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He Shoots! He Scores!

I didn’t see Jon Bradfield & Martin Hooper’s first show at the same venue last year, but this second musical comedy proves to be huge, infectious fun. It’s the story of a gay football team entering an international gay soccer tournament. As the title and subtitle, a musical with balls, suggest, it’s a gay romp.

New boy Joe, moving to London from the North West and leaving his boyfriend Charlie behind, joins the team of his Brazilian work colleague Will; their company are the team’s sponsors – one of their CSR initiatives. The other members are gentle giant Pete, their coach and former semi-professional player, Dom, Frazer, Liam and the outrageously camp Tayzr who learns of the tournament in Bilbao and persuades the others to enter.

In Bilbao they don’t take things too seriously, until they start winning. Joe reconnects with Charlie, who has a new rather possessive and clingy partner Marcus, Liam attempts to turn straight Norwegian Mathias, Pete meets a former semi-pro colleague Jase and goalie Tayzr continues his hedonistic lifestyle.

Bradfield has written some nice tunes, with witty lyrics, which MD Simon David plays gamely on solo piano. The small space is used to great effect in Robert McWhir’s sprightly staging (great to see him back after the demise of the Landor) with chirpy choreography by Carole Todd. It’s an excellent young cast who clearly love performing it, something which brings it to life and fills the auditorium with smiles.

Great fun.

 

Coming Clean

Whilst Kevin Elyot’s last play, Twilight Song, has recently been staged at the Park Theatre (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2017/07/20/twilight-song), his first, written over 30 years before, has been revived at the King’s Head Theatre. Neither are up to the (small) main body of his theatre work, but both prove interesting pieces in completing the picture of an important late 20th century playwright.

Tony and Greg have been in a relationship for five years, though it’s an open one; both have one night stands. When they employ out-odd-work actor Robert as a cleaner, it tests the relationship. A fourth main character, Tony’s very camp and very promiscuous friend William, seems to be there to bring life and humour to an otherwise rather dull situation.

It’s a first play by someone starting out as a writer and that’s exactly how it feels. The longer first half goes nowhere and the much meatier second half ends abruptly and inconclusively. The promiscuity seems very much in period, but the long-term relationship seems more contemporary. The talk of sex is more frank than you might expect in the theatre at the time it was written.

Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s production, with an excellent design by Amanda Mascarenhas, and the performances of Lee Knight, Jason Nwonga, Tom Lambert and Elliot Hadley, serve the play well, though I found the casting of the same actor as William and Jurgen off-putting – impossible to keep the moustache and change the character, it seems!

I’m glad I caught it, to complete my Elyot ‘collection’, but beyond that it’s a very good production of a flawed first play.

 

National Youth Music Theatre UK have been extraordinarily ambitious in recent years – two new shows, The Battle of Boat and Brass, Howard Goodall’s The Dreaming & The Hired Man, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and now this second Sondheim, which may well be the biggest mountain they’ve chosen to climb; it’s difficulty may be why it has only been revived twice (Leicester Haymarket and Menier to West End to Broadway) since it’s NT UK premiere 27 years ago. To say they have risen to the challenge would be an understatement. There were times when I could hardly believe what I was seeing and hearing from an amateur company and the song Sunday has been on permanent loop in my head since I left the theatre.

The only musical based on a painting is in two very different parts. In the first, Georges Seurat is painting on the Island of La Grande Jatte in the River Seine in Paris, where we are introduced to his muse Dot, his mother and her nurse and the other characters in the famous painting now in the Art Institute of Chicago – including shop girls, soldiers, an American couple, another artist, a baker and a boatman. In the second half we zip forward to contemporary times, to the gallery where the painting resides, where Seurat’s grandson George is unveiling his new work with his grandmother, the daughter of Seurat’s muse, in attendance. I consider it Sondheim’s most challenging piece.

The very effective design consists of a picture frame backdrop and nine easels, with excellent period costumes. In the first half, the easels contain canvas sketches of parts of the picture and in the second half they become the illuminated modern work. It’s a small space which sometimes feels a touch cramped but the staging is very good. Sunday, which ends the first half, was staged and performed with such delicacy, restraint and beauty it quite took my breath away. The contemporary gallery scene somehow felt more effective than I remember it being staged before. The segue from Move On into the reprise of Sunday at the end was an uplifting emotional wave.

After a tentative start, the band played beautifully. The ensemble was outstanding, and the two leads – Thomas Josling as Georges / George and Laura Barnard as Dot / Marie – were simply sensational. Two stars are born, I’d say.

Great to see it again after a ten year famine, and great to report that the future of musical theatre in Britain is safe in these hands. The audience, quite rightly, erupted.

Just To Get Married

Wow! A 100-year-old feminist play. The Finborough has uncovered another neglected gem. 

Late twenties Georgiana has been in the care of her aunt and uncle, Sir Theodore and Lady Catherine Grayle. Her shy and seemingly reluctant suitor Adam Lankester finally, after a lot of unsubtle hints, gets the courage to propose to her. She is reluctant for different reasons, but she feels obliged to accept, much to the delight of everyone, not least the Grayles, who will reduce their dependents from three to two. Wedding plans are made, but on its eve Georgiana breaks off the engagement, guilty that she’s using Adam, who is by now devoted to her, and unable to reconcile this with her real yearning to be an independent woman.

Cicely Hamilton wrote this at the height of the Suffragette movement. It shows how women of her class were forced to marry, the only way they could guarantee to maintain their lifestyle. Love and attraction were secondary, it was a business transaction. They may have featured in some relationships, but it wasn’t the driving force, and the play shows how this could torture an independent-minded woman. 

Philippa Quinn is simply terrific as Georgiana, a real emotional roller-coaster of a role, on stage virtually the whole time. Jonny McPherson conveys Adam’s initial shyness and repressed emotions, evolving into love, devotion, affection and dejection that breaks your heart. Sarah Berger was covering the role of the intimidating Lady Catherine, in costume but on book, and she was superb, with great presence, commanding the stage and all around her. In a fine supporting cast I feel compelled to single out Joanne Ferguson as Georgiana’s friend and confidante Mrs Macartney.

Katherine Davies Herbst’s period drawing room set and Lottie Smith’s costumes are pitch perfect, and Melissa Davies’ staging is very delicate and nuanced.

A treat that has now departed, but will hopefully resurface, as it deserves to.

The Majority

‘Play’ is a misnomer for this monologue, a hybrid of storytelling and reality theatre. It’s full of questions on which the audience votes using smart gadgets, but these don’t include the most important question – ‘what’s it doing in the National Theatre at twice the price of the fringe, where it belongs?’ That question costs 50p per minute.

Rob Drummond’s examination of democracy starts by establishing the demographic in the room; well, after agreeing on the latecomers policy. To my shock, it was 50% male, 90% white, with the same proportion considering themselves liberal, something they go on to disprove. We later reveal we are 90% Remain. All of this is such a surprise for an NT audience!

In between telling his story, mostly about his encounter and relationship with an activist called Eric, we vote on a lot of propositions, mostly to do with how we’d react to saving or killing people to avoid other deaths, by train. His point seems to be that we’ve become intolerant of differing opinions.

As a performer, he’s quite engaging. I don’t know if Eric is real (seems implausible to me) but if he is, Drummond’s pursuit of him is unhealthy. It’s fitfully engaging, but there’s a lot of time used up with the voting process and the results, though these aren’t really discussed, and in the end I didn’t think it was particularly insightful or revealing.

This is my first experience of Drummond’s work and I left puzzled as to why he has so many major theatrical institutions in his thrall, but then again I had just returned from Edinburgh where you have to work hard in a competitive environment and where this would have cost less than half as much and probably been showered with three star reviews. Come to think of it, that’s what it got here……

 

Picking up steam now; my first four-show day, though it started with a couple of small exhibitions. At the National Library of Scotland, Enduring Eye featured new prints from the original negatives of the photographer in Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctica expedition, and they are extraordinary. They bring to life this amazing adventure on the other end of the Earth whilst World War One is taking place. At the University of Edinburgh Library, Highlands to Hindustan brings together items from their collection given by people returning from India; a small but fascinating collection of pictures, sculptures, books and even some video and sound footage.

Enterprise was a show I added when it got a Fringe First Award and I’m glad I did. At Assembly Studio Two, it’s a satire on corporate behaviour, featuring four men in suits in various permutations in a series of short scenes which added up to a rather accurate and very funny expose of corporate greed and ruthlessness. Back at the Traverse One, the National Theatre of Scotland’s Adam was the fascinating true story of an Egyptian refugee girl’s journey to Glasgow and to manhood, with Adam telling the story himself, with the help of another actor. The closing scene, where video clips of hundreds of people with similar stories from around the world singing ‘I am Adam’ was deeply moving. The Last Queen of Scotland overcame the handicap of being in one of the fringe’s worst venues – Underbelly, a damp, caverness, airless space without natural light – and proved to be a very original story of a Ugandan Asian woman’s childhood flight from Kampala to Dundee in 1972 when Idi Amin, himself bizarrely obsessed with Scotland, expelled them. The Dundee accent was sometimes impenetrable and the superb actor playing her was young and white, but the true story of her return to her home country and the Kent refugee camp shone through. Only time for a solo pasta today as we were all in different places with busy days, before ending with comedy – Mark Steel at Assembly Hall. Steel’s recent divorce loomed large and my companions thought him bitter, which he was, but I thought he was also bloody funny, with insightful views of what’s happening in our society to go with the personal story. One of my favourite comedians with an excellent, very personal show.

Wednesday started well back at Traverse One with a proper play called The Whip Hand – living room set, five characters, dense plotting, multi-layered – which was a touch melodramatic, but unpredictable, pleasingly inconclusive, covering a lot of personal and geo-political ground. Very satisfying. An unscheduled interlude at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery enabled me to revel in the beauty of the recently renovated main hall once more, to see their latest hanging of an extraordinary collection of contemporary portraits, to catch an interesting exhibition called Looking Good / The Male Gaze, spanning five centuries, and a more depressing one of Graham MacIndoe’s photos of his own addiction in Coming Clean. Across the road at Stand One Mark Watson gave us some work in progress, partly created from audience pre-show input. A touch lazy, a bit rambling, but it’s hard not to like his anarchic charm, an antidote to the slicker comedians. A lazy afternoon with a light lunch, a glass of wine or two and a view of the castle in the fourth floor restaurant at Harvey Nick’s was followed by more comedy, favourite Mark Thomas with his new show at Summerhall. It re-cycles two ideas, with a new spin on Manifesto (more audience pre-show input) and the biographical Bravo Figaro, but his passion and audience engagement is unrivalled, so you do leave thinking you’ve spent 70 mins with an old mate having a bit of a rant. Dinner at http://www.fieldrestaurant.co.uk was a welcome return to their simple seasonal and local food; but I struggle to understand how they survive with twenty-six covers, of which we comprised a fifth! At the international festival’s The Hub, a late night ‘cabaret’ proved a disappointment, though views amongst the group differed, with me the most negative. Meow Meow’s would have been better if she’d dropped the Little Mermaid concept / ‘show’ and delivered her normal edgy burlesque cabaret, rather than a contrived piece which was good when she sang but fell flat on it’s flipper with the embarrassing sequences in-between. It was intensely uncomfortable, physically and intellectually, and I would have walked if you could have done so quietly. The main festival trying to be as cool as the fringe and failing.

The final day was the sort of eclectic one you can probably only get in Edinburgh. It started with my 10th production of an old favourite, Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods, staged and performed in the Assembly Hall by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. I very much enjoy my outings to London’s conservatoires and I enjoyed watching future talent here just as much, in an excellent production. Odd to be at a full length fringe show after a week of pieces under 90 minutes, though. At the Fruitmarket Gallery, I rather took to Brazilian Jac Leirner‘s obsessive collection and presentation of all sorts of items – wire, rulers, spirit levels, cigarette papers – part of a very limited presentation of contemporary art this year. Cathy at Pleasance Dome was campaigning theatre, urgent and important as well as being good theatre itself. It was a new play effectively updating Ken Loach’s iconic TV play on it’s 50th anniversary, staged by Cardboard Citizens on their 25th. Like Loach’s recent film I, Daniel Blake, it puts up a mirror to modern society and in particular our approach to housing and benefits and shames us. Down in Leith, Volcano presented a riff on / deconstruction of Chekhov’s The Seagull called Seagulls in an extraordinarily atmospheric disused church. Full of surprises and, surprisingly, laughs, it was captivating if sometimes puzzling, but after processing it I realised it was quite faithful to the original, albeit with only five of the ten main characters – and a lot more entertaining! After a shaky start, seeming under rehearsed with poor sound, The Music of the Incredible String Band at the Playhouse Theatre, weaved it’s magic, bringing waves of nostalgia for 50-year-old music that is a key part of the soundtrack of my life. Eight soloists, including Mike Heron himself,  beaming in wonder, and a surprising but delightful triumvirate of ladies, opera singer Janis Kelly, folkie Karine Polwart and Barbara Dickson(!), were accompanied by seven musicians, including Heron’s daughter, a member of the McColl folk dynasty and Danny Thompson, who played on many of the original recordings. A lovely conclusion to the week.

Perhaps not up to 2015’s vintage year, but a particularly diverse one. Disappointing for art, but great for music, the Traverse on fine form and excellent food. Until 2018………

Here we are again, for the 30-something year. This time we started with food & wine at Scotland’s Restaurant of the Year, http://www.timberyard.co, where the food was lovely, the wine list too much of a tome and the staff doing cool a touch too much aloof. Still, it’s the food that matters most and here it excelled. On to the first cultural highlight with the Philhamonia and the wonderful Edinburgh Festival Chorus under Peter Pan conductor Andrew Davies for a rare outing of Elgar’s oratorio King Olaf. Unfathomable narrative, but musically exhilarating, with three good soloists to boot. The Usher Hall crowd were a bit too restrained; they should think themselves very lucky indeed.

Our fringe started with a little gem called Jess & Joe at Traverse Two, a growing up story with a difference, told by the characters acting out what has already happened to them. Lovely writing, beautiful performances and unpredictable. I left welled up, with a warm glow. The first art was Beyond Caravaggio at the Scottish National Gallery which I missed, intentionally because of their dreadful gallery space, at the NG in London. Here in a proper gallery, the handful of Caravaggios are wonderful, but served to show up the rest, those he influenced. On to the Book Fest for a Q&A with Dominic Dromgoole, responsible for two of the most inspirational theatrical events of my lifetime, both in the last five years – Globe to Globe, every Shakespeare play in a different language, and the Hamlet World Tour to every country in the world. Insightful, with some great anecdotes and excellent audience engagement. I queued up to get my book signed and he was just as friendly and engaging one-to-one. More art with True to Life, realistic art from the twenties and thirties, including usual suspects like Stanley Spencer and Winifred Knights, but lots new to me. Worth the schlep out to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, a place Lothian Transport seems determined to wipe off the map. Then our first comedy, Ed Byrne at Assembly George Square Theatre, who I’ve been drawn to since his recent TV travel programmes with Dara O’Briain but have never seen. Very funny, very engaging, a bit of a lag in the middle, but a treat nonetheless. Late night supper at the delightfully named http://www.angelswithbagpipes.co.uk. where excellent food combined with friendly service to great effect. A lovely first full day.

Sunday started early with something more appropriate for a late night slot, Wild Bore at Traverse One, which the critics seem to have taken against, unsurprisingly given that they loom large. It’s three women talking out of their, well, arses, mostly quoting vitriolic reviews of their shows and others, but it evolves and changes rather a lot, and I loved the combination of subversiveness, surprise, anarchy and humour. The next show over at Stand Six couldn’t be more of a contrast – that’s the fringe for you – with poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy reading her work, and multi-brass-and woodwind-instrumentalist John Sampson chipping in. A sombre start with First World War poems, the tone lightened and it became funny and cheeky; a rarger charming hour. I rested before the day’s main event, back at the Usher Hall. Edward Gardner brought his new band, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, along with a cast of soloists to die for led by Stuart Skelton, and they took us all hostage with an extraordinary interpretation of Britten’s operatic masterpiece Peter Grimes. The usually reserved Usher Hall crowd justifiably erupted. I doubt I’ll ever hear it that good again; a highlight in a lifetime of concert-going. Emotionally drained, I needed a drink before I joined the others at http://www.mumbaimansionedinburgh.co.uk where the food was a delicious new spin on Indian cuisine, but the staff rushed and harassed us too much.

With such an extraordinary start, things had to take a bit of a dip and so it was in (full) Day Three. It started well at that Edinburgh institution, the International Photographic Exhibition, though there were a few too many contrived, overly posed shots for my taste. The day’s first theatre saw the normally reliable Paines Plough deliver a mediocre and rather pointless piece called Black Mountain in their mobile Roundabout theatre at Summerhall, about a couple seeking to rescue their relationship when his ex turns up, or does she? A mildly thrilling atmospheric thriller with cardboard performances. As my companion said, it would have been better on the radio. From here, stand-up Dominic Holland at the Voodoo Rooms lifted things significantly with the brilliantly observational, autobiographical humour of a 50–year-old who’s career has been eclipsed by his 21-year-old son. Then back to Summerhall for Graeae’s Cosmic Scallies, a somewhat slight piece about renewing an old friendship, and Skelmersdale!, which never rose to the giddy heights of their Solid Life of Sugar Water in 2015. We ended on a high with another terrific meal at http://www.lovagerestaurant.co.uk Food & wine eclipsed culture on Day Three, but there are three more full days to go……..