Thursday, 28 February 2013

White Rose

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
3 stars
When Peter Arnott's play about a squadron of Second World War female
fighter pilots premiered at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre in 1985, the
notion of powerful women, and indeed women in power, was very much part
of the agenda. More than a quarter of a century on, and the true story
of Lily Litvik, who marked her kills with white roses on her
aeroplane's tail, remains a fascinating look at a piece of hidden
history, as well as a metaphor for a gender war that continues.

It opens with Lily and her engineer friend Ina drafted in to sex up
recruitment films. It ends with Lily grounded for a final time.
Inbetween we see Lily square up to an all-male world without
compromising her faith in a greater cause. Lesley Harcourt's Lily is a
driven young woman who knows what she wants and usually gets it. When
that comes to her flight commander Alexei, the age-old ideological 
contradictions between the personal and the political come to the fore
as even love becomes part of the struggle.

Richard Baron's long overdue revival of the play for the Borders-based
Firebrand company flits between intimate naturalistic exchanges, and
more choreographed out-front addresses from Alison O'Donnell's Ina and
Robert Jack as Alexei that resemble heroic social-realist posters come
to life. The projections onto Edward Liscomb's set of symmetrical steel
lockers flanking the stage add to the effect.

Seen today, White Rose is a play that looks back twice, first to the
play's setting, as well as to when it was written. Crucially, both were
periods in history when revolution seemed possible. For Lily, alas, the
romantic adventure was over all too soon.

The Herald, February 28th 2013

Abigail's Party

King's Theatre, Edinburgh
4 stars
England may have been dreaming when Mike Leigh devised his now iconic
suburban drama in 1977, but the Thatcherite nightmare was already
looming. In this respect, this painful tale of warped aspiration set
against a living-room backdrop of garish fixtures and fittings now
looks as much like prophecy as the wall-paper appears retro-chic.

Leigh's play focuses on one night at home with Beverly and Laurence,
who are hosting an open-house to meet their new neighbours, Angela and
Tony. Also on the guest-list is middle-aged divorcee Susan, whose
teenage daughter Abigail is having a very different kind of gathering
to the ones the grown-ups are painfully stumbling through.

With such a set of perfect stereotypes, it would be easy to resort to
1970s theme bar kitsch in Lindsay Posner's production for the Theatre
Royal, Bath and the Chocolate Factory, and redirected for this tour by
Tom Attenburgh. Yet here it more resembles Who's Afraid of Virginia
Woolf? reimagined by the real life grotesques of The Only Way Is Essex.
As soon as Beverly puts a bottle of Beaujolais in the fridge, it's
tragically apparent that here is a play that possibly says more about
the British class system at a particular point in late twentieth
century history than any other.

Hannah Waterman gives Beverly a monstrous and tragic depth. Old before
her time, she's playing house in a loveless nouveau-riche hell of
relentless small-talk punctuated by her desperate dry-humping of Tony.
Meanwhile, the punk rock revolution is already being soundtracked next
door with Abigail and co, who appear to be rewriting a very different
future for themselves which is about to turn the world upside down.

The Herald, February 28th 2013


Tuesday, 26 February 2013

White Rose - Peter Arnott's First Play Revived

When Peter Arnott's debut play, White Rose, first appeared at the Traverse Theatre in 1985, Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government were two years into their second time of office, and Britain appeared to be in the midst of civil war. The miners strike was still ongoing, while outside the Royal Airforce base in Greenham Common, all-women peace camps were set up in protest of the American cruise missiles housed there. In 1982, some 30,000 women joined hands around the camp's perimeter. When Arnott read Night Witches, a book by Bruce Miles, which told the little-known story of the female pilots who flew Soviet aeroplanes during the Second World War, something caught Arnott's imagination.

“It was my first commission, and my brief was to do something big with three actors,” Arnott says on the eve of the play's first major revival in almost thirty years by the Borders-based Firebrand Theatre company. “It was forty years since the end of the Second World War, and Night Witches seemed to fit in with a lot of things that were going on. All these women's support groups had formed around the miners strike, and with Greenham Common happening as well, there was this feeling that these women’s lives had been changed by fighting the good fight. Whatever happened to the fight, they were still changed, and they weren't going to be defeated.”

Two women who are fighting the good fight in different ways to those in the play are Janet Coulson and Ellie Zeegan, who are joint artistic directors of Firebrand. The pair set up the Hawick-based company after coincidentally moving to the Borders in 2010. The pair had met at The Actors Temple, a London-based initiative founded by Zeegan, so, as Coulson points out, “It was a no-brainer that we carry on working together. It was too much of a coincidence to ignore. The area is crying out for more theatre to be produced here, and we very much wanted to do contemporary work.”

Zeegan agrees.

“We wanted to do strong plays with powerful stories, but we also wanted to do something that dealt with big things in intimate spaces,” she says.

With seasoned director Richard Baron, a veteran of every main-house producing stage in Scotland, drafted in as Director of Productions, to date, Firebrand have produced revivals of David Mamet's play, Oleanna, and Rona Munro's women's prison-set drama, Iron.

White Rose continues the company's exploration of big ideas. For Arnott going back to the play after such a long time was “distinctly strange. I re-read the script when I was first asked if it could be done, and my thoughts were, who is this up and coming young man with all this energy. It's very much a play about young people, written by a young man.

While White Rose reminded Arnott of his younger self, he wasn't tempted to apply almost three decades of experience as a playwright to rewrite it.

“It was written by somebody who was twenty-two years old,” he says, “so revisiting it after all this time wouldn't have felt right.”

White Rose is one of a multitude of seminal works from the 1970s and 1980s by Scottish playwrights which have faded from view, and which are only now being rediscovered.

“It's only really since the advent of the National Theatre of Scotland that second productions of plays have really started to happen,” Arnott observes. “We used to have hits, but they would run the same length of time as the disasters. White Rose transferred to the Almeida in London for two weeks, and that was that.

“Also, it wasn't in print in the way a lot of new plays are now, so there was no access to it. It was nearly published in a collection of Scottish plays called Scot Free, but in the end there wasn't enough room. There were a couple of small-scale productions, one of which was done in New York by someone who saw the original at the Traverse, and was so off-off Broadway it was practically New Jersey, but after a while the momentum stops, and this is the first fully resourced production since it was first done.”

One of the most memorable things about the original production of White Rose was the casting of a young actress called Tilda Swinton. Swinton would go on to appear in several other plays at the Traverse and films by Derek Jarman before going on to become the international superstar she is today.

“People keep asking me about Tilda Swinton,” Arnott says, “but at the time Tilda Swinton wasn't Tilda Swinton yet in terms of what she would become. She was in my year at Cambridge, and was a fantastic young actress then, so it's very strange looking at all the fantastic work she's done over the last ten years.”

A quarter of a century on, stepping into Swinton's shoes is Alison O'Donnell, an equally talented actress who intends making the part her own.

“They're some pretty big shoes to fill,” O'Donnell admits of her latest role. “But I guess she was much less established then than she is now. It's quite good having such a solid reference point, because Tilda Swinton has such intensity as an actress, although I'm not trying to be her. I've got to give it my own interpretation.”

Beyond White Rose, O'Donnell's profile looks set to soar. She is about to appear in two television pilots set to be aired in the spring, including a crime drama based in Shetland. Firebrand too look set to continue to blaze a trail of high quality productions of what now might be regarded as contemporary classics. Arnott, meanwhile, is returning to the Second World War for a new play for the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, where another Traverse old boy, Hamish Glen, is artistic director.

“It's called Propaganda Swing, and is about a Nazi jazz band called Charlie and his Orchestra,” Arnott says. “They actually existed, and we want to do it as a radio play for the stage, with foley artists and everything like that.”

Let's hope it won't take thirty years for this one to get a second production.

White Rose, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, February 26th-March 2nd, then tours.

The Herald, February 26th 2013


Monday, 25 February 2013

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh
3 stars
When Puck comes onstage in a woolly hat, shorts, Wellington boots and a football scarf, looking somewhere between a 1970s trainspotter and the ghost of Tom Weir, it sets the tone for the Sell A Door company's bright, youthful take on Shakespeare's most ubiquitous rom-com. When he picks up the transistor radio that sits at the front of the stage, tuning the dial to assorted weather-based bulletins, he's also tuning in on a world where the sun always shines.

With a cast of just nine doubling up parts with abandon, Bryn Holding's touring production shows off that world via a network of mobile doors that moves the action from Theseus and Hippolyta's formal courtship to the reckless romp of the young lovers once they get lost in the woods. If the gravitas isn't always present in the portrayals of the older generation's tweedy demeanour, things are far more assured once the Mechanicals stumble into view. These scenes are milked for all they're worth

There's fun to be had with door-bells, and when Tommy Aslett's ass-headed Bottom bumps into Katy Sobey's Snug sporting a lion mask, the double take could go on forever. At the play's heart, however, is David Eaton's Puck, who here becomes both narrator and chorus as he manipulates the lovers' destinies into being. There's a sense that even his bungling was done deliberately to see what mischief might happen.

As with the play's opening, the epilogue is broadcast via Puck's transistor radio. If the mood change hints at darker things to come, the radio silence that follows gives things a weight previously only hinted at.

The Herald, February 25th 2013


Sunday, 24 February 2013

Siobhan Redmond - Doctor Faustus

“I'm not a good enough actress to work with scripts that aren't very good.,” Siobhan Redmond says towards the end of her interview with the Herald. “Some actors are so dazzling that they can turn them into something other, but I've never been an alchemist or a shape-shifter in that way.”

Redmond is being hard on herself here. On recent form, playing the lead role of warrior queen Gruach in Dunsinane, David Greig's audacious sequel to Macbeth, and as she prepares to play Mephistopheles in the Citizens Theatre's rewiring of Christopher Marlowe's flawed masterpiece, Doctor Faustus, it couldn't be further from the truth.

Even so, Redmond's slightly damning observation of herself speaks volumes about her onstage presence. From starting out in 1980s comic sketch show, Alfresco, and her break-out role as Don Henderson's side-kick, Lucy McGinty, in private eye drama, Bulman, Redmond has always retained her striking sense of self, even as she inhabits a role much more than she thinks.

This was as much the case in dark cop show, Between The Lines as it was in stage roles in the Tron's celebrated adaptation of Janice Galloway's novel, The Trick is to Keep Breathing, or playing the title role in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It filters too into Redmond's off-duty life, as is apparent when she climbs the stairs of the Citizens Theatre foyer after rehearsals, her flame-haired countenance accentuated by her all-black attire.

“It's a sequence of boxes at the moment,” Redmond says of the play. “Magical box upon magical box. So we're just working out how many layers of boxes there are. It's a delightful voyage of discovery, and we haven't even started on the magic yet.”

Part of the magic Redmond is talking about comes from two new acts written by Colin Teevan to replace some of Marlowe's garbled original. This is a prospect which Redmond clearly relishes.

“It's your two favourite possible things in the world,” she says. “On the one hand it's a phenomenally powerful and wonderful classical play, but with a piece of new writing, which is also intriguing and mysterious, and which is kind of embedded in it like a jewel. One of the lovely things that it does is make Mephistopheles and Faustus a double act, and you get an opportunity to find out various scenarios that may or may not have happened to Mephistopheles in the past, in earlier incarnations, or manifestations if you prefer. Mephistopheles has a back-story. Of course, one of the troubles with demons is you can't necessarily believe everything they tell you, but at the moment I have no reason to believe it isn't true, so you've even more to play with.”

As a woman in a role traditionally played by a man, Redmond admits that “I'm beginning to feel the constraints of the wonderfully rich English language, in that we don't seem to have a word which says he and she simultaneously, so we're having to resort to 'it. But Mephistopheles isn't really an 'it' in the sense of being sexless or neutered. Mephistopheles has had another life, and is both Arthur and Martha.”

Doctor Faustus is a co-production between the Citizens Theatre and West Yorkshire Playhouse, in Leeds, where the production opens this weekend prior to its Glasgow run, and where former Dundee Rep director James Brining is in charge. The play's director, Dominic Hill, was also in charge of Dundee Rep in tandem with Brining. With writer Teevan on board, this new production effectively reunites the team behind Hill's production of Peer Gynt, which similarly ripped into a classic play with new material.

This might also be said of Dunsinane, to which Redmond will return following Doctor Faustus to play yet another fiercely intelligent creature.

“What an opportunity,” Redmond says, “to have a year where you get to play two extraordinary roles. I mean, it's not normal for a fifty-three year old actress to have one great part in a year, but to have two, I feel very lucky. I think I'm actually a bit in love with Dunsinane. I can feel my pupils dilating as I'm talking about it.”

Another thing which might have made Redmond's pupils dilate was being awarded an MBE in the New Year's Honours list, an experience Redmond describes as “astonishing. I'm not labouring under the delusion that either her majesty or any member of her government, current or previous, have had their horizons troubled by my artistic endeavours, but somewhere down the years, someone has felt that my work, either deliberately or by accident, has added to the gaiety of the nation, and that's a really delightful thing.”

While she talks with some considerable amusement, Redmond seems genuinely touched by the accolade.

“I'm very fortunate in that I work more often than I don't,” she says, “and, although the work that I do puts a roof over my head, and satisfies me artistically for the most part, it's not particularly high profile work, and I'm thrilled that you don't have to be doing high profile work for someone to say, actually, we've enjoyed that. It's just lovely.”

Redmond began acting while at university, where the writer in residence was playwright, Marcella Evaristi. Evaristi wrote a show for her charges, which was subsequently directed by a young Michael Boyd. Poet and playwright Liz Lochhead went to see the show, and, when she wrote her own revue the following year, was impressed enough by Redmond to cast her in her show, True Confessions. This meant that Redmond had an Equity card before she went to drama school.

What was even better was that one of the people who went to see True Confessions was a Granada television producer looking to put together a team for what became Alfresco. Redmond worked alongside Robbie Coltrane, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson. It was while Redmond was at Granada that Bulman was being cast, and so it went on.

“It just sort of fell on me,” she reflects. “I was very lucky, and I knew it wasn't meant to be happening. I knew I was supposed to be starving in a garret, so I've always been lucky when opportunities presented themselves. I remember arriving at Granada and being handed a brown envelope full of money, and I said, I haven't done anything yet, and they said, no, that's your per diems.”

Redmond's early creative relationships continued, with Boyd at the Tron and the RSC, while Lochhead wrote Perfect Days for her in 1998. The play became a West End hit.

Redmond has asked Boyd if he will direct her in Samuel Beckett's play, Not I, “before I get too old to remember the lines, and he said yes, so we're hoping to find an opportunity to do that. I'd like to see if I could rise to the challenge, both of dealing with the beautiful language, and the isolation of being onstage alone.”

Despite Redmond's willingness to stick her neck out as an actress, “there have been periods when I've felt I've not been creative enough for it. It's not acting that's the problem, but the business of being an actor, which I sometimes find quite overwhelming, and which will surprise anyone who knows how theatrical I am in my personal life. There have been times I've decided I wasn't going to do it anymore, but the combination of yet another lovely opportunity presenting itself, and the realisation that I am not fit for anything else have kept me doing it.

“I never wanted to have children, and I haven't got children. This is what I do with my life. It's more difficult if you have children. It really is, and a lot of actresses find themselves in a different place once they've had children. Many work through it, but it's not easy. Also, there's a certain amount of fall-out in my profession, where it's joyful, but it's also quite a daft way to earn a living. So many people get to a certain point in their lives where they decide to do something more sensible.
“I do feel more at home on a stage than I tend to in any of the homes I've lived in. It's a really mysterious alchemical thing that happens between the script, the audience, the production and the actors. There's a really unpredictable thing that happens, and I think I'm quite addicted to that. People who don't do this for a living tend to think it's, not necessarily a scary thing, but quite a strange thing to do, when, in a way, it's actually quite a safe thing to do. If you just launch yourself at it, and trust the thing, wonderful things can happen, and I think I'm addicted to that.”

Doctor Faustus, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, February 23rd-March 16th; Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, April 5th-27th

The Herald, February 24th 2013


Friday, 22 February 2013

Auld Reekie Rockin’ – How Edinburgh Swung

When Bob Dylan was photographed barnstorming his way along Princes Street in 1966 en route to his show at the ABC Regal cinema on Lothian Road, it perfectly encapsulated exactly how much of a hurry that particular decade was in. It also captured how much the times were a changing again. Here, after all, was the acoustic idol of the coffee bar protest scene, who was in the thick of a pivotal UK tour on which he announced his new electric direction, looking, in his wrap-around shades and pixie boots, like the coolest, most glamorous man alive.

Yet here he was, in a city with a busy network of dance-halls serving the beat boom on the one hand, but also in the thick of a folk revival which had begun a decade before. The ABC had played host to both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones two years before, but Dylan was pushing the envelope. The ABC audience may not have accused him of being Judas like they did in Manchester on the same tour, but legend has it that a portion of hard-line folkies did play harmonicas throughout Dylan’s set in protest.

Edinburgh in the 1960s was in part an uptight and seemingly straight-laced city steeped in Calvinist restraint, but which had also embraced hedonistic excess for centuries in a form of enlightenment
that forged a thriving creative underground. Such contrarian sensibilities have always been there in Edinburgh in a way which the fiction of Robert Louis Stevenson capitalised on in Jekyll and Hyde.
And in the 1960s, a brand new generation were coming up for air in a speak-easy environment opened up by the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where pop and poetry shared after-hours stages in coffee bars and cellars across the city.

1966 was also the year that The Kinks, The Small Faces, The Spencer Davis Group and a myriad of others played Edinburgh. All three shows took place at McGoos, the hippest Mod hang-out in town. McGoos was situated on the High Street in the former Palace Cinema opposite John Knox’s House. Support acts for these and the likes of The Troggs and Wayne Fontana and The Mindbenders, who also played McGoos in ’66, included such local luminaries as The Hippie People, The Moonies,
Three’s A Crowd and The Squad.

Also on the scene in clubs like The Place on Victoria Street and The Gonk Club in Tollcross were The Beachcombers, The Andy Russell Seven (who once played in Arab robes as Ali Ben the Hoose and the Tauregs) and The Jokers, who split up, only to reform as the far groovier sounding The Carnaby Set.

Elsewhere, the times were a changing in other ways. Musician Archie Fisher ran a Folk club in the Crown Bar, where Robin Williamson and Clive Palmer had been playing regularly as a duo since 1963. The pair were seen by record producer Joe Boyd, but only when they enlisted Mike Heron as a third member of what they now called The Incredible String Band did Boyd sign what would become the ultimate hippy band to Elektra Records.

Other under the radar success stories included Tam White, who fronted The Boston Dexters and The Buzz, the latter of whom went on to record a single produced by legendary pop boffin Joe Meek. White became the first artist to sing live on Top of the Pops, before becoming a Blues institution in the 1980s with a reconstituted Tam White and the Dexters. White also provided the singing voice for Robbie Coltrane’s character, ‘Big’ Jazza McGlone, in Tutti Frutti, playwright John Byrne’s seminal TV drama about a washed-out first generation rock and roll band hitting the comeback trail.

But Edinburgh’s biggest musical sensations had yet to break through. A year before Dylan’s majestic Princes Street perambulation, brothers Alan and Derek Longmuir and their mate Nobby Clark formed The Saxons, who became regulars on the circuit as assorted members passed through
the band. The core of the band decreed to change their name to more exotic sounding by throwing darts at a map and choosing whichever destination they landed in.

The band now known as The Bay City Rollers were eventually picked up by former band-leader Tam Paton, who became their manager, and they cut their first single in 1971. Following this minor hit, lead singer Clark left, and, with an image change involving tartan flares, tartan scarfs and stack-heeled shoes, for a few short years, The Bay City Rollers, with Les McKeown replacing Clark as singer, became teeny-bopper idols bigger than The Beatles. Things may have been changed, but they looked awfully familiar.
Commissioned programme notes for the Edinburgh dates of rock and roll musical, 
Save the Last Dance For Me, February 2013


Thursday, 21 February 2013

From Death to Death and Other Small Tales: Masterpieces from the Scottish national Gallery of Modern Art and the D.Daskalopoulos Collection

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One) until September 
8th 2013
5 stars
From the opening tease of Magritte, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed 
physically and mentally by this major mix and match collection of 
twentieth and twenty-first century work from the moment you step into 
the first corridor. Which, for a show that’s about the body, but which, 
in its epic parade through both floors of Modern One, says just as much 
about mind and spirit, is how it should be.

The first room sets the tone by off-setting Sarah Lucas’ spindly and 
be-stockinged Bunny Gets Snookered #10 with Otto Dix’ more bulbous 
Madchen Auf Fell, and things seem to swell up into something 
spectacular with each wonderland entered.

Cock, balls and cunt are of course in abundance, but this is no 
prick-tease, despite the rise and fall of Matthew Barney’s stunningly 
glossy five-screen Cremester Cycle of phallic fantasias (the cremester, 
of course, being the muscle that lifts and separates the testicles) 
which at times resembles the ups and downs inside Terry Gilliam’s head. 
Paul McCarthy’s equally monumental multi-screen film installation, 
Pirate Party, transforms Pirates of the Caribbean into a grotesque 
limb-hacking blood-n’-guts extravaganza a la Marat/Sade. Marina 
Abramovic’s film-works too give food for thought, as a naked man and 
woman are gate-keepers of an entrance which cool dudes are forced to 
squeeze past.

It’s an astonishing archive, which, seen together at such close 
quarters, becomes a living, breathing organism in itself. Seemingly 
apposite in execution, it in actual fact finds every artefact joined at 
the hip with gloriously throbbing umbilical abandon. 

The List, February 2013


Massimo Bartolini – Studio Matters + 1

Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh until April 14th
4 stars
Like a moth to a flame, the habitual party-goer will always be drawn to 
Kraftwerkian big-city neon. So it goes in ‘La Strada di Sotto (The 
Street Below)’, the toytown style installation that maps out the whole 
of the Fruitmarket’s main downstairs room in Italian artist Massimo 
Bartlini’s first solo exhibition in Scotland. A working model culled 
 from frameworks of lights used during Sicilian street celebrations, 
this complex network of criss-crossing track-lines is operated by the 
rise and fall of voices from the film in the adjoining room. The fact 
that the man onscreen is Don Valentino, the man behind Sicily’s mass 
illuminations, speaks volumes of the light and shade intensity of what 
looks like a denser, Michael Bentine’s Potty Time version of Blackpool 
in all its after-dark glory.
Upstairs, there’s a similar sense of playfulness to the large table-top 
chock-full of out of context looking miniatures picked and mixed from 
Bartolini’s studio. The scaled-down Buddhist monk says it all. If the 
carnival mash-up of sculpture and civic pride downstairs is anything to 
go by, the throbbing heart of the city just got brighter.
The List, February 2013


Time and the Conways

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
4 stars
The recent spate of main-stage co-productions may have been borne in part from economic circumstances, but they have been delivering in spades. This timely revival of J.B. Priestley's time-shifting family saga is a case in point, especially as Jemima Levick's elegant and haunting production explicitly points up how human potential can be crushed by economic decline.

The play opens to the sound of laughter in an empty room, where the Conway brood are celebrating the writerly Kay's birthday with a game of charades. With Kay's brother Robin returning from the trenches, optimism is in the air, be it from the potential romances of glamorous Hazel, the political idealism of Madge, or the sheer joie de vivre of Carol. Only withdrawn Alan appears to have portents of uncertainty. With the final act set seconds later, sandwiched between the two is a scenario set in the same room in 1937. By this time, the family is fractured, with only the shared experiences of debt, death, class-based snobbery and profound disappointment holding them together.

Levick helms this beautifully in a production that breathes fresh life into an already devastating play. A superb ensemble cast mark the changes in their characters with a subtlety that brings all their failings to life. Irene MacDougall is fabulously brittle as Mrs Conway, with all the women in the cast presenting agonising portraits of their loss of self-hood. All this may initially look Chekhovian, but is much crueller. Given everything that's happened since, hearing Madge relay her vision for a Socialist utopia is heartbreaking in a deeply troubling state of the nation meditation that's far greater than a mere period piece.

The Herald, January 21st 2013


Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Do You Nomi? - Klaus Nomi's Total Eclipse

When Grant Smeaton was working as a Saturday boy in Listen records in Glasgow in the early 1980s, he had access to music by artists he might not ordinarily have heard. One of these was Klaus Nomi, a shock-haired singer with a piercingly high voice, who fused post-punk performance art with operatic arias.

Thirty years on, Smeaton, in collaboration with choreographer Alan Greig, has created Do You Nomi?, a dance theatre homage to Nomi, who died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1983 aged thirty-nine. As Smeaton explains, Nomi was a fascinating character, whose own performances were hugely theatrical.

“He just seemed to be part of this very different scene. It was a very fertile time, and you could be more avant-garde and experimental, which Reaganism and Thatcherism kind of knocked out. While it went on, Klaus was a fascinating, enigmatic character who was very much part of that.”

The idea for the show came from Smeaton's creative relationship with Greig. Smeaton had been drafted in as an actor to one of Greig's shows, while Greig had previously choreographed theatre shows which Smeaton had appeared in. Out of this, the pair decreed to work on a new piece that integrated both acting and dance disciplines. It was other shared experiences between the pair that influenced what the show would be about.

“We both grew up through the punk era, and then the new wave era,” Smeaton says. “That was our formative musical years, and we both loved Klaus Nomi. Even a lot of people from that time haven't heard of Klaus Nomi, but he was a gay man as well, and was one of the first people I'd ever heard of who contracted and died of AIDS. That was quite shocking at the time, when the plague label was becoming really powerful. Klaus died at a point when he was really starting to reach some kind of fame in his life, and it was a really fascinating story, but, because Klaus was so kind of abstract, that the abstraction of dance would fit really well with it. I don't think you could tell everybody's story through dance.”

Klaus Nomi was born in Bavaria in 1944, and in the 1960s worked as an usher at the Deutsch Opera in West Berlin as well as singing arias at gay discos. In 1972 Nomi moved to New York, where he became involved in the fecund East Village art scene, appearing onstage in a camp satire of Wagner's Das Rheingold.

In 1978, Nomi appeared in New Wave Vaudeville, a four-night event at which he sang an aria from Saint-Saens 1877 opera, Samson et Dalila while wearing a skin-tight space-suit with transparent plastic cape. The performance ended in a riot of smoke bombs and strobe lights, and led to dates in other clubs. At the suggestion of No Wave icon James Chance's manager, Nomi formed a band, which, in later incarnations featured artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat in its ranks.

In 1979, Nomi appeared as backing singer for David Bowie on Saturday Night Live, performing Boys Keep Swinging and The Man Who Sold The World while dragging around the studio a prop pink poodle with a television set in its mouth. Despite releasing two albums, the nearest Nomi came to the mass consciousness in the UK was via an appearance in Urgh! A Music War, a documentary compendium of left-field acts of the era playing live. Nomi performed Total Eclipse in a sequence which was shown in full several times in highbrow rock show, The Old Grey Whistle Test.

Nomi's image and sense of self-invention pre-dated the likes of Boy George and performance artist Leigh Bowery, while also following in the footsteps of the grandest of dames, Quentin Crisp.

“The whole thing about Nomi's image was an escape from the threat of nuclear war,” Smeaton says, “and using fifties sci-fi imagery in the eighties. He was really like nothing on earth, but he was just this shy guy who happened to have this amazing voice.”

Do You Nomi? is Smeaton's latest exploration of pop culture icons. Whereas in Bette/Cavett and Whatever Happened To Benny Hill?, Smeaton played the title roles of Bette Davis and Benny Hill himself, here he and Greig have drafted in a full cast, with Smeaton directing.

“I'm too old to play Klaus,” Smeaton jokes, “so we've hot two actors dancing, and two dancers acting, with one playing Klaus. With all of these stories, I'm not just looking at a person. I'm looking at a whole period of history. With Bette, it was all about that whole interview set-up at the time, while Benny Hill was I suppose more autobiographical, but I think telling a person's story can tell a lot about the period they lived through, and how their lives changed. They're all people who fascinate me. I used to go about with eye-liner on, and I suppose try to be like Klaus, but he pushed things further than anyone.”

Do You Nomi?, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, February 20-21, then tours

The Herald, February 19th 2013


Hannah Waterman - Abigail's Party

When Hannah Waterman invited one of her friends to come and see her play Beverly, the suburban matriarch at the heart of Mike Leigh's 1977 devised play, Abigail's Party, she asked her what they thought of it. “Oh,” came the surprised response. “She's a sexy Beverly.”

“I thought she always was,” says an equally surprised Waterman in her dressing room in Cambridge on a tour of Lindsay Posner's production which arrives in Edinburgh next week. “ She's massively sexually frustrated, which is why she behaves the way she does when she gets pissed, but she's in a very lonely marriage. There's this thread of loneliness that runs throughout the play. They talk about nothing. It's all cars and sofas, but that says so much about who they are.

“I play Beverly fairly overtly sexual. She doesn't have sex with her husband. She gets drunk. She doesn't have many friends. Her husband is sniping at her all the time. She's aspirational materially in the way that her husband is aspirational intellectually, but they're both under-achievers, really. People say Beverly's a monster, but it's more subtle than that. She's a really sad character.”

Beverly is also something of an icon, and has been ever since Abigail's Party was adapted for BBC television a mere six months after making its stage debut, a speedy transition that would be unthinkable today. As the title suggests, the play is focused on a gathering hosted by Beverly and her estate agent husband, Laurence for new neighbours, Angela and Tony. Also in attendance is Sue, whose teenage daughter is the Abigail of the title, and who is hosting a far more happening affair next door.

Out of all of this comes a grotesque portrait of upwardly mobile Britain in the 1970s that is the darkest of situation comedies, even as it predicts the materialism of the Thatcher decade it pre-dates. Developed over months of painstaking improvisation with a cast that included Alison Steadman as an epoch-defining Beverly, Abigail's Party is also a painfully human story.

“It's a play about people's relationships,” Waterman observes. “We may laugh at these people, but we all know people like them as well. Me and my mum went to a health spa recently, and there were these three women by us, all talking in a terribly nouveau fashion about sending their children to private school, and getting things slightly wrong in the way that Beverly does. These are very extreme characters in the play, and you have to recognise that. When we started working on the play, we tried playing it more naturalistically, but it didn't work. It wasn't funny, so you have to try and get the balance, and try and bring these people to life with all their eccentricities.

“We're certainly not trying to imitate the TV version. Alison Steadman was pregnant when she did it, and that made her walk and carry herself in a certain way. I'm a lot smaller, so when the actor who plays Laurence comes at me with a knife, he's a lot bigger than me, so there's a bit more danger, and I hope that brings out a little bit of the vulnerability there is with Beverly.”

Vulnerability is something Waterman learnt much about during a four year stint as the much put-upon Laura Beale in TV soap, East Enders.

“I was twenty-four when I started on the show,” Waterman remembers, “and it was a great place to learn about doing telly. At the time, East Enders was at its peak, and getting millions of viewers in a way that doesn't happen anywhere now.

“The year before I joined East Enders was not a good one. I was working in Selfridges selling wigs when I got the call. Being pretty strange looking, I've never really played ingenues. I'm not a pretty actress. My mum says I'm lucky to have such a curious face, which is easy for her to say, because she was so beautiful, so I didn't go into the industry with any false impressions.”

Waterman's mum is former Royal Shakespeare Company actress, Patricia Maynard, while her father is star of Minder and The Sweeney, Dennis Waterman. Watching her parents, waterman knew she wanted to act from an early age, and she joined the National Youth Theatre as soon as she could.

An early stage role cast Maynard and Waterman as mother and daughter in a production of Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey, while Maynard also played Laura's mother in East Enders. After leaving the programme, Waterman went straight into the west end, followed by stints at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.

“I really had to fight my corner,” she says of the East Enders effect, “but doing theatre was like soul food to me.”

It was while she was in Scarborough that Waterman worked with Laurie Sansom, who has just been appointed artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland. That was in Soap, a camped-up satire of TV soap operas in which Waterman proved to be a perfectly post-modern casting choice.

“Laurie is as bright as a button,” Waterman says of Sansom, echoing many things that have already been said about him. “He's also brilliant fun, so well done Scotland for grabbing him.”

By her own admission, playing Beverly in Abigail's Party is Waterman's biggest and most challenging role to date. If things go according to plan, it won't remain that way for long.

“I'd like to do a sit-com,” she says. “I've done loads of comedy onstage, but never onscreen, where I usually just stand around looking stern in a trouser suit. I'd also like to do more classical parts. I did a workshop of the old people's Romeo and Juliet with Tom Morris. I played the Nurse, and it was just a pleasure to be around these doyens of classical theatre who were all doing it. I've never done anything with the RSC or the National Theatre, because you have to get your foot in the door, and I've never managed that. I just want to get better at what I do as I get older, because I love it. I don't live to work, but I couldn't not do it.”

Abigail's Party, Kings Theatre, Edinburgh, February 25th-March 2nd

The Herald, February 19th 2013


Monday, 18 February 2013

Takin’ Over The Asylum

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
4 stars
“Inspired is when you think you can do anything,” says one character in 
Donna Franceschild’s psychiatric ward-set play adapted from her 1994 TV 
drama. “Manic is when you know it.” Such a bold statement becomes a 
kind of manifesto for this moving, funny and heart-breakingly pertinent 
story about how a hospital radio station awakens its damaged residents 
from their TV-watching torpor.

When window salesman and would-be DJ Eddie arrives at St Jude’s, his 
radio show is initially met with indifference by all except 
hyper-active Campbell. Eventually, the redemptive force of soul music 
gives a sense of purpose to Francine, Rosalie, Fergus and all the 
others who don’t quite fit in with the big bad world outside. Eddie too 
has his demons, as becomes painfully apparent when the station and the 
community that’s built around it is threatened with closure.

There’s a sense of empathy as well as anger in Franceschild’s writing 
that’s brought to devastating life by an exceptional ensemble cast in 
Mark Thomson’s heart-rending co-production between the Citz and 
Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre. A magnificent Iain Robertson makes a 
hangdog Eddie, while Brian Vernel is equally electric as Campbell.

Coming at a time when hard fought for public health services are being 
ripped asunder by a faceless managerial culture imposed by a heartless 
and ideology-driven government, Franceschild’s play suddenly looks more 
vital than ever. While it avoids polemic, when Eddie rises up from his 
knees screaming an impassioned “Do they not realise what they’ve 
done?”, it’s as powerful a protest as something out of John Steinbeck 
in a passionately human call to arms that must be listened to.

The Herald, January 18th 2013


Sunday, 17 February 2013


CCA, Glasgow
November 29th-December 1st 2012

Preamble – Beginning of A Great Adventure

In 2002, veteran saxophonist Evan Parker played a gig at the old Free 
RadiCCAls festival in Glasgow alongside a plethora of the city's more 
switched-on musical explorers. During the event, Parker declared it the 
inaugural meeting of something called the Glasgow Improvisers 
Orchestra. In the decade since, Parker's careless talk has inspired and 
enabled a welter of activity based around the loose-knit institution 
GIO has become.

Activities have included live and recorded collaborations with major 
figures in what might be regarded as free music's first wave during the 
1960s and 1970s in Britain and beyond. GIO albums have been recorded 
with Parker in 2004, vocalist and co-founder of the Feminist 
Improvising Group, Maggie Nicols, in 2005, and composer and bassist 
Barry Guy in 2007. Significantly, all three were members of John 
Stevens' Spontaneous Music Ensemble at various points in the 1960s and 

Also in 2007, at Parker's invitation, GIO played at the Freedom of the 
City festival alongside London Improvisers Orchestra. With the bands 
playing separately and together, this became a two CD set, with LIO 
players including Parker and  trumpeter Harry Beckett. The latter 
worked with everyone from Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath to 
Robert Wyatt and Weekend, Simon Booth/Emerson's pre Working Week trio 
with ex Young Marble Giants vocalist Alison Statton. Also in GIO's 
ranks was soprano saxophonist Lol Coxhill, who released his first 
album, Ear of Beholder, on John Peel's Dandelion label after Peel saw 
him busking.

Outside of his own singular take on his instrument, Coxhill's career 
included session work with the Damned and, much earlier, on John 
Kongos' original version of Tokeloshe Man. Younger players with LIO 
included bassist Dominic Lash, a key player with Oxford Improvisers, 
another improv-based contemporary group. Lash played as part of late 
drummer Steve Reid's final band alongside Four Tet's Kieran Hebden, and 
also appeared at GIOFest in 2010. GIO have also played at various 
points with saxophonist John  Surman, pianist Keith Tippett, whose 
fifty-strong ensemble, Centipede, was even bigger than GIO, ex Henry 
Cow guitarist Fred Frith, drummer Gunter 'Baby' Sommer and 
multi-instrumentalist and some-time Flying Lizard, Steve Beresford, all 
pivotal figures in improvised music.

At GIO's helm – 'leaders' would be a far too undemocratic concept in 
this context - are the tireless and avuncular figures of Raymond 
MacDonald and George Burt. While MacDonald's role in the group is 
primarily as a saxophonist, his musical career began as a guitarist in 
indie band, Remember Fun. As a psychologist and academic, MacDonald was 
for twelve years a professor in psychology at Glasgow Caledonian 
University, and is currently Professor of Music and Psychology and 
Improvisation in the Department of Music at the University of Edinburgh.

Among a huge back catalogue of releases dating back to the late 1980s, 
MacDonald played on Lead Us Not Into Temptation, the David Byrne-scored 
soundtrack to David MacKenzie's 2003 film adaptation of Alexander 
Trocchi's first novel, Young Adam. Glasgow-born Trocchi was a key Beat 
writer, who, whether as literary provocateur, smack addict or 
instigator of the 'invisible insurrection of a million minds' that he 
predicted his Project Sigma network to be, was at the forefront of the 
post World War Two counter-culture. As well as Mogwai's Barry Burns, 
Belle and Sebastian drummer Richard Colburn and Alasdair Roberts 
playing hurdy-gurdy, also playing on Lead Us Not Into Temptation 
alongside MacDonald were fellow GIO members, drummer Stuart Brown, 
bassists Una MacGlone and George Lyle and tenor sax player Graeme 

Burt is a guitarist who began playing in folk bands, and is GIO's main 
in-house composer. As the eponymous co-leaders of the Burt-MacDonald 
Quintet, alongside Lyle, vocalist and melodica player Nicola MacDonald 
– both GIO stalwarts – and assorted drummers, the pair have released a 
stream of albums, again with the likes of Coxhill, Tippett and other 
fellow travellers including Sushil K Dade's Future Pilot A.K.A. 

With GIO currently some twenty-three or twenty-four strong, the 
Orchestra's alumni includes drummer Alex Neilson, currently focusing on 
his Trembling Bells project, The One Ensemble's Daniel Padden and Kris 
Hladowski, as well as ubiquitous pianist Bill Wells.

Early GIO gigs were suitably sporadic, but, as the group became an 
increasingly cohesive and confident force, so too did the ambition of 
their shows as they joined umbilical dots with fellow travellers across 
the globe. The founding of the now annual GIOFest in 2008 in the 
Orchestra's spiritual home in the CCA (Centre for Contemporary Arts), 
was a turning point.

Over three days, GIO and assorted guests combined, collaborated and 
composed, with increasingly startling results. In 2009, GIO released 
Metamorphic Rock, recorded two years before with George Lewis, the 
American trombonist, composer, academic and prime mover behind the 
Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. This was 
preparatory work for Artificial Life, a piece composed by Lewis for 
GIO, and released on Iorram Records, the micro-label run by MacDonald 
with fellow GIO members, guitarist Neil Davidson and MacGlone.

Also released in 2009 was GIOpoetics, a collaboration with Portuguese 
father-son duo, viola player Ernesto Rodrigues and cellist Guilherme 
Rodrigues. GIO's most recent releases were both this year. Improcerto 
(for HB) was released on Iorram, and is a single thirty-nine minute 
composition by Burt in tribute to the late Harry Beckett. Parker again 
features on the recording, as does Coxhill, whose own recent death 
lends added poignancy to the record.

Just released by GIO to tie in with GIOFest V is Schweben, Ay, but can 
ye?, a major composition by Barry Guy, which was commissioned by GIO 
and first heard at GIOFest 3 in 2010, with Guy directing. Launched to 
coincide with Scottish Book Week, Schweben, Aye, but can ye? draws its 
title from a translation of a poem by Mayakovsky by Glasgow-based poet, 
Edwin Morgan, whose reading of the poem, recorded in 2009, the year 
before his death at his Glasgow care home aged ninety opens the record.

Edwin Morgan was present too at GIOFest V, in a new piece by Burt for 
full Orchestra with actor and Irvine Welsh compatriot Tam Dean Burn 
performing more of the poet's Mayakovsky translations. Lewis returned 
to open the weekend with a duet with Parker prior to the pair joining 
forces with the full band.

Also returning this year was Maggie Nicols, both with GIO's full 
ensemble and its all-female offshoot, the Rope & Duck Co, while Parker 
appeared as one third of the Schlippenbach Trio with German pianist 
Alexander von Schlippenbach and drummer Paul Lovens. The Trio have 
played together for some forty years after being members of the Globe 
Unity Orchestra, founded by von Schlippenbach in 1966. Original members 
of Globe Unity included future Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit, while a 
partial fortieth anniversary reunion in 2006 also featured Lewis. As 
well as his duet with Parker, Lewis brought with him a new composition 
for GIO, the Wittgenstein-inspired Tractatus, with plans to finally 
record Artificial Life, begun back in 2007, the day after GIOFest.

Yet another new composition followed Tractatus, this time by guitarist, 
producer and sonic polymath, Jim O'Rourke. Despite working with 
everyone from Sonic Youth to Derek Bailey and Swedish sax player, Mats 
Gustafson, O'Rourke maybe isn't someone you'd immediately ear-mark fora 
festival of free improvisation. What he brought to the table, however, 
in his playing-card generated piece, Some I Know, Some I Don't, was 
both unique and playful enough to finally dispel the myth of 
improvisation being the preserve of  po-faced pedants with 
revolutionary agendas. Revolutionary agendas may be fair enough, but, 
as inexplicable as it sounds, GIOFest V was fun, and not just for those 
onstage either.

With the rise of GIOFest, it's fitting that it was Parker who first 
provoked GIO into being, and indeed that he keeps returning to Glasgow. 
Parker, after all, was a member of Company with guitarist Derek Bailey 
and a host of others including at various points, Steve Beresford, Fred 
Frith and Lol Coxhill. Out of this activity came Company Week, an 
annual week-long platform for Bailey, Parker and Company's extended 
family of improvisers in a myriad of combinations. Running from 1977 to 
1994, it's without doubt that if Company Week were still running, GIO 
and its own many combinations would be doing something with the old 

It's fitting too that GIOFest continues to take place in the CCA 
(Centre for Contemporary Arts), the city centre arts centre that houses 
gallery spaces, a cinema, a concert space, meeting rooms and offices 
for arts companies. Open since 1992, the CCA occupies the site of the 
old Third Eye Centre, which was opened in 1973, with Tom McGrath as its 
artistic director.

Like Alexander Trocchi, McGrath was a key figure in the 1960s 
underground. Born in Rutherglen in Lanarkshire, McGrath, alongside 
Trocchi and radical psychiatrist RD Laing, became one of the 
counter-culture's Scottish axis. McGrath read poetry alongside Allen 
Ginsberg at the Royal Albert Hall, and edited Peace News and 
International Times, before getting himself a habit and moving back to 
Glasgow as the 1960s dreams seemingly faded.

As an enabler and promoter in a post-hippy before Thatcherite arts 
bureaucrats took over, McGrath also brought Miles Davis, Duke Ellington 
and John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra to Glasgow. While he later 
became better known as a poet, then a playwright, McGrath was also a 
jazz pianist, who loved Thelonius Monk, and was prone to throwing a few 
extreme free-form shapes in performance, and played with GIO bassist 
George Lyle. One story goes that a Glasgow venue's piano had to be 
replaced after McGrath vented his creative spleen on it.

Somehow, the anarchic spirit of McGrath and the old Third Eye coupled 
with the trickle-down legacy – again, if that's not too much of a 
formalisation – live on in GIO and GIOFest. While not mentioned in a 
fascinating conversation between Lewis and MacDonald, such connections
seemed nevertheless prevalent in a public discussion on improvisation 
that took it beyond music to a simple state of being. If GIOFest V was 
'about' anything, it was that.

Day 1 – Come Together

“This must be what my daughters feel like on Christmas Eve,” enthused 
an ebullient Raymond MacDonald introducing the first night of GIOFest 
V's three-day weekend. “I've not been able to sleep.”

MacDonald goes on to talk about how Evan Parker became mid-wife of 
GIO's accidental birth in the same room he's now standing in a decade 
earlier, when Parker threw MacDonald and co into the deep end and 
forced them to swim for their musical lives. To extend the metaphor, 
MacDonald likens it to the image on the cover of Nirvana's Never mind 
album. Like GIO, it is “a baby with wide eyes, but coping quite well.”

It's only fitting, then, that Parker, who MacDonald introduces as “the 
most important post-Coltrane saxophonist”, sets the tone(s) of the 
weekend in duo with George Lewis. While Parker stands, with his tenor 
sax in hand, Lewis sits himself behind a laptop. As Parker blows, but 
quietly, Lewis leans in close to his laptop, peering professorially 
through his glasses as he appears to sample Parker’s honkings live, 
before deconstructing each note's component parts before building them 
up again and sending them around the room in a different form. It's as 
if the sheer physical flesh and blood exhalations of Parker's efforts 
are put through a blender, only to emerge after what at times sounds 
like Parker soloing alongside himself as some breath-heavy electronic 

Lewis picks up his trombone, muted and distorted further by electronic 
FX, before Lewis throws in some jet plane found sounds  which zoom 
above and Parker moves onto soprano. Such distorted electro-acoustic 
eddies move into more straight-ahead trombone and sax sparring, which 
rise and fall into little melodic volleys before things calm down once 
more  and come to rest, windswept at every level.

The second set was a kind of warm-up for the full Orchestra, as they 
played with their guests for the weekend, Parker and Lewis again, with 
Maggie Nicols sitting in for her first appearance of the festival. 
Prior to the performance, the room is bathed in a red light that seems 
to pervade throughout all pre-shows, while the band's seats in the 
performance area are laid out in a circle from when they could look 
each other in the eye at an earlier rehearsal. In the hubbub that 
follows as everyone comes to order, however, the seating is 
reconfigured to a semi-circle and the lights brightened.

The first of two pieces played is Artificial Life, the piece composed 
by Lewis for GIO in 2007. Lewis, alas, who was busily pacing the floor 
a few moments ago, is nowhere to be seen. When he does eventually show 
face, his introduction talks of improvisation as being a process that 
moves between periods of stability and instability, and encourages the 
Orchestra to call without necessarily making or soliciting a response. 
He does this with a wit that again dispels all notions of improv as 
something serious. It's deadly serious, of course, but it's the playing 
that counts.

Lewis holds up a mini-recorder to set levels with, and asks the band to 
make “one loud sound.” The mass eruption that follows might well be 
something GIO would break out for the introductory sequence of Jools 
Holland’s Later in the unlikely event they'd ever be asked to appear on 
the programme. The performance that follows is made all the more 
startling for its apparent softness and spectral intensity as the 
instruments weave in and around each other, dropping out and jumping 
back in again with a concentrated formality.

The second piece, a totally free-form affair, begins with guitarist 
George Burt's hand-claps setting up a rhythm picked up on by trumpeter 
Robert Henderson's foot-stomps, while harpist Catriona McKay taps her 
hand up and down the wooden frame of her instrument. With MacDonald 
playing soprano, Peter Nicolson's cello spars gamefully with Nicols' 
voice. There's no upstaging or show-boating by the older hands here. 
Everybody's equal, and then some.

Even if by Saturday night's climax to GIOFest V this first day looks 
retrospectively like a warm-up, the one thing that stands out about GIO 
– always – is just how much fun – no,  joy – they're having doing what 
they're doing. This isn't in some exclusive and esoteric jazz-bore 
indulgence, but feels instead like a genuinely communal – and, yes, 
loving – form of shared expression that gets more infectious by the 

Day 2 – Breakout

The bar is raised and the first real signs of cutting loose are in 
place with Maggie Nicols' opening set on a day of small groups with the 
Rope and Duck Co. This all-female trio is an off-shoot of GIO, and 
normally features bassist Una MacGlone, flautist Emma Roche and 
vocalist Aileen Campbell. With Campbell indisposed, Nicols blends in 
seamlessly, picking up any slack with a remarkable performance of two 
group pieces that begin with a full-throated guttural cry and ends with 
a tantric dance.

Inbetween, MacGlone sits on the floor conjuring up noises from her 
prostate bass, while to one side of her Roche’s flute becomes an 
understated but still vivid sound carrier that doesn’t so much spar 
with the others as absorbs and co-exists with them. On the other side 
of MacGlone, Nicols sits, mewing like a cat one minute, dancing in her 
chair the next, her head rolling trance-like as she goes.

For the second piece, MacGlone and her bass are on their feet, playing 
what sounds suspiciously like proper. After a brief silence, Nicols too 
is on her feet, circling the chair, babbling into the microphone, 
sounding cross with herself and limbs that maybe aren’t as flexible as 
they once were. In-between whispers, Roche’s flute seems to twitter 
back in gentle recognition. Together, Nicols and the Rope & duck Co are 
channelling the same terrain as Part Wild Horses Mane on Both Sides or 
Muscles of Joy, a collective spirit alive with sensuality and rage.

GIO’s main body is broken up even further by way of four small groups, 
each playing for ten minutes apiece. The first is a trio, the gag being 
that all three players are named George; George Lewis on trombone, 
George Murray also on trombone, and George Lyle on double bass. Why 
George Burt declined to make up a quartet is anybody’s guess, but 
having trombones playing lead on a low-end exercise like this is 
glorious to hear.

Next up is a quintet of Neil Davidson on acoustic guitar, Fergus Kerr 
on French Horn, Graeme Wilson on saxophone, Armin Sturm on double bass 
and a wonderful Jim McEwan on electric keyboards. Out of this mix comes 
a kind of wonkified 1970s noir, with McEwan bending his keyboard sounds 
out of shape as if stalking his after-hours prey in a very woozy, if 
appositely contained, concentrated and eminently controlled fashion.

“I just have to go to the toilet,” Nicols declares, before joining 
pianist Gerry Rossi, trumpeter Robert Henderson and drummer Stu Brown. 
Once convened, Brown wields a dangerous looking rubber duck which he 
threatens to bash his snare drum with, but instead barely taps it with 
the force of a feather-duster kiss. This nudges the quartet gradually 
ever deeper into the sort of latin-scat-exotica favoured by Arto 
Lindsay. Henderson’s trumpet bursts threaten to go into Sketches of 
Spain or Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra territory, until 
Brown jumps onto his knees and pretty much attacks his cymbal into a 
silent death to finish with. It’s the first real unhinged moment of the 
weekend, its knockabout absurdism provoking laughter among the audience 
as Nicols blows kisses at Henderson.

The final ad hoc amalgamation finds Lewis teaming up with GIO 
trombonist Nicole McNeilly, melodica player Nicola MacDonald, cellist 
Peter Nicolson and Raymond MacDonald initially on soprano saxophone. 
Somewhere in the cut and thrust of this five-way exchange, Nicolson 
seems to channel the ghost of Arthur Russell in his cello playing, 
while Lewis plays his dismantled trombone handle on his cheek, huffing 
and puffing like Donald Duck at the dentist.

The way the small groups cut loose is telling, With less responsibility 
and accountability to so many people in GIO’s full ensemble, it seems, 
and with so little time, it allows them to go for broke without any 
hesitation or anxiety about the consequences.

“Welcome back to the adventure,” says MacDonald before introducing the 
Schlippenbach Trio, who proceed to raise the bar even further with a 
relentless forty-five minute blow-out. There’s a relentless muscularity 
that drives Schlippenbach’s piano pounding and Parker’s intense blowing 
that’s not just about Paul Lovens’ busy drums. It’s as if all are 
constantly racing each other, nudging each other out of the way a 
moment, only to converge with renewed synergy, constantly refreshing
themselves as they go. Schlippenbach even slips in a few bluesy 
Monkisms to leaven a set that is exhausting, exhilarating and an 
inspirational way to end the night.

Day 3 – Play

On Saturday lunch-time there's a Salvation Army brass band playing 
Christmas Carols on Sauchiehall Street just along from the CCA . For 
all the band-member' uniformed predictability, there's something about 
hearing music – big band sounds in particular – in a social context 
beyond the concert hall that gives it fresh life and gives it a weight 
and a reach that goes beyond music. GIOFest V may be held indoors, but, 
over the course of a very busy final day, it breaks infinitely more 
boundaries than the Sally Army, mixing up forms and content to become 
much more than a mere gig.

The day begins with a workshop for 3-5 year-olds, an age-group 
unsullied by musical tuition and open to any chance to make a noise 
that's going. This, by all accounts, they do in spades. This is 
followed by a workshop by Maggie Nicols attended by improvisers of all 
ages and experience. Only a lone folkie, who, by his own admission, 
doesn't like improvisation, resists.

The first performance of the day comes from Sonic Bothy, here a 
seven-piece ensemble founded by violinist and composer Claire Docherty 
to embrace musicians with visual and other impairments to playing 
alongside herself, GIO bassist Una MacGlone and others. The first of 
two pieces is a Korg synth-led quickie that's practically a squiggle, 
while the second is led initially by some very quiet percussion, both 
on congas and on MacGlone's bass. With violin and flute flourishes 
under-scoring, things settle into a propulsive little off-kilter 
groove, over the top of which, again, comes Matthew Ward's Korg, awash 
with Mozartian flourishes a la Walter/Wendy Carlos.

A bothy, lest anyone is unaware, is a basic rural shelter found largely 
in the Scottish Highlands which is left unlocked and available to all. 
As a metaphor for Sonic Bothy, such an open house approach is perfect.

The discussion between George Lewis and Raymond MacDonald which follows 
makes sense of the full GIO aesthetic, not just musically, but as a 
philosophy and a way of life that sounds infinitely more practical than 
you might think. Lewis talks about how a decade back improvised music 
seemed at the margins, but now feels very much at the centre of things. 
He praises GIO as pioneers in large-scale improvisation, illustrating 
it with an anecdote from playing Company Week, when “we'd get in our 
duos and trios, then somebody would say 'let's all play together', and 
Derek Bailey would say 'That never works'. A lot of the time it didn't, 
because there was no methodology, but I think even Derek admitted it 
worked once.”

Lewis goes on to relate improvisation to the Occupy movement as a way 
of organising which may at times be exhausting and doesn't always work, 
but which remains a genuine attempt at democracy. Lewis states quite 
clearly that improvisation is neither genre or method, but is rather 
“an unholy alliance between indeterminacy and agency.”

There is a leakage too, Lewis observes, “between musical improvisation, 
other art-forms and other non-artforms.”

Noting the role of improvisation in education and other spheres, 
MacDonald points out that “It's important to be evangelical about 

While there are few better evangelicists than MacDonald, it is Nicols, 
sat in the audience, who sums up the real power of improvisation to 
change things in terms of self-determination and power.

“One thing the state can't do is improvise,” she says. “In terms of 
having the power to negotiate, their backs are against the wall. They 
can bush badly, but they can't improvise creatively.”

If the spirit of Tom McGrath seemed to be chuckling beatifically 
somewhere for what he set in motion by establishing the Third Eye 
Centre, there were further elements of baton-passing via The Shetland 
Improvisers Orchestra, a recently formed twelve-piece troupe who play 
their second gig at GIOFest V having made the trip to the mainland from 
their island home off Scotland’s north-east coast.  As trumpeter and de 
facto leader of the group Jeff Merrifield explains, SHO were formed 
after MacDonald and Burt announced at a Shetland workshop hosted by GIO 
that, just as Evan Parker had willed GIO into being a decade earlier, 
the workshop was in fact the inaugural meeting of the new band.

Merrifield lends a far more flamboyant presence to SIO than anyone in 
GIO. His presence  at GIOFest V also forms the sort of crucial link 
between art-forms observed earlier by Lewis and MacDonald. Merrifield, 
after all, was a long term collaborator of the late Ken Campbell, the 
theatrical mad-man who became Alf Garnett's sidekick in 1990s TV 
sit-com, In Sickness and In Health, but in effect helped  usher in a 
theatrical revolution while accidentally helping sire Liverpool's punk 
scene, the KLF and everything that followed.

Campbell founded the Ken Campbell Roadshow, an anarchic touring troupe 
which at various points featured Sylvester McCoy and Bob Hoskins, and 
whose anarchic revues came out of an anarchic counter-culture that was 
a million miles from more orthodox writer-based theatres such as the 
Royal Court. Campbell claimed that the unsung hero of the Court was 
director Keith Johnstone, who wrote a book in 1979 called Impro! 
Improvisation and the Theatre.

In 1976, Campbell and Chris Langham had formed the Science Fiction 
Theatre of Liverpool to devise a nine-hour stage version of Robert 
Anton Wilson's cult science-fiction epic Illuminatus trilogy of novels. 
As well as featuring the likes of Bill Nighy in the cast, the house 
band included future Lightning Seed Ian Broudie on guitar, while 
building the sets was one Bill Drummond. Out of this came the germ of 
post-punk Liverpool super-group in waiting, Big in Japan.

After an anti-career of solo shows, wind-ups and eccentric popular 
science shows that make Brian Cox look boring, Campbell came to the 
2008 Edinburgh festival Fringe to oversee a young theatre company 
improvise a brand new musical every night. Campbell would act more as 
provocateur than director, pushing the company towards new realms of 
creative freedom, and never allowing them to become boring even for a 

All of this is in Seeker!, a huge and very personal biography of 
Campbell written by Merrifield and published earlier this year. 
Merrifield also wrote a play about Ian Dury, which went on in Edinburgh 
the same year as Campbell's final appearance. Merrifield's play was 
originally called ABFCAP – The Life and Rhymes of Ian Dury. The first 
half of the title was an acronym for Arseholes, Bastards, Fucking Cunts 
and Pricks, the opening line of Dury's song on his New Boots and 
Panties album, Plaistow Patricia. With the first half of the title 
amended to the no-less expressive but less likely to cause offence Hit 
Me!, Merrifield's play transferred to the West End.

Shetland Improvisers Orchestra isn't just about Merrifield, though, as 
the first of three pieces makes clear. In what is essentially a round 
of musical pass the parcel without pause, guest GIO saxophonist duets 
with GIO's guitarist awhile before double bass player Hayden Hook joins 
in as the guitarist eventually drops out, and so on. This leads to Hook 
playing with pianist Lewis Hall before one of two percussionists comes 
in on congas which eventually frame a second saxophone and Merrifield's 
trumpet before a second percussionist comes in. Female voice, recorder 
and fiddle point more to Shetland's Scandinavian influences than 
Scottish ones before a somewhat incongruous slap bass brings us back to 
the start.

The second piece is inspired, according to Merrifield, by a Kevin Ayers 
song, which Merrifield proceeds to sing a verse from, sounding, in its 
electronically distorted fashion, not unlike a more genial Davros from 
Doctor Who. Before the third piece, Merrifield relates how GIO's visit 
to Shetland had been the day after Lol Coxhill died. Merrifield cues in 
a big picture of the late saxophonist which appears on a big screen 
behind the band. Coxhill too cut something of a theatrical dash, 
playing in productions by Welfare State and groups associated with The 
People Show and poet and jazz lover Jeff Nuttall. Nuttall, like Tom 
McGrath, had been approached by Trocchi re Project Sigma, and Nuttall 
wrote a biography of sorts of Coxhill called The Bald Soprano, also the 
name of a play by Romanian absurdist, Eugene Ionesco.

Coxhill also played with Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt, and it is the 
title of the latter's 1970 free-form solo album, End of An Ear, that is 
nicked for GIO's final piece, on which they are joined by MacDonald, 
Burt and GIO bassist Armin Sturm. It starts, appropriately enough, with 
three saxes, and proceeds to rip up a light-hearted riot in tribute to 

“If anyone wants to give us our third gig,” hustles Merrifield, 
sounding not unlike Campbell, “we're open to offers.”

Things continue in a theatrical vein for the three main pieces of the 
evening, all of which feature the full GIO ensemble with Lewis and 
Nicols sitting in. Three Envelopes for E.M. Is a new series of four – 
not three, despite what it says on the tin - compositions by George 
Burt which set more Edwin Morgan translations of Mayakovsky to music. 
Where Barry Guy's composition on GIO's newly released Schweben – Ay, 
but can ye? album was an impressionistic interpretation, Burt has actor 
Tam Dean Burn perform them with considerable relish.

Burn is familiar from character roles in the big-screen adaptation of 
Irvine Welsh's The Acid House, read the audio book of Trainspotting and 
performed a stage version of Welsh's novel, Filth. Burn has also worked 
with Steven Berkoff, has played William Burroughs onstage, had a small 
part as a bar-man in Young Adam, and formed The Bumclocks with his 
brother and former Fire Engines drummer Russell Burn and ex Josef K 
guitarist Malcolm Ross to perform Robert Burns poems in the style of 
Iggy Pop. Burn began as the front-man of Edinburgh punk based The Dirty 
Reds, who later morphed into Fire Engines. More recently, Burn directed 
a production of Morgan's adaptation of ancient epic, The Play of 
Gilgamesh, published in 2005 several years after being appointed 
Scotland's national poet, or Makar.

With GIO, things begin with a raw martial fanfare as Burn launches 
himself into A Revolutionary Slogan with polemical abandon which Burt 
suggests later works better translated into Scots rather than English. 
Harpist Catriona McKay comes to the fore on A Retrospect For Cuddie, 
attacking her instrument with muscular flourishes. The third piece 
begins with a long musical introduction before Burn becomes pop-eyed 
and manic as he relates a very different form of love that dare not 
speak its name that comes in the form of a man falling head over heels 
for a double bass. Given the occasion, it couldn't be more appropriate. 
The final piece, even more appropriately called For Crying Out Loud, 
suggests Morgan had every reason to be 'tickled', as he apparently was, 
by the idea of something called the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra.

The world premiere of Tractatus, George Lewis's new composition for 
GIO, is delayed a few minutes while the BBC set up to record it for a 
forthcoming broadcast of Jazz on 3. It makes no odds, as by now the 
band are loose enough to dip in and out of things at will, and given 
that they're about to perform a twenty-minute piece based on 
Wittgenstein's notions of timelessness and how he who lives eternally 
lives in the present, it's all too fitting.

With lewis conducting with a series of twenty-three cards, Nicols sits 
in on a slow-burning and propulsive affair awash with more harp sweeps 
 from McKay, while Nicols and Nicola MacDonald exchange a set of yips, 
yelps and shrieks. Getting into the groove, Lewis Shimmies like a 
free-style wrestler before shuffling off to the side of the room, hands 
deep in pockets, and letting them get on with it. At the end,lewis 
almost drops his final card before raising his hands up preacher-like, 
egging the band on towards cacophony.

There are even more cards to be played in Some I Know, Some I Don't, 
Jim O'Rourke,'s posted-in gift from Japan with love to GIO. With what 
follows turning into a rush-hour riot of movement as well as music, 
what is effectively the climax of the weekend finds the band cutting 
loose both singly and as one as O'Rourke very much plays the joker.

The idea was that O'Rourke sent over two packs of playing cards, with 
each card bearing a set of instructions to whoever picks it. With each 
member of the band issued with two cards apiece, a full-on free 
improvisation then ensues, with anyone at liberty to turn over a card 
at any point and follow the instructions given.

There may be obvious comparisons here with Brian Eno's I Ching inspired 
Oblique Strategies, but this is far more fun. The band have done one 
rehearsal for the benefit of O'Rourke, who watched on Skype, and the 
fully fledged performance slips into three main movements. The first 
finds the band cautiously going for it, waiting until one of the band 
takes a chance on turning over a card. Once this happens, the 
flood-gates open and comic mayhem ensues until all the cards are 
exhausted and the band settle in for a final flourish, as Zen as they 

Nicols is one of the first on her feet, wandering over to pianist Gerry 
Rossi for a chat about something or other. French horn player Fergus 
Kerr is up too, as is trumpeter Robert Henderson, who plays his mute as 
a piece of percussion. Henderson is on his feet again shortly after, 
this time wielding a mobile phone. Nicols and Raymond MacDonald have 
similar fun with mobile phones, Burt and McKay exchange assorted found 
detritus as capos, flautist Matthew Studdert-Kenndedy plays from the 
audience, while Nicola MacDonald takes a drinks order from those 
sitting next to her and heads for the bar, returning with a tray of 
drinks. It's silly, stagy and slightly self-conscious, with Lewis, in 
what might be a first, stepping up to the microphone to confess a love 
of Scots porridge. By the end, the entire stage is cock-a-hoop with the 
sheer elation of not having to take themselves seriously anymore.

No-one is more caught up in the moment than Nicols, who just can't help 
herself and succumbs to an extended laughing fit even as MacDonald 
gives a vote of thanks before a surprisingly quiet finale ends the 
show. One hundred and thirty people improvised during the course of 
GIOFest V. It looked and sounded like liberation. Long may the 
adventure continue.

Schweben - Ay but can ye? and other GIO CDs are available from

Commissioned by The Quietus, December 2012


Thursday, 14 February 2013

Go Back For Murder

Kings Theatre, Edinburgh
3 stars
There can't be many Agatha Christie pot-boilers that feature pre-show music by the Beatles. Yet this late period whodunnit revived here by director Joe Harmston's Official Agatha Christie Company is as groovy as when Hammer revived Dracula in swinging London. Blessed with a holy trinity of female leads, it's hard not to warm to such unabashed hokum.

First performed in 1960 but re-set here to1968, Christie's adaptation of her novel, Five Little Pigs, follows the tenacious travails of Carla Le Marchant, the twenty-something daughter of Caroline Crale. Caroline died in prison after being convicted twenty years before of the murder of her artist and serial adulterer husband, Amyas. Carla breezes from lawyer's office to drawing room and fancy restaurant looking for clues, quizzing her father's mistress, the family maid, her mother's sister and two very different brothers both in love with her mother. Once gathered in the family pile, all involved role-play the past to unravel a more ambiguous past.

This makes it necessary for the cast to play their younger selves, while Sophie Ward carries things as both mother and daughter. Where as Carla she sports a Judy Geeson bob and a Mondrian-patterned mini-dress, as Caroline she's a more demure post-war English rose. As Amyas' one-time muse, Elsa, Lysette Anthony is a drop-dead little madam on the make, while Liza Goddard's Miss Williams remains impeccably ageless.

With each scene punctuated by what sounds like a jazzy mash-up of Roy Orbison's Pretty Woman and Dave Brubeck's Unsquare Dance, this is as hip as Christie gets. While hardly barricade-storming, Carla's final lead-taking embrace with her lawyer sidekick nevertheless points to a bright feminist future.

The Herald, February 14th 2013


Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Ken Alexander - From Byre to Court

Ken Alexander is used to turning theatres on their head. When the newly 
appointed – and first ever – artistic director of the Royal Court 
theatre in Liverpool was in charge of the Byre Theatre in St Andrews, 
he initiated touring and outreach programmes while at the same time 
overseeing the in-house company’s move from its old premises to its new 
lottery-funded state of the art home. Once in the new building, 
Alexander increased production from five shows a year to eight, a 
remarkable feat that paid dividends in both attendance and quality.
When Alexander took over Perth Theatre, where his career had begun as a 
trainee director under theatrical legends Joan Knight and Clive Perry, 
during his year-long tenure he re-established the venue as a producing 
house and increased audiences.

Given the tragic closure of the Byre two weeks ago following the 
company’s insolvency several years after its Scottish Arts Council 
funding cut caused its production arm to be scrapped outside of 
pantomime season, and  someone with Alexander’s commercial and artistic 
savvy is much needed. In that absence, however, given his central role 
in the Byre’s former glory, Alexander is both mournful and angry.

“I feel pretty angry about the staff who’ve been with the company since 
before the new theatre was built being laid off the way they have,” he 
says. “But I think once the SAC removed core funding from the Byre, that 
this was inevitable. The Byre was designed to be a producing theatre, 
so after core funding was removed it was a no-brainer that something 
was going to go horribly wrong.”

Alexander is speaking just days before a summit meeting between Fife 
Council, Creative Scotland and the Scottish Government was held to try 
and save the Byre. Whatever happens next, all parties might do well to 
listen to Alexander’s experience.

“When I was at the Byre, we really had to fight hard to get the funding 
that we did, and to convince the SAC that Fife was a place deserving of 
producing work in its own right,” he says. “The SAC never regarded St 
Andrews as strategically important, but to think that St Andrews can be 
serviced by theatres in Dundee and Edinburgh is a big mistake and a 
serious misjudgement. I’d really like the Byre to go back to being a 
producing house, but you need the will of a strong management to 
achieve that.”

It is Liverpool, however, where Alexander’s energies will be channeled 
over the next few years, in a building which seems tailor-made for his 
talents. For the last thirty years, the Royal Court was a music venue 
before returning to its theatrical roots several years ago by way of a 
series of commercial comedies served up in a Scouse demotic. Alexander 
has already directed several shows there, including A Nightmare on Lime 
Street and Dirty Dusting, and has plans for more ambitious fare.

“It’s a job that’s going to have its challenges,” Alexander admits. 
“The Royal Court as a production company has only existed for six or 
seven years, and so far its been done on a commercial basis, with shows 
being paid for by the last thing that was done. Part of my remit is to 
develop and expand the programme, and we’re at the first stage of a 
four stage development. A lot of the plays that go on are by writers in 
the Liverpool area. There’s a really strong sense that the theatre is 
tapping into working class Liverpool voices, and I’m really interesting 
in developing that, and finding new Liverpool talent.

“I’m also interested in taking some of the shows out on tour. Most of 
the number one venues say they can’t find enough drama to puyt on, so 
I’ll be looking to making links with various consortiums to try and 
work out how we can do that.”

The Royal Court seats 1200, with cabaret style tables filling the 
stalls where audiences can have a meal before the show. This speak-easy 
vibe fits in perfectly with Liverpool’s strong theatrical history, both 
with the Everyman, currently being rebuilt, and the 700-seat Liverpool 
Playhouse. There is also the 2000 seat Liverpool Empire a stone’s throw 
from the Royal Court.

“A lot of the top quality touring work that does exist tends to bypass 
Liverpool and goes to Manchester,” Alexander observes, “so we’ll also 
be looking at bringing some of that in, and looking at some kind of 
possible relationship between the Royal Court and the Empire. It’s 
important that what we do compliments what’s already there rather than 
goes up against it, and I’d like to see us share work and resources 
with the other theatres here.”

With plans to expand the theatre’s community and outreach work, 
Alexander’s ambitious plans following his appointment comes at a 
particularly fecund time for Scottish and Scotland-based directors 
spreading their artistic wings. Former Dundee Rep director James 
Brining is already in post heading up West Yorkshire Playhouse in 
Leeds, while outgoing National Theatre of Scotland head Vicky 
Featherstone is about to take charge of the more familiar Royal Court 
in London.  Only last week, Lorne Campbell, previously associate 
director at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, was announced as the new 
artistic director of Northern Stage in Newcastle, a city with its own 
set of funding problems since the local authority scrapped it by 100 
per cent.

While this is clear vindication for directing talent sired and nurtured 
in Scotland, Alexander also points to other reasons for this trend.

“There’s not as much going on in buildings in terms of producing in 
Scotland anymore,” he says. “That’s partly why I wanted to spread my 
wings. I certainly learnt a lot in Scottish theatres, and was lucky to 
work in such well-equipped theatres, but I don’t think there are as 
many opportunities for directors to develop their craft in the way that 
I did.”

Alexander will spend his first full year at the Royal Court 
“fact-finding”, as he survey’s Liverpool’s theatrical landscape, and he 
is unlikely to direct a show until this coming autumn at the earliest. 
The theatre will nevertheless continue in a light-hearted vein, a la 
Nightmare on Lime Street. Already lined up is another Christmas show 
with a similarly local flavour, a science-fiction spoof revelling in 
the name of Hitch-hikers Guide to Fazakerley, the latter word being a 
northern suburb of the city. Bearing in mind that it was Liverpool 
which pretty much invented the rock and musical by way of the very 
first production of Return to the Forbidden Planet at the Everyman in 
the mid-1980s, and such a focus on unashamed populism isn’t surprising.

“I would like to see the Royal Court in a position where we can plan 
seasons with at least a couple of shows going out on tour,” he says. “I 
would also like to see the likes of the National Theatre, the RSC and 
the National Theatre of Scotland touring here. I want the theatre to be 
running at least fifty weeks of the year. It has to be aspirational.”

The Herald, January 12th 2013