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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 27, 2012

King Lear, theatre review

Published in the Guardian
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Three stars
THERE'S a sense of impermanence about Dominic Hill's austere King Lear. The very tables and chairs seen temporary, forever being overturned and whisked away, as if in response to Lear's unstable plan to split his kingdom three ways. Tom Piper's stark set of planks and windows dissolves at the edges, giving way to a netherworld populated by a brooding underclass and the hulks of old pianos that echo ominously.

Emerging from a monochrome gloom, this is an apocalyptic vision of a culture moving from decadence to decay. Lear's entourage have the boozy air of entitlement of Bullingdon Club members, offended to be fed take-away pizzas by a begrudging Goneril. Their time is up. When the tragedy reaches its end, the stage is filled with renegades from the Occupy movement. A class-based revolution is on its way.

But while the production moves in that direction, David Hayman's Lear charts a different course. This is a tragedy of his own making, brought about less through complacency than arrogance. He is not a quaint old man addled by senility so much as a hard-nosed operator who's misjudged the mood of the moment. At the start, he is sour, bitter and dry, showing no hint of the indulgence he may once have afforded Cordelia and, in his belligerence, providing ample reason for his other two daughters to let him down.

He brings out the violence of Lear's language, but leaves us with little sympathy when he is cast into the wilderness to rage some more. Only towards the end, when his madness is externalised and he seems to enter an asylum, do we connect emotionally with this man who has lost everything. Accordingly, Hill marshals his forces for a gripping closing scene that fuses power politics and domestic drama, but until this point, it's a production low on compassion.

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms to reopen in time for Fringe 2012

Stewart Lee
Published in The List

SAY what you like about modern-day dress sense, but when Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms returns to life, today's fashionistas will have some stiff competition. Yes, they'll be excited about the opening ceilidh in July and the high-profile Fringe line-up that includes Stewart Lee, the National Theatre of Scotland and Phil Nichol, but will they be any match for the audience of August 1822, when King George IV came to town?

Back then, eyewitness Thomas Mudie was so taken by the guests at the Peers Ball, he wrote a whole book about it. 'The ladies were in most elegant white dresses, richly bespangled, and had on plumes of white ostrich feathers, their plumage in constant undulation, appearing to the eye like an ocean of foam,' he wrote.

Stick that in your Topshop and smoke it.

But even if our glad rags don't have quite the same class, we'll certainly be able to savour the refreshed elegance of a building brought back to its 18th century splendour. After an 18-month closure and a £9.3m refit, the George Street venue where once Dickens, Scott and Thackeray gave readings has been returned to its Georgian prime - with a Jamie Oliver restaurant thrown in for good measure.

'What people will notice is it's going to be much lighter, airier and more contemporary when they come in,' says general manager Shona Clelland. 'Then, as they go up the stairs, they will be blown away by the restoration in the first-fl oor rooms. It's going to be back to the grandeur that it originally had.'
Visitors will now find ground-floor shop units where previously the Wildman Room and the box office stood, as well as a branch of Jamie's Italian in the old Supper Room, with a second entrance on Rose Street. Upstairs, the Ballroom, Music Hall, Crush Hall and the East and West Drawing Rooms have had plasterwork, cornicing and chandeliers spruced up. Walls have been repainted in muted tones, gold-leaf finishings have been replaced and decorative rosettes restored.

'People will notice the obvious things like the decoration and the restoration,' says Clelland, who's lining up a programme of book readings, dances, conferences, dinners and craft fairs, 'but all the infrastructure - new sound systems, new heating and ventilation system, all the behind-the-scenes things - will make being in the Assembly Rooms so much easier.'

The scheme has not been without its critics. Longstanding festival resident William Burdett-Coutts was forced to move his main Assembly Fringe operation to George Square after last year's closure. He was concerned the loss of the smaller groundfloor spaces would put an end to the building's ability to present work on all scales and force promoters to concentrate on the more commercial end of the market.

It is not an argument that convinces Clelland. 'The Assembly festival created lots of spaces within the building, but for the rest of the year, those spaces were not utilised fully,' she says. 'OK, there's not so many spaces downstairs during the festival; however we've still got four spaces upstairs, two of which are small. I've never been concerned about that, because I have to make the building work year-round. For the citizens of Edinburgh, we want this building to be somewhere people come - they might come for a meal or for a shop, but at least they're coming to the building.'

Equally convinced is Tommy Sheppard, director of the Stand Comedy Club, who has been awarded the five-year contract to programme the venue in August. He's broadening his previous programming range to include theatre and music, while holding on to the ethical values that have made his existing venues such a hit with performers. 'We're going to translate to the Assembly Rooms the attitudes we think have underpinned our success on the Fringe,' he says.
'Broadly speaking, we are taking the risk on the programme and we should be able to ensure the profit-making shows subsidise the loss-making shows, so we won't be transferring those losses to the individual artists.'

The programme ranges from Stewart Lee's Carpet Remnant World to the National Theatre of Scotland's An Appointment with the Wicker Man, from Irish chanteuse Camille to Phil Nichol in The Intervention, a serious drama about an alcoholic. The smaller shows will have a top ticket price of £10; the bigger ones shouldn't go much over £15.

'We're in it to do something good for the city and the festival,' says Sheppard. 'We've taken advantage of moving up the road to allow a number of the people we work with to move to that platform. Stu and Garry, who have done a show every Sunday for nine years, are going to be doing a lunchtime improv show every day at the Assembly Rooms. And there are a few people who we've worked with, like Bridget Christie, who are going there, not so much because it's a step up but there's a different tone to it - it's a bit more theatrical.'

If negotiations with the council are successful and if traffic can be diverted off George Street, he'll be putting a tent on the front of the building to create a festival hub and to give audiences an extra place to hang out. Even if that doesn't happen, the venue will have a less hurried ambiance than elsewhere on the Fringe, chiming in with the more classy approach of neighbouring venues such as the New Town Theatre, the Traverse and St Stephen's, as well as the Edinburgh International Book Festival. 'The sub-Glastonbury atmosphere being created in the university area is a million miles away from where I want to be,' he says. 'The emphasis in the bars and the programme at the Assembly Rooms will be the best possible quality at the lowest possible price. And if I can get through August without having a single queue, I'll be happy.'

In the meantime, Sheppard is like a child with a shiny new toy: 'The Assembly Rooms always was the best venue on the Fringe and the council has spent £10m on it, so imagine the Assembly Rooms being fully air-onditioned, with new sound systems, 100 per cent new seating, new floors, sound-proofed, new bar areas and better circulation space, and then with a programmer saying, "You won't have to queue - and you'll pay less than you paid before." I'm feeling extremely positive about it.'
Flingin' wi' Ceilidh Stomp, Sat 21 Jul, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh. Fringe programme, Fri 3-Sun 26 Aug.

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Kidnapped, theatre review

Published in the Guardian
Cumbernauld Theatre on tour
Three stars
ROBERT Louis Stevenson's 1886 novel is a lot for a dramatist to contain on stage. It kicks off at the creepy House of Shaws, where the recently orphaned David Balfour finds himself at the mercy of an acquisitive uncle, before taking us to the port of Queensferry and on to the Covenant, a slave ship on which the young man finds himself captive.

After several maritime misadventures, the story never sits still. Balfour and his new friend Alan Breck find themselves shipwrecked off Mull then journeying through the hills and glens of post-Culloden Scotland, escaping the anti-Jacobite forces as they go.

With so much movement, the tale can easily drag a stage adaptation down. At its best, however, Ed Robson's production for Cumbernauld theatre dances over this danger by focusing on the narrative, using hand-drawn slides to indicate location and powering ahead without theatrical clutter.

It means all eyes are on the three actors: Scott Hoatson showing Balfour's mettle as well as his wide-eyed innocence; Peter Callaghan capturing Breck's maverick blend of loyalty and lawlessness; and Alan Steele grimacing his way through a cartoon gallery of baddies. They sometimes show more verve than finesse, but their energy keeps the story racing along.

Robson clearly understands the value of storytelling simplicity, so it's a shame he keeps throwing out ideas that muddy the waters. In particular, giving the actors a video camera only makes the production seem clumsy. Their attempt to project a puppet-theatre fight in the first half is executed so poorly that we lose sight of the story altogether. Similarly, having a 21st-century newsreader to summarise the plot in the second half comes out of nowhere and only draws attention to itself. Less fussiness and a more organically developed style would have placed fewer demands on the energetic actors.
© Mark Fisher, 2012
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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Thatcher's Children/Beats, theatre review

Gary Gardiner's Thatcher's Children
Published in the Guardian
Arches Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars


FOR those of us who fought in the Thatcher wars, there's a worry the younger generation won't appreciate what was at stake. But if this inspirational double bill by the latest winners of the Arches' Platform 18 directors' award is any measure of the times, our political future is in safe hands.


In Thatcher's Children, Gary Gardiner demonstrates a clean grasp of the bullying, brutish nature of Thatcherite politics, and traces a direct line to the riots, financial crisis and alienation of today. In the video collage that accompanies his dryly satirical show, he has the wit to play with our historical uncertainty by blurring the distinction between the ex-PM and Meryl Streep. We know one of them sang The Winner Takes It All, but it's hard to remember which.

Performed by a cast of four in Thatcher masks and punkish DMs, this is a postmodern cabaret that pays ironic homage to a world view that has shaped the private and public lives of a generation. If we are all Thatcher's children, it seems to say, then small wonder we are such a dysfunctional family.

Better still is Kieran Hurley's Beats, a tremendous piece of storytelling that takes us back to 1994, when the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act outlawed any public gathering characterised by "the emission of a succession of repetitive beats". As DJ Johnny Whoop and live VJ Jamie Wardrop create an authentic club atmosphere, Hurley tells the tale of a 15-year-old at his first illegal rave, while parents, politicians and police fret about his future.

It's a simple story made purposeful by Hurley's understanding of the wider political context. Without flattering one side or the other, he juxtaposes neurotic forces of order and loved-up fields of dancers, giving the lie to the idea that there's no such thing as society.
© Mark Fisher, 2012 (pic: Niall Walker)
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Monday, April 09, 2012

The Steamie, theatre review

Published in the Guardian
On tour
Four stars
There is no funnier piece of writing in the theatre than the Galloway's mince set-piece in this delirious 1987 comedy by Tony Roper. It involves the elderly Mrs Culfeathers breaking off from her labour in a 1950s Glasgow washhouse to explain a theory about her husband's preference for the meat from a particular butchers. Roper takes a banal anecdote based on wobbly logic and bad communication and pushes it to a sublime level that, in the context of wash-day drudgery, verges on the surreal.

With not a beat out of place, the sequence is pure comedic poetry. Greeted by the sell-out audience with a clap of recognition, it carries us through wave upon wave of laughter to a point of near-hysteria.


The quality that comes across in this immaculate 25th-anniversary revival, directed by Roper himself, is the unguarded nature of the conversation. The four women doing their laundry a few hours before Hogmanay have no self-awareness, no sense of distance, irony or analysis. They exist in the moment, and it takes the audience, like eavesdroppers, to see the funny side.


Only when they step forward to sing Dave Anderson's wry songs, crisply realised in Gordon Dougall's fresh arrangements, do they reveal the political dimensions of their situation. A powerful evocation of community bonds, The Steamie sits in defiant opposition to the divisive politics of our own day. As the coalition government launches yet another attack on public housing, this play takes us back to the day when a council house in Drumchapel felt like an impossible dream.


Kay Gallie, Jane McCarry, Anita Vettesse and Fiona Wood - plus token man Mark Cox - know they are driving a vintage vehicle, and perform with the authority that knowledge affords them. On the strength of this outing, it's looking good for another quarter-century.

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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The Marriage of Figaro, theatre review

Published in the Guardian
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Four stars
PLAYWRIGHT DC Jackson staked his claim to office romcom territory with My Romantic History, a gag-filled romp that exposed the passions simmering behind the filing cabinets of an everyday workplace.

In this Marriage of Figaro, he proves there's more mileage still in using the conventions of the office to stifle the primal urges of his key characters. Relocating the Pierre Beaumarchais comedy to a post-banking-crisis world of high finance, he finds a match for the social decorum of old in the codes of behaviour of a modern corporation.


So the hero we meet in this high-rise Edinburgh office - realised with perfect corporate blandness by designer Alex Lowde - is the owner of Figaro Ferguson Asset Management, a company whose hedge funds are "all hedge and no fund". As long as Figaro keeps quiet about the hole in the accounts, today will be the day his company merges with a major financial institution, making millionaires of him and his fiancee in time for their evening wedding.


At any moment, however, their plan could be derailed by the lust of their colleagues, a lust made funnier by the strategic challenge of trying to have sex between staff meetings and Skype conferences. What Jackson has done, then, is find a parallel that makes sense of the repressed urges of the original, while adding a timely commentary on the venality of the banking industry.


Mark Prendergast's Figaro is a bit too much the wide boy to be a satisfying everyman but, graced by impressive renditions from the Mozart opera, he fires through Jackson's joke-heavy script with considerable charm. Barring the odd lull in the first half, Mark Thomson's production is a delight, not least in the splendid comic turns of Nicola Roy, Stuart Bowman and Molly Innes.

© Mark Fisher, 2012 (Pic: Alan McRedie)
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