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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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

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)

Go to Cockpit at the Lyceum

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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.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 12 September)

Go to What Shadows at the Lyceum & to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre

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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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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Glory on Earth (Lyceum: 20 May – 10 June ’17)

(L-R) Christina Gordon, Rona Morison, Kirsty Eila McIntyre
Photos: Drew Farrell

“Evocative, imaginative drama”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Outstanding

You’re 18 and you don’t know the 2nd Psalm. Well, that’s you written off. You do know a good few dance moves but that doesn’t cut it. Your stock is worthless, you’re ignorant; best go home little girl.

Ah, but where’s home? And who are you calling cheap?

Ans: Mary Stuart, born Linlithgow, brought up in France from the age of 5; Queen of Scots and actually in Scotland from 1561 to 1568, forced to abdicate, kept ‘safe’ under house arrest in England for 19 years and then beheaded, aged 44, in February 1587. Mother, via the union of the crowns, of James VI and I.

So much for dates and titles – but that’s not to dismiss their grip, far from it – it’s just that Linda McLean’s new play creates evocative, imaginative drama from the baleful encounters of the young, attractive queen with the almighty John Knox. He’s there from the off, in front of the curtain, in clerical black and giving new definition to the reproving stare. God’s word, you understand very, very quickly, is “non-negotiable”.

At least Mary has the support of her ‘Marys’, six of them in this telling, who attend her, dance freakpop with her (… really liked that!), and review her suitors in a modern, OMG/ “Awkward”, kind of way. There’s a disciplined choric role in there too, in whispers, gesture, and half lines, as well as the harmonious choral interludes, mostly in French. In other, opposed, parts the Marys are privy councillors and reformers. Queen Mary’s life is here, opened and closed by the executioner’s block, but the tawdry and the sensational (& the melodramatic) are absent: no Darnley, no Rizzio, no Bothwell – just her searching and bold question to Knox, “Do you see a bad person, Sir?”

(L-R) Jamie Sives, Shannon Swan, Christie Gowans, Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Christina Gordon, Fiona Wood, Kirsty McIntyre, & Rona Morison

James Sives, as Knox, is too cool to rise to the question. And he’s damnably clever, in or out of his pulpit in St Giles. Hear Sives and hear the preacher’s ‘History of the Reformation’, righteous and utterly fearless. He walks on stage and kills the dancing stone dead. An unexpected and rather wishful soundtrack of France’s finest minstrels: Piaf, Francoise Hardy, Christine and the Queens (sic), cannot stand. However, Brel’s ‘La chanson des vieux amants’ probably does touch him, as he grieves for the loss of his first wife, but then Brel was Belgian.

Rona Morison, as Mary, has the sympathetic part, the level gaze (female) and the appealing voice. More principled and upright than pliant or weak, and so much younger, this Mary is an important addition to the historical strumpet/martyr and – should you browse Netflix – an invaluable corrective to the endless episodes of CBS’s  ‘Reign’.

David Greig directs with a clear eye on what mattered then and should still matter now. Knox won and Mary failed. The austere and the severe are there in the steel blue lighting and the greys of an uncluttered set and in Knox’s strict delivery. Where there’s a wide and colourful tapestry, there’s dancing and short-lived levity. Elizabeth I, speaking through a mask, is both laughable and ominous and maybe the scheming Scottish nobility could have used the same distancing device. The disrobing of the queen at the end has its own proper and tragic significance.

‘Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.’    From Psalm 2.

You won’t fall to your knees but Glory on Earth will make you give thanks for new writing and live theatre.
.

outstanding

StarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 23 May)

Glory on Earth is at the Lyceum

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Charlie Sonata (Lyceum: 29 April – 13 May ’17)

Sandy Grierson as Chick. Lauren Grace as Audrey.
Photos: Drew Farrell.

“You have to wonder: tragedy or comedy .. or, better, a car crash of the two?”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

There’s been a road accident. One casualty, a 17 year old girl, is in a coma. Relatives and friends are gathered around her hospital bed for what could well be a long and awful night. Wait up! There’s a fabulous tousled fairy godmother with LED High Top shoes on. They’re flashing blue, which figures, but you have to wonder: tragedy or comedy .. or, better, a car crash of the two? So, bring on the dispassionate Narrator (Robbie Gordon), in neat suit and waistcoat, and pay attention. Lots of it.

Here is a story of a sleeping beauty – arguably the Sleeping Beauty – and of three pals from Uni’, of Mumsnet, soft play, mental health and booze. And there’s no stopping it: one hour and fifty five minutes with no break, just a red telephone box sliding on and off, establishing a line between London and Scotland, holding the line open between 1974 and 1994. Chick, Prince Charlie Sonata III, walks the line, unsteadily, with whisky in his grip bag and love in his heart and Neil Young’s Needle and the Damage Done (1972) on his lips.

You cannot help but love Chick in return. For a start, he read English rather than Law at Stirling; he’s also selfless, trusting and honest, and … completely wrecked to the point of offering earnest and lucid advice about alcohol consumption to a 13 year old. See Sandy Grierson in the role and you see a fallen saint: downcast, stooping, shabby, ‘a disgrace’, who may have given up on hope and faith but never on charity.

Granny in Douglas Maxwell’s Yer Granny is a gleeful barking grotesque in carpet slippers in a tenement. It’s contained comic strip Broons territory. In Charlie Sonata, directed by Matthew Lenton, Maxwell puts wasted innocence out there and as a drama it’s immediately more troublesome, more responsible. Where’s emergency care when you need it? Not with consultant surgeon Mr Ingram (Barnaby Power), who has forgotten the name of his patient. Try the drunk in the pub opposite. “Where’s your adult?” is one (funny) call; “Can this be right?” is another, the Narrator’s more insistent appeal to an audience looking for help between the shifting scenes.

It’s inventive and knowing and addled but I liked it, not least because of the play’s sincere attention to youth and to growing up. Chick made a mess of it. ‘Why?’ goes unanswered. His bladdered time in London is abject and you will wince at the cockney creatures who prey on him. Kinder, but not kind enough to invite Chick to their wedding, are Gary (Kevin Lennon) and Kate. Gary is the lawyer, a happier student than he is a bullied lawyer. Kate (Kirsten McLean) is not at all sure that she has got her parenting sorted. Her daughter, Audrey (Lauren Grace), is the RTA casualty that Chick would save, and quite right too as she’s fun, quick, and charming. Jackson (Robbie Jack), the handsome third of the Stirling Uni’ trio, reckons that as time folds in on itself, you’re much better off living in the 60s, even though it’s the 90s. Hence, no doubt, why he’s ended up owning Castleland, a children’s play centre.

Sandy Grierson as Chick with Meg Fraser as Meredith.

Then there’s Meredith (Meg Fraser), all mascara and running lights below the tutu, and banter. She has ‘history’ as well – all too naughty and recent in the case of the Latvian choreographer – but she’s a kindred soul for Chick. And she brings with her the land of faery and make-believe and shimmer (brilliantly, momentarily, visualised by designer Ana Inés Jabares-Pita) where – in Chick’s words – “if there’s love, the thorns will part”. Go see for yourselves.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 3 May)

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A Number (Lyceum: 6 – 15 April ’17)

(L-R) Peter Forbes and Brian Ferguson
Photo: Aly Wight

“If a play can have a cell line, this is it”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Presented in partnership with the Edinburgh Science Festival

Caryl Churchill’s A Number is 15 years old. It’s still Sci-Fi though, as opposed to science history. Yes, Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned mammal born on 5 July 1996, is now referenced as Exhibit Z.2003.40 in the National Museum, but there’s still no comparable human ‘display’. And if ‘it’ does appear – when it appears? – it might well provoke some distress amongst its close relations. So, there’s the scenario.

Bernard 2 (35) finds out that he is one of an unknown number of cloned Bernards. He’s not at all happy about it and his father doesn’t help by saying that he doesn’t know how many ‘things’ are out there either. Dad, for painful reasons, thought he’d signed off for one, not a whole batch. At which point you might idly recall Miller’s All My Sons or, better, Huxley’s Brave New World and the Bokanovsky Process that could, on average, produce 72 embryos from a single egg. However, Dad hasn’t read the book. No chance. Dad is far less interested in informed consent than in what an able lawyer can do for him, for them even, and he has a point …

A Number opened at the Royal Court Theatre in London on 23 September 2002. The public inquiry into unauthorised organ retention at Bristol Royal Infirmary and at Alder Hey hospital, Liverpool, had delivered its final report in January 2001. By early 2003 families of the victims at Alder Hey accepted an out-of-court settlement of £5 million. The Human Tissue Act (Scotland) followed in 2006.

If a play can have a cell line, this is it: 50 minutes of tightly sequenced work by two actors; five exacting scenes between father and son(s) played out within a small bare room beneath a naked bulb. It’s stark and clean, with wallpaper from the DNA Helix collection. There is no warm light until the appearance of the affable Bernard 3, aka Michael Black. Scenes divide suddenly as the ‘family’ multiplies.

As Balvennie in the James Plays Peter Forbes grabbed land and titles with all the appetite of a lesser man on the make. In A Number he’s the father, Salter, and he’s on the defensive in a sympathetic study of the ethically dispossessed. Brian Ferguson plays three differently consituted Bernards: searching, angry, and content. It’s a nimble and impressively disciplined act, even when toppling a chair across the stage.

Smartly directed by Zinnie Harris, this is a brisk and absorbing production of a play that always invites critical admiration. Churchill does not offer any way out of the cloning debate but she certainly moderates it. Next time that you shop for a Little Gem Lettuce you will – (!)cos of this play– examine it a tad more specifically, wondering not ‘How many?’ but ‘Is that me?’

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 8 April)

Go to A Number at the Lyceum

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