Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer – White Cobra

Written by Peter Drake

Directed by Fraser Haines

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Bookclubs sound rather fun, don’t they? Or at least, the idea of them does. Gathering with a bunch of friends, acquaintances and potential strangers, to chat about something for a few hours and lock away the pangs of regular life (and we hear wine is often served at these events too). Bliss.

For Bev, Helen, Louise and Rachel these semi-regular meetings seem daunting as first as they get to grips with one another’s lifestyles and quirks, but gradually tethers form and relationships emerge as the women share experiences, stories and life’s scars. Oh, and sometimes they can be bothered to read the damn book.

A damp day, there’s a canny sense of relatability from the offset to draw in listeners. Fitting for Autumn, here are the only real wet days in Peter Drake’s writing where introducing the cast feels quite stilted and uniform, from hereafter though, there’s a far more natural rhythm as the performers chat, but for now these early days are no representation of the eloquent, touching nature which will emerge.

Gradually, the four leads increase in a natural back and forth which staves off the initial worries of chemistry. By the conclusion of Summer, they play into their own hands after forming a tight network of support and care. As one of the four grows ill, the impacts and trials women of the 21st-century face become evident, as they rally around and realise that, despite their initial complaints, sisterhood is real and potentially life-altering.

Individually, the key characters are separate enough to bounce between (and choose sneaky favourites), but three of the four receive a clearer arc than the last. Nothing down to performance, it just seems that in the drive to discuss online dating, ageing and children, Drake’s writing neglects small areas in favour of tying together threads – a reasonable choice.

Brimming with vim & vigour, Vicky Kelly’s Helen is an immediate presence and balances well against Jude Wilton’s more down-to-earth pessimism. Kelly’s suffering at the constant lampooning at her career in the arts makes for a welcome break (if on the nose) through humour. The pair dip in and out of the narrative, usually lamenting online dating and follies of men, but Louise Drage and Bernadette Wood as Bev and Louise have a prominent role throughout, the pair providing steadfast reliability across the production.

In closing, Summer has the echoes of what could be a potential stage adaptation, to stellar praise. The dynamic shift from every day to lyrical language in discussion with dementia, vision loss and reflective nature is a touching ending which, while sounding a tad less cheerful, maintains a respectful and familial nature. It is here where Drake’s writing accelerates in quality and demonstrates their talent with pathos.

Based in Northampton, White Cobra may claim to be a semi-professional theatre company, but following their initial venture into the audio play genre – it’s safe to say their future stands firmly with experienced production companies.

As with the seasons themselves, Drake’s Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer ebbs and flows with good days and bad, but as a collective piece maintains steady growth, increasing in engagement as the narrative moves through the year. Lacing a pleasant easy listening with nuggets of life’s difficulties and annoyances makes Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer a genuinely human portrayal of ageing and friendship, peppered with a few frostbitten story threads which emerge into Spring as poetic blossoms, performed with exceptional care and dedication from Wood, Kelly, Drage & Wilton

Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer is available to listen here

The Merry Wives of Windsor – The Globe Theatre

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Elle While

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The bard’s only comedy set in England The Merry Wives of Windsor serves to demonstrate the futility in revenge, jealousy, and shares in delight for sarcasm, farcical humour, and a scandal. Falstaff, the same but considerably different Falstaff of Henry IV fame now finds himself lusting for Margaret Page and Alice Ford, the wives of Windsor wealth. As theatres remain dark, The Globe invites those at home to experience a lesser-known Shakespeare play in a recording of their 2019 production.

Navigating the trip-hazards of narrative, Elle While’s direction of a notoriously easy story to over-load somewhat pays off. Fitting for a Shakespearean comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor has, at its core, a rather simple two-act structure with a dual narrative. That of the suitor’s pursuit of Anne Page, and Falstaff’s exploits in attempts to seduce the wives of Windsor. Yet, more often than not, the strands of interactions and characters congeal and cause difficulties for audiences to form a coherent story. Attempting to separate these strands, While achieves just enough to create concise story elements, without diluting the intensity of the cast.

Trouble is, when you share a stage with larger-than-life characters, with equally vibrant performances, some of the less dominant characters ebb away in the sea of chaos. Particularly guilty is Zach Wyatt in the role of Fenton. There’s a detachment from the language, a recitation for the script not out of passion, but from memory. No impact is left, and in truth, his entire character is forgotten the moment another player takes the stage. It severely hinders the secondary story within the narrative, saved only by the side-splitting ludicrous antics of Dr Caius (Richard Katz) or the production’s finest asset outside of Pearce Quigley, Anita Reynolds turning in an engrossing Mistress Quickley.

Conversely, Quigley’s Falstaff will cement the production in memory. His audience interactions, farcical and yet, never straying into pantomime will create lasting impacts. It’s an authentic Shakespearean atmosphere, the blurring between the audience and the cast for brief snippets, not overstaying or falling into a hammy showcase. Evident by the audience’s faces, the capability to now witness the reactions as Falstaff blunders into, or spits Sack out onto the unfortunate front rows is something only achieved with the filming of these events. We’ve all been sitting in the circle, craning necks to watch someone flush red as the cast pick a victim, but the filming of Merry Wives allows us to be involved with the interaction, significantly heightening the laugh value.

Occasionally though, the camera work is heavily edited, drawing the firmest line between live theatre and filmmaking. There is little editing process in theatre, no cuts or split-second angle changes. The rule of general cinema is never to hold a shot for more than a few seconds. Well, theatre takes the reverse. In moments of agony or professions of emotion, a rare occurrence in The Merry Wives, the last thing needed is a series of transitional angle changes when, in reality, we just want to watch the performance unfold in a steady shot.

Few rank The Merry Wives of Windsor as a triumphant piece of Shakespeare. It strides out of the gate with promise, but quickly the pace deteriorates as characters lose their charm and despite While’s best efforts, the momentum unravels. The Globe’s recent production though has strong merits in Pearce Quigley’s performance, tremendous supporting roles, and a pleasant live band. So, have someone pour you a quart of sack, dismiss the staff and embrace a farcical comedy, but be wary of who might be courting your partner as you do…

The Merry Wives of Windsor is free to stream via YouTube until June 14th: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBlQ3z3GRjs

Review originally published for Reviews Hub: https://www.thereviewshub.com/the-merry-wives-of-windsor-globe-player/

Scenes For Survival Launch – National Theatre Scotland

At this moment, Theatre is fighting tooth & nail for our right to express a freedom of creativity, and engage an appreciation of what we, as a community, can produce. What finer way to demonstrate the capabilities of exceptionally talented individuals coming together, than with a composite of forty-plus digital artworks produced in isolation. Isolated adaptations of previous works, new creations from aspiring creators and national treasures, speaking to all generations, cultures and yet harkening back to that individualistic ability to take you, however briefly, out of this world and into another.

Following the release of this short film collection, The National Theatre Scotland will begin broadcasting another segment of Scenes for Survival every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 9 pm, starting with a brief extract from Frances Poet’s Fibres, titled A Mug’s Game.

If you had been lucky enough to catch Poet’s production during its recent tour, you’ll be familiar with the blood-roaring fury etched into its script, a revulsion communicated in a way only morose Scottish humour can capture. Returning to perform an extract is one of the country’s most beloved performers, Jonathan Watson, who stars as a Clyde shipbuilder, who like many lives with the effects of Asbestos exposure, and the absence of acknowledgement or care from those who created these dangerous environments.

Watson is the voice of a generation of men. A humble man, his rage isn’t blazing, but subdued in a quiet reserve of warped gratitude for work, tying into the dying relevance of Glasgow’s dockyards, and value of the Scottish working class. Dauntingly accurate, stepping beyond the ideas of masks and safety, the drive for bosses, gaffers, and board members to march their ‘human capital’ into dangerous environments is, frankly, disturbingly relevant. Seth Hardwick’s editing, including the splicing of stock dockworkers shift-work, offers a weight to tie back into the rusted veins of Scotland’s labour intense history.

The harsh reality is that with every choice, every breath we take right now, we have no idea of the potential consequences. Fagan’s writing is the catalyst for Kate Dickie’s intense performance, honing itself not solely around the biological impacts of COVID-19, but the debilitating aura is exudes – the crippling solitude, reinforcing a growing concern of the fragility of mental health, on top of our obvious concerns of physical well-being. Wonderfully imaginative, Fagan’s writing enables Dickie to convey an ethereal, almost detached view of the world and its recovery in our absence. Dickie transcends her prison and establishes an understanding with the audience’s frustrations, concerns and questions to the future.

Isolation’s sound design neatly ties deeper into Fagan’s descriptive troubles of mental deterioration, the almost hallucinogenic properties where isolation forces us to confront ourselves, in the absence of being able to see this alien entity, this virus, our minds tie even the clatters of Thursday night Claps for Carers into a malevolence. Within the intermediary transitions, the sound score leans heavily on the dramatic foreboding, attempting to add more to an already clear intent.

For some, the time in lockdown has enabled us to have a clearing of sorts, enabling them to remove the gunk from their minds, freeing space for other thoughts to fester. Morna Pearson’s Clearing toes as a comedy, tearing itself between the uncomfortable reality of death/disease and discomfort children face going between two homes.

Ashleigh More provides a wide range of facial emotions, remarkably animated and energetic, something missing from the other performances which focus on the wearying effect of lockdown. The brilliance of Clearing is Pearson’s toying with layers of narrative, and a revelation which subverts the built-up sentiment remarkably so. Short, effective, and worth it for the levels of Pearson’s writing.

You might be expecting some humour from Godley, and you’d be correct. Alone is so much more though, it’s an authentic experience of a woman’s life. You see Jim, Jim likes his rules. Fastidious, controlling, but carried with an air of buffoonery, Godley illustrates a familiar situation, perhaps one we recognise in our parents. The underlying commentary, however, the subversion of the obvious, while jabbing at the ignorant attitudes some share regarding which rules they will and will not follow, leads to a short which feels undoubtedly the most ‘Scottish’.

Grim, earthy, with a twang and wink of charm, Godley lets down her hair in this lockdown short which will speak to many women sitting at home, experiencing the same routines and Jim’s of their own. With some exceptionally tight writing, with an unashamedly gorgeous appearance from Honey, this is a must-see for those newfound Twitter fans of Godley’s to experience the brilliance of her creative capabilities.

It’s a tough year so far, right? You’d be forgiven if you lapsed into the nostalgic times – hell, you’d be forgiven if you just wanted to relive last Christmas. Stef Smith’s The Present has a definite flow and the plainest story evolution of this evenings shorts.

Moyo Akande brings everything to Smith’s lyrical structure, which in the hands of another could have robbed The Present of its gradual evolution into sentimentality. The pacing of this short is paramount, too soon and the character feels hollow, too late and there’s no connection. Akande’s performance has a progressive build, Katherine Nesbitt’s direction knowing how to utilise the production’s strengths, allowing for Smith’s words to feel entirely natural, unrehearsed and shifts into an accessible language which retains its intention.

Well Scotland, we’ve been waiting for this one. He’s back, not for a case, not even for the pub(s). No, this time Rebus is finally leaving his stubbornness at the door, to an extent, and isolating. Refusing to modernise, choosing to seek comfort in his vinyl’s, a paper and a few cans, Rebus returns to the realisation of how important the one point of contact he has with longsuffering, friend, and colleague Siobhan. Like welcoming an old friend into the home, Rebus reflects on his life as he faces his own ‘sentence’.

An unstoppable trio of engaging writing, performance and led with Cora Bissett’s exceptional direction sees the nation’s curmudgeon return for a special which retains all of the Rebus humour, call-backs and characters, but Rankin’s original story also proffers a connection with a generation who connects with these stories like no other. This is a role which fans have been casting Brian Cox in for decades, and this feels right. From the first line, this just feels right.

Despite its roots in storytelling, Scotland looks forward, these weavers of narrative use their craft to utilise our reflection not to think of the ‘normality’ we will return to, but what the next step is. Not how quickly people will fall back into their routines post-lockdown, but how we come together to learn, to celebrate the magnificence of Scottish artists, and seek solace in hope. A prevalent concept in the peripherals of many creators is to the world we shall emerge into. A theme throughout Scenes for Survival, for good reason. That in this grand scheme, this infinitesimal amount of time demonstrates how the incompetence, arrogance and crimson soaked talons of the elite have pried open the eyes of the future, revealing that in truth – we can never go back to the way things were.

Theatre will return. Tyrants fall, but stories rule forever. And art will outlive commerce, but the way forward is unclear, and these Scenes of Survival will charter a dawning era for Scotland, for expression and community.

The entire launch collection can be found on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hybVBdI2SXI

Further information, donations and other projects can be sourced from The National Theatre Scotland’s website: https://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com/