Burns on the Solway by Catherine Czerkawksa

burnssolwayA special extra review, this is perfect fare for Burns night. You’d think (well, I often think) we’ve more than enough of Burns already, but this little gem of a two hander, one act play is a joy to read and really should be a staple as a performance work for Burns suppers throughout the land and across the world!

Reading this play one becomes quickly aware that in drama (and in playscripts) length is no determinant of depth.  Really great drama gives depth without requiring length.  This is a case of Never mind the width, feel the quality. Don’t be fooled by the few pages that there’s no substance. It’s full of things to think about and reflect on – and that’s if you just read it. As a live experience I’m sure it would completely captivate and leave the audience feeling they’ve had quite a show.

The play is an exploration of Burns the man rather than Burns the poet (or myth) and it’s so much better for that. It is a moving ‘dance’ of a relationship between Burns and the women who love him – told through the characters of the Bard himself and his wife Jean Armour.

It plays out in two timeframes, one is Burns facing his final days on the banks of the Solway River and through flashback reminiscences we are shown his life and loves – and his weaknesses.  We see the Bard at his best and at his worst. We learn about his ‘history’ and his failures as well as his successes.  It’s an exploration into a man’s nature rather than a tribute to a myth.

It is multilayered and very deep. It is poignant and moving and gives pause for thought about the Bard in a domestic context I’ve seldom seen addressed elsewhere. The play breathes life into Jean Armour as well, something rarely achieved in prose or drama. Even reading the play one is visually transported and drawn into the relationship between Burns and his wife. I’m sure on stage the effect would be more visceral and even more compelling.

First performed as a lunchtime drama piece, for which environment I’m sure it would be perfect, I just don’t understand why it’s not performed regularly during the Burns ‘season.’ It could so easily be adapted for performance during a Burns supper entertainment or many other places where Burns is celebrated. Of course with professional actors and production it will always be something more, but even with an amateur take I believe the writing and the drama is strong enough to carry the piece.

Reviewed by Cally Phillips

Available in Kindle format

Find out more Catherine Czerkawksa


Down the Line by Cally Phillips

 (The Omnibus edition which includes The Admirable Crichton by J.M Barrie)

I never used to like J.M Barrie.  Of course, like many people, I only knew Peter Pan which, quite frankly, always seemed to me to be drivel.  I’m now willing to reconsider this opinion, but don’t hold out much hope of a change.

However, I have changed my mind about the hitherto unknown rest of him.  I didn’t realise what a sharp and acerbic commentator on Edwardian society he was, how observant of its manners, how critical of its assumptions, how scathing about its conventions, how he revels in an almost Gilbertian topsey-turveydom.   Nowhere are these features seen more acutely than in arguably his best  and certainly, after Peter Pan, his best-known play, The Admirable Crichton, which hides its criticism behind the façade of a good-natured and often very funny comedy of manners.

The plot is simple.  Lord Loam is holding his well-intentioned but quite dreadful monthly tea-party with his severely embarrassed servants (including Tweeny, destined for a crucial role) his daughters, some male hangers-on, and Crichton the butler, who could be Jeeves’s brother and is a strict guardian of the class system. An entirely inappropriate way of mixing the classes in such a stratified society.  But Lord Loam plans a three-month voyage in his yacht and when they are shipwrecked on a desert island, the roles slowly reverse.  At first there is confusion: two years later there is an efficient and developed little society, organised, run and ruled  by Crichton.  Rescue  arrives and back home the old society re-forms itself.  But the damage is done and nothing can be quite the same again.

Cally Phillips has history with this play, fully – and lovingly – recounted in the  introduction to this omnibus edition which juxtaposes Barrie’s play with Down the Line, her own rewriting and updating of it, in which the Edwardian social system is replaced by modern celebrity culture.

Instead of Crichton the butler we have Jim Crichton (JC), the Close Protection Officer (CPO) of Caroline Carter, pop diva. She is engaged, almost inevitably,  to Steve Brook, a professional footballer.   Posh and Becks still rule.  Kevin the documentary film maker is there to film Steve’s proposal to her – if Ted, Caroline’s watchful father, ever lets him.  Caroline’s sister Catherine and wide boy Dave augment Team Caroline.  Ted feels he is the leader, fulfilling the same role as Lord Loam – but after they are shipwrecked, SAS-trained JC, like Crichton before him, takes the dominant role.  Back home, the trappings of celebrity culture take over again – but,  for the audience –  too late; they have been seen for the meretricious baubles which they are.

Updating a famous and much-loved work is fraught with difficulty.  Courting comparison can be dangerous. Misunderstanding or (worse) trivialising the original are ever-present rocks to founder on.  Cally Phillips avoids them.  She knows the original play in production, she knows Barrie’s other work and she understands him.   She knows her own play in production as well.

Down the Line is a lovely take on the original.  The dialogue, the product of a good ear, crackles along and, just as in the original and as in all good drama, what the characters say is what they are.  Tones, idioms and rhythms are judged exactly.   To expand on Aristotle, character issues in action, but it issues in its words as well.  Both productions which Cally Phillips describes in her introduction  were with youth groups, Scottish students and Oxfordshire schoolkids (the latter the  result of interesting outreach work by the Oxford University Dramatic Society), and indeed it is with a good Youth theatre group that the play would live best.  I only have my own internal production to go on.  But if I had my way it would be produced again now, near enough to home for me to go to to see it on stage – and I’ll do anything that  I can to make it happen because I’d be assured of great entertainment and, afterwards, a lot to think about.  And so would everyone else there.

Reviewed by Dennis Hamley 

Available in Kindle and epub format

Find out more about Cally Phillips 

Powerplay by Cally Phillips


‘Man’ says one of the characters in Cally Phillips’s extraordinary stage play, Powerplay, ‘it’s just hockey.’ To which Canadian Tom responds, ‘Just hockey. And life’s just breathing. Hockey isn’t just a game, Jamie, it’s a complex set of rituals. Tactics and rituals. Like life. It’s how you live your life.’

Tom’s observation lies at the very heart of this complex, accomplished and highly original drama, which parallels the interaction of the central characters with a game of ice hockey, observing just how many relationships between men and women, men and men, have the imposition of power at their heart.

The characters are four men and two women, as well as the ‘Ref’ who cleverly comments on the action in hockey terms. ‘He is, at the same time, of the game and apart from the game. He’s like God if you will,’ as the playwright explains right from the start. Far from obscuring the action, this commentary illuminates each of a succession of small scenes, the interactions between the various characters, and throws them into high relief as a kind of ritual battle, like the complex set of ‘tactics and rituals’ which lie at the heart of ice hockey – or, indeed, of any game which is deeply embedded in a country or a community.

To understand something of this, you have to know that ice hockey is to the US, but even more so to Canada as, for example, football is to Scotland. Baseball plays a similar role in the US. All of these are so much more than ‘just a game’ no matter how much detracters might wish it were otherwise. We’re not talking about success or failure here, so much as the traditional rooting of a game in a community, so that when the Scottish media – or your average Scottish male – talk about ‘sports’ what they really mean, like it or not, is football. Such games take on the characteristics of an idea and an ideal which overrides everything else – remember Field of Dreams which was about the nature of the game itself, and its place in the American psyche, quite as much as it was about Ray Kinsella’s ‘dream’?

Powerplay explores that idea, bringing the rules of life and love into hockey and the deeper significance of hockey into the lives of the characters. The play is structured around a typical hockey game with all the accompanying razzmatazz and music, with the Ref’s commentary entirely accurate in hockey terms. But his commentary cleverly illuminates the emotional powerplay which is also at work, the interactions: moving, vicious, exciting, humorous, between the various characters. The skill in matching this authentic hockey commentary to the action is one of the great joys of this playscript.

The play makes good reading, perhaps even more so if you have some knowledge of the supreme excitement generated by a hockey – or indeed any team game – but it would be even better to see it in performance. The playwright specifies music and video projections all the way through, which take the audience through the game in parallel to the emotional games which are being played out on stage (or, better still, on a rink!)

Finally – although ice hockey involves a swift and constant interchange of players, there can only be five players plus a netminder, per team, on the ice at any one time. A team is ‘on the powerplay’ when at least one member of the opposing team is in the penalty box (‘sin bin’ as it’s generally known) which means that their on-ice numbers are temporarily reduced to four, and occasionally three, plus netminder, giving the other team a distinct and often deadly advantage. Goals are frequently scored ‘on the powerplay’. But of course ‘penalties are part of the game’ says one of the characters – in life as in hockey – and ‘you’ve got to keep moving your feet or you’re history.’

 Reviewed by Catherine Czerkawska

Powerplay is available in Kindle and epub formats

Find out more about Cally Phillips 

Bond is Back by Cally Phillips


As the proud possessor of a degree in drama (first class honours, since you ask), I must confess to a house completely bursting at the seams with playscripts. (Or even plays, if we’re talking about classics. No one ever called King Lear an interesting little script as far as I can imagine). And as a long, long, long ex drama student, that begs the question, why?

I only pose it because the ebook I’m reviewing is a playscript. Which is an interesting concept, in a way. As an ebook it does not, in fact, exist, and in real life, it has never existed in the form intended for it. That is, written to mark the fortieth anniversary of the James Bond film franchise, it never actually got performed. Now the franchise is fifty, but the play is set around a fortieth birthday party of a James Bond nut and his equally demented friends and lovers. You’d presumably have to be a bit mad yourself to put it on now. Wouldn’t you?

Imagine the rejection letter from, let’s say, the National or the RSC. ‘Dear Ms Phillips, I was fascinated to read your script, which I found very stimulating and amusing, and which raised all sorts of philosophical questions. And now…er…er…er. What exactly do you expect me to do with it?

It would, indeed, be cheap and easy to put on. With a cast of six – seven at a pinch, but that’s part of the joke – a minimal and flexible set, and a lot of James Bond gear that can be run up or hired ad lib, production budgets would not be broken. There is an Aston Martin DB5 (or DBS, I never graduated on nerdiness mesen) but it remains conveniently off stage, and all the booze that gets swilled can be coloured water, I imagine.)

Cheap and simple, then – but none the worse for that. The occasion is Kevin’s fortieth, and all his friends foregather for a celebration of their shared obsession. There are several Bonds, a Miss Moneypenny, an obligatory brainless bimbo (called Bo), and a preplanned quiz. As entertainments go, it seems destined to bomb. And boy, does it ever.

The gang, you see, although they picked up their shared obsession aged eleven, are now beaten and world weary. Sex has been an issue throughout their mutual lives, with partners changed, love pledges broken, and adulteries adulterated. The most unpleasant of the gang, a dirty blond (in Ms Phillips’s SD) called Gary, makes it a rule to screw someone at every reunion party, and is determined this time to screw Moneypenny, the birthday boy’s lawful wedded wife. These machinations, and others, are at once funny and serious. The Bond boys and girls are shimmying around a very deep abyss

As a commentary on the vapidity and heartlessness of the James Bond world it hits the spot completely. We all know now what a weird and murky sex life Ian Fleming had, and his attitude to women in real life is well reflected in the females he ‘created.’ But while not a farce, this work has the potential to be very funny as a play, and is a ‘page turner’ as an ebook.

It can’t go on my shelves to join the ranks of plays and playscripts, but I’m glad to give it house room on my Kindle. It’s very worth a read.

And if you’re looking for James Bond facts to win kudos in a pub quiz sometime – you can’t go wrong with this, assuming Cally didn’t make them all up. To be honest, I wouldn’t have a clue. But she’s not that sort of woman, I don’t think!

Reviewed by Jan Needle

Available in Kindle and epub formats

Find out more about Cally Phillips 

Chasing Waves by Cally Phillips

This book consists of two relatively short plays, ChasingWaves and Benito Boccanegra’s Big Break and the author’s notes on each. In those notes, she suggests that the latter investigates areas that she refined and developed in the former, so it seems logical to approach them from that perspective. They both belong very clearly to the Theatre of the Absurd, a movement that people tend to date back to the middle of the last century (or even earlier) but which persists today.

Benito Boccanegra’s Big Break (which, from now on I’ll call 4B) is ambitious. The action switches between the present, Italy in the 1920s, Italy and Paris in the mid-late 19th century, and 14th century Genoa, but these disparate periods are tightly linked through the characters. Joe Green (a name which, except for one vowel, translates into Italian as Giuseppe Verdi) is a student researching the operas of the real Verdi, who wrote an opera about Simone Boccanegra, Il Doge de Genova. And the fourth main character is the fictional  Benito Boccanegra of the title, a circus ringmaster who’s beaten to his goal of establishing fascism in Italy by another Benito – Il Duce.

In the words of the author, these characters in their separate time periods and their separate ways, explore ‘the relationships between fiction and reality, tragedy, history and heroism, audience and character’. Each of them is seeking to understand something about himself, to explain some aspect of his dilemma. It’s entertaining but challenging. The scenes and the action move quickly and the overall dramatic pace never drops. It’s an experimental play but one which is built on firm stage conventions.

I enjoyed reading it but, having read Chasing Waves first, I felt that the complexities of the personalities and their different involvements in 4B were so absorbing in themselves that the underlying ‘message’ didn’t come through as clearly as it had in the other play. Perhaps, since 4B was written ten years earlier then Chasing Waves, that might suggest that either the writer’s thinking or her dramatic techniques had evolved but that’s pure speculation and tends, unfairly, to imply that 4B is a lesser play as a result. It isn’t. It’s just different.

Chasing Waves has only two characters, but they’re called Wittgenstein and Schrodinger, so we know what to expect right from the start. Except that, while it’s a play about thought, knowledge, understanding and meaning (in short, philosophy), it’s also funny, thought-provoking, involving and entertaining. It has clear echoes of Waiting for Godot, both in the repetitious and questioning nature of some of the exchanges and in their frequent, direct acknowledgements of the presence of an audience. It also references the Stoppard of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Their only props are a black or white board, 2 photographs of the ‘real’ Wittgenstein and Schrodinger, and a box – the famous box, of course, which contained (or didn’t contain) a cat, which was alive or dead or both. But the theatrical dynamic is in the single debate they pursue through the play, the scientist stressing the importance of knowledge, the philosopher insisting that the goal is understanding. This is making it sound dry and academic – it isn’t. Ideas, especially about the fundamentals of how we perceive things and the consequent nature of the ‘reality’ we construct from those perceptions and observations are stimulating and even fun. The two actors who call themselves Wittgenstein and Schrodinger share the slow desperation of Vladimir and Estragon and sometimes become frustrated at the apparent lack of progress or the occasional stalemate. They discuss levels of ‘truth’, the need to make choices and the ‘evidence’ we need to make such choices.

And the members of the audience are also participants in the debate. They watch the action expecting to ‘learn’ something, to ‘know’ something as a result, but Wittgenstein rejects knowledge as unreliable and, instead, seeks understanding. Knowing what someone means isn’t the same as understanding them. ‘Mind invests meaning in language’ says Wittgenstein and, of course, the unreliability of language is one of the basic themes always exploited by Absurdist drama.

A recurring question is ‘What’s in the box?’, and it’s used cleverly for both philosophical and dramatic effect. At the philosophical level, it’s not just the contents but the nature of the box itself that’s questioned and its theatrical impact comes from its use as a running gag and an excuse for some good and bad miming from the actors. They talk of starts and endings, insist on the importance of ‘now’ and recognise that all we ever have is the moment.

The author, in her notes, suggests that the audience must have ‘open, enquiring minds’. Well, yes, that’s true. But that doesn’t mean a po-faced notion of the elevated nature of philosophical discourse. There are light touches of wit and humour that make this much more than a ‘thought-play’. On top of that, the author’s ‘Extras’, i.e. notes on the production and for the enlightenment of her actors, offers the clearest exposition of quantum theory I’ve ever read (and as I write that, it’s important to know that, as a non-scientist, I’ve read countless books which claim to ‘popularise’ science and which have left me as ignorant as when I began).

Altogether, this was an entertaining but also an instructive read. I not only ‘know’ what physicists ‘mean’ when they talk of such things, for the moment at least, I ‘understand’ them.

Reviewed by Bill Kirton

This is a SECOND OPINION REVIEW. Also reviewed by Jan Needle on this site.

Available in Kindle and epub formats

Find out more about Cally Phillips  and Watch excerpts from Chasing Waves

Chasing Waves

When I was a drama student, the stage event that hit me hardest between the eyes was Waiting for Godot. It has been described as the play in which nothing happens, twice, but for me it was the most happening thing I’d ever seen. The change from day to night was achieved with stunning simplicity by a projected circle of light (the moon) rising from nowhere up the white back wall of the theatre auditorium. It was magic, and left me with an enduring love and fascination. Just because not much seems to happen, doesn’t mean it’s not a powerhouse of ideas and emotions.

Later, I was hit by the motormouth jokiness of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and found their high speed demonstrations of meaning and reality and humour equally fascinating (although it’s not one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century, like Godot). Pirandello also grabbed me along the same lines, although the productions I saw never achieved the humour that I’ve always cherished as a theatre goer.

All of which explains some of my reactions to Chasing Waves. I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing it, but its muscular intellectualism and humour is reminiscent of those three plays, all of which, incidentally, are referenced in the text and action. The power of the writing is enough to make one feel one is in a theatre, and visualising this bizarre debate between two philosophers and a box that may or not contain a cat, which may or not be dead (or indeed alive) is no problem at all. The argument is stimulated by bits of action, which, while necessarily small, are extremely funny.

The philosophers are Wittgenstein and Schrodinger, and from the start they are more aware than an audience is perhaps normally expected to be that they are, in fact, not. Schrodinger and Wittgenstein, that is. They are two actors – probably. One of them, at least, begins to doubt very seriously if he can be an actor, for what, after all, does an actor consist of? Likewise the writer, who may be a he, or indeed a she. How can they know, because they are in the play, not of it. Although have both met her (or him), although not as characters, but as actors. Even the audience becomes an area of doubt, as the characters/actors/philosophers mingle with them to try to pin down a reality. Reality?  Forget it.

The point is, though, there is action, and interaction. The philosophers become characters (ie interesting human beings), and the confines of the stage also suggest a boundless world. The dialogue is sharp, intelligent, erudite, probing, ‘deep’. On stage I’m willing to bet it would be extremely funny, too.

At the end, in the wonderful and brave new world of ebooks, there is room for much much more, as well. Discussion, staging notes, director’s opinions, author’s opinion. (For Cally Phillips does exist, of course, whatever her philosopher/actors might think, and she is, of course, a she.) Which makes the whole package extremely stimulating and thought-provoking. For the intellectual reader a genuine feast, for someone who just wants to read a beautifully engaging play, a palpable hit. You see, you can’t get away from other writers, can you?

Reviewed by Jan Needle

Chasing Waves is available on Kindle and epub formats

(all good ebook retailers stock it) but WHSmith is usually good on a low price

Find out more about Cally Phillips