Friday, 28 April 2017

Giles Havergal - Travels With My Aunt

"My God!” beams the rangy figure towering over the foyer of the Citizens Theatre, “I bet you thought you had a date with Lazarus!"

Giles Havergal's presence announces itself with unbridled glee. For a man whose well turned out appearance was a one-man reception committee on every opening night during his thirty-three years in charge of the Gorbals-based institution between 1969 and 2003, it's as if he's never been away.

Havergal has just been getting his picture taken in the theatre's auditorium, where he and his co-artistic directors Robert David MacDonald and Philip Prowse created so much remarkable work as they defined the Citz's flamboyant style over three decades. In the corner of the foyer, tucked away en route to the toilets, images of Havergal, MacDonald and Prowse hang side by side like maids in a row. They were taken not long before all three men departed the institution they'd put on the international theatre map as a new era was ushered in.

Almost a decade and a half on, Havergal has spent the morning at the read-through of Philip Breen's new main-stage production of Travels with My Aunt, Havergal's bespoke four-man dramatisation of Graham Greene's 1969 novel. In some ways, Greene's yarn concerning the belated liberation of one Henry Pulling, the repressed middle-aged bank manager shown the world and its ways by his wild-living Aunt Augusta, was the perfect Citz play.

Havergal himself directed and appeared in the Citizens' original 1989 production, marking the beginning of an adventure almost as extraordinary as the one Henry undertakes as the play quickly travelled to London and New York, picking up an Olivier award en route. After almost thirty years, Travels With My Aunt continues to be regularly revived at home and abroad as a quietly subversive rep staple.

“It was irresistible,” Havergal says. “I always say it's the biggest vanity project that ever was, to adapt it, direct it and play the two leads in it. It was a very beguiling thing to be asked to do, - to ask myself to do – to play the two parts of Henry and Augusta. I would have hated to have done either of them without the other one, because Henry's tremendously kind of uptight, and has a physical lack of everything, contrasting with the aunt, and that made it a tremendous and delicious challenge to play.”

Havergal's adaptation was initially forged out of the economic necessity of a cash-strapped Citz trying to stay afloat. The story contained within Travels With My Aunt explored the conflicting social mores of its time in a way that both Greenites and theatrephiles continue to lap up.

The answer to its longevity is Graham Greene,” Havergal says. “It's just such a good story, and the dialogue is so good. Every word is him. He is still a very potent writer, and that particular title still has resonance for people. I think they either remember the book, or even remember the film. Of course, in these straitened times it's economical with just four guys and so on, but I think the actual subject matter, of coming to terms with new cultures, is still of interest. In that time, 1969, when it was written, everyone was coming to terms with Pot and long hair and wide trousers and all that. I think that sort of uncertainty, about being led into another culture by somebody else, is as potent now as it's ever been.

It also has tremendous moral ambiguity, because of course, in the end, Henry is seduced by the aunt setting up in South America, but he's become a criminal, really. He's working for Mr Visconti, who's a drug runner and a smuggler and an embezzler. That's what's so clever about Graham Greene. You're rooting for the aunt all the time, and you're wanting her to crack him open and stop him being such a stuffed shirt, but actually, he's a morally very respectable man and a bank manager, and there he is at the end wearing dark glasses and he's part of the mafia. That ambiguity, it's partly liberation, but it also leads you to something else if you're not careful. The fact that it was written in 1969 important as well.”

Greene's novel may have arrived at the fag end of the swinging sixties just as things turned darker, but its appearance chimed too with Havergal's arrival in Glasgow after four years in charge of the Watford Palace Theatre. What followed were three decades of intellectually driven theatrical daring and bravura which left its mark, both on audiences and the theatre's alumni.

Upstairs in a corner next to the theatre's Circle Studio bar, we sit at one of the theatre's fabulous tables on which iconic images of some of the Citz's legendary alumni are laid out beneath the glass. There's a peri-wigged Gary Oldman and a foppish looking Rupert Everett. There's a slicked-back Pierce Brosnan squinting over a cigarette. Glenda Jackson is there too, as is a young Mark Rylance.

"There are some of these images that are post-me," says Havergal, pointing to a picture of Miriam Margolyes in Breen's 2011 production of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg with a forensic sense of recall, "and there are some pre-me." He nods to an image of Duncan Macrae, and to one of James Bridie, the original founder of the Citizens before Havergal and co went on to reinvent it as a European arthouse and purveyor of literary classics in excelsis. Then there are the images of Havergal himself, looking stern in Death in Venice, and then, at the table's centre, an image from Travels with My Aunt.

"That's when we did the second run in 1990," he says, running his finger over the glass covered image, "because Gavin Mitchell took over from Chris Gee, although Chris Gee went on to do it in London."

Seen together, all this visual magnificence on one tabletop is a crucial part of Havergal's legacy. Now aged a still energetic seventy-eight, he is keeping as busy as he ever did, modestly playing down how “lucky” he is to be employed. He's about to direct a restoration comedy at RADA, and is not long back from San Francisco, where he worked with acting students on a stripped-down version of Romeo and Juliet which toured to schools.

It's really interesting to go into one of those big high schools, great big barns of a places, often playing to three to four hundred Hispanic kids, and it's certainly their first Shakespeare, and may well be their last. You've got that whole responsibility, not only to the students I'm kind of directing, but also the responsibility that we as a group have to the school-kids.”

As a model for the exercise, Havergal looked to TAG, the Citz's old theatre in education arm.

In San Francisco we played in every conceivable type of room, canteens, gyms, often in rooms no bigger than this, so we just take a square on the floor, with no scenery, no lights, no sound, nothing.”

Havergal praises the Citz' now extensive community and outreach programme, and indeed the theatre's seeming rude health under current artistic director Dominic Hill that Havergal's lengthy reign paved the way for.

I just feel fantastically privileged to have been able to do all that,” Havergal says. “The thirty-three years I was here went in a flash. I was thinking that just yesterday arriving here, it doesn't feel like thirty-three years at all. You just think, weren't we all lucky? Weren't we all lucky to find each other, and weren't we all lucky to land here, where it was possible to do it? I keep saying, even the bad times – of which there were lots – were good. So I have no regrets. I don't have funny feelings coming back here at all.”

In describing the contradictions at the heart of Travels With My Aunt, Havergal could be talking about the moral tug of love which fuelled the Citz when he was in charge.

“Hedonism versus compliance,” he says. “I think it's an age-old struggle. There's something in us all that would love to get blind drunk and run stark naked down Buchanan Street. Then there's the other side of us that wants to be absolutely respectable, and be on the board of the local school and all that, and I think that pull between the two sort of reflects something that's in all of us. We all want to throw our hats over the fence, but we either can't, or maybe we disapprove of people who do that, which is where Henry starts. That may be even more what it's about, the pull between behaving appallingly, having a good time, and being rather immoral, against being careful. I think that's an argument that exists in everyone. Isn't it?”

Travels With My Aunt, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, May 3-20.
www.citz.co.uk



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On the Radical Road

Summerhall, Edinburgh
Three stars

For an ever increasing fan-base, the work of Hamish Henderson remains a force to be reckoned with. Poet, song-writer, folk-lorist and freedom fighter, Henderson's influence continues to trickle down the generations. This new hour-long compendium of work presented by the Edinburgh-based Theatre Objektiv as part of Tradfest keeps the spirit of the old master's voice to the fore in a more formal presentation than old haunts of Henderson's such as Sandy Bell's might allow.

Subtitled Enacting Hamish Henderson, the show is a journey of sorts that charts Henderson's adventures in words and music that attempts, in his own words, to use poems as weapons. With musical director and institution in his own right Alastair McDonald leading the charge, he and the three other members of the show's on-stage troupe rattle their way around France, Italy and World War Two. In just under an hour, there are also shout-outs for Nelson Mandela, digs at Hugh MacDiarmid en route.

This is performed by McDonald, Isabella Jarrett, Vanda De Luca and Gavin Paul in a loose-knit choral form that is neither concert nor drama, but which more resembles a kind of choreographed political cabaret. Knitted together and directed by playwright Raymond Raszkowski Ross, who edited Henderson's Collected Poems and Songs, published in 2000, there is barely a pause for breath throughout. This makes for a fluid freedom of movement, not just in a geographical sense, but in Raszkowski Ross and co's ebullient encapsulation of Henderson's socially engaged internationalist imagination. In an unashamedly partisan affair, Raszkowski Ross has sculpted an appealing pop-up construction designed for devotees and novices alike to keep the Henderson flame alive.

The Herald, May 1st 2017

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Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Addams Family

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

Family values are at the heart of things from the opening number of the brand new touring production of Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice and Andrew Lippa's musical version of cartoonist Charles Addams' creepy creation. A colourful chorus line of Addams ancestors are raised from the dead to bust some moves that look somewhere between the Rocky Horror Show's Let's Do the Timewarp Again routine and Michael Jackson's Thriller video.

The focus on what follows is on Wednesday, the family's pale and interesting daughter. Having grown up to be a crossbow-wielding teenage goth, she takes a walk on the bright side after falling for the more straight-laced Lucas. Old habits die hard, however, and, as played with sublime sass by Carrie Hope Fletcher, Wednesday tortures her brother Pugsley while belting out an exquisite version of identity crisis anthem, Pulled. In a show riddled throughout with hints of psycho-sexual deviancy, Wednesday takes a leaf out of the William Burroughs book of courtship when she plays William Tell games with Lucas. As his stuffed-shirt parents rekindle their fire, even her parents Gomez and Morticia's fine romance looks set to be redefined.

Co-produced by Aria Entertainment and the Music and Lyrics company in association with the Festival Theatre, Matthew White's production is a knowing cartoon romp that gives full vent to Lippa's latin and tango heavy score. As Gomez and Morticia, Cameron Blakely and Samantha Womack have a ball, and Les Dennis makes Uncle Fester the show's moral heart. As the importance of staying true to who you are is spelt out, in a very different kind of American horror story, this is Fletcher's show.

The Herald, April 27th 2017

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Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Douglas Maxwell and Matthew Lenton - Charlie Sonata

The inspiration behind Douglas Maxwell's new play won't get to see it performed when it opens at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh this weekend. Nor did Maxwell's old friend Bob see it when it was performed by acting students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow last year. Without Bob, however, Charlie Sonata wouldn't exist. For Maxwell and everyone else left behind, the play is the only type of reunion they can ever have now. If Bob was still around, well, even though he'd cleaned up his act and settled down, they might not even have that.

“Bob died before I could show the play to him,” says Maxwell. “I wanted to write something in which he was this hero, and we could have a laugh about it, but we did the student production and I hadn't told him, and I don't know why. Even when David Greig took the play for the Lyceum, I still didn't tell him, and then it was too late, but his sister read the script, and she's given the green light now, which is great.”

To be clear, while Bob was the inspiration behind Charlie Sonata, and while there are similarities, it isn't really about him. Maxwell's tale may start off about an alcoholic prodigal's return home in an attempt to rekindle old friendships and everything else he lost. As with most of Maxwell's plays, however, it takes a turn for the fantastical, and as Charlie finds himself watching over the coma-stricken daughter of one of his friends, it becomes a skewed kind of fairytale.

“It's a play about a guy who comes back up for a reunion with his mates,” says Maxwell. “He's lost, and he's trying to make everything right, and it evolves into this fairytale about someone who wants to make things better. I think everyone has some kind of person like that in their life, who when the phone goes at two in the morning, you always know it's them. You can cope with that when you're in your twenties, and just about when you're in your thirties, but as you get older it becomes more difficult. The play has this group of people in their early forties, who've got this life that they have. Then here comes this alcoholic back into their life. Charlie is someone with no violence or crime in him. The only damage he's doing is to himself, and he not only loses track of where he is, but when he is.

“It's one of those plays – and I'm in no way comparing myself to Arthur Miller – but structurally, it's kind of like Death of A Salesman. In that play, the main protagonist doesn't do anything. The play happens to him, and I think it's the same in Charlie Sonata. It begins and ends with a big speech, and inbetween he's incoherent.”

As with many of his plays, Maxwell wrote Charlie Sonata because he wanted to, and without anyone commissioning it. Maxwell prefers this approach, and, while he believes it frees up his writing, Charlie Sonata didn't come to him immediately.

“I had a few tries at it,” he says, “but then I was at a funeral, and I went back and looked at these scenes that I'd written, and everything changed. The scenes all fell into place, and after that the play really wrote itself.”

Maxwell's remark about how Charlie loses track of when he is as much as where was one of the key motives for director Matthew Lenton becoming involved in the production. In his role leading Vanishing Point theatre company, Lenton has consistently warped everyday realities into a form of magical realism that comes directly from an emotional impulse. Maxwell wrote the play specifically for Lenton, rekindling an affinity between the two which dates back to Lenton directing Mancub in a co-production between Vanishing Point and the National Theatre of Scotland. Both artists work instinctively, and, for all the intellectual rigour that goes with it, wear their hearts very much on their sleeves.

“I think Charlie Sonata is a very easy play to identify with emotionally,” says Lenton, “but I think it goes beyond that, in a more general feeling about care. For me, it's about what happens to someone if everyone around them pulls up short, and doesn't quite fulfil their role as a mate. I think it's also about how easy it is for someone to fall out from life, while everyone else around them carries on with their own lives.

“Douglas presents all that in such a magical and moving way. His plays are real and truthful, but they're not realistic. They have a kind of enhanced truthfulness. That's why that line about Charlie not knowing when he is as well as where he is stood out, and that's what I'm trying to bring out in this production. The challenge is to keep the spirit of the one we did at RCS, which we all really enjoyed doing, but to also allow it to grow and expand for the Lyceum stage.”

Charlie Sonata is the latest of Maxwell's works which might be conceivably seen as a cycle that charts his own growing pains as he gets older. Maxwell's breakout play, Decky Does A Bronco, first seen in 2000, looked at friendship through a child's eyes, as the play's narrator recalls a tragedy which has left its mark on those who survived it. Five years later, Mancub looked at a teenage boy coming to terms with the changes going on inside him.

Our Bad Magnet, which appeared the same year as Decky Does A Bronco, charts an uneasy reunion between four young men as it follows their friendship between the ages of nine and twenty-nine. In 2005, If Destroyed True looked at notions of community in a way that more recently, Maxwell's play for the Citizens Theatre, Fever Dream: Southside, continued to pursue.

“A lot of my plays are very similar in some respects,” Maxwell happily admits. “From the kids in Decky and Mancub to the people in their twenties in Our Bad Magnet and If Destroyed True. In Fever Dream: Southside they were in their thirties and having kids, and wondering if they could live in this particular place. Now here they are in Charlie Sonata, in their forties and wondering how that happened.”

Maxwell describes this as his “subterranean autobiography. When you write like me, you start at the source, and then you go off. These people from my life, as a playwright it's my job to put them in front of an audience and demand that audience's attention. They're not kings and queens, but they're living life as it's lived now, and these people matter. Part of the fairytale stuff in Charlie Sonata is to lift these people up so they have a higher value than you might initially think. Then once they have that higher value, you listen to them. That's when you realise how important they are.”

Charlie Sonata, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, April 29-May 13.
www.lyceum.org.uk

The Herald, April 25th 2017

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Sunday, 23 April 2017

Monstrous Bodies

Dundee Rep
Four stars

A girl with shocking pink hair introduces herself as Liberty. She stands centre stage and invites everyone to keep their mobile phones on so they can take pictures of what follows. This isn't what one might expect from a play advertised as being about Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin's time in Dundee in 1812 before, as Mary Shelley, she introduced the world to science-fiction with her novel, Frankenstein. In the hands of the Poorboy company's Sandy Thomson, however, one should expect nothing less.

Subtitled Chasing Mary Shelley Down Peep O'Day Lane, Thomson's production of her own play charts Mary's travails as a fourteen year old put into the care of the wealthy and quasi-progressive Baxter family. She juxtaposes this with a modern-day scenario involving Roxanne, a girl the same age as Mary. When a compromising photograph is taken of Roxanne without her knowledge, the talk she is preparing on Shelley sees her attempt to conquer her fears just as Mary did.

The result is a dramatic sprawl of quick-cutting scenes that flit between nineteenth century melodrama and MTV-styled dance routines, with independent women at the heart of both. Played out over a split-level set, the combined might of the Dundee Rep and Poorboy acting ensembles are bolstered even more by a fifteen-strong young company of teenage performers. As Mary and Roxanne, Eilidh McCormick and Rebekah Lumsden are towers of strength across the ages, both to their peers and each other. In a high-octane study of how a moral high ground can be used as an excuse for misogyny, it shows how necessary it is now more than ever for young women to write their own story.

The Herald, April 24th 2017

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Thursday, 20 April 2017

Funny Girl

The Playhouse, Edinburgh
Five stars

There is something infinitely special about Michael Mayer's touring revival of his smash hit 2015 production of composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill's myth-making 1964 musical. This is the case from the moment Sheridan Smith steps unassumingly from the shadows as 1920s Broadway sensation Fanny Brice. When Smith sits down at Fanny's dressing room mirror and utters the show's immortal “Hello gorgeous” greeting to herself, it is as if both women are switching themselves on to the spotlight.

It is this utter possession of her character that makes Smith's portrayal of Fanny so captivating. As she rewinds to her early days as a gawky New York bundle of adolescent energy, every facial gurn and every clumsy spin is alive to the possibility of success. Smith's entire body is possessed with Fanny's self-effacing and sometimes needy vibrancy that can't help but draw people to her. It doesn't matter that her doomed romance with Darius Campbell's matinee idol styled Nick Arnstein becomes the stuff of high-end soap operas involving shady deals in gambling dens. With Isobel Lennart's book revised by Harvey Fierstein, this is eminently watchable, even through its longueurs.

Much of this watchability is down to Smith, who manages to be both vulnerable and vivacious, fearless and fragile, all in the capricious skip of a low-attention-span heart-beat. Every line is delivered with a physical tic or a roll of the eye that makes for comic perfection. Fanny and Nick's first act stumblebum courtship astride a chaise longue is a particular hoot. It is when Smith is onstage alone, however, that we see both her and her character fully take flight in an irresistible tale of showbiz survival.

The Herald, April 21st 2017
 
 
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Why Inverleith House Must Be Re-Opened

This coming Sunday, April 23rd, marks the six month anniversary of the closure of Inverleith House,which for the previous thirty years has been one of the world's leading contemporary art galleries. This unique, light-filled venue, housed within the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, captured imaginations right up to its thirtieth anniversary exhibition, the tellingly named I Still Believe in Miracles...

Only after news of the closure leaked out did RBGE attempt to explain the decision by way of a written statement. While no proposed alternative use for Inverleith House was forthcoming, RBGE declared that they needed to focus on RBGE's core botanical function. In an interview with the Herald, RBGE's Regius Keeper Simon Milne stated that Inverleith House was unable to 'wash it's face' financially. For a publicly accountable custodian of a major public institution to use the language of a market trader in this way was telling.

Arts funding body Creative Scotland, who have funded Inverleith House on an annual basis, expressed their disappointment with the closure. Given that they had recently paid for a report on the future of Inverleith House, you can see their point, especially as nowhere in the report was there any recommendation that it should be closed. RBGE have yet to publish the report in the public domain, and only a Freedom of Information request by the Herald saw its release to journalists in redacted form.

A 'mass visit' on the final day of I Still Believe in Miracles... saw more than 700 art-lovers protesting against the closure. A petition opposing RBGE's decision has attracted more than 10,000 signatures, while a noticeably quiet Scottish Government set up a short term Working Party to discuss Inverleith House's future. Twenty-three questions asked by myself in my capacity as a contributor to online arts and culture magazine, Product, linked here - http://www.productmagazine.co.uk/ideas/open-letter/ remain unanswered, despite numerous assurances by RBGE that they would be addressed.

More recently, it was announced that a summer exhibition at Inverleith House will form part of Edinburgh Art Festival. While RBGE's hand has clearly been forced by public pressure, this isn't nearly enough, but perhaps RBGE's priorities lie elsewhere. This week, a job ad by French multinational Sodexo, who manage RBGE's events programme, came to light. The ad, for a Corporate Sales Manager – Conference and Events at RBGE- is riddled throughout with the profit-driven language of commerce. It makes no mention of any kind of art programme. Nor does it highlight RBGE's core botanical function. It does, however, mention money. A lot.

It seems obvious to me that there are those in office at RBGE who believe they are running a business. These same publicly accountable officials are reluctant to answer questions about their conduct in regards to the closure of a national public asset. What is clear most of all is that, in closing Inverleith House, RBGE has made a terrible mistake. It is embarrassing too for a Scottish Government who claim to value Scotland's artistic institutions. Only the reopening of Inverleith House as a permanent contemporary art gallery will resolve a sorry mess which should never have happened.

The Herald, April 20th 2017

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Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Nell Gwynn

King's Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

Joy, gaiety and a complete absence of complicated women. Such a holy trinity is what King Charles II declares it takes to get him into the royal box of the seventeenth century playhouse that looms over the lushly lit stage in Jessica Swale's Olivier Award winning historical romp. More fool him, as by this time a star has already been born in the form of wise-cracking orange seller Nell. Lured from heckling in the cheap seats, Nell takes the stage herself in a theatre scene reinvented for a new age. Old-school traditionalists, meanwhile, are suitably scandalised in this touring version of Christopher Luscombe's lavish production, first seen at Shakespeare's Globe and revived here by English Touring Theatre.

What follows is a gorgeously realised yarn that is part costume drama, part rom-com and part theatrical in-joke laced with sit-com styled one-liners worthy of Blackadder. As the most regal of stage-door Johnnies in search of a bit of rough, Ben Righton's Charles gets more than he bargained for with Nell, played with heady brio by Laura Pitt-Pulford. With Nell living the high life, the story of an ambitious working-class woman who challenges the establishment that courts her unfolds before she's left to her own devices once more.

Swale may take from real-life events in an exquisitely turned out affair, but this is the stuff of a million back-stage Hollywood rags to riches melodramas. When Nell is temporarily usurped by Charles' French mistress just as she muscled in on Lady Castlemaine's territory, a bumpy ride is guaranteed for all. With some timely sparring to be had on the state of Europe, Swale has dreamt up a piece of serious fun that is pure emancipated joy.

The Herald, April 20th 2017
 
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Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Hifi Sean – FT. Excursions (Plastique Recordings)

Over thirty-odd years, Sean Dickson's musical journey has been a wonder to behold. From fronting Buzzcocks inspired Glasgow shamblers turned Baggy love-gods the Soup Dragons, Dickson's sideways move to psych-pop troupe The High Fidelity was nothing compared to the full-blown damascene dance-floor conversion that eventually followed. Since then, Dickson's euphoric adventures as a DJ and producer under the Hifi Sean moniker have sounded as far away from the Bellshill scene he came out of as can be.

2016's Ft. album capitalised on Dickson's eclectic connections with a hands-in-the-air grab-bag of beat-heavy confections featuring an all-star cast of guest vocalists and artistes. These ranged from Yoko Ono and Bootsy Collins to B52 Fred Schneider singing about trucks and Suicide's Alan Vega's last recording. As if such an array of synthesised soul, poppers-friendly floor-fillers and banging techno-abstractions wasn't out there enough, there was even an appearance from Maggie K De Monde, one time chanteuse with 1980s one-hit wonders Swans Way. Best of all was the opening rush of House diva Crystal Waters' piano-led soul-gospel anthem, Testify.

As joyous as such a package remains, listening to a whirl of high-energy musical gymnastics on a drizzly Tuesday afternoon can be pretty exhausting if there's no dance-floor in sight. Perhaps it was with this in mind that Ft. Excursions has been invented. Styled as Ft.'s 'little sister' and released on white vinyl in a limited edition of 300 for this year's Record Store Day, its contents are designed for the sort of after parties where the sun is cracking the flags both inside and out. Where the original album is a jaunty hands-in-the-air extravaganza, this new set of constructions sees a welter of producers throw off-kilter googlies into a mix designed to keep the come-down at bay.

The opening Sunset Dub mix of Monday Morning Sunshine, finds Western Isles based chanteuse Jean Honeymoon coming to woozy blissed-out life after a long weekend siesta before the party kicks in once more. Dickson has just co-produced Honeymoon's first solo record, Beginnings, and here adds a bass-heavy pulse that courses throughout the album, as choir, strings and harps conspire to suggest Honeymoon is nestling into some celestial dreamland where angels play.

The original squelch of Atomium finds dub specialist Ray Mang and Horse Meat Disco's Severino
ramping up the synthesised handclaps with some busy bongos and old-school House melodies on their Dub Revision of the Bootsy Collins fronted track. Collins himself free-associates his lascivious intentions over the top of this by way of a set of hyper-delic chat-up lines. Dressed up with science-fiction bump and grind trappings, the song zooms this way and that before vocoder starbursts nip in on the blind side. 'You can put your butt out in my ash-tray, baby' indeed.

There are even more rockets ahoy on the Omnichord Dub version of Like Josephine Baker. Here, David McAlmont's soaring vocal is wrapped up in skittery beats laced with other-worldly sprinkles that accelerate upwards from an instrument previously embraced by Dickson on the High Fidelity's second album, hinted at by its title of The Omnichord Album. This featured a track co-written with John Peel after Dickson gave an omnichord to the legendary radio DJ for his sixtieth birthday. Here, the instrument's addition makes for a trip-happy extended version on which McAlmont's voice drops in and out of a bass-heavy stew

Dickson's original take on 18th featured Teenage Fanclub mainstay and the only member of Dickson's roster who is from the same musical pedigree, Norman Blake. If the song's shuffly beats already betrayed Dickson's indie-dance roots, French remixer Azaxx' Late Night Reprise heightens it even more. Blake's multi-tracked vocal is a melancholy downer wrapped up in a swirly-whirly groove that carries on dancing like its 1992 regardless.

Ft.'s breakout crossover moment belonged to Testify, on which Crystal Waters proved herself a major vocal force over a mix of chapel house gospel piano and party time beats. The In Flagranti Replay is moulded into shape here by Swiss-based beat-meisters Alex Gloor and Sasha Crnobrnja. It burbles and bounces with after-hours promise punctuated by deconstructed echoes of gossamer melodies, before taking a back seat and letting Waters' largely unadorned voice have its glorious day.

Yoko Ono's spoken paean to joy that forms the basis of In Love with Life does away with the string-heavy melancholy of its original form, and in its reworking by Midnight Records' Yam Who? is transformed into a funkier Little Fluffy Clouds for self-help conceptualists.

The appearance of Alan Vega on A Kiss Before Dying had already been lent a poignant weight by the death of Suicide's iconic vocalist shortly after Ft was released. The original song's organ and wicka-wacka percussion suggested a downbeat crime caper set in a post-punk NY dystopia, with its stentorian chorales give it an elegiac classicist edge. The Jackie House Bullets Workout built here by San Francisco disco deviants Honey Soundsystem strip things back to an even greater sense of foreboding. Vega's incantations are left to echo over each other, punching out urgent little epistles like some street corner sooth-sayer in this starkest intimation of mortality. 

Jungle drums usher in the Le Mongrel Midnight Trip take on You're Just Another Song, before Little Annie slinks in. To a backdrop of red velvet strings, the club-land legend peels back the drapes to purr with the nonchalance of an off-duty diva over an arrangement that fleshes out the brooding minimalist techno of the original.

As sublime a bank-holiday ball as there is to be had here, five of Ft.'s original tracks by Ms De Monde, Schneider, Soft Cell and Apollo 440 electronicist Dave Ball, Paris Grey of Detroit techno legends Inner City and German diva Billie Ray Martin remain untouched by Dickson and co's sonic alchemy. The scope for a second volume of Ft. Excursions, then, is plentiful. Same time next year, perhaps?

Product, April 2017

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Jessica Swale - Nell Gwynn

When Jessica Swale decided to write a play about Nell Gwynn, she wanted to get beyond the cartoon image of English history's most famous orange seller, who went on to become the mistress of King Charles II. The result was a comedy that opened at Shakespeare's Globe before transferring to the West End, where it won the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 2016. Revived by English Touring Theatre for its current tour, Swale's play opens in Edinburgh tonight, when audiences should get a chance to see Nell in more depth than is often portrayed.

“Nell Gwynn was a really important actress,” says Swale. “I don't think there's been much about her onstage or screen that presents her as anything other than a tart with a heart. Most people have heard of her without really knowing anything about her, and only really think of her as this orange seller who married the king, but she was so much more than that.

“The play is very much Nell's story. We see her as a young woman who goes on this incredible journey, and who faces a lot of challenges in terms of being taken seriously, both as a woman and as an actress, and who is also involved in this love triangle. Of, course, it's a comedy as well, so there are lots of jokes based around these situations, like when the theatre realises that Nell is a hot ticket, she doesn't want to play Juliet, and the only part they can think of for her to play is Lady Godiva, because that's someone with her her tits out.”

Although Swale emphasises the comic side of her play, there are more serious lines of inquiry at bubbling through the froth.

“I really liked the idea of the Restoration era being part of the play's dynamic as well,” she says, “and that not only was theatre allowed once more, but that for the first time women could perform as well. That seemed like a huge sea-change in terms of what theatre could be, and was a huge political moment in terms of what women could play, when the only roles that were available for women were ones that men had played. I really like writing about the underdog as well, and Nell is very much that.”

Swale never meant to be a writer. Having grown up in Reading, she had her eyes on a career in the theatre from an early age. She studied drama at the University of Exeter before training as a director at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Swale worked as an associate director with Max Stafford-Clark at his Out of Joint company. She was also one of the founders of the Red Handed Theatre Company, with a focus on reviving lost classics by women writers. Swale was nominated for a Best Director award for her production of The Belle's Stratagem, with Red Handed being awarded the Peter Brook Empty Space Award for Best Ensemble in 2012.

It was only when Swale started looking at doing a play about the first women in Britain to be admitted as students at Cambridge University in 1896 that she moved into other areas.

“Playwriting came by accident,” she says. “I wanted to do something on these women, and I looked at other writers doing it, but then ended up doing it myself.”

The result, Blue Stockings, was developed at the National Theatre Studio before premiering at Shakespeare's Globe in 2013.

“Dominic Dromgoole, who was running the Globe at the time, approached me,” says Swale, “and the rest is history.”

Blue Stockings is now one of the most performed plays in Britain, with Swale about to start work on a TV series based on the play.

Since then, Swale has combined writing original plays including All's Will that Ends Will and Thomas Tallis with a series of adaptations. The latter has included stage versions of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden and Thomas Hardy's Far From the Maddening Crowd.

Such a CV might suggest that Swale is solely interested on a certain type of literary classic. Judging by some of her future projects, however, this isn't the case. For film, Swale is writing a rom-com set in the 1960s, while The Mission is a new 1920s-set play for Chichester Festival Theatre. Just aired on BBC Radio 4 is Love (sic), a play set five years in the future about a woman who looks to science to try and find out why her boyfriend appears to have fallen out of love with her.

“It's not the setting that matters,” says Swale. “It's the people. I'm not interested in writing about my life. If I was to write about a middle class white girl living in Brixton, I wouldn't have to do any research, but writing about some of the people I have been is far more interesting.”

The same approach, it seems, applies to those playing her characters. The title role of Nell Gwynn was originally played at the Globe by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, with Gemma Arterton taking over for the show's West End run. For the current tour, Nell will be played by Laura Pitt-Pulford.

“Each one has brought something absolutely different to Nell,” says Swale. “They've all been brilliant, but they've all had their own take on things, so it's been a great joy for me to watch that, and to get to know a character by the different things that different people have brought to it. It's also been great knowing that the play is robust enough to stand that.”

Swale has continued to work with Arterton, and are working together on a film script set in World War Two.

“It's about magic,” Swale says.

Swale is also penning a film version of children's favourite, Horrible Histories

“I think there's a certain snobbery in theatre,” says Swales, ''where for a play to be considered significant it has to be a really dark tragedy, but that's just not what I'm about. I like to make my work accessible to everybody."

With this in mind, a feature film of Nell Gwynn is currently in the pipeline, with Swale writing the script for Working Title productions.

People like watching films to feel good,@ says Swale, and not a lot of writers want to do work like that. They want to write these searing tragedies, but I just don't. I like keeping things light.”

Again, Nell's importance as a pioneer and an underdog is important.

“Nell Gwynn was one of the first women to have a voice at a time when that was needed,” says Swale. “Although in one sense she had a voice, on another she was dependent on other people to write the words that she said onstage. In my version she protests quite strongly about the parts she was given. In terms of now, she raises a lot of questions about how women are portrayed.

“Nell is also sexy and clever, but she's not educated. That raises questions about how she uses her sexuality to get ahead, and really complicated questions about women now, and how they choose to pursue a successful career or not. As a working class woman, Nell is someone who wasn't expected to do what she did, but for any young women and girls who come to see the play, it shows that they can get there as well.”

Nell Gwynn, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, April 18-22.
www.edtheatres.com

The Herald, April 18th 2017

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Friday, 14 April 2017

Public Service Broadcasting: The Race for Space Live

Edinburgh International Science Festival @ Usher Hall, Edinburgh
Wednesday April 12th 2017

“This will always be for Yuri,” says a disembodied laptop-generated voice, sounding like a cross between a more pukka Stephen Hawking and a badly spliced old-school Pearl & Dean cinema ad for a local steakhouse, “but especially tonight.”

Fifty-six years to the day since Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to journey to outer space when his craft orbited the earth on April 12th 1961, Public Service Broadcasting's musical tribute that follows, simply named Gagarin, is suitably epic. As is too the whole of PSB's The Race for Space album, performed in full at the end of a two-year voyage since the record's release as part of Edinburgh International Science Festival.

As with their debut EP The War Room and follow-up album Inform-Educate-Entertain, PSB's mix of vintage newsreel samples and warm instrumental infusions on The Race for Space tap into a sense of nostalgia for a lost age of heroes and explorers. These either saved the world or pushed boundaries towards new ones. This has been the case whether for sonic evocations of life during wartime, climbing Everest or, as is the case here, the Cold War space race between America and Russia from 1957 to 1972.

It was an era that chimed with a less visible but arguably more incendiary time of mind expansion, when science-fiction, rock’ n’ roll and hallucinogenic narcotics were seen as radical tools of a counter-cultural revolution. Space has always been the place in this respect, from Sun Ra to Splendor & Misery, the recent science-fiction concept album by hip hop duo Clipping, taking in all psych-fused shades of space rock and electronica en route. While The Race for Space isn't as out there as any of these, it's somehow fitting that the album is being played on the same stage that astronaut Tim Peake appeared on last year at a another sold out EISF event.

Set against a backdrop of two small retro-looking screens beaming out black and white images of all the key players of assorted rocket launches, voyages and eventual moon landings, everyone in PSB's four-piece onstage entourage dresses like they might well have worked as stunt doubles for Matt Smith era Dr Who. This is the case, too, for the dapper dressed five-piece horn section prone to throwing a few funky shapes, though the National Youth Choir of Scotland and the string section of Mr McFall's Chamber who accompany them don't appear to indulge in such sartorial japery.

Musically, PSB's mix of turbo-charged post-rock lite and nods to Steve Reich are akin to what might have happened if Enid Blyton had dreamt up a suburban English version of Neu! or Kraftwerk. Five Play Kosmiche, if you will. The opening chorale that ushers in a recording of John F Kennedy is a telling pointer to how things used to be, with JFK's plea for peaceful explorations a far cry from the gung ho triumphalism of those who followed in his wake.

The brooding electronics of Sputnik are punctuated by dots of light that seem to be shot from a silver replica of the Russian spacecraft that [which? ] hangs above the band. Gagarin is a funked-up bounce through a contrarily American-sounding dance-floor groove in which the horns steal the show. The stage is all but blacked out for Fire in the Cockpit, a mournful evocation of the tragedy of Apollo I, which exploded on its launch-pad before it could become airborne.

The effect of all this is akin to an impressionistic multi-media documentary playing to a mass audience just as it might have done to its original viewers watching on TV through shop windows and in bars. It's that universal significance of those now iconic images of space travel being beamed down onto tiny screens that the live experience of The Race for Space conjures up so evocatively. It also taps into a sense of wonder that fired up the imaginations of a generation of wide-eyed infants who aspired to become astronauts so they could explore other worlds themselves.

As the voices of Ground Control relay every forensic detail of one trip or another, the recordings become a kind of Greek chorus, the epoch-changing events they're describing onscreen pulsed by the band's own ebbs and flows. Nowhere is this more dramatic than on The Other Side, when Apollo 8 briefly lost contact with Earth, and an entire planet seemed to hold its breath.

Sadly there‘s no appearance by Smoke Fairies, the spectral duo of Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davis, to sing on Valentina as they do on the recorded homage to Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to have flown in space in 1963. Even with Blamire and Davis' recorded voices, there remains a tenderness to the song's illustration of the images of Tereshkova beamed out from the twin screens.

Each brief piece is skittered through with a briskness heightened by the strings and choir, but always punctuated with wit throughout. Things fully fly on the rocket-fuelled Go, a motivational gym accompaniment in waiting. As men are seen finally walking on the moon during Tomorrow, the layers of percussive repetitions and accompanying chorus become a euphoric gateway into other worlds, and suddenly it doesn't matter who got there first. By the end of the night, even the Sputnik is smiling.

Product, April 14th 2017

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A Machine They're Secretly Building

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Three stars

For anyone reading this, chances are all information, data or opinion that follows will already have been documented and archived somewhere we may not know about. Likewise for the show itself, an hour-long dramatic dissection of surveillance culture past, present and future, presented here by Proto-type Theatre with input from several producing partners, including Tramway, Glasgow. Maybe that's why the two young women who greet the audience in the Tron's bunker-like Changing House space are wearing pink, Pussy Riot style balaclavas. As they peer out from behind a desk loaded with notes, their hidden faces are enlarged on the screen next to them by way of a live video feed.

As with the overload of information that follows, once the masks are off, identities are revealed alongside a life-hack's worth of leaks. The show's devisers and performers Rachel Baynton and Gillian Lees move from the Cold War to 9/11 and beyond without ever quite giving the game away. With a title drawn from Edward Snowdon and a script pulled together by Andrew Westerside and the company, the pair nevertheless still manage to unveil a very secret history. In collusion with Adam York Gregory's text-heavy video projections and an electronic underscore by Paul J Rogers, this reveals a digital age where every click, text and email is recorded, saved and stored.

In what at times resembles a dramatised TED talk, this barrage of facts and figures might well be dismissed as the stuff of paranoid science-fiction conspiracy theories. As the evidence stacks up, however, the truth of Baynton and Lee's high-tech show-and-tell is very clearly out there.

The Herald, April 17th 2017

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Wednesday, 12 April 2017

And Then Come the Nightjars

Byre Theatre, St Andrews
Three stars

The barn may initially appear biblical at the opening of Bea Roberts' play, revived for a short tour of the Scottish countryside after being seen in London and Bristol throughout 2015. The wise men who occupy it, however, have precious few gifts left to give in an at times brutal treatise on country matters. It begins in 2001, when South Devon vet Jeff and farmer Michael are holed up with Michael's cattle in the thick of the foot and mouth scare that decimated the rural landscape at the time. As the pair spar their way through a crisis that lays bare their more personal losses, the lives of both men are changed forever as they find some kind of grim solidarity amongst all the despair.

Paul Robinson's original production for Theatre503 and Bristol Old Vic is overseen here by a partnership of Perth Theatre and Theatre by the Lake, Keswick. Over its seventy-five minutes, the play highlights a way of life under siege in a rural world that's as prone to fall prey to gentrification hungry developers as much as those living in the city.

As played by Nigel Hastings and Finlay Welsh, Jeffrey and Michael are like Beckettian dinosaurs who refuse to be killed off. There are moments between the two men that can't help but remind one too of the tragi-comic cross-class alliance between Ted and Ralph in The Fast Show. Any lingering pathos that might be there is offset by a coarser form of co-dependence that reveals the reluctant friendship of a pair of relics who survive the worst by refusing to play dead.

The Herald, April 13th 2017

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Sandy Thomson - Monstrous Bodies

Sandy Thomson was halfway through writing her new play, Monstrous Bodies, when news broke of the then presidential candidate Donald Trump's latest indiscretion. Following a stream of derogatory remarks about women and numerous allegations of sexual assault, the Washington Post released a recording from 2005. This captured Trump making off-camera remarks captured by the Access Hollywood show about how when you're apparently a star like him, you can 'Grab them by the pussy'. When Thomson heard the remarks, she was so incensed that it turned her play upside down.

“I was affronted,” says Thomson, the founder and driving force behind the Angus-based Poorboy Theatre Company, who are co-producing Monstrous Bodies with Dundee Rep, where the play opens next weekend. “I was affronted that thirteen allegations of sexual assault hadn't stopped him, and I was affronted that he could say all those things he did about women, and it still didn't stop him.”

Up until that point, Monstrous Bodies had focused on the rarely heard story of how in 1812 a fourteen year old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was sent to stay in Dundee with radical thinker William Baxter and family. As Mary Shelley, the teenager would grow up to write Frankenstein and other novels, although is still best known to some for her relationship with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

What emerged from Thomson's anger was a second story, about a modern day teenage girl, Roxanne, whose researches into the life of Mary Shelley are upended when she becomes the victim of a very modern sex crime. As time periods overlap, Thomson has created a theatrical collage that involves dance breaks and MTV style spectacle, with nods to Reservoir Dogs and Beyonce's song, Lemonade, to tell the stories of two young women finding their voices as they come of age.

“Mary Shelley invented science fiction,” says Thomson, “but a lot of the time she's not considered interesting or significant until she ran away with Shelley, but that's wrong. It's the same with the fact that most people aren't aware that she stayed in Dundee for two years between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. Not much is made of it, but she stresses the importance of Dundee in her preface to Frankenstein.

“In 1812 when she arrived there, war with America was declared. That was after she'd been on this seven day voyage without a chaperone, and had all her money robbed on the first day. You have to hope that nothing else happened to her, but we don't know, and that became the rocket fuel for the play. This quietly imaginative girl with no mother arrives at the home of the Baxters, who are the bedrock of Dundee civic life, and all the while she's going through these changes.

“People ask how she knew about all this blood and gore in her books, but she'll have started her period, and when you're fourteen and that's happening, it feels like your body really is being made monstrous, but it's also being silenced, and that's a very dark thing to take in. All of this is being seen through the lens of a girl who is literally learning to write her own story.”

The same applies just as much to the modern day scenario in Monstrous Bodies.

“It's a look at the autonomy of bodies,” says Thomson, “and how that autonomy can be taken away from you. The way we're doing it as well, it's like looking through a little light into somebody's mind.”

Thomson's previous work with Poorboy has seen the company join forces with the National Theatre of Scotland to perform a site-specific promenade through Glasgow in Falling. An earlier work, Bridge Builders, saw Greek legend and modern day sea stories combined for an epic staging that took place in the warehouses of Dundee's City Quay. Subtitled Chasing Mary Shelley Down Peep O' Day Lane, Monstrous Bodies may be performed in the Rep's more conventional theatre space, but Thomson's own production is no less epic.

“What you do is write a film for the stage,” she says. “It's not just about words. It's about the staging, and that makes for an incredibly rich soup. It's about treating the stage as a site, and the auditorium as a site. It's about being allowed to work with the magic of theatre, where people can jump about the place in terms of where they are. That works well in the Rep, because from the moment you walk into the auditorium you're already on a level with the stage. The Rep is a really playful space, and there are lots of ways to make that work. ”

To this end, Monstrous Bodies will have an interactive element, whereby, in contrast to usual theatre etiquette, the audience is allowed to film part of the play on their mobile phones. Also involved will be something called the Mannequin Challenge, a viral internet video craze used largely on social media

“This becomes part of Roxanne's world, which is also being filmed,” says Thomson of the use of mobile phones in the show. “I still believe in complicity with audiences, but there's also a duty of care and a sense of responsibility that goes with that.”

Thomson also cites a Spotify dance list “as long as your arm” as part of a show that puts the traditional Scottish song The Twa' Corbies over a dub reggae backdrop.

“It's the equivalent of doing Pride and Prejudice on a night time MTV slot,” says Thomson. “It's a mash-up. Somebody said the other day that we needed a bigger boat, and we do. It's a beaut of a thing.”

As Thomson has developed Monstrous Bodies over the last two years, she has had the luxury of working with both Dundee Rep's acting ensemble alongside Poorboy's own troupe. As if combining two companies wasn't enough, a third ensemble, made up of young performers more or less the same age as Mary and Roxanne, has been formed.

“I'm not going to talk about sixteen year old girls without having them onstage,” says Thomson. “We want to talk to teenagers, not about them, and every generation is part of that conversation. It's amazing being around young people just now. We've made a community that's unique for this show. You think you remember what it's like being a teenager, but you don't. If we put adults through the stresses and strains that teenagers go through, with all the changes they have to face, we'd have to put them on medication.”

Thomson's observation was probably as true in Mary Shelley's day as it is now.

“Mary Shelley's life was so rich,” says Thomson, “and the things happening in Dundee in 1812 were so rich. That all seems to fit with some of the things that are going on now, which we see through the eyes of Roxanne. My incandescent rage at Donald Trump is in there, and that could easily end up messy and scruffy, but we keep putting things into this play, and they keep happening in real life. That says to me that we're saying something about our time that needs to be said.”

Monstrous Bodies (Chasing Mary Shelley Down Peep O'Day Lane), Dundee Rep, April 19-May 6.
www.dundeerep.co.uk

The Herald, April 11th 2017
 
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Monday, 10 April 2017

Teen Canteen – Sirens EP (Last Night From Glasgow)

Teen Canteen first swaggered into view a few years back like a Glasgow girl gang weaned on C86 indie-pop and 1960s’ bubblegum. The sound the all-female quartet aspired to was a consciously constructed sugar-rush led by lead vocalist, synth-ist and chief song-writer Carla Easton. As their canon matured, while heart-on-sleeve harmonies remained key, a meatier, beatier post indie fabulism emerged that was writ large across their 2016 debut album, Say it All With A Kiss.

A restless Easton went on to all but upstage herself with the soul-glam euphoria of side-project Ette on the Homemade Lemonade album. Barely pausing for breath, Easton is back in the Teen Canteen fold with guitarist Chloe Philip, bass player Sita Pieraccini and drummer Debs Smith for this shiny new four-track EP. Released on 10” transparent blue and red vinyl with white splatter, studio sparkle seems to have been sprinkled liberally across all four songs.

Any pre-conceptions of tweeness are blown away from the start, as the great big two-fingered clarion call for independent women that is the opening What You Gonna Do About Me? stomps in. With Easton and co taking to task the overly-controlling klutz the song appears to be aimed at, things take a musical turn for the wide-screen as Easton's voice expands into something strident, defiant and frankly huuuuuuuge in its execution.

Mercifully, she sounds like she's somewhat wisely dumped the big galoot by the time she begins

Can't Go Back (Starry Eyed) over a stabbing synthesised bass-line. There's still an element of lament at play as the song builds to become an ever-expanding epic, with proper pop star harmonies that sound like a supportive sorority backing her up every step of the way.

Millions may be crying real tears by the end of the song, but its low-end piano and drum-beat intro thwacks its way into your heart like a slap round the face. In-between, a barely repressed yearning gathers apace with monster-sized proportions.

Finally, the EP's title track may point to accompanying publicity shots of the band posing in white in the derelict pool of what used to be Govanhill Baths in Glasgow, but inner-city ambulance wails are being referenced here. A pared-down reworking of a track from Say It All With A Kiss, Sirens (Piano Mix) offers up a breathier and more wistful reflection of more innocent times past.

Despite what Easton might suggest in her lyrics to Sirens, in terms of confidence, Teen Canteen here sound super-powered. All four love-lorn pop melodramas are kitchen-sink constructions both in their wall-of-sound production as much as their redemptive coffee-bar purgings.

In an ideal world where the pop charts still mattered, each of these girl-powered anthems would be in there like a silver bullet. As if by magic, that bullet would burst open and shower all about them with glitter-tipped hearts that were once in pieces, but have now healed to become as beautiful and fearless as every soaring moment captured here.

Product, April 2017

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The Weaver's Apprentice

Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh until July 1st 2017
Four stars

The title of Dovecot's new retrospective of its own history may suggest something tinged with arcane magic, but the loom set up on one side of the room points to weaving as a living and painstakingly intricate art. Timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the untimely passing of Dovecot's founding master weavers, John 'Jack' Glassbrook and Gordon Berry, both killed during World War One, the show unwinds across the centre's past by way of a series of archival works that led to its current status. Notebooks, photographs and letters reveal a moving dedication to the weavers' craft.

At the show's centre is the work of Dovecot's current apprentice weaver, Ben Hymers, whose Untitled (Hipsters Love Triangles) and Penelope are vividly coloured imaginings laced throughout with bronzed classical allusions that reference Homer's Odyssey and Margaret Atwood, spanning the centuries as they go. These may be a far cry from some of the hunt-based works of old defined by the epic scale of Glassbrook and Berry's The Chace, but they nevertheless remain rooted in Dovecot's own rich tapestry in a vivid piece of living history threading its way towards the future with its ever-expanding legacy intact.

The List, March 2017

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Sunday, 9 April 2017

The Honourable K.W. Harman: Ltd Ink Corporation

31 Bath Road, Leith Docks, March 17th-20th

In a monumental shipping container down by Leith Docks, a Sex Pistols tribute band is playing Anarchy in the U.K.. on a stage set up in the middle of the room. Either side, various constructions have been built in such a way so viewers can window shop as they promenade from one end of the room to the next, with the holy grail of a bar at either end.

Inbetween, there’s a confession booth and a mock-up of a private detective’s office with assorted documentation of real-life surveillance pinned to the walls. Two people seem to be having a conversation in public as if they're on a chat show. An assault course of smashed windows are perched on the floor like collateral damage of post-chucking out time target practice. A display of distinctively lettered signs originally created by a homeless man in search of a bed for the night are clumped together on placards that seem to be marking out territory or else finding comfort in being together. Opposite, a sumptuous-looking four poster bed is draped in materials transcribing the messages of the homeless signs asking for money to get a bed for the night.

At the far end of the room, a tattoo artist is open for business, while a woman reads extracts from the works of the Marquis de Sade into a microphone and others drift into the hellfire club-like interior of an absinthe bar that looks like the sort of place where plots are hatched. Overhead, a drone flies about the room, presumably documenting the spectacle below, but becoming part of it as well.

This was the scene several Fridays back on the opening night of Ltd Ink Corporation, the latest and most elaborate interventionalist wheeze to date brought to life by artist Kevin Harman, aka the Honourable K.W. Harman. It's taken a while to absorb all this, but in the show's semi-samizdat, blink-and-you'll-miss-it execution, it's seeming ephemerality has left a mark far greater than its physical duration.

This is nothing new for Harman, who first caused a stir with his Edinburgh College of Art degree show when he stole doormats from the front doors of local tenements and laid them out together in ECA's main sculpture court as Love Thy Neighbour (2008). Harman then invited the 210 residents he'd purloined doormats from to visit the show and reclaim what was theirs, meeting the neighbours as part of a process that made the audience participants in an exercise in bringing a disparate and at times isolated community together.

A similar spirit was there in Ltd Ink Corporation, which for four days only took over 50,000 square feet of industrial expanse in a space originally used as a power plant prior to a botched attempt to turn it into a major artspace collapsed. Crucially, Harman and co filled it, not just with art, but with people to engage with it. Owned by Forth Ports and part of the working dockside, the space's very location might be regarded as a statement. Walking beyond Leith Links, the odd solitary figure could be spotted on pathways around Leith Links trying to find where the hell they were going using Googlemap on their mobile phones.

It's unlikely that this accidental exercise in psycho-geographical mapping for lost travellers forced to go to a part of town they've never visited before was deliberate. Even so, such a spectacle could have been part of a show that offered its audience home comforts while at the same time taking them out of their comfort zone in a resolutely constructed environment. Such is Harman's nature in a way that’s both provocative and inclusive in its attempts at social engineering.

So the confession booth – Cobe.co (2017) - turns out to be a safe space built by vulnerable adults supported by Grassmarket Community Projects, and within which visitors confessionals are recorded to make up an ever-expanding state of collective being. The chat show is an as-it-happens conversation between artists Mark Leckey and Richard Prince that's being broadcast live online during the course of the show. The windows set up as if for a slalom race are both evidence and relics of real life attacks, and the two parts of Being Homeless is Hard, Having a Hoose is Harder (2017) lends the everyday plight of homeless people a dignity in a way that cannot be ignored. The effect of all this, combined with the sound-bleed of some of the other material on show, makes for an at times overwhelming but never dull experience.

While ostensibly an early to mid career retrospective, by off-loading Harman's assorted concerns and obsessions into one gigantic dumping ground in such a way is akin to building a kind of punk-inspired fun palace or theme park. While a look-but-don't-touch formality remained, there was a physicality about everything that made the audience bit-part players in a social experiment dressed up as a not so private view on a fantastical temporary stage set worthy of Banksy's Dismaland.

At the end of the night, everyone decamped to local boozer The Pond, a place currently suffering from the economic downturn, despite the attempts at gentrification starting to pop up alongside the storage centres, garages and containers that line most of the area. Watching the pub landlady forced to close the doors because the place was so full was a final work of art in which we could all join in if we wanted. If only we could get the bar-man's attention and get served, the revolution would be complete.

Product, April 2017
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John 'Hoppy' Hopkins - Taking Liberties

Among many remarkable pictures in this essential retrospective of London’s 1960s counter-culture’s snapper-in-residence, there’s a wonderful study of the editorial team behind International Times, the era’s alternative bible. In it, eleven people huddle together behind a cluttered desk. Among them are poet Jeff Nuttall, the Traverse Theatre’s spiritual guru Jim Haynes, the era’s chronicler Barry Miles and, unrecognisable, the late Glasgow-born playwright Tom McGrath, then IT editor. Here were people who, judging by the brim-full-of-confidence, touchy-feely grins, genuinely felt like they were changing the world.

This spirit spills over everywhere throughout the inaugural show in Street Level’s new home on the ground floor of the Trongate 103 complex. All the usual suspects are here; a scowly William Burroughs, an uncharacteristically chipper Alexander Trocchi in front of a ‘Fuck Communism!’ poster; a euphoric Allen Ginsberg outside the Royal Albert Hall prior to the seminal 1965 poetry love-in; and a doe-eyed and lovely Marianne Faithful.

Beyond such swinging scenesters, though, Hopkins takes in CND’s Aldermaston march, tattooed bikers looking like they’re auditioning for Kenneth Anger, and the move from Trad revivalism to Free Jazz thunder at Ronnie Scott’s and other dives (and featuring the most short-haired study of pianist Keith Tippett ever). ‘Cooper’s Sky Dance,’ meanwhile, lays bare a derelict London awaiting liberation, but which we now know made do with urban regeneration instead.

Hopkins’ largely unseen archive captures a crucial flash of history, as do the accompanying collected covers of IT, in all their idealism, innocence and gloriously na├»ve faith in the hippy ideal. ‘Punk Is Dead’ declaimed the February 1977 issue beside a picture of Red Army Faction pin-up, Ulrike Meinhof. Future cosmonauts of inner space take note. Hippy capitalists like Richard Branson may have changed the world in a completely different way to those imagined by IT, but an all-join-in aesthetic has prevailed. Street Level itself has been a cell of underground activity, while a new generation of avant-provocateurs can learn much from the ideas behind the iconography of the six-year period immortalised here.

Street Level, Glasgow until 7th November

The List, September 2009

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A Number

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

There are rooms within rooms through the doorway of designer Fred Meller's cube-like construction for Zinnie Harris' production of Caryl Churchill's 2002 play. It may be smoke and mirrors that gives the illusion of infinity, but it's a telling pointer to what follows in a play born out of the scientific breakthrough in cloning by way of Dolly the Sheep.

Churchill's play opens just after a middle-aged man called Salter has revealed to his son Bernard that he is one of a number of clones. These were created by scientists seemingly without Salter's knowledge after he attempted to replace the apparent loss of his actual son. Both Bernards react in different ways, as one might expect of one child who was loved and another who was effectively dumped in a way one might do with an unruly pet. How the other nineteen versions of Bernard are getting on remains to be seen.

Revived by the Lyceum as part of Edinburgh International Science Festival, Churchill's play is an hour-long study in ethics that raises issues of nature versus nurture, and of the dysfunction and damage that can be caused by neglect or bad parenting. In Harris' hands, it becomes an intense psycho-drama, which focuses on the play's inherent plea for humanity in a tug of war between genetics and parental influence.

With two actors onstage throughout, it also wrings a gamut of emotions from the play's two leads as each meeting veers between confession and confrontation. Peter Forbes presents Salter as a confused and contrary figure, one minute wanting to make amends, the next wishing only to make some hard cash from his folly. It is Brian Ferguson, however, who is really put through the mill as both Bernards, as well as a third, more well-adjusted clone, Michael Black. In an impeccably nuanced performance, Ferguson switches moods and attitudes in an instant. As he does so, he peels back layer on layer of an an already multi-faceted dissection of human behaviour that reveals how society can shape it for better or worse.

The Herald, April 10th 2017

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Thursday, 6 April 2017

Girl in the Machine

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

The metal shipping container that fills the stage at the opening of Stef Smith's new play is a monumental reminder of how the world still moves through physical endeavour. This exterior of Neil Warmington's set may also be a nod to The Aftermath Dislocation Principle, ex K Foundation provocateur Jimmy Cauty's own container-clad installation containing a model of a post-riot world. Once the sides slide away here, however, an almost too orderly futuristic des-res is revealed.

Within its minimalist interior, high-flying lawyer Polly and nurse Owen live together in hectic disharmony in a future where citizens are required to wear implants that chart their every waking hour. When Owen gives Polly a present of a mental pacifier called a Black Box that he stole from the hospital, for Polly, at least, things change for the better. The couple even receive a complaint on Polly's iPad from a neighbour complaining about their 'excessive adult noises.'

What follows in Orla O'Loughlin's ice-cool and innately physical production is a stark warning about the dangers of becoming addicted to whatever hi-tech toy that promises you the world. In this respect, the Traverse's co-production with Edinburgh International Science Festival resembles an episode of dystopian TV series Black Mirror, but with a poetic heart worthy of Ray Bradbury at his warmest.

Michael Dylan's Owen and Rosalind Sydney's Polly become increasingly estranged, while Victoria Liddelle's disembodied voice of Black Box becomes all-pervading. It's a show that hums and throbs, not just because of Kim Moore's burbling electronic score, but through its plea for the flesh and blood messiness of life over the delusions provided by virtual pleasures during increasingly sour times.

The Herald, March 7th 2017

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Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Dr Stirlingshire's Discovery

RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, Edinburgh
Three stars

It's a jungle sometimes in Morna Pearson's new play, performed in front of an audience who appear to be on safari within the grounds of Edinburgh Zoo as part of Edinburgh International Science Festival. Noted cryptozoologist Dr Vivienne Stirlingshire is in the building, and some of her fans on the staff are very excited indeed. The good, if somewhat demanding, doctor has returned from her latest adventure with a brand new mammal to show off to the world.

Dr Stirlingshire's brother Henry is sceptical. The fact that he runs the zoo doesn't help, but neither does the pair's sibling rivalry that's rooted in a damaged childhood which has left them estranged. With what is described as the something-or-other Vivienne brought back with her seemingly missing, she is forced to chase her way around a very human looking zoo in an attempt to rid herself of her personal demons.

This co-production between site-specific specialists Grid Iron, Lung Ha Theatre Co and the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh as well as EISF takes full advantage of Lung Ha's large ensemble in what is essentially a slapstick promenade through Dr Stirlingshire's psyche. Directors Joe Douglas and Maria Oller navigate their cast and audience through a world of freaky creatures, oddball zoo-keepers and performing penguins contained in various locales indoors and out.

Pearson's writing is a kind of child-friendly vaudeville. Gags are so bad they're genius, and an inter-active routine that drags the audience into a retired zoo-keeper's leaving do could be straight out of pantomime. As Nicola Tuxworth's Vivien and Antony Strachan's Henry reach some kind of accord, the beast within both is tamed, uncaged at last to roam free.

The Herald, April 6th 2017

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Cosmonaut

Summerhall, Edinburgh
Three stars

Once upon a cold war, the space race was everything to America and Russia. In a world dictated by firsts, it was America who made it to the moon and back. It was Russia, however, that set the bar, firing the first man into space as well as the collective imagination of a world who saw possibilities beyond the Soviet experiment. Beyond the heroics, there were other, less sung stories, as Francis Gallop makes clear in his new play that forms part of the theatre programme of Edinburgh International Science Festival, who co-commissioned it.

Here, Gallop zones in on the hidden genius of Sergei Korolev, the engineer who pretty much invented the Soviet space programme, albeit in a near samizdat fashion following his imprisonment in a gulag. Meanwhile, in an Italian high-rise, Lucia and her brother build a home-made space-tracking system, which records what they believe to be a generation of prototype cosmonauts, whose doomed missions have been seemingly airbrushed out of this world.

These over-lapping stories orbit around each other in Kate Nelson's production, as four actors dovetail between time-zones overseen by a large circular screen that beams down other-worldly images. Fact and fiction blur into each other in a similar fashion, as extended poetic monologues suggest aspirations beyond earthly reach. Things don't always gel in this respect, and the stage is at times far too busy with technicalities to fully focus. With Annabel Logan's Lucia and her brother the accidental hackers of their day and Rodney Matthew's Sergei the most grounded of figures, Gallop's meditation is nevertheless a still timely look at how political expediency still governs who gets to make history.

The Herald, April 6th 2017

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Tuesday, 4 April 2017

David Leddy - Coriolanus Vanishes

Linking Bridget Jones to Theresa May takes quite a leap, but somehow David Leddy has just done it. The Glasgow-based writer and director has been talking about Coriolanus Vanishes, his new solo show presented by Leddy's own Fire Exit company in co-production with the Tron Theatre, Glasgow. In particular he's been talking about people in powerful jobs who are able to present an unflappable public image even through they might be falling apart inside.

“I remember when the first Bridget Jones came out,” says Leddy, “and thinking it was really funny that all these high-functioning people were crying in the toilets. I was twenty-one years old, and presumed that sort of thing didn't happen when you were an adult in jobs like that. All these years later I know that's not true, and I know these things don't just stop, even for someone like Theresa May. I might disagree with what she stands for, but of course Theresa May cries in toilets.”

Whether anyone cries in the toilet in Coriolanus Vanishes remains to be seen, but Leddy's new show explores the fragility of power in ways which are very much in the public eye right now. It also looks at how hand-me-down dysfunction can influence those in power to commit barbarous acts.

“I was really interested in parenting, and how parents can pass their own destructive behaviour onto their children in a way that is a problem,” says Leddy. “That destructiveness then has an effect on the people around them, and if that person is working at a high level in the political or corporate worlds, then that is going to be a real problem.”

Coriolanus Vanishes is an intense look at one man's reflections on how he ended up in a prison cell awaiting trial following the deaths of three people which he may or may not have been responsible for. Over an hour, the man lets rip some of the things going on in his mind as well as the influences of those who might have helped put them there.

“I've written a few things about problematic relationships between parents and children,” says Leddy, “which is perhaps surprising, because my own relationship with my parents has been really good. Maybe that's it. Maybe because my parents did such a good job, seeing people around me who through no fault of their own are dealing with these destructive character traits that they've learnt, maybe that's why I want to write about it. These people aren't children anymore. They're adults, and there comes a point when you have to tell them to take account of their actions. If you're in a relationship with people, at what point do you accept that they're a bit crazy, and that's just how they are, and at one point is their behaviour no longer acceptable and you no longer want them to be part of your life?”

While the play's title references Shakespeare's play in which a mother's influence on her son's war-mongering had fatal consequences, this isn't some kind of post-modern re-boot.

“It's not a re-telling of Coriolanus,” says Leddy. “I've used it as a theatrical metaphor, and it's also a nod to The Commissar Vanishes, which was about how people were airbrushed out of photographs in Stalinist Russia. The starting point for the play for me was the diplomatic relations between countries, the relationship between humanism and militarism, and between nation states and corporations, and how one person's pre-occupations can have an impact on decisions.

“In this way, diplomatic relations can have the air of the playground. You can take two countries such as Britain and Saudi Arabia,, who say they're friends no matter what, even though Saudi Arabia has executed more people than Isis, and that's fascinating. It's like a dysfunctional family, and that psychology doesn't change whatever scale the situation might be. The fact that I can fall out with someone and behave in a certain way, and then on a much greater scale, someone in charge of a corporation can fall out with another corporation and behave in exactly the same way is frightening, especially if they might be mentally imbalanced.”

In this sense, the looming figure of Donald Trump is hard to avoid here, though it wasn't deliberate.

“I was writing it while Donald Trump was in his ascendency,” says Leddy, “and in that way it was hard to avoid noticing what was going on, but with this piece I'm much more interested in what's going on inside this one person's head rather than his external behaviour.”

With Leddy performing Coriolanus Vanishes himself, his production marks his first appearance onstage for twelve years. While initially carving out a niche for himself with solo works, for the last decade Leddy has directed other actors in the likes of Long Live the Little Knife and the site-specific Sub-Rosa.

“When I first started making work in Scotland, I did three solo shows in a row,” Leddy says. “I had no funding, and no friends to fall back on, and doing that drained the joy out of it for me. It was a great relief to work with actors after that. It got to the stage where I wondered if I'd ever perform again, especially as I get older and the memory slows up. I'm 43 now, and I thought if I don't do this now, it might never happen. In another twelve years I'll have even less energy than I have now.”

Beyond this run of Coriolanus Vanishes, if and when it is revived beyond its initial run, Leddy would like to see a woman play the role.

“I've written genderless characters before,” he says. “I read years ago that Ripley in Alien wasn't written as a woman, and only became a woman when Sigourney Weaver was cast, and that really interested me. People feel very different about a woman behaving aggressively than they do to a man. In the case of Coriolanus Vanishes, you have a character who is seriously messed up, who has addiction problems, and probably has an undiagnosed psychological disorder. In my experience, there's a particular type of behaviour that transcends gender. It's in the programme notes that the play's been written to be played by either a man or a woman, and it will be interesting to find out whether that changes things.”

Whatever happens, Coriolanus Vanishes looks set to explore some pretty dark territory.

“In my mind it's a tragedy,” Leddy says, “but people have said there's a lot of suspense in there, and that it's like a page turner. Foe me, there's something very intra-venal about it. It's very intimate, and there's one person in the company who says it's already given them nightmares.”

Despite this, such a serious study of human behaviour has also helped inspire some much needed levity in rehearsals.

“We laugh a lot,” says Leddy, who quotes American film director John Waters. “He said, I'm already happy. I don't need a movie to show me happiness. I want to see other things.”

Coriolanus Vanishes, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, April 14-22.
www.tron.co.uk

The Herald, April 4th 2017


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Sunday, 2 April 2017

Offside

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Three stars

For too long now, football has been perceived to be just a boy's game. This wasn't always the case, as this dynamic little play co-written by Sabrina Mahfouz and Hollie McNish makes clear. It opens in the boot room, where wannabe women's team players Mickey and Keeley are preparing to try out for the national squad. Both are determined to make the grade for very different but equally personal reasons. Both too have their distractions, but they also have their heroines guiding them on.

These come in the form of Carrie Boustead and Lily Parr. Back in 1881, Boustead was a Scottish woman of colour who kept goal for several teams. Flash forward to 1921, and Parr is a star player scoring goals in front of thousands. Both were pioneers, but with the outlawing of female football, they've been airbrushed out of history. As Caroline Bryant's production for the women-centred Futures Theatre flips between time-zones, Mickey and Keeley are gradually empowered enough to go for whatever goals are put in their way, be it a misogynist press, peer group pressure or bigger things besides.

With both of the play's writers from a performance poetry background, there's a sinewy physicality pulsing Mahfouz and McNish's words over the play's rapid-fire sixty-five minutes duration. These see Tanya-Loretta Dee as Mickey and Carrie, and Jessica Butcher as Keeley and Lily, move between interior monologues and heightened on-field exchanges. With Daphne Kouma multi-tasking like crazy as various commentators and coaches, the end result is part history lesson, part celebration of how far things have come. It also points to the work that still needs to be done by truly independent women, whatever the century.

The Herald, April 3rd 2017

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