Mary Woodward Review

Mona Pearson: Celestial Body, Traverse Theatre, Review:

Presented as part of A Play, A Pie & A Pint

*** (3 stars)

This is a play about dis-ease, discomfort, and deception.  

Laura has just moved into a new house, and as she unpacks her belongings she listens to the dreamy, vague tones of an astrologer talking her through several expensive minutes of preamble on her mobile before telling her nothing very much about what her immediate future holds.  Loud thumping music from next door temporarily distracts her before Laura dials another astrologer and the whole ‘message from an astral plane’ malarkey begins again.

In a gym, an enviably fit-looking Hamish is demonstrating the ease with which he can do warm-up exercises and weights.  An ill-at-ease and decidedly weedy Bruce tries to copy him without much success.  He asks Hamish for help but is brushed off several times before Hamish launches into a grand spiel about the importance of motivation, dedication, and effort.  Bruce bursts into tears and reveals that his wife is about to leave him and he is desperate to improve his physique so she won’t go.

Back at Laura’s, the astrologer’s still whispering in her ear while she busily bangs at something under the worktop.  The doorbell goes, and Hamish comes in to fix the washing machine.  A very one-sided and stilted conversation ensues – is Laura coming on to him?  Hamish even rejects a proffered custard tart, claiming to have an egg phobia.

At the gym, Bruce is demonstrating masterful ineptitude with a step.  When Hamish appears, Bruce is eager to engage his attention – is he coming on to Hamish?  Bruce suggests going for a drink after the gym; Hamish reluctantly agrees.

What is behind these awkward attempts to attract/ engage Hamish?  To whom will he respond?  Will the celestial bodies in the heavens turn out to be of greater importance than the “magnificent vessel” that Hamish feels his body to be?

I don’t want to give the game away: suffice it to say I didn’t see the end coming.  I’d spent some time wondering whether the awkward atmosphere came from the actors, the script, or the production – it seems it was intentional and well-done.  The dénouement was unexpected, and to some might seem mildly amusing – I found it ingenious but not very credible: perhaps a tighter script and a faster pacing might have given it more impact?  I also became confused with the conflicting ‘astral voices’ – they can’t all have been coming through Laura’s phone at the same time: if one was in her head, might it have been presented in some other way?

There were some splendid cakes [though I may avoid red velvet cake in future] and the three actors – Neshla Caplan [Laura], Ross Man [Bruce] and Samuel Pashby [Hamish] engaged our attention if not always our sympathies.  It was grand to be back in the Traverse, and the socially-distanced audience were keen to show their appreciation of being back at a live performance.  The pint was a welcome post-show reviver: the pie, however, was disappointing.

Morna Pearson: Celestial Body as part of A Play, A Pie & A Pint, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh Run ends Sat September 25th

Mary Woodward Review

Scottish Opera,Opera Highlights Review:

Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh

***** (5 stars)

It felt very strange to be sitting in a virtually full Brunton Theatre on Thursday night with people sitting all round me [mostly grey-haired but a fair sprinkling of quite young people, and one tiny who felt obliged to give us a running commentary throughout, despite her parents’ best efforts to keep her quiet].  Masks were in evidence everywhere, and I didn’t feel at all at risk – but nonetheless it was very strange to be so close to people I didn’t know, after eighteen plus months of keeping everyone quite literally at arm’s length.

Scottish Opera’s head of music, Derek Clark, has done another brilliant job of selecting pieces that suit the strengths of his singers and weaving what might seem a random assembly of opera excerpts into a narrative.  This season’s offering is a meditation on relationships, which may start with the euphoria of first love but are unlikely to stay that way for very long…

Our quartet of singers began with a joyful double wedding with properly coupled soprano/ tenor, and mezzo/ baritone singing Over the dark blue waters from Weber’s Oberon.  Mezzo Lea Shaw then serenaded the welcome shade of a tree with Ombra mai fu from Handel’s Serse, before baritone Alexey Gusov sang Don Giovanni’s Deh, vieni alla finestra – a wonderfully seductive aria delivered with such charisma that I’m surprised there wasn’t a fight to join him on stage…. Lea Shaw was suitably mesmerised, but encountered strong competition from soprano Meinir Wyn Roberts as Via resti servita from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro degenerated from polite hostility into a vicious cat fight.  Tenor Glen Cunningham then tried to defuse the tension with the serenade À la voix d’un amant fidèle from Bizet’s Jolie Fille de Perth, an opera whose charming music deserves to be better-known.

Meinir Wyn Roberts sparkled in Ah! Je veux vivre from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette.  Juliet rejoices in the pleasures she thinks will come from her engagement to Paris: each time doubts cross her mind, she retreats into her joyful dream.  Alexey Gusov and Lea Shaw looked back at past joys in O chudni slaskyi son! from Tchaikovsky’s little-known The Maid of Orleans; and then Glen Cunningham as Fenton serenaded his love Anne Page with Nicolai’s Horch, die Lerche Singt im Hain from Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, an equally delightful but less well-known alternative to Verdi’s Falstaff.

Lea Roberts was riddled with doubts in Leonora’s O mio Fernando from Donizetti’s La Favorita – she has been the king’s mistress but now is allowed to marry her true love, Fernando – but will he want her when he knows her history?  We returned to Bizet, as Meinir Wyn Roberts’ Micaela came to give Glen Cunningham’s Don Jose a kiss from his mother: he asked her to give him news of his mother back in their home village in Parle-moi de ma mere,seemingly oblivious to her baby bump, as he is already obsessed with the gypsy Carmen.  Alexey Gusov’s attempt to convince Lisa that they could be happy together – Ya vas lyublyu from Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades – was equally in vain, as she was engrossed in her hopeless love for Hermann, who was himself obsessed by his doomed quest for the secret of ‘the three cards’.

Meinir Wyn Roberts then demonstrated her ability to hoodwink the opposite sex with Norina’s Quel guardo, il cavaliere… so anch’io la virtù magica from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale – is the fact that she’s preparing to fool an old man so that she can marry her young true love excuse enough?  Tenor and baritone joined in serenading their loves with a duet from Julius Benedict’s The Lily of Killarne – The moon has raised her lamp above.  This prompted their partners to join them in celebrating their revitalised loves with the champagne song from Johan Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus, a fittingly effervescent piece with which to end the evening.

Our four singers had been warmly applauded throughout the evening, but this final applause was so loud, prolonged and joyful that it seemed as though they wouldn’t be allowed to give us their encore – a gentle quartet praying for sleep at midnight – a beautifully calm close to the feast of emotions we’d experienced in a beautifully-chosen programme showcasing the talents of four extremely talented young singers.  

Meinir Wyn Roberts is making her debut with Scottish Opera, and I look forward to seeing her in future productions.  Lea Shaw and Glen Cunningham are two of 2021-2’s Emerging Artists, so we’re sure to see them again in the coming year, while Alexey Gusov was a memorable Emerging Artist in 2018-19.  Glen Cunningham’s quiet restrained style was slightly overshadowed by the other three’s full-throated outpourings, but then his gentle lyrical voice wasn’t given such show-stopping numbers to sing.  The other three made the most of their opportunities to show what they could do, and I was particularly impressed with Lea Shaw’s versatility and dramatic ability.  Meinir Wyn Roberts’ bubbly personality matches her high-flying voice – but the highlight of the evening for me was Alexey Gusov’s full-throated Russian singing – deeply seductive in Italian and virtually irresistible when singing in his native language. 

All four singers gave us a delightful evening’s entertainment, all the more enjoyable for it’s being the first time for so many of us that we have been able to enjoy a pleasure we took for granted eighteen months ago.  The audiences for the rest of this tour are in for a major treat, and I’m sure the applause will be as warm and heartfelt as it was in Musselburgh last Thursday night.

Scottish Opera,Opera Highlights,Scottish Tour Continues

Mary Woodward Review

Edinburgh International Book Festival, The Prodigal Son

The Prodigal Son – Marilynne Robinson in conversation with James Runcie

**** (4 stars)

I came across Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead some years ago.  Gilead is a fictional town in Iowa, in which the reverend John Ames lives with his much younger wife, Lila, and their young son.  He knows his life is reaching its end and feels the need to tell his son about his family history and his relationship with the boy’s mother so that the boy will understand why he did what he did.   Another major character in the book is his fellow-minister Reverend Boughton, and his wayward son Jack causes John Ames much concern.  When I first read the book I was fascinated by the strong religious themes running through the book – not very common these days – and wanted to return to absorb them more fully.

Gilead is a stand-alone novel, but Marilynne Robinson has returned to the central characters three times in all, writing Home, Lila and, most recently, Jack.  Her conversation via zoom with James Runcie was fascinating as it ranged from the possible biblical parallels with her work, the nature of the original settlements in largely Abolitionist Iowa, why she continues to return to these same characters [they get in her head and in the way of her other thoughts – “if these characters feel alive to me, then I have to let them out”], why there are so many clergymen in her books, her understanding of grace, her strong sense of humour and why the humour in her books isn’t always spotted, the current political situation in the USA, why she writes [“I’ve never written a novel with a purpose: I make art”] and the current misappropriation of Christianity by the far right in the States.

I now have to get hold of the other three novels!  I’ve read Home, a long time ago, but not the other two at all, though I really longed to know more about Lila, an enigmatic woman in Gilead.  Listening to today’s conversation I realised how much I, as a Brit, failed to pick up on much of the historical and cultural context of the novels – another good reason for sitting down with them again.

James Runcie’s final question – “what gives you hope most?” was answered by a typically loving and honest “Just dealing with people, I guess”.

Another great hour at the book festival, and another three books to get hold of…

Mary Woodward

Mary Woodward Review

Edinburgh International Book Festival, Pirate Stew!

Pirate Stew! – Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell talking about their new book

***** (5 stars)

When I first came across Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book, hauntingly illustrated by Chris Riddell, I loved it so much I read and read and re-read it, and when I had to return it to the library I simply had to rush out and buy my own copy.

Graveyard Book was the first of many collaborations: Coraline, Fortunately the Milk, and Odd and the Frost Giants are all on my shelves too, and bring me enormous pleasure each time I read them.  Neil Gaiman’s imagination is superbly brought to life by Chris Riddell’s detailed, realistic and instantly recognisable style, even when he’s being the Observer’s political cartoonist.

Is it any wonder, then, that I jumped at the opportunity to spend an hour on a Sunday morning listening to these two friends talking about their work, the joy they have in working together, and what goes into the process of making a book together – through all of which their enormous respect for each other’s work shone out for all to see.  Neil described Chris as “one of the most in-demand illustrators on this planet”, while Chris relished the fact that Neil gives him full rein to make the characters his own, and will frequently say “you know, you could go even further…”

We were treated to a reading of Pirate Stew by Neil (in New Zealand) while Chris (in the UK) turned the pages of the book to show the wonderful illustrations.  We heard about the genesis of the germ of the idea – a few unconnected lines of words, carried about in Neil’s passport wallet and worked on at length while Neil was in the UK doing post-production work on Good Omens and missing his family in New Zealand, setting out to write a book for his young son, who would be five years old when it was ready for publication.  It’s a fabulously feisty story, in which doughnuts feature largely, and it was a thrill to have a fully dramatised reading – lucky Chris had the first complete version of the text read to him down the phone…

It was also a joy to watch Chris sketching as the two of them talked about working together and the differing effects of lockdown they each experienced.  And their advice to any youngsters who want to follow in their footsteps?  Draw, or write, every day, and don’t listen to anyone who tells you you can’t do it.

Sage advice.  Great book.  A delightful hour at the Book Festival.

Mary Woodward,

Run Ended but available to watch again on Demand.

Mary Woodward Review

Scottish Opera – pop-up Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore

***** (5 stars)

Sitting within my hula hoop in front of the grandstand, clad in wet weather gear and hoping the rain stays away, I stare at the trailer in which the cast will perform, glad that they at least are protected from the elements.  I’m looking forward to my first ever experience of Scottish Opera’s pop-up performances: I’ve wanted to see them for years, but they and I have never been able to be in the same place at the same time…

Looking around the audience, I see a fair number of grey heads, but there’s a fair sprinkling of younger people and children too, and I hope they get the same addiction to Gilbert and Sullivan that I had in my youth – we went to see the D’Oyley Carte company at the Savoy in London every year as our Christmas treat, and I’m very familiar with Iolanthe, the Mikado, and RuddigorePirates and Pinafore I know less well, so I’m looking forward to a rapid canter through both of them today.

A pirate arrives, carrying a cello in a case, followed by a similarly-clad guitarist: this must be the orchestra!  Another pirate and a young woman in a long white dress climb up into the trailer, with a young man not far behind – and there we have the cast of three: are they going to take on every part in this show? 

Audience participation is encouraged from the start as we learn to shout “Ahoy!” every time the cast shout “ahoy”, and to join in singing “aaarrrrrrr” whenever needed.  Our piratical storyteller launches into the plot – young Frederick is apprenticed by mistake not to a pilot, but a pirate, and on his twenty-first birthday leaves the Pirate King and sets off into the world.  Never having seen a woman before, he is quite agreeable to the idea of marrying his old nurse Ruth – until he sees the bevy of beauties that are the daughters of Major-General Stanley, and falls head over ears in love with Mabel.  Things get complicated when Frederick realises that, because his birthday is on February 29th, he is only five years old: meanwhile, the local police force arrive to try and capture the pirates, but eventually all is well and everyone [we hope] lives happily ever after…

As I’ve said, I don’t know the music of Pirates particularly well: I did recognise the policemen’s chorus with cat-like tread, and we had a snatch of Mabel’s poor wand’ring one right at the end, but it somehow felt as if the story was dominating the music,  [and in conversation with a friend later, who knew the piece well, was informed that the chorus play a very major part in the action – difficult with only two singers and occasional contributions from the narrator!].

Sadly, I’m unable to give the names of the extremely versatile soprano and baritone who swapped characters with consummate ease: there was no programme, and the Scottish Opera website gives three possible names for each singer for their tour of no less than five G&Ses.   The wonderfully lively and engaging storyteller must have been Katie Barnett [she couldn’t have been Allan Dunn, could she?].  The instrumental accompaniment was magnificent – I’d like to hear the whole show again just to see and hear exactly how it was done!  The cello must have been played by Laura Sergeant, but the guitarist could have been one of two men: so frustrating, as I’d love to be able to give credit where credit is due!

Happily, the rain held off for the whole performance and cast and audience both expressed their appreciation of being sung to by real live singers who were equally delighted to have a real live audience to perform to!

I returned in the much wetter afternoon for H.M.S Pinafore, and was delighted to accept the offer of a giant umbrella under which to shelter – the rain wasn’t stair rods, but it was persistent.  Thank goodness the musicians were fully sheltered and the cast were protected from the worst of the rain [did I notice the soprano clutching a furry hot water bottle to herself to mitigate the chill she must have been experiencing in her fairly flimsy long dress?]  The audience didn’t seem at all perturbed by the weather – someone had brought along a foil blanket – and had a lovely time laughing at the jokes and joining in with the songs, to the delight of the cast.

This time the theme was nautical, with lovely sailor costumes and a considerable number of hats…  Ralph Rackstraw is a lowly sailor aboard the HMS Pinafore, but he has the temerity to love Captain Corcoran’s daughter.  She is also being pursued by Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, ‘ruler of the Queen’s navee’, and in this age when social status really matters, Ralph’s prospects seem dim.  Buttercup, the bumboat woman who sells all sorts of extraordinary things to the ship’s crew, is equally hopelessly in love with the Captain… but in true G&S fashion, there’s a secret lurking – and when Buttercup reveals all, everyone is happily united – though the wicked Dick Dead-eye’s evil plan is, of course thwarted..

Our lovely narrator and cast once more got us engaged from the start: learning to react correctly to the various characters and joining in a lovely free-style Zumba session as we practised all our comments.  And then we were off!

This time there seemed to be a lot more music and a bit less narration, with many lovely melodies and a lot of humour.  I particularly appreciated the bit towards the end where our baritone had to juggle hats and be three, if not four, separate characters in rapid session – a delightful display of physical comedy. There was a wonderful cello obbligato during Captain Corcoran’s fair moon, to thee I sing, and many more opportunities to relish the singers’ versatility and the skill with which a whole orchestral score was played by two musicians.

Once again, the multi-talented cast were greeted with enthusiastic, if rather damp, applause, and it was time for everyone to pack up and go home.  As a life-long fan of well-done G&S I was extremely happy: I hope that the shows have also introduced younger people to the delights in their work – though I have to applaud Scottish Opera’s courage in ending the show with the chorus for he is an Englishman: is that a safe sentiment to applaud in these current troubled times???

I continue to be impressed with Scottish Opera’s determination to take opera to audiences who, for whatever reason, are unable to come to the big city to see a show.  The pop-up shows are a delight – and a tribute to the incredibly hard work of not only the musicians but also the backstage crew who make it all possible.  And now we have an autumn tour of Opera Highlights to look forward to: it’s coming to Musselburgh, to the Brunton, on Thursday September 16th – don’t miss it!

Mary Woodward,

Run ended but Tour Continues.