Mary Woodward Review

The Sweetest Growl, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Review:

The Sweetest Growl part of A Play, A Pie & A Pint

***** (5stars)

One completely unexpected bonus of coming regularly to PPP is being educated in Scottish culture and history – in this instance learning about Mary McGowan, the jazz singer from the Gorbals who rose to fame with the Clyde Valley Stompers, sang with Louis Armstrong, knocked Doris Day off the no. 1 spot in the charts, and then gave up what promised to be a stellar career to be a wife and mother back in Glasgow.

In this excellent play by Claire Nicol, Mary [played and sung magnificently by Elaine C Smith] has agreed to sing at the Stompers’ reunion concert: she’s sitting in her dressing room, wracked with nerves and wondering why on earth she ever agreed to do the gig.  In comes Kate Tierney, her best friend from school, who’s been instrumental in getting Mary to consider singing again.  An extremely stilted and edgy conversation over the teacups hints at past conflict and leads into reminiscence: the first time Mary sang in school, when she was slapped down in no uncertain terms by the dominie “you want to be a singer? Sit down and don’t be so stupid”; the support and encouragement her father gave her; singing to her nurse mother’s patients; and winning the talent competition that won her the engagement with the Stompers.

Two years on tour, and Kate is living vicariously through Mary, loving all the famous people she’s meeting, envying her the glamour and fame.  Mary tries to tell her that it’s bloody hard work and not easy being the lone girl among a bandful of men, but Kate, who would have given anything to have had Mary’s opportunity, can’t hear what she’s saying: she certainly can’t understand why Mary would decide to give it all up and marry her sweetheart Bob – she never wanted the money, the glamour and the fame: all she wants is a home, a husband, and weans…  At the wedding, a drunken Kate tries to get Mary to sing: she doesn’t want to, and the quarrel which began when Mary told Kate she was stopping singing escalates past the point of no return.

Back to the stilted teacup conversation.  Kate finally apologises for breaking their friendship, and Mary explains that I sang as long as I could: in those days it was impossible for a woman to have a home and a career, and she didn’t want to go the way she saw the other female singers going.  Bob in his own way apologises too – he was so busy thinking about what was best for their relationship he didn’t pay enough attention to what was best for Mary – and encourages her to sing with the Stompers again.  Back in the dressing room, Kate encourages Mary, who reveals her terror – not that she won’t be able to sing, but that she’ll be torn by regrets for having given it up: out she goes into the spotlight – and it’s as if she’s never been away…

Hilary Lyon was splendid as Kate – desperately wanting to succeed, and always having to settle for being second best, and incidentally displaying her not inconsiderable musical talent.  George Drennan was splendid as the Stomper’s trumpeter Ian Menzies [and his brother Bob, who married Mary], the vinegar-supping dominie and, in a brilliant scene, not only Mary’s ukulele-playing father but also [with the help of some nifty wig/ nurse’s hat holding from Kate] Mary’s mother as they argued over their daughter’s desire to sing.  All three – with yet more wigs – briefly appeared as three of the Beatles, who were the supporting act when the Stompers played the Cavern in Liverpool… and shining through above all the rest, the incomparable Elaine C Smith, whose talent is awesome and whose singing voice can raise the rafters with the best of them.  We could have listened to her for hours – her final numbers were all too short, and the applause was warm and enthusiastic.

The show’s not only highly entertaining, but also gives food for thought – how many other women musicians have been forgotten, how many had to give up their dreams because they couldn’t – weren’t allowed to – try to reconcile the demands of home and family with the need to express themselves through music? The Sweetest Growl is on for the rest of the week – give yourself a treat, take a walk down memory lane or discover yet another amazing part of Glasgow’s musical history: today’s show was a sell-out, and tickets will be going fast!

The Sweetest Growl part of A Play, A Pie & A Pint Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh run ends Sat 19th. for tickets go to:

Mary Woodward Review

Marie Jones: Fly me to the Moon, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Review:

Marie Jones: Fly me to the Moon as part of A Play, A Pie & A Pint

**** (4stars)

Well, the rest of the audience loved it, applauded loudly, and laughed almost all the way through.  I found it impossible to enjoy the humour, much of which seemed to me to consist of laughing at the opinions and actions of the two main protagonists, Weegie care assistants Loretta [Sandra McNeeley] and Francis [Julie Austin].

Into Davey’s bedsit comes Francis: Frank Sinatra’s singing, but she switches him off, plugs herself into something considerably livelier and is bopping away to it when Loretta joins her.  She’s late because this wet Monday she had to take her son’s football boots to school: this meant Francis had to go against health and safety regulations and do her back in taking Davey to the toilet by herself as he couldn’t wait.  She’s done her back in: how badly – “Is it claim bad?

They chat about their families and their constant need of money as they start to redd up the room: Francis’ son is doing well for himself, flogging pirated dvds which he makes himself “most professionally”, while her current partner’s encouraging reaction to her invitation to a friend’s hen do in Barcelona – “you deserve a break” is to assume that he’s having an affair and wants her out of the way.  There were lots of laughs from the audience – sympathy with the views being expressed?  Or at the accurate depiction of people who probably won’t be coming to laugh at themselves at Oran Mor or the Traverse?

Periodically the women yell to Davey, asking whether he’s finished in the bathroom, but there’s no reply.  When Loretta finally investigates [Francis refuses to go] she finds Davey dead on the floor.  The two women panic as they try to work out what to do – and this is, for me, when things started to go sour: Loretta is genuinely trying to do what’s right, but Loretta starts to see the opportunity to help themselves to the pension they would normally collect for Davey on a Monday, trying to convince Loretta that “it’s what Davy would have wanted” – rather them than the taxman!  Francis’ intimate knowledge of CSI prompts her to work out possible scenarios and traps to avoid as they try to create a way to collect the money and then ‘discover’ Davey’s death: things become increasingly complex when they discover that the £2 bet he placed yesterday has resulted in a win of £500…surely Davey would have wanted them to have that, too?

It’s clear that these two women, who have been caring for Davey for the last two years, are almost the only people he sees: they are poorly paid and always struggling for money, and see it as only fair that they should get some sort of reward.  I have great sympathy for anyone in that plight – but I really struggled to divorce myself from the reality that someone had died while the thought of personal gain led Francis to manipulate Loretta into agreeing to her first suggestion of sharing the pension, and couldn’t appreciate or laugh at the subsequent scheming, quarrelling and ultimately farcical shenanigans.  The writing and acting were excellent, but I wasn’t comfortable with the characters or their reactions to the situation in which they found themselves, and I’m not at all sure about the ending…

You’ll have to go and see whether you agree with me, or everyone else in the audience!

Marie Jones: Fly me to the Moon as part of A Play, A Pie & A Pint Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Run Ended.

Mary Woodward Review

Amadeus and the Bard, Scottish Opera Scottish Opera Production Studios, Glasgow

Amadeus and the Bard

***** (5 stars)

At first sight, what’s the connection between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Robert Burns?  Well… Both born on January 25th, three years apart [Mozart 1756, Burns 1759]; both died young and poor, from neglected illnesses; both appreciated women; both were Masons; both were geniuses whose output of words and music was enormous, and both were infinitely more highly-regarded and better-known after their deaths: need I go on?

As we entered, a fiddler and accordion player serenaded us: they were joined by George, the owner of the Mauchline pub known as Poosie Nansie’s, Burns’ local, well-kennt to us from his The Jolly Beggars and Tam O’Shanter. George and his wife Nansie welcomed and introduced their customers and we were encouraged to join in their lively rendition of Green Grow the Rashes, Oh! which got us singing, clapping and stamping and entering into the spirit of the convivial evening celebrating the lives of their local lad, Rabbie, and that other contemporary genius, Wolfie.

If you didn’t know much about either of these men before the show began, you would certainly have a good idea of their lives, loves, and work by the time it ended. If you already knew them, you would enjoy this celebration and the brilliant way their works complemented and overlapped each other – and even, to my enormous delight, were put together in an incredible mash-up of the two men’s creations which had me smiling in sheer delight at the amazingly apposite juxtaposition of some of them.

The cast’s energy and enthusiasm were infectious, and their talent staggering. I first came across narrator Andy Gray in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Harte, with which I fell in love nearly a decade ago: he was just as talented and versatile here, singing, playing guitar and chilling us with superbly sanctimonious rendition of Holy Willie’s Prayer.

Scottish Opera’s Emerging Artist Arthur Bruce was joined by soprano Stephanie Stanway and a quartet of singers from Scottish Opera’s Young Company, Cara Blaikie, Ross Fettes, James McIntyre and Erin Spence, all of whom switched genres effortlessly, displaying their superb vocal technique in a variety of solos, duets and ensembles from Mozart’s operas and not overdoing it in the Burns songs, where their enthusiasm encouraged us all to join in. The ensemble was completed by fiddler Shannon Stevenson and music director Karen McIver on piano and piano accordion, with members of the cast also displaying their instrumental skills.

The staging was simple, and the effects ingenious. The cast morphed into Rabbie, Wolfie, and their wives simply by putting on a coat [blue for Burns, green for Mozart] or a shawl: each of the singers got a chance to shine, and shine they did! Highlights for me? The delightful array of glove puppet birds that accompanied Papageno and Papagena’s delight in finally being united; the glorious My love is like a red, red rose and the heartfelt For the Sake O’ Somebody.

The crowning gloreis of the afternoon were Andy Gray’s performance of the witches’ Sabbath from Tam O’Shanter, underpinned by the scariest bits from Mozart’s Requiem depicting the terrors of Judgement Day, and the final scene from Don Giovanni when the statue of the murdered Commendatore comes to dine with the Don and invite him to dine with him in hell. The Commendatore’s height and magnificent voice made him infinitely terrifying and the spine-tingling moment when screaming furies came to drag the Don into the raging fire was an inspired piece of theatre.

The show ended with another wonderful mashup: A man’s a man for a’ that [which always brings a tear to my eye and a lump to my throat] overlaid an inspired medley of Mozart melodies – I heard snatches of his Rondo alla Turca, the Queen of the Night’s stratospheric stabbing notes, and I’m sure there was much, much more.

Music Director Karen McIver and creator/ director Mary McCluskey must have had a ball putting this show together. It was packed out – the penultimate performance of what must have been a very successful tour: if the show returns, don’t miss it!

Amadeus and the Bard, Scottish Opera, Scottish Opera Production Studios, Glasgow, Run Ended

Mary Woodward Review

The Drift Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Review:

The Drift, Traverse Theatre,

***** (5 stars)

The Drift is a mesmerising one-woman show written and performed by Hannah Lavery in which she reveals the pain of her [mostly non-] relationship with her father and the continuing stream of insults and gibes she suffers as a result of her extremely tangled mixed-race heritage.

Hannah’s father died suddenly in 2014. After a long period of estrangement, they were beginning to reach out to each other again – but he died from a heart attack while she, all unknowing, was reading one of her poems to an appreciative audience.

I should love to see a copy of the script – it’s pure poetry as it shifts through time and place, weaving together a picture of her complex heritage – Scotland, West Africa, Jamaica, Burma, India; slaves, slavers, ordinary folks and aristocrats; vocal and silent.

Hannah is filled with rage – rage at her father for being absent from so much of her life and for dying with so much unsaid between then; rage at the Scots involved in the slave trade who took advantage of and abandoned defenceless women, creating a race of half-breeds; rage at the continuing merciless persecution of children and adults who aren’t accepted as belonging to the country in which they live – Where do you come from? Here. No, where do you come from? – no matter how many generations of ancestors have lived in the same place…

And the rage is symptomatic of Hannah’s nearly unbearable pain. History repeats itself endlessly; there is the longing to belong and the continuing reminder of forever being seen as the outsider; the pain for her children who also suffer from the ‘casually racist’ remarks made by their peers as well as adults passing in the street.

It must have taken a phenomenal amount of courage to write and perform this story – especially to a nice white mostly middle-class Edinburgh audience: I wonder how many of us will have come away from the theatre determined to examine ourselves and root out those [hopefully] unconscious, unthinking attitudes towards our fellow-Scots.

Hannah’s introduction to her play begins Our Scottish history is not a fixed thing. It changes under observation and through investigation. We would be fools to think we are done with it, that it is written. We would be fools to think our history is done with us, its secrets spilled, and that it has been spoken by all those who should speak it, heard by all those who should hear it. She invites us to look at ourselves and the stories we tell about ourselves and others around us, while finding a way to begin making peace with her heritage and her father. It’s a wonderful piece of writing, and a deeply moving story.

The Drift, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, RUN ENDED

Mary Woodward Review

The Signalman, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Review

The Signalman  (As part of A Play, A Pie and a Pint)

****  4 stars. 

My first PPP of this all-too-short season: and it was a cracker to begin with!

I’m never able to cross the Tay rail bridge on the way into Dundee without a shudder and a thought for the people who plunged to their deaths on the night of 28 December 1870 when the central section of the eighteen-month-old bridge collapsed, sending the driver, fireman and passengers on the train from Edinburgh to Burntisland plunging to their deaths in the wild stormy night.
Peter Arnott has written a gripping monologue for Tom McGovern as the signalman Thomas Barclay, the last man to see the train and its passengers as they passed him on their way across the bridge and into the darkness.  Serious, bespectacled, checking the time on his pocket watch as he settles himself to work in the signal cabin he’s worked in for forty years, Thomas Barclay finds he’s feeling gey queer: hot and bothered, shivering and sweating…
Aye, it’s forty years to the day that it happened, and he minds how young he was, and how it felt to be in the public eye at the enquiry, with all those lawyers and judges staring at him, and so angry: at what, he wasn’t sure, but they were angry.  He wonders now whether it was because they all felt humiliated that the Brig o’ the Future had failed, had buckled: somebody had to be to blame.  He minds the sermons preached in the kirks the Sunday before the enquiry – all making out that the accident was divine judgement on sinners for working/ travelling on the Sabbath – and then the keenness of the following day’s enquiry, which began with questioning all the ‘little people’ who worked for the railway company and were at their work, not like the architect and shareholders who were off in the south of France getting their dose of winter sunshine…
At the enquiry Thomas patiently answers the questions from the supercilious lawyer who’s trying to trip him up, make him confess a fault: he goes through the entire safety procedure that governs the passage of a train along any single-line piece of track – the message from the signalman before him that the previous ‘down’ train has cleared the section of track between them, and from the signalman ahead that the track is clear; the ‘up’ train passes his own signal station slowly so that he can pass the crew the token that gives them the right to occupy that section of track and moves off into the darkness, into what the lawyer unemotionally describes as “boisterous weather”.
And what did you do then?
Thomas Barclay describes his terror-filled venture in the total darkness out on to the track and bridge, buffeted by the storm and fearfully aware of the fifty-foot drop to the wildly-churning water below, unable to see a thing, until a brief gap in the clouds allows the fitful moonlight to show the gap in the bridge and the broken bridge supports looking like a mouthful of teeth buffeted on every side by the waves.
It’s a cracking piece of writing, superlatively delivered without sensationalism by a master storyteller.  I’m not so sure about the questioning of self and others that’s woven into the piece – why do people always have to apportion blame; why do there have to be stories [“the stupider, the better”] woven around people who die tragically – “why can’t they just be folk?”.  Why do innocent people die, why do their deaths seem meaningless?  Profound questions, but for me they didn’t quite arise naturally from the drama, but rather seemed inserted artificially.  But on another day I might feel completely different about this, and accept it all and be very pleased with the whole play.
The audience certainly appreciated a superb performance from a consummate actor.

The Signalman, Traverse Theatre, Runs until Saturday 5th October. For tickets go to: RETURNS ONLY

Mary Woodward Review

A Woman of No Importance, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Review

A Woman of No Importance: Oscar Wilde

**** (4 stars)

I confess, I had to look up the plot of this Wilde play, and when I’d read it I wondered whether it would hold up in 2019 in front of an audience whose attitude towards ‘fallen women’ was undoubtedly very different from that in Wilde’s day. I shouldn’t have doubted…

Written in 1892, Wilde’s play holds up a mirror to society of the time and exposes the hypocrisy and dual standards of the day. Women are expected to be paragons of virtue: one slip and they are cast out into the outer darkness – no forgiveness, no redemption – while men’s ‘amusing peccadilloes’ are deemed of no account, and in many cases lauded, even where they are the very cause of the women’s downfall.

A country-house party, with titled and wealthy guests, is the idyllic setting. Hostess and guests sit on the terrace, exchanging witticisms and commenting on the gossip of the day: Miss Hester Worsley, one of the guests, is an oddity – a self-confessed Puritan, and an American, to boot. Much is made of the absent Lord Illingworth, “such a charming man”, who has just offered to make young Gerald Arbuthnot his personal secretary, much to everyone’s delight. An MP, who seems rather uncomfortable in this illustrious gathering, holds forth pompously about the national importance of PURITY. The rather ‘daring’ Mrs Allonby bets Lord Illingworth he can’t make a pass at the young American: he recognises very distinctive handwriting on a letter, but dismisses it as by “a woman of no importance”…

Gerald’s mother is invited to join the party in the evening, and arrives to join the ladies [who have left the men to their after-dinner drinking] in time to hear Hester deliver a scathing condemnation of the wealthy English élite among whom she is staying, contrasting their “selfishness and sin” with the morality and egalitarianism of American society. Mrs Arbuthnot has not previously met Lord Illingworth and appears shaken when she learns how he came, most unexpectedly, to inherit his present title: he is the father of her illegitimate child, who refused to marry her when she told him she was pregnant – the prospect of Gerald being his private secretary is abhorrent to her, but she doesn’t want to destroy her son’s love for her by revealing the truth about his parentage, nor can she explain why she thinks his love for Hester will not reach a happy conclusion.

It’s a fascinating play – a constant stream of Wilde witticisms and biting comments – which got the audience laughing within the first minute with an extraordinarily apposite condemnation of Parliament. Some of his characters lived only to sparkle and shock, but others were allowed to pour out their hearts and expose the period’s self-indulgence and hypocrisy, while the closing line was greeted with the satisfied laughter and applause it so richly deserved.

The sets were beautiful – framed by a gold picture frame which emphasised the artificiality of the life portrayed within – and the costumes were equally delightful to the eye. I didn’t warm to the artificiality of the characters who only lived to shock, and couldn’t see why any woman would be attracted to Mark Meadows’ Lord Illingworth, even before he was revealed as the villain of the piece. Tim Gibson was a delightfully young and vulnerable Gerald, and Georgia Landers’ Hester more than held her own in a society with which she was at such variance. Katy Stephens’ Mrs Arbuthnot seemed a little awkward at first but grew into a fearless tiger in defence of her young, and the final scene between these three promised well for their future.

Between acts we were regaled with music-hall songs delivered by Archdeacon Daubeny [Roy Hudd, playing the decrepit clergyman to perfection] accompanied by an interesting mix of social classes – servants and ‘nobs’ on fiddle, trumpet, guitar and piano accordion: very entertaining, though the ends of lines sometimes got lost, and cleverly masking the considerable effort going on behind the curtain to change the scenery.

If you only know Oscar Wilde as the author of The Importance of Being Earnest, I invite you to come and experience Wilde using his wit and dramatic skill to speak on behalf of people condemned and ostracised by society – a fate he was to suffer the very year that Earnest was first seen on stage.

A Woman of No Importance: Oscar Wilde, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh runs until Saturday 5th October, Tour continues for tickets go to:


Mary Woodward Review

Ballet Black Pendulum, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Review

Ballet Black Pendulum, Click!, Ingoma

***** (5 stars)

Ballet Black, founded in 2001 by Cassa Pancho to provide role models for young aspiring black and Asian dancers, brought an exciting and inspiring triple bill to the Festival Theatre. All three ballets were special commissions for Ballet Black, who aim to widen the visible landscape of classical ballet: they have certainly achieved that aim – it’s rare to see [in the UK at least] dancers of colour.

Pendulum was danced by Sayaka Ichikawa and Mthuthuzeli November to the ‘music’ of Steve Reich – ‘music’ which had no melody or pitch, simply a heartbeat which accelerated in tempo and was later augmented by increasingly intense humming sounds. The two dancers watched each other as they danced alone, occasionally mirroring or joining with the other.  They tried to outstare each other, they clung to each other: was it a mating display?  A competition?  A battle?  And suddenly it ended: I was impressed, but unmoved, while the obviously very knowledgeable [and mostly young] audience applauded enthusiastically.

Click! was the reason I wanted to see this company – they had commissioned the work from choreographer Sophie Laplane, whose work Dextera was such a remarkable companion to Elite Syncopations in Scottish Ballet’s recent Spring! I was expecting marvellous things, and I was not disappointed.  Five dancers in snappy suits in primary colours danced to an assortment of clicks and clicking music, including the delightful Just the Snap of Your Fingers originally recorded by the Mudlarks.  José Alves, Isabela Coracy, Marie Astrid Mence, Cira Robinson and Ebony Thomas’ costumes reminded me of the Mark Morris dance company – but outshone them by far in a way more interesting and varied ballet which was visually entrancing, virtually indescribable, wildly inventive and utterly delightful: definitely my favourite of the three.

Ingoma was intense and deeply moving. Created by Junior Artist Mthuthuzeli November it paid homage to the struggles in the 1940s of South African miners and their families, when 60,000 of them took strike action.  Peter Johnson’s score mixed music, prayer and singing with hand-claps and slaps from the dancers: plangent cello laments and intense rhythmic pulsing accompanied the dancers’ joy, love, exuberant delight in physical movement and rage, deep grief and heartbreak.  The whole company created the mine in which they worked and from which they emerged to dance.  José Alves, Cira Robinson and Marie Astrid Mence’s pas de deux and solos were both technically amazing and painfully expressive, while the ensemble dancers surrounded, comforted, rejoiced and grieved with the soloists.  The applause at the end expressed not only our appreciation of the dancers’ technical mastery but also how deeply we were affected by what we had seen.

Ballet Black were new to me: I will make sure I see them when next they come my way, and I urge you to do the same.

Ballet Black Pendulum, Click!, Ingoma , Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Run Ended. Continues to London.

Review by Mary Woodward