The problem with actor/playwright Martin McCormick’s autobiographical (or so he claims) South Bend, is that the minute he asks the audience to “trust me”, it has the opposite effect. You desperately want to believe this tall tale, but the nagging seed of doubt is sown in those two words. That said, there’s no doubt that this is precisely what McCormick wants to achieve in his theatrical road movie.
Obsessed since childhood with the US, he dreams of the world of Saved by the Bell, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Blossom and Seinfeld. When he eventually arrives for a semester at college in California, his every childhood dream is fulfilled. There he falls in love. Unfortunately, his time there is limited, and he has to return home. With promises from his love to visit him in Scotland ringing in his ear, he heads home.
When time passes, and the phone doesn’t ring, he heads to South Bend, Indiana to find his girl. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go to plan. On the receiving end of hostilities from his girlfriend’s step-mother, McCormick finds himself in a domestic version of Dante’s nine circles of hell.
How much of these antics are actually reflective of McCormick’s real experiences is questionable but the quality of the storytelling is just enough to entertain. McCormick is a better playwright than actor and his delivery does detract at times, it plays like someone playing the part of McCormick, rather than the person who is supposed to have experienced this madness.
Live foley artist David A. Pollock effectively provides the on-stage sound effects and a very Glaswegian voice of reason and Jess Chanlieu is chameleon-like playing all other characters.
South Bend is ultimately an undemanding, entertaining hour of theatre, but there’s a nagging feeling that it could have been so much more.
It’s into the insular world of the reclusive Ma and Pa that we eavesdrop in award-winning actor and playwright Martin McCormick’s Ma Pa and the Little Mouths. The play, presented as a rehearsed reading as part of last year’s Mayfesto, now returns fully-formed to The Tron.
Ma and Pa are isolated in their high rise flat. Literally blocked-off from the outside world. Pa’s weekly shopping trips the only contact with whatever’s out there. Their days spent passing the time telling each other ever-more absurd tales. Into this world falls Neil, a woman Pa finds hiding under a car in the street outside. They give her refuge, but in the act of opening that door, their lives and hers are changed inexorably.
In turn absurdist and surrealist, but always captivating, McCormick’s piece wears its influences on its sleeve, there are undoubted nods to Harold Pinter in pace and tone, and to a lesser extent to the output of Philip Ridley, though much more palatable, of wider appeal and a whole lot less in-your-face and absolutely of Eugène Iionesco, the master of portraying the insignificance of human existence. The non-linear narrative may prove challenging to some but there’s plenty of humour to delight, the language rich and the dialogue has a hypnotic rhythm of its own. The petty resentments of a long-term relationship, deftly written by McCormick, are delivered as pithy one-liners, and thrown at each other like perfectly formed weapons.
The much-loved comedy actor Karen Dunbar (Ma) is a local favourite and having already shown her acting chops playing Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days, at this very venue, the character of Ma, seems like a perfect fit. While she delivers the lion’s share of the laughs, there’s an air of barely hidden menace under the razor-sharp retorts. Dunbar is maturing into an actress of great depth. Veteran Scottish actor Gerry Mulgrew delivers a beautifully measured performance as Pa.
As the piece progresses, hints emerge as to the deeper tragedy that underlies this existence. At a compact 180 minutes, while challenging, McCormick’s work is always creative and utterly captivating.
Runs until 12 May 2018 at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow then at the Traverse, Edinburgh from 16-19 May 2018 | Image: John Johnston
Scotland’s undisputed King of Panto, Johnny McKnight serves up the first treat of the holiday season with his disco-tastic, glitterball spangled version of Aladdin at the macrobert in Stirling.
There are afros, flares and platforms a-plenty as well as enough synthetic fabric to start a disco inferno as we boogie on down to Discotopia. Along with her two kids Wishee Washee (Robert Jack) and Aladdin (Dawn Sievewright), dear old Marge O’Reen Twankey (Andy Clark) runs the last launderette in town, the Dream Cuisine and Dry Clean, an establishment which does a natty turn in pies and bridies as well as washing and ironing.
Marge’s eldest Aladdin is in love with the campest prince in town (Martin McCormick) and as it ever was in Pantoland, the path of true love never runs smooth. In “the worst case of panto romance ever seen”, Aladdin and the blonde hair-flicking, disco-posing object of her affections encounter opposition and obstacles in the form of the Prince’s class-conscious mother (Helen McAlpine) and evil “Aunty” Lilith (a spectacularly clad and suitably menacing Julie Brown), and of course there’s the small matter of a rusty old lamp hidden in a deep dark cave.
As with the best pantomimes there’s as much here for adults as children, there are canny contemporary cultural and political references for the grown ups and the requisite number of slapstick, bum and bogie jokes for the teenies. The music too, manages to include the widest demographic, from 70’s disco and pop classics such as: “Lost in Music”, “Night Fever” and “We Built This City” albeit this time on sausage rolls not rock ‘n’ roll! through current hits: Pharrell’s “Happy” and a knock-out version of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” from Mrs. Twankey ( an hysterical Andy Clark) to the ubiquitous “Let it Go” from Frozen, which as well as being a sing-a-long favourite with the young audience, provides the perfect vehicle to highlight Dawn Sievewright’s stunning vocals.
McKnight eschews the ordinary panto fare and the writing remains clever and on-point throughout, never needing to resort to cheap smuttiness or crudity to get the laughs. There’s also an excellent take on the famous Abbot and Costello “Who’s on First” sketch, whose wordplay goes down a treat with the young audience,proving that classic writing never fails to be funny.
Complementing the writing is a truly outstanding cast led by some of Scotland’s most highly regarded and accomplished theatre actors. Andy Clark as our beloved dame, deserves a medal, not only for his comedy skills but for agreeing to wear Marge O’Reen’s eye-watering ensembles, all of which seem to feature a bikini!, each entrance is accompanied by gasps and in one instance a covering of the eyes in disbelief at what we are seeing. Robert Jack (a familiar face from the much-loved Gary, Tank Commander) is a revelation, his timing and physical comedy skills are of the highest order, managing to raise laughs even when he’s not at the centre of the action. Dawn Sievewright is a fabulously feisty Aladdin and her vocals are world class. Hilarious support is provided by Helen McAlpine (The Queen/Jeanie) and Martin McCormick (Prince Jasper) – there really is not a weak link anywhere in this production.
Mention must be made of the quality of the set design by Karen Tennent and the seamless transitions between the multiple changes, which would put most larger theatres to shame.
There’s no magic carpet here: “we’ve no got the budget”, but this Aladdin is all the better for it. This truly is a Christmas cracker, it’s a witty, wonderful, disco-tastic spectacular for the whole family – the perfect start to the festive season.
A play that has at its heart the issue of mental health wouldn’t seem like a likely choice for an evening’s entertainment, but Donna Franceschild’s stage adaptation of her acclaimed 1994 BBC TV series Takin’ Over the Asylum doesn’t just entertain; this tightly written and sharply crafted play is funny, heart-breaking and genuinely inspiring in equal measure.
Through the course of the narrative, the subtle cruelties of those charged with “caring” for the patients is shown and each character reveals the true nature of their illness and the heart-rending reasons for it. This roller-coaster ride of a play puts its audience through the emotional wringer: bringing laughter in one breath and tears the next, and all only possible through the combination of a taught script and some of the most affecting acting performances you are likely to see.
The sheer range and depth of emotion that Iain Robertson in the pivotal role of Eddie manages to convey is stunningly impressive: turning on a knife edge between despair, heart-break and happiness and doing it all with an utterly compellingly believability is testament to his phenomenal talent. That in the mercurial role of Campbell, (Brian Vernel) is an actor who doesn’t graduate from his training for another year almost beggars belief. They are ably supported by Helen Mallon as the vulnerable Francine, Caroline Paterson as germ-obsessed Rosalie and Grant O’Rourke as the tragic Fergus.
It could be argued that this is a less than convincing portrayal of mental health care in 2013, but the issues raised and attitudes highlighted have changed depressingly little since its source material was broadcast nearly twenty years ago. Ultimately though, this is a celebration of the truly good-hearted and an illustration of the fine line between sanity and so-called “madness”.
Often thought-provoking, occasionally tragic and always compelling, this production isn’t flawless but it’s as damn near close as you’ll get – unmissable.
Writers: Louise Quinn, Bal Cooke, Ben Harrison, Pippa Bailey
Director: Ben Harrison
Reviewer: Lauren Humphreys
The Public Reviews Rating:
Pop music, film and theatre often make for uncomfortable bedfellows, in Biding Time(remix), A Band Called Quinn prove that they can happily marry these different disciplines to produce a gloriously original theatrical experience.
This tale of Thyme, a woman with a dream and the journey she takes on her path to success in the music industry, has developed from an audience participatory piece into this more powerful, collaborative work. A Band Called Quinn have taken the framework of Pippa Bailey’s 25 year old source work, but carved it in their own highly original image, with the inclusion of silent disco technology, film and live music.
It takes us from the initial euphoria of getting a record deal, into descent and decline, through; compromise, loss of identity, disconnection from what we hold dear, erosion of confidence, blatant misogyny, to being spat out at the other end of the process once you’ve failed to be the money-making commodity they desire. However cautionary this tale is, it ends optimistically, as the band emerge with their sanity and creativity intact.
The experience of wearing a headset throughout the performance draws the audience fully into the mind of Thyme, tantalisingly giving us the feeling that we are eavesdropping on someone’s dream, indeed so immersed are the audience in this private world, that there is a palpable sense of unease over whether it’s appropriate to applaud throughout lest we break the spell. The inclusion of Uisdean Murray’s dream and indeed, nightmare-like film sequences and the sinister presence of an Alice in Wonderland-like white rabbit, only serve to increase the feeling of having an out of body experience. But the real highlight of the performance is the band’s beautifully crafted music.
This is an innovative attempt at attracting a new audience to theatre and the inclusion of other art forms and technology make it an engaging one, but the real power and impact comes from having writers who have lived first hand this roller-coaster ride and who are brave enough to show us that, in the 25 years since the original piece was conceived, women’s treatment in the entertainment industry has changed little, if at all, and that is what gives the piece a truly authentic and memorable voice.
For years, Louise Quinn and her band, A Band Called Quinn, have been blurring the boundaries between music, film and theatre. With their music appearing in films and television series worldwide, riding high as the “soundtrack to Scotland” (so dubbed by Kayleigh Mcleod at Scottish Television Local), their track The Glimmer Song used for Scottish Television’s national ads and counting Madonna and author Ian Rankin among their fans, The Public Reviews‘ Lauren Humphreys chatted to Louise about her foray into theatre with the innovative Biding Time (remix).
Tell us a bit about Pippa Bailey’s musical theatre work Biding Timeand how you came to be involved in creating a remixed version of it.
The original concept by Pippa Bailey is about a woman called Thyme and her path to fame. Pippa provides the basic framework for the show but asks artists to put their own slant on it. We’ve worked with the theatre company Vanishing Point and its artistic director Matthew Lenton was at a conference with Pippa, who said she wanted to open the work up to artists worldwide and get their different responses to the source work. She expressed a desire to have a music industry slant put on it and, despite the original idea being 25 years old, the role of women in the business hasn’t really changed. I read it, realised it had parallels with my own story and thought OK, but I want to make it a lot darker and a lot more surreal.
So, what can we expect from your remixed version of Biding Time?
I think I can best describe it by saying that it will be like being inside someone’s head or going into another world – I hope it will be really transporting. There’s a silent disco in the show so that will give it an immersive quality, and that mixed in with all the visuals should make quite a strange experience for the audience as well as good fun. There’s a lot of humour in it too. Hopefully it will reflect the rollercoaster ride you go on from being discovered to the intoxicating feeling of fame, then realising the real dangers of the music business.
As you mentioned, you’ve been involved with theatre company Vanishing Point and its re-interpretation of The Beggar’s Opera which seemed to polarise critical opinion, attracting reviews ranging from one to five stars. When you were working on it, did you ever imagine it would provoke such strong critical reactions?
It felt quite intense in places when we were working on it. The intention was to do something radical to get a younger audience into a theatre [the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh] whose patrons were literally dying off. So I suppose it did what it said on the tin. If it had been on at a different theatre, it would have got a very different reaction. There were older audience members who loved it too, but it was a work that was constantly being tweaked. By the time it got to its final venue I think it was finished but it could have been a great piece if we had more time to marry the music to the dialogue.
You describe your band’s music as “art pop” and your gigs have been described as theatrical, having been wheeled into one gig in a cardboard box and carried onstage by a gorilla in another – how have you developed your performance style?
I was always a shy kid but one of those annoying ones who’s always putting on shows in the living room. I wanted to study art but instead went to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (formerly RSAMD) to study production. I left in my third year to pursue a career in the music industry but eventually went on to have a “day job” with Bal from the band, in surrealist, interventionist theatre company Mischief La Bas, so with that background and the fact that we’ve never been afraid to cross over into different art forms, it was probably inevitable we would be theatrical.
With your music currently being featured in Scottish Television’s national commercial, how has having your music on TV every evening affected the bands profile?
Apart from my mum and dad now realising that I’m not just messing around, it’s been great to go out into the wider world and hear people talking about our work. The response has been fantastic.
Many of your songs have been featured in films and TV series; do you think you might pursue writing soundtracks specifically?
We’re getting a lot of calls, and we’re definitely getting a reputation as a band who sound good on film, so hopefully we can pursue that.
What next for you and A Band Called Quinn?
Firstly, we’ve been trying to release our album Red Light Means Go for a few years, the songs have been used in the BBC’s Lip Service and Carter Ferguson’s film Fast Romance, and finally it’ll be released on 1st November to coincide with some live shows we’re doing. After that we hope that the music written for this show will appear on its own album and hopefully Biding Time (remix) will have a future – we’re working with filmmaker Uisdean Murray to take the visual content of the show and make it into a feature-length film.
A review of A Band Called Quinn’s Biding Time (remix) will be published next week.