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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Jury Play (Traverse: 3-7 October ’17)

“The fourth wall isn’t so much broken as shattered”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Sometimes the power and excitement of a show begin long before you take your seat, and remain with you for several days after. For Jury Play, a detailed email briefing is circulated in advance of the performance/court appearance, creating intrigue into what the evening will entail: it’s worth saying at this point that this is in no way like your standard trip to the theatre. The excitement only builds as you go through “security”, enter the (optional) ballot to become a jury member, and start to leaf through your court information pack while taking in Emily James’s impressive and sizeable courtroom set.

Yet what, on the surface, appears to be conceived as an interactive courtroom drama, where the prosecution and defence present facts about a given crime and a resolution is reached by the audience/jury, what Jury Play peels away at is what effect the trial process has on individual members of the jury, specifically for trials that last for weeks.

At various points during the trial, voiceovers expressing jury members’ thoughts are overlaid with the action, which include worries about getting children to school, paying bills, what specific legal terms mean, and even staying awake. Snippets of video conversation between writers Dr Jenny Scott and Ben Harrison about the performance also add a pleasingly Brecthian feel and help break up some of the monotony of the trial itself. So far, so so. Everything changes in Act ii, however, when the formal trial is over and the power lies in the jury’s hands. I won’t give away all the spoilers, but I shall simply reveal that organised chaos ensues, and the meat of the piece really comes out as an intelligent, human, and common sense discussion into the way we conduct trials.

When it comes to the performance it is John Betts as Judge who commands the show, and with his hilarious doddery asides and sensitive chairing of the discussion in the second half of the piece, you feel like you’re in his space, and he decides at any given point how comfortable anyone is to feel. Helen Mackay is also excellent as the conscious “everyman” figure Janis, who just wants to do her duty, and the cast as a whole make the performance very accessible: the fourth wall isn’t so much broken as shattered, with a piece of it distributed to each and every person in the room.

For me, though perhaps a reflection on the subject matter it discusses, Scott and Harrison’s script is too laboured and lengthy at points – missing some crucial details to aid comprehension in the first half, and dragging out its point in the second. The ending, while interesting and fitting stylistically with the piece, also feels like a bit of a cop-out and rather abrupt – as if the ideas just ran out at that point and there was nowhere else to go.

Overall this is a fascinating insight into the legal system, what it’s like to be a jury member, and how seemingly unfit for purpose the whole setup is – especially for people like me who have very little knowledge of its intricacies. Jury Play is absolutely worth taking part in, if there’s any room left in the public gallery.




Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 5 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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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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Consumption (theSpace on the Mile, 14 Aug – 28 Aug: 11:05 : 55 mins)


“A show bursting with acting talent”

Editorial Rating:  3 Stars

In a scathing commentary on western practices of consumption and living above one’s means, “Consumption” follows the tragic story of Sebastian, as the ins-and-outs of money, life and love threaten to swallow the unfortunate hero whole in a sea of fake smiles and credit card bills.

And what a tragic hero he is – Mark Wallington absolutely steals the show with his portrayal of seething, raw emotion, resulting in what was the most accurate representation of a man pushed to breaking point I’ve seen on stage. And Grace Bussey should be given praise for her portrayal of self-absorbed stand-in for the upper classes, Penelope: it takes skill to portray a character so viscerally unpleasant, and she does so magnificently. This is a show bursting with acting talent: every cast member pulled their own weight beautifully, and never missed a beat.

Of course, these character portrayals were benefited greatly by the Consumption’s surprisingly realistic dialogue. Whilst some of the more abstract portions of the show may be further removed from reality, the conversations between characters sounded very, very real – I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear some of them in the street. Joanne Griffiths stands up to her considerable writing credentials in this respect, and captures the spoken word with uncanny accuracy.

However, these strengths were overshadowed by weaknesses with the show’s plot, which oscillated wildly between intriguing and ridiculous. Whilst the message is admirable, it’s execution was sloppy: the jibes at western overconsumption weren’t so much on the nose as they were lodged somewhere in the frontal lobe. This was cemented by a major plot point near the end of the second act which ultimately had no consequence, no build-up, and no reason to exist other than to be a neon finger saying “Look at the evil overconsumption hath wrought”.

For a show which portrays its characters with such realism, it seemed so utterly removed from reality that it was nearly comical, betraying the dramatic tension so thick in the first act – and proving an infuriating waste of an otherwise excellent script.

Consumption’s cast should be congratulated on their stellar character work, in what was no doubt a tough show to put together and even tougher to pull off. It’s a shame that certain narrative elements marred it so greatly, especially in a script which showed such promise. With a few more revisions, I’m sure Griffiths’ admirable message can shine in the light it deserves.


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

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 12 August)

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