‘Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense’ (King’s: 11 – 16 May ’15)

Robert Webb as Bertie Wooster and Jason Thorpe as Jeeves. Photos: Hugo Glendinnig

Robert Webb as Bertie Wooster and Jason Thorpe as Jeeves.
Photos: Hugo Glendinnig

“I laughed so much I was reprimanded by the woman in the seat in front for being too loud.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

I’ll admit, I wasn’t a massive fan of Peep Show when it was out (is it still out?), and being of a certain age (in my twenties), I can’t say I’m particularly au fait with the works of P G Wodehouse. Therefore, my expectations in going to see a period potpourri starring Robert Webb weren’t particularly high. But what a comedy it is!

As the curtain rose to a near bare set with Webb postulating alone, it could easily have turned into a rather self-indulgent affair; but the snappy delivery of some great one-liners, commanding physicality and fine character acting from the three actors were all top notch. It is anything but a one-man show.

The script (created by the Goodale Brothers from original Wodehouse works) and the concept are charmingly British and brilliantly written for the stage. The scenes move at a cracking pace and individual moments of lyrical wit are delivered with comic perfection all the way through. While the first half is more about word play and establishing a tone, the second half raises the game – and then some – by introducing elements of farce that are so well pitched as to make them outrageous but not clichéd.

The hilarity is at its peak when the numerous ‘others’, played by Jason Thorpe and Christopher Ryan, start to overlap in the same scenes. One particular highlight is when Ryan, playing two characters at the same time (one male, one female) holds a quick-fire argument with him/herself, without slipping out of either character for a second. Fabulous! I think this was when the lady in the seat in front of me turned around to reprimand me for laughing too loudly. But I was far from alone in my gutsy chortling.

Christopher Ryan as Seppings.

Christopher Ryan as Seppings.

The slickness of the costume changes and clever use of the impressive set made the piece feel very professional and daring (reminiscent of shows such as Noises Off at the Old Vic in 2013). The smashing of the ‘fourth wall’ gives the piece a contemporary blast, without losing anything of its finesse. It was particularly enjoyable being able to watch the cast do their own sound effects at times, with ne’er a thought for boring naturalism.

Any faults? If one were to be really picky, perhaps it was a little shouty at times, and the narrative got itself somewhat confused in all that dash and panache. But that is literally it. The whole show is a corking romp through the best of polite British comedy, superbly acted and with enough laughs to cheer even the grumpiest of young grumps.



Reviewer: Steve Griffin  (Seen 11 May)

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‘Birdsong’ (King’s: 21 – 25 April ’15)

Edmund Wiseman as Stephen Wraysford and Emily Bowker as Isabelle Azaire. Photos: Jack Ladenburg

Edmund Wiseman as Stephen Wraysford and Emily Bowker as Isabelle Azaire.
Photos: Jack Ladenburg

“More resonant than sword waving in front of machine guns”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars Nae Bad

If you can bear a literary introduction read Sassoon’s The Redeemer and Owen’s Strange Meeting before the show. If not, just take this from Issac Rosenberg’s Returning, we hear the Larks:

‘Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song –
But song only dropped’

Which is what you do get in this moving if fitful adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. There is lovely singing and there are skylarks – but there is also a rat on a bayonet, blood dripping down 60 feet, and furious bombardment.

This is poignant and dramatic storytelling by the Original Theatre Company. Yes, Faulks’ book is blasted open in Rachel Wagstaff’s new version for the stage and at times the effect is not pretty, parts do fall away and some of the shoring up looks shaky but I reckon that’s inevitable. The back set is a high rampart of shattered wood and piled debris. Two large timbers make a cross that rises above the parapet in a stark reminder that Christ had one hell of a job to do on the Western Front. Men pray in this play, which is not at all what I remember from the book, and it is horribly easy to understand why. That green hill is not so far away and might well be undermined by tons of explosive that will send you to kingdom come.

What I do recall from Faulks’ pages are sex and war story content of frightful detail and claustrophobic novelty. Well, the sex is still around but the novelty has gone because even if you do not know the book there’s the two-part tv. series with Eddie Redmayne and the Australian film Beneath Hill 60. Tunnelling onto and about the stage aint the same but the sappers do a brave job of crawling by (electric) candlelight. They ‘Play Fritz’ and imagine the lives of the enemy, who may only be a few feet away, below, above, or ahead. There’s suspense to be had before an attack tunnel breaks through or a detonation shakes the walls and then there’s rushing confusion. Nevertheless, the best action stays with the characters.

Peter Duncan as Jack Firebrace and Liam McCormick as Arthur Shaw

Peter Duncan as Jack Firebrace and Liam McCormick as Arthur Shaw

With a name like Jack Firebrace we’re close to plain allegory. Peter Duncan plays him admirably as sturdy, loving, dauntless . The short scenes when this former London Tube tunneller and his best mate, Arthur Shaw (Liam McCormick), share letters and thoughts of home are possibly the most affecting in the play. What is more intense but – it seems – far less mature is the love affair between Stephen Wraysford, 20, (Edmund Wiseman) and Isabelle Azaire, 27 (Emily Bowker). The individual performances are easily good enough to make this believable in the moment but it is a stretch to see it played out over eight years, from 1910 to 1918. The flashbacks flare and are gone and you can almost see the narrative being shovelled in before the light vanishes. A final, near wordless, scene when the cast of Stephen’s lacerated memories people the stage is a welcome coup d’oeil upon the whole ghastly shebang.

Arguably a resurrection is being played out: of Stephen’s passionate love and of his war – that’s understood; but it is also an appeal to stand by what is now out of living memory. Hence the really telling effect in this production of folk song, hymn and psalm, beautifully sung by James Findlay ; a cut above and much more resonant than sword waving in front of machine guns, more so even than a Tommy / Hun hug of reconciliation. For what Wagstaff has crafted from Faulk’s book and what director Alastair Whatley turns out on stage is a theatrical ‘Stand to’ – to guard against what Stephen kept close in his coded notebook and is now given voice:

James Findlay as Cartwright, Singer and Musician

James Findlay as Cartwright, Singer and Musician

‘No child or future generation will ever know what this was like. They will never understand … We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us’.

You might simply want to accept Stephen’s commanding officer’s invitation to join him for tea on the Royal Mile when ‘this’ is all over. Or you can talk about ‘Birdsong’, which would be better.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 22 April)

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‘Twelve Angry Men’ (King’s: 23 – 28 February ’15)

“Such astute casting goes to show why people go to shows produced by Bill Kenwright.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

What is the surest way to provoke a fist fight amid the genteel splendour of London’s Garrick Club? You could start by loudly telling the one about the Earl of Grantham and the absolutely fabulous Fashion Director – that gets the members catty quick.

To really get them mad, try suggesting that John Laurie must have been better as Shakespeare’s Lear than as Dad’s Army’s Private Frazer. Tables will upturn, CP will get some poor sod in a headlock, NG’s eyes will be rolling as he bellows “We’re aul doom’d” in his best attempt at a Hebridean accent, the ghosts of JMB and AAM will appear, searching out suitable opportunities to glass someone with a broken bottle.

Then again, if you really want the furniture flying through the Irving Room, declare that Tom Conti is the definitive Jeffrey Bernard (which he is – so shut it before I shove this portrait of Dame Nellie Melba where the footlights don’t shine).

Seeing Conti in the titular role of Keith Waterhouse’s masterpiece, and as Joseph in Jesus My Boy, defined my ‘90s adolescent infatuation with theatre. Would seeing him tread the boards years later be like sneakily looking up the school totty on Facebook, only to discover they’ve now got more kids than teeth? No. Conti’s as awesome as ever. As the enigmatic naysayer in Reginald Rose’s jury room classic he does for the part of Juror 8 what Costas did for Shirley Valentine on that Greek boat. Conti lightly leads a heavyweight cast through a meaty narrative.

It’s the story of 12 strangers deciding the outcome of a murder trial. The wheels of justice are in motion, the defendant is on his way to the chair, when a lone voice drops a little doubt into a sea of certainty.

Originally shown on US television in 1954, the script of Twelve Angry Men calls for an up close and personal approach to blocking in order that each juror’s thinking can be established, examined and evolved. Michael Pavelka’s design places much of the action on an imperceptibly revolving platform. Turning the table at which the actors sit neatly enables us to see the tables turned on their characters’ prejudices. The effect is not unlike watching the dog drift off to sleep. His eyes don’t suddenly close, they slide shut slowly, languorously, until suddenly he’s chasing rabbits in the Land of Nod.

I’ve been lucky enough to see David Calvitto catch his share of rabbits at Fringes past. The grace and insight which are his trademarks are perfectly suited to Rose’s Juror 2 – the quiet man who up with this will no longer put. Alexander Forsyth (Juror 5, young) and Paul Beech (Juror 9, old) bookend the group’s age spectrum. Beech’s conversion to doubt is calm and collected, while Foryth’s is the opposite. Perhaps the appeal of Twelve Angry Men endures because it provides a showcase for such raw and careworn performances each alike in dignity.

Dignity is not high on the list of words used to describe bigoted Juror 10. Having lambasted the dignity of others in a hate-fueled tirade directed at the unseen defendant, the advocate for a lynching is hung out to dry when basic decency takes a stand. Included in Denis Lill’s unflinchingly delivery of the part is a degree of pathos unexpected as it is thought-provoking. With this powerful and emotive character study Lill digs out the intellectual foundations on which the final scenes will later rest.

This British production of an American classic superbly catches the rampant class conflict of a drama in which every juror is a king, but no man wears a crown. When Andrew Lancel (Juror 3, the opinionated businessman) locks horns with Mark Carter (as Juror 6, the blue-collar house painter) the tension is ratcheted up notch by furious notch. Such astute casting goes to show why people go to shows produced by Bill Kenwright (an Honorary Prof at TVU when Pater was VC).

Equally inspired is Edward Halsted (Juror 11, the new American). The decision not to reimagine the play in a more contemporary setting opens the goal for Halsted to strike at the original post-war, Cold War totalitarian milieu. Although my companion reckons he’s more Pete Campbell than Don Draper, Gareth David-Lloyd (Juror 12) is the Mad Menic icing on the period cake.

If there is a broad range of acting styles on show, there is also serious depth. Robert Duncan (Juror 4) is the shadow contrasting Conti’s light. Duncan’s not the shouty one, he’s not the juror with the biggest chip on his shoulder, but he is the one Conti needs to beat. Juror 4 is a self-assured stockbroker who doesn’t have a ball game to watch (as does the fabulously flighty Sean Power, Juror 7). He’s got all the time in the world. Conti’s character grinds down the others, the mortar, but it’s Duncan’s guy whose opposition is solid. The cast photo adorning the theatre programme and posters suggest to expect Conti v. Lancel. In actuality it’s Conti v. Duncan, theirs is the dynamic around which the rest orbit.

My aunt (the one who chews broken bottles and makes saltwater crocodiles cry real tears) shows Twelve Angry Men in her RE classes. It’s a morality play in which you might be watching an innocent man set free, or a juvenile delinquent get away with murder. It might be about frailty or egotism, certainty or doubt. What this production absolutely is, to paraphrase Duncan in Drop The Dead Donkey, is a raft for top quality character acting, several rafts in fact, lashed together into a “pontoon of excellence.”



Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 23 February)

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‘Sister Act’ (King’s: 18 – 21 February ’15)



Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Nae Bad 

‘The Bohemians’, established in 1909, are one of Edinburgh’s major amateur musical companies.

Sister Act was one of the first DVDs I was ever given as a child. There was always a magic to the film that I adored and Whoopi Goldberg never failed to have me dancing and singing along with the other nuns. Cheri and Bill Steinkellner adapted the Whoopi Goldberg classic for stage; something I am so glad they did. Bohemians’ director Colin Cairncross took on the challenge, bringing to the stage a production full of vivacity and talent. For an amateur production, this show really did impress.

Ian Monteith-Mathie took on the role of Musical Director for this production and worked with Alan Menken’s music score to create a beautiful sound from the performers – the harmonies in the full cast numbers were incredible. His orchestra carried the cast through the show in funky rhythms and soulful melodies.

Niloo-Far Khan took a walk in Whoopi’s shiny heeled boots as Deloris Van Cartier and commanded stage with ease. Vocally, her performance was faultless and she gave great gusto to her character. Her on-stage rapport with Mother Superior – portrayed by Dorothy Johnstone – was as entertaining as it was electric. The pair shone in the spotlight as they battled to prove the other wrong before finally reconciling their differences. Johnstone carried a wisdom about her that was evident in both action and song and her protective instincts towards the nuns shone through. It was truly delightful to witness the transformation of the choir of nuns – the resulting musicality from the hard work of Deloris (and Monteith-Mathie) raised hairs on the neck. It was, for lack of a better word, divine.

Officer Eddie Souther lamented that he “Could Be That Guy” and if he was referring to a talented singer and a joy to watch on stage, then Gareth Brown certainly was “that guy”. His soft, awkward character was greatly set against the imposing Curtis Jackson. Padraig Hamrogue’s portrayal of Curtis was reminiscent of the black and white gangster movies – his menacing demeanour coupled with a bluesy bass range created an imposing mobster who demanded respect through fear. His three henchmen, Joey, TJ and Pablo juxtaposed his dark humour by lighting the stage with their comical desperation to please their boss. Thomas MacFarlane, Lewis McKenzie and Andrew Knox really threw themselves into their characters and greatly entertained the audience with their antics – their song, “Lady in the Long Black Dress”, was hysterical, offering the comic trio a real chance to hustle the limelight.

The show was bathed in colour. The costumes – a superb effort from Jean Wood and Liz Kenyon – were fantastic; Lighting Designer Jonnie Clough filled the stage with a complex programme of spotlights, colourwashes and dazzling effects. The set design from UK Productions Ltd, although perhaps too large and busy for the stage space, was certainly impressive in its detail. This production was full of glitz and glamour; even the nuns were able to lose the basic black habit for something a little (or a lot) more colourful. The cast raised their voices and they raised the roof. This was an uplifting performance and a fantastic show.

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Reviewer: Amy King  (Seen 18 February)

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‘Aladdin’ (King’s: 29 Nov’ 14 – 18 Jan.’15)

Aladdin 1

I’m a Believer

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Actually, literally, which is tricky during a panto, I prefer ‘Al – la – din’. That has distance and colourful resonance. Losing that second ‘d’ does away with the Highland laddie and puts our local hero Southside, somewhere between and above the Mosque Kitchen and the Nile Valley Café . Only momentarily though, for the gong gongs and we’re away to Peking of old. ‘Somewhere in Egypt’ is scene 12 of 16.

The King’s 2014  ‘Al – la – din’ is no call to prayer, although it does co-opt I’m a Believer as its signature belter. No, this is a serious magical treat, remarkably served after only ten days of full rehearsal. The reach and back-up power of producers Qdos Entertainment beggars the imagination, which is also what young Aladdin is about. He is poor but bold, his Mum runs the steamie off the street of 1,000 chopsticks, and he’s going to marry the most beautiful and loaded girl in the land, sorry, Empire. Yes he is and you should not doubt it. For a start Greg Barrowman as Aladdin has One Direction quality and the spangled charms of the Slave of the Ring to help him, in an appealing and graceful performance by Lisa Lynch. Kohl eyed Princess Jasmine (Miriam Elwell-Sutton), all brocade and style, just clocks him the once and she immediately wants “to talk to that boy – alone”. Lucky lad.

So dump the suspense and bring on the dancers, young and old, and give in to the moment, to the scene painting, to the costumes and to the out and out marvellous: the Vanishing Princess, Escape from the Table of Death, and an absolutely wicked, jaw dropping, example of Defying Gravity. Then enter, upstage and tall, the Mighty Nasty Cobra and the Giant Genie (a very droll, almost child-friendly Malcom Tucker). Take hold, my son, of the The Lamp of Amazing Power. Capital!Aladdin 2

Actually, again, there are three presiding comic genies of panto at the King’s. Three denizens of this Christmas cave of wonders: Allan Stewart as Widow Twankey, Andy Gray as Wishee Washee, and Grant Stott as Abanazar the bad, bad, Wizard. Rub that lamp for all it’s worth and you could not wish for more fun than these three familiars provide. “Oh, the acting!”, despairs Washee, as in “Our acting’s pants”, but what’s not to enjoy in amongst the topical gags (listen out for the 45/55 result), shuttling tongue-twisters, celebrity laundry, and hilarious routines? Their final skit of ‘If I Were Not Upon the Stage’, when they are joined by James Paterson (prev. the Emperor of China), is pure wallaping music hall.

This ‘Aladdin’ is an extravaganza, up there with flying carpets, and is tip-top admirable. My one queasy, senior, misgiving – because I’m not good off the ground – is that if there is a command message, it’s not ‘Open Sesame’ but ‘Get rich, and the girl’s yours’.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 4 December)

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‘Regeneration’ (King’s: 30 September – 4 October ’14)

Jack Monaghan (Prior) & Garmon Rhys (Owen). Photo: Manuel Harlan

Jack Monaghan (Prior) & Garmon Rhys (Owen).
Photo: Manuel Harlan

“‘Anthem for Dead Youth’”

Editorial Rating:  3 Stars

 By 1917, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’s designation in army speak is ‘Not Yet Diagnosed (Nervous),’ which then becomes ‘Shell Shock (wound)’ or ‘Shell Shock (sick)’. You could suffer both. Either way, it was identified as a ‘disability … caused by military service’. Watch this eager, opportune, play and you can add ‘unspeakable,’ ‘crippling’ or ‘shocking’ to the official terms.

Furthermore, pull open one of the gun metal drawers in the War Poets Collection at Craiglockhart and you’ll see an open medical register with ‘Neurasthenia’ entered alongside every one of the thirty plus names down the page. The ledger is matter-of-fact, inoffensive, prosaic for its time. However, writer Pat Barker turned that upside down in the terrific pages of ‘Regeneration,’ and Gillies MacKinnon took that book and made an excellent film of it. Now, Nicholas Wright’s adaptation tries it out on stage, with Simon Godwin directing and aiming high.

It is a fascinating, half-true story. Mutinous ‘Mad Jack’ Siegfried Sassoon (31) did meet Wilfred Owen (24) in Craiglockhart hospital during the summer of 1917. Sassoon did encourage Owen to write about the war. His pencilled revisions are all over a draft of ‘Anthem for Dead Youth’, along the lines of “No, make that… Doomed Youth’. Good man!” Sassoon’s doctor was William Rivers, anthropologist and pioneering psychiatrist. Owen recovers his health, Sassoon accepts counseling. Both officers choose to be ‘discharged to duty’. Both will return to the front line.

Stephen Boxer (Rivers). Photo: Manuel Harlan

Stephen Boxer (Rivers).
Photo: Manuel Harlan

Rivers also has another patient, Billy Prior, a boy from Bradford who knows all too well that he’s only made it to 2nd Lieutenant because the army is fast running out of the privately educated, well spoken type. The exchanges between Rivers – in a fine undemonstrative performance by Stephen Boxer – and the chippy but likeable Prior (Jack Monaghan) are the most forward and challenging in the play. Questions of class, upbringing and sex are insistently between them.

However, the relationship is less spiky between Owen and Sassoon. Garmon Rhys plays the younger man, gauche and pliable, who gains confidence and dignity by the close. Tim Delap is a debonair Sassoon, who has his own terrors in the night but whose brocade dressing gown stands them down. Between the two of them, the love that dare not speak it’s name gets treacherously close.

This production  is ambitious, brisk, and inventive, but its pace reinforces an episodic, fleeting quality. Reflective moments – Rivers dictating case notes, Mr Prior under hypnosis – are precious, but soon give way to the next happening. A burst of machine gun fire or a flash of howitzer blast are like fugitive subtitles, and the compressed script begins to sound sententious, light remarks diverting attention from tough themes. The stark set is washed out, bleached almost, and in need of some gloomy Edwardian mahogany. Additionally, the small marble of Laocoön on Rivers’ desk is a weighty feature that does its job, but otherwise, the fact that the Conservative Club on Princes Street, where Sassoon entertained, is now a Debenhams is indicative of a play piling literary stock and selling low. ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ it cannot be, although Capt. Rivers remains a merciful saint.


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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 30 September)

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‘A Slow Air’ (King’s: 22 – 24 May ’14)

A Slow Air

‘Plainsong for our secular times’

Editorial Rating: Nae Bad

Written and directed by David Harrower.

As you listen to A Slow Air you applaud the art of storytelling. The Scottish Storytelling Centre on the Royal Mile is now contained within ‘Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland’. One day, sometime, David Harrower’s 2011 play will be in there and part of Scotland’s ‘rich story heritage’. Unaffected, moving, A Slow Air is that good.

For the time being Ayr based Borderline Theatre has brought this play to the King’s after touring it through 17 Scottish venues – and 1 Welsh. It is easily portable: two bentwood chairs on a slightly raised platform stage and three-fold back flats with opaque windows that admit white, blue, or amber light. Daniel Padden’s quiet sound design is pitch perfect – Celtic strings, viola (?) and piano. It all creates a spare, open, space for two actors and an exceptional script.

Morna and Athol are brother and sister who have not seen or spoken to one another for 14 years. She, a single mother, stays in Edinburgh, off the Dalry Road; he, with wife Evelyn, is out in Houston, Renfrewshire, fifteen minutes’ drive from Glasgow airport, which is significant because it is 2007, and a short while after a green Cherokee Jeep loaded with propane gas canisters was driven straight at the glass doors of the terminal building.

Joshua, Morna’s 20 year old son is fascinated by that attack, probably because it has already acquired the vivid colours of the graphic novels that he loves to read, the comic strip immediacy of his sketches and drawings. They may have been crap terrorists and anyway “fanatics are hard to draw” but unwitting uncle Athol had been inside their house to give an estimate for a floor tiling job. Joshua, never seen, always reported, has all the qualities of the eejit young artist: maddening, unpredictable, lovable. It is Joshua who, in wacky fashion, would bring Morna and Athol back together.

Brother and sister come forward and talk and explain in turn. Pauline Knowles is ballsy, defiant, Morna, who is just about holding it together, despite seriously hard breaks. Morna cleans for alliterated Rosie and Randolph in their massive house in the Grange and in their empty flat in the New Town. She hits on the idea of using the flat for Joshua’s 21st. Pure brilliant! Lewis Howden’s performance as Athol is more reflective, more crumpled than wired, but nonetheless absorbing. Athol hates golf but has to try and play it to get business. We are treated to one botched round. In sum, mellow ‘Let There Be Love’ by ‘Simple Minds’ for him; & ‘U2s’ provocative ‘Pride (In the Name of Love’) for Morna. Hence Joshua, of course.

It is the innate sense of grounded, familial, story that you get – and gets you. Athol narrates. Morna responds in kind. Parents rest on sofa suites and live safe behind their double-glazing. Place and locality are everywhere: on the bus over the Bridges, Dick Place, Craigiehall, the Black Bitch pub in Linlithgow. SupaSnaps stores are on the High Street and Atholl marvels that Joshua could sleep well on a budget IKEA mattress.

David Harrower is the writer of Blackbird (2005), a recent production of which was reviewed on this site as ‘Outstanding’. Plainsong for our secular times, A Slow Air, is gentler, but no less compelling.


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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 22 May)

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‘Uncle Varick’ (King’s: 7 – 10 May ’14)

l.to r. Willie John (Dave Anderson), Michael (George Anton) & Varick (Jimmy Chisholm) Photo: Richard Campbell

Willie John (Dave Anderson), Michael (George Anton) and Varick (Jimmy Chisholm). Photo: Richard Campbell

‘Inappropriate for Invergordon’

Editorial Rating: Unrated

“Don’t catch the sleeper. Stay at my place”, pleads Michael, Highlands GP, ardent ecologist and would-be lover. The married lady takes the train. So much for the ‘Swinging Sixties’.

Writer and artist John Byrne wrote Uncle Varick in 2004 and sets it in 1967 within a 20 room pile on a Highland estate, all dark wood panelling, tick-tock, and parlour room landscapes. This Rapture theatre production invites you to see it as if framed within a distressed gilt surround. Its parent, Chekhov’s Uncle Vania, subtitled Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts, and very much the choice soundboard of Byrne’s work was written in the Crimea, 1500k from Moscow where it was first performed in 1899. No mention of trains in the Chekhov, just horses to carry you between those fiendish, prime, poles of town / fabby and country /boring, ‘parochial’.

London is where Varick’s brother in law, overblown art critic Sandy, lives. First in Swiss Cottage, then in Maida Vale, but now – the impression gathers certainty – it is all proving too expensive and he finds himself cash poor, on painful legs, and has only the estate to sell. Only it’s not quite his to sell. He would have investment income and a small villa in Majorca. Of course he would, just as Chekhov’s retired professor, another Alexander, would have his wee dacha in Finland. Michael, once Mihail Astrov, has a map of the estate as it was fifty years ago – in 1917 or 1849, as you will – that charts a picture of decay as the old ways give out to be replaced by … by what exactly?

And so the doubling continues between the uncles, Vania and Varick. Byrne’s idea is canny and pretty neat but now, only ten years on, it appears a little forced, a little hung up. For all their appeal, the Scottish characters approach caricature: there’s Kirsty Morag, the old housekeeper and sweet guardian of Scots, as in ‘muckle chainsaw, ken?’ and kind Willie John in cap, sporting breeks and Fairisle sweater. He plays sweet guitar though and sings three great and apposite Beatles songs from Rubber Soul (1965). A dun, knee length pleated skirt out of Dingwall Drapers opposes a showy 60s minidress from Lady Jane’s in Carnaby Street; bold is not the word for that hemline. Inappropriate for Invergordon would do.

But there’s wild haired Jimmy Chisholm as Byrne’s Varick and he is well beyond naïve portraiture. Kirsty Morag would call him pawky. It’s a quick, spry, part that is both entertaining and woebegone. Chisholm may be dressed in baggy cords or pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers but that will not divert you from the nippy spirit of his performance. His opposition to vainglorious and impossible brother-in-law Sandy, is at Vania / Varick’s heart and while you just want Sandy to get ‘orf’ and away back to London (so strong is John Stahl in the part) you do enjoy Chisholm’s performance.

Varick is heartbroken as well, which just adds crummy self-esteem to injustice. No requited love for him from Elaine (Selina Boyack), Sandy’s second wife. When Shona (Ashley Smith), Varick’s niece and all-round lovely person, sings Cry Me a River you know the emotional landscape is unrelieved and forlorn. In such a place it is Michael, a poignantly lucid George Anton, whom you notice and listen to.

There are amusing moments: smile at the use of flock wallpaper and laugh at a couple of funny break-out lunacies – but otherwise Uncle Varick is more serious and contemplative than you might think. Can it bring Ross and Cromarty, with its estimated population of 50,000, to Greater London’s 9 million? Perish the thought! All we do have in definite motion in 2014 is the Invitation to Tender for a separate Caledonian Sleeper Service ‘in order … to develop a transformed product offering that will secure its future as a sustainable business.’ Well, all the more reason for Elaine to refuse Michael’s bed.


Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 7 May)

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‘The Comedy of Errors’ (King’s: 16 – 19 April ’14)

Guess who? Antipholuses of Ephesus x2 & Dromios of Syracuse x2. Photo: Nobby Clark

Photo: Nobby Clark

“James Tucker as Adriana pushed out all the stops. He built up a fantastic head of steam, crashing into the terminus barriers with enough force to lift the plot’s ludicrous conclusion to the heights of hilarity.”

Editorial Rating: Nae Bad

The three preceding (and four subsequent) plays of the RSC’s 2001 Histories Cycle had been so brilliant, that the unutterable awfulness of Edward Hall’s take on Henry V came as a serious shock to the system. It’s taken thirteen years of painstaking therapy for the flashbacks and nightmares to subside. Unforgettable was the moment when Hall had hundreds of tennis balls bounce across the stage on Essex’s line, “Tennis balls, my liege.” One of the most dangerous and dramatic moments in the canon blown out of all proportion for the sake of a cheesy visual gag. For those of us embarked on the whirlwind tour of eight history plays in six days the forced funny fell flat.

By contrast, two nights earlier the definitive Richard II of my lifetime had snatched our collected breath away. The late, much lamented Steven Pimlott punctuated the opening play of the Cycle with the lines, “I have been studying how I may compare, This prison where I live unto the world: And for because the world is populous And here is not a creature but myself, I cannot do it.” Shakespeare gave the line to Richard II alone. Pimlott shared it with Queen Anne (Act 3: Scene 4), Richard (Act 5: Scene 5) and at the very end with Bolingbroke. The effect was profound, out barding the Swan.

The recurring lines appealed to my grumpy teenaged sensibilities. More consequentially, it conclusively demonstrated that a director can be reverential to Shakespeare’s unmatched genius without embalming his text. David Troughton played Bolingbroke, opposite Sam West in the title role. Both are scions of great acting families. Edward Hall, director of the Propellor Theatre Company, has an equally impressive pedigree, but as Tony Benn liked to quip, there’s no such thing as an hereditary pilot.

Back in 2001, when mobile phones were still a novelty (just about), the cast of Henry V had been slouching around on stage at the start when a ringtone rang out. It was Pistol’s! How funny was that? What a clever and inventive way to remind people that they might inadvertently interrupt the script with a needless distraction.

Thirteen years later, we enter to find the same busy business on stage and off. Actors flit hither and dither one-sidedly chatting with the audience, establishing The Comedy of Error’s Rocky Horror aesthetic. Perhaps this bonphonie is your cup of tea. All I’d suggest is that in the nature of things, a person standing can’t help but talk down to a person sitting, figuratively and literally.

An all-male cast (as in Shakespeare’s own day) necessitates cross-dressing. Hold the panto, why are we meant to find this intrinsically funny? All-female Lears et al don’t tend to tap this varicose vein of comedy mould. In the week when India recognised transgender people as belonging to a third gender, I can’t help wondering if we aren’t being invited to backhandedly giggle at the black and white minstrels of our age.

Similarly the all-caucasian Mariachi band seemed to suggest something diminishing about Mexican culture not uttered, outside the Top Gear studio, since the producers of Fraiser toyed with the idea of Daphne being a laconic hispanic housemaid back in the early ‘90s. Did this production seep out of the Blue Peter millennial time capsule? Even the prolific use of football shirts nodded towards the Nick Hornby-era, when the beautiful game’s gentrification was at fever pitch. The 21st century appeared above the Madness inspired soundtrack in the form of the e-cigarette which is now all but ubiquitous in productions lacking mature vision.

The Comedy of Errors is a tough nut to crack. Two pairs of mistaken identical twins causing double the hilarious consequences. It’s a silly play requiring serious talent on stage. Fortunately, even the Dead Sea can reflect starlight.

This was an exceptional cast without exception. Joseph Chance and Dan Wheeler, as the twin masters, established the musky basenotes from which the playful rifts of Will Featherstone and Matthew McPherson, as the twin servants, emerged to enliven. Although all four were not on stage together until play’s end, they conjured a continuum which turned the narrative arc into a canopy of luscious woodbine, sweet musk-roses and eglantine which perfectly perfumed the performances of the entire cast.

James Tucker as Adriana pushed out all the stops. He built up a fantastic head of steam, crashing into the terminus barriers with enough force to lift the plot’s ludicrous conclusion to the heights of hilarity. Beneath the dragging drag act both he, as well as the flawless Arthur Wilson (Luciana), established the emotional range required for the darker comedy.

Dominic Gerrard as The Duke, as with the whole production, came into his own after the interval. Suddenly the pace got pacier, with time being left for the actors to enjoy the fruits of their labours. The plot may be thin as tissue during a paper pulp shortage but it frames some fantastic lines, banter and badinage.

To see a strong cast with swift bite slow to sink their teeth in requires the Russian Revolutionary remedy. After 1917 Soviet orchestras divested themselves of importunate conductors, preferring to guide the collective collaboration by the mutual light of their individual talents. The Propeller Theatre Company should propel their Jonah overboard.

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Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 18 April)

Visit Propellor at King’s homepage here.

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (King’s: 16 – 19 April)

Chris Myles as  Bottom Photo: Nobby Clark

Chris Myles as Bottom
Photo: Nobby Clark

‘unambiguously, unashamedly, unpretentiously hilarious’

Editorial Rating: Nae Bad

When I was a child, I couldn’t understand why half of Shakespeare’s plays were described as “comedies”; they seemed so resolutely unfunny. I wish I could have seen Propeller back then – because whatever else you might think of their Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s unambiguously, unashamedly, unpretentiously hilarious. There’s one particular scene which might just be the most entertaining five minutes I’ve ever spent in a theatre, and if they just stood and read from scripts for the rest of the running time, it would still be worth the ticket price for those moments of joy alone.

But of course, that’s not what they do. The director’s notes highlight a “rigorous approach to the text”, but his style and presentation are unashamedly modern. The piece is filled with bold, striking images – and it’s performed very much in three dimensions, with actors clambering and capering on ledges across the backdrop. The literal high point comes when Oberon and Titania first confront each other, perched on matching thrones far above the other actors’ heads, divided by the chasm of the stage.

The physicality of Propeller’s performance adds a lot to the humour, but it has a serious edge to it too. Joseph Chance’s Puck delivers just the right mix of the carefree and the sinister. The Rude Mechanicals are re-invented with a dash of Dad’s Army, though their comic play-within-a-play arguably suffers a little in comparison to the earlier scenes. And it’s all set off by an appropriately other-worldly soundscape – intriguingly created by the actors, live on stage.

But of course, Propeller’s work is best known for a completely different reason: specifically that the actors are all men. And surprisingly, it’s here that the sense of effortless coherence begins to break down, with their approach to Shakespeare’s women feeling distinctly variable. At one end of the scale, Will Featherstone plays Hippolyta convincingly as a female, while James Tucker’s punkish Titania is a fascinating creation – the perfect equal for Darrel Brockis’ magnificent, half-crazed Oberon. But with other characters, the gender inversion seems more of a parody, and seeing a male actor mincing and flouncing is a major part of the humour.

Humour, perhaps, is enough. But you can’t quite divorce Propeller’s concept from the gender politics of our modern day – and I’d been hoping for something more than that, some surprising sudden insights which a mixed cast simply couldn’t provide. As it is, I’m not sure they do quite enough to justify their most defining artistic decision. Still, this has to rate as one of the most entertaining Midsummer Night’s Dreams you’re ever likely to have – and a comedy that proves itself still worthy of the name.

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Reviewer: Richard Stamp (Seen 16 April)

Visit Propellor at King’s homepage here.