Love Song to Lavender Menace (Lyceum Studio: 12 – 21 October ’17)

16.(L-R) Matthew McVarish and Pierce Reid. Photo credit - Aly Wight

Matthew McVarish and Pierce Reid. Photo credit – Aly Wight

“A delightful gem of a show”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Bookshops, especially independent ones, often have a comforting and homey feel to them, providing a peaceful sanctuary and hidden paradise of worlds waiting to be explored. Indeed, that’s what Lavender Menace proved to be for many of those that visited it back in the 1980s, as Edinburgh’s foremost seller of LGBT and feminist literature – and that same feeling is what James Ley’s latest play captures in his moving and comical tribute not just to that shop, but to Edinburgh’s gay scene at the time, and the colourful characters that made it.

Set during the night after the shop’s final day’s trading, we meet two of its employees, Glen (Matthew McVarish) and Lewis (Pierce Reid) who spend the night packing away the books, while reminiscing and creating an homage about the place to perform for its founders the next morning. The pair recount how the bookshop came to be, the antics that occurred, and how their own friendship has developed during that time. It’s a simple setup, and while a little lacking in dramatic tension to really drive the piece forward, the stories themselves are easy to engage with, Ros Phillips’ direction keeps everything moving at a decent pace, and there are many laughs to be had throughout the various capers presented.

What’s most delightful about this performance is the vitality and honesty that oozes from its stars Reid and McVarish. The duo are instantly likeable storytellers, while their skill at multi-roling with speed and dexterity must also be applauded. Watching a full-length play with just two actors can sometimes be a bit of a slog, but this one flies by like an evening spent with good friends. Ley’s writing on the whole is very natural, providing some genuinely lovely snapshots of the shop’s history, but it’s Reid and McVarish who really bring those snapshots to life.

It’s a shame the structure of the play goes a little awry in the second half with various seemingly random changes in time, place and character. While such devices work smoothly early on in the production, seamlessly weaving together the different stories, it becomes much harder to follow as the piece progresses. Perhaps something around the hysteria of the characters, who have clearly been up most of the night by this point kicks in, but the tightness of Ley’s writing does unravel somewhat. For me, the love story between the two also seems a little shoe-horned in for dramatic effect, though its resolution is ultimately satisfying.

Overall, this is a delightful gem of a show, which, like a well-loved bookshop, might not be as glossy and polished as the more mainstream ones, but is definitely one I would be happy to visit again.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 13 October)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Three Tales of Life and Death (Assembly Front Room: 3-26 Aug: 15.50: 65mins)

“A witty, tender, well-written, exquisitely acted philosophical tour.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

The first scene in Craig Lucas’s new play, Three Tales of Life and Death, is deceptively simple. The lights go up on an old man and an old woman. They trepidatiously flirt and arthritically move through the motions of intimacy, and though the scene is the shortest of the five total that make up this 65-minute production, it sets up this witty, tender, well-written, and exquisitely acted philosophical tour perfectly. The show repeatedly features deceptively quaint situations like this one, then digs deeper, revealing hidden meanings along the way that are both truly affecting and genuinely entertaining.

The play is presented as a triptych. Section 1 is labeled ‘Life,’ Section 2 is ‘Death,’ and Section 3 is ‘The Afterlife.’ The same two actors tag in and out, playing different characters in each scene, from partners in dialogue to solo performers in monologue and back again.

It is paramount to credit actors Pamela Shaw and Richard Kline for the joy of watching Three Tales of Life and Death. Director Hunter Bird makes commendable choices in numerous set and costume details, but it is these two that elevate the play with their magnetism. To single out their age as a defining characteristic of their performances would be too simple — at any age, the power of Kline’s sympathetic face and voice, and Shaw’s sparkling eyes and affecting smile cannot be denied. Though some plays can feel claustrophobic when staged in venues as teeny as the literal shipping container that is the Assembly Front Room, Three Tales of Life and Death is well-placed. Even when an actor stands facing away from a section of the audience, and sightlines become quite slim, the power of the scene is not lost, due to the vocal and physical power of the performers, even with the simplest acts like unfurling an umbrella or a shake of the head.

The subject matter struggles ever so slightly to keep up with the raw talent of the performers from time to time — some scenes are better-staged and more dynamically-written than others, essentially. Lucas’s play takes on some daring subjects, from the aftermath of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture to the AIDS quilt being displayed on the National Mall, and though not everyone may agree with the opinions voiced within it, the play’s insinuations do tend to remain on the side of legitimately profound rather than preachy or narrow-minded. Observations on mortality, parental relationships, aging, regret, art journalism, and septuagenarian fellatio are both entertaining and relatable, where a lazier team might have resorted to cheap jokes or a more morose approach.

But the assembled talent is anything but lazy, and I am challenged to think of a play as humble and effective as this one, with a central duo as charming. If nothing else, go to see Kline and Shaw at work. It is refreshing to see seasoned actors performing for intimate audiences, and with material this sensitive and well-handled, these are tales certainly worth hearing.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

War in America (Former Royal High School/King’s Theatre: 24-27 May ’17)

Connor McLeod as Mr Slype. Photo by Greg Macvean

“Some fine performances from the young cast”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

War in America’s revival in the build-up to the current UK General Election is very apt – and almost feels as if it is written especially for this moment, though it is now over 20 years old. The narrative sees the rise of a female political leader (known only as “She”), who hides behind a variety of lies, disguises and games in order to get to the top. Meanwhile, in a pleasingly Orwellian set-up, our little man Mr Slype (a rather spineless MP) is bullied by rival parties to vote for a law he neither wants nor doesn’t want, and some rather underhand tactics see him inadvertently give his vote to She, handing her the reins of the country. What happens after gets a little confusing.

Given the setup and opening few scenes where the main characters and topics are introduced, the first fifteen minutes of this production really makes it feel like a cutting-edge, gripping political drama – not too dissimilar from Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, which I reviewed last year. Jo Clifford’s dialogue is cutting, intelligent and witty, Susan Worsfold’s direction is slick, and there’s palpable tension between rival factions to keep us on our toes. The production loses its way somewhat in the second half, however, and tries to cram in too much with too many characters and melodramatic revelations, that it becomes more of a slog to sit through.

That being said, there are some fine performances from the young cast, most notably Andrew Cameron as the cunningly-named and deftly acted Mr Fox, who is very charismatic and convincing and throughout. Scenes with him and his assistant Alfred (Mark O’Neill) were among the most compelling of the performance, and I could easily picture them on a bigger stage receiving great acclaim. Connor McLeod is also strong as Mr Slype, with great variation in swagger and guilt from scene to scene.

It is, however in the more dramatic scenes where the tension and integrity of the piece slips. She’s relationship with her estranged daughter fails to ring true throughout the piece – distinctly missing the deep emotional connection needed to be convincing, and its climactic resolution is very sloppy compared to the polish evident in other areas. Indeed, many aspects of the show like this come across as rather rushed, when a more considered approach would be more powerful. While in general it’s a gutsy effort from the young cast (and great for them to be getting involved with works on important subjects like this), I think in some cases it would have been beneficial to have some more experienced actors to give the brutal narrative the necessary punch it needs.

And the “too controversial” content, which led the show’s initial production being cancelled 20 years ago? For me that must have been a lot of fuss over very little, as the more overt elements were perfectly pitched within the overall mood of the piece, never seeming gratuitous or unnecessary. Indeed, the scenes with sexual content were handled and incorporated very well, and while spawning a few titters, were powerful insights and metaphors into the darker side of politics. If anything, I think these elements could be pushed further.

Overall this is a show with fantastic potential, and with some more development could be very special indeed.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 26 May)

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For The Love of Cousins (Various: 13 May-24 June ’17)

Jack Elliot, Taylar Donaldson and Christie Russell Brown

“A very commendable effort”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Funerals are often melting pots where far-flung family members are reunited for the first time since the last significant event, and in For The Love of Cousins, we see seven semi-friendly cousins meet just before the funeral of their mutual and much-loved grandmother. They are a mixed-bag of characters, with different stories and relationships with each other, and as the piece unravels, we learn more about each one – their secrets, their prejudices, and vulnerabilities.

While there is no compelling narrative overall, where Blazing Hyena’s production really succeeds is in the overall feel of the piece and the clear sense of family the company really creates – the use of repetitive jokes, the ganging up and snipping at each other all feel very genuine. Truths come out and perspectives change over the course of the action, all of which are presented humanely and sensitively.

For a play that centres around family members about to attend a funeral, it is packed full with jokes, and while the cast weren’t afraid to go for the laughs, sometimes the focus on the comedy aspect detracts from the realness of the situation, which some cast members are more guilty of than others. For me it is Jack Elliot as David, Rosie Milne as Dayna and Gillian Goupillot as Ronnie who are most impressive in maintaining the integrity of their characters throughout (while still being funny) and deliver fine performances.

Jack Elliot’s script, while commendable in its weaving of different characters and perspectives, is structurally a little rough around the edges – comings and goings of each character could be have more significance, while the closely intertwined nature of the dialogue sometimes makes it difficult to follow specific streams of narrative and relationships. A few tweaks here and there could make it very special indeed.

Catherine Exposito’s direction capably keeps the action slick, with respect to the light and shade required to keep the piece engaging throughout. Sometimes the staging and specific actions seem rather forced (I lost count of how many times a tablecloth was unnecessarily rearranged as a time-filler), so I would have liked to see the company use more creative ways to explore the natural “low” moments in order to maintain authenticity.

Overall, it’s a very commendable effort from this young company – especially given the adaptability they have to perform in different venues each night as part of this, an extensive Scottish tour. Do try and catch it on one of their future dates if you can. Full details here.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 16 May)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Legally Blonde: The Musical (King’s: 16 – 19 March, ’16)

“Catchy songs, big dance numbers and laughs a-plenty”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

For those who know the film, the premise of the musical is almost exactly identical – blonde bombshell and fashionista Elle Woods from Malibu, California is determined to bag her man, so she buries her head in books and chases him to Harvard law school in the hope of impressing him. The accompanying score is very poppy and upbeat, and while not to my personal taste, even the sternest of faces can’t help but bop along with some of the numbers.

On the whole, local troupe the Bohemians Lyrics Opera Company handle this big production very well – with some impressive dance routines and real powerhouse vocals throughout. The mind boggles at some of the quick changes performed, especially those done on stage, so credit where credit’s due for the risk and professionalism to carry those off. At times, particularly in Whipped into Shape, the performance felt a little flat and a stretch too far for this amateur group – perhaps a bit of shakiness on opening night or not quite having the musical tempos nailed – but otherwise it’s very well rehearsed and full of personality.

Lydia Carrington gives it her all as leading legal lady Elle Woods, and shines with fantastic energy and likeability. Her spirit never falters throughout – impressive considering she is barely ever off stage – and she shows great range and versatility to reflect the changing mood in each scene. However, it’s Lyndsey McGhee as Paulette who raises the biggest cheer of the night with the very moving Ireland (watch out for that towards the end of Act 1). Her voice is deep, rich and she delivers a knockout performance. It’s a shame we don’t get to see more of her throughout the show.

While the leads very much hold their own throughout the performance, for me it is some of the cameo roles that make this production really enjoyable: Ross Stewart is eminently watchable as UPS guy Kyle, while Sam Eastop and Andrew Knox make a great comic pairing in Gay or European. And of course, there are dogs. Scene-stealing dogs. You have been warned…

Yes it’s cheesy, yes it’s American, and yes at times it’s a bit ridiculous, but it’s also a show full of catchy songs, big dance numbers and laughs a-plenty (my favourite line being “I see dead people” in relation to the rather bizarre inclusion of a Greek chorus). If you like the sound of all that then you’ll love this production.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 16 March)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

LoopsEnd (Traverse, 2nd Feb ’16)

LoopsEnd

“A visual feast”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Outstanding

I have seen many spectacular aerial displays over the years, from companies all over the world,  and with their latest work, LoopsEnd, Edinburgh and LA based Paper Doll Militia is definitely right up there with the best of them in terms of risk, precision and wow-factor. However, while technically the gymnastics were great, I was a bit disappointed by the overall cohesion of the work.

A performance in two parts, the first half, Ashes, was inspired by the tearing down of an industrial estate where the group used to rehearse. The main visual element of the piece was two long ropes hanging from the rigging, twisted and weighted down with bags of powder. Even watching the ropes untwist and retwist in the empty space was graceful and compelling, and when combined with George Tarbuck’s stunning lighting design and the trademark tricks and treats of a seasoned aerial company, this piece was, at times, nothing short of a visual feast.

Throughout the performance, white powder was used in various ways to represent the “ashes” – one performer literally had a pile on his shoulders in the opening sequence, while the closing image was of the two bags attached to the hanging ropes slowly emptying as the ropes swung in the space. These individual instances were very powerful visually, but it was difficult to see the link between these, and any sort of narrative or progression within the piece. Indeed, many of the “theatrical” devices seemed under-developed and incomplete: there were too many moments of clichéd wide-eyed wonder and writhing around in angst, and at one point one performer walked back and forward many times, overtly undecided about whether to touch the rope. Such basic and overused devices unfortunately offset the splendorous vision of the other sections.

In the second piece, Unhinged XY, projection was also used, which in some ways added another dimension to the visual smorgasbaord, but in others gave a seemingly unnecessary layer of complexity and confusion to the action – again, it often wasn’t clear how the costumes, music, acrobatics, projections and design all married up.

The aerial silk work in this piece, and the use of wind and fabric combined to make some stunning visuals and standout moments. When one performer walked up a hanging piece of silk, weighted at the bottom by another, while competing with gusts around her, I was awestruck by the strength and artistry on show.

It was a bit of a shame that both pieces relied quite so heavily on overpowering recorded sound and music. While at some points it was great in setting and supporting the overall tone of each section, its constant use meant the work was unable to establish a mood for itself, so I would have preferred a more selective and sensitive approach to the aural aspects of the performance.

Overall, there’s no denying the talent and visual creativity that have earned Paper Doll Militia their excellent reputation. However, LoopsEnd left me somewhat hanging in mid-air, rather than applauding with my feet flat on the ground.

outstanding

StarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 2 February)

Go to Paper Doll Militia

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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (King’s Theatre: 28 Nov. ’15 – 17 Jan. ’16)

Frances Mayli McCann as Snow White with Ensemble. Photos by Douglas Robertson

Frances Mayli McCann as Snow White with Ensemble.
Photos by Douglas Robertson

“Packed with laughs for audiences of all ages”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

I’ll admit, ever since the age of about 9, panto has never been very near the top of the list of my favourite art forms. And it’s true that I do tend to like my theatre a bit more high-brow. In saying that, this panto all but shattered my age-old preconceptions by being very, very funny, and at the same time embodying surprisingly high production values.

Where to start, but with Edinburgh’s pantomime royalty – Grant Stott, Allan Stewart and Andy Gray. Their on-stage chemistry is just as visible as they say it is, with lots of friendly jibes and presence that oozed confidence and star quality. The banter between them was great, and their improvisation and cover-up skills were spot-on. Stewart in particular impressed as Nurse May, with a dazzling array of seamless costume changes and a likeability that almost made the stage feel instantly more alive whenever he was on it.

Andy Gray, Allan Stewart and Grant Stott.

Andy Gray, Grant Stott and Allan Stewart.

Both Greg Barrowman as Prince Hamish and Frances Mayli McCann as Snow White also impressed with powerful singing voices, and their personalities perfectly balanced out those of their more esteemed cast members. But for me it was the dwarfs who stole the show, in particular the scene where they were riding an array of animals, and I was disappointed these characters were not used more often. The troupe showed fantastic energy and comic timing, and brought the ridiculous hilarity already on display to new heights every time they made an entrance (or exit!).

The script wasn’t so much littered as smothered with witty one-liners, topical references, football jokes, and a healthy sprinkling of good old-fashioned farce. Indeed, this show certainly has a bit of everything for the little’uns and their respective elders: there’s flying, dinosaurs, pyrotechnics, colourful costumes and a touch of audience interaction. I defy anyone not to giggle at at least one element of this offering.

The musical numbers were all delivered with aplomb, with dance sequences many grades above the step-ball-change choreography I was expecting. Song selection (mainly covers of popular songs) often seemed shoehorned in for the spectacle, but then again, one doesn’t go to panto for that. Still, the music was upbeat, in tune and full of fun.

I can forgive that the structure was a bit all over the place, that some of the scenes between the fab three bordered very closely on self-indulgent, and the almost never-ending rendition of a well-known Christmas song towards the end. It’s a show packed with laughs for audiences of all ages, and brings a lot of sparkle to brighten even the hardest of hearts. Oh yes it does!

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 8 December)

Go to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

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