Thursday, 31 March 2016

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Citizen's Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

Careless talk may not cost lives in the Royal Shakespeare Company's touring new take on Shakespeare's most playfully subversive of rom-coms, but the Second World War setting of a show here subtitled A Play For The Nation displays how a world ripped asunder can easily be led astray. Director Erica Whyman's world care of designer Tom Piper is a bombed-out speak-easy, where pleasure is still on ration enough for all-comers to grab at whatever takes their fancy while they still can, whatever side their bread might be buttered.

This is as apparent in the game of kiss-chase the assorted sets of lovers inadvertently embark on as it is in the black-market wheeler-dealing of Chu Omambala's more-kingpin-than-king Oberon and Lucy Ellinson's wonderfully spivved-up Puck. Most of all this comes through in the Mechanicals, here played by the Citizens Dream Players, a locally sourced ad hoc ensemble of real life amateur performers drafted in, as with similar groups on the rest of the tour, solely for the Glasgow dates.

To say the Citizens Dream Plays not only integrate themselves with aplomb but more than hold their own with the professional cast is an understatement. All six Mechanicals excel themselves, as do the pupils of Shawlands Academy who play Oberon's Fairy Train as blazer-clad urchins. For all the stately splendour on show, however, this show belongs to Martin Turner, whose turn as starstruck old ham Bottom transcends Philostrate's snobbish notions of “hard-handed folk” with studied glee. As the song and dance finale accompanied by a live showband suggests, in such an extreme cross-class meltdown, keeping calm and carrying on is the only option left.

The Herald, March 31st 2016


Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The Citizens Dream Players, The Mechanicals and the Royal Shakespeare Company's 's A Midsummer Night's Dream

Performing in A Midsummer Night's Dream looks set to be something of a real life fairytale for Emma Tracey, the teenage acting student who takes to the Citizens Theatre stage in Glasgow this week as Starveling in Shakespeare's most out there rom-com. For estate agent Martin Turner too, who plays Bottom in the show, appearing in a major touring production initiated by the Royal Shakespeare Company, no less, is a Dream come true.

Both Tracey and Turner are part of what has been styled as the Citizens Dream Players, an ad hoc ensemble created especially for this new production, which uses a locally based amateur or community theatre company based in each city the show visits to play the Mechanicals. The creation of the Citizens Dream Players as a bespoke entity differs from the other amateur and community performers that will take part in the show across the country, who are drawn from already existing groups.

“The day of the photo shoot was the first time we all met,” says Tracey, who is currently studying drama at Glasgow Clyde College (formerly Langside College) after stints in youth theatre with the Paisley-based PACE company and other groups. “I'd volunteered at the Citz as a steward during a project called On Common Ground, and I think they must have added me to their mailing list from that. That was halfway through my course, and the idea of doing A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Citz with the RSC sounded incredible. When I was cast it was beyond my wildest dreams.”

Tracey started acting aged ten.

“I originally wanted to be a writer,” she says, “but something clicked.”

Turner is a stalwart of Fintry Amateur Dramatic Society, whose work is regularly seen in competitions overseen by the Scottish Community Drama Association.

“I've been in Fintry for thirty years,” he says. “I'm a farmer's son, and there's not a lot of social activity there apart from the Young Farmer's Club, which is where I first did drama. I thought it was fantastic, and it really released a lot.”

Turner has become a leading light of the drama society over the years in more than sixty shows, including Cabaret and Fiddler on the Roof. Early on in his involvement with the group, Turner appeared in A Midsummer Night's Dream as Demetrius. Playing Bottom, however, is something else again.

As the comic heart of Shakespeare's play, the Mechanicals are a hapless troupe of artisans seen attempting to put together a play they've been invited to show at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. As naughty Puck works his wiles, however, the gang's show-off and would-be star performer, Bottom, is transformed into an ass. When Titania, queen of the underworld, mistakenly falls under Puck's spell, worlds collide in a way that leaves Bottom changed forever.

“I initially auditioned to play Peter Quince,” Turner says, “but after we did a read-through, I was asked to read for Bottom. Of all the parts one might want to get your teeth stuck into, that's the one.”

Alongside the other four Glasgow performers, Tracey and Turner were cast following an intensive series of auditions and workshops led over two days in February 2015. These were led by the show's director and RSC deputy artistic director, Erica Whyman.

“We very much wanted to work with the Citz,” says Whyman of overseeing such a mammoth task. “There's a lot of community-based work that goes on at the Citz, and there are a lot of community performers in Glasgow. Last year I met ninety-eight of those performers over two days, and then auditioned them.

“It's been a huge process doing the same thing at all the different venues, but we wanted it to be a genuinely national project that we hope will open up new audiences, both for the RSC and for Shakespeare.”

Since being cast, the Citizens Dream Players have been working intensely with the Citizens Learning team led by director Guy Hollands, and have rehearsed one or two evenings every week. The group has also had the chance to observe the professional cast and other community groups rehearse via live online streaming.

Once the tour has ended, all fourteen amateur and community companies will decamp to Stratford, where over a marathon few days they will watch each other perform the show alongside what may prove to be an increasingly exhausted professional team.

“I get goosebumps when I think about it,” says Turner. “I've seen some wonderful things at Stratford. One of the major performances I've seen is Brian Cox playing Titus Andronicus, so the idea of performing on the same stage is a real thrill.”

Tracey too is excited.

“I've never been to Stratford,” she says, “I read that it was a thousand-seater theatre, and knowing that going onstage would be my first experience of the place almost gave me a mini heart attack.”

Scheduled as part of the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare's death, the RSC have styled this new production as A Play For The Nation. For Whyman, this means treating the Mechanicals with a respect they sometimes aren't afforded.

“It's a play about class and difference,” says Whyman, “and the Mechanicals approach to doing this play, which Theseus has welcomed into the court, is something they take very seriously. There's something there about the impossibility of them putting their play on stage, and their approach is very simple. The play doesn't want to forget what they do for a living, and that they take their jobs seriously, and that they also want to honour this glorious endeavour they've been asked to embark on.

“Sometimes productions are so busy mocking amateur actors that the seriousness of these characters is often ignored. We wanted to cut away all that baggage about amateur dramatics and ask what Shakespeare was up to. The Mechanicals are people with proper jobs trying to put plays on. In that way it's a bit like Dad's Army in that it's genuine situation comedy.

“We talked a lot about the scene where they're rehearsing in the woods, and they realise that you can't bring a real wall onto a stage. They take that problem seriously, and there's a real sincerity in how they try to solve it. So rather than ridicule the situation, you have to take all the characters seriously. It's funny, not because they're daft, but because of the situation.”

Beyond Stratford, Turner will continue with Fintry Amateur Dramatic Association.

“This whole experience has been fantastic,” he says. “I've learnt so much from it that I'm sure it will have an affect on what I do with the group.”

Tracey has auditioned for a place on the acting course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and has her sights on a professional acting career.

“I don't know what happens next,” she says. “I'm hoping something comes of it, but let's see. If I got a job in theatre I'd be glad to play anything, but doing A Midsummer Night's Dream has already been pretty special.”

A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Play For The Nation, Citizen's Theatre, Glasgow, tonight-April 2.

The Herald, March 28th 2016


Monday, 28 March 2016

The Air That Carries The Weight

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

Bird-song permeates the air as the audience settle in to watch Rebecca Sharp's poignant and elegiac dramatic tone poem on loss and life. These little chirrups are just a hint of the ancient whispers that will skitter around the room later in Muriel Romanes' production, a fittingly lovely finale to her tenure as artistic director of the Stellar Quines company.

In a dilapidated cottage surrounded by bare trees in the wild cross-winds of Argyll, three women stand, attuning themselves to a seemingly unfavourable environment. The first, Isobel, as played by Melody Grove, is the most discomforted as she both mourns and excavates her shared history with Pauline Lockhart's Yvonne. Pivoting around them both is the real life figure of Marion Campbell, the Kintyre-based archaeologist and explorer of the land she inhabited, and here played with wise grace by Alexandra Mathie. Out of this comes a series of criss-crossing meditations that becomes a voyage of discovery for Isobel even as she comes to terms with ghosts who watch over her like cross-generational angels.

It's rare for all of a play's different elements to be so connected as they are when Sharp's poetic imaginings are made flesh by a beguiling trio of performances. The light and shade of John Byrne's pastoral-domestic design, Jeanine Byrne's flickering lighting and Pippa Murphy's ornate and arcane score wrap around each other like intertwining roots that nurture each other as they go. All of this is tended with gossamer-like precision by Romanes, who makes a slow-burning ritual out of Sharp's heartfelt text which, by embracing the life left behind, honours the dead with the most beautiful of tributes.

The Herald, March 28th 2016


Friday, 25 March 2016

I Am Thomas

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

It starts with the wheeze of twin accordions, does Told By An Idiot's musical romp concerning Thomas Aikenhead, the seventeenth century student who questioned the existence of God, only to end up immortalised himself as the last man to be hanged for blasphemy in the UK. On a set that doubles up as courtroom and city chambers, a 1970s stryled rogues gallery of Edinburgh councillors – a body hard to pastiche, whatever the century – are debating which historical figure to honour with a statue.

What unravels in Told By An Idiot director Paul Hunter's co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland, the Royal Lyceum and Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse is a stark lesson for our times about how if you push people too far they will eventually fight back in a way that sires a flowering of cultural riches. Here Aikenhead is cast as a pub singing rebel at the sort of latter-day Open Mic night that some of Edinburgh's less enlightened souls would rather have closed down.

At the heart of Aikenhead's accidental martyrdom is an ideologically driven terror of ideas that unsettle. With all eight actors playing Aikenhead in turn, the collective resistance that comes out of this hidden history features cameos from other young radicals such as Archie Gemmill and the Sex Pistols. All of this is driven by composer Iain Johnstone's settings of port Simon Armitage's lyrics in a show that goes beyond knockabout satire to a more brooding meditation on dissent. A final rousing chorale sung by John Pfumojena points to a world of possibilities worth rising up for.

The Herald, March 25th 2016


Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Rehearsal For Murder

King's Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

When Robert Daws' widowed playwright Alex Dennison declares to Susan Penhaligon's blousy West End producer Bella Lamb that his latest opus is to be a murder mystery thriller, her encouraging response that “They do well,” is tellingly knowing in this debut production from the Bill Kenwright backed Classic Thriller Theatre Company. As with the decade old Agatha Christie Theatre Company, this new venture taps into what appears to be an increasingly un-sated desire to see ingeniously plotted pulp fiction made flesh. If that flesh is made blood within a few minutes of the curtain being raised by way of a bullet or two, so much the better.

Here an obsessed Dennison calls a reunion of the company who last performed together on the West End stage the play is set upon a year previously, on the night of his lover and star turn Monica Welles' apparent suicide. A cast list that includes a shabby director, a past-it roue, an ingenue with ambition and her former beau role-play Dennison's versions of themselves following a series of flashbacks that explain the back-story to his new assistant Sally.

Adapted by Broadway writer David Rogers from a 1982 TV movie penned by Columbo and Murder, She Wrote co-creators Richard Levinson and William Link, Roy Marsden's fluid production plays with cliche before its TV-friendly cast led by Daws, Penhaligon and Monica Welles as the dead leading lady double bluff their way to something infinitely more daring in an intelligently plotted and archly played superior thriller. Part whodunnit, part revenge tragedy, it also lays bare the poverty of the out of work actor in a pleasingly gripping affair.

The Herald, March 24th 2016



Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

It's the strangest sensation, coming into land on an international jet plane, in a limbo that's neither one place or the other. This is even more the case in Hannah Barker and Lewis Hetherington's elliptical study of what happens before and after an Indian stowaway falls from a Heathrow-bound flight from Dubai into the car park of a suburban branch of B&Q.

In the first half we see the effects of such a shocking incident on Lisa, the writer who was sat inches above the young man on her way home from a book tour, and on Andy, the newly redundant man who witnessed the fall. Both are traumatised enough for it to affect their everyday lives, with the dead man Aditya scurrying about Lisa, Andy and Andy's partner Debbie like a ghost in search of release.

What at first looks like a sea of first world problems in Barker and Hetherington's production for the Analogue company in association with the New Wolsey Theatre and the Easterhouse-based Platform organisation flips back across continents to explore the roots of Aditya's doomed plight. As actors Devesh Kishore, Steven Rae, Balvunder Sopal and Hannah Donaldson clamber about Rhys Jarman's scaffolding-based set, it is here the complicity between corporate property developers and construction companies exploiting poor workers wanting to take flight to better lands is made explicit.

It is the backs of ambitious but poverty stricken runaways like Aditya that shiny new cities are built on in this serious and stylistically playful navigation between two worlds in a show that lays bare the heartbreak of such unnecessary fatalities even as it questions its own right to exist.

The Herald, March 22nd 2016


Told By An Idiot - I Am Thomas

There was a glorious irony to the arrival of I Am Thomas at the Salford-based Lowry arts centre, so named in honour of the northern English city's most famous artistic son. Here was a new piece of theatre presented by the gloriously irreverent Told By An Idiot company in a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland and the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, where it opens tonight, that told the little-known story of Thomas Aikenhead.

Aikenhead was a student in seventeenth century Edinburgh, whose loose-lipped anti Christian proclamations might in enlightened times been easily dismissed as attention-seeking banter and adolescent posturing. As it was, twenty-year old Aikenhead ended up being the last person in Britain to be hanged for blasphemy.

Meanwhile, in twenty-first century Salford, the local council have just brought in a Public Space Protection Order in a bid to curb anti-social behaviour in the gentrified Salford Quays area. Part of the order states that it is a criminal offence for anyone to use what is described as 'foul and abusive language.' How this is defined isn't clear, though such an edict may well cover more than one colourful expression, especially those uttered by football fans on their way to or from watching Manchester United at the nearby Old Trafford ground. While not a hanging offence these days, on the spot fines of £100 could be incurred for those indulging in such a crime.

“It just makes you want to curse and curse and curse,” says composer Iain Johnstone of the Salford initiative. “How are they going to do it? Have a list of set words? I can't really see how something so ridiculous would work.”

Johnstone's observations point up the absurdity of such restrictions just as comic activist Mark Thomas' plan to have a swear-box at his forthcoming gig at the Lowry does. Both sit well with Told By An Idiot's approach to the story of Aikenhead, which Johnstone first mooted to Told By An Idiot director Paul Hunter more than two decades after discovering it for himself.

“It was around the time of the fatwa on Salman Rushdie,” Johnstone explains, “and I can't remember whether I heard about it from someone, or whether I read it in George Rosie's book, Curious Scotland, but it really struck me at the time that history repeats itself. Most countries go through that, but it just so happened that Britain and Scotland went through it earlier.

“It's fascinating that the story of Thomas Aikenhead has been pretty much swept under the carpet, and I remember writing to the City Chambers and saying that it's great having statues of Nelson Mandela and what have you, but how about putting up one of Aikenhead. I didn't get a response, but maybe now's the time to start rattling a few cages.”

Given that as well as being artistic director of Edinburgh-based children's theatre company, Wee Stories, Johnstone is a long term collaborator with Told By An Idiot, the idea seemed tailor-made for the company.

“Iain said he wanted to do a new piece of music theatre in the spirit of what Brecht and Weill did with something like Flight of the Lindbergh,” says Hunter, “and even though Told By An idiot had never done a piece of total musical theatre, the story of Thomas Aikenhead seemed to lend itself to that. There was something there about the timing of Aikenhead's execution, which took place ten years before Scotland and the Scottish Enlightenment changed the world. It was as if the authorities realised they'd gone too far.”

Once Told By An Idiot teamed up with the NTS, rather than develop what became I Am Thomas with a writer in a conventional way, the company worked with an original short story by James Robertson called The Wrong Place. As author of the novel, The Fanatic, which in part looked at a modern-day tourist guide's obsession with Thomas Weir, a seventeenth century Presbyterian who was executed for alleged witchcraft, Robertson's affinity with such yarns was again in accord with Told By An Idiot.

Hunter, Johnstone and co also brought on board poet Simon Armitage to write eleven sets of lyrics for a show now described as 'a Brutal Comedy With Songs,' that looks to the loose-knit bawdiness pioneered by companies such as 7:84, Wildcat and Communicado.

“The show taps into that very Scottish tradition of musical theatre,” says Hunter, “and Simon's lyrics
capture perfectly the sense of the sacred and the profane that runs through it. I remember Simon asking, why singing, and I couldn't answer, but we're working with a Zimbabwean actor and musician called John Pfumojena, and when you see what he does onstage, you can see how music and song can express things in a way that words can't do on their own. So that's why singing.”

For Armitage, “The main thing that came out for me was the parallel with the Easter story. Thomas Aitkenhead's walk down the Tolbooth to be hung had an immediate parallel with Christ's walk to his crucifixion and the fourteen stations of the cross. Christ was crucified for what he said, and so was Thomas Aikenhead, even though he was in direct opposition to what Christ said, and there was an irony in that.

“Free speech is a huge issue, and it always has been throughout the history of civilisation, but every now and again it seems to tip over into public consciousness. There's obviously a clear relationship in the show with Charlie Hebdo in terms of it being all about free speech. If you call a play I Am Thomas you don't have to try too hard to work out the comparison.”

Armitage also mentions the rise of public debates in which some commentators refuse to share a platform with those they disagree with. Recent examples have seen the likes of long-time gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell and feminist thinker Germaine Greer effectively black-balled by nominally liberal institutions.

“It leaves you with a dilemma,” says Armitage, “of whether anyone has the right to not be offended. By the same token, you also have to make sure people are safe, so it's not always straightforward, and it only becomes an issue when someone gets executed.”

While I Am Thomas sounds like a piece of very serious fun, rather than taking cheap potshots at people's chosen belief systems, it seeks to heighten the absurdities of how those beliefs can be abused.

“It's not an attack on organised religion,” Hunter points out. “It's more a plea for tolerance and understanding, which sounds quite simplistic, but is very pertinent just now. When people start trying to tell you what you can or can't say, that's very worrying, and even when looking at the sort of material we are with I Am Thomas, there's a presumption about how it should be done, and that it can't be irreverent. But we have been irreverent about something that is serious as well. One of my favourite films is Duck Soup by the Marx Brothers, which is this extraordinary anti war film that's also very silly.”

As Johnstone puts it, “There's a danger in this day and age of being over-respectful, and you have to be ever on your guard against that. You have to be vigilant.”

I Am Thomas, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, March 23-April 9; Eden Court, Inverness, April 12-16; Wilton's Music Hall, London, April 20-30.

The Herald, March 22nd 2016


Muriel Romanes - On Leaving Stellar Quines

Muriel Romanes is not retiring. This is something the outgoing artistic director of the female-focused Stellar Quines theatre company wishes to make abundantly clear as she steps down following her forthcoming production of Rebecca Sharp's The Air That Carries The Weight, which opens in Edinburgh this week. As she takes a break from rehearsals of what she describes as more communion than play, Romanes is frank about her reasons behind leaving a company she has led for the best part of two decades.

“The temperature doesn't suit me anymore,” she says. “I hit seventy this week, so maybe that's got something to do with it, but I'm also actually really tired of sitting at the computer. It's very stultifying imaginatively, and I think things are changing so much in theatre. I've had such a wonderful time with the company. It's been magnificent, but I need to step away from that.

Romanes' decision was also prompted in part by the death of her father.

“I realised that if he's gone,” she says, “then I'm going to go as well, so I better get on with it.”

Romanes has been getting on with it since she first became involved in Stellar Quines acting in the company's first show, Night Sky. That was in 1994, shortly after the company was founded by a loose-knit collective of female artists led by actors and directors Gerda Stevenson and Irene Macdougall, director Lynn Bains and administrator Morag Ballantyne.

Romanes' first production for the company as a director was Helen Edmundson's play, The Clearing, in 1998. She followed this in 2000 with a translation of Quebecois writer Jeanne-Mance Delisle's The Reel of the Hanged Man. Controversies around the play caused a rift in the company, which she has remained at the head of until now.

“I wasn't particularly interested in doing a feminist theatre,” she says. “I just wanted to do great plays by great women and with great artists around them.”

Since then, Romanes' has developed a body of work which has evolved stylistically into more magical realist territory. This is as plain to see The Air That Carries The Weight as it was in The List, The Carousel and The Deliverance, the Herald Angel winning trilogy of plays by another Quebecois writer, Jennifer Tremblay.

“I've become really interested in the breadth of what you can do with poetry rather than dialogue,” Romanes says, “and I'm hungry for work like that. There's more opportunities for that sort of work, and Rebecca's piece is so rich. I love this idea of archeology that's in it, and uncovering layers, because that's what we do in the theatre.”

Romanes' own archeology saw her hooked on theatre while a pupil at convent school, where she became transfixed by religious ritual. She studied acting in America, and on her return to Edinburgh played small parts at the Royal Lyceum.

For several years Romanes was a regular on STV soap, Take The High Road, and she appeared briefly in Gregory's Girl as the teacher who has her glasses cleaned by her window cleaning ex pupil.

A turning point was appearing in Michael Boyd's Tron Theatre production of The Guid Sisters, Martin Bowman and Bill Findlay's Scots adaptation of Quebecois writer Michel Tremblay's play. The production toured to Canada, where Romanes was exposed to more Quebecois writers, and it is arguably Quebec's dramatic sensibility that has fuelled her increasingly adventurous aesthetic.

“I wanted to dare,” she says, “and sometimes that's really hard. I could see all these wonderful writers and artists in Quebec and Scotland, but in Scotland, artists at the coalface are on flat fees, but the whole infrastructure around them are all salaried with pensions. That's totally wrong, and artists have to take control of things.”

Romanes became an associate director at the Royal Lyceum during the late Kenny Ireland's tenure. Her productions here included notable versions of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Anna Karenina.

More recently Stellar Quines collaborated with the Royal Lyceum on a production of Linda Griffiths' play, Age of Arousal.

“They were supported,” she says. “It's so hard for young companies now, because it's all about money, but there are still wonderful young artists coming up, and they need to be at the centre of everything.”

Romanes' successor as artistic director of Stellar Quines, Jemima Levick, is one such artist. Currently in charge of Dundee Rep, Levick's early career included a stint with Stellar Quines as an associate director, so for her to be already steeped in the company's work is something Romanes clearly relishes.

“It couldn't be better,” Romanes says of the appointment. “It's the best of all possible outcomes. She will give the company more breadth.”

While there are no firm plans in place for any new productions from a soon to be freelance Romanes, she has plans to open a residential centre for playwrights in a highland house left to her by her father. As for the last twenty years with Stellar Quines, her response is as magical-sounding as her work.

“I'm amazed,” she says. “It's as if I've been asleep, and all these wonderful things have happened, and I hope they continue to happen.”

The Air That Carries The Weight, Traverse Theatre, March 24-26.

The Herald, March 22nd 2016


Thursday, 17 March 2016

Tom: A Story of Tom Jones -The Musical

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Three stars

A flat-capped miners choir isn't the most obvious opening gambit for the latest entry in what looks increasingly like a new wave of rock and roll musicals. That's exactly what you get, however, in the South Wales based Theatr na Nog's dramatic love letter to Pontypridd's most famous singing son. This is how it should be, because, despite the mixed messages sent out by the show' rather cumbersome title, Geinor Styles' production of Mike James' script is a more grown up look at life behind the scenes of Jones' rocky road to success than one might initially expect.

As the artist formerly known as Tom Woodward moves from singing in his local, the Wheatsheaf Arms, through the cabaret circuit and sharing a London dive with his backing band, Jones also has to face up to life as a parent away from his teenage bride Linda. The all-singing, all-playing cast led by a hip-thrusting Kit Orton as Jones don't make heavy weather of this, and there is an unpretentious honesty at the heart of a show still finding its dramatic feet.

While much of Wednesday night's audience was made up of ladies of a certain age who gamely stepped up to the mini greatest hits finale with unabashed glee, a younger generation of X-Factor weaned would-be superstars would benefit from seeing what it really means to graft at the coalface of popular entertainment. The show ends with Jones' breakout hit, the build-up to which is a tease, despite there being nary a pair of knickers in sight. Given the show's subject, that really is unusual.

The Herald, March 18th 2016


Wednesday, 16 March 2016


Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow
Three stars

When Claudius calls for light at the end of the first half of Gordon Barr's new production of Shakespeare's gloomiest tragedy, performed here by MA students from the Classical and Contemporary Text course, he gets darkness instead. It's a darkness that pervades throughout, from a candlelit opening in which Tierney Nolan's female Horatio sits writing at a desk more suited for love letters, to the extended mass suicide note the play evolves into.

There's something post-Victorian in such an image, with the long dresses and suits as ornate as the array of hipster moustaches being sported looking positively Wildean in terms of presentation. The array of empty picture frames that hang down just enough for carefully posed apparitions to step into complete the image, even as they flank a giant crucifix draped in scarlet that floats centre-stage. The construction of trunks, baskets and cases that sits at one side of the Chandler Studio stage suggest the baggage Hamlet and co are carrying around with them is as much physical as psychological.

As played by Samantha McLaughlin in a production presented in partnership with Bard in the Botanics, Hamlet himself is a wily wind-up merchant, whose emotional sleight-of-hand in terms of the way he plays all-comers sends him off the rails for real. If there is an unrequited romance yearned after by Horatio, it goes un-heeded by Hamlet, whose increasingly pathologically inclined mission leaves Rachel Schmeling's poor Ophelia as mere collateral damage. As Hamlet and his extended family go to war, the body count mounts, until all that is left is Horatio at her desk once more, immortalising a legend.

The Herald, March 17th 2016


Monday, 14 March 2016

Canned Laughter

Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy
Three stars

“It's a night out to you,” says Allan Stewart's old school comedian Alec Munro to the audience at one point in Ed Curtis' dissection of the not so funny side of showbiz, co-written with Stewart. “It's a career to me.” Given that Stewart is playing alongside his regular real life pantomime foils Andy Gray and Grant Stott as the other two thirds of unreconstructed comedy trio Wee Three, Gus and Rory, it's a line that works on a multitude of levels.

Here is a bittersweet backstage drama of back-stabbing ambition in which a now solo Alec is forced to face up to the ghosts of his past, but which is played by a cast so familiar to the pop cultural mainstream that for an audience on intimate terms with their oeuvre they must at times seem indistinguishable from their comic personas. Yet, even as the trio rattle through a set of routines that would knock audiences dead from the Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club to the London Palladium, such exercises in top light entertainment are sucker punches for the fall-outs inbetween.

Told through a series of flashbacks and audience asides against a backdrop of framed music hall style posters and a dressing room mirror that opens out to become a stage within a stage, Curtis' production for producers Neil Laidlaw and Gavin Klein makes the most of his actors' already formidable onstage chemistry. Alec's avuncular but ruthless voice of experience is offset by Gus' hapless galumph, played with hang-dog precision by Gray, while Stott's enthusiastic amateur Rory has stars in his eyes but lacks the chops to transcend his puppy-dog keenness into bill-topping material.

Gabriel Quigley plays Maggie, Rory's sister, Gus' fleeting romantic interest and an increasingly hard-nosed manager and producer with a no-nonsense abruptness that keeps the boys in check for a while until family must come first. If the final reunion soft soaps things somewhat in favour of a feelgood ending that confirms that the show must go on whatever the cost, it's only because that's what entertainment expects.

The Herald, March 14th 2015


Thursday, 10 March 2016

Get Carter

Citizen's Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

The coffin that sits centre stage at the opening of Northern Stage's new dramatisation of Ted Lewis' grim slice of post-1960s pulp fiction is as symbolic of the demise of northern England's industrial powerhouse as the mountain of bricks behind it. It is also what drags local tough guy made good Jack Carter back from the affluent south to make a prodigal's return to bury his brother Frank. What Jack returns to, as anyone who has seen Mike Hodges' iconic big-screen 1971 adaptation will know, is a murky world of back-street gangsterism that preys on an acquisitive desperation for the good life flogged off as cheap thrills. Booze, home-made porn and bent slot machines are all fair game.

By returning to Lewis' book, writer Torben Betts and director Lorne Campbell manage to fill in the blanks the film left out through a last-gasp interior monologue cum confessional that lays bare Jack's own messed-up psychology in an even more messed-up world. Jack is played by Kevin Wathen, who leads a cast of seven with a steely fury that gives the piece its perverted moral compass in the face of a grotesquely observed array of reptilian hit-men and molls.

Frank is personified onstage by jazz drummer Martin Douglas, whose pitter-pattering brush strokes sound increasingly like a death knell. Surrounded by the damaged goods of the never-had-it-so-bad years, Jack also exposes how the dream of post-war urban renewal became a pyre of civic corruption fuelled by empire-building greed. All of this is shot through with the depth and intensity of Greek tragedy in a stylish and unremitting piece of slow-burning brutalist noir.

The Herald, March 11th 2016


Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Torben Betts and Lorne Campbell - Get Carter

Torben Betts had never seen Get Carter when he was asked to write a stage version for the Newcastle-based Northern Stage company. The award-winning playwright knew that Mike Hodges' iconic 1971 gangster film had starred Michael Caine as an oddly cockney-sounding prodigal returning to a bombed-out Tyneside following the death of his brother, but that was about it.

Neither had Betts read Ted Lewis' novel, Jack's Return Home, a gritty first person noir first published a year before the appearance of the film it inspired. Unlike the film, Lewis' novel has Jack Carter return, not to Newcastle, but to an even grimmer northern town close to where he changes trains at Doncaster, which might have been Scunthorpe.

Betts and Northern Stage director Lorne Campbell have looked to the book rather than the film for their touring production of Get Carter, which opens at the Citizen's Theatre in Glasgow tonight. In a story rooted in time and place, however, they have opted to retain the film's Newcastle backdrop.

“One of the things we're trying to do here,” says Campbell, “is use the landscape of the play as a context for telling everyone's histories. Jack Carter is a hugely unsympathetic character. He's a dangerous, violent man. If an audience is to feel something for him, you need to know where he's come from, and to make something universal, you make it very local.”

“Jack's a product of his time,” says Betts. “There's a lot of misanthropy in the novel. He's an insane person in an unhappy and insane world. He's sick, but he's no sicker than everyone else.”

One of the key things Betts did know about Get Carter before taking on the show was the film's soundtrack, an insistent mismatch of double bass, treated keyboards and tabla which has become a signifier of period retro-cool. Rather than use Budd's music, a new score by sound designer James Frewer and singer/songwriter Nadine Shah has been integrated into the play alongside music from the era. What really puts music at the heart of Betts' version of the story, however, is the presence of Jack's murdered brother.

“I watched a film about Ginger Baker, the drummer from Cream,” says Betts, “and that made me think about how Jack talks about his brother as being a musician with this love of American jazz, so now we have Frank as this silent drummer.”

As Campbell points out, “Once you give Jack someone to talk to, it really opens things out.”

This also made life easier for Betts.

“Once you read the novel,” he says, “it becomes clear that it's a revenge tragedy, but where in the film Jack's just this blank slate who goes round killing people, in the book you get more of a idea about what he's thinking.”

Frank's presence onstage as a jazz drummer fits in too with what Campbell observes as Newcastle's inherent musicality during the period the play is set.

“Newcastle was arguably the first British music city,” he says. “You had all these groups like The Animals playing the clubs, and there was this real moment of change, with young people having disposable income, and the 1968 Gambling Act opening up opportunities for there to be fruit machines in places they hadn't been allowed before. With that came a relationship between gambling, vice and organised crime. At the same time, on the one hand you had all this supposed peace and love going on, but you also had the slum clearances happening.”

Betts too points up the social upheaval of the era.

“When Get Carter came out, it was pretty much at the end of the 1960s dream,” he observes. “While the swinging sixties thing only really happened among a small number of middle class people in London, the rest of the country was pretty bleak. I quite like Get Carter as an antidote to all the nonsense of the sixties in this brutal, unforgiving northern world.”

Get Carter is the first work by Betts to be seen by audiences in Scotland since his award-winning play, The Unconquered, was produced by the Stellar Quines company in 2007. Prior to that, the more obviously conventional A Listening Heaven was seen at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh in 2001. Campbell's background as an associate director of the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, has also seen him bring on board former Edinburgh residents 59 Productions to provide a monumental set design for the show.

Betts' take on Get Carter isn't the first time the story has been adapted for stage. A decade ago Red Shift theatre company toured a version by the company's director, Jonathan Holloway. While that production similarly looked to Lewis' very British form of hard-boiled pulp noir, Campbell recognised something deeper going on in Jack's Return Home.

“It's a really complex book,” he says. “It's very much of it's time, and you can see the influence of Raymond Carver and James M Cain, and especially of Albert Camus' L'Etranger and nouvelle vague cinema. There's a real sense in the book of a post-war existential crisis, about who we are, and about how we're coping in this new post-war capitalist world.

“That isn't something that was exclusive to Newcastle, but it was the industrial north of England as a whole. Some of Lewis' best writing in the book by a mile are his observations of landscape and his characters sense of self within that landscape, so in Jack you have this sick soul in a sick society.”

Lewis wrote two other Jack Carter books in the wake of the film version's success. Given the ending of the original novel, both Jack Carter's Law, published in 1974, and Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon, dating from 1980, were prequels. While neither had the same impact, they formed part of a golden age of British pulp fiction that trickled down into a new wave of gritty TV drama.

In seminal cop show, The Sweeney, the two lead characters, Jack Regan and George Carter, were said to have been named by the show's creator, Ian Kennedy Martin, in homage to Jack Carter. 1972 blaxploitation film, Hit Man, was also inspired by Jack's Return Home, while a remake of Get Carter starring Sylvester Stallone was less than successful.

Lewis wrote episodes of Z-Cars, created by Ian Kennedy Martin's brother, Troy, who also wrote the screenplay for The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine. Lewis died in 1982, still only in his early forties, with nine novels under his belt. It is Get Carter, however, that has come to define Lewis in a way that Betts and Campbell see as relevant to today.

“I think that once again we're in a moment in history where individuals are looking at themselves and asking what is this for,” says Campbell. “At the beginning of the book, Jack is telling himself he's going to run away to South Africa, but he knows he won't, because he knows when he gets there he'll be exactly the same man, when really he's trying to figure out how to be someone else in this sick society.

“Lewis rails against capitalism and everything it's done. Through Jack he's asking how can we be better, how can we shift and change our identity so that we can look after one another, and how we can do that without becoming a gun wielding psychopath. Those are pretty important questions for us all just now.”

Get Carter, Citizen's Theatre, Glasgow, March 8-12, then tours.

The Herald, March 8th 2016


Sunday, 6 March 2016

Much Ado About Nothing

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow
Three stars

It could easily feel like all your Christmases have come at once judging by the opening of Jennifer Dick's production of Shakespeare's original rom-com, performed here by MA students from the RCS' Classical and Contemporary Text course. The fairy-lit tree is in full bloom, the tartan curtains are pulled back and everybody's dressed in fifty shades of tweed in a modern dress take on things that appears to be set among the Highland horsey set with whom Don John's camouflage-clad regiment are decamped.

Eleanor Henderson's Beatrice more resembles a land girl as she spars with Duncan Harte's officer-class Benedick over Hogmanay while her cousin Hero and Benedick's sidekick Claudio have a seemingly more straightforward romance. As they eavesdrop in on the machinations they think they're party to, both B and B are unable to see the wood for the trees, the latter played rather splendidly by a cast led by Zoe Bullock's pint-sized apple-bearing sapling. While Bullock has even more fun as Dogberry, things take a darker turn in the second half prior to happy ever afters all round.

Rom-coms probably shouldn't last just shy of three hours, even with an interval, but there is so much comic business and contemporary extemporising grafted on so you can barely see the join that you can let Dick and co off for seriously good behaviour. Of course there's a ceilidh, but there's Burns, the Bay City Rollers and an anglicised mis-hear of Auld Lang Syne too. Even Alan Titchmarsh makes an appearance as both Henderson and Harte make the text sound under-statedly natural in this merriest of dramatic dances.

The Herald, March 7th 2016


Friday, 4 March 2016

Iphigenia in Splott

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Five stars

When Gary Owen's explosive state of the nations address that reimagined Greek tragedy in twenty-first century Cardiff was first seen in Edinburgh during the final week of the 2015 Festival Fringe, its hoodie-wearing protagonist evoked the spirit of broken Britain with a sound and fury that left others standing. Here Iphigenia was reborn as Effie, a binge-drinking, one-night standing emotional and physical fireball in a woman's body, who had nothing to lose except her benefits because everything's been closed down.
Six months on, and Rachel O'Riordan's production for the Cardiff-based Sherman Cymru company looks even more vital as it goes out on a tour which needs to be seen as far and widely as possible. While Owen's monologue, delivered with machine-gun ferocity by a fearlessly wonderful Sophie Melville, is in part a call to arms, that it achieves this with a wit and a rich poetic life-force makes it even more special.

Alone in the spotlight, Effie recounts her personal odyssey that sees her move from back-street boozer to an ill-fated dalliance with an injured squaddie who's been thrown onto the scrap-heap just as much as she has. What sounds initially like motor-mouthed gossip to impress her mates becomes a damning litany on the painfully real consequences of the dismantling of the NHS and the welfare state.

Every single politician and civil servant responsible for such a move should be frog-marched to see this show wherever it plays. Maybe when Effie stares them in the eye, accusing them from the depths of her being, they might yet develop a conscience in the face of the most important play of the moment.

The Herald, March 7th 2016


Live Music Matters – 'Let's Put On The Show Right Here!'


Last week, the touring stage production of Footloose The Musical arrived in town for a week-long run at Edinburgh Playhouse.

For those who may not know Footloose, the stage version is based on a 1984 film of the same name starring Kevin Bacon.

Bacon plays Ren McCormack, a fun-loving Chicago teenager who is packed off to the small town of Bomont.

Once in Bomont, as this is a teen movie, young Ren of course falls for the local bad girl, falling foul of the local authorities as he goes.

The main obstacle that fun-loving Ren come up against, alas, is the fact that due to external pressure, the local city council has banned dancing and rock music.

The last time a real life incident similar to this occurred in Glasgow in 1977, when the city's local authority banned what they deemed to be Punk Rock gigs, and – just as in Footloose, in which Ren and his pals were forced to travel a hundred miles to a country bar to dance to rock and roll – Glaswegian punk rockers had to travel to Paisley to pursue their anarchic pleasures.

Something similar happened in1994 with the implementation of the Criminal Justice Act, which, in a bid to outlaw rave culture, imposed restrictions on gatherings anywhere in the vicinity of repetitive beats.

This new law applied to groups of twenty or more people in England and Wales, while in Scotland, gatherings of up to 100 were acceptable.

In a reflection of its full absurdity, the Criminal Justice Act could be legally enforced even if no illegal trespass was involved.

As with what happened in downtown Bomont in Footloose, this was an ideologically driven attempt to ban dancing.

While the Criminal Justice Act attempted to outlaw this new wave of freaky dancing across the UK, Glasgow's loss in terms of the locally enforced punk rock ban became Edinburgh's gain.


As I pointed out to the Licensing Forum in December, Edinburgh has a long history of live music in bars and small venues in Edinburgh.

In modern times this runs from the 1960s folk revival that ran parallel with the dance-hall scene, to bars such as the now demolished Tap O'Laurieston in West Port, which was a key venue for Edinburgh's punk scene.

The importance of the Tap O'Lauriston in particular was highlighted recently by a man called Bob Last, who may now be best known as a film producer who helped make such films as The Illusionist – a film which featured an imaginary animated band - and Sunset Song, but whose career began while a student at Edinburgh College of Art.

Bob Last lived in a flat in Keir Street, next door to Edinburgh College of Art, and it was through going to gigs in small venues and tour managing a band called The Rezillos that he ended up starting a record label called Fast Product.

Fast Product put out the first records by the Human League, The Gang of Four, The Mekons, Scars and The Dead Kennedys.

This was arguably one of the earliest sitings of a genre we now know as post-punk, with Fast Product acknowledged as a major influence on the far better historiced music scene of the time in Manchester based around Factory Records.

It is equally arguable as well that the Human League's global success when they went to number one in the charts over Christmas 1981 changed pop music forever.

And all that out of a tenement flat next to Edinburgh College of Art.


This very recent history has just been been documented in a full-length feature film called Big Gold Dream, which intersperses new interviews with all the era's key players with fantastically scratchy archive footage.

It is my view that Big Gold Dream – which was made over ten years without any public funding - should be compulsory viewing for anyone who believes there has never been any live music in Edinburgh.

It is my view as well that Big Gold Dream should also be shown at every higher education institution in the City during Fresher's Week, and should be on a permanent loop at the National Museum of Scotland lest this vital cultural artefact be allowed to disappear from history.

But more of that anon.


Given the key role of Edinburgh College of Art and Bob Last's Keir Street flat, it's perhaps ironic that fairly recent noise complaints concerning Edinburgh College of Art came from neighbours in Keir Street, a few doors away from the flat where Fast Product Records was based..

But the complaint – which wasn't to the Council, but was made to the College directly - wasn't about the noise generated by the live music playing in the Wee Red Bar, which is the College of Art's student union and one of the key small music venues in the city, which finishes its live music events no later than 10pm.

The complaint was about a transistor radio playing on the ledge of an open window of one of the College's studios where a student was working – in the daytime.


Before Christmas I was heartened, not just by the fact that every band on the main stage of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay – Biffy Clyro, Idlewild and Honeyblood - had been nurtured in small venues like Bannerman's, the Cas Rock, Sneaky Pete's, Henry's Cellar Bar, and Electric Circus.

It was in these places these bands tried things out, probably messed up a fair bit and used a cheap and cheerful platform to find out who they are and what they're about en route to becoming the world class artists who appeared at Hogmanay.

It was the same story when the Bay City Rollers headlined the Usher Hall for two nights.

Here was a band who were sired from the thriving dance-hall and club circuit that existed before the Council and property developers conspired to rip up the city around Leith Street where some of those clubs existed , and where further bull- dozing is already currently ongoing – and who for a fleeting moment in the 1970s were the biggest band in the world.

According to a recent TV documentary on the Rollers, their song Saturday Night is said to have inspired The Ramones song, Blitzkreig Bop.

Whether that's true or not, the point is that artists don't come fully formed, but need time and space to develop.

That such an observation regarding the missing link between the Bay City Rollers and The Ramones has taken almost forty years to come to light speaks volumes about how shoddily Edinburgh's musical heritage has been treated compared to that in New York.


But Edinburgh hasn't always had such a seemingly illiberal attitude to live music.

Last summer I spoke to a musician called Andy Moor, who plays in a band called The Ex.

The Ex are based in the Netherlands, having formed out of the city's punk – or post-punk – scenes thirty years before.

Through extensive touring, The Ex developed connections with like-minded artists across the globe.

This was especially the case in Edinburgh, where they teamed up with a band called Dog Faced Hermans, who were active in a loose-knit disorganisation called Edinburgh Musicians Collective, who held gigs at the Wee Red Bar at Edinburgh College of Art.

Andy Moor originally played in Dog Faced Hermans, and both they and The Ex toured and recorded together until Moor joined The Ex full time.

Moor told me that one of the earliest gigs he remembers the two bands playing in either the late 1980s or early 1990s was in a small bar in the Cowgate which was one of a row of three, though he couldn't remember which.

It might well have been Sneaky Pete's, back in the days when it was better known for being one of the scariest late night bars in town rather thanfor its well-managed live music programme and select clientele, but who can say?

As I remember it, these three bars, - lined up unassumingly like three rather hard looking maids in a row – changed their names every time someone was murdered in one of them.

At that time, as far as I can work out, one of the main advantages of having live music in a pub was that it enabled the bar to stay open later.

This understandably made for a somewhat colourful clientele, many of whom were more concerned about how cheap the shots were than the nuances of the live music being played.

This was something Andy Moor, The Ex and Dog Faced Hermans discovered first hand when they played the Cowgate bar that may or may not have been Sneaky Pete's that night, when three songs in, The Ex's soundman was hit by a bottle or a pint glass.

The gig never really recovered after that, apparently, and was abandoned shortly after.

But these are changed days.

We have venues like Sneaky Pete's, which are run safely and responsibly and with consideration to their neighbours, and which to the best of my knowledge hasn't had to consider changing it's name at all following any late night homicide.


The arrival of Footloose The Musical at Edinburgh Playhouse made me think of another, much older musical film which was set, not in some back-woods – and possibly back-wards - American town, but in the bright lights, big city of London.

The Young Ones dates from 1961, and was a vehicle for Cliff Richard, who at the time was still considered a voice for youth having once been seen as the UK's answer to Elvis Presley.

For those too young to have seen this very British celluloid reaction to the rise of the teenager in a city that was about to swing, in The Young Ones, Cliff Richard played a would-be singer who was part of a youth club, which was under threat by millionaire property developers who wished to knock it down so that they could build office blocks.

In retaliation, Cliff, The Shadows and the gang take over a deserted theatre which possibly also belonged to the millionaire property developer, who was perhaps leaving it to fall into disrepair until he was allowed to bulldoze it away and build more office blocks, maybe, or possibly some student accommodation, or perhaps they might leave the theatre standing before they convert it into a 900 capacity super pub.

And it probably wouldn't matter if twenty thousand people signed a petition to keep the theatre as a theatre, the millionaire property developer would get his own way because he had the money and the lawyers to make it happen.

In the film, there is of course a happy ending, when the millionaire property developer – who turns out to be Cliff's dad – hears Cliff sing on pirate radio, realises the error of his ways and declares he'll buy Cliff and the gang a brand new youth club.


That's not what happened in Edinburgh, alas, when JD Wetherspoon was granted planning permission to convert the Picture House into a superpub.

Not only were the thousands of local constituents who signed the petition protesting the move ignored by the Planning Committee.

A third of the committee elected to represent their constituents on planning issues were somewhat conveniently absent from the meeting in which the decision was taken and unable to vote.

Since then, it should be noted, after almost two years since its closure, the site of the Picture House has remained unused, with as yet no sign of any building work evident on the outside at least.


Perhaps the Planning Committee aren't aware of the significance of the site of the Picture House, both as a cinema and a major live music venue in the 1980s.

They certainly weren't when they were presented with a first report by officers, which was roundly rejected as being, according to the convenor 'not a good report.'

This lack of knowledge of the city's cultural heritage on the Planning Committee might explain the Convenor's comments in a newspaper interview when asked about what was until recently a gap site on New Street which now forms part of what I think is now called the Caltongate development, protests about which were again disregarded in favour of millionaire developers.

When asked about the site, the Convenor described it as a former bus shelter, making no mention of the the building’s decade long existence as the Bongo Club, one of the city's finest cultural centres and grassroots music venues.


The main problem with live music in Edinburgh, beyond the encroaching gentrification that is ongoing, is the so-called 'inaudibility clause', whereby if live music can be heard beyond the four walls of the venue it is being played in, then it is in breach of the law.

Of course, music being music, it makes a sound.

That's why it's called music, and even with the most rigorous attempts at soundproofing as all responsible venues fit themselves out with, it will be heard.


To illustrate the absurdity of the use of the notion of inaudibility, one of the venues in Edinburgh which has suffered the most regarding noise complaints in recent years is Studio 24, situated on Calton Road, where it has been run since the 1970s.

Noise complaints only started after new housing developments were built on Calton Road, with the owners being informed that their new houses came with sound-proofing, which – as it turned out - wasn't actually the case.

Even so, Studio 24 was presumed to be the guilty party, and, despite increasing the sound-proofing which already existed in the venue, had protracted and not always successful dealings with the Council.

Recently Studio 24 has started putting on gigs again, and, as far as I'm aware, there have been no complaints.

I went to one a few months ago, and as I had to leave the gig early while the band were still playing, I took the opportunity to try and gauge for myself what noise from the venue was audible on the street.

All I could hear directly outside the venue was a muffled bass sound that was so low that it sounded like it was buried underground.

Beyond this and the occasional car passing by, the main noise on the street wasn't coming from Studio 24 at all.

The main noise on Calton Road just before 10 O'Clock on a Wednesday night was actually coming from Waverley Station, where the arrivals and departures of train times where being announced through an amplified tannoy system.

The use of an amplified tannoy system is interesting, as the current Council legislation states that amplified vocals and drums must remain inaudible beyond the venue where they are being used.

The amplified voice of Waverley Station's train announcements, which can be heard all day and until late at night along the length of Calton Road, might be seen to be potentially in breach of that legislation.

While such an absurdity will obviously never be acted upon, just as the noise generated by the Edinburgh Tattoo and other events during August's festival season will never be acted upon, this is potentially how ridiculous the inaudibility clause – non-scientific and subjectively implemented - appears when taken to its logical conclusion.


But let's be clear here.

Any proposed removal of the inaudibility clause isn't about creating a free for all that would allow bands to crank up the volume to eleven.

Rather, it is about live music events – be they in pubs, church halls, galleries and museums as well as regular venues – to operate responsibly in the full knowledge that they are being recognised as equals with other constituents of the City Council.


Because despite everything, new live music venues continue to pop up.

Leith Depot and Paradise Palms are the latest two venues to open that I'm aware of, while at Summerhall the programme promoted beneath the ironically named banner of Nothing Ever Happens Here becomes increasingly ambitious.

This week's news of Leith Theatre being developed back into a fully working venue might mean that at long last there is a viable mid-scale replacement to the Picture House.

Beyond the regular venues and the plethora of pubs that continue to put on live music, I see live music events that happens in church halls, community centres and dockers clubs; in grassroots art-spaces, warehouses and museums after-hours.

As the Live Music Exchange has already confirmed, there are hundreds of live music events that take place in Edinburgh which pass by largely without incident.

There is a new collective looking to open and run a DIY venue which can exist for all ages, and again, this is about education, whereby young people can experience the thrill of live music from an early age, whether playing it or listening to it.


Before Christmas, while the big bands played the Usher Hall and Princes Street Gardens, two significant events took place.

The first, at the Collective Gallery on Calton Hill, saw the culmination of a three year project by artist Ross Sinclair, who together with the Collective, had given musical instruments to young people, who then learnt how to play them, formed bands and wrote songs.

The night at the Collective was the launch of the record that had been made of those bands, who all played in front of an invited audience on what was a wonderful example of how music can empower young people.

Down the road during the same week at South Bridge Resource Centre, Totally sound – a City of Edinburgh Council funded community initiative set up in 2003 as a music project for local youth – hosted something similar.

Again, after being taught to play instruments and the rudiments of live music and recording by professional musicians and sound engineers, several bands made up of young people performed sets that included covers of Christmas songs.

The Totally Sound show was was a benefit gig to raise funds for the project because, as with so many music education projects, its funding was rumoured to be under threat.


That's one form of music education, but given what seems to be an absence of knowledge concerning the City's musical history, I would also propose a major archiving project, which presented a permanent physical document of Edinburgh's musical history, past, present and future.

Perhaps, depending what happens with St Mary’s Music School's proposal to move into the Old Royal High School, it might even be housed there.

One thing that is clear that has come out of this process, is that a city which attempts to outlaw live music as Bomont did in Footloose - or a city that allows millionaire property developers to knock down clubs so they can build office blocks as happened in The Young Ones - is completely missing the point of what a city is.

Put simply, a city without music is a city that has lost its soul.

As the efforts of Live Music Matters, Music is Audible, the Live Music Exchange census and the Music Venues Trust have proven over the last year with the publication of the report presented to City of Edinburgh Council's Culture and Sport Committee, Edinburgh has enough live music to ensure that it doesn't lose it's soul in the way that property developers and hoteliers would rather it did.

But like any souls, Edinburgh's musical soul not only needs protecting.

It needs nurturing.

And that is the task of every one who cares about live music in its myriad of forms.

Music is audible, and live music does matter.

If Kevin Bacon and Cliff Richard can understand that, then Edinburgh surely can as well.

A version of this speech was presented at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on February 22nd 2016 as part of Live Music Matters, an event convened by City of Edinburgh City Council to take stock of developments in the city's live music provision since LMM was first convened in November 2014. One or two details which had been written in haste had to be changed for reasons of factual accuracy, but this is more or less how it was read on the night and was later published on the University of Edinburgh's Live Music Exchange blog..


Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Witness For The Prosecution

Dundee Rep
Three stars

There was anything but silence in court among the school party attending Tuesday night's performance of Agatha Christie's own stage version of her 1933 short story. Given that the teenage crowd were possibly encountering Christie's merciless take on murder mystery thrillers for the first time, and that a seemingly staid old staple had just double-bluffed its way to a shock ending that no-one with prior knowledge of the story could possibly have predicted, such a hubbub came with very good reason.

Revived here for an expanded version of Dundee Rep's ensemble company by director Kenny Miller, Christie's yarn opens in the battleship grey office of Sir Wilfred Robarts. Robarts is charged with defending young Leonard Vole, a feckless charmer accused of murdering an older woman for her fortune. Possessed with a little boy lost demeanour and Irene Macdougall's Teutonic ice-maiden Romaine for a wife, Ewan Donald's Leonard has Sir Wilfred back him to the hilt. This task is made easier by the latter's hostility towards women, with only his secretary Greta, played by Emily Winter with a voluminous port wine dyed bubble perm, considered trust-worthy.

With the bulk of the play made up of the trial itself, the crisp formality of proceedings and heightened playing style almost has you believe you're watching it in black and white. The community cast perched like maids in a row as the jury at the back of Miller's opened-out set adds to the effect in what appears to be an open and shut case. The complex dissection of human weakness, emotional blackmail and an ingrained misogyny that blights both individuals and institutions, however, makes guilty parties of us all.

The Herald, March 3rd 2016


Tuesday, 1 March 2016

The Perfect Murder

King's Theatre, Edinburgh
Three stars

There are lesbians in Agatha Christie shows on TV, a randy taxi driver fond of cockney rhyming slang is laying out the patio, and a Croatian prostitute with psychic tendencies is feeling strange vibrations. All of which barely scratches the surface in terms of how far you can go with a murder mystery yarn in Shaun McKenna's stage version of Peter James' best-selling novella, published in 2010.

Here we find IT consultant and classic pulp fiction obsessive Victor Smiley plotting a very bitter end for his other half, Joan, with hooker Kamila. Joan, meanwhile, has plans of her own with buff cabbie Don. Only when James' rookie detective Roy Grace lands on Kamila's doorstep to investigate another case do things start to come undone.

James and McKenna may aspire in part for a latter-day take on Joe Orton's black comedy, Loot, by way of Noel Coward's more spectrally inclined Blithe Spirit in Ian Talbot's production, revived and recast here since its last outing in these parts in 2014. In truth its heightened sense of its own ridiculousness falls somewhere between a suburban sit-com and a 1970s sex comedy. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, and there are shades here of what the League of Gentlemen might do with such a knowingly fun-loving mish-mash of genres.

Casting East Enders double act Shane Richie and Jessie Wallace as the Smileys adds to the fun in a piece of double-barrelled populism. Richie's portrayal of Victor as a worm that turns is a particularly grisly study of human impotence turned nasty in a crowd-pleasing tale of the not entirely unexpected that just about gets away with it.

The Herald, March 2nd 2016


Sophie Melville and Rachel O'Riordan - Iphigenia in Splott

Sophie Melville was on a train on Valentine's Day when she started reading about what UK Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt was doing to the NHS. After negotiations broke down between the Westminster government and the British Medical Association, Hunt had decided to impose contracts on junior doctors without any further discussion. It was perhaps no coincidence that the Swansea born actress was in London to perform Iphigenia in Splott, Gary Owen's devastating reimagining of Greek tragedy in working class Cardiff, where the cuts caused by imposed austerity are biting deep.

Travelling through umpteen districts of London both rich and poor, Melville grew angry enough to try and capture the Secretary of State for Health's attention with a tweet.

'I'm inviting you to see #Iphigenia in Splott @NationalTheatre this week,” she wrote to Hunt's account. 'Come learn what the #NHSmeans to the majority.'

And the result?

“He didn't bloody come, did he?” Melville says, sounding both aghast and resigned to the silence. “I knew what Jeremy Hunt was saying, and I was bloody furious, and I thought, I've got to do something, and I sent it on a whim, really.”

Hunt may not have responded, but Melville's message was retweeted 112 times, while it also garnered the priceless comment from actor Dominic Brewer that getting Hunt into a theatre at all would have been a coup given that 'it was hard enough when he was Culture Secretary.'

Rachel O'Riordan's production of Iphigenia in Splott for the Cardiff-based Sherman Cymru company was first seen in Edinburgh during the final week of the 2015 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It returns this week for three nights only at the city's Traverse Theatre, with Melville as Effie, a roaring girl who drinks, drugs and shags her way to noisy oblivion.

As a portrait of a twenty-first century underclass whose grabbed-at pleasures come as a result of what looks very much like terminal disenfranchisement, it is devastating enough. By the end of the play, however, failed by the services she used to be entitled to, Effie looks very much like a revolutionary heroine who isn't going to take it anymore.

Iphigenia in Splott was one of the first plays developed by Rachel O'Riordan when she arrived in Sherman Cymru following her three years revitalising Perth Theatre.

“Gary was under commission, but he hadn't written anything yet,” says O'Riordan, “but when he did I thought it was extraordinary. From day one it felt complete. I had my mum staying with me when I read it, and I left it on the kitchen table when I went out, and my mum read it and was raving about it.”

When the play opened in Cardiff, Melville's family were equally impressed

“I'm a working class girl from an area in Swansea that's sort of similar to Splott,” she says, “which makes me even more desperate to say what I do in the play. My grandad works for the Socialist Party in Wales, and he keeps saying to me that I'm doing what he does, but in a different way. We opened the day after the General Election, and it felt relevant then, but now with everything that's going on it feels even more so.”

This was the case too when Sherman Cymru brought the play to Edinburgh. After the first performance, O'Riordan was standing at a traffic island when she noticed a disorientated young man on the other side of the road. The man was barefoot and unkempt, and it wasn't clear if he was trying to cross the road, if he was begging, or if he knew where he was. When O'Riordan spoke to him, he said something about wanting to get to Dundee, though he didn't have any money to get there.

“That's the sort of people who the play's about,” she says. “People who slip through the net and aren't looked after. I think the play means a lot in that way, and I think the things it says, for a lot of young people, and for all of us, this stuff needs to be said. I think we're in danger of doing serious damage to the generation after us in terms of what's happening in education. We're narrowing possibilities.

“Someone like my father, who came from a working class family, was able to educate himself and have what we now call social mobility. He was able to change, and have a very different life to his parents. There was a potential to develop great minds that isn't there anymore.”

In terms of the play's observations about the NHS, it should perhaps be pointed out that it was a former Minister of Health, the late post World War Two Labour MP Anuerin Bevan, who birthed the NHS. That Bevan was Welsh may be of some comfort to those behind Iphigenia in Splott, but the play's urgency increases by the day.

“It's an incredible zeitgeist moment,” O'Riordan says. “The play isn't just about the NHS, but the whole ethos behind the NHS, that the fit and able can support and look after those who aren't fit an able, what an extraordinary and wonderful moment that was when it was set up.

In the play, at least, what is seen as an attack on basic services in a remarkable piece of theatre on every level becomes a call to arms, so that Effie becomes politicised by default. In real life, however, can Iphigenia in Splott change anything beyond the four walls of the theatre auditorium?

“Of course it can,” says Melville emphatically. “Just getting people talking or thinking about it is something.”

O'Riordan agrees.

“This is what is really significant about the arts,” she says. “It does make a difference. It really does. Theatre shifts things, and it refreshes the human condition.”

Melville brings such notions even closer to home.

“It's about not judging people,” Melville says. “Effie plays on that, and she really winds people up, but why doesn't she deserve an education? Why doesn't she get to go in an ambulance? Why is it only people who have money that have these things?”

Last week, Melville sent another tweet, not to Jeremy Hunt, but in response to a link to the widely shown video of Tory MPs in the House of Commons heckling UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn while others rocked with noisy laughter. Melville added just one word above it. “Arseholes,” she wrote.

Melville is a keen supporter of the 50/50 Campaign for gender balance in all institutions regarding employment, including the theatre.”

“It's about equality,” she says, “and that applies to gender, race and class. It's about being equal. That's what Iphigenia in Splott is about. Equality for everyone.”

Iphigenia in Splott, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, March 3-5.

The Herald, March 1st 2016