Summer Holiday

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Three Stars

Various dates until October 5

Alice in Wonderland

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Five stars

Run ended

And a note on:

Knives in Hens

Benefit performance

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh


This time last year Elizabeth Newman (now in post as artistic director of Pitlochry Festival Theatre) was basking in the success of her production of Summer Holiday: The Musical for her then employer the Octagon Theatre, Bolton. Her staging of Michael Gyngell and Mark Haddigan’s adaptation of Peter Yates’s 1963 feelgood film about London bus mechanics driving a bus-cum-hotel around Europe (which, famously, starred Cliff Richard) got out-and-about in the Lancashire town courtesy of a small fleet of double deckers borrowed from a local bus company.

So successful was the production, indeed, that the director has returned to the musical for her opening gambit at Pitlochry. Sad to say, however, this latest version (co-directed, as was the Bolton show, by Newman and regular collaborator Ben Occhipinti) isn’t setting the heather alight in highland Perthshire.

This is due, in no small part, to the fact that it is performed entirely in the PFT auditorium. Shorn of the novelty of stops at notable local locations and a top deck singalong of Cliff hits, Gyngell and Haddigan’s play looks a bit thin compared with the musicals (such as last year’s Chicago and The Wizard of Oz) for which the “theatre in the hills” has been justifiably acclaimed.

If the writing is a tad lightweight, it is not well-served by designer Amanda Stoodley’s unforgiving, rigid set (wooden panels painted in the flags of Europe). Nor, during last weekend’s matinee, was it assisted by terrible problems with the amplification of the actors’ voices.

Which is not to say this staging is without its charms. David Rankine shines in an uneven cast, playing Don (the Cliff role) with Peter Pannish sprightliness.

Young Barbara Hockaday plays out of her age range, giving a nice comic performance as Stella, the overbearing, fame-hungry mother of American singer Barbara (Lynwen Haf Roberts). Gerry (Stella’s put upon agent) is played with delightful cartoonishness by Matthew Tomlinson.

Ultimately, however, the combination of an under-developed script and awkward design (not to mention crisis-ridden amplification) leaves this Summer Holiday looking somewhat lacklustre.

There’s nothing lacklustre about excellent Irish theatre company Blue Raincoat’s staging of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. We are fortunate that the Sligo group enjoys good relations with Scottish theatre (its playing of Ionesco’s The Chairs in Edinburgh and Glasgow in 2012, for example, remains emblazoned on the memory).

This telling of Carroll’s tale is presented with the style, wit, inventiveness and fine acting that have long characterised this company’s work (it is little wonder that its patron is Ireland’s president Michael D Higgins, who is, surely, one of the world’s most literate, intelligent and humane heads of state). Assisted by beautifully subtle and clever set, lighting and costume design, the six-strong ensemble deliver Carroll’s language with a reverential vitality.

However, they are also, in director Niall Henry’s perfectly measured production, abundantly aware of the visual possibilities of the story. To take just one instance, the use of identical props of vastly differing sizes, in the famous scene in which Miriam Needham’s wonderfully bold Alice drinks and eats herself into miniature and giant incarnations of herself, is an absolute joy.

John Carty’s tremendous characterisation of the White Rabbit, all rapid, rhythmic movement, in human, period costume (his animalness denoted only by a rabbit ear in his hat), is typical of the piece. From the Caterpillar, to the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen (played in an hilarious, cross-dressed, bearded representation by Sean Elliot), Carroll’s characters are rendered with a surreal, dream-like quality of which, one suspects, the author would have approved.

This production is a million blessed miles from the saccharine, Disney vision of Alice. It is, perhaps, a little out of reach of children aged six and below, but, for everyone else, it is very much a good deed in a naughty world.

Finally, a few words about the important and excellent chamber performance of David Harrower’s great play Knives in Hens which was presented at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh last Tuesday evening. The event was held in honour of the late, unforgettably great actor Pauline Knowles (who was taken from us, at the ridiculously young age of 50, in October of last year) and in benefit of the acting scholarship at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland that has been created in her name.

Pauline played the central role of the unnamed Young Woman in the first production of Harrower’s beautiful play in 1995. In Tuesday’s staging (which was directed gorgeously by Philip Howard, who was director of the premiere production 24 years ago) a brilliant array of Scotland’s female actors (from the wonderful Maureen Beattie to the superb Helen MacKay) played Pauline’s part, joining tremendous actors Lewis Howden and Michael Nardone (who acted alongside Pauline in the original cast).

The Pauline Knowles Scholarship will fund the training of actors who might not otherwise have been able to undertake a degree. To donate, please visit the webpage: