Any Given Day ****

Any Given Day is a bit of an enigma.  Like the jigsaw puzzles that two of its characters enjoy, the play is dependant more on the audience’s ability to put pieces together than it is on passive enjoyment.

Segmented into two parts, the production is an almost naturalistic look at the lives of two parties.  First we see Sadie and Bill, two people with learning difficulties who live in the same flat and completely rely on each other, and their predictable routines, for stability.  The second part follows Dave and his employee Jackie as they discuss life, relationships and the hard road to happiness.

The key to the production is not in enjoying the lives or philosophies of the characters but in seeing how their decisions greatly affect others.  Both parts take place at the same time, and actions that occur in one part have consequences in the other.

Kathryn Howden and Lewis Howden are marvels as Sadie and Bill.  Playing such characters can be a minefield, and they thankfully avoid all of the convenient clichés that most performers fall into while turning in performances that are rich in humanity.  Phil McKee is also quite strong in the role of Dave, persistently pushy for a conversation but always genuine.

However, the emotional crux falls to the character of Jackie, and here the production gets a powerhouse performance from Kate Dickie.  Her portrayal is filled with believable heartbreak and emotional scars, and though we root for her to take a chance on happiness, there is a foreboding that haunts her decisions.  Dickie plays her character brilliantly, resulting in a performance that lingers long after the production ends.

This too is heightened by Dominic Hill’s direction.  His pacing, staging and clever use of the Traverse 2 stage, along with an excellent design concept, allows for the action to feel immediate and convincing.  Its difficult making such a small space feel like a real living room and pub, but the production team completely pulls it off, resulting in a performance that feels real, taut and emotionally raw.

All of this stems from Linda McLean’s script.  McLean takes a few leaps of faith with her characters and plotting, and she is paid back with high dividends.  With dialogue that is snappy yet razor sharp, McLean’s characters sound completely convincing and act in ways that are believable, even inevitable.

The result is a production that might be difficult to watch at times but is still quite emotionally rewarding and intellectually challenging.

Written for Onstage Scotland.

Performing at the Traverse until June 19.

The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? ****

There is no polite way to put this.  The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, is about a happily married man who has entered into an adulterous affair with a farm goat.  Written by the great Edward Albee, it is an interesting mixture of naturalistic and absurdist drama that relishes in making its audience squirm with laughter and shock.

Finding ways of making a drama teeter between revulsion and hilarity, director Dominic Hill’s production is consistently sharp.  There are many styles of theatrics on the Traverse 1 stage, and part of the joy is seeing what is going to get thrown at the audience next.  Jonathan Fensom’s set is more complicated and functional than it first appears, and Katharine Williams’ lighting is subtle but nice.  Together, a realistic portrait of a nuclear family’s home is painted, making the run of events all the more fantastic yet disturbing.

As for the acting, it is consistently top-notch.  Kyle McPhail has some nice moments as teenager Billy and Paul Birchard is fun as Ross, the voice of reason.  However, it is Sian Thomas as wife Stevie and John Ramm as husband Martin who drive the play.  Ramm’s character is actually much more sympathetic than one would assume, a towering success in life who does the best he can to intellectualise his dilemma, and Thomas literally takes control of the stage whenever a new piece of her husband’s affair is revealed.  Together, the two create a stunning portrait of a once-happy marriage spiralling into oblivion.  It is a portrait that is both hilarious and disturbing.

Yet the real star is Albee.  Famous for making plays that combine reality, symbolism and the unconventional, Albee has written a script that works on many levels, questioning fidelity, acceptance and happiness.  No matter how absurd the situation becomes, the dialogue is always believable, and though the characters might make some questionable choices, it is easy to believe that they would do as such.

The Goat is an odd play, much funnier than one would assume and yet more poignant than it should be.  It does make for occasionally uncomfortable theatre, but isn’t that a good thing?

At the Traverse until May 8, 2010.

The Cherry Orchard *****

The Cherry Orchard is one of the most important plays of the modern era.  It isn’t only its rich characters and multi-layered plot that is of note; it also marked an historic moment when a director’s concept conflicted with a playwright’s intentions.

The story follows the financial downfall of an aristocratic family who have the habit of spending more money than they possess.  Their cherished country home, complete with a large cherry orchard, is about to be auctioned to pay off bad debts.  A local business man with ties to the family offers a way out.  The price, however, would be the loss of the loved orchard.

Anton Chekhov wrote the play as a comedy, even filling moments with high humour and speckles of farce.  Stanislavski, the inaugural production’s director, saw it as a tragedy.  Henceforth, many productions of The Cherry Orchard have suffered an identity crisis, teetering between Chekhov’s humour and Stanislavsky’s darker vision.

The Lyceum’s current production suffers no such conflict.  Writer John Byrne and director Tony Cownie clearly side with Chekhov and have created a comedy filled mostly with slapstick and shenanigans but also with the occasional snap of a harsh reality.

The production is billed as a ‘new version’, but in truth it’s more like the old version with a fresh lick of paint.  Byrne has relocated the play to the Highlands on the eve of Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power and has changed the names of characters and added British references, but the events and character reactions are the same.

What is impressive is how well the decision to relocate to Scotland works.  This Cherry Orchard almost feels like a companion piece to The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, with its look at class, economic turmoil and exploitation of the Highlands.  This isn’t a production that feels like a museum piece, it is a vibrant play that is modern and relevant.

The greatest joy, however, comes from the work of the ensemble.  Every character is not only richly drawn but fully played, and there isn’t one performance that doesn’t feel three-dimensional.  From Maureen Beattie’s kind but flawed matriarch and Andy Clark’s ladder-climbing tycoon to Ralph Riach’s heartbreaking servant and Grant O’Rourke’s grace-challenged clerk, every actor has at least one moment where they shine.  It is a pleasure to see such a large cast that contains equal weight, and every performance proves to be memorable.

It’s hard to find fault with this stellar production.  From an excellent design concept, sharp direction, clever updating of a well-regarded script and a brilliant ensemble performance, The Cherry Orchard is a truly great production that is the best work from the Lyceum in some time.

Originally written for Onstage Scotland.

Playing at the Lyceum in Edinburgh until May 8, 2010.

Huxley’s Lab ***

If there were an award for best idea or concept, Huxley’s Laboratories would win hands down.  Grid Iron, one of Britain’s premiere theatrical thinkers, has joined forces with Lung Ha, an acclaimed theatre company noted for its social inclusion, to create a site-responsive promenade production about eugenics set in the University of Edinburgh’s brand new science building.  What an utterly brilliant idea.

And there are indeed moments of brilliance throughout the two-hour production.  The irony, however, is that nothing in the play matches the genius of its core concept.

Professor Huxley (kudos on the name, by the way) has created a lab that is able to engineer perfectly designed children.  Huxley himself is disabled, and he greatly desires to be remembered as the last of his kind.  The scientists that work under him are expected to follow strict rules of cleanliness and restrict human contact and emotion, while those that choose to procreate naturally have been exiled.

The debate on eugenics has been raging for a century, and there is no sign of any amicable solution in the nearby future.  Rather than stirring the debate or taking a stark stance, the production paints in broad strokes.  There’s nothing that’s overly daring or biting, and many times the easiest option is taken.

And yet, there are so many components to the production that are truly great that it is difficult to be too critical.  The space is wonderfully used throughout the performance and there are some terrific design flourishes.  There are some great moments of high theatricality.  Also, the ensemble is uniformly excellent and filled with stellar performances, particularly from Gail Watson, Sean Hay and Stephan Tait.

Even with so many strengths, Huxley’s Laboratories has too many missed opportunities.  The talent and ideas are clearly there but in the end it just feels too tame, and what could have been a thought-provoking response to one of the most important scientific debates in recent history is turned into palpable entertainment.  It is a very good production, but with a bit more daring it could have been brilliant.

Originally written for Onstage Scotland

Run ended

Every One ***

I’m about to write something I never thought I would mean as a compliment: the play greatly improved after the lead character died.

Jo Clifford’s Every One starts off on a very tough note.  For forty-five minutes, we watch five characters stand onstage and tell us how mundane their lives are.  There are some nice observations on daily life and the futility of some routines, but for the most part it is hard going.  Did director Mark Thomson keep the house lights up at half just to prevent people from falling asleep?

But then in one theatrical swoop the play goes from first to fourth gear, and all of a sudden those comments made in the beginning take a new life.  Clifford’s play then goes from a take on the banality of life to a diatribe about wanting to live.  The first act ends on a point of interest, leading to a second act that proves to be mostly moving.

The production of Every One is quite solid.  Thomson’s direction treats the piece and the characters with respect, and he creates some genuine moments of poignancy, particularly in the second act.  The design is actually much more interesting than it first appears, especially when the walls begin to open, close and move.

There is also a very good ensemble at work.  Jonathan Hackett is quite moving as Joe, Tina Gray has some great moments as Mother and Jenny Hulse and Kyle McPhail do well with the under-written roles of children Mazz and Kev.  Kathryn Howden’s performance as Mary is outstanding, constantly moving with a lovely touch of humour, and Liam Brennan has some of the best moment’s I’ve recently seen on the Lyceum stage in the pivotal role of The Man.

But I have to come back to Jo Clifford’s script.  Every One is a play that I appreciate, even at times admire, but it has many moments that prove to be a bit trying, even underdeveloped, resulting in a production that is sincere but unfortunately not as successful as it wishes.

Playing at the Lyceum until April 10.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane ****

Many considered The Beauty Queen of Leenane a modern classic when it premiered nearly 15 years ago.  With its twisted humour and original voice, the play gave a refreshing jolt to both London and Broadway and sent even bigger shockwaves with the fact that it was written by a novice in his mid-twenties.

The best thing about the Lyceum’s production is that it proves that playwright Martin McDonagh’s inaugural work was not an over-hyped flash in the pan; Beauty Queen is a truly great play with interesting characters that take a roller coaster ride through some tough terrain.

Set in an Irish house that seems caught in a time warp, the majority of the play centres on the battle of wits and sanity between middle-aged daughter Maureen, who yearns for escape after decades of service to her mother Mag, who will stop at nothing to keep her daughter under her strict thumb.

Director Tony Cownie manages to orchestrate a production that is almost relentless.  He does not sidestep either the humour or the dark tones and ensures that all four characters not only have their place in the sun but also come across as three-dimensional.  He is assisted by an excellent design concept and a rain effect that resulted in audible gasps from the audience.

And the cast of four are stellar.  Dylan Kennedy as delivery boy Ray and John Kazek’s Pato come across as believable characters, and both make great impressions.  But the crux of this is on the two women, and here Cownie is paid in spades.  Nora Connolly’s Mag is a frightening force, an old woman whose frail body and voice disguise a monster, and Cara Kelly’s Maureen is a completely believable and sympathetic lead, a character you hope the best for even if you know she’s on the path to hell.

If there is a noticeable flaw, it can be found in the pacing of several key scenes, mostly in the second act.  Here, McDonagh has his characters play out some harrowing scenes, both physically and psychologically.  While nothing is wrong with any of these moments, several of them felt a bit reserved, almost too guarded, resulting in scenes that simmer rather than boil.

But this is almost trivial because, for the most part, The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a soaring production filled with dark plot twists and wicked humour.  It’s hard not to get caught up in the mother/daughter struggle, and it ends on a point that makes one mentally revisit everything they’d just seen

Originally written for Onstage Scotland.

Playing at the Lyceum in Edinburgh until March 13.

What We Know *

After watching Pamela Carter’s What We Know at the Traverse, I know several things.

  1. I spent a lot of the time playing a mental game in order to stay awake: coming up with different titles for the play.  Some examples include Why Am I Here, What’s Going On and Why Should I Care.
  2. I have not recently felt sorrier for a cast than I felt for the six actors here, all of whom do the best they can, some even managing palpable performances, with the drivel they have been given.  I also have to wonder whether they were clued in on what’s happening, because I sure don’t have much of an idea what some parts mean.
  3. I managed to see a performance with a sign language interpreter, and I felt that she gave a great performance that seemed more interesting than what was officially happening on stage.
  4. The most dramatic thing that happened during the performance did not come from an actor, the script or any production element but was in fact a guide dog that sat in the front row.  The play is set in a kitchen and has food prepared, cooked and consumed onstage.  The poor dog was so interested in the food that it spent the entire production eyeing and salivating over every morsel, to the point that its owner had to restrain it.  That dog’s reaction, and the uncertainty of what it would do next, gave the audience more drama than the play itself.
  5. I had recently read August Strindberg’s preface to his seminal naturalistic play Miss Julie where he accused theatre scripts of his time of being dead.  I found this play to be evidence that not much has changed for some scripts in 150 years.
  6. Carter’s dialogue attempts to capture the essence of what the naturalistic movement tried to do: show how people really acted and sounded like in private.  Unfortunately, every scene is less interesting and dramatic than any mundane conversation one would overhear on a bus or in a restaurant.
  7. Had I paid for my ticket, I would have been greatly tempted to walk out.
  8. After careful consideration, the best alternative title I could come up with was a quote from the Bill Murray film Scrooged: Boy Does That Suck!

Originally written for Onstage Scotland.

What We Know plays at the Traverse until February 27th.