Darien – The Byre Theatre

Script and Lyrics by Richard Robb

Composition by Craig McNichol

New Edinburgh. It was meant to be a crowning achievement, cementing the Kingdom of Scotland as a power of trade and influence. It would instead prove to be a colossal failure. The Darien Scheme was an attempt in colonising the Gulf of Darien between Panama and Columbia in the 1690s. Comprised of two expeditions, the first is told here through the eyes of one (fictional) man – Murdo McFarlane. His desire to remain on the island, fascinated by its beauty despite the discomfort and constant threats of the natives, becomes the focal point for this production. For all which survives of the failed colony is his writings, which have allowed his stories to survive years later.

Darien – The Commonplace Book of Murdo MacFarlane, presented by Bell Baxter High School, is a loose biography surrounding the events of the new Caledonia settlement. As is tradition with high school productions, it’s also a musical. Richard Robbs’ script leans on the musical aspect; thankfully, the vocals of the cast are perhaps the production’s best asset. The content of the script is intriguing, with detailed visuals offering a clear sense of the world-building Scotland attempted, though we get bogged down in some of the lengthier political or historical features.

The heavy, almost lecturing aspect of Darien is lifted in Act Two, as we move away from the first settlers and instead have a welcome dose of stronger female characters arriving on the shores. The dialogue and the performances have a tighter feel, with humour taking a more central stance. Megan Callaghan as Macfarlane’s wife, along with fellow traveller, Daytona Brereton, have the standout vocals. Brereton’s earthy tones in particular are a voice to listen out for in the future. Another musical highlight that appears earlier in Act One is “Wigs”, where soloist Shane Franks proves himself to be exceptionally talented. This playful number allows a break for levity, lampooning bourgeoisie obsessions and Franks to impress the audience with his choreography and slapstick skill. In spite of Franks’ clear showmanship, the solo highlights the lyrical density of Robbs’ songs. It’s a wonder how Franks manages to get out a torrent of unnecessary words in stanzas.

Nevertheless, the tunes are certainly catchy, with Craig McNicol’s compositions adding pathos to the production. Daniel Staal’s lighting complements the atmosphere set by the score rather well, with a great deal of imagination going into the construction of some scenes. From the pure white mist rolling down the mountains to the crimson flash of the Spanish soldiers on their trail, Staal does a superb job in bringing Darien to life in vivid detail.

Bell Baxter High has produced an impressive piece in Darien; while many high school productions fall back on a pre-existing formula, they instead have gone for something truly original. With a series of solid vocals, some creative design work and a story which, despite its slow pacing, has an investing level of intrigue, mystery and heart, Darien is a piece to be proud of. It certainly has set the bar for future productions.

Review originally published for Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/darien/

Horrible Histories: Terrible Tudors & Awful Egyptians – King’s Theatre

Based on the books by Terry Deary

Writers: Terry Deary & Neal Foster

Director: Neal Foster

For 25 years the books of Horrible Histories have been delighting, disgusting and in some cases frightening the young (and old) of the nation. A tremendously valuable tool, they captured an imaginative way to make history and culture accessible for people who found little interest. Written by original author Terry Deary with Neal Foster, Horrible Histories the Terrible Tudors and Awful Egyptians are two shows which may share a cast, but each is crammed with enough differences to merit its own show.

Time flows in a peculiar way once we venture into the past, in two forty-five-minute acts we somehow go from the coronation of cruel hunchback Richard III right up to the death of Elizabeth I. We witness the building of the Pyramids and cover an extensive period of British and world history quicker (and better) than most curriculums. Yet, it doesn’t feel long enough. We want, neigh we beg more. We want more squelching moments of disgust, period cures to common ailments, more mummy (w)rapping and assuredly more interaction between the three performers.

Of the two, the vicious dramatics of Terrible Tudors may have more blood, gore and a braver audience, but it is those Awful Egyptians who have the more rounded piece. The overall narrative has a more fluid structure, with the smoother transitions between scenes. We are not solely witnessing the stories but instead trapped inside a Museum of Ancient Egyptian antiquities where the imposing Rameses the Great has been awakened.

A sumptuous blend of the ridiculous with the technological exists on stage. Some of the props are directly out of the drama school closet, the dolls of Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I are adorable, yet still creepy, speaking of which as is the puppet of Henry VIII only son, Edward. They’re used with love, their less grand manner heightening the gags. Buckle up though, this second act is about to pull out the bells and whistles…

A selling point for both Horrible Histories is its Boggle vision – 3D projections which serve as the backdrop for the second half. In cinema, this is a gimmick used once every thirty years. The fifties tried it, the eighties re-invented it and the later 2000s vastly improved upon it. The design work of Jackie Trousdale is tremendous. The cold stones of the Tower of London, rich flames and crimson squelches of blood plastering the screen setting the tone sublimely. Likewise, the vivid brightness of Ancient Egypt is only as appealing as the atmospheric haunts of the afterlife…

Just when you thought we couldn’t be livelier – these are in fact musicals. Yep, you read that right. Nothing works better for memorising history than mind-numbing rhymes which are far better than they have any right to be. Matthew Scott’s music composition captures Horrible Histories television show tunes many will be familiar with, Izaak Cainer and Lisa Allen belting out accomplished vocals.

In keeping with any successful children’s show, they cross the threshold into adult territory. Doing so not only in humour but through serious tone changing, shifting from the farcically fun into the dramatic but gruesome features of history. The dedication undertook by cast member Lisa Allen in her closing moments as Elizabeth I are stirring, echoing back to the sinister turn earlier in the production as the famous Green Sleeves degrades into the fate of Anne Boleyn.

Simon Nook, half caricature, half comedian and half King of England brings his absolute A-game to both productions, firstly as a larger than life Henry the VIII but then as an even more menacingly hilarious Ramesses the Great. He knows just when to kickstart the audience, which button needs pushing and how to dial up the volume from the party poopers in the crowd. His voices encourage fits of pure giggles in a way the original books first accomplished. His performance to ‘make Egypt great again’ may slip over a few heads but has knifepoint commentary laced throughout.

Nook, Allen and Cainer capture the essence of what Deary brought to the publishing world decades ago. To not only educate but to entertain, gross-out and ignite a passion for history. Both Terrible Tudors and Awful Egyptians are hilarious, engaging and beneficial for any inspiring history buff while reigniting a passion for us adults.

Review originally published for Reviews Hub: https://www.thereviewshub.com/horrible-histories-terrible-tudors-and-awful-egyptians-kings-theatre-edinburgh/

Photo Credit – Mark Douet

Too Late To Die Young – Filmhouse, Edinburgh

Writer & Director – Dominga Sotomayor

Chile Brazil Argentina Netherlands Qatar/ 2018/ 110 mins

Dominga Sotomayor Castillo has a penchant for producing cinema which places family experiences at its core. She examines the dynamics between generations, without putting dependence on melodrama. Nature is a common theme, particularly with her 2013 film La Isla, how freeing yet choking isolation can be. In her new cinematic venture, Too Late To Die Young, we see a continuance of this dynamic. It is not outside forces or manipulated pathos which piques our interest, but slow character study and warming aesthetics.

While we have multiple characters with dynamics between families, friends and lovers – we focus on Demian Hernández as Sofía. Angsty, brooding and chain-smoking, Sofia might have been the typical teenager seeking a life in the city. Hernández’s performance elevates the usual ‘moody teen’ into a young woman coming to grips with her community.

Complexity in the relationships boils over in the third act, a New Year’s Eve party which culminates in validation for some, mistakes for others. Keep in mind that the framework of Sotomayor’s production is not only centring around the youth but in the coming-of-age story for the nation itself. Her spiritual focusing around Chile’s return to democracy as history occurs in tandem. It’s not the driving force but instead an unseen toxin, twisting itself around the community.

Exposition, of which there is little, is not force-fed to the audience. Too Late To Die Young builds on its atmosphere to generate intrigue. Nothing surrounding Sotomayor’s filmmaking is quick – she takes her time, smouldering and gradually layering her story like smoke. The issue is that there is no fire. Emotional instability rises in a predictable manner, but when there is a pay-off, there’s nothing to bite into. The film has all the components of a timeless narrative, one accessible and relateable for generations despite its South American setting, yet the journey though tapers off in appeal.

This approach can be grating, given the beauty in how the new world is stitched into the lives of our community, only for dissipation to occur when we do focus on our characters. Incidents go without notice for the large part. A minor break-in with the murmurs of outsiders, a passing comment of a deceased horse poisoning the water supply. There was almost a sublime look into the subjective nature of communities outside of suburban landscapes, but it’s lulling influence dismantles the drive of the film.

Inti Brione’s cinematography reflects the realism of the film. Shots are held for as long as they need to be. This is except for the mirroring opening and closing shots. The final shot is a reverse of the beginning, opening up our view to provide insight and round off the film. Just as the country exists in a haze of uncertainty, Brione’s aesthetic is dusty, clouded and reflecting the hesitation of not only of youth but of a country in the between stages of the regime and liberation.

Too Late to Die Young captures that appealing eternal Summer-warmth, which we long for but find no longer exists. Breaking from isolation is far from a fresh concept. Sotomayor stamps her patient directorial style all over the production. It lifts what could be a simple tale into a transfixing piece of cinema, it’s drama tantalising. We hear every breath and movement, we smell the dust rise up as this atmospheric, yet brief drama builds into weak climax. Like the billows of smoke, we grasp as it slips away from us.

Originally published for Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/too-late-to-die-young/