Lysistrata (Kings: 27 – 28 Jan.’17)

Cait Irvine, centre (Lysistrata) Photo: Greg Macvean

Cait Irvine, centre (Lysistrata)
Photo: Greg Macvean

“5th Century revel disarms ‘Call of Duty’”

Editorial Rating:  3 Stars: Outstanding

This is a tumultuous inaugural production by the Attic Collective. It has that shameless tumescent quality that really would ‘Make Greece Great Again’. Athens/Attica was still big in 411 BC but had been sorely bashed in Sicily and was hurting. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata must have been excruciating, urgent fun back then and it is remarkable that – in the right hands – it can still have the same effect.

As a play it’s less in-your-face than in-your-crotch. Just look at the tall curvy door, upstage centre, and reckon, pretty confidently, that it’s all about Pussy Power. Then there are the phalluses, not one of leather, but several of rubber and latex, and all impressive, but none more so than the Spartan emissary as gauche walking dick. Naturally enough there is supplication to Zeus for relief from priapism.

The men suffer because the women have crossed their legs. Lysistrata leads a women’s revolt that denies sex to husbands (and wives) until the Peloponnesian War ends. They occupy the Treasury – a smart kick in the balls –  and wait for their men to come to their senses, as it were. They are finally brought to it by the body beautiful of Kim Kardashian, aka. Aristophanes’ figure of Reconciliation. Of course, the women are frustrated too and invent desperate, hilarious, excuses to return home.

Conor McLeod (Men's Leader) and Megan Fraser (Statyllis)

Conor McLeod (Men’s Leader) and Megan Fraser (Statyllis)

This is when a 5th Century revel disarms ‘Call of Duty’. ‘Tits not Targets’ is the message. It’s summery: the men are in a uniform of white shirts, cropped chinos and canvas slip-ons. Not a spear or bronze helmet in sight. Just helmets from the Urban dictionary. Cinesias (Adam George Butler) has his shades. Their leader (Conor McLeod) is a dapper, convinced and convincing kind of chap. Meanwhile the women are a riot of colour with their white faces and ‘war paint’ and they soak the men with Water Blasters. It’s loud too, especially when Charlie West hits his box drum.

Arguably the on-stage debate is one-sided. Determined Lysistrata (Cait Irvine) and cocky Stratyllis (Megan Fraser) reduce the men to defensive huddles and oddly impotent hakas. Deciding  to dump the split Choruses of the old men and women of Athens does tilt the balance in favour of the youthful and the libidinous (no real loss!) and the sense of the words can go AWOL in dionysiac chant and jabber but there’s no doubting the drive and sense of the piece as a whole. Director Susan Worsfold and Musical Director Garry Cameron succeed in sustaining dramatic form, resolved in celebration, from a plot that is about as carnal and abandoned as it gets.

By the by, a Belgian lady senator called for a sex strike in 2011. It was meant as a provocative joke but it excited the Christian Democratic opposition to remark that “Politicians are not there to strike. On the contrary, politicians are there to arouse the country.” Hear! Hear! (Aristophanes).

outstanding

StarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 27  January)

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SCO, Gamba. Bartok. Maxwell Davies. Sibelius. (Queen’s Hall: 1 Dec.’16)

Map of Orkney

“A complete and wonderful surprise … much of it was huge fun, and what was more serious was beautifully and movingly interpreted.”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars: Outstanding

The concert was promoted as “Peter Maxwell Davies: Orkney Wedding” and thereby probably did itself a disservice, as ‘Max’ is not everyone’s cup of tea, which is a shame, as if his work was better known, it might well be. The concert was in fact only half ‘Max’, balanced with Sibelius and Bartok, was mostly very accessible and enjoyable, and made for a fabulous evening’s music.

The concert was in effect a musical treatment of the folk idiom over some 80 years, starting with Sibelius’s Valse Triste and Scene with Cranes, both from Kuolema (1903), although the former is probably best known in its own right. Valse Triste was historically Sibelius’s most regularly performed piece, with the double irony of it being composed while he put his magnificent Violin Concerto on hold in order to placate his brother in law who wanted some incidental music for a play, and more annoyingly that he failed to negotiate a royalty agreement and never received a kroner subsequently. It is a fairly light yet sublimely melodic piece and the SCO played it beautifully managing the many varying tempi and dynamics with complete ease.

The following work, Peter Maxwell Davies’s Strathclyde Concerto No 2 (1987) was probably the only work of hard substance in the evening. One of ten “Strathclyde Concertos” commissioned by Strathclyde Regional Council and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, it is part of their DNA and the SCO embraced its challenging tonality and technical demands skilfully. Moreover, cellist William Conway, who played on its first performance in 1989, was completely at ease with the work. While definitely in the modern idiom it is an accessible and at times beautiful and certainly moving work, and it was good to hear it.

Following the interval it was time for Bartok’s Divertimento for String Orchestra, having gone back 50 years to 1939. Beautifully orchestrated, we experienced a wide range of textures including witty pizzicato and rich, broad bowing producing resonant sonority. The orchestra was going at full tilt with attack and vitality of playing. A rewarding, and again, accessible work.

The concert was brought to an end with the banner piece, Maxwell Davies’s Orkney Wedding with Sunrise (1984). This is not a serious work, but a hilarious one, and shows one should not take all of Max’s Orkney compositions too seriously. The piece does what it says on the tin, describes a riotous rustic wedding, and Gamba and the SCO interpreted it in that spirit, with outrageously vulgar brass, deliberately tipsy violin playing, and a steward appearing with a couple of tumblers of whisky gratefully consumed by conductor and leader. The whole was brought to a glorious conclusion by the sound of the bagpipes off stage, and then a piper appearing in full Highland Dress and Bearskin brought the piece to a close.

Overall, the evening was a complete and wonderful surprise. All the music was accessible, much of it was huge fun, and what was more serious was beautifully and movingly interpreted. And Rumon Gamba was a stand in for the indisposed Alexandre Bloch. Bravo (which resounded throughout the auditorium)!

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 1 December)

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Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lyceum: 26 Nov – 31 Dec.’16)

Photo credit Drew Farrell. (L-R) David Carlyle as Gryphon, David James Kirkwood as cast, Jess Peet as Alice, Gabriel Quigley as Queen of Hearts, John Macaulay as King, Alan Francis as Duchess, & Tori Burgess as cast.

Photo credits: Drew Farrell.
(L-R) David Carlyle as Gryphon, David James Kirkwood as cast, Jess Peet as Alice, Gabriel Quigley as Queen of Hearts, John Macaulay as King, Alan Francis as Duchess, & Tori Burgess as cast.

“This particular and generous invitation to Wonderland should be accepted at once”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Outstanding

When Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published Britain also got its first speed limits for horseless vehicles. The Locomotive Act of 1865 meant no more than 4mph in the countryside and 2mph in towns, together with a red warning flag. No doubt Edinburgh Council is heading that way again, and for good reason, but that does not stop Anthony Neilson’s version of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense classic from being very welcome, fast and surprising.

‘A large rabbit-hole under the hedge’ it has to be, for how else could a very round White Rabbit (WR) go down it? Wowza! It is some exit! Children gasped. And ‘in another moment’ down went Alice after WR, feet first, ‘never once considering how in the world she was to get out again’. No worries – as Alice plummets towards Australia – remember that this is a ten year old on approach to Wonderland.

 The Lyceum is bedecked with small hot air balloons and a fluttering kite. Fairground music plays on and up goes the title in lights, announcing the main attraction as part gaiety theatre, part fond and exuberant dream. It is all, quite naturally, larger than life. Wait until you see the size of the Duchess’s baby. And those arms! Surreal. The Cheshire Puss grins from within the disc of the sun, Alice gets stuck inside WR’s des res and there’s alarming talk of Giant Child infestation. Set a jumbo tea service upon designer Francis O’Connor’s super revolve, press the ‘On’ button and see the glittering tea leaves fly …

(L-R) Jess Peet as Alice, Isobel McArthur as Dormouse, David Carlyle as March Hare, & Tam Dean Burn as the Mad Hatter

(L-R) Jess Peet as Alice, Isobel McArthur as Dormouse, David Carlyle as March Hare, & Tam Dean Burn as the Mad Hatter

It may, at the close, be all Victorian and ‘lingering in the golden gleam’ – and that’s ok, as Carroll admired Tennyson after all (& photographed him) – but in terms of performance and effect the surface quality is lively and attractive. There’s nothing adrift here; no pool of tears either. Instead Alice (Jess Peet) is pretty contemporary: sure-footed and unfazed, arguably more midshipman in the Home Fleet than a dreamy little girl from Oxford, but resolute with crystal diction and a level gaze. Tam Dean Burn plays the Hatter as mad as mad can be without terrifying a young audience and he has maniacal fun with the safety curtain. Mordant humour might well be the preserve of the Welsh and – for me – David Carlyle’s glum Gryphon, marvellously at odds with his colourful plumage, is the co-star of the show. He (and not the Knave) stands accused of stealing the Queen’s tarts – surely a preposterous charge, for who could refuse to follow his courtly lead in the Lobster Quadrille?

As wholesome children’s picture books go The Very Hungry Caterpillar is up there with the best and Eric Carle’s creation, unlike Carroll’s, does not smoke a hookah but then it has long been observed that you ‘Do not look to ‘Alice’s Adventures’ for knowledge in disguise’. Quite what you do look for is your crazy, delighted, business and it might even, with a lot of luck, be the same as a child’s vision. A recipe for mock-turtle soup as pepper spray won’t appeal but otherwise this particular and generous invitation to Wonderland should be accepted at once, not least because no hedgehog was harmed in its production.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 1 December)

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Lyceum Variety Nights (Lyceum, 6 Nov. ’16)

“Left me genuinely begging for more”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

One of the first things they teach you about writing reviews is not to gush: to keep your mass of uncontrolled instant reactions behind a dam and only let through those considered, pertinent and articulate comments that are most valuable to the reader. The Lyceum’s first variety night, however, attacked my stiff upper lip of a dam with such force as to make gushing almost inevitable, with an evening of real high quality and passionately delivered entertainment.

It feels very wrong to pass a simple two sentence judgement on each of the seven acts who graced the stage simply for the sake of wordcount – suffice to say every single one dazzled, entertained and left me, genuinely, begging for more. Author Christopher Brookmyre’s reading of a tale about a group of teenagers on an outing to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream transported us to that very place, creating wondrous magical moments; Luke Wright’s poetry had many audience members cheering before he’d even finished performing, with the gutsy IDS, a poem about Iain Duncan Smith, constructed using only words contain the vowel sound “i” being a real triumph of wordplay and wit. Jenna Watt’s excerpt from solo show Faslane beamed with all the relevance, energy and honesty of her five-star Fringe run earlier this year, and Glasgow band A New International brought the house down with some of their greatest theatrical gypsy folk pop songs, which was an uplifting and triumphant finale.

The acts themselves were all excellent – professional, well-prepared, and comfortable in the kind of setting where the audience is a bit more vocal than they might normally be. But the evening was hosted and compered by Sian Bevan and Jenny Lindsay who brought a wonderful human and sensitive likeability to their role. At times their witterings seemed a little underprepared, and it would have been nice to see them perform some of their own material, but it was easy to feel comfortable and inspired in their presence.

While pitched right in my personal sweet spot, it’s worth saying that at times the content was a little unashamedly left-leaning, and it’s a shame that there was quite a bit of similarity between some of the acts (for a real variety night I would have loved to have seen some more diverse art forms in there as well (for example: dance, art, circus, puppetry, maybe even a short film) but the relatively low-tech, one-night nature of the beast may well bring such limitations. One can only hope the format proves popular enough to make this event a more regular and extended feature within the Lyceum’s calendar.

Based on round one, I would urge anyone with any sort of passing interest in the arts to get themselves along to the next event on 26th February. I’ll be first in line.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 6 November)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

RSNO: Sondergard, Jansen: Usher Hall 21 Oct 16

Image result for RSNO

“What struck me …. was the precision, accuracy and vitality of the playing, with rock steady tempi combined with real verve”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

Following on the RSNO’s opening gig a fortnight ago featuring the fabulous Nicola Benedetti and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Friday’s concert fielded another outstanding violinist in the persona of Janine Jansen playing the Sibelius. What is so special about live music is that you don’t know what you are going to get, in terms of interpretation and playing skill, until you hear it. You know it is (usually) going to be good, but how, and in what way? The RSNO, guest conductor Thomas Sondergard and Jansen, are all very fine artists approaching the top of their game, but who perhaps one would not yet categorise as world class. However, I defy anyone to name an artist or orchestra who could have performed better than they did on the night. I have never heard a rendition of the Sibelius Violin Concerto played with more clarity, dazzling technique and sheer artistic conviction, with orchestra and soloist joined at the hip through the sensitive yet controlled baton of Sondegard.

Intriguingly, the orchestra started the evening off with two short pieces by Mahler, Blumine, and What the Wild Flowers Tell Me, arranged by Benjamin Britten from the Third Symphony.

Blumine is a serious, complete piece. A quiet string introduction led to a short horn passage before the bleak solo trumpet established the theme, followed by lush strings that proved we were definitely in Mahler land. Plaintive oboe and mournful horn passages followed before the strings brought the work to an ethereal close.

What the Wild Flowers Tell Me made for a pleasant intermezzo. We were now musically well set up for the main event with our confidence in the orchestra and conductor fully endorsed.

Jean Sibelius was a violinist himself and knew the capabilities of his instrument, which he exploited to the full in his concerto. A violinist in the RSNO to whom I was chatting in the interval, described the first movement as “hard”, the second as “OK” and the third as “really very hard”. All I did was gasp at Janine Jansen’s ability to get concert hall audibility from pianissimo passages, and volume from high register playing and harmonics with little more than an inch or two of metal string to draw it from. The first movement conveyed an eerie dramatic tone that permeates much of Sibelius’s music, and suggested frozen wastes and Nordic mythology. The pianissimo opening with the interplay between the soloist and strings was brilliant and perfectly balanced, and as the movement progressed the theme was passed seamlessly from violin to woodwind and brass and then to a magnificent cadenza. To my satisfaction, the breath taken audience (I suspect a little more cognoscenti than on the opening night) refrained from applause.

In the second movement a rich woodwind opening gradually built up to a grand, panoramic finale. Come the third, the danse macabre, the soaring soloist and supportive orchestra brought the work to a deeply satisfying, enriching conclusion.

Our evening ended with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. What struck me about the performance of the work, which often comes across as a bit stodgy and clumsy, was the precision, accuracy and vitality of the playing, with rock steady tempi combined with real verve. A joyous, carefree end to an exceptional evening’s music.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 21 October)

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The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (Lyceum: 14 – 24 Sept’16)

Alasdair Macrae, Musical Director, as Texas Jim . Photo:Tommy Ka-Gen Wan

Alasdair Macrae, Musical Director, as Texas Jim .
Photo:Tommy Ka-Gen Wan

“43 years of agitprop stardom”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Popular entertainment is a broad church. It is entertaining (& mildly provocative) when the Union flag is raised above Craigmillar Castle, as it has been these past few days, and – to pursue a theme – there’s the BBC’s Scotland and the Battle for Britain to watch and absorb. And now, from 1973 but fresh from Dundee and fit as a fiddle, comes Tom McGrath’s fabled The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil. From the off you’ll be singing These Are My Mountains and asking yersel, ‘And whose mountains are those, exactly?’

For this is about the land and of its people (& famously of the 7:84 theatre company that brought it across the land to the people). You don’t see the vans but you could just about pack up these actor musicians, their many costumes and their instruments, into two Ford Transits, with room to spare for model crofts, wee sheep, an oil derrick and some fancy digital kit. It’s all highly portable and hugely worth the telling – and the singing and the dancing. The staging, in the Lyceum space, does not lend itself to community theatre but this is still a barnstorming effort.

This is not Land Economy by ceilidh and clàrsach but it’s not far off, which is actually the point, because here’s the old story-on-stage, ingeniously played but plainly told, of the people of Sutherland and Ross-shire being expropriated and displaced by the forces of profit and loss. The sturdy Highlander cannot stand against the combined agency of absent landowner, factor, police and lots of sheep. In fact Porky Highlander (Stephen Bangs) doesn’t stand at all but takes prudent cover behind his women and shoogles off to Canada in a string vest. It’s much the same when it comes to the east coast and Aberdeen with oil, Texaco and Mobil, and company men; and now – to update our scene, as this production cleverly does – there’s the Trump International Golf Links and layoffs on the rigs. And what are the burghers of Edinburgh going to do about that? Hmm, sadly, probably not that much, but we can tap our feet to Texas Jim (Alasdair Macrae), laugh at Jo Freer’s turn as hideous property developer Andy McChuckemup, and wonder what on earth the ghillie (Calum MacDonald) is talking about, because his gaelic is way beyond our ken.

Barry Hunter & Jo Freer.

Barry Hunter & Jo Freer. Photo:Tommy Ka-Gen Wan

Director Joe Douglas plays the script for what it’s worth, which is still not devalued by 43 years of agitprop stardom. The humour is all there, from panto to banter, as is the braying English accent (Emily Winter, all tweed and Golly!) and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ on kazoo. There is also the nastiness and the pity of it: evictions in the face of defiance and protest; loss and frailty; the dignity of labour forced down and out by ‘owners’ who monetise the works, from creel to North Sea platform. Irene Macdougall’s top hatted Loch is as villainous and intractable as her Announcer’s role is friendly and open.

It is a young Bill Paterson who, in the 1974 TV adaptation of The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil, introduces the story of ‘What’s been happening here in the Highlands, a story that has a beginning, a middle, but as yet no end’. Well, conceivably, the Scottish Parliament and land reform might wrap it up, or the price of crude could do it, or – Whisht! – a second vote on independence, but for the time being Dundee Rep is bringing it on just fine.

(That Union Jack at Craigmillar Castle? Sony Pictures is filming Outlander there … )

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 14 September)

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+3 Review: Ameé Smith – Relax, it’s not about you (Underbelly Med Quad: Aug 3 – 29: 15.00 : 1hr)

https://i2.wp.com/www.underbellyedinburgh.co.uk/images/uploads/15201-Ame_Smith_Relax_Its_Not_About_You.jpg

“Optimistic, off-the-wall and unapologetically human”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Outstanding

I try my best not to judge shows before they’re done. But, finding the queue as lonely as a tarantula’s birdcage, I confess to some trepidation as I waited for Ameé Smith’s “Relax, it’s not about you”. Shows with sub-dozen audiences can be tense at the best of times, and given the very personal nature of Smith’s themes, comedy’s need for reactivity and my own creeping paranoia about audience interaction, it seemed a bespoke recipe for awkwardness.

But, for once, it appears the mantra of the 2* performer rings true: the reviewer was dead wrong.

Who exactly “Relax, it’s not about you” is about could make for an excellent piece of theatre analysis – could be Smith’s ex’s, could be Smith herself; and, perhaps overarchingly, it could be about every person watching. Complete with examinations of toxic relationship types, explorations of what makes something TMI and confessions of Smith’s own foibles, “Relax, it’s not about you” is a frenetic, laugh-filled odyssey through the minefield that is interhuman relations.

Whilst it all might sound a bit metaphysical, it’s certainly entertaining. It’s somewhere between hearing stories from a drunk aunt and hanging out with an unlucky-in-love best friend: sometimes rambling ,sometimes short and sharp, and always cringingly self-aware. And whilst the occasional semantic meander leads to a dead-end, Smith seems to be an expert at winding back her own train of thought. And rest assured, despite the heavy premise, it’s a set with its fair share of laughs. You’ll never look at ceramic owls the same way again, and that’s a promise.

For such a blurry and ill-defined subject, it’s impressive how consistent the show feels for its duration. Smith’s nervy, almost fractious energy is a wonderful constant, even when presented with an audience of two. Never before have I seen a performer approach a nearly-empty house with such vigor. In truth, my greatest disappointment with this performance is that I never got to see how Smith would play off a full house. She is (fittingly and obviously) the greatest asset this show has, having cracked the comedian’s riddle of creating an obvious gulf of wit between her and the audience, whilst simultaneously closing it with an almost tactical show of real honesty and vulnerability.

This is perhaps the only time I’ve ever regretted that the jokey offer of a pint after the show was not capitalised upon, so enthralled I was with the sheer openness with which Smith presents herself. Even her dodgy guitar skills, though they open the show on a slightly jerky note, have their significance later. This is feel-good theatre, despite being based on one of the worst parts of romance.

This is a show which deserves far, far more than what I saw it receive. Ameé Smith has crafted a difficult and beautiful thing: a comedy show which thrives on universal truths, yet doesn’t claim to have any answers. And despite a few momentary stumbles, “Relax, it’s not about you” is exactly the kind of show that typifies the Edinburgh Fringe: optimistic, off-the-wall and unapologetically human. Ameé Smith isn’t making a show about you – but that doesn’t mean everyone shouldn’t see it.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 25 August)

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