Friday, 28 April 2017

Giles Havergal - Travels With My Aunt

"My God!” beams the rangy figure towering over the foyer of the Citizens Theatre, “I bet you thought you had a date with Lazarus!"

Giles Havergal's presence announces itself with unbridled glee. For a man whose well turned out appearance was a one-man reception committee on every opening night during his thirty-three years in charge of the Gorbals-based institution between 1969 and 2003, it's as if he's never been away.

Havergal has just been getting his picture taken in the theatre's auditorium, where he and his co-artistic directors Robert David MacDonald and Philip Prowse created so much remarkable work as they defined the Citz's flamboyant style over three decades. In the corner of the foyer, tucked away en route to the toilets, images of Havergal, MacDonald and Prowse hang side by side like maids in a row. They were taken not long before all three men departed the institution they'd put on the international theatre map as a new era was ushered in.

Almost a decade and a half on, Havergal has spent the morning at the read-through of Philip Breen's new main-stage production of Travels with My Aunt, Havergal's bespoke four-man dramatisation of Graham Greene's 1969 novel. In some ways, Greene's yarn concerning the belated liberation of one Henry Pulling, the repressed middle-aged bank manager shown the world and its ways by his wild-living Aunt Augusta, was the perfect Citz play.

Havergal himself directed and appeared in the Citizens' original 1989 production, marking the beginning of an adventure almost as extraordinary as the one Henry undertakes as the play quickly travelled to London and New York, picking up an Olivier award en route. After almost thirty years, Travels With My Aunt continues to be regularly revived at home and abroad as a quietly subversive rep staple.

“It was irresistible,” Havergal says. “I always say it's the biggest vanity project that ever was, to adapt it, direct it and play the two leads in it. It was a very beguiling thing to be asked to do, - to ask myself to do – to play the two parts of Henry and Augusta. I would have hated to have done either of them without the other one, because Henry's tremendously kind of uptight, and has a physical lack of everything, contrasting with the aunt, and that made it a tremendous and delicious challenge to play.”

Havergal's adaptation was initially forged out of the economic necessity of a cash-strapped Citz trying to stay afloat. The story contained within Travels With My Aunt explored the conflicting social mores of its time in a way that both Greenites and theatrephiles continue to lap up.

The answer to its longevity is Graham Greene,” Havergal says. “It's just such a good story, and the dialogue is so good. Every word is him. He is still a very potent writer, and that particular title still has resonance for people. I think they either remember the book, or even remember the film. Of course, in these straitened times it's economical with just four guys and so on, but I think the actual subject matter, of coming to terms with new cultures, is still of interest. In that time, 1969, when it was written, everyone was coming to terms with Pot and long hair and wide trousers and all that. I think that sort of uncertainty, about being led into another culture by somebody else, is as potent now as it's ever been.

It also has tremendous moral ambiguity, because of course, in the end, Henry is seduced by the aunt setting up in South America, but he's become a criminal, really. He's working for Mr Visconti, who's a drug runner and a smuggler and an embezzler. That's what's so clever about Graham Greene. You're rooting for the aunt all the time, and you're wanting her to crack him open and stop him being such a stuffed shirt, but actually, he's a morally very respectable man and a bank manager, and there he is at the end wearing dark glasses and he's part of the mafia. That ambiguity, it's partly liberation, but it also leads you to something else if you're not careful. The fact that it was written in 1969 important as well.”

Greene's novel may have arrived at the fag end of the swinging sixties just as things turned darker, but its appearance chimed too with Havergal's arrival in Glasgow after four years in charge of the Watford Palace Theatre. What followed were three decades of intellectually driven theatrical daring and bravura which left its mark, both on audiences and the theatre's alumni.

Upstairs in a corner next to the theatre's Circle Studio bar, we sit at one of the theatre's fabulous tables on which iconic images of some of the Citz's legendary alumni are laid out beneath the glass. There's a peri-wigged Gary Oldman and a foppish looking Rupert Everett. There's a slicked-back Pierce Brosnan squinting over a cigarette. Glenda Jackson is there too, as is a young Mark Rylance.

"There are some of these images that are post-me," says Havergal, pointing to a picture of Miriam Margolyes in Breen's 2011 production of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg with a forensic sense of recall, "and there are some pre-me." He nods to an image of Duncan Macrae, and to one of James Bridie, the original founder of the Citizens before Havergal and co went on to reinvent it as a European arthouse and purveyor of literary classics in excelsis. Then there are the images of Havergal himself, looking stern in Death in Venice, and then, at the table's centre, an image from Travels with My Aunt.

"That's when we did the second run in 1990," he says, running his finger over the glass covered image, "because Gavin Mitchell took over from Chris Gee, although Chris Gee went on to do it in London."

Seen together, all this visual magnificence on one tabletop is a crucial part of Havergal's legacy. Now aged a still energetic seventy-eight, he is keeping as busy as he ever did, modestly playing down how “lucky” he is to be employed. He's about to direct a restoration comedy at RADA, and is not long back from San Francisco, where he worked with acting students on a stripped-down version of Romeo and Juliet which toured to schools.

It's really interesting to go into one of those big high schools, great big barns of a places, often playing to three to four hundred Hispanic kids, and it's certainly their first Shakespeare, and may well be their last. You've got that whole responsibility, not only to the students I'm kind of directing, but also the responsibility that we as a group have to the school-kids.”

As a model for the exercise, Havergal looked to TAG, the Citz's old theatre in education arm.

In San Francisco we played in every conceivable type of room, canteens, gyms, often in rooms no bigger than this, so we just take a square on the floor, with no scenery, no lights, no sound, nothing.”

Havergal praises the Citz' now extensive community and outreach programme, and indeed the theatre's seeming rude health under current artistic director Dominic Hill that Havergal's lengthy reign paved the way for.

I just feel fantastically privileged to have been able to do all that,” Havergal says. “The thirty-three years I was here went in a flash. I was thinking that just yesterday arriving here, it doesn't feel like thirty-three years at all. You just think, weren't we all lucky? Weren't we all lucky to find each other, and weren't we all lucky to land here, where it was possible to do it? I keep saying, even the bad times – of which there were lots – were good. So I have no regrets. I don't have funny feelings coming back here at all.”

In describing the contradictions at the heart of Travels With My Aunt, Havergal could be talking about the moral tug of love which fuelled the Citz when he was in charge.

“Hedonism versus compliance,” he says. “I think it's an age-old struggle. There's something in us all that would love to get blind drunk and run stark naked down Buchanan Street. Then there's the other side of us that wants to be absolutely respectable, and be on the board of the local school and all that, and I think that pull between the two sort of reflects something that's in all of us. We all want to throw our hats over the fence, but we either can't, or maybe we disapprove of people who do that, which is where Henry starts. That may be even more what it's about, the pull between behaving appallingly, having a good time, and being rather immoral, against being careful. I think that's an argument that exists in everyone. Isn't it?”

Travels With My Aunt, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, May 3-20.


On the Radical Road

Summerhall, Edinburgh
Three stars

For an ever increasing fan-base, the work of Hamish Henderson remains a force to be reckoned with. Poet, song-writer, folk-lorist and freedom fighter, Henderson's influence continues to trickle down the generations. This new hour-long compendium of work presented by the Edinburgh-based Theatre Objektiv as part of Tradfest keeps the spirit of the old master's voice to the fore in a more formal presentation than old haunts of Henderson's such as Sandy Bell's might allow.

Subtitled Enacting Hamish Henderson, the show is a journey of sorts that charts Henderson's adventures in words and music that attempts, in his own words, to use poems as weapons. With musical director and institution in his own right Alastair McDonald leading the charge, he and the three other members of the show's on-stage troupe rattle their way around France, Italy and World War Two. In just under an hour, there are also shout-outs for Nelson Mandela, digs at Hugh MacDiarmid en route.

This is performed by McDonald, Isabella Jarrett, Vanda De Luca and Gavin Paul in a loose-knit choral form that is neither concert nor drama, but which more resembles a kind of choreographed political cabaret. Knitted together and directed by playwright Raymond Raszkowski Ross, who edited Henderson's Collected Poems and Songs, published in 2000, there is barely a pause for breath throughout. This makes for a fluid freedom of movement, not just in a geographical sense, but in Raszkowski Ross and co's ebullient encapsulation of Henderson's socially engaged internationalist imagination. In an unashamedly partisan affair, Raszkowski Ross has sculpted an appealing pop-up construction designed for devotees and novices alike to keep the Henderson flame alive.

The Herald, May 1st 2017


Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Addams Family

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

Family values are at the heart of things from the opening number of the brand new touring production of Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice and Andrew Lippa's musical version of cartoonist Charles Addams' creepy creation. A colourful chorus line of Addams ancestors are raised from the dead to bust some moves that look somewhere between the Rocky Horror Show's Let's Do the Timewarp Again routine and Michael Jackson's Thriller video.

The focus on what follows is on Wednesday, the family's pale and interesting daughter. Having grown up to be a crossbow-wielding teenage goth, she takes a walk on the bright side after falling for the more straight-laced Lucas. Old habits die hard, however, and, as played with sublime sass by Carrie Hope Fletcher, Wednesday tortures her brother Pugsley while belting out an exquisite version of identity crisis anthem, Pulled. In a show riddled throughout with hints of psycho-sexual deviancy, Wednesday takes a leaf out of the William Burroughs book of courtship when she plays William Tell games with Lucas. As his stuffed-shirt parents rekindle their fire, even her parents Gomez and Morticia's fine romance looks set to be redefined.

Co-produced by Aria Entertainment and the Music and Lyrics company in association with the Festival Theatre, Matthew White's production is a knowing cartoon romp that gives full vent to Lippa's latin and tango heavy score. As Gomez and Morticia, Cameron Blakely and Samantha Womack have a ball, and Les Dennis makes Uncle Fester the show's moral heart. As the importance of staying true to who you are is spelt out, in a very different kind of American horror story, this is Fletcher's show.

The Herald, April 27th 2017


Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Douglas Maxwell and Matthew Lenton - Charlie Sonata

The inspiration behind Douglas Maxwell's new play won't get to see it performed when it opens at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh this weekend. Nor did Maxwell's old friend Bob see it when it was performed by acting students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow last year. Without Bob, however, Charlie Sonata wouldn't exist. For Maxwell and everyone else left behind, the play is the only type of reunion they can ever have now. If Bob was still around, well, even though he'd cleaned up his act and settled down, they might not even have that.

“Bob died before I could show the play to him,” says Maxwell. “I wanted to write something in which he was this hero, and we could have a laugh about it, but we did the student production and I hadn't told him, and I don't know why. Even when David Greig took the play for the Lyceum, I still didn't tell him, and then it was too late, but his sister read the script, and she's given the green light now, which is great.”

To be clear, while Bob was the inspiration behind Charlie Sonata, and while there are similarities, it isn't really about him. Maxwell's tale may start off about an alcoholic prodigal's return home in an attempt to rekindle old friendships and everything else he lost. As with most of Maxwell's plays, however, it takes a turn for the fantastical, and as Charlie finds himself watching over the coma-stricken daughter of one of his friends, it becomes a skewed kind of fairytale.

“It's a play about a guy who comes back up for a reunion with his mates,” says Maxwell. “He's lost, and he's trying to make everything right, and it evolves into this fairytale about someone who wants to make things better. I think everyone has some kind of person like that in their life, who when the phone goes at two in the morning, you always know it's them. You can cope with that when you're in your twenties, and just about when you're in your thirties, but as you get older it becomes more difficult. The play has this group of people in their early forties, who've got this life that they have. Then here comes this alcoholic back into their life. Charlie is someone with no violence or crime in him. The only damage he's doing is to himself, and he not only loses track of where he is, but when he is.

“It's one of those plays – and I'm in no way comparing myself to Arthur Miller – but structurally, it's kind of like Death of A Salesman. In that play, the main protagonist doesn't do anything. The play happens to him, and I think it's the same in Charlie Sonata. It begins and ends with a big speech, and inbetween he's incoherent.”

As with many of his plays, Maxwell wrote Charlie Sonata because he wanted to, and without anyone commissioning it. Maxwell prefers this approach, and, while he believes it frees up his writing, Charlie Sonata didn't come to him immediately.

“I had a few tries at it,” he says, “but then I was at a funeral, and I went back and looked at these scenes that I'd written, and everything changed. The scenes all fell into place, and after that the play really wrote itself.”

Maxwell's remark about how Charlie loses track of when he is as much as where was one of the key motives for director Matthew Lenton becoming involved in the production. In his role leading Vanishing Point theatre company, Lenton has consistently warped everyday realities into a form of magical realism that comes directly from an emotional impulse. Maxwell wrote the play specifically for Lenton, rekindling an affinity between the two which dates back to Lenton directing Mancub in a co-production between Vanishing Point and the National Theatre of Scotland. Both artists work instinctively, and, for all the intellectual rigour that goes with it, wear their hearts very much on their sleeves.

“I think Charlie Sonata is a very easy play to identify with emotionally,” says Lenton, “but I think it goes beyond that, in a more general feeling about care. For me, it's about what happens to someone if everyone around them pulls up short, and doesn't quite fulfil their role as a mate. I think it's also about how easy it is for someone to fall out from life, while everyone else around them carries on with their own lives.

“Douglas presents all that in such a magical and moving way. His plays are real and truthful, but they're not realistic. They have a kind of enhanced truthfulness. That's why that line about Charlie not knowing when he is as well as where he is stood out, and that's what I'm trying to bring out in this production. The challenge is to keep the spirit of the one we did at RCS, which we all really enjoyed doing, but to also allow it to grow and expand for the Lyceum stage.”

Charlie Sonata is the latest of Maxwell's works which might be conceivably seen as a cycle that charts his own growing pains as he gets older. Maxwell's breakout play, Decky Does A Bronco, first seen in 2000, looked at friendship through a child's eyes, as the play's narrator recalls a tragedy which has left its mark on those who survived it. Five years later, Mancub looked at a teenage boy coming to terms with the changes going on inside him.

Our Bad Magnet, which appeared the same year as Decky Does A Bronco, charts an uneasy reunion between four young men as it follows their friendship between the ages of nine and twenty-nine. In 2005, If Destroyed True looked at notions of community in a way that more recently, Maxwell's play for the Citizens Theatre, Fever Dream: Southside, continued to pursue.

“A lot of my plays are very similar in some respects,” Maxwell happily admits. “From the kids in Decky and Mancub to the people in their twenties in Our Bad Magnet and If Destroyed True. In Fever Dream: Southside they were in their thirties and having kids, and wondering if they could live in this particular place. Now here they are in Charlie Sonata, in their forties and wondering how that happened.”

Maxwell describes this as his “subterranean autobiography. When you write like me, you start at the source, and then you go off. These people from my life, as a playwright it's my job to put them in front of an audience and demand that audience's attention. They're not kings and queens, but they're living life as it's lived now, and these people matter. Part of the fairytale stuff in Charlie Sonata is to lift these people up so they have a higher value than you might initially think. Then once they have that higher value, you listen to them. That's when you realise how important they are.”

Charlie Sonata, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, April 29-May 13.

The Herald, April 25th 2017


Sunday, 23 April 2017

Monstrous Bodies

Dundee Rep
Four stars

A girl with shocking pink hair introduces herself as Liberty. She stands centre stage and invites everyone to keep their mobile phones on so they can take pictures of what follows. This isn't what one might expect from a play advertised as being about Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin's time in Dundee in 1812 before, as Mary Shelley, she introduced the world to science-fiction with her novel, Frankenstein. In the hands of the Poorboy company's Sandy Thomson, however, one should expect nothing less.

Subtitled Chasing Mary Shelley Down Peep O'Day Lane, Thomson's production of her own play charts Mary's travails as a fourteen year old put into the care of the wealthy and quasi-progressive Baxter family. She juxtaposes this with a modern-day scenario involving Roxanne, a girl the same age as Mary. When a compromising photograph is taken of Roxanne without her knowledge, the talk she is preparing on Shelley sees her attempt to conquer her fears just as Mary did.

The result is a dramatic sprawl of quick-cutting scenes that flit between nineteenth century melodrama and MTV-styled dance routines, with independent women at the heart of both. Played out over a split-level set, the combined might of the Dundee Rep and Poorboy acting ensembles are bolstered even more by a fifteen-strong young company of teenage performers. As Mary and Roxanne, Eilidh McCormick and Rebekah Lumsden are towers of strength across the ages, both to their peers and each other. In a high-octane study of how a moral high ground can be used as an excuse for misogyny, it shows how necessary it is now more than ever for young women to write their own story.

The Herald, April 24th 2017


Thursday, 20 April 2017

Funny Girl

The Playhouse, Edinburgh
Five stars

There is something infinitely special about Michael Mayer's touring revival of his smash hit 2015 production of composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill's myth-making 1964 musical. This is the case from the moment Sheridan Smith steps unassumingly from the shadows as 1920s Broadway sensation Fanny Brice. When Smith sits down at Fanny's dressing room mirror and utters the show's immortal “Hello gorgeous” greeting to herself, it is as if both women are switching themselves on to the spotlight.

It is this utter possession of her character that makes Smith's portrayal of Fanny so captivating. As she rewinds to her early days as a gawky New York bundle of adolescent energy, every facial gurn and every clumsy spin is alive to the possibility of success. Smith's entire body is possessed with Fanny's self-effacing and sometimes needy vibrancy that can't help but draw people to her. It doesn't matter that her doomed romance with Darius Campbell's matinee idol styled Nick Arnstein becomes the stuff of high-end soap operas involving shady deals in gambling dens. With Isobel Lennart's book revised by Harvey Fierstein, this is eminently watchable, even through its longueurs.

Much of this watchability is down to Smith, who manages to be both vulnerable and vivacious, fearless and fragile, all in the capricious skip of a low-attention-span heart-beat. Every line is delivered with a physical tic or a roll of the eye that makes for comic perfection. Fanny and Nick's first act stumblebum courtship astride a chaise longue is a particular hoot. It is when Smith is onstage alone, however, that we see both her and her character fully take flight in an irresistible tale of showbiz survival.

The Herald, April 21st 2017

Why Inverleith House Must Be Re-Opened

This coming Sunday, April 23rd, marks the six month anniversary of the closure of Inverleith House,which for the previous thirty years has been one of the world's leading contemporary art galleries. This unique, light-filled venue, housed within the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, captured imaginations right up to its thirtieth anniversary exhibition, the tellingly named I Still Believe in Miracles...

Only after news of the closure leaked out did RBGE attempt to explain the decision by way of a written statement. While no proposed alternative use for Inverleith House was forthcoming, RBGE declared that they needed to focus on RBGE's core botanical function. In an interview with the Herald, RBGE's Regius Keeper Simon Milne stated that Inverleith House was unable to 'wash it's face' financially. For a publicly accountable custodian of a major public institution to use the language of a market trader in this way was telling.

Arts funding body Creative Scotland, who have funded Inverleith House on an annual basis, expressed their disappointment with the closure. Given that they had recently paid for a report on the future of Inverleith House, you can see their point, especially as nowhere in the report was there any recommendation that it should be closed. RBGE have yet to publish the report in the public domain, and only a Freedom of Information request by the Herald saw its release to journalists in redacted form.

A 'mass visit' on the final day of I Still Believe in Miracles... saw more than 700 art-lovers protesting against the closure. A petition opposing RBGE's decision has attracted more than 10,000 signatures, while a noticeably quiet Scottish Government set up a short term Working Party to discuss Inverleith House's future. Twenty-three questions asked by myself in my capacity as a contributor to online arts and culture magazine, Product, linked here - remain unanswered, despite numerous assurances by RBGE that they would be addressed.

More recently, it was announced that a summer exhibition at Inverleith House will form part of Edinburgh Art Festival. While RBGE's hand has clearly been forced by public pressure, this isn't nearly enough, but perhaps RBGE's priorities lie elsewhere. This week, a job ad by French multinational Sodexo, who manage RBGE's events programme, came to light. The ad, for a Corporate Sales Manager – Conference and Events at RBGE- is riddled throughout with the profit-driven language of commerce. It makes no mention of any kind of art programme. Nor does it highlight RBGE's core botanical function. It does, however, mention money. A lot.

It seems obvious to me that there are those in office at RBGE who believe they are running a business. These same publicly accountable officials are reluctant to answer questions about their conduct in regards to the closure of a national public asset. What is clear most of all is that, in closing Inverleith House, RBGE has made a terrible mistake. It is embarrassing too for a Scottish Government who claim to value Scotland's artistic institutions. Only the reopening of Inverleith House as a permanent contemporary art gallery will resolve a sorry mess which should never have happened.

The Herald, April 20th 2017