Edinburgh International Festival reviews: Walking With Ghosts | Jungle Book reimagined | Philadelphia Orchestra | Magdalena Kožená & Yefim Bronfman | Lucy Dacus

A poignant, powerful night of reflection with Gabriel Byrne, an inventive dance update of a Kipling classic and a truly emotional Cher cover are among the highlights of our latest EIF round-up. Reviews by Joyce McMillan, Kelly Apter, Ken Walton, Carol Main and David Pollock

THEATRE

Walking With Ghosts ****

King’s Theatre until 28 August

Gabriel Byrne in Walking With Ghosts

It is very much a show of two halves, this long walk down memory lane adapted from his own published autobiography by the leading Irish actor Gabriel Byrne, famous for appearances in films like Miller’s Crossing and The Usual Suspects.

The first half is a funny, pointed and energetic account of Byrne’s childhood in Dublin in the 1950s and early 60s, delivered with tremendous charm and charisma, and full of hilarious, fast-talking tales of his parents and relatives, of streets full of “characters”, and of the joyful rough-and-tumble of life as one of six children in a working-class family; joyful, that is, until the moment when – at a seminary in England – his childhood is brought to an abrupt end by a young priest who sexually abuses him.

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The second half of the show is a very different experience, although Byrne still extracts some humour from his failed efforts to become a plumber and a kitchen boy, before he finally finds his vocation as an actor. Here, though, the tone is darker, as Byrne reflects on some of the struggles that shadowed his life even as his career blossomed; notably the mental illness and early death of one of his sisters, and his own struggle with alcoholism.

Perhaps it’s the sheer distance from his 1950s childhood that enables him to shape up the earlier narrative into such an entertaining story; whereas the full story of his adult life has yet to be told, and is certainly not revealed here. Whatever the cause, though, this is a two and a half hour show (with interval) that would play much better as an unbroken 90-minute reflection on Byrne’s childhood and youth; on the formative influences that shaped him, and the beloved ghosts who, he finally realises, are not so much walking with him, as living inside him, part of his very self. Joyce McMillan

At Apollo Theatre, London, 6-17 September

DANCE

Jungle Book reimagined ****

Edinburgh Festival Theatre

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If Akram Khan’s new production is a vision of the future, then things are looking bleak. Radio news clips set the scene, charting events of the coming years as we venture further into the 21st century. Curfews and food rations give way to bigger challenges, as waters rise and cities are abandoned. Within this context, Rudyard Kipling’s classic story has been dramatically reframed, focusing now on a young refugee separated from her family as she flees a homeland rendered uninhabitable by climate change.

But while this show couldn’t be further from the Disney films, it has one thing in common – superb animation. Appearing on two screens in front of, and behind, the live action, magnificent images of torrential rain, elephant herds, broken cities and flocks of birds light up the theatre.

Many of Kipling’s original characters have made the cut, including Mowgli, Baloo, Bagheera, Kaa and the Bandar-log monkeys. But Baloo is now a former dancing bear, Bagheera a big cat tied up by a selfish owner, Kaa a former zoo reptile and the monkeys all ex-vivisection fodder. In short, they’ve all been damaged, physically and mentally, by humans. It’s a scenario that can’t help but get you thinking about our relationship with animals and nature, which is exactly what Khan wants.

As always, his choreography is beyond compare, especially when the tight ensemble moves as one. Individual animals prowl the stage on hands and feet, but when grouped together upright, we see Khan’s unique style in full glorious effect. What lets the show down slightly, is the narration. Pre-recorded to enable the dancers to concentrate on movement, it is not always easy to follow. There are witty lines courtesy of Baloo but a few more wouldn’t go amiss, and would probably help drive the show’s important message home with more honey and less vinegar. Kelly Apter

MUSIC

Philadelphia Orchestra ****

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Usher Hall

This wasn’t how the Philadelphia Orchestra was supposed to open its EIF residency. We were originally promised Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but the orchestra’s insistence that the chorus wear masks led to its cancellation and replacement with the Fifth Symphony and Rachmaninov’s symphonic poem, Isle of the Dead. Why, then, was half of the orchestra without masks?

There’s no denying that what we did get was well worth the money. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Philadelphia’s ball-of-fire musical director, won us over immediately with “a present” (or should that have been a “peace offering”?). He didn’t tell us what it was, but launched into Dvorak’s Carnival Overture with delirious conviction. The players swayed as one, the visual choreography as compelling as the vitality of the sound.

The Rachmaninov tested the orchestra’s subtler shades, and while the ebb and flow of this seductive work possessed the same disciplined perfectionism as the Dvorak, it fell frustratingly short in grasping the ripeness and intensity of the colours.

Nézet-Séguin didn’t spare the horses in Beethoven’s Fifth however. It was fast and impetuous, utterly cleansing and triumphantly conclusive. And yes, it did leave me wondering what the ebullient music director would have done with the Ninth. Ken Walton

MUSIC

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Magdalena Kožená & Yefim Bronfman *****

Queen’s Hall

With the sensational duo of mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená and pianist Yefim Bronfman presenting a mini Brahms-fest in the first half of their Queen’s Hall programme yesterday morning, it was almost as if the composer was a tangible presence up on stage with them. Running through fourteen back-to-back settings by lesser-known German poets, including the young Felix Schumann, son of Robert and Clara, Kožená and Bronfman’s selection showcased the extensive scope of Brahms’ skill as a songwriter.

Emotive pull was conjured up through the music’s different moods. Dark despair one minute became bright hope the next. Pictures were painted not just through Kožená’s formidable vocal technique and mature gravitas of tone, but Bronfman’s extraordinary piano playing, both artists melded together in joint expression of these “Songs of Innocence and Experience”.

Opening up to even more characterful singing were sets of songs by Mussorgsky, Shostakovich and Bartók, all evidencing Kožená’s linguistic versatility. With the dark humour of With Nanny and the more overt fun of Evening Prayer, Mussorgsky’s Nursery Songs sat well alongside the quirky and demanding five Satires by Shostakovich before the duo turned to Bartók and his folk inspired Village Scenes to round off an exceptionally well-crafted programme. Carol Main

MUSIC

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Lucy Dacus ****

Leith Theatre

“I’ve been taking a survey – who here is gay?” asked Lucy Dacus of her sold-out Edinburgh International Festival crowd, and she appeared unsurprised by the large cheer in response. “Sounds right,” she laughed, before playing Kissing Lessons to another big roar from the audience, a song about adolescent romance between two girls who kiss under the pretext of practising for boys.

The 27-year-old from Virginia seemed more astonished by the size of her crowd on this first European date of her new tour. The last time she was in Edinburgh, she said, barely 100 people saw her at the Voodoo Rooms; on this visit she got to bring her song Partner in Crime back to the city in which it was written.

Following the release of last year’s third album Home Video and her recent exploits with modern indie hero Phoebe Bridgers in the supergroup boygenius, her time appears to be now. Dacus is one of a new generation of musicians who write queer songs without being placed within a niche for doing so, and her band’s music is poetic, bittersweet, warm-blooded Americana of the kind which fills concert halls.

Christine is about desiring a friend with a male partner; Thumbs is a tormented piece about an absent father; Going Going Gone is a song about teen romance that bleeds into adult ennui and despair. From her voice and guitar, even Cher’s Believe becomes a song of impossible yearning. David Pollock