Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Staggering! Booking for the 2016 Edinburgh International Festival

We all make mistakes. To err is, after all, human. The important thing is to recognise when you have done so, and to learn from them, and to try to not make the same mistakes again. Also, it never hurts to apologise.

In December 2014, the Edinburgh International Festival announced that they would open booking for concerts and recitals before announcing the rest of the programme. This infuriated us as we like to immerse ourselves in the full breadth of the programme. Doubly frustrating as it seemed a rash and ill thought out decision, with little consideration for the impact it had on many loyal supporters of the Festival. For example, it was interesting when, earlier this year we received a fundraising call. We mentioned our displeasure at the staggered booking proposal, to which the member of staff gave a hollow laugh and admitted they'd had a busy time dealing with the feedback.

Still, it seemed the lesson had been learnt. Festival Director Fergus Linehan wrote a letter to all those who complained. This was subsequently sent to supporters. The matter seemed to be concluded and, credit where credit is due, we thanked the Edinburgh International Festival for heeding feedback.  Unfortunately that decision came too late for them to reverse their decision to put the theatre production Antigone on sale early, and because of that they lost the opportunity to sell a ticket for it to us (we instead chose to see it in London).

Sadly it is now clear we were wrong.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

The Showstoppers present Where's Runnicles, the song

Our friend, and former contributor to this blog, Andrew Pugsley is currently appearing in the west end with The Showstoppers. If you're unfamiliar, it's an astonishing and hilarious improvised musical, based on suggestions from the audience. We maybe a little biased, but have seen it many times at the Edinburgh fringe and can thoroughly recommend it. See review here.

We donated some money to their recent crowdfunding campaign to help with their London run. In return, they made us this fun video answering a question we've asked from time to time. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Teddy Ferrara at the Donmar, or, Another Failed Issue Play

Note: A slightly delayed review of the performance on Friday 9th October 2015.

The penultimate scene of this dull overlong play offers a fleeting glimpse of what might have been. The central character, Gabe (Luke Newberry), in emotional turmoil, seeks sex in a public toilet with potentially serious consequences. It's virtually the only moment in the evening when the oppressive environment for the GLBT community on the unnamed university campus which Christopher Shinn's text goes on and on about actually feels emotionally real. Unfortunately the rest of the play gets nowhere near this.

In advance I suspected the play might be a classic issues lecture. There are certainly elements of this, and they work about as well as such things in live theatre usually work. But as it turns out this is not the play's main problem which is three fold – a multiplicity of strands which never fully cohere, the shallowly drawn nature of the characters (most of whom feel like types rather than potentially real people) and the lack of emotional punch.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

EIF 2015 – Murmel, Murmel, or, Not Side-Splittingly Funny

The International Festival brochure proclaims this show to be “a side-splittingly funny 80 minutes”. On the basis of my experience I conclude that, presuming Fergus Linehan did see the show before booking it, he and I have wildly divergent senses of humour.

There is no question that the twelve strong ensemble of performers in this show are very talented people who can sing, move, dance and dive/fall off the stage onto a crash mat to a high standard. But a talented ensemble alone does not make a successful show and, once again this Festival, this is an ensemble let down by the show they are performing in.

Friday, 28 August 2015

EIF 2015 – Die Zauberflöte, or, Played Incessantly (and Unsuccessfully) for Laughs

For the second fully staged opera of the 2015 Festival, Fergus Linehan turned to Mills era regular Barry Kosky. I did not rate the previous Kosky directed shows I saw highly but on paper this sounded a promising collaboration with 1927 Productions. The pity of this evening is that the central idea, of staging the work as a silent film, is an excellent way to deal with the dialogue. In themselves, those sections do work fairly well. Unfortunately much of the rest of the evening is problematic.

To understand why we do have to begin in this case with the production. This consists of constant film projections onto an enormous screen into which are fitted ledges so that cast members can appear both on the ground and in the air. Given the many environments the text calls for, this is not in itself a bad idea, the opening image of a madly running Tamino pursued by a dragon is quite fun, and the many entrances/exits of singers are adeptly handled. But two problems rapidly emerge: the animators are determined to play everything for laughs and they clearly believe that something visual must be going on virtually all the time. With regard to the first they have, I'm afraid, misunderstood the work. There are of course places which are meant to be funny, but there are equally places that are serious – when you have your audience laughing about suicide and rape – then things have gone badly wrong. Incessant busyness is an all too familiar vice of modern opera directors. Kosky claims in the programme note that “there are moments when the singers are in a simple white spotlight. Suddenly there is only the music, the text and the character.” I counted a grand total of two such moments in Act Two, and they were very fleeting. Too often, for me, this constant busyness was in conflict with the music. Equally frustratingly, although there are places where Mozart's music would in theory benefit from something else going on, animation tended to simply repeat a fairly basic point till it became tiresome (for example right at the outset the repeated hearts of the ladies fluttering down on Tamino). The bomb whose fuse burns down but which doesn't explode for what feels like an eternity is simply ludicrous (and not in a good way). Little feels at stake in the trials. Overall, I had the distinct feeling that the animators neither trusted the music, nor thought anybody should be paying much attention to it.

EIF 2015 - Lanark, or, Can We Please Have a Moratorium on Breaking the Fourth Wall?

I haven't read Alasdair Gray's novel on which this adaptation is based. I'm in two minds as to whether I now should read it as some investigation following this show suggests that things I really disliked are faithful to the original work. From this the reader will gather that I am once again in dissent from the generally highly positive majority opinion on this show.

First, the positives. The acting ensemble is very strong. Sandy Grierson as Lanark and Jessica Hardwick as Reemer (?) deserve particular credit. They failed my ultimate test of really making me give a damn about their characters, but the fault for that lay with the work. The supporting players, all of them taking on a variety of parts, also deserve high praise – I especially enjoyed George Drennan's Lift (did Gray borrow from Douglas Adams's doors or was it the other way round?) and Gerry Mulgrew's Scarlatti playing Professor. Director Graham Eatough generally marshalls them effectively – the movement in Act Two is notable but has less impact than it might do because of the nature of the work.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

EIF 2015 - En avant, marche!, or, A Way of Finding Courage

I can explain what this show is about. I'm not sure that I can recapture why it packs such a punch.  The primary story tells of the first trombone of a brass band (the remarkable Wim Opbrouck) who owing to illness can no longer perform. Through broken snatches of speech, gargling, song, silence and some remarkable choreography the show meditates both on this loss and the perhaps more terrible final one which confronts him. Simultaneously, the show is also a larger meditation on the nature of community – a striking commentary on which is provided by the participation of a local brass band from wherever the show is being performed (in this case the superb Dalkeith and Monktonhall Brass Band). The contrast between their history (as described in the programme) and the jobs of current members (elicted as part of the performance) is especially eloquent.

Early on the piece is often funny (the first trombone's wife's bitter complaints about her husband's insistence on sleeping with his trombone as well as her). But the tone steadily darkens. When the D & M forces bring matters to a conclusion with Holst's Jupiter, simply played straight out to the audience, it was powerfully moving.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

EIF 2015 – HMS Pinafore, or, Showing London How It's Done (Again)

This concert performance of HMS Pinafore continues two trends of the 2015 Festival. First, like the semi-staged Budapest Figaro it contained more drama than many fully staged operas seen in London this season (the contrast with ENO's dull fully staged Pirates was especially telling). Second, it maintained the music/opera strand of this year's Festival as its strongest element. Altogether it was an enormously fun afternoon at the Usher Hall.

It was sensibly decided, as I gather was also done when Sir Charles Mackerras conducted the work at the Proms ten years ago, to substitute a single narrator for the spoken dialogue. Tim Brooke-Taylor performed this role with excellent wit harnessing the best of Gilbert's dialogue to some choice anecdotes (the neat reference to W.H. Smith's other profession was an especially deft touch).

EIF 2015 – Paul Bright's Confessions of a Justified Sinner, or, Unsuccessful Variations on a Wearily Familiar Theme

This show is the third of the Festival's drama programme concerned a) to attempt to challenge more traditional approaches to theatre making and b) to make out the construction of stories to be much more complicated than it needs to be. Earlier attempts The Encounter and 887 both possessed plenty of positive elements to compensate for the problems such approaches create (as I hope my earlier reviews made clear). This show is a dismal also ran.

Before I go any further I should make clear that this piece includes what the company would probably regard as spoilers. Its run has now ended at the Festival, but obviously it may be revived elsewhere, so if you think you are likely to see it and don't want to have what passes for its suprise element spoiled (though I don't myself think that element is very surprising) then I advise you not to continue reading.

EIF 2015 – Seven, or, Attempted Epic Falls Flat

A ballet choreographed to a complete performance of Mahler's Seventh Symphony with live orchestra in the pit sounded from the outset like the sort of unusual Festival show that could go two ways – either be an unique, remarkable experience, or an endurance test. Unfortunately, this show is the latter.

The first point which ought to be made quite clear is that choreographer Martin Schläpfer has not choreographed the whole of Mahler's Seventh Symphony. There are too many places in this performance when Mahler's music is chuntering on in the pit and nothing is happening on stage (the bizarre opening to the final movement is a key instance). This might be more tolerable if the choreography were more convincing, but Schläpfer simply hasn't got a sufficient vocabulary to sustain a 90 minute dance piece. After the opening movement you have pretty much seen what he has to offer and it is not improved by repetition. Only at the very end does something really new appear – a weird solo with bedside table coupled to a game of musical chairs. The choreography attempts the creation neither of sustained characters or narrative, nor does it respond convincingly to single movements in themselves (there are exceptions within movements) or to the work as a whole – it is essentially highly episodic. To couple such an approach to Mahler I frankly found rather baffling, because Mahler's Symphony is not meant to be played episodically – though this performance tried unsuccessfully to make it sound in places as if it was. To my eyes there was overall a strong divergence between music and choreography.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

EIF 2015 – 887, or The Problem of Indiscipline

I'm fairly certain this was my first encounter with Robert Lepage's work. There was much to admire and it engaged my heart (always an important question for me) more than Simon McBurney's The Encounter. But ultimately this show also falls short of true greatness because of script indiscipline.

Like The Encounter, Lepage's narrative combines two strands. Firstly an exploration of his childhood in Quebec at a time of a rising, and increasingly violent, nationalist movement. Secondly, a request to recite a famous cultural output of that era, Michele Lalonde's poem Speak White at a 40th anniversary celebration of a key cultural evening for that rising nationalism. The poem itself is very powerful, and I was grateful to Lepage for introducing me to it, but much of the rest of that strand of the narrative struck me as self-indulgent, and distracting from the power of the story of Lepage's childhood.

Monday, 17 August 2015

EIF 2015 – Le Nozze di Figaro, or, A Triumph of Inventiveness and Joy

In advance of this performance, I was sceptical. It sounded gimmicky to me, and I've seen too many neophyte directors let loose on opera, to usually disastrous results. I could not have been more wrong. This is a triumph, and despite being in theory semi-staged knocks many recent fully staged productions in London out of the ballpark. Add to that one of the finest musical performances of opera the Festival has seen in recent times and you have a special evening.

The performance was directed by conductor Ivan Fischer. He places the orchestra on stage grouped around a central podium, with a walkway across the stage separating some strings from the rest of the ensemble. Some attempts are made to include the orchestra in the action, but generally they simply play. Yet they somehow contrive to emanate this feeling that they are part of a narrative, even though (apart from the odd wig) they remain in black tie for the duration while the singers are changing costumes and indulging in a fair bit of stage business. Perhaps the only thing to say about it is that there is some strange performance alchemy at work here.