One Thinks of It All as a Dream (Traverse: 25-29 October ’16)

“Euan Cuthbertson as Syd shows great range and dexterity”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Competent, solid, predictable: words probably rarely used to describe Pink Floyd’s music, but to me the most apt in summarising One Thinks of It All as a Dream – the latest instalment in the Traverse Theatre’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint season. The play, which follows the band’s early years, in particular Syd Barrett’s influence, is interesting for those that know little of the history, but in all other respects doesn’t give much to shout about.

For a theatre piece about such a genre-defining and experimental band, one might expect an edgy or original approach to form and structure to creatively fit the subject matter (drugs and mental illness are common themes), but instead this production follows a simple linear narrative and style typical of (and there have been so many) a musical star’s biopic.

It is structured well in giving nods to all the necessary turning points and dramatic moments to keep interest in the narrative, and the second half flows very naturally in terms of building up tension and allowing the actors to really sell the story. Early on the dialogue is quite forced to convey necessary information – in particular in one party scene the characters all sit around discussing what’s just happened, which comes across as very stilted.

The more engaging parts of this show are the longer and more developed scenes – the first television interview, Roger’s meeting with a psychiatrist and the final few minutes in particular enable the development of more emotional involvement with the action. As quite a pacy piece covering several years it’s quite hard to build a connection with each moment: before you know it you’re off somewhere else again, trying to keep up with who’s who and where and when we are.

The acting is good, Euan Cuthbertson as Syd shows great range and dexterity, particularly in scenes with his father, and the other actors give credible support to keep the action moving. Jonathan Scott’s design should also receive special mention, creating a flexible yet stylish space for the actors to move around in and facilitate a smooth performance.

It’s a perfectly passable show, but not a great show. For me, another brick in the wall.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 25 October)

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Mischief (Traverse: 11-15 Oct ’16)

“Life-affirming and devastating in equal measure”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Ronnat and Brigid, mother and daughter, live alone on a small island, save for some cows that they tend to for a group of monks on a neighbouring island. But when the handsome young sailor Fari washes up on their beach, their little world is set to be changed forever. For his own good, Fari is sent off to live with the monks with the next dispatch of milk, but he soon becomes responsible for transporting the milk back and forward, meaning frequent visits to the women on the island, which have deeper effects on them all than any of them initially realise.

It’s a simple but intriguing set up, and Ellie Stewart’s writing creates a believable world and relationship web between the three characters that slowly unfurls as the play progresses. The plot is full of changes in direction and power between each one, keeping the tension alive throughout, and leading to a final scene and denouement that’s both life-affirming and devastating in equal measure.

While covering quite a “serious” overall topic, a fair amount of comedy is woven in, largely through quite overt sexualisation. Such moments are generally amusing, though do perhaps cheapen the play and divert attention away from the main drama, which is the piece’s real strength. Traditional singing and movement are also used throughout which in some ways add to the sense of history and ritual one would expect from such a setup, but in others seem a bit gratuitous in trying to cram in too many devices. Overall I think Mischief (a slightly misleading title) tries a bit too hard to do too much in such a short space of time.

What would make this play more effective would be a greater sense of stillness and time – there are quite a few scenes and scene changes as the story progresses at a pretty rollicking pace, but given the life-changing themes and choices presented, Gerda Stevenson’s slick direction never really gives enough opportunity for the situation or newly revealed facts to just hang and be absorbed. The young cast, in their earnestness, also seem very keen to over-emote and play up to stereotypical roles, when a subtler and more grounded approach would help make the play’s decisive moments stand out.

It’s a moving and captivating piece that’s cleverly written, but not realised to its full potential in this production.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 11 October)

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Breaking the Ice (Traverse: 4-8 Oct ’16)

“[Why no] Danish pastries at a convention attended by the Danish?”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

The Arctic. Surrounded by seven of the world’s most prosperous and empire-building countries, and ripe for colonisation – if they can all agree on the best way to approach it. Breaking the Ice is set during The Arctic Council’s General Assembly 2016, where negotiations are to take place, and Frank, geologist and stand-in scientific advisor to the big dogs, is due to address the delegates upon the potential impacts of various courses of action. That’s if he manages to find his speech and get his suit dry-cleaned in time after spilling yogurt down it at breakfast.

From the opening few lines it’s clearly a comedy piece, with discussions into the lack of Danish pastries at a convention attended by the Danish and the merits of embossing on business cards, setting the tone somewhere between Dario Fo and Fawlty Towers. Steven McNicoll as Frank is a commanding and charismatic storyteller, and, dressed in a bath robe throughout (due to the yogurt debacle), can clearly be trusted to tell it as it is rather than giving any politico spin. He’s vulnerable, likeable, with a sense of being completely out of his depth but enjoying the ride anyway.

What’s disappointing though, is that as the play progresses (with kidnappings, arrests, and encounters with locals and lawyers), McNicoll’s tone and demeanour show very little variation or development, and by the time he finally gets to address the conference (late, and still in his bathrobe), he appears to be in no way affected by all that has gone before, approaching it as he would making a cup of tea. There is a distinct lack of build-up in tension towards the climax (which in itself fizzles into nothingness), meaning the whole thing feels a bit pointless.

That’s not to say the structure doesn’t facilitate a suspenseful build-up. Throughout his morning Frank encounters many different characters, all of whom have a different point of view on the conference and proposed developments, and all of whom try to persuade Frank to consider theirs when making his speech. It’s a great device to get these viewpoints across, but their rapidity, comic delivery and minimal effect on Frank make them seem like little more then neighbours passing comment about the Jones’s new car than individuals whose livelihoods are set to be deeply affected by the outcome of the conference. It doesn’t quite fit together.

McNicoll as Frank is certainly clear and engaging, if quite one-dimensional in his journey. Jimmy Chisholm is more impressive with his range of characters, creating strong contrasts to communicate the complexity of the situation, yet Nicola Roy’s more melodramatic style seems to be at odds with everything else on stage resulting in a bit of a mismatch in interpretation of the script and lack of consistency throughout.

While there are plentiful very witty lines, some of the dialogue seems quite forced in order to shoe-horn in the humour – in particular, a discussion into an environmental activist’s kidnapping prowess smacks of being thrown in for comic effect, given how little it adds to the overall piece. I spent much of this performance wishing they would just get on with it.

Ironically, Breaking the Ice does quite the opposite – merely skimming the surface of the debate into the economic and geological future of the Arctic, without ever prodding deep enough to build a strong connection with the issues to leave a lasting impression. Much like an iceberg, this production feels like there could be much more to it, but we’re not able to see it.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 4 October)

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A Play, A Pie and A Pint – Billy (The Days of Howling) (Traverse: 22 – 26 March, ’16)

“A dark, eye-opening fable of flawed humans and why they do what they do”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

On the surface, this could so easily be “Mumsnet: the play”: a tale of a mother passing judgement on the parents of another child that attends the same nursery as her daughter, juxtaposed with an admin worker whose main priorities are arranging for a pinboard to be put up in her office and responding to radio phone-in competitions. But scrape away that layer of shallow prejudice and what lies beneath is a dark, eye-opening fable of flawed humans and why they do what they do.

The play is written almost exclusively as three intertwining monologues, allowing us to understand multiple viewpoints, with rare yet powerful instances of dialogue when the characters’ paths cross. Director Rosie Kellagher shrewdly opts for simple staging throughout, with each character in their own part of the stage, and keeps the action slick, resulting in an engaging performance I couldn’t take my eyes off.

The writing in this piece is very clever, and quite understandably of award-winning quality, in how it teases and develops action throughout. Early on we are led to be on the side of Alice’s Mum in her mission to ensure a child is properly looked after, while Billy’s Dad comes across as the kind of lout we all love to hate. The tensions are clear, but as the action unwinds and we learn more about who’s who and what has led them to where they are, perspectives slowly change, and at the play’s chilling denouement I was left unsure as to who I should feel most sorry for and whether they really had it coming.

Rosalind Sydney displays great depth, power and fragility as the do-goody Alice’s Mum, from her cutting judgements to her exquisite intonation as a heard-it-all-before call centre operative. It’s hard to believe that Anthony Strachan is anything other than the foul-mouthed, donut-eating, wrestling fanatic Billy’s Dad given the integrity of his performance, while Hilary Lyon is a master of deadpan comedy as the Admin Lady. The acting is controlled, consistent and utterly believable from all three.

In saying that, there were a couple of moments when the action didn’t quite ring true and seemed a little far-fetched (an anecdote of spending 20 hours waiting in A&E being one example), while the weight of action seemed to leave one character a little redundant for the second half of this performance. However, on the great scale of things, these are very minor idiosyncrasies to what is on the whole a compelling production.

For a show that’s this energetic, chopping and changing between three stories with such rapidity, you do have to be on your toes to keep up, but it’s absolutely worth it. Get in there quick.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 22 March)

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A Play, A Pie and A Pint – Some Other Stars (Traverse: 15 – 19 March, ’16)

“Gripping until the very end”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

There was a real buzz at this, the opening performance of the first in the new season of A Play, A Pie and A Pint at the Traverse Theatre, as audience members of all ages filled the studio – an indicator of the wide appeal the programme has. Opening the batting order is Some Other Stars, which depicts honestly, beautifully and painfully, the journey travelled by a loving couple when one of them, for whatever reason, ends up in a coma.

Performed as two interweaving monologues, Clare Duffy’s script deftly covers a plethora of feelings and thoughts from both sides, from confusion and pain in the early days, through hope, helplessness, boredom and betrayal. The play begins in darkness, with a sizeable monologue from Ian (Martin McCormick) describing what’s going on in his head while in a vegetative state. The discomfort of the darkness and simplicity and repetition of his words work to set a deep and personal tone, drawing us into the obvious conflict of his physical incapability of communicating with his wife, Cath (Kristin Murray).

Once the action gets going it’s quite a pacy affair that is full of dramatic contrasts in perspective that interweave, each seamlessly making way for the next without ever getting bogged down on one idea. Cath’s opening speech is delivered very fast, which on one hand jars against the sensitive, human element of the production, while on the other very ably and stylishly communicates a headful of thoughts that aren’t able to form themselves into cohesive sentences before the next comes along. Perhaps a little too “theatrical” for me, but powerful all the same.

Both McCormick and Murray are very believable in their respective roles, with a command of emotion and tension that makes this play gripping until the very end. While not wholly believable in terms of chemistry as a couple, their energy, pace and variety of emotional intensity are evenly balanced, and that missing spark almost works in their favour in sections where the breakdown in their relationship becomes more apparent.

Yet while the acting is on whole very powerful, I wasn’t convinced by Jonathan Scott’s design which seemed too “artsy” against the very sensitive performance. The use of a hospital bed with a body constructed of plastic bottles and other flotsam certainly represented Ian’s apparent lifelessness, but to me detracted from the integrity of the emotion on display, especially when it was being interacted with. Some of the other design elements also seemed redundant – the table and dolls downstage and the gazebo-like structure didn’t add anything to the production, and I feel that a more stripped back approach, relying on the actors to do the work with their physicality would have aided to the rawness and fragility of the piece. There were moments of this towards the end of the production, where Cath, in desperation straddles her husband in his wheelchair in the hope to get him to feel, which were very moving and required no special effects. It’s a shame this technique was not used more often.

Overall, this is a simple yet moving exploration of a situation none of us ever hopes to be on either side of, presented with real human honesty. Compelling.

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

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 15 March)

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