PATRICK MARMION reviews The Grand Old Opera House Hotel

A hotel haunted by kooky divas is a triumph for Scotland’s new star: PATRICK MARMION reviews The Grand Old Opera House Hotel at the Edinburgh Festival

The Grand Old Opera House Hotel (Traverse Theatre)

Verdict: Scotland’s prima donna strikes again


J.M. Coetzee’s Life And Times of Michael K (Assembly Hall, The Mound)

Verdict: South African epic 


The Edinburgh Festival is the spiritual home of kooky genius. And there are few people in theatre today who are kookier — or more touched by genius — than Isobel McArthur, the hottest thing in Scottish theatre, and possibly the UK.

She’s best known for her batty Jane Austen adaptation Pride And Prejudice* (*Sort Of), which ran all-too briefly in the West End two years ago. And her latest joyously theatrical, utterly surreal, musical farce proves she’s no flash in the pan.

The opera house of the title is a baroque behemoth converted into a Premier Inn-style hotel. Here, new bellboy Aaron (Ali Watt) arrives for staff training and becomes besotted by opera-buff chambermaid Amy (Karen Fishwick), who he never quite meets.

Much to the chagrin of sleepless guests, the hotel is haunted by the ghosts of former divas, and they’re still rattling the rafters.

None of this makes much sense on paper, but on stage it has its own delirious logic, in a world where inflatable sex toys are discovered under duvets and toreadors from Bizet’s Carmen burst from an en-suite shower room. Indeed, the scenario grows into a full-scale libretto, reminiscent of the love-tangles in Mozart’s operas, as Aaron and Amy converge.

In truth, the show does sometimes creak. But I found myself pitifully grateful for McArthur’s theatrical ambition and generosity of spirit

The show also teems with a galaxy of characters including the stressed Welsh manager (Christina Modestou); Glaswegian cleaner Morag (Ann Louise Ross), always on the lookout for a crafty smoke; Colombian medical student Yolanda (Betty Valencia), reduced to vacuuming bedrooms; and a saucy sex kitten (played by the aptly named Laura Lovemore).

It turns out they can all sing, and well enough for Aaron to make us tingle with his version of Una Furtiva Lagrima from Donizetti’s L’Elisir D’Amore. Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s staging for Gareth Nicholls’s production is no less extravagantly theatrical, with a hotel corridor folding away to reveal a bedroom beyond.

In truth, the show does sometimes creak. But I found myself pitifully grateful for McArthur’s theatrical ambition and generosity of spirit, in a world that’s become more concerned with chastising audiences than enchanting them.

There are similar levels of artistic ambition in the much more serious stage adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s 1983 Booker Prize-winning novel Life And Times Of Michael K. South Africa’s renowned Baxter Theatre Company has teamed up with the Handspring Puppet Company (best known for War Horse) to create a world of equal but darker magic.

The story is of the titular young black South African, born into poverty with a cleft lip. Labouring under the restrictions of apartheid, Michael improvises a cart to transport his ailing mother to her childhood farm 250 miles away.

The brilliance of the show is the way the puppets are operated to intensify the story into a kind of modern legend. Serenaded by plangent cello and jaunty jazz piano, this is an engrossing spectacle of unusual emotional force.

There are similar levels of artistic ambition in the much more serious stage adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s 1983 Booker Prize-winning novel Life And Times Of Michael K

In Edinburgh, the old jokers are the best

You may think there’s a struggling young comic on every street corner of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, but there are plenty of established stars, too.

One is the always bankable Jon Culshaw, with his show Imposter Syndrome (Gilded Ballroom Teviot, 4*), reminiscing about life in 1970s Lancashire, with the monocled astronomer Patrick Moore and the rubber-lipped Les Dawson on telly.

Taking a nostalgia trip through his Spitting Image years, when he impersonated PMs from John Major to Tony Blair, Culshaw (pictured) moves on to Gordon Brown and Bojo, before detouring through Merseyside for a tribute to Paul O’Grady. Best of all, though, are the songs, including an Arctic Monkeys spoof exposing Alex Turner as the new George Formby.

Frank Skinner has always been Mr Nonchalant from West Brom. And age has not changed him. Now 66, and back at the Fringe 32 years after winning the Perrier Award, he’s totally in his comfort zone with 30 Years Of Dirt (Gordon Aikman Theatre, 3*).

In a baggy suit, Skinner shuffles about as if recovering from a hip op. He grins at the floor, glances up to check the audience is still there, and quizzes us on names, jobs and hair loss (cue ‘fringe’ gags). He claims to be unable to remove the blue jokes (which haunt him like the living dead in zombie films). But the older he gets, the creepier they become. Still, if you go to one of his shows not knowing that’s what’s in store, it is, as he says, like being a vegan in a butcher’s shop.

The always bankable Jon Culshaw stars in his show Imposter Syndrome (Gilded Ballroom Teviot, 4*), reminiscing about life in 1970s Lancashire

Frank Skinner has always been Mr Nonchalant from West Brom. And age has not changed him

Kiwi comic Deb Filler has fewer but better gags in Kravitz, Cohen, Bernstein And Me (Drawing Room, Assembly Rooms 4*). We start with a half-hour of early-years red-herrings — recalling doing Judy Garland impersonations, and a father who rued Sinatra not singing in Yiddish. But then come the tales of meeting Leonard Bernstein in Auckland, charming Leonard Cohen with dirty Jewish jokes while driving executive cars in New York, and causing Lenny Kravitz to split his leather trousers.

The show could do with being structured more strictly around her songs. But it’s a sweet tale of a life lived in the wings.

On trial: the head versus the heart

The Effect (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

Verdict: Art of a heart 


Love is a drug. Or is it? It’s the big question posed by Lucy (Succession) Prebble’s 2012 play, rebooted for today and a top black cast.

Hackney chancer, Tristan (Paapa Essiedu), and Connie (Taylor Russell), a Canadian psychology student, have volunteered as guinea-pigs in a clinical trial for anti-depressants.

They’re under the supervision of psychiatrists Lorna (Michele Austin, likeable, anxious) and Toby (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, oozing entitlement), sitting at either end of a traverse stage, with the youngsters in brightly lit boxes like lab rats.

A buzzing soundscape contributes to the distancing effect in Jamie Lloyd’s superbly performed, flash, stylised, propless production. We have to imagine the urine samples Tris jokes about, the walls that divide him from Connie, the heart monitors they remove when, feverishly in love, they escape to the asylum next door.

A trembling Tris thinks he’s having a heart attack. Is it genuine passion or the high dose of happy pills?

A few years ago Essiedu played a brooding Hamlet. In a reference to Shakespeare’s meditation on depression, Toby pulls a brain (‘Nowadays we think our soul is in there’) out of a bucket and rationally explains its workings. Later, in Lorna’s distressed hands, a brain slithers, a fathomless emotional landmine.

Tris and Connie’s love-affair is balanced by the relationship between cocky Toby and Lorna, a depressive who refuses to medicate as she doesn’t want to ‘numb herself from reality’. Toby refers to her depression as ‘an episode’. Lorna calls it ‘me’. ‘I don’t have enough skin,’ she says.

Prebble peels layers of skin from a fascinating issue; a more intimate production could have exposed more nerves.


Paapa Essiedu (Tristan) and Taylor Russell (Connie) in The Effect at the National Theatre

Who says Shakespeare’s not funny?! Why this Winter Tale in the woods is perfect summer fare…

The Winter’s Tale (Theatre In The Forest, Suffolk)

Verdict: Perfect for a midsummer’s night


We could be in Shakespeare’s Arden. On a dreamy midsummer’s night, we wander across a meadow to assemble in a grove of sweet chestnut and silver birch trees for The Winter’s Tale, the rain magically holding off for this open-air production in the timeless setting of Sutton Hoo, the burial ground in Suffolk of an Anglo-Saxon king.

The play is notorious for shifting, not always comfortably, between tragedy and comedy. The Rose Chain Theatre Company of Ipswich (in its summer guise as the Theatre In The Forest) ensures it’s the comedy that conquers. There is some public debate at present on whether or not Shakespeare is ever funny. This production gives an emphatic answer: yes.

An exuberant, energetic young cast plays it for pantomime laughs, ad-libbing and slap-sticking and interacting with a vocal audience (kids, young and old) happy to join in. But they switch seamlessly into the serious and the sad, faithful to the text in conveying the jealousy and hatred that are central to the plot.

There are just eight actors but they fill the impromptu woodland stage, doubling and even trebling up to play all the parts. With minimal scenery (but lots of props, including some ingenious puppets) it is as if a troupe of travelling players has breezed in to entertain us, flitting on and off, changing costumes and characters.

Ted Newborn, Jack Spencer, Ailis Duff, Emily Jane Kerr, Vincent Moisy in The Winter’s Tale

I loved their versatility. Vincent Moisy excels as an angry Leontes, then excels again as a dancing sheep! The virtuous Hermione (Emily Jane Kerr) is also the rogue Autolycus, Paulina (Ailis Duff) also the shepherd.

My only lament is that they lost the solemnity of Shakespeare’s ending, with its profound themes of remorse, redemption and resurrection — opting instead for a cheery sing-along of ‘You always hurt the one you love’.

Then again, since that perfectly sums up what the play is all about, perhaps this was a fitting finale. If imaginative directing helps to make complex but rewarding plays like this accessible and understandable, what’s to complain about?

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