Theatre reviews: Alföld | Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Joe McCann’s new play Alföld is a memorable and disturbing meditation on racial and sexual politics in Europe, writes Joyce McMillan

Alföld, Oran Mor, Glasgow ****

Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Playhouse, Edinburgh ****Three characters on a train; one couple, one stranger. It’s a familiar dramatic formula; but in his latest play Alföld, Glasgow writer Joe McCann pushes it into deep and unsettling territory, on a train travelling away from Budapest across the great plain whose Hungarian name gives the play its title.

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It’s clear from the outset that McCann is not offering offering any likeable characters here. Jake and Virag are an unhappy-looking couple, he a black Scotsman far from home who drinks too much, and is dangerously jealous and controlling towards his beautiful Hungarian wife; she an exquisite woman with a tongue like a whip, contemptuous of Jake in ways that sting and fester. And the stranger Bela, when he joins them, is soon revealed as a seething mess of unresolved psychosexual issues, probably gay, desperate to procure a trophy girlfriend to show off to his parents, and both violent and vicious when Virag refuses to go along with his games.

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Yet out of this ugly human material, McCann succeeds in spinning a compelling and timely drama, in which Benjamin Osugo’s Jake gradually emerges as a hugely complex character, tempered over decades by the racism he encounters both in Scotland and in Hungary; while Francesca Hess’s Virag is a haunting portrait of a wounded woman desperately trying, despite her rage, to make a life with a man who truly loves her, and Sam Stopford’s Bela reveals the political sting of the deep-dyed racism that underlies his insecurity. The word Alföld refers not only to the great plain of Hungary, but to a human “phenotype” – dark-haired, broad-faced – that is supposed to belong there; and this powerful and sometimes brutally honest play, superbly directed by Dominic Hill of the Citizens’ Theatre, emerges as a memorable and disturbing meditation on racial and sexual politics in Europe now, and a worthy companion piece, this Black History Month, to May Sumbwanyambe’s Enough Of Him, currently playing at Pitlochry.

For an explosion of brightness and merriment in sombre times, meanwhile, Scottish audiences need look no further, this week, than the Playhouse in Edinburgh, which plays host to the final performances of the current UK tour of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s first ever musical, Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, now an astonishing 54 years old.

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The show certainly shows its age, in some significant ways. The funny French chanson Those Canaan Days, sending up the famine suffered by Joseph’s wicked brothers, somehow seems a little less amusing in these times of food insecurity; and the moment when a black member of the case starts to sing, and the orchestra immediately morphs into calypso beats, is seriously toe-curling.

Yet given its irresistible playlist of upbeat rock numbers – and a truly glamorous performance as Joseph from Jac Yarrow, whose magnificent performance of Close Every Door brings the audience to its feet – Joseph rapidly emerges as a truly heart-lifting show, featuring Alexandra Burke as a tremendous narrator, leading her mighty gang of schoolkids around to tell the story, and a delightful Jason Donovan as Pharaoh, finally appearing as his smiling self in the musical finale. The colours are brilliant, the ten-piece orchestra plays its heart out, and the 30-strong ensemble deliver Joann M Hunter’s choreography in dazzling style; and at a time when many theatres are struggling for audiences, the 3,000 seat Playhouse was packed to the rafters to welcome Joseph on Tuesday, and to cheer this much-loved show to the echo.

Francesca Hess as Virag and Benjamin Osugo as Jake in Alfold

Alföld is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 29 October, and the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 1-5 November. Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, until 29 October.

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