Reviewed: The Children’s Hour

When it comes to Peachy Keen Productions, I’ve learned to set my expectations high and wide open. The drive of this company is not toward reproducing what has worked for them in the past, but toward exploring and inventing something new. The Children’s Hour, directed by Rowan Wishart and produced by Anenti Winter, is no exception.

Lillian Hellman wrote the play in 1934, but this production feels fresh and contemporary with musical interludes by Kat Reynders and Anenti Winter, a brightly painted pop-up book of backdrops (à la The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil), and some remarkable performances.

Karin Sophia Johansson and Georgia Luckhurst lead the pack as Martha and Karen, two schoolteachers whose lives are ruined by accusations of a lesbian affair. The subtlety of this friendship between two women exhausted by the competing demands of rowdy children, a delusional aunt (Molly Williams), and a relentlessly cheerful fiancé (Connor Norris) holds everything else in place—at least until Sophia Kiely takes the stage. Kiely is almost too convincing as Mary Tilford, the manipulate child tyrant who starts the rumor about Martha and Karen. Anyone who has ever dealt with an impossible (would I go too far to say “evil”?) brat will shudder at Kiely’s wheedling, whinging, and chilling shifts of expression.

While these three are locked in opposition, the rest of the cast is working just as hard: standouts include Gabrielle Green as the ill-used Rosalie, Molly Williams as faded actress Mrs. Mortar, and Heather Tiernan and her tartan skirt as the formidable and inexplicably Scottish (no complaints) Agatha. 

Visually, the production is a mixed bag. Kat Reynders’s ‘60s costumes are the standout; the cohesive ensemble of jewel tones and carefully coordinated textures create a powerful sense of the world of this story—a world so detailed and specific it extends even to the beautiful paper-doll publicity illustrations by Sasha Man.

The set, unfortunately, has less of an eye for detail. The cardboard pop-up book is extremely ambitious and, at its best, magical. It is also bulky and prone to malfunction, which detracts from the effect. More importantly, though, it seems to belong on a different stage from the ordinary furniture in the foreground, and fails to feel like an extension of the space occupied by the characters. 

I also have to say that, while this script is excellent, its queer aspects are slightly unsettling to me. Doubtless The Children’s Hour was groundbreaking in 1934, but today I have my doubts about a play in which the only queer character takes her life after being snubbed by her friend, and the people who spread the rumor about the lesbian affair have to apologize, not for being vicious or prejudiced, but merely for being incorrect. Still, there is something to be said for preserving these moments in the history of queer culture and thinking about how they translate into new contexts—and there is even more to be said for a play in St. Andrews with twelve female roles, real period costumes, and creative decisions which are strong, if not always slick.

3/5

Orphée and Eurydice: Reviewed

Although I am admittedly not a die-hard opera fanatic, I was intrigued by the opportunity to see OpSoc’s unique take on the classic tale of Orphée and Eurydice, which used an excellent new translation by students from Professor Julia Prest’s “Translating French Opera” module. The plot is fairly straightforward: the grief-stricken Orphée journeys to the underworld to rescue her dead lover, Eurydice. Orphée must lead Eurydice back to the land of living without looking back at her—or she will be lost to her forever. 

Director Amy Addinall gave the opera a modern twist using a contemporary army setting, and by casting Orphée as female (Tabitha Benton-Evans). In the world of theatrical productions, reinvention treads a fine line—get carried away and it overshadows the story, don’t go far enough and creative changes lack purpose. On this occasion though, the adaptations only enhanced the opera and were cleverly incorporated through details such as camouflage army attire, military-style trench coats, and a gunshot to punctuate Eurydice’s death.

This allowed the indisputable main strength of this show to shine: the impressive vocal performances of Benton-Evans as Orphée, Millie Haldane as Eurydice, and Catriona Kadirkamanathan as Cupid. Benton-Evans was barely off-stage for the majority of the production, and she mastered the large repertoire of her role with poise and assurance. The chemistry between her Orphée and Haldane’s Eurydice was magnificent, and the comedic moments when Eurydice was exasperated by Orphée’s refusal to look at her were well executed. Especially impressive were the segments where Benton-Evans and Haldane were singing in harmony with impeccable tuning and clarity of diction, something which is very challenging and should be commended. Both Haldane and Kadirkamanathan dealt with tricky high soprano melodies with ease and captured the essence of their characters in their performances. Singing prowess was not confined to those in the lead roles—the chorus stayed in tune throughout and their vocal projection was admirable, especially given the absence of microphones. The band were also brilliant and there were few, if any, missteps in their playing. It was clear the band and the company had rehearsed together extensively beforehand, as they were beautifully in sync, a feat which can be attributed to musical director Fanny Empacher.

However, the first half did seem to plod along lethargically after the emotive opening number, and I did struggle to remain engaged—though that was probably largely due to the music being appropriately sombre after Eurydice’s death. This could have been offset with more interesting blocking, or some lighting or set changes, although I respect that it is in the character of operatic productions to refrain from extravagant tech or choreography. Given the simplistic blocking, the chorus needed to bring a high level of energy and make full use of facial expressions to convey the emotion behind the lyrics they were singing, and unfortunately this was missing at certain points. Similarly, there was a particularly noticeable disparity between those who fully committed to the portrayal of the menacing figures from the underworld and those who did not, which did detract somewhat from the drama of Orphée’s quest.

Nevertheless, given that this show was put together in the space of three weeks, and probably on a very tight budget, this was a truly exceptional effort from all involved, and the end result showcased the talents of the cast. Will I see another opera again in the near future? Maybe not; but seeing a well put-together production such as this one is always an absolute pleasure.

4/5 Owlies

Copenhagen: Reviewed

All the interval, all I could think was: oh boy. How am I going to talk about this thing?

It’s difficult to know where to start with this magical production of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, directed by Benji Osugo and produced by Lauren Liotti. It resists the usual standards and categories for theater. Copenhagen takes the form of a conversation between German physicist Werner Heisenberg, Danish physicist Neils Bohr, and Magrethe, Bohr’s wife. The three meet after the end of their lives to discuss their relationships, their careers, their responsibility (or lack thereof) for the creation of the atomic bomb, and the purpose behind a mysterious visit Heisenberg made to Copenhagen in 1941.

At the heart of this production were three powerhouse performers: Georgie Turner as Heisenberg, Anoushka Kohli as Bohr, and Georgia Luckhurst as Magrethe. Together they navigated the text—a beautiful but challenging combination of storytelling, repetitive dialogue, and science metaphors—with true elegance. Turner, a consummate character actress, was magnetic: electric with idiosyncrasy and charm. Kohli matched this energy with the steadier, quieter, but equally vivid counterpoint of an older man who has suffered oppression and loss. Luckhurst was at her best in the second act, when Magrethe begins to match intellects with the men. She struck the perfect note of smart sharpness to interrupt the play’s repetitions. 

It’s a good thing the performances were strong, because they could not have been more exposed. The actors stood in the middle of a perfect circle with the sparsest of sets: a bare lightbulb, a square of white industrial flooring, and three white chairs. Visually, it was a masterclass in careful selection. Caelan Mitchell-Bennett, Viola Komedová, and Zoë du Bois conceived of a set which did so much with so little. The whitewash had an eerie, afterlife glow, apt for three deceased characters. But it was also a blank canvas which the actors could imagine into anything and anyplace they needed as they told their stories. The paint on the flooring chipped underfoot, creating flakes that drifted in the light—like the snow in Heisenberg’s favorite skiing metaphor or, more disturbingly, like the ash of an obliterated city. The technical and sound design, headed by Natasha Maurer, was just as precise. Piano music and colored, horizontal light gave variety and signaled shifts in place, time, and mood. 

The drawback to this level of precision is that any superfluous element feels glaringly out of place. The mirrors around the edge of the audience, for instance, promised exciting visual effects but served no discernible purpose. The costumes felt like an afterthought, disconnected from the rest of the storytelling. These were the scant flaws I picked out in the occasional moments when Bohr and Heisenberg spiraled into their umpteenth disagreement about who said what and when and where and how and to whom, and I wondered why it mattered, and whether the play might be just a tiny bit too long. 

I had one other question, and it was a question for the director. Throughout the play, the three actors whirled around the circular space, sometimes in choreographed movement sequences, sometimes carrying their chairs. Why so much spinning, I wondered about halfway through—and why that lightbulb in the center? Only on my way out did I realize how beautiful and perfect this was for a play about the structure of the atom. 

4/5

REVIEW: Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

In this week’s literary review, Eliza Quinn examines Lisa Halliday’s critically-acclaimed debut novel Asymmetry. Quinn examines notions of power and domination in the affair between a young woman and a much older man, begging the question: is this ok?


I adored it, contemplated it, felt challenged by it. I obsessively and annoyingly recommended it to all of my friends, at the slightest lull in any conversation. I liked it, and will continue to like it, because it does what any work of art should do: it made me think differently about the world around me and made me see things more clearly.

As the title implies, Asymmetry is about imbalances of power. Divided into three sections, we follow first the story of Alice, a 20-something editor, working in New York. Early on in the novel, she has a chance encounter with Ezra Blazer, a world-famous, Nobel-Prize winning author who is much older than she is. They begin an affair, which lasts for several years.

Halliday describes their affair from the third person, but not necessarily from Alice’s personal perspective. Instead the focus rests intentionally on their dialogue, their conversations with one another. Throughout the book, you never gain insight into Alice’s actual thoughts concerning the affair with Ezra, instead, their words and actions are methodically written down by Halliday, like an empirical study of the relationship by a cool observer. This detached, objective writing style demands of the reader to make their own judgement, to apply their own emotions and experiences onto the skewed relationship they are reading about. Halliday offers no personal spin, no clear bias, compelling the reader to make one for themselves. Most importantly, it highlights the gross imbalance of power between these two people, and asks the reader to make a personal judgement call on the question that obsessively rang through my head like an alarm bell: is this ok?  

Because the power imbalance is there, unavoidably and unsettlingly there. From the beginning of their liaison, Ezra phones Alice when he wants to see her, the words CALLER ID BLOCKED telling the reader he has done so. He can always reach her, but she can never reach him. Everything about their relationship is skewed, with Ezra holding all of the cards.

When they’re together, he tells her what to wear and eat, how to act, and what to read.

What does Alice get out of it? The brilliance of the novel lies in the fact that we simply have to make our own assumptions. Through imparting our own subjective experiences onto the text, we come to know ourselves better and are forced to question our assumptions.

Asymmetry is a sharp and thorough examination of unequal power dynamics, posing questions that stay with you long after you’ve finished the book. If it wasn’t already blatantly obvious, I highly recommend it as a must-read. 

One Man, Two Guvnors: Reviewed

To call Mermaid’s production of Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guv’nors a rip-roaring success would perhaps be the understatement of the theatrical year (even though its only getting started). The show that Isobel Sinclair and her talented cast have assembled is a cacophonous delight that roars along its hefty three-hour runtime with such enthusiasm that you’ll barely notice the minutes whipping by. Bolstered by a witty and occasionally very blue script, replete with pratfalls, topical humour and hysterical sound cues, there really is no aspect of this production that can be anything but applauded. 

It opens in a thoroughly cockneyfied 1960’s Brighton, with the usual setup of a classical farce (Bean’s play being adapted from the 18th Century Italian play A Servant of Two Masters): a young couple who are supposedly desperately in love are thrown apart from one another by circumstance and family loyalty. The story, however, takes an immediate left-turn by introducing the human hand-grenade that is Ed Polsue’s Francis Henshall. We then follow Henshall as he attempts to satisfy his most fundamental needs (eating and … the other thing), getting entangled between two masters who know each other better than Henshall can possibly imagine. 

First off, credit must be given to the astonishingly talented and evidently hard-working cast that Sinclair and her team have assembled. There was not one weak link and the performances all provoked uproarious laughter. Edd Smith and Ned Fiennes shone in small but eccentric roles as a voyuer, a policeman, and a priest attempting to steal a suitcase (among others). Lydia Milne carried off a dual-role with aplomb, keeping her performance understated while pretending to be her dead brother Roscoe but exuding charm and warmth as Rachel Crabbe. Her scenes with Louis Wilson where they tear each other’s clothes off on the pier they’ve just attempted to fling themselves from were perhaps the raunchiest I’ve seen on a St Andrews stage, and both performers threw themselves into it with a chemistry and professionalism to be wondered at. Wilson was also fantastic as the brash, sadistic yet oddly loveable Stanley Stubbers, his performance being the most technically impressive of a very talented bunch. A special shout-out must also go to Charlie Flynn as the unfortunate octogenarian who is flung about the stage mercilessly, proving a highlight of an already jam-packed play.

None of the cast’s fantastic chemistry would work nearly as well, however, without the revelation that is Ed Polsue. His Henshall manages to be simultaneously immensely base and incredibly endearing, his interactions with the audience a marvel that utterly shattered the fourth-wall and had me completely immersed in the irreverent farce going on onstage. He sparks off every character in turn and barrels the plot forward through his (often assinine) attempts to serve two masters at once. Polsue has shown himself to be a wonderfully diverse performer with a breezy charisma that can carry a whole three-hour show with apparent ease.

It is clear just how much effort and time have gone into this show. The comedic timing, whether with dialogue or slapstick, was flawless, and could only have been managed through endless rehearsals and meticulous choreography. The staging was sparse but immersive, even edging towards lavish in the penultimate pier jumping scene, where a projector beautifully evoked the sea under a moonlit sky. Lighting cues were used effectively to imbue the production with a zany, often surreal bursts of colour. The costumes were gorgeous and period-accurate; even the scene transitions contained zany musical numbers that kicked the play further into surrealism.

While all these elements add up to an absolute sensorial extravaganza, my one niggling concern is that none of it adds up to very much. The plot is paper-thin and, while that is often the point of farce, by the very end I felt as if the show had gotten a little breathless under the weight of how much fun it was having. Like an excessive amount of cotton candy, one can’t help feeling a little empty after the sugar rush has subsided.

Even so, I really am in awe of the project Sinclair has managed to pull off. Just thinking about the amount of meticulous planning this show must have taken makes my head hurt. She and her entire team made a show of a truly professional standard, and they should be immensely proud—and probably have something to drink.  

4 out of 5 Owlies