The Season – The Royal & Derngate

Direction by Tim Jackson

Book & Music and Lyrics by Kit Buchan and Jim Barne

Ah, to be in New York for Christmas. To see the lights, soak in the smells of the chestnuts and hot-dog vendors as the flutters of snowfall scatter the heads and coats of the wealthy. Ice-skating in central park, dinner at the Ritz and horse-drawn rides across the cold cobbles, basking in the orange glow of streetlamps. What an utter crock. Kit Buchan’s new musical The Season takes our fetishism of the holiday season, not so far as satirising the genre, but inventively tying a classical Christmas narrative with sarcastic silver tongues, modern themes and honest, blunt views on the obsessive nature we have with the ‘perfect’ Chrsitmas image. 

Travelling over four-thousand miles to finally meet his father, Dougal is a young, naïve man whose thirst for life equals his sense of adventure for those classic movie’s set in the snowscapes of a New York Christmas. He’s adorable, but you may still feel the need to choke him out. Alex Cardall captures the innocence of a man whose need for validation, his delivery thrives with energy, leaping as though his feet strike fire with each landing. He’s the perfect counter-balance of traditional cheer against coffee server Robin’s grim, sarcastic bleakness.

Tis the season of sass for Robin, though this seems to be a year-round trend for her. By and large, Tori Allen-Martin goes beyond the cold stereotypes of a festive Scrooge, into a disenchanted woman whose rejection of the holiday stems from more than simple irritation at the cheer which surrounds it. What is so utterly superb about Allen-Martin, and Buchan’s writing is that Robin is a woman, living a woman’s life. This isn’t a perfectly envisioned stereotype, with brimming white smiles, slathered across the posters for ‘kooky’ Christmas productions. Instead, openly stating that Robin’s career as a waitress isn’t concealing a midnight romance of acting or writing, Robin is a woman who is surviving.

This is The Season’s resolute stance on the genre, where happy endings are an option, but not the fairytale of New York styles of Hallmark T.V. Families aren’t always necessarily where we end-up for the holidays, and the balance of our two leads keeps the other from delving too deep into extremes. Robin’s misery is relatable, bouncing off of Dougal’s optimism, dragging him into tolerance, as the role could easily slip into irritatingly chipper. Their growing connection is genuine, as we keep romance at bay, for the most part, learning from one another and furthering their development. With surprising growth from both leads, in no doubt largely down to talented performers and Tim Jackson’s direction.

And while guilty of exposition, Kit Buchan’s script rarely dips once we move beyond the 15-minute mark. Indeed, the second act is a superior piece in timing, particularly for its comedy, to the extent the production may benefit from trimming to an extended single act production. Allen-Martin and Cardall are fully capable of carrying the production for the two-act structure, but this isn’t to say the audience can maintain the same pacing. There’s little which couldn’t be trimmed from the production’s opening. Trimming this exposition would further enhance the refusal the production has to conform with tropes, obvious cliche’s and bolster an ending which refuses to end in the way one may expect.

Sometimes the greatest love stories don’t last forever, but only a single day. The Season has a modernist narrative, which still captures the characteristics of British romantic comedies, with just enough New York sensationalism of those 80s’ Meg Ryan classics. It’s as much a piece for theatre goers as it is cinephiles, echoing an obsessive adoration for American visuals. The Season flares the embers of an emotional production, without resorting to cheap tactics, it’s an interestingly written musical, with numbers which may not live forever in our minds, but there has been an impact with solo pieces, courtesy of Cardall’s humour and Allen-Martin’s commanding, emotive vocals. 

Right now, Last Christmas is a herald of current, modern Christmas media, but to find genuine innovation, turn to the theatre for The Season’s tribute’s to festive classics, while generating it’s own path with a fresher palette of relatable, human characters rather than the standard representations musical theatre is guilty of. It might be November, but sod-it, shove some vodka in the thermos, shake those snow globes and jingle them bells, The Season takes a dash of pessimism and fuels a show with fresh, snide joy which is infectiously warm, humourous and heartfelt. 

The Season runs at Royal & Derngate Theatre until November 30th. Tickets are available from: https://www.royalandderngate.co.uk/whats-on/the-season/

Photo Credit – Pamela Raith

Edinburgh Gang Show – King’s Theatre

Directed by Andy Johnston

Musical Direction by Andrew Thomson

Dance Direction by Louise Williamson

Once a year, chaos, music, dance, fabulous costumes, and those young at heart or young in years descend upon The King’s Theatre to light up the frosted evenings of the capital – and the Panto doesn’t even start until next month. No, this time we’re talking about one of Edinburgh’s illustrious performance groups which stands along with The Bohemians or Southern Light as the peak of amateur theatre – The Edinburgh Gang Show. For over sixty shows now, the gang has been an integral part of the cities theatrical heritage, with no signs of slowing in this slew of vibrant majesty. 

At first, the array of performers on stage have their difficulties working with such volume in numbers, but overcome these issues remarkably, having a reliable understanding of the stage. Andy Johnston has always had an uncanny ability to bring together a wealth of Scouts and Girl Guides, drawing together gang shows of past, present and even glimmers of the future. This 60th show contains all of the gags, nudges and football jabs you may expect, but there have to be a few surprises lurking beneath all those jazz hands and gooey gowns.

Continuing to capitalise on Louise Williamson’s choreography, the gang pay tribute to the dames and dappers of Hollywood’s past, with a spectacular movement piece to the classics of musical theatre. There isn’t exactly structure to the production, more a showcase of talent which bleeds into the next – sometimes with no explanation, other times with an acknowledging gag to the lack of coherent connection. An honest admission, it still causes a few bumps and grinds to the flow which, yes, can be overlooked, but needn’t necessarily have been issues to begin.

So what you might expect is dancing, there may even be a few songs, but variety is a core element of The Gang Show. So yes, these jokes are meant to be bad, the puns are the height of dad humour – and we adore every second of it. It must be said though, that whilst the humour takes a back seat to the other talents, especially some exceptional dance routines, we get the occasional bout of originality, and a few choice celebrity guests from William Wallace to The First Minister and a certain chart-topping Scot whose love for crisps might rival his adoration for number 1 spots. Singing Someone You Loved, Mackenzie Woolard captures the tone of the song marvellously in a number to be proud of, characterising Lewis Capaldi rather well. Nowhere though, does the seamless blending of gags and vocals merge quite so well than a trip to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s world-renowned feline musical.

Alisa Maclean’s rendition of Memory, a pinnacle of musical theatre’s illustrious history, is given a fantastically inventive twist which we daren’t spoil. Not only are the vocals rather sublime, but the goings-on, decisions and timing are exceptional. Offering a break in the tumultuous number of routines, this brief snippet showcases the vaudeville stylings of the gang marvellously, with the ‘stage-hands’ causing as much mischief as they find physically achieve. Indeed, along with the likes of Tatiana Honeywell’s subdued, spellbindingly impressive performance of I Wanna Dance with Somebody, which showcases the team’s most elegant choreography, this evening is very much in the hands of the ladies.

Shaking things up a bit from the straight routines and belting it out for the women in the audience, Kelsey Main strikes out with Speechless, meanwhile Jessica Lyall who too performs during the Medieval Mayhem segment, who has so far been dominating the stage with fluid footwork, turns towards a vocal performance as she and Main show the ‘lads’ of the round table just how it’s done. This said, the male dancers, a few of whom have been paying attention to their toe-points such as Andrew Brown, have the makings of terrific dancers, particularly for comedy routines as they treat us to a little unexpected Spamalot leading up to the show’s climax.

What a finale, a solo performance from young Matthew Knowles whose performance of I’ll Always Remember You This Way gives a brief chill of a future career in the arts. Marvellous control, which sets up the farewell to a few members who, like Brown, will be leaving the gang this year, but in their place, they leave behind a legacy of achievements, memories and hope that the future performers will match their dedication and canny. 

And as a 60th year closes for The Edinburgh Gang Show, bright prospects for Scottish theatre remain. A wealth of talent, across all moulds of the stage, there’s a rich community making a stamp on Edinburgh’s history, and evidently, it’s future. From the smallest soprano to the older twinkle-toes, mirthful in enthusiasm, this 60th show serves as it does every other year, to showcase the capital’s talent, spirit and community.

The Edinburgh Gang Show runs at The King’s Theatre until Saturday 23rd. Tickets available from: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/gangshow

Photo Credit – Ryan Buchanan

Tosca – The Festival Theatre

Opera created by Giacomo Puccini to a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa

Revival Direction by Jonathan Cocker

Leader of The Orchestra of Scottish Opera – Anthony Moffat

Conducted by Stuart Stratford

Puccini’s melodramatic masterpiece Tosca has it all; corruption, lust, heartbreak and the bureaucracy of history. Shifting the timeframe into the 20th century, there is still a stringent root to Puccini’s origins in 1900. Practically flawless in execution, Tosca moves beyond a visual wonder with Stuart Stratford’s musical conduction and direction. Under the growing shadow of Benito Mussolini, Floria Tosca attempts to liberate her beloved from the clutches of fascist oppression, but as their grip tightens so too does the risk of the lives involved.

A leitmotif in composition, Puccini allows singers leeway in a way few other composers achieve which gives Tosca an edge of humour other Operas cannot obtain without embracing the genre of comedy to the full extent. It accentuates the melodramatic blood which thrusts our leads forward, embracing the grandeur of the production, while still connecting with an audience. The libretto has narrative focus, but this revival at the hands of Scottish Opera and Jonathon Cocker impacts immediately, not with its song, but with visuals.

Decadent, there’s astonishing detail in Peter Rice’s design that offers a framework of renaissance sculpture. Rarely, perhaps never, has a production been so befitting of the Festival Theatre’s stage. A trio of spectacles, which depths are plumbed to offer scale, serve a unique purpose, and is in stark contrast to Scottish Opera’s previous settings for likes of Rigoletto. Here there is no room for minimalism or symbolic structure, no, this is craftsmanship at it’s most architectural. Hallowed stones of alabaster-marble, to a looming figure atop the fortress and imposing fireplaces, Tosca has the skeleton to hold spectacle, now hopefully it packs the lungs to carry this off.

Let’s be frank. We both know the operatic skills of this evenings performers go without question. Nae, it would be insulting to suggest there are issues with vocals, as there are none. These are trained professionals in the height of their ability, not merely in scale but control, emotive connection and tonal changes. These are storytellers as much as they are singers. Even those outwith the three leads of Tosca, Cavaradossi or Scarpia provide spine-shivering evidence that despite having over a century under the belt, so long as Scottish Opera can unearth and maintain exceptional talents such as Aled Hall, Paul Carey Jones or Steven Faughey, then Tosca will survive and ignite audiences again, and again.

Puccini’s adoration for women almost exceeds that of music, evident in Tosca herself. Fiercely resilient, profound in her determination, Tosca, as one may imagine, is central to the motivations of men throughout the production. Far from a temptress or stereotype, Tosca captures the moral depravity men will slither to in pursuit of selfish ideals, yet also the redemptive capacities humanity is capable of. Natalya Romaniw’s masterful voice ebbs away at the audience, for a brief moment, we are numb to the world around us as she recites her solo aria Vissi d’arte over her love for Cavaradossi.

“Ecco un artista!” and what an actor indeed, Gwyn Hugh Jones’ role as the painter, lover and revolutionary concealer Cavaradossi goes beyond mere vocal performance. Scottish Opera has an embedded appreciation of the medium, beyond its impression of solitary arias, breathing life into their productions. While his swansong moments in Act 3 etch into the minds of the audience, it is Hugh Jones’ oratorio moments within the house of God which stands out amidst borderline cinematic scenery. It also places him in stark contrast to the antagonistic Scarpia, the sycophantic leather-clad worshipper of one Benito Mussolini.

Eagerly revelling in our jeers and boos, Hall and Roland Wood match their vile villainy not only in presence but their mastery of vocals equally. A thick, pulsing vein of corruption runs at the heart of Puccini’s opera, a political bureaucracy at the core of Europe. Sly, vindictive and repugnant in approach, Wood’s Scarpia is a monstrous reminder of Italian fascism. Yet, even beauty turns its face towards evil, as Wood’s baritone’s tremble the marble adorning his office, the flames themselves shuddering at his presence, as his rising malice is snuffed out by Tosca’s kiss, the night hushes into new daybreak.

Dawn breaks, as does a brief respite from the dramatic tension of the previous act’s climax. Here especially, soak in Cocker’s respect for the orchestra, as the aria holds itself in reverence of the musicians. As the soldiers await their duty, the atmosphere lingers with glints of cigarillo sparks. Lead by Anthony Moffat, the composition of the piece is exquisite in richness, perfectly pacing itself to a building crescendo to reflect the upcoming finale. Particularly for the string portion’s, the orchestra stands toe-toe with those of the vocals, concocting a symphony of artistry, which ties together each element of Scottish Opera’s Tosca, finishing up a comprehensive production.

Perhaps a reflective comment but there’s a concern that Tosca may not be 100% accessible for non-devotees. This is, without question, meticulously crafted with undeniable talent, there’s an air of reverence for the production that those unfamiliar with Tosca will perhaps not comprehend. Still, Scottish Opera’s Tosca is a definitive incarnation, standing the test of a centuries history, art and revivals. It is a testament to the companies merit, talent and ability and a precise way to close their 2019 season alongside Iris‘ one-off performance at City Halls, Glasgow.  

Scottish Opera’s Tosca runs until Saturday 23rd of November. Tickets available from: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/tosca

Photo Credit – James Glossop