Burns

January 21, 2023 | By | 8 Replies More

★★☆☆☆      Messy

Playhouse: Fri 20 – Sat 21 Jan 2023
Review by Hugh Simpson

That a world premiere should take place at the Playhouse is not the oddest thing about the long, over 30-year gestation of Burns – and, sadly, not the most inexplicable thing about the end result.

Robert Burns continues to exert a contemporary influence – witness the recent stushie over the potential rewriting of the caption to his National Portrait Gallery depiction.

Elijah Aspinall as Robert Burns. Pic: Peter Dibdin

In recent years, there has been a whole raft of theatrical presentations of the Bard, most of which have claimed to show the real man behind traditional legend, or to make the story relevant to the modern day. As a result, a truly radical presentation now would be one that used the words and tunes Burns would himself have been familiar with, and dialled up the Kailyard sentimentality.

Writer Tish Tindall and co-director Diane Aspinall attempt to show a modern day Burns in the era of social media. This idea is more intriguing in theory than in practice, and unevenly presented. At first, despite the odd reference to WhatsApp or reality TV, it definitely still shows a tenant farmer struggling to publish his poetry.

Subsequently the modern setting is more obvious, but although Burns is presented as some kind of rockstar, he is still clearly a poet.

Frequent, and already dated, references to Michael Jackson are apparently down to his involvement as producer (along with associate David Gest) in a much earlier iteration of the show. Even if you do not consider Jackson to now be a hugely problematic figure, it still jars.

Tam O’ Shanter

The video for Thriller was supposedly influenced by Tam O’ Shanter, something not necessarily apparent on first viewing. The presentation of that poem here, obviously intended to be a big second half set-piece, symbolises much of what fails to work in this production.

It is one of the few occasions (constant mangling of Auld Lang Syne aside) where Burns’s own words are presented at length. However, the text is gabbled at such a speed it is largely indecipherable and soon rendered inaudible by the musical backing.

This is lumpen, by-the-numbers, 70s-style ‘rock opera’, with poor sound balance, over-assertive drums, elongated squealing guitar solos and intrusive disco lighting. The choreography of the ensemble, as too often, is reduced to stately walking and slow, defined, overly portentous movements.

Elijah Aspinall as Robert Burns with the chorus. Pic: Peter Dibdin

It all smacks of a production attempting to fill the cavernous space of the Playhouse when it has neither the drive nor the scope (nor indeed the audience size) to do so.

Not that the performers from the Lossie Entertainment Academy can be faulted for effort. Elijah Aspinall has a creditable stab at Burns, displaying considerable presence and authority, despite the familiar problem of supposedly playing a poetic genius and a magnetic individual when the script offers nothing to back up such an idea.

Many recent versions of the poet have confronted head-on his erratic and troubling personal life. This is attempted here, but the end result is apologetic and confusing – not least when a climactic moment depends on evidence of the promiscuity which has previously been stressed throughout.

Tindall as the Narrator sings her heart out, and obviously has the utmost belief in her material. Her use of a narrator figure, however, does suggest a lack of confidence in the narrative itself.

unfinished

Despite the many years it has taken the musical to get to the stage, it would be forgivable to imagine that it still seems unfinished. However, it is more likely to be the case that the whole enterprise is one of those productions that has been workshopped to within an inch of its life, with stray elements from various different versions and revisions limiting any kind of artistic vision and obscuring what it was supposed to be about in the first place.

The time-honoured problem persists; newcomers to Burns will fail to see what all the fuss is about; those familiar with the work will be forgiven for wondering what on Earth is going on.

Writer and director Tish Tindall as the Narrator. Pic: Peter Dibdin.

The tunes themselves are always interesting, and melodically and harmonically redolent of 90s power ballads, but are overtaken by the unsubtle orchestration. The lyrics, meanwhile, are too reliant on repetition, familiar rhymes and ‘follow your dream’ mantras.

The ensemble, despite the sameness of the choreography, are well drilled. Bryony Munro (Jean Armour) obviously has a massive voice which is clearly underused in this context. Lucy Tindall and Diane Aspinall do well with some ill-defined comedy roles; it has to be said that there are not many laughs, and they do not necessarily come in the intended places.

The most successful elements are the most extreme ones, such as LucyTindall’s Shania Twain-echoing number, which is camply knowing and huge fun despite apparently only having one verse.

effective

Similarly effective, and at the other end of the emotional spectrum, is the rendition of Ae Fond Kiss by Elizabeth McNally as Robert’s mother. Not only is this some actual Burns, it is performed with an affecting fragility, despite being underscored by an ominous and dispiriting electronic rumble.

That the production is taking place in a venue that is too big for it is clear; however, it does show a commendable ambition. This is reinforced by the abstract, impressionistic scenes reflecting Burns’s psychological state, which do not always convince but show a refusal to take the easy way out.

Despite the confused nature of the show, that determination, allied to the commitment of the cast, deserves credit.

Running time 2 hours 30 minutes (including one interval)
Playhouse, 18-22 Greenside Place, EH1 3AA
Friday 20 – Saturday 21January 2023
Evenings: 7.30 pm; Sat matinee: 2.30 pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

Elijah Aspinall as Robert Burns with the chorus. Pic: Peter Dibdin.

ENDS

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Comments (8)

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  1. Naidha Stalker says:

    I agree with all your comments. Shame we could not hear Tam O Shanter it was so quick it was a mumble but I loved it – but I would make lots of changes / sometimes you just have to let a stranger in.

  2. John Naples says:

    I’ve never seen so much pish in my life. My wife and I love Burns, and the Playhouse, but this was a catastrophic mistake. We left at the interval. Something, as theatre goers, we have never done before. Well, you did ask!

  3. Brennan says:

    This is a mad play and there were people that walked out in the first half. I have seen plays put on in schools that are far better than this. This kind of play must give the playhouse a bad name. The amount of money for tickets to see a very poor play is not acceptable. The strutting in and out of actors is not required as it prolongs the agony and you were right in everything you picked up on.

  4. Alexander Davis says:

    I am glad I did not read the review before buying tickets or I would probably have given this a miss. I stayed to the end but found little of merit apart from the obvious talent of the musicians and cast. The musical represents 30 years of wasted effort. There was very little of Burns’ work on display and much of what was there was badly done or misrelated to events in his life. Burns the man was depicted in a single-sided and bad light. None of his genius or humanity was evident here. This was not a musical; it was a parody.

  5. Edith McDonagh says:

    It was very disappointing. I am sorry my son paid for these tickets. We stayed until the end but the second half was worse than the first half. We were looking forward to our night out and it was terrible.

  6. John Scott says:

    This was so disappointing and came nowhere close to telling the story of Burns.

    I really hoped someone would give them a talking to at half time but alas no which meant I had to leave after 10 more minutes

  7. Derek Ogle says:

    The tickets for my wife and I were a Christmas gift. We stayed to the end in the hope that some improvement might occur, but were sadly disappointed. This is no celebration of Burns, just a poor modernisation of the man, who was portrayed from drunken womanising farmer to drunken womanising rock star with no clue as to how that transformation occurred.

    The carelessly aimed strobe lighting was appalling as was the horrendously loud rock music which drowned out most of the poetic dialogue we should have been able to hear.

    The main song was an overlaid dirge of Auld Lang Syne played again and again in a dreary fashion. The essence of the man was entirely lacking. Why did the Playhouse put this cringe making musical(?) on stage at all? Total embarrassment.

    Incidentally we had a great view of the stage in the second half since so many people in front of us departed in the interval.

  8. R Rennie says:

    It was awful, and hard to put it into words. The other comments above are all spot on in expressing just how bad it was (although I question how the 2nd half could be worse than the first half – we left at the interval, along with loads of others, and I didn’t think it could get any worse). We’re big Burns fans – and theatre fans – and so this was a huge disappointment.

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