Sherlock Holmes and the Sign of Four @ The Brunton

Video contribution: Blackeyed Theatre

Based on the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Writer & Director: Nick Lane

Missing jewels, murder, romance and a chap with a wooden leg. If it wasn’t Sherlock Holmes, it would have to be something equally as impossible. Sherlock Holmes and the Sign of Four has our residents of Baker Street encounter Watson’s future wife Mary Morstan as they hunt for treasure, clues and the truth.

So recognisable, playing Sherlock Holmes is demonstrably difficult. We all know them; we all have a favourite. It’s a challenge Luke Barton certainly does not shy from. His Holmes is energetic, more so than many. He has a charm, a warmth unfamiliar with some portrayals and a command which wouldn’t be questioned by any character on stage. Overall his Holmes has elements of a classic, yet fresh-faced Holmes hungry for more. The issue though, in no fault of Barton is that this Holmes has been written quite immortal. There’s no folly, nothing which pricks a hole in his character. We don’t doubt this Holmes can solve the case. He isn’t overly curious like Vasily Livanov’s Holmes or has the detached sociopathic failings of the recent Cumberbatch.

Holmes is nothing without Dr Watson, though he would be loathed to admit it.  Here we are no different, with a tremendous amount of the production’s success owed to Joseph Derrington. He has an innate likability; we connect quicker with Watson than we do Holmes – as we should. His comedic timing as our storyteller is spot on, breaking the chunks of dense narrative to ease our minds.

So, what of the mystery itself? Adapted from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s second novel focused around the Detective of Baker Street, The Sign of Four is far from straightforward. It requires a lot of exposition, time and narrative shifts but attempts to make up for this amidst an emphasis on adventure. Blackeyed Theatre succeeds in retelling a faithful version of events, still branding it with their own take. The final fifteen minutes, however, the motivation behind the crime edges on length, almost stretching into the pages of a different story entirely.

From the sharp peaks of the London steeples to the rounded carvings of Indian turrets – Victoria Spearing’s set design is enthralling. At first, it appears sharp, hollow but serving its purpose. What appears to just be backdrop though, unfolds twisting into a variety of locales. When cast in distinctive lighting, the unfriendly grey of London mellows into the richness of India. It’s a resourceful design which works not only with physical movement but with the tech of the production itself.

What first seems to be an inherent advantage for Blackeyed Theatre is the original composition by Tristian Parkes. It allows for a sense of freshness. We are treated to live performances from cast members currently not on stage. Though of course *ahem* gifted with young Sherlock’s early attempts to master his Stradivarius, his signature violin. With light notes they convey a wisp of time floating around Holmes’ deduction. To the soft strings of the continents, this all helps with world building. That said, the brass instrumentals, in particular, the trombone, hit heavily in a smaller venue, casting any other instrumentals aside.

No matter what the future may hold for us, Sherlock Holmes is likely to always sit at the heart of mystery lovers across the world. Blackeyed Theatre has prevailed in putting their stamp onto the deerstalker, with an atmospheric production with no short supply of talented individuals – even with the intricate plot points and lengthy climax.

Review originally published for Reviewshub:
https://www.thereviewshub.com/sherlock-holmes-and-the-sign-of-four-brunton-theatre-musselburgh/

Production Touring:
http://www.blackeyedtheatre.co.uk/

Locker Room Talk @ Traverse Theatre

Image contribution:
David Monteith Hodge

Writer: Gary McNair

Director: Orla O’Loughlin

Post Show facilitator: Dr Holly Davis

There are few things more powerful than a word, spoken or otherwise. The championed word shouted on the streets and in the press can have the widest impact both for resistance and oppression. The most dangerous word is the one they didn’t want you to hear. The words said about women which would never be uttered to women – until now.

Associate artist to the Traverse Theatre, Gary McNair offers insight to both the importance of outspoken words and the toxicity of those unheard. The concept is simple, it’s stretching potential is vast. To record around fifty men, from various classes, races and ages about one topic: women. Or more importantly, the sort of ‘laddish’ banter conducted when women aren’t present. One year ago, we reviewed the same show, in the same venture with different women reciting the same words spoken by the same men. Nothing has changed, for good reason.

We open with the beaming orange-faced voice of self-conceited, misogynistic and *ahem* leader of honest viewpoints – Donald Trump. Snippets of his now infamous interviews, off-the-record responses and campaign proclamations are echoed into the darkness as cast Maureen Carr, Jamie Marie Leary, Gabriel Quigley and Nicola Roy enter the stage. We hear the toxic masculinity, anti-feminist statements and goading’s of these men read in real-time by these women.

All of our readers add an element which lacked slightly from the previous year. There’s an ounce more of delivery in conveying the men. Not as characters but as people. Accents, physical movements and the odd wink or nudge. The script is already believable, but this adds a sense of weight to the production. Voices we would hear in the pub, at the bus stop or in the doctors’ surgery.

There’s humour to be had, though this is more out of familiarity than genuine laughs. We chuckle as we need an outlet at the deplorable speech on offer. Some of the audience will find the script disheartening. Others, shocked. Most worrying are the ones who are ambivalent or complacent.

Where all matters of recordings or interviews are concerned there is human error. The interviewees range from honest, deflecting and to entirely innocent in the case of the children. At points, we can feel where men are lying to McNair or bending the extent of their own personal misogyny to push themselves out of the light. Though, this also showcases the reach of patriarchy – that complacency is its tool, as people who recognise it themselves can’t or won’t confront it.

What is implored is to stay for the post-show discussion. Usually a phrase many dread in relation to theatrical productions. Led by Dr Holly Davis, a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow this part is the kind of outlet which is needed. Encouraged to open up dialogue, we are presented with no filter of a topic, no judgement and invited to publicise the need for this sort of discussion.

I said in the previous year’s review that one day, productions like Locker Room Talk won’t be required. A year on they still are, even more so. Locker Room Talk serves as an insight into the often-unseen locker room mentality. This production serves to uncover a truth that, whilst many will still ignore – that at some point this talk will become action. The action of sharing, calling-out or calling-in abusive behaviour and driving writers, performers and the public to help drain the poison under the surface.

Production Touring:
http://www.garymcnair.co.uk/locker-room-talk/

Review originally published for Reviews Hub:
https://www.thereviewshub.com/locker-room-talk-traverse-theatre-edinburgh-2/

Paper Memories @ North Edinburgh Arts

Image contribution:
Beth Chalmers

Director: Rachael Macintyre

Writer: Mariem Omari

Imagine in ten minutes time, you’re fleeing home. You can only take four objects. Whilst tempted by the glitz or price tags, many would pick items instilled with fragile memories. 

In Jabuti Theatre’s Paper Memories, Tali and her family find themselves relocating to Scotland from an undisclosed location. At first the family find themselves out of place, their mother wishing for nothing more than move on and forget. Tali brings four treasures, each with a memory attached. As each one is cast aside, destroyed or de-valued, her memories begin to tear away, harming Tali further.

We shackle ourselves to memories, and in the attempts to break these we quite often do more harm than good. The more Tali’s mother pushes for these memories to be buried, the tighter Tali clings to them. Mariem Omari’s writing draws deep vivid connections from such small objects – a tuft of fur, a skirt and a wishbone from Grandmother’s special chicken.

What really sells the emotion of loss and family ties are the performances from the cast, Helen Parke’s Tali alongside Jusztina Hermann’s role as the mother especially. Hermann’s mother is a character we can identify with, not questioning why she would want to leave the past buried. Parke’s flippant bursts from sorrow to childlike glee playing with her sister or at the sight of a small paper rabbit are exquisite.

This bunny, hopping onto the audience’s laps, is joined by several chickens and a small, charming dove spiralling around the feats of aerial movement. This audience interaction, whilst aimed at the younger audience members, can be appreciated by adults for its craft, humour and intention. The crisp white of Kim Bergsagel’s puppet design stands out against Simon Gane’s atmospherically rich light design.

Both Parke and director Rachael Macintyre perform aerial feats that are certainly impressive in scale for a smaller venue. It adds wonder to the production in opening up the limited space. We travel the seas, the skies and find ourselves living through the eyes of Tali, all high above the ground below. 

Paper Memories is an approachable look not only at memories and family dynamics, but also on immigration and identity for a younger audience. It’s present, but not a focal point, because the memories and slivers of what the family fled from are enough to open eyes and encourage questions.

Production still touring:
http://www.jabutitheatre.com/paper-memories/

Review originally published for The Skinny:
https://www.theskinny.co.uk/theatre/shows/reviews/paper-memories-north-edinburgh-arts-edinburgh

The Tailor of Inverness @ The Brunton

Image Contribution:
Dogstar Theatre

Writer: Matthew Zajac

Director: Ben Harrison

War and all of its travesties will never be understood. From the British perspective – we were the heroes, they the villains. When presented with people quite literally in the bootstraps of the opposition many are unable to connect. The stories told by people leaving the Third Reich behind are sometimes worn proudly, as a warning. Sometimes hushed, wishing to forget, but for the case of immigrants such as Mateusz Zajac, the reinvention of his time during the war is to ensure his acceptance in Scotland as The Tailor of Inverness.

The son of the Polish tailor, Matthew Zajac has endeavoured to get to the foundations of his father Mateusz’s life during his enigmatic years. Playing both the role of he and his father, this stage adaption keeps the descriptive plot and offers poignant performances with rich accompaniment by fiddler Gavin Marwick.

As the tailor’s strings are stitched, woven into his son Matthew’s jacket it’s within these threads we find the inherent fault with an otherwise remarkable piece of theatre. For those familiar, it’s no secret that Zajac’s writing is at its pinnacle superb, at its weakest complicated. Several threads are left untightened throughout the narrative, though with reason. When all the strands are in place – Zajac pulls the hems together and what we hope for is a tight piece where all threads align. In truth, it isn’t as difficult as others claim to follow – but for the general theatre-going public, it is not straightforward.

Zajac’s ardent performance inherently helps the story. As this is his story, his father’s story, the story of his family and his cultural identity – the delivery is natural. It’s volatile in its emotion, painful to hear, but eye-opening to watch. There’s merriment, dancing and humour – his performance isn’t only compelling, but enjoyable.

Where the theatrical adaption enhances the book, is with the ability to offer visuals. We see the interviews and hear the audio tapes Matthew has made in his travels. While we often enjoy making our own images, the projections allow us to invest so much more in this family’s growth story. The impressive set design, a series of garments flattened into a screen is an inventive method to allow for projection. The ridges in the shirt cuffs, however, cause obstruction of words if you’re far to either side of the theatre.

The theme of circling is eternally present in Zajac’s text, it’s themed such as a strive to battle against ourselves, identity and this complex narrative. The story told by his father, of circling a fox in order to snare it runs parallel to other events. The first, Matthew’s closing in around his father’s footsteps before his time in Scotland. More though, on the subject of immigration, is Mateusz’s reinvention of his past.

Immigration is not just a ‘current’ issue, tragically it’s always been an issue. Even in the reparations of war, Mateusz found himself in another circle – a circle of his own creation surrounding his time in the Soviet Union, as a soldier for the German side, but also a prisoner of war. The truth spiralling in on him, The Tailor of Inverness is indeed relevant still today, just as it was 10 years ago.

Transitioning to the stage works for The Taylor of Inverness, though only so much. The original text has space in order to lay it’s groundwork more seamlessly. The passion, power and triumphant ability within Zajac’s performance is commanding. Regardless of complexity, The Tailor of Inverness is still the construction of importance, an empathetic yet defiant examination of family, reinvention, storytelling and two men’s different but extraordinary journeys.

Review originally published for The Reviews Hub:
https://www.thereviewshub.com/the-tailor-of-inverness-brunton-theatre-musselburgh/

Production touring: http://www.dogstartheatre.co.uk/

Silvano: Scottish Opera @ Usher Hall

Image Contribution:
Paul Foster – Williams

Composer: Pietro Mascagni

Musical Director: Stuart Stratford

Adapted from Alphonse Karr’s novel, Pietro Mascagni composed Silvano as a two-act opera in 1895. The seafaring drama is, well, precisely that. At its core is a love-triangle, and we all know how those end. Set against a fishing town on the Adriatic coast, young fisherman Silvano’s passion for Matilde spurns his former friend Renzo with violent consequences.

So why Silvano? In short, the unfamiliarity. Scottish Opera’s attraction to forgotten relics of operatic history drags them to the surface. In true verismo style, Roxana Haines’ Silvano is not staged as a full opera, but instead conducted as a concert, which adds to the realism of the original libretto. We have nothing but our performers, the lyrics and accomplished musicians. This is all we require for greatness.  

There’s tremendous openness with staging Silvano this way. It places the orchestra – the lifeblood and beating heart of any opera – at the forefront, and allows the audience to appreciate the magnitude of skill on offer, to see the inner workings of the behemoth usually kept hidden.

Despite the title, the tour de force performance is found not with Silvano (Alexey Dolgov) but instead with Matilde, performed by soprano Emma Bell. Her control is awe-inspiring, particularly in her accomplished projection with marvellous diction. The emotion conveyed is raw, her desperation and disgrace evident. The softer vocals of Dolgov, and David Stout’s aggressive Renzo, contribute to the duality of the characters.  

A drawback occurs with Rosa, Silvano’s mother portrayed by Leah-Marian Jones – not vocally, but with how little her presence gives to the story. Silvano is one of Mascagni’s shorter pieces, meaning pacing suffers. Whilst the subtle score allows for imaginative water motifs, it feels less free-flowing and more huddled together narratively.

Mascagni’s lyrical construction though allows for flexibility in delivery, helping communicate the narrative. It’s no secret that opera isn’t the easiest art form to understand – language barrier aside, issues arise with the speed of delivery and lyricism. This isn’t an issue with Silvano, the mixture of aria and almost recitative spoken word offers accessibility.

Stuart Stratford’s conduction is, as expected, masterful. Silvano is an uncomplicated opera but also a gem deserving of a turn in the spotlight. Its minor flaws lie not with Scottish Opera, but with the original adapted composition. It is opera at its most unadulterated and transparent, pure but effective.

Review originally published for The Skinny:
https://www.theskinny.co.uk/theatre/shows/reviews/silvano-usher-hall-edinburgh