Faced-paced story, debauchery, coming-of-age stories, and live perfomances of ELO – could you ask for anything more? Well, maybe …
This offering from the National Theatre of Scotland might be a runaway hit, but I have a feeling that their fans won’t include the Catholic Education Service of the UK. Set in writer Alan Warner’s hometown of Oban (or, more fairly, a partially fictionalised version referred to as “The Port” in the original book The Sopranos), it begins at a school with an unusually high teenage pregnancy rate. But don’t worry, God told the Pope the perfect answer: give the girls of the town a sound moral upbringing by putting them in an all-girls school where nuns teach lessons that sex is a sin and the word “boys” is not allowed, because, like, that always works, doesn’t it?
Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour appeals to a lot of people in different ways, but the main audience for this play seems to be women with fond nostalgia of their youth. I’m not one of those people, because this is about as far removed from my teenage years as can be – I was more minded to sit through this debauchery with a middle-aged “harumph”. But for me, I instead got to enjoy marvelling at the extent of human stupidity – in this case, the stupidity of whoever thought this trip a choir contest was a good idea, bearing in mind it’s the first trip on their own for many of their girls. And it’s to Edinburgh, #2 city in Scotland for drinking after Glasgow, and #1 city for debauched hedonism. And to top it all off, with the contest not being until 6 in the evening, the girls are welcome to go off on their own for the day to see the city. Grief, what did they think was going to happen?
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Lee Hall’s Cooking With Elvis is tasteless, crude, and has all the ingredients you’d expect of a gross-out movie. And, strangely enough, I like it.
Live Theatre’s record of new writing is a hit-and-miss one. That is something that very much comes with the territory of new writing – to do something successful, you have to take risks, and inevitably there are times when it doesn’t work out. That is why I have generally been forgiving of Live when they produced the occasional dud. But sooner or later, you have to produce something to show it’s been worth it, and this year, Exhibit A from Live Theatre is a revival of Lee Hall’s 1998 play Cooking With Elvis. This time, there is no room for excuses: Lee Hall is as established a writer as you can get, they’ve had an original run to see what works and what doesn’t, and this production should be considered an example of the best Live can do. So, don’t think you’re under any pressure or anything. How does it do?
Well, I’ll start with one of my favourite moments, halfway through Act One. Stuart (Riley Jones) comes round to the house of Jill (Victoria Berwick) and her Mam (Tracy Whitwell). Jill politely tells Stuart that she hopes his last visit wasn’t too much trouble, and Stuart politely replies that it was nothing unusual. Which is probably the biggest understatement in the history of theatre, because the last time he was in the house was when he’s been brought back by Jill’s horny alcohic Mam ( Tracy Whitwell), been made to strip off, only to be interrupted by Jill wheeling in her vegetative Ex-Elvis Impersonator Dad (Joe Caffrey) who proceeds to piss on Stuart. In spite of this, Mam still brings in Stuart as her live-in toy boy. Jill, it appears does nothing but cook fancy meals, and suffers endless taunts from her mother for not doing proper stuff teenage girls to, like getting a boyfriend. Until we reach Act One Scene Thirteen. This is announced by Jill as the “end of Act One twist”, and you can probably guess what that twist involves.
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Many plays are mediocre because they use local references as a substitute for a story, but Alan Plater’s Close the Coalhouse Door is a shining example of how a “local” play can be done.
If you’re wondering why it’s taken me so long to review Close the Coalhouse Door, it’s because the three-week run at Northern Stage had already sold out when I tried to get a ticket, leaving me to have to wait for its stop at Durham’s Gala Theatre on the following tour. Luckily I was early enough this time, because this too sold out. Mass popularity, one can assume, is a surefire sign that the play’s going to be good. Or is it? “Local” plays are an easy way of getting bums on seats. I know from painful experience that provided a play includes mentions the Angel of the North, getting cut off by the tide on Holy Island, and the Jarrow march (as opposed to a plot, characterisation or believability), it will probably be a box office smash. Could it be one of those?
Alan Plater’s play is primarily a potted history of the north-east miners from the birth of the union in the 19th century to the late 60s (the present day when the play was first performed). This is very much history as seen by the miners, so it should be taken with a pinch of salt, but it’s not a world seen through rose-tinted spectacles either. The play jumps back and forth between the past and present, and the present-day family and friends of Golden Wedding grandparents all have human flaws, including the apathetic revolutionary (with his song “As soon as the pub closes, the revolution starts”), and divided grandsons, one the first in the family at university, the other following in family footstep. The student’s sort-of-girlfriend, with her idealistic visions of feminism and working-class going hand-in-hand, gets a rude awakening of a village where women do as they’re told.
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