Barber Shop Chronicles (The Lyceum, 23 Oct -9 Nov: 19:30 : 1hr 4)

“Unbridled and Exuberant”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

When you enter into the Lyceum, white is the colour that pops into your head. Not a black veil in front of the eyes; not velvet, countless red. 

No. White.

When you grab a sit on the bottom row and see a rather elegant field of white hair, white skin, middle class spectators facing a stage where a bunch of black actors are dancing unbridled and exuberant, owning the whole place at the sound of Afro B… it’s just priceless. For once, you don’t feel in a museum but within a game of contrasts that actually mingle.Visual art at its best. 

This storytelling masterpiece is a living example of how an actor actually enjoying the momentum can warm up the audience, let it breath and even feel grateful.

Inua Ellams’ play talks about the affairs of working-class (surprise!) black men through an intimate, tender study of masculinity’s emotional and political anatomy. Stories set in barber shops across Africa, interlinked as threads (wires in the scenography help to create this imagery) pass through the eye of a needle that spins like a hanging globe  – London.

Industrial set design, expressionist lightning and alienating effects remind us of a Brechtian play. Sheibani’s canny direction is not far from that. Articulate expressiveness highlights what Odin Teatret would call the presence of the actor and lives in different kinds of anthropological scenic art – eyes, mouth, hands and feet proficiency-. The homogeneous and impressive cast work is shaped by Aline David (the female presence in the script came to light at the after-show talk, but what about the production?). 

Along with the movement, the glowing pulse of the vocal work- phatic expressions, highly marked cadences as if the sentences were sung, voice projection- makes this a great example of what storytelling is. Needless to say, the art of storytelling is to keep the audience interested, and this production managed to keep the energy well-balanced from beginning to end – though sometimes it flirts with devolving into a stream of political or cultural references. Still, that’s what we ultimately want as an audience, to make the brain dance with the play since we cannot -unfortunately- dance on the seats.  Because If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution

outstanding

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Reviewer: Helena Salguiero (Seen 8 November)

“The Monstrous Heart” (Traverse Theatre, 22 Oct – 2 Nov : 19:30 : 1hr 15mins)

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Photography by Mihaela Bodlovic

” Elegant and attentive direction”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Nae Bad

An obvious symbol lies on a table at the centre of the stage.

A dead beast as the first actor of an analogy game that unfolds itself like a Russian nesting doll – the monstrous, the wild, the Other, the Mother, the Daughter. A metaphor and, ultimately, a show that rushed like hot blood within a febrile body: hastily.

During a storm in the Canadian mountains, the prodigal daughter visits her mother after a long time to seek answers and amend past decisions.

The attempted analysis of the human passions and post-freudian determinism (which of course condemns women first) with clear romantic allegories (Frankestein, connection between nature and sentiments through sound and light design) fails along the way. A good idea, but unfortunately without resolution.

Director Gareth Nicoll’s taste for Shakespearean, abrupt violence and the delicate language of gestures are as easily seen in this production as his others. But even elegant and attentive direction and fairly competent acting cannot save a flat plot and circumspect script.

A neatly conducted rhythm at the first part of the dialogue becomes a self-explanatory, polarised monologue. Rather than raise drama or empathy, the self indulgent storytelling leaves one wondering if one character is listening to the story or the actress is simply waiting to say her speech.

There’s a lack of tension all the way through the script: the position of power remains always the same, embodied by the daughter, whose acting is quite hectic and leaves no room for audience expectancy at the beginning. Nevertheless, her physical characterisation is superb. The restraint of the mother was sometimes staggered by little details (dramatic hand tics in particular), but the character blossoms once she downs a dram and the actress allows herself to relax.

In short, this is a strong initial concept that craves revision. I hope that it’s returned to, for the simple reason that the idea, the discourse, the creative team’s work and the cast have so much to offer – but, unfortunately, cannot be cured from the restraints of the substandard playwriting.

Maybe the magnificence of a living bear cannot be portrayed if the insides are not beating guts, but soft stuffing.

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

Reviewer: Helena Salguiero (Seen 23 October)

The Panopticon (The Traverse: Oct 11 – 19 : 19:30: 2hrs 45 mins)

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Photography by Mihaela Bodlovic

” A masterfully produced piece of white hot tragedy”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Outstanding

Shows are a lot like types of friendship. Some primarily uplift you; they wrap you up in a distancing blanket from what’s actually out there, or distract you from what can’t be escapes. Others are more of an intellectual affair, where the value comes from what you can glean. A working partnership, maybe, as much as acquaintanceship. Some are good, some are fine, and some you cannot wait to forget.

The Panopticon is a singular type of play: it’s like having a witty, irreverent friend who also spontaneously beats the shit out of you. It’s cool, you agreed to it, and honestly there’s a lot of heart and soul in the neverending chest-stamping and throat-chopping, but nonetheless beaten ye shall be. The Panopticon is a masterfully produced piece of white hot tragedy, an important artwork – but if the content warnings plastered around the Traverse Lobby don’t tip you off, it’s not welcome territory for a frail disposition.

The premise of the story is easy to ramp into: a young girl named Anais is put into a home built in the shell of a disused panopticon: a prison wherein all prisoners may be seen from a central tower, and never know if they’re being watched. It becomes a damned succinct example of ‘setting-as-overall-metaphor’, and sets up a rollercoaster ride of extreme highs and disorientating lows centred around the lives of the troubled and shunned, and the tragedy of a loveless childhood.

The star of the show, both literally and performatively, is Anna Russell-Martin as Anais: an acerbic, highly troubled young woman for whom the lines between reality and psychosis are not so much blurred as violently shaken together. Russel-Martin offers a masterclass performance in the title role: running the gamut from charming and rambunctious to devastated to utterly destroyed, whilst still maintaining rock-solid continuity of character. Anyone who’s been to a few theatre productions has likely seen grief, rage and joy played out – when watching Russel-Martin, it’s like seeing them for the first time.

Beyond the easy classification of “who is the main character”, the ensemble cast is both a blessing and a curse: a group of performers so uniformly talented that it makes picking a starting point incredibly difficult. Do you start with Laura Lovemore, whose attention to consistent physicality not only makes every one of her characters distinct, but wholly individual? Kay McAllister, who portrays beauty of spirit and acidic tragedy like an angel in a crack den? The wonderfully afflicted bravado and uncertainty of Louise McMenemy’s Shortie, the edge-of-unsettling vibrancy and humanity of Lawrence-Hodgson Mulling’s John, the kaleidoscope-esque multiplicity of Martin Donaghy. There’s simply too much good to unpick here without it turning into a bullet-pointed gush list, but suffice to say, they’re an ensemble cast dream team. Wholly professional, wholly consistent and an absolute joy to watch.

I would be remiss, however, not to highlight my two favourite performers: Gail Watson and Paul Tinto. Tinto, rugged yet approachable, almost singlehandedly carries the light of optimism for the majority of the show with a charisma and earthy crunch that turns what could easily have been a trying, one-note archetype into what may be one of the show’s more understatedly complex roles. And Gail Watson. Gail Watson! Chameleons would weep and don monochrome jackets out of shame. No matter the demands of the myriad parts she plays, each is done with nuance. Personality. Although Eddie Murphy’s Norbit may have traumatised me away from films where one actor plays every part, if Gail Watson were headlining? I might be persuaded to invest in the necessary therapy to enjoy it.

These players would be delight enough on their own, but when cast into sets as well designed and dramatic as those created by the incredibly talented stage team, it only serves to elevate. Not only are they clever to the point of enviousness, they are (much like everything from the lighting to the sound ops) integrated to the point of seamlessness. It’s very much like watching a morbid dollhouse play itself to pieces: a rare treat to watch though perhaps, given the subject matters, not a constant delight. The team behind The Panopticon commit entirely to the concept of theatre as illusion-making, and the results are wonderfully encapsulating.

Of course, perfection is theoretical, and this production proves that fact. Though the viscerality of the acting cannot be denied, the fight choreography felt too floaty and impactless for most of the violent scenes to carry home the needed drama. And although the digitally projected visuals were inspired, oftentimes they felt more like a palate-cleanser to cut the drama rather than an off-angle surprise to elevate it. This is less of an issue with, say, the visualization of the mental sensation of an orgasm, but is fairly noticeable on the subject of psychotic dreams.

It feels prescient to state here that, if you haven’t already guessed, this isn’t a show that flinches when it comes to deeply upsetting events. The plot features things that would certainly warrant thorough show research and consideration for anyone with prior trauma, and even if you don’t, make sure not to go on a bad day. It’s a white hot furnace of dismay, but it forges something deeply important and meticulously well performed.

It might be the darkest show I’ve reviewed for Edinburgh49 yet, but it’s a shining star on the theatrical horizon.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 11 October)

RSNO:SONDERGARD; CARGILL: USHER HALL 4 Oct 2019

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Imperial Palace (Hofburg) Vienna

 

“All in all a promising start to what looks like a first-class season.  Bring it on.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Nae Bad

The Season Opener for the RSNO always gets a buzz going at the Usher Hall and tonight was no exception.  Moreover, the happy occasion was also music director Thomas Sondergard’s 50th Birthday, which the audience and orchestra recognised by singing and playing “Happy Birthday” at the end of the concert, amply led by mezzo soprano Karen Cargill.

For the repertoire we were taken unashamedly and full on into early twentieth century Vienna: Richard Strauss, Alban Berg and Gustav Mahler.  There is no doubt in my mind that the capital of the once great Austria-Hungarian Empire was the world capital of music from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century.  Lots of fabulous orchestration, complex rhythmic and compositional patterns, and brass.  Oh, the brass!  Eight horns for the Mahler.  Seven timpanies.  And the opening Strauss wasn’t shy about using them too.

The evening started with Richard Strauss’s Don Juan, an eighteen-minute escapade if not quite a romp comprising complex and multi-varying patterns of tempo and orchestration, the latter being the composer’s undoubted strongpoint.  Loud and soft, quick and slow, joyful and sinister that amply caught the character of the eponymous antihero.  Considering this was the first piece of the evening the orchestra was well on top of it, although it possibly lacked a little in terms of overall togetherness and smoothness which was perhaps unavoidable in a piece of such variety.  It made a tremendous start to the evening and set the tone of enjoyment and engagement.

Next we heard an early piece from Alban Berg, Seven Early Songs.  These slow, contemplative pieces allowed formidable Scottish mezzo soprano Karen Cargill to show off her beautiful rich and mellow tone along with a perfectly suited vocal range for a piece that could well have suited a contralto.  I was stunned by the quality of her voice. The orchestra accompanied her sensitively and effectively.  This was Berg in early, melodious form (1905-08) written under the instruction of Schoenberg, whose teaching, if not his composition, was decidedly traditional.  However the later orchestration (1928) gave a hint of his subsequent more complex compositional style.  The orchestra accompanied Cargill with sensitivity and empathy.

Following the interval came Mahler’s Symphony No 1 in D Major, the Titan.  An accessible and entirely enjoyable work in four movements it is a useful entry point to the composer, with all the mixture of poignant melodies and crash bang wallops that is his stock in trade.  Sondergard’s interpretation was a breath of fresh air, highly detailed bringing out every nuance of the piece, and the individual sections of the orchestra excelled from the piccolos and leader’s violin solo to the full-on brass and percussion. Yet perhaps because of this, I did not quite get a feeling of ‘wholeness’ from the orchestra because of this detailed interpretation.

All in all a promising start to what looks like a first-class season.  Bring it on.

 

 

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 4 October)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

BRITTEN-SHOSTAKOVICH FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA: PIKE; LATHAM-KOENIG : USHER HALL 22 SEPT 2019

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Jennifer Pike

“The playing was quite superb, and I could have been fooled into thinking I was listening to a world class orchestra”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars:Outstanding

The Usher Hall’s excellent series of Sunday afternoon concerts from orchestras all over the world commenced its 2019/20 season with an almost unsustainably high standard.  The newly formed Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra, the brainchild of Artistic Director Jan Latham Koenig (a British conductor working in Moscow) and our Ambassador over there, Sir Laurie Bristow, with a membership of Russian and British members all auditioned for their posts, and formed to sustain the legacy of the 2019 Year of Music between Britain and Russia, as well as the close relationship between the eponymous composers, kicked off the proceedings.

Whilst not overtly political or peace promoting in concept (one thinks of the highly successful Barenboim/Said Divan Orchestra made up of Israelis and Palestinians) the combination of musician from both countries is not without political relevance in these troubled times and can be only a force for good.

With an itinerary ranging from Sochi to Basingstoke, the band hit Edinburgh towards the end of their tour and were well into their stride.

As with all the Usher Hall’s Sunday afternoon concerts, the programme was immediately recognisable, accessible and undemanding, but none the worse for that.  The playing was quite superb, and I could have been fooled into thinking I was listening to a world class orchestra, emotions were surely touched.

The programme started with Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten.  I was struck by the clarity of the strings, warm brass tones and relaxed cohesion of the band as a whole.

We were then treated to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending and privileged to hear Jennifer Pike handle the violin solo. This young lady has blossomed since her arguably winning BBC Young Musician of the Year too young, and this, the second time I have heard her play it, was a more rounded, secure rendition that let the glorious music speak for itself, the sign of real artistry.  As a violinist of meagre ability myself, I first heard the work played by a school colleague in the Abbey of Dorchester on Thames in the 1960s who went on to be a professor of music at the Royal Academy. I have known it and loved it all my adult life and Jennifer really delivered. Moreover, the orchestra went untroubled into accompaniment mode rather than performing mode, effectively and subtly.

Shostakovich’s Suite for Variety Stage Orchestra was a delightful raucous romp showing the composer’s lighter side and sent us chuckling into the interval.

After refreshment, something more serious, Prokofiev’s Extracts from Romeo and Juliet.  Six extracts were chosen, starting with the proud “Montagues and Capulets”, later the searing agony of Death of Tybalt, ending with the serene, if troubled, The Death of Juliet.  In all six episodes the orchestra was more than equal to the task which they played with the right balance of restraint and emotion, never brassy nor vulgar, representing their fine musical training and technique.

Our finale was, of course, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.  Plenty of opportunities, but none taken, for brassiness or vulgarity here, but, again, a finely judged performance, in particular with a huge tuba, big bass drum amply representing cannon fire, and the triumphant tubular bells.  All credit to the incredibly versatile and unflustered percussionist, Uliana Scherbakova, and tubaist Grady Hassan.

One wonders why this excellent orchestra was not performing at the Proms, but of course it was not formed when the programme planning took place.  To get such an accomplished band up and running so quickly is a real achievement and shows the energy and vitality that is the international music scene today.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Charles Stokes(Seen 22 September)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

 

Michael Odewale: #BLACKBEARSMATTER (Pleasance Courtyard, 1-25 Aug, 17:30, 1hr)

“Clearly an adept writer and jokester.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Your reaction to Michael Odewale’s chosen title for his new stand-up hour, #BLACKBEARSMATTER, will likely indicate how amusing you will find the ensuing comedy. The joke, like much of the hour, is witty, but somewhat surface-level, and raises a few more questions than laughs. That being said, Odewale is clearly an adept writer and jokester, whose talents certainly shine from time to time, in between slightly weaker setups and punchlines.

The venue, a small dark Pleasance space, suits his winking, confrontational approach well, letting Odewale lock eyes with audience members who react with mixtures of amused discomfort and pearl-clutching giggles, to good comic effect. His material ranges from daring jabs at consumerism and privilege, to more self-deprecating observations on Black masculinity and some of his own morally dubious personal habits. Each of these topics elicits a good belly laugh or two over the course of the show, including some truly tickling insinuations that terrorism benefits the running shoe industry, and a darkly hilarious story about the etiquette of discussing peanut allergies on a date. 

Many of Odewale’s bits, rest assured, are certainly amusing, but just as many make one feel some more fine-tuning is in order, and perhaps a rethink of comic timing. The comedy is not quite consistent or energetic enough to elicit the kind of enthusiasm needed to make an audience thoroughly recommend this hour to their friends — like the title, a great deal of his jokes are creative, but without much spark. Odewale’s persona, however, of a sardonic, witty, and flawed Black male shrewdly navigating the parameters of modern society, has much potential, and I personally would happily see his next show, assuming the punchlines get tighter, the segments more focused, and Odewale’s energy more palpable. A performer to remember, but a show that could use more bite and verve for now. 

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

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Little Shop of Horrors (theSpace @ Surgeon’s Hall: Aug 19 – 24 : 17:45: 1hr)

“A faithful, fun adaptation of a well loved classic.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

I’ve always had a weakness for Little Shop. Call me puerile, but there’s a lot of musicals that’d benefit from a giant, bloodthirsty jazz plant. Fiddler on the Roof is an amazing show, but imagine Sunrise, Sunset with Levi Stubbs scatting in the background. It was with glee, then, that I saw a production was to be brought my doorstep.

For those who don’t know, the premise of Little Shop of Horrors is classic black comedy: a nerdy schmuck finds an alien plant that changes his life for the better – the only catch being that Audrey II demands human blood in exchange for continued success. Think Faust, if Faust was a rock opera set mostly in a flower shop.

Bob Hope Theatre stays true to this narrative whilst squeezing the original work into a tight hour – and, in that respect, it’s a real success. As someone who is shamefully familiar with its predecessors, places where material was cut and fused for time was surprisingly seamless, incorporating the dramatic flow into the changes with masterful attention to inter-scene connection. Though a few scenes (especially those reliant on emotional revelations) felt a little pressed for space, it’s a necessary evil of the Fringe business.

Performances are strong across the board, with every player slipping into Little Shop’s caricature cut-out roles with aplomb. Whilst not doing anything particularly new with the roles, there was no place where the demands of the characters were not met. Richard Cooper is wonderfully nebbish as Seymour, in stark contrast to Sarah Leanne-Howe’s Audrey – straight out of the pages of a 1950s Good Housekeeping. Kris Webb’s murderous Audrey II, whilst lacking the booming presence of his predecessors, brought a pointedly creepy smoothness to his role. Managing to look vaguely threatening in a big frond costume is tough, but honest to God it happens.

MVP of the production must go to Andy Moore, with his standout performance as Orin Scrivello. Energetic, gleefully sadistic and uncomfortably charismatic, Moore keenly captures not only the essential energy of the play, but also the essence of what makes his character such a joy to watch. Praise for energy also goes to Paul Stone as Mushnik. Though his accent takes certain peaks and troughs during the performance, he immediately lights up the stage with each appearance.

However, Little Shop demands more than theatrical chops. Rock Opera is a hard beast to wrangle, especially on the small stage. And don’t think for a moment that the singing performances in this show are not incredibly worthy – they are, especially in the case of Chiffon, Crystal & Ronette. However, technical mastery is just one facet of this kind of performance, and unfortunately, the necessary punch and energy required to really hammer home the intensity and spectacle of a rock opera simply wasn’t there. The songs had heart, but (apart from a select few) nothing every really comes in for the killing blow. Tension doesn’t range high enough, sorrow cannot go low enough. This is a cast with the potential to hit the audience like a sledgehammer, and it’s disappointing to see it miss.

It’s deceptively hard to pull off an established show, especially with a smaller budget and Fringetastic time constraints. The performance by Bob Hope Theatre, whilst not bombastic, is nevertheless a faithful, fun adaptation of a well loved classic.

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close  (Seen 20 August)

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