Thursday, 7 April 2011

Follow Me / Johnson and Boswell - Late and Live / The Journey of Jeannie Deans - Edinburgh Fringe 2007

Follow Me
Assembly Rooms
4 stars
Ruth Ellis was the last woman in Britain to be hanged, who whether by good luck or the sheer crime-of-passion glamour of her circumstances, became an accidental pin-up girl for capital punishment’s abolitionists. The man who put the noose round her neck, Albert Pierrepoint, wasn’t nearly so pretty, but in his own way became equally iconic.

Ross Gurney-Randall and Dave Mounfield’s play puts the spotlight on both parties in the lead up to the final 15 seconds – because that’s all it takes – of Ellis’ life. While Ellis sits in her cell, going over things one last time to her lawyer, writing to her murdered lover’s parents, Pierrepoint gossips about his fellow executioners via a series of bar-room anecdotes as he makes preparations.

In Beth Fitzgeralds’s hands, Ruth is a brittle, social-climbing bottle-blonde post-war glamour girl. Like some back-street Dorothy Parker, she’s painted here as the epitome of gallows humour. By contrast, Gurney-Randall’s Pierrepoint carries the air of a self-made man with the gait of a professional wrestler, taking pride in his work like any other civic dignitatory. ‘Sober and discrete’ is his patrician-like maxim, and one shudders to think how quickly executions, whether authorised or not, would end up on Youtube today.

Fitzgerald is on cracking form as Ruth, all second-hand movie star moves and fragile but still flirty bravado. Gurney-Randall is a bluff, gruff counterpoint as Pierrepoint in Guy Masterson’s simple but effective staging, which allows Gurney-Randall and Mounfield’s script space enough to breathe in a damning but all too human indictment of how the scales of justice can be corrupted.


Johnson And Boswell – Late And Live
Traverse Theatre
4 stars
Literary groupies take note. Fawning fan-boy interviews aren’t just the preserve of contemporary lit-stars. As Stewart Lee’s loose-knit new play puts two of the 18th century’s most eminent men of letters into an initially chummy Jonathan Ross style chat show format, it’s proved beyond doubt that authors in the flesh don’t always resemble their finest works.

Fanfared by a pipes and drums house band, Miles Jupp’s be-wigged sycophant and Simon Munnery’s crotchety, Scot-hating old wag are a reluctant double act in which myth wins out over truth every time. Boswell is part PR spinmeister, puffing up Johnson’s legend way beyond its reach, and part insider acolyte in the mould of Lester Bangs without the excesses. Johnson, in contrast, performs the show-stopping equivalent of Emu attacking Parky, David Blane’s silent treatment to Eamonn Holmes, or Meg Ryan’s affronted one-word replies, again to Michael Parkinson. It’s Mrs Merton with Bernard Manning, and Alan Partridge every time he opens his mouth. Johnson is a maverick wild card who simply won’t play ball. He has a book to plug, but hang it if he’s going to state the obvious.

He’d much rather goad all about him with a scurrilous attack on Scotland old and new. If this country is possessed with the cultural confidence it so often claims, none of this will offend in the slightest outside of a few shortbread parochialists mourning the Celtic twilight. Before long it’s a fully-fledged historical variety show, involving duelling bagpipes and mouth organ and a near Tiswas-style re-enactment of the pair’s Highland fling.

Lee and his stand-up chums, both of whom rise to the occasion with aplomb, have created a pop-cultural hybrid that sticks its neck to kick against the pricks and protectors of his subjects’ legacy. Of course, as with any satire, J and B can’t help but bite the hand that feeds him from the inside. Lee can slag off the Fringe and the ‘new writing powerhouse’ that houses his wares as much as he likes, but, by his quite deliberate awkward-squad stance he remains a vital component of what makes both tick. Which makes for some very naughty and utterly knowing fun indeed.

The Journey Of Jeannie Deans
Universal Arts@Assembly
2 stars
Sir Walter Scott’s novels live on because they manage to combine adventure and romance against a fevered background of political turmoil. So it was with Scott’s Edinburgh-set The Heart Of Midlothian, from which Judy Steel derives her new play for the Borders based Rowan Tree company. Steel focuses on Jeannie Deans, who in Scott’s book walked to London seeking pardon for her condemned sister Effie, guilty of the ‘crime’ of concealing her pregnancy after falling for a gadabout actor.

The potential here for a feminist dissection, not just of Jeannie’s epic walk, but of the extremes a patriarchal society is prepared to go to persecute women, is obvious. Yet, in Catriona Taylor’s production, Steel has done precisely nothing with the gift of such source material. Where one might be fascinated by the psychological and emotional impact of Jeannie’s voyage, as well as her confrontation with the Queen, one is served up with a one-dimensional Illustrated Classics approach that spends a the first third of the play setting up Effie’s roll in the hay and the consequences that ensue.

Performed in gutsy Scots dialect by a still fiery cast of three alongside Hannah Read’s mercifully contemporary sounding live fiddle score, if the American tourists who’ll undoubtedly flock to this believe it to be a fair representation of 21st century Scottish theatre, they are being sold considerably short. No-one is disputing the brooding urgency of Scott’s original, but its scrappy and artless telling is stuck in the dark ages. There are a million and one better ways of re-telling Scott’s story than the heritage industry theatre of the dullest kind presented here.

The Herald, August 2007

ends.

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