Underground Railroad Game (Traverse: 2-26 Aug: 22:00: 85 mins)

“Brilliantly confrontational and filled with lavish, breathtaking iconoclasm.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

It has been called transcendent, genius, one of the ‘25 Best American Plays in the last 25 years’ — but, to its credit, the unique shine to Underground Railroad Game does not fit a single simple category of ‘high quality theatre.’ What Ars Nova has put together, under the direction of Taibi Magar and through the blistering voices of writer/performers Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard, is beyond quantification; to ‘decode’ it seems beside the point. Various cacophonous interactions between questions and understandings of race and sex are dragged out bloody and screaming into the light in this production, as it presents a vision of America that is both revelatory and maddeningly intractable. This show is disgusting, but very intentionally; for better or worse, I have never seen a piece of theatre like it, nor even conceived that it could be done. 

The ‘plot’ is frenetic and full of hairpin turns away from narrative logic. On one plane of existence, Kidwell and Sheppard are two grade school teachers who craft a convoluted classroom exercise called the Underground Railroad Game. In the game, students must recreate the networks that runaway slaves used to attempt escape from their white American owners in the South, with brown-painted dolls standing in for slaves and other classrooms standing in for free land, et cetera. To achieve this, the ‘class’ — the audience — is randomly divided into the Greys and the Blues (Confederacy and Union) and told to cheer for their side as the game ensues. In the end, there is not much audience interaction with the game itself, for instead, the show quickly pivots towards the personal lives and macrocosmic implications of Teacher Caroline (Kidwell), a black woman, and Teacher Stuart (Sheppard), a white man, as they present disparate, extremely controversial approaches to the sensitive material in the exercise – and woo each other in their personal time. 

Underground Railroad Game is at its best when it sadistically presents the two teachers swapping racially charged comments and just lets them ride this politically incorrect train to the end of the line. Teacher Stuart’s raucous white privilege and carelessness with his words, even as he fawns over Teacher Caroline, are tautly written and very effective; Teacher Caroline is played with fascinating honour and unpredictability by Kidwell, who is certainly one of the most memorable performers I have seen this Fringe — both her and Sheppard, in fact, have a gift for breakneck comic timing and riveting onstage energy, even when used for remarkably revolting encounters in the show’s later segments. 

The production is brilliantly confrontational and filled with lavish, breathtaking iconoclasm in all its layers. These sharp, vicious parts ultimately combine to serve a true sense you are watching a dangerous piece of theatre – one that kicks the hornet’s nest with merciless rage, one meant to hurt more than to help. Which, in all likelihood, is exactly what a society with problems this complex needs. The play aims for disparate targets — to make one feel confused, hurt, disgusted… even angry, driven, and curious — and hits almost all of them.

I did not like what I saw, but I immediately felt sure that this piece is an essential product of long-standing racial disharmony, and in a sense, exactly what we deserve. Sure, it might be on the surface a distinctly scattershot experience, but the world, to our misfortune, probably needs to be so visually and thematically eviscerated such as the audiences of Underground Railroad Game find themselves; out of the disorientation, some form of budding reckoning is sure to flourish. 

Through all the possible profundities of the piece, whether they make you laugh or wretch, there is an overwhelming sense that you are witnessing living, breathing triggers, firecrackers, enflamers — conversations and topics so out of bounds that they earn some mystical quality just from their utterance and thorough dressing-down. These extend to Teachers Caroline and Stuart’s ribald parodies of hatred and interpersonal violence, on racial, intellectual, physical, and psychosexual grounds. Beyond, there is absurdist, surrealistic aberrations of logic and narrative, that erratically leap across time and space with little warning, an approach which pierces and deflates preconceptions of “difficult” racial and social discussions with breathtaking wit and take-no-prisoners abandon. Through and through, this show imbues its ‘relevant’ messaging with a riveting and primal sense of revolt and destruction — less a hold-hands-and-grow resolution than a burn-it-all-down caterwaul.

It shouldn’t work, and in certain ways it does not, but Underground Railroad Game succeeds in this hair-tearing rage through sheer energy and its vicious urge to show itself and all its twisted innards to the assembled crowd. It is one of the most impressive pieces of frenetic art I have ever seen come alive in a theatre, and reaches territory you may never see elsewhere onstage. If you are curious after all this, find a way to see it. But consider yourself warned.

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

Forbidden Stories (Traverse: 17/18 May ’18)

“You can almost smell the emotion”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Cyprus. A country torn apart by colonisation, occupation and civil war throughout the 20th Century – the repercussions of which are still deeply felt by its people today. The aptly titled Forbidden Stories is part documentary, part theatre piece bringing new life into the previously untold stories of many of those affected by the political situation on the island over the last 50 or so years.

The stories presented are an equally heart-wrenching and heart-warming collection, with comical, childish moments positioned alongside angry, confused and overjoyed perspectives from all sides of the conflict, dating from the 1960s until the early 2000s. And as a collection it feels like a fair representation of the truth, without ever swaying towards bias for any group or individual.

Much of the staging is basic, reflecting the sense of people at a loss with minimal possessions, and while the presentation in this performance sometimes verges on feeling a bit too low-budget and ill-conceived, the power from this piece comes from the delivery of the stories by the ensemble. Given the strength of the multi-talented and multinational cast, the sense of individual voices comes powering through – you can almost smell the emotion of families being forced to leave their homes or being reunited with their communities, thanks to the subtlety of the acting and deep personal connection with the text. At times it’s almost impossible to consider that they are indeed actors sharing someone else’s words rather than their own experiences.

Yet what a strictly Verbatim-style piece brings an emotional honesty, it can lack in cohesion and narrative, so while there is much insight to be gained from each story, the piece as a whole feels very fragmented, and some of the stories a little hard to follow. What’s disappointing from a theatrical angle is not being able to see individual stories and characters evolve over the duration of the piece to create more narrative drive – I really wanted several of the characters presented to come back and share more of their journey to bring a greater sense of resolution – though the chronological structure of the piece does go some way to completing this loop.

As an educational documentary production, Forbidden Stories is a unique and personal way to learn about the history of Cyprus from the people who lived through it, and it really hits the mark in that respect. As a theatrical performance in its own right, it feels somewhat unfinished and rough around the edges, but still very much worth watching.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 17 May)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Gut (Traverse: 20 April – 12 May ’18)

Kirsty Stuart and Peter Collins.
Photos. Mihaela Bodlovic.

‘Feel it!’

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

 

Turning over a toy box can be messy but upending the presumption of innocence is in an altogether different ballpark. What happens when a nice kind man in the queue at a place to eat helps grandma out and takes your three old to the toilet? You’re allowed a gut feeling about this one and it’s probably the right one? But are you sure, really, really sure?

OK, it’s not The Place to Eat up in John Lewis’ – writer Frances Poet can only go so far – but it might just as well be. As it is, Fisher-Price’s Laugh and Learn puppy takes the biscuit for product placement. Dad, Rory, another nice bloke, hasn’t found puppy’s On-Off switch and its happy-happy tune is doing his head in. It is not so funny for Mum, Maddy; not funny at all, for where there’s an edge in this ninety minute drama she is well and truly over it. And there’s no soft play area on the other side. Is it The Stranger who pushed her or did she do it all by herself?

It could not happen to a more ordinary, youngish, couple, which is precisely the point. We even have a Glasgow address: 65 Kelvindale Road – and Joshua (3) goes to Nursery and Granny Morven (Rory’s mother) helps out a lot, to begin with. First it’s the baby monitor and then it all goes wrong, which is where is the creative team get it just right. There’s a broad set, minimally dressed: a table and three chairs stage left, and a garden swing stage right; large rectangular panels, one of gauze, at the back. Colours are muted, contemporary greys and creams. The exceptional lighting design by Kai Fischer marks off areas that quickly isolate and focus attention. Various Strangers cast shadows, open to frightening doubt, that contrast with the chilling white of Maddy’s psychiatric stay. Michael John McCarthy’s music is spare and quietly ominous while Zinnie Harris’ direction is one keen judgement call after another. The overall effect is a silent ‘House’ in the grip of a familiar, media churned nightmare that cannot be shaken off.

George Anton and Kirsty Stuart.

The script is conversational, inviting immediate and natural responses that seem at odds with the enveloping paranoia. Kirsty Stuart as Maddy is never more convincing as a loving mother than when she details her appalling behaviour. Rory (Peter Collins), who loves her to bits, can sort out toy trucks forever and still not get close to her. His mother, Morven (so believable by Lorraine McIntosh) can only be bewildered and hurt. George Anton is seven different Strangers, sympathetic in one light, scary in another. Presence is all and Anton delivers each time. The impassive concern of his police officer is especially alarming.

The initial setup is a little shaky, rather plastic. Can Maddy be that brittle? But if that’s a weakness the stage work carries it all the way. Gut succeeds in demonstrating that once parenting turns into child protection then it is a nervy, mind shredding issue. Feel it! Stand behind a swing and you risk getting your teeth knocked out but you can get thrown off a see-saw and bang your head just as easily. That, for me, is the audience’s experience. Up and down, up and down, see the Stranger, and then it’s touch-and-go (so to speak) whether it’s playtime or, ‘Wallop!’ “Mum’s out of it”.

 

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 24 April)

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How To Disappear (Traverse: 8 -23 Dec.’17)

Owen Whitelaw, Robert, with Kirsty Mackay as Isla.
Image: Beth Chalmers.

“Help yourself to creative energy …”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Nae Bad

 

You don’t associate Elgin with hoodies, or Percy Pigs come to that. Go see Morna Pearson’s How To Disappear, however, and you will. The broad Doric may be less surprising and – at this time of year – why not put Narnia, downsized and upstage, through a cupboard in a bungalow?

If this sounds funny, it is, but it is not light-hearted. Far out, maybe. Imagine finding a squashed pot of Angel Delight in your Christmas stocking and you’re some way there. Or, because this is a play of alternatives, you’ve been given 2 DVDs: ‘I, Daniel Blake’ and ‘Room’. Great films but nonstarters in the Ho Ho Ho! stakes.

That’s a deliberate choice of films, of course. Robert, 28, lives on benefits that the Department of Work and Pensions wants to relieve him of. He has not left his room for twelve years, near enough. He has not been outside since he was eight. In the absence of their parents his kid sister, Isla (14-ish) looks after him as best she can, so it helps when she is excluded from school. A benefits assessor, Jessica, has come to ask Robert some questions.

But that’s barely the half of it. There’s a glowing blue portal and a stage revolve to expose the full story. Exactly when it turns is, for the audience, quite exciting; for Robert it’s an obsessional, skin picking quest, but for his pet tarantula it’s an unfortunate accident; and for Jessica it’s spew and ‘Wow!’ all the way.

Help yourself to creative energy then. Certainly Robert does. Copies of ‘New Scientist’ are stacked up against the walls so there’s not much space for him to move around and check his various alarm clocks but this is one clever ‘mannie’ who – all innocent of the metaphor  – dumps his benefits assessment into his bedpan. Owen Whitelaw is excellent in what could be a raw and painful role but is actually agile and sympathetic. His sister, Isla, is more aware, more aggrieved and angrier with what – on the face of it – is a distressing existence. Kirsty Mackay has that awkward dual role as ‘adult’ carer and S4 pupil who is still getting mercilessly bullied at school. (Note for school Guidance staff – you get a mouthful). Jessica (Sally Reid) is a paper shuffling caricature to some extent but with Robert as her ‘client’ is happily saved.

There is redemption here, which is good for a Christmas production. It’s in the near constant humour for one thing and in the marvellous sense of release, of stepping out of the room that comes at the end. But it’s not an easy given and director Gareth Nicholls keeps the action pretty edgy, using plunging lighting effects (exemplary from Kai Fischer) and sound from Michael John McCarthy that begins, it seemed to me, with a nod to ‘Big Country’ and then funnels down to close in on Becky Minto’s box frame of a set.

We need plays with moral outreach and How To Disappear is definitely out there to bring us in. We’re with Robert because he wants to help his father be with his mother, which is where the plot line folds into the mystic portal and you wonder where you are. Just hang on to the fact that he shares his Milky Way with his sister. We’re with Isla because she won’t get lost and hangs onto her brother because she loves him. We’re even with Jessica because she too is a strung out case who does what she can to help people and, like Robert, she loves the ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’, which says it all really.

Star ratings get done over in the wash in this one: 3, 4, 3, 4 … ?

Isla         ‘D’you kain whit number the washin machine goes on at?

Robert  Nut.

By the end, it’s 4* from me for an original and entertaining play. Fabric conditioner for the soul!

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 8 December)

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Our Fathers (Traverse: 24 – 28 October ’17)

Rob Drummond (l) & Nicholas Bone (r)
Photo by Mihaela Bodlovic

“‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ this is not, as a caustic version makes clear.”

Editorial Rating:

4 Stars: Nae Bad

Yet this is a kind piece, just possibly milder and more forgiving than its writers first intended. Rob Drummond and Nicholas Bone got together – which is a mighty draw in the first place – and offer Our Fathers as a sincere appraisal of their own lives as the doubting sons of clergymen. Their text – for this is a messaging service too – is Edmund Gosse’s celebrated memoir Father and Son (1907) with its epigraph, ‘Belief, like love, cannot be compelled’.

 Written and performed by Rob Drummond and Nicholas Bone, I should add, which is testament to the play’s personal and affecting quality. Whilst they take the parts of Philip Gosse (Drummond) and Edmund (Bone), they are also themselves, appearing friendly and unassuming, and only getting cross with one another rather than with the world. If anyone disappoints, and it is as sorrowful as it is a raging disappointment, it is the God of their fathers, who has definitely messed up. ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ this is not, as a caustic version makes clear.

Gosse the father was a biologist as well as an evangelical churchman, putting him squarely in the round hole of being a Christian scientist. He could write Evenings at the Microscope (1859) and still find plenty of time to rubbish the idea of evolution. One of his vivid illustrations of a jellyfish is revealed in the church hall cupboard, upstage right. Karen Tennent’s jewel of a set, so precisely lit by Simon Wilkinson, is particularly successful at focusing attention. The Victorian underslip is puzzling (a beloved dead mother?) but the fossils next to the plain wooden cross speak volumes. And there’s the fishbowl in which to dunk the book – [Told you that they get cross]. There’s an available reference to Prospero, promising to drown his learning [Like hell he will!] but then you could see it as some inventive gloss on baptism, which Drummond is especially keen to dish and seeks audience support to do so.

In Chapter 1 of Father and Son Edmund Gosse writes, ‘Several things tended at this time to alienate my conscience from the line which my father had so rigidly traced for it’. That ‘line’ is in the severe  clerical dress, the chalked up 5th commandment, and in the earnest hymn singing, but there’s also the sheer size of Philip (Drummond) alongside the much slighter Edmund, who draws up his little chair to his father’s big table. So it’s amusing that it’s Nicholas Bone who stands firm against Rob Drummond’s pleading to ‘play’ the son and it’s sad when young Edmund’s prayers fail and his looked-for faith is nowhere to be seen.

But all told Our Fathers is an easeful piece. Drummond makes light of the ribbing he got at school for ‘being the son a preacher man’. Hopefully it was good-natured, for let’s presume that he was, indeed is, ‘the sweet talking son of a preacher man’. Both men – tricky to call them actors at this affectionate point – hold up photographs of their fathers, whose recorded voices we hear.

On reflection, which is very much the point, I’m with the storyteller of Genesis 1:31: ‘God saw everything that he had made [including sons], and, behold, it was very good.’ This original, deceptively modest work, is also very good at what it asks and does.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 25 October)

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Jury Play (Traverse: 3-7 October ’17)

“The fourth wall isn’t so much broken as shattered”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Sometimes the power and excitement of a show begin long before you take your seat, and remain with you for several days after. For Jury Play, a detailed email briefing is circulated in advance of the performance/court appearance, creating intrigue into what the evening will entail: it’s worth saying at this point that this is in no way like your standard trip to the theatre. The excitement only builds as you go through “security”, enter the (optional) ballot to become a jury member, and start to leaf through your court information pack while taking in Emily James’s impressive and sizeable courtroom set.

Yet what, on the surface, appears to be conceived as an interactive courtroom drama, where the prosecution and defence present facts about a given crime and a resolution is reached by the audience/jury, what Jury Play peels away at is what effect the trial process has on individual members of the jury, specifically for trials that last for weeks.

At various points during the trial, voiceovers expressing jury members’ thoughts are overlaid with the action, which include worries about getting children to school, paying bills, what specific legal terms mean, and even staying awake. Snippets of video conversation between writers Dr Jenny Scott and Ben Harrison about the performance also add a pleasingly Brecthian feel and help break up some of the monotony of the trial itself. So far, so so. Everything changes in Act ii, however, when the formal trial is over and the power lies in the jury’s hands. I won’t give away all the spoilers, but I shall simply reveal that organised chaos ensues, and the meat of the piece really comes out as an intelligent, human, and common sense discussion into the way we conduct trials.

When it comes to the performance it is John Betts as Judge who commands the show, and with his hilarious doddery asides and sensitive chairing of the discussion in the second half of the piece, you feel like you’re in his space, and he decides at any given point how comfortable anyone is to feel. Helen Mackay is also excellent as the conscious “everyman” figure Janis, who just wants to do her duty, and the cast as a whole make the performance very accessible: the fourth wall isn’t so much broken as shattered, with a piece of it distributed to each and every person in the room.

For me, though perhaps a reflection on the subject matter it discusses, Scott and Harrison’s script is too laboured and lengthy at points – missing some crucial details to aid comprehension in the first half, and dragging out its point in the second. The ending, while interesting and fitting stylistically with the piece, also feels like a bit of a cop-out and rather abrupt – as if the ideas just ran out at that point and there was nowhere else to go.

Overall this is a fascinating insight into the legal system, what it’s like to be a jury member, and how seemingly unfit for purpose the whole setup is – especially for people like me who have very little knowledge of its intricacies. Jury Play is absolutely worth taking part in, if there’s any room left in the public gallery.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 5 October)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Pleading (Traverse: 3 – 7 October ’17)

Kim Allan and Daniel Cameron
Photo: Oran Mor

““Everything is negotiable””

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Pleading is the first up of five plays in this season’s ‘A Play, A Pie and A Pint’. This is a spiky three-hander by Rob Drummond, surely a playwright on a roll; and there is something of a wrestling bout to its twists and holds. Heard as a radio drama on BBC4 in January, Pleading comes to the stage – but call it a mat – with a narrative thwack.

Michael (19) and Freya, his girl next door /one-time sweetheart, have been banged up in a foreign jail for three weeks now. They are brought together to talk to their assigned lawyer, Amelia Singh. Where exactly they are  is not given but they do face the death penalty for attempting to smuggle Class 1 drugs. That fate – and their flight itinerary: Singapore > Perth > Brisbane > prison – would suggest Malaysia or Thailand. No worries (really?), for Freya’s dad is a QC and in that part of the world “We’re not foreign, we’re British.” Er …? Cue Boris Johnson and the Road to Mandalay?

If ever a defence lawyer was gobsmacked and keeps talking, then it’s the calm and collected Amelia (Nicole Cooper). How to convince her jumpy clients to plead guilty and serve a prison sentence? Maybe then Daddy can come and flap his silk. “Everything is negotiable”, declares Amelia, but it helps if you keep your story straight and consistent. So, over 50 minutes, Freya and Michael ‘negotiate’ the possibilities of how heroin ended up in her backpack. It is conceivable that the truth is told at the end but who can tell? It’s always salutary to be reminded of our talent for lying.

It is an unsparing and sweaty tussle that is ably performed. Freya (Kim Allan) is more in control but her account is the more wayward. Michael (Daniel Cameron) is more fragile, even desperate. At the close they are hanging onto each other for support and the law is somewhere else entirely.

Director David Ian Neville has a good play for voices to work with. Movement is conspicuous and time parcelled out by Amelia’s visits to the remarkably quiet prison. There is credible tension and there is sympathy and anxiety but as a drama I felt it wanted more fear and a lawyer on the ropes.

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 3 October)

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