Monday, 31 August 2015

Iphigenia in Splott

Pleasance Dome
Five stars

Don't mess with Effie, the hard-nosed, hard-drinking, shag-happy heroine of Gary Owen's blazing reinvention of Greek myth that bursts onto the streets of Cardiff with a lust for life that matches Effie's motor-mouthed and alco-popped libido. Into the Friday night mess Effie meets a squaddie war veteran whose leg has been blown off in action. This doesn't prevent Effie from getting pregnant following their one-night stand that leads ultimately to tragedy by way of an ill-equipped ambulance that crashes while rushing her to an even worse resourced hospital.

Laced throughout with a ferocious back-street Cardiffian poetry, Owen's play is brought to brawling life in Rachel O'Riordan's ferocious production for Cardiff's Sherman Cymru. A stunning Sophie Melville strides through the littered striplights of Hayley Grindle's set as they pulse into life or else black out like a stopped heart machine.

As with most of us, it's only when the worst happens that we're kick-started into action, and Effie's everyday radicalisation comes with her final words which, accompanied by a piercingly defiant stare, suggests revenge is coming. In this way, Effie is the personification of a society that isn't going to put up with austerity-led public sector cuts anymore, and the thugs currently attempting to vandalise the NHS and Britain's welfare state into submission should be very scared indeed.

The Herald, August 31st 2015


Saturday, 29 August 2015

Murmel Murmel

King's Theatre
Five stars

The red carpet that adorns centre-stage as the audience enter the auditorium for Herbert Fritsch's production of Dieter Roth's previously presumed to be unstagable concrete poetry epic may suggest a formal air for what's about to follow. The absurdist game of peek-a-boo that nudges its way from the wings, however, points to something altogether wilder. There's a flappy arm here, a distended leg there, and manic shapes thrown pretty much everywhere over the next eighty minutes of prat-falling Dadaist slapstick.

Given that Roth's 178 page text consists of just one word, the eponymous 'murmel', there is no end of fun to be had in what is a meticulously choreographed riot involving eleven retro-clad performers overseen by a conductor dressed in a military uniform who supplies the live soundtrack of marimba-led exotica. At times it's a physical symphony involving sketch-like movements that morph into lounge bar bump n' grind and B-52-wigged girl band routines, at others it's an increasingly ridiculous chant as the performers goose each other or else stumble and tumble into the orchestra pit.

With Fritsch also designing his production for the Volksbuhne, Berlin, as the ensemble interact with a series of rapidly moving walls, it's as if the spirits of Jacques Tati, Vic Reeves, Hugo Ball and 1950s cartoon hero Gerald McBoing Boing had been fused to make a nonsense chorus line.

Beyond such fun and games there is something knowingly subversive about taking a piece of hardcore avant-garde art like this out of the gallery to write it large on a global platform. As a piece of radical entryism, Murmel Murmel is both sublime and gloriously ridiculous.

The Herald, August 29th 2015


Thursday, 27 August 2015

Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2015 Music Reviews - The Ex - Summerhall - Four stars / Skatgobs - Garage - Four stars

One of the biggest musical draws on this year's Fringe has been Summerhall's Nothing Ever Happens Here programme, so named in ironical homage to those who mistakenly believe Edinburgh to be a musical desert and to City of Edinburgh Council's ongoing lack of civic will towards live music.

By far the most interesting date was the return of The Ex, the Amsterdam-based quartet who have been marrying angular punk guitar noises to African rhythms for more than thirty years. With strong Edinburgh roots care of guitarist Andy Moor, who formerly played in the capital's own wonky punk auteurs, Dog Faced Hermans, The Ex's first Edinburgh date in twelve years in a co-production with experimental music promoters Braw Gigs was a prodigal's return to be reckoned with.

Opening the show were My Two Dads, a knowingly named collaboration between Drew Wright, aka solo troubadour Wounded Knee, and Dylan Mitchell, formerly of Pet. With both men on guitars and Wright giving vent to his full-vented reinvention of traditional waulking songs, what emerged was an extended set of spaced-out rhythms that looked to Germany's kosmische-styled scene for a rollingly hypnotic display of open-ended Caledonian drone.

The Ex were a picture of intensity and discipline that ricocheted around the room with furious delight. With vocalist Arnold de Boer having moved into the slot previously held by G.W. Wok, Andy Moor and Terrie Hessels' guitars chug out insistent soundscapes over a percussive backdrop provided by drummer Katherina Bornefeld. Bornefeld also tag teamed with de Boer on vocals in a way that recalled the scatty yaps of Essential Logic's Lora Logic as Moor and Hessels' lurched off into abstract corners culled from the cutting edges of Europe's free undergrond.

While any punk fury of yore has given way to an engaging warmth, this is nevertheless a breathlessly timeless display of DIY ethics and aesthetics writ large. If only Moor and artist Marion Coutts, in attendance tonight, would reform Dog Faced Hermans and share a stage with The Ex again, it might possibly inspire a revolution.

The night before in an Edinburgh New Town lane, Edinburgh Art Festival's Garage initiative hosted Skatgobs, a glorious cross-generational alliance between veteran freeform vocalist Phil Minton with Dylan Nyoukis and Luke Poot, both exponents of the same sort of primal jabber that Minton has been pioneering for the best part of half a century.

Opening this show were The Y Bend, a cheekily named trio culled from the ranks of The A Band, the UK's most out-there free improv ensemble. Over half an hour using guitar, cello and keyboards, the trio eked out a curiously warm if wilfully slapdash set of noises that were giddily child-like in execution.

Minton, Nyoukis and Poot sat in chair in a row, with Minton at the centre flanked by his two proteges. The noises that emerged from the three mens' mouths was a surprisingly low-key and often entertaining barrage of wordless symphonies that ebbed and flowed into cartoon-like life as mini call and response narratives were set up in sketch-like performances. Again, however constructed each section was, there was a wonderful purity in watching the trio let rip with each other before coming to a close by way of a raging calm.

The Herald, August 27th 2015


Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2015 - Theatre Reviews 10 - Trans Scripts - Pleasance Courtyard - Four stars / A Game of You - Traverse Theatre - Four stars

Six women line the stage at the start of Paul Lucas' new play, Trans Scripts. At first glance, such a disparate array seem to have stepped out of a common or garden piece about female bonding. As it is, the stories that unfold over the play's ninety minute duration presents a very different kind of sisterhood.

Culled and cut-up from some seventy-five interviews with trans women, Lucas and director Linda Ames Key have shaped six disparate stories from true life experience that lay bare the agonies and ecstasies of being a woman trapped in a man's bodies. The ecstasies, of course, only come later, after the women have risen above lifetimes of verbal and physical abuse. The stories that emerge are by turns angry, funny and at times wilfully saucy. There are flirtations with the audience and there are heartwarming tales of acceptance by families and local churches and communities as they support each other through the purging in this most beautifully realised of emancipations.

In a Fringe where gender has been one theatre's vital talking points, this is a show that matters, not just to those already aware of the trans communities, but for those who have no knowledge of them. In this respect Lucas and co aren't presenting a polemic, but a set of deep-rooted stories full of warmth and vulnerability that speaks to anyone en route to discovering their own identity. It's also whip-smart funny in a big-hearted show that only wants the acceptance by others that any of us do.

Belgian avant provocateurs Ontroerend Goed have long pushed the boundaries between performer and spectator. Now, after A Smile on Your Face and Internal put their audiences on the spot in an increasingly intimate fashion, the final part of the trilogy, A Game of You, takes things to the logical limit by allowing the show's sole participant to present a portrait of themselves that's reflected back at them with an honesty that's as incisive as it might be painful.

It begins and ends in a darkened room beside the Traverse's upstairs foyer. Once inside, you're led through a series of red-draped booths, where you are gently but firmly asked to come to terms with your own self-image. What happens over the next thirty minutes really depends on what you're prepared to bring to the party in terms of embracing the moment and being honest. This isn't nearly as traumatic as it sounds in a delicately constructed piece of personal history that's fascinatingly and entertainingly narcissistic and wittily engaging as it allows us a a glimpse at how others see us in the starkest of close-ups.

The Herald, August 27th 2015


Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2015 Theatre Reviews 9 - Forever Young - Traverse Theatre - Four stars / The Solid Life of Sugar Water - Pleasance Dome - Four stars / Am I Dead Yet? - Traverse Theatre - Three stars

It's fitting that Forever Young begins outside the funfair carousel in the west end of Princes Street Gardens. As symbols of lost youth riding off into the sunset go, it's one of the best for this new piece of journey-based theatre from the Australian one step at a time like this company in association with the Irish Clonmel Junction Festival.

Using text messages and one to one interaction, the young people of Clonmel's newly christened Junction Joes ensemble lead the show's solitary audience member on a teenage joyride into rediscovering the child within. Risks may be taken, passion fruits may be stolen and hearts may be broken, but in coming to terms with lost idealism and the reckless joy of doing things for kicks, by the time you're on the couch being asked questions by a teenage therapist a la Lucy doling out advice to Charlie Brown, it becomes a melancholy confrontation with what it means to be a grown-up.

With our teenage guides on the cusp of going out into the big bad world themselves, under the guidance of directors Julian Rickart and Suzanne Kerston, every moment in this show is a two-way set of epiphanies, either in the moment for then, or half-remembered for an audience who's been holding onto those moments for decades. As far as restoring one's faith in an eternally questioning younger generation goes, this is a joy.

Runs until August 30.

A generation or so on, and love hurts in The Solid Life of Sugar Water, Jack Thorne's two-hander for the Graeae company, which puts a young couple centre-stage in the marital bed but increasingly miles apart as they stumble and tumble through their messy affair. Alice and Phil meet in the post office queue, where they fancy the pants off each other and throw themselves into a love story that by rights should have a happy ending, even if Phil does think Alice's deafness is 'exotic'. Beyond all the passion and icky-sticky stuff, however, life throws them a curve-ball when the baby they're trying for is still-born and suddenly all passion is spent as they tiptoe around each other, grieving as they go.

With the couple's conflicting versions of events initially as comic as a newspaper blind date column, things soon take a more painful turn as Genevieve Barr and Arthur Hughes wring every last gasp of emotion from Thorne's script in Amit Sharma's beautifully unsentimental production. Just as Alice and Phil's relationship seems to have fallen apart beyond repair, something is salvaged in this unflinchingly honest look at everyday tragedies and the healing that's required beyond them.

Runs until August 30.

Dying onstage is nothing new in Edinburgh at this time of year. Jon Spooner and Chris Thorpe's fifty minute late-night cabaret drama based around notions of mortality takes such a notion to its logical limit in Am I Dead Yet?, their show for Unlimited Theatre. Opening with the pair standing at microphones in white vest and pants that give them the air of a 1970s anti litter campaign that ties in perfectly with their retro copper routine.

This is just one aspect of a show that barely pauses for breath in its low-attention-span race to cram everything in before anyone outstays their welcome. Spooner and Thorpe spar, jostle for position, tell stories, get a qualified first-aider to demonstrate CPR and generally contemplate matters of life and death with the high-octane energy of a stand-up in full flight. If there's a touch of the mid-life crisis at play here, it remains a provocative proposition designed to remind yourself you're alive.

Runs until August 30.

The Herald, August 26th 2015


Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Herbert Fritsch - Dieter Roth and Murmel Murmel

It was no laughing matter when German theatre director Herbert Fritsch decided to stage Swiss-based artist Dieter Roth's play, Murmel Murmel, at the Volksbuhne, Berlin, in 2012. Here was a work which had never been staged in full but which was now about to be seen at one of the most prestigious of Europe's stages. The fact that the play's 178 pages consisted of just one word, Murmel (Murmur) suggested that Roth's epic piece of concrete poetry was unstageable. As Fritsch's production arrives in Edinburgh for the final week of the International Festival, such perceptions couldn't be more wrong.

“They said to me that the Volksbuhne is not good for a little joke,” Fritsch explains. “I said that it's not just a joke. If you listen to the words, they can be a prayer or a secret. You can do everything with these words. You can make them as great as Shakespeare, or it can be like doing the telephone book.”

With the play-text consisting of six columns of words with breaks inbetween, there are few clues to how Roth's work may be staged. This initially caused some trepidation for Fritsch's twelve-strong acting ensemble.

“One morning I got there and they said, Herbert, what are we doing here?,” says Fritsch, “and I said, that's a really good existential question. The actors were a little frustrated, because they wanted the audience to like it. I said, okay, we have to think the audience won't like it, but when we go on we go on full of energy and make sure that we like it, because we don't know what they'll like.”

As it turned out, Fritsch's take on Murmel Murmel was a hit, with its eighty minutes of Dada-inspired slapstick tapping into an international language of theatre that needs little in the way of translation.

“We're just following the rhythm,” Fritsch explains. “There are three different parts to it, and we did a lot of choreography so there are kind of scenes, but I don't want to say too much. It has to be a surprise.”

Roth's early work saw him publish artists books and subvert existing publications as he did with his 1961 volume, Literaturwurst (Literature Sausage), the first copy of which was made out of an issue of the Daily Mirror mixed with spices and other foodstuffs an stuffed inside a sausage skin. Fritsch too looks to books to illustrate his approach to Murmel Murmel.
“When you have bookshelves in a room,” he says, “and you can see all those books, you wonder what happens to them when you don't read them. There's all this mumbling going on inside them, and you take this idea and try and find a way to stage it.”

Fritsch first came into contact with Roth after they were introduced by Basel-based gallerist Felix Handschin, a long-time champion of Roth who thought the pair might have some kind of artistic common ground.

“It was Felix who brought us together,” Fritsch explains. “It was the beginning of the 1980s, and Roth showed me this play, which I liked very much, and always wanted to do. Before he died Felix said that I had to stage Murmel Murmel, so we did a little bit at his funeral.”

Given his history as an artist of extremes, Roth himself had specific ideas about his work.

“He was heavy,” says Fritsch of Roth, who died in 1998. “He was full of energy, and he didn't accept everything. One time a friend of his who was also a director did Murmel Murmel as a big spectacle with opera singers and everything, and Roth hated it. He said he wanted to make the most boring play ever seen onstage. If he saw my production I don't think he'd be amused.

“He always said that you don't do what people want you to do, and for me that's a really good impulse to think about, and to do a play that's as boring as possible is a very interesting idea. You can't blackmail Roth. He did what he wanted without any kind of compromise. It's like when he did something with his wife in Iceland, when he took away all her clothes, her books and her furniture, and said that everything had to come from within.”

Fritsch was an actor at the Volksbuhne for many years before he moved into directing aged fifty-six., with a production of Moliere's The Miser in 2007. Since then he has worked in major theatres throughout Germany with a playfully restless style that pulses Murmel Murmel. The roots of this approach date back again to the early 1980s with a show he did called The Zero Show.

“We improvised strange moves of the body,” he says. We used faces and sounds but there were no words. That's been an influence on all of my pieces since then.”

In this respect, using one word in Murmel Murmel instead of none sounds like a step up, even if the play's author might not entirely approve.

“I think maybe Roth wouldn't like how I did it,” Fritsch speculates. “His son saw it and liked it. The Dieter Roth society liked it too. They initially didn't want to give me the rights to the play, but then they liked it. The way I've done it is my way to see it, and Roth had his way to see it, so maybe he would like it, I don't know.

“If the Volksbuhne had said, okay, you can do Murmel Murmel, but do it on a studio stage, it would have been something else. You take something like this and put it on a big stage, it's not a little joke. People look on it differently and it's taken seriously. It's not experimental theatre. I don't do experimental theatre. I do theatre on a big stage.”

Murmel Murmel, King's Theatre, Aug 28-29, 8pm, Aug 29-30, 3pm.

The Herald, August 25th 2015


Politics and Protest on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe - Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award 2015

Two weeks ago I was asked to appear on a radio programme to talk about political theatre on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. On Saturday morning I picked up a copy of a London broadsheet to find a regular columnist asking where all the political plays were in Edinburgh. Somewhere inbetween I have been attempting to help judge this year's Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, the winner of which will be announced tomorrow during a ceremony at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh.

Founded more than a decade ago as the U Win Tin Award, named after the imprisoned Chinese dissident, the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award is designed to honour the best show on the Fringe that highlights human rights in a way that puts artistic merit on a par with the particular issue it is focusing on. So, previous winners such Roadkill, which looked at sex trafficking in a production performed in a flat off Leith Walk, Nirbhayer, Yael Farber's devastating study of sexual violence against women in India, and the 2014 winner, Cuckooed, in which Mark Thomas dissected the erosion of privacy, were all major pieces of theatrical artistry that accentuated the points they were making while making for riveting viewing.

This year, some eighty-five shows have been long-listed for the Award. Given that there are some 3000 shows on this year's Fringe this may not sound much. Such a relatively high number of nominees nevertheless points up the fact that, beyond all the noise and the hype of TV names, and beyond the carnivalesque clamour on the packed city centre streets, there are some very serious things indeed going on in Edinburgh.

This has been fascinating to watch over the last decade, as the handful of entrants for the award in an age we were told was post political gradually morphed into a deluge of work that mirrored the abuses and injustices that were occurring in a wider society, both abroad and dangerously close to home. As a younger generation has become politicised through the Occupy movement in an age of austerity where democratic processes don't seem to mean much anymore, so politically engaged theatre has increased.

As I pointed out on the radio, that engagement by theatre-makers with politics – and, as most people must surely realise, all theatre is political, whichever way it swings – is a whole lot different from the nature of some work produced twenty years ago. While just as passionate as work of yore, the aesthetic has become both more direct and more to do with first-hand experience than mere polemic, with issues of gender, mental health and gentrification all on the agenda this year using a variety of different forms married to content.

Yet quantity alone isn't a badge of honour, however well-meaning a surge of worthy theatrical activity might be. Just because a show is politically inclined doesn't make it automatically eligible for the Amnesty International award. The definition of how something addresses human rights too is too fluid to be set in stone in such complex times.

As every single one of the winning shows has proven, it is perfectly possible, and indeed essential, to say important things through art and theatre in a way that will engage the senses emotionally as much as politically.

As I pointed out two years ago, there is a danger with an award such as the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award that it might end up looking like a league table, and that one issue suddenly becomes more important than another.

That isn't the case. Every issue raised, and every piece of work short-listed are as significant as each other.

This year the Amnesty award arrives on the back of several incidents over the last year when voices on the Fringe itself have been forced to remain silent. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, it highlights the power art has and has always had to provoke debate. The Amnesty award remains at the centre of those debates.

The only bad thing about the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award is that it needs to exist at all. If there were no sex traffickers, if activists weren't imprisoned for their beliefs and if free speech wasn't being stamped out by oppressive regimes in the UK and further afield every single day, the award and Amnesty International wouldn't need to highlight such crimes against humanity in the way that they do. In an ideal world, none of this would be necessary. But this isn't an ideal world, and until it is, the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award will remain as vital as it has been since its inception.

Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award is presented on Aug 26.

The Herald, August 25th 2015


Monday, 24 August 2015


Royal Lyceum Theatre
Four stars

When Sandy Grierson as Alasdair Gray's eponymous alter-ego in David Greig's sprawling adaptation of Gray's magical realist 1981 novel declares that he wishes to pen a modern day Divine Comedy with illustrations inspired by William Blake, it knowingly sums up the artistic ambitions of both Gray and Graham Eatough's equally epic production for Edinburgh International Festival and the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow. We've already been introduced to our eternally bemused hero in scenes of retro-futuristic dystopian noir as he is psychologically ship-wrecked in Unthank, a city not unlike Glasgow where the Sun never shines. There Lanark meets Jessica Hardwick's equally wilful Rima before descending into the sci-fi trappings of The Institute, where he attempts to find out who he is.

Subtitled A Life in Three Acts, as with the book and in true Godardian fashion, the beginning, middle and end of this portrait of the artist as a young man don't come in that order as Lanark becomes the author of his own destiny, imagined or otherwise.

Parallel universes and parallel lives abound as Eatough's cast of ten navigate Laura Hopkins' rolling metal set accompanied by Simon Wainwright's projected animations of Gray's own drawings and Nick Powell's gloriously wayward soundtrack. By the time things rewind to Lanark's childhood growing pains as would-be artist Duncan Thaw, it's clear from the utilitarian chorus who trill Numbskull-like that we're witnessing an explosion in Lanark, Thaw and especially in Gray's head.

The final act's initial depiction of 1970s civic wide boys almost caves in on its own self-referential meta-ness. This in parts recalls manufactured 1960s boy band The Monkees' own break for artistic freedom in their similarly sprawling celluloid indulgence, Head, before slowly morphing into a moving elegy for life and art.

The Herald, August 24th 2015


Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2015 Theatre Reviews 8 - Smash it Up - Summerhall - Four stars / Tar Baby - Gilded Balloon - Four stars / Penny Arcade: Longing Lasts Longer - Underbelly - Four stars

It's not just City of Edinburgh Council who are wilfully ignorant to their city's artistic past as they flog off everything in sight to any property developer who comes calling. In 2013 in Newport, South Wales, Kenneth Rudd's mural commemorating the Chartist uprising of 1839 was destroyed in the underpass it was built into alongside adjacent buildings so the privately owned Friars Walk shopping centre could be built.

The response of the South Wales-based live art troupe, Mr and Mrs Clark and their artistic cohorts, Bosch, is Smash it Up, a furious hour-long cut-up of performance lecture confessional, artistic actions, film, dance routines and a welter of pop-art detritus that rallies for an assault on the sort of reductive money-led culture that is now the norm.

Using Gustav Metzger's notion of auto-destructive art as its thesis, the two men and one woman who make up Mr and Mrs Clark unleash a wild and often witty plea for artistic and civic preservation that's high on theory even as it throws live art shapes that become increasingly madcap in a gloriously messy collision of activism and art

Runs until August 29th.
To suggest that Desiree Burch is playing the race card in her one woman extravaganza, Tar Baby, is something of an understatement. Over ninety minutes Burch dissects institutionalised racism as she becomes an old time carnival barker co-opting the audience into demonstrating exactly what slavery means to unleashing her own experience of what it means to be black and American right now.

Burch's huge burst of energy sucker punches the audience into thinking they're on course for a straight-up comic routine. What they get instead is a series of provocations which, while laced with humour, are the deadliest of wake-up calls for the institutionalised racism that prevails.

As she flirts with cultural stereotypes before blowing it up in our faces, Burch tells it like it is in a rough-shod hymn to civil rights that's sealed with a kiss.

Runs until August 31.

It's been more than a decade since Penny Arcade regaled Edinburgh with her frontline dispatches from New York's original demi-monde. In the intervening years the all-pervasive horrorshow of gentrification has conspired to destroy what once made the Big Apple and pretty much every other city in the world, Edinburgh included, great. The motor-mouthed conscience of the counter-culture isn't happy about this, and pulls no punches in Longing Lasts Longer, an hour-long free-form call to arms for the freaks who got swept aside in in NY's upgrade to strike back.

Accompanied by an aural collage of some of New York's most iconic auteurs who soundtracked points ranging from Andy Warhol's Factory to Studio 54, Arcade takes no prisoners as she peers out from her shock of scarlet hair. Cupcake eating hipsters, middle youth and a generation currently having their own youth robbed by debt and careers are all in the line of her rapid-fire verbal machine-gun charges. These are spat out as perfectly polished epigrams designed to provoke a generation who never had to fight for anything into doing something more real with their lives. Ms Arcade has already been there, done that and is still doing it. Now she wants you to do the same.

Runs until August 30th.

The  Herald, August 24th 2015


Friday, 21 August 2015

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour

Traverse Theatre
Five stars

At first glance you could be forgiven for thinking that butter wouldn't melt in the mouths of the six-strong Catholic schoolgirl choir onstage throughout Vicky Featherstone's National Theatre of Scotland production of Lee Hall's freewheeling adaptation of Alan Warner's 1998 novel, The Sopranos. They sing so sweetly, after all, do Orla, Chell, Kay, Manda, Kylah and Fionnula,

Once they're off the leash and with time to kill in the big city before the choir competition they're doomed to take part in, voices of angels morph into a potty-mouthed chorus running riot through any bar that will have them en route to a series of everyday epiphanies.

Featherstone and Hall have their unruly charges act out their adventures amidst the glorious tack of the Mantrap, the tellingly named late-night Oban dive the girls call home. From this set-up we see their messy lives in close-up as they cling to each other for comfort in the face of a stream of increasingly ridiculous men. Set in the girl-powered 1990s and punctuated throughout by songs old and new arranged by Martin Lowe and accompanied by an all-female band, on one level this is a pre-Glee St Trinian's for the X-Factor age.

As fearlessly played by Melissa Allan, Caroline Deyga, Karen Fishwick, Kirsty MacLaren, Frances Mayli McCann and Dawn Sievewright, it is far more serious as the girls minesweep every little bit of life they can in a work that's both anthem and elegy in a getting of wisdom that celebrates life even as it breaks your heart.

Runs until August 30, then tours.
The Herald, August 22nd 2015

The Ex - Dog Faced Hermans and the Edinburgh Connection

The first time Andy Moor remembers his band The Ex playing in Edinburgh, it was in a long lost Cowgate dive sometime in 1990. With much of the venue's clientèle in attendance solely to take advantage of its late night opening hours, the sounds of Holland's première underground punk band didn't go down too well.

“After four songs our sound man got bottled,” Moor remembers. “It was quite a dodgy place, where most people just wanted a late drink, I don't think we were what some people were expecting.”

This incident hasn't stopped Moor and co returning to the city that is arguably the band's spiritual home, and is where they forged strong musical connections with a grassroots DIY scene based around Edinburgh College of Art's Wee Red Bar and other places with more responsive audiences than the weekend drinking crowd of yore.

Following a date in Glasgow in 2010 accompanied by Brass Unbound, the free jazz horn quartet featuring saxophonists Mats Gustafsson and Ken Vandermark, this weekend sees The Ex return to Edinburgh for the first time since 2001. The band's Summerhall show is promoted by the city's finest purveyors of interesting sounds, Braw Gigs, in association with the venue's regular Nothing Ever Happens Here initiative. The Ex will also slot in a set at the Doune the Rabbit Hole festival at the Cardross Estate.

The band's Edinburgh date comes on the back of the release of The Ex at Bimhaus, a two CD compilation of performances recorded at Amsterdam's legendary jazz club between 1991 and 2015 with a host of guest collaborators. The record also charts The Ex's changes in personnel, with G.W. Sok, the band's vocalist since 1979, departing amicably after twenty years.

“The band's first bass player left in 2004,” says Moor.”He'd been playing in The Ex for fifteen years was there when I joined, and now suddenly he was gone. At first that felt strange, but we felt like we wanted to carry on, and at first replaced it with a double bassist, and then with a baritone guitar. Replacing the singer was different, because it's the front person of the band, but we were very lucky finding Arnold de Boer. He sings and plays guitar, so it's very different, and I think I like playing in the band even more than I did before. If we'd not found him,” Moor laughs, “we'd have had to become an instrumental math rock band or something.”

Moor first hooked up with The Ex after the band toured with Dog Faced Hermans, the equally wayward anarcho-punk quartet formed in Edinburgh with bass player Colin McLean, drummer Wilf Plum and vocalist Marion Coutts.

“We first met The Ex through Dunstan Bruce from Chumbawamba,” Moor says, highlighting the tight-knit nature of the 1980s anarcho-punk scene before Chumbawamba subverted the mainstream with their 1998 smash hit, Tubthumping. “He drove the van for Dog Faced Hermans, and he said I played exactly like The Ex. We'd never heard of them, and thought they were this really heavy industrial band like Test Department.”

An alliance between The Ex and Dog Faced Hermans was eventually formed, with both bands collaborating on the single, Stonestamper's Song, and the live cassette release, Treat, in 1990. By that time Moor was playing with The Ex, and the whole of Dog Faced Hermans decamping to Amsterdam.

“Marion had wanted to go to Poland to do her art,” says Moor, “and we didn't know what would happen. The Ex invited me to join them, and I went to Amsterdam, originally for a year, then when Dog Faced Hermans regrouped there I played in both bands for a while, but it killed me.”

Originally from London, Moor moved to Edinburgh to study anthropology, and met Colin McLean at a benefit disco for SCRAM, or the Scottish Campaign to Remove the Atomic Menace.

“He was playing lots of James Brown and African records,”says Moor, “and he must've lent me about a hundred records that summer, all this free jazz, African and reggae stuff.”

Such out-there influences on Edinburgh's post-punk scene were galvanised even more by what can now be regarded as a golden age of Friday night jazz gigs at the Queen's Hall throughout the 1980s and 1990s . With barely a week passing by without giants of the genre appearing, artists such as Ornette Coleman, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Don Cherry's Nu and Cecil Taylor opened Moor and friends up to an eclectic array of sounds that influenced McLean and Moor's early forays with experimental act Volunteer Slavery, which eventually morphed into Dog Faced Hermans.

“At the time you don't think about the influence that's having on you. You just go. But when you're young you're open to all that stuff, and it steers you into some really interesting territory.”

Dog Faced Hermans and fellow travellers including Archbishop Kebab and Vatican Shotgun Scare became key figures in Edinburgh Musicians Collective, which was based at Jimmy Boyle's Gateway Exchange centre in Edinburgh’s Abbeyhill district.

“Colin was working at the Gateway,” explains Moor, “and we spent a whole summer rehearsing in what had been an old washhouse. Loads of bands became involved in the collective, and we started getting bands like Bogshed and Big Flame up to play the Wee Red Bar. The Ex were part of that as well. That whole period was just lie this little explosion of activity, with everyone helping each other out, but because it was pre-internet a lot of that history has become lost or hidden now.”

Over the years, The Ex have collaborated with the likes of Tortoise and Sonic Youth, as well as free improv players such as drummer Han Bennink. Moor has also collaborated with saxophonist John Butcher and an array of Ethiopian musicians.

“We get invited to play a lot of free jazz festival,” says Moor, “and that's where we see these people and they see us, so it's a good exchange.”

By a quirk of fate, The Ex arrive in Edinburgh two days before former Dog Faced Hermans vocalist Coutts appears at Edinburgh International Book Festival. Now an internationally renowned visual artist, Coutts will be reading from The Iceberg, her acclaimed memoir of her time caring for her partner, art critic Tom Lubbock prior to his tragic death from a brain tumour.

“Marion's lyrics were so good that it was inevitable she would end up writing something,” Moor comments.

With McLean working in music venues in Amsterdam and Plum in Brussels playing with the African inspired Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp, the legacy of Edinburgh Musicians Collective goes on.

“The Ex isn't about some old geezers reunion,” says Moor. “We still have energy, and we still want to do different things. Sometimes we get invited to play those Punk's Not Dead Festivals, and we always say no, but the people who ask us think we're being snobby. I don't care if punk's dead or not. I just want to keep on making interesting music.”

The Ex, Summerhall, August 22, Doune The Rabbit Hole, Cardross Estate, August 21-23.

The Herald, August 21st 2015


Jim Cartwright - Raz

A night on the town isn't what it once was. Just ask Jim Cartwright, the author of Road and The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, whose brand new play, Raz, opens at this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Raz is a solo piece which, as the title suggests, charts one wild weekend in the life of a twenty-first century dead-end kid called Shane. As Shane moves from bar to bar, the Friday night carnage grows increasingly grotesque until only the morning after and what Cartwright calls “the battlefield of the dawn,” awash with “ambulances and cops and people lying on the floor, crying at the moon” awaits in a frontline portrait of a generation in freefall.

“It's about one night in broken Britain,” Cartwright explains in a Bolton accent which, aged fifty-seven, sounds Coronation Street cosy. “We've all seen the scene on a Friday or Saturday once the pubs and clubs have shut, girls with their legs akimbo sitting on the kerb, boys all pissed up and spoiling for a fight, and it makes you wonder what that's all about.

“This is a chance to get inside all that through one man's journey,” Cartwright continues. “One thing that strikes me is that there's this whole generation now, who aren't on the dole, they're working, but they never manage to earn enough to move out of home. They're still living in their mum and dad's back bedroom and they can't get out. They're millionaires at the weekend, but they're a lost generation going round in circles.”

In this respect Raz isn't that far from the booze-soaked neighbours in Road, which announced Cartwright's arrival at the Royal Court in London in 1986. Along with the Alan Clark directed TV version a year later that featured Jane Horrocks, Lesley Sharp and David Thewlis in the cast, Road's depiction of a community riven by the effects of unemployment in Thatcher's Britain but who could find solace from Otis Redding's version of Try A Little Tenderness set the tone for the in-yer-face years to come.

Cartwright's depiction of working class people finding release through alcohol and song recalls both a scene in Terence Davies' film, Distant Voices, Still Lives and the bar-room optimism of Chumbawamba's late 1ate 1990s crossover hit, Tubthumping. Cartwright points too to a scene in Willy Russell's play, Educating Rita, in which Russell's eponymous hairdresser heroine returns to her old stomping ground after finding liberation through an Open University course.

Like Rita, Cartwright is a back street autodidact whose destiny looked set to remain in a variety of warehouse and factory jobs until, already married and with a baby son in tow, moved to London. He lived what he calls “for want of a better word a bohemian lifestyle,” performing potted versions of Psycho in peoples houses with an ad hoc guerilla theatre company he formed after drama school.

Scraps of a script that went on to become Road were passed on to Antonia Bird, who was then running the Royal Court Upstairs, and Cartwright was commissioned to write a full script. Only after he'd done a runner with the commission money was Cartwright forced to come up with the goods.

“I was on the dole and was skint,” he says now, “and all the stuff that was in Road, I was in the middle of all that.”

Cartwright has previously described what happened to his career as a result of Road as being like winning the pools. It was his 1992 vehicle for Jane Horrocks, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, however, that put Cartwright into mass consciousness. Little Voice, as it was later filmed, told the story of a painfully shy young woman who could only fully express herself through singing the songs of Shirley Bassey and other showbiz greats. With music something transcendent in both Road and Little Voice, its not entirely a surprise to learn that Cartwright is currently writing a play for the Young Vic about Northern Soul.

“Northern Soul is like a religion for some people,” he says. “It provides a real sense of salvation. There have been a few plays about Northern Soul, but I'm looking at it from the point of view of people in their fifties. I've been doing research at some of the weekenders, and there are kids there and people in their seventies, people who work all week and then stay up all weekend.”

Such a notion is similarly embraced in Raz by Shane, played in Edinburgh by Cartwright's son, James Cartwright, who embarked on an acting career aged sixteen, since when he's appeared in The Archers, The History Boys and Hollyoaks.

“We're like Steptoe and Son,” Cartwright jokes. “I like working with him, because he gets my stuff, and he started acting on his own when he was sixteen. At school he'd always get to play Jesus in the nativity play. He didn't need my help.”

Even so, Cartwright junior is living through exactly the same times as Shane.

“Yeah, but it's a bit different because he's an actor,” his old man points out. “He's on the edge of society in a different way, but he's still a young man living through all this, and his generation and Shane's generation are thinking 'What about us? Who's talking to us?', and there's no-one.

“Our generation, my generation, did better than our mums and dads, but that's stopped now. This generation are probably the first generation who are doing worse than their parents. They can't build a life like we could. In working class culture you were all set up. You left school, got a job, at some point you got a girlfriend, got married and settled down just like your mum and dad did, but that's all gone.

“All that seems to happen now is the government trying to legislate against them having a good time. They've gone back to being the lower classes so this new generation let it all out at the weekend, and if they didn't they might let it off in other ways. They're young people who aren't being allowed to express themselves, and I'd do the same. I'd get off my head.”

Raz, Assembly George Square, Aug 6-31, 4-5pm.

The Herald, August 21st 2015


Beatrice Gibson – Crippled Symmetries

Collective Gallery, Edinburgh until October 4th
Four stars

The noise of money is everywhere in the two films by Beatrice Gibson that make up the London-based artist's Crippled Symmetries show for this year's Edinburgh Art Festival. Where F for Fibonacci juxtaposes archive footage of a mercurial Karlheinz Stockhausen and images of Wall Street city boys at play with an eleven year old boy's computer-generated images of a world owned by fictional superhero, Mr Money, the newly commissioned Solo for Rich Man finds another eleven year old ruffling wads of dosh and dropping coins with composer Anton Lukoszeveize in a Shoreditch adventure playground.

Both films are inspired by William Gaddis' 1975 novel, JR, in which an eleven year old boy creates the biggest financial empire on the planet with the unwitting help of his school's resident composer, Gibson's films pits notions of progressive education, abstract composition and work by Fluxus artist George Maciuna with the real racket going on in the City.

In physical terms, such counterpoints point up how a mainstream economy can be disrupted by throwing a sonic spanner in the works. As far as monopolies go, however, kids rool the skool every time.

The List, August 2015


Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2015 Theatre Reviews 7 - The Titanic Orchestra - Pleasance Courtyard - Three stars / Walking The Tightrope - Underbelly Topside - Three stars / Polyphony - Summerhall - Four stars

As austerity bites, everyone's looking for a way out. So it is with the four tramps eking out their lives at the abandoned railway station in The Titanic Orchestra, Bulgarian playwright Hristo Boytchev's play, seen here in Russell Bolam's production in a new translation by Steve King. As the quartet dramatise their existence by rehearsing what might happen if a train stopped to pick them up, a quasi-Beckettian landscape emerges as they start to lose faith in the things they can barely imagine anymore.

When an equally shabby huckster turns up on their patch claiming to be a magician called Harry, things appear to be possible again as the motley crew are co-opted into the ultimate vanishing act.

As Harry, John Hannah laces his performance with an affable charm alongside an international cast in the UK premiere of this archly-played curio that questions the nature of reality, fantasy and the things you have to kid yourself about in order to survive.

Runs until August 31.

Free speech on the fringe was put under the microscope last year when the young Israeli company, Incubator Theatre, were forced to cancel their hip hop opera following protests from pro Palestinian groups. The eight plays in Walking The Tightrope are a direct response to that, as well as to the cancellation of Brett Bailey's Exhibit B at the Barbican in London following the show's Edinburgh International Festival run.

Radio reports of these and similar events play prior to Cressida Brown's production of a varied compendium, which opens with Mark Ravenhill's What Are We Going To Do About Harry? a wry dig at how private sponsors can hold undue influence on theatre programming, to Caryl Churchill's Tickets Are On Sale.

While Neil LaBute's wilfully provocative Exhibit A asks how far art itself can go as a performance artist has anal sex with his model onstage, some of the other plays look too much like theatrical in-jokes. With two male and two female performers tag-teaming throughout, and with each show followed by a panel discussion, he programme is worth it alone for Churchill's piece. Here conversation is rendered meaningless by the sort of vacuous managerialist marketing-speak beloved by box-ticking funding bodies across the land.

Runs until August 31.

Also contemplating his own art is the ever wilful Daniel Kitson, whose healthy disrespect for the theatrical status quo extends to him not issuing press tickets for his new show, Polyphony. Such a gesture may or may not be part of the overall concept for his ingeniously constructed meditation on the absence of others, but what follows as the audience navigate a Spinal Tap size Stonehenge-like circle of fifteen iPod shuffles attached to small speakers as they enter. Either way, as Kitson hands each one out at random, he reveals that each iPod will 'perform' a play about an old man in the future who buys a job lot of iPod shuffles and writes a play with them.

Except that as he explains, assorted voices on the iPods which are now forming part of the audience proceed to interject, question and at times aggressively question Kitson's artistic process and, eventually, his entire raison d'etre. Kitson argues back, sparring with the disembodied until he runs out of time and his play is lost to the bottom drawer of his mind.

Playing on his own perceived persona, Kitson has created a play for voices which is as if composer Gyorgi Ligetti had orchestrated his piece for one hundred metronomes, Poeme Symphonique, to Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of An Author. The result might easily have been dubbed Kitson's Last Tape in a dramatic orchestration as wry as it is profound.

Runs until August 30th

The Herald, August 21st 2015

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2015 Theatre Reviews 6 - The History of the World Based on Banalities - Summerhall - Three stars / Light Boxes - Summerhall - Four stars / The Christians - Traverse Theatre - Three stars

A young man plays bat and ball in a messy kitchen at the opening of The History of the World Based on Banalities Johan De Smet and Titus De Voogdt's new play produced by the Koppergeitery company as part of this year's Big in Belgium programme. Without a word being said, notions of velocity and gravity are being proffered up in this most everyday of exercises. When the boy played by De Voogdt starts talking to the audience, about his scientist mother who's lost her bearings through Alzheimer's disease, such a sense of his own isolation sparks up a curiosity that finds voice through a series of free-associating quantum leaps that fall somewhere between alchemy and idealism.

Accompanied by a hooded electric guitarist who skulks behind the fridge freezer twanging out some dust-bowl laden dirges, De Voogdt's character acts like he's home alone as he embraces new liberties en route to reclaiming his affinity with his mother from the totems left behind even as she slips further away from him. It's a deceptively poignant piece possessed with low-key depth accentuated by De Voogdt's perennially optimistic seeker after truth.

Runs until August 14

It is the bleakest of mid-winters in Light Boxes, Finn den Hertog's impressionistic version of Shane Jones' already fantastical novel, rendered here in Den Hertog's own production for site-specific auteurs Grid Iron as the grimmest of twenty-first century fairytales. Here the month of February has taken over, and even paper aeroplanes have been grounded in a place where flight is no longer allowed. For balloonist Thaddeus, his wife Selah and their daughter Bianca, a cold pervades the purity of their homespun topsy-turvy world. Rebellion is coming, however, as an army of animal masked insurgents set about getting airborne again just as Bianca is lost to the elements.

There's a gorgeous sense of hand-knitted magic to Den Hertog's production, from the way the cast of Melody Grove, Keith Macpherson and Vicki Manderson split the narrative between them as if telling a bedside story for dystopian times, to the way they play fiddle and junkyard percussion to accompany Michael John McCarthy's live backwoods slow-core score.

Karen Tennent's set engulfes the stage with an upside-down world of magical-realist abstractions which the vintage-apparelled family must navigate their way through in a way that is brutally unsentimental in its willingness to sacrifice lead characters. Whether as a metaphor for mass Seasonal Affected Disorder or for the effects of an authority who would rather keep their charges in the dark, Den Hertog and co have produced a living parable of just how hard it is sometimes to come blinking into the light and take flight.

Runs until August 30

Faith and what it means to believe are put under scrutiny in The Christians, American writer Lucas Hnath's play which receives its UK premiere in a production by London's Gate Theatre. Set in a mock-up of a real life church, as with any holy communion, it's easy to be suckered into a revivalist vibe by the sheer elation of community choir, Song Works, who open the show. Once William Gaminara's Pastor Paul introduces the play proper with a prayer and a sermon that marks the beginning of the end of his kingdom.

Flanked by his associates, his elders, his wife and, most crucially of all, his congregation, Paul's progressive suggestion that Hell might not exist is a calculated risk that doesn't exactly go down well. As assorted dissenters take the microphone to speak in turn, the play's construction is closer to Greek tragedy than the pulpit.

Rather than the church per se, this could be parliament or any other hierarchical constructions based on ideology. Although he's left with nothing, Paul and his wife, played by Jaye Griffiths, may be saved yet.

Runs until August 30

The Herald, August 20th 2015


Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Grid Iron Theatre - Light Boxes

In a cluttered Leith Walk rehearsal room it looks a little bit like the end of the world. The Sun may be offering up a rare if welcome shine outside, but for Grid Iron Theatre company, in the midst of rehearsing their new stage version of Shane Jones' cult novel, Light Boxes, for the moment at least, it must remain forever February. For the family played by Melody Grove, Keith Macpherson and Vicki Manderson who plays the couple's daughter, trying to contend with such terminal bleakness isn't easy, and MJ McCarthy's fiddle-led funereal score played live by the cast only seems to make the scene even sadder.

“The story of Light Boxes is the story of a town that becomes taken over by February,” explains director and adaptor Finn den Hertog. “Both the month of February and the cult of February, I suppose. February bans flight, and we see how this one particular family from the town deals with that. They get caught up in warfare, their daughter goes missing and we see how their world crumbles around them.

“As a novel it starts off in a kind of magic realist kind of way, and it's also been described as a post-modern fairytale, which I think is quite accurate. When you read the book it starts off doing one thing, and then goes through the looking glass or down the rabbit hole as it does something else and comes out the other side. What's exciting for us is how we bring that to the stage, because there's one version of this play that is a simple telling of a fairytale, but actually the book becomes quite meta, and there's a whole other narrative about where that story comes from, and we're still finding out how to do that.”

Light Boxes was Jones' debut novel, originally published in 2010 in a limited edition of 500 before being picked up by a major publishing house. It's quirky reimagining of seasonally adjusted depression as an institutionalised pandemic

Den Hertog first encountered Jones' book after being recommended it by a friend who passed on their copy. Beyond its playful typography and stories within stories that looked to Italo Calvino and other fabulist fiction writers, Den Hertog immediately saw potential for a stage version of the book.

“The book is full of very rich imagery,” says Den Hertog, “and I very quickly saw what we could take out and use a theatrical vocabulary rather than tell the whole story. This was in my head for a while and it stayed with me, and when I was asked by Grid Iron if I had any ideas for a show, Light Boxes was the first thing I gave them. They read the book and said it felt very Grid Iron, but its very complex.”

The show was developed by Den Hertog with a group of actors over a week in Mull in an attempt to capture the essence of the book before he went away to eventually write a draft. Even a couple of weeks before opening the show, however, Den Hertog says that “rehearsing is also devising the piece. Everyone's bringing in their ideas about what the book sparks off in them.”

Den Hertog met Jones in New York, who gave him carte blanche to interpret his book as he saw fit.

“He put a lot of himself into the book,” he says. “At one point it becomes about a writer writing the book, and I think he was going through stuff when he was writing it, and when he reached an impasse he put himself in it to try and solve it, but that's not the aspect of the story I want to tell.

“I read the story as a fable about grief and loss and sadness, but the piece of theatre that we're making is about a family, because it was their grief and loss that stood out for me. That also comes out of me watching the three actors beautifully playing this family, and that's what I wanted to capture. It's about sadness versus hope.”

Light Boxes forms part of an ongoing development for Grid Iron, long regarded as pioneers of site-specific theatre before it became fashionable in East London. While producer Judith Doherty and director Ben Harrison remain at the helm as co-artistic directors, with Harrison having directed the bulk of the company's work since they formed in Edinburgh in 1995, Light Boxes follows on from last year's Letters Home and Grid Iron's 2013 Edinburgh International Festival collaboration, Leaving Planet Earth, in nurturing a new generation of artists.

Den Hertog first worked for Grid Iron as an actor in their revival of Douglas Maxwell's swing-park set saga, Decky Does A Bronco and in their production of Spring Awakening, both directed by Harrison, who he assisted on another production, The Authorised Kate Bane. All of which fits in with a tight-knit company ethos that has something of a boot-room mentality about it which has created an extended artistic family of collaborators.

Given that Den Hertog's artist brother Lewis has created the video element of Light Boxes, and that the brothers parents are actress Ann Louise Ross and Head of Production at Dundee Rep, Nils Den Hertog, notions of family clearly run deep throughout the show. Even three of the four existing songs used in Light Boxes are written by couples.

“Lewis worked on The Authorised Kate Bane as well,” says Den Hertog, “and I realised very early on in other work I've done that the family dynamic is very important to me. But Grid Iron are a family, and everyone is welcomed into that family and it becomes expanded, and once you're in, you're in, in the best possible way. We've got Keith in Light Boxes, who was in the original production of Decky Does A Bronco, and Melody was one of the voices in Leaving Planet Earth, so there's definitely a continuum.

“I was obviously hugely aware of Grid Iron's work before I ever worked with them, and I knew it was the sort of work I wanted to make. So even as much as this piece has my voice, it still feels very much in the Grid Iron mould. They see something in people they want to nurture, and they take risks with them, and that's a lovely thing to be part of.”

Light Boxes, Summerhall, Aug 7-30, 7.15-9pm.

The Herald, August 19th 2015


The Wrestling - On The Fringe With A Sports Entertainment Battle Royal

Last weekend in a pub in Kent, a couple of hundred burly-looking men and women plus a smattering of fans took part in the twenty-fourth British Wrestlers Reunion. The event, attended by survivors of the 1960s and 1970s golden era of British wrestling rubbed shoulders with fans of an era that was as much showbusiness as sport.

A week before, in Portobello Town Hall in Edinburgh, a packed audience watched a younger generation of grunt and grapple stars more influenced by the high-flying antics of the American WWE superstars who began to redefine wrestling for an arena age around the same time British wrestling was taken off television in 1988 by ITV's then head of sport, Greg Dyke.

Two shows on at this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe look set to trade on the revival of professional wrestling in the UK. While An Audience With Gorgeous George harks back to a pre WWE era through the eyes of a character who arguably kick-started the ongoing pantomimic cartoonification of such white trash Greek tragedy, for one night only, The Wrestling puts some twenty comedians in the ring fore a battle royal that marries the crudely choreographed spectacle of sports entertainment scene tostand-up make a glorious hybrid of low-rent light entertainment.

“If you drew a Venn diagram, you'd see that wrestlers and comedians pretty much occupy the same worlds,” says Ivan Gonzalez, who with Max Olesker form Ivan and Max, who first brought The Wrestling to Edinburgh in 2011. “They're both extroverts who travel all over the country, and will analyse what they've done after every show. For someone from a non-wrestling background like me it's fascinating to watch, and with no experience of wrestling at all I was a bit scared to begin with, but you realise the better the comedians are at wrestling then the better the show. It also taps into the psychopathic competitive nature of comedians.”

The roots of The Wrestling lies in Olesker's background as Max Voltage, who, aged fourteen, was the youngest pro wrestler in the UK.

“When Stone Cold Steve Austin and The rock came up in the late nineties, wrestling had a big cultural moment” says Olesker, “and for most people it was a passing phase, but a wre3stling school opened up close to where I lived, I signed up and that was that.”

Alex Brockie, the writer and performer behind An Audience With Gorgeous George, also trained as a wrestler, going under the name of Mr Charisma. Brockie had been a wrestling fan since an early age, also during the Austin/Hogan era, and brought another wrestling-based play, El Britanico!, to Edinburgh in 2014. That play was loosely based on the life of the Dynamite Kid, aka Wigan-born wrestler Tommy Billington, who became a star in America before becoming confined to a wheelchair. Gorgeous George similarly looks back at the life and times of the artist formerly known as George Wagner, who became a sensation in the 1940s and 1950s after dyeing his hair blonde and adopting an effeminate image.

“It's set during the last year of his life after he's retired from wrestling and opened a bar in L.A..,” Brockie explains. “Like a lot of sports stars George took a one-man show to Las Vegas, but now his bar is going out of business and he's telling his life story.”

A 1978 film, The One and Only, saw Happy Days star Henry Winkler play a wannabe actor loosely based on Gorgeous George in a feelgood feature directed by Carl Reiner, the New York born comedy writer and contemporary of Mel Brooks and Neil Simon. It was John Capouya's 2008 book, Gorgeous George: The Outrageous Bad-Boy Wrestler Who Created American Pop Culture, that Brockie drew material from.

“The title of the book is a big claim to make,” says Brockie, “but Gorgeous George influence3d Muhammed Ali and James Brown and even Bob Dylan in the way they presented themselves so theatrically.”

Fusing pro wrestling with comedy and theatre isn't a new idea. In it's UK heyday, characters such as Bradford hardman Les Kellett would have audiences in stitches with his prat-falling antics, with at least one televised match against Leon Arras, aka actor and playwright Brian Glover, boosted the ratings of World of Sport among a demographic who wanted entertainment rather than Saturday afternoon results services.

As the son of a masked wrestler called The Red Devil, Glover went on to appear at the National Theatre in Bill Bryden's production of The Mysteries, and knew enough about drama in the ring to put wrestling at the centre of his 1977 television play, The Wild Bunch. The opening stand-alone episode of a series called Send in the Girls, which focussed on a female sales promotion team led by Scots actress Annie Ross as Velma, The Wild Bunch featured real life wrestlers Kendo Nagasaki, Giant Haystacks and Glover himself in a gritty tale of difference and diversity in a reactionary environment.

On the Fringe, while ex WWE superstar Mick Foley sold out the Assembly Rooms two years ago with his stand-up act, back in 1998 actor Alex Lowe presented a one-man adaptation of The Wrestling, Simon Garfield's verbatim social history of the rise and fall of the UK scene. In the bar of the Traverse Theatre, meanwhile, a framed poster can be found for the new writing theatre's 1981 production of Claire Luckham's play, Trafford Tanzi.

Originally produced by Liverpool's Everyman Theatre as the equally localised Tuebrook Tanzi, Luckham's play was a kind of Educating Rita for the squared circle, as its eponymous heroine, played by original Shirley Valentine Noreen Kershaw, grappled with her partner, parents and rivals over several rounds in her struggle to become a female wrestler against all odds. With the cast trained by real life ladies champion Mitzi Mueller, Tuebrook Tanzi toured Liverpool pubs and clubs before being filmed by the BBC at Liverpool Stadium in front of the venue's regular Friday night wrestling crowd.

In London Tanzi was played by Toyah Wilcox, while on Broadway Blondie front-woman Debbie Harry stepped into Tanzi's leotard. Also in that production playing the referee was comedy legend and star of TV sit-com, Taxi, Andy Kaufman. This was fitting, as Kaufman had begun to wrestle women as part of his act, and proclaimed himself Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World. He employed performance artist Laurie Anderson as a stooge for a while, and later stage-managed a public feud with male wrestler Jerry 'The King' Lawler that saw the two men brawl on live TV on a 1982 edition of Late Night With David Letterman.

In 1968, American ballet dancer turned wrestler Ricki Starr appeared in The Touchables, playing a wrestler nameds Ricki alongside a trio of swinging ravers led by actress and Peter Cook's wife Judy Huxtable in possibly the grooviest movie ever made. Based on an idea by Donald Cammell, who would go on to make Performance with Mick Jagger, The Touchables' elaborate plot involving a kidnapped pop star was scripted by Ian La Fresnais. With writing partner Dick Clement, La Fresnais had already co-created classic sit-coms The Likely Lads and Porridge, the latter of which featuring Brian Glover in a supporting role, while the pair would go on to create Auf Wiedersehen Pet.

This comedy drama about a gang of migrant British labourers in Germany made stars of Jimmy Nail, Tim Healy and Timothy Spall, and also featured Christopher Fairbank, a key collaborator of theatrical maverick Ken Campbell, who briefly ran Liverpool's Everyman Theatre in 1980 having produced work there throughout the 1970s. Also in the Auf Wiedershen Pet cast was wrestler Pat Roach, whose character, Bomber, became a major character in the series.

More recently, Turner Prize winning artist Jeremy Deller made So Many Ways To Hurt You, a filmic study of British wrestler Adrian Street, whose camp image based in part on Gorgeous George made him a sensation in the 1960s and 1970s before he moved to America. Singer Luke Haines had already put a picture of Street posing in costume posing with his Welsh miner father in front of a mine-shaft on the cover of the debut album by his band, Black Box Recorder. In 2011, Haines released the self-explanatory concept album, 9 and a Half Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and early 80s.

While Micky Rourke's star turn in the film The Wrestler gave the wayward actor's career a boost, a less likely feature film is in development based on the life of Les Kellett. It isn't all about nostalgia, however.

“The simple fact is that wrestlers now are better than they've ever been,” according to Olesker. “The great thing about professional wrestling is it's a live event that's very physical with a lot of audience inter-action, with the audience registering their displeasure and so on. Comedians and a comedy crowd get that, because it's the same in their world. That's why it works. It's infectious. It's unique.”

An Audience with Gorgeous George, Clouds & Soil, Aug 8-18. 3.30-4.15pm. The Wrestling, Pleasance Grand, Aug 18, 11pm-1am.

The Herald, August 17th 2015


Alan Warner - Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour

The Sopranos were very much
on Vicky Featherstone and Lee Hall's minds when they bumped into each other at
an awards ceremony several years ago. Not HBO's much-lauded New Jersey-based
crime family saga that put patriarchal mobsters in the psychiatrist's chair
during its eight year run  between 1999 and 2007, but something which charted a
gang mentality much closer to home. Featherstone and Hall were actually
pondering Alan Warner's novel of the same name that was published a year before
the iconic TV show, and which the then artistic director of the National Theatre
of Scotland and the author of Billy Elliot thought might work well on the

Warner's book charts  the life in a day of a teenage female choir who
travel down from the nameless port where they live to a city not unlike
Edinburgh, where they are scheduled to take part in a choir competition. Once
let loose in the big city, the girls embark on a series of booze-fuelled
adventures that are by turns hysterical and heartbreaking.

“We'd both been
fans of the book from when it came out,“ Hall says, “and even then I thought it
would make a good play. When I bumped into Vicky, we got talking, and I said I
was surprised the National Theatre of Scotland had never done it, and she said
she really wanted to, and would I be interested in writing it.”

The eventual
result of all this is Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, Hall's newly named
adaptation of The Sopranos, which opens at the Traverse Theatre in a production
by Featherstone for the NTS this week. Having been initially unable to acquire
the rights to the book, once they did Featherstone and Hall went on a road trip
to Oban to try and capture some of the energy that fuelled Warner's
potty-mouthed creations.

“I recall sending them a list of the locations where
I imagined certain scenes occurring,” Warner says. “I wanted them to see the
setting in an atmospheric way rather than anything too literal. The Port is very
much a place of my imagination. It’s not a literal transference of Oban. It’s an
autonomous zone in my mind, but the small town setting is important, so I
basically just transposed a girl’s convent school to that Scottish location. I
wanted to show young women as they really are in my opinion, not as the church
or society, or even novelists would like them to be.”

The rights to The
Sopranos had been initially snapped up by film director Michael Caton-Jones, who
spent several years trying to put the book onscreen. With several scripts
drafted by writers including the late Alan Sharp and Warner himself, to date the
project appears to have been moth-balled by studios insisting on compromises
which Caton-Jones wasn't prepared to make. Somewhere along the way, however, in
Warner's eyes, at least, Caton-Jones' vision for The Sopranos pretty much
invented the concept for the high school based TV drama, Glee.

“Mike was the
first person to bring up the musical possibilities of the adaptation,” Warner
says. “I mean, why not? It is about a choir. It might seem obvious now, but in
2000 in the Merrion Hotel in Dublin, Mike and I had a huge conversation when he
spelled out a scenario where each character would sing and the film would fall
out of realism into a musical world. I thought it was a great idea. Sort of
Camelot meets Scottish dirty realism. Years later when I saw Glee on a cable
channel I was like, Wow!”

The roots of Warner's novel date back to when he
was living in Dublin, just before the mobile phone era.

“Phones have changed
everything for story telling,” Warner points out, “so the novel would be
completely different now just because of mobiles. For instance, those chapters
where all the girls get split up and go off on their own adventures and get lost
in the big city, that would be impossible now with mobiles. Every novel is of
its time, but you can only hope something lasting about us all is contained
within it.”

As far as any directly personal influences go, “My wife Hollie
Lisa and her buddies were in the choir at a state convent school in Ireland,” he
says, “and it was from them I first heard about some choral shenanigans. But it
was far more the concept that started off the novel rather than any specific
incidents, the idea of a girl gang of hell-raisers sealed into a pious choir.

“Young women in groups like that were and still are charged with huge energy
and lots of humour. I was never a guy who went about in big teams of lads, you
know, like twenty-two blokes going to Tenerife for a fortnight all with the same
coloured shorts. That’s a nightmare to me and probably the results in terms of a
novel with that are a bit obvious, spilled condoms and spilled pints. But young
women are more open about their feelings and a touch more introspective, and
often, might I say, more inventively bitchy rather than gruff and

Featherstone, who is now in charge of the Royal Court Theatre in
London, sees The Sopranos and Our Ladies as “a lament for the power of youth,
and how you'll never be that fearless again, and how you want to try everything
you can before life hits you, and there's something very poignant about that,
and the fact that they're a Catholic choir, there's something transcendent about
that as well. It feels quite sacred, even though these young women get caught up
in all these ridiculous situations. There are so many pitiful men in the book,
but these young women triumph. It makes you ask what they become after they've
had this moment of being in charge, and where are there lives going to

Warner revisited his unruly charges in his Booker prize listed 2010
novel, The Stars in the Bright Sky, which was set largely in Gatwick

“They were a bit older in that book, all about twenty-one,” Warner
says. “Of course, I am hugely fond of them all, and they still seem very much
around me. They are like a bunch of annoying little sisters who I secretly

With this in mind, might we yet see another return of his magnificent
girl group?

“I did have a terrifying concept of them attending a wedding on
the Isle of Mull that gets confused with a Boy Racer Rally going on
simultaneously,” he says. “The Sopranos versus the Boy Racers was my working
title in my notebook, sort of Alien versus Predator.  I left them in 2001 in
Gatwick, so if I jump ahead to say 2007, it would be interesting what was
happening with them all. Marriage, families, children. Status envy. Affairs.
Divorce. Maybe it’s time for a school reunion 2018,” he says, “smart phones and

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, Traverse Theatre, Aug 19-30, various
times, then on

The Herald, August 17th 2015

Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2015 Theatre Reviews 5 - Tonight With Donny Stixx – Pleasance - Four stars / Man To Man - Pleasance Courtyard - Four stars / The Deliverance - Assembly Roxy - Four stars

Edinburgh may be full of fame-hungry wannabes right now, though hopefully none are quite as out there as the boy magician in Tonight With Donny Stixx, Philip Ridley's latest assault on popular culture that provides a companion piece of sorts to his 2013 play, Dark Vanilla Jungle. Like that play, Donny Stixx is a solo, performed here with initial cheeky chappie charm by Sean Michael Verey in David Mercatelli's production for the Supporting Wall company.

Donny is doing a show. It's not the same sort of show he used to do at children's parties and old people's homes when he would do an excruciating magic act. He's got the attention he's always craved, but only because he took things too far and became a national hate figure.

Over a high-octane hour Verey lets the mask slip to reveal a kid on the edge, who attack anyone who dares question his precocious genius. It's furiously performed, with Verey's gradual unravelling going some way to explain the lack of emotional empathy that sees him lash out with such tragic consequences.

Verey attacks Ridley's impressive script with a close-up rage by Verey that makes you wonder just how far he can go without popping a vein in this powerful study of how a simple argument can turn into something far deadlier.

Runs until August 31st.

It's been almost thirty years since German playwright Manfred Karge's Man to Man was first seen in Edinburgh. Karge's portrait of Ella, a woman who adopted her dead crane driver husband Max's identity in order to survive was a kind of one-woman Mother Courage for modern times. This new production by Bruce Guthrie and Frantic Assembly's Scott Graham for the Wales Millennium Centre sharpens that even more in Alexandra Wood's new translation, which features a barely recognisable Margaret Ann Bain stuffing her trousers with vegetables as Ella shape-shift her way into Max's macho world.

Set against the steel-grey walls and bare floorboards of Richard Kent's set, here Ella / Max confesses her plight as she moves through history from Nazi Germany to the building of the Berlin Wall and beyond, learning to drink schnapps with the boys and warding off would-be suitors out of a necessity that ultimately leaves her alone. As she toughens up, so she saddens, losing one identity as she finds another.

It's a rivetingly bleak affair, with Bain looking increasingly like she's occupying a cell as her nightmares close in on her by way of projected shadow-play. Even her one moment of hope after the Wall comes down takes her down a blind alley, as Bain gives a remarkable performance in this haunting depiction of the pains of survival.

Runs until August 31

In the gloom of a Catholic church, a woman comes to make peace, both with her mother and her own past that has shaped her in The Deliverance, the third part of Quebecois writer Jennifer Tremblay's trilogy of one-woman plays presented by the Stellar Quines Theatre Company. Over the course of an hour, the woman attempts to purge away the hand-me-down baggage she's been carrying around with her since childhood in order to reconcile broken bonds.

The woman's tale of everyday estrangement began with Tremblay's previous two plays, The List and The Carousel, also produced by Stellar Quines. Under the guidance of director Muriel Romanes, Shelley Tepperman's translation transcends the ordinary to become something epic. This is especially so with the presence of actress Maureen Beattie, who has played the woman in all three plays with an astonishingly vibrant mix of vivacity, vulnerability and anger as she unleashes her angry prayer.

With the mood set from the off as the audience walk through the venue's corridor, this is an emotionally ferocious display, and with the opportunity there to see all three plays in one day, audiences should cherish this beautiful and merciful release.

Runs until August 31.

The Herald, August 17th 2015


Monday, 17 August 2015

Sorcha Groundsell - Stain

When Sorcha Groundsell stepped out onto the red carpet for the world premiere of Scott Graham's feature film, Iona, at the closing night gala for this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival, she posed for the paparazzi alongside the film's lead players Ruth Negga and Douglas Henshall like a veteran. In the film itself, Groundsell played a teenage girl who is carried around on her father's back after an accident left her paralysed below the knee. For a seventeen year old from Lewis like Groundsell, it was quite an arrival.

With another two short films already under her belt, Groundsell makes her professional stage debut during this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Stain, a new play in which Groundsell is onstage throughout Mark Westbrook's intense drama about a star pupil's relationship with her teacher after she doesn't quite make the grade.

“She's a very interesting one,” Groundsell says of her character in Stain. “There's nothing about her that isn't complex. She starts off very bright, very motivated, and has an amazing future ahead of her as a surgeon. Then she's given a 'C' in one of her exam papers, and goes on a downward spiral. That one mistake knocks her off course and she can't cope with it. Over eighteen months she does everything she can to get the grade changed, and goes from being about to go to medical school to working in a biscuit factory and having a criminal conviction, but she must have justice for what she sees as her teacher's mistake.”

For someone like Groundsell who isn't that long out of school herself, the play's subject is “a hot topic. As extreme as the play is, having lived through a similar sort of thing, and whether the education system is or isn't at fault, I can understand that sort of pressure, and I think it's really important to raise something like this. When I was still at school I'd already decided to do acting, so my future wasn't dependent on getting five 'A's, but for other people who might have wanted to go to university or medical school it was quite scary.”

As it turned out, Groundsell did get five 'A's, which she agreed with her parents to aim for before leaving school early to pursue an acting career.

“It was the beginning of fifth year when I told them,” Groundsell says. “They were a little bit reticent about it at first. As soon as you say to anyone you want to be an actor, that's when the judgement starts, but once they realised I was serious about it they've been really supportive.”

Groundsell's pathway to acting began when, aged nine, she moved with her family from Lewis to Glasgow, where she enrolled in children's drama classes at the Citizens Theatre.

“I didn't respond well to them at first,” she says, “because I was very shy, but then I started watching films. It was Casablanca that started the ball rolling, that and Disney films. There was something magical about them that slowly opened up your imagination, even though they're completely opposite to what I'm doing now, but it slowly dawned on me that this thing I was interested in was something I could make a career out of.”

Aged fourteen by this time, Groundsell was too young for drama school, and not really knowing where else to start, eventually convinced Westbrook and Tom Moriarty, his partner in Acting Coach Scotland, to take her on.

“I've learnt everything from them,” says Groundsell. “I was fifteen when I started, and suddenly found myself working with grown-up actors, but to find teachers like that willing to work with a blank canvas, which is what I was, was amazing.”

Stain began as a project at ACS, and with Westbrook directing Moriarty, who acts opposite Groundsell, the play is produced by the pair's Tartan Spartan company. It was through her involvement in ACS that Groundsell was cast in Iona, and she has now been picked up by agents Conway-Van Gelder-Grant, whose stable includes Benedict Cumberbatch and Jack O'Connell.

.Being cast in Iona was “very surreal,” Groundsell admits. “When I went into it I wasn't expecting anything to come out of it. I thought I'd have to wait something like ten years before getting a chance to do something like that, and I still get quite emotional about it.

“Iona is very like the Western Isles, so I felt I was in very safe hands up there. My character Sarah becomes a bit of a love interest for Iona's son, but because she's lost the use of her legs she has no real independence.”

Groundsell was singled out for a performance that one review described as 'heartbreaking.'

“Doing stuff like that is rare,” she says, “just to have something so complete as a female character. The more scripts I read now, the more I realise that things like that don't come around that often.”

As for the red carpet treatment, “it was weird, but lovely, and surprisingly easy to slip into, having to pose for photographs like that. You hear people complain about it, but it was great fun, and people telling you how good you are is always nice.”

Despite such deserved praise, Groundsell hasn't been carried away by all the attention.

“I want to be an actor, not a celebrity,” she says, “and if I it happens again that I end up on a red carpet then great, but if not then that's absolutely fine. I'm watching all of Jessica Lange's films just now, and of course there's part of me that wants to be doing big Hollywood films and win Oscars, but I just want to do interesting parts. I'm still learning, and anything that helps me with my craft is great. Of course, anytime I see anybody playing well in something even close to my age I want to do it. I wanna' play Juliet. I wanna' play St Joan. I wanna' play Medea – eventually. I wanna' do it all.

Stain, The Space @ Surgeon's Hall, Aug 7-8, 10-15, 17-22, 24-29, 2.05pm.


Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2015 Theatre Reviews 4 - An Oak Tree - Four stars / Swallow - Four stars / A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing - Four stars

Traverse Theatre
Suspension of disbelief is a wonderful thing. Just ask the woman in the Traverse Theatre audience for the opening performance of the tenth anniversary production of An Oak Tree, Tim Crouch's meditation on truth and artifice performed by Crouch and a different actor at every show. So convinced was the woman by Crouch's impersonation of a bad pub function room hypnotist asking for volunteers that she gamely stepped forward, despite Crouch having already pointed out that he was only pretending to be a hypnotist and on no account should they respond to his request.

In a way, this incident is a perfect illustration of what An Oak Tree is dealing with, and Crouch dealt with it beautifully before his actual foil, in this case actress Aoife Duffin, who is appearing elsewhere at the Traverse in the Corn Exchange's production of A Girl is A Half-formed Thing, stepped up from the audience having never seen the script of An Oak Tree until that moment.

The story that unravels concerns a man whose daughter was killed by the hypnotist, whose shambles of a show he attends and takes part in, making his identity known. With Crouch giving Duffin instructions throughout, the layer on layer of meta-realities Crouch conjures up puts flesh and blood on an idea that begins with make-believe but which transcends it to open the doors of perception beyond.

Runs until August 16

The three women in Swallow are a mess of emotional bits and pieces of one form or another. Rebecca's just been dumped by her long term partner, Sam is finding out exactly what gender she is, and Rebecca's upstairs neighbour Anna has cooped herself up indoors for two years, has smashed up all her mirrors and squats in her room like a bird.

Over the course of the next eighty minutes, Stef Smith's poetic treatise on love, pain and everything it takes to smash out all the badness shows the extreme measures that are sometimes required to take leap beyond yourself and remind yourself you're alive. Orla O'Loughlin's Traverse company production leaves its performers as exposed as the lines they're speaking on designer Fred Meller's minimalist set.

Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Sam, Anita Vettesse as Rebecca and Emily Wachter as Anna let rip with a set of fearless performances pulsed throughout with heart and soul. Although the three women only connect fleetingly in Smith's skewed narrative,, it's somehow enough of a connection for each to learn how to feel again in a beautifully composed call to arms for emotional outlaws to take on the world once more on their own gloriously messy terms.

Runs until August 30.

It's not easy getting through to the end of A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing, Annie Ryan's adaptation for her Corn Exchange company of Eimear McBride's novel. That's not because the solo performance by Aoife Duffin as a troubled young woman is anything less than stunning. It's just that this first person litany of a dysfunctional and doomed existence is so relentless that it's at times almost too hard to bear.

Yet, as Duffin stands on a stark and unadorned stage, her rolling, self-destructive poetry becomes a touching display of a fragmented life told without any fuss or hysteria, but with a resignation made all the more harrowing by its understatement as it unveils a devastating life. The wilful minimalism of Ryan's production is unflinching, but it is Duffin's performance as the girl that is most extraordinary of all in a fearless display of back-street tragedy rendered as something that transfixes even as it leaves you despairing for the young girl's fate.

Runs until August 30.

The Herald, August 17th 2015


Sunday, 16 August 2015


Royal Lyceum Theatre
Four stars

There are fewer than ten words spoken in Vox Motus theatre company's resplendent evocation of the effects of grief after a young boy loses his mother. When they come, they're as magnificently mono-syllabic as any teenager finding their voice. There is plenty of sound and vision beyond this in the company's collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland and the Tianjin Children's Art Theatre of China, as clouds hang heavy over the stage, rumbling lowly before bursting into full-on thunderclaps as young Tommy tries to sleep.

When a street light turns into a dragon outside his window inbetween watching his ailing mother die, these mythical creatures soon start turning up everywhere, egging Tommy on like some invisible friend as he takes on the bullies at school and in the local swing-park where a girl shows him magic tricks. As Tommy's anger and confusion looks set to get the better of him, the dragons are always on his back, so at times the coupling resembles a fierier and more existentially troubled Calvin and Hobbes. And those dragons just keep on getting bigger.

First seen in 2013 when it toured internationally, Jamie Harrison and Candice Edmunds' production of Oliver Emanuel's near wordless script is a feat of theatrical alchemy, in which the seven-strong ensemble navigate Harrison and Guy Bishop's puppets through a busy graphic novel style world. This is illuminated by Simon Wilkinson's lighting and pulsed by composer Tim Phillips' score and Mark Melville's sound design. Beyond this, and with autumn dates in Glasgow and Dundee to follow the show's Edinburgh International Festival run, what matters is its emotional heart, as Tommy's growing pains finally lays his demons to rest.

The Herald, August 17th 2015


Friday, 14 August 2015


Edinburgh International Conference Centre
Five stars

The last time Quebecois theatrical powerhouse Robert Lepage came to Edinburgh two decades ago, his mesmeric mix of hi-tech visual poetry and story-telling was stopped in its tracks by technical hitches. As his astonishing overdue return makes clear in this European premiere by Lepage's Ex Machina company, technology has finally caught up with this ingenious renaissance man who has long been ahead of his time.

The past isn't always what it seems, however, as Lepage begins his two and a bit hours onstage with an anecdote about how the onset of iPhone culture has left him barely able to remember his own number, yet he is still able to recall events in his childhood growing up in Quebec City almost half a century ago. The catalyst for this was being asked to recite a poem to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of seismic events in Quebec's volatile Francophone history that provoked an angry plea for self-determination.

From this we're led by Lepage into his boyhood apartment block, onto the streets of Quebec, and into his latter-day home where he oversees his impressions of his personal history while coming to terms with the collective legacy of a nation in search of itself. Using a dazzling array of models and projections set up on a TARDIS-like revolving construction, what evolves is part auto-biography, part elegy for a mythologised collective past, and part call to arms. Lepage both preserves that past that defined him, and, in a world where no-one with a taxi driver father like him is able to study theatre anymore, pleas for change in this most quietly revolutionary and beguiling of experiences.

The Herald, August 14th 2015


Dragon and Paul Bright's Confessions of a Justified Sinner Revived - Edinburgh International Festival 2015

One of the many striking things about incoming Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan's inaugural programme has been its recognition that home-grown work more than deserves a place alongside names perhaps more familiar from the international festival circuit. It's not that Scottish work hasn't been seen at EIF. Far from it. It's just that much of the time the works presented thus far have been brand new, untested and, limited by short rehearsal periods, regarded by some as being not quite ready. The result of this is that an EIF commission has sometimes looked like something of a poisoned chalice.

Both Paul Bright's Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Dragon, however, have already proved their mettle on an international stage prior to their respective EIF dates this week. The former is an ingenious construction by director and designer Stewart Laing's Untitled Projects company which on the face of it looks tied to its Glasgow roots in away that one might think wouldn't travel. The latter is a dark and near wordless piece for young people created by Vox Motus directors Jamie Harrison and Candice Edmunds, and which somewhat conversely to Paul Bright looked tailor made for global success from the off.

With both shows co-produced with the National Theatre of Scotland, Paul Bright was also supported by Tramway in Glasgow where it opened during its initial outing in 2013, and Summerhall in Edinburgh. On the face of it, the play is a monologue written by Pamela Carter which excavates the tale of a firebrand theatre director in unreconstructed 1980s Glasgow. George Anton's solo performance may be at the show's heart, but it is the accompanying mix of film footage and meticulously observed artefacts displayed in the show's exhibition and made by artists Robbie Thompson, Jack Wrigley and others that tap into the city's radical past so vividly.

Despite it's seeming localism, Paul Bright has played at theatre festivals in Sweden and Ireland, and now effectively comes home to the Queen's Hall, the venue where the show's eponymous subject is said to have presented his ill-fated stage version of James Hogg's iconic novel, Confessions of A Justified Sinner.

“It feels like the right place to be,” says Laing. “It was Fergus' suggestion that we do it in the Queen's Hall, and it's not going to be an easy place to do it because of all the concerts that are going to be on there in the daytime, but it's very exciting.”

Dragon, which was made with Tianjin People's Arts Theatre in China, is an equally ambitious project, a near wordless fantasia written by Oliver Emanuel in which physical theatre, puppetry and music by composer Tim Phillips combine to chart a young boy's life following the death of his mother.

“Dragon was always designed to be a touring production,” says Harrison. “We made it here in Scotland, and the thought that a play without words might travel had crossed our minds, but it wasn't the initial impetus.”

While Vox Motus are still a relatively young company, Edmunds points out that “Dragon was the biggest thing we'd done, and we're very at home with that. The piece had been developed over a long time with the NTS and our Chinese partners, and the level of care and investment put into it felt right.”

While it played successfully in Scotland with a mix of Scots and Chinese performers, it was always the plan that Dragon would be restaged in China.

“It was amazing,” says Harrison. “We made it here, but there was a whole new production made over there with a totally Chinese cast.”

While the new cast had to come to terms with what they saw as Tommy, the hero of the play, being disrespectful to his mother, the Chinese version of the play also necessitated the rebuilding of the puppets.

“We had to accept we were in a very dragon-centric culture,” says Harrison, “and that what looked sleek to us, to them looked like long maggots.”

As Edmunds puts it, “Taking a dragon to China was a bit like taking coals to Newcastle.”

Paul Bright's Confessions too has evolved the more it has travelled.

“It's been something of a slow-burner,” says Laing. “The first time we did it, in terms of ticket sales it wasn't a popular show, but people who saw it got something out of it, and there ended up being a bit of a buzz around it. Then by the time we got to Dublin there was a real buzz and it sold out. It's almost as if the show was dictating to us.

“One of the things that concerned me about doing it in Dublin was the Scottishness of it and the Protestant culture that the original novel was steeped in, but as it turned out that wasn't a problem. They absolutely got it. In Sweden they got it as well, but they got it on a different level because it's so wordy.”

The EIF dates for Paul Bright's Confessions of A Justified Sinner and Dragon come at very interesting times for both Laing and Vox Motus. Creative Scotland's rejection of Untitled Projects for regular three-year funding – a decision taken after Paul Bright was already confirmed for the Queen's Hall – has effectively left the company in a limbo from which it is unclear whether it will recover.

“The company is still there as an idea,” says Laing, “but I'm not sure what's going to happen next.”

While Laing isn't short of work as a designer of note, Paul Bright's EIF run could ideally be used as a platform for more international dates.

Vox Motus, meanwhile, are currently working with unnamed commercial producers on a major project which should see the light of day in 2017, and currently don't feel it appropriate to apply for public funding at all. In terms of the future of Dragon, Edmunds and Harrison are already looking beyond EIF.

“We've already had lots of interest,” says Edmunds, “and hopefully this is just the start of Dragon having a much larger international life.”

Dragon, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Aug 14-15, 7pm, Aug 15, 2pm, Aug 16, 12 noon and 4pm. Paul Bright's Confessions of a Justified Sinner, The Queen's Hall, Aug 19-22, 8pm, Aug 22, 4pm.

The Herald, August 14th 2015