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/

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/

Club Tropicana – The Playhouse, Edinburgh

Writer: Michael Gyngell

Director: Samuel Holmes & Nick Winston

It’s June, the weather in Scotland is, well, Scottish. So where can you get guaranteed sunshine, sea and Joe McElderry? Club Tropicana: The Musical – that’s where. From the producers of Hairspray, Club Tropicana sets itself in a holiday resort in the 80s, a decade famous for big hair, wide shoulders pads, but more importantly fantastic music.

The inevitable happens in the land of romantic-comedy musicals, someone is left at the altar. Shocking, I know. Encouraged by the single worst ‘friend’ in any show, Lorraine has cold feet before the wedding. Rather than lose out on the honeymoon, Lorraine and her pals travel to Club Tropicana. A great idea so great her ex-fiancé has the same plan. Meanwhile, Club Tropicana is at risk of poor press from a hotel inspector. Misunderstandings occur, hearts are broken and mended, and we have a sea of musical numbers. It’s a cookie-cutter jukebox musical. It’s kitsch, extremely predictable, but it is enjoyable.

Making Your Mind Up, Just Can’t Get Enough and PhysicalClub Tropicana has fab taste in eighties music. Using them to their fullest to get the blood pumping in Edinburgh, so much so that we can forgive weak vocals from cast members. While no one performs poorly, a select few are flatter than would be expected. That though is not the case for Joe McElderry, Cellen Chugg Jones and Kate Robbins. Chugg Jones, playing Olly is the one-dimensional fiancé of all romantic jukebox productions. He does, however, have a charming delivery, and a set of pipes which are hideously underused. His duet of A-Ha’s classic gem Take on Me with Karina Hind is a surprise as he hits the high notes.

On the subject of vocals, McElderry is in his element as usual. His abilities are understandably the strongest in the cast, with one lovely lady belting out ahead on occasion, but more on her later. His charged presence is part of why Club Tropicana works, falling into the danger zone a few times, but McElderry’s bouncing personality keeps the club afloat. Gearing the audience up to dance, sing and laugh along with the show – it is in large part to McElderry that the production works.

Oh Consuela, you wonderful woman you. Kate Robbins completely owns the stage for every moment she appears. We long for it, quite often waiting for her character’s next appearance. The miserable cleaner, bellhop, chef and part-time diva comes equipped with all of Robbins’ tremendous range of talents. Her vocals surpass a number of the performers, her comedic prowess, the best on stage. Her mimicry, physically and vocally for the likes of Dolly Parton and The Iron Lady herself is deserving of praise.

Her praise is deserved, but even Robbins’ is subject to confused writing. At some point, two productions of Club Tropicana were floating around the room. One an above average Jukebox musical, taking risqué jokes and pushing them to the nth degree to tremendous effect. The other is a sub-par romantic comedy with cheap gags. For some reason, writer Michael Gyngell mixes these and we have a show which has toilet humour and predictable plots littering an otherwise enjoyable production.

So, is Club Tropicana bringing anything fresh to the genre? No. Does it move away from tired stereotypes? No… Is it attempting to be something it isn’t? Certainly not. Club Tropicana knows precisely what it is, which is fun with a cheesy, glittery and humongous capital ‘F’. So pop on those socks and sandals, slather on some factor 50, down a few slippery nipples and bask in the ridiculousness that is Club Tropicana.

Review originally published for Reviews Hub: https://www.thereviewshub.com/club-tropicana-the-playhouse-edinburgh/