Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Addams Family

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

Family values are at the heart of things from the opening number of the brand new touring production of Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice and Andrew Lippa's musical version of cartoonist Charles Addams' creepy creation. A colourful chorus line of Addams ancestors are raised from the dead to bust some moves that look somewhere between the Rocky Horror Show's Let's Do the Timewarp Again routine and Michael Jackson's Thriller video.

The focus on what follows is on Wednesday, the family's pale and interesting daughter. Having grown up to be a crossbow-wielding teenage goth, she takes a walk on the bright side after falling for the more straight-laced Lucas. Old habits die hard, however, and, as played with sublime sass by Carrie Hope Fletcher, Wednesday tortures her brother Pugsley while belting out an exquisite version of identity crisis anthem, Pulled. In a show riddled throughout with hints of psycho-sexual deviancy, Wednesday takes a leaf out of the William Burroughs book of courtship when she plays William Tell games with Lucas. As his stuffed-shirt parents rekindle their fire, even her parents Gomez and Morticia's fine romance looks set to be redefined.

Co-produced by Aria Entertainment and the Music and Lyrics company in association with the Festival Theatre, Matthew White's production is a knowing cartoon romp that gives full vent to Lippa's latin and tango heavy score. As Gomez and Morticia, Cameron Blakely and Samantha Womack have a ball, and Les Dennis makes Uncle Fester the show's moral heart. As the importance of staying true to who you are is spelt out, in a very different kind of American horror story, this is Fletcher's show.

The Herald, April 27th 2017

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Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Douglas Maxwell and Matthew Lenton - Charlie Sonata

The inspiration behind Douglas Maxwell's new play won't get to see it performed when it opens at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh this weekend. Nor did Maxwell's old friend Bob see it when it was performed by acting students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow last year. Without Bob, however, Charlie Sonata wouldn't exist. For Maxwell and everyone else left behind, the play is the only type of reunion they can ever have now. If Bob was still around, well, even though he'd cleaned up his act and settled down, they might not even have that.

“Bob died before I could show the play to him,” says Maxwell. “I wanted to write something in which he was this hero, and we could have a laugh about it, but we did the student production and I hadn't told him, and I don't know why. Even when David Greig took the play for the Lyceum, I still didn't tell him, and then it was too late, but his sister read the script, and she's given the green light now, which is great.”

To be clear, while Bob was the inspiration behind Charlie Sonata, and while there are similarities, it isn't really about him. Maxwell's tale may start off about an alcoholic prodigal's return home in an attempt to rekindle old friendships and everything else he lost. As with most of Maxwell's plays, however, it takes a turn for the fantastical, and as Charlie finds himself watching over the coma-stricken daughter of one of his friends, it becomes a skewed kind of fairytale.

“It's a play about a guy who comes back up for a reunion with his mates,” says Maxwell. “He's lost, and he's trying to make everything right, and it evolves into this fairytale about someone who wants to make things better. I think everyone has some kind of person like that in their life, who when the phone goes at two in the morning, you always know it's them. You can cope with that when you're in your twenties, and just about when you're in your thirties, but as you get older it becomes more difficult. The play has this group of people in their early forties, who've got this life that they have. Then here comes this alcoholic back into their life. Charlie is someone with no violence or crime in him. The only damage he's doing is to himself, and he not only loses track of where he is, but when he is.

“It's one of those plays – and I'm in no way comparing myself to Arthur Miller – but structurally, it's kind of like Death of A Salesman. In that play, the main protagonist doesn't do anything. The play happens to him, and I think it's the same in Charlie Sonata. It begins and ends with a big speech, and inbetween he's incoherent.”

As with many of his plays, Maxwell wrote Charlie Sonata because he wanted to, and without anyone commissioning it. Maxwell prefers this approach, and, while he believes it frees up his writing, Charlie Sonata didn't come to him immediately.

“I had a few tries at it,” he says, “but then I was at a funeral, and I went back and looked at these scenes that I'd written, and everything changed. The scenes all fell into place, and after that the play really wrote itself.”

Maxwell's remark about how Charlie loses track of when he is as much as where was one of the key motives for director Matthew Lenton becoming involved in the production. In his role leading Vanishing Point theatre company, Lenton has consistently warped everyday realities into a form of magical realism that comes directly from an emotional impulse. Maxwell wrote the play specifically for Lenton, rekindling an affinity between the two which dates back to Lenton directing Mancub in a co-production between Vanishing Point and the National Theatre of Scotland. Both artists work instinctively, and, for all the intellectual rigour that goes with it, wear their hearts very much on their sleeves.

“I think Charlie Sonata is a very easy play to identify with emotionally,” says Lenton, “but I think it goes beyond that, in a more general feeling about care. For me, it's about what happens to someone if everyone around them pulls up short, and doesn't quite fulfil their role as a mate. I think it's also about how easy it is for someone to fall out from life, while everyone else around them carries on with their own lives.

“Douglas presents all that in such a magical and moving way. His plays are real and truthful, but they're not realistic. They have a kind of enhanced truthfulness. That's why that line about Charlie not knowing when he is as well as where he is stood out, and that's what I'm trying to bring out in this production. The challenge is to keep the spirit of the one we did at RCS, which we all really enjoyed doing, but to also allow it to grow and expand for the Lyceum stage.”

Charlie Sonata is the latest of Maxwell's works which might be conceivably seen as a cycle that charts his own growing pains as he gets older. Maxwell's breakout play, Decky Does A Bronco, first seen in 2000, looked at friendship through a child's eyes, as the play's narrator recalls a tragedy which has left its mark on those who survived it. Five years later, Mancub looked at a teenage boy coming to terms with the changes going on inside him.

Our Bad Magnet, which appeared the same year as Decky Does A Bronco, charts an uneasy reunion between four young men as it follows their friendship between the ages of nine and twenty-nine. In 2005, If Destroyed True looked at notions of community in a way that more recently, Maxwell's play for the Citizens Theatre, Fever Dream: Southside, continued to pursue.

“A lot of my plays are very similar in some respects,” Maxwell happily admits. “From the kids in Decky and Mancub to the people in their twenties in Our Bad Magnet and If Destroyed True. In Fever Dream: Southside they were in their thirties and having kids, and wondering if they could live in this particular place. Now here they are in Charlie Sonata, in their forties and wondering how that happened.”

Maxwell describes this as his “subterranean autobiography. When you write like me, you start at the source, and then you go off. These people from my life, as a playwright it's my job to put them in front of an audience and demand that audience's attention. They're not kings and queens, but they're living life as it's lived now, and these people matter. Part of the fairytale stuff in Charlie Sonata is to lift these people up so they have a higher value than you might initially think. Then once they have that higher value, you listen to them. That's when you realise how important they are.”

Charlie Sonata, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, April 29-May 13.
www.lyceum.org.uk

The Herald, April 25th 2017

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Sunday, 23 April 2017

Monstrous Bodies

Dundee Rep
Four stars

A girl with shocking pink hair introduces herself as Liberty. She stands centre stage and invites everyone to keep their mobile phones on so they can take pictures of what follows. This isn't what one might expect from a play advertised as being about Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin's time in Dundee in 1812 before, as Mary Shelley, she introduced the world to science-fiction with her novel, Frankenstein. In the hands of the Poorboy company's Sandy Thomson, however, one should expect nothing less.

Subtitled Chasing Mary Shelley Down Peep O'Day Lane, Thomson's production of her own play charts Mary's travails as a fourteen year old put into the care of the wealthy and quasi-progressive Baxter family. She juxtaposes this with a modern-day scenario involving Roxanne, a girl the same age as Mary. When a compromising photograph is taken of Roxanne without her knowledge, the talk she is preparing on Shelley sees her attempt to conquer her fears just as Mary did.

The result is a dramatic sprawl of quick-cutting scenes that flit between nineteenth century melodrama and MTV-styled dance routines, with independent women at the heart of both. Played out over a split-level set, the combined might of the Dundee Rep and Poorboy acting ensembles are bolstered even more by a fifteen-strong young company of teenage performers. As Mary and Roxanne, Eilidh McCormick and Rebekah Lumsden are towers of strength across the ages, both to their peers and each other. In a high-octane study of how a moral high ground can be used as an excuse for misogyny, it shows how necessary it is now more than ever for young women to write their own story.

The Herald, April 24th 2017

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Thursday, 20 April 2017

Funny Girl

The Playhouse, Edinburgh
Five stars

There is something infinitely special about Michael Mayer's touring revival of his smash hit 2015 production of composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill's myth-making 1964 musical. This is the case from the moment Sheridan Smith steps unassumingly from the shadows as 1920s Broadway sensation Fanny Brice. When Smith sits down at Fanny's dressing room mirror and utters the show's immortal “Hello gorgeous” greeting to herself, it is as if both women are switching themselves on to the spotlight.

It is this utter possession of her character that makes Smith's portrayal of Fanny so captivating. As she rewinds to her early days as a gawky New York bundle of adolescent energy, every facial gurn and every clumsy spin is alive to the possibility of success. Smith's entire body is possessed with Fanny's self-effacing and sometimes needy vibrancy that can't help but draw people to her. It doesn't matter that her doomed romance with Darius Campbell's matinee idol styled Nick Arnstein becomes the stuff of high-end soap operas involving shady deals in gambling dens. With Isobel Lennart's book revised by Harvey Fierstein, this is eminently watchable, even through its longueurs.

Much of this watchability is down to Smith, who manages to be both vulnerable and vivacious, fearless and fragile, all in the capricious skip of a low-attention-span heart-beat. Every line is delivered with a physical tic or a roll of the eye that makes for comic perfection. Fanny and Nick's first act stumblebum courtship astride a chaise longue is a particular hoot. It is when Smith is onstage alone, however, that we see both her and her character fully take flight in an irresistible tale of showbiz survival.

The Herald, April 21st 2017
 
 
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Why Inverleith House Must Be Re-Opened

This coming Sunday, April 23rd, marks the six month anniversary of the closure of Inverleith House,which for the previous thirty years has been one of the world's leading contemporary art galleries. This unique, light-filled venue, housed within the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, captured imaginations right up to its thirtieth anniversary exhibition, the tellingly named I Still Believe in Miracles...

Only after news of the closure leaked out did RBGE attempt to explain the decision by way of a written statement. While no proposed alternative use for Inverleith House was forthcoming, RBGE declared that they needed to focus on RBGE's core botanical function. In an interview with the Herald, RBGE's Regius Keeper Simon Milne stated that Inverleith House was unable to 'wash it's face' financially. For a publicly accountable custodian of a major public institution to use the language of a market trader in this way was telling.

Arts funding body Creative Scotland, who have funded Inverleith House on an annual basis, expressed their disappointment with the closure. Given that they had recently paid for a report on the future of Inverleith House, you can see their point, especially as nowhere in the report was there any recommendation that it should be closed. RBGE have yet to publish the report in the public domain, and only a Freedom of Information request by the Herald saw its release to journalists in redacted form.

A 'mass visit' on the final day of I Still Believe in Miracles... saw more than 700 art-lovers protesting against the closure. A petition opposing RBGE's decision has attracted more than 10,000 signatures, while a noticeably quiet Scottish Government set up a short term Working Party to discuss Inverleith House's future. Twenty-three questions asked by myself in my capacity as a contributor to online arts and culture magazine, Product, linked here - http://www.productmagazine.co.uk/ideas/open-letter/ remain unanswered, despite numerous assurances by RBGE that they would be addressed.

More recently, it was announced that a summer exhibition at Inverleith House will form part of Edinburgh Art Festival. While RBGE's hand has clearly been forced by public pressure, this isn't nearly enough, but perhaps RBGE's priorities lie elsewhere. This week, a job ad by French multinational Sodexo, who manage RBGE's events programme, came to light. The ad, for a Corporate Sales Manager – Conference and Events at RBGE- is riddled throughout with the profit-driven language of commerce. It makes no mention of any kind of art programme. Nor does it highlight RBGE's core botanical function. It does, however, mention money. A lot.

It seems obvious to me that there are those in office at RBGE who believe they are running a business. These same publicly accountable officials are reluctant to answer questions about their conduct in regards to the closure of a national public asset. What is clear most of all is that, in closing Inverleith House, RBGE has made a terrible mistake. It is embarrassing too for a Scottish Government who claim to value Scotland's artistic institutions. Only the reopening of Inverleith House as a permanent contemporary art gallery will resolve a sorry mess which should never have happened.

The Herald, April 20th 2017

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Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Nell Gwynn

King's Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

Joy, gaiety and a complete absence of complicated women. Such a holy trinity is what King Charles II declares it takes to get him into the royal box of the seventeenth century playhouse that looms over the lushly lit stage in Jessica Swale's Olivier Award winning historical romp. More fool him, as by this time a star has already been born in the form of wise-cracking orange seller Nell. Lured from heckling in the cheap seats, Nell takes the stage herself in a theatre scene reinvented for a new age. Old-school traditionalists, meanwhile, are suitably scandalised in this touring version of Christopher Luscombe's lavish production, first seen at Shakespeare's Globe and revived here by English Touring Theatre.

What follows is a gorgeously realised yarn that is part costume drama, part rom-com and part theatrical in-joke laced with sit-com styled one-liners worthy of Blackadder. As the most regal of stage-door Johnnies in search of a bit of rough, Ben Righton's Charles gets more than he bargained for with Nell, played with heady brio by Laura Pitt-Pulford. With Nell living the high life, the story of an ambitious working-class woman who challenges the establishment that courts her unfolds before she's left to her own devices once more.

Swale may take from real-life events in an exquisitely turned out affair, but this is the stuff of a million back-stage Hollywood rags to riches melodramas. When Nell is temporarily usurped by Charles' French mistress just as she muscled in on Lady Castlemaine's territory, a bumpy ride is guaranteed for all. With some timely sparring to be had on the state of Europe, Swale has dreamt up a piece of serious fun that is pure emancipated joy.

The Herald, April 20th 2017
 
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Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Hifi Sean – FT. Excursions (Plastique Recordings)

Over thirty-odd years, Sean Dickson's musical journey has been a wonder to behold. From fronting Buzzcocks inspired Glasgow shamblers turned Baggy love-gods the Soup Dragons, Dickson's sideways move to psych-pop troupe The High Fidelity was nothing compared to the full-blown damascene dance-floor conversion that eventually followed. Since then, Dickson's euphoric adventures as a DJ and producer under the Hifi Sean moniker have sounded as far away from the Bellshill scene he came out of as can be.

2016's Ft. album capitalised on Dickson's eclectic connections with a hands-in-the-air grab-bag of beat-heavy confections featuring an all-star cast of guest vocalists and artistes. These ranged from Yoko Ono and Bootsy Collins to B52 Fred Schneider singing about trucks and Suicide's Alan Vega's last recording. As if such an array of synthesised soul, poppers-friendly floor-fillers and banging techno-abstractions wasn't out there enough, there was even an appearance from Maggie K De Monde, one time chanteuse with 1980s one-hit wonders Swans Way. Best of all was the opening rush of House diva Crystal Waters' piano-led soul-gospel anthem, Testify.

As joyous as such a package remains, listening to a whirl of high-energy musical gymnastics on a drizzly Tuesday afternoon can be pretty exhausting if there's no dance-floor in sight. Perhaps it was with this in mind that Ft. Excursions has been invented. Styled as Ft.'s 'little sister' and released on white vinyl in a limited edition of 300 for this year's Record Store Day, its contents are designed for the sort of after parties where the sun is cracking the flags both inside and out. Where the original album is a jaunty hands-in-the-air extravaganza, this new set of constructions sees a welter of producers throw off-kilter googlies into a mix designed to keep the come-down at bay.

The opening Sunset Dub mix of Monday Morning Sunshine, finds Western Isles based chanteuse Jean Honeymoon coming to woozy blissed-out life after a long weekend siesta before the party kicks in once more. Dickson has just co-produced Honeymoon's first solo record, Beginnings, and here adds a bass-heavy pulse that courses throughout the album, as choir, strings and harps conspire to suggest Honeymoon is nestling into some celestial dreamland where angels play.

The original squelch of Atomium finds dub specialist Ray Mang and Horse Meat Disco's Severino
ramping up the synthesised handclaps with some busy bongos and old-school House melodies on their Dub Revision of the Bootsy Collins fronted track. Collins himself free-associates his lascivious intentions over the top of this by way of a set of hyper-delic chat-up lines. Dressed up with science-fiction bump and grind trappings, the song zooms this way and that before vocoder starbursts nip in on the blind side. 'You can put your butt out in my ash-tray, baby' indeed.

There are even more rockets ahoy on the Omnichord Dub version of Like Josephine Baker. Here, David McAlmont's soaring vocal is wrapped up in skittery beats laced with other-worldly sprinkles that accelerate upwards from an instrument previously embraced by Dickson on the High Fidelity's second album, hinted at by its title of The Omnichord Album. This featured a track co-written with John Peel after Dickson gave an omnichord to the legendary radio DJ for his sixtieth birthday. Here, the instrument's addition makes for a trip-happy extended version on which McAlmont's voice drops in and out of a bass-heavy stew

Dickson's original take on 18th featured Teenage Fanclub mainstay and the only member of Dickson's roster who is from the same musical pedigree, Norman Blake. If the song's shuffly beats already betrayed Dickson's indie-dance roots, French remixer Azaxx' Late Night Reprise heightens it even more. Blake's multi-tracked vocal is a melancholy downer wrapped up in a swirly-whirly groove that carries on dancing like its 1992 regardless.

Ft.'s breakout crossover moment belonged to Testify, on which Crystal Waters proved herself a major vocal force over a mix of chapel house gospel piano and party time beats. The In Flagranti Replay is moulded into shape here by Swiss-based beat-meisters Alex Gloor and Sasha Crnobrnja. It burbles and bounces with after-hours promise punctuated by deconstructed echoes of gossamer melodies, before taking a back seat and letting Waters' largely unadorned voice have its glorious day.

Yoko Ono's spoken paean to joy that forms the basis of In Love with Life does away with the string-heavy melancholy of its original form, and in its reworking by Midnight Records' Yam Who? is transformed into a funkier Little Fluffy Clouds for self-help conceptualists.

The appearance of Alan Vega on A Kiss Before Dying had already been lent a poignant weight by the death of Suicide's iconic vocalist shortly after Ft was released. The original song's organ and wicka-wacka percussion suggested a downbeat crime caper set in a post-punk NY dystopia, with its stentorian chorales give it an elegiac classicist edge. The Jackie House Bullets Workout built here by San Francisco disco deviants Honey Soundsystem strip things back to an even greater sense of foreboding. Vega's incantations are left to echo over each other, punching out urgent little epistles like some street corner sooth-sayer in this starkest intimation of mortality. 

Jungle drums usher in the Le Mongrel Midnight Trip take on You're Just Another Song, before Little Annie slinks in. To a backdrop of red velvet strings, the club-land legend peels back the drapes to purr with the nonchalance of an off-duty diva over an arrangement that fleshes out the brooding minimalist techno of the original.

As sublime a bank-holiday ball as there is to be had here, five of Ft.'s original tracks by Ms De Monde, Schneider, Soft Cell and Apollo 440 electronicist Dave Ball, Paris Grey of Detroit techno legends Inner City and German diva Billie Ray Martin remain untouched by Dickson and co's sonic alchemy. The scope for a second volume of Ft. Excursions, then, is plentiful. Same time next year, perhaps?

Product, April 2017

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