Review: The Last Witch – Pitlochry Festival Theatre

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First published in The Times, Tuesday September 18 2018

Four Stars

When Rona Munro’s The Last Witch debuted at the Royal Lyceum as part of the 2009 Edinburgh International Festival, the play, inspired by the true story of the last woman to be burned for heresy in Scotland, got lost in an over-the-top staging that included elaborate multimedia, sound and special effects.

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Reviews: The Match Box – Byre Theatre, St Andrews; Company – Aberdeen Arts Centre

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First published in The Times, Monday February 5 2018

The Match Box: Four Stars

Company: Three Stars

Frank McGuinness, the Irish playwright, is as celebrated for his translations of classics, including tragedies by Sophocles and Euripides, as he is for original works such as Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. His monologue, The Match Box, first performed in 2012, has a vividly described contemporary setting but the questions it asks are as old as civilisation itself.

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Review: Grounded –Byre Theatre, St Andrews

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First published in The Times, Sunday March 13 2016

Four Stars

Firebrand, the theatre company based in the Borders, has a knack for identifying new plays that are destined to become contemporary classics. Recent work includes revivals of Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, which focused on guinea pigs in a drugs trial, and The Great Train Race, Robert Dawson Scott’s comedy about rival rail companies, both written only within the past four years.

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

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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 (firebrandtheatre.co.uk); Love 2.0 is touring to March 28 (sleepingwarriortheatre.com)