Monday, 30 November 2015

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

Sirens and sleigh-bells are the dramatic pulse behind Andrew Panton's epic new staging of C.S. Lewis' Christian fantasia, adapted here by Theresa Heskins in a version given a fresh breath of life with new songs by Claire McKenzie and Scott Gilmour. The sirens accompany the story's four child heroes' escape to the country where they spend the war exploring the cavernous house where an eccentric professor lives. The sleigh-bells usher in the far darker presence of the White Witch who rules Narnia by force, decreeing it to remain forever winter, but without a hint of Christmas.

But there are prophecies to be fulfilled, and Peter, Susan, Lucy and Edmund are key players in all this, even as the ice slowly melts to signal the coming of Aslan, played by Ben Onwukwe as a dread-locked lord of all goodness.

Panton's production is an impressive feat of theatrical light and shade from the off, as the siblings enter the wardrobe of Becky Minto's expansive set, which opens out onto a wondrous tree-lined kingdom. Here, Cristian Ortega's Edmund whines like a spoilt Tory boy high on Turkish Delight and the prospect of power as he falls under the cruel spell of Pauline Knowles' White Witch. There is fun to be had with John Kielty and Gail Watson's Mr and Mrs Beaver, while Claire-Marie Seddon, James Rottger and Charlotte Miranda Smith play the other children with unabashed gusto.

Driven by the epic sweep of McKenzie's score, this very special show bridges the gulf between innocence and experience, and remains inspirational to the very end of the adventure.

The Herald, November 30th 2015

ends


Saturday, 28 November 2015

Boots For Dancing – The Politics of, Ooh, Feeling Good!

1

It was a poet who gifted the name to Boots For Dancing, the critically neglected Edinburgh-sired agit-Funk auteurs led by vocalist 'Dancing' Dave Carson during Post-Punk's first flourish between 1979 and 1982. The phrase was introduced into the lexicon by way of an off-the-cuff counterpoint to another band's three-word melding of socio-cultural tropes. Such tropes were forged in the heat of a generation's existential disaffection in late 1970's Thatcher's Britain. They also tapped into everything Boots For Dancing were about.

Here was a name that implied a Doc Marten buffed youth club gang cutting loose from the working week and letting off their collective tension on the floor. There was a sense of pride too in such a mass ritual, where sartorial elegance and cutting a dash was as much a part of the experience as the moves themselves. Looking good, feeling better was an unspoken mantra. It came with a package, that understand music was a matter of life and death. It also democratised the dance-floor beyond the stages that separated performers from their audience and put the former on a pedestal just out of reach.

Twas ever thus with working class musical revolutions, from jumping Jive to Northern Soul to Acid House and beyond. Not the stuff of super-clubs and stadiums, but something more intimate, born out of pub function rooms, dance halls and social clubs. These are the places and spaces where real pop art comes from, because the people making it or hearing it are living it, experiencing every second-hand emotion from the songs of strength and heartbreak that lift them onto the floor for real. Some might call it Soul.

But in the late 1970s, life on the street of any city or small town was tense, especially for teenagers spewed out of school and into the dole queue, where one-time factory fodder were put into another form of production line just as mechanically choreographed. To step out of line and to dare to be different was not the done thing.

So it was when Punk happened, as, beyond the tabloid outrage and short-lived explosion of Dada-Situationist inspired nihilism, that community, who didn't even know they were part of one yet, began to find their voice.

“There was a solid hardcore of Edinburgh punks,” Dave Carson remembers, “probably a couple of hundred, who went to different venues. There was a youth club basement in a church in the west end called the Cephas Cellar. It was probably quite a small scene with people from different housing estates and different schools discovering this emerging youth culture and it was really exciting”

In Edinburgh, the catalyst was The Clash's White Riot tour, which opened at Edinburgh Playhouse on May 7h 1977. This wasn't due to the headliners, who postured as good as any old pros, but to support acts The Slits and Subway Sect. Those bands mix of rudimentary musicianship, speak-easy bonhomie and sartorial ordinariness as well as attitude aplenty was as far away from the tabloid idea of 'Punk' as possible.

“It was very convenient that all these bands played on the same night,” says Carson, who was in attendance. “Very few people mention that the Jam played as well, but they were second from the top after the Buzzcocks, Subway Sect and the Slits, and you don't see a line-up like that very often.”

Because of this, and contrary to popular mythology, Scotland's rich and fecund music scene didn't begin in Glasgow, where 'Punk' gigs were then banned by the local council. Big Gold Dream: Scottish Post Punk and Infiltrating the Mainstream, ia a lovingly realised documentary film made in 2015 by Grant McPhee. As this extensive study of the era between 1977 and 1982, reveals The Sound of Young Scotland began in a flat in Keir Street, next to Edinburgh College of Art on the cusp of the city's Tollcross neighbourhood.

Here, co-conspirators Bob Last and Hilary Morrison would set down a blueprint for pop entryism via Fast Product and Pop Aural records, labels which focused on packaging as much as music. As records, the twelve releases on Fast were several works of art in one, with the sleeves wrapped around each disc as significant as what was on the record in a then punky but now commonplace form of packaging.

As for the music itself, in releasing the first records by The Mekons, Gang of Four, The Human League and the Dead Kennedys by way of Scars, Fire Engines and Boots For Dancing, Fast Product and Pop Aural would eventually go on to change the world. Until now, Boots For Dancing were the missing link in such a crucial seam of influence.


2

Boots For Dancing were born out of an incestuous network of Edinburgh conceptualists that included The Rezillos, Dirty Reds, The Flowers, Josef K, Thursdays, plus the aforementioned Scars, Fire Engines and others.

Ideas Over Ability, a music paper small ad manifesto at the time, was the key to all this. After Punk, everyone who got the new musical revolution had ideas. This in turn sired a hot-bed of artistic invention that didn't concern itself with rule-breaking, largely because no-one knew what the rules were. Like so many of their peers, from The Pop Group in Bristol to the Gang of Four in Leeds and Manicured Noise in Manchester, Boots For Dancing looked beyond rock's rich platitudes for inspiration.

In truth, in the midst of Auld Reekie's late 1970s Presbyterian gloom, the low-slung sophisticated euphoria of Chic, Funkadelic and James Brown were as big an influence as the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart on this nascent non-scene. Jazz, Funk, Soul and Reggae were all thrown into an increasingly eclectic mix. Of course, no-one knew how to tap into the complexities of all this stuff, so everything came out wrong. Which is where things became interesting.

Where today's conveyor belt of flush-cheeked indie pirates can simply download a pick and mix of influences, press the Post-Punk-Funk button and howl their way to cultdom, back then nobody had a clue what they were doing. Accidents happen when you can't play.

In their short life, Boots For Dancing would feature members or have connections with most of their Edinburgh peers named above as they developed into a Post-Punk-Funk unit of ever increasing eclecticism, but with one foot remaining firmly on the dance-floor.

Over two and a bit years and a multitude of line-ups, they released three singles. The first, a 12”, was, like it's 7” follow-up, released on Pop Aural, while a third came out on the band's own Re-Bop-X imprint. Boots For Dancing also recorded a trio of increasingly ambitious John Peel sessions before imploding. These shards of long lost brilliance are at last recaptured on this disc.

Here then is a tale of pop entryism and Smash Hits conceptualism; of gold sequinned jackets, everyday arson and the politics of dancing. It's a tale of dancing fools, showbiz with substance and a band which fanzine writer and future BBC producer of Top of the Pops 2 and a host of music documentaries Mark Hagen described as “a youth club James Brown.”

By the time Brian Hogg's comprehensive paperback history of Scottish pop, All That Ever Mattered, was published in 1993, however, Bob Last was quoted declaring his former charges as “totally self-destructive.” Ultimately, the story of Boots For Dancing is one of such inherent contradictions subverting the system, of being uptight, alright and, for far too long, out of sight.


3

“It's a bit like it's not me,” says Carson after listening to the Boots For Dancing recordings contained on this album for the first time in more than thirty years. “It's like something that happened years ago that I was really passionate about and involved with, so to hear it now it's very strange. We maybe didn't appreciate at the time what we were doing because we were in the thick of it, but we always tried to work as a collective, and there was a tension to that, because we were all listening to different things.

“The original band, we all had different ideas. Graham the guitarist wanted to be Captain Beefheart. Douglas sang and I sang, and I stopped playing bass and Douglas was brilliant at it.”

It was a tension that worked, with Boots For Dancing on record a taut, edgy and urgent display of each band member tugging in umpteen different ways, sometimes in the same song.

“In my head I always thought it sounded like Chic,” Carson says of the Boots For Dancing sound, “so that's why I kept the lyrics simple, but I wanted them to have meaning as well. Chic used simple phrases and repetition. One of our biggest influences at the time was Spacer by Sheila B. Devotion. If you listen to Nile Rodgers' guitar on it what he's doing sounds really simple, and we wanted that, but in a way that was relevant to a Post-Punk audience. The whole thing about Punk music was to have some kind of meaning behind it, so that made things more complex.”

In this way, there was clearly something in the air. Since Punk, and unless you were the Buzzcocks, silly love songs were off limits, and even Devoto and Shelly's pop miniatures were loaded more with abrasive sarcasm and hormonal disappointment than moon-in-June schmaltz. Disco meanwhile, as appropriated by the Bee Gees, had become a soundtrack of smoothed out bubblegum for attendees of neon-lit high street meat markets in search of escapism through booze, sex or both.

By co-opting other musics outside such worlds, Boots For Dancing and others showed that dance music, however scratchily played, could be something more urgent and less anodyne than mere posing. By adopting an intelligently oppositional stance, Boots For Dancing's musical and lyrical stew was taut, sinewy and stripped back to basics. Agitational as well as agitated, and with muscle and guts in abundance, here was a glorious evocation of the politics of dancing, a place where pleasure and danger co-existed in (im)perfect harmony.

“Punk was played out,” says Carson. “Everything was played out. The thing that always got me was the bit about Punk being about three chords, when Funk was just about playing one chord. I remember saying at the time, this is going to be easier than Punk, but actually the opposite was true, because it's all about timing and playing together.

“So part of the concept wasn't about being minimal, but about doing things in a different way that's got all these parts to it and has a certain energy. At that time I hadn't really heard Northern Soul, but had seen grainy TV footage of James Brown, though the sound was more based on what I'd read than anything. Where I read that Funk was just one chord I don't know, but that was the concept.”

Another driving force behind Boots For Dancing was a conscious decision to play youth clubs as well as regular venues.

“The kids who came to see us were only used to chart acts,” says Carson, “and then we came along full of this different kind of live energy that they weren't used to. Part of the plan was to explore alternative routes to the music business. There were lots of opportunities then, but even though there were shifting sands the gate-keepers were the same, but really I wanted to capture the youth market. My view was that if you could play youth clubs and get away with it, then you really would corner that market.”

Such a mix of calculated subversion fitted in famously with Fast Product and Pop Aural's entryist ethos.

“The comfortable part of the relationship with Pop Aural,” says Carson, “was that they had this response too that you could be subversive with pop. That was there in the Human League as well. So you can see why we fitted quite nicely with what Bob was doing at the time.”

4

In the so-called Year Zero fall-out of Punk, a form of new puritanism had sprung up amongst the serious young men and women taking the stage to explore seemingly new territories. Anti-rockist and seemingly anti-performance in spirit, fun was a serious business and speaking to or even acknowledging the audience was a no-no.

Born in part from studied cool, part from painful shyness and part getting to grips with instruments they'd barely learnt to play, Post-Punk bands at the time reflect a greyness and seeming return to 1930s austerity, with utilitarian Army & Navy Store chic and high theory to the fore.

Boots For Dancing had the theory alright, but they also had the politics. Anti Thatcher and anti racist where some of their contemporaries frowned on political commitment, they aligned themselves with the Rock Against Racism movement of the time. Also counter to the prevailing miserabilism, and more akin to the acts that graced the Harlem Revue, Reggae sound-systems and Funkadelic's Sci-Fi spectaculars, Boots For Dancing wanted to put on a show.

“That was my experience of seeing the Damned, the Banshees, the Heartbreakers,” says Carson. “They all acknowledged the audience, and then this thing happened where that stopped, maybe because the bands were nervous, but then it became a thing to do.

“We were always a live band, and when we did play live it was even edgier and more chaotic than on record. We had an audience to play with rather than play for, and we would orchestrate stage invasions and stuff like that. In the early days I'd come on from the audience, so you were already breaking the fourth wall and putting on a show. We were always very energetic.

“In some ways it was a disadvantage in terms of what we were seen to be. People expected us to be morose and insular, detached and other, whereas we wanted to embrace who was there and have fun, and not be precious about things, but be irreverent. We had a thing about show-business as well. I would make a point of introducing all the band members in a way that wasn't done at the time, but being a kind of MC. It was a bit like being Kermit off the Muppets. That confused people as well, because they wondered if we were a comedy band, as opposed to just listening to the music.”

Such a mix of showbiz and subversion would sometimes be taken to extremes. One act of reckless showmanship took place during a gig at the Nite Club, one of the city's foremost small venues of the time situated above Edinburgh Playhouse, where the White Riot tour had changed everything. Mid-set during a pre Christmas show, and as a gift to the audience, Carson and co sprayed the words 'Boots For Dancing' on the club's freshly painted back wall. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time.


5

Carson's in-roads into Edinburgh's nascent Punk scene began at Craigmount School, just down the hill from Clermiston, where his family had moved from Essex when he was ten and a half.

“I had to culturally assimilate,” he says, these days sounding as Leith as it gets, “because I was getting battered for my English accent, not to mention my ginger hair and being the youngest in my year.”

At school Carson became friends with a boy called Andy Copland, and the pair found an affinity with Tam Dean Burn and his kid brother Russell.

“I always liked music,” Carson remembers, “and listened to all sorts, including Glam and Prog, but I really liked Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran.”

It wasn't until he heard the first Ramones LP, however, that something clicked.

“The Ramones deconstructed things for me,” he says. I could hear them and understand the parts to it, and it sounded much simpler to Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, even though I later realised it wasn't.”

Copland had started playing guitar, and Carson somehow ended up playing bass. The pair kept bumping into Burn, and with him on vocals and Russell on drums, the pair formed the very first line up of Dirty Reds, which became the nucleus, not just for Boots For Dancing, but, with Russell on the drum stool, for future Pop Aural label-mates Fire Engines as well.

Prior to Tam Dean Burn departing the band to go to drama school prior to becoming one of the most adventurous, Punk-inspired stage, film and television actors in the country, in December 1977 Dirty Reds supported The Rezillos, a band formed at Edinburgh College of Art whose cartoon trash aesthetic would eventually take them into the pop charts. The Rezillos guitarist Jo Callis, already a seasoned veteran, would go on to become a major player in the Boots For Dancing story, a would two others in attendance that night.

By that time Carson was working in a record shop, in the Edinburgh branch of a still hippified Virgin Records. It was here that a young woman came in with an advert saying she was a singer looking for a band. With the three leftover Dirty Reds in need of a vocalist, the ad never got as far as the notice board, and The Flowers were born, with the young woman, whose name was Hilary Morrison, aka Hi-Ray, the singer.

After nine months Carson left The Flowers, who, with Copland still in their ranks, went on to appear on Fast Product's high-concept Earcom 1 12” compilation, alongside Graph, the Blank Students and The Prats, and would later release two singles on Pop Aural.

“The Fast Product thing happened and all the Fire Engines hung out in Keir Street, but the reason I went round there was because I was in a band with Hilary, and after I left the band I disengaged from that scene, but Bob was always away on tour with the Rezillos, so I never made that connection.”

For Carson, meanwhile, it took another Virgin ad to find Boots For Dancing's first guitarist, Graham 'Pogo' High.

“He had a reel to reel tape recorder,” says Carson, “and out of that grew the first line up of the band.”

Before that, however, there was a kind of naming ceremony that took place in the Tap O'Laurieston, the now demolished magnet for Edinburgh's punk scene situated a stone's throw from Edinburgh College of Art.

“We were in the Tap, Graham, Douglas, Paul and myself, and I think Metropak were playing,” Carson recalls.

'Douglas' was Douglas Barrie, initially Carson's co-vocalist turned bass player for the original Boots For Dancing. 'Paul' was Paul Reekie, the Fife-born genius who, as the front-man of Thursdays, had appeared on Fast's Earcom 2: Contradiction 12” follow-up compilation to Earcom 1. Thursdays opened and closed the record, with their own composition, Perfection, ushering in two songs by Basczax on Side 1, before following two exclusive originals by Joy Division on Side 2 with a beautifully cracked cover of Otis Reading's (Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay.

“That was before Paul became a poet,” says Carson, “although he always had it in him, and he showed me this list of stuff, and because there was this band Shoes For Industry*, he put down Boots For Dancing. Metropak had no support act that night, so we said why don't we get up and do something, storm the stage or something. Me and Graham and Douglas got up, and Paul was quite a good drummer, and that was when we called ourselves Boots For Dancing, because that was what we shouted out.”

With Stuart Wright recruited on drums, the first line-up of Boots For Dancing was complete.

“We got access to rehearsal space,” Carson remembers, “and made a cassette, one of which we gave to Hilary with a view to supporting The Flowers. By that time we knew Bob from his Rezillos connections, and then I got a phone call from him. I knew he was starting a distribution company, and thought it might have something to do with that, but we met, and he said he thought the song Boots For Dancing would make a great single and wanted to put it out.”

While Carson's response was hardly the stuff of career opportunities, it did give a youthful nod to the collective idealism that would in part define the band.

“I said I'd need to check with my mates first,” he recalls. “Then Bob said he wanted the single to be a Disco 12”, and I just thought you're taking the piss here. I phoned Graham, and I'm pretty certain Graham said to tell him to fuck off. Then I said, let's think about this, because it's an opportunity. I mean, we hadnae played live. What we were doing was basically a concept. That's what Bob probably picked up on. I know he'd been going to New York, and had done a night in Edinburgh called the Dancetaria, which obviously came from the New York club, so he could obviously see something.

“I suppose retrospectively you can dig out everything that was happening at the time. We loved James White, but there was all the other stuff like Arthur Russell, so you can see why he would maybe think about us in that way.

“With the song Boots For Dancing itself I suppose we were making a statement, because it's about wanting to go dancing, but most of the discos in Edinburgh, if you went to them and were a punk you'd get jumped. That's the line about I like dancing but I don't like discos, it's about the environment and not about the music. “

The eponymous Boots For Dancing was duly released on Pop Aural as a 12” EP in April 1980 backed by two new songs, Parachute and Guitars & Girl Trouble. In keeping with the label's visual aesthetic, the sleeve was adorned with images of footprints like those used in old time step by step beginners guides to cutting a rug to the latest dance-floor craze. In the corner, a pair of boots was placed, stock still and side by side, saving themselves for the final number.

“The next thing was we were going to have to play gigs,” says Carson, “so we had to start writing songs. The best thing that happened was that we did our first gig in Aberdeen and not in Edinburgh in front of people we knew, because I'd moved centre stage, so I felt quite confident not being in front of people we knew. We did three or four gigs after that, and the next thing we're supporting the Human League at George Square Theatre in Edinburgh, and then at Hammersmith Palais in London.

“The original line-up lasted about six or seven gigs, but significantly certain people saw us at those gigs, like Jo, and Ali (Angel) Patterson drummed for us once.

With Wright vacating his drum stool, Carson's co-writer High announced his forthcoming departure to London.

“And this is where it gets slightly incestuous,” says Carson, “because Graham ended up playing with the Delta 5, and that came about because because Jo's sister Jackie played bass with the Delta 5, and then later Jo joined us. We always had an interchangeable line-up, with people leaving because of other bands and other priorities, so it was never a big issue. It was always like that.”

Prior to this, and by way of promotion for the 12” EP, Pop Aural's ongoing attempt to infiltrate the mainstream saw Boots For Dancing grace the competition pages of Smash Hits, no less. More usually associated with the likes of Adam Ant and Duran Duran, many forget than in its early days the glossy pop magazine founded in 1978 by former NME editor and future founder of 1980s style bible The Face Nick Logan was a heady mix of chart-bound bubblegum and more independent fare. Just the sort of thing, then, that would appeal to Pop Aural and others pushing the so-called New Pop revolution that would eventually see the likes of the Human League, Heaven 17 and Scritti Politti become bona fide pop stars.

On page 28 of the magazine below a 'Star Teaser' word game and beneath the headline 'Put The Boot In!', readers were invited to take part in a Spot The Ball style competition involving, not some image of a high-kicking sporting activity in motion, but a photograph of a busy city street in which passers by were simply crossing the road. To win, you had to put a cross on the foot of which passing pedestrian entrants considered to be the most likely to dance. As well as picking up a copy of the Boots For Dancing 12” EP along with the 1979 EMI released Fast Product compilation, The First Year Plan, the competition winner also received a pair of Doc Martens, 'or if the girls don't fancy that, a pair of boots to the value of £25.' For the benefit of anyone who may have entered, the winning feet belonged to Carson.


6

In keeping with Carson's aspirations for the nascent youth market, he also managed a teenage punk band called Chaos.

“That was Andy's wee brother and a couple of other guys and Jamo, James Stewart, on drums,” Carson remembers. “They were great They had a song about the band The Freeze called Anti Freeze. That's how Jamo ended up playing drums for us.”

With High about to depart to London, he played a farewell show with Boots For Dancing on a bill with Jo Callis' post Rezillos band, Shake, which also featured former Rezillos Simon Templar (nee Bloomfield) and Angel Patterson, and what turned out to be the final gig by Paul Reekie's band, Thursdays.

“I'd been very good friends with Paul and Thursdays,” says Carson. “They were from Glenrothes where Stuart and Douglas were from, and from that gig Michael Barclay, who was Thursdays guitarist, joined us, and Jo joined us. After the Rezillos I think he was looking around for stuff, and he could see what we were trying to do. He did Shake, who were very good, and over the years all three members of Shake ended up playing in Boots For Dancing.”

It was this point that Boots For Dancing really tightened up as a working unit.

“Some of the ideas from the first line up were rearranged by Jo for the first John Peel session,” Carson says of a session first broadcast in December 1980, and which according to Ken Garner's book, In Session Tonight*, also featured both Last and Morrison on backing vocals. Given that at the time BBC and Musicians Union rules stipulated that bands in for sessions were paid per member, Last and Morrison's appearance helped maximise Boots For Dancing' fee. This was particularly helpful to pay for rehearsal space in Edinburgh whenever Last invoiced them.


7

It is this line up who appear in the only known film footage from the pre camera phone world that Boots For Dancing occupied, when they were captured giving a live performance of Parachute recorded at the Queens Hall in Leeds as part of the 1980 Futurama festival. Billed as 'The World's First Science Fiction Music Festival', Futurama was a weekend-long compendium of underground Post-Punk acts with a couple of major head-liners, and in retrospect looks like a pre-cursor to the likes of the All Tomorrow's Parties week-enders that brought an assortment of indie kids and chin-strokers to off-season UK holiday camps throughout the noughties and beyond.

Top of the bill at the first Futurama in 1979 were Public Image Limited, while the 1980 edition was headlined by Siouxsie and the Banshees and Gary Glitter. The line up also featured the Psychedelic Furs and U2, plus the likes of Young Marble Giants, Clock DVA, and an electronic trio from Sheffield called Vice Versa. From Scotland there was Altered Images, plus Boots For Dancing's Pop Aural label-mates The Flowers, still fronted by Morrison.

For Boots For Dancing's set, while Callis wore a kilt, Carson sported a gold sequinned jacket, a glitzy showbiz relative of the gold lame variety that was a vital signifier of British pop history. As noted by Michael Bracewell in his book, England is Mine: Pop Life in Albion From Wilde to Goldie*, Billy Fury, Malcolm McDowell in Lindsay Anderson's 1973 state of the nation film, O Lucky Man!, and Morrissey in his early post Smiths solo guise had all donned such a garment.

“Bob must've known we were going to be filmed,” says Carson, “and he sent me to Mutrie's Theatrical Costume Hire, who had just opened a brand spanking new warehouse on Brunswick Street off Leith Walk, next to the Royal Mail sorting office. We were theatrical anyway, and he told me to get something showy, so I got this gold sequinned jacket that looked like a Teddy Boy jacket. I hired it for a week and took it to Leeds, but it was so heavy I took it off very quickly.”

In the Futurama footage, shown originally on late night television,sure enough, the jacket is there when Carson introduces Parachute with an earnest 'We may not be the greatest but enjoy yourselves', but by the end of the first verse it's gone, freeing him up to shimmy with controlled abandon.

Watching Carson cavort his way through Boots For Dancing's set were the young men from Vice Versa, who, as fronted by a fanzine writer turned musician called Martin Fry, were scheduled to play straight after. A couple of years later, Fry would effectively deconstruct the pop song with ABC on their string-laden debut album, The Lexicon of Love. Fry's knowing lyrics wrapped up in Trevor Horn's epic airbrushed production would also set the charts alight with such grandiloquent statements as The Look of Love, Poison Arrow and, most glorious of all, All of My Heart.

ABC publicity stills featured Fry knowingly styled within an inch of his life in glossy retro chic images that gave him the appearance of a matinee idol in an irony-free 1980s pastiche of Hollywood noir. On the cover of Smash Hits, Fry went one step further than Carson. It wasn't just a gold lame jacket he was pictured in, but a gold lame suit.

Carson, meanwhile, had continued his affection for natty dapper formal stage-wear via circuitous routes that included nabbing the tartan lame jacket worn by Rezillos bassist William Mysterious in the picture on the back of the band's debut album.

“There was a white one as well,” says Carson, “which Titch (Michael Barclay) our guitarist said made me look like Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull.”


8

Boots For Dancing released a second single, a 7” featuring Rain Song / Hesitate, on Pop Aural in March 1981. Hesitate was originally earmarked to be the A side, but Last switched the two songs at the last minute, with the recording being sped up by 10% at the lathe cutting stage, “just like Phil Spector!”, says Carson.

In search of a follow-up, Carson looked to an unlikely favourite of the Boots For Dancing live set.

Heaven is in the Back Seat of My Cadillac had been a Top 30 hit for Hot Chocolate in 1976, and the gold medallions and hip-hugging flares of Errol Brown's Top of the Pops friendly troupe were seemingly as far from Post Punk puritanism as they could be. In truth, the song's faux Philly strings, pumping bass line and sparkle-laden delivery were perfect for plundering without prejudice. Brown even wore a sequinned jacket on TV.

As cover versions go, Heaven Is in the Back Seat of My Cadillac could have done for Boots For Dancing what Shack Up did for Factory Records house band A Certain Ratio when they released their version of Washington DC Funk outfit Banbarra's then little known 1975 dance-floor filler. Carson tried to persuade Pop Aural in vain to release Heaven is in the Back Seat of My Cadillac as the third Boots For Dancing single. As it turned out, what ended up as their swan-song didn't come out on Pop Aural at all, and by the time of their second John Peel session in July 1981, the line-up had changed again.

“We recorded a third single,” says Carson, “but it was a bit of a disaster. We recorded it in Castle Sound, which is a really lovely studio, and Calum Malcolm who produced it was brilliant, but being in this professional studio, it was too smooth for us. Jo was away, and we ended up putting harpsichords on it, and it sounded shite. Jo was furious.

“The band had a fluid nature, but there were personal loyalties there as well. The loyalty, that was the magical quality to it. We tried to get everyone to contribute and work as a collective. We'd been offered gigs in London with Restricted Code, but Jamo had been threatened with losing his job at British Rail. He was quite a bit younger than us and had just left school, so you felt slightly responsible. My position was there was no way we were performing without Jamo. Then Bob said don't worry about your band, I've got you a band. For me that was the end of it. It was a good thing to make a break with Pop Aural, but it caused lots of problems at the time.”

With Jamo Stewart eventually departing the band and Callis having already joined the Human League, with whom he would co-write Don't You Want Me, hitting commercial pay-dirt when the song became the 1981 UK Christmas number one, Boots For Dancing regrouped yet again. Carson and co enlisted drummer Mike Baillie, who had just returned to Scotland from London after playing with the Skids circa their Days of Europa album. The new Boots For Dancing line-up reached potentially explosive heights, however, with the arrival of the living legend that was the Amazing Dickie Fusco.

“Dickie was a jazz drummer who lived round the corner,” says Carson. “He played percussion, and would play completely random stuff. He was always this really funny guy who taught himself to fire-eat, and when he switched from methylated spirits to paraffin, he almost burnt the ceiling at the ICA in London. But going from having two guitarists to having a drummer and a percussionist really changed things. Mike Baillie and Dickie Fusco were a formidable combination that took us to new heights rhythmically.”

By the time of the band's second Peel session, elements of Latin, African and what would come to be known as World Music were skittering into view as Boots For Dancing looked even further outwards. Their sound became slicker and more nuanced, exploring Fourth World avenues that similarly styled peers such as 23 Skidoo were also navigating. This first became evident on the third Boots For Dancing single.

Ooh Bop Sh'Bam / Money Is Thin On The Ground, was released in February 1982 on the band's own Re-Pop X label. The title of the A-side was appropriated from Dizzy Gillespie's twelve-bar big band blues, Oop Bop Sh'Bam, which itself was attempting to verbalise an onomatopoeic interpretation of what was then the new, hot as hell sound of Be-Bop jazz.

Novelist and Beat poet Clarence Major's 1970 book, Black Slang: Dictionary of Afro-American Talk described the phrase 'Oh bop sh'bam' as 'an existential jazz phrase; perhaps a mystic effort to comment on the inscrutable in the black man's social, moral and spiritual condition in the United States, or simply another way of talking to that “sense” of mystery often referred to as GOD.'

“The lyrics of Ooo Bop Sh'Bam came from a job interview I had,” says Carson, “and the guy interviewing me pointed out that there were huge gaps in my employment history. He said people might think I'd been in prison, or that I could be seen as work shy.”

Given Boots For Dancing's roots and influences, several years later this somewhat fittingly gifted another Edinburgh band, the decidedly nouveau Bop Sh'Bam, its name. But it was this later line-up of Boots For Dancing that worked the live circuit the most fervently.

“We gigged a lot,” says Carson, “maybe two or three times a week.”

It paid off. From the uptightness of their early days, Boots For Dancing's third Peel session, now with former Josef K drummer Ronnie Torrance taking over from Baillie, who had departed to pursue his own Epsilon project, seemed to be fleshed out in even more exotic colours.

“I think that's because we worked more collectively,” says Carson, “and if someone had an idea we'd work on it. We were all listening to very different things, and we shared that to try and understand it all. On the third Peel session, Bend An Elbow, Lend An Ear is based on a Chilean folk song. We did fund-raisers for Chilean solidarity against the Pinochet regime, because we had friends at the time who were Chilean, and who came to Edinburgh in the 70s. We came across the folk song, and then when we got the Peel session we just decided to do it.

“I wrote the lyrics in the car in the traffic jam to the Peel session, and that was it. We just did it and never played it live. I suppose that was a missed opportunity, that we never got a chance to experiment more. It was more diverse, and sometimes we struggled with that live, it was how do we have a continuity and bring these elements in again. So for me it felt a bit strange but if we were doing it now I think people would have different ears in their heads than people then, and I think they'd see it. Things were more compartmentalised then.”

Fusco's influence especially can be heard all over the third Peel session, on Just The Ticket in particular.

“That's because our pyrotechnic percussionist drummed on that,” Carson says of Fusco's input. “I had no memory of doing that until I heard it again recently. I thought who the hell's this, because we only ever played it once in the studio, and I don't know where it came from, but that's totally about Dicky's drumming.”


9

It is the previously unheard material here, however, that is most evocative of that period of Boots For Dancing's short lifespan. Recorded in Autumn 1981 at Barclay Towers Studio, a converted loft and lived-in kitchen analogue set-up run by producer Tony Pilley in a turret control room in a top floor flat on the corner of the Meadows in Edinburgh's Bruntsfield district, these five tracks consolidate everything that had gone before.

“In some ways it's very different to everything else we did,” according to Carson. “We were a lot more relaxed, because we'd played a lot. At least two of the songs were jams that we just made up at the time, and two of them we'd already recorded for a Peel session, so we played them back with a sense of clarity, and were a very confident band. I suppose that's when we tried to stretch out and bring in jazz influences and what have you.

“At that time I wouldn't have known this, but it's like there's version on version of Jamaican music, so you're influenced by someone, and maybe use two or three elements you can hear in your head because you like a particular part of a song, and you try and mash them together, and you're never gonna get there anyway, but it becomes something else.”

The Barclay Towers sessions and the third single were executive produced by Pete Harris, who, along with Alan 'Pinhead' Proudfoot, formed the Boots For Dancing road crew, with Harris on sound and driving duties and Proudfoot on lights. Harris also played Hammond organ on the second Peel session version of Wild Jazz Summers. Proudfoot designed the posters for Tollcross-based venue, the Hoochie Coochie Club as well as various record sleeves, including Caledonian funkateer Jesse Rae's third single, (It's Just) The Dog in Me, released on 12” by Allan Campbell's Supreme International Editions label in 1983.


10

For all the ideas that now existed alongside ability, however, by the end of 1982 Boots For Dancing were no more.

“In terms of that kind of intensity that we had,” says Carson, “it took a lot of work to do that as a unit. I suppose the only time we had anyone who really directed us was in the early days when Jo joined, because he had all these skills, and that changed us dramatically. From floundering when he joined, to being fully equipped by the time he left, we eventually had all this knowledge about dynamics and how you develop collectively.

“It was brilliant, because he just had all that all in his head, but it took a lot of energy for us to do that, and I think that's why we didn't last that long. It required everyone to have that energy, and people had other things to do. That was good as well, because it kept things healthy. If you become too insular you become like the last gang in town, and you just plough a furrow, disregard everything outside that and continue what you're doing, and what you're doing might be crap.

“There was a point it became, not frustrating, but it just wasn't going to keep going that way. I thought we'd played longer, but it was about two and a bit years. I can understand why now. It was quite a short period of time. You did something and that was for then, but for bands now there's a whole different way of working.

“The thing I always wanted us to do was to be two bands, like Parliament and Funkadelic. I wanted one band that could play anywhere to anyone doing a lot of covers so you could use it as your bread and butter to do your own stuff.

“Some of my contemporaries signed to major labels, usually as solo artists, and for many of them it was the worst thing that ever happened to then. I've always been retrospectively glad that we never went down that road.”


11

Post Boots For Dancing, the band's alumni scattered in ways as disparate as their sound. Following his stint in Delta 5, Graham High became a translator for German pharmaceutical companies, while

Douglas Barrie became a journalist and academic expert in aviation warfare, specialising in drones. Of the later line-up, Simon Templar/Bloomfield moved into social work and settled in Sweden, with Angel/Ali Patterson becoming an architect in Germany, while Ronnie Torrance is ensconced in Dalkeith, Midlothian.

Of those who continued with music, Jo Callis' epoch-changing stint with the Dare era Human is probably the best known. After that he formed the glamtastic S.W.A.L.K. with fellow ex Rezillo Eugene Reynolds along with Michael Barclay, and more recently joined and left a reformed Rezillos before becoming briefly involved in former Scars singer Robert King's Opium Kitchen project.

Jamo Stewart went on to front glossy dance act Syndicate before sadly passing away in the 1990s. Barclay went on to become head of the Art department in a school in Dundee, and has been known to tutor the occasional school band. Mike Baillie remains involved in the annual Skids fanclub get-together, where the surviving members of the band minus vocalist turned film director Richard Jobson perform with fans who get to sing their favourite Skids song.

The Amazing Dickie Fusco, meanwhile, joined the monotheistic religion, the Baha'i Faith, which Dizzy Gillespie had converted to in 1970, and which has taken Fusco to live and work at various points in Zimbabwe and China.

“He's kept the faith,” says Carson, invoking the ultimate Northern Soul mantra.

As for the back-room team, Alan Proudfoot now lives between Musselburgh and Turkey pursuing visual art projects, including a recent exhibition at the Prestoungrange Gothenburg in Prestonpans, East Lothian. Pete Harris is a key player with The Warehouse Sound Services on Water Street in Leith, which sells and hires out top quality sound equipment to a range of organisations.

One of these was the 2014 Edinburgh International Festival presentation of Delusion of the Fury, German composer Heiner Goebbels' fantastical staging of radical American iconoclast Harry Partch's rarely heard 1965 music theatre piece, which Harris worked on, and which utilised versions of some of Partch's custom-built instruments.

Hilary Morrison worked in film and television before moving into community arts, and is currently co-ordinator of the Craigmillar Archives Trust in Edinburgh. Bob Last moved into film, and was music supervisor on Iain Softley's Beatles film, Backbeat in 1994, the film version of Jim Cartwright's play, Little Voice in 1998, and others. Last was executive producer on Terence Davies' film of The House of Mirth in 2000, producer of Sylvain Chomet's partly Edinburgh-set animated feature, The Illusionist in 2010, and is currently executive producing Davies' big-screen adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's novel, Sunset Song.

Carson himself formed a loose-knit nouveau Be-Bop combo called The Jazz Thugs, playing fund-raising gigs for the 1980s UK Miners Strike before forming an even looser knit Blues duo called the Blind Lemons. Carson went on to study youth and community work, and worked in the Wester Hailes area of Edinburgh before becoming a drug support worker, and is currently Chair of the community-based Leith Festival.

“For a while I lost interest in music,” he says, “and at one point I didn't listen to any music at all. That was partly to do with having worked in a record shop, where you listened to music in a different way because it was for your work.”

Gradually, however, his interest in Soul, Funk and Dub returned, and he started to DJ, often in tandem with Paul Reekie as Itchy & Scratchy prior to Reekie's untimely passing in 2010. Today Carson remains in pursuit of the rarest of grooves, and looks on at the resurgence of Post Punk over the last decade or so with informed interest.

“I think it was brilliant,” he says. “The first time I heard Losing My Edge by LCD Soundsystem I thought it sounded like us, except they have access to all that technology now that makes it sound better.”

That particular record came out in 2002, and ushered in a wave of acts who seemed to be able to flick the Post-Punk / Punk Funk buttons in a way that, while sounding equally as urgent, contrasted greatly with just how much their forbears including Boots For Dancing were flying blind.

“I was into things like Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and This Heat as well as Dub,” Carson points out, “and if you were making records like that now it would all be with samples, and that would make it much easier. In some ways we were trying to sample without any technology, because we were trying to snatch ideas and feelings from different things, but we ended up doing our own thing with them as well.”

In this respect Boots For Dancing sound as fresh and as uncategorisable today as they did during their all too brief lifespan. Given how much the current age of austerity resembles the late 1970s and early 1980s era, what better reason to put on your boots, face the music, and dance.

“I feel privileged that I did it,” says Carson, still possibly trying to tap into the ever elusive youth market. “Although it's a past era, we were doing things then that young people can do now. Not necessarily with music, but they can do it, just working with a group of folk, having a laugh, doing something creative, challenging things, being slightly off kilter and mixing things up. I feel quite delighted I was involved in Boots For Dancing, but I don't think it would've lasted much longer than it did. It was a different time, and things moved faster then.”


Footnotes

* Shoes For Industry were an equally urgent Bristol combo whose 1980 album, Talk Like a Whelk, was released on Fried Egg Records, and who leant towards a more manic form of avant-conceptualist Post-Punk. Like Boots For Dancing, Shoes For Industry were John Peel favourites, while the band's vocalist, sax player and driving force, Paul Basset Davies, had co-founded and toured Europe with multi-media experimental theatre troupe, the Crystal Theatre, and went on to perform solo comedy shows on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, two of which were short-listed for the Perrier Award. He also wrote the screenplay for the film of The Magic Roundabout.


* In Session Tonight – Ken Garner (BBC) 1993


* England is Mine: Pop Life in Albion From Wilde to Goldie – Michael Bracewell (Flamingo) 1997

* Black Slang: Dictionary of Afro-American Talk – Clarence Major (Routledge) 1971.

The Undisco Kidds by Boots For Dancing is available on Athens of the North Records now. www.aotn.co. The record can be heard here. https://soundcloud.com/djfryer/sets/boots-for-dancing-the-undisco-kidds-november-27th-athens-of-the-north-records

Written in June 2015 as sleevenotes for The Undisco Kidds by Boots For Dancing, which was released on Athens of the North Records in November 2015. Excerpts fromthe essay were subsequently published in Product.






Martin Creed – Let Them In / Border Control

Responses to the ongoing refugee crisis have been many, but Turner Prize winning artist and musician Martin Creed's is probably the pithiest statement to date. Consisting of a AA-side free download single with accompanying videos released this weekend, Let Them In and Border Control form a new body of audiovisual work that is as short and as sharp as the miniatures on Creed's Love To You and Mind Trap albums.

Both songs are meticulously structured in keeping with Creed's forensically patterned canon. The self-explanatory Let Them In offers up a vocal arrangement that gives a superficial nod to the Beatles' All You Need Is Love by way of REM's Shiny Happy People, while its even briefer flipside is a dry-as-a-bone minimalist word game that resembles protest poems of counter cultures past. Heard together, these two minutes and five seconds of DIY pop sound like fractured nursery rhyme anthems to sing along to in a way that might just help change the world.

Product, November 2015

ends

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Leaders of the Pack - Teen Canteen and The Girl Effect #2

Turning thirty was a bigger deal than it should've been for Carla Easton, singer, song-writer and driving force behind all-female quartet, Teen Canteen. Instead of either trying to ignore such a benchmark or else drown the sorrows of her twenties last hurrah, Easton decided to get pro-active. Roping in an A-Team of musical friends including Eugene Kelly of The Vaselines, Duglas T Stewart of the BMX Bandits and Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub, Easton arranged a night designed to celebrate girl groups while raising funds for Scottish Women's Aid, and The Girl Effect was duly born.

Those attending the sold out show at Edinburgh's Summerhall venue in May this year in association with the arts centre's in-house promoters, Nothing Ever Happens Here, saw some fourteen acts play two songs apiece by female artists of their choice. These ranged from covers of classic 1960s pop from the likes of Martha Reeves and The Ronettes through to more recent chart botherers such as Destiny's Child and TLC, with the likes of Joan Jett and The Bangles filling in the generational gaps.

While Stewart and Blake tackled That Lonely Feeling by 1960s Edinburgh sisters, The McKinleys, Stanley Odd played a mash up of Betty Boo's Doin' The Do and The Velvettes' Really Sayin' Something,the latter a song itself covered in the 1980s by Bananarama. With Stanley Odd also paying homage to Teen Canteen themselves with a version of the Glasgow-based quartet's debut single, Honey, Easton and co closed the evening with a sublime take on The Ronettes' be My Baby.

With some £3,456.72 raised for Scottish Women's Aid, a sequel was inevitable, and this Thursday night sees Teen Canteen take the reins for The Girl Effect #2, at which a similarly stellar line-up of artists including Kathryn Joseph, Jo Mango and Broken Records embark on an even more eclectic live display of girl-pop at Mono in Glasgow.

While just who is playing what is being kept under wraps, artists being covered are known to include Shakespears Sister, Shampoo and Girls Aloud, alongside classics by The Shangri La's and The Marvelettes. Works by Sleater Kinney and uber contemporary Glasgow duo Honeyblood are also on the set list.

“I was really surprised when we first did it,” says Easton, “because when we set out the parameters of two songs from any era and the definition of what a girl group could be, I thought it would be all sixties stuff that people would choose, but it wasn't, and that made it even more exciting.”

With The Girl Effect modelled on various themed charity gigs Teen Canteen had played in Glasgow,

Easton decided to tag the event to Scottish Women's Aid after reading about how public funding cuts were affecting refuge centres and other lifelines for women suffering from domestic abuse who might not have anywhere else to turn.

“The cuts are affecting the most vulnerable people in society,” Easton observes, “and I just thought it would be good to pull together a creative community to try and help, and to try and highlight some of the work that Scottish Women's Aid does.”

The Girl Effect shows tie in with a recent, noticeable rise in charity gigs, a modus operandi that hasn't been as visible since the 1980s. While it's not hard to work out the parallels between then and now in terms of punitive governments causing an entire underclass to live on the breadline, in the current climate of enforced austerity, events such as The Girl Effect come with a more human face than those of old.

“I know Jamie from Broken Records who runs Nothing Ever Happens Here put on a couple of food bank benefits,” says Easton, “and I think it's great when people pull together like that. It's always a bit awkward when you approach bands for something like The Girl Effect, because there's no fee, but because you're in a band yourself everybody gets what it is you're trying to do, and there's a shared understanding there.”

Teen Canteen were formed in 2012 by Easton and Sita Pieraccini after their previous band, Futuristic Retro Champions, came to a natural end. With Easton on vocals and keyboards and Pieraccini on bass, the pair enlisted Deborah Smith and, after a couple of line-up changes, Chloe Philip of No More Tiger and BMX Bandits. With debut single, Honey, released in 2013 on cassette (gift-wrapped in honey-scented paper, no less) by Edinburgh's spoken word and music night Neu! Reekie!, which Teen Canteen have played several times, the sound that resulted owed as much to the Glasgow music scene's extended indie-pop lineage as it did to the 1960s groups The Girl Effect is inspired by.

It is a sound beloved by Easton ever since she heard rhythm and blues based vocal trio The Cookies' 1963 hit version of Brill Building songwriters Gerry Goffin and Carole King's Don't Say Nothin' Bad (About My Baby).

“I became obsessed by it,” Easton says of the song, notable for it's kiss-off line, 'So Girl You Better Shut Your Mouth', delivered with understated steel by lead singer Earl-Jean McCrea. “Listening to that and The Cookies Greatest Hits, I wanted to know who they were, and who the other girl groups were. I wanted to know what became of them, and how all that made me feel. That whole era from '58 to '63 became my obsession, but there were other great bands from later as well, like Honey Cone and The Fuzz.

Easton had already begun her love affair with music care of her elder brother, who conspired with her to keep her off school so they could listen to The Stone Roses just released 1994 single, Love Spreads. She was eight years old.

Having learnt piano and saxophone, Easton went on to study at Glasgow School of Art. It was here she began writing songs for Futuristic Retro Champions, taking a back seat on keyboards while Pieraccini sang lead vocal. Only as she developed more confidence as a writer did Easton move centre-stage on an increasingly mature canon of heart-on-sleeve pop romances.

It was this essence that saw the pure joy of Cherry Pie appear so perfectly on the soundtrack of John McKay's bookish 2013 rom-com, Not Another Happy Ending. This pre-dated Teen Canteen's second single, You're Still Mine, a 7'', self-released on frosted clear glitter vinyl, while its follow-up, Sister, was put out on bubblegum pink cassettes in an edition of just 100.

Such attention to detail in terms of presentation may stem from the band's art school roots, but it also points to a sense of self-determination that pulses everything they do. Rather than jump into bed with a marketing driven record label, Teen Canteen have, thus far at least, seized the means of production enough so they're doing things on their own terms.

This extends to the recording of the band's forthcoming debut album, Sister, which was funded via a PledgeMusic campaign which saw the target reached within forty-eight hours, with ten per cent of any money raised after the goal was reached again going to Scottish Women's Aid. The PledgeMusic campaign's success has not only given Easton, Pieraccini, Philip and Smith the breathing space to make the record at their own pace. It has also seen them connect with their fanbase in a way that old school major label management would be unlikely to allow.

“PledgeMusic has been great,” Easton says. “It's allowed us to have complete creative control, and to be able to do things to our schedule and cut out all the middle man stuff. We've also got some of the pledgers to come into the studio to do handclaps on the record, so it's brilliant to make contact with this community of people we've never met.”

Community is a word Easton uses a lot, both in the context of the band and in the thinking behind The Girl Effect.

“Having fans of the band helping us is great,” she says, “and you really feel a responsibility to people who join the Teen Canteen family in that way.”

With a slew of other guests on the album including The Cairn String Quartet, Sister should highlight just how much Teen Canteen have developed from their earliest recordings, done after two practices, to a more expansive sound that has nods to New Order as much as classic girl pop.

As the scope of Easton and co's ambitions becomes increasingly panoramic, it remains crucial to the Teen Canteen ethos that all four voices from the band are heard, not just in the glorious harmonies that wrap each song up in such a sense of wonder, but in how they get the work out there. That's why the band's regular online communiques are signed off from Carla, Sita, Chloe and Debs, a term of endearment that makes them sound like a gang as much as a band, both as tough and as tuneful as The Shangri-Las, an image of whom graces the poster of The Girl Effect #2'.

“I think we've always wanted a big sound,” says Easton. “Some people said we were twee, but I never thought we were.”

Beyond The Girl Effect #2 and Sister, all of the band members are active in other spheres. While Philip remains a member of the BMX Bandits, Pieraccini will be performing her solo theatre piece, Bird, at the Manipulate festival of visual theatre in January 2016.

Easton, meanwhile is working on a solo musical project under the name Ette. Named in homage to first generation Edinburgh punk band The Ettes as much as The Ronettes, Ette sees Easton collaborating with Glasgow musician and producer Joe Kane. An album, Homemade Lemonade, will be released via Olive Grove Records on limited edition baby pink vinyl early next year. If the tellingly named track, Attack of The Soul Glam Cheerleaders (Parts 1 and 2), is anything to go by, it promises to be a pop monster.

With the release of Sister imminent, Teen Canteen are also signed up to play alongside Japanese girl group veterans Shonen Knife on the Scottish leg of their forthcoming tour. With the fortieth anniversary of Scottish Women's Aid also forthcoming, one shouldn't rule out the possibility of The Girl Effect #3.

“It's all really quite exciting right now,” says Easton. “I never thought that we'd end up on a film soundtrack and be in a position where we can put out an album by ourselves, and help to support Scottish Women's Aid with all these people coming along to The Girl Effect. But we're in a position now where we've got all these songs to explore in our own time, and the band itself feels really strong just now. It's really great being in a band where harmonies become another instrument. It's really powerful. There's not really a better feeling than singing with close friends like that.”

Teen Canteen presents The Girl Effect #2, Mono, Glasgow, November 26th.
www.teencanteen.co.uk
www.scottishwomensaid.org.uk

Product, November 2015

ends

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Jessica Hardwick - Rapunzel

Jessica Hardwick could be forgiven for wanting to let her hair down. The Borders born actress has barely had a breather since she graduated from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2013 to join the Citizens Theatre as one of the company's acting interns for that year. Her new tenure threw her in at the deep end for her first professional role as Sonya in Dominic Hill's epic staging of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment adapted by Chris Hannan. This was followed with Hardwick playing the maid, Christine, in Hill's equally intense staging of August Strindberg's play, Miss Julie, as adapted by Zinnie Harris.

For both of these roles Hardwick was awarded playwright John Byrne's inaugural Billy award, named in honour of actor Billy McColl and introduced to support the best in rising young talent. Hardwick was subsequently cast in Byrne's take on Chekhov's Three Sisters at the the Tron Theatre, where she also performed with Stellar Quines in Lucy Porter's The Fair Intellectual Club.

Hardwick was back at the Citz in Slope, Stewart Laing's studio-based reworking of Pamela Carter's play that looked at the relationship between the poets, Verlaine and Rimbaud for Laing's Untitled Projects. She returned again following a stint at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh in Tony Cownie's reworking of Goldoni, The Venetian Twins, for the Citz's Edinburgh International Festival co-production of Lanark. This saw her play the female lead in David Greig's adaptation of Alasdair Gray's iconic novel as directed by Graham Eatough.

Now, rather than ease up from such non-stop activity, Hardwick has come home to her alma mater for Christmas to play the title role in a new version of Rapunzel. With Hardwick sporting scarlet Doc Marten boots, geek girl glasses and crazy hair, Lu Kemp's production of Annie Siddons' new take on Grimms' classic fairytale offers up a punkier, spunkier heroine than is usually depicted.

“I think quirky is a good way of describing her,” says Hardwick on a lunch break from rehearsals and still wearing her Docs. “The play is much more earthy than the fairytale, and Rapunzel's got a good bit of feist behind her. Rapunzel has this oomph and a zest for life inside her. Everything she does comes from the heart, and she's not afraid of anything. I think earthy is a good word to describe the play, because it's set in a garden a lot of the time, and it's about growing up and coming of age.

Once Rapunzel gets her hair cut I spend a lot of time dressed as a boy, so there's this tomboyish thing about her as well as her having this inner beauty. There's something very free about her. She's not a wallflower.”

This could be said as well about Hardwick. Born in Melrose, she grew up “in the middle of nowhere” and was involved in school shows from an early age. While never happy with purely academic pursuits, Hardwick came into her own once she started at Earlston High School, where a thriving drama department opened her up to new possibilities in much the same way it had done for Jack Lowden, the Olivier award winning actor who was in the year above her.

“There was a lot of love for the drama department at school,” Hardwick says, “and Jeff Thompson, the head of department, also put on shows with the local amateur operatic society, so I'd get involved in those, and from the age of thirteen had this structure of going to rehearsals two nights a week, so it became part of my routine. It was the happiest part of my life, and I couldn't imagine not having that in it, and I thought, okay, this is what makes me happy, but coming from the middle of nowhere it was still quite scary going to my parents and telling them I wanted to go to drama school when I wasn't even sure what drama school was.”

Hardwick would take the 6am bus to Glasgow every Saturday morning to take part in weekend acting classes at what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Aged seventeen, Hardwick left school and moved to London to take up a place on a foundation course at RADA before moving back to Scotland for the full three year course at RSAMD/RCS.

While still studying,Hardwick was selected to take part in the Sam Wannamaker Festival at Shakespeare's Globe, where she performed in scenes from Richard Brome's little-known seventeenth century comedy, The Antipodes.

“That was quite daunting,” Hardwick says of her time at the reconstructed Elizabethan playhouse. “Because of the way it's built, you feel like a gladiator.”

Hardwick was spotted by the Citizens around the same time.

“Oh, my goodness,” she says. “The Citizens means everything to me. I was really lucky to end up here so early in my career, and I've learnt so much working with the people I have done, especially on Crime and Punishment. Everything about that was so magical, and I remember every moment. I felt part of something that was different, exciting and special. It was a beautiful part, and it gave me the confidence to believe that I can do this. I've learnt so much from everything I've done so far, and every part I've played has been different, but in my heart I will never forget Crime and Punishment.”

As if she hasn't achieved enough in her short career, Hardwick has also taken up photography.

“My brain works really quickly,” she says. “I find acting and photography calming, and they both help control that energy. It's also nice to be able to talk to people. That's something I really enjoy, and acting and photography help connect you with other people.”

Having only worked professionally for two years, Hardwick isn't sure where her ambitions will take her in the long term.

“It's a lottery,” she says. “Things have happened for me so quickly that I'm really enjoying that. There should probably be one part I'm aiming for, but at the moment it's a big Pandora's Box, never knowing what's going to happen next.”

In the immediate future, as soon as Rapunzel is over, Hardwick will be joining the National Theatre of Scotland for the American tour of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, David Greig and director Wils Wilson's contemporary reinvention of ballad-based drama.

Hardwick thinks it will be “a good adventure. I think I'm going to take my camera.”

In the meantime, she'll be keeping the Doc Martens on as Rapunzel.

“I think it will give audiences a really harmonious experience,” Hardwick says of the show. “There are lots of Christmas shows on which are tremendous fun, but there's scope as well for really clear story-telling which can be fun, quirky and unexpected. The way we're doing Rapunzel means it's also quite dark in places, but every character in it is driven by love. There's a hell of a lot of love in this play.”

Rapunzel, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, November 28-January 3.
www.citz.co.uk

The Herald, November 24th 2015

ends

Monday, 23 November 2015

Grace Ndiritu - A Return To Normalcy: Birth of a New Museum

Reid Gallery, Reid Building, Glasgow School of Art until December 12th

"The things people think about Africa," says the down to earth and very English sounding voice of Grace Ndiritu in her video piece, Raiders of the Lost Ark (2015), at one point, "and they never go to Africa. Fuckin' Hell, man."

Filmed on location at the Wusha Mikel Church in Ethiopia and the Samyeling Tibetan Monastery, Raiders of the Lost Ark's prosaic observation sums up everything Ndiritu's vast catalogue of film and video works, paintings, photographs and performances are about. Raised in Britain and with a Kenyan heritage, as Ndiritu bridges the shadow line of cultural assimilation, appropriation and fetishisation of the exotic, a transformative visual poetry emerges that fuses shamanic ceremonial with trash pop notions of ethno-delic glam chic and ancient future ritual.

This is made most explicit in Holotropic Breathing for the Masses (2015), a film of what in September of this year Ndiritu styled as 'An Afro-futuristic Performance', in which she set herself up as a high priestess overseeing a form of rebirthing of GSA's Mackintosh Building following the recent fire that destroyed part of this most iconic of buildings.

The film is screened beside the set on which Ndiritu performed, with a circular yellow rug at its centre flanked by mock-ups of giant crystals and vividly coloured sculptural shapes. In this recreation of Ndiritu's temple-like construction, the film itself finds her banging a drum as she attempts to conjure up the Egyptian God Osiris.

Even more hypnotic is the singing bowl-like drone composed and performed by Ndiritu that forms the soundtrack for Journey's North: Pole to Pole (2009), a twin screen video installation in which adaptations of Native Alaskan poems by Melody Jackson are beamed alongside images of a snow-driven landscape.

With the paintings that make up Workers: Post-Hippie Pop-Abstraction (2015) exploring New Age totems co-opted by fashion victim cultural tourists and the ongoing photo-based installation, AQFM VOL.6 GLASGOW SCHOOL OF ART an ever expanding archive of multi-cultural mash-ups, this is as much a personal spiritual quest as anthropological excavation.

'Today I am more Native than yesterday' are the first words onscreen in Journey's North: Pole to Pole. 'I see I am more Native than tomorrow' are the last in a telling meditation on how identities can shape-shift depending on where you're at as much as where you are.

Scottish Art News, December 2015



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Tuesday, 17 November 2015

King Charles III

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

As constitutional crises go, the death of the Queen and subsequent accession of Prince Charles in his mother's wake might well rock the establishment where they are both figureheads. And if the man who would be king breached royal protocol and started tasking charge of matters of state, who knows how things might turn out?

This is the starting point for Mike Bartlett's contemporary history epic, which begins in this UK tour of Rupert Goold's Almeida Theatre production with a solemn candlelit requiem as the cast process into a brick-lined semi-circular crypt that doubles up as the bowels of Buckingham Palace. Here we meet Charles and his tabloid-friendly brood: a dutiful William, a ruthlessly ambitious Kate and a hopelessly hapless Harry, who falls for Jess, a St Martin's art school girl who introduces him to some real common people. Charles, meanwhile, must confront old ghosts even as he squares up to a reactionary government.

Told over five audaciously treasonous acts and penned in faux Shakespearian blank verse, what follows is a very British coup that brings down the old order even as it confirms a new one that pays even more lip service to tradition. Robert Powell makes for a quietly radical Charles, looking by turns statesmanlike and lost as he finds a purpose too late. Beyond his over-riding ridiculousness, Richard Glaves' Harry learns much from Lucy Phelps' Jess, and in many ways it is the women who hold the power. Jennifer Bryden's Kate is particularly driven. Book-ended by Jocelyn Pook's exquisite choral-based score, the ending may look and sound like triumph, but this is actually a play in mourning for kingdoms yet to come.

The Herald, November 18th 2015

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Ruth Connell - Supernatural

Fans of long-running cult American fantasy series Supernatural will have spotted a new arrival in its tenth season, currently airing on E4 in the UK. The red-haired woman called Rowena may not have said anything during her first appearance sitting in her hotel room at the end of the episode, Soul Survivor, which aired last month. The two men hanging from the ceiling above her impaled by stakes, however, spoke volumes about her demonic intent.

As fans of the show will find out when Rowena makes her presence fully felt in the season's eighth episode, Girls, Girls, Girls, on November 25th, what turns out to be a 400 year old matriarch with some very important progeny also speaks with a Falkirk accent. This comes in the form of thirty-six year old actress Ruth Connell, who was last seen on these shores playing Mrs Beaver in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh back in 2008, but who now seems to have entered an even more fantastical realm.

“Rowena is this powerful witch trying to reclaim her power-base,” Connell says on a break from filming the eleventh series of Supernatural in her first UK newspaper interview since she first appeared on American screens a year ago. “She turns up and creates havoc, and gets caught and tortured, but she's not just a baddie or nasty for the sake of it. There's humour there, and I can be playful with Rowena., especially after a manager I had a couple of years ago told me that I looked like I probably should play a witch.”

Connell's career was marked out from when she was a child growing up on her parents farm in Bonnybridge, when, having been packed off to accompany her younger cousin to dance classes, Connell found a natural aptitude for it. She appeared as Clara in Scottish Ballet's production of The Nutcracker, and danced in pantomime before studying drama in London.

Connell toured in a production of Ena Lamont Stewart's play, Men Should Weep, played Helen of Troy in Faust at the Royal Lyceum, and appeared in Alex Norton's production of No Mean City at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow.

Once she moved to America, it was Connell's voice which initially paid dividends when she was picked to be voice match for Merida, the flame-haired princes played by Kelly Macdonald in Disney Pixar's animated feature, Brave. With Supernatural, however, it is Connell solely in the spotlight.

“It's honestly been one of the best years of my life,” she says. “Eighteen months ago I couldn't get an audition, and now here I am, this girl from a farm in Bonnybridge on network American TV and going to fan conventions all over the world.”

One of these brought her back to the UK for an event called Asylum, held at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham.

“I really was pinching myself,” says Connell, “because six or seven years earlier I'd done a convention when I was working for a PR company, and now here I was signing autographs in the same room I'd helped set up.”

Given that Supernatural is known for killing off its characters in the goriest of ways, both Connell and Rowena's future with the programme is far from certain. While Connell won't be drawn on how things pan out, the fact that Rowena is known to fans to become integral to future plots suggests she'll be haunting our screens a while yet.

“She's involved in quite a pivotal way,” Connell teases. “especially in the finale. Rowena's a lot of fun to play. It's definitely the most fun I've ever had in an evening gown.”

Despite such high profile exposure, Connell expresses a desire to work more in Scotland, particularly onstage with the likes of the National Theatre of Scotland and the Royal Lyceum. Filming prevented her taking up an invitation to appear in a scene that formed part of the latter theatre's recent fiftieth anniversary celebrations, though a couple of years ago Scotland came to America when Connell was asked to be voice coach on a production of Linda McLean's play, Sex and God.

“That was one of the best things that happened to me before Supernatural,” she says. “I'd admired Linda's work for years, and suddenly I'm sitting next to her in a little black box theatre in L.A. But it would be great to do something like that back home as well, and why not? I've a house in London, a family in Scotland, I'm filming in Vancouver and I'm living in L.A, so I don't see why I can't combine all that with working in Scotland as well.”

Supernatural airs on E4 on Wednesdays at 10pm.
www.channel4.com

The Herald, November 17th 2015

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Monday, 16 November 2015

Capital Converse

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Three stars

When you've got nothing, you've got nothing to lose, as some street-smart sage once wrote. So it goes for Malky, the Leith Walk wag at the heart of Mikey Burnett's play as he lets rip over one tragi-comic night sparring with his flat-mate Frank in the bathroom. When Malky bursts in, he's lost his last pound on a sure fire winner that fell at the first, the dole have stopped his money, and, most crucially, the love of his life has dumped him to the point of almost having to get a restraining order out on him.

What follows over the next fifty minutes is a quickfire riot of the sort of twisted desperado logic which initially comes on like a post Trainspotting flat-sharing sit-com. Things take a more serious turn in Iain Davie's production for the Napier University sired Trig Point Theatre company, as such exchanges point up just how much those backed into a corner by economic and emotional poverty can end up clutching at any straw that's going. The fact that the first voice you hear on this final night of Hothouse, the Traverse's week-long mini season of local grassroots theatre companies, is neither Malky or Frank's, but that of David Cameron, speaks volumes about where Burnett is coming from without ever having to lay it on with a trowel.

In many ways it is the meticulously observed behavioural tics and nuances of personality that count here, something relished by Daniel Campbell and James Garvock as they invest Frank and Malky with a depth beyond the play's initial hysteria that makes for a darkly funny portrait of life on the edge.

The Herald, November 17th 2015

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Brix and The Extricated - Life After The Fall

When Brix Smith Start picked up a guitar for the first time in fifteen years, it was an understandably emotional experience. Smith Start, after all, is a survivor of not just one, but two stints as guitarist with legendary punk-sired outsiders, The Fall. She was also married for six years to this most truculent of bands' mercurial vocalist and leader throughout almost forty years, thirty-odd albums and countless ex members, Mark E Smith.

Following such service above and beyond musical duty, Smith Start eventually moved into a career in fashion, first running a chain of boutiques with her current husband, Philip Start, then on TV alongside Gok Wan on Gok's Fashion Fix.

Once she started playing guitar again, however, there was no turning back, and the result of this renewed love affair is Brix and The Extricated, a band she fronts with no less than three former Fall members, including bassist Steve Hanley and his drummer brother Paul, who first played with The Fall aged fifteen.

The Hanleys are regarded by many to be the finest rhythm section The Fall ever had, with Steve Hanley clocking up some seventeen years hard labour in the band's engine room. Brix and The Extricated's forthcoming tour, which stops off in Glasgow this week, will be the first chance to see the trio play on a stage alongside guitarists Steve Trafford (a later ex Fall casualty) and Jason Brown for more than twenty years.

“It's the weirdest thing,” says Smith Start. “After I left The Fall, I did a couple of solo projects, but nothing ever happened. It wasn't my time, and I thought that was it. I not only never touched a guitar, but I sold ten of them, lent others out and put others in a closet as I became creative in different ways. But life is weird, and I really believe in signs and spirituality, and just as my husband started really getting on my case about doing music again, I bumped into my old producer, Craig Leon, who also said I should be playing.”

With no-one else around and in the privacy of her own home, Smith Start wondered what harm it could do. Once she plugged in, however, “Something weird happened, and this fully formed song dropped out. My voice was different, kind of vulnerable and charismatic at the same time. I didn't know where any of this was coming from, and began weeping.”

Around the same time, Smith Start was sent a copy of The Big Midweek, Steve Hanley's tragi-comic memoir of his time in The Fall that also features his thoughts on Smith Start.

“I read it,” she says, “and I thought, my God, what we did was really important. It was also really interesting to find out what Steve thought of me, because we never really spoke. I'm a chatterer, and he's very inward, and while I was Mark's girlfriend in America, he took me at face value, but his book doesn't really pull any punches. There are things he said about me that are different from the perception I have of myself, but that's okay, and they're completely valid.”

At the book launch, an ad hoc band led by Hanley played a selection of Fall covers.

“Steve seemed happy and healed,” Smith Start says in a nod to the trauma playing in The Fall clearly leaves in its wake, “and as soon as they started playing, something inside of me just opened up. The first thing they did was U.S. 80S 90s, and I just got chills.”

Smith Start asked Hanley why they hadn't asked her to play with them.

“He said they didn't think I'd ever do it.”

With the aim of performing both old and new material, the seeds of Brix and The Extricated were duly planted.

“We're all songwriters,” Smith Start points out, “and the first rule was that we only do stuff that we wrote for The Fall. We're doing different interpretations of our own work, and we have the right to do that, because they're not only fucking great songs. They're part of our lives.”

While this rule allowed for a welter of material, including singles Cruiser's Creek and L.A, for Smith Start it also made for a slight problem.

“Nobody wanted to sing Mark's lyrics and stand in his shadow,” she says, sounding like a fan girl as much as Smith's ex wife. “I have to tell you, I was absolutely terrified to do it. First of all, his words are incredible, but so is his delivery and his attitude. He's so iconic, so to try and follow that is pretty scary, but then, with those songs, because I was married to Mark, I understand where some of the inspiration came from, because I was part of it too.

“Once I realised that, I started to sing the songs in my own way, and it all transcended. It's different, and I have a style, but that's okay, and I felt confident, because it's relevant. We've only played six shows so far, but old fans have accepted it, and that's been really emotional.

“With the new stuff, we're not trying to sound like The Fall, but it's early days yet and sometimes, because of who we all are we can't help it, but we're letting it evolve. I love the bombast, and I love the repetition, and I'm really into rapping right now, so let's see. This is what I live for, and right now is pretty much my whole life.”

The artist formerly known as Laura Elisse Salenger grew up in Los Angeles and Chicago before studying theatre and literature in Vermont. It was while playing bass and singing in her first group, Banda Dratsing that Laura became Brix after Salenger was inspired by The Clash song, Guns of Brixton.

Having met Smith in 1982, she subsequently married him and became The Fall's second guitarist, arriving not long after current BBC 6Music DJ Marc Riley left following a punch-up with Mark E Smith during a tour of Australia. The newly monickered Brix Smith gave The Fall both a glamour and a commercial sheen that paid dividends. For a while she even sorted out her new hubby's wardrobe, as scruffy jumpers were exchanged for shiny shirts in major label backed videos in support of chart-skimming singles, including covers of Victoria, by The Kinks, and psych-garage classics, Mr Pharmacist and There's A Ghost in My House.

Fronting her own band, The Adult Net, in tandem with The Fall, Smith Start went on to tour with The Bangles, covered Donovan's Hurdy Gurdy Man with her later partner, classical violinist Nigel Kennedy, and auditioned for Courtney Love's band, Hole, playing with them for just one day. Smith Start went on to release a solo EP at the end of the 1990s and a digital only solo album, Neurotica, in the noughties, though both slipped out barely noticed.

All of this and more will soon be laid bare in The Rise, The Fall, and The Rise, Smith Start's forthcoming memoir, overseen by the same team who worked on ex Slits guitarist Viv Albertine's book, Clothes, Music, Boys, and set to be published by Faber and Faber in 2016.

“I kept my mouth shut for fifteen years,” Smith Start says, “because I'm an extremely private person, but this is the complete truth. I've no anger about things anymore. It's just about the choices you make in life, and the hardships I faced which no-one has any idea about. There's stuff in there about Mark as well, which, because I was married to him, no fucker knows.”

Given Smith Start's background in drama and her ongoing membership of the American Screen Guild, it is interesting to note the inherent theatricality that has powered The Fall. While some dismiss Smith's restless messing with sound levels inbetween moving both members and equipment around or else wandering offstage entirely as the vagaries of an incoherent drunk, such incidents are closer in execution to the way Polish theatre guru Tadeusz Kantor used to control the stage.

This is borne out, both by YouTube footage of a 1995 band rehearsal notable, not just for Smith Start's presence, but for the way Smith's instructions more resembles the behaviour of a theatre director than a band leader per se. Smith Start agrees, and points to Hey! Luciani!, a musical play penned by Smith about the short-lived reign of Pope John Paul I, and which was performed at the Riverside Studios in 1986 by the band and a cast that included choreographer and dancer Michael Clark and performance artist Leigh Bowery. While the play bemused reviewers, Smith himself described it as “a cross between Shakespeare and The Prisoner”.

“He's a mastermind,” Smith Start says of her ex-husband. “He's omnipotent in every way. No-one had a clue what was going on in the play, but it was fucking brilliant. Mark used to do all these songs through a megaphone which we wanted to stick up his ass, but he was like the silent movie director, Mack Sennett.

“You have to remember that Mark is not a trained musician, and that's what makes him so brilliant, because there are no limitations on what he can or cannot do. So when he picks up a three-string violin on the song Hotel Bloedel, and starts doing things with it, it has a real effect on things. It is like theatre, and that's possibly why he wanted me in the band, to break things up onstage and maybe give things a different dynamic.”

With Smith Start still a member, The Fall have the honour of being one of the first contemporary bands to appear at the Edinburgh International Festival when in 1988 Smith and co composed and performed the live soundtrack to Michael Clark's ballet, I Am Kurious Oranj. Loosely based around the 300th anniversary of William of Orange's accession to the English throne, the show was performed at the capital's King's Theatre, and among its many eye-popping highlights was notable for Smith Start arriving onstage sat astride a giant hamburger.

“That was Michael Clark's idea,” Smith Start says. “I didn't know what he meant till he showed me this nine-foot burger. Leigh Bowery, who was in the show, used to take great delight in spinning me round on it as fast as he could, and I thought I'd either fall off or puke.”

Smith Start was fashion commentator on the broadcast of this year's Royal Ascot meet, and recently took part in BBC4 documentary, Girl in a Band. While she expresses a desire to combine music and fashion for further TV ventures, with an album already planned, it is Brix and The Extricated that matters right now.

“This band is very special and we're all loving it,” she says. “It's a joyful thing, and I think it has everything. I see it conquering the world.”

All of which begs the question of what Mark E Smith thinks of all this.

“I don't know how he feels about it,” is Smith Start's short answer, “but I hear through the grapevine he's not pleased. I'm not in touch with Mark and haven't been for years, and I don't know how to get in touch with him, but I've heard rumours of him calling venues we've been playing and trying to get the gigs cancelled.

“Whether that's true or not I don't know, but we are not The Fall. We are The Extricated, though everything we do obviously brings attention to The Fall, and that's no bad thing. At the end of the day, this is for the love of our music, which is the only reason for doing anything, so why would he be mad?

Smith Start pauses, perhaps remembering the old days that might go some way to answering that question.

“Mark may have issues,” she says, “but he really shouldn't.”

Then, looking forward, she mischievously speculates on what might be, but probably never will.

“Imagine if we played on the same bill,” she says.

Brix and The Extricated, Broadcast, Glasgow, November 19th.
www.broadcastglasgow.com

An edited version of this article appeared in The Herald, November 16th 2015

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Thursday, 12 November 2015

Our Man in Havana

Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Four stars

One could be forgiven for presuming the loneliness of the long-distance vacuum cleaner salesman to not exactly be the most dynamic raw material for top-drawer adventure yarns. This didn't stop Graham Greene, however, whose 1958 pastiche of very British spy stories was filmed a year later by Carol Reed. Clive Francis' stage version dates from 2007, and in Richard Baron's new production mines an ongoing vogue for doing pocket-sized modern classics with one eyebrow archly raised.

Baron's cast of four open the show with a nod to Greene's own tenure in the spying game as each shares the narration between them to unveil the fast-moving story concerning Jim Wormold, the down-at-heel salesman who's been ditched by his wife for an American and left in Cuba with his precocious teenage daughter Milly in tow. Inexplicably enlisted by the London secret service to keep an eye on any nefarious activities Johnny Foreigner might be getting up to, Wormold seizes the opportunity to make a few bob by inventing a rogues gallery of undercover agents. Only when his fictional creations start dying for real do things start to go ever so slightly awry.

With Andrew Loudon playing a terminally bemused looking Wormold as everyone else onstage flits through a series of quick-fire costume changes, Baron's company conjure up a ridiculous world of global paranoia at the hands of non-existing threats. Playing more than thirty characters between them, Roger Delves-Broughton, Jessica Guise and Steven McNicoll have tremendous fun throwing on new disguises in a merry dance of a show in which old loyalties to Queen and country are shown up to be elaborate fictions that begin to look increasingly absurd.

The Herald, November 12th 2015

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Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The Importance of Being Earnest

King's Theatre, Edinburgh
Three stars

One fears for the worst when a curiously past-it looking Algernon drops a cue in the opening scene of Oscar Wilde's evergreen rom-com concerning mistaken identity amongst courting couples who flit and flirt between town and country. Within seconds, however, it becomes clear that Lucy Bailey's touring production is throwing the audience a googly. This comes in the form of the Bunbury Company of Players, the fictitious home counties am-dram group used as a framing device to justify Bailey's casting of older actors in roles usually reserved for ingenues.

As scripted by Simon Brett, the Bunbury Players have been revisiting Earnest since their first production of the play in 1970, so it is now the preserve of the company's elder statesmen and women rather than starlets. While the rehearsal room role-call of offstage affairs, reluctant butlers and cricketing distractions add an extra layer of hammed-up identity crises, they aren't fully followed through enough to be much more than a one-line diversion.

What the casting of Nigel Havers and Martin Jarvis as bachelor boys Algernon and Jack, and Carmen Du Sautoy and Christine Kavanagh as Gwendolen and Cecily does do, however, is give an extra edge to their courtships that shifts the balance of power somewhat. So while Algernon and Jack sound in the midst of mid-life desperation, Cecily and Gwendolen are savvier and more confident. With Sian Phillips' Lady Bracknell the play's perennial pivot, the show's conceit also points up just how much time is spent discussing the follies of all ages, as audiences will find out when the Bunbury Company of Players stop off at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow the week after next.

The Herald, November 12th 2015

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