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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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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Rough Crossing, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Rough Crossing

Pitlochry Festival Theatre
1 out of 5

Let us agree: theatre does not have to be about big ideas. Let us accept it can be a brilliantly executed artifice, as with Michael Frayn's Noises Off, also playing this season at Pitlochry. Let us acknowledge it can be lightweight, frivolous and throwaway – fun for fun's sake.

But having allowed ourselves that, can we also make a case for Rough Crossing? What is the purpose, whether it be ambitious or modest, of Tom Stoppard's free reworking of Ferenc Molnár's The Play at the Castle? Is there any reason it should exist?

Set on a transatlantic liner in the early 1930s, Rough Crossing is about a musical playwriting partnership who have to knock their new work into shape before its Broadway premiere. The only problem – and how tediously minor a problem it is – is that the composer's fiancee, who is also the leading lady, appears to be rekindling her interest in the leading man. If they can persuade the composer he has overheard a script rehearsal and not an amorous heart-to-heart, they just might get the show finished.

There is nothing especially wrong with Richard Baron's production that a little less shouting and less of a mismatch in the casting wouldn't cure, yet even by the standards of daft comedy, the play simply fails to entertain. Once Stoppard has fielded a few meta-theatrical ideas, strung out a joke about a speech impediment and endlessly repeated a gag about the waiter always getting the writer's drink, we are left with nothing but a bunch of self-satisfied toffs, a bad play-within-a-play and an inconsequential romantic tiff.

You could write it off as a dull night out, if the play didn't seem so smugly enamoured of its own emptiness. That makes it not just pointless, but offensive, too.

In rep until 13 October. Box office: 01796 484626.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Kiss Me Kate, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Kiss Me Kate

Pitlochry Festival
3 out of 5

The lights come up on the second half, and the Pitlochry summer ensemble shows its colours. It is time for Too Darn Hot, Cole Porter's slinky, sticky jazz number, and the large cast is out in force. As with the company's first musical, Whisky Galore, nominated in Sunday's Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland, the actors not only prove themselves fine singers, but also spirited musicians, bringing clarinets and saxophones with them on stage. This time, they also dance.

It's an exuberant display, eclipsed in intensity only by Kate Quinnell's rendition of Always True to You in My Fashion, a gutsy solo as tightly choreographed as it is formidably performed. John Durnin's production is confidently sung and slickly staged, but too many of the songs have only a tangential connection to the story of two feuding actors performing a bowdlerised version of The Taming of the Shrew.

This is a weakness of the original – that and its curious failure to challenge the misogyny of Shakespeare's play – but it isn't helped by a production that makes little distinction between the characters' backstage and on-stage personas. In the stage-door scenes, the actors strip the script of its comedy by signalling their reactions. In the on-stage scenes, they give no sense of whether their showbiz troupe is good, bad or indifferent, making it hard to tell where their "real" emotions are showing through.

Martine McMenemy and Graham Vick perform the Katherine and Petruchio roles with zest and authority, but it's hard to care whether or not they are reunited. The music, rather than the romance, carries the show.

In rep until 16 October. Box office: 01796 484626.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Noises Off, theatre review

Published in Northings

Noises Off

Pitlochry Festival Theatre, Pitlochry, 9 June 2010, and in repertory until October

AFTER LAST year's all-Scottish season at Pitlochry, the theatre has lined up a set of plays that look at the idea of going away. You probably wouldn't have spotted that if you hadn't read it in the programme, but it is hard to miss the coincidental theme that is running in parallel.

Just as Kiss Me Kate is about a theatre company staging a version of The Taming of the Shrew, so Noises Off is about a theatre company staging a fictitious old-school farce called Nothing On. Elsewhere in the summer repertoire, Rough Crossing is about two playwrights sailing towards a Broadway premiere, and Bus Stop features a nightclub singer and a Shakespeare scholar.

You have to be on your guard when theatre people start looking in at themselves, but Pitlochry is hardly the place for meta-theatrical conceits, so it is with much good-hearted silliness – not to mention breathless door-slamming – that it is giving an airing to Michael Frayn's brilliantly conceived comedy.

Noises Off is a case of a playwright having his farce and eating it – three times over, in fact. On one level, the play is a send-up of every farce that ever put laughs ahead of plausibility. It is about a third-rate touring company playing the backwater theatres of England with a nine-door farce that makes little narrative sense. They scarcely know their lines, still less what to do with their props and, in Ken Alexander's production, Jacqueline Dutoit even seems to be channelling the spirit of Julie Walter's Mrs Overall from Acorn Antiques.

But for all the preposterousness of Nothing On, it is actually a perfectly synchronised machine, generating near misses, confusion and sexual embarrassment with every opening door. You can imagine it being pretty funny if you saw it for real.

To demonstrate his admiration of the form, Frayn brilliantly plays the same act three times, each supposedly in a different town and each from a different perspective. As the actors fall in and out with each other from the pressures of life on the road, the play becomes a farce about a farce. Few of the characters survive the middle act without their trousers pulled over their ankles.

The acting is sometimes overstated – Noises Off is hard-wired to work without any underlining from the actors – and the characterisations could be more clearly defined, but more typically the cast is tireless and funny, and makes it look as if Frayn's surreal vision is entirely logical. As ever, it goes down a storm.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2010 preview

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2010 preview

LIVING in Scotland, it is easy to take the Edinburgh Fringe for granted. Veterans of the world's biggest arts jamboree flick through the programme and think they know it all. Others observe it is too big – as they have been doing since the whole event was the size of just one of today's bigger venues – and consider this a justification to ignore it altogether.
Yet name any other city on the planet where, in the space of three weeks, it would be anything less than extraordinary to see shows in the back of a campervan (Running on Air), on the swings of a play park (Decky Does a Bronco) and in a real apartment done up like the home of a woman sex-trafficked to Scotland from Nigeria (Roadkill).

That is in addition to two shows – yes, two – in which the audience roams the streets taking directions from an iPod. Suspicious Package is an "iPod noir" that leads you up and down the closes off the Royal Mile, while En Route equips you with a mobile phone and an iPod and sends you out to discover the "choreography of Edinburgh".

Did I mention the meal you can eat while dangling from a crane 100ft above West Princes Street Gardens? How about a site-specific Dracula? Or a Japanese show, Continent, described as a mime-based adventure inspired by the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink? There are 2,453 shows where these came from.

For anyone with a taste for cultural excitement, this is Christmas come early – although it is a shame so many of the presents were unwrapped ahead of time. Feeling the pressure to sell large numbers of tickets, several venues broke the traditional silence to open their box offices ahead of Thursday's launch. The Underbelly blinked first, announcing its headline McEwan Hall acts in March. Assembly followed suit by putting some of its bigger acts on sale early and going public with its programme for West Princes Street Gardens at the start of this week. Sensitive to the competition, the Stand Comedy Club put its entire programme online early.

The promoters are hoping people will snap up the bigger name tickets in advance and, come August, find new money in their pockets for the smaller acts.

Let's hope they're right, because breaking embargos and using the competitive tactics of big business sits uncomfortably with the age-old Fringe ethos of hand-knitted artistry. A sense of surprise and discovery plays a big part in the mythology of the Fringe and you won't get that by taking a safe bet on a well-known act.

The good thing, still, about this vast festival is it has room for both ends of the spectrum. You can go to Forest Fringe and pay nothing to see off-beat theatrical experiments.

And you can pay £22 to see Dizzee Rascal play the Corn Exchange. A show such as Hull Truck's Up 'n' Under ticks several boxes: on the one hand, it stars Abi Titmuss, whose glamour-model-turned-actor credentials are as mainstream as they get; on the other, it is by John Godber, whose plays, such as Bouncers, have been popular Fringe draws for decades.

Likewise, the plays put on by comedians in recent years exemplify the Fringe's capacity to be at once popular and enterprising. This year, you can see Gutted: A Revenger's Musical, a Rocky Horror-style romp in which well-known stand-ups reveal their hitherto unknown vocal prowess; Itch, in which the Comedians Theatre Company gives a first airing to new plays; and Duality, in which ventriloquist David Strassman combines high-tech puppetry with psychiatric theory. If Daniel Kitson maintains the form of recent years, his early morning storytelling session, It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later, will be sublime.

For the purist there is no shortage of unadulterated comedy (Stewart Lee, Emo Philips, Jennifer Coolidge) pop music (Beirut, Eels, Mika), and theatre (Simon Callow, Clark Peters, anything at the Traverse), as well as more dance, classical music and kids shows than most people see in a lifetime. This alone should be reason enough not to take the Fringe for granted. It is a magnificent cultural flowering which, despite the commercial pressures, continues to surprise even the most seasoned spectator.

On Thursday, I spoke to David Bates, the impresario behind the much-loved Spiegel Garden, returning to George Square after a year away. He said people had been asking him if he was concerned about Assembly's plans for a similar tent in Princes Street Gardens, but he was sanguine about it.

From his perspective, the Fringe is a great free market economy and if someone is doing something well, the challenge is for him to do his thing even better. As long as promoters have that attitude, the punters will continue to get an experience unmatched anywhere on the planet.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe runs from 6-30 August; tickets are on sale now. www.edfringe.com

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Little Johnny's Big Gay Wedding, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Little Johnny's Big Gay Wedding

Langside Hall, Glasgow
4 out of 5

For a recap of the story of modern theatre, check out this daft and delightful mock wedding reception by Random Accomplice and the National Theatre of Scotland. It is a whirlpool collision of performance art, site-specific theatre, pantomime, camp, Broadway musical, sentimental drama, standup comedy and first-person confessional. There's even a line from Shakespeare.

As with any mongrel, it is not perfect, but its imperfections are part of its bold and original charm. Fans of writer and performer Johnny McKnight have followed him through Little Johnny's Big Gay Adventure and his Big Gay Musical. Now it is time for the wedding and, although Mr Right has not shown up, it is a great opportunity for McKnight to fill us in on his extended Ayrshire family as we sit around tables laden with toffee bon-bons and cola cubes.

The joke is that we are part of the family and get drawn into his tales of feuds, romances and misfortunes, according to what it says on our name tags. I get to be David, a drug dealer. It's raucous stuff, delivered at breakneck speed by McKnight, looking fetching in a white dress and handsome in a kilt, and holding the room with the charisma of a skilled MC.

From behind the stories of mental illness, illegitimate children and sibling rivalry – deliciously interrupted by a chorus line of singing waiters – emerges a sweet meditation on the true nature of love. For all his ribald satire, McKnight is a generous observer who paints an affectionate portrait of the bonds holding a community together.

It could be even funnier and still more touching, and the bitchy relationship between McKnight and his "best man" Julie Brown (who also directs) could be better developed, but it is vivid and warm-hearted, and unifies its audience in love and laughter.

Until Saturday. Box office: 0141-552 4267.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Friday, June 04, 2010

Any Given Day, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Any Given Day

Traverse, Edinburgh
4 out of 5

With a Linda McLean play, you can bet on two things. One is characters who are held together by the bonds of family loyalty and the memory of some past trauma. The other is a mould-breaking dramatic structure that reflects the characters' emotional fragmentation. In Any Given Day, which is as bold, unnerving and fraught as anything she has written, you get both.

You don't know it at first, but the play ultimately belongs to Kate Dickie's Jackie, a nurse who has retreated from private and professional pressure to take up a job as a barmaid. As with so many Dickie roles, she is a woman whose hard, cautious exterior protects a turbulent inner life. On the surface, she is efficient, direct and unyielding; inside, she has the helplessness of a mother who cannot relieve her son's pain and of a niece who can never do enough for her mentally disabled relatives.

What is particularly unsettling for the audience in Dominic Hill's gripping production is the feeling that we know these relatives. We have met them earlier in the evening, played exquisitely by real-life brother and sister Kathryn and Lewis Howden. With its spare, elemental dialogue evoking a tenement version of David Harrower's Knives in Hens, this first act is a loving, amusing and sad portrait of a couple who have difficulty performing everyday tasks and greater difficulty still coping with an intolerant society. It ends horribly.

By the time we encounter Dickie as she interrupts an awkward flirtation with her boss to phone them and cancel her visit, the relatives are just a memory. McLean refuses to satisfy our desire for narrative completion with a third-act reunion, leaving us instead with the taste of guilt and irresolution. Yet she gives us compassion, too, for Jackie has done no wrong, and this tragedy of urban alienation is no more of her making than it is of ours.

Until 19 June. Box office: 0131-228 1404.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Allotment, theatre review

Published by The Scotsman

ALLOTMENT ****

GOVAN CROSS SHOPPING CENTRE, GLASGOW
THEY tell us we live in a hyper-connected world where anyone who is not already your Facebook friend is only a Chatroulette encounter away.

We're still figuring out what all this means, but the extra connectivity seems to have gone hand in hand with greater atomisation. This is the irony played with in Allotment, the final instalment of the National Theatre of Scotland's series of exuberant art events in an empty shop in Govan.

Such is the interactive nature of the evening – a cross between an experimental scratch night and a popular fun fair – you end up bonding with complete strangers, not least through Six Degrees of Separation, Christine O'Carroll's high-speed attempt to find the missing link between half-a-dozen unrelated people.

Elsewhere, those same people could be sending digital messages to a giant computer screen while standing right next to you. Or they could be hoping to find the perfect partner by playing the Love Calculator, fully aware that the machinery is entirely human.

Later, after Rob Drummond has given a display of magic tricks in a nearby retro shop, the manager hands us all a teabag and reminds us that people used to get to know each other over a hot drink.

Many of the sideshows parody the idea of quick-fix relationships – notably the hilarious self-help nonsense of the Fluid Networks seminar – but together they create the effect of a surreal ceilidh in which people meet, laugh and connect, the old-fashioned way.
© Mark Fisher 2010

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