Studying playwriting and dramaturgy at Master’s level impacts on your appreciation of a play. The naïve pleasure of simply being entranced can be hard to recover, as the analytical cogs rarely stop whirring. You notice the costuming, make-up, props, stage management, lights & sound, direction, casting and the acting as separate elements of the production, as well as the publicity, front of house welcome and information – and the script.

So I was pleased to be totally enchanted, watching Govanhill Theatre Group’s Fairytaleheart, by all of these elements – apart from the latter which I only found charming. I shall return to this point. First of all the fit. It wouldn’t have surprised me to have found out that this was a site-specific devised performance, so snugly did the play fit the venue. When the teenaged characters, Kirsty and Gideon, comment on the cold, you could see their breath; and one of the very friendly and informative front of house staff told me there were so many resonances of this play, about a dilapidated and disused community centre, with the Govanhill Baths and the local community.

On this point, let me get my one criticism of the play (not of the production) out of the way. Having grown up on a social housing estate, or as we say in Scotland, a Council house scheme, with the unlovely generic designation of ‘Glasgow overspill’, I am very sensitive to caricature of working class communities. Especially by Guardian columnist lefty posterboys. So while I was charmed by the imaginative world that Gideon leads Kirsty to see in ‘starlight in streetlamps and jungles in cracks in the concrete’, rather than her own bleak vision of ‘a dump’, I am more interested in the community themselves which, in this play, rarely get a mention. Yes there’s Bingo and the loves past and present of the teens’ sole parent or guardian, but there’s no sense of the working class solidarity that I grew up with, the warm and generous hospitality, the houseproud poverty, the cheerful resilience and surrender to fate. It was only at university that I discovered a world where problems were not shared but hidden, where tea wasn’t automatically not so much offered as forced upon you as soon as you were ushered in the door, where there was an eccentric pride in accumulated dust over so many books and neglected objects on display, where simultaneous self-indulgent complaint and frenzied attempts to improve one’s lot were constant.

What Philip Ridley’s play does offer, and what director Eve Nicol brought out beautifully, is the awkward encounter of two teenagers in a space which they both have claim to yet neither of them can appropriate. I have seen Eve Nicol’s work before, both as director and playwright, and she deals with this theme of emotional marginality with an honesty that I find quite unnerving. I know these characters. My own adolescence was an alternation between them, never so extreme because I didn’t dare. Georgie Mac’s Gideon was attractive in his lithe energy and repulsive in his habits at the same time, as Catriona MacLeod’s Kirsty focused our eyes on him, with clever use of handheld torches, and the lovely glow of candles as the emotional temperature warmed up. Kirsty herself was always beautiful but, at first and often after, forbidding, the silver in her dress and sprinkled in her hair glittering and metallic.

Let me praise the play for not offering closure of the awkward gap between the teens. The last image, when all the candles and all the torches bar one have been extinguished, is a double profile where what is most apparent (because it’s what the actors and the director want us to see) is the negative space between them. It could just be a shadow but it could also be a candlestick – or even a heart.

The last performance in this run of Fairytaleheart starts at 7pm this evening, in the Steamie at Govanhill Baths, 99 Calder Street (just off Victoria Rd) G42 7RA. There may still be tickets on the door (£8/6) but you can book them at www.brownpapertickets.com and for further directions and info: www.govanhillbaths.com. Publicity image below by Sarah Gibboni.




When he began heckling the audience, we all thought it was part of the show; but it quickly became apparent that this dour man with the dour voice was from a dour church in the West End. The ones leafleting against Bill Kenwright’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, on the last night at the first tour venue: Glasgow’s King’s Theatre. I’m a fan of musicals and a big fan of this one; I’m not a fan of dour churches. Yet, as I watched him through my opera glasses (I was up in ‘the Gods’) as he was shouting and then being escorted out, I was struck by his passion.

It’s a passion that is profoundly anti-cultural. This extreme version of Calvinism in recent years has damned half its former flock to Hell for continuing to associate with a man who attended the funeral of his Roman Catholic friend, and in years past was a major contributory force in killing off community life on the remote island of St Kilda. It’s dour and it’s thrawn (‘bleak’ and ‘obstinate’ don’t translate those Scots words very well). Yet, for all that, and for all its misogyny, homophobia, sectarianism and general anti-modernism, it’s passionate.

Being passionate about the passion of Jesus of Nazareth, or even being struck by the story, isn’t cool in the West End of Glasgow where I live. That thrawn dour kirk (church) is anomalous here. It’s not only that an entire post-Christian generation associates that story with the more dour aspects of that dour church and generalises them to all passionate Christians everywhere, it’s also that this story isn’t told. Or, at least, it isn’t told well.

Some years ago, standing at a bus stop on Great Western Road, I watched Greeks bearing candles spread out from the Orthodox Cathedral of St Luke, carrying the light of Easter home. One of the two blondes scratching their heads at the bus stop managed to articulate: “whit’s tha’?” (what’s that) and when I replied “it’s Easter” her interlocutor turned to me in surprise and said “Aa fo’ tha’ wiz bunnies” (I thought that was bunnies). It wasn’t their use of the vernacular I objected to; it was their lack of cultural literacy.

Thin-skinned Christians may find all sorts of things to object to in Superstar. They may be happier with Franco Zeffirelli’s deeply moving, and slow-moving, Jesus of Nazareth. However, they should realise that, for many secular people, the prime source of information on this story is neither the sacred scriptures nor the spiritual screen versions but the satirical comedy, Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

As I watched the Company throwing themselves about the stage with such energy, some dramaturgical questions arose:

  • Do they move or are they moved?
  • What does it mean to be an actor in this drama, as distinct from participating in their next show, Legally Blonde?

As I listened to the main characters, and especially the chorus, sing, other questions arose:

  • It’s certainly possible to sing a rock opera in English accents, but need they be so posh? Do we really need every ‘i’ dotted and ‘t’ crossed? Is diction more important than passion?

These questions were accompanied by an appreciation of the excellent stagecraft of the production. Props were set and struck so smoothly and most timing, such as Pilate just avoiding the lash that cracked at his back, was excellent. The multi-level, multi-purpose set reused what was static and moved what was mobile – and the location of the cross was artistic genius.

When Tim Rogers’ voice warmed up, he gave us all the variations of the very challenging vocal part of Judas; when Rachel Adadeji stopped sounding as if she were Joan Armatrading very carefully singing the World Service Shipping Forecast and just, as we say in Glasgow, geid it laldy (belted it out) as Mary, she was wonderful; and Glenn Carter was simply amazing, singing as Jesus often in a head voice that was all heart. I loved Alistair Lee’s scheming Annas and my theatre companion loved Kristopher Harding’s versatile Simon. Neil Moors sang Caiaphas’ tuba voice suitably and Tom Gilling performed Herod’s decadent role more camply than I’d imagined possible. Jonathan Tweedie’s Pilate was sung with gravity and acted with dignity, and the supporting roles did just that.

The question that resounded in my head as I left the theatre was sung early in the show:

  • “Jesus Christ, Superstar, do you who think you’re what they say you are?”

I last saw this show when I was 16 and in the grip of a religious passion not unlike that possessing the heckler at the start of this performance; only I don’t think I was that thrawn and I hope I was never so dour. I was moved to tears at the end. I’ve never cried at a performance before or since and I didn’t last night. My answers to this last question may have changed but it is still important to me. I may never formulate them completely, but I suspect they involve a spirituality that celebrates culture as co-creation, one that sees the power and glory and the responsibility of compassion; a spirituality based on participating in a powerful story, in good company, and being moved by passion.

It’s also a never-ending story. It’s not only the poor, as prophesised, that are with us always but also the persecuted. This is a story of Near and Middle Eastern macropolitics, it’s about expediency and lack of accountability, it’s about collateral damage and protecting the interests of the powerful. It’s about faith, hope and love in a time of cynicism and despair. It’s a story that can inform our reflections on food bank Britain, on Greece and Spain and Ireland under austerity and on the Cold War chess game of death being played out in Syria – where crucifixion is no-longer obsolete.

Jesus Christ Superstar is on tour. Information on venues, dates and tickets is here.


Thanks to Lee Wag for releasing his image “Jesus Christ Revolution” into the Public Domain.

Describing characters by their books

People often reveal their inner lives through the kind of books they tend to read and when you live with people you have the opportunity to get to know what kind of books they tend to read. Cos people tend to leave the kind of books they tend to read lying around. Clara read long hardback novels with White English waifish young heroines of steady disposable income (usually of undisclosed source) written by substantial White English matrons (married to chartered accountants) who spent page after page in detailed description of understated emotion and luxuriant but restrained garden shrubbery. Often the modest heroine was unexpectedly valued, and a slightly unnerving chain of events (all of which took place in the ‘Home Counties’ with perhaps one trip to the West Country, East Anglia or even as far north as the Yorkshire moors) led to a slightly embarrassing confession of a hitherto undisclosed secret. And everyone still in London, and not already dead, ended up feeling strangely healed.

Imogen left ‘the greats’ lying around but never seemed to read them for more than five minutes before starting a texting marathon or launching into an extended account of whatever drama had lately occurred at school. I suspected she had a stash of chicklit up in her room. I knew what she read on the beach and it wasn’t Tolstoy. Justin wasn’t interested in books, he preferred me telling him about them, especially if I was preparing food for him at the time. That said, he was the only person I knew who got Men’s Health for the fitness advice. Dave, to move on to those who had lived in the flat temporarily, had surprised me. Instead of the sordid doings of sex-crazed young men and their sugar daddies, which his online and DVD viewing favoured, I knew he read spy thrillers and the Scottish novels (but not the science fiction) of Iain Banks.

When I’d visited Boris, I’d seen the usual pile of hippy classics from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and the works of Carlos Castaneda. Clara once let slip that he also, secretly, read Jane Austin. I had read Persuasion, because of a mention of its unrequited love in a movie, and Emma, because for some reason people find me interfering, and also Wide Sargasso Sea, because a guy with a Barbados accent of sugar and rum recommended it to me in a bookshop. O fortunate isle to have such accents in it! As well as anything esoteric, I also unashamedly read Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins and was occasionally (on the beach) seen with paperbacks featuring American werewolves who would change into singularly stunning mates of resourceful females with a penchant for coffee and blueberry muffins.

When Johnny had stayed with us he’d raided Imogen’s, immaculate, collection of Livres de Poche and read the adventures of Inspector Maigret aloud to Bernadette, explaining the police vocabulary, such as the Sûreté, as he went along. It seemed to calm them both during that hectic period when all our lives were in danger, and it must have helped brush up her French for both Belgium and the Congo. I didn’t know what kind of books Keith read and I hoped one day I’d care. Just not yet. Simone was either too tidy to leave books lying around or too busy to read. That was another thing I didn’t know about her.

(Qismet, Chapter  5)

Describing characters is a challenge for all authors but as this is the fourth book in the Bruno Benedetti Mysteries series, I wanted to vary the method of description. Another factor is that whereas Bruno (the narrator), Justin, Clara, Imogen, Boris and Johnny have featured in every book since the first, Tricks of the Mind, Bernadette and Dave are introduced in the second, The Lovers, and Simone doesn’t appear till the third: Shades of the Sun, during which Keith is increasingly mentioned and Johnny and Bernadette are entirely absent.

As well as being a way of presenting all the main characters in Qismet fairly early in the book (there are currently 16 chapters and the word count stands at 65K) on more or less equal terms, it’s also an excuse to have fun. People who like books tend to like reading about them and enjoy being in on the jokes about the various pretensions of bookish people. Some books are like old friends, and mentioning them brings in the memories of the reader and hopefully (a big word in this particular book) invites sympathy with characters who may share their fancies and their foibles.

Qismet will be out for Christmas. Hopefully. [And so it came to pass]


Thanks to George Hodan who has released his photo, “Love of Books”, into the Public Domain

Blithe Spirit

The Blithe Spirit of the Kirkintilloch Players charmed my mother, my aunt, and myself from the first magical moment of seeing the lovely set. The traditional three-sided box of floor-to-ceiling flats revealed itself to be a box of tricks! But the furniture first caught our eye with its attention to period and detail. Of course there was a chaise-longue and a round table, for rapping and turning, but also several items of authentic Arts and Crafts furnishings as well a clever French window giving onto a flowery garden. The attention to detail continued in the careful costume of the careful maids and also of the funny flighty one, young Mhairi Dobbin’s Edith holding her own in her first production with the Adults, and in the beautiful changes of Lynne McDonough’s Ruth C. (the frosting really the icing on the cake) in the elegance of Myra Scott’s Mrs B. and in the floaty chiffon of Elaine Martin’s pallid but vivacious Elvira. As for Hilary Lynas’s hilarious Madam A., her eye-shadow perfectly matching her eyes gave the same startling effect as her walking wardrobe of Bohemian extravagance. The gentlemen’s costume was understated and correct and both Robert Benison’s Charles C. and Allan Cowan’s Dr B. looked perfectly at home in their very upper middle class role – the latter’s accent was especially good.

Excellent stage management and production were very much in evidence, by being invisible. Characters wandered around the well-stocked set at ease, always in clear sight of the audience. Lights and horns and bells and music happened where and when they should, and if they didn’t we were unaware of it. I soon stopped analysing and I got lost in the plot. I’d seen the film but I enjoyed this play much more. It’s the very human inconvenience of a former relationship to the current one that is at the heart of this play, based on the real-life experience of two women of Noël Coward’s acquaintance. The actor playing Ruth, who I found out had stepped in with only four weeks to learn her part due to a family emergency, balanced understandable peevishness with at the least the attempt to be charitable to the possessive poltergeist who had invaded her happy home. The actors playing  Elvira and Madame A. had the challenge to vary their main attitudes (of flirty floatiness and transcendental zaniness, respectively) with minor changes of mood. So they were in turn enthusiastic, charmed, despondent, inspired, exhausted. The actors playing Edith and the Bradmans did well to support and not overpower the story of the core four. My theatre companions felt the laurels must go to Robert Benison for remembering all those lines! In deed there was hardly a scene where he wasn’t present and if any ad-libbing went on, to us it appeared that the characters were simply flustered, with all the otherworldly weirdness, or thinking of how to respond. For me, I felt each actor played their part exceedingly well, the whole production team came together and it was more than alright on the night.

Blythe Spirit

(graphics: http://www.kirkintillochplayers.co.uk/productions)