Monday, 31 December 2012

2012 - The Best Theatre of The Year

Internationalism and collaboration on scales both great and small were 
very much on the agenda for  a year in Scotland's theatre scene that 
rode the recessionary wave with some consistently ambitious programming 
that wasn't afraid to mix up classical and popular forms. The tone was 
set right at the start of the year when Vox Motus presented their 
biggest show to date, The Infamous Brothers Davenport. As scripted by 
Peter Arnott and conceived by Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison, the 
play dissected the alleged supernatural powers of a pair of 
vaudevillian siblings with a box of tricks all of their own.

Vox Motus' look at artifice and belief was oddly book-ended at the end 
of the year with a set of similar themes from Peepolykus' The Arthur 
Conan Doyle Appreciation Society at the Traverse. Both were bested, 
however, by Rob Drummond's Bullet Catch, a close-up solo dissection of 
the same terrain that created real magic out of similarly styled hokum.

Also at the Traverse was BEATS, another solo show written and performed 
by Kieran Hurley. As with Drummond's show, BEATS was produced by The 
Arches in Glasgow, and was a searingly insightful portrait of the early 
1990s rave era, when hedonists were first outlawed then politicised by 
the Criminal Justice Bill that effectively attempted to make electronic 
dance music illegal. Aided by DJ Johnny Whoop, Hurley delivered his 
trilogy of stories with the evocative engagement of a rave generation 
Spalding Gray.

Other solo shows featured the pleasure of seeing Samuel Beckett on a 
big stage in Dominic Hill's production of Krapp's Last Tape and the 
rarely seen Footfalls. These two miniatures closed Hill's inaugural 
season as artistic director of the Citizens Theatre, which had peaked 
so spectacularly with David Hayman's return to the Gorbals to play the 
title role in Shakespeare's King Lear.

Also making a prodigal's return was Alan Cumming, who played a solo 
Macbeth in John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg's National Theatre of 
Scotland production. With the action re-imagined in an asylum, Cumming 
gave his all in an unmissable performance. Another unmissable NTS show 
was Enquirer, an all too timely verbatim look at the state of print 
journalism today.

Of the independent companies, Stellar Quines premiered ANA, a 
remarkable bi-lingual Scots-Quebecois collaboration developed over 
several years that chartered one woman's voyage through history. This 
imaginatively staged production was overseen by Quebecois director 
Serge Denencourt, who returned to Scotland later in the year to direct 
the NTS' revival of The Guid Sisters, Martin Bowman and Bill Findlay's 
vivid Scots translation of Quebecois writer Michel Tremblay's equally 
female-focused play, The Guid Sisters.

Vanishing Point, meanwhile, upped the ante by being included in the 
Edinburgh International Festival's exemplary theatre programme with 
Wonderland. This was a taboo-busting and discomforting  peek into an 
online rabbit-hole where porn stars and porn users live a troublingly 
symbiotic existence.

In a year of arrivals and departures in terms of artistic directors, 
Rachel O'Riordan came good with a revival of Frank McGuinness' Someone 
Who'll Watch Over Me, while James Brining's parting shot as artistic 
director of Dundee Rep was a revival of Zinnie Harris' Further 
Than The Furthest Thing, notable for a stunning water-based set.

While Andy Arnold directed a magnificent stage version of James Joyce's 
Ulysses at the Tron, at the Traverse, incoming director Orla O'Loughlin 
set out her store during August with
Dream Plays (Scenes From A Play I'll Never Write), a series of early 
morning performed readings put together quickly, but which served up 
some of the most imaginative work on the Fringe.

If O'Loughlin ushered in her tenure with such glorious scratch-works, 
she nailed it by directing what was, alongside BEATS, the best new play 
of the year by a country mile. Morna Pearson's The Artist Man and the 
Mother Woman was a jaw-droppingly dark comedy about a molly-coddled 
teacher's belated coming of age. Written in Pearson's scatological 
Doric, it tapped into the insular brutalities of a small-town 
underclass in a way that announced a major writing force to the world.

The Herald, December 31st 2012

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Friday, 28 December 2012

A Festival of the Extraordinary - Edinburgh's Hogmanay at The Tron


Time was when the main event for Hogmanay in Edinburgh saw revellers gather en masse outside the Tron Kirk on the corner of the High Street where the bells would be seen in with inebriated abandon. This pilgrimage to the seventeenth century landmark built at the behest of Charles 1 continued long after the Tron closed as a church in 1952, and only since the rise of large-scale Hogmanay events in the last twenty years did the tradition go into decline as the focus moved to Princes Street.

This year sees an attempt to revive the spirit of old Tron Kirk gatherings in the form of something styled as A Festival of the Extraordinary. Initiated and backed by the Drambuie drinks company, this three day event runs from the night before to the morning after Hogmanay, and aims to bridge elements of the new year's tradition both old and new. This is done with a mixture of film screenings and performances in the daytime under the banner of The Drambuie Surreal Sessions, while the evenings are given over to club nights dubbed The Extraordinary Drambuie Gatherings.

The event's main visual focus will be a series of large-scale custom-built projections by Edinburgh-based digital artist and designer, Andy McGregor. His starting point is the iconography of
Surrealism, an art-form that is both subversively serious while remaining fun enough to be user-friendly.

“It's a genre I love,” McGregor says, “and when this job came up I already had all the books on my shelf. If you look at Drambuie's recent ad campaign there are clear nods to Salvador Dali's dream sequence for Alfred Hitchcock's film, Spellbound, so that's a good starting point.”

Images should include umbrellas raining from the inside, while a photo booth will project users' digitally realigned, portraits. A main theme will be following seventy-two hours in the life of a Hogmanay reveller.

“It's basically a 360 degree skyline of Edinburgh, but with things happening that you wouldn't normally expect,” McGregor says. “I've filmed a journey through Edinburgh in different ways which people will be able to interact with, and make it strange or not strange as they move it backwards or forwards.”

This will be operated by a set of kinetic mittens.

Films featured at the 9am free-to-enter screenings will include Tron, Whisky Galore and Hangover, while clubland institutions including Ultragroove take over at night. The original plan was that films would be shown using a vintage projector purloined from Glasgow's old Grosvenor cinema. At time of writing, however, such is the projector's fragile state that transporting it between cities may well prove too delicate an operation for it to survive intact.

Working in The Tron's grand interior has left problems too for the team of 3D and 2D animators McGregor has drafted in to bring his vision to life.

“It's an incredible space,” he says, “but it's not without it's challenges. There are stained-glass windows which we can't touch, so although it's a 400-foot canvas, there are places we have to work around. We're going to project onto the raw walls, so we're composing for the space rather than taking a straight cinematic approach.”

With a background in international theatre with the likes of dance theatre company Bock and Vincenzi, McGregor is used to straddling the worlds of art and commerce in the way A Festival of the Extraordinary is attempting to do. By taking something with a fine art root and giving it a civic context, it may be a long way from 1950s celebrations at the Tron, but it retains a similarly populist draw.

“This is definitely crowd-pleasing stuff,” says McGregor, “and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.”

A Festival of the Extraordinary, Tron Kirk, Edinburgh, December 30th-January 1st

The Herald, December 28th 2012

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Monday, 24 December 2012

National Jazz Trio of Scotland – The National Jazz Trio of Scotland's Christmas Album (Karaoke Kalk)


As with the season they're generally cashing in on, Christmas albums somewhat mercifully only come round once a year. While much festive fare is as depressingly jolly as it is unbearably ubiquitous – see Top of the Pops 2's annual Xmas special, plus department stores' endless looping of the Now That's What I Call Christmas compilation – there have been some genuinely inventive reimaginings of the season of goodwill in pop form.

Both Motown and Phil Spector released superb Christmas compilations, while The Beach Boys and James Brown filled a whole album apiece to their very singular takes on festive fare. On a more leftfield front, both ZE Records and Factory-connected Belgian label Les Disques du Crepescule released Christmas albums. While the former gifted the world The Waitresses joyous Christmas Wrapping on ZE's dryly named A Christmas Album in 1981, the latter's Ghosts of Christmas Past collection found the likes of The Durutti Column, Cabaret Voltaire and Michael Nyman giving their own instrumental impressions of the season the same year. Only Aztec Camera's Django Rheinhardt inspired express-train-paced guitar medley of Christmas carols, Hot Club of Christ, seemed to embrace the season's full cracker-pulling frivolousness.

Another track on Ghosts of Christmas Past was an early solo work by Paul Haig, who had quit as singer with Edinburgh band, Josef K, who'd also released material on Crepescule as well as Alan Horne's Postcard label, earlier that year. Unlike the franticly jangular guitar stylings of Josef K, Haig's Ghosts of Christmas past contribution, Christiana, was a funereal ballad backed by drum machine, keyboards and acoustic guitar.

Sounding like a template for former Arab Strap vocalist Aidan Moffat's own brand of downbeat miserabilism, Christiana offered a more contemplative and world weary take on what sounded like a very lonely season of good will. By the time Haig re-recorded the song in 2010 for After Twilight, James Nice's Les Temps Moderne label's compilation of former Les Disques du Crepescule recording artists' revisitations of old work, Christiana was now a mandolin-led lament sounding not unlike Joy Division's The Eternal of it had been recorded by Cold War era John Barry.

Somewhere in-between Haig's two versions of Christiana, in 1999 slowcore melancholics Low released Christmas, a mini-album of eight songs designed as a festive treat for fans. As well as original material, Christmas featured versions of Silent Night and a drone-soaked take on Little Drummer Boy, a song taken to number one in an unlikely duet by Bing Crosby and David Bowie (and let's not forget Boney M's version either!).

There's something of Low's dolefulness in this lovely new album by Bill Wells' National Jazz Trio of Scotland, which refreshes twelve Christmas classics in startlingly apposite fashion. By engaging four different singers, Wells invests seemingly throwaway sing-alongs with a new sense of seriousness and weight that also lays bare the fragile ambiguities of sentiments previously taken at face value.

To make things clear, the National Jazz Trio of Scotland aren't a jazz band. Nor are they a trio. Wells formed what was originally an instrumental-based band along with various players from the Glasgow indie scene who had embraced him as one of their one in a way that Scotland's conservative jazz scene had failed to recognise such a unique self-taught composer, arranger, pianist and bass player. Wells named the National Jazz Trio of Scotland as a cheeky pop at Scotland's jazz hierarchy unable or unwilling to get that it was okay to look to Brian Wilson and Burt Bacharach as much as Mingus and Monk for inspiration.

As well as self-releasing several albums with his own Octet and Big Band, Wells worked with The Pastels, Maher Shalal Hash Baz, Future Pilot A.K.A., Isobel Campbell and Belle and Sebastian guitarist Stevie Jackson. More recently, Wells teamed up with Aidan Moffat for the 2011 album, Everything's Getting Older. Like Wells, Moffat hails from the satellite town of Falkirk, which may or may not explain a few things. Everything's Getting Older was something of a small-scale crossover hit, and won the inaugural Scottish Album of the Year Award.

Since forming in 2007, Wells' NJToS has featured players such as Stevie Jackson, trumpeter Robert Henderson, Johnnie and the Entries drummer Kate Sugden and Aby Vulliamy, viola player with Nalle and The One Ensemble. Both Henderson and Vulliamy feature on Everything's Getting Older.

In another dig at jazz orthodoxies, the loose-knit aim of this even looser-knit group was to create a set of original tunes that would become standards. The roots of the NJToS Christmas album date back to the end of 2010, when Alasdair Campbell, then in charge of the Tolbooth arts centre in Stirling and the venue's Le Weekend festival of left-field music, and now in charge of the equally eclectic AC Projects, responsible for this year's Counterflows festival, invited Wells to curate and take part in something called Black Christmas.

Wells duly selected a bill that included Moffat, Davie Scott of The Pearlfishers and Icelandic singer Benni Hemm Hemm, the latter of whom was then resident in Scotland. A set of what was then described as 'off-kilter covers of Christmas classics' was premiered by Wells and the NJToS, with vocals provided by Vulliamy, Sugden and Lorna Gilfedder, previously drummer with Park Attack before singing and playing guitar in Golden Grrrls.

A year later, and with the Wells and Moffat partnership beginning to gain momentum, NJToS were headlining in an Edinburgh church hall for DIY promoters Tracer Trails Christmas party, who'd put up decorations and provided mulled wine for an occasion which also featured Teenage Fanclub's Norman Blake guesting on vocals. Blake recorded the new album, released on the Berlin-based Karaoke Kalk label and with snow-flake cover art by Jad Fair, some time ago.

Moffat meanwhile continued the Black Christmas lineage around the same time as Wells and the NJToS were decking the halls by releasing a digital EP of four seasonal pieces. These included a forty-six second destruction of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, as well as a relatively faithful cover of Wham's Last Christmas. In 2011, Wells and Moffat turned Bananarama's bubblegum 1980s smash hit, Cruel Summer, into the lovelorn ballad it was always meant to be. This year, the pair knitted together two unrelated songs titled The Power of Love – by Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Jennifer Rush – as well as Peter Cetera's Glory of Love (as featured in the film, The Karate Kid), with the latter sung by Blake on a Frankenstein's monster of a song released on limited edition 7”.

The disparate elements on the NJToS Christmas album, on which Wells plays all instruments apart from Vulliamy's sampled viola, go similarly beyond novelty value to make something equally profound. As well as Gilfedder, Sugden and Vulliamy, Wells' band is further augmented by the presence of Gerard Black, formerly of Findo Gask and currently a member of Francois and the Atlas Mountains and his own band, Babe. As the sole male presence on the album besides Wells, Black is noted for being the only voice that sounds even vaguely joyful about Christmas.

The tone is set from the off with Sugden's take on O Christmas Tree, the sixteenth century German folk tune adopted for communist anthem, The Red Flag. While another jazz pianist, Vince Guaraldi, played an instrumental version of the tune for the 1965 animated film, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Sugden's delivery is more akin to Robert Wyatt's mournful version of The Red Flag, released on his Nothing Can Stop us album in 1982. Here, Wells' keyboards rise and fall with a repeated coda that twinkles in counterpoint to Sugden's vocal without ever being at odds with it.

Gilfedder, Sugden and Vulliamy singing lead on three songs apiece, with Black on two before a three-woman chorale transforms We Three Kings into the sweetest of gender-bending finales. Such quiet subversions point to a sense running throughout the album of Wells sound-tracking something bigger than the songs themselves, which are reimagined in impressionistically looped swirls that suggest as much darkness as light. On God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen in particular, there's a penetrating sense of menace behind Gilfedder's voice, as if the cherub-faced aliens in The Village of the Damned had joined the school choir.

On Hark The Herald Angels Sing, Wells's piano sounds like it's being played in an underwater grotto while Black sings like a more plaintive Roddy Frame accompanied by percussive clicks that speeds things into other dimensions. For Carol Of The Birds, Wells concentrates on the lower register keys that give the song an eerie air even before Sugden starts singing.

Winter Wonderland's normal karaoke romp-along is pared down to a Hearse-like pace that suggests the wonderland Wells and Vulliamy have stumbled on is considerably stranger than the one normally sung about. The spartan after-hours piano and voice arrangement here makes for an oddly emotive affair. The same applies to Jingle Bells, again sung by Vulliamy, with Gilfedder on backing vocals, even with the kindergarten percussion that pulses a woozily kaleidoscopic ride through wide-screen blankets of the white stuff. It's a ride that continues on Sugden's rendering of I Saw Three Ships, though things perk up considerably during Good King Wenceslas, which finds Gilfedder led astray by a jaunty guitar before Black gets even more emotive on The Christmas Song.

In The Bleak Mid-Winter is already one of the most gorgeous hymns ever written, something accentuated even more by Wells' school assembly piano and Vulliamy's voice on a tantalisingly brief one-verse miniature version. Oh Come All Ye Faithful finds Gilfedder's voice wrapped up in Wells' subterranean piano, a sucker punch for the sheer loveliness of We Three Kings and its opaque hints at the odd Steely Dan-ism or Court and Spark era Joni Mitchell.

Crucially, such arrangements never overwhelm an album on which it would have been easy to festoon with kitchen-sink choirs and strings to score a cross-over hit. Conversely, it's the moody minimalism, both of Wells' stark arrangements and the unstudied precision of the voices, which allows the songs to breathe in a way that lends them an over-riding intensity.

It would be easy to lump the NJToS' Christmas album in with Nouvelle Vague's series of albums that reinvent contemporary punk classics as playfully constructed retro-chic, but Wells and co are doing something deeper. There are instrumental echoes here of Bernard Hermann and even John Barry at play here, while the purity of the voices recall the likes of Claudine Longet, the breathy-voiced French singer who released several albums in the 1960s and 1970s while married to crooner Andy Williams before being put on trial after her skier boyfriend was shot dead.

There are hints too of Basil Kirchin's theme song for the 1969 British thriller, I Start Counting, sung guilelessly by Lindsey Moore, and Alison Statton's non-jazz jazz singing when Brit-jazz luminaries such as pianist Keith Tippett guested on Weekend's Live At Ronnie Scott's album. Such arrangements would also suit Wells' one-time vocal foil, Isobel Campbell, who recorded a mini-album of Billie Holliday songs with Wells before she started to hang out with rough boys like Mark Lanegan.

At first listen, then, Wells and the NJToS have produced an album of considerable charm that sounds pitch perfect for the next few weeks quieter moments. But once the decorations have been packed away and the now threadbare tree taken down, listen again, and the dark-heart hidden in a bunch of songs you thought you knew backwards is plain to hear. Unlike a lot of presents that end up being thrown out beneath a pile of torn wrapping paper, the National Jazz Trio of Scotland's Christmas Album isn't just be for Christmas. It's for life.

A shorter version of this appeared in The Quietus, December 2012

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Your Lucky Day - Edinburgh's Hogmanay 2012

At first glance, this year's Edinburgh's Hogmanay festival which kicks off this weekend is as civic-mindedly populist as it comes. Or at least that's the case as presented in its brochure with a big number '13' emblazoned on the cover in neon-styled lettering with the words 'BE LUCKY' beneath. The annual torchlight procession is in there, as is the candle-lit concert at St Giles and the Concert in the Gardens this year headlined by the stadium pomp of Simple Minds. The Loony Dook is a must, and even the sled dog races have made a return this year.

Look beyond all this, however, and there is a very subtle subversion in the programme that takes the avant-garde out of the art-house and unleashes it on the streets and in some of Edinburgh's most august institutions. Most of this is to be found in Your Lucky Day, a New Year's Day construction which invites revellers to throw a dice which, depending on how they land, will take them to one of twelve unknown destinations in Edinburgh city centre. Once there, they will be regaled by some form of performance before being invited to roll the dice once more to define their next destination, and so on.

These will include music from the likes of Unthanks singer Becky Unthank, some thought-provoking words from pop psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman, a performance of ancient mummers play, Galoshins and spoken word and performance poetry from the team behind Glasgow's Words Per Minute night among others. Once participants have been around as much of the circuit as they choose, the day climaxes with Big Bang, an epic street theatre spectacle by French auteurs, Plasticiens Volants.

Before any of this happens, those in search of guidance will have the chance to seek their fortune via Lady Luck – The Cult of Fortuna, a participatory installation created by live art duo, Walker and Bromwich. This will involve a seven and a half metre high gold-coloured inflatable 'statue' of the ancient Roman goddess, Fortuna, who was the personification of how the hand of chance worked in terms of bestowing her followers with both good and bad luck.

“We like to bring people into an idea using something that's both fun and visually seductive,” Zoe Walker explains. “That way people become part of the experience and the idea and can maybe feel something so they go away uplifted.”

“We hope to be creating a space where people can reflect and have time to think,” Neil Bromwich continues. “People come and make a pledge to as god, then promise to repay them once their wish has been granted. People are thinking like that anyway at this time of year, except here they're making a deal with a god.”

Walker and Bromwich have consistently redefined ancient rituals with playfully polit6ical intent. At this year's Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, art Lending Library allowed members of the public to borrow donated artworks, while the pair unleashed their Love Parade – a pink inflatable cannon firing balloons as it is led through the city streets by a parade of dancers and drummers – on this year's Hull Festival. At time of writing, Walker and Bromwich are immersed in Gateshead's Baltic Centre undertaking The Encampment of Eternal Hope, a similarly utopian sculptural installation working towards the Mayan calendar's so-called end of the world.

“It's about trying to build a new society in a post-apocalyptic work,” says Walker.

Presuming the pair survive the experience, Lady Luck – The Cult of Fortuna will open for business for two days prior to Your Lucky Day.

Also on show as one of the twelve events around town as part of Your Lucky Day will be Galoshins, a seventeenth century Scottish folk play presented by Glasgow-based musician Shane Connolly's Sokobauno Puppet and Object Theatre. The piece is performed by Connolly, who is also a percussionist with Tattie Toes, and internationally acclaimed singer Alasdair Roberts, who's excavation of the folk song tradition makes his canon sound dangerously contemporary in a manner that recalls Nick Cave's savage reinvention of blues music. The pair originally presented Galoshins as part of Archive Trails, which saw contemporary artists tap into the cultural goldmine to be found in the University of Edinburgh's School of Scottish Studies, an institution co-founded by poet Hamish Henderson.

In terms of scale, however, Your Lucky Day's undoubted highlight is Big Bang. As the name suggests, this latest extravaganza by Plasticiens Volants travels backwards in time to the explosion that created the universe as we know it. The fact that the company does this via a gigantic set of ever morphing inflatables lends an appealingly user-friendly texture to a set of highly complex ideas to create a theatre in the sky.

“In the beginning we wanted to try to find a new form of show,” explains Plasticiens Volants director Marc Mirales in an appropriately year zero fashion. “Before, we have created shows using fairy-tales and myth, but with Big Bang we wanted to make a show out of something that was more scientific. We met with an astro-physician, who described himself as a detective who was looking for clues to solve the mystery of the universe. That is why we begin at the end, and go back to the beginning, to try and recreate that mystery.”

Such artistic entryism isn't new to Edinburgh's Hogmanay. Plasticiens Volants have brought several shows here over the years, while other major street theatre conceptualists have attempted to adapt what is more often seen at European summer festivals to Scotland's more intemperate winter climate. Many of these companies were born of a post-rave club culture that inherited the 1960s counter-culture's sense of playful mischief. This could be said too of some of the contributors to Edinburgh's Hogmanay 2011. Last year, the National Museum of Scotland played host to a giant game of chess initiated by live artist Spotov as part of a game-themed day of events around the city which also involved the likes of art-pop band, FOUND.

This continuing sense of subversion was most evident two years earlier, when giant puppet installation Big Man Walking paraded the royal mile to a techno soundtrack, while in St Giles Cathedral, Fragile Pitches was an sound installation by electronic experimental stalwarts Michael Begg and Colin Potter that distorted natural sounds recorded locally for a thrillingly atmospheric experience. The performance was later released on CD.

The beginning of the universe, then, is as good a way to start the year as any.

“It's the story of a scientific adventure,” says Mirales, “but it's told like a poem, and, like any poem, everyone will find something different.”

Take a chance on any of these shows, and it might well be your lucky day.

Your Lucky Day, January 1st 2013, begin at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, noon-5pm. Big Bang starts at 5pm, 13 Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh.


Take a Chance – Three of the Best at Your Lucky Day

The Luck Factor – An Audience With Richard Wiseman, who gives a talk on why some people appear to be lucky, always in the right place at the right time, while others appear blighted by constant misfortune.

Chancin' It – Glasgow literary salon Words Per Minute presents performance poetry and more, headlined by jenny Lindsay replacing an indisposed Alan Bissett.

Crow's Bones – Becky Unthank of Geordie folk band The Unthanks presents a set of midwinter songs alongside fellow singer Inge Thomson, Lau accordionist Martin Green and nykelharpist Niklas Roswall in a presentation from Opera North.

The Herald, December 24th 2012

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Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Various – Some Songs Side By Side (Stereo/Watts of Goodwill/RE:PEATER)

4 stars
So-called 'regional' album compilations were crucial statements of 
independence during the post-punk fall-out that briefly shook up the 
bone-idle London-centric record company hegemony. Snapshot documents of 
blink-and-you'll-miss-em scenes in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, 
Brighton and other cities proliferated on shoestring DIY labels, which, 
politically, were as much about self-determination as music.

By collecting and selecting new material from eight Glasgow-based acts, 
this new collaboration between three of the city's micro-labels 
(including the debut release by venue Stereo) does something similar in 
capturing the here-and-nowness of a fecund and forever-changing 
independent musical landscape.

Tut Vu Vu, Palms, Organs of Love, Gummy Stumps, Sacred Paws, The Rosy 
Crucifixion, Muscles of Joy, Jacob Yates and the Pearly Gate Lock 
Pickers all present new work in an elaborate box set made up of two 12” 
vinyl LPs, a CD and a booklet featuring an essay by former Belle and 
Sebastian manager John Williamson, plus new artworks from the likes of 
David Shrigley and Richard Wright.

In execution, this more reflects the spirit of the Edinburgh-based Fast 
Product label's three Earcom compilations, released in 1979. Like them, 
this vital collection puts visual presentation to the fore in a way 
that demonstrates the umbilical links between art-forms that keep 
'local' scenes so vital.

The List, December 2012

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Snide Rhythms – Snide Rhythms (The Bonjour Branch)

4 stars
With art school credentials to spare, Colvin Cruikshank's trio of Edinburgh scene-setters mash up a grab-bag of left-field post-punk conceptualists to make something that seems to channel the ghosts of every act who ever made the Wee Red Bar such a crucial hot-bed of musical and artistic eclectica while still sounding oh so very now. There's even a glam rock styled tribute to the bands alma mater on 'E.C.A'. Musically jaunty and lyrically wry, Snide Rhythms are possessed with an off-kilter quirkiness bordering on brilliance that more than justifies the band's name. On 'Yah Versus Schemie', they even manage to dissect the sociological roots of class war in one minute and fifteen seconds with a wit that withers even as it puts two fingers up to both parties before running away snickering. 

The List, December 2012

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Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Gormley to Gaga - A Design For Life At Summerhall

When Lady Gaga embarked on the early stages of her Monster Ball tour in 
2009, it not only marked the provocative pop princess' crossover into 
the major league with a spectacular show described by some as the first 
ever pop electro opera. In it's look, Monster Ball also unwittingly 
formed a bridge between a pub theatre in Shepherd's Bush, art-punk band 
Wire, the Royal Opera House, lingerie label Agent Provocateur and the 
closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games. All of these, including 
Monster Ball, featured the work of theatre designer Es Devlin.

Fans can get a taste of Devlin's work for Monster Ball in 
Transformation and Revelation: Gormley to Gaga – Designing For 
Performance, an exhibition of some thirty-three major British designers 
which opened at Summerhall in Edinburgh this weekend.

“It was a very interesting point in her trajectory,” says Devlin. “For 
Monster Ball we were given an initial budget, then almost every day it 
went higher. It was designed for a specific size of stage, but as 
Gaga's popularity grew, she started being able to sell out arenas. The 
first night was in an arena in Montreal, and I don’t think it would be 
as thrilling to get involved in a moment like that now. There’s nothing 
quite like being there at that first moment of a new energy in art.”

As well as Devlin's work, the exhibition features designs for dance by 
sculptor Anthony Gormley and Rae Smith's design work for the original 
National Theatre production of War Horse. The mix of models and 
drawings contained in a series of purpose-built vitrines spread out 
across Summerhall's vast interior was originally seen by almost 150,000 
people during its run at the V&A museum in London earlier this year.

Organised by the Society of British Designers every four years as a 
showcase for the best of British design, this year's exhibition was 
initially shown in Cardiff, with some 206 designers contributing. 
Thirteen of these were selected to represent the UK at the Prague 
quadrennial before being expanded to its current scale.

“Theatre design is a backstage profession that never really gets 
exposed, “ according to curator Peter Farley, “and one of my bug-bears 
is that all too often the director gets the credit for the design and 
how something looks. But stage design isn’t just about decoration. It’s 
about adding another visual narrative to everything else that’s 
happening onstage. What I’m very pleased about is putting theatre 
designers and theatre artists into a fine art context, but we have work 
by architects, sculptors, painters and designers, so the edges are 
getting blurred a lot more.”

Devlin is a perfect example of this. Having studied music from a young 
age, Devlin first gained a degree in English Literature before 
embarking on a fine art foundation course at Central St Martins 
College, where she moved onto the stage design course. It was while at 
St Martins in 1992 that Devlin assisted Damien Hirst on Agongo, an 
installation presented at the Richard Demarco Gallery in Edinburgh.

Devlin won the Linbury Prize for Stage Design, embarking on her first 
professional job in 1995 directing a production of Edward 11 set in a 
swimming pool for  the Bolton Octagon Theatre. This led to work at 
London pub theatre, The Bush, then being run by Mike Bradwell, who 
hired Devlin to design Mark O'Rowe's breakthrough play, Howie The 
Rookie, which transferred to the Traverse Theatre for an Edinburgh 
Festival Fringe run in 1999. Devlin worked with Max Stafford-Clark's 
Out of Joint company, designing a revival of Andrea Dunbar's play, 
Rita, Sue and Bob Too for the company, as well as a remarkable 
African-set site-specific take on Macbeth. Both of these again visited 
the Traverse,  with Macbeth occupying the claustrophobic Underbelly 
space beneath the Central Library.

Rae Smith also has Scottish connections, and, long before War Horse, 
designed shows for TAG, 7:84 Scotland and The Tron. Smith has chartered 
a similar trajectory to Devlin, who has moved from the National 
Theatre, the RSC and English National Opera to Pet Shop Boys musical, 
Closer to Heaven, David McVicar's production of Salome for the Royal 
Opera House, and a series of steamy ads directed by Mike Figgis for 
high-class lingerie brand, Agent Provocateur.

Devlin's move into music came after Edinburgh-born director of the 
South Bank, Alex Poots, currently in charge of Manchester International 
Festival and the bi-annual Armory Show exhibition in New York, 
approached her to provide a set for art-punk band, Wire, in parallel 
with Jake and Dinos Chapman.

“It was pretty much impossible for them to perform in,” Devlin says 
now. “They couldn’t see each other, they couldn’t hear each other and 
they couldn’t get out, but it looked good.”

It certainly looked good to Kanye West, who was impressed enough by 
Devlin's contribution to the Wire show to hire her to design his 2005 
Touch The Sky tour.

“Again,” says Devlin, “it was a very interesting time to be working 
with Kanye, and the nice thing about that is a working relationship has 
developed, and we’re going to be doing something next year. Kanye’s got 
a mind that moves at the speed of light, and he gets very impatient 
with people who can’t keep up, so it’s good to have a short-hand with 
him now.”

Devlin has gone on to work with Muse, Mika, Goldfrapp, Nitin Sawhney, 
Take That, Lenny Kravitz and Rihanna. As with West, Devlin has 
continued her working relationship with David McVicar, and in 2014 will 
be transferring his production of Les Troyens to La Scala in Milan. In 
the meantime, Devlin may skirt around her involvement with epic flop, 
Batman Live, but her contribution to the Olympic closing ceremony is 
clearly something of a pinnacle.

“Everything seems very easy now compared to the London Olympics 
ceremony,” she says. “I was delighted I was involved in that moment of 
history, because it was one. But it also brought with it enormous 
amounts of pressure, because we were constantly having to rework things 
as we went along. It would have been wonderful if necessary if we 
could’ve had control of things from the beginning, but the music 
industry hierarchies don’t work like that, and sometimes the result of 
that was disappointing. Let’s just say that some of the artists really 
got into the spirit of the event, while others just wanted to play 
their song. You wanted to say to  them, can’t you put your own sense of 
self-importance aside for one minute and play that song from 1986 that 
says something about
British culture.”

Devlin may or may not be talking about George Michael, who premiered a 
new song at the event. Even with such dealings with pop divas, however, 
any further collaborations with Lady Gaga sound unlikely.

“I think she's kind of munched me up and moved on,” Devlin says. “I 
think she's probably munched a lot of people up. Maybe she'll run out 
and have to start again.”

Transformation and Revelation: Gormley to Gaga – Designing For 
Performance, Summerhall, Edinburgh until February 22nd 2013
www.summerhall.co.uk

The Herald, December 18th 2012

ends

National Jazz Trio of Scotland – The National Jazz Trio of Scotland's Christmas Album (Karaoke Kalk)


4 stars

Forget Bowie and Bing. As winter warmers go, Bill Wells' reinvention of twelve festive favourites featuring vocalists Lorna Gilfedder (Golden Grrrls), Kate Sugden (Johnny and the Entries), Aby Vulliamy (The One Ensemble) and Gerard Black (Francois and the Atlas Mountains) is an exquisite slowed-down treat. With each of the singers offering more reflective and at times mournful renderings of normally celebratory sing-alongs, from Sugden's opening take on Oh Xmas Tree, through to the finale of We Three Kings, more depth is given to each song that belie any notions of Nouvelle Vague style kitsch. Wells' textured keyboard arrangements lend even more weight to a collection that puts meaning back into a season where comfort matters as much as joy.

The List, December 2012

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Harland Miller: Overcoming Optimism


Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh until January 26th 2013
4 stars
If the Obscene Publications Squad are on the case of this first solo 
exhibition in Scotland by a York-born painter possessing a name like a pulp 
fiction hack, rest easy. Ellison’s monumental depictions of dog-eared 
Penguin book designs down the decades may look like the sort of 
behind-the-counter smut peddled under plain cover, but it’s the titles 
themselves that show off the real art of fiction.

On the one hand, epic tomes such as the punk-inspired ‘Fuck Art, Let’s 
Dance’, the scientifically inclined ‘Incurable Romantic Seeks Dirty 
Filthy Whore’ and the possible Off-Broadway smash, ‘Born to Get it in 
the Tits Every Single Day Though’ are masterpieces of cock-snooking 
fantasy-wish-fulfilment obscenity a la Joe Orton’s adventures in 
Islington library.

Beyond pop savvy fun and games and the Rude Kid style relish with which 
sweary-words are employed to flirt with the forbidden (as with 
old-school porn emporiums, the rudest title here is kept under lock and 
key), lies a darkly subversive intent. In what looks like the filthiest 
library in the world, try shushing that one up.

The List, December 2012

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Iceage

The Third Door, Edinburgh
Saturday November 24th 2012
4 stars
“Can we borrow the support bands' guitars?” asks Iceage vocalist Elias Ronnenfelt with the sort of sleepy-eyed mix of boredom, shyness and self-belief that doesn't expect any answer other than action. Three songs in, and the baby-faced Danish neo-hardcore quartet's own guitars are fucked, a mess of snapped-string fury that's the only thing that's made them pause for breath on this fourth date of their European tour.

With a name that recalls a song by Joy Division in their early, proto-punk Warsaw incarnation, Iceage's 2011debut album, New Brigade, announced to the world a primitive outburst of teenage frustration that was both a throwback to a million spirit-of-'76 one chord wonders and an urgent rebirth of the same crash-and-burn attitude. With New Brigade's follow-up on Matador Records imminent, Iceage are currently between moments, holding on to both for dear life so tightly that broken strings and borrowed guitars are inevitable collateral damage.

Headlining a show where first support act Birdhead sound like German electro-punk duo Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft, while second on the bill Baby Strange peak with a cover of Mink DeVille's Spanish Stroll, Iceage's sound sits edgily in-between the two. Standing before a busy room of equally disaffected youth alongside a few old lags, Iceage take punk's nihilistic shtick and breathe fresh life into a series of blink-and-you'll miss-em assaults that do away with subtlety and sophistication for the ultimate back-to-basics deconstructed clatter.

Ronnenfelt is a pretty-boy pin-up in denial. He leaves the stage more than once, surging against the tide of bodies he's at risk of being lost in before coming up for air and stepping out of reach. It's as if he wants to be part of the throng enough to embrace it, but is too repelled by it to commit, preferring to stand out in the crowd and keep his distance, however ugly the view. If this recalls anything, it's a young, strung-out and flailing Nick Cave if he'd been cast in Glee and was fronting an unholy, Frankenstein's monster alliance of The Birthday Party, The Cramps and The Strokes that could fall apart any minute.

After twenty-seven blistering, breath-taking minutes – two longer than New Brigade's running time – it's over. Forget pork pie hatted posh boy punk pretenders. In their eyes, at least, Iceage are for real, so catch them while they last, before self-destruction or showbiz makes them irrelevant. Right now, Iceage mean everything and nothing. They are their generation, and, for the next five minutes, they will blow everything else apart. 

The List, December 2012

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Thursday, 13 December 2012

Saint Etienne/Scritti Politti


Liquid Room, Edinburgh
4 stars
Questions may be asked about who the real head-liners were in this glorious double bill, though in the end it was the songs that mattered. Seeing Green Gartside's revitalised Scritti Politti live at all is a thrill, even if a bottle of cough medicine is on standby to help Gartside's honeyed tones. Opening with the slow skank of The 'Sweetest' Girl's deconstruction of the love song set the bar high, but, coming so soon after providing the live soundtrack to dancer/choreographer Michael Clarke's latest work, Gartside's four-piece band were happy to go through the Scritti back-catalogue without too much analysis.

Technology has made it easier to play shiny 1980s hits like The Word Girl and Wood Beez, which sit seamlessly alongside more recent wonders like The Boom Boom Bap. There's one new number, which apparently references Kant's response to cultural relativism, and only Gartside can think his eponymous countrified homage to French philosopher Jacques Derrida “really dumb.”

Saint Etienne's recent Words and Music album, written in part with former members of Girls Aloud production-line writing team, Xenomania, is a series of middle-aged love letters to pop. Live, the core trio's mining of sixties girl groups, seventies disco dolly electronica and eighties indie and Eurovision Hi-NRG oddly works better without a full band. With just Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs skulking at the back on assorted electronics while sparkly-frocked singer Sarah Cracknell trades vocals with long-term foil, Debsey Whykes, they too opt for a greatest hits set peppered with the odd new number. The result, even with a guitarist joining them, is a euphoric form of post-modern cabaret on a night of pure pop joy.

The Herald, December 13th 2012

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Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Birds of Paradise - A New Team


When Birds of Paradise announced their new artistic team in October of this year, it came after a heady year for disability and mixed ability initiatives. The London Paralympics had caught the nation's imagination over the summer more than ever before, while Birds of Paradise's appointment of a three-way team of two joint artistic directors and a creative producer suggested that team-work was even more important in what looks like a major leap forward for the company. The fact that Shona Rattray, Robert Softley Gale and Garry Robson already had a significant track record on projects with Bird of Paradise, as well as the disability arts sector, also meant that they'd effectively come through the company boot room, and were already au fait with what it's about.

“One of the nice things is that we already do know each other,” say Rattray, “so we can talk about ideas we've got straight away.”

“We worked out last night that it was ten years ago this week that the three of us first worked together,” Softley Gale points out on the triumvirate's second official day in post. “So now we don't have to dance round each other and found out what one another are about. It's more of a continuum.”

Lest anyone think the trio's appointment was a calculated coup d'etat, each new member of staff actually applied for the artistic director's job separately, and it was the company's board who proposed that they work together. While such a move is in keeping with previous successful partnerships at Dundee Rep and other places, for a relatively small-scale operation like Birds of Paradise, it is a singularly radical move.

“It was pitched to us as a new beginning, and we were very much given a clean slate,” says Robson. “We met a few times before we started, just to see if it could work, but it was too good an opportunity to miss, so it was a really a no-brainer.”

Softley Gale concurs.

“We've all got strengths that are quite different,” he says, “so rather than having to pick oner of us, why not try to bring all those together. I think we've all got different ideas, but we all share the same vision.”

“That made it an exciting prospect for moving the company forward,” Rattray agrees.

“It became quite a buzz,” says Robson. “I think the prospect of collaborations like this are definitely the way forward.”

Robson and Gale are both high-profile figures as performers, directors and writers, both in the disabled theatre scene and with mainstream companies. For Birds of Paradise, Robson wrote and directed The Irish Giant in 2003, and penned the most recent BoP show, The Man Who Lived Twice. He appeared in Theatre Workshop's production of Endgame, and up until recently ran Fittings Multi-Media company in Liverpool. At Oran Mor, Robson wrote Raspberry, a musical play inspired by singer and fellow polio sufferer, Ian Dury, and appeared in another, Reasons To Be Cheerful, with the Graeae company.

Softley Gale's first appearance with Birds of Paradise was acting in The Irish Giant. This came after a period when he too appeared in several Theatre Workshop productions, while Softley Gale has also appeared with Fittings. In 2005, Softley Gale became Birds of Paradise's Agent For Change, a project designed to investigate the under-representation of disabled performers in Scottish theatre. Softley Gale later became Equalities Officer for Arts and Disabilities with the old Scottish Arts Council, and more recently performed in his own show, Girl X, for the National Theatre of Scotland. Robson was a panel member for Unlimited, the disability arts commission fund set up by London 2012 and each of the four nations funding agencies for the Cultural Olympiad. These included works enabled by Softley Gale's assorted roles.

Rattray has worked with a stream of Scottish theatre companies including 7:84 Scotland and Suspect Culture, and has been BoP company manager since 2005. The upgrading of her role to Creative Producer is a logical progression following her work in contracting mainstream artists to work for the company as well as ensuring a two-way traffic by taking disability arts into the mainstream.

Birds of Paradise were formed by a group of disabled and non-disabled activists who worked on a community theatre project run by cultural social enterprise body, Fablevision, in 1990. BoP's first production came a year later, and, by 1993, had become Scotland's first inclusive touring theatre company. Since then, there have been numerous productions, including a collaboration with 7:84 Scotland on a production of Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin's dramatic tone poem, Tongues, while Alasdair Gray wrote a new piece, Working Legs, for the company, and Robson directed his own play, The Irish Giant.

More recently, BoP produced Davey Anderson's play, Clutter Keeps Company, and toured Brecht's Mother Courage and her Children, featuring Alison Peebles in the title role. Peebles went on to direct The Man Who Lived Twice.

The first fruits from the revitalised Birds of Paradise will be In An Alien Landscape, a new play by Danny Start, who began as writer in residence with BoP in 2010. Start's play is based on a true story about a man who emerged from a coma who was possessed with an urge to paint non-stop. Beyond this, BoP have plans for everything from a politically incorrect comedy to a country and western musical. There are also ambitions not just to be on equal footing with other Scottish companies, but to work internationally.

“Things have changed so much in the last few years in disability arts,” Softley Gale points out, “but II think the litmus for us will be when people start talking about us in the same way as other touring theatre companies. If they still see us as being ghettoised then we won't have been doing our jobs properly.”

In An Alien Landscape opens at The Beacon, Greenock on February 1st, and tours Scotland until February 26th.

ends

Birds of Paradise – Three of the Best

1997 – Tongues – Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin's dramatic poem was written when Chaikin suffered a stroke which left him with aphasia. This set new challenges for Birds of Paradise's collaboration with 7:84 Scotland.

1998 – Working Legs – An all too rare foray into drama from Alasdair Gray, a tragi-comedy designed to be performed by people without the limbs of the title.

2003 – The Irish Giant _ Garry Robson wrote and directed this play about Charles Byrne, the 7 foot 7 inch eighteenth century sideshow attraction, who died aged just twenty-two.

ends

The Herald, December 11th 2012

The Arthur Conan Doyle Appreciation Society

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
3 stars
There's a moment in Peepolykus' new show when a medium calling on the 
creator of Sherlock Holmes attempts to enter the room through the 
window. As the supposed arbiter of the spirit world clambers through 
the opening, he slips on the ledge, almost coming a cropper on the 
street below. The fact that the performer playing the spiritual con-man 
is clearly on his knees hanging on to a window at ground level doesn't 
prevent at least one first night audience member from gasping audibly 
at his apparent near miss with gravity.

This incident speaks volumes about this comic meditation on truth and 
artifice in which suspension of disbelief is subject as much as form. 
It's framed around a faux lecture by PhD candidate Jennifer McGeary, 
who, along with a couple of actors she's hired to illustrate her spiel, 
takes a step back in  time to meet Dr Doyle himself. The fact that her 
hired help bear a suspicious resemblance to Peepolykus main-stays 
Javier Marzan and John Nicholson is itself a double bluff in an 
extended bag of tricks that features Sherlock Holmes, Harry Houdini and 
the Cottingley fairies.

Orla O'Loughlin's Traverse Company production in association with 
Peepolykus is a knowingly seasonal  parlour room entertainment that 
looks at a need to believe in ghosts, whether they're real or not. At 
over two hours there's probably too much of it, and it could actually 
do with beinh somewhat less formal. There are nevertheless some slick 
sleights of hand at play here, with Marzan, Nicholson and Gabriel 
Quigley as Jennifer having a magic time in a show in which seeing isn't 
always believing.

The Herald, December 11th 2012

ends 

White Christmas

Pitlochry Festival Theatre
4 stars
In terms of scene-setting, the snow-dappled Perthshire hills beyond the 
theatre already gave director John Durnin a head start for his 
production of the classic Irving Berlin-scored musical. While It’s 
remarkable that David Ives and Paul Blake’s stage version of Michael 
Curtiz’ 1954 big-screen vehicle for Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye has only 
been around since 2004, it’s a gift to see a show normally reserved for 
the commercial circuit in such refreshingly close-up form. Beyond the 
uber-slick song and dance routines from a twenty-strong cast plus an 
exuberant ten-piece band, it’s also a fascinatingly telling period 
piece.

Ex GIs turned big-time double act Bob and Phil wind up in an 
unseasonally sunny Vermont for Christmas with sisters Betty and Judy. 
With their former general’s hotel in hock, Bob and Phil conspire to put 
on a benefit gig for the old boy, doing the decent thing with the girls 
en route.

As Bob and Phil, Grant Neal and Simon Coulthard are matinee idol 
troupers to the last, with Martine McMenemy and Eleanor Brown equally 
game foils as Betty and Judy. While Jacqueline Dutoit’s hard-bitten 
Martha steals the show,it’s  Chris Stuart-Wilson’s choreography, Hilary 
Brooks’ musical arrangements and Adrian Rees’ perfectly 
colour-ordinated set and costumes that give the production its oomph.
On one level, this is a feel-good winter warmer originally designed to 
ease the post-World War Two fall-out for ex-service-men. As with any 
showbiz musical, there’s also something going on about how the power of 
song, dance and performance can enliven and inspire a community to 
rally together. Let’s hope the board of Creative Scotland who were in 
attendance on opening night got the message.

The Herald, December 11th 2012

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Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Soul Sister

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
3 stars
Before the irresistible rise of the juke-box musical, the rock and roll tribute show was king. Queen too if this warts and all Tina Turner homage is anything to go by, as devisers Pete Brooks and John Miller reclaim the form's simple but effective attributes in Brooks' co-production with Bob Eaton. Eaton is a safe pair of hands, having defined the rock and roll musical while running Liverpool's Everyman Theatre. It is significant there is no writer's credit in what amounts to a strip cartoon summation of church-going teenager Anna Mae Bullock's rise, fall and subsequent reinvention in what's now regarded as Turner's 1980s heyday.

This was initially down to Bullock meeting one Ike Turner, a driven musical genius smart enough to see the potential in Bullock's voice enough to put her centre stage. As the pair become entwined personally as well as professionally, Turner's ambition turns to rage, misogyny, drug addiction and wife-beating. This is played out here against a back-drop of American social and political upheaval, with quick-fire archive footage of Martin Luther King, JFK, Malcolm X and Vietnam played out against newly filmed narrative links to speed the action along. Turner's own emancipation comes via a form of trickle-down feminism that allows her to really find her voice.

While the audience boo Ike like a panto villain come early, it's the numbers they came for, and the cast, led by a tirelessly vivacious Emi Wokoma as Tina, give it the full-on soul revue treatment. At times it's as if an old episode of Ready, Steady Go had been brought to life in a fast-moving piece of pop theatre with a social conscience.

The Herald, December 5th 2012

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Tuesday, 4 December 2012

The Arthur Conan Doyle Appreciation Society - Peepolykus Get Elemental

How do you go about staging the complete works of Sherlock Holmes? It's a question even Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional pipe-smoking detective hero himself might have trouble with. It's nevertheless one which comically inclined theatre troupe Peepolykus asked themselves when they decided to make a new show. Audiences may or may well find out some kind of answer in The Arthur Conan Doyle Appreciation Society, a new piece scripted by Peepolykus founders Steven Canny and John Nicholson, which opens this week at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, whose artistic director, Orla O'Loughlin, directs.

“We knew that we wanted to write something about Arthur Conan Doyle, and we thought it might be an interesting idea to try and fit every Sherlock Holmes story into one thing,” says Nicholson, who, alongside Peepolykus regular, Javier Marzan and Scottish actress Gabriel Quigley, will be performing in the new show. “We came up with an idea for that, which felt like quite good fun, but it also felt like a bit of a mountain to climb.”

This idea involved Holmes leaping into another dimension to solve a case in the real world, and forced to go beyond the material world to investigate the nether-regions of the universe. To do this, Holmes would require to understand the laws of nature and physics. Such notions aren't beyond the realms of fictional possibility, with all sorts of super-heroes having straddled parallel universes. One slip-up in the details of Conan Doyle's four novel and fifty-six short story Holmes canon, however, and the Sherlock Holmes fan-base would rumble Peepolykus as liberty-taking theatrical Moriartys.

By way of a solution, Peepolykus decreed to take an equally other-worldly look at Holmes' creator. Given that for the last twenty years of his life Conan Doyle became a confirmed spiritualist, this wasn't going to be too difficult. Conan Doyle first looked to spiritualism for solace following the death of his wife in 1906, and continued his interest after the deaths of his son, brother, brothers-in-law and nephews. Conan Doyle even believed that the famed photographs of the so-called Cottingley Fairies, knocked up by two little girls in 1917, were genuine, and wrote a book on the subject. Conan Doyle went on to have a huge fall-out with world renowned magician Harry Houdini after he refused to believe that Houdini used illusion in his stage act rather than the supernatural powers Conan Doyle insisted that the American was blessed with.

“Conan Doyle devoted the last part of his life to spiritualism,” says Nicholson, “and he felt very ambivalent about Sherlock Holmes, and killed him off, but was forced to bring him back to life. It wasn't the thing he wanted his literary legacy to be. He wanted his other work, and particularly his spiritualist work, to come to the fore more. That seemed like quite an interesting struggle, between Conan Doyle and his creation, who were both very different. Aside from all that, we wanted to put on a play about people trying to put on a play. That's what defines a lot of Peepolykus' early, more devised work, and we wanted to write a script that went back to that, and which could bring in our characters own personal stories and struggles.”

The end result is a faux illustrated lecture presented by a devotee of Conan Doyle, played by Quigley, who brings on board two actors played by Nicholson and Marzan to share her somewhat cranky obsession. The trio even have a game bash at doing the collected Sherlock Holmes in a one-er.

“The actors we play are using this as a bit of a platform,” says Nicholson. “They know there might be people from the big Edinburgh theatres watching, and think they might put their show on.”

This isn't the first time Peepolykus have investigated Conan Doyle. In 2007 the company staged their take on The Hound of the Baskervilles, probably Conan Doyle's best-known Sherlock Holmes story. With Canny's script again directed by O'Loughlin, the production broke box office records at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, before touring the UK and transferring to the West End.

The success of The Hound of the Baskervilles arguably pre-dated current hit comedies such as One Man Two Guvnors and The Ladykillers, both of which similarly took on already existing stories to tease audience expectations. By reinvigorating such ripping yarns with playing styles rooted in absurdist slapstick, European physical theatre and 1970s fringe theatre, these expectations were subverted enough to take these shows into the commercial mainstream.

The Ladykillers director, Sean Foley, was one half of The Right Size, another group who morphed English archness with mime show knockabout to channel a form of nouveau vaudeville. The Right Size went global with their Morecambe and Wise homage, The Play What I Wrote.

It's telling too that movement director for One Man, Two Guvnors was Cal McCrystal. McCrystal's career as a clown and mime saw him only move into directing after he was invited by Peepolykus to work on a show called Let The Donkey Go, an Edinburgh Festival Fringe hit back in 1996. As well as other Peepolykus shows, McCrystal went on to work on other Peepolykus shows, as well as directing The Mighty Boosh's early Edinburgh appearances before going on to work with Cirque du Soleil, Sacha Baron Cohen and beyond.

“One Man, Two Guvnors is a great show,” says Nicholson, “but in terms of what's going on in the physical theatre world now, it's not that exciting. But the sort of audiences who go and see it maybe haven't seen that sort of irreverence before.”

In terms of irreverence, then, Peepolykus are masters at it. As for their original question of how you the complete works of Sherlock Holmes on stage, the answer, of course, is elementary.

“If what happens in our play is anything to go by,” says Nicholson, “it's a complete disaster.”

The Arthur Conan Doyle Appreciation Society, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, December 6th-22nd

Three Firsts From Peepolykus

1996 - Let The Donkey Go – The company's debut was an Edinburgh hit, where they defined their style with an unlikely yarn about inept secret policeman apprehending a suspect for being, well, a suspect. Since then, the show has toured to eighteen countries.

2002 – Rhinoceros – This is where Peepolykus showed off their absurdist roots to the fore with a look at Eugene Ionesco's classic play set in a small French town whose inhabitants are collectively struck down with Rhinoceritus. It was also the first time the company used text in their work.

2007 – The Hound of The Baskervilles – The first Peepolykus reinvention of Arthur Conan Doyle's back catalogue was also the first time they worked with Traverse director Orla O'Loughlin. The production sold out West Yorkshire Playhouse before transferring to the West End.

The Herald, December 4th 2012

ends

Macbeth

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
3 stars
The guy sitting at the table in the Tron’s Victorian Bar is on his 
mobile speaking to the wife. He’s on a promise, he reckons, and is 
about to hit the big time. She’s telling him to go for it, but if he’s 
on to something, she wants a piece of the action too. So the guy goes 
back up to the bar, which is when things get really weird for Macbeth.

Or that’s the impression you get from Ian Macdonald’s half-hour Gaelic 
translation of Shakespeare’s Scottish play commissioned by Glasgow 
Life/Glasch Beo. At the moment, Liz Carruthers’  work-in-progress 
production (although not advertised as such)  is a one-man affair, with 
Daibhidh Walker playing Macbeth as a leather-jacketed bar-room big man 
who suddenly finds he’s a contender enough to take on all-comers.

While some of the original text’s subtleties may be lost to non-Gaelic 
speakers, it’s not hard to get the broader gist of things as Walker’s 
straight out of Shameless Macbeth downs another drink. Was that Banquo 
sitting at his regular table, or was it just a trick of the light as 
key lines from the play are beamed onto the wall in English? As his 
former pals turn against him, Macbeth checks the new Facebook page 
Malcolm’s invited all his friends to join, deleting as he goes.

There’s a sense of intimacy at play here which is crucial to a 
re-telling of the story that taps into a spit and sawdust contemporary 
reinvention of the oral tradition. Whatever happens next in the 
project’s development beyond last week’s two performances, it’s 
important that this sensibility is retained in a version that makes 
Shakespeare look less foreign than ever.

The Herald, December 4th 2012

ends


Friday, 30 November 2012

MacPherson’s Rant

Madras College, St Andrews
3 stars
The demise of the Byre Theatre as a thriving professional producing 
house following funding cuts after a major refurbishment was a major 
loss to St Andrews. With any luck, this new production of a script 
originally penned by John Ward may help encourage the re-establishment 
of a permanent artistic team at what is now primarily a receiving 
house.
Ward’s play was a heroic reimagining of the life and death of 
seventeenth century Scots wanderer, James MacPherson, who created his 
own mythology via the song he penned while awaiting execution. Kally 
Lloyd-Jones’ production of Linda Duncan McLaughlin’s adaptation was 
enabled by the Scottish Government-backed Year of Creative Scotland 
2012’s bestowment of the Scotland’s Creative Place Award to St Andrews. 
Performed by a mixed cast of professionals and community participants, 
the production is staged in a heated tent in the grounds of Madras 
College, and is a romantically inclined romp that suggests a kind of 
proto class war at play.

MacPherson here is the illegitimate son of Laird Duff’s former maid. 
When MacPherson falls for Bess, whose father has promised her to Duff, 
a backdrop of personal jealousy and Jacobite rebellion makes for an 
epic akin to a western. As played out on Janis Hart’s big wooden set 
with trees spilling into the auditorium, it’s a patchy show, but one 
which nevertheless highlights institutionalised misogyny and abuses of 
power and privilege.

As MacPherson, Martin Forry grows in confidence throughout, while Morna 
McDonald makes for a feisty foil as Bess. By far the best thing here is 
the live harp and fiddle score played by young musicians from Madras. 
Under the guidance of Rachel Newton, it’s subtle under-scoring is a 
thing of quiet beauty.

The Herald, November 29th 2012

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Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Woman in Black

Theatre Royal, Glasgow
4 stars
When Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe came of big-screen age earlier 
this year in the cinematic adaptation of Susan Hill’s spookiest of 
novels, one feared that its gothic gloss might suck the life out of the 
late Stephen Mallatratt’s stage version. After more than two decades in 
the west end and ten national tours, judging by this latest encounter, 
Robin Herford’s still spine-tingling production isn’t ready to lie down 
just yet.

Mallatratt’s play finds lawyer Arthur Kipps hiring an actor to 
role-play events from years before in an attempt to exorcise ghosts 
that have haunted him since. These involve a young Kipps being packed 
off to a desolate country house to oversee a dead woman’s affairs, only 
to have the eponymous Woman transform his life. As a dense yarn of 
illigitimacy, accidental death and revenge from the grave is unveiled, 
the shocks pile on aplenty for Kipps, whether played by Julian Forsyth 
or by Antony Eden’s Actor.

This may sound terribly meta, but it is also a master-class in 
suspending disbelief. As has already been noted on these pages, fans of 
immersive theatre who think they’ve discovered the Holy Grail in 
art-house fringe spaces elsewhere could learn much from The Woman in 
Black. The box of tricks used in both are essentially the same, and go 
back a lot further.

Yet there’s more going on here than meets the eye. As Audrone Koc’s Woman 
enacts her revenge on the world, it’s as if she’s calling to account 
the moral hypocrisy of a society that robbed her of her child. As long 
as audiences enjoy being terrified, chances are she’ll be cursing them 
for several years to come.

The Herald, November 28th 2012

ends