An Edinburgh Christmas Carol – The Royal Lyceum

Adapted and Directed by Tony Cownie

From the novel by Charles Dickens

Instilling our most cherished festive tale, with the façade of our fair city, should be a winning combination which sits alongside holly and ivy, wine and mistletoe or the Queen’s Speech and a power nap. An Edinburgh Christmas Carol places Ebenezer Scrooge, the original curmudgeon, on the cold, cobbled streets of Edinburgh, where he may bump into a few familiar faces. In recent years The Royal Lyceum has taken us to Neverland, to Wonderland and even into Narnia, but nothing feels quite as right as being on your doorstep.

The script, largely, perhaps too large, remains unchanged. With the inclusion of Greyfriars’ Bobby providing wonderfully inventive puppetry and a few gags to boot, the story of A Christmas Carol has been stuck onto the streets of Edinburgh. Crawford Logan is, an approachable Scrooge. Miserable as ever, there’s a distinct lack of animosity, as the performance is rich and has conviction, he’s an absolute fit for an Edinburgh Scrooge, but there’s a needed edge to Logan’s characterisation. We find it difficult to buy into his postulations of the workhouse, decreasing the surplus populations and the stories darker moments. Herein is the key issue you may find, Tony Cownie’s adaptation is just too sweet to stomach. 

An overlying view of the production’s intention, and one’s taste with dictate your enjoyment of An Edinburgh’s Christmas Carol. The calibre of the Lyceum’s Christmas productions is of tremendous standard, which subverts the usual paradigms we view with a text. Whether this is Peter Pan from the perspective of Wendy, or Alice in Wonderland, emphasising the macabre outlook, the psychosis of the drama and the absurdity. An Edinburgh Christmas Carol, by extension, is rather safe. There is nothing wholly offensive to the production, it is by and large an entertaining, festive production which warms the heart which beats beneath the chortling chest – but substantially removes itself from Dicken’s, or even Auld Reekie’s haunted past.

For first and foremost, A Christmas Carol is a ghost story. And in quite the turn-about, it is neither the haunting apparition of Christmas Future, nor the nostalgic pains of Past which are the memorable performances, but rather the often-overlooked Ghost of Christmas Present, or rather ingeniously, The Ghost of Christmas Nouadays. Steven McNicoll is the quintessential being of mirthful jolly, with his red sack and ginger beard, Nouadays is the epitome of a Scottish Christmas. McNichol’s presence brings a needed vitality to the spirit realm, following an unmemorable Ghost of Langsyne, and the grim prospects of the Ghost of Ayont from Eva Traynor and Taqi Nazeer.

The ingenuity for this Spectre, Ayont, a headless drummer boy is colossal in imagination, though also in size. As his rhythmic beats echo into the night, this is the section of the tale we sadists enjoy. The warnings Scrooge endures, the fate which may befall the selfish man as he realises the suffering he has caused and the path to redemption. The prevalent issue of tone direction is at its most evident here, where the production still cannot grasp the haunting of Dicken’s classic with Cownie’s direction. As Scrooge, in what should be his final moments of crushing realisation against the sombre beat of a headless drummer, sits jarringly lost among uneven humour and awkward delivery.

This humour, which strays into Pantomime territory at times, dips from over-the-top, obvious and into misplaced. Choice gags, which should be hitting the rafters, fall short at the audiences’ feet as a few timing issues pervade. In tune with every ounce of the humour, running away with the loudest, most significant deliveries is Grant O’Rourke. His performance is distinctive, even against the choruses onstage. The moments are short but considerably steady in appearances. His chemistry with the puppets is fluid, responding to Edie Edmundson’s puppetry naturally and with exceptional effect.

Tiny Tim, as tiny, as can be, is a scale rod-puppet along with Bobby the dug, the very same of Greyfriars’ Kirkyard fame. Cownie has spliced Bobby rather well with the story, a sprinkling of flavour rather than a forceful injection of a narrative. It’s a connection with the community, and the craft of the puppets matches the technical levels of stage design.

What we have is a decent production, akin to those gifts we receive from aunts and uncles; pleasant, harmless, but fails to live up to expectations. Now, these are not the words of a Scrooge. The implication is that such tremendous talent, innovative design-work and ideas seem to have been watered down. It’s frustrating, given Tony Cownie’s strikingly sensational works with The Belle’s Stratagem and Thon Man Molière that An Edinburgh Christmas Carol fails to hit the right notes, there seems to have been pulled punches out of worry from Edinburgh’s most dreadful force – middle-class parents. 

An Edinburgh Christmas Carol runs at The Royal Lyecum until January 4th 2020. Tickets available here:

Photo Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

The Monstrous Heart – Traverse Theatre

Written by Oliver Emanuel

Directed by Gareth Nicholls

Choking, claustrophobic, Mag’s cabin exists in an idyllic retreat many would desire, but others would suffocate within its freedom. Where the subject of nature vs. nurture arises, the concept of a monstrous mother is by no means recent. Oliver Emanuel’s The Monstrous Heart entwines nature so integrally with the narrative, as a force offering redemption for one, yet suffocation for another, that the brutal interruption of Mag’s daughter Beth only spells chaos.

A definitive stick of dynamite, Christine Entwisle spends a decent portion in, somewhat, of a controlled state, ready to blow. Cowed and beleaguered, despite her rejection of daughter Beth, we sympathise to an extent. Far from simpering, there’s a hint of a stoic woman who has perhaps been lost, or as it would seem, is merely hibernating…

Without an ounce of shame, Charlene Boyd’s self-destructive Beth is just as enrapturing to watch, as she is repulsive in manner. Gareth Nicholl’s direction, evidently liberating, pits Charlene Boyd against Entwisle in a compelling fashion. Boyd’s brazenness unhinged but articulate is troubling – but in actuality, she’s cobbled her pieces back together to seek answers, or perhaps vengeance. Thus far, we stick to the plains of reality – these are the squabbles which place themselves firmly in verism. That is of course until a certain bronze-coloured beverage knocks Mag’s off her wagon – here, straying into overwrought abstract, nature has a force to awaken within this mother.

We have, however, failed to address the Elephant Bear in the room. Lifesize, designed to perfection by Cécile Trémolières, it’s presence is of debate among the characters, but its symbolism goes far beyond mere spectacle. Voice-over work in the theatre is rarely a discussion, but Tanya Moodie’s voiceover for the bear, nature, however you wish to interpret, is driven with guttural passion.

With the pace of an extraordinarily slow badger watch, The Monstrous Heart has the grim appeal of a car crash, but in a hyper-slow motion. Refusing to look away, knowing that there is some form of carnage awaiting, but you know that you should. As layer upon layer is cut away, peeling itself to reveal a gruesome secret, Emanuel’s writing steadily evolves but takes too long to get there, dragging out this family-reunion in the wrong places, burning the candle a too vigorously, then snuffing out the progression it illuminates.

What little lighting is utilised, is effective as a conveyer of emotional turmoil, or the bleakness of the mountain’s chill. Gradually dipping, a storm hailing beyond the door, sunlight fading out from the cabin. So subtle, yet effective, a shiver creeps up, taking us by surprise. At its most effective, as the door holds open, a thin blanket of snow covers the floor. The fading light all but gone, briefly illumined by the dying glow, it’s a final image which sums up the production in a chilling way.

Mother knows best, or at least, they often think they do. Emanuel’s production captures the ferocity of a mother-daughter relationship, dialling the emotional instability to the maximum. An argument centres on whether evil is born, or manifested, stems back to, well, as soon as we were able to articulate the question. As the piece’s referential homage to Shelley’s Frankenstein asks: are monsters born, made or is the creator, the parent, the true monster? The Monstrous Heart asks tough questions, tackles a monstrous mother, her twisted daughter, and cackles in the face of beauty.

Runs at The Traverse Theatre until November 2nd. Tickets available from: https://www.traverse.co.uk/whats-on/event/the-monstrous-heart

Photo credit – Mihaela Bodlovic

The Stornoway Way – The Studio, Festival Theatre

Written by Kevin MacNeil

Directed by Matthew Zajac

Touring Scotland, tickets available from Dog Star Theatre: http://www.dogstartheatre.co.uk/the-stornoway-way.html

Endlessly lyrical, Kevin MacNeil’s take on his best-selling novel lends itself to the musical format well. With each song have originality in composition, with a few notable exceptions standing out as clear favourites. To hear Gaelic sung in a natural form, with new arrangements, is a fitting match for the production. Encouraging a rejuvenation with a language by infusing it’s archaic, island tones with fresh lyricism. Naomi Stiratt, Chloe Ann-Tyler and Rachel Kennedy’s vocals, particularly in Gaelic, are a staunch reason for The Stornoway Way’s moderate success.

Awash with colourful characters, we first open on the cold, brisk blue Isle of Lewis. With a drink rich community, everyday life centres on the pursuits of merriment, ‘chicken’, and a further chaser to follow the first one. Chicken, a term for Famous Grouse Whiskey, is a lifeblood for the islanders. It’s a warming agent, a talking point for communities, and as the inhabitants gather to sing, talk life and, well, you guessed it – drink, it feels as though The Stornoway Way takes from Local Hero on its opening up of the outer Hebrides and Isles of Scotland. In reality, it plunges focus onto a singular, not very likeable, but roguishly charming hero – Roman.

Dreamer, romanticist, narcissist, and all around, a bit of an arse. Roman is the guy many would envy, charismatic with his deliberately misleading Gaelic, terrific vocals courtesy of gender-bending cast member Stirrat, but his reliance on a liquid crutch is one all too familiar. Forever patient, friend Eilidh is understandable in her frustrations with helping Roman achieve his dream by travelling to Edinburgh to record an album, only to be abandoned in return.

Maintaining a focus on Roman’s downward spiral into depression, fuelled by his love of the dram, the stage adaptation also attempts to divert a small amount of attention away. Aiming to secure further character development, as well as shoehorn in additional songs, it’s a double-edged premise. For the occasional character, such as Eva, it brings biting commentary and gripping drama, which was sorely lacking. Unfortunately, other character decisions fail to add much, eking into the length of the show which stretches itself excessively.

Roman’s characterisation fails in one key element, and it has nothing to do with performer Stiratt, who garners all she can. The issue is that the character’s motivations, while identifiable in people we encounter in day to day lives, are weak. The isolation of an island community isn’t built enough to offer a reason to extend sympathy. Psychologically, the darkening clouds surround Roman, hastening his toxic masculinity, but it isn’t until his argument with Eva where we get a sense of the self-obsessive, self-destructive manipulation he is capable of. Both Stiratt and Ann-Tyler are giving out a tremendous amount more than the script offers. Building to the keenest performance with Ann-Tyler’s broken, tired strumming’s of the guitar, lamenting her good intentions.

Its dramaturgy fails to fully capture its intention, shifting focus to the big city for a fish out of water narrative, it leaves behind an island setting – wonderfully designed, built as an aetherial, solitary space. Multi-purpose, lit wonderfully, its use as various locations is inventive, shifting from Edinburgh pub, Island chapel or ocean waves. Setting for the final scene, a remnant of what the entire production should have shifted towards, an amalgam of desperation, yet freedom is a touching moment.

Shifting to the stage, The Stornoway Way’s attempts at meta-commentary on theatrical tropes are a welcome addition, but one too many waters the joke. It reduces the narrative to contextualisation, bordering on panto territory, explaining far beyond what is required. It so desperately, valiantly wants to illustrate the dangers of alcohol’s seductive appeal, that it disconnects from the story to pursue this venture. Scatterings of investible songs, with some powerful performances, make MacNeil’s stage adaptation a venture worthy of pursuing, no doubt improving with time.