Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Paul Haig

Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, Sun 13 April 2008
4 stars
Almost thirty years after Josef K split up, the return of the band’s singer in his first full live solo show for nineteen years is a major event. With Haig’s old band finally acknowledged as a major influence on a new generation of artfully inclined guitar acts, it’s a chance too to see how the original songs have survived. Following recent guest slots with Nouvelle Vague, there remains a worry that Haig might be upstaged by the indie disco that precedes him. As it is, the flamboyant salute he opens this first leg of a mini tour that takes in Glasgow and Dunfermline next month with is a healthy sign of nerves and dry self-deprecation.

Wielding a fire engine red guitar and sporting tinted shades and the skinniest jeans this side of Kate Moss, Haig and the band who accompanied him on last year’s Cathode Ray project launch into the punk funk of Trouble Maker, opening track of the just-released Go Out Tonight album. In a set split fifty-fifty, old material oddly sounds fresher than the new songs, which sound cryogenically frozen in some parallel universe hit parade.

Inbetween songs, Haig confesses nerves, throwing in comedic silly-voice none-sequiters purloined from Al Murray and Harry Hill. “You’ve gotta do something to break the tension” is his excuse. He needn’t worry, even if he accidentally adds to the levity by standing with hands on hips a la Rigsby or Frankie Howerd, then gurning his way through new single, Hippy Dippy Pharmaceutically Trippy. Hearing his holy trinity of It’s Kinda Funny, Sorry For Laughing and Something Good, however, remains a quietly awesome experience.

The Herald - Tue 15 April 2008


Spinning A Yarn - Grid Iron in Dundee

The tour guide at Verdant Works is doing the rounds. The weather outside Dundee’s old jute mill turned heritage centre may be inclement, but, immaculately turned out in top hat, tails and elegantly groomed silver moustache, he looks ready for anything. Leading his party Pied Piper-like through the museum’s tea and gift shop, the guide’s outfit lends him the authoritative air of a nineteenth century industrialist. The show-room dummies posed in various shades of grey who line his route concur. Inside Verdant Works itself, makeshift catwalks are being contrived among equally off-limits looms that once span with life, but which are now educational ornaments to remind visitors of their former function.

Across in the court-yard, with the Sun shining down past where the roof used to be, Grid Iron theatre company are rehearsing Yarn, their latest site-specific show. Music is playing, and, as the six actors gingerly parade their way around the space, navigating the puddles as they go, a low-key carnival atmosphere ensues. Dressed down as they are in baggy pants and t-shirts, each performer seems to be showing off wares as if in the glare of some baying paparazzi. As it is, with the odour of passing pigeons hanging heavy in the air, only director Ben Harrison, assistant director Cora Bissett and Scottish Dance Theatre chorographer Janet Smith are in attendance, with a small army of technical crew bringing up the rear.

As if on cue, a Verdant Works attendant in a uniform red jacket appears, attracted by the noise. Can he take a photograph, he wonders. Not for publication, he says. It’s just his hobby. But this particular catwalk spectacle is still under wraps, and, while no-one’s being at all diva-ish about things, pictures are strictly off limits.

Yarn is a show about clothes. Not just the drop, hang and fit of a garment, but what clothes mean, either to their wearers or to those who’ve inherited hand-me-downs that become totems of past lives. It’s about how clothes work socially and emotionally.

“Old clothes become important,” according to Harrison, who’s woven (of course) a narrative compendium of sorts taken from visual material inspired by artist Louise Bourgeois as well as the words of Henry James and Thomas Carlyle. “Each item of clothes has a greater significance than just being something you’d wear. Just putting someone in a wedding dress or a burqua onstage is an act of theatre.”

Yarn is a co-production with Dundee Rep, and incorporates three members of its regular acting ensemble into Grid Iron’s team. Bissett has worked as a performer with both companies, and her presence effectively knits them together on a show that looks and sounds like classic Grid Iron material that’s in the spirit of their food-based shows, Gargantua and The Devil’s Larder. Both their initial inspirations may have been external literary sources, but which when made flesh proved to be irresistibly physical mythologies. Like them, whatever Yarn’s surface subject matter, it is also about the body, and how it functions in relation to the senses. This tallies with iconic designer Vivienne Westwood’s declaration that what was interesting about clothes was the push and pull of their relationship with the body.

As with its predecessors and pretty much all Grid Iron shows, sex is never very far from Yarn. It was Westwood again who observed that fashion is all about sex.

“There’s a wedding night scene set in the Rennaissance,” says Harrison, “when they wore so many layers of clothes that it was really complicated to get undressed. It’s easy for us with our zippers and our Velcro, but with them, there are so many things to be undone in such a complicated fashion that they eventually give up.”

Back in Dundee Rep’s rehearsal room, Harrison is getting down to his pants. Getting changed out of day-wear and into tracksuit bottoms and sweatshirt is a daily ritual he’s developed to ease himself into work mode. He can’t concentrate otherwise. It was the same with a costume designer he worked with on a previous Grid Iron show. “In the mornings she’d be dressed down, ready to get her hands dirty,” says Harrison. “Then after lunch she’d appear immaculate, ready for business meetings.”

This afternoon Harrison is rehearsing his cast through a series of scenes developed from new material. Like three graces of the dressing-up box, actresses Alia Alzougbi, Itxaso Moreno and Hannah Donaldson, the last two of whom wear matching red and black, wield tape measure, scissors and weights. Which is just as well, because outwith the scene actor Martin McCormick needs the label of his black t-shirt cut off.

McCormick and fellow actors Kevin Lennon and Robert Paterson sit on a sofa in the corner, waiting their turn onstage, maybe trying on a hat for size. In their listlessness the mens demeanour resembles the classic male experience of waiting outside changing rooms.

Behind the makeshift set, a costume rail sports a disparate array of multi-coloured creations. As other scenes are played out, assorted items are incorporated; a scarf or a fur coat here, an ill-fitting Burqa there. Donaldson squats in the corner, wrapping a shawl around her. It’s interesting to note too that, while the women go about their business in an assortment of mismatched stripy socks, the men keep their shoes on at all times. Moreno’s t-shirt is emblazoned with a slogan, which, when translated from the Spanish, reads ‘I’ll Do It when I Feel Like It. I’m A Bad Woman.’

At various points in the afternoon, actors nip in and out of view as they go off for fittings for the numerous outfits they’re being asked to wear. Set and costume designer Georgia McGuinness is more conscious of clothes than most. Having worked in the fashion industry and seen the backstage frenzy of models literally tearing off expensively coutured designer dresses to throw on another equally priceless but ultimately disposable little number.

“There are so many costume changes in Yarn,” says McGuinness, “that to be honest it doesn’t feel that different. I quite often refer to costume as clothes, anyway, because I want them to feel real. I want them to feel wearable and be something that might have a history, whereas if you talk about costume, you think of something that’s inherently theatrical.”

Which, given the context in which she’s working, is pretty much unavoidable. Even so, the experience has heightened McGuinnesss’ awareness of where clothes come from even more.

“One thing that’s really been heightened by doing this show,” she says, “is that for our generation, most people have lost the need or the desire for making clothes, and everything that means with it. You can buy clothes so cheaply now that you can have hundreds of garments. But the journey just one of those has made, from cutting and sewing and everything else besides, it’s had this incredible lifespan which we tend to take for granted.”

Another costume fitting down, meanwhile over at the Verdant Works, the top-hatted Guide continues his rounds. Leading his latest batch of charges out past the tea shop once more, he squints up at the sky and pulls his coat close, all dressed up and somewhere very definitely to go.

Yarn, Verdant Works, West Henderson’s Wynd, Dundee, 19 April-3 May, 7pm and 9.15pm. Box office, Dundee Rep, 01382 223530, Limited capacity.

The Herald - Tue 15 April 2008


Monday, 14 April 2008

Giant Tank vs The Fringe 2007

Edinburgh’s premiere promoters of aktionist noise happenings commemorate a decade of cottage industry chunder with three bloody Sundays of non-Fringe-based hissy fits. Five reasons for their essentialness follow.

1 It’s not music. It’s just noise And there is nothing like it. The events feature Wire magazine-approved acts from Paris, Brighton and Leeds, including several you may or may not have ever heard of. Do Ashtray Navigations, Ocelocelot, Shareholder, Towering Breaker, Made Out Of Wool, Eye Shaking Kingdom, Blue Sabbath Black Fiji, Muscletusk or Playground Meltdown ring any bells?

2 Its not big. Or clever But at various times it promises a stomach-churning, vomit-inducing, spiteful, ugly and puerile racket. All of which are to be encouraged.

3 It repeats itself Usurper play three times, though you won’t always hear them. The GT house band scritch, scratch, bubble and squeak as the quietest unplugged act ever.

4 It’s got the best merchandise stall on the planet An array of hand-crafted CDRs, cassettes, comix and T-shirts go global with means of production seizing limited edition LP collaboration between Blood Stereo and Belgian Fluxus freak Ludo Mich, who stole thunder and blew minds at Glasgow’s leftfield Instal festival.

5 Its cheap. And nasty Fiver a night. Twelve quid all three. Go on. Go deaf for a living.
Henry’s Cellar Bar, 228 9393, 12, 19 & 26 Aug, 7.30pm, £5 (£12 for all three shows).

The List, issue 582, 9 Aug 2007


Sunday, 13 April 2008


Spies In The Wires@Cabaret Voltaire, Edinburgh, Thu June 14 2007
4 stars

The whiff of freshly heated maize that accompanies Sellotape’s vocal version of Hot Butter’s 1972 electro-disco hit, Popcorn (the first ever totally synthesiser-based single to chart, pop-pickers), may take its subject matter literally, but it’s still a lot more subtle than Crazy Frog’s pummelling desecration of one of the catchiest ditties in pop history.

Fronted by uber-bobbed girl about town and PVC-panted mein hostess of the Girlelectro night at super student hang-out The Southern, Viki Sellotape, Sellotape the band do that Rough Trade circa 1978 Ladbroke Grove squat rock shamble. Making their live debut, they go hell for, um, leather with an energetic and unstudied bounce through the DIY post-punk messthetics handbook. Think Kleenex or the Delta Five, with an in-built ramshackleness tempered by a vocal style betraying a smidgen of Siouxsie Sioux.

It’s the contents of the popcorn making machine, though, which gives extra added flavour to a show that celebrates the joys of Blue Peter style sticky back plastic in terms of fixing, mending and barely keeping things together. It’s a philosophy Sellotape’s home made music is founded on.

The List, issue 579, 3 July 2007


Gay Against You

The Subway, Edinburgh, Mon 11 Sep 2006
3 stars

What to do with a sparse audience on a soggy Monday night? If you’re electro-saccharine noise terrorists Gay Against You, you drag all 20-odd onstage with you, thus immediately quelling the venue’s structural awkwardness. In G.A.Y.’s world of playground chalkboard subversion, audience participation has never been so much fun.

Clad in micro-shorts and 118 118 running vests, these two little boys hurl themselves into their routine with a recklessly scattershot abandon that might fall apart any second. More than mere comedy gabba, this is how Prince would’ve sounded if he’d been born a hyperactive Gameboy addicted runt, soaked in sugar, and spewed up the vilest tones a Casio can conjure.

The List, issue 560, 2 Oct 2006


Instal08 - 6 Reasons Why

The Arches, Glasgow, Fri 15-Sun 17 Feb 2008

Instal’s three day festival of left-field sound has consistently revisited ideas explored by the avant-garde half a century ago. This year they focus particularly on attempted subversions of bog-standard us-n’them gig protocol in a multitude of ways.

1 Personal Space – You’ll have missed Edinburgh minimalists Usurper performing in a skip beside cartoonist Bud Neill’s Lobey Dosser statue of cartoonist in Glasgow’s west end, but if you’re quick you’ll still catch Blood Stereo’s pilgrimage to the Blackburn community hall they grew up beside.

2 Self-Cancellation – In which founder of auto-destructive art Gustav Metzger co-opts musicians such as John Butcher and Rhodri Davis to negate the creative act itself. Tubas will be filled with sand. Ice will melt.

3 Translation – Sound poetry and sound art snuggle up via poet Kenneth Goldsmith, text-based artist Simon Morris and others rewiring the word.

4 Energy Births Form – A wig-out by any other name, as Borbetomagus’ Donald Dietrich, ex Albert Ayler sideman Alan Silva and Hijokaidan offshoot Incapacitants play together and separately over a marathon three hours.

5 Marginal Consort – Zenned-out one-off by Japanese trio who mix bamboo percussion with electronics to weave hypnotic shapes from an extended drone.

6 Golden Cherry Ball – Matt Valentine and Erika Elder hang with neo-jug band The Cherry Blossoms and Richard Youngs in a recreation of their living room when they’ll just, like, do whatever, and see what happens.

Sounds like a blast.

The List, issue 596, 14 Feb 2008


Instal06 - Born Free?

The Arches, Glasgow, Fri 13-Sun 15 Oct 2006

Instal, the annual festival of experimental music in Glasgow, has attracted equal amounts of flack and praise in its six year existence. Critic Neil Cooper and Instal curator Barry Esson go head to head to debate its pros and cons in a virtual dialogue.

Neil Cooper Instal’s now in its sixth year, and has grown considerably since it started. I’m not convinced, though, that bigger is necessarily better.

Barry Esson If you’re into this kind of music already, then of course you’ll be happy to see more of it. If you don’t know much about it and fancy trying to find out more, then if there are more acts, over a wider range of styles then hopefully you’ve got an even better chance of finding something you love.

NC When Instal started, Le Weekend in Stirling and Free RadiCCAls at the CCA were running. Now, there’s Kill Your Timid Notion, Subcurrent and Dialogues. That’s a very crowded arena for what’s essentially a small marketplace for ‘left field music.’

BE I don’t understand how anybody could seriously argue for less diversity in Scotland’s cultural calendar (nobody complains if a new indie music festival starts up) - the live music scene in Glasgow is in rude health because people in Scotland love seeing live music. That’s not a ‘small market place’. The guys at Optimo go nuts for some of the acts we book.

NC The musical landscape has changed over the last five years. Instal’s provided opportunities for international acts, but homegrown acts have been seriously thin on the ground. You’re addressing it now, but, given a thriving noise scene in Scotland, it’s taken a long time for Instal to acknowledge it.

BE We should be honest enough to say that there aren’t hundreds of Scottish musicians who’ve been about for years banging out experimental music classics: there are a few, and we’ve supported them. Instal features the best international work from people who are unmatched anywhere, alongside great local talent. There’s been a surge in good work in Scotland recently and the 20 Scottish musicians playing this year (way more than any other event like this in the UK) reflect this. I think that’s progress and I’m proud that we’re doing it.

NC There’s been a shift away from electronically inclined output to more acoustic based instruments. What’s happening now in terms of utilising sounds developed in the 1960s could also be seen as not much different from the slew of derivative guitar bands.

BE I don’t know if you’ve looked at the programme for this year’s festival but I can’t see where your frame of reference for this argument starts: out of 29 performances this year, only four will feature guitars and all of those acts have something exciting to say. Each of the artists we work with are doing something individualistic and bold, whether trying to invent their own musical language or re-birthing living traditions. Take Arrington de Dionyso, playing Instal this year, who listens to free jazz, Tuvan throat singing, American revenant singers and backwoods jaw harp players, and thinks that somehow all of those things must come together if he is to express his own vision, then gets on stage knowing he might sound crazy to free jazzers and throat singers alike: it’s new to him, and probably everybody who might come to Instal. It’s certainly brave.

NC The Wire magazine’s review of Instal 2005 suggested that at times the audience were lapping up anything that was thrown at them without using any critical faculties. The implication was one of emperor’s new clothes. What often looks and sounds like over-excited idolatry makes me suspicious.

BE That review starts off saying Instal is the UK’s ‘best oasis for new weirdness’ before saying ‘the audience were generous to a fault . . . I would argue that they were seriously at fault but once’. The reviewer didn’t like everything that year, but generally thought the event was great. I’m totally fine with that. We want people to feel like they can come along, take a risk and not worry if not everything is to their taste. We’re trying to give newcomers to this scene a chance to find something they like.

NC I’m not even sure Instal is ‘underground’ at all. Mark E Smith of The Fall got it right on ‘New Puritan’: ‘The conventional is now experimental/ The experimental is now conventional.’ Some of Kylie Minogue’s music, I’d say, is as significant as that of John Cage.

BE I’m not saying objectively that underground music is better or morally superior to any other form of music. There’s a place in our society for a diversity of voices, and everybody’s free to decide what floats their boat: we just want to broaden the choice people have. The artists we support are certainly not mainstream. Many finance their own records, play live because they want/have to, and make little money in doing so. To be driven by a desire to create music that your emotions, your personality, demand; to give voice to and express them in a way that is pure and true to you, takes guts and however you classify their work, it’s bloody admirable.

The List, Issue 560, 2 Oct 2006

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Uni And Her Ukelele

Fence Club 2 @ The Caves, Edinburgh, Thu 14 June 2007
The ukelele’s place in contemporary pop is usually resigned to playing second, um, fiddle to more conventional, less novelty-inclined instrumentation. Where George Formby and Tiny Tim’s eccentric schtick was strictly Kodachrome, however, Uni And Her Ukelele, aka Heather Marie Ellison, is a day-glo riot of candy-coloured tutu, kids TV presenter tights and sparkly silver eye make-up.

The San Francisco belle may be at the bottom of the bill of this latest and increasingly homogenised Fence Records love-in, but, with her uke Sally Luka in tow, she’s by far the most interesting thing on it. Because, behind the rosy-cheeked apparel, chorus girl ditziness and wonky dance moves, is a handbag full of classic 1960s girl pop that could have shimmied out of The Brill Building, loaded up on bubblegum and busked its way into your heart with would-be Wall Of Sound power-pop show-tunes pared back to one-gal-band basics.

Somehow, miraculously, Uni manages to apply such sugar-sweet sensibilities to The Smiths heartbreaker, Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want. Swoonsome as it was, where, oh where, were the roller-skates?

The List, issue 580, 20 July 2007



Optimo@Sub Club, Glasgow, 1 April 2007

When Blurt play Optimo on April Fool’s Day, it will be vocalist/sax player Ted Milton’s first Glasgow performance since supporting the late Ian Dury at the now demolished Apollo almost 30 years ago. That was in the guise of Mr Pugh’s Velvet Glove Show, a demented Punch and Judyesque puppet act Milton fronted for 15 years prior to forming his No Wave-styled trio.

Since an inspired appearance by Mr Pugh on Factory Records boss Tony Wilson’s TV show ‘So It Goes’ led to a brief tenure on the label, Blurt have released more than 20 under-the-radar albums. Highlights, including their magnificently titled debut single, ‘My Mother Was A Friend Of An Enemy Of The People,’ can be found on two essential ‘Let It Blurt’ best-ofs.

It’s a long way from Milton’s original calling as a bookbinder and poet, whose work appeared in The Paris Review and seminal 1960s UK Beat compendium, Children Of Albion. Milton’s subsequent saxophonic epiphany, however, proved too funky for the avant-garde from which he sprang.

“They hated us,” Deptford’s 60-something answer to James Chance by way of Captain Beefheart says of a notoriously snobbish scene. “If they hear anything remotely danceable, they tear off their £500 designer glasses and just go mad.”

Outwith Blurt, Milton will tour later this year with electronicist Sam Britton to tie in with the release of ‘Odes,’ a hand-made book and album of Milton’s solo collaborations.

“We’ve been very busy on the edge,” is how Milton sees it. “Consistently so. We were always said to be ahead of our time, but now younger people seem very enthusiastic about it. Blurt is a constant work-in-progress.”

The List, issue 572 , 5 July 2007


Trash Fashion/586

Spies In The Wires@Cabaret Voltaire, Edinburgh
Thu 10 May 2007

How smarty-pants London quintet 586’s charming concoction of shouty, dancy pop-pummelling got itself hijacked by the smattering of glow-sticks-to-the-max joke-New Rave trendies in evidence tonight is Scooby-gang mysterious. Six months back they’d have been hailed as post-punk pastichists extraordinaire. Then again, as with many of their compadres emanating from that particular cultural blip, 586’s sound is actually pre-punk, their reedy confection of mid-70s dressing-up-box dramatics and fair-ground boy/girl Dub more resembling that long-lost missing link between Glam and New Wave, Deaf School. To be applauded, then.

586’s finest moment, ‘Saying My Name,’ may be the result of drug-n’-cheese induced paranoia, but in terms of over-ripe Cheddar, Trash Fashion prove themselves as equally willing to embrace self-parody as they are in the YouTube-available mockumentary highlighting their east London antics in a manner more resembling CBeebies than CBGBs. Think a scrotey, monged-up alliance between EMF, Goldie Lookin’ Chain, The Darkness and Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Most of all, though, think a Spinal Tap style scam. Did someone blink? That’ll be another bandwagon missed then.

The List, issue May 2007


Le Weekend 2007

Tolbooth, Stirling, 25-27 May 2007

Experimental music festivals are currently so voluminous as to arguably be considered more over-ground than under. When Le Weekend first set the trend back in 1998, however, the landscape was a very different place to the one its tenth anniversary three-day wig-out now occupies.

The previously strict demarcation between free jazz, electronica and a then fledgling noise scene has this year given way to an array anything-goes approach. So, just as Falkirk pianist Bill Wells introduces Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake to a collaboration with trombonist Annie Whitehead, To Rococo Rot’s Stefan Schneider and electronicist Barbara Morgenstern, Phantom Orchard unites harpist Zeena Parkins with Ikue Mori, once drummer with New York No Wave pioneers, DNA.

Beyond such an inclusive roster are three especially exciting Le Weekend commissions. The One Ensemble Orchestra’s debut live show finds Volcano The Bear’s Daniel Padden fleshing out his low-key improvisations with clarinets, cellos and viola, and Nagisa Ni te’s UK debut marks the overdue arrival of Japan’s veteran masters of psych-folk.

Finally, if in need of a lie-down, Kaffe Matthews Sonic Bed_Scotland project is an installation and concert that sees Matthews take a mighty leap away from her recent Scottish Symphony Orchestra collaboration to team up with pipers Jarlath Henderson and Chris Gibb.

Events kick off at the neighbouring Changing Room gallery, where Glasgow’s Nalle play a Friday tea-time set of pastoral-inclined Scando-East European folklorica.

“It’s all gone quite DIY,” says Campbell. “It’s about putting things together that don’t logically fit, but somehow work.”

The List, issue 576, 21 May 2007

Tatsuya Nakatani, Raymond MacDonald and Neil Davidson

Classic Anxiety Dream@The Meadow Bar, Edinburgh, Mon 18 July 2007
4 stars
Last time Edinburgh hosted a weekly improv night was in the mid 1990s, when Lindsay Cooper’s Free Underground took over Monday nights at Henry’s Cellar Bar. Classic Anxiety Dream occupies similar terrain, and, judging by the amount of bodies squeezed into The Meadow Bar’s bijou upstairs function room, is filling a serious gap in the musical calendar.

Nakatani is a Japanese, New York based percussionist who previously worked with Glasgow based sax player MacDonald and guitarist Davidson on the recent Aporias album. The final date of this UK tour finds the trio exploring similar percussive avenues, as Nakatani largely eschews conventional drumming in favour of bowls, gongs and rocks, while Davidson attacks his fret-board with a paint stripper and MacDonald skitters busily into his horn. For the second set, Phil Bancroft adds melodious tenor sax.

Sods law, Classic Anxiety Dream moves to The Wash on The Mound for the next two weeks, before returning to a post refurb Meadow Bar on July 23. Support your local noise-makers.

The List, issue 580, 16 July 2007


Birchville Cat Motel

Tremors@Stills Gallery, Edinburgh, Wed 10 January 2007
4 stars

Last time Stills Gallery white-not-quite-cubed space played host to live music was in 1998, when Quebecois baroque apocalypsists Godspeed You! Black Emperor marked their low-key live UK debut before a phone box capacity audience (ignore the 8 million who claim to have been there – they’re liars) by attracting the attention of the local constabulary before blowing the gallery’s fuse-box .

This is only mentioned because, 8 years on, New Zealand’s noise conjurer Campbell Kneale, on the second date of his Scottish central belt sojourn, manages to avoid both interventions, despite being twice as loud as his forbears. Not only that, the 100-plus in attendance demonstrate just how much the climate has broadened. Then again, with a slowly insistent martial pounding providing backbone and shape to the brain-bending layers of noise fizzing out from Kneale’s box of tricks, this is cheerfully old school industrial sturm-und-drang. By the end, it’s as if Dead Can Dance were marching on Toytown, the sound of triumph crushed underfoot.

The List, issude 568, 29 January 2007


Thursday, 10 April 2008

Sixteen/The Severed Head Of Comrade Bukhari

The Arches, Glasgow - Tue 9-13 April 2008

Sex, violence and other-not-so cheap thrills have long provided outlets for corruptible youth in search of unknown pleasures. That's certainly the case in this double bill of work provided by this year's winners of the Arches Award for Stage Directors. These two very different rites of passage suggest a bleakly inquiring collective psyche at play.

Rob Drummond's Sixteen invites us to a coming-of-age party for the absent Sara, who plans to celebrate the occasion by having sex with her older boyfriend, Tony. He sits downstairs with Sara's mum and dad, whom age has withered into a frustrated impasse of sexual dysfunction and double entendres. Played in real time in the hour leading up to midnight, the increasingly oddball exchanges reveal Drummond as a purveyor of nouveau absurdism, made all the ickier in domestic close-up.

In The Severed Head of Comrade Bukhari, Daljinder Singh takes a script by Oliver Emanuel (for which she provided the idea) down even darker alleys. No wonder the four black-shirted youths killing time in the local underpass on the hottest bank holiday for years reference Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. When the opportunity for easy sex arises, their studied languor gives way to shocking revelations, all soundtracked by a jukebox medley of rock 'n' roll rebellion that adds a tad too much novelty value. Still, Singh sets up a series of moodily punctuated set-pieces of which Fassbinder would be proud, and both this and Sixteen suggest tomorrow's theatre-makers already occupy the refreshingly strangest of places.

The Herald - Thu 10 April 2008


Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Tony Wilson

Born February 20 1950; died August 10 2007

Without Tony Wilson, or Anthony H Wilson as he styled himself when at his most pretentious, modern music, popular culture and urban regeneration simply wouldn’t exist in the same way. As the co-founder of Factory Records, which birthed Joy Division and Happy Mondays, two of the most influential bands of the late twentieth century to have grown out of Manchester’s post-punk scene, as founder of the world’s first super-club, The Hacienda, or as an iconoclastic broadcaster and motor-mouthed media pundit and bull-shitter immortalised by Steve Coogan in the film, 24-Hour Party People, Wilson’s flamboyant signature is embedded in a modern world which never quite repaid its debt or gave him the credit he deserved.

With the Edinburgh International Film Festival screening of Control, Anton Corbjin’s biography of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, who hanged himself aged 23 in 1980, less than a week away, Wilson’s death last week of a heart attack following complications caused by kidney cancer looks like one last brilliant attention-seeking situationist stunt. In truth, it’s a major loss that puts the full-stop on a maverick anti-career that influenced generations of music fans across the world.

Anyone growing up in the north of England in the 1970s will have first encountered Wilson via Granada Reports, the ITV region’s tea-time news and magazine programme, whose ranks also included the young, pre-chat show Judy Finnigan and Richard Madely. Younger than the rest of the show’s host and unashamedly clever, for those more used to more wooden presenters, even when reading the news there seemed to be a sarcastic sneer in Wilson’s voice. It was as if Malcolm McDowell’s portrayal of futuristic tearaway Alex De Large in Stanley Kubrick’s film of A Clockwork Orange had hi-jacked the show.

Initially hired as a junior reporter seconded to take part in often dangerous ‘human interest’ stories, including hang-gliding and driving a Manchester corporation bus, Wilson’s laconic individual streak soon marked him for bigger things, and each Thursday tea-time, the last 15 minutes were given over to the Wilson-fronted arts magazine, What’s On. It was here the nascent punk scene started to filter through the air-waves, as the likes of Blondie, and Devo all made their UK TV debuts in this unlikely slot. It was probably the only mainstream television show where a group like the portentous, Dostoyevsky-inspired Magazine could debut songs from their new album three nights in a row.

What’s On moved to a late-night half-hour format, and became the template for Wilson’s next venture, So It Goes. A compendium of music, satire (courtesy of Clive James) and chat, it was unlike any other programme at the time. Initially networked nationwide, it was critically derided and misunderstood, and was put in an assortment of Sunday night graveyard slots around the regions. It didn’t matter, because, by the end of its first run, it had introduced The Sex Pistols, in a pre-Bill Grundy controversy TV first, to the world.

Wilson had seen the band at a gig put on by Buzzcocks and Magazine singer Howard Devoto at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall. Of the 42 people in attendance, most would go on to form the city’s future music scene. Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner would form Joy Division, Morrissey would form the Smiths and Mick Hucknall would go global with Simply Red. For Wilson, weaned on increasingly turgid Prog rock, it was an epiphany, and informed everything else he did. A third series of So It Goes was cancelled after an expletive-laden appearance by Iggy Pop, and Wilson returned to Granada Reports and Whats On.

So It Goes may have looked strange, but in retrospect it can be seen as a template for the glut of pop culture shows that fill the airwaves today. When Wilson fronted The Other Side Of Midnight at the height of early 1990s Madchester, it was essentially the same format. Only the sounds were different.

By the time So It Goes ended, Wilson, along with Joy Division manager Rob Gretton and Alan Erasmus had begun promoting gigs at a club in Hulme, which they christened The Factory, spawning Factory Records, a name which referenced Andy Warhol as much as its own industrial terrain. With designer Peter Saville and producer Martin Hannett, Factory was founded on Situationist idealism, and put out records in elaborate packaging that made the label look far bigger than it was.

Starting small, Factory gained plaudits with Joy Division’s debut album, Unknown Pleasures, while other releases followed by A Certain Ratio and others. The Return Of The Durutti Column album was housed in a sandpaper sleeve. Wilson was Factory’s mouth, a living PR machine who enabled others to create their masterpieces. This bravado reached new heights when Factory opened The Hacienda, the Ben Kelly designed night-club inspired by visits to New York. Situated on Whitworth Street, close to another legendary club, The Twisted Wheel, The Hacienda was at odds with Manchester’s pervading grimness. At first the club was a glorious failure which haemorrhaged money, most of it belonging to New Order, the band formed from Joy Division’s ashes following Curtis’s suicide. Madonna made her live UK debut there after supporting A Certain Ratio in New York.

Then came acid house, Happy Mondays and Madchester. The mood had changed, and The Hacienda was the coolest club on the planet. With a typical semantic flourish, Wilson compared Happy Mondays singer Shaun Ryder to poet WB Yeats. So full of civic pride for the scene on his own doorstep he found himself the ring-master of that when leading a seminar at New York’s New Music Seminar in 1990, along with Keith Allen and Happy Mondays manager Nathan McGough, he titled it, Wake Up America, You’re Dead. The honeymoon didn’t last, and drugs, guns and an ongoing financial mess eventually killed The Hacienda in 1997. Factory had closed in similar fashion five years earlier after expenses incurred during lengthy recording sessions by Happy Mondays.

All of this was captured in 24-Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom’s scurrilous 2002 fictionalisation of Factory. Played by Steve Coogan, Wilson was the film’s centre, a pretentious but likeable buffoon who flew through life on the back of his designer-label pants. It wasn’t all true, as Wilson’s own novelisation of the film makes clear. But as Wilson never tired of saying, if the choice was between the myth and the truth, print the myth every time.

Anthony Howard Wilson was born on February 20, 1950 in Salford. Aged five, his family moved to Marple, but Wilson would return to Salford daily after passing his 11-plus and gaining a place De La Salle grammar school. Of the 1000 entrants, Wilson had come top. Initially intending to become a nuclear physicist, he had his first epiphany when he saw Hamlet at Stratford, and a life in the arts was guaranteed. At Cambridge, Wilson studied English at Jesus College in rooms once used by the poet Coleridge. He worked on the student paper and, after leaving with a disappointing 2.2, embarked on a journalistic career. Wilson returned to Manchester and Granada Reports.

Juggling life as a TV reporter and record company boss wasn’t easy, and a short stint with World In Action wasn’t successful. Quiz shows and a stint presenting TV debates and radio talk shows were his bread and butter for most of the 1990s. With his partner Yvette Livesy Wilson founded In the City, a Manchester based music conference and industry showcase that became a model for similar events worldwide.

Factory lived on in a variety of incarnations, most recently in F4, though by this time a burgeoning network of micro-labels had again stolen Wilson’s thunder. After 13 years away, Wilson briefly returned to Granada Reports in 2002.

Much of his energy was spent campaigning for devolution for the north west of England. He founded the Necessary Group, made up of politicians and opinion-formers keen to see an elected regional assembly, and asked Peter Saville to design a flag. The idea never progressed, but, as with everything Wilson did, may simply be ahead of its time.
Manchester is a differing place today to the dark satanic mills of old. Culture and art are a vital part of the city’s reinvention, and without Wilson it’s unlikely that this year’s Manchester International Festival would even have been mooted.

After being diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, Wilson underwent emergency surgery to remove a kidney and took a course of chemotherapy at Christie Hospital. He was recommended Sutent, a pioneering new drug, but was refused it by The Greater Manchester NHS, and forced to pay £3,500 per month for it. A few miles away in Cheshire it was free.

Unable to afford the payments, Nathan McGough and current Happy Mondays manager Eliot Rashman raised funds to buy Sutent for the next few months. The huge gesture came too late to save Wilson, who died at Christie’s. “I used to say some people make money and some make history,” Wilson said recently of his plight. “Which is very funny until you find you can't afford to keep yourself alive.”

Tony Wilson made history several times over. If he’d had the money that would have allowed him to live longer, he might well have made it again.

His partner Yvette Livesy, a son Olly, and a daughter Izzy, both from a previous marriage, survive him.

Written on spec in August 2007 for The Herald and then Plan B, this remains unpublished


They Shoot Horses, Don't They? - Citizens Theatre Community Company

People Are The Ultimate Spectacle. So read the tag-line of Sidney Pollack’s 1970 film, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Set in Hollywood during the depression hit 1930s, this adaptation of Horace McCoy’s novel charted the fortunes of a group of contestants in a dance marathon, a public spectacle cum freak-show whereby those who could keep their feet in motion for weeks at a time would win a $1000 dollar prize. Some were movie star wannabes hoping to be spotted by any passing big-shot director. Elsewhere on the floor were circuit regulars, old timers who’d long since lost sight of their dreams and were addicted to the rush of the spotlight. Others were just grateful for a free meal.

Almost 40 years on, things haven’t changed much. The biggest draws on prime time TV are reality shows populated by people desperate to be somebody. In the Citizens Theatre’s rehearsal room too, there’s a real sense of do or die in the air.

A week before the theatre’s Community Company opens its production of the film’s stage version, the cast of almost forty disparate performers are moving around the makeshift dance-floor as if their lives depended on it. It’s the first day they’ve been working with the live band who’ll accompany them onstage, and things are slowly starting to gel, as would-be starlets and old hacks alike go through their paces.

“The Community Company is such an integral thing in the Citizens now,” director Neil Packham observes of a group pulled together from a set of organisations who deal holistically with young offenders and recovering addicts. “If someone was doing a dissertation and asked a definition of community, this would be it. There are people of all ages and with different financial positions. Some are in more secure positions while some have more chaotic lifestyles. That whole mix of people in such an intense environment is really invigorating. It would be easy to suggest that some people doing the play might be down on their luck. It’s in there, and all the characters are looking for their little moment of glory, but I don’t want on play on that.”

George Drennan is the only professional actor in the show. He plays Rocky, the fast-talking MC of the competition and a role which won Gig Young an Oscar. Mixing up professional and community casts can often end up with a central core of full-timers taking all the lead roles with an army of volunteers left as a glorified chorus. Drennan, though, blends in with an ensemble who tackle major roles on an equal footing. Given that some have never been on a stage in their lives, taking on roles originally played by real life Hollywood icons including Jane Fonda, Susannah York and Bruce Dern must be especially nerve-wracking. There are, however, no passengers on board here.

This time last year, Scott Sharp was in Shotts prison. Now he’s playing a Sheriff. Scott was brought along to a workshop thinking it was a confidence building exercise, and was initially overwhelmed by the experience. Now, although it’s his first show, he’s become a key member of the company. It’s opened up a new world for him, he says.

Debbie Findlay is playing Alice, the prissy would-be actress played in the film by Susannah York. Findlay came to the Citz via a group for vulnerable young women, and onstage is a vibrant, focussed actress who holds her own with more experienced members of the cast. She’s never acted before in her life.

Debbie is the mother of four kids. Early mornings before rehearsals, she’s up at dawn working as a cleaner, then back doing the rounds of city centre offices again in the evening. When she was a little girl she loved to dance, and if things had taken a different course, who knows?

“I never had a lot of confidence due to a past relationship,” she says, “and I’ve had addiction issues as well. But doing this has really given me a lot of confidence. I love it,” she sparkles. “I feel like a wee girl again.”

For Frances Rose Kelly, the Community Company was literally a life-saver. Five years ago she’d lost her second set of twins, and suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. She lives across the street from the Citizens’, but had never been in the building. A friend suggested she audition for a show. She got the main part. Since then she’s appeared in 26 productions.

“Not being me for that moment was amazing,” Frances says of her first experience as an actor. “With an illness like mine, this is the only thing I’ve ever done that’s ever actually worked. As soon as I go back home and there’s no shows, I’m back to my bed, but doing this keeps me going.”

Since being part of the Company, Frances has appeared in the award winning feature film, Red Road, and took a supporting role in the Citz’s professional production of
Desire Under The Elms. She’s written her own scripts as well, which have been studied by local colleges.

“It’s an achievement,” she says. “I’ve been immortalised now, and they can’t take that away from me.”

Despite such stories, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? isn’t social work. Where some community companies put the emphasis on taking part, at the Citz, as much time and energy are put into Community Company shows as they are with full professional outings. Production values are high, and everyone is working hard to get it right. Part of this is down to the circumstances of the group. Because of their circumstances, Packham and Goodman have the luxury of having a full cast in the rehearsal room all day and every day. Some parts may be bigger than others, but unlike some professional set-ups even, every walk-on part and every line is valued by those delivering them.

“It gives people a sense of purpose,” assistant director Elly Goodman points out. “Even the discipline of being on time every day is important, but people want to make it good as well. No-one wants to go onstage and not know what they’re doing.”

While real life occasionally has to take precedence, there’s no danger of that. As afternoon rehearsals reconvene, the room is buzzing with life. As soon as it’s time to start work, everyone gets into position. As the cast stagger through the entire show for the first time with the band, people adjust themselves accordingly to the fresh nuances the live sound adds.

The make-believe dance-floor the play occupies becomes becomes both battlefield and stage, as the characters limber up for solos to keep the audience happy and earn a few extra cents. While Frances’ Nurse watches the scene with her beady eye lest anyone collapse, John MacNeil, the actor playing war veteran Sailor, does a soft-shoe routine to die for. As Alice, Debbie does a duologue from Private Lives, as the ultimate spectacle goes on.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, Wed-Sat

The Herald - Mon 7 April 2008


Can We Live With You? - Lung Ha's

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Thu 3-Sat 5 April 2008
3 stars
It’s amazing what you can get for £27.64 and half a dozen packed lunches these days. In the case of the down on their luck McScott clan, the heroes of Lung Ha’s latest theatrical fantasia, it takes them all the way to The Land of Beautiful Things. Not, however, without incident, from their initial attempts to borrow cash from Mr and Mrs Big Fish’s money-making machine onwards. Even that, however, turns out to be fake, as does the tropical paradise the McScotts aspire to. En route to such shiny, happy excess via a line-dancing hoe-down, our luckless clan are accosted by a dodgy sea captain, before finally landing somewhere warm with all the best things money can’t buy.

It’s often hard to judge Lung Ha’s, because here more than any other theatre company, it’s the taking part that counts. With some 40 people going hell for leather during this hour long extravaganza, that’s certainly the case here. Under director Clark Crystal’s loose guidance, though, the company has veered off into more magical realist waters of late, something which Alan Wilkins’ dramaturgy takes full advantage of.

So while strokes are kept necessarily broad, a skewed surrealism ensues, whereby behavioural tics are pared down to their bare bones and delivered with a cartoon flourish. A collaboration with Drake Music Scotland, who share similar aims and ambitions to Lung Ha’s, its Matilda Brown’s brash, jazzy score, played by a large live band that carries the show. So if the overload of action threatens to collapse in on itself in a gigantic heap, another number breezes in to save the day.

The Herald - Fri 4 April 2008


Back To The Barricades - Edinburgh International Festival 2008

There’s a whiff of old time radicalism in EIF’s theatre programming this year, and it’s not just about the stencilled lettering that headlines its eleven shows. In his second programme, Jonathan Mills has set an explicitly political agenda that crosses art-forms and generations as much as cultures.

Heiner Goebbels wowed Edinburgh with his previous multi-media spectacles, Hashirigaki and Eraritjaritjaka. I Went To The House But Did Not Enter sees the return of the maverick director and composer in a collaboration with The Hilliard Ensemble. Where Hashirigaki mixed and matched The Beach Boys with Gertrude Stein, this still being developed production for Theatre Vidy-Lausanne looks to T.S. Eliot, Maurice Blanchot and Samuel Beckett to explore the meaning of the very naked ‘I.’

East West Theatre serve up a Bosnian language adaptation of Nigel Williams’ community theatre favourite, Class Enemy. Set in an unruly classroom where order has seriously broken down, this new production shifts the action away from 1970s South London to 21st century post-war Sarajevo.

David Harrower’s concerns in 365 – One Night To Learn A Lifetime the 70,000 children in care in Britain. Another work still being developed, 365 charts the lives of a group of teenagers in the halfway house to adult-hood known as a Practice Flat. However this National Theatre Of Scotland production turns out, a very special rites of passage is promised.

Sarah Kane comes from the same generation of writers as Harrower. Her final work, 4:48 Psychosis, leaves no holds barred in its depiction of personal breakdown. TR Warszawa’s Polish language production promises much in the way of unfettered dynamism. Kane’s plays arrived at that awkward period in the 1990s when old certainties were swept aside. EIF’s drama programme, at least, is a pointer to how things have come full circle.

The Herald - Thu 3 April 2008


Don Letts

Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, April 12th 2008
What would you do if a voice of a generation ran off with your girlfriend? In the case of Don Letts, who introduced reggae to snotty nosed punks during his year zero residency at The Roxy, he understandably took the huff. Thirty years on, Letts has forgiven said cuckold, Clash frontman Joe Strummer, though it did mean he missed a now legendary Rock Against Racism gig at London’s Victoria Park.

“I was young and all I could think of was my male pride,” Letts remembers today. “The bigger problems of the world were put on the back burner that day, but Rock Against Racism has survived, and is even more important today than it was then.”

While Strummer is no longer with us, Letts will be Dj-ing at RAR’s 30th anniversary show at the same venue. He’ll also be popping into Edinburgh’s Voodoo Rooms for a Saturday night session to be savoured.

“I describe my set as the history and legacy of Jamaican culture,” says a man who has made crucial celluloid studies of left-field icons such as Sun Ra, George Clinton and Gil Scott Heron. “It’s very much like my sets at The Roxy. I don’t scratch or do any superstar DJ moves, but there’s lots of bass. Reggae’s in my DNA, and DJ-ing is a great way for me to creatively network with young people, just to find out what’s going on. It’s an ongoing dynamic. It’s always moving.”

The List, issue 600, 10-24 April 2008


Paul Haig

Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 13 April 2008
When Josef K named their solitary album ‘The Only Fun In Town’ in 1981, it was as dry a statement on Edinburgh nightlife as a band named after a Franz Kafka character could muster. Almost thirty years on, ex Josef K vocalist Paul Haig is still looking for that elusive good time on his equally arch ‘Go Out Tonight’ album. Its release also marks Haig’s first full live gig since 1989, and, after 15 years producing instrumental soundscapes, has seen him find his voice again in a full band situation.

“It had to be done,” says Haig. “I get very nervous about these things, but I’m trying to approach it all in a more relaxed manner and not get too freaked out by it.”

It’s been something of a low-key renaissance for Haig. 2007’s Josef K compilation, ‘Etymology,’ demonstrated their key influence on a new generation of jangular-guitared young men. Following his Cathode Ray project, Haig played special guest star at a tribute to his late friend, collaborator and former Associates singer Billy Mackenzie, then with Nouvelle Vague who’d already covered Josef K’s ‘Sorry For Laughing.’ Record-wise, ‘Go For It’ is a rapid-fire follow-up to last year’s ‘Electronic Audience’ album.

“It’s incredibly bizarre,” says Haig. “It almost seems like yesterday, but nearly every indie band you hear sounds like they could be from 1981. At least I know now I’m not writing into this abyss. ‘Etymology’ even got reviewed in Playboy magazine. Now that’s weird.”

The List, issue 600, 10-24 April 2008


The Mother Ship

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Tue 25-Sat 29 March 2008
4 stars
Douglas Maxwell has long charted the travails of terminal adolescents in search of themselves, and this new play for Birmingham Rep, continues the trend. The difference here, though, is that, in Gerry, the damaged kid who believes in the stories he’s told so hard that he’s about to be beamed up back to his home planet, Maxwell is extending the boundaries of his own world as well as his characters.

It’s Gerry’s brother Eliot who the play concentrates on most, though, as he leads the chase to find his sibling, taking in his own rites of passage en route in an amphibious car left to the boys by their dead father. Also on board are Eliot’s pregnant step-mum, a police-man called Constable, Eliot’s lifeguard best mate and a girl who writes pornographic fiction in homage to her space-boy heroes.

All wrapped up in layers of obsessive science-fiction geekery, Ben Payne’s production is a playfully inventive delight which, on Chloe Lamford’s expansive set dominated by a map of the cosmos, allows Maxwell’s script free rein.

The play itself is the sort of multi-layered feel-good drama usually served best by television. By putting its charmingly flawed turn of events onstage, however, it’s gentle probing into what make us who we are become all the more appealing. Young audiences particularly, who The Mother Shop is squarely aimed at, will easily relate to how insular imaginations can run free.

Sentiment can’t be avoided, and in this context nor should it in a play that’s about birth as much as rebirth, about finding somewhere nice to land in a world gone mad, and ultimately about coming home.

The Herald - Thu 27 March 2008


Single Spies

Kings Theatre, Edinburgh, 24-29 March 2008
3 stars
The 1930s Cambridge spy ring suggested that signing up to the KGB was a useful alternative to making satirical whoopee elsewhere. Which is what may have piqued ex Oxford Revue defector Alan Bennett’s interest. His 1988 double bill of one-act plays aren’t really concerned with the cloak-and-dagger derring-do of why Guy Burgess and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures Anthony Blunt became traitors. Rather, by imagining real-life incidents, cause and effect are scrutinised in a very personal manner.

Originally a television film, An Englishman Abroad finds exiled drunk Burgess forming an alliance with actress Coral Browne, who the old soak entrusts to deliver a little bit of the old country in the shape of a brand new suit and some pyjamas. In A Question Of Attribution, Blunt divides his time between his new handlers back in Blighty and the Courtauld Institute’s hallowed halls when an unplanned audience with HMQ ensues.

Both pieces remain as personable as they were last time they toured the commercial circuit five years ago. They also remain as slight. As a vehicle for Nigel Havers and Diana Quick, Christopher Luscombe’s production soft soaps things somewhat. Havers may have upper-crust affectation, but is utterly lacking in edge. Quick revels in playing Browne, though as HMQ is far too shrill for either party to display empathy. This is a shame, as A Question Of Attribution’s exploration of the double-bluff in life and art is an appealingly complex piece of implied sparring. When asked why they betrayed their country, both Burgess and Blunt confess that “It seemed a good idea at the time.” One can’t help but feel the same here.

The Herald - Wed 26 March 2008


Tuesday, 8 April 2008

The Apprentice

Oran Mor, Glasgow - Mon 24-Sat 29 March 2008
4 stars
Two men in black walk into a cheap hotel room with a contract to fulfil. All buttoned-up in classic gangster chic, old hand Carter and new boy Johnson await their prey. Carter knows the rules inside out, and has little to say on the subject. Johnson is a bag of nerves, and has yet to absorb the old-fashioned protocols of his recently acquired profession. Over increasingly tense exchanges in the pair’s accidental waiting room, however, things change.

Martin McCardie’s blisteringly understated two-hander is Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter reimagined for a post Tarantino generation. Here, though, all self-conscious stylistic ironies are scraped off the verbal riffing and renewed menaces put in their place for good measure. It’s a brilliantly precise piece of writing for Oran Mor’s ongoing A Play, A Pie and a Pint season of lunchtime plays. Stuart Davids’ perfectly paced production is awash with cinematic attention to detail in both its look and performances.

Rita McGurn’s cramped interior set is a dead-ringer for 1970s back-street B&B land. The old-fashioned Bakelite phone; the all-seeing crucifix hanging on the wall; the way Neil Leiper’s lanky Johnson wears a suit like he’s just back from juvenile court; all of it is forensically, claustrophobically correct. Even the fact that Carter’s name references the best British gangster film ever made can be no accident. McCardie’s cut-throat sharp script is similarly brutal and sentiment-free. As Johnson’s awkwardly focussed energy eventually walks a little taller, any tendency Carter might have for pulp fiction clich├ęs are turned inwards. David McKay’s wonderfully observed sense of hangdog aggression is worth the ticket price by itself in a fascinating piece of existential noir.

The Herald - Tue 25 March 2008


Arches Award For Stage Directors 2008

One of the best things about the Arches Award For Stage Directors Awards since they were set up several years ago is the breadth of work it allows. With a brief for its two winners to concentrate on new work presented as an original idea rather than a finished script, participants can utilise a variety of methodologies. These can vary from taking total ownership of the project from its inception, to employing outside artists in a more collaborative venture.

Results have been varied, although the award, now run in association with The Traverse Theatre and the National Theatre of Scotland, has consistently provided early showcases for some of the brightest talents around. These include Davey Anderson, Cora Bisset, Adrian Osmond and Neil Doherty. Significantly, all are noted for taking a polymath’s attitude towards theatre making, with all four having worked between them as writer, actor or composer as well as directors of self-generated work.

This year’s Arches winners are typically diverse in both their outlook and experience, as the two plays which flagship the equally eclectic Arches Theatre Festival should prove. Sixteen is the highest profile platform for Rob Drummond, who previously wrote Gag for Arches Live and acted in previous Arches Award For Stage Directors winner, The James Dean Death Scene. The Severed Head Of Comrade Bukhari, on the other hand, finds Drummond’s fellow winner Daljinder Singh drafting in playwright Oliver Emmanuel to help shape her wonderfully named work.

“The title came first,” she says, “which I thought was really cool, and I thought could be something about a group of guys. Then a friend told me about something that happened in Bradford with a gang, which was really quite disgusting and made me feel queasy, but which in the play I’ve made even more extreme. So from being stuck, and then hearing about this real life incident, mixing them up has really worked. I knew it was the right time for me to apply for the award, and The Arches is the perfect venue for the sort of atmosphere I want to create.

Drummond too began his project with a dramatic scenario equally close to home.

“It’s about a 15 year old girl who makes it clear that she’s going to have sex with her boyfriend on the stroke of midnight when it’s legal,” says Drummond. “I’d read about people being imprisoned for statutory rape when the girl was 15 years and eleven months old. It just seemed really odd to me that in one month, the same law that had convicted them, would not only have prepared them, but would have protected them. By boiling it down to one hour makes that situation even more crucial. The play’s done in real time, and the actors have a clock on them. It has to be so well rehearsed, because the actors can’t get to the end of the play before the characters do.”

Drummond’s involvement in theatre began while studying English at Glasgow University. With a second subject required, he eventually plumped for Theatre Studies, and fell into acting after accompanying a friend to an audition. Before long he started directing, and became president of the student theatre group. Prior to becoming involved with The Arches, Drummond wrote several short plays, which were performed at Gilmorehill.

Now, “I just can’t imagine ever wanting to stop,” he says. “Doing Gag gave me the confidence to apply for the award. I’d considered it last year, but instead went and wrote something for the New Writing, New Worlds Festival at Gilmorehill. I’d met Neil Doherty when I acted in The James Dean Death Scene, and he agreed to direct Gag after I got talking to him about writing, and that was that. I can’t imagine anywhere else where I’d be welcomed in as family and allowed to try things out.”

As well as writing, directing and acting, Drummond also moonlights performing front of house duties at Glasgow’s King’s Theatre, and spends his weekends acting in murder mystery tours.

“At the moment I just want to try out everything I can,” he enthuses, “and can’t imagine not doing one thing or the other. This is a chance to say that I’m serious about what I’m doing.”

As if to illustrate, he mentions in passing that he popped over to Latvia recently to watch a show by Forced Entertainment. Oh, and he’s written a novel as well.

In contrast, Singh’s theatre career was launched in her native Leeds at West Yorkshire Playhouse before moving to Glasgow four years ago as a trainee with TAG. This led to working with the multi-racial Ankur Productions, directing their debut show, Fewer Emergencies. Singh has also directed a version of Kafka’s The Penal Colony for Tara Arts, as well as work with Contact, Talawa and the NTS.

“I knew from when I was a very young child that this was what I wanted to do,” Singh says. “Apart from a very brief moment when I wanted to be an astronaut, I’ve never wavered from that. The first piece of theatre I ever saw was by DV8, and the second was by Theatre de Complicitie, and they both created a real impact on what I wanted from theatre in terms of ambition and inspiration.”

Bringing in Emmanuel, whose work has been seen in Edinburgh via his own Silver Tongue company, and was suggested to Singh by Playwrights Studio Scotland, was a calculated risk.

“It’s about working to my strengths,” says Singh. “I could easily spend five weeks playing around with ideas but get nowhere, so I knew I had to find the right person to put a voice to my ideas. That was quite strange, because it was my idea, and we had to be incredibly honest with each other. From the start I said if it’s not his bag of fish then he shouldn’t do it, but it’s worked brilliantly so far.”

Beyond the Arches New Directors Awards, both winners, still only in their 20s, have pretty busy itineries Under the mentorship of Douglas Maxwell, again via Playwrights Studio Scotland, Drummond is working on a play about a secret passion which he describes as his dirty little secret.

“Professional wrestling,” he says. “Half of it is set in the very real world of Glasgow, and the other half of it is in the very fake world of pro wrestling in California.”

Drummond is off to Liverpool in a few weeks to watch a programme put together by American promoters.

Singh, meanwhile, sounds even more ambitious.

Theatre should be one of two things,” she asserts. “Either it should be terrible or brilliant, but it should never ever be boring. I think I’ve directed five shows professionally, but how long can you be emerging for? I want to be director of the world. It needs it.”

Sixteen and The Severed Head Of Comrade Bukhari, The Arches, Glasgow; April 8-12; April 16-19, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh


Arches Theatre Festival highlights

Including Sixteen and The Severed Head Of Comrade Bukhari, this year’s Arches Theatre Festival features sixteen different shows. Some names will be familiar, others not so much. In essence, however, the amount of theatrical activity taking place throughout every subterranean nook and cranny should be a fitting legacy, not only to The Arches’ outgoing founder and artistic director Andy Arnold, but to the energetic young team he’s left behind.

Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree was a big hit at The Traverse a couple of Edinburgh Festival Fringes ago, and it’s tale of a man who visits the stage hypnotist who drove the car that killed the man’s daughter is pretty much unmissable. The trick here is that each performance will feature a different guest actor who has never read a word of the script, but whose lines and actions are fed to them via Crouch’s instructions.

David Leddy’s Paster Noster is similarly inventive. Played at fifteen minute intervals to an audience of one contained in a pitch black room, this is the latest of Leddy’s ongoing explorations of sound as theatre, and promises to be a deliciously captivating experience.

From America comes Popsicle’s Departure 1989, a show almost overlooked in Edinburgh last year. This one-woman tour de force is a self-destructive rock n’ roll romance set among Boston’s grunge scene, where a couple of scenesters clash. Also with punkish roots is MuddClubSolo, which flips between the night-club of the title and a more idyllic countryside setting.

A big hit in Dublin last year was Art Raid, in which Will St Ledger takes the audience to a very special Private View. Questioning the value of what it means to put a price tag on art today, St Ledger ushers in a real live smash and grab runaround in which everybody attempts to get a piece of the action.

Elsewhere, Arches Creative Associate Al Seed’s new show, The Fooligan, sees this thrillingly physical performer play a village idiot staring in the face of Death. Company Of Pram return with their self-explanatory Trampoline Orchestra, while a pick and mix of performance in its rawest form will no doubt be thrown up in The Arches now regular Scratch night. Out of such nights, future theatre festivals are born.

Arches Theatre Festival, April 8-19

The Herald - Tue 25 March 2008


Vanity Fair

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh - Sat 14 March-Sat 12 April
3 stars
The way cultural cycles go, it takes something like a quarter of a century for once radical ideas to trickle into the mainstream. It certainly looks that way in Tony Cownie’s revival of Declan Donnelan’s 1983 adaptation of Thackerey’s novel, penned for his then fledgling Cheek By Jowl company. There are times in this tale of two young womens’ parallel lives in nineteenth century society when the dust-sheets which unveil the action are the most revealing thing about it.

Because, while there’s nothing inherently wrong in this slickly realised, elegantly fluid depiction of nice girl Amelia and opportunistic, proto-Thatcherite survivor Becky, it all looks like its been brought to life after a long sleep. The representational, parlour-room approach splits the sprawling third-person narrative between seven actors who multi-task like bilio. At the play’s posh-frocked heart,, Sophia Linden’s Becky is a vivacious bad girl to Kim Gerard’s prim Amelia. More fun is had by Steven McNicoll and Amanda Beveridge, who relish their role-call of caricatures. Neil Murray’s design works overtime in its handsomely realised stage portraiture, and a heroic Jon Beales provides a live piano score throughout.

All this adds up to, though, is a peculiarly English take on Poor Theatre, as 1970s agit-prop and Oxbridge acquired Brechtian theory is applied to the set-text literary canon. This puts Cownie’s production on a par with the recent revival of David Edgar’s version of Nicholas Nickleby. Both prove how, divorced from the social and artistic conditions that shaped such stylistic invention, all we’re left with is a conveyor belt of dressing-up box gymnastics rendered as harmless as any other heritage-industry museum piece.

The Herald - Mon 17 March 2008


Barry Adamson

Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh - Tue 1 April 2008
3 stars

Barry Adamson is a dude. Just how far this purveyor of imaginary soundtracks has shifted has from his original role as left-field bassist of choice with Magazine and Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds is demonstrated by the appearance of a range of Barry Adamson knickers on the merchandise stall. Adamson’s new album, Back To The Cat, is served up with similar bravado on this, his first ever tour to launch it.

These days looking not unlike Isaac Hayes, Adamson has clearly studied genre inside-out, if not the off-the-cuff banter that would make him the showman he so longs to be. The impeccable old-time arrangements of his six piece band, however, more than compensate. Whether swinging through the dirty burlesque of new single Spend A Little Time, acknowledging Shadow Of Death Hotel’s instrumental nod to Primal Scream’s Loaded or else letting rip with the Country Soul of Civilisation, Adamson throws shapes like all his Vegas idols rolled into one. The end result of such musical pick and mix is to come on like the grooviest party band in town.

Returning for an encore of Back To The Cat’s opening track, The Beaten Side Of Town, someone shouts out for Adamson to play some bass. The band-leader prefers a scat vocal, before segueing the song into a cover of Bernstein’s The Man With The Golden Arm. To finish is a staccato version of Sly Stone’s Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf again), originally covered somewhat anomalously by Adamson’s old band Magazine. It’s a tellingly authentic retread through his back pages, though in terms of the fantasy-wish-fulfilment after hours persona Adamson has adopted, the title is more than telling.

The Herald - Fri 4 April 2008


Steve Reid Ensemble

Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh - Wed 19 March 2008
4 stars

Veteran drummer Steve Reid’s ongoing collaboration with folktronicist Kieran Hebden, aka Fourtet, put Reid squarely back in the front-line with three appealingly meandering sets of 21st century fusion. This has given Reid’s own ensemble a higher profile, and a chance with last year’s Daxaar album, recorded in Senegal, to get back into the groove on a much wider platform. Only Reid, Hebden and Russian keyboardist and Daxaar’s musical director Boris Netsvetaev survive the album in this thrilling show, which exposes an even fresher line-up that’s not just pan-global, but pan-generational too.

Reid’s introduction references Vietnam and Iraq before he launches into the album’s title track, its crisp, organ dominated Afro-Beat here veering off on all sorts of tangents the album version barely touches. This sets the tone for a set of glorious reinventions, with Joe Rigby’s lead saxes and flute more than making up for the absence of Roger Ongolo’s trumpet flourishes and Jimmy Mbaye’s guitar. Also central is Senegales percussionist Mamadou Sarr, whose sparring with Reid adds euphoric bounce. Dominic Lash’s bass similarly colours a rhythm dominated affair that never gets too wiggy for its own good. Hebden takes a back seat, lobbing in an array of tastefully nuanced squiggles which underscore things rather than dominate. His contribution demonstrates how the now ubiquitous laptop can be incorporated as one more piece of kit rather than just add novelty value.

Reid himself cuts a beatific dash, merrily mixing up elements of 1970s jazz-funk with what used to be called World music. The end result of all this is an infectious and irresistible musical stew, delivered with fresh panache, at the heart of which is pure joy.

The Herald - Fri 21 March 2008

Trick Or Treat? - The Wrestling

America has turned the traditional Saturday afternoon wrestling bout into a multi-million pound industry that has little to do with the era of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks. Has this much-loved sport now become too manufactured, conning the kids who idolise today's wrestlers?

It's Friday tea-time, and Edinburgh's Meadowbank Stadium is about to witness something out of the ordinary. The first hint of things to come is when a boy, aged no more than 10, scrambles his way to the box office, a #10 note clutched in his hand, and purchases the last of 2000 tickets for the evening's entertainment. ''American wrestling,'' the kid murmurs, with the emphasis on the word American, because that's what it says on the poster. He's seen the pantomime of WWF on Sky, and felt the adrenaline buzz roar through him when Stone Cold Steve Austin whips The Undertaker, and now he's here to see the real thing - live and kicking.

''Wrestling's full of bull,'' the promoter Orig says to me sincerely while the ring is being put up. ''It's about colour and spectacle. It's all about showbiz.''

No-one's pretending that the grunt 'n' grapple game - as British television commentator Kent Walton used to call it - is about sport anymore. I vaguely remember seeing Orig wrestle in 1971 in the Isle of Man, when I was six. The main event was between The Wild Man of Borneo and Bronco Jack Cassidy, but Orig was somewhere on the bill too. Then, I recall, he was a stern, muscular man, a terrier, solid as a rock. These days he's squatter than he should be, and walks with the broken gait of someone who's been thrown around the mat every night for 30 years. Which, as it happens, turns out to be the case. What I remember most about the Isle of Man, however, is that none of the wrestlers had been on television. There was no Les Kellett or Mick McManus, no Johnny Kwango or Adrian Street. It looked cheap and second-rate, and I wasn't interested.

Like WWF today, British wrestling was king of the television screen in those days. Saturday afternoons at 4pm were sacred moments for battling grannies across the land, who'd sit in the living room equivalent of ringside, urging some northern lad built like a brick outhouse to rip the head off some sour-faced lump made of lard. For others, particularly dads marking time till the football results came on, the wrestling was something to be laughed at, a sideshow, a con. When Greg Dyke - now Director General of the BBC, but then head of ITV sport - axed the institution that television wrestling had become on the grounds of it being too lowbrow, not only was he missing the point, but he was also making the worst decision of his career.

One only has to look to WWF to see what might have been. Promoter Vince McMahon has transformed a one-line joke, low-rent pseudo-cabaret into the hammiest of soap operas, with cartoon sex as well as violence to the fore. So successful has it proved that McMahon is about to make WWF a public concern. This side of the pond, Dyke's lack of foresight meant that British wrestling lost out, too much of an old maid in a shabby dress to ever get glammed-up enough for the corporate ball.

A FEW years after seeing Orig, The Wildman and Bronco Jack the wrestling bug really took hold. Again, it occurred at a northern seaside mecca, this time at the Pier Pavilion, Cleethorpes, on a Sunday night at the fag end of the summer season. ''Tally Ho'' Kaye, an alleged showjumper from Yorkshire, was on the bill as was Catweazle, a tramp in a sack named after a children's television character. The main event though was Kendo Nagasaki versus Big Daddy. Kendo sported a mask, and was led to the ring wearing full Japanese apparel by his manager, Gorgeous George Gillette. Everything was ceremony for Kendo. He tossed salt over either shoulder before disrobing, while George minced in cod huff mode. Big Daddy was everybody's favourite, a big bear of a man who went on to become a household name, a meat and two veg man of the people who was then still only developing his kiddies' favourite persona.

I can't remember who won, but it must have been Kendo, or else he would have had to unmask, as the ever-flexible rules of wrestling decreed. But it didn't matter. I was smitten, and returned to the Pier Pavillion two weeks later to see a grudge tag match with Kendo and George in one corner, and Daddy and the even bigger Giant Haystacks opposing. I didn't know it then, but this was the dawn of British wrestling's last gasp stranglehold on a public in search of the ever-bigger, brasher entertainment, that would finally count it out.

Last time I saw Kendo was on the cover of The Wrestling, Simon Garfield's history of the rise and fall of the British game. By this time Kendo had become an icon. His portrait had been painted by pop artist Peter Blake, and there was still an aura of mystery about him. Inside, Garfield charts the way in which Dyke effectively killed off British wrestling, and how the game had affected both the old timers and the young bucks, who were looking increasingly towards the American market if they were to survive in any way.

Orig didn't like Garfield's book. He says it was wrong to show the game's bad side like that. ''Everyone was at each other's throat,'' he says. ''Promoters like Max Crabtree and Brian Dixon slagging each other off.'' Max Crabtree is Big Daddy's brother, and one-time head of Joint Promotions, who monopolised television wrestling from the early days of ITV. Dixon is an independent promoter who picked up Joint Promotions' scraps, and took over the wrestling at Liverpool Stadium, where my love affair with wrestling continued after Cleethorpes.

Last year, I saw a Brian Dixon promotion at the once thriving Fairfield Halls in Croydon. It was as sad as anything in Garfield's book. Orig, who runs an organisation called IWF, tells me later that Dixon is all but finished now.

''He wouldn't move with the times,'' Orig says. ''You've got to go where the money is." Apparently, Dixon started promoting male strippers in the wake of The Full Monty, but even that business is drying up now. The once lucrative German tournaments are dying too, Orig tells me. It's only the American stuff that matters now.

IT'S just past six but already there's a queue round the block outside Meadowbank. Kids chuck each other about at the bus stop, while long-suffering mums and dads look on. A family affair, anticipation is high, and talk is of Stone Cold Steve, The Rock and The Undertaker, whose photo appeared in the advertising and probably sold the bulk of the tickets tonight. The Hill family have brought their five boys from Dunbar. Pauline Skead has brought her 13-year-old son Christopher, a wrestling fanatic who has collected more than 120 WWF figurines.

Tonight is a surprise for Christopher, who's mentally impaired, but is still smart enough to back a winner according to his mum. ''This is his world,'' Pauline says. ''He used to wrestle his dad, but he ended up giving him a black eye, so that had to stop.'' Orig promises to reserve ringside seats for them. One kid carries a home-made cardboard sign - ''The Undertaker Drools'', it says in red felt tip, with the ink arranged around each letter so it looks like dripping blood.

The dressing room is a far quieter affair. The Iron Duke, an imposing figure with a long blond mullet, is trying to get some kip. He sustained an injury the night before in Girvan, and seems grumpy. In the corner, LOD (Legend Of Doom), who sports a cross between a mohican and a mullet, is applying face make-up in front of a full-length mirror. They're a moody bunch, as suspicious of outsiders, especially press, as Orig was of Simon Garfield. They don't want the wrestling (always the prefix ''the'') talked down and their livelihoods ruined. It's practically Masonic, a man's world of clandestine arrangements, with body holds and linaments replacing secret handshakes. Bull Power, a former body-building prize-winner, preens himself in between dragging on a cigarette. Despite the stars 'n' stripes trunks and the posturing, Power's American accent seems to have been bred during an altogether different civil war than the one between Yankees and Unionists. Maybe that's why no-one's saying much.

In the corner, quietest of all, sits a weedy-looking young lad with a nervous look in his eye. This is Eric, a student from Cambuslang, who rang Orig when he heard the IWF roadshow was coming to town. Eric's been wrestling in his back yard for the last 18 months, and fancies his chances. Tonight he'll be Eric ''The Fist'' Canyon, squaring up to Viking Warrior, a baby-faced barrel not much older than Eric. ''Don't panic,'' Orig tells him. ''Relax.'' Eric looks like he's about to be sick.

''I'm not doing any of those fuckin' nude shots,'' says LOD, leaping out of the shower room past the photographer. ''Since when?'' comes a voice from behind a red mask that has thunderbolts either side. It's on-the-road humour, an unreconstructed machismo borne both from the profession and from being cooped up together in dressing rooms, backs of cars and cheap digs. It's exactly the same on building sites, in Portakabins decorated with porn mag wallpaper, where there's 57 varieties of accent, and where you're nicknamed after where you come from. In America you'd call it blue collar.

Wendy in the merchandise stall is setting up displays of WWF T-shirts and plastic championship belts. Kids can wear Stone Cold Steve and The Undertaker on their chests, but no-one's saying whether they're in the hall or not. Wendy insists on a corner to call her own, and has done ever since Ireland, when she was all but mobbed by 10-year-olds, pinching whatever they could grab. Wendy isn't keen on the wrestling itself. She's looking forward to some peace and quiet tonight while it's on. ''It's not my scene,'' she says.

At a quarter to seven the doors are flung open, and there's a stampede of tiny feet as 2000 pre-teens, high, no doubt, on Sunny Delight, charge into Meadowbank's Hall One. There's a playground feel to things, accentuated by the booming acoustics of what is essentially an over-size gym. A sweet-looking old lady sits by herself near the back. She looks out of place, a left-over from Britain's Seventies boom years, when similarly sweet-looking grannies underwent a frightening metamorphosis into an army of brolly-wielding Amazons. She smiles up at me, and I quake inwardly.

Of course, it could be the excitement. The same excitement I used to get every Friday night at Liverpool Stadium. I'd get there early to catch the wrestlers on the way in, and get their autographs. The Stadium was a big old barn of a place that's since been knocked down. Local boxing hero John Conteh won his world title fight there. The Sex Pistols were booked, and then cancelled, on the ill-fated Anarchy tour. Friday nights though, were for the wrestling. I saw the same Kendo-Big Daddy grudge matches countless times there. It was a revolving morality play. Good versus evil. As black and white as a western. Except with Kendo it was different. He was beyond good and evil, a villain you couldn't help but worship. At one end of The Stadium a gang of lads sat. They were the wrestling's equivalent of The Kop, and chanted for Kendo while everyone else was booing. Kendo had that effect on people.

Inside The Stadium it was ice-cold, and smelt of sweat and hot dogs from the stand outside. I can't go near a hot-dog now without getting butterflies in my stomach.

THE evening is about to begin, and everyone seems to be rushing off in several directions at once. ''Are you ready for American wrestling?'' Orig booms down an inadequate microphone, and Hall One erupts. I'm sitting ringside next to him. On Orig's left is Eric's girlfriend. She keeps a sign beside her - ''The Fist Rocks My World'', it says. Sitting in the front row to my left are Pauline and Christopher.

Orig announces Bull Power as being from Phoenix: ''The strongest man in America.'' He's up against Cain, a masked man remarkably similar to American television star Kane. Orig is commentating as inches away the ring thuds and shakes with the two men's exertions. Cain only has to stamp his feet and the entire hall does likewise. ''Choke Slam! Choke Slam! Choke Slam!'' Orig chants, and 2000 unbroken voices echo back. Again, it's a chant lifted straight from the television. As Bull Power is disqualified, it dawns on me that, in relation to the action, I'm sitting in exactly the same ringside spot as Kent Walton did for 33 years, before Greg Dyke muscled him out. When I was 10, I would have killed to be in this position.

''I wanna tell you a story,'' Orig says down the mic. Kids are starting to run round again as Orig relates the curious tale of how Eric ''The Fist'' Carson, a real live local hero, came to be among us. Bounding in holding a Saltire flag aloft, Eric ''The Fist'' doesn't look so nervous now. In true Scots fashion though, he gets gubbed by Viking Warrior, and it's all over in five minutes. There wasn't even time for Eric's girlfriend to hold up her sign. ''I just stuffed it,'' Eric tells me later. ''Apparently I just froze up as soon as I got in the ring. Undaunted, Eric plans to go back to his backyard. Viking Warrior fights LOD next, with a little help from Bull Power, and a #1000 challenge grudge match is on the cards. ''Asshole!'' chant the kids. That's what they call Vince McMahon on WWF.

Next up is Mad Mike McGregor against another local lad, Chic Cullen. Cullen trained with legendary American wrestling clan, the Harts. On Saturday night Brett Hart will feature in Wrestling With Shadows, a BBC documentary that's ''as bizarre as Kafka and as tragic as Shakespeare'' according to the Ottawa Citizen. Documentary-makers love the wrestling. Only three weeks ago there was film about how a woman wrestler divided her work and home life. Magazines love wrestling too. Tina Brown's Talk magazine ran a lengthy feature on Vince McMahon's forthcoming plans for WWF. The British magazine Bizarre recently had a ''grappling'' issue, with two barely-clothed models tussling on the cover. November's FHM compares and contrasts WWF and old time British wrestling. It's another slice of the thirtysomething, downmarket voyeurism masquerading as post-modernism, that's so beloved by the glossies.

Orig's Meadowbank show falls somewhere between the two, though as the lights go up for the interval, none of that matters. There aren't enough stewards to control the kids, Orig's stern warnings of eviction aren't doing any good, and someone's pulled Bull Powers' trunks down. There's a crush at merchandise that even Wendy can't deal with, and everyone wants a birthday announcement. On top of everything else, the PA's just packed in, effectively silencing Orig's rhetoric.

The main event sees The Iron Duke take on The Undertaker, or a version thereof. When Orig's voice is eventually returned he refers to his organisation as ''the Wrestling Federation'', carefully omitting the international part. No one seems to mind, except that later, after the eight-man Royal Rumble finale, after 20 or so kids have invaded the ring as the hall's being cleared, there are complaints. Some people couldn't see beyond the melee, someone else was accidentally knocked in a ringside scuffle. At the end of the night, money discreetly changes hands between Orig and some punters. Cash only. You'll never see a cheque book at the wrestling.

It's certainly not The Stadium, this American stuff, but then, what is? And what was it that a skinny, soon to be specky kid who couldn't kick a football to save himself loved so much? Was it what Roland Barthes in his essay on the wrestling recognised as ''the emptying out of the interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs'', or was it simpler than that? Was it that for all the wrestling's fakery and elaborate, cartoon-size con tricks, it came from somewhere real, and recognised the need for heroes to fight our battles for us, however low rent they may be.
The Hall boys from Dunbar recognise that, and Christopher probably does too. Which might be why Christopher looks so unimpressed, and why Mum and Dad Hall think it's a rip-off. One of the boys details the differences between Undertakers, and how the real one is ''much bigger, seven feet tall''.

That night there's a film on Channel Five called Can You Keep It Up For A Week? It's Seventies British tack in which young, well-spoken actresses are forever losing their clothes to a hapless, accident-prone Jack the Lad, an altogether different type of hero to the ones I've just seen. The producer of the film is one Elton Hawke, which, give or take a letter, is an anagram of Kent Walton. It's a terrible film, cheap and nasty and full of one-dimensional stereotypes rolling around with each other. It's a crude form of British seaside entertainment that, like the wrestling, has all but died out. The Americans, it seems, do it so much better. I wonder if Greg Dyke is watching, and I wonder what he thinks.

Hitman Hart - Wrestling with Shadows is on BBC2 on Saturday November 6 at 10pm

Sunday Herald Magazine - 31 Oct 1999


Gripping Stuff - The Wrestling

ONCE upon a time, everyone knew about The Wrestling. Mick McManus, Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks, Kendo Nagasaki. Once upon a time they were household names, these larger than life cartoon characters with cauliflower ears, bad tempers and, judging by the punishment theyappeared to be soaking up back when ITV's World of Sport beamed these battle-royals into living rooms across the land, unfeasibly high pain thresholds. Saturdays at four o'clock were sacred, and everyone had their favourite, even if it was only to poke fun at the parade of sweaty, overweight men in ridiculous costumes who looked like they'd be more at home on a building site than in a gladiatorial arena.

Then there was the hard-core, the ringside Johnnies and the little old ladies who flocked to the live shows week in, week out, travelling the country like a bad impression of a football supporters club. TheFairfield Halls, Croydon; Manchester Belle Vue; Liverpool Stadium: top venues all, where, unlike on the telly, you could feel the ring shake as beer bellies crashed about it and the adrenaline from the crowd united into a mighty roar. But that was the Seventies, and once incoming TV boss Greg Dyke unceremoniously removed The Wrestling from our screens in 1988, everything changed. Too lowbrow they said, while the age-old rigged-or-real debate clinched it.

All this was highlighted in Simon Garfield's brilliant piece of social history, The Wrestling, which presented the tragic tale of the sport's rise and fall, told through the words of those in the thick of it. Forthirtysomethings with fond memories of idle Saturdays cheering on Big Daddy it struck a chord, while for anyone younger, it opened them up to the hidden world of what silky-voiced commentator Kent Walton used to call the "grunt 'n' grapple game".

"I sent copies of the book to everyone I spoke to, but I never heard from any of them," Garfield says two years on, and in Edinburgh to oversee the final stages of rehearsal of the book's stage adaptation,performed by actor Alex Lowe. Lowe takes the role of Scott Bradley, a wrestling blue-eyed boy disillusioned with the British scene and about to decamp to America. His character, according to Lowe, is "an amalgam of Robbie Brookside and James Mason, men who came into the wrestling game quite late, and who both feature in the book."

Lowe was attracted to both the book and the sport by its theatrical nature, and, as an actor, appreciated its play-acting edge. "Because of these personas they take on, you start thinking, who is Kendo Nagasaki, and who is the person behind the mask? As an actor too, playing a role, you think, well, who am I?" The French semiologist Roland Barthes, who penned an essay on The Wrestling in Mythologies, couldn't have put it better. But what of the real thing?

Croydon's Fairfield Halls still has monthly wrestling shows, but they aren't exactly buzzing these days. Promoter Brian Dixon, who's been putting on wrestling since the early Seventies, is flogging tatty programmes and cheap American merchandise in the foyer. The bar houses a motley crew of old-timers polishing up old legends and kids weaned on Gladiators, The Wrestling's alleged natural son and heir, hoping to be party to new ones. Fat chance.

Tonight there's Tag, as an overweight masked man and his well-toned partner Black Magic mix it with the inexplicably named Canary Kid (he wears blue, has long dark hair and baby beard) and his boyish partner, the Lightning Kid, named presumably because of his out and out scrawniness. Within minutes you realise that the theatrical aspects of things are a shockingly crude example of bad theatre. The constant mugging to the audience, the cod histrionics, the performers' desperate need to be loved, hated or worse, to be a somebody. And it goes on every night in far smarter Arts Council funded centres of excellence than the Fairfield Halls. At most there are about 300 people in the audience. Empty seats are in abundance. It may not be Wembley Stadium, but 300 is still about 290 more than your average Edinburgh Fringe audience.

Brian Dixon tries to liven things up with spotlights, badly-cued music and even a raffle, not to mention his Wheeltappers and Shunters patter. "We've got Miss Croydon here," he jokes after inviting a girl from the front row to make the prize draw. "Gerremoff!" shouts someone sportingly. Meanwhile, two sociology students hooked on irony provide a running commentary as a child wanders past in a Power Rangers mask.

The main event is an Over The Top Rumble, an idea imported from America, which sees 10 men in the ring, every man for himself as they attempt to get their multiple opponents over the top rope. The last man standing is the winner. Most familiar face is Marty Jones, a one-time light-heavyweight favourite who has turned to lard since he last hurled himself around on TV. The most "over the top" thing of all, though, is Brian Dixon's commentary. "The louder you shout, the harder they hit," he says, a crowd-pleaser only marginally more effective than Jones's catchphrase "Shut it!" S

omeone from the stalls rises to the bait and rushes ringside to take a swipe. He's ushered gently but firmly to his seat. "Push! Push!" shouts Dixon, as if young buck Gary B Ware was about to give birth. Dixon is no Kent Walton. And yet, in the heat of the moment, which lasts 20 minutes or so, it almost works. Almost. Jones eventually wins, but is immediately set upon by Skull Murphy, a villain eliminated earlier. Jones grabs the mic and lays down a challenge. Murphy is away to the dressing room by then, but the groundwork for a grudge match has been laid. Just in time for the winter season, too.

At the end of the night, the kids have their giant Gladiators fingers, the nutter who kept trying to get ringside is chatting up Miss Croydon. Real or rigged, who cares? The Wrestling may be cheap, nasty, low-rent fare, but, even on its last legs like this, it still manages to touch people in a way Cool Britannia never will. It's telling that, on SkySport's recent Wrestling Classics season, the closing credits are played out to Chumbawamba's suitably anthemic 'Tubthumping'. Not for the damp squib of the band's make-believe anarchism, but for the sentimentalising of a forgotten class. And once a month at the Fairfield Halls and civic centres across the land, that class that Blair's Britain won't admit to existing, comes out of hiding once again. Not just for a good night out, but for a sense of release, some affirmation of dignity in what looks suspiciously like something resembling Community.

"Six and a half quid for that crap?" declaims one disgruntled punter. And he may have a point, but talk turns to the old days before any economic argument can be developed. Of masked icon Kendo Nagasaki and his gay, bearded manager George Gillette, who "should've got back to the bloody jungle". Of how Kendo's secret identity was exposed by a Wolverhampton plumber who handed out flyers with his address on outside wrestling halls. The full story is in Garfield's book, but it's doubtful whether any of the Fairfield regulars will have read it. Word of mouth is how the old days, always the old days, are immortalised here. The corporate culture that raped other sports and made them acceptable for the middle classes passed the wrestling by. In hindsight those involved probably wished it hadn't, but it was too set in its ways, too stubborn to change. And now, despite Brian Dixon's last-gasp efforts with his half-hearted salesman-come-missionary act, it's probably too late. The Wrestling will go on, but as an end of the pier freakshow.

The hippest band on the block, Black Box Recorder, led by Anglo-centric maverick Luke Haines, recognised this, too, when they chose a picture from Garfield's book for their album cover. It shows peroxided pretty-boy Adrian Street standing proudly next to his Dad, a miner. Both wear the costumes of their trade, Street in full powder-puff regalia, his Dad black-faced and pit-helmeted. Grafters both.

Dixon is guarded once he realises there's a journalist in the hall. "I never finished it to be honest," he says diplomatically when asked if he's read Garfield's book. "But I would like a word with Simon." And that's the end of it. Remind him of the times when thousands would flock to Liverpool Stadium on a Friday night to find new heroes to look up to, new villains to hate, or just to let off steam, and his facelights up. "You can't beat them days, eh?" he beams, and you can see that in his eyes he's gone back 20 years, to the Stadium's vast, crumbling expanse, that he can smell the hot-dog stand outside as wellas the stale sweat inside. And just for a moment you're right up there with him, at the ringside. And you know that he's right.

**Roll of honour

Mick McManus - The bad guy everyone remembers, who made cauliflower ears a fashion statement alongside his immovable spiv's haircut. In real life a bit of a charmer. Garfield's book contains pictures of him with the Rolling Stones, Raquel Welsh and Tommy Cooper.

Les Kellett - The original funny man, or so commentator Kent Walton would have viewers believe as he laughed like a drain at his antics. Garfield's book blows away this myth though, exposing Kellett as a hard man, feared and despised by other wrestlers.

Giant Haystacks - The other big man everyone remembers. 6ft 11in and 33 stone, this big bear of a man might not have got around the ring much, but when he did whoever was on the receiving end of things knew about it. Rumoured to be writing his life story.

Kendo Nagasaki - Greatest British masked wrestler ever, as loved as he was loathed. Mixing eastern mysticism with cloak and dagger theatrics, his appeal lay in both his charisma and his aloofness. Now retired, Nagasaki is a successful businessman and has managed several bands.

Big Daddy - The kids favourite, aka Shirley Crabtree, was a former Coldstream guardsman who was just another heavyweight before reinventing himself as Daddy. Entered the ring to 'We Shall Not Be Moved' in a sparkly top hat like an overweight Noddy Holder, Crabtree crossed over into a much widerpublic domain, with Big Daddy annuals and souvenirs. He even made This Is Your Life, while Margaret Thatcher sent him a signed photograph. Died last year.

Mitzi Mueller - The undisputed queen of women's wrestling, and the darling of the crowd. Women's wrestling was seen by some to be some kind of titillation but Mueller did her best to make it respectable. Fought her final bout at the Royal Albert Hall and is now married to longtime promoter Brian Dixon.

**That's showbiz

Brian Glover - Shakespearian actor and British institution who wrestled under the nameLeon Arras after the genuine Belgian grappler failed to turn up one night.

Jimmy Savile - Just how Jim fixed this is anybody's guess, but the peroxide disc jockey had more than 100 fights as a pro wrestler, and lost the lot. Walking Land's End to John o' Groats was probably easy peasy after that.

Harvey Smith - Best known as a show-jumping star, the flamboyant horseman went through a spell as a pro-wrestler too. His speciality was riding his opponents around the ring, funnily enough.

Scotland On Sunday - 9 Aug 1998