Alan Stewart’s Big Big Variety Show

A dazzling night of entertainment at the King’s

Did you like growing up watching big variety shows on TV? The ones with all sorts of singing, dancing, standups and skits? The kind of show where anything goes and you were engulfed with music and mayhem be it from “The Muppets” to “Morecambe and Wise”? Well, then this is the show for you!

The local lad that’s made good; Alan Stewart, is back on the boards again at the King’s with much gusto and merriment, as he celebrates 60 years of performing. So this is as much a celebration of that landmark figure as it is a window into a form of entertainment we don’t get to see too often these days. Mr Stewart is also accompanied by his comedic cohorts, Grant Stott and Andy Gray, or as he calls them ‘His Panto Brothers!” And they offer plenty of mirth and mischief to boot.

The night is kicked off with a projection of showbiz greats, lauding Mr Stewart’s deeds with much aplomb, and some stars that are as far away as Hollywood are chiming in their celebratory salutations too!

More humour is supplied by that crafty comic legend Mick Millar. I’ve known of him for several years, but this is my first time catching him in person. And I really like his style. He’s such a straight-up gag merchant, rolling out all sorts of ridiculous non-sequiturs. I tell you he had me roaring out laughing. And to be honest I found him very refreshing to watch, as you tend to see standup as a form for raconteurs these days.

A touch of class was brought to the night’s proceedings from the dulcet tones of Mari Wilson singing the old classic tunes of Burt Bacharach and Dusty Springfield and ably backed up by the Andy Pickering Orchestra.

This is actually supposed to be Mr Stewart’s last Big Big Variety Show and to be honest I’d find it a shame if it truly is. This type of show is rare, and what with a packed house and a roof raised by laughter, I genuinely think it’d be something of a loss. I’ll admit that a few gags were a bit puerile and didn’t really hit the mark during the night. But overall it was a glowing experience and a suitable celebration not just for Mr Stewar’ts work but the genuine variety of shows that King’s Theatre gives to the Edinburgh public.

Markus Helbig

Cirque Berserk!

The circus comes to the Festival Theatre

I wasn’t sure what to expect as, in recent years, alternative circus acts have become all the rage with dreadlocked bare chested chainsaw wielding or fire and glass eating performers aiming to beat the audience into shellshocked submission. The Berserk in the title is a bit misleading in that respect as this show is more about entertainment for the whole family and not X rated shock horror – at heart it’s a good old traditional circus show set in a theatre rather than a tent. There are talented acrobats and tumblers, breathtaking aerial gymnastic displays, knife throwers, a giant fire breathing robot, an endearing clown and, the piece de resistance, the motorcyclists in the Globe of Death.

The company comprises 35 performers from circuses all over the world who come together for a few months of the year to bring circus to the stage. They are all incredibly talented and years of training serve to make it all seem impossibly smooth and easy. In this modern age of the internet we sometimes think we have seen it all and nothing can surprise us anymore but I lost count of the times my jaw dropped at what I was seeing on stage. Did that woman really just come out of that tiny glass bottle, did she literally just bend over backwards and fire an arrow at a target with her feet, is that woman really going to let her husband throw axes at her while she spins at speed strapped to a giant wheel?

There’s no trickery and safety nets here, this is the real deal. Even the Clown interludes, which can often be tediously unfunny, are gently comic in the hands of diminutive Brazilian Paulo Dos Santos. He, too, is a talented all-round circus performer who has us all rooting for him as he swaps his broom for the high wire. Everything leads up nicely to the finale of the show – not one, not two but five, yes five, motorcyclists tear around a tiny globe set up onstage at speeds of up to sixty miles an hour. It’s bonkers but amazing to watch.

There are a few clunky bits in between the acts and it took the audience a while to warm up and create the kind of atmosphere the performers thrived on but overall this is a good night out with something for everyone of all ages.

Irene Brownlee

Mrs Puntila and Her Man Matti

Royal Lyceum

This joint production with Citizens Theatre and DOT Theatre, Istanbul is an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s classic servant and master comedy, given a modern gender-swapping twist and distinctly Scottish flavour by well-known Scottish crime novelist and playwright Denise Mina. Its subject matter is as relevant today as when it was first written in 1940 – the gulf between rich and poor, the class struggle and exploitation of workers. Starring Elaine C Smith in the title role, and directed by the talented Murat Daltaban, this play looks like it should be a sure fire hit but for me, unfortunately, it doesn’t quite live up to expectations.

Mrs Puntila is filthy rich and owns half of Argyll. When she is sober, she is cold and calculating and fully aware of her superior position in society but when she is drunk and her guard is down, she is full of bonhomie and largesse and feels she has more in common with the servant class than her fellow landowners. While sober, she has arranged for her daughter Eva to be married off to a chinless wonder diplomat, the Attache. While drunk she tells Matti, her driver, that she wants him to marry Eva instead. Matti is shrewd enough to realise that his employer cannot be trusted to keep her drunken promises, whether it be job offers, pay rises or marriage proposals and he wisely plays her along to ensure he isn’t compromised like so many others. In this version of the play, as well as it being a battle of boss versus worker it is also a battle of the sexes and there is no doubt as to who will be the ultimate winner.

Mrs P is played by Elaine C Smith at her over the top best, a loud self-centred cartoon villainess with just a speck of conscience way down inside that pampered and privileged skin. Steven McNicoll is a perfect foil as Matti, nobody’s fool but knowing just how far he can go in challenging the system and his ghastly employer. It’s played for laughs, with plenty of slapstick, asides to the audience and exaggerated stereotypes. The few moments of serious reflection between the two main characters are a welcome relief in the mayhem and noise and give a glimpse of what might have been in a less frenetic performance.

Irene Brownlee

Nixon in China

Scottish Opera at Festival Theatre

I’m so glad to get another opportunity to see John Adams’ 1987 opera – it was first performed in Edinburgh in 1988 at the Edinburgh Festival and I can’t remember very much about it other than the spectacle of a giant jumbo jet which made its jaw dropping appearance onto the Playhouse stage. At last Scottish Opera has revived it in a joint production with the Royal Danish Theatre and Teatro Real Madrid, directed by John Fulljames and with new choreography by Nathan Johnston.

It tells the story of then US President Richard Nixon’s momentous 1972 visit to China to meet with Chairman Mao. It was a time of great change for China, coming to the end of the Cultural Revolution and tentatively exploring the start of a new relationship with the West, despite the huge gulf in cultures and ideologies.

Set in a giant archives facility with stacks of shelves full of cardboard boxes, a team of archivists in sober black suits and white gloves sift through papers and photographs of this momentous event and era of change. The embalmed body of Mao Tse Tung is wheeled through in a glass display case and copies of his Little Red Book spill from an upturned box, just another set of historical relics. Projected slide shows onto a backdrop of giant screens show the actual events and documents as the events are played out on stage.

The arrival of the Presidential jumbo jet is this time shown on a series of screens with Nixon and his entourage descending a set of aircraft steps onto the stage. Eric Greene was perfect in the title role, portraying Nixon’s almost childlike enthusiasm and wild excitement at the prospect of “making history” as well as displaying his inner doubts and turmoil, concerned about his image and whether he will leave a lasting legacy.

Julia Sporsen as his wife Pat, stands out from the sea of drab communist uniforms in her bright red and green outfits, a picture of fixed smile barbie doll perfection but hiding a sea of emotions behind the facade. Kissinger (David Stout) is performed as a comic cartoon like character and a frail and seriously ill Mao (Mark le Brocq) is reduced to a figurehead in the proceedings. The power is with the statesmanlike Premier Chou En Lai (Nicholas Leaster) and the magnificently chilling Madame Mao ( Hye Youn Lee). It is interesting of course to look back on the historical events of that time but the opera is equally concerned about the individual protagonists, their hopes, their fears, their feelings of regret as they near the end of their political or actual lives. Poet Alice Goodman’s libretto perfectly captures this very human drama.

The orchestra, conducted by Joana Carneiro, is glorious, Adam’s score uses a huge range of different styles and tones and the innovative German sound amplification system works a treat. There were no weak voices drowned out by overloud orchestration – everything was strong and clear. It’s a modern piece which can seem discordant and inharmonious at first to those more accustomed to a more melodic traditional style of opera but, once the ear is attuned, it’s an exhilarating experience, challenging and compelling.

Irene Brownlee