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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

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.