Tag Archives: National Theatre of Scotland

“Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

A big hit on the Edinburgh Fringe and at the National’s Dorfman auditorium last year, this coming-of-age show is now out on the town in the West End. Following the day-long misadventures of convent schoolgirls from Oban, let loose in the Scottish capital for a choir competition, it’s raucous fun, peppered with thought-provoking moments and fantastic singing.

Lee Hall’s adaptation of Alan Warner’s book (The Sopranos) is adventurous and tackled at suitable speed by director Vicky Featherstone. Partly a concert – and the singing deserves a second mention – and then a collection of character studies, the six performers all do a terrific job. Frances Mayli McCann’s voice is particularly strong and supremely versatile, while Dawn Sievewright and Isis Hainsworth do well with the strongest story lines, as a young lesbian and a cancer survivor, respectively. There’s plenty of drama in these teenage lives, but a spirit of humour presides. Caroline Deyga delivers insults with enviable skill while Kirsty MacLaren and Karen Fishwick are especially good when taking on male roles. There’s a pretty shaming view of masculinity here, but I am not going to argue with it – I wouldn’t dare take these girls on.

“Really, really rude” language is the warning all over the theatre foyer. And they aren’t joking. The swearing is enough to make a submariner blush – let alone what else they might have to say about him. The discussions of sex are… frank. Impressively, the drink- and drug-filled binge is fun but not glamorised. For all the crudity, Hall and Featherstone want this to be a play that respects its characters. The girls know they aren’t angels but they aren’t hypocrites either. Telling teenage life as it is, even if it makes some squirm, makes this a mature show about youth.

Until 2 September 2017


Photo by Manuel Harlan

“The James Plays” at the National Theatre

Rona Munro’s trilogy about Scottish Kings James I, II and III has arrived at the National Theatre, co-producer of the shows, after opening at the Edinburgh International Festival. The plays make a theatrical marathon, each a meaty two-and-a-half hours long, but are an easy race to run. And while satisfying as a threesome, each stands alone and is startlingly individual.

James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock gets off to a rollicking start. It’s the story of the first King’s return to Scotland from England, where he was held captive, establishing power amongst warring chiefs and battling with the powerful Stewart family. James McArdle takes the lead in style – his might be the finest male performance of the trilogy. There’s plenty of action and even the ghost of Henry V. Best of all is his romantic relationship with his English Queen Joan, performed with spirit by Stephanie Hyam, which has an authentic and unsentimental ring to it.

James II: Day of the Innocents takes a different approach, looking at the trauma the next King suffers from seeing his father murdered and being abandoned by his mother. James’s early years are manically reconstructed, using puppetry and a lot of running around, so it takes a white for Andrew Rothney (pictured above) to get into the title role. There’s another strong wife, but of greater interest is his relationship with Mark Rowley’s Douglas, the best friend he subsequently betrays. This is a fascinating mix of rivalry and compassion as the two bullied young men fight for their independence.

Although the writing for women is strong throughout, Munro really focuses on the ladies at court in the final play, James III: The True Mirror. This King is an aesthete, and a lascivious one at that: think Edward II in a PVC kilt. The play has an even more modern feel to mark this ruler out as the first Renaissance monarch. Jamie Sives takes on the role with an extravagant bravura. But the attraction is his Queen Margaret, played by The Killing star Sofie Gråbøl, who is thoroughly engaging in every scene and benefits from being joined on stage by the excellent Blythe Duff, who excels in all three plays.

Munro’s writing is assured. What could have been dry history and, given the recent referendum, a victim of obvious political points, is fresh and often funny. She brings out questions of autonomy and responsibility lightly and her thoughts on family and loyalty are absorbing. Full of modern touches, most notably some ripe language, Munro creates distance with the Shakespearean parallels her work inevitably evokes. Laurie Sansom’s direction is a grand achievement, although there are moments when it feels unsubtle, a little like the giant sword that presides over the action. The prop is big but not clever, unlike the plays themselves, which are grand and intelligent. Try to see as many as you can.

Until 29 October 2014


Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 26 September 2014 for The London Magazine

“Let the right one” in at the Royal Court

The National Theatre of Scotland are paying a visit to London, to the Royal Court, with their warmly received production, Let the right one in. A superb adaptation by Jack Thorne, of the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, made famous by two successful film versions, it deserves unreserved praise for its eminent theatricality. It’s a vampire story with a brain, as well as the usual suspense, and the twist is that this is a story about children.

On stage, we have Martin Quinn as young Oscar, doing a marvellous job at convincing us he is on the brink of puberty. He’s horribly bullied at school, from a broken home and has issues that are only suggested to us (like Oscar, we can’t quite work them out). The supporting roles of school children, mum and dad, are confidently performed and Quinn captivates as the kid in the class we all recognise.

But Oscar’s issues are nothing compared to those of his new friend Eli. She only plays at night, sleeps in a box and lives off blood procured by a creepy father-figure who murders people in the nearby woods. Oscar and Eli’s innocent relationship is… complicated. Rebecca Benson, taking the lead role, gives a luminous performance. Just the right side of ethereal, she injects humour and tension with a physicality that stuns.

All the potent ingredients of vampire mythology that make the genre so popular (and commentators so profuse) are present. There’s no shortage of spine tingling and no skimping on blood capsules. But even better, each encounter between the youngsters increases in tension. The characters are complex, and even Eli’s butchering guardian, played so well by Ewan Stewart, is someone you want to learn more about.

Director John Tiffany’s work ensures the show is not only far more than your average teenage tale but also (and critics always love this one) more than a film on stage. Every aspect of the production emphasises the theatrical: its inventive, high-spec set by Christine Jones, and fantastic sound design, lighting and especially movement that adds immeasurably to the powerful emotions and gives the show an odd beauty.

The grace of the performances, often in scenes of violence, is accompanied by a rousing electronic soundtrack by Ólafur Arnalds – the best music I’ve heard for theatre in a long time. A gory vampire story might make an odd Christmas trip for the family, but this is one that teens might actually like – and that everyone should be impressed with.

Until 21 December 2013


Written 6 December 2013 for The London Magazine

“Black Watch” at the Barbican

Black Watch has the air of a theatrical phenomenon about it. Part of the National Theatre of Scotland’s first season of productions, premiering at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006, it returns to the Barbican after a world tour that saw this military drama conquer the critics.

The Black Watch was one of the most famous Scottish military regiments. Controversy surrounded its amalgamation with other Scottish regiments, especially since its demise was announced while it was supporting American troops in Fallujah during the second Iraq War.  Writer Gregory Burke is sensitive to the differences between most of his audience and the soldiers that serve in their name. Burke uses this difference effectively, in part by casting the excellent Keith Fleming as both a writer talking to men returning from war and as their Sergeant.

In alternating scenes, director John Tiffany explores the impact of politics and the media on the Iraq war. But his focus is on the men’s motivation for fighting. The result is a play more about experience than explicitly anti-war sentiment.

Tiffany’s inventive staging explores the ‘golden thread’ of history that unites the men fighting alongside their friends. Ian Pirie stands out as the company’s sensitive officer and, in an amusing flashback, as Lord Elgin recruiting for World War I.

It is the sense of camaraderie that you are left with through the powerful performances of this well-trained, uniformly convincing cast. As they fight, fall and march together, to an emotive soundtrack compiled by Davey Anderson, they become formidable and Black Watch becomes unforgettable theatre.

Black Watch deserves its acclaim. If audience preconceptions about the war and about the armed forces are not changed that is because this show is bold enough to acknowledge the complexity of war and those who live as soldiers. What it does succeed in is challenging those preconceptions. For this alone Black Watch should be compulsory viewing.


Until 22 January 2011

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 1 December 2010 for The London Magazine

“Beautiful Burnout” at York Hall

Beautiful Burnout was inspired by a brief trip to a boxing gym. Entranced by the experience, its co-directors, Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, set about examining the pugilistic sport and have created an immersive and powerful theatrical experience.

Touring to the York Hall in Bethnal Green, they have found a great venue for their highly theatrical production, they are perfectly at home in this well known boxing venue.

The text, written by Bryony Lavery, is unfortunately thin. Interactions between the trainee boxers, and their formidable coach, are underexplored and the play ends at its most interesting point. Lavery struggles to convince regarding the world of “freely shared opinions and self-promotion” that she has researched. Only the older characters truly convince. Ewan Stewart plays the trainer with great presence and Lorraine M McIntosh almost steals the show as one of the boxers’ mothers.

But when the boxers actually train and fight, you really want to go the full 12 rounds with them. A period of extensive training as part of rehearsals has left the cast glowing as they perform Graham and Hoggett’s intense choreography.

Unlike often superfluous instances of technology in the theatre, Ian William Galloway’s video design adds greatly to the drama. The combination of film and movement is fascinating, supporting tension and emphasising a beauty that can be seen in the sport. While Beautiful Burnout doesn’t quite achieve the complexity it aspires to, it contains some knockout moments of theatricality.

Until 2 October 2010

Beautiful Burnout at York Hall is presented by Frantic Assembly and the National Theatre of Scotland in association with the Barbican

Photo by Gavin Evans

Written 17 September 2010 for The London Magazine