Monday, 29 June 2015

A Little Night Music

Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Four stars

It's not hard to see the appeal of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's musical waltz through the mating game that so captivated Broadway on its 1973 debut. From teenage dreams to mid-life crises and beyond, it is sex that drives its action, after all. It may be set in 1900 Sweden, but it remains a text-book study of a neurotically self-absorbed generation coming to terms with the trickle-down possibilities the sixties brought in its wake. This much is clear from John Durnin's stately revival, beyond the chocolate box veneer of Charles Cusick Smith's set which puts the full compliment of Pitlochry's acting ensemble into the frame. All this with great songs to boot.

This is laid bare once the dressed-up chorus gathered round a baby grand give way to the play's principal players, who let off steam with the opening salvo of Now, Later and Soon, as the frustrations of middle-aged lawyer Fredric Egerman, his teenage virgin bride Anne and his horny but hapless adolescent son Henrik are unleashed. With Fredrik's old flame, actress Desiree Armfeldt, still burning, a country house party allows full vent for the emotional merry-go-round to work its magic.

As Fredrik and Desiree, Dougal Lee and Basienka Blake strike just the right balance of desperation and hope, with Blake in fine voice for a still show-stopping Send in the Clowns. With all the cast wielding instruments alongside musical director Jon Beales' live quartet, there is strong support too from Ceri-lyn Cissone as Anne, Gavin Swift as Henrik and especially from Isla Carter as worldly wise maid Petra in a pan-generational pot-pourri of innocence and experience that fuels this most grown-up of musicals.

The Herald, June 30th 2015

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Elizabeth MacLennan Obituary

Elizabeth MacLennan

Actress

Born March 16th 1938; died June 23rd 2015.


Elizabeth MacLennan, who has died aged 77 following a short illness, was an actress of great passion, whose presence on stage and screen demanded attention. As one of the co-founders with John McGrath and her youngest brother David MacLennan of 7:84 Theatre Company, who blazed a trail touring the Highlands in the now seminal 1973 production of The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil, she was also at the vanguard of a theatrical revolution. The resonances of this are currently influencing a brand new generation of politicised theatre-makers in the face of the business of bad government.

In partnership with her life-long personal and professional comrade and soul-mate McGrath, MacLennan was at the forefront of applying traditional art-forms to make serious political and theatrical points that created a new form of ceilidh theatre. With McGrath and MacLennan serving as each other's inspiration, MacLennan appeared in many of 7:84's defining works, many written or directed by McGrath. As well as The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil, MacLennan took the lead in Little Red Hen, Men Should Weep and Blood Red Roses, reviving her role in the latter in a three-part TV version of the play produced by McGrath's Freeway Films for Channel 4.

Of Men Should Weep, Nadine Holdsworth recounts in The Cambridge History of British Theatre Volume 3, how, following a run of 7:84's revival of Ena Lamont Stewart's then largely forgotten masterpiece at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow as part of 7:84's Clydebuilt season of neglected working-class plays, it was performed at a benefit show for striking NHS workers. After the show, MacLennan, who had played Maggie, the heroic tenement matriarch attempting to keep a family together in the thick of the 1930s depression, made a speech appealing to the audience to learn from history and unite behind the Labour movement.

Holdsworth quotes MacLennan saying that “it is well to remember that the advances in Health and Welfare – albeit inadequate – that have been achieved since the Thirties were due to the unremitting and successful struggle of the Labour Movement...Today's vicious Tory government is intent on dismantling all that...We will not accept this...We will not go back to the 1930s.”

More than thirty years on, the face of the Labour movement may have shifted, but, coming from a doctor's daughter like MacLennan, her argument remains as vital today as it did then.

Elizabeth Margaret Ross MacLennan was born in Glasgow, one of four children to Hector, an eminent gynaecologist, and Isobel, a leading obstetrician. MacLennan grew up in Glasgow and in the Highlands, where the family spent their summers in Rogart in Sutherland. She studied music, then read Modern History at Oxford University. It was here she met John McGrath, and the couple were together thereafter, marrying in 1962.

While her siblings Robert and Kenneth moved into politics and business, with her brother Robert going on to become leader of the SDP while her other brother Kenneth became a successful businessman, MacLennan went on to train as an actor at LAMDA (The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts). They were heady days for a generation exploring new freedoms through the performing arts, and as they became successful in their respective fields, MacLennan and McGrath cut a glamorous and fiercely intelligent dash through the worlds of film, theatre and TV.

Onstage, MacLennan played Molly Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses, Little Boxes, and in Chekhov's The Three Sisters on the West End. On television she appeared in Z-Cars, the pioneeringly realistic police drama which McGrath had co-created, as well as guest roles in Dr Finlay's Casebook, a TV production of Sir Walter Scott's The Heart of Midlothian and assorted one-off roles in the Armchair Theatre, Play of the Week, Television Playhouse and Thursday Theatre strands. By the time MacLennan made a cameo appearance in Hammer's 1971 film, Hands of the Ripper, however, 7:84 had already begun its move away from mainstream theatre.

Founded initially in England following the Birkenhead born McGrath's experiences as a writer at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre, 7:84, which took its name from a 1966 statistic published in The Economist that pointed out how 7% of the UK's population owned 84% of its wealth (a figure much narrower now), produced accessible agit-prop theatre that fused music, text and polemic. The company's first production, Trees in the Wind, played the 1971 Edinburgh Festival Fringe at Cranston Street Hall before going on a tour that would set the tone of things to come.

In 1973, and with a counter-cultural alternative theatre scene in full bloom, 7:84 split into England and Scotland-based companies. In Scotland, MacLennan appeared in The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil alongside the likes of John Bett, Alex Norton and Bill Paterson in a now legendary Highland charge of village halls. It was the beginning of a twenty-five year adventure that took MacLennan and McGrath across Britain, Ireland, Europe and Canada, and from the Outer Hebrides to Tblisi and Cape Breton, often with children Finn, born in 1966, Danny in 1968 and later Kate in 1979, in tow.

The spirit of The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil was captured on film by John Mackenzie for Play For Today. This BBC strand was more associated with gritty realism, but here the audience could be seen watching the performance in a way that stayed true to 7:84's rough Brechtian aesthetic.

As well as Little Red Hen (1975), Blood Red Roses (1980) and Lamont Stewart's Men Should Weep (1982), MacLennan performed in The Baby and the Bathwater (1984), the first of several solo pieces by McGrath. With the political tide turning as Thatcherism dominated 1980s Westminster, the then Scottish Arts Council effectively left McGrath and MacLennan with little choice but to remove themselves from the company they had founded.

With Freeway Films, McGrath directed MacLennan in TV versions of Blood Red Roses (1986) and There is A Happy Land (1987), and MacLennan charted her experiences with 7:84 in The Moon Belongs To Everyone: Making Theatre With 7:84 (Methuen, 1990), a volume as significant as McGrath's own two books, A Good Night Out and The Bone Won't Break.

With Freeway Stage, MacLennan appeared in several 'solo epics' by McGrath; Watching For Dolphins (1991); Reading Rigoberta (1994); The Last of the MacEachans (1996) and HyperLynx (2001/2), McGrath's final play before his death in 2002. MacLennan's own play, Wild Raspberries (2002), ushered in an era that saw her explore her own writing. With her first grand-child born in 2003, these included a children's book, Ellie and Granny Mac (Walker, 2009), translated into French as Eliza et ses deux grand-mères, and most recently a collection of poetry, The Fish That Winked (Live Canon, 2013).

MacLennan's death comes a year after the passing of her brother, David,who had diverted from 7:84 early on to start up Wildcat Stage Productions before going on to found A Play, A Pie and A Pint's ongoing strand of lunchtime theatre at Glasgow's Oran Mor venue. With MacLennan and McGrath's daughter Kate now a cutting-edge theatre producer of note, the dynasty looks set to continue.

MacLennan spent her final years in London, where she cherished her growing tribe of grand-children inbetween spending lots of happy times in Greece and the Highlands. The importance of how family and work influenced each other was demonstrated in 2010 when MacLennan reunited with the surviving alumni of The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Oil for an event at the National Library of Scotland. The event was part of Curtain UP!, an exhibition celebrating forty years of Scottish theatre. One of the key exhibits was the original pop-up book set for the first tour of The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black Black Oil.

This large-scale construction not only allowed for multiple scene changes, but was portable enough to carry around in the back of a transit van. It was when MacLennan pulled out its inspiration, an actual pop-up book of Pinocchio, however, that the roots of her art, and any people's art, were fully revealed. As she wrote in The Moon Belongs To Everyone, 'If a society destroys its artists it destroys itself. They are reflecting the hopes and fears of our children.'

MacLennan will be cremated at Putney Vale Crematorium in London on July 26, and her ashes buried with John McGrath's at St Callan's in Rogart, Sutherland.

MacLennan is survived by her brothers Robert and Kenneth, her sons Finn and Danny, daughter Kate and seven grand-children.

The Herald, June 29th 2015

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Love's Labour's Lost

Botanic Gardens, Glasgow
Four stars

The hunt is on in the first offering from this year's Bard in the Botanics season of outdoor Shakespeares, with one of his lesser spotted rom-coms leading the charge. Gordon Barr's promenade production opens with Constable Dull cast as a red-neck parkie navigating the audience up hill and down dale. Here King Ferdinand of Navarre and his preppy band of brothers sport donnish gowns to make lofty proclamations of abstinence for three full years while they get themselves some qualifications.

When the fair maids of France come calling necking airline miniatures and with their smalls hanging out to dry, the rugby shirts go on but the gloves are off as temptation looks like getting the better of the stags if not the hens. Throw in Kirk Bage's Daliesque Spanish rogue Don Andriano and a couple of chavvy servants and it looks like the casts of Made in Chelsea and Geordie Shore have been rounded up and cast incongruously adrift on Love Island.

Despite the frivolity, there's depth to Barr's production which taps into the play's complex treatise on the fragile forces of true love in a place where macho gestures simply aren't enough. This is seen especially in the intellectual kiss-chase between Ferdinand's cynical sidekick Berowne and The Princess's soul sister Rosaline, played with intelligence and wit by James Ronan and Nicole Cooper.

As the bad tidings at the end of the play upends the merriment in favour of pathos, the song and dance finale that follows may be a cop-out, but it still suggests it's only right for those involved to take time out enough to grow a pair in this winningly difficult affair.

The Herald, June 29th 2015

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Frantic Romantics - Alan McCredie, The Shrimptons and How Brit-Pop Lost Owt

In the early 1990s, Baggy may have been on the verge of morphing into Brit-Pop, but in Edinburgh's bohemian Stockbridge district, something was stirring in the form of what can now be seen as a missing link that had absolutely nothing to do with either of those era defining musical movements. Nor indeed would it.

Weaving together a mish-mash of musical incongruity that defied both style and substance, The Shrimptons burst onto St Stephen Street, where Velvet Underground vocalist Nico had once held court and where Punk Rock's luminaries once played, to massive indifference. Like all prophets in their own land, however, The Shrimptons were both ahead of and seriously behind the times.

In a parallel universe, and with something resembling decent management instead of the shifty, dole queue lowlifes who attached themselves to the band, bumming drinks and favours off anyone who'd have them along the way, they could have been contenders. As it is, all that is left of the Shrimptons are a couple of hard-to-find cassettes (yes, really), including the seminal (and indeed gents toilet vending machine referencing) Packet of Three, and, for those in the know, a few hazy memories of nights spent chatting at the bar to their mates or else trying to get off with posh student girls while the band were actually playing.

From their name, one might have expected The Shrimptons to be led by a groovily bouffanted chanteuse in full possession of a retro chic mini skirt and pin-up good looks. In actual fact, with a line-up that included a couple of fly-by-night actors on vocals and a rhythm guitar that barely got through a song without its strings being hammered into submission, a public schoolboy drummer, a pair of hippy types on keyboards and percussion, and an actual real live proper musician on bass guitar, the nearest thing The Shrimptons had to a girl was lead guitarist and songwriter, Alan McCredie.

With a Prince Valiant style Bob of curly dark hair reaching his shoulders and sporting an ever-present pair of hip-hugging white jeans that topped off a look that cried out for unisex toilets, McCredie was androgyny in action (or inaction, most likely). Onstage, McCredie flaunted his fop-like sartorial sense of adventure in a way that hadn't been seen since Mick Jagger wore his mum's blouse at the Rolling Stones Hyde Park concert in 1969. Like Jagger, McCredie had the moves, wiggling about like someone had slipped a nest of ants into his necessarily tiny undercrackers, while his floppy hair shook in the strobe lighting like he'd just discovered the word 'grunge' without anyone actually telling him what it meant.

An insight into McCredie's status as a musical guru came when a then unknown Oasis played Edinburgh for the first time at the tiny Wilkie House venue on the Cowgate, an area that was home turf for the Shrimptons and the place where most of their back catalogue was forged over yet another desperate Saturday night. Here, however, was a band already being talked up by Creation Records svengali Alan McGee as the best band in the world muscling in on the Shrimptons territory. But, you know, what did he know about music?

What to do? The answer came in the form of long lost Greenock band Whiteout, whose cheeky brand of laddish pop had seen them supporting this new Oasis group on tour. For some reason best known to Oasis' so-called manager McGee, however, in Edinburgh the bands played in separate venues. On the same night.

“Oasis sound shit,” said the Shrimptons guitarist. “Let's go and see Whiteout instead. We've seen them before and they're lush.”

Having turned his back on the chance to rub shoulders with the future messiahs of Brit-Pop, McCredie's cult status as a legend in his own bathroom mirror was guaranteed. Nights at Moray House and a Stockbridge Festival appearance showed the world that the Shrimptons could more than hold their own with a whole lot of other local bands you've never heard of, and songs like Frantic Romantics became instantly forgettable pop classics.

Following the Oasis incident, however, the Shrimptons were toughening up, and while their finest moment had yet to come, when it did, it proved so controversial, so near the knuckle, and so downright taboo-busting that it was destined to be swept under the carpet and never unleashed onto a musically and morally moribund world.

As a song, Laura's Satchel may have been shot through with The Shrimptons trademark feelgood chirpiness that bordered on teeth-grating, but lyrically it was mining something more profound in a way that cleverly counterpointed its simple, gossamer-light structure.

Here was a Play For Today in miniature, a tale of chance meetings, unrequited yearning and forbidden fruit that crossed generations, even as the song's protagonists – the waif-like Laura and the more comically worldly if increasingly desperate and, oh, alright, then, downright pathetic figure of Captain Mersey – were destined to only ever meet once.

Laura's Satchel was rumoured to be based on a real-life incident involving the band's sponging wastrel of a manager, and which may or may not have occurred one Friday night in the summer of '92 in long lost Cowgate pub the Green Tree, later on beside the piano in the former Traverse Theatre bar in the Grassmarket and maybe, just maybe up a nearby close, though due to legal reasons I don't honestly recall, Your Honour.

The song may have referenced Vladimir Nabokov's novel, Lolita, but it also nestled dangerously alongside others based on similar themes. Gary Puckett and the Union Gap's Young Girl, Don't Stand so Close To Me by the Police, Mary of the Fourth Form by the Boomtown Rats and little known Eddie and the Hot Rods B-side, Schoolgirl Love, were all in the mix.

Where McCredie's opus might have gone on to become a cult crossover classic, instead, like all of those songs mentioned which have been mysteriously airbrushed from pop history, Laura's Satchel has languished in obscurity. Until now, that is. Maybe the moment is right for those with curious ears to listen to both Laura's Satchel and indeed the Shrimptons entire canon, without prejudice. Well, not too much, anyway.

Proving themselves even more provocative, The Shrimptons were yet again ahead of the pack when, with the zeal of admittedly slightly confused converts and their recently discovered sense of political commitment in a divided nation still reeling from the onslaught of Thatcherism, they played a show advertised as 'Say No To Westminster With The Shrimptons.'

For the die-hard fans who had lapped up the band's mix of pop bubblegum glory days as a stray cat might with curdled milk beside a puddle until they were sick, such flag-waving revolutionary antics were a step too far.

A lacklustre benefit show for a radical feminist children's theatre company at Edinburgh College of Art's Wee Red Bar, however, spelt out the beginning of the end when, during an inexplicable encore, the aforementioned free-loading excuse for a manager stopped trying to get girls to notice him for a minute to display an all too rare insight into the state of his charges by loudly pointing out how “You don't deserve it.”

As art school rock n roll legends go, such out and out moaning minnyness was on a par with The Who's iconic lynchpin Pete Townshend – an obvious role-model for McCredie – when he appropriated Gustav Metzger's theory of auto-destructive art by smashing up his guitar mid-set. If only Townshend had McCredie's girly hair and a pair of white jeans instead of an industrial size coke habit, he too might have become the voice of a generation, even if that generation had either all gone home for the weekend or were in the pub.

Edinburgh will never forget Alan McCredie and the Shrimptons. Even if they did get the dates mixed up and went somewhere else instead. Yet for McCredie, a cross-dressing myth-maker in excelsis, history has spoken far far more than his songs ever did. Notwithstanding some inevitable wedding reception reunion, it might be best to keep it that way, lest the legacy become tarnished forever.

Written for a fanzine, produced and edited by Daniel Gray, on the occasion of Jenny Ryan and Alan McCredie's wedding on June 27th 2015, this was penned by some chancer calling himself Group Captain Leon O'Price III (nee Mersey). Everything here is true.

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Edinburgh festivals 2015 highlights

Paul Bright's Confessions of A Justified Sinner

When Stewart Laing's Untitled Projects, who were recently turned down by Creative Scotland for Regular Funding, brought this meticulously observed show to the stage in 2013, it ostensibly told the tale of a radical young theatre director who staged a production of James Hogg's novel, Confessions of A Justified Sinner, in the 1980s before vanishing from an increasingly safe artistic scene. In actual fact, its mix of film footage, archive material and a performance by actor George Anton tapped into a hidden history of underground theatre-making in Scotland that reclaimed it in the most playfully inventive of manners. Already acclaimed internationally, Paul Bright has now been picked up by the Edinburgh International Festival for dates in the Queen's Hall, a venue integral to Anton's story.
Edinburgh International Festival, Queens Hall, August 19th-22nd


Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour

When Alan Warner's Saltire Society-winning novel, The Sopranos, appeared in 1998, it was one of the funniest, most potty-mouthed and ultimately tragic stories to come from any of the 1990s wave of writers. Following the adventures of a teenage schoolgirl choir from Oban over one day in Edinburgh, a film adaptation was mooted for several years, but has yet to appear. In light of a certain iconic TV show, this new stage version presented by the National Theatre of Scotland has seen Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall rename Warner's story for a production that marks former NTS artistic director Vicky Featherstone, now in charge of the Royal Court in London, return to the company for a play with music for a look at the lives of six devil-may-care young women on the verge of change.
Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Traverse Theatre, August 18th-30th, then on tour to Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness, Kirkcaldy, Musselburgh and Newcastle.


Viv Albertine with Ian Rankin – Words and Music: Memoirs of A Punk Rocker

The first time Viv Albertine came to Edinburgh was when she was the guitarist with The Slits, the all-female punk band who, along with Subway Sect, Buzzcocks and The Jam, supported The Clash at the Edinburgh Playhouse date of the headliners May 1977 White Riot tour which kick-started auld Reekie's own music scene into life. When her book, Clothes, Music, Boys, appeared, it may have charted that period with guileless candour, but it also told how Albertine dropped out of music completely for a life of domestic bliss before returning with equally warts and all album, The Vermilion Border. Albertine talks about all this and more in conversation with crime writing music fan Ian Rankin.
Edinburgh International Book Festival, August 23rd.


Tadeusz Kantor Inbetween Structures

Polish theatre director Tadeusz Kantor and his Cricot 2 company key figures of late twentieth century theatre and art. As was often the way of things in the 1960s and 1970s, Kantor was first brought to Edinburgh's attention by Richard Demarco, as a famous image of Kantor performing at Forest Hill Poorhouse in front of an audience who included a moustachioed Sean Connery makes clear. On the 100th anniversary of Kantor's birth, the Polish Institute and curator Dr Marc Glode look at the intersection between Kantor's performance and visual art work through assorted paintings, drawings, collages, gouaches,and photographs. At the show's centre, however is Attention....Painting!, a rarely seen film that won the prize for experimental film at the 1958 Venice Film Festival, and which here shows a master of what we now call cross-artform or intermedia practices, but which then saw Kantor blaze a trail as a maverick polymath in a show that follows its Edinburgh run with dates in Germany at the Polish Institute for Berlin Art.
Summerhall, August 5th-September 4th.

Bella Caledonia, June 2015

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Thursday, 25 June 2015

The Lady in the Van

Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Four stars

If the former World War Two ambulance driver who camped out in a yellow-painted Humber in Alan Bennett's Camden garden for fifteen years until her death in 1989 had been around today, chances are she would have been carted off a lot earlier than she is in Bennett's quasi-autobiographical look at truth, artifice and how we care for each other.

The woman Bennett knew as Miss Shepherd arrives in the neighbourhood at the fag-end of the sixties like a leftover from the Bloomsbury set by way of the squatters paradise of alternative London. With Bennett represented by two actors, both facets of his split personality collect people's personal tics as material, even as he divides his time between his ageing mother and this other psychologically bombed-out presence who defines him.

Led by strong central performances by Jacqueline Dutoit as Miss Shepherd and Mark Elstob and Ronnie Simon as the two Bennetts, Patrick Sandford's production goes beyond its initial comic warmth to recall a time when people like Miss Shepherd were at the very least indulged, and in districts like Camden accepted as part and parcel of a once colourful but now gentrified social fabric. The latter is shown through Bennett's neighbours, who start the play as a couple of aspirational groovers and end it as Barbour-clad toffs.

Punctuated by explosions of increasingly surreal life, the play is also an often unflattering self-analysis. The Bennetts resemble Gilbert and George as possessed by a pair of Yorkshire-sired Jiminy Crickets, each reining the other in lest their emotional guards come down in a gently daring expose that flits between life, art and the selfish demands of both.

The Herald, July 26th 2015

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Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Jerry Mitchell - Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Jerry Mitchell had never watched the film of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels when he was asked to choreograph David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane's stage musical of the Frank Oz directed 1988 big screen vehicle for Michael Caine and Steve Martin. That was back in 2004, and by the following year the American born dancer turned director and choreographer was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Choreography on the show's original Broadway production, which ran for some 626 performances.

A decade on, and Mitchell revisited the show for a UK production which he both directed and choreographed on the West End. With the production being nominated for an Olivier Award, again for Best Choreography, Mitchell jetted in to London in April to attend the award ceremony in-between overseeing rehearsals for a touring version that arrives in Glasgow tonight prior to dates in Aberdeen and Edinburgh.

Oz's original caper movie about a couple of middle-aged con artists competing to scam wealthy women on the French Riviera may not have looked like an obvious choice for a hit musical when it first appeared, but since he saw it Mitchell has become a life-long fan.

“I laughed my ass off when I saw the movie,” he says now on a brief break during his whistle-stop London visit,. “I'd worked with Frank Oz, and the movie of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was so funny, so I had a blast the first time I worked on it, and to go back to it and rework it for the West End and on tour like this is a joy. The West End production came about after I'd done Legally Blonde here, and I formed a company with Ambassador Theatre Group to help start and promote new musicals. Although I'd never done Dirty Rotten Scoundrels here, I loved it so much that I thought the humour would work better here than it did in America, and here we are.”

With the original London cast of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels featuring the likes of Robert Lindsay and Rufus Hound, Mitchell is full of praise for his current company. This includes former Robin of Sherwood star Michael Praed, ex member of TV reality show created pop band, Hear'Say, Noel Sullivan, and former Hollyoaks starlet Carly Stenson. Also in the cast is Waterloo Road star Mark Benton, with Gary Wilmot stepping in for the Edinburgh dates in September.

“Carly is so beautiful,” Mitchell says, “and she plays that mature cool so well. She also sings beautifully. Noel I was already a big fan of, and I'm even more so now. When Michael first came in to see me he sang Love Sneaks In, and out of all the great men who played that part, nobody delivered it better. Mark auditioned for the West End production, and I already knew him from Hairspray, so it's all worked out great.”

Mitchell may not have initially been au fait with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels a decade a go, but he had worked with the film's director before when he choreographed Oz's 1997 feature film, In and Out. Other film work includes choreographing Al Pacino in Scent of A Woman, and directing a TV movie of Legally Blonde: The Musical.

Having worked on stage versions of other hit movies including Hairspray and The Full Monty – both originally directed by Jack O'Brien, who also looked after the first production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels - as well as directing Legally Blonde: The Musical and this current take on Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Mitchell has become something of a go-to guy for such big-scale song and dance shows. He won a Tony for Cindi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein's take on Kinky Boots, which he has also just directed in the West End.

While far from blasé about his shelf-full of awards, Mitchell is also pragmatic about how they sometimes work.
 
“This is the third or fourth time I've been nominated,” Mitchell says “and I do have one Olivier Award for my production of Legally Blonde, so I don't expect to win this time, but it's still great to be nominated, even though its kind of weird to be nominated alongside my peers for something completely different.”

Mitchell's early career saw him dance in several Broadway shows before receiving his first professional production credit in the 1990 musical of Jekyll and Hyde. He followed this with a revival of the Peanuts-based musical, You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown, before really hitting the big time with his work over the last decade that has also seen him direct and choreograph shows in Las Vegas, as well as becoming a mentor on dance-based TV reality shows.

Returning to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Mitchell has kept the essence of the show, even as he has tweaked it slightly for a UK audience.

“There's a real immediacy to this show that I love,” he says, “and I try to put that into an audience's lap in the same way I did with Hairspray, and the same way I did with Legally Blonde and the same way I did with Kinky Boots. With this show as well, the music is so great, and the comedy works so well that it can't help but be immediate.”

Hearing him talk like this, it is clear that Mitchell's unabashed enthusiasm for both Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and his work beyond it remains undimmed.

“I do this because I love the work,” he says, “whether it's in the West End or on Broadway. I love the community it creates, and anything else is icing on the cake.”

After almost forty years in the business, he sees the value too in these times of austerity of something which, for all its glamour and glitz, is in effect a Robin Hood style story

“In today's world,” says Mitchell, “I think Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a chance to go to the theatre to be totally entertained, and instead of everything else that's going on, we have this chance to have a wonderfully romantic evening. In that way I think musical comedy is a wonderful respite from what's going on in this world.”

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, King's Theatre, Glasgow, June 23-27; His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, July 21-25; Edinburgh Playhouse, September 14-19.
www.scoundrelsontour.com

The Herald, June 23rd 2015

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Monday, 22 June 2015

Home and Beauty

Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Four stars

What to do when the war is over and Johnny, or Bill in the case of W Somerset Maugham's quietly subversive comedy, doesn't come marching home? With Bill missing presumed dead for three years and World War One's hostilities long since done and dusted, frippish coquette Victoria does what any nice gel would, and gets hitched to Bill's best friend Fred. The allure of one man in uniform is one thing, but when Bill turns up on her doorstep, Victoria's accidental polyandry becomes an awfully big adventure for all, even as Fred has his sights set on a blonde stenographer while Alan J Mirren's silver-tongued charmer Leicester Paton is currently finding more favour with Victoria than either spouse.

Written in 1915 and first seen onstage four years later, Maugham's deceptively frothy affair keeps its own amused council regarding its greater intent, even as it winks at those in the know. There are hints of this in Richard Baron's sumptuous looking production, from the Futurist-styled decorations that adorn Victoria's Westminster des-res, to the bolshie servants learning to assert themselves and the way everything is on ration even as the Great War's survivors cling to each other for comfort.

This is delivered with ribald high-mannered archness by Baron's cast, led by Isla Carter as a deliriously self-absorbed Victoria as she plays off Simon Pontin's Fred against Reece Richardon's Bill. With silent movie style chases that sees them trickle down the class scale from act to act, in the end it is this oddest couple of all who prefer the company of confirmed bachelors in this most knowing of period pieces.

The Herald, June 22nd 2015

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Sunday, 21 June 2015

Test Dept – Still Raging Against the Machine

When iconoclastic 'metal-bashing' auteurs Test Dept reconvened in 2014 to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the UK-wide Miners Strike as part of the Newcastle upon Tyne based AV Festival of art, film and experimental sound and music, it was an emotional experience. Rather than play live to reclaim the band's provocative fusion of martial percussion and constructivist inspired stage shows that recycled the scrap metal ruins of industrial Britain into an impassioned and visceral form of oppositional spectacle throughout the Thatcher years, Test Dept chose to take audiences on a boat trip and give them a film show.

DS30 was a thirty-minute collage of archive footage pulled together by Test Dept's Brett Turnbull that charts the history of the mining industry and the communities that worked in it, through to the bitter unrest during the strike and Test Dept's own presence throughout it on their 1984 Fuel To Fight tour. With the sturm und drang of Test Dept's own soundtrack intact, musical input came too from moving footage of the South Wales Striking Miners' Choir, with who Test Dept collaborated with on the record, Shoulder to Shoulder, in 1984.

The film was screened along and about the route of the Dunston Staiths, the monumental wooden structure built along the River Tyne by North Eastern Railway Company in 1893 to transport coal from the Durham coalfields and loaded onto ships waiting on the river which would transport their cargo across Britain and the world. All of which, set against the backdrop of what is believed to be the largest wooden structure in the world, made for something far more than a mere pleasure cruise.

“People were crying,” says Angus Farquhar, who co-founded Test Dept in South London in 1981. “There were lots of people there from different generations, from miners' families, some of whom had grown up with and lived through the strike, and others who weren't even born then. It made for a very emotional experience.”

The event was in part inspired by avant-garde twentieth century Russian composer Arseny Avraamov, whose 1922 work, Symphony of Factory Sirens, utilised navy ship sirens and the entire Soviet flotilla in the Caspian Sea to create a piece that also included renditions of the Internationale and Marseillaise performed by a massed band and choir.

A year on from the AV Festival, DS30 arrives in Glasgow on a tour of cinema-based screenings presented by the AV Festival that follows a cross-country path through some of Britain's former centres of industry, finishing up at Durham Miners' Gala in July. That event will no doubt foster some kind of taking stock regarding the Independent Police Complaints Commission's recent decision to reject calls to investigate the conduct of South Yorkshire Police – the same force, incidentally, responsible for policing the Hillsborough football ground in 1989 where ninety-six people died – during confrontations with miners throughout the strike, particularly during the Battle of Orgreave.

In this way, DS30 is both a vital document of its times and a call to arms to re-engage working class people with a struggle presumed to have been written off by New Labour managerialists in whatever guise they take.

“We've hooked up with the Justice For Orgreave campaign,” Farquhar explains, “and with what's going on regarding the Orgreave investigation now, it feels like things have come right round again. In England we need to rediscover activism. The Left needs to find itself. That's how you rediscover consensus rather than just mourning the death of the Labour Party. Masses of people who weren't even born at that time are hungry for change.”

The tour, led by Farquhar alongside fellow Test Dept members Graham Cunnington and Paul Janrozy, also marks the launch of Total State Machine, an epic 350 page book containing a blow by blow pictorial and text-based archive of Test Department alongside a series of new essays and reflections. These come from members of the group as well as peers including Cabaret Voltaire vocalist Stephen Mallinder, Robin Rimbaud, aka Scanner, Ivan Novak of Laibach and former Kent miner Alan Sutcliffe among others.

“It's quite a personal thing,” says Farquhar. “It's a full-on engagement with the past, and it's taken three years to edit the book. Going back to what you were doing in your twenties is something you don't do that often, so it's been quite a powerful experience.

“I've talked a lot with Graham and Paul about this. At the time we were doing Test Department, and when the Miners' Strike was gong on, people could see that things were wrong. They could see the police brutality, and that courts were being set up to criminalise people, but there was no social media then. The only thing we had was television and mainstream newspapers, and we felt like we were helping to create this real centre of resistance. By taking footage off the TV and footage that was given to us, we could put on a soundtrack and share the real intensity of the struggle.”

The history of Test Department is one which chimed with the times they were forged in, even as they continually and determinedly stood in opposition to the status quo.

“That first year, in 1981, we were in this tiny basement with no electricity,” Farquhar recalls, “and we'd play for five or six hours a day. It was almost Dickensian. There was a rag and bone man who'd bring us prime pieces of metal which he'd sell to us.

“At that time South London was in the midst of this major transition, so many factories were closing, and we'd spend hours in junk-yards, trying to figure out how we'd play all these pieces of metal. Then gradually, from being ramshackle, we became really disciplined, and these five scrawny kids, each with our own baggage, had suddenly found something that was ours, and through which we could say something.

“We ended up making political art that was about more than singing protest songs. I think Billy Bragg's brilliant and I think Paul Weller did some great songs at the time, but they were very commercial. Punk had been rendered meaningless, so what we were doing was completely rejecting that whole lineage of rock n'roll. The instruments we were using were a military bugle, bagpipes and a cello, so there was this neoclassical thing going on, with early sampling from Shostakovitch, taking snippets from my Scottish background and from Paul's Polish background in this insanely utopian fashion.”

Farquhar admits, however, that Test Dept “never quite knew who we were onstage. Were we these propagandist, drone-like figures, making these incredibly ironic, mock-heroic gestures, or were we just these young people who'd found this thing. It was totally instinctive. We didn't make any intellectual claims for what we were doing, and we only really came of age during the Miners' Strike.”

The first Miners' Strike benefit show Test Dept did was at the Albany Empire in Deptford, when any qualms they might have had at how a bunch of hardened grafters might regard a bunch of shaven-headed youths striking faux-heroic poses while hammering with abandon at fire and steel were instantly dispelled by some members of the audience.
 
“There were these two women who were probably in their seventies,” Farquhar remembers, “and while we were playing they practically had their heads in the speakers. We asked them if they were alright, and they said it was fantastic, because they were tone deaf and it was the first time they'd heard anything for years.”
 
While Test Dept concerts themselves became spectacles which eventually tapped into a burgeoning underground club culture, alliances were being forged beyond the Miners' Strike that saw the band – if that's what they were – move into more formally theatrical terrain. Gododdin was a collaboration with Welsh theatre company, Brith Gof, that reinvented ancient legends in an epic water-soaked staging at Glasgow's Tramway venue.

The Second Coming saw Farquhar and co take over the St Rollox Locomotive Works in Glasgow as part of Glasgow's City of Culture year in 1990. With some fifty performers navigating an array of industrial detritus in a space the size of two and a half football pitches, the show was a bold comment on how Thatcher and her her progeny were intent on turning Britain into an industrial theme-park. The industrial so-called urban regeneration which has followed is testament to The Second Coming's dramatic foresight, which can be seen in Brett Turnbull's film of the event, which will screened alongside other Test Dept films at the DS30 event, including archive footage of the Fuel to Fight tour.

“Thatcher and that government had this idea that you could take a rubber and wipe out these places and these communities and replace them with enterprise zones,” Farquhar observes with disdain. “When you drive into Glasgow now all you see is these horrible regenerated business centres. You don't just erase your history. When you erase that history, you wipe out all the authenticity of the things around it and you replace it with something false.”

In spirit, DS30, The Second Coming and the other Test Dept films are akin to The Last of England, Derek Jarman's equally fractured quasi-documentary 1987 state of the nation impressionistic portrait of broken Britain. In terms of explorations of working class communities, the work of Jeremy Deller too is some kind of kindred. This is particularly the case with Acid Brass, in which the Stockport-based Williams Fairey Brass band played arrangements of classic Acid House and Techno anthems. Such a disparate affinity can be heard too with the goose-bump-inducing beauty of the Miners' Choir counterpointed by the assault-course clatter of Test Dept in DS30.

It's probably no coincidence either that Deller created a re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave, in which survivors from the Miners' Strike from all sides worked with re-enactment groups to commemorate one of the Strike's most combative moments in an event filmed by Mike Figgis.

“We knew Derek Jarman,” says Farquhar, “and one of the reasons I returned to Scotland was because he said to never be scared to take a risk. There was a sense then of making alternative networks, so all these things are part of that and are connected. Like Derek Jarman and like Jeremy Deller, we were trying to do powerful things that were opposed to the prevailing orthodoxies, and we were trying to work collectively in a way that has informed me to this day.”

In the final years of Test Dept, Farquhar reconvened the Beltane Fire Festival in Edinburgh, a Pagan spectacle which pitched drummers, body-painted dancers and an ecstatic May Queen between the pillars on Calton Hill. While Beltane continues to this day without Test Dept involvement, its inception acted as a bridge of sorts to Farquhar's next venture with his NVA Organisation. Set up in 1995, NVA (Nacionale Vitae Activa, a Latin term meaning 'the right to influence public affairs')has moved the spectacle out of the factory and into a largely outdoors-based environment with a series of equally grand gestures which Test Dept laid the groundwork for.

In Stormy Waters, the cranes on the River Clyde danced. The Secret Sign took audiences on a gorge walk along the Devil's Pulpit in Finnich Glen in Drymen near Loch Lomond. Speed of Light fused public art with sport and performance as runners wearing light suits activated intricate pathways around Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh. And, in perhaps the most iconic reimagining of a landscape, NVA are currently engaged in a long-term rebuilding of St Peter's seminary, the long abandoned masterpiece of modernist architecture situated in the woodlands of Cardross in Argyll and Bute.

In the meantime, Farquhar and co's revisitation of Test Dept, through both DS30 and Total State Machine, is telling. As well as the Orgreave decision, Police Scotland's local authority backed closure of Glasgow multiple arts space The Arches similarly suggests that, in terms of its ill-informed fear-mongering regarding underground activity, the state's attitude to club culture has come regressively full circle. These pages have already observed that such an action marks the dawn of a new culture war, which, in the spirit of Test Dept, must be resisted at all costs.

“That's the power of coming together and finding common cause,” Farquhar affirms. “The last time we saw that was with the demonstrations against the Iraq war, when people from all different backgrounds came together and were roundly ignored. That was the day the Labour Party died. But there are good things happening in Scotland right now, where the government aren't ignoring things as much, although the lines were drawn when the police were very surreptitiously armed. Things like that have to be changed, and activism can do that, but you have to be careful not to romanticise that as well.”

The destruction of the mines that led to the 1984/85 strike may have been ideologically calculated, but DS30 is both a grim and heroic reminder of a time before working class communities were ripped apart and disassembled by an ideology that still prevails in the recently elected Westminster government.

“Looking back at that time like this, it's good to remember where you came from and how you can work collectively with a common voice,” says Farquhar. “The history of the 1980s as told on TV and elsewhere is all about Top of the Pops 2 and Duran Duran and horrible things like that, but Total State Machine is really a history, or part of a history, of an independent subculture, and I think the book will stand as a record of a history that's never been told publicly before.”


Test Dept: DS30 Tour, Friday June 19th. DS30 Screening and Q&A, GFT, Glasgow, 6-7.30pm; Total State Machine launch, Aye Aye Books, CCA, Glasgow, 8.30-10pm; Test Dept DJs and JD Twitch (Optimo), Saramango Cafe, CCA, 10pm-late.Total State Machine is published by PC Press.

www.glasgowfilm.org
www.cca-glasgow.com
www.avfestival.co.uk
www.pc-press.co.uk

Bella Caledonia, June 2015

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Big Gold Dream: Scottish Post Punk and Infiltrating the Mainstream 1977-82

Imagine a record label that turned down Joy Division. Imagine if that record label had already turned down The Cramps. Now imagine a feature-length documentary charting the wayward history of Scottish indie music that doesn't mention Glasgow until some thirty-eight minutes in.

Such expectation-confounding contradictions are the driving forces behind Big Gold Dream: Scottish Post Punk and Infiltrating the Mainstream 1977-82, Grant McPhee's new meticulously sourced filmic dissection of Edinburgh's world-changing post-punk scenes which has its world première this weekend at Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Ten years in the making, Big Gold Dream charts the legacy of Bob Last and Hilary Morrison's short-lived Fast Product label, which put out the first records by The Mekons, Gang of Four, The Human League and Dead Kennedys, as well as Edinburgh's original post-punks, Scars. With only occasional diversions to Glasgow, where Alan Horne founded Postcard Records to release singles by Orange Juice, Aztec Camera, The Go-Betweens and Edinburgh's Josef K, McPhee's film provides the missing links in Scotland's much mythologised pop history.

“Every city seemed to have important record labels,” McPhee says, “but I think it's unfair that Edinburgh and Fast Product never seems to get the attention it deserves. I think it's a shame if people have never heard the music the label put out, but I think Fast probably got a bit of a hard time because of the way they did things. Up until then most records came out in plain covers, but the way they packaged their records and played with consumerism, I think people were probably a bit scared of them. Also, Indie music as we know it didn't exist at that time,” McPhee points out. “It wasn't a genre. It was a means of releasing a record. ”

Inspired by the Buzzcocks EP, Spiral Scratch, released on the Manchester-based New Hormones label, Last and Morrison founded Fast Product as a concept as much as a record label. High on cultural theory, the pair made crucial play of each release's packaging, so every record was effectively several works of art in one. This was especially noticeable on the label's trio of Earcom compilations, with three or four bands donating a couple of tracks apiece in a way that was designed to be heard as an audio magazine.

While marrying ideas, image and audio is commonplace now, then such a conceit was a radical post-modern gesture that was a huge influence on labels that followed, including Alan Horne's Glasgow-based Postcard Records, and especially on Tony Wilson's Factory Records. As Last says in the film, Fast only put twelve records out, but if there had been a Fast 13 it would be Factory.

Last and Morrison followed Fast Product with the infinitely glossier Pop Aural label, releasing two singles by Morrison's band The Flowers as well as other Scottish acts including Boots For Dancing, Restricted Code and former Rezillos guitarist Jo Callis. Pop Aural also released two singles by Fire Engines, Candyskin and the label's swansong which gives Big Gold Dream its title.

By November 1981 when the12” single of Big Gold Dream came out, Last had drafted Callis into The Human League, who he was now managing, and whose third album, Dare, was about to go stratospheric, while the accompanying single, Don't You Want Me, co-written by Callis, topped the charts over Christmas 1981. Things had come a long way from the tenement flat beside Edinburgh College of Art where Last and Morrison dreamt up Fast Product.

“They did it,” says McPhee. “Bob Last and Hilary Morrison drafted this manifesto or mission statement before they'd even put out a record, and getting the Human League a number one single and a number one album was all part of the same master-plan, and they'd done all that from an Edinburgh flat. Joy Division had very much wanted to sign for Fast, and in the end they gave them two tracks which were on Earcom 2, but the quality control was so high that they turned them down, and they turned down The Cramps, who'd sent them a cassette of Human Fly.”

Joy Division and New Order bassist Peter Hook confirms his band's fondness for Fast Product during his appearance in Big Gold Dream. As the film also makes clear through interviews with the likes of Fire Engines front-man Davy Henderson, Scars singer Robert King, Josef K guitarist Malcolm Ross and Last and Morrison themselves, many of the bands associated with Fast Product had been kick-started into life by The Clash's White Riot Tour. With 'punk' gigs banned in Glasgow, the tour arrived at Edinburgh Playhouse on May 7th 1977. It wasn't the head-liners, however, who provided the inspiration, but support acts The Slits and Subway Sect.

While Edinburgh's punk-inspired live scene thrived in venues such as the Tap O'Lauriston, situated a stone's throw from Last and Morrison's flat which had become a kind of tenement version of Andy Warhol's Factory, it would take until 1979 for a local band to release a record as iconoclastic as their forbears. This came in the form of Scars début single, Adult/ery / and the Clockwork Orange inspired Horrorshow, which in Big Gold Dream Douglas MacIntyre, bass player with Fire Engine Davy Henderson's latest vehicle The Sexual Objects and head honcho of the Fast inspired Creeping Bent record label identifies as Scotland's equivalent of the Sex Pistols' Anarchy in the UK.

“It was such an important record,” says McPhee of the Scars single that was later sampled by Lemon Jelly for their piece, The Shouty Track. “That seemed to change everything.”

With a background as a TV camera operator, McPhee never had any ambitions to be a film director. While doing some video production work for Mani Shoniwa, who had played with Henderson in his glossy post Fire Engines pop project, Win, McPhee was asked by Shoniwa if he could make a documentary film what would his ideal subject be.

“I said I'd make it about Postcard Records,” McPhee remembers, “and before I'd had time to think about it he rang Malcolm Ross. Then I spoke to Malcolm, and he said I should speak to Scars, who I'd never heard of at the time, and that led me to Fire Engines and Josef K and everything else. I moved to Edinburgh in 1999, and for me then, all the music in Scotland I knew about was from Glasgow, so finding out about what had gone on in Edinburgh was really interesting.”

With no backers behind him, McPhee interviewed people on the hoof when he could, financing filming himself before eventually hooking up with co- producers Wendy Griffin, Innes Reekie, Erik Sandberg (who also plays with Creeping Bent related band Wake The President), and Angela Slaven.

With more than seventy hours of interviews recorded, the complex web Big Gold Dream weaves could feasibly be stretched out over a ten-part TV series. As it is, Big Gold Dream is the first of two films by McPhee charting the history of Scotland's music scenes. The second, Songs From Northern Britain: The Country That Invented Indie Music, moves further west as it charts the rise of the likes of The Pastels, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Teenage Fanclub and beyond.

As a body of work, both films provide vital documents of Scotland's musical history in a way that previous films on the subject have never fully done such a fertile and wayward set of scenes justice. Where previously history has been rewritten by lumping glossy chart acts in with Postcard and Fast Product progeny, Big Gold Dream reclaims a sprawling history to finally give its unsung heroes a voice.

“I was chasing people all over the country to get interviews,” says McPhee of the seventy hours of footage he has amassed. “ love music and I love finding out about music, so it was a pleasure to be able to talk with all these people and sate my geeky thirst for knowledge. A lot of people hadn't spoken about that time and initially didn't want to talk, but after eight years or something they eventually decided that they would.”

While most of the scene's main players feature in new interviews, as well as words from Creation Records founder Alan McGee and former NME post-punk champion Paul Morley, there are noticeable absences. Josef K front-man Paul Haig chose to be interviewed in audio only, while Aztec Camera mainstay Roddy Frame isn't interviewed at all, leaving bass player Campbell Owens to fill in the gaps.

Edwyn Collins was presumably and understandably too busy with The Possibilities Are Endless, James Hall and Edward Lovelace's moving 2014 film, an impressionistic study of the former Orange Juice singer's life and work since suffering two cerebral haemorrhages, to take part. It is the lack of new footage of Postcard svengali Alan Horne, however, that effectively makes this Last, Morrison and Fast Product's film.

Narrated by Robert Forster of The Go-Betweens, Big Gold Dream: Scottish Post Punk and Infiltrating the Mainstream 1977-82 looks set to receive a limited cinema release later this year, with a TV screening mooted at some point. Clearly a labour of love, McPhee has pulled the film together with a similar spirit to the one that fired Fast Product. It's significant too, perhaps that Bob Last has gone on to become a film producer of note who, alongside co-producer Roy Boulter, former drummer with Liverpool band The Farm, is currently behind Terence Davies' forthcoming big screen adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbons' novel, Sunset Song.

“There's going to be lots of film-makers like me,” says McPhee,”who I think should start making features in the way that Bob and Hilary and Alan Horne started record labels. Things have changed radically over the last ten years in terms of cameras and technology, and things are much more accessible now.”

McPhee's seizing of the means of production over the last decade is one thing, but much has changed too in how the era he focuses on has been reassessed. While Franz Ferdinand had started to name-check Josef K and Fire Engines as influences when they started out, going as far as covering Fire Engines' song, Get Up and Use Me, with a briefly reformed Fire Engines sharing a single with their progeny with a version of Franz's Jacqueline, much of Fast Product and Pop Aural's adventures with art and commerce remain barely acknowledged. Big Gold Dream looks set to change all that.

“Fast Product and Edinburgh have been very unfairly treated in terms of its musical significance,” says McPhee. “At the time I started working on the film Domino Records hadn't released the Fire Engines compilation, and if you read books about that time Fast Product only seemed to be a footnote before things moved onto something else, but it was much more important than that. This is stuff that should be taught in schools, and in art schools especially. Fast Product wasn't just a record label. It was a concept. I admit I don't completely understand it, but it was art in itself.”


Big Gold Dream: Scottish Post Punk and Infiltrating the Mainstream 1977-82 receives its world première at Edinburgh International Film Festival on Friday June 19th, Filmhouse 1, 8pm. An after-show party with DJs and a live band featuring Vic Godard (Subway Sect), Malcolm Ross (Josef K / Orange Juice), Mick Slaven (The Leopards), Douglas MacIntyre (Article 58 / The Sexual Objects), Russell Burn (Fire Engines / Win / Pie Finger / Spectorbullets) plus special guests will take place at the Traverse Theatre. Big Gold Dream: Scottish Post Punk and Infiltrating the Mainstream 1977-82 will also be screened at Edinburgh International Film Festival at Belmont 3 on June 23rd, and at Odeon 2 on June 27th.


The Quietus, June 2015

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The Driver's Seat

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

When a young woman about to go on holiday finally reaches the end of her tether, her largely male colleagues indulge her, only laughing at her seemingly highly-strung antics once she's out of sight. So it goes for Lise, the enigmatic heroine of Muriel Spark's 1970 novella, a chronicle of a death foretold brought to life here in Laurie Sansom's adaptation for his own National Theatre of Scotland production.

Clad in vividly clashing candy-stripes as she takes a plane to an un-named European city, Morven Christie's Lise is forever in transit and in search of her own soul more than the potentially dangerous liaisons she never quite embarks on. As her movements are forensically mapped out and dissected by those left in her wake, an elusive, barely there portrait emerges, not just of Lise, but of a psychologically and sexually repressed society barely coping with its apparent new liberties.

All this is is played out by Sansom's cast of seven with cross-cutting fluidity on Ana Ines Jabares Pita's ever-changing set, which uses live filming to move between time and place with the fast-paced dexterity of an ice-cool prime time thriller. The mood is enhanced by Philip Pinsky's understated score, which is as much a product of its time as the story itself.

With Lise surrounded by the voguishly alternative post-1960s hangovers of macrobiotics, student protests and hippies dancing in the department store music section, an ever-prevailing misogyny drives every predatory male Lise brushes up against, as they take advantage of the era's touchy-feeliness even as they are confused and repelled by it. There is too a kind of trickle-down existential ennui which has left Lise and her generation disaffected and left with “the lack of an absence,” as she puts it.

There is strong support here from the likes of Ryan Fletcher, Gabriel Quigley and Michael Thomson, but it is the steely, volatile and self-destructively manipulative presence of Lise as brought to life so devastatingly by Christie that they pivot around in an alluringly elliptical study of self-invention and everyday madness.

The Herald, June 22nd 2015

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Thursday, 18 June 2015

The Siege

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Three stars

Bethlehem is a holy place. This is something the Church of the Nativity's tour guide makes clear when he steps from the audience in the Palestine refugee camp based Freedom Theatre's production of Nabil Al-Raee's new play, created and directed with Zoe Lafferty, which closes its UK tour at the Tron this week. But it can be other things too. It is in the church's confines, after all, where a group of machine-gun wielding young men seek sanctuary from a hostile Israeli army intent on desecration of a different kind.

Inside, amidst sporadic bursts of gunfire, the men noisily hold their own alongside a smattering of priests, nuns and others caught in the cross-fire of a very unholy war. As the men settle in for the long haul, tensions rise and fall, with a sense of solidarity coming from gallows humour as much as the soul-sapping fatalities and concerns beyond themselves that eventually sees them acquiesce to their captors and the exile that follows.

Based on real events in 2002 seen here on film and developed from interviews with its survivors, Al-Raee and Lafferty's creation becomes a microcosm for how the city beyond the church's consecrated ground is similarly besieged by oppressive forces. As performed by an all male cast of six, there is an impassioned partisan rawness to what follows, as we flit between the siege itself and the men's lives afterwards far from their homeland. The latter is told simply and directly without contrition, and when the tour guide takes a selfie with the entire audience, it's as if the entire world is captured in its light.
 
The Herald, June 19th 2015


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Wednesday, 17 June 2015

F.F.S

Glasgow School of Art
Five stars

As concept-driven theatrical art-pop collaborations go, there are few more perfect than this year's hook-up between rejuvenated glam/disco/electro oddballs Sparks and Glasgow-sired quartet Franz Ferdinand, whose own fusion of dancefloor-driven jauntiness and lyrical archness has never shied away from its debt to the Mael brothers fabulist canon.

With a tour pending that includes a sold out date at this year's Edinburgh International Festival, it was only fitting that such a super-group made its full live début at FF's spiritual alma mater. Fanfared on by the plastic triumphalism of the theme from Blake's 7, this unholy black-and-white clad alliance gallop into a salvo of songs from this year's eponymous album, with Franz's Alex Kapranos and Sparks' Russell Mael trading vocals and hamming it up on frantic and frenetic future gay club classics like Johnny Delusional as if their lives depended on it.

At moments they're the Swingle Singers, at others wild west troubadours, and, on the gloriously knowing Collaborations Don't Work, which even makes room for a few shy murmurs from the ever impassive and keyboard-bound Ron Mael and Franz bassist Bob Hardy, like Brechtian divas in drag. Spookily, on Sparks' already poignant When Do I Get To Sing My Way?, close your eyes and it could be the late Billy Mackenzie and former Josef K front-man Paul Haig duetting up there. Interspersed with euphoric anthems like Franz's Take Me Out and Sparks' epic This Town Ain't Big Enough For the Both of Us, and with a much bigger Glasgow show just announced for Barrowlands on August 26th, the end result of such mutual fantasy-wish-fulfilment is a joyous set of post-modern show-tunes for Now people.

The Herald, June 17th 2015

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Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Dominic Hill - The Citizens Theatre's Autumn 2015 Season

The announcement of the Citizens Theatre's forthcoming autumn season has been something of a gradual affair this year. While the shows scheduled by Citz artistic director Dominic Hill have been regularly revealed on the pages of the Herald, this year much of the season is already out there.

Both David Greig's new version of Alasdair Gray's epic novel Lanark and Vox Motus' revival of their show for young people, Dragon, will be seen at this year's Edinburgh International Festival prior to their Glasgow dates, while this year's Christmas show, Rapunzel, is also in the public domain.

Three very special parts of the Citz' autumn programme, however, are revealed here for the first time. First of all, the Glasgow-based Solar Bear company will present Progression, an International Celebration of Deaf Arts, set to run over two days in September.

Secondly, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of The Close, the Citizens Theatre's ill-fated experimental studio space which burnt down in 1977,the Citz will present a season of four short plays that go some way to recapturing the out-there spirit of The Close.

Finally, and perhaps most impressively in an already tantalising season, the Citz's partnership with commercial producers Ambassador Theatre Group to create new musicals bears its first fruit in the form of a collaboration between Deacon Blue vocalist and songwriter Ricky Ross and actor Paul Higgins, who was in the very first production of Black Watch, and was last seen at the Citizens as the Earl of Kent in Hill's production of King Lear.

The Choir will be the first play by Higgins since  Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us was directed by John Tiffany at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 2008 in a season of new work co-produced with the National Theatre of Scotland. This new piece focuses on a community choir formed in Wishaw by an Iraqi immigrant, and the tensions created by the disparate community who come together to sing.

“Ricky and Paul had known each other and wanted to work with each other, which I didn't know,” says Hill, “but talking to them separately this seemed like the perfect moment for them to do that. Although Paul hasn't written much, his voice is rooted very much in his personal experience, which is a working class Glaswegian, or in this case, Wishaw experience, and he is very funny, very insightful and very compassionate as a writer.

“He had this idea of doing something about a community choir, and he and Ricky were keen on writing something that wasn't a traditional musical with people bursting into song, but that they could be used naturalistically as part of the action. Ricky's music is wonderful. He's written some fantastic songs, and that makes for something really warm and really human.”

This ties in with Hill's increasingly diverse use of music in his productions of Crime and Punishment, Hamlet and Fever Dream: Southside. Like the latter, The Choir also forms part of the Citizens' ongoing canon of plays close to home.

“I guess it's a piece about tolerance, community and identity,” Hill says, “and for me it falls in with things like Brassed Off , The Full Monty or Billy Elliot, which have very serious things to say, but which do it with a lightness of touch, although Paul and Ricky's play has more grit to it as well. It's not sweet.”

The Citizens' partnership with ATG was initiated on Hill's arrival at the Citz in 2012 when he was contacted by the company regarded as one of the UK's biggest commercial theatrical producers.

“When ATG first approached me,” Hill explains, “they wanted to create pieces of musical drama that came out of communities other than London, and which had a strong sense of identity. We've been developing that relationship for a couple of years, and this is the first thing to come out of that. It still feels like a Citz show alongside the likes of Glasgow Girls, but ATG have been brilliantly supportive of nurturing this idea that there's so much great drama coming out of places that aren't London. It still feels like a Glasgow play, but it's also possible that it might be seen on a stage beyond Glasgow.”

Meanwhile, The Close Theatre Season 1965-1973 will present a quartet of lo-fi chamber works overseen by three different directors in the Citz's Circle Studio.

“When we were investigating our seventieth birthday I was very aware that it was also the Close's fiftieth,” says Hill, “and I found the history of The Close really interesting in terms of its reputation and the work it did, and more importantly perhaps, the effect that it had on the main house. Giles Havergal has always said that when The Close burnt down it was the best thing that ever happened to them, because all of that experimentation that was going on there, with work by the likes of Lindsay Kemp and Charles Marowitz was then channelled onto the main house.

“It's interesting as well, because The Close was a direct response to what was going on at the Traverse in Edinburgh, and then later on, the Tron was a direct response to The Close, so I wanted to mark that in some way. The anniversary also comes in the midst of the redevelopment plans for the Citz, which will have a new studio theatre which at the moment we're calling The Close. We've also taken out the seats of our existing Circle Studio, which I think makes a really nice space, so I approached three people to see if they wanted to do something.”

The three people were Debbie Hannan, who as well as assisting at the Citz, directed her own take on Dostoyevsky's Notes From the Underground; Matthew Lenton, artistic director of Vanishing Point, who are now in residence in the building; and Gareth Nicholls, who for the last two years has been the Citz's Main House Director in Residence, and recently scored a hit with his production of Robert David MacDonald's adaptation of Gitta Sereny's book, Into That Darkness.

While Hannan will direct Howard Barker's biblically inspired 2012 miniature, Lot and His God. Lenton will tackle Striptease and Out At Sea, two plays by Polish absurdist Slawomir Mrozek which were first seen in 1961. Nicholls, meanwhile, will tackle Vanya, a response to Chekhov's Uncle Vanya first seen in 2009. Holcroft, incidentally, made her professional debut in 2008 with Cockroach, which formed part of the same Traverse/NTS season as Higgins' play, Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us.

“The rules are very strict,” Hill says. “There's no money other than to pay actors, sand other than that they have to use everything from within the building. They have one technician, but I just wanted the emphasis to be on just the text and on the actor and not hide behind anything else in an attempt to create something that was bold and exciting, and which could in some way reflect the ethos of what that space used to be, in the hope that it can become that again in the new building.”


Lanark – A Life in Three Acts, August 14-17, September 3-19; Progression, September 24-25; Dragon, October 1-10; The Choir, October 22-November 14; Rapunzel, November 28-January 3. The Close Theatre Season 1965-1973, October 3-31. All shows at Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, where tickets are on sale from today.
www.citz.co.uk

The Herald, June 16th 2015

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Monday, 15 June 2015

Blood

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Three stars

Two teenagers meet at college. In a gloriously gawky, awkwardly unromantic fashion, he asks her out to Nando's. She returns the favour, but quite rightly won't take any of his nonsense. With their affair played out in plain sight of their disapproving families, the star-crossed young lovers carry on regardless. Coming from a tight-knit inner city Pakistani community that's as prone to gangland bullying and brutal misogyny as any insular society, Caneze and Sully must face ever higher stakes in Emteaz Hussain's punchy and street-smart riff on Romeo and Juliet for Tamasha and the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry.

There are beatings, mad dashes to airports and suspicious reconciliations in Esther Richardson's fast-moving production, played out by just two actors on designer Sara Perks' stacked up shanty town of a set as Caneze and Sully go on the run. As their world closes in on the couple, with all the hormonal mess of conflicting loyalties and being forced to grow up too soon threatening to tear them apart at every turn, Caneze and Sully somehow survive against all odds.

As Caneze and Sully, Krupa Pattani and Adam Samuel-Bal are a youthful whirlwind of highly-charged emotions as they deliver Hussain's urban poetry that marks out all the highs and lows of their relationship. The hi-tech cross-cultural pulse of Arun Ghosh's beat-laden score helps drive the action which retains a lightness of touch throughout. If a darkly funny conclusion feels too much like a feel-good sucker punch, for the young audience who lapped up every second in silence before applauding with a sense of enthusiastic empathy, such a happy ending was everything they desired.
 
The Herald, June 15th 2015

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Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Grace Schwindt - Only A Free Individual Can Create a Free Society

Tramway, Glasgow until June 7th
Four stars

It's significant that a curtain of rainbow-coloured strips form the entrance to Tramway 5 for the looped screening of German-born artist Grace Shwindt's feature-length film dissecting the ideological legacy of post Second World War Germany's strand of left-wing activism. It not only suggests an element of pageantry to the choreographed spectacle it unveils, but offers up a set of multi-hued futures beyond the black, white and red of old idealism.

Utilising eleven dancers and filmed over five weeks in a walled set transplanted onto parkland with the bright lights of the city just beyond, Schwindt weaves together choreography, social history and an interview with a taxi driver activist influenced by Germany's volatile 1960s and 1970s history to create a multi-layered performance that questions notions of freedom on both an individual and collective basis.

Seemingly hemmed into the room, the dancers recite the taxi driver's text as they move, carefully enunciating every word, be it solo, in duos or creating a chorale as they stand apart or else move in unison. Rich in symbolism, at moments we see glimpses beyond the fourth wall as the white lands of a motorway separate the stage areas. At times this makes for a dialectical show and tell, with the taxi driver's narrative of Baader-Meinhoff and the Red Army Faction offset by everyday reality and given a Brechtian distance by the abstract formality of the performers.

Commissioned by FLAMIN Productions through London Artists' Moving Image Network, Eastside Projects and The Showroom in association with a myriad of international partners including Tramway, Schwindt's film is a deadly serious fusion of suitably disparate elements in which walls of all kinds come tumbling down as they have to.

The List, June 2015

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Edinburgh College of Art Degree Show 2015

Until June 7th
Four stars

With more than 430 graduates showing off their wares in the vast expanse of ECA, it's impossible to give anything but a cursory overview of the event in such limited space as is allowed here. One can only follow one's nose and try not to be too overwhelmed by the vast array of fresh talent bursting from every pore of the building. Wit is always a winner, and William Spendlove (or William Spendlove & Bros Painters & Decorators if you please) has it in spades in his waggishly industrious line in small works that include a pair of sandles and a vivid polo neck jumper wrapped around a frame with a Picasso tote bag hung rakishly on its arm.

The upside-down legs of Rosaleigh Harvey-Otway photographed in theatre auditoriums and other spaces offer glimpses into equally topsy-turvy worlds, while both Mel Wilson and Douglas Allison seem to be operating in similar all-angles day-glo territories. John Nowak's music-inspired canvasses throb with Brian Eno styled inspirations, from the fact that they're christened 'Anbient 1, 2 and 3' to the way the colours offer up translucent chilll-out spaces pulsed by everything except the actual sounds themselves.

Tucked away in a cupboard, the creepy detail of Lola Higgins' set design for what looks like an early Ian McEwan short story is a grotesque, claustrophobic and gloomily evocative construction, and is all the better for that. As is too Amy Boulton's cheeky but wryly-observed dig at ECA/University of Edinburgh's role in city gentrification by presenting a mock-up of a TV ad for Institution House, ECA's purpose-built library here remodelled as the ultimate post-modern des-res destination for those who like their buildings shiny. These are but a handful of snapshots of the next generation of artists. There are many many more.

The List, June 2015

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Laurie Sansom - The Driver's Seat

When Laurie Sansom brought his production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to the Assembly Hall on the Mound as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2009, Muriel Spark's tale of a mercurial Edinburgh school mistress opened up a world of possibilities for the then artistic director of the Royal & Derngate theatres in Northampton.

Nearly six years on, the now artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland follows up his mighty production of Rona Munro's epic historical trilogy The James Plays at the 2014 Edinburgh International Festival with another, less well-known work by Spark.

The Driver's Seat is is a novella that first appeared in 1970, and is here adapted by Sansom himself for its first appearance onstage. Like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Driver's Seat looks at an impeccably singular woman. Where Jean Brodie confines herself within the school walls, Lise, the heroine of The Driver's Seat, is a woman in constant motion as she drives to an unnamed Italian city in search of someone who may or may not exist who might just change her life forever.

“Lise is a mystery,” says Sansom. “ She's an enigma, and Muriel doesn't tell us very much about what she's thinking or why she's doing what she's doing. There's a mystery at the heart of the story, and the book is all about sub-text, and by the time you get to the end things have been completely turned on their head and you're made to see them totally differently.”

“As soon as I read The Driver's Seat I immediately saw it on stage, because there's something essentially quite dramatic going on. I became fascinated by what the story's about, which is chronic loneliness, and how this woman shapes-shifts and changes her personality as she tries to create a new identity.

“At the same time I've got a massive love of police and detective procedurals, and I'm a massive fan of The Killing, and The Driver's Seat is a thriller and a detective story, but at the heart of it is this metaphysical investigation into identity, fate and whether we're truly in control of our own lives, or whether there are other things at play that mean we're not.”

Sansom read The Driver's Seat while working on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, before which he was barely aware of Spark's work.

“I'd never even seen the film of Brodie,” he confesses, “and because I didn't know anything about this woman and her work, that's what led me to the play and to this character who has become so iconic. Brodie is the kind of gateway drug into Muriel Spark's oeuvre, and there are so many other cracking books by her that we could have a National Theatre of Spark.

“I think she is underestimated as one of Scotland's genius literary figures, and I think there are many Sparkians, like Ian Rankin, Janice Galloway, Louise Welsh and Ali Smith, who would bang the drum for her. She's such a brilliant modernist writer, and the innovation and the idiosyncrasies of her writing perhaps aren't necessarily recognised, because Brodie is the one that has come to define her to a lot of people.”

Sansom approached Penelope Jardine, Spark's great friend who now runs the late writer's estate with a view to adapting The Driver's Seat. Jardine had seen Sansom's production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and liked it well enough to give him the go ahead to explore how to stage a story that is both complex and intimate.

“The book goes to sixteen different locations in just a hundred pages,” Sansom points out, “so it's quite complicated to stage. There are layers of ambiguity running throughout the story, and it's really hard to do ambiguity onstage, so how you create those mysterious layers without confusing the audience is really key. How do you tell the story clearly, but keep it odd and mysterious and enigmatic? ”

With this in mind, Sansom has incorporated two hand-held cameras used by the show's seven actors throughout.

“That way we can play with what the audience see, and also around her you also have a sense of the actors being like detectives watching Lise, studying her and trying to understand her. So in a way the actors are like a reader or an audience trying to understand this crazy woman travelling to all these different places that we don't quite recognise, but which are like a mind map of Lise's world.

“Unusually for a novelist,” Sansom points out, “Muriel doesn't tell us what Lise is thinking. You would expect a novelist to be right inside a character's head, but instead she observes her, and remains as objective about her as we do. To try to capture that onstage is not easy.”

The Driver's Seat was Spark's favourite of her novels, and it has gained in status over the years. In 2010 it was named as one of six novels to be nominated for the Lost Man Booker Prize of 1970, an award which had been deleted for forty years after a rule change in the then fledgling competition disqualified the best part of a year's worth of literature from being eligible.

The only previous dramatic adaptation of The Driver's Seat was for a film made in 1974 by Italian writer and director Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, who renamed it for the American market as Identikit. As Lise, the film starred Elizabeth Taylor, who came to the role on the back of her first divorce from Richard Burton, who she remarried a year later. This rarely seen curio is also notable for featuring Andy Warhol in a cameo role as an English Lord.

“The film's terrible,” says Sansom. “It's awful, and Muriel hated it, but if I tell you what she said about it then it would give away the ending.”

In this respect Sansom is staying true to the essence of the book in all its weird and wonderful glory.

“It's a disturbing book,” says Sansom, “because it addresses violences against women. Muriel addresses this quite a lot in her work, and she talks about satirising and mocking aggression against women, and how that is the best way to deal with it. Rather than make the reader pity the victim, she says the best way is to expose it for what it is and to ridicule it. That gives The Driver's Seat an extraordinary tone. It is about predatory men, so it's creepy and disturbing, but it's also darkly comic.

“It's a creepy road movie in a way, but it says a lot about gender politics as well. When it was written we'd had a decade of free love that had trickled down, and it looks at what the relationships are between men and women after all that, and it asks who really is in the driving seat.”

The Driver's Seat, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, June 13-27; Tramway, Glasgow, July 2-4.

www.lyceum.org.uk
www.tramway.org

The Herald, June 9th 2015

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Monday, 8 June 2015

Great Expectations

Dundee Rep
Five stars

It is a bleak and austere house that Pip and Estella find themselves in at the opening and close of Jemima Levick's production of Charles Dickens' classic treatise on class, power and the perils of having ideas above one's station. Using Jo Clifford's original 1987 adaptation which has continually regenerated over the last three decades, Levick has utilised the script's rich and brutal poetry to create a magnificent and stately piece of darkly comic gothica that retains its period lyricism while becoming a profoundly pertinent play for today.

As a role-call of grotesques step through the walls of empty picture frames where still lives were once captured on Becky Minto's set, Pip is thrust from a poor provincial existence to the mysterious wonders of Miss Havisham's loveless parlour before being whisked off to London where he learns the ways of the world.

“If they do cut your throat,” says lawyer's clerk Wemmick to Pip of the human detritus around them as they bustle their way through the big city streets, “it is because they believe they can make a profit from it.” In a world where property is worth more than people and a gentleman is higher than everyone else, profit is all that counts.

What Levick does in this co-production between Dundee Rep Ensemble and the Perth based Horsecross Arts organisation is create an elaborate impressionistic dance that moves at a stately pace beneath the stark shadowplay of Mike Robertson's lighting but which never loses clarity. This is pulsed by a powerful piano score played live by David Paul Jones, who also weaves exquisitely moody arrangements of several contemporary songs into the mix.

Levick's eight-strong cast never put a foot wrong, with company veterans Emily Winter and, as a wraith-like Miss Havisham, Ann Louise Ross, rarely better. David Delve, John Macauley, Antony Strachan and Sally Reid are equally unforgettable. It is Millie Turner as the emotionally strangled Estella and especially Thomas Cotran as Pip, however, who carry this thrilling but troubling evocation of the everyday tragedies caused by one wrong turn.
 
The Herald, June 8th 2015


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Charlie Sonata

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

The last time Douglas Maxwell developed a play with students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland it finished up as Fever Dream: Southside, this year's main-stage professional offering at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow. Whether this picaresque metaphysical fantasia will go the same way following Matthew Lenton's production performed in the Tron's bijou Changing House space by an ensemble of final year BA Acting students remains to be seen, but there are similarities.

Lenton's production finds Charlie 'Chick' Sonata slumped unconscious, a hip-flask by his side. Around him carouse the flotsam and jetsam of a life carelessly lived, a mixture of now domesticated drinking buddies, old flames and accidental angels who seem to have embarked with Chick on some celestial bender. Sat round a hospital bed where teenage Audrey lays unconscious, Chick's life flashes across his eyes as he is lurched Scrooge-like across a life-long mid-life crisis that leaves him only wanting to do good.

Over a slow-burning ramble through the thwarted ambitions of a soft play area manager and the sexual peccadilloes of Latvian ballet dancers, some kind of fairy-dust is sprinkled onto Chick's world enough to make it a matter of life and death. Maxwell and Lenton's dramatic concerns are well met in this respect, as their nine actors navigate their way through something that more resembles a surrealist tone poem than a play per se. Onstage throughout, the likes of Carly Tisdall's all dressed up Meredith and Dan Cahill's Jackson offload their own chemically enhanced lost years. But this is Nebli Basani's show. As Chick, he is a guileless mess of contradictions in a play that allows its hero to finally find his wings.
 
The Herald, June 8th 2015
 
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Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

“We have a parliamentary democracy for a reason,” says the once thrusting but now cancer-ridden right-wing atheist academic in the second act of Mike Bartlett's epic expose of a Britain on the verge of collapse. “The people can't be trusted.” Hearing those words in the heat of the anti-capitalist Occupy protests when the play was first seen in 2011 is one thing. Hearing them just a few grim weeks after the Conservative Party's Westminster victory in this May's UK General Election sounds chillingly pertinent.

This is especially the case in a production performed by a large ensemble about to graduate from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland's BA Acting course. An entire nation may be having bad dreams at the start of Ben Harrison's production, but in the midst of a criss-crossing array of increasingly troubled lives in motion, hope comes along in the form of John, a park-side anti-war preacher resembling a leftover from Speakers Corner.

As John spars with Ruth, ,his former female university friend turned Tory Prime Minister, a complex web of political expediency, personal loss and the sheer desire to believe in something is mapped out. In a construction that is post party political rather than anti ideology, post church rather than anti religion, the young cast grab hold of its ideas with subtlety and nuance.

Andrew Barrett makes a charismatic John, who is eventually stitched up by Emily-Jane McNeill's Ruth. There is fine support too from Sara Clark Downie as the preternaturally cynical eleven year old daughter of an American diplomat, and from Alexandra Cockrell as the Mary Magdalene-like Holly in a devastating parable for our times.
 
The Herald, June 8th 2015
 
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Sunday, 7 June 2015

Samantha Jones – Don't Come Any Closer

There were several versions of some time Joe Meek and Burt Bacharach collaborator Charles Blackwell's mini Greek tragedy in words and music, but none can match the barely restrained melodrama of the 1965 original by the artist formerly known as Jean Owen.

Owen had started out as one of the Vernons Girls, the sixteen-piece female choir founded at the Liverpool-based football pools firm, who appeared on TV rock show, Oh Boy! in the late 1950s, and recorded albums for both Parlophone and Decca in a slimmed-down three-piece version.

Some former Vernons Girls went on to form splinter groups such as The Breakaways, The Pearls and The Ladybirds, the latter of whom provided backing vocals on Jimi Hendrix's Hey Joe before becoming stalwarts of The Benny Hill Show. Others married into rock and roll aristocracy, with The Breakaways Vicky Haseman wedding Joe Brown, while Joyce Smith got hitched to Marty Wilde, with both partnerships ensuring musical dynasties continued with Sam Brown and Kim Wilde respectively.

Owen, meanwhile, embarked on what would prove to be a peripatetic solo career in 1964. Rebranded as Samantha Jones, she announced herself to the world in a TV duet with Long John Baldry, had two of her vocal performances feature on the soundtrack of The Vengeance of Fu Manchu and went on to become a Northern Soul favourite with her upbeat 1967 single, Surrounded By A Ray of Sunshine.

A U.S. only debut album went largely un-noticed in 1968, before Jones went on to chart in Belgium and the Netherlands in a way that would have been ideal for Eurovision. She later popped up on the Morecambe and Wise Show, and had more success in Europe prior to working the cruise ship circuit.

It was Jones' second single, however, that should have really set 1965 alight. It starts as it means to go on, with an epic, kettle-drum led rendering of the chorus supported by equally strident backing vocalists warning her cheating beau to keep his distance. A moment of weakness follows as the song's protagonist steps back to contemplate the potential consequences of her own actions with a breathy moment of self-realisation which also sounds like a coy tease.

With such a high-pitched opening, it's as if the listener has stumbled into an argument that's already at full pelt before full exposition of the treacherous lover's crimes is delivered with hell-hath-no-fury defiance in the verses. These are sung directly to the villain of the piece without interruption, as couplets in a classic tragedy might be if they were accompanied by angry little castanet flourishes and a kitchen-sink arrangement punctuated by a solitary horn.

Jones' delivery is an impeccable mix of light and shade, one minute overwrought, the next regaining composure to tell it how it like it is before giving vent to barely controlled rage as the relationship roller-coaster goes off the rails once more.

One of the fascinating things about the song is the supporting narrative provided by the backing vocals, which are akin to a Greek Chorus. At first the female singers stand as one with their wronged best friend, providing girl-powered strength and support before hanging back during the first verse, presumably observing the to-and-fro of such a volatile monologue.

Their interjections during the second verse, however, suggests a more critical conspiracy. Not as emotionally caught up in the moment as their soul sister, they are able to see through her self-protecting litany to the mixed messages of something altogether more vulnerable and contrary (This was changed, interestingly, on Allison Durbin's more soft-centred and submissive 1968 version, which was a hit in New Zealand, and which transposed 'She' to 'I', suggesting the backing vocals were more the conflicting voices of an interior monologue).

With such a tug of love sealing the heroine's fate, even as a repeated 'Baby, Baby Go Away' attempts to ward off temptation, the song ends as it begins, on a Sisyphean loop of hurt, rejection and anger in this most highly-charged and criminally neglected of Brit-girl break-up classics.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GHbWXJ_I5_M

Product magazine, March 2015.
 
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