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Posts Tagged ‘Paines Plough’

Well, here we are back at the world’s biggest arts festival, with more than 2000 shows to navigate. In a one week visit, we’ll manage around 20 to 25, a mere 0.01%, but at 3 to 4 a day, a still impressive attempt I’d say.

We started with main festival opera at the Komisher Opera Berlin’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin**** at the Festival Theatre, sometimes called the opera where nothing happens! What does happen is gorgeous music, played and sung here as well as I’ve ever heard it, in an unusual outdoor staging in gardens and woods which looked as gorgeous as it sounded.

The fringe started at 10am the following morning at my second home, the Traverse Theatre, with the highly original and very thought-provoking Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Iran****. Opening with the alternatively revolutionary instagram feeds of the privileged sons and daughters of Iran’s revolutionary guard, it bounced around as a modern day illustrated lecture covering all sorts of current issues and prophesies, with the audience joining in on instagram. It divided the group, but I really liked it.

Back at the main festival, Robert Icke’s modern take on Sophocles’ Oedipus*** for Internationaal Theater Amsterdam (formerly Toneelgroep) at the Kings Theatre was a bit of a mixed bag, largely because of the pacing, at times very slow. I’ve seen this group many times, but what struck me on this occasion was the quality of the acting and the chemistry between the performers, which I suspect is the result of regularly working together over long periods.

It would be impossible to kick-start a Sunday more thrillingly than with The Patient Gloria****, the retelling of the true story of a woman exploited by psychotherapists as a third wave feminist tale, back at the Traverse. Brilliantly staged, defiant, ballsy (!) and very very funny, with Gina Moxley superb as both writer and co-lead. Perfect festival fare.

It was good to catch Eugene O’Neill’s short play Hughie*** and add it to my ‘collection’ of this favourite 20th Century American playwright. It got it’s stage premiere in Stockholm in 1958, 16 years after it was written, but has since attracted stars like Burgess Meredith, Jason Robards, Ben Gazarra, Al Pacino, Brian Dennehy & Forest Whittaker. Here comedian-turned-actor Phil Nicol was outstanding as the gambler who never stops talking, with Mike McShane superb as his ‘straight man’.

Back at the main festival, in the Usher Hall, Elgar’s underrated oratorio The Kingdom**** sounded superb, even with a stand-in conductor and two stand-in soloists. Whatever you think of this somewhat incomprehensible work the music is lush and it’s hard to imagine it better played than here by the Halle, or sung better than by the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and four fine British soloists.

Amy Booth-Steele is a musical theatre actress I’ve often admired, and I loved her one-woman musical #HonestAmy***** at Pleasance Dome, a 50-minute heart-warming and, well, honest gem, with the songs played by her on ukulele. She was so engaging performing this autobiographical material.

Daughterhood*** at Summerhall, in Paines Plough’s Roundabout Theatre, is a play about two sisters born nine years apart whose mother left home and whose father is terminally ill, but its really about their relationship. With actors playing multiple roles and scenes moving forward and back in time, it took a while to get into the rhythm of the piece, but it packed a lot of story into 80 minutes and the performances were excellent.

West End Producer*** is a bit of a Twitter phenomenon, the Banksy of theatre, permanently masked, and Free Willy, the casting of his new musical, was his first Edinburgh outing. Despite a small audience, he managed to engage us and take us with him, with participation key to the show’s success. I will be in the chorus of the show. Apparently.

Simon Evans**** wove a very personal story into his politically incorrect stand-up routine, a bit like Mark Steele’s search for his parents a few years back, and it was all the better for it, becoming very moving at the end. Surprising and rewarding.

So far good. Back at the Traverse with a 10am start again……

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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 TraverseTwo, 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 TraverseOne, 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……..

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I missed last year and curtailed the year before, so this is my first full week in Edinburgh for three years, which may be why I enjoyed it so much. It seemed like a vintage year, with an extraordinarily high 70% hit rate of great shows and only two bummers out of 26.

The seemingly insatiable supply of monologues continued, with seven of the 13 plays falling into this category. Despite my ambivalence, even dislike, of them, there were some real crackers, led by Sherman Cymru’s Iphigenia in Splott, an extraordinary take on Greek Tragedy with a stunning performance by Sophie Melville. Canadian genius Robert Lepage was back with another of his imaginative, innovative solo shows, this time 887 blended memories of his youth with material about memory itself. Comedian Mark Steel‘s show was, like Mark Thomas’ wonderful Bravo Figaro a few years back, a biographical story – in this case how he found out about his real parents. It was moving, poignant and very very funny. The fourth 5-star show was another flight of imagination, this time The Anomotion Show with percussionist Evelyn Glennie playing in the 17th century courtyard of George Heriot School whilst the live painting of Maria Rud was projected onto its walls. Brilliant. The final day produced not one but two gems, starting with Duncan McMillan’s extraordinarily engaging and captivating one-man play about depression, Every Brilliant Thing, brilliantly performed by Jonny Donahue, which I’ve been trying to catch for some time. Our one and only opera ended the trip with the most inventive and original Die Zauberflote from Komische Oper Berlin in collaboration with our own theatre genius’ 1927. Animation, performance and music in complete harmony.

The Traverse continued its trailblazing, hosting the National Theatre of Scotland’s Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, a rude and hugely funny play with music that followed convent school girls on a school outing (bender) to a singing competition in Edinburgh, with six very talented young actresses and a female band, directed and designed by women! and Vanishing Point’s outstanding, creative take on dementia, Tomorrow. They also hosted young Belgian company Ontroerend Goed’s latest unsettling piece, A Game of You, where I was observed, interviewed and imitated before observing myself, and leaving with a DVD of my experience! Their other two shows fared less well, with Christians, a debate about hell, hard for a non-believer to engage with (though superbly staged and performed, with a 24-piece choir) and another monologue, Crash, which was clever but didn’t captivate like some of the others.

Musical high’s included Lennon: Through A Glass Onion, which showcased his songs – sung and played by a duo – interspersed with quotes from the man himself, Antonio Forcione (again!) with his brilliant Brazilian percussionist Adriano Adewale, hugely enthusiastic five-piece accapella group Simply Soweto and Hackney Colliery Band, who weren’t at all what I was expecting (a brass band!) but whose rhythmic jazz funk was infectious late-night fun. Musical Theatre featured, with enterprising amateur productions of The Addams Family and Sunshine on Leith, neither of which have yet had London outings though both deserve them.

More solo turns, with Jim Cartwright’s Raz, about preparing for, and going out on, a night out, performed brilliantly by the playwright’s son James, contrasting with stand-up comedian Mark Watson‘s highly strung but hysterical Work In Progress. Then there was 10x10x10 where ten comedians did ten monologues written by ten other comedians – except  there were only six, as they split it into two shows, and I can’t tell you who wrote or performed them, except Jo Caulfield who did one. Not bad, though. The big disappointment was Tony’s Last Tape, where an interesting life was made deadly dull.

Other Welsh contributions included Ghost Dance, a highly creative piece of physical theatre but with a confusing narrative comparing a native American plight with a Welsh one. There was innovative use of a smart phone app for English dialogue and subtitles and more polystyrene than you’ve ever seen in one place. Not a lot to say about a rather amateur take on (part of) the folk tale The Mabinogion, except to say I blame Judith!

The Missing Hancock’s featured two lost scripts staged as if they were being recorded for radio, with occasional ad libs, by an exceptional cast. I’d enjoyed them on the radio and I enjoyed them live too. Favourite playwright Jack Thorne’s sexually explicit, harrowing but brilliant play The Solid Life of Sugar Water was another theatrical highlight with two fine performances and, unusually on the fringe outside the Traverse, a great design. Finally, a novel immersive staging of a rare Tennessee Williams play, Confessional, where you are in a seaside bar with the dysfunctional characters partaking of a beer or two with them. Not a great play, but inventively staged.

The usual diversity with higher quality this year. No doubt some will appear elsewhere, so now you know what to catch.

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Playwright James Graham wrote a brilliant play about the flip-flopping between Labour & the Tories in the 70s even though he was born after the events in the play and here he is in the same period reminding us of the seemingly long forgotten Angry Brigade – home-grown middle class anarchist terrorists. I’m not sure why he’s obsessed with this period, but I’m enjoying the products of it.

It’s actually a play in two very different parts which he says in the script can be played either way around or even simultaneously or, as he ends his notes in an appropriately anarchic tone, ‘perhaps just do what you like’. In this production The Branch is the first more comedic half set in Scotland Yard where a new unit has been set up within Special Branch for a unified approach to clearly connected terrorist acts. The police are a bit clumsy, but they get there in the end. In the second more anarchic half, The Brigade, we’re in the terrorists’ house learning about their pasts, their motivations and their intentions whilst the crimes are being committed. The style of each half reflects the world in which it is set. At the end of the first half you do wonder where its going, but it leaves you satisfied in the end. James Grieve’s staging keeps you on your toes with its unpredictability.

Felix Scott plays the less comic cop Smith and turns up unrecognisable as terrorist John in the second half; both great performances. I’m thoroughly enjoying following Harry Melling’s grow into a fine young actor and here he’s got two large and four small roles to get his teeth into. Again, the contrast between the hapless Commander and the earnest Jim is great. Patsy Ferran and Scarlett Alice Johnson do well in what are effectively supporting roles in the first half and come into their own as equals in the second.

I was at college when these real life events were played out and I’m struggling to understand my lack of memory, but I’m grateful to James Graham for filling in the gaps with a play that resonates strikingly in our current troubled times.

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Mike Bartlett plays are enough of a draw to send me to Watford on a Wednesday afternoon during a tube strike! This one’s completely different from last week’s at the Almeida, though – a two-hander about friendship.

We first meet them when they’ve known each other for three years. She sees them as ‘best friends’; he’s not so sure. She berates him for failing to turn up at an anti-war demo; he doesn’t see the point. Over three more scenes, we watch the relationship develop (or not) through his marriage and fatherhood until, in the fifth and final scene, he gets a bit of a shock when he calls to seek support and refuge. It’s a very true representation of friendship, particularly the differing views of its strength and the impact of other relationships.

Played in front of the curtain, a bit like Morecambe & Wise (as Bartlett requests in his stage directions), or on a black box stage, it all hangs on the performances and Rachael Stirling & John Hollingworth are excellent individually, with great chemistry when together; they seem like real friends. James Grieve’s production has to move from playful banter to confession to tragedy and it does so with great delicacy.

Intimate Bartlett (like Cock) rather than epic Bartlett (like King Charles III); satisfying theatre nonetheless.

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NEW PLAYS

Chimerica – Lucy Kirkwood’s play takes an historical starting point for a very contemporary debate on an epic scale at the Almeida

Jumpers for Goalposts – Tom Wells’ warm-hearted play had me laughing and crying simultaneously for the first time ever – Paines Plough at Watford Palace and the Bush Theatre

Handbagged – with HMQ and just one PM, Moira Buffini’s 2010 playlet expanded to bring more depth and more laughs than The Audience (Tricycle Theatre)

Gutted – Rikki Beale-Blair’s ambitious, brave, sprawling, epic, passionate family saga at the people’s theatre, Stratford East

Di & Viv & Rose – Amelia Bullimore’s delightful exploration of human friendship at Hampstead Theatre

Honourable mentions to the Young Vic’s Season in the Congo and NTS’ Let the Right One In at the Royal Court

SHAKESPEARE

2013 will go down as the year when some of our finest young actors took to the boards and made Shakespeare exciting, seriously cool and the hottest ticket in town. Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus at the Donmar and James McAvoy’s Macbeth for Jamie Lloyd Productions were both raw, visceral, physical & thrilling interpretations. The dream team of Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear provided psychological depth in a very contemporary Othello at the NT. Jude Law and David Tennant as King’s Henry V for Michael Grandage Company and the RSC’s Richard II led more elegant, traditional but lucid interpretations. They all enhanced the theatrical year and I feel privileged to have seen them.

OTHER REVIVALS

Mies Julie – Strindberg in South Africa, tense and riveting, brilliantly acted (Riverside)

Edward II – a superb contemporary staging which illuminated this 400-year-old Marlowe play at the NT

Rutherford & Son – Northern Broadsides in an underated 100-year-old northern play visiting Kingston

Amen Corner – The NT director designate’s very musical staging of this 1950’s Black American play

The Pride – speedy revival but justified and timely, and one of many highlights of the Jamie Lloyd season

London Wall & Laburnam Grove – not one, but two early 20th century plays that came alive at the tiny Finborough Theatre

Honorable mentions for To Kill A Mockingbird at the Open Air, Beautiful Thing at the Arts, Fences in the West End, Purple Heart – early Bruce (Clybourne Park) Norris – at the Gate and The EL Train at Hoxton Hall, where the Eugene O’Neill experience included the venue.

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Tom Wells’ The Kitchen Sink at the Bush Theatre was one of my best new plays of 2011 and I will be surprised if this doesn’t end up as one of the best of 2013. He seems to have cornered the market in feel-good, charming, heart-warming, uplifting plays. It’s appropriate that it’s co-produced by Hull Truck as it’s very much in the spirit of their 1980’s work (and indeed in the spirit of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing, about to get a West End revival).

We’re back in Hull, in a changing room after each of six football matches. It’s a Sunday 5-a-side league comprising just four gay teams and our team, Barely Athletic, are up against The Lesbian Rovers, Man City and Tranny United! Coach / player Viv has been thrown out by the lesbians and is determined to win something, anything; deputy coach / player Danny is using this experience as part of his coaching studies and Viv’s bereaved brother-in-law Joe is the token straight. Busker Beardy can’t decide what to play at his Hull Pride audition and new boy, library assistant Luke, has been recruited by Danny for more than footballing interest.

It’s a bit of a slow start, but once you get to know the characters its captivating. Danny & Luke’s relationship develops, Joe’s grief is exposed, Viv’s competitiveness becomes obsessive and Beardy’s promiscuousness risks team success. Even though you’re only with these people for 90 minutes, you feel like you’ve known them for a whole lot longer; great characterisation. Add to this some very funny lines and deeply human stories to tell, and they play has you under its spell. Watford Palace is a big theatre for such an intimate piece, but Lucy Osborne’s design draws you into the changing room to compensate.

All five actors are excellent. Vivienne Gibbs conveys Viv’s drive, energy and competitiveness, you really feel for Matt Sutton’s Joe and Andy Rush (also superb in The Kitchen Sink) makes Geoff hapless but completely loveable. Jamie Samuel invests real emotional power in Danny and Philip Duguid-McQuillan is simply extraordinary as naive, lonely, socially inept 19-year-old virgin Luke. There is a moment when he reads from his diary when I was laughing out loud and crying at the same time.

Don’t wait until the promised autumn tour – get to Watford to see it in its final week and you’ll probably want to see it again in the autumn. Another triumph for the indispensable Paines Plough.

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