Saturday, 25 March 2017

All The Little Lights

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

It looks like a game at first, when the three girls in Jane Upton's play come together for a surprise birthday party on a make-shift campsite amongst all the rubbish down by the railway. Look closer, however, and beyond the supermarket cake and the games of dare on the track-lines, and it's clear that Joanne has got Lisa here for a reason.

Twelve year old Amy probably wouldn't understand. She's “cute, but not in a baby way,” but both Joanne and Lisa bear the scars of what happened at the grown-up parties with the man from the chippy. Lisa got out, to a nice house like those she used to make up stories about as she and Joanne peered through the windows. But unless Joanne does something soon, she'll never get out, and she'll take Amy down with her.

Inspired by recent cases of child sexual grooming gangs, in which some 'older' girls were used to procure younger ones, Upton's joint winner of the 2016 George Devine Most Promising Playwright award makes for a harrowing hour. This is made even more troubling by the lack of any adult onstage to be the bad guy. Instead, Joanne, played by Tessa Orange-Turner with flint-eyed vulnerability, is old enough to get just how damaged she is.

Presented by Fifth Word, an associate company of co-producers Nottingham Playhouse, and with support from the Safe and Sound charity, Laura Ford's production is brought to raw, unrelenting life by Orange-Turner, Esther-Grace Button as Amy and Sarah Hoare as Lisa. As Joanne is left alone in the wilderness to await her fate, if only she could take the leap out of there, perhaps she'd be free.

The Herald, March 27th 2017


Thursday, 23 March 2017

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow
Three stars

Business is business at the start of Hugh Hodgart's revival of Shakespeare's sunniest rom-com, as performed by MA Classical and Contemporary Text students at RCS, in partnership with Bard in the Botanics. Love and money are in the air as Theseus and Hippolyta announce their nuptials to the world's press, sealing the deal on an unholy alliance between Athens and Amazonia as they go. As Honey Durruthy's Egius seeks advice on the merry-go-round romance between Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius, Theseus' line to Hermia about austerity and single life becomes even more pointed by its power-dressing context.

While Hermia and Lysander's camping trip to the woods doesn't end well, especially when Hermia's love-sick hippy chick mate Helena is around, the Rude Mechanicals' worker's playtime sees Bottom briefly become Titania's bit of rough. With Isabel Palmstierna's Puck at the centre of such cack-handed mischief-making, the transition from playing Philostrate is akin to some nice but dim intern with ideas above her station whose alter ego goes on a bender at the office party. At the end of the play's first half she even suggests a well-earned tea break.

As three very different communities rub up against each other before going their separate, class-based ways, an even brisker second half is addressed with an impressively light touch by Hodgart's cast of twelve. This is despite minimal carry on between Matthew Miles' Bottom and Lily Cooper's Titania. While Miles still has plenty of fun as the old ham, this becomes Puck's play. As Palmstierna's creations flit between worlds like a rootless social climber, the magic she conjures up en route proves infectious for all.

The Herald, March 24th 2017


Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Steven Severin – The Vril Harmonies

For almost two decades now, Steven Severin's solo instrumental work has largely kept its own counsel in the shadows. The output of the former co-founder and bass player of Siouxsie and the Banshees has been prodigious, with a dozen albums of dark ambient soundscapes released thus far.

This began in 1998 with Visions, an extended reworking of his soundtrack to Nigel Wingrove's short film, Visions of Ecstasy, almost a decade before. Unreleased until 2012, Wingrove's sensual fantasia inspired by the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila is the only film to have been refused a certificate by the British Board of Film Censors on the grounds of blasphemy.

Since then, Severin has released scores for theatre and film, including the soundtrack for supernatural thriller London Voodoo and Richard Jobson's film, The Purifiers, as well as for one-time Edinburgh Festival Fringe dance performer/director, Shakti. Since Severin himself moved to Edinburgh twelve years ago, he has become even more prolific, with soundtracks to Jean Cocteau's 1930 silent movie Blood of A Poet, and, with his actress wife Arban, collaborations with director Matthew Misory, first on Delphinium: A Childhood Portrait of Derek Jarman, then on Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean.

The first of four download-only new works released over the next month, The Vril Harmonies is a spaced-out instrumental suite that appears to draw inspiration in part from The Coming Race, an 1871 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton which charts the discovery of a superior subterranean master race fuelled by an energy form known as Vril. The book's life-enhancing elixir not only gifted Bovril half its name, but inspired theosophists such as Rudolf Steiner and George Bernard Shaw to buy into its philosophy. More recently, graphic novelist Grant Morrison and readers of the Fortean Times have been similarly fascinated by the power of Vril.

Unsubstantiated claims led some to believe that a secret Vril Society of occultists existed in pre-Nazi Berlin. This may or may not have been governed by a network of female psychic mediums who claimed to have contact with Aryan aliens living in Alpha Cen Tauri using their pony-tailed hair. Either way, the musical result of Severin's sonic explorations is an other-worldly exercise in synthesised hypnosis.

Split into two sections, the first, Black Sun Arcana features four pieces, and the second, Absolute Elsewhere section, two longer meditations. The eight minutes of Black Sun Arcana's opening track, Maria, is key to everything that follows. A sepulchral slow-motion drift around some imaginary cosmos, it references Maria Orsic, the real life Austrian psychic whose luminous visage peers from the album cover, as inscrutably beautiful as a movie starlet. Orsic was de facto leader of an organisation called the Society of Vrilerinnen Women, who were allegedly in cahoots with the aforementioned aliens.

Orsic's partner in such adventures was another medium known only as Sigrun, who gives the album's second track its title. Here the jittering frequencies at times resemble Bebe and Louis Barron's 'electronic tonalities' for director Fred M Wilcox's 1956 mix of sci-fi and Shakespeare, Forbidden Planet, or the end credit sequence of Gerry Anderson's cult live action TV series, U.F.O.

The stuttering low-end transmissions of Haunebo sound like Nazi flying saucers jockeying for position before they go in for the kill, while aether sounds suitably transcendent in intent. Referencing the much-mythologised fifth element, which in Vril lore contains the life-force of the universe, it's as if its repeated synthesised phrases were gathering strength as they go, with layer on layer of some intangible force powering them up to take on the world.

The Absolute Elsewhere section probably isn't referencing Paul Fishman's long lost prog rock project of the same name, although the inspiration of Chariots of the Gods author Erich von Daniken on Fishman's synthesiser-based In Search of Ancient Gods album sounds like it could be a fellow traveller.

The first piece, (Not All Good Comes) From Above, shares pretty much the same title as a track from Swedish post-industrialist, Vagr, who has recorded an entire trilogy inspired by Maria Orsic. Here, however, Severin's deep bass swathes scan around the ether, proceeding with forensic caution before it gives way to Phase Into Light. This swirls into view, increasing velocity as it gathers momentum over its twelve-minute duration before bursting into some twinkly-eyed idyll like a celestial merry-go-round on a trip to the warmer reaches of a hidden universe.

The Vril Harmonies is available to purchase at, and can also be downloaded at


Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Sabrina Mahfouz and Hollie McNish - Offside

Sabrina Mahfouz wasn't interested in football when she started work on Offside, the play she co-wrote with fellow poet Holly McNish, and which tours to the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh next week. Mahfouz didn't really do sport at all, while McNish had been more interested in playing the game than watching it when she was a student, to the extent that she trained as a coach for young people. By the time they dug deep into the history of women's football, which forms the backdrop of the play, they were both very much on the same side.

“The initial idea for the play came from Caroline Bryant, who's the artistic director of Futures Theatre, and who's this massive football fan,” says Mahfouz. “Her daughter plays football, and she was always going on about wanting to make a show about women's football. I wasn't sure if I was the right person to do it, but as soon as I looked into it, and saw all this stuff about how football had been used as a political tool against women's rights, I knew we had to get that story out.”

That story of Offside focuses on two modern day women trying to make the team of their local women's football side. Interspersed with this are flashbacks to 1881 and 1921, years which marked key moments in a largely hidden history of the sport, in which the figures of Carrie Boustead and Lily Parr were key.

Carrie Boustead was a goalkeeper who played for London-based clubs in games in Glasgow, Stirling and Lanarkshire during the 1800s. She was notable for being women's football's first ever black player.

Lily Parr was a professional player with the Preston-based Dick, Kerr and Co team, named after the munitions factory where many of the women on the team worked. Dick, Kerr and Co drew large crowds, including a game at Goodison Park in Liverpool attended by 53,000. Parr scored forty-three goals in her first season, and continued to play after women's football was banned in the UK in 1921. It is here that the history of the sport starts to become really interesting.

“I knew nothing about the F.A. ban beforehand,” says McNish, “but once I started looking into it all it made me really angry. They never said why they did it, and I think there was something really fishy going on. Even before the ban you could see how hard it was for women playing football. In the 1890s you'd get guys running onto the pitch and hassling them, and sometimes the police had to be called. Then the ban happened, and it seemed such an extreme response to it.

“There were other bans as well, like when women were banned from cycling unless they rode side saddle, but with football I think there was a lot of class warfare going on as well, because a lot of the teams were from Scotland and the north of England. To go from 53,000 people watching women's football in Liverpool to women not even being able to go onto the pitch for the next fifty years is pretty shocking.”

Futures Theatre has been putting such issues onstage since the company was founded in 1992 to put women's stories at the centre of the theatrical experience. It was while running a series of poetry workshops with the company that Mahfouz became involved in Offside, with McNish co-opted to bring some of her footballing expertise on board. As female poets who both started out on the performance circuit, it was an inspired pairing.

“I wanted to get the feeling of football's physicality into the writing,” says Mahfouz, “and Hollie's experience of football had a lot of influence on that. Hollie lives in Cambridge and I'm in London, so we'd go back and forth sending each other stuff as we wrote it line by line, and if it became clear that one of us was more interested in writing a specific part of the play, we;'d go away and do it, and then edit it between us.”

Mahfouz has worked extensively in theatre, with solo pieces Dry Ice and One Hour Only both premiering at the Underbelly as part of Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Her short piece, Clean, was seen at the Traverse Theatre as part of its Herald Angel-winning Breakfast Plays season, and an expanded version was later seen at Oran Mor in Glasgow before touring to New York. Mahfouz's next play, Chef, was also seen in Edinburgh, and her more recent work has been produced by the National Theatre of Great Britain and Paines Plough. In sharp contrast, Offside is McNish's first foray into theatre.

“It's been quite interesting for me,” she says, “because I've only been to the theatre a few times, so hearing someone else reading my words has been really nice. It's also made me more interested in writing for TV and film. I've always said no to TV so far, but I don't want to leave the character of Lily Parr. I've written loads more poems about her that aren't in the play, and I think she's such an amazing person to do what she did, and for women's football to be banned the way it was had a really negative effect on women's rights.

“The reason I started playing football was because there was a less posh crowd playing it, and I started enjoying it because of its universality. Football is one of the only sports I've played in different countries, and it breaks language barriers in the way music and dancing does. It's not like I watch it or anything, and I can't be bothered to follow a team, but it makes me frustrated that football is still seen as such a male sport, and I think it's a shame that girls get left out of that culture of having a kick-about with their mates.”

As part of her research for Offside, Mahfouz went to watch a few games in which women's teams took part.

“They were really fun,” she says, “and it really helped with the physicalisation again. Looking at the stories of Carrie Boustead and Lily Parr really showed me how whitewashed these things are, and I think it's important to make a bit of noise about these women who were doing all these things.”

As McNish points out, “Offside isn't just a play for people who like football. I hope the people who come to see it will realise what a big thing it is that females are still playing football today. We can get a bit blasé and think that things have become easy, but I think it's important that we remind ourselves about how hard it was for women back then.”

Mahfouz agrees.

“I'd just like people to have a deeper appreciation of the legacy of football, and women's involvement in the game and the struggles they had to face,” she says. “Women who want to dedicate their life to football still have more of a hard time than they do in any other sport, and that struggle continues today.”

Offside, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, March 30-April 1.


Monday, 20 March 2017

Between poles and tides

Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh until May 6th
Three stars

In difficult times, getting back to nature is one solution, as demonstrated in some of the works on show in this group-based exhibition of new acquisitions from the University of Edinburgh art collection. Things aren't always as they seem, however, in the series of paintings, video, publications and sound-based works, as the leopard's face looking out from Zane (2013), Isobel Turley's two-second video loop of this most endangered of species suggests. Filmed in Edinburgh Zoo, Zane's steely gaze may suggest he is guarding the other exhibits, when in fact he has been immortalised in another, more Sisyphean form of captivity. The voice-over of another video, Daisy Lafarge's Not For Gain (2016) hints at an even more invidious form of social control.

The row of wall-clocks in Katie Paterson's Timepieces (Solar System) (2014) points to the global interplay between such things, while her Paterson's Future Library (2014-2114) bends time and space even more. With nature and revolution coalescing in three pieces by Ian Hamilton Finlay, a work's chief protagonists spookily rubbed out in Jonathan Owen's Eraser Drawings (2014-16) and the University's digital collection repurposed in Fabienne Hess' Zebras, Blanks and Blobs (2017), this cross-generational showcase points to a quiet concern for worlds beyond the gallery's borders.

The List, March 2017


Bill Drummond, Johny Brown and The Cherry Blossom Quartet

Bill Drummond is full of surprises. Just ask Johny Brown, poet, playwright and for three decades the soothsaying frontman of Band of Holy Joy, whose state-of-the-nation musical addresses have become increasingly urgent dispatches from austerity Britain. When Drummond handed Brown a set of plays that he'd written and asked him if he thought he might be able to do anything with them, it was a gesture that came out of the blue.

The result of this is The Cherry Blossom Quartet, a five-night series of radio broadcasts of the plays, adapted by Brown and performed live with accompanying soundscapes on community-based online art radio station, Resonance FM. With a cast that features the likes of Joe Cushley and Sukie Smith, Drummond will be given voice by actor, activist and long term collaborator of Brown's, Tam Dean Burn.

Bill's never written a play before,” says Brown, “but he started going to watch all these plays at the Arcola Theatre in London close to where he lives in Stoke Newington. He started going every night, and I think he saw some really bad ones, and as he's getting older I think he wants to do something in theatre.”

After more than forty years of making a spectacle of himself, such a move into play-writing was probably inevitable. Pretty much everything Drummond has done, after all, has had a sense of theatre about it, from his travails through the music business with Zoo Records and the KLF to his much mythologised activities in the art world as one half of the K Foundation.

More recent artistic actions includes The 17, a rolling choir made up of volunteers drafted in to follow Drummond's word-based scores; and The 25 Paintings World Tour, which began in 2014 under Spaghetti Junction, where Drummond also plans to end it in 2025. All of Drummond's past adventures have been documented in wilfully individualistic essays, many of which are contained in his books, 45 and The 17.

Future events include an appearance at Neu! Reekie!, the Edinburgh-based multi-arts mash-up in April, and will take part in Where Are We Now?, Neu! Reekie!'s weekend festival that forms part of Hull's year as UK City of Culture in June. Here, Drummond will set himself up as a shoeshine boy, cleaning people's shoes while asking them to share their darkest secrets.

There is also 2023 – A Trilogy, a still-to-be defined series of events instigated by the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, and set to take place in some form in Liverpool between August 23rd and 27th this year. This has been leaked through a series of posters that say everything and nothing about what may or may not happen. In terms of dramatic promise, it's a tantalising cliffhanger loaded with possibilities.

The Cherry Blossom Quartet is something else again. The four plays - Bill Drummond is Dead, To the Shores of Lake Placid, Repossessed and Between Heaven and Helsinki – are broken up by a mid-week interlude, Theatre and Me.

All of the plays are about Bill's life,” says Brown. “They're an extension of his various artworks, and talk about his work and ((his)) personal life as well as what's going on in the world just now, which Bill is really passionate about. He thought they were impossible to put on, but I thought I'd like to have a crack at them.”

Given that the first play, Bill Drummond is Dead, is a dialogue-free affair which features Drummond laid out on a mortuary slab wearing a Liverpool Football Club shirt, this sounds like quite a feat.

We've turned the stage directions into a poem,” says Brown. “It's about the price of art and the price of life and death.”

To the Shores of Lake Placid winds back to Drummond's Liverpool days, from playing in Big in Japan with the likes of Ian Broudie and Holly Johnson to releasing the debut records by Echo and the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes, who Drummond also co-managed.

It's all about Zoo, and has a sixty-two year old Bill arguing with a twenty-eight year old Bill about the value of a 7” single as an art-form. Bill talks a lot about how Zoo was more than just a record label, and how it was a play, and the stage set was the office.”

This is a neat pre-cursor to Theatre and Me, in which Drummond talks about his early days working with theatrical maverick Ken Campbell and his Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, based in the upstairs room of a cafe in Matthew Street, then Liverpool's underground artistic hub.

Brown describes the next play, Repossessed, as “a romp,” involving Drummond's ex wife and three film-makers who he attempts to pitch ideas to, but who only want to talk about the KLF. One suspects this is an experience Drummond has had to face many times.

The final play, Between Heaven and Helsinki, is the one Brown calls “the killer,” and is based on the rise and fall of Kristina Bruuk, the imaginary singer invented by Drummond and Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction's Mark Manning for their book, Bad Wisdom. In their epic voyage to the top of the world, the pair created a record label, Kalevala, and released six singles by make-believe bands, with Bruuk – described as 'the Nico of the north-lands' – contributing guest vocals to a record by fictional all-female Finnish quartet, Dracula's Daughter. The play that has come out of all this is something of a rock and roll tragedy.

The character took on a life of her own,” explains Brown, “and in the play she tells her life story of how she goes from Helsinki to London, before ending up back in Helsinki again.”

Anyone familiar with Drummond's written work will recognise the roots of some of the material, as well as the titles. Bill Drummond is Dead was a song recorded by Teardrop Explodes' singer Julian Cope in response to Drummond's song, Julian Cope is Dead, while Repossessed is the title of Cope's second volume of his own autobiographical musings. To the Shores of Lake Placid was the title of a 1982 compilation album of rare and previously unreleased material put out by Zoo.

In this respect, The Cherry Blossom Quartet can arguably be seen as Drummond's latest piece of auto-biographical myth-making which, despite his seeming loathing of nostalgia, is taking an increasingly reflective tone. This can be seen especially in his recent writings, including an essay in response to the death of Dead or Alive singer and Liverpool post-punk peer Pete Burns.

What started off as a reluctant elegy expanded into a glorious pop cultural epic which not only validated Drummond's heroic anti-career over the last forty years as well as being an attempt to make some kind of sense of it all. So it goes too, it seems, with his plays.

Bill's still full of life,” says Brown, “and he bounces around Stoke Newington like he's on fire, but there's a definite awareness of his own mortality that comes through in all the plays.”

The Cherry Blossom Quartet is penned under the name Tenzing Scott Brown, the Boy's Own style nom de plume sometimes used by Drummond. These have included a spoken-word vocal to a track by Skyray, the ambient project of Wild Swans mainstay and original Teardrop Explodes keyboardist Paul Simpson. A Tenzing Scott Brown Twitter account features a profile picture of Drummond sporting shades and a brightly bobbed orange wig. Despite a declaration in the account's sole tweet that there would be one tweet a day for 365 days inspired by feminist literature, the account has remained apparently untouched since 2011.

Each play in The Cherry Blossom Quartet will feature original soundscapes by Rothko, Ghost Mind, Farmer Glitch, Psychological Strategy Boards and James Stephen Finn. Rather than mere soundtracks, the music will be integral components of each play. This is in keeping with Brown's original work outwith Band of Holy Joy, both on radio and onstage.

On Resonance FM, Brown and Burn collaborated on a series of plays, including a dog's eye view of the late Associates singer Billy Mackenzie as related by one of his beloved pet whippets. Since then, Brown and fellow Band of Holy Joy member Inga Tillere have initiated Radio Joy, an impressionistic pirate radio compendium of words and music later collected in the book, Field Notes. More recently, Brown has been the driving force behind Bad Punk, a similarly styled weekly late night programme that will also produce and present The Cherry Blossom Quartet.

In theatre, Brown brought his play, William Burroughs Caught in Possession of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, to the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow. This epic fantasia saw Burn play the iconic author of The Naked Lunch as the captain of a ship whose crew included New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders, experimental novelist Kathy Acker and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. It was a previous Brown/Burn collaboration, however, which first sired the creative relationship with Drummond.

That was a play called Cruel Britannia,” says Brown. “It was a Greek myth transplanted to the Blair years and was an absolute romp. We did it at the Scala in London, and we approached Bill with a view to him designing the stage set. He met us, and asked us what made us think he would do it. He said he wanted nothing to do with the play and nothing to do with theatre. Then he read the script, loved it and ended up doing it. It was 1999, and I think the play touched on a lot of things in Bill's life at that time, and I don't think he ever forgot it. When he started going to see plays at the Arcola which he thought were shite but were being hailed as great pieces of theatre, I think he thought of Cruel Britannia, and wondered why that never had the same sort of acclaim. ”

Drummond's unpublicised work on Cruel Britannia was possibly his first stage design since his work on Illuminatus!, Ken Campbell's nine-hour staging of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's sprawling counter-cultural science-fiction conspiracy theory trilogy of novels produced by the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool in 1976.

Drummond's design was praised extensively in theatre critic Michael Coveney's biography of Campbell, The Great Caper, and if he had carried on in a more relatively orthodox career path, Drummond might have had a glittering future as a stage designer. While Illuminatus! went on to open the National Theatre's Cottesloe space on London's South Bank, as Drummond has himself documented, he left the rehearsal room to get some Araldite, and never went back.

Given The Cherry Blossom Quartet's tenure on Resonance FM, it's possibly no coincidence that several years before his death Campbell and actor Christopher Fairbank read and performed the novel of Illuminatus in full in a series of marathon live broadcasts on the station. It is this fearless spirit that both Brown and Drummond have brought into The Cherry Blossom Quartet.

There's no safety net,” says Brown. “We're doing it live, and we're not even rehearsing it beforehand. Inga's documenting it, and it'll go in the Resonance archive, and once it's done it's done.”

If and when The Cherry Blossom Quartet is staged in the theatre, given the track record of all involved, it's likely to be done in a typically punk DIY manner. Brown has ambitions to see the plays staged at the Star and Shadow venue in Newcastle.

It's the logical next step," he says. "For me and Tam, these plays are exactly the sort of work we want to do. To be given scripts like this by Bill, it's a godsend.”

The Cherry Blossom Quartet is performed live on Resonance FM from March 20th-24th, with a different play each night from 8pm.

Product, March 2017


Elvis Costello

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Five stars

"I never thought I'd have to sing this again," says Elvis Costello before the final song of a two and a half hour set that makes up the very personal rummage through his back pages that is his solo Detour show. By this time he's showed us snaps from a family album that includes footage of his dad, big band crooner Ross McManus, after introducing the evening with videos of his own career on a giant mock-up of a 1960s TV set. He's entered with a shimmy and moved from acoustic guitar to electric with a stint at the piano in between.

One minute Costello is a showbiz raconteur cracking jokes, the next he's playing a ferocious version of Watching the Detectives while bathed in a moody green light as retro-styled pulp fiction posters flash up behind him. There is a funereal piano-led version of his Falklands War elegy, Shipbuilding, and an unamplified Alison. Following a blistering take on Oliver's Army against an image of a World War One army band just like the one his grand-dad was in, Costello holds his guitar aloft like a weapon.

There are new songs from a forthcoming musical about the power of TV to create demagogues, followed by the heartbreak of Indoor Fireworks and a lovely She. But when Costello ends the night with a story of visiting an underfunded hospital to see his 90 year old mum before singing Tramp the Dirt Down, the renewed relevance of the song he wrote in response to Margaret Thatcher is electrifying. In this way, as Costello takes stock of his now classic canon, he reinvents it in a way that reinvigorates it with every hearing.

The Herald, March 20th 2017