Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Metronomy

Cabaret Voltaire, Edinburgh
4 stars
There's something that feels scarily like you've gate-crashed an
episode of hedonistic teen drama Skins at this fourteens and over show,
such is the sing-along fervour that Joseph Mount's squeaky-clean
electro-pop dervishes are greeted with. It's easy to see why,
especially after the too eager to please but increasingly powerful
estuarised indie hip hop of support act Ghostpoet, whose current BBC
6Music favourite Survive It is shaping up to be an anthem for the
twenty-first century dole queue kids.

Metronomy themselves are appealingly geeky and unerringly polite in
their demeanour, even as they serve up a jaunty brand of left-field
suburban pop as demonstrated on their recent third album, The English
Riviera. It's an angular sound that continues a line from XTC through
to Field Music, but which live becomes a musclebound punk-funk
maelstrom powered by Gbenga Adelekan's slap bass guitar and Anna
Prior's crisp drum beats that underscore Mount's guitar and Oscar
Cash's playfully burbling laptop-free keyboard sounds.

At times all this veers off into a series of low-attention span
instrumentals, the restless time changes of which recall Battles, and
are what really gets the teens jumping beyond the onstage
shape-throwing, co-ordinated salutes and flashing chest-lights that
accompany the more frantic moments. Recent single The Look is a little
wiggy symphony that bounces along for all its worth, though its the far
moodier She Wants, for which the lights are suitably dimmed, that is
Metronomy's finest moment to date. Once that's out the way, Mount and
co rock out in the nicest possible sense of the word, doing it for
themselves as much as the kids in a way that combines frenzied fun with
charm.

The Herald, April 27th 2011

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Karla Black - From the British Art Show to Venice

Karla Black likes making a mess. Granted her large-scale sculptures are
an organised mess straight out of some pre-school activity club
exercise in making do with every smelly material to hand, but a
glorious mess nevertheless. It's this constant child-like striving to
make order out of chaos by way of a primal imagination bursting forth
into the world that finds Black not just a highlight of this year's
British Art Show, which tours to Glasgow this month following a stint
at the Hayward in London, but also, as curated by Edinburgh's
Fruitmarket Gallery, the Scottish representative in the forthcoming
Venice Bienalle.

West Dumbartonshire-born Black may already be internationally renowned
for work that at various points has included lipstick, nail varnish,
body cream and fizzed-up Alka Seltza left out in the rain as its raw
materials, but both gigs remain pretty high profile stuff. For the
British Art Show – subtitled 'In the Days of the Comet,' Black has made
two pieces which loosely fit with curators Lisa Le Feuvre and Tom
Morton's notion of thinking about the here and now in different ways.

Brains Are Really Everything' is an eighty centimetre high, two metres
long sculpture made of different colours of soil to create striped
layers with powder paint, plaster powder and soap on its top surface.
'There Can Be No Arguments' is a hanging sculpture made of polythene
that has been shaken up in a bag with a mix of powder paint and plaster
powder to give it a light dusting of colour. If such a description
sounds like some free-form 1960s style splurge, think again, because as
Black tells it, there's a discreet but well-crafted discipline to her
work.

“The work is a result of behaving very physically in the material
world,” Black explains via email, her preferred form of conducting
interviews. “I don't work entirely instinctively. The beginning of the
process is instinctive, or unconscious, but my conscious mind,
aesthetics, formal concerns and propensity for editing come into play
fairly quickly. And then language comes in after that.”
Black studied at Glasgow School of Art between 1995 and 2004, and still
lives in the city, where she is represented by Mary Mary. Having shown
widely in Europe, as well as at The Tate in London and Inverleith House
in Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Gardens, any through line in Black's work
is down to process.

“The same behaviour as is prevalent in all of the other works is in
there too,” she says of her British Art show pieces, “as is the
presence of raw material and colour.”

For Venice, Black will be working on an even larger scale, filling the
eight rooms of the fifteenth century Palazzo Pisani at the Calle del
Erbe near the Rialto Bridge, the same space occupied by Martin Boyce as
Scotland's representation in 2010. Black will work on site to make a
series of new works that aim to hover between energy and mass, and
which, by the sound of it, look set to overwhelm the space to the point
of threatening to spill out.

“I'm trying to keep the work true to its basic character of
experimentation and raw materiality,” Black says. “In Venice I will
fill the eight rooms of the palazzo with a vast amount of 'almost
objects' made of a variety of powders, creams, gels, oils and pastes,
at times directly on the floor but also on paper, cellophane and
polythene. The main challenge is trying to be very organised in advance
- it's not really possible to source any materials in Venice so
everything has to come from here, and a lot of the work has to be
modular and light because it all has to be hoisted in through a small
window. I'm getting a lot of help with organisation and logistics from
a very efficient project manager.

Beyond the British Art Show and Venice, Black will be working towards a
show of sculptures sitting alongside paintings by Georgia O'Keefe for
the Kunsthalle, Vienna in 2013. With Black's ever expanding palette now
straddling continents, then, where, one wonders, does such a primal
sense of play come from? The answer, it seems, is simple.

“From the animal that I am!” says Black.

Karla Black will show as part of British Art Show 7: In The Days of the
Comet at Tramway, Glasgow, from May 27th-August 21st. Scotland and
Venice runs at the 54th International Art Exhibition of the Venice
Bienalle from June 4-November 27th

The List, April 2011

ends

Kommissar Hjuler & Mama Baer / Ninni Morgia & Silvia Kastel

The Banshee Labrynth, Edinburgh
Monday April 18th
4 stars
Two couples stand side by side in a projected snapshot at the back of
the stage. The fashions are retro, the pose casually studied somewhere
between a 1970s terrorist cell and the anti-Abba. In the flesh, a
blonde woman is slumped on all fours on the floor, babbling profane
gibberish in free-associative tongues into a microphone. Her partner
behind her, a dark-haired man, manipulates an old-fashioned cassette
recorder. Further back, a dark-haired woman stands behind a vintage
Korg synth unleashing shards of white noise into the ether. The small
man next to her scrapes out minimal abstractions from his electric
guitar, gradually steering things into full-on metal.

These two noise duos playing together in a German/Italian avant
provocateur supergroup alliance are closer to live art in their sonic
extrapolations. Together they conjure up the ghosts of Throbbing Gristle by way of Popol Vuh and Diamanda Galas all the way through to Les Georges Leningrad's infantile Dada in this most
beguilingly insular of spectral confrontations.

The List, April 2011

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Paul Vickers and The Leg/Andy Brown/Zed Penguin

Sneaky Pete's, Edinburgh
Thursday April 14th
4 stars
Edinburgh eccentrica in exelcis is the order of the day for this triple
bill based around the unveiling of Paul Vickers and The Leg's
forthcoming third album of wacked-out Beefhearian music-hall blart.
Opening proceedings, however, is Zed Penguin, aka Aussie ex-pat Matthew
Winter, whose vintage amp appears to have a heartbeat, and who ushers
himself in with an elaborate backing track intro before launching into
a set of heavily-echoed thrash-blues that errs towards the left-field
in a twangingly captivating fashion.

Even more of a show-man is Sara and the Snakes guitarist and best
dressed man about town Andy Brown, who in his Victorian Karaoke guise
plays to backing tapes, effectively duetting with himself in a voice
somewhere between a whisper and a growl. Brown changes hats, gives a
singalong rendition of tiny tots nursery rhyme 'This Little Piggy,' and
does warped disco segues into George McCrae's mid-70s dancefloor
shuffler 'Rock Your Baby' in a way that looks and sounds increasingly
Robert Wyatt.

Vickers and co themselves are in splendidly abrasive form, mixing
material old and new as a diversion from their sorely overlooked
concept opera, 'Itchy Grumble.' Drummer Alun Thomas still dresses like
a panda, only now with extra-added goatee whiskers. The remainder of the
band stand newly unmasked, with cellist Pete Harvey and guitarist Dan
Mutch clearly having fun while Vickers belts out a selection of brand
new short story oddities, most of which seem to be based around
gardening. As the band play like their lives depended on it, first
album classic 'The Ballad of Bess Houdini' becomes a jaunty roar of
serious fun on a night that veered towards alternative cabaret revue in
all its dressed-down glory.

The List, April 2011

ends

Pitlochry Festival Theatre 60th Anniversary Season

Change is in the air in Pitlochry this year. Not at first glance, it
has to be said, as to the naked eye the town this time of year remains
the most tasteful tourist trap for miles, salmon ladder and all. Look
beyond the politesse of afternoon teas and ice-cream in the sun,
however, and you'll see the most impeccably turned out theatre in the
country warming up for its sixtieth anniversary season of six plays
with some very familiar themes on show. As what has effectively been
the stylistic equivalent of a west end producing theatre set against a
picture postcard backdrop of rolling Perthshire hills, Pitlochry
Festival Theatre understands tradition more than most, but as artistic
director John Durnin explains, this year's selection of classic works
have been very carefully chosen.

“It was quite a challenge to think about how we put the 2011 programme
together,” he says on a rare break from the rehearsal room, where three
productions are already on the go, with schedules juggled aplenty.
“There were lots of ideas going around about the theatre's sixtieth,
like we talked of maybe having each show represent a particular year.
But in the end, we decided that it would make more sense of what we
wanted to do by trying to represent some if the eras of when the
Festival Theatre was being constructed in the 1940s and 1950s, as well
as representing the current style of repertoire, which now includes a
musical. On top of that, we wanted to revisit some of the playwrights
who've proved to be the most popular here, so that became about Alan
Ayckbourn and Arthur Wing Pinero. We also wanted to do something by
James Bridie, whose plays have really dropped out of view, but who was
instrumental, not just in the history of Pitlochry Festival Theatre,
but in Scottish theatre in a much broader context. With all of that on
board, all the plays we chose ended up being about change and the
passing of time in some way.”

The result of all this brain-storming is a season that opens with My
Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's musical version of
George Bernard Shaw's play, Pygmalion. This is followed quickly by
Henceforward, a dark science-fiction comedy by Alan Ayckbourn that has
been little seen since its 1987 premiere. Next up is See How They Run!,
Philip King's World War Two-set farce involving off-duty soldiers
dressing up as vicars, and which first played at PFT way back in 1965.
Trelawny of The 'Wells' is a PFT rarity, in that up to now it has been
the only major Pinero play never to be produced at the theatre. This is
rectified this summer, however, as the Victorian yarn of an actress
trying to fit in with the establishment while her old profession moves
from melodrama to realism reflects its own author's love affair with
the theatre of his youth in the 1860s.

There's more stage-bound fun to be had in Privates on Parade, Peter
Nichols' nostalgic look back at the sort of post World war Two army
concert party he was a member of with the likes of Kenneth Williams and
Stanley Baxter at a time when cross-dressing was de rigeur, fuelling
British light entertainment for years afterwards. In something of as
coup, the PFT production will be the Scottish premiere of Nichols' 2001
revised version. Finally, on what is also the sixtieth anniversary of
James Bridie's death, PFT's final production will be Dr Angelus, a tale
of medical quackery and mystery that originally featured Alastair Sim
in the title role, and which was one of Bridie's last great works.

“On one level,” Durnin admits, “the programme isn’t entirely
unrecognisable to how its always been. But the key to the longevity of
Pitlochry Festival Theatre is found in its elements of continuity. So
to put six shows on in the way you do, the rep has to function in a
certain way, and you mess with that at your peril. I think what I hoped
we'd develop as we went along with the programme was to introduce more
contemporary voices and experiences into the mix, and I think to some
extent we've achieved that. But you absolutely can't throw the baby out
with the bath-water.”

Sure enough, while the 2011 PFT season might not look as obviously
adventurous as previous years, it nevertheless retains a sense of
occasion regarding the anniversary that both compliments and respects
the theatre's audience. Besides which, since taking up his post in
2003, Durnin has undoubtedly pushed the envelope in terms of the sort
of contemporary work he talks about. One of the key features of
Durnin's tenure has been to put on second productions of plays by
living Scottish writers. David Greig's Outlying Islands, Good Things by
Liz Lochhead and, perhaps most eyebrow-raising of all, the drugs and
gangsters scenario of Simon Donald's 1994 play, The Life of Stuff, have
all been seen on the Pitlochry stage.

For the future, like any other arts organisation squaring up to
impending cuts in funding, Pitlochry Festival Theatre remains pragmatic
as well as artistically ambitious.

“We need to maintain the standards of what we do to attract audiences,”
Durnin asserts, “but we absolutely have to do that without diminishing
the programme. In the long term, we're not just working towards another
sixty years, but we're thinking about what the theatre's role could be
and how it can evolve. We're already having conversations with Creative
Scotland about what contribution we can make economically as much as
artistically, and eventually Pitlochry festival Theatre might come to
look like one of the big North American theatre festivals.”

Durnin retains the same quietly evangelical fervour about the
possibilities for Pitlochry as when he first arrived. If anything, his
experience over the last eight years has made that drive even stronger.

“This is an organisation unlike any other,” Durnin says, “and it does
take a long time to understand it and adapt. You almost have to learn a
brand new methodology before you can learn the creative possibilities
that exist here. When I first came here, right from the word go I
wanted to introduce a musical theatre strand into the programme.
Remarkably that had never been explored here, and it took a long time
to work out how we would do it. Now actors who play musical instruments
is an important component of our ensemble, and our production of Whisky
Galore is the single biggest selling show at Pitlochry ever, with Kiss
Me Kate the third best selling show ever. We've capitalised on that by
doing My Fair Lady, and in the rest of the programme as well, I think
all the plays are very much in the spirit of what Pitlochry was, is and
can be about. Pitlochry doesn't really do kitchen-sink. It tells big
stories that put an entire society onstage. That's when you see the
theatre at it's best.”

Pitlochry Festival Theatre's 60th Anniversary Season opens on May 13th
with My Fair Lady.
www.pitlochry.org.uk

ends

Pitlochry Festival Theatre's 60th Anniversary Season opens on May 13th
and runs until October 15th. The season will run in repertoire as each
play opens, with all evening performances at 8pm, and matinees on
Thursdays and Saturdays at 2pm.

My Fair Lady – opens May 13th, 8pm
John Durnin directs an ensemble of eighteen actor-musicians in Lerner
and Loewe's adaptation of Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion in which
Professor of phonetics Henry Higgins attempts to teach cockney flower
girl Eliza Doolittle to talk proper and introduce her to society to win
a bet. Featuring show-stopping numbers I Could've Danced All Night, Get
Me To the Church On time and stalker's anthem On The Street Where You
Live, Durnin's production continues PFT's policy of introducing
musicals into the programme following hits with Whisky Galore and Kiss
Me Kate

Henceforward... - opens May 19th, 2pm
Ken Alexander directs the first Alan Ayckbourn play to grace the PFT
repertoire for four years. This dark oddity dates from 1987, and was
Ayckbourn's thirty-fourth full-length work, and the first to lean
towards science-fiction, as it leaps into a future where an avant-garde
composer best known for a TV commercial jingle attempts to sort out his
domestic strife and gain custody of his daughter with the aid of an out
of work actress and a female robot.

See How They Run! - opens May26th, 2pm
Richard Baron directs Philip King's World War Two-set farce, which was
first seen at PFT in 1956. Set in the idyllic village of
Merton-cum-Middlewick in 1942, King's merry dance of a plot involves a
new vicar, his actress wife and a host of imposters in dog-collars en
route to watch a Noel Coward play in a very English romp that is
tailor-made summertime fare.

Trelawny of The 'Wells' – opens June 2nd, 2pm
John Durnin directs the only major Pinero play to have yet been seen on
the PFT stage, and it's yet another consciously theatrical
dressing-up-box of a play, as the rising star of Sadler's Wells
attempts to fit in with more conventional Victorian society while her
world is turned upside down even further as onstage melodrama gives way
to voguish realism.

Privates on Parade – opens July 14th, 2pm
Richard Baron directs Peter Nichols' post World War Two costume party
romp in a version updated by Nichols in 2001 from his 1977 original.
Based on Nichols' own experience in service with the likes of Stanley
Baxter and set among the doyens of The Song And Dance Unit South East
Asia, expect Marlene Dietrich impersonators, Fred and Ginger routines
in the last days of the British empire.

Dr Angelus – opens August 17th, 8pm
To commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of playwright James Bridie's
death that coincides with PFT's own anniversary, Ken Alexander directs
Bridie's little-performed 1947 black comedy. Set in Glasgow in 1920
among the very peculiar practice of the title character, a new quack in
town becomes increasingly bewildered by his new attachment in a work
made famous by Alastair Sim's bravura turn.

The Herald, April 26th 2011

ends

Ovid's Metamorphosis

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
4 stars
There's something ineffably clever about Pants on Fire's audacious
reimagining of Roman poet Ovid's post-BC best-seller. It's not just its
re-jigged setting to World War Two England, where soldiers of land, sea
and air rub up against posh-frocked gels who talk in cut-glass, quite
too utterly pukkah tones. It's the way this devised show, written and
directed by Peter Bramley alongside a seven-strong ensemble of
actor-musicians, manage to wend their merry way through a well-drilled
whirlwind of utilitarian parlour-room show-and-tell with hints of
Weimar cabaret to serve up a breathless reinvention of ancient myths.
This comes by way of a series of doomed golly-gosh yarns of love, death
and derring-do that attempt to pluck some order from the
all-encroaching chaos.

So Jupiter is a randy old toff whose long-suffering spouse Juno works a
magic of her own, Cupid is a mischievous, catapult-wielding evacuee,
Semele a pool-loving escapee from a Busby Berkeley flick, and Narcissus
a square-jawed matinee idol who falls head-over-heels for his
big-screen image just as cinema usherette Echo hangs on his every word.
Co-opting Ovid's focus on affairs of the heart for their own ends, such
is the propensity of stiff-upper-lipped top-drawer rumpy-pumpy that at
times one wonders whether one has landed on a staging of an unaired
episode of The Camomile Lawn.

But there's a serious point to this high-concept melange of puppetry,
film and live action. It may take until the birth of Bacchus for the
bunting to come out and the party to really get started, but it's left
to blind old man Tiresius to prophecy a future of death, disaster and
disharmony. Victory, it seems, comes with a price.

The Herald, April 25th 2011

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Ivan and the Dogs

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
5 stars
Recession-divined poverty destroys lives. Yet the survivor of
post-Communist Russia's 1990s economic meltdown in Hattie Naylor's
devastating solo play - a co-production between ATC and Soho Theatre - suggests there can be the strangest of liberations too. Based on a true story, Naylor's hour-long monologue
tells the harrowing yet appositely heart-warming tale of one
psychologically and emotionally damaged little boy's Dickensian flight
from domestic abuse onto the cold Moscow streets with only two packets
of crisps and a photograph of his mother for comfort.

Before he can be one more statistic, Ivan is taken under the wing of a
white dog and her brood of fellow strays. This pack he runs with become
his new family, developing an unspoken trust as they run the gauntlet
of gangsters, police and more hardened street urchin addicts, who only
confirm to Ivan that all humans are bad.

As related by actor Rad Kaim from the interior of a small raised white
cube that on Naomi Wilkinson's set, lit up by video projections of
canines in motion, might be a cell or a kennel, this remarkable tale
becomes an intensely concentrated glimpse into the brutal joys of
Ivan's former world. Delivered without fuss or histrionics in a low-key
whisper and pulsed by a soundscape by Dan Jones that mixes amplified
Russian language noises off and sounds of abuse with poignant piano
sketches, the effect in Ellen McDougall's flawless slow burner of a
production is both harrowing and mesmeric. This all comes home to roost
once Ivan is put back on civilisation's leash. The dreams he relates of
running wild and free light up his face with memories of a rare time, a
time when he was truly happy.

The Herald, April 25th 2011

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Mayfesto 2011 - Looking Left With Andy Arnold

There's a feeling of deja vu sitting in the bright and airy office of
Tron Theatre artistic director Andy Arnold. This time last year, he was
preparing to launch the inaugural Mayfesto, a mini showcase of
politically motivated but all too human theatre that drew inspiration
from the now defunct Mayfest festival that throughout the 1980s formed
a major part of Glasgow's cultural calendar. Then, as Arnold unveiled
his programme in what looked set to be the last days of New Labour in a
recession-blighted Britain, a happy coincidence saw Mayfesto open on
the day of the Westminster General Election that would – eventually –
force then Prime Minister Gordon Brown from office and usher in the
dubious alliance of Tory leader David Cameron and Lib Dem sidekick Nick
Clegg.

In the year since, there's been rioting on the streets, an increase in
unemployment and an increasingly widespread sense of public unrest
manifesting itself in threats of industrial action and civil disorder.
The people, it seems, have rediscovered their political mojo, and
Mayfesto's grassroots, small is beautiful aesthetic chimed perfectly
with such a groundswell.

Today, and again fortuitously, this year's Mayfesto opens on the eve of
the Scottish elections that may or may not see an even dodgier set of
alliances attempt to gain power at Holyrood. There's also the small
matter of the referendum on voting reform, currently proving to be a
cross-party hot potato as some very strange bedfellows align themselves
to one side of the other, with former Labour heavyweight John Reid
lining up alongside David Cameron, while, in a case of spot the
difference, Lib Dem Vince Cable sides with UK Labour leader Ed
Milliband.

May 5th, however, is also the thirtieth anniversary of the death of a
democratically elected politician who almost certainly won't be
receiving any fanfares on election day. It was a different story in
1981, when the emaciated form of Irish Republican prisoner and hunger
striker Bobby Sands finally gave up the ghost, making headlines around
the world. Mayfesto, at least, honours the occasion with a rehearsed
reading of Ten Men Dead, a work-in-progress of a play derived from
journalist David Beresford's definitive history of the hunger strike
that aimed to secure political status for convicted Republicans.

Developed from a Nasional Theatre of Scotland workshop by playwright
Nicola McCartney and Communicado director Gerry Mulgrew, Ten Men Dead
aims to put one of the most controversial periods of twentieth century
British and Irish history back in focus in a way that thus far only
visual artist Steve McQueen's film, the Enda Walsh scripted Hunger, has
managed.

“The book is regarded as the authentic document of the hunger strikes,”
says Arnold. “But having said that, it's not just about the hunger
strikes. There's a much more universal thing going on about elements of
the culture of hunger strikes, which go back hundreds and thousands of
years, when people would settle their disputes by going to their
landlords doors and starving themselves to death. The ignominy of
having someone starving themselves outside your house was always too
much, so people always coughed up, whatever the dispute was.”

Not so, it seems, under the 1980s reign of UK Prime Minister Margaret
Thatcher, who, on the day Sands died, securing his own martyrdom to his
cause, spoke in the House of Commons of how Sands was 'a convicted
criminal.'

A strong current of Irish work runs throughout Mayfesto, reflecting a
similar influence on Mayfest itself throughout the 1980s. As well as
the reading of Ten Men Dead, the Dublin-based Fishamble company bring a
revival of Forgotten, a solo piece written and performed by Pat
Kinevane, who combines Irish story-telling and Japanese Kabuki theatre
to play four pensioners over eighty who reside in care homes. David
Ireland may be best known on Scottish stages as an actor, but in
Ireland he is fast forging a reputation for himself as a playwright of
note. His Everything Between Us is produced by Tinderbox Theatre
Company, and is set in Stormont in Belfast on the eve of a newly formed
Truth and Reconciliation Commission For Northern Ireland. As one woman
prepares to take her seat, her sister bursts into the chamber in an
action that may be a terrorist plot, or else might just be a means of
announcing her prodigal's return.

There are further acts of violence in Grenades, Tara McKevitt's tale
of childhood consequence for Mephisto Theatre, while the Blue Raincoat
company hark back to Ireland's literary heritage with their adaptation
of Flann O'Brien's comic novel, At-Swim-Two-Birds.

“There is such an appeal for Irish work in Glasgow,” Arnold points out.
“I love Irish plays, anyway, but you only have to put the tickets on
sale for an Irish play for them to fly out the door. The work on Ten
Men Dead hasn't even started yet, but its already sold out.”

Wales too gets a look in with the Tron's own revival of Gary Owen's
small-town riot of a play, Crazy Gary's Mobile Disco, directed by Leann
O'Kasi. It's to its own doorstep Arnold looks to for the rest of the
Mayfesto programme, however, which looks decidedly more user friendly
than last year. Iain Heggie's scurrilous solo piece, King of Scotland,
is revived by the Glasgow Actors company in a re-written production
featuring Only An Excuse funny-man Jonathan Watson as the play's
long-term unemployed hero.

A second Tron production finds playwright David Harrower directing for
the first time with A Slow Air, which features real life siblings
Kathryn and Lewis Howden as a brother and sister leading very different
lives who are forced together after fourteen years of mutual silence.
Elsewhere, performer and film-maker Catriona MacInnes will present Play
Me Something, a multi-media work-in-progress reinterpretation of
Timothy Neat and John Berger's 1989 island-set film. The Tron Young
Company will present From A City Balcony, a Glasgow-set work based on
the poems of Edwin Morgan, while scratch playwriting initiative Ink
will present 24 Hour Plays, in which five writers, ten actors will
write, rehearse and perform new works over the course of a single day.
Two more play-readings, of peter Arnott's 1985 debut, White Rose, and
of Alexander Galin's Stars of the Night Sky, first performed at Tramway
in 1990, will continue a programme by The Visitors company's mission to
reintroduce audiences to neglected home-grown classics.

Kick-starting Mayfest the night before the election, however, will be
It's A Dead Liberty. Of all the works on show, this compendium of sings
and satirical cabaret culled from the archives of left-leaning theatre
companies wild cat and 7:84 is the most explicit reminder of how things
have come full circle politically and artistically.

“This is a good old fashioned political cabaret,” Arnold says of the
four very different nights performed by Wildcat stalwart Dave Anderson
alongside musician, actor and some time Dick Gaughan saxophonist Allan
Tall ( he played, appropriately enough, on a song called Revolution),
comedian Sandy Nelson and others. “I think it'll be great fun, but
overall this is less of a political programme this time. There is more
populist stuff in that word's broadest sense that's just good theatre.
My main motivation with Mayfesto was just to have a celebration of
theatre in Glasgow, which is such a theatre-orientated city. Last year
it just happened there was a lot of stuff about casualties of war, yet
none of the plays were political in a way, but I think there may have
been a worry by some people that they might get lectured at. I worry as
well about political theatre, because it can be didactic, but the best
plays, while they might come out of a political conflict, there isn't a
political statement in them, because they're about people. So this year
I thought let's have a Celtic format as a loose umbrella, but with a
broader appeal so we can get to a wider public.”

Such aims are in keeping with the spirit of Mayfests past, and is
something Arnold aims to capitalise on in future Mayfestos, with an
ever-developing manifesto of his own.

“I don't want to get into the trap of programming a much bigger
festival,” Arnold admits, “but maybe next year we'll get other theatres
involved. Then in 2014 we'll maybe shove it into July and have a
Commonwealth arts festival.”

Mayfesto runs at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, from May 4th-28th
www.tron.co.uk/mayfesto

The Herald, April 23rd 2011

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Aberfeldy

Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh
4 stars
When Aberfeldy front-man Riley Briggs lost both a record label and some crucial members of his band following two albums of classically crafted grown-up pop, some thought the group would implode completely. Eighteen months on, Briggs hasn’t so much reinvented Aberfeldy as reinvigorated the band’s existing template. There’s a new duo of female multi-instrumentalist vocal foils playing keyboards that still sound lifted from a 1970s science programme. There’s also Chris Bradley adding weight on acoustic guitar, which allows Briggs to go a little bit Peter Frampton if he chooses.

What’s clear most of all through tonight’s selections of material old and new is that Briggs’ commercial sensibilities and way with a lyric should by rights see him hailed as one of the country’s cleverest song-writers. New single Claire, a homage to a complaining neighbour, is up there with the Difford and Tilbrook back catalogue, Denial may be the best break-up song since Prefab Sprout’s When Love Breaks Down, while Malcolm, co-written “with the daughter of the saxophonist from Van der Graaf Generator,” is a knowingly odd love story set to an oriental country twang.

Elsewhere, Uptight is a dead ringer for Lionel Ritchie’s All Night Long, while an irony free take on Chris De Burgh’s A Spaceman Came Travelling sits neatly next to Briggs’ own extra-terrestrial hymn, Heliopolis By Night, the opening of which tonight threatens to lurch into Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart. With support band The Gillyflowers, led by the wonderful Kirsten Adamson on Maria McKee-like vocals, joining in on a rousing version of Shakin’ Stevens’ Merry Christmas, Everyone, Aberfeldy are clearly back in the saddle and should be taken very seriously indeed.

The Herald, December 26th 2008

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Aalst

Tramway, Glasgow
4 stars
When an underclass couple slaughter their two children in a small town hotel room, the kneejerk reaction is to find them guilty as charged. Seated side by side in the cruel public glare, Cathy and Michael Delaney’s own lives are relentlessly poked and prodded in a manner that tests every liberal sensibility they’re in the presence of.

What unravels in Duncan Mclean’s English-language version of Pol Heyvaert and Dimitri Verhulst’s Flemish original is a brutal cycle of poverty, crime and abuse destined to repeat and repeat until it’s beaten out of existence. Over a punishingly intense 70 minute interrogation by an un-named Voice (provided by Gary Lewis), Cathy and Michael are in turns edgy, remorseful, merciless, indifferent, self-deluding, pathetic and manipulative, their twisted logic a bewildering justification for their crime.

Based on a true story, Heyvaert remains director for this co-production between the Belgian Victoria company, Tramway and the National Theatre of Scotland. As the self-destructive couple with no way out, Kate Dickie and David McKay give performances of restrained vigour, barely moving a muscle as they’re forced to tell their tale. Such control makes their delivery even more captivating. Even one raised voice would break the spell.

Such an approach was handled equally well during 2006 in Tone Clusters, a strikingly similar American play produced far more modestly by The Arches, but which ended up buried during the Edinburgh Fringe. This is not to take away from just how remarkable Aalst is. Yes, even on Heyvaert’s clinically bright set, behind which Das Pop’s foreboding underscore pulses things along, its ugly, painful and deeply, at times unbearably disturbing. That Cathy and Michael are so matter-of-factly unrepentant makes the initial knee-jerk judgement all the harder to justify.

The Herald, March 26th 2007

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Yarn

Verdant Works, Dundee
4 stars
The fascinations of Grid Iron are manifold. In previous site-specific works Gargantua and The Devil’s Larder, the Edinburgh based company have ravished our senses with body-centric feasts based on sex, food and other delights. So it is with this latest knitted-together compendium conceived around the idea of clothes and their intrinsic meaning. Director Ben Harrison has taken material from Louise Bourgeois, Henry James and Thomas Carlyle, and fused it with some very candid auto-biographical scenes that leave the six actors metaphorically if not actually naked.

As we’re led through the industrial splendour of the Verdant Works old jute mill, beyond the buttoned-up men in grey for whom everything’s black and white is a dressing-up-box in which every garment tells a story. From the totemic qualities of an old coat, a scarf or some long lost hand-me-downs, we’re led along catwalks and through an oversize wardrobe into Mr Benn style adventures, where a glimpse of stocking, fur coat and no knickers are more than mere decoration. Beyond wedding night fingers and thumbs and cheap threads, however, is even cheaper labour.

It’s been interesting watching Grid Iron add an explicitly political dimension to their output over the last couple of years, much of it gleaned from extensive work in the middle east. So we get war correspondents in disguise and photo-ops of how to get from burka to blindfold in five easy steps. What we’re left with in this co-production with Dundee Rep is classic Grid Iron with an edge, which rips through layers of human artifice to get to the heart of the matter. They wear it well, on their sleeves and everywhere else.

The Herald, April 25th 2008

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
4 stars

The impact of this multi-lingual epic rendering of Shakespeare’s trawl through the underworld was huge when it first played outdoor arenas in Bombay.

It was thrilling enough six months ago when it moved indoors to London’s Roundhouse.

Here too on the last legs of its UK tour, Tim Supple’s production remains impressive, even if some of its expansive sense of scale is lost by squeezing it into an old-fashioned proscenium arch space.

What it holds onto is its joyously realised bravura that rips into a tale long hi-jacked by the heritage industry and makes it sexier and more muscular.

Acrobatics, live music and a gorgeous looking cast work their magic on a climbing frame underworld hidden by a paper curtain that’s literally ripped aside to reveal its rigging.

Puck is a bad-boy with Mohican hair-cut and Frankie Goes To Hollywood moustache, whose fairy helpers’ gymnastic displays give them the air of a tribe of lost boys and girls locked out of the love-in.

Here is a Dream reinvented for the back-packer age, with all the fun of the cultural tourist fair without having to leave town.

It nevertheless remains the brightest, most topsy-turvy breath of fresh air the bard has received for some time.

Its irreverent mix of ancient ritual and modern spectacle reclaims Shakespeare for the here and now of 21st century multi-culturalism with all of the pageantry and none of the platitudes.

But this is a play about love, and while the second half’s opening bachannal may resemble a Bollywood Royal Variety take on Kenneth Anger, the show’s final number is charming enough to leave the warmest of glows in its wake.

The Herald, October 25th 2007

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Mabou Mines DollHouse

Kings Theatre
4 stars
When Henrik Ibsen wrote his proto feminist dissection of the sex wars in 1879, the scandal it caused can’t have been a patch on Lee Breuer and Maude Mitchell’s post-modernist dissection of it. Using what Breuer calls ‘the Politics Of Scale’ as its starting point, the result is a dazzlingly audacious deconstruction, which takes its central premise of patriarchal infantilism to its logical limit. All male characters are played by actors of restricted growth, while the women are all nearly six foot tall. Breuer even makes Ibsen laugh out loud funny via a series of routines derived from American music hall, silent movie slapstick and a knowing faux melodrama which acknowledges its own artifice at every turn. Having the cast talk in the sort of sing-song Scandinavian accent not heard since the Swedish chef baked his last cake on The Muppet Show helps too.

Opening on a bare stage, pianist Eve Beglarian takes a bow before seating at her keyboard to usher in what looks like a parlour entertainment. Scarlet drapes slowly engulf the stage, and a pop-up book doll’s house walls are raised. This is the universe Nora has made her own. Like a little girl playing happy families in a Baby Jane wig, there’s something grotesque at play, even though, more like a Tennessee Williams matriarch, she’s instinctively in touch with her hyper-active sexual allure. Dream sequences border on the Felliniesque, while an even more manic second half is peppered with one-line in-jokes and prat-falls, until a quite stunning stylistic lurch rollercoasts its way towards the play’s denouement.

In Maude Mitchell’s literarily towering performance as Nora, there’s something of Anna Nicole-Smith, that all too 21st century all-American gold-digger and pneumatic Amazonian Barbie doll. But where Smith crashed and burned into tragedy, Nora’s rites of passage and slow-burning self-knowledge helps her strip bare her little wifelet layers enough to understand the value of defiance.

The Herald, August 25th 2007

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Dominic Hill - From Dundee to The Traverse

In the upstairs bar at Dundee Rep, the theatre’s two artistic directors are sitting apart. Given that one of them, Dominic Hill, is about to leave his post after five years to ease his way into his new job as artistic director of Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre following this week’s opening of his production of Peer Gynt, you might think some long festering impasse has finally come to a head. Especially as Hill’s co-director James Brining – also the theatre’s Executive Director – sits on the next table to Hill with his back to him while Hill sits alone with a bowl of soup.

First glances, though, can be deceptive. As it turns out, Brining is in a meeting with writer Colin Teevan, whose adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s picaresque epic attempts to convert a very Norwegian yarn into a far more familiar and contemporary looking romp. Hill, it transpires, has been on the go in the rehearsal room all morning, and is catching his breath and some much needed sustenance before squaring up to the play’s weighty technical requirements.

Peer Gynt, of course, is a monster of a play. Once thought unstageable, it was famously referenced in Willy Russell’s play, Educating Rita, in which the chirpy auto-didact hairdresser of the title, upon being asked how such apparent restrictions might be circum-navigated today, famously answered that you might ‘do it on the radio.’ Hill, however, is no stranger to big plays, having worked in Dundee on the likes of David Greig’s new version of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu The King, which framed the action inside an old people’s home. Hill also directed a brilliant version of Howard Barker’s Scenes From An Execution, and more recently transposed Samuel Beckett’s sandpit set absurdist classic, Happy Days, onto the main stage. Peer Gynt, though, is something else again.

“I love it,” Hill says unequivocally about the play. “It’s such a weird ambiguous thing that it’s great to try and find out what it’s about. I had a particular thing that I wanted to try and explore, which is about it not being this kind of folksy tale, which I felt removed it from what it was trying to say. So we’ve given it a modern context, but without it being full of mobile phones, Hello magazine and people taking cocaine. That way it feels immediate and accessible, but it also feels insane.

“I suppose the thought behind it was of a guy living in a small town out in the sticks, who as a teenager finds life and everyone around him unbearably mediocre, and who dreams of escaping to something bigger and better. That’s identifiable enough, but we’re not making it about The X-Factor or anything like that. It’s still written in verse, with this rough language.

“But I think what it addressed in the 19th century still feels very relevant now. All this stuff about identity and who we are. One of the things I really love about the play is wondering what makes a life valid. Peer Gynt has this loathing of mediocrity and this hatred of the idea of being average, so he goes on this wild goose chase in order to prove that he’s something special. At the same time, you don’t have to be Rupert Murdoch or have some contribution to the world.”

Hill points to the billboards currently gracing the nations highways and by-ways advertising celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s new vehicle. ‘Average’ goes its strapline. ‘The Worst Word In The English Dictionary.’ Such a notion sums up this new take on Ibsen’s getting of wisdom yarn, with Peer cast as a small town boy with ideas above his station, a kind of Billy Liar in a hoodie. With Trolls.

After such a stream of successful dalliances with classic plays of one form or another, Hill’s move to The Traverse, this country’s home of new playwriting and still the template for contemporary theatre in Scotland, may seem like downsizing. For Hill, though, whose career began as a trainee director at Perth Theatre during Andrew Mackinnon’s brief but visionary reign, the move is a canny progression.

“It’ll be quite nice to get away from endlessly having to interpret things,” Hill says of his last Dundee hurrah, a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland. “I think I’ve done my best work in Dundee, and the opportunities its given me have been fantastic, and think I‘ve got a lot better as a director while I’ve been here, because I’ve been able to do the work I’ve wanted. Ubu, for instance, I’d never done anything like it. As a director that was a door opening experience for me, in that it was as important to be as conceptually creative as it was to stay true to every line of the text. I’d never been so deliberate about that before.The unique thing about Dundee is that you can just put on what you want. That sounds like I’m talking myself out of my new job, but I think it’s time for me now to work with different people.”

Hill will make the move slowly, working with outgoing Traverse director Philip Howard inbetween directing a play at the Young Vic, and understandably won’t reveal any concrete plans. He is, though, already talking to people about his 2008 programme. One writer he mentions who he’s a fan of is Simon Stephens, whose work has appeared at The Traverse in productions by ATC, but who has never been fully embraced this side of the border, despite being a former Edinburgh resident.

While maintaining The Traverse’s place as the central hub of new Scottish playwriting, as someone who’s worked extensively at The Orange Tree in Richmond as well as stints at the RSC, unlike most directors here Hill is in a prime position to capitalise on his connections beyond the local. It’s interesting to note that peers who he references are head of Out Of Joint Max Stafford-Clark, who himself cut his directing teeth at The Traverse in the 1970s before moving to The Royal Court, and current Royal court artistic director, Dominic Cooke.

“Working with other people is a really important part of what I want to do,” he says, “and to have a building with a lot more going on it. Making other partnerships with writers and directors from wherever is essential to run alongside new Scottish work, which is the core of The Traverse’s work. But it’s not the only theatre that commissions new work in the way that it once was, and that liberates it, and allows us to look in other places.”

In the meantime, he’ll be proving that Peer Gynt really can work onstage.

“The first half isn’t as unstageable as some people make out, he insists. “It is a play that looks written to be performed and is quite straightforward. The second half is the problem. We’ve focussed on a man who thinks he is being himself, but has to take a good hard look at what that actually means. And there’s absolutely nothing folksy about that.”

Peer Gynt, Dundee Rep, until October 13

The Herald, September 25th 2007

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Citizens Theatre Spring Programme 2009

The ghosts of Citizens Theatres past can’t help but occasionally haunt the Gorbals-based theatre’s current artistic team of Jeremy Raison and Guy Hollands. The announcement of their forthcoming spring 2009 season, however, as exclusively revealed by The Herald, goes rustling into dark corners which look to vaudeville and melodrama in excitingly invigorating ways beyond any shadowy figures looming over the pair. With The Citz’s own productions featuring classics old and new while visiting companies reinvent familiar stories, there’s also an emphasis on site-specific work which, in Raison’s words, “opens the building out.”

The first evidence of this comes in Sub Rosa, a co-production with David Leddy’s Fire Exit Ltd company, while Museum Of Dreams is a development led by Hollands. Beyond this are two deeply contrasting main stage productions, first of Willy Russell’s commercial staple, Educating Rita, which is followed by a rare look at Henrik Ibsen’s guilt-trip of a play, Ghosts. With a Bollywood take on Wuthering Heights, a revival of Anthony Neilson’s early Edinburgh Festival Fringe hit, Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats Of Loneliness and a solo look at vaudeville, Only When I Laugh, from veteran actor Jack Shepherd, the twenty-first century sideshow theme is strictly accidental, according to Raison.

“It would be lovely to say it was deliberate,” he says, “but it never is, particularly in terms of touring shows, because you never know what you’re going to be offered. Obviously it reflects our taste in some way, and while the gothic isn’t necessarily a choice, there is a theme of looking at the building. We’re always trying to reinvent the place, because people tend to feel relaxed here. But we’re totally aware of the potential for poltergeists.”

This may come to light in Sub Rosa, a pitch-black promenade show in which audiences of just fifteen at a time get to peer into the darkness at a piece of Victoriana described forebodingly as being ‘the bastard theatrical child of Stephen King and Marie Lloyd.’

“The reference point for Sub Rosa,” Raison points out, “is a love of ghosts and a love of this building. Somebody said that architecturally this is the most important theatre building in Britain, because it has a lot of the original Victorian machinery. We don’t particularly use it, but it’s still there. Everyone else has ripped it out, but we haven’t, and we want people to see that in this show. We like David Leddy’s work, and we wanted it to happen in the darkest, deepest winter, because we’re going to try and make the whole building as dark as we can for this strange, ghoulish tour with a play structure. We go into parts of the theatre that simply haven’t been seen before. It won’t be for the squeamish.”

Far more family friendly is Museum Of Dreams, which will invite children and families into the theatre’s main rehearsal room to see a new work that features puppets and digital animation in a tale of a grumpy museum attendant’s reawakening to some very live exhibits. Produced by TAG, Hollands (who is hard at work on the Citz’s Christmas show, The Wizard of Oz, the day The Herald meets with Raison) brings in puppeteer Ailie Cohen to develop the piece.

“It’s about creating work for young people which we can take anywhere,” Raison stresses. “It’s virtually wordless, and is a public example of some of the things we can do in the rehearsal room. We did an extraordinary piece called Blackout, which Davey Anderson did with the Young Company. It was a twenty minute piece of debate theatre about somebody who committed a crime. We did it here, and are touring it to schools, but is another example of being creative with the building.”

Some might argue that the scheduling of Educating Rita is just as creative.

“It’s not your typical Citz fare,” Raison admits, “but I would argue that it is a modern classic. There are very few comedies that are regarded as classics, and I know Willy Russell has been very unhappy with that. But it is a classic myth and an odyssey of knowledge. I saw the original production done by the RSC among these Edward Bond and Peter Flannery plays, and all these epics they were doing at the time. Among all that was this one smaller, quieter, gentler play that was this beautiful jewel with a real heart to it. Then it became this hugely successful show on at the west end, and after the film it acquired this whole baggage of commercial tours. But what’s been interesting about here just now is that the things that have been best received have been classics done fairly straight, like Waiting For Godot and The Caretaker. What I realised is that these plays aren’t really being seen.”

This could certainly apply to Ghosts, which hasn’t been seen in Scotland since a production at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, several years ago.

“We’ve had Hedda Gabbla done relatively recently by Theatre Babel,” Raison observes, “and we’ve had A Doll’s House at the Edinburgh Festival. But this felt like the third of those great Ibsen classics. There’s so much there about the sins of the fathers, and I think we’re very much the products of previous generations. It’s very interesting with Obama being elected at the moment, when he said that he was descended by both slaves and slave-owners in terms of what’s made him who he is. Even in Afganistan and Iraq, the sins of our fathers are being revisited on us absolutely, where they were British colonies, there was tribal oppression, and then the whole lid’s lifted off what they are.”

Elsewhere, with the Citizens Community Company taking a dark look at romance with Clydeside Valentine and the theatre’s Young Company producing Citizen Y, a new piece by Martin McCardie, visiting companies lend even more eight to the season. The National Theatre of Scotland will visit with their adaptation of Andrew O’Hagan’s novel, Be Near Me, Tamasha Theatre Co will bring a Bollywood version of Wuthering Heights, and Headlong, who co-produced the epic Angels In America with the Citz, will return with Anthony Neilson’s early play, Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats Of Loneliness. Childrens company Catherine Wheels will bring Book Of Beasts for Easter, while Jack Shepherd brings his one man homage to music hall, Only When I Laugh. All of which goes some way to reinventing the Citizens for the future, though not without acknowledging its past.

“This place is full of ghosts,” says Raison. “One night someone was in here when all the lights were turned out, and a lantern appeared and led her out. She said thank you and it vanished. If you walk anywhere round the back you can feel it. But you’re also very aware of the Pierce Brosnans and the Sean Beans or the Albert Finneys and the Leonard Rossiters walking around. You’re very aware of the history, and how far back it’s gone, to Duncan McCrae and all these extraordinary people who made this place.”

Raison, though, is more concerned with creating a new set of ghosts for the future.

“We have to increasingly focus on what will bring people in. We don’t have the room to bring in shows that won’t sell. But we still want to be maverick with it, We’ve produced something like eighteen pieces in the last year, and we want to continue being this extraordinary powerhouse of productivity and see what magic we can create.”

Tickets for all shows of the Citizens Theatre’s spring 2009 season go on sale on Monday 1st December.
www.citz.co.uk

The Herald, November 25th 2008

Cabaret

Edinburgh Playhouse
4 stars
A recession always loves a musical. Kander and Ebb’s triumphantly feel-bad interpretation of Weimar era Berlin, though, not only charts the back-street decadence of dark times, but the accompanying rise of the extreme right and the persecution of minorities that goes with it. If ever a commercial block-buster chimed perfectly with the here and now, this is it. As Henry Luxemburg’s penniless writer Cliff Bradshaw falls in with an underground bohemian scene epitomised by good time chanteuse Sally Bowles, it’s what happens after someone calls time on the party that makes Cabaret so consistently fascinating.

Rufus Norris’ 2006 west end production is revived here in a touring incarnation that stays true to some of the original’s more maverick touches. This most notably stems from Javier de Frutos’ libidinous choreography and a concentration on the play’s more serious side. A jaunty first half is kicked off by Wayne Sleep’s impish Emcee peeking through a giant billboard on which the word ‘Willkomen’ is emblazoned like an epitaph. By the time the act ends with an Aryan youth singing Tomorrow Belongs To Me, Sally’s flibbertigibbet days look numbered.

There’s an irony in something so slickly realised depicting such a messy world, and at times one longs for things to be edgier. Yet there remains an integrity to the production, with some great performances on show. Making her professional debut as Sally, TV talent show contestant Samantha Barks may not yet have the full emotional range required for the role, but sings well and grows more comfortable as the evening progresses. The final image of the gas chambers and the silence that follows, however, is a chilling moment.

The Herald, March 25th 2009

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Arches Award For Stage Directors 2008 - Rob Drummond and Daljinder Singh

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 Tar 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
www.thearches.co.uk
www.traverse.co.uk

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Arches Theatre Festival highlights

Including Sixteen and The Severed head f 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
www.thearches.co.uk

The Herald, March 25th 2008

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Monday, 25 April 2011

And Then There Were None

Theatre Royal, Glasgow
3 stars
How would Agatha Christie have fared in the DNA age? Not, one suspects, very well. Which is why, despite much of her canon crying out for some post-modern deconstruction, her work is protected in a manner only Samuel Beckett has inspired. The reinstatement of a downbeat ending worthy of Sarah Kane in this starry production by director Joe Harmston’s Agatha Christie Company, then, is an eyebrow-raisingly welcome piece of revisionism. This despite the airbrushing out of the original, politically incorrect title of the novel from which Christie adapted her stage version.

Eight archetypes land on an obscure Devon island in a house whose deco wood panelling and giant porthole front entrance suggests a plush prototype for Butlin’s. With the butler and his missus completing the set of crusty old buffers and bright young things from the professional classes, each party is forced to face up to past misdemeanours before being poetically dispatched.

Trouble is, beyond Christie’s quietly fanatical fan-base, even a novice will spot that the more TV friendly the cast, the less likely they are to come a cropper. So you just know that Gerald Harper’s judge, Alex Ferns’s hammy soldier and a fragrant Chloe Newsome are going to make it more or less to the curtain call.

The programme notes evoke everything from Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clois to Big Brother as the offspring of And Then There Were None, and the storm that opens Act Two does suggest Nietzschian epiphanies are imminent. It’s Christie’s merciless exposure of the guilt that lies beyond the veneer of respectability, however, that causes you rub your hands with glee at her characters fate.

The Herald, June 25th 2008

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Zinnie Harris - Fall

When Zinnie Harris embarked on writing a trilogy of plays about war five years ago, the idea of a politically engaged theatrical mainstream was still only being taken half seriously by those who saw such a notion as a hangover from the 1970s. Half a decade on, and The Traverse Theatre’s two flagship productions for this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe are steeped explicitly in the nowness of ongoing international turmoil. Where Simon Stephens’ play, Pornography, looks at the aftermath of 7/7, Zinnie Harris’s seasonally titled Fall, which follows Midwinter and Solstice, imagines those caught in the crossfire of a war crimes trial.

Two days before the opening of her new play, and on what turns out to be the same day that Bosnian war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic is arrested, Harris is understandably twitchy when talking about her new play, even as she puts it in context.

“Each play,” she says, “looks at a different aspect of war and the responses to it. Solstice looks at what happens before the war and what happens to communities that go into war, Midwinter is smack bang in the middle, and Fall takes place after the war. I think all of them look at how people try to stay in touch with themselves and try to find the way to do what they feel to be the right thing, even though they may be bombarded by hideous things. It comes from my feeling of what the response is, sitting here in the west hearing all these terrible tales, then going off and having a drink with someone. There’s one character who’s just had a baby and got what she wants, and her response is that whatever happens out there happens out there, and she’s not going to engage with it.

“That’s a very recognisable set of responses, where people don’t watch the news and close down and get on with their lives. Then there’s another character who feels like because there’s these terrible things going on, you have a kind of duty to read as much as you can, and she ends up in a very destructive way. Somewhere between the two is where we all live.”

Harris’ emphasis on the all too human responses to such volatile situations aren’t so far removed from some of her other work. Her breakthrough play, the island-set Further Than The Furthest Thing, looked at how a community was transplanted into mainland society following the eruption of a volcano, while Nightingale and Chase looked at a relationship after one party’s release from prison. Like them, Fall is in some way about individuals coping with enforced upheaval. With real life events constantly threatening to become a whole lot stranger than fiction, Fall is quite literally a minefield of a very different kind.

“Given what’s going on in the world around us,” Harris says, “I think it would be very odd not to be writing about this sort of thing, or writing a farce or something. But it has to come from your own view and the things you struggle with. One of the questions in the play is how you bring a child into all this. How does someone personally with a lack of hope bout the world, how does one make children feel that it’s an okay place? That’s difficult. It’s too easy for us in the west to say that capital punishment is the wrong thing to do. Actually, the only people who can say it’s the wrong thing to do is the people who’ve been through the crime. I’m not suggesting that capital punishment is right, because I’m very much against it, but there’s a clarity that we have in the west of what we think is right and wrong, which probably isn’t so clear cut for those in the hick of things. But the only way that progress can be made is not by imposition from the west. Progress can only happen internally once people change how they feel about themselves.”

Fall isn’t, then, a black and white polemic. Rather, Harris is exploring the ambiguities of an already complex situation in a way that doesn’t offer any easy answers. With this in mind, it’s perhaps telling that, beyond theatre, Harris has written episodes of TV drama, Spooks, which looks at undercover agents operating in similarly emotive situations. As generic as this may sound, and as glossy as it appeared, for a British drama series to be both so highly charged in its dealing with already incendiary material is itself an act of subversion on mainstream prime-time fodder. For Harris, working on the programme was something of a liberation.

“Spooks gave me the confidence to be more overtly political than I’d been up to that point,” Harris admits. “Fall is still set in a world that could be anywhere, but it’s a lot less allegorical than some of my other work. That’s all been political with a small p, but Spooks really geared me up for pushing things somewhere else. I’d never really thought of myself as someone who would ever write anything that people would see as political but once I’d done Spooks, I thought that I could, and didn’t have to bury something in the middle of the Atlantic. Also, the amount of story you need to write an hour of Spooks is phenomenal. So one’s narrative muscle gets built up, and you have to be endlessly resourceful, so that helps too. But sometimes you’d come out of script conferences having just had to consider how World War Three might happen, and really feel like the world was going to end.”

While each play in Harris’ war trilogy stands alone in their own right, and aren’t linked by overlapping characters, together they form a solid body of work that might make even more sense watched in one sitting. In this respect they resemble David Hare’s look at how the British establishment functions in his early 1990s trio of Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges and The Absence Of War.

“I’d love them to be done together,” says Harris of her own works. “But they’re not even necessarily set in the same place. They just need to have a river and a population. So it’s not a trilogy in the conventional way. The first play is about hatred the second is about what comes out of that, and Fall in a way is about healing.”

After five years on a fictional frontline, then, Harris too will be able to walk away from the worlds she’s created. Her next theatre piece will be a version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and will star Gillian Anderson as Nora. This follows her adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, which looked upon a woman more usually presumed to be one of drama’s most ruthless female characters in a more sympathetic light.

“You go into these things wanting to add something new,” Harris says of these adaptations, “and there’s a bit of me in that as well. Plays are always grappling with something, and sometimes you feel really bleak about the world. As a writer, you channel all those concerns into your work. That’s probably how you stop yourself from going mad.”

Fall, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Previews tonight-Sat, 7pm and Aug 2nd, 2pm, then Aug 3-24, various times

The Herald, July 24th 2008

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Tryst

Engoyholmen, Stavanger 2008
4 stars
There’s a brand new boat docked at Engoyholmen, the tiny island a short sail away from Stavanger in Norway, where it was built as part of an ongoing project enabling young people to focus their energies into acts both creative and practical. The boat, launched last week, was named Meriel, after an unseen but crucial character in this latest outing by Edinburgh-based site-specific theatrical iconoclasts, Grid Iron, who were commissioned to create a new work for Stavanger’s year as European Capital of Culture. It’s a fitting legacy to a show that’s about the sea’s power to rock two couples seemingly idyllic world.

The play begins on another boat, which transports the audience across to Engoyholmen’s large wooden interior, where most of the play is presented promenade-fashion. Here actor David Ireland bursts out of the ferry’s luggage hold beneath the seats looking like some crazed sea captain as he regales us with his chronicle of a death foretold to Conrad Ivitsky-Molleson’s live harmonica score. Once disembarked, we watch Iona and Otto and Yann and Lyra as if peering into a goldfish bowl showing off a criss-crossing series of flashbacks. In-between ripple literary-sourced fables that lead to heartbreak, betrayal and one final tragedy.

Performed largely in English, this is a grimly sensuous melange that looks somewhere between Las von Trier and The Brothers Grimm, where mermaids resemble 1930s flappers and waves flow like jewels. Wrapped around such beautiful images in Ben Harrison’s production, however, are too many words, and with the more naturalistic scenes played as heightened as the stories, more light, shade and less self-conscious writing would benefit a still serious voyage into some very dark waters.

The Herald, October 24th 2008

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Gregory Thompson Takes Over The Tron

There’s a feeling of déjà vu sitting down with The Tron’s new artistic director in the theatre’s grand Victorian bar. It’s a relatively short time ago that the job’s previous incumbent, Ali Curran, was seated at the same table outlining her future plans. Her surprise departure after only a year in the post left a vacancy that’s now been filled by Gregory Thompson. Where Curran followed in National Theatre Of Scotland departee Neil Murray’s shoes as a producer, Thompson’s tenure marks the arrival of the first rehearsal room based artistic director since Michael Boyd departed to run the Royal Shakespeare Company, leaving Irina Brown in charge.

It’s perhaps for this reason that Thompson doesn’t exactly go overboard on hard sell or spin. Even with his debut production of Grae Cleugh’s play, The Patriot, which can’t help but be viewed as a hint of things to come, Thompson isn’t giving much away.

“It’s a well-made play,” Thompson says of a work set among the idealists and hucksters co-existing within and outside Holyrood’s walls, “and there was something quite strong about the fact that this had a classical structure. It was contemporary, it was about Scotland, and it asked that question, what do you do if you want to make a difference? So, okay, it’s a play about Scottish politics, but it just seemed to have a resonance. And,” he adds pragmatically, “it’s only got four people in it, so we can afford it. These things count. The fact that there’s a new director doesn’t transform the financial reality of what it’s like to run a venue with 230 seats.”

Thompson will be best known to this country’s audiences through his work at The Citizens Theatre, where he directed a studio production of Brian Friel’s play, Molly Sweeney, and, in the main house, a contemporary looking take on Romeo And Juliet. Prior to this, he brought Jonathan Lichtenstein’s play, The Pull Of Negative Gravity for Mercury Theatre Company to The Traverse Theatre’s 2004 Edinburgh Fringe programme. As artistic director of AandBC Theatre Company, he directed an open-air production of The Tempest in Edinburgh University’s Old College Quad. More recently with AandBC, Thompson directed Henry V111 at part of The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works Festival at Stratford.

With such a colourful track record working under his own steam, one wonders why Thompson might want to run a building based company. Especially one limited by such an ongoing state of economic stringency.

“I’d reached a point where I’d done quite a lot in my freelance career,” Thompson says. “I’d done a lot of things that were like the icing on the cake, and I’d quite like to be baking the cake. It was quite good working at The Citz and going, oh, that’s how this building works, rather than coming in with a special budget and transforming the theatre with it. It’s quite nice to go to somewhere where you just do it week in week out. I dunno,” he sighs. “I mean, they could’ve appointed someone else. The Tron’s bigger than me, and I just happen to be the latest incumbent. I’m not the great white hope of Scottish theatre.”

Thompson’s bluntness can possibly be put down to his being born in Sheffield, “another Victorian city built on hills,” as he puts it. Here he was “a terrible actor” in youth theatre, preferring to look at the bigger picture rather than focus solely on his own part. Aged 17, he began assistant directing on shows. It was a while, though, before he felt comfortable in the role.

“It took me a long time to give myself permission to go into the theatre. It’s dogged my career ever since. I felt like I shouldn’t be in the theatre and wasn’t welcome for quite a long time. I gave myself quite a hard time about it, and I made my mistakes in public.”

The first thing Thompson directed off his own bat when he formed AandBC was a production of The Mahabharata, which he’d seen in Peter Brook’s version at Tramway. It was an ambitious way for a company who included a young Emily Watson to start. Acclaim trickled in gradually, until “It took 12 years to be an overnight success. My career’s just mad, really. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, the route I took, which was all based on thinking I wasn’t good enough, coupled with a desire to make a particular kind of show that I wasn’t seeing elsewhere.”

This ties in too with Thompson’s notion of putting his audience’s needs before any conceptual conceit.

“The big trick in the theatre,” he says, “is that we think what’s important is what happens on the stage. But who cares what happens on the stage? What’s important is what’s happening in the seats. The performance isn’t really taking place on the stage. The performance is taking place in the hearts and minds of the audience. The stage is just the starting point, and I suppose I’m more interested in whether people laugh or cry, and what they think about the show rather than making polished work. For most people who come, it’s not about the polish. It’s about the emotional impact. Which is why amateur theatre can work as well as professional theatre at times, because actually it’s not what’s going on onstage. It’s what’s going on in the seats, and it makes you humble, really.”

While one should take Thompson’s claim that he’s “making it up as I go along, really,” with a pinch of salt, his tenure at The Tron doesn’t, he insists, involve any five year plans. On a practical level, Thompson’s new role will see The Tron repositioning itself as more of a producing house, with less companies coming in and the upstairs Changing House space reconvened as a rehearsal room.

“The Tron isn’t going to be about the artist,” Thompson states flatly. “The Arches is about the artist. Tramway is about form. I’d like The Tron to be about the audience. We sit on the edge of the Merchant City, and you go one way and it’s a very different Glasgow to the other way. In some ways we should be some kind of bridge or melting pot, and it’s about trying to get those people through the door.”

Thompson sees The Tron too as a place for quality collaborations with the likes of Suspect Culture, but recognises that “part of my job is still being a producer, and of course we’ve got less slots to offer people, and are saying no to more people.
I realise I’m about to be disappointing a lot of people. Everyone comes along and says, well, we’ve got a relationship with The Tron. If I had a pound for every time somebody had told me that since October, we’d be able to do another show.”

Theatre, for Thompson, has a clear social function. It’s clear too he has no truck with the shock of the new just for the sake of it.

“When people go, oh, we’re dangerous, and we’re really pushing boundaries,” he scoffs, “it really p***** me off. Because the reality is, the theatre is a safe, communal place where we go to experience emotion. I’d like The Tron to be packed out every night. with the sort of shows I think are good. It’s a tricky thing, because there’s a social responsibility, and there’s personal taste. I’d like people to go, oh, you’ve gotta go to The Tron, because of the experience you have here. Which is the kind of experience I want when I go to the theatre. I want to laugh, I want to cry, I want to be moved. I want to feel more alive when I come out. When I started going to the theatre, if I’d had that experience more often, I don’t think I’d have been a director.”

Even here, though, Thompson seems riddled with self-doubt.

“I don’t think I’m a clever director,” he says. “I don’t think my skills are in being a good director. I talk to my contemporaries, and I just think they’re really intelligent. But I don’t think like them. My ideal show is where people are moved. I’m not interested in what car we’re driving, but in where we’re going. And there’s an awful lot of theatre that’s, oh, I only travel in new cars, I only drive in classic cars, and if it doesn’t have classic upholstery, then it’s not proper theatre. But it’s where you’re driving the thing that’s important.”

The Patriot, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, previews tonight and tomorrow, then runs until May 12

The Herald, April 24th 2007

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The Winter’s Tale

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
3 stars
The Winter’s Tale has always been a play with an identity crisis. In part demonstrating the consequences of Leontes’ own mid-life funk when unfounded jealousy gets the better of him, its third act lurch into altogether sunnier climes is an awkward looking fancy which frankly outstays its welcome by a country mile before the reconciliation with Hermione takes place.

Mark Thomson’s deceptively bright production by and large plays it straight, as anyone familiar with Thomson’s stabs at Shakespeare will recognise. Handsome, suited and booted, utterly faithful to the text – at times too much so - and frequently featuring the ever brilliant Liam Brennan in a leading role, all of this is present and correct here to the extent that there are times you can’t help but crave more audacity beyond the snowy flecks on the mens’ jackets.

When it comes, in the face of Time, who ushers us among the country artisans where a grown-up Perdita frolics with Polixenes’ son Florizel at the top of the play’s second half, it’s a treat impressively at odds with everything else. Because Time is here a vocodered up Stephen Hawking figure whose wheelchair is lowered down from the rafters in a far odder personification than the play’s famed stage direction concerning a bear (here realised, incidentally, by a deft use of shadow-play).

It’s a throwaway gag that’s never fully exploited. But then, when Brennan is on a stage, all vulnerable lost soul terrified that he might lose Selina Boyack’s Hermione, positively glowing with pregnant vivacity, you don’t really need much else. If only the future Time promised had allowed Leontes access to DNA samples, lie detector tests and Jeremy Kyle, the whole rotten palaver might have been sorted out a lot quicker in a prettily realised but over-long affair.

The Herald, September 24th 2007

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The Parade

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
3 stars
A languid sense of ennui pervades the atmosphere of Glasgay!’s latest exploration of Tennessee Williams’ lesser-known works, as middle-aged playwright Don suns both himself and his desires beside pretty-boy actor Rich. Rich teases the older man like some beach bum Mr Sloane, aware of his beauty and promising much, but unwilling to deliver. Just as such pan-generational heavy breathing looks like it might turn into some death on Venice beach scenario, a third party, Miriam, enters as Rich leaves. She too wants something she knows she’ll never have, but, unlike Rich, meets Don on equal terms via extended musings on Jung, Freud and Marx. Most of all, though, Miriam becomes a sounding board for Don’s self-obsessive yearning after the parade of the play’s title, a crazed, discordant mess called love.

Completed in 1940 but not performed until 2006, Laurance Rudic’s approach to Williams’ early miniature looks timelessly contemporary. Fleshed out with modern expletives and some vogueishly me-generation reference points, however, it actually smacks of the strung-out post-party tristesse which the burnt-out 1960s jet-set had to square up to now they had time on their hands. Either that or a set-piece from some glossy TV soap self-reflexively homaging celebrity excesses on their own doorstep.

This is accentuated by avoiding the southern gentleman camp Williams is usually played with for a more Pinteresque opacity and some Method-style internalisation from Rudic as Don, Alex Harries as Rich and Canadian actress Adrienne Zitt as Miriam. The effect may at times appear self-conscious, but, as the Sun fades into dusk, what remains is an oddly mesmeric meditation on unrequited desire and lust for life turned sour.

The Herald, October 24th 2008

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The Lost Soul Band - Gordon Grahame Finds Himself Again

Things have never run smoothly for The Lost Soul Band. By rights, in the early 1990s when the Edinburgh based five piece were at their peak, they should have become one of Scotland’s national treasures. As it went, however, an uncaring record label dropped them after releasing two albums, the loose-knit Friday The 13th and Everything’s Rosie and the more polished The Land Of Do As You Please. This left the band’s classic Bob Dylan and Van Morrison inspired song-writing high and dry in an era dominated by American grunge bands that would later give way to Brit Pop. The Lost Soul Band sound - heartfelt and euphoric as it was on songs like Looking Through The Butcher’s Window, Coffee and Hope and their masterpiece, You Can’t Win them All Mum – simply didn’t fit in with the prevailing orthodoxies. A final, self-released album, Hung Like Jesus, was a more strung-out affair than its predecessors, and the band imploded shortly after.

Thirteen years on, singer/songwriter and guitarist Gordon Grahame, keyboardist and writing foil Mike Hall, bass player Richard Buchanan, drummer Brian Hall and percussionist Gavin Smith have reunited to go through their back catalogue for just two very special festive shows. Already, however, the curse of The Lost Soul Band has struck again, when following last week’s fire in Edinburgh’s Victoria Street, The Liquid Rooms, where the band were scheduled to play, was damaged to the extent of rendering the venue unusable. Fortunately, all scheduled Liquid Rooms shows have been transferred to the recently opened Picture House, allowing The Lost Soul Band to make their comeback in style.

At time of writing, however, they haven’t been in the same room as each other for thirteen years. Presuming everything comes together, the new shows promise to be emotional occasions, both for old time Lost Soul Band fans who’ve come out of the woodwork, and for the band themselves.

“I’m really feeling quite nervous,” gushes Grahame down the line from London, where he now lives. “Not in a bad way, but I’ve been running through the tracks, sitting in the lounge with my guitar on visualising the first song of the night. I just went to jelly, and had palpitations and stuff. Because we’re going to be playing these songs again to people who’ve been sitting on the recorded versions for eighteen years and know exactly what they want. I haven’t even had the albums for ten years. I had to get them on ebay. But I downloaded them and they sounded pretty rough and ready, and I’m thinking, how am I gonna do this. Richard says to me, ‘Yeah, you’re a bit of a crooner now.’”

The current gigs came about after Smith heard a Sugarcubes song on the radio, and started rooting through boxes of old tapes to see if he had a copy. What he found instead was a recording of a 1992 Lost Soul Band show broadcast on Radio Forth. Smith played it on car rides to gigs with his current band The Vagabonds, who also feature singer/guitarist, The Sandyman. The Sandyman is a legend on the pub band circuit, and is a pivotal figure in The Lost Soul Band, even joining them in their final incarnation. Smith suggested it might be an idea to get the original band back together, and The Sandyman contacted Grahame.

“There were one or two occasions when it might have happened before,” according to Grahame, “but it never got off base. This time, though, Gavin got on a mission. I said I was up for it, but wasn’t sure if everyone would want to do it. Then once Mike said yes, and is probably the most gung ho about it out of all of us, I thought, oh, no, I’ve got to do it now. Even then we weren’t sure if there’d be any interest, but DF Concerts jumped at it, and we just have to re-learn the songs now.”

Grahame grew up in Penicuik, where, inspired by the Velvet Underground and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks album, he fell in love with music at an early age. Moving to Edinburgh, he began playing solo pub gigs under the name Sal Paradise, named after the hero of Jack Kerouac’s novel, On The Road. The band came together organically, and in 1990 began a Sunday night residency at the old St James Oyster Bar (now Pivo) beside Calton Hill. Initially playing to small numbers, word spread quickly, and by the summer as many as two hundred people were crammed into the bar to bear witness to what was rapidly becoming the hardest working band in town. After a couple of independently released singles, The Lost Soul Band signed to Silvertone Records, then best known for signing The Stone Roses, and started playing sell-out gigs at Edinburgh venue, London’s Borderline and other mid-scale venues. Grahame and co should have been massive, but the person who signed them left the company, and suddenly the band were stranded.

“We all have our own take on what happened,” Grahame says today. “In hindsight, if we’d been around three years later, things might have changed, but at the time we didn’t fit in with any particular scene. Once you’ve invested so much time in something you’re passionate about, we had a really depressing time. But having said that, if we had crossed over, I’d have probably been dead by now. I was a madman back then.”

The story doesn’t end there, however. All five Lost Soul Band members have taken widely diverging paths since the band’s original demise. Smith played with The Joyriders, and continues playing with The Sandyman in The Vagabonds. Brian Hall moved to Germany, where he plays with a band called Sophie So. Until recently, Buchanan hadn’t picked up a bass since the day the band split up. Mike Hall moved into more dance-based fare with Scuba Z and as The Leisure Assistants, and has had tracks featured on the soundtrack of the feature film, Red Road.

Grahame’s journey over the years, meanwhile, has been peripatetic to say the least.
Decamping to Amsterdam, Paris and Andalucia, he ended up busking and playing New York’s open mike circuit. Eventually Grahame moved to Brighton, then London, where he writes and records under the name Lucky Jim. With four albums released, one of Grahame’s songs, You’re Lovely To Me, can be heard on a television ad for Kingsmill bread.

“Suddenly people like David Holmes are on the phone telling me how much they love the album,” says Grahame. “Stuff like that had never happened before. I’d been in the wilderness. But I’ve got myself into a position now where things are finally happening for me, which is why it’s okay now to go back to Lost Soul Band stuff. Who knows? We might even do it again in another few years or something. It will have been twenty five years then, and if anyone’s still interested in dredging up my past, that’s fine by me.”

The Lost soul band play The Picture House, Edinburgh, Sunday December 28, and King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, Glasgow, Tuesday December 30.

The Herald, December 24th 2008

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