Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Gareth Nicholls - God of Carnage

Gareth Nicholls didn't realise how competitive the world of parenthood could be until he had a child of his own. A year or so on, and taking the reins at various collective activities with assorted parent/baby combos, he has witnessed first hand how easy it is for a keeping up with the Jones' type atmosphere to creep in to everyday affairs.

This experience has been something the Glasgow-based theatre director has been able to channel into his forthcoming Tron Theatre production of God of Carnage, French writer Yasmina Reza's excoriatingly funny play about how two sets of parents deal with an altercation between their children at the local park. While Nicholls himself hasn't had recourse to indulge in some of the extreme behaviour the four characters in Reza's play embark on, he nevertheless recognises how civilised discourse's descent into brattish antagonism relates to a much bigger malaise.

“It's a play that's really about asking how communities can work out heir differences when four people can't do it,” says Nicholls of the play. “Reza skewers middle-class hypocrisy in a way that I think relates to things that are going on now in terms of fake news and everything that's come out of that. There seems to be a form of political hysteria going on at the moment, and things are getting more and more extreme on both the right and the left. I'm nor sure God of Carnage hasn't always been seen as a political metaphor in that way, but in terms of what's going on in the world just now it can't help but be one.”

Reza's work is best known from her international hit play, Art, first seen in 1994. As with God of Carnage, that play cuts through middle-class pretensions by way of a debate on aesthetics and the art market in the context of three friends with very different views. God of Carnage has had a similar success story since it first opened in 2006, with Christopher Hampton's anglicised translation first seen on the West End in London in 2008. In 2011, Roman Polanski's film version of the play, simply called Carnage, starred Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet as the story's warring mothers in a work which cuts through its initial veneer of first world liberal politesse.

“When I first heard about God of Carnage,” Nicholls admits, “I thought it sounded like a play about posh people arguing about posh things, and that doesn't interest me in the slightest. Once I read it, and once we've got into it, it clearly goes beyond that. These are heightened characters whose objectives change from line to line, and it is a really funny piece of work, but we've really had to dig into the text and find the truth of those changes so it doesn't just become a Carry On film.

“These are hypocritical characters as well, in a way think we can all relate to in some way. It's in part about parenthood, and how having a kid sharpens your sense of responsibility in the world. It also makes you think about how much you should push your ideologies onto other people.

The people in the play are all in their forties, and one couple has financial wealth and the other has cultural wealth. Because it's set in France, any class differences there are aren't as nuanced as they are here. Initially again I thought they were arrogant, but as we've tried to discover why they feel the need to put themselves across in such a bullish manner I've developed a real sympathy for them.”

God of Carnage is Nicholls' first main stage production since he finished he two year stint at the Citizens Theatre as Main Stage Director in Residence. During his time at the Gorbals-based theatre, Nicholls directed an electrifying production of former Citz co-director Robert David MacDonald's stage version of Gitta Sereny's book based on her interviews with a Nazi death camp commandment, Into That Darkness.

Nicholls went on to direct a revival of David Harrower's play, Blackbird, Sam Holcroft's pared-down version of Chekhov's play, Uncle Vanya, simply called Vanya. As a parting shot, he oversaw a sold-out revival of Trainspotting, Harry Gibson's stage version of Irvine Welsh's novel first seen at the Citz in 1994.

Since then, he has directed students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in productions of John Ford's Jacobean tragedy, 'Tis Pity She's A Whore, Seamus Heaney's translation of Antigone, The Burial at Thebes, and Shakespeare's timely political play, Coriolanus. It was at the RCS where Nicholls trained in Contemporary Theatre Practice after moving to Glasgow straight from school in 2002. Nicholls had never planned a career in theatre, and was originally interested in working in product design.

“That was my thing,”he says. “It was all about how you make something that's practical and which serves a specific purpose, but how you match that with beauty.”

This is an attitude that pours through his stage work, which has developed a visual neatness that is becoming an increasingly recognisable stylistic signature. In this sense, and as Nicholls acknowledges, given the Citizens Theatre's own strong sense of a visual aesthetic over the last half century, he was a natural fit.

“I went to the Citz as part of a quite specific initiative,” Nicholls says, “and being given the chance to do things on the main stage was really important for me. I'd come from the Contemporary Theatre Practice course, and was very interested in European theatre by artists such as Pina Bausch, but when I left I'd never done any narrative work.”

Nicholls went on to to work as assistant director on shows at various theatres, directed two solo shows by Gary McNair, another solo piece, Educating Ronnie, by Joe Douglas and a staging of Dylan Thomas' radio play, Under Milk Wood, at the Tron.

Key to Nicholls appointment at the Citz were artistic director Dominic Hill and associate director Stewart Laing. Laing had begun his theatrical career at the theatre as a designer, and went on to combine this with directing to explore European classics in ways where visual aesthetics were key to the experience. One senses this, along with Hill's total theatre approach to classic plays, comes from a similar place to Nicholls' own aesthetic.

“The text of a play is really important,” he says, “but again it's about matching that with a visual beauty that works for a play. Both Dominic and Stewart do that really well, and in a way the entire history of the Citz is about that. My time at the Citz allowed me to explore who I am as a director, and gave me a bit of confidence in relation to approaching other theatres about doing things there.”

While God of Carnage is more comedic than most of Nicholls' stage work thus far, there is an inherent seriousness to the play too.

“There's so much conflict in the world at the moment, both physical and verbal,” he says, “and so many conflicting ideologies that go it that it's quite overwhelming, and because of that I find myself not wanting to read or watch the news anymore. God of Carnage looks at conflict resolution in a way that is funny, witty and urgent, and it asks how we solve these things by learning to get on with each other and accept our differences.”

God of Carnage, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, March 9-25.
www.tron.co.uk

ends

Monday, 27 February 2017

Alasdair Roberts – Pangs (Drag City)

If ever there was an artist you'd least expect to burst into a massed chorus of sha-la-las, it’s Alasdair Roberts. Here, after all, is a singer, song-writer and musician steeped in a Scottish folk tradition forged by his Callendar roots even as he found a kindred spirit in Will Oldham's similarly doleful backwoods laments. Under the name of Appendix Out, Roberts played the indie circuit with an ever changing line-up, and proved himself way ahead of the curve in terms of the embrace of traditional music which has since permeated more mainstream culture.

As the eight albums and other sundry releases under his own name have proved, however, Roberts is no tweed-sporting faux-folk flunky. Rather, his explorations and reconstructions of the arcane have sounded thrillingly contemporary, even as they looked to a more spectral past. Roberts' Oldham-produced 2005 No Earthly Man album may have been a collection of ancient murder ballads, but at times it seemed to channel the Velvet Underground circa All Tomorrow's Parties, and did for folk music what Nick Cave has done for the Blues.

Things have leavened out a bit since then, but the sha-la-las – that most quintessentially twee indie singalong – on a song called The Angry Laughing God, no less, and the nearest thing to anything resembling a wig-out on Roberts' ninth collection, is still a surprise. It's a joyous one too, despite some of the downbeat themes of the album's ten songs.

The opening title track sets the tone with a jaunty invitation to a feast while awaiting an unspecified king to return across the border. Despite the electric guitar solo, Roberts's words and ascetic-sounding vocal are at odds with the modern world. It's a tone that runs throughout, with Roberts' ornate lexicon seemingly plucked from some unearthed medieval scroll. Recorded in Ireland primarily with bassist Stevie Jones and drummer Alex Neilson, both stalwarts of numerous Glasgow-based bands, the album's low-key arrangements put flesh on the bones of the starkness of some of Roberts' lyricism.

While Roberts' guitar picking comes straight outta Trumpton, guests Debbie Armour, Tom Crossley, Rafe Fitzpatrick and Jessica Kerr add subtle textures of low-key chamber baroque by way of various shades of school assembly piano, cello, fiddle and female backing vocals. These give the songs ballast and lend them a warmth which for the casual listener sheds a chink of light on what might be an otherwise austere world. On The Downward Road, whoops, yelps and even unlikely little synthesiser squiggles are in the mix.

As a collection, Pangs recalls the sort of 1970s Caledonian-tinged folk-rock that emanated out of cellar bars, but mercifully avoids some of the studio-bound bombast that came later. This makes for a rousing and beguiling excavation of traditions both ancient and modern, sha-la-las to the max.

Pangs is available at www.dragcity.com

Product, February 2017


ends

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Death of A Salesman

Dundee Rep
Four stars

A woman dressed in black plays the flute as she walks mournfully onto a dust covered stage flanked by rows of ash cans. At its centre, a man is elevated up from a life-size hole in the ground and rises from the grave he arguably made for himself. This isn't the most obvious opening for Arthur Miller's Pulitzer Prize winning 1949 treatise on how money can literally suck the life out of those barely scraping by. Rather than merely replicate the play's inherent naturalism, Joe Douglas' production rummages deep within the psyche of the play's tormented protagonist Willy Loman to revitalises its tragedy in an even more devastating fashion.

When not in a scene, the nine-strong cast pick out low-end notes on one of two pianos that sit either side of the stage. In the play's key flashback scenes, dialogue is spoken into microphones as if echoes from the ghosts of a past that haunts Willy, as his successful brother Ben and the woman in the hotel room where his self-destruction began are conjured up.

None of this ever overwhelms the action itself. Instead, Neil Warmington's set and Nikola Kodjabashi's brooding live score become essential components of the story, with the broken and dysfunctional Lomans remaining at its heart. As Biff and Happy, Ewan Donald and Laurie Scott capture all the confusion and under-achievement of a post-war generation coming of age. Irene Macdougall's Linda is a mess of disappointment and devotion. As Willy, Billy Mack gives a heartbreaking turn as a crumpled bag of neuroses living on his nerves but too tired to admit his defeat in a searing portrait of ordinary madness in a madder world.


The Herald, February 27th 2017

ends                                                   

Friday, 24 February 2017

Alan Dimmick's studio archive 1977-2017

Stills Gallery, Edinburgh until April 9th
Four stars

Gazing across the two walls that house more than five hundred photographs by Glasgow photographer Alan Dimmick is akin to skimming through a personal scrap book of a city's entire culture. Witnessed first hand, Dimmick's lens moved through its underground that defined it as its habitu├ęs went on to change that city's landscape forever. As Dimmick's archive moves through four decades of gatherings and gigs, art openings happenings and hang-outs, his studiedly black and white images capture a world off-guard and in motion, as his subjects pose for all they're worth, recognising the ridiculousness of the situation as they go.

Presented in defiantly slap-dash-but-not-really non-chronological order, here are several generations coming together to party, play, protest and perform both offstage and on as they make spectacles of themselves en route to making a scene. The images come in all shapes and sizes, and are as much about Dimmick being there in the thick of the action as he is just a step outside of it as an active observer.

Shown as part of this year's edition of Stills' ongoing annual Collection series of archives, and seen in tandem with photographer David Eustace's Works from a private photography collection of prints loaned from his personal collection, Dimmick's archive chimes with other excavations of assorted local scenes.

The rediscovery of photographer Harry Papadopoulos' iconic images of post-punk Scotland shown at Street Level in Glasgow in 2014 as What Presence! was equally vital. Dimmick's presumably ongoing collection arrives too just as Scot-Pop documentary films Lost in France and Big Gold Dream have been released. David Keenan's new novel, This is Memorial Device, meanwhile, reimagines a small-town music scene in an audaciously baroque fashion. As with all of those, there is a sense with Dimmick's work of times and places lost in a collective rites of passage captured in the most fleeting of long-cherished but half-forgotten moments that have now become the stuff of legend.

The List, February 2017

endsends

Pink Mist

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

Playing war in the school playground is one thing in Owen Sheers' play, first produced in 2015 and now on a UK tour of duty in John Retallack and George Mann's revival of their Bristol Old Vic production. Being on the front-line of Afghanistan is quite another for the teenage boys who people become men too soon, especially with everything that comes after.

This is clear from the opening monologue spoken by Arthur, a lanky Bristol adolescent who, as played by Dan Krikler, becomes a dynamic narrator of his own destiny as well as his best mates. Standing tall while he regales the audience with the sort of free-wheeling verse born of the club culture he and his pals Taff and Hads let off steam in, he is surrounded by both them and the mother, wife and girlfriend they variously left behind. The shapes they throw in unison are a well choreographed routine, but when they speak, we see what they have lost as well.

On one level this is familiar territory for Sheers, whose verbatim play about wounded soldiers, The Two Lives of Charlie F, won the Amnesty International freedom of Expression Award several Edinburgh Festival Fringes ago. The energy that comes here from the poetry and heightened physical delivery transforms it into an even more urgent piece of work. Crucial to this are the immersive implosions of a dub-step soundtrack that so evocatively reflects the internal traumas of what used to be called shell-shock. All of this joins forces to become a damning indictment of those who see the everyday tragedies laid bare here as mere collateral damage.

The Herald, February 27th 2017

ends

Pet Shop Boys

The Playhouse, Edinburgh
Wednesday February 22nd

The atmosphere is already doing a fairly good impression of a 1980s gay super-club before Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe enter the stage for the Edinburgh leg of Pet Shop Boys' stadium sized Super tour on the back of last year's day-glo inclined album of the same name. The CC Blooms friendly techno is playing and projections are throwing Mod-u-like shapes onto what looks like a pair of upended and oversize circular Formica tables that sit either side of theatre designer Es Devlin's space age stage design.

When Tennant and Lowe are seen, it is strapped to the other side of the tables as they're wheeled around in a big reveal that makes for the grandest of entrances. A suited and be-shaded Tennant appears to be crowned with metallic garlands that give him the impression of a science-fiction Caesar, while Lowe's entire head is encased in what looks like a small alien planet. The effect is imperious, abstract and wonderfully ridiculous.

The point of the Pet Shop Boys audio-visual extravaganza being performed in an all-seated old-school theatre - the natural habitat for such arch show-men extraordinaire - is lost within seconds of the opening Inner Sanctum, as the over-riding cascade of beats and bleeps inspires the audience to rise en masse to their feet. Like the most devoted of lovers, they'll stay upstanding for what is effectively a two hour megamix of knowing euphoria of a kind that Tennant and Lowe have been honing for the last three and a half decades. The deceptively contrarian and still staggering ironic bravura of Opportunities (Let's Make lots of Money) raises the stakes even higher in a dazzling curtain-raiser.

Few artists understand the potency of cheap music more than Pet Shop Boys. Their unholy and at times sentimental marriage of Tennant's Wildean epigrams to Lowe's four-to-the-floor electronics remains an inspired and contrary late twentieth and early twenty-first century mash-up of popular classicism. This is clear from The Pop Kids,one of Super's stand-out songs that drips with deadpan languor and the sort of middle-aged ennui felt by ageing party animals who came of age with friends for life to the Pet Shop Boys canon. The fact that it is accompanied here by images of animated Rubik's Cube type structures flying about makes it even better.

The duo let their masks slip as they're joined by a low-key trio who are similarly hooded like a 1930s Flash Gordon serial. Christina Hizon joins Tennant upfront to provide vocals on the disco-tastic Burn and a smattering of violin on Love is a Bourgeois Concept, on which Tennant also plays the keyboard melody. Crucially, it is the artfully executed martial drum-beats provided by Afrika Green and former house drummer with uber production team Xenomania, Simon Tellier, that both add a human pulse to the synthesised rhythms as well as recalling the sort of syncopated reveille that moved between protest march and 1990s rave.

After this initial amyl nitrate inspired flourish of dancefloor nuggets, the mood shifts somewhere between melodrama and melancholy. For the synthesised stentorian tones of The Dictator Decides, Tennant appears in a Russian hat, great-coat and shades, as if he's just stepped out of a John Le Carre novel to sing of how 'My Facts Are Invented'. For all the industrial stylings and cloak-and-dagger discretion, we probably know who he means.

West End Girls is a now classic snapshot of its own past seen through the filter of a detached outsider. The song's deadpan observations of aspiration, class division and the allure of London's big city bright lights are as much a social document of its era as a Channel 4 documentary. Winner , from 2012,'s Elysium album, is a heroic and really rather lovely piece of triumphalist self-affirmation, and Home and Dry a sun-kissed postcard from parted lovers.

Things crank back up to second-wind larging it mode for Vocal, which dissects the experience of a night out with an earnestness that borders on poignant. Not that anyone in the moment of their own night out lost in the accompanying maze of lasers and neon catherine wheel rush cares overly much. Things move into a hit factory home stretch of It's A Sin, Left to My Own Devices and a Go West played against a back-drop of giant primary coloured lamp-shades that have just appeared from the sky.

Tennant conducts the audience for a singalong, a maestro's move he continues for the encores of Domino Dancing and a joyous Always on My Mind, with the band returning with day-glo football globe type constructions covering their heads.

Pet Shop Boys songs at their best are fly-on-the-wall social-realist vignettes awash with intimate intrigues and possibly true confessions. Heard live, they are also the ultimate party soundtrack for yesterday's hedonists who, as the show's final reprise of The Pop Kids suggests, have still got it, and will have for a long time to come yet.

 
Product, February 2017

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Usurper - The Big Five (Singing Knives)

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, something is stirring. Or at least it is in the world of Usurper, the
Edinburgh-based duo of Malcy Duff and Ali Robertson, whose sonic missives over the last decade have become increasingly-expansive exercises in performance that go beyond notions of sound art. Through a series of sketches, routines and goof-offs, all punctuated by noises off made by a bucket-load of acquired junk, Usurper's modus operandi falls somewhere between Samuel Beckett, The Goons and Tex Avery by way of John Hurt's experimental sound designer in Jerzy Skolimowski's neglected 1978 film, The Shout.

Following a busy year of monthly CDr releases on their own Giant Tank label, Usurper's cup runneth over, even more on this forty-five minute cassette released on the Sheffield-based Singing Knives label. A sequel of sorts to their 2012 Cdr, The Big Four, which referenced assorted quartets of personality traits, thrash metal bands and coincidence, this follow-up pieces together recordings made in various locations in Edinburgh's urban jungle during 2013 and 2014. The starting point was a Google search of the phrase 'big five' that threw up lists of the most hunted wild animals on the verge of extinction, psychological personality tests and pre-censorship American war comics.

The first side hisses cheerily into life with the word 'Snakes' exclaimed as if the opening of some undiscovered Ivor Cutler routine. As the word evolves into a little mantra of criss-crossing voices, the names of other animals are introduced. ' Mosquito'. 'Giraffe'. Monkey'. 'Elephant'. Except the way the words are spoken transcends their original meaning, so as the words are elongated, compressed and bent out of shape by all manner of inflections, they become a little symphony of pure form.

Accompanied by assorted low-key shakes, rattles and rolls, at moments it squawks. At others it grunts, exhales or else ponders a moment of silence. At others still, these primal utterings are overlaid with verite conversations between Duff and Robertson, cast as great white hunters on a mission. This is Usurper on safari, frustrated explorers in an absurd landscape where the wildlife announces itself with a signature verbal tic. Each word becomes a rumination, an accusation or a postulation, so in a series of ethnographic and anthropological eruptions and excavations, survival of the fittest is paramount.

The second side opens with colourful first-person story-book testimonies of life on the front-line before comic book speech bubbles are brought to life with a series of 'Blams' and 'rat-a-tats' spoken over what sounds like a regimented march over the back kitchen table. A toddler briefly joins in with his or her own sound effects before the two tribes move outside to spar among the traffic roar.

The pulp fictions become ever more fantastical, so the voices sound ridiculous, as if the miniature icons of Michael Bentine's Potty Time were rewriting history to make themselves appear more heroic. If at times this resembles a trashy and slightly grotesque take on Jackanory, the real collateral damage can be heard in the final on-location recordings. Like Still Game's Jack and Victor hanging out with the local Noise set, Duff and Robertson are in part strip cartoon brought comically to life. There’s something deeply serious going on here too in these fragments that speak volumes about how everyone’s an endangered species in a maladjusted world.

www.duffandrobertson.bandcamp.com


Product, February 2017

 
ends

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Julian Cope

La Belle Angele, Edinburgh
Saturday February 18th 2017

Julian Cope doesn't do things by halves. This is clear from the moment he opens the Edinburgh leg of his current tour to promote his latest opus, Drunken Songs, dressed in his long-standing mix and match uniform of army cap, cut-off khaki kecks and leather jerkin. His once boyish face is permanently hidden by a wild-man's long hair and beard ensemble topped off by rock star shades designed to hide eyes that are what he later describes as “piss-holes in the snow.” He looks both ridiculous and heroic, and in the execution of his appearance he is fearless.

“I know I'm dressed as an invader,” Cope says in a plummy burr of middle England and acquired Scouse, “but it's the closest it's been to 1933 in our time.”

Ever since the self-styled arch-drude embarked on a wayward anti-career that saw him elevate himself from the Liverpool post-punk underground to briefly become a wide-eyed teeny-bopper idol with the Teardrop Explodes in 1981, Cope has embraced each new passion with the child-like zeal of the eternal convert. From new-age acid tripper to fantastical novelist with his 2014 epic, One Three One, Cope has flitted with relish from antiquarian to eco-activist, auto-biographer, myth-maker and unbridled champion of previously largely undocumented strains of out-there German and Japanese music.

His Head Heritage website is an essential treasure trove of obscure cult sounds which has arguably fed the heads of a new generation of musical seekers. Now, it seems, after twenty years off the sauce, Cope has embraced booze with the evangelical fervour of a born-again dipsomaniac greeting an old friend, and he wants the world to know about it. Crucially, despite all the mind-expansion, Cope has remained an extraordinary song-writer, and despite Drunken Songs being trailed as 'forty minutes of gnostic drunkenness', appears to have come full pop circle.

What Cope admits to being an accidentally politically tinged set begins with Autogedden Blues, the lead track from his Heathcote Williams inspired 1991 anti car album, Autogedden. Cope's solo version of it exposes it even more as an increasingly frantic cousin to Horses era Patti Smith before he rewinds even more to Double Vegetation from 1991's Peggy Suicide album and Fear Loves This Place from 1992's Jehovakill.

The songs may be stripped back, but the same plummy mix of innocence and depravity courses through Cope's voice. His open mic style troubadour shtick resembles a free-wheeling back-packer in a way that undoubtedly allows him more mobility as well as being more economically viable. Yet for all the prevailing sense of wonder, ego and anarchy, there are moments crying out for a brass fanfare, or even just the everyday sumptuousness of a four-piece flourish. Even so, Cope's canon comes at the contrary and deliciously commercial end of weird.

He gets back to his roots with a take on The Culture Bunker, which first appeared on second Teardrop Explodes album, Wilder. Even back then Cope understood the powers of self-mythology in this self-reflective paean to the late 1970s Liverpool that first spawned his awfully big adventures alongside other Matthew Street irregulars including Messrs Drummond, McCulloch and Wylie.

As if to demonstrate just how Cope was shaped by and is still steeped in that time, he follows it with Liver as Big as Hartlepool. This cut from Drunken Songs may have started off as a jokey riposte to the sentimental bombast of Pete Wylie's Heart as Big as Liverpool, and to hear the one-time band-mates turned sparring partners still sniping after all these years is priceless. But Cope's willingness to leave himself vulnerable and admit his outsider status while living in the city is as moving and as significant a document as Bill Drummond's recent writings on the period prompted by the untimely death of fellow traveller Pete Burns.

There is more of this later on a version of The Great Dominions. Arguably Wilder's most ambitious stab at immortality, here Cope enlists the services of an ancient mellotron to provide even more melodrama to the song through a series of drones that give the song an archaic feel.

Such musical excavations are curiously at odds with Cope's pronouncements during his lengthy but incident-packed between-song monologues regarding a loathing of folk music. Also potentially being honed for what may well end up as a spoken-word show with occasional songs are shaggy dog stories on Shetland, how he came to exchange his old Luftwaffe hat for an RAF cap and the different attitudes towards swear-words between America and Britain.

This prompts further thoughts on how Billy Joel might reinvent a folk song, which somehow leads to a brief debate with the audience on whether Thomas Edison or Nikola Tesla was more important in relation to electrical invention. While one suspects such ramblings may have caused one or two musical missives to be dropped due to time restraints, over ninety minutes Cope nevertheless manages to get through fourteen songs old and new.

Following a brooding run through Peggy Suicide era's Pristeen, Cope returns for“one of those Ba-ba songs” as he puts it, presumably referring to his series of early 1980s confections that include Teardrop Explodes single, Passionate Friend. As it is we're treated to early solo single The Greatness and Perfection of Love, which is effectively Passionate Friend part two in all but name. More than thirty years after it burst out of Cope's filter-free imagination like a grown-up nursery rhyme with libidinous intent, it sounds as chock-full of wisdom and experience as any other folk song.

Product, February 2017

Joe Douglas - Death of A Salesman

When Arthur Miller wrote Death of A Salesman in 1949, post World War Two America was still dusting itself down from the pre-war depression which had ravaged it. Miller's play about the past his own sell-by date Willy Loman's decline into mental collapse was a damning indictment of U.S. capitalism and this cruellest of system's concentration on the need for those on the bottom rung of the financial ladder to constantly hustle their way to the top. As one of life's believers in the American dream, Loman was mere collateral damage of that system's failure.

Almost seventy years on, and with America's new government a volatile pressure-cooker that looks set to explode, Joe Douglas' new production of the play for Dundee Rep's ensemble company attempts to cut through the play's seemingly unbreakable naturalism to lay bare what is going on in Loman's head.

“It fascinates me,” says Douglas, who is currently associate director at Dundee Rep in the run up to Andrew Panton taking up his post as artistic director later this year. “There are all these references to the house, but I don't care what the house looks like. I want to see inside Willy Loman's mind. Miller wrote the play at a time before people thought about mental health in the way we do now, but here is a man who has this daily battle with depression, but who doesn't know how to communicate it. I want to reveal the pain of the family. There are lots of different reasons I wanted to look at this play, but one of the main ones is that I don't want to end up like Willy Loman.”

Given that he is currently on a course of anti-depressants himself, this isn't something that Douglas says lightly. Working in an industry riven by insecurity in terms of employment, and where artists are effectively selling their talent from one job to the next, Douglas is acutely aware of how that can effect those like him.

“Our industry is all about using our imagination to sell dreams,” says Douglas, “and the way the cycle of jobs goes, a lot of emotions are left bubbling away under the surface after it ends. These things are never talked about the way a lot of issues about mental health are never talked about, but I just want to be honest and open about it, and to look at some of the issues about mental health that are there in Miller's play.”

To get inside Loman's head, Douglas has enlisted the talents of designer Neil Warmington, composer Nikola Kodjabashia and lighting designer Sergey Jakovsky to open up Miller's play in a way rarely seen.

“We've pared things back,” says Douglas of the show's design. “Instead of having the house, we've got the dirt of the garden there which I think is more important in terms of the way Willy is digging from the ground up. Initially that was frustrating for the actors, because they don't have the house to go to, but when people pull together you can see the poetry of Miller's script more.”

Music too is key to Douglas's production, with the cast playing Kodjabashia's live score in a way made familiar by his work with director Dominic Hill at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow.

“There's lots of music throughout the play,” says Douglas. “I wanted to see what happened when Nikola was given a more naturalistic text, and I think the sound created onstage is key to the play, and becomes a direct current to what Willy is thinking. That's really exciting, because it's happening in the moment.”

Douglas is happy to admit that his approach to Death of A Salesman has been influenced by Flemish wunderkind Ivo Van Hove's controversial take on Miller's A View from the Bridge. Both productions are at odds with the recent pronouncements of playwright David Hare's recent pronouncements dismissing directorial interpretations of classic plays as well as the less definable role of theatre-makers.

“I think it's nonsense,” Douglas says of Hare's pronouncement. “Any play that has classic status need to be re-energised and given different readings. As long as you retain a sensitivity to a truth of the text, then let's do it, I say, otherwise you end up with a deadly theatre. When I watch a play, I want to hear a brilliant story, but I also want to learn something and see something different that I might not have seen before.

Douglas's production of Death of A Salesman forms the first of Dundee Rep's America centred Stars and Stripes season. The second of three shows will be a co-production with the Poorboy Ensemble of a new piece written by Sandy Thompson, Monstrous Bodies (Chasing Mary Shelley Down Peep O' Day Lane). Douglas will then direct the Rep ensemble's annual community tour with a production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Bertolt Brecht's Chicago set fable concerning one little demagogue's craving for power. Given the state of the world art the moment, the timing of the season isn't coincidence.

“We planned the season before the American election,” says Douglas, “but I knew it would be relevant whatever the result. It just felt like a massive cultural influence over every other country beyond America. As far as Death of A salesman goes, you can see the effects of capitalism and consumerism in its nascent form, and during rehearsals for the play we've all become new junkies watching the results of the election play out.

The season comes towards the end of Douglas's tenure as associate artistic director of Dundee Rep prior to Panton joining the company. During that time, Douglas's work has included his much lauded revival of John McGrath's The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. While Panton will combine his artistic directorship with his continuing professorship of musical theatre at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow. For Douglas, the bold statement he is making with Death of A Salesman might well become his defining moment at Dundee.

“It's a play that's not been done in Dundee for twenty years,” says Douglas, “and it's a play that means a lot to me on a personal level, and I think it's an important big play that still speaks to us now.”

If Miller was writing Death of A Salesman today, might he put Willy Loman on anti-depressants?

“I think he would,” says Douglas. “If he could afford them. There are patterns of mania to his character, and there's a slightly ephemeral quality to the play. What is he selling? And why can't he communicate anything that's going on inside his head to his family? Bit it's more than that. Willy Loman's personal tragedy becomes a much wider metaphor of this belief in the American dream, and understanding that this belief in that dream is a lie. Miller went through it himself by challenging that, and now here we are again, still living that lie.”

Death of A Salesman, Dundee Rep, February 22-March 11.
www.dundeerep.co.uk

ends

Monday, 20 February 2017

The Cause of Thunder

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Three stars

It's more than two years since the Scottish independence referendum, and a lot has changed for Bob Cunningham, the ageing firebrand at the centre of Chris Dolan's solo play, performed with partisan gusto by David Hayman as part of a tour that travels the country over the next month. Bob is seeking shelter from the Glasgow storm, and finds himself washed up in the same bar he was last in before the referendum.

Bruised but unbowed, Bob holds court as he attempts to come to terms, not just with the No vote, but with the pro Brexit result, the election of President Trump and the rise of hate crime that appears to have been spawned in tandem with both. In this respect, Dolan's sequel to his pre-referendum companion piece, The Pitiless Storm, is a kind of living newspaper that heaps iniquity after iniquity onto Bob and the strata of working class west of Scotland society he represents.

Dolan's script is two-tiered in David Hayman Junior's production for the FairPley company. On the one hand, Bob is a Lear-like figure, briefly in exile from his own ideals while he takes stock of his own mortality as a principled survivor of the post-truth age. On the other, Bob's affirmations as he rediscovers his faith in his own beliefs as much as the wider human spirit are dispatches from the front-line of the bar-room revolution. Hayman flits briskly between gallus bravura, lingering pathos and a fierce commitment to something better as Bob attempts to make sense of the mess which the majority of us have had thrust upon us by the darkest of powers imaginable.

The Herald, February 20th 2017

ends

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Slapp Happy with Faust

Cafe Oto, London
February 10th-11th 2017

The birds are singing on the pre-show recorded soundtrack to the first night of a rare and exquisite weekend London residency by Dagmar Krause, Peter Blegvad and Anthony Moore's international trio of 1970s sired avant-pop maestros. Following dates in Cologne at the end of 2016, these sold out reunion shows also saw the band reunited with bassist Jean-Herve Peron and drummer Werner 'Zappi' Diermaier, aka fellow travellers and doyens of the German underground, Faust. This meant that one of the post hippy/pre-punk era's pivotal underground alliances were playing together for the first time in forty-five years.

Slapp Happy's early history saw them wend their way through unlikely collaborations, not only with Faust, but with then label-mates Henry Cow. The trio's understated brand of soft-focus swing-time baroque has always been a laid-back counterpoint to the more militant bombast of their peers. Four decades on, you can still overhear earnest bar-room exchanges during the break between sets about how someone, possibly Blegvad, was 'uncritical of Marxism' when he and Moore ended Slapp Happy's two album dalliance with the more dialectically-inclined Henry Cow.

It is perfectly understandable, then, that Slapp Happy's oddly now-sounding twenty-two song set drew largely from the two albums recorded with Faust in 1972 and 1973, Sort Of and the original version of Casablanca Moon that was rejected by their record label. The latter only saw the light of day in 1980 as Acnalbasac Noom, seven years after a smoothed-out re-recorded version was released. Six songs from the 1998 album, Ca Va – Slapp Happy's first full length release under their own name since their adventures with Henry Cow (there was a single in 1982 and a TV opera under their own names in 1991) – make for a seamless blend ushered in by the aforementioned recordings of bird song. This soundtracks the arrival of several generations of Slapp Happy aficionados squeezing into what effectively becomes the band's living room for this most intimate set of shows.

Blegvad acts as both master of ceremonies and nominal musical director as he counts in each song inbetween dry as a bone asides that pepper every intro. The opening A Little Something, the first of a salvo of five Casablanca Moon/Acnalbasac Noom songs, sets an informal and slightly hesitant vibe as the sixty-something quintet ease their way into things.

Krause's nerves aren't helped by a reverb-heavy mix which she reckons makes her voice sound not like her. Peron's bass is too low, says someone. As is Moore's electric piano, it seems, not that it matters any for those watching. The pin-drop volume makes for a rapt audience who lap up every soft focus shimmy through the Slapp Happy back catalogue.

Krause's cut-glass diction may be a tad lower than the early days, but it is delivered with a clarity borne of the precision translation brings, and which was tailor-made for musical theatre. But these are very different kinds of show-tunes. As Blegvad and Moore pluck out low-key tangos and waltzes, Peron and Diermaier remain passive in the background, pulsing things gently along. One of the many joys of the weekend is seeing the pair forsaking Faust's more incendiary excursions and happy to take a back seat as a low-key rhythm section that's always playful without ever being intrusive.

On one level all this is as polite as a palm court cabaret troupe who produce chansons for slow dancing at the avant-gardists Valentine's Ball. But despite Blegvad's way with a rhyming couplet, such a particular brand of eccentricity on homages to Michaelangelo, Rimbaud and Byron are more knowingly fantastical than mere whimsy.

Curiously, given that the music is being made by an American, an Englishman and three Germans , a lightly toasted English sensibility sways into view that's as of its time as a Cadbury's Flake advert. The breathy romance of The Secret and Slow Moon's Romance seem to have set a template of sorts for the likes of Noosha Fox's post-Fox 1977 solo single, Georgina Bailey, as well as Julie Covington's more strident 1978 hit version of Alice Cooper's Only Women Bleed. Only when Moore plugs in his electric guitar for the Velvet Underground stylings of Blue Flower – a song covered by both Mazzy Star and the Pale Saints - do things crank up a bit.

In the second, Ca Va dominated set, King of Straw sounds utterly modern(e), and Anthony Moore's kazoo solo on the swoonsome Let's Travel Light captures the essence of a counter culture that could be both sensual and irreverent inbetween all the Verfremdungseffeckt going on elsewhere.

On the second night, and following the late addition of a Saturday afternoon matinee, things nearly don't happen at all when Moore's keyboard won't work. Assorted monitors are either too loud or inaudible to those onstage. Moore can't find his kazoo for Let's Travel Light, and Krause is plagued by feedback which works oddly well for Blue Flower, but which is clearly affecting everyone else onstage. Moore, possibly wanting to let off steam after his assorted travails with keyboards and kazoos, gets to his feet and gives one of the amps a good old-fashioned thump, which seems to do the trick.

If such a plague of gremlins suggests a form of controlled chaos, it in fact reveals the butterfly-winged fragility of Slapp Happy songs. Yes, all three members of the group are perfectionists by various degrees, but they also swing with delicate and meticulous airs that recognise the nuances required to translate each song's deceptively simple intricacies into something precious. This they proceed to do, as they did the night before, with warmth, charm and a palpable if occasionally fractious fondness for each other that embraces the audience into the fold with brief excursions into anecdotage.

Krause tells of how Blue Flower stems from her own experiences with a Warhol associated film collective. Blegvad notes the accidental political resonance of King of Straw. Before Heading for Kyoto, Krause slips on a hand-crafted Japanese cardigan. As with the previous night, the band don't go off for the encores, but instead remain where they are for the upbeat raptures of Dawn and a final beat of The Drum, proving that sometimes the only revolutions that matter are the ones that come quietly.

Product, February 2017

ends

Rent

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

On the streets of New York, there's a riot going on, everybody's hustling to make ends meet and the cops are beating up anyone who's different. The property magnates are intent on turfing out the arty types who give the 'hood it's character, and the kids are clinging to each other for comfort in order to survive. Sound familiar?

Jonathan Larson's La Boheme inspired pop musical set among a diverse group of twenty-somethings finding out who they are looked like an elegy for a pre-millennial generation who had come of age with the spectre of AIDS when it premiered in 1996. Twenty years on, if it wasn't for the lack of mobile phones, Bruce Guthrie's touring anniversary production could be set last week in any inner city melting pot in the throes of hipster-friendly gentrification.

In a loft shared by Billy Cullum's wannabe Warhol Mark and Ross Hunter's would-be rock star Roger, the pair become the centre of a community populated by addicts, performance artists and drag queen Angel. The latter is played with tenderness by Harrison Clark, stepping in for an injured Layton Williams. Out of this comes a slack-tastic coming of age soap opera that features identity politics to the max in a way now commonplace on teen TV.

The elaborate urban steel set all this is played out on allows full vent for Lee Proud's choreography, as the large ensemble cast sing and dance their way through their characters' pains. While only Seasons of Love truly stands out musically, like those onstage, each song is emotionally linked in a way that both depends on and supports each other in a show where unity counts most of all.

The Herald, February 17th 2017

ends

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The Winter's Tale

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

A little boy in a Christmas jumper is the first person you see at the start of Max Webster's new production of Shakespeare's light and shade dramady. Grabbing the spotlight for all it's worth, young Mamillius will wind up book-ending the play in a way that will haunt his parents Leontes and Hermione forever. For now, however, it's the festive season in suburban Sicilia and he can run wild and free in his bear-suit while his mum and dad hold court. Christmas parties being what they are, alas, Leontes' jealousy of his pregnant wife's mild flirtation with his best friend Polixenes sets in motion a train of events that all but destroys the family's cosy existence.

The first half of Webster's modern-dress production is a grimly grown-up affair in which men in suits wield a power that's based on control come what may. So obsessed with Hermione's imagined indiscretion is Leontes that he can't admit the truth, even when it's proven to him in court. Sixteen years later, an apposite joy permeates Webster's Fife-based version of Bohemia in the second half. Here Leontes and Hermione's abandoned daughter has grown up as farm girl Perdita, who is courted by Polixenes' slumming-it son Florizel among the common people on gala day.

There's fun to be had here from the tracksuit-clad community led by Jimmy Chisholm's Autolycus, and who cavort to a live folk-based score led by composer/musician Alasdair Macrae. It is the crumpled gravitas that looms large over John Michie's Leontes, however, that dominates. It's as if the consequences of his actions are too much to bear, and you know that the wounded child within is screaming still.

The Herald, February 16th 2017

ends

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

A Judgement in Stone

King's Theatre, Edinburgh
Three stars

Valentine's Day massacres don't come much more quintessentially English than the one at the heart of Ruth Rendell's 1977 novel, adapted for the stage by Simon Brett and Antony Lampard in a production mounted by Bill Kenwright's Classic Thriller Theatre Company. The curtain opens on Eunice Marchman, the constantly cowed housekeeper to the opera loving Coverdale clan. Their gunning down in their country pile has seen Detective Superintendent Vetch flown in from London to investigate alongside the local force headed up by Detective Sergeant Challoner.

As the pair survey the scene by way of a series of flashbacks in Roy Marsden's production, the class divide is laid bare. This is shown not just by George Coverdale and his new wife Jacqueline's cavalier attitude to marriage, but by George's daughter Melinda's university dalliance that affords her similar freedoms. Her step-brother Giles, meanwhile, takes his lifestyle choices from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In gaudy counterpoint, local post-mistress Joan adopts an evangelical moral stance while sporting leopard-print mini-skirts and egging Eunice on to an explosive kind of liberation.

Filmed twice, first as The Housekeeper in 1986, then by Claude Chabrol as La Ceremonie in 1995, Rendell's story tackles the social gulf that prevailed in a now archaic-looking 1970s. Ideologically, Rendell sides with Sophie Ward's Eunice, who shuffles throughout the play weighed down with a barely educated guilt which only new-fangled technology conspires to give away. The nuances of what drives Eunice may be lost, but in her own way she's exacting the sort of revenge advocated by many freedom fighters in an era blighted by collective neuroses, many consequences of which are only now coming to light.

The Herald, February 15th 2017

ends

Bruce Guthrie - Rent

Bruce Guthrie was already some way into the planning stages of directing a twentieth anniversary production of Jonathan Larson's La Boheme inspired contemporary musical, Rent, when he visited New York. As he was shown around the city by some of Larson's closest friends and collaborators, he saw where the show's community of starving artists, misfits and outsiders came of age against a backdrop of poverty, AIDS and a city in a state of collapse.

“It was a kind of pilgrimage,” says Guthrie, whose production arrives in Edinburgh next week. “I spoke to Jonathan Larson's family, who've seen hundreds of productions of the show, in depth, and I saw loads of places Rent is set in. I saw the diner that only closed a couple of years ago, and I got taken to a couple of places that are still exactly the same as they were then.”

Guthrie was also gifted a very special recording of Rent.

“It was of Jonathan Larson playing an early version of it by himself on a keyboard,” says Guthrie. “It was a real privilege to be able to hear that, and to get a real sense of Jonathan and where Rent came from.”

Larson first became involved in what would evolve into Rent in 1989, when he joined forces with playwright Billy Aronson to create a musical based on Puccini's opera reset in modern day New York. It was Larson who suggested it should be set in Manhattan's East Village, where punks, drag queens and other misfits formed an underground society against a backdrop of poverty and homelessness. Larson wanted to bring musical theatre to a generation weaned on MTV, and eventually stepped out on his own, with Aronson retaining a credit for the show's original concept and additional lyrics.

Larson survived by waiting tables as he worked on the show, which after extensive workshopping, opened off-Broadway in 1996. Larson didn't live to see his show go on to global success. In the early hours of the day of what should have been Rent's first preview, he died of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm. While this added an extra poignancy to a show that was in part about loss, it was the dramatic power of Rent that saw it transfer to Broadway and travel the world.

Guthrie's fascination with Larson's show dates from a student production he directed at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

“I'd never seen Rent,” he says, “but I knew it had this incredible history, and I picked it because it seemed to suit the students. I listened to it, and I started reading La Boheme, and working on it I began to see it in a completely different light. I think it's a show with tremendous heart. It's about having hope in the face of difficult circumstances. It's about family and trauma, but there is always hope within that.

“I also think it's got a tremendous story. The first half has so many different types of songs to introduce all these characters, and is such a treat, and then because you care about them by now, watching what happens in these people's lives over a year becomes a visceral and beautiful experience,and the message of living for today is something we all need to learn from.”

As producer Robert Mackintosh came on board with Theatre Clwyd and Wales Millennium Centre for his production, Guthrie recognised even more that Larson's work transcended its 1990s setting. Guthrie quotes the opening line of the show's title song; 'How do you document real life / When real life's getting more like fiction each day?'

Raised in Sauchie in Clackmannanshire, Guthrie began his directing career while studying drama at Guildford School of Acting in London. As he prepared for his first ever directing gig, a production of Frank McGuinness' Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, there were shades of Rent style starving artistry in his own lifestyle.

“I worked sixteen hour days in Tesco's to make enough money to pay for that show,” he says. For his second show, a production of Willis Hall's The Long and the Short and the Tall presented at the Pleasance in London, “I was living off one pound twenty-five a day to save money, so, like others, I suppose I sort of lived the lifestyle in the way Mark, the narrator of Rent does, but we always knew we could call family to help.”

Guthrie has gone on to work at the National Theatre Studio, and was resident staff director at the National Theatre, where he directed John Lythgow in Lithgow's one-man show, Stories by Heart. Guthrie worked with Sam Mendes on the Old Vic's year-long international tour of Richard III starring Kevin Spacey. Guthrie has directed open air Shakespeare in Singapore, and recently completed the forthcoming film version of Alan Hruska's play, The Man on Her Mind, which he directed onstage in 2012. Guthrie also directed Charlotte Church in The Last Mermaid as part of the Wales Millennium Centre's Festival of Voice.

The last time Guthrie brought a show to Edinburgh was with German writer Manfred Karge's one woman epic of post World War Two survival, Man to Man. Guthrie co-directed the Wales Millennium Centre production with Frantic Assembly's Scott Graham for a successful Edinburgh Festival Fringe run. With Man to Man set in the Brandenburg slums, there are more similarities with Rent than might be immediately obvious.

“My taste is settled in the two,” says Guthrie, “and the link is bohemia.”

Like Germany, New York has changed since Rent first appeared, both in terms of gentrification and what up to America's recent presidential election appeared to be an acceptance of those who live outside society's mainstream. Where, then, are the new bohemians?

“They still exist,” says Guthrie. “They'll always be around, especially now. It always seems to be the case that it's the darkest times of human experience that have bred the greatest art, and what more bohemian lifestyle can you get than a group of actors on tour looking after each other and giving everything they've got every single night.”

“Jonathan Larson created a show about real people with real problems, but who felt that they belonged. We have some people in the audience who come to see it again and again. When something touches the human spirit in that way it's extraordinary.

“Rent is an imperfect masterpiece, because Jonathon Larson wasn't there to see it through to any changes he might have made, but it is a masterpiece, and the imperfections are there to be embraced. We're all imperfect. That's what makes people interesting. That's what makes us alive.”

In terms of where the world is now, then, there are real similarities with the world Larson wrote about.

“It's cyclical,” says Guthrie. “As one generation gets older, it forgets all the things the previous generation went through. That's what theatre does so brilliantly, and it's what Rent does so brilliantly. It reminds us of what it takes to live the life that you want to live.

“We're at a point now where it's not just that we don't know what the next twelve months will bring. Now, we don't even know what tomorrow will bring. As a director I'm finding it fascinating to watch, but as a person I find it pretty scary. That's what Rent's about. It's saying it's alright to be scared, but don't let it control you, don't let it rule you, and don't let it stop you being who you are.”

Rent, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, February 14-18.
www.edtheatres.com

The Herald, February 14th 2017

ends

Sunday, 12 February 2017

The Bucky Rage – F.Y.I. Luv U (Handsome Records / Northern Cowboy Records)

The labels of this vinyl only 45RPM 12” are a giveaway of sorts of what’s in store on this latest eight track opus from these Glasgow-sired purveyors of garage guitar rumble. On the A side is a close-up mug-shot of 7ft 4 inch French wrestler and long-time scourge of Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant. On the flip, a drawing of a ghost-like masked Lucha Libre style figure peers out. Such images act as the perfect trailer for a set of furious lo-fi growlers recorded in one afternoon by a larger than life and potentially dangerous crew of cartoon superheroes.

The hyped-up quartet's onstage image of wrestling masks and German army helmets resurrect the sort of pantomime outrage of 1960s schlock-meister Screaming Lord Sutch and trash-psych merchants The Mummies. Bassist Kyle Thunder, guitar man Handsome Al, drum beater extraordinaire Shug and plinky-plonky keyboardist Pete – just Pete – keep their secret identities close to their chests.

So it goes for more than a decade of WWE inspired rock-and-rage, from the 2006 Vote for Jesus six-track through a slew of releases to 2014's Under the Underground album. Somewhere along the way, the fantastic four managed to found Buckfest, a now annual indoor festival which has taken up residence in assorted Glasgow cellar bars.

The band's name, for those not well-versed in the mythological drinking habits of the Scottish West Coast male, refers to the excitable short-term side-effects of the much loved brand of fortified wine brewed by monks.

The transcendental effects of necking such a brew are well documented. The following should act as a guide to listeners of a nervous or tea-total disposition, and should be treated with caution.

The record kicks off with Nine Stone Cowboy, a song awash with fuzz guitar repetition, sci-fi synths and a rocket-size countdown. Topped off with a vocal melody that's a dead ringer for Buddy and Cathy Rich's big band version of Sonny and Cher's The Beat Goes On, it blasts off into orbit with a clatter. Dr Dre USA sounds like Fiery Jack era Fall siphoned through psycho-billy yowling and recorded in what sounds like a shed where the band are hollering through a mattress.

Down A Hole sees our heroes crash back down to earth with a vintage strut and an out of tune Woolworths keyboard not heard since Live at the Witch Trials and excavated from a skip. Closing the Andre the Giant side, the pounding jungle drums, echo-laden vocals and primitive synth stabs of Chewing Gum sound like Suicide reborn with menaces before collapsing into an end of groove goof-off.

Over on the Lucha Libre side, Hippy Shit sees the gang regroup as they come swaggering in from the crypt like a leather-jacketed gang taking on the stragglers of retro-styled youth cults with a call to arms that should set the long-hairs running for the hills.

The final three heartbreakers sound like excerpts from a delinquent-studded rock and roll musical that might well be the anti-Grease. I Don't Care (That You Don't Care) is a bratty two-fingers to the stuck-up madam who just ditched the leader of the gang (no, not that one). F.Y.I. Luv U is a last dance at-the-hop declaration that confesses all with a classic 1960s Brit-beat vocal. Finally, Let Her Know hangs tough once more as the grand finale to a teenage dream, which, as the real Bucky rage subsides, remains wild at heart and weird on top.

Product, February 2017

ends

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Made in India

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

When you hear a baby crying towards the end of Satinder Chohan's new play, it carries more poignancy than one might expect. The baby is a woman called Aditi's, except it isn't, because Aditi is also known as Surrogate 32, one of a small female army who quite literally make a living in Doctor Gupta's clinic in Gujarat, India's international centre of surrogacy traffic. Into this world steps Eve, an English woman desperate for a child by her late husband. For all three women who occupy Katie Posner's radiant looking production, the situation which has brought them together offers them lifelines of very different kinds. When surrogacy is banned mid-way through Eve's treatment, they are galvanised into action.

Everyone is on the make in Chohan's play, a co-production between Tamasha and the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry in association with Pilot Theatre. As Gina Isaac's Eve attempts to communicate with Ulrika Krishnamurti's Aditi through Google Translate, there is more than a whiff of colonialist condescension in the air. Aditi and Doctor Gupta can more than hold their own in the survival stakes, with the latter invested with a steely pragmatism by Syreeta Kumar.

Lydia Denno's set of moveable screens seems to throb with energy as they are wrapped around the women. This is especially the case when bathed with Prema Mehta's scarlet lighting while Arun Ghosh's powerful spiritual jazz-based score washes over it. At the heart of the play, driven as it is with the pain of need on several counts, is how a woman's right to choose is complicated by being commodified in a world where money matters most of all.

The Herald, February 13th 2017

ends

Evita

The Playhouse, Edinburgh
Four stars

Given the current state of the world, watching a mob of banner-wielding demonstrators intent on electing a populist demagogue at the close of the first act in Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's greatest collaboration is a slightly odd experience. Given too that the mob are singing about how the voice of the people cannot be divided, the effect borders on chilling. It's unlikely this was Rice and Lloyd Webber's intention when they premiered their finest couple of hours on the West End back in 1978. The staying power of the duo's real-life latin-tinged rags to riches melodrama suggests it taps into something that goes beyond the appeal of the show's best songs in Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright's grandiloquent production.

It begins and ends with a funeral, as Argentinian people's princess Eva Peron lies in state beneath a portrait of her still young self. As things rewind, we watch a small-town girl with big ideas, blonde ambition and stars in her eyes elbow her way to playing the ultimate leading lady. In the title role, Emma Hatton lends a subtlety to the choreographed courtship with Kevin Stephen Jones' Peron and Evita's subsequent deification. But it is Gian Marco Schiaretti's narrator Che who dominates, watching over events as his nation's revolutionary conscience, he and Eva flip-sides of a political pin-up.

Despite the try-too-hard naffness of some of Rice's lyrics, I'd Be Surprisingly Good For You, Another Suitcase in Another Hall and Don't Cry For Me Argentina remain stand-outs in this most grown-up of musicals. Here, glamour and power may bring fame, but it is the death of those who possess that power that creates a legend.

The Herald, February 9th 2017

ends

Matthew Lenton and Lliam Paterson - The 8th Door / Bluebeard's Castle

It isn't immediately clear what's going on behind the big wooden double doors that lead into Scottish Opera's Glasgow rehearsal room. Inside, it's known that Vanishing Point theatre company director Matthew Lenton is rehearsing his production of The 8th Door, a devised work created with Scottish Opera composer Lliam Paterson in a co-production between the two companies that marks Lenton and Vanishing Point's first foray into opera. The 8th Door forms the first part of a double bill with Bluebeard's Castle, composer Bela Bartok and librettist Bela Balazs' blood-soaked one-act work, which was first performed in 1918.

Outside, in the corridor, all that can be gleaned comes from a dissonant orchestral blare that seeps through the pitch-black that can be seen through the crack left between the doors. Once the music stops and the lights go on, things become more familiar. Two large screens are fixed at one end of the room, onto which are projected the close-up the faces of actresses Elicia Daly, Pauline Goldsmith and then Gresa Pallaska as they sit side by side beneath the screen. As the recorded music plays, it is as if some approximation of an expressionist silent movie is being played out. Without a word being spoken, the expressions on the faces of Daly, Goldsmith and Pallaska hint at shared anxieties and things left unsaid.

It's the week before Christmas 2016, and, as is ever the case with Vanishing Point, who have developed a globally acclaimed canon over the last decade with shows such as Interiors and, more recently, The Destroyed Room, this new show, set to be premiered in March, doesn't quite know what it is yet.

“These two weeks are about trying to find a physical language to go with the music of the piece that Lliam has written,” Lenton says of The 8th Door. “This is really us trying to get the form that we think we should be working with, interrogating that, and setting ourselves certain challenges that test how we visualise this piece of music.

“In terms of the fiction of the piece, the music came first, so that's a different way of working for me. Lliam has written this independent piece of work that reflects Bluebeard's Castle, so I'm thinking of this as both a stand-alone work and an introduction to the second part of the evening when we actually do Bluebeard's Castle.”

Bartok and Balazs's work was written in Hungarian and based on the French story, La Barbe bleue by Charles Perrault. With Bluebeard and his new wife Judith the only two singing characters onstage, Bluebeard is forced by his new bride to give a guided tour of their new home in order to let in some light. What each room reveals opens up a psycho-sexual voyage into Bluebeard's inner turmoil. The 8th Door may precede it, but, in keeping with Lenton and Vanishing Point's own leaps into the dark, couldn't be described as a prequel in any conventional narrative sense.

“In The 8th Door we're seeing the surface of two people and the way they behave towards each other,” says Lenton, “and we're beginning to notice the fractures that are beginning to open up in that relationship. It's almost as if its through one of those fractures that Judith and Bluebeard have fallen, which is this subterranean subconscious world.

“In that sense, the two pieces are counterpoints to each other, in that one is on the surface, broadly speaking, and is inviting the audience to guess what might be deeper. Bluebeard's Castle, on the other hand, exists in this dream-world, where two people find themselves within each other's subconscious, or within one subconscious if you like.

“The last line in the libretto of The 8th Door is something about how there are no two things that are further apart than human souls, so it's a really simple journey about two people who have an emotional connection with each other, but which slowly and traumatically comes apart. This leaves the woman in particular in a position where she wants to confront this thing that's happened, and that becomes the compulsion for her to enter this subconscious world of Bluebeard's Castle.”

The libretto of The 8th Door features texts by Hungarian poets and lesser known contemporaries of Bartok including Endre Ady and Attila Jozsef. These come in translations by the former Scottish makar, the late Edwin Morgan.

“I'm a big fan of Edwin Morgan,” says Paterson, “and wrote a song cycle based on his poetry shortly before starting this project. I just happened to come across his translations of Hungarian poets, so there was a nice link there, especially when it transpired that Endre Ady and Attila Jozsef both knew Bartok and Balazs, and were part of the same artistic and social circles in Budapest. The themes of isolation and alienation in their work seemed to be very much on the same page as Bluebeard's Castle, which is one of my favourite operas, and it was fascinating finding all of these deep connections with Bartok.”

The piece will be performed by Daly, Goldsmith and Pallaska alongside Robert Jack. All four actors will appear in Bluebeard's Castle, with Karen Cargill and Robert Hayward singing the lead roles. In The 8th Door, the actors will be supported by six singers and the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, conducted by Sian Edwards.

“The 8th Door is more a piece of musical theatre than an opera, and the singers are in the pit with the orchestra,” says Paterson. “I don't just have the singers singing in a conventional operatic way. They can whisper because they're amplified, and there are certain sonic gestures that are set up initially by Bartok which foreshadow some of the things we do in The 8th Door.”

In one sense, opera is a natural move for Lenton, whose work has consistently begun with visual motifs, with music forming a key part of what are more dramatic tone poems than plays per se. Such a blurring of forms is inherent in Lenton's work.

“I think what I'm interested in by using this kind of form is trying to create something that's musical in itself,” he says, “so what we're watching has a musicality to it. I'm interested in how, even though we're using this big operatic music, what we're watching is small things, tiny details. You associate opera with big physical movements and grandiose gestures, but in The 8th Door we're doing the opposite. It's about how we can connect the music with things that are very fragile, delicate and almost microscopic. That way, the audience can go along with it, and enter the subconscious world that it conjures up.”

The 8th Door and Bluebeard's Castle, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, March 28, 30 and April 1; Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, April 5 and 8.
www.scottishopera.org.uk
www.vanishing-point.org

The Herald, February 7th 2017

ends

Monday, 6 February 2017

Mark Wallinger - Mark Wallinger Mark

Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh/Dundee Contemporary Arts,
March 4-June 4

Making your mark is everything if you're an artist, whichever side you're coming from. This is evident in this expansive body of largely recent work by Mark Wallinger, which runs parallel in galleries across two separate cities. Based largely around the sixty-six works that make up Wallinger's id Paintings, the twin shows focus on a fascination with symmetry that saw him pursue a more instinctive and personalised line of inquiry than his more overtly politically driven works. That period arguably peaked with Wallinger's 2007 Turner Prize winner, State Britain, a recreation of Brian Haw's tented anti Iraq protest outside Westminster. That the twice his height size paintings that resulted are literally hand-made speak volumes about where Wallinger is coming from today.

“The id Paintings grew out of a series of works I call self-portraits,” Wallinger says, referring to the group of paintings consisting of various iterations of the letter 'I'. Wallinger found himself painting works by hand, alternating between left and right. “It was one of those rare moments when the penny dropped and something metamorphosised in a way where I could get a degree of symmetry. It was a way of creating in the moment in a way where every mark had its mirror image.”

Wallinger mentions Rorschach, psycho-analysis and Freud in an ongoing pursuit of the naked I he is clearly relishing.

“It has been rather pleasant,” he says. “It's nice to get to this age and still be able to feel this way.”


The List, January 2017

ends

Still Game Live 2

SSE Hydro, Glasgow
Three stars

It's already been quite the year for sequels judging by this month's itinerary of home-grown blockbuster film and theatre. Hot on the heels of T2: Trainspotting comes this second stadium-size outing that puts an extended version of Greg Hemphill and Ford Kiernan's sit-com phenomenon onstage once more following its predecessor's record-breaking 2014 run.

Whether their return is down to a collective nostalgic need to revisit and rediscover these twin touchstones of popular culture or not, they have more in common than you might think. Both T2 and Still Game are set in an unreconstructed and largely male dominated world. Both too focus on old pals regrouping for one last hurrah. While the point is never laboured, there is something there too in both about ageing and mortality.

So it goes with Still Game 2, which begins with a filmed introduction from Methadone Mick, Hemphill and Kiernan's most recent and most youthful addition to Craiglang's community of otherwise pensionable ne'er-do-wells. With Jack and Victor entering through the auditorium aisles, it is to a rock star style welcome. The fireworks that follow as each regular character is introduced both revels in and pastiche's their household name status.

With the first act moving between Jack and Victor's living room, the Clansman bar and Navid's shop, the never-ending limbo they exist in finds Paul Riley's Winston somehow instigating Mark Cox's forever freeloading Tam to take the gang on a second-half cruise. This change of scene smacks of the sort of things that happened when 1970s sit-coms were brought to the big-screen, as the staff of Grace Brothers department store took a sojourn to sunny Spain in Are You Being Served, while the On the Buses team parked up at a North Wales holiday camp.

The assorted carry-ons that follow in Michael Hines' production tread a similar innuendo-laden path, as Kiernan's Jack, Hemphill's Victor and co make assorted plays for Lorraine McIntosh's smoky-voiced chanteuse. Sanjeev Kohli's Navid and Jane McCarry's Isa explore their sexual chemistry, while Gavin Mitchell's Harold Steptoe-like Boaby finds his sea legs in a different way.

The gags may be even older than Jack and Victor, but it is the infectious warmth of such familiarity that is part of Still Game's appeal, and no-one onstage is making any pretences that the show is anything other than throwaway fun, delivered here on the grandest of scales.

The Herald, February 6th 2017

ends

Friday, 3 February 2017

Culver – Prisoner of F.R.U. (Know Your Enemy)

The title of this cassette collaboration between two of the most prolific exponents of minimalist drone has the playful feel of an old-school dub soundclash plate a la King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown. Such implications may be of good-humoured competition, but the cover's funereal monochrome collages beg to differ. The titles of the seven pieces which the images illustrate point to something darker. It's as if the force behind the music has surrendered control, and is now being held hostage in sense-deranged captivity. The result is filtered through a lysergic fug that moulds it into something amorphous and harder to pin down.

This is sort of what happened when Gateshead-based Lee Stokoe went willingly after sending seven then works-in-progress to Fraser Burnett, the Edinburgh-based sonic auteur who records as Fordell Research Unit, or F.R.U. As Culver, Stokoe has released a slew of material over two decades. With his own Matching Head imprint, he has released more than 200 cassettes by fellow travellers including Ashtray Navigations and Skullflower. F.R.U.'s work has appeared frequently on Matching Head, with a fertile two-way traffic seeing Stokoe's work released on Burnett's Pjorn 72 label.

Culver and F.R.U. have joined forces many times over the last decade on a series of split and joint cassette, Cdr and vinyl releases. These include the Every One For Themselves, And God Against All Cdr album in 2011, and the Taste the Blood of Culver cassette in 2012. A further collaboration was released in 2015.

For this new cassette, Burnett forwarded Stokoe's missives to Grant Smith, guitarist with Edinburgh-based sludge-metal apocalypsists Muscletusk and Burnett's regular partner in F.R.U. The result is a series of reconstructions of Culver's raw material, eked out in various states of inebriation/transcendence.

With Burnett and Smith remixing three tracks apiece, their only joint effort is on the opening Torch Needles, which begins as if already in the middle of a wilderness, where layered guitars seep out of churning low end washes that give hints of something frantic going on in the background. Smith's first effort, Why Does She Watch? is more meditative. Even here, however, a sense of something buried permeates throughout, as if recorded underwater so any momentum is weighed down as it ebbs and flows in hypnotic repose.

With Burnett manning the controls for the next three tracks, Weak Will is more monumental, as epic slabs of sound embark on slo-mo seismic shifts across each other. Telepathic Torture as drills insistently into the foreground, while Shark reaches a rumbling crescendo that seems to channel the walls of Jericho collapsing. Smith takes over for Head Serpent (spelt 'serepant' on the cassette sleeve) which leaves space for what could be flames rising before the relative calm of Implicit Trust closes an album that mines the sacred and the profane as it erupts from the earth's core.


Product, February 20 2017

ends

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Thoroughly Modern Millie

The Playhouse, Edinburgh
Three stars

Everybody is play-acting in Richard Norris and Dick Scanlan's stage musical of the prohibition era 1967 comedy film concerning a Kansas City wannabe who moves to the Big Apple to get herself a wealthy husband but ends up with much more than she bargained for. It's there in the way Joanne Clifton's Millie makes all her lifestyle choices from the pages of Vogue magazine. It's there too in the way her wannabe starlet gal pal Miss Dorothy affects even more airs and graces. Most of all it's there in the form of speak-easy chanteuse and society hostess Muzzy Van Hossmere, as the seemingly penniless Jimmy Smith falls for Millie in every way.

Featuring music by Jeanine Tesori with lyrics by Scanlan, this makes for much archness in a new touring production directed by Racky Plews more than a decade after the show won six Tony awards on Broadway. The songs reference everything from Gilbert and Sullivan to showtime schmaltz. The white slave trade plot that survives from the movie, and which features Michelle Collins as pseudo-oriental hotelier Mrs Meers, is like something straight out of old-school pantopanto, though not always in a good way. As Millie enters New York's social whirl, there are even cameos for George Gershwin and Dorothy Parker.

Inbetween all this is a frothy comment on female aspiration during cash-strapped times in which Clifton makes for a blousy and hard-boiled but still charming Millie, while Graham MacDuff does a neat line in slapstick boozyness as Millie's boss Trevor Graydon. Ultimately this is a show that makes for a pleasant but not always memorable experience which arrives at the King's Theatre, Glasgow, next week.

The Herald, February 2nd 2017

ends