Review: Last Dream (On Earth) – Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Published in The Times, Wednesday April 8 2015

Four Stars

Kai Fischer’s brief, beautiful piece of immersive theatre brings together two seemingly disparate stories. The more familiar tale is that of the first manned flight into space by the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Fischer places this alongside personal accounts of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa attempting to cross the Mediterranean into Europe.

In different hands this combination might have appeared contrived, but by maintaining a tight focus on the first-person point of view, the Glasgow-based director and designer achieves a subjective, at times quietly devastating portrait of human courage in adversity.

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Review: Fat Alice – Òran Mór, Glasgow

First published in The Times, Thursday April 2 2015 

Four Stars

Playwright Alison Carr is one of the breakout members of the Traverse 50 – the group of new talents discovered and nurtured by Scotland’s new writing theatre as part of its half-centenary celebrations. Fat Alice may be her first fully realised work, but it’s an impressive calling card, sly and audaciously offbeat, showcased to strong effect in Joe Douglas’s snappy production.

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Review: Hedda Gabler – Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

First published in The Times, Saturday March 28 2015

Four Stars

In this compelling new production of Ibsen’s classic, the elegant drawing room set, designed by Jean Chan, with its large windows offering views onto an interior room, increasingly comes to feel like a wooden cage. Curtains blowing in the breeze give some sense of the outside world that in no way diminishes this atmosphere of claustrophobia. At one point, as the play moves towards its devastating climax, the walls roll forward, shrinking the space still further.

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Review: And the Beat Goes On – Tron Theatre, Glasgow

First published in The Times, Friday March 27 2015

Two Stars

The playwright Stef Smith, who wrote the multi-award-winning Roadkill, knows how to grab an audience’s attention. In the opening scene of her bizarre new play And the Beat Goes On we watch a couple (Julie Brown and Johnny McKnight), decked out in flower power regalia, performing the classic Sonny & Cher anthem of the title against a backdrop of stacked boxes in their suburban garage.

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Review: The Day the Pope Emptied Croy – Òran Mór, Glasgow

First published in The Times, Thursday March 19 2015

Three Stars

Mention the papal visit to Scotland in May 1982 and the image that comes to mind is probably that of John Paul II saying mass for 300,000 Scottish Catholics in Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park. While that now legendary occasion forms the backdrop to this three-hander, presented by A Play, a Pie and a Pint in association with the Traverse Theatre, Martin McCormick, the playwright, astutely chooses to focus on those who were left behind or excluded on the day rather than the crowds waving banners in the park.

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Review: Leviathan – Òran Mór, Glasgow

First published in The Times, Wednesday March 11 2015

Two Stars

You know all is not well in this disappointing three-hander from the moment the lights go up to reveal Karen (Claire Cage) slumped in an armchair in her back garden, staring into the middle distance. Whey-faced and clad in jumpsuit and slippers, she launches into a staccato stream of consciousness before flopping back spent, the light going out in her eyes. Meanwhile, life goes on around her: the cat prowls the garden for birds; her neighbour mows his lawn incessantly; her mother Mavis (Siw Hughes) and daughter Hannah (Gwawr Loader) soak up the late summer sun. Continue reading “Review: Leviathan – Òran Mór, Glasgow”

Review: Blood Wedding – Dundee Rep

Published in The Times, Tuesday March 10 2015

Two Stars

Anyone who has seen a play performed in a foreign language will be accustomed to letting their eyes roam between the stage and the supertitles. Less familiar is the experience of watching live theatre that also incorporates signing for deaf people along with an audio description for the visually impaired. This may require an adjustment on the part of some members of the audience, but it also reinforces how inaccessible and excluding the majority of theatre performances are.

The fact that deaf and disabled actors are front and centre of this update of Federico Garcia Lorca’s great tragedy is the most noteworthy aspect of the co-production for Dundee Rep, Derby Theatre and Graeae Theatre Company. Rather than shying away from the mix of abilities and ethnicities in the cast, David Ireland’s script tackles notions of prejudice head-on. At one point, Amy Conachan’s Olivia, a wheelchair user, is asked whether or not she has a working womb. Another character bluntly announces that she doesn’t like black people, an unsettling echo of recent, well-documented comments by an ex-UKIP councillor about her “problems with negroes”.

Where the production unravels, however, is in its attempt to marry Lorca’s tale of passion, illicit love and bloody revenge with the kind of prosaic writing you’d find in the average episode of EastEnders. Listening to references in the script to IKEA furniture, “selfies” and Strictly Come Dancing, merely serves to remind us of the importance of Lorca’s poetry in making such an intense, melodramatic scenario credible.

Ireland’s excessive desire to make the play relevant by replacing fire and passion with the everyday is compounded by Jenny Sealey’s stilted direction. Key scenes, including the wedding itself, are so bogged down in ill-judged jokes and peripheral action that we lose sight of what is at stake dramatically. Fine actors, such as Conachan, Ann Louise Ross, as Olivia’s aunt, and Irene Macdougall, as a blowsy neighbour, struggle to break the monotonous pace.

The dynamic final sequence, in which Ricci McLeod’s cuckolded groom sets out to avenge himself against his bride and her lover, offers flashes of what might have been, and the production delivers a powerful final image of three bereaved women framed within designer Lisa Sangster’s fractured family portrait. But it’s hard to take the blood-spattered denouement seriously when everything leading up to it has been so steeped in banality.


Box office: 01382 223530, to March 14; then touring the UK to April 25 – graeae.orgderby;

Reviews: The Effect – Tron Theatre, Glasgow; Love 2.0 – Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh

Published in The Times, Monday March 9 2015

The Effect: Three Stars

Love 2.0: Two Stars

Playwright Lucy Prebble tries to cover a lot of territory in The Effect: fraud and corruption in the pharmaceutical industry; the debilitating consequences of mental illness; love and the rationality of romantic attachment. On paper this thematic cocktail sounds tempting. Yet Prebble’s play – the follow-up to Enron, her depiction of corporate meltdown – suffers from a lack of clear dramatic purpose and a diffuse presentation of its ideas.

Nonetheless, in the play’s first Scottish production, by Firebrand, a strong ensemble tackles Prebble’s themes with sensitivity. We meet Connie (Scarlett Mack) and Tristan (Cameron Crighton), paid participants in the trial of an antidepressant, overseen by Lorna (Pauline Knowles), a psychiatrist with her own history of depression. As the process deepens, what begins as an amusing flirtation between the young guinea pigs evolves into a full-blown love affair that nearly unhinges them both.

At the heart of Prebble’s play is an argument about the validity of human feelings, and whether our emotions are purely chemical or underpinned by something deeper. It’s an odd question on which to hang a play – surely the two things are not mutually exclusive? And, too often, the playwright’s heavy hand stays our capacity to engage fully with the characters. Within these limitations, the cast, and Richard Baron, the director, create some movingly observed moments, with Knowles particularly good as a woman managing her depression in the face of her own and others’ expectations.

Pauline Knowles and Scarlett Mack in The Effect – photo by Lindsay Ross

Pic: Lindsay Ross

If Prebble’s play at least poses interesting questions about the nature of love, the new production by Sleeping Warrior Theatre Company offers a drearily crass view of heterosexual relationships in the online era. Andy McGregor’s Love 2.0 starts out promisingly enough with a couple of young Facebook obsessives, Suzie (Lucy Goldie) and Gary (Samuel Keefe), re-enacting the online back-and-forth that led to a disastrous first date. Gary hides his crippling shyness behind literary quotations he barely understands, which impresses Suzie, a badminton and Simply Red enthusiast.

It is following their cringe-worthy coffee date that McGregor loses control of his premise, with character credibility playing second fiddle to tasteless one-liners. Presumably we’re meant to sympathise with lonely Gary, but his view of women, culled from porn magazines, proves repellent, while Suzie’s character is equally volatile, veering between sunny optimism and inanity. Despite some nice visual jokes in the opening sequence, we’re left with a depressing view of the way men and women relate to each other – one that leaves a distinctly sour taste in the mouth.

The Effect is touring Scotland to March 14 (; Love 2.0 is touring to March 28 (

Review: The Caucasian Chalk Circle – Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Published in The Times, Thursday 25 February

Four Stars

You couldn’t accuse the Lyceum’s spring programme of lacking variety. Having opened with a revival of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, performed by three actors in an atmosphere of remarkable intimacy, the season continues with an exuberant staging of Brecht’s late masterpiece on a stage stripped to its back wall that, at times, barely contains the cast of 13 actors.

Amy Manson as Grusha in The Caucasian Chalk Circle at The Lyceum

Pic: Alan McCredie

Mark Thomson’s entertaining, if uneven, production is based around a translation by the Scots-born satirist Alistair Beaton, which restores Brecht’s framing device, in which a dispute between rival communes over an area of farmland is illuminated by a play based on the parable of a servant girl who rescues and protects an abandoned baby. The atmosphere of unabashed theatricality is established prior to curtain up, when the ensemble, playing an array of musical instruments, mingles with the audience in the bar.

Brecht’s prologue is often deemed surplus to requirements, and Thomson’s production doesn’t really find its rhythm until we get into the meat of the story. From here on in, Brecht’s exploration of social and environmental justice is enlivened by the versatility of the actors (performing multiple roles), a large helping of broad comedy and a seamless use of live music, led by singer/narrator Sarah Swire with support from the cast. In suitably Brechtian style, Karen Tennent’s set design makes a virtue of poverty, with liberal use of plastic sheeting, while Michael, the baby, is created from an assortment of towels and bandaging that eventually grows limbs, feet and a personality.

If much of the show’s humour derives from crude gender stereotypes and a carnival of cross-dressing that gets progressively less amusing, the production does feature a handful of genuinely funny set pieces, including the sham wedding scene between the young girl, Grusha (played by Amy Manson), and Eamonn O’Dwyer’s ailing peasant, who miraculously comes back to life when news comes through that the civil war has ended.

Thomson’s production is at its most engaging, however, in the more humane sequences, with Manson giving an appealing performance as Grusha that deepens as the girl’s attachment to her adopted son grows. Her earnest determination is nicely offset by Christopher Fairbank’s nuanced portrayal of the rascally Azdak, who inadvertently finds himself on the judge’s bench, arbitrating between Grusha and the boy’s aristocratic biological mother.

Though the show is overlong and at times struggles to reconcile its mix of straight drama and satire, Thomson deftly pulls everything together in a tense final courtroom scene. If it sometimes falters when up against the more torturous aspects of Brecht’s storytelling, there are plenty of entertaining and moving moments.  

Box office: 0131 248 4848, to March 14

Review: The Slab Boys – Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

Published in The Times, Wednesday February 18 2015

Three Stars

There’s a sense of occasion to the opening night of this revival. A band plays rock and roll classics in the packed foyer, while the front of house staff, decked out in Fifties fashions, show excited audience members to their seats.

That the production, directed by David Hayman as part of the Citizens’ 70th anniversary celebrations, has been so oversubscribed, is testament to the enduring appeal of John Byrne’s 1978 comedy drama, the action of which takes place over one winter day in the paint-mixing room of a Paisley carpet factory in 1957. In a number of ways, Hayman’s production reminds us of how sharp, funny and multifaceted Byrne’s play (the first of a trilogy) is. Although the “technicolour hell hole” of the slab room (beautifully recreated here by Byrne himself) is small and cramped, the play’s canvas is surprisingly wide, touching on the burgeoning postwar generation gap, class hierarchies, social mobility and thwarted ambition, as well as the everyday teenage dramas of who is wearing the latest threads and who is taking who to the staff dance.

That’s a lot to cram into two-and a half hours and while Hayman’s production features some well-choreographed set pieces and a handful of good performances, there’s a sense that the company could do with turning up the theatrical fire power a couple of notches so justice might be done to Byrne’s tellingly observed script. There’s a notable imbalance in the central double act, for instance. With his springy, dancing strut and ingenuous expression, Jamie Quinn is a treat as “Spanky” Farrell, but Sammy Hayman (David’s son), as rebellious aspiring artist Phil McCann, hasn’t yet found a way to get across the vulnerability that lies beneath his character’s glib, angry façade.

Although from time to time the play’s rhythm falters, momentum is restored by the supporting performances, including James Allenby-Kirk as the officious Jack Hogg and Kathryn Howden as the seen-it-all tea lady Sadie. Their appearances spark life into a production that otherwise isn’t firing on all cylinders.  

Box office: 0141 429 0022, to Mar 7; transferring to King’s, Edinburgh, Mar 10-14