Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Cilla The Musical

The Playhouse, Edinburgh
Four stars

By rights, the late Cilla Black should have gained national treasure status as one of the greatest of 1960s Brit-girl singers rather than the light entertainment queen she became. This new musical by Jeff Pope goes some way to redress the balance, just as the TV mini series his stage play is based upon did before it. Pope focuses on Black's hectic early years that saw big-voiced Scouse teeny-bopper Cilla White move from floor-spots at legendary Liverpool nitespot the Cavern to recording at Abbey Road and playing the London Palladium. Out of this comes a classic showbiz success story that highlights Black's power and credibility as a singer.

This is made clear to stunning effect at the end of the first act, when an astonishing Kara Lily Hayworth captures the full overwrought glory of Anyone Who Had A Heart, Black's first number one, and arguably the best recorded version of the Bacharach and David ballad by a country mile. Much of what precedes Hayworth's show-stopping moment is spent in a mock-up of the Cavern, with Cilla being chased, first by Carl Au's would-be pop sevengali and future husband Bobby Willis, then by Andrew Lancel's real life music mogul Brian Epstein. What follows effectively becomes a three-way love affair with Black's raw talent.

Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson's production is a similar labour of love, especially given that Black's son Robert Willis is the show's executive producer. This invests what happens onstage with a care and commitment that takes it beyond the pantheon of Merseybeat mythology on show. Pope's script is equally devoted in an emotional affair which, like Cilla herself, comes blessed with a common touch that proves to be irresistible.

The Herald, September 21st 2017

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How The Other Half Loves

Theatre Royal, Glasgow
Three stars

If you can remember the 1960s, so cliched legend has it, then you weren't really there. Such superior-minded myth-making comes to mind watching Alan Ayckbourn's early hit, a suburban pot-pourri of sex and the tired thrill of everyday betrayal. This comes through the confused fall-out of three dead marriages as the so-called permissive society trickles down the class scale.

Alan Strachan's touring revival of his West End production opens amidst the domestic chaos of upper crust Frank and Fiona Foster and the aspirationally with-it Bob and Teresa Phillips. Fiona and Bob have just had a late-night liaison, and must cover their tracks lest permanently befuddled Frank and new mum Teresa find out. As their alibi they co-opt unsuspecting William and Mary Featherstone, who end up having dinner with each couple on consecutive nights.

Ayckbourn's ingenious conceit is to have the action in both houses played simultaneously, so the Featherstones swivel between the two dinner parties at the same time. A mix of technical dexterity and sit-com style performances tap into the agony of lives in denial.

Almost half a century old, the play is a period piece now, and not just because of its extensive use of landline telephones. There is misogyny, both in Leon Ockenden's thrusting Bob and Matthew Cottle's bullying William. But there is sadness too, best expressed by Robert Daws as Frank, a man desperately out of time. If Caroline Langrishe's brittle Fiona and Charlie Brooks' embattled Teresa's frustrations are justified, it is Sara Crowe's mousy Mary who offers a glimmer of hope for change in a play that remembers every painful second of the decade that sired it.

The Herald, September 20th 2017

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Boff Whalley - Commoners Choir – Sing When You're Winning

Boff Whalley was still playing with Chumbawamba when the idea of forming a community choir first started to take root. By this time, the Leeds-based anarcho-punk iconoclasts formed in 1982 out of a northern English squatting scene had subverted the pop charts with their anthemic breakout hit Tubthumping. More recently, they had scaled back operations to perform as a largely acoustic ensemble. This highlighted the band's folk origins which had always been lurking behind the punk thrash through the vocal interplay between Whalley, Lou Watts and Jude Abbot.

Even when we were still playing as an electric band, we'd do vocal harmonies backstage before we went on,” says Whalley, “just as a reminder that you've got to listen to everybody, and that there's no hierarchy.”

Once Chumbawamba ended in 2012, Whalley went on to work as a writer with veteran leftist theatre company Red Ladder. He also ended up working with a scratch choir. This opened Whalley's ears to the possibilities of a more permanent operation, and before long he'd penned a prototype of the sort of songs he had in mind and put out feelers for like minded would-be singers to join in.

I thought, choirs are great,” says Whalley, possibly one of the most affable human beings on the planet. “People have all these expectations of choirs being nice and respectable, but I wanted to marry that to a punk ethic of politics and anger. I've always been fascinated by manifestos, so I wrote this manifesto of what I thought a choir could be, wrote this one song called Get Off Your Arse!, and put it on social media with a message asking does anyone want to do something. To my surprise, all these people turned up at this first meeting, and we just decided to run with it.”

The result of this is Commoners Choir, the Leeds based vocal troupe formed in 2015 who this weekend bring a selection of brand new protest songs to Wigtown Book Festival. Much of the Choir's repertoire is likely to be drawn from the twenty-one songs on their just released self-titled album. As well as Get Off Your Arse!, the record features such missives as The Jeremy Hunt Rhyming Song, Song Made From Placard Slogans, and one number simply called Boris Johnson, which imagines the Foreign Secretary’s head impaled on a stick. Another song, Mechanical Moveable Type, highlights the power of the printed word in a way that justifies Commoners Choir's appearance at Wigtown following a tour of libraries in the north of England.

The libraries thing was great,” says Whalley. “Libraries are the places where knowledge is stored, and they're always the first places to go when there are local authority cuts. We deliberately tried to go to libraries that weren't big cultural centres, but to places that were suffering from cuts and were maybe under threat of closure.”

Commoners Choir (no 'the', no apostrophe, as the group's website points out) is the latest example of a wave of similar community based artistic activities in which participation is a vital part of the experience in a way that makes the divide between audience and artist more of a democratic, two-way exchange. Choirs are popping up everywhere in this way, from the Parsonage covering Gram Parsons classics in Glasgow, to the Edinburgh Gay Men's Choir and independent artspace Rhubaba's own vocal troupe and a multitude of local choirs. As with Commoners Choir, people joining together to sing in this way is an explicitly political act.

"What's happening,” according to Whalley, “is that – and it's the same with walking, running, cycling, baking, knitting, having an allotment, making your own clothes – all these physical things that don't involve looking at a screen are becoming more popular. There's a return to doing things that are down to earth, and what a lovely thing, getting into a room with twenty or thirty other people and making a sound.

Altogether we're around seventy in total, although there's usually about thirty to forty of us. On one level that can be quite unwieldy, but for singing it's great. You can break things into four parts, and because there are so many of you, it's easy to cover up any inconsistencies there might be. It's like football. Martin Carthy the folk singer has this theory about football crowds being the last authentic folk singers in Britain. That's not something I necessarily agree with, but I like the idea of getting people together to sing en masse.”

In this respect, Whalley points to Bill Drummond, who a decade ago instigated The 17, a rolling series of ad hoc groupings brought together across the world to sing Drummond's wordless scores. Whalley also mentions Jeremy Deller, the Turner Prize winning artist whose work has frequently focused on communal civic actions. These include a re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave, one of the pivotal moments of the 1984/85 miner's strike, when police charges on picket lines outside a South Yorkshire coking plant led to pitched battles between the two sides and a very real sense of English civil war. Deller also initiated Acid Brass, in which the Stockport-based Fairey Brass Band played a set of Acid House club classics in a way that married two forms of communal activity.

Going back further, there was Shoulder to Shoulder, the South Wales Striking Miners Choir's recorded collaboration with industrial oppositionists, Test Department. Around the same time, The Happy End was a twenty-two piece brass band who featured future Communards collaborator Sarah Jane Morris on vocals, and whose set focused on songs from the Brecht/Weill and Brecht/Eisler canon. Beyond such inspirations, The Happy End also performed anthems from South Africa, Latin America, Ireland and other places in conflict. Whalley and Chumbawamba themselves found a sense of solidarity with such groupings.

At the time,” he says, “I think a lot of bands, and it's certainly what happened with Chumbawamba, we thought we were a pop band, but then the miners strike happened, and you realised that it's about class, and that something like a brass band or a choir, they've got a lot of power.”

This tied in with Whalley expanding his own musical horizons.

I originally got into punk,” he says, “and then in the mid eighties that all fizzled out a little bit, so I started looking round for other things, and started listening to folk singers like Leon Rosselson and Dick Gaughan. I remember seeing Dick Gaughan, and him singing one particular song a capella, and I remember thinking that I'd seen all these punk bands thrashing about, but that in terms of getting something across, Dick Gaughan's voice on its own was just as powerful.”

Whalley may have initiated Commoners Choir, but he is keen to stress the group's democracy, and balks at any notion of him being a choir-master, with all the presumed authority such a role might bring with it.

When I first started going into choirs I got to know a few proper choir masters,” he says, “and it's a real skill. I just wave my arms about and hope for the best. But people come up with ideas for songs all the time. Someone came up with the idea of us being a singing newspaper. I love that, because, as you get older you can lose some of your anger, but today you can't open a newspaper without getting angry, so, as an artist, why not use that anger to turn it into a song? One of the good things to come out of the whole Trump, May and Brexit thing is that it seems to have woken a lot of people up, especially young people.”

One thing that has come out of Commoners Choir is a desire to create a new canon of protest songs to be sung on demonstrations.

We've just started a thing once a month where we try to do one-minute protest songs, which haven't got complex harmonies, but which can be sung on demos. That came from when Trump tried his anti-immigration thing, and some people from the choir went down to the demo. We were singing some of the songs we sing, and people were liking it and wanted to join in. It seems that there's a standard chant at protests and demos, where people shout the same things through a megaphone, and it's been like that for years.

There's a lovely article that Leon Rosselson wrote, where he said that in South America and loads of other places across the world, there's this fantastic body of songs that people sing on demos, but we don't have that here. As Commoners Choir, we take that as a challenge. The physical thing of having thirty or forty people singing without amplification, where everybody's equal, and everybody's dependent on each other, it's really inspiring.”

Commoners Choir, Wigtown Book Festival, September 23rd
www.wigtownbookfestival.com
www.commonerschoir.com


Product, September 2017.


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Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Sandy Thomson - Damned Rebel Bitches

The weather can turn in a minute on Mull. This is something Sandy Thomson is discovering as she rehearses Damned Rebel Bitches, her new play presented by her own North East of Scotland based Poorboy company in co- production with Mull Theatre, where it opens this weekend before embarking on a short tour of seven venues in Scotland.

It seems appropriate, then, that meteorological extremes were one of the driving forces behind the play. The fact that Hurricane Sandy, the second costliest storm in American history that blew through Manhattan in 2012 shares a name with Thomson may be coincidental, but, like the elemental unrest that goes before her, Thomson is a force of nature. This was the case in Monstrous Bodies, Poorboy's most recent show, which melded the lives of a teenage Mary Shelley, who would go on to write Frankenstein, and a twenty-first century schoolgirl facing up to her own demons.

This time out, Damned Rebel Bitches sees Thomson jump to the opposite end of the age scale, as eighty-something sisters Ella and Irene embark on an American adventure in search of lost youth. That particular lost youth may be a feckless kid called Cameron, who also happens to be Ella's grand-son, but you get the idea.

“When you're young,” says Thomson, “you simply don't believe you're ever going to get old. Then when you're old, you're still young, but with more years on you.”

This is the ethos Thomson has imbued throughout her creation, ever since a Playwrights Studio Scotland award to develop a show about Scottish grannies saw her interviewing “anyone over sixty-five I could find.” Thomson then decamped ton New York to talk to women who had moved there, and “to find out what it was like when we were immigrants.”

New York is also where the other half of Poorboy, Jeremiah Reynolds, lives. Reynolds drew plaudits when he appeared in another Poorboy show, Pirates and Mermaids, which Damned Rebel Bitches is a companion piece to, forming the second part of a mooted trilogy. Reynolds is dramaturg and film designer on the new show. When, three weeks after returning to Scotland, Hurricane Sandy broke, Thomson found herself able to watch the ongoing crisis online, able to access it better than Reynolds, despite the fact that he was in the thick of the crisis.

Around the same time, Thomson was visiting the theatre a lot, and “came from watching three plays in a row in which older women only ever give advice and then die so young males can have some kind of revelation at their funeral. I don't think it was deliberate. The three plays were all written by young men who were relating it directly to their own experience, but I don't know anyone whose grannies were like that. Lots of people we spoke to talked about their grannies, but nobody ever mentioned the words 'sweet', 'advice' or 'baking.'”

The result of such a melting pot of ideas is what Thomson calls a film for the stage that mixes up form and content to redress the balance with a potentially more kick-ass version of grannydom, albeit with real life flesh and blood restrictions.

“I didn't want to make the old ladies super-heroes,” says Thomson. “Irene is on pills that don't quite agree with her, so she keeps seeing werewolves. That brings an element of magical realism to things, but there are physical realities the women have to deal with as well. It's like an anti Hollywood action film. There's nothing comfortable about being on medication or having a dicky hip when you're that age.”

Damned Rebel Bitches draws its title from a quote attributed to the Duke of Cumberland during the Jacobite uprising. It was a not exactly flattering description for the women who accompanied their men folk to the battlefield, bringing their children with them to just behind the frontline so that the men would never retreat. As Ella and Irene move from the Clydeside Blitz in World War Two to Hurricane Sandy, they reclaim the Duke's words as a badge of honour.

“We see Ella go from ages nine to eighty,” says Thomson, “and we're doing age blind casting. We've got a cast aged between thirty and seventy-five, and I'm really enjoying working on something where by the end you won't care what age people onstage are anymore. For me that makes for something much cheerier, and which is more of a reflection of the women I've met. I didn't write any of the play's best lines. I pilfered them from the women I talked to.”

With all this in mind, it should perhaps come as no surprise that Damned Rebel Bitches is being presented as part of Luminate, the annual Scotland-wide festival of creative ageing that is now a fixture of Scotland's arts calendar. For Thomson and Poorboy, it is another step towards becoming something infinitely more than a theatre company, but rather, as Thomson defines it, something she calls a story machine.

“Because we're based in both Scotland and America now, we've made connections with all these film-makers, and there's definitely something about using the eye of the mind when you're using film. Jeremiah's digital, and I'm pre digital, so what I think are these crackly home movies, he thinks are incredibly evocative, and using found footage like that is a really interesting way of doing things. It's the same with the way we use music and sound. Ella starts buying records in 1949, and she really likes black female vocalists, so we've got a playlist that goes from Nina Simone right up to Beyonce.”

With such icons on our heroines' side, the play can't help but make some noise for independent women of all ages.

“The whole thing begins and ends with explosions,” says Thomson, “from the Blitz to the power cut in New York caused by Hurricane Sandy. I wanted to write something with big elemental things happening. It's easy to write something about two people sitting on the couch talking about their feelings, but I wanted something about the stairhead concert about it as well.

“We've an international cast from Scotland, England, America and Canada, who break the fourth wall, and who we've just asked to do everything. There's film, dance, direct address. That's simply acknowledging that the audience are there and that they're invited to the party, but it's also about wanting it to be something you can bring your real granny to. It's a proper Saturday afternoon at the pictures kind of experience.

“It's a memory play, but it's also a serious relationship play. When people write about people in their seventies or eighties, they can tend to write more about looking back than looking forward, but we wanted to do something different, and this is what we've ended up with. It's a disaster action adventure movie for the stage with an eighty year old woman playing the Bruce Willis part.”

Damned Rebel Bitches, Mull Theatre, Tobermory, September 22-23; Dundee Rep, September 28; Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, September 29; Traverse Theatre, September 30; Platform, Glasgow, October 4; Harbour Art Centre, Irvine, October 6; Paisley Arts Centre, October 7.
www.comar.co.uk

The Herald, September 19th 2017

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Sunday, 17 September 2017

The Threepenny Opera

King's Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

When a lightbulb bursts during the opening massed rendition of Mack the Knife in this spirited production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's 1928 anti capitalist musical, it follows a similar incident last weekend on the opening night of The Steamie. If this initially feels like lightning striking twice, Susan Worsfold's production for the Festival and King's Theatre initiated Attic Collective is far smarter than that. As it runs with what morphs into Poor Theatre to the max, emergency lights and hand-held spotlights are utilised for all to see. The latter is crucial in a show that leaves nothing hidden in its re-energising of Brecht's disruptive roots.

On an otherwise bare stage, a band plays while members of the show's eighteen-strong ensemble pedal away at exercise bikes, presumably powering the show, but getting nowhere fast. While captions and slides are projected, dashing anti-establishment rake Macheath runs rings around both the underworld, headed up by Max Reid's odious Peachum, and the authorities. Only Macheath's various women get the better of him.

Drawing from Marc Blitzstein's 1954 English adaptation, Worsfold's production sees Kirsty Punton pretty much throw herself into the role of Peachum's daughter Polly, bringing brittle-edged sass into a storming rendition of Pirate Jenny. As Jenny herself, Sally Cairns is equally impressive. Charlie West, meanwhile, captures the full strutting thrust of Macheath.

Leaving aside the fact that most of the original play was seemingly penned by Brecht's then lover Elisabeth Hauptmann, what emerges is a rambunctious piece of cartoon knockabout noir. This is peppered with bar-room show-tunes that sucker punch the audience in the name of entertainment before revealing a deliriously subversive intent.

The Herald, September 18th 2017

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Thursday, 14 September 2017

Ugly Rumours – Why Inverleith House Has Yet to Be 'Saved'

Last week, the man who in October 2016 closed down one of Scotland's most internationally renowned visual art institutions without notice or any apparent public consultation, claimed that initial reports that it was no longer going to have any artistic function had been a rumour.
Simon Milne, Regius Keeper of the publicly owned Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh where Inverleith House gallery is situated, appeared to be attempting to rewrite history.

Milne's contention that it was "never the case" that Inverleith House would cease to show art appears to contradict RBGE's own statement published last October which, while making clear that artistic activity would continue in the Garden itself, states: '... Inverleith House will no longer be dedicated to the display of contemporary art, and RBGE is looking at options for the alternative use of the building.'

Since the closure, a public outcry provoked a 10,000-plus petition and an open letter from major artistic figures protesting the move. An early day motion tabled at Westminster was signed by 16 MPs; an otherwise quiet Scottish government set up a high-profile Arts Working Group under the stewardship of Professor Chris Breward.

On the day of the gallery's closure on 23 October 2016, I forwarded a list of 23 questions to RBGE regarding its conduct. Over the last ten months RBGE has attempted to evade, obstruct and ignore those questions.

It claimed that my questions could be answered in A Future For Inverleith House, a report commissioned by RBGE with public funding, and drawn up by commercial consultants Kelly and Co prior to the closure. When asked if they could highlight where in the Kelly report my questions were answered, RBGE failed to respond.

While the report made various recommendations, all of them appeared to have been disregarded by RBGE in favour of closure. RBGE initially stated that they would publish the Kelly report on their website. To date, they have not done so, and the report was only released to the press in redacted form following a Freedom of Information request.

The eventual positive result of various protests against the closure of Inverleith House forced RBGE's hand to stage a summer show in Inverleith House, 'Plant Scenery of the World'. The exhibition was curated by Inverleith House's deputy curator Chloe Reith as part of Edinburgh Art Festival under what one suspects were very difficult circumstances. At the opening, a speech was made by Milne alongside head of Creative Scotland, Janet Archer.

Why Milne has become the mouth-piece for Inverleith House while its curator of 30 years, Paul Nesbitt, has been excluded from all discussions regarding the venue's future, isn't clear. Nesbitt is a qualified botanist with an understanding of the relationship between art and the natural world.

In August this year, the Herald newspaper gave Nesbitt an award for his three decades of programming at Inverleith House. Where most organisations might issue a public statement of congratulations to key members of staff given such accolades, RBGE has remained publicly silent regarding Nesbitt's achievement.

Milne's handling of the closure of Inverleith House has been a PR disaster for RBGE, which has received the worst publicity in its history. In a newspaper interview following the closure Milne described Inverleith House as being unable to “wash its face” financially – not the language you'd expect from a publicly accountable official charged with over-seeing one of Scotland's greatest cultural assets.

Milne's claim was subsequently discredited in the Arts Working Group report, which in strong but eminently diplomatic phrasing, states: 'There will always be challenges in securing funding for the arts but the Arts Working Group believes that the RBGE is in a position of strength compared to many other organisations given its achievement in the arts to date, its unique qualities as a scholarly and public institution and its distinctive venues and locations.'

The report goes on: 'The success of future fundraising efforts will be predicated on the strength, rigour, creativity and distinctiveness of the RBGE vision and programme plans...[and] the corporate pride, interest and value invested in the programme, the assured management of key relationships and the credible, and inspired leadership associated with the programme.'

In other words, let those at Inverleith House get on with what they've been doing so wonderfully for the last 30 years and leave them alone.

Let's be clear. For all the positive noises emanating from the report, Inverleith House has not been 'saved' – it has been co-opted by middle managers. While the forthcoming appointment of an arts advisory committee as recommended by the AWG report is a good sign, the worth of the exercise will depend on who is on the committee and what they do.

First and foremost, Inverleith House's year-round programme of contemporary art must be restored in a way that doesn't appear to be included in RBGE's current plans. The expertise that has shaped that programme over 30 years must be recognised and acknowledged, while curators must be protected from the sort of managerial interference that has caused such damage over the last ten months.

Such vital actions shouldn't be mere rumours. They should be made as crystal clear as the very real fact that Inverleith House was closed as a contemporary art gallery with a view to it becoming one more commercial cash cow.

Simon Milne and RBGE may have been caught with their pants down and their clown shoes on over that one, but vigilance is still needed. If those for whom Inverleith House's contemporary art programme matters so profoundly don't continue to defend it, one of the most important contemporary visual art institutions in Scotland may yet end up being lost forever.

A-N - September 2017

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Grease

The Playhouse, Edinburgh
Four stars

All the pink ladies, single or otherwise, are in the house for the touring revival of Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey's lovingly irreverent homage to the seemingly more innocent 1950s that went on to be the world's biggest musical and a smash movie too. With a fistful of hit songs and a pastel coloured cartoon style staging, David Gilmore's revisitation of his 1993 London production is a dazzling depiction of teenage dreams, where even the bad girls and boys are good. Despite this, it zones in on the heartbreak as much as the highs of the term time romance between tough guy Danny, nice girl Sandy and the gang.

With The Wanted's Tom Parker donning Danny's leather jacket with a knowing swagger, Over the Rainbow winner Danielle Hope's Sandy isn't quite so sickly sweet as sometimes played, and ex East Ender Louisa Lytton's Rizzo is a beatnik in waiting. Set pieces are writ large, from the souped-up thrust of Greased Lightning and the celestial camp of Beauty School Dropout, to the co-ordinated strut of the high school dance off.

Parker, Hope and Lytton may be the names here, but this is every inch an ensemble show. This is exemplified best in the lightning fast swirls of Arlene Phillips' choreography. The cast may be drilled to within an inch of their bobby socks, but every matching step and personalised little tic is delivered with a flair that makes it all look casual enough to be cool. When Sandy ditches her goody-two-shoes image for sprayed on raunch, it's a wolf whistle for independent women to come that suggests the 1950s will be over very soon.

The Herald, September 14th 2017

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Wednesday, 13 September 2017

What Shadows

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

The sound and thunder of some very English and very heavy weather opens Chris Hannan's play, that puts real life disgraced Tory MP Enoch Powell at the heart of a debate about whether our differences can ever be reconciled. Powell, of course, was the bi-lingual, classics quoting scholar, whose so-called rivers of blood speech in 1968 was a dog-whistle to the sort of legitimised intolerance which has looked creepingly familiar of late.

One of those who suffered is Rose, the woman of colour who grew up conscious of Powell's demonisation of her kind. As played by Amelia Donkor, Rose turns out to have a few prejudices of her own, even as she forms an unholy alliance with Sofia, the right wing academic she usurped. Moving between the late 1960s build-up to Powell's speech and 1992, Roxana Silbert's new staging of her 2016 Birmingham Rep production frames the action against Ti Green's tree-lined urban idyll and monumental concrete walls. Louis Price's impressionistic video projections set a tone that might be called elegiac if its subjects weren't so alarmingly current.

Ian McDiarmid gives a bravura turn as Powell, leading a cast of seven as a die-hard sentimentalist who weeps at King Lear and who, more amusingly, might these days be labelled a grammar Nazi if nothing else. It's a big, wordy, important play. Ideas of belief, intolerance and faith, no matter how corrupted, ping pong their way after some kind of reconciliation. When McDiarmid performs Powell's actual speech at the close of the first act, it's electric enough. It's his unrepentant stance at the play's end, however, that flags up a form of England's dreaming that lingers still.

The Herald, September 14th 2017

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Peter Hall obituary

Peter Hall – theatre, film and opera director

Born November 22 1930; died September 11 2017

Without Peter Hall, who has died aged 86, the theatre world would be a very different place. Not only did Hall direct the first English language production of Samuel Beckett's era defining play, Waiting For Godot, when he was only twenty-four. Before he was thirty he had founded the Royal Shakespeare Company, and would go on to take over from Laurence Olivier at the helm of the National Theatre, overseeing the company's turbulent move to purpose built premises on London's South Bank. For the next half century Hall moved from precocious young mover and shaker to elder statesman, be it at Glyndebourne, where he oversaw numerous world class productions, or latterly with his own Peter Hall Company. He returned to the National for the last time in 2011 to celebrate his 80th birthday with a production of Twelfth Night. His daughter Rebecca played Viola.

Bearded, leather jacketed and polo-necked, Hall looked the epitome of post-war artistic society. The image was heightened during a stint as presenter of 1970s TV arts magazine programme, Aquarius. There was a deep-rooted seriousness in everything Hall, did, however, which, beyond the twinkly-eyed sense of mischief, could be ferociously tenacious. This was seen both when he took on the unions as the delays in building Denys Lasdun's new National Theatre grew ever longer, and when he resigned from his position on what was then the Arts Council of Great Britain in protest at the government cutting the arts funding he believed in with a passion.

Hall may have changed the theatrical landscape, but those changes were always within the bricks and mortar of the institutions he led, and he was never radical in a counter-cultural way. One of his greatest early acts of largesse at the National, however, was to allow director Ken Campbell and his Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool to open the Cottesloe space with their twelve hour staging of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's hippy sci-fi conspiracy trilogy, Illuminatus! after seeing it in the Liverpool arts lab where it opened. This opened up the theatre to a very different kind of audience, even as Hall epitomised a period in English theatre whereby the doors of the institutions were opening up, and the young turks of yore were growing up in public to define a new and very different kind of theatrical establishment.

Peter Hall was born in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, as the only child of Grace and Reginald, a station-master. With the family having moved to Cambridge, Hall won a scholarship to the Perse School, where he played Hamlet and became head boy. A further scholarship to read English at St Catharine's College, Cambridge followed national service, by which time he was already in love with theatre. He staged his first professional production, W Somerset Maugham's The Letter, in 1953. After graduating he ran Oxford Playhouse, and became assistant director at the Arts Theatre London, which he suddenly found himself running aged twenty-four. Hall was already making his mark before his production of Waiting For Godot changed everything, both for Beckett and himself.

Hall launched his career on the West End and Broadway, directing the London premieres of Tennessee Williams' Camino Real (1957) and Cat on A Hot Tin Roof (1958). and took over at Stratford, which eventually led to the formal founding of the RSC in 1961. Hall directed The Wars of the Roses, John Barton's epic conflation of Shakespeare's history plays, but also brought in contemporary playwrights, staging the premiere of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming (1965). Exhausted, Hall left the RSC in 1968, passing the baton to Trevor Nunn.

Inbetween the RSC and the National, Hall directed opera and films. While the former productions saw him internationally renowned, the latter had little to distinguish them. Only The Camomile Lawn, the 1992 TV adaptation of Mary Wesley's novel, stood out.

Hall eventually took over as artistic director of the National as the company prepared to move out of the Old Vic. Hall arrived in 1973, during a time of political and industrial unrest, and opened each of the theatre's three auditoriums one by one as the others were being built.

Hall directed thirty-three productions for the NT until his departure in 1988. These included the world premiers of Harold Pinter's No Man's Land (1975), with Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, and Betrayal (1978), Peter Shaffer's Amadeus (1979) with Paul Scofield and Simon Callow, Alan Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce, and Tony Harrison's version of The Oresteia (1981) featuring a score by Harrison Birtwistle. Hall later directed his own version of Animal Farm (in 1984, no less) and Antony and Cleopatra (1987) with Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins.

After the NT, Hall launched the Peter Hall company, which produced more than sixty plays, often alongside commercial producers and with starry casts, including Vanessa Redgrave in Orpheus Descending and Dustin Hoffman in The Merchant of Venice. Rehearsals for the latter were filmed for an edition of Sunday night arts TV show, The South Bank Show. In 2003, Hall began a ten year tenure overseeing an annual summer season at the Theatre Royal, Bath, the same year he became founding director of the Rose Theatre, Kingston, where he directed Judi Dench in A Midsummer Night's Dream (2010).

Hall married four times, first to actress Leslie Caron, who he met while directing her in Gigi. Hall then married his one-time assistant Jacqueline Taylor and then opera singer Maria Ewing. He found stability with his fourth wife, Nicki Frei, from 1990 onwards. He went on to work with all six of his children as performers, directors and producers. Hall won numerous awards, including a CBE in 1963, while he was knighted in 1977.

Out of his mountain of achievements, for Hall at least, some stood out more than others.

“On my gravestone I want: 'Created the Royal Shakespeare Company'”, he said once in an interview, adding that “You can then put a footnote: 'He opened the South Bank.'” Both of these and many other things besides changed the fabric of British cultural life forever.

Hall is survived by his wife, Nicki Frei, and his six children, Christopher, Jennifer, Edward, Lucy, Rebecca and Emma.

The Herald, September 13th 2017

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Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Holger Czukay obituary

Holger Czukay – bass player, electronicist, composer

Born March 24 1938: died September 5 2017


Holger Czukay, who has been found dead in his apartment aged 79, was much more than a bass player. Whilst with Can, the post hippy purveyors of a form of cosmic free-form rock he co-founded in 1968, the former student of radical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen helped define the band's propulsive and hypnotic rhythmic power alongside drummer Jaki Leibezeit. It was Czukay's work in the studio as editor and engineer, however, that helped shape and focus the band's surprisingly funky sound. His pioneering experiments with sampling, electronics and what came to be known as world music revealed a playful nature that coursed through both his solo and collaborative work.

Czukay was born in what was then the Free City of Danzig, the Baltic port which later became part of Poland as Gdansk. Forced to flee with his parents as the Russians advanced, Czukay recalled arriving in Berlin in 1945. After the war, he and his family were interned before escaping to the city's American zone.

As a teenager, Czukay worked in a radio repair shop, where he was drawn to the random sounds that emanated from each station. Czukay began studying music with a bass player from the Berlin Philharmonic, but with no desire to join an orchestra, decamped to Cologne to seek out Stockhausen, who took him on as a pupil. A fellow student was keyboardist Irmin Schmidt, who, inspired by seeing the Velvet Underground, wanted to start a band. Czukay had little interest in rock until he heard the Beatles play I Am The Walrus care of his own student, Michael Karoli. The result of Czukay and Schmidt's epiphanies was Can, which they formed in 1968 with Leibezeit and guitarist Karoli as the band's core quartet alongside vocalists Malcolm Mooney, then Damo Suzuki.

Beginning with Monster Movie in 1969, Czukay played with Can for the next eight years across peak-era albums that included Tago Mago (1971), Ege Bamyasi (1972) and Future Days (1973).

In 1976, Czukay appeared on Top of the Pops with the band, miming to their cross-over hit, I Want More, with a double bass. I Want More was later covered by Edinburgh electronic band, Fini Tribe.

By the time of Can's ninth album, Saw Delight (1977), Czukay had forsaken the bass entirely, with ex Traffic bassist Rosko Gee drafted in to take over, leaving Czukay to concentrate on electronics. Czukay left shortly after.

Czukay had released his first solo album, Canaxix 5, in 1968, and, post-Can, released ten more, the most recent of which in 2015 was Eleven Years Innerspace. The influence of Can and Czukay on the generations of musical explorers who followed in his and their wake was palpable, and Czukay went on to collaborate with fellow travellers including Jah Wobble, Brian Eno and David Sylvian. Where Czukay's use of radios, dictaphones and other found sounds were once considered eccentric, today their use is widespread.

Czukay's influence went beyond music, with Scottish novelist Alan Warner dedicating his debut novel, Morvern Callar, which was laced throughout with Can references, to Czukay. As Warner wrote in Granta magazine, he discovered Czukay through reading an interview with Jah Wobble, who talked about Persian Love, the six minute exotic epic recorded for Czukay's 1979 album, Movies. Warner described Persian Love and Czukay as his touchstone in all arts. Sixteen years later, Czukay's music remains a touchstone of restless experimentalism that also knew how to groove.

Czukay lived in Weilerwest, near Cologne, which was converted from Can's Inner Space studio. His wife Ursula died in July of this year. The cause of Czukay's death is still unknown.

The Herald, September 12th 2017

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Helena Kaut-Howsen - Faithful Ruslan: The Story of A Guard Dog

The last time Polish theatrical whirlwind Helena Kaut-Howson directed a play in Glasgow, it was a piece called Werewolves. Her 1999 production of fellow Pole Teresa Lubkiewicz's play was for the short-lived Theatre Archipelago company. The initiative was intended as a reinvention of Communicado, which until then had been led since its inception by company founder Gerry Mulgrew. Werewolves was a play about ghosts gatecrashing a remote farmhouse party, and had already been published in 1978 by Kaut-Howson, who had directed productions of the play in Galway, Montreal and London.

Eighteen years on, Kaut-Howson returns to Scotland with another shaggy dog story. Faithful Ruslan: The Story of A Guard Dog has been adapted by Kaut-Howson from the novel written during the 1970s by Russian dissident Georgi Vladimov. It is narrated by an Alsation let off the leash following the death of Stalin and the subsequent closure of the gulags, where, under military supervision, the dog and his pack of fellow travellers kept order. Once the gulags were closed and knocked down and their masters departed, such animals were rounded up and shot. Having escaped such a fate, Ruslan remains loyal to the last, even as the world is turned upside down around him.

Ruslan may be a dog, but it isn't hard to recognise parallels with the collective confusion of equally faithful followers of Stalin following his demise. It is perhaps for these reasons that the book was distributed anonymously in an underground samizdat fashion. Only when Vladimov's novel was published in Germany did it start reaching a wider audience, and first appeared in Michael Glenny's English translation in 1979. Today, it isn't hard to recognise a similarly fractured psyche that courses through the story stumbling its way through the world's current state of turmoil.

“It is epic,” says Kaut-Howson of the play the day after press night at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, who are co-producing the show with the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, where it opens later this month, alongside Kaut-Howson's own KP Productions. “It's a complex story on every level, and looks impossible to stage, but it is a beautiful novel, and because I'm a theatre person, when I see something wonderful, I just want to put it on a stage. It works better than on film, because the film that was made of Vladimov's story used real dogs, but I believe in the public experience.”

Key to the experience in this production is the presence of co-founder of the internationally renowned Complicitie company, Marcello Magni, as movement director. Working alongside Kaut-Howson, Magni has choreographed a cast of thirteen to play animals for real.

“It's a style of theatre that's very physical,” she says. “It combines with the style of theatre from the time, when drawing room dramas were abandoned. I find it amazing how easy actors find it to be comfortable in the skin of a dog.”

Such an open and internationalist outlook has defined Kaut-Howson's approach to making theatre, ever since she trained as a director in both Warsaw and London. In the late 1960s she worked at the Royal Court and the King's Head before departing to found a community theatre company in Jerusalem. Back in England, she taught at RADA, and directed Shakespeare in Bolton and Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars in Belfast.

In 1991, Kaut-Howson became artistic director of Theatre Clwyd in North Wales, working with the likes of Anthony Hopkins and Julie Christie. After leaving in 1995, Kaut-Howson developed a relationship with the Royal Exchange, Manchester, and worked extensively with actress Kathryn Hunter. This new production of Faithful Ruslan is a homecoming of sorts for Kaut-Howson. Long before Werewolves, she was drafted in to the Citz by the theatre's then co artistic director Giles Havergal to oversee a 1991 production of George Bernard Shaw's play, Man and Superman. She was the first female director to work in the Gorbals-based powerhouse.

“I really admire the way Dominic Hill keeps the same spirit alive,” she says.

Kaut-Howson describes her brief time with Theatre Archipelago as “my closer encounter with Scottish culture. It was interesting, but it couldn't continue, as I arrived to step into Gerry Mulgrew's place, and he should have continued.”

Kaut-Howson's production of Faithful Ruslan arrives in the year of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, without which the events that shaped Faithful Ruslan couldn't have happened.

“It is an important centenary,” she says. “It's not necessarily celebrating what happened, but it marks the survival of hope, especially now, when the world is at a crossroads once more. In the play, the final journey of the dog is like Calvary in the bible. It's so moving, and becomes a parallel for that time, but also for our times. The planet is hurtling somewhere, and we still have our ideals, but we don't know where we're going.”

On September 30, a pre show discussion will feature Kaut-Howson alongside broadcaster Kirsty Lang and journalist Misha Glenny, the son of Michael Glenny, who, as well as translating Faithful Ruslan into English, was his era's major translator of Russian work.

“He made a huge contribution to translating Russian literature of that era,” says Kaut-Howson in praise of Glenny. “He translated all of Solzhenitsyn. He translated The Master and Margarita. As well as marking the centenary, that's a celebration in itself.”

Beyond Faithful Ruslan, Kaut-Howsen has her own company, set up to work with the ever expanding UK Polish community, to concentrate on. She also has plans to stage another novel by Vladimov.

“It's already written,” she says, “and I've done it with students. Now I want to do it with professional actors.”

Whether this new venture ends up being seen in Glasgow or elsewhere remains to be seen. The city has nevertheless left its mark on her as it has done previously.

“When I came to Glasgow to audition, I was amazed at how much experimental and political theatre there was there,” she says. “Audiences really want to discuss things there.”

It sounds like there is plenty to discuss in Faithful Ruslan.

“In the end, it makes us feel stronger together in a way that you don't need a simplistic answer to make everything alright,”she says. “There is a complexity in what the dog has been left behind in, and how he couldn't change. If you think socialism is rubbish, that's okay, but you shouldn't abandon your ideals. I don't think socialism is rubbish, but I also know you should never abandon ideals and beliefs. You should never expect theatre to preach to the converted, but you should criticise. Above all else, you should speak from the heart.”

Faithful Ruslan: The Story of A Guard Dog, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry until September 16; Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, September 20-October 7. A pre-show discussion event with Misha Glenny and Kirsty Lang will take place on September 30 at 12.30pm.
www.citz.co.uk

The Herald, September 12th 2017

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Monday, 11 September 2017

Screening Programme: Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen

Cooper Gallery, Dundee, September 29th-October 7th

In December 2016, Laura Mulvey gave a keynote address at the Cooper Gallery as part of the 12hr Action Group symposium. This was the culmination to Of Other Spaces: Where Does Gesture Become Event?, the gallery's two chapter sprawl through feminist art since the 1970s. This September, the veteran feminist film theorist, who first introduced the notion of the male gaze to cinematic critique, returns to Dundee with her partner in art and life, Peter Wollen, for a series of screenings of some of the key films they made together.

Urgency and Possibility: Counter Cinema in the 70s and 80s will show five films, dating from Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons, made in 1974, through to 1982's Crystal Amazons. Like them, 1977's Riddles of the Sphinx is feature length, while the shorter Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti (1981) will also be screened. The season will open with a screening of the pair's 1980 film, AMY!, preceded by a talk by Mulvey. Only the pair's final outing, The Bad Sister, (1982) will not be seen in a canon that taps into patriarchal myths, male fantasy and sub Godardian disruptions of narrative. With a new wave of radical thought rising up as a counterblast to reactionary global forces, Mulvey and Wollen's back-catalogue look like key touchstones for possible futures yet to be written.

The List, September 2017

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Saturday, 9 September 2017

The Steamie

Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy
Four stars

The Galloway's Mince routine that forms a kind of climax to Tony Roper's relentlessly joyous masterpiece is probably one of the greatest comedy routines to have graced a stage over the last three decades. This side-splitting yarn that sees Roper's quartet of heroines solve one of life's great domestic mysteries was almost upstaged on Friday's opening night of the play's thirtieth anniversary tour by something equally explosive. Whatever technical hiccup caused the loud bang, barely a beat was missed before Mrs Culfeathers, Dolly, Margrit and Doreen dead-panned it to its hilarious conclusion.

Such is the unbreakable power of Roper's play, which sets out its store in a 1950 Glasgow wash-house on Hogmanay, and proceeds to riff its way to closing time. This is done in Roper's own production for producers Neil Laidlaw and Jason Haigh-Ellery with a set of meticulously timed comic turns that colour in an entire society on the verge of being razed out of existence.

The play is strung-together with a series of unplanned moments of a kind that bind friendships forever. There is the tango, Dolly's peat bath purging and the imaginary telephone conversation. And of course there is the Galloway's mince routine. These are delivered by Libby McCarthur, Mary McCusker, Carmen Pieraccini and Fiona Wood with as much big-hearted bonhomie as they invest in David Anderson's songs.

Throughout all this, there are glimpses into the women's lives behind the banter that make the play so much more than knockabout fun. This ranges from the doomed optimism of Doreen, who has her sights on a new-build in countrified Drumchapel with a phone and a bath, to the unabated loneliness of Mrs Culfeathers, with various wastrel men-folk cursed into loveless submission along the way. The male sex is represented by Steven McNicoll as Andy, who oversees the wash-house as if it is his stage, before his surly authority is lost to the bottle. Above all, Roper's creation has become a classic, not out of any sentimental nostalgic appeal, but because it is a plea for community as a thing to cherish.

The Herald, September 11th 2017

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Friday, 8 September 2017

A Streetcar Named Desire

Theatre Royal, Glasgow
Four stars

The plays of Tennessee Williams are the most fragile of things. One foot wrong on their highly strung tightrope, and everything can come tumbling down in a blizzard of over-egged melodrama. In a way, the delicacy of the plays reflects their heroines, a catwalk of damaged goods broken by the love that failed them. This is certainly the case for Blanche Dubois, who, as played by Gina Isaac, sashays into Michael Emans' Rapture Theatre production like a glamour chasing movie starlet on the slide, and unable to deal with her increasingly strained close-ups anymore.

Once she invades the crumbling nest of Richard Evans' set, which looms like a left-over wall in a bull-dozed slum, the fire she ignites in the local community sees her run rings round her sister Stella, given a long-suffering grace by Julia Taudevin. While men like neighbour Mitch fall at Blanche's perfectly manicured feet, only Joseph Black's Stanley, given more intelligence and articulacy than is often the case, sees through the act.

There's a brittle, try-too-hard over-familiarity to Isaac's Blanche, who holds on to every snobbish fantasy she can grab hold of to survive. In the end it's too much, as Pippa Murphy's low-slung jazz score makes clear when it takes discordant little skitters that accompany the outer edges of Blanche's mind.

In terms of the play's fragility, Emans just about gets away with it, even if there are moments when things threaten to teeter and totter into hysteria. What is crystal here, however, is just how much Blanche has been abused by men, even as she trades on the diminishing returns of her sexuality. Whatever happened to her in the past, when she and Stanley tear verbal chunks out of each other, they both sport wedding night outfits long past their sell-by date. As they succumb to the inevitable, it doesn't look like she goes willingly. As Blanche is carted off to hospital, leaving Stella a post-natal mess, the men nonchalantly play cards. It's a gross portrait of everyday misogyny in a world full of strangers who are far more crueller than they are kind.

The Herald, September 11th 2017

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Stand By

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

The police radios are crackling even before real life ex cop Adam McNamara's forensic look at life on the thin blue line begins its post Edinburgh Festival Fringe Glasgow run. The audience are wearing ear-pieces, through which can be heard assorted situation reports in need of officers to attend. Onstage, a quartet of Scotland's finest are confined to the back of a van for the night, bracing themselves for action while negotiators attempt to talk down an angry man with a machete in the house next door. In the meantime, life goes on as mundanely as in any other boring job. When things do finally kick off, lives are changed in an instant.

What follows in Joe Douglas' production for his Utter company in association with the Byre Theatre, St Andrews is a warts and all close up of the personal stresses and strains life in uniform can provoke beyond the banter. One minute, Davey and Marty are fighting over the cheese sandwich the last shift have left behind while Chris sorts out his domestic life, both with and without Rachel. The next they're putting on stab vests and giving chase to joy-riders with fatal consequences for all.

The black-humoured interplay between Andy Clark, Jamie Marie Leary, Laurie Scott and McNamara himself as Chris is akin to an old school work play. This is heightened by Kirstin McLean and Ron Donachie, who are heard but never seen. With tension ramped up by way of Kevin Murray's brooding sound design, McNamara and Douglas have created a grittily claustrophobic seventy-five minutes of drama that's so much more than just a cop show.


The Herald, September 11th 2017

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Wednesday, 6 September 2017

August: Osage County

Dundee Rep
Five stars

Everyone is on different drugs in Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize winning American epic, which receives its Scottish premiere in new Dundee Rep artistic director Andrew Panton's revival, a decade after it first appeared on Broadway and the West End. It's not just the booze and pills that the ageing heads of the Weston clan Beverley and Violet cling to for comfort that makes communication between them so impossible. It's the assorted emotional crutches their three daughters, Barbara, Ivy and Karen alongside their extended family hold on to for dear life that leaves everyone so desperately isolated from each other.

The Westons are reunited on Alex Lowde's revolving open plan set after Beverley disappears shortly after hiring young Native American woman Johnna to keep house and look after an increasingly delirious Violet. What follows over almost three and a half hours is a slow burning tragi-comic explosion of collective dysfunction, with all its secrets, lies, failures and flaws exposed.

Led by a magnificent pairing of Ann Louise Ross as Violet and Emily Winter as Barbara, every one of the thirteen actors onstage is heroic in putting flesh on Letts' frequently wise-cracking script. There may be much talk of struggle, but it is the serenity and quiet strength of Betty Valencia's Johnna who becomes the play's moral heart.

On one level, Letts is laying bare the monstrous and monumental mess of family life by way of a series of increasingly extreme revelations. On another, the play is a microcosm, not just of a country in free-fall, but an entire system in which a basic capacity for love has been broken by corrupted western values.

The Herald, September 7th 2017

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Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Ian McDiarmid and Chris Hannan - What Shadows

“Don't worry,” says Ian McDiarmid from outside a Birmingham rehearsal room, “I'm not being attacked.”

It's an impression the noise from the room next door might easily give the impression of if you were looking the other way. Especially as the Carnoustie born veteran of stage and screen, former co-artistic director of the Islington based Almeida Theatre and some-time cult hero of the big screen Star Wars franchise is rehearsing Chris Hannan's play, What Shadows. The play opens at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh later this month in a production revived by Birmingham Rep, who premiered it in 2016. McDiarmid plays Enoch Powell, the old school Tory politician and Wolverhampton MP, who, in April 1968, effectively killed his career when he made what came to be known as the 'Rivers of Blood' speech.

The speech, made to the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre, a stone's throw from where What Shadows is being rehearsed in Birmingham, was in opposition to the then UK Labour government's proposed Race Relations Bill. Powell. It never actually used the phrase 'rivers of blood', but, in keeping with his scholarly manner, was an allusion to Virgil's Aeneid, which talked of the River Tiber 'foaming with much blood.'

Powell may have been sacked as by Tory leader Edward Heath the next day in an act that martyred Powell, but the speech made him a household name and an icon for Alf Garnett style bigots. As an illustration of the state of the nation, 1,000 London dockers went on strike in protest at Powell's sacking. An opinion poll found that 74 per cent of those interviewed agreed with what Powell said. What Shadows puts a spotlight on the result of such pent-up frustrations.

“It's a play about how things are in a divided country,” says McDiarmid, “and Enoch Powell is at the centre of it. He's a fascinating character who was the brightest politician of his day, but who was full of contradictions. He had ambitions to be the premier of India and to be prime minister, but he missed out on both. He was the outsider always trying to break through, but he felt it was his duty to give proper expression to the British people. He wasn't a racist, although it's easy to think that from the language of the speech, but he didn't believe that one race was superior to another. He recognised that everybody was equal. Chris has written him as a really rounded character, so I don't play him as the Big Bad Wolf.”

While Powell might be play's heart, Hannan also focuses on a second character, Rose. A woman of colour, as a child Rose was traumatised after she heard Powell refer to her and everyone the same colour as her as a picaninnie. Now a successful Oxford academic, she is driven to find Powell in order to write a book about him. As the play moves between time zones, Rose finally gets her wish in what McDiarmid calls “a metaphorical gunfight at the OK Corral.”

Hannan himself likens the meeting to the fragile power-sharing in Northern Ireland between former nemeses Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness.

“They don't have to love or even like each other,” he says. “They just need to talk, to try and find some common ground so they can work towards finding a peace. I guess the initial idea for the play really was to try and write about identity, and Enoch Powell seemed like a very good way of exploring that. This was about two or three years before Brexit, but UKIP was very much on the rise, so it felt very current, and still does. Ultimately the play is about how to talk to people whose views we hate. It feels like in the fifty years since the speech it's not got better, it's got worse. The whole debate has become so entrenched and toxic, where all these accusations are being thrown at each other, and half the population are being labelled as irrational. This is what we used to say about any race we wanted to put down, and that's crippling the country in a way that it's crippling the Labour Party, where the middle class and the working class are deeply divided. The play becomes about how we talk to each other in a rational way, and the need to find out the rules of engagement to do that.”

For Hannan, who was born in Clydebank and grew up in Glasgow, the initial impetus to write the play came from even closer to home.

“One of the earliest stories my dad tells about me is from when I was three years old, “ says Hannan. “I was being washed in the sink, and this group of boys walked past the window and started laughing at me. My dad asked me who they were, and I said, three protestants and a catholic. How I knew that then shows how much I was being brought up in a deeply divided Scotland. We were brought up with a great deal of grievance, about being discriminated against, and we sang songs about Ireland. There was a lot of hatred there, which lasted quite a long time into adulthood, and then you realise you have to get beyond all that.”

Some of Powell's speech, which was only ever recorded in part by an ATV camera crew, appears in What Shadows.

“Lots of people now will never have even heard of Enoch Powell,” says Hannan, “so I think it's important to hear what he actually said.”

The last time a major surge of anti immigration sentiment reared its head in a depressed Britain was in the mid 1970s, when extreme right wing organisations such as the National Front adopted a rabble-rousing populist stance. In drama, this inspired Birmingham born playwright David Edgar to write Destiny. First produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1976, Edgar's study of a by-election in a fractured and strike-riven post-colonial Britain arrived in the West End the following summer, at the height of the Queen's silver jubilee fever.

McDiarmid appeared in the Royal Shakespeare Company's original production as Turner, the radicalised shop owner left politically disenfranchised by Tories and the Labour Party alike.

“I remember there was a lot of picketing by National Front types outside the Aldwych,” McDiarmid remembers, “and David didn't want to see them represented at all.”

Hannan is a fan of the play, and says that “David Edgar was one of very few playwrights at that time dealing with English identity.”

More than forty years on, What Shadows takes its title from a line by Edmund Burke, the eighteenth century parliamentarian regarded by many as the founding father of modern conservatism, and is a very different kind of play.

“The reason I like What Shadows most of all is that there's a strong poetic undertone to Chris' writing,” says McDiarmid. “It's a bit like Powell himself. He was a romantic. People ask me what it's like to be playing Enoch Powell, as if I had to go deep into a dark place to do so, but it's not like that. It's not a play of hard polemic. Yes, it's political at it's core, but there are other resonances and other colours at play.

“It's a play about the national debate now and then, and people watching it will take sides. The problem now is that people are so bloody angry that they're not capable of having a rational conversation, and if you want to move forward you've got to be able to do that.”

What Shadows, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, September 7-23.
www.lyceum.org.uk


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Thursday, 31 August 2017

Room 29 - Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales

King's Theatre, Edinburgh, August 24th

You took an actual key from a bowl on the way into the final night of Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales' musical and dramatic peek into the lives and times of Hollywood's iconic Chateau Marmont Hotel. Everyone was welcome. There were plenty to go round.

Already immortalised on record in 2016, Room 29's doors were opened up once more for this Edinburgh International Festival three night stand of a stripped down song-cycle, upgraded here to a stage with a double bed on one side, and a baby grand piano on the other. A screen behind showed footage of some of Chateau Marmont's most famous residents who have passed through its portals, including Cocker himself.

Over two hours, Cocker, Gonzales and assorted guests transformed a solitary experience into the sort of floor-show cabaret one might more readily expect to find in the ballroom of an establishment as grand as the Marmont. Both our hosts’ natural penchant for showmanship make them a worthily contrary double act. While Gonzales seated himself at the piano sporting a bathrobe, Cocker offers the audience pretzels and access to the mini bar as he mournfully recounts the loneliness of the long distance rock star in the suite's solitary title number.

“Is there anything sadder than a hotel room that hasn't been fucked in?” asks Cocker in the same song. In a live setting, what sounds like self-reflexive diary entries set to Gonzales' lounge bar flourishes become throwaway one-liners. They're dodging the suicidal bullet of self pity hinted at by the following Tearjerker. Video footage of both inside and outside of the Marmont by the Auge Altona trio sees the live Cocker engage with his bathroom bound self onscreen.

Cocker's 1970s sociology lecturer stylings have rarely appeared more appropriate as he gives a impressionistic history of the room and its distinguished former residents. Things get starry with melancholy homages to big screen sex goddess Jean Harlow in Bombshell and iconic recluse Howard Hughes in Howard Hughes Under the Microscope. Both are accompanied by slow motion images and recorded monologues by 'the Voice of Room 29', film critic and historian David Thomson.

Room service brings up a bell boy, a round of drinks and, most importantly, the strings of the Hamburg-based Kaiser Quartett to accompany Gonzales' wide-screen sweep and Cocker's deadpan hamminess.

Two thirds of the way in, things take a lurch left-wards, as if the show has run out of straightforward narrative. Rather than indulging in cliched rock star behaviour and throwing TVs off the balcony, Cocker contrives to end up inside the TV itself. His static laden visage is squeezed into black and white for Daddy, You're Not Watching Me. With this and the following The Other Side, Cocker is exposing the shallow absurdity of his hotel-dwelling muse. He and Gonzales 'screen-test' an audience member they invite onstage, a moment that feels more like a Sheffield variety show than Hollywood.

Glamour comes rushing in through the form of dancer Maya Orchin, and suddenly we're in Busby Berkeley dreamland, before an encore of Leonard Cohen's Paper Thin Hotel takes us back inside the four walls of a hotel room where legends are born.

Product, August 2017

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Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Walker & Bromwich: How do we Slay the Dragon of Profit, Private Ownership and Corporate Greed?


How do we Slay The Dragon of Profit, Private Ownership and Corporate Greed? was an Edinburgh Art Festival Event that took place at the Anatomy Lecture Theatre, University of Edinburgh on Saturday August 12th 2017 from 4pm to 5.30pm.

At the start of the event, a 10 minute edit of the film, The Dragon of Profit and Private Ownership, documenting By leaves we live...not by the jingling of our coins, was screened. By leaves we live... was Zoe Walker and Neil Bromwich's quasi mediaeval procession along Edinburgh's Royal Mile, which took place on July 27th 2017 as part of Edinburgh Art Festival.



1. Good afternoon and welcome to Walker and Bromwich's event - How do we slay The Dragon of Profit, Private Ownership and Corporate Greed?, which forms part of Edinburgh Art Festival's Events programme.

My name is Neil Cooper, and I'm a writer and critic, and in a moment I'll introduce you to the panellists today, but first let me give you an idea of what's going to happen today.
First of all, once I've introduced the panel, I'm going to say a few words about the purpose of today as I understand it, and some thoughts its prompted in me
After that, each panellist will speak in turn for about 15 minutes each.

Inbetween each speaker, we're going to take questions from the audience for about 5 minutes, then we'll have the next speaker, another 5 minutes questions, and so on, and at the end we'll open things out to the floor even more.

After that I'll attempt to sum up the day and hopefully the discussion can go on more informally beyond this event.

We've got this space until 5.30 / 5.45, so there's a lot to pack in, but lets see how we get on.


2. For anyone who may not be aware, today's event follows on from Walker and Bromwich's processional performance – By Leaves we live...not by the jingling of our coins – which was a parade that saw an inflatable dragon taken onto the streets of Edinburgh in a way that questioned corporate capitalism and the way money talks.

By Leaves we live...not by the jingling of our coins was inspired by the ideas of Patrick Geddes, the radical nineteenth century thinker who first coined a rough approximation of the phrase 'Think global, act local'.

By leaves We Live... also took its inspiration from a 1920s banner from the Northumberland Miners' Association, which has particular resonances that trickle down to the 1984/85 UK Miners Strike, and the fallout of that when Margaret Thatcher's government effectively tied to destroy working class communities and either shut down or else privatise a previously publicly owned industry.

The main works of art inspired by the Miners Strike thus far have been Jeremy Deller's filmed reconstruction of the Battle of Orgreave, and Lee Hall and Stephen Daldry's film and stage musical, Billy Elliot.

What we're trying to do today is to ask our speakers what are the alternative systems that offer common ownership and re-align values with the natural world?

Building on radical thinking from the turn of the century from Geddes and others, we have speakers from the field of ecology, economy and the arts who we've invited to pitch their solutions in a bit to slay the dragon of corporate greed.

We're also asking how do we re-imagine dominant mythologies, and how a society based on monetary gain re-think its belief systems?

So let's talk about money.


3. Before I introduce the speakers, if I could give a few snapshots of some of the things happening on our own doorstep in terms of how money talks that might help illustrate what follows


4. Last October I heard a phrase I'd never heard of before.

That phrase was how something couldn't 'wash it's face'.

The phrase was uttered by the Regius Keeper of Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, in relation to the sudden closure of Inverleith House as a contemporary art gallery.
For 30 years, the programme of work at Inverleith House was recognised as one of the most important galleries in the world.

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh's Regius Keeper and other middle managers decided to close Inverleith House, without notice, without any public consultation , and despite a commercial consultants report on the future of the Inverleith House making numerous recommendations for the future of the House as a contemporary art gallery.
None of these recommendations included closure.

One of the reasons given for the closure was that Inverleith House couldn't 'wash its face' financially.

This was not the language one would expect from a publicly accountable custodian of a major Scottish asset.

It was the language of a market trader only interested in making a quick buck.

It was also in keeping with the rest of the events in the Gardens, which may give off the air an air of cosy localism, when in fact all events in the garden are franchised out to a French multi national called Sodexo.

In terms of thinking global and acting local, I suspect this wasn't quite what Patrick Geddes had in mind.

5. This isn't unusual, though, and in terms of finding out what exactly is local, you have to scratch the surface a bit.

Take my local pub, the Barony, on Broughton Street, for instance.

At first glance, any casual punters would think of it as a traditional Edinburgh boozer steeped in history.

In actual fact, the licensee leases it from a large Scottish pub chain.

While this again isn't unusual, the building itself is owned by a Saudi Arabian squillionaire, who the Scottish pub chain lease it from.


6. This is much the case too over at Saltire Court, the building that houses the Traverse Theatre, the internationally renowned new writing theatre which when it started in a former brothel in 1963, pretty much invented fringe theatre in the UK.

Saltire Court – which also houses offices for numerous financial bodies - has been the Traverse's home since 1991.

Since then, knife-edge finances for the theatre have not been helped by the Traverse having to pay a substantial rental, again to a Saudi Arabian squillionaire.


7. Last week at Edinburgh Playhouse as part of Edinburgh International Festival, PJ Harvey gave a live performance of her album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, which she wrote after visiting Kosovo,Afghanistan and Washington.

The title of the album was taken from a real project in Washington, where run-down housing is knocked down, and rebuilt in a more habitable fashion.

While this sounds like a good thing, the end result was that those who originally lived in those houses could no longer afford to live in the rebuilt versions.

In effect, people had been priced out of their own community.

One of the songs on the Hope Six Demolition Project is called The Community of Hope, which is a people powered anthem that documents what happened in Hope 6, and which finishes with a rousing refrain of 'They're Gonna Build A Walmart Here.'

Washington Council were not impressed.


8. Last night down at Leith Theatre, Edinburgh spoken word night Neu! Reekie! Hosted a major benefit show to try and raise funds to reopen Leith Theatre on a permanent basis.

Leith Theatre, which is owned by City of Edinburgh Council, has lain empty and unloved for 20 years after no one could afford to keep it open.

The venue built as a gift to the people of Leith, and in the 1970s and 1980s hosted gigs by the likes of Kraftwerk and AC DC.

More recently, Leith Theatre Trust have been attempting to reopen it, and are attempting to raise somewhere around 10 million quid to do so.

Last night, various Edinburgh local heroes, including Irvine Welsh, Ewan Bremner and Edinburgh's premiere post punk band, Fire Engines – who reformed especially for the occasion, and whose members Davy Henderson and Russell Burn took part in Walker and Bromwich's parade last month – played to an audience of 1,000 people.

This will be a major boost to Leith Theatre Trust, and long may it continue.

However, there are already vague unofficial rumblings emanating from City of Edinburgh Council about whether it might be a good idea to put Leith Theatre into the hands of Live Nation, one of the biggest events companies in the world.

This would take yet another local Edinburgh public asset away from the people it was gifted to and into the hands of yet another multi national company.


9. A few months ago I accidentally subscribed to an email newsletter called Artnet Auctions, which looks at the buying and selling of art in the lucrative global marketplace.

Two days ago I received the latest edition of Artnet Auctions, which led with the headline, Is The Art Market A Scam?

It highlighted a short video by comedian Adam Conover, who suggests that the said art market is – quote – 'no more than a playground for snobs and crooks'.


10. In a couple of weeks time, on August 23rd in Liverpool, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, aka The K Foundation, aka The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, aka The KLF, will reconvene on the 23rd anniversary of the day they travelled to the Isle of Jura and famously burnt a million quid, and filmed themselves doing so.

After 23 years, why Drummond and Cauty did what they did, effectively putting their own earnings as a commercial entity on a funeral pyre, may yet be explained over a three day event that features a book, a film, and a one-off performance by a mysterious band called Badger Kull, who will play the only performance of their only song before retiring – Who knows who that might be?

The event is called Welcome To The Dark Ages.

As in 1994 when they burnt their million quid, the K Foundation will also be asking What The Fuck is Going On?

In terms of attempting to slay the dragon of corporate capitalism as we are today, perhaps this is the simplest question of all.


11. Todays speakers are : -
David Korowicz is a systems thinker, physicist and human systems ecologist.

David has been a pioneer in drawing upon ideas from ecology and systems science, and has written influential studies on the nature of the globalised economy as a complex living system, large scale catastrophe risk and numerous other presentations across the world.
He has been invited to contribute to the pandemic working group of the Global Agenda Council on Complexity and Risk, was a ministerial appointment to the council of Ireland's sustainable development commission, and was on the executive committee of the think tank, Feasta, The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability.

He is currently working on a number of projects dealing with societal preparedness for an increasingly turbulent world.
Today, he's going to be giving a reflection on how we do – or do not – slay the dragon of profit.


Nadine Andrews - Nadine's work is concerned with supporting individuals and organisations to live in more harmonious relationship with the natural world.

She specialises in using nature-based and mindfulness-based approaches in research, consultancy, coaching and facilitation. Her trans-disciplinary PhD investigated psychosocial factor influencing responses to ecological crisis.

Nadine worked for many years in the arts and heritage sector, and in her early career worked in various aspects of the music industry and event/festival management.

Nadine is currently Visiting Researcher, Lancaster University Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business.

Today, Nadine is going to be talking about ecological crisis, values and transformational change.

Walker and Bromwich, our hosts for the day, - Zoe Walker and Neil Bromwich - have presented live performances in venues such as Tate Britain, the Whitechapel Gallery , the CCA in Glasgow and many others. Their most celebrated work is Celestial Radio, a pirate radio station launched in 2004, and which has subverted the airwaves in many places since then.

More recently, Love Cannon Parade has been taken all over the world, and which as has previously been suggested takes the most aggressive iconography of state sponsored killing machines, and by reimagining them as vivid pink coloured inflatables, transforms them into weapons of happiness.

They're going to be talking about the role of art in society as a tool for change.

After each presentation, no questions were forthcoming, though after everyone had spoke, a lively discussion ensued, followed by my attempts to sum up the event. As others had noted, the dragon of profit is dying, but it is how we deal with it, both in the personal and political, which determines what happens next. A renewed sense of community needs to be forged, and we need to take the power back.

Saturday August 12th 2017

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Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Virgin Money Fireworks Concert

Ross Theatre and Princes Street Gardens
Five stars

Edinburgh International Festival may have been celebrating its 70th anniversary with a bang this year, but it ended with a first, as the Fireworks Concert preceded its grand finale with a curtain-raiser that threatened to upstage it. Focusing on traditional Scottish folk music, the first half began with a quartet of rousing widescreen dances by Malcolm Arnold. Played with a brio and lightness of touch by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra as conducted by Clark Rundell, the infectious bounce and lush romance of the tunes wouldn't have sounded out of place in a panoramic western.

The appearance of Capercaillie vocalist Karen Matheson was similarly inspiring, as she performed a version of At the Heart of it All, the Sorley MacLean inspired title song from the band's thirtieth anniversary album. The orchestral arrangement by band co-founder Donald Shaw added depth and breadth to the composition, as it did to the Gaelic waulking song, Cha Teid Mor, before a moving rendition of the late SCO cellist Kevin McCrae's rendition of Ae Fond Kiss closed the half.

The fireworks themselves provided by Pyrovision were kicked into life by the martial drama and night sky choreography of James Macmillan's Stomp (with Fate and Elvira). The harp of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty conjured up clusters of magic night-flies criss-crossing each other before erupting into slow-motion cascades of light. For the finale, Peter Maxwell Davies' An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise galloped its way through a rowdy, woozy and at times comical evocation of communal excess. Piped on its way by Robert Jordan's glorious denouement, such an explosion of sound and light was the perfect conclusion to three spectacular weeks.

The Herald, August 29th 2017

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Andrew Panton - August: Osage County

Dundee Rep's new artistic director Andrew Panton wasn't overly keen on seeing the Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theatre Company's original production of Tracy Letts' new play a decade ago. Panton was just off a long haul flight, and the prospect of committing to the three hour dissection of a dysfunctional family in America's Oklahoma set heartland that was August: Osage County wasn't top of the list for a man with jet lag. This was despite the fact that Letts had an impeccable back catalogue of work ever since he first made his mark in 1993 with Killer Joe.

“I didn't know what I was going to see,” says Panton. “A friend had bought me a ticket, and said it was a good meaty three-act play, which being just off a flight was the last thing I wanted to see, but ended up having a great time. The story is fantastic, and you couldn't envisage where it was going to go next. One of the most important things about it was the ensemble acting. Playing a family is one of the trickiest things to pull off onstage, because every single member of the audience will have some idea of how a family functions, whether that's dysfunctional, loving or whatever, it's not easy to bring that sense of intimacy and familiarity to the stage.”

All of which makes it a perfect sounding calling card for Panton's new tenure in Dundee, where the Rep's ensemble acting company initiated by then artistic director Hamish Glen almost twenty years ago has made it unique in Scotland's theatrical landscape.

“Even when I first saw the play in 2007 I thought it would be good to do at the Rep,” Panton remembers of his first brush with August: Osage County. “I spoke to Jemima Levick about five years ago when she was artistic director here, but we couldn't get the rights to it, probably because of the movie.”

Letts' own adaptation for John Wells' 2013 big screen version of the play saw Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and Juliette Lewis lead a cast that also included Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch and the late Sam Shepard. While Letts had whittled his script down to two hours, the film was nominated for two Oscars. By this time, the play itself had won Letts a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This vindicated Panton in his fondness for the play, making him even more determined to stage his own production.

“When I got the job at the Rep, I tried to get the rights again,” he says, “and remarkably, after Steppenwolf had taken their production to Broadway and then brought it to London, there had never been another UK production since then. With the tenth anniversary of the play coming up, it seemed like the right time to have another look at it.”

The play itself focuses on the wayward lives of the Weston clan, whose women-folk are reunited after a family crisis forces everyone to reluctantly come home. The result, as Panton puts it, “is like your ten worst Christmases all at once. “It's set in the middle of nowhere, where everyone in the family grew up, and within the first five minutes of the play, something happens that means they have to go back to deal with it. Out of that, you start finding out some of the things that happened, and these are things which not everyone onstage knows about. It's what happens when you bring a family together who never really wanted to be together.”

With booze and narcotics to the fore in the play, what sounds like an emotional familial battlefield clearly stems from what has become a highly charged bedrock of twentieth century American drama, from Eugene O'Neill through to Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. This is something Panton acknowledges, albeit with caveats drawn from Letts' own recognition of his quite particular dramatic sensibilities.

“It's dark and quite tragic, but it's also laugh out loud funny,” Panton says of the play. “It does continue that line of great American playwrights, and when I first saw it, it felt like a classic. Letts was asked about that, and he said something along the lines of that, while he didn't consider himself fit to tie O'Neill's show-laces, if he was given a choice between A Long Day's Journey into Night and August: Osage County, he would choose his own play, because he likes a few laughs with his tragedy.

Panton says that rehearsals for his production have been “revelatory. It's a big show. There are thirteen characters all in this three storey house, so there's a lot to discover.”

Plays on the scale of August: Osage County, however, are exactly what he feels Dundee Rep should be doing.

“It's important that, not just the Rep, but big theatres like the Citizens in Glasgow and the Lyceum in Edinburgh are able to do big shows with large casts,” Panton says. “I hope to do one large play a season, and I want to have that many actors onstage. The Rep ensemble is ideal for a play like this, and in a way it casts itself, with Ann Louise Ross, Irene Macdougall and Emily Winter perfect for these strong, powerful and mature women. There's a healthy shorthand that's already between them, so when you go into rehearsals it already feels that a lot of the barriers have already been broken down.

As with any American play that appears just now, August: Osage County can't help being judged in the context of the country's current volatile political situation.

“I don't think there's a better time to look at what America's become, and how it's messing things up, not just for America, but for the rest of the world,” Panton observes. “The play was written just before Obama was elected, when it felt like there was no hope. Then when Obama came into power, it felt like there was hope again. Now things have come full circle, and it feels like we're in a similar cycle in American politics, where there's no hope once more.”

Letts' play also has far more personal resonances.

“I think it's a play that makes you reflect on yourself and your life,” says Panton. “Not in a worthy way, but you're being bombarded with ideas about family that take you on an emotional journey, so at the end you're really made to think about what you've just been through.

“I think it's about examining attitudes to belief systems in a way that challenges those attitudes. None of the characters are necessarily people you'd want to hang out with, but with what happens in the play, you can see how they ended up how they did, and how we become influenced by certain belief systems depending on how we grow up and where we grow up. These characters are all people with deep and fundamental flaws, but you can recognise every one of them.”

August: Osage County, Dundee Rep, August 29-September 16.
www.dundeerep.co.uk

 
The Herald, August 29th 2017

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Monday, 28 August 2017

Letters Live

King's Theatre
Four stars

The idealised Edinburgh skyline that formed the back-drop to this Edinburgh International Festival edition of the rolling compendium of readings from celebrated bon mots down the centuries was an all too fitting image. Edinburgh, as head of Canongate Books Jamie Byng pointed out in his introduction, was UNESCO's first city of literature, and those steeped in its bookish heritage understand what words are worth more than many. This is one of the reasons why the proceeds of the night were being donated to the Craigmillar Literary Trust and the Scottish Book Trust, both fine organisations that literally spread the word at every level.

It was a soulful version of Nick Cave's song, Love Letter, performed by Kelvin Jones, that opened a night that focused on standing up to intolerance by way of hand-me-down wisdom. Louise Brealey read Laura Dern's letter to her twelve year old daughter, while Clint Dyer presented James Baldwin's 1963 missive to his nephew. Kate Dickie performed the words of JK Rowling in response to an orphaned Harry Potter fan, and a group of young people read letters from their future selves.

There was levity too, as Ian McShane let fly with a furious letter of complaint to Abraham Lincoln, as well as an American politician's pithy put down of the Ku Klux Klan. Ferdinand Kingsley's rendering of Roald Dahl's drunken 1939 letter to his mother also put demagogues in their place. The evening ended as it began, with a song, as Eddi Reader gave a moving rendition of Dear John on a night that should inspire all in attendance to find a pen pal of their own with immediate effect.

The Herald, August 29th

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