Monday, 29 February 2016

The Destroyed Room

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

It's all so civilised at the start of Vanishing Point's latest study of the world through a lens darkly. A master of ceremonies introduces the night, and points out how what is about to follow was prompted by a photograph by Canadian artist Jeff Wall, and how his image of domestic destruction was inspired by a painting by Delacroix. After introducing actors Elicia Daly, Pauline Goldsmith and Barnaby Power, the MC stands behind one of two video cameras that film the next seventy-five minutes, which is beamed onto a screen above the stage that distances the live action below. The actors sit on the red sofa and chairs in what looks like an elegant looking chat show set, and they talk.

In something resembling a dinner party gone increasingly wrong, they talk of online videos and pictures of Bataclan and Syria, and how such images may or may not have affected them. As the talk goes on, meticulously constructed criss-crossing conversations become as infuriating for an audience as it was when American avant-garde troupe The Wooster Group recreated their experience of being on acid. Then, something remarkable happens, and it's as if the artifice and politesse onstage melts away so the real world flushes out all abstractions to invade a no longer civilised space.

Drawing from German artist Gustav Metzger's notion of auto-destructive art as much as crime scene investigation drama, the second half of Matthew Lenton's production, devised with the company, is a risky strategy in a theatrical context. More provocation than play, its exposure of all our liberal prejudices and fears in close-up like this nevertheless makes for an intense and discomforting experience.

The Herald, February 29th 2016

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Blackbird

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

When the lights go out on twenty-something Una mid-way through David Harrower's taboo-busting psycho-drama, she's left alone in a room full of domestic debris. The painful silence and eventual cry for help that follows make it feel like this is the second time she's been deserted by Ray, the man now known as Peter who she went on the run with fifteen years before. That was when he was forty and she was twelve. In the gulf between the couple's two meetings, lives have been lived, torn apart and just possibly rebuilt. In the play's 100 minute duration, played without an interval, those lives are exposed in all their fragility before being turned upside down once more.

A decade after it premiered at Edinburgh International Festival, the emotional cache of Harrower's play becomes more powerful with its every reading. As this new production by Gareth Nicholls – no stranger to intense two-handers following his production of Gitta Sereny's Into That Darkness last year - the relationship between Una and Ray is infinitely more complex than any cheap stab at tabloid-making sensationalism.

Ray is no politician or TV celebrity taking advantage of his position or heart-throb status, and Una is no glamour-chasing former teeny-bopper on the make. If anything, it is the sheer everyday ordinariness of both their lives and the feelings neither are in control of that gives the play its believability. There are moments in their lengthy exchanges that recall those between John Proctor and Abigail in Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible. Here, however, the consequences are even more intimate

As Ray, Paul Higgins is a haunted bag of neuroses who flits between humility and resentment at what he's lost, and if anything seems more damaged than Una. As played by Camrie Palmer, she at first seems equally sure of herself before gradually falling apart. As the pair roll around in the mess of their own making both psychologically and physically, passions are purged even as they're briefly rekindled to complicate their lives once more en route to closure in a brilliantly unflinching tug of love.

The Herald, February 29th 2016

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Saturday, 27 February 2016

Canned Laughter - Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott

In a Leith warehouse on a cold Wednesday afternoon, something funny is going on. Just how funny remains to be seen, because, as pantomime favourites Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott have long known, comedy is a very serious business indeed, and when comedy partners fall out, it really is no laughing matter.

You can see this when all three are on their feet for rehearsals of Canned Laughter, a brand new play co-written by Ed Curtis with Stewart about Alec (Stewart), Gus (Gray) and Rory (Stott), an imaginary 1970s comedy troupe on the verge of the big time.

Such showbiz mythology is familiar territory for Curtis, who had directed Stewart in the title role of Al Jolson in Jolson and Me. Curtis later directed Alan McHugh and Elaine C Smith's Susan Boyle based musical, I Dreamed Dream, in which Gray appeared. Prior to both shows, in 2007 Curtis wrote and directed Never Forget, the Take That jukebox musical which focused on a tribute band trying to get their break.

With Canned Laughter, Curtis initially thought about doing something about a band getting back together. Gray and Stott's inability to play any musical instruments put a stop to that.

“I wanted to do something with a nostalgic glow around it,” Curtis says, sitting beside Stewart on a sofa in the Green Room “but there was something that wasn't quite clicking, and it felt like a forced concept.”

The idea of making a show about a comic trio was a gift.

“It meant that I could still talk about the things that interest me from a writing point of view, like memory, ambition in art and what it takes to maintain friendships through that personal ambition. That was all still open to me, but I also had this gift of three guys who were used to working together in real life, and who have this shorthand between them that can sometimes just be a look.

“From that I was able to develop what is in effect a false biography. That's been a really interesting challenge for me, because having done shows about Jolson and Susan Boyle, where you're dealing with an actual bio-pic, it's been okay to put in what seem like larger than life moments, whereas if you're creating a journey for a group that don't exist, in a way it's harder.”

The idea, according to Stewart, was “one of those light-bulb moments. I went through that whole sixties, seventies, eighties club scene, and I remember the concert secretaries and club managers and agents, and all these stories started flowing”

Having worked his way through the club circuit since he was a teenager en route to Sunday Night at the London Palladium, Stewart has seen the damage such a drive for fame at any cost can cause.

“If you look at anyone who is successful in any business,” he says, “then they're hard, and at some point they get a name for being a bastard, and you can see that in the play. If you look at Andy's character you think he's a really nice guy, you look at Grant and think he's a daft wee boy, but Alec isn't, and he's like that from the start, and if you look at the history of acts that have been together for years and split up, generally one of them will be successful and the other won't. It's the same in the pop world, and in the play Alec is the one who clawed his way back.”

Later, sitting on the same sofa, this is something Gray and Stott also recognise.

“You hear stories all the time,” says Gray, who proceeds to tell two. The first is about a double act who were at the height of their fame. By all accounts they travelled separately, stayed in different hotels and disliked each other so much that they only ever met onstage.

The second story concerns a well known TV sitcom star he performed alongside several years ago, and who was “probably the most bitter person I've met in my life. He was deeply unhappy that his career had never continued the way he wanted it to. He was done in by the business, and had a huge chip on his shoulder because he didn't get what he wanted.”

In Canned Laughter, “I think Gus is as ambitious as Alec,” says Gray, “but he's less honest about it.”

As for Rory, “He's just there for the ride,” says Stott. “He's having a great time and is loving every minute of it. What I like about the play is that we still get to do all these comedy routines that people will know and can have a laugh at, but because we do it under the auspices of this fiction, we then step out of that and you see all the other stuff as well.”

While pantomime brought the trio together over the last decade at the King's Theatre in Edinburgh, Gray, Stewart and Stott categorically aren't a triple act, and while all involved in Canned Laughter are steeped in showbusiness, they come from very different backgrounds.

Gray has been a familiar face on stage, screen and radio for over thirty years, ever since his days as part of the comedy sketch show team behind Naked Radio and Naked Video. Gray then went on to form a double act of sorts with the late Gerard Kelly in TV sitcom City Lights. He and Kelly also appeared together onstage in a production of Neil Simon's play, The Odd Couple. Later, the pair acted in Marie Jones' play, Stones in his Pockets.

Stott, meanwhile, has worked as a successful TV and radio presenter for more than two decades, and regularly hosts Edinburgh's Hogmanay's Concert in the Gardens. He first joined Gray and Stewart in pantomime in 2006, and now regularly plays the villain.

On the back of this, Gray and Stott toured in Kiss Me Honey Honey!, a play by Philip Meeks in which the pair played a mismatched duo of middle-aged men in search of the perfect woman. More recently they did an Edinburgh Festival Fringe run of Willie and Sebastian, a study by Rab C Nesbitt creator Ian Pattison of Soho bohemians Willie Donaldson and Sebastian Horsley, a very different kind of real life double act.

As Stewart has indicated, he moved through the club circuit to TV work alongside the likes of Les Dennis and Bobby Davro. He performed at the Royal Variety Show, and hosted a series of showcases for up and coming comedians.

In the early 1980s, Stewart was briefly part of a double act with fellow performer Aidan J Harvey. Les Dennis' partnership with Dustin Gee had ended following Gee's death, and Stewart's management saw a gap in the market.

“What they did wrong,” says Stewart, “was they started getting us television shows three weeks after they had the idea, when we weren't a double act yet. If they'd waited a year, after we'd done summer seasons and panto, it would have worked, but they put us on television too early.”

Then again, “I didn't really like being a double act. I'm a single act.”

Today Stewart sticks to his roots by playing the cruise ship circuit, and on dry land has hosted two editions of Allan Stewart's Big Big Variety Show at the King's. Here he has revisited the era Canned Laughter depicts for real. with a all star bill of comedians, crooners and novelty acts that play to packed houses. Gray and Stott have both appeared in the shows, taking part in comic sketches which audiences familiar with their panto routines lapped up.

“I'm a ham,” says Stewart. I work the cruise ships because the clubs aren't there anymore, but things move in cycles, and they're coming back. In the meantime I get to do what is in my blood. “

Canned Laughter, Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy, March 9-12; Theatre Royal, Glasgow, March 15-19; His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, March 24-26; King's Theatre, Edinburgh, March 29-April 2.
www.onfife.com
www.atgtickets.com
www.aberdeenperformingarts.com
www.edtheatres.com

The Herald, February 2th 2016

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Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Hairspray

The Playhouse, Edinburgh
Four stars

“If we get anymore white people here,” says Little Inez, the sparky kid sister of the male half of Baltimore's first inter-racial teenage couple in this latest touring revival of the 1960s-set John Waters inspired musical, “it'll be a suburb.” Such seemingly throwaway observations speak volumes about where writers Marc O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's book is coming from in Paul Kerryson's production, which originated at Leicester's Curve Theatre.

Adapted from Waters' 1988 commercial breakthrough film and taken from real events, for all it's bubblegum-coloured nostalgia , Hairspray is a show that lays bare the brittle superiority of so-called normal society. That it does so with an all-singing, all-dancing cast led by Freya Sutton as curvy heroine Tracy Turnblad and Tony Maudsley cross-dressing as her mother Edna makes it even better.
 
Sutton's Tracy is “that chubby Communist” who wants every day to be Negro Day on the racially segregated teenage TV show overseen by Claire Sweeney's Velma Von Tussle. But Tracy and her geeky pal Penny, played here with zest by understudy Natasha Mould, find a whole new world beyond it.

If some of composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Whittman's numbers sound a tad beige, it's in part a reflection of how so-called 'race music' was blanded out by white boy rockers. This is more than made up for by Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle, who gets back to music's gospel roots on a showstopping I Know Where I've Been. While such an over-riding mix of high camp, social comment and issues of body image, racism and otherness may reveal Hairspray as a forerunner to Ryan Murphy's TV canon, largely this is plus-sized entertainment to relish.

The Herald, February 25th 2016

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Paul Higgins - Blackbird

Paul Higgins won't be able to make the Glasgow Film Festival screening of Couple in A Hole, the off-kilter thriller he appears in alongside Kate Dickie, and which has already garnered plaudits at festivals abroad. Instead, Higgins will be just across the river, performing in the Citizens' Theatre's new production of Blackbird. David Harrower's troubling dissection of the emotional fallout of an illicit relationship between twelve year old Una and forty year old Ray shows what happens when Una turns up unannounced fifteen years after Ray was sent to prison.

Higgins can also be heard shortly in a new radio adaptation of John Wyndham's ecological science-fiction novel, The Kraken Wakes, in which First Minister Nicola Sturgeon makes an unlikely cameo. All of which is in keeping with Higgins' back catalogue as an an actor unafraid to appear both vulnerable and ridiculous, as he did on TV in both The Thick of It and Dennis Kelly's graphic novel styled Utopia.

Onstage, Higgins has played Prospero and Macbeth in Shakespeare, Phil McCann in John Byrne's The Slab Boys, and took on the pivotal roles of the Writer and the Sergeant in the National Theatre of Scotland's era-defining production of Black Watch. The year after that he toured the Middle East with the Traverse in David Greig's play, Damascus.

The last time Higgins acted at the Citz he was the Earl of Kent in King Lear, and last year appeared at the Donmar alongside Simon Russell Beale and Anna Calder-Marshall in Temple, Steve Waters' play about the 2011 anti austerity protests. In a career that has seen him play a succession of intense loners, Blackbird is something else again.

“It's complicated,” says Higgins. “The writing of it is fractured and broken up. I don't normally learn lines before rehearsals start, but I don't think I could've coped doing that with this. I'd heard of the play, and I suppose I might've been sceptical about how good it could be, because I thought the subject matter I would say was unpromising, but then when I read it I was knocked out by it. When Una says to Ray that she wanted to rip out his eyes and stamp on them, where a bad version of this play would give you an hour and a half of that, this goes through to a much stranger and more interesting place.”

With Citizens acting intern Camrie Palmer playing opposite Higgins as Una in Gareth Nicholls' production, Blackbird has become increasingly pertinent since it was first seen during the 2005 Edinburgh International Festival, and both a Broadway production and a film of the play are pending. While numerous productions have taken advantage of the play's economical cast of two as much as the taboo-busting power of the writing, numerous scandals involving assorted high-profile alleged predators have made for shifts in how the play is received.

“One of the things that appealed to me about the play is exactly what another person would say is dodgy about it” Higgins says, “because it is complicated, and it's murky, and it goes to places that you're not really allowed to go to politically. But then, it's not politics. It's art, and as a writer Harrower is allowed to go anywhere he wants, and in the play as well Una is looking at her responsibilities and desires. When she told the court that she wanted him, she's told that wasn't the case, and legally that's how it is, but for her it's much more complicated.”

The last time Higgins was at the Citizens was in his guise as a writer on The Choir, a brand new musical co-penned with Deacon Blue singer Ricky Ross.

“We had a great time,” Higgins says, “If we had a chance to do it again there are obviously things I'd change, but there was a lot I was proud of as well. It attracted a lot of people who don't normally go to the theatre because they think it's boring, so that was something.”

Since then, Higgins has filmed what what looks set to be a semi-regular role in the second series of Caitlin Moran's sit-com, Raised By Wolves. In The Kraken Wakes, in which Wyndham envisaged an alien race invading a flooded Britain from beneath the sea, Higgins appears opposite Tamsin Greig in a new version penned by crime novelist Val McDermid. With sound a key component, the two-part adaptation was recorded live with a new score by Professor E Williams performed by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, and is set to be aired in March.

“That was pretty nerve-wracking,” Higgins admits, “because you've got a live audience in front of you, and a live orchestra behind you, and you're trying to time what you say to the music. The music represented the undersea creatures, and it was funny doing this story in January that was about Britain being flooded, because you'd turn on the telly and Britain really was flooded.”

And Nicola Sturgeon's role?

“I think the novel ends in Cornwall or somewhere, but Val McDermid has it finish in Scotland,” Higgins reveals. “There's chaos in London, there's no police force, and the British government has collapsed, but it's the Scottish government that survives and tries to re-establish civic order. So mine and Tamsin's characters are always twiddling with the radio, trying to get a signal, and they hear Nicola Sturgeon saying the Scottish Government is going to take control.

An easy ask, by the sound of it, for any First Minister. Less easy, perhaps, is Couple in A Hole, in which Higgins and Dickie play a middle class Scottish couple living in a hole in the Pyrenees.

“They think no-one knows they're there,” Higgins explains, “and it shows what happens when one of them starts to interact with the world in ways they shouldn't. You don't know why they're there, but you know something bad's happened. “

Just how bad he isn't saying, but Higgins admits that he thought the film might bomb.

“I thought it might be too strange for people to get a handle on,” he says, “but people have loved it so far, and it's getting a general release.”

Blackbird too isn't obvious mainstream fare, but, like Couple in A Hole, has tapped into something eminently truthful in terms of the games people play with each other.

“We had a professional counsellor read the play,” says Higgins, “and she said it's a fantastically accurate picture of a certain kind of relationship, and it's one we don't really hear about. We have black and white opinions about these events, and in a sense legally they are black and white, but you get an understanding of how complicated such relationships can be.

“It gives you an insight into a situation that you wouldn't otherwise have, and some kind of empathy with characters who otherwise you might feel were alien to you. We like to feel like someone like Ray has nothing to do with us, and that we don't have to think about people like him, but the play makes you think. On the rare occasions when I'm invited to think about things in the theatre like this, I like it.”

Blackbird, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, February 25-March 5. Couple in A Hole is screened as part of Glasgow Film Festival at Glasgow Film Theatre, February 25, 6pm and February 26 at 10.45am. The Kraken Wakes will be broadcast in March.
www.citz.co.uk
www.glasgowfilm.org/festival
www.bbc.co.uk

The Herald, February 24th 2016

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Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Private Lives

Theatre Royal, Glasgow
Four stars

The French windows are suitably symmetrical at the opening of Tom Attenborough's handsome-looking touring revival of Noel Coward's superior sit-com, knocked off over a long weekend in 1930. They're certainly better matched than Elyot and Amanda, the former lovers now on the rebound and on honeymoon with brand new spouses. It's telling, however, that the adjoining balconies where chance meetings are inevitable on Lucy Osborne's set more resemble an art deco cruise liner that's fleetingly docked in port than the hotel it actually is.

What follows as Tom Chambers' Elyot dallies with Charlotte Ritchie's Sybil while Laura Rogers' alpha female Amanda toys with Richard Teverson's pompous Victor is a riot of wildly choreographed savage love that falls somewhere between passion and politesse in its cut-glass execution. Attenborough's production too presents a company of equals, with Ritchie making a bright and sparky Sybil rather than the wet sop that usually colours her character. If Teverson invests Victor with a more cartoonish air, it is Chambers and Rogers' sparring as Elyot and Amanda that turns smoking jacketed languor into the most shimmering of artforms.

In their flight to Paris, where Victoria Rigby's resigned maid Louise picks up the pieces, the couple may be addicted to one another, but they can't help but tear emotional and physical chunks off each other out of habit. Sporting assorted shades of impeccable green as if to heighten the envy on show, Rogers' Amanda approaches her love life with menaces in a production that might not have much to say for itself in terms of taking a stand, but which nevertheless gives as good as it gets in every sense.

The Herald, February 24th 2016

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Michael Head - Bouncing Back With The Red Elastic Band

Michael Head is full of stories. This is something the audience at Oran Mor in Glasgow should find out tomorrow night when Head brings a trio version of his latest venture as Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band to town. There's the one, for instance, about how this prodigiously talented songwriter first fell in love with music beyond his mum and dad's country and western records when he saw Julian Cope's band, The Teardrop Explodes, on a TV show hosted by Factory Records boss, Tony Wilson.

“There was a lot of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams in the house,” Head remembers. “I think I was about twenty-five before I heard Revolver, but in 1978, there was this programme Tony Wilson did, and the theme tune got me straight away, 'cos it was Shot By Both Sides by Magazine, and I remember bombing down the stairs, and I was standing there in the living , watching the Teardrop Explodes transfixed transfixed, and my dad said, you like that, don't you. I said, yeah, it's the future.”

Head was proved right the next day when he spotted the Teardrops hanging round Liverpool city centre record shop, Probe.

“I was working in this camera place quite close by,” Head says, “and bumped into them. It sounds like kismet, but you saw all the bands there.”

Head spoke to the Teardrop Explodes' then keyboard player, Paul Simpson, who put him onto Yorkie, a young scenester whose family basement was where both the Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen rehearsed.

“It was like Norman Bates' house in Psycho,” said Head. “Paul said the Teardrops rehearsed there in the daytime and the Bunnymen were in at night, but at weekends it was free.”

As well as teaming up with Yorkie in early musical ventures such as Ho Ho Bacteria, The Dance Party and Egypt For Now, it was here Head's musical education began in earnest.

“Julian used to brainwash Yorkie,” says Head, “and Yorkie used to try and brainwash me, forcing me to listen to all these records by Henry Cow and The Residents, and I was like, who's Dagmar Krause? He kept on trying to make me listen to all this weird stuff, and I was just, no, put Forever Changes on."

The orchestral masterpiece by Arthur Lee's Los Angeles sired psych-folk subversives, Love, has been Head's defining influence ever since.

“You wouldn't necessarily equate Arthur, a six foot black man from Memphis, with Forever Changes,” Head says of his guru, who he went on to play with in 1992, with Shack backing Lee on a Liverpool date that was put out as a low-key live release, “but he did it.”

While Yorkie went on to lead his own band, The Balcony, before later joining Space, Love's influence was there with Head in inner-city pastoralists The Pale Fountains, whose first gig in 1981 saw them supporting Orange Juice alongside Paul Simpson's post Teardrop Explodes band, The Wild Swans. Love was there too with the harder-edged Shack, formed with Head's brother John on lead guitar.

“We were quite into orchestration in the early Paleys days,” Head says, possibly thinking of Thank You, the Pale Fountains debut single on Virgin Records, which was transformed into an epic by its arrangement scored by MOR band leader Geoff Love. Virgin had signed the band following a solitary independent single for a cool £150,000, which led to the band working with various producers on their first album, Pacific Street.

“That album had lots of orchestration,” says Head, “but we couldn't play it live. So when John came in and we did the second album, we made it so we could play it live. I think now when I'm writing a song, even if it does end up with orchestration I know I can still do it acoustically.

“With The Red Elastic Band, it can be just me, or it be a trio, or it can be seven or eight of us. The whole concept is to keep things simple, and take the stress out of things. I've been in bands far too long to get stressed. It's like when Andy Diagram [trumpet player with James and David Thomas and Two Pale Boys amongst others, who played with Head in the Pale Fountains] couldn't do a date, so instead of not having the trumpet we changed the date.

“We're playing at the moment with acoustic guitar, trumpet and cello, and we know that if all the electricity went down we'd still be able to play. And if you haven't got trumpet or cello, that's okay, because writing on an acoustic guitar is the way a song is born, so you should be able to play it that way as well.”

How Head acquired a guitar in the first place is another funny story, and goes back to his days working in the Liverpool camera shop.

“I was like the tea boy,” Head remembers, “and my boss said, do me a favour. I said, what?, and he said, can you go and get me this punk record. I said, what is it?, and he said, it's Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits. I said, I'm not buying that from Probe, and my boss said if I did it, I could have this battered one-string guitar in the corner. So I went out, swerving round all the shops so no-one saw me, and I went to the furthest Woolworth's there was, but I suppose I've got Mark Knopfler to thank for getting me that guitar.”

The last time Head played Glasgow was more than a decade ago with Shack. The band had previously played the SECC supporting Ocean Colour Scene, where Head lost his rag to a room full of Brit-Pop and Quadrophenia casualties chanting We Are The Mods. Shack's visit to King Tut's, on the other hand, was packed out with an audience as devoted to Head as a home crowd in Liverpool.

“I'm looking forward to Glasgow,” he says. “We used to go there every summer holidays when we were kids. It's very similar to Liverpool. The people have this very dark sense of humour that can make funny out of dark.”

Darkness is something Head has known well over the last thirty-five years or so. These are the stories we don't talk about, like the one about the commercial indifference to both The Pale Fountains and Shack, and about the untimely death of Pale Fountains bass player Chris 'Biffa' McCaffrey from a brain haemorrhage. Then there's the one about the burnt down studios and lost master tapes that left Shack's fistful of 1960s-swathed albums lost to whatever wave Head was just out of step with.

The heroin probably didn't help much either, though even that made it into song in Streets of Kenny, a Waiting For The Man for the 1980s dole queue generation set in the rough and tumble of Liverpool's Kensington district where Head grew up. It's a past he remains philosophical about.

“I'm feeling good,” he says. “I'm more focused than I was in the nineties and all that don't wanna' sound all hippy, but it's been quite a journey, and the penny's dropped on a few things. I'm enjoying the whole environment. I'm writing songs every day. I don't ever stop writing.”

“People can go, oh, you should've done that, but life's life, and you just get on with it, don't you. I've never had a blueprint for want of a better word. I've never known where I've wanted to go. But it's my Ma's philosophy. If it happens, it happens, and you don't try and see the negatives, but deal with them accordingly. Getting my shit together, being alive and still writing, that's good, you know? I've been in situations where I've been thinking, what am I doing? But I'm feeling positive.”

In truth, both in song and conversation, Head sounds like a man reborn, and only now seems to realise just how good a back catalogue he has. When he can remember it, that is. As disarming as it is hearing Head tell you that Shack only did two albums, the sense of wonder and surprise in his voice when you go through the titles of the five albums they actually did release – Zilch, Waterpistol, H.M.S. Fable, Here's Tom With The Weather, Between Miles and Gil, plus Pacific Street and From Across The Kitchen Table with The Pale Fountains - is a joy.

Head's current renaissance, which includes the recent re-release of his 1997 quasi solo album, Introducing The Magical World of the Strands, released after Shack split temporarily after Waterpistol appeared to have been lost forever, is down in part to the heroic support he's received from a devoted fanbase based around the Shacknet website. This led to the founding of Violette Records to release Head's work and promote low-key live events in special venues.

“I'd heard of Matt, who does Shacknet,” says Head, “and I met him at one of the gigs. I hadn't played for a few years, and we had a conversation. We had a chat on the phone, and he asked what I was doing. I said I had all these songs, and I wouldn't mind doing an EP, and he said, I've got an idea.”

The result of this was the six-track Artorious Revisited EP, a beautifully packaged limited edition 12'' named in homage to Arthur Lee, and featuring an expanded Red Elastic Band accompanying Head. The record's key tracks, Lucinda Byre and Newby Street, are set in Head's mythologised Liverpool, a scallydelic psychogeographic universe peopled by a cast of characters who all seem to live on the same street.

Either that or else dying to get away from the kitchen-sink urban grimoirs to some beautiful place in the country a cycle ride away. Early Pale Fountains titles talked of southbound excursions, trips to Abergele in North Wales and going, somewhat dreamily, Beyond Friday's Field. More recently Head has found sanctuary in the more exotic Cadiz. It's if the fresh air and wide-open spaces offered an idyllic escape from the high-rises and housing estates depicted on the covers of Waterpistol and Here's Tom With The Weather.

“We were a field apart,” Head says on hearing that I went to Anfield Comprehensive School in Liverpool. He went to Queen of All Saints, with the two institutions separated by a scrub of greenery which at the time felt like a vast swathe of football pitch sized grass that formed the field that Head remembers.

The Pale Fountains early famous Five style image too was a reaction to a Liverpool hardman culture of footballer's perms and moustaches. Like Orange Juice's response to Glasgow's similarly inclined spit and sawdust no mean city image, the Pale Fountains look was defiantly effete and unmacho. It also accentuated a desire in the songs to get out of the city. Or, as demonstrated in later, trippier and more narcotically inclined songs, just to get out of it.

Head's narrative-based mini Play For Today approach to songwriting dates back to Shack songs such as Finn, Sophie, Bobby and Lance or Natalie's Party. Then there's Oscar, Wanda and Walter. There's Glynis and Jaqui, Joe and Benny, Hazy and Sergeant Major. Like them, Poor Jill, a previously unreleased flute-laden vignette which has been unearthed from the Introducing The Strands sessions, is as lyrically alive with incident and colour as the baroque arrangements that soundtrack them.

“I think Ray Davies used to do that with The Kinks,” Head says. “I can't sit down and say I'm gonna' write a song like this or that. Sometimes things come from fact, sometimes they're complete fiction, and sometimes they're a combination of the two, but a lot of the songs come from dreams. Dreams are like Polaroids in reverse, in that they start off really clear, and then fade and go blank. I've had dreams where I've had the title, the first verse and the chorus, and then it goes. I've got this new song that started like that about fifteen years ago, but it didn't have a second verse, because I can't force that. Well, I could've done, but it would've been forced and wouldn't have felt right. But it was worth the wait.”

Given Head's penchant for character-driven narratives, it's perhaps no surprise to hear that he's started writing plays, screenplays and fiction.

“I've just done a short story for one of the lads out of The Farm,” he says. “It's for something called the Ninety-Niners, which are stories that are no longer than ninety-nine words. I started getting my shit together at the start of New Year, and I'm working on something at the moment as well which is called Sunnydale. It's set in 1959, before Merseybeat, and it's about this band, and all they want to do is impress the local club owner so they can be the house band in Butlin's.”

Since Artorious Revisited, Violette has released a 7'', Velvets in The Dark/ Koala Bears. They have also put out an array of bespoke posters used to advertise Head's increasingly busy if singularly bespoke gigging itinerary. Live shows usually take place in off-beat venues, such as churches or a seaman's mission. A film of one of those shows, Michael Head and The Red Elastic Band – In A Wonderful Place, recorded at St George's Hall in October 2014, will premiere in a classic Liverpool cinema in April.

“I played this gig with my sister's choir at Christmas,” Head says of a show at Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall, “It was another variation on the Red Elastic Band, but with me and ten girls. One of the girls pulled my sister aside and said there feels like there's a lot of love in the room, and she was right. You can just see that. Don't get me wrong, I know we're good and can write songs, but when you see that love in people's eyes, it blows you away, and it's mutual. I don't really go on social media, and I don't go out much, but I think if I saw what was being said I'd be blown away.”

Plans are afoot for a Red Elastic Band album on Violette. Given that various players are scattered between Liverpool and London, logistics may dictate that it takes longer to finish than intended.

“We've all got kids and need to work,” says Head. “Gone are the days of having thousands of pounds in the bank.”

An album was recorded two years ago, but remains unreleased as Head's former manager owns the tapes.

“We're in conversation,” Head says. “There's some good songs there, and we don't need to do them again, but I want to record other songs that were written at the time, so if we put them together we'll have a whole album.”

Head's work ethic seems to surprise himself.

“I can't believe I'm talking like this,” he says, “but you've got to know what you're doing rather than piss it up a wall, but you're young.

Beyond Red Elastic Band releases, there are plans too to start a series of Violette Socials in various cities. with nights in London and Paris already mooted.

“There's lots of young bands coming up who are interested in Violette,” Head says, “in how it works and the whole ethos behind it, and we had this idea to do the Violette Social and put bands like that on, maybe with bigger acts, and everybody gets £300 each. It doesn't matter how big you are. We've asked Richard Hawley to play, and he's only getting £300 the same as everybody else, but we just want to keep up a momentum.”

One band who might end on a Violette Social bill with Hawley is much touted Inverness-sired sextet, Neon Waltz.

“They've done a version of Something Like You,” says Head of one of the most sublime songs from The Magical World of The Strands. “It would be great to see them play.”

Outwith Neon Waltz and Forever Changes, Head's listening habits lean towards the tastefully classic.

“A bit of John Coltrane to get me up in the morning,” he says, “a bit of Gershwin, a bit of Miles Davis. The usual diet of Tim Hardin. I went out on a bike ride to the beach the other day listening to Tim Hardin, and all there is is acoustic guitar, voice and strings, and sometimes that's all that's needed.”

Now in his early fifties, Head's new lease of life is vindication for what at one point looked like terminal under-achievement.

“I'm quite a positive person,” he says, laughing at his own observation. “Listen to me, I've gone from hippy to New Age lunatic, but having kids has been a great leveller. My ex partner can testify to that, but the one thing that still blows me away is what happens when you write a song.

“Someone I know, they were writing a song, and they got stuck. I said why? And they said, I'm scared. I don't know if it's good or shit, and I said, good. Because scared's good. It means you don't always understand it. I like being scared.”

While clearly on a roll, Head's resilience in the face of adversity dates back the very early days of The Pale Fountains, when they rehearsed, not in Yorkie's Norman Bates basement, but a local pub,

“The initial thing with the Paleys was me and Biffa,” Head remembers. “We'd got grants to buy instruments, and we had a keyboardist, but we couldn't play. Then one night we did this melody, and we all said we'd do some lyrics.

“I got something together, and going back the next night I'd never been so scared in my life. At that time grown men winced at the idea of writing a poem, and it felt like I was putting my soul on the line. Then somebody asked if anybody had any lyrics, and nobody had done any except me. I was so nervous singing them. I was sweating and everything. When we'd got through it the keyboard player just looked at me and said, what does that mean, and I went, I dunno.

“Then Biffa came over to me, he leans in and really quietly, he says, I like it. In that moment this zoom of inspiration went through me, and I thought, I'm a songwriter, that'll do me.”

Michael Head and The Red Elastic Band, Oran Mor, Glasgow, tomorrow. Michael Head and The Red Elastic Band – In A Wonderful Place will premiere at The Plaza, Liverpool on April 25th.
www.oran-mor.co.uk
www.michaelhead.net

A version of this article appeared in The Herald, February 23rd 2016

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Sunday, 21 February 2016

The Crucible

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

Everything is laid bare in John Dove's production of Arthur Miller's all too timely fable of new puritanism and how a divide and rule ideology can damn us all. It happens between the cracks of the bare floorboards of designer Michael Taylor's spartan set. It's there too in the skeletal framework that surrounds it flanked with barren trees. Most of all it's there in the hearts and minds of Miller's small town rural society that's ripped asunder by secrets and lies. Once exposed, the mass hysteria these provoke destroys everyone who claims any kind of moral high-ground.

Fear is at the heart of Miller's seventeenth century story in which solitary farmer John Proctor goes to the gallows along with most of Salem after his illicit liaison with Abigail Williams kickstarts a witchhunt. It's a fear of sex, books, dancing and all those things that might enlighten us enough to see through an oppressive regime that would rather control its subjects than foster anything resembling community or joy.

As played by Philip Cairns, who leads one of the largest casts the Royal Lyceum has hosted in recent times, Proctor here seems more saintly than alpha-male. This creates a more complex, less black and white dynamic, both with Irene Allan's Elizabeth Proctor and with Meghan Tyler's Abigail. It also points up Proctor's own weakness, the consequences of which he only fully comes to terms with once it's too late.

Such understatement is a double-edged sword, so at times there's a lack of urgency onstage. Despite this, modern parallels aren't hard to spot. The manufactured hysteria caused in part by the attention-seeking antics of Abigail and her entourage would today be the stuff of tabloid headlines plastered in our faces as a distraction from things that matter. Either that or a barrage of social media abuse would be forthcoming. With twenty-one people onstage, it's facinating during some fine set-pieces watching the faces of those not speaking for clues. In this sense, and as ever with Miller, the devil is in the detail.

The Herald, February 22nd 2016

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Friday, 19 February 2016

My Name is Saoirse

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

Freedom comes easy to the teenage girl who gives Eva O'Connor's solo play it's title. As performed by O'Connor herself, even sitting at the sewing machine patching up her home-made dresses with jaggedy seams as she does in the opening scene of Hildegard Ryan's production for the Sunday's Child company seems to give her a quiet kind of liberation. That will never be a match for Saoirse's best friend Siobhan, mind, a well-developed wild child who's loved by all the boys.

Over fifty-five minutes, O'Connor exposes all of Saoirse's growing pains as she wends her way through 1980s rural Ireland, where sexual enlightenment is a dirty secret more in keeping with Victorian values than the late twentieth century. Sure enough, it's Saorise who falls prey to a temptation that will end her girlhood before it's even begun.

First seen in Edinburgh at the tiny Discover 21 theatre in independent arts space St Margaret's House, My Name is Saoirse has already made ripples here as well as in Brighton and Dublin, picking up Best Performer and Best Writing awards en route. Having taken part in the Traverse 50 new writing initiative, O'Connor has given an even more distinctive and intimate voice to an already assured work.

In careless hands, such a saga could have easily been rendered as an old-time kitchen-sink grimoir. Instead, O'Connor invests both her words and her performance on David Doyle's set of hand-me-down clutter with a ribald back-alley poetry charged with poignancy. This taps into the gobby recklessness of adolescence as much as it does the tightlipped foibles of a society terrified of its own body politic.

The Herald, February 22nd 2016

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Wednesday, 17 February 2016

WHITE - New Pop Fabulists On The Road

WHITE know a thing or two about putting on a show. This should become instantly clear to anyone who puts on their glad-rags and shimmies on down to one of the dates on the Glasgow-sired quintet's first full tour, which opens this week. As they hit the floor to grandiose Sensurround pop epics such as Future Pleasures, Living Fiction and Private Lives, pleasure seekers of all ages will be taken, not just by the gloss, drama and glam-o-rama of the songs themselves, but also by the shape-throwing bravura of frontman Leo Condie.

As he leaps into action, hair flopping, arms akimbo, you get the impression that Condie has been rehearsing this moment for years. With a consciously voguish sound that mines the entryist New Pop of early 1980s forebears such as Paul Haig and The Associates, it's as easy to see where WHITE are coming from as it is to see the scale of their ambition.

“Before we launched the band,” says Condie, who formed white with guitarists Hamish Fingland and Chris Potter and bassist Lewis Andrew before drafting in drummer Kirstin Lynn “we really thought about what style we wanted to be, right down to the name and the logo, and the colour palette we used. In terms of getting the sound of the band, we always knew we wanted it to be a mix of post-punk, but we also wanted it to sound more up to date and have a clubby feel to it. In a way that was making a statement. We wanted to sound like a really hot club.”

For sure, WHITE's sound is a jump-cutting bloodrush of amyl-nitrate fired euphoria in neon-lit rooms where schemes are hatched. The sorts of places, then, where Condie and co might well have plotted world domination behind closed doors.

“We spent six months developing the band without telling anyone,” says Condie. “We wanted to make sure we had the whole thing ready to go so we could appear out of nowhere. I've been saying that we wanted to look like we'd come from space. I don't know if that's calculated, but it left us enough room to develop in private.”

When WHITE did finally beam down in 2014, they were signed to the suitably big-league RCA records, home to the late David Bowie among others. On a succession of rapid-fire singles, Blush, Future Pleasures and the newly released Living Fiction, WHITE's machine-age (yes) white funk sheen and sci-fi synth panoramas sounded fully formed.

In truth, prior to honing WHITE's aural manifesto behind closed doors, all five band members did their musical growing up in public. Lynn played with Garden of Elks, while Fingland, Potter and Andrew formed the backbone of folk-rock traditionalists, Kassidy, who reached a natural impasse after singer Barrie-James O'Neill decamped to LA to be with his then girlfriend, Lana Del Rey.

In search of collaborators, Fingland hooked up with Condie, who had spent several years as singer with The Low Miffs. Formed with friends from music school, The Low Miffs mixed art-rock angularism and vocal melodrama, and recorded an album with Malcolm Ross, the former Josef K and Orange Juice guitar genius who became a mentor figure for Condie.

With Ross musical director on Sylvain Chomet's Edinburgh-set animated feature film, The Illusionist (co-produced by Fast Product records co-founder Bob Last), Condie was drafted in to provide the singing voice for imaginary band, The Britoons. With The Low Miffs on hiatus, Condie did solo shows of work by Brecht and Brel, both theatrical songwriters whose work has been explored by iconic drama queens such as Scott Walker and David Bowie. All of which has clearly fed into WHITE, albeit without some of Condie's former band's more consciously eccentric moments.

“This is light years away from what I was doing before,” he says. “I'm making a conscious effort to not be quite so muso-ey as The Low Miffs were. It was natural we were muso-ey, because we were music students, but I look back at some of things we did and I think, what the fuck? I think Malcolm tempered that, and I do really like pop music, and with WHITE try and not be too clever.”

Condie's flamboyance onstage, however, remains.

“I've not toned it down,” he says, “but it's maybe not quite as eccentric as before. But I can't really hide that influence, and I don't want to. I think some singers are scared of performing, but it's not to be sniffed at. A lot of frontmen in groups want to be seen to be authentic, but I think that whole thing about authenticity is very calculated, but people sometimes don't really get that it takes a lot of rehearsing to appear authentic.”

Authenticity doesn't become WHITE in this way, and while archness is something Condie left behind with The Low Miffs, a fabulous sense of WHITE's own constructed artifice is paramount in everything they do. In this respect, both musically and stylistically they owe as much to Roxy Music as they do to The Associates.

“I think we want to be a bit magpie about what we do,” Condie says of WHITE's retro-future chic. “That whole era in the 1980s is ripe for a comeback. Music is very monochromatic just now, but you can turn heads just by dressing colourfully and making music that's just as colourful.”

Jumping into bed with major label too sounds as old school colourful as it gets, and in this respect WHITE could have leapt out of a scene from Vinyl, HBO's Martin Scorsese/Mick Jagger-backed TV reimagining of 1970s New York.

“The good side of it,” Condie says of being on a major label, “is that they have a lot of good contacts and really look out for you. I know from people that a lot of them don't have the contacts or the clout, but we're really lucky. The people at RCA get us, and have a really focused idea of what WHITE is.”

WHITE never meant to be on the same label as David Bowie, but that too seems to fit in with the band's grand plan, as did the scheduled release of Living Fiction the same week as what turned out to be Bowie's final album, Lazarus. Bowie's untimely death, however, was not in the blueprint.

“David Bowie was a massive influence on me,” Condie says. “The first song I ever sang live was Quicksand, off Hunky Dory, which I did at my school rock night. When I was young I didn't listen to anything except The Beatles up until I was thirteen. Then I saw Bowie on television, and that opened up a whole new world for me. Because he was such a prolific collaborator, listening to Bowie led me to Eno and Lou Reed, and then to everyone they worked with.

“Bowie was the key that unlocked music for me, and made me want to properly become a musician. I wanted to be David Bowie.”

Condie wasn't alone, as he discovered after talking to Wild Swans vocalist Paul Simpson, who Condie had met at the wedding of Wah! frontman Pete Wylie. As with many key players in Liverpool's post-punk scene that co-existed with kindred spirits in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Simpson had channelled his Bowie fixation into forming his own band just as Condie had.

“It was really interesting speaking to people like Paul who'd been in bands in the 1980s, and who'd had that exact same experience and been through the same set of albums.”

With Bowie such a crucial influence, and with heir own album ongoing, Condie has no intention of letting WHITE get stuck in a one-dimensional rut.

“One song is very clubby,” he says, “but another one that we've got is a slow ballad, so who knows what might happen. We want to constantly expand our range, and establish early on that we can do more than one thing so we don't have to keep reinventing ourselves every time.

“Eventually I'd like to put on a big show, with lots of movement and lots of colour. We're in a pop band, not The Kronos Quartet. We want to get as big as possible without compromising. The sky's the limit.”

WHITE play The Tunnels, Aberdeen, February 17th; Madhatters, Inverness, February 18th; Electric Circus, Edinburgh, February 19th; QMU, Glasgow, February 20th; Soup Kitchen, Manchester, February 26th; Bodega, Nottingham, February 27th; Louisiana, Bristol, February 28th; Green Door Store, Brighton, March 1st; The Brewhouse, London, March 2nd; Rainbow Cellar, Birmingham, March 3rd.
www.calledwhite.com

Product, February 2016

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Tuesday, 16 February 2016

This Is Not This Heat

Cafe Oto, London
February 12th-13th

“It was forty years ago today, eh, Charles?,” Charles Hayward beams from behind his giant drum-kit to guitarist Charles Bullen mid-way through the second night of this most extraordinary resurrection of the work of This Heat, one of the key conglomerations of England's musical avant-garde over the last half-century. With Gareth Williams completing the line-up, This Heat existed between 1976 and 1982, a crucial period when anything seemed possible. Over two albums, their eponymous 1979 debut best known as the blue and yellow album, and 1981's Deceit, with the Health and Efficiency 12'' EP inbetween, This Heat can now be regarded as an all but missing link between prog and post-punk.

In response to Hayward's reverie, Bullen merely nods gnomically from behind his beard on the other side of Cafe Oto's packed playing area in a room equally brim-full of several generations of London's leftfield musical underground, many of whom are veterans of a time when that word still meant something.

Hayward, meanwhile, goes into the nearest thing to an anecdote there is all weekend as he introduces Paper Hats, which appeared on Deceit. He points out that the lyrics to the song, which opens with a party-pooping 'What Did You Expect?', had been written largely by Williams, who wasn't a musician but who “had big ears.”

It is Williams' absence following his passing in 2001, shortly after all three members had talked about reconvening this most dynamic of power trios that is the reason this is not This Heat. That and the thirteen other musicians involved, a supergroup of Cafe Oto irregulars that includes ex Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler, former Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore and Hot Chip's Alexis Taylor. Also on board is Grumbling Fur's Daniel O'Sullivan, bassist John Edwards and clarinettist and guitarist Alex Ward.

The thinking behind the event was two-fold. As Hayward hinted at, Saturday night was forty years to the day since the trio first played together prior to them moving into the Brixton-based meat storage room that became Cold Storage, the laboratory and studio space that formed This Heat's base and spiritual home. The date also marked the current re-release of the This Heat back catalogue by Light in the Attic records on limited edition heavyweight vinyl.

Arriving a decade after the Out of Cold Storage 6-CD box set, these new releases add even further weight to the This Heat legacy. As the weekend proved, however, history may be important, but the ensemble Bullen and Hayward convened to play what is effectively a parallel universe greatest hits set sound startlingly current. It's as if the rest of music just caught up with them even as the This Heat survivors have their eye somewhat quizzically on the future.

Hayward seems to recognise the cyclic nature of all this on the Friday night during his opening solo set of piano-led songs that includes work by his post This Heat outfit, Camberwell Now,. Introducing “a song from the 1980s”, Hayward talks about how the same socio-political conditions that existed then are back with us once again. In truth, heard stripped back like this, his stark vignettes sound like alternative torch ballads that could have been sired in any decade over the last hundred years.

Bullen's own solo set that follows taps into something even more ancient, as he wanders between tapping out rhythms on a table-top guitar and a hammer and dulcimer arrangement, pausing only for a split second guitar strum that's absorbed into the layered framework he's built up.

When Hayward finally sits behind his drum kit and Bullen straps on his guitar for keeps, it's initially hard to gauge just how many sidemen and women are standing in the shadows. Once they kick in to the furious stop-start thrash of Horizontal Hold, however, the orchestrated clusters of guitars alone is enough to knock you off-balance. But this is no freeform freak-out. With a combination of three drummers and two bassists playing together at one point, the propulsive power generated gives a martial discipline to the clatter.

As they work their way through the bulk of both This Heat albums,what might sound on record at times like sketches are here segued into each other in such a fashion as to build up a pulverisingly infectious momentum. Sung parts evolve into mantra-like folk chorales that chart the here and now of life in broken Britain.

Following a brief cameo by former Flying Lizard and fellow traveller David Cunningham, a vocal frontline of Luisa Gerstein of Bella Union signed band Landshapes and Laura Groves, who performs and records as Blue Roses, dip in and out of the action. With Bullen fully letting rip on his guitar, Hayward leads from the back, a grinning Prospero in eternal motion, his voice a joyous amalgam of Eno, Coyne, Wyatt and Haines, only rawer and more arcane.

The second night, while much the same again, is palpably less tense now the band have broken their duck, unconcerned that every moment is filmed in a way that suggests some kind of documentary release may be forthcoming. With John Edwards presumably otherwise engaged, tuba player Oren Marshall steps in to add understated ballast. The chorales sound more pronounced, with vocal artist and performer Merlin Nova, nee Hayward, who has appeared on Glasgow-based Sub City Radio and at the Paraphernalia night at the city's Poetry Club venue, taking swooping lead vocals on Cenotaph.

As the set builds in power, Marshall somewhat appositely comes into his own during a relentless 24 Track Loop. Without a laptop in sight, the latter is laid bare as a a proto-Techno analogue monster. Given the right climate, it could also pack a dancefloor as the ultimate avant floor-filler. As could too the closing Health and Efficiency, which Hayward announced the night before as “a song about sunshine.”

What this means in practice is an epic locked groove that allows Moore, Ward and co to fully wig-out to spellbinding effect. Whether This Heat or not, it suggests an infinity of possibilities ahead. As Hayward sang earlier in his solo set, 'Don't You Just Love It When it All Comes Together?'

Product, February 2016

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Michael Boyd - Right Now

When a script for a new play called Right Now landed on Michael Boyd's desk, it couldn't help but remind the former boss of the Royal Shakespeare Company of a few things. Here was a play, after all, written by Catherine-Anne Toupin, a Quebecois playwright, which looked at the inner workings of a woman's mind in a way that was both fantastically strange and darkly comic in its execution.

Prior to his time leading the RSC out of a financial mire and into some of the biggest successes in the company's history, Boyd had been based in Glasgow, where he was the artistic director of the Tron Theatre. During his decade there, his standout productions included a stage version of Janice Galloway's novel, The Trick is To Keep Breathing, in which three performers played different aspects of the main character.

Boyd's tenure was also notable for his production of plays by Quebecois writer, Michel Tremblay, in versions transposed to a ribald Scots demotic by translators Martin Bowman and Bill Findlay. These included a seminal production of The Guid Sisters, now regarded as a modern classic. The similarities in both tone and background with Right Now, then, are plain to see.

“It reminds me a wee bit of The Trick is to Keep Breathing,” the now Sir Michael Boyd says, “in that it takes us into someone's head in extremis, and allows us to see what it's like to be pushed emotionally to the limit, and for the audience to be a part of this complete breakdown. It's very strange, deeply disturbing, oddly funny and quite risque, though it';s always fun to do in rehearsals. It's safer laughing at sex in that way. But when I was sent the play, I saw a new Quebecois play, and when I read it I saw a young woman who was in deep distress because she was in psychosis.”

Boyd's production of Right Now will be for the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, where Chris Campbell's translation of the play was presented as a script-in-hand reading in November 2014 as part of the New Writing From Quebec season. This cultural exchange between the Traverse and the Montreal-based Theatre La Licorne was followed by a week of preview performances last May.

Boyd's full production opens next week at the play's co-producers, the Theatre Royal Bath Ustinov Studio, prior to a run at the London-based Bush Theatre, also a co-producer. When Right Now finally arrives at the Traverse in April, it will see the Belfast-born, Edinburgh-schooled director come full circle. It was while studying English Literature at the University of Edinburgh that made his first foray into theatre with the Edinburgh University Drama Society.

In his twenties, Boyd trained as a director in Moscow before becoming a trainee at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry. From here he went to Sheffield Crucible as an associate director, where he worked on an early play by classicist provocateur, Howard Barker. Set during a still unreconstructed Labour Party conference, A Passion in Six Days is jokingly referred to by Boyd as “the first and last Howard Barker musical.”

It was his move to take over what had been set up in 1978 by Joe Gerber, Tom Laurie and Tom McGrath as the Glasgow Theatre Club in 1986, however, where Boyd really came into his own. The idea of the Glasgow Theatre Club, which opened at the dilapidated Tron Kirk in 1981, was to be a replacement for the Citizens Theatre's Close space, which had burnt down. It was a spirit that continued, first under Fania Williams from 1984, then with Boyd in charge two years later in its still shabby interior.

“I look back on my time at the Tron with enormous fondness and a lot of pride,” he says today. “It took about five years to build up a head of steam. After that we couldn't go wrong.”

The Tron became a hothouse of rising new talent, with the likes of Alan Cumming, Forbes Masson, Peter Mullan, Siobhan Redmond and composer Craig Armstrong all finding a platform there. As well as The Trick is to Keep Breathing and the Tremblays, Boyd directed a stage version of Ted Hughes' poem, Crow, and Macbeth featuring Iain Glen in the title role.

“Everything we touched while I was at the Tron seemed to work,” Boyd reflects. “It was where I found my voice as a director.”

Boyd joined the RSC as an associate director in 1996, and staged all of Shakespeare's history plays as This England: Histories Cycle. He returned to Glasgow in 1999 to oversee the drama strand of the New Beginnings Festival of Soviet Arts, and in 2003 took over from Adrian Noble as artistic director of the RSC.

Given that he inherited a £2.8 million deficit, both Boyd and the RSC could have crumbled beneath the weight of such a responsibility. As it was, Boyd instigated a year-long festival of Shakespeare's complete works, and reached out to other theatre companies even as the RSC itself programmed a season in London. He also launched a redevelopment of the company's base in Stratford, with a temporary space built to house the History plays prior to its transfer to the Roundhouse.

“I was both unlucky and unlucky there,” says Boyd. “There were these massive expectations about this historical institution, but it was in a terrible state. I was very lucky in terms of the press, who were up for change, so I was able to go, look, there's only one answer, and only one way forward, which is to be bold, and to make big decisions. There were those against it, but they couldn't argue, and I think we did okay.”

Boyd went on to produce the World Shakespeare Festival for the London Olympics 2012, took seven Shakespeare plays to New York and directed Matilda the Musical. More recently, his New York production of Marlowe's Tamburlaine scooped several awards, and he directed his first opera, Monteverdi's ORFEO, with the Royal Opera at The Roundhouse. In the summer, he will direct Eugene Onegin for Garsington Opera at the Wormsley Estate.

Boyd's return to Scottish theatre “feels good, and I hope to repeat it, and do more work in Scotland. I'm allowing myself to do things I've never done before, and I'm absolutely loving it.”

While there have been seismic shifts in Scotland's theatre scene since his days at the Tron, Boyd is careful regarding his prodigal's return.

“It would be wrong for me to make any grand statements on Scottish culture from Kennington Oval,” he says, “but I'm looking forward to immersing myself back in it properly, and there clearly have been changes. Someone like David Greig is a very important figure in this search for a Scottish voice and a surge in confidence. Vicky Featherstone as well made such a good job of the National Theatre of Scotland.”

Given his track record, the NTS could conceivably be a natural home for some of Boyd's future adventures. In the meantime, he's having fun with Right Now.

“I think it's a sort of disturbing, dark, sexy comedy,” he says. “It's written with great discipline, and she's quite a craftswoman, Catherine-Anne. She's an actress, a big TV star, and you can tell she's grown up in the Quebecois theatrical tradition. It's like the variety tradition in Scotland, so it's very much an entertainment, even though it's quite a forensic piece about depression. It asks very probing questions of the audience, but not in a surly way. One thing it's not, it's' not a play about certainty.”

Right Now, Theatre Royal Bath Ustinov Studio, February 18-March 19; Bush Theatre, London, March 23-April 16; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, April 19-May 7.
www.traverse.co.uk

The Herald, February 16th 2016

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Saturday, 13 February 2016

Laura Rogers and Charlotte Ritchie - Private Lives

“It doesn't suit women to be promiscuous” according to newly-wedded roue on the rebound, Elyot Chase, in Private Lives, Noel Coward's cynical 1930 dissection of love and marriage. As his ex wife Amanda Prynne so witheringly countered, however, “It doesn't suit men for women to be promiscuous.”

Coward invariably gave his women the best lines in this way, as should be seen when a new touring production of Private Lives arrives in Glasgow next week. While Amanda is played by Laura Rogers, Charlotte Ritchie takes on the less sung role of Elyot's new bride Sybil with a potentially more assertive streak.

“Amanda loves an argument, “ says Rogers during an afternoon off on the Brighton leg of the tour, “and she knows exactly what she wants. She knows how to flirt and how to manipulate her way through certain situations, but she's vulnerable as well, and even though she can bring out the worst in people and the best in people, she can also be like a little girl.”

As for Sybil, when Ritchie first read Private Lives, “I initially thought she was quite weak and quite stupid, but once we started working on it, we decided we really wanted to bring her away from those stereotypes.”

Ritchie has fled to London for the day, and is hanging out in a cafe as she talks

“Elyot and Amanda are incredibly clever,” she says, “so why would they marry someone who was stupid? While Sybil is in some ways very conservative, I try to make her a bit stronger, someone who's clever and has some self-esteem.”

As Rogers puts it, “It isn't as though Elyot has just gone for a younger version of Amanda, but someone completely different to her.”

Ritchie and Rogers will be familiar to Private Lives audiences for very different reasons. Rogers has been seen twice of late on a Scottish stage, both times at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, where she appeared in David Haig's World War Two Set drama, Pressure, and in Laura Wade's audacious stage version of Sarah Waters' novel, Tipping The Velvet.

Ritchie has just been seen in the second series of BBC Three's brother and sister sit-com, Siblings, and is currently on show on Sunday evenings in the fifth series of 1960s set light drama, Call The Midwife. Also due is the final series of student flatshare comedy drama, Fresh Meat.

In Pressure, Rogers played Kay Summersby, the Irish-born secretary and intimate of General Dwight Eisenhower, whose influence on one of the War's most towering figures was vast.

“That was a part that will stay in my heart for a long time,” says Rogers. “Kay in real life was such an amazing woman, and her relationship with Ike was such a tragic story.”

Rogers' fiance gave her a signed copy of Summersby's memoir, Eisenhower Was my Boss.

Rogers describes Summersby's story as “heartbreaking, because I really believe she contributed so much to what happened in the play that changed the course of the war.”

In Tipping The Velvet, Rogers was Kitty Butler, the cross-dressing Victorian music hall star who helps turn the life of young ingenue, Nan Astley, upside down.

“I was able to really indulge in that character,” Rogers says. “It's such an iconic book, and it was so nice to see a piece of new writing adapted from it which had so many strong women in it.

Also appearing in Tipping The Velvet was Kirsty Besterman, who played Amanda in the Royal Lyceum's own production of Private Lives, which played during the same season as Pressure.

“Kirsty and I were at RADA together,” says Rogers. “and when I was offered Amanda we were sharing a dressing room.”

Ritchie first sprang to prominence as Oregon, the posh student desperate to ditch her background for something more colourful in Fresh Meat. In Siblings, Ritchie plays Hannah, whose self-serving pursuit of a good life without graft along with her dim-witted brother manages to cause chaos for them both. Only as rookie nurse Barbara in Call The Midwife does Ritchie get to play someone more grounded.

“I never thought for a minute all these shows would come out at the same time,” Ritchie muses, “but they're all such different characters and the shows have such different audiences that I can't imagine anyone watches them all.”

Both Hannah and Oregon, who returns in Fresh Meat as a power-crazed student president, may lack self-knowledge, but this isn't something that bothers Ritchie.

“I can never understand it when people say they don't want to play a character who isn't liked,” she says. “It's much more fun to play the bad guy.”

Ritchie's performing career began as one quarter of million record selling operatic girl band, All Angels.

“I had a singing teacher at primary school,” says Ritchie, who joined Youth Music Theatre aged eleven, touring Japan in their production of Pendragon, “and she knew this guy who wanted to put together a girl band. Within a month of releasing an album we were playing the Royal Albert Hall, then the next day I was doing double history.”

Her move into professional acting was similarly accidental after her mother met a casting director at an all woman's swimming club.

“She asked my mum if she knew a girl who was aged about fifteen,” says Ritchie, who ended up playing opposite Michael Sheen in short film, The Open Doors, before studying drama at Bristol University and doing a comedy revue on the Edinburgh Fringe.

Rogers' interest in drama was piqued by doing musicals while at a comprehensive school in Swansea.

“I'd never thought about doing straight acting,” she says, “then at sixth form college, this incredible drama teacher did a production of The Tempest. All the girls wanted to play Miranda or Ariel, then my teacher said he wanted me to be Prospero, and to play it as a woman.”

Rogers ended up doing one of Prospero's speeches as her RADA audition piece.

“I think that's what helped me stand out,” she says. “One of the teachers said to me, 'What on earth was that?'

Post-RADA, Rogers was cast in TV drama, The Sins, alongside Pete Postlethwaite and Frank Finlay. An early stage role saw her appear in the Edinburgh International Festival production of Celestina, Fernando de Rojas' fifteenth century romp translated by Jo Clifford and directed by Catalan whirlwind, Calixto Bieito.

“I don't think I've ever worked in the same way again,” Rogers says of her experience on the show. “Calixto's English wasn't good, and he just spoke in expletives, telling us to not to use the script, even though we didn't know the lines. It was really freeing.”

With an array of acclaimed performances at the Royal Court, Shakespeare's Globe and West Yorkshire Playhouse, as well as in Bad Girls – The Musical, the roles Rogers aspires to play next are telling.

“I'd love to do more television,” she says. “I'm a big fan of Silent Witness and Prime Suspect, and I'd love to play a female detective.”

And onstage?

“I'd love to play Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Every director I work with I tell them that, but I'm still waiting for that offer.”

Ritchie too has aspirations for stage work.

“I think it's a really fun thing,” she says. “Apart from anything else, the hours are really sociable. When you're filming, you have to leave the house at five in the morning, and then you don't get home until 9.30 at night, so it's physically very demanding.”

If the latter statement sounds like something Hannah might say, Ritchie's intentions are more serious.

“I'd really like to do new writing,” she says. “I love seeing new plays at the Royal Court, and there are so many voices out there that need to be heard.”

Amanda and Sybil's voices look set to be heard loud and clear.

“Private Lives is so modern,” says Rogers. “It's not dated, and anyone who is in a relationship, or who's loved and lost, will be able to see past one or two of the lines which maybe are old-fashioned and be able to recognise things.”

As Ritchie points out, “People love seeing what goes on behind closed doors, and they love to see couples rowing. I think Sybil represents the sort of slightly irritating woman who reinforces gender stereotypes, but I think she deals with what happens with great dignity up to a point. I hope she learns something from it.”

Private Lives, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, February 22-27.
www.atgtickets.com

The Herald, February 13th 2016

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Thursday, 11 February 2016

Cock

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

The shapes projected onto the stage floor of the Tron speak volumes about Mike Bartlett's four-sided dissection of the twenty-first century mating game at the opening of Andy Arnold's revival, the first since the play premiered in 2009. A circle, two rectangles and an L shape not only frame the action on an otherwise bare performing area before they morph into a large square that looks like something more gladiatorial. They also suggest something more scientific is at play than just lust.

James Anthony Pearson is John, a young gay man perfectly at home with his long-term partner, but who finds himself falling for a woman in a way that turns out to be about a lot more than sex. He thinks women are like water when you really want a beer. She thinks he's like something drawn with a pencil and in need of colouring in.

Little linguistic flourishes like this are peppered throughout an at times filthily comic tug of love. Determined to keep things civilised, dinner for three is arranged, only to be upended by the arrival of John's lover's father. In the end, three won't go into two, however torn John might be. With all other characters known only by a generic letter, Bartlett's game of metrosexual charades resembles a 1970s TV play exploring whatever passed for the permissive society in suburban Britain at the time.

This is not to its detriment. As Johnny McKnight's M and Isobel McArthur's W spar furiously over John, Vincent Friell's F lends a more obviously macho weight to what is essentially a stripped-down study of what happens when everyday behaviour is driven to extremes.

The Herald, February 12th 2016

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Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Lyn Paul - Blood Brothers, The New Seekers and How Bill Kenwright Changed Her Life

Lyn Paul never expected to be appearing in Blood Brothers again. Then again, the now sixty-six year old actress and singer never expected to represent the UK as part of pre-Abba boy-girl band The New Seekers at the 1972 Eurovision Song Contest, held at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh.

While Eurovision is now just a memory, almost two decades after she first played back street matriarch Mrs Johnstone in Willy Russell's street-wise musical, Paul can be seen in Edinburgh this week on the latest Blood Brothers tour.

“We thought it was the end,” Paul says. “I went back for it's final dates in the West End in 2012, and we thought that was it, but now here we are.”

If things had worked out differently, Paul might not be here at all. Having formed her own girl group aged thirteen, Paul graduated from Manchester's working men's club circuit to international pop stardom with The New Seekers. She only considered a move into musical theatre in 1997 while playing the Cockney Cabaret club on London's Tottenham Court Road.

“Carl Wayne came to see me,” Paul remembers, “and he was the one who suggested I should try out for Blood Brothers.”

Wayne was the former singer with The Move, who went on to sing You're A Star!, the theme song for 1970s TV talent show, New Faces. He'd also done six years in Blood Brothers playing the Narrator.

“I don't know what I was expecting when I went to see it,” says Paul, “but when I came out, I knew I wanted to do it.”

Not knowing how to go about it, Paul took advice from her mother.

“She told me to write to Bill Kenwright,” she says of her first approach to one of the biggest producers in the business, who still looks after Blood Brothers. “I said to her I can't do that, and she said, why not, I've seen him on the telly, and he seems like a very nice man.”

Paul received a letter from Kenwright by return, went to meet him, and was cast as the woman she affectionately calls Mrs J, following in the footsteps of Barbara Dickson, Kiki Dee and Petula Clark.

“It was frightening,” Paul says of her experience onstage at the Phoenix Theatre three weeks later waiting for rehearsals to begin. “I'd never acted before, and Bill Kenwright had taken an enormous gamble on me. I just stood there thinking, what have I done?”

The answer came in the fact that she has returned to the role of Mrs J several times, both in the West End and on tour. This includes being asked back for the show's final West End dates in 2012, having been voted the definitive Mrs J. Doors were also opened for Paul to explore an acting career which has seen her appear in Boy George musical, Taboo, do a tour of Cabaret and appear as a regular character in TV soap, Emmerdale. All of which has seen her inhabit Mrs J with increasing confidence each time she revisits her.

“I'm a northern girl,” Paul says, “so I can relate to her. Perhaps there's a new depth to Mrs J that maybe wasn't there before, I don't know, but I've had lots of highs and many lows in my life, so I just thought I was her.”

Born Lynda Belcher in Wythenshawe, Paul was dancing from the age of three, and by the time she was thirteen, had formed her own girl group, The Crys-Do-Lyns.

“I read in the paper that there were no girl trios,” Paul remembers. “It said America had The Supremes, but where were our girl groups? I went off to dance class and said why don't we form one?”

Paul's dad drove the girls, not just around the local club circuit, but around Europe, where The Crys-Do-Lyns entertained the troops in Germany. When she was seventeen, Paul joined The Nocturnes, who initially featured the Perth-born Eve Graham in a line-up that would tour the Mecca circuit. The value of such spit and sawdust exposure was invaluable.

“It kept you grounded,” she says. “That's where a lot of people on the talent shows miss out these days. They don't have the experience of what to do if someone's ordering a round of drinks or eating fish and chips in front of you when you're in the middle of a song.”

With Graham having already made the move to The New Seekers, Paul joined her a year later. Within a year, the group, now made up of three men and two women, would go on to sell twenty-eight million copies of I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing, a song first heard on a global village embracing TV ad for Coca Cola.

“It was the biggest song in the world,” says Paul.

With such a profile, The New Seekers were the obvious choice for Eurovision '72, and showcased a new song each week on Cliff Richard's Saturday night TV show. Beg, Steal or Borrow was selected following a public vote.

“We didn't realise how big it was,” says Paul. “We were doing thirteen-hour days on Cliff Richard's programme before the show went out, and at that time, which was before Abba, having boys and girls in a band was quite a novelty, so we were getting all this attention.

“By the time we got to Edinburgh it was mad. Kids were screaming, trying to rip our clothes off, and they broke down the door of our hotel.”

With Paul featured vocalist, Beg, Steal or Borrow came second, losing out to Luxembourg's entry, Apres Toi, an epic ballad shot through with package-tour mariachi horns. As sung by Vicky Leandros, the English language version, Come What May, reached number two in the UK charts, the same position as Beg, Steal or Borrow.

Following The New Seekers release of an incongruous version of The Who's Pinball Wizard, Paul sang lead on 1973 single, You Won't Find Another Fool Like Me. The record went to number one before that incarnation of the group fell apart.

“I was just getting to do the oohs and ahs,” Paul says, “but we had a marvelous time. If I could remember any of it,” she adds. “I enjoyed it, but not as much as I should have. I was a home bird, and was always on the phone to my mum and dad.”

Paul embarked on a solo career that saw her work with the likes of Jack Jones and Liza Minnelli. She even tried out for Eurovision again in 1977, as did Carl Wayne, with both losing out to Lynsey de Paul and Mike Moran's song, Rock Bottom.

While Paul still enjoys watching Eurovision every year, “it's different now,” she says, “and I think it's a shame it can't go back to how it used to be, getting someone already established to do different songs in the way that we did.”

Today, with Paul recognised more as an actress than a singer, her working life might have worked out very different if she hadn't taken her mum's advice.

“The New Seekers gave me a wonderful platform,” she says, “but writing to Bill Kenwright changed my life again. He took a big chance on me, and gave me a brand new career aged forty-seven, and it's a career I'm still enjoying aged sixty-six. So if Bill Kenwright tells me to jump on that shovel, I'll be jumping on that shovel like a shot.”

Blood Brothers runs at Edinburgh Playhouse until Saturday, and tours the UK until November.
www.atgtickets.com

The Herald, February 10th 2016

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Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Blood Brothers

The Playhouse, Edinburgh
Four stars

An unreconstructed Liverpool skyline may hang over the action throughout the latest tour of Willy Russell's working class tragedy, but what follows could have happened in any post-industrial UK city that has had its heart ripped out of it over the last thirty years or so. That Russell's musical fable concerning the very different fortunes of two Scouse brothers separated at birth remains both phenomenally popular and damningly relevant after almost thirty years since its premiere speaks volumes about the state we're in.

Much of the show's appeal comes from the sheer heart of Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright's production, which heightens the action without ever losing its common touch. The latter comes through in the pop poetry of Kristofer Harding's funeral-suited Narrator as much as in the back-street demotic of Sean Jones' Mickey and Danielle Corlass' Linda. This counterpoints the more educated tones of Joel Benedict's Eddie to entertaining effect. Most of all it shines through in Lyn Paul's heartbreaking turn as the twin boys' mother, Mrs Johnstone.

There is nothing abstract in Russell's depiction of class division, the enforced break-up of communities and the psychological and material consequences of extreme poverty. In this respect, Blood Brothers is arguably the first large-scale anti-capitalist musical, which, despite the contradictions of its own success, has subverted the mainstream like no other.

While Russell's musical compositions are far from subtle, some of the overwrought bombast of previous productions has been jettisoned for something more restrained and almost mournful in delivery. Even so, the show's final five minutes remain one of the most emotionally draining theatrical experiences likely to grace a stage anywhere in recent times.

The Herald, February 9th 2016

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Monday, 8 February 2016

The James Plays

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

There's never any peace in Rona Munro's epic trilogy of imagined Scottish history, revived for a brief Edinburgh run following its 2014 Edinburgh International Festival premiere before embarking on an international tour. This is plain to see on both a sweeping political level as well as something more intimate in all three parts of this co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland, the National Theatre of Great Britain and EIF itself.

The fact that the first all-dayer coincided with the kick-off of the Six Nations Rugby Union tournament may have been coincidental, but a similar sense of hand-me-down tribalism was inherent from the off in James I: The Key will Keep the Lock. With a section of the audience seated on a semi-circular platform onstage, a gladiatorial arena flanks a giant sword embedded into a floor on which the pathways of light form a Saltire.

With Steven Miller playing a poetry-loving James I, Andrew Rothney an emotionally damaged James II and Matthew Pidgeon a feckless James III, all three monarchs have their demons to slay, and it is their female counterparts they look to for inspiration as much as comfort.

As James is gifted back to his people after eighteen years in an English prison, the only reason he toughens up is to impress his queen Joan, played by Rosemary Boyle, who ingeniously segues into James II's French bride Mary in the second play. Blythe Duff's increasingly demonic Isabella Stewart, too, is an over-riding influence, while Malin Crepin's Queen Margaret in the third play is savvy enough to recognise her image as others see her while offering others a form of liberation as well.

As the most stylistically adventurous part of the trilogy, James II: Day of the Innocents is also the one that has been reworked the most. Where the psychologically traumatised six year old boy-king was previously personified by a puppet, now Rothney plays James throughout, leaping in and out of boxes as he goes.

The play now appears more direct if just as insular in its portrayal of James' nightmares. Even more dysfunctional is Andrew Still's William Douglas, a loose cannon desperate to prove he's a tough guy in a bromance that increasingly resembles a contemporary gangland tragedy.

The energy of a younger generation rebelling against their bullying elders is paramount here, to the extent that Rothney came a cropper during the second act football match. While he heroically continued to the end of the play, David Mara took on his roles script-in-hand in the trilogy's third part.

James III: The True Mirror presents a seemingly more civilised and thoroughly modern society in the
most subtle, considered and quietly powerful of the three plays. The end, as the next generation in the form of Daniel Cahill's future James IV tries on for size the baggage of his forebears almighty mistakes, feels less certain than first time round. As James steps out to face the future, however, the possibilities are endless.

The Herald, February 8th 2016

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Thursday, 4 February 2016

Linder and Rachel Maclean - British Art Show 8

At first glance, the regal-looking pink love heart framed around a blue-eyed and smiling princess peering out from the flagship image for British Art Show 8, which arrives in Edinburgh this month, looks every inch the child-friendly image of a Disney princess to die for. Only the fact that the cartoon creation appears to have a bag over their head while wielding a frowning bauble and miming shooting itself in the head jars somewhat.

The image is from Feed Me, the new hour-long film by Rachel Maclean, which was commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella and Hayward Touring, and is is being screened as part of BAS8 at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Like the film, and indeed much of Maclean's back-catalogue, the image takes familiar pop cultural tropes and subverts them with a cut-up narrative in which an unrecognisable Maclean usually plays all the parts against a candy-coated green screen backdrop.

From the Lady Gaga and Katy Perry coloured fantasias of LolCats and Over The Rainbow to state of the nations mini epics, The Lion and the Unicorn and Please, Sir, which mashed up Oliver Twist, The Prince and the Pauper and Britain's Got Talent, Maclean's films have explored notions of identity in terms of class, nation and gender. The image for Feed Me, with its grown-up take on kid's stuff and a dig at the monarchy to boot, conveys an anarchically punky spirit that gets under the skin of its subject even as its surface cutesiness draws you in.

“It's looking at childhood and cultures of happiness,” says Maclean. “I've always been interested in the fantasy of childhood compared to how it actually is. I'm also interested in the infantilisation of adulthood, and how big companies like Google have a ball pit in the workplace, and how Starbucks serve drinks in spill-proof cups, like it's a baby's cup.

“Children's TV likes to imagine childhood as something that's innocent and sealed off from adulthood with it's own separate world. There's a trope of horror movies as well, where children are so cut off and so different that they can talk to dead people or animals.

“In Feed Me there are two worlds. There's this world of a Barbie style Disney princess, and there's this other space that's grubby and full of urban decay, and these two worlds mix. I was thinking as well about Britney Spears, and her transition from a child to a young adult, and how her career began to unravel, with all the contradictions she had to endure. That's interesting in terms of the roles young woman have to have, and how they're not allowed to mix. That's typical of Disney princesses as well. In the films Disney princesses are always about fifteen or sixteen, and are on the cusp of becoming a woman, and that's a fetish I think we have in society.”

All of which suggests an affinity with the work of Linder, the iconic punk-sired artist whose Diagrams of Love: Marriage of Eyes, a rug commissioned by the Edinburgh-based Dovecot Studios, also appears at the SNGoMA as part of BAS8.

For the last four decades, Linder has subverted the mainstream in a similar fashion to Maclean through a series of taboo-busting photo-montages that began with her artzine, The Secret Public, co-created with writer Jon Savage, and which fused images from porn magazines with pictures of domestic appliances. Linder created record covers for Manchester contemporaries Buzzcocks and Magazine, while her collage aesthetic was applied through singing with her own band, Ludus, and more recently through increasingly expansive performance-based work.

The latter arguably began back in 1982 when Linder wore a dress made of meat during a Ludus gig at Manchester club, The Hacienda, during which she peeled back the dress to reveal an oversized strap-on sex toy. In her film, Light and Fuse, Linder performed in drag as Clint Eastwood's spaghetti western anti-hero, The Man With No Name. She reprised the role in her four hour performance, The Working Class Goes To Paradise, in which she also took on the mantle of Ann Lee, founder of the Shaker movement, alongside dancers and three bands playing simultaneously.

For Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art 2010, Linder presented The Darktown Cakewalk: Celebrated from the House of FAME, a thirteen-hour physical and musical meditation on fame that featured troupes of Lindy-hoppers, jumping jivers and northern soul dancers. For BAS8, seven dancers from Northern Ballet will perform Children of the Mantic Stain, a new work inspired in part by the writings of surrealist painter Ithell Colquhoun and her lively St Ives social circle. As well as featuring choreographed portrayals of Colquhoun, Barbara Hepworth and sculptor John Milne, Linder's rug plays a key role as the ballet's 'eighth dancer.'

“I like the hallucinogenic quality in both Colquhoun’s writing and paintings,” Linder says of the inspiration behind Diagrams of Love: Marriage of Eyes. “Whilst I was in the midst of my research, I stayed in the artists flat above Raven Row gallery. The flat has never been changed since the last occupant, Rebecca Levy, passed away in 2009 aged 98. I was mesmerised by Rebecca’s choice of carpets, which are a triumph of 1970s design. I used to stare at the carpets in the half light and they would play all sorts of tricks with my optical nerves, I’d start to see things that weren’t there, 'mind pictures' as Colquhoun might have said.

“For the rug design at Dovecot, I created a photomontage of two of Rebecca Levy’s carpets and added all seeing 1970s Glam Rock eyes so that as one looks at the rug, the rug looks back at you. The dancers from Northern Ballet call her The Diva and are very respectful to her. They say that she definitely takes the lead. When I first met the tufters at Dovecot Studios, I talked about liberating carpets and rugs from the floor, and how I wanted to be able to choreograph textiles through space.”

While the rug itself was made at Dovecot in collaboration with Jonathan Cleaver, Dennis Reinm├╝ller and Kristi Vana, Children of the Mantic Stain is choreographed by Kenneth Tindall, with fashion designer Christopher Shannon providing the costumes and composer Maxwell Sterling the score. In this respect, rather than dive into the dressing up box, Linder describes herself as the “walking talking Pritt stick, glueing everyone together,” while the dancers “ventriloquise on my behalf.”

Both Linder and Maclean's work is driven by a political root as much as a performative one,

“My motivation for making art comes from being angry at something,” says Maclean. “I'm really interested in looking at fairytales to explore class and gender politics, but displacing them in a way that's historical but which brings it into something contemporary.”

For Linder too, a political engine is “always ticking over. I don’t deliberately set out to make political work but it always turns out that way, sometimes more so than for other artists who use scale and sloganeering to make their point. Generationally we cut our teeth on handouts and fanzines, paperback books, 7” singles and 12” albums, so debate then emerged from a very tactile and intimate experience of listening and reading. A touch screen can never deliver in the same way.

“I often work with that which has been discarded, a 1964 copy of Playboy for instance or a Good Housekeeping cookery book from 1948. The prevailing sexual and economic politics are embedded in every halftone dot on each page, just as they are in every pixel on the screens that we stroke each day. It doesn’t take much to mess it all up. As Carol Hanisch said in her “personal is political” essay in 1969, women aren’t messed up, they’re messed over. We’re still all messed up regardless of gender, so I rev up the engine and hijack the images around us, taking them somewhere that they’re not meant to go. I make things right by making them wrong.”

This chimes too with Maclean, who grew up on “girls magazines, MTV, Disney films and computer games, and that feeds into my work, but it becomes warped somehow.”

Linder's increasing use of dance in her work too stems from her childhood.

“I’m sure that it’s purely autobiographical,” she says. “I grew up in Liverpool at the same time as the Merseybeat scene was happening, then my family moved to Wigan just as Northern Soul was being birthed. As a student I saw the Bowie/Ferry fandom make way for Punk’s brats, then I disappeared into Manchester’s Black clubs to dance to Greg Wilson’s electro funk mixes in 1981. Music and dance have always been a part of my life,and The Darktown Cakewalk was one way of letting all of these experiences reach meltdown and to then cool off and congeal into different configurations.”

In terms of performance, while Maclean says she'd like to work with actors more, “It's fun becoming all these different characters for a day. I quite like the oddness of it all being me, especially with using prosthetics in the way we've done in Feed Me, with these different layers of masks.

"Using green screen as well is a bit like painting, and allows me to put in a lot of ideas, and use a lot of still images so it's like a photo montage. I quite like the film being this big thing with lots of different ideas.”

While Maclean's films are deeply theatrical, as yet she has not worked in the live arena.

“I think it would be fun to do something live at some point,” she says. “I don't think I could theatre-act, but if I was to do something I'd like to get loads of people on board and do something Busby Berkleyesque.”

Similarly, while Linder's performance work has been documented on film, usually by Daniel Warren, film as a medium in itself is something she has yet to fully exploit.

"I recently collaborated with [French fashion house] Maison Margiela in Brussels and I made a film then,” she says. “It features a dancer dressed in a MM coat made of blonde wigs but she barely moves in front of the camera.

“I love film. I remember the huge cinemas in Liverpool that my parents used to take me to in the 1960s before the multiplexes took over. I saw ‘This is Cinerama' in1964 and I thought that I’d died and gone to heaven, especially when I heard the first 'stereophonic sound' demonstration in Act II.

“It’s not just film that I was in love with. I was also in love with the ceremony attached to going to the cinema. My family always dressed up when we went out. We wanted to mirror the stars. From Hollywood to Huyton didn’t seem such a long way then, but now the cinema screen has been replaced by the tiniest screens imaginable, so that we can hold in our hands what was once projected in Picture Palaces throughout the land. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about all of this, so I make work about it instead.”

Feed Me by Rachel Maclean and Diagrams of Love: Marriage of Eyes can both be seen at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, as part of British Art Show 8, February 13th-May 8th. Children of the Mantic Stain will be performed by Northern Ballet Dancers at Dovecot, Edinburgh on March 30th.

A shorter version of this article appeared in The List, February 2016


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