Friday, 28 September 2012

National Theatre of Scotland 2013 Season - Vicky Featherstone's Swan-Song

That there is no main-stage swan-song directed by National Theatre of 
Scotland artistic director Vicky Featherstone in her final season 
before departing to run the Royal Court speaks volumes about her tenure 
over the last six years. Because it isn't any single production which 
has defined  Featherstone's role. Rather, it is an all-embracing vision 
which has enabled artists to be bold and to think big while 
Featherstone has taken on a more diplomatic role protective of her 
charges. Indeed, it could be argued that Featherstone's own creative 
work has been neglected because of this.

Of the season itself, if there is an element of baton-passing, with 
associate director Graham McLaren being particularly prolific, there is 
also a sense that theatre in Scotland has become increasingly 
exploratory. If the NTS has the resources to raise the bar, then the 
talent is already there to take advantage of it. It is an attitude the 
ongoing national embarrassment that is Creative Scotland could learn 
much from.

Yes, there are classic plays, but they are not there to appease 
traditionalists, but to breathe fresh life into already great works. 
But it is the season's collaborations, with Oran Mor, Vox Motus and The 
Arches, that point the way. All of these companies have led from the 
ground up, and their presence in the programme is vindication for the 
importance of the license to experiment beyond box-ticking.

Featherstone's final NTS season, then, is both as a summation of her 
achievements and a serious pointer towards the organisation's future. 
Whoever replaces Featherstone as artistic director, it remains crucial 
that the NTS is not squeezed into some parochialist ghetto dictated by 
its political funders. That would be a backward step, and a major 
mistake. For the organisation to flourish, the NTS must remain as 
expansively internationalist as its 2013 season promises to be.

The Herald, September 28th 2012


An Evening With Clare Balding

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
4 stars
If Clare Balding wasn't already considered a national treasure, her 
ubiquity anchoring this year's London Paralympics has confirmed it. 
This may be why her autobiography, the tellingly named My Animals and 
Other Family, has been number one best-seller for the last two weeks. 
For a woman whose entire life has been spent in a horse-racing world 
where competition and the thrill of the chase means everything, one 
suspects these sorts of things matter to Balding.

By the time she ambles onstage for this sold out talk sporting sloppy 
sweat shirt and jeans, Balding has already done a signing in St 
Boswell's, with one in Milngavie to go as part of a suitably marathon 
tour. Over an hour, Balding relates in impeccably jolly hockey-sticks 
tones a life which sounds not unlike one great big Girl's Own 
adventure, from posing for pictures astride legendary race-horse Mill 
Reef aged eighteen months, to being suspended from the same boarding 
school attended by Miranda Hart. Whenever she clocks an accidental 
tomboyish pointer to her future as a sapphic icon, “Who knew?”, she 
declares with self-deprecatory knowingness.

There's also a healthy attitude to the monarchy, as both an incident in 
which a sausage becomes a missile inadvertently aimed at the Queen, and 
a later on-track skirmish with Princess Anne on the race-track testify 
to. But there's a more serious side to Balding. She expresses concerns 
over the height of fences for the Grand National, and reveals she'll be 
working on a BBC science programme, “something about the brain. I'm 
fascinated by what makes us happy, what it is that makes us feel alive.”

Who knew indeed?

The Herald, September 28th 2012


Thursday, 27 September 2012

Sex and God - Linda McLean Explodes

Sex and God are quite understandably all over Linda McLean's new play 
for Nick Bone's Magnetic North company, which opens this weekend in 
Easterhouse prior to a short tour as part of the Scottish Mental Health 
Arts and Film Festival. Despite such strong transcendent themes pulsing 
the worlds of the four twentieth century women from different 
time-zones who occupy McLean's play, she had never considered it for a 
title. Only when McLean's son asked her what the new work was about did 
it become obvious.

“I said it was about sex and God, but didn't have a title,” McLean 
explains, “and he said 'That's it!'”

McLean's work is full of little eureka moments like this, in which 
characters in seemingly domestic situations are enlightened somehow. 
While you could say this about most drama, over the last decade or so 
McLean has quietly become one of the most experimental playwrights in 
the country. Her subversion of dramatic form has been subtle, however, 
whether in the rain-battered trip to Iona taken in Shimmer in 2004, in 
the exploration of family in Word For Word, McLean's first 
collaboration with Magnetic North the year before, or her exploration 
of urban ennui in 2010's Any Given Day.

If elements of all these plays border on a home-grown form of magical 
realism, McLean's narratives are rooted in the surface ordinariness of 
the everyday. Only after bearing witness to them does one realise just 
how tantalisingly special they are. Sex and God may follow in this 
tradition, but, as the quartet of stories are told simultaneously, it 
also finds McLean stretching her writing muscles further out than ever 

“I had a conversation with someone about how there hadn't been a 
history of the twentieth century in the west coast of Scotland either 
written by or about women,” McLean says about the roots of Sex and God. 
“That coincided with me researching into my personal family history, 
and then someone asked if I had an idea for TV. I explained all of 
this, but couldn't find a way of doing it in the sort of 
straightforward way that you have to do things for TV. You know me, I'm 
never happy unless I'm juggling with form.”

The result, according to McLean, is not unrelated to the work she 
explored while Creative Fellow at Edinburgh University’s Institute of 
Advanced Studies in Humanities between 2010 and 2011.

“What happens if you remove the chronology of a story?” she asks. “What 
are you then seeing? That suddenly opened me up to being much more 
playful with form, and I was able to put all four women in the same 
place. The things that emerged out of this, which were lots of sex and 
lots of God, seemed to have a big impact on all this. Those two things 
jumped out as aspects of life which, if you look through the twentieth 
century are things that seem to matter.”

Each of the women in Sex and God occupies a moment somewhere between 
the beginning and the end of the twentieth century.

“There's no specific dates,” McLean points out. “It's funny, because 
when you abstract them, these things don't matter. Sometimes it's as if 
they do know each other, then at other times it's as if they don't.”

Central to McLean's creative process has been the influence of Cold 
Dark Matter: An Exploded View, an installation by visual artist 
Cornelia Parker. Parker's piece suspends time via the shattered 
particles of an exploded shed frozen in mid-blast.

“It was a big influence on the form,” McLean admits. “The stories are 
told in a very fragmented fashion, and each one of the four voices 
occupied equal amounts of space in my head. In that way, you're never 
going to know the whole of these women's stories, the same as you're 
never going to see the whole of this exploded shed. You'll only see 
parts of their stories that they choose to reveal.”

In this respect, McLean is keen to stress amongst the maelstrom of 
desire, loss, relationships and family that drives her play, is that 
Sex and God is most definitely not a series of criss-crossing 
monologues. Rather, the effect sounds more akin to a musical score or a 

“It would have been impossible to write this play as monologues,” she 
says. “Magnetic North are the kind of company who embrace experimenting 
with form, so I knew I could go to Nick with something like this, and 
that he would relish it.”

At one point in rehearsals, Bone put every word spoken in Sex and God 
onto one long sheet of paper, so it really did more resemble a musical 
score than a script.

“I suppose it also became impossible to write these stories and have 
any kind of judgement about whether I found what these women were doing 
was right or wrong, but moving backwards through the twentieth century, 
I also found this great warmth.”

There's always been a keen sense of spirituality filtering through 
McLean's work, and with Sex and God it sounds more pronounced than ever.

“That's a consequence of how I've experienced the world,” McLean says. 
“It's very hard to grow up in a world without some sort of sense of 
spirituality, and that's directly related to the sort of questioning we 
do from a very early age about what is the nature of being alive in the 

Despite what sounds like Sex and God's clear leaning towards 
transcendent forces, there remains something very grounded in McLean's 

“Here's what I'm hoping,” says McLean. “I'm hoping that there's 
humanity in the play. The heart in it. The people in it. That's what I 
hope people will really love, and that they're not obscured by any 
other kind of story-telling. It's just these four women, each one of 
them in the moment.”

Sex and God, Platform, Glasgow, September 27th-28th, then tours
The Herald, September 27th 2012


The Guid Sisters

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
4 stars
A vintage recording of Lulu belting out Shout is the perfect 
scene-setter for Martin Bowman and Bill Findlay's audacious Scots 
reimagining of Quebecois writer Michel Tremblay's ensemble piece for 
fifteen women. It's also a magnificent double-bluff, as Serge 
Denoncourt's National Theatre of Scotland revival in co-production with 
the Royal Lyceum proves time and again. Yes, Tremblay's 1960s-set tale 
of a working-class back-kitchen sorority brought together by Kathryn 
Howden's blousy Germaine's winning of a million Green Shield Stamps is 
funny to it's riotous core. Look beyond the fur coat and nae knickers 
one-up-womanship, however, and you'll find a raging back-street 
portrait of a post World War Two society fit to bust.

Life's a lottery for all of the women who gather to stick Germaine's 
stamps into books before she transfers them for a catalogue-bought 
dream home. As each woman repeats in turn, alas, none of them are ever 
likely to win anything, not even the sacred game of Bingo they sing so 
lustily of. As each steps out of what looks like a last supper to 
confess all, a world of envy, martyrdom, acquisitiveness and the desire 
to escape is laid bare. Of the choices on offer beyond Germaine's Green 
Shield wealth, the return of Lisa Gardner's once angelic Pierette, now 
strung-out by too many good times, is a telling indictment of 
patriarchal capitalism in a kitchen-sink world.

Denoncourt orchestrates  this mix of bitter-sweet banter, proto-rap 
chorales and once taboo-busting depictions of real women with a 
relentless gusto which all onstage grab hold of. When it comes, the 
explosive redistribution of wealth is a call to arms to be reckoned 

The Herald, September 27th 2012


Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Johnny McKnight - A Superheroic Life

There's something heroic about Johnny McKnight. The writer, director, 
performer and co-founder of Random Accomplice productions appears to be 
everywhere just now, so ubiquitous are his theatrical wares. With 
Random Accomplice, he and fellow director Julie Brown have just opened 
their sixteenth production, The Incredible Adventures of See Thru Sam, 
which is written and directed by McKnight, and currently running at the 
Tron Theatre in Glasgow prior to a Scottish tour.

Beyond Random Accomplice, as a director, McKnight is currently at work 
on a rehearsed reading of All The Promise, a new play by Colin Bell 
performed as part of Glasgay!, as well as workshops with the National 
Theatre of Scotland on Sponsored Silence, a new piece by Douglas 
Maxwell. As a writer, McKnight is about to have an even higher profile.

In October,his first radio play, Beloved, is set to be recorded. 
Onstage, McKnight has two new projects with Scottish opera in the 
pipeline. The Curse of the Maccabra Opera House is a young people's 
piece with music by regular Random Accomplice collaborator and composer 
for The Incredible Adventures of See Thru Sam, Alan Penman. Last One 
Out is an even more ambitious site-specific project with composer 
Gareth Williams, and set to take place in Fraserburgh Lighthouse as 
part of the forthcoming Sound festival.

More familiar territory for long-term McKnight watchers will be a very 
busy festive season, when McKnight will be present in no less than 
three shows. At the MacRobert Arts Centre in Stirling, Brown will 
direct a new production of McKnight's take on Cinderella, which was the 
first pantomime he ever wrote. At the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh, 
McKnight will premiere a new musical play of the same story, while at 
the Tron in Glasgow, he will write, direct and play the title role in 
Aganeeza Scrooge, a new, female-based version of the Charles Dickens 

“It's all dead exciting,” McKnight gushes, “and has pushed me out of my 
comfort zone. I would hate it if people felt I was just bashing out the 
same thing all the time. It would be easy to do the same panto or bash 
out Little Johnny's Big Gay Something every couple of years,” he says, 
referring to the trilogy of plays he wrote for Random Accomplice, which 
began with Little Johnny's Big Gay Adventure, “but I don't want to do 
that. I love it when I sit down and I don't know what I'm doing.

“It's like with Room 7,” McKnight says of his short contribution to the 
Traverse's Dream Plays season during this year's Edinburgh Festival 
Fringe. “That started off being about terrorism, but then I realised 
there was a hundred people who could do it better, so then I asked 
myself if I could write something that was a kind of sci-fi thriller, 
to see where that would go. I kind of like setting myself a problem and 
then try and solve it.”

While variety has been the spice of McKnight's working life, one thing 
that does join the dots between his campier outings and more seriously 
minded work such as The Incredible Adventures of See Thru Sam is a 
fusion of popular culture with a form of heightened realism. The roots 
of this may well date back to his school playground in Ardrossan.

“All the boys played at football,” he says, “while I played with the 
lassies at Prisoner Cell Block H, so that was a bit of a pointer. All 
the things I watched on TV were larger than life, because they offered 
something more glamorous than Ardrossan. So with everything I've done, 
I don't think anybody could describe me as the king of naturalism.”

Somewhat surprisingly, McKnight started out training to be a lawyer. 
Equally unsurprisingly, it was a brush with the law that didn't last 

“If I'd kept up with being a lawyer I would have been the most 
ridiculous one around. I only went into law because I thought it'd be 
like Ally McBeal, with dancing babies and everything, but it wasn't.”

Advice from a university lecturer saw McKnight join the first year of 
RSAMD's Contemporary Theatre Practice course. It was here he met Brown, 
also learning the mechanics of devising and producing his own work. 
Where many CTP graduates joined the live art circuit revolving around 
the Arches, McKnight and Brown founded Random Accomplice.

“We'd both just graduated,” McKnight remembers, “and I thought that the 
only parts I'd get given would be either a hairdresser or someone's 
camp pal. We both had a lot of admin experience, so we thought that 
instead of waiting around for someone to tell us what to do, let's do 
it ourselves.”

A decade on, and the gamble has quietly paid off, with both Brown and 
McKnight major players. Again, the versatility of the company has 
helped their profile enormously.

“I think I do it deliberately,” McKnight muses. “I would hate to be a 
full-time actor, and I couldn't be, because I can only do one part. I 
couldn't be a full-time writer either, because I couldn't stand the 
solitude. I love playing with my pals in the rehearsal room, but I 
don't want to be dad all the time. I want to be a kid sometimes as 

While McKnight expresses a long-term desire to do a full-scale musical, 
beyond his current spate of activity, he declares himself to be in full 
possession of “a big calendar of nothing.”

Despite such affirmations, he and Brown have Random Accomplice's tenth 
anniversary in 2013 to think about. McKnight isn't sure what they'll do 
yet, but is toying with the idea of doing something that's different 
again from See Thru Sam.

“It's about a pair of Sonny and Cher impersonators who split up,” he 
says. “I don't know, though, because I might be the worst Sonny Bono 
impersonator ever. I think I'd make a better Cher, but I don't think 
Julie would like that very much.”

The Incredible Adventures of  See Thru Sam, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 
September 20th-29th, then tours

The Herald, September 25th 2012


Monday, 24 September 2012

The Incredible Adventures of See Thru Sam

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
4 stars
Heroes and villains mean everything when you’re a teenager, especially 
one who’s living in a world of his own like Sam. Sam used to be 
invisible, but once his mum and dad prove to be thoroughly mortal in a 
car crash, he loses those powers, and starts to be noticed. Even so, as 
Sam tells the audience his not so secret origin from the off he has a 
destiny to fulfil.

Or so it seems in Johnny McKnight’s fantastical rites of passage 
strip-cartoon adventure, in which Sam, his side-kick best pal Walrus, 
and maybe, just maybe his very own super girl Violet take on the world. 
In Sam’s head, this comes in the shape of evil genius Uncle Herbie and 
Violet’s bullying boyfriend. The power of the imagination can only take 
a small-town school-boy so far, it seems, no matter how high Sam is 

McKnight’s own production for Random Accomplice takes an array of comic 
book idioms and brings them to life via a set of meticulously timed 
animations which are projected behind the action, illustrating it as 
Sam tells his doomed tale. Such quick-fire displays by animator Jamie 
Macdonald and video designer Kim Beveridge on Lisa Sangster’s set 
allows an insight into Sam’s mind that makes total sense of James 
Mackenzie and Julie Brown flitting between roles in an instant.

There’s a potty-mouthed gallows humour in McKnight’s script that lifts 
things beyond sentiment in a powerfully observed study of adolescent 
angst. As Sam reaches for the stars, unable to reconcile himself with 
real life, McKnight has dreamt up an awfully big adventure worth taking 
the leap for.

The Herald, September 24th 2012


Saturday, 22 September 2012

David Michalek: Figure Studies

Summerhall until September 27th 2012
4 stars

There's something heroic about David Michalek's three-screen sequel of 
sorts to his similarly styled Slow Dancing triptych of larger-than-life 
slo-mo studies of dancers in motion, first seen in 2007. Where in that 
piece five blink-and-you'll-miss-em seconds apiece were stretched out 
to ten minutes of extended play performed by professionals, the 
choreography applied here is to a more diverse array of long, short, 
tall and less whippet-like physiques. Seen largely naked, acting out 
routines of every-day movement, Michalek's subjects – a woman with a 
double mastectomy, a bearded old man shifting bags of cement in his 
Y-Fronts, a couple holding their baby aloft – become monumental pin-ups 
striking a pose, as every sinew, muscle and twitch is accentuated and 
buffed into shape.

As a conscious form of homage to and reinvention of cinematic and 
photographic techniques pioneered in the nineteenth century by Eadward 
Muybridge, Michalek's film may look as glossy as a coffee-table 
magazine spread made flesh. As each figure blurs into the next, 
however, there's a strength beyond the seductively hypnotic display, as 
imperfection blurs into beauty en route.

The List, September 2012


Thursday, 20 September 2012

Michel Tremblay - The Guid Sisters Return

When a Scots language production of a Quebecois play originally written in French toured to Montreal, it wasn't so much the equivalent of taking coals to Newcastle as making a serious political statement, about language, about women and about the self-determination of two small nations. Twenty years on, The Guid Sisters, Martin Bowman and Bill Findlay's translation of Michel Tremblay's play, Les Belles-Soeurs, is regarded as a contemporary classic twice over.

As the National Theatre of Scotland prepare for a major revival of The Guid Sisters in co-production with the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, there are many theatre-goers too young to remember Michael Boyd's original production for the Tron in Glasgow. Yet without this tale of fifteen women who gather for a party after one of them wins a million Green Shield stamps, arguably an entire generation of Scots playwrights might never have expressed themselves so vigorously in their own voice.

The roots of Les Belle-Soeurs lay in a visit to the movies taken by Tremblay and a friend some forty-seven years ago, in 1965.

My God,” says Tremblay in soothing Quebecois-accented English. “So long.”

Tremblay doesn’t name the film he saw, only that it was a Quebecois feature, written in French.

We hated it,” he says. “We went for coffee, and we wondered why we hated it, and we realised it was the language. It was a form of bland, generalised French, which no-one spoke in Quebec or Montreal. There were authors writing in Quebecois, but it was a very nice form of Quebecois that wasn’t living in the real world. So, over coffee, I said, why can’t I write about two women talking in the parlour, and see if it’s possible to put the language of the street onstage. Two days later I had fifteen women.

At the time, I was writing fantasy and science-fiction novels and plays, and the day before I started writing what became Les Belles-Soeurs, I didn’t know I would need to take so long over it. Then I became very passionate about these women’s’ lives and what they had to say. In mid-American theatre, a lot of the time the women were secondary, and I realised that male characters didn’t interest me.”

This has been the case, not just with Les Belles-Soeurs, but with all of his works, many of which feature the same characters in emotionally charged litanies of poetry, ritual, comedy, and the bustle of life that drives it. All of  which dates back to a very personal root.

They were the women who raised me,” says Tremblay of his characters. “I was the youngest of a household of twelve. There were three families in the same place, with my grand-mother at the head, because it was cheaper to live that way. I was so much younger than everybody else. My nearest brother to me in age was nine years older, and I would hear adults talk, and say things that wouldn’t normally be said in front of a child, because they probably thought I didn’t understand. But without realising it, something registered. The first critics of society I heard were women. The men were all at work, and I was at home with these five women.”

It was three years before anyone was prepared to take a gamble on Les Belle-Soeurs, which was ostensibly about one woman’s scooping of a shed-load of trading stamps, but which gave voice to an entire society. As well as Tremblay’s ground-breaking use of language, a play with fifteen actors onstage was as hard to resource then as it is now. When the play was finally produced, however, in the midst of Quebec’s move towards self-determination in what became known as the quiet revolution, which secularised a previously Catholic society, Les Belles-Soeurs arrived like a female-fronted riot of back-street ribaldry and wit that spoke colourfully and fearlessly about life as  its characters recognised it.

Like Glasgow twenty years later, it caused some kind of scandal,” Tremblay remembers. “Either you loved it or you hated it. There were lots of criticisms of the language. Swearing was considered bad enough, but swearing by women was unheard of. But for all the criticisms, no-one ever said it was a bad play.”

If Les Belles-Soeurs helped usher in a Quebecois cultural revolution, The Guid Sisters date back to a chance meeting between its two translators, Martin Bowman from Quebec, and the late Bill Findlay from Scotland. The pair met at the School of Scottish Studies at the university of Edinburgh, when both were separately researching the works of Irvine-born nineteenth century novelist John Galt.

Bill was keen on getting the Scots language onstage,” bowman remembers, “and asked me if there was a play we should translate.”

Les Belle-Soeurs was so iconic it was a no-brainer, and the pair spent the next two years on the project. Literary magazine Cencrastus published an excerpt, but was only in 1987 that the play's rich demotic was heard in a rehearsed reading organised by the late Tom McGrath, then Literary Director for Scotland, as part of that year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Eventually Bowman and Findlay's script trickled down to Boyd, and, in 1989, The Guid Sisters breezed in with its first production followed by two touring revivals.It was one of the first times I saw one of my plays done in a different language,” Tremblay remembers, “I remember sitting there, and I didn’t understand it, but then after five minutes I saw people laughing.”

The Guid Sisters wasn’t the first Tremblay play to be seen in Scotland. In 1986, Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre brought the remarkable Albertine in Five Times, in which five actors portrayed the same woman at different ages, arguing with each other, to Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in 1986. But it was The Guid Sisters that opened the door for Bowman and Findlay to translate seven more Tremblay plays prior to Findlay’s untimely death in 2005 aged fifty-seven.

The Real Wurld, The House Among The Stars, Manon/Sandra, Solemn Mass For A Full Moon in Summer, Albertine in Five Times, Forever Yours, Marie Lou and If Only have all been acclaimed as masterpieces, although none caught the Zeitgeist quite like The Guid Sisters.

Despite Findlay’s premature death, the Scots/Quebecois diaspora rolls on. The new production is directed by Quebecois wunderkind, Serge Denoncourt, and features a role-call of some of Scotland's finest female talent, including Karen Dunbar, Kathryn Howden, Molly Innes and Gail Watson. Denoncourt cut his teeth on Scottish theatre earlier this year with Stellar Quines’ ambitious bi-lingual experiment, Ana. While co-written by Clare Duffy and Pierre Yves Lemieux, Ana was the brain-child of Stellar Quines co-founder and director, Muriel Romanes, who, as an actor, was one of the original cast of Michael Boyd’s original production of The Guid Sisters. With Boyd’s encouragement, Romanes sang Canadian national anthem, Oh Canada, - in French – in the English language speaking theatre in Montreal the Tron company were playing. 

Romanes has gone on record in these pages as declaring it was the tour of The Guid Sisters that piqued an ongoing interest in Quebecois theatre. With Stellar Quines, Romanes directed  Jeanne-Mance Delisle's controversial play, The Reel of the Hanged Man, in a translation by Bowman and Findlay, as well as If Only, Bowman and Findlay’s final Tremblay collaboration, for Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre. More recently Romanes oversaw the Scots premiere of Linda Griffiths' audacious Age of Arousal, again at the Lyceum.
Denoncourt, meanwhile, has been aware of Les Belle-Soeurs since he first saw it when he himself was a child. Since then, Denoncourt has directed the play several times, though he has already informed Tremblay that his latest revisitation is likely to be the best yet.

But it isn’t just Scotland that has taken to Tremblay. Since Les Belle-Soeurs first appeared in 1968, there have been more than four hundred and fifty productions of the play.

We were there at the right moment,” Tremblay reflects. “People needed to see Les Belle-Soeurs, even though they were afraid of it. We live in a harsh world, and anywhere there is a working class, whether that is in China, Japan or Scotland, it resonates.”

Now aged seventy, these days Tremblay spends six months of the year in Montreal, and six in Key West, Florida. He's just finished a novel, the eleventh in a series charting the history of the family depicted in Les Belles-Soeurs. Both Scotland and Quebec have changed immeasurably politically, but, as with his plays, it is the humanity of Tremblay's characters that count.

Even though society changes, the human soul doesn't change so quickly,” he observes. “That's what these women talk about. The first layer of a play to disappear is the political situation. Jean-Paul Sartre's plays aren't done very much these days. Obviously they're very well-written, but his characters are ideas more than human beings. My characters are human beings. Whether it's fifteen or five hundred years later, if these women are human beings, the play will still live.”

The Guid Sisters, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, September 21st-October 13th; Kings Theatre, Glasgow, October 23rd-27th

The Herald, September 20th 2012



Queens Hall, Edinburgh
5 stars
When Kevin Rowland's latest incarnation of soul brothers and sisters 
appeared live in May, One Day I'm Going To Soar, the first Dexys album 
for twenty-seven years, had yet to be released. Four months on, the 
album's eleven songs played in order sound like a pub theatre musical 
in waiting. Emotional and geographical exile, romantic yearning, 
fear of commitment and sheer hormone-popping lust are all in Rowland's 
loose-knit psycho-drama, pulsed by the music's joyously libidinous 

It opens in darkness, with keyboardist Mick Talbot playing an 
after-hours piano motif before the band burst into life and the lights 
go up on Rowland and co sporting various shades of Cotton Club 
depression chic in front of a big red velvet curtain. Rowland 
pimp-rolls the stage in synch with the music, or else sits astride a 
wooden chair for the ballads. For She's Got A Wiggle he and vocal foil 
Pete Williams conspire like the Dead End kids over celluloid images of 
Madeleine Hyland, the Bettie Page-alike singer and actress from 
guerilla performance troupe Factory Theatre, who in the flesh spars 
hammily with Rowland on Incapable of Love. Eventually, on Free, Rowland 
finds the sort of liberation through self-inflicted pain northern soul 
was built on.

But that's just the first act. The second rewinds for a well-worn 
routine with Williams dressed as a copper;  trombonist Big Jim Paterson 
duels with fiddler Lucy Morgan on a glorious Tell Me when My Light 
Turns Green; and an extended Come on Eileen sounds heaven-sent. As 
Hyland sashays back onstage like a classic B-movie diva during an epic 
This Is What She's Like, Rowland may be on his knees, but Dexys return 
is a triumph.

The Herald, September 20th 2012


Monday, 17 September 2012

The Mill Lavvies

Dundee Rep
4 stars
Life is one long tea-break in Chris Rattray’s 1960s-set play, first 
seen on Dundee Rep’s stage fourteen year ago, and now revived in Andrew 
Panton’s solidly assured production. Performed back to back with 
Sharman Macdonald’s She Town, this is the male flip-side to that play’s 
women only zone, as it follows a sextet of mill workers escaping from 
the daily grind via the laddish banter of the rest room and its 
accompanying toilets.

It’s here we meet simple-minded skivvy Archie, old lags Robert, Geordie 
and Jim, upstart Teddy-Boy Henny and Beatle-loving Kevin, who mark time 
indulging in assorted shaggy-dog stories and pranks with seemingly 
little consequence.

Out of this comes a lovingly observed portrait of working class society 
in flux that revels in its localism even as it follows in the work-play 
tradition of John Byrne’s The Slab Boys and Roddy McMillan’s The 
Bevellers. Barrie Hunter’s pompous Robert and Martin McBride’s nasty 
Henny are both relics from an earlier age, while only Jonathan Holt’s 
music-loving Kevin is looking towards any kind of future.

It may be Guy Mitchell’s She Wears Red Feathers that opens the show, 
but it’s Please Please Me by The Beatles that closes it. If those two 
recorded tunes book-end the play, it’s Michael Marra’s original songs, 
performed live by the cast, that provide its pulse. Soaked in grizzled 
pathos and wry observations, stylistically they encapsulate the move 
 from skiffle to rock and roll to the 1960s beat boom that acts as a 
metaphor for society’s even greater shifts. The malicious act that 
thwarts Kevin’s ambitions is telling too of how old orders cling to 
power by any means necessary.

The Herald, September 17th 2012


The Cone Gatherers

His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen
4 stars
Robin Jenkins’ World War Two set novel is a broodingly strange affair. 
Peter Arnott’s new adaptation takes all of Jenkins’ concerns about 
class, good, evil and the self-destructive fear of otherness on the one 
hand and an empathetic desire to transcend one’s own station on the 
other, and makes a big serious statement on the human condition that 
retains its human heart.

Set on a remote Highland estate, the leafy splendour occupied by what 
are here referred to simply as Lady and Captain, as well as Lady’s 
liberal-minded twelve year old Roddie,  is ripped asunder by the rude 
intrusion of two brothers, the dour Neil and his brother Callum, the 
latter of whom would be classed today as having learning disabilities. 
Watching over all this is game-keeper Duror, who, with a terminally ill 
wife in her sick-bed, resembles a contemporary vigilante on the verge 
and is already on the shortest of fuses. In Callum, Duror recognises 
imperfections he can’t bear, with tragic consequences as he goes into 
psychological meltdown.

With enough space left for the play to breathe through a set of fine 
turns led by John Kielty and Ben Winger as the brothers, Ireland brings 
all this to rich poetic life on Hayden Griffin’s mighty-looking set 
awash with back projections that lend a panoramic scope from the play’s 
opening image. Duror’s wife Peggy, played by Helen Logan, moves as if 
operated by puppeteers. The deer being hunted down becomes a 
Bambi-esque solo dance by Maxine Hamilton. It’s Duror’s speech 
betraying his own potential fanaticism, however, juxtaposed here with 
Pathe news footage of Hitler’s holocaust, which chills the most.

The Herald, September 17th 2012


She Town

Dundee Rep
3 stars
If Dundee was Scotland’s first female-led republic, it is all but 
reborn in Sharman Macdonald’s epic tale of life in the city’s jute 
mills during the 1930s depression. Wages are being cut every week, and 
a strike led by would-be writer Isa looks imminent. Elsewhere, 
legendary singer and Spanish Civil War veteran Paul Robeson is booked 
to play the Caird Hall, and auditions are underway for a local choir to 
back him up.

In some respects, the latter element reflects the sheer scale of Jemima 
Levick’s production, which puts some forty women onstage to deal with 
Macdonald’s multi-layered narrative. This begins with a sick child, a 
loaded gun and some mass constructivist choreography before opening up 
Alex Lowde’s huge skewed tenement set where smaller lives epitomised by 
Isa and her feisty sisters dwell.

If Isa’s aspirations lead towards Spain, other women make different 
choices. For some, sexual allure will keep them in glad rags, while 
mill owner’s wife Moira Blair short-changed herself years ago. Even 
Isa, luminously played Joanne Cummins, must face up to the brutal life 
and death realities beyond the romance of revolution and the liberating 
power of song.

The choir’s auditions rub up against the tenement scenes with a 
busyness that at times feels overloaded. That’s not to say this isn’t a 
play full of heart and soul, led as it is by a principle cast of nine 
featuring such mighty talents as Barbara Rafferty, Carol Ann Crawford 
and Morag Stark, and supported by the Rep’s Young Company and Community 
Company. When the onstage chorus drawn from the theatre’s Women’s 
Singing Group accompany Robeson’s recorded voice at the play’s most 
poignant moment, its power is immense.

The Herald, September 17th 2012


Sunday, 16 September 2012

Rachael Stirling - Breaking the Medea Code

There's something familiar, if not instantly recognisable about Rachael Stirling. The Scottish-born actress may have been playing a leading role on prime time telly the night before in the first episode of three-part mini-series The Bletchley Circle, but, as she sits munching on a salad in the garden of the Union Chapel, Islington, you'd never guess it.

Stirling is on a lunch-break from rehearsals for Mike Bartlett's new contemporary version of Medea, which opens the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow's new autumn season in a co-production with Headlong. In the early September sunshine, however, with her claret-coloured hair tied up, she could be any north Londoner seeking sanctuary in the Union Chapel's leafy quietude. Only the much thumbed script in front of her with the words 'Why am I here?' scrawled across the first page in big inky letters in Stirling's girlish hand-writing is a give-away.

“It's the most amazing, exciting – I could lick the script – extraordinary part I've ever, and probably will ever play,” she gushes in the throaty, jolly-hockey-sticks voice she picked up at boarding school. “It's not going to get better than this.”

Part of the appeal, one suspects, comes from Bartlett updating Euripides' tale of Medea's ultimate revenge on an adulterous Jason to a modern-day suburb.

“I couldn't believe how brilliantly it updated, this play,” says Stirling. “We don't hide away from the tragedy or pretend it isn't a Greek play, but by putting this spurned woman in the suburbs, where she's ostracised by the community, and is being evicted, the emotional journey of that woman is just as prescient as the Euripides original. In fact, if anything, in the modern day you've got more references for women who've killed their children.

“Medea is a spurned woman, but she's also incredibly clever. It's really rare you're playing a Professor Higgins rather than an Eliza. You're the one with the great brain and the greatest articulacy, the one with the greatest ability. She's got nothing to lose, and she's brilliantly clever and funny and bright, so it's a joy to be that verbose, and witty with it.

“For all her brilliant articulacy and wordsmithery, there's something incredibly simple about Medea, in that she's a woman spurned. There are aspects of her which are naïve, which is unusual. She's incredibly powerful, but she's isolated in her community, and even within her circle of friends, which a lot of quite strong or clever women are. But she's funny. She's funny as fuck, man. She's violent, but she's funny with it.

“You want to be her friend, but you want to give her a wide berth, and there is an element of magic about her. You need a strength of mind, a passion, a fortissimo, a duende. But what I love about it is that all of this is motivated by the absolute simplicity of a broken heart. It's a survival process, it's a simple form of self defence, la, la, la, la, so put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

When she drops such funny, archaic slang, sweary words and all, into her conversation like this, Stirling sounds just like Millie, the posh-girl socialite she plays in The Bletchley Circle, in which a quartet of World War Two code-breakers are brought out of hum-drum post-war retirement by team leader Susan, played by Anna Maxwell Martin, to track down a serial-killer. Julie Graham and Sophie Rundle complete the circle.

“I love those women,” says Stirling. “Julie Graham has been one of my best friends for years, Anna and I, and sweet Soph, we were as dirty as anything. We were very vulgar, like a bunch of hyenas. My Bletchley bitches, babe, I fucking love 'em!”

Stirling and co had been on breakfast TV earlier in the week to punt the show and everything, but there hasn't been a glimmer of recognition since.

“I was on the tube this morning, thinking, did anyone watch Bletchley last night?,” Stirling guffaws, “but it's always been a bit like that.”

It was the same last year when she worked behind the bar at a friend's pub. She'd just split up with her boyfriend, was being offered a lot of mediocre scripts, but needed to keep busy.

“The manager told me to get my head out of my ass,” she says, “so I did, and I was fucking good at it. I was good at getting the drunks out at night and washing vomit off stairs. It made me howl with laughter, but it also made me tired, and I was pleased to be tired.”

If any of the punters asked her if she'd been on the telly, Stirling would deflect them by telling them they must be thinking of Martine McCutcheon.

“I was cagey,” she admits. “Only in case – no offence – some bastard journalist came in and wrote this thing about lesbian star works in pub shock.”

Stirling is talking, of course, about Tipping The Velvet, Andrew Davies' racy small-screen adaptation of Sarah Waters' novel, which combined lesbianism, Victorian music hall and posh frocks with ratings-friendly, tabloid-baiting aplomb. The programme left Stirling and co-star Keeley Hawes exposed in every way. Not that this helped Stirling's career much.

“No-one would touch me with as barge-pole,” she says. “We didn't take it seriously, but if you're naked and painted gold while wearing a dildo, it's probably safe to say no-one else is taking you seriously either. But no-one told me that. I wasn't afraid of the content, but I wasn't prepared for how sensationalised it would be, so I was out of work for ages.”

All that was a decade ago, however, since when Stirling has carved out a healthy career on stage and screen without any tabloid help. She played Helena in Peter Gill's revival of Look Back in Anger in Bath, and Yelena in David Mamet's version of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya at Wilton's Music Hall. Stirling has done guest slots in both Poirot and Marple on TV, so Agatha Christie friendly is her demeanour. More recently, Stirling was nominated for two Olivier awards; the first for a supporting role in Michael Wynne's play, The Priory, at the Royal Court in 2009, then again a year later playing Lady Chiltern in Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband on the West End.

On top of all this, Stirling is the daughter of Diana Rigg, who similarly straddled a classical stage career with popular film and TV, most famously as leather-clad secret agent Emma Peel in The Avengers. Not that Stirling had ever exploited her family ties, though she's never denied them either.

“When I got an agent and told her I was Diana Rigg's daughter, her face fell,” she says of being picked up following playing Desdemona in Othello and other Shakespearian leads with the National Youth Theatre. “I think she thought she'd found some left-field thing, and it's such a boring cliché to be the daughter of an actress and to become one as well. I think she sighed a little.”

That's probably why Stirling could see the funny side of taking the role of Miranda Lionheart in the stage version of Theatre of Blood, originally played by Rigg in the hammed-up comic horror about a theatre critic killing actor. It's probably also why Stirling and Rigg, their names a detective agency in waiting, have filmed a yet to be screened Dr Who adventure in Cardiff last year. Not that Stirling can talk about it.

“I can't tell you anything about it,” she says, “except to say that it's camp as Christmas, and we don't take ourselves seriously. What we wanted to do was play together, and Mark Gattis wrote a script that royally takes the piss out of both of us, and is totally irreverent. I didn't know anything could be that camp, but it's rather moving at the same time. Babe, I saw the Tardis, that's all I'm saying. I'd have to kill you if I told you anything else.”

Long before her encounter with the Tardis, Stirling saw her mother play Medea twenty years ago, when still a teenager, a couple of years after Rigg and Stirling's father, millionaire Laird of the Keir estate near Stirling had split up.

“I saw it several times, and I don't remember it brilliantly, but I do remember the effect it had. I didn't know the story, so, aged fifteen, the concept of a woman killing her sons hadn't occurred to me. It's bit like, as you get older you realise there's people who do bad things to children, but at that age it's not in your canon of awareness. I remember...ooh, that was disappointing,” she says, as
the plastic fork she's just stabbed into her salad snaps with the force of her assault. “FUCKING CHEAP TOURING FORKS!” she bellows in-between guffaws.

Stirling says she didn't know she wanted to be an actress, but “I knew I had to act, but I didn't know what form that would take. I inhabited the theatre at boarding school more than anywhere else. All I knew was that when I was at school and you're reading out Anthony and Cleopatra or whatever, I could write an essay about it, but I could much better read the part, and tell you what I think of Cleopatra that way.

“I'm also a live in the moment kind of lady. I wasn't the sort of girl who'd sit there at fifteen planning what theatre I was going to be working at by the time I was twenty. I'm really shit about saying what I'm going to be doing in a year's time. Or a week's time for that matter.”

Even so, by the time she was studying History of Art at Edinburgh University, Stirling was already making films. Her screen debut was in ageing rockers comedy, Still Crazy, followed by Complicity, starring Johnny Lee Miller as a young journalist in an adaptation of Iain Banks' novel.

“I think I got slightly on my tutor's tits,” she admits, “but I didn't want to narrow my options, and I needed to get a degree.”

Despite such a safety net, Stirling clearly plays by her own rules. Ask her what's in store for her beyond Medea and The Bletchley Circle, and “Fuck knows, my friend,” is the candid reply.

“I've never done that thing of borrowing a dress and gone to a party,” she says. “I can't be arsed with all that. I probably should've done, but I'm not a celebrity, and I definitely don't have the currency of a celebrity, so I don't get offered certain parts, but then I get to play parts like Medea, so who gives a shit? Medea's my fave. She's my main bitch.

“There aren't that many good parts for women, which is why the Bletchley Circle's so great. It's four feisty birds. Clever women. Somebody described it in the press as Charlie's Angels with tweed. It was hilarious in costume, Anna's looking at my rack of bohemian outfits, and she's wearing various shades of shit brown and piss yellow.”

While Stirling was working in the pub last year, she chanced upon The Butterfly School, a charity which teaches literacy to children in deprived areas in London, and ended up running Saturday morning sessions there. Stirling only mentions this when asked what she might have done if she hadn't become an actress, although it illustrates too how “I quite like to disappear.”

It's this singular sense of self-possession, one suspects, that makes Stirling both so grounded and such a free-spirit.

“I'm familiar with the world in a way I wouldn't be if my mother wasn't an actress,” she says. “That's where my knowledge about the profession is helpful, because I don't feel any crazy sense of competition. I know that you can be the most photographed star one minute, and unemployed the next. You can be the world's most famous person, then you go out of fashion. Everybody has peaks and troughs, but your career doesn't define your life. Your life defines your career, I think.”

Medea, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, September 27th-October 13th. The final part of The Bletchley Circle airs on ITV this Thursday at 9pm.

A version of this article appeared in the Herald, September 15th 2012


What We Have Done, What We Are About To Do

CCA, Glasgow until September 15 2012

Anyone who ever visited the wonderland that was the Third Eye Centre will know that, pre-Transmission/Tramway/Arches/Kinning Park Complex/Summerhall, this holistic, slightly ramshackle Sauchiehall Street hub was pretty much the only avant-fun in town. Before it morphed into
the CCA, the Third Eye's multi-purpose art-space, studio theatre, vegetarian restaurant and the best bookshop on the planet was a boho nirvana for seekers of artistic enlightenment.

Much of the Third Eye's early spirit was down to the enabling energies of the late Tom McGrath, the Rutherglen-born playwright, poet, pianist, polymath, former editor of counter-cultural bibles Peace News and International Times, and the Third Eye's first director between 1974 and 1977. This first public sighting of an ongoing excavation of the Third Eye archive as part of the Glasgow School of Art Arts and Humanities Research Council research project on Glasgow's hidden cultural history since the 1970s in partnership with the CCA is culled from McGrath's early dabblings with a video camera.

More than a hundred unedited tapes reveal the Third Eye as a vital cell of counter-cultural activity, with appearances from poets Allen Ginsberg and Adrian Mitchell, sound poet Bob Cobbing, jazz improvisers Keith Tippett and Derek Bailey, artist Michael Craig-Martin and a host of others. At a time when high-quality mobile phone footage can be filmed and uploaded online within minutes, it's a crucial glimpse at how things were before the 1980s centres of excellence approach to arts venues took hold. With the CCA itself hosting latter-day purveyors of social and artistic self-determination, it's also a major first step in reclaiming its radical roots.

The List, September 2012


Friday, 14 September 2012

On The Record – Manufacturing Another Edition of You

At the 2012 Edinburgh Annuale, the city's annual festival of independent and
grassroots artistic activity, Record Store was one of some thirty-odd
events taking place in galleries, found spaces, shops, tunnels, lecture
halls, flats and back gardens throughout June of that
year. Curated by Obstacle Soup, the duo of artists Chris Biddlecombe
and Janie Nicoll, Record Store took place in Avalanche, Edinburgh's
long-standing indie record emporium, now based in the Grassmarket. This
followed the show's original tenure in Glasgow at the even more
eclectic Monorail Music, which also doubles up as as a bar, venue and
pop-up DIY book shop selling zines and artists books. The opening week
at Monorail coincided with world Record Store Day on April 21st, as
well as Glasgow International festival of Visual Arts (GI).

World Record Store day is the Association of Independent Music's
initiative to highlight the role of independent record shops in
fostering and showcasing non-mainstream musical talent. Record Store
the exhibition saw Biddlecombe and Nicoll invite twenty artists to
create new works modelled on the covers of 12” square vinyl LP covers,
with another four artists added for the Avalanche Annuale run.

The idea, as outlined in the Annuale programme was to explore 'visual
images that are connected to music, the demise of vinyl records and
their recent underground rebirth, how expectation can be better than
the product, and when does a sound become an object to hold and
treasure.' With this in mind, each artist created an actual LP cover of
a non-existent release by an imaginary artist, each of which came
complete with a make-believe history which would put many old-school
music biz PRs to shame, and which at one-time might have been a music
press wet dream.

So while Douglas Morland's fantasy glam band Three Day Week's eponymous
1973 debut was born out of the same glitter-spattered UK recession that
sired The Sweet, Ian Smith's A Spoonful of Sugar was a live album that
cast Situationist-inspired everyman Monty Cantsin – the multiple name
first introduced in 1978 by mail artist David Zack and subsequently
co-opted into strands of Neoist culture before inspiring other multiple
names such as Karen Eliot and Luther Blissett – as a spoon-playing
cover artist who brought to mind Chris Sievey's similarly
showbiz-inclined top light entertainer incarnation, Frank Sidebottom.

According to its liner notes, the album was recorded at Glasgow Apollo
in 1985, where Cantsin was supported by Paul Weller's Style Council.
Songs played included NWA's Straight Outta Compton and Queen's Bohemian
Rhapsody, as well as one of Cantsin's own cockney compositions, Fanck
the Police. Record Store' then, vented imaginations to create the
ultimate manufactured bands, without any of the hissy-fits, diva strops
and prime-time caterwauling such X-Factor style Frankenstein's monsters
from the Sex Pistols to Girls Aloud usually involve.

Maybe that was what was so appealing about Record Store for the artists
involved. Many of them, after all, have been or still are knee-deep in
a real-life music scene enough to have made actual records, some of
which might easily be found in the racks in Monorail and Avalanche that
surrounded their solely visual artworks. Douglas Morland played with
Mother and the Addicts and Big Ned, Ross Sinclair was the original
drummer with The Soup Dragons when they still looked to  Buzzcocks
rather than second-hand Baggy for inspiration, while Jim Lambie was a
crucial member of the Boy Hairdressers, who would later morph into
Teenage Fanclub.

Here, then, were twenty-four one-off editions set against a back-drop
of shelves (over)loaded with actual discs, some of which were
mass-produced in bulk, others which came in limited edition runs of
1000, 500 or less. It is the latter that defined an indie aesthetic in
the late 1970s and early 1980s when the means of production were seized
by labels like Rough Trade, Factory, Fast Product, Postcard and Zoo.

During Scritti Politti's initial squat-rock DIY phase of releases on
their Rough Trade licensed St Pancras label, compiled on the Early
album, this band of earnest young ideologues even went so far as to
list on their hand-made sleeves exactly how much the entire operation
had cost. It was the equivalent of Mark Perry's call to arms in the
first issue of early punk zine Sideburns (not Perry's Sniffin' Glue as
it is often credited to), when he accompanied illustrations of A, E and
G chords with the legend, 'This is a chord/This is another/This is a
third/Now form a band'.

Best of all in Record Store was the contribution by Jonnie Wilkes.
“ENOUGH LEAD TO MAKE IT ALL HEAVY” was alleged to be a Various Artists
compilation of 'unreleased early electronic music, radiophonic material
& synth jams from Eastern Europe' put out as 'A Pevsner Record
Release' with 'Original Tape Restoration and Vinyl Mastering by NEEMIA'
. As if this wasn't tantalising enough attention to detail, a sticker
on the sleeve's top left hand corner reads a mouthwatering 'ONLY 100
COPIES WORLDWIDE'. Then, on the sleeve itself, an asterisk besides the
same blurb proves even more of a tease than the connoisseur-baiting
'180 gram Audiophile Quality Vinyl' above it. '5 copies available with
metal plate sleeve insert and 95 copies with hand printed poster sleeve
insert' it reads. That all of this information is fake is one thing,
but that “ENOUGH LEAD TO MAKE IT HEAVY” exists only in a bespoke
edition of one speaks volumes.

As one half of the team behind Optimo (Espacio), the Sunday night
Glasgow club night whose discerningly diverse playlist and guest
artistes galvanised the city's creative energy, spawned several record
labels and managed to both go global and stay hip, in terms of
understanding the fetishisation of records as both merch-stall
artifacts and ultra-rare works of art,Wilkes' pastiche is pitch perfect.

While the anorak-like allure of limited edition vinyl has long been a
place where pop really does become art, the best records have always
been several works of art in one beautifully gift-wrapped package.
Think of London Calling, the third album by The Clash, released in 1979
- not, incidentally, on an independent, but, as with all the band's
records, on a major label. This could either be seen as an entryist
gesture which allowed them access to production and distribution on a
mass scale, or else a total sell-out of punk idealism.

Released in a deeply unfashionable double LP format, the four sides of
accomplished agit-punk with smatterings of reggae, soul and jazz
stylings sprinkled on top was a bold enough statement of intent. Put it
inside a sleeve designed by cartoonist Ray Lowry featuring Pennie
Smith's seminal photograph of Clash bassist Paul Simonon smashing his
guitar onstage during a show in New York that year, and with Lowry's
pink and green lettering a homage to that on Elvis Presley's eponymous
1956 debut, and it became something else again.

Rewind further back, and Peter Blake's cover for The Beatles 1967
album, Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, was the perfect
encapsulation of its era's pop iconography, while Richard Hamilton's
design for the same band's The White Album a year later recognised both
the record and the band's own exclusive status by numbering each of the
first 10,000 copies (in reverse) as one might do a print. Initial
copies of The Velvet Underground & Nico album, released in 1967 and
featuring Andy Warhol's print of a banana on the cover came in a now
spectacularly rare edition whereby the banana was a peel-off sticker.

Warhol did something similar for The Rolling Stones 1971 Sticky Fingers
album, the cover of which featured a close-up of a male, denim-clad
crotch. With initial copies featuring a real zipper, it's potential for
destroying the album inside was almost as great as that of The Return
of the Durutti Column, Mancunian guitarist Vini Reilly's debut album,
initially released by Factory Records in an edition of 2000 in 1980and
housed in a sandpaper sleeve, was of messing up the rest of your record

Compared to today, all of the above, even The Return of the Durutti
Column, had access to a mass marketplace which no longer exists in the
same form. While rare bootlegs, unreleased test pressings, etc, have
always had a cache of collectability, the rise of the internet has
changed everything. Where once record-addicts would spend hours in the
back of record shops like Avalanche poring through rack after rack
in search of the holy grail, now the dusty object of their desire can be
downloaded online in seconds, be it through YouTube or a multitude of
other sites. New work too is trailed and shared as a matter of course
on Soundcloud , Bandcamp, et al, prior to or instead of a physical

Yet, as with the rise of the laptop as a source of music making which
prompted a return to 'real' instruments, alongside which the laptop
became integrated as just one more piece of kit to play with, the
return to more bespoke mediums is happening in spite of online outlets.
With the means of production being even easier to grab hold of than
thirty years ago, micro-labels can produce cassette runs of 50 or a
hundred, each one with a hand-crafted cover, while vinyl too can come
with a similar set of exclusive accoutrements to those outlined on
Wilkes' sleeve for “ENOUGH LEAD TO MAKE IT HEAVY”.

Unless you're Coldplay or U2, no-one's going to sell a million records
anymore, so a unique and possibly ahead-of-its-time musical canon which
might well trickle down into a mass marketplace in three decades hence in
much the same way the DIY pioneers of the late 1970s and early 1980s
have today is made a virtue of. And if it looks and feels good as well,
it might be worth even more, both aesthetically and economically. Morland's
Three Day Week cover, for example, was so coveted that, like some glam
rock version of Edvard Munch's The Scream, it was stolen from its
display during Record Store's Monorail run, fortunately being recovered
in time to grace Avalanche.

A recent issue of The Wire magazine highlighted the tellingly-named
Editions of You imprint, an ongoing initiative which 'celebrates and
showcases self-publishing and self-releasing musicians and the handmade
editions and releases they create'. One offshoot of Editions of You is
I Heart Sleeve Art, a workshop series which 'invites you to embrace
hand-crafted music sleeve art, by customizing your own record sleeves
or creating entirely new ones'.

One of the most striking examples of bespoke editionising was the debut
album by Muscles of Joy, the all-female ensemble made up of seven
visual artists including Anne-Marie Copestake, Katy Dove and Victoria
Morton. The band's eponymously titled debut album was originally
released on the Watts of Goodwill label in a limited run of 500 12''
discs, each housed in a unique hand-crafted cover screen-printed and
laser-cut in multiple permutations at Dundee Contemporary Arts' print
studio, and with a CD of the album enclosed. Again, here were several
works of art in one that crossed over between disciplines that informed
the end result of each as well as making beautiful one-offs. Things, as
long-lost post-punk outfit Angletrax had it in 1979, to make and do.

When the Muscles of Joy album made it onto the long list of the
inaugural Scottish Album of the Year award, part of the deal was that
it received a 'proper' CD release beyond it's initial vinyl-only run.
Similarly, another long-listee, Under Sleeping Waves by The Happy
Particles, which previously only had a digital release, was given a
physical CD release. While all of this makes both records more
user-friendly for a marketplace beyond the artists immediate
constituency, where The Happy Particles now at least have some kind of
physical product, in Muscles of Joy's case they're perhaps taking away
a little of what originally made them so special on their own terms.

Recorded music, after all, is a relatively recent phenomenon, which, in
a way, is Xeroxing an experience without ever fully capturing its
physical essence. If the sound of any record is second-hand, then, why
not make how it looks as rare as possible. In Record Store, by having
the imaginary idea of a record rather than actual sound to show off
Three Day Week, “ENOUGH LEAD TO MAKE IT HEAVY” and all the others,
these editions of none take recorded music to its visually logical

Neil Cooper
July 2012

Line Magazine issue 9, September 2012


My Shrinking Life

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
4 stars
Alison Peebles is on her feet for the entire eighty-five minutes of her 
new show, devised with Belgian director Lies Pauwels and an ensemble of 
three dance artists and a little girl for the National Theatre of 
Scotland. For this most charismatic of actors, it must be agony. Not 
for having to carry this defiantly impressionistic meditation on her 
life as a performer who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis twelve 
years ago, although that must be hard enough.

Rather, for a woman who confesses her love for shoes but who can’t wear 
high heels anymore, having to watch lithe young bodies stretch, 
pirouette and cavort with choreographed perfection from the front 
corner of the stage must add insult to an injury that’s not of her 

This, though, is the point of the exercise, which puts the body politic 
centre-stage in a series of routines underscored by a jukebox full of 
early 1960s pop hits, and played out in a mint-coloured room with a 
glass-fronted pink boudoir at the back. The little girl sports a 
sparkly scarlet dress as she announces a potted history of Peebles’ 
wild years. One of the performers dressed as a ballerina spins out of 
control, showing off injuries of her own. Another howls into a 
microphone, while the sole male onstage dances in the same scarlet 

If this is all post-modern showbiz, only the bobbed figure of Peebles 
in a dressing-gown is for real. Led carefully out in heels once more, 
as she turns physical debilitation into a fiercely defiant work of art, 
the pleasure on Peebles’ face as she gets to walk tall once more is an 
image to treasure.

The Herald, September 14th 2012