The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is at The King’s Theatre Edinburgh this week (Mon 08 Nov to Sat 13 Nov), and on paper, this production from “Tilted Wig” should be perfect theatre, particularly with this show falling so closely to Hallowe'en. With a cast that includes Wendi Peters (widow Mariette Papenfuss) and Bill Ward (Baltus van Tassel), both performers of skill and much experience in many performance areas, this could have been a great folk horror story brought to stage. What happened then, why is this production simply not working for me like I expect it to?
Perhaps the first problem lies in the material itself. This story was written by American author Washington Irving while he was living abroad in Birmingham, England, and was first published in 1819 as a short story. The story is very much of the just post American Revolutionary times and features early settlers from Holland and other parts of Europe, but it also draws upon earlier myths and stories of “a headless horseman”. With the chase of outsider Ichabod Crane through woods by supernatural forces, there are obvious references here to Tam o’Shanter by Robert Burns too. That problem of creating a chase through night-time woods is of course always going to create a problem for any stage production, and this one does interestingly manage to deal with this issue and still stay close to the ethos of the original story.
The second problem is that this re-working of the story is introducing new elements and a major new character into this story in an attempt to answer three main questions – exactly who was Ichabod Crane, why was he in Sleepy Hollow at all, and what made Sleepy Hollow such a “different place”. Having so much of this story now revolving around the malevolent being of the “Wendigo”, a creature firmly entrenched in the folk-lore of Northern America and Canada, is an interesting idea, but I am not sure how well known this legend is outside of those areas.
I don’t know exactly why, but for me, Ichabod Crane performed here by Sam Jackson just never seems to have that air of authority and learning that someone who tells the town he is a school teacher should have, and like the rest of this script, his words are just failing to pull me into this closed world of “Sleepy Hollow” and the almost whispered terror that is “The Headless Horseman”. A new sub-plot line between Crane and Brom Van Brunt (Lewis Cope) may be relevant to us, but it is totally at odds with the original story and much of the earlier plot onstage this evening. There is, as the story develops, an interesting plot twist here that gives Rose Quentin the chance to expand upon her role as Katrina Van Tassel, but this comes too late and lasts too short a period of time to work that well. Tommy Sim’aan as Joost de Groot also seems to have limited options here to expand his character.
On the plus side, there is a well-designed stage set here and some nice costume design (both by Amy Watts) and more than one or two stage illusions (Filipe J Carvalho), but none of this is saving this production from simply not surprising me at any point, not giving me that unexpected scare that a story like this should be giving me, and those “shock” moments are just not happening for some reason. No amount of “stage mist”, lights going out, or sound effects seemed to resolve that problem because in the end none of this matters if the story is not gripping you and making you tensely anticipate the next word of it. Opening my fridge door and finding that I have run out of chocolate is a scarier thought to me than this production achieved for me.
Review by Tom King (c) 2021
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The Lost Poets at The Queen’s Hall tonight saw the re-union on stage of a group of now “old friends” who, with their live performances at the Edinburgh Fringe and The Netherbow Theatre (and other venues) in the 1970s and 1980s, won a loyal following of fans with their unique blend of poetry and music. Perhaps, without even realising it at the time, The Lost Poets - Ron Butlin, Andrew Greig, Liz Lochhead, Brian McCabe and musician Jim Hutcheson - created (or at least helped to create) what we now call “Spoken Word” performance.
Over the years since these original performances, each of our Lost Poets has followed their own individual path in life and found success in many areas outside of poetry and the format of this show, which saw Jim Hutcheson playing music with Annie McCaig and Alex Nisbet while our four wordsmiths gave us spoken words both old and new, was just the perfect setting for a relaxed evening of humour, observation, and more than a little bit of reflection.
Many are the words that Ron Butlin, Andrew Greig, Liz Lochhead and Brian McCabe have written since those old performance days together and diverse has been their output, but always it is the poetry they return to. Something in the beat and the rhythm of those poetic words is obviously alive and calling to them still.
A lot of time has passed for our Lost Poets since the ‘70s and ‘80s, and those of us that can look back on those years and our own years can understand that time, and everything that happens to you has to mean that change is inevitable and it was interesting to hear in later words from our quartet how they had responded and recorded those changes to their own lives and experiences. There seemed to be many books and pieces of paper bearing witness to these changes on stage with them, and I could not help but thinking that this was the real way to record your thoughts, with pen, paper, and printed word, not as some stream of soulless digital code on a pen drive (or other storage device).
We have an instinctive need as people to be told stories and to tell stories, and as human beings we have probably been doing that as long as we have been able to communicate with one another in some way, and around a camp fire on open plains, in a cave, seated at the cabaret tables of the Queen’s Hall, nothing has changed, that connection of storyteller and audience remains just the same as it has always done. Stories will last forever and our modern life seems to be filled with ever increasing media for us to consume them from. We love making up stories so much that even much of our news is now fictional.
It was a pleasure to hear works both old and new from our storytellers, and some of them are available in a new collection of their combined work Horns & Wings & Stabiliser Things : The Lost Poets (Polygon). Somehow that title even made its way into a performance song this evening too.
As the words from our quartet make clear, growing older is a privilege that brings many things with it, but it sadly also can bring many losses too, there always it seems has to be a price to pay and a balance maintained in this life. Whilst not being morbid, more reflective and accepting the inevitability of the fact that we all meet our end one day, there was an obvious celebration in words here of life and living it to the full as long as you can. For some people there seems to be an acceptance that the Grim Reaper will touch us all at some time, but you can at least make sure that you turn life into a good game of “Catch Me if You Can”, and if the fates allow you the luxury, you stop running when only you are ready to do so.
Review by Tom King (c) 2021
ARTS REVIEWS EDINBURGH
Scottish Opera’s “Utopia, Limited” was at the Festival Theatre Edinburgh tonight, and this single night performance is a rare chance to catch the penultimate Savoy Opera from Gilbert and Sullivan. “Utopia, Limited” was created immediately after their hugely successful “The Gondoliers”, so it is appropriate that this Scottish Opera Premiere is being staged as a new co-production with D’Oyly Carte Opera & State Opera South Australia alongside the production of The Gondoliers (Edinburgh, Glasgow and London performances).
I have to admit that prior to this performance, this was a G & S work that I knew almost nothing about and with an updated libretto by director Stuart Maunder and a revised musical version by Scottish Opera’s Head of Music Derek Clark, I was surprised to find something very different in parts from what I have come to expect from any G & S production.
“Utopia, Limited” (aka The Flowers of Progress) was first performed in 1893 (Scotland 1894) and failed to achieve the success of many earlier works, and part of this may be the content, part may also be that this story of an island nation and total monarchy, embracing the new culture of The British Empire and everything that is “English” was hugely expensive to stage due to the need for two very different costumes for each of the performers and elaborate stage sets. In this production, that large production expense is avoided by using a semi-staged concert (one new background and no period costumes), performed by the cast of The Gondoliers, and this economical approach works well because, as always, the words and music are what at the core of any G & S work, and of course a cast and orchestra capable of breathing life into both, as we had on stage tonight and our main performers Zara Ellie Laugharne, Lady Sophy Yvonne Howard, Captain Fitzbattleaxe William Morgan, Scaphio Richard Suart, Mr Goldbury Mark Nathan, King Paramount Ben McAteer, Nekaya Catriona Hewitson, Kalyba Sioned Gwen Davies, Phantis Arthur Bruce, and Lord Dramaleigh Glen Cunningham give some fine performances that blend both opera and comedy together seamlessly.
Ben McAteer is so obviously having fun here as King Paramount and so much more of the comedy element here is provided by the two wise men Scaphio (Richard Suart), and Phantis (Arthur Bruce) in pure Victorian Vaudeville style. Ellie Laugharne also gives some fine vocal performances as Princess Zara.
Watching my first performance of this work was an at times odd experience as there are so many unexpected elements in it, and some of these may be caused by the fact that this work was written at a period when the working relationship between Gilbert and Sullivan was, to say the least, a strained one. Despite this though, I think “Utopia, Limited” has some of the best work by both men and there is no disguising here what Gilbert thinks of the law that allows Limited Liability Companies to be formed and those who run them to use their ability to possibly run up substantial debts, go into administration protected from paying their creditors by their “limited liability”. Having done this, the very same people can simply start a new “limited liability company” the next day with no personal responsibility for previous company debts. Over a hundred years later this “protection” and “misuse” of the law is still causing major problems and misery to many people.
The most surprising element of “Utopia, Limited” for me is the way that Gilbert uses the opportunity of the settings of this fictional island Monarchy to cast his satirical wit over the very institutions that underpin “British society” of the time. The return of the King’s eldest daughter to the island after being educated at a top private English college, together with the “advisors” that she brings with her to transform her own land and society also provides an opportunity to look at the cultural impact of British Empire and Colonialism on countries that came under their expanding global influence. It is strange that a work of the late 19th century should now have such 21st century relevance as we look with new eyes upon the cultural impact of British colonial history.
This, as I have said, is an odd work, and although there are still the core elements of pure Victorian theatrical entertainment here, it is obvious that this work is taking G & S in new directions and to some extent that old “fantasy bubble” of their works is being forced into the real world. For some unexplained reasons there are also some plot lines from Act I that are never resolved in Act II; it is almost as if a little bridging act, a few pieces of paper, have somehow been lost to history here. This work though is still the Scottish Opera that I like so much, a company always willing to do something unexpected.
Review by Tom King (c) 2021
ARTS REVIEWS EDINBURGH
The Play That Goes Wrong is at The King’s Theatre Edinburgh this week (Tue 02 Nov to Sun 07 Nov) and as usual this now classic comedy about a chaotic amateur dramatic company - The Cornley Drama Society - and its many on-stage mishaps was once again filling the theatre with an audience that just never seemed to stop laughing from start to finish of this production.
Normally this sort of on stage comedy/farce is not that high on my theatrical “watch list” as you have to have both an on-stage and an off-stage team that are very good and perfectly timed together. Few companies manage this combination well, but Mischief Theatre is an exception to this rule, and here in The Play That Goes Wrong (and other comedy productions from the company), they prove that they are the modern masters of this elusive on-stage art.
If you are reading this revue and not sure what this show is about, then imagine a 1920s on-stage murder-mystery where everything that can go wrong with the script and the props goes wrong not once or twice, but every few minutes. This show is a never-ending series of both scripted and visual comedy and to pull this show off on stage our cast need to know exactly where they are every moment of this production to ensure that they are in exactly the right spot for every misfiring prop, and there is no room for mistakes in timing here. This show really is a modern tribute to those old silent movie masters of this art, and thoughts of those old Harold Lloyd films always come to mind whenever I watch this show.
Normally I will list some onstage and off-stage creatives in a review, but here I am not doing that because there is no one person to select here as, for a show like this to work, every member of the Mischief Theatre Company team, seen and unseen, has to be doing their job and everyone is doing that very well here. The timing between prop department and the comedy timing between our on-stage cast is perfect here and there are also some lovely interactions with the audience which look ad-libbed, but of course are all part of a well written and well timed script.
The idea of an onstage play within a play happening is of course not a new concept (Shakespeare used this device often too), but Mischief Theatre do it so well and with a great attention to detail that carries over to the show programme book having a programme within a programme for The Cornley Drama Society within its pages. Perhaps this attention to detail, and of course the fact that it is simply highly entertaining theatrical comedy, are a few of the reasons that The Play That Goes Wrong has over the years become a world-wide stage show success.
One word of warning if you are going folks. Try to get to your seat 10 minutes or so before the official show opening time. The amateur dramatic company take to the stage on time, but their “stage-crew” are setting things up for them a little earlier and some of the running jokes throughout this production start with them.
Review by Tom King (c) 2021
ARTS REVIEWS EDINBURGH
Life is a Dream is at The Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh from 29 October to 20 November and this production of Pedro Calderón’s play from 1635, translated by Jo Clifford and directed by Wils Wilson has with it a highly skilled and creative team that should ensure its success in 2021. Why then do I have some reservations, why for me is Life is a Dream not ticking all the boxes on my checklist? Maybe my negatives are just purely personal ones, but for the moment, l want to concentrate on the positive aspects of this production.
Reviewing anything (theatre, music, arts) is always for me a learning curve, there is always some new information that I come away with, and learning from the theatre brochure that Pedro Calderón himself would probably have been no stranger to theatres being closed in his lifetime due to outbreaks of plague in Spain made for me a clear understanding of why this work would be the first on-stage production from The Lyceum theatre since it, along with many other venues across the world, was forced to close its doors due to a modern 21st century “plague”. Perhaps more than many other writers, Ped Calderón would have understood the helplessness that you can feel when events are totally outside of any control that you can exert over them.
This translation by Jo Clifford was first performed in 1998, and this new production, as already said, is rich in creative talents and with a cast of Singer/Musician - Nerea Bello, Astolpho - Dyfan Dwyfor, Soldier - Krystian Godlewski, Estrella - Kelsey Griffin, Clarin - Laura Lovemore, Clotado – John Macaulay, Segismundo - Lorn Macdonald, Rosaura - Anna Russell-Martin, and Basilio - Alison Peebles, there is no doubt as to the dramatic presentation of this work. Alison Peebles is impressive as the Queen and Lorn Macdonald at times very unsettling in his ability to so easily switch from a deeply contemplative to more beast inside than human Prince Segismundo.
Perhaps one of my problems is that this is really two works within one. The core elements here are of course in the title Life is A Dream, and how many of us have at one time or another not felt those lines between real life and dreams merging, or at least getting a little too close to one another? How many of us have questioned if we are looking into the mirror or out of the mirror? These are timeless observations on the very concept of human consciousness that probably will never be fully answered. The idea that life or dream, does it matter as long as you try to do good in either, is also an important message here. The second story line running through this one of love, honour, revenge, mistaken identity, arranged marriages (and more) is complex, and very much of its period, and although all of this was to become a standard set of scenarios in European Opera of the time, this particular adaptation of the story was just not engaging me that much. What was interesting however was Lorn Macdonald giving us an insight into a man who was, because of the only treatment that he had ever known as a human being, almost stripped of that humanity and at times more of a savage beast inside.
This work is performed on an extended stage with seats (including the balconies of the theatre) around the performance space, and together with the opening scenes of the actors getting ready for the performance, this not only placed us as an audience within the story itself, but also introduced us immediately to the dream world of make-believe that an actor can pull their audience into.
My biggest problem with this production is, however, that it has missed an opportunity to adapt this original story even more, and to reimagine the possibilities of Life is A Dream as a work of the 21st century. The opportunity to explore how our use of film, television, social media, virtual reality, and the growing use of fake news blur even further our concepts of reality and dream offered so many possibilities to this story.
We live in a world where Donald Trump has served a full term as President of The USA, and a world where Boris Johnson is Prime Minister of the UK. Also we live in a world where plastics will soon be more plentiful than marine life in our oceans, and environmental Armageddon awaits us just around the next corner. If this is not a blurring of the lines between life and dreams, what is? These and many other topics could have given this production a real biting contemporary edge, but that opportunity to be bold, to create something of real 21st century relevance was not taken here.
Review by Tom King (c) 2021
ARTS REVIEWS EDINBURGH