Mamma Mia! – The Playhouse, Edinburgh

Music & Lyrics by Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus

Book by Catherine Johnson

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

Choreography by Anthony Van Laast

Runs at Edinburgh Playhouse until September 28th

Well, my, my, my – just how much we missed you. The returning champion of the jukebox musical, Mamma Mia! brings the Grecian sun, drama and sensation to those Autumnal nights in Edinburgh.

We know the story, you know the story, we most likely all saw the movie with a few vinos – but for the unfortunate few who haven’t… Sophie, the bride to be, has an issue. Rather than walking down the aisle with the mother who has been raising her, Sophie turns to seek out her father – a person her mother has kept secret. Narrowing it down to one of three men, she decides to invite all of them to the wedding, what on earth could go wrong? It’s a story of redemptive love, carving your path – but vitally, a tribute to the music of ABBA and realisation of respecting what, or who, you have.

Now, we would be remiss in not extending praise of the highest honour to the powerhouse duo of two incredible women – and we don’t mean Donna or Sophie. No, the real marker of Mamma Mia! lies in capturing the dynamic duo of Tanya and Rosie. Helen Anker and Nicky Swift propel the production from the moment their timing and glorious harmonies showcase for the number Chiquitita. Never has such a reassurance of quality been in safer hands, from a number which, while enjoyable, never sits in the ABBA pantheon to the esteem of Winner Takes It All or S.O.S

And fellas, please remain calm during Does Your Mother Know – you may find it hard to do so, but please keep your ‘standing ovations’ to yourselves, no matter how fantastic Anker is as Tanya.

Never one to stand in shadow, Sharon Sexton’s Donna refuses to allow her friends to have all the fun. Her Donna is fiery, animated and thankfully, keeps Sexton’s Irish accent making for one hell of a formidable woman. It isn’t though until The Winner Takes It All that Sexton strides to the front of the cast, nailing every note, maintaining clarity and gut-wrenching emotion. It’s easy to throw Donna’s character into the comedic pit, but Sexton, with Nikki Davis Jone’s resident direction, captures the mother, as well as the free spirit. Touching, her rendition of Slipping Through My Fingers will stir profound emotions to offset the humour we’ve been experiencing thus far. 

Sadly, there is a minor complication with an otherwise perfect production – it is, however, a subjective one. An exquisite soprano, Emma Mullen’s Sophie can reach peak notes, but wavers when numbers require a deeper tone, especially troublesome with the weaker sound design drowning out the cast in the opening half. Her Sophie feels closer at home in the halls of Downton, then the sun of the Greek islands. Her movements are stiff, peculiar as her dance routines are often flowing. This touring production has a Sophie who feels a tad more neurotic, less like the character is meant to be with stiff – jerking actions in her hands or expression.

The ladies cannot have all the fun though, as our three leading men don their glitter, shoulder-pads and leave a few top buttons off to raise the roof. Rob Fowler, Daniel Crowder and Jamie Kenna offer such joy to the audience in their roles as Sam, Harry and Bill, but Fowler’s vocal ability is sensational – rivalling Sexton for solo’s which raise hairs as they do cheers. Together with Swift’s Rosie, Kenna gains the audiences favour for his comedic subtlety, never stretching himself into caricature.

The cast, particularly in large numbers such as Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! or Voulez-Vous prove their merit, courtesy of touring dance captain Robert Knight, Anthony Van Laast’s original choreography maintains its sharp intensity.

When theatre is this energetic, a pure euphoric sense of enjoyment washes over. Where cares, troubles and the irritations of day-to-day life get left behind as you strut, sing, wiggle them shoulders and let loose. Mamma Mia! will never be known for it’s diverse or rich narrative, but what it will always be is a testament to how solid vocals, excellent composition and a mother-load of hip thrusts can transform even the miserable into dancing queens for one evening.

Tickets Available from ATG Tickets for Edinburgh Playhouse: https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/mamma-mia/edinburgh-playhouse/

Solaris – The Lyceum, Edinburgh

Written by David Greig

Adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s novel

Directed by Matthew Lutton

Runs at The Royal Lyceum Theatre until October 5th

A living planet. Capable of rational thought, movement and decision. Universal discovery of a lifetime – or idealist lie to further one’s understanding of the unknown? David Greig’s Solaris adapts itself from the original 1968 novel by Stanislaw Lem, also borrowing, but standing apart from the 1972 cinematic masterpiece from Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. 

Examining the response to extraterrestrial life, a reflective piece on human isolation, David Greig’s (thankfully) gender-balanced cast stands aboard a spacecraft orbiting the titular Solaris. A planet of an endless ocean – yet there’s more. Solaris, perhaps unkindly, offers the crew gifts. Tokens at first, which distort themselves into something all too familiar. Recognisable phantoms sooner best forgotten, past loves and children. As the natures of scientific rigour fight against human desire, the crew find themselves sharing emotional vulnerability.

There isn’t a single scene which does not deserve to be captured, framed and proudly put on display. Hyemi Shin’s design captivates our attention from the opening. Furthering a cinematic motif, the tri-colour palette ebbs and hues across the distinctly clinical aesthetic. Monumentally triumphant, stage management must pride themselves in the seamless workings of Solaris. Capitalising on the cinematic ‘cuts’ over a traditional black-out, the pace of transition is impressive – holding off a tiring of the effect. 

This tantalising setting, through Matthew Lutton’s direction, divides itself through a richly rewarding make-up of staging and cinematic projection. With fewer gimmickry intentions than one may principally suspect, it’s in truth minimal in reliance on effects which do not overshadow stellar performances.

Chiefly that of Polly Frame, taking the role of psychologist Kris Kelvin. Her presence is accessible, easing audience preconceptions as they wrap their heads around the jargonish plot threads. Indeed, both Fode Simbo and Jade Ogugua’s doctors Snow and Sartorius bring different elements of morality to the concepts of ‘othering’ the vistor. Genuine, welcoming and offering levity – Simbo acts against the deteriorating sanity of Frame, maintaining a distinct element of that most dangerous trait: curiosity.

Gracing us through the medium of VHS is Hugo Weaving, who matches expectations – excelling those of a pre-recorded segment. His presence isn’t leant upon, his scenes an enhancing addition of flavourful exposition, without the reliance of heavy description.

Space encompasses the inevitability of isolation, the avoidance of one’s self-realisation, is futile. Greig takes a bold move in what he shapes from the original novel, honing the defiance in being alone, as the planet manifesting itself in human form. Psychologist Kris rips herself between the realms of human connection and scientific standards, drawn to the personification of her loneliness in Ray (Keegan Joyce). An energetic, attractive man from her past, a ghost of regret. In chasing this idealistic fantasy, Kris traps herself further in an addictive pursuit of false satisfaction.

Horror lurks principally in a tranquil yet unnerving underlying score, composed by sound designer Jethro Woodward. Straying from this psychological terror, a fear persists of allowing an excessive negative air to hang over Solaris. Humour is punchy, often natural, but permeates frequently, exceeding dread.

An infusion of stage and screen, David Greig champions sci-fi in a manner theatre rarely carries off. As alien as the narrative may reside, it couldn’t be further from human in construct. With a distinct beauty in design, both aural and visual, Solaris is a pinnacle of theatrical science fiction, and while it shy’s from the genre’s depths of horror, it redeems itself with a prevalent atmosphere.

Tickets available from The Lyceum: https://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/solaris

Production Photography: Mihaela Bodlovic

Coco Before Chanel – 10th Anniversary

Coco Before Chanel – Retrospective

Directed by Anne Fontaine

Written by Anne & Camille Fontaine

Chanel and Her World by Edmonde Charles-Roux

Before the brand, there was a woman. Before that little black dress, there was a little straw hat – preceding all of this, was ‘Coco Before Chanel’ (2009), based on the writings of Edmonde Charles-Roux’s ‘Chanel and Her World’.

In celebration of Anne Fontaine’s biographical film’s tenth anniversary, we look back at the movie which seeks, not to place Chanel as what the public understand, but to retreat into her roots. A woman of merit stretching far beyond her role as a fashion designer, a liberator to the constriction of the pre-war corset silhouette of the European women, and a company leader. The young woman who would refuse to succumb to the banal interests of rich men, instead maintain a presence of bohemian brilliance which would change the face of couture culture and women in the place of business.

In a role which is frequently said to be one she was ‘born to play’, Audrey Tautou takes on the mantle of Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, or as the world would know her – Coco Chanel. Notable in her gamine charm, Tautou is, one must admit, the epitome of perfect casting. Exceeding simple aesthetical similarities, Tautou’s mannerism and characterisation match that of Chanel magnificently, in a rare moment of blindness to the performer – we see Chanel, we no longer see Tautou.

Developing excellently playful chemistry with Tautou, Benoît Poelvoorde fails to fall into a category of a patriarchal antagonist, maintaining a close relationship with the real-life counterpart of Étienne Balsan. A French socialite, he took to becoming Coco Chanel’s lover, as she remained in his residence for her life following her days singing in the bars of Moulins.

Echoing what would be her inevitable future as ‘public property’ Coco is discussed by her male companions, though never directly crass, in a sense of objectivity. Upon repetitious requests to; ‘be more feminine’ Coco’s response is to maintain a steadfast aesthetic, one which she would design for Hollywood herself. Apparel which ensnares powerful men, despite protestations of hidden curves and concealing flesh. The clothes fellow women in the room wear, to Chanel, are unbecoming, cumbersome and uncomfortable and unsurprisingly, have the desire of men as their intention.

Stepping into an androgynous merging of gendered clothing, frequently remarked in her dressing as a ‘boy’, Fontaine’s film is a clever piece on the obsessive need for men to dress women, and in turn, the reversed gaze in which woman would make decisions on their gowns. How this develops from written elements into visual is what keeps ‘Coco Before Chanel’ an interesting piece, even as the narrative grates with age.

Little insight is up for concern as to the films nature as a visual creation. With academy award nominations for its costume design, one would expect nothing less from a film centring itself of one of history’s notable designers. In a room full of frivolity, extravagance and choking pastels, our gaze is drawn to Tauton’s costume. Astutely lacing the design into the narrative, as her world begins to choke, her garb loosens in the traditional Chanel style, exquisitely capturing the comfort chic, barrelling out against the seductive lace or restrictive corsets.

Catherine Leterrier may have been unsuccessful in obtaining a BAFTA or Academy award for her costume design, but small merit winning a Caesar Award. An honourable, if underwhelming honour as the visual nature of the film is easily its greatest asset following Tautou’s performance.

Outside of the boundaries of costume, Christophe Beaucarne’s cinematography plays with the triatic scheme of colour in a mesmeric way – particularly in the films closing. Monochromatic in construct, much of Chanel’s work has a blend of black and white – an echoing motif throughout the film, Beaucarne splices a single colour, regularly crimson, to strike out against these polar opposite tones.

What falters the film is Fontaine’s move of pedestalling Chanel to an elaborate level, particularly once the romance with Chapel (Alessandro Nivola) accelerates. With such a tiny framework of her life under examination, such care is taken to make it interesting and unsympathetic – to see the woman before the brand, that the closing quarter of the film refrains from embracing the set pace – making for a paradoxically sluggish, yet rushed ending. 

In striving to put out their name, a task already hindered in male-dominated sectors, quite often women are rounded out as too perfect, too infallible – a tragic consequence in the depiction of real women in film. Coco Chanel, for all she did, was far more compelling than the film makes her out to be. Fontaine limits her timescale, a necessity in biographical dramas, in doing this, Chanel’s darker history is cast aside, a history which the film fails to allude too. Her early successes in life are seen, but we cut the balancing secret aspirations and beliefs which keep her fallible. As such, the film moves from an unceremonious examination of her youth – to a sudden tone shift.

Director and screenwriter Anne Fontaine would later refuse to shy from controversy, her intense gut-punch of reality would unearth in her recent film ‘The Innocents’ (2016), but for as sublime as Coco Before Chanel’s visuals and performances may be, one can sense the emptiness. Tautou captures the woman before she was a household name, offering a glimpse into the trials and fire she had in her belly – but is let down by writing which fails to continue the unsentimental detachment it opens with, instead, resorting to an odd mid-climax which belongs in a different film.