Friday, 24 February 2017

Alan Dimmick's studio archive 1977-2017

Stills Gallery, Edinburgh until April 9th
Four stars

Gazing across the two walls that house more than five hundred photographs by Glasgow photographer Alan Dimmick is akin to skimming through a personal scrap book of a city's entire culture. Witnessed first hand, Dimmick's lens moved through its underground that defined it as its habitu├ęs went on to change that city's landscape forever. As Dimmick's archive moves through four decades of gatherings and gigs, art openings happenings and hang-outs, his studiedly black and white images capture a world off-guard and in motion, as his subjects pose for all they're worth, recognising the ridiculousness of the situation as they go.

Presented in defiantly slap-dash-but-not-really non-chronological order, here are several generations coming together to party, play, protest and perform both offstage and on as they make spectacles of themselves en route to making a scene. The images come in all shapes and sizes, and are as much about Dimmick being there in the thick of the action as he is just a step outside of it as an active observer.

Shown as part of this year's edition of Stills' ongoing annual Collection series of archives, and seen in tandem with photographer David Eustace's Works from a private photography collection of prints loaned from his personal collection, Dimmick's archive chimes with other excavations of assorted local scenes.

The rediscovery of photographer Harry Papadopoulos' iconic images of post-punk Scotland shown at Street Level in Glasgow in 2014 as What Presence! was equally vital. Dimmick's presumably ongoing collection arrives too just as Scot-Pop documentary films Lost in France and Big Gold Dream have been released. David Keenan's new novel, This is Memorial Device, meanwhile, reimagines a small-town music scene in an audaciously baroque fashion. As with all of those, there is a sense with Dimmick's work of times and places lost in a collective rites of passage captured in the most fleeting of long-cherished but half-forgotten moments that have now become the stuff of legend.

The List, February 2017

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Pink Mist

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

Playing war in the school playground is one thing in Owen Sheers' play, first produced in 2015 and now on a UK tour of duty in John Retallack and George Mann's revival of their Bristol Old Vic production. Being on the front-line of Afghanistan is quite another for the teenage boys who people become men too soon, especially with everything that comes after.

This is clear from the opening monologue spoken by Arthur, a lanky Bristol adolescent who, as played by Dan Krikler, becomes a dynamic narrator of his own destiny as well as his best mates. Standing tall while he regales the audience with the sort of free-wheeling verse born of the club culture he and his pals Taff and Hads let off steam in, he is surrounded by both them and the mother, wife and girlfriend they variously left behind. The shapes they throw in unison are a well choreographed routine, but when they speak, we see what they have lost as well.

On one level this is familiar territory for Sheers, whose verbatim play about wounded soldiers, The Two Lives of Charlie F, won the Amnesty International freedom of Expression Award several Edinburgh Festival Fringes ago. The energy that comes here from the poetry and heightened physical delivery transforms it into an even more urgent piece of work. Crucial to this are the immersive implosions of a dub-step soundtrack that so evocatively reflects the internal traumas of what used to be called shell-shock. All of this joins forces to become a damning indictment of those who see the everyday tragedies laid bare here as mere collateral damage.

The Herald, February 27th 2017

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Pet Shop Boys

The Playhouse, Edinburgh
Wednesday February 22nd

The atmosphere is already doing a fairly good impression of a 1980s gay super-club before Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe enter the stage for the Edinburgh leg of Pet Shop Boys' stadium sized Super tour on the back of last year's day-glo inclined album of the same name. The CC Blooms friendly techno is playing and projections are throwing Mod-u-like shapes onto what looks like a pair of upended and oversize circular Formica tables that sit either side of theatre designer Es Devlin's space age stage design.

When Tennant and Lowe are seen, it is strapped to the other side of the tables as they're wheeled around in a big reveal that makes for the grandest of entrances. A suited and be-shaded Tennant appears to be crowned with metallic garlands that give him the impression of a science-fiction Caesar, while Lowe's entire head is encased in what looks like a small alien planet. The effect is imperious, abstract and wonderfully ridiculous.

The point of the Pet Shop Boys audio-visual extravaganza being performed in an all-seated old-school theatre - the natural habitat for such arch show-men extraordinaire - is lost within seconds of the opening Inner Sanctum, as the over-riding cascade of beats and bleeps inspires the audience to rise en masse to their feet. Like the most devoted of lovers, they'll stay upstanding for what is effectively a two hour megamix of knowing euphoria of a kind that Tennant and Lowe have been honing for the last three and a half decades. The deceptively contrarian and still staggering ironic bravura of Opportunities (Let's Make lots of Money) raises the stakes even higher in a dazzling curtain-raiser.

Few artists understand the potency of cheap music more than Pet Shop Boys. Their unholy and at times sentimental marriage of Tennant's Wildean epigrams to Lowe's four-to-the-floor electronics remains an inspired and contrary late twentieth and early twenty-first century mash-up of popular classicism. This is clear from The Pop Kids,one of Super's stand-out songs that drips with deadpan languor and the sort of middle-aged ennui felt by ageing party animals who came of age with friends for life to the Pet Shop Boys canon. The fact that it is accompanied here by images of animated Rubik's Cube type structures flying about makes it even better.

The duo let their masks slip as they're joined by a low-key trio who are similarly hooded like a 1930s Flash Gordon serial. Christina Hizon joins Tennant upfront to provide vocals on the disco-tastic Burn and a smattering of violin on Love is a Bourgeois Concept, on which Tennant also plays the keyboard melody. Crucially, it is the artfully executed martial drum-beats provided by Afrika Green and former house drummer with uber production team Xenomania, Simon Tellier, that both add a human pulse to the synthesised rhythms as well as recalling the sort of syncopated reveille that moved between protest march and 1990s rave.

After this initial amyl nitrate inspired flourish of dancefloor nuggets, the mood shifts somewhere between melodrama and melancholy. For the synthesised stentorian tones of The Dictator Decides, Tennant appears in a Russian hat, great-coat and shades, as if he's just stepped out of a John Le Carre novel to sing of how 'My Facts Are Invented'. For all the industrial stylings and cloak-and-dagger discretion, we probably know who he means.

West End Girls is a now classic snapshot of its own past seen through the filter of a detached outsider. The song's deadpan observations of aspiration, class division and the allure of London's big city bright lights are as much a social document of its era as a Channel 4 documentary. Winner , from 2012,'s Elysium album, is a heroic and really rather lovely piece of triumphalist self-affirmation, and Home and Dry a sun-kissed postcard from parted lovers.

Things crank back up to second-wind larging it mode for Vocal, which dissects the experience of a night out with an earnestness that borders on poignant. Not that anyone in the moment of their own night out lost in the accompanying maze of lasers and neon catherine wheel rush cares overly much. Things move into a hit factory home stretch of It's A Sin, Left to My Own Devices and a Go West played against a back-drop of giant primary coloured lamp-shades that have just appeared from the sky.

Tennant conducts the audience for a singalong, a maestro's move he continues for the encores of Domino Dancing and a joyous Always on My Mind, with the band returning with day-glo football globe type constructions covering their heads.

Pet Shop Boys songs at their best are fly-on-the-wall social-realist vignettes awash with intimate intrigues and possibly true confessions. Heard live, they are also the ultimate party soundtrack for yesterday's hedonists who, as the show's final reprise of The Pop Kids suggests, have still got it, and will have for a long time to come yet.

 
Product, February 2017

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Usurper - The Big Five (Singing Knives)

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, something is stirring. Or at least it is in the world of Usurper, the
Edinburgh-based duo of Malcy Duff and Ali Robertson, whose sonic missives over the last decade have become increasingly-expansive exercises in performance that go beyond notions of sound art. Through a series of sketches, routines and goof-offs, all punctuated by noises off made by a bucket-load of acquired junk, Usurper's modus operandi falls somewhere between Samuel Beckett, The Goons and Tex Avery by way of John Hurt's experimental sound designer in Jerzy Skolimowski's neglected 1978 film, The Shout.

Following a busy year of monthly CDr releases on their own Giant Tank label, Usurper's cup runneth over, even more on this forty-five minute cassette released on the Sheffield-based Singing Knives label. A sequel of sorts to their 2012 Cdr, The Big Four, which referenced assorted quartets of personality traits, thrash metal bands and coincidence, this follow-up pieces together recordings made in various locations in Edinburgh's urban jungle during 2013 and 2014. The starting point was a Google search of the phrase 'big five' that threw up lists of the most hunted wild animals on the verge of extinction, psychological personality tests and pre-censorship American war comics.

The first side hisses cheerily into life with the word 'Snakes' exclaimed as if the opening of some undiscovered Ivor Cutler routine. As the word evolves into a little mantra of criss-crossing voices, the names of other animals are introduced. ' Mosquito'. 'Giraffe'. Monkey'. 'Elephant'. Except the way the words are spoken transcends their original meaning, so as the words are elongated, compressed and bent out of shape by all manner of inflections, they become a little symphony of pure form.

Accompanied by assorted low-key shakes, rattles and rolls, at moments it squawks. At others it grunts, exhales or else ponders a moment of silence. At others still, these primal utterings are overlaid with verite conversations between Duff and Robertson, cast as great white hunters on a mission. This is Usurper on safari, frustrated explorers in an absurd landscape where the wildlife announces itself with a signature verbal tic. Each word becomes a rumination, an accusation or a postulation, so in a series of ethnographic and anthropological eruptions and excavations, survival of the fittest is paramount.

The second side opens with colourful first-person story-book testimonies of life on the front-line before comic book speech bubbles are brought to life with a series of 'Blams' and 'rat-a-tats' spoken over what sounds like a regimented march over the back kitchen table. A toddler briefly joins in with his or her own sound effects before the two tribes move outside to spar among the traffic roar.

The pulp fictions become ever more fantastical, so the voices sound ridiculous, as if the miniature icons of Michael Bentine's Potty Time were rewriting history to make themselves appear more heroic. If at times this resembles a trashy and slightly grotesque take on Jackanory, the real collateral damage can be heard in the final on-location recordings. Like Still Game's Jack and Victor hanging out with the local Noise set, Duff and Robertson are in part strip cartoon brought comically to life. There’s something deeply serious going on here too in these fragments that speak volumes about how everyone’s an endangered species in a maladjusted world.

www.duffandrobertson.bandcamp.com


Product, February 2017

 
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Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Julian Cope

La Belle Angele, Edinburgh
Saturday February 18th 2017

Julian Cope doesn't do things by halves. This is clear from the moment he opens the Edinburgh leg of his current tour to promote his latest opus, Drunken Songs, dressed in his long-standing mix and match uniform of army cap, cut-off khaki kecks and leather jerkin. His once boyish face is permanently hidden by a wild-man's long hair and beard ensemble topped off by rock star shades designed to hide eyes that are what he later describes as “piss-holes in the snow.” He looks both ridiculous and heroic, and in the execution of his appearance he is fearless.

“I know I'm dressed as an invader,” Cope says in a plummy burr of middle England and acquired Scouse, “but it's the closest it's been to 1933 in our time.”

Ever since the self-styled arch-drude embarked on a wayward anti-career that saw him elevate himself from the Liverpool post-punk underground to briefly become a wide-eyed teeny-bopper idol with the Teardrop Explodes in 1981, Cope has embraced each new passion with the child-like zeal of the eternal convert. From new-age acid tripper to fantastical novelist with his 2014 epic, One Three One, Cope has flitted with relish from antiquarian to eco-activist, auto-biographer, myth-maker and unbridled champion of previously largely undocumented strains of out-there German and Japanese music.

His Head Heritage website is an essential treasure trove of obscure cult sounds which has arguably fed the heads of a new generation of musical seekers. Now, it seems, after twenty years off the sauce, Cope has embraced booze with the evangelical fervour of a born-again dipsomaniac greeting an old friend, and he wants the world to know about it. Crucially, despite all the mind-expansion, Cope has remained an extraordinary song-writer, and despite Drunken Songs being trailed as 'forty minutes of gnostic drunkenness', appears to have come full pop circle.

What Cope admits to being an accidentally politically tinged set begins with Autogedden Blues, the lead track from his Heathcote Williams inspired 1991 anti car album, Autogedden. Cope's solo version of it exposes it even more as an increasingly frantic cousin to Horses era Patti Smith before he rewinds even more to Double Vegetation from 1991's Peggy Suicide album and Fear Loves This Place from 1992's Jehovakill.

The songs may be stripped back, but the same plummy mix of innocence and depravity courses through Cope's voice. His open mic style troubadour shtick resembles a free-wheeling back-packer in a way that undoubtedly allows him more mobility as well as being more economically viable. Yet for all the prevailing sense of wonder, ego and anarchy, there are moments crying out for a brass fanfare, or even just the everyday sumptuousness of a four-piece flourish. Even so, Cope's canon comes at the contrary and deliciously commercial end of weird.

He gets back to his roots with a take on The Culture Bunker, which first appeared on second Teardrop Explodes album, Wilder. Even back then Cope understood the powers of self-mythology in this self-reflective paean to the late 1970s Liverpool that first spawned his awfully big adventures alongside other Matthew Street irregulars including Messrs Drummond, McCulloch and Wylie.

As if to demonstrate just how Cope was shaped by and is still steeped in that time, he follows it with Liver as Big as Hartlepool. This cut from Drunken Songs may have started off as a jokey riposte to the sentimental bombast of Pete Wylie's Heart as Big as Liverpool, and to hear the one-time band-mates turned sparring partners still sniping after all these years is priceless. But Cope's willingness to leave himself vulnerable and admit his outsider status while living in the city is as moving and as significant a document as Bill Drummond's recent writings on the period prompted by the untimely death of fellow traveller Pete Burns.

There is more of this later on a version of The Great Dominions. Arguably Wilder's most ambitious stab at immortality, here Cope enlists the services of an ancient mellotron to provide even more melodrama to the song through a series of drones that give the song an archaic feel.

Such musical excavations are curiously at odds with Cope's pronouncements during his lengthy but incident-packed between-song monologues regarding a loathing of folk music. Also potentially being honed for what may well end up as a spoken-word show with occasional songs are shaggy dog stories on Shetland, how he came to exchange his old Luftwaffe hat for an RAF cap and the different attitudes towards swear-words between America and Britain.

This prompts further thoughts on how Billy Joel might reinvent a folk song, which somehow leads to a brief debate with the audience on whether Thomas Edison or Nikola Tesla was more important in relation to electrical invention. While one suspects such ramblings may have caused one or two musical missives to be dropped due to time restraints, over ninety minutes Cope nevertheless manages to get through fourteen songs old and new.

Following a brooding run through Peggy Suicide era's Pristeen, Cope returns for“one of those Ba-ba songs” as he puts it, presumably referring to his series of early 1980s confections that include Teardrop Explodes single, Passionate Friend. As it is we're treated to early solo single The Greatness and Perfection of Love, which is effectively Passionate Friend part two in all but name. More than thirty years after it burst out of Cope's filter-free imagination like a grown-up nursery rhyme with libidinous intent, it sounds as chock-full of wisdom and experience as any other folk song.

Product, February 2017

Joe Douglas - Death of A Salesman

When Arthur Miller wrote Death of A Salesman in 1949, post World War Two America was still dusting itself down from the pre-war depression which had ravaged it. Miller's play about the past his own sell-by date Willy Loman's decline into mental collapse was a damning indictment of U.S. capitalism and this cruellest of system's concentration on the need for those on the bottom rung of the financial ladder to constantly hustle their way to the top. As one of life's believers in the American dream, Loman was mere collateral damage of that system's failure.

Almost seventy years on, and with America's new government a volatile pressure-cooker that looks set to explode, Joe Douglas' new production of the play for Dundee Rep's ensemble company attempts to cut through the play's seemingly unbreakable naturalism to lay bare what is going on in Loman's head.

“It fascinates me,” says Douglas, who is currently associate director at Dundee Rep in the run up to Andrew Panton taking up his post as artistic director later this year. “There are all these references to the house, but I don't care what the house looks like. I want to see inside Willy Loman's mind. Miller wrote the play at a time before people thought about mental health in the way we do now, but here is a man who has this daily battle with depression, but who doesn't know how to communicate it. I want to reveal the pain of the family. There are lots of different reasons I wanted to look at this play, but one of the main ones is that I don't want to end up like Willy Loman.”

Given that he is currently on a course of anti-depressants himself, this isn't something that Douglas says lightly. Working in an industry riven by insecurity in terms of employment, and where artists are effectively selling their talent from one job to the next, Douglas is acutely aware of how that can effect those like him.

“Our industry is all about using our imagination to sell dreams,” says Douglas, “and the way the cycle of jobs goes, a lot of emotions are left bubbling away under the surface after it ends. These things are never talked about the way a lot of issues about mental health are never talked about, but I just want to be honest and open about it, and to look at some of the issues about mental health that are there in Miller's play.”

To get inside Loman's head, Douglas has enlisted the talents of designer Neil Warmington, composer Nikola Kodjabashia and lighting designer Sergey Jakovsky to open up Miller's play in a way rarely seen.

“We've pared things back,” says Douglas of the show's design. “Instead of having the house, we've got the dirt of the garden there which I think is more important in terms of the way Willy is digging from the ground up. Initially that was frustrating for the actors, because they don't have the house to go to, but when people pull together you can see the poetry of Miller's script more.”

Music too is key to Douglas's production, with the cast playing Kodjabashia's live score in a way made familiar by his work with director Dominic Hill at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow.

“There's lots of music throughout the play,” says Douglas. “I wanted to see what happened when Nikola was given a more naturalistic text, and I think the sound created onstage is key to the play, and becomes a direct current to what Willy is thinking. That's really exciting, because it's happening in the moment.”

Douglas is happy to admit that his approach to Death of A Salesman has been influenced by Flemish wunderkind Ivo Van Hove's controversial take on Miller's A View from the Bridge. Both productions are at odds with the recent pronouncements of playwright David Hare's recent pronouncements dismissing directorial interpretations of classic plays as well as the less definable role of theatre-makers.

“I think it's nonsense,” Douglas says of Hare's pronouncement. “Any play that has classic status need to be re-energised and given different readings. As long as you retain a sensitivity to a truth of the text, then let's do it, I say, otherwise you end up with a deadly theatre. When I watch a play, I want to hear a brilliant story, but I also want to learn something and see something different that I might not have seen before.

Douglas's production of Death of A Salesman forms the first of Dundee Rep's America centred Stars and Stripes season. The second of three shows will be a co-production with the Poorboy Ensemble of a new piece written by Sandy Thompson, Monstrous Bodies (Chasing Mary Shelley Down Peep O' Day Lane). Douglas will then direct the Rep ensemble's annual community tour with a production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Bertolt Brecht's Chicago set fable concerning one little demagogue's craving for power. Given the state of the world art the moment, the timing of the season isn't coincidence.

“We planned the season before the American election,” says Douglas, “but I knew it would be relevant whatever the result. It just felt like a massive cultural influence over every other country beyond America. As far as Death of A salesman goes, you can see the effects of capitalism and consumerism in its nascent form, and during rehearsals for the play we've all become new junkies watching the results of the election play out.

The season comes towards the end of Douglas's tenure as associate artistic director of Dundee Rep prior to Panton joining the company. During that time, Douglas's work has included his much lauded revival of John McGrath's The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. While Panton will combine his artistic directorship with his continuing professorship of musical theatre at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow. For Douglas, the bold statement he is making with Death of A Salesman might well become his defining moment at Dundee.

“It's a play that's not been done in Dundee for twenty years,” says Douglas, “and it's a play that means a lot to me on a personal level, and I think it's an important big play that still speaks to us now.”

If Miller was writing Death of A Salesman today, might he put Willy Loman on anti-depressants?

“I think he would,” says Douglas. “If he could afford them. There are patterns of mania to his character, and there's a slightly ephemeral quality to the play. What is he selling? And why can't he communicate anything that's going on inside his head to his family? Bit it's more than that. Willy Loman's personal tragedy becomes a much wider metaphor of this belief in the American dream, and understanding that this belief in that dream is a lie. Miller went through it himself by challenging that, and now here we are again, still living that lie.”

Death of A Salesman, Dundee Rep, February 22-March 11.
www.dundeerep.co.uk

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Monday, 20 February 2017

The Cause of Thunder

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Three stars

It's more than two years since the Scottish independence referendum, and a lot has changed for Bob Cunningham, the ageing firebrand at the centre of Chris Dolan's solo play, performed with partisan gusto by David Hayman as part of a tour that travels the country over the next month. Bob is seeking shelter from the Glasgow storm, and finds himself washed up in the same bar he was last in before the referendum.

Bruised but unbowed, Bob holds court as he attempts to come to terms, not just with the No vote, but with the pro Brexit result, the election of President Trump and the rise of hate crime that appears to have been spawned in tandem with both. In this respect, Dolan's sequel to his pre-referendum companion piece, The Pitiless Storm, is a kind of living newspaper that heaps iniquity after iniquity onto Bob and the strata of working class west of Scotland society he represents.

Dolan's script is two-tiered in David Hayman Junior's production for the FairPley company. On the one hand, Bob is a Lear-like figure, briefly in exile from his own ideals while he takes stock of his own mortality as a principled survivor of the post-truth age. On the other, Bob's affirmations as he rediscovers his faith in his own beliefs as much as the wider human spirit are dispatches from the front-line of the bar-room revolution. Hayman flits briskly between gallus bravura, lingering pathos and a fierce commitment to something better as Bob attempts to make sense of the mess which the majority of us have had thrust upon us by the darkest of powers imaginable.

The Herald, February 20th 2017

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