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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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Friday, April 30, 2010

Peter Pan, theatre review

Published in Northings

Peter Pan
King's Theatre, Glasgow, 27 April 2010, and touring

IN INTERVIEWS to promote this National Theatre of Scotland reworking of the JM Barrie classic, director John Tiffany has talked about the ambitious scale of the production. With its 17-strong cast, live music, extensive flying and pyrotechnic magic, it is bigger, he reckons, even than his staging of 'Black Watch'.

This may well be the case but, for all the considerable achievements of Tiffany's various collaborators, their combined efforts seem to squash the story's playfulness. It is a production too much about shade, too little about light.

In David Greig's new version of the play, the setting has moved north from prim Kensington to steely Edinburgh, where boys toss red-hot rivets to the men constructing the Forth Rail Bridge and swing dangerously from the scaffolding for a dare. The design by Laura Hopkins evokes the three great diamond structures of the crossing which, when we move to Neverland, cleverly turn to reveal their more organic side. Now the landscape is one of cairns and crags, a place instilled with the song and folklore of the Highlands.

This transition from the industrial city to the elemental countryside makes a good deal of sense. Barrie, whose 150th anniversary is in May, grew up in Kirriemuir in Angus, but achieved fame in London. It is reasonable to assume he would have associated his world of childhood fantasy with the sprites and fairies of Scottish folklore, while his understanding of grown-up order would have been largely metropolitan. Thus in a play that is all about the struggle between the adult head and the childhood heart, the journey north feels psychologically right.

There is a clear logic, too, in Greig's gentle narrative revisions as Peter Pan and the Lost Boys do battle with Captain Hook and his pirates. Yet somehow it all seems a bit of an effort. Yes, there is some entertaining aerial work, such as when Peter Pan walks down the side of the proscenium arch. Yes, the illusions, courtesy of Jamie Harrison, are dazzling, especially the free-floating fiery ball that is Tinkerbell. And yes, Davey Anderson's score is wide-ranging and atmospheric.

But the production lacks definition. It's partly that there are often so many people on stage you can't work out who is talking, partly that there is a lot of shouty acting and partly that the hazy light never lifts. But on a deeper level, it is that there is not enough joy in Peter's world for it to seem irresistibly enticing and, conversely, not enough sense of a failed romance to compel Wendy back towards adulthood.

As a result, the central clash of opposing wills is muted and we don't feel the full tragic weight of the loss of childhood and the inevitability of growing up.

Peter Pan is at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, from 1-5 June, and His Majesty’s Tehatre, Aberdeen, from 15-19 June 2010.

© Mark Fisher, 2010

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Monday, April 26, 2010

The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, theatre reivew

Published in The Guardian

The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?

Traverse, Edinburgh
4 out of 5

Stevie finds out about her husband's affair in Edward Albee's thrilling drama from a letter sent by their old friend Ross. What he wrote, she says, was "awful and absurd, but it wasn't a joke".

The awful and the absurd are constants in Albee's career, from the excruciating battles of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to the talking lizards in Seascape. You expect The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, first seen in 2002, to fall into the absurd category. After all, Stevie's 22-year marriage is under threat because husband Martin has fallen for a goat.

Stevie might not find this funny, but Dominic Hill's firecracker of a production sparks off many a laugh. Martin's passion, which he insists is reciprocal and romantic and not just bestial, is so extreme it is comical, all the more so given the orthodoxy of Jonathan Fensom's living-room set and Martin's career as an architect.

But the real power of Albee's play, beyond the stinging dialogue and gripping clash of wills, lies in the fact that it is awful and not absurd. Having warmed us up with bestiality, the playwright tries us with paedophilia and incest. In describing real taboos – nothing absurd about these – he forces us to consider ambiguous areas where harm is neither intended nor suffered. If we are to be shocked, we must define our terms with the same pedantry that Martin shows to the English language.

That is why the husband's downfall comes not because, abstractly, he has violated social standards, but because, concretely, he has betrayed his wife, something she demonstrates with blood-curdling clarity at the end. Superb performances from Sian Thomas, John Ramm, Paul Birchard and Kyle McPhail do tremendous justice to an unnerving play.

Until 8 May. Box office: 0131-228 1404.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Treasure Island, Wee Stories theatre review

Published in Northings

Treasure Island
King's Theatre, Edinburgh

IAIN JOHNSTONE is adrift on a raft in the middle of the ocean. Talking directly to the audience, he sets the scene. "No ships, no land, no aeroplanes," he says. This being the day UK airports have finally reopened after the Icelandic volcano, it is an adlib that gets a laugh of recognition.

And it is far from being the only laugh in this two-man adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's high-seas page-turner. That might come as a surprise to those who love the novel for its sense of adventure, pace and danger, rather than for its knockabout laughs, but the ever reliable Wee Stories theatre company is brilliant at injecting the best kind of fun and enthusiasm into the most serious of tales.

As it has done with Arthurian legend, Shakespearean tragedy and Greek myth, the company introduces young audiences to a powerful, dramatic story in a way that is both deeply respectful of the original and unafraid to have a giggle.

Thus, it presents Stevenson's 1883 story in terms of two musicians who are lost at sea with only bananas and champagne to keep them going. The company gives us not only a retelling of the tale of teenager Jim Hawkins and his voyage with an unsavoury crew in search of buried treasure, but also a framing narrative about two men who are becoming increasingly fed up of each other's company.

Joined by Andy Cannon, Johnstone passes the time by acting out Treasure Island, a book both men adore. They score laughs in their bickering relationship and their arguments about how to stage the story, but never in a way that diminishes their passion for the piratical adventure itself.

The approach also comes with a built-in theatricality. Stranded on their raft, Johnstone and Cannon can tell the story only with the material immediately to hand. They use bananas for guns, empty bottles for additional characters and a double bass for a galleon. They make scratch costumes with whatever is to hand and make quick changes as they run though Stevenson's colourful cast of seamen and landlubbers.

The result is a highly entertaining show that trusts the power of the imagination and captures the excitement of Stevenson's swashbuckling story, doing so in an unpretentious and lively way.

Treasure Island is at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, from 28 April to 1 May 2010.

© Mark Fisher, 2010

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Cherry Orchard, Royal Lyceum theatre review

Published in The Guardian

The Cherry Orchard

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
4 out of 5

The story of Margaret Thatcher's premiership is usually told in terms of a right-left struggle between establishment and workers. But as John Byrne sees it in this invigorating and very funny retelling of the Chekhov classic, it was also a conflict between old money and the self-made man.

The Lopakhin who triumphs over this family estate in north-east Scotland at the end of the winter of discontent is, like Thatcher, the child of a grocer. Renamed Malcolm McCracken – and played with outsider toughness by Andy Clark – he represents the first stirrings of the loadsamoney generation: cash-rich and empathy-poor. His vision for turning the land over to holiday homes ("City living in the heart of the Highlands") is preferable to a rival scheme for a leisure centre and golf complex, but it is insensitive to the priceless beauty of the cherry orchard.

Not that the old guard are any better. They are an anachronistic bunch even for 1979, all tweedy superiority with a gift for blanking out anything they don't want to hear. We feel no nostalgia for their decadent spending on boozy lunches and helicopter rides around the Eiffel Tower. Only Maureen Beattie as an elegant Madame Ranevskaya – renamed Mrs Ramsay-Mackay – shows a level of sensitivity beneath the fecklessness.

What is remarkable about the switch from pre-revolution Russia to pre-devolution Scotland is how snugly it fits. Unlike similar transpositions, Tony Cownie's production – weak on thwarted romance, strong on comic timing – works on its own terms and allows you to forget the context of the original. Faithful to the line if not the letter of Chekhov, Byrne's adaptation trades serfs and samovars for Bagpuss and chicken chow mein, giving the play an immediacy that makes sense of its dramatic conflict while reflecting on the political movements of our own times.

Until 8 May. Box office: 0131-248 4848.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Thursday, April 08, 2010

Huxley's Lab, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Huxley's Lab

Informatics Forum, Edinburgh University
4 out of 5

It is nearly 80 years since Aldous Huxley published Brave New World, and around 60 since eugenics was discredited, so this site-specific collaboration between Grid Iron and Lung Ha's theatre company might easily have seemed old hat. Set in a clinic where test-tube babies are fed alcohol to determine their social status, Huxley's Lab is a dystopian vision of a culture hell-bent on perfection. Yet rather than treading familiar ground, the production by Ben Harrison and Maria Oller is fresh, funny and polemical.

One reason for this is the building itself. The Informatics Forum is an open-plan university block, its glass windows looking on to academics and computer terminals. The air of cool efficiency is in keeping with the lab coats and hollow slogans of the staff at the fictional Huxley Laboratories, who take us on a tour of the building, from lecture room to Soma lounge. This is creepily plausible, but most haunting is the rooftop garden where the lawless "naturals" lead a life of carnivalesque abandon.

Those "naturals" are played by the disabled actors of Lung Ha's, as is the self-hating mastermind, Professor Huxley (Stephen Tait). Their presence – joyful, vulgar, defiant – is a stinging reminder of what happens when eugenics is applied to the splendid variety of real life.

Harrison's script successfully connects a crackpot theory from the 1930s to today. All too convincingly, the staff promote an atomised lifestyle that rejects the messiness of the family in favour of pneumatic bodies and pornographic pleasure. Quoting the infamous Kate Moss line, "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels," the play brilliantly engages with a deep neurosis in our "fitter, better, more productive" time.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Raspberry, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Raspberry

Tron, Glasgow
3 out of 5

Christine Bruno enters in virulent pink tights, a dirty grey tutu and a wayward string of pearls. Her mop of curly hair heads in every direction. It's a look of punkish defiance, a style at once idiosyncratic and recognisably late-70s. That she is wearing callipers and being wheeled around the stage on a porter's trolley only adds to the effect.

Such gleeful non-conformity was the stock-in-trade of Ian Dury, whose subversive ghost haunts Garry Robson's play. With music by Leigh Stirling, Raspberry summons up the confrontational spirit of a musician whose contribution to the United Nations' International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981 was a song called Spasticus Autisticus.

Robson himself plays Dury, back from the dead, with the kind of acerbic bite captured by actor Andy Serkis in the recent biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, plus a warm charm that is all his own. In his two-tone jacket and shiny red DMs, he is a bald-headed people's poet with an unsanctimonious message about the perils of body fascism.

Bruno plays a character called Raspberry, a cute nickname if her mother hadn't been thinking of the rhyming slang for cripple. She doesn't want to deny her disability, she just doesn't want to be defined by it. Her quest is to live without being judged by others.

Directed by Gordon Dougall in a three-way split between Fittings Multimedia, Sounds of Progress and the Tron, Raspberry has an appropriately reckless atmosphere, down to the anvil and climbing frame that serve as impromptu percussion instruments. Artist Keith McIntyre adds a touch of class with his monochrome set, a chalky blackboard with dated images of bodily perfection, from a bathing belle to a robot and an American wrestler.

It has the promise of a dynamic show, but the oddball texture of the staging is let down by an inconsequential story. Having given his spiky advice to Raspberry, the Dury figure evaporates. The woman's encounter with her self-hating father, meanwhile, is a soap opera scene and not a fully fledged drama.

The energy might flag during the dialogue, but it never lets up during the songs. These are the real heart of the performance, evoking the sound of the Blockheads with Jankelesque keyboards, jazz-funk rhythms and choppy guitar to match the playful lyrics that, in true Dury style, are at once erudite and earthy. That's good enough reason to be cheerful.

At Traverse, Edinburgh (0131-228 1404), Thursday to Saturday. Then touring.

© Mark Fisher

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