A Bottle of Wine and Patsy Cline (Rose Theatre: 1-30 Dec ’17)

“Everything about this production oozes quality”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

For the uninitiated (like me), Patsy Cline was an American country music singer who found fame in the late 1950s/early 1960s, and went on to become one of the most influential, successful and acclaimed vocalists of the 20th century. Her life was tragically cut short at the age of 30, and this production represents a fresh (and fitting) celebration of the star and her work as part of Gilded Balloon’s winter programme at the newly revived Rose Theatre.

Created by the team that introduced Doris, Dolly & The Dressing Room Divas to the world at the Fringe in 2015, A Bottle of Wine and Patsy Cline is a hilarious new musical play featuring all the classic songs fans will love. Yet the only wine you’ll see is the free (mini) bottle you get as part of your entry to the show…

Written as a whistle-stop tour of Cline’s short life, Morag Fullerton’s script slickly presents the turning points in her career and personal life, squeezing in the hits, plenty of laughs and a few of the sadder moments along the way. I would have liked to see more detail in some moments and more creative risk taken with the structure of the piece – it’s safe, straightforward biographical narrative ticks along at a consistent pace – but otherwise everything about this production just oozes quality.

Giving Cline new life in this production is local gal Gail Watson: one of the most accomplished performers currently working in Scotland. Not only a supremely talented singer and impressionist in her own right, Watson commands the stage as the title character and delivers a knockout performance, demonstrating stamina and vocal control performers half her age dream of. Her standing ovation is well-deserved.

Watson is more than capably supported throughout the performance by Sandy Nelson and Hannah Jarrett-Scott, who not only play numerous roles between them, but also act as band and backing singers during the musical numbers. Given the teases of brilliance they demonstrate, it’s a shame we don’t get to see more of each and the wonderful cameo roles they play throughout the show.

Beware – some audience members like to sing along with every song. Those who prefer a silent audience may cringe and crush their plastic cups at the thought, but it’s the kind of show where some formalities can be overlooked. In short: you’d be Crazy to miss it!

 

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 9 December)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

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!

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 8 December)

Go to How To Disappear at the Traverse

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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…

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 1 December)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Oliver! (Pleasance Theatre: 28 Nov-2 Dec ’17)

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Cast of Oliver! Photo by Andrew Perry.

“FSELRES_382c628d-c6dd-48a3-859b-dfb8d567e430SELRES_d4a5f1dc-f027-48ef-8ada-6aca7f57b286SELRES_d0508c34-80ff-4d1c-9452-b9a4c366ffeaSELRES_007f217a-44d6-4932-8fa1-3d14d5861ee5FFull of EUSOG’s trademark heart and powerful vocalsSELRES_007f217a-44d6-4932-8fa1-3d14d5861ee5SELRES_d0508c34-80ff-4d1c-9452-b9a4c366ffeaSELRES_d4a5f1dc-f027-48ef-8ada-6aca7f57b286SELRES_382c628d-c6dd-48a3-859b-dfb8d567e430

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Lionel Bart’s classic musical, Oliver! is an iconic story of cruelty, deceit and murder set in Victorian London, and features some of the best-known songs in musical theatre. Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group (EUSOG) first performed this show in 1988, and almost 30 years on they’re back with a fresh, youthful take on the traditional tale.

While some of the company’s creative and casting choices in this revival absolutely do work in keeping the show relevant to today’s young people, unfortunately others are over-reached and not as well realised. Early on, the choreography and staging seem unnecessarily stompy and frantic, while some of the fight and chase scenes come across as a little under-rehearsed and clumsy.

But let’s start with the positives, of which there are many. In no particular order, Grace Dickson’s Nancy is a real highlight of the show, and her human, emotive rendition of As Long As He Needs Me deservedly gets the biggest cheer of the night. Rebecca Waites shines as Charlie with terrific energy throughout, and Ashleigh More is also excellent as the Artful Dodger, with a commanding stage presence and exquisite voice and physicality. In fact, the whole Consider Yourself scene More leads is the first where everything – choreography, vocals and direction – really falls into place to present the kind of show-stopping number that EUSOG are so good at.

What student productions – and EUSOG in particular – also tend to do very well is unearthing a script’s hidden comedy, especially with smaller characters. In this production, Kirsten Millar stands out as the Sowerberrys’ maid, Charlotte, bringing life and humour to each of her scenes, while Richard Blaquiere gives a hilarious geeky awkwardness to the role of Mr Bumble. Ewan Bruce as Mr Brownlow and Niamh Higgins as Mrs Bedwin also deserve a special mention for bringing a sense of calm maturity and experience to their older characters – a pleasant contrast from the energy of some of the other scenes.

In addition to casting females in some of the other main parts, EUSOG also opt for a female Fagin, which, unfortunately doesn’t prove as successful. Kathryn Salmond certainly gives it her all in this challenging role, though the songs (in particular You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket or Two) are very low in her register, meaning a lot this character’s authority is lost and at times it’s a struggle to follow the dialogue. I almost wish the company had gone one step further to make Fagin a female character to see what dynamic that would bring to proceedings. Yann Davies pleases in the title role with a purity and innocence to his voice, though something about the way this show is put together makes it seem like the character of Oliver is almost a bit part – his presence often gets lost in among everything else going on on stage.

Overall this show is full of EUSOG’s trademark heart and powerful vocals, with some wonderful individual performances, but lacks some polish and pace to be a truly spectacular production.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 29 November)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

 

Pomona (Summerhall: 21 -25 November ’17)

Oliver Beaumont as Zeppo, Lauren Robinson as Ollie & (masked) Eilidh Northridge as Keaton
Photography by Andrew Perry.

“Provokes incredulity, fascination, and applause”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars:  Nae Bad

It’s brownfield land with serious history in central Manchester. It’s a Metrolink tram stop. It’s also Alistair McDowall’s award winning play set in a ‘hole in the middle of the city’ – ‘hole’ as in a rank pit. Pomona (2014) provokes incredulity, fascination, and applause. Without the applause you’d have a WTF play, so it’s a risky business doing this one.

All credit, therefore, to Edinburgh University’s Theatre Paradok for taking Pomona on and finding the perfect venue in Summerhall’s Demonstration Room. The fairy lights on the approach are a fortuitous joke. Little could be less seasonal than the bare grey walls, tiered wooden seating, electrical trunking and peeling paint. As the play requires a ‘concrete island’ in amongst ‘cracked asphalt and weeds’ we’re all set. Not forgetting the open box of cold chicken nuggets and the octopus monster mask.

Ollie (Lauren Robinson) meets zany Zeppo (Oliver Beaumont at stunning top speed). They could be at the tram stop. You might consider a post-apocalyptic situation, with The Road re-surfaced as the M60 Ring, but, no, property is still owned – much of it by Zeppo – and there’s odd but respectful mention of the police. Still, Ollie does not want police help to find her sister. Directions to the likeliest neighbourhood will do. That’ll be to creepy Pomona Strand then.

Indirection more like. For the play twists and turns and the different characters come and go within a looping time frame. Rubik cubes befuddle and provide a handy metaphor for the mixed-up story. It is puzzling but it is doable. There’s Moe (Liam Bradbury) who has had it with people, mainly because he beats them up for a living. There’s Fay (Abi Ahmadzadeh), a sex worker, whose husband hurt her and their child. Moe and Fay share a rare tender moment. Then Fay steals a laptop and valuable data from overseer Gale (Megan Lambie), but it’s all to the good, despite the ‘Kill’ order on Fay’s head. One figure, Keaton (Eilidh Northridge), seems to have the presence to sort it all out but she could just as well be a character out of Charlie’s (Tom Hindle) role playing game box. Charlie really is a bit of a droll card, complete with wacky, sticky fantasy and roaring daftness as and when the dice roll. Zeppo’s back at the close, but this time as a vengeful seagull.

For all his interest in, and skill at, spiel and character McDowall does supply an explanation of what’s going on inside the security fence on the ‘island’ and it’s gross and melodramatic and sensibly left unexplored; no doubt contributing to Moe’s feeling that he’s ‘drowning in an ocean of piss’.

Pomona is fitful and outlandish with no comfortable ‘Home’ for Ollie to navigate to, which very probably explains its appeal to a student audience, who loved its waywardness. Tom Whiston, Director, and Madeleine Flint, Movement Director, work the play with a stylish and disciplined assurance that is easy to underestimate and the cast respond in kind. Personally, I’d rather have Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town as music to leave by but that was 1978 and students have moved onto more uncertain and contemporary ground. Go occupy.

 

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 22 November)

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Hansel and Gretel (Roxy: 9-11 November ’17)

“A futuristic and fantastical interpretation of the age-old story”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

One of the many charms of fairy tales is their enduring relevance, and the Grimm Brother’s Hansel and Gretel is no exception. In their production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s fairly short opera of the same name, Le Petit Verre attempt to present a futuristic and fantastical interpretation of the age-old story, which, while daring and creative, often gets a bit lost in its own figurative forest.

Given its simple set-up and small cast it’s a wise choice of show for this new student company to flex their imagination and demonstrate their talent, and they certainly go all out with intricate theming and design of almost every aspect of the production.

Yet while some of the company’s artistic choices bring a pleasingly modern and relevant twist to proceedings (Hansel’s choreography and overall styling as a street-wise teenager, for example), unfortunately most of the creative elements suffer from a lack of congruence resulting in a rather disjointed production.

The programme notes and opening lyrics of the piece place the action firmly in a modern (potentially post-nuclear war) poverty-stricken household with no food, and where children are left alone to do chores for hours on end. It’s somewhat confusing, then, to see the all performers in glittery costumes with elaborate hair and make-up – and it’s never clear how these two themes are reconciled. The ad hoc appearance of a robotic masked chorus certainly doesn’t ease any of the comprehension.

Musically though, the assembled 40-piece orchestra makes an impressive sound and the singing on the whole is well-matched to the instrumentation, though it’s a shame the lack of microphones prevent the vocals from really being able to soar throughout the production. Patrick Dodd impresses most as the Father with his rich, warming baritone voice, while the rare duet moments between Hansel (Claire Lumsden) and Gretel (Alexandra Elvidge) are delightful to listen to. Hebe James is charming as the Gingerbread Witch and Deborah Holborn brings great characterisation to the role of the Mother.

Underneath all the gloss and glitter of this production there are lots of lovely things going on, and it’s great to see young companies coming through and taking risks with their work. While this one is a little too rough and unready, there are plenty of positives to take away from this debut production, and I look forward to Le Petit Verre’s next show.

 

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 11 November)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Edinburgh Quartet: Queen’s Hall (12 Nov.’17)

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Janacek’s “Intimate Letters’  to Kamila Stosslova

“The Edinburgh Quartet go on tour to all four points of the compass, to build lasting relationships with communities in the North, South, East and West of Scotland”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

 

I have not reviewed the Edinburgh Quartet since March when they played a combination of Mozart, Beethoven and Shostakovich as part of their “Revolution” series. They have been busy since, including a fascinating mixed media “Dance” performance reviewed in June by my colleague Steve Griffin. The Quartet are not a conventional, formal concert giving band, and have a clear market and music focus: different themes for every season, and outreach to the local community, including incorporating artists, makars, dancers, and, tonight, student musicians. Sunday’s 3pm matinee was one of only a few conventional concert hall offerings this season. Otherwise there are rush hour concerts, lunchtime concerts, free concerts and concerts all over Scotland including as far afield as Lerwick. It is almost as if ‘Edinburgh’ is a misnomer. Their publicity rightly states that “the Edinburgh Quartet go on tour to all four points of the compass, to build lasting relationships with communities in the North, South, East and West of Scotland”.  They are a quartet for the nation.

With this creative and outward looking disrespect for inertia we also have had change in the line up almost to the point of it being a band of session musicians, Mark Bailey on cello apart. This does not trouble the band, and nor should it us. The vacant seats give an opportunity for up and coming musicians to try out their playing in a quartet as opposed to an orchestra or solo role, and it brings something new for each concert, where all the different line-ups I have reviewed deliver a surprising homogeneity.

Yet the move from homogeneity to synergy requires players in total empathy with one another and second guessing them, often for years, which is why great quartets are always better than star studded put-together ensembles.  Only the first violin seat remains to be filled, probably, I understand in the New Year. On balance, this is to be welcomed.

The programme took us from Haydn, through Tchaikovsky and Janacek to a new work by Scottish composer Tom Harrold.

Haydn’s String Quartet in F minor Op 20 No5 is part of his ‘Sun’ series, but this stupid name, based on a cover illustration, belies an austere work that is satisfying rather than uplifting. It was competently and confidently played.

The Janacek String Quartet No 2 “Intimate Letters’ was written 150 years later (1772, 1927 respectively) and in style probably quite demanding for the largely elderly Sunday afternoon audience. Written in the last year of Janacek’s life it reflects upon the woman for whom he fell head over heels, Kamila Stosslova, nearly 40 years his junior and to whom he wrote over 1000 letters, 300 in his last eighteen months*.   Certainly all manner of feeling was in this work, amounting to a conviction piece that, while not easy listening by any stretch, was as rewarding as it was demanding. That the relationship was reciprocated only platonically no doubt contributed to his and the music’s angst. The Quartet despatched its considerable demands with ease. So much so that when the work stopped in order for second violin Tom Hankey to return to the anteroom to pick up the rest of his music nobody minded, such is the quartet’s informal rapport with their audience.

Following the interval the quartet was joined with a “shadow” quartet of students from St Mary’s Music School: Briona Mannion and Marie-Sophie Baumgartner on violin, Rachel Spence and Finn Mannion on viola and cello respectively. They were playing the world premiere of Tom Harrold’s short piece “Elegy”. Harrold described the work as simple but the timings were very difficult (and which the shadow quartet managed very well) and there was a considerable amount of pizzicato to handle. Intensely quiet at the opening the piece developed into a pleasing, romantic work in the modern vein.

The evening ended with Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No 2 in F, Op 22, a great, classical work relatively unknown outside of the musical world, for being within the chamber music genre, I suspect. Contrast it with the hugely popular Piano Concerto No 1 in B flat minor, Op 23. Both have the honour of being dismissed by Rubenstein: the Quartet “not really chamber music”, and the “Concerto “unplayable” It took considerable reserves of energy and musicality to deliver a work of this substance at the end of a long but engrossing Sunday afternoon. The elusive first violin seat was on this night guested by Nicolas Dupont from Belgium. He had most of the heavy lifting to do, ably supported by his colleagues. Whoever takes the first violin seat permanently has a lot to live up to.

 

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 * For those who want to know more about this extraordinary 11 year ‘non romance’ I recommend “Notes for a Hausfrau: Intimate Letters: Leos Janacek to Kamila Stosslova”, edited and translated by John Tyrell and published by Faber in 1994 at £25.  It may be out of print, so go to the excellent review in the Independent by Michael White that gives the gist of this extraordinary muse:  http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/book-review-notes-fof-a-hausfrau-intimaye-letters-leos-janacek-to-kamila-stooslove-ed-trs-hohn-1410383.html

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 12 November)

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