Review – Orlando, Scottish Opera

Aha, my review of Orlando has now gone up at the Opera Britannia website. Rather late in the day, but I gather they have recruited someone new to get the reviews up much quicker in the future.

Here is what I said:

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Scottish Opera – Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 14 February 2011

Scottish Opera’s Orlando is a vehicle for some fine virtuoso singing but the evening never amounts to anything greater than the sum of its parts. Indeed, though some of those parts are a delight, others fall short of expectations leading to something of a mixed bag.
[Read more…]

Other Montezuma Reviews

There are a couple of other Montezuma reviews out there:

  • Conrad Wilson in the Herald liked it. (4 stars – no mention of the dog)
  • Rowena Smith in the Guardian hated it. (2 stars – no mention of the dog except in comments)
  • Conrad Smith also hated it. (2 stars and concern for the dog’s welfare)
  • Ruth Innes loved it. (Note comments by the dog’s PR agent)


Montezuma by Carl Heinrich Graun to a libretto by Frederick II, King of Prussia

Rating: ★★★★☆
This review should appear in due course on the Opera Britannia web-page.
King’s Theatre, Edinburgh – 14 August 2010

Despite a somewhat slow start to proceedings, this Edinburgh Festival production of Montezuma was an inventive, surprising and ultimately very enjoyable evening.

An unsuccessful attempt at setting the Mexican scene was underway in the theatre as the audience took their seats. Shouting hawkers tried to pique the interest of opera-goers by attempting to sell them cheap trinkets and Montezuma T-shirts. Meanwhile members of the company huddled on the stage in peasant fashion apparently knocking together the props. Whilst this might have been entertaining for a few minutes, the production started some twelve minutes late and the joke had worn thin long before the orchestra began an eleven minute overture. It was something of a relief when the curtain finally rose to reveal the title character, the Aztec emperor squatting in centre stage [Read more…]

One Million Tiny Plays about Britain – Citz

Rating: ★★★½☆

A very last minute dash took me to the theatre last night, having won a pair of tickets on twitter earlier in the afternoon. (I’m fast becoming fixed in my opinion that theatre and opera should, like the NHS, be free at the point of delivery). The dash was rewarded with an evening of playlets, each barely more than a couple of minutes long, sewn together to form a patchwork of glimpses of life in contemporary Britain.

All of life was here and all of life was played out by three actors who accents changed as often as their clothes.

Is this a play or a collection of sketches? Well, it is difficult to care when the evening proves as entertaining as this. Humour, pathos and wit competed for our attention as the various fragments of conversation were brought to life. This is theatre for our channel flicking, attention deficient, post modern society which raises the fundamental question, what is Britain about; is there a collective narrative that binds us all together?

Themes did emerge in the course of the evening. Barely suppressed rage simmered beneath quite a few of the characters. Mutual incomprehension between different ethnicities was obvious. And our love-lives seem, well, all too real when we see them played out by other people.

This play (or collection of plays) is a bold but overall successful experiment. There were some puzzles though. Why did one set of characters recurr whilst no-one else did. Why did the pair of Glasgow litterpickers re-appear as the penultimate play? Had they been at the end, it might have rounded the evening off rather more neatly. Yet maybe that was the point. We carry our drama within us and strew it out on every pathway we walk. Our pleasures and our pains create the most complex chaos of everyday emotion that is instantly recognisable in others yet which doesn’t quite make sense from any perspective than our own.

This is theatre with narrative but little meta-narrative. It occupies a psychological space somewhere between The Blue Room/La Ronde and The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other. Yet this is La Ronde with no knickers and The Hour in which the mime is mostly done in words.

All three cast members, Sushil Chudasama, Mark McDonnell and Pauline Turner work hard and work well.

Both compelling and funny, this is theatre that makes us to look around about ourselves and also to look within.

Well worth a night out at the Citz, even if you do have to buy a ticket.


Brian Donaldson in the Scotsman – 4 stars

Peter Pan – National Theatre of Scotland

Rating: ★★★½☆

Clap your hands if you believe in stage magic.

The National Theatre of Scotland’s latest show is full of big set piece theatrical experiences that make for an exciting if occasionally puzzling evening. Peter Pan comes home to Scotland in an extravaganza, which locates the Darling household in Edinburgh and Neverland as a place somewhere across the Forth Bridge, which is being built on stage even as we watch.

This setting is inspired, offering a grandiose reveal of Neverland beyond the girders of Victorian industry and eventually, a convincing pirate ship when a sail emblazoned with the skull and crossbones is raised up on the iron lattice work.

Many of the cultural symbols determined by JM Barrie’s play have become rather complicated for a modern audience in recent years. Can we think of Neverland without thinking of Michael Jackson? Can we be entertained without making judgements about the way gender is dealt with? Do we not hesitate before we can participate fully in a play in which fairies and pirates fight over who will take possession and control of a crowd of lost boys? A young boy crying out for his common fairy has resonances with us which may not help. This is a play which raises may puzzling psychological questions which remain long after the final applause has ceased.

However, this is not an attempt to explain or to resolve our deep-seated anxieties. It is an attempt to entertain. On those terms, it is a successful attempt to relocate Barrie’s play. We must hope though that the National Theatre of Scotland remains within a remit of trying to provide the best theatre in the world and doing so on Scottish stages and never begins to see itself as the primary teuchterizing force within Caledonian society.

John Tiffany likes dramatic entrances and having previously witnessed the bayonetted beginning of Black Watch and Alan Cuming’s behind landing on the Bacchae’s stage, we should not have been surprised to find Pan appearing from an unexpected corner. This is the first of many glorious pieces of stage-craft, without which the action would be slight and the narrative rather ponderous. Pan’s first appearance is completely upstaged by the advent of Tinkerbell though. In this production, its not so much Tinkerbell but Tinkerball-of-Fire who entertains us. The pyrotechnic business is dazzling and enchanting. Tinkerbell’s entrance was completely beguiling and left an audience utterly perplexed by how a ball of fire flew out from the Gods, under the Proscenium arch and down onto the stage. Similarly, the scene where Tinkerbell knocks over a bottle of arsenic and consumes it is astonishing. Pan is always meant to be precocious, but who could have expected that to be mirrored in such stunning stage-craft.

There are many glorious technical achievements. So many of them so well done that it comes as a surprise when other things miss the mark. Nana the Darling’s dog was never a success, pushed about in confusing manner. (And reminding this audience member how good Warhorse actually was). It was also surprising to see a technician so very obviously in Neverland providing the counterweight to some of the flying. Why was she not dressed as a pirate? There were also one or two shadows appearing on stage from the wings which should not have been there. Oh the irony, in a play in which Peter loses his shadow and cannot fly.

North British ballads and sea-shanties punctuate the action in a pleasant enough way without adding anything particularly helpful dramatically. This is a soundscape which never entirely descends into the Celtic-slush sounds which we love so much.

Amongst the company, Kevin Guthrie gives an secure lead to the production, discovering within himself a character which occasionally seems more Puck than Pan. Kirsty Mackay’s Wendy has the uphill struggle of convincing us that there is the voice of reason even within Neverland. She brings a confident sense of purpose to the role which wins out in the end.

Ultimately, it is the astonishing theatrical magic which steals the show. Worth going to see for that alone.

Updates: Other Reviews
Thom Dibdin in the Stage
Susan Wilson in the Caledonian Mercury
Joyce McMillan in the Scotsman – 3 stars
Mark Fisher

The Adventures of Mr Brouček

The following review also appears on
Rating: ★★★★☆
It is not difficult to see why performances of The Adventures of Mr Brouček are something of a rarity. The eponymous Brouček is whisked through time, space and circumstance in an opera whose score is at once challenging and beguiling. Scottish Opera’s collaboration with Opera North makes the best possible case for the inclusion of the piece in the modern canon yet this formidable production still leaves one unsurprised that this is only the second time the opera has been seen in Scotland. Indeed, it has been a long time since it was last seen, in an Edinburgh Festival performance in 1970, the premiere of the work in the UK.

Structurally, The Adventures of Mr Brouček barely hang together. In the first half, the consequences of Brouček’s boozing are a trip to the moon and a series of encounters with characters whom he remembers from his bar. In the second, his drinking takes him back in time to 1420 and the Hussite rising in Prague. Again, the characters of Brouček’s alcohol induced fantasy are based on those who inhabit his local. Though he (and we) recognise them, they deny all knowledge of him. Whether on the moon or fifteenth century Prague, Brouček is an outsider, a loner and a stranger.

It is perhaps this sense of alienation that has led John Fulljames to set the bar scenes not in the early twentieth century but in 1968. That clever choice of date is a clear attempt to link the two disparate stories together. The setting takes us to a time just before the moon landings and just at the time of the Russian intervention in what was then Czechoslovakia. The lunar fantasy of Act I can only make what sense it does, if it takes place before anyone on earth had the images of the moon landings fixed for good in the imagination. Meanwhile, we were encouraged to see the Hussite rebellion of Act II within the context of the ongoing struggle of the Czech nation which reached such a defining point in 1968.

All these changes in scene give much for a creative team to work on. Particularly striking throughout the evening was the use of both the projected video work of Finn Ross and the accomplished and striking lighting design of Lucy Carter. The video located the work in the 1960s and was by turn whimsical and unexpectedly beautiful. [Read more…]

The House of Bernarda Alba – Citz

Above the stage in this play by the National Theatre of Scotland there floats a large, mirrored ceiling. In this update, the action has all been plucked from the Andalusian countryside of Lorca’s original and been thrust kicking and screaming into Glasgow’s East End underworld. How well does this 70 year old Spanish play hold up a mirror to contemporary Scotland? Surprisingly perhaps, it does it reasonably well, amidst the claustophobia of one sinister family whom we see in only one setting – the dreamy cream living room of their home above the club that is the centre of their business operations.

Amongst a strong cast, Siobhan Redmond seethes with anger in the title role. Her vicious comic barbs are what keep the action flowing. It is she who can generally keep her house in order by the raising of an immaculately coiffured eyebrow. It is she who has an answer for everything. It is she who will sort things out. She may be a villain, but she is an arch, camp villain whom it is curiously difficult to dislike. It is the complexity of Bernie’s own life which feeds the hatreds that poison the characters of all those around her. That same complexity makes her strangely vulnerable, even when grasping a baseball bat and heading down to the street below to defend her territory from all comers.

Almost every character in this play is imprisoned in one way or another. So many lives locked away. The plush apartment where all the action is set is a prison for the five daughters and also for Bernie’s mother, who is herself locked into a room beyond. Una Maclean’s grandmother figure appears for just a couple of scenes and tantalises the audience with her tragic heartbreaking nonsense.

It is unusual to see a stage so full of female characters from beginning to end. Twelve talented female actors sizzle with anger and repressed rage in a play which will teach us not to be sentimental about what the world would be like if men were absent.

Rating: ★★★½☆
Other Reviews:
2/5 Robert Dawson Scott in the Times
3/5 Mark Fisher in the Guardian
3/5 Adam Ramsey in the Big Issue
4/5 Joyce MacMillan in the Scotsman

sh(OUT) – Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art

The opening of the new exhibition sh(OUT) opened tonight. I made it to the opening bash, it being my day off. (I still take a day off in Holy Week lest I make it not unto the end).

I’m pleased that GoMA and Glasgow City Countil run these social justice themed exhibitions every couple of years but had mixed feelings about this one, as indeed I had about the last which was on sectarianism. The exhibition this year runs from now until November and is on the theme of lesbian, gay, bisexual, intersex and transgender life. We were told that it would both celebrate and raise awareness of “LGBT people, their rights and history”. (And that language on the GoMA website immediately excludes the very people it is trying to include, presuming that everyone who reads it is straight).

If the exhibition is a success, it felt like a very patchy success. By and large the works of art representing lesbian life seemed to me much more positive than those representing gay men. There was a lovely sculpted gravestone for two women, some good photographs by and of women and a tender, erotic watercolour that was genuinely moving.

When it came to the men’s side of things, there were only a couple of pieces which really seemed to celebrate any positive images. A rather nice naive piece by Holly Johnson showing two Egyptians embracing one another was a strong positive. Otherwise the exhibition seemed to celebrate alienation rather than life. An early David Hockney was a good piece to stare at and mull over, but profoundly sad. One longed for one of Hockney’s swimming pool scenes to break the dreariness of it all.

What were presumably supposed to be shocking images from Robert Mapplethorpe did not really shock so much as raise one’s eyebrow that anyone might be so quaint as to think them obscene in a world now dominated by sexual imagery. And as for the tree-like thing in the middle of the gallery growing genitalia, it was not merely old hat, but something which one could usefully hang one’s old hat on.

The T side of things was rather splendidly represented by a modern jewelled icon by Grayson Perry – the only piece in the exhibition that I think I’d want to go back and have another look at.

Two smaller exhibition spaces appear in the galleries around the entrance atrium. One full of cartoons which probably deserve closer inspection than was possible with the crowd this evening and the other, the experience of LGBT Youth. (Or rather LGBT Youth who have managed to find a supportive group to join). This was interesting not least because the experience described was as far away from the planet I live on as Mars is from Earth.

Interestingly, I noticed on the way home a quote from Troy Perry being used to advertise the exhibition, “The Lord is my Shepherd and He knows I’m gay”. It is a quote worth reflecting on, but no attempt was made in the exhibition as presented to deal with issues surrounding LGBT people and faith. Various outreach artists are working with groups across the city, and indeed we have had an approach from someone making contact with the LGBT group at St Mary’s. However, this is an all too safe way to deal with issues that people like me care about. One came away feeling that any religious experience was perhaps being closeted and the main viewing public being distrated from anything really edgy by penis-growing trees.

Verdict – Patchy

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

HMS Pinafore – the Carl Rosa Opera, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

shipThe libretto of HMS Pinafore has at its centre a character, in the form of Sir Joseph Porter, who has risen to a status far exceding his talent. There was a certain irony then in the casting of Mr John Savident who, though he looked the part, was wading way out of his depth and would have been wise to keep his feet firmly ashore, treading the familiar pavements of Coronation Street. He could not sing and he could not remember the words that he was supposed to be singing. The ability to sing and to do so using Mr Gilbert’s words are not entirely optional in the production of the Savoy Operas.

Even at its best, there did not look to be a competent crew aboard this Pinafore and whenever the Admiral strode the deck, a palpable sense of nervousness seemed to be catching amongst the rest of the company. The sisters and the cousins and the aunts of the female chorus did a little better at annunciating their words than the sailors, not all of whom knew the lyrics any better than their first Sea Lord, but neither the gentlemen nor the ladies spent the whole evening singing in time with what was going on in the pit.

Rare patches of sunlight shone on the production in the form of some beautiful singing by Olivia Safe as a lovely Josephine.

There can be something endearing and even charming in the production of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan even when performed by amateur companies who can make up for a lack of talent with boisterous enthusiasm and commitment. Such things were absent amongst this professional outfit who looked under rehearsed and under prepared.

Even the bows at the end of the production got into a fankle when the orchestra were acknowledged by Miss Safe before all the cast (in particular Mr Savident) had received the lukewarm adulation of the crowd. One felt she had a point.

This was the first night of a three and a half month tour that will take the ship to Brighton, Wimbledon, Norwich, Belfast, Bath and other points around Blighty.

However the production ends up by the time it gets to Windsor in June, one thing was clear from its opening night in Glasgow.

This ship was not fit to sail.

Rating: ★½☆☆☆

An Inspector Calls – Theatre Royal (Review updated)

Stephen Daldry’s production of An Inspector Calls is a thundering, brooding, iron-clad show which makes for a very safe bet on a February Friday night in Glasgow.

It is a delight that in such a manicured production as this, the play still shines out as being interesting in itself. Notwithstanding the big-bucks set and the almost pitch-perfect ensemble acting, it is, on reflection, the play which still intrigues. Here it is sold to us as a thriller. In the past it has been filmed as a ghost story. For me, I think it will always be simply a morality play. The word “thriller” is not here used simply to pack them in. The chilling music and severe lighting all rack up the tension throughout. Indeed, one particular lighting change (which came just before the Inspector’s big sermon) even managed to eclipse the set which responded appropriately to the devastation and disintegration being wrought on the Birling family.

It is about 14 years since I last saw the Inspector call. In that time, his prophecy that unless we learn to live with each other we will see fire and blood and anguish seems all the more pertinent.

An Inspector Calls was written by a post-war playwright who seemed to think that had the world embraced socialist values, the horrors of the two world wars would not have happened. However, the audience these days is likely to be made up of late-Western capitalists who will probably interpret the play as a call to experience a certain amount of satisfying liberal guilt and hand-wringing before going home to chatter about when house prices will start going up again.

For today’s audience, the play scarcely foreshadows the agony of war and holocaust so much as the Inspector prefigures Dr Who. Notwithstanding his flawed presumption that socialism alone could have stopped Hitler, the sensibilities of the modern audience are hardly the fault of JB Priestley.

If this is a who-done-it, the answer is still obvious.

We did.

Rating: ★★★★☆