1984 (Festival: 31 March – 2 April ’16)

Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt as Winston and Julia in 1984. Photo Emma Kauldhar.

Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt as Winston and Julia in 1984. Photo Emma Kauldhar.

“A spine-tingling masterpiece”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

To this day, Northern Ballet’s The Great Gatsby is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen on a stage, so I was excited and intrigued to see what the company would do with another classic novel, albeit a completely different genre and tone. What they’ve created is another spine-tingling masterpiece.

Jonathan Watkins’ choreography is created with all the intricacy and intelligence necessary to portray the complex ideas and changing moods within Orwell’s book. The workers’ unison sections are very crisp and powerful, with many recurring motifs of straight lines and triangles, both in individual movements and formation, which cleverly reflect the “all seeing eye”. Canon variations are used throughout for interest, which work very well to create production line style sequences, again very relevant to the era. In contrast, the Proles’ movements are easily identified through curves, contact improvisation and individuality of style. The lovers’ duet captures all the breath-taking beauty one might expect from a traditional ballet, while the fight scene towards the end is both graceful and gutting, as we see Winston fall and give in to the higher power.

Alex Baronowski’s score is full of accented beats and staccato rhythms which perfectly translate to the repeated motifs of the workers under the control of Big Brother, while the more romantic elements are brought out with strings and flowing, rousing melodies. Much like experimental music of the time, the orchestra uses an assortment of non-traditional instruments to create clashing tinny sounds and altogether this results in an authentic, haunting and sympathetic accompaniment to the action on stage.

Northern Ballet dancers in 1984. Photo Emma Kauldhar.

Northern Ballet dancers in 1984. Photo Emma Kauldhar.

While the relationship between music and movement are clearly intertwined, the design of this production seems equally balanced with the other elements. Chris Davey’s lighting is stark and structural, creating yet more triangles and straight lines for the dancers to follow and stay within, and Simon Daw’s set of moving walls and simple blank spaces adds to the feeling of isolation and hopelessness. Use of colour is also very powerful, from the traditional blue of the workers uniforms, to the bright yellow of hate to the oranges and browns of the Proles, this is clearly a production that pays high regard to many details, making it a joy to watch.

As can be expected in such an interpretation, not every nuance of the book is covered on stage, and sacrifices have to be made to adapt the work for this new form. It’s a shame that some sections aren’t made more of – the final quarter in particular seems a little rushed – but overall the piece strikes a fine balance between narrative progression and beauty of form. For those unfamiliar with the story this production may be somewhat difficult to follow, but even then, the artistry on display is of such high quality that it almost doesn’t matter.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 1 April)

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The James Plays (Festival Theatre: 3 – 13 Feb.’16)

Steven Miller (James I) Photo Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Steven Miller (James I) Photo Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

“‘On you go then, son. On you go. You can do it’.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

‘Poisoned dresses are something out of children’s stories … if you want to kill her. Put a knife in her’, which would explain, right enough, why there is a whopping great sword on the boards. Still, The James Plays do imply – with a nod and a wink and a catchy dance step – that the Scots are one wicked antidote to the English. They also, with stirring ease, bring on guid strong women. Admire (or not) the toxic fortitude and murderous determinations of James I, II, and III but applaud Queens Joan, Mary and Margaret and give thanks for Annabella, Meg and Phemy.

There is no shortage of bloodletting in Rona Munro’s gutsy trilogy of how to keep head and crown together – in fact the ginormous sword runs with the red stuff – but actually the property of the piece is the kist in the bedroom. That’s ‘proper furniture’ [that chest], with a hundred uses’. You can hide a boy king in it for a start – and ‘drop it out of the window and brain any bastard climbing up the castle’. Munro’s writing is like that: hands-on, unhesitating and constructive.

Best, if you can, to see the plays in order – that’s from 1420 to 1488; and although they’re too inventive and complete to be Horrible Histories they do, in their savage and entertaining scenes, come pretty close: in James I, for instance, when Walter Stewart nails horseshoes to the hands and feet of one of his tenants, old Ada, for scolding him; or in James II when the young king peeks out of his kist to see his mother about to have sex with her ‘protector’ John Stewart. Too many Stewarts? Well, there’s always a Douglas on the make and by the time of the bi-sexual James III, there’s his lover, architect Cochrane, and fine wine and madrigals before all else, especially trying to rule Scotland.

Laurie Sansom’s convinced direction and Jon Bausor’s set design, with drawbridge, allow a febrile exchange between private and public space. The royal four-poster is closely guarded and/or spied upon, take your pick, and the king swings his sword on its canopy. When Parliament assembles it is alongside an audience on stage. The throne is up there too, occasionally occupied, but the space also doubles as a tower room where Isabella Stewart is held captive and spins out her prophetic misery.

Blythe Duff (Isabella Stewart) in James I_& II Photo Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Blythe Duff (Isabella Stewart) in James I & II Photo Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

That’s Blythe Duff as Isabella and as Annabella in James III and it is, again, a terrific performance. She reprises the roles from the original 2014 production with the same astringent glee and love. She’s there at the very end, dressing the new king with clothes and jewels and with an absolute definition of understatement: ‘On you go then, son. On you go. You can do it’.

And, yes, these dramatised chronicles do at times go on … and on. The squabbling lords might get to you, as they certainly did to James III, or it might just be that the set-piece addresses to the Three (male) Estates are too PC, too YES-NO referendum freighted for your taste, or that you find staged medieval football awkward, but then there’s the wheel of fortune to turn and it’s a mighty one to get going and even harder to brake. These are, after all, history plays and since when were they short and sweet?

Matthew Pidgeon (King James III) in James III_ Photo Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Matthew Pidgeon (King James III) in James III
Photo Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Go into the National Museum of Scotland, as I did in-between plays. You’ll find wolves on level 1, ‘Beginnings’, and they certainly belong in the nightmare sequences of James II, but search further and there ain’t too much in the Kingdom of the Scots: one small panel for each of ‘our’ Jamies and arrowheads from the walls of Threave Castle. More fun certainly, more knowledge possibly, is to be had watching Peter Forbes as gross, droll, Balvenie stacking up the Douglas lands; or see Dani Heron as Phemy, 15, assault a guard who’s presuming to search the queen’s rooms. Ballsy! And then there are the sovereign roles: Steven Miller as James I, the poet king, keyed up, commanding in the thick of it but who would have given everything to pen ‘Love, love me do’ in his time; rangy Andrew Rothney as James II, damaged and vulnerable, but who has that majesty thing ; and Matthew Pidgeon as James III, truth seeker, rascal man, outrageous king in black patent winklepickers , only matched by his virtuous Danish queen, Margaret, played by Swedish actress Malin Crepin, naturally.

I saw The James Plays in 2014, when I had been reviewing Fringe shows, and was disconcerted by the numbers on stage and by the sheer size of the venture. In review terms it was a stand-off. Now, second time around, I’d call it all audacious and vivid. Showstoppers with attitude.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 6 February)

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King Charles III (Festival Theatre: 16 – 21 Nov ’15)

Photographs from the West End Production of 'Charles III' by Johan Persson

Photographs by Johan Persson from the West End Production of ‘King Charles III’

“The best of Shakespeare, bang up to date”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Given how topical this production is, I still can’t quite get my head around why someone hasn’t thought of doing a play like this before. Yes, it’s daring and bound to spark discussion on either side of the Royalist debate, but perhaps that’s what makes it utterly ingenious.

Mike Bartlett’s script really is the star of the show – conceiving an idea both dangerous and compelling, that’s also utterly believable. That’s a mean enough feat for many a playwright, but then consider it is also written in Shakespearean style blank verse (with nods to more of his works than I could keep track of), bang up to date, witty, funny and gripping to the very last stage direction.

It’s cleverly structured to allow for scenes and opinions to unfold between all characters, and pacey enough to keep the action flowing, without ever cheating the audience of any details. I would have preferred more ensemble scenes to break up the endless soliloquies and duologues (again, very Will’), while a more contrasting sense of status between the Royals and others would have gone some way to create even more tension.

The style of the performance took some getting used to early on: interpretations of well-known people seemed over-theatricalised, while showing a distinct lack of respect to each other and occasion. This made it hard to engage with immediately, as I was expecting a subtler and more faithful approach to character. For this reason, for me it was the “made-up” characters of Mr Stevens (Giles Taylor) and Jess (Lucy Phelps) who rang most true, and achieved the optimum balance between the theatrical style of the script and connection with the audience.

Charles III 2

In saying that, the very beauty and intelligence of this piece is the subtle level of detachment from presenting something real and expected, to an exploration of imagination and possibility. Once this performance was in full swing, and I could appreciate the characters as part of an intriguing story (as opposed to what I would expect to see in real life), I was all but blown away by its power and craft. Ben Righton’s William was bang on the money in terms of character development throughout, progressing from stable wallflower to dominant leader, while the descent of Charles (Robert Powell) into public ridicule was nothing short of masterful.

If the King could grant me one wish, it would be to fast forward 100 years, when the population know comparatively little of our current royal family, and see how well it is received then. My money would be on it being viewed in the same way we lap up the best of Shakespeare today.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 16 November)

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Lord of the Flies (Festival Theatre: 13 – 17 October ’15)

Set design: Jon Bausor Photo: Regent's Park Theatre.

Set design: Jon Bausor
Photo: Regent’s Park Theatre.

“Big, bold and gutsy”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

For me, with the May general election in mind, this is a timely production of Lord of the Flies: a charismatic, commanding and fear-mongering leader on one side; a righteous and idealistic leader who is unable to win mass support on the other; and one guy in the middle who doesn’t fit into either camp and who is killed off. I wonder if William Golding knew back then how important and relevant his book would still be 61 years after its publication. And that’s without postulating that Michael Gove might make a ‘good’ Beast. This Regent’s Park Theatre production certainly doesn’t shy away from the issues – it’s big, bold and gutsy, but in my opinion, tries too hard to make its point.

I must start with Jon Bausor’s design – the first thing you see on entering the auditorium. It’s visually spectacular, with the focal point being a very believable carcass of a crashed aeroplane to one side, strewn with suitcases. On the other a sizable ramp leads up and off, and everything is surrounded by trees and hanging branches in Naturalistic style. Yet while stunning, I felt the set ended up being too much of a dominating presence, causing unnecessary overlaps with different scenes occurring concurrently (and confusingly) in the same part of the stage. I would have preferred a more mapped-out use of the space to clearly define the different locations in the story and help distinguish the separateness inherent in the characters.

One of this production’s strengths was the energy and dynamism with which the warrior-like sections were portrayed. With frantic movement, chanting, and a commanding performance from Freddie Watkins as ringleader Jack, these moments were terrifying and powerful, and an effective glimpse into what a group of boys might turn into without effective parenting. Indeed, this interpretation puts Jack’s character front and centre (rather than Ralph’s), giving more focus to the brutality of the boys’ behaviour throughout.

However, some of the effectiveness of the “savagery” was lost given a distinct lack of contrasting moments of quietness and subtlety. I found the whole thing too unnecessarily shouty: Piggy and Ralph would communicate in raised and pained voices when alone. Commands were all aggressive, and fright seemed to always be expressed very loudly. Even the Officer shouted all of his lines, reducing his status to that of the children, when his presence could have been communicated far more effectively through physicality and control.

Anthony Roberts as Piggy.

Anthony Roberts as Piggy.

In saying that, there were occasions where the dynamic changed to great effect: early in the second act when Ralph and Piggy discuss how to get Piggy’s glasses back is a rare glimpse of depth and subtlety in performance style, allowing the audience to connect with these two as different from the others. It’s a shame this technique wasn’t used more in the first half of the production. Anthony Roberts gave a valiant performance as Piggy, and I would have liked to have seen more of him.

The sound and lighting were both excellent in supporting the action and setting the scene, and the occasional music added to the ambience without being overpowering. The evolution, down the way, in costume and makeup to underline each character’s descent into savagery was clever and effective. That all went to show that clearly a lot of thought and creative energy has been put into this production, but for me a couple of big flaws hold it back from being remarkable.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 13 October)

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‘The Producers’ (The Festival Theatre: 23-28 March ‘15)

“David Bedella and Louie Spence brought a frivolity that couldn’t be outdone.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

If there is one thing Mel Brooks never fails to do, it is to entertain. To the average person, on hearing the premise of a political satire including a failed Broadway producer, a musical homage to Adolf Hitler, nymphomaniac geriatrics and a cross-dressing director, it would be inconceivable to enjoy any show remotely related. But the average person would be wrong. Brooks created a genuine comedy masterpiece that is as absurd as it is entertaining, and as politically questionable as it is uplifting.

Director Matthew White has created something spectacular in his touring production of The Producers. His cast are well-shaped in their roles; the entire performance was slick and musically, under the direction of Andrew Hilton, they were faultless.

Set and costume designer Paul Farnsworth delivered a spectacle bedecked in glitz and glam worthy of a Broadway show. With touring productions it can often be the case that set is left too minimalistic to fit every venue, but Farnsworth created a masterpiece on wheels. Max Bialystock’s office was the most impressive set piece with Broadway memorabilia piled high without encroaching on the stage space available – a most impressive feet.

Cory English offered a stellar performance – his comic timing was slick and he completely owned the stage as his madness – driven in equal parts by a desperate need for money and success – led him down darker, murkier paths, dragging the fresh-faced, naïve Leo Bloom behind him.

Jason Manford’s role saw him shine in the spotlight. His portrayal of the nervous dreamer Leo Bloom was highly entertaining – his attachment to his blue blanket and quirks were hilarious and Manford really embraced the manic side of his character.

The blossoming love between Leo and Ulla that grew throughout the show was reminiscent of a pre-pubescent unsure footing on the ladder of love and it was brilliantly matched with Tiffany Graves’ unabashedly sexual Ulla who carried an air of innocence through her clumsy grasp of English which contrasted greatly with her side smirks and comfort in skimpy outfits. Graves’ vocal performance was incredible too – definitely an attribute to flaunt.

As if there wasn’t a strong enough comedy factor already; double act David Bedella and Louie Spence brought a frivolity that couldn’t be outdone – their overtly camp exuberance was aided by sequins, glitter and a troupe of openly gay production team members that left a definitive feel of

Mardi Gras in the air. Bedella’s outrageous portrayal of a gay, sequin-wearing Adolf Hitler in Springtime for Hitler was hysterical and increased the political satire tenfold. In fact, the entire number was fantastically put together. The choreography was sharp and clean, the costumes were as over the top as ever and the stage design was downright dazzling.

The Producers is, in my opinion, a massively underrated piece of musical theatre gold. It is crass without being crude, it is fast-paced without being dizzying and the musical numbers are big and bold but not ridiculous – despite the sparkly swastikas.

While there are very few morals to be learned from this story, there is still a beautiful friendship at the heart of it that can be seen blooming in the unlikeliest of places – they do say showbiz is cutthroat, but not in this case. There is a poetic symmetry between the teachings of Max to Leo and the camaraderie and chemistry shared between seasoned stage performer Cory English and rising star Jason Manford.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Amy King (Seen 24 March)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

‘Home for Christmas’ (The Studio: 3 December 2014)

  carol-ann-duffy

little machine

“some shakin’ metaphysics to die for”

Editorial Rating:  3 Stars

As Homecoming Scotland 2014 approaches its close we enter The Home Straits, a programme of poetry and music on the theme of … home. This show, first of three, finished with the sweet tones and bitter air of Byron’s We’ll Go No More A-Roving that deserved louder applause (& participation) than our few and faint hearts allowed.

Home for Christmas is Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s idea. She is up front for the first half, reading her poems, alongside musician and Edinburgh friend John Sampson, but after the interval she sits out and Little Machine, is on stage. The band sing their settings of six of Duffy’s Christmas poems and then eight further poems, from the 16th Century ballad Western Wind to Liz Lochhead’s fervid My Way. Mood and style vary from piece to piece, from loose and cool J.J Cale to a Rocksteady lilt for Advent and there’s some shakin’ metaphysics to die for in Thomas Carew’s Mediocritie. The music making is very good – I like distinct guitar work – and the high regard for the poetry is evident in the diction.

However, it is sombre and plaintive to start with. “It’ll be over soon; home by Christmas” was the fond, forsaken hope. John Sampson’s trumpet opens with the Last Post, and then there’s Duffy’s own poem Last Post, where ‘If poetry could truly tell it backwards, then it would …. And all those thousands dead … Are queuing up for home … Freshly alive.’ Christmas Truce follows, when ‘beneath the yawn of history’ a miraculous peace broke out. The subsequent pairing of Wilfred Owen’s The Send-off with her response, An Unseen, is dreadfully poignant.

Just as sharp is the keen, deadpan, humour of three monologues from the celebrated The World’s Wife: Mrs Midas, Mrs Tiresias, and (Duffy’s favourite) Faust; and then four later poems of percipient, careful intent: Mrs Schofield’s GCSE, The Counties, The Human Bee, and Liverpool. They are all in the public domain – and not just on The Guardian’s pages – so go find them, realise their quality and why Duffy wrote them.

Little Machine had been on Radio Scotland’s ‘Culture Studio’ with Janice Forsyth that same afternoon. The trio anticipated an evening of banter and wit. Well, not really. I enjoyed their music, admired John Sampson’s playing the two halves of the recorder at the same time (do not try this at home, he cautioned) and heard really good poems, tellingly read by the poet herself, but it proved a subdued occasion, with little ‘give’ from our side of the stage. That’s what happens when the Last Post sounds. It all goes still and not in a stille nacht, glad tidings, kind of way.

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 3 December)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

‘Top Hat’ (Festival Theatre: 7 – 18 October ’14)

“Hayward is Wodehousian perfection – the only actor who might do justice as Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Nae Bad

Michael Clarke Duncan, as death row inmate John Coffey in The Green Mile (1999), got it about right. The night before he becomes a dead man walking, Coffey is granted a clandestine glimpse of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dancing cheek to cheek in Irving Berlin’s Hollywood classic Top Hat (1935). “They’s just like angels” he declares, utterly awestruck.

Expectations couldn’t be higher as we take our seats for the stage adaptation. “I wish Monty was here!” laments Companion A to Companion B, “he loves Strictly.” Monty-The-Dog’s inclusion in the lasses’ Saturday night ritual might suggest he’s more Withnail and I than WWII general. But like millions of contemporary Brits, Monty is a sucker for a sequin dress spinning at a bajillion miles an hour. If he were here, he’d be wanting dance, laughs, toe-tappin’, and above all, glamour… with a capital BLING! He would not be disappointed.

The plot is as subtle as a Shakespeare comedy, mistaken identity taking true love on a harebrained, helter-skelter ride. Boy annoys girl by dancing night and day in the hotel room above hers at an hour when even the coal porter is asleep. When she complains, he falls in love. She doesn’t and, much to the vexation of the theatrical producer of the West End show this boy is meant to be focused on, boy pursues girl from Hyde Park to Lido di Venezia.

Hildegard Bechtler’s set is a triumph, it’s how you want the 1930s to look. Art Deco, modernist, functional, and not a hint of a black shirt sneaking across il Ponte della Libertà. It’s not flawless – how come the parkscape scenery doesn’t move when the carriage does, and why is there a gap above the dressing table? But if you measure a set by how much you want to sit down in it- maybe sipping a Jack Rose while watching Katherine Hepburn mud wrestle Lucy Mercer – then Bechtler’s done alright.

The chemistry between Alan Burkitt (Jerry Travers) and Charlotte Gooch (Dale Tremont), never entirely ignites. Burkitt, former All England Tap Dancer of the Year and a Strictly Come Dancing favourite is superb, interstellar even. Gooch is both sultry and supercharged, staying cheek to cheek and toe to toe with Burkitt. They’re individually strong performances, worth the entry price alone, however they don’t seem to mesh. The double-edged lyrics of Wild About You fall disappointingly flat, while the inclusion of Rogers’ oft-quoted trusim, “I did everything he did, backwards … and in high heels,” is delivered more like a professional rebuke than a playful remark.

In contrast, the magnetic attraction of Clive Hayward (as producer Horace Hardwick) and Rebecca Thornhill (Madge, his socialite spouse) provides a true dose of human interest and drama. Hayward is Wodehousian perfection. He’s so good in fact that he may be the only actor who could do justice as Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge.

Sebastien Torkia, as Tremont’s flamboyant BFF, and John Conroy, as Hardwick’s laconic gentleman’s personal gentleman, tap out Top Hat’s theatrical high notes. Torkia takes it to the edge and over, defying gravity to reach a level of lunacy that must be seen to be believed. Conroy is no less ambitious and equally brilliant, delivering each put down, as well as the story’s clever resolution, with a knowing confidence that never slips into arrogance.

Accompanying vignettes by the cast add to the seamless sparkle. I especially like the interplay between Lucy Ashenden and Edinburgh’s own John McManus in the hotel scenes which add depth and contrast. The great success of this great production is that amid all the careful choreography is a joyous piece of live theatre that will score with huffy hubby as assuredly as any bevy of sassy Strictly seekers.

Come for the dancing but stay for the theatricals. Bravo!

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

Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 9 October)

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THIS REVIEW HAS BEEN SUBEDITED