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

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

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