My 8 years of Royal Lyceum Theatre bliss…


 

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Amy Manson in Caucasian Chalk Circle

Bliss?  Blessed more like.

I have had the extreme privilege of spending 8 years on the board of The Royal Lyceum Theatre Company in Edinburgh and last night it came to a close.  Good governance rules said two terms of four years was my limit and so I’ve had to move on.

I have plenty of alternative pursuits to engage me but I wanted to publicly thank the staff and fellow board members of this venerable institution for making it eight years of sublime mental stimulation, a huge schoolroom, both artistically and professionally and the scene of more parties than anywhere else in my life.

It has been monumental.

Now, it would’t be me if I wasn’t to choose a few favourites and so my top ten from my period on the board are as follows…

Caucasian Chalk Circle: Mark Thomson (my all time favourite)

Waiting for Godot: Mark Thomson 

Educating Agnes: Tony Cownie

The Venetian Twins: Tony Cownie

Bondagers: Lu Kemp

Pressure: John Dove

The Crucible: John Dove

The Suppliant Women: Ramin Gray

Dunsinane: Roxana Silbert

Hidden (various directors for Lyceum Youth Theatre)

Scottish independence. “The choice is between warfare and welfare.”


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I had the immense privilege of attending a discussion around the play “Union” at the Royal Lyceum Theatre’s Henry Irving Room  this afternoon.

I say privilege on more than one level because it was actually sold out and only my relationship with the theatre gave me the opportunity to buy a house ticket.  So thank you very much Lucy Vaughan for looking after me.

The line up was a titanic collection of historical forensic investigators; Tim Barrow, Union’s author, Mark Thomson, its director and Owen Dudley Edwards; Irish (turned Scots) historian, critic and, as it turns out, astounding raconteur.

I’m not going to review Union here as that’s not my place as a trustee of the Lyceum, but I am going to urge you, if you have any interest in the independence debate to see it because it adds an important layer of “poetic” texture to the debate and is an astonishing piece of work.

This is something that, to my mind, has been in short supply in the Independence debate so far, and something I have bemoaned on my professional blog .

But that was not the case today.

First off, Dudley Edwards’ referencing of the seminal work by Stephen Maxwell; Evidence Risk and The Wicked Issues – Arguing for Independence, was, for me, exciting, as it’s the writing that has most inspired me in this often tawdry mud-slinging debate.  It’s an important, intelligent, largely objective (despite his political background) read that is required if you want to have a view on this critically important era in our nationhood.

Mark Thomson made a brilliantly observed point that history, per se, is ‘bevelled’ before we even start deciphering it, because the voice of the common man has (until recently, thanks to the internet) been lost as a result of illiteracy and poverty.  History has largely been written from the point of view of the wealthy classes and that’s why it’s so important that Alan Ramsay (poet and apprentice wigmaker) is such a key character in Union.

But the message I want to share with you and invite discussion is Dudley Edwards’ answer to my question…

“If this play rose above the factual and reached a poetic truth (Mark Thomson) how can the current tit for tat Independence debate do the same?”

Dudley Edwards’ response was to say that, fundamentally, an ideological core has to emerge and hasn’t yet, but he suggested one that I felt touched an interesting and raw nerve.

Independence, as the quote in this title references, could be wrapped up in a singular thought.

Warfare or Welfare?  

Alex Salmond paints a picture of a Social Democratic state (more European than British) that eschews the fundamentally conservative politics of Southern England and that shares wealth and opportunity without resorting to outright socialism.  I like that.

He demonises Trident (the symbol of warfare and a hill of financial pain).  I like that.

He advocates our green economic potential through renewable energy R&D at the core of our economy.  I buy that.

And he seeks a nation where we look after the less fortunate.  A nation of welfare. A nation that creates opportunity for all (free University education, although I fear he has undermined vocational FE in this crusade).  So, I support that too.

No one, but no one, has captured that essence as well as Owen Dudley Edwards.

So, thank you sir.  You are a scholar and a gentleman.

 

 

 

And so the festival lies before us…


We saw the Wheel at the Traverse to kick off our festival and next we have the show that FCT is doing; The Chess Game.  I chair this youth theatre and we have 40 excited youngsters treading the boards for the 33rd year in a row at the Festival.

Next, I have Wondrous Flitting, which The Lyceum is staging at The Traverse;  The Lyceum Theatre Company’s first Fringe outing in many years.

Then there’s the shows I’ve booked so far.  I’m seeing Steven Berkoff in action in Oedipus next Friday.  That should be utterly sensational.

But also one of the hot tickets which I have is to see Marc Almond  In Ten Plagues.

But my aching hollow in my chest is for Dance Marathon.  Who will go with me to this experiential play in which the audience dance for four hours in a real life “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?’

There is more…all at the Traverse at the moment, a site specific piece in Edinburgh’s Medical Hospital which is about death and the afterlife called “What Remains” and David Greig’s reputedly wonderful “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart” with its promising Kylie Minogue finale.

You’ll notice I am not doing the Fringe Cancer; Comedy.

I may do Dave Gorman, and I’ve been invited to The Stand opening night pre-fest jolly with CBS, but I don’t do comedy because I’m a miserable Quantas flyer.

Oh, and a snob.

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!)

Educating Agnes by The Royal Lyceum Theatre Company


People often associate theatre as a home for serious intellectual exercise.  A place to be challenged politically, ideologically and linguistically.   But that is to miss the point. Because Mark Thomson constantly espouses his theory that when all is said and done theatre is about entertainment.  Sure big ideas can be shared (take Copenhagen from two years ago for instance) but let’s not forget that for £20 spent on a night out people want to enjoy themselves, not just have a brain training workout.

Few congregating places achieve all of these things so effectively.

In cinema one is limited by its lack of engagement physically.  Cinema, although for many the centre of their art world, is distant, even unattainable.  Art Galleries, although more involving, lack dimension; in most cases the work is done and dusted and we, the audience, come along to wonder at its craft or thinking.  We do not take part.  The church is too often the home for hectoring and instruction rather than involvement.

So that leaves theatre.  Theatre is visceral, real and involving.  In this play there are moments of soliloque and sheers pantoesque interaction that acknowledge the involvement of the audience.  Then of course there’s the collective laughter, cheering and applause.

Educating Agnes is pure entertainment and sits alongside a number of recent balls-out, have a bloody good laugh evenings  in Grindlay Street:  Irma Vep, Earnest and The Beauty Queen of Leenane stand out in this respect.  But none of them had me quite as out of control as this absolute raucous beast of a comedy.  I was literally sweating with laughter.

“Shut up” my wife hissed on three or four occasions, digging me sharply in the ribs,  as I exploded, yet again, with laughter at this script and performance that fit together symbiotically.

It’s part slapstick; and for that to work as well as it does we have to invite Scotland’s finest stage comedy actor, Steven McNicoll, to stand forward.

He only has to enter stage left to have me grinning from ear to ear.  This man is a legend I tell you.  Like a huge Norman Wisdom or a latter day Rikkie Fulton he lives and breathes comedy. Just the way he stands, the way he walks, or the way, in this show, that he uses gaping, inordinately long pauses

to

deliver

a

killer line makes him a diamond.

I don’t know if Liz Lochhead wrote the part with him in mind but if she didn’t there was some divine intervention and certainly the hand of Tony Cownie at play.

To pair him with Kathryn Howden was another stroke of casting genius.  The pair are bawdy and gut bustingly funny from start to finish.  The scene where they attack Arnolphe with a salmon and a string of sausages will live long in my memory.  And, OMG, when the slapstick scene erupts with pantomime door effects I swear I was going to actually micturate.

Now, did you see what I did there?  I mixed OMG with an olde worlde term like micturate, and that is the secret of Liz Lochhead’s success.  She’s our Makar you know, and a Makar is described thus in Wikipedia;

It especially highlights the role of the poet as someone skilled in the crafting or making of controlled, formal poetry with intricate or involved diction and effects.

That description aptly summarises this show.  It’s an epic poem with more wordplays than a session in coalition.  The way Liz Lochhead can drop out of a Scot’s rhyming couplet drawn from 17th Century French and retort with a cool “Whatever.”  The way a heartfelt monolgue on love, loyalty and obedience can be met with a solitary middle finger pointing to the roof rafters is jaw dropping.  It’s also excruciatingly funny.  This is writing like nobody else does and it’s something to very greatly treasure.

But this is not just a Liz Lochhead beast.  She could never have brought this to bear without the utterly brilliant direction of Tony Cownie.  Every line has a nuance and an opportunity to wring an extra laugh out of it by some frm of physical theatre; a look, a posture, a harumph here or there.  It’s these that bring it so explosively to life and was what made Liz Lochhead giggle throughout at her own  creation (I sat behind her last night so saw how much she was enjoying Cownie’s interpretation.  In particular I think she appreciated (as my wife did) the careferee and niaive abandon with which Mark Prendergast literally threw himself into the role of Horace.)

I liked his performance a lot, as I did McNicoll, Howden and Nicola Roy as the eponymous heroine.

But I’m saving the best for last.

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.

This show is epic.

This show is stone wall, nailed on five star quality.

If you miss it, and you’ve read this, then frankly I despair.

Aye, away and  boil yer head,  innit?





The Importance of Being Earnest at The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh


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.

Some commentators have chosen to point out its current day relevance (particularly centred on a gag about Unionists and Liberals) but actually I thought it was very much a period piece that captured the hilarious mannerisms and manners of upper class England in a bygone time.  Despite that, it is genuinely funny from start to finish, hilariously so in parts, and that is down to three things; Wilde’s astounding script, Thomson’s taught direction and the astonishing acting by the cast which consists of Kirsty Mackay, Will Featherstone, Cara Kelly, Steven McNicoll, Mark McDonnell, Alexandra Mathie, Ben Deery, Sean Murray, and Melody Grove.

The Autumn season used virtually the same casts in Romeo and Juliet and this show.  Did it work as a double header?  I’m not sure that I really saw the link but what I did see was two great shows.  And the stand out over the piece had to be Will Featherstone as Romeo and Algernon – his performance as Algernon was utterly hilarious.

Lady Bracknell, played to perfection by Alexandra Mathie, was probably the show stealer on the night but really it’s an ensemble performance with not a single weak link.

It still has over a week to run and there are tickets available so get along.  Trust me.  You’ll thank me.

Every One by The Royal Lyceum Theatre Company


So much that excites in theatre and cinema is ultimately down to the writing and Mark Thomson has mounted (and brilliantly directed) a show that is, in parts, written with such skill and sophistication, and humour, that it takes the breath away.  However, at others it seems to go AWOL.

The first act of this new play, written by Jo Clifford, is very convincing, moving and utterly absorbing.  It is staged imaginatively and it’s all going in the right direction.  In act 2, however, the show seems to hit choppy creative waters as it steps up its ambition.  But it left me, and my wife, confused.

It’s about death.  Full frontal, no holds barred death.  The great universal.  If we all die let’s not pussyfoot about the issue, let’s just play it straight and that’s exactly how Clifford tackles the subject.

A 50 year old wife and mother suffers a massive stroke and dies soon thereafter.  How it affects her nearest and dearest is one aspect of the show but the greater one (and a less often visited side of the equation) is how it affects the cadaver.  And that makes for great theatre in act one as we build the back story (often hilariously) and reach the momento mori.

The cast is led by the peerless and stunning Kath Howden and ably supported by her “late” husband Jonathon Hackett and death himself in the guise of Liam Brennan.  But they get most of the great lines and all of the power plays.  Less satisfactory for me were the parts for the son and daughter and trickiest of all is the role in the play of the family matriarch, Howden’s mother, who is suffering from senility.  Her part takes us down the most confusing plot alleyways and do not, in my view, always help the narrative.  What I expected was to see Act 2 focus more on grief, instead it becomes more and more obtuse, before coming together in a satisfying climax.

The staging is magnificent.  Philip Pinsky, yet again, pops in with musical magic. ( The point of death being captured in a single electrifying piano chord; once in each act.) And the whole is, overall, very satisfying.  I just wish act 2 had a bit more narrative conviction and storytelling.

Should you go?  You bet.

Confessions of a justified sinner at the Royal Lyceum theatre, edinburgh


A rather amusing “no animals were killed in the making of this smoke” type announcement preludes the opening of this play and then the curtain rises to reveal a dark, brooding, half-lit miasma that remains throughout.

And yes, it’s smoky.

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The darkness is entirely appropriate as this is a tale from the early 18th century when dark deeds were done, folk lived in smogs of half truth, rumour and mountains of religious guilt.  And we’re not even talking Catholisism here.  No, welcome to the dank, scary world of Calvinism.

YE WILL NOT HAVE FUN.  YE WILL NOT FORNICATE.  YE WILL NOT SMILE.  YE WILL NOT DAE ANYTHING THAT THE LORD WOULD FROWN UPON.

Because the Lord, back then, was all seeing, all telling, all rule making.

This was a land of ignorance and powerful religious figures.  The meenister was all.

Sound familiar?

Yep, it’s a fascinating allegory (or is it a metaphor) for our times today where religious extremism, east and west, is a licence for abhorrent and inexplicable sinning.

The early days Obama (Mc)Bin Laden of James Hogg’s novel is played at just the right side of lampoon by the truly terrifying Kern Falconer and he is the axis of evil that the play revolves around.  It’s into his house that the naive Robert Wringhim is brought, with his mother, to “enjoy” a life of strict religious instruction.  And enjoy it he does, to a point, until the Meenister sets out on a campaign to “justify” his pupil.  To make him immune to sin on earth and guarantee him a place in heaven, no matter what.  In time, the Damascan moment arrives and Wringhim is indeed (apparently) granted that place in heaven.

His ticket safely tucked away in his inside pocket the charming young Wringham is now granted the right to exact retribution on all wrongdoers that cross his path; and there are plenty of them.

The central premise of the play then unfolds around this – that if a place in the afterlife is guaranteed, rather than has to be earned, where does one draw the line?

If one can sin and not be called to task then surely sinning will follow.  And if this sinning is not actually considered a sin then the atrocities that might result are presumably acceptable.  Is this not exactly the point that appears to be brainwashed into suicide bombers the world over (because Wringham is essentially Calvinism’s suicide bomber).

Is he mad?  Is Gil-Martin his voice of conscience – or the devil?  There’s certainly a thin line between schitzophrenia and devotion in this play.

The “11th man” of this astonishing performance is the set. It rocks.  Built on a rotating platform the oblique monoliths that seemingly stretch to the sky are variously abstract tables, beds, tombstones and pulpits, but mainly they are dark foreboding skyscrapers of the future.  They are the metaphoric twin towers that I believe this play alludes to.

Ryan Fletcher is stunning.  He does not overplay his quite considerable hand.  Iain Robertson as Gil-Martin nails it.  Lewis Howden is a scream. and John Kielty plays his parts with restraint.  This is a blokes play.  Sure Rae Hendrie carries her part beautifully as the Mother but all the lines belong to the men.

Mark Thomson has to be lauded for both the writing and the direction of this very superior night of theatre.  And I’m certain he will be.

It’s brilliant.  It’s funny.  It’s electric.  It’s dark.  It is an absolute must see.

The Lion, the witch and the Wardrobe at The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh


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I took the whole family to see this on Saturaday. A rare occurance that we were all engaged in the same activity for any more than five minutes. I wasn’t entirely expecting willing compliance but was surprisingly proved wrong as we all set out with an open mind and eager anticipation.

It’s a major challenge to mount a stage adaptation of a well known (and loved; although I never read it) book that has just been through the Holywood special effects machine. On the one hand it can never reach the pyrotechnics of movieland and on the other it’s a big ask to reach the heights of children’s imagination that reading inspires. I am glad to say it rose to the not inconsiderable challenge. Director Mark Thomson refers, in his programme notes, to the central theme of good versus evil being eternally relevant and, of course, this is true.

The show is a visual spectacle. The flyman has had a bit of work to do in recent Lyceum shows, but not that much. I think he’ll have lost a couple of stones by the end of this run because the magical world of Narnia is revealed and hidden regularly by way of flown in scenery and quite a few trucks too (that’s theatre techy speak. If you don’t understand it try Google.)

I’m constantly amazed by the Lyceum’s sound/music man, Philip Pinsky, who is an ex member of Finitribe, and who brings a huge amount to this production, not least the electric opening scene that reminded me in some way of the Atonement soundtrack. It’s absolutely brilliant.

The acting is universally good although there are two undoubted standouts, the White Witch, played by Meg Fraser who is quite astounding. Her mix of evilness, oddness, weirdness and clowning is a rare thing indeed, and Owain Rhys Davies as the Dwarf is hilarious.

If I have one criticism it sagged a little in the second act but overall this is a really wonderful Christmas treat that you might be lucky enough to get a ticket for. But you better get a move on.

Macbeth by The Royal Lyceum Theatre Company (in conjunction with Nottingham Playhouse)


If you’ve been thinking of going to see this but haven’t quite got round to it you better get your finger out because it ends on Saturday.

And extracting the digit would be a very good idea.

I approached this with no real qualifications and indeed comment on it as a Shakespearean no mark.  I have not studied even a page of Shakespeare in my life.  I don’t understand the politics (and boy there’s plenty here) the language, the context or the history.  Apart from that I am scholarly.

So Joyce Macmillan’s two star review in The Scotsman alarmed me.  What was I letting myself in for?

I’ll tell you what.  A bloody good night’s entertainment (with the emphasis on bloody).

The staging was magnificent, the lighting, sound design and music; all terrific.

The acting was top notch.  Liam Brennan as Macbeth looks like he’s put his heart, soul and every ounce of his being into this role.  He looks and sounds exhausted, but that’s because his passion for the part and command of the stage and the role are quite remarkable.  Allison McKenzie, as his complicent wife (complicent in the lust for power that is) belies the fact that she has made her name in River City – a soap that I have thankfully managed to avoid totally, and Jimmy Chisholm in a number of roles is great; particularly in the one comedy scene as the drunken Porter in which he brought the house down.

It’s an intense and very involving theatrical experience and hugely rewarding.

In recalling MacMillan’s review the thing that stood out was her dismissal of the period setting (is modern necessarily good I ask myself?) and her strong criticism of the role of the witches which she, from memory, saw as overly indulgent, overpowering and ham fisted.  Me? I thought they were an imaginative and thrilling part of the whole.

Please see it if you have the chance.

It brought back memories of my one and only Shakespearean involvement, in the chorus of Verdi’s Macbeth by Edinburgh Grand Opera in the late 80’s.  Another superb production featuring one of opera’s least talented practitioners.  Moi.  But boy did I enjoy it.

So that’s two Macbeth’s and two stonkers.  I am lucky indeed.