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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, September 30, 2010

Interiors, theatre review

Published in Northings

Interiors
Tramway, Glasgow, 29 September 2010, and touring

IT SEEMS odd to praise the acting in a production in which nobody speaks, but in Vanishing Point's remarkable show, the performances are of a very high standard indeed. I'd go further and say Matthew Lenton's actors are the best ensemble on stage in Scotland this side of Black Watch.

So how can this be?

Well, the idea of this immaculately presented show, inspired by a play called Interior by Maurice Maeterlinck, is that we are looking through glass windows into the living room of some northerly house where a dinner party is taking place on the longest night of the year.

We can hear nothing of the guests' conversation (although we do get to share in the sounds of ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ as the evening gets into its stride) and instead, we follow what is going on by observing their body language, with helpful hints from a disembodied voice giving a spookily all-knowing commentary.

So we take note of the initial conversational awkwardness, the sexual manoeuvres and the building camaraderie. We see moments of embarrassment, passages of abandonment and scenes of awkwardness and irritation.

It is often very funny, but it is also beautifully observed and cleverly understated. We realise what we are watching is not a drama of heightened emotion and extraordinary intensity, but one of everyday joys and disappointments. It is played in the same minor key as a comedy by Anton Chekhov or Mike Leigh and – speaking or not – the actors invest their roles with a touching and honest humanity.

If it went only that far, you could call it whimsical or even a gimmick, like a soft-centred silent movie. But Interiors goes much further than that. As the party wears on, so the shadow of death looms ever larger. We realise the disembodied voice is not a dispassionate narrator but an absent protagonist, and the play takes on a universal dimension.

Slowly we see that the rituals, the foibles and the failures might be minor in themselves, but they are what make the characters the people they are. By reminding us of our mortality, the play becomes a moving celebration of ordinary life.

Along with Kai Fischer's unforgettable domestic set, complete with ghostly video projections and an emotive score by Alasdair Macrae, this partially recast production justifies every one of its three gongs in the 2009 Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland. Audacious, nourishing and poignant, it is essential viewing.

Interiors is at the OneTouch Theatre, Eden Court, Inverness, on 8-9 October 2010.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Friday, September 24, 2010

Interview with Simon Stephens about Punk Rock

Published in The Scotsman

Interview: Simon Stephens, playwright

WHEN Simon Stephens graduated from York University at the start of the 1990s, his instinct was to head north. His friends were all moving to London, but this Cheshire-born playwright felt a pull in the opposite direction. That is how he came to fetch up in Edinburgh where he would live for a "defining" two years.

Once there, he did what any aspiring playwright would do: he took a job in the café above the old Edinburgh Bookshop on George Street, came home after his evening shift and wrote into the night.

It wasn't the only work he did. He also set himself up as a DJ and has never forgotten the embarrassment of his first gig – an 18th birthday party where nobody but close family turned up. But the memory that really stays with him is his daily walk past the King's Theatre in Tollcross. "I used to walk to work past the dock door of the King's Theatre," he says. "When they were doing a get-in or a get-out, you could look through the dock door and see that space. I used to fantasise about writing a play that'd be playing at the King's."

Now, more than 15 years later, his ambition is being realised. Having won rave reviews at London's Lyric Hammersmith, his Punk Rock is on a national tour that reaches the King's next week. Stephens, now living in London with his wife and three children, says he'll find it hard to resist returning to Edinburgh to see it for himself.

The inspiration for Punk Rock lies not in Edinburgh, but with an even earlier memory. Stephens grew up in Stockport and went to secondary school at an all-boys comprehensive, known prosaically as Stockport School. Immediately over the road was Stockport Grammar, a 500-year-old fee-paying school for which pupils had to sit an entrance exam. The young Stephens would look enviously at the grand red-brick building and fantasise about what life would be like inside. It dominated his teenage imagination.

"There's so much of me in this play and so much of my childhood and particularly my teenage years," says Stephens who, even today, has never set foot in the grammar school. "It's a synthesis of an imagined world, an experienced world and a researched world. My school was the worst of both worlds. There was none of the civilising influence of the girls and a lot of tension and aggro. The grammar school was always the imagined 'other' that I never experienced."

It continued to haunt his adult imagination, which is why he thought it would make a perfect setting for a play about the simmering pressures of today's goal-driven society. Punk Rock fits in with a pattern of Stephens's plays that, typically, worry away at the stresses of 21st-century life and those headline-grabbing global events that seem so inexplicable.

In Pornography, which was named best play in the Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland in 2009, he framed the London bombings of 7 July, 2005 in terms of the wider alienation of a world of sexual opportunism, racism and narcissism. In Sea Wall, seen at Edinburgh's Traverse last year, he considered the problem of believing in God in a world that is both beautiful and cruel. For this year's Fringe, he wrote a short play, T5, superbly performed by Meg Fraser at the Traverse, in which a woman reels from the shock of witnessing a meaningless teenage stabbing in a local park.

Here, in Punk Rock, he uses a Columbine-style high-school massacre to question society's drive for academic success. For all their learning, the sixth-form students are as fearful of anyone outside their privileged bubble as they are neurotic about their exam performance. For at least one pupil, the sweet-natured William Carlisle (winningly played by star-in-the-making Rupert Simonian), the pressure is too great to cope with.

"A lot of the play was a juxtaposition of my imagined future of my kids' schooling experience with the sense of the terror of something like a Columbine massacre," says the playwright.

"Although the massacre happened in 1999, it seems emblematic of the start of this century – that schism in morality, that kind of transgression, that kind of horror. At the heart of these plays is the nature of transgression, people living in a culture of fear, trying to live with dignity and grace. What Pornography, Punk Rock and T5 share is the seductive nature of transgression. It's the fear one has when holding a baby of deliberately dropping them, when on the edge of train track of jumping in front of it just to see what it's like. Those possibilities are constantly there for everybody."

His fears about the dangers of the modern world were intensified as soon as he became a father. "I suddenly became much more sensitive to the political and economic environment we were living in," he says. "I was working as a schoolteacher at the time and I remember almost overnight changing my attitude to some of the kids who were giving me a really hard time, because I saw their inner baby. A lot of artists use their creativity to make sense of things they're afraid of. Columbine is frightening, even though it happened in America, because of the possibility that it might happen in my kids' school."

With its young cast and fusty academic setting, Punk Rock comes across as a slightly more with-it version of The History Boys. Surprisingly, Stephens makes no bones about his debt to the celebrated Alan Bennett play. In fact, he is uncommonly open about all his influences. Where many writers would deliberately shut themselves off from any artwork that dealt with a similar theme, lest they be overly indebted to them, Stephens embraces them as a source of inspiration and challenge.

"I'm really indebted to other playwrights," he says, quite serious when he adds that Punk Rock is structured like a 1940s Terence Rattigan play. "Punk Rock is informed by Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening and I was very aware of The History Boys when I was writing it. There are other plays like Brukner's Pains of Youth, which inspires the sexuality of the play, and films like Lindsay Anderson's If.... and Gus Van Sant's Elephant. The first part of any writing for me is about absorbing information and consciously looking for inspiration."

In the same way that Pornography was not directly about pornography, Punk Rock is not directly about punk rock. Where the earlier play used pornography as an unspoken metaphor for a degraded society, this one uses punk as an unspoken metaphor for middle-class rebellion.

"For me, punk is not so much that specific era between 1976 and 1978 so much as a spirit of defiance and aspiration for something more," says Stephens. "It is a spirit of wanting to get out and destroy the uncreative, of wanting to be dissident and to buck against the system. When you look at the musicians who made the great punk rock music, quite often they were middle-class art school boys, so there's a deliberate juxtaposition of that title and this middle-class grammar school."

• Punk Rock is at the King's Theatre, Edinburgh, 28 September until 2 October

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Monday, September 20, 2010

The Bookie, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

The Bookie

Cumbernauld Theatre
2 out of 5

Imagine if bookmakers let you place bets not just on horses, but on personal events that only you could know about. Such "happy bets" form the funny idea at the heart of Douglas Maxwell's new comedy musical, in which the manager of a small-town branch of Queen's International Gaming sends profits rocketing by accepting lifestyle wagers.

The dramatic stakes are raised when an addicted gambler dies and bequeaths a £10,000 happy bet to his niece, laying odds that true love will flourish in the godforsaken town by Valentine's Day. The chances are 50-to-1 against (it's a gloomy place), which means a win would bring down the faltering Queen's empire – an empire that happens to be run by the dead man's brother.

The scene is set for a fight between greed and romance, love and money, free-market capitalism and social cohesion. Faced by the moral distortions of a cash-driven world, the characters must work out their real values. Maxwell plays with themes of probability and chance, and concludes that "true love is a casino in your soul".

Throw in the guessing game about where love will emerge and the play has the potential to be an entertaining commentary on financial and emotional risk. If only it didn't seem so provisional. Ed Robson's touring production for the Cumbernauld Theatre is like watching the idea for a play, with characters, plot and themes sketched out in the roughest of terms. The relationships are implausible, the revelations clunky, and even the characters seem surprised at how often they end up in the same room as each other.

This feeling is exacerbated by the rock-based songs, written by Maxwell and Aly MacRae, which don't move the story forward as much as string it out. The result is an uneven evening, intermittently funny, but failing to hit its potential.

At the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen (01224 641122) on 22 September. Then touring.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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The Chooky Brae, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

The Chooky Brae

Tron, Glasgow
3 out of 5

Daniel Jackson has a gift for the kind of knock-'em-dead speech, usually followed by the character flouncing off stage, that leaves the audience no option but to burst into applause. He did it in The Wall when Sally Reid first played the guileless Norma, then a 14-year-old, who brought the house down with her indignant volleys. And he does it again in The Chooky Brae, the concluding part of his coming-of-age trilogy, in which Jordan Young, as Norma's secret lover, delivers a ludicrous diatribe about circus monkeys that brings the show to a standstill.

Such sparkling writing elevates this bittersweet Christmas comedy above the routine domestic sitcom it threatens to become. Recalling Lee Hall's Cooking with Elvis with its abrasive wit and gags about disability, it is about a mismatched family suffering the consequences of their poor life choices. Norma, now 18, is a young mother who prefers her baby's uncle to his father. Scott Hoatson's Barry is a university dropout starting to think there is more to life than video games. With his apparent stroke, their father (Stewart Porter) has taken hilariously desperate measures to make amends with the family he has neglected.

With the same world-weary humour he showed in Edinburgh fringe hit My Romantic History, Jackson fashions a funny festive comedy that remains feelgood despite its adolescent bolshieness. It seems improbable that such a dysfunctional family could ever get along, but our thirst for resolution makes us delighted they will try. Directed by Kenny Miller for Borderline, the pace of the show falters with all the door-slamming to-ing and fro-ing on Neil Haynes's dominating set – but its big heart wins out.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Friday, September 17, 2010

Sunshine on Leith, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

Sunshine on Leith
4 out of 5

The title track is so moving that the audience can't bring itself to clap – people just sit in awed silence. Name any other jukebox musical of which you can say that. From its opening battlefield salvo to the party punch-up that ushers in the interval, Stephen Greenhorn's Proclaimers tribute refuses to play by the rules. In this, it is every bit as idiosyncratic, awkward and lovable as the music of Craig and Charlie Reid.

On this show's first outing in 2007, the hospital bedside rendition of Sunshine on Leith made me cry. Seeing it now for a third time as it launches a UK tour, I find myself welling up repeatedly: at the poignant last verse of Over and Done With (a mini-drama in itself); at the deft commentary about male emotional repression in Misty Blue; and at the adulterous tug-of-love tension of Heaven Right Now. By the time Anne Smith sings Sunshine on Leith, I can only look away.

A more sober critic might mutter about the show's soap-opera narratives, the excessive length of the first half and the occasional plot contrivance. But fie on sober critics: Greenhorn's musical is written with the same big-hearted attitude, democratic political spirit and joyous humanity as the fabulous set of songs, which are made more dramatic yet in the arrangements of Hilary Brooks.

Working with an almost completely new cast, led by Billy Boyd, Michael Moreland, Jo Freer and Zoe Rainey, director James Brining matches the performers' everyman charm with a slick, fast-paced staging that bubbles with choreographic invention. Three years since its debut, the discussion of the private finance initiative has lost some edge, but the talk of cutbacks and the trials of army life has come crisply into focus. When it comes to leftwing sentiment married to killer tunes, no other British musical has achieved as much since Blood Brothers.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Magic Spaghetti, theatre review

Published in Northings

Magic Spaghetti
Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh

IT IS a lucky parent who has never had to endure the whims of a picky eater in the family. Some combination of needing to exert control and finding comfort in the familiar makes many children insist on sticking to a boring diet.

If you know such a child, they would find themselves very much at home in the town of Plain. Here in the fictional land of Scotaly, where they wear kilts and speak like Italian waiters, the small-minded townsfolk regard anything that is not pasta, boil-in-the-bag rice or custard with suspicion. Even something as straight-forward as sugo sauce – nothing but garlic, tomatoes and basil – is too fancy for their conservative tastes.

Like Catherine Wheels' White (also touring this autumn), Licketyspit's Magic Spaghetti examines how fear of the unknown leads to repression, reactionary politics and a failure to live life to the full. It is a call not just for better eating habits, but for open-mindedness in general.

In Virginia Radcliffe's play for the over-threes – first seen in 2005 – Mary Gapinski's Florentina returns to the town of her birth after travelling the world only to discover that the place she remembers as a foodie paradise has banished even the most basic vegetables. Seeing how much time Florentina spends in the kitchen, the inward-looking locals christen her Strega Nona – or granny witch – and keep their distance, at least until they can no longer suppress their secret desires.

All this is done with bags of energy and lively musical interludes by a hard-working cast with much entertaining cross-dressing. They wouldn't have to work quite so hard, however, if the focus of the story shifted a little.

In the central role, Florentina is the Good Fairy figure who is proved right by events. This makes her less interesting than Johnny Austin's Big Tony, the boy who will eat only spaghetti. His is the story we want to hear.

Like Aladdin, he is the one who ventures into the scariest place (Florentina's magic spaghetti pot), confronts his fears and, through his own resourcefulness, transforms the world around him. By welcoming new tastes and flavours, he reaches maturity, puts his "Noodle" persona behind him and gets the girl – the pretty Sugarina. The two are then ready to venture into the world as adults.

All this is there in the story, but it is seen through the perspective of Florentina. She is a likeable figure, but she is the solution to a problem and not the problem itself. By focusing on her instead of Big Tony, the script often ends up with more explanation than action, the audience's attention tends to drift and the conclusion has less emotional resolution than it deserves.

That the production proves as vibrant and funny as it does is testimony to the power of the theme and the spirited performances of the five-strong cast, but there's room for it to be better still.

Magic Spaghetti is at the MacPhail Centre, Ullapool, 16 September; Rosehall Community Hall, Lairg, 17 September; Fortrose Community Theatre, Fortrose, 18 September; Strathpeffer Pavilion, Strathpeffer, 19-20 September; Mull Theatre, Isle of Mull, 22 September; Mallaig & Morar Community Centre, Mallaig, 23 September; Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Isle of Skye, 24 September. See Licketyspit website for full tour information.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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The Weir, theatre review

Published in Northings

The Weir
Regal Theatre, Bathgate

IT IS fashionable among a certain generation of theatregoers to suggest there is something old-fashioned, even reactionary, about story-telling. Yet you only have to observe an audience for Conor McPherson's Olivier Award-winning play, The Weir, to see how helplessly we are transfixed by a gripping narrative.

The playwright understands the human need for stories and, putting aside an appalling example of inappropriate sweet rustling on the front row of the Regal in the most poignant scene, Mull Theatre's production holds us spellbound.

In some ways this is strange. On the surface, it doesn't look as if there is much to McPherson's 1997 play. Set in a rural Irish bar, it is about nothing more than three middle-aged locals and a barman telling ghost stories to an outsider who is escaping the big city. Soon after last orders, they drink up and go home. It gets no more complex than that.

Yet in Alasdair McCrone's production on an all-too-recognisable bar-room set by Alicia Hendrick, the power of these tales pulls us in. We may sense the playwright is toying with the clichés of rural Irish culture, juxtaposing a belief in fairies and things that go bump in the night with a very modern world of paedophiles and childhood tragedy, but even if we suspect McPherson of playing games with us, it makes us no more resistant to his gift for a well-told tale.

It means that as the stories turn from the spooky but essentially whimsical to the disturbingly real, we are very susceptible to their power. Laura Harvey's quiet and undemonstrative portrait of the incomer, a bereaved mother from Dublin, is not only moving in itself, it also reminds us of the therapeutic function of a community coming together to share its stories and to try to make sense of a cruel world.

On the one hand, the characters are defined by their loneliness and loss, but on the other, they are momentarily relieved of their pain in the act of sharing it. Coming from Mull Theatre, a company as steeped in the ceilidh culture as any, this seems all the more apt.

© Mark Fisher, 2010

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

An Ideal Husband, theatre review

Published in The Guardian

An Ideal Husband

Pitlochry Festival theatre
3 out of 5

For today's audiences, the actions of Sir Robert Chiltern in Oscar Wilde's comedy of political intrigue seem romantic. Like more than one of our own leaders, he has a skeleton in his closet. His secret is that he made his fortune by what we now call insider trading: tipping off an investor about the government's plans for the Suez canal. Chiltern's prevarication when he is blackmailed by the manipulative Mrs Cheveley is a trait we recognise. Quite unrecognisable, however, is his decision to retire from public life even after he has successfully kept the secret quiet. Who today would show such scruples?

The question of how reasonable it is to expect perfection from loved ones and political representatives will always stay with us. On the one hand, Chiltern has built his wealth on a criminal act; on the other, he has behaved with integrity ever since.

It is a dichotomy that fuels the play's dramatic tension and one in which we can presume Wilde had a particular interest: two of the actors in the original 1895 production went on to testify against him in his trial for gross indecency. He was not a writer who felt he should be judged on his every action.

Despite this eternal dilemma, it is easy to mistake An Ideal Husband for a play about vacuous posh people in pretty frocks. It is not an illusion the Pitlochry company entirely dispels. Martine McMenemy plays Cheveley not as a dangerous tactician but as a silly coquette. With her sing-song delivery, she is more irritation than threat to Graham Vick's Chiltern. And this is a production in which the characters in general are too aware of their own ridiculousness. More gravitas – and less erratic emphasis – would earn more laughs and strike more notes of recognition.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Thursday, September 09, 2010

Interview with Daniel Jackson, playwright

Published in The Scotsman

Interview: Daniel Jackson, playwright

Two years ago, Daniel Jackson was an unknown when it came to playwriting. Some knew him as a press officer at Glasgow's Tron and Citizens' theatres and as the writer of a comic strip in the List magazine, but as a dramatist his credits went no further than a couple of lunchtime shorts in the Play, a Pie and a Pint season. There was certainly no guarantee of success when Ayrshire's Borderline theatre announced it was going to produce The Wall.

As Jackson remembers it, the fact that his father, Eddie, just happens to be the linchpin of Borderline only made the risks seem greater. "My dad was taking an awful risk by taking it on, because I was his son," he says. "Also, every other theatre in Scotland had turned that play down. It was a real leap into the unknown and it could have killed both of our careers stone dead if it had gone badly."

Happily, it turned out to be a risk worth taking. The Wall, a very funny comedy about Stewarton teenagers, was rapturously welcomed.

In the 2008 Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland, Sally Reid was nominated for best female performance, Jackson was nominated for best new play and the company picked up the award for best ensemble. Suddenly, it no longer seemed fanciful for Jackson to imagine there could be a follow-up.

In 2009, he caught up with the same characters two years on in The Ducky, offering more rites-of-passage hilarity. And now, just a month after the opening of Jackson's Edinburgh Fringe First-winning hit, My Romantic History, he is completing the trilogy with The Chooky Brae.

"I wrote The Wall through a Playwrights' Studio Scotland scheme and I can remember vividly telling my mentor, John Tiffany, that it was a trilogy and him pooh-poohing me in the strongest possible terms," he says. "He was right to do so, because you have to be insane to think, writing one play, that there's any chance you'll get to do the other two parts."

This time, we have moved forward another two years to a Christmas Day in Stewarton where Norma, whom we first met as a gauche 14-year-old in The Wall, has just had a baby, while her mother is trying to cope with her ex-husband having a stroke and her son having a breakdown. "I really liked the Norma character as I was writing the first one and I always thought it'd be good to see what happens to this little girl," says Jackson, who created the part with Sally Reid in mind and is delighted the actor has been able to perform the role in all three plays. "I've always thought Sally was the best actor of her generation.She's spectacularly talented."

Like the first two parts of the trilogy, The Chooky Brae - which takes its name from a real hill in Stewarton where the teenage Jackson would hang out - is an unashamed comedy, this one being the most frivolous of the three, although not without its moments of poignancy. The playwright is a devout believer in popular theatre and the art of giving an audience a good time.

"I wanted it to be like the sort of movies you sit and watch with your family at Christmas," he says. "Because I was fortunate enough to go to the theatre a lot when I was a child, I was exposed to it and I understood the power of live theatre. But if I hadn't had that experience, would I have been exposed to it? I do feel theatre practitioners are becoming more navel-gazey and increasingly putting on plays for their pals. I'm not anti-intellectual - I like that stuff too - but it's got to be a pyramid and, in order to support that kind of work, there's got to be a larger base that introduces people to going to the theatre. There is less and less popular work being made in Scotland, so the kind I do is important for everyone."

Next on his plate is an episode of River City, a two-minute micro-play for A Play, a Pie and Pint, commissions for the Royal Court and the National Theatre of Scotland, and a piece for Random Accomplice written with fellow Ayrshire writers Douglas Maxwell and Johnny McKnight.

While he keeps an eye on feedback from the post-Edinburgh tour of My Romantic History in Birmingham, Sheffield and London, he will be watching the launch of The Chooky Brae with a mix of pride at having achieved so much in two years and regret at saying goodbye to his favourite characters. "I always had in mind that it would be a trilogy but it's taken me by surprise that we've been able to do it and in such rapid succession."

• The Chooky Brae is at the Tron, Glasgow, until Saturday, then on tour until 2 October.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Edinburgh International Festival theatre round-up

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Edinburgh International Festival theatre round-up

IN THIS year's Edinburgh International Festival, Jonathan Mills set out to shift our cultural centre of gravity. By drawing on the art of the Americas and Australasia, he aimed to give the event an unfamiliar Pacific flavour. In the dance, opera and music line-up, I imagine this was the case, whether it was in the South Pacific dances of Lemi Ponifasio or the early South American music in the Treasures And Traditions series. By contrast, the theatre programme was primarily an Atlantic experience.

In particular, it offered a substantial helping of work from the well established New York avant-garde. The Wooster Group, Elevator Repair Service, Lee Breuer and Meredith Monk, all major Big Apple names, dominated the programme. Nothing wrong with this, of course, except that North America often seems more familiar to us than, say, eastern Europe and were it not for the presence of Teatro Cinema and Teatro en el Blanco, both from Chile, the theatre programme would have had little sense of the seismic shifts Mills imposed elsewhere.

In the case of Teatro Cinema, the feeling of otherness was less to do with the company's experience of life under the dictatorial regime of Augusto Pinochet - although that unquestionably influenced the brooding trauma of Sin Sangre and the escapist liberation of The Man Who Fed Butterflies - and more to do with director Juan Carlos Zagal's extraordinary fusion of film and live performance.

Brilliantly executed though it was, the technique of placing the actors in the middle of a cinematic landscape tended to obscure the serious purpose of these two plays. Sin Sangre was about finding a way to accommodate a cruel past, while The Man Who Fed Butterflies was about believing in a brighter future. Both are deeply relevant themes for a country with a brutal political history, but you were often more conscious of form than content.

That meant it was down to Teatro en el Blanco's Diciembre, the final theatre opening of the programme, to give the clearest articulation of a South American experience. Set in 2014, Guillermo Calderón's play drew on a century of conflict to imagine a territorial war between Chile, Peru and Bolivia, with all the xenophobia, abuse and intolerance that such a battle would entail.

From behind the funny conversational absurdities of a Christmas reunion between three siblings - a soldier on home leave and his apparently pregnant twin sisters - emerged details of a dispute over a patch of land on the Pacific, constant references to the colour of people's skin and a grim acceptance of rape, mutilation and detention as instruments of control. From my point of view, it seemed odd for a play to protest against injustices that have not yet happened; it is certain that from Calderón's perspective, such abuses feel closer to home.

The idea that the Americas are a land of opportunity was a motivating factor in the Darien Scheme, Scotland's late 17th-century colonialist folly in what is now the Isthmus of Panama. This was the story dramatised by Alistair Beaton in Caledonia, in a National Theatre of Scotland production that was either an entertaining satirical romp or a dire rehash of history depending on which newspaper you read. On balance, it was a mixture of both - and the play had more to say about Scotland and the Scottish psyche (however crudely caricatured) than it did about the New World.

So what kind of America emerged from the remaining plays? In the case of Meredith Monk's Songs Of Ascension, there was nothing specific. This was a mesmerising piece of music theatre (more music than theatre) that counterpointed angular, jarring, animalistic vocal patterns with lush choral harmonies, building into a piece of beguiling power. In terms of its provenance, it reminded you that, as well as being the land of McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Hollywood, the USA has room enough for the eccentric and the unorthodox.

And how else to explain the Wooster Group except in terms of the eccentric and the unorthodox? Elizabeth LeCompte's company has been confounding mainstream taste for over 30 years and, although Vieux Carré did not seem as weird as the productions that visited Glasgow back in 1990, it had a wilful disregard for audience expectations. Kate Valk performed her opening scene with her back to the audience, Ellen Mills was frequently hidden from view and Ari Fliakos mumbled his lines in dreamy detachment.

The image of the USA it conjured was just as idiosyncratic. This was not the place of clean-living optimism the country likes to project. Whether it was in the 1930s doss house of Tennessee Williams' play or in the 1960s experimental films running in parallel, this was a vision of decadence, dissolution and poverty, sexually free and emotionally unresolved.

In his work with Mabou Mines, director Lee Breuer has done more than most to marry the adventurousness of the avant-garde with the accessibility of the mainstream. This was certainly the case in The Gospel At Colonus, created 30 years ago with composer Bob Telson, in which he drew on the vibrancy of gospel music to fashion a distinctively American - and highly popular - interpretation of Sophocles' Oedipus At Colonus.

The fusion was sometimes revelatory, sometimes obscure, but above all it projected an image of African-American society enriched by a sense of community and joyous celebration. In this, it was an antidote to the dereliction of Vieux Carré and to the directionless hedonism of the American expats roaming Europe in The Sun Also Rises, the Hemingway novel brought exhaustively to the stage by Elevator Repair Service. All this means that, even if the theatre programme was not as wide-ranging as the "oceans apart" theme promised, it did reveal an exoticism in the familiar.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Sunday, September 05, 2010

Caledonia, theatre review

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Caledonia

King's Theatre, Edinburgh

"SCOTLAND will be mighty again", chant the investors who have just sunk their savings into a get-rich-quick scheme to colonise the Isthmus of Panama. "Was Scotland every mighty?" queries a bystander.

The remark sets the tone of Alistair Beaton's satirical retelling of the country's most ignoble example of venture capitalism until our own banking crisis, a connection the playwright is quick to exploit.

In this National Theatre of Scotland production, he presents the late-17th century Darien Scheme as a ridiculous farce in which a credulous and parochial nation buys all too easily into a poorly tested plan to become an empire.

How can they resist when it is "financed by private investment, protected by the state"?

Paul Higgins plays financier William Paterson, the scheme's charismatic ring-leader, with the blank-eyed stare of an inveterate gambler.

He is full of self-belief and prone to outbursts of violent indignation at anything that stands in the way of his vision. Whether it is a vision of nationalistic ambition or messianic fervour is something of which even he seems uncertain.

That is of no consequence when his countrymen are such a wretched bunch of drinkers, zealots and jumped-up officials.

If Scotland loves to revel in its own defeats, Caledonia revels more than most.

Beaton's script works best when it is most resonant with political anger and contemporary parallels - which is also when it is funniest.

It is weaker when it has to get through the historically factual story. Fortunately, it has Anthony Neilson on side to enliven things. With the first sign of a list or a grandstanding speech, the director sets the stage spinning with eccentric dances, slapstick business or musical turns.

He makes the acting deliberately (and comically) melodramatic and uses Peter McKintosh's set of wooden scaffolding to suggest the make-believe world of the theatre.

It is a world as fanciful as Paterson's scheme and, by the climax, the fallen entrepreneur is still trying to work his leading man magic, pathetically attempting to spur his stricken countrymen into life with his histrionic gestures. He is an actor whose audience has lost faith in him.

Thus it is that Caledonia goes from knock-about humour to something close to tragedy, finishing with tremendous power on a note of political outrage as playwright and director remind us that in the financial follies of the rich and powerful, it is the ordinary person who pays the price.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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Alan Cumming: I Bought A Blue Car Today, theatre review

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Alan Cumming: I Bought A Blue Car Today
Assembly Hall, Edinburgh

BY MY reckoning, the last time an actor was applauded for mentioning that he'd starred in The Bacchae was around 405BC. But Alan Cumming is playing to the home crowd and, tonight, we're ready to cheer his performance in a Euripides tragedy like it was a number one single.

We'll cheer louder still when the Aberfeldy boy tells us "there's no place like home," even as he recounts tales from the glamorous streets of New York and the celeb-filled restaurants of LA.

On the way in, I overhear a woman singing the theme tune to The High Life. On the way out, the audience goes home delighted to have heard an old Victor and Barry number. Yes, this man has acted with the Spice Girls and Nicole Kidman, but the Edinburgh audience revels in a kind of celebrity that, like his singing voice, has a distinctively Scottish edge.

It means he can sing a number such as American, a heavily satirical sideswipe at US patriotism, without seeming hypocritical. He took out US citizenship, he tells us, in order to vote for Barack Obama (it was in the immigration test that he had to write the phrase "I Bought A Blue Car Today") and he makes frequent barbed remarks about US politics, not least California's decision to reverse the law making same-sex marriages legal.

So accepting are we of Cumming that we roar our approval that his recent OBE was not only for acting but also for gay rights campaigning. We like it, too, when he cracks jokes about Princess Anne's unusual concern for his employment prospects, and we like it even more when he makes light of Moira Salmond's problems with the net curtains in Bute House.

And, of course, we love the heart of this 90-minute late-night show which lies in his idiosyncratic selection of show tunes, ballads and witty originals.

With a classy setting from pianist Lance Horne and cellist Anna Morrison, he teases one moment, seduces the next and, after a meta-theatrical deconstruction of the ritual of the encore, plays into our hands with a reprise of Victor and Barry's Edinburgh Festival Song, 22-year-old gags about Russell Harty and all.
© Mark Fisher 2010

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White, theatre review

Published in Northings

WHITE
Scottish Book Trust, Edinburgh, 5 August 2010, and touring

SOMETIMES the simplest ideas are the most powerful. As you would expect in a show aimed at two-to-four year olds, White does not take long to explain. It's about two men who live in an all-white world, looking after the all-white eggs they keep in all-white birdhouses. Everything is all right with all white until – shock! – a fresh egg shows up and it is all red. Much to the men's dismay, their universe is about to turn into colour.

Catherine Wheels, the Musselburgh-based children's theatre company, tells this story in just 35 minutes, yet it is hard to overstate how much territory the story covers and how exquisitely it is told. The actors perform with a light touch, an inventive wit and the smallest amount of language, but at the same time they tap into a deep and resonant theme about the caution and wonderment all of us feel, whatever our age, when faced with new experiences.

On one level, White is about the joy of colour; on another, it is a metaphor for our fear of the unknown, a fear that leads to parochialism, conflict and xenophobia or, if it is conquered, to harmony, richness and fulfilment.

Your three-year-old does not need to know that. In any case, they will be too entranced by the mysterious white landscape created by designer Shona Reppe using an oddball assortment of white materials, from lace to underwear to the toilet mats the men wear as trousers. Emerging from their white wigwam, they eat their milky white breakfast before tending to the small forest of white birdhouses and collecting the eggs that drop, magically, from the sky.

There are lots of lovely sight gags in the performances by Andy Manley as Cotton and Ian Cameron as Wrinkle, especially once they realise they are being overtaken by colour. As they make their private non-white discoveries, they go on a journey from prudish shock to naughty, secretive amusement, followed by wholesale embracement.

The masterful design allows the landscape to change around them, like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when the picture turns from monochrome to Technicolor and with a similar sense of our universe expanding.

White will play at Strathpeffer Pavilion (21 October), Macphail Theatre, Ullapool (15 November) and Mallaig & Morar Centre (17 November) as part of an autumn tour.

© Mark Fisher, 2010

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Friday, September 03, 2010

Billy Boyd interview

Published in Scotland on Sunday

Billy Boyd interview

IT WOULD be less of a problem if Billy Boyd wasn't such a big fan of the Proclaimers. The Lord Of The Rings star has landed a lead role in a revival of Dundee Rep's Sunshine On Leith, the superb musical based on the songs of Craig and Charlie Reid.

It's a dream job - one that's lured him back to the theatre for the first time in six years - but getting his mind around arrangements that are not quite the same as the records he has loved for so long is proving tough work.

"Sometimes you're singing a harmony that Hilary Brooks, the musical director, has thought up, and it's even harder to forget the melody you know and then sing this harmony," says the fresh-faced 42-year-old actor. "They're great songs to sing - really truthful and emotional, and the way they've fitted them into the play is amazing."

In this remounted commercial production, which is setting off from Dundee on a three-month UK tour, Boyd is playing Davy, a soldier who returns to Leith from Afghanistan and finds he has to cope with the highs and lows of civilian life. Written by River City creator Stephen Greenhorn, it is a tale of growing old, one-night stands and falling in and out of love. Because it is inspired by the Proclaimers, it is also about unemployment, being forced to change your accent and cultural exodus.

"The songs push the narrative as much as, if not more than, the scenes do," says Boyd. "The story never stops for a song. And it makes sense now probably even more than when Stephen wrote it. As we just heard on the radio, it's the poorest families that are going to be hit hardest. Even though we're doing it through song and dance, there's a real story to be told." As the singer in his own band, Beecake - with a debut album, Soul Swimming, in the shops and an east coast US tour done and dusted - Boyd has a muso's admiration for the Proclaimers as well as that of the fan who remembers being startled by their breakthrough appearance on The Tube singing in defiantly Scottish accents. "Singing in a Scottish accent wasn't done and I remember thinking at the time, 'That's really weird'," he says. "Because they sing in Scottish accents people think of them as a Scottish band, but what they're writing about is pure humanity. They touch on so many different subjects and tell stories in such a truthful way and that's why people are drawn to them.

"I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) is just a perfect piece of writing. Just as soon as that chunk-chunk-chunk starts… what a piece of genius to come up with that. Like all art forms, a lot of it is not that simple, but they make it look as if it is. The phrasing is quite obscure or they'll add a little chord that comes out of nowhere."

Lyrically as much as musically, the songs make complex ideas seem simple. "They can get a pub going with one chord and they can get across quite a difficult political message in a verse," Boyd says. "Like in Misty Blue, they ask why are Scottish men not able to show love and affection, yet if you put on some Scottish music and drive through Glen Coe, they'll be in tears. It's a difficult idea but the way they put it across is amazing."

Getting to hear songs as brilliantly constructed as Over And Done With, Throw The R Away and I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) every day has only increased Boyd's admiration. "I feel like my songwriting will be more influenced by them now that I've looked into the songs a bit deeper. I can definitely see a progression in my own songwriting to take away some of the things that I've learned from the rehearsal period."

Although he is best known as Pippin in The Lord Of The Rings and for his part in the Academy award-winning Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World - and with four films in production - Boyd was once a mainstay of Scottish theatre, a reliably versatile actor who cropped up in everything from The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole (his debut in 1995) to David Greig's Caledonia Dreaming and The Speculator. Now back in the rehearsal room, he is remembering how much he enjoyed those days and has renewed his appetite for theatre. "Doing dance routines, fight routines and harmonies is a nice way to be thrown back in," he says. "I'm really enjoying myself. We've been working till ten o'clock at night and I'm dying to go to bed to get back up and go back into rehearsals."

Sunshine On Leith, Dundee Rep, 31 August -18 September and on tour www.sunshineonleiththemusical.com

© Mark Fisher 2010

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The Man Who Fed Butterflies theatre review

Published in The Guardian

The Man Who Fed Butterflies

King's, Edinburgh
3 out of 5

A film director and his producer are having a row about casting. He wants to use the two seasoned pros he remembers from the theatre; she would prefer a couple of young film actors. The director has his way, and the two old-timers get the parts – as well as a speedy lesson in blue-screen technology.

This is the kind of meta-theatrical joke you can imagine Robert Lepage making. A companion piece to Sin Sangre, reviewed yesterday, The Man Who Fed Butterflies shows off the astonishing technique developed by Chile's Teatro Cinema, whereby live actors inhabit a filmic landscape. Here in the theatre, we see a play that is more like a film, in which two stage actors make a film that is somehow still in the theatre. "I prefer theatre," says one of the actors, compounding our disorientation.

Though brilliantly done, Juan Carlos Zagal's production is more of a cinematic experience than a theatrical one, and it is debatable what the live actors add. Yes, we are impressed to find them always in the right place between the closeups and long shots, but as performers they can offer us neither the intimacy of the stage nor the control of the big screen.

But it is more than a gimmick. Zagal, who lived through the Pinochet regime, creates a comic-book fable in which a series of characters seek light in the darkness. Using film enables him to visualise the "infinite persistence of life", whether in a circling swarm of butterflies that save a man from suicide, an epic knight-in-shining-armour fantasy, or the flashbacks of a woman left in a coma after being shot by the security services. These stories of hope defeating despair, of imagination overcoming painful reality, find a natural home in such a visually arresting technique.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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The Not-So-Fatal Death of Grandpa Fredo

Published in Northings

The Not-So-Fatal Death of Grandpa Fredo

LIKE Slick before it, the latest show by Vox Motus is one audiences love. A couple of weeks into its run on the Edinburgh Fringe, I spoke to a woman just out of the show who said she'd had to force herself not to laugh because she didn't want to miss any of the words. She'd loved every minute.

There is plenty to love. The Glasgow company has thinly disguised the real-life story of Trygve Bauge, a Norwegian ex-pat who kept the body of his grandfather, Bredo Morstol, cryogenically frozen in a shack in the backwoods American town of Nederland. The discovery sparked an ethical debate and, in a typically American twist, ended up with an annual festival called Frozen Dead Guy Days.

As Vox Motus tells it, the town has become Reliance Falls, Bredo has become Fredo and the story milked for all its comic worth. It becomes the tale of an innocent, if eccentric young man (played with charm and sincerity by Ewan Donald) who finds himself locked in battle with a reactionary bunch of cronies, led by a Sarah Palin-like mayor. Behind the surreal premise, it is a conflict between individual freedom and civic responsibility.

What distinguishes the show is not so much the story itself as the way it is told. The set, created by directors Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison, is an endlessly mutating box of delights, ingeniously folding out to create a diner or a shack, or acting as a screen for cleverly set-up live TV broadcasts. Every so often, the cast break off to perform comic country songs, written by Michael John McCarthy, before returning to play their multiple roles.

This is all entertainingly done and it is a testament to the company's creativity that the production looks so different either to Slick or to the last show, Bright Black.

There are two underlying weaknesses, however. The first is that much of the fun comes not from the story itself but the manner in which it is told. The joke is about the pretence involved in showing the characters driving a car, walking down a corridor or presenting a news bulletin. This can be funny, but it is a self-referential humour that doesn't connect to anything beyond the theatre.

The second weakness is that, for all the story's oddness, it has no metaphorical meaning. It is just a curious tale, with little to say about anything apart from its own cartoonish world. It means that once you look behind the sophisticated staging, the clever gags and the exuberant performances, the show feels empty and soulless. There is no question Vox Motus has the means to say something, but in The Not-So-Fatal Death of Grandpa Fredo, it doesn't appear to have much to say.

The Not-So-Fatal Death of Grandpa Fredo is at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, on 28-29 September 2010.

© Mark Fisher, 2010

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