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Theatre in Inverness in 2019 produced some big hitters and some powerful memories from big musicals to prime new drama

By Margaret Chrystall

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THERE was plenty to look forward to with the start of 2019 for the year ahead on North theatre stages.

Maybe the most high profile had been the announcement that SIR IAN McKELLEN would include Eden Court on a UK tour that celebrated his 80th birthday where the illustrious knight known for stage and film triumphs would be sharing stories about his career in 80 theatres and fundraising for them.

Also likely to be big moments were the National Theatre of Scotland's' RED DUST ROAD based on adopted writer Jackie Kay's book telling the story of her search for her birth father and other relatives.

And looking exciting was the prospect of the stage version of GLASGOW GIRLS based on the true story of teenagers trying to stop their schoolfriend and her asylum-seeking family being deported.

Bringing acting royalty in Juliet Mills and her partner Maxwell Caulfield to Eden Court was the stage production of Hitchcock classic movie THE LADY VANISHES.

But did they deliver?

GLASGOW GIRLS – watched at an afternoon performance with an excited audience including many school pupils – had an energy that the crowd bounced back to the cast. With its all-action moves, exciting staging and embracing of the music of different cultures, as well as fine performances, this was a euphoric production that reminded you how electric theatre can be.

Fiona Hampton in Touching The Void. Picture: Geraint Lewis
Fiona Hampton in Touching The Void. Picture: Geraint Lewis

As did TOUCHING THE VOID, It told the story of climber Joe Simpson, left for dead in the Andes after his friend Simon Yates cut the rope tying them together, genuinely believing Joe had died after a fall. The staging with a giant metal structure brought the Siula Grande mountain centre stage.

It was at the core of the play written by playwright, director and Royal Lyceum director David Greig that reimagined the story from both Joe Simpson’s and Simon Yates’ own books about the episode.

But it boldly played with the story and created a tense, emotionally-involving drama that is now wowing London audiences.

Scottish Ballet dance Helen Picketts' The Crucible Picture: Jane Hobson
Scottish Ballet dance Helen Picketts' The Crucible Picture: Jane Hobson

Good that 2019 was a great year for Scottish Ballet – it was their 50th anniversary, after all. Both the two regular visits per year to Eden Court were standouts. Triple bill Spring! brought a world premiere to the theatre to launch the company’s 50th celebrations – with a party too after the show. Contrasting pieces on the bill were Scottish Ballet’s own Sophie Laplane premiering her new piece Dextera alongside Kenneth MacMillan’s colourful and vibrant Elite Syncopations packed with colour and ragtime Scott Joplin music.

Dextera used brightly-coloured gloves to celebrate hands and creativity with a combination of innovation and playfulness. And with the colour and humour of Elite Syncopations, the double bill “made perfect party pieces together – immediate, exciting, sharing lots of laughs”.

Autumn’s new full-length version of Helen Pickett’s THE CRUCIBLE – was a stunning piece of storytelling with dance that tested the company and brought out searing emotional performances for a standout piece of work.

Inua Ellins’ THE BARBER SHOP CHRONICLES brought an air of excitement to the theatre as the audience mingled with the cast before the show to enjoy urban music and selfies onstage. That energy continued as the play got underway with its story of characters in one London and five African barbershops, united by watching a Chelsea football game, talking fatherhood, telling stories about their lives – and above all sharing in a place that felt safe and free to be themselves.

Big musicals took to Eden Court’s stage in 2019, as the venue looked for cash for a feasibility study to explore enlarging the theatre capacity to attract bigger musicals for the North crowd.

Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert.
Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert.

There was high praise for Amelie, and a great night of fun and 80s pop soundtrack from Club Tropicana’s cast which included Joe McElderry and impressionist Kate Robbins. But it was PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT that dazzled with song and dance numbers, standout individual performances and a plot tackling big issues that are as topical and relevant as ever they were when the original film first brought the concept of trans to a wider global audience. Strictly winner Joe McFadden won hearts with his portrayal of gay dad Tick and alter ego drag queen Mitzi.

Helen George in My Cousin Rachel. Picture: Manuel Harlan
Helen George in My Cousin Rachel. Picture: Manuel Harlan

Also well-known for her TV presence was Call The Midwife’s Helen George – who perfected the art of wafting a sense of glamour, mystery and warm-heartedness around her to portray Daphne du Maurier’s alluring MY COUSIN RACHEL. The play was an entertaining production for a winter’s evening of theatre to chill, mystify and intrigue audiences at Eden Court.

Great expectations also accompanied the National Theatre of Scotland’s presentation of RED DUST ROAD, a retelling for stage of Scottish makar Jackie Kay’s search for her birth parents from Nigeria to Nairn.

Stefan Adegbola and Sasha Frost in Red Dust Road. Picture: Richard Davenport
Stefan Adegbola and Sasha Frost in Red Dust Road. Picture: Richard Davenport

In some ways, you worried that Willy Russell’s EDUCATING RITA with its story of a world-weary professor and stalled writer encountering hairdresser Rita who wants an education via the Open University from him in literature, would seem old-fashioned.

Written in the 1980s when it became a successful film starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters, the play with Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson was a bracing reminder that the taut relationship between pupil and teacher and the tensions in their lives will probably always make great theatre. By the end, the play shows you two transformations two fine performances that allowed you to see the character’s changes “from the inside – superbly acted out in front of you”.

Inverness Musical Theatre came up with a winning choice for their production in March – FOOTLOOSE – and the 80s numbers such as the title song and Let's Hear It For The Boy were treated to all the energy you could hope for from the cast which featured several new talented faces and "... with a big finish that saw the cast leap off their feet, the show got the audience up on theirs".

Lost At Sea – from left - Ali Craig, Gerry Mulgrew, Kim Gerard, Thoren Ferguson, Helen McAlpine and Andy Clark. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic
Lost At Sea – from left - Ali Craig, Gerry Mulgrew, Kim Gerard, Thoren Ferguson, Helen McAlpine and Andy Clark. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic

LOST AT SEA was a big night for homegrown North theatre and both playwright Morna Young and Eden Court (which had originally been developing the play with her). An an ambitious piece of drama, it centred in the North East fishing community with the character of journalist Shona returning to the area as an adult to find out why her father was lost at sea when she was a child and what the shadowy Jock was really like.

The play was powered by a sense of authenticity, the playwright’sown research and experience of what was her personal story – feeding into “… the naturalistic, authentic Doric voices throughout the play, telling the audience how it is, was and might be. From what it feels like to be waiting at home when the men are ‘at the sea’ to finding the corpse of your friend after a boat goes down … climaxing in a spoken roll call of voices of those fishermen lost from the North East from 1970 to 2012”.

Director Ian Brown who brought to the stage this hard-hitting ensemble piece won the (CATS) Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland 2019 best director award – with the play also winning best ensemble award, a testimony to the work of the cast and it was also nominated for best design – the look and sound of the production keeping the sea present throughout the play. It was a play that documented a way of life that was tough, with death a constant presence for the fishing families, but a disappearing world celebrated.

It will be interesting to see what Burghead’s Morna Young will write next.

As far as the North’s premier theatre production company Dogstar Theatre is concerned, the future in the shape of their next production should be an exciting prospect as, funding application success permitting, the company will produce Federico Garcia Lorca’s classic Blood Wedding, but set in Sutherland.

Dogstar Theatre's The Stornoway Way with - frm left - Chloe-Ann Tylor Naomi Stirrat and Rachel Kennedy. Picture: Leila Angus
Dogstar Theatre's The Stornoway Way with - frm left - Chloe-Ann Tylor Naomi Stirrat and Rachel Kennedy. Picture: Leila Angus

It will follow their last production back in November, Lewis writer Kevin MacNeil creating the play script from his own original hit 2005 novel THE STORNOWAY WAY.

A challenge to do justice, perhaps, to a book packing the surreal and fantastical as deftly as it does alongside its dark story of hero Roman Stornoway’s ultimate downfall. But the production honoured the music and Gaelic culture in its celebration of both the good and bad in Lewis life. Dogstar’s play stayed true to the company’s reputation for exciting, innovative theatre, told with humour. Three women portrayed all the characters, including Roman, plus imaginative design and Dogstar’s signature multi-media savvy transformed the book for a new medium. Perhaps the end seemed a little flat, but maybe it had to be to be true to the emotional arc of the story.

Nicholas Nicol plays Elwood P Dowd, whose friend is an invisible rabbit, Harvey. Picture: Gair Fraser
Nicholas Nicol plays Elwood P Dowd, whose friend is an invisible rabbit, Harvey. Picture: Gair Fraser

Being true to the story was certainly the case for Inverness amateur theatre group The Florians and their production of HARVEY created a stunningly authentic world for anyone familiar with the 1950 film starring James Stewart and his invisible friend, Harvey the six-foot-plus white rabbit ‘pooka’ or spirit.

The well-chosen cast turned in well worked-out characterisations including near-perfect accents, standouts being Nicholas Nicol as Elwood P Dowd and Louise Simmons as his sister Veta. The company must also be congratulated on the meticulous detail of the design – from costume to Jon King’s classy prop-perfect set.

Later in the year their panto Ali Baba And The 40 Thieves was also another great achievement for many new faces learning the panto ropes in a vintage production full of laughs.

Daeeen McMillan as Cassim and David SAunders as Sheikh Mustafa Leikh in Ali Baba And The Forty Thieves.
Daeeen McMillan as Cassim and David SAunders as Sheikh Mustafa Leikh in Ali Baba And The Forty Thieves.

But it was also a big year for The Florians who celebrated the company’s 75th year. They found a memorable way to remember it with an open day which had an exhibition of memorabilia including costumes, posters and news clippings at their own Florians Theatre. But they also invited special guest of honour Paul Vaesen, the son of Guy Vaesen, later the theatre and BBC radio production director who became the founder of the theatre group when he was stationed in Inverness during the war. He also wrote the play that was the first the new group performed.

And as his son Paul revealed at the open day, Guy’s time with The Florians had been the start of his own theatre career, something he had wanted to achieve from the time he was a boy.

The Shrek face builds up preparing for the hood to go in place.
The Shrek face builds up preparing for the hood to go in place.

Starlight Musical Theatre’s big summer production was SHREK, a big, loveable musical whose big cast ensured the production buzzed with energy, bringing new life on stage to a set of characters the world has learned to love since the film first made its appearance in 2001. For Starlight it was a coup as it was one of only two amateur companies in Scotland given permission to stage the musical and a slick, super-professional presentation they made of it. It featured a cast of around 50 with popular performances from Liam MacAskill as Shrek, Alasdair Davidson as Prince Farquaad, Matt Tyrer as Shrek’s pal Donkey and Amy Atkinson Princess Fiona.

Adam Riches. Picture: Idil Sukan/Draw HQ
Adam Riches. Picture: Idil Sukan/Draw HQ

Comedy gold came with offbeat maverick ADAM RICHES who turned his small Eden Court audience to his advantage by making many of them part of a show that saw him take on the persona of actor Sean Bean or his character Coach, Gerard Butler – or scary Drifter.

Yes, it was full-on audience participation as Adam “… came to town, spraying Yakult, pounding dust out of chairs, raspberry-blowing men’s stomachs … and turned some apparently ordinary people into legends. African Jack, the Butter People, Mr Bond, Invisible Wine Man, Dufftown Nicky, you know who you are.”

A hotbed of young talent returned in April with the second annual production from the Inverness Student Drama Society in Much Obliged with a cast of 22. On Eden Court’s OneTouch stage, the production was an engaging one written, acted and funded by the students and it had the novelty of – as the review said – seeing many actors in action “… so rarely do you see a professional cast of that size and it was a pleasure to watch the skilful direction that made the numbers work”.

The play told the story of a pub trying to stay afloat over a year –while letting the audience watch the lives of its customers unfold too.

Sir Ian McKellen visit is ighlight of 2019.
Sir Ian McKellen visit is ighlight of 2019.

From young actors and actresses at the beginning of their lives on stage, Eden Court also witnessed a charming and insightful night of performance and looking back over an extraordinary career in the company of SIR IAN MCKELLEN.

Quirky, mischievous, coming out to talk to the audience, inviting one member onstage with him, he packed in extracts from his career, in film as Gandalf, on stage as Macbeth, Coriolanus and Widow Twankey.

He even took the audience back to his own first panto, seen at the age of three and inspiring him then to want more of the theatre life.

There were party pieces – his performance of As You Like It’s ‘All the world’s a stage …’ and his exquisite reading of Gerard Manley Hopkins The Leaden Echo poem about ageing.

Both, “… reminded what a great actor can do with mere words”.

And the magic of his first appearance as Gandalf at the start of the show was echoed at the end when the lights finally went down before flashing up again to reveal Sir Ian jumping out of the box that had been lurking on the stage for one last surprise.

NOT surprisingly, that night topped my five best theatre moments of 2019, which were:


1 Sir Ian McKellen, Eden Court, Inverness, August

2 Touching The Void, Eden Court, March

3 Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, Eden Court, November

4 Harvey, The Florians, Florians Theatre, Inverness, June

5 Adam Riches, Eden Court, May.

Mica Paris plays Miss Sherman in Fame The Musical.
Mica Paris plays Miss Sherman in Fame The Musical.

Favourite interview of the year has maybe been the hardest of all to judge. Two major ones came in one week. Getting the chance to speak to former Orange Juice frontman and solo singer songwriter EDWYN COLLINS with his wife Grace Maxwell on the eve of his new album tour and Ironworks date.

Great to hear his devil-may-care attitude to having just turned 60.

“I’m just ignoring it!” he laughed.

The second milestone interview that week came about play Red Dust Road from writer Jackie Kay herself on the eve of the drama appearing at Eden Court.

The story of Jackie’s search from Nairn to Lagos to discover more about her birth parents was inspiring and moving. Also, in the interview she shared how it felt to see ‘herself’ in front of her up onstage, played by actress Sasha Frost.

“There are literally two of you! It is strange to have one of you watching and another on stage. Some things make you cringe, hearing your voice on radio. Seeing ‘you’ on stage, it’s that times a hundred!”

But probably the most memorable was with singer Mica Paris who arrived at Eden Court with Fame The Musical in a show-stopping guest spot as passionate teacher Miss Sherman. In her interview, she confessed that despite her 30-year, pop, TV and stage career, performing was never something she took for granted and that there was always fear when Mica stepped into the spotlight.

“I’m terrified all the time! But I go through it anyway. The fear doesn’t stop me.”

Check out my review of 2019 music and top 5: https://www.whatson-north.co.uk/whats-on/music/review-2019-music-189520/

And also see what my colleague Kyle Walker's music, theatre, interview and best surprise moment of 2019 were! https://www.whatson-north.co.uk/whats-on/news/2019-in-review-kyles-top-tunes-theatre-and-talking-from-year-of-muchness-189411/

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