Mack the Knife (Bedlam: 25 – 26 Jan.’17)

mack-the-knife

“Lady, ‘the hottest ticket in town’”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

There’s a virtual Hall of Fame in this show: Brecht, Weill, Lotte Lenya, to start with; and a few music greats – Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Sinatra – and then Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin with the title song. If you want more, there could be Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’s The Lady is a Tramp and a passing literary reference to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.

Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller would channel them all through his play. It’s a clever and applaudable conceit but the interference is too much. Too many signals from too many sources.  A mellow jazz intro’ – nice – leads into Oh, Lady Be Good which given what follows is practically hilarious. ‘Lady’ sings that she’s ‘all alone in this big city’ but for all her lonesomeness she is plainly making out just fine. It helps that the competition in the other clubs is thinning out, alarmingly so in fact, and the police appear clueless.

Detective Foster (Paddy Echlin) likes his work. He’s had lessons in psychological profiling and Jack the Ripper is on his mind rather than Georgia but he’s a poor sap. He has the sharp trench coat and the 50’s trilby but is not the hard-boiled character that he thinks he is. More a marshmallow with a toy gun.  Deacon (Jacob Brown), Lady’s trumpet player, is more on the case and knows a set-up when he sees one but unfortunately his incredulous WTF’s don’t help him. As for Lady, ‘the hottest ticket in town’, Jo Hill enjoys herself. She’s sassy at the mike, sings confidently, and is audacious beyond reckoning.

And here’s the rub. Lady’s luck – call it ‘cool’ if you must – is something else. It turns tension into the comic macabre, not least when she kneecaps herself and stays on her feet. Maybe her aim was off but even a flesh wound must hurt like hell. Then there’s the absolute gift of a police detective who ‘packs heat’ like Clouseau on holiday.

Will Briant on piano and Vebjorn Halvfjierdvik on bass give the piece a tempo and style that if extended – for the Fringe, say – could lift the play into the lighter, skilful register that Brimmer-Beller is reaching for.

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 25 January)

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Blackbird (Bedlam: 16-17 Nov ’16)

“Powerful and moving”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

I was quite apprehensive before taking my seat, as to how Edinburgh University Theatre Company would present the strong, emotive themes of trauma, abuse and love in David Harrower’s intense two-hander. With the entire play focusing on one conversation between the two central characters Ray and Una, how well would the actors sustain and communicate this challenging piece?

The plot sees Una (Sophia Dowson-Collins) seek out Ray (Benjamin Aluwihare) to confront him about the sexual relationship they had fifteen years prior – when she was only a 12 year old girl whilst he was a grown man of 40. She wants to face the past but he is at first unwilling to speak to her. As the play progresses they both go through a range of emotions, sometimes screaming at each other and at other times talking calmly about trivial things, creating a dramatic if at times, confusing dynamic.

The script is complex, taking a while to build and reel the audience in before taking a deeper and darker turn. We get to piece together more about the identities and personalities of both characters, and some surprising twists and turns reveal the truth of what happened fifteen years ago and how both characters have dealt with their experiences since. The silent captivation from my fellow audience members throughout told its own story: at times there was perceptible discomfort, and I personally found the whole thing quite awkward and difficult to watch, but only because the performance felt so real.

Although both performers did well I was particularly impressed by Dowson-Collins’s performance: at times there were long streaks where only she would speak – sometimes to Ray but often more like she was speaking to herself. She was captivating and consistent throughout, bringing a great sense or realness to her character. Aluwihare seemed nervous and awkward for the most part and although fitting with Ray’s character, it was difficult to tell how much “acting” came into play.

The set was perfectly suited to the action: it was very simple with just a couple of seats, a table and some office lockers, making the actors do the work to convey the story. In saying that, what didn’t work so well was the use of a plastic sheet hanging behind Una and Ray, from behind which a girl would appear to represent Una becoming a ghost of herself through everything she had experienced. Although I could see what the production was trying to do I felt like this distracted from the dialogue between Una and Ray, and a more creative way of expressing this idea could have been used to greater effect.

All in I was very impressed by the performance. The themes may not be to everyone’s taste, but it was still a fascinating watch.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Iona Young (Seen 16 November)

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Frost / Nixon (Bedlam: 12 – 15 Oct.’16)

frost-nixon

David Frost (Callum Pope), left, interviews Richard Nixon (Paddy Echlin)

“The whole impression is one of a gathering and important moment.”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Nae Bad

It’s a generational, media churned, thing. For Brits over 40 to call Peter Morgan’s Frost / Nixon (2006) the ‘real deal’, might be to ask ‘Collectable’ or ‘Antique’?; for Bedlam’s student audience this enthralling play on fact is simply ‘Legit’. Producer Patrick Beddow can be well pleased with its timeliness, coming as it does during the objectionable and tawdry business of the Hillary and Donald Show. Doubtless Frost / Nixon is relevant as U.S political history from 1977 but director Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller and cast make darned sure that it will still grab your attention as a piece of theatre.

David Frost died in 2013 and has the latest memorial stone in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, which says a lot about the influence of TV these days. Anyhow, he was 39 when he interviewed former President Richard Nixon, three years after Nixon was forced to resign following Watergate. Twenty-four hours plus of recorded material was edited into four ninety minute broadcasts. The first, on 5 May 1977, drew 45 million viewers, still the largest television audience for a political interview ever. Frost /Nixon is the story of how this big (and very real) deal happened, or kind of happened, and how it played out on all those screens. Frost was reckoned a lightweight, capable of only pitching softball questions, ‘puffballs’, that Nixon would just smash over the outfield fence and pocket $600,000. Well, he got his money – and a snazzy gift of Italian shoes – but not all the home runs.

Paddy Echlin is Nixon and Callum Pope is Frost and one on one, with a strong script, it’s a revealing double act. Frost, dapper and debonair, is still a shrewd operator. Nixon, is clever, practised, and self-assured almost to the last. Voice, gesture, timing are studied and effective. Off-camera – and there are cameras on stage – you get just enough of their personal lives to feel interested. Whether, you should sympathise with Richard Nixon is, of course, a contentious question but Echlin’s performance may well win you round. His chief of staff, Jack Brennan (Sasha Briggs), defends him against the liberal ‘side’, where Macleod Stephen as James Reston is particularly telling as player and commentator.

It’s 90 minutes straight through with no interval, which is a good call. Scenes proceed briskly and there are only a few chairs to move around and the whole impression is one of a gathering and important moment. The cameras provide some tight close-ups, and are a helpful reminder that this is a made-for-television ‘event’, but the flood lights do fade Nixon’s jowls to nothing. Otherwise, this is illuminating work.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 12 October)

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Endgame (Bedlam: 22-26 March ’16)

Thomas Noble as Hamm

Thomas Noble as Hamm

“The best student production I’ve seen in quite some time”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

One certainly cannot fault the courage of the students at Edinburgh University this year for taking on so many challenging productions, and to even attempt Beckett – whose works so often have age and world-weariness as themes – is admirable. I was lucky enough to spend an entire term studying Beckett at university, under the tutorship of a renowned expert on his works, but even then I worried that my final performance would be a tragic, naïve offering compared to what had gone before.

Beckett certainly isn’t for everyone, and Endgame is a one-act play with a running time of close to 90 minutes that has very little narrative development or real “action”. What is most satisfying about this production is the group’s sensitivity to Beckett’s text. The great man is notoriously particular about how his work should be performed, and Edinburgh University Theatre Company don’t try any tricks or fancy interpretations to make it new or innovative, but instead use subtlety to let the text speak for itself. Finlay McAfee’s masterful direction teases out various interesting repetitions in the dialogue and hints at some of the political undertones, but never makes bold statements or suggestions.

In saying that, this production also doesn’t take itself too seriously – it’s littered with comedic moments, just as Beckett intended, and is a very well-rounded and watchable show. Sarah Brown’s set is simple yet effective, using black and white as a nod to the “game” element, while all other creative elements are in sync to present a cohesive and professional mise-en-scene.

Thomas Noble as Hamm is the centrepiece of the actors – always on stage, centre stage, he commands attention with charisma and gusto. His moments of anger when flinging props aside are powerful, while he shows great contrast in more intimate conversations with Clov. In turn Clov (Michael Hajiantonis) is excellent as the down-trodden servant, whose development in confidence towards the end, extreme physicality and impressive Irish accent all contribute to a commendable performance.

Jennifer Jones is compelling to watch as Nag, with fantastic control over the small movements and expressions she makes inside the bin. Her physicality is exquisite, and her delivery of the tailor story is achingly on point. Antonia Weir is equally captivating and convincing as long-suffering wife Nell.

To me the only thing lacking from this production is a deeper sense of age and timelessness. The action all seemed a little too fresh and perhaps a touch too “performed” for it to be believable as a snapshot of continual drudgery. In saying that, I’d much rather a slight tip in this direction to keep it energetic and engaging rather than veering down the road of self-indulgent dawdling. In all other respects this show is hard to fault, it’s certainly the best student production I’ve seen in quite some time.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 23 March)

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Angels in America (Bedlam: 8 – 12 March ’16)

Brooks Hudgins as Prior and Emily Deans as Harper Photos: EUTC

Brooks Hudgins as Prior and Emily Deans as Harper
Photos: EUTC

‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

If you think a log cabin Republican is the kind of guy who would fire off a Patriot missile at a low flying angel, that would be way, way off target. And what would be his (her?) Democrat equivalent? I dunno but it might involve tepees and he / she might major in lines like ‘Respect the delicate ecology of your emotions’. You get both sorts on the Bedlam stage this week. Yay!

This is Tony Kushner’s cultural blockbuster of a play from the early 90s: that’s actually two plays, Millenium Approaches and Perestroika, with a runtime – then – of around seven hours. See this EUTC production, ably directed by Liam Rees, and you’re done in just over three hours but you will probably want to know what has had to be cut. (There is the made-for-cable HBO miniseries that might help and you won’t have to suffer the Baltic temperatures of Bedlam, although the scenes in Antarctica might feel familiar.) In the original script there are 67 scenes for two characters and that’s more or less how it all proceeds, two-handers with stand-out monologues for the principals. It’s sharp, witty, political, and yet manages to shade from the domestic to the mythic. Its subtitle, ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’ sets the scene.

To begin with it is 1985, Cats is going strong on Broadway and Ronald Reagan is President. In New York City Prior Walter – latest of the Walters who got off the Mayflower – is getting sick from AIDS and his partner of four years, Louis Ironson, is not coping. Lou works in the same building as Joe Pitt, a legal clerk, who is offered a big move to Washington DC by his powerful associate and friend, Roy Cohn. Joe does not know if he can take the job because his wife, Harper, is popping Valium like there’s no tomorrow. You are never entirely sure how many tomorrows Prior has left, not least when he’s visited by two ancestors in black capes who regard his pestilential condition as entirely befitting a sodomite.  Angel wings hang above the stage and at the close a tremendous thrumming heralds the arrival of the ‘Messenger’. In all likelihood the bearer of glad tidings has arrived but there have been angelic voices before and Prior, bless him, has no idea what they’re talking about.

The excellent cast does not leave the stage which works well to impress a sense of full-on, marginally dislocated action. Prior’s sick bed stays up centre throughout. Brooks Hudgins plays the stricken WASP with timing that stings and with biting bittersweet delivery. Abandoned by Louis, he muses on his desperate isolation: it’s a sad joke that his dermatologist is on a [long] vacation in Hawaii and his mother … well, his mother just stays away. Rob Younger as Louis has all the lines and tousled angst of a Woody Allen character. It’s a kind, thoughtful part, full of faltering starts, punctuated by ‘Okay ..’ and ‘Right ..’ as he tries to explain himself. At home, stranded in her Brooklyn apartment, Emily Deans is outstanding as Harper Pitt, managing her depressive state with what amounts to mischievous glee in pyjamas and spotted dressing gown. Andrew Hally as husband Joe has to behave decently against demanding odds and more insuperable than even his Mormon upbringing or his sexuality is the foul mouthed, monster ego of Roy Cohn. The fact that Al Pacino took this part gives you a measure of what Peter Morrison has to do and he does well, lurching from one ghastly judgement to the next upon what’s rotten in the land of the free. It is not at all difficult to realise that Cohn (1927-1986) was a real-life horror show.

Peter Morrison as Roy Cohn

Peter Morrison as Roy Cohn

Supporting roles by Meera Munoz Pandya (notably as Belize, onetime drag queen, Prior’s ex-boyfriend and best friend) and by Erica Belton are clearly defined and remarkably effective within the significantly reduced script. The inevitable problem in this half and half version of Angels in America is that the impact of the ‘blockbuster’ cannot be the same as it was when young Americans were all ‘Reagan’s children’. It even predates Friends for heaven’s sake! The angelic chorus gets muffled, as it certainly did up in the rafters of Bedlam. Exhortations to ‘Look up, look up’ did not just baffle Prior Walter. Nevertheless, when ‘Modern Studies’ in many a Scottish high school can still stop at JFK’s assassination and when HIV infection and AIDS simply register as component parts of the Health and Well Being curriculum, this EUTC production is important work.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 8 March)

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The Pillowman (Bedlam Theatre 2 – 6 Feb. ’16)

Scott Meenan as Katurian. Photo: Mollie Hodkinson

 “This show  will wring the life out of you, in the best way possible.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Outstanding

Pillowman is to dark comedy what heroin is to vapor rub. Martin McDonagh’s tale of bloody flesh and fairytales is dark, dirty and sometimes barefacedly brutal – and in the hands of director Emily Aboud, often stingingly clever as well.

Set in a faceless concrete prison, ‘Pillowman’ tells the story of writer Katurian questioned about gory child murders strongly resembling the short stories he writes. Throw in a heaping helping of torture, a pinch of weirdly psychotic police banter and as much moral relativism as you can stomach, and you’ve got a play which (despite quite a few good laughs) stays tensely uncomfortable the entire way through. Make no mistakes: this show  will wring the life out of you, in the best way possible.

But a script without a director doesn’t get too far, and with Emily Aboud returning to the stage after her barnstorming production of Equus, there’s never any doubt it’s in safe hands. Apart from some strangely static blocking at the beginning, her overall vision for the production strikes gold: McDonagh’s work feels just as grittily surreal as it should.

And on the note of surreality, the set for this production is a gem- it’s not often I’ve seen twists dependent entirely on clever set design, let alone done so with such skill. There were some design choices, though, which seemed less prudent than others: a series of videos projected onto the stage wall would have had twice the impact if performed live. Whilst the presentation detracted nothing, it was slightly disappointing to think of its potential. And to sound designer Alex Greenwald, I’ll say only this: The low ambient drone? Fantastically slithery.

Luckily, the propitious problem of wasted potential is brilliantly absent from the cast. Theatre veteran Scott Meenan captures the quiet intensity of Katurian excellently. Subtle yet passionate is a hard duality to pull off, so it was a joy to see it done so well. And even more so when combined with Douglas Clark as Michal: the burden of the fool in black comedy is a heavy one, but Clark makes the part feel as natural as breathing.

Hot off the heels of EUSOG’s Addams Family, Esmee Cook expertly runs the emotional gamut as wonderfully sadistic second-in-command Ariel – but the indisputable star of the police parade is Paddy Echlin as Detective Tupolski. Sardonic and hilariously removed from normal logic, Echlin dominated the stage whenever his annoyingly wrong tie came flapping through the set doors.

The supporting cast were noticeably solid, especially in terms of physical theatre – Sian Davies in particular has a peculiar knack for playing tragically adorable kids.

With such energy and dynamism throughout, however, it was a disappointment to see the production fall into the trap of lengthy and jarring set changes. For a piece which, in every other aspect, set up a wonderfully naturalistic and believable surreality of tone, these seemed like a strange choice. They were luckily few and far between, but are still a bit like stopping a delicious meal to eat a couple of handfuls of packing peanuts.

Overall, I was impressed by Pillowman. It has creative and well-crafted direction and maintains the kind of thick atmosphere most other shows could only dream of (although, making the Bedlam Theatre feel like a freezing cell requires little help). Combine with stellar acting and a well-chosen crew, and you’ve got a production that’ll knock your socks off  –  and then probably strangle you with them, but still.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 3 February)

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Bedlam: 13 – 17 October ’15)

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Henry Conklin as George and Caroline Elms as Martha.

“Courageous and spirited performance”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

There are drinks before a party and there are drinks after a party. The LADbible, a new source for Edinburgh49, lists ‘17 Things That Always Happen During Pre-Drinks’; but what about Post-Drinks? The lads should go back to George and Martha’s place and learn how Mom and Dad get down at two in the morning on a Saturday night. And then some. Don’t play these party games at home, boys and girls.

Edward Albee’s 1962 play is a lacerating shocker of a marriage on the rocks. Martha is 52, is really high-maintenance and has a nice line in mixing ice-cubes and tears. George is 46 and – to quote his wife – doesn’t “do anything; you never mix. You just sit around and talk”, which explains the two chesterfield sofas on stage but under-estimates by a long, long shot George’s mocking and mordant words. Total war is not declared until halfway through the second act but the skirmishing is unrelenting and bloody. When they are not ripping into each other they practice on their late night guests, Nick (30) and Honey (26), whom they have just met.

We’re in a small university town in New England where George hasn’t made professor in the History faculty, despite marrying the college President’s daughter, and Nick – fresh in from Kansas, blond and bright – has just joined the Biology Department.

It’s like Albee is swirling his first couple in a highball glass (and note the cheeky correspondence between George and Martha Washington …). Actors Henry Conklin and Caroline Elms give a performance of such fortified intensity that you wonder how they’ll recover. Conklin is the measured, oiled one, his level delivery only once or twice spilling into fury. Elms is more intemperate, emotionally more profligate, but still vulnerable. Albee would have her past her prime, which is tricky at the undergraduate stage, but then George is supposed to be thin and going grey. Neither performer worries about that and they give each other such a goddam kicking that not for one second did I doubt the wasted nature of their twenty-three years of marriage. Tender proof positive is provided by their exhausted, mutual dependence at the end.

Stephen MacLeod as Nick and Jodie Mitchell as Honey.

Macleod Stephen as Nick and Jodie Mitchell as Honey.

George calls Nick and Honey ‘children’ and they are: not so much innocent as defenceless. Jodie Mitchell plays Honey as – frankly – clueless and squiffy and there’s an honesty to it that is very appealing.  Macleod Stephen has the harder part, trying to stand against George, to withstand Martha (he flops) and manage several whisky sodas. Nick’s sudden understanding of the acute sadness that slashes through the whole action is important but was almost blindsided.

Director Pedro Leandro should be delighted with courageous and spirited performance. It is a long play but the tension held and what might have turned mannered and flat did not. The sofas, stage left, could have been more in the centre and I did miss Martha banging against the door chimes (my bad, I reckon) which needs to be seen to make sense of George’s ruthless masterplan to wipe her out.

Simon and Garfunkel’s The Dangling Conversation opens up the second act and is a pitch perfect choice. Remember the line, “Is the theatre really dead?” Well, it ain’t.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 13 October)

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