Posts Tagged ‘Hilton McRae’

I thought I might be jinxed, never to see the musical theatre adaptation of Bill Forsyth’s charming film homage to Scotland. The run at The Old Vic was cancelled during the pandemic and on an earlier visit to Chichester there was a mix up with dates and I had to return home without seeing it. Fortunately, it was third time lucky.

Set in Ferness, a fictional Scottish coastal town, it takes place at the time of the North Sea oil boom. An American company wants to buy the entire village to build a terminal and refinery and despatches executive Mac MacIntyre to do a deal with the local community. Most want to sell, but beachcomber Ben and Stella, the girlfriend of the pub landlord (and unofficial negotiator) Gordon, are against. Mac grows fond of Ferness, and Stella, helped along by copious quantities of Scotch whisky. His boss, oil company CEO Happer is a keen amateur astronomer and has asked him to investigate the possibility of naming a comet while he’s there; the local skies are renowned for comets it seems. The negotiations progress well, then hit a big snag, but when Happer arrives from Houston things take a very different turn.

It’s difficult to conjure up a Scottish coastal village with its beach, sea and spectacular skies inside a theatre, but they do the best they can with the help of some real sand, excellent projections & lighting for the skies and of course a red phone box. The transformation from the Houston office to the beach is superbly choreographed. I think it would have been better in the larger space of the Festival Theatre, though, which would have opened it out and given it a bigger canvas. Mark Knopfler’s score is serviceable, but not as evocative as I was hoping and expecting. David Greig has done a good job adapting the film for the stage, necessarily focusing on just the Houston office, the beach and the pub, cutting the visit to the Aberdeen office.

I was a little unsure of it at first, but it charmed me and won me over in the end. A lot of this was down to a fine cast, extremely well led by Gabriel Ebert as Mac, a character who is also charmed. Paul Higgins is very good as the canny landlord / accountant, as is Lillie Flynn as Stella. In a fine supporting cast, Hilton McRae as beachcomber Ben, Joshua Manning as ‘Russian capitalist’ Viktor, Jackie Morrison as Mistress Fraser and Liz Ewing as Netta all delight

I’m very glad I got to see it in the end as I’m not sure it will have a life beyond Chichester, except perhaps on tour

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How on earth can a 400-year old play be so of the moment? Here it turns out to be a play about the evil of money and the selfish and unprincipled nature of (most of) those who make it and have it. Familiar?

A spendthrift but generous Greek becomes disillusioned with the world when his friends desert him as his money runs out. It’s an odd play, but Nicholas Hytner’s production makes it work well for a modern audience. We recognise everyone at Timon’s party – freeloaders and liggers exploiting his generosity and hospitality. The poet seems a bit like Wil Self and the artist is a dead ringer for Tracy Emin! When his steward tells him he’s spent it all, he sends his staff to his friends in the expectation that his generosity will be reciprocated, but they all turn their backs on him. So off he goes into exile – in this production as a vagrant living in what appears to be a disused underground car park.

The play opens brilliantly at a reception in a gallery named in Timon’s honour and moves to dinner parties, designer hotel receptions and City offices. The verse is the only dated thing about it – the words themselves aren’t – and relocating it to the current day works really well. Simon Russell Beale is superb; he has that knack of making you hear things you didn’t hear / read last time, seeming to give the verse  new meaning. Timon’s male steward Flavius has become female Flavia and Deborah Findlay is excellent; she gets a lot of the lines which fit current times. Hilton McRae is a brooding prescence as philosopher Apemantus.

Modern settings don’t always work, but this one certainly does. After the dreadful German Timon at Globe-to-Globe, this is a tonic.

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I don’t really share the fascination and adulation many still have with Judy Garland over 40 years after her death. I’d even go as far as to say that way too much has been said and written about her. In fact, I find the obsession with dead ‘stars’ in general a bit difficult. Not a great starting point for this show then!

By focusing on a very short period at the end of her life, what playwright Peter Quilter has done is delivered something with more psychological depth than your average biographical play. I can’t say I entirely understand what turns someone into the wreck she was at the end of her life, but the play does help you begin to understand.

The action takes place in her London hotel room (finely detailed design from the great Bill Dudley) and the Talk of the Town where she is performing a five-week stint. The two men in her life are the other main characters – gay pianist and confidante Anthony and toy boy fiancée / manager Micky; the motivation of the former seemingly genuine but the later somewhat dubious. By playing out the tempestuous will-she-won’t-she-perform back story alongside concert scenes, the play explores the psychological and emotional journey they’re all on. I was a bit shocked when the hotel room wall rose to reveal a small band, but these performance scenes and snatches are an important element to the story – fortunately they’re played for realism in context rather than concert perfection.

It must be very difficult to play any other character against this larger-than-life icon, but both Stephen Hagan as Mickey and Hilton McRea do extremely well to bring their characters to life. I felt Tracie Bennett occasionally came close to pushing her performance over the edge, but it is an extraordinary acting achievement. At the curtain call, I was so exhausted I only just managed to get to my feet to join the spontaneous ovation, while she bounced on stage looking like she could do it all over again!

To turn this cynic around is no mean achievement and to witness Tracie Bennett’s own star performance is an unmissable treat.

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