My Country (Traverse: 11 – 13 May ’17)

Penny Layden (Britannia) & Christian Patterson (Cymru).
Photo: Sarah Lee, NT

“A cocktail of feelings: a little sweet and pleasantly bubbly, with just the right amount of bitterness.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Outstanding

Public opinion is a funny thing. A dramatic shift occurs in our society and suddenly everyone has something to say about it. Which is wonderful, of course. The more of us who care about what happens in our country, the better. But one of the questions that people always seem to ask in times like this is; “Do you remember where you were?” Do you remember where you were when the Twin Towers were attacked? …When you heard Michael Jackson had died? …When Trump was elected President?

Now, do you remember where you were on the morning of 24th June 2016? Brexit Day. GB hands the European Union ‘our’ divorce papers. From that day, the word spread around the country like a hectic rash, spouting from the voice of every radio station, newspaper and neighbour. It was unstoppable, all-consuming and tense, yet it seemed to arouse a willingness in the people to debate and engage with the current events of our nation.

So what if the voices of these ordinary people from across our great lands were trumpeted aloud for all to hear? A creative way of bringing about social change, perhaps? Or a spark that will encourage us to listen, and prevent the fire of the debate extinguishing? The National Theatre seemed to think so. And when the NT starts to roll with an idea, it tends to pay off. Headed up by the company’s own Artistic Director, Rufus Norris, My Country came to the Traverse Theatre last week as part of its UK tour, bringing with it the voices of these people for us to hear.

We are immediately welcomed to a boardroom by Britannia, played by Penny Layden. Olivier-award-winning Katrina Lindsay’s simple yet effective set is businesslike and blue, complete with water cooler and official-looking desks, as well as a row of ballot boxes to remind us why we are there. In come the regions: Caledonia, Cymru, East Midlands, Northern Ireland, North East, and South West, with Britannia as our Westminster. A strong set of seven, each actor representing the heart and soul of their respective parts of a still United Kingdom. And so the debate ensues.

While the cast are solid overall, there are a few standout performance among them. Chris Patterson as the booming voices of Cymru gives a performance that is both buoyant and vulnerable, shifting from brash old pub-dweller to the touching voice of a thirteen year old who only wishes to see the good in others. Equally captivating is Laura Elphinstone as the voices of the North East. Warm, honest and heartbreaking in her moments, she is fantastic to watch. But the glue holding the regions together is Penny Layden’s Britannia. Representing the heart of our government, Layden’s portrayal of Westminster’s politicians is spot on, generating both laughs and anger.

There is, at times, a slight risk of these performances dancing on the borderline of caricature, but the actors never cross it; these are real people with real stories to tell, and their words are treated with respect. Throughout the performance, Britannia constantly urges us to simply “listen”, despite our own opinions. And we do.

A verbatim piece could quite easily turn boring. In Edinburgh, where 74% of voters chose to remain, an audience could have been so opposed to the opinions of  ‘Leavers’ that they shut down completely. Yet that night in the Traverse Theatre, the opposite seemed to happen. We wanted to listen, and this is one of those special productions that generates a cocktail of feelings: a little sweet and pleasantly bubbly, with just the right amount of bitterness. It makes you angry and sad and happy all at the same time, and you’re not sure whether you should laugh, scoff or just let go and cry. Sadly only in Edinburgh for three nights, the company continue to move around the UK until its final performance on, appropriately, the 24th June 2017. Jump on a plane, train or bus and go and see this show. The question I would ask you in ten years is: do you remember where you were when you saw My Country? Don’t be one of the people whose answer is no.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Rachel Cram (Seen 12 May)

Go to My Country, National Theatre on tour

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Girl in the Machine (Traverse: 3 – 22 April ’17)

Rosalind Sydney as Polly.
Photos: Mihaela Bodlovic

“Galvanising”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Time was when wireless simply meant a radio and Mr Chips taught Latin and Greek. Now we’re practically Wi-Fi dependent and it’s definitely ‘Goodbye, Mr Chips’ and ‘Hello’ Citizen Chip. Soon enough you’ll be living beyond 120 and if you’re lucky the worst you’ll suffer physically is an itchy forearm when your chip is updated. Mentally, however, you might get fried.

That’s where Stef Smith’s galvanising new play has us: in the near enough future when ‘the gap is getting smaller between the human and the hardware’. ATMs now ask how you’re feeling and robots are cleaning up on the wards. Owen, a Charge Nurse, might be out of a job soon. The only ‘shit’ left to deal with is what his lawyer wife, Polly, does for a living, for the outside world is going down the pan big time. Stress is a plug-in on her iPad Pro. Polly is not in a happy place, although she does love Owen and he loves her. He’s just brought her a present in a black box to help her feel better, which it does, but she really should have just stayed with the nice hot bath, the scented candles and a glass or two of Merlot.

It’s a container load of a drama, ingeniously designed and neatly packaged. Owen and Polly inhabit a rectangular box, complete with geometric floor covering and modular seating. It’s a neutral, pastel space inside a post-industrial shell. It must have been tempting to put an Amazon Echo (or Samsung Smart TV) centre stage; as it is, Polly is freaked out by a data file eavesdropped from her memory of better days whilst Owen appreciates how ‘our house looks much bigger with no electricity in it’.

This must be the angst of a neo-Millennial generation – and not that of those who worry whether their passports should be blue or burgundy. Polly (Rosalind Sydney) and Owen (Michael Dylan) are in their 30s, see their neighbour as a man ‘whose face looks like a smashed circuit board’, and yet wonder at their growing inability to feel for each other. Polly is digitally hooked, ‘twitches’ for a connection and finally, fatally, makes one. Owen resists the circuitry. That this is a loving relationship in crisis is never in doubt – such is the quality of the performance – but that the destruction of an intelligent woman is caused by a gadget on speed is more of an ask. The script also suffers from some philosophical surges that are best characterised by Polly’s despairing repetition of ‘I can’t stop thinking’.

Michael Dylan as Owen.

The villain of the piece is the arch voice of the Black Box programme. It seduces indiscriminately and without mercy, because it’s a rogue bot. The hero is certainly Orla O’Loughlin whose sympathetic, human, direction moves her two actors every which way along a traverse stage, not least to the killing beat of Kylie’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ (!), and who also holds them together in still exchanges that in less capable hands could sound derivative and forced.

Back in 1934, in Mr Chips’ last days, Black Magic chocolates were a year old. He probably gave Mrs Chipping a box of them and didn’t worry a jot about their tantalising centres. And then came the digital age and a virtual Raspberry Heaven (or Caramel Caress).

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 5 April)

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Grain in the Blood (Traverse: 1 – 12 Nov.’16)

l to r: Frances Thorburn (Violet), Sarah Miele, Andrew Rothney, John Michie, Blythe Duff. Photos: Mihaela Bodlovic

l to r: Frances Thorburn (Violet), Sarah Miele, Andrew Rothney, John Michie, Blythe Duff.
Photos: Mihaela Bodlovic

“This hair-trigger of a play”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Nae Bad

What is it about valleys? There’s the BBC’s Happy Valley and Edward Norton in Down in the Valley, also far from ‘happy’, and – seminally – there’s the Valley of the Shadow of Death, which is as good a place as any in which to locate Rob Drummond’s latest enthralling work. Once upon a time, ‘for hundreds of years in the valley everything was just so’, but then the thanksgiving poetry ran out, like blood. Time now, then, for a spell of compassionate release.

That’s the hope anyway, and it is hope that supports Sophia, whose grand-daughter Autumn, needs a kidney transplant if she is to live much beyond her twelfth birthday. Isaac, Sophia’s grown son, has it in him to help but naturally, dramatically, it is not as easy as that. In fact, after 85 minutes, it has all still to be decided, either by the words of a child terribly wise beyond her years or out of the barrels of a 12 bore shotgun. Orla O’Loughlin’s direction respects this hair-trigger of a play right to its showdown.

The action rises over 3½ days, counted as ‘three sleeps’ by Autumn, who is brat reporter and ancient Chorus combined. She knows the ‘Verses of the Harvest’ by heart and the rhythmic invocation of the Grain Mother as provider of health and happiness- sad joke –  sounds solemn and serious, ‘even though She doesn’t fucking exist’. That’s the thing about Autumn (Sarah Miele): she has that unnerving sacrilegious streak that adults can’t manage.

So, there is proper tension down on the farm. There’s even a game of ‘Truth or Dare?’ that contains the greatest reveal of them all, which is wickedly ironic as Isaac (Andrew Rothney) is described as ‘low risk’. Sophia (Blythe Duff) needs to believe that assessment whilst Burt (John Michie), is there as the phlegmatic companion to threatening circumstance. These two play out a nice challenge of ‘Would you kill scumbags to save your daughter?’, which just digs deeper into the disturbing, teasing, ethical dilemmas that Drummond delights in. Go to his Uncanny Valley for starters.

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The remote rural location is part of the piece. Where better to unearth the unsettling and the rooted? The harvest moon can glint off Isaac’s blade and there’s the suffering of Auntie Violet’s horse to put alongside Sophia’s claim that ‘We’re all animals’, which might be what her veterinary practice has taught her. Her house is modern, of machined and polished wood, where you might expect low ceilings, wood smoke and warped timbers. The spare, snappy dialogue and careful movement suits the space, whose back wall slides away to show Autumn’s bed with its blood drip stand, or the barn, site of an earlier, bloodier horror. Introducing classical tragedy for our times, anyone?

Intrigued? You should be, because this is fascinating theatre, still and severe in its way, but emotionally resonant, well-focused and very well performed.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 1 November)

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Dr Johnson Goes to Scotland (Traverse: 1 – 5 Nov. ’16)

l to r. Lewis Howden, Gerda Stevenson, Simon Donaldson, and Morna Young. Photo: Kirsty Anderson

l to r. Lewis Howden, Gerda Stevenson, Simon Donaldson, and Morna Young.
Photo: Kirsty Anderson

“Comic effect knocks against an open coffin on Iona”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Would Samuel Johnson, heroic dictionary maker, essayist, critic, and celebrity wit ever have appeared on ‘Strictly’? Perhaps. He was, after all, prone to nervous shakes and tics and he would have been mercilessly brilliant at discombobulating the judges. Anyhow, in the last of the current season of a Play, a Pie, and a Pint, the big man is in polished boots and plaid and he steps up to a jig and seems to enjoy it.

And verily this is the same Dr Johnson, who noticed that ‘the whole [of Edinburgh] bears some resemblance to the old part of Birmingham’. Writer James Runcie continues his rehabilitation of the arch English nationalist by rowing him thoughtfully and fondly over the sea to Skye (and to Mull and Raasay). A Word with Dr Johnson – at the Traverse in October last year – was about the man, his wife, and his English dictionary; this time (1773) he’s in the boondocks and the heather and the Gaelic. For the proto London-centric it’s an ear-bending peregrination in a land where ‘you have more words than people’, which could well have been its chief attraction.

Lewis Howden plays Johnson sympathetically, of splendid girth and with orotund voice, and with a baffled interest in all things Scottish. An exploration of Fingal’s Cave, lantern in hand, leaves him only dimly enlightened but his enthusiasm for Thomas Braidwood’s school for the deaf and dumb is obviously sincere.  His companion throughout is, of course, the amiable James Boswell (admirable by Simon Donaldson), who treats us to evocative latin from Dunbar’s ‘Lament for the Makars’, whilst guarding his distinguished author friend from the sublime and local peril of being called a bampot.

So then, a pleasing trot through good old Scottish ways ? Runcie even brings on ‘Macbeth’ and the Bonnie Prince, which is fine until their comic effect knocks against an open coffin on Iona and a poem of freedom in earnest pursuit of the Scottish nation. Supporting roles by Gerda Stevenson and Morna Young are amusing and/or tuneful but my distinct impression was of looking in at the tartan themed windows of discount booksellers, The Works, on Princes Street. The learned Dr.’s eye would take in a remaindered copy of his  ‘A Journey to the Western Islands’; he would harrumph, say “I’m deeply obliged”, and move on.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 1 November)

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One Thinks of It All as a Dream (Traverse: 25-29 October ’16)

“Euan Cuthbertson as Syd shows great range and dexterity”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Competent, solid, predictable: words probably rarely used to describe Pink Floyd’s music, but to me the most apt in summarising One Thinks of It All as a Dream – the latest instalment in the Traverse Theatre’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint season. The play, which follows the band’s early years, in particular Syd Barrett’s influence, is interesting for those that know little of the history, but in all other respects doesn’t give much to shout about.

For a theatre piece about such a genre-defining and experimental band, one might expect an edgy or original approach to form and structure to creatively fit the subject matter (drugs and mental illness are common themes), but instead this production follows a simple linear narrative and style typical of (and there have been so many) a musical star’s biopic.

It is structured well in giving nods to all the necessary turning points and dramatic moments to keep interest in the narrative, and the second half flows very naturally in terms of building up tension and allowing the actors to really sell the story. Early on the dialogue is quite forced to convey necessary information – in particular in one party scene the characters all sit around discussing what’s just happened, which comes across as very stilted.

The more engaging parts of this show are the longer and more developed scenes – the first television interview, Roger’s meeting with a psychiatrist and the final few minutes in particular enable the development of more emotional involvement with the action. As quite a pacy piece covering several years it’s quite hard to build a connection with each moment: before you know it you’re off somewhere else again, trying to keep up with who’s who and where and when we are.

The acting is good, Euan Cuthbertson as Syd shows great range and dexterity, particularly in scenes with his father, and the other actors give credible support to keep the action moving. Jonathan Scott’s design should also receive special mention, creating a flexible yet stylish space for the actors to move around in and facilitate a smooth performance.

It’s a perfectly passable show, but not a great show. For me, another brick in the wall.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 25 October)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Walking on Walls (Traverse: 18 – 22 October’16)

Image: Leslie Black

Image: Leslie Black

“Funny and searching by turns”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

You would not take Claire for a creepy clown. Have there been any sightings in Edinburgh yet? With Halloween around the corner there may well be a few popping up at the window or from behind a wall, which is where Claire comes into her own. She’s the ever so earnest social scientist who doubles as a Super Helpful Person, who just happens to wear a clown mask when she’s out at night looking after people. You could say she looks over them.

Nobody’s laughing at the sinister clown craze, least of all the police, and we shouldn’t laugh at Claire, who has just called them – again; but we do laugh at her, just as the police do, because Morna Pearson’s script makes it all too easy to. Poor Claire with her big round specs and love of chat-defying stats, who’ll never be down the pub after work. But this is the same Claire who notices that (normal) ‘people don’t board themselves up’ unless they’ve been hurt and are vulnerable.

You’ll hear a lot from Claire (Helen MacKay) as she explains herself and her wacky, neighbourly, exploits. She is admirably audible, even from behind the mask. You’ll hear less from Fraser (Andy Clark), not least because of the duct tape across his mouth, but he’s impressive at being incredulous, dumb, and helpless. Unsurprisingly he’s in WTF mode and tries to stay there until he too is affected by Claire’s story. Well, he might be affected, and that’s the point of Pearson’s stinging, interrogatory close.

It is a questioning piece, funny and searching by turns. Who’s the victim here, for one thing, and what’s their space like? Andy is literally bound in his and is pushed around by a young woman, which has to be a valuable experience for him. With Claire it is more complicated. Work is probably the featureless desk, stage left. Home seems to have shut behind her and seems inextricably part of a very unhappy time at school. She sees the empty Buckie bottles and used condoms in the street and it’s all pretty ugly.

There’s tension, of sorts. I saw and heard the opening out and folding up of Claire’s neighbourhood map – with its anti-social ‘hotspots’ – and thought, characteristically, ‘Metaphor-for-Anomie’, which is almost certainly to go too far. Walking on Walls is more interested in seeking kindness than anything else.

Walking on Walls is the third play in the Traverse’s current series of ‘A Play, a Pie, and a Pint’ from Oran Mor, Glasgow.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 18 October)

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Mischief (Traverse: 11-15 Oct ’16)

“Life-affirming and devastating in equal measure”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Ronnat and Brigid, mother and daughter, live alone on a small island, save for some cows that they tend to for a group of monks on a neighbouring island. But when the handsome young sailor Fari washes up on their beach, their little world is set to be changed forever. For his own good, Fari is sent off to live with the monks with the next dispatch of milk, but he soon becomes responsible for transporting the milk back and forward, meaning frequent visits to the women on the island, which have deeper effects on them all than any of them initially realise.

It’s a simple but intriguing set up, and Ellie Stewart’s writing creates a believable world and relationship web between the three characters that slowly unfurls as the play progresses. The plot is full of changes in direction and power between each one, keeping the tension alive throughout, and leading to a final scene and denouement that’s both life-affirming and devastating in equal measure.

While covering quite a “serious” overall topic, a fair amount of comedy is woven in, largely through quite overt sexualisation. Such moments are generally amusing, though do perhaps cheapen the play and divert attention away from the main drama, which is the piece’s real strength. Traditional singing and movement are also used throughout which in some ways add to the sense of history and ritual one would expect from such a setup, but in others seem a bit gratuitous in trying to cram in too many devices. Overall I think Mischief (a slightly misleading title) tries a bit too hard to do too much in such a short space of time.

What would make this play more effective would be a greater sense of stillness and time – there are quite a few scenes and scene changes as the story progresses at a pretty rollicking pace, but given the life-changing themes and choices presented, Gerda Stevenson’s slick direction never really gives enough opportunity for the situation or newly revealed facts to just hang and be absorbed. The young cast, in their earnestness, also seem very keen to over-emote and play up to stereotypical roles, when a subtler and more grounded approach would help make the play’s decisive moments stand out.

It’s a moving and captivating piece that’s cleverly written, but not realised to its full potential in this production.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 11 October)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED