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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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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Pandas, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Pandas
Three stars

Julie tells her husband why her willow-pattern teacup meant so much to her. He sees only broken crockery. Online, Lin Han pours out her heart to a business contact. He thinks she is just being friendly. In an interrogation room, Madeleine declares her lust for a police officer: only the tape recorder hears her.

Being unheard, the three women feel unloved. They long to be understood, but the men in their lives are distracted, puzzled and uncomprehending. Their world will be out of joint until someone gets what they're on about.

That is why Rona Munro's Pandas is not the play it pretends to be. It may seem to be the tale of a foiled scheme to evade customs duty on imported Chinese rugs, but that's a smoke screen. Despite fake designer goods, revenge shooting and an Edinburgh setting, we're not in an episode of Rebus.

No, the spirit of the play is less Ian Rankin than Richard Curtis. It is a romcom in which the women go from isolation to partnership, misunderstanding to communication, loneliness to love. Written by the Oranges and Sunshine screenwriter, whose Little Eagles plays at Hampstead this week, it's a knowingly whimsical play that pleases with its sense of neat resolution.

Directed by Rebecca Gatward and strongly performed on a too-literal set by Liz Cooke, Pandas sometimes remains earthbound, overly concerned with the domestic relationships and not enough about the metaphor its Chinese theme suggests. But there are times, too, when it simply soars, not least in Meg Fraser's sublime performance as Madeleine, an entomologist in search of endangered fleas on endangered pandas and seeming like an endangered species herself. Singular, eccentric and very funny, she steals the feelgood show.

 

© Mark Fisher 2011

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Six Black Candles, theatre review


Published in the Guardian

Six Black Candles


When Des Dillon's comedy premiered at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum, it had such brash popular appeal that I predicted it would be fewer than five years before we saw it again. That was in 2004. A full seven years later, it has taken the author himself to get Six Black Candles back on stage (not counting the theatre in Kiev where it is still in rep). He has reunited much of the original nine-strong cast and drafted in John Binnie to direct.

Inspired by Dillon's family, the play is a vivid portrait of six working-class Catholic sisters who, joined by their mother and grandmother, perform a black mass to cast a hex over Stacie Gracie, a 19-year-old babysitter who has run off with one of their husbands. Their conflicting personalities are a source of fun: at one extreme, the upwardly mobile teacher with the fancy new car; at the other, the one whose son is in a secure unit after a hammer attack. There is even more fun in the way they set aside their differences for the important business of black magic.

Once the new parish priest drops by, they slip all too easily from the chants and pentagrams of the occult into the blessings and incantations of Catholicism. These women make no distinction between faith and credulity, and are dismayed to find the priest does.

Despite the pedigree of this production, however, it is not the stomping return to former glories I had hoped. The comic rhythm is off, making the first half seem no more than a setup for the second, and the ending feel inconsequential. It still pays dividends in the funny confrontation between sisters and priest, but its claim to be a guaranteed popular hit does not look as watertight. (Pic: Marc Marnie)


© Mark Fisher 2011

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Educating Agnes, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

Educating Agnes

On its debut three years ago, Liz Lochhead's reworking of Molière's L'Ecole des Femmes came across as cheeky, witty and linguistically playful. Theatre Babel's staging, by contrast, seemed laboured; you left the theatre suspecting the play was better than the production. And so it proves in Tony Cownie's vigorous revival, Lochhead's first mainstage outing since being appointed Scotland's makar, or national poet, earlier this year. Educating Agnes is, as we suspected, a daft, boisterous, big-hearted comedy that merrily weaves references to Kinsey and Cosmo on to Molière's 17th-century frame.

Much credit for the transformation goes to Peter Forbes in the lead role of Arnolphe. He is a man so scared of being cuckolded that he cultivates a would-be wife in convent conditions, believing a combination of ignorance and purity will make her too naive to be unfaithful. Like all social engineering, his plan is doomed to fail.

What sets Forbes apart is not only that he essays Lochhead's rhyming couplets with a Shakespearean authority that allows the language to sparkle and the comedy to flow – it is also that he declines to play the character as a monster.

Yes, his scheming is as cynical as any internet groomer; yes, he is a womaniser with blatant double standards; and, yes, he is a pig-headed control freak. As Forbes plays him, though, he is also a genial sort, much given to hearty laughter and seeming like good company. When things are going his way, he is clubbable and generous, guilty of little worse than small-town nepotism.

For all the production's knockabout panto spirit, it means this Arnolphe is more complex than the regulation commedia dell'arte oaf. Faced by the innocent logic of Nicola Roy's passive-aggressive Agnes as she declares her love for Mark Prendergast's swashbuckling Horace, he explodes with the fury of the comic fall-guy. This is just as you would expect – but, at the same time, he exposes a seam of genuine love for the girl. Momentarily, he becomes a tragic figure, a man defeated not by his desire in itself – like all of us, he yearns for affection and stability – but by his headstrong way of achieving it.

The play remains an archetypal romp in which young love triumphs and corrupt old age gets its comeuppance. But for its two happy hours on the stage, Forbes and this strong ensemble make you believe this stock scenario matters. (Pic: Douglas McBride)


© Mark Fisher 2011

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Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Hard Man, theatre review

Published in the Guardian

The Hard Man
Four stars

When Tom McGrath died two years ago, he was commemorated for many things: editor of International Times, counter-culture poet, founder of two Glasgow theatres and musical director for Billy Connolly. Less certain was his legacy as a playwright. Laurel and Hardy, his tribute to Stan and Ollie, was still going strong, but there was a suspicion that much of his work was right for the moment, as befits a jazz man, but didn't necessarily stand the test of time.

The likely exception was The Hard Man and here, in its first major revival in 30 years, we get to see why McGrath is so hard to pin down as a playwright. Based on the life story of Jimmy Boyle, the play's co-writer, who was locked up in the special unit of Barlinnie prison at the time, it is a study of a brutalised man in a brutalising system. The intervening years have brought many more portrayals of gangland thuggery, but this one still stings with its vision of unremitting violence.

What's fascinating is the way McGrath constantly undercuts what could be a conventional bio-drama to create something idiosyncratic. Much of it, in Phillip Breen's handsome production, is set to a live score of cymbal ticks and drum rolls, turning the everyday dialogue into syncopated jazz poetry. The short scenes, which vary from the banal to the lyrical, are like impressionistic fragments of a collage. Even when the drama is at its most intense, a character will turn to the audience, with a magpie-like nod to the musical hall, to explain what's going on.

It is eccentric and a little unwieldy, but also a period piece that makes the period seem a more interesting place to be. As Johnny Byrne, a thinly disguised portrait of Boyle, Alex Ferns is a baby-faced gangster who proves himself unbreakable. What sets this "gentle terror" apart is his intelligence, an ability to see beyond his own situation even as he is taking a blade to the face of some hapless credit defaulter or beating up his girlfriend.

He is not a pleasant character, but neither is the world he inhabits. Without apologising for him, the play shows how a man can be a respected success in a disenfranchised underclass while battling with a state system that seems no less violent in its means. Pummelling and bleak, this testament to the spirit of survival still carries a grim force.

© Mark Fisher 2011

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