Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

Once upon a time there was a fifteen-year old boy called Christopher Boone, who loved prime numbers and his pet rat Toby, but hated being touched. When one night Christopher finds a dead dog run through with a garden fork, he turns detective and accidentally embarks on an adventure that will open up a world beyond the assorted codes he's constructed to protect himself and change his life forever.

The several million fans of Mark Haddon's novel that inspired this stage adaptation by Simon Stephens may already know the intricately obsessive ins and outs of all this in ways akin to Christopher's whip-smart but socially awkward demeanour. Seeing it brought to life in Marianne Elliot's hit production for the National Theatre, however, is something else again.

The above is framed by having Christopher's teacher Siobhan read out Christopher's story to the class, then having his classmates act it out. Siobhan herself, played here by Geraldine Alexander, becomes a kind of Jiminy Cricket figure to Christopher's pedantically determined savant. More significantly, as Christopher marks out what becomes part domestic thriller, part quest, part cutesie rites of passage, we see it from the inside of his own brain, its barrage of images brought to life by Finn Ross' video projections, Adrian Sutton's twinkly electronic score and choreography by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett.

All of which makes for a delightfully touchy-feely experience beyond the ennui, in which Chris Ashby, one of two Christophers alternating the role, leads the thirteen-strong ensemble with a heroic turn that never does things by numbers, but becomes an education in itself in an infectiously life-affirming display.

The Herald, April 30th 2015


A View From The Bridge

Kings Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

It's hard not to think of the all too recent tragedies of migrants seeking sanctuary while watching Stephen Unwin's mighty new production of Arthur Miller's 1956 play for the Touring Consortium Theatre Company. In Eddie Carbone's gradual betrayal of all the blue collar codes he's lived by with his wife Beatrice and orphaned niece Catherine, after all, is a global tragedy played out in one cramped living room in a poverty-stricken New York neighbourhood.

Not that such a thesis is pushed too far, as Eddie's insular life as king of his tenement castle is shaken up by the arrival of Beatrice's Italian cousins, Marco and Rodolpho, a couple of 'submarines' who travel to America illegally. Where Philip Cairns' Marco is a grafter, James Rastall's Rodolpho is a blonde and seemingly feckless aesthete whose ability to sing, dance, cook a meal and sew a skirt gives Daisy Boulton's initially guileless Catherine a glimpse of something beyond her increasingly awkward relationship with Eddie.

Like many who live in fear of a so-called other, Eddie is emasculated, striking out with misguided machismo as he attempts to flex out of shape muscles, broken by years of servitude to dockland mobsters, back to life. As played here by Jonathan Guy Lewis on a stage flanked by designer Liz Ashcroft's images of telegraph poles, Eddie swaggers and shuffles like a wounded bear in denial and usurped by more exotic creatures. With Michael Brandon's Alfieri an all-seeing street-smart oracle and Teresa Banham lending Beatrice a put-upon dignity, Miller's fanfare for the common man and woman suggests that succumbing to divide and rule tactics in times of austerity does nobody any favours.
The Herald, April 30th 2015


Inside Outsiders - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Onstage

Everybody loves an outsider. In literature and film, it's the
oddball, the geek and the troublesome, the shyly intelligent but socially
awkward or emotionally damaged anti-hero who readers and audiences identify
with. If such protagonists are teenagers angrily coming to terms with a world
that seems to be against them, the appeal is even greater, whether it's James
Dean's sensitive tough guy in Rebel Without A Cause or an entire coterie of
misfits in John Hughes' ultimate teen angst flick, The Breakfast Club.

books, J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye has itself become a rites of
passage for young readers who can identify with the book's narrator, Holden
Caulfield, while Jay McInerny did something similar for teenage girls in his
1988 novel, Story of My Life. All of which goes some way to explaining the
phenomenal and enduring success of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the
Night-Time ever since Mark Haddon's novel was first published in 2003.

rightly regarded as a modern classic, Haddon's novel, written, as with the books
named above, in the first-person voice of its socially anxious protagonist and
narrator, Christopher, wasn't an obvious choice to be adapted for the stage. To
make it happen at all, playwright Simon Stephens and director Marianne Elliot
had, like Christopher, to take a leap into the unknown and go beyond what was
effectively a very long monologue to dramatise it beyond the page.

Both were
fans of the book before the idea was mooted by Haddon, who first approached
Stephens with a view to him adapting it.

“I was immensely flattered,” says
Stephens, who wrote the play without the pressures of a commission. “I loved the
book for years, and was inspired by it in earlier plays before I’d even met him.
I was daunted by the book’s celebrity and fascinated by the challenge of how one
dramatises a novel. I very much wanted to find out what Christopher’s parents
looked like and thought a good way of doing that would be to dramatise

Elliot too had read the book when it first came out, and “absolutely
loved it. I never thought in a million years that it would be adapted for the
stage.  In fact I thought it was a book you couldn’t really adapt.”

on the other hand, relished the opportunity to get stuck in to such seemingly
unwieldy material, with what he calls “the innate dramatic charge” of the book's
dialogue making it “eminently stageable. I had the hunch that in the direct
speech there would be clues as to the books dramatic heart.  It was through this
that I came up with the idea of using Siobhan as a narrator. She is one of only
three people who read Christopher’s book in the novel and her view point is so
much like the novel’s readers.”

Stephens presented an early version of the
play to Elliot, again without any production in the pipeline. Such a casual
approach paid dividends for both parties.

“I had absolutely no expectation
and read it with an open mind,” Elliot says. “I wasn’t worried about how I was
going to stage it or thinking ‘is this ever going to work?’ I read it a couple
of times and I knew I loved it.  I thought it was very visceral and incredibly
emotional. I had no idea how you’d do it, absolutely none.  At that time there
wasn’t much help in the stage directions for things like Christopher’s journey
to London.  I just thought it’s an amazing story and he’s found a way to make it
work, with lots of voices rather than just Christopher.”

Key to the
dramatisation was bringing physical theatre company Frantic Assembly into the
creative mix.

“I knew Frantic Assembly’s work and I had always wanted to work
with them,” she says. “I knew that there were a lot of parts of the play that
needed to be staged imaginatively with the actors on the stage as opposed to
great bits of scenery.”

In this way, the play is effectively staged inside
Christopher's head, with the audience getting a glimpse at the turmoil going

“I was really keen that it shouldn’t be too hi-tech,” says Elliot, “that
it had to look like it was all created by people on stage, humans making the
story.  Between us we eventually came to a happy place that it should be his
brain and that it should be a box, and that in the box there are lots of magic
tricks.  But the magic tricks aren’t down to incredible moving digital scenery,
it’s to do with seeing how the humans create the magic.

“I didn’t want there
to be any logic to a particular part of the stage being the school and another
part of the stage being the home.  I wanted to keep changing the logic because
Christopher does. Christopher decides he wants to tell you a story about four
red cars in a row regardless of where he is in the narrative.”

Both Stephens
and Elliot had previous form with work which has young people at its centre,
Stephens with his school library set play, Punk Rock, and Elliot with War Horse,
which she co-directed.

“There’s a parallel in that they are both stories
about triumphing in the face of  adversity,” Elliot says. “Both have a young boy
in the central role.  Both are about the rites of passage and growing up.  The
staging of both shows doesn’t rely on theatrical trickery or illusion, with the
actors creating the story in front of an audience. The thing about the play and
the book is that we try to get the audience to see things through Christopher’s
eyes most of the time.  They don’t see him as ‘other’. They see him as

For Stephens, the play comes even closer to home.

“I think
it’s a story about family,” he says. “I think it’s about what it’s like to raise
a child or be raised; to parent or have parents.  I think it’s a celebration of
the capacity for bravery in the most unlikely of environments. Stories of
bravery resonate. Stories of families resonate.”

Commissioned by John Good & Co as programme notes for the National Theatre's 2015 tour of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and written February 2015


Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The Venetian Twins

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

The accordion-led overture that ushers in Tony Cownie's new version of Carlo Goldoni's eighteenth century comic cut of mistaken identity speaks volumes about what follows. Sure enough, as soon as Angela Darcy's servant Columbina and her nice but dumb mistress Rosaura open their mouths, we're in old-school sit-com land.

Separated at birth, twins Zanetto and Tonino arrive separately in Verona for very different reasons. Where Zanetto is a bumbling half-wit who seems to have met his perfect match in Rosaura just as his servant Arlecchino does with Columbina, Tonino is a bum-slapping charmer who has been followed by Beatrice, a Freud-referencing suffragette who just can't help herself. Jessica Hardwick's Beatrice is pursued both by Tonino's man Florindo and by the flamboyant Lelio, played by James Anthony Pearson as a a ginger-wigged fop resembling a creature who looks somewhere between The Joker and Sideshow Bob.

While Cownie's own production has the action leap a century or so on from Goldoni's eighteenth century original, there's something wilfully unreconstructed about it, even as the patter is pure dead gallus. The manic result is a Victorian seaside vaudeville complete with a riot of painfully bad jokes which probably haven't been heard since a 1970s Crackerjack panto but with extra added innuendo. And yes, the pub really is called The Two Cocks.

Amid a coterie of cartoon style grotesques, Dani Heron's Rosaura is like a vicious pink cupcake in drag, mixing her metaphors with dolly dimple abandon. At the play's centre, however, is a gloriously schizophrenic turn from Grant O'Rourke, who as both siblings flits between pomposity and uselessness in this most self-consciously vulgar of carry ons.
The Herald, April 30th 2015


Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Simon Stephens - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The last time Simon Stephens was in Edinburgh, seeing the billboards and advertising hoardings outside the city's Festival Theatre for his award-winning stage adaptation of Mark Haddon's novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time gave him a little swell of pride. For all the phenomonal success of both the book and the play, which has seen Marianne Elliot's National Theatre production of Stephens' version transferring to both the West End and Broadway prior to its current tour which arrives in Edinburgh tonight, it felt a little bit like coming home.

“Edinburgh is very special,” says the Stockport-born writer having just watched a new production of childrens' musical Bugsy Malone at the Lyric Hammersmith, where he is an associate artist. “It's the city where I met my wife. I formed my band there, and I lived there for two years, and started writing my first play in a flat above a shop on Broughton Street.”

Such attention to detail and forensic memory recall seems to fit with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which charts the getting of wisdom of fifteen year old Christopher Boone. A mathematically obsessed introvert who has never been beyond the end of his street, Christopher nevertheless creates his own world out of a set of codes and patterns which he lives by. When he finds his neighbour's dog murdered, however, Christopher becomes a detective, and embarks on a journey that will take him physically to London, but which opens up his mind to an infinite set of possibilities.

When Haddon's book was first published in 2003 it became a publishing sensation, tapping into the mass consciousness enough to see its rites of passage story win multiple awards and go on to sell more than ten million copies. While one could reasonably argue that any stage version was onto a winner from the start, when Haddon first approached Stephens, this was the last thing on either writers' minds.

“I'm immensely proud if slightly gobsmacked by what happened,” says Stephens today about his version, which he wrote without any kind of commission behind it. “The whole thing started off with me doing a favour for Mark and having a pop at it to see if I could do it. I loved the book, Mark was a mate and I'd never done an adaptation before, and I didn't want a commission for it, because that would have put a lot of unnecessary pressure on things, and if I wasn't up to it, the only person I would have been letting down was Mark, and because he's a mate he'd have understood, but I certainly didn't expect anything like this.”

In the same spirit, Stephens passed an early draft of the play on to War Horse director Marianne Elliot, who had directed Stephens' 2008 play, Harper Regan, at the National Theatre. Out of this developed the idea to transform Christopher's first-person narration into a play within a play in which his teacher Siobhan begins the play by reading the story to her class. It was also decided to effectively set the play in Christopher's head, with his free-flowing series of thoughts being brought to life both by Bunny Christie's set and the movement work of Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett of Frantic Assembly.

“The entire process of doing the play was loads less pressure and lots more fun than it sometimes can be,” says Stephens. To create a dramatic language in the play that's alive and inside Christopher's head was something that was really liberating, and I think part of the fun for the audience when they see that is that they can recognise their own humanity and can feel part of what's going on.”

Other commissions have followed since The Curious Incident was first seen in 2012. Stephens' latests play, Carmen Disruption, a reimagining of Bizet's opera set in a world of rent boys and suicidal girls, has just opened at the Almeida in London. Next month, his adaptation of Odon von Horvath's play about two young lovers, Kasimir and Karoline, retitled The Funfair, will form one of the events opening Manchester's new Home venue. In New York, meanwhile, another new play by Stephens, Heisenberg, which stars Mary-Louise Parker as a young woman who suddenly kisses an older man on a crowded train, will shortly open at the Manhattan Theatre Club.

One thing that has been raised about both the book and the play of The Curious Incident is whether Christopher's behavioural patterns can be attributed to Asperger's Syndrome or not. In this respect, however, although it is set in Christopher's mind, it is as far away from an issue-based play as it can get.

“For me it doesn't matter,” Stephens says, “and I know that for Mark it doesn't matter either. In the rehearsal room I fought very hard for Christopher to be able to define himself by his personality than by his condition. On the other hand, I know Christopher's story has meant a lot to people who have Asperger's Syndrome, and how seeing the play has affected them, so I don't want to dismiss that either.”

When Christopher says in the play that 'Today is going to be a good day', his guileless sense of self reminds you of a terminal adolescent somewhere between singer/songwriter Daniel Johnston, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and The Big Bang Theory's uber-geek, Sheldon Cooper and even Holden Caulfield, the narrator of J.D. Salinger's classic novel, The Catcher in the Rye.

Stephens is amused by such comparisons, but nevertheless notes that “Daniel Johnston is a great songwriter regardless of his condition, and the documentary that was made about him, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, is really moving. Watching it we know he's irritating, but we also know he's really talented, and I think it's the same with Christopher. We can all recognise ourselves in Christopher. I know I do, ad I know Mark does as well, and even though we all know that empathy can be pretty exhausting at times, I think the audience recognises themselves as well. But I couldn't worry about that. I remember the first night, and all I was worried about was if Mark liked it or not. My job was to make Mark happy.”

The Catcher in the Rye reference is one that Stephens recognises as an influence on much of his work.

“I'm always writing teenage characters like that,” Stephens says of the book. “My plays Harper Regan and Punk Rock are full of them. But Catcher in the Rye meant so much to me when I was growing up, and I re-read it when I was writing Punk Rock, which is all about teenagrs in a school, then wrote Curious Incident about six months later, so there's bound to be an influence there. But teenagers as people are innately dramatic anyway. As young people they're on the cusp of the world, and are about to set out on a great adventure, which is a bit more interesting than writing about middle-aged blokes like me. But the amount of seventeen year old characters I write, there's a thesis to be written there.”

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, April 28-May 9; Kings Theatre, Glasgow, August 18-22; His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, September 1-5.

The Herald, April 28th 2015


Sunday, 26 April 2015

Fever Dream: Southside

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

'People Make Glasgow World Class' declaims the bus shelter hoarding just across the bridge that leads to the Gorbals-based Citizens Theatre. Beyond the spin, such a statement could easily form part of Douglas Maxwell's new play. Set beneath a neon-lit reconstruction of artist Stephen O'Neil's real life installation, it becomes a fantastical love letter, not just to the Govanhill neighbourhood it is set in, but to the city itself.

For Peter and Demi, the young couple at the play's centre, it is a city full of monsters, where family life is disrupted by a cacophony of police helicopters and howling dogs who add to the din of their crying baby. With sleeplessness at a premium, Peter's terminal adolescence rubs up uncomfortably against the likes of Dharmesh Patel's property developer Raj, who takes Umar Malik's disaffected schoolboy Kuldev under his wing and is the epitome of every big-talking wide-boy who ever tried to rip the heart from any city going cheap. Martin Donaghy's deluded evangelist Joe has his own demons to deal with, while a new breed of 'creatives' is represented by a pink-wigged performance artist mercilessly portrayed by Charlene Boyd.

Set against the backdrop of a missing teenage girl and the protests against the closure of Govanhill Baths, the first half of Dominic Hill's production is a woozy collage of urban nightmares that climaxes with a very Game of Thrones style revelation. The second focuses on a kind of collective recovery, with Martin McCormick's Peter and Kirsty Stuart's Demi finally seeming to beat the bad guys.

With any over-riding ennui undercut by some very Maxwellian one-liners, this is an extravagant and audacious ramble through a city's fractured psyche in all its imagined excess. Michael John McCarthy's live score moves from Joy Division style miserableism to sludge metal and beyond towards some kind of redemption. As Kuldev becomes radicalised, the play's final moment may be pure Spartacus, but it is also a call to arms that goes beyond the empty playground rhetoric of party politics to a much bigger and more meaningful form of something resembling community.

The Herald, April 27th 2015


Friday, 24 April 2015

MONO - Going off the rails in a place where nothing's ever black and white

Onstage there's a young woman in a white jump-suit having her head
shaved by a young man in a leopardskin dress. David Bowie's Rebel Rebel blares
out the speakers while a young audience looks on. Even by the standards of the
vegetarian cafe/bar/venue that is Mono, this Thursday teatime performance is an
eccentric spectacle. The haircut/performance marks the launch of the 2013
edition of live art festival, Buzzcut, which has moved into Mono's speak-easy
environs for the first time. If ever proof was needed, Buzzcut's plethora of
similarly off-the-wall events demonstrates that the venue's open-minded and
inclusive policy goes miles beyond its left-field musical

Seated at a table over snacks, someone is opening up the
gatefold sleeve of the vinyl edition of Bowie's new surprise album, The Next
Day. The album has just been purchased from Monorail Music, the impeccably
stocked record shop housed next to the bar and lovingly co-owned and run by
Glasgow music legend Stephen McRobbie, aka Stephen Pastel, in association with
Dep Downie, who also runs the watts of Goodwill record label.

band, The Pastels, has ploughed a wilfully individual furrow for some 30 years
and has left its mark on least two generations of Glasgow bands. Tucked away at
the back of the room, the Good Press emporium sells limited-run zines, comics
and artsy books – all as appealingly tactile as the vinyl on sale in

One of those records is the last-but-one copy of Some Songs Side by
Side, a 2x12” box-set compilation of eight Glasgow bands released in a
collaboration between three micro-labels (RE:Peater Records, Watts of Goodwill
and Stereo, run by Mono's sister venue of the same name). Whether any of the
bands featured on the compilation are still with us by the time you're reading
this remains to be seen, so fast-movingly fluid is the Glasgow scene. But for
the record, at time of writing, Tut Vu Vu, Palms, Organs of Love, Gummy Stumps,
Sacred Paws, The Rosy Crucifixion, Muscles of Joy and Jacob Yates and the Pearly
Gate Lock Pickers are still very much alive at the time of writing – although
one or all of them could cross-fertilise and morph into a new entity any

All of which goes some way to illustrating the fecund hub of activity
that centres around Mono. The venue has roots tracing back through a welter of
independently-minded initiatives in Glasgow – including the original 13th Note,
the music department of John Smith's Bookshop on Byres Road and the 1980s Sunday
night club night Splash 1. These tentacles reach right back to Postcard Records
and the Third Eye Centre, Glasgow's multi-purpose arts lab that existed in
Sauchiehall Street from 1972 to the early 1990s when it morphed into the more
corporate-feeling Centre of Contemporary Arts.

As Glasgow's first
multiple-arts space, the Third Eye fostered an environment where artforms
crossed over in an open-minded spirit of collaboration and co-operation. Under
its influence, a spate of independent, co-operatively-run art spaces such as
Transmission and Street Level developed throughout the 1980s, with Glasgow's
music and art scene co-existing to the point of intimacy. Many visual artists
formed bands or used music and sound as a key part of their practice. (It's no
coincidence that the artwork that accompanies the Some Songs Side By Side
box-set are by the likes of Turner Prize winner Richard Wright, Turner nominee
David Shrigley and Tony Swain, all of whom have strong musical connections.). As
the CCA has gradually stripped itself back to a rougher aesthetic, so Mono
carries the Third Eye flame in a continuum of DIY artistic action.

Since the
early 2000s, Mono, in conjunction with its sister bar Stereo, has become one of
the most significant venues in the city. Sitting on the edge of the Trongate in
the network of converted railway arches that make up King's Court – vintage
clothes shops, t-shirt printers and
musical instrument sellers with a working
railway track above – Mono hosts a regular stream of left-field artists without
ever feeling like a workaday touring circuit. Special events are the norm. Take,
for example, 2013's International Record Store Day, which saw hordes of music
obsessives queueing from early morning, all intent on snapping up a limited
edition purchase from Monorail Music.

With such congestion, shoppers also
had a chance to cast an eye over Seven Inch, an exhibition of seven-inch singles
by imaginary bands dreamt up by 21 Glasgow-based artists.  curated by Chris
Biddlecombe and Janie Nicoll, (aka Obstacle Soup). These exquisitely realised
one-offs included platters that matter from such non-existent acts as Sensitive
Girls, The Alcoholics, dreamt up by artist and former Soup Dragons drummer Ross
Sinclair, and Three Day Week, the fictional 1970s Glam band imagined by Douglas

Three Day Week's contribution was a double 'A' side of Baader
Meinhoff Baby and British Leyland Sex Party. What they sound like we'll never
know, while the fact that Morland plays guitar with another Glasgow band, Big
Ned, a real one this time who recently supported The Fall on their May 2013
Glasgow gig, and has occasionally played live guitar with Muscles of Joy
probably won't help much either.

Mono's live programme for the day culminated
in a collaboration between Vic Godard and The Sexual Objects. Godard was the man
whose band Subway Sect supported The Clash at the Edinburgh Playhouse during the
Scottish leg of the May 1977 White Riot tour. At the time Glasgow's concerned
city fathers had banned all 'punk' gigs, so audience members at that Edinburgh
show included Alan Horne, who would go on to found Postcard Records, and Horne's
co-conspirator, Edwyn Collins, who would form Postcard's premier artistes Orange

Also in attendance that night was Davy Henderson, who in 1980 formed
Fire Engines, arguably Scotland's most abrasively daring art-pop act. Henderson
would later form the glossier Win, then the Nectarine No 9, before briefly
regrouping Fire Engines to support The Magic Band, Sun Ra's Arkestra and Franz
Ferdinand. The latter owe much to Fire Engines, as well as to the 'Sound of
Young Scotland' that Alan Horne branded across his Postcard acts. Henderson
nowadays fires on all cylinders as frontman of The Sexual Objects; putting him
on stage with Godard to play under the name Sectual Objects – as Mono did on
International Record Day 2013 – was an inspired move. Their set of Velvet
Underground covers mixed and-matched several generations of influences and
progeny in a way that typified Mono's ethos.

All of this is a far cry to how
Glasgow used to be, when the only available small-scale venues were either
spit-and-sawdust dives with unsympathetic landlords and the very real prospect
of getting a kicking, or chrome-lined nightclubs more used to hosting weekend
stag crowds than a radical new music community in search of somewhere safe to
land. One such co-opted after-hours emporium was Daddy Warbucks. Located just
around the corner from Queen Street Station on West George Street, an indie club
night called Splash 1 started taking over the glossy disco on Sunday nights in
the mid 1980s.

Splash 1 aspired to be Andy Warhol's Factory, and put on
bands like The Pastels, The Shop Assistants, Primal Scream, The Soup Dragons and
The Jesus and Mary Chain between a relentless 1960s psych/post-punk soundtrack.
As far as the club owners were concerned, it was just another hire – not the
social movement signalling a nascent state of independence that it in fact was.
A new model was needed.

Enter one Craig Tannock. A Glasgow music scene
stalwart, Tannock had played in bands and run rehearsal studios including Tower
Studios in Park Circus. Tannock had a knack of attracting good people around
him, and Tower was run on a much friendlier basis than more commercially-minded
operations. At Tower, the music and musicians came first – an ethos that Tannock
took with him when he opened The Apollo, a small club space close to the site of
the legendary Glasgow venue of the same name. Part rehearsal room, part venue,
Tannock's Apollo allowed bands the luxury of practice rooms next door to a gig
rather than in another part of the city.

The Apollo closed after the
building above it flooded, but Tannock's egalitarian approach had already
fostered a community spirit that helped sow the seeds for his next venture, the
fancifully-named 13th Note. Originally on Glassford Street, the 13th Note opened
to an already thriving indie scene that – true to the term – was increasingly
operating on its own terms. Labels like Chemikal Underground and Creeping Bent
had inherited Postcard's mantle, while numerous micro-labels released a spate of
limited-edition 7 inch singles.

At the 13th Note, bands such as Urusei
Yatsura, Bis and Mogwai were finding a natural home. Some of 13th's booking was
handled by Alex Huntly, who at various points was singer with The Blisters and
The Karelia. As Alex Kapranos – lead singer of Franz Ferdinand – he would go on
to take that band's brand of art-pop into the mainstream via a coup of pop
entryism in excelsis.

For a time, the 13th Note was the centre of Glasgow's
independent musical universe, with Tannock once again attracting a core of
like-minded individuals to the cause. But eventually problems with the Glassford
Street lease and structural faults in the building made it necessary for him to
move out. The 13th Note shifted to King Street, close to Transmission and Street
Level, and a second venue, the larger 13th Note club, opened on Clyde Street. As
the venue moved and split in two, so too did some of the personnel and the vibe
that went with the original 13th Note.

Sustaining two venues proved
difficult, and operations were eventually wound up. The Clyde Street club was
taken over by the UK-wide Barfly chain, while the King Street premises were
adopted by new management who recognised a good thing and retain the 13th Note
name to this day. Tannock opened West 13th on Kelvinhaugh Street in the West
End, a small bar space that morphed into the first incarnation of Stereo before
becoming The 78'' in February 2007. Tannock also managed to get back into the
building that had housed his Apollo, which currently operates as the Flying

Stereo eventually moved to its current city-centre base in Renfield
Lane. The two-floor space it occupies was designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh,
who also designed Glasgow School of Art. As a symbol of the criss-crossing
between Glasgow's artistic endeavours it couldn't be more perfect. This has
become even more so since Tannock opened The Old Hairdresser's in June 2011
directly opposite Stereo. The bijou space has become a hub for pop-up DIY gigs
and live art events – yet again highlighting the promiscuous nature of the
city's art and music scenes.

While all this was going on, Stephen McRobbie
was working in the music department of the now-closed John Smith's bookshop next
to Hillhead Underground on Byres Road. Although managed by Simon Black, Smith's,
like Monorail Music later, was manned by a team of like-minded spirits brought
together by a love of what they were selling and a loose-knit but instinctive
affiliation with an independent ethos. The records stocked in the shop made up a
treasure trove of free-thinking music past and present, local and international,
and the shop attracted a core custom base of those in the know – as well as the
odd starstruck Pastels pilgrim from Japan, where they and so many other Scottish
bands have a lucrative following.

When it closed at the end of the twentieth
century to become one more branch of Starbucks, John smith's left a musical
void, and McRobbie, alongside kindred spirit John Williamson, decreed to find a
new place to sell the sort of records that regular shops didn't stock.  Like
Tannock, Williamson was a Glasgow music scene stalwart who has variously been a
journalist, a promoter, the manager of Belle and Sebastian and an academic. In
time he would become the quietly pragmatic Yang to Tannock's more mercurial Yin,
as well as the obvious choice to provide the introductory text for Some Songs
Side By Side.

With Tannock also on the hunt for a new venue in order to
expand his existing operations beyond Stereo and the 78'', the synergies between
the two ventures proved irresistible. As soon as Tannock scouted the King's
Court site – previously it had housed a Mexican restaurant – it was clear that a
new era of grass-roots music activity was about to begin. Mono opened as a bar
and cafe in October 2002, with Monorail Music launching in the same premises in
December that same year.

While Stereo was initially the main focus for gigs,
Mono eventually developed just as much of a focus for live music and is now on
equal footing with its sister venue. In its first decade of existence, the
musical landscape has shifted dramatically, so that a whole new generation of
musicians, artists and – crucially – promoters have embraced a DIY ethos and a
community-based ideology like never before. Nowhere is this captured better than
in Mono.

All those involved in Mono and the assorted ventures that it houses
are clearly kindred spirits. Their activities overlap and inspire each other,
even as their businesses are kept separate, which helps to create a looser, less
defined and more fluid relationship. Mono as a whole gets on well with its
neighbours and hosts an annual exhibition by Project Ability, the Glasgow-based
charity that enables adults and children with learning disabilities or mental
health issues to create their own art.
Other exhibitions have included a very
telling show of posters and flyers from Splash 1.

a dynasty of sorts has
grown out of Mono. While young promoters such as Cry Parrot put on a series of
small but imperfectly formed events there, it's telling that former personnel of
West 13th, Stereo and Mono now run Saramango, the vegetarian cafe at the CCA
that's done much to recapture the atmosphere of the old Third Eye Centre.
Altogether it adds up to something akin to a – whisper it – Socialist spirit
that's been ingrained in the Glaswegian sensibility since the days of Red

For Mono's tenth anniversary in November 2012, the venue hosted a
party featuring three acts. Muscles of Joy opened, followed by RM Hubbert, who
would go on to win the 2013 Scottish Album of the Year award. While both have
multiple links with Glasgow's art and music scenes, it was headliners Franz
Ferdinand's first home-town appearance for four years that was most significant.
They could have sold out the nearby Barrowlands several times over, so the fact
that they were playing in a cafe/bar to a couple of hundred of their peers spoke
volumes. In the songs, attitude and aesthetic that lived and breathed from
Postcard Records onwards, here was a crucial umbilical link with Glasgow's
musical past, present and future. The state of independence has been
accomplished, and its living embodiment occupies a republic called Mono.

With thanks to Dep Downie and Stephen McRobbie.

Commissioned by Kate Molleson for a book to celebrate Glasgow's status as a UNESCO city of Music, this was originally written in July 2013, and appeared in Dear Green Sounds - Glasgow's Music Through Time and Buildings,  published by Waverley Books, in March 2015


Thursday, 23 April 2015

They Could've Been Bigger Than The Beatles - A Liverpool Top Ten

1. Billy Fury – Wondrous Place

When teenager Ronald Wycherly turned up to a Marty Wilde show in the late 1950s with the hope of showing the older singer some of his songs, little did he know that he'd end up not just onstage but on tour with Wilde as he was given an infinitely more mercurial name by showbiz svengali Larry Parnes.

Fury didn't really hit paydirt until 1961 with his yearning top ten hit, Halfway To Paradise, but a year earlier his first version of songwriters Jeff Lewis and Bill Giant's understated paean to the transcendent powers of intimate exchanges of the flesh was delivered with quietly knowing ineffable matinee idol cool.

Fury recorded the song several times during his fleetingly brief time at the top before the 1960s beat groups took over the world. Fury continued to release records, and played holiday camp rocker Stormy Tempest in David Essex film vehicle, That'll Be The Day before dying at the tragically young age of forty-three in 1983. Wondrous Place has been covered many times, and gifted writer Paul du Noyer the title of his lovingly observed history of Liverpool music.

2. The 23rd Turnoff – Michelangelo

Contrary to popular belief, Liverpool's best 1960s songwriter was actually Jimmy Campbell, who came up fronting The Kirkbys on trio of fag-end Merseybeat singles before embracing psychedelia with this of-its-time slice of woozy melancholia released in 1967 and named by Echo and the Bunnyman guitarist Will Sergeant as one of the top one hundred psychedelic singles ever. Campbell released one album with his next band, Rockin' Horse, before three low-key solo albums led to diminishing returns. After 1972, Campbell never released another record, and died in 2007 aged sixty-three.

The 23rd Turnoff's name, incidentally, may well have sounded suitably 'delic, but was actually taken from the twenty-third turn-off of the M6 that took you back home to Liverpool. As mundane as that sounds, Bill Drummond's Illuminatus!-inspired obsession with the number twenty-three would almost certainly beg to differ.

3. The Real Thing – Children of the Ghetto

Liverpool's black music scene has largely been undocumented, but The Real Thing, formed by Chris Amoo in 1970, scored a hit in five years later with soul disco smoocheroonie, You To Me Are Everything followed by two more singles from the band's eponymous debut album. By that time Chris's elder brother, Eddie Amoo, who had released several singles in the 1960s with his own Brit-soul combo, The Chants, had joined the band.

Rather than follow-up with another selection of feelgood dancers, The Real Thing's follow-up was a concept album based around the Amoo brothers background in the multi-racial Liverpool district, which would forever be known as Toxteth following the riots that exploded onto the streets in 1981.

Released in 1977, 4 From 8 (the band's record company had rejected the proposed title of Liverpool 8) came wrapped in a gatefold sleeve featuring a photographic montage of images from the neighbourhood that inspired it. The centrepiece of the album was the eleven-minute Liverpool 8 Medley, which fused three tracks, Children of the Ghetto, Liverpool 8 and Stanhope Street.

Influenced by the likes of Donny Hathaway and Sly Stone, the album may have confused audiences in search of something more obviously commercial, but Children of the Ghetto in particular has made quietly political waves in versions of the song by Courtney Pine, Philip Bailey from Earth, Wind and Fire and more recently by Mary J Blige. The song's deep-set sentiments of unity and pride in the face of adversity reflects the stance taken by era's civil rights movement, and remains the most understated of anthems.

4. Deaf School – What A Way To End It All

Without this song and Deaf School's three late 1970s albums, pop music would have turned out very differently indeed. Formed in 1973 at Liverpool Art School by Clive Langer and Steve Allen, aka Enrico Cadillac Junior, Deaf School evolved into a large-scale pop-art cabaret troupe whose extravagant stage shows took a moribund post Merseybeat, pre-punk Liverpool scene by storm.

This debut single also introduced the band's first album, 2nd Honeymoon, to an eclectic and theatrical mix that finds Mr Cadillac Junior cast as a faux 1930s crooner about to do away with himself to a banjo backing. With the band giving the Palm Court Orchestra a run for their money before morphing into the jauntiest of show-time pastiches that counteracted the track's dramatic denouement, the song is an apposite joy.

With co-vocalist Bette Bright also in their ranks, Deaf School were named by both Dexy's Midnight Runners and Madness as their favourite band. With Deaf School sidelined by punk, for Langer went on to produce both bands, as well as co-writing Shipbuilding with Elvis Costello. More recently, Langer has since given a Deaf School style sheen to Dogs Die in Hot Cars and others, while a reconstituted Deaf School are now back out touring.

At one point every cool club in town played What A Way To End It All as the last song of the night. This is clearly a tradition that should be revived with immediate effect.

5. Big in Japan – Big in Japan

Big in Japan were formed at the suggestion of Deaf School guitarist Langer to Bill Drummond before Langer went on tour to America. Drummond had been a stage carpenter who went on to design the set for Illuminatus!, Ken Campbell's twelve-hour staging of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's epic science-fiction hippy conspiracy novel at the Liverpool School of Music, Language, Dream and Pun, an arts lab set up in an old warehouse on Mathew Street by poet Peter O'Halligan.

The band that formed out of Langer's suggestion may have more resembled a shambolic live art happening than anything resembling pop music, but the band were significant, both in heralding the first wave of new bands to come out of eclectic Mathew Street basement club, Eric's, and for who was in them. A supergroup in reverse, as well as Drummond, Big in Japan featured future Lightning Seed Ian Broudie, who had been in the Illuminatus! house band, future Frankie Goes To Hollywood shockmeister Holly Johnson, and future Siouxsie and the Banshees drummer, Budgie.

Vocals were led by Jayne Casey, who had ran the Aunt Twacky's vintage boutique, appeared in Illuminatus! and performed with a lampshade on her head. Casey went on to front Pink Military Stand Alone, and later Pink Industry, before going on to become an arts consultant for superclub, Cream, and Liverpool's 2008 tenure as Capital of Culture. Bill Drummond's done one or two things since as well, subverting the music industry with the KLF and the art-world with the K Foundation, all with the wilfully anarchic spirit picked up from Ken Campbell.

Big in Japan was released as one side of a split single with The Chuddy Nuddies (a contract-obliging pseudonym for The Yachts), Brutality, Religion and A Dancebeat, on the Eric's label, with a posthumous EP, From Y to Z and Never Again being the first release on Zoo, the label set up by Drummond and Big in Japan's final bassist, Dave Balfe.

The band had split in 1978, though whether this had anything to do with the petition pinned up in nearby record shop Probe requesting them to do just that isn't on record. As most of the petition's signatories were the band themselves, it remains unlikely.

6. Wah! Heat – Better Scream / The Teardrop Explodes – Treason / Echo and the Bunnymen – Ocean Rain /

Three shades of post-apocalyptic pop euphoria from the holy trinity of the post Big in Japan Eric's crowd whose trio of vocalists may or may not have rehearsed but never performed together as the much-mythologised Crucial Three. Teardrop Explodes singer Julian Cope was an over-excitable teacher-training student who muscled his way into both the Eric's scene and literally into Wah! Heat mouth-almighy Pete Wylie as he scrambled his way through the crowd the night The Clash played. Myopic David Bowie obsessive and soon to be Echo and the Bunnymen sex on legs Ian McCulloch was also in situ, and, before each went their separate ways, a legend was born.
After their early singles were released on Zoo, both the Bunnymen and the Teardrops were well on their way to becoming pop stars by the time Wah! Heat released their debut single in 1979, an insistent and strikingly mature statement of intent that was both portent of doom and call to arms in a Cold War infected world. Wylie would go on to score hits of his own with the chart-busting The Story of the Blues before becoming a kind of Scouse Springsteen, keeping the city's flame alive through good times and bad.

Treason was the Teardrops third single, and the first real sighting of Cope's melding of mighty pop hooks with arcane English whimsy. The song only became a hit after being re-released following success of the horn-led Reward and its accompanying video chock-a-block with city scenesters suggested great adventures lay ahead. The of-its-time video for Treason, meanwhile, pointed to Cope's possible embracement of hallucinogens after American wild child Courtney Love, then resident in Liverpool, allegedly turned on the entire city to all manner of creative possibilities.

Ocean Rain was both the title track and the final song on the Bunnymen's fourth album, a shimmering, string-led affair that looked to the high drama of Jacques Brel and others in its quest for redemption. As its title implies, Ocean Rain ebbs and flows, with McCulloch confessing his own vulnerability by way of a series of extended sea-bound metaphors and melancholy introspection before the song erupts into emotional grandeur. With Will Sergeant's guitar patterns understatedly tasteful, Les Pattinson playing an upright bass and the sainted Pete de Freitas using brushes on his drums, this was the sound of a band that had done its musical growing up in public, and, having reached its peak, also seemed to be marking the end of something that would never be the same again.

7. The Wild Swans – The Revolutionary Spirit / Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band – Newby Street

Doomed romantic starving artist chic was the order of the day for the band formed by original Teardrop Explodes member Paul Simpson, who made their live debut alongside Michael Head's equally fledgling Pale Fountains supporting Orange Juice at a chicken-in-a-basket cabaret club called Mr Pickwick's that was renamed Plato's Ballroom for such occasions.

This sole release by the Wild Swans original incarnation other than a John Peel session released on Strange Fruit a few years later was a double A sided 12'' which Bill Drummond said was the best thing ever released as part of Zoo's small but (im)perfectly formed catalogue. The flipside, God Forbid, was an urgent quest for truth led by Jeri Kelly's chiming guitar jangles and Simpson's yearning voice and was already bathed in glory.

From the title onwards, The Revolutionary Spirit was something else again, a brooding epic that seemed steeped in history and metaphysical mythology, with Simpson's poetry sounding both wise and troubled way beyond his tender years.

The Wild Swans imploded following a tour supporting the Bunnymen, effectively splitting in two. Simpson joined forces with Ian Broudie for the far glossier Care, while Kelly and keyboardist Ged Quinn joined forces with Bamboo Fringe vocalist Peter Coyle as the Lotus Eaters, who scored a summer hit with The First Picture of You.

A reconvened Wild Swans released two major label albums in the 1980s, but it wasn't the same, and Simpson retreated into a new guise, making lush electronic instrumentals as Skyray before a new version of The Wild Swans laid old ghosts to rest with very personal album, The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years, a couple of years back.

As majestic as it is, the Wild Swans remain defined by The Revolutionary Spirit. Financed and produced by Bunnymen drummer and Simpson's flatmate Pete de Freitas, even the fact that studio-based acid intake caused the record to be recorded in tinny mono cannot diminish just how heroic this song remains.

Michael Head has charted a similarly peripatetic path, from The Pale Fountains early melding of Forever Changes era Love, Sergio Mendes and Simon & Garfunkel, to being signed to Virgin for a quarter of a million pounds within a year of the Orange Juice show and beyond. Two under-achieving albums later, the Palies morphed into the equally neglected Shack, led by Head and brother John.

Shack were blighted by the death of original bass player Chris McCaffery, studio fires, labels going bust and Head's heroin addiction, but still produced some of the most sublime 1960s-tinged pastoral Scouse psych which could have shown Brit-pop's young pretenders a thing or two. Shack even performed as backing band for their beloved Arthur Lee at a 1992 Liverpool show.

Somehow Head survived, and on Newby Street, one of the stand-outs from his tellingly named Artorious Revisited EP, sounds like a man reborn, harnessing a Love style horn section to a simple love song that sounds like pure joy.

8. The Cherry Boys – Kardomah Cafe

Homages to greasy spoons don't come any more evocative than this one by an early 1980s power-pop quartet with a common touch enough to appeal to the Scallies and with melodies aplenty. Awash with 1960s harmonies and carried by a mighty harmonica, this nostalgia-tinged paean to one of many cafés within spitting distance of Mathew Street fused Merseybeat sensibilities with a 1980s production big enough for it to go top ten in Spain. Singer John Byrne, aka John Cherry went on to join the La's and co-write There She Goes, and is now a highly respected classical guitarist.

9. The Last Chant - Run of the Dove

When Liverpool's dole queue underground turned on, tuned in and dropped out to 1960s psychedelia, the likes of The Doors, Love and the Velvet Underground were regularly name-dropped by local scenesters, few tapped into the spirit of the originals with such determined aplomb as this one-off single by a troupe who were clearly acquainted with the dronier, raga-influenced tracks on the first Velvets album.

Featuring violin and percussion wrapped around a spirallingly spindly guitar line and crashing symbols, this piece of culture-clashing proto World Music was released in 1981 on the long lost Chicken Jazz label, run by future Waterboy Mike Scott, who co-produced, sang backing vocals and recently put up the song on his Soundcloud page following a previous release on the Liverpool Cult Classics Unearthed collection released by the Scouse archivists at Viper Records.

By the time of the single's original release, alas, the band had split up not long after an all too appropriate support slot with the somewhat strung-out ex Velvets chanteuse Nico when she played Liverpool. Vocalist Dave Dickie rather oddly opted to play keyboards as one half of Black alongside nouveau crooner Colin Vearncombe, who would later have a solo hit with Wonderful Life.

10. The La's – Way Out / The Stairs – Weed Bus

There She Goes may be the La's song that went global, but this earlier single was an equally evocative expression of nouveau Merseybeat, in which the band's mercurial vocalist Lee Mavers searched for some musical holy grail lost in the dust of the 1960s. A spiralling back-street waltz that turns in on itself, even as the song's restless protagonist can't wait to do a runner, Way Out captures the spirit of working-class auto-didacts on the run from dole queue culture with a masterly way with pop melodies.

Following a decade of could've been classic albums by other bands ruined by hi-tech over-production, Mavers quest for raw authenticity saw umpteen protracted recording sessions leave him unsatisfied. The band's record label mixed what they had and released it as the band's sole album anyway. Mavers may have subsequently disowned the eponymous album that resulted, but if you're not steeped in its messy back-story, it might just sound like a masterpiece.

If The La's looked to Merseybeat, The Stairs plundered a more scuzzed-up sixties sound culled from Nuggets psych-garage band compilations and early Rolling Stones records. Led by Edgar 'Summertyme' Jones, who would go on to record several solo albums, The Stairs were dope-obsessed psychedelians looking for their own way out in an entirely different way to The La's.

Weed Bus, taken from debut album, Mexican Rn'B, shows off a sly humour behind the snarling, as it charts the ride of a lifetime past assorted inner city drug dealers abodes with the jaunty brio of a Get Off My Cloud style standard.
Product magazine, March 2015


Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

There may well be a bright golden meadow at the opening of Rodgers and Hammerstein's first, genre-busting Broadway hit from 1943, but Rachel Kavanaugh's touring revival for the Music & Lyrics company and the Royal & Derngate Northampton proves there's a dark heart there too.

While hardly Twin Peaks, the small town in what is still regarded here as 'Indian Territory' but which is about to become the state of Oklahoma in this turn of the twentieth century tale based on Lynn Riggs' 1931 play, Green Grow the Lilacs, is riven with conflict beyond the infectious optimism that infects most of its residents. While this is never overdone in Kavanaugh's starry, wide-open production, it's played appealingly straight, despite some of the most infectiously jaunty songs ever penned for musical theatre.

The first act beams into view with Ashley Day's twinkly-eyed Curly and Charlotte Wakefield's independent minded Laurey leading each other on a merry dance towards wedded bliss, the odd tragedy notwithstanding. Lucy May Barker's more physically inclined free spirit Ado Annie meanwhile finds herself even more torn between James O'Connell's safe as houses cowboy Will and Gary Wilmot's fly-by-night huckster Ali Hakim. With the burgeoning conflicts between the cowmen, the farmers and the merchants set to define American capitalism for the next century, Nic Greenshields' porn-addicted sociopath Jud is the ultimate outsider, with his song Lonely Room a bedsit anthem in waiting.

While choreographer Drew McOnie's end of Act One Dream Ballet is worth the ticket price alone, Stephen Ridley's ten-piece band navigate all this with a winning ebullience that suggests a brave new world for all is just beyond the horizon.
The Herald, April 24th 2015

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Douglas Maxwell - Fever Dream: Southside and Yer Granny

“Will half an hour be long enough for this?” an affable Douglas Maxwell asks the Herald's photographer following a mid-afternoon interview in the foyer of the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, where one of his two new plays, Fever Dream: Southside, opens this week. “It's just that the schools are off and it's a nightmare for childcare just now.”

If this incident alone suggests that Maxwell's world has changed since his work last graced our stages, the subjects of these new pieces confirms it. Maxwell's early works such as Decky Does A Bronco, staged in a swing-park in 2000 by the Grid Iron company, and Our Bad Magnet, which appeared at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow the same year, looked at small town boys, outsiders and terminal adolescents undergoing some kind of rites of passage, usually brought on by tragedy.

These themes continued in the computer game based Helmet, Mancub and the epic If Destroyed True, but they were all more than a decade ago now, and more recent works, such as Promises Promise and A Respectable Widow Takes to Vulgarity, have seen Maxwell move into more grown-up territory.

With Fever Dream: Southside, however, and to a lesser extent with Yer Granny, an audacious-sounding adaptation of an Argentinian comedy produced with an all star cast led by Gregor Fisher for the National Theatre of Scotland, Maxwell seems to have taken another leap. His embrace of a new sense of responsibilities is as clear in the way he talks as much as in the work which has resulted from it.

“The play's been in the works for seven years,” says Maxwell. “It was written first of all when my oldest daughter was born, and we were living on the Southside, and the area round there was starting to change. It was written at a point where I was experiencing sleeplessness as a young father, panic, because my dad had just died, so there was a worry about a lack of father figure as well as being a father figure living in an area that was kind of wobbly.

“There was a wave of immigrants that had come in, we had a homeless hostel at the bottom of our street, so we had a lot of characters on our street, and things weren't particularly matching up to my idea of what being a dad was, because I didn't know what being a dad was. So it was written in the middle of all that madness.”

Maxwell was approached by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where a one-act version of the play was performed by students. This was seen by Guy Hollands of the Citz, who suggested Maxwell write a second act. Maxwell wasn't sure he had one.

“Things had changed,” he says, “or maybe it was just me that had changed. The area had calmed down, the hostel had changed its criteria and is just a back-packing hostel now, citizens had become motivated and more active. They'd cleaned the street up, the Southside had done its thing with immigration, which it's been doing since the Irish came, in that it takes a bit of time, but in they go and they're all Glaswegian now. That had happened, and I felt like I wasn't telling the right story. That first half that the students did was bleak and full of fear.

“The play is a thriller, and there's a lot of threat in that first half. There's a lot of talk of monsters, and people being scared of where they are. I knew the second half had to tell the other half of the story, which is a rise to activism, and which asks the question what point do you get involved? Naturally I don't get involved. I'm not a joiner-in-er. I don't sign petitions or anything like that, but I thought, I'm gonna' have to. I can't just sit and moan about everything, so I had to work out who do I fight?, what do I say?, where do I stand?, and how do I become that father figure? The play's full of that. It's about the fear of a community on the one hand, and the need for a community on the other.”

While his quiff of old may have been tamed and his beard is less flamboyant, for all his apparent growing up in public, Maxwell nevertheless retains a sense of the fantastical. This element of his work, sired as much in music hall as contemporary pop culture, comes to the fore in Yer Granny.

Based on Argentinian writer Roberto Cossa's outrageous hit play, La Nona, Yer Granny focuses on a diabolical 100 year old grandmother who is literally eating her family out of house and home, to the extent that the family chip shop has been bankrupted and the shelves are starting to look increasingly bare.

“This woman is a monster,” says Maxwell of a character played onstage by Rab C Nesbitt actor Gregor Fisher alongside the cream of popular theatre and TV. “She just has this one instinct, which is to eat. It's a comedy, but with a dark heart.

“Graham McLaren, who's directing it, came to me with the whole package, and we talked about a version Les Dawson did on television, and we talked about David Kane's play, Dumbstruck, and about Joe Orton. Gregor Fisher keeps asking what the play means, and I don't think there's an easy answer to that. Graham thinks it's about the state, but I'm not sure. I think there's something going on there about a more personal form of selfishness.”

For all Yer Granny's ridiculousness, then, it too reflects Maxwell's new set of priorities, rooted in old-fashioned values which his work is starting to reflect more and more. In Fever Dream: Southside, Maxwell is talking about a sense of community, not in some rabble-rousing party political way, but in a smaller, more localised shift in collective consciousness.

In this respect, while Maxwell seems to have found a reinvigorated sense of purpose in life as much as art, there's ambition too.

“It feels different for me,” Maxwell says of Fever Dream: Southside. “It feels bigger, like there's a lot at stake. I want to challenge myself to write something bigger and better.”

He takes a rare pause. “To see if I can get into Europe,” he laughs, the whip-smart, pop music and football-referencing adolescent once again. “To see if I can get into the top four.”

Fever Dream: Southside, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, April 23-May 9; Yer Granny, Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, May 19-21, King's Theatre, Glasgow, May 26-30, then touring.

The Herald, April 21st 2015


Thursday, 16 April 2015

Mother of All the Peoples

Dundee Rep
Three stars

In a city built on its heroines, there are few more towering than Mary Slessor, the Dundee sired mill girl who in the nineteenth century followed in the footsteps of David Livingstone and spent almost four decades as a missionary in Africa. Mike Gibbs' play was inspired by Elizabeth Robertson's biography of the play's subject, The Barefoot Missionary, and faithfully dramatises Slessor's colourful life beyond it.

The play is introduced by the older Mary emerging from a large grass hut on one side of the stage to narrate her back pages, which are duly played out on the other half. Here we find Mary's younger self, a precocious auto-didact raised in the slums by a mother who every Saturday night faced the back of her husband's hand. Burying herself in books, Mary embarks on a real life adventure that will take her to the other side of the world, where things don't always go according to plan. Witch doctors, suspicious natives, visiting do-gooders and even her very own toy boy enter Mary's sphere, and if she can't take the heat, then she'll slip off her shoes and hold court in her petticoats.

Produced on home turf by the Mary Slessor Foundation, and with all funds raised pooled into supporting the Foundation's ongoing work in Nigeria, there is much wit to be found in Gibbs' text. This is accentuated even more by his local all female cast, who play to an audience clearly already familiar with the material enough to sing along with Mairi Warren's music, played on piano by Euan Gow in a stately homage to one of Dundee's finest.
The Herald, April 17th 2015

Maripol, Clare Stephenson and Zoe Williams – Spring / Summer 2015

Dundee Contemporary Arts until June 21st.
Four stars

After a succession of impressively immersive shows that have felt at times like being in assorted night-club chill-out rooms, the DCA comes blinking into the (neon) light for this triple-headed glamour chase spear-headed by the French Polaroid auteur, designer, stylist to art's original stars and sometime chanteuse, Maripol. In a collection that looks part boutique, part 1980s in-crowd affair which has only just been in full swing before everyone rushed off to the latest joint, Maripol's verite images are the stuff of a thousand private views, and her work really shouldn't be witnessed unless set to a sound-track of uber-cool loft-friendly avant-disco.

As it is, Maripol's own musical contribution to the show, a song recorded with Leonard Lasry called 'Love Each Other', can only be heard on headphones pitched next to a glass case containing 'EACH x OTHER' (2015), a calendar box etched with a series of epigrams that mark the seasons of desire. While commercial enough to be able to grace Eurovision if required, the song is nothing compared to the case it nestles next to containing assorted vinyl discs by Madonna, the street-smart icon who Maripol styled with assorted crucifixes, chains and an abundance of multi-coloured wrist bands of the ilk that would go on to keep Accessorize in business ever after.

By this time we've already sashayed past a clothes rail of Maripol's other creations, including shirts patterned with collaged reproductions of her Polaroid portraits, a leather jacket hung from the ceiling and a pair of equally Polaroided up high heels, caged, as with other accoutrements, in cake shop style domed display cases.

Sartorially speaking, then, Maripol was to New York's loft-dwelling Downtown No Wave scene what Vivienne Westwood was to London's punky, spunky King's Road, providing the Look to a mould-breaking DIY culture even as she led it somewhere more attention-seekingly aspirational. This is clear from the array of coffee table books showcasing her back pages laid out as self-mythologising reference points. And yes, that retro-future op-art image of Blondie on the cover of Debbie Harry and co's third album was set up by her.

It is the pictures on the wall, however, that speak volumes about how that culture panned out. While half the fun is spotting the famous faces – oh, look, there's Debbie, Madge and Grace, who together are actually three very different graces of female pop cool; and there's Keith, Jean Michel and Andy, inevitable, ubiquitous Andy. And of course, in among the superstars there are self-portraits too, and in a way Maripol's entire back catalogue is one big jumbled-up remodelling of herself and others

Yet for all the celebrity teeth and smiles on display, it's the less familiar visages in the simple slide-show in the gallery's back corner room that prove even more intriguingly enticing. Here in the shadows and out of the spotlight are all those all-dressed-up one-night-stands, striking a blink-and-you'll-miss-it pose during fleetingly blurry moments in crowded rooms where they're immortalised in after-hours snapshots that ooze fresh stains of colour as disposable as Xerox.

In what now looks like an archaic pre-selfie 1980s age, this was the sign of the times, a zeitgeisty trash aesthetic that ran parallel with and defined early editions of ID magazine, originally a non-glossy zine which suggested you too could join the fashion parade. Such a deceptively throwaway approach is confirmed before you even step into Maripol's world, where outside the gallery the sparkly letters headlining the show change hue as you walk past en route to the next big thing.

In this context, the latter comes in the form of Stephenson and Williams' contributions to the show. Because rather than being added to the bill as hangers on, Stephenson's permanently drying out bikinis and giant cocktails set alongside but separate from Williams' synched-up video pieces awash with slo-mo dancers, perfume bottles and scarlet-painted nails are as crucial as they are complimentary. While it may appear as if the young set have been ushered in to do their own growing up in public, both artists are far from ingénues at their coming out ball. Stephenson and Williams are already the next new wave, bringing substance as well as style to a place where the art of parties is brought so vividly to life.
The List, April 2015


The Woman in Black

King's Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

Have no fear. It may be only a week before the DVD and Blu-Ray release of what by many accounts is a below par sequel to Hammer's big-screen take on Susan Hill's 1983 gothic novel, but audiences may prefer instead to remain faithful to Robin Herford's production of Stephen Mallatratt's evergreen stage version. Touring for the umpteenth time in parallel with the show's ongoing West End run which began a quarter of a century ago, one of the spine-tingling joys of the piece is just how much Mallatratt and Herford strip things back to a form of poor theatre now being revisited by a multitude of DIY fringe troupes.

Only a dressing up box, a couple of chairs and a gauze draping the back of the stage are in evidence as the uptight Arthur Kipps attempts to bring to life the story which has haunted him for decades. Having hired a dashing young actor to play his younger self, Kipps plays all the other parts as his other half takes up residence in a dilapidated old house where the ghost of a tortured young woman is in residence.

The audience are lulled into a false sense of security before actors Malcolm James as Kipps and Matt Connor's Actor become party to an at times genuinely terrifying box of tricks, with light, shade and scarifying volume in abundance. As thrilling as this remains, beyond the cries and screams, there's something here too about the warped nature of Victorian values and the misery they caused in the name of deluded morality. The last face witnessed onstage suggests they are values that linger still.
The Herald, April 16th 2015


Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Peter Pal Pelbart - Ueinzz Theatre Company

When a patient in the A Casa psychiatric day clinic in Sao Paolo in Brazil suggested that residents form a theatre group, the proposal was to do 'real' theatre, and not theatre 'by loonies for loonies'. With A Casa's backing, the patients brought in professional theatre directors, who treated them, not like patients, but as they would any other actors with such singular ways of walking, talking and expressing themselves.

Nineteen years on, and Ueinzz Theatre Company are an internationally renowned group who operate in very different ways to more conventionally sired companies, as their arrival in Glasgow this week as part of the Arika organisation's latest episode of artistic inquiry, the tellingly named We Can't Live Without Our Lives.

“The group is very excited,” says Peter Pal Pelbart, the philosopher and essayist who has also been a member of Ueinzz since the group's inception, and will take part in a workshop, open rehearsal and performance of Ueinzz's latest show, No Ready Made Men. “Every trip for us is a huge adventure. As well as the prospect of experiencing another country, another language and another audience, sometime this distance provokes strange and let's say funny questions, like should someone bring some water with them, as if we were going to the moon. In their heads as well a lot of the group are already there before they make the trip, so it becomes one of many trips.”

This gives a hint of the aesthetic the company named by one of the original patients and pronounced 'Waynz' have developed over the last two decades, and which can make for an unpredictable experience. Pelbart highlighted this in a lecture he gave in 2011 called Inhuman Polyphony in the Theatre of Madness, and which went on to form part of his book, Cartography of Exhaustion.

In the lecture, given in Berlin, Pelbart relates how, two minutes before a performance was due to begin, one of the cast announced that he wouldn't be taking part in the play as it was the night of his death. In the end, the company member did go on, only to walk across the stage and leave the theatre in full view of the audience. When they came out, they found the performer sitting on the pavement, where Pelbart, who had been playing Hades, king of the underworld, had found him demanding an ambulance as his time had come. In the end he accepted a cheeseburger, but not before many of the departing audience had presumed the exchange to be a pre-arranged stunt that formed part of the show.

“Every performance we do is new,” Pelbart explains. “There are structures in place, but at the same time, many new things happen in performances that we can't predict, whether they are silences, speeches or eruptions.”

Since forming, Ueinzz have met once a week every Wednesday. This was initially under the guidance of directors Sergio Penna and Renato Cohen, who, with nods to influences including Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty, Joseph Beuys and Samuel Beckett, co-ordinated a long term exploration of James Joyce's novel, Finnegans Wake. Following Cohen's death, the company worked with another director, Cassio Santiago, but now operate without any outside figure.

“We are a theatre group that has complete freedom,” says Pelbart. “We are not famous. We are singular, and that singular life can help us propose things together in a collective atmosphere. There is a lot of power and possibilities within that, so we've created a way of common life and common work, and we've also created a special way of taking care of one another and being able to recognise the fragilities and collapses of each other.

“There is no such thing as those who suffer and those who don't. Everyone has their moments, so we have a way of taking care, not in a paternalistic way, but in a collective way, and rather than exclude them, we put that into the performances. We're not just a theatre group. It's a way of being.”
Arika's Episode 7 takes place at Tramway, Glasgow, April 15-19. Ueinzz Crossings Workshop, April 17, 12 noon-2pm (free, booking required); All Fictions Are Biographical – Ueinzz Context Conversation, April 17, 7.30pm; No Ready Made Men – Open Rehearsal, April 18, 2.30pm; No Ready Made Men – Performance, April 19, 2.30pm. Peter Pal Pelbart will be in conversation in Cartography of Exhaustion, April 19, 7.30pm.
The Herald, April 14th 2015


Robin Herford - The Woman in Black

When Stephen Mallatratt's stage version of Susan Hill's gothic horror novel, The Woman in Black, arrives in Edinburgh this week en route to Glasgow as part of the show's latest tour, Robin Herford's production marks a twenty-five year West End run second only to Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap in terms of longevity.

“It's quite bizarre,” says Herford, who has been with the show from the start, ever since he commissioned Mallatratt to write it while running the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in Scarborough. “Normally a show only goes out on tour once its finished its run in the West End, but because the Fortune where we are in London is such a tiny theatre with only four hundred seats, this is the sort of thing that we can continue to take on.”

The play itself opens with an old man called Arthur Kipps alone in a Victorian theatre, where he is joined by a young actor he has hired to help perform events that have haunted him for decades. Over the next two hours we enter Kipps' world in Eel Marsh House, where as a young lawyer he first encountered the mysterious Woman in Black.

“We were in two other theatres in the West End before we moved into the Fortune,” Herford says, “which is where we always wanted to be because it's so diddy, but touring it is really interesting as well, because the set is the theatre, and the play has this bizarre ability to expand or contract depending on the size of the theatre.”

The stage version of The Woman in Black was born out of what Herford calls “Yorkshire meanness” when it was pointed out to him that there was a surplus left over from the Stephen Joseph Theatre's public funding which he was advised to spend lest it get taken back.

“We thought we'd do an extra show in the bar,” Herford recalls, “and I asked Stephen to write me a ghost story for Christmas. We had enough money for four actors, and he suggested The Woman in Black, so I read the novel overnight but thought there were too many characters, and he said he had an idea to solve it, and came back with the play as we ended up doing it.”

Playing to audiences of seventy, The Woman in Black sold out its initial 1987 run, after which Herford and Mallatratt, who passed away in 2004, spent a year trying to mount a London production before it eventually opened at the Lyric Hammersmith, leading to its initial West End transfer.

“If we'd had lots of money for a cast of twelve, I'm sure we could've still done a good job,” says Herford, “but I doubt very much it would still be running today."

To keep things fresh, Herford brings in a brand new cast every nine months, overseeing rehearsals each time himself.

“There are times I feel a little hung round the neck,” he says, “and wonder if I can do it again, and if the show wasn't a two-hander I don't think I could. If there were six people in the cast, say, and I was bound by the moves that would dictate, I couldn't do it, but because there are only two people on a stage you can do anything you like, and I do encourage actors to take ownership of the thing.

“There are an incredibly different amount of ways it can be done, and because the only actor plays so many different characters, you can trust the actor's imagination and let them do what they do, and you can see that in all the actors who've played that part, whether it's Edward Petherbridge or Frank Finlay and so on.

“As a director as well it's taught be a huge lesson about not being perverse, and not doing Three Sisters set in a Chinese launderette or something like that. Just do the play and let the actors involved play it.”

One of the most striking things about The Woman in Black is how relatively lo-tech it is. Rather than rely on state of art technology to scare its audience as other commercial fare might, Herford's production looks to a bag of tricks recently rediscovered by a new generation of theatrical ingénues, whose lo-fi wares presented at venues such as Battersea Arts Centre and the Forest Fringe are considered infinitely more cutting edge.

“They're very old tricks,” Herford laughs. “I sort of get embarrassed when I say that what we're doing is theatrical magic, but stretching a gauze across a stage with a face behind it, it's not rocket science.”

In 2012, a film of The Woman in Black was produced by Hammer, the film company responsible for many of Britain's classic horror film from the 1960s and 1970s. Featuring former Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe as Kipps, the film was scripted by screen-writer Jane Goldman, whose husband Jonathan Ross had been long identified as a fan of the play.

“I remember Jonathan Ross seeing it at the Fortune and going on about it on his radio show,” says Herford, “so there was an obvious enthusiasm for it in the family. The difference is that they've obviously gone back to the book, although they've changed that as well, and I'm not sure why, but that's their take on it, and pound for pound there are a lot of frightening moments there. But the film's done us no harm at all, and the year it came out was probably our busiest, and we still get letters to Daniel Radcliffe sent to the stage door.”

A sequel, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, was produced by Hammer two years later. The film stars Phoebe Fox, the daughter of actor Stuart Fox, who in a spooky piece of synchronicity, appeared in the stage version of The Woman in Black in London.

The show isn't just a UK-based phenomenon, however, and there have been productions of The Woman in Black in India, Hong Kong and New Zealand, while inbetween overseeing numerous other projects, Herford will shortly visit Japan to direct a Japanese language version.

“It shows no sign of slowing down at the moment,” says Herford. “That's theatre. It's not something you can hold in your hand. Everyone likes being told a story, and everyone responds to a human story. If you get nothing else from the slightly disjointed opening scene, it's that this older man is in trouble and in pain, and his idea of reading the story, with this younger man providing all the energy to make it happen, is the only thing that can help him. After that, we all want to know what happened, and if you stick it out until the interval, you're definitely going to want to know what happens next.”

The Woman in Black, Kings Theatre, Edinburgh, April 14-18; Theatre Royal, Glasgow, April 20-25.

The Herald, April 14th 2015


Monday, 13 April 2015

Suzanne Andrade - 1927, Golem, The Magic Flute and Beyond

When the 1927 company won a Herald Angel in 2007 for their debut show, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, its spooky mix of cut-glass spoken-word vignettes, pasty-faced vintage-styled cabaret and atmosphere-soaked animation was one of the major hits of that year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Eight years on, the company co-founded in 2005 by writer, director and performer Suzanne Andrade with animator and illustrator Paul Barritt look set to return to Edinburgh this August. Rather than appear on the Fringe, however, the company will form part of Fergus Linehan's inaugural programme as director of Edinburgh International Festival with their collaboration with Australian enfant terrible Barrie Kosky on a version of Mozart's The Magic Flute.

This week, however sees 1927 transfer their most recent show, Golem, to the West End following a successful outing at the Young Vic, who co-produced the show with the Salzburg Festival and Theatre de la Ville in Paris.

Based on the Jewish legend of of a being made out of clay who was brought to life, Golem has clear resonances for a company such as 1927 whose use of animation is central to their aesthetic.

“Paul and I read Gustav Meyrink's novel, Der Golem,” Andrade explains on a break from rehearsals for the show, “and thought that this image of a man who makes this other man out of clay was something that might be fun for 1927 to explore. We knew we were going to do it as a show one day, but we didn't know when.

“Then after we did The Animals and Children, I started looking closely at the original Jewish myth, and at the same time I began reading a lot about artificial intelligence and cloning, and looked at my friends and how we're all becoming dependent on technology. Out of that I started thinking about these ideas about control, and about how, with mobile phones and computers, you think you're in control, but you're very subtly being controlled by your own Golem.”

While Andrade started writing a series of monologues for what would become Golem, it was only when 1927 were on tour in America that the show's other facets started to fall into place.

“There was this insane street,” says Andrade, “that was full of these old vaudeville theatres and lots of homeless people, and we took lots of pictures, and Paul started drawing that world. We knew that we had to set the piece in a city where there as no anarchy or chaos, but where it was completely controlled.

“Technology is pervasive in ways we now take for granted, and I spend my life trying to resist it. I don't have an iphone and I don't use Apple, and sometimes my friends look at me and go, Aww, why is she making her life more difficult, but I think we need to question whether technology has to be so pervasive, and just now and then try and take a step back from it.”

For all the company's retro stylings, given the extent to which 1927's own work relies on technology there's an irony to Golem's preoccupations which Andrade remains fully aware of.

“We're completely dependent on technology,” Andrade happily admits. “the technical aspects of 1927's work are just as important as the music and the performances, but Paul is an illustrator, not an animator, and the language that comes out of his mouth when he has to try and deal with new technology is choice to say the least. We're constantly trying to make our work look old and knackered, and digital is a dirty word.”

This was something a party of Americans couldn't quite get their heads round when they saw the show during its initial run in 2014 at the Young Vic.

“They got really confused,” says Andrade, “and kept talking about how the medium was the message. They couldn't get the idea that you could use technology to say something about that technology. So it's an interesting dilemma. When we first did between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea we ran it off an old laptop and an old DVD player, but with the shows we do now we can't do that anymore, but rather than making a big leap it feels like a natural progression.”

1927 were formed after Barritt heard Andrade on BBC Radio 3's much missed late-night showcase of left-field music, Mixing It. Andrade was performing spoken-word pieces that would go on to form the basis of Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, and Barritt contacted her to find out where he could buy them on CD.

The subsequent success of Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea saw the company tour extensively, taking in dates at the Arches in Glasgow before following up with the more expansive The Animals and Children Took to the Streets. That show appeared for one night only at the Manipulate festival of visual-based theatre at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, and went on to tour internationally.

The Magic Flute was first seen in 2012 at the Komische Opera, Berlin, where Kosky is artistic director. While Andrade and co have undoubtedly put 1927's stamp on the story, it remains the only piece the company haven't devised from scratch.

“It's probably the most camp show we've done,” says Andrade, “but it's still The Magic Flute. It's been challenging in all sorts of ways, and already having the music and story helps, but nothing's ever as challenging as devising your own works. The Magic Flute is something I hope everyone from eight to eighty year olds can enjoy.”

Prior to Golem, 1927 presented The Krazy Kat Projekt, a staged music and animation show based on George Herriman's anarchic comic strip, Krazy Kat, and which used music by iconoclastic composer Harry Partch and others.

Following Golem's West End run and the EIF dates for The Magic Flute, where 1927 go next is something Andrade remains philosophical about.

“We're just rolling along the same as we ever did,” she says. “We still have the same core team, but we're at the stage where we're thinking what to do next. Do we do big shows on the one hand, and then do smaller experimental works as well? Doing more politically motivated work is important as well, and work with a community aspect to it as well.

“It's great performing to an opera crowd, but it's not the same as doing Stratford Circus in front of an audience of teenagers. So I guess we've got to try and not disappear up our own bums.”

Golem, Trafalgar Studios, London, April 14-May 22. The Magic Flute, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, August 27-30.

The Herald, April 13th 2015


Titus Andronicus

Dundee Rep
Four stars

The knives and pretty much everything else are out in this radical reboot of what is probably Shakespeare's bloodiest tragedy, in which a Roman general returns home to a leaderless state, only to have his human trophy Tamora, Queen of the Goths, take control as she marries into royalty and ushers in an increasingly pointless series of tit for tat killings. In outgoing Dundee Rep director Philip Howard's version, brought stunningly to life by director and designer Stewart Laing, 'Rome' becomes the sort of voguish open-plan restaurant beloved of European cities and fans of urban regeneration.

Into this environment, built magnificently into Dundee Rep's rarely used Bonar Hall space, the audience become the hungry diners sat at long wooden tables witnessing a political system in meltdown as a portraits of former demagogues line the wall. As assorted kitchen staff from all factions neck shots and dance on tables to JD Twitch's pumping techno soundtrack, at first what looks looks like after-hours fun for minimum wage slaves gets seriously out of hand. As Tamora's sons rape Titus' daughter Lavinia, hands are chopped off, tongues cut out and corpses piled into a wheelie bin along with the bin bags and empty bottles in a way that suggests that's just for starters.

Co-produced by Dundee Rep Ensemble and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Howard and Laing's version puts some of the play's goriest excesses on film, beamed onto the wall like mobile phone shot snuff movies shared on YouTube. In the title role, George Anton thunders with wounded pride as a largely young cast rage with fury as the body-count rises in a brilliantly brutal display. When in Rome indeed.

The Herald, April 13th 2015

Friday, 10 April 2015

Jesus Christ Superstar

Edinburgh Playhouse
Three stars

When the giant halo cum crown that's been hanging above the stage since the start of this latest touring revival of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1971 musical starts to slowly descend midway through the second act, it looks less like symbolism and more like a spaceship beaming down to earth. Up until then Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright's production has been a hit and miss compendium of once self-consciously groovy happy-clappy numbers such as What's The Buzz and the appealingly evergreen strains of Everything's Alright and I Don't Know How To Love Him, all good songs if here sounding somewhat strained in their delivery.

This soundtracks what here looks like a celestial bromance between Glenn Carter's Jesus Christ and Tim Rogers as Judas Iscariot. Both of the leads are in fine form, even if any revolutionary tendencies Jesus might have are muted by an angelic image offset by both Rogers and a surprisingly nasty Pontious Pilate as played by Jonathan Tweedie, stepping in for an indisposed Rhydian Roberts. Beyond that, however, some of the show's darker moments look lifted from 1970s Hammer horror, while an oddly flat ending follows a laborious crucifixion scene, despite the subsequent resurrection.

While many of the numbers now sound dated rather than retro-cool, the real saviour of the show comes in the form of the still mighty title song, an epic purloined and co-opted so spectacularly years ago by Robbie Williams – and there's a man with a messiah complex if ever there was one – for Let Me Entertain You. Here, however, there is a modicum of choral subtlety beyond the bombast in a once iconic creation that now seems to have lost its beatific sheen.
The Herald, April 10th 2015


Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Philip Howard - Titus Andronicus

When a young William Shakespeare wrote his early play Titus Andronicus, he probably didn't envisage what was a blood-soaked revenge tragedy coming to the boil several centuries later with the whole of Rome a restaurant and his lead character its masterchef. This is exactly what Dundee Rep's outgoing co-artistic director Philip Howard and director and designer have done, however, in an audacious sounding version adapted by Howard which opens at the Rep this week.

One of Shakespeare's lesser-spotted works, Titus Andronicus' tale of a Roman general who returns home from war to sort out the country has often been dismissed by scholars as shock-seeking juvenalia which latched onto the then trend for such works by his older peers. Howard and Laing, however, beg to differ in a version that aims to get to the play's possibly skewered heart.

“What's regarded as the problem with the play is the violence,” Howard explains, “but that's a red herring, because, like David Greig when he was a young writer experimenting with form, Shakespeare learnt about it by doing it.”

In what sounds graphic enough to have been an inspiration for the 1990s wave of 'in-yer-face' theatre, Howard makes a parallel between Shakespeare's use of violence in Titus Andronicus with Sarah Kane's play, Blasted.

“All those people who slagged off Sarah Kane, and then realised that Blasted was about love and not violence, so Shakespeare has suffered the same indignity with Titus,” Howard says. The play is modelled on a revenge tragedy, and the only way to do it is with that much violence, but it's violence that is there for a very moral reason. We're not showing footage of Isis or anything like that. It's not that kind of show, but of course it's a play about revenge, but it's also about a father's love for his daughter.”

The roots of Howard and Laing's look at Titus Andronicus date back to when Laing went to see Howard's pared-down version of King John, another neglected Shakespeare play seen as part of Oran Mor's Classic Cuts season of truncated plays that was sired from the late David MacLennan's world-changing A Play, A Pie and A Pint phenomenon. While one of the attractions of King John was seeing current star of Outlander Sam Heughan onstage in such an up close and personal environment, in a way Titus Andronicus was the perfect play for Oran Mor, as anyone who knows its final scene will recognise.

“There's lots of imagery in the play about food,” Howard points out, “and Stewart and I started our conversation that afternoon about doing a cut-down fifty minute version Classic Cut. Then once I came to Dundee we realised that for that last scene to work you have to apply that to the whole play rather than a fifty minute version, otherwise what you end up with is an extended gag.”

By this time, Laing's company Untitled Projects had produced Paul Bright's Confessions of A Justified Sinner, a show which Howard describes as “my top Scottish theatre show for the last five years, so to be working with Stewart on this was a joy. It was me who went away into a dark room and wrote it, but it was done in collaboration with Stewart, and I would credit Stewart with the single most important breakthrough, in that we always knew it would take place to a different environment, and once we realised that Rome is the restaurant, everything else fell into place.”

To this end, the production will be performed in Dundee Rep's Bonar Hall space, where the audience will be seated at tables as if in an actual restaurant, while cooking will take place in real time throughout.

Working with actors training at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and with Laing's collaborator on Paul Bright, George Anton, in the title role, Howard describes his adaptation as “ninety-five per cent Shakespeare, which I've put through a filter and stripped away the fat. It's a play with twenty-seven characters, but as we're doing it with twelve actors, rather than do a lot of doubling we wanted it to be for twelve characters as well. Shakespeare wrote it for a company of actors, and there's a clown's part in there for the senior company member, which is terrible. So I know I'll be pilloried for his, but by making the play leaner I think we're making it better.”

Howard isn't alone in his outlook. In 1678, actor/director Edward Ravenscroft did an edit for performance, referring to Shakespeare's original as 'the most incorrect and indigested piece in all his works. It seems rather a heap of rubbish than a structure.'

“That always tickled me,” says Howard, “because I've always thought it's the most perfectly structured symmetrical play.”

One of the most striking features of Laing's production looks set to be the musical contribution of Keith McIvor, aka JD Twitch, one half of pioneering Glasgow club duo, Optimo, who Howard describes as “the coolest person we've ever had in the building.”

With a sound system being installed into the theatre for the occasion, McIvor's pre-programmed contribution will form the backdrop to what he describes as “a very intense party scene. It will be like a mini DJ set, I suppose, and we're trying to put things together that will help define the ebb and flow of things.”

Howard's version of the play itself could be said to be a remix of Shakespeare, just as other writers have looked to outside sources.

To complement their production of Titus Andronicus, the Rep will also be presenting a rehearsed reading of Timberlake Wertenbaker's play, The Love of the Nightingale. In her play, Wertenbaker looked to the ancient Greek myth of Philomele, which was the same story Shakespeare looked to for Titus Andronicus.

“That came into the mix quite late,” says Howard, “and was a play I was a play I wanted to do, and then I realised that it's debt to Book six of Ovid's Metamorphosis, which looked at the rape of Philomele, who turns into a nightingale, was the same as with Shakespeare's play.”

Titus Andronicus marks the end of Howard's tenure as joint artistic director of Dundee Rep, which he has run in tandem with Jemima Levick since the pair were appointed in 2012.

Before Howard departs Dundee to resume his freelance directing and teaching career, he will revive his production of Justin Young's play, In My Father's Words, for the New York-based Brits Off Broadway season in July.

“That's a lovely little goodbye thing,” Howard says. “There have been so many joys here, as well as some mind-bending challenges, and there's a lot that I've been really proud of. I especially value my partnership with Jemima. I've had some great artistic partnerships over the years, but this is the one I've treasured most, and we will work together again, don't know where, don't know when.”

In the meantime, Howard and Laing's take on Titus Andronicus looks set to stay true to the play's core while reinventing it anew.

“I think what makes Titus Andronicus a great play,” according to Howard, “is that, in its core brilliance, it says something very important about the cyclical nature of revenge tragedy. In a conventional revenge tragedy, the only way to get any movement is to break that cycle. This version of Titus Andronicus ends on a question mark on what it takes to break that cycle.”

Titus Andronicus, Dundee Rep, April 8-24.
The Herald, April 7th 2015