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.

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Mish Gorecki Goes Missing ****

Mish Gorecki Goes Missing is a pleasant little play that is geared towards children older than seven but actually plays well to any age bracket.

Young Mish is an aspiring ballerina, and through hard work and dedication she finds herself chosen to go on a trip to Russia.  All she needs is her mother’s signature on a permission slip and a pair of specialty shoes that can only be purchased at one shop.  The problem is that Mish’s family are in the middle of a crisis and her pleas for attention go unnoticed.

That’s the first thing of note about Skye Loneragan’s play: what could have been a heavy-handed message play is actually delivered with light touches and genuine humour.  Put in the hands of many dramatists and the story would have been dark, even vicious.  Most would also focus more on the negative power of neglect and the burden of being a ‘rock’ for a troubled parent.  That the play does cover these topics but chooses to neither dwell on nor overplay these themes is quite commendable.  Instead, Mish is a hero, a young child who has big dreams and is constantly resourceful.

Director Leann O’Kasi’s production is full of ideas and creativity.  She uses the Tron’s Changing House space well and has many theatrical flourishes that are not only fun to watch but are at times rather impressive.  Kirstin McLean makes for a believable child.  She doesn’t attempt to play the character’s young age but instead focuses on her persona, and it works well.  Angela Darcy and Robbie Jack have the difficult task of playing multiple roles, and their performances and ability to quick-change make for some of the production’s best moments.

Poignant without being patronising, serious without being condescending and consistently funny and playful, Mish Gorecki Goes Missing is an utterly delightful production that will entertain its young target audience while charming the adults.

Originally written for Onstage Scotland.

Playing at The Tron until April 25.

The Force Behind Playwrights Studio

‘Playwrights Studio is here to help playwrights complete their work but also to help theatre organisations get the best plays possible onstage so that the theatre experience of people in Scotland is better.’  So says creative director, Julie Ellen.

The story behind the Playwrights Studio begins with the highly regarded Tom McGrath.  ‘Tom was someone who made things happen,’ says Ellen.  ‘He had the idea of a place where writers could come and hang out and get support without a producing context.’  After receiving much support through committees and the Scottish Arts Council, the project finally got a green light, but only after McGrath had suffered a stroke.  Looking for a new leader, a steering company chose Ellen.  ‘It was curious.  They appointed me to a job that didn’t exist, and I didn’t realise this until I was sitting up in bed on the first day and thinking “Hum, Playwrights Studio.  What do I need?  Oh yes, register a company, open a bank account, find an office.  Oh, this is actually very complicated.”  But it was really good fun.’

Ellen herself had a great deal of experience.  Having started out as an actor, she turned to arts management administration while trying to create work for herself in London.  She took a post grad course and worked with a number of schools and companies before returning to Scotland to work as a producer for Suspect Culture.  ‘The first six months [of the Studio] were definitely about setting up an organisation, which is a particular job in itself.  I guess that’s how come they got a producer and not a playwright to start it off.’  That was back in 2004, and since then the organisation has not only grown but has become a well-regarded component within the arts community.

However, Ellen has seen a growing trend within theatres.  ‘There’s been a reduction in the amount of new plays produced because there’s been a reduction in the amount of producing companies.’  The loss of such notable organisations like 7:84 and Borderline, companies that used new scripts, has had a noticeable knock-on effect.  Financial constraints are also a major problem.  But Ellen is also quick to point out other companies that still use new work, including the Traverse, A Play, A Pie and a Pint and the National Theatre of Scotland.

When asked if Ellen thinks there’s a bit of competition between these theatres and the Playwrights Studio, she is quite adamant.  ‘We are not in competition because we do not produce.  That’s the bedrock principal of the organisation: we will not produce.  And that gives a different engagement with the playwrights and myself and the rest of the Studio’s team because, if you’re a playwright, you want your plays ON!  If you are in a situation and you are sitting before a person who can put your play on, that’s a different engagement than the one with me where we can talk about the writing and the piece and we can start to free up the thinking from that.  We have this fantastic artistic independence.’

In speaking about new written work, Ellen poses a good question.  ‘What is a script, and what is a play?’  Pointing to the rise in creative marketing, story-based video games and new uses of multi-media, Ellen adds that it is important for any idea to have ‘an imaginative idea that captures people. You get scripts in all sorts of contexts.  But what is a play?  I want it in the present with dramatic conflict.  I’m old-fashioned in my take on a play.  All I know is that, when I’m sitting in the audience, it has to feel immediate, and it has to have a sense of place and time in the writing.  Something that is properly structured so that you’re taking me on a journey somewhere.’

In finding ways of helping artists create such a journey, the Studio has not only worked with emerging writers but has also assisted well-established writers and other practitioners in ways of improving their scripts.  They give them the ability to stand back and actually look at and analyse their text and find better ways of getting an impact out of their actual words.  In speaking about the many devising companies working in Scotland, Ellen says ‘We have lots of great creationist theatre makers in Scotland that are making fantastic work but always, just that feeling, that the script was just a little bit too thin.’

Ellen has seen firsthand the trials of writing for the stage.  ‘One of the hardest things for an emerging playwright is to have written three plays that you’re satisfied with and there is no glimmer of interesting from anyone.  You have to keep writing.  If you invest too much in your plays getting produced, you can get tied in a big knot and lose the will to write drama.’

Not only have many writers lost the will, but many who have managed to get their foot in a door with a theatre company have done so not to have their play produced but to have them commissioned to write a fresh new play.  As Ellen says, many theatre producers don’t want a writer’s new play but want ‘a writer’s new NEW play.’

And in her six years at the Playwrights Studio, what has she learned about the writing process?  ‘Just how painful of a process it really is.  What a lonely, agonising place being the writer can be.  And I re-learn that all the time.  And what a delicate process it is, and how you have to flirt on the edge of madness to allow an imagined world to completely occupy your head in order to be able to then shape that into a really strong piece of dramatic writing.  And I have such admiration, such respect.  And it’s good that I keep re-learning it, because I forget just what a challenge it is to do that and how difficult it is to be a good writer.  It must be so frustrating.’

But then she adds with equal determination.  ‘We don’t know who or where the next playwright is, but we do know we want to make it easy for them if they come in.’

Written for The Skinny’s Venue of the Month feature for April.

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

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.

One Night Stand ***

One Night Stand is an apt name for the production currently playing in the Tron’s studio space.  It is a passionate romp that seduces with its energy and potential but just doesn’t quite measure up when reflecting afterwards.

Clocking in at just over an hour, the production follows a man and woman during a 24-hour period.  Told in flashback by the man, we see how this couple met and the results of their running off with each other on a whim.

The production is mostly credited to Nick Underwood.  He serves as writer, producer, co-composer and lead actor.  As an actor, Underwood is quite good, creating an instantly likeable character and switching between narrator and active player with ease.  He is joined onstage with Melody Grove, who more than equals Underwood’s energy and likeability.  Director Sam Rowe also contributes well, creating many nice images and contrasts of pace.

However, the production is let down some by Underwood the writer.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with the script; it’s literate and tells its story well.  However, it’s hard to find much to get excited about a story that is, for the most part, pedestrian.  There are attempts to darken the hue of the story, but most of these twists are almost clichés from similar tales.  And while the play-on-words and rhyming lines can be fun, they can also be grating, even predictable.

What isn’t predictable, however, is the design concept.  Mark Melville’s sound and music are hypnotic and add nice flourishes to the production, but it is Kai Fischer who is the true champion.  His set, lighting and video projections are works of beauty that add much needed poignancy.  It’s rather amazing what he is able to achieve, and his work is a lesson to present and future practitioners as to what design can contribute and accomplish, even in small spaces.

Written for Onstage Scotland

Playing at the Tron until March 27, 2010.