Dragon (Citizens Theatre, Glasgow)

This review was first published at TVBomb on 6 October 2015.

On the sad, sad day in which we find ourselves bereft of one of our language’s finest wordsmiths, it seems poignant that Dragon is a production of very few words indeed. Teenage protagonist Tommy has had a tough year: he has lost his mother, is getting bullied at school, and suffers the stifling female attentions of a similarly socially awkward classmate. As though struck mute by the weight of grief and general teenage angst, Tommy begins to see dragons; initially innocuous, emerging from the cityscape, but becoming increasingly more persuasive and domineering. Puppetry, illusion, and physical theatre are weaved together in the second outing of this production, conceived by Jamie Harrison, Oliver Emmanuel, and Candice Edmunds as a co-production between Vox Motus, the National Theatre of Scotland and Tianjin People’s Arts Theatre.

The theatricality of Dragon is laid bare for all to see – there is no hidden magic, no-one pulling the ropes behind the scenes, no “how the bloody hell did they do that”. The actors themselves operate all of the intricate puppets, and manipulate the dynamic, ever evolving set. As a production that proclaims itself to be ‘a show for adults, teenagers and children with vivid imaginations’, perhaps this creates a bit of a problem – the show is asking you to buy in to the classic ‘suspension of disbelief’ that goes alongside traditional theatregoing, but is also showing you quite explicitly how it is put together – so where does imagination slot in to this? Perhaps this is overanalysing something honest, clawing for flaws in something innocent. Perhaps for adults the imagination required is not to believe in the physical manifestation of dragons, but to empathise with the weight of grief being shouldered by an otherwise irritatingly sullen teenager.

Regardless, it’s difficult to fling any more praise at this production; it has been highly lauded here, there, and then back here again. It embodies one of those great moments where both adults and children alike feel the story is speaking only to them, akin to the darkest and juiciest of Roald Dahl stories.  I must respectfully disagree with my fellow TV Bomb critic’s reservations regarding the ‘domestic’ scenes, mainly concerning the boy’s father and his bleak wanderings through the madness of grief; far from being tropes worthy of prime-time BBC1, these are in fact acutely realised moments of stillness, full of understanding and connection, yet without a word uttered. That is the gold upon which Vox Motus have struck: the ability to say everything without saying anything. A joyous thing.

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Theatre Review: Ano Nedoslov (Citizens Theatre, Glasgow)

This review was originally featured in an edited form at TVBomb on 28 September 2015.

 

Disclaimer: I have absolutely no idea what this was about, for two reasons. One, the performance was entirely signed, with no translation. Two, when they occasionally spoke, it was in Russian, again with no translation. So that’s two layers of disconnect to negotiate, and that’s without entering into the ethical discourse of reviewing a piece that you cannot fully make sense of. However, event organisers Solar Bear are absolutely clear that Progression 2015, the encompassing festival celebrating international deaf arts, be fully accessible to those both deaf and hearing, so I’ve decided to stop agonising and hand-wringing over the moral intricacies and to just write the damn review.

The Nedoslov Theatre Company are an internationally renowned group of deaf and hard of hearing actors and dancers from Moscow. Unlocked Freedom, the first of the two short pieces they present, is a bit overwhelmingly Russian, with an excess of gaudy floral skirt swooshing, scarf waving, and some twiddly folk music. Granted, the dialogue (and consequently, plot) was lost on me, but there was enough there to piece together some sort of love triangle, and a good old-fashioned tragic, stabby ending. Taken as a whole, it was all a bit too much; it felt strangely like the kind of thing that would be drawn up in a nicotine stained B-movie writers’ room when the director asks for something quintessentially Russian which accidentally ends up embodying the exact opposite, something that feels like it was borne of a back street souvenir shop.

The second piece, No Rights to Have an Angel, offers something wholly different, more challenging, and infinitely more subtle. With very little narrative, this charming movement-based piece explores what it means to be an artist, and perhaps also nods towards the difficulties of being an artist in Russia today, particularly one who operates outwith the boundaries of conventional theatre practice as Nedoslov do. Occasionally it relapsed into some slightly anachronistic choreographed set piece dance routines, but it also offered some genuinely beautiful moments, such as the ethereal snowdrifts of plastic bags being wafted around the stage, or the perfectly constructed tableaus that tell a whole story in the slight movement of a hand. Nedoslov are at their absolute best when they are focussed and precise.

Perhaps some of the ‘theatreness’ of the theatre event is lost in the lack of translation, but what is important is the event itself, and the impact that it has not only amongst the deaf community, but the ripples it creates amongst the wider artistic community too.  Solar Bear are a company that consistently nudge boundaries, and it is to their immense credit that such a diverse and inclusive festival can happen in the first place.

Theatre Review: The Slab Boys (Citizens, Glasgow)

This review was first published at TV Bomb on 18th February 2015.

An early contender for 2015’s hottest ticket, perhaps? It’s certainly been plenty hyped up – interviews in every broadsheet, and some slickly shot promos with the show’s creators. As though the shoes weren’t already big enough to fill, The Slab Boys is synonymous with the ‘golden age’ of Scottish theatre of the late 1970s and early 80s, and the trilogy is still deemed by many (including myself whole-heartedly) to be one of Scotland’s greatest theatrical triumphs. So then, it is absolutely appropriate that David Hayman, director of the world premiere at the Traverse in 1978, has returned to team up once again with writer and designer John Byrne for this new production at the Citz.

Set in a ‘slab room’ (a paint-grinding room, for the uninitiated) of a carpet factory in Paisley in 1957, the slab boys truly are the lowest rung on the ladder. At the heart of the play are Phil McCann and Spanky Farrell, two raucous teenage teddy boys who have somehow found their way in the monotonous world of full-time employment. Theirs is the double act to end all double acts – they finish each other’s gags, cover for each other when the militant boss Willie Currie is on the prowl, and pilfer each other cakes from the unwitting tea-lady Sadie’s trolly. Their shared sense of humour is mocking at its best, and downright sadist at its worst – and it’s the weedy slab boy Hector McKenzie who seems to bear the brunt.

As a play, it is theatrical dynamite. Yes, it is funny – achingly, guiltily funny in places – but it is also superbly dark. Phil McCann is a glorious, gorgeous bastard whose aptitude for razor-sharp cruelty seems boundless, particularly when cracking deflecting jokes about the tragic mental ill-health of his mother. Sammy Hayman’s portrayal just can’t pull it off – he is ultimately a bit flat, not enough charm or swagger to be a rebel with sex appeal, and not enough dark intensity to be a dangerous presence. As Willie Currie, Hayman Sr. finds an authoritative stride, Jamie Quinn has a little more bite as Spanky, and Kathryn Howden lights up the stage with her maternal, measured Sadie.

John Byrne’s set is predictably fantastic, painted by his own exceptional hand, although the decision to have a corridor running round the front of the set leads to some overly long entrances and exits, dropping the pace considerably. Occasionally, this production feels like an adult panto, with long pregnant pauses left for laughter, and the strong central comedic double act is too often pushed towards slapstick. Not one single word of Byrne’s script is superfluous, yet sometimes scenes feel as though they are slogging through the murkier dark bits, seeking the next laugh. The solid script still shines through in an otherwise sturdy production, but this show suffers from a fatal miscasting.

Theatre Review: A Christmas Carol (Citizens Theatre, Glasgow)

This review first appeared on TV Bomb on 10th December 2014

In the age of persistent attention-stealing screens, invasive advertising and excessively gaudy special effects, it seems ever more implausible that a couple of folk on a stage with a few instruments and some fake snow could grasp a child’s attention and imagination for more than five minutes. Dominic Hill’s wonderful A Christmas Carol raises the bar and proves that you don’t need to bombard an audience’s senses in order to maintain intrigue. It is a show to remind you both of the magical powers of theatre, and of the true spirit of Christmas.

Everything that we have come to expect of a Dominic Hill production is here from the get-go. As you enter the auditorium, the cast, waving and welcoming, greet you with some gentle Christmas carols. Nikola Kodjabashia’s arrangement of voices and instruments is as inventive and charming as ever, verified by the array of little voices chiming in from the stalls, merrily joining in with the playful bongs of Big Ben.  Cliff Burnett leads as a particularly miserly Scrooge: not your classic panto baddy, but more of a misanthropic Father Jack(minus alcoholism and plus a whole lot of sadness). The rest of the cast is equally as strong, supported by some finely choreographed flourishes from movement directors Benedicte Seierup and Lucien MacDougall.

Though there are some token pantomime elements here – a bit of cross-dressing and a hearty sing-along – this is truly the definition of Christmas theatre. It has plenty of gasp-inducing moments for little ones – the ghosts of Christmases past and future are wickedly creepy puppets crafted by designer Rachel Canning, and ectoplasmic spirits soar through the auditorium – but us older souls will find much to savour too. Adults who yearn for Christmas to mean something more than endless spending will be rewarded with a slice of perfect Dickensian festivity. Everything about this show is a Christmas dream that simply left me wanting more.

Theatre Review: Homecoming, Station Stories (Glasgow Queen Street Station)

This review was first published on TV Bomb on 8th December 2014

Acclaimed artist and Cryptic Associate Sven Werner has created this immersive installation as part of the closing celebrations for Homecoming Scotland 2014. Described as a Victorian world in miniature, participants spend five minutes or so peering through vintage viewfinders, separated from the crowd by a black cloth draped over the shoulders.

The two tiny installations – one a snowy cottage, and the other a lonely train carriage slowly trundling along – are charming, and have been constructed with a huge amount of affection. The set is aesthetically delicious: stacks of suitcases, timeworn leather benches, and old cameras on wooden tripods. It looks as though it has organically grown out of travel detritus, although the actual placing of it within the station is odd. Pressed up against the ticket barriers, it acts like a rock in a river when waves of commuters swarm through the gates. It is very brightly exposed and centralized, which means that the bold act of engaging with the unknown requires a little more bravery. The stories themselves are curious beasts: tales of departure and arrival and all that’s in between, relayed in a softly American drawl – truly a voice to get lost in. The content itself is slightly less engaging. Perhaps ‘magic’ is a subjective concept, but instead of feeling transported away by the narrative, I felt very still and static.

And this is where the problem lies; the beauty of successful immersive theatre events is the ability to forget time and lose yourself in the experience, whereas Station Stories makes the participant hyper-aware of passing moments. Every few minutes, the familiar chirrups of the Scotrail lady announcing the latest delays pervade the space, and the shadows of passing footfall can prove distracting. The isolation isn’t isolated enough to allow you to feel transported, so instead you become conspicuously aware. On paper, Homecoming: Station Stories ticks a lot of boxes for me – I’m not ashamed to admit my all-encompassing love for trains, Victoriana, and story-telling – but sadly the installation failed to move me.

 

Theatre Review: Hamlet (Citizens, Glasgow)

This review was first published by TV Bomb on September 27th 2014

Before the curtain even rises – so to speak, as there is no curtain – it is plain to see that Dominic Hill is channeling his omnipresent signature style in the Citizens’ Theatre’s latest output, Hamlet. Indeed, as the production progresses, you start to feel as though you’re playing a game of Citz-Bingo; exposed back walls? Check. Cast wandering the stage before lights down? Check. Plinky plonky music produced by the ensemble using a wonderful collection of junkshop instruments? Check. For those who have seen Crime and Punishment or The Libertine this may feel like a return to familiar territory but don’t let looking for those little tropes distract you – this is a phenomenal production.

Brian Ferguson opens the titular role by literally hiding under the table, wandering a barren landscape of grief and distress for the loss of his father. His anguish soon turns into calculated, psychopathic, vengeful rage against his murderous uncle and untrustworthy mother, but it’s the lighter touches that Ferguson brings to the role that are most pleasing. There are elements of quirky, teenagery exuberance as he eats his cereal in his pants and forgoes personal hygiene. He channels Doctor Who-era David Tennant as he fizzles and crackles with an energy that, at the drop of a hat, goes to a very dark place indeed.

Ferguson is given further force by a simply superb cast. Cliff Burnett’s Polonius is calculating and slick, and at points where other actors may have strayed in to uncomfortable ‘over-acting’ territory, he deftly pulls it back with delicious moments of effete eccentricity. Adam Best is, as ever, supremely watchable, and Meghan Tyler’s gorgeous and damaged Ophelia throws herself around the stage with divine abandon.

This is an excellent production, no doubt. It deftly dodges the potential Shakespearean pitfall of losing the intrinsic beauty of the language in favour of snazzy staging; there is no stumbling or uncertainty at all, and the three and a bit hours seem to fly by. The set is beautiful and interesting and the music is a rich tapestry of Tom Waits-inspired organic sounds. It is altogether bold and confident and electric. But you may feel as though you have seen it before.

Theatre Review: Blackout (Cottiers, Glasgow)

This review was originally featured on Exeunt Magazine on 10th June 2014

A personal connection with alcoholism is hard to feign. Those who don’t have any lived experience of the disease tend to fall back on bargain basement aphorisms, through no fault of their own: as a society, we still seem to perpetuate an image of alcoholism that would be better at home in the 1940s.  Though our language is essentially indifferent towards it, as a noun it still feels inherently masculine. It’s a disease for old men stumbling out of pubs after closing time. It’s warm beer and cheap whiskey. There is a collective blind spot that we seem to want to foster, and in it abide all of the alcoholic misfits who don’t adhere to this strict archetype. Perhaps they are the wrong class, colour, or gender. Perhaps they drink the wrong drink. Perhaps they just don’t drink ‘enough’ – how many binges is too many binges? In Blackout, playwright and actor Mark Jeary has set out to explore the nature of addiction, and to challenge some of our outmoded notions of what it means to be an alcoholic.

Over the course of 55 minutes, we hear five authentic and strong stories of addiction, one of them Jeary’s own. This is a journey that is sometimes euphoric, sometimes degrading, and predominantly out of control. Directors Joshua Payne and Belle Jones have sensibly given this play plenty of space to breathe.  The characters are shoeless and nameless. The stage is almost empty, save for a mattress (what is it about a double mattress on a bare floor that is so strongly evocative of a clammy, damp, run-down bedsit?) and a few chairs, giving the stories the imaginative legroom to be told without constraint.

The five narratives, constructed through a series of interviews with recovering alcoholics, are punchy, unapologetic, and unsentimental. The group begin by individually recounting their descent in to alcoholism, from the first illicit sip as a shy teenager at a party, to top trumping each other with increasingly more degrading and dangerous scenarios – the image of a woman drunkenly teetering and squatting to take a piss off the top of the Scott Monument is filthy and horrifying in equal measure. Ultimately, all of the five see that rock bottom coming up at them alarmingly quickly through the chaos, the sexual promiscuity, and the physical degradation, and all try and avoid it by delving deeper in to the drink.

The five-strong ensemble deliver equally strong and convincing performances, though it’s Miriam-Sarah Doren’s ‘Four’ who really packs a punch; her agonising, angsty snapshot of a mother who cannot help but terrorise her son during her blackout rages lurks in the mind for days after the final bows. What Jeary captures so distressingly perfectly is the utter selfishness of alcoholism. Even after nearly battering her son to death with a kitchen stool, ‘Four’ flippantly remarks, whilst smiling, that “obviously he’s no dead, ‘cause I’d be talking to you from the jail”. It’s this self-centered thinking that sends shockwaves through families, breaks selfless hearts, and burns what Jeary terms a ‘hole in the soul’.

This play feels like it is still on a journey, rather than settled in its destination. Though it is refreshing and commendable to see the unrepresented faces of alcohol addiction on stage, the fact that all five characters end up in recovery by the end feels neatly unrealistic and over-optimistic: frankly, not everyone does. Putting a personal preference for gritty endings aside, this one does feel too perfectly packaged. Regardless, this is an important piece of work that asks difficult questions of our perceptions of alcoholism. This is not so much Jeary’s heart on stage, as much as it is his guts. One character thanks God for his blackouts because they allow him to forget. I thank Mark Jeary for his Blackout because it forces us to think.