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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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Monday, May 26, 2014

Commonwealth Games inspire sport and theatre link-up

Published in the Scotsman
Preview of sports-themed shows

THE COMMONWEALTH Games are still a couple of months away but the spirit of athleticism is already galvanising the world of theatre. Not only in the official Commonwealth Culture 2014 programme but also in outbursts of activity beyond, theatre makers are taking the idea of competitive sport and running with it. Some are also pedalling with it.

Among them is actor Tam Dean Burn who is currently in training for The Marathon Storytelling Cycle Challenge (14 June to 3 August), in which he will get on his bike to follow the Queen’s Baton Relay across Scotland, stopping off to read from all 184 of Julia Donaldson’s books and plays as he goes.
By the time he finishes, the English company HandleBards will be cycling from venue to venue on the Scottish leg of its three-month UK tour of Macbeth and The Comedy of Errors (19 July to 10 August).

The four actors are carrying their eco-friendly set with them on their 2,000 mile trek, which will produce 45.6 tonnes fewer CO2 emissions than the same journey by car.

“Getting to see the amazing British countryside is also a huge benefit to cycling and performing in outdoor venues,” says tour manager Paul Moss. “I’m particularly excited about performing Macbeth on Dunsinane Hill, which might very well be one of this year’s highlights.”

But why stop with the actors being on bikes? Glasgow children’s theatre company Visible Fictions is taking to the parks of Scotland to stage The Spokesmen, a mobile comedy that a small audience of over-eights will follow on two wheels.

The company has got hold of 40 bikes and helmets of various sizes from Raleigh and will be showing up in popular spots such as Almondell Country Park in Livingston and the Cammo Estate in Edinburgh to perform the two-man comedy.
“All these wonderful memories of being on your bike as a kid come hurtling back,” says writer and director Douglas Irvine, who is loving the excuse to get on his own bike again. “That sense of freedom and the possibility that you can go on any adventure anywhere. It’s a freeing way to travel. Hopefully this show will get some other people back on their bikes again.”

In the promenade production, Alan McHugh and Simon Donaldson play two clown-like characters leading the audience on a guided tour of their local park. What starts out as a legitimate cycling tour takes an unexpected – and funny – turn as their relationship with their home turf turns out not to be all it seems.
Because no two parks are the same, Irvine has had to give the play a flexible structure, allowing the order of scenes to change even as the overarching narrative remains the same.

“We’ve had to create different endings for each scene depending on the order,” he says. “You want it to feel it belongs to this park – it’s important to be celebrating the place. If there’s something in the park that the company can refer to or respond to, that must and should happen. Every day it will be different and the two actors are just brilliant improvisers.”

There’ll be a pleasure, meanwhile, simply in following the show around. “We were concerned about how you maintain a narrative tension when you’re going from location to location,” he says. “But when we tried it, everyone said, ‘But Dougie, we just want to enjoy the cycle. You’ve taken us to a beautiful park, so let’s enjoy it.’”

Among the summer’s other shows on a sports theme are Tell Me What Giving Up Looks Like (Arches, Glasgow, 25 June), in which actor Robert Softley and athlete Joe Brown contemplate disability and sport; Endurance (Arches, Glasgow, 24–27 July), in which Catrin Evans looks at the changing role of women in competitive sport; and News Just In, a theatrical soap opera by Random Accomplice that will take place every night of the Games.

But first, after a marathon-level of co-ordination, Glasgow’s Citizens’ Theatre has commissioned more than a dozen writers to share their memories of school competitions for a theatrical anthology called Sports Day.

Leading lights including Davey Anderson, Peter Arnott, Lynda Radley, Alan McHugh, Linda McLean, Ian Pattison, Gary McNair, Johnny McKnight, Julia Taudevin, Liam Harkins, Nalini Chetty, John Kielty and Douglas Maxwell have provided mini plays to be performed by a 60-strong community cast. They’ll be led by professional actor Joyce Falconer as a school janitor on her leaving day after 25 years in the job.

“We’ve put the plays very broadly into a chronology,” says co-director Guy Hollands. “So there’s stuff about preparing for a sports day, about the staff who are in the midst of organising it very close to the day itself and then at the end are the actual races. There are also leftfield contributions: Daniel Jackson, for example, sent a beautiful two-pager about a man watching the school sports day from a distance and running a book on it, which is a brilliant idea.”

Unlike several of the playwrights he has commissioned, Hollands is a keen sportsman and a fierce advocate for the role of sport in education. “I have nothing but positive memories about sport, which was a big part of my upbringing,” he says. “I’ve always been a believer in the value of sport. It’s a hugely important thing for a lot of young people who may not be excelling in other areas. Sadly, it still doesn’t feel like sport has its proper place within the school system.”

Adding a few more layers to the production, he has commissioned five songs from a prestigious line-up of composers including Eugene Kelly of The Vaselines, Alun Woodward, formerly of The Delgados, and Jill O’Sullivan of Sparrow and the Workshop.

“Those songs have a wry, looking-back sense of not being able to do it very well,” laughs Hollands. “But the tone is light. We wanted this to be a celebratory event about what is an upbeat, positive happening in the lives of schools.”
Our prediction? This show will run and run.

© Mark Fisher 2014 
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Theatre review: Woman in Mind

Published in the Guardian
Dundee Rep
Four stars

I RECENTLY spent a week in a hotel in Eastbourne. At the end of my stay, I felt that I had a better understanding of Alan Ayckbourn. Previously, I'd encountered his class of characters only on the stage. I'd half suspected that his particular breed of privileged home-counties ladies and blimpish retired colonels didn't actually exist for real. However, in Eastbourne, they certainly did.
So it's all the more fascinating to be back in Scotland watching Marilyn Imrie's tremendous production of the playwright's 1985 comic drama and find her putting Ayckbourn's middle-class Englishness at one remove.
Susan, the woman we find concussed on the back lawn at the start of the play, has all the attributes that Ayckbourn gave her – she's witty, self-deprecating and under extreme psychological pressure – but she's also Scottish.
And when she comes round, hemmed in by the silver birches of Ti Green's set, looming like a sinister extension of her troubled mental state, something significant has changed. She has acquired a pristine English accent.
As Ayckbourn wrote it, her mental breakdown is expressed in terms of a retreat into an idyll of champagne breakfasts and jolly tennis matches. Here, there's an extra level of dislocation because her hallucination takes place in a semi-mythical England. It makes Ayckbourn's strange Englishness seem stranger still.
Coming across like a companion piece to Anthony Neilson's The Wonderful World of Dissocia, Woman in Mind is a funny and unsettling vision of mental ill health, its cosy rituals of family life acting as a thin veneer to cover Susan's awful inner torment.
In the lead role, Meg Fraser switches gracefully between deadpan putdown, breezy charm and emotional terror. It's a superb performance, given excellent support from Neil McKinven, bringing a Chekhovian level of ineptness to the doctor, and Richard Conlon as a husband who is alone in finding his own jokes funny.
© Mark Fisher 2014 
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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Theatre review: Pressure

Published in the Guardian
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (and Chichester Festival Theatre)
Three stars

WE'RE watching an action-adventure yarn. At stake is the very foundation of western civilisation. Time is running out and only one man can save the world. Except the hero is not Jack Bauer, running through the streets of London in 24: Live Another Day, but a portly blue-collar worker scribbling down numbers at a desk. More unlikely still, he is a weatherman.
His name is Group Captain Dr James Stagg, a studious meteorologist from Midlothian, and he has been given the weekend to come up with a forecast for Monday 5 June 1944, the intended date of the D-Daylandings. Getting it wrong will imperil the lives of 156,000 troops and secure Hitler's victory in Europe. Getting it right will change the course of history.
It sounds as improbable as Met Office: The Musical, or The Tragedy of Michael Fish, but the playwright David Haig, who also plays Stagg with an air of brusque preoccupation, manages to make the stuff of westerly flows, barographs and geostrophic currents into a highly watchable single-set drama.
He finds an antagonist in the form of Irving P Crick (Tim Beckmann), a US weatherman with a feeble grasp of the jet stream, and works in that staple of disaster movies, a heavily pregnant wife with, yes, high blood pressure. He even ratchets up the tension with the analogue equivalent of Chloe O'Brian patching the schematics to Bauer's PDA, when Stagg's team receive a welter of bewildering scientific data over the phone.
It's a straight bio-drama with no metaphor, moral or message beyond the facts of the true-life story, but thanks to the director John Dove's lucid production (en route to Chichester), it has a crowd-pleasing pace. And it's the only time you'll hear an audience suppress a cheer at a change in the onstage weather.
© Mark Fisher 2014 
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Theatre review: The Libertine

Published in the Guardian
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Four stars

WHEN Jacob Huysmans painted John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, he pictured Wilmot in the company of a monkey. The 17th-century courtier and satirist looked suitably grand standing in his periwig, while the animal clutched a book and proffered a scrap of paper like a simian poet laureate. It was a challenge to everything a noble portrait was supposed to be, and even now it seems slyly subversive.
This is the Wilmot portrayed by Stephen Jeffreys in The Libertine, now given an intelligent, fluid and gutsy staging by Dominic Hill 20 years after its Out of Joint premiere. But instead of the light-hearted transgressor, bending the rules for our entertainment, this man has turned the decadence of the court of Charles II into something self-destructive, narcissistic and cruel. He tells us as much in a direct audience address – "You will not like me" – and spends the rest of a long play resisting our urge to paint him as a maverick hero.
It's a task Martin Hutson takes on with single-minded authority, sharing with the large ensemble a clear command of Jeffreys's fruity faux-Restoration language and, after sundry acts of sex and violence, descending into a miserable vision of alcoholic decrepitude. Like Doctor Faustus – staged last year by Hill – he is drawn to hedonistic excess only to find the pleasure is as ephemeral as a stage illusion.
Pulled between the mirror images of Lucianne McEvoy as his wife and Gillian Saker as his mistress – two elegant red-headed doppelgangers – he wrestles with the binary attractions of town and country, truth and illusion, head and heart, before his own self-serving cynicism eats him up.
It is staged in the stripped-back, rehearsal-room style that Hill has made his own, with Tom Piper's illustrative backcloths dropping in and out; actors lurk upstage when it's not their scene. In this case, a technique designed to focus our attention on the make-believe work of the actor has the twin effect of drawing out the playwright's theme about the allure of theatrical artifice. Rochester finds greater truth among the playhouse creatures than he does in real life – at least until his associate George Etherege (Tony Cownie on top form) has an unexpected hit with The Man of Mode, a play that caricatured and neutered him.
In our own age of austerity, Rochester's battle with decadence is not the most pressing of dilemmas, but the swagger and pace of this richly acted production give it life and urgency.
© Mark Fisher 2014 
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Theatre review: Uncle Varick

Published in the Guardian
Rapture Theatre on tour
Three stars

ANTON Chekhov's plays are populated with characters burdened by a sense of missed opportunity, but they are not mere exercises in self-pity. He has too great an awareness of the world beyond for that. For all their farcical failures and thwarted ambitions, his characters are products of their society – one that is changing in ways they cannot control.
That's why John Byrne alights on the 1960s for the setting of this transposition of Uncle Vanya, first seen 10 years ago. The estate of pompous cultural pundit Sandy Sheridan may seem cut off from the tides of time as it sits in isolated grandeur in the north-east of Scotland, but this is the swinging era of Rubber Soul, pop art and two-tone mini-skirts, as postwar education reforms are breaking down the old hierarchies. Like it or not, something's got to give.
In this context, Jimmy Chisholm's Varick is a man who has downplayed his intelligence in deference to John Stahl's vainglorious Sutherland, a superficial fraud who has sustained a media career on borrowed ideas. Where the towering Stahl is bad tempered, arrogant and relentlessly successful, the light-footed Chisholm is funny, cynical and defeated. The legacy of the aristocratic order means the best man does not win.
Working counter to the spirit of this update is a rather Victorian staging by Michael Emans that seems restrained by the shallowness of Jessica Brettle's attractively dilapidated set. Confined to the wooden floorboards, the actors can't quite let you forget they're on a stage. I've seen it funnier, sadder and more purposeful, but the performances are very good, with George Anton repressing his animal passions as a patrician doctor, Maureen Carr relishing Byrne's baroque phrasings as the old nurse, Ashley Smith touchingly stoical as the lovelorn Shona, and Selina Boyack suggesting the loneliness behind an ice-cold exterior as Sheridan's wife.

© Mark Fisher 2014 
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Theatre review: Dear Scotland

Published in the Guardian
NTS at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
Four stars

ROBERT Burns says you should vote yes to Scottish independence. Chic Murray reckons we're better together. Muriel Spark urges you to "act without timidity or fear" – a sentiment echoed by Mary Queen of Scots, who recommends you "be whole, be strong, be merciful". Robert Cunninghame Graham, a founder of the Scottish National party, cautions you to "raise the flag of your humanity beside the flag of your nationhood".
At least, that's what they say in this invigorating collaboration between the National Theatre of Scotland and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, in which 20 writers have each given voice to a painting, sculpture or photograph in the collection.
The effect on the two after-hours tours can be dizzying. It's a leap just to get your head around the idea that the actor Maureen Beattie is speaking the words of AL Kennedy in the guise of Robert Louis Stevenson in front of a bust by David Watson Stevenson. That the poet Jackie Kay appears both as a writer (imagining union leader Mick McGahey in a democratic heaven) and as a bronze bust (words by Rona Munro) adds further levels of complexity.
The national question looms large, with strong satirical contributions from Peter Arnott, whose Sir Walter Scott claims credit for inventing Scottish identity inside the union, and Iain Heggie, whose James VI agonises over the designs for the union flag. But several times it's the more oblique responses that make the biggest impression: Nicola McCartney focusing on a bystander at a scene of royal pomp; Jo Clifford noticing the faceless woman in a pub dominated by male poets; Zinnie Harris demanding we take seriously a display of forgotten 19th-century women.
This excellently acted production by Catrin Evans and Joe Douglas turns a gallery full of establishment stuffed shirts into a place of radical provocation.
© Mark Fisher 2014 
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