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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Monday, June 22, 2009

Good Things, theatre review

Published in Northings.

GOOD THINGS

Pitlochry Festival Theatre, Pitlochry

MARK FISHER reckons Pitlochry’s new production of Liz Lochhead’s play betters the original.

IT’S RARE enough to see a second staging of a recent Scottish play, but Pitlochry Festival Theatre is earning a reputation not only for championing such work, but for doing it better than the debut productions. After turning out an interpretation of Outlying Islands by David Greig last year that was superior to the Traverse Theatre premiere, the company has revived Liz Lochhead's five-year-old mid-life crisis comedy Good Things and exceeded the fine Borderline original.

This is only in part because the play is such an ideal match for the Pitlochry audience. Being a typically older crowd, they are instinctively attuned to the concerns of Lochhead's central character, Susan Love, a 49-year-old mother who has been dumped by her husband for a younger, more fertile model. Like the books and clothes in the Glasgow charity shop where she works, Susan is a "good thing" that nobody wants, a woman full of life, love and good humour, whose potential is going to waste.

The story Lochhead tells has a girl-meets-boy familiarity, the difference being that instead of a teenage search for romance, this is a quest belonging to an older generation; a little less intense, perhaps, but no less in earnest. Aiming for the atmosphere of feelgood Christmas movies and modelling her plot on Cinderella, the playwright fashions a wish-fulfilment fantasy that is full of the raw detail of senile parents, dying relatives and bolshie teenage daughters. It is very funny even as it acknowledges the bleak truth of our mortality.

There are weaknesses in the play, which sometimes drags under the weight of charity shop routine and Lochhead's love of a big speech, but in Ken Alexander's assured production, it is hilarious, big hearted and touching. Alan Steele and Isabelle Joss do a splendid job playing multiple characters thanks to quick changes in the wings, while Dougal Lee makes a worthy flesh-and-blood Prince Charming, a laidback widower with the gift of a pair of red shoes.

But the absolute highlight in a terrific cast is Carol Ann Crawford as Susan. Sad but not self-pitying, angry but not vicious, funny but not arrogant, she paints a humane, empathetic portrait of a woman trying to make a fresh start with all the hope, vulnerability and good cheer you could wish for in a Cinderella.

Good Things is in repertory at Pitlochry until October.

© Mark Fisher, 2009

What Every Woman Knows, theatre review

Published in Northings

What Every Woman Knows

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

J M BARRIE is best known as the creator of Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn't grow up. Here in the Kirriemuir playwright's 1908 play, What Every Woman Knows, we find another boy who wouldn't grow up, except on the surface the circumstances are very different.

John Shand – played by a suitably unreflexive Christopher Daley – is a self-made man who has worked his way up from railway porter to MP through a combination of natural intelligence, unstoppable self-belief and dogged application. His achievement is great, but it is at the expense of self-knowledge. When it comes to emotional intelligence, he is a child – perhaps even less than a child, for not only is he incapable of expressing love, he has no sense of humour and cannot laugh.

Maggie Wylie – played with great sensitivity by Irene Allan – is emotionally damaged in another way. She has grown up under the misapprehension that she is charmless and unlovable and that she counts for nothing in a man's world. Her inferiority complex nearly cripples her.

The two make an unlikely couple – indeed, it is a relationship forged only from a financial deal with the woman's family – and, inevitably, their marriage implodes. John feels the rush of sexual attraction (for another woman) for the first time, just as Maggie is getting to grips with being the real power behind his throne. It’s a crisis that forces them to realign their relationship and the play ends with some hope of equality in the battle of the sexes.

In this, the play comes across as lightweight Ibsen or less verbose Shaw, a proto-feminist parable infused with Barrie's observations about the class divide, the grip of the establishment and the behind-the-scenes nature of political power. In psychological terms, it is about two lost children reaching a sense of wholeness and maturity through each other, although the play's fear of sexuality probably speaks more of Barrie's own hang-ups.

John Durnin's production has something of the stiffness of John Shand himself, but it shows off a little seen play to good effect and rattles along entertainingly, almost enough to overlook Elizabeth Graham's terrible French accent.

What Every Woman Knows is in repertory at Pitlochry until October.

© Mark Fisher, 2009

Whisky Galore, theatre review

Published in Northings.

WHISKY GALORE – A MUSICAL! (Pitlochry Festival Theatre)

GETTING A musical right is one of the hardest jobs in the theatre. Many a brilliant song has been axed on Broadway when it was blamed for hampering the rhythm of the show. And when musicals flop they flop spectacularly.

So it's a double credit to Pitlochry Festival Theatre that not only is the premiere of Whisky Galore thoroughly entertaining, but it is also the first musical ever to be staged there. Whether it would survive the rigours of Broadway is a moot point, because Ken Alexander's feelgood production, with a sparkling cast of 14, makes a perfect fit for the theatre in the hills. It’s a wonder they never did a musical before.

Shona McKee McNeil (book) and Ian Hammond Brown (music and lyrics) have gone back to the Compton Mackenzie novel as their source, although those who love the Ealing film will still recognise the tone of gentle comedy. It means we see the story of the Scottish islanders – whose wartime whisky drought is eased when a boat sheds its cargo of "uisge beatha" – both in terms of World War II rationing and in the context of religious rivalry.

Part of an all-Scottish season of plays, it is a distinctively Scottish story, one informed by the tensions of island versus mainland, Scotland versus England and Catholic versus Protestant. In this context, the haul of whisky comes to represent an antidote to military order and Calvinist repression, symbolising the freedom denied by war and religious dogma. It's no accident that its return to the island coincides with the marriage of two sweethearts, the promise of another union and the return of social harmony.

There's a good deal of musical harmony too in the show, which draws influence from sea shanties and traditional folk melodies as well as Andrews Sisters-era popular song and more familiar musicals’ territory. The versatile cast join in on washboard, bagpipes, trumpets, guitars and penny whistles, giving a flavour to the production that is as indigenous as Ken Harrison's island set with its clever impression of the island's scale.

Hammond Brown's love songs have a tendency towards clichè (there's a lot of "bottom of my heart" and "I have a dream" type stuff), but more typically he does a great job at pushing the story forward clearly and tunefully. In the first half, McKee McNeil rather labours the point about the lack of whisky, and the act could be 20 minutes shorter, but she captures the innocent spirit of the original in an honest and unobtrusive way.

Above all, the cast do a tremendous job at keeping things buoyant – everyone is good, but particularly strong are Gillian Ford and Shirley Darroch as the would-be wives – and it’s a great demonstration of what the big Pitlochry ensemble can achieve when it pulls out all the stops.

Whisky Galore is in repertory at Pitlochry until October.

© Mark Fisher, 2009

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Singin' I'm No a Billy He's a Tim, theatre review

Published in The Guardian.

Singin' I'm No a Billy He's a Tim

3 out of 5

Ever since Hector McMillan's The Sash in 1974, there has been a popular market in Scotland for broad comedies on a sectarian theme. And one look at the audience crowding into the Citizens tells you Des Dillon's Singin' I'm No a Billy He's a Tim is reaching the parts that other theatre can't reach. Produced by the unfunded NLP company, with an uninspiring, low-budget set, it has enjoyed a second sell-out tour of Scotland, with dates lined up in Northern Ireland later in the year. All this while passing under the theatre establishment radar.

You couldn't call it sophisticated, but the production is good fun. Dillon's key gag is to throw two football fans from either side of Glasgow's sectarian divide - Catholic Celtic, Protestant Rangers - into a police cell on the day of an Old Firm match. Tim and Billy (nobody said this was subtle) have to negotiate a path between their desire to see the game and their inbred hatred of each other. In the process, they realise the foolishness of their bigotry.

The trajectory is predictable; the skill lies in Dillon's careful balance between recognising, even celebrating the tribal affiliations of both sides and pointing out that the kind of songs that glory in being "up to our knees in Fenian blood" would be intolerable in any other cultural setting. His raucous sense of humour and keen understanding of the west-coast sectarian mindset make his sisters-under-the-skin message seem a matter of urgency and not just a liberal platitude.

In this, he is aided by the tremendous performances of Scott Kyle (Billy) and Colin Little (Tim), who have a perfect feel for the machismo of the terraces, the stakes involved in the peace process and the no-nonsense comedy of Dillon's script.

© Mark Fisher, 2009