War in America (Former Royal High School/King’s Theatre: 24-27 May ’17)

Connor McLeod as Mr Slype. Photo by Greg Macvean

“Some fine performances from the young cast”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

War in America’s revival in the build-up to the current UK General Election is very apt – and almost feels as if it is written especially for this moment, though it is now over 20 years old. The narrative sees the rise of a female political leader (known only as “She”), who hides behind a variety of lies, disguises and games in order to get to the top. Meanwhile, in a pleasingly Orwellian set-up, our little man Mr Slype (a rather spineless MP) is bullied by rival parties to vote for a law he neither wants nor doesn’t want, and some rather underhand tactics see him inadvertently give his vote to She, handing her the reins of the country. What happens after gets a little confusing.

Given the setup and opening few scenes where the main characters and topics are introduced, the first fifteen minutes of this production really makes it feel like a cutting-edge, gripping political drama – not too dissimilar from Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, which I reviewed last year. Jo Clifford’s dialogue is cutting, intelligent and witty, Susan Worsfold’s direction is slick, and there’s palpable tension between rival factions to keep us on our toes. The production loses its way somewhat in the second half, however, and tries to cram in too much with too many characters and melodramatic revelations, that it becomes more of a slog to sit through.

That being said, there are some fine performances from the young cast, most notably Andrew Cameron as the cunningly-named and deftly acted Mr Fox, who is very charismatic and convincing and throughout. Scenes with him and his assistant Alfred (Mark O’Neill) were among the most compelling of the performance, and I could easily picture them on a bigger stage receiving great acclaim. Connor McLeod is also strong as Mr Slype, with great variation in swagger and guilt from scene to scene.

It is, however in the more dramatic scenes where the tension and integrity of the piece slips. She’s relationship with her estranged daughter fails to ring true throughout the piece – distinctly missing the deep emotional connection needed to be convincing, and its climactic resolution is very sloppy compared to the polish evident in other areas. Indeed, many aspects of the show like this come across as rather rushed, when a more considered approach would be more powerful. While in general it’s a gutsy effort from the young cast (and great for them to be getting involved with works on important subjects like this), I think in some cases it would have been beneficial to have some more experienced actors to give the brutal narrative the necessary punch it needs.

And the “too controversial” content, which led the show’s initial production being cancelled 20 years ago? For me that must have been a lot of fuss over very little, as the more overt elements were perfectly pitched within the overall mood of the piece, never seeming gratuitous or unnecessary. Indeed, the scenes with sexual content were handled and incorporated very well, and while spawning a few titters, were powerful insights and metaphors into the darker side of politics. If anything, I think these elements could be pushed further.

Overall this is a show with fantastic potential, and with some more development could be very special indeed.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 26 May)

Visit the King’s Theatre archive.

Girl in the Machine (Traverse: 3 – 22 April ’17)

Rosalind Sydney as Polly.
Photos: Mihaela Bodlovic

“Galvanising”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Time was when wireless simply meant a radio and Mr Chips taught Latin and Greek. Now we’re practically Wi-Fi dependent and it’s definitely ‘Goodbye, Mr Chips’ and ‘Hello’ Citizen Chip. Soon enough you’ll be living beyond 120 and if you’re lucky the worst you’ll suffer physically is an itchy forearm when your chip is updated. Mentally, however, you might get fried.

That’s where Stef Smith’s galvanising new play has us: in the near enough future when ‘the gap is getting smaller between the human and the hardware’. ATMs now ask how you’re feeling and robots are cleaning up on the wards. Owen, a Charge Nurse, might be out of a job soon. The only ‘shit’ left to deal with is what his lawyer wife, Polly, does for a living, for the outside world is going down the pan big time. Stress is a plug-in on her iPad Pro. Polly is not in a happy place, although she does love Owen and he loves her. He’s just brought her a present in a black box to help her feel better, which it does, but she really should have just stayed with the nice hot bath, the scented candles and a glass or two of Merlot.

It’s a container load of a drama, ingeniously designed and neatly packaged. Owen and Polly inhabit a rectangular box, complete with geometric floor covering and modular seating. It’s a neutral, pastel space inside a post-industrial shell. It must have been tempting to put an Amazon Echo (or Samsung Smart TV) centre stage; as it is, Polly is freaked out by a data file eavesdropped from her memory of better days whilst Owen appreciates how ‘our house looks much bigger with no electricity in it’.

This must be the angst of a neo-Millennial generation – and not that of those who worry whether their passports should be blue or burgundy. Polly (Rosalind Sydney) and Owen (Michael Dylan) are in their 30s, see their neighbour as a man ‘whose face looks like a smashed circuit board’, and yet wonder at their growing inability to feel for each other. Polly is digitally hooked, ‘twitches’ for a connection and finally, fatally, makes one. Owen resists the circuitry. That this is a loving relationship in crisis is never in doubt – such is the quality of the performance – but that the destruction of an intelligent woman is caused by a gadget on speed is more of an ask. The script also suffers from some philosophical surges that are best characterised by Polly’s despairing repetition of ‘I can’t stop thinking’.

Michael Dylan as Owen.

The villain of the piece is the arch voice of the Black Box programme. It seduces indiscriminately and without mercy, because it’s a rogue bot. The hero is certainly Orla O’Loughlin whose sympathetic, human, direction moves her two actors every which way along a traverse stage, not least to the killing beat of Kylie’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ (!), and who also holds them together in still exchanges that in less capable hands could sound derivative and forced.

Back in 1934, in Mr Chips’ last days, Black Magic chocolates were a year old. He probably gave Mrs Chipping a box of them and didn’t worry a jot about their tantalising centres. And then came the digital age and a virtual Raspberry Heaven (or Caramel Caress).

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 5 April)

Go to Girl in the Machine

Visit Edinburgh49 at the Traverse .

Edinburgh Quartet (Queen’s Hall: 27 March’17)

Painting by Erik Petrie

“The band’s playing being bolder and more committed as they got into their stride”

Editorial Rating:  3 Stars

The life of a professional musician has always been tricky, whether you were Mozart churning out prodigious quantities of glorious music against impossible deadlines and demanding creditors, Shostakovich keeping Stalin and his apparatchiks at bay, or even today as a rank and file player with the necessity often to freelance and keep several irons in the fire, both for the benefit of professional development and regular employment.

All these aspects were present at Monday’s Queen’s Hall recital by the Edinburgh Quartet. First, the line up. The first violin desk has been filled by a variety of (very talented) artists since Tristan Gurney left for London last year and was tonight filled by Zoe Beyers. Second violin Gordon Bragg also plays for the RSNO and is currently touring with them in Florida, his place being taken on the night by Tom Hankey. Catherine Marwood ably took the viola desk on behalf of Fiona Winning, leaving only Mark Bailey on cello as part of the regular band. I am afraid, notwithstanding good individual playing, it showed – a bit. Talented individuals do not necessarily an ensemble make.

The evening started with Mozart’s String Quartet in D Major K575. Composed towards the end of his life and published posthumously it is an enjoyable work that allows each member of the band to show off their individual talents, a wise choice here in that their experience of playing together is limited. It made for an easy to get into start to the evening, with Catherine Marwood’s viola to the fore supported by Mark Bailey’s Cello.

There followed Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 1 in C major. A short (fourteen minute) romantic work, yet of some intensity but also tunefulness, it surprised and pleased the audience as not coming as too much of a shock after the Mozart; the band’s playing being bolder and more committed as they got into their stride.

The evening concluded with Beethoven’s String Quartet in C major No 3 ‘Rasumovsky’ one of three so named after its sponsor, the Russian Ambassador to Vienna. Again, the work offers plenty of scope for the individual players to respond to, as well as some good ensemble playing as the Quartet were by now fully warmed up. There was real verve in the opening movement, particularly in the Allegro vivace, smooth togetherness in the Andante con moto quasi allegretto supported by well despatched cello pizzicato and really good ensemble playing in the Menuetto. The work was brought to a close with a high sprirted, high speed Allegro molto.

The concert was part of the Edinburgh Quartet’s season branded ‘EQ:Revolution’ and as before an artist from a different genre offered a complementary interpretation. In this instance it was Erik Petrie who went on stage, as he has done at others, to describe three colourful artworks, influenced by music and revolution, commissioned by the Quartet. The theme is certainly applicable to Shostakovich but more nuanced elsewhere. Petrie is an artist and was a little uncomfortable talking, understandably so when mentioning that the artworks were available for sale, albeit with the very noble cause of thereby providing financial support to the Quartet.

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 27 March)

Go to the Edinburgh Quartet

Visit Edinburgh49‘s Queen’s Hall archive.

Further than the Furthest Thing (Bedlam, 14 – 18 March’17)

Tiffany Garnham as Mill and Oscar Gilbert as Bill

“… a fascinating and celebrated play “

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

These days Little Englanders have never had it so good, which of course sticks in the craw. Well, it might, and it should, particularly if you’re from Tristan da Cunha and want to get home. You won’t get far via Google maps – try it: Edinburgh, Scotland, to Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, furthest South Atlantic. Add it up in stages: Edinburgh to Cape Town is 8,900 miles and then from the Cape to the UK’s most remote overseas territory is another 1746; a total of 10646 miles. Zinnie Harris’  fascinating and celebrated play certainly goes the distance and has considerable appeal and for a student company to attempt the same without the scenic resources of the professional theatre is quite some going. This is intrepid work by directors Jess Haygarth and Aggie Dolan.

‘Drips and drips’ begin the first half of Further than the Furthest Thing and then there’s a homecoming. Francis, 20 something, comes back to Tristan and to the girl he left behind. The tiny population lives off its potato ‘Patches’ and from its crayfish catch. Resources are scarce and timber has had to be taken from the church roof to make a coffin. Wistful cello, flute and violin accompany the sound of the waves but this is not Eden. There’s rumbling thunder and something is definitely not right up on the mountain. Bill Lavarello, a village elder, has heard the lake churning, and that is a bad, bad sign. Perhaps God is angry for what the islanders did some twenty years ago; but for now a businessman, who got off the ship with Francis, has a plan for them all. Then nature expels him and everyone else.

Mr Hansen is the unsmiling factory owner who can make eggs disappear. Harry Richards plays him as an Economics major, disciplined, good with manila folders and with a dismal hold on emotional intelligence. Nevertheless, Hansen would seem to offer change and prosperity and he almost does.

Variation-on-Kraftwerk’s Robots opens the second half in Hansen’s UK bottling plant. Young Geographers will know that the characters have left the global south. Sociology freshers will recognise anomie, although This is England it ain’t. Folk are displaced when work is directed from behind desks. Bill is told that he has a ‘good’ job tending pipes in the boiler room and his wife Mill is offered the almighty vision of a fitted kitchen in affordable housing. A younger couple, Francis and Rebecca, determine to return to their ‘Village’, to that other Edinburgh far, far away, but have they missed their ‘time’?

Bill (Oscar Gilbert) and Mill (Tiffany Garnham) are at the play’s centre. Bill has faith (and guilt) whilst Mill is shrewder, more adjusted. “We is from England now”, she says, employing the island dialect that characterises their speech and their shared past. There is a plain innocence to them and to their relationship that young actors can respond to very well. Francis (Rufus Love) is their strapping nephew who, whilst away in South Africa, is horrified and hurt by common, filthy, English usage. He is the conflicted one but it’s probably Rebecca who suffers the most and Anna Swinton acts her heart out in the role.

You may gather that this is a BIG and serious story for a small stage. Go deep, as poor Bill does, and you’re into the Book of Genesis; stay at the shallow end as I did, intrigued by the utter Englishness of folding picnic chairs, and you’ll hear Lennie in Of Mice and Men asking ‘How it’s gonna be .. [&].. tell how it is with us’. And so, uncomfortably, as scene follows scene (reckon on 25 plus) it is all in the telling. Should it sound quite so educative? Earnest speech delivers premonition just as effectively as the horrific promise that Rebecca demands of Bill, and the speech is unrelenting. The drama just gets too wound up, is constantly interrupted by shifting table and chairs, and looked far from easy. It became long and portentous and beyond what an EUTC production, however devoted, should attempt. Only sardonic tea with Mill, Rebecca and Francis provides light relief, that and the happy injunction to ‘Feel like Britons’, even when naked.

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 14 March)

Go to EUTC

Visit Edinburgh49 at Bedlam

Benedetti; Oundjian; RSNO (Usher Hall 10 Mar.’17)

Image result for RSNO Images

“I was happy to leave the concert hall with a spring in my step and wish them bon voyage on their long flight to Orlando”

Editorial Rating:  3 Stars

The RSNO are rounding off their glorious 125th Season with a tour of the USA, Florida to be exact. Why Florida? Because classical music’s largest constituency is older people, and Florida is a state where they are legion, both full time residents and the “Snowbirds” who go for the winter. And Florida has more world-class concert halls than any other state in the USA. Five, no less. They played their final concerts in Glasgow on Thursday, and Edinburgh on Friday. There was a real whiff of excitement in the air. The last time they toured the States was 1992, before the fabulous Nicola Benedetti was born.

So Friday night’s audience, loyal to their orchestra and adoring of their favourite soloist, were in no mood to be troubled by the niceties of musical criticism, they were there to have a good time, and they did. Alas, it is the job of the music writer to point out the subtler issues.

The first half of the concert was, on paper, a romantic’s dream, Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, followed by the ultra romantic Bruch violin concerto. This writer anticipated both eagerly. Both disappointed.

Principal flute Katharine Bryan led off the Debussy confidently and competently in what is an extremely exposed solo in a difficult register. The orchestra answered in a well played ten minute exposition of the theme, but only on a fairly superficial level. This work has mystery, shades of eroticism and soul, and we didn’t get this. Indeed, in the entire first half of the concert Peter Oundjian’s baton was there for the score, but too restrained in the exposition.

By all accounts Nicola Benedetti had given a bravura performance of the Brahms’s Violin Concerto in Glasgow the previous evening. Tonight we were all well up for the Bruch, arguably the most romantic violin concerto ever written, if not as great a work as the other three German concerti: by Beethoven, Brahms, & Mendelssohn. While one doesn’t want the soloist – or orchestra – to wear their hearts on their sleeves, there was much more that could have been brought out of the work by the soloist in terms of phrasing, power and sheer bravura of performance. Competently executed and, yes, restrained, we were left feeling puzzled and short changed. The presence of sheet music tucked away on a stand suggested a performer perhaps a little weary before the USA trip, allied with, unusually, no encore. Yet, of course, in the eyes of the RSNO claque she can do no wrong, and was applauded enthusiastically. The orchestra played well.

Live music is a fickle mistress and often provides the unexpected, both disappointing and pleasing. What on earth could the RSNO bring to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and what new is there to write about it?

Well, the RSNO brought a fresh, lively approach to the work from the beginning of the well known opening theme. It was as if they had received a half time pep talk. They made a lively pace throughout, notably the cellos in the andante con moto, along with the cleverest, anticipatory build up to the final Allegro. Clearly a game of two halves, I was happy to leave the concert hall with a spring in my step and wish them bon voyage on their long flight to Orlando

 

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 10 March)

Go the the RSNO

Visit Edinburgh49 at the Usher Hall

 

Me, As A Penguin (Bedlam, 8- 9 March’17)

Rufus Love as Mark and Sally MacAllister as Liz.
Photos: EUTC

“Sally MacAllister and her bump are terrific”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars

This is a real Buy Now goodie. There’s cake, Bowie’s Heroes, Hull, aka.UK City of Culture 2017, and top-shelf performance. All, or thereabouts, satisfying and delightful.

Tom Wells’ play is eight years old now but doesn’t have a sell-by date, and certainly not for a student audience. For a start, most (boys) feel guilty about not knowing how to knit and there’s something unquantifiable, way beyond The Complete University Guide, about tasty bites of Battenberg for tea on an old but wonderfully comfortable sofa. Caitlin Allen’s set and costumes are a treat by themselves.

Not that anyone’s at Uni’ in this play, although a few ‘soft’ (ie. valuable) GCSEs like Textiles are shared around. Liz (22-23?) is going to have a baby very, very soon, and can’t wait to be a young mum in ASDA with baby sick in the pocket of her jeans. Mark, dad-to-be and nice bloke, used to work at IKEA where sofas just reproduce. His mate Dave – a ‘complete twat’, in Liz’s honest opinion – is a keeper at Hull’s old aquarium, before it became spectacular as ‘The Deep’. And then there’s Stitch, Liz’s kid brother, a ‘yearning not belonging’ kind of guy who has a sad thing for Dave but who is happier knitting snoods and eating yoghurt. When Me, As A Penguin begins Stitch has come back with a new friend, whom he has stashed behind the shower curtain.

Liz probably shouldn’t be at the heart of the play – that’s more likely to be Stitch’s lovable anguish – but Sally MacAllister and her bump are terrific. It’s comic but tender and never more so than during a fabulous dance routine with Stitch and the later, faster, exit for the maternity unit when Mark tries to pack the hospital bag. Forget birth plan or dressing gown, think more potted plant.

Oliver Beaumont as Stitch and Sally MacAllister as Liz.

Oliver Beaumont is Stitch, gay, gangling and woebegone. He has almost given up on the city. Withernsea and home, 17 miles away, is a kinder place. Forlorn rather than pathetic works for him and results in a near miss with tragedy that sidesteps the absurd. It’s Stitch’s relationship with Dave (Tom Whiston) that’s difficult to realise. The script for the two of them is unforgiving and explicit and especially tough to realise from inside a giant penguin suit.

Tom Wells, the writer, has a degree in English. At a guess, he’s read Cowper’s The Sofa , a hymn to IKEA from 1794, with its immortal opening, I sing the Sofa (!)– that takes aim at the upholstered and the artificial. Me, As A Penguin is in the same virtuous, giving, vein and this production, directed by Matthew Sedman, is really worth seeing.

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 8 March)

Go to EUTC at the Bedlam Theatre

Visit Edinburgh49 at Bedlam

RSNO: Remmereit, Bryan. Vaughan Williams, Martin Suckling, Ravel. (Usher Hall: 3 Feb ’17)

The Lark Ascending

“In Katharine Bryan we heard some of the finest flute playing around today”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

The RSNO chose interesting, offbeat fare for their Sir Alexander Gibson Memorial Concert on Friday night, by way of complete contrast to what will be an immensely popular Rachmaninov/Tchaikovsky melange this coming week. Good for them, and I am sure that the great man, who brought so much to the RSNO in his extraordinary twenty-five year tenure and yet died at the relatively young age of 68, would have thoroughly approved.

The first piece was not without controversy: Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending transposed for flute by the RSNO’s Principal Flautist, and soloist on the night, Katharine Bryan. This well known work – indeed, it is number one in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame (make of that what you will) – while for some overexposed, is to me almost sacred. I first heard it as a schoolboy played in a concert in Dorchester Abbey in Oxfordshire by one of my peers, Richard Deakin, who went on to teach music at the Royal Academy and found the Orchestra of St John’s Smith Square. An early summer evening by the Thames with the fading sun streaming through the Abbey’s stained glass windows … and the piece moved onto my spiritual and emotional hard drives for ever.

To transpose it to flute had me and a number of others worried. Yet for me, full of reservation, it was a triumph. The warmth and roundness of the flautist’s timbre brought a new dimension to the work outwith the capacity of the violin. Bryan’s playing was exquisite: her control of her breathing in long passages extraordinary, her phrasing superb, her control and precision utterly convincing. So much so that I shall buy the recording. Now there’s a compliment in this age of streaming and downloads.

Composer Martin Suckling came on next to introduce his world premiere performance of our next piece,  The White Road. Interesting as this prologue was, it later became clear  – as our flautist returned  in a shimmering white dress rather than her earlier red version –  that this was a fill in. No matter, it gave the next quite difficult fifteen minutes some context.

Notwithstanding the composer’s aspirations the work essentially was a back and forth between sharp musical bites from the flute echoed by percussion, with minimal brass, wind and string support and unconvincing body bops by the soloist to accentuate the to and fro with little added value from the microtones. Melody went missing until the end of the work and I found it unremarkable. Fairly typical of the modern genre, I suppose, but it really only came into itself at its close.

Our nerves were soothed by Bryan’s blissful rendering of Massenet’s Thais as an encore, accompanied only by harp. Luscious.

Following the interval we were treated to Daphnis and Chloe Suites No’s 1 and 2. This piece is a conductor’s nightmare in terms of its fluidity and apparent lack of time signature, so it would be timely to point out that the baton was being held on the night by Arild Remmereit standing in for the indisposed Peter Oundijan. A fine job he made of it (and for the rest of the evening, too). You never felt the orchestra were out of control and their disciplined playing impressed. The work opened with a flute solo and lo and behold, there was Katharine Bryan again, now in black dress, back in her familiar principal flute’s chair. The Danse Guerriere at the conclusion of the first suite showed real verve and the Lever de Jour opening Suite No 2 was well realised and convincing. Remmereit got everything he could out of the band in the Danse Generale which ended our evening with a – or rather, several – bangs.

So in conclusion,  this was a concert that entertained with the familiar, challenged with new takes on familiar themes, and also with new material. Sir Alexander would have been proud of his orchestra’s playing and in Katharine Bryan we heard some of the finest flute playing around today.

 

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 3 January)

Go to the RSNO, Scotland’s National Orchestra

Visit Edinburgh49 at the Usher Hall archive.