Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Lee Breuer - Peter and Wendy

One of Lee Breuer’s sons was about three years old when the American theatre director started work on his version of JM Barrie’s Peter And Wendy with the New York-based Mabou Mines company. At that time, Mabou Mines were only playing the first act of the show that arrives in its full form as the last major component of the Edinburgh International Festival’s drama programme at the beginning of September. By the time Breuer introduced a second act, some five years into the play’s development, another son had arrived and was again three years old at the time Peter And Wendy was being rehearsed. Rather than becoming an attention-seeking distraction from the work at hand, the presence of Breuer’s infant children opened his eyes to what would become a crucial factor in his new take on Peter Pan.

Peter And Wendy might not be an obvious choice for a company whose last appearance in Edinburgh was with a highly charged and absurdly funny version of Ibsen’s normally bleakly serious proto-feminist classic A Doll’s House. In that show, Breuer looked at the politics of scale by having all the male parts played by actors of restricted growth, while all the female parts were played by women six feet tall. The play was dusted down even more by being played on a pop-up book set in a sub-vaudevillian style.

For Peter And Wendy, Breuer and adaptor Liza Lorwin have cast Karen Kandel not just as Wendy, but also to provide the voices for every other character in the play, brought to life by seven puppeteers.

“The puppetry is the star of the show,” says Breuer, “and we try and fuse two different types. Bunraku usually has three puppeteers operating each puppet, and then in Wayang Kulit, there is the tradition of having the lead puppeteer doing all the voices. So we adapted that, and then added lots of pop-up books for the Darlings’ house and Captain Hook’s boat. With all that it becomes a really magical story, especially with the idea that a puppet could spring to life. I think this is why puppetry is used as a Buddhist lesson. But Karen is astonishing. She’s playing characters aged from seven to 70. She even plays a dog. During the puppet scenes she speaks upstage, but when she speaks as Wendy she turns around. The different voices come from the same source, but there is magic there. It’s deconstructing life.”

Peter Pan has flown into view a lot on stage this year. While Barrie’s tale of lost innocence has become a thigh-slapping Christmas fixture inspired more by Disney’s animated film version, several theatre-makers are intent on getting back to the story’s more serious essence by way of two productions of Peter Pan pending in Scotland. Grid Iron director Ben Harrison’s epic look at the story is currently still running in London’s Kensington Gardens, home to a statue of Peter Pan in honour of Barrie.

Beyond its initial cuteness, it’s not hard to see why Peter Pan continues to fascinate directors.

“It’s a masterpiece,” Breuer states bluntly, “the book more so than the play. It came 14 years later, and is much deeper and mildly feminist as the story is told from Wendy’s point of view. I think it’s very special, and I wanted to get some subtlety in the story. The idea is a very feminine one, and we go backwards rather than forwards. This is an adult show about nostalgia, and about what happens to a middle-class woman who can’t give up her fantasies of ideal love. It’s very sad. Wendy is kind of a stiff-lipped loser who retreats into her world with a basket of dolls that come alive and perform her story. Of course, Barrie’s wife was very tragic, but as for the sex thing, we gloss. We don’t try to make it any kind of exposé of sexuality or anti-sexuality. Everybody knows JM Barrie was a little guy who couldn’t get it up, but this is a sad sentimental fantasy. My natural style is erotic and rough and tumble, but one of the secret desires I had with Peter And Wendy was wanting to do it as Yin as my normal style is Yang.”

Breuer co-founded Mabou Mines in 1970 with a group of fellow travellers from America’s counter-cultural avant-garde, including composer Philip Glass. Named after the small Nova Scotia mining town where the company rehearsed their debut show, The Red Horse Animation, the roots of the company date back to when Breuer was a student at UCLA in the 1950s. It was there he met Ruth Maleczech, with whom he hitch-hiked to San Francisco to join in with the city’s vibrant underground theatre scene, which was centred on the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop and the San Francisco Mime Troupe. It was here the couple met JoAnne Akalaitis, who would later marry Glass. After a few years’ global wandering, the group hooked up in Paris for a production of Samuel Beckett’s Play. It wasn’t until 1969, however, that the idea of a permanent theatre company was mooted.

With Breuer the sole constant in Mabou Mines’ personnel, the company has explored theatrical staples such as Shakespeare and Brecht as well as cult science-fiction writer Philip K Dick’s novel, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, putting the company’s post-modern deconstructive stamp on each. As well as Glass, Mabou Mines has also worked with a stream of leftfield contemporary composers, including John Zorn, Pauline Oliveros and ex-Talking Head David Byrne.

For Peter And Wendy, the score comes from the late Scottish composer Johnny Cunningham and is played in the show by a seven-piece traditional band. Breuer is effusive about Cunningham’s contribution to the piece. “Johnny was more Peter Pan than any of us,” he enthuses. “He was this long-haired dude who was a fantastic person, and really was a child who never grew up. When Johnny was alive, he was the star of the show. He went around everywhere with a twinkle in his eye, and he made everyone else twinkle.”

Peter And Wendy is Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, September 2-5, 7.30pm (and September 5, 2.30pm), www.eif.co.uk, 0131 473 2000. The Sunday Herald and The Herald are media partners of the Edinburgh International Festival.

The Herald, August 2009


Monday, 5 December 2016

Robert Ashley - Foreign Experiences

Going west isn't so much a perennial American pastime as a way of life. Ask Robert Ashley, the New York-based composer of spoken word opera, whose back catalogue over the past quarter of a century is largely made up of a mammoth trilogy of Perfect Lives, Atalanta - Acts of God and Now Eleanor's Idea, which obliquely maps out a cross-country quest in search of enlightenment.

The final part of the trilogy is itself divided into four parts, each focusing on the response of one particular character after the banks run out of money. With the fourth part, Foreign Experiences, at Tramway for one night this weekend, some 15 years after its premiere, such prescience in relation to the current global economy is purely accidental.

Ashley is in London to watch a performance of Foreign Experiences, which will form part of Talk Show, a season of speech-based artworks and events at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. He will also visit Glasgow to watch his long-term collaborators, Sam Ashley and Jacqueline Humbert, perform what was originally intended to be a work for seven voices.

"It was much too difficult and expensive that way," Ashley confesses, "and when we tried to record it, one voice at a time, it didn't really have any forward motion. Sam suggested editing it into a two-voice version. He didn't change any of the piece. He just gave it some energy. It's very fast.

"That's the main element, and to have seven singers responding to each other's body language would have led to a major expense. But Sam has produced the piece in the way that a producer works in popular music, where they're very important, but seldom get any notice. It's like when Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno work with U2. They're integral to the creative process, but you never hear their names mentioned."

As well as the Foreign Experiences duo, Ashley's informal ensemble is made up of Thomas Buckner, last seen in these parts performing in Edinburgh alongside Phill Niblock, and Joan La Barbara, who appeared at this year's minimalist-heavy Instal festival of contemporary music at The Arches.

Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Ashley's pioneering work with electronics made him a contemporary of Gordon Mumma, Alvin Lucier, Terry Riley, Philip Glass and Pauline Oliveros. Many of his works feature sounds and noises-off buried deep within the synthesised orchestras that generate the compositions. He was one of four contemporary composers documented on film by Peter Greenaway, and today remains equally restless in his own musical pursuits.

"I'm trying to finish up one of the big scenes for Atalanta," he enthuses. "It was never recorded, because we were working and generating material so fast that I never felt it was properly developed.

"Then there's a new opera, something of a dream project, called Quicksand. It's about five hours long and extremely difficult to do. There are a lot of very fast words because of a very strict nature to the tempo. Technically, it's impossible for one person to do all the words. As you get older, you get greedy, you get more ambitious, and you want to make something bigger all the time. I suppose it's about aiming for the impossible."

Foreign Experiences, Tramway, Glasgow, May 8, www.tramway.org.

The Herald, May 7th 2009

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Shopping/Local – Fear, Loathing and Gentrifying Paradise on the Leith Campaign Trail

On April 27th 2016, eight days before the May 2016 Scottish Parliament Election, I went along to a Cultural Hustings which had been organised by the Scottish Artists Union at Out of the Blue in Edinburgh. The Scottish Artists Union is a visual artists lobbying body set up like other trade unions such as Equity and the Musicians Union to protect the employment rights of its members, particularly where issues of professional fees are concerned.

Out of the Blue is a community-based arts trust based in an old army drill hall in Leith. It is a mixture of studios, exhibition and meeting spaces and offices for small arts organisations. There is a cafe there too, and there's music sometimes as well, though nothing too late or too loud, because it's in a residential area. A promenade production of the stage adaptation of Irvine Welsh's novel, Trainspotting, was on there as well, which was produced by a young unfunded theatre company called In-Yer-Face Theatre.

Out of the Blue originally began in 1994 as a shop-front gallery space in Blackfriars Street, just off the High Street, which later moved down the road to an old bus depot on New Street, where an initiative that connected artists studios to a music and club venue became better known as the Bongo Club. When City of Edinburgh Council decided to sell the New Street site to developers, the Bongo and Out of the Blue were forced to find new homes. While the Bongo moved into the University of Edinburgh's old Moray House student union, Out of the Blue took over the old army drill hall where it is now based, and where the Cultural Hustings took place.

The Bongo, meanwhile, was eventually forced to move again after the University of Edinburgh decided to convert the old Moray House site into offices. The Bongo moved into a space beneath Central Library which had been christened the Underbelly after Edinburgh-based site-specific theatre company Grid Iron produced a promenade show about food and sex called Gargantua there in 1998. Despite naming the venue, Grid Iron are not connected with Underbelly Productions, the London-based arts production company who take over the space in August during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, when the Bongo Cub temporarily moves out.

Meanwhile on New Street, the old bus depot that housed the original Bongo Club and Out of the Blue was flattened by developers to build something called Caltongate. A wave of public protest did nothing to prevent the development, while assorted financial crashes conspired to leave a gap site in New Street for more than a decade.

When new developers came on board and the project now branded as New Waverley picked up the pieces, further public protest was again ignored, both by City of Edinburgh Council's Planning Department, and by the developers themselves. Somewhere along the way, a salve to culture was given by way of granting the Hidden Door pop-up festival access to house the 2014 festival in the old arches that had lain derelict and unoccupied on Market Street for years prior to development.

This is typical of developments brought before CEC's Planning Committee, which usually come armed with unspecified arts provision seemingly throewn in at random, and which mysteriously disappear off the plans whemn the development becomes bricks and mortar. Take a look at the most recent home for Hidden Door, who in 2015 and 2016 took over a former CEC owned lighting store on King Stables Road, which was flogged off to developers with plans for a hotel, residential property and, yes, an unspecified arts building. In the meantime, Hidden Door have been given grace (or more likely had to hire) to run a temporary arts village hosting a programme which in 2016 goes under the name of Electric City.

In a newspaper interview in April 2015, the convenor of CEC's Planning Committee described the site of the New Street Caltongate/New Waverley development's former use as 'a bus station'. He made no mention of its decade long tenure as the Bongo Club. Whether ideologically calculated or blissful ignorance, the statement was telling of a civic ignorance about Edinburgh's year-round arts landscape which seems to prevail across all departments, where a lack of anything resembling vision is nakedly transparent.

At time of writing, a bunch of what are described as artisan retail outlets have opened up in the now cleaned-up arches. It's all being housed under the collective name of The Arches. Which, given that the Glasgow arts venue and club also called The Arches was forced to close down in 2015 after Police Scotland recommended that Glasgow Licensing Board revoke the late license that brought in the venue's main revenue stream, is accidentally but deeply ironic.

But at the Cultural Hustings at Out of the Blue, it's unlikely that any of the six candidates on a panel hosted by Jim Tough were aware of much if any of this. This is understandable, because unless you live on Leith's doorstep and are keeping an eye on this kind of stuff, these things tend to get wiped out of history along with the bricks and mortar that made it. Jim Tough might know some of it. He's Executive Director of the the Saltire Society, and used to be Combined Arts Director and then later Chief Executive at the Scottish Arts Council, Scotland's arts funding body that was given a glossy make-over and transformed into Creative Scotland.

As dysfunctional as the SAC could be sometimes, Jim Tough was one of the better things about it. Prior to working at the SAC, he established WHALE (Wester Hailes Arts for Leisure and Education), and probably knows more about arts access and all the other things discussed at the Cultural Hustings than anyone else in the room combined, party reps included.

The Cultural Hustings featured representatives from six parties; Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem, SNP, Green and Rise. Tough read out a message from the local UKIP candidate regarding their thoughts on culture, which advocated the positive aspects of a night in the pub. No arguments there. Each representative then introduced themselves by outlining their own policies on arts and culture, before they took four pre-arranged questions from SAU members.

These introductions focused on access, cultural strategy, the state of Creative Scotland, the importance of art in people's everyday lives, the potential for arts funding increases, and notions of aspects of the arts being ring-fenced off for an elite. In response, the four questions raised issues of whether public galleries which charge admission fees are elitist, the fact that most artists lived below the poverty line, the creation of trusts to run public art spaces, and thoughts of furthering Scotland's links with Europe.

I'm sure readers can work out for themselves which party talked about what, and what their respective responses were to the four questions, although the full evening has been storified by the SAU on Twitter, complete with on-the-spot caricatures by cartoonist Terry Anderson.

Given the time restraints, no further questions could be taken from the floor. While this was a shame, given the format it was understandable, although it meant that things never really let rip beyond respective party lines.

There were two questions I wanted to ask at the cultural hustings. While it may be unfair to the party reps to ask those questions here, now they've no right to reply, I'll ask them anyway, with a few thoughts of my own thrown in for still slightly unfair measure.

The two questions I would have asked the six political party representatives at the Cultural Hustings hosted by the Scottish Artists Union at Out of the Blue in Edinburgh on April 27th are:-

What are your views on the Agent of Change principle?

How do you intend to prevent property developers using grassroots arts and culture as a short-cut to gentrification?

These are really the same question, and relate to the opening pre-amble as much as what follows.

It's important that an event like the SAU's Cultural Hustings was held in Out of the Blue, which is a pillar of how arts and culture develops from a community-based grassroots. It was significant too that we were in Leith, an area which both the political and financial establishment are starting to realise is, was, and always has been a place where art and culture thrives.

This can be seen in events such as the annual Leith Late festival, which each year hosts an array of arts happenings in bars, shops and church halls in the neighbourhood. At time of writing, LeithLate's 2016 programme has just been announced. The late June weekend will be based around Out of the Blue, and among other things will not only host a debate on the gentrification of the area, it will produce a Leith bank note that will be distributed over the long weekend.

There are independent artspaces in Leith such as Rhubaba, situated in an old warehouse on Arthur Street, and the Embassy, in a room beneath a yoga centre off Broughton Street. There is new music venue, Leith Depot, housed in what until recently was regarded as the worst pub in the city, and grassroots drama in the Village Pub Theatre.

The Biscuit Factory is a magnificently dilapidated space that houses exhibitions, events and club nights, and which in the morning smells like the early days of the Arches (Glasgow version). There is also the ongoing rebirth of Leith Theatre, a long neglected venue that once housed international theatre during Edinburgh International Festival as well as touring main-stage bands.

All of these are within walking distance of Out of the Blue. There is Leith Dockers Club, immortalised on film in the Dean Cavanagh and Irvine Welsh scripted TV movie, Wedding Belles. And there is Pilrig Church, where DIY music promoters Tracer Trails used to run an annual mini festival called Retreat!, and where spoken-word night Neu! Reekie! holds its annual Burns Supper.

This is all great, but also within a stone's throw from here are four supermarkets owned by multinational companies, and which exist a few blocks from each other, pricing local businesses out to the extent that at least one corner shop has recently closed, unable to compete. After being brutalised once in the 1960s, Leith Street is about to undergo a second wave of renewal by way of a hotel development. Those behind its design rather fancifully style it as 'The Ribbon', though it is is better and more accurately known locally as 'The Turd.'

Expensive student flats and hotels are being built on every patch of land going, not just in Leith, but across the city, like those in Tollcross where seminal music venues the Tap O'Laurieston and the Cas Rock used to be. The community in Lorne Street, meanwhile, is being forcibly evicted by a charity who are about to flog what used to be homes but is now mere real restate off to the highest bidder. Edinburgh Football Club social club, up by the Playhouse, where post-punk venue the Nite Club used to be, is about to be converted into flats. This is the case even though it exists above long-standing club bar, Planet, and even though CEC's Environmental Health department expressed reservations to CEC's Planning Committee who granted the move that there may be issues with noise, vibrations and odour from below.

All of which, in one magnificent messy boulevard of broken dreams, sums up, not just Edinburgh's Jekyll and Hyde relationship with art, whereby the city's artistic institutions and high-profile festivals up town act as a cover for the far more interesting things that feed them from the shadows of Leith and elsewhere. It also shows how the naked greed of property developers, hoteliers and supermarket chains will use all that great grassroots artistic activity that exists on our own doorstep as a shortcut to gentrification.

All of this is a very, very local issue. I know this because still current Culture Secretary, Fiona Hyslop – who, as well as representing the SNP at the Cultural Hustings, and being the only person on the panel who had any realistic hope of being elected, survived the post May 2016 Holyrood cabinet reshuffle - quite correctly told me so on social media. This was after I asked her in 2014 if anything could be done about the fact that the site of the Picture House, the former cinema turned music venue before it was sold off to Watford-based pub chain, JD Wetherspoon, was being converted into a 900 capacity superpub.

Planning permission was granted by City of Edinburgh Council's Planning Committee Development Management Sub Committe on a six to four vote. This was despite a petition from more than 13,000 local constituents objecting to the move, and despite four members of the fifteen-strong committee being absent, while one member abstained. At time of writing this in May 2016, what was once the Picture House, the Caley Palais and legendary arts venue Cafe Graffiti has been boarded up, with no visible signs of work, since December 2013.

But, given Ms Hyslop's response to my tweet, when does local cease to be local and become something of national import? This is another question I would have liked to have asked the panel at the hustings, because on the rare occasion that CEC Planning Committee do make a sensible decision and adhere to local democracy, it suddenly becomes a national issue.

This has happened twice in Edinburgh recently. The first was when developers were granted permission on appeal to bulldoze away a restaurant in the Canonmills district so they could build flats. This was despite a high profile public campaign against the project which resulted in the developers proposals being unanimously rejected by CEC. An appeal by the developer saw the decision overturned by the Scottish Government.

The second and still ongoing incident concerns the long-running saga of the old Royal High School, in which developers and hoteliers proposal to convert the shamefully neglected building into an upmarket hotel was again rejected by CEC planning officials. A counter proposal by St Mary's Music School to take it over as their new premises that would include a 300-seat concert hall, has also been lobbied. Those behind the long-standing hotel bid have since appealed the decision against them, with a decision coming, again, not from local officials, but from the Scottish Government.

Both incidents are key to how local democracy and local arts and culture can be undermined by wealthy developers who can afford to hire expensive lawyers to take on both a cash-strapped local authority and grassroots initiatives, neither of whom have the financial resources to fight back.

Now that the Scottish Government has set a precedent of over-ruling local decisions and making them national in such a high profile and undemocratic manner, maybe they should go further. How about looking at the nationally imposed laws on public entertainment licenses, which in 2012 saw the absurd situation of a community group in the Highlands and Islands almost forced to pay a three figure sum to host an Easter egg and spoon race and bonnet competition? This happened because a particular local authority interpreted it as something that was okay because the Scottish Government legislation as written seemed to suggest that.

All of which, in various ways, is related to the Agent of Change principle, which, if implemented, could be the single biggest protector of grassroots arts and culture across Scotland in a way that demonstrates the seemingly contrary relationship between the local and the national in a positive, progressive light.

The Agent of Change principle is an initiative already implemented in Australia that is designed to protect small clubs and music venues in a way that puts them on an equal footing with developers. As it stands, if a developer puts up flats next to an existing venue, and the new residents complain about any noise from a venue which may have existed for several decades, the venue managers are presumed to be the bad guys, and the onus is on them to implement what might well be expensive sound-proofing on top of the regular sound-proofing they already have in place. In extreme cases, licenses can be threatened and venues closed.

The Agent of Change, on the other hand, says that, if a venue is an area first, then it is the developer's responsibility to provide sound-proofing, while, conversely, if a new venue opens close to residential property, then it is quite rightly the venue's responsibility to provide sound-proofing. Again, this is protecting the local from big business, whichever side of the fence that business may be on.

At the Out of the Blue hustings, only the Conservative representative on the panel mentioned Agent of Change, although apparently a few days earlier at another hustings that took place at the Wide Days music industry conference it understandably became something of a feature. At that hustings, apparently the Conservative, Green and Rise representatives came out strongly in favour of Agent of Change. Given the common sense of such a move, I hope Labour and SNP are in favour of protecting a grassroots musical culture they pay lip service to, and not supporting the developers who would destroy it.

There are other things a new progressive government should look to. As some of the candidates at the hustings advocated, a universal basic income should be introduced, not just for artists, but for everyone. This not only prevents the stigma of poverty, but opens up possibilities for those beyond a class who can already afford the breathing space to explore artistic endeavours of their own if they so choose to.

That will require a major cultural shift, and with that shift, there needs to be an end to top down thinking and a recognition that cultural strategies, cultural quarters and the managerialist invention of the creative industries are social engineering by any other name. While issues of access, inclusion and diversity in the arts are vital, attempting to define what art people should make or see is at best patronising, both to artists and audiences.

Cultural strategies were not responsible for the work of Robert Burns, Walter Scott, Irvine Welsh, J.K. Rowling or Ian Rankin. Nor can any cultural strategy take the credit for the work of Rebel Inc, Neu! Reekie!, Rally & Broad and the flourishing new wave of spoken-word nights that proliferate in Edinburgh and beyond. Nor were Bill Forsyth, Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold part of any cultural strategy.

Edwin Morgan, Liz Lochhead and now Jackie Kay may have all been worthy Makars, but they were and remain artists of their own making first and foremost. As do Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Janice Galloway and a new generation of fiction writers who followed in their wake. Rachel Maclean may be representing Scotland in the Venice Bienale, and Young Fathers may be playing the Edinburgh International Festival, but they became they artists they are out of something that has bugger all to do with cultural strategies. Artists make art, plain and simple. Bureaucrats strategise and categorise them at their peril.

Cultural strategies can't even take credit for the Glasgow Miracle, a superstitiously loaded rabbit's foot of a phrase which would rather put faith in some unspecified invisible force than the unique set of social, political, cultural and geographical circumstances that made all the Glasgow-based artists that cultural strategies have never been responsible for so world-beatingly successful.

No-one told Jim Haynes, Richard Demarco and all the others to found the Traverse Theatre. Alan Horne didn't start up Postcard Records from his West Princes Street wardrobe because it ticked all the right boxes. And Bob Last and Hilary Morrison didn't create Fast Product records in their flat next to Edinburgh College of Art because they made up the quotas. Yet all of these went on to change the world.

As did as well Andy Arnold when he set up the Arches in a dilapidated railway viaduct beneath Glasgow Central Station. To be fair regarding the latter, if Glasgow hadn't been European City of Culture in 1990, it might never have happened, even though the Arches had never been part of any official plans.

Glasgow 1990 also gave rise to Tramway, the former Old Transport Museum n which Peter Brook housed his epic staging of The Mahabharata in 1988, and which became a permanent venue two years later. In Tramway's early years, major international theatre-makers, including Brook, Quebecois maestro Robert Lepage and New York avant-gardists The Wooster Group seemed to play there every other week.

This was a key influence on the generation of Scotland's theatre-makers who followed in the wake of such ambitious programming, were exposed to such work where previously they could only hear about such legends second-hand, and who are now producing internationally renowned work of their own. Getting home-grown work abroad is crucial, but a two-way traffic needs to be retained. Artists don't create in a vacuum, and exposure to work from cultures and traditions from elsewhere is as crucial as developing a tradition and a canon of one's own.

None of this was helped by the sad closure in 2015 of the Arches, a shameful example of social engineering of the worst possible kind, which tarnishes Glasgow as a city, and which undermines everything that 1990 was supposed to be about. Over its almost twenty-five year existence, The Arches grew to become one of the world's greatest venues for young performers to develop their performance-based work.

As a club venue, the Arches also played host to the most democratic, inclusive and participatory artform of all. Its closure is a damning indictment of an ideology-led decision which decrees that forms of culture seen by some as a threat will be shut down, no questions asked. And if Police Scotland and Glasgow Licensing Board want to clamp-down on drug-taking in public spaces, try any bar in any city centre anywhere. Most of the drugs are on tap.

Something similar to what happened with the Arches demise occurred when Glasgow's city fathers banned punk gigs in the 1970s, and when the Criminal Justice Act in the 1990s attempted to outlaw club culture. All any of those incidents succeeded in doing was to politicise those involved in those scenes and help make them savvier to institutional interference.

The notion of cultural quarters, meanwhile, is a dishonest and dead-eyed phrase designed to make property developers rich. Cultural quarters are short-termist pursuits that gentrify areas once pumping with messy freeform energy before those developers rip the heart out of them even as they remain happy to trade on those areas' gloriously unlegislated pasts. See New York, London and beyond.

As for the Creative Industries, as the phrase itself points to, the idea of putting two seemingly contrary words together and forcing them to mean something looks clever, but think about it for a minute and it isn't really. Yet there is a generation of arts bureaucrats out there who went on expensive management training courses and came out believing they were leaders who are evangelical about such guff.

Listen to any arts bureaucrat giving evidence at Holyrood about, say, the ongoing inability to support a film industry which has been trying to get backing for a permanent film studio to be built for decades now, and while individual words might sound impressive, strung together in such a way they are rendered as meaningless as the word 'Creative' itself has become.

It's like 'Centres of Excellence' and 'Emerging Artist.' They mean well, these big, buzzy, soundbitey phrases that are there, initially at least, to try and justify flagship arts buildings with a sweep of triumphalism in the former, or to empower those taking baby steps as artists in the latter. In the end, however, these phrases become as reductive as the ideologies they sprang from.

And so to Creative Scotland, which almost imploded in 2012 following an artists revolt in response to what appeared to be an organisation more interested in itself rather than the artists and organisations it was there to serve. The language used was the sort of managerialist twaddle outlined above, while those in charge appeared to believe they were curators or producers rather than the administrators they were. The pictures of the CS team at the Cannes Film Festival as artists earning below the minimum wage struggled to fill in incomprehensible funding application forms back home didn't help much either.

Creative Scotland has really tried since the organisation's then CEO and deputy were ushered out of Waverleygate, the former post office where arty types used to cash their dole cheques in what was regarded by many as an Arts Council grant by stealth, but which has now been converted into a hot-desking state-of-art office block. CS brought in a new CEO and seemed to have brought the artistic community back onside when a palace coup had been brewing. They said they'd changed the language they used, brought in apparently simpler application forms and introduced an open funding stream alongside regularly funded organisations. Which sounded great until you read the CEO's blog, which used the word 'journey' in a way defined by the title of Tony Blair's auto-biography.

On top of this, barely a day seemed to go by throughout 2013 and much of 2014 when I didn't stumble on an unprompted conversation with artists or else receive unsolicited emails and phone calls from artists or those working in established arts organisations who were tearing their hair out trying to wade through one of the new forms. No-one knew who was making decisions. Artists were being turned down for applications with standard letters, and only when those artists appealed did they sometimes discover that the funding stream they'd been advised to go through wasn't relevant to them. And every time I sat down to write an email explaining to CS' head of communications why I thought nothing had changed at CS, something else happened to confirm it.

Discovering that the high profile management training company which the same CS head of communications assured me had never been used by CS had in fact been funded to the tune of £15,000 in the same funding round that DIY music festival, Music is the Music Thing, had been knocked back for the same amount, however, bothers me still. But at least no-one was telling anyone what art they should be making anymore, even if the language still resembled that used in BBC-based mock-documentary sit-com, W1A.

Don't get me wrong. Creative Scotland has a lot of fine people working for the organisation who are dedicated to the cause more than the likes of me have probably given them credit for in the past, and CS quite rightly supports or has supported many of the artists, projects and organisations mentioned here. I know of at least one member of CS staff who I regard as a visionary. Unfortunately they are not in charge of the organisation. Nor, I suspect, would they want to be. But until those who are in charge are more open about who is making funding decisions and why, suspicions that they are operating with the same top-down managerialist philosophy as the old regime will remain.

CS recently announced a list of forty-three 'independent Peer Reviewers.' Drawn from an open call, these forty-three artists and arts professionals have been appointed by CS to 'help in the work to deliver an Artistic and Creative Review Framework' established to 'create an open dialogue with Regularly Funded Organisations (RFOs) regarding the artistic and creative quality of their work.' At first glance, beyond the lingering managerialist tone, this looks like a good move, akin to the SAC's old panels of assessors drawn from the arts community. And they are all fine names, the new CS 43, who come armed with serious knowledge about their respective specialisms, and who collectively might even know as much as Jim Tough.

What perhaps isn't clear is how much influence they will have, and how readily their advice may be ignored as faceless mandarins make their own decisions beyond what may well be little more than a 43 person wall of pseudo-democracy ring-fencing a closed room of unaccountability beyond. And if publicly funded artists need to be accountable, so do publicly funded arts bureaucrats.

I fully appreciate that the 3% funding cut that the Scottish Government has imposed on Creative Scotland when the arts budget should really be doubled makes it difficult to operate effectively. But then, CS cutting regularly funded organisations' annual budgets – however difficult that decision may have been for whoever made it – isn't a good look either.

But beyond funding bodies, if arts and culture are to become central to people's lives, and not seen as the play-things of the rich, as more enlightened politicians say is the case, they need to experience it from an early age.

At a recent conference on the Declaration of Human Rights act in Glasgow, I was invited to sit on the panel looking at Article 27 of the Declaration, The Right to Participate in Cultural Life. While this gets to the nub of issues of access and diversity, it was acknowledged from the off that 'Cultural Life' is such a broad term that it can't really be pinned down as one particular thing, and that's fine.

I found myself talking about the Pavilion, Glasgow's great popular theatre, which, unfunded and largely unsung, packs in the sorts of working class audiences that most subsidised theatres would kill for. It is in the Pavilion, which styles itself as 'Scotland's National Theatre of Variety', and other venues like it, where something akin to a hidden audience take part in a form of culture that isn't written about in the broadsheets, but which counts just as much.

It is a culture that comes from spit and sawdust social clubs and cabaret that existed long before the pub chains moved in, and which still exist, just about. Once upon a time such places were as key to providing a central base for a local community as church halls were. They are the sorts of spaces too – the Leith Dockers Clubs and the Pilrig Churches - that a younger generation of performers and audiences are returning to beyond the purpose-built but often soulless centres of excellence mentioned earlier.

At the Declaration conference, I also found myself talking about Biffa Bacon, who is one of my favourite characters in adult comic, Viz. Biffa Bacon is a potty-mouthed pastiche of Bully Beef, who terrorised less physically endowed and more bookish looking kids in the pages of DC Thomson's comic, The Dandy, where his main adversary, Chips, invariably outsmarted his dim-witted nemesis.

While similar scenarios ensue in Viz, the Biffa Bacon strip has increasingly focused on it's hero's relationship with his parents, who take bullying their son to surreal and grotesque heights. There have been moments, however, when, left to his own devices, Biffa has simpered over the simple beauty of a flower, or, in one strip, sat on the sofa attempting to read a book.

Both incidents of solitary reflection have ended abruptly after Biffa's parents burst through the door and, on spotting such deviant behaviour, thrash him several inches beyond his cartoon life on the grounds of being a 'dorty great heem-a-sexual' or something equally colourful. Where Biffa could be a back-street auto-didact discovering the joys of art and literature, he ends up brutalised, semi-literate and chock-full of hand-me-down aggression bordering on the murderous.

This is where education comes into play at its most broadest. If one library is closed, if one school can no longer afford theatre trips or music tuition, if one school can no longer bring visiting writers into enlighten students, all because of local authority cuts which have been implemented by Holyrood, the Scottish Government will have failed themselves, the country's artistic community, and, crucially, future generations of Scottish citizens who might remain as resistant to art and culture as Biffa Bacon's mum and dad..

Beyond all this, I would urge all those on the panel at the Cultural Hustings as well as all their colleagues, whether in or out of parliament, to do just one simple but very important thing. Get out more. Failing that, at least try and widen your cultural frame of reference. 7:84's production of John McGrath's The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil was a theatrical landmark when it first appeared in 1973, and it remains important, as Dundee Rep's 2015/16 revival has shown.

But quite a lot has happened since then, both in theatre and in other artforms. John Byrne's The Slab Boys, the National Theatre of Scotland's productions of Black Watch and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, and less obvious but equally thrilling work like This Restless House, Zinnie Harris' epic reimagining of Aeschylus' Oresteia, seen recently at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow.

Contrary to popular belief, the working classes can cope with difficult work as well as the stuff that goes on at the Pavilion. The Citizens is a prime example of this. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the Gorbals-based theatre was taking Goethe, Schiller and Noel Coward to the masses in a way that has continued under the theatre's current regime.

All of that is as vital and as important as anything 7:84 did, but go and see Mary Poppins as well next time it comes round. It may not be produced in Scotland, but it is the best piece of touring commercial theatre you're ever likely to see, and anyone who claims to be or has aspirations to be radical in art or life can learn tons from it. And stop saying opera is elitist. It's not. Those ridiculously circular arguments about what constitutes high or low art were put out to grass a long time ago, and reviving them is a step back into the dark ages.

Opera is for everyone. Remember Pavarotti and Nessum Dorma at the 1990 World Cup? Tickets are probably cheaper than a football match too. Oh, and art for art's sake is just fine, thanks. Not all the time, because different artists have different concerns at different points in time depending what is or isn't going on in the world, and a one size fits all approach just won't work. And that's okay too, because no art or artist in any field comes fully formed, and for every work of international genius that defines a moment, it's usually taken years of unsung experiment to get there. It's a bit like Alasdair Gray's much vaunted early days of a better nation, really. Nobody really knows what they're doing until they get there.

I'm not sure any of this provides answers to the two questions I would have liked to ask the six political party representatives on the panel at the SAU's Cultural Hustings at Out of the Blue, but the big tumble of thoughts, feelings and off-piste tangents they've opened up for me at least are indicative of how arts and culture needs to be developed, nurtured and preserved by the incoming Holyrood administration. Because unless the Scottish Government start saying no to property tycoons and starts protecting the grassroots local culture from those who would price it out of existence, then that culture will be strangled at birth. So let's not gentrify the rough-shod paradise that exists in Leith and other places where culture thrives of it's own volition. The early days of a better nation are already here. Why bulldoze them away?

Commissioned by Bella Caledonia / Eklesia in May 2016 for the book, Scotland 2021, which was originally due to be published in June 2016, but which ended up appearing in October 2016.


Friday, 2 December 2016

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

“What's the use of a story with no pictures?” asks the precocious heroine of Anthony Neilson's new adaptation of Lewis Carroll's mind-expanding classic, programmed as the Lyceum's Christmas show this year. Wise beyond her years, young Alice's statement accidentally pinpoints the power of the sort of theatre which Neilson has made his own. Carroll's logic-jumping fantasia is the perfect starting point for such a theatrical philosophy, as Neilson's own production of his play presents a vivid world of cartoon grotesques and Twilight Zone style projections as Alice takes her hallucinatory trip down the rabbit hole.

It begins, however, in a sunny English idyll, where Jess Peet's Alice can barely stay awake for her outdoor lessons. Having been ushered in by a wheezy organ refrain as miniature hot air balloons hang over the circular lawn below, the moments up to Alice seeing a giant rabbit walking towards her are but a prologue to what follows. The opening song and the play's title lowered down above the audience form a kind of opening credits sequence to the story.

One probably shouldn't dwell too much on the heightened psychology of everyone who Alice stumbles into, but it's hard not to notice that the time-obsessed White Rabbit probably has OCD. Isobel McArthur's Dormouse is almost certainly narcoleptic, and Zoe Hunter's hookah-smoking Caterpillar has something of a guru complex. Tam Dean Burn's crazed Hatter and Gabriel Quigley's spoilt demagogue Queen of Hearts speak for themselves in a series of sketch-like set-pieces, be it at the Hatter's out of control tea party or on the croquet field.

There is much fun to be had with the wordplay that results from such encounters on Francis O'Connor's ever changing set, while Nick Powell's score is tinged with faux psychedelic undertones. Making her professional stage debut, Peet presents Alice as a strong, uber-smart independent woman in waiting.

As the title of the play is lowered down once more to indicate the show's closing credits, the story's over-riding themes of life being a dream conjured up by the true child-like power of the imagination takes a turn for the anarchic. As the cast run riot through the audience, it becomes one more leap of faith in a thoroughly modern but still authentic Alice.

The Herald, December 5th 2016


Thursday, 1 December 2016

Mamma Mia!

The Playhouse, Edinburgh
Four stars

Ten years have passed since Catherine Johnson's ABBA-inspired play with songs last visited Edinburgh, and seventeen since Phyllida Lloyd's original production kick-started a wave of so-called jukebox musicals. As this touring revival has already made clear as it beds down for a holiday run that sees it go right through to the new year, time has not dimmed its audience's enthusiasm for what at moments looks like the ultimate feelgood affair.

Set on a magical Greek island where Sara Poyzer's tavern-owning ex-pat Donna holds court, her daughter Sophie lures three men who may be her father to the island as guests at her wedding to handsome himbo Sky. As Donna's old gal pals turn up, reunions of both a comic as well as an awkward kind add to a tempestuous mix of romance, reconciliation and identity crises all round.

Even without ABBA's back catalogue stringing the narrative together, Johnson's script has a common touch that taps into the sort of feminism that trickled down the class scale throughout the 1960s and 1970s. If after a decade and a half on the go this at times makes Lloyd's production more appear like a period piece, it also allows it to wear its hidden depths lightly.

Poyzer and Lucy May Barker as Sophie and Richard Standing as Sam lead a vivacious cast in a show that draws from the froth of Shakespeare's rom-coms just as Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Stig Anderson's songs are rooted in classical music. All this, a built in hen party, epic wedding finale and happy ever afters all round in an old school pub theatre musical writ large. 

The Herald, December 1st 2016 


Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Five Guys Named Moe

Festival Square Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

Looking for a real good time this Christmas? Then stroll on down to the magnificently named Funky Butt Club, the speakeasy dive that the quintet who give Clarke Peters' irresistibly infectious piece of musical theatre its name, and chase those winter blues away. Paulette Randall's revival of Peters' 1990 west end hit has taken over the purpose-built Festival Square Theatre as part of Underbelly's Edinburgh's Christmas season. With much of the action taking place on a revolving circular floor housed within the temporary construction's expansive in-the-round interior, the audience watch from cabaret tables within the circle, as the show's firecracker cast jump between the two spaces.

Here we meet Nomax, a down-at-heel big lug wallowing in self-pity after being dumped with good reason by his true love Lorraine. With a bottle in front of him and Louis Jordan playing on the radio, Nomax is in the thick of the ultimate break-up indulgence, until five dazzlingly dressed fairy godfathers all named Moe step out of nowhere to get him back on track.

This loose-knit narrative is the perfect excuse for more than twenty slices of classic Jordan, sung by the cast backed by a rollicking six-piece band. Given that Jordan at his peak was known as King of the Jukebox, his array of earthily inclined comic musical sketches were always a show in waiting. Sired in part on the back of the 1980s vogue for retro-cool jazz dance, Peters' life-affirming concoction resembles A Christmas Carol in zoot suits, and even after a quarter of a century is still singing, swinging and making merry like Christmas for all it's worth.

The Herald, November 30th 2016


Leslie Bricusse - Scrooge! The Musical

It's a sunny morning in Los Angeles,and Leslie Bricusse is working on his latest musical.

“It's always sunny here,” says the man who co-wrote Goldfinger for Shirley Bassey with Anthony Newley and John Barry, and penned the score for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. “It hasn't rained here for about for years, so it's beautiful.”

While there hasn't been anything resembling a drought regarding Bricusse's output, the sunny climate is perhaps a reflection of the now eighty-five year old writer and composer's outlook. This is evident from the fact that his new work will see him putting lyrics to Tchaikovsky's score for an animated version of The Nutcracker, the ever-green ballet drawn from Alexander Dumas' story, which was adapted from E.T.A. Hoffman's short story about a little boy's favourite Christmas toy coming to life.

“Imagine,” says Bricusse. “My latest collaborator is Tchaikovsky. He's even older than Dickens.”

The novels of Charles Dickens have looked large in Bricusse's own working life, as audiences at Pitlochry Festival Theatre will find out when they attend the Perthshire based theatre's Scottish premiere of Bricuse's version of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge! - The Musical.

“The story lends itself so well to being a musical,” says Bricusse, “because it's so beautifully structured. “It was the first of Dickens' Christmas books, which he wrote to pay off some bills, but because it has the ghosts of the past, present and future, it's a gift to write songs for.”

Bricusse's take on Scrooge was first seen as a film in 1970 with Albert Finney in the title role, and was later adapted into a stage play by Bricusse in 1993, when his long-term collaborator Anthony Newley played Scrooge. Finney and Newley weren't the only household names to have been involved in Scrooge!

“My original Scrooge was going to be Richard Harris,” Bricusse remembers, “but we had to get the film made by a certain date so it could open in time, and Richard Harris got delayed on a film. Then we approached Rex Harrison, but he got sick, so Albert Finney came in at two days notice and did it. But I loved his performance. The great thing about Alby was that he was only thirty-two years old when we started on it, so he could play Scrooge when he was a young man as well as when he was old. Some productions have two actors playing him at different ages, but I think it works better just having one.”

When Bricusse eventually adapted Scrooge for the stage, Newley was an obvious choice to play Dickens' miser across the generations. As a child actor, he had played the Artful Dodger in David Lean's big-screen version of Oliver Twist, and in 1975 had played the title role in Quilp, a musical film based on The Old Curiosity Shop, which, as well as a score by Elmer Bernstein, featured Newley's song, Love Has the Longest Memory of All. Even with such a pedigree to hand, Bricuse initially wasn't convinced.

“I didn't think it could be done onstage,” Bricusse says, “but then Anthony Newley came in, and he was an old friend, and he ended up playing it for six or seven years, and then we sadly lost him.”

Bricusse and Newley's work together dates back to their 1961 musical, Stop the World – I Want to Get Off, which scored a hit for Sammy Davis Junior with his version of the show's closing number,

What Kind of Fool Am I? While the show went on to be a Broadway hit, like Scrooge!, it was pulled together quickly, and very nearly didn't happen at all.

“Bernard Delfont, the impresario, had given Tony a theatre to do something,” Bricusse says, “and he was just going to do a variety show. We were friends and were both the same age, and I said that if we wrote a musical then we could own it. Then my wife Yve (actress Yvonne Romain) and I were going to New York, and I said to Tony that I couldn't do it. Yve said to tell him to come with us, and I was working on something else as well, but we wrote the entire score for Stop the World – I Want to Get Off in eight days. You can do anything when you have to.”

When Bricusse and Newley collaborated, they referred to themselves as Brickman and Newburg, with Bricusse concentrating largely on the lyrics and Newley on the music. The pair went on to write The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd, which sired Feeling Good, a song picked up by Nina Simone. The pair worked with John Barry on the iconic theme song to Goldfinger, and in 1971 composed the score for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the film adaptation of Roald Dahl's novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Songs written for the film included The Candy Man and Pure Imagination, the latter of which became the title of Bricusse's auto-biography.

“That's what this business is about,” he says of the phrase. “I fell in love with the idea of writing songs when I was a child. I thought I was going to be a journalist at first, but I gradually fell in love with all these great writers like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, who were at the peak of their powers then. The great thing about them as well was that they were literate, and wrote story songs. It's much easier to write a song for a musical than just writing a song, because writing for a musical, you know what the story is about so you know what the songs have got to say.”

Scrooge wasn't the first time that Bricusse had made a song and dance of one of Dickens' novels. In 1963 he had written the lyrics for Pickwick, a collaboration with composer Cyril Ornadel based on The Pickwick Papers which made Harry Secombe a musical theatre star.

“Harry Secombe was more famous then for being in The Goons,” says Bricusse, “but Wolf Mankowitz, who wrote the book for the stage, went to Barbados to see Harry and told he'd be perfect for the part, even though he'd never put his voice to much use before.”

Secombe's rendition of Bricusse's song, If I Ruled the World, helped it win an Ivor Novello award.

“Harry was so good we've never been able to cast it again.”

This hasn't been the case with Scrooge!, which saw producer Bill Kenwright cast Tommy Steele in a role he has played many times since. In Pitlochry, Philip Rham will play Scrooge in a production directed by Richard Baron, who recently oversaw Alan Ayckbourn's Damsels in Distress trilogy of plays.

Bricusse regrets not being able to make it across the pond to see Baron's production, but deadlines mean he must remain in the L.A. Sunshine. A forthcoming social engagement, meanwhile, will see Bricuse and Romain hook up with Anthony Newley's former wife and a superstar in her own right, Joan Collins.

“We're still friends after all these years,” say Bricusse. “That's why Anthony Newley and I worked so well together. Friendship means more than anything.”

Such generosity shines through all of Bricusse's work, with Scrooge! in particular capturing its spirit.

“I think Scrooge is the best of the Christmas stories,” he says. “Every child warms to it, because it's about one man's transformation. It's saying that it's never too late to change, and that's a good feeling to have at Christmas.”

Scrooge! The Musical, Pitlochry Festival Theatre,December 2-23.

The Herald, November 29th 2016