Tuesday, 28 June 2016


Theatre Royal, Glasgow
Three stars

If anyone fancies a glimpse of what some imaginary little Britain should remain like forever, they could do worse than take a look at this touring stage version of the phenomenally successful Sunday night TV cop show based on Nicholas Rhea's Constable series of novels. For eighteen years, after all, the Yorkshire hamlet of Aidensfield was forever stuck in a 1960s that barely swung, and where the common people doffed their cap to the local landowner while being kept in line by a succession of upright local bobbies. Crime, of course, never paid, especially if it was committed by a role-call of shifty interlopers from the fleshpots of the south.

Things appear to be changing in what amounts to a feature-length episode penned by long-serving cast member David Lonsdale, who revives his role of village buffoon David Stockwell. It's 1969, patrician landlord of the Aidensfield Arms, Oscar, is recuperating from an illness in Bridlington, and chirpy Scouse barmaid Gina has hired a jukebox. The Graduate has finally reached the local fleapit, and the neighbourhood cop shop has even had the audacity to put Matt Milburn's PC Joe Malton – a Lancastrian of all things – on the beat. All of which conspires together in a plot which somehow manages to combine David's late night rabbit poaching with the Irish Troubles.

Despite such action-packed longeurs that flit between the pub interior and the grounds of Lord Ashfordly's estate, Keith Myers' production sticks to the TV show's gently nostalgic template that also involves series veteran Steven Blakely's effete PC Geoff Younger. With society clearly collapsing elsewhere, one can only speculate on what horrors the 1970s brought to Aidensfield.

The Herald, June 30th 2016


Fire Engines – (We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang

When indie label boss Bob Last played one of his roster the forthcoming debut single by his latest charges, the high-concept studio gloss and anti-fascist sentiments of the song impressed the four young men gathered on Last's sofa. It was 1981, and with Margaret Thatcher forming an unholy alliance with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Heaven 17's slap-bass driven '(We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang' sounded like a very necessary anthem.

No-one in the room expected the four young men, who, as Fire Engines, had just released an LP of so-called aural wallpaper called Lubricate Your Living Room on Last's Pop Aural label, to cover the song before the original was even released. Especially as the raw, rudimentary and highly-charged angularity of Fire Engines was as far away from Heaven 17's studied construction of style and substance as it could be.

When Fire Engines ran out of time recording their first John Peel session, however, and opted to record a final track in a manic two hour stint back in Edinburgh, that's exactly what happened. The end result of Fire Engines' take on '(We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang' sounded scratchier, scrappier and more urgent than Heaven 17's glossy slice of Nu-funk entryism. It was as if the song was on the run from forces unknown and threatening to collapse any second. The fact that Heaven 17's version was already being trailed by the time the Fire Engines session was broadcast gave both recordings a frisson of subversive zeal.

When Radio 1 went on to ban Heaven 17's single due to its political content, 'Fascist Groove Thang' stalled at number 45 in the singles chart. If the BBC's draconian censoriousness gave the record a sheen of underground cool, Fire Engines' deconstruction was even more samizdat, and was only officially released in 1992 on Creation Records' Fire Engines compilation, Fond. As the 1980s ushered in a new era of pop protest, however, it was just what Thatcher's children needed.

The Quietus, June 2016, as part of a multiple-authored Top 40 of Anti-Fascist Anthems. This made it to number 11.


David Ganly - The Lonesome West

When David Ganly was cast in a trilogy of new plays by a little known writer in 1997, he didn't know that the productions by the Galway-based Druid Theatre Company would spend the next three years travelling to London and Sydney before embarking on a Tony award winning Broadway run. By that time, Martin McDonagh had been hailed as one of the most audacious and taboo-busting voices of his generation, and his rural west coast of Ireland set Leenane trilogy – The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West – three of the most shocking but laugh out loud hilarious plays of the decade's new wave of British playwriting.

Almost two decades on, and Ganly is back in a new production of The Lonesome West that forms the highlight of the Tron Theatre's summer season when it opens next week. Where Ganly played local priest Father Welsh in the play's first production, this time out he takes on the pivotal role of Valene, one of two brothers who, in a play that takes sibling rivalry to viciously baroque extremes, tear physical and psychological chunks out of each other.

“I remember then having my eye on playing Valene,” says a breathless Ganly having just stepped out of rehearsals for one of the play's more manic scenes. “I was twenty-six when I played Father Welsh, and when Martin was unknown and Garry Hynes decided to take a punt on doing all three plays. I did it for three years, so it's amazing coming back to it, and even though there are ghosts of the old production in my head, you're not trying to replicate it, but to retain an essence of it.”

In Ganly's view, much of that essence comes through the figure of Valene when placed in furious opposition to his brother, Coleman, played in Andy Arnold's Tron production by Keith Fleming.

“To me,” says Ganly, “Martin's voice comes out best in these extreme characters. Playing Father Welsh as a twenty-six year old was useful for me to try and be the play's moral centre, but for a dramatic challenge, playing Valene, who is as far away from me as can be, is something else again. Now, on mature reflection, having seen Martin's film work and his plays since The Lonesome West, his voice and his true genius is there in these men with a childish quality to them. There's something unformed in them, and I think Valene has that. He's an extreme character, but it's important you try and make him real rather than just a cipher.”

With the play's central relationship between the two brothers looking to dramatic antecedents as much as reality close to home, McDonagh's writing goes way beyond such notions.

“When the play came out,” says Ganly, “there were initial comparisons with Sam Shepard's play, True West, which is also about two brothers, and I think, if pushed, Martin would admit to that, but Keith and I, who are physically quite alike, got talking about the dynamic of brothers, and about this thing of brothers against the world.

“A brother can do anything to you, and they get away with it or you store it up for years, but if anybody else did those things to you you'd clobber them. If The Beauty Queen of Leenane is about a mother and daughter, then The Lonesome West is very much about siblings. No-one fights like brothers, and no-one has each other's back like brothers.”

Ganly saw this first hand while on tour with the original production of McDonagh's play.

“Martin was in rehearsals every day,” Ganly remembers, “and he wouldn't say anything unless he needed to. He was very hands on, and he would protect his baby when he needed to. We opened in Galway, then went to the Royal Court and to Sydney before opening on Broadway, and Martin was around for all of that.”

As was too McDonagh's elder brother, John, a writer and film-maker in his own right.

“We were basically witnessing this brotherly rivalry,” says Ganly. “We'd play poker at night and see what was going on in the play. It was amazing to bear witness to that for the guts of three years, which was a time when we all became like a family.”

For an unknown cast to take three plays by a relatively unknown writer to Broadway was itself an achievement. McDonagh's violent depiction of a rural Ireland still raw from the Troubles made them even more remarkable.

“It was pre Celtic Tiger,” Ganly explains, referring to the cultural and economic regeneration that would put Ireland back on the map. “Ireland was still on its knees. At that time you weren't necessarily proud to be an Irishman, and it's interesting doing the play now and watching all the EU stuff. When I did the play before, this was an Ireland over-reliant on grants for farming, and where the roads were shit. I mean, Jesus, be careful about being isolated. It's only a short walk to blowing each other's heads off.

“What you have to remember as well is that Martin is from Camberwell, and I don't think it's an accident that this play was seen internationally. Both of his parents are from Galway, but he wrote this in his bedroom. He's taking the mickey out of the violence in Ireland, but he's also got a great ear for stories. A lot of his writing is like vaudeville, and his writing is so well made that you know when you hit it, and you know when it's not working.

“But,” Ganley stresses, “if it wasn't for Garry Hynes, no-one was going to do his work. Martin still has in his toilet a rejection letter from the Abbey Theatre, not just saying why they weren't doing his play, but why they thought it wouldn't work.”

Almost twenty years on, the three plays that form the Leenane trilogy are regarded as modern classics which Ganly is happy to revisit.

“I'm looking at it now as a bottle of wine I put away twenty years ago,” he says, “but which is still as brutal as it is laugh out loud hysterical, and which I think is so well written that I think it will still be done in fifty years time in fifty different languages.

“It's something that makes you laugh, but it's also something that when you go home, you question your relationship with your brother or your dad, as well as your own morality. It makes you question what would you do if any of this was happening. It affects you viscerally, and gets under your skin. I'd be very surprised if anyone seeing it doesn't go home and ring their brother and tell them they love them.”

The Lonesome West, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, July 6-23.

The Herald, June 28th 2016


Sunday, 26 June 2016

Elton John

Meadowbank Stadium, Edinburgh
Four stars

When a knight of the realm congratulates an entire country for being the only sensible people in what's left of the UK after the EU referendum, it's magnificently seditious stuff. When that knight is Sir Elton John opening the Edinburgh leg of his world tour to promote his recent Wonderful Crazy Night album, it makes it even better.

Especially as an impish Sir Elton and his impeccable band has just ushered in a two and half hour set with the instrumental overture of the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road era Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding. With his nibs sporting a sparkly blue outfit and red shades and following it with The Bitch is Back, such a mash up lays bare the maestro's unbridled raison d'etre of showbiz classicist panache that sits somewhere between Liberace and Mozart.

As he rewinds his way through a fistful of hits that includes Benny and the Jets and Philadelphia Freedom, John's back catalogue also traces its way back to the first flush of rock and roll that sired both him and his canon. There's nothing kitsch here, however, even as he beetles his way across the stage between songs against a backdrop of celestial animated projections that flank a band led by Edinburgh born guitarist Davey Johnstone clearly having the time of their lives.

Not far off seventy now, John hints that he may not be touring for much longer, even as he revels in what evolves into a glorious rock and roll dance party and old time soul revue that unites several generations in what on a sunny night in Meadowbank resembles a garden party where everyone is invited.

The Herald, June 27th 2016



Botanic Gardens, Glasgow
Four stars

A little people power, as has been proven over the last few days, is a dangerous thing. So it goes with the Roman war hero who gives Shakespeare's most astonishingly current play its title. Thrust into politics on a wave of triumphalism, a lack of a common touch and open contempt for the people sees Coriolanus thrown out of office and cast out to the metaphorical wilderness where new alliances are forged.

Gordon Barr's production opens this year's Bard in the Botanics season with a subversive swagger, with Coriolanus here a woman who goes off to battle with her boys, leaving Duncan Harte's stay at home husband Virgilius holding the baby. Coriolanus' sparring with her mother, Volumnia, played by Janette Foggo, is given a fresh edge by the gender-swap, even as Alan Steele's Menenius offers paternal guidance.

Coriolanus herself is played with whirlwind-like ferocity by Nicole Cooper, who stomps her way through the Botanic gardens' Kibble Palace, with the audience either side of her cast as the silent majority who are treated with such disdain by the powerful elite that governs them. If this all sounds too close for comfort just now in the current state of fear and loathing, we should also take heed from the play's lesson.

When Coriolanus is confronted by Volumnia, Virgilius and child, for a moment their more intimate exchanges seem to point to the gentler, more compassionate and less confrontational politics the world so desperately needs right now . As Cooper's deposed general is stabbed cruelly from all sides after turning her back on her own flesh and blood, that the play's last words go to the family she left behind speak volumes.

The Herald, June 27th 2016


Thursday, 23 June 2016

Many Happy Returns – Belle & Sebastian, Arab Strap and Vic Godard Rip it Up and Start Again

When former Buzzcock turned Magazine auteur Howard Devoto sang how 'Twenty Years Ago I Used Your Soap,' in 1980, the song's Proustian reflections embodied the post-Devoto Buzzcocks notion of nostalgia for an age yet to come. Thirty-six years on, suddenly anniversaries are everywhere.

Most lauded of all birthdays just now is Punk's fortieth, which is currently being marked by Punk London, a year long commemoration best captured by an exhibition of memorabilia and suchlike at the British Library. One of the era's progeny, however, most definitely won't be blowing out any candles.

Fashion designer, founder of lingerie label Agent Provocateur and son of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, Joe Corre, has declared his intention to burn his own collection of Punk memorabilia, estimated to be worth somewhere in the region of £5 million. It is the ideas of Punk that counts, Corre declared earlier his year, not the left-behind detritus which has now been hi-jacked and respectabilised by heritage industry nostalgists who gave Punk London a whopping great grant. Even Boris Johnson and the Queen, gawd save her, gave their seal of approval, while the Buzzcocks paeon to teenage frustration, What Do I Get?, is soundtracking a McDonalds ad alongside Jamie Reid style ransom note typography.

If both the fortieth birthday extravaganza and Joe Corre's party-pooping antics can be seen as manifestations of a mid life crisis, anniversaries are rife among a relatively younger set as well. Closer to home, Glasgow pop classicists Belle & Sebastian are currently celebrating twenty years since the release of their debut album, Tigermilk, on Stow College's Electric Honey record label in a now expensively rare vinyl edition of 1,000.

Belle & Sebby will also be commemorating the two decades of their existence by playing two nights at the Royal Albert Hall in London next week. On the first night they will play Tigermilk in full, and on the second will work their way through the follow-up, If You're Feeling Sinister, released in November 1996.

At the same time, following a teasing web trailer with the words 'Hello Again', the Falkirk-sired duo of Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton will take time out from assorted solo activities to reunite as Arab Strap. This comes a decade after they split, and the autumn live shows that includes an already sold out gig at Glasgow Barrowlands are in honour of the twentieth anniversary of their debut single, The First Big Weekend.

Both Tigermilk and The First Big Weekend were seminal releases, not least coming as they did as a seeming antithesis to the triumphalist bombast of Britpop, then in its flag-waving pomp. Here, however, were two records which tapped into a very different sort of zeitgeist which the likes of Mogwai, The Delgados and The Nectarine No 9 were also part of.

Belle & Sebastian's driving force Stuart Murdoch was steeped in indiepop of the recent past when it was still defiantly underground. Not as twee as they looked, Murdoch's lyrics referenced Felt and Josef K, and Belle & Sebastian would go on to develop a fanbase as devoted as those who worshipped The Smiths.

Tigermilk reintroduced the world to a literate form of pop that a new generation of indie purists could clutch to their bosom just as the record's female cover star clutched a cuddly tiger to hers. Over ten vignettes that kicked off with the still majestic-sounding The State I'm In, Tigermilk evoked the spirit of bookish big city misfits high on faux naivete that nevertheless hinted at the carnal romances to come.

Arab Strap, meanwhile, were a couple of small-town hedonists struggling for pleasure. Moffat's narrative vignettes concerning sex, drugs and self-loathing sounded like Gordon Legge short stories set to Middleton's primitive guitar and beats backdrop. Delivered as if the last gasp dregs of the night before had been pieced together during the most horrible of come-downs, the Arches referencing The First Big Weekend was an anthem for pleasure-seeking doomed youth everywhere.

When Belle & Sebby and Arab Strap respectively take the stage at the Royal Albert Hall and Glasgow Barrrowlands, both bands might wish to recall the night they shared a bill at the Mitchell Library's Moir Hall in Glasgow back in 1996.

That was the night the soundchecks took so long in a hall more used to civic functions that the event started almost two hours late, with a capacity crowd left hovering politely outside for the duration. While Belle & Sebastian's early shambolic charm in the live arena has been well documented, the delay might also have had something to do with the fact that the band had set up a stage at either end of the room, thus allowing each member of the band to observe whoever was playing opposite. As nice a means of deconstructing the rock gig as it was, it also caused a sound delay, so no-one was ever in time.

As B&S were running through the then unreleased and for most of the audience seated at cabaret tables largely unknown If You're Feeling Sinister album, none of this mattered much. Especially as Murdoch and co had already covered their backs in a small card 'menu' laid out on each table, which contained a full set list including encores. The menu's introductory note also introduced the audience to their support act, Arab Strap, who were described as being 'quite rude' as audience members were advised to cover young children's ears.

In what was one of their earliest, and possibly their first live shows as Arab Strap, Moffat and Middleton played as a duo, with Middleton's skeletal guitar patterns barely covering Moffat's lyrical modesty. For Arab Strap to leave themselves so self-consciously exposed in this way was a brave and clearly necessary move that teetered on the edge of embarrassment, but they persevered anyway. Within a few months, however, Arab Strap had fleshed out to become a four piece, with an early show at King Tut's as part of an event called The Ten Day Weekend a technical disaster.

Given an increasingly ambitious future that featured ninety-minute sets and much more nuanced material such as The First Big Weekend's follow-up single, The Clearing, Arab Strap too teetered at times on the verge of collapse. It is that mix of fearlessness and fragility that should see them reclaim their past with world-weary resignation in October.

Arab Strap's Glasgow show unfortunately clashes with an Edinburgh date from Vic Godard and Subway Sect, who play Edinburgh College of Art's Wee Red Bar with the Sexual Objects. Godard and his various incarnations of Subway Sect have been a huge influence on Scotland's alt pop scene, ever since they supported The Clash at Edinburgh Playhouse on the headline band's White Riot tour in May 1977. Without Subway Sect, it is unlikely Orange Juice would have existed in the same way. Or indeed Fire Engines, the auld reekie incendiarists whose de facto leader Davy Henderson now fronts the Sexual Objects.

Even during punk's first flush, Godard talked about Northern Soul, and looked to Radio 2 and showtunes for inspiration. The result of this was Club Left, a nouveau cabaret night hosted by Godard's then manager Bernie Rhodes, and which featured a supporting programme of torch singers and quiffed-up beat groups who sounded like they'd been hanging round with Joe Brown at the Two i's cafe rather than Johnny Rotten down the Roxy. Godard himself appeared in a tuxedo fronting a similarly clad combo who backed him on covers of Just in Time as well as a fistful of originals.

In the last decade Godard has increasingly explored his own past, with the Twenty-Odd Years compilation eventually giving way to Thirty-Odd years, while he has re-recorded original Subway Sect material on the 1978 Now and 1979 Now albums.

This week, however, Club Left is revived in all its swing-time glamour as Godard and that era's version of the Subway sect, who with American crooner Dig Wayne went on to crack the charts as Jo-Boxers. This time out, however, Club left forms part of Glasgow Jazz Festival. This is a far cry from when the Club Left Subway Sect were sandwiched between the Nick Cave fronted Birthday Party and proto-goths Bauhaus on a UK tour that confused the black-clad hordes to the extent that in Liverpool Godard took a full beer can in the face. As yesterday seems to go on and on and on, as Devoto put it in Twenty Years Ago, this is one piece of history that doesn't need repeating.

Belle and Sebastian play the Royal Albert Hall, London, June 22 and 23.
Club Left with Vic Godard & Subway Sect and The Jazzateers, CCA, Glasgow, June 26.
Arab Strap play Brixton Electric, October 13; Manchester O2 Ritz, October 14; Glasgow Barrowland Ballroom, October 15.
Vic Godard & Subway Sect with The Sexual Objects, Wee Red Bar, Edinburgh, October 15.

Product, June 2016


Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Graeme Maley - Pale Star and A Reykjavik Porno

When filming on Graeme Maley's debut feature film was delayed, the Ayrshire-born director channelled his frustration into creativity. The end result of this nine month wait is not one, but two world premieres by Maley screened at Edinburgh International Film Festival this week.

Pale Star and A Reykjavik Porno are a pair of dark thrillers filmed and set in Iceland, but co-produced with Scotland-based Makar Productions and supported by Creative Scotland. Given how Maley has divided his working life between Scotland and Iceland over the last few years, such a collaboration between the two countries seems appropriate.

As a theatre director, Maley has presented Scots plays in Iceland, including the Icelandic premiere of David Harrower's play, Blackbird. Maley has also fostered a two-way traffic by bringing translations of Icelandic plays to Scotland. Djupid (The Deep), by Icelandic writing star, Jon Atli Jonasson, was first seen at Oran Mor in Glasgow before touring the Highlands, while Salka Gudmundsodottir's play, Breaker, opened at the the Edinburgh Festival Fringe after scooping the best theatre award in Adelaide .

Like those plays, both Pale Star and A Reykjavik Porno are dark affairs that focus on characters on the edge. Pale Star is a noirish thriller in which a tourist couple go on the run from each other, only to fall in with a local couple in a way that exposes everybody's lives. A Reykjavik Porno is an equally twisted look at society's dark hinterland, in which a man becomes obsessed with a teenager who uploads webcam footage of his mother having sex.

“Both films are about outsiders,” Maley says in the afternoon gloom of a Broughton Street boozer. “They've basically fallen through the cracks of society. The characters in Pale Star are much more unaware of that, and are kind of deluding themselves about where they are in their lives, and, through the lies they're telling themselves, they make mistakes in their own personal journeys that prove catastrophic for them.

“In Porno, the characters are outsiders, but they're desperate to belong. They're really hungry to belong. They're in Reykjavik, but they can't quite get a foothold on anything. And for me, Porno especially was about the Icelandic collapse, and how all of a sudden people's lives disintegrated, and how some people haven't quite managed to rebuild themselves. It's a bit of an angry wee film.”

If the films sound like flipsides of the same coin, the different landscape of each heightens that effect even more.

“The first time I came to Iceland, there was something about the landscape there that completely blew my mind,” Maley says. “Pale Star has a volcanic ruralness that's very remote, is stunningly beautiful, but also quite claustrophobic. Porno is city centre Reykjavik, middle of winter, pitch darkness. It was shot over a month but is set over three days in perpetual darkness, so I've tried to make the landscape part of the texture of both films.”

Maley's connection with Iceland came about while developing Abi Morgan's play, Great Moments of Discovery, with international student groups at the Arts Educational school in London as part of a project initiated by Paines Plough theatre company. Through an Icelandic group taking part, Maley was invited to Iceland to devise a new show that led to an ongoing working relationship.

“Through translating Icelandic plays into Scots, I was enjoying fiddling with the writing as well as the directing, and because I was starting to write, it was a natural thing to start thinking about my own stories, and my own experiences of being in Iceland, and what stories I could explore and tell.

“While I was working in theatre I was writing all this stuff, then in 2011 or 2012, I decided to let somebody see it, and I was put in touch with Eddie Dick and Makar Productions, and we started working together on it. It didn't feel like a jump in any way. It just felt like a natural progression.”

Raised in Ayr, Maley studied drama at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh before becoming an assistant director at the city's Traverse Theatre. As a freelance, he worked at Dundee Rep and directed the late Susannah York in Picasso's Women on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He then moved to Liverpool to run new writing company, LLT, which evolved into the New Works company under his tenure .

Maley continued to work with Scots writers such as Ronan O'Donnell on his plays, Brazil and Angels, and both Iain Robertson and Isabelle Joss, who appeared onstage in Breaker, are in Pale Star. Frequent musical collaborator Brian Docherty, who has released electronic-based albums under the name Scientific Support Department, provides the score for A Reykjavik Porno.

Maley's trajectory has been less straightforward than his peers, and, like his characters in Pale Star and A Reykjavik Porno he has retained his own outsider status.

“I've always loved music, movies and the arts,” he says, “but it's a very strange thing to get into. A lot of people study in the arts and end up not doing an arts job, and a lot of people who don't study the arts do end up getting arts jobs. But I think you've got to piss about a bit and try things and see what you enjoy doing.

“It's a tough life, especially outside the institutions, and on the fringes, but it's a great place to be if you can sustain it. It means you've a lot more choices, and you can work with who you want to. I think it's about being where you're happiest. It's where you find your comfort zone. The flipside is, I don't know if these films have got an audience yet, whereas if you're in an institution you've got an audience.”

Audiences are important to Maley.

“I haven't seen either of these films with an audience yet,” he says, “whereas in the theatre it's much more immediate. You develop, you rehearse and then the audience is there, and the audience is a part of it. You preview, and you change things. Making a film you don't have that at all, so that is going to be quite something to see the films with an audience, and see if they engage with the stories, because that's the thing that we honestly don't know. The only people who've seen it so far are the post-production guys and the editors. I've not seen them since last October.”

Beyond Pale Star and A Reykjavik Porno, Maley is in the early stages of adapting John Buchan's posthumously published final novel, the Canadian-set Sick Heart River - “a kind of troubled Western” - for the screen. He is also working on Some Time Did Me Seek, “an Edinburgh-based supernatural cop story” co-scripted with crime writer Lin Anderson,

Given what appears to be non-stop film activity, is that Maley done with theatre, then?

“Is it hell,” he snaps. “No way. I'm desperate to get some immediacy in the rehearsal room.”

Maley is full of praise for David Greig's appointment as artistic director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. It is Greig's attitude as much as the programme itself that appeals.

“He seems to be saying, okay, we've got less money, so let's do more work. I love that. But theatre's not lost to me. It's all part of the same thing.”

Pale Star screens at Cineworld, Edinburgh, June 22-23; A Reykjavik Porno screens at Cineworld, Edinburgh, June 23, Filmhouse, Edinburgh, June 24. Both films are screened as part of the 2016 Edinburgh International Film Festival.

The Herald, June 21st 2016



Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Three stars

Confused twenty-somethings take note. Just because you've reached an age which received wisdom and assorted rites of passage declare that you're a fully-fledged grown-up who can safely be let loose in the big wide world, that doesn't mean the growing pains will stop. Far from it, in fact, as the quartet who make up the young Spilt Milk company make entertainingly clear in this devised compendium of self help style party games and acquired wisdom.

It begins with our hapless quartet sharing real life notes culled from surveys with strangers on how the short leap from adolescence to adulthood isn't quite as straightforward as advertised. On a set lined with shiny post-it notes and leftover childhood totems, school disco cheesy pop classics usher in a series of playful meditations on falling in and out of love and what your younger and older self might learn from such inbetweeners on the verge of something they can't quite put their finger on.

As devised and performed by Anthony Byrne, Grant McDonald, Jacqueline Thain and Catherine Ward-Stoddart, this fifty minute confessional of innocence and experience resembles a collective show and tell performed in a play-pen. While this suggests a generation caught in a state of terminal adolescence, it also seems to plunder a similar set of dramatic reference points that some of their elders on the experimental theatre scene have never quite grown out of.

At the show's loose-knit and ever-developing heart is some sound advice that says that however serious things turn out, keeping tight hold of the child within is an essential accessory to survive. It's a notion that will be around for eternity.

The Herald, June 20th 2016


Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Anna Orton - A Design For Life

Anna Orton never expected to be working with acting greats like Timothy West when she embarked on a theatre design course at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Neither did the thirty-one year old Gorebridge-raised artist expect to be part of a team that was headed up by acclaimed directors such as Sally Cookson and Tom Morris. As Orton makes the final touches on her design for Morris' production of King Lear featuring West in the title role, however, that's exactly what has happened.

The production forms part of an ongoing collaboration between Bristol Old Vic, where Morris is artistic director, and the Theatre School. The idea is that, rather than getting a twenty-something student to attempt the gravitas of Lear's title role, a genuine monarch of the stage such as West is brought in alongside other professionals, with the rest of the cast made up of acting students about to graduate.

As well as West, when Morris' production opens this week, David Hargreaves will play Gloucester, while Stephanie Cole, a former alumnus of the Theatre School, will play The Fool. This unique collaboration not only commemorates the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, but 250 years since Bristol Old Vic first opened its doors and seventy since the Theatre School was started.

In terms of design, as with other productions on the course, the year's four designers are paired together, with one concentrating on costume, the other on the set. After working on costume for a studio production of Trojan Women by Sally Cookson, Orton has been working closely with Morris on the set for King Lear.

“Tom came to the table from the very beginning,” Orton says, sitting alone in her studio during a rare moment of calm. “We built lots of different ideas together, and it was so good to get challenged, The imagery that came out of that for Lear's story was of a bridge crumbling, and Lear's knights are like mummers, so it's quite folksy, but in a dark way. But aesthetically, Tom's let me go absolutely wild with it. It's all very epic, but it has this minimal language as well.”

Student actors and designers working with leading professionals isn't anything new. At the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, for instance, some of Scotland's major practitioners often direct and sometimes devise work with students. For students to appear onstage with the likes of West is something else again.

For The Trojan Women, Orton applied her fine art background from her training at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee.

“Coming from a fine art background, I was used to setting up installations,” she says, “but not on that scale. That was quite a learning experience, but Sally Cookson has this amazing ability to pull the best out of you, so you just do it.”

Orton did it too on The Human Ear, a pub theatre show in which the ad hoc company was given a minimal budget to work with.

“That was with a student director and a student cast,” says Orton, “so it really felt like you were a real company.”

Orton applied for the course at Bristol Old Vic after doing her Masters in Fine Art at Duncan of Jordanstone. Having opted for a theatre design module, she contacted Dundee Rep, and was taken under the wing of the theatre's in-house design assistant, Leila Kalbassi. ended up painting scenery on shows as diverse as Woman in Mind, The BFG and Hecuba. She also worked as assistant designer on Scottish Dance Theatre's production of PARK.

“I loved it,” Orton says of the experience. “I really enjoyed the collaborative aspect of everything, and I loved doing the research. It's very similar to art in that way. You have to learn the language of something so you know what to do with it. Everyone around me seemed to have come from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and I really really thrive with that sort of collaboration, and I just thought, I want more of this. That was a big turning point, but I dunno, does doing this change your status as an artist?”

As well as working as a stage designer, Orton is one third of Ortonandon, the performance art-based trio Orton formed with her elder sisters, Katie and Sophie, who, like Anna, are both solo artists in their own right. To say Ortonandon were formed is maybe over-stating the case. The three sisters have been mucking about since they were kids growing up close to Gorebridge with their artist mother.

For three little girls living in the middle of nowhere, vivid imaginations and a penchant for play were heightened even more when they fell in with the offspring of their next door neighbour, theatre director and co-founder of Communicado Theatre Company, Gerry Mulgrew. There were local gala days, Orton remembers, at which they would all perform.

“I was about five, and we used to make a stage in the barn and paint backdrops and then perform. It was just something you did with the clan.”

With each of the Ortons going off to art school, the familial shorthand between them honed during their childhood gala days in the barn gradually led to Ortonandon.

“We tried lots of ways of working together. We had a painting show at the CCA We did sculptural work. We had a horse-riding incident together.”

Orton leaves this hanging before pointing out that “In the end it was much more fun to do something performance-based, because we're all in such different places in terms of what we do.”

Previous Ortonandon spectaculars have seen much plundering of the dressing up box, including one piece that focused on the machinations of a sole pair of yellow tights between them.

Beyond Bristol, Orton is keen to expand her repertoire. She talks of companies such as Kneehigh, and her awe of Catherine Wheels' sensational show for two to four year olds, White. The immersive constructions of the you me bum bum train company are also a key to her thinking. While in Bristol, as well as designing actual shows, Orton had to make hypothetical designs which were created working with directors as if for a real production. In this manner Orton designed an opera – La Boheme, Chekhov's The Seagull, and, closest to home, David Harrower's still startling debut play, Knives in Hens.

“That was amazing,” Orton says, “especially because it's set in Gorebridge, which is where I'm from, though nobody here knows where it is.”

In August, Orton will be back on home turf, designing Still Here, a new play based on the experiences of an Eritrean refugee, at the Zoo Venue as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. With her sisters, she will also be taking part in a new performance piece by Ortonandon at Jupiter Artland, the West Lothian based contemporary sculpture park which seems to invite left-field interventions that sound a long way from King Lear.

Orton shrugs.

“It's all play, isn't it?” she says.

King Lear, Bristol Old Vic, June 18-July 10; The Bristol Old Vic Theatre Exhibition will take place at the Royal West of England Academy, June 23-29; Still Here, Zoo Venues, Edinburgh, August 3-24; Anna Orton will appear with Ortonandon as part of Nemoralia at Jupiter Artland, near Edinburgh, August 6.


The Herald, June 14th 2016


Much Ado About Nothing

Dundee Rep
Four stars

There may have been a summer nip in the air in Dundee on Saturday night, but onstage in Irene Macdougall's grandiloquent looking revival of Shakespeare's most serious of rom-coms, heat was being generated on every level. On the Sicilian streets crickets chirrupped through the night, but when Beatrice and Benedick rubbbed up against each other in a mutual desire to prove who was cleverer, the temperature soared.

In Emily Winter and Robert Jack's hands, such japes look closer to flirting than fighting, with the ongoing sexual chemistry palpable to all except those directly involved. Such a fine romance is offset by the more troubling affair between Hero and Claudio as manipulated by Ali Watt's scheming Don John. In this way, the light and shade of the play is starkly realised, with a clear lurch into darkness at the top of the second half.

While there are plenty of biscuit-coloured pillars and hidey holes to manipulate all manner of indiscretions from, Macdougall and designer Ken Harrison keep the stage expansive enough to allow the cast to navigate their way through each intrigue.

But above all, this is an actor's play, and, as the play's central couple, Winter and Jack rise to the occasion with an increasingly frantic comic energy that permeates throughout. When the penny finally drops and Benedick attempts to be both deep and macho, Beatrice swats him away like the silly boy he is. Marli Siu and Ewan Somers provide a counterpoint as Hero and Claudio, in a vivid and handsome interpretation of a play that revels in how beautifully mixed up a love story can be.

The Herald, June 13th 2016


Robert King – Super 8

When Robert King auditioned to be vocalist for Scars, the Edinburgh band formed on the back of punk, he was reputedly so scary in his performance that the other auditionee watching left the room, never to be seen again. This story is one of many about Scars that pops up in Big Gold Dream – The Sound of Young Scotland 1977-1985, Grant McPhee's meticulously researched documentary excavation of a much unsung era.

As Creeping Bent record boss Douglas MacIntyre also makes clear in Big Gold Dream, it wasn't Orange Juice's first single, Blue Boy, that was Scotland's equivalent of Anarchy in the UK by the Sex Pistols, as some maintain. It was actually Scars' ferocious debut, Horrorshow / Adult/Ery, released on Fast Product records in 1979, that sent shockwaves around a younger generation in search of something beyond a one-chord thrashabout.

Thirty-seven years on from Scars debut, and thirty-five after the band's solitary album, Author! Author!, with time as an emigre in Lyon, France, King has just released a three track CD single and download on the Glasgow-based Rubber Taxi Records. Super 8 is a low-slung piece of science-fiction loungecore, which, in its original mix, is a psycho-drama in miniature concerning a man waiting for a train that doesn't come. The accompanying two mixes throw light and shade on the same situation.

Former Fire Engines and Win drummer Russell Burn's take on things does away with much of the instrumental introduction and heightens a woozy nouveau cabaret bar melodrama. The second, by Penetration bass player Robert Blamire, who also produced Author! Author!, constructs something more urgently propulsive, the song's electronic rhythms thrust to the fore in a way that suggests an endless travelogue on the Trans-European Express.

Released in a physical edition of just 100, Super 8 is a chance to catch up on the wilfully singular musical vision of a maestro who has divided his time in recent years experimenting with his Opium Kitchen and Groucho Hand-job projects, and as an international professor of Mediterranean languages and culture in Lyon, France. Coming on the back of this, Super 8 showcases an international language forged by a true maverick.

Super 8 by Robert King is released by Rubber Taxi Records on CD and download on July 6th.

Product, June 2016


Carla Lane – The Liver Birds, Mersey Beat and Counter Cultural Performance Poetry

Last week's sad passing of TV sit-com writer Carla Lane aged 87 marks another nail in the coffin of what many regard as a golden era of TV comedy. It was an era rooted in overly-bright living room sets where everyday plays for today were acted out in front of a live audience in a way that happens differently today. If Lane had been starting out now, chances are that the middlebrow melancholy of Butterflies, in which over four series between 1978 and 1983, Wendy Craig's suburban housewife Ria flirted with the idea of committing adultery with successful businessman Leonard, would have been filmed without a laughter track and billed as a dramady.

Lane's finest half-hour highlighted a confused, quietly desperate and utterly British response to the new freedoms afforded women over the previous decade as they trickled down the class system in the most genteel of ways. This may have been drawn from Lane's own not-quite free-spirited quest for adventure as she moved through her own potential mid-life crisis around the same time as Butterflies first aired.

If Butterflies seemed to catch the reflection of Lane's Me-Generation ennui, it was made especially poignant by using as its theme song a version of Dolly Parton's song, Love is Like A Butterfly. The Butterflies version was sung by Clare Torry, who had previously provided the wordless vocal on Pink Floyd's The Great Gig in the Sky, which appeared on the band's 1973 album, The Dark Side of the Moon.

If that all sounds a little uncharacteristically rock and roll for an Alan Ayckbournesque sit-com, what about the night Lane brought counter-cultural performance poetry and anti-racist activism into several million viewers' homes a few years before? It was the programme that she first made her name with, after all, that captured a sense of youthful restlessness which Lane too might have felt as she moved through writers groups in her home town of Liverpool at a time when the Beatles had made the city the centre of the universe.

The Liver Birds piloted in 1969, and originally starred Pauline Collins and Polly James as Dawn and Beryl, two twenty-something women sharing a flat in Huskisson Street, a then run down area of Liverpool 8 where novelist Beryl Bainbridge had once lived. After the 1981 inner-city riots, Liverpool 8 became better known as Toxteth, and today Huskisson Street forms part of the area's cleaned up Georgian Quarter. More recently, Huskisson Street's lingering bohemian psycho-geography has been immortalised in Catharine and Huskisson, a world-weary morning after the night before song released in 2015 by former member of Scouse Scallydelicists, The Coral, Bill Ryder-Jones.

The Liver Birds was the creation of Lane and Myra Taylor, who met at a writers group, and were encouraged to write a flat-share comedy by BBC producers after their first efforts were rejected.

By the time a full series had been commissioned, Collins had departed to play a maid in class-based proto Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs. Taking her place was Rhyl-born Nerys Hughes, who, as snooty but sexy Sandra Hutchinson, would stay with the programme as a foil for Beryl, and later Elizabeth Estensen as Carol, for its full ten season run until it ended in 1979, before being briefly revived in 1996.

The female flat-share idea wasn't a new one. Writers Charlotte Bingham and Terence Brady had premiered the first of two series of Take Three Girls the same year as The Liver Birds was first aired. As the title suggested, the programme followed the fortunes of three very different young women sharing a flat in Kensington – the London, district, not the Liverpool one. Bingham and Brady would go on to write for Upstairs Downstairs and No Honestly, which would see Collins playing the lead opposite her husband and Upstairs Downstairs co-star, John Alderton,

Four years earlier, pulp film-maker Gerry O'Hara cast a young Francesca Annis as a would-be model who moves to London and falls prey to the swinging scene in his film, The Pleasure Girls. In 1967, Scouse surrealist and jazz singer George Melly scripted Smashing Time, a musical comedy about two naïve northern girls who hoped to do something similar. The female leads were played by Lynn Redgrave and Rita Tushingham. Liverpool-born Tushingham, who came from Hunt's Cross, where The Liver Birds' Sandra was from, would go on to play the female lead opposite Keith Barron in Lane's short-lived 1974 sit-com, No Strings.

The first two series of The Liver Birds were written by Lane and Taylor together, with Lane dropping her real name of Roma Barrack out of shyness, so people wouldn't know it was her that had written the show. Most episodes followed Beryl and Sandra's emancipated adventures in bed-sit land in terms of chasing fellas or else warding them off, looking for or losing jobs and dealing with itinerant family members. Beryl and Sandra wanted to be groovy, but in the grubby Liverpool back-streets, they couldn't quite make the scene.

At the end of series two, Taylor left the programme, so Lane was flying solo. Or she would have been if concerned BBC producers who thought she didn't have it in her hadn't imposed two male writers to share script-writing chores. Their six episodes from series three stand out for tapping into a form of everyday sexism that may have been in keeping with the times, but which was the antithesis of everything The Liver Birds was about. By series four, Lane really was writing all the scripts by herself.

Given what had happened in the Lane-scripted opening episode of series three, this was arguably something of a risk. First screened in February 1972, One's A Crowd starts innocuously enough, with Beryl and Sandra moving into a new, plusher pad, in Beach View, a block in an un-named street with trees outside that was seemingly worlds away from the grotty Huskisson Street bed-sit.

They can't have gone too far, however, as several minutes into the episode's first half Beryl suggests the pair go for a pie and a pint at a pub called O'Connor's. It's poetry night, Beryl explains, and Sandra and her intellectual pretensions would like that. Inbetween assorted comedy argy-bargy, Sandra remembers that a poet called Neville Cain - “he makes me forget everything”, simpers Sandra - is appearing.

In a rare moment of outdoor filming, we see night-time view of the front of O'Connor's Tavern, a white stone building on a corner next to some shops with two large arched windows either side of an arched door. This was the real life O'Connor's, a former nineteenth century synagogue turned Christadelphean Meeting Room built with a curved roof on the corner of Hardman Street and Pilgrim Street. This is a stone's throw from Liverpool College of Art and the Everyman Theatre on Hope Street, and close to Beryl and Sandra's former domicile in Huskisson Street. With a cathedral at either end of Hope Street to throw shadows over sinners of every persuasion, the neighborhood had become the epicentre of Liverpool bohemia.

With a large upstairs room going spare, O'Connor's had become a crucial hang-out for the lesser and greater known Liverpool poets and their arty entourages. This is highlighted on the cover of Adrian Henri and The Liverpool Scene's 1968 LP, The Amazing Adventures of The Liverpool Scene. This featured a cover image of O'Connor's regulars gathered outside on what looked like an afternoon session to end them all. If you can find a copy, check out the album's original gatefold sleeve for full effect.

A few short years later, O'Connor's would become a crucial venue for a musical explosion spearheaded by a bunch of art students from down the road.

Deaf School were a pre-punk art-pop sensation who livened up Liverpool's grey 1970s post-Merseybeat era by mixing up glam cabaret theatrics with swinging pop licks and a musical largesse performed with gusto by a disparate set of characters who gave themselves cartoon-style noms-de-plume.

After forming for the Liverpool Art School Christmas ball, according to the All Time Gig List on the band's website, Deaf School played their second, third and fourth gigs at O'Connor's in 1974, and four times again the following year before moving onto bigger things.

By the time the 1980s came round, O'Connor's had become Chaucer's, where the upstairs room became the first venue for a new venture called Liverpool Lunchtime Theatre. This presented one-act plays, including Ball Boys by David Edgar and Tissue by Louise Page, in a speak-easy cabaret environment. As the company grew it moved up the road to the Unity Theatre on Hope Place, where it evolved into LLT, and then The New Works company. Until 2015, the synagogue that was O'Connor's, Chaucer's and many other things besides is known to have been a fancy dress shop.

Meanwhile, back in The Liver Birds version of O'Connor's, the camera cuts to a studio set, presumably meant to be inside O'Connor's. It focuses on a large poster advertising a 'Poetry Nite', and the audience applauds. This probably isn't because of the name of the fictional Neville Cain, who is second on the bill, but to the headliner, Roger McGough.

McGough was and still is an internationally renowned poet, who had come up in the 1960s on a wave of pop culture alongside his Liverpool contemporaries, Adrian Henri, Brian Patten and many others. Early work by McGough, Henri and Patten had been compiled in The Mersey Sound, a volume first published in 1967, and which remains one of the biggest selling poetry books ever.

Both McGough and Henri had moved into music, Henri with The Liverpool Scene, and McGough with The Scaffold. Both acts mixed poetry, music and sketches on a circuit that included visits to the early incarnation of the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh during the 1960s with the Scaffold's 1964 revue, Birds, Marriages and Deaths. Later, assorted members of both acts would combine with various strays from The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, including Monty Python associate Neil Innes, to become Grimms. Innes would go on to co-create Beatles pastiche documentary, The Rutles – All You Need is Cash, which featured a cameo from McGough.

While over four albums, The Liverpool Scene remained largely underground, The Scaffold became a novelty pop sensation. Made up of McGough, Paul McCartney's brother, Mike McCartney (who took the name McGear as a jokey way to dissociate himself from his Beatle brother), and future TISWAS co-host John Gorman, The Scaffold applied a more comic, music hall style to their single releases, including Lily The Pink, which became Christmas number 1 in the UK at the end of 1968.

Lily The Pink had been adapted by The Scaffold from an American folk song, The Ballad of Lydia Pinkham, and featured an a future all star chorus of backing vocalists, including Graham Nash, who was about to leave Manchester Beat group The Hollies to form Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Nash and the Scaffold were accompanied by a young songwriter called Reg Dwight, who would shortly morph into Elton John, and lyricist Tim Rice, then an assistant to producer Norrie Paramor. Jack Bruce of Cream played bass on the record, while Jimi Hendrix would also play sessions for The Scaffold.

McGough had already fictionalised the ridiculousness of the pop world in his larky poetic novel, Frinck, published the same year as The Mersey Sound. How autobiographical Frinck's yarn about a boozy poet with a penchant for art school girls who hits the big time remains unknown, though the Scaffold do get an honourable if knowing mention.

That may have been before The Scaffold had composed and sung The Liver Birds' sea-shantyish theme song, but with McGough and The Scaffold's household name status on the back of it, applause, even that encouraged by TV studio floor managers, was perhaps understandable.

The camera then cuts to a not terribly convincing studio mock-up of O'Connor's, where Beryl and Sandra are applauding Roger McGough, who has presumably just performed his work alongside two musicians on a small stage at the end of the room. While Sandra is enthusiastic, Beryl is clearly smitten with McGough.

The camera cuts to McGough, who is holding a copy of his book, After The Merrymaking, which had been published in 1971. McGough then introduces his next poem, and, backed by the two musicians – John Megginson on piano and Alan Peters on guitar and trumpet – reads a poem he introduces as being about a character called P.C. Plod. In fact, the poem is one of a sequence of eleven poems that make up the third and final part of After The Merrymaking, called The Amazing Adventures of P.C. Plod. The poem that McGough reads is the penultimate one in the sequence, titled P.C. Plod versus the Youth International Party.

The Youth International Party, was a radical anti-war group co-founded by Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and others, which was born out of hippy culture and was in part a response to the Vietnam War. Poet Allen Ginsberg, who read in Liverpool alongside Adrian Henri, became involved with the group, who offered an absurdist alternative to authoritarian party politics and whose members styled themselves as Yippies.

In the spirit of this, P.C. Plod versus the Youth International Party found McGough's eponymous

policeman lost after leaving Yates Wine Lodge on Dale Street. On stopping a passer-by to ask directions, P.C. Plod is confronted by a Yippie, who calls Plod a pig and attacks him with a water-pistol. Plod retaliates with a sawn-off spud gun, before moving on to replenish himself with supplies of potatoes.

McGough reads the poem, which Beryl declares “smashing,” in full before reading another work from After The Merrymaking, the far more melancholy Gift For A Lonely Girl. Megginson and Peters' low-key underscore allows Sandra to go to the bar where she has spotted her idol, Neville Cain. Sandra rather giddily introduces to Cain, who is black, or “coloured” as described later in the episode. Cain buys Sandra a drink, and the camera cuts to McGough in time for his poem's last line, “May Tomorrow You Find Love and Have Many Sons”

As Beryl seems to swoon in her seat, McGough goes over to a hip-looking blonde woman sitting on her own beside her.

“That was lovely, Roger,” coos the devoted blonde. “I knew they'd like it.”

McGough grabs her arm, and, with the famous last words, “Let's get smashed,” the poetic pair hastily exit the scene.

McGough himself had lived on Huskisson Street with his first wife, Thelma Monaghan, an artist who he met at a Liverpool College of Art dance, and who had previously dated both John Lennon and Paul McCartney. McGough based his extended sequence, Summer With Monika about his relationship with Thelma, and it was published in a twin volume with Frinck.

In 1981, Monaghan's son from a previous marriage, Nathan, would go on to found a post-punk multi-media club called Plato's Ballroom in an old chicken-in-a-basket dive called Mr Pickwick's. Plato's Ballroom featured headlining bands such as New Order, A Certain Ratio, Cabaret Voltaire, Jah Wobble and Orange Juice. Also on the bill were avant-garde films, performance artists, and of course poets. Nathan McGough would go on to manage Happy Mondays.

There were even more musical connections with McGough's Liver Birds performance. While they stayed resolutely in the background, both John Megginson and Alan Peters had their own stories to tell. Megginson played with The Liverpool Scene, and would go on to produce the Scaffold's fourth album, Sold Out, in 1975. Peters, meanwhile, already had a similarly impressive musical pedigree.

As one of The Almost Blues, and very much on the scene, Peters has supported Stevie Wonder and a host Blues legends at Liverpool's Cavern Club, and worked with Henri on his Blues-inspired work. Peters went on to front 29th & Dearborn and played with Supercharge in the 1970s. He worked with the late Roger Eagle, who co-founded Eric's Club, and fronted a band called The Lawnmower, that featured a young Mick Hucknall on vocals. Peters and The Lawnmower worked some more with Henri, as well as a new young Liverpool poet going by the name of Craig Charles. In 1982, The Lawnmower also supported The Pale Fountains at Nathan McGough's Plato's Ballroom night.

Back in The Liver Birds, meanwhile, it's the morning after the night before, and while Beryl sings the New Seekers soft-drink anthem, I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing, and Jesus Christ Superstar in the shower, the girls' busybody new neighbour, Mrs Knowsley, pays them a visit. She has a petition, she says, on behalf of other Beach View residents who wish to get the tenant in Flat Five evicted, and she would like Beryl and Sandra to sign.

The tenant, according to Mrs Knowsley, is an “undesirable character” who talks to himself and has a stream of “dubious visitors” who Mrs Knowsley says indulge in “orgies.” Despite Sandra's enthusiasm for the latter, she signs the petition for both flatmates. Over cornflakes and coffee, Beryl takes umbrage with Sandra, and says she'd rather not sign the petition.

When she ventures into the hall to check out the object of Mrs Knowsley's ire, she hears a voice from inside Flat Five, and when she rings the bell is greeted by the tenant, who turns out to be Neville Cain.

Neville Cain was played by Jamaican-born Neville Aurelius, who the same year as his Liver Birds guest spot, appeared in two episodes of the second series of Take Three Girls. In The Liver Birds, Neville Cain's colour is clearly the cause of Mrs Knowsley's petition.

Sandra is horrified by such a notion, though a more street-smart Beryl sets her straight by telling her that it is Neville's colour that “makes him different, and oldies don't like anything that's different.”

The girls invite Neville and some of his friends back to their flat, with Neville and co arriving in an open-top sports car much to Mrs Knowsley's chagrin. With Beryl and Sandra sitting at Neville's feet and his friends drinking on the sofa, Neville accompanies himself on an acoustic guitar as he recites a poem that sounds like a mash-up of Leonard Cohen and The Last Poets, and which could be a forerunner of Levi Tafari, who was born in Liverpool to Jamaican parents, and first came to prominence in the 1980s,

When Beryl and Sandra refuse to stop the party, Mrs Knowsley calls the landlord, and it looks like Beryl and Sandra will be evicted, with their impromptu housewarming set to be their last stand. When the landlord turns up, however, he too is black, much to Mrs Knowsley's embarrassment. The last scene sees the landlord inviting Mrs Knowles into Beryl and Sandra's flat where Neville and his friends are still partying, albeit as quiet as a sit-com can be. What shenanigans they get up to after that is anybody's guess, but what happens in The Liver Birds, stays in The Liver Birds.

While Neville's white fur coat, flowered shirts and living room recitation is a BBC production designer's take on the counter-culture, as is the possibly not terribly accurate mock-up of O'Connors, here was a prime time mainstream comedy looking at racism against a backdrop of performance poetry. Not only that, it featured real life players from the Liverpool scene, whose musical and literary tentacles reached out across the city's underground. In the context of Liverpool making its fortune on the back of slavery, this was a remarkable thing to be aired. Like Jimi Hendrix playing Cream's Sunshine of Your Love on Lulu's prime time light entertainment show in 1969, it was a gloriously anomalous shock to the system.

This wasn't the last time Lane introduced non-actors to her shows. In her post Butterflies hit, Bread, which focused on the largely unemployed Boswell family in a Liverpool a long way from Beach View,

Lane's fellow animal rights activist and photographer, the late Linda McCartney, had a walk-on. As for McGough's material in One's A Crowd, John Gorman would go on to revive P.C. Plod, a character who later made it into a play performed by The Scaffold, on TISWAS. Gorman would also bring the anarchy of fringe theatre to TISWAS by way of The Masked Poet, a character originally created for Grimms.

Like Beryl and Sandra, The Liver Birds was never cool. In it's very gentle way, however, it can now be seen as a time capsule of a particular time and place – as full of everyday prejudice as much as innocence and idealism – that is unrecognisable now. Carla Lane brought it into our three channel living rooms in a way that young women on the cusp of an awfully big adventure could both relate to and disparage. In these days of low-lit, slow-paced dramadies trading on awkward silences as much as one-liners, Carla Lane's role-call of funny, sad and sometimes angry women can be seen as quiet pioneers of everyday tragi-comedy who captured the spirit of the times Carla Lane lived through with wit, intelligence and an irresistible sense of romance.

Product, June 2016


Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Irene Macdougall, Gordon Barr and Jennifer Dick - Shakespeare in Scotland Now

It's been quite a year for Shakespeare. The 400th anniversary of the English bard's death on April 23rd 1616 has prompted all manner of suitably dramatic commemorations. On television, Shakespeare has received a healthy amount of airtime not seen the BBC put his entire canon onscreen during the 1970s and 1980s. This has included an adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream by Dr Who and Queer As Folk writer Russell T Davies, which starred Maxine Peake, Matt Lucas and John Hannah.

Elsewhere in the schedules, The Hollow Crown was an all star adaptation of Shakespeare's History plays, while Shakespeare Live! was a live broadcast hosted by David Tennant to celebrate Shakespeare's influence on artforms beyond theatre, such as opera and jazz. Even comedy writer Ben Elton has got in on the act with Upstart Crow, a very sub-Blackadderish take on Shakespeare that features David Mitchell as a hapless bard attempting to climb the literary ladder in the face of personal and professional adversity.

In London and elsewhere across the UK, there have been a stream of performances, live broadcasts and commemorative walks. In Scotland, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Glasgow School of Art, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the University of Glasgow joined forces for New Dreams, a rolling cross-artform programme of performances, screenings, music and exhibitions, all inspired by A Midsummer Night's Dream. This culminated in Dream On!, a one-off mash-up of four intertwining pieces overseen by the National Theatre of Scotland's outgoing associate director, Graham McLaren and performed at the University of Glasgow's Bute Hall.

Over on the east, the National Library of Scotland is currently hosting the Playing Shakespeare: 400 years of great acting exhibition, which focuses on the great interpretors of the bard's words, including Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Benedict Cumberbatch.

In terms of full scale professional Shakespeare productions in Scotland, however, up until now they've been pretty thin on the ground. Thus far, only the Royal Shakespeare Company's unique touring production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which local amateur and community groups sourced from each city the show visited, were cast as the Mechanicals. In Glasgow, the ad hoc Citizens Dream Players, pulled together from a disparate set of groups, rose to the occasion in such a way that they existed as equals with the professional cast. Other than this bravura display, there has been little else to entertain the devoted Scots Shakespearephile.

The opening this week of Dundee Rep's production of Shakespeare's frothiest rom-com, Much Ado About Nothing, plus the launch later this month of four outdoor Shakespeare productions by the Bard in the Botanics company, is about to change all that. As they celebrate an anniversary of their own, the directors behind Bard in the Botanics have even gone as far as styling their forthcoming programme as The Vaulting Ambition season.

“Our season developed more out of it being our fifteenth anniversary than the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death,” says Gordon Barr, the company's artistic director, who will direct new productions of Coriolanus and Macbeth. Associate director Jennifer Dick will oversee Twelfth Night and a production of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. “We wanted to look at things from different angles, as we do with Twelfth Night and Coriolanus, and to look at the world that Shakespeare was part of by doing a play by one of his contemporaries.”

A feature of this year's Bard in the Botanics season is cross-gender casting, which will see the male and female lovers reversed in Twelfth Night, while the title role of Coriolanus will be played by a woman, Bard in the Botanics regular Nicole Cooper.

“The cross-gendered casting came from ideas about the trappings of gender,” Dick explains. “What makes people fall in love with someone? Is it gender, the clothes they wear, or something more? There's also this idea that in modern times, it's very acceptable for women to wear what's regarded as male clothing, but it's still not considered acceptable for men to wear women's clothes. I'd love to say that playing with gender in the way that we are is part of the zeitgeist, but discussions about gender are something are becoming increasingly important.”

Dick has set Twelfth Night in swinging 1960s London, and is punctuated by period songs lip-synched by the cast in a way that recalls both Dennis Potter's TV dramas, Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective, as well as drag culture.

“Lip-synching has been big in drag culture for a long time,” says Dick, “and people think it's easy to do, but it's actually not. We've set the play during a time when a new culture is rubbing up against the old,” says Dick, “and there's something quite rebellious about that.”

While Scotland's inclement weather has sometimes caused problems for Bard in the Botanics' outdoor wares, it was the seasons that influenced Dundee Rep's choice of play.

“I wanted to do a comedy because it's summer,” director and long-term member of the Rep's acting ensemble Irene Macdougall explains. “There were three plays I wanted to do, but I just chose Much Ado About Nothing because I really like it, and it's really straightforward”

Macdougall's first experience of Much Ado About Nothing wasn't quite so straightforward. That was more than twenty years ago, when she took part in a production by the Real Shakespeare Company, whose aim is to present Shakespeare's plays in as close an approximation to how they were originally seen as possible. To this end, Macdougall learnt her lines to play Beatrice from a cue script, in isolation from the other actors, as was originally done by the players for whom they were written.

“It was terrifying,” Macdougall remembers. “You don't get to see the full play, You just learn your lines and the three cue lines before and go on. I don't remember much about the play. I just remember feeling like a rabbit caught in the headlights.”

Repeated exposure to Shakespeare's comedies make it obvious where latter-day rom-com auteurs such as Richard Curtis (who co-scripted Blackadder with Upstart Crow writer Ben Elton) learnt their chops. As Macdougall observes, “Shakespeare created the tropes we've been following for years.”

Despite such familiarity, there is no obvious answer for the absence of Shakespeare on Scotland's bigger stages this year, although the financial implications of the large casts required are clearly prohibitive in such cash strapped times.

“Most companies can't afford to do it,” Barr says. “I don't think there's any kind of active conspiracy or anyone actively ignoring the anniversary.”

Macdougall agrees.

“We've got rid of some characters, and amalgamated others, just so we can do it with the cast that we've got,” she says. “I kind of wanted everything to happen all in the one space as well, so the scenes can run into each other and you can keep the energy up.”

Bard in the Botanics have been making a virtue of limited resources since the company began, and remain largely unfunded.

“As Scotland's premiere classical theatre company,” Barr says, “our work celebrates Shakespeare all the time.”

Much Ado About Nothing, Dundee Rep, June 9-29; Twelfth Night, June 22-July 9; Coriolanus, June 23-July 9; Macbeth, July 13-30; Doctor Faustus, July 14-30, all at Botanic Gardens, Glasgow.

The Herald, June 7th 2016


Wednesday, 1 June 2016

American Idiot

King's Theatre, Glasgow
Three stars

With the U.S. Elections looming, the uninitiated might presume a show called American Idiot to concern itself with the no longer amusing rise of Donald Trump. As it is, the ever enterprising Sell A Door theatre company's touring revival of American nouveau punk trio Green Day's rock opera stays faithful to the show's loose-knit narrative of three young men coming of age in a post 9/11 world.

Director and choreographer Racky Plewes' quasi-boutique production also has the added advantage of real life rock star Newton Faulkner at the centre of Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong's songbook. All of which makes an audience young enough to have barely registered the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York something of a devoted audience.

Faulkner plays Johnny, who with his buddies Tunny and Will ekes out a stoner's existence on the sofa, guitar sometimes in hand. Motivated by the spectacle playing out on their TV screen, the trio decide to make something of their lives and jump the bus for an adventure in the big city. Except that Will's girl is pregnant, which means he must stay at home. Tunny joins up for the Iraq war, while Johnny finds his dream girl only to lose her in a fug of drugs.

All this is delivered with gusto by a well-drilled cast led by Faulkner, Alexis Gerred as Tunny and former Son of Dork bass player Steve Rushton as Will. A supporting cast including Amelia Lily as the charmingly monickered Whatshername are powered along by a live band playing Armstrong's angry anthems in a wake up call for doomed youth everywhere.

The Herald, June 2nd 2016


Dominic Hill - Trainspotting and the Citizens Theatre's Autumn 2016 Season

If Trainspotting has ever stopped being in the news since Irvine Welsh's debut novel was first published in 1993, it's renewed profile is currently at a premium. This is largely to do with Danny Boyle's stylish film version of Welsh's tale of life and death among Edinburgh's junkie culture, which became a totem of 1990s pop culture, as its flashy mix of sex, drugs and rock and roll among the dole queue classes went stratospheric.

Boyle's film receives a screening at next month's Edinburgh International Film Festival, just as its original cast have reconvened twenty years on to begin work on a sequel. While both Welsh's book and Boyle's film tapped into a zeitgeist that gave voice to a strata of society previously sidelined by the artistic mainstream unless it was American, it has been largely forgotten that Harry Gibson's stage adaptation did something similar between the two.

Gibson's version was originally seen at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow in the Gorbals-based theatre's tiny studio space, in a production by Traverse Theatre director Ian Brown that featured a young Ewan Bremner as the book's lynchpin, Mark Renton. Boyle's film would see Bremner play Spud, while Susan Vidler, who was also in the original stage production after appearing with Bremner in Mike Leigh's 1993 film, Naked, would also be cast in the film.

Twenty two after Brown's production of Trainspotting won the 1994 Spirit of Mayfest award, the Herald can exclusively reveal that the Citz will be revisiting the play with a brand new production that forms a major part of the company's forthcoming autumn season. Gareth Nicholls will direct Gibson's adaptation as his final show as the Citz's Main Stage Director in Residence. This post has seen Nicholls also direct productions of David Harrower's play, Blackbird, and Robert David MacDonald's stage version of Gitta Sereny's book, Into That Darkness.

As well as Trainspotting, the Citizens 2016 autumn season will see artistic director Dominic Hill lighten the tone with a production of Richard Brinsley' Sheridan's eighteenth century comedy, The Rivals, as well as a Christmas production of Hansel and Gretel in a version by Stuart Paterson. The season will also feature a new community play, The Gorbals Vampire, which will be based around a local legend and will be written by Johnny McKnight.

Two major touring productions will visit the Citz, with Dundee Rep bringing their acclaimed production of John McGrath's ceilidh play, The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil, to the main stage, while actor/director Cora Bissett's Pachamama Productions will revive their smash hit musical collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland inspired by real life events, Glasgow Girls.

It is Trainspotting, however, that looks most tantalising in the Citz's revival of a show which at one point seemed to be a permanent fixture of the touring circuit, and which most recently was revived in a more immersive form than the original by the young In Yer Face theatre company.

“I'm really pleased that we're doing Trainspotting,” Hill says of the Citz's forthcoming take on the play. “We did an excerpt from it at the theatre's seventieth birthday last year, and it reminded a lot of people that it started off as a Citizens show, and a lot of people have forgotten that.”

As if to stress the currency of Trainspotting, Hill picked up a copy of a tabloid newspaper the day we speak, only to be greeted with three pages of pictures taken on location of Boyle's forthcoming sequel to Trainspotting. At the moment the film is dubbed T2, but is loosely adapted from Welsh's novel, Porno. While this book has yet to be seen onstage, Gibson followed his version of Trainspotting with adaptations of three other Welsh novels. Marabou Stork Nightmares, Filth and Glue were all staged first at the Citizens.

“It's twenty years since the film of Trainspotting,” Hill points out, “and there's this renewed interest in the characters and that time, so it felt like the right time to look at the play again. Gareth is keen to do it, and is absolutely the right person to do it, because I think he'll have a fresh take on things. We're not looking at the play with some kind of historical perspective. These characters have become trapped in a world and a situation that I think can be seen as even more relevant now than it was twenty years ago when it was a response to Thatcherism, and in some ways we haven't moved on at all.

“The characters in Trainspotting are so strong, and Irvine's writing is so vivid, and has such wit and life to it that it absolutely feels like something that can come alive on a stage. I remember seeing a touring version of the play, but I'm excited that it's coming back to the stage where it was first seen.”

The Citz's programming of The Rivals comes shortly after it was announced that Hill will direct a production of Noel Coward's Hay Fever in co-production with Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre as part of both theatres' Spring 2017 seasons. Given that Hill's tenure in the Gorbals has seen him focus on tragedy, this move into comedy might come as a surprise to some. As he talks about his forthcoming co-production with Bristol Old Vic and Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, however, Hill begs to differ.

“For me,” he says, “doing The Rivals taps into the history of this theatre in terms of how the Citz used to do these large mainstage productions of classic comedies. I suppose the play first came into my mind when we did The Libertine and took it to Bristol Old Vic, which opened the same year that The Rivals was written, and this seems a great way of celebrating the heritage of our two theatres. We're always trying to tap into the Citz's theatrical and artistic heritage, and we're doing that here in a fun, entertaining way. It's good to do a comedy now and then.”

Hansel and Gretel too should provide light relief after Trainspotting.

“I think Stuart Paterson's version of Hansel and Gretel taps into the seriousness and the darkness of the original story,” Hill says, “but also fills it with things that are fun and entertaining for audiences.”

This should also be the case for The Gorbals Vampire. Based on a real life incident in 1954 when a group of children marched to Glasgow's Southern Necropolis in search of vampires, McKnight's version of the story should take urban mythology to fantastical extremes.

“It's a really great story for us to be telling,” says Hill. “It's a tale of mass hysteria among children that happened on our doorstep, and we hope we can tap into a collective memory.”

Hill stresses the importance of community-based projects initiated by the Citz with an attitude that pulses the theatre's entire autumn programme.

“Appealing to different audiences has always been important to the Citizens,” he says. “We know we can do Beckett or Pinter, but at the same time we're keen on programming work that has a broader appeal, and I think Citizens audiences can sense that. That's what makes them special.”

Tickets for the new season at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, go on sale today. Glasgow Girls, August 30-September 3; Trainspotting, September 14-October 8; The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil, October 18-22; The Gorbals Vampire, October 28-29; The Rivals, November 1-19; Hansel and Gretel, December 6-January 7.

The Herald, May 31st 2016