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Mary Woodward Review

Scottish Opera Pop-up, Fisherrow Links, Musselburgh, Review:

Scottish Opera Pop-up, Fisherrow Links, Musselburgh 

A little bit of Barber, A Little bit of Figaro and Be a Sport, Spike

**** (4 stars) 

Once again, Scottish Opera have hit the road bringing tasters of opera to all parts of Scotland.  After last year’s highly enjoyable introductions to Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore I was keen to see how the team would tackle reducing two pretty complex and well-known operas to a half-hour format.  The Barber of Seville has a fairly simple plot – tenor and baritone conspire to release the soprano from the bass’s clutches to facilitate the ‘happy every after’ soprano and tenor finale, but the plot of The Marriage of Figaro normally takes me a whole page to summarise… [Figaro wants to marry Susanna, the Count wants first go at her, the Contessa is miserably aware of her husband’s infidelities, but despite many attempts to prevent the marriage, it all works out in the end.]  In both cases, the story was told entertainingly and fairly accurately, given how much simply had to be omitted.

I know both operas well, so found it fascinating to see how head of music Derek Clark used little bits of arias, pinched a phrase or two from here and some notes from there and [in a couple of places] even wrote some new words to help the story along – but I couldn’t help wishing that, for the sake of people not used to Italian or opera could have understood what the characters were singing.  Yes, Allan Dunn did a brilliant job of story-telling, but even though soprano Jessica Leary and baritone Andrew McTaggart were chameleon-like in their ability repeatedly to change costume and character in a matter of seconds, I feel that the audience’s understanding of what was going on could only have been enhanced by hearing their own language being sung to them.  [of course, this makes the massive assumption that everyone listening spoke English – oops!]

It was also extremely interesting to see how well the singers managed the widely-differing ranges and voice types of the characters – especially in Barber, where Andrew McTaggart sang not only Figaro, in his own range, but Dr Bartolo and Don Basilio [basses] and the hero Count Almaviva [tenor – admittedly an octave lower].  Jessica Leary had an easier job here, “only” having to sing the heroine, Rosina – but in Figaro she not only changed roles but swapped gender too, playing the Contessa, Susanna, and the pageboy Cherubino!

Guitarist Sasha Savaloni [or it might have been Ian Watt – sorry!] and cellist Andrew Drummond Hagan were brilliant both as solo/duettists and as accompanists to the shenanigans on stage – I particularly appreciated the [very truncated] overture to each piece, and only wished they had been longer.  I gather some audiences were convinced that there were more musicians hidden behind the scenes but no, there were just the two of them.  Both performances had sizeable and very appreciative audiences [apart from a Westie who barked his disapproval and had to be led away] – I do hope some new-to-opera people were inspired to investigate further.

And that was going to be me finished: but there was such an eloquent plug for the third show on offer that I felt I had to return to discover what Be a sport, Spike! was all about – and I’m so very glad I did.  Alan Dunn played a much more interactive part in this show, which circled around the outstanding sporting prowess of Mike the Spike McTavish, who excelled at just about everything and wasn’t shy of showing us just how good he was at every sport he took part in – swimming, weight-lifting, running, cycling – there was no end to his outstanding abilities.

Suddenly someone was screaming – and the great Maria the Diva entered, singing “I am enraged, I am furious” and we wondered what had hit us… She revealed that she had been asked to sing at the opening ceremony of the Games, which was only fitting, given that she is the best singer in the world: her fury arose because she had been asked to sing a DUET.  How could she, when there was no-one in the world able to sing well enough to sing with her?  

She launched into an impressively florid aria [thank you, composer Karen McIver – I’d love a chance to sing this!], which demonstrated the justice of her claims – who, indeed, was worthy to sing with her?  Spike was open-mouthed in admiration of her talent and smitten with her too, but when invited to sing a glorious melody could only emit appalling groans.  “Please teach me to sing like you”, he pleaded – but his early efforts were dismal, and he needed strong encouragement from us in the audience to continue practising.  Treating it like his sports training and putting in some hard work had the desired effect, and he was finally able to join in singing with Diva Maria.  She was so impressed with his voice she chose Spike to sing with her at the Games, and together they waltzed and celebrated Spike’s realisation of what had at first seemed like an impossible dream.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable show which deserved a much larger audience – advertising it as for 4-8-year-olds was possibly a mistake, as the story line and music are of universal appeal: indeed, they might well encourage those of us who never thought they could sing to give it a go!  Spike was particularly pertinent to me as Jessica Leary was one of the teachers in my recent Breath Cycle workshops, where she gave me and many others the encouragement and help we needed to find or, in some cases, regain our voices – so it was lovely to be able to thank her in person.

With music by Karen McIver and words by Ross Stenhouse, Be a sport, Spike was a fitting finale to a splendid day out on Fisherrow Links – and it didn’t begin to rain until the very last moment!  Scottish Opera truly are dedicated to bringing opera to the furthest-flung parts of Scotland: I am so glad they do, and look forward to their next venture to the Honest Toun.  

In the meantime, I’m eagerly anticipating a concert performance of Massenet’s Thérèse in Haddington in early September while having to go through to Glasgow for their youth company’s new show, Rubble [30 & 31 July] and another community chorus venture – Bernstein’s Candide [11 – 20 August], in a promenade performance and the must-see return of Bambin0, the utterly amazing show for under-one-year-olds, which is touring the country during August and September.  And then we’ll have the new 2022-3 productions to enjoy…  see you there, I hope!

Mary Woodward

Scottish Opera Pop-up, Musselburgh Run Ended but the production is on tour till 10th July.

Mary Woodward Review

Sandi Toksvig Next slide, please, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Review

Sandi Toksvig Next slide, please

***** (5 stars)

From the moment she strolled out of the wings saying “Hallo, lovely people” to the moment she tore herself away from our prolonged and heartfelt applause, I laughed.  I laughed more in the two hours of her show than I have in the whole two years of lockdown, and for that alone I am her devoted fan for life, as must everyone be who was in the packed theatre last night.

Her enthusiasm for being OUT – here, in person, with us, tonight – shone out and wrapped us all in the warmth of her love for people: people who immediately became individuals, not faceless bums on seats, and whose achievements we all celebrated joyfully.  There was Gary in the front row who was invited to introduce her to us; the people who took up something new in lockdown – beginning a PhD in the history of crochet, learning burlesque dancing, starting wild swimming; the woman who is a Guinness world record holder of three-legged racing, and the one who confessed to being so late in a school race at the tender age of four that everyone had given up and she missed out on getting a sticker and having her time recorded… Pencils were awarded to all, and the applause was warm and generous: here in this space we were free to be our real selves, warts and all.

We were encouraged, too, to be childlike in our curiosity.  Sandi shared with us fascinating facts she’s discovered; ridiculous things she’s bought when the late-night lure of online shopping during lockdown proved irresistible; extraordinary books she’s come across; and fascinating places she and her wife Deb came across on late-night walks in the Square Mile of the City of London.  Her joy in these things is infectious, and I hope many present were inspired to go on voyages of discovery on a local bus route, or to haunt secondhand bookshops in the hopes of finding something extraordinary on the shelves.

After the interval we moved via Dorothy Parker and Gordon Brown to a novel way of choosing politicians: a quiz, in which we were all invited to take part.  We were offered a number of statements and had to decide were they true or false – getting the answer wrong meant being out of the game.  Most of us were eliminated very quickly, but a few stalwarts remained standing for some time: finally the winner was offered the choice – go down to Downing Street and offer yourself as the country’s new leader, or accept a very small bar of Swedish chocolate… which would you have chosen, dear reader?

Like the Elephant’s Child in Kipling’s Jungle Book, Sandi Toksvig is full of Satiable Curtiosity, and it’s infectious, as is her effervescent and infectious sense of humour.  An Aztec joke, the founding of the first coffee house in London, a hand-written birthday party invitation from Roman times, the John Knox House on the High Street in Edinburgh, and the amazing deaf-blind activist Helen Keller led us into Sandi’s new resolutions not to spend her whole life looking back at history, but to look at the present; never to enter debates on social media; and to slow down, and sit down, preferably under the trees in the woodland she and Deb now live beside, and which they are making available to the local community.

This led us into Sandi’s favourite part of her shows – a Q&A session with the audience exemplifying her own wide-ranging curiosity: telling her the best axe to use when she wearies of her mechanical log-splitter; asking how she met her wife; enquiring about the rules of QI, her favourite tree, and whether Aalborg is worth a visit [yes]; and hearing about Sandi’s series Extraordinary Escapes and, incidentally, her attempt to re-wild superfluous sushi…

The whole evening was suffused with joy – the joy of being together, of learning about each other, sharing our experiences, being accepted, and being included and welcome just as we are.  It was entirely fitting, therefore, that we were invited to close the show together by standing [if able] and conducting together the closing bars of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – the aptly named, exhilarating, Ode to Joy

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate our common humanity and the love we can offer each other than by sharing the profound pleasure of laughing together at the extraordinary diversity that exists in this world.  Thank you, Sandi!

Sandi Toksvig Next slide, please, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Run Ended.

Kieran A Wilson Review

The Lion King, Playhouse Theatre, Edinburgh Review:

A theatrical masterpiece from start to finish!

***** 5 Stars

Since debuting in 1997, Julie Taymor’s The Lion King has engraved itself as a staple worldwide by becoming the top earning title in box office history. Following the powerful story of Simba as he journeys from wide-eyed cub to his destined role as King of the Pridelands, the award winning musical has now been seen by over 110 million people across the world – ranging from Broadway to West End. 

Based on the successful 1994 Walt Disney animated movie of the same name, the musical features music from Sir Elton John and Tim Rice – including the iconic ‘Circle Of Life’, which opens the show in a magical and spectacular fashion. Thandaziele Soni (Rafiki) captures the attention of the audience instantly with phenomenal vocals and a powerful stage presence, promising the audience of standards to come. 

It is Donald Holder’s remarkable lighting that steals the show – bringing each and every scene to life in its truest form. Breath taking sunrises, subtle shadows and colour shifts allow the audience member to feel transported into Africa, all without leaving the comfort of the Edinburgh Playhouse auditorium.

The main cast successfully navigate us through the simple storyline, but it is the jaw-dropping puppetry and costumes throughout which create a theatrical masterpiece from start to finish.

Richard Hurst (Scar), Matthew Forbes (Zazu), Stephenson Ardern-Sodje (Simba) and Nokwanda Khuzwayo (Nala) all lead the performance with strong voices and incredible characteristics, but it is Jean-Luc Guizonne (Mufasa) who truly manages to encapture the theatre-goer during his emotional, and faultless, performance of “They Live In You”.

Comical favourites Timon and Pumbaa are played by the perfectly cast Alan Michale and Carl Sanderson – providing the light comedy and laugh out loud moments required to keep the show moving along. Alongside this, a special shout-out must go to the talented and energetic hyenas portrayed by Rebacca Omogbehin (Shenzi), Simon Trinder (Banzai) and Owain Rhys Davis (Ed) for their impeccable comedic timing and overall performance. 

Despite a few technical glitches: the show far surpasses expectations – reminding us why Disney have such a respected and positive reputation for their productions worldwide. 

Beg, borrow or steal for one of the remaining tickets whilst pride rock is still in town.

Disney’s The Lion King, Playhouse Theatre, Edinburgh runs until Saturday 2nd July for tickets go to: Disney’s The Lion King Tickets | Edinburgh Playhouse in Edinburgh | ATG Tickets

Mary Woodward Review

Don Giovanni – Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Review:

Don Giovanni – Scottish Opera,

**** 4 stars

Don Giovanni is a Spanish aristocrat and a womaniser – he cannot be faithful to any one woman, he says, because that would mean depriving all the others of his attentions.  His servant Leporello is both fascinated and repelled by his master’s goings-on: he tries to remonstrate with him, tries to leave him, but time and again is brought back to heel and continues to aid and abet his master.

Giovanni seeks to conquer Donna Anna: when she screams, he leaves and almost nonchalantly kills Anna’s father when he comes to investigate the noise.  At her insistence Anna’s fiancé, Don Ottavio, swears vengeance.  Giovanni and Leporello are catching their breath when they encounter Donna Elvira, whom Giovanni wooed and deserted in Burgos: the Don abandons her again, leaving Leporello to enumerate the highly detailed and lengthy catalogue of his conquests and Elvira to resolve on revenge.

Giovanni’s next encounter is with country girl Zerlina and her husband-to-be Masetto.  He loses no time in tempting Zerlina to accompany him: she is weakening when they are interrupted by Donna Elvira, who denounces the Don and whisks Zerlina away.  Foiled yet again, Giovanni bumps into Anna and Ottavio and feigns sympathy for her, promising to help her find the villain who murdered her father – but as he walks away, Anna realises that it’s he who was in her bedchamber that night: she and Ottavio are added to the list of vengeance-seekers.

Don Giovanni continues his amorous exploits and manages to evade all attempts to bring him to justice and having no hesitation in leaving Leporello to endure the punishments that should be his.  Catching his breath in a cemetery, he notices a statue to Donna Anna’s father, the Commendatore.  In a fit of bravado he invites the statue to dinner: to his surprise his invitation is accepted

At home and enjoying his dinner, Giovanni is interrupted by Elvira who comes to beg him to repent and mend his ways.  Unmoved, he orders her to leave, and sends Leporello to see why she screams on her way out.  His servant is trembling when he returns, announcing that the stone guest has indeed come to dine.  The Commendatore refuses the earthly food he’s offered, and invites Giovanni to return the compliment and dine with him.  Boldly Giovanni takes his hand – but freezes at his touch.  The Commendatore urges him to repent, but three times Giovanni refuses: the unrepentant sinner is hauled by demons into the eternal flames of hell.

Leporello emerges from his hiding place and is joined by Donna Anna, Don Ottavio, Donna Elvira, Zerlina and Masetto who learn of Giovanni’s fate and roundly declare that this is the fate that awaits those who do evil.

Sir Thomas Allen’s production for Scottish Opera was first performed in 2013.  The action takes place in the dark, narrow streets of Venice where the mists rising from the canals hide many secrets.  The story is, in the main, told simply, without gimmicks or “concepts” – though I could have done without the two nuns’ opening up a chapel to show Donna Anna the body of her murdered father.  The set’s claustrophobic streets opened up to the interior of Don Giovanni’s house, and the cemetery, but darkness always prevailed – only after the Don’s death did daylight shine harshly on the ruins of his ‘grand dinner’.

There are many ways to present the character of Giovanni – total villain, charming but gallant seducer, heartless libertine.  Roland Wood went for heavy-set and brutal, which made him hard to warm to – until he sang, when his honeyed tones would make almost anyone succumb to his blandishments.  No wonder that Zerlina couldn’t resist la ci darem’ la mano, or Elvira deh! Vieni alla finestra – even knowing exactly what a bastard he is, I found his seductive tones irresistible.

The women in his life are all very different.  The death of Donna Anna’s father turns her into a steely avenging angel: South Korean Hye-Youn Lee sang brilliantly and almost wallowed in her grief – but why, oh why couldn’t she reward Don Ottavio’s faithful service instead of demanding that he wait a year: small wonder the audience laughed in disbelief.  Argentine tenor Pablo Bemsch sang Ottavio’s challenging arias with consummate ease and strength: no wimp he – but why was he looking at the floor most of the time?  His height is an asset he should have used more.

Donna Elvira has to rage, weep, melt and turn to stone as she is torn between her fury at Don Giovanni’s betrayal of her, her fear for his fate, and her inability to resist his charms.  Kitty Whatley’s acting said it all, but for me her voice wasn’t rich and strong enough – especially when she was singing with the other women.  Lea Shaw is one of this year’s Scottish Opera Emerging Artists, and has already impressed me as the Neighbour in Mavra and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both small-ish roles superbly done.  Now as Zerlina she virtually stole the show – gorgeous voice, brilliant acting, and tremendous personality: watch out for her, she’s going far!

Emyr Wyn Jones made his Scottish Opera debut as Masetto – yet another superb young Welshman joining the company.  Masetto doesn’t have all that much to do, but he did it very well.  Keel Watson’s Commendatore has even less to do – be killed in act one, sit on a plinth in act two, drag Giovanni off to hell in the final act – not a lot of subtlety involved.  I look forward to seeing both men again soon.

And Leporello – a brilliant role, and when really well played he can outshine the Don himself.  American Zachary Altman is another Scottish Opera debutant, and again I hope we see a lot more of him.  His relationship with Giovanni was ambiguous – he seemed impressed against his will when recounting his master’s exploits in the Catalogue aria, and genuine in his outrage and hurt at receiving the blows meant for his boss.  He certainly enjoyed impersonating the Don while wooing Donna Elvira out of the house so Giovanni could get at her maid: was Elvira’s consolatory pat on his shoulder at the finale a sign that she wasn’t as outraged at the deception as she seemed to be when it was uncovered?  His singing was in the main excellent, but the rapid ‘patter’ bits tended to get lost among the other voices.

I wonder whether this, and other imbalances I noticed, arose because I was off to one side in the stalls – the side where the louder instruments are in the pit.  It was all very well done, and the music is among my all-time favourites: but something just didn’t spark for me – hence the absence of that fifth star.  The audience didn’t agree with me – there was prolonged applause for various of the singers whom I’ve criticised, because opera, and singer’s voices, evoke a very different response in all of us [just think Maria Callas – dare I call her the Marmite of opera?]

It’s very clear that Scottish Opera have begun the 2022-3 season, in which they celebrate their sixtieth year of existence, with a great production of one of the greatest of all operas.  The warmth of the audience’s applause reflects their great enjoyment and huge delight in being back [virtually completely masklessly] in the Theatre Royal in Glasgow.  We had a sneak preview of the rest of the season before the show, and I can confidently say we’re in for a year-round succession of fabulous performances, both in cities and on tour to all parts of the country, from Scotland’s national opera company.  Start looking and booking!

Don Giovanni – Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal Glasgow, Run Ended but touring to Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness.

Brett Herriot Review

Anything Goes, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh Review:

“Sumptuous and Glorious, sparkling with joy!“

***** 5 Stars

Cole Porter’s classic musical is approaching its 88th year since its debut at the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon) on Broadway in 1934 and holds a unique record of having four different librettos, the original 1934 version, the 1962 off Broadway revival, the 1987 revival libretto and the 2011 revival on which this production is based.

It is the critically acclaimed 2021 Barbican London production which has sailed into the Festival theatre for a limited run prior to the show returning to London’s west end later in the summer and this is truly a sumptuous and glorious production that sparkles with joy.

Telling the story of a voyage on the SS America in the mid 1930’s as the ship sails from New York to London we meet Business Mogul and millionaire Elisha Whitney (Clive Hayward stepping in for the indisposed Simon Callow) his assistant Billy Crocker (Samuel Edwards), Mother and Daughter Mrs Evangeline Harcourt and Hope Harcourt (Bonnie Langford and Nicole-Lily Baisden)Ship singer Reno Sweeny (Kerry Ellis) and criminal gangster Moonface Martin ( Denis Lawson) and a large ensemble who bring to life the many characters drawn together on the ship that see’s misunderstandings aplenty, love blossoming and truths being revealed. All this wrapped up in some of the best tunes in musical theatre its everything a classic musical should be and more.

Performances are universally excellent with Denis Lawson being the first of the stand outs; his comedy timing and characterisation are utterly faultless. The same is true of west end veteran Bonnie Langford who still Razzle dazzles and her energy floats across the foot lights. Kerry Ellis delivers in spades and shows her voice is up to the job and delivers a Reno that’s totally fresh yet every inch the classic 1930’s leading lady.

Director and Choreographer Kathleen Marshall has created a masterpiece on stage, blending the comedy with show stopping numbers and dance pieces are pure Busby Berkley  and receive sustain ovations from the rapt audience in the Festival theatre . Derek Lane’s set design was nominated for an Olivier award and rightly so it’s magnificent and lush, no expense has been spared and brings an epic cruise liner to live on stage including taking the audience inside the cabins which vary from the Brig to 1st Class. Jon Morrell’s costume design brings 1930’s flapper culture to life and makes the show sparkles almost as brightly as Hugh Vanstone’s lighting design that’s so opulent it knocks the eye out.

This production features a 15 strong orchestra under the baton of Musical Director Mark Aspinall which see’s classic songs “It’s De Lovely”, “Anything Goes” and “Blow, Gabriel Blow” amongst other sounding magnificent  and rich it’s impossible not to smile at the joy of seeing musical theatre on this scale done right.

Anything goes remains timeless and it’s easy to see why this most recent production wowed the west audiences as it’s just a fabulous production at heart, a set that’s sumptuous as it is unique, costumes to die for, performances that are stellar, dance that brings the house down truly everything that’s needed for a pure five star night of musical theatre.

Get to the Festival theatre before the SS America sets sail for London’s Barbican once more.

Anything Goes, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh runs until Sunday 15th May for tickets go to: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/anything-goes