The Belle’s Stratagem (Lyceum: 15 Feb. to 10 March ’18)

Angela Hardie as Laetitia.
Photo. Mihaela Bodlovic.

“Jaunty, diverting and quick. A noteworthy woman playwright is not short-changed”

Editorial Rating:  3 Stars Nae Bad

There was gleeful mention of the ‘shit wagon’ and of the reeking ‘Nor Loch’ but these early New Town characters keep their stockings a blinding white and the hems of their fancy gowns spotless. It’s that kind of play: a slight comedy of appearances. Or should that be ‘sleight’?

The Belle’s Stratagem is a jaunty piece, giddy even. Its leading man is Doricourt (Angus Miller), although he’s led by the nose, and he has ‘l’air enjoué’ of a chap with too many Air Miles and too many hours in Club class. Well, he would have, except this is 1788 when Gold Cards and guineas were more likely gifted by pedigree than work. He’s back in Edinburgh after his ‘Grand Tour’ of assorted lounges, demoiselles and signorinas and finds himself betrothed to Letitia (Angela Hardie), known almost from birth and now two years out of boarding school, and he’s not impressed. She, Letitia, is pissed at this – vulgarity clearly crossed Princes Street – and is determined to have her man love her or lose her. Meanwhile, Sir George Touchwood (32 and of the Jacob Rees-Mogg brigade, benign branch) is back in town with his lovely, guileless, wife, Lady Frances. Beware! Cad about, Courtall by name (geddit?), who will have the lady.

Tony Cownie has adapted Mrs Cowley’s Belle’s Stratagem of 1780 and removed the whole play to Scotland, aka that ‘subjugated bunch of hills north of Berwick’. Deacon Brodie is stealing about; Doricourt and the honourable Saville (John Kielty)  are soft Jacobites; Laetitia’s father is Edinburgh’s Provost and Laetitia (in disguise) wins Doricourt’s heart and the audience’s with an aching ‘Will ye no come back again?’ The best joke of the evening is Courtall’s as he goes off to France for an assignation with the Revolution.

Theatre history is all over this piece, if you look for it. The big brother of Cowley’s original has to be George Farquhar’s Beaux Stratagem from 1707. Farquhar had arrived in London in 1697 from Dublin’s wonderfully evocative Theatre Royal at Smock Alley. Cowley’s play opened at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden. Nicola Roy’s Kitty, a prostitute with a proper sense of what’s decent, would fit well into those dodgy streets. She’s the key to foiling Courtall’s foul intrigue. The two widows, Racket (Pauline Knowles) and Ogle (Roy, again) give lechery a good name by repeatedly calling out the hypocrisies of male behaviour but enjoy eyeing the men themselves.

Helen Mackay as Lady Frances and Grant O’Rourke as Sir Edward.
Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

Historians place The Belle’s Stratagem at the endpoint of a period when the Comedy of Manners went bourgeois. Marriage and compatibility within a marriage become a pair and so enter Sir Edward and Lady Frances, who (for me) are more interesting and entertaining than an infatuated Doricourt and the infantile Laetitia of the first half and the minx Laetitia of the second. Grant O’Rourke plays the country squire (ok, laird) as if to the manor born. He’s a kind fellow, whose daft helplessness (check O’Rourke’s real comic quality in the Venetian Twins) rallies to the call of defending his wife. He ends up an endearing character and – a near no-no in the Restoration comedy of times past – a deserving husband. And Lady Frances (admirably done by Helen Mackay) is bold enough to love him true once she has established her own rights, which again is rather refreshing. The New Town will be all the better for their rectitude during their three months residence in town! Laetitia’s father, the Provost, is more typecast as the lookout for a wealthy son-in-law but Steven McNicoll gives the part considerable warmth and humanity, not least in a party dress.

There’s pretty music, dancing, a masquerade, numpty grumpy footmen, and squeaky clean, impressively silent Heriot Row facades but all the same I longed for some ruggedness, more spit and bite. The gossip columnist, Flutter, is played by an impish John Ramage and that gets close, but finally it’s light and undemanding. The ‘modern’ script is frequently diverting and quick, actors help it on enormously, and a noteworthy woman playwright is not short-changed, but the intrigue unwinds too rapidly and I found much of the humour either forced or slack.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 21 February)

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The Lover (Lyceum: 20 Jan-3 Feb ’18)

“Glimpses of brilliance”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

Margerite Duras’s sensational autobiographical novel about an affair between a 15-year-old girl from a poor family and a Chinese millionaire almost twice her age is certainly potent stuff for stage adaptation, and presenting this spoken word/dance interpretation on the backdrop of #MeToo and #ItsTime is a brave choice for co-collaborators The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, Stellar Quines and Scottish Dance Theatre, which will be sure to attract interest. Unfortunately, given the finished product, it probably won’t be the level of interest hoped for.

The performance is narrated throughout by The Woman (Susan Vidler), who looks back on how her affair began, developed and ended. Jemima Levick’s and Fleur Darkin’s adaptation is somewhat lazy in its construction, with too many unnecessary accounts of (mimed!) dialogue and a plodding monotony which Vidler’s voice does little to enliven, leaving the other performers often stranded in the middle. Indeed, the confluence between text and movement seems at odds throughout, feeling not unlike a playground grapple for territory.


Darkin’s choreography at times gives glimpses of brilliance – from the awkward intimacy between the lovers to the playful fights between Paulo and Pierre – and the production’s moments of stillness (particularly towards the end) and subtle gestures often convey far more than the tedious narration. Yet, in saying that, the choreography also too often lapses into writhing around on the floor and clumsy movement of furniture which instantly breaks any of the mysticism and poetry previously built. It’s a genuine shame not to see lengthier dance sequences to tell the story at the sacrifice of some of the narration, while simplifying and minimising some of the on-stage antics would also ease comprehension.

In The Lover’s defence, Emma Jones’s lighting design and Torben Lars Sylvest’s soundtrack do pleasingly act as mediators throughout, dragging the other disparate elements into a clear time, place and mood. Yet the overriding impression this performance leaves – much like the subject matter of the show itself – is one of misfit: an attempt to bring together two different hearts for glorious joy, yet which ends up flat and, somehow, unfinished. What could have been.

In my book, this is a production that should have worked – it has enough of the right cards (including three great collaborating companies and a fantastic base text) to play a good hand – yet it dithers and dallies its way into such a mediocre result that my only constructive criticism would be to start again from scratch. A commendable concept, poorly executed.


Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 23 January)

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The Arabian Nights (Lyceum: 30 Nov ’17-6 Jan ’18)

The Arabian Nights. Photo credit - Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

“Visually stunning”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

The Arabian Nights is based on the well-loved book of the same name, and is adapted for stage here by Suhayla El-Bushra. Presented largely as a collection of short stories told by the central character (Scheherazade) in order to impress the Sultan who holds her mother captive, it’s a simple concept that all ages can find something magical in.

And there are several moments of wonderment and enjoyment to be had in the stories, which introduce many fantastical characters and scenarios: from people who get turned into animals, and vice versa; wives who love to shop and spend their husband’s ill-earned money; and, of course, spirits with the ability to grant wishes. El Bushra’s script stays faithful to many of the tales within the book, and also scatters some pleasingly modern references to keep the performance relevant to today’s audiences. A couple of interesting gender-blind casting choices also make for great amusement!

The show is performed by a ten-strong cast of multi-talented actor musicians who variably act, sing, play instruments, do puppetry and create all kinds of magic on stage, and for me it’s Rehanna MacDonald who really stands out as central character Scheherazade. A captivating storyteller: she impresses equally well on a bare stage as when there is a huge box tricks erupting behind her, and it often feels like she is the glue holding everything else together. A special mention also to Humera Syed and Brian James O’Sullivan as the hilarious, musical talking goats – my personal highlight of the show.

Visually, this production is stunning – no mean feat for a show with numerous changes of location, time and mood – yet designer Francis O’Connor’s set manages to achieve a great deal to marvel at, creating a sense of awe throughout.

The main downfall of this production, however, is its length, and therein much of the magic is lost as the performance drags on, with noticeable and frequent dips in quality and clarity with scene after scene after scene. It’s also a shame that for an adaptation of such magical stories, which does impress with its stagecraft at many points, there is such a reliance on actual fart jokes for cheap laughs, while the odd moments of audience interaction throughout the show are so half-baked they’re practically raw.

At times this production is spell-binding, but it’s very hit and miss, so to fully enjoy this bumpy carpet ride adults and kids alike will need to sit tight, listen in, keep up and just go with the flow…

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 1 December)

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Love Song to Lavender Menace (Lyceum Studio: 12 – 21 October ’17)

16.(L-R) Matthew McVarish and Pierce Reid. Photo credit - Aly Wight

Matthew McVarish and Pierce Reid. Photo credit – Aly Wight

“A delightful gem of a show”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Bookshops, especially independent ones, often have a comforting and homey feel to them, providing a peaceful sanctuary and hidden paradise of worlds waiting to be explored. Indeed, that’s what Lavender Menace proved to be for many of those that visited it back in the 1980s, as Edinburgh’s foremost seller of LGBT and feminist literature – and that same feeling is what James Ley’s latest play captures in his moving and comical tribute not just to that shop, but to Edinburgh’s gay scene at the time, and the colourful characters that made it.

Set during the night after the shop’s final day’s trading, we meet two of its employees, Glen (Matthew McVarish) and Lewis (Pierce Reid) who spend the night packing away the books, while reminiscing and creating an homage about the place to perform for its founders the next morning. The pair recount how the bookshop came to be, the antics that occurred, and how their own friendship has developed during that time. It’s a simple setup, and while a little lacking in dramatic tension to really drive the piece forward, the stories themselves are easy to engage with, Ros Phillips’ direction keeps everything moving at a decent pace, and there are many laughs to be had throughout the various capers presented.

What’s most delightful about this performance is the vitality and honesty that oozes from its stars Reid and McVarish. The duo are instantly likeable storytellers, while their skill at multi-roling with speed and dexterity must also be applauded. Watching a full-length play with just two actors can sometimes be a bit of a slog, but this one flies by like an evening spent with good friends. Ley’s writing on the whole is very natural, providing some genuinely lovely snapshots of the shop’s history, but it’s Reid and McVarish who really bring those snapshots to life.

It’s a shame the structure of the play goes a little awry in the second half with various seemingly random changes in time, place and character. While such devices work smoothly early on in the production, seamlessly weaving together the different stories, it becomes much harder to follow as the piece progresses. Perhaps something around the hysteria of the characters, who have clearly been up most of the night by this point kicks in, but the tightness of Ley’s writing does unravel somewhat. For me, the love story between the two also seems a little shoe-horned in for dramatic effect, though its resolution is ultimately satisfying.

Overall, this is a delightful gem of a show, which, like a well-loved bookshop, might not be as glossy and polished as the more mainstream ones, but is definitely one I would be happy to visit again.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 13 October)

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Cockpit (Lyceum: 6 – 28 October ’17)

Photo. Mihaela Bodlovic

“Director Wils Wilson goes all out to create predicament and danger”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Albert Camus’ La Peste was published in June 1947. The first Edinburgh International Festival was in August 1947. Bruno Walter conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in the closing concert and reckoned that “Here human relations have been renewed”. Bridget Boland’s Cockpit opened at the Playhouse, London, in February 1948 and mashed pestilence and optimism together. Now it’s back, thanks to David Greig, and fit for purpose: a raw and vehement history play, but without princes and kings.

London’s Cockpit theatre was on Drury Lane. It was probably another ‘Wooden O’, built around an actual cock pit. Boland’s play goes one better than Shakespeare’s Henry V, her ‘swelling [and vicious] scene’ holding not only ‘the vasty fields of France’ but the whole of Europe. Cockpit is actually set in a theatre. You get the immersive idea pretty quickly when you notice that the Lyceum has been commandeered by the ‘Allied Government’. It’s late 1945, it’s punishingly cold, and there’s still the reverberation of pulverising bombardment. We’re in the British Zone of Occupied Germany and a theatre is being used as an assembly centre for displaced persons (DPs), hundreds of them. They’re even huddled on the stage. Cast-off clothes are over the backs of the seats. There are ladders from boxes, screened by sacking, to the Stalls and – we’re told – German corpses in the boiler room. Transport is being arranged to take you home (whether you want to go back or not …).  You in the Dress Circle are going West. Those of you in the Stalls are going East. Jiri, on stage and silent, is from Lidice and has no home left. Willkommen im Umwelttheater!, as ingeniously constructed by designer Ana Inés Jabares-Pita.

It is a babel of Slavic voices and trouble. But surely a British officer can sort this lot out, provided he has a desk and reason on his side. Young Captain Ridley has been detached from his regiment because he has School Certificate German. He does have his service revolver. His sergeant, Sergeant Barnes, has no German, just loud Geordie and a Sten gun. Between them they put on a brave ‘show’ – in the choice Army sense of the word – but there’s a limit to how long they can just ‘Carry on’.

Conflict starts with ‘Who’s pinched my sauce pan?’ and very quickly turns serious, not least because the Poles hate the Jews ( – ouch!) and the Russians will kill the Poles and the Chetniks will kill anybody, especially socialist partisans. A French collaborator – but forced labour would qualify that – is certain that Marie, a Resistance fighter, will falsely denounce him. Add infectious disease and Capt. Ridley is in a desperate jam. There is some rallying round but a different kind of ‘show’ is needed to relieve the tension; after all, we’re in a playhouse. When it comes, two thirds through, we get an operatic cloth and a bravura performance from Sandra Kassman.

(L-R) Nebli Basani, Peter Hannah, Dylan Read (Bauer), Sandra Kassman (stairs), Kaisa Hammarlund (stairs) and Adam Tompa. Photo. Mihaela Bodlovic

This is Boland’s brilliant conceit. When the German stage manager, Bauer, says “You will need the theatre – afterwards”, you believe him. And when faced with the possibility that his theatre – probably one of the few buildings left standing in his flattened city – might be burnt down to halt contagion, the man is stricken with sadness. Bauer (Dylan Read), as comic denizen of his place, living in the flies, and true Propsmeister, is almost the only source of laughter in an otherwise sombre drama. Read also plays Duval, whose occasional spoken French, is so good that you appreciate the difficulties of staging a script that demands heavily accented English from several characters. Whatever ‘European’ means, this cast is it.

Director Wils Wilson goes all out to create predicament and danger. A chant is either angry or sorrowful and certainly incomprehensible (unless you’re Romanian). Rush and hurry can subordinate the personal stories. There is a stretch of choreographed movement for the whole company that would express the plight of the displaced anywhere, at any time. The excellent music by Aly Macrae is often discordant and broken, except for the quiet piano at the beginning of the second half. Capt. Ridley (sturdy by Peter Hannah) might be resolute, almost heroic, but it’s not enough. There is a passing mention of a major somewhere else but the chain of command appears well and truly absent, which will irritate Army types.

Cockpit is bold work, both then and now. It is theatrical but – more importantly – it’s humane. A Russian DP proclaims “20 million Russians died. It must not happen again”. That’s from the Stalls, going East. Primo Levi, after Auschwitz and going West, got it exactly right: ‘It happened, therefore it can happen again’.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 10 October)

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What Shadows (Lyceum: 7 – 23 September ’17)

Ian McDiarmid as Enoch Powell
Photos: Mihaela Bodlovic

“A remarkable performance, as unsettling as it is astonishing”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Outstanding

Shadows cast? Shadows fleeting? Shadows lengthening? Take your pick as you find your way back and forth through the many scenes of Chris Hannan’s timely play upon the redoubtable life of Enoch Powell (1912 -1988), for whom – archly – it is ‘in fog [that] you feel England all around you’. As it is what you see is a beautiful copse of silver birches.

This is the standout Birmingham Rep’ production from 2016 directed by Roxanna Silbert. Ian McDiarmid (Powell), Paula Wilcox and Waleed Akthar reprise their roles. McDiarmid, especially and importantly, gives a commanding performance as the radical, absolutist Conservative whose proudest, indisputable claim was that he always spoke for his constituents of Wolverhampton South West, and as their MP from 1950 to 1974 that meant speaking his formidable mind about immigration. For the classical scholar, poet, and theologian whose idea of total Englishness was ‘sunken lanes in Shropshire’, immigration is as unpoetic – but as necessary – as it gets. Lamentable too. For Powell’s close friend, local newspaper editor and Quaker Clem Jones (Nicholas le Prevost), ‘England’ is more subtle – ‘Gary Sobers bowling his slow Chinaman’: surely one, nowadays, for the British Citizenship Test.

What Shadows moves between 1992 and 1967/68. Powell’s notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, that closes the first half of the play, was given at a Conservative Association meeting in Birmingham on April 20 1968. Twenty-five years on two feuding Oxford history lecturers, one black, one white, Rose Cruickshank (Amelia Donkor) and Sofia Nicol (Joanne Pearce), see a research paper, maybe a book, contextualising that speech, interviewing Powell, and hitting upon Insights-to-Racism-and-How-to-Stop-It. Parody did not seem far away, particularly in their self-righteous, point scoring tones; and they’re certainly no match against Powell, even at the end of his life and shaken by Parkinson’s.

Ameet Chana as Sultan and Amelia Donkor as Joyce Cruickshank

Hannan’s invention is both amusing and accurate. 1967 is a Powell picnic, with his wife Pamela (Joanne Pearce) at her supportive best; it is also a hostess trolley at an awkward New Year’s Eve party, where Grace Hughes (Paula Wilcox) is a white landlady of two Punjabis, the gauche Saeed (Waleed Akthar) and the jovial and appealing Sultan (Ameet Chana), whose war service in Burma included learning ‘I Love a Lassie’ from the 1st Battalion Seaforth Highlanders. 1968 is the Powells leaving an RSC production of ‘King Lear’ at Stratford and being buttonholed by Sultan. “England must be cured of Empire” pronounces Enoch. There’s even a passing reference to the late and great Alan Howard.

In this show, though, it’s Ian McDiarmid whom you must applaud. It is a remarkable performance, as unsettling as it is astonishing. Go to Youtube for Michael Cotterell’s 1995 film portrait of Powell, ‘Odd Man Out’, and realise how close the actor is to his subject. Obviously the words, their clarity, and the curiously accented speech can be the same but there is the tight smile, the nodding assent that is as sympathetic as it is probably dismissive. Powell nearly usurped the Tory party on principle and McDiarmid shows how he did it, without quite turning the man into the near demon / archangel of the Left and Right respectively. Enoch in carpet slippers and dressing gown is still the insurgent and not some benign ambassador for the National Trust.

The ending looks to the future, to whatever England makes of itself. It probably has to be a tad romantic and suffused with colour to offset the gloom of the present day.



Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 12 September)

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Lyceum Variety Nights (Lyceum: 4th June ’17)

“Resident host Sian Bevan never fails to amuse”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Ding ding, it’s round three of the Lyceum Variety Nights, and the last in the current season.

This latest outing had a very contemporary and slightly alternative feel, and it’s good to see curator Jenny Lindsay flexing her little-black-book muscles to bring a more diverse line-up of music, theatre, poetry and dance to proceedings.

Overall the night was a pleasing mix of more established artists sharing some of their fondest work from yesteryear, performing alongside some red hot and right now acts, sharing pieces from their latest collections. Among the red hot and right now were dancer Jack Webb, whose inclusion as the first dance act of the programme I was really excited about. He performed an emotive and powerful contemporary-style piece to a discordant soundscape, which, while not the most accessible of pieces, certainly brought some zing to proceedings. Musical acts The Miss’s and Maud the Moth were also bang up to date and on the pulse, sharing genre bending tunes and stunning vocals that just left me breathless.

It was nice too, to have the quieter moments, perhaps most finely shared by Caroline Bird, whose rather more introverted stage presence created a lovely balance between a lot of the madness and noise of some of the other acts. Her poetry was awash with splendid imagery and moments to cherish, that really left me longing for more. Mairi Campbell, accompanied by viola, brought a touch of the traditional to the night, and even had us all singing along with her folk-style music at the end of her set – delightful.

Yet while the variety of the performers was wider than in previous instalments, thus making it feel a little more niche, for me it’s the quality of all the acts which is key to the night’s success. Each night’s line-up never fails to include award winners, experienced practitioners and well-regarded artists from across the spectrum, and though they may not all appeal to individual tastes, those with a wider appreciation for the arts should be able to at least enjoy the overall skill on display. A special shout-out too to resident host Sian Bevan who never fails to amuse with her witty and sometimes humorously irreverent compering!

I have to say that this was not my personal favourite evening of the programme, but that’s variety for you – you can’t win ‘em all! I very much hope another season of these nights is programmed for next year, and I look forward to attending them all.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 4 June)

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