Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Annet Henneman - The Radio: Voices from the Territories of Conflict

When theatre director Annet Henneman came to Glasgow in the summer of 2012, she and her international collective of activists and performers that form her Teatro di Nascosto (Hidden Theatre) company worked with refugees from Sri Lanka, Africa and Kurdistan to create a new performance piece. Created over several days of improvisation, and using techniques inspired by Polish theatrical guru, Jerzy Grotowski, Refugee School was devised with Henneman leading a group who couldn't speak each other's language, but who went on to create a series of presentations that enabled them to find common ground by acting out and sharing their stories.

By the end of the first day of what was an understandably emotional experience for all involved, the group, who had only met hours before, were dancing in unison to recordings of Kurdish music. For those involved, it was both a relief and a joy to indulge in such seemingly simple pleasures which they'd previously been denied prior to their flights from their respective countries.

Three and a half years on, and with the world in the midst of the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War as thousands upon thousands of Syrians seek sanctuary, Henneman's plight to change people's lives through their own stories has intensified even more. As has too her methodology of what she calls theatre reportage, a technique which mixes theatre and journalism to try and create a deeper understanding between people living under oppressive regimes and with people in the west.

The result of this is The Radio: Voices from the Territories of Conflict, an online initiative that aims to host testimonials and reportage from those still living in areas of global conflict. These stories will then be translated, interpreted and presented in English, Italian and Arabic languages by actors, where they will sit along an ever-expanding archive of films, music, field recordings and interviews with both those living in war zones and those who escaped them.

“I hear stories every day,” Henneman explains of some of the thinking behind The Radio, “and in a way, people living at the frontline of war are so much more isolated than refugees. I see people who want to stop Isis, but who don't leave their country, because they have a dream for their daughters to be free.

“I hear that all over the world, and these stories need to be heard at a deeper level, whether it is one of our actors in Beirut telling the audience what it is like to be a Palestinian woman having a baby, or actors in London telling the story of what it is like to go to school in Palestine. There are stories and songs that can be shared in a way that they can't in the person's own country, which may ban open broadcasting, or where there is only an hour of electricity a day. The Radio can be a platform beyond all of that.”

The Radio was launched in October of this year at a two-day event in Volterra, Italy. As well as screenings and live broadcasts of performances, the event also featured a mini conference, in which Henneman and others discussed the ideas behind Theatre Reportage.

Attending the event was Carrie Newman, the UK-based director who first came into contact with Henneman in 2011 through her work with Glasgow Theatre Arts Collective, and who was instrumental in bringing Henneman to Scotland.

“Annet isn't just a director,” Newman says, “but is a conductor who brings together the various expertise of each individual and their narratives to create theatre that strips away the theatrics in order to re-sensitise the performer and the audience, and democratises the space.”

For The Radio, Newman is operating more in a journalistic capacity, a role which has given her a different perspective on things.

“It's been a huge learning curve for me,” she says. “Normally I've worked with Annet as an actor or director, so with this I've come with a different head. Rather than being in the thick of the creative process, coming at things from a different perspective has helped me to try and work out what theatre reportage is in terms of giving people who really need to tell their story a voice."

The Radio is the latest in a series of projects which Henneman has created with Teatro di Nascosto during the last eighteen years. During that time, she has travelled around some of the globe's most perilous spots, where she has continued to develop her theatre reportage.

As well as Refugee School, Henneman and her twenty-two strong ensemble presented a piece called

Voices from Baghdad in Basra,, Pisa and Volterra. Another work, Dream Lottery, was performed inside the Brussels parliament. A follow up, Dreams from Beyond, which imagined the dreams of refugees killed at sea while trying to escape their homeland, was performed outside the same building in 2013.

As indicated by Newman, democracy is key to Henneman's work. During a project, the company eat together and sleep in the same room, working together communally in a manner that is more a way of life than a theatre company per se.

The rehearsal room is almost a model for a way of living internationally,” according to Newman, who sees Henneman's notion of theatre reportage as “an anti-capitalist model, which embraces true participation by performer, activists, journalists and audiences through a shared goal. That goal is about moving towards intercultural acceptance, peace and a greater historical understanding of the Middle East and why people become refugees, and The Radio is a platform for this sharing.”

As Henneman, Newman and Teatro di Nascosto continue their journey, plans are afoot for another international conference, with Scotland hopefully being a key component.

“When I came to Scotland,” Henneman says, “that taught me something about how to work with refugees, and that it was important that their stories were told in a very direct way. That's where The Radio comes from, and the possibilities for that are only just beginning. But by sharing stories in the way that we do, it becomes about hope for something better.”

For more information on The Radio: Voices from the Territories of Conflict, go to www.teatrodinascosto.com

The Herald, December 29th 2015


Monday, 28 December 2015

Special Love - When 2 Become 1

When a man wearing a black woolen face-mask and a dirty raincoat with not much underneath takes the stage to let rip with a series of homo-erotic confessionals set to a dirty synth-pop back-drop, one could be forgiven for suspecting the vice squad might be paying a call soon. The truth is, when Special Love break cover to play live next week for the first time in a decade, their onanistically inclined vignettes will probably sound as charmingly old-school as the MySpace page which is one of the few means of hearing their few rough recordings which have survived the band itself.

Special Love existed for one year only in 2005, when the pseudonymous duo of Johnny Dave and Charlie George came together to fuse their lusty tales of after-hours voyeurism and other solitary fantasies. As tongue in cheek as their schtick was during live shows tailor-made for alternative cabaret nights of yore, Special Love nevertheless mixed the squelch of The Normal's Warm Leatherette and Nag, Nag, Nag era Cabaret Voltaire with gleeful abandon. A now hard to find six-track EP, I Want To Touch You, is all that was left behind after the final Special Love show almost a decade to the day of this one-off revival.

With Johnny Dave now flying solo in every way since Charlie George opted for a respectable life, the Special Love experience is well worth washing your hands for, both before and after the show.

Special Love play Henry's Cellar Bar, Edinburgh, December 30th 2015, 7pm, with Dominic Waxing Lyrical, Dancing Mice and The DDN. https://myspace.com/specialloveisdead

Product, December 2015


Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Golden Teacher – First 3 EPs

When Golden Teacher played an Edinburgh show on General Election night this year, it felt like the 1980s in more ways than one. While the big screen relaying live TV coverage in the bar area of the city's Mash House venue kept freezing, even technical gremlins couldn't hold off the Conservative Party's inexplicable majority which might just have doomed us to austerity forever after.

In stark contrast, the live room next door was awash to a darkly joyous stew of percussion-heavy psych voodoo club sounds that proved to be irresistible to dance-floor revellers seeking sanctuary from the gloom. As fractured as the times, Golden Teacher live seemed to be tugging in several directions at once. It was as if Giorgio Moroder and Brian Eno had moulded a back-drop of fourth world funk and deep-set techno libation into an increasingly euphoric mix that ushered in the rhythmic tease of Grace Jones circa 1981 and mid 1980s Cabaret Voltaire. In light of the disaster that was being played out in the other room, frankly this was a blessed relief.

Which is why it is as equally as joyous to see the Glasgow-based sextet's first trio of limited edition 12'' singles collated on to one glorious disc, even as the band made up of Cassie Ezeji, Charles Levonzac, Laurie Pitt, Ollie Pitt, Richard McMaster and Sam Bellacosa have already moved on to conjure up even more sublime slabs of delirium.

Golden Teacher were formed initially by an unholy alliance of noise punk trio, Ultimate Thrush, noise duo Blue Sabbath Black Fiji and analogue house duo, Silk Cut. Their coming together was sealed at Glasgow's Green Door Studios by way of a series of subsidised music production classes for unemployed musicians (and how 1980s is that?). Golden Teacher were duly picked up by kindred spirits, Optimo, who released their Bells From The Deep End EP in 2013. A second record, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, followed the same year, with Love/Party People appearing in 2014.

Released on the band's own label, eight tracks culled from those records make up the vinyl edition of First 3 EPs,while all twelve cuts feature on the accompanying CD. A double A side of remixes by veteran reggae producer Dennis Bovell and another 12'', Sauchiehall Enthrall, may have already moved the party elsewhere, but, listened to in one relentless sitting, First 3 EPs makes for an hour-long ethno-delic trip designed to ignite all manner of primal urges.

Product, December 2015


Scot:Lands 2015 - Subverting Edinburgh's Hogmanay

For several years now, something quietly subversive has been happening at Edinburgh's Hogmanay, the capital's high-profile festival now spread over several days and nights to see out the old year and usher in the new. While the Concert in the Gardens, this year headlined by Biffy Clyro, may receive much of the attention, it is the Scot:Lands event on New Year's Day where things start to look really interesting.

Set across eleven stages in the capital's old town, Scot:Lands draws together some of the country's most interesting artists working across all forms. A plethora of musicians, poets, visual artists, dancers and performance artists will present a variety of bespoke presentations curated by a nationwide array of small-scale arts organisations and venues.

These range from video and film installations to a five hour contemporary dance improvisation to a spoken-word extravaganza. On the musical side, audiences of more than an estimated 10,000 who register will also be able to see short live sets by two Scottish Album of the Year award winners and a Mercury Music Prize shortlistee. There will be one-off collaborations and alliances form part of a sleight of hand that is effectively infiltrating a large-scale civic spectacle with some very serious art.

“The idea behind it,” according to Pete Irvine, head of Unique Events, who oversee Edinburgh's Hogmanay, “is to have something that's completely different from the night before, and to try and change perceptions of what Edinburgh's Hogmanay is about.

“Some people think it's just a big party, but Scot:Lands is much more reflective in many ways. We want people to go and discover things that they might not have seen or heard before, to look further than what they might already know about, and to contemplate or experience things that are perhaps more challenging. The fact that it's free, and that you can move around from venue to venue means there's no risk for anyone. It's like going for a walk, with all these different things along the way that you might be interested in.”

Such psycho-geographic intentions also involve an element of chance, whereby audiences will 'check in' in at a departure lounge within the University of Edinburgh's Old College Quad. Once they pick up their passes, revellers will then spin a wheel to see where their first destination will be before embarking on a five-hour journey across a microcosm of the country's cultural riches.

“I think it's a really good idea,” says Glasgow-based musician Chris Duncan, who, as C. Duncan, was recently shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize for his album, Architect. “It's a really good showcase for everyone involved.”

Duncan and band will be playing a stripped-down semi-acoustic set as part of Lyrical:Land. Curated by BBC Radio Scotland DJ Vic Galloway, Lyrical:Land sees Duncan share a bill with Idlewild vocalist Roddy Woomble and Scottish Album of the Year winner, Kathryn Joseph, as well as poet Michael Pedersen and Neil Pennycook's post Mersault guise of Supermoon.

“It's a a fantastic line-up,” Duncan continues. “To be part of a group of musicians of that sort of calibre is really exciting.”

Equally as enticing is Chemikal:Land, presented by the Glasgow-based Chemikal Underground Records, who are about to celebrate their twentieth anniversary as purveyors of eclectic independent pop. Former Delgado Emma Pollock, who looks set to release her first album in five years, shares a bill with guitarist and Scottish Album of the Year winner RM Hubbert and electro-pop wunderkind, Miaoux Miaoux, aka Julian Corrie. As fine as all this sounds, it is Stevie Jones' Sound of Yell project that sums up Chemikal's maverick spirit.

“The plan,” says Jones,“is that, rather than do separate sets, we do one big all-inclusive set, with lots of overlaps and collaborations. There's a rich collaborative nature in Scottish music anyway, and there are lots of kindred spirits and connections. It's not a cliquey affair.”

Jones' own pedigree dates back to playing with El Hombre Trajeado, a band which also featured Hubbert in its ranks. Jones has also played bass with Aidan Moffat and Bill Wells, and has worked as a sound designer with Grid Iron Theatre Company and Scottish Dance Theatre.

Sound of Yell itself features an ever-changing line-up that expands and contracts to perform Jones' fractured acoustic compositions, as demonstrated on this year's Brocken Spectre album. For Scot:Lands, Sound of Yell will be made up of Jones and viola player Aby Vulliamy

One of Vulliamy's wide range of musical projects includes a stint as a member of Nalle, the trio which also featured singer and artist Hanna Tuulikki. Tuulikki makes an appearance at Scot:Lands, as part of Blue Skye:Land. Curated by the Skye-based Atlas Arts organisation, Blue Skye:Land will feature a series of collaborative performances, including one between beat boxer Jason Singh and Gaelic singer Anne Martin, while Tuulikki will present a film of her performance, Women of the Hill. Inspired by ancient Iron Age goddesses, Tuulikki's song cycle was performed beside a network of caves on Skye.

“It's celebrating a pre-christian matriarchal culture,” Tullikki explains, “and recontextualising it in a patriarchal christian culture.”

Film will also feature in Sea Bird:Land, where the Stornoway-based An Lanntair arts centre will host a screening of Tumadh is Turas: Immersion and Journey, two short film installations by Dalziel and Scullion. With both pieces exploring ideas of urbanisation, the first, previously seen piece focuses on a colony of 170,000 seabirds and their frantic lifestyle. The second film, a new piece, collates footage filmed on St Kilda. Both will be accompanied by a live score composed and played by Aidan O'Rourke with Graham Stephen and John Blease.

“The movement of the birds is very different in each film,” says Louise Scullion, who makes up the artistic partnership with Matthew Dalziel. “Where we filmed the birds, it was definitely their domain. They weren't human places, and it felt thrilling being around that.”

Visual art will also form part of D'Arc;Land, in which choreographer and dancer Christine Devaney's Curious Seed company collaborates with artist Yvonne Buskie and musicians Luke Sutherland and Robin Mason. Their new performance is developed from a Joan of Arc inspired work performed at this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

“It's like a live installation,” says Devaney. “In the piece we did in the summer, Yvonne did lots of drawing, but she performed as well, and the music holds everything together.”

Coorie-In-Land is presented by Rally and Broad, the Edinburgh-based spoken-word cabaret headed by Jenny Lindsay and current BBC Scotland poet in residence, Rachel McCrum. The pair will present a bill featuring a ten-strong bill that will feature singer Hailey Beavis and dancer Skye Reynolds as well as poets such as Rachel Amey.

“We want it to be a comfy place,” says Lindsay. “Spoken-word is such a broad artform, and I think it's important to mix things up a bit and have a playfulness to the event.”

With four more stages presenting a wide range of film and traditional-based music, and a new stage, Wee Scot:Land, designed especially for children,the entire day culminates in a giant ceilidh dubbed The Final Fling. All of which puts playfulness at the very heart of Scot:Lands.

Beyond this, one of the major signals the event sends out is that a grassroots culture is thriving in Scotland. Given Irvine's pedigree as co-founder in the 1970s of promoters Regular Music, this looks very much like him getting back to his roots.

“This isn't some big strategic thing,” he says. “Scot:Lands is what it is for now, and beyond that, anything might happen.”

Scot:Lands takes place on January 1 between 1pm and 5pm. Check-in at Departure Lounge, Old College, South Bridge, Edinburgh, from 12.30pm. Register at www.edinburghshogmanay.com

The Herald, December 23rd 2015


Monday, 21 December 2015

Michael Begg - Spem in Alium

In 1570, when Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis wrote his astonishing forty-voice motet, Spem in Alium (Hope in any other), , he probably didn't foresee the piece's transcendent propensities being co-opted by novelist E.L. James for her best-selling twenty-first century 'erotic romance', Fifty Shades of Grey. While such mass acceptance mercifully failed to dim the composition's splendour in the way Ravel's Bolero was kitschified following its use in Blake Edwards' 1979 rom-com, 10, it nevertheless saw recordings of Spem in Alium shoot to the top of the classical charts.

If Tallis was turning in his grave during the Fifty Shades hoo-har, he can rest more than easy regarding Michael Begg's infinitely more seasonal sounding 'arrangement and erosion' of an already majestic work. Rather than use voices, Begg utilises slowed-down strings and sepulchral sounding drones for a treatment that enhances the beauty of Tallis' original, even as it subverts it.

For those unfamiliar with his oeuvre, Begg is one half of electronic duo, Human Greed. He is also one of the driving forces behind vocalist Clodagh Simmonds' Fovea Hex project, who are set to release new material in 2016. Past attendees of Edinburgh's Hogmanay celebrations may also know Begg's output from Fragile Pitches, a sound installation performed at St Giles' Cathedral in 2009 alongside Nurse With Wound mainstay Colin Potter, in which the pair took natural sounds recorded locally, before distorting them over a five-hour electronic collage.

Originally released on Begg's Omnempathy label in 2013, and intended as a bonus disc to accompany Human Greed's World Fair album, Begg's thirty-minute take on Spem in Alium has now been re-released as a free download for December 2015 only. Begg himself has described the piece as an aural Christmas card. With the last date for posting physical missives now passed, this exquisite piece of fractured classicism is a glorious accompaniment to end of year meditations to cherish while it lasts.


Product, December 2015


Thursday, 17 December 2015

Priscilla Queen of the Desert

Edinburgh Playhouse
Four stars

A giant pink lipstick stands centre-stage with proudly phallic intent at the opening of Stephan Elliot and Allan Scott's camp musical take on Elliot's 1994 film, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The equally garish map of Australia that stands behind it marks out the route which our cross-dressing, gender-bending hero/ines will follow over the next two and a half hours in their magic bus.

A coloured lightshow turns the Playhouse into a gay disco writ large as it ushers us into the backstage world of Tick, aka Mitzi, Adam, better known as Felicia, and Les Girls veteran Bernadette. While getting a glimpse of Jason Donovan in his pants as Tick before he dons feather boa and wig to lip-synch with artful abandon is enough for some, there is the small matter of Tick's six year old son and the promise of a job on the other side of the country.

This is the only plot-based excuse required in Simon Phillips' production to soundtrack a funeral with Don't Leave Me This Way and illustrate one of two classics from the Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent songbook with a chorus line of dancing paint brushes. Nudgingly knowing references to Neighbours era Kylie abound.

For these Edinburgh dates only, Karen Dunbar gives an all too brief cameo as a mullet-sporting boozer with a restless chest, while Gavin Mitchell plays Bob, the macho mechanic with hidden depths. Donovan, a restless Adam Bailey as Felicia and and an elder stateswoman-like Simon Green as Bernadette, all shine, rounding things off with a set of grand finale frocks that would outdo every pantomime dame in this and any other town.

The Herald, December 17th 2015


Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Gavin Mitchell - Priscilla Queen of the Desert

Priscilla Queen of the Desert and the Turner Prize may not be the most obvious of bedfellows. Anyone wishing to find the connection between the latest run of the campest of musicals and this year's cutting edge contemporary art competition, however, need only look to Gavin Mitchell.

Tonight, the actor best known to TV audiences as Boaby the Barman in hit sit-com Still Game will be onstage in Priscilla at Edinburgh Playhouse. For these dates only, Mitchell will be playing opposite Jason Donovan in the relatively low-key role of Bob, the mechanic picked up by the bus-load of drag queens in Stephan Elliot and Allan Scott's long-running stage musical version of Elliot's hit 1994 film, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Last Monday night at Tramway in Glasgow, however, it was Mitchell's dulcet tones that could be heard introducing former Sonic Youth vocalist, bass player and artistic polymath Kim Gordon. Gordon may have been announcing the Turner award itself, but, care of Mitchell, she received what was possibly the most showbiz-styled introduction she's ever had.

Mitchell's disembodied appearance was the latest off-kilter excursion from a performer who in the last couple of weeks alone has refereed a wrestling match, DJ'd in a Glasgow club and sang as an occasional member of bad-ass party show-band, Colonel Mustard and The Dijon Five.

There was also Mitchell's appearance last year on Music and Words, a collaboration between singer and former Arab Strap guitarist Malcolm Middleton and artist David Shrigley. This is a relationship that stems back to Mitchell providing voice-overs for some of Shrigley's animations, which led to him being cast as a world-weary egg in Shrigley's equally absurdist opera, Pass The Spoon.

“It's not everyone who'd cast you as a manic-depressive egg,” Mitchell says. “David knows my range. That's what I call a friend.”

In his own words, Mitchell is “spinning plates,” in terms of the projects he gets involved with. During a career that began on TV playing opposite David Tennant and Ken Stott in Donna Franceschild's 1994 mental health unit set drama series, Takin' Over The Asylum, Mitchell has also moved through comedy sketch shows, Pulp Video, and the less well-known Velvet Soup and Revolver, en route to Still Game. Compared to all that, for Priscilla he is playing things pretty straight.

“It's all quite bonkers,” Mitchell says about his casting in the show. “I'd always loved the glamour and glitz of Priscilla the movie, and always wanted to see the show, but I've always been working or else it's been sold out whenever it's been up before, so it's great that I'm finally getting to see it as well as be in it. It's a great story, though I think the meaning of it has changed as sexual mores have changed.”

Mitchell praises Donovan, who reprises the role of Mitzi, who he first played in the show's 2009 London production.

“I'm looking forward to hanging out with Jason in Edinburgh,” says Mitchell. “Maybe I'll take him down to the Port O'Leith for a game of dominoes.

Of his character in Priscilla, Mitchell says that “Bob's really interesting. People might presume I'd be playing one of the drag queens, but Bob's quite ambiguous, and he's a bit of a mystery. He's got this wife who emasculates him, and he talks about having travelled he world, so he's this quite mundane good guy who's a bit broken, but there's this burgeoning romance that throws a wee curve ball into proceedings, because Bob's the archetypal straight guy.”

In keeping with such understatement, Mitchell won't get to let rip with some of the larger than life show-stoppers that have made Priscilla such a smash hit.

“Part of me is quite jealous,” he admits, “but to do that I'd have had to be one of the drag queens, but this is really nice for me as well, because at this time of year I've usually got glitter coming out of parts of me that I never knew existed.”

Mitchell is referring to what up until this year has been an annual stint in pantomime at the King's Theatre in Glasgow. Such seasonal outings were nipped in the bud last year after Mitchell was forced to withdraw from playing Captain Hook in the King's fiftieth anniversary production of Peter Pan following a cycling accident.

The injury happened earlier in the year, just two weeks before Mitchell was scheduled to appear in the record-breaking twenty-one night run of Still Game onstage at the SSE Hydro.

“I came crashing down onto the concrete,” he says, “and classic west coast of Scotland male, I bounced back up, said I was fine and tried to ride off.”

Even with what turned out to be broken ribs, Mitchell struggled on.

“There was no way I was going to pull out of Still Game,” he says, “and I was strapped up for most of it. That was fine until the big dance number at the end, and I came off and had to neck a load of pain-killers.”

Pulling out of the King's panto “wasn't a decision taken lightly,” Mitchell says. “It was my fiftieth as well as the King's', and I'd always wanted to play Captain Hook, but I never gave myself a chance to heal or to rest. I'm just old and stiff.”

Despite this, one shouldn't expect Mitchell to be off the panto scene for too long.

“I love it too much,” he says. “I love the audience, and the King's is very dear to me. It feels like home.”

Beyond his injuries, Mitchell describes the Still Game stage show as “like a dream. Doing it was quite mind-bending, especially in a space the size of the Hydro. I had to open the show, which was quite a laxative, but afterwards was strange as well.

“Normally you'd go to the pub or chat to people outside the theatre, but because the place was so big, there was this real disconnect. You'd have a drink in the dressing room and then you'd walk home alone. Once it was over, a lot of us had these strange come-downs, where just going for a pint of milk seemed strange.”

While there is talk of Still Game returning to the small screen, Mitchell has plenty to keep him busy. He describes Colonel Mustard and The Dijon Five as “a phenomenal live band. It's a big party, but it's quite political too. They're all about sharing positivity.

As for the wrestling, “My weird association with that comes from Greg Hemphill,” he says, referring to his Still Game colleague. “He's been a wrestling fan since he was a child, and he asked me to introduce one of the bouts at what was the last public event at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow.”

Presuming he hasn't acquired a fresh set of injuries while refereeing, Mitchell reckons Priscilla audiences will have “a hoot. These days it tends to be a bit like The Rocky Horror Show, with lots of people coming along in drag to party. But the show's changed as well, because the landscape's changed. Now it's a big celebration, of colour, creed, gender and sexuality.

Beyond Priscilla, Mitchell will keep on spinning plates.

“I've never had a game plan,”he says. “Everything I do tends to be about the mood I'm in at the time. When I think I've had enough of all this I'll probably apply for a job in Gregg's or become a lollipop man.”

Gavin Mitchell appears in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Edinburgh Playhouse, December 15-January 2 2016. The show also plays at the King's Theatre, Glasgow from March 29-April 2, but without Mitchell in the cast, and with Duncan James replacing Jason Donovan.

The Herald, December 15th 2015


Monday, 14 December 2015

Neu! Reekie! - The Five-Year Plan

When spoken-word mash-up maestros Neu! Reekie! open up the doors of Edinburgh's Central Hall this Thursday tea-time for their latest extravaganza, the melee of poets, novelists, pop stars, film-makers, artists and other ne'er do wells taking part will not only signal the full-on arrival of the festive season. They will also mark a five-year rollercoaster ride for Neu! Reekie! and its ring-masters, Michael Pedersen and Kevin Williamson. Together with an army of collaborators and contributors, this double-act has helped change the landscape in terms of a now burgeoning appetite for what used to be called alternative cabaret, even as the night has its roots in pop poetry scenes of yore.

With a bill headlined by Irvine Welsh and Liz Lochhead, and featuring musical sets from hip-hop troupe, Hector Bizerk, and New Pop fabulists, WHITE, the singularly named #NeuReekiesXmasKracker looks set to be a variety show to savour. The night will also see one-off collaborations between Emma Pollock and RM Hubbert and Withered Hand and Hailey Beavis, plus Honeyblood vocalist Stina Tweedale with a yet to be announced musical partner. There will be a performance by actor Tam Dean Burn, films by Rachel Maclean and BAFTA Award-winning animators Will Anderson and Ainslie Henderson, DJ sets from kindred spirits the She-Bang Rave Unit and Moonhop.

With close to a hundred shows racked up during Neu! Reekie!'s half-decade existence, Thursday night will also see the launch of Neu! Reekie!'s Christmas Art Heist.

Run in conjunction with The Big Issue and Edinburgh Art Festival, the Christmas Art Heist sees ten artists donating new work which will be contained inside random copies of The Big Issue. The ten include #NeuReekiesXmasKracker contributor Liz Lochhead, as well as Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison, Kevin Harman and Rachel Maclean. Other artists featured are Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Ross Sinclair, Alex Allan, Hanna Tuulikki and Sarah Muirhead. Jim Lambie's contribution to the project is a limited edition run of 150 signed and numbered posters.

Already this year, Neu! Reekie! has hosted the sixteen-date Anywhere But The Cities tour of non-central belt venues the length and breadth of Scotland. In May and June there was the launch of the first Neu! Reekie! publication, #UntitledOne. Published in association with Birlinn's Polygon imprint, this took in two major events, first at the city's La Belle Angele venue, followed a month later by a first visit to the Central Hall.

While the former featured ten artists, including Lochhead, novelist Jenni Fagan and Falkirk romantic Aidan Moffat, the latter show was headlined by Mercury Prize winning trio, Young Fathers, with support from poet Hollie McNish, clubland veteran Andrew Weatherall and the latest incarnation of dance pioneers, Finitribe.

In the last week, the Neu! Reekie! crew warmed up for their seasonal blow-out with an intimate screening of the short film that recorded Anywhere But The Cities' Merry Prankster-like cross-country adventure. Taking place at Summerhall and run in conjunction with Neu! Reekie! favourites, FOUND and tour sponsors, Dewar's, the event not only featured a live turn from Vaselines singer Eugene Kelly, but an excess of whisky that gave a hint of after-hours life on the road.

Neu! Reekie!'s ongoing bid for world domination began quietly in January 2011, when Pedersen and Williamson hosted their first event at the cosy head-quarters of Scottish Book Trust, just off the Royal Mile. As well as performances from the hosts, the first Neu! Reekie! also featured work from singer-song-writer Craig Finnie, multi-media queer performance poetry duo, Zorras, radical film-maker Sacha Kahir and Neu! Reekie! house band, Emelle.

With Pedersen a fresh-faced poet with hustling skills worthy of Arthur Daley, Williamson was the elder-statesman-like founder of 1990s lit-zine turned publishing house, Rebel Inc.

As well as giving early exposure to the likes of Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner, Laura Hird and others whose work would in part define the era, Rebel Inc's own live events in community halls, pub back rooms and the old Unemployed Workers Centre on Broughton Street tapped into a lively literary underground. This had its roots in the original punk and post-punk scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s that begat John Cooper-Clarke, Joolz Denby and John Hegley as much as it did with the Beat Generation of the 1950s and beyond.

In Children of Albion Rovers, Rebel Inc's seminal prose compendium published during its short-lived liaison with Canongate Books, there was a knowing nod to Children of Albion, the equally key 1969 poetry collection of UK-based underground writers drawn together by Michael Horovitz. That the latter volume included work by Ian Hamilton Finlay, both John and Tom McGrath (no relation), Edwin Morgan and Alexander Trocchi is telling of the effect such a wave of counter-culture inspired activity had on those that followed in their wake.

Horovitz's founding of New Departures magazine a decade earlier in 1959 was also significant. In the magazine, Horovitz published first generation Beats such as Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, Liverpool scene stalwarts Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten and1960s icons R.D. Laing and Ivor Cutler. Rubbing shoulders alongside them in later editions were the likes of Kathy Acker, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Attila The Stockbroker.

As well as the magazine, Horovitz ran poetry and jazz events under the Live New Departures banner that saw pianist Stan Tracey perform alongside Bomb Culture author Jeff Nuttall, saxophonist Lol Coxhill and others. Horovitz also produced the larger-scale Poetry Olympics, in which a pan-generational array of performers, including McGough, Cooper-Clarke, Benjamin Zephaniah and many more attempted annually to source the spirit of the 1965 International Poetry Incarnation, when Ginsberg, Trocchi, Mitchell, Horovitz and a host of others performed to 7,000 people at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

This, then, is where Williamson and Pedersen came in, their ideas sired from an underbelly of Beat, punk and club-based grassroots activity that went beyond the institutions, festivals and so-called centres of excellence that continue to dominate Edinburgh's cultural life.

From such low-key beginnings at the Scottish Book Trust, Pedersen and Williamson called on their respective peers and underground icons, so the likes of Momus, Vic Godard or The Sexual Objects could appear at Neu! Reekie! alongside Teen Canteen or Bill Ryder-Jones. Similarly, Alasdair Gray, Jackie Kay or Tom Leonard could sit alongside Luke Wright, Patience Agbabi or Hollie McNish.

Accompanying all events were programmes of short animations which, whether absurd, avant-garde or downright bizarre, opened the evening.

Neu! Reekie! eventually outgrew the Scottish Book Trust building, and moved into Summerhall, ping-ponging between there and Pilrig Church hall in Leith. Ever ambitious programmes saw Pedersen and Williamson programme shows in Glasgow, then, later, America, Japan and Dundee.

A collaboration with artist Jim Lambie's Poetry Club in Glasgow saw Williamson perform the whole of Robert Burns' poem, Tam O'Shanter on a bill that also featured a visit from John Giorno. Giorno's Poetry Systems record label had released material by Burroughs, Ginsberg and co, as well as early work by Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass and Diamanda Galas. The night was headlined by a unique performance by Primal Scream, playing to an audience of just one hundred.

Other nights such as Jenny Lindsay and Rachel McCrum's Rally & Broad co-exist in parallel with Neu! Reekie. This Friday night at the Bongo Club, Rally & Broad hosts a ten poet anti-slam night, with a follow-up in Glasgow on Sunday.

Just as Rodney Relax's Yellow Cafe nights similarly ran alongside Rebel Inc, today's spoken-word scene in general has flourished. Kate Tempest was even short-listed for the Mercury Prize the same year as Young Fathers won it.

This formed part of a bigger wave, whereby a festivalisation of culture opened up writers to other markets previously presumed niche. Suddenly they could appear alongside music and theatre events, be they at Latitude, Hay or Edinburgh, where arguably the current flurry of activity began.

Back in 1993, Rebel Inc booked out a much rougher looking La Belle Angele, the same now refurbished venue #UntitledOne was launched in twenty-two years later, for an event called Invisible Insurrection. The night was named after Alexander Trocchi's 1962 essay, Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds, which formed the manifesto for the writer's proposed international cultural think tank, Project Sigma.

Rebel Inc's take on Invisible Insurrection featured four short spoken-word performances, including ones by Irvine Welsh and the late Paul Reekie, who Neu! Reekie! was in part named after. Reekie played in post-punk band Thursdays, and his work appeared in Children of Albion Rovers. Possessed with a maverick mix of classicist intellect and Beat/punk cool, Reekie's spirit was possibly the biggest influence on Neu! Reekie! following his untimely passing in 2010. The night's name itself is a play on words that mixes the aesthetic of German kosmische band, Neu, with Edinburgh's nickname as auld reekie.

If #NeuReekiesXmasKracker marks the end of a hectic year for Neu! Reekie!, plans are already ongoing for 2016. Things kick off at the end of January with an event dubbed The First and Last. This will see Pedersen and Williamson lead a posse that includes Eugene Kelly, FOUND frontman Lomond Campbell and Holly McNish to Liverpool, where they will appear on a bill headlined by Scouse musical legend, Pete Wylie of The Mighty Wah! This will also see the launch of Triassic Tusk, a new record label from the FOUND Collective, who aim to compile and reissue rare vinyl from their ever-expanding collection.

In a Jekyll and Hyde city like Edinburgh, where an officially sanctioned culture can overshadow the thriving underground that feeds it, Neu! Reekie! breaking cover with such all-embracing largesse is a refreshing move. Whatever happens in the next five years, it already feels like the beginning of a great adventure.

#NeuReekiesXmasKracker, Central Hall, Edinburgh, December 17th, 6pm-11pm. Tickets, www.summerhall.co.uk, www.brownpapertickets.com, Elvis Shakespeare, Edinburgh and Ripping Records, Edinburgh. The First and Last, Leaf, Liverpool, January 28th, 8pm. www.brownpapertickets.com

Product, December 2015


The Pop Group – For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?

In the absence of younger artists willing to become the nation's conscience in the face of ongoing austerity culture, The Pop Group returned in 2010 to reclaim their oppositionist mantle. During the five years since, the Bristol-sired post-punk incendiarists have co-opted PledgeMusic to fund both a reissue of their explosive 1980 compilation album, We Are Time, as well as this year's Citizen Zombie, the first new Pop Group recordings in thirty-five years.

Now the quartet of sooth-saying vocalist Mark Stewart, guitarist Gareth Sager, bassist Dan Catsis and drummer Bruce Smith resurface with another campaign for the first ever CD release of their provocatively named 1980 album, their second, For How Much Longer Must We Tolerate Mass Murder? This is accompanied by a separate limited edition release of their equally in-yer-face 1979 single, We Are All Prostitutes.

With the album's urgent dispatches such as Forces of Oppression, There Are No Spectators and Rob A Bank lobbed like musical hand grenades into enemy territory, the PledgeMusic campaign may already be half done, but there's still time to dig deep, as flying pickets used to say.


Product, December 2015


Thursday, 10 December 2015

Tracks of the Winter Bear

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

A snow-ridden pathway flanked at either end by flung-out furniture opens the Traverse's exquisitely realised double bill of seasonal but utterly grown-up plays. By the end of these two short works by Stephen Greenhorn and Rona Munro, however, designer Kai Fischer's gauze-shrouded white landscape has thawed considerably in a slow-burning and emotional show which, despite its title, is riven with all too recognisably human experience.

In the first piece, Greenhorn unravels a love affair between two women that rewinds from its final plague to its first flush as it moves from atop Arthur's Seat to a first kiss on Portobello Beach, and all points inbetween. Munro's follow-up work puts a woman in an initially adversarial situation with a real live polar bear. As the Bear channels the inner hunger of those she devours, both try to find their way home, be it in Abbeyhill or a winter wonderland far away.

Themes of mortality pulse both plays in productions directed respectively by Zinnie Harris and Orla O'Loughlin. There are heart-rending turns by Deborah Arnott and Karen Bartke as the first play's couple, Shula and Avril, while Kathryn Howden's blousy Jackie forms the oddest of alliances with Caroline Deyga's Bear in the second. There are lovely cameos too from Molly Innes.

Both works move at a stately pace that borders on the transcendentally woozy, a mood enhanced by a slowcore piano score by David Paul Jones. As each play eases its way gently beyond their initial chilliness towards something warmer, in different ways they become moving paeans to loss, healing and survival against all odds in this most painful and wildest of worlds.

The Herald, December 11th 2015


Wednesday, 9 December 2015

The Tempest

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow
Three stars

In the darkness, a Pierrot-faced Ariel pads her way onto a stage littered with a tower of computer monitors. She climbs aloft a box, and with the wave of a hand, conjures up a storm that's beamed out from the screens and made flesh by some very regal looking castaways. So begins Ali de Souza and Katy Hale's look at Shakespeare's late period tale of exile, reconciliation and letting go for Prospero beyond his solitary kingdom, and adult awakenings for his daughter Miranda. There are new freedoms to be explored too for Ariel, as played by Alyssa Wininger, and for Prospero's slave, Caliban, brought to ferocious life by Oystein Schiefloe Kanestrom.

First up, however, is a father and daughter heart to heart between Laurence Pybus' Prospero and Lauren Grace's Miranda, stepping among ship-wrecked bodies splayed out on the shore as they go. Among the debris is Sebastian, played here by Jessica Brindle as the sister of Luke O'Doherty's Alonso. Such gender-bending allows for a hitherto unexplored erotic frisson between her and Wesley Jones' thrusting Antonio, before Brindle changes into a chef's outfit for comic fun doubling up as Stephano alongside Sam McInerney's Trinculo.

Performed by second year RCS acting students, De Souza and Hale's production was first seen in October, when it toured China as part of this year's Beijing College Student Drama Festival. This makes for a set of understandably bedded-in performances, from all those mentioned as well as Adler Hyatt's square-jawed Ferdinand. This is Kanestrom's show, however, as he comes out snarling as a feral, shaven-headed Caliban, off the leash and gorging on every new experience he can.

The Herald, December 10th 2015


Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Walls Come Tumbling Down – Assemble and the Turner Prize

When artist, writer and musician Kim Gordon announced Assemble as the winner of the 2015 Turner Prize at Tramway in Glasgow on Monday night, she played an absolute doozy. This wasn't just because she mentioned the city's seminal 1980s Sunday psych-punk-indie club, Splash 1, where her old band Sonic Youth played an early Scottish show.

While that alone was an acknowledgment of the DIY energy that trickled down the decades into the fertile and incestuous grassroots music and art scenes that now go some way to defining Glasgow, it was more to do with the way Gordon so charmingly fluffed her lines. So instead of saying 'this year', the words “this weird” came out.

Once she checked herself, she followed up by initially announcing the award for the 2016 Prize instead of 2015. While Gordon laughed off these glitches with unflustered cool, once she announced Assemble as winners, both goofs couldn't have sounded more appropriate.

Even with the Turner's chequered history, for an eighteen-strong collective of architects, artists and designers to win it, not with some multi-media installation, but with an ongoing social housing project in an economically deprived area of Liverpool, does look pretty weird.

Given too that Assemble's quest to transform the urban landscape and the lives of those who live in it looks set to continue way beyond next year, Gordon might well have been inadvertently channeling the future.

Assemble won the Turner largely for their work on Granby Four Streets, a cluster of terraced houses in the Toxteth district of Liverpool. Originally built for artisan workers at the turn of the twentieth century, the Granby Four Streets are the last surviving streets acquired by the local authority for demolition and redevelopment following the inner-city riots that took place on their doorstep in 1981.

With entire communities forcibly displaced in a form of social engineering resembling the razing of inner-city ghettos following the Second World War, the remaining residents fought plans for the destruction of their homes. Over the last decade, those residents have formed a Community Land Trust and helped transform what has become a little republic by doing up empty houses and starting a monthly market.

Assemble worked alongside residents to refurbish ten derelict houses on one of the streets, Cairns Street, using low cost materials and hand-crafted products sold in the locally run Granby Workshop, which they set up. A showroom displaying the materials on sale forms the bulk of Assemble's Turner show.

In Glasgow, Assemble spent three years working with residents in Dalmarnock in the east of the city on the Baltic Street Adventure Playground. This initiative is a supervised, child-led playground for six to twelve year olds created through an ongoing collaboration with local children and their families. It was the lead public art commission for the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

While no-one is in any doubt about either the beauty of the artefacts on show in the Granby Workshop, or the difference that has been made to communities in Granby, Dalmarnock and elsewhere, it has nevertheless called into question whether any of it can be classed as art at all.

Assemble came together in London during 2010 as a loose-knit alliance whose members recognised the uneasy relationship between built environments and those who live in them without having had any say in how they were created. As the group sought to 'actively involve the public as both participant and collaborator', as their website puts it, Assemble turned a derelict petrol station into a pop-up cinema, and transformed a disused motorway underpass into an arts venue. Blessing each project with names such as The Good, The Bad and The Allegory, The Brutalist Playground and Folly for a Flyover, Assemble attempted to put a sense of place back into the heart of a community.

In both construction and delivery, Assemble's works are playful, participatory and theatrical. Their ethos is idealistic, hippyish and magnificently utopian, even as they become life-changing in a very real way. In terms of fusing activism, art and ideas they are nothing new, yet there is possibly nothing quite like them either. It is perhaps for this reason that they may seem so radical to some, and so heretical to others.

The last time a collective was nominated for the Turner, after all, was in 1986, when the already fractured Art & Language group made up a list that included film-maker Derek Jarman, while a series of provocative photo-montages ensured victory for the decidedly singular Gilbert and George.

In 1993, Rachel Whiteread won with House, a concrete cast of a Victorian terraced house in East London. Whiteread exhibited House at the site of the original building, which the local council had demolished along with the rest of the street. House itself was destroyed by the council in 1994.

On BBC Newsnight last Friday, Daily Telegraph critic Mark Hudson suggested that, if Assemble could be nominated for the Turner, then so could B&Q or Oxfam. In this respect, such a problem of definition is not of Assemble's making. Rather, such demarcation rests with those who compartmentalise artforms as part of a cultural short-hand to make things simpler for the rest of us. The truth is much more complex.

Assemble didn't come from nowhere. The organisation has its umbilical roots in a burgeoning community arts scene that grew out of the 1960s, and which mobilised previously disenfranchised groups with arts projects in which participation was a key component. A notable example of this was the work done by Craigmillar Festival Society in Edinburgh. Founded in 1967, CFS put arts and culture at the centre of its community, and it was renowned internationally until its demise in 2002. Assemble take this further, making art central to the everyday lives of those resident in Granby Four Streets in a way that is tangible.

In this way, Assemble themselves are a product of regeneration, both of bricks and mortar and a social-based art which has been quietly bubbling under for years, but which looks seriously out of context in the Tramway space. Alistair Hudson, director of Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, who was on the judging panel of this year's Turner Prize, dates Assemble's oeuvre right back to William Morris and the nineteenth century arts and crafts movement.

More recently, Angus Farquhar's NVA Organisation built The Hidden Garden at the back of Tramway itself, combining civic spectacle, social space and public art in a way that is quietly subversive. Elsewhere, and in the face of encroaching gentrification that is happy to exploit art as a fast-track to one more shiny development awash with gated communities and yet another branch of Sainsbury's Local, grassroots collectives are self-organising like never before.

Whether they had won the Turner or not, Assemble have found their moment in a way that has already affected the Granby community. More significantly, perhaps, now they have won it, they have also affected the plans of Liverpool's city fathers and mothers, who would have bulldozed away that community, but who now have no choice but to let it get on with whatever it is that it's doing unmolested.

Yet, as the Granby Workshop and Granby Four Streets which it serves becomes increasingly self-sufficient in a way that the commercial art market can't touch, the rise of the pop-up, the DIY and the grassroots creates its own set of potential dangers. And make no mistake, the cultural vandals in the property business currently ripping the hearts out of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, London and elsewhere will be watching.

If Assemble, Granby Four Streets and the Baltic Street Adventure Playground are not careful, they may run the risk of being co-opted, gentrified and ultimately bought up by those who only see pound signs were aesthetic and social cohesion rub up against each other in chaotic red-brick harmony. Whether defined as art or not, if what Assemble have achieved with Granby Four Streets and beyond is to make a real long term difference, they need to imagine an even bigger future, and build it brick by brick. .

Bella Caledonia, December 8th 2015



Citizen's Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

Flowers grow wherever Rapunzel goes in Annie Siddons' hippified take on the Brothers Grimm's classic tale. From the day this sparkiest and spikiest of young heroines is abandoned in the woods, life blooms around her. It's a good job, then, that she's taken in by Mother Gothel's tribe of herbalists, whose handiness with exotic tinctures rubs off on their adopted daughter.

Once Rapunzel hits puberty, however, Gothel morphs into a jealous sociopath who locks her up in a tower where Rapunzel's already voluminous locks grow into a curtain that hides her from the world. Not that this matters to Rapunzel, who, in her dungarees, geek girl specs and buffed red Doc Marten boots, is more than capable of wrestling soppy Prince Patrizio to the ground when he comes calling. The adventure that follows is a walk on the wild side for them both in Lu Kemp's production, which becomes a psychologist's paradise as Wendy Seager's Gothel takes an increasingly grotesque turn.

Peter Collins is the ultimate scallywag as cartoon villain Ambrosi, with much fun to be had elsewhere with limp Italian sausages in need of rejuvenation and ruby rings delivered in a parcel of wild boar droppings. Jessica Hardwick's Rapunzel is a beacon of light through all this, even as her hormones get the better of her en route to true love.

With many of the cast doubling up as the show's live band, Michael John McCarthy's score is powered along by Cat Myers, drummer with Glasgow-based alt-rock duo, Honeyblood. In this respect, Siddons and Kemp's take on things resembles an old-school rock and roll based fringe theatre show designed for adolescents of all ages.

The Herald, December 8th 2015


Stephen Greenhorn and Rona Munro - Tracks of the Winter Bear

You could be forgiven for thinking Stephen Greenhorn and Rona Munro have come in from the cold. Tracks of the Winter Bear, the writers' collaborative double bill of plays which opens at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh tonight, sees both writers getting back to their roots with the theatre company where some of their earliest work was seen. The production will also be Greenhorn's first stage play since Sunshine on Leith began its road to international acclaim in 2007.

While Munro's plays have been seen at the Traverse more recently, her one-act contribution to this new compendium will be a considerably more intimate affair than the epic sweep of The James Plays, her trilogy of history plays presented at the 2014 Edinburgh International Festival by the National Theatre of Scotland.

“Tracks of the Winter Bear is much smaller,” she says, “but it's really magical as well. I'd had this idea for a while about doing a kind of adult Christmas show that had this great big bear in it. Then when Stephen and I came together earlier this year to talk about doing something, we found that we both had very similar ideas.”

As Greenhorn explains, “We were both in search of a motif, and when we put our heads together, we both liked the idea of doing a proper winter play set in Edinburgh rather than some abstract place, so part of the thrill of a scene is that it could be happening tomorrow four hundred yards from here.”

Once they began writing, Greenhorn and Munro's mutual interest in bears came out in very different ways.

“They're stylistically very different,” Greenhorn says of the plays, “but come from similar places. Both Rona and I were interested in characters who were getting older, characters who weren't in the first flush of youth, and who have a lot of baggage. There's something there as well about people living on the edges of society, people on the periphery who aren't integrated, and how that feels in the current climate. There's this whole notion as well of bears hibernating for the winter, and how polar bears don't hibernate.”

While separate plays in their own right, Tracks of the Winter Bear is divided into two acts, with Greenhorn's piece directed by the Traverse's associate director, Zinnie Harris, while Munro's piece is overseen by the new writing theatre's artistic director, Orla O'Loughlin.

In terms of plot, all Greenhorn will say about his play is that it is “a love story. It's a slightly tragic one, but slightly redemptive as well. The last performance is on Christmas Eve, so I don't want people going away all bleak. The sort of worlds I'm playing with are like those in A Christmas Carol and It's A Wonderful Life. There are elements that are quite dark, but they end up becoming quite redemptive.

Munro describes her piece as being “about a woman and a bear and the journey they go on. Once I had the idea, I never thought anyone would ever want to do it, so without Orla it wouldn't exist.”

Munro's relationship with the Traverse dates back to 1983 with her early play, Fugue, through to Your Turn To Clean The Stair, which was the last play to be performed at the new writing theatre's Grassmarket space. Munro's work with the Traverse continued with Iron in 2002, a translation of Quebecois writer Evelyne de la Cheneliere's play, Strawberries in January in 2006, and The Last Witch, seen at the Royal Lyceum Theatre as part of Edinburgh International Festival, in 2009. Her most recent full-length work for the space was Pandas in 2011.

Munro's work on screen has included Ladybird Ladybird with director Ken Loach, and, more recently, Oranges and Sunshine with Loach's son, Jim Loach.

“Writing for television has become more and more difficult,” says Munro, whose early credits include episodes of Doctor Who. “I've written a lot of films which haven't seen the light of day, and ideas about what is wanted by producers has changed a lot.”

This year, another new stage play, Scuttlers, was seen at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. Beyond Tracks of the Winter Bear, however, the return of The James Plays is clearly the thing she is most excited about.

“It's a huge source of delight,” she says of the NTS revival, which will tour to Australia and England after they open in Edinburgh in February. “The James Plays was one of the things I'd most wanted to do in the world, so to get the plays in front of a Scottish audience again is really special.”

Munro previously worked with Greenhorn,who she calls “a television ninja”, alongside fellow playwright Isabel Wright on Gilt, in which all three writers worked on the same play in a production presented by 7:84 Scotland in 2003.

In keeping with Munro's description of him, Greenhorn has spent the last few years concentrating on writing for television. This has included episodes of Doctor Who and River City, the latter of which he created, as well as supernatural drama, Marchlands, and the screenplay for the big-screen version of Sunshine on Leith, the Proclaimers soundtracked musical play that began life onstage at Dundee Rep.

The only theatre he has been involved in since then came when he was drafted in by West Yorkshire Playhouse director James Brining, who commissioned Sunshine on Leith while in charge of Dundee Rep, to work as dramaturg on his production of Maxine Peake's play, Beryl. Now back living in Edinburgh after several years in London, Greenhorn is enjoying working in the theatre where following early works with 7:84 Scotland, his writing career began in earnest in 1997 with his road movie for the stage, Passing Places.

“It's an odd feeling of excitement,” says Greenhorn, who also adapted Belgian writer Arne Sierens' play, The Ballad of Crazy Paola, for the Traverse in 2001, “but some things are just the same. Working in Traverse 1 is really strange, because you realise that's the exact same space where Passing Places was done, but you also realise we're all an awful lot older. Caroline Deyga, who's in the play, would've been a toddler then. So there's a mix of excitement about the current set-up and nostalgia for the old one.”

Like Munro, Greenhorn's experiences writing for television have been mixed.

“You can work on all these things for two years,” he says, “and then for various reasons they don't get made. It's really exciting doing the researching and writing, but then it's really frustrating when nothing happens with all that. In the theatre you get commissioned for a play that goes on in six months time, and you have the thrill of watching actors build a character in rehearsals.”

With what he calls “a second wave” of TV projects pending, a full-length commission for the Traverse is also ongoing. Munro too is working on a new play, this time for Birmingham Rep, currently being run by former Traverse associate director, Roxana Silbert.

In the meantime, audiences will have the two plays that form Tracks of the Winter Bear to keep them warm.

“They're about love and loss,” says Munro, “and people confronting their hopes and fears.”

Tracks of the Winter Bear, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, December 9-24.

The Herald, December 8th 2015


Monday, 7 December 2015

Madeleine Worrall - Playing Jane Eyre

When Madeleine Worrall steps out onto the stage tomorrow night to play the title role in a new stage version of Charlotte Bronte's novel, Jane Eyre, it won't just be the audience at the National Theatre who will be watching. As part of the NT Live initiative, a live feed of Sally Cookson's production, originally seen at Bristol Old Vic in 2014, will be screened simultaneously in more than 650 cinemas across the UK. In Scotland alone some fifty-four cinemas will show the production. All of which sounds more than a little bit daunting for the Edinburgh born actress, who remains onstage throughout the show.

“It is a bit terrifying for us,” she admits. “We think we're just doing it in front of the audience in the theatre, but we're actually being seen in cinemas all over. I'm trying not to think about it to be honest, but the NT Live people are being very clear that we're not trying to make a film, but are filming a theatre performance, with everything that goes with that. They're telling us not to change anything, and to not put on our close-up faces or anything ridiculous like that. I'm onstage throughout, which is exhilarating, but there'll be a lot of sweat flying about which you'll see onscreen.”

Taking on one of the most iconic figures in literature has not been without its difficulties for Worrall.

“A lot of people have said to me that the way I play Jane is not what they expected from it,” she says. “I recoiled when I first heard that. I first read Jane Eyre when I was thirteen, and I want to be true to the book, so I asked what they meant. They said that the way we do it, Jane is so fiery and so sparky, but if you read the book, that's what she's like.

“Those dreadful pictures on the covers of the book don't help. A lot of Jane's fire is in her mind - the full title of the book is Jane Eyre – An Autobiography - and one of the biggest problems is how you bring that inner rage onto a stage. Jane learns the hard way very early on that she has to keep her passions under control, and she becomes very wilful, but there's this extraordinary brain still ticking. She is a fiery, angry wild child.”

The last time Worrall was seen in the flesh on a stage in Scotland was in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, writer David Greig and director Wils Wilson's twenty-first century reinvention of border ballads, which was toured around pubs by the National Theatre of Scotland. Before that she played the title role in Orlando, Cryptic's radical multi-media reworking of Virginia Woolf's epic poem.

It was Ben Harrison, director of Edinburgh-based site-specific company, Grid Iron, who recommended Worrall to Cryptic director Cathie Boyd after she played Mrs Darling in Harrison's production of Peter Pan in a purpose-built tent in Kensington Gardens. Worrall went on to play Wendy in a very different take on Peter Pan in a production at Bristol Old Vic directed by Cookson, who went on to cast Worrall as Jane Eyre.

“Sally is very good at reversing expectations,” Worrall says. “Wendy is often seen as Peter's sidekick, but little girls are bossy, and have very strong ideas in terms of knowing what they want.”

Worrall grew up in the colonies of Edinburgh's Abbeyhill district, and attended the city's Mary Erskine School.

“I'd love to do The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie one day,” Worrall says, unconsciously slipping back into an Edinburgh accent. “You can't go to Mary Erskine's and not have that in sight.”

Worrall joined Edinburgh Acting School, and later on the National Youth Theatre.

“I definitely had a natural interest in acting,” she says, “but I never knew what I would do with it. I always felt rather stupid academically, so I felt I had to prove myself somehow. I became determined to do well, and made it my personal challenge. That was my Jane Eyre side.”

Worrall's determination got her into Cambridge, and eventually to drama school. Her first professional role on a Scottish stage came playing opposite Brian Cox in Uncle Varick, John Byrne's 1960s take on Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. Worrall has a framed picture on her wall of Byrne's drawing of her character, Shona, Byrne's version of Sonya, “in her dungarees and batty old jacket, realising what she could be.”

Worrall's approach to Jane Eyre remains equally singular.

“It's about self-determination and living life on your own terms without damaging other people,” she says of the current production. “Personally, it's thrilling to be part of what seems to be a wave of great women characters being seen onstage, which is something that hasn't always been the case.

“I think what doing Jane Eyre has taught me is that the work that makes me happiest are exhilarating adventures like this, where you're devising it and creating it as well as performing it. I'm not sure what it will be like doing something with a script again after this. This show obliterates me,” she says. “Look out for the sweat.”

Jane Eyre can be seen as part of NT Live at cinemas across Scotland on December 8.

The Herald, December 7th 2015


Friday, 4 December 2015

The Witches

Dundee Rep
Three stars

Young audiences beware. Choose carefully which brand of sticky confectionery you stuff your faces with during the interval of Dundee Rep's festive production of Roald Dahl's supernatural classic, as adapted here by Dahl specialist David Wood. If you scoff down the wrong kind, you might just return having been transformed into a mouse. This is exactly what happens to the Boy narrator of the story and his greedy friend Bruno when they accidentally gatecrash an international witches conference in Bournemouth's swanky Hotel Magnificent.

Such notions of subjugation and social control over the young have already been cranked up at the witches conference itself. While the Tory-blue twin-sets stay on, attendees toss aside all vestiges of humanity that their wigs and gloves provide. This adds to the grotesquerie as Emily Winter's Grand High Witch holds the floor like some crazed tin-pot dictator waging war on imaginary enemies.

Using a mix of mouse puppets and human-size rodents scampering among giant-size hotel kitchen detritus, Jemima Levick's production starts off quietly, as Matthew Forbes' Boy unravels his story on Jean Chan's platformed set. With a ton of exposition to get through, things only really start to get spooky when the Boy is almost tempted down, Eden-like, from his Norwegian tree-house by a serpent-wielding witch.

With Jo Freer lending comic support as the Grand High Witch's hapless sidekick Beatrice, the show's

strongest scene comes when the Boy, in collusion with Bruno and his Granny, conspire to give the witches an overdue taste of their own bitter medicine. As they twitch and shudder their way into oblivion, an entire chorus line of evil is given its just desserts.

The Herald, December 7th 2015


Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Lucy Parker – Blacklist

When a blacklisted construction worker on camera compares his experience to something written by Kafka, given everything that has gone before, you know exactly what he means. Especially as, rather than such a statement coming from some Cold War era East European dissident as he reads his once secret files, these words are being uttered at a table in a London pub by a middle-aged man in the early years of the twenty-first century.

The incident is captured in the twenty minute video that forms the heart of Blacklist, Lucy Parker's multi-media work-in-progress running this week at Edinburgh's Rhubaba artspace. It comes during a round-table discussion between several men who were on a list of some 3,213 names compiled between 1993 and 2009 by the UK-based Consulting Association. Those on the list had either spoken out about on-site working conditions or else were known trade union members or activists. With the lists circulated among construction companies bank-rolling The Consulting Association, those refused work had their livelihoods destroyed, sometimes with fatal results.

Blacklist is part stock-take, part show-and-tell of Parker's year-long researches into how multi-national construction firms colluded with state forces to prevent people they regarded as trouble-makers from finding work. The material on show will feed into the making of a much bigger film that will expand on issues of social control.

As well as the above named video, Blacklist features a second video that focuses on a writers workshop where one of the blacklistees reads a short story based on his experience. In tone, superficially, at least, the story resembles some of James Kelman's early work, which similarly had his characters trying to get by on the breadline against a back-drop of unskilled casual labour.

A wealth of archive film clips demonstrates the historical roots of blacklisting and infiltration of protest movements. As Tom Wood's 2015 film, Blacklisting, makes clear during its screening in Parker's show, the former dates back to the early days of twentieth century capitalism, when in 1919 the anti trade union, pro free market Economic League was founded.

Remarkably, The Economic League was only closed down in 1993 after sustained pressure from the likes of journalist Paul Foot, who obtained a full list of the League's blacklist. At the time of its closure, The Economic League held files on 22,000 people. These included thousands of shop-floor workers, as well as journalists and some forty MPs, including Gordon Brown.

The Consulting Association was started by key figures from the Economic League, including its director, Ian Kerr. In evidence given to a 2013 inquiry at Westminster convened by the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, Kerr stated that TCA was founded using a £10,000 loan from construction giant Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd. McAlpine is known to have invested a total of £20,000 into TCA, buying up the Economic League's blacklist for TCA use, with some fourteen major construction and civil engineering companies known to have helped form the organisation.

Following raids by the Information Commissioners Office in 2009, files on the 3,213 were discovered, with speculation that these may have formed just a tiny percentage of actual files that existed. One of those named was Helen Steel, one of two environmental activists who were sued by fast food giants McDonald's after distributing a pamphlet highlighting what they saw as some of the company's less savoury aspects. The documentary film about the case that came to be known as McLibel is also shown as part of Blacklist.

With companies such as Balfour Beatty and Laing O'Rourke known to have been involved in TCA as well as McAlpine, the independently run Blacklist Support Group was set up in 2009. After sustained pressure at the courts and in the media, at preliminary hearings at the High Court in October this year, eight firms were reported to have apologised for their role in blacklisting. Proceedings are set to continue in 2016.

As was revealed by company director Cullum McAlpine at the 2013 Scottish Affairs Select Committee, McAlpine projects where workers are known to have been vetted include the Quarter Mile project in Edinburgh and the Marie Curie Centre in Glasgow, as well as the ground-works for the Olympic Stadium for London 2012. While the latter is made plain in Parker's show, it is seeing copies of actual documents previously kept on file by TCA that is the most shocking. As jaw-dropping as the existence of these must be for those who still have faith in western democracy, for anyone who has ever worked on a building site, none of it will come as a surprise.

Such out and out exploitation has been historicised culturally in many forms. One can go right back to The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressall's thousand-page plus epic of working class labour exploited by big business. The book was first published in 1914 after the house-painter turned writer's death three years earlier, and is now regarded as a classic.

One could look too to McAlpine's Fusiliers, Dominic Behan's 1960s folk ballad that spoke satirically of the role of Irish migrants employed by major construction companies such as McAlpine (Laing and Wimpey also get a mention in the song). Originally recorded by The Dubliners, McAlpine's Fusiliers went on to become a construction workers anthem of sorts.

More recently, there is the case of The Shrewsbury Two, in which construction workers and trade union activists Des Warren and future actor Ricky Tomlinson were arrested some five months after the 1972 national building workers strike campaigning against casual labour with no employment rights had ended. A stage play, United We Stand, continues to be supported by the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign as part of the attempt to overturn the criminalisation of some twenty-four building workers prosecuted following the strike.

A decade later, Alan Bleasdale's TV play, The Black Stuff, and the five plays they spawned that became Boys from the Blackstuff, offered a heart-breaking portrait of blue collar life in an era of mass unemployment in the UK. From the same era, albeit lighter in tone, the long-running comedy drama series, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, nevertheless offered up an authentic depiction of the gang mentality of itinerant British labourers forced to look for work on building sites in Germany.

Into the 1990s, Riff-Raff, directed by Ken Loach (whose work is represented in Blacklist by clips from his 1995 Spanish Civil War set drama, Land and Freedom) charts the travails of a labourer played by Robert Carlyle who finds work on a site in London converting a derelict hospital into luxury flats. Carlyle's workmates include a character played by Ricky Tomlinson who is sacked from the job after requesting safer working conditions.

If Loach recognised the ideological drive behind money-focused construction companies in Riff-Raff, twenty-four years on it is made even more explicit in Parker's work. But there is a focus on community too in Blacklist, both in the video footage and in the work's presentation. In Rhubaba's unheated warehouse space, Blacklist is invested with the chilly authenticity of a building site porta-cabin tea room. This atmosphere is made complete by the plain wooden table and benches that nestle beneath a flat screen TV on which the clips are shown, and which are designed for discussion as much as endless mugs of tea .

This raises issues of how, after being left out in the cold, workers already unconsciously engaging in self-education become further politicised by proxy, forming a loose-knit community or collective as they go.

As appositely cosy as all this sounds, Blacklist is already en route to becoming a vital creative document of a piece of hidden history that is still being played out.

A stone's throw from Rhubaba, major swathes of Leith Walk have been transformed into building sites, as has much of Edinburgh city centre, and indeed many major cities whose local authorities are intent on so-called regeneration. Outside each site, billboards and signage embraces the caring, sharing touchy-feely language of philanthropic community-based initiatives rather than the commercial money-spinners they actually are.

On-site safety, according to the signs, is paramount. Even so, now the winter is setting in, one wonders how those workers on the ground are coping, what their pay and conditions are, and how who is employed is decided.

There are a very small coterie of people making millions from the construction industry. But it's not those who occupy the buildings that result from these developments who get the benefit, and it's certainly not the people who put them up.

Blacklist comes at a time when barely a day passes without reports of police infiltration of protest groups, while the UK governments proposed Trade Union Bill seeks to outlaw any kind of activism. If the Bill is passed, it won't be long before the sort of blacklist held by the TCA is no longer necessary to keep workers in check. If he'd been around to see it, Kafka would have had a field day.

Blacklist runs at Rhubaba, Arthur Street, Edinburgh until December 6th. Endings, an event to coincide with the show, takes place at Rhubaba on Friday December 4th at 6.30pm, and will feature presentations by legal academic Dr Chloe Kennedy, bassoonist and artist Faith Limbrick and music and film programmer Peter Taylor. Soup and popcorn will be served.

Product, December 2015


Tuesday, 1 December 2015

The Nectarine No 9 - Saint Jack (Heavenly)

There's a darkness at the heart of Saint Jack, the second album by The Nectarine No 9, Davy Henderson's skewed ensemble take on rock and roll following his adventures with Edinburgh post-punk primitivists Fire Engines and the major label pop entryist gloss of Win. Originally released in 1995 on Alan Horne's briefly reignited Postcard label, Heavenly's twentieth anniversary reissue goes some way to unearthing the missing link between those early deconstructions and Henderson's current guise leading the equally conceptualist Sexual Objects, who this year auctioned the sole copy of their second album, Marshmallow, on eBay for a cool £4,213.

Having 'regrouped' once already last year and with dates pending in London and Glasgow to play Saint Jack in full, The Nectarine No 9 might just have found their time.

With the band named after a Japanese love hotel, the title of this follow up to their loose-knit debut, A Sea And Three Stars (or C***, if you will), was a triple-edged sword that referenced Peter Bogdanovich's 1979 Singapore-set movie of the same name, the Beat Generation's hopped-up golden boy novelist as well as the stuff that comes in bottles out of Tennessee.

With such a pop cultural pedigree in tow, Saint Jack sets sail with the strident call and response of the title track, a guitar-powered voyage into mythological seas that looks to Joseph Conrad as much as Lou Reed's 'Heroin' for lyrical ballast. Such straight ahead scene-setting is initially deceptive, however, for the cut-up collage of guitar sketch motifs, TV and movie samples and spoken word peppered throughout the album's fourteen pieces.

Ben Gazzara's dialogue from Bogdanovich's film is in there, as is twentieth century art critic Clement Greenberg's damning verdict on Jackson Pollock. Poet and fellow traveller Jock Scott, whose own lost opus, My Personal Culloden
, featuring music supplied by Henderson and co, was also recently re-released by Heavenly, also waxes sleazily. The effect of such a multi-media pot-pourri is akin to hearing a bootleg of a Dada-inspired underground cabaret with the Nectarines as house band.

But Saint Jack is still a rock and roll album, the flesh and blood of which comes into play only when Henderson and a five-piece line-up that includes guitarist Simon Smeeton and drummer Ian Holford, who remain the backbone of The Sexual Objects, fully let rip. This happens on 'This Arsehole's Been Burned Too Many Times Before', which, despite the self-lacerating title, is somewhat appositely one of the jauntiest songs on offer. As three guitars veer off in different directions, Henderson channels his inner Todd Rundgren before the song reaches its pounding conclusion accompanied by 'Sister Ray' style organ drowning out what sounds like muffled answerphone messages.

By turns abrasive, uptight, world-weary and strung-out, this a decidedly grown-up collection of velveteen noir. With Henderson seemingly lurking in the shadows throughout, his voice is kept low in the mix and wilfully swamped by other elements. At times it's a murmur, at others a treated drawl that comes in an accent acquired somewhere between a Sunday morning Edinburgh car boot sale and the Chelsea Hotel after-hours.

Beyond such hiding in plain sight, the album peaks with a slow-burning finale that begins with the beat-powered rifferama of 'Firecrackers', before things slow down for 'Un-Loaded For You'. The most insular and personal song on the album, the latter begins with a plucked-out confessional before eventually bursting into a mountainous epic of purging and redemption. 'Clipped Wings & Flower Stings' comes from the same scuzzed-up corner, albeit wrapped up with a prettified but insistent slo-mo jangle that's eventually over-ridden by the organ once more.

Of the nine tracks on the bonus CD of John Peel Session recordings, covers of Captain Beefheart's 'Frownland' and Jackson Browne's 'These Days', a song originally recorded by Nico, make even more explicit where The Nectarine No 9 were coming from. Unadorned by the blow-out on the Saint Jack version of 'Un-Loaded For You', the stripped-down Peel Session take sounds even more naked. It's as raw as it gets on a contrarily triumphal meditation on melancholy, magic and loss, the three graces that drive a collection that lays bare everything a big bad world can throw at you.

The Quietus, December 1st 2015


Pauline Knowles - The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

When Pauline Knowles was cast as the White Witch in the Royal Lyceum Theatre's Christmas production of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, which opened at the weekend, she wasn't sure what to make of her character. In a career that has seen the Edinburgh-born actress play such roles as Chris Guthrie in Sunset Song as well as a plethora of new plays including David Harrower's Knives in Hens, it was the first time she would be playing such an out and out villain.

Given the intelligence, depth and quiet steeliness Knowles has consistently brought to her work, her approach was never going to be a one-dimensional affair.

“It's interesting,” she says, taking a break from technical rehearsals which have included her seeing the White Witch's wand light up for the first time.,“because I've had to try and think of her as someone who isn't a human being. All of the other creatures in it are beavers and what have you, but she's completely different. She's someone who's half Jinn, which is this race who come from a world separate from Narnia, and half giant. But she looks like a human being, and she walks like a human being, and that can be very disguising.

“The other thing as well is to try and not let her have any kind of human feelings, and that's quite difficult. Being cool and cold works fine for a few minutes, but it can get quite dull after that, so you have to try and colour her in somehow and make that work onstage. It's easy to play her ice-cool, but later on when things begin to disintegrate and she becomes more fearful, that's a more interesting journey.”

Humanity of various shades has been apparent in all of Knowles' roles of late. Over twelve months that she describes as “the busiest I've ever had. It's only taken me twenty-six years,” Knowles has played nineteenth century French dancer Jane Avril in Crazy Jane, Nicola McCartney's play for the Birds of Paradise company, and various women based around a Borders-based knitting community in Stellar Quines' production of Sylvia Dow's play, Threads. Inbetween, Knowles played a depressed woman living in a dystopian high-rise in Zinnie and John Harris' short opera, The Garden, and a furiously erotic version of Lot's wife on the eve of leaving Sodom in Howard Barker's play, Lot and His God, at the Citizens Theatre.

“The character in The Garden was depressed,” Knowles says when asked if there was a thread of coolness running through her work, “so there was more a withering there than a coolness. There was a surrender to the situation, so there was a deadness, maybe.”

Of the characters in Lot and His God, Knowles points out that “These people live by their intellect. They don't feel things, but spend all their time talking about them, so there's this fascinating disconnect from feelings.”

With both Threads and The Garden finding Knowles combining acting with singing, it was a pleasure to hear a voice previously put centre-stage several years ago in the Lyceum's production of The Man of La Mancha, then again in visual artist David Shrigley's madcap opera, Pass The Spoon.

“I would absolutely love to do more of that,” she says of singing onstage. “Some of my earliest jobs were with Wildcat, and I did loads of singing. Then people stopped singing, and it's only just coming back. Unfortunately, in the interim my voice has probably dropped a couple of octaves.”

Born and raised in Edinburgh, Knowles first fell under the spell of the stage while a pupil at Holyrood High School. Head of the school's drama department was Frances Paterson, who during her tenure at Holyrood was a great supporter of the Herald's Young Critics scheme run in association with Edinburgh International Festival, and was subsequently awarded a Herald Angel Award for her contribution to the programme.

“She was absolutely brilliant,” says Knowles. “One teacher is all it takes. Frances is a force of nature, and if it wasn't for her I wouldn't be here doing what I do now.”

Knowles initially went to Stirling University to study English and psychology.

“Put those two things together,” she says, “and you've got a play.”

While she enjoyed her first year, she realised acting was really what she wanted to do.

“I just started to ask myself what was I waiting for,” she says, “and why was I messing about. But then, perhaps I'd needed that time away to think about it.”

Knowles' musical theatre experience dates back to her drama school days in Glasgow, when an appearance in a production of Melvyn Bragg's The Hired Man got her an agent. Early appearances included a production of Brecht's Don Juan which was overseen by David McVicar for the future international opera director's Pen Name company.

In the audience for the Edinburgh dates of the show was writer, director and founder of the7:84 company, John McGrath, who signed Knowles up to appear in John Brown's Body, his epic stage history of the industrial working class in Scotland. Produced by Wildcat, the show was staged at Tramway as part of Glasgow's year as City of Culture in 1990.

“That was the first job I was paid for,” Knowles says. “It was this enormous thing where I met all these wonderful people, like Dave Anderson, David MacLennan and George Drennan, who I'd end up working with again.

Following a string of shows with Wildcat and 7:84, Knowles was cast as Chris Guthrie in Alistair Corning’s stage version of Lewis Grassing Gibbons' novel, Sunset Song. T.A.G., production of Corning’s dramatisation led him to adapt the other two books of Grassic Gibbon's A Scots Quair trilogy, culminating in a major staging of all three plays at Edinburgh International Festival.

“That went stratospheric,” Knowles remembers. “It was the first time it had been done onstage, and started as a small touring show. We did it at the Tron in Glasgow, and Vivien Heilbron, who'd played Chris Guthrie on the telly, came to see it, so that was pretty nerve-wracking.”

Knowles went on to work extensively at the Traverse Theatre, where Philip Howard's decade-long reign as artistic director was just beginning. When Howard gave Knowles a script to read by an unknown writer called David Harrower, it initially confused her.

“I couldn't make head nor tail of it,” Knowles says of Knives in Hens, Harrower's still remarkable debut in which she played a young woman who slowly discovers the language of life. Written in a clipped, arcane demotic, “speaking it out loud is a very different experience to just reading it to yourself. It's a play about words and language, and as soon as you speak the lines it resonates and becomes something wonderful.”

In the twenty years since, Knowles has notched up a body of work which has been as understated as it is impeccable.

“I really love new writing,” she says when asked where her aspirations lie, “There's no classical roles that I aspire to, and the roles I do aspire to play haven't been written yet, but I get excited by new writing, and I like what I do.

“At the start of the year I was dancing at the Moulin Rouge in Crazy Jane, and at the end I've been doing Scottish step dancing in Threads. What's not to love? Theatre is what makes us tick. Even something as apparently frothy as The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, it's about what makes us tick, and who we are as human beings.”

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh until January 3.

The Herald, December 1st 2015


Jeremy Thoms - The Stereogram Revue

When Jeremy Thoms decided to start a record label, it was initially to put out the debut album by his own band, The Cathode Ray. Three years on, Stereogram Recordings has a roster of eight acts, six of whom will be taking part in the two-night mini package tour this week styled by Thoms as The Stereogram Revue. A seventh, The Band of Holy Joy, will be represented by proxy, but more of that anon.

“It's something that hasn't happened for a very long time,” Thoms says of the initiative. “I was inspired by the likes of the Stax revues in the sixties, and the Live Stiffs tours in the seventies, where all the acts on the label play on the same bill. With the Stereogram Revue, everybody plays twenty minute sets and hopefully leaves their ego at the door. There will be rough edges to it, I'm sure, but I quite like that. All my favourite artists, like Vic Godard, just plug in and thrash it out. Even so, I suspect I'll be a complete nervous wreck on the night.”

With James King and the Lonewolves closing each night, the rest of the bill will be made up of Dunbar-based wunderkind, Roy Moller, St Christopher Medal, formed by veterans of 1990s combo, Life With Nixon, and velveteen female-fronted sextet Lola in Slacks. The Cathode Ray and another of Thoms' musical vehicles, The Fabulous Artisans, will also appear on the bill.

In terms of running order, other than the Lonewolves, acts will be “shuffled round like a pack of cards,” says Thoms. “It's all about the collective.”

To accompany the events, the label will be releasing The Sound of Stereogram, a limited edition cut price CD featuring all the bands from the shows plus latest Stereogram signing, Milton Star. While the album will feature a track by The Band of Holy Joy, The Stereogram Revue will see them represented by actor Tam Dean Burn. As a long time artistic collaborator of the BOHJ's driving force, Johny Brown, Burn will present a piece of performance art in the guise of the Band of Holy Joy Scrap and Salvage Movement.

“There will be visuals projected,” says Thoms, “and that opens the night up to other areas. It's a very art thing, and will probably be quite freeform.”

If the roots of The Stereogram Revue are in old-school package tours, the label itself has umbilical links with Alan Horne's Postcard and, especially, Bob Last and Hilary Morrison's Edinburgh-based Fast Product. Douglas MacIntyre's Creeping Bent label, which was also inspired by Fast, can be regarded as a fellow traveller.

Many of Thoms' signings have roots in the original wave of post-punk, with James King and The Lonewolves and The Band of Holy Joy the best known of the Stereogram roster. This taps into a recent resurgence of interest in the original Sound of Young Scotland, exemplified best in Grant McPhee's film, Big Gold Dream, which documents the era.

“There's definitely a continuum,” says Thoms, whose own musical pedigree dates back to fronting The Presidents Men, who released two singles on Aberdeen's Oily Records label. Moving to Edinburgh in 1982, Thoms formed the Strawberry Tarts before playing with the likes of The Sour Grapes Bunch inbetween touring with The Revillos.

“From a distance you realise how important all that stuff was, but when you're in the thick of it you don't know it. But Stereogram seems to have tapped into that as well. It's people who did stuff, then dropped out of the scene, got a job, got married, had kids, and who've now come out the other side and are still making music that matters.

“With The Stereogram Revue, hopefully we'll be reaching fans of all the bands who are playing, and maybe introducing something new to fans of one band who maybe haven't heard some of the others. Although none of the bands on Stereogram sound similar, there is a shared ethos there that these two nights are trying to cement in some way. In it's heart of hearts, it's like a good old-fashioned variety show.”

The Stereogram Revue, The Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, Wednesday; CCA, Glasgow, Thursday. The Sound of Stereogram is released on Wednesday.

The Herald, December 1st 2015