Friday, 30 September 2016

The Broons

Perth Concert Hall
Three stars

The Broons annual isn't just for Christmas, it seems, in this bumper-sized staging of Dudley D Watkins' eighty-year old comic strip family, brought to life by writer Rob Drummond and director Andrew Panton for the Sell A Door company in association with Perth Theatre. It begins with Maw Broon attempting to round up her brood for a family snapshot on a stage already framed by cartoon portraits of the clan set against a jumbo-sized logo. As resident glamour-puss Maggie announces her impending wedding, Drummond put flesh and blood on the characters in a topsy-turvy mix of knowingness and nostalgia.

The dramatic portrait that follows lays bare a matriarchal microcosm of working class family life stuck in a Sisyphean limbo of everyday adventures where nothing ever changes. While there is much fun to be had from the eleven-strong ensemble's studies of all that is braw with Maw, Pa, Grandpa and co, Drummond paints them as a not always happy breed desperate to burst out of the one-dimensional frame that defines them and chase their dreams of leaving. Somehow, though, you know Hen and his existential crisis are never going to find themselves in Australia, Daphne will still be pining for a man, and even swotty Horace is unlikely to make it to Mars.

Joyce Falconer lends Maw a big-hearted brassiness in a show where dysfunction and arrested development give way to a full-on rock and roll musical that features every Scottish archetype under what is probably a tartan-draped Sun. During the pop-tastic finale it's a wonder that Jesse Rae doesn't bound on wielding a claymore to declaim one more overblown anthem. Now that really would be braw.

The Herald, October 3rd 2016

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Ramin Gray, David Greig, Rosie Al-Malla and Tricia Brown - Reimagining The Suppliant Women

In the Royal Lyceum Theatre's Edinburgh rehearsal room, twelve women are gathered around the piano, singing the praises of the goddess Aphrodite. Vocal Leader Stephen Deazley is putting the women, who will be playing the wise women of Argos in the Lyceum's forthcoming production of The Suppliant Women, through their paces. It's only their second rehearsal, but already they sound in fine voice for playwright and new Lyceum artistic director David Greig's new version of Aeschylus' rarely performed Greek tragedy.

Half an hour later, another twenty-odd women troop into the room, and gather on chairs beside the wise women. These are a younger generation, who have been rehearsing every Wednesday night and Saturday afternoon for a month now, and whose collective voice as brought to life by Deazley is steelier and more defiant in tone as they spar with their elders. As the young women shriek in rhythmic unison, one of them punches the air like a warrior princess in waiting.

As the conflicting chorales go back and forth, director Ramin Gray, who heads up the show's co-producers Actors Touring Company (ATC), and who has been pacing the room behind the singing, clicks his fingers in time with the beat, then shakes a bag of peanuts on the table in front of him. Distracted, he goes to the next table, and picks up a pile of scholarly looking books. These are just a handful of academic studies on The Suppliant Women he's been wading through.

In one, critic Gilbert Murray writes in 1930 of the play that 'It is certainly the most primitive, and perhaps, in the common opinion of scholars, the most stiff, helpless and unintelligible.'

“No-one really likes this play,” Gray deadpans, “but we're going to make it really entertaining.”

The Suppliant Women charts the travails of fifty women after they flee Egypt and seek sanctuary in Greece. It is, as one of Gray's books notes, a tale of immigration, and sounds as current as it could possibly be. It was written two and a half thousand years ago.

While Greig could have easily played safe with the first show of his opening season at the Lyceum, the choice to do something so big was deliberate.

“For me,” says Greig, “an opening statement has to be a statement of intent. As a play and a production, The Suppliant Women contains everything I'd like the Lyceum to be about. There's philosophy, poetry, music, participation, democracy, and, in a play that's about immigration and female empowerment, talking about the issues of the day.

“If I look at what the play resembles most, it's Danny Boyle's opening ceremony for the London Olympics in 2012. In terms of spectacle, participation and enjoyment. Greek plays were part of civic life, and that's what I want this play and the Lyceum to be about.”

Gray and Greig first applied a similarly inclusive approach to drama on The Events, Greig's 2013 play for ATC that looked at the aftermath of a mass shooting by a teenage boy. While the two main characters were played by professional actors, the action was framed by the onstage presence of a choir, sourced locally from the geographical locale surrounding each venue of the tour. In this way, the choir brought home both the possibility of what might happen on the audience's doorstep, as well as representing the need for a community to come together as one.

“We were doing The Events,” says Gray, “and halfway through rehearsals I thought we had discovered a truly innovative way of how you make a play. Then I realised the ancient Greeks had already done it, which I thought was funny, because everyone was saying how radical and new it was to do a play with two actors and a chorus, and then I thought about doing an actual ancient Greek play with a chorus.”

The Suppliant Women takes the concept further, with the choir no longer standing on the periphery of the action, but, as its central characters, becoming its driving force.

“The chorus are seventy-five per cent of the play,” says Gray, who enlisted composer John Brown, who also worked on The Events, to create the music for The Suppliant Women.

Aside from the show's pertinence in terms of the current immigration crisis, The Suppliant Women is notable for being the first recorded use of the word 'democracy', and for it originally being performed by men, both as a civic duty and as part of an ancient Greek rites of passage.

In keeping with the play's spirit of community and democracy, rather than use already existing choirs as they did with The Events, Gray, Greig, Browne and choreographer Sasha Milavic Davies opted to take on all-comers in auditions, regardless of experience and ability as singers. Two of these are Tricia Brown and Rosie Al-Mulla, who have come at it from non-performative backgrounds, but whose interest in the play stems from their own very different experiences.

“It looked like a fantastic opportunity,” says Brown, who has just started working at the Edinburgh College of Art-based Scottish Documentary Film Institute, “just to work on the Lyceum stage as part of David Greig's first production there, but I never expected anything like this. They're working us really hard, and it's a really fascinating process, because the show is being created as we go along, and we've been learning things by rote.”

Al-Mulla too is relishing the experience, particularly as she has just graduated from the University of Glasgow as an archivist after studying Latin and Ancient Greek in Edinburgh.

“I used to do a lot of student theatre in Edinburgh at the Bedlam,” she says, “and now I'm working on the archive of the Traverse Theatre, so after studying Latin and Greek, doing The Suppliant Women was a perfect amalgamation of all the things I've wanted to do for a long time. It's so exciting, because, although I didn't know the play, I already knew about ancient Greek society, so it''s probably a bit like knowing a lot about regency England and then reading Jane Austen.”

Working so intensely on the project has seen the group bond inn the rehearsal room in a way that has clearly affected both women.

“All of the girls are different ages,” says Al-Mulla, “but we've all become friends. I'm twenty-five, so I'm probably one of the oldest in the group, but even though the youngest in it are sixteen and fully formed, I still feel really protective towards them. There's one girl who I worry about getting a taxi on her own, even though of course she's old enough to be getting a taxi on her own, but it feel like we're all really close, like a little family, and we're all looking at the play in different ways.

“One of the girls in the choir wants to be a doctor, but she also thinks that theatre can be a really good health benefit. I'm coming at it from an arts education side of things, and everyone's looking at it from a different angle.”

For all the personal bonding between the performers, the themes of the play aren't lost on them.

“What's really key about it is how history has continued to repeat itself,” says Brown. “The play is two and a half thousand years old, but the things happening in it are happening now more than ever before. The way the women in the play respond to that is by acting together. Rather than playing separate characters, we're a chorus. We're all one character, I suppose.”

The Suppliant Women, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, October 1-15.
www.lyceum.org.uk

The Herald, September 30th 2016

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Friday, 23 September 2016

The National Theatre of Scotland - Ten Years That Shook The World

When the announcement came that a National Theatre of Scotland was to be formed, it ended decades and possibly centuries of wrangling over a desire for artistic self-determination in the country's thriving theatre scene on a par with opera, ballet and classical music. When this new body announced in 2004 that the company's inaugural artistic director would be Vicky Featherstone, with John Tiffany as associate director for new writing and Neil Murray as executive producer, it seemed to some who had championed long-serving directors from major building-based institutions as a leftfield choice.

As it turned out, with an unexpected major international hit on their hands in the company's first year after it was launched in 2006 in the form of Black Watch, Gregory Burke's bombastic theatrical collage on life in the military frontline post Iraq War, it was an inspired one.

Featherstone had come from new writing company, Paines Plough, and had strong ties with theatre in Scotland from her early days directing on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe at the Gilded Balloon. She later directed at the Traverse Theatre, where Tiffany was literary director, and where he was already working his magic on Burke's breakthrough play, Gagarin Way. Murray had worked at 7:84 Scotland, and had taken over from Michael Boyd at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow when Boyd departed to the Royal Shakespeare Company. Murray's appointment was a then rare occurrence of a producer running a theatre building.

With former director of Cumbernauld Theatre Simon Sharkey appointed as an associate director for community and education-based work, this gang of four represented a younger generation of theatre makers who weren't interested in creating monolithic structures, but would rather break moulds in a way that the considerable financial resources behind the NTS would allow. When Featherstone and co declared that their model of the company would not be based in an existing theatre, but would be something they defined as a theatre without walls, it sounded as radical a notion as it remains ten years on.

The fact that the new NTS was named as it was rather than the Scottish National Theatre was making a subtle but significant semantic point that was also political. Being of Scotland spoke of inclusion and diversity. These are both words too often bandied around and rendered meaningless by bureaucrats and politicians, but here were a statement of intent given flesh and blood significance by the company's progressive and outward-looking reach.

The company's first statement came with Home, a series of events performed simultaneously over one night in the towns, cities, villages and islands of Scotland by a multitude of cross-disciplinary collaborators culled from the cream of the country's professional theatre scene working with a specific sense of place in mind. It was to be the NTS' contribution to the 2006 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, however, that would put the company unexpectedly on the map in a major way.

Black Watch was knitted together by Burke and John Tiffany from interviews conducted with ex squaddies from the famed Black Watch regiment who had returned home to Fife after the Iraq War. Using an astonishing array of music, sound, movement and visuals, Tiffany's production became an epic statement on what it means to be on the frontline even as the show's mix of forms looked to Scotland's popular theatrical heritage. Performed in an old army drill hall as part of the Traverse Theatre's Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme, the production's furiously choreographed delivery raised the bar considerably in terms of what Scottish theatre could be. Nothing would be the same again.

The programmes that followed were a mix of new work, revivals of the contemporary Scottish canon and reinventions of classical plays. Success bred confidence and ambition. There were community projects, works in progress and development work seemingly going on in every corner of the country, even as the company's flagship shows travelled the world. There were seasons of work from the Middle East and Latin America, twenty-four hour marathons of five minute plays performed live and broadcast online. All life was here in a relentless and at times exhausting itinerary. At times it seemed as if a new NTS production was opening somewhere in some country or other every week.

With an in demand Tiffany stepping down from the company following his production of teenage vampire story, Let The Right One In, Featherstone drafted in Graham McLaren, who had previously run Theatre Babel in Glasgow prior to working abroad for several years. Steeped in Glasgow's theatrical history, McLaren brought a new dynamism to the company through productions of Ena Lamont Stewart's Men Should Weep and a musical reimagining of Joe Corrie's play, In Time O' Strife.

When Featherstone left the NTS to take over the artistic directorship of the Royal Court Theatre in London, she was replaced by Laurie Sansom, who had previously brought his production of Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to Edinburgh while artistic director of the Royal & Derngate Theatre in Northampton. Sansom took his time before setting out his store, but when he did, any criticisms of his appointment were silenced by the scale of the undertaking.

The James Plays was Rona Munro's epic trilogy of Scottish history plays presented in co-production with Edinburgh International Festival and the National Theatre of Great Britain. While commissioned by Featherstone, Sansom's production was presented over an entire day at Edinburgh Festival Theatre in a huge production that featured Sophie Gabrol from Scandic cop show, The Killing, in a large ensemble cast that also starred Blythe Duff.

While Sansom did similarly fine work on another Muriel Spark work, The Driver's Seat, and in The 306: Dawn, a haunting look at the lives of soldiers executed in World War I, the end of the NTS' current era which arguably began with Black Watch looks set to be marked by a show that could be seen as that show's equally potty-mouthed kid sister.

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour was adapted by Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall from The Sopranos, Oban born writer Alan Warner's tragicomic novel about a teenage schoolgirl choir let loose in the big city. When Vicky Featherstone returned to the NTS to direct it at the 2015 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it grabbed the audience by the scruff of the neck like a girl gang Black Watch high on alcopops and the promise of what the future might bring beyond their underage binging. This beautiful and heartbreaking study of young women on the verge has since toured internationally, dragging the NTS into its second decade with a sound and fury that signifies something very real.

As it prepares to move to its new administrative home and rehearsal space in Rockvilla, a former cash and carry situated in the North of Glasgow currently being developed into complex described by the NTS as an 'engine room for Scottish theatre', the move has provoked some to suggest that the company's theatre without walls concept has come to an end.

Either way, the NTS is at a major turning point. This year's surprise departure of Sansom as artistic director after three years in post came at a time when The James Plays was touring the world. It also came shortly after it had been announced that Murray and McLaren would be leaving to become joint artistic directors of Ireland's de facto national company, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

With Featherstone's ongoing tenure at the Royal Court, Tiffany's Tony award winning production of Once on Broadway, and his production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on the West End, it is clear that the NTS tentacles are reaching out to the world.

With only Sharkey still in place from the company's founding artistic team and no obvious boot-room successor to Sansom, it is also clear that the NTS is likely to evolve into a very different company to how it began, especially with funding cuts biting deep right across the arts establishment. Who the next artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland – and an artistic director it will be – remains to be seen. Whoever it is - and the NTS need to take their time to get it right - they will have several tough acts to follow. With Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour leading the charge towards the future, the next ten years of the NTS look set to be an even bigger adventure than the last.

BBC Arts website, September 24th 2016 to tie in with the screening of National Theatre of Scotland: A Dramatic Decade on September 27th 2016.

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Charlotte Church - Bringing the Late Night Pop Dungeon to Neu! Reekie!

It's after midnight on Saturday night in a gloriously anachronistic North Wales holiday camp, and the atmosphere is electric. Over the previous two days, revellers gathered for the Stewart Lee curated All Tomorrow's Parties festival have moved between alt.rock, free jazz and John Cage inspired experiments.

Now, however, a packed audience gazes on a scarlet-swathed stage, having even less of a clue what to expect. When a band clad in golden robes enters, it is not the surviving members of Sun Ra's Arkestra, who will close the festival the next night wearing similarly sparkly apparel. Sporting a shimmering gold lame leotard, the young woman at the centre of the spectacle looks as showbiz as it gets.

As she and her entourage open with a version of Laura Palmer's Theme from David Lynch's cult TV show, Twin Peaks, one could be forgiven for presuming that Club Silencio, the mysterious nightclub in Lynch's film, Mulholland Drive, had set up shop in Pontin's. The selection of equally tasteful cover versions of songs by the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Sugababes and Super Furry Animals that follows, each introduced with language as colourful as a Tiger Bay sailor on shore leave, suggests otherwise.

Mid-way through, Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart builds from an acoustic ballad to something that sounds akin to Shirley Bassey fronting Nirvana. This is not only the most avant-garde moment of the entire festival. In its jaw-dropping brilliance, it is possibly the most expectation-confounding musical moment ever.

The woman onstage is Charlotte Church, the former child star who once sang for the pope, took on Rupert Murdoch at the Leveson Inquiry, and who has become an anti-austerity icon. As the gold lame leotard hints at too, Church is also ringmistress of her own destiny, and this is her Late-Night Pop Dungeon.

Next week, Church brings her ten-piece Pop Dungeon band to Edinburgh to headline Celts, the latest genre-busting extravaganza from spoken-word cabaret night Neu! Reekie! Designed to tie in with the National Museum of Scotland's current exhibition of the same name, if Church's ATP appearance is anything to go by, Edinburgh is unlikely to know what's hit it.

“I just wanted to do something fun,” Church says of the roots of her Late Night Pop Dungeon. “Looking at the political situation and how down my lefty friends were, I thought it would be good to do something that was really up. I didn't really have much new stuff on the go, so we thought we'd just go for it. We've done it three times now, and we've changed it every time. We have songs dropping into other songs, so when we do En Vogue's Don't Let Go, at one point it goes into 21st century Schizoid Man by King Crimson.

“Also, for quite a long time I'd said no to everything, partly because I didn't want to confuse people anymore, because I've had quite a few metamorphoses, which is just the way things have gone, and also because I just wanted to be a mum. Now, I've started saying yes to things I might have been scared of before, and as a result, my career and my life are now more varied and more rich than ever before.”

In this respect, thirty-year old Church is en route to becoming a full-on twenty-first century renaissance woman. This year alone, as well as taking the Late Night Pop Dungeon to Glastonbury, where the previous year she'd interviewed Russian female punk provocateurs Pussy Riot, Church took part in the inaugural Festival of Voice at Cardiff's Millennium Centre. As well as singing alongside former Velvet Underground co-pilot John Cale, she took the title role in The Last Mermaid, a music theatre reimagining of Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Mermaid, which she co-created with composer Sion Trefor and songwriter, Pop Dungeon guitarist and life partner Jonathan Powell.

To trail the festival, Church presented an edition of BBC 2's arts magazine show, Artsnight, interviewing Laura Mvula and Welsh alt-pop singer Gwenno as well as looking at a choir project instigated by the National Theatre of Wales.

“We talked about voicelessness,” Church says of The Last Mermaid, “and the show came out of that. I worked on it with an intensity like I've never done before, but I'm not sure theatre's for me. I'm not very good at repetition. I'm more of a flitter. I was absolutely banjaxed by the end of it, so I'm in no rush to do theatre again.”

That Church boxed off such a varied itinerary at all is testament to her polymathic talents. That she did it without either a manager or agent speaks volumes about how much she stands apart from the celebrity treadmill in a wilfully singular fashion.

“I don't have any people,” she jokes. “I'm my own manager, but because things are going so well just now, that's getting quite difficult.”

An example of this comes the day we're originally supposed to talk. Church's phone keeps ringing out, until eventually she texts to apologise, but she completely forgot that we'd arranged the interview, and she was at the cinema with her two kids.

Even so, Church answers all email inquiries herself, responding to whatever interests her. This was the case with Neu! Reekie!when she was first approached by the event's organiser and co-host, Michael Pedersen.

“Michael's language was so flowery and descriptive,” she says, “and it really caught my eye.”

For someone who was a victim of the News of the World phone hacking scandal, such openness is a risky strategy, though it hasn't stopped her addressing anti-austerity marches, showing public support for Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and frothing with frustrated rage on social media following the Brexit referendum result. After being vilified by the tabloid press, however, Church is way beyond caring what people think.

“I'd learnt my craft and sung around the world with orchestras,” she says. “I had my credentials, but I was being portrayed in the tabloids as this ladette chav slag. That annoyed me, because it wasn't accurate, but I felt powerless against it.”

In her statement following an out of court settlement with the News of the World, Church declared that those behind the hacking weren't sorry, but 'only sorry they got caught.'

“The fact that absolutely none of the recommendations made at the Leveson inquiry have been taken up is a bit of a shame,” she says flatly.

If Leveson marked the beginning of Church's politicisation, she remains unrepentant in giving voice to her views.

“If people disagree with me,” she says, “then what of it at the end of the day? Some people don't agree with me and explain their point quite eloquently, other people completely attack me, but it's really water off a duck's back to me. The world is such a fucked up place just now. There's so much propaganda, and so much misinformation about things being put out, that you have to keep questioning it. I won't stop campaigning until we find some kind of way through it.”

In terms of her artistic future, Church plans to release an album, “collaborating with as many people as I can.”

There is the possibility of a TV comedy, although again this will be on Church's terms.

“I've no interest in doing scripted comedy,” she says. “I did a couple of pilots for the BBC which I think were quite sparky, but for me something that's funny has to be super super open. Basically I'm a lazy bitch who doesn't want to have to learn any lines,” she laughs.

One other long-cherished project remains in limbo.

“I've been trying to make a documentary on education for years,” she says, “but the BBC aren't having any of it.”

Church talks about Sir Kenneth Robinson, the influential educationalist whose ideas focus not on traditional exam-based achievements, but on using learning to awaken creativity.

“It's so simple,” Church enthuses, “this idea that schooling can be some kind of individual revolution. The effect these things take on human beings is in childhood, when you most have the ability to take things in and be creative. The way we're doing it just now for these gorgeous little kids is so antiquated.”

As for the Pop Dungeon, Church wants it to remain “a little gem. I'll do bits and bobs with it, but I don't want it to be a cash cow. I want to just keep it light and constantly keep reworking it, so it remains a special thing for everyone involved.”

This is a mantra for everything she gets involved in.

“In my life and work I just follow my nose,” she says. “I've been really lucky in the last couple of years to have had such fantastic opportunities, and that, coupled with my new approach of positive action, has really helped make things happen. Right now, I'm all about just saying yes.”

Charlotte Church's Late Night Pop Dungeon plays Neu! Reekie! - Celts, with Ette, Liz Lochhead, Lyre, Loki and Becci Wallace, Lomond Campbell at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, September 23.
www.nms.ac.uk

The Herald, September 23rd 2016

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Thursday, 22 September 2016

John Samson: '1975 – 1983'

Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow until April 17th
Four stars

When the then twenty-two year old world darts champion Eric Bristow is captured throwing the tools of his trade to victory at the end of Arrows (1979), John Samson's 1979 study of the self-styled crafty Cockney as he tours working men's clubs inbetween being interviewed on local radio, Bristow is invested with a poetry that makes him appear part Robin Hood, part pop star. Similarly, in Samson's first film, Tattoo (1975), the closing tableaux of artfully posed illustrated men and women resemble inked-in Greek statues.

Kilmarnock-born Samson may have only made five short films between the ages of 29 and 37, but his fascination for largely working class sub-cultural fringes was on a par with Kenneth Anger, while pre-dating some of Jeremy Deller's work. Samson followed Tattoo with Dressing For Pleasure (1977), which unzips the assorted rubber, leather and latex-based fetish-wear scenes, and briefly features Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and his SEX shop assistant, Jordan. After this, the steam train enthusiasts of Britannia (1978) is a surprising diversion, although it and Arrows lay bare worlds similarly occupied by enthusiastic obsessives who are given rare voice.

Only the more polemical The Skin Horse (1983), a ground-breaking personal study of disabled people's relationship with sex originally screened on Channel 4, is invested with any kind of narration care of actor and on-camera host, Nabil Shaban. In this way, as he lays bare all the things hidden from polite society, Samson remains compassionately curious rather than voyeuristic.

While this first gallery presentation of Samson's work might have benefited from being framed within the socio-economic context of an era that scaled the post-permissive dawning of Thatcherism, the films themselves remain vital touchstones of a pre camera phone, pre YouTube age when underground culture was a genuinely samizdat form of community.

The List, September 2016

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Billy Elliot The Musical

Edinburgh Playhouse
Five stars

A big National Coal Board sign looms large at the opening of Lee Hall and Elton John's decade-old musical stage version of Hall and director Stephen Daldry's hit turn of the century film. In a tale of one little boy's liberation as a dancer against the backdrop of the 1980s miners strike, however, the Durham Miners banner and the 'Save Our Community' sash held aloft matter more. It is this call to arms that forms the heart of Daldry's production, as Billy becomes a potty-mouthed beacon of hope in a situation where picket line, thin blue line and chorus line rub uneasily up against each other.

Given such a context, there is bound to be some pretty grown-up stuff going on here, be it the institutionalised homophobia in Billy's village, the class war going on within it, or Billy's grieving for his dead mother that drives his every move. And, as so magnificently choreographed by Peter Darling, what moves they are. Watching Lewis Smallman as one of four alternating Billys and fellow child actor Elliot Stiff as his friend Michael razzle-dazzle it up while wearing women's clothes requires unabashed confidence as well as technical skill, and these boys are fearless as they revel in every show-stopping moment. Dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson's daughter Debbie, meanwhile, as played by Evie Martin, provides the cheek.

The second half opens with a political puppet show straight out of Spitting Image in a show in which entertainment and agit-prop themselves transcend their humble roots to become something bigger. This might just be the best advert for community, arts education and international socialism ever.

The Herald, September 23rd 2016

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Wednesday, 21 September 2016

The Rise and Inevitable Fall of Lucas Petit

Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh
Four stars

The Lord moves in mysterious ways in Andy McGregor's new lo-fi musical fable, currently on an extensive tour by McGregor's own Sleeping Warrior Theatre Company in a co-production with Stirling's Macrobert Arts Centre and in association with the enterprising Showroom producing house. As introduced in the opening number performed by Ashley Smith and Darren Brownlie's unholy alliance between Lucifer and God, Lucas Petit is one of life's little guys, a man trapped in a soulless job and a loveless marriage, and whose sole pleasure is hanging out in the B&Q cafe on Saturday afternoons. Once temptation is thrust in his face, however, Lucas embarks on a comic book style adventure that takes him to Hell, but not necessarily back.

What initially resembles a 1960s style caper pastiche involving nightclub singer assassins, suitcases full of something shiny, and Nicola Sturgeon evolves over the eighty minutes of McGregor's own production into a witty, whip-smart and up to the minute satire on the roots of fanaticism. As Alasdair Hankinson's magnificently gormless Lucas becomes the worm that turns, his trajectory from would-be hero into messianic martyr is a sadly all too recognisable one.

As well as writing and directing the play, McGregor has written the fist-full of showtunes that illustrate Lucas' leap into the ideological void. This is played out on Alice Wilson's ingenious set that goes with it, in which everything is make-believe right up until the play's finest moments. With corrupted belief systems seemingly inspiring hate crimes on a daily basis right now, McGregor and co have created a little piece of theatrical dynamite.

The Herald, September 22nd 2016

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Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Joseph Chaikin Obituary

Joseph Chaikin, actor and director; born September 16, 1935; died June 22, 2003

Joseph Chaikin, who has died aged sixty-seven, was a beautiful dreamer. Right up to his death, when the weak heart he had suffered from since childhood finally failed, this purest and most visionary of theatre directors was still questing after truth in the strangest of places.

Even after a year of creative activity that would have sapped the energy of men half his age, especially one struck near dumb with aphasia, Joe, always Joe, was auditioning for a new production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. That it never made it to completion is a strangely fitting swansong, because Joe never liked things to be too set in stone. He preferred the bloodrush creativity of rehearsals, and, if things ever slipped into formula, he'd likely as not mess everything up before moving on to something else, as he did with The Open Theatre, the legendary troupe he led, only to disband when it looked like they might go mainstream.

It could be a frustrating tendency for those around him. At times, even the audience seemed like an intrusion. But anyone who saw Shut Eye, Chaikin's 2002 Edinburgh Festival Fringe collaboration with Philadelphia's Pig Iron Theatre Co at the Traverse Theatre, will recognise that Joe Chaikin's truth came not from easy realism, but from free-association based flights of fancy and lateral thinking rooted in the experimental spirit of the 1960s New York avant-garde scene. The result, often in collaboration with major artists such as Samuel Beckett and Sam Shepard, was a woozily soporific sense of magic - playful and free on every level.

Joe Chaikin grew up in 1940s Brooklyn, a Russian-Jewish boy imbued with a depth, stillness and imagination beyond his years. There was authority there, too. He'd gather playmates on the streets and perform little playlets of Tarzan, a macho matinee idol whom Chaikin, weak with rheumatic fever, would never be. It was through the illness, from which he would never fully recover, that he spent two years in a children's hospital. Here he continued his fledgling play-acting, and on one occasion had one group of patients mime a narrative's actions while another group read out the script. It was Chaikin's first act of anti-naturalism. He was 10.

By the time he joined The Living Theatre in 1959 to perform in Jack Gelber's drug buddy Beatnik classic, The Connection, Chaikin had already dropped out of university in Des Moines and joined an artistic underground, which, steeped in the language of social revolution, was on the cusp of cutting loose.

By 1963, cellar-bar culture was at its height and the world was ripe for change, as Chaikin and a loose assemblage of fellow travellers pushed boundaries in makeshift venues, until, at a meeting of progressive thinking actors, and playwrights, The Open Theatre was born. It was open in that it embraced then fresh philosophical, political, and artistic avant-garde trends, and seemed to be setting the template for new forms of expression. Partly through the company he kept, which included the likes of Peter Brook on the RSC's 1966 anti-Vietnam play, US, Chaikin's work became legend. But he was smart enough to know when to call it quits, lest something become an institutionalised museum, disbanded The Open Theatre in 1973.

In 1975, Chaikin underwent a first round of open-heart surgery, but by the following year was refreshed enough to found another company, The Winter Project. His 1979 works with Sam Shepard, Tongues and Savage/Love, tethered a primal journey to the urge within to even less explicit narratives than before.

Chaikin's next collaboration with Shepard, 1984's The War in Heaven, a monologue for an angel who dies the same day he is born, was also seen in a new production much later on a Scottish stage, this time by 7:84. By the time Chaikin performed the original, however, his affinity with absurdism saw him somewhat prophetically perform Beckett's Texts For Nothing in 1981. He shut up shop on The Winter Project in 1983, and, in May 1984, endured a second bout of open-heart surgery. The strain prompted a stroke, which in turn left him aphasic. Chaikin went on, spent a year learning to say ''yes'', and gradually, painfully, adding on a ''no'' you suspect he didn't use as much.

In the years that followed, Chaikin performed The War in Heaven worldwide; taught and directed to inspirational acclaim; appeared in Me and My Brother, a movie by Robert Franks, alongside Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, and, in the last year alone, directed Medea and a play by Arthur Miller, as well as co-directing Shut Eye.

While Chaikin didn't make the Edinburgh trip for Shut Eye, preferring to stay in New York to work on his next gig, anyone who engaged him in conversation on the telephone will have been thrilled and humbled by the experience. Here was a man still alive to his own sense of wonder, and who spoke of Shepard and Beckett as his friends. This wasn't the name-dropping of some counter-cultural ambulance chaser claiming kin, but was the musing of an artistic equal, and a seeker who knew a thing or two as well.

What turned out to be Beckett's last poem before his own death in 1989, What Is the Word, was written for Chaikin in the same stuttering, two-steps-forward, one-leap-back syntax. There couldn't have been a warmer, more heartfelt tribute to a man whose whole life was about asking why as much as what.

Though Chaikin's final production never saw the light of day, the final speech of Uncle Vanya, in which Sonya makes an impassioned advocacy for life's struggle in the face of adversity, is one of a million epitaphs that could apply to Chaikin. Her final words are: ''We shall rest.''

Joe Chaikin never rested. Like Sonya, he knew the value of living, and, in the work he left behind, is living still in a place where ''what'' is the only word that matters.

The Herald, July 3rd 2003

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Stephen Daldry and Lee Hall - Billy Elliot the Musical

When director Stephen Daldry was awarded a Herald Angel for his debut feature film after it premiered at Edinburgh Film Festival in 2000, it was one of the first of many plaudits for what was a relatively modest production. Given what has happened to the film since, it also showed the considerable foresight of those behind the awards. Billy Elliot, after all, went on to become an international phenomenon, with the Herald Angels' championing of the film recognised when this newspaper's name was displayed on billboards across the globe.

But Daldry and writer Lee Hall's tale of a working class boy who discovers the transcendent power of dance in the thick of the civil war that was the 1980s Miners Strike went further, scooping a multitude of awards, including three BAFTAS. Five years after the film was released, this seemingly local story was given fresh life with the arrival of Billy Elliot the Musical, reuniting Daldry, Hall and choreographer Peter Darling, as they got back to their theatrical roots in a project instigated by pop superstar Elton John.

After a decade that has seen the show take the West End and Broadway by storm prior to being seen worldwide, Billy Elliot the Musical finally embarks on its first UK tour which arrives in Edinburgh this week for a month-long run. It is an event that Daldry and Hall have been looking forward to for some time.

“I've been dying for this,” says Hall, who derived Billy Liar from an early script called Dancer, which was given a performed reading at the Live Theatre in Newcastle. “It's quite unusual to have to wait so long to tour a London show, and because Billy Elliot is written from my perspective of growing up in Newcastle, I think the show speaks to people outside London, so it's been a long time coming.”

Daldry concurs, pointing out that “The seeds of the show were in the north, and when we first did it we originally wanted to open in Newcastle, but we couldn't afford it, so in a sense the tour is very much about coming home.”

The roots of Billy Elliot the Musical date back to the film's very first screening at the Cannes Film Festival when it was still called Dancer. It was here that the stage version's final creative partner first declared an interest.

“We had what we thought was a small independent movie,” Daldry remembers of his screen debut after running the Gate and Royal Court theatres, “and no-one really had any expectations. By chance, Elton John and David Furnish happened to be in the audience, and it was Elton John who first suggested that it could be a musical. Then the film became this worldwide success, and Elton kept on badgering us. It was only his determination and tenacity that made it happen, and to be honest I think it's a much better fit onstage than as a film. It's getting back to its natural home.”

With John on board to write the music and Furnish a producer of the show, Daldry and Hall determined to invest Billy Elliot the Musical with substance as well as emotional power.

“We sat down,” says Hall, “and we said, if we can't make it better than the film, and if we can't make it more political than the film, then we're not going to do it. It's something that was historical, but now it feels like a contemporary drama. It's heartbreaking what's happening in the North-East of England. I thought they'd closed as much heavy industry as they could there, but now that the steelworks are being closed down it just makes things worse. It feels more like the 1980s now than it ever has done in my life. The Brexit vote is really affecting things, and that came out of thirty years of neglect. The time the play is set was a real watershed moment of post-war politics, and was the first time the state used the police to attack a state industry with violence against ordinary people”

Daldry points out how “1984 was the last great battle of the trade union movement. It was so painful and so emotional, because industry was completely decimated after that.”

To putting all this into a commercial musical, Daldry and Hall again looking to their theatrical roots.

“People these days tend to think of musicals in the tradition of Andrew Lloyd Webber,” says Hall, “but there's an important tradition as well that stems from Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop, which filtered through me watching 7:84's work when I was growing up. I wanted to make a political musical in that great tradition of British theatre, and do something that was a piece of protest, but which was also a good night out. When I started writing it, I thought, what would John McGrath do if he was doing a musical with Elton John?”

The politics of the show almost scuppered a performance in 2013 after it was announced that former Conservative UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had been in office throughout the Miners Strike, had died. Backstage discussions ensued regarding the song, Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher, which includes the line, 'We all celebrate today, 'cause it's one day closer to your death', and whether its inclusion would be in bad taste. Daldry and Hall put it to an audience vote.

“Only three people voted against us doing it,” says Hall. “It was democracy in action, and for me was about everything that Thatcher was against. What she represented was such a perditious influence, and isn't something to be celebrated. To say that in a piece of entertainment, it's important for us to have that. I think the play has things in it that most musicals don't.”

As with the film, Billy Elliot the Musical has been hailed to the rafters wherever it has played, picking up five Olivier awards for its original London run and a staggering ten Tonys on Broadway, as well as winning awards in Australia, the Netherlands and Korea.

“What's amazing is how the story travels,” Daldry observes. “It's about a very particular time and a very particular place, but I think what audiences connect with wherever its done is that it's a story about a community that's under threat. The show is about community more than the film ever was, and in a post-industrial context people respond to that. People are fighting for their dignity and survival, and in the middle of that, this little chap is trying to express himself.”

For Hall, whose National Theatre of Scotland adaptation of Alan Warner's novel, The Sopranos, Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, is currently running on London's South Bank, Billy's discovery of his artistic voice is a reflection of his own experience.

“The play is about ordinary people trying to overcome things,” he says, “and I think I was writing about my own journey, if you like. I'm from this working class background where I was thinking I wanted to do this thing, which was write, and that's been transformative fore me. and for me.

“The play has also allowed us to look at gender and sexuality. Dance is sometimes seen as effeminate, and Billy has a gay friend, but because of the play, for the first time ever, the Royal Ballet had more boys applying than girls, so it's had an effect on art and how it's accessed. The play is saying that there are other ways of exploring masculinity, and that art can be for the working classes, and not just for the middle classes.”

Billy Elliot The Musical, Edinburgh Playhouse, September 20-October 22.
www.atgtickets.com/edinburgh

The Herald, September 20th 2016

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Monday, 19 September 2016

Trainspotting

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

When Gavin Jon Wright's hapless Spud embarks on his Class A-fuelled job interview in front of red drapes at the opening of Gareth Nicholls' main-stage revival of Harry Gibson's 1994 adaptation of Irvine Welsh's iconic novel, it's a telling pointer to everything that follows. Like the play, there is no filter in the mad rush of tragi-comic truth that Spud blurts out. This is a signifier too that this isn't a play in the conventional sense, but is a series of loose-knit routines that only make full sense when lifted off the page and delivered in a full-on Leith Walk demotic framed by designer Max Jones' strip-lit breezeblock wasteland.

While ostensibly the story of 1980s dole queue junky Renton and his drug buddies, there is less of a gang mentality here than in Danny Boyle's film version, which Gibson's script pre-dated by two years. Nicholls' staging of the series of solos, duologues and ensemble-based vignettes instead knits together a tapestry of need for an entire community, with a lively first-night audience greeting every sketch-like scene like an old friend.

The mood changes in the deathly hush of the first act's end, and the strung-out cold turkey fantasia and desperation of a disenfranchised underclass that follows becomes increasingly darker. While there are clear concessions to audience expectations, the cast of five, led by Lorn Macdonald as Renton, with Angus Miller as Sick Boy, Chloe-Ann Taylor as Alison and Dianne, Owen Whitelaw as Begbie and Wright as Spud make the material their own. Twenty-two years after its first staging, and with austerity biting deeper than ever, Trainspotting now looks fiercely of the moment.

The Herald, September 19th 2016

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A Steady Rain

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

There's a serial killer on the loose in Theatre Jezebel's revival of Keith Huff's hard-boiled noir, first seen on Broadway in 2007, and he's eating everyone alive. For frontline cops Denny and Joey, the murderer's presence right under their noses is the final nail in the coffin of a partnership that dates back to childhood. Even now, in a lamp-lit room at a long table flanked by two rows of buckets, they joke that they're like 1970s TV heartthrobs Starsky and Hutch, except Denny and Joey's double act has long since stopped being funny.

Dressed in identical sweatpants and hoodies in Mary McCluskey's darkly brooding production, Andy Clark and Robert Jack invest Denny and Joey with a captivating intensity as old loyalties are corrupted at both a personal and professional level for both men. Blighted by personal demons and unspoken tensions that threaten to blow up in their faces, as the pair switch between their versions of the truth, at moments it's as if they're giving evidence to internal affairs, at others as if they're confessing their sins, desperate for some kind of atonement.

Inspired in part by an incident involving real-life serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, there is clearly a movie full of pained silences and longing looks waiting to burst out of Huff's script that transcends its roots for a close-up of emotional wounds. As it stands, however, the play's strength comes through its torrent of words. As Denny and Joey's criss-crossing monologues gather steam, they rise into a torrent of self-loathing which, for one of the men, at least, finally subsides into a raging calm in a quietly thrilling experience.

The Herald, September 19th 2016

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Edward Albee - Obituary

Edward Albee – Born March 12 1928; died September 16 2016.

When Edward Albee, who has died aged eighty-eight, wrote a play, it was usually a wilful provocation that arguably came from deep within his own experience. While best known for the dramatic explosion of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which seeped into popular consciousness by way of Mike Nicholls' film starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Albee was anything but a one-trick-pony.

This was evident in his three decade-spanning Pulitzer Prize wins, for A Delicate Balance in 1967, Seascape in 1975 and Three Tall Women in 1994. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had been initially selected by the 1962 drama jury, but was over-ruled by the Pulitzer advisory committee, who opted not to make any drama award that year. Given that the play won a Tony and ran on Broadway for over a year prior to the film version, one suspects Albee wasn't overly concerned, as he kept his distance from the theatrical establishment his work rubbed up against over the next fifty years with varying degrees of commercial success.

Albee would go on to win another Tony in 2002 for The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, a play about a man who was having a love affair with a farm animal, spoke volumes about Albee's taboo-busting audaciousness as well as his willingness to put his reputation on the line in the face of shocked audiences and more than one critical mauling.

“If Attila the Hun were alive today,” Albee said in 1988, “he'd be a drama critic.”

Edward Franklin Albee III was born in Virginia. Little is known about his father, who deserted his mother, Louise Harvey, who put her child up for adoption when he was two weeks old. After being placed in the care of wealthy vaudeville theatre owner Reed A Albee and his socialite wife Frances, Albee grew up in affluent Westchester County in New York. It was arguably this early sense of displacement, both from his blood parents and the family that adopted him, that would define the fractured relationships contained within Albee's work, as well as giving him an artistic temperament that didn't fit in with the world of guardians who expected him to become what Albee described in a TV interview as a “corporate thug.”

Albee said he wrote his first play aged fourteen, a three-act work that was thrown out by his mother. After being expelled from several schools, Albee decamped to the then bohemian Greenwich Village, where he would visit the theatre and moved in a social set that included composer Aaron Copeland William Flanagan, who would become his lover. Albee says he realised he was gay when a child, although he avoided being defined as a gay writer throughout his career, thirty-five years of which were spent with sculptor Jonathan Thomas prior to his death in 2005.

Albee tried writing prose and poetry before attempting drama. He burst onto the theatre scene in 1959 with The Zoo Story, a troubling two-hander about a man who approaches another man who is reading on a bench in Central Park. The play, which Albee wrote in two and a half weeks, was first seen in Berlin in a double bill with Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape before opening at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village as part of a then fledgling off-Broadway scene.

The Zoo Story's sense of disaffection chimed with the times, and other one-act works The Sandbox (1959), The Death of Bessie Smith (1959) and The American Dream (1960) followed. Then came Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a ferociously hyper-real study of destructive relationships within an all-American academic backdrop In a programme note for the Almeida Theatre's 1996 production, Albee wrote how the play had “hung about my neck like a shining medal of some sort.”

A Delicate Balance (1965) won Albee his first Pulitzer, while All Over (1971), was directed on Broadway by John Gielgud. There were flops, including Albee's stage version of Truman Capote's novel, Breakfast At Tiffany's, though further successes came with Three Tall Women (1990-91). In his final years, he wrote Me, Myself and I in 2007, and wrote a first act for The Zoo Story in 2009.

In an interview with the Herald in 2010 prior to a production of The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? at the Traverse Theatre, Albee talked of how “London audiences and British audiences are more intelligent” than those on Broadway shocked by his work. Of the play itself, he was typically unforthcoming, stating that “I write my plays to find out why I'm writing them. I'm not didactic, but there are several things in my plays that I hope genuinely want to make people think. Escapist entertainment isn't good enough. There are several things here, about suicide, about sexual responses, that you really want the audience to take away with them and think about, and make them think that maybe they should grow up. But the thing to understand about the goat in this play is that it isn't a metaphor. You can't f*** a metaphor.”

Albee understood his own work with a gravity that he felt was sometimes missed.

“All of my plays are about people missing the boat, closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done, as opposed to things done,” he said in a 1991 interview with the New York Times. “I find most people spend too much time living as if they’re never going to die.”

Throughout his career as a dramatic provocateur, Albee understood the importance of kicking against the pricks. As he explained to the Herald in 2010, “I'm a writer, and that's the only drive I have for doing what I do, to keep on being provocative and to keep on asking questions.”


The Herald, September 19th 2016


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Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Dundee Rep
Three stars

It's a man's world alright in the Globe Theatre's 1960s inspired take on Shakespeare's proto rom-com, set largely inside designer Katie Sykes' rainbow-bordered box resembling an after-hours open mic dive bar. Here Valentine and Proteus are a couple of small town boys in stuffy old Verona, wanting to make the scene in the far groovier Milan. With his guitar on his back, Guy Hughes' Valentine hits the road, while Dharmesh Patel's Proteus remains hopelessly devoted to Leah Brotherhood's Julia. With Valentine forced into a dance-off over Aruhan Galieva's society girl Sylvia, Proteus follows his main man to the big city, while Julia dons Bob Dylan cap and suede jacket to inveigle her androgynous way into the gang.

Nick Bagnall's production sees love letters sent as seven-inch singles before the would-be couples flirt with promiscuity and cross-dressing in a youthful rites of passage that traces an entire decade's worth of pop culture by way of James Fortune's live score. The second half is hairier, hippier and more hard rockin', with the servants remaining infinitely cooler than their masters. Adam Keast's parka-clad Speed even supplies the dog, Crab, played with laidback abandon by Freddie Thomas, with a bag of blue pills.

The most problematic part of the play, in which Proteus attempts to rape Sylvia, only for Valentine to 'give' her to his bro', could here be put down to the era's ingrained misogyny and hypocrisy regarding free love. With Sylvia and Julia left cowering and cowed as their suitors have their own all-boys-together happy ever after, the women who drove the play, it seems, are locked out of the love-in, left to freak out on their own.

The Herald, September 16th 2016

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Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Sunny Afternoon

Edinburgh Playhouse
Four stars

The stage is all dressed up as a 1960s dancehall occupied by tuxedo-clad crooners at the opening of Joe Penhall and Ray Davies' musical history of the early days of Davies' seminal band, The Kinks. By the end, however, the hysteria of Madison Square Garden has whipped a nostalgia-seeking audience into a suitable frenzy. Inbetween in Edward Hall's touring production of a show first seen at Hampstead Theatre in 2014, the Muswell Hill born Davies brothers take on the world, crash, burn and come out fighting to produce a now classic canon of pre-punk music hall social realist vignettes.

Penhall's necessarily dot-to-dot script lays bare a tale of back street ambition, tortured genius and warring siblings, with sensitive songwriter Ray and his wild child kid brother Dave initially flanked by a living room full of sisters who rather handily double up as a swinging op-art chorus line. As the band square up to money men in London and New York, there is impressionistic commentary on class, the music biz, the mental strain of touring and a couple of extended scenes showing how a song is put together.

Some of the American scenes may be one-liners, and some of the themes may only be sketched in, but the songs help, especially as given voice by a cast led by a Ryan O'Donnell as Ray and Mark Newnham as Dave. The full throttle hits are there, but so too is a four-part a cappella take on Days and a lovely I Go To Sleep by Lisa Wright as Ray's Lithuanian bride Rasa in a ferocious attempt to invest the tribute musical form with dark substance.


The Herald, September 15th 2016

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Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Harry Gibson and Gareth Nicholls - Trainspotting

Harry Gibson was working as a script-reader for the Citizens Theatre when he stumbled across Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh's iconic novel of 1980s Leith life that went on to become a phenomenon. It was the early 1990s, and the equally iconic Citz had just opened its Circle and Stalls studio spaces in the image of the long gone Close Theatre, with the intention of producing cutting edge new and experimental work with little financial risk.

Not to make too fine a point of it, a lot of the stuff landing on Gibson's desk wasn't that great. In search of the holy grail, he went off to John Smith's bookshop, a legendary and now lost emporium on Byres Road, where he asked if there was any new Scottish prose fiction he should be taking a look at. Eventually, Gibson was handed the last battered copy of Trainspotting they had in stock. The book, which charted the hedonistic adventures of a group of young Leithers in 1980s dole queue Britain, was already being devoured by a young readership in search of something to excite them, and copies of it were scarce. Gibson got on a train and began reading.

“I got as far as page thirty-eight,” Gibson remembers on the eve of the Citizens' main stage revival of his adaptation by director Gareth Nicholls, “and I rang Giles and told him to buy the rights to the book immediately before anyone else did. I knew straight away that here was a work of genius crying out to be done onstage.”

Then Traverse Theatre director Ian Brown's production of Gibson's adaptation, written for four actors, was originally seen at the Traverse and then the Citz's tiny Stalls Studio. Welsh's anti-hero Mark Renton was played by Ewan Bremner, who would go on to play Spud in Danny Boyle's big-screen version of the book. Susan Vidler, who played all the female parts onstage, would also appear in the film, which would transform a cult book that became a stage sensation into a mould-breaking global enterprise (both Bremner and Vidler had appeared in Mike Leigh's film, Naked). Malcolm Shields and James Cunningham completed the onstage quartet.

Arriving in a landscape where youth culture was about to burst wide open, Trainspotting in all its forms had already got the party started. Gibson's play was lumped in with an energetic new wave of dramatic writing that became known as in-yer-face theatre.

“I'm responsible for dirty theatre,” Gibson chuckles, relishing the association. “What became known as in-yer-face theatre was hugely influential on telly shows like Skins and Shameless. Of course, there were pre-cursors, like Steven Berkoff and so on, but I'm perfectly happy to be part of a new tradition. The thing with Irvine is that he's totally non-judgemental, and he loves the dirty side of life anyway. One always worries about doing things about other people's pain, but in Trainspotting, in the midst of all this shit, people are living a life, and in the end it's righteous.”

Following it's original run at the Citz, Trainspotting was picked up by commercial producers, G&J Productions, who toured it with various casts for the next decade.

“Once the film of Trainspotting came out, it kind of went ahead of us as a trailer,” says Gibson, “the only downside of which is that people sometimes expected our play to be a stage version of the movie, which was like the Monkees or A Hard Day's Spliff or something. What we were doing was much darker.”

Following the success of Trainspotting, Gibson went on to adapt Welsh's third book, The Marabou Stork Nightmares, which was also picked up by G&J following its initial run at the Citz. This was followed by a solo version of Welsh's novel, Filth, initially performed by actor Tam Dean Burn in the Stalls Studio before moving to the main stage. The last of Gibson's Welsh adaptations to be seen at the Citz was Glue. A stage version of Welsh's sequel to Trainspotting, Porno, was written, but has yet to be produced.

Gibson's relationship with Welsh continued with Blackpool, a musical penned by the novelist with post punk icon Vic Godard, whose band Subway Sect played with the Clash at Edinburgh Playhouse in 1977, switching Welsh's generation onto myriad possibilities in the process. While Blackpool has never been seen professionally, Gibson directed a production featuring drama students at Edinburgh's Queen Margaret University, then situated on Leith Walk, the heart of Welsh country.

“I never found much interest in Edinburgh for doing Irvine's work,” says Gibson. “Blackpool was a glorious failure, but it was interesting working with a young cast who were willing to try anything. After that everything sort of dried up. If anyone had been on the phone asking me to do another adaptation of Irvine's work I'd have done one, but once the old guard of the Citizens left they didn't want it. It's rather lovely that the new people want to do Trainspotting again.”

For Nicholls, the importance of Trainspotting for a younger generation of theatre makers was a no-brainer.

“For me it was the politics of the piece,” he says. “At the story's heart are these disenfranchised characters who are trying to escape, but who are all trapped in this 1980s Thatcherite landscape. It feels that in the times of austerity and disenfranchisement that we're living in now that we've come full circle, and the play so speaks to now. There's a beautiful symmetry as well in terms of the play having started at the Citz, it being the twentieth anniversary of the film, and also with Trainspotting 2 being filmed just now as well.”

In terms of the politics of Trainspotting, Nicholls may be onto something. While at the time many in-yer-face plays seemed to lash out with a fury that seemed to define an age of disenfranchisement with little to believe in, they now seem to represent a moment of taking stock before regrouping and refocusing on the political struggle ahead. Gibson for one isn't surprised that Trainspotting in all its guises has become a totem of popular culture in a way that has transcended its 1990s origins to become a defining signifier of the counter-culture.

“The thing is,” he says, “in theatre, because we live our lives on the razz a bit more than a lot of people, we're a bit more culturally ahead of things. At one time, the church was on one side of the street, and the playhouse was on the other, and we're well aware of this idea of sympathy for the devil. That goes right back to hippy times, and then punks, goths, emos, and whatever we call it now, where it's like a kaleidoscope, and where you can go to a music festival and see seven different types of music and not worry about tribes. Trainspotting was a punk book and a punk play,” says Gibson. “We're all punks now.”

Trainspotting, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, September 14-October 8.
www.citz.co.uk

The Herald, September 13th 2016

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This Happy Breed

Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Three stars

If ever there was a play where the phrase Keep Calm and Carry On would make the perfect publicity tag-line, Noel Coward's between the wars soap opera is it. Just as the phrase and its assorted derivatives have tapped into a kitsch form of post-austerity nostalgia for empire, Coward's play is an equally propagandist fanfare for the common man and woman designed to rally the troops.

Set in the crucial twenty years either side of the end of World War One and the dawn of World War Two, Coward's play charts the fortunes of the Gibbons family, who breathe bustling life into Ethel and her demobbed hubby Frank's newly acquired Clapham dining room. As period newsreels soundtracked by cheap songs usher in each scene, it is here the play resolutely remains throughout its everyday tapestry of births, deaths, family schisms, tragedy and joy. As voguish whiffs of progressive thought briefly subvert old certainties if not old prejudices, such detail resembles the sort of state of the nation epics that used to bring a hallmark of quality as well as socio-political insight to prime time TV drama.

While John Durnin's production is at times a tad wobbly and overplayed, a tenderness runs throughout, with a pair of fine central performances from Helen Logan and Mark Elstob as Ethel and Frank, as well as some purposeful cameos from the show's twelve-strong ensemble. As Ethel and Frank retire to the kitchen for one final cup of tea, one wonders how things will work out for pram-bound baby Frankie and his descendants over the next three quarters of a century, and whether they too will be keeping calm and carrying on.

The Herald, September 13th 2016

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Monday, 12 September 2016

Joe Penhall - Sunny Afternoon

It was back in 1996 when playwright Joe Penhall went to see Ray Davies. After more than thirty fractious years as singer and chief songwriter with The Kinks, Davies had finally broken up the band he'd founded with his brother, lead guitarist Dave Davies, and was embarking on his first solo tour. Somehow, Penhall, who was riding high on the back of the Royal Court Theatre's productions of his first two plays, Some Voices and Pale Horse, managed to squirrel a script backstage. The gift was accompanied by a note to the effect that if Davies ever fancied doing anything drama-wise, Penhall was his man.

Eighteen years later, the result of Penhall's fanboy gesture was Sunny Afternoon, a warts and all musical biography of Davies' early days, from growing up as the sixth of seven kids in Muswell Hill, to the first five years with The Kinks. First staged at Hampstead Theatre in 2014, Sunny Afternoon follows its award-winning West End run with an extensive UK tour which arrives in Edinburgh this week before visiting Glasgow next month.

“It's something I'd always wanted to do,” says Penhall on a break from writing a screenplay about the recent Hatton Garden jewellery heist. “I loved the Kinks, and I saw that the songs would work really well within theatre, and Ray approached me around about the same time as the producer Sonia Friedman did, so it was all quite serendipitous.

“Ray had been to see a play of mine and wanted to do something. One or two other people over the years had tried to do something, but it had never worked out, and various people had said to him that they should speak to me because I was a big Kinks fan. I related to what Ray was writing about with the Kinks more than any other band. Ray's lyrics are literate, witty, and are like beat poetry. There are monologues, and there's a lot there about outsiders and fringe characters, and people outwith conventional orthodoxies, which the Kinks were very much about.

“In the sixties, when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were all enjoying the swinging side of things, the Kinks were still saying it was all a bit miserable after the war. Their song Dead End Street came out right at the peak of swinging London, and it talked about class and poverty in a way that was punk before punk. For me, most pop music and rock music is slightly vacuous. You have to leave it empty so an audience can put their thoughts and interpretations into it, hence Coldplay. But the Kinks didn't do that. Their songs were full of details and specificity.”

Much of the specificity Penhall is talking about in songs such as Dedicated Follower of Fashion, Lola and Sunny Afternoon itself are little social-realist snapshots of an era that clearly fascinates him. This was clear in The Long Firm, his 2004 TV adaptation of Jake Arnott's novel set in the gangster-ridden underworld of 1960s London that co-existed and undoubtedly crossed over with Davies' world.

“In terms of influence,” says Penhall, “my first play, Some Voices, was about two warring brothers, and looked at the effects of mental illness on them. I was definitely listening to a lot of Kinks records when I wrote it. It's a beautiful thing, to find another writer with similar obsessions to you, and who has a similar voice.

“Regarding the 1960s, funnily enough, Ray told me that he and Dave were asked to play the Krays,” Penhall says of the 1990 feature film made about the notorious twins who terrorised London while leading a celebrity lifestyle. “I'm really interested in all the mythologies of that time. The mythologies of the Krays, the Kinks and the Beatles aren't the same mythologies of the Beckhams, somehow. Everyone at that time was scarred by the war, and kids wanted to create something of their own that was a million miles from what they were born into. That relationship between show-business and villains was always there, so you had the Krays owning clubs and driving round in big cars.

“Class was really important then,” Penhall continues. “Between the sixties and probably the nineties people felt the need to try and eradicate it and make a genuinely classless society in the best possible sense. Now the class divide is worse than ever.”

In keeping with his work's narrative roots, Ray Davies himself is no stranger to the theatre, with previous dabblings including Chorus Girls, a musical penned with The Long Good Friday screenwriter, Barrie Keefe, in 1981. Seven years later Davies wrote songs for a version of Jules Verne's Around The World in Eighty Days by Snoo Wilson, and in 2008 Davies based his musical, Come Dancing, partly on the Kinks' 1983 hit single of the same name.

Theatrically speaking, it would have been easy for Penhall to go for a more straight-ahead rock and roll musical by way of a jukebox tribute act. As it is, after a career that has seen him write complex psycho-dramas such as the award-winning Blue/Orange, while Penhall wanted Sunny Afternoon to be entertaining, he also wanted to take it beyond a form of legitimised nostalgia that much commercial theatre is made of.

“I wanted it to be like the Pilgrim's Progress or Brecht,” he says. “We knew it was going to be a weird hybrid, but it was never set up to be a cash cow. It's about a working class young man making his way through the world. The Kinks came from grinding poverty, and were managed by a bunch of upper-class twits. This is a story of a bunch of teenagers who become famous, and which features the mafia, Nazis and George Best. It's got everything. Villains, showbiz and crazy people are always entertaining.”

Beyond the play, as a fan of the band, it is the legacy of the Kinks that seems to interest Penhall most.

“I think it's pretty immeasurable,” he says, “but it's interesting, because in the last ten years, the Beatles and the Who and the Rolling Stones have all had these big renaissances, either from getting back together or putting out a new set of re-releases, and they've all become part of the zeitgeist again. That's not really happened with the Kinks, and I really want it to happen, and with Sunny Afternoon maybe help make it happen. But that sort of renaissance could only really happen with the Kinks if someone could be bothered, and the Kinks are too anti-establishment for that. They were too non-conformist and were barely house-trained, so it probably won't, but I really hope it does.”

Sunny Afternoon, Edinburgh Playhouse, September 13-17; King's Theatre, Glasgow, October 11-15.
www.atgtickets.com

The Herald, September 12th 2016

Ends

Summer Heart

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

A young woman enters wearing a raincoat, like she's going on a journey. There's a grand piano behind her, and a comfy chair and a coffee table on the other side of the stage. Over the next hour, Maraike Bruening recounts a remarkable visitation that ushers the audience into the life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the Czech-born pianist who survived the Holocaust, and whose surname translates as Summer Heart. As Bruening observes, this is an all too fitting name for the old lady whose smiling face beams from the image of her projected onto the back of the stage, especially given everything she's been through.

As Bruening recounts in her understated form of journalistic storytelling in what she styles as a 'piano play', Herz-Sommer's life may have been turned upside down by the Nazi occupation of her homeland, but her hope remained undimmed. In what is as much concert as drama, Bruening punctuates each section of her story with her own renditions of the same Chopin etudes that Herz-Sommer played for her fellow concentration camp inmates. The story itself is illustrated by an astonishing series of table-top drawings created by Bruening live out of sand and projected behind her.

Developed at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and spotted by Tron artistic director Andy Arnold, who paired Bruening with director Fiona Mackinnon, this is a vital telling of an important story made up of a series of solos from all artforms. As Bruening brings things full circle, hearing Herz-Sommer's voice talk about the joys of life while her face beams down once more brings home just how music can be the most profound of lifelines.

The Herald, September 12th 2016

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Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Gillian Lynne - Choreographing Cats

Gillian Lynne never wanted to choreograph Cats, Andrew Lloyd Webber's now thirty-five year old musical adaptation of T.S. Eliot's poetic suite, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. As an internationally renowned choreographer who worked regularly with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and whose career as a dancer had seen her playing Sleeping Beauty at Sadler's Wells thirty years earlier, she was hardly struggling for work. Besides which, she'd just got married to actor Peter Land, a man twenty-seven years her junior, and had other things on her mind.

As a revamped Cats arrives into Glasgow next week for its latest tour following a West End revival, Lynne is glad she said yes to Lloyd Webber, and has remained involved with the show to this day.

“It's like my child,” says Lynne, who is now a somewhat hard-to-credit ninety years old. “It's wonderful. The kids get better every time. They sing better. They dance better, and the show still has the three key elements that make it work.”

Which are?

“Sensuality, sensitivity and sexuality,” Lynne says. “Nowadays life has changed so radically with the advent of the iPhone and everything else, with everyone just looking into screens, that sometimes these things are hard to achieve, but it's a wonderful little company for this production. I've done most of them, and this lot have a very special spark.”

Lynne began dancing aged thirteen, and pursued a long career onstage in the West End and in film, where she appeared opposite Errol Flynn in The Master of Ballantrae. Lynne moved into choreography and directing, working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, English National Opera. Prior to Cats she even worked on seminal TV series, The Muppet Show. Today, however, it is Cats that she is best known for, a show which led her to work with Lloyd Webber again on both The Phantom of the Opera and Aspects of Love. As proved to be the case, resistance to Cats was futile even as Lynne's presence possibly drove the tone of the show.

“Cameron Mackintosh always wanted me to do it from the start,” she remembers of the then young producer, “but Andrew wanted someone else to do it who he thought would be a safe pair of hands. I was rehearsing Oklahoma in Bristol when I got a phone call from my agent, who said I had to go to London straight away to meet Andrew Lloyd Webber. I said, I haven't, you know, because I'd just got married. That's why the show's so sexy, because there's all of our sex in it.”

Somehow Lynne managed to find the time to visit Lloyd Webber at his country house in Newbury

“He played it on the piano all the way through,” says Lynne, “and it turned me on instantly. Trevor Nunn had just done four shows with me at Stratford, so our team fell into place quite naturally.”

For those of a certain age, watching Cats some thirty-five on, the show's junkyard setting designed by John Napier and role-call of back-alley hipsters can't help but recall 1960s cartoon Top Cat reinvented for stage school kids, with TC's hard-boiled Runyonesque patois exchanged in favour of T.S. Eliot's equally baroque poetics. Transposed into songs such as the show's breakout number, Memory, such seemingly unlikely material made Cats a sensation. The original production ran in London for twenty-one years in London and eighteen on Broadway, breaking records for both along the way.

Back in 1981, however, Cats didn't seem such a safe bet. Following Lloyd Webber's success with lyricist Tim Rice on Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, this was set to be his first full musical since the partnership had broken up. With the Eliot estate decreeing that not a word of the original poems be changed, there was no lyricist at all on board, although there were some lyrical contributions from director Trevor Nunn and Richard Stilgoe.

“It was such a clever idea,” she says. “It was the first sung-through musical without any dialogue, and when we started on it there was no book, no characters, and everyone was against it. John would work on his wonderful set, and we all worked quite separately, so how it became the thing it did was a miracle.”

When Judi Dench, who was set to play ageing feline Grizabella, was forced to pull out of the show through injury, Elaine Paige stepped into her catsuit at the last minute, with the incident adding to the company's collective stress.

“Even at the previews we were shit scared,” says Lynne. “We didn't have all the money for it, and everyone thought we were raving mad. We were so nervous, and the minute it started we rushed to the bar to have a stiff drink. Then we started hearing this rapturous applause, and we never realised we could do all these things until we had that first reaction, I swear to God.”

Lynne describes what followed Cats' Olivier and Tony winning runs as “a crazy time,” with back to back stints in Vienna, Hamburg and Paris, that continued with runs in Berlin, Madrid, Australia and North Korea.

When the show was revived on the West End in 2014, it wasn't certain whether Cats had used up all of its nine lives or not.

“We didn't know what people would think now,” says Lynne, “or if it would be a success or not, but very pleasantly it was.”

There have been changes for the current version of Cats. One song has been dropped, while Rum Tum Tugger's soliloquy, delivered by Marcquelle Ward with pimp-rolling aplomb, has been re-arranged and transformed into a rap, complete with body-popping gymnastics accompanying him.

It should perhaps be noted here that in the year Cats premiered, Grandmaster Flash and an entire crew of underground DJs had just rapped and scratched their way from underground New York block parties and into the radio friendly mainstream. That it's taken three and a half decades for rap to infiltrate Cats is telling about where Lloyd Webber, Nunn and co's heads were, and indeed weren't at back then. And, while no-one onstage at least admits to it, you get the impression that it's addition is not exactly relished by those in the spotlight. Lynne, for one, would have preferred changes elsewhere.”

“I was begging Andrew to write a new number for Macavity” she says flatly, “but he didn't. I've always been open to change, and I really keep my beady eye on it.”

Which brings Lynne, who was made a Dame three years ago, back to what she sees as the driving force behind Cats.

“The sexuality has got to be there,” she says, “just as the sensuality and the sensitivity has to be there, and I think it has all that. I was able to do things onstage with the kids that I wouldn't have been able to do if they were in ordinary clothes. I think people are thrilled to see their bodies move as they do.”

She pauses for effect.

“It's without shyness,” she says. “It's dangerous.”

Beyond the danger, Lynne sees something softer there too.

“I'm an old romantic,” she says. “I don't think you can have life without romance, but because of the iPhone, I wonder where romance is going to go. So I think it's good that Cats unites people in the way that it does, and I think it might be useful in that way, even though people don't realise it. It's uninhibited in every way, and is so different from life, and yet, it is life.”

Cats, King's Theatre, Glasgow, September 13-17
www.atgtickets.com

The Herald, September 6th 2016

ends

FlatSpin

Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Four stars

In real life, the perils of the out of work actress rarely stretch beyond taking a second job to make ends meet. As Alan Ayckbourn proves in the second of his Damsels in Distress trilogy of plays, take play-acting to its logical limit and you'll end up making a real drama out of a crisis. So it goes for Rosie Seymore, who is co-opted as a stand-in janitor for the expensively bland London docklands flat where all three plays are set.

For Rosie, it's a gig considerably better than wearing rabbit ears in a Transit van schools tour, but not as good as the prospect of playing Jane Eyre on prime time TV. A knock on the door from next door neighbour Sam sees Rosie adopt the mantle of absent tenant, the mysterious Joanna Rupelfeld, which is when things really get weird.

Brought playfully to life for Pitlochry's summer season alongside its sister plays by director Richard Baron, FlatSpin is on the face of it a straight ahead comedy yarn. As breakout star of all three plays, Gemma McElhinney dons other people's outfits and imagined personalities as Rosie, there are far subtler exposes of of individual and collective identity crises at play here.

There are too some very British shades of turn of the century late night espionage yarns with double bluffing and often double crossing labyrinthine plots that see initially unwilling young women inveigled into doing the government's dirty work while taking on all manner of undercover guises. Think La Femme Nikita and Alias. By the end, however, the lady is pretty much the only thing that hasn't vanished in a comic fantasia of sex and subterfuge.

The Herald, September 6th 2016

ends

Sunday, 4 September 2016

The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil

Dundee Rep
Four stars

If Dundee Rep's speedy revival of their 2015 production of John McGrath's seminal ceilidh play makes one thing clear, it is how, forty-three years on from McGrath's own 7:84 production, nothing has changed in terms of how Scotland continues to be colonised by big business at home and abroad. Nowhere is this more evident than a stone's throw from the theatre, where the city centre's numerous building sites suggest a progressive form of regeneration is ongoing. Given that the millionaire-owned construction company headlined on the billboards was recently exposed as being part of a cartel that blacklisted building site workers for years, Joe Douglas' production seems even more timely.

The ten-strong cast are already playing ceilidh numbers in front of a backdrop of a stag's head as the audience enter to a bare floorboards mock up of the sort of village hall 7:84 made their own. As a history of social cleansing and political racketeering is laid bare through songs and stories, the show's contemporary currency is astonishing, with the role-call of mercilessly lampooned toffs, grotesque hoteliers and developers, political yes-men and predatory oil men instantly recognisable archetypes

In a show that, with its frequent audience engagement, puts collective action at its heart, it makes plain perhaps more than ever before that the common people have to claim the power back. In terms of updates, there is a brief Donald Trump pastiche, but really there is little need. In a week where oil is back on the agenda, while a headline on a BBC website spoke of the Highland Clearances as 'progress', such a piece of serious fun is a necessary pleasure.

The Herald, September 5th 2016

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Thursday, 1 September 2016

Yohann Lamoulere & Franck Pourcel - Glasgow Meets Marseille Downtown

When Street Level director Malcolm Dickson realised that Marseille and Glasgow had been twin cities for a decade, he decreed to do something to commemorate the relationship between these two urban landscapes which have changed dramatically, but which have left areas untouched and largely out of view.

The result of this is two off-site shows by Yohanne Lamoulere and Franck Pourcel, two photographers who look at the underbelly of Marseilles in very different ways.

In False Towns, Lamoulere looks at reshaping the northern-most area of Marseille, while Roma: Marseille ajar city focuses on a make-shift Roma community built in the area.

Twinned with False Towns, Pourcel’s At Twilight captures a city caught between demolition and renewal, while Noailles at the time of rehabilitation, which is paired with Roma: Marseille ajar city, looks at an area in the throes of redevelopment even as it houses migrants and temporary workers.

“Both Lamoulere and Pourcel really stood out in terms of singular image-making and a socially concerned approach that lifted the work from purely straight or traditional documentary,” says Dickson, who cites “the upheavals caused by urban planning, the displacement of peoples, the social geography of Marseille, or in other words, something of the hidden Marseille” as the core of the work.

In an ongoing exchange, work by Glasgow-based artists Frank McElhinney and Kotryna Ula Kiliulyte are set to be seen in Marseille, with further projects pending.

“There are a lot of synergies between Marseille and Glasgow,” Dickson points out, “both in terms of their historical relationship to photography, energy of the city space, diversity of inhabitants, and an individual identity. Both of course have strong industrial traditions, and both to some extent are built ariund their waters.”

Yohanne Lamoulere - False Towns / Franck Pourcel - At Twilight - Trongate 103, Glasgow, 1st – 25th Sep, Institut Fran├žais, Edinburgh, 7th Oct – 26th Nov. Yohanne Lamoulere - Roma: Marseille ajar city / Franck Pourcel - Noailles at the time of rehabilitation - Alliance Fran├žaise de Glasgow, 2nd Sep – 29th Oct.

The List, September 1st 2016

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