Perth Concert Hall
Tues 16 – Sat 20 Apr
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
A young inexperienced governess with a fertile imagination fuelled by gothic horror potboilers; two precocious children, altogether too knowing, in her care; a rambling, isolated country house witness to a history of cruelty; preternatural occurrences and eerie noises in the night. Henry James’ 1898 horror novella is the archetypal haunting story. Or, at least that’s one reading. It could equally be the account of the young governess’s incipient ‘female hysteria’. The novella maintains the ambiguous nature of the events at the house and James leaves the reader to make up their own mind over the causes of the horror. It’s a satisfying read.
Mercury Theatre Colchester and Wolverhampton Grand Theatre’s production of Turn of the Screw, adapted by Tim Luscombe, whilst replete with enough terror, puts the cause of all the haunting malarky on the governess, played by Janet Dibley with maniacal poise. Confirmation bias from the homely but astonishingly dim-witted housekeeper Mrs Grose (Maggie McCarthy) propels the governess ever onwards in her attempt to save the children, Miles and Flora, from what she thinks is supernatural attack from the spectral visitations of the previous governess Miss Jessel and the diabolical ghost of Peter Quint, the former upstairs-man, who had, and seemingly still maintains, a corrupting influence on young Miles.
Luscombe’s treatment turns the action into a taught psychodrama, that pulls out many of the threads in James’ story, such as the suppressed sexuality of the tale, hinted at in the relationship between the governess and young Miles, and the nature of Quint’s corrupting influence on the boy. It’s unfortunate therefore that the dramatic energy begins to disappear in the second half, as it becomes apparent that the cause of all the disturbance really is the governess’s psychotic break. With the loss of ambiguity of the cause of the haunting, whether psychological or supernatural, much of the tension of the story is also lost. It’s a different terror, altogether human, that is portrayed in the closing scene. This is an intelligent production that delivers some shocking moments in an entertaining evening that occasionally misses a chance to terrify.
Review: Mark Mackenzie
Photography: Tom Grace
A Play, a Pie and a Pint
Oran Mor, Glasgow
April 15-20, 2019
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
It was with a slight degree of apprehension that I settled down to watch Rob Drummond’s new one-act play at the Oran Mor today. “The Mack” is all about a hero of mine, Charles Rennie Mackintosh who died 90 years ago. His famous approach to life and art had some in his period smiling and others not. The stage was set in Mackintosh style, complete with three chairs in that distinctive ladder-back design.
Mackintosh himself took centre stage; James Mcanerney resplendent in the artist’s signature large cravat; it was like seeing the man himself brought to life. The two other characters came in the guise of an expert, a well-dressed Janet Coulson; and John Michie as a fireman in full uniform. The three don’t address each other, but talk to the audience directly and between them the story unfolds into the well-meant debate as to whether or not to once again save the internationally renowned Glasgow School of Art building that unbelievably caught fire for a second time. Included were all the various opinions and points of view we have all had about it, presented in an almost court-like discussion as to its importance or no.
Each character reveals insights into their individual points of view; vivid feeling of loss and appreciation of the work of a Master; rhetoric about the life and style of Mackintosh himself; the artist recalling his life in his letters to Margaret, his wife and long term partner. Somehow it seemed as if the artist himself was looking down in amusement at his work and what has famously happened to it, in reality some of his work has been salvaged from skips and suchlike. Each sometimes stands to make their point with dramatic force. There is real poignancy when the fireman reminds us of the dangers his firefighters faced when they fought a fire for the sole object of saving a building and some artefacts, questioning if it was worth risking their lives.
The three actors stood as the lights went down, without having come to a conclusion as to whether the Art School building should or should not be rebuilt. This three-point perspective offered compelling reasons for and against but they also found themselves unable to come to a definitive result. Having struck a balance in each debate, in the end it is left to us to decide. It could be done – there is enough of the design detailed on computer to make it exactly as was all those years ago. Whether it would be the same building raises the question of what art is anyway – the design or the building?
If you want my answer, I would wish it rebuilt. It’s intended beauty from the architect is as important to me as it ever was. But you can make up your own mind…
Neil Jennings & Chris Smart are at the heart of Mangled Yarn & their ebbulient take on the ultimate horror story
Hello Chris and Neil, first things first, where are you from & where are you at, geographically speaking?
Chris: I’m originally from Lichfield, in Staffordshire. It’s near Birmingham, but I’ve lived all over, including Italy and Denmark. I’m currently house hunting in Welwyn Garden City, in Hertfordshire.
Neil: I’m an Essex lad who grew up in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. I now live in North London.
You are quite the creative polymaths, can you tell us about your fields of operation?
Neil: I trained as an actor at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. I’m also a self taught multi-musician. My main instrument is Ukulele; but I can actually play it well! I’m also a keen illustrator, song writer and playwright.
Chris: I also trained as an actor, at The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. I’m a multi musician too – Banjo, Accordion, Guitar, Mandolin. I write songs, sketches and plays and I also direct.
When did you first develop a passion for the arts?
Chris: of course I could say I fell in love with Shakespeare and classic literature at a young age and that was it, (of course I do love those things the requisite amount!) but I was brought up watching John Hughes movies and laughing at people like John Candy and Steve Martin. I think I always held out hope that I would get to do that. In the end I managed to combine the two.
Neil: As a kid I sort of popped in and out of the arts. Sometimes I was very keen, other times it didn’t really bother me. It was at University (I studied Drama at Aberystwyth) where I truly found that this was the career for me.
Can you tell us about The Pantaloons?
Chris: We met six years ago at an audition for the company. It was an unusual audition in that it was just really fun and everyone seemed as lovely as they were talented. We both got the job and haven’t looked back. The company creates hilarious and accessible theatre from Shakespearean and classic texts. Using all kinds of influences and styles to put their own incredible spin on a well known piece. Music is used heavily too and has also challenged us both to learn new styles and instruments . If drama school taught us the foundations of Acting, The Pantaloons taught us how to be comedians. We will always love continuing to work with “The Loons”!
In a world where you can get entertainment ‘on demand’, what makes theatre special?
Neil: For me it’s the thrill of how are you going to stage something. CGI in films and television makes everything possible, but on the stage, there’s a real magic needed to create the same effects. I love, not only working out how to do a particular thing, but also watching how others achieve it. You can really learn from each other.
Chris: firstly I think because it is not “on demand” there is always a sense of occasion and excitement with theatre, you have to get off your arse and go somewhere to watch a bunch of real life human beings tell you a story. No matter how amazing the box set is, you can’t replicate that on your sofa at home. Secondly we both love, and work within a style that is immediate; it embraces and works with the here and now to create a truly unique experience. Bringing the audience into the action means that every night is different; it comes with different risks, different failures and different successes, all of which combine to make something truly special.
You’re washed up on a desert island with an all-in-one solar powered DVD/TV combo & three films, what would they be?
Chris: The Big Lebowski is a must, Uncle Buck because it’s John Hughes and John Candy but not tied into a season like thanksgiving or Christmas. Finally The Royal Tenenbaums, I love Gene Hackman in that movie.
Neil: It depends. Can the Back to the Future trilogy be on one disc? If not, then it’s those! If they count as 1, then I’ll throw in Labyrinth and Ghostbusters (the original).
Where, when, why & with whom was Mangled Yarn created?
Chris: At a Birthday house party last Summer. I think it was Neil’s birthday. We were a little drunk…
Chris: … and we were spitballing ideas for inappropriate text to style combo’s. Classic horrors as Pantomimes really got us laughing.
Neil: We joked about Frankenstein as a Pantomime for ages.
Chris: But the next day I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. I knew it would be a really interesting project and I was convinced we could make it work.
Neil: We thought for a bit about just doing a normal Pantomime with the characters of Frankenstein and the monster in it, but that’s not an original idea – it’s been done quite a lot.
Chris: often by amateur theatre companies.
Neil: So we then talked about trying to do a faithful telling of the whole story, but with a Pantomime trying to burst out the whole way through.
Chris: That’s really when we became Mangled Yarn. It’s a mangled quote from All’s Well That Ends Well. “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together”.
What is the Mangled Yarn ethos?
Chris: We want to take incredible professional theatre to everyone, that’s for everyone. We are particularly focussed on bringing our work to those people that, for whatever reason, don’t usually have access to live theatre.
Neil: We are passionate about taking source material seen as “difficult” or “inaccessible” and innovating with it, creating productions that are first and foremost enjoyable and entertaining, but also remain faithful to the spirit of the original text.
You’re performing at this year’s Brighton Fringe, what are you bringing to the table?
Chris: We’re passionate about comedy. We love to laugh and think it’s one of the most important things for an audience to do. If we can also give them the facts at the same time, we’re laughing… still.
Can you tell us about the musical side of Frankenstein?
Neil: Our cast are 5 actor musicians. We have both live and recorded music, and we’re going down a disco route. So we’ve written half a dozen disco parodies that tell the story!
What lead you to the unlikely pairing of Frankenstein and a Pantomime?
Neil: A simple response would be that we found the idea funny. Is it possible to tell such a dark and harrowing story faithfully, yet in the style of a family friendly comedy? We knew it would be a challenge, especially dealing with the subject of life and death. I think we’ve managed to do a great job with that. The finale of our show is a perfect example.
Chris: People often see classic literature as “stuffy” or “difficult”. We wanted to find a way to challenge those preconceptions and help an audience find the joy of the source material. We thought Pantomime was the perfect tool.
What’s the last thing you do before you step out on stage / the curtain goes up?
Chris: I don’t really have any particular rituals, sorry to be boring! I used to always brush my teeth just before beginners but that’s about it.
Neil: It depends on the show and the company. I’ve done shows where we’ve got into an almost superstitious routine of actions and words. I don’t really have a “thing” that I always do, though.
You’ve got 20 seconds to sell Frankenstein to somebody in the streets of Brighton…
Neil: It’s Frankenstein as a Pantomime. If that doesn’t do it, I’m not sure what will!
What will you be doing for the rest of 2019?
Chris: We’re hoping to send Frankenstein out for a small UK tour this Halloween. We have a few venues pencilled in, including The Place, Bedford and the Old Library Theatre, Mansfield. We’re also going to begin work on our next project that we’re very excited about. We don’t want to say too much about it yet, but it’s very ambitious. What we can tell you is it WON’T be a pantomime.
The Warren: The Blockhouse
May 24-26 (20:00)
April 13-28, 2019
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
The play began with the trio of actors performing an a capella medley of music hall songs placing us squarely in Victorian England. The set was quite minimal for Leeds Playhouse, with a large clock facing the audience centre stage within a wooden partition behind which looms what appears to be the rafters of a ship’s hull. In the background various objects can be made out; an armchair, a globe, luggage cases. It looked rather like someone’s attic or a steampunk jumble sale.
After the initial musical medley we were thrown into the action as what appears to be a heist is committed by a be-cloaked thief. The struggling music, alarms and flashing red lights amidst the onstage gloom created a sense of excitement and intrigue which quickly fell away as we settled down into a scene in which we meet Phileas Fogg, and his assistant as they make preparations for their journey around the world. This scene however was soon broken by the intrusion of Jules Verne, the writer himself who admonishes the actors for their handling of his material and questions the nature of the performance. As soon becomes apparent this is no ordinary telling of the tale as these direct addresses and asides to the audience become an intrinsic part of the show as it goes on.
Breaking the 4th wall as it’s sometimes known is more often used as a kind of intellectual game to make a point about the nature of the work itself. Less rarely is it used – as it is here – as fuel for fun. One could see how it was used throughout the play to draw attention to the difficulties inherent in performing the play itself (3 actors attempting to represent a round the world trip with a multitude of characters) and also how the inclusion of the ‘Jules Verne’ character brought up questions about the nature of ownership and the difficulties inherent in adapting another’s work but mainly these digressions and asides created another layer of humour which flattered the audience’s ability to engage both in the plot whilst simultaneously recognising its artifice.
These narrative breaks worked very well and sometimes allowed for a rest from the sometimes hectic nature of the show. They worked even better however when they were seamlessly woven into the show. I particularly enjoyed the scene in which Jules Verne playing the princess read a copy of the titular novel whilst giving away plot spoilers to Fogg.
This aspect to the play was interwoven into a high speed adventure story which took us – not surprisingly – around the world. At times such as in the scene in Bombay the pace got a little too hectic and I felt a sense that the whole thing may come off the tracks like a runaway train but luckily there was a masterful driver at the helm and a very able crew of actors keeping things running smoothly. The sheer technical difficulties of performing so many characters at such a pace was impressive as was the physical dexterity required by the performers. All the actors though played their parts with real verve and energy.
Fogg was nicely underplayed by Robert Pickavance as a bemused fop with just the right touch of ambiguity to him leaving the audience guessing all along as to whether there was some ulterior motive to his trip than the mere winning of a gentleman’s bet. The show was really brought to life though by the brilliant buffoonery of both Joe Alessi as Passepartout and Darren Kuppan’s Inspector Fix. Both gave excellent comic turns as Fogg’s naively faithful retainer and his detective nemesis respectively. Kuppan’s turn was particularly notable for demonstrating his skills as a physical performer who has both the grace of a dancer and the expressiveness of a mime. His antics of running on the spot and hiding in disguise from Fogg were a joy to behold. Special credit too should go to Dan Parr’s Jules Verne who was played as a kind of endearingly eager and vulnerable man-child forever wanting to shoehorn his way into the show. The different minor characters too were brilliantly played with some faintly ridiculous regional accents and ludicrous costumes adding to the overall feel that at times we were watching something akin to a live action cartoon.
The quick change artistry of the performers playing this multitude of characters were ably abetted by the supreme skills of the props and costume team who managed to convey real individuality to all these minor characters. Whether this was done by a simple change of hat or a whole costume colourful and memorable characters such as the Indian temple musician in his silks and turban or the grizzled old bewhiskered sea captain were brought vividly to life.
The stagecraft overall was exemplary. Whether this was the soft yellow glow of an early evening in a wood panelled drawing room or the heat and light of an Indian bazaar subtle changes in lighting and the inclusion of found sounds and snatches of music managed to convey changes in time and place as we moved from continent to continent with Phileas and friends. The use of props too throughout showed real imagination as objects were twisted from one form to another and the relatively simple set was used in new ways from scene to scene. One minute it was a steamer ship on its way from Hong Kong, the next a train bound for Calcutta, the next an elephant charging through the Indian jungle. The way the destination and number of days left kept appearing throughout the play on handkerchiefs, jackets and umbrellas was also a charming touch. It brought a little ripple of pleasure from the audience to see which unexpected spot it would appear in next.
This was all part of the rich attention to detail and charm of the overall show. One never forgot that this was a world where – like children playing ‘let’s pretend’ – a tin bath could become a horse drawn carriage or a wooden slide could become an elephant. At times this was reminiscent of Harry Hill or even Monty Python and had a similarly endearing child-like sense of the playful and the absurd. The humour generally had a seriously clever silliness to it which combined word play with slapstick and several amusing running jokes. Though there were many moments of madcap fun the stand out was the chase scene on a train made from suitcases. Here we saw not only the team’s gifts with physical comedy but also their ability to interact with and transcend their environment creating with the audience a real belief that they were travelling at breakneck speed through the wild west. This scene seemed to represent the show at its best veering as it did somewhere between a giddy sense of fun and a knowing self-consciousness and inducing in the audience a sense of child like wonder throughout.
April 9-13, 2019
Walking in to the Tramway theatre is always a pleasure with its vast walls and ceilings, and a warm welcome. Smoke swirled around as we took our seats in the auditorium and the set was intriguingly set up to look like a rock concert. And sure enough, when Cora Bisset took to the stage, the story of her rise to fame began to emerge. What Girls Are Made Of is a play written by Cora herself from her own teenage diaries, and reprised here at the Tramway from last year’s smash hit premier at the Edinburgh Fringe.
As the other band members take to the stage, Cora, standing with arms folded at the front of the stage, tells us dreamily “I wanted to sing in a band”. It was all she ever wanted and she had the voice and persona to do it. They were lucky, success came quickly and the band found themselves signing a five-figure record deal and touring with the likes of Radiohead and Blur when they were still only naïve teenagers from Fife, a fact which she never forgot, despite the intoxicants and partying which inevitably goes with this kind of fame.
Cora shares with us her memories of this time in the early nineties, with herself and the band frequently breaking into song and entertaining us with full blown performances of their own music and songs from the likes of Nirvana and Blur; giving us a taste of the rollercoaster rock star lives they were living. As Cora’s memories unfold, the band members take the part of the various characters, throwing themselves into the roles with gusto, before coming together once again to perform yet another blockbuster.
With the wheels turning at a greater and greater pace, the rest of the world just fell away and we became more and more absorbed, and at times concerned, about the actress/ singer/ writer as she and her band navigated their way through their new found success and all the successes to follow. But their wicked manager was writing too many cheques and all too soon they were broke, with a hefty dept that there was no way of paying. The bubble had burst and what had seemed to be a rosy future gradually fell to the wayside and wound up as though it had never happened at all. With zero money and a large dept, Cora takes us into a darker side of her life where she loses her father to dementia and as she recalls laying him to rest, she lowers her head and weeps.
This play entertains and enthrals you on so many levels, spanning rock music, singing, poetry, tragedy, beauty, gritty reality. Like the story itself it surrounds you, pulls you in and spits you out. 25 years after the event, Cora is in her forties and presents herself self-reflectively to the audience with sincerity, abundance and joy. She is someone who could – and for a short time did – have made it, not because of the business but because she had the voice, style, and sheer heart. As we can witness for ourselves in this masterpiece of entertainment.
A Play, a Pie and a Pint
Oran Mor, Glasgow
April 8-13, 2019
There was a great red lighting effect emanating from the Oran Mor stage as we gathered to take our seats with the venerable pint and pie laid out before us. The title, ‘Lion Lion’, indicated that perhaps the next hour would be taken up with some kind of dedication to those great beasts. And so indeed it proved, as the first scene bore witness when we find Joy Adamson (Selina Boyack), beside herself with grief at the death of her beloved Elsa, the famous lioness depicted in her book “Born Free.”
Sue Glover’s play had a strong focus on the survival of these animals in the wild today, something which really resonated with me and my own concern for these magnificent creatures that we seem to be hunting to extinction. We watch Joy with George her husband (Keith Fleming) and their assistant Makedde (Nick Ikunda), and the strong bonds they have formed with these wild animals as they work with them and camp out amongst them, dreaming of safeguarding their lives and habitat. But passions were running high and the relationships between the husband and wife was deteriorating. In their stress at losing Elsa, Joy and George argued again and again and the hapless Makedde seems stuck in the middle. We see three greatly different personalities united by their often savage undertakings, with growling lion sounds used to separate scenes. Joy could seem uncaring and unkind, but when she reflected upon her beloved Elsa with such care and grace and love, we had more and more sympathy with this benevolent side of her.
There was no doubt that Joy and George loved each other, even when she leaves him after one argument too many. But perhaps they loved the animals more and this was certainly used as a metaphor to depict our relationship with the environment, something that is becoming more and more important in our modern lives.
Though set in the 1960’s, this was not a piece stuck in any particular time. For Joy it doesn’t end well, for irony of ironies, she was killed by one of her beloved lions. But you couldn’t help question if she maybe thought it was a good way to go. Lions deserve our attention and our love and gratitude in a crazier and crazier environment, where we are more dangerous to them than they are to us. They deserve this hour of passion, passionate writing, passionate observing and passionate interaction, this play did all three and it was great to see it being put on here at the Oran Mor.
Oran Mor, Glasgow
April 1-6, 2019
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
When we see anything Elvis we rediscover and find our affection for that iconic 20th century artiste. The stage was set with a blue neon lighting of a famous picture of the man himself and Joan/Elvis (Joyce Falconer) took to the stage fully dressed in jumpsuit and rhinestones for the Ultimate Elvis event to come. So much was packed into this hour at the Oran Mor that it seemed to have entertained us for a much longer time. There were various transformations of the set, changing from the dreamer’s bedroom to the lounge where her mother Agnes (Karen Ramsay) sat with her walking stick, to the club where as an Elvis impersonator Joan performed her socks off.
The applause was loud as the one-liners flew by, and also included appreciation of well performed scenes. Joan’s Doric Elvis character gleamed and endeared from the start, touching your heart as she dreamed of stardom that will take her away from her humdrum and impoverished life. Her mother Agnes doesn’t see it though and tells her beloved daughter to give it up: she will never succeed.
It becomes clear that Joan really loves her mum and tells us that she feels that Agnes needs her as much as Joan needs her mum. But there is conflict because with every chat Joan became more and more certain of a great career in entertainment. In reality, her gigs are karaoke nights at a local, but her dreams, like The King himself, are so much bigger than that.
Stuck in her wheelchair, Agnes would bang on the floor with her walking stick when Joan was practicing loudly in her room. And when she discovered that Joan had earned £100 she starts to change her mind. Joan tries to hide her wages from Agnes instead buying herself a new laptop, something that means a lot to her as we understand when she has an online conversation with Fat Bob the DJ (David McGowan). Perhaps Fat Bob could be a possible romantic interest for Joan, except that her heart belongs to Elvis.
Joan’s desire to succeed as a female Elvis grows stronger and stronger. We are filled with respect for her sheer determination and even her mother is won over as she makes a complete turn around and encourages her daughter to go for it. Suddenly we see that even this wheel chair ridden tough old Ma can also be an endearing character who could still live a life of riley.
The world of Elvis was and is flamboyant and larger than life, with more than a hint of sadness. Joyce Falconer takes us into that world with the same indomitable strength of perseverance, acceptance and striving personality that was the man himself. A fitting tribute to the great man, the King, and the dreams he has engendered in so many. Like the living man so was she in costume, dance and vocals, singing her heart out “Love me tender, love me true”… You have to see this play, it’s a gem!
29th March 2019
It was to have happened on the cusp of a very significant day. Living on an island, however, means we all know about delayed departures. Stewart Laing from National Theatre of Scotland was certainly prepared for anything and had asked all the 6 groups of commissioned artists to explore the idea of uncertainty as well as feelings about and relationships with Europe. I had just booked flights and accommodation for a week in Berlin next month, so I was feeling quite the European, and as the capacity audience filled three enormous tables the buzz was helped by drinks vouchers and 99 Red Balloons and similar on the soundtrack. Whatever the current Brexit situation, the show would be a truly historic cultural event, a chance to articulate something through art which could resonate and speak beyond the current fog. I, for one, was looking for some new perspectives.
With Gary McNair as MC, Tam Dean Burn was up first with Aquaculture Flagshipwreck, featuring music from fabulous mermaid and harpist, Rachel Newton. Up and down we were taken through a routine of standing and sitting to words from a Singing Kettle song after scrunching up pages from the FT to throw at the Mythical Wild Salmon dangling from the roof. Next a rather marvellous Scottish (Mexican) wave. Some vague jokes got vague laughs, but we rather enjoyed ourselves amid learning and repeating unpalatable information about salmon farming. Soon it was time for Tam Dean Burn to finish with a quote from Tom Leonard’s Flag, To the infant the sucking blanket/ To the adult the flag. /Salute.
We were underway and with a quick up the revolution Tam was off. But you don’t forget quotes like that, nor indeed invocations to revolution, however solitary. The audience were then split, half going upstairs to watch the dance performance whilst the rest saw moving through shadows, a film by Nima Sène and Daniel Hughes. I see I scribbled down a bit of a hotch potch just before the penny dropped that this was the beautiful point. Soundtrack of traffic, scenes within a Nigerian shop in Poland gave a warmth and reality to Ifi Ude’s story of the rich cultural synthesis which goes on when people travel and stay to create a new home. This should resonate with all of us time, if not cultural, travellers, living through change. And it did, especially as the performance slipped from film to live singing from Ifi herself. Having just flown in from Poland that afternoon, her singing was gorgeous and generous, both literally and metaphorically like a lamp in the dark. She sang a melancholy song from the Warsaw uprising and after this, who would not want to follow her to hear more Polish music, and find out more about the Haitian connection with Poland and the worship of the Black Madonna/Erzulie Dantor . Two stand-out quotes from this piece were, firstly from the film, It’s not home I miss, but belonging to the place, and secondly from the song Cię jutro Warszawo ma!/ Warsaw has tomorrow, one of the many calls to face the future which came throughout the evening, though one born of much more physically desperate times than these.
Some might say an alternative strategy could be to continue to face backwards and concentrate on controlling our borders. Leonie Rae Gasson’s piece, Death Becomes Us began with the mass distribution and instruction as to how to use headphones and blindfolds. Suitably sorted we heard urgently whispering voices, including Theresa May’s, telling us to take back control. What are the rules? The rules of origin, repeated again and again was our unsettling reminder of the ultimate foolishness of fixing all concepts of home in the past and for valuing backward facing visions above those facing forwards. Another gorgeous musical commentary followed orders to remove blindfolds and headphones with stunning singing and performance from Beldina Odenyo Onassis and a community chorus of women and non-binary European migrants who owned the resonant space they created and completely won over the audience.
By this stage (well OK, a lot was retrospective) I felt that important things had been said, and emotionally we had moved forward, but there was still a vagueness and a lack of a feeling of relevance. Two people changed all that, Louise Ahl and Ruarì O’Donnabhàin with their dance piece (created by Ruari and Nic Green) d’tùs maith is leath na h’oibre/ A good start is half the work. Their performance together was such a good example of the power of art to embody complex situations simply and powerfully. They were two dancers with a chair each which had been sawn in two but which they still had to use to sit on, balancing it with difficulty, changing position on it with tortuous care and manoeuvring with an awkwardness that was completely mesmerising. It seemed entirely fitting, and here was the proof that Dear Europe really was speaking to our times.
In contrast Cadaver Police in Quest of Aquatraz Exit was the entertaining, predominantly yellow, tee-shirt flinging, dystopian sci-fi creation of Alan McKendrick, and it rather passed me by, but was undoubtedly done with great panache and was well received. The band and actors were great, I just didn’t engage with the substance of the piece much though I did despite myself, really enjoy it.
So it was left to Second Citizen from Angus Farquhar (which he rhymed with darker, NB Garry McNair) to end the evening. The first half of his piece was as lucid, straightforward and ever so slightly dull as the Cadaver Police had been out there, elusive and exciting. Angus recounted his family’s European story, how WW1 had devastated many of its lives and ended several. He told us how he himself survived violent experiences of bullying and ostricisation, how, with the help and support of like minded people, he set off travelling, making music of great energy and edge at the same time. And it was his music that he left with the audience who could only wish that such inspirational energy could be directed where it is needed.
But one thing at a time. It had been a unique and memorable evening and it was late when the house lights came up and the audience went out into the dark to find their ways home.
Review: Catherine Eunson
Photography: Drew Farrell
The riotous Riddlestick Theatre are winging into Brighton…
Hello Tom, so where are you from & where are you at, geographically speaking?
I’m was born and brought up in and around Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire. I am now based in Bristol.
When did you first develop a passion for theatre?
I first developed a passion for theatre when I was about seventeen whilst studying Theatre Studies at A-Level. I had always loved performing and when I was ten years old I had the illuminating experience of playing the crocodile in a local production of Peter Pan which was great fun. But I only really fell in love with it once a dog-eared copy of Equus was thrust into my unworldly hands.
Can you tell us about your training?
I studied Drama: Theatre, Film, Television at the University of Bristol. There was a great balance there between practical work and theory. You’re making theatre and films, but also thinking critically about the craft. I enjoyed studying everything from documentaries to Jacobean tragedies, and of course all of these things inform one another in very exciting, inspiring ways. The fact that Bristol is such a wonderful city also helps. Most of the Riddlestick troupe met whilst studying there.
In a world where you can get entertainment ‘on demand’, what makes theatre special?
I think the act of physically travelling to a space to watch something is very important in this day and age. It reframes and disrupts the pattern of everything being at our fingertips. And of course the inherent liveness of theatre is one of the things that makes it so magical. I remember hearing Complicite Artistic Director Simon McBurney quote Blaise Pascal in an interview with the Edinburgh International Festival: “The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.” McBurney applies this rather sombre observation to the theatre by arguing that “in a way, the intensity of the moment of theatre in the present is about living.” It is a rare moment where, if the performance engages us, we collectively live in the present. These days, we need as much of that as we can get!
What does your perfect Sunday afternoon look like?
Beer in hand, looking at the Championship league table and seeing Leeds United in the top two.
You are a co-founder of Riddlestick Theatre; where, when & with whom was the company founded?
I founded the company with Kate Stokes back in 2016 in Bristol. However, the idea came a couple of years earlier when we were still at university. Kate and I write the shows together and Kate also plays the enchanting Madame Fanny. She is the company mastermind.
What kind of atmosphere are you trying to create?
That’s an important question, because creating an atmosphere is such a vital part of what we do on stage with Riddlestick. Echoing the minstrels and performers of bygone eras, we want to revitalise the tradition of travelling actor/musicians popping up in all sorts of different spaces and entertaining all sorts of diverse audiences. In a Riddlestick show, music fills the space. Stepping into a room with us should be like stepping into a secret carnivalesque party full of friends. A bit like in the film Titanic when Jack takes Rose down to the Irish party in third class. There’s a real sense of fun. There can be a lot of pretentiousness and snobbery in theatre. Shows that aim to make people laugh and have a good time are sometimes dismissed as being silly and somehow worth less. We’re certainly trying to cut through that. The simple act of bringing people together to share a story is hugely valuable in its own right.
You know a good show when its happened, what are the special ingredients?
As I’ve just mentioned, atmosphere is a really important part of it. There’s an elusive, ineffable aura that comes with some shows. Sometimes it hits you immediately, and sometimes it crawls up on you weeks later. Fascination. I like to feel fascinated. Whether it be a West End musical or a verbatim play about toxic masculinity, it’s always nice to be left with a mind full of fascination. In the immortal words of Danish pop group Alphabeat: “we live on fascination.”
Can you tell us about The Cabinet of Madame Fanny Du Thé?
The Cabinet of Madame Fanny Du Thé invites the audience to meet the eccentric 18th century explorer, Madame Fanny, and to take their pick from her cabinet of curiosities. For whichever curio they choose, we perform the elaborate tale behind it. Amongst other crazy events, she battles with pirates and parties with Marie Antoinette. But while we’re all revelling in her outrageous stories, somebody far more serious is on the way to bring her down to earth. It’s a celebration of curiosity and story-telling, with lots of live original music, and we allow the audience to hand-pick the tall tales they are told.
Can you tell us about the musical side of ‘The Cabinet’.
Music is a huge part of the show! For starters, there are lots of songs. We draw inspiration from a different genre for each of the different stories we tell, Django Reinhardt hot jazz and Kraftwerk-inspired surreal techno to name but a couple; all woven together with our folky sound. Pretty much the entire show is underscored. I guess if I had to pick one primary influence, it would be Balkan folk music. You can head to our Spotify and Vimeo pages to get a taste of the music we like listening to. On stage with us we have a guitar, cello, piano-accordion and six voices that help conjure up Fanny’s world of adventure. Most of the time, we’re performing in very intimate spaces which really allows us to fill the room with sound whilst creating a real spectacle in the process.
Being a pop-up theatre, you must have to make certain sacrifices in stagecraft – can you give us an example or two of what is affected, & how as a troupe you adapt to the situation?
We love it! Aside from making technical rehearsals a hell of a lot easier, it is actually very freeing. It’s about stripping theatre back to its storytelling essence. There’s no hiding place. We create this array of worlds on stage with only our words, bodies, instruments and a little basket of props. And most importantly, it means we can be truly accessible and take the show everywhere and anywhere. One of my favourite memories of doing this show was when we performed it in a forest at Brainchild Festival (just up the road from Brighton), peeping out from behind trees, the audience all huddled together in blankets, the sun peeking through the branches, with only the distant sound of kids wailing at the nearby Go Ape to compete with.
You are bringing ‘The Cabinet’ to this year’s Brighton Fringe, what are your thoughts on that romantic, seagirt city?
I love coming to Brighton (usually on a replacement bus). It’s an incredibly vibrant, welcoming and creative place. Plus it’s often sunny when I’ve been there. Long may that continue.
You’ve got 20 seconds to sell the play to somebody in the streets of Brighton, what would you say?
Come to our riotous musical comedy and choose the curious tales we tell! Action, romance, comedy, tragedy, brilliant live music, a fabulous and fierce leading lady and a bunch of men in dresses. One of the Guardian’s Best Shows at the Edinburgh Fringe 2018!
What will you be doing for the rest of 2019?
We have a couple of other festival dates cropping up later this year, and I’m delighted to say that Fanny will be going on another summertime jaunt to the Scottish capital in August. Beyond that, there may well be a new show lurking up our collective sleeves.
May 4-6 (20:30)
Thu 21 March – Saturday 6 April
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
Kai Fischer’s Perth Theatre production of Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 melodrama serves us a reminder that mental abuse in marriage is not a new phenomenon. In the psychologically claustrophobic setting of a Victorian era parlour, we watch husband Jack Manningham assert brutal control over wife Bella, who’s mind is crumbling under his suffocating and sustained attempt to undermine the foundations of her sanity. Bella appears to lose trivial everyday objects, bills, jewellery and has begun hiding things around the house. This infuriates Jack, who, near the end of his tether, has threatened Bella with the asylum if she doesn’t stop. But Bella can’t stop and what’s worse, when Jack goes out at night she has begun to hear strange noises coming from the unoccupied rooms upstairs and the gas lights dim eerily only to brighten when he comes home. She’s lost control.
Esme Bayley plays a suffering Bella with an air of hand-wringing paralysis. At times she stands, ghostlike, at the side of the stage and comments on the action of her husband, as he toys with the churlish maid, Nancy, played by Ruby Richardson, and it seems like she’s resigned herself to incipient insanity. That is, until Rough, a retired policeman enters out of the smoggy London evening to turn her life around. He’s been watching the comings and goings of the house for some time and knows about Jack’s attempts to derange Bella. Meg Fraser’s Rough is a breath of fresh air into the stifling gloom of the Victorian parlour, infusing spirit into Bella and the resolve to reclaim her sanity. Having the ageing constable played by a woman works wonderfully, suggesting that in the face of abuse like this, it’s women who must confront abusive male greed and coercive power with the liberating truth, concern and right.
With Bella’s dawning realisation, Jack’s true nature is uncovered. Robin Laing portrays a thoroughly cold and cunning Jack, who treats everything as his to be used. A snake in a suit, he’s outwardly respectable and charming but oozes corruption self-interest and greed. I’ve not enjoyed disliking a character so much in ages. Needless to say, the ending of Gaslight is not a little satisfying. It’s an interesting thought that laws recognising emotional coercion or “gaslighting” (yes, that’s where it gets the name) as a crime only came into effect recently. Yet the behaviour, clearly, is not new. Gaslight left me wondering just what does go on behind ordinary everyday closed doors, when the curtains go down and the lights get lit.
Review: Mark Mckenzie
Photography: Mihaela Bodlovic