Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Various dates until October 20


Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Various dates until October 13

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s new artistic director was announced on Thursday. Elizabeth Newman, a young director who has garnered many plaudits for her leadership of Bolton’s Octagon Theatre, takes over from John Durnin, who led PFT for a successful 15 years.

Ms Newman takes charge of not only one of the most beautifully located theatres in the UK (if not the world), but also Scotland’s undisputed leader in the production of stage musicals. Richard Baron’s staging of the famous 1975 musical Chicago (book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, music by John Kander), which opens this year’s summer season at Pitlochry, can only help to maintain that reputation.

A tale of murder, show business and legal skulduggery in 1920s Chicago, the play takes a decidedly lighthearted approach to the homicidal crimes of passion of vaudeville star Velma Kelly and ambitious chorus girl Roxie Hart. Velma murdered her husband and sister when she found them in bed together. Roxie shot her lover when he threatened to end their illicit affair.

Both women are to be represented in court by celebrity attorney Billy Flynn (a state of affairs which leads to a bitter rivalry between them). Nonetheless, with a fawning press only too keen to buy Flynn’s tales of blameless stage beauties driven to terrible acts by despicable (and, fortunately, dead) men, you wouldn’t bet against Velma and Roxie being found not guilty.

It’s fanciful stuff, bearing a greater resemblance to a glitzy dream of the Windy City in its gangster heyday than to anything approximating its brutal reality. Thankfully, set and costume designer Charles Cusick Smith and lighting designer Wayne Dowdeswell are on hand to make Cook County Jail (the open prison in which much of the action is set) look decidedly similar to a vaudeville playhouse, complete with the title “CHICAGO” emblazoned in garish stage lights.

The visuals of the production, which are, by turns, moodily dark and glitteringly glamorous, strike the perfect tone. So, too, do musical director David Higham and his band, who belt out the show’s much-loved numbers, such as All That Jazz and All I Care About Is Love, with tremendous aplomb.

The casting of the leads impresses, too; which is not an easy proposition when you are, as PFT always is at this time of year, building an ensemble that will present no fewer than six plays in repertory over five months. One cannot, therefore, expect the kind of cast one would see in a production in the West End of London.

That said, the fine Lucie-Mae Sumner plays the “Liza Minnelli role” of Roxie with all the necessary sass and fake coyness, while Carl Patrick is positively reptilian as the cynical lawyer Flynn. Meanwhile, Irene-Myrtle Forrester channels the great blues singer Bessie Smith in the role of the redoubtable prison matron "Mama" Morton.

The star of the show, however, is Niamh Bracken, whose powerfully voiced, brilliantly danced, high- octane performance as Velma is worthy of any production of this blockbuster musical.

There’s a considerable gear shift between Chicago and the second show of the summer season at Pitlochry. Although I can see the emotional attraction of Jim Cartwright’s 1992 drama The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice (which was famously released as a film starring Jane Horrocks in 1998), I confess, it is not a play I can grow to love.

The drama tells the story of LV (Little Voice), a quiet, reclusive, young, northern English, working-class woman who hides in her room, which is a sanctuary from her vulgar, promiscuous, heavy-drinking mother Mari. There, LV pines for her dead father and takes refuge in the classic record collection he passed on to her (which includes such iconic singers as Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and Shirley Bassey, all of whom LV can mimic brilliantly).

LV’s private talent is dragged painfully into the open when Mari’s latest boyfriend, small-time “artiste promoter” Ray Say, overhears her singing in her room.

The play boasts, without question, a central character one can root for (LV is the kind of gifted, marginalised underdog the producers of Britain’s Got Talent would kill for). It also, of course, has a brilliant, off-the-shelf musical score.

What it doesn’t have, however, is anything approximating a fully-fledged, well-rounded character. Cartwright’s creations are two-dimensional, at best; a fact that director Gemma Fairlie’s Pitlochry production cannot alter, despite fine performances across the board.

We can, for example, see the underlying desperation in the life of middle-aged, underpaid, widowed factory worker Mari. However, she is such as a monstrous caricature that even Deirdre Davis’s excellent, dynamic performance cannot save her from being a dubious stereotype.

Likewise Carl Patrick’s playing of Ray Say, which, although chilling in its predictable outburst of vicious misogyny, can’t escape Cartwright’s characterisation, which seems ripped off from Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 play A Taste Of Honey.

The play’s most objectionable caricature, however, is Mari’s friend and neighbour Sadie (played by Irene-Myrtle Forrester, who, presumably, drew the short straw). Malodorous and unable to say much beyond “okay”, she is, surely, one of the most unpleasant portraits of a person with learning disabilities in modern drama.

All of which is a pity, as Laura Costello, who is making her professional stage debut in this Pitlochry season, is a star in the making. Playing the role of LV with the required pathos, she sings with a range and power that threaten to salvage a reasonable production of a bad play.