Mary Woodward Review

Protest, The Studio, Edinburgh, Review

*** (3 stars)

As part of Imaginate Edinburgh International Children’s Festival 

I have a confession to make: I got the time wrong, and missed the last Edinburgh performance by turning up at the Studio too late to be let in.  I was most fortunate to be sent a link to a recording of this show, which I have just watched – thank you, Director of the Festival Marion Bourbouze. It was a very good record of the show but inevitably my reaction is not exactly as it would have been had I been physically present in the theatre.

A girl runs on stage – she’s running away from something.  A second girl enters – she’s collecting rubbish.  A third girl – she’s waiting to say something…  it takes me a good while to work out what their names are, but they are, respectively, Jade (Tamara Fairbairn), Chloe (Esmé Kingdom)  and Alice (Kirsty MacLean).

Alice begins pouring out her frustrations – she’s a really fast runner, and wants to be the anchor in her P7 class’s team in the end of year relay race: but just knows that Rory and Josh will win the class vote just because they are boys, and the whole of school life seems to revolve around boys rather than girls.

Jade’s story takes a little longer to emerge, having to be pieced together more from what she doesn’t say than from what she does.  She and her best friend Hayley are the only brown-skinned children in their year, and they’ve just experienced racist abuse from some of their peers.

Chloe is a loner: she spends her time in a small wooded area on the edge of town, where deer sometimes come and there are many birds.  It’s being swallowed up by housing developments and invaded by teenagers with nowhere else to go – she’s worried about the broken glass and other litter, and goes there before and after school to try to clear it up.  Who will do this when she’s visiting her Dad in Belfast in the holidays?

Each girl’s frustrations become clearer, and we learn more about their families.  Slowly we realise that the girls all go to the same school, and their stories start to intertwine – but we rarely if ever see them interacting.  The narrative progresses in monologues of varying length occasionally interspersed with techno-type music, flashing lights, during which the three girls rush around the stage.  It’s all very bitty, and at times it’s hard to see where these monologues are going, or why the three stories are intercutting/ interrupting each other.

There are a number of themes running through the show – the environment, male privilege and racism both now and in the recent past, finding one’s voice to speak out against wrongs, how small actions can snowball into big ones, how working together can make things different….  There’s also the gradual discovery of each girl’s family background and history, with new revelations right up to the end of the show – there’s perhaps too much material for just one show?   The show is aimed at 8 – 13-year-olds, and I can’t help but wonder how much they will pick up – but then they may be quicker at it than me!

The set is cleverly designed, giving the possibility of a lot of movement of many kinds to alleviate what could be the monotony of a succession of talking heads.  The camera generally focused on the person talking, so it was hard to judge the effect of having the two silent girls on stage much of the time, or whether, as the intercutting became more frequent and each girl’s speech shorter, the three became a closer-knit whole.

The narrative proceeds to a ‘good and happy’ conclusion – though not without a (realistic) lone curmudgeonly voice disturbing the ‘feel-good’ atmosphere.  But still the show didn’t grab me: I don’t know whether that’s simply because I was watching it on a laptop instead of live in the theatre, or if I would have been equally disengaged if physically present.  There’s a lot of very good stuff in the play – maybe a bit less would have made a more engaging show?  Or maybe I’m just getting old and need a plainer diet than is afforded by this extremely rich meal.

The actors were extremely good, and the audience present at the recording seemed to applaud loud and long.  I will have to take more care in programming reminders into my phone…

Protest, The Studio, Edinburgh, Run Ended, Production tours to Glasgow.

Mary Woodward Review

Too Close to the Sun, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Review

**** 4 stars

As Part of Imaginate Edinburgh International Children’s Festival

This show was so good, it kept a theatre-full of primary school children silent for virtually the whole fifty minutes – no mean feat for something which opened simply with movement and music [one child behind me whispered to another “it’s ballet”].  There were words, after a while – which led me to marvel that dancers are now expected to speak and remember lines in addition to dancing complex and demanding choreography: not just once, but throughout the show.

The sound of the sea.  A deserted island. An immense froth of foam – but it’s not foam, it’s plastic in its many manifestations.  Bubble wrap, plastic film, flimsy carrier bags, empty milk bottles: this filthy tide sweeps in and out, never decaying, never diminishing…

Someone [Molly Danter] comes and looks at the froth: when it sweeps towards her she is frightened and runs backwards.  To her relief, the tide retreats and she dances for the sheer joy of being alive.  The two other performers [Ilona Gumowska and Charlotte McLean] tell us that she is trapped on this island.  She can’t swim away.  She wishes she could fly, but humans can’t fly, can they…?

Ilona and Charlotte tell us about Icarus and his father Daedalus, who wanted to escape from the island where they were held against their will.  They made wings with feathers stuck to branches with wax – but Icarus flew too close to the sun, causing the wax to melt and him to fall into the sea and drown.

At the back of the set are three pyramidal structures that look like giant cheese graters – maybe they are cliffs.  All three performers use them as launching pads from which to try to fly, with or without the help of constructions made from the plastic debris – but they always end in disaster.  They try making goggles from the plastic and using plastic bottles as floats to help them swim away – without success. 

The three performers start to question the legend of Icarus.  It doesn’t get hotter the nearer you get to the sun – it gets colder.  So the wax wouldn’t melt, would it?  Maybe Icarus escaped?  Maybe that fact was covered up, so that no-one else got the idea that you could disobey with impunity…???

They talk about horrific pictures of birds being cut open to show that they have swallowed batteries, Lego pieces, and who knows what else, and of the turtle with plastic straws stuck in its nostrils.  We hear about the Minotaur, half man, half bull, who lived at the centre of a labyrinth under the island.  Anyone who displeased the king was sent down to the maze: only one man, Daedalus, escaped by taking a reel of thread with him, and following it back to the entrance. 

Maybe you know that feeling of being trapped, unable to escape your worst nightmare?  Ilona and Charlotte start making a web of threads which cross the stage, in which Molly becomes trapped.  It’s a complex cat’s cradle from which it seems she won’t escape, and in which the other two become entangled – but they move together to make huge, gentle wings which slowly beat until Molly is able to break the strings imprisoning her, and the other two are able to shed theirs.

The tide comes in again, stronger and higher, and the only place to escape it is up the ‘cliffs’.  Molly makes giant wings from a huge length of bubble wrap and once more tries to fly – but again falls, and this time sinks into the water, down and down and down….  It seems as though she, like Icarus, must drown – but the other two climb down into the water and make heroic efforts to bring her to the surface.  Time and again it seems they must fail – but eventually she emerges, coughing and spluttering, ultimately laughing almost hysterically with the sheer joy of being alive.

But she is still marooned on the island, and the plastic is still there and won’t go away.  Molly starts kicking and throwing it about until her rage threatens to overwhelm her and she collapses in despair.  Ilona and Charlotte try to console her, but at first she refuses to acknowledge them.  Bit by bit she is persuaded to join in their movements and discovers the strength and flexibility of three pairs of arms and six hands, their fingers flexing, and opening and closing the way birds’ primary feathers do when they fly.  The three of them rediscover the joy of being alive together.

Barrowland Ballet has produced an excellent piece in Too Close to the Sun.  It doesn’t shy away from the overwhelming nature of the problems surrounding us today, nor the exhaustion and sense of hopelessness that can result from battling against them.  It does offer a sense of hope – together it’s possible to face tasks that can seem impossible when we are alone.  There’s a lot of humour throughout the piece, which the young audience greatly appreciated.

The set seems ridiculously simple – but the cheese graters are amazingly versatile.  They can be spun round, climbed up, jumped from, and all at the same time…  The lighting is good, and there’s some excellent use of projection – Icarus is seen among the fishes as he sinks into the sea, both on plastic bags that members of the cast hold out and on to the cliffs.  The sound track is excellent both in creating the calm isolation of the sea-girt island and in heightening the tension in dramatic moments. 

The most brilliant piece of invention is the wide ribbon of plastic debris that snakes across the front of the stage – such a simple idea, so perfectly realised.  It is the tide as it advances and retreats, and provides the materials with which all the attempts at flight are made.

The choreography is simply astounding – inventive, expressive, energetic, exhilarating and brilliantly performed.  In the Q&A session after the show, Molly and Natasha Gilmore (one of Barrowland Ballet’s Artistic Directors and choreographers) explained how the moves were developed from the dancers’ improvisations in response to suggested situations – You discover the moves within you, and get feedback on whether it works.  It certainly works!  

Too Close to the Sun is a brilliant piece.  I’ve not seen any of Barrowland Ballet’s previous productions but I’ll certainly be looking out for them in future.

(Note: another production will Run at Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh during this August’s Fringe)

Too Close to the Sun, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, runs until Sunday 3rd June for further information go to: Too Close To The Sun — Imaginate

Mary Woodward Review

The Problem with Pink, George Square Theatre, Edinburgh, Review

As part of Imaginate International Children’s Festival

**** 4 stars

Four people, who come together every day to play, wonder what their story is going to be today.  They bounce and jump around as Lou begins to piece together the narrative – “once upon a time there was a square, with four guys who were friends”…. Alex keeps interrupting with awkward questions, and Sasha is very keen that the surroundings are kept tidy.  Suggestions from any of the four prompt a babble of enthusiastic individual actings-out before Lou resumes the tale.  Periodically they think they hear something: one goes off to investigate and comes back to say what they’ve seen, which immediately gets incorporated into the story.

All is progressing well, until one of them comes back to report that they’ve been told pink is for girls…. Up to this point, the four have been perfectly happy to cavort around on an extravagantly pink set – now, things start to get unsettled.  At first they don’t realise that everything around them is pink; when they do, they recoil in fear – but quickly settle themselves by declaring that it’s not pink, it’s pale red.  This doesn’t last for long.  They have to roll up the pink carpet and continue on the bare floor, increasingly concerned to be doing guy stuff, the way guys do.  Alex in particular has to remove his pink socks and becomes increasingly masculine and aggressive in his stance and movements. 

Suddenly one of them points out that Noah is a girl.  She doesn’t see why this should make any difference, but she’s told to go over there and do girl stuff – you should know: pony tail, tea set, dragonfly stuff.  She moves over to the sole part of the stage that’s still pink, and attempts to start her own narrative – but it’s obvious that she is very sad and upset.  Her body is rebelling against the instructions her voice is trying to give her – I’m a princess, I have long blonde hair and a long dress, and I’m sitting in my castle waiting for my love to come along.  I’m sitting… I’m sitting… I’m waiting……I’ve spent the whole day waiting!!!  She becomes increasingly furious and begs the guys to help her: in her rage she bashes the floor and there is an explosion of pink, which fountains all over the boys, who are horrified and disgusted.

A hole – deep, dark, and cold – has appeared, and it’s Noah who goes down it first.  Alex protests he should go first but she says “I found it first”.  Alex and Lou follow, but Sasha is slow to join them – he wants to tidy up the pink explosion, swimming in it, enjoying it – but joins the others, telling himself “I’m like the other boys”…

Alex becomes increasingly, aggressively, masculine: you have to have a leader [and that’s me], and he protects you, and then you disagree, and you have to fight him…. The others, especially Lou, can’t see why this has to be.  Lou and Noah go off together, leaving Sasha and Alex to devise a code of movements ‘for when it’s too dark to see’ – basically a chain of fight moves, which ends in the two running in separate directions.

Lou meets Alex and asks what his dad does.  When Alex asks the same question, Lou replies which one? then tells him about both his dads.  He challenges Alex, saying his aggressively masculine behaviour shows he’s the one who’s most afraid.  Alex’s response is to enumerate all the types of people he punches and fights – I laugh and they cry: Lou’s response is I don’t believe you…

Alex runs off, and Lou starts a new story, one just for himself.  He wanders off, and Sasha comes in, enjoying pulling handfuls of pinkness out of his pockets.  Noah comes tentatively forward, and together they start to dream a story about a giant – Is it a boy or a girl?  Who cares??  Lou returns, enthusing about his world, and together the three climb back up, collaborating in a world] in which you don’t have to decide which you are – you can play with a doll, be an astronaut, bake cakes, drive a tractor…

The carpet is fully unrolled again – is it still pale red?  No, it’s PINK, and I LOVE PINK – and the world doesn’t end.  They hear noises and go to investigate – there are loads of people outside, and no-one cares about pink.  Alex returns, and acknowledges that the carpet isn’t ‘pale red’ but pink – and is even able to put his pink socks back on as they all resume their friendly interaction.

I would really like to give this show five stars – why can’t I?  It was cleverly done and made some very good points.  The characterisation was spot on.  The story line was good, and was very thought-provoking.  The kids in the audience loved it – especially Alex’s macho gymnastics, which got much applause. The performers were very talented – not just acting but dancing, and throwing themselves and each other around the stage.  The soundtrack provided additional insight into what the actors were feeling at key moments.  The set was simple and very effective, the lighting was used expressively.

So…?  I think it has to be because, although most of the time I was deeply involved and interested in the narrative, there were some moments when the pace lagged a little, or the dramatic intensity lessened – noticeable because the audience of 6-12-year-olds started to get restless when they’d been held silent and spellbound till then.  The messages were clear to this adult watching – I wonder how much the children picked up?  Some of the most important information was conveyed in dialogue when the action was at its height.

But who am I to pontificate on what children pick up from theatre?  I would love to be a fly on the wall with some of those school groups as they discussed what they’d seen and learned.  I would love to think they will all grow up not caring whether someone’s a boy, a girl, or something else; loving the colour pink no matter who they are; realising that the gendered ideas people try to impose are ridiculous and must be ignored… maybe they already know all this and can carry it into every aspect of their lives, even when they become ‘grown-ups’.  I can hope…

Sadly, that was the last Edinburgh performance of The Problem with Pink – I wish you could have seen it!

The Problem with Pink, George Square Theatre, Edinburgh, Run Ended

Mary Woodward Review

I…er…me, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Review

As part of the Imaginate international Children’s Festival

***** (5 stars)

What a way to begin my experience of this year’s International Children’s Festival!  Talk about stimulating the imagination – where do I start?  A set that revolves through a whole 360 degrees, a giant salt-water goldfish that can eat anything, mysterious hands appearing and changing things around while your back is turned…

A man lives a life that is disciplined down to the last millisecond.  His phone beeps every few minutes to remind him about yet another thing that needs doing.  Everything around him has to be Just So – the plastic bag folded impeccably neatly, the coat hanging perfectly straight on the hanger.  So why is it that when his back is turned, they are awry?  Why, when the phone rings and he answers it, all he hears is a voice at the other end of the line repeating what he himself is saying?  How can it be that the chillies he’d been chopping when the phone rang have mysteriously disappeared?  What is happening to the goldfish in his impressive wall-to-wall fish tank, which normally comes to greet him when he feeds it?  Is someone else in his house doing all these weird things, or is it all in his mind?

This is at the same time a glorious display of physical dexterity as VVV navigates the revolving set, where the floor becomes the wall of another room and bits of furniture rise up out of the new floor, and a disturbingly accurate representation of distorting reality in a disintegrating mind.  Without giving too much away, credit must be given to three actors – Martin Franke, Daan Hamel and Martijn Schrier – and four technicians – Tjarko Van Heese, Roy Vermeer, Gerrit Schilp and Tomas Van Schelven – who between them operate the revolving set and make the seemingly impossible happen before our very eyes.  The main actor’s stamina and ability to remain [mostly] vertical when all around him is slowly revolving is staggering, while the complex choreography that must take place back-stage is simply mind-boggling. 

The set, which revolves through a full 360 degrees, is breathtaking, and the split-second timing of every appearance and disappearance is staggering.  A door becomes a bath as the floor becomes a wall; furniture and fittings emerge from and sink back into surfaces which are successively floor, wall, or ceiling; goldfish swim outside their tank – in fact, goldfish get everywhere!  The design of the production and the way the impossible is made to appear commonplace is simply magic – all credit to Artistic Director Elien van den Hoek. 

It was very satisfying to be able to applaud not only the main actor but also the giant saltwater goldfish, the third actor and  three members of the stage crew who all had fish to play with.  There was a huge, prolonged ovation for the man who was taking the set through its extraordinarily complex manouevres.  It was a pleasure and a privilege to be allowed behind the scenes to see the set from behind: a truly wonderful creation..

It’s a fantastically entertaining show.  Those of us who’ve experienced some type of mental disturbance may find it harder to laugh at some of the things that we see on stage – but we will resonate strongly with what might recognise as a version of our own attempts to deal with an at times distorted reality.  Others may simply find it laugh out loud funny, as increasingly bizarre things happen.

Whichever is your experience, this show is glorious – congratulations to all concerned in bringing it to the EICF, and good luck to the company for their forthcoming European tour.

I…er…me, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Run ended.

Mary Woodward Review

Dear Billy: a Love Letter to the Big Yin, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Review:

***** (5 stars)

“Perfection of the storytelling”

The Traverse bar is abuzz as the audience comes out – everyone has something to say, to share, to tell someone how much they’ve loved the show, and share their own memory of the Big Yin as they head out into the night or, like me, stay for a glass of wine and the chance to recall some of the multitude of gems we’ve been presented with the night.

It’s a very simple idea – Gary McNair and his story gatherers have been the length and breadth [and width] of the country collecting stories about Billy Connolly, aka the Big Yin, and presents some of them to us.  This is not a chronological canter through his life, though the memories are arranged sort of chronologically, and if you didn’t know anything about his life you might find some of the references in the show pass you by. 

It’s not all a paean of praise – there are the people who don’t find him funny, and the people who don’t know who he is.  There are the people who claim to have known him, people who think they could be just as funny if they’d left the shipyard, people who think they sound just like him, people who say “well, he’s not written anything, he’s just used stuff we’ve told him” …

I don’t want to run through a ‘this person said this, this person said that’ – that would destroy the magic of the show.  What struck me most was the love that was palpable – a love joining those on stage with us in the audience as we united in a celebration of the larger-than-life personality who has impacted so many people’s lives in so many different ways. 

It’s obvious that Billy has had an enormous effect on all our lives – changing so much of the way we think and act, showing us that it’s possible simply to be oneself without apology or excuse, and without going on a crusade, encouraging us to live life to the full and enjoy everything that comes our way.

What is so amazing about this show is the perfection of the storytelling.  Gary McNair doesn’t just tell the anecdotes: he becomes each person who’s sharing their experience of the Big Yin.  Each person comes alive in front of us – voice, posture, mannerisms perfectly presented – it’s brilliant!   His movement around the stage is very impressive, and keeps our interest alive – a number of mikes at different levels facilitate the rapid changes of character.  It’s a very complex feat of choreography which adds another layer of interest to an already riveting show.  It’s an impressive feat of memory too, to get the huge variety of body language, facial expressions and vocal delivery so spot on.

Composers and musicians Jill O’Sullivan and Simon Liddell play a variety of instruments – I spotted two guitars, a violin, a melodeon and a strange accordion-like box whose proper name I don’t know.  There might have been more…  Their instrumental music and Jill’s haunting vocals provide a subtle background to all the characters who come to life on stage. 

Mention must also be made of the creative and production teams, whose work behind the scenes made the show the success it is.  And huge credit must be given to the People of Scotland who contributed their stories, and Robbie Gordon, Jacqueline Houston, Genevieve Jagger and Jamie Marie Leary who gathered all the stories – heartfelt thanks to you all!

As you’d expect, it’s a very funny show: ninety minutes of virtually non-stop laughter, with some serious moments along the way.  There’s no attempt to present Billy’s material or ‘do’ his sketches.  There is a patchwork kaleidoscope picture of a man seen through other people’s eyes – a love letter to Billy.   I’m so glad Gary McNair didn’t wait for Billy to die before giving us this show – allowing us to celebrate the Big Yin and the joy he’s brought to so many people’s lives.

What comes over most clearly is the enormous love people have for Billy Connolly, and how we would all love to be able to go to him and say “Dear Billy, thank you so much for all the joy you have given us – we love you so much”…

National Theatre of Scotland, Dear Billy: a Love Letter to the Big Yin, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Runs until Saturday 20th May for tickets go to: Traverse Theatre | Traverse Theatre

The production then tours across the length and breadth of Scotland.