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)

Go to Pillowman at Bedlam here.

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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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The Seagull (Bedlam: 7 – 8 October ’15)

The cast. Photo: EUTC Facebook page.

The cast.
Photo: EUTC Facebook page.

“Enlivening”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Nae Bad

At a guess, the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick is not a must-go destination for students. Well, maybe directors Holly Marsden and Kathryn Salmond are the happy exception for their production of The Seagull gets as up close and personal as the centre’s webcams. And, critically, it does so unencumbered by tradition. No sentimental guano here.

Don’t get me wrong. This Seagull does the business: it’s intelligent, funny and sad – but it is also grounded and plain. Nina’s lofty ‘I am a seagull … No, that’s not it’ is lost on the wind (or cut) and her fraught state at the end of the play is all the more effective for being low-key.

Leave the real emoting to Konstantin (Douglas Clark), who does a fine, anguished job of it – just as he did as Alan Strang in Equus in March. It is not so much an uptight, stressy, performance as an upright one: earnest, principled, and lonely. Kostia stands apart as young and intense, a little weird, which goes down well with an EUTC audience. Chekhov is suitably amended. Where, back then, Kostia left university in his 3rd year ‘owing to circumstances’; now he did politics at uni. and got nowhere.

A seagull is still the emblem of the Moscow Arts Theatre and it is appealing to see how the play is up to date. There’s embattled youth with dreams and no prospects; parent(s) brittle with glee and anxiety and a professional class whose diplomas are looking tired and whose pensions are meagre. Town and country are miles apart and there is the constant engagement with what pays and what doesn’t. There’s even bingo and the fortunate winner who takes all, including the girl.

For Kostia, theatre just exists as nice vistas in abstracted space, which is a cheerless and absent place to be. It is more enlivening, by far, to stay in the company of others. There’s uncle Sorin, played with bleak glee by William Hughes; doctor Dorn, a gently sardonic Finlay McAfee; and the famous literary cad Trigorin, whom a soulful Jonathan Ip rescues from the censure that he probably deserves. However, it’s the women who really people the stage: Arkadina, Kostia’s impossible, self-absorbed mother, is strongly played by Elske Waite; Nina, lovely and brave, is a beautifully articulate Katya Morrison; and an unerring Sally Pendleton is the trapped but resolute Masha. I thought all three performers offered a junior master class in diction.

Of especial note in a solid, more than pleasing production was the spare quality of the costume and stage set. For once the doors opened and shut without shaking the ‘walls’ and a single fireplace, a table and a few chairs proved just enough.

We’re told that this is the first time that The Seagull has been put on at Bedlam. I’d be happy to see it or its relations fly back soon. Three Sisters, anyone?

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 8 October)

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‘Equus’ (Bedlam: 3 – 7 March ’15)

Douglas Clark as Alan Strang Samuel Burkett as Nugget, the God Equus Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic.

Douglas Clark as Alan Strang
Samuel Burkett as Nugget, the God Equus
Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic.

“You’re out there with the cowboys”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars Outstanding

Track suits and gloves of chestnut velour, anyone? Well, maybe in 1973 when Equus first cantered and careered into stage history. Now, we’ve lost the strutted hooves and it’s black Sculpt Tight leggings and sports bras. No matter, for this is a super fit production and the horses look the part. Do not, under any circumstances, think germinal, theatrical, War Horse, for director Emily Aboud achieves blinding drama.

Literally. Alan Strang (17) took a hoof pick to four horses and put out their eyes. (It was six in the original production but play fair with Bedlam’s space). Martin Dysart is the psychiatrist who gets inside Alan’s head to see what went ‘wrong’ and – maybe – to make him ‘well’. These are troubled and relative terms, as becomes extremely clear. Dysart reports Alan’s story as Alan tells it and is assisted by the testimony of parents, girlfriend and employer, and in so doing lays bare his own obsessions and vulnerability. This is one treatment plan where the word sacrificial does not beggar belief.

The two principals are admirable. Douglas Clark as Alan is lean, hurting, and his voice breaks from soft assent to pain and furious anger with remarkable force. His few scenes with Jill (Chloe Allen), his unexpected girl, are both tender and acutely awkward. He is also, in the extraordinary last scene of Act One, and alone with Equus, in complete control of what could be disastrously affected language. Charley Cotton plays Dysart as the decent doctor who has just about given up on the prescription ‘to heal thyself’. His dreadful marriage – to a Scottish dentist! – is as neatly dissected as his vain hopes to discover real pagan Greece in his Kodachrome snaps of Mount Olympus.

Douglas Clark as Alan Strang Chloe Allan as Jill Mason Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic.

Douglas Clark as Alan Strang
Chloe Allan as Jill Mason
Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic.

Designer Emiline Beroud respects Peter Shaffer’s original setting. The cast is on stage throughout, sitting at the back or to the sides when not performing. The centre stage is railed off on two sides and provides consulting room and stable floor. The horse masks hang left and right. Bedlam cannot accommodate the back-drop of tiers of seats, as if in an old anatomy lecture theatre, so Dysart’s talk becomes more confessional than public spirited and – if anything – more characterised by what Shaffer called its ‘dry agony’.

And the visual action is extraordinarily effective. That’s a lot of rehearsal time, I reckon. Mimetic movement, snap-tight lighting (predominately blue) and an electric beat do deliver Shaffer’s choric element. When these horses move and when one is ridden you’re out there with the cowboys of Alan’s wishes. When it all goes dark, in between the strobe flashes, it’s a stampede of the mind.

Equus has an awesome reputation and that’s in the classical, God fearing sense of the word but its notoriety has probably gone and it might seize up and appear contrived. There was some first night stiffness to the supporting roles but for the most part this exacting production gives its language and ideas free rein and exciting liberty.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 3 March)

Visit Equus at Bedlam here

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

‘The Real Inspector Hound’ (Bedlam: 28-29 January ’15)

Real Inspector Hound

“…utterly absurd and completely entertaining”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

A buzz of excitement rippled through the café during the wait for the doors to open. Inside the auditorium the audience is greeted with the strains of period music and a spotlight trained on a man in an armchair with a notebook to hand, who would later be introduced to us as Moon, played by Ben Horner.

As can be expected of any of Tom Stoppard’s work, The Read Inspector Hound is a wordy script with many a tricky speech to deliver, which at times proved a challenge  – but not one the actors were defeated by – and a journey for its audience that can be difficult to follow. Director Cameron Scott was brave to tackle this play but his addition of updated jokes including Real McCoys – the crisps – and a myriad of highly comical moments from his cast proved that he was more than capable of handling such a project.

This murder mystery play-within-a-play delved with ease into the absurdity of the human condition and the blurring of lines between what is real and what we desire to be real , drawing the audience in and gripping them from the very beginning with the fast pace and rapidly building hysteria.

The production team’s terrific set design included patio doors, a very large Persian rug and two tables, one holding the drinks, the other waiting for the drinkers. The elevated pair of armchairs, occupied by Moon and his most respectable reviewing counterpart Birdboot, brought to life by Finlay MacAfee, worked well to maintain the separation of reality and imagination – at first.

As a duo, MacAfee and Horner were most convincing; Moon’s nervous disposition and Birdboot’s self-righteous air coloured the play throughout and their back-and-forth monologues were highly entertaining.

Leyla Doany gave a great performance – her busybody Mrs Drudge’s facial expressions, dusty white hair and reactions to the goings on around her kept the stage alive with comic ridicule.

The suave Simon Gascoyne – a smooth delivery from Leopold Glover – and his scorned lovers had the audience in hysterics; both Lady Cynthia Muldoon and Felicity Cunningham proved they could hold their own against the stud. Liss Hansen and Heather Daniel’s respective characters certainly appeared to take some satisfaction in the slaps they delivered so soundly.

Capturing madness and mayhem in his enigmatic performance, Joseph Macaulay’s manic portrayal of Inspector Hound was impressive in its crazed delivery. The long-winded speeches and wrongful assumptions were delivered with a high energy and conviction of character. His deer-stalker, binoculars and wellington boots were comic props used to their fullest potential, much like their owner.

To add to the further absurdity, the casting of Megan Burt as Albert, who was masquerading as the crippled brother Magnus, brought comic timing and a most-amusing manoeuvring of Magnus’s wheelchair. Her adorned beard was a favourite in the costume department. The big reveal at the close of the play – that Albert is also the real ………….. – stays true to the whodunit nature of this bizarre adventure.

A special mention must also be given to Liam Rees who arguably had the most difficult part to play of all – the corpse. How he was able to lie still and play dead surrounded by the onslaught of commotion, without so much as a twitch and a chuckle, is beyond me.

Technically, this production was slick. Jack Simpson’s work on lighting and sound effects did enhance the action with the constant ringing of the telephone (with the cut cable!) and dramatic spotlights at every opportune moment.

As the story unravelled and reviewers Moon and Birdboot are sucked into the madness of the play, the action and pace built and built to a dizzying climax, ending in death and further confusion. Stoppard always keeps you guessing.

The production team – Cameron Scott, producer Tabitha James, stage manager Jonathan Barnett and tech manager Jack Simpson, evidently put a lot of energy into creating this show and their hard work most certainly paid off. All in all, as a reviewer reviewing a play of reviewers reviewing a play, I must admit this show was utterly absurd and completely entertaining.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Amy King  (Seen 28 January)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

‘The Last Straw’ (Bedlam: 21 – 25 October ’14)

The Last Straw 1

Photos: Ummatiddle

“…  impro cuts loose, and cries of ‘F –ing awesome’ applaud play and cast.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Outstanding

A tale of two exclamations from ole stage coach territory. There’s “Whoa!” (Slow down) or “Wow!” (Stop right there. That’s too much). Either way, forget it. The foot brake’s worn, the wheel brake’s a joke, and you’re gonna get hurt, lady, if you stay up top. Best ride is in here, in Bedlam, with us. It’s a long journey of near on two and a half hours but it’s fun.

Director and writer Eric Geistfeld is from somewhere in Minnesota. Home is unlikely to be Bemidji but what the heck, The Last Straw is tv’s Fargo in a gothic farce. It’s intrepid. No quavering, gathered strings here; no hole in the ice but a useful trapdoor. There is breakneck writing, lunatic action, a menagerie of oddball characters, a yellow sex doll, and a lot of laughs.

Upright, young Edward, true-buttoned Brit and in financial services, is just married to Judy, all-American sweetheart, ‘pajamaed’ and with her teddy. They are to live with Violet, Judy’s mother, in Terror Towers. It might as well be Marine Corps ville. Ronald Reagan is venerated and there is a dead butler, resident throughout the first half, who wears aviators and is fed cake, but it’s gum-chewing, pistol packing Violet (Isobel Moulder) who calls the shots, literally. There will be no kids until she’s ashes and she’d be much obliged if her son in law would smoke them after she’s gone. Not that she plans to let him live long. Edward (Macleod Stephen) is a good sort, articulates so well, but realises that his body bag is being prepared. Ma has to go so he puts out a contract on her life, as she has on his.

The Last Straw 2

There is live keyboard but you hang onto the soundtrack. The Magnificent Seven sets us off and then it’s a trip through The First Cut is the Deepest, Our House, The House of the Rising Sun and, of course, Sweet Dreams are Made of This. By this point Edward has taken a slice of sponged cocaine cake and is away, tally-ho, with his toilet plunger and the weird fairies from the basement. The fourth wall crumbled a while back, impro cuts loose,  and cries of ‘F –ing awesome’ applaud play and cast.

The Last Straw goes out to glad-hand its audience. Is it like the Lothian state fair on the Meadows? Kind of. Scenes are gaudy, wisecracking sideshows, neatly divided by a door on wheels. They put their trust in ‘Together we’ll go far’, which just happens to be the slogan of the Wells Fargo bank. Especially successful are ‘The Murderelli Brothers’, possibly from Brooklyn, whose take on Alan Rickman is actually to die for; ‘The Existential Hecklers’ from outta Sartre and ‘The Sad Killer’. What of the main act in amongst these diversions? Beyond the closing cheer of ‘Happy Families’, there needn’t be one. For the best of reasons The Last Straw is a fearless, crowded, tiring, play.

And so to our adventurous rating and ranking of 3* OUTSTANDING. Three stars (safe) because you won’t be disappointed by such a full-on, have-a go, production. Colour coded red – Outstanding – because The Last Straw is remarkable rather than unbearable. I thought so, anyway.

outstanding

StarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 22 October)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (Bedlam: 26 – 29 March ’14)

Dorian Gray

Wil Fairhead as Dorian Gray. Photo. Paul Alistair Collins

“The contrast between Gray and his aging associates was very well handled and provided the actors with opportunities to show off their powers of reaction, in which they all excelled.”

Editorial Rating: Unrated

I’ve been told to stop sending hectoring emails to the producers of Epic Rap Battles of History. Apparently they aren’t going to be pitting Dorian Gray against Doctor Faustus in the present series, and that’s an end of it. It’s too epic for EpicLLOYD and Nice Peter isn’t so nice when cease and desist letters start flying around. If the line, “you’re a puny little dandy, as weak as lager shandy” doesn’t clinch the deal, it seems nothing will.

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is the story of a handsome fellow who sells his soul for the outward appearance of eternal youth. Under the mephistophelian tutelage of his friend Lord Henry, Gray shuns the simple life betraying the trust of those he befriends. After breaking the heart of his first love, Sybil, a beautiful young actress, Gray realises that while he never ages, his sins are being scored upon a portrait painted in his prime.

Published in 1890, Wilde’s only novel courted controversy like a magnet attracts filings. It is arguably his most important work, the one in which his gorgeous worldview is most cunningly elaborated. Adapting The Picture for the stage might be considered an impious undertaking – certainly the path to hell is paved with unsold copies of Oliver Parker’s 2009 film version.

Neil Bartlett’s adaptation is more faithful to Wilde’s original, but the perfect proportioning of gothic subtlety is lost. For all its larger failings, what annoys me most about the script is that Sybil, performing in Romeo and Juliet, is called to the stage for beginners’ positions even though she won’t appear until scene 3. Wilde did details like Ozwald Boateng does, if you’re going to muck around with him do it right.

Jonathan Ip, as Lord Henry, has the fuzziest end of the lollipop. Huge chunks of semidigested monologue blocked his route through the first couple of scenes – a grueling marathon run with hurdles. Under the sheer weight of words, Ip’s delivery of Wildean wit is muted, and about as jolly as Reading Gaol on a rainy day.

Together with Wil Fairhead in the title role, Ip took to hiding behind his props. The obsessive smoking of e-cigarettes, as well as the constant imbibing from tumblers of neat spirits, suggested that the lads were finding it all a bit much. It’s a wonder director Kirstyn Petras hasn’t got them attending an AA meeting or two.

Fairhead was a strong lead, though noticeably better playing the bastard than the boy. The contrast between Gray and his aging associates was very well handled and provided the actors with opportunities to show off their powers of reaction, in which they all excelled. Both Ip and Dean Joffe (as Basil Hallward) found themselves in their characters’ older selves.

The overall set design was smart, and would have suited a tighter script. It is impossible for a production to stay pacy when it has so many scene changes, necessitating the movement of masses of trinket bedecked and bulky furniture – dropping a hand mirror on stage must bring seriously bad luck.

A platform at the back, with attractive gold detailing, provided Gray with an attic in which to conceal his shame, and the bulky furniture with a place come and go from. To the sides were galleries for the supporting cast who were excellent throughout. Some very strong performances were on show demonstrating that those crowding the wings were not just clothes hangers for Sophie Guise’s superbly tailored costumes. It’s nice to see someone who knows the difference between morning and evening wear, even if Ip’s waistcoat stuck out from the latter. Also, giving the ladies slippers might have reduced the noise of the perpetual scene changes.

With so much participation from the team behind In The Heights, Edinburgh University Footlights’ outstanding recent outing, this production pulled one rabbit from the battered top hat. Jimi Mitchell’s dance routine was spectacular. It was what the cast had been waiting for. Perhaps it was a little too interwar but it showed what the players were capable of when freed from the confines of the script.

This was a production posing more questions than it provided answers. Why did the script refer to the portrait’s golden curls when Fairhead is dark haired? Why was the portrait shown at all when there was no picture, just a black canvas? Wouldn’t reactions to the unseen have been more effective? When you’ve got Benjamin Aluwihare and Jordan Roberts-Lavery in a cast, why wouldn’t you put them front and centre? How many butlers and valets were there? Was it strictly necessary to employ the entire membership of the Junior Ganymede Club?

I would have preferred to see this capable cast and crew tackling an actual Oscar Wilde play, rather than an inadequate adaptation of the great man’s only novel. Not only would there have been more scope for the actresses but the men could have enjoyed playing rallies of banter against one another. Instead they were stuck struggling with a script as stiff as the day old corpse of a portrait artist being carried down from an attic.

Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 28 March)

Visit The Picture of Dorian Gray‘s homepage here.