Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Edinburgh Festival 2016 - Edinburgh Festival Fringe Theatre

Edinburgh Fringe 2016  - Theatre

I've come all the way to Edinburgh and the first two things that I saw were set in a Glasgow school and a Glasgow night club toilet. Quick reviews of a few of the theatre performances I saw at this years Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Glasgow Girls - Assembly Hall ****

Produced by National Theatre of Scotland Glasgow Girls, by David Greig and Cora Bissett, is based on the story of seven Glasgow school friends from Drumchapel who stood together in 2005 when their classmate and her family, seeking asylum in Scotland, were taken from their home to be forcefully deported. Based upon true events the song-filled play has been touring since 2012 but I have only now caught up with it. It is being shown in the Assembly Hall on the Mound at present, and the hall doesn't do it any great favours - a room filled with multiple restricted views and echoey acoustics, which made some of the speaking a bit difficult to discern.

Assembly Hall on The Mound, Edinburgh
The story is probably very familiar to most people now and is told with energy and enthusiasm. I am not a great fan of musicals I must admit, so would generally rather be shown things than told them through song. However when Terry Neason takes centre stage as Noreen, one of the women who organised look-outs for Home Office vans doing dawn raids, the whole story suddenly feels more real and visceral, largely due to her acting abilities and phenomenal voice.

First General Assembly, Edinburgh
 "Did he just say that the cheesemakers shall inherit the Earth?"
 An uplifting piece of theatre, which passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours, still reaching a wide audience as it tours again. Later this month it will be returning to Glasgow at the Citizens Theatre.

Expensive Shit - Traverse Theatre *****

Written and directed by Glasgow based Adura OnashileExpensive Shit at the Traverse Theatre takes place in the women's toilet of a nightclub. If it hadn't already happened recently in the real world, you would think that the idea of having men getting kicks from staring through two-way mirrors into this private place was an over the top theatrical device. The Shimmy Club in Glasgow was shut down in 2013 after men were found to be paying to leer from behind the glass at women using their toilets. In the play we, the audience, sit in their place, voyeurs to a place people feel they can relax and be themselves.

If you have ever felt uncomfortable with unpaid, often African, toilet attendants in night clubs handing you paper towels, a skoosh of deoderant or a lollipop for tips, then you will recognise Tolu as that character. Nigerian toilet attendant Tolu, (Sabina Cameron) works in the toilet of a Glasgow nightclub, talking to the women and gets paid extra to encourage them to linger at the mirrors or leave the cubicle doors open. The story flits back and forwards between the present and the past where she lived at Fela Kuti's Kalkuta commune, hoping for a better life dancing at his  Afrika Shrine club.

Fela Kuti was an inspirational and controversial figure, married to umpteen of his dancers and singers.  The title of the play, an elegant word play for their stories, takes its name from a Fela Kuti album, an Afrobeat classic. The ideals of the commune, the freedom the women hoped to gain by coming to it, is questioned when the women have to face the reality of what they are being asked to do. The four Nigerian women rehearse, talk and argue in the sanctuary of the women's toilets there.

It is an arresting play, with excellent performances from Sabina Coleman in the lead role, Teri Ann Bobb Baxter, Jamie Marie Leary and Diana Yekinni. Their dance moves are slick and their arguments swing back and forth like the cubicle doors. The audience here in Edinburgh was very white and middle aged, complicit maybe in looking at the African woman in the corner of the room, but perhaps not noticing her.

Diary of a Madman - Traverse Theatre **

Gogol's novella, Dairy of a Madman, is transferred to modern Scotland by writer Al Smith and Gate Theatre. In the original a lowly civil servant driven mad by his unrequited love, eventually believes himself to be able to understand the language of dogs and that he is the next King of Spain. He gives a proper, early description of delusions and symptoms we would now recognise as schizophrenia. (Everyone knows that Gerry Britton, former Partick Thistle player and manager, now in charge of youth development, ins thee true King of Spain). I am a big fan of Russian literature and have been to visit Gogol's house in St Petersburg. So I was looking forward to this re-imagining of the story.

Visiting Gogol in St Petersburg
Instead of Arksenty Poprishchin we have actor Liam Brennan playing Pop Sheerin, a painter maintaining the family tradition, painting and repainting the Forth Rail Bridge. The first half hour is witty and quips pass back and forth between father, daughter Sophie and her mouthy pal. The arrival of English chemical engineer Matt White (boom, boom) as Pop's apprentice lays the foundation for Pop's future redundancy, at work and at home. Matt's burgeoning romance with Sophie upsets Pop's ideas of manliness. As he descends into madness the plot takes a strange turn, with wrong-headed ideas about Scottish nationalism and history shoehorned in. Pop Sheerin becomes increasingly unhinged in a cartoonish fashion, dressing as Mel Gibson's Braveheart to stand against the foreign, globalisation pressures of new-fangled American paint, Qatari share ownership and English nobility.

The portrayal of mental illness in the style of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, the women's roles ("kingmakers" through sex with men or as passive wife, who inexplicably doesn't phone a CPN) and the ideas of manliness all felt clich├ęd, old fashioned and the political jibes were ill-informed. Matt's put down, that the Forth Rail Bridge is "no more Scottish than I am" because it's constituent parts come from elsewhere is so upside down and flawed as to be offensive. I'm quite embarrassed that this play is going on to be performed in England and give people the daft impression that people in Scotland think like the characters here. Surely it's widely accepted that once you're here, you're here and you are part of the country, whether you are a bridge or a dinner lady? Anyway, now I'm nit-picking. It started well, then went off in several strange directions.

Last Dream (On Earth) - Assembly Hall ****

Taking my kids to see Yuri Gagarin
Yuri Gagarin and rocket designer Sergei Korolev are two heroes of mine, which has led me to drag my kids to see the Monument to the Conquerors of Space in Moscow to pose under Yuri Gagarin, and drive to London to see an exhibition on the Cosmonauts. In this theatrical piece in Edinburgh Yuri sits on the launch pad, expecting death, but hoping to orbit the Earth. Our attention shifts to an African who has traveled with smugglers across the Sahara and stands on a beach in Morocco about to launch towards Europe.

These are the starting points for this performance/ sound installation designed by Kai Fischer and the National Theatre of Scotland. The five performers and musicians on stage are lined up in a row facing the audience, and we all don headphones to hear their amplified utterances, mixed with radio static and sound effects. Silences are exaggerated in this environment, as we fall below the waves of the Mediterranean or enter radio silence on the dark side of the Earth. The performers hold our gaze at the front, with excellent performances from Edward Nkom, Kimisha Lewis, Michelle Cornelius, and musicians Tyler Collins and Gameli Tordzro. The parallels are clear as we flit back and forth between those about to embark in a toy dinghy and our Cosmonaut about to launch into the darkness of space. The crackled back and forth between Vostok-1 and mission control contrast with the refugees' attempts to make re-assuring mobile phone calls home. The real transcripts used of Yuri Gagarin's communications with mission control are phenomenal. He is the epitome of calmness, reporting "mood buoyant" and "Let's go!" as the launch arrives. Both of our travellers are brave/ foolish pioneers. We only know that one of the trips will definitely end in glory.

Call Mr Robeson - Spotlites ***

Actor, singer, lawyer, campaigner Paul Robeson is the inspiration for Tayo Aluko's one man performance (with piano accompaniment), telling the story of the great man's life. Paul Robeson's booming bass voice was a familiar sound in my childhood home from an old album that my mother often played, a mixture of his singing, reading poetry or Othello's speeches from Shakespeare. He famously attended the Glasgow May Day parade in 1960, and in the play his dealings with striking Welsh miners featured prominently in the play.  

I knew a bit about the life of Paul Robeson, but learned a lot more, particularly about the extent of the hostility he faced from the American state. The tireless efforts made to deprive him of his passport, of his ability to work, even of his health, was remarkable. Tayo Aluko doesn't have the bone rattling quality to his voice that Robeson did (who does?) but his singing earned applause throughout and evoked the music that Robeson used to such powerful effect protesting against the injustice that he saw. Back home to dig out my mum's old Paul Robeson album that I've got in a box somewhere.

Milk - Traverse Theatre *****

Orla O'Loughlin of the Traverse Theatre Company directs Ross Dunsmore's first full length play, Milk. A trio of couples riff on a theme of nourishment and sustinence. Steph and Ash aged 14 (Helen Mallon and Cristian Ortega), their teacher Danny Doig and his wife Nicole (Ryan Fletcher and Melody Grove) and elderly couple May and Cyril (played by Tam Dean Burn and Ann Louise Ross). Steph's body image fixation and self-confidence issues lead her to chase after her teacher. His pregnant wife feels crushed by her inability to breastfeed when the baby comes. The old couple play the most touching scenes, with their electricity cut off, ex-soldier Cyril is too fearful of the outside world to go out and buy food. Although all the ideas don't always gel, I found the later scenes incredibly moving. It made me think back to people I know who struggled to breastfeed and were given increasingly unhelpful advice from people who should have known better. I'll admit that I was a wee bit weepy in the final scene. It brought back a moment I'd completely forgotten, the most supportive thing I ever heard for a stressed parent. Dashing around a supermarket with a screaming baby when an old man leans over and instead of moaning, says "that's the most beautiful sound in the world, the cry of a baby". Try it next time you see someone looking stressed.

Anyway, really enjoyed the play. Nicely paced direction kept things flowing along. I finished up at the Traverse and ran across to Nandos for some grub. (It only got about 10 mentions).

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