Kursk ****

Kursk is an excellent example of immersion theatre.  Its success is built not on fine writing and acting (which it certainly has) but on how the production completely envelops its audience.

The title refers to the name of a Russian submarine that famously sank in 2000.  Political rumblings and fears of discovered military secrets led the Russian government to ignore the offers of help that came from other countries.  Whether or not the sailors died within moments of the sinking or after a period of time is still unknown, but all lives were lost.

The play does not chronicle the events of the doomed voyage but instead focuses on the lives of five men serving on a British submarine tasked with the stealth observation of Russian war games.  In the course of 90 minutes the audience sees how the men live in cramped quarters and rely on each other for basic survival.

Writer Bryony Lavery has written a very solid script.  All five characters are richly drawn and speak dialogue that is convincing, and the story is well-structured with complicated plot twists and some genuine turns of humour.  And all five actors are more than up to the task of bringing Lavery’s words to full life, creating characters that feel three-dimensional and real.

But if anyone is going to remember this, it is going to be for its production values, and for that the directors and creative team need to be fully commended.  Co-directors Mark Espiner and Dan Jones have created an excellent web of theatrics, keeping the dramatic action taut while hitting the audience with an onslaught of technical marvels.  Designer Jon Bausor’s set makes for a convincing sub that much of the audience can stand in, and Hansjorg Schmidt’s lighting design and Dan Jones’ sound effects make the voyage, and the feelings of claustrophobia, almost real.

Kursk might not have the most groundbreaking story, but ‘groundbreaking’ does seem like a fair word to use in describing the production as a whole.  It feels like theatre, art installation and journalism rolled into one, and it is directed in a way that evokes feelings that conventional performance would find almost impossible.

Run at the Tramway ended, but still touring.

Written for The Skinny.

Blue Hen ***

NLP Theatre may be on to something.  A quick glance at their website tells you that they are making ‘theatre for people who don’t do theatre’, and their choices of productions certainly show that.  They have had great success with their production of Singin’ I’m No a Billy He’s a Tim, a play about a Rangers supporter locked up during an Old Firm match with a Celtic fan.  And now there’s Blue Hen.

Written by Des Dillon, it is about two working class schemers in Coatbridge who drink, enjoy a good banter and just about manage to stay out of trouble.  Their latest idea is to in effect go green by growing their own vegetables and raise enough chickens to sell eggs for profit.  As is the case with most ‘get rich’ plans, the idea goes wrong when the coop becomes a nuisance and one of their newly purchased chickens decides to pick the rest off.

With its look at the effects of the economy and harsh life on schemes, there is ample material for a truly great play.  And indeed Blue Hen has some great moments and ideas.  However, Dillon’s script usually opts for funny dialogue and shenanigans over substance, resulting in a play that almost always takes the easy way and frequently feels hollow.

Charles Lawson and Scott Kyle actually work well, both with the material and each other.  It is easy to believe their friendship, and though neither is that sympathetic one still wants to root for both of them.  Each has fun playing bigger-than-life moments and mugging it up a bit for the audience.

It is easy to be overly critical about the Blue Hen.  The script is mostly a missed opportunity, the direction is competent but stale and the design is no better that what one would come to expect from a community theatre production.  However, it has its heart in the right place and wants so badly to please its target audience.  Going by audience reaction, it certainly achieves that desire far more than it doesn’t.  For that, Blue Hen is a palpable success for those looking for an off-colour production set in an environment frequently ignored by the arts.

Originally written for Onstage Scotland.

Touring until June, 2010.  For dates and information, check NLP Theatre’s website.

Peter Pan **

Why do we need another Peter Pan?  After all, Pan productions are an annual constant in the Scottish pantomime season, one of the many film adaptations always graces the TV and character and plot references have permeated our cultural landscape.

And yet, those who know JM Barrie’s original know that his actual vision is rarely fully realised.  Originally meant as an adult’s lament of a lost innocence, the play is much darker in tone and isn’t supposed to have the jokey wordplay and shenanigans that many modern productions feel the need to add.

The National Theatre of Scotland, along with the Barbican in London, have taken a very large gamble with this current production.  Rather than doing a ‘classic’ version, this Pan is brand new.  David Greig has been brought in to rewrite the play with John Tiffany staging.

The great paradox of this production is that, though it is being sold as a new and fresh look at the original source, it actually feels much older.  Resetting the action in Victorian-era Edinburgh might have seemed like a good idea but it does absolutely nothing for the production other than justify Scottish accents and period costumes.  The ambition is there but the execution is sorely lacking and caked in dust.

The biggest drawback is Greig’s script.  Greig peppers the play with new dialogue that feels fresh and is fittingly playful.  However, his attempts at changing the storyline are mostly noncommittal.  Barrie’s Neverland may have been a wondrous place 100 years ago, but it is populated by stereotypes and caricatures.  Rather than running with a brand new concept and original adventures, Greig feels the need to constantly return to the source material, so every time he tries something new he then goes back to Barrie, resulting in a play that wants to be new but ends up feeling like an imposter.  He has made some changes that are mostly successful, which makes his reluctance to make bigger changes all the more frustrating.

Tiffany and his design team don’t fare much better.  Everything in the staging is filled with ideas and concepts that may have seemed right on paper and in the rehearsal room but just don’t really pan out.  As with Greig’s script, the production has flashes of brilliance, mostly when it sails into uncharted waters, but none of it fulfils its promise and peters out.  There are inspired choices, but other foolish decisions more than counter these.

As for describing the cast, the best word would be adequate.  Most of the supporting characters are given little to do and prove all but forgettable once the show is over.  However, Kirsty Mackay’s Wendy is actually quite good, a stronger portrayal than usually given, and Kevin Guthrie’s Pan is equally good.  Pan is usually played by a female or a young man who can pass as a boy.  Guthrie’s Pan is a much more rugged persona, one that looks like he might actually kill an enemy.  Cal MacAninch’s Hook has some good moments but is let down by Greig’s indecision.  It’s a shame, because every time he does something unexpected the play actually feels more involved, and in those rare moments Hook is something that he hardly ever is: scary.

There is nothing overtly wrong with this Peter Pan, but there is nothing majorly right about it either.  It has some great ideas that bare bitter fruit, resulting in a production that wants to be a much more mature production than it is.  Ironic for a play about a boy refusing to grow up.

Originally written for Onstage Scotland.

Touring Britain until June 2010.  Check NTS website for details.

Les Miserables-25th Anniversary tour ****

The most important thing one must know about the tour of Les Miserables currently playing Britain is that it is NOT the famed West End/Broadway production from the 1980s.  It has a completely new production team that have changed much of the musical, sometimes quite significantly.  Gone are the famous turntable stage effects, the constant shades of gray and mass stylised use of the acting company; in are larger set pieces, projections and lots of pretty colours.

While this is fine, calling this the “25th Anniversary” tour is cheating.  It’s like celebrating someone’s birthday by giving presents and cake to an entirely different person.

However, this production proves that those who thought that the original worked only because of director Trevor Nunn’s clever staging were mistaken.  Les Miserables (or Les Mis, as it has been affectionately called by many) has entered into the public consciousness, and many of its songs are well known, even by those who have never seen a production of it.  If anything, this tour is instead a celebration of producer Cameron Mackintosh’s 25 years of mass global success with the musical.

Based on the very influential (and very long) novel by Victor Hugo, Les Miserables follows the life of Jean Valjean, a man who breaks his parole after serving 19 years for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread.  He attempts to live a good and honest life while using false identities but is constantly thwarted by Inspector Javert, a police officer obsessed with bring Valjean back to justice.  Many other characters filter in and out, but the question of justice and redemption is always looked at, mostly by watching good people suffer cruelly. 

Critics and fans have argued over this musical for some time.  In truth, both are right in their views.  Much of the story is hard to follow without supporting knowledge or background, and Hugo’s epic look at a period of French history is shoehorned into slight spurts of exposition that are easily missed.  And yet, there are roughly a dozen songs that are simply fantastic, and when performed well they make for electric, even unforgettable, theatre, resulting in a musical that might be lacking as a whole but is brilliant in its parts.

The current tour certainly has many merits.  The use of Hugo’s artwork is a nice touch and adds much needed colour and atmosphere, especially to ensemble scenes, and the re-interpretation of some key moments are quite effective, especially the song Empty Chairs at Empty Tables and the famed suicide of a key character.  However, other parts have suffered, especially the staging of the important barricade that makes up a large chunk of the second half, and the absence of the turntable means that many of the iconic moments of the original cannot be replicated.

This version of Les Miserables is a worthy production.  It is well directed, designed and has many good performances.  Fans might be disappointed in not seeing the original but should relish this fresh interpretation, but naysayers will not find any more reason to change their minds.  However, as it is one of musical theatre’s great juggernauts, lovers of musicals who haven’t yet had the pleasure might as well see what the fuss is about.

Originally written for The Skinny.

Playing at the Edinburgh Playhouse until May 15, 2010.

Raspberry ***

Raspberry is a production that exists on two planes.  For fans of Ian Dury, it is a theatrical collage that puts a fun twist on his life and art.  However, those unaware of Dury will see a musical heavy on energy and creativity but light on coherence.

Rita is a young woman who lost the ability to walk due to a bout with polio.  The majority of the production follows her conversations between two parties: her father, who diligently works with iron to allow his daughter to walk again, and an eclectic band that may or may not exist that is comprised of people who may or may not be who they say they are.

In truth, the plot is inconsequential.  What really matters is the music, which is almost always great, and the ensemble, all of whom perform with full gusto.  Christine Bruno is quite good as Rita and the ensemble each have fun playing both instruments and funky roles (even if most of their music-making is better than their acting).

But it is Garry Robson who’s the real stand-out.  His character Spasticus is a huge force the moment he comes out, musically great and always interesting, and Robson’s script and lyrics are consistently clever.  His ideas are also assisted by director Gordon Dougall, who creates some rather fun moments with his staging, and Leigh Sterling, who’s responsible for the music and additional lyrics.  Together, they have pieced together a production that, for want of a better word, is wholly original.

There is no denying the creative spark behind the production.  There is much to admire and the music is quite good, well-played and creatively performed.  But as it’s a high-concept love letter, one’s enjoyment and response will probably be determined by one’s knowledge, or ignorance, of Ian Dury and his art.

Originally written for Onstage Scotland.

Touring until May.

11 and 12 ****

It’s seems only poetic for me to have taken two weeks to contemplate my feelings towards Peter Brook’s production of 11 and 12.  After all, the play is all about contemplation and using reason to justify one’s emotional feelings towards something they feel passionate about.

11 and 12 is a mediation on how religion can influence a society.  An African Muslim community is uncertain whether a prayer should be recited 11 or 12 times.  This debate sees whole communities, even couples, split down the middle, and what may have started from a simple misunderstanding leads to violence, oppression and political manoeuvring.

And yet, the above description makes the production sound far more immediate and dramatic than the play actually is.  In fact, if I were to use one word to describe the production, the word would be gentle.  That’s the thing; everything is so gentle that it almost appears as if there is no plot.  It isn’t until you reflect back that you see that the strands have actually been woven with far more care than it first appeared.  Many have complained about the play being boring.  While I myself disagree, it is performed at such a leisurely pace that I can see why many would think this.

Of course, the biggest stumbling block is the anticipation wrapped around this.  11 and 12 is by Peter Brook, arguably one of the greatest and most influential theatre practitioners in the last 100 years (some would go so far as to say ‘ever’).  Brook’s work has a reputation for originality, theatricality, creativity and innovation, and he is behind some of the most important work to hit Western Theatre for some time.  And while there is no denying the utter skill in the creation of 11 and 12, it is by no means earth shattering.

It is, however, still awe-inspiring.  With the use of a live musician and an ensemble of seven, the play spans decades, continents and has scores of characters, all played on a set that is both simple yet beautiful and contains numerous images that are gentle yet impossible to forget while being lit with light that almost feels more like paint.  Along with his designers, Brook’s work here is masterful.  He doesn’t have to be flashy to be meaningful.  He is in complete control and yet does not have to constantly remind the audience of this.

Two weeks later and I still vividly remember many things, too numerous to mention.  This is a production that didn’t quite hit me when I saw it but has permeated my intellect and heart, and upon looking back I find that I am quite more fond of it than I had been originally.  There are numerous images from this that I will forever remember, and there are roughly half a dozen characters that I have grown to like, respect and admire.

11 and 12 may not be to everyone’s taste, but it is brilliantly executed.  And while I wasn’t overly beaming about it when I left the Tramway, I find that it still haunts me, and probably will continue to do so for some time.  Like the most pertinent of religious teachings, it is upon reflection that the spirit of the lesson comes forth.  I’m glad I experience the play, even if many feel as if they’d been cheated.

Run at the Tramway has ended.

The Government Inspector ****

Watching The Government Inspector reminded me of my grandfather’s favourite joke.  How can you tell when a politician is lying?  When his lips are moving.

Nikolai Gogol’s mediation on political corruption feels as modern now as it must have at its premier, a point the publicity correctly highlights.  With its plot centred on incompetent political officials who are only talented in stealing money and exploiting others while doing anything to retain power, there is no surprise that the play has continually been performed.

And yet, I’m in a bit of a conundrum over Communicado’s recent production of this play.  I know that I liked and admired many of its artistic qualities.  However, it’s nearly two weeks since I saw it (I know, shame on me for my procrastination) and I’m struggling to muster a full review.

I think it’s because Gerry Mulgrew’s production seemed far more concerned with making good moments than in creating an overall impression.  True, holding an audience for nearly three hours is no small feat, and Mulgrew created a mosaic of fantastically theatrical moments, most of which were very funny.  However, when all is said and done, I find that it is a few key moments, some lasting mere seconds, that I remember best.

But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing either.

Mulgrew was greatly assisted by a crackerjack cast, all of whom sang and played musical instruments in the highly entertaining scene shifts while playing characters who could have fit perfectly into a Looney Tunes cartoon.  John Bett as The Govenor and Andy Clark as Khlestakov were both fantastic as the leads, but they were almost upstaged by the supporting ensemble, all of whom performed brilliantly and each had a clear moment to shine.

That’s the key.  It may not have been a great full production, but The Government Inspector was filled with so many great moments that it proved impossible to resist.

Run completed.