My Name Is… (Summerhall, 13 – 30 Aug: 19:25 : 1hr 20mins)

“Striking, thought-provoking and immensely entertaining”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars Outstanding

Plays based around well-known news stories are always a thorny matter. Based on the headline story from 2006, “My Name is…” tells of a family torn apart, and the struggles of identity which come from broken marriages. It would have been very easy for this play to take sides, especially given the venue, but what results is one of the most nuanced, balanced plays I’ve ever seen. “My Name Is…” considers the problems of split cultural identity and family dissonance with such multi-angled consideration that it wouldn’t look out of place in an academic study. This is a show which is as compelling as it is thought provoking, and one of the few which left me feeling humbled after it had ended.

Telling a story from two distinct perspectives, “My Name Is…” tackles the problems both with the skewing of information by the media and the apparent schism between secular European and Islamic standards of living – and, as easy as it could have been to the contrary, giving both an equal share of good and bad. This is a measured, well thought out production – one which mimics reality far better than the news reports upon which is is based. Sudha Bhuchar has created a script which simultaneously pulls no punches and leaves no stone unturned, telling an already intriguing story from every angle possible.

But the show would have been nothing without its extremely talented trio of actors. Ahmed, Bartke and MacDonald should all be commended for their performances, which reflected such realism and subtlety that I often forgot I was watching a play at all. Their emotions, their physicality, their delivery – all of it was so raw, and laid claim to such substance, that they not only acted the part, they became the part. These are undeniably talented performers, and they should all be proud of what they accomplished on the small Summerhall stage.

Combined with a cleverly put-together set, minimal-yet-effective lighting and a script which weaves multiple dialogues together like a verbal dance, “My Name Is…” was one of the most striking, thought-provoking and immensely entertaining shows I’ve seen at Fringe yet. This is one of those rare productions I wish everyone could see: one which approaches polarising subjects with sensitivity, nuance and tact, whilst retaining a thrilling degree of entertainment.

Absolutely bloody excellent.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 13 August)

Visit the Summerhall  archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Chicken (Summerhall, 8th-10th 12th – 17th 19th – 24th 26th – 30th Aug : 17:05 : 1hr)

“Cerebral and exhaustingly intense”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Nae Bad

The act of waking up dazed and confused, often by a strangely realistic half dream, comes under the medical umbrella term of “parasomnia”. I say this because upon leaving the hay-strewn, smoke wreathed tent in which I saw writer Molly Davies’ dark comedy  “Chicken”, I felt a very similar sensation. I was impressed, dazed, and confused as all hell.

“Chicken” takes place in a dystopian future (though, as someone from the north can tell you, the themes are very much contemporary) in which the north and south of Britain have become so alienated from each-other that they are formally separating. In East Anglia, witchcraft and politics threaten to tear rural life apart – especially the town’s most precious export: chickens.

First thing’s first: the tech in this show was absolutely beautiful. The concerted use of blackouts, swells and musical stings to make one character seemingly materialise horror-esque on stage was the tip of what proved to be a technically marvellous iceberg. If you’re looking for inspiration for your next horror show, look no further than the chattering, eerie soundscapes and moody lights programmed by Elliot Griggs and George Dennis.

There was also some very strong acting talent on display: Benjamin Dilloway shone as gruff, masculine Harry, and Rosie Sheehy absolutely stole the show as Emily, the town’s resident Wiccan; often silent, but with a stage presence which spoke louder than an exploding tannoy speaker. There were no weak links in this cast, all of whom lent gritty humanity to an otherwise bafflingly surreal setup.

However, although this show was billed as a dark comedy, I was often confused as to whether to laugh or simply sit there in confused silence. There were moments which were genuinely humorous, but most of it was spent pondering whether the strange spectacle unfolding in front of me was meant to be ridiculous or harrowing. And whilst it could be argued that is the very point, which I would be fully apt to admit I may have missed, it sometimes lent itself to a muddled rather than complementary pairing.

And this was not helped by a script which occasionally felt clunky and forced in its weaker moments, especially when compared to the uncanny naturalism of dialogue at stronger points. Characters would mingle rural vernacular with oddly robotic cadence and non-foreshortened speech on occasion, which was jarring.

This is a show which requires time and attention to enjoy properly, and an appreciation for subtle, rather than explicit humour. Although short, it’s cerebral and exhaustingly intense ride. And while it’s shortcomings meant it could not grab me as I think it should have, I can see fans of dark comedy latching onto it with eager claws.

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 8 August)

Visit the  Summerhall archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Going Viral (Summerhall, Sat 8th Aug – Sun 30th Aug: 14:10 : 70 mins)

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“Daniel Bye’s energy and wit are utterly infectious”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars  Outstanding

There was no better way to set the tone for Daniel Bye’s storytelling show “Going Viral” than the way in which he began: simply appearing covertly from the audience, charmingly and verbosely commentating. A one man show such as this one requires charisma, boundless energy and utter command of a room to be pulled off correctly: and I am very happy to say that Bye did so with flying colours.

Without revealing too much, the story revolves around two themes: grief, and viruses. It tells the story of a worldwide epidemic of a disease which causes uncontrollable weeping, and along the way the audience expect to learn a surprising amount of information about viral biology. This was the only show I’ve encountered so far which listed a doctor of Epidemiology in its crew, and the touch of real-world expertise lends rock-hard substance to Bye’s tale.

And what a tale it was: intercut with inventive illustrative examples (my favourite being an extremely clever metaphor involving an unholy amount of liquorice allsorts), Bye’s seventy minute story took the audience on a journey through both medical conditions and the human condition, with an atmosphere so thick and engrossing that I often forgot to make notes. As someone who is often disappointed by the predictability of many plots both written and spoken, this realistic and unpredictable tale was a breath of fresh (if pathogen-laden) air.

And by far the most entertaining facet of the story was Bye himself, who approached what for others would be a daunting subject matter with razor-sharp humour and a seemingly ineffable confidence – but his greatest trick was to pull this off whilst still retaining that touch of the everyman which had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand from beginning to end. In short, Daniel Bye’s energy and wit are utterly infectious.

Combined with subtle but theatrical lighting, the drama was solid enough to break a pool cue over.

However, without giving too much away, I was left slightly disappointed by what seemed an oddly enigmatic and anticlimactic ending. After becoming so wrapped in the world Bye creates, it was almost akin to disappointment of the last bite of a cake dropping from your fork and onto the floor.

However, this did little to affect the rest of what was a noteworthy and slick performance. Daniel Bye and his team should be extremely proud of what has proven to be one of the best storytelling performances I’ve seen at Fringe yet. This is not one to be missed.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 8 August)

Visit the  Summerhall  archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

‘The Effect’ (Summerhall: 11 – 14 March’15)

Cameron Crighton as Tristan and Scarlett Mack as Connie All photos: Firebrand.

Cameron Crighton as Tristan and Scarlett Mack as Connie
All photos: Firebrand.

“A well-thought-out and faultlessly-delivered show”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Set across the four-week span of a clinical drugs trial, The Effect (2012) is a play which tackles perhaps the highest concept of all: our ability to assess and analyse the workings of our own mind. Penned by Lucy Prebble , best known for writing the briefly-sensational ENRON, it’s revived here by Borders-based company Firebrand Theatre. Ironically though, Firebrand’s clinically-excellent performance throws into focus a few pronounced oddities in the script.

The “effect” of the title is the placebo effect – the powerful medical phenomenon which says that if we think we’re taking a drug, we’ll experience at least some of its benefits. Prebble explores that concept through two parallel storylines: a young couple who may or may not be falling in love, and a doctor who may or may not be depressed. Intellectually, I can see how this all hangs together, but it still felt like I was watching two plays uncomfortably squashed into one. “What is love?” and “Do antidepressants work?” are just very different questions, and I’m not sure it’s possible to tackle them both while doing full justice to either.

Much more successful, for me, were the human tales. On the one hand, there’s a sweet boy-meets-girl story – with the requisite courtship, predictable crisis, and the hope of a reconciliation by the end. It’s a time-worn formula, but it’s well-executed, and the tale has a twist that’s genuinely startling yet fully justified by the plot. Actors Scarlett Mack and Cameron Crighton do a fine job delivering characters we can love, with Crighton’s physical restlessness also adding plenty of interest to a series of otherwise quite static scenes.

Pauline Knowles as Lorna

Pauline Knowles as Lorna

Jonathan Coote as Toby

Jonathan Coote as Toby

Alongside them we have Pauline Knowles’ acerbic but secretly-warm-hearted doctor, who provides a lot of deadpan humour but clearly has a vulnerable side too. Knowles impressed me with her ability to inject subtle emotion, as did Jonathan Coote, playing the pharmaceutical-company manager with a secret in his past. It’s hinted early on that these two characters have met before, and the details of their relationship are revealed in carefully-measured doses – an ongoing mystery which underpins the first act of the play.

Fine acting and direction are complemented by an effective design. The whole production is stark and monochrome, filled with medical whites and impersonal greys, a choice which serves to highlight rather than diminish the colourful humanity on display. Every now and then the cast break off into stylised sequences set to a techno-inspired soundtrack, punctuating the wordy script while skipping lightly over the duller parts of the plot. At times it all grows a little protracted – and I certainly wouldn’t have minded if they’d cut the last ten seconds of the sex scene – but all in all, Firebrand Theatre do well to thread a coherent path through a complex storyline.

In the end, the effect of The Effect was a mildly frustrating one: the script tries too hard to draw connections, and ends up feeling both crowded and languid at the same time. But that’s no reflection at all on the production company, who once again (see our reviews of Outlying Islands and of Blackbird) have laid on a well-thought-out and faultlessly-delivered show. All in all, this one’s well worth catching on its remaining dates at Summerhall – for the questions it poses may be disjointed, but they’re still intriguing ones.

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Richard Stamp (Seen 11 March)

Go to Firebrand & Summerhall here

Visit the Summerhall archive.

‘Blackbird’ (Summerhall: 26 February – 1 March ’14)

“An outstanding performance from both cast and crew… the kind of production which makes it impossible to imagine the play in anyone else’s hands”

Editorial Rating: Outstanding

First performed in 2005, Blackbird is a terrifying play.  It’s terrifying because of its subject matter: a sexual relationship between a 12-year-old girl and a middle-aged man.  It’s terrifying because it highlights the lifelong consequences, both for the victim and her abuser.  But more than that, it’s terrifying because it dares to ask some forbidden questions – evoking just the slightest touch of sympathy for the devil, and challenging us to wonder how a once-decent man can possibly have fallen so far.  It’s morally troublesome, sexually explicit, and profoundly disturbing at times.

A decade after her defilement – and now a young woman – Una returns unexpectedly, determined to confront her abuser Ray.  Ray, in the meantime, has admitted his sins and served his time in prison, and seems to have re-built a modestly respectable life.  But that, of course, isn’t quite the full story; at the heart of the play is a series of well-paced revelations, which lead the audience through the gamut of possible responses to such a shocking tale.  And they’re all delivered through a single, credible dialogue, a masterclass in exposition done well.

But all that counts for nothing if the actors aren’t up to the task – and in Greg Wagland and Romana Abercromby, Blackbird finds the cast such a challenging script demands.  Both actors bring a reckless intensity to their roles, an urgent mutual desire to tell their shared tale.  As Una, Abercromby is sassy and bold, coolly aware of the power she now wields – a veneer which makes it all the more shocking when the true impact of the abuse is finally revealed.  Wagland, meanwhile, presents a desperate, imploring Ray, yet shows a hint of imperiousness too; it’s a many-layered performance, that delivers a lot more subtlety than first meets the eye.

While the principal actors each have their moments in the spotlight, the pivotal scene belongs to Abercromby.  As Una recalls how her life unravelled, she’s helped by Jon Beales’ haunting sound design – which carries just enough echoes of a seaside town at midnight to transport us into her painfully-remembered world.  It’s details like that which make this production so impressive, and Abercromby’s words are perfectly synchronized with the soundscape.  The whole play, in fact, is flawlessly well-performed.

Firebrand Theatre bill their production as a “site-specific staging”, which is rather stretching the point, but director Richard Baron does make excellent use of the unconventional space at Summerhall.  He turns the old-style lecture theatre into a claustrophobic and uncompromising arena – a courtroom where the audience sits in uneasy judgement on both accuser and accused.  And Baron and the actors have crafted a restlessly physical performance, using constant movement to stoke the pressure without ever feeling unnatural or forced.

If there’s a criticism to make of Harrower’s script, it’s that his symbolism is often heavy-handed: the sordid nature of the story is reflected by a squalid, rubbish-strewn stage.  And the narrative stops more than it ends, as though even the playwright didn’t know quite how to respond to his worrying final revelation.  But this is an outstanding performance from both cast and crew – the kind of production which makes it impossible to imagine the play in anyone else’s hands.  Firebrand’s reputation preceded them to Edinburgh, and it’s clear that reputation is very much deserved.

outstanding

Reviewer: Richard Stamp (Seen 27 February)

Visit Firebrand Theatre homepage here.

‘Four Steps Back’ (Summerhall: 27 February – 1 March ’14)

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Four Steps Back was presented by the University’s English Literature Department Play in support of Voluntary Service Overseas in order to support disadvantaged communities.

Editorial Rating: Nae Bad

At the bar of the Royal Dick gastropub, in the heart of Europe’s largest privately-owned arts complex, Robert McDowell the man who makes Summerhall happen, is tucking into steak done rare. “The secret of a good production,” he opines, “is that it uses, rather than hides, the space it’s in.”

“He’s not wrong” I think as later that night when the Current Mrs Dan and I take our seats in the Red Lecture Theatre. Strung right across the space is a washing line bedecked in glittering crimsons and saffrons – there is also a paisley Knightsbridge scarf which I am sure I saw in Armstrongs not so long back. The lighting is moody, the divide between house lights and stage is blurred.

Rekha, the first in a line up of four short new scripts, is a reflection on the human scale of great conflicts. Rajesh (powerfully played by Satnaam Dusanj) recounts the story of how he and his childhood playmate, Rekha, got caught up in an outbreak of interreligious violence while out playing. Rajesh’s innocent love of Rekha is beyond the ken of his brother Sanjay, who is old enough and wise enough to know that hatred trumps all else.

The brooding Dusanj is perfectly contrasted by the gleeful mischief of Arrti Singh in the title role. From the moment she enters through the audience she captivates, conjuring up both the reality and Rajesh’s idealised memories of Rekha. Sporting a magnificent pair of braided pigtails, suggestive that the Vikings and their valkyries might have sailed up the Sutlej, Singh gives as well as takes leaving space and pace in all the right places.

Alexei Veprentev as Sanjay and Maria Kheyfets as Indrani are the icing on the cake, squeezing every drop of nuance from writer Michael Chakraverty’s complex simplicity.

Rekha would be a very sombre piece, except that producers hit upon two veins of comic gold: small and playful actress poking her head through the glittering crimsons and saffrons on the washing line as she hides and seeks with Rajesh; as well as bearded actor playing a nine year old having a strop at his mum for not letting him go out and have fun. It’s the bitter sweet tamarind in the mix that brings out the darker flavours.


The staging for Maria Williamson’s Leaving Mary could not be more different. Dezie is sitting on a capacious armchair having his fine head of hair combed by his wife, Mary. Dezie is a talker with a well polished repertoire of blarney. Mary is quieter, stiller waters running deep. Already there is divergence between what is spoken and unspoken.

When their son Michael visits home from London, bringing with him their grandson Danny, the gulf widens and Mary’s struggle with dementia become more apparent. Michael’s domestic situation, he is separated from Danny’s mother, drags up old issues relating to Mary’s postnatal depression and Dezie’s love of the drink. In her confusion Mary struggles to delineate past traumas from present pain.

If there is justice in the world then it will not be long before Leaving Mary starts being mentioned in the same breath as Conor McPherson’s The Weir which I first saw on a visiting weekend in 1997. “But it’s just people sitting around telling stories.” I whined to my own father, also Michael, as we took a walk round Sloane Square during the interval. “Ah Danny,” came his response, “would that not be the point?”

Angela Milton as Mary provides the evening’s most sophisticated performance. When she moves, she moves. When she’s still, she’s still. She inhabits the character most successfully. Never does she allow us to feel pity for Mary. She captures the essential tragedy sure enough, but her reactions to her fellow players are what put her performance into orbit.

As Dezie (Toby Williams) and his pal Leo (Joey Thurston) talk through their problems in the local we know exactly who they are talking about. This is not just because Williamson is such a phenomenal sketcher of personality and persona, but because Milton has breathed life into every aspect of her character.

Daniel Omnes as Michael completes this well rounded ensemble, delivering the cosmopolitan contrast which so unsettles Dezie.


Toby Williams makes his second appearance of the night as Callum in A Fortiori. Dale Neuringer’s kitchen sink drama chronicles Laura’s passage through shiva, the ritualised Jewish mourning period. Laura’s husband has died suddenly, her brother-in-law Callum is the last house caller of four who have each undertaken the mitzvah of a home visit to the bereaved.

As with Laura’s friends Caroline (Jillian Bagriel) and Melinda (Emeline Beroud) as well as her mother (Lorraine McCann), Callum has an agenda all his own, somewhat removed from Laura’s immediate needs as a grieving widow. Neuringer unflinchingly examines how we express our innate self absorption even in our supposed altruism.

The staging is the most involved of the night – shelves and nick-nacks, tables and chairs, portions of comfort food and the essential covered mirror. The effect is to centre the drama, focusing the energy onto Blanca Siljedahl as Laura. As she is buffeted by unwelcome advice from her nearest and dearest Siljedahl maintains an introspective repose which not even the expanding buffet can penetrate.

It’s a shame the mirror hangs on the far stage right wall and is not free standing. The Current Mrs Dan (a shiksa) doesn’t notice the business of each visitor uncovering it to check their reflection. It’s a great device, as is McCann’s use of air freshener to intimate Laura’s mother’s fussy intrusion as she starts cleaning the house.

McCann, a stalwart of the Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group, has a flawless accent, just as Beroud does a great line in first world problems. I’m just not sure the cast have remembered the funny though. Siljedahl establishes and maintains a great sounding board, but the comic echos don’t come through. We don’t need to live her grief so exactly.

The disconnect between Neuringer’s script and director Matthew Jebb’s staging is to be lamented. On a double bill with Leaving Mary there is serious potential for a successful Fringe run. But the round peg of dark Jewish comedy needs to be much better fitted into the square peg of ‘50s era British social realism.


Blitzed by Rebecca Leary closes the night with a bang. Sarah lives in a fantasy world. With the bombs of WWII falling all around her neighbourhood, who can blame her? In the aftermath of a particularly hard pounding Sarah’s sister, Toffy, tries to reach her in more ways than one.

Blitzed was the least ready of the four performances. I was never entirely sure what was going on. Who is Lizzie, the other worldly girl always on stage but only acknowledged by Sarah? Is she real, was she ever? Why is Sarah so disconnected from her family, even though they live so close by? What has become of the menfolk away fighting?

If feels like the script has been foreshortened to fit into the night and that quite a lot of essential signposting (as happened in wartime) has been removed to disorientate the enemy. According to the programme Leary’s original intention had been to present the play in Dundonian dialect. The alien phonetics were removed though, the thinking being that the results would be too confusing for civilized Edinbuggers.

As it was a claustrophobic script was hesitantly presented. By the end understanding what was being said seemed of slender consequence. Ideally, time would have permitted flashbacks and context to enlighten the plot. As it was the script could have been much more artfully tailored to contour what could be shown in the time allowed.

Hopefully, with a greater supply of props, script and theatrical devices the tightly packed, closely guarded mysteries of the play can be revealed to the waiting world.


Four Steps Back was presented in support of Voluntary Service Overseas in order to support disadvantaged communities. More information can be found at www.vso.org.uk

nae bad_blue

Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 27 February)

Visit Four Steps Back homepage here.

1933: Eine Nacht im Kabarett (Summerhall: 22 Jan. – 2 Feb.)

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 … determined to enjoy a decadently subversive cabaret’ ? 

Editorial Rating: Unrated

It’s 30 January, 1933: the day President Hindenburg made his fateful, fatal choice, and appointed Adolf Hitler as the Chancellor of Germany.  That night, a group of citizens and foreigners gather at a Berlin club – determined to enjoy a decadently subversive cabaret, while that pleasure’s still permitted to them.  And we’re invited too.

1933: Eine Nacht im Kabarett is essentially two shows rolled into one.  There’s the cabaret itself, up on the stage; and there’s the back-story, played out at the bar and at the tables, by actors who walk and sit among the audience.  It’s an ambitious and challenging production which dares to break some sacred rules, but unfortunately, it adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

The cabaret itself is nothing short of a delight.  David McFarlane and Calum MacAskill are multi-talented performers, playing dancing brown-shirts or failing magicians with equal, expressive ease.  Hazel DuBourdieu delivers a bravura performance as the ironic “perfect German girl”, while master of ceremonies Bev Wright is a dissolute, self-destructive dominatrix.  The original score, which Wright co-wrote with Fiona Thom, is just as well-matched to the milieu: sometimes it’s poignant, sometimes it’s rousing, and sometimes it’s a little sordid too.

So 1933 hits a lot of the right notes, but not always in the right order.  The opening is both lengthy and awkward; it’s not immediately clear whether we’re watching a painfully-misjudged shambles, or a sharply-observed satire.  It takes too long to get acquainted with all the key characters, perhaps because there are simply too many of them.  And most of all, the first half lacks the feel of reckless escapism that the setting demands: we’re told the Hitler Youth is marching in the streets outside, but little sense of danger spills over into the room.

The scene finally snaps into focus after the interval, with the arrival of Nazi official Captain Vöhner – deftly played by a commanding Andy Corelli.  As Vöhner seats himself very visibly among the crowd, our role as the audience becomes an increasingly uncomfortable one.  At one point we’re asked to sing along to a catchy ditty, lampooning Hitler’s rise to power, and the whole room turned a nervous eye to Vöhner’s table.  Would he see the funny side?

For the most part though, 1933 sits in a frustrating middle ground, making unconventional demands of the audience without granting corresponding freedoms.  Daringly, playwright-director Susanna Mulvihill often has two dialogues happen simultaneously, one at each end of the room.  But you have no choice which to listen to; stuck in your seat at a cabaret table, you may well find a crucial character-defining conversation being drowned out by small-talk at the table next door.  It’s true to life, certainly – but it’s not a satisfying way to tell a story.

And on a larger scale, too, Mulvihill’s script often has too much going on.  Overall, she needs the help of a fearless editor: someone who can cut the repetition, bring a tighter focus to the storyline, and point out the places where her messages grow overly obscure.

1933 is a fascinating experiment, with some genuine highlights both on the floor and on the stage.  It’s a shame it doesn’t quite hold together.

Reviewer: Richard Stamp (Seen 24 January)

Visit 1933: Eine Nacht im Kabarett homepage here.

‘The Birds’ (Summerhall: 14-16 Nov ’13)

“Josephy McAulay is Bowie-esque as Tereus, King of the Birds. Flamboyant yet balanced. He owns the stage but is prepared to share.”

Editorial Rating: Nae Bad

Rosy fingered dawn breaks through the floor to ceiling windows of the Edinburgh49 conference room. Scylla and Charybdis have nothing on our esteemed editor when she’s on the warpath. If you’re lucky she’ll just turn you to stone gorgon-style. If not you’ll find yourself clutching a short straw waiting in line to see something so bad the shade of Achilles would thank his lucky stars he gets to flit about all day in the underworld.

But I’m in luck! Not only have I not been turned to stone (rock hard abs aside) but I’m in the queue to see Edinburgh University Classics Society (EUCS) performing Aristophanes, and I love Aristophanes. I love Aristophanes so much I have an autographed poster of Douglas M. MacDowell on my wall.

What is it reasonable to expect from students producing work likely to fall among their set texts? Obviously a solid, even reverential approach from young minds absorbed in the comic genius of ancient knob gags and innuendo – in your endo. But if you’re anticipating ropey acting, adequate costumes and limited choreography – you’d be wrong. Far from delivering an earnest but ham-dram performance, this production of Emily Ingram and Lauren Moreau’s adaptation of The Birds is well on the road to the Dionysia.

We enter to find Summerhall’s demonstration room bathed in dry ice. A piano keyboard sits upstage right and drawings of birds are pinned aside the chalkboard (also featuring a bird). This helps to illustrate that The Birds is about Birds. Or rather it is about two Athenian wideboys convincing the King of the Birds to blockade Olympus by stopping smoke rising to heaven from sacrifices offered to the gods by men.

Euan Dickson is Pisthetaerus, the brains behind the operation. Max Cumming as Euelpides is his birdbrained confederate. Aristophanes deploys their self-imposed (or maybe self-preserving) exile as a means to take satirical target at the foibles of his fellow Athenians. Where other adaptations might have entirely respun these comic threads into contemporary cloth, here the antique flavours are preserved. As opposed to the coach-tour approach of say, Fringe landmark Shakespeare for Breakfast, this production is free of naff pop-culture references (actually, there is one but it is essential to the plot). The audience, composed largely of classicists, is expected to make the ascent unaided.

Plenty of spectacle lines the script’s path so that even my companion, despite being a semi-barbarous science type, is never lost. Josephy McAulay is Bowie-esque as Tereus, King of the Birds. Flamboyant yet balanced. He owns the stage but is prepared to share. And there is plenty of talent to go round. Some great character work is on offer from Jacob Close (calm, pacy – the ideal foil to Dickson), Byron Jaffe (a middle order master of horizontal bat shots) and Matthias Vollhardt as the wandering poet lost in himself reminded me so much of Thom Dibdin I nearly fell off my bench in surprise.

A quick look down the cast & crew list suggests The Birds might be a rather plummy affair. Fortunately Rachel Bussom (as Tereus’ consort, Procne) and Jodie Mitchell (as his deadpan, pun-dropping doorkeeper) provide laconic counterpoise to the home counties Attic. While the chaps are larking about, they prick egos on stage and off – scorching without burning. Bussom is the best thing we’re likely to see before Jennifer Saunders returns in the second series of Blandings.

Birds in general, and the birds in The Birds in particular, are a showy order of creature. All feathers and dance steps, they’re never happier than when being admired. Tereus’ court centres on his spectacular daily cabaret. It’s a fantastically tall order for a production staged in a rather dreary auld lecture theatre. The dance routines were devised to look impressive without over-taxing the mixed company. Colourful (if malting) feather boas combine with garish, lacy things from the parts of Primark unseen by men to raunchercise proceedings – as does Gaia Arcagni (whose charming physical range runs the full gamut from crow to flamingo). Tamsyn Lonsdale-Smith all but steals the show with her brilliantly conceived entrance as Iris, floating in on the herculean arms of her devoted attendants.

The Birds is not without its shortcomings. The cast are under-directed when not centre stage. Dickson and Cumming do not blend into the background and their slapstick needs much polishing, as do Cumming’s shoes. The production is too prop light. The business necessary to successfully be off stage while on it is absent. Several of the birds decide to take up smoking for want of anything better to do – if they had wings instead of fingers the result could not be any clumsier. The pianist is utterly lost amid the hilarity with little to do. Either he needs a mask, or a bell with which to mark the passing of each bird-related pun. The venue acoustics are awkward and some are managing better than others.

This is a production deserving a much longer run. Over the course of a Fringe it would be polished and perfected so that it might exceed the success of the original 414 BC outing of The Birds and claim first prize. Even so, much effort has gone in and more that is clever, witty and insightful has come out. This is a great production which you’ll remember fondly even when pinned down by angry Spartans in a walled orchard listening to goatsong.

nae bad_blue

Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 15 November)

Visit The Birds homepage here.

‘The Tailor of Inverness’ (Summerhall: 1-2 Nov ’13)

Tailor

Image by Tim Morozzo

“the energy boils over from time to time, and a handful of moments of great poignancy felt rushed and under-sold”

Much acclaimed on its earlier runs at the Edinburgh Fringe, The Tailor Of Inverness tells the true life story of the late Mateusz Zajac… who was also performer and playwright Matthew Zajac’s dad.  Displaced from his home in eastern Poland at the onset of the Second World War, Zajac senior’s travels took him across numerous battlefields, before he finally settled in the north of Scotland and lived out the remainder of his life as a respected local craftsman.  It’s a complex tale, but well-judged projections in the background help keep track of the tailor’s journey through life, as he voyages from Poland to war in Africa and a C&A factory in Glasgow.

But here’s the thing.  If you’re over the age of – let’s say – thirty-five, the chances are that you grew up listening to no less fascinating wartime tales. There is a reason to tell Zajac’s story above most others, but the script waits far too long to show the trump cards in its hand.  Too much time early on is given over to the bones of the eponymous tailor’s narrative, which is engaging and sometimes thought-provoking but not, on cold analysis, particularly exceptional.

And the latter parts of the play are disappointingly factual.  Thanks to its extensive use of documentary video recordings, the production feels more than anything like an edition of Who Do You Think You Are?, depriving it of some of the impact a more theatrical approach could have engendered.  It’s particularly sad that we hear so little from the tailor’s character during this second part of the play; the set-up seems perfect for a speculative analysis of his motivations, but some obvious questions about why he behaved the way he did remain almost entirely unexplored.

Actor-playwright Matthew Zajac has earned many deserved plaudits for his role in this play.  His mix of Polish and Scottish accents is a particular delight, and his physical performance is utterly dauntless.  But, five years after he first performed his script, he may have lost a little subtlety – the energy boils over from time to time, and a handful of moments of great poignancy felt rushed and under-sold.  The script also tends to over-use the device of jumping into the middle of an intense scene, a technique which loses its effectiveness when it’s deployed too often.

The Tailor Of Inverness is a fine history lesson – you’ll learn a great deal about how the borders of Eastern Europe were drawn – and an inspiring tale of a loving son’s efforts to piece together the past.  But there’s something missing: a moral, perhaps, or a clear sense of purpose.  The tailor appeals to us to accept him for who he is – at once a Pole, a Ukrainian, a Russian, and a Scot – but aside from Nazi ideologues, nobody in the play seems to have any problem doing exactly that.  This is a story well told, but it’s frustratingly hard to pin down quite what it wants to teach us.

 

Reviewer: Richard Stamp (Seen 1 November)

‘Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner’ (Summerhall: 17-26 Oct ’13)

Paul Bright's Confessions prod 2 credit Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Image by Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

“It is with wry humour, almost touched with disappointment, that the 1987-89 history of Confessions is presented.”

Editorial Rating: Nae Bad

This intriguing piece is ‘reconstructed’ by Untitled Projects. Any reassuring solidity provided by co-producers, National Theatre of Scotland, is shaky for this is a bit of a shape-shifter. It provides dramatic form, of that multi-media sort, to James Hogg’s astonishing Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, published anonymously in 1824, and to the afflicted, near mad, efforts of actor/director Paul Bright in the late 1980s to put this resurgent, mind-bending, novel onto some kind of stage. It helps a lot if you accept the invitation to go to the four room exhibition – downstairs at the Summerhall – both before and after the show. It’s stark down there but there is much of real interest: archive film footage; Fringe fliers, past reviews, stuffed corbies – that substantiate what you will see/ have seen. And there’s a welcome wee dram to close with.

The host – actor George Anton – does it all, introducing Hogg’s book, introducing himself, meditating on acting, chronicling the history of Bright’s work, playing Bright in impassioned bursts, telling of their time together. He is well qualified to do so as Bright’s co-actor in three (of six ‘Episodes’ of the Confessions) and as his friend, which was clearly – in retrospect at least – one hell of a job.

A large screen assists all the while, showing captions, film – mostly grainy, jumpy and silent – various artefacts, and here-and-now interviews with others who knew and worked with Bright. If you know the book, then the split-screen, Gilmartin/Wringhim, Bright/Anton, doppelgänger scenes are especially successful; not least when you learn that Bright (brought up in Ettrick; but that is Ettrick, Kwa-Zulu Natal, & not Hogg’s Ettrick near Selkirk) had a twin brother who drowned when they were swimming together.

Bright protested Nature above Psychology and he would have his theatre ‘alive, dirty and dangerous’ and that does act against this production which is more intelligent composition, reflective anecdote and report than anything more forward or disturbing. It is with wry humour, almost touched with disappointment, that the 1987-89 history of Confessions is presented. The third Episode, ‘Trials’, was staged at the Queen’s Hall as original Scottish drama and as part of the Edinburgh International Festival . It was a ghastly trial for everyone, lasting nine hours and was a disaster: ‘an incomprehensible and pretentious assault on Scotland’s literary heritage’ was John Gross’s opinion in the Sunday Telegraph.

Unsurprisingly the last Episode 6, ‘The Road to the Suicide’s Grave,’ never happened. However,  here’s the real, valedictory, reconstruction that this production achieves. Paul Bright died in Brussels in 2010 at the age of forty-seven and up on the screen appears a fair sized box that George Anton got in the post from Belgium. It contained personal effects: notebooks, sketches, Bright’s copy of Hogg’s Confessions and a tape from a telephone answering machine. Listen to the message on that tape, watch the appreciably long final sequence and you understand that it is all underscored by affection for a lost friend who could not let go of an impossible project.

‘What can this work be?’ asks Hogg’s editor at the end of the sinner’s memoirs. ‘I cannot tell’ is his conclusion. Actor George Anton, writer Pamela Carter and director Stewart Laing create something more tangible of Paul Bright’s Confessions and in the end more definitive.

nae bad_blue