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Posts Tagged ‘Karine Polwart’

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………

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A shortened visit this year, to facilitate a ‘pit-stop’ back in London before I travel the Silk Road from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan to Beijing! So, anything that I can see in London is automatically excluded – there still isn’t enough time, of course.

We started well with a new adaptation (from the Stephen King novella, rather than the film) of The Shawshank Redemption (****). It was well adapted by comedians Owen O’Neill & Dave Johns and the cast was also largely made up of comedians, led by Omid Djalili. In 100 unbroken minutes, it managed to bring out both the hopelessness of prison life and the depth of the friendship at its core. Simply staged (though elaborate for the fringe!) with five two-story metal towers and a handful of benches, with a brooding soundtrack, it packed quite a punch.

In a contrast typical of Edinburgh, we followed this with a concert from favourite Scottish folkie Karine Polwart (*****). I’d seen her with others but not doing her own show and it was a delight. She may be a folkie, but all of her songs are originals (except for a welcome tribute to another Scottish favourite Michael Marra, who died this year) and gorgeous they are, with backing by acoustic guitar and ‘percussion’. The Queens Hall was the perfect venue, with acoustics and atmosphere worthy of her talents.

Day Two saw me back at ‘second home’ The Traverse Theatre for the Abbey Theatre’s Quietly (****), where a catholic and a protestant meet in a pub during a Northern Ireland v Poland football international 36 years after one had killed the other’s father in a pub bombing during a similar match. It was a thought-provoking and original dissection of ‘the troubles’ at a psychological level and the addition of a Polish barman added a contemporary twist.

After the now customary & mandatory visit to the International Photographic Exhibition (**** – but too many contrived, posed, stylised unnatural shots this year), the afternoon saw me in a stationary minibus with 13 others and a storyteller telling us about his recreation of one of  his granddad’s jaunts to Cape Wrath (***)  in the far north of Scotland. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did and proved to be a charming hour.

I’d heard good  things about the National Theatre of Wales new show, The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning (*****), but I wasn’t really ready for how good. It reminded me of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch – thrillingly theatrical, tackling something about as topical and relevant as its possible to be. It’s a fascinating real life story with a Welsh connection and I was captivated from beginning to end. NTW continues to lead the way.

The common feature of my favourite living artists – Howard Hodgkin, David Hockney – seems to be colour, and Peter Doig is another. His Edinburgh exhibition (****) is bigger than his relatively recent Tate one, and though some of the 36 paintings were at both, there was much new here – plus lots of sketches, prints and posters – and the NGS (former RSA) space was perfect, allowing them to breathe and enabling you to get enough distance from them.

Things took a dip after this with a play called Making News (**) about a scandal at the BBC. It was underwritten and under-rehearsed, with lots of dull patches between a few big laughs. This was another of those companies of comedians, but this lot couldn’t act so well – particularly Suki Webster, who was as wooden as an entire forest. The dip continued for John Godber’s Losing the Plot (**), a play about the mid-life crisis which was a touch implausible and with too many short scenes between long gaps for it to flow well. Not even Corrie’s Eddie Windass could rescue it! When I first came to Edinburgh in the mid-80’s, Godber’s work for Hull Truck (Up n’ Under, Bouncers, Shakers, Teechers…..) was compulsory viewing. I think I should have stuck with my memories.

Things picked up again when we boarded the coach Leaving Planet Earth (****), space ‘jumping’ to New Earth just before we got to the extraordinary Edinburgh International Climbing Arena. The pre-emails asking us for our pledges and for objects for the Old Earth Museum had made me a bit cautious and sceptical and it took a while for the narrative to settle, but when it did, I found the story of our exodus from our dying planet engaging and thought-provoking. Promenading to different scenes over four floors of this amazing venue, Grid Iron’s main festival show was a technical and logistical marvel and the venue truly was a star.

Our first (and last!) dose of classical music kick-started Tuesday with a wonderful, and wonderfully different, Queens Hall recital by a 13-piece (mostly) woodwind (inc. horn!) ensemble called Nachtmusique (****). The programme was entirely Mozart with pieces for various combinations of instruments ending in a 45 minute piece for the whole ensemble. Gorgeous!

What can one say about Coriolanus (***) in Mandarin with two on-stage heavy metal bands called Miserable Faith and Suffocated?! It was a bit gimmicky, but it just about worked in telling the story of the revenge of the scorned man. When the actors were allowed to get on with it unencumbered, they were great, though the acting of the large ensemble was somewhat ragged, with particularly wimpy fighting, making me speculate that they had been recruited locally (later proved correct). The surtitles were often odd, as if they used google translate back from the Mandarin translation, and oddly paced in that they didn’t always keep up! Still, good to welcome another overseas theatre company to give us their take on The Bard.

A few wee exhibitions (see, gone native) to start my final day, but none really excited. Conde Nast Photos (***) were good if you like your photos highly stylised, obsessively posed & very contrived, but I overdosed a bit on it all. The City Arts Centre’s companion exhibition Dressed to Impress (***.5) showcased dress in Scottish painting through history and was a bit more satisfying, with a few real gems. Across the road in the Fruitmarket Gallery, Gabriel Orozco (**) was all circles – too many circles!

David Harrower’s Ciara (***.5) is a monologue which I wouldn’t have booked if I’d known it was a monologue, but I was glad I did as it was extremely well written and performed brilliantly by Blythe Duff! We followed this with my final show – I’m With The Band (***.5) – about a band called The Union splitting up, a metaphor for – you guessed it – the union that is the UK. It was clever and the characterisations were very good, but it was a bit heavy-handed.

A 3.5* final day in a  4* festival. With a wimpy 12 shows in 5 days, will I be alllowed to return???

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Well, the second half started on a high with the National Theatre Of Wales production of The Dark Philosophers*****, stories by Gwyn Thomas interspersed with scenes from his life.  A mountain of wardrobes provided multiple entrances and exits, and eight brilliant actors played the many roles in a wonderfully theatrical and ingenious staging. The tales are dark but the life story funny, and it’s punctuated by a lot of beautifully sung music. I took a short while to get into the rhythm of it, after which I was spellbound. A triumph; I left the theatre wanting to adapt Brian Blessed’s Oscar moment and shout ‘the Welsh are coming’.

More storytelling followed after lunch with another national company – the National Theatre of Scotland – in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart**** (the second of three shows from the prolific David Grieg). Prudencia is an expert on the history of the folk ballad and her story is told in a restaurant / cabaret bar with the cast moving between (and on to) the tables to play out the scenes and play in the folk band at one end. It’s an odd staging for storytelling, but it worked. It’s a touch overlong, but the infectious cast pulled it off.

My fifth show by site-specific specialists Grid Iron was their first real failure.  They’ve moved closer to Punchdrunk’s territory, but it’s too staged and you never get lost in the immersive experience, because it’s not that, well,  immersive. In What Remains?** ,we’re exploring the life of a pianist, composer and head of a conservertoire as we attend a recital and a lesson / audition and visit the museum of his life. More puzzlingly, we also get to apply for the conservertoire during a sleepover! David Paul Jones is a better composer and pianist than he is an actor and it just didn’t stir any emotions or involve you. You can’t be a voyeur at an immersive piece!

Back at the Traverse for Futureproof,**** a play about a freak show, which wasn’t at all what I was expecting. It was a much more thoughtful and thought-provoking piece about the motivations and feelings of both those who staged them and those who appeared in them. It needed more pace, but it was beautifully performed by a cast who had to become the world’s fattest man, a bearded armless woman, half man / half woman, conjoined twins and a mermaid (well, she was a fake rather than a freak!).

Alan Bennett’s monologue, A Visit from Miss Protheroe***, about a recently retired man getting a visit from a former colleague was a showcase for Nicholas Parsons (yes, it is he!) and Suki Webster (AKA Mrs Paul Merton). It was a charming if slight 30 minutes and given neither are proper actors, they did a decent enough job (though Parsons appeared to have given up on a northern accent within a few minutes!).

Our final visit to the Traverse was back in sweltering Traverse Two for the third offering from David Grieg, a musical comedy called Monsters in the Hall***. We’re back in storytelling territory with no set or props, the cast left to create everything – and it was their virtuosity that impressed most. It wasn’t a patch on Midsummer, his 2010 hit musical comedy which transferred to London (twice), but fun nonetheless.

Back to music at the lovely Queens Hall. The Burns Unit**** are one of those groups that come together occasionally, with the members having separate bands / careers. I only knew folkie Karine Polwart, so I wasn’t expecting something quite so poppy. It took a while for the sound to fit the hall and for the band to settle, but what followed was 100 minutes in Decemberists / Midlake zone distinguished by good songs, terrific vocals from the three girl singers and a sort of Weilesque quirkiness at times. It certainly whetted my appetite for more.

Tuesday at Tescos*** sees Simon Callow in drag as a transvestite visiting his father who won’t accept him as he is. I couldn’t understand why it was  punctuated by live discordant piano music, and I do wish he’d dressed better to hide his belly and calf muscles! I didn’t really engage with it, I’m afraid, so as much as I admired the acting, I wasn’t moved by the story.

I was moved by Bones****; I can’t see how you couldn’t be by a teenage boy’s tale of neglect and abuse. Forced to look after his drug addict mother and baby sister, he contemplates infanticide. We move between his day today and past events, particularly a life changing holiday in Skegness with his mother and grandfather. It was a harrowing 45 minutes, but it was performed with passion and sensitivity by Mark Doherty. If Africa Heart & Soul showed the international spirit of the fringe and Arthur Smith it’s comic spirit, then this is the spirit of fringe theatre.

I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate and uplifting ending than seeing Dundee’s Michael Marra**** at the St Brides Acoustic Music Centre. He’s got a lived-in voice and a lived-in face and delivers his delightfully funny and quirky songs like a cheerful Tom Waites. He’s a real one-off who sadly hardly ever ventures south of the border, though if he did they may have to provide a translation; the Dundee dialect is certainly challenging. A lovely heart-warming happy end.

So there you have it – 21 shows and 9 exhibitions (subject of a separate Art in August blog shortly, also covering London and trips to Chichester, Margate and Folkstone! – how can you wait?) in 7 days; a bit tame by Fringe standards. Even after 20-30 years (I’ve lost count) I’m still making mistakes – this year booking too much in advance again (only two added whilst I was here), not enough comedy and trusting the Traverse too much (is it losing its magic touch?). The theatrical highlights were both Welsh, which made me very proud, and music the most consistently excellent with three lovely shows. It’s impossible to tire of this feast of the arts and I’ve no doubt I’ll be back. Until then…..

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