“Be thoroughly prepared as far as the work is concerned, so you can handle the madness.” – Author Michael Mears discusses Fringe success and This Evil Thing

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“The absolutists were as their name suggests, absolutely opposed to doing anything at all that could even remotely be construed as helping the war effort.”

In 1916, at the height of the First World War, Henry Asquith, Britain’s beleaguered Liberal Prime Minister, “begged leave to introduce a bill with respect to military service.” Little did he know just how strong the opposition to it would be. Although he had ensured, as a result of vigorous campaigning both inside and outside Parliament, that one of the exemptions contained in the bill would be, “on the ground of having a conscientious objection to bearing arms,” in practice it proved extremely difficult to obtain this exemption.

Arrests soon followed. C.O.s would be forcibly escorted to barracks and there ordered to put on a uniform, and do drill – which they politely refused to do. This civil disobedience would result in punishments, bread and water diets, solitary confinement, and worse. At least they couldn’t face the ultimate threat – execution – as they were not in the war-zone, and therefore not deemed to be on active service. Unless, of course the Army started sending C.O.s across the Channel to France…

Michael Mears – actor, playwright, long-distance walker – has enjoyed a rich and varied career in theatre, television, radio and film. His on stage work includes seasons with the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Peter Hall Company, portraying many classical and Shakespearean roles.

On television, Michael’s roles include Rifleman Cooper in Sharpe, two series of The Lenny Henry Show, and appearances in Parades End, The Colour of Magic, My Family, and Birds of a Feather. On film Michael is most delighted to have been the hotel barman who brings Hugh Grant and Andie McDowell together in Four Weddings And A Funeral.

This Evil Thing was published in April 2017 by 49Knights. To find out more click here.


Why WWI conscientious objectors?

As a playwright, I was looking for a subject as the First World War 100 year commemorations were approaching. There I was, a pacifist, but I didn’t appreciate what my subject matter had to be until I casually picked up and read, the way you do, a book I’d been given for Christmas – Robert Graves’ autobiography, Goodbye To All That – in the course of which he describes his experiences in WW1, including his meeting and friendship with Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon, known for his superb war (anti-war?) poetry – served loyally and courageously as a Lieutenant in the trenches, before having a Damascene conversion and realizing the horror and utter futility of it all – and becoming, in effect, a conscientious objector.

Oh yes, I now thought, who were the conscientious objectors exactly? Within days I was discovering all kinds of books, articles, you name it, about the subject – an utterly fascinating, riveting and rarely told part of the history of the First War. I felt compelled to make my own dramatic contribution, inspired by the stories I read, feeling I wanted to play my part in helping give their courageous stand against war and conscription more oxygen and daylight.

This Evil Thing is a play for one actor yet there are dozens of characters represented. What was your process to ensure that each has an individual voice?

michael-mears-in-this-evil-thing-2-999x450Myself and Rosamunde Hutt, my director, made sure that the smallest character, even an army sergeant who has just a couple of lines in the piece, say, had a name, a motivation and their own integrity. We ascertained what their background would be, how they might sound (through playful exploration) and similarly explored how they would move, what physical gestures/tics/mannerisms they might have. Obviously this work would be more in-depth when looking at the more substantial characters. We strenuously tried to avoid any kind of caricature – although occasionally a cartoon-like style might be briefly employed where appropriate.

You’ve enjoyed considerable success at the Fringe both with This Evil Thing and previous productions. What are the best and worst things a new company can do during August in Edinburgh?

Best things you can do – are to be thoroughly prepared as far as the work is concerned, so you can handle the madness of whirlwind get-ins and get-outs, as show follows show follows show. Be as charming and polite as possible to those you are given to work with in the venue, and your venue managers, publicity people etc. Whatever the frustrations, (and there are oh so many) try not to let these affect the way you are in public, and way you deal with people in public. And yes, unless you get that early 5-star review and then sell-out pronto, do hand out flyers and spread the word about your show on a daily basis, but as charmingly as possible – while being fully accepting of the many brush-offs and rejections of your leaflets that you will encounter. Tall order, I know.

Worst things – to get so inebriated, wrecked, spaced-out, whatever, that you can’t deliver brilliantly what you are here for in the first place. To quote some old playwright of yore – ‘The play’s the thing…’ (or the show, the stand-up act, the musical – substitute as necessary…) We all need a good moan. But try not to moan ad infintum. Edinburgh can be incredibly frustrating, but you’re there, you’re performing for better or worse in this huge arts festival, the city is beautiful and it’s an extraordinary place at Festival time, so relish being there, get out and see loads of stuff, especially the amazing stuff that comes from abroad, and let it feed your own work, your own imagination.

You’re an alumnus of the TV series Sharpe (in which Sean Bean plays the titular blood and guts Napoleonic war hero). Here you are writing a play about a different kind of heroism. Are the two types, soldiering and refusing to fight, antithetical?

chosenmen

My instinct is to say yes, and yet, as I highlight right at the end of This Evil Thing, there are different ways to be a hero, to be courageous. The very best soldiers are absolutely willing to sacrifice their lives for what they believe in – and it is exactly the same for the conscientious objectors. They were willing to face death if necessary, to face execution, rather than betray their belief that no man, no government, should be able to force another man to kill against his will.

And many COs, while imprisoned in barracks and guard-rooms, met soldiers who though they said they didn’t agree with the COs’ beliefs, nevertheless had great respect for them and their willingness to suffer in order not to betray those beliefs.

Did you ever mention that you might be a pacifist while playing Rifleman Cooper?

Warfare in those days, the days of Napoleon and Wellington, was a very different thing to warfare just a hundred years later. You got very close to your enemy, often saw the whites of their eyes, often grappled in hand to hand combat…somehow it seemed more honest, if that makes sense – unlike warfare now where generally it’s a question of dropping bombs from a great height or distance – without those doing the bombing ever having any contact with those to whom they are bringing such damage and devastation. The early 1800s was a fascinating period to research and though I was never truly comfortable holding and firing my rifle and taking part in those imagined battles, the characters were so vivid and rich and colourful – most of them survivors from the gutter, finding a home and purpose in the army. And at the time of filming Sharpe, in the early 1990s, I wasn’t consciously calling myself a pacifist. The job of being part of Sharpe was an acting challenge to me, first and foremost – to portray a hard-bitten soldier living on his wits and the camaraderie of his fellows, even though I would never have dreamt of joining the army in real life; much as to play Macbeth, you don’t actually have to have been a murderer (though I imagine it would help a bit).

Many of the absolutist COs came from a nonconformist background. Most Quakers, Methodists, etc accepted non-combat roles (such as front line stretcher bearing). What made the absolutists different, and how were they treated by their own congregational communities after WWI?

The absolutists were as their name suggests, absolutely opposed to doing anything at all that could even remotely be construed as helping the war effort. They were utterly opposed to this war, and in most cases, all war. There were 1,300 of them, and they endured tough prison sentences, with repeated stints of solitary confinement on bread and water diets, and enduring what was a Rule Of Silence for all prisoners in prison at that time. Many developed health problems as a result of their treatment.

After the war the responses the COs encountered on release varied – but in some communities there was a feeling that they had been shirkers, had had an easy war and didn’t deserve any kind of special treatment or status now. Finding work could prove very difficult, with many ads in the papers specifying that ‘COs need not apply’ ; and the vote was denied to COs for 5 years. But there were communities, such as in Huddersfield with its radical background and history, who were far more understanding of what the COs stood for and had endured.

Bert Brocklesby, the protagonist in my play, and who had been an absolutist, was ultimately spurned by his Methodist congregation in south Yorkshire. It wasn’t long before Bert joined the Quakers, understandably.

Do you see a difference between refusing wartime service between 1914-18 and 1939-45?

An early choice of title for my play was ‘What About Hitler?’ Sort of says it all, really – in terms of this question. The most passionate pacifists, and I consider myself one, are nevertheless brought up short when confronted with the ghastly phenomenon of AH. War is an appalling way to resolve international disputes, but when someone like Hitler appears on the scene – what do you do? But there were COs in WW2, a lot more in fact than in WW1, and because of those early trailblazers and the way in which they had in fact helped to reshape public opinion to a considerable extent, COs in WW2 generally had a far more sympathetic hearing.

Although This Evil Thing is a play for one actor you’ve been directed, stage managed, designed and produced. How does a solo player successfully pick a team?

There are all kinds of elements that go into picking a team – experience (the older you get, the more people you work with and thus gain an excellent knowledge of people’s abilities or particular skills); word of mouth; getting out there and seeing (in my case) other directors’ solo work (partly how I found Ros Hutt – I saw a splendid solo piece she had directed a year earlier); chance meetings; serendipity; and of course, calling on people you’ve worked with well before – like Mark Friend my set designer, who had designed a previous solo play of mine. I came across my sound designer Mark Noble, when I was in a play sat Salisbury that he had designed sound and video for – and I thought, ‘Gosh, he’s good. And he’s very young. So maybe he won’t be too expensive – yet!’

30477-6715What’s next for This Evil Thing?

A 600 seat tent, 3 Quaker school halls, the studio of Hull Truck theatre, London’s only surviving Elizabethan Church in Stoke Newington, a small wine bar in Wanstead, East London – all these with their differing shapes, sizes and acoustics, and many more, will be hosting the play this August, and through the autumn. Check out michaelmears.org for more details.

I’m also looking for possible American openings – no, not Hollywood, but the Quakers in Philadelphia perhaps…

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading This Evil Thing?

Ideally nothing. But if you do want something on in the background…then almost certainly something by Vaughan-Williams – his ‘Pastoral Symphony’ – which captures the sense of loss and sadness connected with the First World War… or his ‘The Lark Ascending.’

Or a haunting and beautiful piece of acapella music called ‘Unmarked Graves’ by Helen Chadwick, from her album ‘AMAR’ – she recorded other beautiful acapella material for the production of This Evil Thing.


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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)

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Glory on Earth (Lyceum: 20 May – 10 June ’17)

(L-R) Christina Gordon, Rona Morison, Kirsty Eila McIntyre
Photos: Drew Farrell

“Evocative, imaginative drama”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Outstanding

You’re 18 and you don’t know the 2nd Psalm. Well, that’s you written off. You do know a good few dance moves but that doesn’t cut it. Your stock is worthless, you’re ignorant; best go home little girl.

Ah, but where’s home? And who are you calling cheap?

Ans: Mary Stuart, born Linlithgow, brought up in France from the age of 5; Queen of Scots and actually in Scotland from 1561 to 1568, forced to abdicate, kept ‘safe’ under house arrest in England for 19 years and then beheaded, aged 44, in February 1587. Mother, via the union of the crowns, of James VI and I.

So much for dates and titles – but that’s not to dismiss their grip, far from it – it’s just that Linda McLean’s new play creates evocative, imaginative drama from the baleful encounters of the young, attractive queen with the almighty John Knox. He’s there from the off, in front of the curtain, in clerical black and giving new definition to the reproving stare. God’s word, you understand very, very quickly, is “non-negotiable”.

At least Mary has the support of her ‘Marys’, six of them in this telling, who attend her, dance freakpop with her (… really liked that!), and review her suitors in a modern, OMG/ “Awkward”, kind of way. There’s a disciplined choric role in there too, in whispers, gesture, and half lines, as well as the harmonious choral interludes, mostly in French. In other, opposed, parts the Marys are privy councillors and reformers. Queen Mary’s life is here, opened and closed by the executioner’s block, but the tawdry and the sensational (& the melodramatic) are absent: no Darnley, no Rizzio, no Bothwell – just her searching and bold question to Knox, “Do you see a bad person, Sir?”

(L-R) Jamie Sives, Shannon Swan, Christie Gowans, Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Christina Gordon, Fiona Wood, Kirsty McIntyre, & Rona Morison

James Sives, as Knox, is too cool to rise to the question. And he’s damnably clever, in or out of his pulpit in St Giles. Hear Sives and hear the preacher’s ‘History of the Reformation’, righteous and utterly fearless. He walks on stage and kills the dancing stone dead. An unexpected and rather wishful soundtrack of France’s finest minstrels: Piaf, Francoise Hardy, Christine and the Queens (sic), cannot stand. However, Brel’s ‘La chanson des vieux amants’ probably does touch him, as he grieves for the loss of his first wife, but then Brel was Belgian.

Rona Morison, as Mary, has the sympathetic part, the level gaze (female) and the appealing voice. More principled and upright than pliant or weak, and so much younger, this Mary is an important addition to the historical strumpet/martyr and – should you browse Netflix – an invaluable corrective to the endless episodes of CBS’s  ‘Reign’.

David Greig directs with a clear eye on what mattered then and should still matter now. Knox won and Mary failed. The austere and the severe are there in the steel blue lighting and the greys of an uncluttered set and in Knox’s strict delivery. Where there’s a wide and colourful tapestry, there’s dancing and short-lived levity. Elizabeth I, speaking through a mask, is both laughable and ominous and maybe the scheming Scottish nobility could have used the same distancing device. The disrobing of the queen at the end has its own proper and tragic significance.

‘Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.’    From Psalm 2.

You won’t fall to your knees but Glory on Earth will make you give thanks for new writing and live theatre.
.

outstanding

StarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 23 May)

Glory on Earth is at the Lyceum

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

Jack Elliot, Taylar Donaldson and Christie Russell Brown

“A very commendable effort”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 16 May)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

My Country (Traverse: 11 – 13 May ’17)

Penny Layden (Britannia) & Christian Patterson (Cymru).
Photo: Sarah Lee, NT

“A cocktail of feelings: a little sweet and pleasantly bubbly, with just the right amount of bitterness.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Outstanding

Public opinion is a funny thing. A dramatic shift occurs in our society and suddenly everyone has something to say about it. Which is wonderful, of course. The more of us who care about what happens in our country, the better. But one of the questions that people always seem to ask in times like this is; “Do you remember where you were?” Do you remember where you were when the Twin Towers were attacked? …When you heard Michael Jackson had died? …When Trump was elected President?

Now, do you remember where you were on the morning of 24th June 2016? Brexit Day. GB hands the European Union ‘our’ divorce papers. From that day, the word spread around the country like a hectic rash, spouting from the voice of every radio station, newspaper and neighbour. It was unstoppable, all-consuming and tense, yet it seemed to arouse a willingness in the people to debate and engage with the current events of our nation.

So what if the voices of these ordinary people from across our great lands were trumpeted aloud for all to hear? A creative way of bringing about social change, perhaps? Or a spark that will encourage us to listen, and prevent the fire of the debate extinguishing? The National Theatre seemed to think so. And when the NT starts to roll with an idea, it tends to pay off. Headed up by the company’s own Artistic Director, Rufus Norris, My Country came to the Traverse Theatre last week as part of its UK tour, bringing with it the voices of these people for us to hear.

We are immediately welcomed to a boardroom by Britannia, played by Penny Layden. Olivier-award-winning Katrina Lindsay’s simple yet effective set is businesslike and blue, complete with water cooler and official-looking desks, as well as a row of ballot boxes to remind us why we are there. In come the regions: Caledonia, Cymru, East Midlands, Northern Ireland, North East, and South West, with Britannia as our Westminster. A strong set of seven, each actor representing the heart and soul of their respective parts of a still United Kingdom. And so the debate ensues.

While the cast are solid overall, there are a few standout performance among them. Chris Patterson as the booming voices of Cymru gives a performance that is both buoyant and vulnerable, shifting from brash old pub-dweller to the touching voice of a thirteen year old who only wishes to see the good in others. Equally captivating is Laura Elphinstone as the voices of the North East. Warm, honest and heartbreaking in her moments, she is fantastic to watch. But the glue holding the regions together is Penny Layden’s Britannia. Representing the heart of our government, Layden’s portrayal of Westminster’s politicians is spot on, generating both laughs and anger.

There is, at times, a slight risk of these performances dancing on the borderline of caricature, but the actors never cross it; these are real people with real stories to tell, and their words are treated with respect. Throughout the performance, Britannia constantly urges us to simply “listen”, despite our own opinions. And we do.

A verbatim piece could quite easily turn boring. In Edinburgh, where 74% of voters chose to remain, an audience could have been so opposed to the opinions of  ‘Leavers’ that they shut down completely. Yet that night in the Traverse Theatre, the opposite seemed to happen. We wanted to listen, and this is one of those special productions that generates a cocktail of feelings: a little sweet and pleasantly bubbly, with just the right amount of bitterness. It makes you angry and sad and happy all at the same time, and you’re not sure whether you should laugh, scoff or just let go and cry. Sadly only in Edinburgh for three nights, the company continue to move around the UK until its final performance on, appropriately, the 24th June 2017. Jump on a plane, train or bus and go and see this show. The question I would ask you in ten years is: do you remember where you were when you saw My Country? Don’t be one of the people whose answer is no.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Rachel Cram (Seen 12 May)

Go to My Country, National Theatre on tour

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Charlie Sonata (Lyceum: 29 April – 13 May ’17)

Sandy Grierson as Chick. Lauren Grace as Audrey.
Photos: Drew Farrell.

“You have to wonder: tragedy or comedy .. or, better, a car crash of the two?”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

There’s been a road accident. One casualty, a 17 year old girl, is in a coma. Relatives and friends are gathered around her hospital bed for what could well be a long and awful night. Wait up! There’s a fabulous tousled fairy godmother with LED High Top shoes on. They’re flashing blue, which figures, but you have to wonder: tragedy or comedy .. or, better, a car crash of the two? So, bring on the dispassionate Narrator (Robbie Gordon), in neat suit and waistcoat, and pay attention. Lots of it.

Here is a story of a sleeping beauty – arguably the Sleeping Beauty – and of three pals from Uni’, of Mumsnet, soft play, mental health and booze. And there’s no stopping it: one hour and fifty five minutes with no break, just a red telephone box sliding on and off, establishing a line between London and Scotland, holding the line open between 1974 and 1994. Chick, Prince Charlie Sonata III, walks the line, unsteadily, with whisky in his grip bag and love in his heart and Neil Young’s Needle and the Damage Done (1972) on his lips.

You cannot help but love Chick in return. For a start, he read English rather than Law at Stirling; he’s also selfless, trusting and honest, and … completely wrecked to the point of offering earnest and lucid advice about alcohol consumption to a 13 year old. See Sandy Grierson in the role and you see a fallen saint: downcast, stooping, shabby, ‘a disgrace’, who may have given up on hope and faith but never on charity.

Granny in Douglas Maxwell’s Yer Granny is a gleeful barking grotesque in carpet slippers in a tenement. It’s contained comic strip Broons territory. In Charlie Sonata, directed by Matthew Lenton, Maxwell puts wasted innocence out there and as a drama it’s immediately more troublesome, more responsible. Where’s emergency care when you need it? Not with consultant surgeon Mr Ingram (Barnaby Power), who has forgotten the name of his patient. Try the drunk in the pub opposite. “Where’s your adult?” is one (funny) call; “Can this be right?” is another, the Narrator’s more insistent appeal to an audience looking for help between the shifting scenes.

It’s inventive and knowing and addled but I liked it, not least because of the play’s sincere attention to youth and to growing up. Chick made a mess of it. ‘Why?’ goes unanswered. His bladdered time in London is abject and you will wince at the cockney creatures who prey on him. Kinder, but not kind enough to invite Chick to their wedding, are Gary (Kevin Lennon) and Kate. Gary is the lawyer, a happier student than he is a bullied lawyer. Kate (Kirsten McLean) is not at all sure that she has got her parenting sorted. Her daughter, Audrey (Lauren Grace), is the RTA casualty that Chick would save, and quite right too as she’s fun, quick, and charming. Jackson (Robbie Jack), the handsome third of the Stirling Uni’ trio, reckons that as time folds in on itself, you’re much better off living in the 60s, even though it’s the 90s. Hence, no doubt, why he’s ended up owning Castleland, a children’s play centre.

Sandy Grierson as Chick with Meg Fraser as Meredith.

Then there’s Meredith (Meg Fraser), all mascara and running lights below the tutu, and banter. She has ‘history’ as well – all too naughty and recent in the case of the Latvian choreographer – but she’s a kindred soul for Chick. And she brings with her the land of faery and make-believe and shimmer (brilliantly, momentarily, visualised by designer Ana Inés Jabares-Pita) where – in Chick’s words – “if there’s love, the thorns will part”. Go see for yourselves.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 3 May)

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A Number (Lyceum: 6 – 15 April ’17)

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

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

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Presented in partnership with the Edinburgh Science Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 8 April)

Go to A Number at the Lyceum

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