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 June 20 2017
JM Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, was afflicted in later life by writer’s cramp and could only write for any length of time with his left hand. He noted that the work he produced at this point took on an eerier quality, as though his left hand was channelling darker aspects of his personality. Mary Rose, written in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, with its portrayal of a young life frozen in time, is strikingly similar in theme to the Kirriemuir-born author’s most enduring and iconic work, though laced through with subtle chills.
First published in The Times, Monday December 19 2016
One might have assumed that Pitlochry Festival Theatre had exhausted the available supply of festive-themed musicals, following productions in recent years of It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street as well as a couple of outings for the company’s masterful staging of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. It was perhaps inevitable that the theatre in the hills would eventually get around to mounting this chirrupy version of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, based on the 1970 film that starred Albert Finney as the titular moneylender.
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, 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?