Review: Breaking the Waves – Opera Ventures and Scottish Opera ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Edinburgh International Festival

Breaking the Waves – Opera Ventures and Scottish Opera

King’s Theatre

19:15 21, 23, 24 August

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4 stars)

I hadn’t gone expecting a bundle of joy: I did expect Scottish Opera to do an amazing job of selling me something I wasn’t predisposed to like or admire – and they definitely did that, in spades. The basic storyline is that of Lars von Trier’s film Breaking the Waves: Bess McNeill, a young girl from Skye falls in love with, and marries Jan, who works on an oil rig. Her strictly Calvinistic community disapprove, but tell her that now she is married she must be obedient to her husband. Bess is hopelessly in love and is hysterical when Jan has to leave her and go back to the rig. She pleads with God for him to return: when Jan is horribly injured in an accident on the rig Bess is convinced that she is responsible.

So far, so good: the depiction of the black-clad, austere and male-dominated religious community controlling island life is superbly portrayed by a chorus, as is Bes’s almost idolatrous love for her husband. But Jan is now in hospital and the doctor doesn’t honk he’ll ever walk again: perhaps it would be better if Jan died? But Bess is beside herself – Jan can’t die: she will save him. Jan convinces her against her will that she must go out and find men to make love to her and then tell him about it: this, he says, will keep him alive. Bess desperately tries to obey him, but it is tearing her apart: worse still, god isn’t listening to her or talking to her any more. Her encounters with men become increasingly sordid and violent until finally she is horrifically wounded and dies: she is buried and the righteous men of the community inform everyone that she will go to hell. Jan, however, seems to have made a miraculous recovery…

The production was superb. A brilliantly-designed set consisted of a half-diamond-shaped arrangement of pillars which increased in height towards the centre. The ‘interior’ space was filled with rising tiers of pews which could also double as the layers of the rig; the ‘exterior’ space provided two separate areas which could be, among others, the village hall, Bess’s mother’s house, the doctor’s office and a ward in the hospital. Projections of the sea, clouds, rocks, and the rig on to the pillars produced wonderfully atmospheric backgrounds for the action.

Musically it was most interesting, and far pleasanter to listen to than I had feared, with complex sound-pictures against which the vocal lines could soar, and excellent psalmodic writing for the censorious, joyless male chorus of Kirk Elders who controlled everyone’s behaviour and also voiced God’s part in Bess’s conversations with him. Bess’s own vocal lines were extraordinary powerful and beautiful, sung with intense passion and conviction by Sydney Mancasola: I was less impressed with Duncan Rock’s Jan after the first act. Vocally he was excellent, but I never gained much insight into his motivation or his feelings, especially his final rather self-indulgent scene after Bess’s funeral – had he really stolen her body to give it to the sea? Was he in the slightest bit grief-stricken or remorseful? He said ‘it should have been me’- but didn’t convince me, while the somewhat melodramatic ending didn’t chime so well with the realism of the rest of the piece – even Bess’s conversations with god made more sense.

Disappointing? Unsatisfying? Some bits were magnificent. I’m not so sure about the shambling, bare-chested, wounded and moaning men who advanced on Bess towards the end of the opera and found the pretty graphic sex simulations off-putting [I couldn’t help continually wondering whether the participants got on well in real life,

and what it felt like to have to do these things on stage]. I noticed a fair number of empty seats after the interval – had the newly-wed’s urgent sex in the community hall toilet been too much for them? – but there was loud applause for Sydney Mancasola at the final curtain, unlike the somewhat puzzled applause at the end of act 2.

The names of the 3 acts are possibly significant – Love, Faith, Ultimatum? Missy Mazzoli’s music made a convincing sound picture of someone disintegrating under impossible burdens placed upon her by everyone around her. I’m less convinced by Royce Vavrek’s libretto, which didn’t always make things clear – but maybe that was the point? Was Bess really a saint who sacrificed herself to save her husband’s life, or a hysterical delusionist who self-destructed?

It was certainly an arresting piece: I can’t say I enjoyed it, but it had many outstanding qualities. I wonder whether it will become a staple of the operatic repertoire, or like so many others, fade away and never be seen again.

Mary Woodward




Pleasance Courtyard – Bunker Two

August 1-25th (not 13th, 20th)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4 stars)

In a lot of the shows that I’ve seen as a reviewer, I seemed to have been picked on: Titania McGrath, Alice Fraser, Garry Starr (pretty much all of the audience got included in his show, so maybe that doesn’t count). It’s strange.

However, as Yasmine Day spotted me, extended her finger and began to slowly walk towards me, I was nervous. An 80s comparison was coming. Who could I remind her of? David Bowie? Elton John? Madonna even?


Roland Rat.

Luckily the rest of the show made up for this.

Eighties pop sensation Yasmine Day (played by the very talented Jay Bennett) takes to the stage and recreates a Bonnie Tyler video with her two backup dancers in a hilariously amateur way – a perfect start to the show. We see for ourselves that this washed up character is floundering and struggling to keep up with other artists in the music business nowadays. From there (and post-Roland Rat) we learn that Yasmine Day is performing some of her greatest hits for a selected audience of celebrity friends, including such classics as “L O V Spells Love” and my personal favourite “Eternal Flame”, however, just singing the vowels. She has an absolutely spectacular voice, one that could, and should, be filling a much larger room.

There are some points in the show that went on for longer than they should have (maybe Kim Wilde just didn’t want to be found?) However, the final set piece of Yasmine’s own musical, incredibly similar to her own life story, was a treat to see.

Any child of the 80s will absolutely love this, any fan of character comedy will love this. Fans of Cheryl Baker? I’d think twice…

James Macfarlane


Review: The People’s Boat ⭐⭐⭐⭐


The People’s Boat

Greenside – Infirmary Street

21:00 (ends 25th August)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4 stars)

Between the giant English flag on the wall behind the stage, the Union Jack on the stage and the premise, you can tell that this show is going to be about Brexit. The show shifts between behind the scenes of a mockumentary and the mockumentary itself, where 4 boys from Margate try and literally tow Britain away from Europe. You see, it’s a metaphor.

It’s very cleverly done because what the boys have managed to do is use the rhetoric of the Brexit campaign, recreating the aftermath of the vote and fit it all into one funny and instructive show. It’s essentially a guide to Brexit, and you grow to understand why people voted the way they did. It’s an otherwise strong performance apart from the ending which is quite chaotic as the characters realise what they have gotten themselves into. Sound familiar?

My only criticism would be is that sometimes during the ‘behind the scenes’ parts, it felt like they were fighting just for the sake of it or to fill time because the arguments they had were quite repetitive They also ran a little long and whilst it was a funny and quite an original idea, I was more interested in the scenes that occurred on the raft. The raft seemed to be the point of the story anyway. The ending also seemed a little rushed but that could’ve been due to time constraints.

I don’t think that I fully appreciated how clever the show was at the time, but these four boys managed to show how ridiculous the whole situation that we’re in is, by giving us an even more ridiculous situation. If you’re interested in politics and want to be able to laugh at what is otherwise a really horrible and stupid situation, then this is definitely the show to see.


Review: Isa Bonachera: The Great Emptiness ⭐⭐⭐


Isa Bonachera: The Great Emptiness

Gilded Balloon

⭐⭐⭐ (3 stars)

Rising star, Isa Bonachera, draws parallels between space exploration and her turbulent journey through a STEM career in her new show, “The Great Emptiness”. Her quirky one-woman stand-up takes off from the moment she removes her helmet, as she navigates the performance with visual effects and alien voice-distortion. The Great Emptiness is full of facts and jokes, but unfortunately several fail to land.

Whilst she may have intended to lighten the complex topic of astrophysics, some of her more self-deprecating jokes only eclipsed her stellar scientific career, which I would love to have heard more about. This detracted from moments which highlighted her skill and niche as a comic: finding the chemical makeup of a strawberry daiquiri in a black hole, showing off her moon rovers and imagining a dystopian London on Mars. If more of this was explored, Isa could create for a British audience what the Big Bang theory has been attempting for years.

For her homages to Newton and Einstein, Isa should have applied the theory of relativity to her performance. After beginning with a disclaimer about her Spanish accent, as is customary among bilingual comics, she hurtled through most of her punchlines, leaving her audience lightyears behind. Despite Isa’s personable and charming stage presence, the audience was sometimes alienated by her spurts of laughter which drowned out vital parts of her stories.

Although the performance was not out of this world, Isa shows great potential and enthusiasm, and she should harness her strengths as a writer and have the confidence to own her nerdiness which is her most radiant attribute.

Georgie Rae


Review: Who Owns Scotland’s Land? So much owned by so few…⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Edinburgh International Book Festival

Who Owns Scotland’s Land? So much owned by so few…

New York Times Main Theatre, Charlotte Square

10.00 (23 August only)

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (5 stars)

This was a very well-chaired and extremely thought-provoking session, produced in partnership with Quakers in Scotland. The four speakers were under strict instructions to speak for no more than five minutes: they kept well within time and put their particular points of view clearly and succinctly before the session was opened to questions from the floor. This too was very well-controlled and extremely respectful: was this somehow the Quaker influence making itself felt in the packed New York Times Theatre? – even at 10a.m. people were fully present and deeply engaged in the subject. Some of the audience obviously felt extremely passionately about some things, but no-one either in the panel or on the floor descended to abuse of each other.

Hearing from each speaker gave a number of angles from which to view the question: the main messages that came over were that change is happening in some areas where previously landowners have been arrogant and intransigent; that some of the new models of land ownership, especially community land ownership, are being studied by traditional landowners, including local councils, and the existence of community land trusts is bringing previously uninvolved and uninterested landowners to the table to discuss how land management can be improved to bring maximum benefits to everyone – not simply profits.

Andrew Thin, chair of the Scottish Land Commission, pointed out that land reform is not just needed in rural areas – Glasgow has the highest percentage of waste and derelict urban land in Europe. He believes economic growth needs to accelerate in all parts of Scotland, and believes that land reform is necessary to enable all areas to realise their full economic potential. Social cohesion is greatly threatened today, and he feels that inclusion, and respecting people’s rights, have to be Holyrood’s priority. Property rights must not be allowed to trump all other rights, and the Land Commission was set up to help the government achieve these aims. He directed us to the SLC website, and urged us to attend SLC public meetings – there’s one every month somewhere in Scotland – and emphasised that land reform needs to be done BY people, not TO people.

Agnes Rennie, publisher and former member of the Scottish Land Review, spoke of her first-hand experience of the Galston estate on Lewis which became a community-owned trust in 2007. Previously the estate had not employed any local people: now fourteen people, mainly women, are employed on the estate, and local authorities and health boards are coming to the Trust to see what can be done by community ownership. The Trust looks outside itself, working with privately-owned estates and other community-owned trusts, sharing resources and information. Agnes was most interested to visit Portobello’s Bellfield last year [it’s a community centre which was the first urban community buy-out] and discover how much they and the Galston Trust had in common. She emphasised that this journey is one we must take forward together.

Sarah-Jane Laing is Executive Director of Scottish Land & Estates [SLE], and might have been expected to be strongly opposed to the views already heard. SLE represents rural businesses and owners of estates of all sizes, and also some community trusts. She agreed that planning, taxation, farming and tree planting needed to be developed on a “we” basis, not an “us and them” one. She had personal experience of growing up on a council estate which was built on land acquired from the Roxburgh estate, and spoke out affirmatively of the ethos of long-term stewardship she believed Roxburgh practised. She believes that political clamour must be allied to an alteration in the mindset of major landowners – how can they contribute both locally and over a wider area? – and that

concern about the management of land was more relevant than concern about ownership. She emphasised the importance of increasing the social and environmental potential of both rural land and urban wasteland, not for profit but for the benefits to the community and the environment. She didn’t feel that fairness of ownership was important – it’s divisive, when what needs focused on is US and WE.

Alastair McIntosh, author of Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power, spoke last. He emphasised the central importance of fairness, and the power both of ownership and participation: he spoke of the recent Land Commission report which spoke strongly of the power of landlords to keep their tenants in subjugation by their fear of retribution if they spoke out or tried to bring about reform. He instanced his involvement with the Eigg Trust, which took six years to bring the island into community ownership, and spoke of the cultural and spiritual wealth ownership brings. The second generation of Eigg children is growing up, a model for our future. The four ‘drivers’ he saw as essential to land reform are social/ affordable housing built on communally owned land; using renewable sources of energy to provide an income which goes straight to the local community; encouragement of enterprise, with entrepreneurs free to work and grow their businesses; and empowerment – people change when they CAN DO.

Sally Foster Fulton, Chair of Christian Aid Scotland, chaired the session firmly and fairly, and when she invited questions from the floor said she would invite questions from men and women alternately to ensure a good gender balance, which was much appreciated. The questions and comments, and responses from the panel, ranged from allowing land to people dispossessed during the Scottish diaspora, grouse moors, the Buccleuch estates, the lack of affordable local authority housing stock and how to persuade the royal family to change the way their estates were managed. It was impressive to see how tactfully yet definitely some of the subjects were handled. Alas, we had to leave the session, but were invited to continue the conversation elsewhere – I hope this too will be handled in the same respectful way the differing opinions on the platform were expressed.

Mary Woodward

Review: In Conversation with … Elaine C Smith ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Spoken word

In Conversation with … Elaine C Smith

The Stand’s New Town Theatre, v7

12:00 (23 August only)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4 stars)

How do you describe a national treasure? From the moment Elaine C Smith walked on to the stage of the New Town Theatre, she was wrapped in a blanket of love and held her audience in the palm of her hand. As an adopted Scot, I am hesitant about trying to describe someone who is so obviously adored by a wide section of the Scottish public: I was fascinated to learn more about this famous actress and comedian and how she came to be so highly regarded by so many people.

Elaine was in conversation with comedian and scriptwriter Philip Differ, whom she has known for many years, but who told us in his introduction that he would pretend he hardly knew her. We got to hear the answers to questions like ‘how did it all begin?’, but also eavesdropped on the backchat of two old friends who shared a common history and experience in the world of entertainment, with Names being dropped here, there and everywhere, though always lovingly, without a smidge of “ooh darling” pretentiousness.

What struck me most of all was Elaine’s pleased surprise at her emergence from an ordinary working-class family, who always ended family gatherings with a singsong [giving Elaine an early insight into the status of billing, and arousing in her a desire to be top of the family bill]. The prevalent “no’ good enuff” gene would normally smother any aspirations to a life in the arts: it wasn’t till, while babysitting one evening, she saw on STV a performance of that groundbreaking Scottish play The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil with people “doing straight drama in my own accent”.

She applied to study to teach drama and taught in a school for three years and then her world changed – she met John McGrath and became part of 7:84. It sounds as though much of her good fortune came simply from being in the right place at the right time – Naked Voice, Naked Video, Rab C Nesbitt’s Mary Doll, but it’s her talent that enabled her to prosper. She talked about the gradual emergence of female voices and female characters in a world dominated by ‘the table of men’ – talented scriptwriters who brilliantly told their stories but were all men, meaning that the female voice was never heard, or even thought about [and that even when she was aware of misogyny and sexism she was too feart of the ‘men at the table’ to voice a complaint].

But things have changed, and she has a voice, which is heard. Her proudest moment came when the breast cancer awareness campaign she was involved in resulted in a 50% increase in the number of older women going for screening: but there are so many other things of which to be proud, and she makes sure she goes into schools to let young girls and women know that there are possibilities open to them. Her latest joy is that she can now call herself “Granny Smith”, and spend time with her granddaughter Stella.

Elaine spoke of the importance of theatre that speaks to an audience of itself – this is how it is, and it is OF WORTH. She is quick to acknowledge the factors that made her success, not least that “table of menand the courage of the writers to insist to Alan Yentob of BBC2 that the actors currently playing Rab C Nesbitt and Mary Doll in

the Naked Video sketches should not be replaced by Scottish actors “well kennt in London”.

She’s had a fascinating and wide-ranging career – and still there are people who are surprised that she can act in straight plays – which she, like many comedians, says is far easier than doing comedy… many other fascinating comments, including pointing out that male comedians, even the Big Yin, talk to men, and that there is a need for women’s voices to be heard.

She made us howl with laughter demonstrating the voices she was asked to do [at 24 hours’ notice]: she was the only woman on Naked Radio and had to do them all. The challenge of doing a monologue as Zola Budd, the South African athlete who ran barefoot was howlingly funny: her first few words were okay and then she went on a whistle-stop tour of the UK’s accents… There were so many other golden moments, including conversations on stage with fellow-actors during lengthy applause in Calendar Girls, and how she prepared them for a Glasgow audience after the genteel reception from the good folks in Chichester!

Elaine C Smith is a brilliant actress, a warm-hearted woman, and a feisty Scot who is not loath so speak out in support of causes in which she passionately believes. The end of the session brought long, loud and loving applause from an audience who didn’t want to see their darling leave them – Elaine C Smith, National Treasure, we love you!

Mary Woodward




Army @ The Fringe in Association with Summerhall   (V210)

August 13 to 25th (not 19th)

14.20 (Tues to Thurs) 15.40 (Fri to Sun)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4 stars)


This is a verbatim play about ordinary young men thrown into extraordinary situations. These were teenage recruits caught up in the events of D day and beyond. It brings to vivid life the devastating testimony of five Normandy veterans, and there is the opportunity to meet two of the veterans after each show. These were inexperienced young conscripts who found themselves part of one of the most dangerous operations of World War Two. A variety of memories unfold, some quite humorous, some harrowing.
The lads involved came from different parts of the country. There was Smudger Smith, from Leeds, Ken “Cookey” Cooke from Nottinghamshire, sixteen year old Merry Meredith from London’s East End, Hank from Sheffield, Bert from Bermondsey,  and the show is introduced and completed by Queenie, a Veteran’s wife in her eighties from Yorkshire. She reflects on life after the war, including consequences such a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The cast are uniformly impressive, telling their stories in turn, talking of their fears en route, of the problems of the actual landings, of seeing so many dead bodies in the water, and then of the struggle to advance. One memorable section involved being ordered to blow up enemy vehicles in a village to clear it when there was much danger of killing civilians. Late we learn that even when family members were killed, locals could later be grateful that the Nazis had been driven out.
The play’s title, “Bomb Happy,” does not, of course have anything to do with cheerfulness. Rather, it is the term the guys used when their experiences had their effect on the men’s mental state. Shell shock was the term used earlier, or a greater of lesser degree of nervous collapse. There are a number of descriptions of the men seeing their friends and comrades killed in front of them,  or of being burned alive in tanks, and more. This cannot be borne indefinitely.
We hear about some guys getting wounded and being glad to be sent home to recover, and the way they were greeted as heroes and treated.
The sets were very simple, and imaginatively used. Just boxes of various sizes that took many forms.
This is a brilliantly devised, excellently presented and very memorable show.




Army@ The Fringe in association with Summerhall  (V210)

August 2nd to 25th (not 5,12,19)    13.15

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4 stars)

Here is a play about the WW11 poet Keith Douglas, written by Owen Sheers, well known for presenting television programmes about literary and military matters.
The room is which the play is presented in most distinctive; it is as though we are at the front, in the men’s quarters. There are beige sofas for us to sit on. We are a small audience, and a very privileged one.
Dan Krikler becomes Keith Douglas for us. His impersonation is deep, thorough and very impressive. As Douglas, he tells us about his experiences in the war in the Middle East, and about the beautiful women of Alexandria, and about one in particular, and gives us a moving account of that relationship. There is leave, there is preparation for the invasion, there are birthdays, there is correspondence with mother and the absence of father. There are other love affairs, including going back into his teen years. All this is presented in a way that fully engages us and we are swept up in a life that is very full and vibrant, maybe more so because of the imminence of death, the possibility of a sudden end. There is talk of trying to get a collection published, of correspondence with T S Eliot and others, and of if he will get published before he is killed, or if his first collection of poems will be his only one.
Before we go, Krikler as Douglas recites to us his perhaps best known poem,  Simplify me When I’m Dead. We are given a booklet containing that poem, and there is an exhibition about Douglas and his work along the approach to the performance room. This play has been recommended by no less  a person than Margaret Atwood, who described it as “Wonderful”. It is produced by, ” The Story of Books”  based in Hay on Wye.
This is an excellent performance of a very engaging play, which moves very effectively between the different times and aspects of a life that was so clearly full of great potential, but was cruelly snuffed out, as were so many at that time. Douglas was only twenty four when he died in 1945, but he had already achieved enough to be later considered the most significant and promising of the poets of that war.
Seeing this show, you not only learn about that life, but are expertly swept up into experiences we can be thankful not to have shared.




Assembly Roxy  (V139)

July 31st to August 25th (not 14, 21)     13.20 

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4 stars)

This is a stunning, funny, disturbing, exhilarating show. It is a monologue about holding on when everything seems to be crumbling. The image behind the title is that of a person as a collapsible chair – strong, sturdy, fit for purpose, useful, worth looking at – but capable of collapsing flat in a moment.
Performer Breffni Holahan is on a dusty plinth above the stage, a plinth she owns like a throne around which she can throw herself. She tells us about the circumstances of her life, her break up with her girlfriend, her loss of her job – did they let her go?, her relationship with her father, and much of the feelings that go with a breakdown. This brilliant show was written by Irish writer Margaret Perry, who has worked with the Abbey Theatre , Dublin, and it won the Origins Award for Outstanding New Work, VAULT festival 2019.
The character show us how she is seen by others, how some think she sees herself as superior, when she is struggling to keep things together, how she sees her body, and how she felt with her lover.
The words and images simply pour out of the performer, at a rate that seems amazing to maintain for the whole hour. Towards the end, we encounter some inarticulacy which serves to greatly highlight the perceptiveness and level of insight that we have been listening to.
I recommend this show very highly if you want a show that leaves you feeling alive to your fingertips on leaving, that takes you inside the mind and experiences of another person, that shows you what language is capable of offering, and gives you a taste of the dramatic skills that are on offer at the Fringe at its best.
Have the experience!




Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose     (V24)

July 31st to August 26th (not 12th)  14.45

⭐⭐⭐ (3 stars)

This is a finely acted two-hander which does, however, raise some questions. The action occurs in real time, leading up to the time, midnight, when one of the two becomes thirty. Ally, played by Ben Hadfield with a nervous energy and vulnerability which one can only warm to, is treating his birthday as something very significant. With Rory Thomas-Howes as his partner of some years, Zach, we see a person who is putting on some show of strength, to the extent of having struck  a man whom Zach feels insulted Ally just before the action starts. This is perhaps the more vulnerable person, someone still feeling his way to finding out who he really is, and buttressing himself with firm opinions meanwhile.
At such a time, events may move thick and fast, and people may say and do things they regret, and the depth of connection between the partners may make for rapid forgiveness, but the swings and roundabouts here were difficult to believe. A large number of serious issues were raised, but there was not time for the characters to give them much consideration. We moved on. As the play develops, it becomes ever more clear how unaccepting of his true nature Zach is.
The performers give us a real impression of the emotional confusion caused by doubting the basis of the central relationship of their lives. The question which the publicity said was raised here was, can two men maintain a monogamous relationship in today’s London? I am not sure that the London is relevant. It was perhaps more, can two men maintain a deep and lasting relationship when, as so often, they optimistically enter into it with little insight into each other or indeed into themselves?
The cast here do genuinely involve us in the turmoil of the hour in which the play happens, and show us the degree of confusion experienced by each man. Maybe the play could be expanded to give more consideration to the many issues raised. The ending is very appropriate.