SCO: Emelyanychev, Spacek (Usher Hall: 15 March ’18)

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Josef Spacek

“If it were a blind tasting you would be definitely getting a taste of premier cru”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad



The winter season has been cruel to the fans of the more well known soloists booked by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Thursday’s concert, the latest of three I had planned to attend, was, for the third time in a row for me, blighted by the non-appearance of not only the soloist but also the conductor. The SCO points out in its no-show apology that there are no refunds because they have the right to substitute artists. Other Scottish orchestras take a less severe line. I had wanted to see Schiff a few weeks ago, I had wanted to see Tetzlaff on Thursday. I wanted to see Ticciati. That’s why I put the concert in the diary. All pulled. Ticciati’s on-going back problems deserve sympathy and should be recorded here. One hopes he can make it for his farewell concert next week. For the others, one wonders.


I decided to stay, not least because I feared that opportunities to review the SCO were proving elusive. I am glad I did, because that fickle spirit, Live Music, triumphed, and I learnt a lesson.


The B Team were young, but what they lacked in experience they made up for in enthusiasm, technical competence, and considerable depth of interpretation beyond their years. The concert was a joy from start to finish, melodic, engaging, very well played, relaxed and entertaining. Maxim Emelyanychev stood in for Robin Ticciati. A student of Rozhdesvensky and the Moscow Conservatory he has, at the tender age of 29, yet to conduct a first rank orchestra, but is booked next season for the Royal Philharmonic, the St Petersburg Philharmonic and at Glyndebourne with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. So tonight we were shown a window into a promising future.


Perhaps Josef Spacek, standing in for Christian Tetzlaff, has a few more pips on his shoulder. He has appeared not only with his native Czech Philharmonic, but also, among others, the Philadelphia Orchestra, Bamberger Symphoniker, Rotterdam Philharmonic and Netherlands Philharmonic. This was his first gig with a British orchestra. The 32 year old did well.


And so to the music. Of the three concertos written by Dvorak, I would put the piano concerto in the second division, the violin concerto at the bottom end of the first, and the cello concerto as a masterpiece. I personally prefer the Romance for Violin and Orchestra to the concerto, but of course the latter is a more substantial work. Spacek took immediate control with confidence, smooth phrasing, great tone and sufficient volume even way up high on the E string, standing out from the orchestra notwithstanding the limitations of his instrument.   Emelyanychev kept the orchestra in balance but brought everything out of the piece in a conducting style that was confident and far from laid back. The orchestra was competent and supportive after just the slightest waver on the fiendishly difficult and exposed horn opening, and one was in no doubt as to the natural synergy between the triad of orchestra, soloist and conductor, completely forgetting that two of them were stand-ins.


I cannot write about Schubert’s 9th Symphony without a reference to my then eight year old daughter chatting to a violinist from the London Philharmonic Orchestra during the interval at a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, just before playing the work. He said that he and his colleagues called it “The Great Sea Monster” and that is what the Great C Major has been in our household ever since.


The symphony is not without its challenges to the listener. The key of C has its limitations, and for Schubert it is relatively long. There is plenty of melody, but also quite a bit of ‘fill’. The solution, as rightly executed by Emelyanychev, is to take it at a cracking pace.  The SCO was melodic, cohesive, disciplined and played it better than many. I should give a special mention to the timpanist who unusually was given an opportunity to demonstrate his considerable expertise. Overall it was a very accomplished performance by both orchestra and conductor.


The lesson for this writer is, once again, with live music you never know what you are gong to get. Stars can disappoint, relatively unknowns can surprise and impress. To mix my metaphors, while the names tonight were perhaps more Naxos than DG, if it were a blind tasting you would be definitely getting a taste of premier cru.



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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 15 March)

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Footloose (King’s Theatre: 14-17 March ’18)

“Genuine wow-factor”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

When the stage musical of Footloose (based on the 1984 film) hit Broadway in 1998 its critical reception was mixed. But this week in Edinburgh the Bohemian’s Lyric Opera Company are cutting it loose with a near-perfect interpretation, with plenty of positives to shout about.

Following the story of a young man who moves to a new town that’s banned dancing for being a bad influence on children, it’s a fairly mediocre plot, but it’s a show packed with punch, heart and fun to get anyone’s weekend off to a good start.

What makes or breaks a show like Footloose – where dance is what the whole show is about – is being able to sell the choreography, and boy, do the Bohemians do just that: it’s hard to spot a foot or fingernail out of place in this full-on production. And what’s most impressive is that whether there are five or fifty dancers on stage, everything is slick, polished and performed with smiles. Dominic Lewis’s excellent choreography not only captures the overriding sense of freedom vs. containment throughout the show, but it really works to the strengths of this amateur company, creating complex patterns with simple moves that result in a genuine wow-factor.

Leading man Ren McCormack (Ross Davidson) brings all the charisma and light-footedness required for the out-of-towner who dares to be different, while Felicity Thomas as Ren’s love interest Ariel More is honest, likeable and very impressive vocally throughout the show. The main comedic moments are delivered by Willard Hewitt (Thomas MacFarlane), whose gawky brashness brings a lightness and joy to proceedings whenever he is on stage, while Christopher Cameron shows great authority and control as anti-hero Rev. Shaw More.

Musically, this show won’t be to everyone’s taste: there’s a real 80s vibe to the score, which to me makes the standout upbeat songs quite poppy and obvious, leaving the others feeling a little bland in comparison. In saying that, on the whole, everything is very capably sung with some stunning vocals on display – especially from the female leads. Cathy Geddie in particular brings tear-jerking emotion to Can You Find it in Your Heart, and Charlotte Jones pumps up the party diva-style with Let’s Hear it for the Boy. But it’s when Felicity Thomas, Cathy Geddie and Ciara McBrien combine in the spine-tingling Learning to be Silent that you know you’re watching something very special.

The only downfalls in this show are a few pitching and power issues with some of the male soloists, and a tendency for some of the duologue scenes to dip in energy following big production numbers, creating a sense of imbalance from scene to scene. On the whole though, this is a very polished production, so lose your blues and go and see Footloose!




Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 15 March)

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Romeo and Juliet (Pleasance: 6 -10 March ’18)

Eliza Lawrence as Juliet and Douglas Clark as Romeo.
Photo: EUSC.

“A very appealing production “

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Outstanding


Can Romeo and Juliet be refreshing? Deffo.

For a start, as with Heineken, there’s the beer. Verona’s birra is Mastro Matto’s; in 1594 quite possibly a thriving business for either the house of Montague or of Capulet. Beer is liberally served in this production. The Prologue opens Act 2 truly blattered, heels in hand. The invitation to the Capulet party is ‘Pray come and crush a cup of wine’ [… or bottle of lager].

Downstage right and centre there’s a café. Mercutio and Benvolio are often in there, sitting down with a beer and talking lewd. You can forget how this high romantic tragedy starts way down low and mucky with the bawdy Sampson thrusting women –  ‘being the weaker vessels’ –  to the wall. However, no chance of that in this production: the Prince and the Friar are women, the Nurse is on man-topping form and Juliet is a very self-possessed #MeToo 16 year old.

Romeo sits ‘off’, to the side of the platform stage, appalled yet entertained, as Mercutio summons Rosaline’s ‘scarlet lip’ and ‘quivering thigh’. He’s then up on the platform, facing forward, for the balcony scene with Juliet behind him at the front of the main stage. It’s a terrific, captivating effect, each speaking to the other but straight at the audience as well. A window on wheels turns around to frame, alternatively, either the inside or the outside of Juliet’s room. This works well as an occasional framing device and is typical of Director Finlay McAfee’s ‘eye’ on his audience and how it will see and interpret the action.

What with body bags on a stark blue- grey set, Love looks ‘death-mark’d’ from the start, but this is not, I felt, a certainty. There is more immediacy and irresolution in the course of this production than in many, which is always appealing in a play whose awful end is common knowledge. The fighting –  tricky when Health & Safety shrinks rapier to titchy (plastic?) dagger – relies on fist, boot, and head bashing which looked sufficiently dangerous to make you realise how fatal accidents are so often juvenile and hot-headed. Mind you, Romeo’s dispatch of Tybalt is definitely murder.

Michael Black as Benvolio with Douglas Clark, Romeo.
Photo: EUSC.

Eliza Lawrence is Juliet and does indeed ‘teach the torches to burn bright’. (Probably not accidental then that Mercutio and Romeo play around with an LED lenser.) This Juliet may be sweet but you can believe that her suicide is the result of an extraordinary love and not momentary despair. Douglas Clark plays  Romeo with the same verve and assurance that he brought to Alan in Equus three years ago. That does make his wrecked helplessness with the Friar at the news of his banishment close to unbelievable but this is still (another) outstanding performance. Kirsten Millar’s programme profile says she is ‘immensely excited’ to add another old lady to her ‘eclectic portfolio’ and you can only admire her cracking truthfulness! Esmée Cook is a Friar whose diction over the whole piece is admirably steady, which helps in a play that can pitch and yaw from one scene to the next. Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller’s Capulet has attractive style – his jacket and shoes combo do half the talking – until he slaps his Juliet right across the face. Bam! And Will Peppercorn as Mercutio poses the usual problem: once he’s dead what’s to do without all that wit and energy? The draining effect of rainfall upon Romeo’s sleeping-bag in Mantua is actually genius!

As well as the yoof n’beer, it was Romeo sitting on the bed tying up his trainers after his few hours with Juliet that confirmed it. This is a very appealing production of Romeo and Juliet. Its effects may appear natural but are the result of new thinking and creative rehearsal. The musical score by Madison Willing – electro brooding Michael Nyman strings with grim rumbles – does ‘Tragedy’ proud, whilst the casual modern dress even gives it something of West Side Story. The Capulet ball, simply yet ingeniously staged, could have been in the Pear Tree. Does it serve Mastro Matto’s L’Ultima?



Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 7 March)

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Our Country’s Good (Bedlam: 26 February – 3 March)


“Bold and disciplined”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars:  Outstanding

Lashings of intelligence here. That and the knowledge that ‘the shoulder blades are exposed at about 100 lashes’. There’s also sand on the stage floor, figuratively blood stained, but handy for gritty effect and for when you want to represent a play as ‘a diagram in the sand’, as proof of what could be and what might be changed for the better whatever the wretched circumstances.

And Lord knows that Australia has been there and done that. In literary terms it’s a swift line of descent: Robert Hughes’ ‘The Fatal Shore’ was published in 1986, Thomas Keneally’s ‘The Playmaker’ in 1987, and Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good opened at the Royal Court, London, in September 1988. Historically it took eight months for the convict transports to get from Portsmouth to Botany Bay, arriving in January 1788. The action in Wertenbaker’s play – by now surely reckoned to be a modern ‘classic’ – is spread over five to six months. It is Edinburgh University’s official English Literature play of the year and this student production does it proud.

Of course, ‘Advance Australia Fair’ it ain’t. Major Robbie Ross (Amelia Watson) sees to that. He bitterly resents being in such an alien and depraved place, orders floggings for impertinence, and fears that any sign of weakness – ie. kindness – will result in revolt. Arguably it’s the toughest role because he is so singularly awful and Watson has the scowl and the whiplash voice to do it. He is opposed by Governor Arthur Phillip (Matthew Sedman) whose far-seeing humanity guides the play beyond the horror of its opening to its near jubilant close. Wertenbaker indicated that her play end with the ‘triumphant music of Beethoven’s 5th’ but perhaps that was felt to be too much for Bedlam on a freezing evening in February.

What Phillip does do is to require the production of George Farquhar’s Recruiting Officer (1706), directed by theatre loving 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Jacob Baird). The fact that Clark only has two copies of the play and that some of his cast cannot read and that Ross regards him as a sorry excuse for a Marine makes it a tall order to carry out. Baird is well cast as officer class decent but his character is frustrated almost to breaking point, emotionally and sexually. The relief provided by The Recruiting Officer is palpable and is far better for him than pining at his fly buttons for his beloved Betsey Alicia back home.

So, here’s the pre-text of late Restoration comedy within a docudrama, with its 22 strong cast list of gentlemen heroes (2), wise man (1) and villain (1), and the rest (several) as good-for-nothing, not! Robert Sideway (brilliant by Domi Ucar), pick-pocket to the gentry, and glorious ac-tor is a scuttling hoot, establishing her melancholy and rehearsing her bow. He is being flogged on deck when the play begins so it is a defining moment when during the second rehearsal scene he completely upstages a brutal Ross. No such joy for Midshipman Harry Brewer (Gordon Stackhouse) tormented by guilt and by his jealous love for his ‘Duckling’ girl (Anna Swinton). Their time together is raw and explicit and (for young actors) pretty impressive. Tiffany Garnham convinces that her Liz Morden, violent, in chains and born to be hanged, can still be redeemed. Jack McConnell is John Arnscott, transported for life, and so pleased that he can ‘be’ someone else. Erica Belton, speaks wonderfully as Ketch, apprentice hangman, who wants to be an actor because he remembers some players coming to his village in Ireland where they were loved ‘like the angels’. Anna Phillips’ shy Mary Brenham owns a precious and appealing dignity from the start. Anubhav Chowdhury’s Caesar is from Madagascar and you have to wonder at the bad luck that got him into a British penal colony but his French accent and daft woes do provide easy laughs. Hannah Robinson manages to be both upper class twit Campbell and illiterate Dabby, bless her, who never gives up on getting back to the soft rain of Devon.


Matthew Sedman as Wisehammer and Anna Phillips as Mary, behind. Photo: Louis Caro.

Two characters remain: Wisehammer (Matthew Sedman again) and the Narrator, the Aboriginal Australian. Both command attention but Sedman is outstanding. In this production the Narrator (Sophie Boyle) plays a signature phrase on the violin and her few linked lines are a reminder of the tragic consequences for her people that followed this European ‘entertainment’. Wisehammer, as you can guess, is something else: almost a gentle philosopher, certainly a writer, and Sedman’s careful Northern delivery nail the words, especially his simple Prologue that gives the play its title and it is intoned twice for effect. The fact that Ralph Clark reckons it would give Major Ross apoplexy is a quality judgement.

Our Country’s Good is serious drama and directors Luke Morley and Jane Prinsley take it seriously. This production is bold and disciplined, barely cut – if at all – and its actors work a demanding script with real attention. Yes, there’s some yelling – you would too if you’re being whipped – and it drowned Wisehammer’s astonishing, ghastly opening description of men and women ‘spewed from their country’. Naval uniform is in short supply and despite its appeal the thrust stage doesn’t work, but the actors being constantly visible, on or ‘off, does; and the onstage set design by Natasha Wood and Bryn Jones of a short mast, sail cloth and crossed spars is all that is needed.

I’m with Governor Phillip’s: ‘We will laugh, we may be moved, we may even think a little’. There’s a conviction worth upholding.



Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 26 February)

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

Angela Hardie as Laetitia.
Photo. Mihaela Bodlovic.

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

Editorial Rating:  3 Stars Nae Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 21 February)

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RSNO: Steffens. Ionita (Usher Hall: 9 Feb.’18)

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Karl-Heinz Steffens

“This was as close to perfection as live performance gets”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding


With Valentine’s Day approaching the RSNO presented a programme on Friday of overtly romantic music: Schumann, Elgar, and, yes, Britten. They were under the baton of Karl-Heinz Steffens, a conductor of a rising reputation throughout his native Germany and also Scandinavia, who proved himself more than worthy of the occasion.

This was a concert of two halves, the first entirely adequate, the second quite exceptional.

In the first piece, Britten’s An American Overture, the band was let down by the relatively poor quality of the music. Not a criticism I would usually level at this composer, but Britten did himself deny all memory or knowledge of the piece when it was discovered in 1972 (it was composed in 1941 as a commission) and had to be shown the manuscript in his own handwriting to prove its provenance. It remained unperformed for a further 11 years. With shades of Copland and even Bernstein, there were flashes of interest in an otherwise fairly monochrome piece. The orchestra played it well, including some very exposed parts early on and while grateful for my knowledge of the repertoire being expanded through the experience, I have no particular wish to hear it again.

Next up the  – Oh, so romantic! –  Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor. RSNO Artist In Residence Jan Vogler was ill (Boy, has this been a season for withdrawals in Edinburgh!) and BBC New Generation Artist and 2015 International Tchaikovsky prizewinner Andre Ionita gamely took his place. The quality of the performance grew as the piece developed, one wondering if Ionita was playing con sordino as the sound coming forth initially lacked the necessary volume, and orchestra and soloist seemed a little out of synch, hardly surprising given the last minute replacement. Nonetheless in the second movement Langsam Ionita’s playing matched the music better, and in the final movement he brought out the necessary volume. His pizzicato encore left no one in any doubt as to his technique.

And now to the piece that everybody, I guess, had come to hear: Elgar’s Symphony No 1 in A flat major. If ever a case could be made for discipline in art, this was it. It would have been so easy to produce a piece of crowd pleasing schmaltz, but the words that come to my mind when analysing Steffens’s fine conducting and the orchestra’s magnificent playing are control, timing, tautness, controlled expression. Steffens showed himself to be a master of tempi, holding back and letting forth the players time and time again, including the final build-up in the brass where no one put a foot wrong. The flutes (I had seen Principal Flute Katharine Bryan chatting relaxedly in the hospitality suite only minutes earlier) kicked off the famous nobilmente with complete aplomb. I heard the cor anglais part clearly for the first time ever, and we were wafted away by the joyous playing of two harps in the final movement. This was as close to perfection as live performance gets. For that magical fifty minutes the RSNO were a world class orchestra. Bravo!




Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 9 February)

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Tom at the Farm (Bedlam: 7-10 Feb ’18)

“Intelligent and engaging”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

A dark, brooding affair, Tom at The Farm sees charming city-boy Tom visit his (secret) lover’s family farm in rural Ontario for his funeral, under the guise of having been purely his friend and co-worker. What unfolds is a tale of grief, secrets, identity and duty, akin to the works of Emile Zola, with the tensions between the characters evident upfront, and an intriguing journey ahead as to how each one will play out.

To that end, Michel Marc Bouchard’s script really is delicious serving up a twisting tale of deceit where Tom falls further and further into an elaborate web of lies in order to keep the family happy, though peppered with enough dark humour and sexual tension to make it enthralling on all levels. Asides and textual motifs are used cleverly to capture the sense of inevitability throughout, while the scene in French is simply a stroke of comic genius.

Director Joe Christie does a stellar job in capturing the overall mood of the piece, and attention to detail throughout each scene gives the production an intelligent and engaging quality – everything happens for a reason, and each contributing factor drives the narrative to its gritty resolution. The production team also deserve credit for transforming the Bedlam space into what could easily be believed as a rundown farmhouse, while the other visual and sound effects all contribute well to the psychologically intense nature of each moment.

With grief being such a strong central theme, it’s a tough ask for the student cast to delve into that level of emotional depth, but on the whole they handle it very well. Yann Davies as Tom is barely ever off stage, and steers the character from pillar to punch-bag with electrifying conviction, and Peter Morrison is every inch the guy you love to hate as Francis, oozing with masculinity and a genuinely frightening presence. Matilda Botsford brings a tender and controlled approach to Agatha, capably balanced out by Kathryn Salmond’s irreverent Sara.

For me the only real downfall in this production are the dips in emotional intensity and honesty that generally occur between scenes. Given the changes in dynamics and relationships throughout the play it sometimes takes the actors a little a while to really establish the tone of each new scene and bring us with them to where they are. The style of the production requires a lot from the audience to follow the journey, believe what happens in between each scene and then be present in each moment on-stage moment, and though it’s a tough ride, it is very well worth it in the end. I’d happily go again.




Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 8 February)

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