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Posts Tagged ‘David Grieg’

Well, I’m now on the Isle of Bute, a short way off the West coast of Scotland, recuperating after 23 shows and 11 exhibitions in just under 7 days. I’ve lost track of how many years I’ve been heading North of the border for this most addictive of festivals, the world’s largest. Here’s a round-up of this year:

The Traverse Theatre has long been my second home, with an unrivalled reputation for both its own productions and first class, innovative visitors and this year was a good one. Based on my trust in them, we’d booked eight shows here before we’d arrived and added the other two following the buzz and the reviews. The hit rate was 80%, with Iseult Golden & David Horan‘s Class and David Ireland‘s Ulster American (whose Cyprus Avenue wowed me recently at the Royal Court) leading the way – both Irish, both three-handers, but from different sides of the border and very different plays. The very thought-provoking Class examines the relationships between teacher and parents, between parents as ex’s and between both and the child. In black comedy Ulster American, a movie star dabbles with fringe theatre on terms unacceptable to the writer. Both had great writing and fine performances in an intimate space.

The onward march of the one-person play saw Corrie’s Julie Hesmondhalgh tell her husband Ian Kershaw’s delightful story in the modestly titled The Greatest Play in the History of the World very engagingly, with people represented by shoes. You know a story works when you can picture its characters. At other times in the same space, Irene Allan was very compelling in David Leddy’s very different one-person thriller Coriolanus Vanishes, with striking lighting adding edginess. Finally, On the Exhale, also in Traverse Two, looked at American gun control through the story of one woman who’s son was a casualty. Both the writing, and Poly Frame‘s performance, we’re very powerful.

Biographical plays were also a feature this year, and the Traverse had two contributions. In What Girls are Made of, Cora Bissett told the story of her short teenage pop career, with rock concert aesthetics. This was also gig theatre – another 2018 feature – and the true story and the form went well together. Nigel Slater’s Toast was just as effective, a lovely growing-up story with food! Sam Newton as the young Nigel was terrific. Biographical work popped up elsewhere, with Grid Iron’s South Bend – OK, but lacking the usual Grid Iron sparkle – and Song of Lunch, a two-hander which should have been a monologue (the actress was wasted) and in a smaller space. Robert Bathurst seemed to be attracting Downton Abbey fans whilst ignoring his more prominent role in Cold Feet in his quirky self-penned programme biography. There was also more gig theatre at the Pleasance with Songlines, a delightful love story with folk music.

Back at the Traverse, Mark Thomas, who has come a long way from stand-up, gave Check Up: Our NHS at 70; factual (rather than verbatim) theatre. I love his passion, even if he is probably preaching to the converted. The other two Traverse offerings were disappointments. Underground Railroad Game was a somewhat heavy-handed piece about slavery which attempted to shock in what felt like a dated away, and for me came over as rather tiresome. Meek was in Handmaid’s Tale territory and I found it rather dull, I’m afraid. It failed to hold my attention at all. Behind the EICC, in the open air, Polish theatre innovators Theatr Biuro Podrozy brought Silence, a show about refugees I saw in an earlier version during LIFT in London, and it’s grown in impact. The freezing wind added atmosphere, as only Edinburgh can. That was my only international theatre and My Left / Right Foot was my only musical. It’s a very un-PC take on the treatment of disability which was way more effective in making the point than a PC one would have been. Performed with great gusto, it was a hoot and a treat.

I saw Showstopper, an improvised musical, a long while ago and it appears to have become a big thing, in the Pleasance’s biggest space, where a full house seemed to lap it up. I’m afraid I found it very stale and overblown. A year for impressionists, with both Rory Bremner & Jan Ravens and Jon Culshaw delivering the laughs. I liked the way Culshaw’s show was structured as an interview by his producer Bill Dare, but it was Jan Raven’s lovely tribute to Victoria Wood which stole both shows. I only saw one stand-up this year, Malawian Daliso Chaponda, but he was excellent, with terrific audience engagement.

The main festival started well with a CBSO concert of rare works by Stravinsky & Ravel, but the highlight was a thrilling interpretation of Elgar’s Cello Concerto by young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason who appeared to live the work. An attempt at updating John Gay’s The Beggars Opera fell a bit flat, but it had its moments, including the playing of Les Arts Florissants, in costume, and a clever carboard box design. Good fun, but you expect better from Peter Brook‘s Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, Robert Carsen and William Christie. Midsummer was an updated version of David Greig‘s fringe play with songs about a wild weekend. I have fond memories of seeing the original twice, but it didn’t work quite so well in a bigger space with the addition of the older selves. The final offering was the worst, I’m afraid, with Peter Brook’s The Prisoner, a very slight 70 min piece which left me hungry. Brook’s minimalist pieces are normally adapted from other forms, but this was original, and I suspect that’s the issue. Good performances and design couldn’t make up for weak material.

It looked like it wasn’t going to be a good year for art, and indeed the big Rembrandt show at the SNG was a disappointment – just 15 paintings and a lot of drawings and work by those he influenced. At the SNGMA, though, there were three treats – an excellent Emil Nolde retrospective, the fascinating Reinventing the Old Masters by Raqib Shaw and NOW, an interesting mixed show by six artists. At the City Art Centre, there was a fascinating show by lost artist Edwin G Lucas, who appears to have been buried by the art establishment. At the SNPG, though, the biggest treat of all was the discovery of portraitist Victoria Crowe who also had a lovely non-portrait selling show at the Scottish Gallery. Tacita Dean seems to be everywhere, so it wasn’t a surprise to see her at the Fruitmarket Gallery in a show that was a touch better than those at the NPG and RA in London. It wasn’t such a good year for photography, with mediocre shows at CAC and SNPG, and the annual Edinburgh International Photographic Exhibition finally lost me by putting image manipulation above the eye and skill of the photographer.

It seemed more exhausting writing about it than seeing it all! Until next time……

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Here I am again, less than 12 hours after leaving the Tricycle Theatre, hearing news that could just as easily have been part of what I’d seen earlier. I suspect there is no other theatre in the world using its stage to present an objective debate about the issues of our time and their historical perspective. This time, the bomb and its ‘Proliferation’ from 1940 to the early 90’s and its ‘Present Dangers’ – the last 10 years (and forward three).

These ten short plays, and thirteen verbatim interview extracts, take us from wartime Whitehall, where German and Austrian scientists in exile present a startling discovery to the UK government, to recent IAEA inspections in Iran. In between, we visit the 1945 Potsdam Conference, an Indian nuclear facility, post-independence Ukraine, the White House, Pyongyang and the UN.

For me, the highlights were Lee Blessing’s Seven Joys, set in a fictitious club of nuclear nations, and David Greig’s chilling yet funny The Letter of Last Resort, set in 2015 in Downing Street on the first day of our next PM. This latter play simply but brilliantly shows us the rationale (or not) for The Deterrent like a scene from Yes, Prime Minister (which it acknowledges).

Yet again, I learnt so much whilst (yes, it’s true!) being entertained. This is equal measure education, debate, drama and entertainment and if that isn’t a theatrical  achievement, I don’t know what is. In two parts and just four hours playing time, Nicholas Kent’s compelling staging  flows seamlessly on Polly Sullivan’s simple but effective set, with a superb video design from Douglas O’Connell.

Eleven excellent actors each play between two and five of the forty roles and enact the thirteen verbatim statements. Belinda Lang and Simon Chandler were superb in the Grieg play as were Daniel Rabin and Rick Warden, who played the exiled scientists in the two Zinnie Harris plays which frame the whole piece.

A suitably appropriate swan song for Nicholas Kent. I can think of no other person who has made theatre as relevant in modern times, taking plays about the history of Afghanistan into the Pentagon and about events in our own country into Parliament. Within months of the August 2011 riots, they were objectively and forensically examined on this very stage. From the man in Row G, sir, I salute you.

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Well, here we are again at the world’s largest arts festival, and this year without any main festival shows booked because the programme for our week looked a bit dull. Still ,with more than 2000 shows on the fringe, you’re not going to be twiddling any thumbs up here.

We started with Africa Heart & Soul*** by a group of five performers from Zimbabwe who tour their show to raise money for their youth work. The harmonic singing was gorgeous and some of the dance was good too, but they tried to create a narrative that came out a bit embarrassing; they’d have been better sticking to a song and dance show. Still, a good cause and the spirit of the fringe.

The first highlight was Antonio Forccione***** with his trio including regular Brazilian percussionist and a new Senegalese Kora player. The sound is gloriously uplifting and it’s without question the best band he’s put together. They’re clearly loving it and it was infectious.

The first trip to the Traverse Theatre was for The Golden Dragon***, a show that weaves the stories of the staff of the Chinese-Thai-Vietnamese restaurant of the show’s title with those of its customers and neighbours. It was clever and original with some lovely touches, including regular ‘punctuation’ by menu descriptions ,but it outstayed it’s welcome by about 10-15 minutes and became a bit too surreal in the end.

I always seem to make the mistake of booking monologues when I know I don’t like them, and I did it again with A Slow Air**, lured by favourite playwright David Grieg and favourite theatre The Traverse. This was a sad tale told in two interlocking monologues. It’s well written and you can’t fault the performances but for someone with a visual imagination, under stimulating. For me, something for the radio not a theatre.

Faure’s Requiem by candlelight*** at 10pm in a church after a nice supper with rather too much Montepulciano – yes, you guessed, I joined Narcoleptics Anonymous rather quickly and the rest is a bit of a blur, but a rather pleasant blur nonetheless!

The two Welsh members in this year’s party booked for Llwyth (Tribe)*****, a play in Welsh, partly out of loyalty and partly because theatre company Sherman Cymru had given us two treats in the last two years with Deep Cut and Speechless. A play about a group of gay boys in Cardiff on the night of an international rugby match didn’t sound that promising, but it turned out to be an outstanding piece of writing which was staged well and brilliantly performed. It was captivating throughout, often funny and occasionally moving. Being from the valleys probably helped, but judging by the enthusiastic audience reaction not essential. When it opened with gorgeous choral singing I was impressed by the sound; when the choir walked onstage in the final scene, my mouth fell open. A highlight.

Sadly, we had to follow this with Wondrous Flitting*, a simply dreadful play from the Lyceum Company no less, at the normally reliable Traverse. Allegedly a social satire, it was a series of preposterous scenes that added up to nothing except a numb bum and a feeling that I’d waste of 90 minutes of my life. To appreciate the bad, you have to put up with the good, I suppose. Following Llwyth didn’t help, but it would have been bad following anything or nothing.

We ended Sunday with stand-up Sarah Milican***, whose Geordie charm is irresistible. Her use of ‘fuck’ doesn’t really suit her and we’d have liked more interaction with the audience because she’s good at it, but it was a funny hour which we enjoyed and brought the day back up again.

Monday started with an impulsive addition – Stepehn Berkoff’s adaptation of the Oedipus**** legend. I hadn’t realised Berkoff was in it, which was juts as well as he wasn’t, having pulled out following a slipped disc. I also didn’t realise Anita Dobson was in it too, which explained her sighting with Brian May at the restaurant we’d eaten at the night before. As it turned out, it was the eight man chorus and Simon Merrells who stole the show – not that Dobson and assistant director Matt Cullum standing in for Berkoff weren’t good too – they were. It was a touch long for the amount of story to tell, but was on a scale you don’t often see at the fringe and a thoroughly enjoyable show.

Judith sat next to two actors on the train up who were finishing off their show, as one does, so of course we had to go! It was an audio experience where you wear headphones and listen to stories unfold, but unlike similar experiences, the scenes were also being acted out amongst the crown in the Pleasance Courtyard so you could also wander around and if you found them, watch from as much distance as you wished (or not at all). In Invisible Show II****, four actors played a number of characters each and though the scenes did not seem to be inter-connected, it did add up to a satisfying dramatic experience.

We ended the first half as we had started with the spirit of the fringe, but this time it’s comic godfather Arthur Smith in his latest incarnation as chat show host for Arthur Smith’s Pissed Up Chat Show***. He’s now famously dry and the premise here is that the guests have to be pissed – they are breathalysed by ‘a licensing officer’ (his mate Terry!) to check. Our guests were a new labour spin doctor turned comic whose name escapes me, poet Monkey Man and comedian Andrew Maxwell, breathless from running straight from his show, but the highlight nonetheless. It was all rather eccentric fun, ending with a sing along Wild Rover with song cards held up by a naked woman and a naked man (who looked extremely uncomfortable, so I hope he got a decent fee!).

To be continued…..

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