The Belle's Stratagem – The Royal Lyceum

Written by Hannah Cowley

Adaptated and directed by Tony Cowie

Originally conceived in the late seventeen hundreds, Hannah Cowley’s The Belle Stratagem is a sublime comedy of manners. Taking every pre- and ill-conceived notion one may have about a woman and giving it a good slap across the chops. Adapted for the Royal Lyceum we are no longer in Drury Lane London, but in New Town Georgian Edinburgh, and all the better for it.

Divided by two primary stories of love, Stratagem has a varied cast of unique players. Our first is of a young well-to-do lassie (Angela Hardie), fallen madly in love with her returning betrothed. His tastes, however, have been spoiled by those most wretched of temptresses: European Women. If she cannot claim his love, she will claim his passionate hatred. Our other tale is that of newly married Lady Touchwood, whose snivelling pathetic husband is terrified of her discovering city life. Stitched together through similar circles, both women become entangled in strategies to open the eyes of the men around them. 

The beauty of Stratagem is found in its humour. An equal split between the onstage talent, and the witty adaptation of Tony Cownie. Any who were lucky enough to view a Lyceum’s previous production Thon Man Moliere know of Cownie’s ability to draw the best from his cast. This production’s comedy is derived from so many layers it’s exceptional: physical, lyrical, cultural and moving from outrageously farcical to incredulously subtle. O’Rourke, McNicoll and Nicola Roy thieving the best lines of the night. It is so accessible due to this. Many see a period comedy, written by and about women at the Lyceum as potentially middle class or too clever. This couldn’t be further from the truth; The Belle’s Stratagem is theatre crafted for everyone.

The entire male cast, particularly Richard Conlon, Grant O’Rourke and Steven McNicoll, play at least one character with a whiff of misogyny to them. Yet, we still roar at their performances. This is a mark of irrefutable skill. An ever-present issue, long outstaying its welcome is both the subject of constant ridicule but still highlighted. Stratagem never slams anything into the audiences’ face, instead, it seeks to entertain, providing insight. Its feminine resistance is represented in all forms and across generations. It’s cutting, subversive, and jovial.

There’s something about the Scottish angle which just works for The Belle’s Stratagem. The multitude of dialects heightens the delivery, particularly from Pauline Knowles and Roy. The decision to localise it is genius, never feeling like a cheap ploy even when references are dropped without subtlety. There are enough for locals, tourists and especially history buffs.

The Lyceum brands itself with; ‘Theatre Made in Edinburgh‘, with good reason. The undeniable savvy of creators in this city is something to boast about. It has been over two hundred years and The Belle’s Stratagem is still relevant. Its indirect commentary on the folly of men and the social placement of woman is still needed. One day productions such as this will no longer be written, for all the right reasons. For now, we have pieces like this to laugh, share and enjoy.

Review originally published for Reviews Hub: https://www.thereviewshub.com/the-belles-stratagem-royal-lyceum-theatre-edinburgh/

How The Grinch Stole Christmas – Festival Theatre

Based on the book by Dr Seuss

Adaptation and Lyrics by Timothy Mason

Music by Mel Marvin

It’s November, we hear you say, so what, who cares? Christmas is on the way. How better to celebrate, than with a children’s classic, so join The Grinch for some Dr Seuss magic. Suffice to say, rhymes may feature throughout – but please, try not to pout.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas has proven itself a timeless literary classic from America’s Dr Seuss. Its simplistic narrative of the callous Grinch, who thieves away Cindy Lou and the rest of Whoville’s Christmas has gone from popularity to an icon of the Christmas period. Now, making a UK premiere from Broadway, this musical production seeks to grow the hearts of an Edinburgh audience three-times over, no mean feat indeed…

Deliciously vile, seething with mean, Baker-Duly goes an extra mile, especially clad in green. The titular Grinch is now as iconic a symbol of the festive season as his Victorian counterpart Ebenezer Scrooge. Everything is sumptuously perfect in Edward Baker-Duly’s take on the fuzzy monstrosity, he’s the bad guy we all love to hate, but at the end of it, his characterisation goes far and beyond expectations. His physicality is transformative, this is no performer – this is the Dr Seuss character, and while mannerisms have no doubt been borrowed from the famous Jim Carrey take, Baker-Duly goes for a less juvenile, sarky incarnation of the role. Though the musical nature of the production has it’s swings and misses, his solo performance of One of a Kind is decadently hilarious, striking all the correct notes. There is though, one rather infamous number, which stands out above the rest – for could you stage a Grinch musical without a rendition of Thurls Ravenscroft’s You’re A Mean One?

With plenty of tricks and vocals to spare, our old dog may prosper, but the younger misses by a hair. Taking the narration away from Gregor Fisher, for some reason, How The Grinch Stole Christmas is told to us, in verse, by Old Max, The Grinch’s berated dog companion reflecting back on how his Master’s lack of compassion led him to once steal the holiday cheer from those merry, if disgustingly chipper Whos of Whoville. Steve Fortune is adorable in the role, and his solo numbers reveal a compelling control which overcomes any issues of the live band drowning out the rest. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable role, with good humour and heart, but unfortunately the same cannot be extended to Young Max. Taking the collar for Max’s younger self, Matt Terry is fully capable of the role but is trying too hard, to the extent he feels unnatural, almost appearing to seek out the spotlight.

Now let it be said, quite often child-performers are something to dread. Then one comes along with exceptional ability, who outshines the adults and offers some humility. Young rising start Isla Gie fits in well with the adult Whos, but the reality is that she overcasts them. In no fault of Gie’s, this is a tremendous compliment to a young performer who captures the pathos of the narrative and holds her vocals splendidly. She shows how some of the older performers aren’t up to scratch in comparison, a few creating awkward scene transitions with an otherwise well-constructed set by John Lee Beatty.

It isn’t all about actors we do have to say, for there are behind-the-scenes creators whose respect we must pay. Illustrative in construct, complimentary in tone, Beatty’s set work is a tribute to the storybook all on its own. Complimenting the storybook decor superbly, Pat Collins lustrous lighting casts extraordinary colours against the monochrome.

Not without fault, The Grinch shines ever so bright, decked out in green, it’s rather a sight. For the occasions where How The Grinch Stole Christmas may slip on a greasy black banana peel, it counteracts with mirthful performers but feels the necessity to rely on tropes in a futile attempt to grasp at a younger audience, who are already invested in the timeless tale. Where it sticks to its roots, with rejuvenation from aesthetics and brilliant costume design courteously of Robert Morgan, The Grinch is stealing more than baubles and trees, but accelerating young hearts and old imaginations.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas runs at The Festival Theatre until December 1st. Tickets available from: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/how-the-grinch-stole-christmas-the-musical

Review originally published for Reviews Hub: https://www.thereviewshub.com/how-the-grinch-stole-christmas-the-musical-festival-theatre-edinburgh/

The Breadwinner

Directed by Nora Twomey

Written by Anita Doron, Deborah Ellis

Gloriously direct, “The Breadwinner” (2017) turns the patriarchal trope of a sole provider into an unflinching tale of a young Afghan girl’s determination, fear and resilience under Taliban rule in 2001. Based on Deborah Ellis’ bestselling novel, who returns to write the screenplay, “The Breadwinner” is a gut-wrenching reminder of the violence that women experience under the shadow of modern histories vilest patriarchal systems.

As the boys play solider, it is women who endure, women who spend their days attempting to find semblance amidst the chaos. Both the original novel and the screenplay have been written by Deborah Ellis, with the screenplay in part co-written with Anita Doron. With such a wealth of female filmmakers behind the film’s production, it’s little wonder how “The Breadwinner” manages to encapsulate female oppression from the most tyrannical of archaic patriarchies for verdantly. More importantly, how it refuses to victimise these mothers and daughters, instead, matching the strength they display with the losses they suffer.

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Opening-up with concerns over modern-day political coups, Western interference in the East and the severe imposition of female ‘modesty’, Twomey rejects an outright statement on the religious practises of a culture with which she is not a member. It’s a respectful opener, rife with imagery which speaks more than the words do, like America and Britain’s recent history in the region does not need to be stated when the bombastic annihilations of colour illustrate the point enough.

Reversing the term ‘breadwinner’, in which our first thoughts are of a man, usually suited, for some reason in fifties stylings, as the primary caregiver for the family. In Kabul, a woman isn’t in this role, unless her husband, brother’s, cousins or any other man in the family have died, left or are in prison. After her father Nurullah is taken to prison for hiding books in the floorboards, teaching his daughters, Parvana finds herself the breadwinner for her sick mother, her older sister and baby brother. That is of course after she sheds her headscarf, her hair and disguises herself as a boy. With her newfound ‘freedom’, Parvana discovers that “when you’re a boy you can go anywhere you like”, as suddenly she can hold her head high, walk and purchase goods, all with less fear of scrutiny. Here, Saara Chaudry‘s voice acting moves from the sombre tones to a jovial child who is unearthing the brief joys in life, in an otherwise difficult lifestyle.

And this power of the written word, a resentment from educated women, has references which you can locate in Nora Twomey’s direction and animation. The tool which Parvana’s parents use to educate their daughters, much to the disarray of the Taliban, a storybook, a simple, harmless storybook which offers key weapons in the fight of oppression: imagination and freedom, which offer liberation. Mentioned as a writer, Laara Sadiq’s role as such an educated mother, Fattema is soft-spoken, which as the stakes grow higher, morphs into a matriarchal powerhouse of desperation – a woman for who no man will tie-down, even when threatened at knifepoint, beaten or any other atrocities she suffers in the film.

Liberating a profound level of freedom with the text, Executive producer Angelina Jolie works alongside Ellis and Twomey to reinforce the film’s stringency to the truth. The beating we see Fattema endure, the threats of ‘marriage at her age’, sexual violence, arranged marriages and abuse of both daughters, “The Breadwinner”, regardless of its comedic moments, playful characters or visuals does not shy from authenticity.

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So please take heed, especially from an advocate of children’s cinema, that “The Breadwinner” is not a children’s film. It’s the antithesis of animation’s place as a respectful genre in the cinematic field. Though, I would implore anyone, that if they sufficiently trust their children are mature enough to watch this film, please encourage them to do so. Stripping back the otherness of cinema, “The Breadwinner” places us into the eyes of children in a culture, in a world which we in Western society only ever see through media’s altered vision. Canadian activist Ellis crafts “The Breadwinner” as starkly human, but nevertheless, it is a warming film of family, it will connect with you regardless of nationality, or at the very least we would hope it does. At its most beautiful, this film is a masterpiece in animation which deserves praise for its manipulation of light, layers and dramatic-symbolic storytelling.

Any readers familiar with Twomey and Cartoon Saloon’s previous titles, “The Secret of the Kells” (2009) and “The Song of the Sea” (2014) will have expectations of ‘The Breadwinner’s’ animation style. A wholly unique form than what s presently on offer from the large studios, and even the independents. What Twomey’s style loses in-depth, remaining in the two-dimensional construct the likes Dreamworks and Disney have since abandoned, she makes up for with a palette of immense colour, transforming Kabut into a rich canvas. Injecting the culture with a zest we are unfamiliar with, the landscape a breath of colour propels it into significance, even the darker moments capture the futility of the task ahead for the family with their foreboding monochromatic shadows.

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Quite the opposite, where shadow is the plaything of reality, ‘The Breadwinner’ delves into the cultural stories of Kabul and the Middle East. Snippets of pure escapist storytelling, these blissfully animated segments are awe-inspiring, with a unique blending of multiple formats. They are animated, maintaining Twomay’s two-dimensional style, but they have layers. Almost puppet-like, certainly origami-inspired, as the symbolic jaguars and wolves descend against the young boy, a reminder of so many claimed by war. Ellis so heart-achingly illustrates the maternal vein of the narrative, that it is put upon young Parvana, her mother and sister to keep the family going, their personas reflecting the stories she tells her young brother.

Purposely ambiguous, the film’s ending is bitter-sweet, though refrains from outright misery. “The Breadwinner” earns a spot as a monumentally important piece within the last decade, not only for having a team primarily made up of women, but also for Twomey’s championing a genre which suffers from a hugely lacking diversity. As animation slowly gains a foothold with dramatic representation’s, Hollywood would do well to remember the roots of the genre with the ink-artists of Walt Disney, all women, whose storytelling capabilities continue to manifest limitless story-potentials in ways other film-forms cannot.

Review originally published for In Their Own League: https://intheirownleague.com/2019/11/19/itol-top-50-films-of-the-decade-entry-no-32-the-breadwinner/