Jun 232017
 

Duncan Harley reviews The Wedding Singer at His Majesty’s Theatre Aberdeen.

Once you get to grips with the schmaltzy ‘girls just wanna get married’ portrayal of the eighties which haunts this musical from the very start, The Wedding Singer is actually a whole load of fun.

Despite a story-line thin enough to gladden the heart of a coronary bypass surgeon and sufficient cheesy humour to keep McDonalds going in triple cheeseburger’s for a month, the entertainment value more than makes up for this sugar-sweet take on the Reagan decade.

Based on the hit 1998 film of the same name, the musical tells the tale of wedding singer and emcee Robbie Hart.

Robbie and his band ‘Simply Wed’ – yes you read that correctly – play the New Jersey wedding circuit making a precarious living on the back of those who have popped the question. Jilted and depressed he abandons the wedding gigs and comes of age on the bar mitzvah circuit. Predictably he gets the girl and equally predictably he gets invited to sing at his own wedding.

Starring Jon Robyns as the multi-talented Robbie Hart and X Factor/singer songwriter Cassie Compton as love interest Julia Sullivan, it would be difficult to imagine this production going far wrong really. Well known for roles including secretly-gay Rod in Avenue Q and Sir Galahad in Spamalot Jon’s performance literally shines.

Add in a mix of stars including Ray Quinn, as Glen Gulia, and Barbara Rafferty in the role of Rosie the rapping-granny and The Wedding Singer is off like the clappers.  A clutch of iconic dance-numbers including Saturday Night in the City and All About the Green plus some pretty dang impressive lighting and audio complete the line-up.

Alongside the main characters, the cast list includes a motley crew of ‘fake’ characters including Ronnie Reagan, Billy Idol, Tina Turner and Cyndi Lauper. Additionally, and I could be wrong, amongst the line-up in the bar scene I swear I spotted a suitably inebriated Charles Bukowski

As a feel-good, Aspartame sweetened heart-warming trip into the past, The Wedding Singer works really well although the story-line does pose awkward questions for those who were actually around at the time.

Will Hart get the girl? And does Julia really want to be Mrs Gulia? For a definitive answer or two you will just have to join the audience. Oh! And watch out for those brick-size cell-phones and, of course, that singing cake!

Lighting Designer Ben Cracknell/Sound Designer Ben Harrison.
The Wedding Singer plays at HMT Aberdeen until Saturday 24 June
Tickets from Aberdeen Performing Arts Tel: 01224- 641122
Words © Duncan Harley and Images © APA

May 192017
 

Duncan Harley reviews Wonderland at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen.

A hard-working cast make this Musical an entertaining and at times a truly magical experience.

When Lewis Carroll ran an early draft of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland past fellow fantasy writer George MacDonald of Huntly, neither man could have had the remotest idea that the tale would still have currency some 150 years on.
The original story-line has seemingly never been out of print and literally hundreds of adaptations have emerged from a myriad of genres over the years.

Film, stage and parody head the long list; with comic book, opera and even Xbox 360 take-ons not far behind.

Herein lies a huge problem. Inevitably, reinterpretations trading on the back of this classic tale of literary nonsense will invite comparison with Carroll’s original.

If the Cheshire Cat fails to grin cheesily enough or if there are too few tarts at the tea party then heads will invariably roll.

Happily, theatre audiences are not as fickle as literary critics and if the stand-up-ovation enjoyed by the cast of Wonderland at HMT last Tuesday is anything to go by, then this latest anthropomorphic adaptation has ticked many of the boxes.

With Britain’s Got Talent Finalist Rachael Wooding as Alice and Coronation Street’s Wendi Peters playing the Queen of Hearts this musical is off to a stomping start. Add in Dave Willetts of Phantom fame as White Rabbit and Natalie McQueen as the Mad Hatter and things can only get better.

And get better they do. From shaky beginnings, down to the script and not to the cast, Wonderland soon gets into its stride.

Alice, in this adaptation, is a divorced single mum who after five years of separation clings to the past and, despite admirable encouragement from teen-daughter Ellie, is experiencing what can only be termed an extreme bad-hair-day.

Aside from losing her beau, she has lost her job and some scumbag has pinched her car. Ellie (Naomi Morris) and love-interest Jack (Stephen Webb) are at pains to comfort the stressed-out Alice but to no avail.

Predictably, a white rabbit appears and they all head downwards in a council high-rise lift to meet with the entire Lewis Carroll cast including a talking mirror. After typical Alice type adventures, the heroine is bundled through the looking-glass and her life takes a turn.

The musical numbers here are great, the dialogue is perhaps not so. At points I almost expected a harassed Compere to rush on stage to ask the audience if there was a scriptwriter in the house.

Music and movement is where this production is at. With around twenty numbers packed into two hours there is plenty for all including pounding rock, laid back jazz and heart-warming duets.

A hard-working cast make this Musical an entertaining and at times a truly magical experience. By the final curtain one could almost imagine an appreciative Dickens clapping softly from the Gods.

Directed by Lotte Wakeham and adapted from the works of Lewis Carroll, Wonderland plays at HMT Aberdeen until Saturday 20th May.

Tickets from Aberdeen Performing Arts Tel: 01224- 641122

– Words © Duncan Harley and Images © APA

Feb 172017
 

Duncan Harley reviews The Woman in Black – at His Majesty’s Theatre Aberdeen

If you enjoy being scared of things which go thump in the night, then this play-within-a-play is a must see.

Essentially a two man show, The Woman in Black gets off to what appears to be a slow start. As an elderly Arthur Kipps hums and haws hilariously over his acting ability, the theatre audience may wonder if the bigging-up of the production as a celebration of nerve shredding horror is, perhaps, simply a publicist’s whim.

However, and with a nerve shattering bang, the tone soon changes from that of gentle hilarity to one of spine-tingling terror and, thanks to some splendid pre-recorded screams and a ton or two of dry-ice, theatre-goers are soon transported along Nine Lives Causeway to Eel Marsh House, home of the late Mrs Drablow.

The set is simple and quite bare and the tale is set “in this theatre about one hundred years ago”.

Retired solicitor Arthur Kipps has engaged The Actor in the hope of shedding the phantoms of his past. He seeks closure and is intent on presenting his disturbing story to a theatre audience in the form of what must be considered a blatant act of exorcism.

Early on David Acton, as the elderly Kipps, assures both audience and The Actor, played ably by Matthew Spencer, “Forgive me, I’m not an actor.” However this is patently not the case.

Both performers are master storytellers, and the audience quickly becomes engaged. As the tension builds, there are moments of terror interspersed with some very wry humour indeed.

For example, just as things begin to look pretty damn serious for The Actor, who by this time is playing a much younger Mr Kipps, on trots Spider the invisible dog. This is not at all as absurd as it may sound, since the audience have by this time become accustomed to suspension of disbelief: minimalist multi-purpose props have by this point become quite acceptable and they have, after all, just seen an imaginary pony.

Alongside some unmistakable shades of a much darker than normal Miss Havisham, Bram Stoker’s Dracula inspiration Sir Henry Irving gets a brief but well noted mention or three. The play is, after all a Gothic Horror feast.

This is an entertaining piece of theatre and there are many startling moments. While the play might not be for everyone, the slick timing and understated dialogue may well challenge the preconceptions of those not normally drawn to the genre.

There is of course a strange twist at the end of the tale, how could there not be after all? As to the nature of this curveball, my lips are, naturally, completely sealed.

Directed by Robin Herford and adapted from Susan Hill’s novel by Stephen Mallatratt, The Woman in Black plays at HMT Aberdeen until Saturday February 18th.

Tickets from Aberdeen Performing Arts Tel: 01224- 641122

Words © Duncan Harley and Images © APA

Jan 132017
 

By Duncan Harley.

Pantomime by its very nature is a lively medium. The plot typically presents as a well known folk tale and a typical production will involve the use of loud special effects and fast-paced slapstick comedy.
Gender-crossing actors encourage audience participation and theatregoers are expected to sing along and shout out traditional responses such as “Its behind you!” and “Oh yes it is!” Thunderclaps and strobes are de rigueur and folk in the front stalls often risk a good soaking.

Aberdeen HMT’s offering this Christmas was no exception.

Written by Alan McHugh and starring Elaine C. Smith and Jordan Young, Dick McWhittington was billed as a Scottish pantomime adventure without equal, and few who saw the production during the five-week run could have been disappointed.

As thunderclaps rocked the theatre and lightning flashed, the comedy routines ran amok with below the belt humour. Songs, gags and a hilariously contrived slapstick sea shanty involving an electric eel enhanced the experience, while a villainous King Rat strutted his stuff.

Last Friday’s matinee was slightly different however.

Dubbed a Calm performance, it retained most of the original dialogue and followed the original Alan McHugh plot. If it hadn’t been for the fact that I had attended a regular evening performance of this tale of Doric domination a week or so before, I might not have noticed any difference. The songs and gags were in place. The gender-crossing actors were all there and King Rat was just as villainous as he had been the first time round.

Relaxed performances are specifically designed to encourage people with an autistic spectrum condition, learning disability or sensory and communication disorders into theatres; and to offer those who otherwise may feel excluded the opportunity to experience live theatre in a safe environment. They provide a less formal, more supportive atmosphere in order to reduce anxiety levels.

Sound engineer Chantal Urquhart explains:

“The sound during the performance is built up gradually so as to gently accustom the audience to the sound levels. There are no strobe effects and no loud thunderclaps.”

The differences however do not end there. Being a matinee, the more risqué double-entendres were absent anyway; but in addition the folk in the front stalls were spared a soaking, and for much of the performance an appreciative audience both sang along and, mainly, quietly commented on the action.

In short, the calm performance set the scene for an immersive audience experience.

The concept of an autism-friendly theatre environment is not entirely new, and Aberdeen Performing Arts is no stranger to the concept. Performances catering specifically for the requirements of theatre goers with disabilities, additional support needs and on the autistic spectrum are thankfully on the increase.

APA Chief Executive Jane Spiers recently commented:

“It’s fantastic that by making small but important adjustments we can break down barriers, open up the experience of live theatre and make it as welcoming as possible. We already offer audio-described, captioned and signed performances and this is part of our wider commitment to broadening access to our work and our venues.”

With perhaps 700,000 members of the UK population on the autistic spectrum, the calm performance initiative represents a positive cultural shift in attitude towards inclusion of an audience group sometimes marginalised by the performing arts.

A visual storyboard relating to the calm performance of Dick McWhittington can be viewed on the APA website.

 Words © Duncan Harley and Images © APA

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Dec 162016
 

Duncan Harley reviews Dick McWhittington at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen.

Scotland’s very own Elaine C. Smith took to the Aberdeen pantomime stage for the eighth year in succession this month. Appearing as lead in Dick McWhittington alongside seasoned fellow pantomime favourites Jordan Young and Alan McHugh, Elaine’s portrayal of Fairy Fit Like proved yet again that the hoary old one liner ‘Thespian: Where’s my career? Audience: It’s behind you!’ doesn’t really cut the mustard nowadays.

Written by Alan McHugh, the plot follows loosely the classic pantomime tale of poor boy makes good through heroic deeds, becomes fabulously rich, gets the girl of his desires and takes up office as Lord Mayor.

The twists in the plot, and there are lots of them, involve some funny business with a broken trombone plus lashings of both above- and below-the-belt innuendo-laden humour. There’s a risqué assertion that Maggie Lynne’s ‘Ailish’ is really fond of Dick, and there was also a nicely timed ad-lib by Fairy Fit Like, following a technical fault with the sound, to the effect that:

“Somebody’s got to come up here and fiddle about with me!”

Little is left to the imagination.

As the risqué jokes piled on and the comedy routines ran amuck, one found oneself transported back to that innocence of childhood where even Dick Emery’s brassy Mandy’s catchphrase of ‘Ooh, you are awful’, seemed benignly devoid of double entendre. That’s the magic of pantomime: keep the grown-ups happy and the youngsters wondering, and you won’t go far wrong.

Mind you, the spectre of Jordan Young’s ‘Ba Heid Boabby’ being molested by an electric eel will haunt me forever, and Elaine’s portrayal of a club wielding golf king in the form of Donald Chump left no holds unbarred! Indeed, I detected an enthusiastic cheer when Sultan Vinegar decreed “Off with his head”.

The villain of the piece, John Jack’s ‘King Rat’, naturally gets his just deserts and, without giving too much away, following an innuendo-laden proposal, Dick and Ailish finally tie the knot.

There are musical numbers galore, including a splendid rendering of The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen, and of course, as we have come to expect from this annual show, some very fine special effects indeed.

The sets are sumptuous, the puns are outrageous and at points, and for all the right reasons, there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience.

Plus, in the true spirit of traditional Christmas pantomime entertainment, the show programme includes detailed instructions enabling younger members of the audience to cut out and assemble their very own Tommy the Cat.

What more could anyone want …

Directed by Nick Winston, ‘Dick McWhittington’ performs at HMT Aberdeen until Sunday January 8th 2017.

Tickets from Aberdeen Performing Arts Tel: 01224- 641122

Words © Duncan Harley and Images © Aberdeen Performing Arts

PS: Why did Dick McWhittington have a beard?
Because nine out of ten owners find that their cats prefer whiskers.

Nov 172016
 

Duncan Harley reviews ‘Rent, the Musical’ at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen.

rent_tfm_8875_lowresIt is Christmas Eve 1896. A painter, a philosopher, a musician and a writer are planning a bender.
The writer needs a bit more time to work on his play, and as his pals set off for the pub, he receives a visit from a neighbour Mimi, a poor seamstress, who chaps on his door in search of a light for her candle. 

Mimi and the writer fall madly in love then they too head off to the pub.

Eventually it all goes pear shaped. Mimi contracts tuberculosis and dies of exposure. The writer is left bereft. Well, that at least was Puccini’s La Boheme operatic take on the cruel realities of inner-city poverty in Bohemian Paris.

Substitute Bohemian 1990s New York for 1890s Paris. In Rent the Musical, writer Jonathan Larson takes La Boheme, turns the opera on its head and gives the tale a garishly glorious modern twist.

The poverty and the ill health are still around, but instead of the scourge of tuberculosis, Larson has substituted the scourge of HIV. Instead of a lack of fuel for the fire we have a bad-ass landlord, in the shape of Javar La’Trail Parker’s Benjamin Coffin the Third, who cuts off the power on a whim. And in lieu of Mimi the Parisian tuberculous seamstress, we have a 20th century Mimi nicely portrayed, by Philippa Stefani, as an HIV-stricken East Village sex worker stroke exotic dancer overburdened by a major smack habit.

Puccini’s poverty-stricken painter is portrayed as an independent Jewish-American wannabe filmmaker by the name of Mark Cohen who, Super-8 in hand, is single-handedly tasked with recording for posterity the tribulations of the East Village community.

rent_tfm_9379_lowres_coverOn first night at HMT the role of Mark fell to understudy Joshua Dever, since lead Billy Cullum had a chest infection.

A veteran of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Grease and Jesus Christ Superstar, Joshua’s performance was seamless and came with the welcome bonus of a clearly enunciated commentary on what at times can be a convoluted and maybe even over-complicated tale.

There are rock arias galore, multiple phone messages from friends and even a little bit of tango. But perhaps the star turn was Layton Williams as the controversially clad Angel Schunard, a high-heeled power-dressed drag queen and committed partner to gay philosophy professor and sometime anarchist Tom Collins.

Caring, giving and kind, but with a penchant for murdering canines for cash, she/he, or is it he/she, executed an absolutely astonishing gravity-defying triple entendre somersault plus twist whilst clad in pink fluffy five inch heels!

Fast-paced, rock-solid, mega-loud and at points furiously intensive, Rent the Musical presents a heady mix of anti-establishment sentiment combined with perhaps an overload of doom-laden prophesy. The spectre of HIV and AIDS perches Damoclean over the entire production, and multisexuality is the order of the day.

Songs include the classics ‘Seasons of Love’, ‘Goodbye Love’, ‘Over the Moon’ and ‘Light My Candle’. In all there are around thirty musical numbers in this revival.

Both the established Rent Heads amongst us and the newbies to the genre will be in rock heaven throughout this entire performance. And of course, Angel gets to heaven and Mimi’s tiny hand is frozen.

Directed by Bruce Guthrie. Lighting design Rick Fisher. Rent the Musical plays at HMT Aberdeen until Saturday 19th November

Tickets from Aberdeen Performing Arts Tel: 01224- 641122

Words © Duncan Harley and Images © APA

Nov 102016
 

Duncan Harley reviews ‘Sunny Afternoon, the Musical’ at HMT Aberdeen.

garmon-rhys-pete-quaife-ryan-odonnell-ray-davies-andrew-gallo-mick-avory-mark-newnham-dave-davies

Garmon Rhys (Pete Quaife) Ryan O’Donnell (Ray Davies) Andrew Gallo (Mick Avory) Mark Newnham (Dave Davies)

Picture in your mind’s eye a musical about a 1960s band who, in their day, released around 28 albums, were ranked 65th on Rolling Stone magazine’s ‘100 Greatest Artists of All Time’ list and occasionally, just occasionally, swung from chandeliers.
The Kinks popped pills, used girls and fell out with America. If it wasn’t broke they took an axe to it. If it was broke they swung the axe again just to make sure.

Hotel rooms, promoters and, on occasion, fans bore the brunt of the angst of the tempestuous four.

And then, just to let off steam, they turned inwards and beat the hell out of each other both on – and offstage. Fuelled by a heady concoction of wild music and wild parties, they seesawed repeatedly from giddy success to rock-bottom oblivion and then back up again.

Headed by brothers Ray and Dave Davies, The Kinks did eventually make the Hollywood Bowl, but only after a very rocky ride.

Sunny Afternoon the Musical tracks the band’s career through a finely balanced combination of tribute numbers and snapshots of the band’s progress from the blandness of the Muswell Hill club scene through to the electrifying days on the international music circuit.

On opening night at His Majesty’s Aberdeen, word came that Ryan O’Donnell was unwell and that James Hudson would be playing the part of Ray Davies. He played it well and few in the audience would have even been aware of the substitution.

It was clear from the very start that this is no mere tribute show. Yes, there are musical numbers and yes there are stage strutting scenes, but there are also acres and acres of good solid bio to link the songs with the background stories which inspired them.

As the songs emerge, a tale of sibling rivalry and misunderstanding unfolds. The madly challenged Dave, sensibly dressed in a bright chintzy frock, swung from a chandelier while elder brother and leader of the band Ray tries to keep it together with wife Rasa. ‘A Dedicated Follower of Fashion’ led to the Pepsi cola’d ‘Lola’, and with Dave starting to resemble Ava Gardner on a massive bender, there were brotherly fights and band fallouts galore.

mark-newnham-dave-davies-ryan-odonnell-ray-davies-garmon-rhys-pete-quaife-and-andrew-gallo-mick-avoryThere are minor niggles. That drum solo in act two might be completely superfluous; and the colourfully Union-Jacked 1966 England World Cup Winners’ parade might not go too down too well in front of some Scottish audiences.

The transatlantic duet involving Rasa and Ray was particularly poignant, but it has to be said that although everyone on stage sparkled, Mark Newnham’s portrayal of Dave Davies sparkled most brightly.

His portrayal of the Mick Avory-hating guitarist left little to the imagination. Despite bad behaviour verging at times on the offensive, and a sometimes questionable dress sense, he emerged as a well-cast musical villain.

There’s humour galore. Harold McMillan takes it on the chin and long-dead Who drummer Keith Moon is revered as an eccentric Roller-owning rocker with a penchant for swimming pools.

Virtually all of the classic Kinks hits including ‘You Really Got Me’ and of course ‘Sunny Afternoon’ are up for grabs, and by the finale folk were rocking in the aisles to ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and ‘Lola’.
By the end of the night there was hardly a grey hair in the house.

Directed by Edward Hall with Barney Ashworth as Musical Director, Sunny Afternoon plays at HMT Aberdeen until Saturday 12th November

Tickets from Aberdeen Performing Arts Tel: 01224- 641122

Words © Duncan Harley and Images © APA

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Oct 212016
 

Duncan Harley reviews ‘The Broons’ at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen.

broons_1cLong ago, childhood Sundays were punctuated by an obligatory visit to Sunday School, and then on to Grandma and Grandpa’s for the Sunday roast. The day of course began with a breakfast of tea and groats, followed by a wee read of the Sunday Post pull-out Fun Section which, then as now, sported a full page sitcom monochrome comic strip featuring Maw, Paw and the entire Broon family.

Although nowadays relegated to page 50 or thereabouts, the Fun Section is still going strong.

Other DC Thomson titles may have gone digital, but the likes of the Broons and Oor Wullie keep truckin’ along in good old-fashioned print.

That is of course until now; for in a bold step for Mankind, the tenement-dwelling Broons of No 10 Glebe Street, Auchenshoogle have taken to the tartan stage to celebrate their Oaken Anniversary in glorious 3D.

Penned by Glasgow-based playwright Rob Drummond, The Broons stage-show takes 80 years of comic-strip familial ultra-conventionality and introduces alien concepts such as personal ambition and – gasp – character development into the endearingly familiar Groundhog Day mix. Alongside the obligatory bonnets and whiskers, the Scottish Waltons are brought bang up-to-date with the addition of laptops and tablets.

As various family members announce radical career plans involving moving away to far and distant places, Torry-born Joyce Falconer’s formidable Maw Broon is faced with the task of trying to keep the whole family together for yet another 80 years, or else face a lonely old age stuck in front of the telly with just Paw for company. The familiar hijinks of life in a Scotch sitting room come under threat and Maw’s deviousness in the face of adversity knows no bounds!

Maggie, admirably played by Kim Allan, starts the ball rolling when she announces her plans to get hitched. Joe then decides to move to London to pursue his love of boxing. The lanky Hen, played by Alaskan born Tyler Collins, is about to take off hiking round Australia to find himself. Euan Bennet’s Horace decides on a career in confectionery, and even Daphne gets a man at long last. What could possibly go wrong?

Sing-along and clap-along are never far away in this Sell A Door production, and the musical numbers cover every tartan-clad genre from White Heather Club ballad to Bay City Rollers brash ultra-pop.

Alongside the music there are frequent bursts of slapstick and lots and lots of one-liners. Some are painfully familiar such as when the desperate Daphne tells Paw that she has met up with a braw new guy while surfing. Predictably perhaps, Paw retorts “An did you fa’ aff your board?” But all in all, this is a skilfully researched production and the familiarity of the dialogue and humour simply adds to the appeal of the performance.

broons_2A good measure of the audience laughed in all the right places, and that surely must indicate success.

Very much a family variety show and with an element of traditional Panto showing through at the seams, The Broons does push the boundaries a wee bit on occasion. The long suffering Auchenshoogle vicar, a grandfather of four, is the willing recipient of a gay snog or three; and in a scene worthy of a Waltons bedtime routine, Paw Broon very nearly gets his oats.

But, so help ma boab, it’s all in the best possible taste and if The Bairn can take it then weans of all ages will simply love this show. Plus of course Oor Wullie makes a cameo appearance as himself, and that can’t be bad.

The Broons plays at His Majesty’s Theatre Aberdeen until Saturday 22nd October.

Tickets from Aberdeen Performing Arts Tel: 01224- 641122

Words © Duncan Harley and Images © DC Thomson & Co Ltd

Oct 052016
 

The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil – at His Majesty’s Theatre Aberdeen. Duncan Harley reviews.

the-cheviot-production-image-9-photo-credit-tommy-ga-ken-wan-1

Performed by the Dundee Rep Ensemble as a Highland Ceilidh, Cheviot has been brought bang up to date.

Written by the late John McGrath, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil tells the story of forced economic change in the Highlands.
First performed by 7:84 Theatre Company in 1973, the Ceilidh play pointedly compares the sheer brutality of the landowning capitalists of the Clearances to the often callous exploitation of Scotland by the predatory capitalists behind the oil boom.

As an unconventional piece of popular theatre combining radical politics with drama, plus music and song, Cheviot predictably attracts mixed reaction.

The Establishment was seemingly not much impressed with the original production, and sheafs of appalled letters were written to The Scotsman. The general reaction ranged from deep hostility from supporters of global capitalism, to a feeling of empowerment amongst nationalists who, despite the extreme Socialist views expressed in the play, sensed that an unlikely ally had emerged to challenge the mores of the day.

Cheviot played to audiences as small as twelve, in Fraserburgh of all places, on that first tour; but persevered and went on to tour the Highlands and beyond, gathering larger audiences along the way. Village halls which had never seen a live play performed were the venues. Folk in far-flung places whose own grandparents had witnessed the Clearances first hand became both spectators and willing participants in this new theatre.

I first saw Cheviot in the 1970s: yes, I am that old, and for free. Strathclyde Regional Council, God rest its cotton socks, had hired a Glasgow performance space so that John McGrath’s take on Scotland’s turbulent economic history could be played out to a wider audience.

What did I make of it then? I can recall the surprise at getting the afternoon off from work, and I can still remember wondering what on earth the city fathers hoped to achieve by exposing both me and my fellow workers to cutting edge agitprop theatre, since we were on the verge of revolution most of the time already. Perhaps they thought that Cheviot might just calm us all down a wee bit.

The show’s pedigree is unquestionably anti-establishment. Estate Factor Patrick Seller burns down a croft house with poor old granny still inside; the loathful Duke of Sutherland evicts 15k of his tenants to make way for 200,000 sheep; Highland regiments are sacrificed on a colonial whim, and Highland culture comes under sustained attack from the capitalised aristocracy.

The Astors, David Cameron’s family and a toupee-topped golf course magnate with Lewis connections all take it firmly on the chin; all in the best possible taste of course, and with unforgettable sing-along ditties, including:

“we’ve cleared the straths, we’ve cleared the paths, we’ve cleared the bens, we’ve cleared the glens, we’ll show them we’re the ruling class.”

Performed by the Dundee Rep Ensemble as a Highland Ceilidh, Cheviot has been brought bang up to date. The timeline of the original production concluded with the discovery of North Sea oil, but now concludes with the oil exploration downturn which Mark Carney has described as:

“a challenging environment which, given global prices, may persist for some time.”

The cast of ten play multiple roles and generally this works really well. A coat rail of costumes stands to hand, stage left, and fast changes are the order of the day.

the-cheviot-production-image-2b-photo-credit-tommy-ga-ken-wan-1As Irene Macdougall slips effortlessly into the gown of Sutherland’s infamous estate clearance manager James Loch, Billy Mack is swapping Queen Victoria’s crown for factor Patrick Seller’s top-hat.

Stephen Bangs moves fluidly between his role as the plaid-clad Sturdy Highlander and that of the totalitarian bible thumping preacher, while Barrie Hunter’s Duke of Sutherland alternates with both an old man and an old woman.

The audience have a big part to play too. This is Ceilidh after all. It’s safe enough to sit in the front row, so long as you don’t stick your hand up too high; but be warned that this production takes audience participation to entirely new levels.

Early on, during a warm-up Canadian Barn Dance, half the audience appeared to be heading off out to Union Terrace as Musical Director Alasdair Macrae called out the steps.

A hilarious sing-along parody of the Alexander Brothers stalwart “For these are my mountains and this is my glen” follows, before the more serious business of lampooning the men who own your glen begins in earnest.

Irvine Welsh‘s Trainspotting Renton, AKA Rent Boy, infamously cried out that:

“It’s SHITE being Scottish! We’re the lowest of the low. We’re ruled by effete assholes. It’s a SHITE state of affairs to be in … and ALL the fresh air in the world won’t make any fucking difference!”

He may have had a point, although McGrath might have disagreed on the finer detail of Renton’s argument. Cheviot, for all the humour – and some of it is very black indeed – takes the stance that the people don’t own the land under their feet; but perhaps they should!

Today’s Cheviot continues to hit the zeitgeist. The message of this play is as relevant today as it was when first performed in the early days of the oil boom. Nothing quite like it had seen before and if you are a newcomer to McGrath’s work, Cheviot will be nothing like you have ever seen before.

Make up your own mind, go see the play. I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.

As John McGrath once said:

“Cheviot is the music of what is happening.”

The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil performs at HMT Aberdeen until Thursday 6th October

Tickets from Aberdeen Performing Arts Tel: 01224- 641122

Words © Duncan Harley and Images © Aberdeen Performing Arts

Sep 292016
 

Duncan Harley reviews Chicago the Musical at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen.

chicago_john_partridge_as_bill2Take a few soap stars, add some distinctly slinky costumes and pour in a few measures of Prohibition-era corruption and what have you got? Chicago the Musical, of course!
In modern times, superstars such as Oscar Pistorius and Phil Spector attracted extensive media interest before receiving lengthy terms of incarceration, following high profile televised murder trials watched in some cases by upwards of 100m viewers.

They were perhaps unlucky: if they had lived in Chicago in the pre-TV era, and had been female, things might have turned out very differently indeed.

The 1920s media moguls of Chicago Illinois were intent on selling newspapers at all costs, and were not above sensationalising the stories of low-life female killers in order to transform them into front page stars.

Crime reporters, known derisively as sob sisters, were despatched to the local prisons with firm instructions to work up a good story at all costs. Morality and criminal justice came second to a juicy tale, and a homicide involving a lover or a spouse often led to fast-track celebrity status.

Chicago the Musical tells just such a story. Based on a 1926 play of the same name by local newspaper reporter Maurine Watkins, the plot follows the corrupt creation of celebrity criminals in Cook County Jail in the U.S. state of Illinois. While media moguls and fat cat lawyers prospered, the rule of law went out the window as attractive prison belles were groomed to evade justice by playing on the public’s insatiable appetite for poor, but pretty and defenceless murderesses.

This new revival of Chicago strips back the production to the bare bones. Most of the stage is occupied by the band and the action features some highly minimalistic costuming, plus the very minimum of props.

The storyline is well known. Self-confessed murderesses get off with homicide due to good looks, or as headlines of the time put it more aptly “Pretty girls get free, ugly ones sent to Pen”.

As the band plays, the cast play out the sensational stories of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly in a series of high energy vaudeville routines interspersed with an occasional murder or two.

There are villains aplenty in this production, and apart from the pathetically downtrodden Amos, soundly played by Neil Ditt, the only real heroes are the cast.

chicago_hayley_tamaddon_as_rox2Emmerdale’s Hayley Tamaddon fairly threw herself into the 2010 TV production of Dancing on Ice, and she drew gasps from the audience this week as she strutted her stuff on the Aberdeen stage.
Playing the part of the unrepentant Roxie Hart, she proved once again that she can perform equally well with or without her ice skates.

Co-star Sophie Carmen-Jones also wowed the audience as double murderer Velma. In a series of complex song and dance routines she proved once and for all that vaudeville ain’t dead yet.

For my money though, the supreme accolade must go to seedy lawyer Billy Flynn. Flynn is played exquisitely by John Partridge of EastEnders fame, who not only manages to squeeze out the longest single note ever heard on an Aberdeen stage but, in a hilarious scene, also proves his worth as a stage ventriloquist.

This is an engaging and exciting production full of dark humour and fast movement. At its core Chicago the Musical presents as a satirical take on the cult of the celebrity criminal, and as such is as relevant today as it was when first produced as a play almost a century ago. A must-see.

Chicago the Musical performs at HMT Aberdeen until Saturday 1st October

Tickets from Aberdeen Performing Arts Tel: 01224- 641122

Words © Duncan Harley and Images © Aberdeen Performing Arts