Mar 022017

Aiblins – New Scottish Political Poetry. Reviewed by Duncan Harley

Conceived on the back of the September 2015 post-referendum conference Poetic Politics: Culture and the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, One Year On at the National Library of Scotland, Aiblins is an anthology of recent work by a diverse range of poets all with connections to Scotland.

Co-edited by Katie Ailes and Sarah Paterson the publication presents as a snapshot of the myriad issues concerning Scotland’s poets today.

The poems are written in many styles and address topics as diverse as Indyref and the decaying remnants of Empire.

With a foreword by Professor David Kinloch and an after-word by New Generational poet Robert Crawford, the collection is firmly book-ended. While David reflects on the contribution Scottish poets are making to the “tumultuous, rapidly evolving nature of contemporary Scottish politics” Robert presents the bard’s dilemma: No poet should be obliged to engage with politics. All poets should be free to do so.

Hugh McMillan’s September 2014 neatly summarises the pro-pre-referendum atmosphere:

‘I am the only person here,
this heady day,
And I am balancing the sun
on one finger,
holding everything at bay
for a dream.

And, in what may be post-referendum mode, The Chair by Glasgow playwright Chris Boyland, reflects on:

‘this little girl who’d sat on the chair and
gone around in it, wherever it went.
But no-one could recall her face or,
when we thought about it, who she was
or even if she’d really been there at all.

My personal favourite is by Orcadian Harry Giles: All the verbs from Glasgow City Council’s New Proposed Management Regulating Public Parks … An Elegy. Even that Glasgow Dreamer, Ivor Cutler, couldn’t have made it up.

Intended to reflect on and record tumultuous events which have taken place alongside our borders in recent years, Aiblins is, says contributor Stewart Sanderson,

“Like Scotland, slightly synthetic and in a state of indecision.”

The reader alone will decide whether the collection is truly worthy of the publisher’s claim that it captures the importance of the arts in shaping modern politics.
Aiblins reflects a wide diversity of views expressed in English, Scots and Gaelic but not in Doric.

Indeed, apart from Mandy Macdonald’s Overheard on a bus in Aberdeen, it’s almost as if the North east portion of Scotland has silently drifted off into the North Sea.

Aiblins (130pp) is published by Luath Press at £8.99   ISBN: 9781910745847  

Words © Duncan Harley , Cover image © Luath Press. First published in the February 2017 edition of Leopard Magazine.

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Feb 202017

Fun Lovin’ Criminals provide an entertaining and engaging live show.

Fun Lovin’ Criminals brought some New York cool to The Garage in Aberdeen on a Friday night in February. Craig Chisholm reviews.

Wandering nonchalantly onstage with a drink in hand, frontman Huey Morgan toasted the crowd before he and the band – multi-instrumentalist Brian “Fast” Leiser and Leicester born drummer Frank Benbibni – launched into an 18 song set that covered their near 35 year career.

For such a quintessential New York band it’s ironic that their commercial breakthrough and subsequent peak came at the height of Britpop in the mid to late 90s and their song choice reflects this with a set heavy on tracks from debut album ‘Come Find Yourself’.

Opening with funky trumpet led track ‘The Fun Lovin’ Criminal’ the band blast through crowd pleasers such as the laid back ‘Smoke ‘Em’, the full on rock of ‘Bombin’ The L’ and, undoubted highlight of the night, the Tarantino movie dialogue sampling ‘Scooby Snacks’.

Tracks such as those highlight why the band became so popular at the time – the eclectic mix of hip-hop, rock, blues and soul delivered with a knowing nod and a wink draw their audience in and keep them enthralled throughout the night.

If any criticisms can be levelled at the group it would be that their later material doesn’t have the spark and imagination of their earlier work.

Later tracks from their most recent album ‘Classic Fantastic’ – released 7 years ago now! – such as the title track and ‘We, The Three’ aren’t met with such enthusiasm and recognition as cuts such as the Barry White referencing ‘Love Unlimited’.

Despite that, the band still keep the crowd on entertained for almost two hours.

Singer Huey may be better known nowadays as a Radio 6 presenter and TV host in the, thankfully, short lived series ‘Pet Nation’ he bizarrely hosted with Liza Tarbuck but it’s on stage that he’s at home.

His between song banter is entertaining and humorous – tall tales about hotel maids and of meetings with Mafia Boss John Gotti Jr to discuss the song ‘King Of New York’, which references his notorious Father, are all delivered with friendliness and laughs.

Closing their main set with a cover of James Bond theme song ‘We Have All The Time In The World’ the band return for a three song encore that includes ‘Friday Night’ performed exclusively for the fact that it is, indeed, Friday night.

At the end of the day, Fun Lovin’ Criminals may not be as commercially successful or as prolific with new material as they once were but they still provide an entertaining and engaging live show that will leave you with a smile on your face.

Pictures © Craig Chisholm.

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 232016

Craig Chisholm reviews Ash At The Garage, Aberdeen. Photos by Craig Chisholm.

It’s been over 20 years since Britrockers Ash appeared in Aberdeen. That was for a date at the Lemon Tree supporting their then newly released album ‘1977’ and now, two decades later, they return to the city, albeit to a different venue – The Garage, on Windmill Brae – but in support of that very same album on its 20th anniversary tour.

Since the end of the September the band have been re-visiting arguably their most well-known long player and performing it from beginning to end in their set.

Starting this, their second last gig of the year, with album opener ‘Lose Control’ they bounced through 1977’s twelve tracks that include their biggest hits from their commercial peak – ‘Girl From Mars’, ‘Kung Fu’, ‘Oh Yeah’ and ‘Angel Interceptor’ were all Top 20 hits for the band and The Garage crowd lapped them up as if they were released yesterday and not as far back as 1995 in some cases.

Their most recent album, 2015’s ‘Kablammo!’ is represented by only one track tonight – ‘Let’s Ride’.

But given that most of the crowd were teenagers or twenty-somethings in the 90s the band wisely stick to the hits from that era for a nostalgia filled set – ‘Petrol’ and ‘Jack Names the Planets’ from their debut EP, ‘Petrol’ are given a spirited run through and early noughties hits ‘Orpheus’, ‘Shining Light’ and ‘Burn Baby Burn’ are well received and get the crowd animated as they sing along, as was Top 10 hit ‘A Life Less Ordinary’ from the 1997 Cameron Diaz and Ewan McGregor film of the same name.

It’s a couple of cover versions that are most interesting though – John Williams ‘Cantina Band’ from Star Wars, which was previously covered as a B-Side by the band on an early single, is timely and appropriate given the release of the latest Star Wars movie at midnight the very night of their gig and ‘1977’, of course, being the year the first movie was released.

The other cover is the one that may have puzzled the casual observer – a rocked up version of ABBA’s ‘Does Your Mother Know?’. However, if anyone had taken a trip to the merchandise stall at the back of the venue they could have picked up a CD of a set from the band’s legendry London Astoria performances from 1997 which featured that very song on it.

The band’s line up has remained pretty constant since they began – only the addition of Charlotte Hatherley as a full time member a few years back provided any change.

And tonight the three piece – singer/guitarist Tim Wheeler, drummer Rick McMurray and bassist Mark Hamilton – still give their all, as fresh faced and full of energy now as they were when they formed the band in High School in Belfast.

Although Ash may not have the commercial draw they once had, they still have the hooks and pop nuance that deserves to be heard by a wider audience.

Hopefully it’ll not be another two decades before they return to the North East so others can re-discover their pop-punk songs for themselves.

More pics here.

Dec 232016

Craig Chisholm reviews Frightened Rabbit At The Beach Ballroom, Aberdeen. Photos by Craig

On a night when the lights went out at Pittodrie during a Dons game against Motherwell, Frightened Rabbit lit up the nearby stage of The Beach Ballroom as they returned to the city in support of their latest album, 2016’s critically acclaimed ‘Painting of a Panic Attack’.

This tour represents a victory lap of sorts for the band as they celebrate a successful year which featured a Top 20 album and high profile live appearances at Glastonbury, T in The Park and a host of festivals throughout Europe and the US.

In a few days after their Aberdeen and Inverness dates they will play three sold out gigs at Glasgow’s iconic Barrowland Ballroom.

Make no mistake, this may be the last time in a while that you’ll catch them in venues of this size and headlining appearances at the AECC or Hydro beckon for the band.

Opening with the uplifting ‘Get Out’ from ‘Painting of a Panic Attack’, the band career straight into the fire and brimstone of ‘Holy’ and ‘The Modern Leper’ which featured on  2008’s ‘The Midnight Organ

Selkirk born singer Scott Hutchison chats amiably to the ecstatic crowd between songs.

“People always shout “Scotland” to us at our gigs” he notes.

“which is kind of weird, as we’re in Scotland…. Nah, just kidding, it’s only in America.”

Hutchison may have moved to Los Angeles after the bands previous album, ‘Pedestrian Verses’ and its subsequent tour but he and the band remain rooted in their home country musically and emotionally as their lyrics and between song banter attests.

The crowd hang onto his every word and exchange conversation with him as the mood remains happy and warm despite the driving cold wind and rain outside.

Hutchison may be the frontman, original member and main songwriter but the unsung star of the show is behind the drum kit in the shape of his brother, Grant.

Remaining a constant in the band since they were a duo recording the debut album, he is a flurry of careering arms, flying hair, snapped drum sticks and open mouthed expressions of pure emotion.

Part X-Men’s Wolverine, part Animal from The Muppets and, visually at least, part Oliver Reed, the drummer is a captivating sight behind the kit and guaranteed to hold your gaze once you see him.

The 19 song list set-list, lasting almost an hour and a half, is a career spanning set that includes eight tracks from their latest album and the oldest cut played being ‘Be Less Rude’ from their 2006 debut album ‘Sings The Greys’, each song received ecstatically by the partisan crowd and given rapturous applause and the upmost appreciation.

So, where next for Frightened Rabbit after such an amazing year then? Onwards and upwards one must assume – they may be frightened but they are certainly no rabbit in the headlights, frozen to the spot.

More Pics here.

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.

Dec 162016

OK, perhaps the link to Aberdeen Voice for this London show is a tenuous one. However, the Temperance Movement have a large, loyal fan base here who have seen the band in The Tunnels, The Lemon Tree, and the Beach Ballroom. If you’re one of those fans, here’s an account of the London acoustic show and a few comments from the band. By Suzanne Kelly.

The Temperance Movement always impressed from their first small shows through touring with the Stones and their current, seemingly endless world tour. Class, sincerity and promise are the heart of their rock, southern rock, blues and ballads. Quickly winning and deserving a fiercely loyal fan base, TTM must be among the hardest-working acts around. I am one of the lucky 300 to see them in London.

They’ve also kindly answered a few of my questions. For a start, knowing how busy they are, I wondered how and why they arranged these acoustic shows:

“Just that we wanted to do something a bit different with the material we’ve been touring over the last year or so, and more importantly we wanted an opportunity to play some more intimate UK shows and reconnect properly with our fans here having been away for most of the year.”

Fans on the band’s mailing list were alerted to three acoustic dates with one at London’s Bush Theatre. In order to outfox the ticket touts, fans had to earn a certain number of points to prove they were genuine and not scalpers. One of these ‘tasks’ involved watching a wild, wacky, stunning, fun video for Get Yourself Free. It was a case of earn your points, order your tickets and download them on a bespoke app, and you got in – if you were quick enough.

Arriving at the Bush, you were struck by its small size (only 300 tickets were available) and beauty it is a proper old-fashioned theatre with an ornate high ceiling just screaming out for some proper music to use its acoustics and that’s what we got. Next you might have noticed that peppered around the crowd were managers, Earache Records and other industry folks, and the band’s friends and relatives. It almost felt like we were crashing a private pre-Christmas thank you party from the band – and in a way we sort of were.

Out they came – Phil Campbell at a concert piano. And off we all went.

They took us to the Mississippi Delta. They took us to the San Antonio river walk, to dance palaces, to dirt roads in Tennessee. They took us to the 1920s, 1950s, 60s, 2016, and into the future. We got ourselves free.

A bit of an obvious question, but with so many different musical flavours, influences and genres that The Temperance Movement craft into their own unique works, it seemed prudent to ask them what some of their influences for this acoustic show were.

“Well there wasn’t a specific conversation in regards to these shows in particular, but we’re all fans of a lot of artists that are connected to this kind of show – Ryan Adams, CSN&Y, The Band, Bon Iver, Ray Lamontagne etc. ”

It wasn’t surprising that they mentioned both Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and The Band – these are acts that come to mind when you see TTM live. The CSN&Y harmonies and beautiful acoustic playing, and The Band’s energy at their live shows in the day, and their cornerstone pure American rock are definitely springs TTM has drunk from.

With a reputation for genuineness and a complete absence of artifice, The Temperance Movement and its guests had a night no one will forget anytime soon. Those vocal harmonies – not least on Chinese Lanterns. That beautiful guitar work – well – on everything – with such range and depth.

If you closed your eyes while listening to Only Friend, Lovers and Fighters, White Bear, you could be forgiven for thinking this was an all-American band composed of the finest blues and rock seasoned veterans and that you had to be in the US. The Temperance Movement dressed the part as well, most sporting jackets – all nicely suited and booted.

The venue had delicious acoustics for this night; the room was filled with golden harmonies, each note of the piano was heard, and I could go on. I really hope someone’s recorded these acoustic sessions; I’ll be first in the queue to buy a copy.

Phil remarked about how things seem different when you return to the UK after being in the USA for a long time. He altered the lyrics on I Hope I’m Not Losing My Mind; the song as recorded seems more an indictment of a selfish partner. At the Bush he’d turned it around into a kind of apology which certainly seems geared towards his partner and family.

Life on the road seems a likely cause for both versions of the piece. The band were asked how life on the road was treating them.

“We’re very aware of how lucky we are to be able to tour and make music, but it can also be hard at times, especially being away from kids etc. There are ups and downs like any job, but maybe they’re more extreme!”

This band’s only on its second album – but we got a look into the future when Phil performed a song that I’ll call ‘Children’ for ease of reference. It starts out with insinuations of disloyalty and neglect of loved ones, and then ‘I never want to write a song like that’ is the refrain. It was a homage to home life – something they must all be missing greatly. Behind these great musicians must be some great lovers, friends and family to keep them going.

Rejoice! Here’s a Christmas present for supporters – there will most assuredly be a third album:

“The 3rd album is definitely becoming the thing that we are all most focused on doing next, but as far as a direction or sounds for the album, it’s probably a little too early to say.”

Sadly, percussionist Damon has bowed out. One song Phil dedicated ‘to everyone who’s ever been in The Temperance Movement’.

Asked about this departure the band said:

“At the moment we’re just focused on playing the shows we have booked in for the remainder of this year. We’ve met a load of great musicians over our respective careers and we’re just looking at this as an opportunity which can help us shape the next phase of TTM.”

There were two cover songs in the evening were hugely enjoyed You Do It To Yourself (curiously dedicated to management – if I have that right) and Blur’s Tender which was another earnest rendition.

The only minor event to mar the night was swiftly brushed over. Is it easy to start a song on stage? Hell no. Possibly a song like Serenity – acoustically in particular – must require concentration as well as intuition. Alas – someone decided to use the first few bars to shout “Put that camera down!!” loudly. The band continued and full marks for that. It’s easy to understand the frustration some people have who come to experience a show like this, not to record it on an iphone. 

A little later Phil made a very gentle rejoinder to the interrupter – another man might have been more angry. Problem solved swiftly, elegantly; problem forgotten.

Serenity was as ethereal as Chinese Lanterns had been – such beautiful songs! I wondered how they’d deal with the crescendo in the acoustic format; the answer was very gently, but my mind seemed to still hear the electric guitars and emotion-packed vocals from the album. These songs, White Bear, A Pleasant Peace I Feel – in particular – these are songs which still create an emotional response however many times I hear them.

Here’s a youtube video to give you an idea.

Hearing them in a completely new way was something I wouldn’t have missed, and again, is really something that needs to be recorded and released. I want.

As the night drew on the enchantment grew. Everyone around me was silently soaking it in, smiling all the while.

Final encore? A pleasant Peace I Feel. Even if you ignore the moving lyrics, the music alone makes it one of the most uplifting, energizing, feel-good songs you’ll have heard in years. When the house lights went up, it went up on some seriously happy people.

Asked whether there was anything TTM wanted to say to their fans whether about the acoustic show or otherwise, they said:

“Just thank you for the support over the last few years, which is what these shows were about for us really. We tried to really make sure that tickets got directly to the fans, and we wanted to play some intimate venues to feel that connection.”

Here’s to their Aberdeen return.

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 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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