Review: The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil, Citizens

“It begins, I suppose, with 1746 – Culloden and all that. The Highlands were in a bit of a mess.'”

As is so often the way these days. accepting an invitation to an engagement party in Glasgow went hand in hand with looking to see what was on at the theatre. And I was rather pleased to see that I would catch the end of the tour of The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil. Dundee Rep revived the Scottish classic to great acclaim last year and consequently remounted it for this Scottish tour, of which Glasgow is the final stop. 

Written by Liverpudlian playwright John McGrath in the early 1970s and staged then by 7:84 (Scotland), the show shook up the theatrical establishment by playing venues outside of traditional theatres and telling the story of the Scottish highlands in a way that (presumably) hadn’t been done before. So from the population clearances to make way for sheep, to the stag introduced to encourage the super-rich to hunt, to the oil boom, this is a story of economic exploitation and its effects on those exploited. Continue reading “Review: The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil, Citizens”

Re-review: The James Plays, National Theatre

“The wheel will turn. The wheel always turns. The wheel will turn around again.”

One of the joys of a boxset is that they can be watched over and over again so when I equated the joy of seeing all three of The James Plays on the same day as below 

 I kind of knew in the back of my mind that I would be trying my damnedest to get to the second of the two three-show-days in order to get that experience again whilst the opportunity was there. 

And since I’m clearly in credit with the theatrical karma gods at the moment, a ticket made its way into my grateful hands and I was able to go through the whole 10 and a half hour rollercoaster ride through this vibrantly realised cross-section of under-explored Scottish history. As ever, it was great to be able to revisit such interesting plays – original reviews can be read here James I – The Key Will Keep The LockJames II – Day of The Innocents and James III – The True Mirror – especially now there’s a little more distance from the Scottish referendum which coloured much of the coverage of the plays. There isn’t too much more to say about them aside from I hope they are absorbed into the theatrical culture and emerge again soon somehow, somewhere.

Review: James III – The True Mirror (plus overview of the trilogy), National Theatre

“Scotland herself doesn’t know what kind of nation she is half the time but I’ve learned that there’s no sense being frightened of what you don’t know”

If the world of James III – The True Mirror is what Scottish independence might have actually looked like, then I reckon the Yeses might have had it. Pithy remark aside, the costume work is spectacular here, conjuring up a modern classic look for the Scots that is to die for and which also serves as a visual cue into this production, the final of Rona Munro’s James Plays which abandons its medieval setting for this notional updating. Seeing it as the final part of the marathon trilogy day, it was a brilliant shift in tone and the pre-show entertainment (simply not to be missed) just adds to the sparkling invention as pop songs get the ceilidh treatment from Alasdair MacRae.

Though the play may be entitled James III, the reality is that this slice of the Stewart monarchy was indubitably shared with his wife Margaret of Denmark. The third king of his name was a capricious fellow indeed, the self-confessed “sparkle before the dark”, a rebellious dandy concerned far more with the trappings of monarchy than the minutiae of ruling, most amusingly evidenced by his procurement of a choir to accompany him at all times. By contrast, his pragmatic wife (“from a rational nation with reasonable people” lest you forget!) looks after the treasury, pets the furrowed brow of the privy council and generally rules the roost. Of course she does, she’s Sarah Lund! Continue reading “Review: James III – The True Mirror (plus overview of the trilogy), National Theatre”

Review: James II – Day of The Innocents, National Theatre

“You’re a great-great-great-grandson of the Bruce. Like me. You could be King.”

On first sight, it may seem that James II – Day of The Innocents is the weakest of The James Plays. On a personal note, it is blighted with blasted puppets which is rarely a good thing for me and more generally, the structure of the first half is more challenging than anything else across the trilogy. But on reflection and on reading the play, it isn’t that difficult to follow and across the broader sweep of the three dramas, there’s something admirable in the determination of writer Rona Munro and director Laurie Sansom to stamp a different identity on each one and ensure that whilst seeing them all would be great, it is far from necessary.

As with his father, assassinated by some disgruntled noblemen, the young James II finds himself a prisoner for much of his early life, this time held captive by Scotsmen though, who use the young monarch to legitimise their dominance of the privy council. Through a series of fever dreams, flashbacks are played out with nightmarish intensity by the puppets whilst concurrently we see their effects on a haunted young man. Much of the success of these scenes lies with the listeners – Blythe Duff’s imprisoned Isabella and Sarah Higgins’ compassionate Meg – who anchor the fantasia of this first half and gently hint at the forthcoming trials that James must face. Continue reading “Review: James II – Day of The Innocents, National Theatre”

Review: James I – The Key Will Keep The Lock, National Theatre

“I am the King of Scots. In 18 years I never forgot that”

The first of The James Plays – a co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland, the Edinburgh International Festival and the National Theatre (of Great Britain) – James I – The Key Will Keep The Lock sets the tone for this Scottish history trilogy brilliantly. Rona Munro guides us in with the recognisable figure of Henry V of England but then unleashing upon us the little-known and little-explored early Stewart kings and the maelstrom of conflict that was the Scottish court.

The reason we meet Henry V (a wonderfully belligerent Jamie Sives) is that for 18 years he kept James Stewart a prisoner, humiliating him at every opportunity, and it is only after Henry’s death that James was able to negotiate a release to return to his own kingdom, albeit one that barely recognised or wanted him. From these inauspicious beginnings, we then see how he sets about ruling with an iron fist, finding that the only way to dominate the murderous noblemen is join right in the skulduggery. Continue reading “Review: James I – The Key Will Keep The Lock, National Theatre”

Review: Gastronauts, Royal Court

“Brave diners…trust us”

Gastronauts is a self-identified “ theatre adventure with food and music”, a label that calls to mind Lyn Gardner’s timely blog on finding new names for alternative theatre, but the key word that reveals its nature, in my opinion, is devised. Writers April De Angelis and Nessah Muthy with director Wils Wilson have created this show in collaboration with a company of five, and as it explores the not inconsiderable topic of food and our multi-faceted relationship with it, plus serving up a range of varied nibbles to illustrate their point, the 95 minute running time seems scarcely sufficient.

For as the show touches on all of its talking points, there is barely the time to delve into them in anything but the most glancing manner. The catastrophic environmental effects of our more extravagant eating habits, the vicissitudes of the diet industry, the reality of what goes into processed foods like white bread, the profiteering that exploits those who grow much of our foodstuffs and also more benevolent aspects, like the comforting memories that food from the family table inspires in us even as we become adults.  Continue reading “Review: Gastronauts, Royal Court”

Review: Peter Pan, Barbican

“Second star to the right and straight on till morning”

There’s something about revisiting childhood favourites as an adult, a huge pleasure in discovering the deeper levels and meanings that escaped one’s more youthful self: I remember vividly discovering just how dark and vicious Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka gets with the truly revolting children in his factory after years of revelling in all the sweets, the excitement of the golden tickets and the Oompah Loompahs. Similarly here, my memories of Peter Pan were limited to the Disney film and the remake Hook, so in a nutshell, lots of fun as a Lost Boy and Julia Roberts being brought back to life. What I was not prepared for was the discovery of a huge well of aching sadness at the heart of this play.

This partly due to the new version created by David Greig for the National Theatre of Scotland, of J.M. Barrie’s classic, which relocates the action to Victorian Edinburgh and in particular the time of the construction of the Forth Rail Bridge, the instant parallels being drawn between the Lost Boys or Neverland and the gangs of young boys used to pass the molten hot rivets to the ironworkers on the bridge. There’s little fun to be had here, but there’s also less fun to be had in Neverland which is reconceived as a darker, more anarchic and dangerous place, populated by boys in need of motherly love, a hunger which drives this whole play and it is one which affected me greatly, as my companion for the evening will attest, tears rolled down my cheeks solidly for the last 30 minutes! Continue reading “Review: Peter Pan, Barbican”