Birds (Manipulate Festival/ Traverse Theatre)

I was recently part of the Manipulate Festival ‘Young Critics’ scheme – I know, right. How far can I push this whole ‘young’ thing. I saw two shows, and was mentored by critic and all-round knowledgable person Gareth Vile.

Sita Piaraccini is a wild-haired, wide-eyed, intoxicating creature of innocence who has somehow found herself the sole human survivor in a post-apocalyptic world. She constantly fusses over a mound of earth, scrabbling to bring order in to a disordered landscape. She is desperately hungry; taunted by the rude interjections of her own stomach, she forages for scraps inside tin cans and reluctantly gnaws on a piece of wood. She’s the sort of post-apocalyptic survivor that we would all hope to be, but deep down we know we are not: pragmatic, hopeful and kind.

The performance is supported by Foley artist and musician David Pollock, who creates the sort of organic, wholesome sounds that I haven’t heard since childhood, and that would not be out of place alongside the best of Oliver Postgate. From the gentle pad-pad-padding of bare feet on dry grass, to the feathery flutterings of wings that suggest she is not totally alone in this world – every sound is a fulfilling joy, giving great depth to this piece.

What is so brilliant about Bird is that everything on stage is relatable on a most primitive level. Piaraccini’s performance is nuanced and clever. There are no words uttered – for what good are words when there is no-one to talk to – but we are still acutely aware of her pains and her loneliness, thanks to her ability to express emotion even with the flicker of a finger or the turn of her head. Ultimately it is a simple little tale, but one that shows that Piaraccini really gets what it is to be human.

Threads (Manipulate Festival/ Traverse Theatre)

I was recently part of the Manipulate Festival ‘Young Critics’ scheme – I know, right. How far can I push this whole ‘young’ thing. I saw two shows, and was mentored by critic and all-round knowledgable person Gareth Vile.

 

Ach, I don’t know.

On the one hand I know that Threads, a UK premiere from Quebecois company Theatre Incline, is a reworking of a folk story of female empowerment, a self-described ‘mythological tale that is on the side of life’.

And that’s great. I’m on board. I love me some female empowerment.

But Threads an engaging and well-performed piece that is frustratingly blemished by a few annoying flaws.

A mountain woman – or spirit? – is ravished by an ogre and condemned to live an entrapped, lonely life amidst the sandy fallout of war. The offspring of this violence is an initially irritating but eventually quite sweet daughter, born with a gammy foot and a mane of red hair.

 The production is visually striking – the heap of sand centre stage continually offers up creative opportunities for buried prop treasure  – but it is marred by some intrusive and sentimental narration. A wise female voice over-elucidates the threads of love binding a mother and child, oddly reminiscent of Vanessa Redgrave endlessly compounding the virtues of love in Call the Midwife. After a while this begins to grate: perhaps if the narration hadn’t been so focused on constant exposition, the narrative weight could have been picked up by the two very gifted performers and puppet-masters, Jose Babin and Nadine Walsh.

For a piece so concerned with exploring the most essential of human relationships, I would have preferred to have had a stronger one with those on stage, rather than having Redgrave 2 chiming in with flowery maxims on all-healing strength of a mother’s love. This type of language sits at odds to the brutal and bloody signifiers of rape on stage, and not in a way that leads to any greater understanding of either.

Threads gives us some beautiful effects, an interesting take on mythology and the puppetry is first rate. Unfortunately, its impact is undermined by the simplistic philosophy of redemption and the narration that over-elucidates the story.

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.

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.

Interview: Frank van Laecke

This interview was first featured on TV Bomb on 17th July 2015.

I’ll hold my hands up and admit it: I am really not up on my Belgian culture. I’ve watched a few episodes of the (bloody brilliant) Cordon and I am partial to a bit of Jacques Brel, but I come up empty when it comes to Flemish live art, theatre, and performance. As such, I have absolutely no presuppositions when I delve in to the curious world of Les Ballets C de la B, and En Avant, Marche! director Frank van Laecke.

Reading through Frank’s biography makes me a bit nervous. It’s difficult to know what type of work to expect from a man who has directed across seemingly every art form, large scale and small, locally and internationally. Similarly, Les Ballets C de la B have an extraordinary track record in making form-breaking work, collaborating with artists of every colour, creed, and even species. When I ask Frank what we can expect from En Avant, Marche!, he refuses to pigeon-hole the work: ‘I carry all of my experiences with me, and take every opportunity to learn. I think it’s a mix of everything, of theatre, dance, and music. The main actor in the piece is music, and what it can do in our lives.’ He goes on to give me something more concrete: the central arc of the play is a brass band dealing with the serious illness of one of its members; the man is saying farewell to the group, and they are saying farewell to him. A simple conceit, perhaps, but one that holds a reflective mirror up to society. ‘If you read En Avant, Marche! as a funeral march,’ Frank poses, ‘it is not all about sadness. It can also be about celebrating the end of something. It’s a consolation.’

Frank is curious in this punctuating role that the brass band often seems to play in life: ‘The fact that the band is there at the most important times in life, at a funeral, at a wedding – it is very telling. At these key moments, they are there, and we stand still.’ He beautifully recalls the moment when he, co-director and founder of Les Ballets C de la B Alain Platel, and composer Steven Prengels first visited a brass band rehearsal: ‘We were moved by the mix of people – there was a baker, a doctor, so many different people, and they all came together one evening to do one thing, to create music together. All of the private storylines disappear, all of the private sorrows. The songs that came out of the brass band in that moment were so beautiful, so inspiring, so touching. We understood we have to make something about that feeling, that collectivity. The world was standing still, whilst they were all there to create something together as a group.’ He is interested in these rare moments of collective placidity. ‘In a world that moves ever faster, sometimes you have to stop in order to continue. This is the balance we try to reach. Trying to find our place in the community. Thinking about what it means for you and your group when you have to leave.’

And so, I begin to better understand what is at the core of En Avant, Marche!: community and stillness. Community not just as the heart of the piece, but also a lived reality for those involved with the performance. Frank describes the chemistry shared between the creative team and performers as ‘what life should be about’. As with Gardenia, his previous collaboration with Les Ballets C de la B, En Avant, Marche! is devised entirely from scratch. Long days and weeks were spent in the rehearsal room, sharing ideas, forging the beating heart of the piece. ‘It’s a very heavy way of working. You are falling on nothing but each other. You are full of doubts, but doubt is so important: it is the understanding that nothing comes easily.’ At every stop of the tour, they will work with a different native brass band, with each member bringing their own stories and experiences, creating what he describes as ‘a living performance’. It is an enormous challenge, but one that he seems very excited by; ‘It’s fantastic that it is so alive, but this also makes it vulnerable. Sometimes it could go wrong!’ But I can’t help but feel that it is this vulnerability that makes the piece so human, and so accessible.

And so I still don’t really know what to expect, in terms of mechanics and words and visuals and plot. But I know that the team behind En Avant, Marche! are setting out to move us, to disturb us, to make us doubt ourselves. It’s that moment that is so special in theatre, the phenomenological experience of an audience coming together innocently and optimistically to share something. As Frank says so beautifully, ‘In the end, we all do the same things: we ask people to love us, and our work. I will continue to try to understand and love what I make. It’s the bottom line of what we are doing.’

And I buy in to that one hundred percent.

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.

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.