Room by National Theatre of Scotland etc at Dundee Rep: Review.


Emma Donoghue has now written Room three times.

The novel, the Oscar winning movie and now this, surely award winning, play.

She’s worked it out like.

In tonight’s opening performance at Dundee Rep we witness a bringing together of some of the greatest of British and Irish theatrical, musical and writing talent.  A sort of Harlem Globetrotters of theatre.

Let’s start with NTS: not everyone’s favourite and they don’t always hit the mark, But for me they do so much more often than they are given credit for.   The company has brought us Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, The Strange Undoing of Prudentia Hart, The James Plays, Let the Right One In and Black Watch, all of which are nailed on five star shows.

That deserves extreme respect.

Then There’s Stratford East (just superb) and The Abbey Theatre (Ireland’s equivalent of NTS).

Add to that Cora Bissett.  Time after time after time she presents brilliant theatre with a strong musical strand.

And Roadkill.

Up and coming Scots composer Kathryn Joseph weaves music into this production in a way you would NEVER, EVER have expected from the movie.  She is an utter genius and this showcases her talent brilliantly.  It is NOTHING like her Scottish album of the year winner Bones you have Thrown me and Blood I have spilt, but who cares – it’s a further development.

OK, so the source material is superlative and the movie (featuring an Oscar winning best actress performance by Brie Larson) is really superb, but this takes the whole thing to a higher emotional plane.

Being in a small theatre as this outrageously horrific tale unfolds, with the consequent impact on the protagonists, is a remarkable thing.  Add a musical score to it and original songs that break your heart and you are in theatre nirvana.

(If you’ve ever seen a rape scene deconstruct itself into a beautiful ballad and then transmogrify itself back into a rape then, fine, I’ll agree with you this isn’t completely original.)

And what’s more, it’s two shows for the price of one because one could almost end the show at the end of act one.  The torture over we could all go home happy.  But the torture isn’t over because Ma and Jack’s brutal incarceration had conditioned them.  They were in their own Private Idaho and freedom from that safety net into the “world’ opens a Pandora’s box of horrors.

Imagine the agoraphobia, the media scrutiny, the accusations (the interview in act two with the TV reporter is brilliant, brutal and heartbreaking).

As Ma and Jack’s relationship threatens to break down we too are broken.

Cora Bisset’s supreme directorial achievement here is to cast two Jacks.  The boy (played tonight, by one of three, miraculously by the beautifully named Taye Kassim Junaid-Evans) really is just a boy; maybe 8 years old he is on stage for three hours.  But it is his inner and older self that actually steals the show. Cora casts the stunning, and I mean stunning, Fela Lufadeju as Big Jack.  His performance astounds.  His songs break your heart.  He acts off but never to distraction.  He is the narrative and emotional driver of the whole show and his arrival on stage for the bows was met uproariously.  He is nothing short of amazing.

And then there’s Ma: Witney White.  Simply beautiful.  A performance of great range and, you know, a tough gig.  She has to be compassionate, angry, broken and be able to sing great solos and torch songs.

She pulls it off.

You love her.

I can, and will, go on and on.

This great black cast ensemble, rarely seen in Scotland, has a conservative underscore.  Grandma (Lucy Tregear) and Grandpa (Stephen Casey) have thankless tasks.  For a start they are white (turns out Ma was adopted).  They’re divorced and they’re middle class.  We’re not meant to like them.  Especially Grandpa, the weak sod that left his wife having ‘buried’ his daughter.

But we do.  Much more so than in the movie.

Stephen Casey pulls off a grand larceny in his role.  The bastard of the movie, the utter heartless bastard quixotically transforms the part.  The scene in which he holds young Jack in his arms as he realises he actually loves this bastard son of a monster broke my heart.

The closing number also broke my heart and the emotional walls finally caved in.

One last mention.  the set design by Lily Arnold has to be seen to be believed, both my wife and I agreed it had echoes of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time but on probably 5% of the budget. It’s brilliant, particularly in act one.  But how she visually re-represents it in the closing scene is nothing short of genius.

This is very great theatre and you have only four days to see it.

There are seats.

If you miss it and you’re too mean to pay the train fare or petrol to get to Dundee don’t come greeting to me.

I told you, for free, how great it is.

(PS.  I’ve seen Let the Right one in, Road Kill, Sweeney Todd and now Room at Dundee Rep in recent years.  It is a trip but I’ll tell you what, £ for £ this is the best theatre in Scotland.  It constantly punches above its weight and it always disappoints me that the auditorium isn’t full.  Please fellow theatre lovers keep an eye out for their programme: their new season is peppered with brilliance.)

The unimaginable. Roadkill. Pachamama Productions at Dundee Rep.

An image from the 2012 Festival Fringe Production

An image from the 2012 Festival Fringe Production

Whilst most of you were watching the X Factor or Antiques Roadshow my wife and I spent an hour and a half in a damp 15ft x 15ft square squalid bedroom in a run down estate in the North Side of Dundee witnessing a 14 year old Nigerian Girl being repeatedly raped and gang raped to a soundtrack of coursing Scottish electro rock.

We arrived in darkness and were warned to “watch our heads” on the washing lines as we traversed a drying green coursing with weeds and strewn with rubbish.

We left the same.  Heavy-hearted but at least safe in the knowledge that the trauma we had just endured was art.  Not real.

It couldn’t possibly be real.

Could it?

Yes, actually, it could, and Jenny Marra MSP is trying to do something about it, using this astounding production as leverage to debate the scandal that is sex trafficking in Scotland.

So, in response to Marra’s initiaitive, and in support for Cora Bissett’s truly mindblowing vision I urge you to write to Jenny Marra and pledge your support to her proposal for a bill on Child Trafficking in Scotland.

Back to the play…

Cora Bissett is now firmly established in my mind as a national treasure.  This is the second production of hers that I have seen this year. (The last was Whatever Gets you through The Night on this year’s Fringe.)

What Bissett does, like nobody else, is celebrate Scotland’s underclasses in a way that is uplifting.  OK, Roadkill is hard to describe as uplifting but it empowers its central protagonist in a very powerful way, albeit we have to go to hell and back to get there.

I think Ken Loach would very much appreciate Cora’s work.

This play is deeply disturbing, deeply moving but artistically brimming full of ideas; music, animation, special effects, site specific in a really, really good way and, believe it or not, funny (the journey from Dundee Rep to Dundee Wreck was hilarious as the two main protagonists Martha (Lashana Lynch) and Mary (Faith Omole) sought to wrong foot us into thinking 14 year old Mary had left the misery of Nigeria and entered the land of Milk and Honey – when in truth it was the land of Filth and Money).

What follows this gay abandon on the bus is nothing short of harrowing.

But brilliant and ultimately hopeful.

I feel honoured to have been in the same rooms as Faith Omole, Lashana Lynch and Nicky Elliot who played various male roles – worst of all the Polish pimp that struck fear into the audiences hearts only five minutes in to this masterpiece.

I’d say, go see it, but you can’t.  There are only 19 tickets per performance and they’re all sold.

So, really, I don’t know what else to say other than be aware, very aware of this hideous, heinous crime.

PS.  Credit also must go to Stef Smith for her superb script.

The Play of the remake of the movie of the book

Image: Albert Watson.

Image: Albert Watson.

It starts when you approach the building and Albert Watson’s stunning image of a vampire boy gazes vacantly down on you.  Emotionless, yet weeping tears of blood.  This feels a bit special you think.  When last did a theatre company commission one of the world’s greatest portrait photographers to produce its poster?

It jumps several gears as you walk into the auditorium and have your breath taken away by what is the most beautiful, eerie, atmospheric set you’ve seen in a long, long time (designed by on- and off-Broadway designer Christine Jones).  It consists of a climbing frame set in a snow bound forest of towering (leafless – perhaps symbolically to represent lifeless) Silver Birch trees.  50 of them, perhaps more.

As we settle down members of the cast trudge through this forrest on their way to whatever they’re on their way to.

The curtain metaphorically rises and the scene bursts into life.  Get ready for  the ride folks…

Let The Right One In is amongst my all time favourite horror  movies and certainly amongst my all time favourite love stories.  The much-loved, 2008, Swedish cult classic was swiftly remade for Hollywood and most admirers of the original give it merely grudging approval, not this one – both are excellent.  The book is apparently superb too, although I have yet to read it.  Maybe I will now.

So, what John Tiffany and Steven Hoggett (Black Watch) faced as they put their minds to staging this show was not just a creative challenge, but an audience bristling with “this better be good(ness)”.

It is.

It’s not just good.  It’s exceptional.

I was one of those “this better be good(ers)” for reasons explained above.  But I’m a good guy.  I wanted it to be good, I didn’t want to go there to find fault and I was rewarded for my optimism.

Let’s deal with technical excellence first.  I’ve already praised the marketing and the set.  Chahine Yavroyan’s lighting is also wonderful, especially in the scene on a train that appears as if from nowhere.  But it’s the sound (Gareth Fry) music (Olafur Arnalds) and special effects (Jeremy Chernick) that really dazzle – they have to – this is a horror movie on stage after all.  And, as if in a movie theatre, the score to this play, and the way it weaves in and out of the action, drive the show along relentlessly.  My guess is there will be many, many requests to purchase the soundtrack which is both powerful and dramatic, like Sigur Ros in anger.  Where it has most impact is at the blood takings, but also in several short choreographed scenes that bring small groups of men onto the stage to silently echo the actions of lead characters in such a way as to add an extra dimension that’s rare in non-dance theatre.  And one of the special effects in the show is the best you will ever see in your life.  I mean it.

Tiffany and Hoggett’s vision and orchestration of the whole thing leaves you breathless at times.

The script (Jack Thorne) is great, underpinned with both menace and wry Scottish humour, played out by a strong cast led by first-timer Martin Quinn and the elfin Rebecca Benson.  Sure, it would have been great to have two twelve year olds lead the show but this ain’t Hollywood.  Nevertheless, Quinn’s innocent performance hits the mark and Benson, as the real axis of the show, is haunting.  It’s a mesmerising and engaging performance combining athleticism with quietly contolled menace and empathy.  (What an odd paradox, but believe me, it’s a fair one.)  We love this poor, ancient child from the off and throughout the grisly proceedings.  A bedtime scene featuring the beautifully understated alcoholic mother played by Lorranine M McIntosh and Martin Quinn is quite lovely, totally original and deeply touching.

What Tiffany and Hoggett have achieved is really something rather special – the show that will lead to their future references as Tiffany and Hoggett (Black Watch, Let The Right One In).

And what National Theatre of Scotland has achieved is to be hugely applauded- not just for such an affecting piece of theatre but for having the balls to stage it in Dundee; not Glasgow where it would surely find even larger audiences.

If you don’t take the trouble to travel North, suit yourself, but don’t come crying to me when for years to come your theatre buddies reminisce about “that night in Dundee” when remarkable things happened.

Oh how Baz Luhrmann must have wanted his epic classical recreation to have been this good.

Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped off at The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh

OK.  Before I write anything I have to declare my interest as a director on the Lyceum board.  If that invalidates my thoughts in your mind dear reader then I understand.  So be it.  I speak with honesty not nepotism.  Take it or leave it.

So, the opening of The Lyceum’s new season (in collaboration with the wonderful Dundee Rep) has been highly anticipated in this particular household having seen the original production of this fabulous play in the 1987 when it was premiered by Communicado, and performed at The Lyceum.

The first and most important reason that we were so excited about it is that Liz Lochhead wrote it.  And boy can our Makar write.  I was in tears of laughter at Educating Agnes which the Lyceum staged in the spring, and although this production has many moments of humour it’s not a comedy.

Instead it is a breathtaking ensemble piece which firmly nails Lochhead’s views on the union between Scotland and England through the insanely close relationship between two cousins, both queens, one a virgin, one almost a floozie.

The queens in question dominate the action and of course we all have to have favourites, mine was Mary played with a beautiful gaelic/french lilt by Shauna Macdonald.  Flame haired and feisty she was nevertheless in the thrall of the more dominant but deeply self absorbed Elizabeth played by Emily Winter.  Whilst MacDonald has a steady and absorbing presence that grows with the play Winters’ is more stacatto, punctuating the play with many of its high points, especially when she brainwashes Darnley before his trip north to seduce and ultimately marry Mary.

The play, both modern and historical in one, is directed with real verve and gusto by Tony Cownie and the design by Neil Murray is well observed and funny.

It’s great.  Not just because of the fantastic script, but in the performances of the whole cast in particular the aforementioned queens and Liam Brennan who really is at the top of his game as a snarling, spitting John Knox that makes many a Catholic squirm uncomfortably in their seat.

Whilst Ann Louise Ross has been pulling rave reviews as Corbie (the Crow) narrator I preferred Myra McFadzean’s performance in Communicado’s original production.  I also thought her performance in Age of Arousal trumped this.

A resounding yes for this production although for all of our group its resolution was probably the weakest point.

CATS Awards

My tickets came in this envelope. How damning is that - VIP? So nearly a contender, but that little question mark took it all away. Ah well.

It was the ninth CATS Awards held at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh yesterday and the event had a real sense of achievement about it.  Presented by Joyce McMillan and Clare Grogan we were treated to excellent potted reviews of each of the four shortlisted candidates in 10 categories of Scottish theatre by the great and the good of the Scottish Critics.

I got a real sense of us being in a “golden age” of theatre.  So many great shows, my only regret was that I had not seen them all.  In particular I wish I had seen White by Catherine Wheels (which won three times), The Three Musketeers and The Princess of Spain (at the Traverse) which sounded simply hilarious and the overall winner (which I tried to see); Roadkill again at The Traverse.

When you stand back and look at the real influence at work here the Traverse really does stand tall in it all, notwithstanding the fact that my own declared interest (The Lyceum ) has had a season to die for and another on the way and the incredible success of Dundee Rep’s Sweeney, many of the nominees were touched by the Trav, performed there or their writers had made their way through its hallowed doorway.

I know too that not everyone always loves the National Theatre of Scotland but with three different productions shortlisted here (not to mention Knives in Hens which is currently playing at, yes, The Trav and Dunsinane (the Lyceum) which was not eligible, its influence is there to be seen.

Highlight of the day?  Mary Brennan’s (slightly long but wholly hilarious) “performance” as she extolled the virtue of Scotland’s performance in the Children and Young People category which was won by White.

It’s a very great pity that although Roadkill is back for the Fringe again that hardly anyone can see it; indeed it’s already sold out.

The party afterwards, both in the Festival Theatre, but especially in Brass Monkey (A great wee boozer in Drummond Street) was fantastic.

It was so luvvieish that the lack of  Dickie Attenburgh’s presence was about the only thing short of perfection.

Scottish Theatre Awards shortlist revealed

Six of the Best for the old lady.

Mark Thomson’s stunning season at The Lyceum has been rewarded by no fewer than six nominations at the CATS (Critics Awards for Theatre Scotland).  That’s as many as the NToS.  He’s up against some tough competition, not least in Roadkill which I fancy will do extremely well.  But many of you will have read my reviews of the two shows in particular that are attracting attention;

Age of Arousal, is a stunning new co production with Stellar Quines.  It has received nominations for best ensemble, best director (Muriel Romanes), best design and best production.  Here’s what I thought of it in February;

Although I said previously ‘Our two leads’ this is in actual fact as ensemble a show as one could imagine…This is a play that is richly and deeply textured; interestingly realised with beautifully subtle sound, video and lighting design and costumes (designed in a third year project by Edinburgh School of Art Students) that for me were the best I’ve seen on the Lyceum stage in a long time….This is an absorbing two hours of entertainment with a feisty and often hilarious script that batters along holding you firmly in its thrall throughout…It’s a gem.

The Importance of Being Earnest .  This was a hilarious theatrical evening and Joyce MacMilllan absolutely loved it, naming it as one of her theatrical highlights of 2010 in her annual round u.  Mark Thomson got the recognition he so richly deserves as he is nominated as best Director.  Here’s what I had to say at the time about Mark.

Mark Thomson is on fire.

His last six or so productions have not only been outstanding in my personal opinion, but also in that of the critics.

There are more stars kicking around the foyer of The Lyceum right now than in the Milky Way and that is because he, as artistic director, is mounting productions that are great.  Really great.

Earnest is no exception.  Although four acts long (usually three) it passes in the blink of an eye.  Rarely have I seen a show crack along at such a ferocious pace.  You really do need to keep your wits about you to catch all of the gags in this script.

Educating Agnes.  I saw this show twice and my review of Peter Forbes seems vindicated as he is nominated for Best actor.

Peter Forbes as Arnolphe performed as commandingly as anyone I’ve seen on this stage in recent years.  He stands alongside Stanley Townsend, in A view From The Bridge (for me at least), in this respect.

On stage for almost the duration and with at least 50% of the dialogue he never put a foot wrong.  But much more than this, the interpretation he put into poor old Arnolphe’s twisted character, the labyrinthine logic that he applied to the morals and ethics of creating a concubine out of Agnes and the despair that ensues as it all goes horribly wrong is expressed through shrieks, hollers, quasimodo-like grimaces and bodily twists and turns that make you squirm in your seat.

He is epic.

Not bad to have three out of seven shows on the shortlist.  So good luck Mark, Muriel and co at The Festival Theatre in June.

It’s nice to see also that Ria and I chose a goodie when we went to Dundee Rep to see Sweeney Todd because that too has been nominated (no fewer than five times!)

Sweeney Todd at The Dundee Rep

Sondheim’s Sweeney is, for me, very near to perfection in terms of musical theatre.  I rate it alongside West Side Story and Ragtime for wit, quality and sheer vocal demand.  It’s more an opera than a musical in truth but Sondheim insists that operas are for opera houses and musicals are for theatres.  So, a musical it is.

This production has been lauded by the critics and I can see why.

I don’t want anyone to take this the wrong way but it felt like a very high quality amateur production (with a budget) because the performances across the ensemble cast were riproaringly enthusiastic and heartfelt.  (My point is that I sometimes feel in professional theatre that some of the passion is missing.  Not here. )

This show rocks from the opening bar of Sondheim’s astounding prologue to the last bar of the shattering epilogue (both are highlights of the musical).  Act 1 in particular was spellbindingly good, partly because the material is so strong.  (I feel the same about West Side Story as it happens.)

But this is certainly no amdram performance.  It is highly polished, visually powerful (a very good set) and musically accomplished.  And what a great theatre space.  My first, but not last, visit to the Dundee Rep.

I was pleasantly surprised to see Richard Conlon in the cast, playing Pirelli terrifically. (An old FCT cast member.)

It’s difficult not to make comparisons to the Johnny Depp/Helena Bonham Carter roles in the movie, but I won’t.  Suffice to say that in the title role David Birrell was brilliant without being OTT.  Much of the humour was reserved for Ann Louise Ross who played Mrs Lovett beautifully but particularly deviously.  You really got a feeling for her as the real driving force of the operation.  Poor old Sweeney is just consumed with anger and the need for remorse, old Mrs Lovett’s in it for what she can get.

This is the least gory version of Sweeney I think I’ve ever seen.  I’m not sure a drop of fake blood was spilled throughout and that did slightly lessen the drama in the second act killing spree.  But it didn’t spoil the overall effect.

A major shout out must go to the ‘ensemble’ who really carried the show.  Too often professional musicals (especially tourers) are let down by weak chorus work because the numbers on stage are insufficient.  Again, not here.

I absolutely loved this.  Great value for money with a 16 strong cast and an 11 piece orchestra; three hours of entertainment, and all for £18 with a standing ovation to boot.  Go on the Rep!