Thursday, 21 September 2017

I/Not I – Christian Boltanski, Kommissar Hjuler and Mama Baer with Jonathan Meese, Bobby Sayers, Amy Leigh Bird

Lust and the Apple, Temple until December 8th
Four stars

The Midlothian former school that houses one of the most adventurous contemporary art-spaces in the country has been quiet of late due to problems with damp. A reconstituted Lust and the Apple is more than worth a pilgrimage to see new work by a cross-generational quartet of international artists spread across the premises in ways that employ the centre's unique environment.

In the drive-way, recent Glasgow School of Art graduate Amy Leigh Bird's Topophilia, An Archeology puts locally sourced natural detritus in vitrines full of water marked Kelvin (2016) and Temple (2017). Inside, a customised boiler-suit daubed with gold-painted text becomes the work-clothes of Rotterdam based Bobby Sayers, whose performance-based So What Do You Do? attempts to subvert the daily grind with a mixture of work, rest and play. Out in the garden, Square Metres is an ever expanding carpet of twelve inch vinyl records laid down by German noise duo Kommissar Hjuler and Mama Baer, who invite viewers to walk all over their collaborations with contemporary Jonathan Meese.

Back indoors, the show's centrepiece is I/Not I, a room devoted to veteran French iconoclast Christian Boltanski. Alongside works drawn from Lust and the Apple's associate company Heart Fine Art's collection, at one end of the room, Homage A Samuel Beckett is a digital enlargement of a new work by Boltanski covering the entire wall. Inspired by Samuel Beckett's play, Not I, in which only a mouth is seen in spotlight, Boltanski puts his own lips in the picture in close-up. The image recalls the opening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show as much as Beckett, and, while all about it is rotting, from the natural world to bodies sentenced to hard labour, Boltanski's image looks like a kiss of life.

The List, September 2017


Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Cilla The Musical

The Playhouse, Edinburgh
Four stars

By rights, the late Cilla Black should have gained national treasure status as one of the greatest of 1960s Brit-girl singers rather than the light entertainment queen she became. This new musical by Jeff Pope goes some way to redress the balance, just as the TV mini series his stage play is based upon did before it. Pope focuses on Black's hectic early years that saw big-voiced Scouse teeny-bopper Cilla White move from floor-spots at legendary Liverpool nitespot the Cavern to recording at Abbey Road and playing the London Palladium. Out of this comes a classic showbiz success story that highlights Black's power and credibility as a singer.

This is made clear to stunning effect at the end of the first act, when an astonishing Kara Lily Hayworth captures the full overwrought glory of Anyone Who Had A Heart, Black's first number one, and arguably the best recorded version of the Bacharach and David ballad by a country mile. Much of what precedes Hayworth's show-stopping moment is spent in a mock-up of the Cavern, with Cilla being chased, first by Carl Au's would-be pop sevengali and future husband Bobby Willis, then by Andrew Lancel's real life music mogul Brian Epstein. What follows effectively becomes a three-way love affair with Black's raw talent.

Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson's production is a similar labour of love, especially given that Black's son Robert Willis is the show's executive producer. This invests what happens onstage with a care and commitment that takes it beyond the pantheon of Merseybeat mythology on show. Pope's script is equally devoted in an emotional affair which, like Cilla herself, comes blessed with a common touch that proves to be irresistible.

The Herald, September 21st 2017


How The Other Half Loves

Theatre Royal, Glasgow
Three stars

If you can remember the 1960s, so cliched legend has it, then you weren't really there. Such superior-minded myth-making comes to mind watching Alan Ayckbourn's early hit, a suburban pot-pourri of sex and the tired thrill of everyday betrayal. This comes through the confused fall-out of three dead marriages as the so-called permissive society trickles down the class scale.

Alan Strachan's touring revival of his West End production opens amidst the domestic chaos of upper crust Frank and Fiona Foster and the aspirationally with-it Bob and Teresa Phillips. Fiona and Bob have just had a late-night liaison, and must cover their tracks lest permanently befuddled Frank and new mum Teresa find out. As their alibi they co-opt unsuspecting William and Mary Featherstone, who end up having dinner with each couple on consecutive nights.

Ayckbourn's ingenious conceit is to have the action in both houses played simultaneously, so the Featherstones swivel between the two dinner parties at the same time. A mix of technical dexterity and sit-com style performances tap into the agony of lives in denial.

Almost half a century old, the play is a period piece now, and not just because of its extensive use of landline telephones. There is misogyny, both in Leon Ockenden's thrusting Bob and Matthew Cottle's bullying William. But there is sadness too, best expressed by Robert Daws as Frank, a man desperately out of time. If Caroline Langrishe's brittle Fiona and Charlie Brooks' embattled Teresa's frustrations are justified, it is Sara Crowe's mousy Mary who offers a glimmer of hope for change in a play that remembers every painful second of the decade that sired it.

The Herald, September 20th 2017


Boff Whalley - Commoners Choir – Sing When You're Winning

Boff Whalley was still playing with Chumbawamba when the idea of forming a community choir first started to take root. By this time, the Leeds-based anarcho-punk iconoclasts formed in 1982 out of a northern English squatting scene had subverted the pop charts with their anthemic breakout hit Tubthumping. More recently, they had scaled back operations to perform as a largely acoustic ensemble. This highlighted the band's folk origins which had always been lurking behind the punk thrash through the vocal interplay between Whalley, Lou Watts and Jude Abbot.

Even when we were still playing as an electric band, we'd do vocal harmonies backstage before we went on,” says Whalley, “just as a reminder that you've got to listen to everybody, and that there's no hierarchy.”

Once Chumbawamba ended in 2012, Whalley went on to work as a writer with veteran leftist theatre company Red Ladder. He also ended up working with a scratch choir. This opened Whalley's ears to the possibilities of a more permanent operation, and before long he'd penned a prototype of the sort of songs he had in mind and put out feelers for like minded would-be singers to join in.

I thought, choirs are great,” says Whalley, possibly one of the most affable human beings on the planet. “People have all these expectations of choirs being nice and respectable, but I wanted to marry that to a punk ethic of politics and anger. I've always been fascinated by manifestos, so I wrote this manifesto of what I thought a choir could be, wrote this one song called Get Off Your Arse!, and put it on social media with a message asking does anyone want to do something. To my surprise, all these people turned up at this first meeting, and we just decided to run with it.”

The result of this is Commoners Choir, the Leeds based vocal troupe formed in 2015 who this weekend bring a selection of brand new protest songs to Wigtown Book Festival. Much of the Choir's repertoire is likely to be drawn from the twenty-one songs on their just released self-titled album. As well as Get Off Your Arse!, the record features such missives as The Jeremy Hunt Rhyming Song, Song Made From Placard Slogans, and one number simply called Boris Johnson, which imagines the Foreign Secretary’s head impaled on a stick. Another song, Mechanical Moveable Type, highlights the power of the printed word in a way that justifies Commoners Choir's appearance at Wigtown following a tour of libraries in the north of England.

The libraries thing was great,” says Whalley. “Libraries are the places where knowledge is stored, and they're always the first places to go when there are local authority cuts. We deliberately tried to go to libraries that weren't big cultural centres, but to places that were suffering from cuts and were maybe under threat of closure.”

Commoners Choir (no 'the', no apostrophe, as the group's website points out) is the latest example of a wave of similar community based artistic activities in which participation is a vital part of the experience in a way that makes the divide between audience and artist more of a democratic, two-way exchange. Choirs are popping up everywhere in this way, from the Parsonage covering Gram Parsons classics in Glasgow, to the Edinburgh Gay Men's Choir and independent artspace Rhubaba's own vocal troupe and a multitude of local choirs. As with Commoners Choir, people joining together to sing in this way is an explicitly political act.

"What's happening,” according to Whalley, “is that – and it's the same with walking, running, cycling, baking, knitting, having an allotment, making your own clothes – all these physical things that don't involve looking at a screen are becoming more popular. There's a return to doing things that are down to earth, and what a lovely thing, getting into a room with twenty or thirty other people and making a sound.

Altogether we're around seventy in total, although there's usually about thirty to forty of us. On one level that can be quite unwieldy, but for singing it's great. You can break things into four parts, and because there are so many of you, it's easy to cover up any inconsistencies there might be. It's like football. Martin Carthy the folk singer has this theory about football crowds being the last authentic folk singers in Britain. That's not something I necessarily agree with, but I like the idea of getting people together to sing en masse.”

In this respect, Whalley points to Bill Drummond, who a decade ago instigated The 17, a rolling series of ad hoc groupings brought together across the world to sing Drummond's wordless scores. Whalley also mentions Jeremy Deller, the Turner Prize winning artist whose work has frequently focused on communal civic actions. These include a re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave, one of the pivotal moments of the 1984/85 miner's strike, when police charges on picket lines outside a South Yorkshire coking plant led to pitched battles between the two sides and a very real sense of English civil war. Deller also initiated Acid Brass, in which the Stockport-based Fairey Brass Band played a set of Acid House club classics in a way that married two forms of communal activity.

Going back further, there was Shoulder to Shoulder, the South Wales Striking Miners Choir's recorded collaboration with industrial oppositionists, Test Department. Around the same time, The Happy End was a twenty-two piece brass band who featured future Communards collaborator Sarah Jane Morris on vocals, and whose set focused on songs from the Brecht/Weill and Brecht/Eisler canon. Beyond such inspirations, The Happy End also performed anthems from South Africa, Latin America, Ireland and other places in conflict. Whalley and Chumbawamba themselves found a sense of solidarity with such groupings.

At the time,” he says, “I think a lot of bands, and it's certainly what happened with Chumbawamba, we thought we were a pop band, but then the miners strike happened, and you realised that it's about class, and that something like a brass band or a choir, they've got a lot of power.”

This tied in with Whalley expanding his own musical horizons.

I originally got into punk,” he says, “and then in the mid eighties that all fizzled out a little bit, so I started looking round for other things, and started listening to folk singers like Leon Rosselson and Dick Gaughan. I remember seeing Dick Gaughan, and him singing one particular song a capella, and I remember thinking that I'd seen all these punk bands thrashing about, but that in terms of getting something across, Dick Gaughan's voice on its own was just as powerful.”

Whalley may have initiated Commoners Choir, but he is keen to stress the group's democracy, and balks at any notion of him being a choir-master, with all the presumed authority such a role might bring with it.

When I first started going into choirs I got to know a few proper choir masters,” he says, “and it's a real skill. I just wave my arms about and hope for the best. But people come up with ideas for songs all the time. Someone came up with the idea of us being a singing newspaper. I love that, because, as you get older you can lose some of your anger, but today you can't open a newspaper without getting angry, so, as an artist, why not use that anger to turn it into a song? One of the good things to come out of the whole Trump, May and Brexit thing is that it seems to have woken a lot of people up, especially young people.”

One thing that has come out of Commoners Choir is a desire to create a new canon of protest songs to be sung on demonstrations.

We've just started a thing once a month where we try to do one-minute protest songs, which haven't got complex harmonies, but which can be sung on demos. That came from when Trump tried his anti-immigration thing, and some people from the choir went down to the demo. We were singing some of the songs we sing, and people were liking it and wanted to join in. It seems that there's a standard chant at protests and demos, where people shout the same things through a megaphone, and it's been like that for years.

There's a lovely article that Leon Rosselson wrote, where he said that in South America and loads of other places across the world, there's this fantastic body of songs that people sing on demos, but we don't have that here. As Commoners Choir, we take that as a challenge. The physical thing of having thirty or forty people singing without amplification, where everybody's equal, and everybody's dependent on each other, it's really inspiring.”

Commoners Choir, Wigtown Book Festival, September 23rd

Product, September 2017.


Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Sandy Thomson - Damned Rebel Bitches

The weather can turn in a minute on Mull. This is something Sandy Thomson is discovering as she rehearses Damned Rebel Bitches, her new play presented by her own North East of Scotland based Poorboy company in co- production with Mull Theatre, where it opens this weekend before embarking on a short tour of seven venues in Scotland.

It seems appropriate, then, that meteorological extremes were one of the driving forces behind the play. The fact that Hurricane Sandy, the second costliest storm in American history that blew through Manhattan in 2012 shares a name with Thomson may be coincidental, but, like the elemental unrest that goes before her, Thomson is a force of nature. This was the case in Monstrous Bodies, Poorboy's most recent show, which melded the lives of a teenage Mary Shelley, who would go on to write Frankenstein, and a twenty-first century schoolgirl facing up to her own demons.

This time out, Damned Rebel Bitches sees Thomson jump to the opposite end of the age scale, as eighty-something sisters Ella and Irene embark on an American adventure in search of lost youth. That particular lost youth may be a feckless kid called Cameron, who also happens to be Ella's grand-son, but you get the idea.

“When you're young,” says Thomson, “you simply don't believe you're ever going to get old. Then when you're old, you're still young, but with more years on you.”

This is the ethos Thomson has imbued throughout her creation, ever since a Playwrights Studio Scotland award to develop a show about Scottish grannies saw her interviewing “anyone over sixty-five I could find.” Thomson then decamped ton New York to talk to women who had moved there, and “to find out what it was like when we were immigrants.”

New York is also where the other half of Poorboy, Jeremiah Reynolds, lives. Reynolds drew plaudits when he appeared in another Poorboy show, Pirates and Mermaids, which Damned Rebel Bitches is a companion piece to, forming the second part of a mooted trilogy. Reynolds is dramaturg and film designer on the new show. When, three weeks after returning to Scotland, Hurricane Sandy broke, Thomson found herself able to watch the ongoing crisis online, able to access it better than Reynolds, despite the fact that he was in the thick of the crisis.

Around the same time, Thomson was visiting the theatre a lot, and “came from watching three plays in a row in which older women only ever give advice and then die so young males can have some kind of revelation at their funeral. I don't think it was deliberate. The three plays were all written by young men who were relating it directly to their own experience, but I don't know anyone whose grannies were like that. Lots of people we spoke to talked about their grannies, but nobody ever mentioned the words 'sweet', 'advice' or 'baking.'”

The result of such a melting pot of ideas is what Thomson calls a film for the stage that mixes up form and content to redress the balance with a potentially more kick-ass version of grannydom, albeit with real life flesh and blood restrictions.

“I didn't want to make the old ladies super-heroes,” says Thomson. “Irene is on pills that don't quite agree with her, so she keeps seeing werewolves. That brings an element of magical realism to things, but there are physical realities the women have to deal with as well. It's like an anti Hollywood action film. There's nothing comfortable about being on medication or having a dicky hip when you're that age.”

Damned Rebel Bitches draws its title from a quote attributed to the Duke of Cumberland during the Jacobite uprising. It was a not exactly flattering description for the women who accompanied their men folk to the battlefield, bringing their children with them to just behind the frontline so that the men would never retreat. As Ella and Irene move from the Clydeside Blitz in World War Two to Hurricane Sandy, they reclaim the Duke's words as a badge of honour.

“We see Ella go from ages nine to eighty,” says Thomson, “and we're doing age blind casting. We've got a cast aged between thirty and seventy-five, and I'm really enjoying working on something where by the end you won't care what age people onstage are anymore. For me that makes for something much cheerier, and which is more of a reflection of the women I've met. I didn't write any of the play's best lines. I pilfered them from the women I talked to.”

With all this in mind, it should perhaps come as no surprise that Damned Rebel Bitches is being presented as part of Luminate, the annual Scotland-wide festival of creative ageing that is now a fixture of Scotland's arts calendar. For Thomson and Poorboy, it is another step towards becoming something infinitely more than a theatre company, but rather, as Thomson defines it, something she calls a story machine.

“Because we're based in both Scotland and America now, we've made connections with all these film-makers, and there's definitely something about using the eye of the mind when you're using film. Jeremiah's digital, and I'm pre digital, so what I think are these crackly home movies, he thinks are incredibly evocative, and using found footage like that is a really interesting way of doing things. It's the same with the way we use music and sound. Ella starts buying records in 1949, and she really likes black female vocalists, so we've got a playlist that goes from Nina Simone right up to Beyonce.”

With such icons on our heroines' side, the play can't help but make some noise for independent women of all ages.

“The whole thing begins and ends with explosions,” says Thomson, “from the Blitz to the power cut in New York caused by Hurricane Sandy. I wanted to write something with big elemental things happening. It's easy to write something about two people sitting on the couch talking about their feelings, but I wanted something about the stairhead concert about it as well.

“We've an international cast from Scotland, England, America and Canada, who break the fourth wall, and who we've just asked to do everything. There's film, dance, direct address. That's simply acknowledging that the audience are there and that they're invited to the party, but it's also about wanting it to be something you can bring your real granny to. It's a proper Saturday afternoon at the pictures kind of experience.

“It's a memory play, but it's also a serious relationship play. When people write about people in their seventies or eighties, they can tend to write more about looking back than looking forward, but we wanted to do something different, and this is what we've ended up with. It's a disaster action adventure movie for the stage with an eighty year old woman playing the Bruce Willis part.”

Damned Rebel Bitches, Mull Theatre, Tobermory, September 22-23; Dundee Rep, September 28; Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, September 29; Traverse Theatre, September 30; Platform, Glasgow, October 4; Harbour Art Centre, Irvine, October 6; Paisley Arts Centre, October 7.

The Herald, September 19th 2017


Sunday, 17 September 2017

The Threepenny Opera

King's Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

When a lightbulb bursts during the opening massed rendition of Mack the Knife in this spirited production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's 1928 anti capitalist musical, it follows a similar incident last weekend on the opening night of The Steamie. If this initially feels like lightning striking twice, Susan Worsfold's production for the Festival and King's Theatre initiated Attic Collective is far smarter than that. As it runs with what morphs into Poor Theatre to the max, emergency lights and hand-held spotlights are utilised for all to see. The latter is crucial in a show that leaves nothing hidden in its re-energising of Brecht's disruptive roots.

On an otherwise bare stage, a band plays while members of the show's eighteen-strong ensemble pedal away at exercise bikes, presumably powering the show, but getting nowhere fast. While captions and slides are projected, dashing anti-establishment rake Macheath runs rings around both the underworld, headed up by Max Reid's odious Peachum, and the authorities. Only Macheath's various women get the better of him.

Drawing from Marc Blitzstein's 1954 English adaptation, Worsfold's production sees Kirsty Punton pretty much throw herself into the role of Peachum's daughter Polly, bringing brittle-edged sass into a storming rendition of Pirate Jenny. As Jenny herself, Sally Cairns is equally impressive. Charlie West, meanwhile, captures the full strutting thrust of Macheath.

Leaving aside the fact that most of the original play was seemingly penned by Brecht's then lover Elisabeth Hauptmann, what emerges is a rambunctious piece of cartoon knockabout noir. This is peppered with bar-room show-tunes that sucker punch the audience in the name of entertainment before revealing a deliriously subversive intent.

The Herald, September 18th 2017


Thursday, 14 September 2017

Ugly Rumours – Why Inverleith House Has Yet to Be 'Saved'

Last week, the man who in October 2016 closed down one of Scotland's most internationally renowned visual art institutions without notice or any apparent public consultation, claimed that initial reports that it was no longer going to have any artistic function had been a rumour.
Simon Milne, Regius Keeper of the publicly owned Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh where Inverleith House gallery is situated, appeared to be attempting to rewrite history.

Milne's contention that it was "never the case" that Inverleith House would cease to show art appears to contradict RBGE's own statement published last October which, while making clear that artistic activity would continue in the Garden itself, states: '... Inverleith House will no longer be dedicated to the display of contemporary art, and RBGE is looking at options for the alternative use of the building.'

Since the closure, a public outcry provoked a 10,000-plus petition and an open letter from major artistic figures protesting the move. An early day motion tabled at Westminster was signed by 16 MPs; an otherwise quiet Scottish government set up a high-profile Arts Working Group under the stewardship of Professor Chris Breward.

On the day of the gallery's closure on 23 October 2016, I forwarded a list of 23 questions to RBGE regarding its conduct. Over the last ten months RBGE has attempted to evade, obstruct and ignore those questions.

It claimed that my questions could be answered in A Future For Inverleith House, a report commissioned by RBGE with public funding, and drawn up by commercial consultants Kelly and Co prior to the closure. When asked if they could highlight where in the Kelly report my questions were answered, RBGE failed to respond.

While the report made various recommendations, all of them appeared to have been disregarded by RBGE in favour of closure. RBGE initially stated that they would publish the Kelly report on their website. To date, they have not done so, and the report was only released to the press in redacted form following a Freedom of Information request.

The eventual positive result of various protests against the closure of Inverleith House forced RBGE's hand to stage a summer show in Inverleith House, 'Plant Scenery of the World'. The exhibition was curated by Inverleith House's deputy curator Chloe Reith as part of Edinburgh Art Festival under what one suspects were very difficult circumstances. At the opening, a speech was made by Milne alongside head of Creative Scotland, Janet Archer.

Why Milne has become the mouth-piece for Inverleith House while its curator of 30 years, Paul Nesbitt, has been excluded from all discussions regarding the venue's future, isn't clear. Nesbitt is a qualified botanist with an understanding of the relationship between art and the natural world.

In August this year, the Herald newspaper gave Nesbitt an award for his three decades of programming at Inverleith House. Where most organisations might issue a public statement of congratulations to key members of staff given such accolades, RBGE has remained publicly silent regarding Nesbitt's achievement.

Milne's handling of the closure of Inverleith House has been a PR disaster for RBGE, which has received the worst publicity in its history. In a newspaper interview following the closure Milne described Inverleith House as being unable to “wash its face” financially – not the language you'd expect from a publicly accountable official charged with over-seeing one of Scotland's greatest cultural assets.

Milne's claim was subsequently discredited in the Arts Working Group report, which in strong but eminently diplomatic phrasing, states: 'There will always be challenges in securing funding for the arts but the Arts Working Group believes that the RBGE is in a position of strength compared to many other organisations given its achievement in the arts to date, its unique qualities as a scholarly and public institution and its distinctive venues and locations.'

The report goes on: 'The success of future fundraising efforts will be predicated on the strength, rigour, creativity and distinctiveness of the RBGE vision and programme plans...[and] the corporate pride, interest and value invested in the programme, the assured management of key relationships and the credible, and inspired leadership associated with the programme.'

In other words, let those at Inverleith House get on with what they've been doing so wonderfully for the last 30 years and leave them alone.

Let's be clear. For all the positive noises emanating from the report, Inverleith House has not been 'saved' – it has been co-opted by middle managers. While the forthcoming appointment of an arts advisory committee as recommended by the AWG report is a good sign, the worth of the exercise will depend on who is on the committee and what they do.

First and foremost, Inverleith House's year-round programme of contemporary art must be restored in a way that doesn't appear to be included in RBGE's current plans. The expertise that has shaped that programme over 30 years must be recognised and acknowledged, while curators must be protected from the sort of managerial interference that has caused such damage over the last ten months.

Such vital actions shouldn't be mere rumours. They should be made as crystal clear as the very real fact that Inverleith House was closed as a contemporary art gallery with a view to it becoming one more commercial cash cow.

Simon Milne and RBGE may have been caught with their pants down and their clown shoes on over that one, but vigilance is still needed. If those for whom Inverleith House's contemporary art programme matters so profoundly don't continue to defend it, one of the most important contemporary visual art institutions in Scotland may yet end up being lost forever.

A-N - September 2017