Birdsong – King’s Theatre

Written by Sebastian Faulks, Adapted by Rachel Wagstaff

Directed by Alistair Whatley & Charlotte Peters

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Never again”; the imperative words uttered regarding the First World War. Yet, in the darkest moments of human history, we find an enticing light to the subject. Whether it be through respect, education or simply guilt, the lessons we garner from these times are urgent. Adapted from the 1993 novel of the same name, Birdsong seeks to reignite our respect and recover history.

Beneath the moaning earth, littered with the fallen, an entirely different war was waged. Tunnels, some 100ft below No Man’s Land, carved out by British, French and Germans attempting to lay explosives below the other. Dug by ‘sewer rats’, men who dug out the London undergrounds, men like Jack Firebrace (Tim Treloar) aching for news of his son in London. Still soldiers in their own right, risking their lives in multiple ways just as those above the surface did. Laced within this narrative are flashbacks to the rumbles of war, as Stephen Wraysford (Tom Kay) arrives in France. He finds a gleam of light in the shade, Isabelle (Madeleine Knight) a married French woman.

Differing from the novel, focusing more on the stories of Wraysford and Firebrace is a respectful turn as opposed to their descendants. It eases the narrative, driving our attention into the correct areas. The fuse takes time to smoulder, and you’ll certainly find it easier to connect with one character over the other. Yet in the grand scheme their fates are entwined to the audience’s receptiveness. Deeply moved by the outcome, even with characters we hadn’t entirely warmed to.

A touching thematic exploration of fatherhood is conducted through the larger role of Firebrace. Treloar embodies the spirit of a father, the centre of his garrison keeping the men jovial and the young brave. Balancing this are Knight and Kay whose passions betray otherwise icy exteriors. The fleeting moments of fondness one seeks in desperate times are deep, showing that there is more to the tale of war than death. Even through this, love still exists, however complicated. The chemistry, more so than between the romantic leads, but Treloar and Kay as comrades is touching, leading to gut dropping moments.

Transitions are complicated in the medium of the theatre stage, unable to rely on the usual tricks screen productions can call upon. Birdsong however manages a tremendous feat, we never need to question if we are in the ‘present’ or past. More than this, simple tricks of the light and swift flat moves manifest all forms of location. From the grim trenches, deep underground to the claustrophobic tunnels. Alex Wardle’s tweaked lighting design is simple, nothing over the top but manages to shift the tone from one of song to the dreaded ‘over the top’ moments of the Somme tastefully.

With war, comes pain. One cannot sugar-coat the atrocities of the past, nor should we ever re-write them. Even in fictional works, the subject matter needs to remain as truthful as possible to real events. Throughout the seclusion of the grimness, small sparks of humanity remain. Tiny touches which, just to those brave men, lift the audience out of the doldrums. Singing, music and those symbolic birdsongs help alleviate the bleakness, whilst also reinforcing the severity of the situation.

Recovering history is of paramount importance. As memories fade, they alter, they shift and warp. Productions such as Birdsong, as too the original novel, seek to maintain a narrative. Even if fictionalised. It would be a stretch to describe Birdsong as uplifting, though it is enjoyable. Its subject matter of trauma isn’t made to entertain, more so to reignite emotions. In truth, it is a fundamentally engaging piece of adaptation, with merit behind its messages. For lest we forget (again), that what is war but hell?

Review originally published for The Reviews Hub: https://www.thereviewshub.com/birdsong-kings-theatre-edinburgh-2/

Nixon in China – Festival Theatre

Opera by John Adams, Liberetto by Alice Goodman

Directed by John Fulljames

Gorbachev & Reegan, Putin & al Assad, Blair & Bush, Johnston & the highest bidder – throughout history, politicians have had their images emblazoned with that of another. None quite so unexpected as Richard Nixon and Mao Tse-tung, Chairman of the Communist Party of China. An event the world never thought they would see, the President of the US stepping foot into China. Was it an act of peace, a way forward with the Soviet Union, or just a smokescreen to improve Nixon’s plummet in opinion? The face of Mao Tse-tung still reverberates in China, though his symbolic presence seems to wane. Nixon, scarred by the marks of corruption, would find at least another place in histories lexicon as the man who would pave the future for other presidents.

Considerably shrouded, Nixon’s visit to China with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger is an effective time-period to transcribe into opera. A mere decade later John Adams, with libretto from poet Alice Goodman, would craft an opera which would open as much a path as Nixon’s visit had done, this time for the synthetic manipulation of sound for ‘mainstream’ libretto’s. Chartering their time from Air-Force One’s landing to a profoundly intimate epilogue on the people behind the parties Nixon in China, in the hands of Scottish Opera, is a powerhouse of aria, composition and powerplay.

Taking their first foray into Scottish opera’ clan, American baritone Eric Greene champions the part of Richard Nixon, refraining from the cheap characteristics of trademarks. Commanding, while conveying an endearing attraction of presence, it’s difficult not to see the President who would hoodwink many. As Henry Kissinger, David Stout captures a far more playful perspective, which exudes an animated characterisation as the narrative advances. Opening with the meeting of Nixon and Chou En-lai, China’s Premier, the men soon sit with a rapidly ageing Mao Tse-tung, more a philosopher than he was a Politian. Equally as compelling, Mark Le Brocq has a ghostly presence, with a voice harmonising the growing frustrations and deafening silences as the two world leaders talk.

At what may first seem a man’s opera, Nixon in China begins to centre around the women, not behind, but besides these men. Transitioning into an avant-garde piece, Pat Nixon and Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao Tse-Tung) Carneiro squarely frames these women in the dynamic they exude. Julia Sporsén spends much of the first act in the presence of her husband, which starkly alters as we enter act two, where from now on the production’s focus is away from the camera’s point of view and to a personal voyage. 

Sporsén’s control of her emotive range, beyond pure sensational sound, is world-class. Particularly for opera in the audience’s home language, here English, it’s easy to detach from the annunciating break in emotion, words we use daily drawn out. Obvious to this, Fulljames direction tethers Goodman’s poetry to the performers. Greene plays with this immeasurably, his charming, disingenuously schmoozy Nixon toying with the crowd.

Sporsén’s role contrasts Greene as the politician, though both reflected sympathetically. Bestowing kindness across histories image, geopolitics is but a framework, accurate, but not incorporated to align allegiance or point blame. Madame Mao Tse-tung (Hye-Youn Lee) an equally, inequitably powerful woman in her own right, stands polar to Pat Nixon, an intimidating, shrieking performance which dominates. Mesmeric in attitude, almost archaic in her sinister prowls, Hye-Youn Lee’s coloratura aria haunts with a vision untouchable by mortal means. Chiang Ch’ing’s position within the opera may serve to reinforce the relationship of the Nixon’s, as well as an accessible look into the often unknown life of Mao Tse-tung, but her inclusion shakes the dynamic enough, encompassing the production’s more creative, bespoke acts.

Initially reflective of the onerous tempo of the piece, Carneiro’s conduction takes time to build from the gravity laden slowness into the energetic rhythms in a more subdued manner than one expects. Further diverse than first appearances, Nixon in China refrains from the confines of expectation, carving its path alongside Goodman’s libretto. Adam’s infusion of heavy brass elements with Stravinskian neoclassicism, injecting a heaping os saxophone jazz to reflect Nixon’s youth. Leaping into a softer palette accompanying traditional dance of the nation builds in a prolonged resolution, which returns to the classical roots of the genre. John Ross’ original choreography manipulates this production into a piece of movement. Intense, reflective but all the while subverting expectation, the Scottish Opera orchestra champion the onstage vocals sensationally.

And it takes a voice to stand-out on this stage, a design which defines the term ‘epic’ in droves of creativity, integrating into the narrative mechanics, as opposed to flashy or gimmicky. Exploring the past, delving into the personal story, much of Nixon in China may present itself as a live unfolding of events, but truly this is a rich archive of investigation. Still photos under the spot lamps, raw video footages, crates groaning with historical artefacts and Deliveroo for the hungry archivists. John Adams opera has been remodelled by Scottish Opera, utilising their talent for perfecting an already genre-defining piece. Here the meta-narrative slashes down myth, the sepia-tints of history sift away before us in fluid space, examining the bones rather than the legend.

Of course, legend has a place in Dick Bird’s design work – his unfolding scenes echo an almost story-book transition. With live theatre, within the production, being staged for the ‘pleasure’ of the visiting American’s, Bird’s design plays heavily with a dream-scale of colours, palette and lighting. Notably a tricolour of women, Chinese performers forging a connection with Pat Nixon, where opera marries as close as possible with dance, poetry and theatre. The revolving stage, vintage projectors capturing the moment on film, all confined to a warehouse of hundreds of boxes, each containing a treasured memory or revelation of the political meeting of the century.

Revolutionising the spirit of Opera, staying authentic to its roots, but lifting the visage of this artform to stellar heights – Scottish Opera achieves a starkly modern, edgy production with a pulsing beat of classical direction and inspiration. A decisive moment of modern history, it’s explosive reverberations clenched tightly within three-hours of lyrical majesty.

Touring information can be found at: https://www.scottishopera.org.uk/shows/nixon-in-china/

Photo credit: James Glossop

Goldilocks & The Three Bears – King’s Theatre

Written by Allan Stewart & Alan McHugh

Directed by Ed Curtis

Musical Direction by Andy Pickering

How on earth have we arrived at Panto season again? Nary a month ago it felt as though Beauty & The Beast was playing at The King’s Theatre in Edinburgh, and now with tremendously happy crowds, our trio returns to the stage once more. Yes, folks, not only are Allan Stewart and Grant Stott back on the stage, accompanied once more by Gillian Parkhouse, but Andy Gray returns to immense cheers of appreciation and adoration. To put it simply, it just wasn’t the same without him.

Donning his top hat, Gray commands his usual stomping ground as Andy McReekie, loving(ish) husband to the gorgeous Dame May McReekie – who, incidentally, has a new book for purchase in the lobby, she’s just too humble to mention this. Together, this fine pair run McReekie’s Circus, who do away with performing animals and preferably offer daring stunts from The Berserk Riders, or vaudeville classic The Great Juggling Alfio.

Promising the greatest show on earth, Goldilocks and the Three Bears take a playfully loose interpretation of the charming tale of cold porridge, soft beds and broken chairs. Then again, when have we known a script from Allan Stewart or Alan McHugh to stick to the source material? People want eccentricity, ludicrous stunts, and a story where the three bears may not be the stars, but there is a substantial lack of story behind the showmanship. As far as pantomime goes, Goldilocks is a by the storybook take on the genre, its visuals may be first-class, but its story is in safe hands – too safe. Jokes don’t punch as hard as they usually would, with only off the cuff banters and risqué digs at Prince Andrew causing more than a chortle.

Well, what can we say except this; if there’s any budget left for next year, someone’s fiddling the tax books. The King’s Panto has always been a piece of spectacle, from the cheesy and tacky glitz and glam of festive cheer to a grandeur worthy of Princes and Princesses. So, this year, Ian Westbrook has royally outdone himself with 3D Creations lending a hand offering; big tops, tight ropes, flaming torches and animatronic creatures of King Kong scale. And still, with a few choice surprises we dare not ruin by fear of Baron Von Vinklebottom’s whip.

On the subject of Vinklebottom, it’s awfully kind that Stewart and Gray keep employing this young Stott fellow during the festive months. A star of radio and television (we’re told) there’s certainly some acting chops beneath that Cheshire grin. Every year Stott’s adoration from the crowd for playing the vilest baddies grows deeper. It’s neigh-on impossible not to surrender over to the sadistic glee Stott manifests, the louder we boo, the more wicked the performance. Comedically, it’s a pitched performance, but what would one expect? Jabbing at the audience, rolling with the punches, Stott is showman through and through. Tragically, McHugh’s script underutilises a primary asset in Stott, who isn’t on stage nearly as much as we would hope for.

In fact, with plenty on show this evening (and not just from Dame May Reekie) it would be ill in failing to mention Andy Pickering’s musical direction, or indeed Karen Martin’s dazzling choreography. You have two chances to take a breath – once before the show starts, and another at the interval. Otherwise, blink or breath and you’ll have missed something. With superb vocals, from Cinderella to Beauty to Goldilocks, like Stott, Gillian Parkhouse is woefully underused. Performing numbers well, Parkhouse’s choreography is tight, but lyrically the numbers aren’t memorable or have staying power beyond the chorus.

Standing onstage with three panto legends is a difficult task at the best of times, for first-timer to the King’s Panto, but by no means new to the gig, Jordan Young can cut it with the best of them. Within moments, Young’s panto prowess is clear. As the trio induct Young into the beating heart of Edinburgh’s festive season, the usual Panto tropes are played on the unsuspecting Young – who, in turn, rises to adlibs, tongue twisters and fourth wall jabs. What Aberdeen may have lost in his move to Edinburgh’s panto, is this cities gain.

Excelling in all forms, going for bigger, bolder and more extreme settings and talents every year, King’s Panto manages to whet the appetite for the following years show the moment the curtain falls. How, year after year this team delivers a production which makes this city proud is unfathomable, as is the energy the team bring. This may be the early nights of a long run, but there is little doubt each performance from Stewart, Gray and Stott is conducted as if it were their first, their last and their best.

Goldilocks & The Three Bears runs at The King’s Theatre until January 19th. Tickets are available from Capital Theatres: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/goldilocks

Photo Credit: Douglas Robertson