Mary Woodward Review

Whirlygig, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, Review

As Part of the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival

**** (4 stars)

A bare floor with strange outlined shapes on it, and in the centre a glowing red egg…

Someone’s singing dum da dum dum behind us: others copy what’s being sung, and four performers slowly move down the stairs to that floor with the drawings all over it.  One of them claps a rhythm, then jumps in time with it: the others try to copy, but one of them just can’t get it right at first – hoorah! At last she’s got it right too, and they go off, still singing.

One performer comes back in, carrying something – what is it? Now she’s trying to see will it fit into any of the outlines on the floor: what’s going on? More and more things are brought in, and now we can see musical instruments of all kinds – things to bang, to pluck, to blow, and finally the biggest thing you’ve ever seen – an enormous metal coiled thing with a huge horn at the end, which you have to climb into to play, and which makes wonderful deep rich notes: it’s a sousaphone.

Suddenly a cuckoo clock starts calling: everyone rushes round in a panic, getting themselves and their instruments ready.  They put their music straight on the music stands, and begin a fabulous tango – the giant metal sousaphone is joined by a ukulele, a saxophone, and another weird instrument – you blow down a tube, but that’s joined to a tiny piano-like long box: it’s a melodica!  This ‘formal’ music-making regularly punctuates the joyfully silly goings on – and no doubt gives the performers a moment of seated respite…

Rory Clark, Daniel Padden, Sita Pieraccini and Claire Willoughby are four multi-talented comedic musicians who have enormous fun playing around with rhythm and melody in delightfully complex ways.  They start with single sounds, adding more and more to create multi-layered music that never stands still – as indeed these four rarely do themselves.  Things are bashed, hit, plucked and blown – there’s a wonderful quartet for glass bottles, initially cleverly tuned by the amount of water in each, and dropping in pitch each time a player takes a swig from their bottle.  It’s not simply a matter of one person per instrument: at one point the four musicians are inextricably entwined around each other while playing [how??!!] more than four instruments between them: at another a wonderful sea shanty emerges from a swaying collection of instruments – you can almost taste the sea spray.

There’s a constant change of rhythm and tempo, and the audience is kept well engaged – at one point the musicians come round pointing out things about us – pink trainers, sparkly bag – and playing snatches of tune for each one: when they find TEACHER all four join to serenade her, with an extra fancy bit for her GLASSES…  At one point the musicians tear up their sheet music – rhythmically; at another they try to play from music which has holes in it.  When they yet again reassemble to play their tango and realise they have torn up the music for it, they are at first non-plussed – but then realise the joy of improvising on their instruments.  An exuberant jam session ends this whirligig performance.

The most telling accolade for Rory, Daniel, Sita and Claire came after the loud and enthusiastic applause at their final bows, when one of the teachers announced that his classes unable to stay on for the Q&A session as the buses were waiting to ship them back to school.  A heartfelt groan issued from so many throats it was obvious everyone had been having such a splendid time they simply didn’t want to leave the theatre.

For those of us who stayed, both the questions and the answers were fascinating.  We learned about the fly that made an appearance; how hard it is to sing when three other people are piled on top of you; that once you’ve learned to play one instrument, it’s much easier to pick up other ones – and that you don’t have to be brilliant at them all to be a performer.  Rory was asked how heavy the sousaphone is, and Daniel was congratulated for being in his first show with the group.  [He also needs huge applause for being the creator and co-director!].  Each player told us their favourite instrument, and favourite part of the show, and talked about how long it took to make the show: I hope all this inspired many kids to decide that music-making is going to be a major part of their lives from now on.

Credit must be given to the ‘backstage workers’ too.  Gill Robertson, Co-director and Artistic Director of Catherine Wheels; Lauren Desjardins, Stage Manager; Fran French, Assistant Stage Manager; Katherina Radeva, Set Designer; Alison Brown, Costume Designer and Michael Sherin, Movement Director have created a wonderfully silly exploration of the fun you can have making music with other people.  Our four musicians showed that you don’t have to be a virtuoso to take part – some of the most fun was had with simple things you just hit.

Let your hair down, let loose your imagination, and celebrate your inner child with Whirlygig!

Whirlygig, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh runs until 13th May Tickets and more information available at www.imaginate.org.uk

Mary Woodward Review

I am Tiger, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Review

A Perth Theatre production commissioned by Imaginate as part of the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival.

***** (5 stars)

Stunning, amazing, outstanding, brilliant, wonderful, memorable, gripping, breathtaking…words fail me when I try to describe this work: superlatives aren’t enough, and I wish I had a sixth star to award.

Laura is alone in her attic [reached only by a ladder], staring at the box her parents have given her.

The box moves.

Inside the box there is a tiger.

A real tiger.  Okay, an as yet small tiger, but really truly a tiger, stripes, teeth, tail and all.

Why have her parents bought her a tiger?  Isn’t it illegal to keep one as a pet?

Little-know facts about tigers – alone among the big cats, they love water, they love swimming, but they can’t stand rain.  And there are now more tigers kept as pets than live in the wild.

Laura is at a family counselling session – alone.  Again.  The counsellor shows her first-ever sign of interest or animation when told about the tiger: normally she simply displays the appropriate professional reactions to anything Laura says.  Mum and Dad aren’t here – and they don’t speak to me: Dad’s become a DIY robot, and Mum just cries. 

Danny always wanted a pet, but he’s allergic.  If he were here, the tiger would be someone else’s problem, not mine.  But he’s not here.  And that’s the whole point of it: he’s not here, and no-one ever says his name or talks about him.  One day he was here, and the next gone.  No note, no explanation.  Why?

I am Tiger is an exploration of what it feels like to try to keep on living, try to make sense of life after a family member has committed suicide.  Chloe-Ann Tylor gives a searingly intense performance as Laura, pacing and leaping around the set like the tiger she is trying to live with but which grows and grows until it spirals out of control.  It’s not all gloom and doom – there are brilliant flashes of wit and humour, and a totally brilliant parrot joke to close the show and bring us back to the here and now.

Oliver Emanuel has produced a deeply moving piece of work, inspired by the fact that suicide is the prime killer of men under forty.  He also tells us a lot about tigers, and clearly shows how keeping a tiger as a pet is costly in more ways than one might imagine.  Director Lu Kemp, designer Jamie Vartan, lighting designer Simon Wilkinson and composer/ sound designer Danny Krass have collaborated to create a stunning production which surely has to have more than the five performances scheduled in this festival.  The final performance is on Wednesday, so get a ticket now!

This year’s festival, the first to put on live performances for a live audience in three years, celebrates the sheer joy of people coming together again while investigating the many challenges for children [and adults too!] of the lockdown years – isolation, lack of touch and human connection, mental health, peer pressure, and how to make sense of confusing and conflicted situations.  Certainly last night’s audience were full of joy at coming together – for some of them the first time in three years that they’d been in such a gathering, or been to a live performance – and were loud and generous with their applause for I am Tiger.

There are twelve different shows in this year’s festival, six of them Scottish, with a target audience of newborns – sixteen-year-olds, and with an eclectic mix of genres and performance styles.  Don’t miss out on the fun! 

I am Tiger, runs until 11th May, for Tickets and more information go to: www.imaginate.org.uk

Mary Woodward Review

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Review:

***** (5 stars)

Author Kate Pankhurst didn’t discover she was related to the famous suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst until she was in her twenties.  The heroine of this show, Jade, feels she is invisible: no-one ever listens to what she has to say – indeed, they rarely give her a chance to speak.  When her school goes on a trip to a museum, she isn’t really very surprised to find that everyone’s gone on without her, and she’s all alone – no-one has noticed she’s missing.  She’s always been good, polite, and helpful but that’s never enough: she wonders whether being naughty would get her noticed at all.

Suddenly a door behind her lights up, and to her astonishment a woman in a green flying suit appears, saying I heard you were lost so I came to find you – and Jade’s adventure begins.  The aviator is Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and then the Pacific Oceans.  She is joined by Trudy – Gertrude Ederle, who was the first woman to swim the English Channel [incidentally doing it faster than the five men who’d managed the feat previously] – and Sacagawea, a native American Indian who guided explorers Lewis and Clark across the Rocky mountains in the west of America, translating for them and saving their lives on many occasions.

Emmeline Pankhurst joins the trio of women and Jade, who knows how effective she was in making heard the previously ignored voices of women demanding to be able to vote, asks the four women How do you get people to listen?  There have already been some great musical numbers underlining the importance of finding out who you really are, and what you’re capable of, but the ensuing ensemble DEEDS NOT WORDS gets the whole audience [and Jade] really buzzing.  Previous songs have been loudly applauded: the cheers for this one nearly blew the roof off!

The women leave, and Jade is left wondering what she really wants.  Jane Austen appears, but Jade doesn’t have a clue who she is until – oh, you wrote that film with Colin Firth in it – to which Jane responds does anyone still read nowadays?  The two are joined by artist Frida Kahlo, dressed in a riot of colour and lighting up the stage.  Her training as a doctor ended when she was involved in a traffic accident, and she tells Jade Life doesn’t always fit together tidily – sometimes you have to colour outside the lines.   She urges Jade to follow her example: she shows how she sees the world – this is my fantasy, I paint my own reality – but Jade isn’t so sure – I’m just no good at anything…

Jade feels she needs a superhero to fix her problems – and she gets not one, but four!  Most appropriately for Scotland, we meet the four Marys – Mary Anning, Mary Seacole and Marie Curie, along with Agent Fifi [whose real name turns out to be Mary, too].  Mary Anning was a fossil collector and palaeontologist whose discoveries in the cliffs at Lyme Regis in Dorset contributed to major changes in scientific thinking about prehistory and life on earth – though this was not widely acknowledged in her lifetime.  Mary Seacole, originally from Jamaica, went to the Crimea and, when ignored by the War Office, set up her own hospital and nursed wounded soldiers on both sides of the conflict. 

Marie Curie was born in Poland and studied in France: she discovered two new elements – polonium and radium – and championed the use of radium in medicine. Initially disregarded as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for physics simply because she was a woman, she is the only person to have received Nobel prizes in two separate disciplines – physics and chemistry.  Agent Fifi [real name Marie Christine Chilver] studied languages in Paris during WW2.  When Germany invaded France she was sent to a German prison camp but escaped: she was recruited as a secret agent and used her skills and knowledge to test and train other spies.

These four Marys tell Jade there is no such thing as an ordinary woman and inspire Jade to declare I can do anything; to which they respond so what are you going to do, Jade?  But Jade still really doesn’t know… Rosa Parks enters – Jade is overwhelmed to meet her heroine, about whom she knows so much.  Rosa tells Jade that her protest against segregation came about because she was tired of giving in, saying safe doesn’t change the world, does it?  To Jade’s protestation that she doesn’t know what she really wants, or who she is, Rosa responds you are PHENOMENAL, you will change the world just by living in it: if you stand up for what you believe in, it will be worthwhile.  Anne Frank, who now appears, didn’t live to see the world change – she died with most of her family in German prison camps – but Rosa tells Jade that Anne dreamed about the world she wanted, and her father, who survived, published her diary, and her dreams spread all round the world.  A better world for everyone begins with better dreams: dream of a world where everyone is welcome, everyone is free: not every story has a happy ending, but the work goes on.  

The final number celebrates all the fantastically great women who changed the world.  We are reminded that no-one changes the world all by themselves – we are all a part of something much bigger, and that we’ll never be alone – we have the inspiring example of all the sisters who have gone before us.  It’s a rousing number which has the largely young, female audience cheering and clapping along, applauding loudly at the final curtain calls, and going out into the ‘normal’ world in a buzz of conversation which I devoutly hope signals an awakening to the limitless possibilities that lie before them.

The show is inspiring, fast-moving and full of energy.  It was only during the closing number that I finally realised all these fantastic women are played by four extremely talented actresses – Renée Lamb, Kirstie Skivington, Christina Modestou and Jade Kennedy – while Jade herself was played by the amazing Kudzai Mangombe.  The songs by Miranda Cooper are catchy, apposite, and memorable, with musical director Audra Cramer on keyboards, Rhiannon Hopkins on keys and drums and Chloe Rianna on drums all perched in boxes up above the action. 

Director Amy Hodge has produced a magnificent show – brightly-coloured, superbly lit, and fizzing with energy – it’s a real treat, not to be missed.  I only wish something like this had existed when I was young and being indoctrinated into the “women are the lesser species” mentality that prevailed – my life might have been a whole lot different.   

Change the world: bring your sons, bring your daughters, your parents and grandparents to the show and let them see the vast range of possibilities that lie just waiting to be explored!

Mary Woodward

 Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Runs until Saturday 30thApril, For tickets go to: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/fantastically-great-women-who-changed-the-world

Mary Woodward Review

Northern Ballet The Great Gatsby, Festival Theatre Edinburgh, Review

**** (4 stars)

Well, what a contrast to last week’s Scottish Ballet Scandal at Mayerling – very different in tone, colour, music, mood and style, and a very welcome visit from Northern Ballet whom I used to see regularly when I lived in Nottingham.

I read Scott Fitzgerald’s novel many years ago, but couldn’t remember anything much about it – which was a pity, as I learned afterwards that the ballet closely follows the novel’s plot.  A quick glance at the synopsis beforehand wasn’t enough to follow the twists and turns of the plot, but this didn’t really hamper my enjoyment of the show [and a second reading in the interval shed more light on what was going on].

Jay Gatsby yearns for his childhood sweetheart, Daisy, but she is married to Tom Buchanan, with whom she has a daughter.  Daisy introduces her cousin, Nick Carraway, to her best girlfriend, golf champion Jordan Baker.  Nick senses that the Buchanan’s relationship is not all sweetness and light: we then learn that Tom is having an affair with Myrtle Wilson, wife of garage owner George.  In a series of flashbacks we see the start of the relationship between Young Daisy and Young Gatsby, its interruption by the Great War, and Gatsby’s increasing involvement in the criminal underworld, from which he has derived his current wealth.  Tensions mount between the three couples, and it ends in tragedy.

The score, using the music of the extraordinarily versatile Richard Rodney Bennett – composer of film music, jazz, symphonies, opera, choral and ensemble works – underpinned the fluctuating moods of the piece: swooningly romantic, nostalgic, exhilarating and dramatic.  Bennett was very happy to give former music director John Pryce-Jones and retiring artistic director David Nixon carte blanche to use whatever they pleased of his work, and the resulting collaboration meshed seamlessly with the action on stage.  I was particularly struck by the use of the fourth movement of Bennett’s concerto for percussion as the backdrop for the brittle scene in which Gatsby and Tom Buchanan challenge each other over “who gets Daisy”  while Daisy seems conflicted and uncertain about what and whom she wants.  Bennett died before the ballet was completed, so he never heard the final score – but eerily his presence was with us in recordings of him singing when the midnight choo choo leaves for Alabam’ and the final number  I never went away.

The production was full of light and shade, summery pastel costume colours contrasting with darker, glittery, nightclub ones, and the light shifting from glinting off the water surrounding Long Island to the darkness of Gatsby’s shady dealings and the hectic gaiety of nightclubs and parties.  Classical ballet sequences, modern dance sections, and frenetic twenties’ dancing – a superb Charleston sequence, jazz dancing and a mesmerising tango – created a kaleidoscopic mixture of styles, emotions and energies.   There were times when ‘dance’ took over from storytelling – but that’s the nature of most ballet, and what most ballet fans go for.

The thing I found hardest was working out who was who: I now realise I had confused the [both dark-haired] dancers playing Daisy and Myrtle at one point – no wonder I found the plot hard to follow!  The corps were also less easy to tell apart: unlike Scottish Ballet’s corps, they were pretty uniform in size and build.  The principals were, of course, excellent.  Riku Ito was a very self-contained Gatsby, hiding his feelings under a veneer of sophistication; Ashley Dixon’s Tom a thug, despite his ‘old money’.  Saeka Shirai was the conflicted Daisy – unwilling to rock the boat but melting when she remembered her former love for Gatsby, while Kevin Poeung [Nick] and Alessandra Bramante [Jordan] tried unsuccessfully to pour oil on the troubled emotional waters.  Harris Beattie was outstanding as the suspicious, cuckolded George Wilson and Rachael Gillespie sparkled as his unfaithful wife Myrtle.  Julie Nunès and Filippo Di Vilio were enchanting as Young Gatsby and Young Daisy, and Alicia O’Sullivan stole the show and the curtain calls as Daisy and Tom’s young daughter Pammy.

The Great Gatsby was a thoroughly enjoyable ballet, greatly appreciated by Thursday’s matinée audience, for some of whom it was their first visit in two years to a live performance.  Northern Ballet’s Sinfonia, conducted by Philip Ellis, received a rousing cheer and well-deserved thunderous applause.  Gatsby didn’t reach [for me] the heights of emotional and dramatic intensity that I felt at the scandal at Mayerling, but it was a hugely entertaining piece that I’m really glad to have seen.

Mary Woodward 

Northern Ballet The Great Gatsby, Festival Theatre Edinburgh, Runs until Saturday 23rd April for tickets go tohttps://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/nb-the-great-gatsby

Mary Woodward Review

The scandal at Mayerling, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Review

Scottish Ballet

***** (5 stars)

Well, this is certainly not your ‘usual’ classical ballet – the image of sticky-out tutus and ballerinas on one leg being twirled around by discreet but athletic young men who stay in the background is hard to shake off!  And indeed, I thoroughly enjoyed Scottish Ballet’s Nutcracker last December – the perfect way to celebrate being alive and back together again: shame the reintroduction of covid restrictions prevented the show touring in January.

Now, however, Scottish Ballet are back, and back with the biggest possible bang you could imagine – an enthralling exploration of the slowly unravelling mind of crown Prince Rudolf, eldest son of Emperor Franz-Josef and his Empress Elizabeth, who has grown up in the stultifying atmosphere at court, never knowing love or affection from his parents.  He seeks thrills and excitement in drink, drugs, and women – it doesn’t seem to matter to him whether they are noble or common, and he certainly isn’t monogamous.  He has friends among the Hungarian officers but the closest person to him seems to be Bratfisch, the coachman who drives him to his assignations and hangs around to take him home again.  

The ballet opens with a funeral.  A coffin is slowly lowered into the ground, a priest reads some prayers – but there isn’t a grieving crowd, just a pair of men with umbrellas and someone lurking on the sidelines: whose funeral is this?

Flashback some years to the grand party at the Hofburg palace in Vienna to celebrate the marriage of the prince to Stephanie, a young princess who is thrilled by her situation and determined to be a good queen-in-waiting.  She can’t understand why the prince is flirting so violently with her younger sister, Louise, or why he takes so much interest in Countess Larisch and her daughter Mary Vetsera whom she presents to the prince.  Rudolf is summoned by his mother to explain himself, but his anguished behaviour is not met with any sympathy – she recoils from this attempts to reach out to her.  On their wedding night princess Stephanie is shocked and then terrified by the prince’s wild behaviour, his obsession with a skull, his brandishing of a revolver, and his ultimate rape of her.

The prince’s irrational behaviour continues – he drinks with his friends, who try but fail to calm him down; he takes his bride to a tavern where she is shocked by the behaviour of the brothel workers.  Rudolf abandons her as he pursues Mitzi Kaspar, his regular mistress and becomes embroiled in the machinations of some Hungarian nationalists.  Countess Larisch continues to press him into a relationship with Mary Vetsera while encouraging her daughter’s romantic dreams with assurances that they are to be together.  The prince’s mother interrupts a meeting between the prince and Countess Larisch, but departs before he is joined by Mary Vetsera – their relationship inflames their joint obsession with death, and they make a suicide pact.  

At his hunting lodge at Mayerling, Rudolf is drinking with his friends, but rapidly sends them away.  Bratfisch enters with Mary Vetsera and attempts to obey his master’s order to entertain them, but leaves when he realises he is invisible to them.  Rudolf, now spiralling out of control, is precipitated into the morphine-fuelled carrying out of his suicide pact with Mary, shooting first her and then himself.

We return to the funeral with which the ballet began:  now we know that it is Mary Vetsera who is being buried in secret, with Bratfisch the only grieving witness to this attempt to hush up the scandal at Mayerling,

In this ballet it’s the man who takes the starring role.  Rudolf is rarely off stage, and in this technically demanding role has pas de deux with many different women, all of whom dance in different styles which reflect their feelings – the terrified bride, the flattered sister, the scheming older mistress, his regular ‘common’ mistress, the infatuated young Mary Vetsera.  Evan Loudon expertly blended a sensitive attention to each of his partners with a chilling indifference to them all while himself dancing magnificently.  His solo curtain call gave the audience the opportunity to salute his dramatic performance, his amazing athleticism and his supreme technical skill.

Constance Devernay was brilliant as the initially proud and excited Princess Stephanie who rapidly unravels in terror at her new husband’s irrational behaviour on their wedding night.  Sophie Martin was excellent as the young, naïve girl responding excitedly to Rudolf’s passion and rapidly joining, and even exceeding Rudolf in his obsession with death.  All the other female roles were equally striking in their individuality; the four Hungarian officers tried but failed to control their prince’s erratic behaviour while taking part in some memorable all-male quintets.  Bruno Macchiardi’s wonderful comic abilities provided the only lighter moments in a pretty heavy piece, which never oppressed but didn’t shrink from portraying the blacker side of royal life.

Martin Yates, guest conductor of Scottish Ballet’s orchestra, was also responsible for the re-orchestration of the score for Kenneth MacMillan’s original ballet to meet the need for a reduced, touring-sized, orchestra.  The music of Franz Liszt was a perfect match for the action on stage, with some ‘ooh I know this bit’ moments and a continuously-flowing accompaniment to the drama.   MacMillan’s original large-scale ballet was re-worked by Christopher Hampson and Gary Harris, with the full approval of his widow Deborah, to create a production that could be taken on tour and also use the whole company’s talents.  It’s a visual feast, with magnificent costumes and atmospheric lighting, played against very simple backdrops which rapidly reflect the changes of scene.

Yet again Scottish Ballet have come up with something memorable, which I hope won’t disappear from their repertoire but be presented to us more than once.  Do try to get to see it if you can: and if not, look forward to another new production – their take on the classic Coppelia, which will first see the light of day in this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.

Mary Woodward

Scottish Ballet Presents, The scandal at Mayerling, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Run Ended, Scottish Tour Continues.