Friday, 29 November 2013

Limbo

St Andrew's Square, Edinburgh
Four stars
When alternative cabaret came in out of the cold and went glossy a couple of decades ago, the mainstream it moved into saw audiences lap up its hybrid form. So it is with Scott Maidment's latest compendium of new circus novelty, which follows on from 2012 hit, Cantina, and which has just played a five month season on London's South Bank. Brought to Edinburgh by Underbelly Productions, and housed in a Spiegeltent as part of their Edinburgh's Christmas programme, Limbo is a sexy mix of gymnastic set-pieces performed by a nine-strong troupe, who include a live band led by New York multi-instrumentalist, Sxip Shirey.

It is a white-suited and wild-haired Shirey who acts as ringmaster of what is effectively an international supergroup, who perform on a tiny stage at the centre of the Spiegeltent. Shirey uses human beat-box magic to draw from the aisles the rubber-limbed Jonathan Nosan, a man who can lick his own boots with his leg wrapped round his neck, and will later appear to impale himself.

There is some incredible hand-balancing from Danik Abishev, male pole-dancing from Mikael Bres and a breath-taking ensemble sway pole sequence that delights and terrifies in equal measure. Don't be fooled into thinking that female performers Heather Holliday and Eveyne Allard are mere decoration, despite their titillating presence in a couple of one-line sketches. Holliday transforms fire eating and sword swallowing into an erotic art, while Allard's aerial routine is a dizzying show of physical strength as much as grace.

The Herald, November 29th 2013


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Thursday, 28 November 2013

Christopher Fairbank - A Christmas Carol

When Susan Boyle told Christopher Fairbank that he could sing, it was unexpected praise for the actor still most recognised for his role as fire-raising Scouse builder Moxey in Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais' builders abroad comedy drama, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. In the midst of rehearsing Scrooge for a festive production of A Christmas Carol at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, Fairbank had arrived early one Saturday morning to find director Andrew Panton standing outside. As a silver Mercedes pulled up beside them, who should step out of the passenger seat but Ms Boyle herself.

Fairbank followed the pair up to the rehearsal room, and offered them a cup of tea. When he took the hot beverage to them, Panton was playing the piano to accompany Boyle going through her scales. Panton, who is Boyle's musical director on her forthcoming Christmas album, sang a thank you to Fairbank, who sang back his own thanks.

“You can certainly hold a note,” joked SuBo.

“Yes,” Fairbank quipped back, “but I think it's just the one.”

Sprawled on a sofa sporting anorak and trainers and with a West Ham United woolly hat beside him, Fairbank is full of stories like this. These stretch back over fifty years, to his first ever stage performance, when he appeared in a primary school production of Paddington Bear. Then, Fairbank saved the day after a fellow pupil dried and he improvised a line that would get both of them offstage. Fairbank continued acting while a teenager at boarding school, where, on declaring his desire to act professionally, he was informed by a master that 'the profession is riddled with drug addicts, alcoholics and homosexuals.' “Two out of three ain't bad,” was Fairbank's response. By mutual agreement between the school's headmaster and his parents, Fairbank was eventually asked to leave.

A teenage conviction for possession of marijuana saw Fairbank put on probation for two years, when he opted to stay in a Liverpool hostel. Still only seventeen, he became involved with the city's Unity Theatre, where he performed in John McGrath's play, Events While Guarding The Bofors Gun and John Arden's Live Like Pigs. A post drama school stint in weekly rep left Fairbank disillusioned, and, after nine months at sea, Fairbank drifted towards counter-cultural Mecca, The Roundhouse. It was here that comedian and Fairbank's occasional busking partner Chris Lynam pointed out maverick director, Ken Campbell. Campbell was putting together his epic nine hour staging of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's epic science-fiction conspiracy trilogy, Illuminatus!

“Ken told me to read the books and tell him what part I wanted to play,” Fairbank remembers.

The experience of performing Illuminatus! in a converted warehouse turned hippy cafe/arts lab known as the Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun with the company Campbell styled as the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool changed Fairbank's life, and almost certainly enabled him to tackle such an iconic role as Scrooge.

“He's an awesome character,” says Fairbank of Charles Dickens' quintessential miser. “The challenge is finding the line between really going down to the depths of what Scrooge has become, and remembering that it's a Christmas show.

“You have to base all that in truth, and I think what do have going for me is my age. I cracked sixty last month, and, given all the things that Scrooge is faced with, without being absolutely literal about it, I think it's fair to say I've had my fair share of ups and downs, and been round the block more than once, so I haven't got to act anything beyond my experience.”

That experience arguably began with Illuminatus!, which reinvented the rules of theatre, and became a smash hit sensation that featured the likes of Jim Broadbent and Bill Nighy in the cast. Illuminatus! went on to open the Cottesloe in the then newly built National Theatre on London's South Bank.

“I've never experienced anything like it before or since,” says Fairbank. “Ken was the answer to a prayer, and opened me up to so many things. My ideas about being an actor and the sort of work I wanted to do, it all came together during that time. That year I spent with Ken, I look back on it as the greatest year professionally that I've ever had.”

In the years following Illuminatus!, Fairbank fell out with Campbell after accepting a TV role in a Sunday afternoon Dickens adaptation, and was sacked by the Royal Shakespeare Company shortly before being cast in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. The latter stabilised a career that has seen Fairbank become a familiar face on film and in television.

A Christmas Carol marks Fairbank's third stint at the Lyceum, following on from the theatre's 2009 production of Sam Shepard's Curse of the Starving Class, as well as a turn in The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh in 2012. It's interesting to note that animals featured in both shows, with a live sheep onstage in the former, and a (fake) dead cat in the latter. These tie in with another show in Fairbank's early days, when he took part in Campbell's post Illuminatus! play, The End is Nigh, and shared the stage with a pair of pigs.

“I think that was the beginning of Ken's obsession with ventriloquism,” says Fairbank, “which went on to give Nina Conti such a glittering career. You had all these great long speeches, and Ken would be shouting, 'I don't wanna see anyone's lips move!'.”

Fairbank's face contorts as he launches into an ear-piercingly accurate impression of Campbell. His uncanny skill for mimicry goes some way to explaining his frequent voice-overs for assorted animations and computer games.

Fairbank's last saw Campbell when the pair performed a marathon week-long live reading of the entire three books of The Illuminatus trilogy on web-based radio station, Resonance FM. With Campbell narrating, Fairbank played several hundred characters, each with a different voice.

While only one voice will be required for Scrooge, Fairbank remains conscious of not taking things too far.

“Kids love a villain,” he says, “just as long as they know they're safe, but the minute I hear crying, seats flipping up and parents taking their children away because they might be traumatised for life, that's when I'll know we need to lighten up a bit.”

A Christmas Carol, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, November 28th-January 4th 2014

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Christopher Fairbank – A Life in the Spotlight

Christopher Fairbank was born in 1953, and grew up in the Essex village of Clavering, where celebrity chef Jamie Oliver also hails from.

After appearing at Liverpool's Unity Theatre, Fairbank went to RADA, which he left after two years to work briefly in weekly rep before going to sea.

After meeting Ken Campbell at the Roundhouse, Fairbank joined the cast of Illuminatus!, which became a sensation in Liverpool and London.

Fairbank continued to work with Campbell in Psychosis unclassified, which played in New York.

After being sacked by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Fairbank was cast as Moxey in Auf
Wiederesehen, Pet, appearing in all four series, plus a 2004 two-part special.

Since then, Fairbank has appeared in numerous television dramas, including Law and Order, Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Ashes To Ashes.

On film, Fairbank has appeared in Tim Burton's Batman, Zeffirelli's take on Hamlet, Luc Besson's The Fifth Element and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

On stage, Fairbank has worked with directors such as Max Stafford-Clark and John Dove, as well as with Terry Johnson, playing the late Sid James in Johnson's Carry-On based play, Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick.

Fairbank's voice-over work includes Wallace and Gromit and numerous computer games.

The Herald, November 28th 2013


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Engels!: The Karl Marx Story

Discover 21, Edinburgh
Three stars
If the revolution starts at closing time, few took advantage of the licensing laws more than Karl Marx himself. Or at least that's how the inventor of orthodox radical thought as we know it is presented in Ben Blow's scurrilous little play, first seen on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe earlier this year. Blow's play is now one of the first shows to play in the much needed thirty-five seat Discover 21 space, situated in the equally necessary Arts Complex initiative that exists inside St Margaret's House, a 1960s office block.

Here, Marx is a randy old goat living it up in nineteenth century Manchester, with a much put-upon Engels footing the bill for all his excesses while being bullied into doing most of the graft on The Communist Manifesto. With much of the necessary first-hand knowledge of the lumpen proletariat provided by Marx's favourite prostitute, Molly, the absurd double act of Charlie (Marx) and Freddy (Engels) embark on a barricade-hopping road trip, as Marx claims immortality for himself.

With Blow himself playing a blustering, northern English accented Marx opposite Matthew Jebbs' Engels, the pair's travails fall somewhere between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza and Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in that double act's Road movies, albeit with political one-line gags aplenty. Even a musical hating Victor Hugo makes an appearance in the Unknown Quantity/Dubious Quality company's production. With able comic support from Rowan Winter and Johnny Dillon, this is a refreshingly cynical knockabout alternative if knowingly dubious history that hints at what might have been, if only those pesky contradictions inherent in the system hadn't got in the way.

The Herald, November 28th 2013 


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September in the Rain

Theatre Royal, Glasgow
Three stars
When Hull was named last week as UK City of Culture for 2017 ahead of 
an already flourishing Dundee, one suspects a secret weapon called John 
Godber may have had much to do with it. Few playwrights, after all, 
have celebrated the mores and aspirations of ordinary Yorkshire folk 
with such a populist flourish than Godber, who, as artistic director of 
Hull Truck Theatre, put the city it called home on the map from the 
1980s onwards.

It's interesting, therefore, to see Godber revisit this early work, in 
which he takes a gentle look at the lives and times of Jack and Liz, an 
elderly couple whose relationship has been mapped out by their annual 
off-peak holiday to Blackpool. Based on Godber's own grand-parents, the 
play sees the pair rewind their way back to their newly-wed days. Their 
world may be coloured by dodgy B & Bs, fortune tellers and funfair 
rides, but there's a simmering uncertainty about where they're heading.

As Jack and Liz confide in the audience, the play's opening may 
resemble an oral history project, but, in Godber's directorial hands 
for this touring production, this isn't nearly as sentimental as it 
sounds. John Thomson's Jack is patriarchal, bullying, set in his ways 
and full of barely suppressed rage. Claire Sweeney's Liz, meanwhile, 
gives as good as she gets,even as she argues her way towards some kind 
of independence she never quite achieves. Played in a 
quasi-vaudevillian style which both actors revel in, Godber's look at a 
generation who stayed together whatever may be a labour of love, but 
there's an underlying edge that goes beyond cosy nostalgia.

The Herald, November 27th 2013

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Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Citizens Theatre Spring Season 2014

When playwright and film star Sam Shepard appeared on the stage of the Citizens Theatre following the final performance of the Gorbals-based emporium's production of Shepard's 1980 play, True West, it was a fitting close to the theatre's winter season prior to the opening of its Christmas show, The Jungle Book, this weekend. Here, after all, was a latter-day Hollywood legend with counter-cultural credentials. If ever there was an artist who encapsulated the Citz's own schizophrenic history of classical glamour with an edge, Shepard was it.

“It created a real buzz,” says Citizens artistic director, Dominic Hill. “It's exactly what the Citz should be about. For us, it's about saying that, yes, we're in Glasgow, and, yes, we're in the Gorbals, but as well as being local, we've also got an international outlook , and an aspiration to continue that international outlook which the theatre's always had.”

Following a season that also saw Chris Hannan adapt Dostoyevsky's novel, Crime and Punishment, such attributes are in even more abundance in the Citz's 2014 spring season, revealed here exclusively by the Herald as tickets for all shows go on sale today. Nowhere is this more evident than in a major revival of Stephen Jeffreys' 1994 play, The Libertine. Jeffreys' play is a ribald study of seventeenth poet, playwright and hedonistic lad about town John Wilmot, aka the second Earl of Rochester.

“It's a play I've wanted to do for a long time,” Hill says. “I wanted to do something in period to try and capture that wonderful theatrical exuberance that was so much a part of the old Citz. With The Libertine, we can have our cake and eat it, because it has all the joy and wit of a Restoration comedy, but without having to filter it through 400 years of shifts of language. The Libertine is a very funny play. It's hugely theatrical and incredibly rude. It's about excess, and a man who was a sort of rock and roll celebrity of his age who is eventually destroyed by that excess.”

Prior to The Libertine, Hill will direct Zinnie Harris' version of August Strindberg's dark study of cross-class sexual desire, Miss Julie. Normally regarded as a chamber piece, Hill once again puts a play more often seen in studio spaces onto the main stage.

“The play is extraordinary, and Zinnie's text is great,” Hill points out. “Zinnie's made it about more than what made the play so shocking when it was first done. So it's more than a story about a posh girl sleeping with a servant. There's much more here about sexual politics between a man and a woman rather than just class.”

The Citz 2014 season begins, however, with the first Glasgow sighting of Ciara, David Harrower's study of one woman's uneasy relationship with art and crime. The play won a Herald Angel for actress Blythe Duff when she performed it at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in August, and this revival of a co-production between the Traverse and Duff's Datum Point company promises an even greater impact when it arrives in the city in which it is set.

Ciara will be followed later in January by a production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night by the experimentally inclined Filter company.

February marks the return of Glasgow Girls, David Greig and Cora Bissett's hit musical play based on the real life story of a group of Drumchapel schoolgirl asylum seekers who took on the establishment and won. Co-produced by the Citizens, the National Theatre of Scotland and an array of other partners, Glasgow Girls arrives back on home turf following a nomination by the Theatre Marketing Nomination for Best Musical Production.

“It's a show that's developed a lot since it was first here,” Hill points out, “and 2014 seemed like the right time to bring it back to Glasgow.”

Multi-culturalism is similarly on the agenda in Refugee Boy, Lemn Sissay's stage version of fellow poet Benjamin Zephaniah's novel about a fourteen year old Ethiopian boy's experiences in London. Refugee Boy will tour to the Citz in a production by West Yorkshire Playhouse.

This will be followed by a revival of Scottish Opera's production of Verdi's Macbeth, which Hill first directed for the company in 2005.

With the Citz becoming a major venue for the Glasgow International Comedy Festival during the first week in April, it seems fitting that this is followed by Vanishing Point's tribute to the late poet and story-teller, Ivor Cutler. As revealed in these pages earlier this year, The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler sees Vanishing Point team up with the National Theatre of Scotland for a loving homage to this unique figure and the absurd world he occupied.

With the Glasgow Commonwealth Games raising the city's profile, the Citz responds with Sports Day. This large-scale show brings together a compendium of short pieces by major Scottish playwrights responding to the theme of a school sports day. These will then be knitted together to create a new piece of community theatre.

“It's important for us that our non-professional work gets a high profile,” Hill says, “and, as with everything else in the season, we want it to be on the main stage.”

Beyond 2014, Hill has the Citz's 70th birthday in 2015 to think about. There is the small matter too of raising some 14 million GBP over the next three years for ambitious plans to upgrade the theatre's facilities as well as its physical structure in order to make it fit for twenty-first century purpose. A model of the proposed plans sits in Hill's office, symbolising an even brighter future for the Citizens Theatre than the Spring season already promises.

“The Spring season is always so much longer than the Autumn,” Hill points out. “This allows us the opportunity to programme more diverse work. In 2014, especially, with the referendum and the Commonwealth Games, Scotland and Glasgow are going to be under the spotlight even more than they normally are. We didn't want to ignore that. We want to programme a season of work that encapsulates the spirit of aspiration that exists here, and that makes theatre a real event.”

Tickets for the Citizens Theatre's 2014 spring season are on sale now.

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Citizens Theatre Season 2014 – At A Glance

Ciara (January 21-25) – Blythe Duff returns in David Harrower's hit solo play which won a Herald Angel when it premiered at the Traverse in 2013.

Twelfth Night (January 28-February 1) Originally commissioned by former Tron Theatre director Michael Boyd for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Sean Holmes and Filter reinvent Shakespeare’s rom-com as a rock and roll rollercoaster of wit and passion

Miss Julie (February 6-15) IN the first Citizens company production of the season, Dominic Hill directs Zinnie Harris' version of August Strindberg's play. First seen in 2006 in a production by the National Theatre of Scotland, Miss Julie is reset in rural Scotland during the 1920s.

Glasgow Girls (February 20-March 8) Cora Bissett and David Greig's impassioned musical based on the real-life tale of a group of schoolgirl refugees who take on the system returns following a successful London run.

Refugee Boy (March 12-15) Poet Lemn Sissay adapts fellow wordsmith Benjamin Zephaniah's novel about a teenage refugee boy for the stage in a production by West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Verdi's Macbeth (March 22-29) Revival of Dominic Hill's Scottish Opera production of Verdi's classic, first seen in 2005.

Glasgow International Comedy Festival (April 1-5)As one of the main venues for the festival, the Citz will see the likes of Miles Jupp, Rory Bremner and Ruby Wax grace its stage.

The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler (April 9-20) Vanishing Point team up with the National Theatre of Scotland for an impressionistic homage to one of Scotland's greatest wordsmiths.

The Libertine (May 3-24) – First seen in 1994 in a production b y Max Stafford-Clark and filmed a decade later with Johnny Depp in the title role, Stephen Jeffreys' play about poet, playwright and 24/7 hedonist John Wilmot receives its long overdue Scottish premiere in Hill's production.

Sports Day (June 4-7) A large-scale revue-like compendium of scenes and songs written by a host of Scottish playwrights and based around the run-up to a school sports day. Performed by a non-professional cast, the show will be presented to tie in with the Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

The Herald, November 26th 2013

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Friday, 22 November 2013

Stella

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Three stars
It's the men's voices you hear first in Siobhan Nicholas' new play that charts the parallel universes of eighteenth century singer turned astronomer Caroline Herschel and a twenty-first century counterpart investigating her life. They're the voices of men who've seen stars, been to the moon and lived to tell the tale. It's women like Herschel, however, who broke the glass ceiling that allowed those men to conquer worlds beyond.

The production by Brighton-based company, Take the Space, in association with Hove's The Old Market (TOM) venue and Greenwich Theatre sets its sights from the start, as Jessica and her classical musician husband Bill look to the skies for guidance. He's been offered a two year gig in Germany, and expects Jess to go with him. She has plans of her own, however, most of which involve a fascination with Herschel that sees her take up residence in the museum that was once the house her inspiration shared with her composer brother William. He may have got all the credit for discovering comets as he crafted ever bigger telescopes, but it was Caroline who had the real vision.

Directed by the company with Polly Irvin, Nicholas' play is part detective story, part polemic and part reclaiming of hidden history. As it flits between time-zones, it reveals a slew of classical allusions among the cosmic fall-out navigated by three actors, including Nicholas herself as Caroline. The late lurch into global politics via Jess and Bill's daughter Eve may be sudden, but it's here that the legacy of Caroline's fearlessness pays off in an at times awkward if heartfelt glimpse into lives lived beyond the twilight zone.

The Herald, November 21st 2013


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Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Norman Bowman - Henry V

To say that Norman Bowman is excited is something of an understatement. As the Arbroath born actor and musical theatre star prepares to open in Michael Grandage's new production of Shakespeare's Henry V featuring Jude Law in the title role, Bowman can barely contain himself. He may only be doubling up in the relatively small parts of soldiers on opposing sides, Nym and Williams, but, after a career playing in number one tours of Grease and West Side Story, where he played the lead roles of Danny Zucko and ex gang member Tony, doing Henry V is clearly the biggest thrill in the world.

“I love Shakespeare,” Bowman enthuses, “and with this job I've landed on my feet. It's one of the best companies, the best director and a fantastic lead actor, so it's fantastic. Actors very often do jobs out of necessity rather than desire, but this is a labour of love.”

Bowman was cast in Henry V after Grandage saw Bowman playing Ross in Kenneth Branagh's Manchester International Festival production of Macbeth. Bowman had already worked with Grandage, when he played Harry The Horse opposite Ewan McGregor in Guys and Dolls. Bowman later took on the role of Skye Masterson in the same show opposite Patrick Swayze, and appeared in Grandage's production of Twelfth Night, which starred Derek Jacobi as Malvolio.

While such a track record wouldn't necessarily mean an actor would be fast-tracked to a director's next production, Grandage was impressed enough by Bowman's turn as Ross to offer him the part without an audition.

“That doesn't happen very often,” Bowman observes. “I try to be cool, calm and collected about it, but I'm literally on Cloud Nine.”

Bowman had little notion about acting until, aged sixteen, a friend took him along to the local amateur dramatics club, where that year's pantomime was being rehearsed.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do in life,” Bowman recalls, “but I thought this sounded like fun, so I went along, and ended up joining other societies, got a line here and there, which led to bigger parts, which led to lead parts, and so it went.”

Bowman went to Perth were he studied on a rock music course.

“I thought that would be the closest I'd ever get to performing,” he says.

That was before one of his lecturers, spotting Bowman's potential, suggested he go to London and do the round of auditions for musicals. After three months, Bowman was cast in Les Miserables, which he performed in both on the West End and on tour.

“My life changed,” says Bowman. “I look back at someone who was essentially a shy boy from Arbroath, and I'm surprised at the leaps that I took when I didn't really know what I was doing. That's what happens when you want something, I guess. You take those leaps, and Les Miserables became a part of my life for two years. It was a great introduction for me, but it was also a little bit scary, because you think you're not going to get picked up for another show, and maybe that's it.”

It wasn't, as roles in productions of Sweeney Todd, The Pirates of Penzance, Sunset Boulevard and Cats proved. Bowman also appeared in Carousel at Chichester Festival Theatre and as Demetrius in an open-air production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Regent's Park.

“I'm still just a boy from a small town on the east coast of Scotland,” Bowman says, “and to look at all these people of worked with, I keep on having to pinch myself.”

Beyond Henry V, Bowman will rejoin Branagh's Macbeth company in June 2014 when the production transfers to New York.

“It's fantastic to have that on the horizon,” says Bowman. “Macbeth was a dream job, so to get to do it again in such glamorous surroundings is even better, especially as Broadway is completely saturated with Brits at the moment.”

Bowman's ambitions don't stop there, however.

“I wish I had the cojonas to try some of the big, chunky Shakespeare parts,” he says. “I'd love to have a go at Hamlet or Richard III. I just don't want to get too set in my ways, and try to do work that excites me.”

Which brings us back to Henry V

“Once more into the breach,” Bowman says, as he makes his way back to the rehearsal room, sounding every inch a king.

Henry V, The Noel Coward Theatre, London, November 23rd-February 15th 2014

The Herald, November 19th 2013


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Thursday, 14 November 2013

Paul Haig – Kube (Rhythm of Life)

Four stars
Of all the paeans to the late Lou Reed in the last couple of weeks, one of the most touching was a poem by Paul Haig (http://www.paulhaig-rhythmoflife.com/post/65335307611/words-for-lou-reed), whose old band, the Reed/Velvet Underground/Chic-inspired Josef K, have proved so influential on the likes of Franz Ferdinand and others since their brief existence in the very early 1980s. To see such a private artist acknowledge a musical debt like this was surprising too.

Like Reed, beyond some mid-80s major label hiccups, Haig has done things on his own terms. Where it would have been easy to go down the revivalist route and reform Josef K, apart from a handful of live shows a couple of years ago, Haig has kept studiously out of view, ploughing his own wilfully individualistic and largely electronic furrow.

There won't be many aware that this fourteen-track collection of skewed, beat-based electro-melodrama released, as many that preceded it, on his own tellingly named label, is Haig's twelfth solo album. No matter, because this first release since 2009 is a forward-looking tome on a multitude of levels, and it's clear that Haig has been absorbing up to the minute cutting edge sounds alongside his classic influences.

This makes for a slightly schizoid mix of Bowiesque vocal heroism and cinematically styled instrumentals that moves between jaunty opener 'UW2B' straight on to spoken-word sampling dancefloor collage, 'Intro K,' the menacing fizz and burble of 'All of the Time' and the Acid House noir of 'Cool Pig.' 'Daemon' is an aspirational single in waiting, 'It's In' a machine-groove mantra and 'Red Rocks' a sax-punctuated cyber-age march. There are cut-up experiments and stabbing staccato guitar on 'Dialog,' synth-led systems music with fourth world propulsion on 'Four Dark Traps', while the melancholia of 'Reflected' is as existential as it gets, treated vocal and all.

'Midnattssol' seems to reference Four Tet by way of John Barry, 'Pack' is a Techno-headed monster full of foreboding a la Burial or Raime, the piano-led whispered vocal of 'Torn' implies some dimly-lit conspiracy, while the closing 'Shifter' lays down a funky guitar riff over assorted beats and skitters. Vocally and musically, then, 'Kube' is a subtly textured mood music suite that retains a warmth throughout even as it flits between light and shade.

The List, November 2013


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Ciphers

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars
There's a greyness looming over Dawn King's new play, a co-production between Out of Joint, the Bush Theatre and Exeter Northcott Theatre. It's not just the clean-lined hue of of the screens that move across the stage to reveal each brief scene. Nor is it the chicly utilitarian desk and chair that double up as assorted interview rooms, hotel bedrooms and artist's studio. Rather, in King's dramatic investigation into the mysterious death of a young female Secret Service agent, it's something about the humdrum mundanity of undercover lives and the over-riding loneliness of the long-distance double agent that gives the play its inscrutable pallor.

It opens with Justine being interviewed by Sunita for a job as a spy. As she moves quickly through the ranks, Justine's blankness becomes an asset, as terrorist plots are uncovered and enemy agencies infiltrated. Only when she becomes emotionally involved, both in her work and with married artist Kai, does Justine's life gradually unravel. As her spikier sister Kerry investigates what she believes to be foul play following Justine's death, it becomes clear that Justine was double-crossed by everyone around her.

Four actors play eight parts in Blanche McIntyre's tense production, including a vivid Grainne Keenan, who flits between a mousy Justine and the more mercurial Kerry in an instant. This is a device which tellingly exposes the over-riding duplicity of Justine's world, where an entire establishment can exploit her insecurities just as much as a lover can. If there is a slight lurch into melodrama towards the end, one suspects that a whole lot of incidents a good deal stranger than fiction are under real-life surveillance right now.

The Herald, November 14th 2013

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Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Dawn King - Ciphers

Dawn King is feeling pretty jet-lagged. The writer of spy thriller, Ciphers, which tours to Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre this week in a co-production between Out of Joint, the Northcott Theatre, Exeter and The Bush flew out of Portland, Oregon the afternoon before, only to find it was still lunch-time when she arrived back in London.

King was in Portland to see a new production of her début full-length play, Foxfinder, a dystopian rural parable with a Gothic bent that was a London hit in 2011 after winning the Papatango playwriting competition as well as a clutch of other accolades. She was in Sweden earlier in the year to see one there as well, and is off to Reykjavik next week to see how it works in Icelandic. There have also been productions of Foxfinder in Australia and Greece.

If such a jet-setting lifestyle sounds like something straight out of a film, it's also testament to King's expansive vision, which imbues an investigative depth into popular forms. For Ciphers, King has looked to a real-life incident to tell a story about spies, double agents, secret identities and what is described on the play's publicity material as the 'opaqueness of the soul.'

“I was sort of inspired by the real case of Gareth Williams,” King says, referring to the GCHQ employee who was seconded to MI6 before being found dead in his London flat in 2010. The fact that he was discovered in a bag, padlocked from the outside and left in his bath-tub may have suggested foul play, but no fingerprints or any signs of forced entry were evident, and to date no-one has ever been charged for a death which the coroner decreed was 'unnatural and likely to have been criminally meditated. “It became known as the spy in the bath-tub case, and was very strange. Weird things were being said about him, which for me sounded very sad, because obviously he had a family who were grieving and wondering what happened to him.”

In Ciphers, this translates into the story of a woman investigating how her sister died, and who subsequently uncovers a labyrinthine world of subterfuge, secrets and lies that could infiltrate an episode of Spooks or Alias without batting an eyelid.

“It is a spy thriller,” King says of her play. “It definitely has that structure and all the twists and turns that go with it, but I hope it's about something bigger than that as well. It's about whether you can really ever get close to someone if they're living a lie.

“Like anything I do dramatically, I'm always trying to get bigger things into something that's accessible. It has to work on that level, or nobody's going to be interested. As well as looking at bigger things, it's also part of my job to entertain.”

In terms of research, while avoiding watching any episodes of Spooks lest she be unduly influenced, King read a lot of books on the spying game, many of which somewhat predictably contradicted themselves. She also looked to the real MI5, who, as it turns out, have a very good website.

“It was really useful,” she says. “and tells you all the different jobs they do. Obviously given that the Secret Service is secret, there's only so far you can go, and you can't get any closer. That's what I like about this job, the ambiguity of it.”

There is an entire scene in Ciphers, King points out, which is lifted directly from the MI5 website, which somewhat intriguingly involves “someone eating toast.”

While the acclaim for Foxfinder suggested that King was something of an overnight success, she has actually been writing seriously for more than a decade after falling in love with theatre while growing up in Stroud in Gloucestershire.

“I was really into theatre as a kid,” she says, “but because I didn't want ton be an actor, after I'd done my A levels I thought that was it, and went off to study for a media degree.”

King moved to London, where she was “really unhappy, so I thought I'd better do do something creative.”

king went to a writing workshop at Soho Theatre, and was offered a place at the theatre's young writer's group.

“Someone dropped out,” King says, “and I was next in line.”

King was also invited to join the Royal Court Young Writers group, and in 2004 took an M.A.. in playwriting at Goldsmith's.

“I was fully committed to it by that time,” King recalls, “so I thought I'd better go off and learn how to do this thing I was going to spend the rest of my life doing.”

After assorted apprentice pieces, King wrote Foxfinder without a commission, but “just to find out what would happen with it, get it on somewhere and get it reviewed so I could feel like a real writer. I certainly didn't expect it to happen in the way it did, but there seems to be something about that story that crosses borders.”

Whether something similar happens with Ciphers remains to be seen, but beyond it, King is going on attachment with the National Theatre Studio, where she will be allowed to develop new ideas and “figure out what my next play is about,” in an environment which gives theatre artists space to explore. There are also TV and film ideas in development, as well as more radio work likely.

“I hope that will happen,” King says, “and I think it's possible to do them all, but I still want to work in theatre. That's where my secret heart lies, and I wouldn't want to chase TV work to the extent that I couldn't do theatre. I look at one of my writing heroes, Dennis Kelly,” she says of the man behind Matilda the musical, BBC 3 sitcom, Pulling, and even an episode of Spooks while still writing plays for the Royal Court, Paines Plough and others, “and I think, well, if he can do it...”

In whatever medium her work ends up in, King's work is possessed with the same forensic desire to find out what happens next.

!I get an idea, get obsessed and then have to write about it,” she says. “That's what drives me. Obsession.”

Ciphers, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, November 12th-16th

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Dawn King – A Life in Letters

Dawn King took a media degree before taking part in a playwriting workshop at Soho Theatre, where she became part of the theatre's Young Writers Group. Her early play, Garlic, received a reading there in 2002, with another play, Arrival With Baggage, receiving a reading at the Royal Court, where she was invited to join the theatre's Young Writers programme. The same year, King contributed to the early stages of Filter's show, Faster, seen at Battersea Arts Centre.

Other early short plays include How To Live Forever (2004) , What Happens At The Zoo (2005), Early One Morning As the Sun Set (2005), The Bitches Ball (2006), Doghead Boy and Sharkmouth Go To Ikea (2006), Little Deaths (2006), Worms (2006), Face Value (2007) and Water Sculptures (2007).

Foxfinder won the Papatango writing competition in 2011 and was produced at the Finborough Theatre, where King was a Pearson writer in residence in 2012. Foxfinder went on to win King the Most Promising Playwright award at the OffWestEnd Awards 2012, and she was a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, as well as being shortlisted for the inaugural James Tate Black Prize for Drama.

King is currently participating in the Channel Four television writing scheme, 4 Screenwriting 2013. She writes regularly for BBC Radio, and her latest work, an adaptation of a New Testament parable, was heard on BBC Radio 3 in December 2012. Her feature film script, The Squatter’s Handbook, won the UK Film Council’s 25 Words or Less pitching competition in 2005, and her short film, The Karman Line, is in post production.

The Herald, November 12th 2013

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A Dangerman

Summerhall, Edinburgh
Four stars
The man standing on what passes for a stage in Summerhall's tiny Red Lecture Theatre is looking each of the audience in the eye. Without ever cracking a smile, he closes his own eyes, psyching himself up in the silence, before letting rip. The Bible, Karl Marx and the thoughts of Chairman Mao are all intertwined in the man's ramblingly discursive and quietly deadpan monologue, with reality TV, the history of capitalism and a spot of art history thrown in for good measure. At one point he auctions off the script for the show, at another he gets volunteers from the audience to shift boxes around or else take off their clothes to strike some classical poses. He engages them in dialogue about that night's news, and tells them if they don't agree with what they're seeing then they can leave. Some do.

It's a risky strategy, but Galway-based actor/writer Dick Walsh takes no prisoners in his menacing hour-long monologue, first seen on the Dublin Fringe in 2012. Giving voice to the sort of person you'd normally cross the road to avoid, Walsh's study falls somewhere between Peter Handke's genre-subverting monologue, Offending The Audience, and Heathcote Williams' penetrating portrait of the wise fools who put the world to rights in Hyde Park, The Speakers.

As scarifying as the delivery is, Walsh and his alter ego are making some serious points about free will and how far you will go just because someone tells you to do something. As his final act before leaving, the Dangerman appoints a member of the audience to be king, with everyone else his subjects. What happens next is up to us.

The Herald, November 12th 2013


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Monday, 11 November 2013

Pere Ubu

Liquid Rooms, Edinburgh
Four stars
“Anyone expecting the hits,” drawls David Thomas, de facto leader of the Cleveland, Ohio sired 'avant-garage' band for almost forty years, “come talk to me. They're in my head, but I won't answer.” A mere six months after touring their fifteenth original studio album, Lady From Shanghai, Thomas and co have ripped up the rule-book (and there is a one hundred page 'manual' to accompany the album) and opted to showcase material from two work-in-progress song cycles, Visions of the Moon and Dr Faustroll in the Big Easy. Like the man says, “If something works, why do it again?”

It's a belligerently conceptual approach, but this is how Thomas, sat in a bucket chair and fuelled by Diet Pepsi and Red Bull as he reads lyrics from a music stand, rolls. In baggy-pants and braces, Thomas looks somewhere between a porch-dwelling blues hollerer and Tennessee Williams' Big Daddy in Cat on A Hot Tin Roof. Guitarist Keith Moline, drummer Steve Mehlman, electronics wizard Gagaran, aka Graham 'Dids' Dowdall and latest addition to the Ubu stew, clarinetist Daryll Boon filling in the gaps which absent bassist Michele Temple and vintage synth player Robert Wheeler normally occupy, happily go along with Thomas' benign dictatorship, even as it's overseen with a wry grin.

The new songs themselves are eerie, slow-burning constructions, high on B-movie atmospherics and punctuated by occasional wig-outs. When he's not veering off into rambling anecdotes, Thomas is as much passive conductor as singer, his dark mutterings giving way to anguished high-pitched howls. This is a spacier Pere Ubu, more resembling an atonal chamber ensemble than a rock band, wilfully obtuse and demanding maximum concentration.

The Herald, November 11th 2013

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Friday, 8 November 2013

The Leg – Oozing A Crepuscular Light (Song, By Toad)

A lot can happen in twenty-three minutes. It certainly does in the new album by The Leg, mercurial junkyard auteur Dan Mutch's manic spleen-venting song-writing vehicle over four albums and the best part of a decade. With cellist Pete Harvey and drummer Alun Thomas completing The Leg's (un)holy trinity, The Leg formed out of the ashes of the trio's previous band, Desc. Harvey was there too in Mutch's first band, Khaya, who were way too out of step with the second half of the 1990s they existed through, despite the acclaim, the John Peel sessions and the wilful self-destruction.

Khaya's three albums, Desc's sole full-length effort plus assorted singles and EPs are available somewhere or other, and should be sought out post-haste. As should too The Leg's two collaborations and another one on the way with kindred spirit, fellow traveller and former Dawn of the Replicants vocalist turned absurdist story-teller, Paul Vickers. Oh, and The Leg's own '8 Songs by The Leg,' and 'What Happened to the Shrunken Tina Tina Turner,' are pretty awesome too.

These years saw live shows saw The Leg seemingly raid the dressing-up box kept hidden in the paranoid wing of the local infirmary for live shows that saw them grotesque themselves up in assorted panda outfits and wrestling masks. Some might call it Verfremdungseffekt. Especially when they took the choir-girl chirrup of Mike Oldfield's 1983 hit sung by Maggie O'Reilly, Moonlight Shadow, and pretty much assaulted and battered it into submission.

Here and now, however, while the songs remain similarly strange, both masks and gloves are off, as Mutch, Harvey and Thomas follow up 2012's 'An Eagle To Saturn' with a whip-cracking gallop through eight numbers that sound oddly melodious, even as they appear to have come crashing down the stairs in a Samuel Beckett vaudeville routine pumped up with stumblebum adrenalin.

The opening strung-out slide guitar of 'Dam Uncle Hit' sounds innocuous enough as it moves into a rockabilly canter, but that's before Mutch starts declaiming with demonic delight something which may or may not be about tormenting an elderly relative with laughing gas. 'Lionlicker' is an equally off-kilter romp that sounds like an infant's trip to the local safari park gone wrong. Led by some jaunty hand-claps, it is also the first song on the album to mix up Mutch's acoustic thrum and Thomas' restlessly nuanced percussion with Harvey's newly developed piano skills.

These flit between silent movie chase scenes and, on the music hall clatter of 'Chicken Slippers,.' Les Dawson after a few sherbets. 'Lionlicker' is nevertheless fused with an apposite sense of child-like wonder at something which has shuffled unwillingly off this mortal coil. Possibly helped along with a mallet.

'Don't Bite A Dog' is a forebodly urgent whirlwind that seems to involve Batman, gangsters and other unsavoury types. The album's title track is a brief impressionistic piano and percussion based instrumental sketch that squints into the middle-distance in search of Zen-like satori while someone next to them has a panic attack. '25 Hats' sounds like someone left all the machinery on at the slaughterhouse, where the owner has been bound, gagged and hung upside-down by a bunch of Buckfasted-up psychopaths who think water-boarding should be an Olympic sport.

After this, 'Chicken Slippers' is a piece of light relief with its Keystone Cops style musical prat-falls and magnificently ridiculous observations of absurdist minutiae. 'Quantum Suicide' goes country style with a nervily relentless but not unpleasant plinky-plonkified litany before the album's finale, 'Celebrating Love,' promises happy endings and redemption. By the time its frenzied Cossack burl around the dinner table gives way to a tender meditation on jelly babies and absent friends, the raging calm its reaches might just be an exhausted up-all-night collapse into drunk-sleep.

Here then, is a feral and dysfunctional thrash-folk jug-band that occupies an Edward Gorey-like den of iniquity and sounds like an alternative soundtrack to South Park and twice as nasty, but which retains a cracked, fragile vulnerability that needs to get all this stuff out lest sectioning be deemed necessary. And if it was stretched out any longer than its blisteringly raucous twenty-three minutes like this, give or take an extra fifteen-seconds pause for breath, perhaps we'd all end up in the same boat, unable to cope with the album's variety mad-house racket.

The number twenty-three, of course, is blessed with a myriad of cosmic inter-connections, as embraced by assorted mavericks, conspiracy theorists and pranksters, from William S Burroughs to Ken Campbell, who directed a twelve-hour stage version of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's sprawling science-fiction epic, The Illuminatus Trilogy!, to KLF founder and avant-provocateur Bill Drummond, who designed the sets for the production, which opened in a Liverpool warehouse turned cafe theatre on November 23rd (natch) 1976.

If there are any conspiracies, coincidences and evidence of synchronicity here, it comes via the psychic legacy of The Leg's capital city forbears. The last time an album of such brevity sounded so urgent, so hungry and so not giving a flying one, after all, was when that other seminal Edinburgh band, Fire Engines, released Lubricate Your Living Room back in 1980. Fire Engines played fifteen minute sets, packing more life-dependent adrenalin-rush into that quarter of an hour that most acts do in an hour. Paul Morley famously asked head Grateful Dead-head Jerry Garcia if he'd heard of Fire Engines, pointing out that where they did fifteen-minute sets, Garcia played fifteen-minute guitar solos. 'Fire Engines or Boredom' went early communiques. 'You Can't Have Both.'

While the same spirit abounds here, The Leg don't actually sound anything like Fire Engines, but are more akin to an even messier Edinburgh-sired combo in the low-slung depravities of Country Teasers. Where Ben Wallers' bile-driven band walked forever on the black side, there's something more surreal and cartoonish about The Leg, even as neuroses simmer inwardly. In this way The Leg are like Wile E Coyote, Chuck Jones' animated Sisyphean figure chasing the forever out-of-reach Roadrunner across assorted Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts. As with Wile E Coyote, though, when 'Oozing A Crepuscular Light' goes off in your face, you know The Leg will live to fight another day.

The List, November 2013


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Wilful Forgetting

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Three stars
Long before anyone posted selfies on Flickr or Tumblr, or Instagram 
allowed just-snapped camera phone images to be customised to whatever 
sepia-tinted vintage look  is deemed aesthetically pleasing this week, 
memories came in Eastmancolour and Kodachrome, and took a week to be 
developed. So it goes in Donna Rutherford and Martin O'Connor's lo-fi 
multi-media meditation on the past that shapes us, and how the 
narrative of memory comes with gaps.

A mother (Rutherford) is at the kitchen table as the audience enter to 
the comforting smell of baking. Sporting a maternal pinny, she goes 
through the motions of baking a cake as a Country soundtrack plays. 
Behind her, images flash up of other mothers proudly showing off their 
infant children to be immortalised in their now frayed and crumpled 
glory. Inbetween snatches of Rutherford's own out-front monologue, 
voices off reveal a schism down the generations as her son comes to 
terms with his sexuality, leaving the past behind as he goes.

Commissioned by Glasgay!, and lasting just as long as it takes a cake 
to rise, there's something touchingly honest going on here, both in its 
depiction of necessary estrangement and in Rutherford's understated 
delivery. As Rutherford necks another gin inbetween ingredients, the 
pains of a generation bound by traditions not of their own making 
aren't difficult to recognise. In this way, Wilful Forgetting is an 
elegy of sorts, even as Rutherford and O'Connor's text looks forward to 
more complex and possibly more enlightened family affairs. As videos of 
some very current mums and babies at play are shown while Rutherford 
slices her cake, this snapshot of sons, mothers and mothers mothers 
becomes the most loving of purgings.

The Herald, November 8th 2013

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Thursday, 7 November 2013

Mansfield Park

King's Theatre,
Three stars
It's the quiet ones you have to watch, and there are few quieter than Fanny Price, the bookish daughter of a poor family who's packed off to live with her rich and largely ghastly relatives, the Bertrams, in Jane Austen's third and most contentious novel. Adapted here by Tim Luscombe for Colin Blumenau's production, revived for its current tour by the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, it becomes a trenchant if at times unremarkable statement on class, privilege and the self-determination of a young woman who refuses to fall for the dubious charms of a posh fop on the make.

Fanny is thrown into a world where courtships are built on how much someone is worth rather than love, so when the gold-digging Crawfords, Henry and Mary, come calling, all bets are off on who they'll end up with. Fanny, meanwhile, falls for Edmund, the would-be cleric with a kind heart and integrity to match her own. It is with Pete Ashmore's Edmund that Fanny opens up to reveal herself as a vivaciously modern young woman. Only the notion of being involved in a play that appears to promote adultery as life imitates art causes her to withdraw into her existential shell once more.

As with a Mike Leigh film, the rich people are played archly, and almost as pantomime villains who act like they hang out with George Osborne. Geoff Arnold, Laura Doddington and Leonie Spilsbury have great fun with this as assorted Crawfords and Bertrams, while Ffion Jolly plays Fanny with an understated steeliness in a romance that remains a telling pointer to exactly how much money still talks.

The Herald, November 7th 2013


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Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Hiraki Sawa – Lenticular

Dundee Contemporary Arts until January 5th 2014
Four stars
There's something quietly starstruck about the subject of 'Lenticular' (2013), the newly-commissioned film-work by Japanese artist Hiraki Sawa, which forms the centrepiece of Sawa's first solo exhibition in Scotland. Robert Law is a self-taught astronomer who works at Dundee's Mills Observatory, where Sawa filmed this cosmonaut of inner space going about his business of exploring other worlds with somewhat archaic-looking machineries of joy. The result is an impressionistic six-minute portrait of one man's parallel universe that's counterpointed by a domed facsimile of the Observatory, that comes complete with meditative projections and an ambient score that suggest the ultimate chill-out room.

It's a telling insight into Sawa's playful sensibilities, in which after-dark magical-realist dream-states conjure up imaginary worlds. The word 'lenticular' describes something that is lens-shaped. As Sawa focuses in on assorted obsessions in both wide-screen and miniature, the physical space left between each piece is also telling.

In 'Lineament' (2012), a vinyl record unravels and goes through walls and doors as a man attempts to recapture the threads of his memory. While this is spread across two screens, an actual record plays the film's soundtrack. All of this is synchronised with 'Lenticular' so they play in turn rather than over each other in a grown-up, sub-Lynchian affair.

If 'Aurora' (2013) gives its one-minute mirror image of the Northern Lights a wide-eyed depth and the five-film 'Souvenir' (2012) becomes a vivid set of sense memories, an even brighter sense of wonder prevails in 'Inhere' (2004), 'Unseen Park' (2006) and 'Elsewhere' (2003). With the first two pieces made with children, Sawa has spaceships fly through washing machines and goldfish bowls in 'Inhere', and a whole fleet of Origamied-up make-believe vehicles flying high in 'Unseen Park'. In 'Elsewhere', toilet rolls and other domestic objects come to life. It's as if the culprits behind the Cottingley Fairies hoax had taken over an after-hours toy-shop and reimagined the world anew.

The List, November 2013


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Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Catherine Johnson - Shang-a-Lang, Mamma Mia! and fringe theatre

“What's gallus?” Catherine Johnson asks, unprompted. The writer behind ABBA-based hit musical Mamma Mia! is contemplating how one of her characters for her earlier play, Shang-A-Lang, has just been described to her by the team behind Rapture Theatre's touring revival, and isn't quite sure how it translates into her own west country patois.

When it's explained to Johnson that somebody who is gallus is someone with attitude, swagger and cheek in abundance, it seems to hit the spot.

“That's Lauren,” Johnson says of one of three middle-aged women in the play who go on a bender at a 1970s revival weekend at Butlin's holiday camp, where a Bay City Rollers tribute act are headlining. Over the course of the weekend, Lauren and her pals, Jackie and Pauline, have assorted epiphanies as they encounter a couple of equally ageing rockers.

“I'd been thinking about writing a play set in a holiday camp for some time,” Johnson explains about the roots of Shang-a-Lang, which first appeared at London fringe theatre The Bush in 1998. “I'd been to Butlin's in Ayr for a cheap holiday, and then my sister went on one of these 1970s weekends, came back and said that's what you've got to write about. I mean, tribute bands, what's not to love?”

Johnson duly went on a reconnaissance expedition to Butlin's in both Bognor and Minehead, with then Bush artistic director Mike Bradwell in tow.

“Mike bottled out after a day and went home,” Johnson says of the man who championed her writing. “But we did see a version of the Bay City Rollers, Les McKeown's version, I think. We also saw The Sweet, not long before [singer] Brian Connolly died, and we saw Desmond Dekker, who was amazing. It isn't just booze, sex and vomit, you know. You can have a good time as well.”

Johnson's career as a playwright began when, inspired by the likes of Jim Cartwright's play, Road, she entered a play-writing competition run by Bristol Old Vic and HTV West. Johnson won this with Rag Doll, a play about incest and child abuse which was staged at Bristol Old Vic in 1988, and subsequently filmed for television.

“Success for me was writing something from start to finish,” Johnson says, “but I won the competition, and there's nothing better than being told that you can do something.”

Johnson sent her next play on spec to The Bush. Bradwell's staging of it began their long working relationship, while Johnson penning three more plays for Bristol Old Vic inbetween writing for television on the likes of Casualty, Byker Grove and Band of Gold. It was Shang-a-Lang and, especially, Mamma Mia!, however, that put Johnson squarely into the mainstream as much as the book that Shang-a-Lang was partly inspired by, Helen Fielding's novel, Bridget Jones' Diary.

“It seemed to be saying that if they haven't got a man as an appendage, all women are useless,” Johnson says. “Me and my mates at school were all rampant feminists, or so we thought, even though we all secretly wanted boyfriends, but I was annoyed by the phenomenon of Bridget Jones.”

Johnson hasn't read Helen Fielding's new Bridget Jones novel, nor is she likely to. She is deeply amused, however, by one of the book's plot-twists which she's been unable to avoid.

“My God, she's killed off Darcy,” Johnson says dryly. “What a great thing to do. You've got to admire her chops for doing that.”

Johnson's play wasn't the first Shang A Lang to make it to the stage. Back in 1987, Clyde Unity Theatre produced a play by Aileen Ritchie of the same name which was also about a group of Rollers fans. While it is unlikely that Johnson had heard of Ritchie's play, the surface similarities between the two demonstrate just how much the Edinburgh sired boy-band affected a generation's collective psyche.

This is also the case with jukebox musicals, a trend which Mamma Mia! pretty much kick-started. While some remain snobbish about the commercially-minded melding of contemporary narrative with already existing hit records, the term dates back to the 1940s with Judy Garland vehicle, Meet Me in St Louis, and one could cite films such as Rock Around The Clock and Beatles flick, A Hard Day's Night, as fitting into this category. As with the craze for rock and roll musicals such as Buddy and Return to the Forbidden Planet, the current wave of jukebox musicals has its roots in fringe theatre.

Johnson's relationship with the Bush is testament to this, as is the success of Sunshine on Leith, Stephen Greenhorn's Proclaimers soundtracked play which, like Mamma Mia! before it, was recently turned into a film. Again, like Mamma Mia!,and Shang-a-Lang, Sunshine on Leith is shot through with a common touch akin to a popular television drama, with the naturalism broken up by the songs.

“I get really annoyed when people talk about Dexter Fletcher's Sunshine on Leith,” Johnson says. “It was a stage play first, and it's Stephen Greenhorn's.”

As for Shang-a-Lang, that remains very much Johnson's.

“I was working on both Mamma Mia! and Shang-a-Lang at the same time,” Johnson remembers, “so they reflect each other. If I'd been doing a lot on Mamma Mia!, it was quite a relief to get back to Shang-a-Lang with Lauren, Jackie and Pauline and let them be as foul-mouthed as they liked. It's a play about friendship, and realising that the people who are your friends aren't necessarily the best people to be around after a certain time. They can hold you back. If I was to identify with any of the women in the play. It would probably be poor old Pauline, who's on her own and can't get a shag.”

Fifteen years on, Johnson retains a fondness for the play.

“It's like a gawky adolescent now,” she says. “but it was so much fun. After Mamma Mia! became what it became, that kind of became my identity. That was fine, because there was no point in denying that I wrote Mamma Mia!, because it brought me so many benefits, like getting to know the people who wrote all those wonderful songs, but Shang-a-Lang is still me as well. Now that it is a gawky adolescent I may be mortified when I see it again, but looking back at it now, it brings out the gallus in me.”

Shang-a-Lang, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, Thursday-Friday; Regal Theatre, Bathgate, November 11th; Albert Halls, Stirling, November 15th; King's Theatre, Glasgow, November 19th-23rd.

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Catherine Johnson – A Life in Letters

Catherine Johnson grew up in Wickwar, near Wotton-under-Edge in Gloucestershire, where she was expelled from school aged sixteen. She married aged eighteen, but was divorced by the time she was twenty-four. Unemployed and living in Bristol with her first child, Johnson entered a playwriting competition run by Bristol Old Vic and HTV West. Entered under the pseudonym Maxwell Smart, Rag Doll won the competition, and was subsequently produced in 1988.

Boys Mean Business was produced by The Bush in 1989, and Dead Sheep by the same theatre in 1991, winning the Thames TV Best Play Award. For Bristol Old Vic, Johnson wrote Too Much Too Young (1992), Where's Willy? (1994) and Renegades (1995).

Shang-a-Lang was first produced by The Bush in 1998, with Mamma Mia! opening in the West End the following year. Since then it has been seen in more than forty countries, and was nominated for Olivier and Tony awards.

Beyond Mamma Mia!, Johnson wrote Little Baby Nothing (2003) for The Bush, Through The Wire (2005) for the Royal National Theatre Shell Connections, and Suspension (2009) for Bristol Old Vic. Johnson has written extensively for television, and is currently working on a major new project, as well as a novel and a new piece for the RNT Shell Connections initiative.

The Herald, November 5th 2013

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Monday, 4 November 2013

True West

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars
The cricket chirrups and increasingly loud coyote howls that punctuate 
this all too rare revival of Sam Shepard's 1980 trawl through the dark 
heart of America may sound real in Phillip Breen's production. In the 
end, however, as Max Breen's cinema-scope design makes clear, we all 
know it's as make-believe as a movie. The quest for authenticity is 
what drives Eugene O'Hare's bookish Austin, who, on the verge of a 
life-changing deal, has holed himself up in his mother's place, tapping 
out an old-time love story in suburban bliss.

Austin's world is turned upside down when his deranged petty thief 
brother Lee turns up out of the blue from his desert hidey-hole. Where 
Austin peddles implausible dreams on the page, Lee's manic, 
booze-soaked stories of a wilder world beyond convinces Steven Elliot's 
hustler producer Saul to take a chance on his pop-eyed take on 
blockbuster sensationalism over art.  As the brothers' roles are 
reversed in increasingly manic fashion, the veneer of civilisation 
itself seems to collapse in on them as the domestic shell they're 
occupying is smashed to pieces.

Originally produced at a time when the excesses of the 1960s-sired 
generation of maverick film directors were about to be reined in and 
horse-traded for something more formulaic, Shepard's play is  now a 
period piece from a pre laptop, pre YouTube age where even the most 
independent auteur was working for the man. With explicit nods to 
familial dysfunction via an absent father, Shepard's text is also shot 
through with the myth-making extremes of Greek tragedy.

It's a relentless and increasingly demented ride, with Alex Ferns 
driving the action as Lee with a ferocity which, when matched by 
Austin's toaster-stealing routine as Lee batters the typewriter into 
submission with a golf-club, looks like a wilfully absurdist parody. 
Even their Mom, played by Barbara Rafferty with resigned whey-faced 
acceptance, can't tell what's real anymore. As the two men square up to 
each other while the stage fades to black, the call of the wild beyond 
the fake four walls that bind them both may save them yet.

The Herald, November 4th 2013

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Blithe Spirit

Perth Theatre
Four stars
When well-heeled novelist Charles and his second wife Ruth tell their 
whirlwind of a maid Edith to slow down at the opening of Noel Coward's 
psychic-based comedy, they could be having a word with Coward himself. 
Because, rather than the normal cut-glass gallop through the French 
windows which the play is driven by, Johnny McKnight's production slows 
things down to a stately amble that lends things a more serious intent.

As Charles attempts to cop a few moves for a story by inviting local 
psychic Madame Arcati to conduct a séance, he gets more than he 
bargains for when his dead first wife Elvira appears. While only 
visible to him, Elvira nevertheless wreaks havoc on Charles and Ruth's 
seeming domestic bliss, with Charles clearly relishing two women 
fighting over him from beyond the grave.

While relocating things from Kent to Perth doesn't add much to a play 
that simply can't avoid its poshness, there are nevertheless some 
quietly subversive touches that chime with popular culture's ongoing 
fascination with the dead returning in one form or another. The most 
striking of these comes in Sally Reid's Elvira, whose flame-haired 
countenance is offset by an equally vivid scarlet dress that gives her 
a strength and sense of self-determination beyond pure mischief.

Unspoken sexual identities too are in abundance. While Charles is a 
woman-hating user, Billy Mack's effete Dr Bradman clearly uses Helen 
Logan's Mrs Bradman as his beard, while Anne Lacey's Madame Arcati is 
free-spirited and sensibly-shoed. Only Scarlett Mack's delightfully ditsy 
Edith remains untouched in a show which climaxes on Kenny Miller's set 
with a bad-tempered and technically versatile flourish that finally 
lays its ghosts to rest.

The Herald, November 4th 2013

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Friday, 1 November 2013

The Steamie

Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Three stars
When Tony Roper wrote his 1950s-set comedy more than a quarter of a century ago, it was his experience as an actor he brought to it rather than a rarefied literary sensibility. Yet his yarn about four women putting their dirty washing out to dry in a public steam room on Hogmanay is as plotless as Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot, which was famously described as a play where 'nothing happens twice.' Like Godot, however, there is a lot more going on here, and not just via both plays' love affair with music hall.

As with Beckett's existential double act of Vladimir and Estragon, Roper's women are terminally optimistic co-dependents in search of a future. Where Beckett's universe is vague and zen-like, Roper's is rooted in a sense of fast-fading community where a sense of sisterhood is slowly trickling down the class scale. As Ken Alexander's revival makes clear, Roper's play is essentially a set of comic routines, which, punctuated by David Anderson's songs, never fails to tap into something that goes beyond cosy nostalgia to something deeper.

This is reflected in the performances, with Jenny Lee's Mrs Culfeathers less doddery than how she is sometimes played, while, at the opposite end of the age scale, Helen McAlpine's Doreen seems more street-smart and less naïve. Julie Coombe's Magrit and Janette Foggo's Dolly are similarly fused with a battle-weary common touch that fires all their banter. As the sole representative of the male species, Alan McHugh captures Andy's decline from cocksure swagger to rubber-legged drunk with Max Wall-like abandon in a production that's worth the ticket price for the Galloway's mince routine alone.

The Herald, November 1st 2013


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Maxine Peake, The Eccentronic Research Council and 1612 Underture

This  is the full transcript of an interview with Maxine Peake and Adrian Anthony Flanagan of ECCENTRONIC RESEARCH COUNCIL, which was conducted to coincide with the ERC performance of 1612 Underture, an analog synth/spoken word suite inspired by the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612, at the National Gallery of Scotland on October 31st 2013 as part of the Halloween: By Night Event.

Neil Cooper: First of all, could you tell me how you first got involved in 1612 Underture?

Maxine Peake: It was all the fault of a well known networking site. I'd just been to see Chrome Hoof at Islington Mill in Salford and had typed a little paragraph of praise when I had a message saying if you like them you'll like my band. it was a Mr Adrian Anthony Flanagan. We had a brief conversation about our respective music tastes, and then he enquired if I would appear in his video, which involved donning a rabbit suit and charging around Kersal Moor in Salford. After four months of intensive filming in London it was just what the doctor ordered. 

We stayed in touch, mainly because I was hoping to steal the film footage from him while he was sleeping. Then the next thing I know I'm embroiled in some Kraut, prog, psychedelic, electronic fiasco. Needless to say, I steer well clear of social network sites theses days.

Adrian Flanagan: It's all true. I wooed her with the offer of a bottle of Thunderbird, a pickled egg, a photo of Pat Phoenix and some Rockabilly records..Then the gypsy in me kicked in...You're in my band now!

NC: The Pendle witch trials are still a relatively hidden piece of history. What was the initial motivation for making the album, and what did you want to get across?

AF: Maxine and I just got talking about the Pendle Witches one afternoon. We are both from Lancashire, her Bolton, me Salford, and we were both fascinated by the story. As a child, I used to get dragged up to Pendle Hill to go walking by my folks and be told tales of these scary, fiendish,women...but of course, when you're a bit older and you read about them and you see how horrifically they we're treated and how they were basically being used as scapegoats by the government, then you start seeing parallels with what's going on now.

So Maxine and I went on a little road trip around the villages surrounding Pendle Hill. I came home back to Sheffield and started writing about it with one eye watching London burning in the riots, kids running around breaking things and hurting each other in Manchester and Birmingham, and similar things happening in Greece, Spain and, more recently, Turkey and Egypt. There was and still is this feeling that the whole nation is a ticking time bomb. People are completely fed up with how they are being treated by a government that we by and large didn't even vote for.

We wouldn't vote for liars, or for people whose only interest is that of protecting banks, major corporations and looking after their sort of people, which isn't our kind of people..It's almost like we are just some petty inconvenience, that if they strangle and starve enough, will go away!!..This anger, depression and poverty Is affecting everyone. For people that can't articulate themselves, that anger manifests itself by breaking stuff and they then get called animals or scumbags. They are not animals. They are angry. Ignore that anger at your peril. My anger manifested itself in writing a story about modern Britain and the mistreatment of 17th century human beings, the so called Pendle Witches. I truly believe we are all outsiders, modern day witches. It wont be long before this government will be taking us all to Gallows Hill for having an opinion!

NC: What was the process of making the album, then? And what was it like working with musicians and effectively being in a band?

AF:
After I got Maxine reading my story and prose to tape, Dean Honer, my musical partner in the ERC, and I set about building music around the different section', almost sound tracking it. It was a very different process to how we would create say a pop song. It's quite an enjoyable way to work actually, and brought us a new kind of freedom as musicians. It was great to truly see what the old analogue synthesisers could do, be a bit more experimental and noisy and damn the neighbours!

MP: I'm glad I only got involved this late in the game, else if I was younger I would have packed up and gone on the road for good, joining these merry pranksters, drinking myself into oblivion!

NC: How did you feel when the idea for performing the album live came up?

From the clips I've seen, although playing a part, it looks both far more exposing and far more personal than doing something for the telly or a stage play. How much was that the case, and just how personal did 1612 Underture become? Watching you read a litany of contemporary ills, you look very passionate.

MP: There was never any intention to perform it live. The vocals were recorded round at Dean Honer's house in thirty minutes, and I believed it would be the end of that, but then Andy Votel from the label Finders Keepers records got in touch, and we got released it on Jane Weaver's label, Bird.

The next thing I know, we were doing an album launch in Manchester. It was extremely chaotic, but great fun. I find the work with The ERC extremely exposing. In theatre you are to include the audience under the guise that you're trying to get them to believe you've forgotten they are there.Speaking directly to them is very, very surreal for me. It is far more personal and far more difficult. I think it takes a certain personality to be a great front-person, and I think I'm cut from a very different cloth. I wanted to act to get far away from who I am.

Adrian and myself have very similar politics and which we discuss at length, so I am very passionate in my delivery because it's what I believe."
AF: The ERC is effectively just a studio project. We never thought we'd be doing it live or that anyone would really be bothered by what we see as being quite niche and a bit weird, but 1612 Underture seems to have really captured the imagination of the general public. We pretty much said from the start,we'll just do a one-off launch party and a big festival show then move on to the next thing, but it's taken on a life of its own. I think it will maintain a relevance for some time..

We can't do big tours because of Maxine's day job, and Dean's got family commitments, but at the same time we don't really want to do that either. I can't think of anything worse than turning up at some O2/beer-sponsored sticky carpet flea-pit every night and just going through the motions, but once in a while an offer comes in asking us to play somewhere unusual, and if that offer is sweet and we are all available then we would consider it.You never know where the ERC are going to strike next.

Despite what Maxine says, she's one of the best front people I've seen. She's totally engaging. Her compassion, her honesty and heart shines through everything she does. There's an element of acting and showmanship to all front people. It's not so different, it's just about learning the tricks. Just look at Mick Jagger. One day he's in a nursing home with a tartan blanket over his knee, the next he's pointing at an imaginary crowd member and doing high kicks at Glastonbury.

NC: You grew up in Bolton, quite close to Pendle. When did you first become aware of the witch trials, and what effect did that have on you?


MP:The Pendle witches had always been part of the folklore when I was growing up. No-one had ever explained to me their story properly, so I just deducted there was a hill not too far away where witches on broomsticks met to cause mayhem,which I thought was just a fairytale. It was only in my teens when my mother, Glenys, began working in Euxton, and told me there was a woman at her place of work who was a descendant of the Pendle witch, Alice Nutter, so I went down to Sweetens, my local bookshop in Bolton, and bought myself a book on the subject and started to read up."

NC: In terms of pop culture, witches and witch trials are all over the show, from The Wizard of Oz to The Crucible to Witchfinder General, while the Pendle trials are referenced on The Fall's Live at the Witch Trials album. (you might also want to check out these links -http://robstjohn.tumblr.com/post/32885335409/pendle-1612-lancashire-folklore-tapes
– and, slightly tangentially -
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrzoNvXkXn8- and –http://edinburghinternationalfashionfestival.com/eiff_events/screening-linder-sterling/).
What is it do you think about popular culture that is still captivated by witches?


AF
I think over the centuries the story of the Pendle witches specifically has become akin to that of tittle tattle and Chinese whispers. The only documents written that come from the time are taken from the notes of someone who had a government agenda against them. They were hung, drawn and quartered before they stepped in the dock. It was important to me to re-address the balance, right some wrongs. History is both an ass and a teacher. It's just that some people never learn.
I don't really think people who for instance dress up like witches at Halloween really know what they are doing. They uglify themselves, stick on the pointy nose and some warts. I don't think they are doing it in memory of these poor women that were raped and tortured, hung and left to rot. They are just doing it for the lark. It's something that needs to be thought about before painting your face green and going wooo, aren't I scary.

NC: The demonisation and scape-goating of women in particular as witches if they don't conform still seems prevalent today (oddly, someone just told me that a woman was imprisoned under witchcraft laws as recently as 1947!). What forms do you think that takes, and how much does 1612 Underture address that?
MP: Women are still victimised for being different, for not conforming. We like to bandy the word 'mad' about when describing a woman who may be being out spoken or passionate. If a woman has a strong sense of her sexuality she's still labelled a slag or some such. I feel we still have to battle to be heard, to be taken seriously. If a woman has an opinion she's described as feisty! This infuriates me. If a woman is being strong-willed, outspoken, brave, emotional and fearless, then she is being a woman, nothing more nothing less.

NC: Listening to the album and watching a few clips from the show, it seems to be making some serious political points about those who are witch-hunted today, for being poor or different. While no-one's being killed, just how bad is it today, do you think?

MP: No ones being killed? There are woman in this country who are being murdered in honour killings, female babies being murdered because they are not male. The biggest witchhunt at the moment is the Tory parties demonisation of the working class. Whipping middle England up into a frenzy with the myth of hoards of scroungers bleeding the tax payer dry, of immigrants coming over to take their jobs and homes. Bedroom tax, the gagging law. The list goes on and on."

AF: Let's not forget the small fact that more people are committing suicide than ever. I hope you're proud of yourself, Mr Cameron?

NC: How much do you think doing 1612 Underture has affected you as an actress in terms of what you've done since?

MP:
The collaboration came at a time when I was just beginning to write my first commission for Radio 4, so it's really given me strength to have the confidence to try different artistic avenues. That I didn't always have to be just an actress.

NC: After doing 1612 Underture, are there any plans to work with the Eccentronic Research Council again? Or is there any further to desire to makes records or perform live?


MP:
We have recorded a new album, so I think I'll always have a lifeline to the ERC. If things get really bad I could always roadie for them.
AF: You don't show enough bum-crack to be a roadie. And yes, we do have a few records cooking away. In fact we have just released a single this week in honour of Delia Derbyshire's ground-breaking radio experiment, 'the dreams', which she recorded fifty years ago. Ours is called Maxine's Dream. Look it up.
The first of two new ERC albums will hopefully be out by the end of the year. We've not thought about doing any live shows, but if the people want it and the venue is an unusual setting then maybe we can be tempted. There really is nothing typical about this bunch of freakoids. I certainly never imagined we'd end up playing mad synths inside the National Galleries of Scotland!

NC: And finally, just out of interest, really, what is it you're working on just now?

MP: At this moment I'm about to start work with film-maker Carol Morley on her next feature film project. My radio play about Anne Scargill and her occupation of Parkside Colliery in Lancashire in 1993 is on Radio 4 at 2.15 on November 4th, and I've a theatre commission to get on with for next year.
The Eccentronic Research Council featuring Maxine Peake will perform 1612 Underture as part of Halloween: By Night, which also features a performance by Blake Morrison, at the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, October 31st, 7.15-10pm. 1612 Underture and Maxine's Dream are available now. Witches and Wicked Bodies runs at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until November 3rd.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Herald, October 31st 2013

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