Dec 172018
 

Duncan Harley reviews Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs @ His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen. 

The traditional folk tale of how the beautiful Snow White survived the evil queen’s murderous attention has been told in many versions over the centuries.

Countries across the globe from Albania to Malaya hold versions of the tale deeply rooted in popular culture.

In an Indian take on the story, the magic mirror is portrayed as a talking parrot and an Albanian version has Snow White’s jealous sisters portrayed as a murderous duo intent on her untimely demise.

The Brothers Grimm are often credited with having collected the definitive version of the story. Featuring seven unnamed dwarfs, a glass coffin and an insanely jealous stepmother they published several versions of the tale over the period 1812-1854.

In 1937 the tale was subjected to Disneyfication and, despite Disney having trademarked the name “Snow White” in 2013, the films and the literature continue to follow the snowy-white road.

Ever popular as a pantomime theme the likes of Dawn French, Wendi Peters and even Strictly Star Brendan Cole have played starring roles over the years.

As Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs comes to His Majesty’s for a five-week run, the incumbents of the leading roles are Lee Mead as Prince Harry, Jenna Innes as Snow White, Juliet Cadzow as the evil Queen Lucretia plus of course Jordan Young as Muddles and Alan McHugh as Nurse Nellie MacDuff. Yes, that’s right – Nurse Nellie MacDuff.

Both the Grimm Brothers and Walt would have been surprised at Nurse Nellie’s staring role but, it’s all in the best possible taste; well almost.

As Alan McHugh’s take on the traditional tale rattles on through endless costume changes – Nellie appears variously dressed as a billiard table, a Heinz Beans advert, a BBQ and wait for it, a fat lady in a tiny bikini; the wonder of panto is exposed to the theatre audience in more ways than one in this production

Inuendo, double entendre, acrobatics, pyrotechnics and fast paced comedy sketches flow thick and fast as the story of the princess who was far too pretty to live unfolds.

There are no glass coffins in this version of the tale and, if Alan McHugh’s take on the story is to be believed in its entirety, the magnificent seven are named as Snoozy, Fearty, Dafty, Gaffer, Cheery, Snotty and Dreichy.

As is usual in the HMT Panto various celeb’s get to take it on the chin.

Amongst this year’s targets are Donald Trump and Theresa May with the addition of a gag or two about the AWPR, Brexit and of course Holby City – erstwhile home of Lofty AKA Ben “Lofty” Chiltern.

As panto’s go this year’s APA offering certainly delivers a good few belly laughs.

The story bears at least a resemblance to the original tale and the delivery of the traditional fast-paced monologues is, as always, second to none. However, there is a certain flatness and lack of energy about the production.

Perhaps this will pick up during the coming weeks. Additionally, Prince Harry – although pitch perfect in dialogue – appeared to be singing ever so slightly under par.

All in all, though, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a cracking piece of entertainment and should appeal to folk of all ages.

Plus of course, this year some seventy-four towns and villages throughout the North-east, including both Inverurie and Fochabers but somewhat surprisingly not Maggieknockater, get a special mention amongst the gags.

Now that must be something of a record.

Stars: 3.5/5

Directed by Tony Cownie and written by Alan McHugh, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs plays at His Majesty’s Theatre Aberdeen until Sunday 6 January 2019

Tickets from Aberdeen Performing Arts Tel: 01224- 641122
Words © Duncan Harley, Images © HMT

Nov 272018
 

Duncan Harley reviews ‘When Brave Men Shudder – The Scottish Origins of Dracula’ by Mike Shepherd.

The Whitby Dracula connection is well established and has been extensively written about. Bram Stoker’s life and times have also been well documented. But until now, the story of how Stoker came to pen possibly the most talked about gothic novel in history whilst on vacation in and around Cruden Bay has been largely unknown.

Outwardly of course, Cruden Bay is just one of many coastal villages which dot the Aberdeenshire coastline. Claims to fame include a connection with Norwegian aviator Tryggve Gran, who took off from the local sands on an epic flight over the North Sea to Stavanger in the July of 1914.

Then there is the story of the Cruden Bay golf hotel where, for a few years at least, the rich and the famous came to relax and take in the sea air along the links.

Think Jeremiah Coleman of mustard fame and the families associated with Swan Vestas, Horlicks and Bovril.

There were vague tales about how Bram Stoker and his family had spent a few holidays in the area and the local hotel could point to an entry in the guest book written by Stoker and promising to come again.

But, until now, no one had really taken time to research the story and until now, no one had drawn together the multitude of recollections and solid clues which make up the story of how Dracula came to be written in a largely unknown coastal village on the North Sea coastline.

With an introduction by Dacre Stoker, Mike’s new book is brim full of bite-size facts and with a cover based on an original circa 1897 Dracula edition this is clearly a book to get your teeth into. Well, that’s the vampire puns dealt with so onto the content.

Penned in plain language and meticulously researched, When Brave Men Shudder makes for a fascinating read.

Not only has Mike tracked down the various visits, there were thirteen at least, which Stoker made to the area; but he has traced the links between the man’s writings and the local community at Cruden Bay.

Local lore and superstition backed by an interest in the writings of Emily Gerard – who explored long-held Pagan beliefs flimsily shrouded by a ‘surface varnish of Christianity’ in Transylvania – must, says Mike, have excited Bram enormously.

Mike continues:

“In contrast to the peasants of Transylvania, the residents of Port Errol didn’t believe in vampires and had probably never seen a bulb of cultivated garlic. Nevertheless, the similarities between the two widely separated cultures were evident.”

Stoker of course stumbled upon Cruden Bay, then known as Port Errol, completely by chance. Seemingly he had heard that the Aberdeenshire air was “very bracing” and in a quote from the man’s diaries Mike relates that when he first saw the place, he had fallen in love with it.

“Astonishing as it might seem” writes Mike,

“this little-known Aberdeenshire fishing village with a population of 500 was about to change his life forever.”

Many of the landscape features which to this day inhabit the area would have been completely familiar to the Dracula author and Mike’s local knowledge, he lives in Cruden Bay, and careful research has identified landmarks which appear in Bram Stoker’s writings.

Sand Craig, an offshore rock, features in an early short story and the Scaurs – a jagged outcrop – seems to have fascinated the Gothic author.

Stoker apparently stared at the Scaurs for hours on end and may have explicitly referred to them in the Dracula tale:

“it needed but little effort of imagination to think that the spirits of those lost at sea were touching their living brethren with the clammy hands of death … “

When Brave Men Shudder is full of such references neatly linking Stoker’s Cruden Bay experience to passages in his writing.

Of course, it wasn’t all about the writing. Bram and his wife Florence formed sound links within the local community. Indeed, it seems that the locals took to him.

Long after his death one resident was recorded as saying that:

“Bram had a fine sense of humour always joking about something.”

While another recalled that:

“he became a familiar figure with his stout walking stick as he strolled along the sands and the cliffs.”

In essence, this new take on Bram Stoker is both surprising and occasionally scary. Scary because the portrait painted of the man who penned Dracula is that of a family man on a mission to explore that dark side of humanity which most only dream about.

Although the villagers portray him as a genial gent with a sturdy walking stick, his wife and child often became fearful of his moods and occasional outbursts. Perhaps a lifetime spent amongst actors had enabled him to immerse himself in his stories to the detriment of those closest to him.

As for surprises, it seems that Bram wrote extensively in the Doric, was married to a lady who had previously had a fairly serious relationship with Oscar Wilde and never really made much money from that book which, to this day, remains both a Hollywood staple and an international best seller. Who would have thought!

Stars: 5/5

When Brave Men Shudder – The Scottish Origins of Dracula is By Mike Shepherd and is published in paperback (244pp) by Wild Wolf Publishing @ £12.99

Oct 212018
 

Duncan Harley shares his experience of the recently opened ‘Carron To Mumbai’ Restaurant in Stonehaven.  

Scotland’s love affair with Indian food knows few bounds. As a Glasgow student many years ago, I variously got to grips with endlessly bland lamb-bhuna styled carry outs following a good few pints of lager.
Various mediocre meals were served up as authentic Indian sub-continent cuisine and we accepted them as the norm.

It seems odd nowadays, but if the consistency varied from one restaurant to another, we moaned.

A McDonald’s style mindset prevailed and the security of a cloak of blandness took precedence.

Thankfully the days of Indian food by numbers are fast ending and the recently opened Carron To Mumbai at Stonehaven is a stunning example of the new enlightenment in Indian cuisine.

I first became aware of the Carron Restaurant a good few years ago. Family visits for birthdays and get-togethers led me there and the place simply blew me away. The food was one thing, but the Art-Deco setting was quite another. Combine the two and, well you get the drift.

Situated on a tranquil back street in Stonehaven, the Carron building has over the decades become an iconic part of the Stonehaven experience.

Originally opened in 1937, the Listed Grade B Carron Restaurant once formed part of the towns Northern Co-operative Society buildings. The Tea Rooms closed in 1968 and subsequently the restaurant area was used as a supermarket store. 

The adjoining buildings continued trading as a supermarket until the late 20th century and in around 1999 the building was placed on the open market.

Purchased by a caring local business-man, the premises underwent an extensive but sensitive restoration which, at a cost of somewhere near a million pounds, incorporated many the original art-deco fittings and returned the building to near original condition.

The interior was accurately restored using old photographs and original circa 1935 architect plans.

Replica bow-backed dining chairs were installed and the original, somewhat risqué, Picasso styled glass mirror was re-installed and insured for £150,000.

Re-opened as a welcoming restaurant the building continued to attract diners until March 2017 when it suddenly closed. And now in a fresh re-incarnation, the Carron has been re-born as ‘The Carron To Mumbai’.

Following months of hard work, the Carron building has had yet another sympathetic makeover which, alongside freshening-up the original historic interior, has added what proprietor Syed Abdul Hamid – better known locally as Raj, terms a dining experience second to none.

“I had my eye on the Carron building for several years.” says Raj, who has lived with his family in Stonehaven for fifteen years.

When it became vacant, he immediately expressed interest and after extensive consultation with planners and locals alike he embarked on a journey to re-open the restaurant as a celebration of both Indian and European Art-Deco heritage.

“Art-Deco” he explains, is not just a European architectural style.

“In India there are many fine examples of Art-Deco buildings and Mumbai alone has many fine examples. Just Google it and you will find out more.”

“So why Carron To Mumbai” I asked?

“I decided to take account of what local people wanted.” says Raj,

“Clearly the name Carron is important to Stonehaven folk so I decided to retain the name and call the new restaurant Carron To Mumbai.”

So, part Scottish and part Indian in origin, the building has feet in two camps and that, perhaps is the key to this new and exciting dining experience.

On entering from Cameron Street, the diner is shown to a seat in a replica colonial railway-themed wine bar before entering the Mumbai-themed main restaurant via a quite splendid corridor re-created as an Orient-Express railway dining-car.

Surreal? Yes. Inspired? Also, a big yes!

“Cooking is an art.” says Raj, and he is right.

In many ways Carron To Mumbai resembles an art installation.

Dressed to kill, the main restaurant interior reeks of 1930’s opulence. The original interior has had a gentle makeover. The Picasso mirror still dominates one wall and the magnificent bow-fronted window dominates another.

Facing out to the Carron Water, Raj likens this view to the view over his native Bangladesh.

“It is a country of water.” he says and the view reflects this as does the menu.

Described by Raj as traditional Indian food but with a twist, the main courses are available in many variations. Each dish can be served with a wide selection of fish, meat and vegetable mains. And each incorporates locally sourced produce including herbs grown in the restaurant’s own herb garden.

As Raj explains:

“We don’t buy in anything which is ready made and we absolutely don’t use artificial colourings. Everything is made here, in house, from locally sourced ingredients.”

Monk fish, scallops and sea bass inhabit the menu alongside venison, salmon and duck while more familiar Indian dishes incorporate lamb, chicken and vegetables. Portions are generous but, according to Raj most plates return to the kitchen empty.

Will we visit again? Of course, and Janice is of the same opinion. Where else, after all, can you relax in a colonial railway-station bar over a cocktail before taking a luxury train to an Art-Deco restaurant overlooking the historic Carron Water?

The Carron To Mumbai is at 20 Cameron Street Stonehaven
And on the web @: https://www.carrontomumbaistonehaven.co.uk/

Duncan Harley is author of The A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire plus the forthcoming title: The Little History of Aberdeenshire – due out in March 2019

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Oct 182018
 

Duncan Harley reviews Evita @ His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen.

Margaret Thatcher once said that “If a woman like Eva Peron with no ideals, can get that far, think how far I can get” and she had a point.
The Iron Lady however took several decades to claw her way to the top; Eva took just the one.

Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita first took to the stage in 1979.

A film version followed in 1996 starring Madonna as Evita and Antonio Banderas as Che. With the stage version now pushing forty, the storyline remains controversial. Portrayed as a working-class girl who whored her way out of the slums and exploited the poor, her legacy remains subject to debate.

Hard to ignore however is her undoubted political prowess. Assuming control of the Argentinian Ministry of Labour in 1946, she generously handed out wage increases and promoted women’s suffrage whilst privately embracing a lifestyle lavishly populated with couture clothing and expensive jewellery.

Greats such as Elaine Page and Madalena Alberta have taken on the mantle of the lead over the years and in popular culture, parody has celebrated the role with the likes of Lisa Simpson’s Evita blasting out Don’t Cry for Me, Kids of Springfield to an international audience in the 2003 episode “The President Wore Pearls”.

Latest incumbent in the leading role of Eva Peron is Lucy O’Byrne and if last nights performance at His Majesty’s Aberdeen is anything to go by, she has thrown her heart into the part.

A Dubliner, blessed with astronomically high notes, she was recently quoted as saying that:

“Whatever people say about Eva Peron – that she was selfish, that she was a gold-digger – I am playing her in her story, and I have to make you like her.”

And, this is exactly what she does. As the backstreet girl hustles her way to the top it’s clear that O’Byrne is more than fit for the part.

The role of the new-world Madonna with the golden touch is not an easy one. Expectations are naturally high and its almost a case of the star is dead, long live the star.

But, apart from a few glitches with the sound envelope O’Byrne’s delivery of those huge songs makes muster.

A splendid counterpoint to the, often malevolent influence of Mike Sterling’s President Peron, Glenn Carter’s Che provides comic relief to what is otherwise a fairly dark tale of political intrigue and extra-judicial murder.

Che is slang in Spanish for friend or pal and dressed to the boots in Guevara style combat gear Glen’s Che represents the voice of the adoring masses and gets beaten-up by Peron’s secret police for his efforts.

All the familiar songs are there including of course Oh What A Circus, On This Night Of A Thousand Stars and of course Don’t Cry For Me Argentina. The Evita/Peron duets Dice Are Rolling and I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You are particularly poignant.

As Broadway Director Harold Prince once said, “Any opera that begins with a funeral and ends with a funeral can’t be that bad” and this touring version of Evita would meet with Prince’s wholehearted approval.

Stars: 4/5
Directed by Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright, Evita plays at His Majesty’s Theatre Aberdeen until Saturday 20th October 2018

Tickets from Aberdeen Performing Arts Tel: 01224- 641122
Words © Duncan Harley, Images © HMT

Oct 122018
 

It’s Dracula season in North-east Scotland as Duncan Harley reviews Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker.

Local writer Mike Shepherd is about to release a new book about Bram Stoker’s Cruden Bay connection and Dacre Stoker – in conjunction with Illinois born writer J.D. Barker – is about to unleash a prequel to Stoker’s Dracula classic.

Dacre Stoker gave a talk at Cruden Bay in early 2017 and both Janice and I were privileged to attend.

Alongside setting forth some solid ideas about the history and the mythology of vampirism, Dacre let slip the fact that his forbear, Bram Stoker, let loose upon the world that classic of the bloodsucking genre ‘Dracula’.

Indeed, the very venue of Dacre’s mid-winter talk – The Kilmarnock Arms at Cruden Bay – boasts a guest book entry which reads something like:

“Delighted with everything and everybody and hope to come again.”

The signature alongside the entry reads:

“Mr and Mrs Bram Stoker.”

Bram Stoker, author of the Gothic Vampire Horror tale ‘Dracula’, and many other literary sensations, stayed with his wife and son at the hotel for most of that 1884 August. He returned frequently over the subsequent 20 years and wrote at least part of his Dracula tale at Crooked Lum Cottage, one of his holiday homes at Cruden Bay.

There is a strong local belief that his tale of Transylvanian terror was heavily influenced by nearby Slains Castle although Ecclesgreig Castle at St Cyrus and the town of Whitby in Yorkshire also claim to be Stoker’s inspiration. But the jury is still out.

Jointly written by Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker, the new Gothic novel, ‘Dracul’ makes no pretence at solving the riddle and, in a volume dedicated to ‘finding the roots’ of the Dracula truth, both Dacre and Barker have penned a bold prequel to the Stoker tale.

Bram’s tales probably reflected his early sufferings

Dracul is described in the PR fluff as ‘Scary as hell. Gothic as decay’. And for once, the cover fluff is pretty much near the truth.

Based on notes left behind by Bram Stoker, Dracul is really a fly-on-the wall insider-vision to what really happened.

Stoker is in a room, in a tower armed with various items. A gun, some mirrors and holy water litter the table alongside some plum brandy and a crucifix for fortification. His fevered mind imagines a night to remember and he awaits with some trepidation the inevitable battle with the undead.

Inevitably, the reader is drawn to the suspicion that this early tale reflects at best a dream sequence brought on by some dreadful childhood fever or, at worst, an over-use of some prescription medication.

Imbued with a sickly childhood, Bram’s tales probably reflected his early sufferings and his later associations with theatrical empressario, Sir Henry Irvine could only have augmented the childhood recollections but in a mainly theatrical way.

But, back to the chase … imagine if you will a pre-adolescent Dracula author – in fact Stoker himself – sitting behind a firmly locked door awaiting the arrival of some dreadful apparition.

‘The Journal of Bram Stoker: From my earliest memories, I was a sickly child, ill and bedridden from birth until my seventh year, when a cure befell me. I will speak of that cure in great length to come …’

The indescribable tension will have you hiding your face in your hands at times and the complexity of the tale might draw you to the very edge of your seat. Blood and guts in nature, Dracul is one of those gripping reads which – by its very provenance – is difficult to put down.

All in all, this is a splendidly orchestrated piece of pure Gothic horror told in the style of the master of the art and by writers who have been privileged to access the family archives.

It’s not often that I pen a spoiler. But suffice it to say that Dracul ends with the immortal words:

“I will stay with you always.”

Stars: 4.5/5

Dracul is available in the UK in hardback from 18th October 2018 from Bantam Press @ £12.99
ISBN: 9780593080108

Oct 052018
 

Duncan Harley Reviews The Band at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen.

LtoR AJ Bentley, Curtis T Johns, Sario Solomon, Nick Carsberg and Yazdan Qafouri in The Band.

Gary Barlow reckons that Take That was Britain’s very first successful manufactured boy-band and he is probably quite correct. I mean he, of all people, should know having composed pretty much most of their early hits.
When the band went their separate ways in 1996, the angst amongst the fanbase was so great that helplines were set up to help with the grief.

Gary went off on a solo career as did Robbie Williams, the youngest band member, and although the post Take That years have been tumultuous to say the least, the music and the songs from the boy-band years at the top feature in play-lists across the land.

Now, courtesy of Tim Firth, the legacy of Take That forms the backdrop to what in essence is a celebration of the power of an enduring friendship shared by a group of friends from the day.

This is not by any means the story of the boy-band nor is it a simple juke-box musical intent on squeezing dry the hit-playlist of the glory days.

Yes, the boys are there in almost every scene. And yes, the familiar hits – there are around eighteen of them – abound. But, the band in general serenade the action and set the mood rather than inhabit front of stage. All the big numbers are there including Relight My Fire and the classic Get Ready For It.

The fans, all five of them are the stars of the show and even when Debbie – Rachelle Diedericks – is tragically killed following a Manchester gig she continues to inhabit the action right till the very end.

In a nod to the likes of Shirley Valentine, the surviving four eventually re-connect twenty-five years later to heal the trauma of the past and move on confidently into the present. The script is variously hilarious, often poignant and sometimes emotionally raw.

Comedic highlights include a trip to a Prague Police Station following the snapping of a penis from a local sculpture and that completely splendid airport scene. Safe-to-say you’ll never look at a flight safety demo in quite the same way ever again. There’s even a wee bit of wing-walking.

Lighting and scenery excelled and as the musical numbers stomped-on, it was hard to resist a bit of audience participation.
Indeed, by the end of the night, and with the encouragement of the MC, strongly played by Every Dave – Andy Williams, the theatre audience were on their feet participating in the action.

While generally this is a well thought out production it did seem as if Act 2 was slightly undersized.

Following some nicely balanced early action the dialogue sped towards a conclusive wedding scene implying perhaps that the plot had slightly run out of steam. Additionally, the use of blindingly-bright stadium style lighting during the gig scenes probably could be toned down a tad.

But, all in all The Band is a splendid foil to the standard jukebox style offering and delivers a decent storyline alongside the familiar song-list.

Stars: 4/5

Directed by Kim Gavin and Jack Ryder, The Band plays at His Majesty’s Theatre Aberdeen until Saturday 13th October 2018.

Tickets from Aberdeen Performing Arts Tel: 01224- 641122
Words © Duncan Harley, Images © HMT

Sep 052018
 

Duncan Harley reviews Cilla The Musical at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen.

Cilla The Musical plays at His Majesty’s Theatre Aberdeen until Saturday 08 September 2018

Cilla the Musical is based on BAFTA-winning writer Jeff Pope’s 2014 ITV series and tells the story of Black’s meteoric rise from ambitious Cavern cloakroom girl to chart-topping mega-star.
Her sometimes turbulent relationships with Bobby Willis and the troubled Brian Epstein feature strongly alongside a no-holds-barred peek into Black’s less-savoury aspects.

At a not-too-long two hours and fifty minutes, including interval, the show celebrates the triumphs and the tribulations of one of Epstein’s many stars and covers the greats from the Cilla back catalogue along with tribute numbers from the bands from the heady days of the Black magic.

Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Mamas & the Papas and of course the Fab Four feature alongside a stream of biopics of the men behind the labels. Burt Bacharach, Ed Sullivan and Andrew Lancel’s splendidly vulnerable Brian Epstein feature alongside Alexander Patmore’s study of the dependably stoic Bobby Willis.

Scottie Road Songbird, Liverpudlian Diva, Mersey Beat Gracie Field, girl next door – call her what you will, she never diluted her accent and, although the early critics were sniffy, Epstein’s eye for a shed-load of talent launched her firmly into the hall of fame despite the crowded teeth.

She loved Rolls Royce’s and celebrated her poverty-stricken childhood in endless promotional interviews.

Kara Lily Hayworth’s Cilla is the undisputed star of the show. Picked from some 2,000 hopefuls she has, in the words of a fellow reviewer ‘Got it nailed!’.

From start to finish, Kara’s distinctive Liverpudlian tones – she is actually from Watford – and Cilla-like mannerisms capture the essence of the Black magic.

As she belts out one hit after the other it becomes obvious that she inhabits the role 100%. You’re My World, Anyone Who Had A Heart, Something Tells Me, Dancing In The Street, Alfie – they’re all there alongside some totally splendid tribute-band numbers from the early Beatles catalogue.

Both the singers and the songs are fab and Cilla The Musical is a good night out with the big plus that, alongside the bucketloads of nostalgia, the production delves deeply into the backstory which transformed a wee lass from a Liverpool backstreet into a national treasure.

Stars: 4/5

Directed by Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson, Cilla The Musical plays at His Majesty’s Theatre Aberdeen until Saturday 08 September 2018

Tickets from Aberdeen Performing Arts Tel: 01224- 641122
Words © Duncan Harley, Images © HMT

Sep 052018
 

Duncan Harley reviews Alan Stewart’s new book.

Five years in the making, Alan Stewart’s new book ‘North East Scotland At War’ will appeal to anyone even remotely interested in the history of the North-east of Scotland.
There are plenty of books out there which record the difficult years between the Chamberlain peace accord and the Soviet conquest of Berlin. Osborne’s ‘Defending Britain’ and Gordon Barclay’s ‘If Hitler Comes’ are the classics.

But this book is slightly different and there is certainly room for further historical accounts of the dark days when Hitler threatened our shores.

With a decidedly local slant, North East Scotland At War launches the reader into the minutiae of the defence of the North-east against what was, for a brief few years, perceived as the Nazi threat.

The archaeology of those distant times is laid bare and many of the official documents which record the difficult days inhabit the pages.

A ground-based Invasion never came. But preparations were firmly in in place and Alan’s finely researched history brings the day to day story of those difficult times sharply into focus.

Fougasse – developed by the Petroleum Warfare Department as an anti-tank weapon, Dragon’s Teeth and Railway Blocks feature in this book along with the stories of the stop-lines, the Home Guard roadblocks and of course that secretive plan to harry the invaders using suicide squads tasked with assassinating both their own commanders – who might betray them under torture – and German officers.

Air crashes also inhabit these pages. Alongside the enemy casualties, and they were in the hundreds, Alan details the stories behind some of the Commonwealth gravestones which litter the cemeteries of the North-east.

Training accidents accounted for many of the casualties.

A Czech fighter pilot killed when his Spitfire spiralled into the ground, an air-sea rescue crew lost in a collision with railway wagons on the perimeter of RAF Dyce Airfield and the gravestone of Flight Lieutenant Wheelock – killed attempting an emergency landing – again at Dyce – are featured.

This is one of those books which is difficult to set aside. The minutiae of the location of pill boxes and the stark reality of the bombing maps, feature alongside some difficult tales of children killed on the local sands, not by the Germans, but by the very defences intended to keep them safe.

Landmines and barbed wire were as much a hazard as air-borne bombs and machine gun bullets.

Alongside the difficult descriptions of civilian carnage, Alan has included a number of images of official documents which give a flavour of the times. In a memo marked TOP SECRET, a Colonel Geddes, commander of Aberdeen Garrison, expresses his concern regarding the vulnerability of Tullos Hill.

“I am a little uneasy” he writes, 

“about the defence of TULLOS HILL – Area 4624. This is a very commanding feature, on which the following units are located: A.B. 2 Site, Heavy A.A Bty, Detachment 319 Search-Light Regiment, RAF Wireless Installation and Royal Observer Corps Post.”

And there are literally dozens of such so-far hidden documents sprinkled throughout this account of the time when the invasion of our shores seemed such a certainty.

Profusely illustrated and replete with a plethora of new information gleaned from both local and national records, this is a local history book which I am pleased to include on my bookshelves.

North East Scotland At War – by Alan Stewart is Available from http://www.cabroaviation.co.uk/book.html at £21.99 + £3 P&P

ISBN 9781527215689
Cover image © Alan Stewart

Aug 212018
 

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

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame arrives in Aberdeen this week in the form of the 1960s era, jukebox-laden musical Jersey Boys.

From curtain rise to curtain call this is a highly polished and electrifyingly energetic production features around 30 original Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons numbers.

With a pedigree of 27 Top 40 singles including Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man and Rag Doll, the original Four Seasons’ tough-but-tender doo-wop harmonies continue to wow Rock ‘n’ Roll fans of all ages.

Add to the mix around 100 million record sales, and it’s difficult to see how Director Des McAnuff’s musical portrayal of the group’s often troubled rise and fall could fail to please the theatre audience.

In fact, this is one of those shows that should be seen again and again. I should know – to date I’ve seen this tribute show three times and given a whiff of a chance, I would go back at least one more time.

As always, casting makes or breaks a musical, and the choice of Michael Watson to play lead Frankie Valli is more than satisfying.

Bearing a passing resemblance to the younger Frankie, Michael’s stage presence and ferocious vocal range steal the show. Alongside the fast-paced numbers – Bye Bye Baby/Working My Way Back to You/Rag Doll – Michael’s mellow Can’t Take My Eyes Off You had the audience spellbound.

Peter Nash as the slightly dodgy Tommy De Vito, James Winter as Who Wears Shorts Shorts composer Bob Gaudio and Lewis Griffiths as the Ringo-like Nick Massi completed the band line-up and in numbers such as Sherry and Bye Bye Baby, the quartet’s performance bordered on the magical.

At times it was difficult to separate performance from reality. And don’t you just love those smart-smart red blazers!

The narrative is neatly subdivided Vivaldi-like into Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter, with each band member taking a turn to relate his own particular version of the band’s rise and fall.

As the rags-to-riches-to-rags story plays out and the discord between band members becomes unbearably raw, the musical score stays apace. Spring’s I Can’t Give you Anything But Love leads us on to Summer’s Oh What a Night. Fall’s Big Man in Town gives way to Winter’s Fallen Angel and Who Loves You.

This Vivaldi-esque approach inevitably elasticates the truth. The gang connections, for example, might be ever so slightly romanticised.

Two rather than just the one of Frankie Valli’s daughters actually died, one by apparent suicide and another by drug overdose. And perhaps inevitably, the genuine Tommy DeVito strenuously denied, in the Las Vegas Review, being the band-member who habitually peed in the sink:

“I was probably the cleanest guy there … I don’t even know how they come up with this kinda’ stuff.”

The storyline exists in an explosive bubble of doo-wop and aside from a reference to Bob Gaudio’s pre-Seasons chart-topping Short Shorts and some insight into buying airplay on prime-time radio, we are pretty much left in the dark about the general music scene in the far off 1960s.

Asides such as ‘come back when your black’ and ‘there are only two kinds of girl’ firmly set the general tone of the times. Suspend moral indignation mode prior to taking seat, might be good advice!

Choreography, lighting, sound and costumes were pin sharp and in all, Jersey Boys is a show well worth seeing.
Sit back and go on a roller coaster ride of some favourite songs and some great back-story from the 60’s and the 70’s. Oh what a night and what a well worked tale.

Stars: 4.5/5

Jersey Boys plays at HM Theatre Aberdeen until Saturday 25th August

Tickets from Aberdeen Performing Arts Tel: 01224- 641122
Words © Duncan Harley, Images © HMT

Aug 122018
 

Duncan Harley reviews  Far, Far From Ypres at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen.

It’s difficult to adequately classify Far, Far From Ypres.

Described as “the story of the Scottish war effort during World War One” with “its excitement, hope, suffering, endurance, humour, fear and disillusionment in the face of horror told through the eyes of fictional, prototypical soldier Jimmy MacDonald” this ambitious multimedia production sits oddly – and please excuse the pun – with its feet astride two camps.

A strong documentary-styled historical narrative, delivered by veteran broadcaster Iain Anderson, frames a broad range of popular song from the period whilst overhead a mix of trench imagery combines to add poignancy to the performance.

We are told that the fictional Jimmy is from any town or village in Scotland and that when issued with his tin hat and his rifle, he heads off to the continent in search of medals for the victory parade and of course for a great foreign adventure.

An acceptable figure for Scottish war dead has yet to be calculated – some put it at between 100,000 and 146,000 – and the enthusiastic Jimmy is portrayed as one of those who did not return.

Killed in France or Belgium, not by bullets nor by shells but by an influenza better known as Spanish Flu, he certainly died in uniform but is probably not numbered amongst the roll of the war dead.

Based on a Greentrax double album of WW1 songs, “Far, Far From Ypres” is laden with familiar and not so familiar song.

Within the context of the narrative, most are a good fit for the performance and most are delivered strongly by a cast of largely familiar folk-figures. Barbara Dickson, Dick Gaughan, Alan Prior, Tam Ward, Ian McCalman and Mairi MacInnes are just to name a few.

In fact, there are around 27 performers on stage at any one time making for a crowded performance space and indeed a difficult place for the soloists to excel in.

It was perhaps the male dominated chorus which brought the intent of the production solidly home. Decidedly appropriate and atmospheric of the era, Pack up your Troubles and When this Bloody War is Over vied with Tipperary and Armentieres to tug the heartstrings.

All in all, this is a largely successful attempt to track and trace changing perceptions during the course of that First War to end all wars through the songs of the day.

From hopeful beginnings through to eventual despair, the song list bravely traverses some four years of the bloody history of that hundred-year-old conflict in which young men could take the boat-train to the continent, stick a bayonet into the skull of a youngish man from a neighbouring land and, if he were lucky enough not to be stuck in his turn, return home with a medal in time for the local victory parade.

At the close of the night and indeed during the performance, not a few tears were shed.
Stars: (4/5)

Following last night’s performance at HMT, Far, Far From Ypres heads off to Oban, Skye, Ullapool, Stirling, Inverness, Dumfries and Edinburgh.