Sweeney Todd ***

If one were to choose a single word to sum up Dundee Rep’s production of Sweeney Todd, it would be ambitious.  Considered by many to be one of the most difficult scripts to produce, its nearly three-hour running time is almost completely sung, contains a plethora a theatrical styles and has a plot filled with such themes as social justice, love, revenge and cannibalism.

15 years after being exiled on a trumped up charge, Benjamin Barker returns to London for answers.  His previous neighbour, the meat pie saleswoman Mrs. Lovett, tells him that his wife has since poisoned herself and that his beloved child is now in the care of the same man who framed him.  Barker takes the alias of Sweeney Todd and returns to his trade as a barber, intent solely on revenge.  However, when the bodies start to pile up, Lovett comes up with a gruesome way of disposing the remains.

The most notable aspect of this production is the work of director James Brining.  With its original staging and interpretation, Brining’s concept is direction at its best and most innovative.  He does not echo either Hal Prince’s highly influential original production or Tim Burton’s recent film version.  He does, however, create a production that is completely breathtaking, filling the stage with brilliant flourishes that are astonishing to watch, from the set made of large shipping cargo containers to the intriguing decision to move the action from the Victorian era and into a non-descript point in the mid-20th Century.

Sadly, not all is great.  While Brining’s direction is stunning, the performances are, at best, inconsistent.  David Birrell makes for an exceptional Todd, mixing anger and cunning with a wonderful voice, and Richard Conlon is great in the crucial supporting role of Pirelli.  The rest of the performances, however, are fine from an acting point of view but strangely weak in musicality.  Ann Louise Ross acts the role of Lovett well but has noticeable difficulty with the singing, making a few too many mistakes to not be noticed, and Robert Paterson’s Judge Turpin is too hammy to be taken seriously.  Other members of the ensemble fair better but still prove to be a mixed bag, especially when it comes to the music.

With such a brilliant piece of direction, it is a shame that the usually great Dundee acting ensemble aren’t vocally up to the hard challenge of Stephen Sondheim’s music.  The result is an enjoyable production that’s worth catching, even if it isn’t nearly as good as it should have been.

Until June 12th at Dundee Rep.

Originally written for Onstage Scotland.

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.

A Preamble of Sorts

After months of false starts and procrastination, I’m finally making good on my threat to join the masses and to create a blog.

 

I have many reasons for this.  Chief among them is that I feel that I have far more to say about the current artistic climate than what I currently publish, especially when it comes to film and television.  Even my theatre writing is limited, focused on the productions that editors I work with want covered (as brilliant as those editors are!).  And yet there’s a lot more out there, and even more to say.

 

So, I’ve started Caledonia’s Californian Critic, my website that acts as both a place to collect my published writing and as a larger platform, or soapbox, to allow me to vent on the films, television and theatre found throughout Scotland.

 

There isn’t going to be a set format.  Some weeks may go by with only one or two posts, and some days may have multiple articles, and the subjects and the tone will probably shift, sometimes greatly.  It’s just going to depend on how impressed, or embittered, things make me, resulting in me feeling driven to stare at my computer screen and spend time twisting words into coherent thoughts rather than actively interacting with society (a dangerous thing to do).

 

So, enjoy the trip as I praise and/or crush the cultural offerings found in this gloriously beautiful and wet country I now call my home.