Valhalla (Wee Red Bar, Edinburgh College of Art: 11 – 22 Dec.’18)

“I look forward to more of TwelveTwelve Theatre’s bold programming and productions.”

Editorial Rating:  2 Stars

Do politicians reach Valhalla, that great hall of slain warriors? No, they don’t, and Ronan Jennings’ valiant play shows why. You need to be dead, mighty, and Norse. Jennings’ principal candidate has led a bloody revolution, for sure, but he has a French name and is stuck behind a desk. Still, Joy Division’s Candidate plays on from 1979 and provides the sombre mood music.

Twelve Twelve Theatre’s production is in the Wee Red Bar in the College of Art. It is a handy space but with no stage as such and with only a minimal set it is unfortunately not equipped to suggest the final overthrow of the Imperials by a people’s army.

Four characters find their way through unseen rubble to the seat of power, the old imperial palace that has its vodka store miraculously intact. Guillaume (resolute and deluded by Andrew Johns Cameron) may have won the war but he is plainly rubbish at making peace. ‘His’ city, Belogard, is without water and riots are around every corner. His bright idea to arm the citizenry is not working out as he hoped.

Three women would oppose this megalomaniac, each one – in my book – worthy of a place in Folkvangr, the other Valhalla, presided over by Freyja. Eloise (Hana Mackenzie) is trapped between loyalty to the Leader and a winning humanity; Ingrid (Debi Pirie) has the best lines when she rounds on Guillaume, the born-again fascist; and Zaitsev (Christina Kostopoulou), a cool emissary from a neighbouring state who is there to seize a favourable trade deal from a country in ruins. Surely an available Brexit analogy here?

Forget lofty mythology and Imperial Stormtroopers; the whole idea is too big, too self-important. It helps if you scale Valhalla down, away from chemical weapons and child soldiers, down to comic strip frames. There’s a nasty Colonel Boris in Herge’s child-satirical King Ottokar’s Sceptre and that’s where I see this piece, in 1938, where a plot to overthrow a good ruler is discovered and thwarted (by Tintin and his wee dog). Guillaume, like Hitler, has penned his own Memoirs of the Common Man.

The best is in determined acting, the brutality of a couple of confrontations, and Guillaume’s laughable ignorance of what-to-do-next. Economics is not a minefield that he’s happy in. The worst is in the reduction of history to pop pistols and bombast like ‘tackling a wolf in single combat is the way to high office’, even though Odin would applaud. Regardless, I look forward to more of TwelveTwelve Theatre’s bold programming and productions.

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 14 November)

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Mouthpiece (Traverse: 5 – 22 Dec.’18)

“Knockout performance: quick, fierce, and smart but always on the edge.”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars: Outstanding

As Edinburgh plays go, this one is outspoken. Its audience is there to be stuffed and startled. Do you ‘live’ or do you ‘stay’ in Edinburgh? Whatever, wherever, you are unlikely to say – as you look out over the city – “See they flats?”. For a start the grammar’s wrong: amusing, sure, but plain wrong unless you’re local and out of school. Second, those flats are way over there “in the bit nobody looks at”. Not Muirhouse, as it happens, but more likely on the Southside, in Gracemount or Craigmillar. That’s where Declan (17) lives with his mother, her boyfriend, and his little sister, Sian. Declan’s father killed himself when Declan was seven. He was an alcoholic and everyone says Declan will end up just like him.

Libby (46) is not from Morningside, but possibly close to; the Grange maybe, or even Fairmilehead which always sounds nice. For Libby is nice and her mother listens to BBC Radio 4. Mouthpiece tells the story of Declan and Libby; posh woman who used-to-be-a-writer meets radge schemie. In the end it is perfectly possible to consider it a love story but it’s Declan’s love for Sian that really touches you.

This play’s energy pours out of Declan. It’s pure, vehement fun one minute – a verbal battering of Libby’s proper speech (and attitudes mebbe?) – but then it’s full of despair and longing the next. Lorn Macdonald delivers a knockout performance: quick, fierce, and smart but always on the edge: “I ken what precarious means, I’m no daft”.

Neve McIntosh as Libby can fall back on herself and land safely, even comfortably, by the end. She has the background and the education that is not available to Declan. She uses ‘Professional’ status as a defensive excuse that will make you queasy. McIntosh’s performance is finely judged; never provocative or clever but – if anything – rather shy and vulnerable. But she has two parts to play: one, with Declan, and the other with us, an audience of posh cunts. (Sorry, but that’s how it is and you’d better get used to the word if you’re going to see Mouthpiece). Libby talks to us about her story, ‘her’ play. Was it ever Declan’s?

Designer Kai Fischer and writer Kieran Hurley frame the work within a stark rectangular set that Libby steps easily in and out of. The shock quotient when Declan does the same goes off the scale. Projected text is used to identify place and time and to underwrite the action (as if penned by Libby). When that fractures and Declan disputes what is happening is both unsettling and dramatic. It also arrests a formal, ‘meta’ narrative before it gets too precious.

Mouthpiece is artistic director Orla O’Loughlin’s last show at the Traverse before she goes to London’s Guildhall. It displays the same drive and attack that distinguished her Devil Masters from 2014. There may be no expensive New Town interior to trash – Hurley’s script does that all by itself – but her hold on what matters is just as tight and uncompromising. The play will not bring much comfort and cheer for Advent but it does send you out with an important sense that the hurt and the dispossessed are never far way. Little Sian’s name might mean ‘God’s precious gift’ but no-one is giving Declan any presents this Christmas.

The applause came in fast and loud at the final blackout. Too fast. The performances are outstanding and deserve it but Mouthpiece is one of those plays that is yelling at yous to shut up and think.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 14 November)

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SCO: Rustioni, Mendelssohn (Queens Hall: 6 Dec. ’18)

Image result for mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847)

“A delightful cornucopia of early romantic music.  It was a joy from start to finish.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra is currently offering a two part programme celebrating Mendelssohn and music in a similar vein.  On Thursday we got two pieces by the main man, along with a Rossini overture and a charming suite of Respighi bonbons, published almost a century later.

 

Whilst the Queens Hall is a welcoming venue with a genial atmosphere of really committed Musica Affecianadi Geriatrica the venue, as an old church, is pretty basic with stackable chairs forming the main stalls whose lack of racking means sightlines are poor, particularly as in this evening’s case where the size of the orchestra meant dispensing with the stage.  We saw the top half of the conductor, the heads of the soloists, and the wind and brass, the strings and woodwind, in glorious invisibility.  This made it frustrating and difficult to engage.

 

One wonders if the excellent young conductor, Daniele Rustioni, knew this, for his style of conducting was endearingly inclusive in terms of rapport with the players and at times almost swaying to the music with frequent flicks of his fine head of hair to engage with the audience.

 

But notwithstanding these built-in disadvantages and compensating factors, the music, and the playing, spoke for themselves in a delightful cornucopia of early romantic music.  It was a joy from start to finish.

 

Mendelssohn was the main event and is what I shall concentrate on but let me say first that Rossini’s Overture L’Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers) delighted us with a ridiculous contrasting opening of pizzicato followed by orchestral chords in a positively Mozartian romp, with special mentions to the oboe of Robin Williams and piccolo of Alison Mitchell.

 

Our lively conductor almost ran back to the podium after minor re-seating between works and got straight into Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances: Suite 1, which did exactly what it said on the tin, a pleasant collection of instrumental ditties with oboe again to the fore and some strong cello playing from Principal Philip Higham.

 

And now the main attraction, Felix Mendesssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847), in the view of many the most precocious musical talent of all time, including Mozart and Schubert; the critical difference between him and Mozart was that his father did not exploit his youthful talents and instead let him grow.  Nonetheless he died aged 38 only a few years longer than Mozart’s 35 and Schubert’s 31, but the latter was disease driven (typhoid or syphilis, depending whom you believe), whilst the former two was almost certainly overwork.  His catalogue is enormously popular, and this evening we got to hear two lesser known works.

 

Mendelssohn’s Two Concert Pieces were in effect small scale concertos for two clarinets, in this case regular B-flat and bass.  The bass clarinet made a pleasant change to hear in these two light, entertaining pieces which while hard to take seriously were none the less enjoyable for that.  SCO Principal Maximiliano Martin and sub Principal William Stafford disported themselves with aplomb and the whole band, and audience, had a great time.

 

I did not know Mendelssohn’s 1st Symphony in C minor at all and was impressed by its structure and depth, late Mozartian in style, and astonishingly, composed when he was 15.  There was no hint of immaturity in this work whatsoever, which the orchestra played with verve and enthusiasm throughout.

 

So, all in all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening of accessible, tuneful music, very well played throughout with everyone, conductor, soloists, band and audience, having a great evening’s entertainment.

 

 

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 6 December)

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Wendy and Peter Pan (The Lyceum: 29 Nov.’18 – 5 Jan. ’19)

Isobel McArthur (Wendy) and Dorian Simpson (Smee/Doc Giles)
Photos: Mihaela Bodlovic

“It’s a visual treat”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Outstanding

It is not often that I review children’s shows. Luckily, as a twenty-something I’m basically a child in an adult body, pretending I know how to do taxes or what grenadine is. Less luckily, it’s much harder to review a children’s show honestly than it is to convince people at parties you can make a drink other than “rum in a Tom & Jerry mug”. With that in mind, consider this a review in two parts: one for the adults in the audience, and the other for the kids you’ll most likely have alongside you.

If you’re a parent, or just someone who’s interested in the general state of children’s theatre, the outlook is actually pretty good. Ella Hickson’s interpretation of the J.M Barrie classic plays its adaptational cards fairly straight: despite new framing devices and subplots the bones of the original do shine through. Though whilst that may be nothing new, it’s definitely nothing unwelcome.

The production paves its own way in design terms. It’s a visual treat: the vertically focused sets are detailed and interesting enough alone, but when coupled with costume and staging the whole production goes from “act” to “spectacle” on visual merit alone. Particular praise to Ziggy Heath as Peter Pan, for extended service to physical clownery, exhausting even just to watch. Co-lead Isobel McArthur performs an admirable Wendy, managing to keep up almost effortlessly against her more physically dynamic ensemble.

This is also a show, however, that could be accused of over ambition in its writing. Whilst the quality of the dialogue is high, Hickson’s adaptation suffers from trying to do too much at once. By the second half, the story is about accepting the death of a child, and also about becoming an adult, but also a swashbuckling adventure, but also about Wendy wanting to lead, and on and on as such. Just when it seems to be coming to grips with one theme, it switches. And whilst there is something to be said about writing for the often less-than-infinite attention spans of younger kids, as an adult you might be left feeling a little dazed. Despite a very talented cast and that excellent overall design, the story changes momentum so often that it struggles to carry a single cohesive theme.

But it’s all well and good to sit on my high horse and judge: perhaps more important than what I think is what the kids thought. And despite any criticisms levelled previously, there is one overriding factor that makes the difference here: they were enthralled. For nearly the show’s entire run time, silence pervaded over a crowd of people whose average age barely went above double digits. On the way out, it was a sea of smile and fake sword fights, and it’s honestly very easy to see why.

Gyuri Sarossy as Captain Hook

Sally Reid as Tink

Despite being a little clumsy in its execution story-wise, Peter Pan and Wendy succeeds in capturing something essentially child like. Call it something I can’t put my finger on, or hook onto it (geddit?), but it’s obvious that this production understands the motivations, feelings and fears of young children. At the end of the day, it’s going to do its job for its intended audience, and not only do it well, but with sincerity. The performances are big and expressive, but thoughtful too. Funny, even – Dorian Simpson as Smee delivered laughs that had every age bracket rolling, alongside Sally Reid’s wonderfully crunchy portrayal of Tinkerbell.

PeterPan3

… and with Ziggy Heath as Peter

Is it worth going to see if you don’t have kids? Maybe, if you want something interesting to look at for a couple of hours, but aren’t expecting grand narrative. But if you’re looking for something that the younger people in your life might be able to connect with in a really meaningful, fun way? Absolutely.

 

outstanding

StarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 30 December)

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RSNO: Sondergard, Mutter (Usher Hall: 30 Nov. ’18)

Anne-Sophie Mutter

“… a rarely experienced, incredibly high, standard of musicianship.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars :Outstanding

 

“Anne-Sophie Mutter is coming to Edinburgh’”.  “Great.”   “She’s playing the Penderecki Metamorphosen.”  “Ah”.

 

Actually, I would turn up to hear Anne-Sophie Mutter (ASM) play a sailor’s jig as she would make something of it, but the Penderecki, although dedicated to her by “Poland’s greatest living composer” is a bit of a programming wild card.  My fault, I suppose. There are certain artists one associates with one’s past and I still have in my head the picture of a rather serious child next to her protégé, Herbert Von Karajan, on the cover of the Deutsche Grammophon 1978 début recording of Mozart Violin Concertos 3 and 5.

 

Mozart: Violin Concerto Nos.3 K.216 & 5 K.219

 

But of course, that is just memory.  Mutter has pioneered modern composers as her career has developed and is a thoroughly accomplished portrayer of classical music spanning 250 years.  Many modern composers have written for her and she is the dedicatee of the Metamorphosen.  Moreover, Penderecki himself was down to conduct tonight’s concert, but had to withdraw for personal reasons.  Given that he is 85 years old this is totally allowable.  RSNO music Director Thomas Sondergard took over the reins and did very well as I doubt he had the work in his repertoire.

 

 Krzysztof Penderecki is an interesting contemporary composer on a level with –  although a tad less accessible – his much more commercial compatriot Gorecki; but behind, say, Lutoslawski.  His music is certainly worth a listen, and his second violin concerto Metamorphosen is overall a worthwhile work although structurally weak in parts.  But of course ASM made it sound like a masterpiece, a true négociant-éleveur but of music rather than wine.  Ten years ago she corrected a mistaken report of her retirement in the French press in saying that she would continue to play as long as she felt she could “bring anything new, anything important, anything different to music”, which is precisely what she did tonight.  So often a hyped-up artist can let you down, under rehearsed, on the night.  Not ASM, she always delivers, a lesson to artists everywhere.

 

Let me try and unpack what was so special about her playing.  First, she found the hidden melodies in this rather spiky piece and made the most of them.  Second, the work flowed rather than jerked, as much modern music tends to.  Third, I never lost my concentration or involvement in a work that was almost three quarters of an hour long without a break.  Last week I wrote how, unfortunately, indifferent interpretation had got in the way of good music (SCO/Mendelssohn, Beethoven,Schumann 22/11/18) but for this concert the reverse was true, a rarely experienced, incredibly high, standard of musicianship.

 

“How do you follow a work of such tragedy and sadness”?  ASM said as she introduced her encore.  “Bach is always the answer” and rattled off a perfect Partita at breakneck speed that left us gasping.  As a writer who is given to enthusiasm but not hyperbole, I have to say that in that 50 minutes I experienced the most intensely satisfying playing of live music this year, if not this decade.

 

Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony was an extraordinary pairing to complete the concert but at least gave the punters a tune to take home for their money.  The commitment of the RSNO to the music was such that we soon forgot the ‘Wow’ factor of the first half and were firmly rooting for the band.  It was as if the music had been written for them.  Wonderful, sonorous strings, enthusiastic brass; the whole orchestral gamut in fact.  Inspirational, seamless, joyous playing.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 30 November)

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SCO: Krivine, Chamayou (Usher Hall: 23 Nov.‘18)

Melusine, mermaid to the Plantagenets. A modern “illumination” by Troy Howell.

“Not a question of playing, but interpretation

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

I was very much looking forward to this concert with its collation of beautiful, early Romantic works all written within 35 years of each other and during the afternoon I listened to recorded interpretations to refresh my memory of them: Maria Joao Pires with Daniel Harding and the Swedish RSO for the Beethoven (a 1994 recording), Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (2014) for the Schumann, and Claudio Abbado and the LSO for the Mendelssohn (1988); a good cross section of interpretational styles over the last 30 years.

 

One should not, generally, compare recorded music with live.  One is essentially a photograph whilst the other  is a painting: technical perfection against the raw result of human artistic endeavour.  Yet I wasn’t comparing the playing, but the interpretation, and for this I point the baton at guest conductor Emmanuel Krivine, a musician whose pedigree is considerable, and whose style, at least on the night, was deeply conservative and –  too often – too slow.  I was reminded of Klemperer or Sir Reginald Goodall, but without their depth.  I was not inspired.  Neither was I convinced by the necessity of putting the double basses on the left and separating the horns from the trumpets and trombones either side of the woodwind.  For a very classical conductor, this was a somewhat enigmatic move.

 

I was wryly amused at the passing of time and customs that have led to these three works, Mendelssohn’s Overture The Fair Melusina, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no 4 in G, and Schumann’s Symphony No 4 in D Minor (1851 revision) being put on the same programme , as they were all very badly received at their premieres, but perhaps this has, with the passing of time, become a badge of honour.

 

The legend of Melusina is almost too ridiculous to recount but involves a maiden turning into either a sea monster, mermaid or serpent one day a week as punishment for favouring a knight; make of it what you will.  The piece is meant at times to convey the rippling of the sea and the manliness of the knight, but I don’t go with these interpretations.  Given the storyline it is an eleven minute work of considerable meatiness, if not in the Ruy Blas or Fingal’s Cave class.

 

The SCO’s playing was sound with some notable results from the wind section, but overall the impression was an almost ponderous interpretation lacking spontaneity or attack.  This from the people who gave you a simply amazing rendition of Brahms’s four symphonies but four months ago.  Not a question of playing, but interpretation.

 

Everyone knows Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in G, but I wonder if they realise how revolutionary it was at the time, and remains today.  A brief solo piano introduction followed by a long orchestral interlude; the orchestra attacking aggressively followed by plaintive murmurings from the piano, almost as if piano and orchestra are in separate rooms and we can hear them both.  It is a glorious work and the second movement Andante con moto divine.

 

Bertrand Chamayou’s playing lacked perfect clarity and precision in the solo entrance.  There was a loss of definition in some of the immensely challenging demi-semi-quaver passages and the orchestral accompaniment was a tad muddy.  I was surprised to see music on top of the piano, if only for occasional reference, rather than reading.  Settling down or lack of rehearsal? Perhaps settling down, because the cadenza was brilliantly executed and as orchestra and soloist got used to each other there were some better dynamics.  In the second movement Andante con moto we heard confident, attacking strings pitted against a soulful, responsive piano.  We concluded with a splendid, fresh lively Rondo (justifiably marked Vivace.)

 

Chamayou obliged us with an encore of the second movement of a Haydn sonata, restful, beautifully played, clear and well phrased.

 

The final work, Schumann’s Symphony No 4 in D minor bears the opening remark in my notebook of “Too slow!”. It was a rather pedestrian performance lacking in verve.  It was as if, as for much of the evening, notwithstanding some very good orchestral playing, the music was somehow struggling to get out. The second movement contained some wonderfully rich string playing.  In the Scherzo the horns brought some liveliness to an otherwise rigid interpretation.  The spirited, energised finale Langsam-Lebhaft at last gave one a real lift and the final 20 second coda an insight into what this great little orchestra is capable of.

 

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 22 November)

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Education, Education, Education (Bedlam: 14 – 17 Nov.’18)

” It’s funny and fast, dances to a 90s soundtrack, and skewers English education.”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars:  Nae Bad

“Willkommen, Tobias. Boys and girls, please welcome Tobias from Berlin who will be helping out in the Modern Languages department”. And Tobias has the lunatic misfortune of arriving at Wordsworth comprehensive school on ‘Muck Up Day’ when the Year 11 (S5) pupils go off into the fabled ‘mists of Study Leave’. Run-up activities include include pinging shag bands, playing basketball in the corridors and placing a live chicken in the library. The finale will be an Achievement Assembly with a suicidal child on the roof.

Welcome, also, by happy coincidence to May 2, 1997 when Labour wins a record-breaking 419 seats to form its first government since 1979. The manifesto promise of ‘Education, Education, Education’ is all over the staff room. The teachers are excited, jumpy, and the febrile atmosphere is only fanned by the breakout of Cool Britannia. Noel Gallagher of ‘Oasis’ will be at a Downing Street reception on the 10th, but Tobias (Max Prentice) is friendly and unassuming, a ‘Take That’ kind of guy. You’ll like him immediately and come to trust him, which is handy because where there’s perspective and order, there’s Tobias. Elsewhere, on this important day, the school is a frenzied, entertaining mess.

Education, Education, Education won a ‘Fringe First’ in 2017 for the Wardrobe Ensemble. It seems, to my mind, a perfect choice for student performance. It’s funny and fast, dances to a 90s soundtrack, and skewers English education. Headteacher Hugh (Fergus Head) has all the moves – watch him go in D:ream’s Things Can Only Get Better – wants the best for all his pupils but all his enthusiasm cannot remedy the fact that his school is falling apart and has porta-cabins for classrooms. His Deputy, Louise (Kelechi Hafstad), is trying to hold it all together with discipline and an imaginary semi-automatic, which is dodgy, surely. History teacher Paul (most convincing by Lewis Foreman) has seen too many awkward kids to bother with them anymore. Tim (Giorgio Bounous) is the gormless PE jock and Sue (Becca Chadder) is the dedicated English teacher who inhabits that lovely world where she would share Malory’s Morte d’Arthur with 14 year olds but without the resources of Games of Thrones. No wonder then that Tobias marvels at it all whilst quietly enjoying a confiscated cheestring.

A serious narrative is provided by Lauren’s story. Lauren Robinson is spot on as the difficult, challenging, pupil who shouldn’t be expelled but who probably will be. It’s good to learn, within Tobias’ retrospective account, that it’s Lauren who comes out to Berlin to visit him and to see a grown-up European country. Director Tom Whiston ensures that your sympathies go where they should.

It’s those twenty years, 1997 to 2017, that give the play its bite. Its frenetic pace and half daft characters are contained within a frame that exposes the optimism of that Labour promise. Jack Whitehall’s Bad Education (BBC 3 2012 -14) was brilliant and ridiculous. As a 60 minute stage show this production of Education, Education, Education cannot be telly but it’s a riot of understanding and good sense, which ain’t easy.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 14 November)

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