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Posts Tagged ‘Traverse Theatre’

One of the most positive things about 2019 was that more new plays and new musicals made my shortlist than revivals of either; new work appears to be thriving, theatre is alive.

BEST NEW PLAY

I struggled to chose one, so I’ve chosen four!

Laura Wade’s pirandellian The Watsons* at the Menier, clever and hilarious, The Doctor* at the Almeida, a tense and thrilling debate about medical ethics, How Not to Drown at the Traverse in Edinburgh, the deeply moving personal experience of one refugee and Jellyfish at the NT Dorfman, a funny and heart-warming love story, against all odds

There were another fifteen I could have chosen, including Downstate, Faith Hope & Charity and Secret River at the NT, The End of History and A Kind of People* at the Royal Court, The Son and Snowflake* at the Kiln, The Hunt at the Almeida, A German Life at the Bridge, After Edward at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Appropriate at the Donmar, A Very Peculiar Poison at the Old Vic and Shook at Southwark Playhouse. Our Lady of Kibeho at Stratford East was a candidate, though I saw it in Northampton. My other out of town contender was The Patient Gloria at the Traverse in Edinburgh. I started the year seeing Sweat at the Donmar, but I sneaked that into the 2018 list!

BEST REVIVAL

Death of a Salesman* at the Young Vic.

This was a decisive win, though my shortlist also included All My Sons and Present Laughter at the Old Vic, Master Harold & the Boys and Rutherford & Son at the NT Lyttleton, the promenade A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge, Noises Off* at the Lyric Hammersmith and Little Baby Jesus at the Orange Tree.

BEST NEW MUSICAL

Shared between Come From Away* in the West End and Amelie* at the Watermill in Newbury, now at The Other Palace, with Dear Evan Hansen*, This Is My Family at the Minerva in Chichester and one-woman show Honest Amy* at the Pleasance in Edinburgh very close indeed.

Honourable mentions to & Juliet* in the West End, Ghost Quartet* at the new Boulevard, The Bridges of Madison County at the Menier, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Fiver at Southwark Playhouse, Operation Mincemeat* at The New Diorama and The Season in Northampton.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

Another that has to be shared, between the Menier’s The Boy Friend* and The Mill at Sonning’s Singin’ in the Rain*

I also enjoyed Sweet Charity* at the Donmar, Blues in the Night at the Kiln, Falsettos at the Other Palace and The Hired Man at the Queens Hornchurch, and out-of-town visits to Assassins and Kiss Me Kate at the Watermill Newbury and Oklahoma in Chichester.

A vintage year, I’d say. It’s worth recording that 60% of my shortlist originated in subsidised theatres, underlining the importance of public funding of quality theatre. 20% took me out of London to places like Chichester, Newbury and Northampton, a vital part of the UK’s theatrical scene. Only two of these 48 shows originated in the West End, and they both came from Broadway. The regions, the fringe and arts funding are all crucial to making and maintaining the UK as the global leader it is.

The starred shows are either still running or transferring, so they can still be seen, though some close this week.

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Crocodile Fever*** at the Traverse was an extraordinary cocktail of black comedy, horror & fantasy with an added dose of the surreal! Set in South Armagh during ‘the troubles’, two sisters who haven’t seen each other for eleven years unleash horror on their bullying dad, with a lot of twists, turns and revelations along the way. It was too Tarantinoesque for my taste, a bit heavy handed and OTT, but you had to admire it’s chutzpah, and gold stars to the production staff who have to erect and dismantle an elaborate set worthy of the West End daily, the latter after it’s been roughed up rather a lot.

One of political comedian Matt Forde‘s daily shows**** is each week turned into a live, lighthearted political podcast with a guest and when we went he’d pulled off the coup of getting Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. It was a good blend of serious and irreverent and Sturgeon was game; I rather warmed to her.

Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein**** is the creation of a silent movie before your very eyes using three overhead projectors, actors, puppets, live music and sound effects. You can watch the creation or the end result or both, as I did. This American group is like our own Paper Cinema, but bigger and more complex, with ‘live’ action. I found myself more engaged with the creation than the story, but it was captivating nonetheless.

In a joint venture with the Television Festival, we got to see TV writer Russell T Davies****, most famous for resurrecting Dr Who, in conversation, illustrated by film clips. His body of work is extraordinary and his enthusiasm and boyish nerdiness was infectious. Illuminating and entertaining.

I only know American folk musician Anais Mitchell**** from her recent NT & Broadway hit musical Hadestown, but I loved her concert at Queens Hall. She writes great songs, and with the help of another guitarist, plays and sings them beautifully. Carsie Blanton provided outstanding support with a more varied, lighter set that was just as enthralling.

Buzz*** at Summerhall was storytelling illustrated by film, music and a soundscape. It was often gripping, but when the actor used a microphone she became inaudible behind the music / sound and when she changed character you sometimes got lost; well, I did anyway. I had to ask my companions too many questions afterwards!

No such problems with Fishbowl**** at the vast Pleasance Grand as there was next to no dialogue! This French company presented an ingenious and hysterical show about three very different inhabitants of adjoining attic apartments and their connections with one another. Brilliant physical comedy and a real comic treat.

Had I fully realised what Julius ‘Call Me Caesar’ Caesar*** was I probably wouldn’t have gone. It was a frenetic one-man-telling of Shakespeare’s story which even at only an hour seemed too long, but you had to admire comedian Andrew Maxwell’s hard work and audience engagement.

Modern opera’s are a risky affair but Breaking the Waves****, based on the Lars von Trier film of the same name, was one of the best I’ve ever seen. The challenging story of what one troubled woman believes she has to do for god and the love of her injured man was hugely dramatic and the music just as dramatic but also accessible. American soprano Sydney Mancasola was stunning in the lead role.

Back at the Traverse to begin the final day with How Not to Drown*****, the story of a Kosovan refugee who from aged 11 to 16 travelled to and lived in England, returning briefly to reunite with his parents in Tirana. It was deeply moving, with the refugee himself (now late twenties) narrating / performing, and brilliantly staged and performed. An absolute highlight.

Sometimes the juxtaposition of shows impacts enjoyment, and so it was with Austentatious*** which seemed too light and frivolous after How Not to Drown. Still the improvised ‘Pride & Prejudice on the Titanic’ was fun, but it would probably have been more fun at another time.

1927’s Roots**** at Church Hill Theatre didn’t live up their earlier work, largely because it was a loose collection of unconnected tales rather than a cohesive story, but their unique brand of live action and music synchronised with animation worth seeing nonetheless.

The final show, at the Traverse again, was Enough***, about two air stewardesses having a mid-life crisis. I liked the poetic writing, but the attempts at bringing in bigger issues were a bit obtuse and half-baked.

Little time to take in much art, but retrospectives of Bridget Riley and recent discovery (for me) Victoria Crowe and some Grayson Perry tapestries telling the life story of fictional Julie, the inspiration for his House for Essex, were all very good, and of course some fine dining, notably at newbie Grazing by Mark Greenaway, last year’s discovery The White Horse seafood restaurant and Martin Wishart’s The Honours.

A year without bummers, and with more than 60% of shows shining. Until next year?…..

Time for a rest; four days in Northumberland…..

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Best New Play – The Lehman Trilogy*, The Inheritance* & Sweat*

I find it impossible to choose between these three extraordinary evenings (well, afternoon and evening in the case of the The Inheritance) but they were in very good company with a dozen other new plays in contention. Also at the NT, Home, I’m Darling* and Nine Night* were great, and also at the Young Vic The Convert* became a late addition in December. At the Bush, both Misty and An Adventure impressed (though I saw the former when it transferred to Trafalgar Studios).The remaining London contenders were The Humans at Hampstead Theatre, Pressure at the Park Theatre, Things I Know To Be True at the Lyric Hammersmith and The Wipers Times at the Arts, though these last two weren’t new to London, just me. The Edinburgh Fringe added two, Class* and Ulster American*, both Irish, both at the Traverse and both heading to London, so look out for them. The eight starred are either still running or coming back in 2019, so be sure to catch them if you haven’t seen them already.

Best New Musical – Hamilton*

It opened right at the end of 2017, but I didn’t see it until January 2018 (and again in December 2018). It certainly lives up to the hype and is unquestionably ground-breaking in the same way West Side Story was sixty years before. It was a good year for new musicals, though 40% of my shortlist were out-of-town, headed by Flowers For Mrs Harris at Chichester, with Pieces of String in Colchester, Miss Littlewood in Stratford and Sting’s The Last Ship mooring briefly in Northampton. Back in London, the Young Vic continued to shine with Fun Home and Twelfth Night and the NT imported Hadestown*. Tina* proved to be in the premiere league of juke-box musicals and SIX* was a breath of fresh air at the Arts. Only four are still running, or coming back.

Best Play Revival – The York Realist and Summer and Smoke*

Another category where I can’t split the top two. The former a gem at the Donmar and the latter shining just as brightly at the Almeida. I didn’t see the Old Vic’s glorious A Christmas Carol* until January, so that was a contender too, along with The Daughter-in-Law* at the Arcola and The Lieutenant of Inishmore in the West End. Then there were four cracking Shakespeare’s – The Bridge Theatre’s promenade Julius Caesar, the RSC’s Hamlet with Paapa Essiedu visiting Hackney Empire, Ian McKellen’s King Lear transfer from Chichester, and the NT’s Anthony & Cleopatra* with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okenedo. Another four still running / coming back.

Best Musical Revival – Company*

The leanest category this year, with Marianne Elliott’s revival of Sondheim’s Company exceeding expectations; I shall be back at the last night. Chichester brought yet more joy with Me & My Girl and right at the end of the year, the Mill at Sonning came up trumps for the third year running with a great favourite of mine, Guys & Dolls* Finally, The Rink at Southwark Playhouse, the only contender this year from the usually more prolific fringe. Two to catch if you haven’t already.

Theatre of the Year – The Young Vic

Though five of my thirty-seven contenders were at the NT, The Young Vic shone even more brightly with four, all new works. Only four originated in the West End, which further emphasises how crucial the subsidised sector and the regions are. You can still see half of them, but some close soon, so get booking!

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This was one of the first plays I saw at the Traverse Theatre, and indeed at the Edinburgh Fringe, 33 years ago, which began a lifelong love of both, leading to ten shows at the new Traverse just last month. It was part of a golden age for Scottish drama, led by the Traverse, which went on to mount three more Jo Clifford plays before moving on to the next generation. It hasn’t been revived there since and I’m not sure it’s ever been seen in London before.

It’s set in the early 17th century, when Spain was an aspirational expansionist power with particular designs on the states which would one day become Italy. The newly married Duke of Osuna, not really enamoured with his new wife and seemingly impotent, avoids the honeymoon by heading to Venice on behalf of King and country to make Spain great again, with his poet Quevedo and servant Pablo, whose partner Maria stays at court in Madrid with the Duchess. On the way they encounter pirates and when they get there, it’s all a bit weird, with little to say and not really going anywhere.

I’m not sure Jess Curtis’ hybrid period / contemporary design helps Paul Miller’s production, but the actors work hard to breathe life into it, notably the four central performances by Tim Delap as the Duke, Christopher Logan as poet Quevedo, Eleanor Fanyinka as Maria and an excellent professional debut from Remus Brooks as Pablo. I can see why they thought the time was right to revive it, and indeed I was very much looking forward to seeing it again, but time hasn’t been kind and I’m afraid it comes over as dull and a bit pointless today.

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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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The Best Theatre of 2017

Time to reflect on, and celebrate, the shows I saw in 2017 – 200 of them, mostly in London, but also in Edinburgh, Leeds, Cardiff, Brighton, Chichester, Newbury and Reading.

BEST NEW PLAY – THE FERRYMAN

We appear to be in a golden age of new writing, with 21 of the 83 I saw contenders. Most of our finest living playwrights delivered outstanding work this year, topped by James Graham’s three treats – Ink, Labour of Love and Quiz. The Almeida, which gave us Ink, also gave us Mike Bartlett’s Albion. The National had its best year for some time, topped by David Eldridge’s West End bound Beginning, as well as Inua Ellams’ The Barbershop Chronicles, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Network, Nina Raine’s Consent, Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitos and J T Rogers’ Oslo, already in the West End. The Young Vic continued to challenge and impress with David Greig’s updating of 2500-year-old Greek play The Suppliant Womenand the immersive, urgent and important Jungle by Joe’s Murphy & Robertson. Richard Bean’s Young Marxopened the new Bridge Theatre with a funny take on 19th century history. On a smaller scale, I very much enjoyed Wish List at the Royal Court Upstairs, Chinglish at the Park Theatre, Late Companyat the Finborough, Nassim at the Bush and Jess & Joe at the Traverse during the Edinburgh fringe. Though they weren’t new this year, I finally got to see Harry Potter & the Cursed Child I & II and they more than lived up to the hype. At the Brighton Festival, Richard Nelson’s Gabriels trilogycaptivated and in Stratford Imperium thrilled, but it was impossible to topple Jez Butterworth’s THE FERRYMAN from it’s rightful place as BEST NEW PLAY.

BEST REVIVAL – ANGELS IN AMERICA / WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF

Much fewer in this category, but then again I saw only 53 revivals. The National’s revival of Angels in America was everything I hoped it would be and shares BEST REVIVAL with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The Almeida’s Hamlet was the best Shakespearean revival, with Macbeth in Welsh in Caerphilly Castle, my home town, runner up. Though it’s not my genre, the marriage of play and venue made Witness for the Prosecution a highlight, with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Apologia the only other West End contributions in this category. On the fringe, the Finborough discovered another gem, Just to Get Married, and put on a fine revival of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy. In the end, though, the big hitters hit big and ANGELS IN AMERICA & WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF shone brightest.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS

Well, I’d better start by saying I’m not seeing Hamilton until the end of the month! I had thirty-two to choose from here. The West End had screen-to-stage shows Dreamgirlsand School of Rock, which I saw in 2017 even though they opened the year before, and both surprised me in how much I enjoyed them. Two more, Girls and Young Frankenstein, proved even more welcome, then at the end of the year Everybody’s Talking About Jamie joined them ‘up West’, then a superb late entry by The Grinning Man. The West End bound Strictly Ballroom wowed me in Leeds as it had in Melbourne in 2015 and Adrian Mole at the Menier improved on it’s Leicester outing, becoming a delightful treat. Tiger Bay took me to in Cardiff and, despite its flaws, thrilled me. The Royal Academy of Music produced an excellent musical adaptation of Loves Labours Lost at Hackney Empire, but it was the Walthamstow powerhouse Ye Olde Rose & Crown that blew me away with the Welsh Les Mis, My Lands Shore, until ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe stole my heart and the BEST NEW MUSICAL category.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC / FOLLIES

Thirty-two in this category too. The year started with a fine revival of Rent before Sharon D Clarke stole The Life at Southwark Playhouse and Caroline, or Change in Chichester (heading for Hampstead) in quick succession. Southwark shone again with Working, Walthamstow with Metropolis and the Union with Privates on Parade. At the Open Air, On the Town was a real treat, despite the cold and wet conditions, and Tommyat Stratford with a fully inclusive company was wonderful. NYMT’s Sunday in the Park With George and GSMD’s Crazy for You proved that the future is in safe hands. The year ended In style with a lovely My Fair Lady at the Mill in Sonning, but in the end it was two difficult Sondheim’s five days apart – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the Watermill in Newbury and FOLLIES at the National – that made me truly appreciate these shows by my musical theatre hero and share BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

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When I saw, and loved, this National Theatre of Scotland show at the Traverse Theatre during the Edinburgh fringe two years ago, I would never have predicted I’d be seeing it in a West End theatre; it might be the most unlikely transfer ever. If anything, Lee Hall’s anarchic play with music is better second time around.

Our Ladies are the choir of a catholic school of the same name, from a back-of-beyond part of Scotland, who go to Edinburgh for a singing competition which turns into a bender of epic proportions, involving copious amounts of alcohol, underage sex and a riot of fun. The individual stories of the six girls are interwoven with the illicit hedonistic pleasures of the group.

It starts with some heavenly a cappella choral singing before they burst into the songs of ELO accompanied by an excellent three-piece band; ladies, obviously. These continue throughout, with choral pieces returning occasionally. It’s raucous, anarchic, rude and funny, yet the personal coming of age stories are often very moving and you get to empathise with and love these girls. The accents are sometimes impenetrable, which somehow adds to the authenticity. The six actresses, who appear to be the original cast, are all terrific, maturing in their roles.

It might be an unlikely West End hit, but it’s a breath of fresh air and I was so pleased I returned to see it again. A great curtain-raiser for my return to Edfringe on Friday.

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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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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 it wasn’t a vintage year, but there was enough to make the trip worthwhile.

The highlight of the Fringe was Mark Thomas’ solo show (and a departure in form) Bravo Figaro at the Traverse Theatre. He’s one of my favourite comedians and completely unique, but this is no stand-up show. He tells the story of his relationship with his dad and his dad’s love of opera. It is often very funny, with his trademark swipes at all things unfair and unjust, but on this occasion the tears of laughter were accompanied by the other sort of tears at the end of what was a deeply moving and satisfying hour. The second highlight was also a solo show (well, apart from the pianist) and also autobiographical, but very different indeed. I’m not a real Madness fan, though I do quite like their music. I’m not sure how Suggs got to be a national treasure, but he is and on this form you can see why. It was an illuminating and funny whizz through an interesting life. He’s a sort of everyman / normal bloke and I think that’s where his charm lies; you’d just love to meet him in a pub for a few beers and a good old chinwag! 

I saw four other shows at my favourite venue the Traverse Theatre, but none came near to Bravo Figaro. And No More Shall We Part, a play about assisted suicide, was well staged and beautifully acted, but with a clumsy structure and an unsatisfying ambiguity – and it was deeply depressing! The hugely prolific Simon Stephens play Morning was an hour of teenage angst that made me want to shout ‘grow up’ at the stage. Again well acted, but not enough to banish my regret of booking for it. Others enjoyed Monkey Bars more than I did. It’s one of those verbatim pieces – this time with the words of children spoken by adult actors. I didn’t dislike it, but found it a bit slight. I’m beginning to wonder if we’ve overdone verbatim…..The final Traverse offering coupled The Letter of Last Resort, a play about the letter a prime minister has to write on their first day in office giving instructions to the commanders of our nuclear submarines, with another play called Good With People set where they are based. The link between them was nebulous. I enjoyed the former less out of the context of the ten-play cycle The Bomb at the Tricycle Theatre back in March and found the latter a bit dull and pointless. Is the Traverse going off the boil or is it just a fluke year?

You couldn’t find two comics further apart than Stewart Lee and Tim Vine, but I have to say I enjoyed both. The normally edgy Lee has a more subtle edge this time around with a show based on the premise that now he’s a hands-on dad he doesn’t have any material for a show, and continually referencing the reasons for its structure and our reactions. Clever stuff, but not everyone in a Saturday evening big venue audience agreed. Tim Vine is an old-fashioned charming corny gag merchant, but you can’t help loving him. It’s refreshing to see someone whose humour is clean and who has absolutely no edge and no agenda other than to make you laugh; someone you can take the kids or grannie to – the audience contained some of both. I’m not sure using members of the audience as chat show guests really worked, but it was a fun hour nonetheless. I’m not sure how to categorise Sandi Toksvig‘s show – part stand-up, part autobiography, part anecdotes, part book plugging! She does have a natural engaging charm and it was an enjoyable hour in her company. Mark Watson’s Eurolympics was a bonkers late night slot where three guest comedians compete in events including wearing as many of the audience’s clothes as you can, balancing books on your head, writing a limerick etc. Silly but fun.

Elsewhere in fringe theatre, Allotment wasn’t just a quirky site specific show (actually sitting on stools surrounding an allotment!) but a funny and moving story of the lives of two sisters for whom the allotment is their escape from the real world. Starting with tea and scones was an inspired bonus! Communicado‘s staging of Rabbie Burns’ poem Tam O’Shanter was very good, with excellent music, but the dialect was often impenetrable for non Scots like me which marred an otherwise enjoyable affair. Planet Lem, an open air Sci Fi show in the University courtyard by the Polish company that brought us Carmen Funebre on stilts in a school playground and Macbeth also here in the courtyard, was a bit flat. The small amount of dialogue it contained was recorded and in English, yet it was still hard to comprehend. Technically well executed in b-movie fashion, it didn’t live up to their previous offerings. The other theatrical highlight was The Two Most Perfect Things, a biographical review of the lives of Noel Coward and Ivor Novello. After five minutes, I was wondering why I’d added this just that morning as it seemed a bit like being in a moving talking singing museum. It soon won me over though, with the stories of these fascinating theatrical icons interspersed with their songs beautifully sung. Lovely.

For an unusual diversion, I went to see Scotland’s national poet Liz Lockhead read some of her lovely poems. It wasn’t as good without Michael Marra’s songs in between as on a previous occasion, but something to further the eclecticism of this year’s selection. More poetry from Phil Jupitus on the free fringe, recreating his first incarnation as Porky the Poet, with a guest appearance from another comedian-turned-poet-turned-comedian Owen O’Neil (with a book to plug!). A nice hour and the closest to the spirit of the fringe I came this year.

The fringe musical highlight was The Francis Bacon Opera, based on his interview with Melvyn Bragg where they both got famously drunk on camera and ended up dancing. A hugely original piece with superbly funny characterisations and clever musical touches including the musical representation of painters – Jackson Pollock was a hoot! Scotland in Song was an impulsive thoroughly enjoyable hour of traditional song interspersed with a bit of history; I particularly liked its objectivity and balance. Our final show, as guest of the BBC, was a live broadcast of Radio 3’s Late Junction with an eclectic mix of Scottish folkie Dick Gaughan, Irish chanteuse Camille O’Sullivan, modern classical specialists The Hebrides Ensemble and an extraordinary group of singers and musicians from Azerbaijan. I do love it when you put together something as diverse as this and create a delicious cocktail.

After no main festival shows last year, we had five this year, starting with a Polish Macbeth (my 4th!) in a giant hanger like space where they had created a two-story house in a middle eastern war zone. The relocation worked well and the play got to the heart of the Macbeth’s madness. The staging was spectacular, with fighting, absailing and gruesome murders; the creation of the ‘other’ ghostly world was particularly effective. What is it with the Poles and Macbeth?! French company Theatre du Soleil haven’t been here since they did four Greek tragedies over a weekend in a carpet factory in Bradford some 20 years ago (I was there!). This time they have created Les Nufrages du Fol Espoir, a show which takes place in the giant attic of a restaurant just as World War I is about to start. A bunch of left-wing idealists are making a silent movie that travels from Sarajevo to Patagonia via Cardiff and Windsor! The stagecraft is extraordinarily inventive (in a low tech sense) and the music was brilliant. It was overlong at 4 hours, but I will forgive them for the stage images that will remain for a long long time. This outstanding company and their director Ariane Mnouchkine are up there with Robert Lepage as creators of theatrical magic. The third theatrical offering was more disappointing – Gulliver’s Travels from Roumania. Again, the staging was low tech inventive, but this time the structure and narrative made for a bit of a confusing muddle and it didn’t really hang together, despite some stunning scenes.

I’m not sure Charpentier ever meant David et Jonathas to be staged as an opera and I do wish it had been a concert. Musically beautiful, the staging was simply distracting, with endless short scenes played out in a wooden box which got bigger and smaller depending on the scene. Better with eyes close, I suspect. My heart sank when I discovered favourite soprano Rebecca Evans had been replaced by unknown Christiane Karg for her Queens Hall recital, but it was one of those occasions when you see an emerging star and forget completely that she’s standing in. A very diverse programme showed off both her versatility and her vocal talent to great effect and the smile on accompanist Martin Martineau‘s face told you he too though she was something special. 

Not a lot of art this year, but what there was was special. Van Gogh to Kandinsky has only a pair from each, but fortunately a lot more wonderful work from many other artists (most of whom I’d never heard of!) under its subtitle Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910 which made for a very beautiful collection; very cohesive and satisfying. Downstairs at the National Gallery, they featured an unknown Italian called Giovanni Battista Lusardi whose Italian landscapes and cityscapes rival Canaletto in their detail and technical mastery; a real find. Celebrity art was represented by Harry Hill whose pictures probably wouldn’t be seen if he wasnt Harry Hill, but they were funny and provided a diverting 20 minutes (once you’ve got your breath back from the climb to the top floor of the store where they were shown!). The annual International Photography exhibition was its usual stunning self which brought on the now equally usual feeling of total photographic inadequacy!

Now I’ve written this, it seems a lot more action packed and a lot better than it seemed at the time;  Mmmm……

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