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Variety Night

at Royal Lyceum Theatre

* * * * -

Fringe favourites and local faces star in this innovation in the Lyceum’s programme

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A New International

David Greig’s first season at the helm of the Lyceum continues with this interesting new development – a Sunday night mixed bill of music and spoken word, put together by Jenny Lindsay (formerly half of Rally & Broad, now trading under Flint & Pitch), and featuring some relatively big Scottish names, Fringe faves, and lower-on-the-radar talent. Lindsay co-hosts with Sian Bevan, introducing the performers across three acts. As a concept it’s a winner, broadening the scope of what can be seen on the Lyceum stage, and hopefully getting some different bums on the seats. Inevitably, the bills might need tweaking until they hit on the magic mix to suit the space and the time, but initially, it looks promising.

For one thing, author Christopher Brookmyre is an impressive turn to have for your opening night. He offers a spoken word piece he wrote for the Commonwealth Games’ cultural programme, a twisted tale of Glaswegian schoolkids on a trip to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Kelvingrove Bandstand. Rich in humour, weegie patter and Shakesperian flourishes, it’s a shame it’s not also available on the page. Emma Pollock‘s another big draw for the evening. “I’m going to depress the fuck out of you now,” she says, following on from Brookmyre’s chucklesome reading, and she does, with a trio of downbeat numbers about her family from SAY Award nominated album In Search of Harperfield. Lovely enough in its raw, stripped back way, especially the fetching Intermission, it’s perhaps not the best atmospheric fit for the night. 

It’s curious that Jenna Watt’s solo piece Faslane won such plaudits at the Fringe (including on these very pages). Another example of critics reviewing the politics not the performance, maybe? Or perhaps the snippet given here doesn’t show it to best effect. It seems to want to take a routine, trivial piece of personal realisation – she discovered the “peace” sign was also the emblem of CND – and elevate it to the profound. Given her straw poll indicates the audience is 90% Cold War era grey-hairs, it is at best teaching your Granny to suck nuclear free eggs, and at worst a show-and-tell session. Today at school, I learnt that nuclear weapons could wipe out humanity.

Things continue after the break with father-stepson duo, Andrew Greig and Leo Glaister, combining spoken word with various forms of strummed accompaniment. Travellin’ Light and Wild Mountain Thyme sit alongside an odd ukelele ditty about crawling into the back of a lover’s head, in a short set that’s hard to get a grip on. It has more of the open mic than the big stage about it.

Luke Wright, on the other hand, puts in a show-stealing turn that’s perfectly at home here. There can’t be many poets of his generation able to carry a large and varied audience in a venue like this. The theatrical dandiness helps, of course, but it’s the words that win the day. He offers three poems – one about a Georgian roister-doister, one a single-vowelled spearing of IDS, and one mocking English snootiness about Scottish independence. The clamour around him in the bar afterwards confirms this Fringe favourite has won new admirers.

Opening the third act is a regular face on the Edinburgh spoken word scene, Rachel Amey, and her political poems meet friendly ears here. No-one’s going to knock her paean to the NHS, and plenty will share the fragmentary sentiments of fear expressed in the recent poem with which she closes. It’s a welcome dimension to the evening, but might have sat better a little earlier on.

The revelation of the evening though are musical headliners, A New International. They’ve already opened the night in sterling fashion, coming at us with a Latin-tinged number, like Billy Mackenzie fronting an Andalucian Belle & Sebastian. But the three songs with which they close the night showcase the full breadth of their style. Tenterhooks is the least “international” of them, casting aside the chanson and the oompah for a straighter indie sound, but particularly captivating. Frontman Biff Smith does not balk at giving his all, hunching and twisting over the mic as he wrings out all the emotion from the repeated chorus.

It’s been a little hit and miss, but on the whole, a pleasing jumble, and a welcome saviour from Sunday night telly. A second variety night, featuring Aidan Moffat among others, is already planned for 26 February, and worth a look.