Friday, 18 August 2017

Gary McNair - Letters to Morrissey

Gary McNair is standing on the edge of the River Clyde gazing up at the Glasgow sunset. As inner city idylls go, it may not be in the same league as a monochrome Manchester canal, but McNair is basking in the poetry of the moment anyway. In terms of scene-setting preparation for Letters to Morrissey, McNair's latest piece of solo stand-up theatre that charts his personal liberation through sending real life epistles to the now largely deposed pope of mope, it's perfect either way.

Following on from his previous semi-autobiographical solo shows, Donald Robertson is Not A Stand Up Comedian and A Gambler's guide to Dying, as the title suggests, Letters to Morrissey is a look back in languor at one of McNair's musical heroes. The singular former Smiths singer turned hit and miss solo artist isn't some everyday musical hero, however. Notwithstanding some of his more distasteful political pronouncements of late that were the latest in a long history of controversy, Morrissey inspires a fervent devotion bordering on a hysteria which even an overly florid autobiography and an unintentionally hilarious novel cannot tame. As with so many other mixed up kids like McNair, Morrissey provided a lifeline.

“The fact that I used to write to Morrissey is embarrassing,” says McNair, “but this show isn't a diary or a documentary. The show came from this long standing relationship I had watching Morrissey, and it's more about hero worship, fandom and faith, but using Morrissey as this kind of backdrop.”

The show was born after McNair and his regular director Gareth Nicholls went to see Tom Jones, who, on the face of it, at least, is a very different kind of pop icon.

“I'd referenced Tom Jones in Donald Robertson is Not a Stand-up Comedian,” says McNair, “and we always said we'd go to see him, and watching him, the fans went crazy in a way that crossed over with my experience of Morrissey.”

This dates back to 1997, when McNair was eleven.

“I was kind of this kid who was obsessed by things,” he says, “and when I saw Morrissey on the telly when I was wee, I couldn't articulate it what it was about this guy that was so fascinating. Then, when I got to my teenage years, my brother who was closest in age to me was into him, but he was quite shy about it.

“I think the thing that really grabbed me about Morrissey was that he was funny without being reductive. There was a seriousness to his humour that I loved. When I was at school I was really into all the comedy icons, and then I got into The Divine Comedy and REM, and I prefer Morrissey to the Smiths. Don't get me wrong, there's a poetry to what he did with the Smiths, but something happened on the first Morrissey album, Viva Hate, where he became a story-teller. Then he did albums like Kill Uncle, which were critically panned, but they seemed to speak to me. Obviously, I came to it late as a kid, and I didn't always know what the songs meant. I just thought they were fun and cheeky.”

McNair's show isn't the first artistic outpouring concerning teenage boys' fandom for the increasingly truculent pop idol. In 2000, three years after McNair first heard Morrissey, playwright Willy Russell published his novel, The Wrong Boy. The book was written in the form of a series of bon mots to the former Smiths singer from a protagonist who gradually morphs into a kind of Holden Caulfield for the angst-ridden indie-pop generation.

Letters to Morrissey, forms part of this year's Made in Scotland showcase at the Fringe, and comes too on the back of England is Mine, Mark Gill's big screen fictionalisation of Morrissey's own tortured early years in search of self expression. The film premiered at the last night gala of the 2017 Edinburgh International Film Festival, and is likely to be reassessed once over-expectant audiences stop grumbling that there is no actual Smiths songs featured in the film.

Alongside Letters to Morrissey, the Traverse Theatre Company will also be presenting two performances of Locker Room Talk, McNair's verbatim response to Donald Trump's use of misogynist language and dismissed as 'locker room banter.' Here, the words of men interviewed by McNair are performed by a cast of women.

“When we did the work-in-progress,” McNair says of the show's first outing, “what we realised was how important the post show discussion was. People needed to talk about it, and there was a lot of raw emotion flying round that really spoke to why we made the show.”

Given the reasons why McNair made Letters to Morrissey, has he maybe dusted off his letter writing skills and contacted the man himself?

“I thought about it,” he says, “but I'm quite scared for Morrissey to hear my name. That's how much in awe of him I am. When I wrote to him before, you heard about people who he'd written back to, but I think I'd missed the boat by then, but that doesn't matter, because he opened something up for me in a way that changed me forever.

Letters To Morrissey, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, August 3-27, various times; Locker Room Talk, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, August 21, 2,45 and 7.45pm.

The Herald, August 18th 2017


Milly Thomas - Dust and Brutal Cessation

Milly Thomas was about to go onstage when she first read the script for the pilot episode of Clique, BBC3's online only Edinburgh set university thriller created by Skins alumni Jess Brittain. The twenty-something actress and writer has been put up as a possible writer on the glossy six part drama by Balloon Entertainment, who she'd worked with on a writers room development project, and who thought she'd be a perfect fit. Here, after all, was a dark thriller that dragged The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie's concept of the crème de la creme into the twenty-first century to look at the power games that can be played among an on-campus elite of young women desperate to make the grade. Thomas was initially sceptical, but after her dressing room read-through, she was smitten.

“Twenty minutes before I was due onstage, and I couldn't stop thinking about it,” says Thomas, as she prepares to bring two original plays to Edinburgh, one of which she will be performing in. “I thought it was brilliant, and even after I went onstage, all I could think about was Holly and Georgia, the two lead characters in the show.”

At the interview, Brittain and soon to be fellow Clique writer Kirstie Swain asked Thomas what had been her own experience of university.

“I said they were probably the worst four years of my life,” she says. “Jess just looked at me and said when can you start? Jess, Kirstie and I all had terrible times at university, and that first day with the three of us was like a support group.”

Thomas went on to write three episodes of Clique, and has recently had a stint on BBC soap, River City. At the moment, however, it is her two Edinburgh shows she is enthused about most. While Brutal Cessation looks at the fallout of an abusive relationship, in Dust, Thomas plays a woman observing her own suicide. Both plays come from a personal place.

“Last year I was in a relationship that wasn't necessarily right for me,” Thomas says of the roots of Brutal Cessation. “I wanted to express something about that, and wrote a scene for a Scratch Night that's now in what we realised when we working on the scene was a much bigger play. I wanted to look at how gendered things have become, and how relationships that should have ended a long time ago can end up on a knife-edge of violence and emotional abuse out of sheer boredom.”

Dust comes from a similar desire to lay bare taboo subject matter.

“I'd had the idea for Dust for ages,” Thomas says, “but I was really frightened of it, because I knew I was going to have to be in it. It's a really personal piece, which in part came out of my fascination with the way we talk about people with depression, and how we can sometimes eulogise them.

“I really value truth in plays. By that I don't mean grief tourism. The last thing I want is for my plays to be masturbatory. I've no desire for that. I just want to do things that ring true, and write about the things that won't let me sleep at night. I've been depressed for so long, but because I'm high-functioning, people don't notice. As a playwright, of course, I want to entertain, but I think there's a responsibility as well in writing about things I really care about and try and render them truthfully. I write about what I don't know. I tried to write about what I do know, but it sounded patronising. When I write, I want to find out about things, so I can discover them together with the audience.”

The timings of the performances of both plays mean that Thomas will be onstage in Dust at the same time Brutal Cessation is being performed, so she won't be able to see it.

“I did that on purpose,” she says. “Once I get up to Edinburgh, my work as a writer on the plays will be done. There's nothing worse than having a writer around, biting their nails like the ghosts of Christmases to come.”

Thomas grew up in Hampshire, and wanted to be an actor from an early age. She went to university, and “hated it” before going to drama school.

“I was really disappointed,” she says, “and wasn't prepared to wait around waiting for my face to fit. I'm not like that. I have to keep moving.”

She started writing in her final year, and her first play, A First World Problem, appeared at Theatre503 in London.

“That was a very exciting time,” Thomas says, and then people asked me what was next, but it had never occurred to me that there would be a next.”

Another play, Piggies, followed in 2015, with Clickbait appearing a year later. Inbetween appearing onstage and on TV in Downton Abbey, Thomas became a member of the Young Writers Lab at Soho Theatre, and took part in a Royal Court Writers' Group led by playwright Stef Smith. Clique followed shortly afterwards.

“When I got Clique, I didn't know if I could write for telly,” Thomas says, “but that naivety's really important. If I know things too well I get worried. If you don't know the rules, you can break them, and that flailing doggy paddle is where the magic happens.

“The great thing about Clique is that it's a female driven vehicle, and all the women in it are having these seemingly wild lives. At it's heart it's about female friendship, ad I wish I'd had that at university. Apart from everything else, it's also sending out a message that you can have stories led by women who aren't necessarily nice to each other. I think what Jess has achieved is astonishing, and I knew as soon as I read it that there wasn't a thing I wouldn't do to work on it.”

Thomas won't be drawn on whether there will be a second series of Clique, there are plans for a new stage play, “a lot bigger than anything I've done before. People who know my work know me for writing sarky women, but this is different.”

Again, she can't say in what way.

“It's so childish,” she laughs, “but I don't want to jinx it.”

Beyond the big play, “I just want to keep on keeping on. I don't ever want to stop acting or writing. They're my favourite things in the world, and I want to keep trying bigger and better things all the time. I hope to keep on writing until I drop dead.”

Dust, Underbelly, August 3-27, 4.40pm; Brutal Cessation, Assembly, August 5-28, 4.20pm.

The Herald, August 18th 2017


Thursday, 17 August 2017

Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017 - Theatre Reviews Six - Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story - King's Hall - Five Stars / Lilith: The Jungle Girl - Traverse Theatre - Four Stars - Foley Explosion - Cameo Cinema - Four stars

A steel shipping container stands at the back of the stage at the opening of Old Stock, Hannah Moscovitch's moving personal history of how her descendants left Romania for Canada and carved out a life for themselves. When the container opens, it reveals a cluttered world occupied, not just by Chaya and Chaim, the couple who form the play's heart, but on a four-piece junkyard orchestra, who punctuate the play with the songs of Ben Caplan. Caplan narrates proceedings as The Wanderer, a top-hatted master of ceremonies who represents an entire Jewish community's sense of exile, as well as providing levity and a driving live score.

Christian Barry's production for the Nova Scotia based 2b Theatre Company is a joy. Moving between a comic courtship and the everyday hardships that shape Chaya and Chaim's future, both Mary Fay Coady as Chaya and Chris Weatherstone as Chaim play instruments inbetween conjuring up a much bigger picture of how the world was built on immigration. The fact that they and the band do this in an entertaining and heart-warming fashion makes for a thing of raw and unmissable beauty.
Until August 27.

It's a jungle sometimes in Lilith: The Jungle Girl, the Melbourne-based Sisters Grimm's wild forage into issues of identity and the animal mentality within us all that can't be tamed beyond surface civilised behaviour. The show opens in nineteenth century Holland, where wilfully phallocentric scientist Charles Penworth and his hopelessly devoted colleague Helen Travers are delivered a box from Borneo containing a feral orphan captured in the wild. Despite all appearances to the contrary, Penworth christens his new project Lilith, and, Henry Higgins-like, attempts to civilise his new charge, while Travers regales Lilith in girly finery.

Rooted in the broad strokes of queer cabaret, Declan Greene's gender bending production is a glorious mess of comic variations on identity politics. Candy Bowers, Ash Flanders and Genevieve Giuffre make a mockery of the patriarchal gate-keepers of what constitutes everyday normality. There are even rapping lions who tell it like it is before a night at the opera looks very much like Eden.
Until August 27.

“History is a cacophony” says Rasputin in Foley Explosion, Julie Rose Bower's one-woman travelogue, the second show in the Cameo Live season of film-inspired or related performances. As the title suggests, Bower's piece is a sound based journey drawn from real life events from what sounds like a gap year full of incident and colour. As she sets out for Russia, interning on newspapers just as several stories with Russia at their centre are breaking, her encounters include cameos from Guy Fawkes and other insurgents.

While such a scenario resembles the labyrinthine twists and turns of a Cold War spy thriller, it is in the telling that makes Bower's show so special. Amplified heels, slamming doors and metronomic toys are looped in such a way as to create a found sound symphony that conjures up a very noisy world.
Run ended.


Martin Creed's Words and Music - In Conversation and Un-cut

Martin Creed's Words and Music is a late night show taking place at the Festival Theatre Studio as part of Edinburgh International Festival. On showings so far, Creed's performance resembles a cross between Billy Connolly, Albert Einstein and a friendly Mark E Smith.

In June 2017, Creed came to Edinburgh to look at the space he was due to be performing in, and took part in an interview with Neil Cooper for the Herald newspaper. The full transcript of the interview is published below unedited in a way in which Creed's speech patterns seem to reflect the structures of his work.

Creed is probably best known for winning the 2001 Turner Prize with Work No 227: The lights going on and off, in which a light went on and off at five second intervals in an empty room. This provoked a mixture of controversy, ridicule and acclaim, with one visitor to the exhibition throwing eggs in the work's empty room. Creed has confounded and amused ever since, with every work meticulously catalogued and numbered.

This has been the case whether making permanent installations, such as Work No 1059, in which he restored the Scotsman Steps in Edinburgh with 104 different types of marble, or performing and writing a series of minimalist songs.

At the heart of all of Creed's works is an obsessively structured sense of symmetry that seems to question the work even as it is being made. He has worked with Rambert Dance Company on a piece which included Creed's films of people vomiting, and Work No 1197: All the bells in the country rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes, opened the 2012 London Olympics. Creed has exhibited widely across the world, and has released several albums of music.

Ploughing a wilfully individual furrow, Creed has repeatedly stated that he doesn't regard himself as an artist. The first major retrospective of Creed's work, What's the point of it?, took place at the Hayward Gallery, London in 2014. In 2017, Creed released a digital single, What The Fuck Am I Doing? The conversation took place in the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, on June 15th 2017, with Creed dressed like a Victorian hipster, and his acquired sing-song Glasgow accent sounding consistently surprised by whatever came out his mouth.

NEIL COOPER: How are things going with the show?

MARTIN CREED: Well! Uh, I don't know. I don't really know, 'cos part of the point of it is to try and think out loud, and therefore, preparing...not necessarily to...Whenever I've done things like talks and things where I've prepared stuff beforehand, it always, you know, I usually feel that as soon as I get up there it all doesn't feel relevant... and it's the same as well for exhibiting works in galleries, I find as well. You just can't imagine what the front-line is like unless you're on the front-line. the...the thing I'm doing...I'm bringing songs that are pre-written, you know (LAUGHS), and I suppose I'm bringing ideas that I've been working on to talk about as well, but it's not a show in the sense of erm...

NC: It sounds like you're kind of deliberately flying blind here. You've got songs, and you've got ideas that pre-exist, but there's no clear structure at the moment...?

MC: Aye. Yeah. And in a way, the point of it isn't clear either. There's not a …. If there is any point to it, it's to try and find's a matter of trying to get through the day, basically. Trying to live your life, and that's true if you're...and the other idea behind is is that onstage and offstage are not the same thing. There is no offstage, or to put it another way, there is no onstage. It's not like now we're doing it and then we're not....

NC: You're onstage throughout...?

MC: No, what I mean is, there's no … I am onstage throughout... what I mean is, metaphorically, there's no on and off stage. Onstage is the same as offstage, you know. So when I'm onstage, I might be just as disorganised as I am when I'm offstage, or whatever.

NC: Why did you want to do something like this? A late night cabaret, for want of a better word?

MC: I've been trying to work on words, and trying to work on talking as much as working on other....I try to work on the noises I make in my life just as much as I try and work on the movements I make...And er...It's part, I'm just trying to work on my life, so to speak. I'm trying to live my life (LAUGHS), and that includes making noises, because I find myself here in this world, with other people, and I feel lonely and want to talk to them....And up until recently....I went to art school and studied visual art, so called art, whatever.

More or less, since art school...cos I was always thinking of maybe going to study music, but I didn't, because I thought that at art school you could do anything you wanted, whereas at music school you had to basically do music. And that actually turned out to be true. The art school I went to, you could do anything, you know, people were doing weird performances and stuff...but after art school, then I tried to do music again, because I thought that if I just show work, it was like denying half, more than half of life.

So that's what I think got me into doing these talks with songs, and that then ended up with doing things with dancers or people running and that, which were in doing this now here isn't really different from the things I've been working on, but it is true that I've never really done a cabaret slot thing. I tend to do....(LAUGHS), and I'm worried about that, because I tend to do earlier evening things, so the time of day makes a big difference. There might be more drink flowing later on, possibly, but the time of it , that wasn't decided by me. The festival said that if it was earlier, it might clash with more shows,...

NC: I saw the dance thing you did at the Traverse in 2012. You've also done gigs with a band. The context of doing a dance thing in a theatre and gigs in little venues, compared to doing a late night cabaret at Edinburgh International Festival, that's quite a different thing...

MC: Aye, it is. And that's an element of it that's quite new. But I did do it New York last year. I did all these cabaret performances...Well, they were called cabaret performances, because it was in was the same thing with talking and songs, but I did actually have a band with me, although I talked quite a bit as well...Cos one of the things I find when I'm with a band is that the talking's almost rude to be on stage with people who might be waiting that's the thing about this. In a way this show isn't that different from the ballet. I mean, it is different, but it comes from that. But if you're onstage with other people, I feel I want to be doing stuff with the other people, and if I'm not doing can't be having everything at once...

NC: And I suppose with the band onstage, it looks like a music show with talking, but if it's just you without a safety net, you can do what you want...

MC: Aye, you can basically chop and change, and if you suddenly stop playing a song halfway through and think, shit, fuck... that you can do that....There's obviously a danger in that, that I (LAUGHS)...The danger is that you basically....cos I think other people help you in life to...just not go up your own arse. But then, hopefully the people, if there are people coming, and we're all in a room together, then I'm not on my own...

But … there is the thing as well, if you don't prepare too much, then the danger of that is...that is why for me it's a matter of trying to prepare half of it, and leave half of it unprepared, because if you don't prepare very much, then there's a danger of getting involved in some kind of can get fixated on something, and I feel like I lose track. I feel like I repeat myself a lot if I get fixated on a thing, and then if you're scared, you might get even more fixated on something, and then you can end up being quite self indulgent as well.

NC: So a loose kind of structure...? You've got songs to fall back on, and whatever you want to talk about...

MC: Aye...

NC: There's so much structure in a lot of your work in terms of your made pieces; the numbering, the ups, the downs, the shapes...Even the songs, the way they're structured...

MC: Aye...

NC: I'm thinking here of Let Them In and Border Control. The paring down of the words on controlled. There's some kind of control freakery there. So, to go into something like this, and leave yourself without a safety net, is it different?

MC: (LAUGHS) I agree with you about that, but I think that's what's wrong with my work. I look at it and it's too controlled, and that's what I'm always fighting against, the tendency to try and control everything, and I'll end up with everything just all being neat and clean and nice, nice colours in a little box, or the song equivalent of that, and you pare it down and pare it down till you're in danger of it being too controlled, and that you take the life out of it, thereby...

But I think that the thing about it is... I try and control things because I'm scared of losing control, and if I think about that, I think what I need to do is get the fact that I'm scared into people going to see the bit where I'm controlling things, but they get to see the bit where I'm scared, and where I try and talk about that, or include that in the work somehow, so it's just the nice bit, the tip of the iceberg, but you show the whole thing, so doing the live shows...and I think that's also the reason why I've got into making films and things and videos, to try and show things happening, rather than just the bit left over at the end...

NC: Rather than the finished product...?

MC: ...So you can show the trying, or the struggle or whatever....cos like, that film I made of people being sick, in a way, that film came from wanting to control things, and thinking of the exact opposite of that, and thinking that people vomiting is the exact opposite of people being in control, and trying to make a film of that. But then, in a way, because that's such gross-out material, perhaps that over-shadows that element of that is not to do with that, because in a way those are portraits of people who are out of control, but if you're just appalled by the vomiting, you can't really look at it.

NC: Are you making chaos out of order, then?

MC: (LAUGHS) – Well, I dunno, I just think I'm trying to fight against my inclination to try and control things and kill things. I want to feel better, so I feel safer if things are under control, but the,n that'll lead to killing things, but I think that is a microcosm of life, so doing a show like this...everything's a microcosm of life...what we're doing now, or having a coffee with a friend....but doing a show like I'm doing here it's one hour, so it's a little microcosm of life. Getting through the show is like getting through the day, or whatever, and so to me that's what it's about. Aye.

NC: When you did it in New York, how did it change from night to night? Did you build in structures as you went? Did you build in structures as you went?

MC: Erm, aye, well, I tried to learn. The terrible thing happened...The first night, I felt on quite a high afterwards, and then the next night, I basically brought a lot of the same..I started talking abut the same thing that I started talking about the night before, and immediately I felt that it wasn't alive, because I was just trying to repeat myself, and then I had to dig out of the hole. It's terrible, that.

I find that, onstage, that, although I was saying that ideally it should be no different, but I feel like I can't remember. I feel like a goldfish. You know, they say goldfish don't have a memory... that you can't remember what it's like to be doing stuff like that in front of people. It's just impossible to remember...if you can't work on it in your little room, because you can't remember what it's really like, and every time you go up you remember what it's like, and you think, oh, fuck, shit, yeah, it's like that. So, of course, what I was working on wasn't relevant, so then you have to work when you're there to....

NC: That's really pushing yourself on a personal level, isn't it? It would be easy to go on with a loose script or crib sheet, and just do routines, as it were, that you've honed...

MC: Aye, except I just think I can't do that, and I feel shit if I'm repeating myself. It doesn't feel alive, and it's not exciting. Or maybe I just think I'm not a good enough actor, for want of a better word, or way of putting it. On the other hand, I dunno. I'm starting to think that actors...I don't know how they do it, but I don't think that they maybe do it in the way that I think that they do it. It's not that erm...Cos maybe what I'm talking about is not that different from the way actors try to be fresh every time...

NC: Being in the moment...?

MC: Aye. Exactly, aye.

NC: Where did the desire to do this come from? Was it about having a conversation with the audience? Or was it about wanting to communicate?

MC: I think it's come from frustration, and not being happy with my work, thinking that although I might like some of the things I've done, maybe I'm just not really happy with them. Like I say, I felt like some works are just the bit left over at the end, rather than really showing the struggle or whatever. But it's got something else to do with...I also think that in this kind of live situation, there's a possibility to include a lot of....because I find my life and my work is a sort of soup. Everything's joined together, and there are some things in the soup, floating around, but mostly a purée. But if you're having an exhibition or making an album, then what you're doing is picking things out of that soup and then displaying them, so these are selected from the soup, but there's always something missing, and that's the soup.

It's always artificial that you've taken bits out, and that's why the individual works are never good enough. But in a live show like this that it's possibly more possible to show different bits and pieces – because there's a screen as well, so I can show visual stuff. I'll probably have access to the internet as well, so I can even show pictures of work of things that I'm working on - and then there's the songs as well, so there's the possibility as well to display the soup. And the point of that to me is that is more like life, so then I don't feel that it's fake, or some weird artificial tidied up version of life. To me that's more exciting. I think one of the worst feelings in life I find is trying to keep up a false...a pretence about something.

NC: You've always had this ambivalent relationship with the use of the word 'art', even though you're seen primarily within a visual art context.

MC: Aye.

NC: When did you start making things?

MC: Well, I got into what is called art when I was a teenager. I started reading books – I learned at school. I got taken to a lot of galleries when I was young as well, but it was always very mixed up with music as well, cos I grew up getting taught that art and music were the best things you could do, really, and composers and artists were revered in my house by my mum and dad...I was writing songs as a teenager, and I was doing art at school...but, yeah, to me, the point...of I don't want to call it art, just because, calling something art separates it off from the rest of life, and gives it special value, and I don't think it is different. Everything is equally valuable. It's only valuable if a person values it, and that's not decided by me or anyone else individually. Well, it is, but only for oneself.

So basically saying that something is art, or thinking that you're making art just seems to me to be pompous, and that's why I don't want to call it that. On the other hand, I think that art galleries are great places, where people can do mad crazy things, and I think that's really great in a world where most of the time feels like they have to toe the line.

NC: But there's a freedom...

MC: Aye...

NC: It's just trying to connect everything up and not separate it, the same as with your performance by the sound of it...

MC: Aye...

NC: But it's also potentially contrary, because you're going to be on a stage, and the audience will be there, which is sort of separate, so I don't know how you get round that...

MC: The only way I get round that is that I'm in a …. Theatres are just the same as galleries. When I talk about galleries I could equally talk about theatres, because a gallery is just a theatre. It's just a different type of theatre, but with different lighting, and walking round instead of being seated, but the way I think of the gigs or the shows is that a load of people have come round, and we're all in a room, and I'm showing them some of the things I've been working on, basically, or thinking about...

NC: Almost like a salon...

MC: Maybe, aye.

NC: Maybe that's too formal a word...

MC: Aye, but like the way people would come round to your house, and then there might be some people singing some songs, or whatever. But rather than it being like...cos one of the problems I find with erm...I don't know if I'm talking about the problems all the time, but I feel that problems are the only thing, but I fell like it's hard to talk about the, you know....

NC: Because the things that have been solved, you don't need to talk about...

MC: I know (LAUGHS) – It's almost like if you were to talk about an orgasm, for example. It's like, that's great, but where do you...(LAUGHS).....Anyway, aye, so....I can't remember what I was saying...

NC: We'd just been talking about your show maybe being a bit like a salon, and you were talking about various problems, but I'm not sure where you were going with that...

MC: No, neither am I, actually...

NC: But that...Doesn't that tie in somehow with everything else you're doing anyway, where you never seem to quite know where you're going with things...?

MC: Aye...No...Exactly...(LAUGHS)

NC: Which is why, when a lot of the stuff does end up so structured, it's quite contrary again...But then, you've got the steps over the road, where there's no separation between art and life, is there? Where people walk on it...

MC: No, it's just a street...

NC: So is this a sort of performative manifestation of that, where it's out there, and...?

MC: Yeah, probably, aye, but the steps are a good example of quite a strict, grid-like structure, which is the actual increments of the steps, and then within that there's the marble, it's like a whole world. It's like trying to get everything in there. It's like the soup. You want to try and get everything in there using every marble you can possibly find. The marble itself is messy, in the sense that it's a free flowing design that has been created over time and has ended up like that over time, but it's not a...the steps are a combination of the fixed structure within which...if there's a framework, then life can's a safe place to be chaotic. I think that's the thing about...

The theatres and galleries and places where...cos there's a framework, and it's like a safe place where you can hopefully enjoy either the difficulty of life, or the kind of crazy mixed-upness of a life, because, when you're actually living a life outside of the theatre, that mixed up difficulty might be to do with not being able to earn enough money to pay the rent or whatever...Now that sounds like an argument for the difference between theatres and ….but if the grid or the structure can provide a safe place to enjoy the chaos, then that's helpful...

I was thinking of that idea to do having a framework...It's like having a fence with a rigid structure in front of a garden that's got wild animals in it, the fence basically allows you to enjoy the ...and you're not in danger from it. Maybe it's something like that, the whole thing, but, er...

NC: What else are you working on just now?

MC: I'm just working on this...I'm working on some new songs, and an idea for a film that may be sort of like a musical. I'm working on some other ideas, but one of the things about this is it's a chance to work on ideas as well, that might end up different...

NC: So it's kind of like a show and tell, work-in-progress, conversation, cabaret...

MC: Aye...It's definitely more of a work-in-progress type thing, I'd say, than...It's definitely not a display of what I've achieved...(BIG LAUGHS)

NC: What do you think you HAVE achieved?

MC: Well, I don't know. That's the point. I don't think I've achieved anything...The idea of achievement just seems really pompous, anyway. Basically, if you think you've achieved something, you're a dick. (LAUGHS) Because it means you haven't.

NC: So, it's constantly trying to achieve something, and then,...failing? Or?

MC: Yeah, cos I think the thing I'm constantly trying to do is to feel better. Every day, you wake up, and you think, oh, fuck. To fight... The difficulty of life seems really big, and I know that different people might feel that in different ways...and also there are different levels of difficulty...because if you're in danger of being shot in a war zone, or if you're house is gonna burn down, then that's a different level of difficulty than...I dunno, I can't think if an example...

NC: I get what you mean...But is that what drives you, then? Trying to get through the day, or trying to make some kind of order out of the day, or just trying to do something...?

MC: Aye, but like I say, to try and feel better, and so, if its exciting to listen to music, it might lead you to try making music...

NC: Tell me about the idea of the musical, then...?

MC: Well, in a way it's similar to the way I'm thinking...I've been making these kind of music videos, but I've never...but going right back to when I did the ballet, I've never been happy with documentation...I didn't do that many performances of the ballet, although we did it again last year. I worked on it a bit more. We did it in Japan...But I've never been happy with...Documentation of live shows is difficult, because you just can't communicate the live thing...It's like the soup thing, to put the songs I've been working on into the soup of a film that might have a story, or what have you,. That's a way to try and not show the bits isolated...

NC:...Find a loose narrative...

MC: Aye, although I don't wanna clamp on a narrative. I don't wanna over-weigh some heavy handed... I've got some ideas I'm working on, not that different from the cabaret, which are songs inside a bigger thins, but it's different from trying to make a film from a live show...Everything you do, I feel it has to be that in itself. You can't make...It has to...If you do a film of a live show, then it has to be a film. You can't just think it's a...It's like when you're writing about things. You can't get away from the fact that you're writing creatively about... It's not like a transparent window into a...

NC: Do you know the work of Spalding Gray at all? He was an actor with The Wooster Group, but he also did these big solo monologues, that were scripted, but which still sounded fresh. I don't think any of it was improvised. Jonathan Demme made a great film of one of them called Swimming to Cambodia, which was just Spalding Gray sitting at a desk talking, but it worked. That's different from what you're doing, I know...

MC: I'm a really big fan of Stop Making Sense. That's a really good example of a live show...Obviously that was designed to be a film, even though it's a...That's super...Was it before Stop Making Sense....?

NC: Is Stop Making Sense an example of the sort of show you aspire to, bringing all these different things on and wearing a big suit?

MC: (LAUGHS) I have been working on some clothes, actually. I dunno if there's going to be any clothing going on. There might be. But not a big suit. Just a normal size suit.

NC: What are you up to beyond Words and Music, or is that quite enough for now?

MC: It is enough, because within this I'm working on loads of different ideas, but there's a few...I'm working on new songs...I've got a few exhibitions, but that's next year. One in Miami, and one probably in Sydney...and then a few invitations for commissions and things like that, but that'\s more like ongoing longer term.

NC: Will what goes on in Sydney and Miami be new work?

MC: Probably, aye. The invitation's just come in, so I don't really know yet...Last year I did loads of exhibitions and the album, and what for me was a reasonable number of gigs as well, and this year I've been trying to....I just felt like I got all mixed up doing that, I was just working so crazily on these things that I felt I got wires crossed, so I've been trying to get back to the coalface. (LAUGHS) So I've been working at home a lot for the last few months, and working on...

NC: And now here you are, back at the coalface with this big soup...

MC: Aye...The thing is, though, for example, these exhibitions that are coming up, I don't wanna....I'm worried about work. I think part of the work comes from having made a certain amount of work that has been bought by people, and the longer in life you go on, the more things you've done, so the more things you have to take responsibility for having done, and that feels like the ship gets bigger and bigger. And I feel like its harder and harder...and obviously ships have a big turning circle...and its harder and harder in your life to change direction of the ship, partly because it got bigger and bigger very very gradually, so the direction and movement, you just kind of end up like this, and then you have to try and accept it.

But if you think, the decisions you made to get where you are, there's thousands and millions of them. You can't undo one and then fix it if you're worried about something, so I dunno, I don't want to trust....I've got these exhibitions coming up, but...over the years I've developed certain ways of working, and I don't wanna trust that, basically. I don't want to trust .. like I've worked something out and that's how I'll do it...I'm trying to think how to approach these shows.

NC: Is that a fear of success?

MC: Aye, definitely. I think so. Well, it could be something like that. It depends what you call success. (LAUGHS)

NC: You won't define it as art. You won't define it as success or achievement. So...

MC: It's definitely to do with what might be called success by a lot of people. So, for example, I earn enough money now to support...I earn a good living, and so, but when I was first working and I was just out of art school, I had no money and I was on the dole. Luckily my parent helped me. They'd sometimes send me a postal order for forty quid down and I literally had no money. And that's when I made some of these works like the crumpled ball of paper and things that were made with no money...

So the fight against killing things is more difficult in a way if you've got money, because if you want to feel better, you can use that money to buy comfort, and you can buy a nice car or a nice sofa to sit on or a nice TV to watch, so you can make a comfort....and if you have money you might think it's a kind of control, and then you might get into a bad situation where you think you actually are in control of your life, which you're not really, because you're just part of a bigger world. So that road that leads to death, if you try and control things, then you kill them, and that is a road that's much easier to take if you've got money. Definitely.

NC: You don't want to do that by the sound of it....

MC: No, I really don't want to do it. But on the other hand, money can give you a great amount of freedom, but basically, if money was more distributed around, everyone would be better off. Because I think the rich people all really suffer from having money, but most of them wouldn't voluntarily want It to give up their money (LAUGHS) even though I'm pretty sure they all know they would actually prefer to have less money.

Martin Creed's Words and Music, The Studio, Edinburgh International Festival, August 4th-27th, 10.30pm.


Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Lee Blakeley - Obituary

Lee Blakeley - Opera and theatre director

Born August 16 1971; died August 5 2017

Lee Blakeley, who has died suddenly of a suspected heart attack aged 45, was a fearlessly individual director, who moved between opera and musical theatre in a way that wasn't afraid to be popular, and who, both in his personal and professional life, could find the fun in everything. This was the case whether overseeing a production of Die Fledermaus for Scottish Opera set in the world of Footballers' Wives, or simply indulging in impromptu bouts of ridiculous quick stepping round the studio during breaks in rehearsal with some of his cast.

Blakeley's international career saw him work with such luminaries as Gigi star Leslie Caron and Greta Scacchi in a production of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris in a production which introduced Sondheim's work to French audiences for the first time. This set the template for a series of visually striking interpretations of major works, in which he mixed and matched casts of opera singers, actors and musical theatre stars to maverick effect.

Even with such a towering career abroad, Blakeley kept close ties with Scotland, where he initially trained as an actor at what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow. He kept in close contact with RCS, with whom he was regarded as part of the institution's extended family. This year alone he directed students in Into the Woods and another take on Die Fledermaus, this time magnificently inspired by Brexit.

Blakeley was born in Yorkshire, to his parents Richard and Carol, who he remained close to for the rest of his life. He went to Mirfield High School, West Yorkshire, before successfully applying for RSAMD. While there, between 1992 and 1994 he acted in productions of Twelfth Night, Plenty by David Hare, Gorky's The Lower Depths, Animal by Tom McGrath, Old Mother Hubbard by Robin Wilson and the title role in Purcell's King Arthur.

Even during this time, however, it quickly became apparent that Blakeley's real talents lay overseeing productions instead of appearing in them, and he graduated with the prize for directing. His career in this sphere began with him working closely with another RSAMD/RCS alumni, David McVicar. Assisting such a radical wunderkind as McVicar on his Royal Opera productions of Mozart's Die Zauberflote and Gounod's Faust set Blakeley off on his own path with an equally individual approach

His Theatre du Chatelet production of A Little Night music was Blakeley's breakthrough calling card in his own right. This led to three further French premieres of Sondheim works. Blakeley's production of Sweeney Todd was also staged at Houston Grand opera with Nathan Gunn and Susan Bullock in the cast, and hen to San Francisco Opera, with Stephanie Blyth as Mrs Lovett.

Blakeley's take on Sunday in the Park with George won the Syndicate de Critique Prix for design and was broadcast on TV throughout Europe. This was followed by three more productions at the Chatelet: Into the Woods, The King and I, which was also seen in Chicago, and Kiss Me Kate, a co-production with the Grand Theatre, Luxembourg.

While making his mark with musical theatre in France, Blakeley's opera career in America flourished. He directed Madam Butterfly with Santa Fe Opera, a production later remounted at Los Angeles Opera. Also at Santa Fe, Blakeley directed productions of The Pearlfishers, The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein and Rigoletto. Elsewhere, Blakeley directed Falstaff in Los Angeles, Orpheus and Euridice in Minnesota and The Tales of Hoffmann for Canadian Opera Company. With Opera Theatre St Louis, Blakeley directed and co-translated the American premiere of Handel's Richard the Lionheart, and directed a new production of Macbeth, which won a St Louis Theatre Circle award for outstanding production .

In the UK, Blakeley's production of Pat Kirkwood is Angry opened at the Royal Exchange, Manchester before transferring to the west end, and on to the Brits off Broadway festival in New York. As artistic director of Opera Theatre Europe, he premiered Therese Raquin at the Royal Opera House Linbury Theatre, and developed new contemporary operas and site specific pieces for the ENO Studio and the Covent Garden Festival.

Blakeley received a Winston Churchill Fellowship to study artistic development and the culture of philanthropy in New York, and worked with the British Council in Macedonia to create a new production of The Turn of the Screw as part of Macedonian Opera's young artists programme.

His shows were always visually and theatrically striking, nuanced, and both moving and funny. He had particular ear for dialogue and an eye for humour on stage that reflected his reputation as hilarious and charismatic company in private.

Throughout his travels, Blakeley retained a strong connection with Glasgow, with both Scottish Opera and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. As well as his Footballers' Wives take on Die Fledermaus he directed Judith Weir's A Night at the Chinese Opera, which was nominated for the TMA Achievement in Opera award. With RSAMD/RCS he directed The Love For Three Oranges, and, most recently, Into The Woods and his Brexit-inspired Die Fledermaus.

Blakeley admired performers who were fearless on stage, and had little interest in singers who brought nothing else to the party other than a voice. He was a fiercely loyal friend and colleague, who could be outspoken at times, but always with the one aim of making the best work he possibly could.

Above all, laughter was never far from anything Blakeley did. Friends and colleagues talk of how he was the person they laughed most with in the rehearsal room, and how he was a comic genius in life as much as work.

Blakeley is survived by his husband, Jonathan, his parents Richard and Carol, and his sister Lisa.

The Herald, August 15th 2017


Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Phoebe Waller-Bridge - Fleabag

Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a busy woman. The thirty-two year old actress who burst onto our TV screens as writer and star of Fleabag, the tragi-comic sort of sit-com about a supposedly independent woman on the verge is currently overseeing Killing Eve, her new TV drama which she's written for BBC America. As an actress, Waller-Bridge is also filming a big screen project which we can't talk about, but which has already been outed as being part of the ongoing Star Wars franchise.

These are both pretty good reasons why Waller-Bridge won't be appearing in the brief Edinburgh Festival Fringe revival of the original stage play of Fleabag, when it opens next week at the Underbelly, where it was first unleashed to the world in 2013. In her place, Maddie Rice will take on the role of the potty-mouthed anti-heroine after touring Vickie Jones' production for Waller-Bridge and Jones' DryWrite company in association with Soho Theatre. This doesn't mean Waller-Bridge has turned her back on what turned out to be her calling card now she's hit the big time. Far from it.

“I'm so pleased it's in the safe and wonderful hands of Maddie,” says Waller-Bridge. “It's because of Edinburgh we found Maddie as well. We initially thought we were looking for a really dramatic actress who could do all the dark stuff, when actually it's about getting someone who can be funny. But Maddie's really made it her own. She's a different Fleabag, but still has the same heart, and I feel really excited about people seeing where it started.”

Fleabag's roots actually go back a bit further, to a spoken word night Waller-Bridge was persuaded to take part in.

“I had done a little bit of writing,” she says, “and a friend asked me to do a ten minute storytelling slot at this stand-up thing. I was really nervous, but but I thought I'll never get a chance to do this again, and that was a really cathartic moment that made me put my writing where my mouth was, and this character started falling out of me that was very personal to my and my friends.

“Then when I did it at the spoken-word night, the audience got really behind it, and this woman who'd had a few glasses of wine said I should take it to Edinburgh. A producer who was there overheard hat, and the next day she rang up and said, I've got you a slot, and the ten minutes I did at the spoken-word night ended up being the first ten minutes of the play.”

Waller-Bridge says the stage version of Fleabag was “probably the biggest challenge of my writing and acting life so far. Because it wasn't something I'd planned to do, or was particularly yearning to do, I was blindly writing this fifty minutes of material, filling it with gag after gag so you'd never get bored. I wanted it to be furious and truthful, and something that spoke to me, and if it bombed then it bombed. A lot of people talk about how raw it is, and I think that's where it came from. It was a free pass to do something wild.”

With Fleabag commissioned as a TV pilot shortly afterwards, Waller-Bridge was able to expand on the play's ideas beyond a solo show in a way that has now come to define one of the most fearlessly upfront depictions of young women today. It also meant that another script in the TV slush pile, Crashing, was picked up, filmed and broadcast in a way that set the liberated tone of Waller-Bridge's writing style. It was the dark humour of Fleabag, however, that tapped into something that seemed very now.

“When you see someone like Fleabag trying so hard, you're with them,” Waller-Bridge speculates on Fleabag's appeal, “and then when the mask slips and you see how much pain she's in, there's something about humanity that gets you. Even if it doesn't relate to your own life, I thin you can still feel it. It's a rare thing to create a character who people connect with, and who I get to play myself.”

A second series of Fleabag seems likely, though one has yet to be confirmed. In the meantime, Waller-Bridge has Killing Eve - “an eight part drama about female assassins” - and the film we can't talk about to be getting on with.

“Having to let go of Fleabag for a few months is a good thing,” she says, “but I can't wait to get back to her. I'm already starting to miss her.”

Fleabag, Underbelly, August 21-27, 5.15pm.

The Herald, August 15th 2017


Walker and Bromwich - The Dragon of Profit and Private Ownership

Trinity Apse until August 27th
Four stars

Back at the end of July, passers by on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh were confronted with a giant inflatable green dragon and a display of mediaeval pageantry in which a procession of agitators attempted to slay the beast. The dragon was s emblazoned with the words, 'PUBLIC AND PRIVATE OWNERSHIP' on its front, and 'CORPORATE GREED' on its back. Some of those attempting to usurp it were tattooed with the word 'NATIONALISATION.' It looked like a satirical cartoon made flesh and acted out in a display that resembled something between a mummer's play and an episode of Horrible Histories.

This was By leaves we live...not by the jingling of our coins, the latest processional intervention by Zoe Walker and Neil Bromwich, who have previously made weapons of happiness out of the pink blow-up artillery of Love Cannon (2005), which brightened the skies by firing pink balloons. This new intervention is inspired by an illustration found on a Northumberland Miners' Association banner from 1924 as well as nineteenth century anarchist pamphlets. It acted as a trailer of sorts for The Dragon of Profit and Private Ownership, in which the dragon lays dormant until the end of Edinburgh Art Festival in the Old Town's suitably historic Trinity Apse building, having hot air blown up its arse all day long. A bunting strewn booth shows footage of By leaves we live... on a series of monitors.

The event itself subverted civic spectacle on a par with some of Jeremy Deller's parades, and also taps into a very real democratic need for collective participation in artistic acts rather than be mere passive observers. This recalls some of the outdoor spectacles of Welfare State International, as well as the early capers of Ken Campbell, Jeff Nuttall's adventures with The People Show and Albert Hunt's experiments with the Bradford Theatre Group. Like such forebears, Walker and Bromwich's intervention is a comic revolutionary provocation in which we can all join in, slaying dragons as we go.

The List, August 2017


Cosey Fanni Tutti - Art Sex Music

When Cosey Fanni Tutti's autobiography, Art Sex Music, was published earlier this year, it provided a remarkable account of life on the frontline of a very English counter-cultural underground. Over it's 500 pages, Art Sex Music also lays bare a deeply personal account of how a smart and fiercely individual working class teenager from Hull called Christine Newby landed in the thick of an alternative artistic firmament. All of which should make for an electrifying conversation between Tutti and author Ian Rankin as part of a List sponsored Edinburgh International Book Festival event.

“I'd been planning to do a book for years,” says Tutti of the motivation behind Art Sex Music. “A lot of my work in music and in exhibitions is very autobiographical anyway, so it made sense to try and get it all down in the one place.”

The first part of the book relates how, after falling in with a bad crowd led by future partner in crime Genesis P-Orridge, Newby/Tutti became part of live art troupe, COUM Transmissions, which eventually morphed into industrial music auteurs, Throbbing Gristle. When COUM's Prostitution exhibition, which included images of Tutti posing in pornographic magazines, appeared at the ICA in London in 1976, Tutti, COUM and TG were famously denounced by Scottish Conservative MP Nicholas Fairburn as 'Wreckers of Civilisation'. It was a badge of honour that stuck, and provided the title for Simon Ford's soon to be republished 1999 COUM/TG biography.

Where Ford's book put P-Orridge at its centre, Art Sex Music exposes a fuller and at times bleaker picture of a relationship that saw Tutti at the beck and call of P-Orridge's manipulations, offset by her increasingly independent personal and artistic emancipation. Tutti's later adventures with life partner and fellow TG member Chris Carter, first as Chris and Cosey, then Carter Tutti, are also recounted.

As with her book, Tutti talks with a matter of fact directness that belies the extremes of some of the things she relates, with much of the material drawn from revisiting her diaries.

“I read about all the troubles I had during those times,” she says. “I never buried any of it, but because I'm in such a happy place now, looking back, I suppose I was surprised at how relentless it all was.”

This year saw Tutti return to Hull for a COUM Transmissions retrospective shown as part of her home town's year as UK City of Culture.

“It was a fantastic thing to do,” she says. “At the time we were doing these things - and it was the same with Chris and Cosey - nobody was really interested, and we had no idea how we were influencing people. It's as if we've found our place in the culture, and for that to happen in our lifetime is really rewarding.”

Beyond Art Sex Music, a solo exhibition at Cabinet in London is planned, as are various re-releases of Chris and Cosey albums and new work with Carter. Last month saw a 7'' vinyl release of a chugging Chris and Cosey remix of the title track from the Charlatans album, Different Days, featuring a vocal by actress Sharon Horgan. Also guesting on the album was Ian Rankin, who in interviews has related how he first heard Throbbing Gristle while at university. Tutti is looking forward to the forthcoming meeting of minds.

"I started reading his stuff when I was doing my Open University degree,” she says, “so it will be nice to finally meet him.”

Cosey Fanni Tutti with Ian Rankin – Ruffling Feathers, Edinburgh International Book Festival, August 27th, 8.45pm.

The List, August 2017


Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017 Theatre Reviews 5 - History History History - Cameo Cinema - Five stars / Above the Mealy-mouthed Sea - Underbelly - Three stars / Dust - Underbelly - Four stars

Most mornings over at the Cameo over the next couple of weeks, prior to the cinema's own programme of screenings, Cameo Live is a new initiative of film-inspired performance-based works from artists you'd be more likely to find on the Forest Fringe. First up was Deborah Pearson, one of the co-founders of that most underground breath of fresh air during festivals season over the last decade.

Pearson has a thing about film, having previously created works for the Filmhouse and the now long gone Alphabet video shop in Marchmont. Judging by her latest piece of auto-biographical story-telling, History History History, perhaps it's in the blood.

As Pearson sits at her laptop beside the big screen, the credits role on a little known Hungarian film. With a title that translates as The Wonder Striker, it is a Billy Wilder style comedy in a which a pen salesman is mistaken for a real life star footballer in a town where football is everything. The film's premiere was due to premiere on the night of what turned out to be the failed 1956 Hungarian uprising. Out of this, Pearson disrupts both her own and the film's narrative as she delves into a rich personal history that speaks about family, exile and how, if the uprising hadn't happened, Pearson wouldn't be sharing such an exquisite little pearl of shared history which has wider consequences that touch us all.
Until August 10th.

What do you do if you're trying to tell a joke but can't get to the punchline? This is the dilemma for the characters depicted by Jemima Foxtrot in Above the Mealy-mouthed Sea, a solo piece that dives in to a mess of childhood memories, pub cabaret performers and hidden personal histories that will inevitably force their way to the surface.

Standing barefoot on a patch of sand and using a loop pedal to help give voice to the songs that act as both a release and a distraction from the damage done, Foxtrot is an engaging presence, who flits between characters and incidents with an ease honed from her spoken-word background. As she attempts to get to the point, she back-pedals on herself, starting from scratch or else going off completely. As with the loops, layer on layer of criss-crossing narratives gradually unravel, until the joke is expanded with every bittersweet telling. As she finally spits it out, Foxtrot's abrupt departure suggests that for those living it as much as telling it at least, that joke isn't funny anymore.
Until August 27th

Alice is dead at the start of Dust, Milly Thomas' unflinching dissection of a young woman's suicide, told from a bird's eye view by Alice's ghost. She's over-seeing her own body laid out on a surgical slab, where she's being poked and prodded in her most intimate areas in a strictly clinical fashion. This is indicative of the personal post-mortem of her life Alice gives herself over the next hour, which sees her waft unseen at the sides of her mum and dad, her best friend Ellie and her boyfriend, who have all moved on in very different ways since her demise.

As she takes stock of where things are at without her, she rewinds to how she got to the state she did. As she eavesdrops in on the lives she left behind, Alice reveals herself to be smart, cynical and self-knowing to a degree that eventually destroys her.

Written and performed with a warts and all dynamism by Thomas herself, there's a candour about Dust that looks the audience in the eye and dares it to either pass judgement or else be sympathetic. Alice wouldn't be satisfied with either, one suspects, in a show where sex is a matter of life, death and much more besides.
Until August 26th

The Herald, August 15th 2017


Sunday, 13 August 2017

Shannon Te Ao: With the sun aglow, I have my pensive moods

Gladstone Court until August 27th
Four stars

The title of Shannon Te Ao's new twin video installation may resemble that of a Godspeed You! Black Emperor album, but the landscape here is the artist's native Aotearoa New Zealand. The tone is similarly mournful, in a starkly poetic study of what seems to be an eternal estrangement between human-kind and the fractured landscape it barely occupies.

The first of the two five minute or so films is a close-up of two Maori women slow-dancing in a field, silently holding on for dear life itself before the inevitable goodbye as the sky above them broods its way from day to night. The second focuses on the landscape itself. Filmed in sumptuous black and white, hills and fields are punctured by pylons as cows graze. Both scenarios are sound-tracked with a slow-burning string-led score, and end with a voice-over of the same elegiac verse.

Housed for Edinburgh Art Festival in a former Magdalene Asylum for 'fallen' women, the room is filled with foliage to create its own environment. It is the over-riding ache of absence and loss from the films themselves, however, that makes this such a hauntingly beautiful experience. (Neil Cooper)

The List, August 2017


The Divide

King's Theatre
Four stars

Everything is black and white in Alan Ayckbourn's new play, a six hour two part epic set in a dystopian future where men and women are segregated from each other following the aftermath of an unspecified plague. Into this landscape, the secret diaries of brother and sister Elihu and Soween are brought to life by Jake Davies and Erin Doherty with a wide-eyed lightness of touch as their hormones get the better of them when they both hit puberty.

Annabel Bolton's production for the Old Vic, EIF and Karl Sydow begins with a TED Talk type lecture that reveals the back story to how things turned out this way. It ends with a sentimental love story designed to tug the heart-strings. Inbetween, there is teenage rebellion aplenty against the regime's institutionalised repression. Liberation comes through art and sex, which, in such extreme circumstances become even greater life forces.

With both plays told through the siblings' diaries alongside assorted court reports, email exchanges and village council meeting minutes, a slow burning elegance permeates Ayckbourn's text, which is illustrated by a series of hi-tech video projections. While what is effectively an onstage box set binge of a play looks to both The Handmaid's Tale and Romeo and Juliet, there is a tenderness and a wit that makes things accessible without undermining the play's serious points.

Leading a cast of thirteen, Doherty is a particular delight as she carries the plays, moving Soween from ages nine to eighteen. Christopher Nightingale's exquisite score, played by a four piece ensemble and sung magnificently by a community choir, gives languid pulse to the old fashioned schmaltz of Ayckbourn's plea for love in troubled times.

The Herald, August 14th 2017


Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017 Theatre Reviews 4 - The Whip Hand - Traverse Theatre - Four stars / Cosmic Scallies - Summerhall - Three stars / Jess and Joe Forever - Traverse Theatre - Four stars

First world problems abound in The Whip Hand, Douglas Maxwell's new play, a co-production between the Traverse and Birmingham Rep in association with the National Theatre of Scotland. It opens in Lorenzo and Arlene's swish living room, where Arlene's ex Dougie has just turned fifty, and has a big announcement to make. Arlene and Dougie's daughter Molly is about to go to university, while Dougie's sister's son Aaron is equally smart, but appears to have mis-spent his youth in the pub with Dougie.

While Louise Ludgate's blousy Arlene and Richard Conlon's artsy flibbertigibbet Lorenzo have embraced the ghastly pseudo hipster posturing of craft ale culture, Jonathan Watson's heroically unreconstructed Dougie sticks strictly to old-school tinnies.

In Tessa Walker's production, what starts out as sit-com style awkwardness awash with wicked one-liners erupts into an explosive treatise on class, racial prejudice, social aspirations, acquired familial guilt and some of the pretensions and hypocrisy that go with them.

While all about Edinburgh are experimenting with all manner of theatrical forms, it's perhaps a bit of a shock to see such a piece of domestic naturalism. Skim beneath the play's surface, however, and the extremes it plugs into behind closed and well respected doors is a provocative assault on would-be liberal mores in every field.
Until August 27.

Dent and Shaun grew up in together in Skelmersdale, the urban new town somewhere between Wigan and Liverpool. Inseparable when they were kids,they are unexpectedly thrown together for the first time since Dent went off to university after she calls out for a handyman. Things have changed, however, and Dent is in need of medication to help ward off a debilitating disease. What emerges in Jackie Hagan's debut play, Cosmic Scallies, is a small town yarn of thwarted ambition, shared history and reconciliation told with a wicked back-street wit.

Amit Sharma's production for Graeae Theatre Company and Royal Exchange Manchester taps into Hagan's Shameless sired council estate wit with a rough and ready swagger carried by Rachel Denning as Dent (so nicknamed after Countdown's Susie Dent after being caught in possession of a book) and Reuben Johnson as Shaun. Out of this comes a far more serious exposition of a part of this country's population who the powers that be would prefer were marginalised out of existence. By the end, a good-natured yarn on the essentials of co-dependence and community looks like a TV show in waiting.
Until August 26.

At first glance, Zoe Cooper's bittersweet teenage romance, Jess and Joe Forever, looks for all the world like a charming but throwaway coming of age story. In a Norfolk village where everybody knows your business, local lad Joe and holiday home posh girl Jess catch each other's eye after she's caught spying on him and his mates swimming in a part of the river so small it doesn't even have a name. They are nine. Over the next four summers we watch their awkward relationship blossom as childhood turns to the growing pains of adolescence. Like the river, however, there are other things that can't be named, but which are only hinted sat darkly by the local busybodies who get to set the agenda about what's 'normal.'

All this is told by Jess and Joe themselves as they role-play their own recent history as if doing a high school show and tell. As the pair mess with retro cassette players and microphones, this makes for a lovely conceit in Derek Bond's production for the Farnham Maltings in association with the Orange Tree Theatre. Nicola Coughlan and Rhys Isaac-Jones capture that curious but self-protective air of clumsy enthusiasm and over-earnestness of the would-be couple. It is the unspoken you-and-me-against-the-world conspiracy of their relationship that proves so infectious in the play's heady mix of innocence and wisdom beyond their years.
Until August 27.

The Herald, August 14th 2017


Wednesday, 9 August 2017

PJ Harvey: The Hope Six Demolition Project

The Playhouse, Edinburgh

Distant drums usher in the first of two special Edinburgh International Festival shows by PJ Harvey and a nine piece band performing Harvey's 2016 album, The Hope Six Demolition Project. Conceived during trips to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington DC with film maker and photographer Seamus Murphy, the result was a record as much journalese as work of art. It tapped into global concerns of poverty and the effects of war by way of a swathe of musical influences fleshed out with a driving percussive edge.

The title itself was drawn from a project in Washington where rundown housing was demolished to make way for new dwellings. The result was that the original residents were priced out of the neighbourhood. Such is the universal curse of gentrification and social cleansing.
Perhaps this is why Harvey and her black clad nine piece band march onstage like they're leading a funeral parade, martial drums to the fore. Harvey herself walks barely noticeable at the procession's centre, the only woman of the party looking like a Lorca heroine in mourning, clutching a saxophone as she goes.

As Harvey lines up as part of the three piece horn section, the pounding introduction gives way to Chain of Keys, as Harvey finally steps up to the microphone. When she does, it’s with a controlled power that sees her wield her saxophone like a weapon while she sings. The jaunty The Community of Hope is a people-powered anthem set to a rousing chorus decrying how the 'hood is being messed up by Walmart’ in a way that got her in trouble with Washington's local council. Live, the song has fresh resonance, as though Harvey and her own community onstage are willing the audience to rise up.

At times Harvey's voice sounds close to vintage Patti Smith by way of Grace Slick. While she barely says a word outside of the songs, once she puts down her sax and releases the microphone from its stand, she vamps it up for all she's worth, throwing shapes as if at a Balkan wedding.

The band is a well-drilled ensemble weaving reinventions of arcane blues and folk idioms into stunning arrangements. Made up of much of the album's alumni, including Harvey's long term collaborator John Parish, former Bad Seed Mick Harvey and Gallon Drunk violinist and guitarist James Johnston, they bolster Harvey with an intricate set of hand-clap pulsed chorales. When Terry Edwards plays two saxes at once or simply blares out his solos on Ministry of Affairs, it’s doubly thrilling.

Beyond The Hope Six Demolition Project, the set is peppered throughout with a pick and mix selection culled from Harvey's back catalogue. Hearing 50 Foot Queenie and To Bring You My Love would be a treat anytime. Fleshed out with horn led arrangements that still keep their raw heart intact, songs open out into eerier waters. The twin saxes on To Bring You My Love are intense enough to suggest a hitherto undiscovered form of mediaeval classicism.

Where songs such as White Chalk and Dear Darkness are intimate short stories in which Harvey inhabits passing characters for fleeting moments of intensity, The Hope Six Demolition Project is a widescreen epic. It's just as intense, but with each episodic narrative linked across continents by action and consequence.

As River Anacostia's ending segues into a massed a cappella finale, it sounds like a redemptive chain gang unleashing their collective spirit on high. After a standing ovation, Harvey and co return, first for a rip-roaring reinvention of Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, before the rolling thunder that has driven the night finally gives way to a raging calm.

Product, August 2017


Pauline Goldsmith - Bright Colours Only

Death becomes Pauline Goldsmith. Or at least that's how it seems anyway, as the Belfast born actress and writer revives her funeral-based solo show which she first performed it at the turn of the millennium. In the years since she first did the show, which looks at the ritual of a wake in tragi-comic fashion, Glasgow based Goldsmith has proved herself to be one of the country's most adventurous performers.

With a track record which has seen her playing Samuel Beckett's solo piece, Not I, at the Arches to regular stints with Vanishing Point theatre company, with whom she is a creative associate, Goldsmith has developed a willingness to fly without a safety net. Bright Colours Only itself was somewhat ahead of the current wave of solo theatre performers. By returning to it, Goldsmith is part taking stock of her own mortality.

“If I wait much longer, it's going to be too near the knuckle,” she says. “Me being in a coffin when I'm at death's door myself might be a bit strange, whereas now I'm probably just the right side of middle age to be able to get away with it. It's quite weird coming back to it, because there's a whole thing in it about writing down your regrets. I was thirty-two when I first did the show, and looking at a list of regrets now, it would just get longer and longer, but we've only got an hour to play with.”

It is an hour where tea and biscuits are mandatory in a show that sees Goldsmith chatting with the audience on matters of life and death with an intimacy akin to being invited into her living room. This has been the intention all along, from the show's early days at the Arches and Theatre Workshop in Edinburgh, to a one-night revival last year for Summerhall's celebrations of the day of the dead.

“One of the first things that made me want to do the show was after I'd been at my grand-mother's funeral, waiting for the cortège,” Goldsmith remembers of the show's beginnings. “In Belfast, the cortège is where you have a laugh, walking behind the coffin. I clocked a relative from England, who looked appalled by this, and I thought, no, you're wrong, this is how we do it here. The cortège can sometimes be painful, and sometimes it's a celebration, and it's a fantastic tradition. Then, coming over to Scotland, it's different again, sitting in the cremation room, all lined up in total silence like you're waiting in a bus shelter.

“The other thing about wanting to do it was, I had a dream I was dead and I was saying goodbye, but I realised I wasn't ready. Then, in the dream, someone came over and said, Pauline, people have travelled for this, so let's get on with it.”

Goldsmith first observed the comic absurdities of death when she attended the funeral of her father.

“That was my first experience of a full-on Catholic wake,” she says. “I saw the whole ridiculousness of what I also recognised as being a really important ritual in Ireland. That's why my mother would never let me be an air hostess, because she said that if anything happened, people would never be able to find the body.”

Funerals, however, ain't what they used to be.

“When I first did Bright Colours Only, Six Feet Under was on the television,” she says of the very twenty-first century funeral directors depicted in the American TC drama, “and it started to become much more mainstream to have your own kind of funeral. Now people have started to rebel against that, so you don't even have to bother with a service if you don't want to. You can just get cremated.”

All of which has been more grist to the mill regarding Goldsmith's never morbid line of enquiry.

Bright Colours Only may be about death,” she says, “but it's also about the ridiculousness of what we do in life. The work I do, I'm always drawn to looking at darkness, but in a way that's about slapping yourself in the face and reminding yourself that you have to live. Bright Colours Only came from the idea of a dramatic death, but also from recognising that death is a part of life. As you get older, friends die, and it's still bizarre. That doesn't ever stop.”

Neither, it seems, will Bright Colours Only, which seems to have developed a life of its own. Beyond Goldsmith's own performance of the show, there has been a completely different London production of the play, with another actress picking up Goldsmith's mantle. Elsewhere, there have been two tours of Norway, while it has even been translated into Portuguese.

“It's the show that won't lie down,” Goldsmith says, as full of life as she ever was.

Bright Colours Only, Assembly Rooms, August 3-26, 2.25-3.35pm.

The Herald, August 9th 2017


Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017 Theatre Reviews 3 - Nassim - Traverse Theatre - Five stars / The Believers Are But Brothers - Summerhall - Four stars / Salt - Summerhall - Four stars

Anyone who is a fan of the international phenomenon of White Rabbit Red rabbit since it first appeared several years ago should immediately rush to Nassim, Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour's latest work. Like its predecessor, Soleimanpour's play features a different actor at every show performing a script they have never seen until that moment.

In keeping with the spirit of the piece, it would be wrong to give away what happens next, except to say that the performer at the first show was Chris Thorpe, who leapt into proceedings with an all embracing vigour that saw him go willingly into the unknown. In some ways, such open-ness sums up everything about Soleimanpour's play for the Bush Theatre, London, which is introduced by director Omar Elerian. What follows is a delicate series of witty interactions, which gradually through Thorpe reveal a heartfelt plea for understanding through learning about cultures we might not initially understand.

Soleimanpour doesn't do this by making grand polemical statements, but cuts through to the basic domestic support systems anyone from any country should empathise with. It's this international language of sharing that makes Nassim such a special experience.
Until August 27.

The internet is a dangerous place in The Believers are But Brothers, Javaad Alipoor's hi-tech meditation on men, politics and a virtual world where make believe war-gaming is just a click away from real life radicalism. Using an array of screens with both live feeds and archive news footage, Alipoor shows through three characters how easy it is to be a big man in a virtual world, but also how real life consequences can be world-changing.

It begins and ends with a WhatsApp dialogue with the audience on their mobile phones. Inbetween, Alipoor dissects how online intimidation works using a mix of journalistic research and criss-crossing narratives between continents and religions. Coming from a British Muslim perspective, Alipoor's world-view is full of wit and a healthy rationale spurred on by a restless curiosity about what makes extremists tick.

The most telling and funniest moment of the show comes when he reveals that he actually wanted to make a work that focused on women, but that none of them he tried to contact through online chat groups wanted to know. It's in part from recognising the ridiculousness of this that makes this such an intelligent show. Given that all that online hate speech comes in part from a hyper organised network of easily led trolls who wouldn't usually say to to a terrorist, the geek may yet inherit the earth.
Until August 26.

Selina Thompson opens Salt, her excavation of her own history as a black British woman with a warning that she'll be using a sledge-hammer during the course of the show, so the first three rows will have to wear safety goggles. She says it so sweetly that it's a bit of a shock when she comes to smash the symbolic rocks of salt that represent the hierarchical chain of everyday racism that still lingers where you least expect it.

In 2014, Birmingham born Thompson and a film-maker friend embarked on a cargo ship to visit Ghana and Jamaica, exploring the key points of the slave trade which brought her family to Britain. As she travels, she is forced to square up a sea captain and his crew who appear to have stepped out of some neanderthal men only crew. Out of this comes an anger, but, as she travels further, it channels into a rich and enlightening experience which ultimately results in this show.

Thompson relays all this with a playful charm that grows ever stronger over the show's hour. Her unwillingness to have her history co-opted or else swept away is as important as her home in England. The calls to her dad are a particular delight in this respect. By the end, the power Thompson wields, both onstage and off, is formidable and heroic, no sledge-hammer required.
Until August 26.

The Herald, August 9th 2017


Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Alan Ayckbourn - The Divide

There are some who have pre-conceived ideas about what to expect from Alan Ayckbourn. For many, the prolific writer and director of almost 80 plays is the high priest of English middle class mores, with his work awash with disaffected suburbanites falling apart in immaculately constructed if increasingly absurdist fashion. Few would suspect the now 78 year old Ayckbourn's latest work to be a six hour flight into dystopian speculative fiction told in two parts. This is exactly what they get, however, with The Divide, which forms a major component of Edinburgh International Festival's 70th anniversary theatre programme.

Set a hundred years from now, Ayckbourn's vision for The Divide imagines a world decimated by a deadly virus that makes any contact between men and women fatal for both. In a country divided by gender, men wear white for their purity, while women dress in black as a mark of their sins. Given the state of the real world right now, such a scenario looks worryingly possible. The Divide arrives onstage alongside what looks like a revival of dystopian drama onstage and screen in the likes of the current TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood's novel, The Handmaid's Tale. With other, all too familiar future-shockers such as Humans and Orphan Black also on the go, Ayckbourn seems to have hit on a very troubling zeitgeist.

“The best sci-fi in my opinion usually takes the form of a cautionary tale for the present,” he says. “If we continue to do this, then this will happen. I see The Divide as a sexual satire in which the enforced separation of the sexes, at the risk of human extinction, causes an upending of social norms when heterosexuality is considered unnatural and same sex relationships are the established norm. Yes, it is dark, but it’s equally quite funny, too.”

As is often the case with Ayckbourn's work, The Divide has a deceptively classical root.
“It initially took the form of two diaries,” he says, “a brother and his sister’s chronicling their childhoods being raised in a strictly orthodox household by their two female parents, their Mama and their Mapa. As I wrote it, all sorts of things then got added, minutes of the local village council meetings, official inter-departmental memos, newspaper correspondence and editorials, etc. It ended up as a re-telling of the Romeo and Juliet story.”

One of the things that has distinguished Ayckbourn during his long career, especially during his thirty seven year reign as artistic director at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough between 1972 and 2009, is his predilection for directing his own work. The Divide, however, sees him take a very deliberate step back from overseeing that part of the dramatic process in a liberatingly playful manner.

“Traditionally, I have directed the first productions of all my plays,” he says. “Lately, this has become something of what one might describe as a symbiotic process, and I recently became conscious that the author, having the director sitting on his shoulder during the initial writing process, could be detrimental to the writer’s freedom. Which, added to all the other restrictions - the financial and physical limitations of the Stephen Joseph Theatre space - was becoming a trifle stifling. I decided the writer was to be allowed complete freedom without limitations of space or budget. In other words to write something that the director in me would find undirectable! The result was a piece on a very large scale, requiring dozens of performers and numerous locations and covering a considerable time scale.”

The Divide is produced by the Old Vic, the London based theatrical institution which between 1963 and 1976 housed the early incarnation of the newly established National Theatre, then run by Laurence Olivier. In an earlier incarnation, the Old Vic company were one of the main draws at the very first Edinburgh International Festival in 1947, and this new production by Old Vic associate director Annabel Bolton looks set to be quite a reunion. Given his usual position at this part of the process, is Ayckbourn not a tad curious about how such an epic undertaking as The Divide is getting on without him?

“I imagine all sorts of things will come out of rehearsals,” he says, “but I will take no part in those, leaving that to Annabel Bolton and the Old Vic team. I’m busy directing another, far more manageable one back here in Scarborough.”

Even so, having to keep his distance, however much by choice, remains “Very weird for this director, I have to say. Whereas this writer is very excited and can’t wait to see what they make of it.”

The Divide isn't the first time Ayckbourn has used sci-fi as a backdrop for his work. One of the best examples of this was in his 1987 play, Henceforward..., in which a composer estranged from his family co-opts an android to play the part of the perfect domestic hostess in a bleakly comedic future-scape. As with many of Ayckbourn's generation, he was a fan of the genre from an early age.

“I used to read a lot when I was young,” he says, “and it’s seeped into my work, as you say, with plays like Henceforward… and Comic Potential. And in a great deal of my children’s work, too, Miss Yesterday, Invisible Friends, Callisto 7, The Jollies and My Sister Sadie to name but a few. In order to write for the younger generation, create a universe that you are both able to share on an equal footing. I’m not the first adult writer to discover that.”

While The Divide looks to the future, in terms of his work beyond it, Ayckbourn has one foot very much in his own past.

“I’m currently directing a revival of my 1979 play, Taking Steps, for Scarborough,” he says, “and, straight after that at the same address, my new one, A Brief History of Women, which is set in the recent past. Later in the year, I’m scheduled to direct a revival of the 90’s musical which Andrew Lloyd Webber and I wrote, By Jeeves. It’s a sort of busy year for me.”

In the meantime, with a new wave of speculative fiction moving into every artistic form, The Divide is very much of the moment. While Ayckbourn points out that in sci-fi, “a possible future is a great way to make a point about the present, his aim with the play is not to change worlds, but is “primarily to entertain. Then to re-examine inbuilt prejudices and perhaps, hopefully, to start a few arguments, as well.”

The Divide, King's Theatre, Edinburgh. Part 1, August 8, 16, 18, 7.30pm, August 11-13, 15, 17, 19, 20, 2pm; Part 2, August 9, 11-13, 15, 17, 19, 20, 7.30pm, August 16, 18,

The Herald, August 8th 2017