Mrs Puntila and her Man Matti – Lyceum Theatre

Written by Bertold Brecht

Adapted by Denise Mina

Directed by Murat Daltaban

Never accept charity instead of your rights” – this exceptionally powerful excerpt from Denise Mina’s adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s socialist satire had the potential to solidify a lacerating piece of Scottish theatre but instead sits as the dribbles of a once splendid cocktail, knocked to the floor.

We are no longer following an aristocrat in Finland, no, far from it – we’re right on our back doorstep. With Scotland’s cherished Elaine C. Smith taking the gender-switch role of Mrs Puntila, the drunken Scottish landowner who adores one thing above a drink – a nightcap. Her faithful chauffer Matti, the quintessentially clever sober in this master-servant comedy could potentially find himself betrothed to Puntila’s daughter Eva, in place of her fiancé the Attache.

Updating this socialist satire, Mina desires to paint Mrs Puntilla as the lush in our lives, usually an ‘aunt’, who has no relation to us whatsoever. Ideally, Puntilla should be the Jekyll & Hyde, the opportunistic split-self, but Murat Daltaban’s interpretation of Smith’s character casts too wide a net. In reality, the distinction between the bitter, callous and cold (sober) Puntilla isn’t discernible from the inebriate. Unengaging, Smith feels stagnant throughout much of the production, disjointed from the room. Largely down to Daltaban’s direction, structure seems devoid for the most part, scenes rolling into the other, broken by musical introductions. Interludes of sorts, which become indecipherable in a cauldron of noise, poor audio quality and repetitious scoring which tunes the ears out.

Who does make a positive impression is Lyceum favourite Steven McNicoll. Instantly a connection forges with driver Matti, it’s difficult not to fall for his witty cynicism or deft control of the stage. Bouncingly lyrical in attitude, McNicoll achieves the only firm laughs this evening, which is still a stretch. A production of extremes, McNicoll sells the mood but sits in stark contrast to the deep-rooted gravity of the nihilistic social injustice performances. The two extremes find no correlation, the humour isn’t landing, which costs earnest tonal changes to feel abrupt, uncertain and, while powerful, merely skin deep.

And this is precisely where Brecht’s original text understood the exaggeration, the utmost extreme, of farcical nonsense. The satire has two attacks – a precise scalpel, or a blundering hammer. Uncomfortably alienating, Mina’s adaptation attempts to spin the plates, making peculiar decisions across the board. Principally, the script adaptations have merit, especially with Scot’s language, but characterisation falls flat, Joanne McGuiness never managing more than a furrowed brow of confusion, until a burst of aggression toward the Act 2 closing.

It all comes too late, as the satire dies, the partygoers are shuffling to their feet, booking taxis and hunting for the nearest chippy. They’re done, ready to go home, and the brutally biting political commentary hits, but not nearly as viscerally as it ought. Stood, a self-proclaimed owner of the Scottish lands, boozed up and arrogant, Puntilla rides through the groaning feast below, Flower of Scotland blaring, a symbol of the aristocracy who preach the beauty of the land they violate. That line, on how charity isn’t an excuse to ignore basic rights, is perhaps one of the sincerest and accurate sentences theatre will utter this year, and while you may forget much of this production, do not forget these examples of Mina’s conceptual ability. 

It is here, atop the moving staircase, where Tom piper’s design work once again elevates a production, this time keeping it from rock bottom. Reflecting the comedy of profession era, noted in the large dog masks as the production opens, Piper’s design is stripped back. A bare-bones set, relying on the raw metal and woodwork to communicate purpose, this is a skeleton of a stage where the cast are its muscle – and the gym was sorely needed. It feels vast, hollow, ravaged, which should (the operative word here) be symbolic of the promises made by Puntila, but it just feels empty.

 A fizz without bubbles, a gin without lime, Mrs Puntilla and Her Man Matti has vision, intent and talent, which are put to squander. Dull satire damages an entire production, one which bolsters such incredible statements and diverse talent. Mina’s adaptation has teeth, razor blades protruding from the gums, but these are brandished, rather than used. Instead, a gentle gnawing around thick, juicy satire on social class is left unscathed, and lacking humour. 

Mrs Puntila and her Man Matti runs at The Royal Lyceum Theatred until March 21st. Tickets are available from: https://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/mrs-puntila-and-her-man-matti

Photo credit – Mihaela Bodlovic

Cabaret – The Festival Theatre

Music & Lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb

Book by Joe Masteroff

Directed by Rufus Norris

Madame’s & Monsieur’s you are cordially invited to Berlin’s it Kit Kat Klub, a den of iniquity, vice and never a virtue. Life has always been a Cabaret: it’s bombastic, emotional and contains just a few surprises, with fewer welcome ones. Joe Masteroff’s book, a play made in 1966 has been cast into the minds of many for the Liza Minnelli film of the seventies – when in reality its nuances, symbolism and staggering beauty lies on the stage.

The remnants of the First World War are still a struggle for the German people of the Weimar Republic in the late 1920s and early ’30s. Arriving into the mix is Cliff Bradshaw, an American writer who befriends choice individuals during his stay at Fraulein Schneider’s small apartment. Taking up an invitation to the Kit Kat Klub, a Kabaret club which epitomises the struggles of the German people and rise of the Nazi party, with select clues for those looking beyond the enticing men and woman, Bradshaw encounters Ernst Ludwig, a German man retrieving various goods from Paris during ‘business’ trips. Above it all, a young chipper Brit, Sally Bowles, captivates any who cross her path.

Approaching act two, illusionary parables fade as a metaphorical context becomes evident, gathering momentous emotion, particularly painful ones, as Partridge collapses from the Emcee, – Jester-King of Cabaret to a fallen idol, an example of the times ahead for the Kit Kat Klub, Germany and Europe. As subtle shades become prominent, the gasps of realisation are nothing of the eventual shuddering imagery of the climax. With the Third Reich rising, Emcee and Sally’s worlds begin to fold in on themselves, a deafening thud of brutality about to echo into the night.

What refuses to fall, is Javier De Frutos’ choreography, for what use is a Klub bar with such sumptuous performers without a little dancing? And while an emphasis may principally focus on burlesque numbers, hypnotically risqué and raunchy, the numbers build in gravitas with less push for humour, and more in syncronising strong-footed movements. Captivating, Kara Lily Hayworth, the entirety of the ensemble cast and John Partridge bring together pin-point accurate movement with the production’s infamous soundtrack.

The production’s vocals are human, not quite as polished as a cast-recording maybe, but what this means is performers such as Anita Harris provides humanity to their numbers like So What? Lyrical construction by Fred Ebb is metaphorically haunting, just as much as his catchy show-girl numbers are extravagant in excess. No, numbers Tomorrow Belongs To Me and reprisals of Wilkommen are excellently written, well composed against John Kander’s ridiculously infectious score, are harrowing in their place within the production.

Absent from the abhorrent future the members of the Klub face, Sally Bowles has her trials, though Lily Hayworth’s momentous return to the venue with Cabaret, the titular number, is the blow-out number of the evening. Bowles is a pixyish character, far from our protagonist, with only Harris and James Paterson’s utterly enrapturing Herr Schultz taking this crown, she is a key focus for the show. Lily Hayworth is playful with just enough sting to keep our interest without over-playing the role. She channels Minnelli (it’s impossible not too) but equally makes the part her own, layering on the English-girl trapped in Germany with gusto. Her emotive control of vocals means that even scenes where perhaps there is a lacking tension, are made in waves of talent.

Master of ceremonies, and mischief-maker to the stars, The Emcee is as revoltingly unnerving to watch as they are mesmerically alluring. Thoroughly unpleasant, John Partridge finds infinite sinful delight in the role, turning who should be an out-right antagonist into the principal player. His spider-like movements reflect his knowledge of the strings to pull. That is of course, excluding the rising black eagle which the Emcee seems to feign ignorance of. Partridge’s control is precise, managing to stir the audience into obeying his ever demeaning, domineering command for attention, praise and all they receive in return is the finger, or if we’re lucky a wink. Behind the double-digits of false lashes, the precise choreography and elaborately delicious The Money Song, there are two instances of Partridge’s considerable ability to shock, terrorise and stir poignancy: Tomorrow Belongs to Me and Cabaret’s closing moments.  

Silence in the theatre is deafening, it is either the maker of production or its sentence. No claps or shrill whistles, an audience halted in their jubilant celebrations of Cabaret as reality rears its vulgar presence. This is what the narrative has been building towards, a sinister viper lurking beneath the glitz, awaiting its moment. Its framing is monumentally heart-breaking. The cold bodies, lining against a wall, the eventual downpour, a reminder of Europe’s all too recent history, and the atrocities never to be forgotten.

Tragically, this is where the near-perfection of Cabaret stumbles, in the tonal shifts and merger of the three plot threads. Charles Hagerty does a fine job with an underwritten role, but the delivery lacks charisma. His undertones of battling with his sexuality, his confrontations with the brown-shirts all feel for not when his attitudes towards Bowles and his lacking presence all work against rooting for the character, Hagerty unable to overcome this dislike is sadly swept aside for far more engaging characters. 

And what characters this production has to its name, that the occasional weak link cannot break the behemoth’s chains of excitement. The Cabaret bars of Berlin, where a dying light as oppression grew, hiding from a political wallop on apathy and totalitarianism. Burying their heads in scuzzy hedonism, a hammer looming overhead, Norris’ touring production of Cabaret is a near-perfect sensationalist piece, with a deep social bite to complement its bark.  

Cabaret Runs at Edinburgh Festival Theatre until November 9th: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/cabaret

Photo Credit – The Other Richard