Friday, 31 March 2017

The Secret Goldfish – Petal Split (Creeping Bent)

It's kind of appropriate that it's taken the Secret Goldfish sixteen years to record a new album. For a band whose effusive garage-band punk pop has roots in post-Postcard C86 outfit Fizzbombs as much as 1960s girl-band bubblegum, this long-awaited follow-up to their Aqua-Pet and Mink Riots albums, with B-side and out-takes collection Jet Streams inbetween, is a coming of age of sorts.

Not that there's anything remotely sulky or world-weary in this fresh-as-a-daisy ten-song set from a band tellingly named after an imaginary tome name-checked in The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger's iconic novel of adolescent angst. Penned in the main by singer Katy McCullars and guitarist John Morose, with bass player Steven McSeveney and drummer Paul Turnbull providing ballast, roots are acknowledged by way of covers of Vic Godard and Edwyn Collins and an opening track written with Sexual Objects main-stays Davy Henderson and Simon Smeeton. The end result heralds the warmest return for this purest of pop bands.

The opening O. Pioneers sets the tone with Henderson and Smeeton's influence palpable from the off with some sing-song rawk guitar riffage before McCullars' breezes in with a high-pitched coo that that de-machoifies all that tough guy boys stuff. Amelia Star is a campfire litany of totems of a 1970s childhood worthy of a bank holiday nostalgia clip-show special.

Phonecall charts the yearning of a long-distance love affair that's as chirpy as a prom-night teenage musical. X is a moody thrashabout possessed with a turbo-charged chorus that cops its swagger from pre-chart Blondie snarl before racing off down the highway. On Winter Tears #2, acoustic guitar and glockenspiel usher in a swoonsome slow-dance ballad which, like Amelia Star, recalls prime era Saint Etienne with a similar middle youth style look back in languor.

McCullers, Morose and co's take on Vic Godard's Outrageous Things, a song Godard first put to tape on his 1998 Long Term Side Effect album is a thing of joy. Guitars jangle and shimmer while organs burble and wheeze as the gang appear to take stock of the aftermath of something unmentionable.

Good Kissers would sit well in the same make-believe musical as Phonecall before finishing with a flourish worthy of the outro of Orange Juice's Consolation Prize. El Capitan Yi Mi is a package tour romance which at one point lifts the mandolin introduction from Rod Stewart's Maggie May. A Different Game is a shimmy-tastic we-can-all-join-in playground anthem punctuated by velveteen Jerry Lee Lewis piano stabs.

Finally, a cover of Edwyn Collins' Ain't That Always the Way lends an already lovely song an even more fragile beauty that leaves you sighing. Clocking in at just under half an hour, Petal Split is summer-seasoned indie-pop at its most timelessly sublime.


Petal Split is available at www.creepingbent.net
 
 
Product, March 30th 2017

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Thursday, 30 March 2017

Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Three stars

The question mark is everything in the title of Caryl Churchill's 2006 play, in which two gay lovers take on the world they might just be running. Not that anything is made too explicit here in a punishing forty-five minute ride around the psycho-sexual impetus behind the desperate need for power enough to shore up a void of self-loathing and a terror of anything resembling affection.

As Kevin Lennon's Sam and Sandy Grierson's Guy swagger around the Citizens' Circle Studio while the audience enter to a minimal techno soundtrack and bathed beneath swirling spotlights, this is certainly the case with Sam's more aggressive half of the partnership. Necking beer too fast and with a punchbag hanging within reach, he is the boss, and is clearly in charge of the punishment that is doled out to help keep him there, be it in Vietnam or any other war that blew up in his face. Guy is more passive, a too eager to please civil servant who knows how to make things happen, but whose devoted lust for his other half has left him needy and pathetic.

Nora Wardell's explosive little production takes an already symbol-laden text concerning the private habits of queen and country and loads it with even more up-to-date imagery. If previously its Two Tribes style combatants were George and Tony, here think Donand and, well, you choose. “It's exhausting being so thrilled,” says Guy at one point, high on his own world-changing experience in a relentless battle royal that leaves both men emasculated, impotent and the ultimate losers of an endless war of words. Sad.


The Herald, March 31st 2017

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Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Anita and Me

King's Theatre, Edinburgh
Neil Cooper
Three stars

When a shaven-headed teenage boy wearing braces starts ranting about how foreigners are coming over here and stealing all our jobs, the ignorant fury of such a statement mid-way through Tanika Gupta's stage version of Meera Syal's 1996 novel, sounds chillingly of the moment. Such is the knee-jerk response of Little England to disenfranchisement and difference, it seems, whatever decade we're in.

Up until that point, thirteen year old Meena has led a noisy if fairly sheltered life growing up amidst the bustle of her Indian family in the red-brick Midlands mining village of Tollington. Slade are on the radio, and boys are the imaginary stuff of the letters she sends in song to teenage agony aunts Cathy and Claire in Jackie magazine. If only she could be blonde like her wild child pal Anita, then she wouldn't have to wrap her cardigan around her head as if it were a wig.

On one level this sounds as much a comic back-street rites of passage as the likes of Caitlin and Caroline Moran's sit-com Raised by Wolves, with which Syall's story is a kind of spiritual sister. Throw in the Anglo-Indian experience of growing up in a still-retrenched post-war Britain, and it becomes something else again.

Originally presented by Birmingham Rep in 2015 before transferring to Theatre Royal Stratford East, Roxana Silbert's production is a bright and brash affair with considerable charm. This is especially true of Aasiya Shah's infectiously engaging performance as a wide-eyed Meena, who eventually stands up to Laura Aramayo's Anita. It may be a story about friendship, but as the finale's mash-up of Morris dancing and Bollywood shows, it's also about the power of community to celebrate our differences.

The Herald, March 30th 2017

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My Country; A Work in Progress

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

It's half an hour before a suited and booted Britannia turns the power on at the start of the National Theatre of Great Britain's meditation on the life and times of the UK in a post-Brexit world. Down the street from the Citizens Theatre, opposite the Mosque, a man with a pukka English accent explains to a young Asian man how the pelican crossing works. Both seem amused by such a seemingly alien means of controlling traffic flow.

As Article 50 is finally activated, such an incident seems to offer hope beyond the confusion expressed in the patchwork of voices in the NToGB's play, woven together by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and director Rufus Norris from 300 hours of interviews with voters from Britain's nations and regions. As Britannia pulls together six other similarly sober-looking ciphers to give them voice, the population's everyday fears are punctuated by the platitudes and promises drawn from the real-life politicians who led us into the current mess, but who have yet to lead us anywhere meaningful.

This makes for eighty minutes of opinionated crosstalk which, as national and local stereotypes edge into view as they might on a building site peopled with migrant workers from all over the country, at times resembles a pub lock-in on a reality TV show. Arriving so soon after major events in Holyrood and Westminster over the last week, beyond all the fear, frustration and hand-me-down prejudices that are brought to life with dignity and humour, the seven-strong cast embody an oddly moving poetic polyphony that isn't a howl of rage. It is a quiet plea to be heard.

The Herald, Match 30th 2017

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Zinnie Harris, Morna Pearson, Stef Smith, Amanda Tyndall - Theatre Meets Science at Edinburgh International Science Festival Theatre

When worlds collide, what happens next is usually the stuff of disaster movies. This has never been the case with Edinburgh International Science Festival, however, as this year's substantial and expansive theatre programme looks set to prove. While the children and families theatre section features a brand new commission, Cosmonaut, site-specific specialists Grid Iron team up with Lung Ha Theatre Company for Dr Stirlingshire's Discovery, which is performed in the grounds of Edinburgh Zoo.

Things take off even more in the adult programme, as both of the city's main producing theatres present major productions as part of the Festival. At the Royal Lyceum Theatre, playwright/director Zinnie Harris oversees the Scottish premiere of Caryl Churchill's look at cloning, A Number. At the Traverse Theatre, meanwhile, artistic director Orla O'Loughlin presents Girl in the Machine, a new play by Stef Smith which looks at the all-consuming nature of twenty-first century technology. For the Science Festival's Creative Director Amanda Tyndall, this brace of work is as much a reflection of the times we are living in as recognising that arts and sciences have always been mutually supportive lifeforms.

“This is a real opportunity to find out where theatre and science interact,” says Tyndall “One of the things for me as a science communicator is that with some of the things going on just now, there seems to be a rejection of facts and expertise-based things. In these complex and uncertain times, people are responding to things in ways that are much more about emotions and beliefs, and that opens up a way of exploring these ideas in a different kind of way.”

This has been the case with television drama for some time, with a new wave of science-fiction or speculative fiction shows such as the clone-based Orphan Black, the robotic revolution in Humans and assorted technology-based dystopias explored in episodes of Charlie Brooker's series of one-off dramas, Black Mirror. Just as novelists and short story writers embraced speculative fiction before them, theatre writers and makers have increasingly kept one eye on the future to explore where we are now.

A pioneer in this has been Caryl Churchill, whose uncategorisable canon over almost sixty years has explored form and content in ways that have frequently confounded expectations of what British theatre can be. While her work has used myriad means of story-telling, her last work to be seen in Scotland was Far Away, which was set in a future landscape where nature was at war. In A Number, a thirty-five year old man who believes he is an only child discovers he is one of several clones following a genetic experiment.

“It's both playful and forensic,” says Harris. “It gives both audiences and the people working on the play some real intellectual meat to grapple with, as well as packing a real emotional punch. For anyone who's a parent as well, and thinking about being able to start the day again and not make mistakes, Caryl has taken that idea to the limit, and dared to ask what the emotional consequences of that might be.”

This is something addressed too in Girl in the Machine, which was first seen in a shorter version at the Traverse's technology-themed Breakfast Plays season at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. As if to demonstrate the current cross-fertilisation between disciplines, the show is being produced in partnership with the University of Edinburgh.

“My starting point was the human condition,” Smith says of her play, which looks at how a successful couple's relationship is affected by a new piece of hi-tech kit that promises them the earth, but ends up short-circuiting the reality the couple have built around them.

“One thing I'm becoming increasingly aware of is how our relationships are defined by technology. Like a lot of people, I have a love/hate relationship with social media, and from this seed of an idea that I had, it exploded out to how technology defines the rest of our lives, and to question if there is another reality.”

Despite such a back-drop, basic human needs remain at the play's heart.

“It's a love story,” says Smith. “It's about two people living through constant changes, and battling forward in constant motion when everything around them seems to be making things harder.”

In utilising science-fiction tropes, Smith points to novelist Margaret Atwood, author of dystopia-set feminist novel, The Handmaid's Tale. Atwood, incidentally, is also the inventor of various real life technologies that facilitate the remote robotic writing of documents.

“Atwood described some of her work as being set in a parallel present,” says Smith. “They're set in a world and a situation that doesn't exist, but which still look familiar. I think theatre is increasingly having a relationship with science and science-fiction because it's so playful and so political as a metaphor for what's going on now.”

Morna Pearson takes this even further. Her child-friendly tale about a brother and sister who encounter a series of mythological creatures may be more prehistoric than futuristic, but sounds as fantastical as anything else Pearson has written. The production, co-directed by Lung Ha artistic director Maria Oller with Dundee Rep associate artistic director Joe Douglas, also ties in with Lung Ha and Grid Iron's previous science-based collaboration, Huxley's Lab.

“When I was trying to brainstorm what I wanted to do,” says Pearson, “I remember how impressed I was with mythical creatures when I was a child, and because Dr Stirlingshire's Discovery is a children's show, I wanted it to be a show where the audience could discover things, not just about the animals, but other things as well. It's a show about sibling rivalry, and difference and acceptance. It's about memory and imagination as well, and how your experience during childhood can shape who you are.”

This again points to speculative fiction used as a metaphor for other things. As Pearson points out, however, “Theatre is metaphor, and people will always read stuff into things even if it's not intended. Although I've said what something is about, someone else might think something different. There are so many TV programmes of a very good quality just now, but they're not necessarily about the things they say they are. They're about people, and the way they present them is just a different way of telling a story.”

Pearson cites Waking the Dead as a favourite TV show.

“That's a good example of something that's not really about zombies, but is about people,” she says.

As with all of the other theatre shows taking part, it is this over-riding sense of humanity that tallies with the ethos of Edinburgh International Science Festival the most. As Tyndall points out, “We're asking fundamental questions about people's lives. Whether that's a philosophical thing or a pragmatic thing, art and science can ask those questions in different ways. No single discipline can look at these things on there own. If there is going to be more innovation in anything, we need to merge the worlds of art and science more and more.”

Dr Stirlingshire's Discovery, RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, April 1-9; Girl in the Machine, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, April 5-22; A Number, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, April 6-15.

www.lyceum.org.uk
www.gridiron.org.uk
www.sciencefestival.co.uk



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Monday, 27 March 2017

Mick Harvey

When Mick Harvey and band opt to perform a semi-instrumental version of Je T'aime...Moi Non Plus towards the end of a set of Serge Gainsbourg translations topromote Harvey's newly released fourth volume of Gainsbourg covers, Intoxicated Women, it's a bit different from the version played in London the night before.

Then, Harvey duetted with German chanteuse Andrea Schroeder in her native language translated as Ich liebe dich...ich dich auch nicht. With Schroeder unable to make the Edinburgh visit for this show curated by Summerhall's Nothing Ever Happens Here operation, Harvey opted not to draft in guitarist and co-vocalist Xanthe Waite as what might have seemed an obvious stand-in. “She's my niece,” deadpans Harvey regarding her absence, “and that would've been wrong.”

Such a trifle probably wouldn't have stopped Gainsbourg from doubling up on one ofthe most erotically charged numbers ever committed to vinyl. Harvey's actions nevertheless sum up how surprisingly well-adjusted the former long-time collaborator of Nick Cave and others from the Australian post-punk diaspora, as well as P.J. Harvey, remains after almost forty years in the saddle. As de facto musical director of the Bad Seeds, his textured arrangements didn't always receive the credit they deserved, however key they were to that band's inherent melodrama.

With the roots of such low-key artfulness all over Intoxicated Women and its preceding three volumes, live too, Harvey makes Gainsbourg's canon his own. This was the case despite the band's instruments getting left behind at Gatwick Airport along with Harvey's lyric book.

Harvey charms his way out of this with dry politesse, as he does throughout a set that begins with him on bongos crooning about the 'little holes' in The Ticket Puncher. Waite joins Harvey, keyboardist James Johnston, German bass player Yoyo Rohm, drummer Toby Dammit and a locally sourced all-female string quartet for 69 Erotic Year. The intricate interplay between male and female exchanges has always been key to Gainsbourg, both between his characters and the singers themselves, and here Waite provides a more strident counterpoint to Harvey's passive croon.

Waite takes the lead on the gallop through Puppet of Wax, Puppet of Song and the roaring bounce of Harley Davidson, and spars with precision on Bonnie and Clyde and an exquisite Don't Say A Thing. Elsewhere the set is peppered with latin exotica, bump n' grind and groovy nightclub lasciviousness aplenty among the concentrated intensity.

Hearing the songs in English gives them a vigorous immediacy lent weight and propulsion by the strings. When Je T'aime...Moi Non Plus eventually comes around, that and Initials B.B. which follows it are revealed as perverse and subversive romances from a more innocent age. As Harvey proves in this most intimate of Sunday night affairs, the poetry of the profane which Gainsbourg channelled is full of light as much as shade. 
Product, March 27th 2017 
 
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Saturday, 25 March 2017

All The Little Lights

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

It looks like a game at first, when the three girls in Jane Upton's play come together for a surprise birthday party on a make-shift campsite amongst all the rubbish down by the railway. Look closer, however, and beyond the supermarket cake and the games of dare on the track-lines, and it's clear that Joanne has got Lisa here for a reason.

Twelve year old Amy probably wouldn't understand. She's “cute, but not in a baby way,” but both Joanne and Lisa bear the scars of what happened at the grown-up parties with the man from the chippy. Lisa got out, to a nice house like those she used to make up stories about as she and Joanne peered through the windows. But unless Joanne does something soon, she'll never get out, and she'll take Amy down with her.

Inspired by recent cases of child sexual grooming gangs, in which some 'older' girls were used to procure younger ones, Upton's joint winner of the 2016 George Devine Most Promising Playwright award makes for a harrowing hour. This is made even more troubling by the lack of any adult onstage to be the bad guy. Instead, Joanne, played by Tessa Orange-Turner with flint-eyed vulnerability, is old enough to get just how damaged she is.

Presented by Fifth Word, an associate company of co-producers Nottingham Playhouse, and with support from the Safe and Sound charity, Laura Ford's production is brought to raw, unrelenting life by Orange-Turner, Esther-Grace Button as Amy and Sarah Hoare as Lisa. As Joanne is left alone in the wilderness to await her fate, if only she could take the leap out of there, perhaps she'd be free.

The Herald, March 27th 2017

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Thursday, 23 March 2017

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow
Three stars

Business is business at the start of Hugh Hodgart's revival of Shakespeare's sunniest rom-com, as performed by MA Classical and Contemporary Text students at RCS, in partnership with Bard in the Botanics. Love and money are in the air as Theseus and Hippolyta announce their nuptials to the world's press, sealing the deal on an unholy alliance between Athens and Amazonia as they go. As Honey Durruthy's Egius seeks advice on the merry-go-round romance between Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius, Theseus' line to Hermia about austerity and single life becomes even more pointed by its power-dressing context.

While Hermia and Lysander's camping trip to the woods doesn't end well, especially when Hermia's love-sick hippy chick mate Helena is around, the Rude Mechanicals' worker's playtime sees Bottom briefly become Titania's bit of rough. With Isabel Palmstierna's Puck at the centre of such cack-handed mischief-making, the transition from playing Philostrate is akin to some nice but dim intern with ideas above her station whose alter ego goes on a bender at the office party. At the end of the play's first half she even suggests a well-earned tea break.

As three very different communities rub up against each other before going their separate, class-based ways, an even brisker second half is addressed with an impressively light touch by Hodgart's cast of twelve. This is despite minimal carry on between Matthew Miles' Bottom and Lily Cooper's Titania. While Miles still has plenty of fun as the old ham, this becomes Puck's play. As Palmstierna's creations flit between worlds like a rootless social climber, the magic she conjures up en route proves infectious for all.

The Herald, March 24th 2017

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Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Steven Severin – The Vril Harmonies

For almost two decades now, Steven Severin's solo instrumental work has largely kept its own counsel in the shadows. The output of the former co-founder and bass player of Siouxsie and the Banshees has been prodigious, with a dozen albums of dark ambient soundscapes released thus far.

This began in 1998 with Visions, an extended reworking of his soundtrack to Nigel Wingrove's short film, Visions of Ecstasy, almost a decade before. Unreleased until 2012, Wingrove's sensual fantasia inspired by the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila is the only film to have been refused a certificate by the British Board of Film Censors on the grounds of blasphemy.

Since then, Severin has released scores for theatre and film, including the soundtrack for supernatural thriller London Voodoo and Richard Jobson's film, The Purifiers, as well as for one-time Edinburgh Festival Fringe dance performer/director, Shakti. Since Severin himself moved to Edinburgh twelve years ago, he has become even more prolific, with soundtracks to Jean Cocteau's 1930 silent movie Blood of A Poet, and, with his actress wife Arban, collaborations with director Matthew Misory, first on Delphinium: A Childhood Portrait of Derek Jarman, then on Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean.

The first of four download-only new works released over the next month, The Vril Harmonies is a spaced-out instrumental suite that appears to draw inspiration in part from The Coming Race, an 1871 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton which charts the discovery of a superior subterranean master race fuelled by an energy form known as Vril. The book's life-enhancing elixir not only gifted Bovril half its name, but inspired theosophists such as Rudolf Steiner and George Bernard Shaw to buy into its philosophy. More recently, graphic novelist Grant Morrison and readers of the Fortean Times have been similarly fascinated by the power of Vril.

Unsubstantiated claims led some to believe that a secret Vril Society of occultists existed in pre-Nazi Berlin. This may or may not have been governed by a network of female psychic mediums who claimed to have contact with Aryan aliens living in Alpha Cen Tauri using their pony-tailed hair. Either way, the musical result of Severin's sonic explorations is an other-worldly exercise in synthesised hypnosis.

Split into two sections, the first, Black Sun Arcana features four pieces, and the second, Absolute Elsewhere section, two longer meditations. The eight minutes of Black Sun Arcana's opening track, Maria, is key to everything that follows. A sepulchral slow-motion drift around some imaginary cosmos, it references Maria Orsic, the real life Austrian psychic whose luminous visage peers from the album cover, as inscrutably beautiful as a movie starlet. Orsic was de facto leader of an organisation called the Society of Vrilerinnen Women, who were allegedly in cahoots with the aforementioned aliens.

Orsic's partner in such adventures was another medium known only as Sigrun, who gives the album's second track its title. Here the jittering frequencies at times resemble Bebe and Louis Barron's 'electronic tonalities' for director Fred M Wilcox's 1956 mix of sci-fi and Shakespeare, Forbidden Planet, or the end credit sequence of Gerry Anderson's cult live action TV series, U.F.O.

The stuttering low-end transmissions of Haunebo sound like Nazi flying saucers jockeying for position before they go in for the kill, while aether sounds suitably transcendent in intent. Referencing the much-mythologised fifth element, which in Vril lore contains the life-force of the universe, it's as if its repeated synthesised phrases were gathering strength as they go, with layer on layer of some intangible force powering them up to take on the world.

The Absolute Elsewhere section probably isn't referencing Paul Fishman's long lost prog rock project of the same name, although the inspiration of Chariots of the Gods author Erich von Daniken on Fishman's synthesiser-based In Search of Ancient Gods album sounds like it could be a fellow traveller.

The first piece, (Not All Good Comes) From Above, shares pretty much the same title as a track from Swedish post-industrialist, Vagr, who has recorded an entire trilogy inspired by Maria Orsic. Here, however, Severin's deep bass swathes scan around the ether, proceeding with forensic caution before it gives way to Phase Into Light. This swirls into view, increasing velocity as it gathers momentum over its twelve-minute duration before bursting into some twinkly-eyed idyll like a celestial merry-go-round on a trip to the warmer reaches of a hidden universe.

The Vril Harmonies is available to purchase at www.stevenseverin.com, and can also be downloaded at www.stevenseverin.bandcamp.com.

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Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Sabrina Mahfouz and Hollie McNish - Offside

Sabrina Mahfouz wasn't interested in football when she started work on Offside, the play she co-wrote with fellow poet Holly McNish, and which tours to the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh next week. Mahfouz didn't really do sport at all, while McNish had been more interested in playing the game than watching it when she was a student, to the extent that she trained as a coach for young people. By the time they dug deep into the history of women's football, which forms the backdrop of the play, they were both very much on the same side.

“The initial idea for the play came from Caroline Bryant, who's the artistic director of Futures Theatre, and who's this massive football fan,” says Mahfouz. “Her daughter plays football, and she was always going on about wanting to make a show about women's football. I wasn't sure if I was the right person to do it, but as soon as I looked into it, and saw all this stuff about how football had been used as a political tool against women's rights, I knew we had to get that story out.”

That story of Offside focuses on two modern day women trying to make the team of their local women's football side. Interspersed with this are flashbacks to 1881 and 1921, years which marked key moments in a largely hidden history of the sport, in which the figures of Carrie Boustead and Lily Parr were key.

Carrie Boustead was a goalkeeper who played for London-based clubs in games in Glasgow, Stirling and Lanarkshire during the 1800s. She was notable for being women's football's first ever black player.

Lily Parr was a professional player with the Preston-based Dick, Kerr and Co team, named after the munitions factory where many of the women on the team worked. Dick, Kerr and Co drew large crowds, including a game at Goodison Park in Liverpool attended by 53,000. Parr scored forty-three goals in her first season, and continued to play after women's football was banned in the UK in 1921. It is here that the history of the sport starts to become really interesting.

“I knew nothing about the F.A. ban beforehand,” says McNish, “but once I started looking into it all it made me really angry. They never said why they did it, and I think there was something really fishy going on. Even before the ban you could see how hard it was for women playing football. In the 1890s you'd get guys running onto the pitch and hassling them, and sometimes the police had to be called. Then the ban happened, and it seemed such an extreme response to it.

“There were other bans as well, like when women were banned from cycling unless they rode side saddle, but with football I think there was a lot of class warfare going on as well, because a lot of the teams were from Scotland and the north of England. To go from 53,000 people watching women's football in Liverpool to women not even being able to go onto the pitch for the next fifty years is pretty shocking.”

Futures Theatre has been putting such issues onstage since the company was founded in 1992 to put women's stories at the centre of the theatrical experience. It was while running a series of poetry workshops with the company that Mahfouz became involved in Offside, with McNish co-opted to bring some of her footballing expertise on board. As female poets who both started out on the performance circuit, it was an inspired pairing.

“I wanted to get the feeling of football's physicality into the writing,” says Mahfouz, “and Hollie's experience of football had a lot of influence on that. Hollie lives in Cambridge and I'm in London, so we'd go back and forth sending each other stuff as we wrote it line by line, and if it became clear that one of us was more interested in writing a specific part of the play, we;'d go away and do it, and then edit it between us.”

Mahfouz has worked extensively in theatre, with solo pieces Dry Ice and One Hour Only both premiering at the Underbelly as part of Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Her short piece, Clean, was seen at the Traverse Theatre as part of its Herald Angel-winning Breakfast Plays season, and an expanded version was later seen at Oran Mor in Glasgow before touring to New York. Mahfouz's next play, Chef, was also seen in Edinburgh, and her more recent work has been produced by the National Theatre of Great Britain and Paines Plough. In sharp contrast, Offside is McNish's first foray into theatre.

“It's been quite interesting for me,” she says, “because I've only been to the theatre a few times, so hearing someone else reading my words has been really nice. It's also made me more interested in writing for TV and film. I've always said no to TV so far, but I don't want to leave the character of Lily Parr. I've written loads more poems about her that aren't in the play, and I think she's such an amazing person to do what she did, and for women's football to be banned the way it was had a really negative effect on women's rights.

“The reason I started playing football was because there was a less posh crowd playing it, and I started enjoying it because of its universality. Football is one of the only sports I've played in different countries, and it breaks language barriers in the way music and dancing does. It's not like I watch it or anything, and I can't be bothered to follow a team, but it makes me frustrated that football is still seen as such a male sport, and I think it's a shame that girls get left out of that culture of having a kick-about with their mates.”

As part of her research for Offside, Mahfouz went to watch a few games in which women's teams took part.

“They were really fun,” she says, “and it really helped with the physicalisation again. Looking at the stories of Carrie Boustead and Lily Parr really showed me how whitewashed these things are, and I think it's important to make a bit of noise about these women who were doing all these things.”

As McNish points out, “Offside isn't just a play for people who like football. I hope the people who come to see it will realise what a big thing it is that females are still playing football today. We can get a bit blasé and think that things have become easy, but I think it's important that we remind ourselves about how hard it was for women back then.”

Mahfouz agrees.

“I'd just like people to have a deeper appreciation of the legacy of football, and women's involvement in the game and the struggles they had to face,” she says. “Women who want to dedicate their life to football still have more of a hard time than they do in any other sport, and that struggle continues today.”

Offside, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, March 30-April 1.
www.traverse.co.uk
www.futurestheatre.co.uk

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Monday, 20 March 2017

Between poles and tides

Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh until May 6th
Three stars

In difficult times, getting back to nature is one solution, as demonstrated in some of the works on show in this group-based exhibition of new acquisitions from the University of Edinburgh art collection. Things aren't always as they seem, however, in the series of paintings, video, publications and sound-based works, as the leopard's face looking out from Zane (2013), Isobel Turley's two-second video loop of this most endangered of species suggests. Filmed in Edinburgh Zoo, Zane's steely gaze may suggest he is guarding the other exhibits, when in fact he has been immortalised in another, more Sisyphean form of captivity. The voice-over of another video, Daisy Lafarge's Not For Gain (2016) hints at an even more invidious form of social control.

The row of wall-clocks in Katie Paterson's Timepieces (Solar System) (2014) points to the global interplay between such things, while her Paterson's Future Library (2014-2114) bends time and space even more. With nature and revolution coalescing in three pieces by Ian Hamilton Finlay, a work's chief protagonists spookily rubbed out in Jonathan Owen's Eraser Drawings (2014-16) and the University's digital collection repurposed in Fabienne Hess' Zebras, Blanks and Blobs (2017), this cross-generational showcase points to a quiet concern for worlds beyond the gallery's borders.

The List, March 2017

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Bill Drummond, Johny Brown and The Cherry Blossom Quartet

Bill Drummond is full of surprises. Just ask Johny Brown, poet, playwright and for three decades the soothsaying frontman of Band of Holy Joy, whose state-of-the-nation musical addresses have become increasingly urgent dispatches from austerity Britain. When Drummond handed Brown a set of plays that he'd written and asked him if he thought he might be able to do anything with them, it was a gesture that came out of the blue.

The result of this is The Cherry Blossom Quartet, a five-night series of radio broadcasts of the plays, adapted by Brown and performed live with accompanying soundscapes on community-based online art radio station, Resonance FM. With a cast that features the likes of Joe Cushley and Sukie Smith, Drummond will be given voice by actor, activist and long term collaborator of Brown's, Tam Dean Burn.

Bill's never written a play before,” says Brown, “but he started going to watch all these plays at the Arcola Theatre in London close to where he lives in Stoke Newington. He started going every night, and I think he saw some really bad ones, and as he's getting older I think he wants to do something in theatre.”

After more than forty years of making a spectacle of himself, such a move into play-writing was probably inevitable. Pretty much everything Drummond has done, after all, has had a sense of theatre about it, from his travails through the music business with Zoo Records and the KLF to his much mythologised activities in the art world as one half of the K Foundation.

More recent artistic actions includes The 17, a rolling choir made up of volunteers drafted in to follow Drummond's word-based scores; and The 25 Paintings World Tour, which began in 2014 under Spaghetti Junction, where Drummond also plans to end it in 2025. All of Drummond's past adventures have been documented in wilfully individualistic essays, many of which are contained in his books, 45 and The 17.

Future events include an appearance at Neu! Reekie!, the Edinburgh-based multi-arts mash-up in April, and will take part in Where Are We Now?, Neu! Reekie!'s weekend festival that forms part of Hull's year as UK City of Culture in June. Here, Drummond will set himself up as a shoeshine boy, cleaning people's shoes while asking them to share their darkest secrets.

There is also 2023 – A Trilogy, a still-to-be defined series of events instigated by the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, and set to take place in some form in Liverpool between August 23rd and 27th this year. This has been leaked through a series of posters that say everything and nothing about what may or may not happen. In terms of dramatic promise, it's a tantalising cliffhanger loaded with possibilities.

The Cherry Blossom Quartet is something else again. The four plays - Bill Drummond is Dead, To the Shores of Lake Placid, Repossessed and Between Heaven and Helsinki – are broken up by a mid-week interlude, Theatre and Me.

All of the plays are about Bill's life,” says Brown. “They're an extension of his various artworks, and talk about his work and ((his)) personal life as well as what's going on in the world just now, which Bill is really passionate about. He thought they were impossible to put on, but I thought I'd like to have a crack at them.”

Given that the first play, Bill Drummond is Dead, is a dialogue-free affair which features Drummond laid out on a mortuary slab wearing a Liverpool Football Club shirt, this sounds like quite a feat.

We've turned the stage directions into a poem,” says Brown. “It's about the price of art and the price of life and death.”

To the Shores of Lake Placid winds back to Drummond's Liverpool days, from playing in Big in Japan with the likes of Ian Broudie and Holly Johnson to releasing the debut records by Echo and the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes, who Drummond also co-managed.

It's all about Zoo, and has a sixty-two year old Bill arguing with a twenty-eight year old Bill about the value of a 7” single as an art-form. Bill talks a lot about how Zoo was more than just a record label, and how it was a play, and the stage set was the office.”

This is a neat pre-cursor to Theatre and Me, in which Drummond talks about his early days working with theatrical maverick Ken Campbell and his Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, based in the upstairs room of a cafe in Matthew Street, then Liverpool's underground artistic hub.

Brown describes the next play, Repossessed, as “a romp,” involving Drummond's ex wife and three film-makers who he attempts to pitch ideas to, but who only want to talk about the KLF. One suspects this is an experience Drummond has had to face many times.

The final play, Between Heaven and Helsinki, is the one Brown calls “the killer,” and is based on the rise and fall of Kristina Bruuk, the imaginary singer invented by Drummond and Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction's Mark Manning for their book, Bad Wisdom. In their epic voyage to the top of the world, the pair created a record label, Kalevala, and released six singles by make-believe bands, with Bruuk – described as 'the Nico of the north-lands' – contributing guest vocals to a record by fictional all-female Finnish quartet, Dracula's Daughter. The play that has come out of all this is something of a rock and roll tragedy.

The character took on a life of her own,” explains Brown, “and in the play she tells her life story of how she goes from Helsinki to London, before ending up back in Helsinki again.”

Anyone familiar with Drummond's written work will recognise the roots of some of the material, as well as the titles. Bill Drummond is Dead was a song recorded by Teardrop Explodes' singer Julian Cope in response to Drummond's song, Julian Cope is Dead, while Repossessed is the title of Cope's second volume of his own autobiographical musings. To the Shores of Lake Placid was the title of a 1982 compilation album of rare and previously unreleased material put out by Zoo.

In this respect, The Cherry Blossom Quartet can arguably be seen as Drummond's latest piece of auto-biographical myth-making which, despite his seeming loathing of nostalgia, is taking an increasingly reflective tone. This can be seen especially in his recent writings, including an essay in response to the death of Dead or Alive singer and Liverpool post-punk peer Pete Burns.

What started off as a reluctant elegy expanded into a glorious pop cultural epic which not only validated Drummond's heroic anti-career over the last forty years as well as being an attempt to make some kind of sense of it all. So it goes too, it seems, with his plays.

Bill's still full of life,” says Brown, “and he bounces around Stoke Newington like he's on fire, but there's a definite awareness of his own mortality that comes through in all the plays.”

The Cherry Blossom Quartet is penned under the name Tenzing Scott Brown, the Boy's Own style nom de plume sometimes used by Drummond. These have included a spoken-word vocal to a track by Skyray, the ambient project of Wild Swans mainstay and original Teardrop Explodes keyboardist Paul Simpson. A Tenzing Scott Brown Twitter account features a profile picture of Drummond sporting shades and a brightly bobbed orange wig. Despite a declaration in the account's sole tweet that there would be one tweet a day for 365 days inspired by feminist literature, the account has remained apparently untouched since 2011.

Each play in The Cherry Blossom Quartet will feature original soundscapes by Rothko, Ghost Mind, Farmer Glitch, Psychological Strategy Boards and James Stephen Finn. Rather than mere soundtracks, the music will be integral components of each play. This is in keeping with Brown's original work outwith Band of Holy Joy, both on radio and onstage.

On Resonance FM, Brown and Burn collaborated on a series of plays, including a dog's eye view of the late Associates singer Billy Mackenzie as related by one of his beloved pet whippets. Since then, Brown and fellow Band of Holy Joy member Inga Tillere have initiated Radio Joy, an impressionistic pirate radio compendium of words and music later collected in the book, Field Notes. More recently, Brown has been the driving force behind Bad Punk, a similarly styled weekly late night programme that will also produce and present The Cherry Blossom Quartet.

In theatre, Brown brought his play, William Burroughs Caught in Possession of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, to the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow. This epic fantasia saw Burn play the iconic author of The Naked Lunch as the captain of a ship whose crew included New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders, experimental novelist Kathy Acker and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. It was a previous Brown/Burn collaboration, however, which first sired the creative relationship with Drummond.

That was a play called Cruel Britannia,” says Brown. “It was a Greek myth transplanted to the Blair years and was an absolute romp. We did it at the Scala in London, and we approached Bill with a view to him designing the stage set. He met us, and asked us what made us think he would do it. He said he wanted nothing to do with the play and nothing to do with theatre. Then he read the script, loved it and ended up doing it. It was 1999, and I think the play touched on a lot of things in Bill's life at that time, and I don't think he ever forgot it. When he started going to see plays at the Arcola which he thought were shite but were being hailed as great pieces of theatre, I think he thought of Cruel Britannia, and wondered why that never had the same sort of acclaim. ”

Drummond's unpublicised work on Cruel Britannia was possibly his first stage design since his work on Illuminatus!, Ken Campbell's nine-hour staging of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's sprawling counter-cultural science-fiction conspiracy theory trilogy of novels produced by the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool in 1976.

Drummond's design was praised extensively in theatre critic Michael Coveney's biography of Campbell, The Great Caper, and if he had carried on in a more relatively orthodox career path, Drummond might have had a glittering future as a stage designer. While Illuminatus! went on to open the National Theatre's Cottesloe space on London's South Bank, as Drummond has himself documented, he left the rehearsal room to get some Araldite, and never went back.

Given The Cherry Blossom Quartet's tenure on Resonance FM, it's possibly no coincidence that several years before his death Campbell and actor Christopher Fairbank read and performed the novel of Illuminatus in full in a series of marathon live broadcasts on the station. It is this fearless spirit that both Brown and Drummond have brought into The Cherry Blossom Quartet.

There's no safety net,” says Brown. “We're doing it live, and we're not even rehearsing it beforehand. Inga's documenting it, and it'll go in the Resonance archive, and once it's done it's done.”

If and when The Cherry Blossom Quartet is staged in the theatre, given the track record of all involved, it's likely to be done in a typically punk DIY manner. Brown has ambitions to see the plays staged at the Star and Shadow venue in Newcastle.

It's the logical next step," he says. "For me and Tam, these plays are exactly the sort of work we want to do. To be given scripts like this by Bill, it's a godsend.”

The Cherry Blossom Quartet is performed live on Resonance FM from March 20th-24th, with a different play each night from 8pm.
www.resonancefm.com


Product, March 2017


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Elvis Costello

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Five stars

"I never thought I'd have to sing this again," says Elvis Costello before the final song of a two and a half hour set that makes up the very personal rummage through his back pages that is his solo Detour show. By this time he's showed us snaps from a family album that includes footage of his dad, big band crooner Ross McManus, after introducing the evening with videos of his own career on a giant mock-up of a 1960s TV set. He's entered with a shimmy and moved from acoustic guitar to electric with a stint at the piano in between.

One minute Costello is a showbiz raconteur cracking jokes, the next he's playing a ferocious version of Watching the Detectives while bathed in a moody green light as retro-styled pulp fiction posters flash up behind him. There is a funereal piano-led version of his Falklands War elegy, Shipbuilding, and an unamplified Alison. Following a blistering take on Oliver's Army against an image of a World War One army band just like the one his grand-dad was in, Costello holds his guitar aloft like a weapon.

There are new songs from a forthcoming musical about the power of TV to create demagogues, followed by the heartbreak of Indoor Fireworks and a lovely She. But when Costello ends the night with a story of visiting an underfunded hospital to see his 90 year old mum before singing Tramp the Dirt Down, the renewed relevance of the song he wrote in response to Margaret Thatcher is electrifying. In this way, as Costello takes stock of his now classic canon, he reinvents it in a way that reinvigorates it with every hearing.

The Herald, March 20th 2017

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Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Hay Fever

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

There is a moment in-between the second and third acts of Dominic Hill's new production of Noel Coward's 1920s comedy when the flapping stops. That moment belongs to Clara, the life-long dresser and some-time servant to the divine Judith Bliss, actress, matriarch and all-round self-styled legend. As played by Myra McFadyen with a beetling dolefulness, Clara's red-draped routine both confirms and subverts the heightened artifice of everything she is otherwise sidelined from. In this way, she also becomes the melancholy conscience of a play in which the bohemian Bliss family are so desperate to have a good time that even pleasure becomes a struggle.

Coward's conceit of having the Bliss clan so individually self-absorbed that they each invite a weekend guest allows them to be adored by those who become both spectators and bit players in Judith and co's never-ending soap opera. It isn't just Susan Wooldridge's studiedly polished Judith who hams it up in this co-production between the Lyceum and the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, as Benny Baxter-Young's novelist patriarch David and their offspring Sorel and Simon also embark on assorted merry dances en route to potential consummation of their ardours.

Body language is everything here, as characters drape themselves over and around each other on Tom Piper's exquisitely exposed set, the wooden staircase of which was made for grand entrances. The cut and thrust between Rosemary Boyle's Sorel and Hywel Simons' stiff-backed Richard are particularly priceless, as is the dismissal of Charlie Archer's puppy-like Simon by Pauline Knowles' ice-cool Myra. Leaving aside the accidental moment in which a piece of unruly furniture threatens to upstage everyone, this is the most human of comedies that basks in its subjects own attention-seeking frailty with deceptively frothy abandon.

The Herald, March 16th 2017

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Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Rufus Norris - My Country: A Work in Progress

Just before Christmas, Rufus Norris spent a week in Fife listening to the 300 hours of interviews that had been recorded for My Country: A Work in Progress, the post-Brexit state of the nations verbatim show he was developing with the National Theatre of Great Britain. It was during this seasonal sabbatical that the enormity of the show, which arrives at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow next week, hit home.

As artistic director of the NToGB, Norris is the head of an institution housed on London's South Bank, and which arguably goes some way to defining the public face of a liberal middle-class elite. Now here he was, listening intently to the voices of those across the length and breadth of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales who may not have ever graced that institution's brutalist portals. Hearing these people's words while holed up in a place where some of the interviewees aged between nine and ninety-seven might well reside, and with a rather quainter kind of metropolis just across the Forth Bridge, lent clarity and meaning to Norris' quest. Not least because the majority of those who make up Scotland's electorate who bothered to vote in the EU referendum were in favour of remaining.

Since then, Norris has been working with the UK's Glasgow-born Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and seven actors to knit together a script that combines the interviews - conducted in partnership with seven other organisations across the UK's nations and regions including the Citz - with political speeches. Combined, the play presents an unsentimental portrait of life in today's post-Brexit limbo, where all the frustrations that influenced the vote may or may not have come home to roost.

“It's a sorrowful love poem to Britain,” says Norris of a script that was only pulled together a week prior to its London opening before it heads out on a tour of its associate venues. “For something like that to emerge from the experience is quite surprising, and in some ways it's quite a simple play, in that it's not all bells and whistles. For the actors, however, it's a huge challenge, because these people never talk with each other.”

This too is a symbol of the sort of divisiveness that exists across Britain's nations and regions that took what Norris acknowledges as “a political bubble that exists within the M25” even more by surprise. Since the vote, some of those in favour of leaving the EU and who are effectively on the winning side have been left as disillusioned and as disenfranchised as those who voted remain. It is this in part that prompted Norris to attempt to give them voice by way of My Country.

“The political fallout that came after the result, and the vitriol that followed exposed the division that had maybe been hidden up until that point,” says Norris. “Following on so soon after the Scottish referendum was interesting, because that seemed like a fairly intelligent debate, and people on the whole seemed to be voting from an informed point of view, but Brexit was different. Brexit exposed the need for the metropolitan centre not to throw stones, but to shut up and listen for a change.”

While there were plenty of stones thrown from all sides during the Scottish independence referendum, Norris' point about very localised divides still stands. How this can be transformed into a piece of theatre without taking sides is something else again.

“We had a different script every day,” says Norris. “Sometimes it was completely new. That script came out of interviews done by eight or nine gatherers, who might do about twenty interviews in each area. The gatherers were very passionate about the material they brought back, and sometimes felt reticent about handing over their material to us in case all we might come up with was a liberal bubble, creature comforts point of view. Out of that we had a combination of me trying to structure things, and Carol Ann bringing in a poetry and a human music drawn from a cast who'd developed this deeper knowledge of what they were saying from one area or another because they were from there.”

With Scots actor Stuart McQuarrie playing Caledonia in a play in which Britannia also inevitably appears, My Country sounds doubly pertinent. With Article 50 looking likely to be invoked at Westminster to start the wheels turning to implement Brexit, yesterday's announcement that the Scottish Government will seek a second Scottish independence referendum has changed things again.

“Everyone we spoke to in Scotland about Brexit talked about it in relation to the Scottish referendum,” says Norris, “and there was a lot of anger there. If they'd known what was going to happen with Brexit then they might not have voted the way they did. Scottish people we spoke to on the whole were better informed than in some other areas. There was a much more politicised environment, and people were much more engaged with notions of nationhood and community. Then you listen to the interviews we did in Derry-Londonderry, and notions of nationhood move onto a totally different level. But in terms of breaking out of a liberal bubble, the majority of people in the UK who voted were for leave, and the majority of the people in the play are pro-leave as well.

Despite this, things may not be as clear cut as they seem.

“There are things everyone agreed on,” says Norris, “and what became clear is that everyone's opinions and experiences were rooted in where they live. So someone who's from a farming community will have a completely different experience to someone living in a city. When they talked about things that didn't directly connect with them, they tended to speak in soundbites, and which came from the commentary and the misinformation from both sides. As soon as people started talking about something from their own experience, it became something that was much more real.”

The choice of My Country's sub-title of A Work in Progress was deliberate.

“You know you're never going to get there,” says Norris, “and that's as true of making a piece of theatre in this way as it is of whatever happens next in the country. Theresa May has said she's going to see Brexit through, but the devil of course comes in the detail, and our show is an exercise in listening.

“On the one hand, taking Brexit forward appears to be obeying the population's choice, but on another, it's not going any deeper than that. For most people I suspect Brexit isn't about exiting Europe. It's about more fundamental things that people are unhappy about, and which are about people's communities falling apart. At the moment, nine months after the vote, we've still not heard anything about how those communities need to be prioritised on a deeper level. Everyone we spoke to talked about the importance of the NHS and the importance of integrating immigrants who are already here, but that still hasn't been looked at yet. It's important that the voices that are heard in My Country are listened to, whatever happens next.”

My Country: A Work in Progress, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, March 28-April 1; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, May 11-13.
www.citz.co.uk
www.traverse.co.uk



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