Sunday, 30 March 2014

Never Try This At Home

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Three stars
Now the 1970s have been tarnished forever by the behaviour, alleged or otherwise, of some of the era's biggest show-business stars, it's as hard to satirise its excesses as it is to know how to replace all the endless retro Bank Holiday telly shows it spawned. Yet that's exactly what the Told By An Idiot company attempt to do in a show that reimagines the custard pie throwing anarchy of Saturday morning children's TV as the accident waiting to happen it probably was.

It starts with our host Niall Ashdown setting up a student union vibe with the framing device of gathering the surviving presenters of a Tiswas-like show called Shushi, which came to an abrupt end in 1979 when its sole female presenter attempted suicide live on air. As a series of live rewinds reveal a culture of casual misogyny, cultural stereotyping and egomania, Ashdown interviews each of Shushi's alumni in turn, including its female survivor.

As a comment on the unseen indulgences of a seemingly untouchable mass media, there are some deliberately discomforting moments in Paul Hunter's production of Carl Grose's script devised in part with the company. The trouble is, for all the kitsch recreations on show, there are too many mixed messages being sent out. Any serious points being made are partly undermined by the sheer fun the cast of six are so clearly having. It's a tricky balancing act, but if Told By An Idiot's observations are to matter as much as The Day Today, Alan Partridge and new BBC mock doc W1A do, they need to go deeper and get much, much messier.

The Herald, March 28th 2014


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Thursday, 27 March 2014

Union

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars
It takes a thunder-crash to do away with the giant projected Union Jack that fills the stage at the opening of Tim Barrow's new play concerning the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland. Whether such a powerful symbol is any indicator of how the Act may or may not be similarly washed away following the independence referendum this coming September remains to be seen. Either way, Barrow's ambitious piece of imagined history makes for a rollicking political romp involving poet Allan Ramsay, spy turned novelist Daniel Defoe and a roll-call of low-lifes and high-flyers from Edinburgh and London.

It's the way these two worlds rub up against each other sexually and politically that makes Mark Thomson's production so thrilling. With dynamic use of Andrzej Goulding's video design and Philip Pinsky's harpsichord-led underscore, things work best when the exchanges among the ten-strong ensemble are at their most wildly imagined extreme. As Irene Allan's tea-drinking Queen Anne is introduced to whisky by Liam Brennan's boorishly self-important Duke of Queensbury, the emotions unleashed are the flipside of Ramsay's equally drunken love for Sally Reid's prostitute, Grace. Both suggest a nation about to be still-born. Only once Scotland has been sold off do the speeches sound more partisan.

The juxtaposition between the English and Scottish establishments united in their corruption and the back-street barflies trying to get by points up a divide that seems to stem from class more than nationhood. As Grace says of one of her well-heeled clients who has become a whore of a different kind, “It's not country that turns him on. It's greed.” Wise words in a boldly audacious work.

The Herald, March 27th 2014


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Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Black Coffee

King's Theatre, Edinburgh
Three stars
Now that actor David Suchet has completed his stint in the title role of Agatha Christie's Belgian detective Hercule Poirot on TV, if the powers that be ever consider repeating the exercise, they could do worse than put Robert Powell behind the master sleuth's inscrutable moustache. In the Agatha Christie Theatre Company's touring look at the grand mistress of crime's first ever play, Powell plays Poirot with a raised eyebrow and a deadly sense of fun that works a treat.

When top-notch physicist Sir Claud Amory is murdered in a house full of guests where he has also invited Poirot to reveal who stole his secret formula, a labyrinthine world of blackmail and international spy rings is uncovered, even as those gathered pass the incriminating after dinner coffee cups around quicker than a magician. Written and set twelve years after World War One, the country-house conspiracy the play exposes may come equipped with impeccable manners, but foreigners still aren't trusted, leaving the Italian Dr Carelli and Amory's daughter-in-law Lucia as prime suspects.

Powell's Poirot, like his creator, is a moralist, albeit one with serious OCD, and even though much of Joe Harmston's production is played in inverted commas, there's always a sense that Poirot is on the side of the good guys. This is the case even as Poirot's comment to his sidekick Hastings that “This is not an ordinary human crime. This is drama,” lends things a meta-theatrical lilt. When Olivia Mace's Lucia does what she has to with the formula, it's an act of destruction which, temporarily at least, might just have saved the world.

The Herald, March 26th 2014

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Sketches for Albinos – fireworks and the dead city radio (mini50)

Three stars

Matthew Collings has become a quietly ubiquitous presence in Edinburgh's off-piste electronische live diaspora over the last couple of years. This latest release in the composer and sound artist's Sketches for Albinos guise was forged and recorded during snatched moments during time spent in Iceland, and comes on 12” vinyl with a photographic book.

The seven tracks make for a curiously domestic-sounding affair, with the treated guitar and breathy, just-out-of-bed vocal of the opening 'I Have So Many Things I've Always Wanted' seemingly pulsed along by trolls playing a toy orchestra. The crudely cut-n'-pasted drum clatter of 'I Think We Grew Again' comes on like a lo-fi John Barry and a frosty rather than chilled take on The Orb's 'Little Fluffy Clouds'

Beyond the drone, snatches of conversations dip in and out of view, A woman describes herself opening the door and stepping into the sunshine. Toddlers sing some far off nursery rhyme. A man shares a dream as one might huddled round the sofa talking rubbish with friends. A woman's voice says how she doesn't feel loved. Earlier, the same voice says how she's “recording everything” before putting the 'phone down. It's private stuff, as though the listener is eavesdropping in through the rear window on aural snapshots of things normally hidden from view.

Opaque and ornate titles hint at after-hours narratives in pitch-black retreats with only the embers of something or someone for company. 'February With The Wolves And Angels' squints into the middle distance, even as a stern voice comes on like an Icelandic sat-nav. The woozily melancholy piano of 'The Sailor in the City is Buying Up Time', the the drum skitters of 'She Drew A Pentagon' and the acoustic fuzz of 'Piani Fingers' recalls the DIY primitivism of late This Heat bassist Gareth Williams' post-band Flaming Tunes project. 'Submerged Cathedrals' breathes in the extended space rock drones of Windy & Carl or Randall Nieman's recently revived Fuxa project conjured out from the FX box gloop, with every click and hiss preserved in glacial bliss.

The List, March 2014 


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Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Never Try This At Home - Told By An Idiot Get Messy

When Told By An Idiot director Paul Hunter told writer Carl Grose that he'd appeared on 1970s Saturday morning TV madhouse Tiswas when he was eight years old, Grose thought he'd struck gold. The pair had decided to do a show based around the curious phenomenon of shows such as Tiswas which, while ostensibly made for children, were steeped in some very grown-up shades of anarchy in a way that made them cult viewing for students even as some parents changed channels to the BBC's altogether safer world of Noel Edmonds and Swap Shop. Hunter, alas, had come out of the experience unscarred.

“I thought initially we were going to making a show about our director exorcising his demons,” says Grose, “but as it turned out, he was mates with someone who's dad was a cameraman or something like that, and he said he remembers being in the cage and having water thrown over him, but after that it all gets a bit hazy, which was really rather frustrating for me.”

There is an exorcism of sorts in Never Try This At Home, the show that resulted from Grose and Hunter's line of inquiry, which tours to the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh this week. In the show, the purging is more to do with the presenters of fictional programme, Shushi, who reunite to take part in a Jeremy Kyle style programme years after an on-air incident forces the show to be cancelled forever.

“What fired us up about Tiswas,” says Grose, “was that it went out live on ITV, it was very much made up on the spot and it was quite anarchic. But we also looked at a lot of other things, like Martin Scorsese's film, The King of Comedy, and Network, all these darkly humorous things about the media and celebrity. Never Try This At Home isn't a nostalgia show. It may be about children's TV, but it's for adults, and it's really quite dark.”

Most people of a certain age will have memories of Saturday morning TV, whether it was the caller telling 1980s band Matt Bianco exactly what they thought of them on Swap Shop, or else the little boy bellowing a wildly off-key rendition of Art Garfunkel's Watership Down theme song, Bright Eyes, while dressed in a rabbit suit on Tiswas. Other famous clips from Tiswas include a small boy asking Chris Tarrant if he can go to the toilet, and Sally James innocently asking Kevin Rowland where the name of his band Dexy's Midnight Runners came from.

Tiswas hosts Chris Tarrant and Sally James led a regular line-up of John Gorman, formerly of 1960s Liverpool poetry troupe turned chart stars The Scaffold, a young Lenny Henry doing impressions of TV botanist David Bellamy and a Rastafarian character with a fetish for condensed milk, and Bob Carolgees with his punk puppet, Spit The Dog. Tiswas also gave air-time to The Phantom Flan Flinger, and the phenomenon of the Dying Fly.

With guests including comedians Bernard Manning and Frank Carson, Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant and assorted members of Electric Light Orchestra, Michael Palin, future Dr Who and former Ken Campbell associate Sylvester McCoy, the anything goes approach of Tiswas fell somewhere between a working man's club, a performance art happening and a fringe theatre show.

“Just to have Sylvester McCoy on it being interviewed while pretending to be a car, there's something very punk about that, and there's a variety sort of feel to it as well.”

Under the name The Four Bucketeers, the Tiswas presenters had a hit record with The Bucket of Water Song, and so successful was the show that it spawned a late night show called. O.T.T. Despite similarly anarchic intentions, the show's adults only format never really took off, although it did find infamy when it featured comedy troupe The Greatest Show on Legs, whose numbers included the late comedian Malcolm Hardee, performing a naked balloon dance.

Given how much 1970s celebrities have come under scrutiny over the last couple of years since the late Jimmy Savile was exposed as a serial paedophile on a grand scale, much of the era's mix of innuendo and apparent innocence has been tainted. While not overtly referenced in Never Try This At Home, neither was this something that could be ignored.

“When we started working on the show, nothing had happened,” Grose explains. “Then everything exploded , and although we didn't want to make it about what happened with Jimmy Savile and so on, we had to include it somewhere. You can't help but look back at all that stuff that was on TV with tarnished eyes now, and you get a sense that during that period of history things were out of control to some extent. With all the Jimmy Savile stuff, the lack of responsibility was outstanding.”

Without Tiswas, however, television would have been a lot duller, and the spirit of its barely controlled chaos has arguably trickled down into the alternative comedy boom as well as theatre companies such as Told By An Idiot themselves.

For a hint of what audiences should expect from Never Try This At Home, Grose points to a letter the company received from Chris Tarrant.

“He's found out about the show, and we thought he was going to sue us,” Grose says. “As it was, he said that he hoped that we didn't stick to the script much, and that no audience member went home dry.”


Never Try This At Home, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, March 26-29

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Waking up to Saturday morning TV


Tiswas – Tiswas began life as a links strand for the Midlands based ATV region, before becoming a fully-fledged programme in its own right in 1974. As other regions picked it up, the programme's anarchic reputation grew. Chris Tarrant co-presented the programme from early on, with Sally James joining the team in 1977. The programme ended in 1982, as senior management tried to re-focus what had become a cult programme for adults back onto children.

Multi-Coloured Swap Shop – The BBC's infinitely tamer response to Tiswas was hosted by Noel Edmonds with Maggie Philbin and John Craven, while Keith Chegwin acted as a roving reporter. The show's mix of celebrity phone-ins, quizzes and pop music was bolstered by Chegwin travelling the country to conduct a 'Swaporama', whereby viewers could meet to exchange items. Swap Shop
ran over six series between 1976 and 1982, and was replaced in turn by Saturday Superstore, Going Live! and Live & Kicking.

There were numerous other ITV Saturday morning shows across the regions in the 1970s. These included The Saturday Banana, presented by former Goodie Bill Oddie, and The Mersey Pirate, which was filmed on a boat as it sailed the River Mersey. Items included appearances by Andrew Schofield as Scully, Boys From The Blackstuff writer Alan Bleasdale's archetypal Scouse scally.

In the 1990s, other Saturday morning TV programmes showed Tiswas's clear influence. Between 1998 and 2002, SM TV Live was presented by Ant and Dec with Cat Deeley, while from 2002 to 2006, Holly Willoughby and Stephen Mulhern presented Ministry of Mayhem, which was later rebranded as Holly & Stephen's Saturday Showdown.

The Herald, March 25th 2014


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A Slow Air

PalaceTheatre, Kilmarnock
Four stars
There's a deep-set  poignancy in David Harrower's own production of his 
play about a brother and sister's reconciliation that feels more fully 
realised than when it was first produced in 2011. This may or may not 
have something to do with the fact that Harrower's revival for 
Borderline Theatre Company is touring the country in a way it hasn't 
done before, but either way it captures a splintered sense of intimacy 
that seems to sum up the state of a nation in flux, whereby the 
personal and the political and the local and the global are bound 
together.

Athol and Morna may have both been brought up in Edinburgh, but even 
beyond their fourteen year estrangement, they are worlds apart. Where 
Morna gets by cleaning rich people's houses inbetween bringing up her 
son, Joshua, Athol runs his own construction business from his 
Renfrewshire living room opposite the house where the Glasgow Airport 
terrorists holed up prior to their botched 2007 attack. When Joshua 
turns up on  Athol's doorstep just before his twenty-first birthday, 
the umbilical ties that bind them all gradually unravel a past of 
domestic conflict that has left indelible scars.

The sense of place in Harrower's writing is exquisite in these two 
inter-connected monologues, especially as delivered by Lewis Howden and 
Pauline Knowles, who play the siblings flanked by hazy impressions of 
windows that suggest a network of modern day fortresses. For all the 
emotional rawness and brutal honesty on display, there's something 
bigger going on in this quietest of epics that's about an entire 
community reconciling itself with its differences as it tries to find 
somewhere called home.

The Herald, March 25th 2014

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Dare To Care

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars
“If you could see inside my head you'd be terrified,” says a character in Christine Lindsay's relentless fifty-five minute dramatic collage of life behind bars for a group of female prisoners. As words and experiences explode into view in a litany of cut-up first-person monologues, that's exactly what Muriel Romanes' dynamic production for Stellar Quines feels like.

With six actresses dressed in regulation track suit bottoms and t-shirts, each one plays a multitude of inmates and officers, with the names of each character flashed onto a network of TV monitors as they either talk out front, hang back in the shadows or else dangle from a climbing frame at the back of the stage. To point up the fact that many of these women's crimes are ones of circumstance as much as anything else, there are similarly crafted dispatches from the past, as suffragettes and women tried as witches recount their own experiences of persecution, incarceration and, in some cases, execution.

There's an urgent musical pulse to Romanes' production, which is driven as much by original songs by Hilary Brooks and Patricia Panther as by Lindsay's text, some of which borders on rap. It's an audacious set of stylings that gives voice to those occupying a hidden world that is here laid bare even more by Jade Currie's video design and Keith McIntyre's multi-faceted set design. At the play's heart, however, are a set of gutsy performances from one of the strongest acting ensembles you're likely to see of either gender, with Rebecca Elise, Meg Fraser, Molly Innes, Anne Kidd, Scarlett Mack and Alexandra Mathie giving their all in a fearless piece of work.

The Herald, March 24th 2014


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Kathryn Elkin - Mutatis Mutandis

Collective Gallery, Edinburgh
March 29-May 11
Kathryn Elkin doesn't want to say too much about 'Mutatis Mutandis', 
her new video installation that forms part of Edinburgh's Collective 
Gallery's Satellites programme. She doesn't want to give too much away, 
the Belfast-born purveyor of performance, video and text-based work 
says inbetween rummaging through the BBC archives as one of six 
Scotland-based artists given access to such a treasure trove of sound 
and vision with a view to creating new work from it.  That Elkin has 
the time to explore such a major undertaking may in part be down to the 
fact that 'Mutatis Mutandis' is a stand-alone work that doesn't require 
her physical presence.

“It's the first time I've really had to do a straight-forward 
exhibition,” says. Elkin, who, as well as her own film and performance 
work, has presented and curated her own events at CCA in Glasgow and 
elsewhere. “I'm not going to do any live work, but neither is it a film 
documenting a performance. Performance can be very fragile. It's all to 
do with how you connect with somebody or not.”

Far from being evasive, Elkin is effusive about Mutatis Mutandis', 
peppering her conversation with references that include composer Eric 
Satie, novelist Philip Roth, radical psycho-analyst Theodore Reik and  
recently deceased avant-garde theatre and  opera composer Robert 
Ashley.

“Reich wrote about female masochism,”Elkin explains, “and the 
differences between male and female masochism, so in a way the film is 
trying to un-binarise things we normally think of as binary. I like 
awkward things. I like things that are half one way, half the other, 
but it's good too to have someone put your hand behind your back and 
make you do things a certain way. I suppose in that way I'm a female 
masochist.”

The List, March 2014

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Navid Nurr - Renderender

Dundee Contemporary Arts
March 29th-June 15
Permanent transience is a way of being for Navid Nurr, the 
Dutch/Iranian auteur who takes over DCA with an epic array of work that 
co-opts the temporary detritus of everyday life into a series of 
constructions that provoke as much as they play with the material to 
hand. In what he describes as an ongoing set of 'interimodules', a 
conflation of 'interim' and 'modules' that defines a state of 
impermanence beyond easy pigeon-holing, Nurr utilises an array of 
wheelie bins, water coolers, emergency blankets, slide projectors and 
the like to make deeply personal expressions riven from a very private 
world.

“The art world is the only place where people listen to someone's 
personal and private language,” he says.”

For his second ever UK solo show, and his largest in a public space to 
date, Nurr presents key works, including 'When doubt turns into 
destiny' (1993-2011), a surveillance video in which Nurr attempts to 
evade detection  by the security lights in Berlin's avenues and 
alleyways; and 'City Soil' (2009-2014), a 1,100 litre street bin filled 
with the ashes of the rubbish created in the making of the show. These 
will sit alongside new work inspired by Dundee and the DCA site itself 
as a former hub for the local skate-boarding community, and using found 
film footage from the era. As a former skater himself who came out of 
the graffiti art scene, Nurr recognises the world all too well.

“I wasn't that good,” he reflects, “but I loved it so much that I 
didn't finish high school because of it. It wasn't just about the 
tricks, but more about being part of a community. Back in the 90s, 
no-one would support it, but when you were skating, you saw the world 
 from a different angle. Not just the architecture, but at yourself as 
well.”

The List, March 2014

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Bloody Trams

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars
They may not have been tram related, but the roadworks blocking the bus 
stop on Lothian Road immediately following this fifty-minute 'rapid 
response' to the seven-year carry-on that has been the Edinburgh Trams 
project spoke volumes about the vagaries of civic planners who 
seemingly give  little thought to the everyday consequences of their 
decisions. Put together by director Joe Douglas via a series of 
interviews with those in Edinburgh affected one way or another by the 
major city centre upheavals caused by the tram-works, what is 
effectively an extended dramatised vox pop is performed by actors 
Jonathan Holt and Nicola Roy, with musical accompaniment by composer 
and singer David Paul Jones on piano.

In an initially comic but increasingly poignant series of exchanges 
related by the actors via recordings of the interviews relayed through 
mobile phone ear-pieces, we hear from the small business people whose 
livelihoods were all but destroyed, the cabbies whose routes were 
disrupted on a daily basis, and the bureaucrats putting the inevitable 
positive spin on things. Most tellingly, there are those who wonder why 
the old trams were scrapped in 1950s in the name of progress.

What's revealed is both a near operatic real life soap opera and a 
piece of history which  has touched a collective nerve still raw from 
the experience. Bloody Trams has also tapped into the increasingly 
vital question of how public officials can be held to account by the 
constituents they are there to serve. With this in mind, if the 
Traverse wants to really get its hands dirty with civic muck, the 
similarly long-running shambles of the Caltongate development should be 
tackled onstage post-haste.

The Herald, March 21st 2014

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Thursday, 20 March 2014

Eternal Love

King's Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars
As rom-coms go, Howard Brenton's reimagining of the love affair between twelfth century French philosopher Peter Abelard and his teenage student and nun Heloise d'Argenteuil is cleverer than anything Richard Curtis has ever written. Yet, as the play's title indicates since it was changed from the loftier In Extremis when first seen at Shakespeare's Globe in 2006, despite the prevalence of dialectical and theological arguments between Abelard, Heloise and their pious nemesis, Bernard of Clairvaux, a rom-com is exactly what Brenton has produced.

Both Abelard and Heloise are a pair of precocious, constantly questioning firebrand's in John Dove's restaging of his original production for English Touring Theatre. It's as if they are living embodiments of the trees of knowledge that flank the action as the couple come together in secret. While the anti-establishment ideas of both are indulged before they meet, their coupling as a pair of pleasure-seeking sensualists who can't keep their hands off each other proves to be an incendiary act too far. Heloise may show a progressive sense of self-determination that looks positively counter-cultural, but in the end cutting the relationship off in its prime is the only option for her and Abelard's enemies.

For all the play's seriousness, there's an irreverent swagger about David Sturzager and Jo Herbert's central performances that carries throughout Brenton's audaciously penned text. Sex, ideas and heretical thought, it seems, are natural bedfellows here. When Heloise hands Bernard a copy of Abelard's auto-biography, published “800 years in the future, in English,” the libido-driven dance that follows suggests that the sexual revolution, like the dialectical arguments contained within Abelard's weighty tome, is still very much alive.

The Herald, March 20th 2014


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Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Tim Barrow - Union

Tim Barrow didn't know much about the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England before he decided to write a play about it. The Roslin born actor and writer was living in London, where he was in the throes of producing his low-budget road movie, The Inheritance, when he started to wonder how England and Scotland had come to be part of something called Great Britain. When he started to look into events leading up to the Act which may or may nor be done away with following the forthcoming independence referendum, Barrow was amazed at what he found.

“It was so dramatic,” he declares. “It was way more fascinating and complex than I would have thought. There were all these amazing characters and corruption and intrigue in this fast-moving political sphere where all these figures had suddenly come to prominence before falling. You had people like Queen Anne, who was this ageing woman who didn't have an heir, despite having about seventeen pregnancies. You had Daniel Defoe, who at the time was working in Edinburgh as a spy for the English government before he really came to prominence as a novelist.

“Then you had Allan Ramsay, who was this incredible Scottish poet and literary entrepreneur, who was setting up magazines and collecting people together. You read his poetry now, and he's a major figure. He has all this incredible lyricism and zest in the same way Burns or Hugh MacDiarmid have, and even though he comes from a working class background rather than having had a classical education, he seems to be able to marry the classical world with contemporary life really well.”

The result of Barrow's findings is Union, a brand new historical romp through the events behind the Act of Union, which opens at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh this week. The play's timing may look opportunistic, but Barrow actually completed the first draft of Union back in 2008, and only showed it to the Royal Lyceum's artistic director Mark Thomson when he was in Edinburgh to promote his second film, The Space Between, a couple of years later.

At that time, a minority SNP government was in office in Holyrood, and any kind of referendum on independence looked like a remote prospect. A performed reading of Union was held at the end of 2011, with the play subsequently programmed. By that time, the Scottish parliament election held earlier in the year had given the SNP an overall majority, and a referendum was suddenly looking like a very real possibility.

“The play suddenly started looking very topical,” was how Barrow saw it, although “I thought that if any major theatre in Scotland was going to do something like this, they probably weren't going to invest in a brand new play by me, but would go for something by something by someone who's better known.”

As it turns out thus far at least, Union is one of few plays that are in any way pertinent to the referendum to be produced this year. Indeed, history-based state of the nation epics that speak to contemporary audiences have been few and far between in Scotland. While in England, the post 1968 generation of playwrights such as Howard Brenton, Howard Barker, David Edgar and David Hare have all in different ways reimagined real events, in Scotland writers have arguably done things differently.

In the 1980s, Liz Lochhead's Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off took a lyrical approach to the relationship between Elizabeth 1 and Mary Stuart, while Jo Clifford's early plays, Losing Venice and Lucy's Play, used historical back-drops to make serious points. The nearest equivalent to Barker's Victory, Edgar's Maydays, Brenton's The Romans in Britain or Hare's Plenty came in 1999 with David Greig's look at Scots pioneer of paper money John Law in The Speculator.

Alistair Beaton's Anthony Neilson directed Caledonia, a satirical look at the doomed Darien expedition, was less successful in its execution, though it was still possible to recognise its roots in John McGrath's The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black, Black Oil. Such irreverent but politically charged looks at Scotland's nation state arguably date back to Sir David Lyndsay's Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaites, while Rona Munro's forthcoming trilogy of plays for this year's Edinburgh International Festival, The James Plays, are likely to take a more serious approach.

“I love Howard Barker,” Barrow says. “To set his plays in a historical context, but to have contemporary ideas and to use contemporary language, and to say a great deal about politics is amazing. I remember seeing Barker's play, Victory, at the Lyceum, which had a massive effect on me. It made me see that something like that was possible, something that said tons about the world I live in, even though it was set in the past.

“I really admire all these writers that came through in the 1960s and 1970s, and who could have thirty actors or something onstage. These brilliant dramatists seem to find these moments of upheaval, revolution and new ideas coming forth, and I guess in our age there's so much seeming freedom of information and ideas that we're used to the fact that anything is possible. So it's good to be reminded of certain historical situations where people are realising for the first time that they can live in a completely different way.”

While Union isn't anything as simplistic as a pro-independence polemic, it's clear where Barrow's sympathies lie. Yet, rather than create something dryly educational, Barrow cites Monty Python as an influence as much as Barker.

“So much of what happened is seemingly absurd,” Barrow says. “So the play's not cynical, and it's certainly not any kind of biting satire. We're very much trying to celebrate the life, the times and the spirit of the age, and also the political arguments of the time. It's not about saying one argument's right and one's wrong. It's more complex than that. So many of the arguments for union as well as those against were absolutely sound for the time. It's only later that you discover that various people received money for voting a certain way and betrayed the people they were with. That's where it gets really difficult.”

Union, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, March 20-April 12

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Tim Barrow was born in Roslin to English parents, who moved to Australia, before returning to Scotland when Barrow was aged six.

Barrow trained as an actor at Drama Centre in London, and, on returning to Scotland, appeared in Taggart and Richard Jobson's film, New Town Killers, as well as in his own films, The Inheritance and The Space Between.

While living in London between 2005 and 2011, Barrow co-founded Shotgun Theatre Company, a collective-run venture set up to produce challenging new plays.

Barrow wrote and produced The Inheritance, which won the Raindance award at the 2007 British Independent Film Awards, and was nominated for Best UK feature film at Raindance.

Barrow was also nominated for best producer at the 2008 BAFTA Scotland New Talent Awards.

Barrow went on to found Lyre Productions, which produced his second feature film, The Space Between, which was released in 2011, marking his debit as a director as well as writer and producer.

Union is Barrow's biggest stage work to date.

The Herald, March 18th 2014

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Monday, 17 March 2014

Claire Goose - The Perfect Murder

Claire Goose is used to playing strong but vulnerable women. Up until now, most of these have been on the small screen, be it in the Edinburgh-born actress's breakout role as Nurse Tina Seabrook in Casualty for three years between 1997 and 2000, or her forthcoming role as a woman who witnessed the murder of her mother aged seven in forthcoming mini-series, Undeniable.

This week, however, audiences will get to see Goose in the flesh when she stars alongside Les Dennis in the stage adaptation of Peter James' crime thriller novel, The Perfect Murder, which opens at the King's Theatre in Glasgow tomorrow night. In the play, which forms one of James' best-selling Roy Grace series of stories, Goose plays the appositely named Joan Smiley, who has probably been married to her husband Victor just that little bit too long. As both parties decree to get rid of their other half forever, the feeling is clearly mutual.

“He's so disappointed in her,” says Goose. “He goes to work, and is very set in his ways. He's older than her, so she's lost all of her friends, and she's so frustrated, because she's ended up being trapped in a loveless marriage. He starts an affair with a young prostitute, and their relationship develops beyond sex, and they become quite close. Victor and Joan have reached a point where they never seem to laugh anymore, and it's as if he was waiting for a sign.”

Despite such a messy domestic scenario, Goose remains sympathetic towards both partners, whatever crimes result from the acrimony.

“You can understand why they feel the way they do,” she says. “Joan isn't really that bad, and what's lovely about the play is that you have to love both Joan and Victor.”

Given that James' series of Roy Grace novels have sold more than fourteen million copies worldwide since the first one appeared a decade ago, Shaun McKenna's adaptation of The Perfect Murder looks set to be equally popular.

“They thought it might be quite interesting to bring in a younger Roy Grace,” Goose reveals, “so audiences who know the books can see how he might have been during the early part of his career, and what you end up with is something that's quite dark, but is also quite funny as well.”

The Perfect Murder marks Goose's first time on-stage for nine years. During that time, she spent several years on long-running police investigation series Waking The Dead, and another two on even longer running cop show, The Bill. More recently, Goose appeared in comedy drama, Mount Pleasant. For someone who has spent so much time on-screen, then, an undertaking such as The Perfect Murder is quite a leap.

“It's a massive thing for me,” Goose admits. “I haven't done theatre for years, and I've never toured, and this is a huge part. I'm on-stage pretty much throughout the entire play, so it's a massive challenge, just vocally, and because I've done so much telly, where you can do take after take and are constantly trying to perfect the one scene, it's different. You can't stop and do it again if it's not quite right, so not every scene is going to be perfect. It's just not possible.”

While McKenna's stage version of The Perfect Murder comes with an existing fan-base, Goose too has a track record that may give audiences certain ideas about what to expect from the play's leading lady.

“You can get stuck in playing such similar parts,” Goose observes, “but Joan is probably the least vulnerable character I've played. She's quite down-trodden, but she's also quite ballsy. So even though she's fragile there's an inner strength. She's like a dog with a bone who, once she grabs hold of something, she won't let go.”

With such a back catalogue of ballsy women in her repertoire, then, how much do they resemble Goose?

“I can be quite an emotional person,” she admits. “I find it quite easy to tap into my emotions. It's even easier since having kids. If anything awful about kids comes on telly, I just cry. But there's a determination in me as well. There has to be to do this job. You get more noes than yeses, and you have to take it on the chin. So I suppose there are elements of me in these characters that I play, which is probably why I enjoy playing them, because you can take them further.”

The Perfect Murder, King's Theatre, Glasgow, March 18-22.

The Herald, March 17th 2014


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Sunday, 16 March 2014

Refugee Boy

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars
A big red-brick inner city construction with towers of suitcases dotted 
across the stage becomes adventure playground, sanctuary and accidental 
prison for the fourteen year old boy at the heart of Lemn Sissay's 
stage adaptation of Benjamin Zephaniah's teenage novel. At times it 
looks like home, as Alem attempts to fit in with London's 
multi-cultural diaspora, from his foster family the Fitzgeralds to 
hyper-active bully Sweeney and his new best friend, Mustapha. At others 
it's as lonely as a prison cell, with Alem yearning for his own 
parents, caught in the crossfire of the Eritrean/Ethiopian war he's 
fled from.

 From flash-backs of Alem and his father gazing up at the North Star to 
a first experience of snow with the Fitzgeralds' daughter Ruth and 
discovering that very English chronicler of orphans, Charles Dickens, 
Alem embarks on an unflinchingly cruel  rites of passage. While the 
judgement passed by social workers and lawyers inspires protest, 
external forces make matters even worse.

There's depth and weight to Gail McIntyre's production for West 
Yorkshire Playhouse that takes its subject seriously while remaining 
thoroughly theatrical, as the cast of six navigate their way around 
Emma Williams' set. For all its impassioned heart and soul, there's a 
righteous but understated poetry that pulses through a street-smart but 
still fragile piece that never falls back on polemic. This is embodied 
in Fisayo Akinade's performance as Alem, who seems to grow in stature 
with each experience in a humbling and all too human play. Arriving at 
the Citz hard on the heels of  David Greig and Cora Bissett's Glasgow 
Girls, this is theatre at its most engagingly crucial.

The Herald, March 15th 2014

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The Hold

National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
Three stars
Given just how much we are living in an age of instant archiving via 
Instagram, Tumblr and whatever other  social media app may have just 
gone live, Adrian Osmond's play about one man's rummaging through the 
emotional totems that shaped him is a particularly timely piece of 
work. As performed by Lung Ha's inclusive ensemble company in Maria 
Oller's site-specific tour around a building that holds a vast store of 
archival material that gives a hungry public several keys to the past.

As John Edgar's ageing Peter goes through boxes with mobile phone 
wielding Sally to conjure up his past while a distracted Bridget loses 
sight of her little girl elsewhere, this is an infinitely more personal 
display than anything held off-limits in glass cases. This is something 
the bumptious Professor Stone's lecture on 'Thing Theory' makes clear.  
With Peter's younger self reappearing to attempt to woo his dream girl 
Alice, sense memories are made flesh in a play about loves clung onto 
and children lost that's as elegiac as anything by Stephen Poliakoff. A 
modernist music score by Kenneth Dempster played by a live quintet adds 
to the mood.

If the venue's acoustics aren't always friendly to Oller's production – 
and questions remain about why no regular Edinburgh theatre seems 
prepared to house Lung Ha's work -  its dramatic and philosophical 
ambitions make up for this. With the company's increasingly 
well-drilled performers relaying Osmond's script with sensitivity and 
grace, Lung Ha's have created a show that attempts to go beyond 
nostalgia to capture an idea of how the collective past is about much, 
much more than official history.

The Herald, March 14th 2014

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Thursday, 13 March 2014

Some Girl I Used To Know

King's Theatre, Edinburgh
Three stars
The stream of 1980s hen night classics that form the pre-show fanfare for Denise Van Outen's solo turn in her new play co-written with Terry Ronald may be telling about what follows, but this is no dancing-in-the-aisles gin-fest. There's something endearing about Van Outen's portrait of Essex girl made good Stephanie as she seeks sanctuary in her posh hotel room following the launch of her latest fancy underwear range. As she confides in the audience like we're all having a girly chat, something vulnerable emerges beyond Samantha's brassy front, especially when her long lost first love gives her a virtual poke on Facebook.

What follows in Michael Howcroft's production openly acknowledges its debt to Shirley Valentine,Willy Russell's monologue by a similar woman of a certain age on the verge of temptation. Things have moved on, however, for women like Stephanie, and there's a kind of trickle-down feminism at play here, despite the designer labels and celebrity name-drops.

Van Outen, Ronald and musical arranger Steve Anderson are so steeped in the pop culture that sired them that this feels at times like dispatches from the front-line of the Heat magazine massive. Despite this, Van Outen holds the stage for almost two hours of fictional confessional punctuated by renditions of songs by Culture Club, Soft Cell and even Sonia. If the show isn't up there with its inspiration in terms of writing, Van Outen remains an impressively gutsy presence for a largely female audience, who might well look to her for inspiration to get back in touch with the girl within and remind themselves who they are.

The Herald, March 14th 2014

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Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Vic Godard – Thirty Odd Years (Gnu)

“It's a literary and philosophical group,” says the voice of the late Edinburgh-based poet Paul Reekie in a faux-radio interview at the start of this 2CD, forty-four track retrospective from Vic Godard. As a singer/songwriter, Godard's band Subway Sect may have been forged by punk, but his adopted surname, taken from iconoclastic film-maker Jean Luc Godard, revealed a far smarter talent who quickly and quietly stepped aside from the melee to plough his own maverick furrow. On this respect, Godard's low-key singularity has slowly but surely cast him as an elder statesman reclaiming and refreshening his past.

Reekie, like many people on this album, first encountered Godard with his band Subway Sect supporting The Clash at Edinburgh Playhouse on the 1977 White Riot tour. Reekie went on to become president of the Scottish branch of the Subway Sect fan club – the literary and philosophical group he waxes lyrical about here. As Godard's online sleeve-notes relate, the pair eventually became friends, with Reekie in attendance at every Godard appearance in Scotland.

One suspects the Subway Sect of the White Riot tour sounded not unlike the poundingly raw trilogy of 'Don't Split It', 'Nobody's Scared' and 'Parallel Lines' that kick off this joyride through Godard's back catalogue that reveals Godard as craftsman, explorer and multi-faceted pop song-writing genius.

While the period clatter of this opening salvo can't disguise such ability, a more obviously sophisticated sheen starts to peep through on the songs which appeared on Godard's 1980 debut album, 'What's The Matter Boy? 'Double Negative', 'Vertical Integration', 'Empty Shell' and 'Make Me Sad' reveal a writer who had already matured into a post-punk Tin Pan Alley troubadour possessed with coffee-bar roots, a maverick way with words and melodies to swoon to. This period culminated in the kitchen-sink delights of 1981 single, 'Stop That Girl', possibly the only Northern Soul tinged ditty to feature an unknown Turkish accordionist accompanying a lyric that finds Godard warning a friend to keep an eye on a potential Sapphic usurping of his amour.

Godard went even more MOR when he donned dickie-bow and dinner jacket to become a full-on swing-time crooner and headline act of Rhodes' Radio 2 friendly Club Left revue in response to the redundant cartoonification of 'punk'. Such pre-punk, post skiffle roots are acknowledged on the vintage vinyl stylings of the CDs themselves here, with the Gnu label looking like classic purveyors of 78RPM platters.

The results of Godard's revolt into style, with a band made up of a jazz cabaret combo who would soon jump ship to team up with American singer Dig Wayne as the chart-bothering Jo Boxers, worked a treat. Whoever decided it would be a good idea for this incarnation of Subway Sect to tour with Bauhaus, however, which saw Godard playing to Goth-filled halls sandwiched inbetween the head-liners and The Birthday Party fronted by a manic Nick Cave, should probably have explained their motives to the kohl-eyed monsters who bottled Godard offstage.

One has to go on to Godard's website for full details of who played on what and when here, but the notes that accompany them, penned by Godard's spouse and creative factotum, The Gnu, make for a comprehensive primer and a fascinating insight into Godard's peripatetic but prolific anti-career. The cast of thousands involved could have stepped out of an existential gangster flick filmed by Cecil B Demille.

These include one-off collaborations with the likes of chamber-pop ensemble the Ravishing Beauties vocalist, Virginia Astley, on the soulful, organ-led Merseybeat of 'Spring Is Grey'. The cream of London's nouveau jazz set, including Simon Booth and veteran sax player Larry Stabbins' Working Week project, also appear most notably on thrilling car chase instrumental, 'Stayin' Outta View'. More recently, Godard has teamed up with the fantastically named Mates Mates, a Catalan band who, even more fantastically, reside in a town called Vic.

It is Godard's Caledonian connections, however, that prevail the most, with the Edinburgh Playhouse White Riot date also attended by Edwyn Collins and Alan Horne, who would go on to found Orange Juice and Postcard Records, respectively. Orange Juice covered Godard's 'Holiday Hymn' for a John Peel session years before Godard released it, though neither version is here.

As producer of 1993's 'End Of The Surrey People' and 1998's 'Long-Term Side-Effect', Collins trimmed the lounge-bar cheese, heightened the Northern Soul leanings and gave the sound more depth with a band that included at various points Felt/Primal Scream keyboardist, Martin Duffy and Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook.

While the cuts from 2002's 'Sansend' take a leap into electronic programming and dub on 'The Writer's Slumped' and a Latina shimmy on 'Americana On Fire', it's back to basics for a gloriously ramshackle live take on Subway Sect's seminal second single, 'Ambition'. With Godard backed by The Bitter Springs, harmonica and slide guitar are to the fore in a way that makes it sound like it could have been recorded at any point since the early 1950s. So it goes too for the punkabilly demo of 'That Train' recorded with long-lost London thrash-beat quartet, Wet Dog.

Which brings things full circle, to five tracks from '1978 Now', which, released in 2007, revisited the songs and spirit of the original Subway Sect's lost debut album that featured rawer versions of material eventually heard on 'What's The Matter Boy?'.

Godard took another side-turn by way of 'Blackpool', a musical co-written with novelist Irvine Welsh, and, to date, only ever seen once at Edinburgh's Queen Margaret University, where drama students performed in a production directed by Welsh's regular stage adaptor, Harry Gibson. It would be a shame if this bucket-mouthed end-of-the-pier post-Thatcher era romance never saw light of day again, because the show's two numbers captured here showed more than ever Godard's old-time vaudevillian roots.

Godard's entire canon, in fact, could be said to be made up of show-tunes of sorts. The off-kilter intelligence of Godard's melodies and lyrics reveal him as a parallel universe Lionel Bart or Don Black, with a similarly sired and quintessentially English common touch as both, but with a Penguin Modern Classic and a frothy Cappuccino to keep him creative company. This is as apparent on 2010's 'We Come as Aliens' as it was way back on 'Nobody's Scared.'

It is apparent too on the plethora of YouTube links peppered throughout the online sleeve-notes. The live footage from every era they reveal act as a visual appendix to an already comprehensive package.

It is the final song of this collection, however, that joins the dots between Godard's past and present. 'Johnny Thunders' was originally released by Godard in 1992 as part of Rough Trade's Singles Club. The version here was recorded live with The Sexual Objects in 2012 at a gig in Glasgow. The Sexual Objects, of course, are the latest and most driven vehicle for Davy Henderson, one of those who first drew inspiration from Godard at the Edinburgh Playhouse White Riot show.

Godard and the SOBs first played together at a 2010 tribute night to Paul Reekie at Edinburgh Book Festival. Since then they've frequently collaborated frequently , most recently when the SOBs backed Godard on a stormingly special live run through 'What's The Matter Boy?' in its entirety. The final date of the joint Godard/SOBs tour was the Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh, in the same room where, more than a decade ago, when the venue was still the far more basic Cafe Royal, Henderson's previous band, The Nectarine No.9, headlined a show. The night ended with a rip-roaring version of 'Johnny Thunders', with none other than a kimono-sporting Reekie on lead vocals.

If any recording of that performance exists, it isn't here. It is Reekie's voice, however, that ends this exquisite package just as it began, with a one-minute paean to Godard's legacy that helped shape pop music as we should know it, in all its literary, philosophical glory. 

The List, March 2014


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Paul Haig – At Twilight – (Les Disques du Crepescule)

When Paul Haig, Malcolm Ross and co called time on Edinburgh's jangular art-rock funkateers Josef K following the release of both theirs and Alan Horne's Postcard label's sole album release, 'The Only Fun In Town', in 1981, Haig styled himself as the original European son, all electronic beats and artfully moody sidelong glances. In the NME, Paul Morley even went so far as to somewhat fancifully declare Haig as 'the face and sound of 1982' and the 'enigmatic fourth man' in a parallel universe imaginary New Pop quartet which also included Billy Mackenzie of The Associates, Simple Minds singer Jim Kerr and ABC front-man Martin Fry, and look how that worked out.

As this two CD compendium of some thirty tracks recorded during a peripatetic tenure between 1982 and 1991at Michel Duval's chic post-modern Belgian label and some-time Factory Records affiliates, Les Disques du Crepescule, testifies to, Haig was more slippery than all of his then contemporaries. It may come gift-wrapped in all too appropriate monochrome package, but there's nothing black and white in this selection of singles, B sides, album tracks and a previously unreleased 1984 album heard here in its entirety.

The opening cover of Sly Stone's 'Running Away' was a statement of intent, with French-Belgian female trio Antena's backing vocals over synthesised horns giving its jaunty funk guitar and Haig's lead vocal a lip-gloss smooth sheen that suggested crossover was imminent. As indeed it did for The Raincoats, who released their own version at much the same time.

What follows is an ongoing exploration of marrying classic song-writing to technology that moves from an early version of future major label single, 'Justice' to adventures in New York via Grace Jones, Thompson Twins and Duran Duran producer Alex Sadkin's fleshed-out work on twinkly solo takes of Josef K sired songs, 'Adoration' and 'Heaven Sent'. There are experiments in sampling with electro-pioneers Cabaret Voltaire, themselves in the midst of a sound-changing trip onto the dance-floor; and, in three different versions, 'The Only Truth', a euphoric indie-dance 12” produced in alliance with Be Music and DoJo, aka New Order's Bernard Sumner and A Certain Ratio's Donald Johnson respectively.

If such chameleon-like collaborations suggested Haig was finding his electronic if not actual voice, the latter remaining gloriously doleful throughout his 1983 'Rhythm of Life' album and 1985 follow-up, 'The Warp of Pure Fun', right through to the voguishly sleek material recorded in 1990 with the likes of Mantronik, Lil Louis and long-term Edinburgh collaborators James Locke and Mike Peden for the 1993 'Coincidence Vs Fate album', the almost missing links count just as much.

In this respect, Haig sounds most comfortably confident on Alan Rankine co-productions, 'Heaven Help You Now' and 'Love Eternal', one imagines it was only spite that caused Island Records to pull the plug on the lost second album's eight Haig/Rankine meisterworks that open CD2, with 'The Only Truth' sandwiched between. By turns heroic and awash with some of the maverick zeal that pulsed The Associates, 'Shining Hour', 'Big Blue World', 'Fear and Dancing', 'Love and War', 'All Our Love' and other life-and-death affirmations are as wide-screen as Haig gets, deathly serious in intent as he squints into an aspirational chrome-reflected 1980s sunset.

It's a shame for completists that there's nothing here from the Crepescule-released 'Swing '82' mini album, on which Haig took his Frank Sinatra/Cole Porter Sunday afternoon matinee idol obsessions to the limit. This was done via covers of 'The Song Is You', 'All Of You', 'Let's Face The Music And Dance', 'Love Me Tender' and 'The Way You Look Tonight', all recorded with an old-time Brussels jazz trio (a version of 'Send In The Clowns' was eventually vetoed prior to its eventual release three years later).

As recompense, we can make do with a twangingly raw cover of Suicide's 'Ghost Rider' and aborted but magnificent Haig/Cabaret Voltaire mash-up, 'The Executioner'. Like previously unreleased dance track, 'Change of Heart', this resembles several cuts on Haig's 2013 album, 'Kube'. A final US remix of 'The Only Truth' by Man Parrish completes a collection that may be of its time, but also suggests that Haig found the future earlier than most. 

The List, March 2014


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Lemn Sissay - Refugee Boy

It's not hard to see why Lemn Sissay was the obvious choice to adapt Benjamin Zephaniah's teenage novel, Refugee Boy, for the stage. Zephaniah's book tells the story of fourteen year old Ethiopian boy who is forced to flee his homeland following a violent civil war in his homeland. As Alem and his father take flight to London, a litany of thwarted attempts at asylum and institutional red tape ensues.

While Sissay was born near Wigan in Lancashire, his mother too left Ethiopia for England. That was in 1966, when she was pregnant with Sissay, who, for most of the next two decades, was shunted from foster home to children's home by a care system that was bound by less explicitly hostile but equally bureaucratic measures.

By his late teens, Sissay was working with a community publishing company in Manchester, and by twenty-one had published his first book of poems. Tender Fingers in A Clenched Fist was a street-smart collection that could be said to have picked up the mantle of Birmingham-born Zephaniah, who, as the dyslexic son of a Barbadian mother and Jamaican father, published his first book, Pen Rhythm, in 1980 aged twenty-two.

The result of such umbilical cultural and artistic links can be seen in Gail McIntyre's West Yorkshire Playhouse production of Refugee Boy, which opens at the Citizens Theatre tomorrow night, hard on the heels of Glasgow Girls, an even more contemporary refugee-based play. As Sissay himself observes, since he took Zephaniah's story off the page, it too has led something of a nomadic existence.

“Theatre is a sort of refugee in itself,” Sissay muses. “It comes to a town, sets up home, and then leaves. Fortunately,” he stresses, perhaps thinking of some refugees unhappy experiences in transit, “there is a lot of love around this play.”

It's a love that was there from the moment McIntrye first suggested that Sissay write the stage version after recognising him as a kindred spirit, both of Zephaniah and Alem.

“Although I was born in the north of England,” Sissay says, “I'm both Eritrean and Ethiopian, and I'm the only professional writer in the country with that experience, so all these things seemed to fit.”

While this may be the case, it begs the question why Zephaniah, whose playwriting has gone hand in hand with his poetry ever since his first stage work, Playing The Right Tune, appeared in London and Edinburgh in 1985, didn't opt to do it himself?

“That's a serious question,” Sissay admits. “Benjamin is probably one of the five most famous black poets in the country, and is also respected as a thinker, so being asked to do something like that is an honour. Doing an adaptation is like a musical remix, so even though it was a bit scary, having watched Benjamin go from poet to novelist with this book that adults read as well as teenagers, I really had to inhabit it, and Benjamin just let me get on with it.

Sissay relates the art of adapting other people's work by way of an encounter with best-selling Australian writer Peter Goldsworthy.

“One of his short stories was made into a film,” Sissay explains, “and he said that to truly adapt a text, you have to disrespect the original and grab hold of it. It sounds terrible, but it's a creative exercise. You've got to tear it apart, find it's heart and grow a body around it.”

Like Zephaniah, Sissay draws inspiration from black writers such as Linton Kwesi Johnson, the Jamaican-born, Brixton-raised poet whose 1978 album, Dread Beat an Blood, did much to popularise both dub reggae and poetry as a performed form. If Zephaniah and the late Michael Smith can be said to be the next generation, Sissay and the likes of Jackie Kay, who was born to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father, have continued the tradition of a black English and Scottish poetic diaspora.

“Coming to Scotland was a rites of passage,” says the Canongate published author, who spent six of the twelve years he was in foster care in Scotland. “I was brought up in England, and was the only black kid in the village, and became other people's experiment. Race was more of an issue then than now. Boys would give me nicknames, spit on the back of my coat or just pick a fight. What hurt me wasn't just the personal racism, but also the institutionalised racism.

“Oddly, I always used to think Scotland was more racist than England, even though my grand-father was called Duncan Munro. Then I came up to the Edinburgh Festival when I was about nineteen, and I thought the people were so tuned in. I've never felt safer, and I realised that not all white people were racist. Then I went to Mayfest in Glasgow, and to St Andrews, and I realised that that the Celts really have it going on.”

Racism, however, still exists, as recent events in Glasgow testify to. These include the filmed abuse of a Nigerian busker by two white men which was broadcast in TV documentary, The Street, while a man was recently arrested for allegedly abusing Glasgow MSP Humza Yousaf, who was selling The Big Issue outside Queen Street Station.

“You could say racism is an act of insecurity,” says Sissay, “and its something every new generation of immigrants has to face, with some people from previous generations being prejudiced towards them. It's easy to slip into this attitude, and it's something you have to fight against. It's the power of art that can make us realise that.

“In Refugee Boy, Alem and his father are told that they're not one of us anymore, and aren't wanted here. That can happen on a turn of a button, and you become the enemy. These people haven't done anything wrong. They've just been born into a set of historical events they have no power over.”

The day before we talk, Sissay took part in an open forum that looked at the questions of race and diversity in theatre. The event was attended by 150 people, with speakers including former National Theatre of Scotland director Vicky Featherstone.

“It was such a warm, honest idea,” Sissay says, “and it reminded me that the idea of diversity is about appreciating the other, and being open to a person to make life better. Diversity's much bigger than being black or white, but is about the idea that the world is your oyster.”

Refugee Boy, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, March 12-15.

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Lemn Sissay – A life in words

Sissay was born in Billinge, near Wigan, in 1967 after his pregnant mother left Ethiopia.

Sissay was put into foster care until he was twelve, when he was put into a children's home. These events are depicted in Sissay's 2006 play, Something Dark.

Aged eighteen, Sissay moved to Manchester, where he became a literature development officer at a community publishing co-operative.

Sissay published his first poetry collection, Tender Fingers in a Clenched Fist, in 1988. His second, Rebel Without Applause, appeared in 1992, and was republished by Edinburgh-based publishers, Canongate, in 2000.

Sissay's first play, Skeletons in the Cupboard, was produced in 1993, and was followed by Don't Look Down and Chaos By Design, with the latter also produced for radio.

In 1995, Sissay made Internal Flight, a BBC documentary film on his life.

Sissay's play, Storm, appeared in 2002, while in 2006, Something Dark, which also appeared on radio, won the Race in the Media award from the UK Commission For Racial Equality.

A further volume of poetry, Morning Breaks in the Elevator, was published in 1999 by Canongate, for who Sissay edited The Fire People for their Payback Press imprint. Since then, Sissay has published The Emperor's Watchmaker in 2001 and Listener in 2008, as well as the play-scripts of Something Dark and Refugee Boy.

In 2011, Why I Don't Hate White People appeared onstage and on radio.

In 2010, Sissay was awarded an MBE, and in 2012 he was the official poet of the 2012 London Olympics.

Sissay's adaptation of Refugee Boy first appeared in 2013.

The Herald, March 11th 2014

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And Then There Were None

Dundee Rep
Three stars
There's a whiff of anarchy about Agatha Christie's much loved murder 
mystery yarn, revived here by Kenny Miller, who puts Christie's 
island-set affair in an impossibly chic drawing room complete with 
catwalk, bar and a rhinoceros skeleton on top. It's as if by putting 
ten thoroughly ghastly archetypes of her age in the same room and 
bumping them off one by one, she's attempting to wipe out an entire 
society. The fact that the opening scene where the ten strangers meet 
for the first time resembles something out of Big Brother makes 
Christie's righteous indignation at such a motley crew of boy racers, 
corrupt coppers, dried-out doctors, well-heeled fops and career girls 
on the make even more justified.

While none of this is pushed to the fore in an at times unintentionally 
funny rendition as Dundee Rep's ensemble cast navigate their way 
through Christie's cut-glass period demotic, it still simmers beneath 
the play's impeccable manners. With the story's original downbeat 
ending reinstated, there's a glorious lack of sentimentality on show as 
the body-count increases. This sets up a set of top turns, with Irene 
Macdougall and Ann Louise Ross relishing every second with their 
respective tight-lipped grotesques. While Robert Jack makes a dashingly 
slimy Lombard as Emily Winter's drop-dead Vera swishes and circles 
about him, it's Ian Grieve's bumbling greedy-guts, Blore, who seems to 
fully inhabit Christie's world.

Like any elite scrambling to survive, the second half has the play's 
final five turning on each other even as they huddle into the shadows 
for comfort. When the culprit is revealed as the ultimate vigilante, 
it's the coldest of finales in a play that takes no prisoners.

The Herald, March 11th 2014

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Friday, 7 March 2014

Allan Stewart's Big Big Variety Show

King's Theatre, Edinburgh
Three stars
It's telling that King's panto stalwart Allan Stewart's final solo number of his two-hour top light entertainment extravaganza is accompanied by a series of projected images of his colourful show-business back pages. It's even more so that the images give way to a pictorial roll-call of bygone comedy greats. As Stewart does an impression of each, it's as if he's taking stock, not just of his own successful career that has seen him make the move from club turn to TV star to panto legend, but of a bygone form that refuses to lie down and die.

By drafting in his yuletide sparring partners, Andy Gray and Grant Stott, Stewart can play with their comedic chemistry further, while vintage-styled female sextet, The Tootsie Rollers, ventriloquist Paul Zerdin and Britain's Got Talent graduate Edward Reid make up a full and versatile supporting cast. There is also a big-voiced star turn from Kate Stewart, daughter of the show's eponymous head-liner himself.

As Stewart croons his way into proceedings, he's usurped by Gray and Stott with a running gag about Stott's That's Fife song. The Tootsie Rollers apply a glamorous Andrews Sisters spin on the work of Britney and Kylie, though a version of Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines remains as unreconstructed as some of the gags elsewhere. Reid's defining evocation of pop divas singing nursery rhymes more than compensates, as does Stewart's impression of Michael Jackson doing George Formby songs. Best of all is a routine that casts Stewart, Gray and Stott as entendre-heavy musical trio, The MacRobert Brothers. Folk in hell indeed in a packed-out evening of fun and frolics.

The Herald, March 7th 2014


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Thursday, 6 March 2014

Gym Party

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars
In the post Sochi Winter Olympics fall-out, it's clear that winning and losing are about a lot more than medals. The Made in China company's hour-long dissection of competition and the need for affirmation by coming out on top may be an infinitely more intimate affair than the circuses and bread of any international sporting event, but the end result is the same hollow victory.

Christopher Brett Bailey, Jess Latowicki and Ira Brand already have their names in lights as they warm up with an opening lap of honour while dressed in shorts, vest and dayglo wigs before things get too serious. Over three rounds, the trio try to prove who's best via a series of tests worthy of reality TV. These range from getting the audience to hurl sweets at them so they can try and catch them, to seeing how many marshmallows they can stuff into their mouths. Finally, the audience are asked to vote on the perceived attributes of those onstage, until there is a winner.

In terms of endurance alone, the three performers are heroic, but by opening up their private demons and insecurities in such a well choreographed fashion, they deserve hugs as much as public plaudits. Because for all the self-lacerating wit on show, it's what happens to the losers inbetween each round that really counts in what becomes the cruellest of confessionals. In this respect, Made in China have constructed a wilfully singular indictment of a society in which survival of the fittest is all, and where going for gold is always applauded, whether you happen to be running scared or not.

The Herald, March 6th 2014


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Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Kenny Miller - Directing And Then There Were None

When director and designer Kenny Miller was growing up, mystery was everywhere about the house. This came in the form of a stack of Agatha Christie novels lapped up by his mother. The young Miller had never touched them until one night when the 1945 film adaptation of Christie's 1939 novel, And Then There Were None, was broadcast on television. Originally published under the more contentious title of Ten Little Niggers until it was changed for the US edition, Christie's pot-boiler drew inspiration from a British nursery rhyme, and charted how ten people are lured to an island by persons unknown, whereupon they are picked off one by one in a manner already set down by the rhyme.

Miller was smitten, and, with his mother's approval, turned his attention to the mini Agatha Christie library he already had access to. While this may go some way to explaining some of Miller's directorial choices over the years, from a compendium of true life Glasgow murder stories, Blood on The Thistle, to a version of Ten Rillington Place, which dissected the crimes of serial killer John Christie, and a production of Dial M For Murder, it has also led to Miller directing a new production of Agatha Christie's own stage adaptation of her novel with Dundee Rep's ensemble company.

“I've wanted to do it for years,” Miller confesses as he outlines his own motivation for doing a play that continues to captivate audiences despite its seemingly old-fashioned execution. “My mother was obsessed with Agatha Christie. Hers were the only books in the house, and I think she loved the nostalgia and the innocence of them. There's no blood and gore in them, so they were something she could use to get her kids used to reading. I remember sitting there and watching the film for the first time and being really shocked, then thinking afterwards, well, what were the clues?”

It's a question that readers and audiences have been asking themselves ever since Christie opted to adapt And Then There Were None for the stage in 1943, when Christie was advised by producers to graft on a feel-good ending to appease what was perceived to be a sensitive audiences .

“It was the first stage adaptation of her own work that Christie had done,” Miller points out. “There'd already been a lot of them done by other people, but Christie was never happy with them. This one is a lot more psychological than the book. The audience have to use their brains to find out who did it. It can be a bit creaky and a bit clunky, and because there's no blood and guts it can look quite sanitised at first, but that also makes it quite creepy, especially the way no-one ever responds to any of the deaths.”

With this in mind, and with the permission of the Agatha Christie estate, Miller has both reinstated the book's original ending, as well as making a few minor tweaks to the script in order to make things even more dramatic.

“If we're going to do an Agatha Christie, I want to do it as a homage,” Miller explains, “both to my mother, and to Christie.”

And Then There Were None has been played all over the world, with its original literary source remaining one of the best-selling books ever and inspiring an entire industry of murder mystery weekends. It hasn't, however, remained immune to parody. The 1976 film, Murder By Death, is the most notable example of this, with a more recent episode of adult cartoon series, Family Guy, joining in the fun with an episode titled And Then There Were Fewer. Miller's version, on the other hand, will be playing it straight.

“I've no interest in doing a Carry On version,” he says. “I don't see any point in doing that at all. To me these people in the play are real, and have to be played as such. Some people might think it quite a retro thing to do an Agatha Christie in that way, but I quite like that.”

Miller's production of And Then There Were None is an all too rare sighting of a stage production of Christie's work that isn't a commercial touring venture by the much loved Agatha Christie Theatre Company, which was set up in 2005 to solely produce the mistress of crime's stage works. Indeed, The Agatha Christie Company itself will be arriving in Edinburgh in a couple of weeks time with their production of Christie's Hercule Poirot thriller, Black Coffee, with Robert Powell as the inscrutable detective.

In 2005, a new version of And Then There Were None by Kevin Elyot starred Tara Fitzgerald on the West End and on Broadway. Steven Pimlott's production also looked to the story's dark side.

“It was fun,” according to Miller, “but it was very Grand Guignol. Very heightened.”

Apart from its style, the technicalities of putting And Then There Were None onstage are enough to try any director's patience.

“Following all these glasses and drinks being passed round is quite a choreographic feat,” according to Miller, “especially when you've got ten people on the stage, and you're trying to put these very real red herrings in there to throw the audience off the scent. It was the same when I did Dial M For Murder at the Citz. That was a nightmare.”

Miller's take on And Then There Were none coincides with last week's announcement of a new deal between the BBC and the Christie estate to present new versions of some of the author's major work on television. This will include a three-part adaptation of And then There Were None by Sarah Phelps.

With Miller just appointed an associate director at Perth Theatre for a year as it becomes a mobile operation during the building's renovation, it is unlikely that Christie's dramas will become a regular feature of Miller's work.

“The only other one I'd want to do is Sparkling Cyanide,” he says, “and not for a few years yet.”

With Christie's original novel of And Then There Were None having shifted more than 100 million copies since it was first published, it is the book's spirit Miller is intent on capturing.

“I think the biggest thing for the journey the characters go on is revisiting the novel,” he says. “It stops things being creaky sand elevates it to something a bit more surreal, and that makes far more sense to me.

And Then There Were None, Dundee Rep, March 5-29


Agatha Christie – A dramatic life

Agatha Christie was credited with some seventeen original stage plays during her lifetime.

Christie also wrote four radio plays and one television play.

The 1947 radio play, Three Blind Mice, formed the basis for The Mousetrap, which premiered in 1952, and which has run continuously since then.

Twelve stage plays have adapted from Christie's original novels by other writers.

This trend began in 1928 with Alibi, Michael Morton's version of the novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and has continued right up to David Hansen's 2012 stage adaptation of the Mysterious Affair at Styles.

Christie's first original stage play was Black Coffee, which first appeared in 1930.

And Then There Were none premiered in 1943, and was based on Christie's 1939 novel.

Three of Christie's plays, Black Coffee (1938), The Unexpected Guest (1958) and Spider's Web (1954), were posthumously adapted into novels by Charles Osborne.

The most recent sighting of a previously unseen Christie stage work was in 2003, when Chimneys, which was written in 1931, was staged for the first time.

Chimneys was based on Christie's 1925 novel, The Secret of Chimneys, which remains unpublished.

The Herald, March 4th 2014

ends