Mark Fisher sees
Edinburgh’s major players I
go into headlong competition.
The arrival of the new Edinburgh Festival Theatre would be no problem. went the reasoning. so long as the city‘s other big theatres carved out clear and distinct niches for themselves. So here
we are at the start of the autumn season
and what do we get? Big time musicals all the way. that's what! Well. The Steamie is a play with a few songs thrown in. but it can‘t be appealing to so different an audience during its two- week run at the King‘s than Fiddler on the Roof at the Playhouse or Carmen Jones at the Festival Theatre.
Happily. ifthis is war. then the
audience is on the winning side. i could ;
recommend any one of these shows. all of which pull offthat special trick of having broad popular appeal without being condescending or dropping to the lowest common denominator. What is more. none seems out of place in its chosen theatre. l'd argue that of the three the Festival Theatre is the most comfortable. most judiciously proportioned. most intimate despite its size. but the King's is a ﬁne traditional theatre for all that and the Playhouse.
Carmen Jones: subtle and insinuating
which can often feel like an ugly barn of a place. is no match for a performer with the gravclly charisma of Topol who holds 3000 spectators under his spell with the slightest of gestures.
in terms of staging. Tony Roper’s The
Steamie is by far the most simple and . straightforward ofthe three. Every time
l‘ve seen it performed. the set is
1 virtually identical: four stalls at right-
angles to the audience. in which four
women do their laundry and banter.
V Malcolm McCormack's design has a
few cartoon—like touches. but is faithful ; to the period metallic green wash-
' stands and brick walls of the 50s wash-
house. i suspect this is how it has to be.
Roper's comedy is set so ﬁrmly in a particular place and time. a time of transition when the past looked rosy and the future looked rosier still. that to muck around with the setting would dislocate the play from its purpose. Directing the show for the ﬁrst time. Roper is not going to turn it on its head. so the strength of the production depends on the strength of the performances. Technically these are ﬁne. but in terms of casting. the delineation between the four women could have been greater. Jan Wilson as the aged Mrs Culfeathers does not seem substantially older than Una McLean's Dolly and. while she brings a certain stature to the role. a greater degree of frailty would make some ofthe laughs — and there are plenty — more poignant. The script. however. is too good to be much restrained by this sort of detail and boisterous performances from McLean. Jane McCarry and Lesley Robertson only drive home The Steamie‘s case for being a most deserving case for continued success. Fiddler on the Roof also homes in on a time of transition. Set in a turn-of—the- century Jewish Russian village. it focuses on the conflicting forces of
‘ repression and liberalism which boil up to undermine the traditional values of
Judaism. For the central character Tevye. played with such restraint by Topol. there is a real moral dilemma: the reactionaries want to destroy his village and the liberals want to destroy his principals.
Perhaps it is this conundrum that
meant l was held more forcibly to Fiddler than i was to Carmen Jones which. though it is staged with greater panache and visual style and has a couple of fabulous set pieces. failed to grip me emotionally. But like Fiddler. it is well worth seeing if only to remind yourself that musicals don‘t have to be the brash. glitzy star-vehicles that so often come our way, but can be subtle and insinuating and just as appealing. The Steamie. King is Theatre. Edinburgh. until Sat 24 Sept and on [0117:
Fiddler on the R00]: Play/muse. Edinburgh. until Sat 24 Sept.
Carmen Jones. Edinburgh Festival Theatre. until Sat 1 Oct.
THE MERCHANT 0F VENICE
Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, until Sati Oct.
Alternating deftly between the heady froth of Portia’s Belmont country retreat, and the masonic business world of Venice, this is a solid, unflashy affair that relies on strong characterisation to convey the complexities of Shakespeare’s text. The merchants are presented as a gang of cafe-frequenting fops, swapping business suits for white linen to go courting in, while the women are strong-willed and playful, possessing all the guile required to destroy Shylock, here portrayed as a lonely, bitter figure desperate to retain some sense of dignity but ending up with nothing.
His full sadness is seen in the courtroom, his merciless humiliation seemingly accelerating some form of heart trouble, like a hypochondriac Steptoe under pressure, feigning bad health as an excuse for other shortcomings. Oon Crerar is to be commended for not slipping into obvious histrionics, though one of his longer speeches is marred somewhat by unnecessary eating.
Joe Gallagher’s Launcelot Gobbo is Harpo Marx re-invented as a Northern club comic, while further hilarity is drawn from Portia’s series of foreign suitors, who could have walked straight out of an old episode of ‘Mind YourLanguaget
The women not only save the day, but run rings round their husbands, with strong, confident performances from
Michelle Gomez as Portia, while Diana Sobolewska’s Nerissa is a fine, frivolous counterpoint. Only Jessica stays on the sidelines, neither Christian nor Jew, and you wonder at the end whether she’ll ever be truly embraced into the fold, or merely patronised as a plaything of the wealthy. (Neil Cooper)
HERE!- THE ASPERN PAPERS
The Aspern Papers: Atmospheric rendering of Henry James
Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until Sati Oct.
Henry James’s short story has been blessed with the Citizens’ touch courtesy of a fine adaptation by director Jon Pope. Here, James’s ‘Travelling American’ is a literary mercenary engaged in what transpires to be the despicable pursuit of collecting fragments from the life of his hero, the deceased poet James
Aspern. In the environs of a crumbling Venetian palazzo we encounter our rather fey narrator trying to ingratiate himself with Aspern’s centenarian former mistress, Miss Bordereau, who presides over her pinched and ghostly niece Miss Tita.
Once the hurdle of introducing this Venetian trio has been surmounted, Oamien Oibben begins to blossom in his relished role of narrator, dispensing witty and smoothly- constructed asides to the audience with all the flair of his increasingly conniving and cruel character.
The trio are allowed time to develop in their roles, helping the dynamic between to develop: the would-be academic who burns to establish a relationship with the past yet shuns any real relationships in the here and now; Cate Hammer as the repressed Miss Tita, played with quiet and restrained power and Moira Shearer shining in her first dramatic role in fifteen years, her modulated tones echoing the quiveringly sharp humour of Wilde’s lady Bracknell and gathering momentum as they slip from behind her heavily veiled face.
The evocative and shifting atmosphere created by Michael Lancaster’s lighting and Adrian Johnston’s music is a perfect arena in which James’s language can shine splendidly. (Ann Oonald)
HERET- AS YOU LIKE IT
Seen at Dundee Hep. On tour.
In As You Like It, director Tony Graham makes a case for bringing a kind of multl-hued, multl-cultural New Ageism to Shakespeare. But thanks to a text
that resists such treatment, TAG’s fusion of theatrical styles never amounts to more than the sum of its parts. it only comes alive during the non-text-based set-pieces and even these are more Take That than WOMAO, which probably explains why the capacity ‘0’ Grade audience lapped them up.
Come exam time, though, it’ll be the text that counts and it seems here to have played second fiddle to the production. The scene in which Rosalind, as Ganymede, manipulates Orlando into unknowingly wooing her is a case in point: what should be a clever, sexy, testosterone and IO- fuelled romp becomes little more than panto thigh-slap and tickle.
There are, however, some fine, confident performances. Kern Falconer portrays Jaques as a mincing peacock constantly craving attention, pathos seeping through gradually, as if Ouentin Crisp had been cast as the Nowhere Man of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine cartoon. Susan Nisbet, meanwhile, understated as Touchstone, forms a fine comic double act with Andy Manley’s Audrey.
True magic, however, only comes with Jeanine Davis’s other-worldly lighting and Iain Johnstone’s resounding folk score, and when the two are combined it is to startling effect.
Overall though, things look smaller than they should, never living up to the production’s professed ambitions. A feelgood ending helps forgive previous shortcomings, however, while the epilogue is punctuated by the cast taking up instruments to become a raggle-taggle junkyard orchestra Tom
Waits would be proud of. (Neil Cooper) I
The List 23 September-6 ()ctober l‘)‘)~l 51