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


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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.)

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour at The Traverse. National Theatre of Scotland.


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Alan Warner’s hilarious novel, The Sopranos, has finally made it to the stage with a fancy new name and a soundtrack featuring a phalanx of ELO songs plus a stunning acapella rendition of No Woman No Cry.

The six strong female cast and three female instrumentalists vent more filth and spleen onto the Traverse 1 stage in 100 minutes than a score of submariners could muster in a month at sea.

Name a taboo and it’s delivered with gusto; spunk, jiz, shit, spew, piss and blood all make bawdy appearances in a play that makes Bridesmaids look like Play School.

Adapted by Billy Elliot writer, Lee Hall, and brilliantly directed by Vicky Featherstone it bowls along at 100 miles an hour yet pauses periodically to allow the bitter sweetness of the story to take root. It concerns a day trip from Oban to Edinburgh by the school choir of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour to take part in an annual choir competition. Given a day to explore Auld Reekie the six characters we follow go apeshit in an orgy of drink, drugs and sex as a long line of male suitors (also played by the girls) have varying degrees of success in attempting to conquest what look like easy challenges but invariably end in failure.

It’s belly laugh out loud from start to finish but has fantastic moments of poignancy and features a number of outstanding vocal performances in keeping with the girls’ status as high-class choristers

I’ve been waiting a long time to see this and the wait was worth every minute. This is certain to be one of the hottest tickets on The Fringe and predictably is completely sold out even before the preview.

But it’s touring throughout Scotland in September so travel as far as you have to, to see this magical production.

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.

27


Once again, I declare my RLTC interests before sharing my views on this really interesting night in the theatre.

Abi Morgan’s new play for National Theatre of Scotland and The Royal Lyceum Theatre is a slow burning thought piece.  Over five Acts it gradually unfolds its subtle pickings as it runs through the theatrical gearbox with ease.

Although Maureen Beattie takes marketing centre-stage it’s by no means all about her (although her performance purrs) and, in fact, it’s Nicholas Le Prevost who overcomes a slowish start to increasingly dominate the proceedings.

I’m not going to dwell on the plot because it would be too easy to spoil it by revealing the action.

In some ways the action is not really that important because this is a polemical, rather than plot-based,  play about two opposing “kirks”: science and religion. But it’s obvious that what drives blind science and blind faith is…err…blind belief.  Read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and you will see exactly what I mean.

The need for order, belief, integrity and singlemindedness are every bit as important in a convent as they are in a lab and this play explores deeply the integrity of belief.

It’s thoroughly thought provoking and it is delivered via a totally engaging, and yet, at times, humorous, but at all times riveting script.

The set is astounding.  A brutalist concrete bunker that could at once be a university, the Catholic grotto at Carfin or a business hotel foyer where business has to be done.

And business does have to be done

The cast are great.

I loved Maureen Beattie’s unemotional and consequently hugely sympathetic performance as the convent boss elect.  Her predecessor, the ageing Sister Miriam, played by Colette O’Neil was wonderful: what a part for an actor of a certain age.  And the newbie, the loose cannon that is Audrey, brilliantly builds her character throughout.  I enjoyed Molly Innes’ performance in Wondrous Flitting (for me the stand out performance in that show) and she delivers again as the agent provocateur of the conservative Catholic church.

This play neither belittles nor celebrates religion.  It challenges scientific orthodoxy and as a result weaves a fine line between all camps leaving you, the viewer, to use your brain.

Oh, I nearly forgot.  It’s about Alzheimers disease.

And it’s only on for three weeks.

You, like me, will probably want to go twice, so move it.

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.

Knives in Hens at The Traverse (National Theatre of Scotland)


OK.

This is a hard one to review for a number of reasons.
First, it stars my cousin (Susan Vidler) so I have to declare an interest.

Second.  It stars the son of my most inspiring school teacher (Owen Whitelaw) Son of Walter Whitelaw, the man that made me gain a biology degree. So I have to declare an interest.

Third.  I didn’t really understand a fucking jot of it.

Now. to the business end and taking account all of the above.

It’s absorbing.  It’s intriguing. It’s empathetic.  It’s in some ways remarkable. Because it feels like an important piece of theatre that (actually) maybe I did “get”.

But it’s obtuse.  It’s difficult.  It’s ANNOYING.

The performances rock.  Every single one of them and let me not leave out Vicki Manderson or Duncan Anderson because this is actually a four header ensemble piece.

So, what is it about?

My take, and it’s only mine is that it’s a kind of human condition observation (Susan told me that directed in a different way it would obviously be about the Industrial revolution and I can see why because it’s a tale of old meets new (Plough v Mill).

It’s highly sexual and very existential.  God features heavily and Manderson’s Character in particular pulls that together as she plays a part human, part mare, part.

What is she?  Mare or madam?

I say mare.

It’s this year’s theatrical cryptic crossword and I say go and figure it out for yourself because I failed on 1 across.

Dunsinane by the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre of Scotland in association with The Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh.


The Godfather Two showed that sequels can better their original by walking the same path but more deftly, building on its foundations with style, wit and great, great writing.

Dunsinane, is technically a sequel but could hardly be described as usurping its predecessor (Macbeth) as David Grieg neatly finds a way of avoiding the direct comparison by writing it in something approaching the modern vernacular.

And so, Macbeth is merely a plot device to set up a thoroughly modern parable on the pursuit of power and the appetite that man (and woman because Lady Macbeth, Gruach, is the hub of all the conflict in this extraordinary play) has for eternal conflict.

“Peace is not the normal state, peace is like the days when the sea is flat calm, the prevailing condition is war.” says King Malcolm (I think, and I paraphrase) to the English commander, and star of the show, Siward played monumentally by Jonny Phillips.  And that’s what lies at the heart of this electrifying production; the fact that war is pretty much the need state of those in power, because war makes things happen. And I don’t mean war results in reshaping of civilisation, no, war turns the wheels of industry and is the dynamo for political momentum.  The second world war was what got the world’s major economies booming after all.  The Gulf War revitalised America’s sluggish economy.

Thatcher knew that when she blasted Argie to kingdom come.

Blair thought he did when he catapulted the UK into the single most futile decade of power-mongering.

However, where Thatcher sensed the mood of the nation and used the Falklands to reignite her popularity Blair just stuck his big bloody size tens in and created an absolute shambles around him.  It’s Blair’s approach that drives the narrative of this play because the Post Macbethian 12th Century Scotland is a photofit of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Whilst the English may have assumed that Lady Macbeth (Gruach) left this mortal coil alongside her beloved husband, we soon find out that as the saying goes “to assume is to make an ass out of u and me.”  Oh no, Gruach is very much alive and well and, as Queen, she believes her offspring are heir to the throne and by God she’s gonna do her damnedest to give them the chance to take their rightful place – even if that means sleeping with the enemy.

And so, Gruach (a mesmerising, flame haired Siobhan Redmond) emerges as the key political figure in this drama; she calls all the shots and she delivers them in an often tense and powerful dialogue between herself and Siward.  Always on the front foot, driving the poor man crazy with both lust and frustration.

Meanwhile, the King of Scotland, Malcolm quietly (weakly?) surveys the scene with an air of weariness and a large degree of slightly camp cynicism, increasingly frustrated by Siward’s inability to strategically manage the conflict.  His performance (by Brian Ferguson) is initially hysterically funny but gradually turns colder and more focused as the drama unfolds.

Both the directing (by Roxana Silbert) and the writing by David Grieg are breathtaking.  Grieg doesn’t write a script so much as a wholesale political essay on the state of the nation that leaves you almost gasping at its vision and insight. Remember this play was written 18 months before Salmond swept to power in such a way that the state of the Union has never been more open to question in modern times.  Surely conflict is a potential outcome.

And it’s the sheer range of this play that impressed me most.  Starting out, frankly, like a Monty Python comedy (it really did stir up memories of Life of Brian) it moves gradually through a series of episodes to darker territory.  Barely a minute passed in Act One without a chuckle, and often a belly laugh.  Act Two starts as it left off, but only for moments before the real meat of the problem is tackled to almost preternatural effect.

Honestly this play reaches right inside of you.  It moves along like a runaway Express, charged as it goes by a brilliant folk rock trio that inject pace and punctuation that is echoed by a duet of Gaelic singing lassies.  And whilst the ending stutters just a little it’s a lean back moment as the curtain closes and one is transported back into the real world.

Or was what we were watching the real world?

This is Champions League stuff.

I’ve seen several immense performances on the Lyceum stage this year; Stanley Townsend, Peter Forbes and Frances Thorburn in particular, and there have been a number of incredible ensemble casts ; Age of Arousal and Earnest spring to mind.

But this has both.

And this has three, maybe four or five stellar performances; Siobhan Redmond of course, and Jonny Phillips, but so too Tom Gill as the boy soldier, Brian Ferguson as Malcolm and Alex Mann as the hilarious Egham.

Mark my words. They will be talking about this show in hushed tones many years from now.