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Mary Woodward Review

An Edinburgh Christmas Carol, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, Review

**** 4 stars

“An Edinburgh Christmas Carol is a delight”

I have to confess that every time I think about Charles Dickens’ Christmas tale, my head fills with visions of Michael Caine dancing through snow with Miss Piggy and Kermit.  I couldn’t help wondering how the Lyceum’s show could compete with this – but it managed to make me completely forget the Muppets’ version and instead relish the added bite the tale gained from its Edinburgh setting.

The story is well known.  Miserly, hard-hearted lawyer Ebenezer Scrooge is the cause of untold misery to many because of his refusal to show compassion to people who are unable to lift or keep themselves out of extreme poverty.  [How startlingly apposite this tale is in our current political situation….]  Scrooge pays his taxes, there is the poorhouse for those who can’t work: it’s not his fault if people are suffering.  He has no sympathy for those people who are going around wishing everyone ‘a merry Christmas’: his response is ‘Bah!  Humbug!’.  He bitterly resents having to give his clerk, Bob Cratchit, ‘that glaikit gomeril’, the morning off on 25th December.

In his cheerless, cold house, Scrooge is startled by a visit from his partner Jacob Marley, who has been dead for many years.  Jacob comes to warn Scrooge that he will suffer the same terrible fate as himself if he doesn’t change his ways, and tells him that three spirits will visit him this night when the clocks strike one, two, and three.  ‘Indigestion’ Scrooge explains to himself as he prepares to go to bed.

But the spirits do indeed visit him that night.  The spirit of Christmas past shows him scenes from his childhood and youth, where we see how a warm, loving boy became a heartless curmudgeon.  The spirit of Christmas present shows him the meagre Christmas celebrations his clerk’s family have and the suffering of their youngest child, Tiny Tim.  Scrooge is moved to pity, but the spirit quotes his own words back at him – ‘their deaths will reduce the surplus population’. The spirit of Christmas yet to come shows him people’s reactions to someone’s death – there is little sorrow, and some rejoicing: only Bob Cratchit displays genuine sorrow.  Scrooge, terrified and repentant, realises that he is witnessing people’s reactions to his own death and begs the spirit to tell him this vision isn’t true…

Scrooge wakes in his own bed, relieved to be alive and determined to make amends for his past behaviour.  He finds to his great relief that it is Christmas morning and, much to everyone’s astonishment spends lavishly, spreading joy and Christmas cheer all around.

This Edinburgh version of the story was a delight.  Set against a backdrop of the Castle rock and the Canongate slums, it centred the tale in the self-righteous condemnation by the authorities of Christmas celebrations. [In 1640 the Scottish parliament passed a law making the celebration of ‘Yule vacations’ illegal: it wasn’t until 1958 that Christmas day became a public holiday].  The City Council was equally kill-joy, demanding that dogs have a collar and licence.  Scrooge, of course, applauded the dispersal by the constable of an irrepressibly enthusiastic group of carol singers, and the dog catcher’s attempts to get rid of local celebrity Greyfriars Bobby. 

Many of the characters in this version of the tale were very Scottish – the ‘woman who does’ for Scrooge, his nephew Fred’s relatives and friends, Rab Cratchit’ and his wife, the polisman, the people cast out on the streets for non-payment of debts, and the spirits of Christmas [Lang Syne, Nouadays and Ayont].  The cracklingly acerbic Scots words and turns of phrase added sparkle and bite to the dialogue. 

A small cast played many characters – there must have been some rapid costume changes behind the scenes!  I really enjoyed seeing the actors’ transformations as they wove the tale around Crawford Logan’s dour Ebenezer Scrooge, the sort of hard-hearted implacable ‘do it by the rules’ person not unfamiliar to us today…. I wasn’t totally convinced by his ‘conversion’ – was he trying too hard?  Or just so hardened by his former life that he couldn’t quite melt completely?  But maybe I’m just being too picky, or remembering Michael Caine.  Greyfriars Bobby and Tiny Tim were brilliantly played by puppets/ puppeteers: we knew they were ‘not real’ and yet they were totally real, and both warmed and tugged at our heartstrings.

The community choir who refused to be silenced, frequently reappearing with a new carol only to be chased off again, were a wonderful cover for the rapid set changes and underlined the irrepressibility of the Christmas spirit which ultimately triumphs over mean-spirited killjoys. 

An Edinburgh Christmas Carol is a delight.  The grim reality of life for the poor in Dickens’ time is tempered with the joy that people are able to find in the darkest of circumstances.   The gaiety and sense of fun that permeates it gives us all hope and lifts our spirits – hopefully it will also encourage us to behave more kindly to those people less fortunate than ourselves. 

At the same time, it’s a great show for adults and children alike.  Lots to laugh at, some scary bits, and a string of sausages: what’s not to like?  The packed house obviously had a great night out: come and share in the Christmas spirit.

An Edinburgh Christmas Carol, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, Runs until Saturday 31st December, for more info go to: An Edinburgh Christmas Carol | The Lyceum | Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh

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Mary Woodward Review

Royal Northern Sinfonia by candlelight, North Esk Church, Musselburgh, Review

**** (4 stars)

North Esk Church’s exterior is not particularly beautiful or impressive, but inside it is absolutely gorgeous.  Plain, simply decorated in subtle shades of grey, it has a fabulous acoustic and looked lovelier than ever in the gentle glow on candlelight – the perfect setting for last night’s concert from the Royal Northern Sinfonia.  Based at the Sage in Gateshead, and the UK’s only full-time chamber orchestra, they had braved the arctic weather currently gripping Scotland to bring us an evening of [mostly] Baroque music that transported us from the everyday world to a haven of peace and tranquility.

Violinist Maria Włosczczowska opened the evening with the passacaglia from Heinrich Biber’s Rosary Sonata.  It’s a meditation full of light and shade, at once simple and astoundingly complex, shivering into the silence of the church, crying out then whispering so quietly you had to strain to hear – an intimate conversation between instrument and player over four repeated descending notes.  The silence when Maria stopped playing stretched on and on as we rested in the place of peace into which she had invited us.

The Royal Northern Sinfonia – who nearly all play standing – joined Maria Włosczczowska on stage for Archangelo Corelli’s concerto grosso Op 6 no 8, known as the Christmas concerto.   A solemn opening was followed by, according to my notes, “the orchestra going bananas”, with many layers of voices in excited conversation, after which tempo and mood changed frequently and small groups of soloists alternated with the full orchestra.  The rhythmic and melodic complexity of the music was rendered with great precision and beautifully delicate phrasing – an utter joy to listen to, even before we reached the Famous Bit – the final gentle, pastoral movement which conjures up images of shepherds abiding with their flocks by night before the angels burst upon them with the good news of the Christ child’s birth.

The Christmas theme continued with O beata infantia [O blessed infant] by 12th centurty German abbess, visionary mystic and composer Hildegard von Bingen.  Mezzo-soprano Bethany Horak-Hallett stood at the back of the church – right beside where I was sitting – and poured out her clear, pure tone into the body of the church.  It didn’t matter what the words were – we were wrapped in the feeling of blessedness.

Contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s trisagion was written for the 500th anniversary of the Finnish Orthodox church dedicated to the prophet Elijah in Ilantsi.  It’s a wordless meditation on an Orthodox hymn in which the various sections of the score embody the different verses of the hymn.  Pärt’s music is mysterious, subdued, and spare.  Like the Hildegard von Bingen piece, trisagion invited us to let our minds and hearts flow free as we listened to the orchestral voices calling across vast open spaces – a plaintive, urgent melody, a sudden increase in tempo and rhythm, a high shivering solo call over a deep sombre voice, a warmer, fuller sound, a pulsating bass line rising in intensity before all the voices in unison slowly faded into silence.

After the interval, Purcell’s Chacony in G minor brought us another helping of joy.  Despite the minor key, and with occasional hints of Dido’s Lament, the constantly repeated bass line underpinned interweaving solo and choral voices.  Full of emotion, swelling and dying, the Sinfonia’s delicate precision encompassed the contrasts of texture and volume in a glorious piece contained in but not constrained by its simple form.

J S Bach’s solo church cantata Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut [BWV 199] brought Bethany Horak-Hallett to the church’s pulpit.  Raised high above the orchestra, she was ideally placed to let her voice soar out above the instruments: though on a couple of occasions her voice seemed trapped inside her, the rest of the time it rang out beautifully.  The title’s translation is My heart swims in blood: my German wasn’t up to understanding what was being sung, but again this didn’t really matter.  There was a fair amount of sorrow and metaphorical breast-beating, no doubt over the singer’s sinfulness, but it all ended cheerfully – even triumphantly – with forgiveness and reconciliation.  

Regardless of whether you buy into the theological niceties, it’s a magnificent work – opera but about God.  It’s passionate and dramatic, full of joy as well as sorrow, and affords opportunities for soloists from the Sinfonia to duet with the singer – not accompanists but equal partners in creation.  I couldn’t see the [seated] woodwind player who made outstanding contributions to the work [on oboe or bassoon?] but could clearly see and appreciate the viola player’s contribution.  Alas, I can’t name either of them, nor the second violin soloist – the programme didn’t name the members of the orchestra.  

I am, however, able to credit conductor Dinis Sousa on his impeccable direction of this superb chamber orchestra.  The applause throughout the evening was warm and generous, and indicated a great desire to see a return visit by the Royal Northern Sinfonia as soon as possible.  Many of us welcomed the opportunity to take part in the encore offered to help us recover from the intensity of the Bach cantata.  Two verses of In the bleak mid-winter reminded us of the Christmas message and braced us to leave the warmth of the church and emerge into Musselburgh’s starry, frosty darkness.

Royal Northern Sinfonia by candlelight, North Esk Church, Musselburgh, Run Ended

Brett Herriot Review

Cinderella, The Theatre Royal, Newcastle Review:

**** 4 Stars

“Simply Beautiful!”

For 17 years Newcastle Theatre Royals, panto dream team of Danny Adams and Clive Webb have reigned supreme, accompanied for 15 years by the most glamorous of Dames Chris Hayward and its now time for teams fourth production of the fairy godmother of pantos, Cinderella, and they only way to mark this long running record is to bring the critically acclaimed London Palladium production to the heart of the Northeast and what true joy of a panto it is.

The fairy tale story if fully intact with Danny Adams delivering a high energy and hilariously funny “Buttons” where he gets the energy to turn in such physically demanding role is astounding especially on Saturdays where its plays three times a day. Adams brings the child out in all of us and reminds us of the joy of innocence that panto exudes. Clive Webb as “Baron Hardup” seems refreshed this year, make each moment on the stage count and although it’s clear the “12 days of Christmas” routine is exhausting for him, he can still deliver in spades. 

Returning for his second year is the simply gorgeous and divinely voiced Joe McElderry as “Faerie Godfather” a nice twist that works well and Joe showcases not only his singing skills but his comedic acting abilities and truly shows what a talent he is. That said for the second year running, the use of jokes regarding his sexuality are simply not needed and are in no way in the vein of pantomime and make for a rare error of judgement from the production team. 

All goodies need a baddie and this year for the second year running Chris Hayward is bad, very very bad as “Baroness Volupta” and he simply wonderful, getting the balance spot of on, achieving boo’s with ease but always ensuring not go too far. His costumes and wigs are spectacular and with confirmation that Chris will revive Dame Rita for next year’s Pinocchio it seems the North Easts most glamourous and beloved Dame will return to the good side. No Cinderella is complete without a pair of ugly sisters and Kylie Ann Ford as “Vindicta” and Christina Berriman Dawson as “Manupulata” bring the wickedness in spades and blended with pure hometown charm make them a winning pair.

Wayne Smith is back again as “Prince Charming” his suave good looks and fabulous vocals make him an audience winner and his winning of Cinderella heart is utterly charming. Oonagh Cox takes on the title role of “Cinderella” and while she is underused, she is everything a Cinderella should be and makes every little girls dreams in the audience come true. 

Mick Potts is back in harness as the “Idiot” except this time round he is playing “Dandini” but its clear it’s just the “idiot” role again, but he does deliver it with consummate style and brings a rich tradition of slapstick to proceedings. Also joining the cast to give an injection of street dance are “Flawless” in the role of “The Princes Royal Guards” and their appearances go down a storm as crowd pleasing sparkling moment. The production also features a eight strong ensemble who deliver Choreographer Ashley Nottingham’s excellent dance numbers with style and grace. 

Production wise this show is simply beautiful Ian Westbrooks stunning London Palladium set, while it may have been brought in a bit to make it fit, looks gorgeous on the Theatre Royals stage as does Mike Coltman’s and Teresa Nalton’s Costume design and they all sparkle under Ben Cracknell’s outstanding lighting design. Richard Brookers sound design is accomplished and ensures musical Director Michael Bradley’s five strong Orchestra truly rock the audience to the core. 

It’s clear to see why the Theatre Royal Newcastle’s pantomime is the jewel of the North East, Director Michael Harrison is a local lad who has never forgotten his roots despite his enormous success, his care,  dedication and sheer passion for pantomime is palpable and he ensures the ongoing golden period of the panto dream team forever embraces new generations of panto audiences and with the news the venue will have a totally brand new show next year a new chapter awaits. 

For now, be sure to grab a gold dust ticket for the most magical pantomime of them all!

Crossroads Pantomimes Presents “Cinderella”, The Theatre Royal, Newcastle, runs until Sunday 15thJanuary 2023, For further info go to: https://www.theatreroyal.co.uk/whats-on/cinderella/

Brett Herriot Review

Beauty and the Beast, The King’s Theatre, Glasgow Review:

***** 5 Stars

“Pure Pantomime Perfection”

The King’s Theatre Glasgow has an historic and hard-earned reputation for bringing true classic pantomime to the city and wrapping it in spectacle born of love and dedication of its casts. Casts which encompass the greats in Scottish Theatre, Rikki Fulton, Jack Milroy, Una Mclean, Gerrard Kelly and Jimmy Logan are just some of the many legends enshrined in the bricks of the buildings. 

That legacy and lineage now rests with the resident headline team of Elaine C Smith and Johnny Mac who return with a title never performed at the King’s, that being the tale as old as time, Beauty and the Beast, and my word it pure pantomime perfection from the moment the curtain rises until it falls.

The true magic of this panto is in the writing by Alan McHugh with additional material by Johnny Mac, it puts the fairy tale story at its heart but adds enough variety and pure pantomime ingredients to see it sore. 

The story of Prince Sebastian (Calum McElroy) who having crossed paths with an Enchantress (the sublime Rachel Flynn) is transformed into a beast, and the only way back is to understand the power of true love before the last petal of the rose falls is at the beating heart of this show. 

Elaine C Smith must be the country’s finest female dame delivering a warm hearted and utterly charming “Mrs Potty” and her performance of “Make you feel my love/Loch Lomond” brings tears to the eyes with its beauty. She also delivers the laughs alongside the divine Johnny Mac as “Jack Potty” with some classic panto sketches including “haunted bedroom”, “12 days of Christmas” and up to date live camera gag the ensnares the audience.  It’s clear Johnny has earned in place amongst the king’s theatre legends.

Rachel Flynn’s full throated Enchantress sores both vocally and physically and thrills the King’s audiences, also returning to the regular team is Darren Brownlie as “Shuggie” the inventor a camp comedy creation that gives Johnny Mac a run for his money. Delivering a sweet hearted “Belle” is Blythe Jandoo but it’s wonderful to see a princess with real backbone too. Every Panto needs a baddie and the rather gorgeous and muscular Matthew McKenna brings “Malky McSneer” to life in all his snide nastiness getting the boos with ease.

Production wise the Kings have got it spot on with a gorgeous set beautifully lit by Alex Marshall, Sound design by Olly Steel and video and projection design by Duncan McLean which ensure the entire King’s auditorium comes to life in all its magnificent splendour. It even brings out the grandeur of Mike Coleman’s Costume design. Those boys at Twins FX deliver a magical moment that sees Johnny Mac Literally roar over the stalls.

Director Kathryn Rooney has truly tapped into the heart of Glasgow for this panto and sprinkles it with magic especially with Karen Martin’s accomplished choreography which is performed in style by an eight strong ensemble. The cherry on the production cake must be Musical Director Richard Anderson and his five strong orchestra in the pit, the music adds true joy to this marvellous spellbinding pantomime adventure.

Beauty and the Beast is a true joy to watch, dedicated and accomplished performances, stunning sets and costumes and huge dash of magic ensures that although it may be the first time the Beast has held the panto court at the King’s it won’t be the last. If you can only see one panto this season, make it this one, grab a ticket, let your inner child out and believe in the magic of pantomime once again.

Crossroads Pantomimes Presents “Beauty and the Beast”, The King’s Theatre, Glasgow, Runs until Saturday 31st December 2022, For further info go to: https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/beauty-and-the-beast/kings-theatre-glasgow/

Brett Herriot Review

Sinbad The Pantomime, The Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh Review:

*** 3 Stars

“leaves us believing in the magic of Christmas”

Writer and Director John Binnie turns in his fifth pantomime for the Brunton that reunites what’s become a regular staple of cast members with some newbies for the sea faring pantomime adventure Sinbad the pantomime. 

While there is plenty of adventure to be had the show lacks in actual pantomime, especially Act 1, where there are no panto sketches or many local references to be had, it’s very plot heavy with just the odd “its behind you, oh no it isn’t”. The choices made are interesting as last year’s Hansel and Gretel did see a return to a more traditional pantomime style so for this year to revert to a such a plot heavy formula seems a step backwards. That being said Act 2 does dial up the panto fun which is bolstered by a fabulous “bring doon the cloot” moment.

The casting is excellent with Wendy Seager returning to play not just one baddie but four, Seager always seems to get the balance between nastiness and redemption spot on. Calum Barbour makes his Brunton debut as “Sinbad” and brings a warm charm to the role. The same is true of Ross Donnachie as “Cuddles Nine-Lives” who transforms the “silly billy” character into something the kids adore and a unique twist at the end shows a rare emotional moment in panto. 

Eilidh Weir “Rose” makes a fine female hero and her teaming with Isabella Jarrett as “Nurse” brings a charming and heart-warming honesty to the show. The shining star of the show must be Graham Crammond’s legendary dame “Betty Brunton”. A true pantomime creation with a plethora of ever silly costumes and always ready with a quip and audience aside his dame is pure panto perfection, however it is striking that Crammond doesn’t get a musical number of his own this year, surely every dame deserves a song to wow their audience into the panto magic.

Production wise Sinbad shines with Robin Mitchell’s Set and Costume design being on point and bolstered by Craig Dixon’s excellent Lighting Design that brings the Brunton alive and supported by Clark Beddie’s Sound Design.

Musical Director Tommie Travers once again delivers in spades blending pop tunes with a catchy nautical underscore that even sees a nod to this year’s Eurovision Song Contest Runner up. Once again Travers is on his own in the pit, why the Brunton simply won’t engage even a small band for the pit is striking. Even the smallest additions can make the biggest impact.

Sinbad the Pantomime is a lot of fun, and has a lot of Christmas magic to share, it just needs more of an injection of actual pantomime to fully justify its title. What it does have is an adventure story that calls to the child in us all and leaves us believing in the magic of Christmas. So, you won’t go wrong in buying a ticket and setting sail with Sinbad, Betty Brunton and the gang! So hurry along to the Brunton!

The Brunton Theatre Presents “Sinbad The Pantomime”, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, Runs until Saturday 31str December 2022, For further info go to https://www.thebrunton.co.uk/en-GB/shows/sinbad%20the%20pantomime/events