Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Noises Off

Kings Theatre, Glasgow
5 stars
Doors and sardines. These two elements are the essence of theatre, 
according to director Lloyd Dallas in Michael Frayn’s ingenious 
theatrical in-joke, which takes every actor’s nightmare and magnifies 
it to epically grotesque proportions. When the play first appeared in 
1982, the sort of trouser-dropping farce Frayn so magnificently 
pastiched was still a bums on seats staple of the commercial touring 
circuit. More than three decades on, and Robin Housemonger’s play, 
Nothing On, may be even more anachronistic, but it remains an instantly 
recognisable stalwart which refuses to lay down and die.

Lindsay Posner’s revival of Frayn’s play was first seen at the Old Vic, 
and now takes meta-ness to new heights by hitting the touring circuit 
the play has itself become a staple of. It begins quietly enough, as 
Dallas’ company of insecure drama queens and ego-maniacs go through 
their final rehearsals of Housemonger’s play. As inter-personal 
tensions between grand dame Dottie Otley, leading man Gary Lejeune, old 
lags Freddie, Belinda and Selsdon, would-be starlet Brooke and others 
rear their head, real life dramas take increasingly chaotic precedence. 
This comes to a head in the second act, in which the same scene is seen 
 from back-stage several weeks into the tour. By the final act, set on 
the tour’s final night, Nothing On has been transformed into an 
eye-poppingly absurd shambles.

All of which makes for an exhaustingly relentless tour de force led by 
Neal Pearson as Lloyd and a wonderful Maureen Beattie as Dottie. The 
sheer slickness, comic timing and physical bravura of the cast leaves 
one reeling in what must be one of the greatest comic constructions 
ever staged.

The Herald, May 28th 2013

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John Durnin - Ten Years in Pitlochry

When Pitlochry Festival Theatre's artistic director John Durnin arrived at the Perthshire based producing house ten years ago, he had transformation on his mind. Here was a theatre, after all, which, while situated well out of the central belt, had developed a repertoire and production standards on a par with London's west end. This in itself was a major step forward from the theatre in the hills' beginnings in 1951 when John Stewart opened it in a tent. Once PFT's purpose-built premises opened for business, under Clive Perry and others it developed a reputation for producing calculatedly commercial fare personified by the work of Alan Ayckbourn.

While Durnin's tenure has not been averse to producing the odd Ayckbourn over the years, he has broadened the repertoire considerably, so it now includes more contemporary plays in the programme alongside familiar classics. Durnin has also introduced a musical play that forms a major part of PFT's in-house season, while all-year round programming has seen the institution of an annual Christmas play into the programme.

With this year's programme already up and running with a typically lavish production of Hello Dolly!, Durnin is already looking forward to the rest of the programme, even as he reflects on his achievements with PFT over a decade which he never doubted he'd stick around for its duration.

“The task we'd set ourselves and the objectives we wanted to achieve weren't going to be achieved overnight,£ he admits. “The big objective was to make PFT not just a seasonal operation, but an all year round one. That was going to take time in terms of raising audience awareness of what we were doing, and only now is that starting to bed in. Now we're able to include not just work from other organisations, but are able to produce our own shows as well so they form a significant part of our programme, and that's very satisfying.

“In terms of broadening the repertoire, since my first season at PFT in 2004, we've been able to incorporate musical theatre using an actor/musician model, and we've been able to put on plays which ten years ago people might have said, my God, that's not a PFT sort of play! Now we can put on contemporary Scottish plays like Outlying Islands by David Greig or Passing Places by Stephen Greenhorn, and we've started to see different sorts of audiences coming in. That's been a big mountain to climb, but we're now some way along it.”

“In a lot of ways things haven't changed at all, in that we've been able to keep on doing plays that have the broadest appeal, but we're also now able to do things which are slightly more niche. Now, if you look at the socio-economic base of our audience, it's very similar to the audience that goes to the royal Lyceum in Edinburgh and the Citizens in Glasgow rather than some funny place up a hill.”

If there is a theme running throughout Durnin's tenth anniversary season, it is an all too appropriate one of theatricality, and attempting to lead private lives while being in full public view. Following the opening of Hello Dolly!, the season continues with Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval, about the travails of an amateur theatre company's attempts to put on a production of The Beggar's Opera. This is followed by Noel Coward's Present Laughter, Alan Bennett's double bill, Single Spies and Oscar Wilde's Lady Windemere's Fan. While the summer rep season concludes with Jim Cartwright's pub-set play, Two, a new production of The Steamie – PFT's third – will grace the autumn schedule. After last year's hit production of White Christmas, this year PFT follow-up with a rarely seen stage musical version of the ultimate feelgood festive flick, It's A Wonderful Life.

While Durnin remains buoyant about Pitlochry's successes, there have of course been setbacks. One of these was the proposed use of the theatre's grounds and gardens, used so spectacularly in a production of Judith Adams' audacious play, Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden. With funds already limited to allow this initiative to develop any further, things weren't helped when the then Scottish Arts Council withdrew all funding from PFT. Despite such setbacks, Durnin remains philosophical about his theatre's economic state.

“We're not immune to what is happening to everybody else,” he says. “and ever since the SAC took that decision, we've been living hand to mouth. As a result, we had to look at things in a different way.”

With a long-term feasibility study already underway, Durnin is confident about PFT's relationship with Creative Scotland, the funding body who replaced the old SAC.

“We have a much better relationship with Creative Scotland than we did with the Scottish Arts Council,” he says, “and we're looking to strengthen that position.”

Whatever happens, Durnin remains confident about PFT's continuing expansion.

“People said musicals wouldn't work in rep,” he says, “but we've proved that they can. We've also shown we can do adventurous contemporary plays, even as there have been some strange reactions to things that we thought would be hugely popular. So there are no certainties. In terms of developing things, we've still an awful long way to go, but there are still some big things ahead for PFT. We're exploring the possibility of touring work, and there are a lot of other possibilities on the horizon, so I think there's enough to keep me occupied for a while yet.”

Pitlochry Festival Theatre's 2013 season features Hello Dolly! Already in rep. A Chorus of Disapproval opens on Thursday, with the rest of the season to follow.

Pitlochry Festival Theatre's 2013 Season At A Glance

Hello Dolly! - Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman's hit musical about a legendary matchmaker continues PFT's focus on large-scale musicals.

A Chorus of Disapproval – Alan Ayckbourn's look at a local am-dram outfit's attempts to stage The Beggar's Opera returns to PFT for the first time since 1985.

Present Laughter – Noel Coward's all too knowing look at the travails of a celebrity lifestyle puts matinee idol Garry Essedine squarely centre-stage.

Single Spies – Two plays by Alan Bennett look at two very English spies, as An Englishman Abroad finds Guy Burgess turning up at actress Coral Browne's Moscow dressing-room door, while A question of Attribution finds Sir Anthony Blunt bumping into the Queen.

Lady Windemere's Fan – Oscar Wilde dissects London society and marital misadventure in his first major success.

Two – Jim Cartwright looks at British pub life in an epic in which two actors play all the customers.


Beyond the Summer Season

The Steamie – Tony Roper's much loved comedy set in a public laundry in 1950s Glasgow returns to PFT for an autumn run in its first outing there since 2003.

It's A Wonderful Life – For Christmas, Frank Capra's ultimate feelgood film is brought to life in this Scottish premiere of Thomas M Sharkey's musical take on the story.

The Herald, May 28th 2013


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First Love

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
4 stars
A man steps out from the audience and onto a stage that remains bare 
other than a stool that sits in the far corner while a solitary shaft 
of light brightens the stage's centre. As the reflective piano music 
that's been playing fades out, the man, dressed in buttoned-up charity 
shop suit and a hoodie underneath, proceeds to tell his story. Or 
rather, in the Cork-based Gare St Lazare Players latest rendering of 
Samuel Beckett's prose, one of many stories. Because there's a real 
sense of continuum in the company's approach that becomes increasingly 
clear with their every visit.

Much of this down to the solo performances by Conor Lovett as directed 
by Judy Hegarty Lovett in a spare and austere fashion. Both suggest 
that what's being said is just the latest episode in a life of incident 
and colour. Here, Lovett takes a novella penned by Beckett in 1948 but 
not published until 1971 and lifts it off the page with a dry sense of 
understatement that would give that other great Irish comic orator Dave 
Allen a run for his money.

Over eighty minutes, Lovett explains, or rather, confesses how a visit 
to his father's grave and an interrupted night's sleep on a park bench 
results in his moving into a two-room flat with a prostitute. As he 
recounts every awkward intimacy while acting out the niceties of 
courtship by rote, Lovett captures the real essence of flying blind 
into a partnership that's as dysfunctional but as necessary as any of 
Beckett's other co-dependents. When Lovett's narrator eventually walks 
away, his parting line may be full of loss, but there's hope too behind 
every word.

The Herald, May 28th 2013

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Monday, 27 May 2013

Far Away/Seagulls

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
4 stars
There's something astonishing about this rare double bill of short 
plays by Caryl Churchill, if only to get some kind of insight into how 
this most singular of writers mind works. In Far Away, first seen in 
2000, a young girl is exposed to the brutality of a war which becomes 
increasingly extreme. At first, Lucy Hollis' Joan appears to be an 
evacuee who witnesses her uncle doling out violence to a lorry-load of 
refugees, only to be co-opted into a conspiracy of silence by her aunt. 
By the end, she's in the thick of a conflict which has corrupted the 
planet so much that even nature and the animal kingdom are taking sides.

Seagulls, which dates from 1978, is less elliptical in its observation 
of how raw talent can be corrupted by celebrity.  Kathryn Howden's 
Valery is able to move objects with her mind, and, with her manager Di 
in tow, is about to launch a rocket for charity in front of a huge 
audience before being investigated by scientists at Harvard. Except, 
with the pressure on, she can't perform.

Director Dominic Hill has pulled out all the stops here, with Far Away 
in particular a technical marvel which has each scene punctuated by 
designer Neil Haynes' huge corrugated iron doors sliding open and shut 
as Scott Twynholm's dissonant industrial score plays. A mid-scene 
fashion parade proves even more jaw-dropping.

The plays themselves, featuring a set of wonderfully nuanced 
performances from Hollis, Howden, Alasdair Hankinson and Maureen Carr, 
are fiercely moral fables, even as they're shot through with a wry wit. 
It's Valery's moment of stillness at the end of Seagulls, however, 
that's most telling.

The Herald, May 27th 2013

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Kora

Dundee Rep
4 stars
When Tom McGrath's play first appeared in 1986, its depiction of 
community spirit in a run-down Dundee housing scheme was a telling 
insight into life on the margins in Thatcher's Britain. A quarter of a 
century on, and  Nicholas Bone's revival of a story based on real 
Dundee residents reflects the current and all too necessary wave of 
grassroots protest that has risen up in the face of mass political 
ineptitude.

At the heart of the play is Kora Lee, the eternally optimistic single 
mum to five boys, who becomes a symbol of survival even as her world is 
collapsing around her. When an architecture student turns up to ask 
Kora and her neighbours questions about their living conditions, an 
accidental campaign is launched to try and improve the neighbourhood.

If this sounds like a sentimental  polemic, think again. Far from 
leading the campaign, Kora's main pre-occupation is attempting to sire 
an even bigger brood, either with community policeman Bob or else the 
nearest test tube donor, all done on her own terms.

Played in the round inside Becky Minto's wonderful living room pod that 
encloses both cast and audience with a display of disembodied 
furniture, Bone's production is a multi-faceted affair pulsed by a 
gloriously matter of fact earthiness. Much of this is led by Emily 
Winter, who plays Welsh emigre Kora as a lusty back-street earth mother 
who lives in the moment whatever. In some ways, Kora's acts of everyday 
self-determination and a desire to procreate are bigger than the 
ultimately doomed campaign depicted. The coming together of community 
too is crucial. For Kora, life doesn't simply go on. It's the creating 
it that counts.

The Herald, May 27th 2013

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Friday, 24 May 2013

Chrysta Bell

Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh
4 stars
Film-maker David Lynch may not have the same high profile he once did, but he sure recognises a muse when he sees and hears one. Cue Chrysta Bell, the Texan chanteuse with whom he wrote and produced the 2011 This Train album. Lynch isn't in attendance for Bell's debut Scottish performance in a venue which probably most closely resembles a Lynchian fantasy night-club this side of the pond, but he is on film. His typically opaque introduction refers to Bell as a song-bird, but in truth, as she and her three-piece bar-band open with the thrusting bump and grind of Real Love, she's much more than that.

Jet-black apparelled, flame-haired and impossibly cheek-boned, Ms Bell presents a magnificently studied burlesque-style persona. It's her voice that matters, though, in a set of songs full of light and shade, but which in a live context transcend any notions of mere mood music. There's a dramatic and emotive stridency behind her singing, which leans towards an east European sensibility. As well as selections from Lynch's soundtracks, there are covers of Be-Bop-A-Lula and Baby, Please Don't Go, with Bell occasionally strapping on a big white guitar to complete her perfect ensemble.

One or two fawning references to Lynch too many makes one wonder exactly who's in control, especially when she announces a song which he apparently wouldn't allow to be on the album. Then, as she cuts loose on an old number from her Texas days, something wonderful happens. As the mask slips, we get a hint of who Chrysta Bell actually is beyond the dressing-up box, and it's an equally beguiling experience.

The Herald, May 24th 2013


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Thursday, 23 May 2013

The Importance of Being Earnest


Perth Theatre
3 stars
The circle of fancy chairs that adorn the stage beneath a displaced 
triangle of giant red roses that hang above them give off the air of a 
Victorian séance in waiting rather than a well-heeled bachelor pad. 
There's plenty of romantic life elsewhere, however,  in London Classic 
Theatre's touring revival of Oscar Wilde's classic romp of reinvention 
and acquired identity between town and country. Here young rakes 
Algernon and Jack's wooing of Cecily and Gwendolen becomes more an 
accidental if life-changing voyage of personal self-discovery than 
anything.

Michael Cabot's well turned out production, which stopped off for a 
one-night stand at Perth Festival prior to a week of Scottish dates, 
plays considerably with the politics of scale. Much of this is down to 
Paul Sandys' diminutive Jack, who here becomes more clown-like than 
dashing. As an orphan, his insecurity further allows Helen Keeley's 
taller and quasi-predatory Lady Bracknell in waiting, Gwendolen, to 
appear as though she could simply pop him into her pocket if she so 
chose to. This is in sharp contrast to the more straight-ahead form of 
courtship provided by Harry Livingstone's Algernon and Felicity 
Houlbrooke's Cecily.

Such exchanges as those between Jack and Gwendolen make for a much more 
heightened and modern Earnest than many heritage edition Wildes, even 
if sometimes they distract from the polished wit and wisdom of epigrams 
dressed up as dialogue. The fact that the show is all but stolen by 
Richard Stamp as Merriman, the increasingly perturbed looking butler, 
speaks volumes about a play in which its youthful lead quartet are 
merely trying identities on for size until they realise who they are.

The Herald, May 23rd 2013


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Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Caryl Churchill - Far Away (and Seagulls)


Caryl Churchill plays don't get done often in Scotland. The last main-stage production of the seventy-four year old iconoclast of British theatre was in 2004, when the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow presented her 1982 look at women in society, Top Girls. That production starred This Life's Daniela Nardini as a hard-nosed career woman who finds herself at the dinner table with some of the most iconic women in history. Before that we'd have to go back to 1997, when Max Stafford Clark's Out of Joint company, with whom Churchill has frequently worked, premiered Blue Heart at at the Traverse as part of the theatre's Edinburgh Festival Fringe season.

It's a welcome surprise then, to find the Citz reviving two of Churchill's shorter works on the main stage in a slot last year occupied by a similarly styled double bill by Samuel Beckett. Far Away and Seagulls may not be quite as elliptical as the two Becketts, but in terms of Churchill's audacious use of form, in the hands of Citizens artistic director Dominic Hill, they should prove equally captivating.

Far Away dates from 2000, and is set in a dystopian futurescape in which the whole world is at war. As a little girl grows into womanhood, the sheer scale of the ongoing annihilation gradually becomes frighteningly clear. Seagulls was written in 1978, and is about what happens to a woman who is able to move things with her mind when that mind starts to fade.

They're wonderful to work on,” says Hill. “When you've got writing that's so specific and clean, it's really rewarding picking them apart and keeping them exact and sharp. What's great about Far Away is you've got a writer writing predominately within what one thinks of as a naturalistic genre, but which is actually metaphorical and ultimately quite surreal in what it describes, but which also feels very modern. I'm very drawn to writers that go beyond the kitchen-sink. It's highly theatrical, but it's also very political, and deals very much with the world we're living in now.

Seagulls is just a beautiful piece of writing. It was written twenty-five years ago, but it feels very current. It's about celebrity and talent, and what can happen to talent when it's misused or abused or thrust into the spotlight. While it's still very much a product of its time in terms of gender politics, it also feels very modern. They're both small plays with big themes. There's a moment in Far Away in particular that's very big.”

After her early plays were produced on television and radio in the 1960s, Churchill first came to prominence in the 1970s, when she became resident dramatist at the Royal Court. This led to working with Stafford-Clark and his Joint Stock company and feminist collective, Monstrous Regiment. Churchill's first play to gain wider acclaim was Cloud Nine, a farce about sexual politics which arrived in 1979, a year after Seagulls.

Although fiercely political, her penchant for experimentation meant Churchill's work had never been didactic. Even so, arriving in the midst of Margaret Thatcher’s first term of office as Prime Minister, the parallels in Top Girls were plain to see.

Just putting eight or nine women onstage at the same time is very unusual in itself,” Daniela Nardini says of appearing in the 2004 revival of the play. “But it was almost like being involved in a song, the way she writes. There were never really any pauses. She'd use a slash as punctuation, so as soon as one person stopped speaking, another one would come in immediately, so it needed orchestrating.

I find the whole experience fascinating, and I learnt so much about these historical figures, which in itself was a wonderful concept, to have all these great women at a dinner party together.”

Churchill's focus on women hasn't met with universal approval, as Nardini remembers of some of the reactions to Top Girls.

Sometimes I feel, and I could be wrong, that a lot of the criticisms of the play I detected from audiences came from men. Maybe that's because Top Girls was so dominated by women, or maybe it's because she's a writer who speaks more to women.”

Whatever the answer, Churchill isn't saying. Over a fifty year writing career, which continues today, she has kept firmly off the publicity treadmill. Despite this lack of hype, her influence on the generations of playwrights who grew up in her wake remains unquestionable. Shopping and F****** author Mark Ravenhill recently curated a season of contemporary classic plays for BBC Radio 3 which was spearheaded by Churchill's 1976 piece, Light Shining In Buckinghamshire.

Such acknowledgements of Churchill's status as a pioneer aren't new, as a series of performed readings of Churchill's back-catalogue made clear in 2008 when they were presented at the Royal Court Theatre to in celebration of the Churchill's 70th birthday.

A reading of Far Away was directed by playwright Martin Crimp, whose own experiments with form are best seen in his play, Attempts on Her Life. Crimp's cast included Benedict Cumberbatch, who performed alongside Deborah Findlay and Hattie Morahan. For the Citizens production, Kathryn Howden and Maureen Carr will appear alongside the theatre's current young acting interns, Lucy Hollis and Alasdair Hankinson.

Also involved in the week of readings was Edinburgh-based playwright and director Zinnie Harris, who directed Churchill's 1994 play, The Skriker, about an ancient fairy who follows a pair of teenage mothers in various guises. Given her own experiments with form in plays such as The Wheel, it's no surprise to find that Harris is a fan of Churchill.

As an artist she is extraordinary,” Harris says. “If you think over the body of her work, no two Caryl Churchill plays are the same. Not even similar. Every Churchill play is an audacious theatrical experiment, challenging form and expectations again and again. But this isn't experimentation for its own sake, she uses this bold theatrical language to uncover and expose often painful truths, and its so skilfully achieved that audiences will go happily wherever she leads them.

Sometimes the surreal surprises you, sometimes it is there from the opening moment. I love her work for that. She is like a great banner waving to the rest of us, saying don't be lazy, keep pushing, let theatre take you to places we haven't dreamed of yet.”

Far Away (And Seagulls), Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, May 23rd-June 8th


Caryl Churchill – A Literary Life

1938 – Caryl Churchill is born in London

1958-62 – Early plays are produced by Oxford-based student theatre groups.

1962-72 – Several radio plays are produced by the BBC.

1972 – Owners, Churchill's first stage play, is produced in London.

1974-75 – Resident dramatist at the Royal Court, where her play, Objections To Sex and Violence, leads to collaborations with Joint Stock company and Monstrous Regiment.

1978 – Seagulls.

1982 – Top Girls – A look at women in power becomes Churchill's best known play.

1987 – Serious Money – The London stock market is scrutinised in a piece written in rhyming couplets which wins multiple awards.

2000 – Far Away.

2009 – Seven Jewish Children – a play for Gaza – A ten-minute litany written in response to the Israeli military strike in Gaza.

2012 – Love and Information – Churchill's most recent play, which looks at knowledge, technology and the need for feeling sells out the Royal Court before transferring to New York.

The Herald, May 21st 2013

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The Bear


Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
3 stars
It may begin with a growl and a roar behind a frosted-glass fronted cube, but by the time writer/performer Angela Clerkin and director Lee Simpson's quasi-autobiographical study of barely-repressed anger has offloaded some eighty minutes later, something even less cuddly has emerged. If that sounds like heavy weather, don't be too alarmed, as Clerkin's co-production with Improbable Theatre and Ovalhouse is infinitely playful to the point of being overloaded, throwing everything from faux noir stylings and 1970s political cabaret to murder mystery shenanigans and even a sudden burst of Irish dancing into the mix.

Dressed in a black lounge suit, Clerkin explains how a stint as an out of work actress turned solicitor's clerk led her on an after-hours adventure in search of the bear that a man on trial for murdering his wife claims is the actual guilty party. As she navigates her way through the big city jungle of Kilburn pubs with eccentric aunties, ambitious lawyers and mentally unstable witnesses, Clerkin turns detective, even as she falls prey to her own animal instincts while chasing her own tail.

Devised by Clerkin and Simpson from a short story penned by the pair, Clerkin has Guy Dartnell, a man twice her size, play all other parts as well as letting rip a slow blues. The result of all this, with notable in-put from Warhorse designer Rae Smith's all-purpose cube and Nick Powell's music is an appealingly quirky if slightly guddled self-reflexive piece of anger-management therapy dressed up as theatre. We all have a grizzly bear inside of us, Clerkin is saying, but brightly, and sometimes living with it can be murder.

The Herald, May 21st 2013

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Thursday, 16 May 2013

The Fall – Re-Mit (Cherry Red)


4 stars

Whoa-whoa-whoa, etc! Don't ever underestimate Mark E. Smith, The Fall's founder, writer, vocalist and sole surviving member since they formed thirty-five years ago. Some may dismiss him as a past his-best drunken parody of his former glories, and while live shows can be inconsistent to the point of umbrage, the hardest working man in showbiz is an agent provocateur and master of of social engineering whose singularly eccentric shtick falls somewhere between Bernard Manning, James Brown and Polish theatre director Tadeusz Kantor, the latter of whom made onstage interventions an art-form just as Smith does.

After years of hiring and firing a multitude of members, today's Fall has reached some kind of autumnal stability of sorts, with guitarist Peter Greenway, drummer Keiron Melling and bassist David Spurr surviving in the ranks since 2006, while keyboardist and Smith spouse Elena Poulou probably deserves a medal on all counts for lasting a whole decade.

While best witnessed in the live arena, there's a vigorous urgency to The Fall's thirtieth original studio album, named, apparently, after the need to put on gloves when going out. The opening instrumental shards of 'No Respects' is just the sucker punch for 'Sir William Wray', a relentless chug of imagined history which Smith gurgles his way through with a ferocity rarely heard since 1982's 'Hex Enduction Hour.'

While sticking to a raw garage-band template, the palette is broad, from the spoken-word of
'Noise' and sonic collage of 'Pre-MDMA Years' to the slow-motion horror flick psych of 'Hittite Man' and beyond. Lyrically, Smith is back to creating the sort of parallel universe narratives that fuelled his equally dark Hogarthian mythologies on 'Hex' and 1979's 'Dragnet' album.

While there are no real surprises here for long-term Fall watchers, there's a more considered artfulness to the musical back-drop. Poulou's keyboards in particular burble with a fizzing insistence that suggests an inter-band chemistry that's familiar without ever becoming flabby or complacent. 

The List, May 2013

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Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons - The Original Jersey Boys


When Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, it was vindication for a wide and varied career that took the New Jersey born singer from the high-pitched joie de vivre of early doo wop and rock and roll hits, to score unlikely favour with the 1970s Northern Soul scene, before singing the title track for the soundtrack of one of the most successful musical films ever made.

None of this might have happened if seven year old Francesco Stephen Castellucio had been taken by his mother to see another Frankie, with the second name of Sinatra, at the Paramount Theatre in New York. It was there and then that little Frankie recognised his destiny, and decided to pursue a singing career and become a star.

It would be another decade before Valli made his public debut, when he was asked up onstage for a guest spot by local act, The Variety Trio. The band included future Four Seasons Nick Macioci and Tommy DeVito, and once The Variety Trio disbanded, the pair became part of the house band at The Strand, in New Brunswick, with Valli on bass and vocals.

With a surname affectionately poached from Texas Jean Valley, his favourite singer, in 1953 the then Frankie Valley cut his debut single, My Mother's Eyes. Around this time, Valli and lead guitarist DeVito quit the Strand to form The Variatones, with former Variety Trio member Nick Macioci (now Nick Massi) joining on bass guitar and vocals after various line-up changes. In 1959, Bob Gaudio, formerly of The Royal Teens, joined on keyboards and tenor vocals, and by 1960s The Variatones had morphed first into The Four Lovers before finally settling as The Four Seasons, named after a New Jersey bowling alley they failed an audition for.

Working with producer Bob Crewe, The Four Seasons found their trademark sound, and scored their first number one hit in 1962 with Sherry. The song's mix of close harmony and a plaintive yearning was tailor-made for the teen market, and the band followed it up with a stream of million-selling hits, including Big Girls Don't Cry and Walk Like A Man, both of which were shot-through with their trademark sound.

Between the years 1962 and 1964, only The Beach Boys sold more records in America. Switching record labels, Valli and The Four Seasons maintained their popularity right through the 1960s Beat boom. At the same time, Valli had been recording and releasing solo material with varying degrees of success. It came as something of a surprise, then, when a 1966 single, You're Ready Now, was picked up by UK Northern Soul DJs.

 Northern Soul was a flamboyant dance-crazy scene operating in clubs mainly in the north of England, where the focus was on obscure records made by black American soul artists of the previous decade. Valli may have been a familiar name, but his background did him no harm, as the authentic floor-shaker crossed over to reach number eleven in the UK charts.

In 1975, with the Four Seasons still a popular live act, Valli had another change of style with My Eyes Adored You, and then, in 1978, came Grease. The original stage musical of what would go on to become one of the biggest musical film of all time was a loving homage to the era in which Valli and The Four Seasons came of age. The songs may not have been strictly rock and roll, but who better than to sing the theme song to the film than a genuine idol of the era.

Written by Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees, Grease the song more resembled a kind of disco-lite more than anything. No matter. It was a hit anyway. As for the rest of the Four Seasons, they too had a number one hit in 1975 with a Valli-free December 1963 (Oh What A Night), which also proved big on the disco scene.

Further hits followed, although it was only with the original line-ups' induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the world premiere of Jersey Boys in 1995 that one of the greatest vocal groups in American pop history began to receive the respect and acknowledgement they deserved.

There are many today who may only know Valli from his regular appearances as mobster Rusty Millio in acclaimed gangster drama, The Sopranos. While various incarnations of the Four Seasons – with and without Valli – have toured over the years, in it's way, The Sopranos too helped put Valli and the band back on the map. Coming from the tough neighbourhood that they did, it would have been easy for Valli and co to have fallen into real life gangsterism. As it is, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons produced some of the sweetest sounds of their generation, and the world loved them for it.

Commissioned as programme notes for the May 2013 UK tour of New Jersey Nights.

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As It Is

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
4 stars
On a bare stage seated beneath striplights, actor Damir Todorovic is wired up to a lie detector. Sitting opposite him is fellow performer Pauline Goldsmith, who wields a pen over the graph paper that charts Todorovic's responses to the questions she asks him about events preserved in a twenty-year old diary. The needles that judder into life with each response are subsequently beamed onto a large screen behind the pair, allowing the audience to scrutinise the possible fictions of their exchange. Serbian by birth, and well known to Scottish audiences from his appearances in several of Vanishing Point's large-scale works, Todorovic has already told us he was a soldier in the 1993 Balkan War, and wants to see if it's possible to live without lies.

Whether his line of inquiry succeeds or not depends on whether you believe some of the uncomfortable details which Goldsmith's interrogation throws up in what initially looks more like a psychological experiment than a piece of theatre. As Goldsmith's gimlet-eyed and increasingly stern line of questioning pushes Todorovic to account for actions which may or may not have happened, in the deathly quiet auditorium, it's no surprise that all eyes are on the screen as we await a simple yes or no.

Commissioned by the Belluard Bollwerk International Festival and presented in this English language version at the Tron by Vanishing Point as part of Mayfesto, Todorovic has created a tense, intense, discomforting and fascinating hour. In the end, whatever the truth of it, as it condenses drama down to the most basic conflict, it transcends the roots of Todorovic's story to make for a relentless and riveting experience.

The Herald, May 16th 2013

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#sleeptightbobbycairns


Tron Theatre, Glasgow
3 stars
What would happen if the revolution became reduced to a series of 
letter-writing parties that gathered the converted together under the 
guidance of the sort of perma-grinning cheerleader normally the 
preserve of high street charity muggers? Then what if it turned out 
that said cheer-leader had missed the point enough to be sidelined from 
the cause?

As an audience of ten or so 'pioneers' are ushered into a meeting room 
with name tags and enforced jollity intact, these are exactly the sort 
of questions being asked in director Rob Jones and writer Michael 
O'Neill's all too timely look at the politics of protest for a younger 
generation in a post-ideological age. Our hostess is Layla, the 
pyjama-clad evangelist for the Need Nothing movement led by the 
guru-like Sam, who wants everyone to move into a global village in 
Peru. Layla's nemesis is Councillor Robert Cairns, her former ally and 
inspiration, who now wants to counteract inner-city knife crime by 
imposing a 9pm curfew.

Aided by hapless assistant Brendan and a litany of meaningless feelgood 
twaddle, Millie Turner's Layla finds her original drive stymied by how 
the message has been diluted and cheapened by the sort of PR-driven 
approach that has left party politics with little credibility left to 
spin.

Developed for the Tron's Mayfesto season from a piece originally seen 
at Arches Live 2012, Jones' intimate production for the Enormous Yes 
company is a wordy dissection of how youthful idealism and the activism 
it inspires can be co-opted and corrupted by forces with more 
dangerously self-serving agendas. It may take things to absurd 
extremes, but the realpolitik behind it is all too plain to see.

The Herald, May 16th 2013

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Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Stephen Sutcliffe - Outwork


Tramway, Glasgow until June 30th
4 stars
One only has to look at the names on the spines of the books projected on the two large side-screens that flank a central one in Stephen Sutcliffe's large-scale film installation to get where he's coming from. Philosopher Jacques Derrida, semiotician Roland Barthes, a book of Christopher Logue poems and even a DVD of Shelagh Delaney-scripted, Albert Finney starring 1960s Brit-curio 'Charlie Bubbles' are all in there in a mash-up of post-modern pop cultural ephemera.

Drawn from Sutcliffe's personal archive of sound, broadcast and spoken-word recordings dating back to a childhood in which he clearly didn't get out much, Outwork was inspired by sociologist Erving Goffman's book, 'Frame Analysis' and was originally produced for the Margaret Tait Award. Beginning with hummed snatches of 'The Internationale' and ending with the opening guitar riff of 'Gloria', Sutcliffe juxtaposes little documentary glimpses of iconic figures including absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco, and a grainy kidnap narrative seen through security cameras with plummy-vowelled voice-overs, snoring noises off and even an appearance by Sutcliffe himself.

The projected captions for each brief section of this extended cut-up lend a further Brechtian distancing effect to a series of unreliable narratives akin to the sort of hobbyist tape recording clubs that embraced lo-fi technology in the 1960s. The result of such a line of performance-based inquiry is a haunting meditation on how the familiar can be reimagined in a fair to middling world where beginnings have no end.

The List, May 2013

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Ciara Phillips – And More


Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, until June 23rd
3 stars
X marks the spot in Inverleith House's latest show in which a contemporary artist responds to work in the RBG's Archival holdings of botanical-based art. Arriving just in time for the sun to belatedly shine, and running alongside 'Nature Printed', featuring actual examples from the RBG collection, Canadian-born, Glasgow-based Ciara Phillips beams down a series of groovy-looking screenprints brandishing vivid colour blocks that gets back to nature in homage to publications by eighteenth century nature printer Johannes Kniphof. Amidst the abstractions, there are blurry archive images of hourglasses and lush, lime-coloured landscape splodges amidst the flora and fauna.

The show's centrepiece finds the gallery's central column of walls wallpapered with sa blanket of watery, ice-blue and white prints, on top of which is draped a banner-like large-scale print of two yellow pencils, crossed like swords. While referenced in several smaller works, here, fully-sharpened and rubbered-up, the pencils appear to be prepared to repel all boarders. It's a triumphal-looking flag of convenience one could readily imagine blowing in the wind. 

The List, May 2013

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Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Kora - Tom McGrath's Classical Heroine Returns To Dundee


When a woman called Coralie turned up at Dundee Rep's box office to say that the theatre's next production was about her, the company sat up and took notice. The late Tom McGrath's play, Kora, after all, is set in a Dundee housing estate where a community fight against the local authorities attempts to decamp the residents out of their homes ids led by a powerful matriarchal figure whose home is bursting at the seams with her offspring.

Nicholas Bone, director of the Magnetic North company, who are co-producing Kora with the Rep, and actress Emily Winter, who plays the title role in a play first seen at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre in 1986 before being revived a year later in Dundee, met Coralie. The result was what Bone describes as “a slightly surreal hour, spending time with this woman who Tom met almost thirty years ago, and based this whole play on. It was hearing from her what's true and what's not true in the play, but then you have to put it to one side and carry on working on it without thinking about it.

“She said she has a whole load of friends who didn't know anything about the play, and obviously her life's moved on a lot since it was first done. In the play she had five sons, though in real life she only had four, although she eventually did have another one. There were a couple of big changes Tom made, but she seemed very open to that, and I can imagine her and Tom getting on very well.”

Given its themes and the period it is set and was written in, it's all too fitting that the first day of rehearsals for Bone's revival of Kora was on the day that former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's death was announced.

“That was a bit weird,” Bone admits, “because the play is set over a two-year period between 1982 and 1984, and there's no mention of Thatcher or anything else that was happening in the rest of the country, there's a political edge to it. It's about people trying to take control of their circumstances and their lives and change things, and not succeeding in what they set out to do, but discovering things about themselves. That's something that doesn't change. There are always people trying to change things, and thirty years on, in another recession, it feels like a lot of the same stuff is going on. The bizarre thing for me, being a person of a certain age, discovering that the 1980s is now a period. What was a contemporary play when it was first done is now a period piece.”

McGrath wrote Kora after initially being commissioned to make a BBC TV documentary about women in adversary. McGrath was put on to Coralie and a group of people attempting to execute change in their community. By the time he decided he wanted to make the film about her, however, it had been cancelled, and Kora was re-born as a stage play.

McGrath passed away in 2009 following a mercurial and polymathic career as poet, playwright, pianist and founding director of two of Glasgow's great arts spaces in the form of the Third Eye Centre, which morphed into the CCA, and Glasgow Theatre Club, which became the Tron. Outside of his two best known works, Laurel and Hardy and The Hardman, the latter written with Jimmy Boyle, McGrath's plays have had few revivals.

While McGrath's role as an artistic catalyst has quite rightly been celebrated via the setting up of the Tom McGrath Trust, which gives small amounts of funding to projects which may not sit easily in other funding strands, his importance as a writer himself is something Bone stresses.

“It's partly the work he did with other playwrights,” he says, “but I think it's to do with form. Tom experimented with all these different styles, and I think it's something to do with that experimentation. He brought his influences in music and his background in jazz and poetry really infects his writing, and I think it's that freedom to experiment in form had had an effect on lots of people who worked with him or saw his work.”

Bone and Magnetic North seem as natural a fit for Kora as it does the play being presented in Dundee. When McGrath was still alive, Bone's company ended up producing three new plays by him, The Dream Train, Safe Delivery and the quasi-autobiographical My Old Man. Following Kora and a major revival of The Hardman a couple of years ago, Bone would like to see further neglected gems from McGrath's back catalogue revisited.

While McGrath's science-fiction play, The Android Circuit, and his semi-autobiographical account of the 1960s counter-culture, The Innocent, both spring to mind, Bone would like to see a restaging of McGrath's 1979 epic, Animal. Set in a jungle and with a large cast playing a community of apes, with all the sound-poetry-like array of grunts, squeaks and squawks that entails.

“It would be an extraordinary play to do,” says Bone, “Even now it seems very pertinent about humans and animals, and about society, but it would have to be on such a huge scale, with people being monkeys. It's such an extraordinary conception.”

With such a sprawling back-catalogue, Kora sounds like an uncharacteristically documentary piece for McGrath, a writer who, aside from his enabling role as Scotland's literary director, managed to fuse a love of popular music hall with a 1960s counter-cultural aesthetic, think again.

“Tom's laid this other story on top of it,” Bone reveals, “which it took me a while. The last line of the play is a very unusual way to end on if you read it as a piece of documentary theatre, which is what I was reading it as at first. On first reading it almost seemed like a verbatim piece, which is very different to the music hall theatricality that there is in Tom's other plays. But there was something about the ending, and I did some research, and the penny finally dropped that also there was a character from Greek mythology, who was goddess of the cornfield, and was this image of fertility. So on one level its a straightforward kitchen-sink play about a woman living in a council flat on a scheme in Dundee, but on another, it's this thing about hope, and that life has to carry on.”

Kora, Dundee Rep, May 21st-June 7th


Tom McGrath – A Literary Life

1960s – Decamping to London, McGrath edited Peace News and International Times, and tread poetry alongside Allen Ginsberg at the Royal Albert Hall.

1972 – Back in Glasgow, McGrath is musical director on The Great Northern Welly Boot Show, which made Billy Connolly a star.

1973 – McGrath becomes the 1st artistic director of the Third Eye Centre.

1976 – McGrath's first play, Laurel and Hardy, premieres at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre.

1978 – Science-fiction play, The Android Circuit, appears.

1979 – McGrath writes The Hardman, based on the life of convicted murderer turned artist, Jimmy Boyle. Animal and The Innocent also premiere.

1986 – Kora.

1987 – McGrath is appointed associate literary Director for Scotland, a post which will eventually sire playwright's Studio Scotland.

1992 – Merlin, a translation (with Ella Wildridge) of Tankred Dorst's two-part epic appears at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh.

1995 – Stones and Ashes, a translation of Quebecois writer Daniel Danis' play, premieres.

2005 – My Old Man, the last of three plays produced by Magnetic North, appears.

The Herald, May 13th 2013


ends

Monday, 13 May 2013

Over The Wire


Tron Theatre, Glasgow
4 stars
It looks like the end of the world in Seamus Keenan's blistering new 
play, which Derry Playhouse brought to the Tron's Mayfesto season last 
week. Either that or some latter-day social experiment for reality TV 
or a venue for extreme sports. In fact, the barbed-wire topped cage 
that confines five men in what looks like a burnt-out scrap-yard is a 
dead-ringer for Long Kesh in 1974 after the County Down-based prison's 
IRA prisoners torched it during riots.

The five men now appear to occupy some approximation of a Beckettian 
wasteland, in which they attempt to keep up a notion of army 
discipline, even as they survive on scraps while sleeping in the most 
makeshift of shelters. Three of them, Barry, Colin?? and pretty-boy 
Dutch are volunteers. Dee is notional leader, with Lucas his brutal 
number two. Beyond the macho banter and dedication to the cause, the 
claustrophobic living conditions create an uneasy tension that turns to 
suspicion, paranoia and inevitable violence.

Making an overdue return to his theatrical roots after a successful 
career making gritty TV and film, director Kenny Glenaan captures the 
full light and shade messiness of the situation the men find themselves 
in. Scenes are short, sharp and sometimes shocking, with Keenan's 
script illustrating the pains of confinement with a gimlet-eyed lack of 
sentimentality devastatingly portrayed by a fine ensemble cast. Seen up 
close in the Tron's tiny Changing House space, such relentless 
intensity also captures the ideological civil war of the period in all 
it's merciless brutality. If you treat men like animals, it suggests, 
that's how they'll behave when they fight back.

The Herald, May 13th 2013

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Friday, 10 May 2013

Be Silent or Be Killed


Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh
3 stars
A banker from Macduff makes for an unlikely action hero, yet when Roger 
Hunt got caught up in a terrorist raid on his Mumbai hotel in 2008, 
that's exactly what he became. Not an action hero in the conventional 
sense, but, as he endured forty hours alone with only his thoughts and 
a series of text messages to keep him going, his sense of 
self-preservation became an inspiration.

Writers Euan Martin and Dave Smith and director Ian Grieve have taken 
Hunt's story of human bravery and turned it into a tense hour-long 
thriller based on Hunt's book of the same name written with Kenny Kemp. 
It opens with Roger, as played by James Mackenzie, about to give a 
presentation on his experiences. Within seconds, however, Roger is back 
in his hotel room where he takes refuge, texting his wife Irene and 
assorted lifelines for help while he hides out.

Much of the latter is done via John McGeoch's set of fast-track video 
images projected onto the stage set's back wall, with Mackenzie silent 
much of the time. Only when Roger's life flashes back to his first 
meeting with Irene or to the ghost of his dead brother does he say more 
than a few words.

With it's flashy visuals pulsed by Dave Martin's burbling electronic 
sound design, Grieve's production for the Forres-based Right lines 
Productions in association with Eden Court, Inverness,  resembles the 
sort of urgent TV dramas that sprang up on the back of 24. With Helen 
Mackay and Ewan Donald playing all other parts, this is an ambitiously 
realised and refreshingly unliterary adaptation of an all too real life 
and death story.

The Herald, May 10th 2013

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Thursday, 9 May 2013

Michael Frayn - Noises Off


Two weeks ago, playwright Michael Frayn was given a special Olivier award for a body of dramatic work which over the last forty years has quietly become an essential part of Britain's artistic fabric. This week, a touring production of his 1982 farce par excellence, Noises Off, that originated at the Old Vic, is playing in Aberdeen prior to dates in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Frayn himself has been on the literary festival circuit, giving readings to coincide with the publication of his most recent novel, Skios.

All of these events in different ways go some way to illustrating Frayn's relationship with public life, be it at an awards ceremony in a room full of high-class thespians, entertaining literary groupies, or, in Noises Off, lampooning the world he is both part of and outside with an astonishing theatrical skill which has made it one of the most popular plays in the world.

Noises Off is set in the the world of low-rent touring theatre in which a badly penned farce is being performed by a cast of trouser-dropping ex TV stars on the way down and scantily-clad wannabe starlets believing they're very much on the way up. The trick here is that while the first act focuses on the play's shambolic dress rehearsal, the second is set a month later, with the same act being performed, only viewed from the increasingly calamitous backstage area, where tensions between the company are running high. The final act sees the same act performed yet again, only towards the end of the tour, with all the accrued fall-outs and disasters riotously in evidence in a hilarious case of life imitating art imitating life.

With this tour featuring former star of Drop the Dead Donkey Neal Pearson alongside a cast that includes Scotland's Maureen Beattie, there should be slickness guaranteed. Even after thirty years, however, while he's happy to leave the cast and director Lindsay Posner to their own devices, Frayn still gives a pep talk on the first day of rehearsals.

“I always give a speech about health and safety,” he says, “because lots of actors hurt themselves doing this play, and in a way the play is quite unfair on actors, because it's such a grotesque portrayal of them. In actual fact, actors are all about collaboration and helping each other out. I know that's not what a lot of people think of them, but in general I really think actors are fantastically creative people.”

The roots of Noises Off date back to Frayn's first ever professional work in 1970, when four one-act plays for two actors were performed by Lynn Redgrave and Richard Briers under the umbrella title of The Two of Us.

“One of the plays was a farce,” he recalls, “and because farce is all about finding people in compromising positions, you need more than two characters in it. Lynn and Richard played five characters between them, and one night I was watching from backstage, and became fascinated watching them come offstage for all these quick changes. That was when I thought it would be interesting to do a farce from behind.”

An early oner-act version, Exits, was performed in 1977, but it was another five years before the full-length Noises Off went into production. Since then, Frayn has tweaked the script several times, although he remains cautious about overplaying his hand.

“Whenever you make a change in one section, it changes something in all the others,” he says. “It's like trying to make a statue out of jelly.”

Nowhere was this more evident than during rehearsals for the play's very first production at the Lyric, Hammersmith, when director Michael Blakemore told Frayn he'd do the best he could, but he didn't know if it would work.

“Every day at rehearsals his face got greyer and greyer,” Frayn remembers.

The first night went well, and on the second the cast realised they had a hit on their hands when when the curtain was held because the queue for tickets was so large. Blakemore's production ran with five successive casts, and the play went on to win a Tony award on Broadway.

“When it was first done, people said it would be alright to do it in England, because we're used to English sex farce,” says Frayn, “but nowhere else has that , so we wouldn't be able to tour it anywhere else. I think now it's been done all over the world.”

How these productions have fared won't have been helped by recent discoveries found in the play's published text.

“When Lindsay Posner started working on it, we realised there were a few mistakes in the published text,” Frayn says. “At one point it says that somebody exits to the bedroom, and then when they come back on it says they enter from the bathroom. What directors working on the play around the world made of that I don't know.”

In 1992, Noises Off was made into a film by veteran Hollywood director Peter Bogdanovitch. While the likes of Michael Caine, Denholm Elliot and Marilu Henner made a decent fist of things, and while Frayn clearly retains a fondness for it, it never quite captured the brio of the stage version.

“I think they made a good job of it,” Frayn says, “but it's an inherently theatrical piece, and you have to feel some sense of that danger that exists with farce, where you feel things might ho wrong. On film, you know nothing can ho wrong, so that slightly takes the edge of things.”

Of his other recent activities, Frayn sounds wonderfully amused by the experiences. Concerning his book festival tour, he notes that “There are an astonishing number of these events. How can the country possibly support so many literary festivals? They seem to be the only part of the economy that does well.”

As for his Olivier award, “If you can manage to stay alive, then you're going to get one eventually,” Frayn dryly notes.

One thing that has stood out with Frayn's work is how different it all is. From Noise Off, he went into writing a series of translations of Chekhov's plays. Arguably Frayn's other best known play is 1998's Copenhagen, which imagined what might have happened at a meeting in 1941 between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, and the ramifications on the Second World War in terms of the atomic bomb. Yet, despite their differences, all three deal with wildly complex plot structures to make their point.

“The only advice I can give to a younger writer is to keep on repeating themselves,” the seventy-nine year old says with more than a hint of mischief. “Change the name, and make it slightly different, but basically you should keep writing the same thing. Why shouldn't audiences want something predictable? It's like cornflakes. If you but a box of cornflakes, it's because you like cornflakes, and because you don't want anything different. It's much easier to do that.

“Unfortunately,” he says, “I've never been able to do that. The only way I can write things is to wait for an idea to form and then write it down, and it seems that all my ideas come out different.”

Noises Off, His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen until Saturday; Kings Theatre, Glasgow, May 27-June1; Kings Theatre, Edinburgh, June 4-8.

Michael Frayn – A Literary Life

1962-67 - Michael Frayn spent his early adulthood working as a reporter on the Guardian and the Observer. The best of his articles were reprinted in four volumes, beginning with The Day of the Dog in 1962.

1965 – Frayn's first novel, the Tin Men, wins the Somerset Maugham Award.

1970 – The Two of Us, four plays for two actors, announces Frayn's arrival as a dramatist.

1977 – Two plays, Alphabetical Orders and Donkey Years, both win best comedy awards.

1982 – Noises Off premieres.

1983 – Frayn translates Three Sisters, the first of several Chekhov translations.

1998 – Copenhagen, which imagines a real life meeting between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in 1941 wins four best play awards.

2003 – Democracy, a play based on the real life events concerning West German chancellor Willy Brandt's decision to expose his secretary, Gunter Guillaume, as a Communist spy, opens.

2008 – Frayn's most recent play, Afterlife, about Austrian theatre director Max Reinhardt, premieres at the National Theatre. In the same year as his twenty-ninth play appears, , a book of Frayn's writings on theatre and introductions to his plays, Stage Directions, is published.


The Herald, May 9th 2013

ends

Love Letters


Dundee Rep
3 stars
In these hi-tech days of texting, sexting and social media immediacy, 
it's hard to credit the power of an old-fashioned hand-written love 
letter and the yearningly painful gaps between each exchange. This 
probably wasn't what American playwright AR Gurney was thinking when he 
penned this Pulitzer Prize nominated two-hander about two people who 
retain an intimacy across half a century of billets-doux, but it does 
explain its popularity.

So, however, does the play's status as a star vehicle, as many of those 
who packed the theatre to see former Dempsey and Makepeace TV double 
act and real life husband and wife Michael Brandon and Glynis Barber in 
action would no doubt bear witness to. Not that there's much action, as 
the pair sit at separate tables to give voice to the life-long romance 
between the dependably dull Andrew and the more mercurially 
self-destructive Melissa.

 From the moment Andrew accepts an invitation to Melissa's second grade 
birthday party, a bond is formed between them that moves from teenage 
flirtation to  bad marriages to other people and beyond. In a classic 
portrait of opposites attracting, where Andrew turns to law, then 
politics, Melissa becomes a successful artist until her fragile state 
of being finally gives up the ghost.

While affecting enough in Ian Talbot's production set against a stage 
wall image of skyscrapers at night, as Brandon and Barber move from the 
pair's initial juvenalia to the everyday tragedies of their later 
years, it's more reading than theatre. Only in the last twenty minutes 
do sparks really start to fly in a sad and funny portrait of an affair 
that only latterly went beyond the words that defined it.

The Herald, May 9th 2013

ends 

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Jamie Harrison - Pulling The Strings on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory


Jamie Harrison is in the middle of the technical rehearsal for the new 
show which the co-founder of Vox Motus Theatre company has the 
wonderful job title of Puppet and Illusion Designer. As a member of the 
Magic Circle, Harrison has frequently applied his skills on such Vox 
Motus shows as Slick and The Infamous Brothers Davenport, as well as on 
the National Theatre of Scotland's version of Peter Pan. While all 
these were ambitiously realised large-scale works, the new musical 
stage version of Roald Dahl's fantastical novel, Charlie and the 
Chocolate Factory, is something else again.

Set to open in the heart of London's west end, the show is an 
international co-production between James Bond director Sam Mendes' 
Neal Street Productions, Warner Brothers Theatre Ventures and Langley 
Park Pictures. It stars Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka, the eccentric 
owner of a chocolate factory who hides  five golden tickets in random 
bars which will change the lives of the children who find them forever.

While the story has been filmed  twice since it was first published in 
1964, once with Gene Wilder in 1971, then again with Johnny Depp in 
2005, this will be the first time it has been brought to life onstage. 
Mendes and co have not only enlisted the services of Harrison from 
Scotland's theatre scene, but commissioned leading Scottish playwright 
David Greig to write the book, with music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman 
and Scott Wittman.

One of Harrison's main responsibilities will be to bring Willy Wonka's 
slightly creepy helpers, the Oompah Loompahs, to life. Exactly how he 
does this he can't reveal. Given that the show's technical rehearsal 
that he's in the thick of is scheduled to last a mammoth five weeks, 
one should probably expect something spectacular.

“It's an organic process,” is all he'll say.

Harrison says he owes his tenure on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 
to David Greig. It was Greig who penned the NTS version of Peter Pan, 
for which Harrison worked on the show's illusions, with particular 
focus on bringing Tinkerbell to life. Harrison's concept was one of the 
show's successes, and Greig suggested his name to Mendes and the myriad 
of producers behind Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Harrison worked 
on two development weeks in London, where representatives of both 
Warner Brothers and the Dahl estate were in attendance.

“Then I got a phone call,” Harrison remembers, “and was told that 'We'd 
like to firm up our commitment to you as oner of the creative team', 
and that was that.”

Suggest to Harrison that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the 
biggest thing he's done, and he's not initially convinced.

“Well, it depends on how you look at it, “ he says before pausing a 
moment. “Yes, it is,” he reconsiders. “Everyone here has won Olivier 
awards and all sorts of other awards, so the first few days were really 
quite terrifying. There are departments working on this show that I've 
never discovered before. There's a wig department, and an automation 
department, which is really important to the show, but in terms of 
resources I've never seen anything like it.”

Harrison first became interested in all things magical when, as a 
child, he damaged his knee badly enough to be confined indoors.

“One of my friend's mums bought me a magic set,” he remembers, “and I 
practiced and practiced with it. Then I went to see a magician called 
Martin Duffy, who's been active on the circuit in the north-east of 
England for more than twenty years, and at the end of the show  showed 
him some tricks.”

Such precocity paid off, and the next thing Harrison knew he was taking 
a phone call from ITV Saturday morning children's show, Gimme Five. He 
went on, performed live, and “got the bug.”

By the time he was fourteen, Harrison was performing his magic act at 
children's parties, and, aged seventeen, was contracted to tour a huge 
hotel chain in Asia for four months.

“The first two months were great,” he says. “I spent a lot of time in 
Thailand, but after four months I was tired of travelling.”

Harrison was also becoming aware of some of the limitations of his 
chosen artform in terms of other ideas he was waking up to.

“Some of the best magic can be political,” he says, “but most magic 
doesn't do that. I had things I wanted to say. I wanted to work with 
other people, and I wanted to do things that were important. I still 
love magic. At the highest level it can be utterly transcendent, but 
theatre was where I wanted to be.”

Harrison went to drama school, Where he met Candice Edmunds, and the 
idea for Vox Motus was born. Since then, the company has developed into 
one of the most stylistically inventive company's around.

“We wanted to engage with theatre as a three-dimensional space,” 
Harrison says of the Vox Motus aesthetic, “and do things that you can't 
do on television or in film. We want to explore that space, and do 
things with it, like turn a shed into all these different things. 
That's what we think is really exciting, and we can draw on magic, 
illusion or whatever it takes to make that happen.”

Harrison recently spent some time observing iconic Canadian theatre 
director Robert Lepage rehearsing with his Ex Machina company. As has 
been seen whenever he's brought his work to Scotland, Lepage is himself 
a master of illusion who works on a grand scale. Harrison  was 
particularly impressed with the fact that the company would rehearse 
with a full set and technical support from day one.

“That's something Candice and I are working towards in the long term,” 
he says. “The benefits of working like that are just enormous.”

In the meantime, Harrison has Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to 
contend with.
“It's a visual feast,” Harrison promises of the new production, “but 
it's the narrative that makes it. It's a story about a young boy who 
has nothing but love in his life, and through his own virtue he 
inherits his dream. But it's a funny thing, just talking to people 
about it, it splits the audience who they project themselves onto. Some 
project themselves onto Charlie, and there's some who empathise more 
with Wonka. But with these two beautiful characters, it's hard not to 
fall in love with them both.”

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, 
previews from May 16th
www.CharlieandtheChocolateFactory.com

The Herald, May 7th 2013

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The Price of Everything


Tron Theatre, Glasgow
4 stars
A pint of milk costs fifty-one pence. Body parts can be bought and sold 
for far greater sums. But how much would an air guitar go for on ebay? 
Or an imaginary friend? Think about those last two questions for a 
minute, and you should realise the sheer absurdity of a market-led 
economy in recessionary times. Writer/performer Daniel Bye has, and has 
woven his findings into this quietly utopian performance lecture, which 
he brought to the Tron's Mayfesto season for one night only on Sunday 
night.

With just a power-point presentation, a chair and enough bottles of 
milk to give everyone in the audience a glass, Bye serves up and 
dissects the facts and figures behind our money-driven society before 
offering up an idealistic alternative which just might work. This comes 
in the form of a shaggy-dog story about finding a twenty pound note on 
a train, which leads to Bye and a stranger in a Garfield t-shirt 
founding a free milk bar which further inspires a cash-free society to 
be founded in a network of abandoned shop-fronts.

  Bye is an engagingly down to earth and self-deprecatory raconteur, but 
make no mistake. These are revolutionary ideas he's advocating in the 
friendliest way imaginable. They're ideas too which a lot more people 
are looking to as capitalism becomes increasingly untenable.

It's not known whether the UK Secretary of State for Culture, Media and 
Sport Maria Miller has seen Bye's show or not, but perhaps she and her 
front-bench colleagues might wish to buy a ticket. Even better, Bye 
could maybe perform it in parliament itself. Now that really would be 
priceless.

The Herald, May 7th 2013

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Bandages

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
4 stars
June and Jane live in a world of their own in Kirsty Housley's curious 
new play, directed by herself for Teg Productions and the Corn 
Exchange, Newbury for last week's brief Mayfesto run. According to the 
shock-horror headlines, outside there's a serial killer on the loose 
attacking young women just like them. Even a quick trip to the 
supermarket for a pint of milk becomes a potential murder scene. 
Inside, the two siblings are safe, seemingly mirror images of each 
other, who dress identically and role-play their mother's rape by a 
butcher and their own subsequent birth. When Bob comes calling with 
ice-cream for June, the games become a lot more dangerous and a whole 
lot closer to home.

Set in a wooden box full of assorted sized flaps that open out onto the 
big bad world outside and wallpapered to clash with June and Jane's 
flowery frocks, Bandages takes the dark iconography of big-screen 
psycho-sexual schlock-fests and turns them on their head. June and Jane 
are damaged, both by their family history and their own insular 
co-dependence, and the bloody conclusion provoked by Bob's appearance 
has been an accident waiting to happen.

In what is essentially a post-modern gothic chamber piece first 
developed at the National Theatre Studio, any slide into melodrama is 
body-swerved by the eccentricities of both play and production.
Bernadette Russell and Sarah Thom's playing style as the sisters and 
Henry Miller's as Bob veers towards a very English form of cut-glass 
live art archness that resembles the knowing black comedy of The League 
of Gentlemen. Bandages too is a strange and troubling little oddity 
that might also be a cult in waiting.

The Herald, May 7th 2013

ends

Jukebox


Tron Theatre, Glasgow
3 stars
Nothing can unite the body politic quite like music, even as listening 
to it or playing it remains an intensely personal experience. Such 
notions are the back-bone of Ankur Productions' charming look at 
pan-Indian identity through the eyes, words and, above all, songs of 
those who left their homeland for Glasgow, and the younger generation 
they sired.

In what is part concert, part oral history, some fourteen community 
performers of all ages tell their stories, both on film and in the 
flesh. As they relate their tales of exile and arranged marriages on 
the one hand, and facing the Glasgow cold at the 'Barras on the other, 
the result of Shabina Aslam's Mayfesto production, which sees the cast 
perched on a network of white-painted boxes, is a crucial mash-up of 
traditional Indian mores fused with a brash contemporaneity.

While the older women sport saris as they talk of a time before 
Bollywood had been named thus, the younger ones wear baseball caps, 
t-shirts and bling, complaining that the older garb is itchy. As a 
young girl relates the story of someone who came to Glasgow more than 
forty years ago, however, as she talks in first person, the importance 
of such hand-me-down experiences becomes clear.

Ultimately, Jukebox is a modest but lovingly realised evocation of 
community, and of forming a new one whilst retaining links with the one 
that's been left behind. In this way, it stresses the importance of 
retaining a deep-rooted sense of identity, even as you integrate with 
another culture. The fact that such stories are not just being 
preserved, but are having fresh life breathed into them, makes for a 
fascinating and moving hour.

The Herald, May 7th 2013

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