Joyce McMillan: A trial run for variety at the Royal Lyceum

Anyone who knows Edinburgh's Lyceum Theatre well will understand that it she is not called the old lady of Grindlay Street for nothing; beautiful, temperamental and strangely unpredictable, the theatre's gorgeous Victorian auditorium '“ first opened in 1883 '“ has at least two contrasting personalities, often both on view during the same evening. At one level, the theatre is the classic 19th century chocolate box, with its glittering chandelier, its gilded deep blue plasterwork, its glowing red plush seats and its beautiful proscenium arch, which can and does provide a perfect picture-frame for conventional fourth-wall drama.Yet the theatre also has a second aspect, which emerges whenever a performer leaves the stage picture behind, and comes to the front of the stage to talk '“ or sing '“ to the audience. Then, the space suddenly becomes warm and intimate, almost cabaret-like; as if the performer on stage could reach out and touch every one of the theatre's 658 seats.
Jenny LindsayJenny Lindsay
Jenny Lindsay

And it’s this aspect of the Lyceum that new artistic director David Greig wants to explore, with occasional Sunday variety nights that began at the Lyceum last weekend. Fans of traditional Scottish variety – the glitz, the glamour, the high-kicking chorus girls – should note that this is variety with a 21st-century twist, nothing like the occasional big-band variety shows staged, for example, by Allan Stewart at the King’s Theatre, except in its aim to show a range of acts in a single evening.

What the new Lyceum variety strand does, though, is to begin to build a bridge between one of Edinburgh’s traditional theatre spaces and the city’s explosively energetic spoken-word scene, represented by organisations like the astonishing Neu Reekie, and the wonderful Rally & Broad, led by poets Rachel McCrum and Jenny Lindsay until they decided to move on to fresh projects earlier this year.

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Now Lindsay has launched a new spoken-word platform called Flint & Pitch; and she is working with the Lyceum on a series of variety nights which will help to capture some of the work that has emerged from that scene, and bring it to a completely new audience.

“Working over the past few years on projects like All Back To Bowie’s in the run-up to the Scottish referendum, and then the Two Minute Manifesto shows with Sarah Beattie-Smith, I’ve become very aware of a spoken word scene that’s full of energy,” says Greig, “and I just feel that if you are running a theatre in Scotland at the moment, then that’s something you should want to connect with, and bring onto your stage. Through that work, I’ve come into contact with so many artists that I think the Lyceum audience will love, but might not otherwise get a chance to see. So I just want to see how that works, and whether we can begin to bring these two worlds together.”

So on Sunday night, the show began with an unfamiliar blast of amplified sound from outstanding Glasgow indie septet A New International, who sing strange, dark, cut-glass love-songs to a blazing accompaniment of violin, trombone, guitar, keyboard and drums; one lady in the stalls was seen to put her hands over her ears, but the music sailed on, in the eloquent voice of remarkable lead singer Biff Smith. There was a piercingly funny short story about Shakespeare in Glasgow from novelist Christopher Brookmyre, a set from revered singer-songwriter Emma Pollock, an extract from Jenna Watt’s Fringe first-winning show Faslane, and a cross-generational meditation from leading novelist Andrew Greig and his singer-musician-poet stepson Leo Glaister, perfectly bridging the gap between Book Festival Edinburgh and Rally & Broad Edinburgh in a single act. London-based poet-playwright Luke Wright made the space his own with a brilliant set, including a searingly inventive poem about Iain Duncan Smith – IDS – that uses just the single vowel, i; Edinburgh-based Rachel Amey offered a new poem about political engagement in frightening times that had the audience holding its breath in empathy. Then, with three more songs from A New International, the evening was over; and Greig and Lindsay were left to meditate on what they’d learned, from this very first attempt at Lyceum Variety.

“I was surprised at how political it seemed, and how much the audience were up for that,” says Lindsay, who co-hosted the evening with fellow-poet Sian Bevan. “That wasn’t my intention, but I guess it’s a mark of the moment we’re living in. What I’ve discovered, through Rally & Broad and Flint & Pitch, is that there’s just no limit to the talent that’s available; we could programme one of these nights every month for the next year with no problem at all, and I really hope we can find a way to continue beyond the next one we’ve planned, which is in February.”

For myself, as a critic, I would say that in her time-honoured way, the Lyceum responded best to the acts that offered the highest quality of writing, and the most powerful, disciplined and immediate approach to the audience; A New International, Chris Brookmyre, Rachel Amey and Luke Wright were the stars of the evening for me. The Lyceum tolerates no nonsense, but embraces top-flight artists who cut the cackle and get on with it; and if Greig and Lindsay’s Variety Nights can continue to hit that high standard, and to evolve their own distinctive style somewhere between glitzy show and informal poetry-reading, then they have every chance of forming a powerful new link in Scottish theatre between a brand new wave of gifted performers, and a space which many of them – to judge by their words of wonder on Sunday night – may never have entered before, until last weekend. ■

*The next Lyceum Variety Night will take place on 26 February, 2017,