Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Julian Cope

La Belle Angele, Edinburgh
Saturday February 18th 2017

Julian Cope doesn't do things by halves. This is clear from the moment he opens the Edinburgh leg of his current tour to promote his latest opus, Drunken Songs, dressed in his long-standing mix and match uniform of army cap, cut-off khaki kecks and leather jerkin. His once boyish face is permanently hidden by a wild-man's long hair and beard ensemble topped off by rock star shades designed to hide eyes that are what he later describes as “piss-holes in the snow.” He looks both ridiculous and heroic, and in the execution of his appearance he is fearless.

“I know I'm dressed as an invader,” Cope says in a plummy burr of middle England and acquired Scouse, “but it's the closest it's been to 1933 in our time.”

Ever since the self-styled arch-drude embarked on a wayward anti-career that saw him elevate himself from the Liverpool post-punk underground to briefly become a wide-eyed teeny-bopper idol with the Teardrop Explodes in 1981, Cope has embraced each new passion with the child-like zeal of the eternal convert. From new-age acid tripper to fantastical novelist with his 2014 epic, One Three One, Cope has flitted with relish from antiquarian to eco-activist, auto-biographer, myth-maker and unbridled champion of previously largely undocumented strains of out-there German and Japanese music.

His Head Heritage website is an essential treasure trove of obscure cult sounds which has arguably fed the heads of a new generation of musical seekers. Now, it seems, after twenty years off the sauce, Cope has embraced booze with the evangelical fervour of a born-again dipsomaniac greeting an old friend, and he wants the world to know about it. Crucially, despite all the mind-expansion, Cope has remained an extraordinary song-writer, and despite Drunken Songs being trailed as 'forty minutes of gnostic drunkenness', appears to have come full pop circle.

What Cope admits to being an accidentally politically tinged set begins with Autogedden Blues, the lead track from his Heathcote Williams inspired 1991 anti car album, Autogedden. Cope's solo version of it exposes it even more as an increasingly frantic cousin to Horses era Patti Smith before he rewinds even more to Double Vegetation from 1991's Peggy Suicide album and Fear Loves This Place from 1992's Jehovakill.

The songs may be stripped back, but the same plummy mix of innocence and depravity courses through Cope's voice. His open mic style troubadour shtick resembles a free-wheeling back-packer in a way that undoubtedly allows him more mobility as well as being more economically viable. Yet for all the prevailing sense of wonder, ego and anarchy, there are moments crying out for a brass fanfare, or even just the everyday sumptuousness of a four-piece flourish. Even so, Cope's canon comes at the contrary and deliciously commercial end of weird.

He gets back to his roots with a take on The Culture Bunker, which first appeared on second Teardrop Explodes album, Wilder. Even back then Cope understood the powers of self-mythology in this self-reflective paean to the late 1970s Liverpool that first spawned his awfully big adventures alongside other Matthew Street irregulars including Messrs Drummond, McCulloch and Wylie.

As if to demonstrate just how Cope was shaped by and is still steeped in that time, he follows it with Liver as Big as Hartlepool. This cut from Drunken Songs may have started off as a jokey riposte to the sentimental bombast of Pete Wylie's Heart as Big as Liverpool, and to hear the one-time band-mates turned sparring partners still sniping after all these years is priceless. But Cope's willingness to leave himself vulnerable and admit his outsider status while living in the city is as moving and as significant a document as Bill Drummond's recent writings on the period prompted by the untimely death of fellow traveller Pete Burns.

There is more of this later on a version of The Great Dominions. Arguably Wilder's most ambitious stab at immortality, here Cope enlists the services of an ancient mellotron to provide even more melodrama to the song through a series of drones that give the song an archaic feel.

Such musical excavations are curiously at odds with Cope's pronouncements during his lengthy but incident-packed between-song monologues regarding a loathing of folk music. Also potentially being honed for what may well end up as a spoken-word show with occasional songs are shaggy dog stories on Shetland, how he came to exchange his old Luftwaffe hat for an RAF cap and the different attitudes towards swear-words between America and Britain.

This prompts further thoughts on how Billy Joel might reinvent a folk song, which somehow leads to a brief debate with the audience on whether Thomas Edison or Nikola Tesla was more important in relation to electrical invention. While one suspects such ramblings may have caused one or two musical missives to be dropped due to time restraints, over ninety minutes Cope nevertheless manages to get through fourteen songs old and new.

Following a brooding run through Peggy Suicide era's Pristeen, Cope returns for“one of those Ba-ba songs” as he puts it, presumably referring to his series of early 1980s confections that include Teardrop Explodes single, Passionate Friend. As it is we're treated to early solo single The Greatness and Perfection of Love, which is effectively Passionate Friend part two in all but name. More than thirty years after it burst out of Cope's filter-free imagination like a grown-up nursery rhyme with libidinous intent, it sounds as chock-full of wisdom and experience as any other folk song.

Product, February 2017

Joe Douglas - Death of A Salesman

When Arthur Miller wrote Death of A Salesman in 1949, post World War Two America was still dusting itself down from the pre-war depression which had ravaged it. Miller's play about the past his own sell-by date Willy Loman's decline into mental collapse was a damning indictment of U.S. capitalism and this cruellest of system's concentration on the need for those on the bottom rung of the financial ladder to constantly hustle their way to the top. As one of life's believers in the American dream, Loman was mere collateral damage of that system's failure.

Almost seventy years on, and with America's new government a volatile pressure-cooker that looks set to explode, Joe Douglas' new production of the play for Dundee Rep's ensemble company attempts to cut through the play's seemingly unbreakable naturalism to lay bare what is going on in Loman's head.

“It fascinates me,” says Douglas, who is currently associate director at Dundee Rep in the run up to Andrew Panton taking up his post as artistic director later this year. “There are all these references to the house, but I don't care what the house looks like. I want to see inside Willy Loman's mind. Miller wrote the play at a time before people thought about mental health in the way we do now, but here is a man who has this daily battle with depression, but who doesn't know how to communicate it. I want to reveal the pain of the family. There are lots of different reasons I wanted to look at this play, but one of the main ones is that I don't want to end up like Willy Loman.”

Given that he is currently on a course of anti-depressants himself, this isn't something that Douglas says lightly. Working in an industry riven by insecurity in terms of employment, and where artists are effectively selling their talent from one job to the next, Douglas is acutely aware of how that can effect those like him.

“Our industry is all about using our imagination to sell dreams,” says Douglas, “and the way the cycle of jobs goes, a lot of emotions are left bubbling away under the surface after it ends. These things are never talked about the way a lot of issues about mental health are never talked about, but I just want to be honest and open about it, and to look at some of the issues about mental health that are there in Miller's play.”

To get inside Loman's head, Douglas has enlisted the talents of designer Neil Warmington, composer Nikola Kodjabashia and lighting designer Sergey Jakovsky to open up Miller's play in a way rarely seen.

“We've pared things back,” says Douglas of the show's design. “Instead of having the house, we've got the dirt of the garden there which I think is more important in terms of the way Willy is digging from the ground up. Initially that was frustrating for the actors, because they don't have the house to go to, but when people pull together you can see the poetry of Miller's script more.”

Music too is key to Douglas's production, with the cast playing Kodjabashia's live score in a way made familiar by his work with director Dominic Hill at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow.

“There's lots of music throughout the play,” says Douglas. “I wanted to see what happened when Nikola was given a more naturalistic text, and I think the sound created onstage is key to the play, and becomes a direct current to what Willy is thinking. That's really exciting, because it's happening in the moment.”

Douglas is happy to admit that his approach to Death of A Salesman has been influenced by Flemish wunderkind Ivo Van Hove's controversial take on Miller's A View from the Bridge. Both productions are at odds with the recent pronouncements of playwright David Hare's recent pronouncements dismissing directorial interpretations of classic plays as well as the less definable role of theatre-makers.

“I think it's nonsense,” Douglas says of Hare's pronouncement. “Any play that has classic status need to be re-energised and given different readings. As long as you retain a sensitivity to a truth of the text, then let's do it, I say, otherwise you end up with a deadly theatre. When I watch a play, I want to hear a brilliant story, but I also want to learn something and see something different that I might not have seen before.

Douglas's production of Death of A Salesman forms the first of Dundee Rep's America centred Stars and Stripes season. The second of three shows will be a co-production with the Poorboy Ensemble of a new piece written by Sandy Thompson, Monstrous Bodies (Chasing Mary Shelley Down Peep O' Day Lane). Douglas will then direct the Rep ensemble's annual community tour with a production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Bertolt Brecht's Chicago set fable concerning one little demagogue's craving for power. Given the state of the world art the moment, the timing of the season isn't coincidence.

“We planned the season before the American election,” says Douglas, “but I knew it would be relevant whatever the result. It just felt like a massive cultural influence over every other country beyond America. As far as Death of A salesman goes, you can see the effects of capitalism and consumerism in its nascent form, and during rehearsals for the play we've all become new junkies watching the results of the election play out.

The season comes towards the end of Douglas's tenure as associate artistic director of Dundee Rep prior to Panton joining the company. During that time, Douglas's work has included his much lauded revival of John McGrath's The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. While Panton will combine his artistic directorship with his continuing professorship of musical theatre at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow. For Douglas, the bold statement he is making with Death of A Salesman might well become his defining moment at Dundee.

“It's a play that's not been done in Dundee for twenty years,” says Douglas, “and it's a play that means a lot to me on a personal level, and I think it's an important big play that still speaks to us now.”

If Miller was writing Death of A Salesman today, might he put Willy Loman on anti-depressants?

“I think he would,” says Douglas. “If he could afford them. There are patterns of mania to his character, and there's a slightly ephemeral quality to the play. What is he selling? And why can't he communicate anything that's going on inside his head to his family? Bit it's more than that. Willy Loman's personal tragedy becomes a much wider metaphor of this belief in the American dream, and understanding that this belief in that dream is a lie. Miller went through it himself by challenging that, and now here we are again, still living that lie.”

Death of A Salesman, Dundee Rep, February 22-March 11.
www.dundeerep.co.uk

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Monday, 20 February 2017

The Cause of Thunder

Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Three stars

It's more than two years since the Scottish independence referendum, and a lot has changed for Bob Cunningham, the ageing firebrand at the centre of Chris Dolan's solo play, performed with partisan gusto by David Hayman as part of a tour that travels the country over the next month. Bob is seeking shelter from the Glasgow storm, and finds himself washed up in the same bar he was last in before the referendum.

Bruised but unbowed, Bob holds court as he attempts to come to terms, not just with the No vote, but with the pro Brexit result, the election of President Trump and the rise of hate crime that appears to have been spawned in tandem with both. In this respect, Dolan's sequel to his pre-referendum companion piece, The Pitiless Storm, is a kind of living newspaper that heaps iniquity after iniquity onto Bob and the strata of working class west of Scotland society he represents.

Dolan's script is two-tiered in David Hayman Junior's production for the FairPley company. On the one hand, Bob is a Lear-like figure, briefly in exile from his own ideals while he takes stock of his own mortality as a principled survivor of the post-truth age. On the other, Bob's affirmations as he rediscovers his faith in his own beliefs as much as the wider human spirit are dispatches from the front-line of the bar-room revolution. Hayman flits briskly between gallus bravura, lingering pathos and a fierce commitment to something better as Bob attempts to make sense of the mess which the majority of us have had thrust upon us by the darkest of powers imaginable.

The Herald, February 20th 2017

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Thursday, 16 February 2017

Slapp Happy with Faust

Cafe Oto, London
February 10th-11th 2017

The birds are singing on the pre-show recorded soundtrack to the first night of a rare and exquisite weekend London residency by Dagmar Krause, Peter Blegvad and Anthony Moore's international trio of 1970s sired avant-pop maestros. Following dates in Cologne at the end of 2016, these sold out reunion shows also saw the band reunited with bassist Jean-Herve Peron and drummer Werner 'Zappi' Diermaier, aka fellow travellers and doyens of the German underground, Faust. This meant that one of the post hippy/pre-punk era's pivotal underground alliances were playing together for the first time in forty-five years.

Slapp Happy's early history saw them wend their way through unlikely collaborations, not only with Faust, but with then label-mates Henry Cow. The trio's understated brand of soft-focus swing-time baroque has always been a laid-back counterpoint to the more militant bombast of their peers. Four decades on, you can still overhear earnest bar-room exchanges during the break between sets about how someone, possibly Blegvad, was 'uncritical of Marxism' when he and Moore ended Slapp Happy's two album dalliance with the more dialectically-inclined Henry Cow.

It is perfectly understandable, then, that Slapp Happy's oddly now-sounding twenty-two song set drew largely from the two albums recorded with Faust in 1972 and 1973, Sort Of and the original version of Casablanca Moon that was rejected by their record label. The latter only saw the light of day in 1980 as Acnalbasac Noom, seven years after a smoothed-out re-recorded version was released. Six songs from the 1998 album, Ca Va – Slapp Happy's first full length release under their own name since their adventures with Henry Cow (there was a single in 1982 and a TV opera under their own names in 1991) – make for a seamless blend ushered in by the aforementioned recordings of bird song. This soundtracks the arrival of several generations of Slapp Happy aficionados squeezing into what effectively becomes the band's living room for this most intimate set of shows.

Blegvad acts as both master of ceremonies and nominal musical director as he counts in each song inbetween dry as a bone asides that pepper every intro. The opening A Little Something, the first of a salvo of five Casablanca Moon/Acnalbasac Noom songs, sets an informal and slightly hesitant vibe as the sixty-something quintet ease their way into things.

Krause's nerves aren't helped by a reverb-heavy mix which she reckons makes her voice sound not like her. Peron's bass is too low, says someone. As is Moore's electric piano, it seems, not that it matters any for those watching. The pin-drop volume makes for a rapt audience who lap up every soft focus shimmy through the Slapp Happy back catalogue.

Krause's cut-glass diction may be a tad lower than the early days, but it is delivered with a clarity borne of the precision translation brings, and which was tailor-made for musical theatre. But these are very different kinds of show-tunes. As Blegvad and Moore pluck out low-key tangos and waltzes, Peron and Diermaier remain passive in the background, pulsing things gently along. One of the many joys of the weekend is seeing the pair forsaking Faust's more incendiary excursions and happy to take a back seat as a low-key rhythm section that's always playful without ever being intrusive.

On one level all this is as polite as a palm court cabaret troupe who produce chansons for slow dancing at the avant-gardists Valentine's Ball. But despite Blegvad's way with a rhyming couplet, such a particular brand of eccentricity on homages to Michaelangelo, Rimbaud and Byron are more knowingly fantastical than mere whimsy.

Curiously, given that the music is being made by an American, an Englishman and three Germans , a lightly toasted English sensibility sways into view that's as of its time as a Cadbury's Flake advert. The breathy romance of The Secret and Slow Moon's Romance seem to have set a template of sorts for the likes of Noosha Fox's post-Fox 1977 solo single, Georgina Bailey, as well as Julie Covington's more strident 1978 hit version of Alice Cooper's Only Women Bleed. Only when Moore plugs in his electric guitar for the Velvet Underground stylings of Blue Flower – a song covered by both Mazzy Star and the Pale Saints - do things crank up a bit.

In the second, Ca Va dominated set, King of Straw sounds utterly modern(e), and Anthony Moore's kazoo solo on the swoonsome Let's Travel Light captures the essence of a counter culture that could be both sensual and irreverent inbetween all the Verfremdungseffeckt going on elsewhere.

On the second night, and following the late addition of a Saturday afternoon matinee, things nearly don't happen at all when Moore's keyboard won't work. Assorted monitors are either too loud or inaudible to those onstage. Moore can't find his kazoo for Let's Travel Light, and Krause is plagued by feedback which works oddly well for Blue Flower, but which is clearly affecting everyone else onstage. Moore, possibly wanting to let off steam after his assorted travails with keyboards and kazoos, gets to his feet and gives one of the amps a good old-fashioned thump, which seems to do the trick.

If such a plague of gremlins suggests a form of controlled chaos, it in fact reveals the butterfly-winged fragility of Slapp Happy songs. Yes, all three members of the group are perfectionists by various degrees, but they also swing with delicate and meticulous airs that recognise the nuances required to translate each song's deceptively simple intricacies into something precious. This they proceed to do, as they did the night before, with warmth, charm and a palpable if occasionally fractious fondness for each other that embraces the audience into the fold with brief excursions into anecdotage.

Krause tells of how Blue Flower stems from her own experiences with a Warhol associated film collective. Blegvad notes the accidental political resonance of King of Straw. Before Heading for Kyoto, Krause slips on a hand-crafted Japanese cardigan. As with the previous night, the band don't go off for the encores, but instead remain where they are for the upbeat raptures of Dawn and a final beat of The Drum, proving that sometimes the only revolutions that matter are the ones that come quietly.

Product, February 2017

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Rent

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

On the streets of New York, there's a riot going on, everybody's hustling to make ends meet and the cops are beating up anyone who's different. The property magnates are intent on turfing out the arty types who give the 'hood it's character, and the kids are clinging to each other for comfort in order to survive. Sound familiar?

Jonathan Larson's La Boheme inspired pop musical set among a diverse group of twenty-somethings finding out who they are looked like an elegy for a pre-millennial generation who had come of age with the spectre of AIDS when it premiered in 1996. Twenty years on, if it wasn't for the lack of mobile phones, Bruce Guthrie's touring anniversary production could be set last week in any inner city melting pot in the throes of hipster-friendly gentrification.

In a loft shared by Billy Cullum's wannabe Warhol Mark and Ross Hunter's would-be rock star Roger, the pair become the centre of a community populated by addicts, performance artists and drag queen Angel. The latter is played with tenderness by Harrison Clark, stepping in for an injured Layton Williams. Out of this comes a slack-tastic coming of age soap opera that features identity politics to the max in a way now commonplace on teen TV.

The elaborate urban steel set all this is played out on allows full vent for Lee Proud's choreography, as the large ensemble cast sing and dance their way through their characters' pains. While only Seasons of Love truly stands out musically, like those onstage, each song is emotionally linked in a way that both depends on and supports each other in a show where unity counts most of all.

The Herald, February 17th 2017

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Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The Winter's Tale

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

A little boy in a Christmas jumper is the first person you see at the start of Max Webster's new production of Shakespeare's light and shade dramady. Grabbing the spotlight for all it's worth, young Mamillius will wind up book-ending the play in a way that will haunt his parents Leontes and Hermione forever. For now, however, it's the festive season in suburban Sicilia and he can run wild and free in his bear-suit while his mum and dad hold court. Christmas parties being what they are, alas, Leontes' jealousy of his pregnant wife's mild flirtation with his best friend Polixenes sets in motion a train of events that all but destroys the family's cosy existence.

The first half of Webster's modern-dress production is a grimly grown-up affair in which men in suits wield a power that's based on control come what may. So obsessed with Hermione's imagined indiscretion is Leontes that he can't admit the truth, even when it's proven to him in court. Sixteen years later, an apposite joy permeates Webster's Fife-based version of Bohemia in the second half. Here Leontes and Hermione's abandoned daughter has grown up as farm girl Perdita, who is courted by Polixenes' slumming-it son Florizel among the common people on gala day.

There's fun to be had here from the tracksuit-clad community led by Jimmy Chisholm's Autolycus, and who cavort to a live folk-based score led by composer/musician Alasdair Macrae. It is the crumpled gravitas that looms large over John Michie's Leontes, however, that dominates. It's as if the consequences of his actions are too much to bear, and you know that the wounded child within is screaming still.

The Herald, February 16th 2017

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Tuesday, 14 February 2017

A Judgement in Stone

King's Theatre, Edinburgh
Three stars

Valentine's Day massacres don't come much more quintessentially English than the one at the heart of Ruth Rendell's 1977 novel, adapted for the stage by Simon Brett and Antony Lampard in a production mounted by Bill Kenwright's Classic Thriller Theatre Company. The curtain opens on Eunice Marchman, the constantly cowed housekeeper to the opera loving Coverdale clan. Their gunning down in their country pile has seen Detective Superintendent Vetch flown in from London to investigate alongside the local force headed up by Detective Sergeant Challoner.

As the pair survey the scene by way of a series of flashbacks in Roy Marsden's production, the class divide is laid bare. This is shown not just by George Coverdale and his new wife Jacqueline's cavalier attitude to marriage, but by George's daughter Melinda's university dalliance that affords her similar freedoms. Her step-brother Giles, meanwhile, takes his lifestyle choices from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In gaudy counterpoint, local post-mistress Joan adopts an evangelical moral stance while sporting leopard-print mini-skirts and egging Eunice on to an explosive kind of liberation.

Filmed twice, first as The Housekeeper in 1986, then by Claude Chabrol as La Ceremonie in 1995, Rendell's story tackles the social gulf that prevailed in a now archaic-looking 1970s. Ideologically, Rendell sides with Sophie Ward's Eunice, who shuffles throughout the play weighed down with a barely educated guilt which only new-fangled technology conspires to give away. The nuances of what drives Eunice may be lost, but in her own way she's exacting the sort of revenge advocated by many freedom fighters in an era blighted by collective neuroses, many consequences of which are only now coming to light.

The Herald, February 15th 2017

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