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

Mary Woodward Review

Scottish Opera, Mozart The Magic Flute, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Review

Mozart The Magic Flute, Scottish Opera

***** 5 Stars

Magic Flute was composed during the last year of Mozart’s life, at the request of his friend Schikaneder, the actor-director of the Theater auf der Wieden in Vienna.  It was a howling success at its first performance in 1791, and has remained so ever since: tonight’s performance continued the tradition, with the audience in almost non-stop tears of laughter and sorrow.

Think pantomime with stirring, heart-wrenching, gleeful and solemn, moving music in a world where nothing is what it seems as first to be: add a mixture of Victorian engineering endeavour and music-hall rumbustiousness and a cast who throw their heart and soul into the performance, and you have the recipe for an evening of unparalleled entertainment which keeps getting better and better till the final curtain.

The story contrasts the aspirations and fate of two men – prince Tamino, his elegant cream jacket and noble bearing signifying his higher calling, and the very much lowlier Papageno, dressed in working-men’s clothing and focussed almost entirely on his stomach and his search for a sweetheart.  Their paths cross and, together and separately, they pursue their quest to rescue the fair Pamina, daughter of the terrifying Queen of the Night, who is held prisoner by the evil magician Sarastro.  On the way they encounter the Queen, her three Ladies, her servant Monostatos, three Boys, and the inhabitants of Sarastro’s temple: Tamino is given the magic flute while Papageno gets a set of magic bells, and the men learn that all is not what it seems – don’t believe everything you are told, especially [in this case] if you’re told it by scary-looking women in sparkly dresses!

The overture, bubbling with excitement, set the tone for everything that followed.  The Showman emerged, spotted an elegant gentleman in the stage box and invited him, and us, through the door into the Temple of Mysteries which declaimed “The Secret of Life is Here”.  Together we entered a magical world which at first seemed to be a crowded fairground or scientific exhibition and later became a temple, a prison, a rocky waste, and the arena from whose stands Sarastro’s followers could watch Tamino’s progress towards enlightenment and Papageno’s progress towards a more earthy satisfaction.

The music is incomparable – Tamino’s rapture at the sight of Pamina’s picture, the Queen of the Night’s chillingly stratospheric showstoppers, Pamina’s heart-wrenching grief at what she thinks is Tamino’s abandonment of her, Sarastro’s solemn wisdom and Papageno’s every note held the audience entranced.  Kit Hesketh-Harvey’s translation kept us in stitches, while subtle and brilliant details added sparkle to an already gleaming production – my particular favourites were the ingenious presentation of the wild beasts that threaten the two men and are pacified by the flute’s music and the transformation of Monostatos’ henchmen into handkerchief-waving Morris dancers…  The costumes ranged from the glittering, starry frocks of the Queen and her Ladies through Victorian top-hatted policeman to downright working-class miners: I’m not sure who the nurses were meant to be nursing – and why, oh why, did Pamina have to be in a nightie-like, but corseted, shabby white frock?

And oh, the singing!  Not only was it superb throughout, but launched into without preparation – Flute’s dialogue is mostly spoken, and the arias in general have extremely short, almost non-existent introductions.  The most outstanding instance is Pamina’s lament ach, ich fuhl’s which was tonight heard in that intense silence that means the entire audience is transported out of themselves and into the singer’s world.  This was Gemma Summerfield’s Scottish Opera début – I devoutly hope she will return to them very soon.  Peter Gijsbertsen’s Tamino doesn’t have the same depth and impact as Pamina, but I loved his voice and the ease with which he sang.

Julia Sitkovetsky is another one to watch out for – she navigated the Queen of the Night’s high-lying arias with consummate ease and the audience was duly appreciative.  Dingle Yandell made a noble Sarastro, with impressive bass notes – my quarrel with him is his insistence that man is the higher being, and woman merely subservient: I’m not sure that he was totally convinced by his final assertion that “hypocrisy’s shattered and truth wins the fight”…

The three Ladies [Jeni Bern, Bethan Langford and Sioned Gwen Davies] did a wonderful job, protecting Tamino from the monster and admonishing Papageno’s greed while endeavouring to advance their Queen’s Evil Plan: the three Boys had a hard task – mainly suspended in mid-air at the back of the stage, their voices mostly failed to reach us with any clarity: they did better when allowed to stand on the stage and move forwards.  Sofia Troncoso’s Papagena spent much of her time on stage looking like a cross between Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and “like an egg with legs”: when she finally emerged from her cocoon she was both a glorious sight and a joy to hear as she shared Papageno’s joy in the prospect of their ever-increasing brood of chicks.

The star of the show was undoubtedly Papageno.  Richard Burkhard made the most of the role Mozart had written for his friend Schikaneder, engaging with us from the start, keeping us in fits of laughter, and almost incidentally tossing off his fabulous arias and duets as if they were the simplest thing in the world.  Special credit has to go to the wonderful automaton which played his magic bells: a triumph of engineering which in itself is worth the price of a ticket.

It was a glorious evening’s entertainment, with something for everyone – just as Mozart had intended in 1791.  Don’t miss it!

 Scottish Opera Presents, Mozart The Magic Flute,Edinburgh Festival Theatre  Runs until 15th June, production visits London and Belfast, for tickets go to:



Mary Woodward Review

The Invisible Man,Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Review:

The Invisible Man, International Children’s Festival

**** (4 stars)

A man with black sparkly leggings, a head lamp and a headset is wandering around the stage and up and down the stairs each side of the audience, checking his watch – but hang on, he’s not wearing a watch..??! He spots that the drape on one of the flats is partly fallen, and goes off to fetch a ladder – but we can’t see the ladder when he brings it on stage, though we hear the clang when it hits one of the metal rods holding up the flats.  He climbs up behind the flat and fixes the drape.  He spots some rubbish on the floor and comes to sweep it up – the broom is invisible, but the rubbish is swept away…

A door at the back of the stage opens and closes and a spotlit circle travels across the floor towards the piano. The piano stool moves out, the cushion flattens, the stool moves back, the lid opens and the piano starts to play: we can see the keys move, but who is playing?  The techie introduces himself as Johan – standing in for René who is sick – and starts talking to “Rob” – who responds when he’s asked to do a sound test, but is obviously more interested in making loud noises than in being co-operative!  A pierrot, Nimüe, comes in – Johan can see her, and they try to talk, but Rob is playing loudly and they can’t hear each other.

They shout at Rob to stop – Johan and Nimüe are worried because although it’s time for the show to start they can’t see an audience: when they search the rest of the theatre, even upstairs the whole place is deserted. Rob, however, seems to know that we are there, and when he is alone asks us to make ourselves visible, which we do – but we have to disappear ourselves again as soon as anyone else comes on stage.   Marijn crawls on stage, but Johan and Nimüe can’t see him even when he’s crawling right by him – when Johan can see Marijn, Nimüe disappears…

It’s a wonderfully funny and silly show. René van‘t Hof, Marijn Brussaard and Nimüe Walraven challenge our perceptions of reality: we can clearly ‘see’ things that aren’t there – Johan’s watch, Nimüe’s phone – while they can’t see us, or the things and people that we can clearly see.  They have the audience laughing throughout as they chase each other round the stage [at one point a wee one was almost hysterical with laughter].  White-sheeted ‘ghosts’ appear and create further mayhem when the disappointed, audience-less actors try to strike the set.  Children in the audience, visible only to Rob, are drawn in to the show – one brave girl is sent to find Rob’s crisps, while a group of five are directed to set up a huge tv screen on which we see the reverse of what we see live in front of us – the visible become invisible, and vice versa – on the screen which also shows us a screen on which there is a screen, and the piano plays on …

The Invisible Man is a delight! If you revel in the absurd, want to try to puzzle out how it’s all done, want to see incredible mime, or just want a good laugh, head down to the Traverse this weekend and enjoy Theater Artemis’s contribution to the International Children’s Festival.  It’s aimed at four-year-olds and over but will appeal to older children and adults too.  The audience loved it, and I had a ball!

The Invisible Man, International Children’s Festival, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh run ends 2 June,  for tickets go to:

Mary Woodward Review

Emil and the Detectives, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Review

Emil and the Detectives part of the International Children’s Festival

**** (4 stars)

The original story by Erich Kästner was published in 1929 but still has a charm and immediacy today. Emil lives with his mother; his father is dead, and his mother works all hours to make sure Emil has all he needs.  The boy is a loner, living in a small town [which has “everything I need”] and keeping himself to himself – he and his mother have each other, who else could they need?

Emil’s mother has worked hard enough that she can send some money to her mother, who is going to look after Emil in the school holidays while his mother works.  For the first time Emil is to travel by himself, with the money safely in the inside pocket of his jacket.  When he gets into the train, he sees a stranger sitting in the compartment, hiding behind a newspaper. The man keeps peering at Emil, and acting rather strangely, making bizarre remarks and offering him tea. For extra safety the boy pins the money into his pocket with the badge which belonged to his father and which his mother gives him to keep him safe on his journey.

Emil falls asleep on the train: when he wakes, he finds that both the stranger and the money are gone…  He sees the Man in the Bowler Hat in the station, and follows him – but how is Emil to recover his money?  While he is pondering this he is surprised by Gustav, another young boy, who offers to help.  Initially Emil is most reluctant – he is completely unused to co-operating with anyone [the kids at school have obviously not been kind].  Eventually, however, he realises he needs help, and with Gustav and his gang of friends an intelligence network is set up which spans the city. Emil follows Bowler Hat Man and confronts him when, alarmed by all the children who are suddenly everywhere and seem to be looking at him in a funny way, the man attempts to deposit the stolen money in a bank.  Will Emil get his money back, or will the grown-up’s story be believed rather than Emil’s?

Australian company Slingsby’s who is an excellently-played two-hander with Elizabeth Hay being plucky but naive Emil and Tim Overton playing everyone else, at one point doubling as Bowler Hat Man in one taxi and the driver of the one in which Emil was pursuing him, swapping hats and facial expressions with wonderful dexterity.

The set design was extremely clever. The train compartment came on as a huge box on wheels, and rotated to display the compartment with a wonderful assortment of doors behind which were concealed not only the various elements of a tea set but also the toilet to which Emil escaped to flush away his unwanted tea, while the passing scenery, Emil’s surreal dreams, and the crowds at the city station all passed before our eyes as the journey progressed.

Clever use of tiny puppets, shadow-play and models, including a small working model railway, produced the cityscape through which Emil pursued the thief – I found it fascinating, but the young girl beside me found it boring.  The audience was brought into the action at various points as Gustav’s gang worked out the details of their operation: at one point they were asked to use a phone with a dial – which, co-operatively, they managed [though it’s doubtful whether they’d ever seen one before].  The bank had handy drop-down shelves to provide the thief with paying-in slips – I wonder if the audience had any idea what these were or what their function was?  Gustav’s gang, and the crowd that assembled for the final scene, were very imaginatively created, and the soundtrack that accompanied the silent movie-like parts of the show was subtle and effective.

Elizabeth Hay and Tim Overton were excellent both in the drama and in engaging with, and engaging, the audience.  There were some scary bits, some funny bits, and a lot of exciting bits, and I think the audience of mainly 8 and 9-year old primary school kids had a good time: I know I did!

Emil and the Detectives part of the International Children’s Festival, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh run ended, UK Tour continues.

Mary Woodward Review

Burn the Floor Festival Theatre, Edinburgh , Review

Kevin Clifton in Burn the Floor

**** (4 stars)

Burn the Floor had [probably] the unlikeliest beginning a dance show has ever had – at one of Elton John’s birthday parties. He wanted some ballroom dancers to entertain him: so a show was devised which was the seed from which Burn the Floor grew into a dance phenomenon which has toured the world, had an eight-month residence on Broadway, and now finally is undertaking its first-ever UK tour – first ever, because the powers that be decided the UK audience would be too staid and reserved to appreciate this “high energy, high octane” show.

Well, the powers that be were proved wrong, in spades: the audience screamed, shouted, whistled, stamped and generally went berserk throughout the evening – with the sole exception of yours truly who sat with my fingers in my ears because the live music was at pain level… Two guitarists, two percussionists, and two singers – all superb musicians – provided the accompaniment and also took part in the show, while a team of impressively talented dancers added their skills to the front line partnership of Strictly’s Kevin From Grimsby and new boys Graziano di Prima and Johannes Radebe.

Nearly-shattered eardrums apart, it was a good show – but I found myself longing for the elegance and subtlety of Scottish Ballet’s recent Dextera, Sophie Laplane’s extraordinary investigation of the human body and its expressiveness and flexibility. Burn the Floor was full of emotion and energy, but it seemed largely one-dimensional, with all the men displaying their machismo, and all the women selling their bodies for all they were worth.  Energy, yes; power, yes; talent, yes; commitment, yes – but to what?  There was a continual undercurrent of violence underlined by the generally skimpy red and black costumes the girls wore – any flowing skirts were generally ripped off pretty quickly – while the men stamped, postured and strutted, undulated their hips and generally threw the girls about.  True, there were occasions on which the girls gave as good as they got: but the few moments of gentleness, like the opening of Quando, quando, quando, were rapidly lost as the tempo and volume were once more ramped up to fever pitch.  The notable exception to all this was the second half number for Graziano and his new fiancée Giada, in which they expressed the pain of living a life that so frequently keeps them apart.

The show is billed as ‘non-stop’ energy – but there were a fair number of lengthy breaks in which one or other and occasionally all three of the ‘front men’ came onstage and talked to us. Kevin, the reigning Strictly champion, proudly brought out the glitterball trophy, and the audience went wild as he talked about his six years with the show and, finally, his win.  Graziano told us of his relationship with Giada, and Johannes of how with his mama’s help he followed his dream of becoming a dancer.  All three waxed eloquent on the subjects of Strictly and the Burn the Floor family, of which they are proud and happy to be a part.

I went to this show in a spirit of enquiry, wondering what it’s like to see Strictly dancers off-screen.  They are extremely talented, very personable, and engage excellently with their audience – who adore them.  This show isn’t my cup of tea – too loud, not enough contrast, and pretty monothematic: but the rest of the audience went wild throughout, and leapt to their feet during the final number – I could feel the balcony floor shaking! – before leaving the theatre in a buzz of excited conversation.

Kevin Clifton in Burn the Floor, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Run Ended UK Tour continues.

Mary Woodward Review

Lost at Sea: King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Review

Lost at Sea: 

***** (5 stars)

Lost at sea is a dark, brooding, deeply moving threnody composed to the memory of all fishermen lost at sea, particularly the men of the north-east of Scotland.  It’s an exploration of the challenges faced every day by fishermen as they go out to confront the dangerously powerful and fickle seas that surround our shores and by their families who have to deal with their loss, often not knowing why or how their loved ones died and in many cases unable to hold a funeral because the body is never recovered.  Constantly changing, charming and threatening by turn, unpredictable and never to be taken for granted, the sea is both irresistible enchantress and malevolent tyrant: but the sea salt runs in the fishermen’s’ veins and they return to her again and again, fully knowing that each time they sail out they may not return.

Written by Morna Young whose own father was lost at sea in 1989, it uses verbatim the words of fishermen, their families, and local communities in the north-east of Scotland to create an ever-changing kaleidoscope of scenes from a [fictional] fishing family.  Richly-descriptive words – the rich Doric of the north-east – evocative, haunting music by Pippa Murphy and almost dance-like movement directed by Jim Manganello together weave an elaborate tapestry against a backdrop of the ever-surging sea.  Slowly the individual characters reveal their stories, their feelings and their often conflicting relationships as the play builds to a dramatic climax when Shona, whose father Jock was lost at sea, attempts to find the truth about what happened that day.

Meg and Billy have two sons, Kevin and Jock.  Kevin’s wife Kath is from the close-knit fishing community, but Jock’s wife Eve is an incomer who does her best to fit in while knowing she will never be seen as part of the clan.  Jock and Eve’s daughter Shona left the area to train as a journalist: she now returns to try to find ‘the truth’, or at least a truth that will enable her to let go of all her questioning and move on in her life.  In this quest she is assisted by The Skipper, a powerfully-voiced and magnetic, somewhat mysterious character who makes free with both whisky and poetry as he tries to guide her to some understanding of the lives, thoughts, hopes, dreams and fears of her family.

The cast are outstanding. Jennifer Black’s Meg suffers during the frequent and prolonged absences of husband Billy [Gerry Mulgrew] but loves and upholds him even though she wishes her life were other than it is.  Both are broken by the loss of their beloved son Jock [Ali Craig], who is open, kind, and loving, especially towards his ‘outsider’ wife Eve – Kim Gerard, who movingly struggles to carry out her promise to him to ‘move on’ on after his death but eventually is broken and has to leave the village.  Jock is loyal and loving even in his troubled relationship with his brother Kevin, an unsympathetic character admirably played by Andy Clark, whose main motivation is greed, and who is unmoved by the plight of the other village fishermen, who are trapped in a downward spiral of debt while he rakes in the cash – everything he does is legal, who cares about ‘fair’?  Kevin’s wife Kath [Helen McAlpine] is torn between her loyalty to her husband and her feelings for her sister-in-law’s sufferings: she does what she can, but it’s very little – and when push comes to shove she sides with her husband, however much she disagrees with what he does.  Tam Dean Burn’s Skipper dominates proceedings, powerfully describing the raging sea and the turbulent emotions of the fisher-folk, playing his part among them while guiding Shona in her quest and helping her to see their individual truths while she seeks her own.  Thoren Ferguson’s haunting fiddle-playing winds through the whole piece, alternately lively and elegiac, holding it all together.

Lost at Sea ends with the silent cast on stage listening with us to names of the men and boats lost from Moray between1970 and 2012, recorded in 2019 by families of those men and children and young people from Lossiemouth High School and Hopeman Primary School.  It’s a deeply-moving piece that stays long in the mind and pays homage to all those who daily risk their lives to bring fish to our tables.

Lost at Sea, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh run ends 22 May, Scottish Tour Continues.

Review by Mary Woodward

Mary Woodward Review

Toy Plastic Chicken, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Review

Uma Nada-Rajah: Toy Plastic Chicken, A Play, A Pie & A Pint

**** (4stars)

A large plastic toy chicken, with slightly French overtones sat centre stage as we waited for the show to begin. With great solemnity it waddled all by itself across the table and, after making a huge fuss, laid an egg.  Rachel appeared, delighted with the absurdity of the chicken, which she put into her bag to take on her holiday.

Ross and Emma are facing a day at work as airport security officers, Ross trying to be bright and cheery, Emma simply hoping the day will pass without incident. Their boss, Mackay, has texted in “sick”, probably from the previous night’s over-indulgence in alcohol – yet another grievance for Ross, over whose head he was promoted.  Ross feels Mackay doesn’t deserve the promotion, and can’t really do the job: Emma is being remarkably silent about Mackay, but very bitter about the monotony of her job – “being the guardians: here to protect passengers from their own toothpaste”.  Ross and Emma seem to have history, but Ross is so bound up with his own need for promotion and more money that he completely fails to observe that Emma’s not a happy bunny – though he does notice she’s wearing a different perfume from usual.

Ross is obsessed with protocols and procedures, and completely freaks out when, as Rachel is going through the screening process, the plastic chicken starts making noises and is discovered under Rachel’s scarf. Suddenly things get serious: he panics and escalates the situation into A Situation, which becomes even graver when Ross suggests a course of action which could end up with them being commended rather than sacked.  Emma is pissed off: she just wanted a quiet shift and thinks Ross has gone completely OTT, but grudgingly agrees to his suggestion, even though this involves strip-searching Rachel.

Meanwhile Rachel, who is anxious not to miss her plane, is completely bewildered by the fuss being made about the chicken. She tries trying to make the situation more bearable and human by attempting to engage with the officers, but is gradually deflated and dehumanised by their robotic behaviour towards her and what she sees as their attempts to trap her into making damaging admissions about herself.  It’s she who notices Emma’s bruised face: only then does Ross realise and discover the truth about why their ‘little Thing’ at the Christmas party never went anywhere – and it’s Emma who realises that Rachel is losing the plot – or is her toy chicken actually speaking to her???

Based on a real incident experienced by the author, this play looks at the current climate of fear, how panic makes people do unwise things, and how the impersonality of The System can ultimately dehumanise the people employed to put it into practice. It’s a perceptive portrait of people dealing with boring, repetitive jobs which are nonetheless vital and the contrast between their ‘backstage’ matey, jocular, ‘let’s get through this boredom somehow’ personae and the ‘I have to speak like an automaton and refuse to see you as a human being because that’s what the protocol dictates’.  At what point does doing such a dehumanising job turn one into less than human, unable to see and respond to someone else’s distress because Self comes first, and self-preservation is the prime directive?

There was excellent acting from all three – David James Kirkwood’s ‘I know all the protocols’ Ross, Anna Russell-Martin’s “I hate this job but I have to do it” Emma, and Neshla Caplan’s Rachel, trying to cope with a terrifying situation and retain her essential humanity. The ‘procedures’ underlined the horrifying prospect of one’s whole life being traceable on one’s smartphone and the convoluted, Machiavellian thought-processes of the people who devise the protocols for “recognising radicalisation” in suspects.

The audience was engaged throughout and there was a lot of laughter. The play hadn’t got the sparkle of the Casablanca or Chic Murray plays, but a cracking performance from all three actors gave us a lot to think about, especially how very little privacy there is in one’s life in this electronic, ‘smart’ age…

Uma Nada-Rajah: Toy Plastic Chicken, A Play, A Pie & A Pint,Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh run ends Sat May 18th For Tickets go to: