First published in The Times, Saturday November 4 2017
A first glance at the staging for Peter Arnott’s new adaptation of Compton Mackenzie’s novel may lead some in the audience to wonder if they have inadvertently stumbled upon Brigadoon. Ken Harrison, the designer, has garlanded his set with tartan. There are glimpses of heather-clad hills in the background and a soundtrack of bagpipes playing faintly overhead. The whole scene provokes the same frisson of resistance one feels walking past shop windows filled with shortbread and tinned haggis on the Royal Mile.
The work of Alan Ayckbourn is almost a mainstay of the annual summer programme at Pitlochry Festival Theatre. Over the years the company has made a significant dent in the prolific dramatist’s output, producing 24 of his more than 70 full-length plays. Last year, there was a bonus for aficionados when the theatre revived his ambitious trilogy of plays, Damsels in Distress.
Absurd Person Singular, one of Ayckbourn’s earliest successes, is also something of a three-in-one theatrical bonanza. The play unfolds over successive Christmas Eves in the respective homes of three very different couples. These increasingly uncomfortable gatherings may take place over the festive season, but Ayckbourn games our expectations by setting the action “offstage” in a trio of kitchens whose décor and condition mirror their owners’ personalities and state of mind. Now and then, a door opens to offer a glimpse of fairy lights or to divulge a few bars of seasonal music or sherry-fuelled laughter. Otherwise, the atmosphere remains resolutely cheerless.
First published in The Times, Tuesday December 13 2016
Perth’s lovely Victorian theatre may have been closed for refurbishment for the past couple of years, but this hasn’t prevented Scotland’s oldest repertory company from mounting its successful annual pantomime. For this year’s production, the shelf-like stage of the city’s concert hall has once again been transformed with the addition of a proscenium arch and layers of painted flats.
Sometimes the power of theatre to transport its audience can be instantaneous. As we make our way, still dripping from a June shower, into the auditorium of Dundee Rep, Ken Harrison’s set of rusticated gold pillars and wrought iron archways, made to gleam by Mike Robertson’s lighting, produces a palpably warming, comforting effect. People can be seen basking their faces in the glow. It’s like the start of a much-needed summer holiday.
First published in The Times, Sunday March 13 2016
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.
First published in The Times, Tuesday December 16 2015
Beauty and the Beast: Four Stars
Cinderella: Three Stars
Perth’s Victorian theatre may be in the midst of an extensive restoration but, for the second festive season in a row, the proscenium archway has been lovingly recreated on the stage of the city’s concert hall. This year’s pantomime, scripted by the ever-reliable Alan McHugh, is Beauty and the Beast, with a refreshing emphasis on the former rather than the latter.
The story unfolds against an array of gorgeous painted backdrops, created by the designer Ken Harrison, with stunning costumes to match, from Belle’s (AmyBeth Littlejohn) sumptuous gold ball gown to the increasingly over-the-top frocks and topknots modelled by Barrie Hunter’s Dame Betty Blumenthal.
First published in The Times, Monday November 2 2015
The last play that Richard Baron directed for Pitlochry Festival Theatre was Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, in which the director stuck faithfully by the playwright’s credo that seriousness should be hidden beneath a “sincere and studied triviality”. Graham Greene’s black comedy about a vacuum-cleaner salesman who becomes embroiled in espionage is quite the opposite of Wilde. Its complex story and “winds of change” setting may lend it an air of import, but Greene’s exploration of the British secret service and their role in Cuba on the eve of revolution is never more than skin deep.
First published in The Times, Thursday August 6 2015
Line by line, Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece is so familiar you can almost hear the audience mouthing along to some of the speeches. Yet there’s a reverent hush before Margaret Preece, as Lady Bracknell, delivers the play’s most famous line. Will she opt for the time-honoured Edith Evans method of enunciating all nine of the syllables in the word “handbag” or, as it transpires, something altogether more understated but just as devastating?