Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Sue Glover and Liz Carruthers - The Straw Chair

When Sue Glover's play, The Straw Chair, first appeared at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 1988, it's eighteenth century setting and focus on volatile female characters was in stark contrast to a prevailing trend of gritty realism. The play's study of Lady Grange, exiled from Edinburgh to a barren St Kilda by her philandering husband, was a hit nevertheless, and regarded by many as a contemporary classic.

It is curious therefore, that Liz Carruthers' revival of the play which embarks on an extensive Scottish tour this week, is the first time Glover's play will have been seen in Scotland in a full production for twenty-seven years.

“I never pushed for it,” says Glover today. “The Traverse used to say to me that if only I wrote about housing estates and drugs they could market me better, but I wasn't interested in that, and a lot of bigger theatres didn't think it suitable. The play wasn't published until later either, and after about five years or so, when things get to a certain age they're considered too old to be revived, especially for a play which I saw as a costume drama.”

Glover's Lady Grange is based on the real life figure of Rachel Chiesley, who, on squaring up to her husband James Erskine's various indiscretions in Edinburgh with unabashed abandon, was subsequently kidnapped by him and banished to various secluded islands. Into Lady Grange's unfettered domain comes newly-weds Isabel and her minister husband Aneas, determined to spread the gospel to what they see as untamed Northerners. It is Lady Grange, however, who opens up Isabel's eyes to other possibilities.

“I had a Gaelic neighbour,” Glover says of the play's background, “who was brought up on Mull and who told me about Rachel and suggested to me that I write a play about her. Then I read about her, and I thought, oh, boy, yes.

“The thing that really attracted me to her was a tiny wee article in a church magazine, and it said that Lord Grange couldn't legally divorce Rachel, so he gave her £200 and stuck her in Leith. She was a drunk, and used to walk up to the Royal Mile and stand outside her husband's house in Niddrie Wynd and shout at all of his friends in their sedan chairs. She was a wronged woman, but he was a vile hypocrite, and I just thought, oh, yeah!”

The idea to finally revive The Straw Chair was first hatched after Carruthers directed a short play by Glover, Bear on A Chain, at Oran Mor as part of the venue's A Play, A Pie and A Pint seasons of lunchtime theatre. Having stepped into the production at the last minute, Carruthers hit it off with Glover, and went to a reading of The Straw Chair at The Visitors, a series of presentations of neglected twentieth century Scottish plays curated by writer Nicola McCartney at the CCA in Glasgow.

“I didn't see the original production,” says Carruthers, “but at the time I was learning Gaelic, and had to do a project, which I decided to do on Lady Grange, so to see such an extraordinary play based on her was great, and I knew then that I wanted to do it.”

That was five years ago, since when there have been a couple of false starts, with Carruthers and Glover teaming up to form their own company, Hirtle, who will be co-producing the play with Borderline.

Glover is on something of a roll just now in terms of seeing revivals of her work, with Borderline's production of The Straw Chair following Lu Kemp's revival of her 1991 play, Bondagers, at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh in 2014.

“I think Sue has been under-valued as a writer,” says Carruthers, who describes The Straw Chair as Glover's masterpiece, “and you wonder if that is because she's a woman and because she's older. When I started out it seemed like there were very few women writers and directors, but you look around now and it seems like there's more women doing it than men. It's still about the youth in many ways, so I think it's quite good that two older women like us can start our own company.”

In terms of how women are perceived beyond the world of the play, not much has changed according to Carruthers.

“The play's very much about hypocrisy,” she says, “both of the church and of Edinburgh society, and how so-called respectable society like to sweep people like Lady Grange under the carpet and pretend they don't exist, It's about how if a woman steps out of line society won't tolerate it, and society today still won't stand for it. If a woman gets drunk she's thought far worse of than a man, and there's this continuing disapproval of women who don't stay in their place. I think we're living through a really misogynist era at the moment, and so much of that comes through in the play.

“It's a vivid piece. There's lots of humour in it. Lady Grange didn't follow social conventions and is obsessed with sex, so it's very rude and very funny, but I hope as well as finding it funny that people will be angered by what happens in the play. It's not preserved in aspic, that's for sure. It's as pertinent now as it was all those years ago.”

For Glover too, Lady Grange remains a formidable figure.

”One or two people regard her as a poor victim,” Glover says, “which on one level of course she is, but I remember taking my Gaelic neighbour to see the play, and she was quite taken aback by seeing this angry mad woman. I think she was expecting something gentler.”

The Straw Chair, Sabhal Nor Ostaig, Sleat, April 1; Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, April 3; Birnam Arts Centre, April 4; Ardross Community Hall, April 7, touring until May.
www.borderlinetheatre.co.uk
 
The Herald, March 31st 2015
 
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Kai Fischer - Last Dream (On Earth)

When Kai Fischer was growing up in East Germany when the Berlin Wall still divided his country, the big dream of his generation was to travel beyond the Wall to all the perceived liberties the west apparently offered. Around the same time, the story of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who in 1961 had been the first man in space, had already captured Fischer's imagination as it had little boys around the globe. More recently, Fischer saw parallels with African migrants trying to get to what they imagined to be a European land of freedom and liberty.

The result of these musings are brought together in Last Dream (On Earth), the theatre designer best known for his work with the Vanishing Point company's follow-up to Entartet, an audio installation based on transcripts that accompanied the Nazi Party's Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937. Using similar sound-led techniques devised with composer Matt Padden, this new co-production between Fischer, the National Theatre of Scotland and the Tron Theatre, Glasgow sees its creator come even more to the fore as a director and theatre-maker as he explores the show's twin narratives with three actors while the audience listen in on headphones.

“Gagarin's journey into space always fascinated me,” says Fischer, “and I recently came across the published transcripts of the conversations between Gagarin and Ground Control. That was with a man called Sergei Karolev, who was a guy who had been working with rockets since the 1930s before he was denounced for misappropriation of funds. He was sent to the gulags, and when he was released he went on to lead the Soviet space programme, and oversaw Gagarin's launch into space, so it was his big day, and we have this record of both men talking.

“I grew up knowing about Gagarin and his flight, but maybe now it is a story that's in danger of being forgotten. I spoke to somebody recently who thought that the first man in space was Neil Armstrong, and there are people growing up now who maybe won't understand why people like Gagarin and Karolev would have these dreams of going into space.”

The second aspect of Last Dream (On Earth) saw Fischer himself embarking on his own trip of a lifetime, to the Italian island of Lampedusa, as well as Malta and Morocco, where he interviewed refugees who had attempted to reach Europe. While some had tried and failed to make the journey, others had succeeded, only to be housed in detention centres.

“It was a very personal parallel,” says Fischer, “and even though it isn't really comparable with people in North African countries trying to get to Europe, because of my experience growing up in East Germany at the time I did, it's something I've always been interested in.

Fischer spent a week talking to people in a refugee centre.

“What was amazing was the extent they were prepared to share their stories,” he says. “Sometimes people arrived in Malta not knowing they'd done anything wrong, and then, thinking they'd arrived in Europe where freedom of expression is everything, suddenly found themselves detained and didn't know why. I might have been the first person they'd met who they could talk to about their experiences, and the way they embraced that chance to talk was an amazing experience to be around.”

Following this extensive research, Fischer developed the stories in a way that will allow audiences to eavesdrop in on Gagarin's conversations with Karolev while refugees on a beach prepare to embark on an equally perilous voyage.

“Using headphones started as a design idea,” says Fischer, “but then I realised that if I wanted the audience to experience the connection between Gagarin and Karolev, then there was nothing I could do better to get them as close as possible to that than have them actually listen in on those conversations. By doing that you're also leaving space for people to imagine their own place in what's going on.

“There are elements of the experience that are like a gig. There is Matt 's soundtrack and sound design, and the music creates a bridge between the atmosphere and the words spoken.”

Fischer left Germany to study in Glasgow in 1995, and has been a full UK resident since 1998. Since then, his large-scale designs for Vanishing Point shows such as Interiors, Saturday Night and Wonderland have been integral to the narrative of each.

With this in mind, taking the lead on shows as he has done with Entartet and Last Dream (On Earth) is something Fischer sees as complimentary to his pure design work.

“For me it's never really felt separate,” he says. “In my stage designs I always want to try new things out, and although the collaborative relationship is slightly different it's still the same thing. In whatever I do I really just want to continue exploring.”

This notion of exploration, be it simply to find our what's out there or else to try and change lives is something that feeds into Last Dream (On Earth).

“These days if you have the money you can now buy tickets for space flight,” Fischer observes. “Back then people did it because of an ideal, but now it's one more thing that's about to be commercialised, and this idea of building a better future has been lost. Like migrants trying to get to Europe, Gagarin and Karolev weren't doing it for themselves, but for something bigger that was about trying to create a better world.”

Last Dream (On Earth), Tron Theatre, Glasgow, April 1-4, then on tour throughout April.
www.tron.co.uk
www.nationaltheatrescotland.com
 
The Herald, March 31st 2015

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Thursday, 26 March 2015

Hardeep Pandhal – A Neck or Nothing Man!

An Tobar, Tobermory, Isle of Mull April 3rd-June 27th

When Hardeep Pandhal first visited Mull, he heard a story of how a wooden statue of a highland warrior pointing passers-by towards a heritage centre had been physically defaced. The image seemed to tie in with a childhood memory of growing up in a Sikh community in Birmingham, where Pandhal remembered another image of legendary warrior and martyr Baba Deep Singh, who continued to avenge the desecration of the Golden Temple by the Afghan army while holding on to his own decapitated head.

With a burgeoning interest in Victorian satirical cartoonist and original illustrator of Charles Dickens' George Cruikshank thrown into the mix, the end result is a four-metre high sculptural reimagining of the Cruikshank cartoon which greets visitors outside the Comar organisation's Tobermory-based An Tobar centre and gives the show its name. In the original, an animated guillotine takes flight to chase a government on the run. Recast as the sort of seaside attraction which holiday-makers could pose with for postcard style snapshots by poking their own heads through the holes that saw them become cartoon characters, the bloody blade above them that threatens to reform them here gives Pandhal's show an extra edge.

“The significance of decapitation in culture is the key to the exhibition,” he explains. “As a child I was always estranged from that sort of Sikh imagery, even though it was part of my heritage, then at some point I came across the philosopher George Bataille, who took things even further, and there was this thing about trying to re-enact the soul of the guillotine. There's this idea of anger as well, of losing your head in the heat of the moment.”

Now living in Glasgow following graduation from Glasgow School of Art in 2013, Pandhal was selected to appear in Bloomberg New Contemporaries that year, and produced a public art commission for the 2014 Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art on the site of the city's former Camp Coffee factory. More recently Pandhal has been selected for the Collective Gallery in Edinburgh's Satellites programme for emerging artists, while a solo show as part of the Asian Triennial in Manchester has already caused a stir.

“There was a lot of concern about my depiction of decapitation,” Pandhal says, “which I can kind of understand, but this sort of imagery with displaced heads has been around for centuries, but what I like to think I'm doing is making something without a historical context.”

Also featuring in A Neck or Nothing Man! will be a hood knitted by his mum for a statue of St Columba that sits in An Tobar's cafe, as well as new video work and collage-based pieces. All of which embraces the immediate surroundings it sits in while recognising where it's come from.

“In terms of coming to Mull,” says Pandhal, “there's that escapist idea of getting away from things that drives people, and that becomes another metaphor for losing one's head.”
 
The List, March 2015
 
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Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Hedda Gabler

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Three stars

There's an over-riding sense of languor at the start of Amanda Gaughan's revival of Henrik Ibsen's nineteenth century Freudian tragedy, seen here in a version by Richard Eyre. As the maid Berthe removes dust-sheets from the furniture of newly-weds George and Hedda Tesman's new house, off-white curtains waft in the breeze to far off piano patterns. Nicola Daley's similarly shimmering Hedda seems to sleepwalk her way onto the chaise longue where she lays hot and clearly bothered before unveiling a portrait of her stern-looking father that perches in the corner watching everything that follows.

All this is shot to pieces once Hedda has put on her well-practiced rictus grin and, in the face of a hopelessly devoted husband, his well-meaning fuss-budget aunt Julia and his highly strung ex Thea, she looks every inch the thoroughly modern woman who has it all. When Benny Young's horny Judge Brack and Jack Tarleton's tormented Loevborg come calling, Hedda seems to be playing the older men off each other to ease the boredom of her lot and convince herself she's in charge of her own destiny as much as her illicit suitors.

Such is Ibsen's mix of high manners and extreme taboo-busting that it's hard to avoid melodrama. Yet as Hedda's mask slips from vivaciousness to hormonally driven self-destructive grand gestures, her pistol-packing, book burning neuroses look closer to 1990s in-yer-face theatre than anything. If at times a sense of mass uptightness borders on a shrillness that threatens to undermine this tale of ordinary madness, when the lights go out as Hedda takes her final shot, the lack of a body denies her the immortality she craves.
 
The Herald, March 26th 2015

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Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Producers

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

If the brief hiatus that occurred when the curtain fell at the end of the first scene of this touring production of Mel Brooks' musical satire was really down to a technical hitch, it couldn't have been more appropriate. Because when Broadway has-been Max Bialystock explains to naïve accountant wannabe Leo Bloom later on that one of his three golden rules of producing is that you never ever bring down the curtain after the first scene, it heightens the show's self-referential meta-ness to the nth degree, winning deserved laughter.

As played by Cory English and Jason Manford in Matthew White's production for real life producers Adam Spiegel in association with Tulchin Bartner and Just For Laughs Theatricals, Max and Leo's plan to make a couple of million dollars by putting on the worst play on the planet backfires with spectacular effect. When the pair stumble across Phill Jupitus' manic Nazi Franz Liebkind's Springtime For Hitler, they think they've struck gold. This proves to be just the first piece of taboo-busting, however, in a magnificent parade of nymphomaniac old ladies, mincing theatre directors and leather-clad Nazi hotsie-totsies upstaged only by Tiffany Graves' pneumatic Swedish starlet Ulla.

While Brooks was clearly exploring some of the freedoms of the 1960s when his big-screen version of this libidinous cartoon come to rude life first appeared, the reason it works so well is that he was lovingly steeped in the showbusiness world the show so gloriously pastiches. He also recognised that sex, money and theatrical razzmatazz are a deliciously unholy trinity. This remains the case in a fantastically tasteless display of goose-stepping high camp sturm und drang.
 
The Herald, March 25th 2015

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David Hare - The Absence of War

When David Hare was granted access all areas to the Labour Party to research the play that became The Absence of War during what proved to be an unsuccessful campaign to get the Party's then leader Neil Kinnock elected Prime Minister in 1992, politics looked very different. Twenty-two years after Hare's fiction infuriated some Labour grandees, Jeremy Herrin's revival for the Headlong company in co-production with the Rose Theatre Kingston and Sheffield Theatres couldn't be timed better.

With a Westminster General Election looming as Herrin's production tours to Glasgow in a post independence referendum climate in which the Scottish Labour Party are predicted by many to be all but wiped out, Hare's play looks even more pertinent.

“Yet again,” says Hare, “the Labour Party has got itself into a situation where it daren't speak, and once again they seem to have in Ed Milliband a leader who can't seem to connect with the majority of people. They've had to buy into the Tory agenda, and they've had to say that has an economic agenda, but they've also had to try and deal with the things that stem from old Labour Party ideals, like the NHS, so it is different as well.”

The Absence of War was the last in Hare's trilogy of state of the nation plays which looked at the British establishment's most hallowed institutions. Where 1990's Racing Demon looked at the Church of England and the following year's Murmuring Judges was a withering assault on the British justice system, The Absence of War charts the rise of charismatic Labour Party leader George Jones, a man smothered so much by spin doctors that any ideals he has become lost in a triumphalist quest for victory.

The fact that Hare was allowed access to the Labour Party machinery at all is something PR gurus would never allow today.

“It was because Kinnock was a theatre-goer,” explains Hare. “He talked everyone around him into letting it happen, which subsequently had everyone in a flap, saying why are you doing this, as if I was going to betray confidences, which I never did. I was pretty insulted by that, but it was a sign of the paranoia that existed within the Labour Party leadership. You have to remember as well how beleaguered they felt in a climate where no-one trusted anybody else, whereas Kinnock wanted to trust someone.”

Even when the play went on, according to Hare, Kinnock never turned on him, and it's clear that Hare retains a soft spot for the theatre-going PM who never was.

“When he saw it he was very disturbed, but he never once thought I'd betrayed him,” says Hare. “There was a tremendous dignity about Kinnock. If he lost anything, you would see Edward Heath go into a massive sulk, and Margaret Thatcher go into an even bigger sulk with a defensiveness that defined the Tory Party for twenty years, but Kinnock was really the only one who took defeat on the chin and walked away.”

Hare is arguably the most high-profile of a generation of English dramatists whose leftist ideas were forged in the revolutionary fire of 1968. Since Thatcherism gave way to New Labour and everything that followed, Hare and contemporaries such as Howard Brenton, David Edgar and Trevor Griffiths have dealt with the aftermath in different ways. Hare has even become a knight of the realm. While philosophical about how things turned out, he remains critical of an establishment he is arguably a part of.

“I came out with an analysis that turned out to be wrong,” he says of the revolutionary spirit that fired his generation. “At the end of the 60s we thought the country would either turn left or else collapse completely. Then when what happened in '79, when Thatcher was elected, which no-one foresaw, but which was the start of everything that came afterwards, with the weaker getting weaker and the stronger getting stronger, you had to think again.”

Other writers of Hare's generation have similarly dramatised the inner workings of an increasingly moribund political party. In Bill Brand, Griffiths charted an idealist young Labour MP coming to terms with real-politik in an eleven episode prime time TV series that ran in 1976. In 1983, Howard Barker's A Passion in Six Days went behind the scenes to take a critical look at an infinitely less stage-managed Labour Party conference than today's affairs. Michael Boyd's production at Sheffield Crucible caused controversy when then leader of Sheffield City Council David Blunkett walked out of the show in objection to a nude scene.

“How a blind man can object to a nude scene I don't know,” says Hare, “but it was an indication of some of the stuffiness that existed in the Labour Party at the time. “

More than two decades since his own play, might Hare be tempted to revisit what is now an infinitely glossier political landscape?

“No,” he says with certainty. “I feel that this play for me said everything I wanted to say about democratic society, but I do see parallels with what's happened since. Kendrick, the Tory Prime Minister in the play, his speeches are almost word for word what David Cameron says today. He's a PR man with a glib way with language, and is known for wheeling out his wife whenever he looks like he's going to be defeated, and that's what Cameron does.

“The big difference between when the play first appeared and what's happened twenty years later is the contempt for politicians that exists now. That came out of the expenses scandal, and when Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind are caught on camera saying the things they said that just exacerbates feeling towards politicians. When the play came out politicians were still felt to represent society at large, and you certainly can't say that of Rifkind and Straw.

“I think one of the things the play is about now is history,” says Hare. “It begins and ends at the Cenotaph, and the industries and the profound need that the Labour Party was founded on no longer exist, so if the industries don't exist, do the sentiments behind it? If the Labour Party is made up of people who've been to university and sip Cappuccinos, how can they share the same values which the party was founded on? Where is the common experience?”

In Scotland, Hare observes from a distance that “the speed with which the Scottish Labour Party is falling apart is phenomenal, and a single politician like Jim Murphy isn't enough to change that. One person isn't enough to retain the values of social justice. Society is changing, and you have to lead those changes. The Labour Party isn't leading, it's trying to catch up with them, whereas what the SNP seem to be doing is making the transition by really leading the way.

“Back in 1992 Kinnock thought the election was there for the winning, and he lost because in the end the people didn't believe in him enough to think he could be Prime Minister. Finally the electorate looked him in the eye and didn't believe he could run the country. To be rejected by thirty million people in that way, that's a bit of a blow to your self-esteem.”

The Absence of War, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, March 31-April 4
www.citz.co.uk
 
The Herald, March 24th 2015

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James Harkness - The Absence of War

When James Harkness utters his opening lines in the Headlong company's revival of David Hare's play, The Absence of War which arrives at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow next week, he will mean every single word he says. This is how it should be for any actor, of course, but for Gorbals-born Harkness, the words 'I love this moment', as spoken by the minder for would-be Labour Prime Minister George Jones, will have extra resonance.

It was on the Citizens Theatre stage where Harkness first stepped onto as a teenage member of the community-based Citizens Young Company between 2007 and 2009. It was from this that Harkness appeared in the company's contributions to the National Theatre Connections season of plays performed by young people as part of the initiative's Theatre of Debate season.

It was here that Harkness was spotted by Anthony Banks, the NT's associate director of learning, who mentored Harkness while preparing for the drama school auditions he'd now decided to take on. From this connection, Harkness was sponsored by an anonymous donor, who supported the young Glaswegian throughout the duration of his studies in London. This alone is testament to how participation at a grassroots level can change levels. The fact that Harkness is returning home in a significant revival of one of the most important plays from the last decade of the twentieth century by a writer such as David Hare takes things to another level.

“It's hard to put into words,” says Harkness, walking down a Bristol street close to the theatre where The Absence of War has stopped off prior to its Scottish dates. “I grew up in that building, so to come back to it like this, and to have come full circle, and for my friends and family to be able to see me, it's made my year. Honestly, I could die of happiness. I can't wait to get up there.”

Appearing in the play itself is something Harkness admits has been “a challenge. It's hard to get your head round the language sometimes, but David's such a brilliant writer, and Jeremy Herrin who's directing it is such a great director that they make it easier for you to get a grip of.”

It could have all been so different for Harkness, who, prior to becoming an actor, drifted through a series of jobs, either cheffing or else working with his Uncle Arthur in a garage. Outside of another community theatre group and a Scottish Youth Theatre course, this experience too gave Harkness a focus.

“He taught me so much,” he says of his uncle. “He taught me you can do anything if you put your mind to it. I could do everything except electrics.”

Harkness laughs long and hard when he says this, as he does with most things. There's an unbridled energy and boyish enthusiasm in every word he says which has clearly found a natural outlet onstage. Again, things could have worked out differently if he'd continued to apply that energy elsewhere.

The change for Harkness came when he woke up in a hospital bed after what he describes as “a horrible fight,” which took place in an elevator and involved an axe. “I just thought about things and knew I had to stop messing about. I had a real problem with authority and giving respect to people who didn't deserve respect.

“I grew up in a very colourful area,” he goes on. “I love the Gorbals, but I never really got to grips with anything, but once I got involved with the Citizens it felt like home. Ever since I did the SYT course there, I was in and out of that building since I was a wee boy. The Gorbals is a brilliant area, but it needs a lot more things like that, where you can get to know people and find some kind of common ground.”

Harkins is full of praise for Neil Packham, Guy Hollands and others at the Citz, as well as those who run other community groups.

“They showed me where I could go and gave me focus,” he says, then pauses.

“There were hunners' of women there as well who were all beautiful,” he laughs.

Harkins took an HNC in drama at Reid Kerr College in Paisley before choosing to train as an actor at LAMDA in London rather than Glasgow, where he thought there might be too many distractions. As it was, Harkins “grew up again in that building. Coming from the Gorbals I'm not used to dancing and singing, and first year was tough. I had to get used to people, but LAMDA were brilliant, and let me do things in my own time.”

Now aged twenty-six, since leaving LAMDA, Harkness has already appeared with the National Theatre and on the West End, as well as several films and a couple of episodes of Silent Witness. He will soon be seen as Angus in a new film of Macbeth featuring Michael Fassbender in the title role. The first scene Harkness filmed was with Paddy Considine who plays Banquo.

“Angus is brilliant,” says Harkness of the young nobleman fighting Macbeth. “He's someone who's worked hard to be where he wants to be, and people can say what they like about where he comes from, but they can't think he's a toerag.”

If Harkness hadn't become an actor, he isn't sure where he would have ended up.

“I was on a downward spiral before I got into acting, so who knows?” he admits. “But where I am now, I appreciate every moment. I've never been happier in any other job.”

The Absence of War, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, March 31-April 4
www.citz.co.uk
 
The Herald, March 24th 2015

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