Mary Woodward Review

James IV – Queen of the Fight, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Review

***** (5 stars)

“Fascinating and brilliantly-constructed”

What a show!  Rona Munro in collaboration with Raw Material, Capital Theatres and the National Theatre of Scotland have given us another magnificent instalment of the James Plays, following on from the amazing first three and bringing us up to the beginning of the sixteenth century: it leaves us on the edge of our seats desperate to find out what happens next…

I saw the first three James Plays some years ago, and was bowled over by their vitality and immediacy.  James IV – Queen of the Fight continues in the same vein: these people we meet are not ghosts, or memories, but flesh and blood who walked, and fought, and loved and hated just like you and me.  Aye, they’re deid now, but once they lived life to the hilt and faced just as many challenges – often the same ones – as we do today.

James IV centres round Ellen and Anne, two women of colour who unexpectedly find themselves at the Scottish court.  They were travelling to the English court of Henry VII from Moorish Spain when their ship encountered Scottish vessels which brought them to Scotland, where they, though apprehensive of their fate, are made most welcome. “All the world is welcome here”, they are told: the colour of their skin makes no difference, they will be found places at court.   Anne becomes the teenage Queen Margaret’s companion, with the unenviable task of responding and adapting to her unpredictable moods and demands.   Ellen has been Anne’s companion and servant, but there is no room for her too: she has to join the king’s entertainers and must, as well as learning yet another language, become a performer.  She ends up as ‘the Queen of the Fight’ in royal mock tournaments designed to show King James’ exceptional athletic and military prowess.

It’s a gripping story which vividly brings to life the challenges facing everyone at court.  The King, trying to get an heir on his English bride to maintain peace with England, is also dealing with the presence at court of Donald Dhu, the current Lord of the Isles and focus for Highland Scots who are seen as rebels against the crown.  Queen Margaret is a bratty adolscent who feels the world and her husband should revolve around her, and has terrible tantrums every time it becomes clear they don’t.  Makar William Dunbar is trying to get himself a permanent place [and income] at court, and the nobles are all vying for position and favour… [sound familiar at all?]

Add to this mix two young women who have yet again to try to make a life for themselves in new and strange surroundings, with an inhospitable climate, and without the support each has given the other up till now.  Does anyone here act unselfishly, I wonder?  Much is made of Scotland’s reputation for hospitality, but when the chips are down, each person in this drama is acting for their own ends, and willing to sacrifice the others if it means they themselves will survive – except at the end of the play, which I’m not going to reveal.

JAMES IV PRODUCTION PHOTOS BY MIHAELA BODLOVIC

In the main, there doesn’t seem to be obvious colour prejudice – Scots noblemen are perfectly willing to be candidates for Anne’s hand in marriage, seeing the advantage of the King’s favour and not seeming to take any exception to the colour of her skin.  However, the performance of a shocking poem by Makar Dunbar is a pivotal point in the play.  Of Ane Blak-Mor is largely made up of derogatory comments on the woman’s appearance, and was most probably written about one of the two historical figures on whom the characters of Anne and Ellen are based.  It’s a complaint against her prominent position in the King’s court – but is the objection to her physical person, or the heights to which she has been raised?  The third person of colour at court, Peter, is the leader of the group of entertainers, and there seems to be no obvious objection to his presence.

People of colour are not the only ‘different’ ones at court – there is also the Gaelic-speaking Donald Dhu, leader of the Highland clans who have tried to assert their right to lands taken from them by previous Stuart kings, and who is now James’s hostage.  Here’s another person who’s been removed from all that is familiar, while the language he has grown up with is not generally spoken or understood and his point of view is unrecognised.

There’s a strong contrast between ‘public’ and ‘private’ behaviour, especially where the king is concerned – he has to get an heir on his queen, but that doesn’t stop him having mistresses [and bastards] whom he probably loves better than her: he sees nothing wrong in flaunting the latest one in front of his wife.  In his defence, he doesn’t receive much – or any – love from her and, although he’s clearly able to see the political ramifications of his relationship with Margaret, he’s not necessarily so aware about the results of his more irregular liaisons.  The face Anne shows to the queen doesn’t reveal her true feelings; Ellen masks her feelings of isolation and hurt at Anne’s rejection of her; Dunbar’s inferred courtship of Ellen may only be in the hopes of securing a stable position at court; Donald Dhu’s co-operation in the courtly masque/fights is certainly unwilling; and the other courtiers are all looking out for number one.  Dame Phemy is the only person at court who will speak plainly – and be heard – when the King’s behaviour is such that he is losing the love of his subjects.

JAMES IV PRODUCTION PHOTOS BY MIHAELA BODLOVIC

I’m not sufficiently acquainted with the differences between Scots languages and dialects to make an informed comment, but a fellow-audience member pointed out to me that each of the Scottish characters had their own distinctive regional language.  Margaret has her very very English cut-glass accent and attitude and, while those at court may not have understood the Spanish which Ellen and Anne first speak, many were perfectly comfortable with French.  The King even seemed able to manage some Gaelic – evidence, perhaps, of a more cultured and Europe-centric attitude than one might have expected at this point in Scots history.

There are so many levels at which you can view this story – a surface ‘cracking good yarn with a lot of shouting and fighting’; a fascinating, brilliantly-constructed narrative based on tantalisingly few historical records; a meditation on the brutality of self-interest; a narrative showing the presence of unenslaved people of colour in Scotland long before the slave trade; a human drama of loss, displacement, estrangement and the effort required for survival in a potentially hostile environment; the willingness of Scots to welcome and embrace immigrants; and much, much more that will only become clearer on subsequent viewings. 

It’s a tale superbly told by a cast who virtually leap off-stage and grab you by the throat, forcing you to become engaged in the narrative, excluding any possibility of you remaining a disinterested spectator.  Daniel Cahill returns as James, older but possibly not a lot wiser; Danelle Jam [Ellen] and Laura Lovemore [Anne] are superb as the polyglot young women trying to make yet another new life in a foreign country.  Blythe Duff is a splendidly acerbic Dame Phemy, a solid figure who gets on and gets stuff done while the shifting currents at court whirl and swirl around her, while Sarita Gabony is so good as a sulky teenager I kept wanting to slap her…  Keith Fleming [Dunbar], Malcolm Cumming [Donald] and Thierry Mabonga [Peter] all have their own personal agenda but at the same time are puppets in the hands of the king and his whims.  Ewan Black [Turnbull] and Samuel Pashby [Douglas] make the most of their small moments in the spotlight and are major contributors to the superb ensemble playing.   

Acting, script, lights, staging, music, fights, scenery and scene-shifting ‘battles/ dances’ all blend together into the best possible type of drama which holds you spellbound until the final moments.  You may never have heard of these characters before, but you’ll not be able to forget them now.  James IV – Queen of the Fight is a magnificent addition to the James Plays – rock on James V !!

Raw Material & Capital Theatres in association with the National Theatre of Scotland present James IV – Queen of the Fight, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Runs until Saturday 8th October for tickets go to: James IV: Queen of the Fight (capitaltheatres.com)

The production will then tour Scotland until November 2022.

Brett Herriot Review

Crocodile Rock, Tron Theatre, Glasgow Review:

***** 5 Stars

“A heart-rending exploration of sexuality, identity and sense of where we call home “

Original performed in 2019 as part of Oran Mor’s A Play, A Pie and Pint, Andy McGregor’s one-man musical went on to achieve critical acclaim and was broadcast later that same year by BBC Scotland.  There were whispers at the time of the producing company Sleeping Warrior Theatre Company delivering a Touring production, however the pandemic put paid to that. Finally, however the first Scottish tour McGregor’s heart-rending exploration of sexuality, identity and sense of where we call home is making its way around Scotland. 

Set before the age of the internet and the evolution of the mobile phone in 1997, Crocodile rock tells the story of 17-year-old Steven living his life on the island of Millport, feeling lost and repressed in the island community he fears being for ever stuck following his parents’ footsteps in running the local pub and bed and breakfast. That is until a chance meeting with a drag queen who is staying at the b&b for the island festival. That Queen unlocks the truth in Steven as he faces up to being gay and that Drag offers him the self-expression he craves. 

McGregor both writes, composes and directs this beautifully judged and emotional of musicals and its feels there is strong auto-biographical flavour to it that the audience can’t help but by beguiled by. Running at 75 minutes McGregor truly lets the audience inhabit Steven’s world, the pain, confusion and ultimately the strength and joy the character feels on his journey to self-acceptance.

In the role of Steven, Stephen Arden delivers a masterclass of emotionally truthful acting along with a well-judged and delivered comedy coupled with a gorgeous voice and thanks to the frequent inclusion of the audience through asides everyone in the Tron went on a collective journey that touches the heart, soul and memories of us all. Truly wonderful theatre at its very best.

Joining Arden on stage is musical director Andy Manning they also turn in a wonderful performance as both MD and backing singer and stunning saxophone solo, they are accompanied with Kim Shepard and Simon Donaldson. 

Kenny Miller set, and costume design is pitch perfect allowing both Millport and bright lights of Glasgow to shine under Grant Andersons thoughtful lighting design further supported by Fraser Milroy’s perfectly executed sound design.

Crocodile rock is a shining beacon of excellent writing, stellar performances and a rare stark honesty that is missing from so much of modern musical theatre, it allows us to not only view Steven’s journey but reflect on our own and the music sears itself into the heart you can’t help but leave the theatre filled with hope for what lies ahead. For that is ultimately the essence of this show, hope! And the reality that before we can ever love someone else, we need to love ourselves first no matter the cost. Do what you must to grab a ticket for this remarkable production while it continues to tour Scotland.

Crocodile Rock, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, Run Ended but the production continues to tour Scotland, for further information go to: https://sleepingwarriortheatre.com/crocodile-rocka-new-life

Mary Woodward Review

549 Scots of the Spanish Civil War, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, Review

**** (4 stars)

“excellent piece, presented by an energetic and committed cast”

Four lads are making the most of open mic night in the Labour club in Prestonpans: they are enjoying themselves, and we are encouraged to join in, nearly raising the roof with 500 Miles.

There aren’t many other people around and the barmaid, Ellen, is clearly keen for the boys to shut up and go home.  She’s a feisty wee thing who’s obviously in control – but she relents and says “well, one last tune then”, and they launch into the raucous Ballad of Last night before bickering about their different political opinions which range from in Truss we trust to the system’s broken, it’s time for something completely different.

Suddenly a grey-haired man is in their midst: the lads are confused and afraid and Ellen is upset as he says we are volunteers; we didn’t fight for medals, we fought for our beliefs.  The lights go out and when they come back the man has disappeared but there’s a big old suitcase standing where he was.   Ellen opens it, and we are transported back to 1936, when a new Tory government was in power and people were starving, and Fascism was rearing its ugly head in Europe.

We follow four miners from the Pans – George Watters, Bill Dickson, Jimmy Kempton and George Gilmour – who leave the pits and go to Spain to join the International Brigade and fight in the Spanish Civil War.  It’s not a pretty tale of grand heroics: it’s messy, unpleasant, brutal, and terrifying.  And the men aren’t all upheld by the righteousness of their cause.  Yes, George Watters is moved to go because someone has to try to stop the Fascists: he refuses to let history repeat itself.  Two of the men are carried along by the courage of George’s convictions, but the fourth decides to go simply to try to make some money to support his family. 

There’s no shying away from the horrors of the war, but there’s room for a lot of humour, not all of it black, and some fabulous songs – particularly the moving canon that the men sing as, headlamps alight, they emerge from the smoky darkness of the pit and look forward to the warmth and light of Spain.  It’s made clear that the members of the International Brigade had many different ideologies but were united in what they were fighting for.  It’s also made clear just how many men died fighting, and how some were scared and tried to run away, only to be captured and sent home as prisoners of war.

There’s a rousing speech as the last Scots leave for home, but it’s hard to go along with its rhetoric – was this fight folly, or was it a necessary response to the rise of tyranny and the oppression of the weak?  The parallels are clear with the current political climate, and we are asked is it better to do the little I can, or to stand back and watch the world disintegrate?  One of the young men of ‘today’ had clearly worked out where his path lay: he comes into the club sporting a large red rosette – it’s election night and he’s standing as the Labour candidate, saying “I’m just trying to do my bit”.

It’s an excellent piece, presented by an energetic and committed cast – Martin Donaghy, Robbie Gordon, Rebekah Lumsden, Billy Mack, Cristian Ortega and Dylan Wood.  The music is both very good and very effective, the staging highly inventive, and the lighting brilliant.  549 Scots was created with the help of the people in Prestonpans: they were eager to share the memories their families had passed down to them, from which this extremely vivid and challenging play was written.  At its end, the audience in Musselburgh rose to their feet to applaud both the cast and the story they presented.

So, my friends: what would you do?  What will you do?

549 Scots of the Spanish Civil War, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, Run Ended by Scottish Tour continues until 5th for info go to: 549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War — Wonder Fools

Brett Herriot Review

The Osmonds, A New Musical, Festival Theatre Edinburgh, Review:

A stylish tribute to a pop culture phenomenon

**** 4 Stars

The Osmonds, the most globally successful family in pop music history can lay claim to the most epic of highs in the industry and the most crushing of lows that threatened to shatter there family forever. They came back from the brink to secure their place in the hearts of millions who were with them through it all. This is truly what musicals are made of and now Jay Osmond brings the story to the stage featuring all the hits of the brothers Osmond into the bargain.

There are in fact nine Osmond Children, the two eldest Virl and Tom were both born profoundly deaf which makes the fact that the remaining brothers, Merrill, Alan, Jay, Wayne, Donny and Jimmy alongside the sole daughter Marie can produce such intricate harmonies all the more astonishing. It was the families wish to provide hearing aids and support for Virl and Tom that started their performing careers.

This musical from co writers Shaun Kerrison and Julian Bigg (Kerrison also directs and Bigg’s is musical supervisor) takes the point of view of Jay Osmond (Alex Lodge) who always felt caught in the middle of every family argument and explores his relationship with the brothers and his parents.

The Osmonds father George (a delicate performance from Charlie Allen) used his military experiences to guide the way he parented the children, often going too far and forgetting where military service ends and being a father begins. That said thanks to Charlie Allen’s fine performance it’s always clear that above all else George had nothing but love for all his children.

Kerrison delivers excellent performances from across the entire company and there are stand out moments especially from Alex Lodge as “Jay Osmond” who narrates the show as well as performing as an Osmond brother. It’s a stylish show but it does start to drag slightly with an overall running time of two hours and forty five minutes (including twenty minute interval) among all the hits including Paper Roses, Long Haired Lover from Liverpool, Love me for a reason, he ain’t heavy he’s my brother and Crazy Horses are scenes with real nail biting drama that brings a complete silence to the theatre.

Lucy Osborne’s basic set designed its complemented well by her costume design that see’s many of the famous Osmond fashion styles revisited, combined with Ben Cracknell’s excellent lighting design and Dan Samson on the money sound design you have all the right ingredients in play for a jukebox musical that for once puts the story and dramatic performances at its heart.

The Osmonds a new musical could easily have been a cheap chance to roll out the hits to an audience of women of a certain age reliving there youths. The production takes a far classier road, putting the emotional journey of a family  at its heart and reminding us just how much the Osmonds reshaped popular music and pop culture, they never abandoned their mantra, Family, Religious beliefs then Career and despite the biggest of falls, they proved to themselves that by sticking together, families can get through anything that comes their way. This is a show worthy of the ticket price as its a stylish tribute to a pop culture phenomenon! So grab those tickets now.

The Osmonds, A New Musical, Festival Theatre Edinburgh Runs until Saturday 24th September for tickets go to: The Osmonds: A New Musical (capitaltheatres.com)

Mary Woodward Review

The Maggie Wall, Studio Theatre, Pitlochry Festival Theatre, Review

***** (5 stars)

“Astonishing”

As Maggie herself would say: “Astonishing” – an astonishing tour de force by Blythe Jandoo who plays Maggie, a young woman accused and convicted of witchcraft and condemned to be burned to death.  

Alone in her tiny cell, and bearing the marks of the beatings, kicking by horses, and cuttings she has recently suffered, she tells us her story.  Living with her mother in a tiny village, marked out from her birth by being different, she is proud of her gifts, the songs that lie within her, waiting to be called forth in time of need.  She is beautiful, and gifted, and darker-skinned than anyone else: these differences mean that when she catches the eye of the laird’s son, recently returned from overseas, she is the obvious target for the ministers and people of the area: she doesn’t stand a chance.

Blythe Jandoo glows with an inner radiance that comes from the gift of song within Maggie.  She speaks directly to us, telling us of the father she never knew, who died when she was wee, and how she and her mother looked after and cared for each other.  Her mother kept her apart from everyone else, aware of the dangers lying in wait for someone so lovely: she is never allowed to go anywhere by herself – but one day her mother is sick, and Maggie must go by herself to the village for the messages.  She has already seen, and fallen for, the god-like Nicholas, and hopes that the world stood still for him, too, when they met for the first time: they meet again as she struggles home with the messages.  To her astonishment and delight he helps her with the messages and brings a doctor friend to attend her sick mother.  He enchants Maggie with promises of a wedding, loves her and leaves her: the next morning there is the thunderous knocking at the door…

It’s a gripping story, told by a master storyteller, and we are with Maggie every inch of the way.  We love her quiet pride and pleasure in her abilities, smile during the enchanting moments when she falls in love, are sickened by the torture she suffers at the hands of people who have know her since she was a wee bairn, and watch, horror-struck, her final moments.  Her narrative is full of joy, humour, a constant questioning of God and her neighbours: the harrowing conclusion which had the audience on their feet applauding this outstanding performance

Martin McCormick, inspired by a mysterious monument to a woman burnt as a witch in 17th century Perthshire, has produced a stunning piece of work which not only grips as a narrative, but prompts us to ask why violence against women continues, more than 500 years later.  Maggie’s final outburst, the question she wants to ask God if she meets him after her death, is one we would do well to ask ourselves – when will it all stop?

The Maggie Wall, Studio Theatre, Pitlochry Festival Theatre, Runs until Thursday 29thSeptember for tickets go to: The Maggie Wall | Pitlochry Festival Theatre