Lyceum Variety Nights (4 stars)

A very 21st century take on the concept of the theatrical variety show, often dark and introspective but with an emphatic, inventive resonance

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Theatre Review: Lyceum Variety Nights

Emma Pollock performed at the first Lyceum Variety Nights / credit: Jannica Honey

There's an undoubted boldness to this new onstage venture from the curatorial hand of Jenny Lindsay and her stated desire to create 'an experiment in democratising theatre and bringing in new artforms', which makes it entirely in keeping with David Greig's smartly challenging first season as the Lyceum's artistic director. The democratic element is somewhat tenuous; Lindsay, of spoken word and music night Flint & Pitch and before it Rally & Broad, is the decision-maker here, and an integral excerpted line of Jenna Watt's solo show Faslane reveals precious few audience-members born before 1983.

Yet while the audience demographic of this grand old theatre may not have enjoyed a tectonic shift, the healthy crowd were treated to a range of work which may not previously have been enjoyed in such a context. All of the pieces chosen, perhaps most crucially, bore an overtly literary or theatrical edge; although Christopher Brookmyre's rhyming-couplet semi-updating of A Midsummer Night's Dream to contemporary Edinburgh was played for popular laughs (it contained the stomach-turning threat of a 'jobby golem') and Watt's extended consideration of the personal and political effect of Britain's nuclear deterrent was truncated by necessary time constraints.

In the music of Emma Pollock, however – three songs with just electric guitar – there was a condensed summation of her new record In Search of Harperfield which boiled the songs right down to the core theme of family, from the adoption of her mother, born to an unmarried Donegal woman in the 1930s, to Pollock's own teenage years and the intensity and turmoil of her elderly, separated parents growing ill at the same time. Her songs are deceptively simple, yet packed with captivating emotional resonance; creating the same ultimate effect as the very differently-styled A New International, Biff Smith's baroque indie-pop septet, who play dark shanties and a song about 'a recently-deceased billionaire scoundrel, trying to talk his way into paradise', apparently part of a new collaboration with the theatre company Vanishing Point.

Andrew Greig and Leo Glaister offered a captivating mix of storytelling, song and rootsy soundtrack for mandolin, guitar and harmonica, yet amid such a concentration of music, it was probably the spoken word which emerged as the most counter-intuitively 'democratic' contribution to the night, saying things in a laceratingly direct fashion in a manner to which this stage may not be used. Specifically Luke Wright, a rake-thin and dervish-like young presence with a touch of Mick Jagger or Russell Brand, denouncing Ian Duncan Smith in a poem using only the vowel 'I' (a high-concept but highly effective device), or voicing an Indyref-era plea 'from an Englishman to his 'Scotch' neighbour, begging him to do the right thing'; and Rachel Amey, lyrically speaking of her love for the NHS and the overcoming of her fear of political activation in troubled times.

Co-hosted by Lindsay and the sharp yet easy-going Sian Bevan in warmly humorous fashion, this was a very 21st century take on the concept of the theatrical variety show; often dark and introspective, but with an emphatic, inventive resonance. The balance between light and dark will surely come as this strand grows and develops, as it certainly deserves to.

The next Lyceum Variety Night is on Sun 26 Feb.

Variety Nights

The Lyceum and Flint & Pitch Productions team up for a series of variety nights featuring poets, musicians and theatre makers.

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