Written by Lisa Hammond, Rachel Spence & Lee Simpson
Directed by Lee Simpson
Writer and performer Lisa Hammond joins fellow creator Rachael Spence in looking to unravel a key issue facing the industry today. While attempts to increase representation and diversity deserve praise, what happens when we seek to change the world… and nothing changes?
The duo’s performance is invigorating and marvellously energetic, as their attempts to establish some semblance of what sort of show to create often sees them boxed into the same corners over and over. In asking the public what sort of show the two of them would appear in, it’s humorous to hear about Hammond’s ‘cheeky face’ and watch as Spence launches into imaginative situations the public toss to her, even if they do run longer than necessary.
Affairs, spy dramas, haunted houses and, well, then there’s Hammond. It appears, without malice, that there just isn’t room for her in these stories. Here, the production takes a pointed turn towards becoming an openly honest piece on disabled performers. It tackles day-to-day invisibility of disability, or a hypersensitivity which is somehow worse.
As Spence leads an outlandish game of public charades, Hammond tackles ‘inclusion porn’, plucking comments from interviews, twisting what the public isn’t saying into a tangible and emotive stance. Both performers have fierce stage presence, Hammond especially has a projection and timing to hold the court with ease.
When the names of those fatally affected by benefit cuts, the DWP’s statistics of those found ‘fit for work’ scroll by, the laughter dies away. These are names of individuals who found it difficult to cope; Hammond, Spence and Lee Simpson’s script becomes brutal, yet requires no fabrication, simply the facts.
Balancing this heartache with a welcoming, family-like presence, Hammond and Spence are delightful to watch. Still No Idea is a fascinating interrogation of the creative process. But more than this, it’s a precise arrow into mainstream media attitudes towards not only those with disabilities, but towards single mothers and other marketable ‘sob stories’.
It leaves its audience with the message that if the world won’t respond to our attempts to change it, we’ll just have to make our own narratives.
When all medical help fails your child – when it seems as though the Reaper is closing in around her, or perhaps, a darker entity, you would turn to anyone to save them. After daughter Reagan begins to show signs of possession, actress Chris turns to the church to save her. Bill Kenwright’s Westend production takes William Peter Blatty’s supernatural text, The Exorcist, and creates a technically heavy show, which blunders into biblical failures of the unholiest intention.
Sean Mathias’ grave mistake with the production boils down to issues with pacing, The Exorcist is a tremendously slow-building text which requires build-up for the supernatural presence to take effect. The entire story survives on taking its time, allowing the menace to pervade. This is especially relevant now, given fewer devote followers who find the concept alone enough to heighten the fright factor. Susannah Edgley seems to perform Regan on fast-forward, delivering a remarkably peculiar character, devoid of childlike innocence. Mathias’ direction seems to concern itself with diving into the superficial – the gore, the swearing, the horror, but this means the sudden switch and speedy deliveries feel akin to an amateur performance, far from what this cast is capable of.
Committing wholly, soaking in every ounce of the show is Paul Nicholas, to no one’s surprise. Father Merrin’s part in the story is limited like his cinematic counterpart, but the gravity he conveys accidentally serves to showcase how little control Ben Caplan manages to get across as Father Karras. He holds limited presence, particularly when placing him alongside the likes of Tristram Wymark’s Uncle Burk, a luvvie film director. An error is that in the scripts intimately difficult scenes, such as Regan’s brief masturbation with a crucifix, the cast members involved seem too determined for the scene to be over. They draw attention to how tonally awkward the script can be when they should be embracing such a volatile piece of writing which has such depth if crude merit to its theme.
Where praise lies and an apology from others should follow, is with the technical team and stage management. With various iconic scenes to re-create, Anna Fleischle’s set is dripping with suburban American mood, with the distinct menace eerily floating through the environment. There’s depth to the design, which enables the house to gain a sense of scale, of space. While we may lose the infamous shot of Father Marren lit only by the streetlight, the harrowing echoes of Tubular Bells in the background, we do get a glimmer of recreation, but it is a shame to have lost the scene, especially as it is on the programmes cover.
Construction has been carried out with Ben Hart’s illusions in mind, seamlessly blending multiple fantasies into the background, with only a few tricks of the trade revealing themselves. For the most part, the witchery of The Exorcist is kept under wraps, on occasion to tremendous effect. As the finale draws near, Regan rises into the air to confront her redeemers, there’s a genuine air of malevolence. The infamous head turn, if carried out successfully, is relatively simple, but practical and effective, these are the effects which make the show worth viewing.
In the world of theatre, it’s all smoke and mirrors – or at least, acts of light and sound. Philip Gladwell’s lighting design frames the production in a persistent ominous glow, from the house’s amber-tint to the cheap, though effective shock-value jolts of the strobe, covering movement or stage-setup. It marries with Adam Cork’s sound composition, which is unnerving, with its whispers, chanting and creaks in the darkness. Though, a selling feature for many is the sultry tones of another sound effect.
The Sir himself, Ian McKellen, provides the voice of the demon, suffice to say, unsurprisingly, it’s a weighty performance. It marries oddly well with Edgley’s miming, which does take times to get used to. At first, it feels unnatural, but not in the supernatural sense, removing us from the immersion. Sir McKellen’s voice is a distraction, at first, it’s difficult with such star-power for an audience to remove themselves from hearing the performer rather than the character. He certainly brings a dedication to the role, dripping with over-the-top malice and demonic glee, though his dulcet annunciations feel less diabolical and more condescending.
In truth, an unholy alliance of abysmal pacing, with misjudged direction and weak character portrayals keeps the classic of supernatural horror from achieving what it ought to. It’s a tried and tested story, still inspiring spin-off, images and blatant rip-offs to this day. The Exorcist was a defining classic of cinematic horror. It should easily have made a transition to the stage, and chances are, with superior direction, and a tighter grasp of the narrative, it could rival the likes of The Woman in Black as theatre’s nightmarish secret.
Building on their reputation for plunging head-first into tricky productions, Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group seem in safe hands with Hannah Bradley, whose directorial debut won her an award from the Scottish Community Drama Awards One-Act Festival. Taking Joseph Heller’s satirical text into Edinburgh’s The Biscuit Factory, Catch-22 sees Captain John Yossarian desperately evading the prospect of battle, but finds that regardless of anything – there is always a catch.
Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group’s Hannah Bradley was kind enough to dedicate time to discuss thoughts on a favourite of hers and the decisions behind its inclusion in EGTG’s 2019 repertoire:
Corr: So, we’ll get the obligatory question out of the way: Heller’s text is a classic, but let’s be honest, complicated. For you, why Catch – 22? Why a satirical-war drama?
Bradley: I love it. I genuinely love Catch-22, it’s up there as one of my favourite stories. I think the first time I read it I was fourteen, the copy of which I stole from my school library, so it says property of *redacted* on the inside cover. It’s likely why no one else in the school managed to read it.
Corr: Why is this something EGTG decided they wanted to undertake? With multiple incarnations, adaptations, not to mention to recent Channel 4 series – why now?
Bradley: It’s difficult because I don’t necessarily think anything in the story says it has to be done now, it’s more about how the story works all the time. That was the thing for me, it seems timeless, and I’m a bit of a Neo-Marxist, so Heller’s commentary on bureaucracy has only appealed to me as I’ve grown. I read it so many years ago, but that idea of getting tied up in red-tape, especially as a ‘millennial’ and not being able to rent a house in Edinburgh, or security, so all fo these ideas and issues which Heller puts forward seem relevant to me. The dull answer is EGTG supported me in my first directing foray, which was the play written by my great-Grandfather, which came third in the SCDA one-act festival…
“I feel you should have a connection with what you’re directing, and I didn’t have much of a connection to anything as much as this.“
…and because they supported me last year, it was natural to do something in return for them this year. So, I wanted to do something with the group, and I was just looking at all of my favourite authors like Joseph Heller, Mikhail Bulgakov – you nearly got The Cabal of Hypocrites. And this one felt right.
Corr: Now previously, you’ve also performed in pieces for EGTG, directing in this one, is this the passion project? Or are you a performer at heart?
Bradley: I think I’m changing because this is only the third production I’ve directed, I can’t say for certain, I can’t say it’s my only passion – my true passion is theatre, which is a really schmaltzy answer, isn’t it?
Corr: We all trade in schmaltz here.
Bradley: I’ve performed for so long, that’s what I know, so I’m discovering directing, and I’m loving it. It’s amazing.
Corr: How long have you been performing?
Bradley: Well, I was a dancer when I was four. Tap, Jazz and a little bit of country – Scottish. Then I did some theatre, took a break for around twelve years, and it was when I met my partner and discovered we had both done Youth Theatre and figured it would be a fun hobby for us both to have. We auditioned for a Fringe show, he got cast….
Corr: And you didn’t
Bradley: I did not. I didn’t speak to him for two weeks. Then I asked if there was a way to be involved, they offered me a role as stage manager and I discovered that I had a skill being backstage, I had a forte for it. So I stage-managed a couple of productions, I A.D’d a couple, and now I’ve directed a few.
Corr: Now, EGTG doesn’t fall into the categories which other companies do. You don’t go for ‘safe’ (Bradley: Yup) arguably marketable, so how as a group do you feel when productions such as these begin, Apprehensive, Enthusiastic?
Bradley: Everyone is enthusiastic. So, I’m also part of the committee – we’ve got loads who are involved who are ambitious, and we all have different tastes. For example, we did All About My Mother last year, and it was only the second staging since it was originally done in 2011. We’ve done a couple of amateur U.K Premieres of productions for the States, for example, we performed August Osage County five years before Dundee Rep did. I think it’s down to the ambition of the people involved in the group, and we’re lucky that we have such history behind us, and it’s been developed so well that we’re able to take such risks. So we have an audience, a fan-base and following, we also have the collateral, quite frankly, to support that. By no means large, we have roughly 70 years-worth which helps. We like to do shows no one else is doing.
Corr: Which is why it’s been working for so long
Bradley: We did The LadyKillers a few years ago, I was the parrot. I thought I had been cast for my dulcet – BBC tones, but no, it was just because I was a good Cockney Parrot. We’re all doing this because we love it, and these people have really good taste.
Corr: What’s been the difficulties in directing this piece, have you taken any liberties, artistic licensing?
Bradley: Well, one of the things that we’re doing, is that we’re presenting it in thrust, and one of the most difficult things in directing this time around is ensuring a good show from all angles. It meant in early rehearsals I was focusing on if I could see everyone, and if I needed performers to be two-inches to the left. That’s been quite difficult, focusing on the structure of the show, because I’ve given myself this challenge of doing it with an audience on three sides. And of course learning people’s characters names, because there’s so many of them… there’s forty. We couldn’t cut them, we’re not able to cut the script, Heller’s estate wouldn’t allow this, but they were keen on us staging the show – they got back to us in minutes. So yeah, forty characters -14 actors.
“We upped the number of women, Heller gives a suggested list of 10 men and 2 women, but we wanted more female representation. So many of the female performers have dual parts, forming a chorus.“
Corr: It’s quite a small cast for such a large-character base. Is everyone rising to the challenge?
Bradley:Everyone has risen well, thankfully not everyone is putting on an American accent, even though it’s an American play. I feel Heller’s writing, particularly as a satire, lends itself to British humour well. It’s a fictional squadron based in Italy. And had you asked fourteen Scottish actors to develop four or five American accents
Corr: They’d have turned on you quite quickly.
Bradley: Yeah, whereas if you say to them, you’ve got these characters – use your body and voice, use your full ability to create four distinct characters. So when you come onstage people know exactly who you are. It’s very much down to the actor, they’ve all created clear-cut characters, and I think that because it’s a satire, you don’t have to be flat, you can be bigger. There are some outrageous accents, which work so well, we don’t need to shoe-horn ourselves into things anymore.
Corr: So, The Biscuit Factory. Very different venue, it isn’t a traditional stage format.
Bradley: It’s grungy, which I feel works very well (Corr: Did you deliberately choose this?) I did, I didn’t look at many venues. Historically we have a relationship with the Roxy, but I had this mad idea where I wanted to stage it inside a plane.
Corr: Not mad at all, not entirely sure how the budget would have coped…
Bradley: I started to look into cellar spaces, so underneath the Bongo Club, but Underbelly come along in August and… well. So, unfortunately, we couldn’t secure those, a shame with the Anderson shelter structure that you find beneath Edinburgh. I was going to put a propeller at the rear of the stage, which would have acted as an exit/entrance, that’s now evolved into this idea of sitting inside the nosecone of a B-25, with that indicative windowed bomber seat. So, this should feel like the play, and the audience is taking place in miniature. It should feel industrial, it should feel claustrophobic.
Corr: I’ll make sure to let people know to dress comfortably.
Bradley: And to wrap up warm.
Corr: Speaking of wrapping up, I’ll give you the freedom to answer why, in November, with so much going on, what should bring people in?
Bradley: Because it isn’t Christmas yet. Because it’s really f**king good. The actors are incredible. I have no right to have managed this cast, they’re trusting me with this. Yes, it’s community theatre but one-third of the cast are working actors, another third has been doing this longer than I’ve been alive. They bring all of this experience with them and the final third are doing this because they genuinely love it. They’re in the story as much as I am, as much as the audience is. It’s funnier than George Clooney’s series as well. They wanted to make a Hollywood drama, that’s not what it is. We bring the satire back. We tried to invite him to see it, but sadly we couldn’t get in touch with him.