White (St Cecilia’s Hall: 23 – 25 Mar.’19)

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing

“An incredibly important production”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Outstanding

Ah, racial politics. Anxiety-studded star of a few hundred conversations in coffee shops and pubs. It’s not that the constant deluge of injustice and anger in the world is depressing, it’s that it’s utterly depressing. Talking about it at all, let alone making comedy out of it, is like trying to tapdance your way through a minefield. One false slip and you’re either offending, rehashing or – perhaps worst of all – inadvertently punching down. And even if the comedy’s coming from a true, honest voice, the risk of creating “zeitgeist-y” work with little staying power looms ever present. Needless to say, the prospect of reviewing James Ijames’ “White” filled me with tentative hope and cautious apprehension: what I got in return was a wonderfully slanted commentary on modern sociopolitics, and enough comedy to keep me from realizing I was learning until it was far too late to stop.

Based on a true series of events surrounding the 2014 Whitney Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary Art, White tells the story of white artist Gus (Levi Mattey), who hires African American actress Vanessa (Anna Phillips) to present his work as her own, thus defaming an exhibition he was unable to qualify for. From this fairly simple starting point comes a flurry of emotionally charged and often absurd vignettes, examining the morality of racial curation and the various chasms which still exist at the intersections of ethnicity, sexuality, gender and identity.

First and foremost is the skill and timeliness of Ijames’ writing. White, in many ways, is a clever sleight of hand: the charged subject of race never leaves the stage, and yet seems to disappear beneath illusory hand waves of wit and stinging turnaround. Before you know it, you’re considering your own place in the debate, unconsciously picking apart what is satire and what isn’t. It’s the kind of theatre that is sorely needed in a climate that often seems paralysed in the face of despair.

That illusory quality is helped vastly by the show’s comedic direction: energy is the word of the day, and Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller has packed it like gunpowder in an old rifle. Despite the open elliptical shape of  St Cecilia’s Hall, this production turned into bouts of verbal tennis, firing jokes so quickly across the room that distance seemed almost to help it. Of course, with a base of clear talent, it’s easily done: Mattey does an extremely laudable job at portraying a character who seems to flip between main antagonist and protagonist with every sentence, and yet still seem jaw-clenchingly consistent. In a similar vein, Phillips’ pulls triple-duty in a trio of roles (one a role within a role), rolling them out chameleon like: same silhouette, but vastly different vibes and patterns.

Supporting, we have Bradley Butler as Gus’ boyfriend Tanner, and Jess Butcher as museum curator Jane – though to relegate them to ensemble would do them injustice. The production would not be half as good without Butler’s caring, vibrant foil to Gus’ ironclad self-interest; and to say too much about Butcher’s portrayal of Jane would ruin some of the best scenes going – I can say only that themes of duality and hypocrisy are shiningly represented.

So, in such a shiny show, what didn’t go so smoothly? Unfortunately, a few stylistic kinks along the way are enough to turn what could be a smooth ride into something bumpier. Though the comedy seldom suffers from the almost breathless pace of the dialogue, there are times when certain lines, actions or even reactions could have done with more time to breathe. Especially in the third act, when things get heavier than ever, I found myself wanting to wait a little more in the questions before being whisked off to more one-liners.

And it’s that same breakneck paceyness which turns some of the show’s more surreal moments into missed opportunities. Without spoiling too much, part of the joy of this show is how left-field the ending is. But buoyed on its own wild momentum and without enough time to properly clock what was happening, genuinely interesting satire ended up feeling more muddled than biting. Without room for contrast, the energy seems to dip without ever getting lower, like getting used to the temperature of shower water.

And while scenes of sexual intimacy are intimate and very well done, the same cannot be said of the show’s flirtation with day-to-day romance. A very certain scene makes it abundantly clear that Mattey and Butler can play off each other wonderfully, but there seems to be an odd sterility to their interactions in the wider world of the play. The words are right but it lacks passion and force.

So what does this all add up to? And, maybe more importantly, how does this all play into a rating? Put shortly, this is an incredibly important production, marred by a few key flaws. Even if there are elements that could be improved on, White is a show that I wildly encourage everyone to see whilst it’s here – and to endeavour to seek out when it’s not.

The best theatre is the kind that leaves you fundamentally, and almost unwillingly, questioning yourself. By that metric, White certainly doesn’t disappoint.

outstanding

StarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 23 March)

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Lost In Music (North Edinburgh Arts: 1-2 Mar.’19)

Emily Phillips, Claire Willoughby, Alex Neilson (obscured!) and Jill O’Sullivan.
Image from Neil Cooper’s review in the Glasgow Herald.

“Glorious, ‘Everything else just fades away ..’ “

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

‘… and Orpheus raises his guitar’. As lines go that’s a cracker but not really a first as there’s Val, in his snakeskin jacket, in Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending, ‘the tale – as Williams put it – of a wild-spirited boy who wanders into a conventional community of the South and creates the commotion of a fox in a chicken coop’. In the first scene Val picks up his guitar and starts to sing Williams’ Heavenly Grass but stops, ominously, in the middle of the song.

 

No clamour, no interruptions in Magnetic North’s Lost In Music and the snake coiled in the grass ain’t on no jacket. This is a one hour truly excellent self-styled ‘gig-theatre show’, with four musician / performers singing and talking of Orpheus and Eurydice, but in a totally different (youthful?) key, celebratory rather than savage or tragic. It is expressly about music and music-making and how that plays about our lives, particularly young lives, often to glorious effect.

 

Its theatre may be in the sound and the visuals – just admire the micro-cinema of clouding memory loss – but the narrative still compels attention, as you’d hope, given the pre-eminence of its story. Why does Orpheus look back? In this telling it’s because he is doubtful of the Gods’ word but also, unspoken, it has to be because he cannot bear the unaccompanied silence behind him.

 

And so back to the music and the soundscape to which the whole production is dedicated. Clustered instruments gleam under Simon Wilkinson’s lighting; microphone stands, rests, and props are festooned on Karen Tennent’s green, glowing, set. Costumes are colourful and free flowing. Jill O’Sullivan opens up on guitar and vocals and one by one the others play their parts: Emily Phillips (Clarinet / Orpheus); Claire Willoughby (Saxophone / Eurydice); and Alex Neilson (Percussion). Halfway, thereabouts, there is an important pause as each briefly explains what music means to them and at the close they are joined for a swelling finale by a further six players – from neighbouring Craigroyston Community High School.

 

Kim Moore and Nicholas Bone wrote and direct an inspiring show that has rightly attracted support from Creative Scotland, the City Council, the PRS Foundation and – for Orpheus was the hardy Argonaut who charmed the Sirens – the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. If Lost In Music looks for a place in the Festival or on the Fringe, then it should be a shoo-in.

 

Find Lost In Music in Glasgow this week at

Platform
1000 Westerhouse Road, Glasgow G34 9JW
Wednesday 6 March, 7pm
Thursday 7 March, 1.30pm

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 2 March)

Go to the Magnetic North

RSNO, Sondergard, Benedetti. (Usher Hall: 8 Feb.’19)

Image: wyntonmarsalis.org

“…the RSNO, which since their return from China in January has been playing at world class standard. “

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

I have commended the RSNO on the creativity and intelligence of their programme planning since I started writing about them some three years ago, and on Friday there was a fine example of this.  For sure, Nicola Benedetti, the forces sweetheart of the Central Belt, will always fill the hall, and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is ever popular, but Thomas Ades and Wynton Marsalis?  Now that was a risk, but, boy, did it pay off.

 

Effectively this was Jazz Night at the Usher Hall, and, strangely enough it was the Concerto in D minor for Violin and Orchestra by Wynton Marsalis that had the strongest classical nuances, not the Ades.

 

Powder Her Face by Thomas Ades was his first opera, based on a sex scandal involving the then Duchess of Argyll, and was a cut down work comprising just four singers and an ensemble of three clarinets, a brass trio and a string quintet with piano, harp, accordion and percussion.  Ades’ Dances, written later but for that same opera, is what we heard and was an eleven-minute full on full orchestra shebang which certainly expressed the Duchess’s hedonistic lifestyle.  To say it was played with wild abandon would be to criticise the orchestra.  It was played with controlled abandon.  But abandon there certainly was, a gorgeous, unrestrained, schmaltzy piece bordering on the burlesque.

 

More familiar was A Symphonic Picture of Porgy and Bess, a 23-minute composite of our favourite songs orchestrated by Fritz Reiner for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1943.  The work held together with remarkable integrity and was a joy to listen to.  Again, the RSNO didn’t hold back and we were treated to some rich, unrestrained playing in the jazz rather than classical orchestral tradition, showing the orchestra’s versatility under the guiding arm of Sondergard’s enlightened baton.

 

Without doubt the draw of the evening was the newly honoured Nicola Benedetti (is she the youngest CBE in the country?) playing the Scottish premiere of the Concerto in D minor for Violin and Orchestra by Wynton Marsalis, especially written for herIntroduced by Sondergard as a work as long as a symphony (50 minutes) it never palled.  I would describe the opening movement, Rhapsody, as a beautiful lyric piece yet in the jazz idiom, albeit classically constructed.  The second, Rondo Burlesque, was all over the place but a fun listen.  During the third movement, Blues, Benedetti showed us some beautiful solo playing with the support of the string section in some unusual and effective pizzicato.  Come the finale, Hootenanny, notwithstanding the Scottish title, I felt we were more likely in a barn dance, it was terrific, exciting, fun and to cap it all Benedetti concluded the piece by walking off the stage still playing the final refrain.

 

This is the third consecutive review that I have written in the past fortnight that has received our highest accolade, five stars, which shows the incredibly high standard of music available currently in Edinburgh. Two of these go to the RSNO, which since their return from China in January has been playing at world class standard.  Rather than give an encore Benedetti concluded the evening by thanking the generosity of the RSNO in giving free tickets to a number of Midlothian young musicians who had been taking a workshop that afternoon with the orchestra; obliquely referring to the current threat to axe instrumental tuition in Midlothian for schoolchildren below S4.  If the seniors in the audience want their children and grandchildren to continue to listen to home grown music of this quality, the answer lies in their pockets, though of course Nicola was too nice to say this.  But we knew what she meant.

 

 

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 8 February)

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When The Rain Stops Falling (Bedlam: 6 – 9 Feb.’19)

Photo: Andrew Perry, EUTC

“Magnificient endeavour”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars, Outstanding

 

The archangel Gabriel commands the gates of Paradise but his mortal namesakes are having a bad time, lots of bad times in fact. At the start of Andrew Bovell’s play, in the year of our Lord 2039, it’s raining dead fish upon Gabriel York in Alice Springs. In early sixties London Henry Law abandons his wife and seven year old son, Gabriel, and along the Coorong lagoon in south Australia in 1983 the same Gabriel (Law) totals himself and his pregnant girlfriend – Gabrielle, of course – in a car crash.

There’s annunciation and revelation all through this play of four generations. It is of mothers and sons, of the sins of fathers, and of their mortifying consequence. Call it Miltonic, which might explain why Edinburgh University’s English Literature department chose to sponsor it. In Davos last month David Attenborough warned that “The Garden of Eden is no more” and now we have the unprecedented rainfall of the past ten days in northern Queensland.  In Bovell’s play, written in 2008, it takes two hours for the rain to stop falling and it delivers pathos by the bucket load but in the end it delivers understanding and well-being, as if you’ve been well rinsed.

We’re talking a cold water shower here: a deluge of testimony and heartache within an enclosure of near on eighty years. When The Rain Stops Falling has an extraordinary structure, where periods and scenes elide. It has been variously described as a ‘cats cradle’, a ‘pretzel’, a ‘Rubik Cube’. Characters fold their umbrellas, hang their waterproofs, and momentarily take their place alongside each other around a large dining table. It is always fish soup for supper, whether it’s in London in 1959, Uluru (Ayres Rock) in 1968 or Adelaide in 2013. Conversation moves between relationships, sex, drink, age, and … Diderot’s dressing gown, Mary Shelley, and the Great Hurricane of 1780. You might think, as a Gabriel observes, ‘a mess’; but then it is also a ‘magnificent endeavour’.

Cast and crew combine with remarkable nerve and purpose. There is no interval, as the writer required, and a scene misplayed could wreck any sense of what is going on – of where and when. Director Lucy Davidson has done a terrific job keeping the stage action fluid and evident without the space to really big up the visuals beyond projected captions. Actors work hard within overlapping narratives that are as fragile as the eco-system of the Coorong. In particular, Kelechi Anna Hafstad’s diction as the older Elizabeth Law has the clarity of pain that has been hung out to dry. Charlie O’Brien as Gabriel Law, Elizabeth’s son, has a lightness to him that is almost uplifting. And, when his wretched father, Henry (Angus Gavan McHarg), gives despairing voice to his postcards home, you are grateful for that support. Similarly, Dominic Sorrell plays his heart out as Joe Ryan, a good man out of his depth. Barney Rule opens and closes the drama as the stoical Gabriel who helps the audience to shelter. I reckon he’s channelling Lear’s Fool, for ‘He that has a little tiny wit, – With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, Must make content with his fortunes fit, For the rain it raineth every day.’

I much enjoyed this production of an intriguing play. One for the canon of contemporary Australian drama.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 6 February)

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RSNO, Sondergard. Mahler, Bruckner (Usher Hall: 1 Feb.’19)

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)

“… an object lesson in how to play Bruckner, and a testimony on a cold winter’s night to the glory that is music played live.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

It was a wretchedly cold Friday night in Edinburgh, and the rugby was on the telly.  Moreover the programme was Bruckner and Mahler, absolutely my favourite, but not everyone’s cup of tea.  Yet if the members of the RSNO could bus or drive in from Glasgow on a night such as this, so could I shuffle across Bruntsfield Links to a near capacity house.  Testimony to the RSNO, for sure, and we were amply rewarded by some fine playing.

 

Putting Bruckner and Mahler together on a programme is not untypical, and of course only one work can be a full symphony or the concert would go on too long.  Nonetheless I was puzzled why relatively early Bruckner (around 1880) and late Mahler (written c1910) should be conjoined.  The answer was found in the playing of Mahler’s Adagio from the unfinished Tenth Symphony, typically valedictory; and of  Bruckner’s Symphony No 4 (The Romantic), triumphant and life affirming.

 

The key point I want to put across in this review is the sheer quality of the orchestra’s playing on the night, and the incredible discipline of the baton of Thomas Sondergard that stopped the tendency of Bruckner symphonies to ‘wander’ or lose their way. The Bruckner can sometimes sound muddy with the high proportion of brass, but we experienced none of that, but just utter clarity.

 

Occasionally Sondergard addresses the audience at the beginning of a concert and I wondered if he was going to tonight, especially as it was quite a short bill with just 1 hour 25 minutes of music.  He chose not to, and was right, as the Mahler is a sombre piece and a stand alone work in itself.  I was astonished at how the orchestra immediately got into the piece – a desperately exposed violin and horn introduction played assuredly that swept us away into a rewarding exposition with some of the most complex Mahlerian harmonies that I have heard.  This included moments of real poignancy that at one stage found your reviewer wiping his eyes!

 

We returned after the interval to hear the Bruckner.  This was a taut, disciplined and expertly played piece that kept us on the edge of our seats for the entire 62 minutes.  All sections excelled themselves but my personal gold medal would go to the cellos – who were not asked to take a bow, probably because of the difficulty of all eight of them getting up at the same time with their cumbersome instruments.  Time and time again Sondergard’s stern but helpful baton stopped us losing the tempo or phrasing, so that we felt, and the orchestra sounded, as fresh at the end as at the beginning.  This was an object lesson in how to play Bruckner, and a testimony on a cold winter’s night to the glory that is music played live.

 

A footnote to compliment the audience on this cold and coldy night.  Not a single cough or splutter during the music and a patient, eternal, wait after the Mahler for the conductor to drop his baton. After the Bruckner we could not contain ourselves and the applause immediately followed the concluding note, along with several shouts of “Bravo”.  Quite rightly so.

 

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 2 February)

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St Petersburg Philharmonic, Sinaisky; Kempf, Devin. (Usher Hall: 27 Jan.’19)

At the Museum of the Defense and Siege of Leningrad.
Photo credit: TASS/Yury Belinsky

“This orchestra has soul”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars Outstanding

It became very clear to me on a visit to St Petersburg in February last year ( … temperature minus 20C) that the St Petersburg Philharmonic (which begat the Petrograd Philharmonic, which begat the Leningrad Philharmonic, which begat the St Petersburg Philharmonic for the second time), Russia’s oldest orchestra, is not just an orchestra or a magnificent symbol of Russian culture, but an entity that goes to the very soul of the St Petersburgers themselves.  For in the Great Patriotic War (World War Two to you and me) the citizens of this great city were under siege for 872 days and reduced at one stage to eating cardboard and glue – after the rats ran out.  Tannoys were fixed around the city to relay the playing of the orchestra to maintain morale, usually Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony (‘The Leningrad’).  The orchestra were given extra rations to give them the strength to play.  Some died at their desks.  The siege ended on 27th January 1944, 75 years to the day of this concert.

I doubt if any playing in the orchestra on Sunday were alive then, but of course their parents would have been, and they would have known.  This orchestra has soul.

There is also a poignant connection between Eastern Scotland and Western Russia, as anyone who has read Eugenie Fraser’s The House by the Dvina knows, although this was principally trade between Dundee and Archangel.  However, there was terrific snob value in nineteenth century aristocratic St Petersburg houses in having an Edinburgh Nanny, just read Harvey Pitcher’s When Miss Emmie was in Russia.

So it was touching that the St Petersburg Philharmonic chose to start their UK tour in Edinburgh, and we got a full on performance.  This was no warm up venue.

The Usher Hall’s programme of Sunday Classics featuring international orchestras is an unashamed and thoroughly enjoyable crowd pleaser. The programmes are highly accessible if not populist.  Why not? The place was packed.  Nobody plays like a Russian orchestra, and nobody plays Russian music like a Russian orchestra, and our first item was the biggest lollipop of them all, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, Op. 18It was played superbly, with not the slightest hint of schmaltz or vulgarity.  Freddy Kempf set the tone from the beginning by making every one of the eight bell like introductory chords sound different.  His was a very intelligent, totally clear interpretation that let the music speak for itself.  The orchestra’s tone was rich and warm, conductor Vassily Sinaisky kept soloist and band in balance, keeping the magnificent brass in check and letting the strings soar, with ample support from woodwind and percussion.  This was a thoroughly rehearsed yet utterly fresh and committed rendition of a well known work that did not tire through familiarity, a lesson to orchestras everywhere.

The ultra cool Freddy Kempf treated us to a substantive jazz encore.  The music writer always wants to know what the encore is, but even when announced can rarely hear.  Anyway, Freddy said that “It was written by a Russian Ukrainian whom you won’t have heard of”.

To my surprise the second part of the programmes was not a Russian composer but Mahler, albeit the very accessible 4th Symphony.  The orchestra went into the opening without catching its breath, beautiful light flute and string phrasing, a fast rhythm quickly developed with a definite sense of swing.  Immediately we had the confidence that we would be in for a fine performance, and we were.  The horns came in strong but beautifully measured, the four flutes, no less, pleasingly fluent and inducing a sense almost of easy listening.  Knowing of Mahler’s love of scoring for banks of the same instrument (he has been known to write for eight horns) I was impressed to see and hear no less than ten double basses playing pizzicato in the third movement Ruhevoll (Restful). An extraordinary experience.

Come the final movement Sehr behaglich (at ease) soprano Anna Devin emerged from where she had been patiently sitting in the midst of the orchestra to take front stage.  I am always slightly disappointed when soloists have to have their music with them, and Anna’s relative lack of projection at first may have had something to do with this.  Nonetheless her voice was pure, pleasing and if not drowned by the huge orchestra would have soared a little more, and Sinaisky’s baton could have helped her a little more in bringing the necessary balance about.

The audience was totally engaged even if not as sophisticated as those of the evening kind – too many whoops in the applause.  So I was absolutely delighted that they not only restricted their coughing at this difficult time of the year but held their applause for what seemed like a lifetime as the conductor’s baton held the silence for a satisfyingly and deservedly long interval before the house came crashing down with enthusiastic clapping and cheering.

After several returns to the rostrum, we were treated to an engaging encore of close harmonied late nineteenth century orchestral music, or so I guess.  I wish I knew, but, hey, who cares about names, it was a beautiful way to end this gorgeous Sunday afternoon occasion.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 27 January)

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Mouthpiece (Traverse: 5 – 22 Dec.’18)

“Knockout performance: quick, fierce, and smart but always on the edge.”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars: Outstanding

As Edinburgh plays go, this one is outspoken. Its audience is there to be stuffed and startled. Do you ‘live’ or do you ‘stay’ in Edinburgh? Whatever, wherever, you are unlikely to say – as you look out over the city – “See they flats?”. For a start the grammar’s wrong: amusing, sure, but plain wrong unless you’re local and out of school. Second, those flats are way over there “in the bit nobody looks at”. Not Muirhouse, as it happens, but more likely on the Southside, in Gracemount or Craigmillar. That’s where Declan (17) lives with his mother, her boyfriend, and his little sister, Sian. Declan’s father killed himself when Declan was seven. He was an alcoholic and everyone says Declan will end up just like him.

Libby (46) is not from Morningside, but possibly close to; the Grange maybe, or even Fairmilehead which always sounds nice. For Libby is nice and her mother listens to BBC Radio 4. Mouthpiece tells the story of Declan and Libby; posh woman who used-to-be-a-writer meets radge schemie. In the end it is perfectly possible to consider it a love story but it’s Declan’s love for Sian that really touches you.

This play’s energy pours out of Declan. It’s pure, vehement fun one minute – a verbal battering of Libby’s proper speech (and attitudes mebbe?) – but then it’s full of despair and longing the next. Lorn Macdonald delivers a knockout performance: quick, fierce, and smart but always on the edge: “I ken what precarious means, I’m no daft”.

Neve McIntosh as Libby can fall back on herself and land safely, even comfortably, by the end. She has the background and the education that is not available to Declan. She uses ‘Professional’ status as a defensive excuse that will make you queasy. McIntosh’s performance is finely judged; never provocative or clever but – if anything – rather shy and vulnerable. But she has two parts to play: one, with Declan, and the other with us, an audience of posh cunts. (Sorry, but that’s how it is and you’d better get used to the word if you’re going to see Mouthpiece). Libby talks to us about her story, ‘her’ play. Was it ever Declan’s?

Designer Kai Fischer and writer Kieran Hurley frame the work within a stark rectangular set that Libby steps easily in and out of. The shock quotient when Declan does the same goes off the scale. Projected text is used to identify place and time and to underwrite the action (as if penned by Libby). When that fractures and Declan disputes what is happening is both unsettling and dramatic. It also arrests a formal, ‘meta’ narrative before it gets too precious.

Mouthpiece is artistic director Orla O’Loughlin’s last show at the Traverse before she goes to London’s Guildhall. It displays the same drive and attack that distinguished her Devil Masters from 2014. There may be no expensive New Town interior to trash – Hurley’s script does that all by itself – but her hold on what matters is just as tight and uncompromising. The play will not bring much comfort and cheer for Advent but it does send you out with an important sense that the hurt and the dispossessed are never far way. Little Sian’s name might mean ‘God’s precious gift’ but no-one is giving Declan any presents this Christmas.

The applause came in fast and loud at the final blackout. Too fast. The performances are outstanding and deserve it but Mouthpiece is one of those plays that is yelling at yous to shut up and think.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 14 November)

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