany and also Scandinavia, who proved himself more than worthy of the occasion.

This was a concert of two halves, the first entirely adequate, the second quite exceptional.

In the first piece, Britten’s An American Overture, the band was let down by the relatively poor quality of the music. Not a criticism I would usually level at this composer, but Britten did himself deny all memory or knowledge of the piece when it was discovered in 1972 (it was composed in 1941 as a commission) and had to be shown the manuscript in his own handwriting to prove its provenance. It remained unperformed for a further 11 years. With shades of Copland and even Bernstein, there were flashes of interest in an otherwise fairly monochrome piece. The orchestra played it well, including some very exposed parts early on and while grateful for my knowledge of the repertoire being expanded through the experience, I have no particular wish to hear it again.

Next up the  – Oh, so romantic! –  Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor. RSNO Artist In Residence Jan Vogler was ill (Boy, has this been a season for withdrawals in Edinburgh!) and BBC New Generation Artist and 2015 International Tchaikovsky prizewinner Andre Ionita gamely took his place. The quality of the performance grew as the piece developed, one wondering if Ionita was playing con sordino as the sound coming forth initially lacked the necessary volume, and orchestra and soloist seemed a little out of synch, hardly surprising given the last minute replacement. Nonetheless in the second movement Langsam Ionita’s playing matched the music better, and in the final movement he brought out the necessary volume. His pizzicato encore left no one in any doubt as to his technique.

And now to the piece that everybody, I guess, had come to hear: Elgar’s Symphony No 1 in A flat major. If ever a case could be made for discipline in art, this was it. It would have been so easy to produce a piece of crowd pleasing schmaltz, but the words that come to my mind when analysing Steffens’s fine conducting and the orchestra’s magnificent playing are control, timing, tautness, controlled expression. Steffens showed himself to be a master of tempi, holding back and letting forth the players time and time again, including the final build-up in the brass where no one put a foot wrong. The flutes (I had seen Principal Flute Katharine Bryan chatting relaxedly in the hospitality suite only minutes earlier) kicked off the famous nobilmente with complete aplomb. I heard the cor anglais part clearly for the first time ever, and we were wafted away by the joyous playing of two harps in the final movement. This was as close to perfection as live performance gets. For that magical fifty minutes the RSNO were a world class orchestra. Bravo!

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 9 February)

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RSNO: Gomez, Sunwoo (Usher Hall:10 Nov.’17)

Yekwon Sunwoo
Photo: Philadelphia Chamber Music Society

“Sunwoo’s opening was utterly assured in its relaxed confidence, disposing of the keys with easy liquidity so that we were leaning forward in our seats to capture every nuance of interpretation”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars Outstanding

 

I have written before of the RSNO’s skill in concert programming, often successfully juxtaposing contrasting yet somehow complementary works. Friday’s concert was to be a full blown Romantic affair in the Russian 20th century genre starting with the exquisite and rarely performed Vocalise, but, alas, illness, so common in the concert world at this time of the year, forced a programme and artist change. No Vocalise. Instead, we got Zulu, by British composer Daniel Kidane (b.1986). Quite a change.

 

Yet after the initial upset there was no room for disappointment. Jose Luis Gomez stood in for the indisposed Christian Macelaru at the last minute and arrived from America with a score of the symphony in his pocket. “Who doesn’t travel with Shostakovich 12?” His credentials were impressive, Assistant to Paavo Jarvi at the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and in 2010 winner of First Prize in the Solti Conducting Competition. Currently he is Music Director of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra.

 

Prize winning credentials were also the order of the day for piano soloist Yekwon Sunwoo, prizewinner at the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and the programme change from Rach 2 to Rach 3 was in fact a welcome change from the much played second concerto to its slightly less well known, but in every other way equal sibling.

 

So on to the playing. Zulu was five minutes of noise. Enthusiastic brass playing, well orchestrated, good rhythm and momentum. Composer Daniel Kidane has studied at the Royal Northern, Royal College and privately at St Petersburg. The work was chosen from his participation in the RSNOs Composers’ Hub. It was a conceptual stretch to include it in the programme, but it made for a lively opening.

 

Next up was Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor. I have seldom heard this work played so well, certainly not in the hands of a 21 year old. Sunwoo’s opening was utterly assured in its relaxed confidence, disposing of the keys with easy liquidity so that we were leaning forward in our seats to capture every nuance of interpretation. As the first movement Allegro ma non tanto developed so did Sunwoo’s attack, holding nothing back yet stopping way short of pastiche. You do not have to wear Rachmaninov on your sleeve to get the best out of of it. The RSNO accompanied him with playing that was glorious in its phrasing and intensity. The work has long solo and barely accompanied passages, not exactly cadenzas, but close. Time and again Sunwoo nursed and coaxed freshness of interpretation from this well known, much loved piece. Notwithstanding 45 minutes of bravura playing we were treated to an encore. The quiet and restful interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Autumn Song from the Seasons lasted a full five minutes bringing the dramatic first half of the evening to a relaxing, introspective close. If you don’t know it, find it here on You Tube.

 

The second part of the evening was an assured, storming interpretation of Shostakovich’s 12th Symphony The Year 1917. Written in 1961 when Shostakovich was still not out of the political woods it is obviously a political work but without taking anything away from its inherent musicality. “Revolutionary Petrograd” started with typically haunting, bleak cellos and basses suggesting barren topographical (and political) landscapes full of desolation and foreboding before being joined by the upper strings in a more purposeful and positive timbre. Played continuously for 40 minutes the demanding work gave the whole orchestra, from expertly played woodwind soloists to stunning percussion, the opportunity to give the best possible account of themselves, which they did. The work built up though tableaux such as “Razliv” (Lenin’s revolutionary headquarters), “Aurora” (the battleship that fired the opening shots of the Bolshevik coup) and, finally the optimistically named “Dawn of Humanity” which was at least in musical terms a summation of all the themes that had gone before, and gave the orchestra the opportunity to demonstrate fluent, assured playing that whilst on occasions very loud, was never forced.

 

I have often said that one of the reasons live music is so exciting is the risk of failure. Here we had a last minute change of two out of the three pieces in the programme and a conductor no one had met or played under before the previous day. The result? Perhaps the most exciting and enjoyable concert I have been to this year. The RSNO continues to improve and impress

 

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 10 November)

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Jury Play (Traverse: 3-7 October ’17)

“The fourth wall isn’t so much broken as shattered”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Sometimes the power and excitement of a show begin long before you take your seat, and remain with you for several days after. For Jury Play, a detailed email briefing is circulated in advance of the performance/court appearance, creating intrigue into what the evening will entail: it’s worth saying at this point that this is in no way like your standard trip to the theatre. The excitement only builds as you go through “security”, enter the (optional) ballot to become a jury member, and start to leaf through your court information pack while taking in Emily James’s impressive and sizeable courtroom set.

Yet what, on the surface, appears to be conceived as an interactive courtroom drama, where the prosecution and defence present facts about a given crime and a resolution is reached by the audience/jury, what Jury Play peels away at is what effect the trial process has on individual members of the jury, specifically for trials that last for weeks.

At various points during the trial, voiceovers expressing jury members’ thoughts are overlaid with the action, which include worries about getting children to school, paying bills, what specific legal terms mean, and even staying awake. Snippets of video conversation between writers Dr Jenny Scott and Ben Harrison about the performance also add a pleasingly Brecthian feel and help break up some of the monotony of the trial itself. So far, so so. Everything changes in Act ii, however, when the formal trial is over and the power lies in the jury’s hands. I won’t give away all the spoilers, but I shall simply reveal that organised chaos ensues, and the meat of the piece really comes out as an intelligent, human, and common sense discussion into the way we conduct trials.

When it comes to the performance it is John Betts as Judge who commands the show, and with his hilarious doddery asides and sensitive chairing of the discussion in the second half of the piece, you feel like you’re in his space, and he decides at any given point how comfortable anyone is to feel. Helen Mackay is also excellent as the conscious “everyman” figure Janis, who just wants to do her duty, and the cast as a whole make the performance very accessible: the fourth wall isn’t so much broken as shattered, with a piece of it distributed to each and every person in the room.

For me, though perhaps a reflection on the subject matter it discusses, Scott and Harrison’s script is too laboured and lengthy at points – missing some crucial details to aid comprehension in the first half, and dragging out its point in the second. The ending, while interesting and fitting stylistically with the piece, also feels like a bit of a cop-out and rather abrupt – as if the ideas just ran out at that point and there was nowhere else to go.

Overall this is a fascinating insight into the legal system, what it’s like to be a jury member, and how seemingly unfit for purpose the whole setup is – especially for people like me who have very little knowledge of its intricacies. Jury Play is absolutely worth taking part in, if there’s any room left in the public gallery.

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 5 October)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED