Ten years ago on 8 Jun 2008, the first review was posted on this site.
We think that’s cause for a wee celebration. Not many arts magazines, on or offline, make it to double figures. The fact that we’re still around is testament to the hard work of a lot of people, people who are squeezing in writing, designing, seeing shows and completing unpleasant amounts of admin around day jobs, families and the pitifully small amount of time left for a social life. We’d like to thank them all, old and new.
Back when that first review as published, we were known as TV Bomb. Where that name and the site came from is lost to the mists of time. There was at one stage even a TV Bomb Berlin magazine.
But at some point very early on, it came into the hands of students on the Queen Margaret University Drama and Performance course, first as an outlet for the critiquing skills they’d learned on the course, then, as they graduated and moved on, it developed into a more general arts magazine, with new contributors from beyond the student scene. We’re hoping to hear from some of them about the early days of the site as part of our anniversary celebrations.
In the past five years, the site’s expanded beyond the central belt, and added Spoken Word, Books, Art, Food & Drink and a year-round Comedy section. The site was redesigned in 2016, and relaunched as The Wee Review on 26 March 2017 to reflect our Scottishness and the fact that we review stuff.
In that ten years, over 200 writers have contributed, and we’ve done nearly 5,000 reviews, over half of which have been since 2016, as we’ve grown into a comprehensive, Scotland-wide arts site. Right now, we’re looking forward to our 9th year of Fringe coverage, but it seems a suitable point to also look back at our personal highlights of the past decade. What is the cultural thing that has really stuck with us?
Here are the suggestions from our current team of writers, some of whom weren’t even born in 2008! We jest, we’re not that young. No, some of them were still in primary school.
The band that defined the last decade for me were the dear, departed Wild Beasts, whose first and last album releases bookend the era. I was around Leeds when they just started out and was lucky enough to catch them at early gigs when the audience were no more than a couple of dozen. I wasn’t uncritical of their Summerhall gig a few years ago, but watching them progress from the wild, wacky Limbo, Panto to a dignified and well-timed farewell has been an absolute pleasure.
I have fallen in love with venues before, but rarely as quickly as with Leith Theatre. Seeing it wake up after lying dormant for twenty years was a lot like attending the launch of a museum for gig-goers – the presence of past AC/DC and Kraftwerk fans still felt palpable in its peeling wallpaper and faded upholstery chairs. If the Leith Theatre Trust can officially renovate and re-open the venue it will do wonders for Edinburgh’s music scene, but I will always remember Leith Theatre fondly in its current bedraggled splendour, shaking off years of sleep once the spell was broken.
I’ve seen Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds four times over the last five years, but the first was quite special. I managed to get tickets for the album launch concert for Push the Sky Away at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London a few days before the release date in February 2013. They performed the full album with a children’s choir, before launching into an hour of solid gold from his back catalogue. Right from the off, you could tell We No Who U R, Jubilee Street and the title track were going to be future classics. Cave’s arguably better when he’s allowed to embrace the chaos of a less rigid, less polite venue – his shows at Hammersmith later that year were phenomenal – but this felt like a chance to experience a one-off in the career of a true icon.
In 2014, I got to see my favourite musicians Angus and Julia Stone at the Academy in Glasgow. I first heard the Australian sibling duo in 2010 with the release of their album Down The Way, and spent the next four years desperate to find a way to see them perform. Finally, Glasgow appeared as a tour destination. Angus and Julia have almost a completely different sound when they are live, giving a new energy to their otherwise mellow, acoustic style (both of which are equally mesmerising). What made the night extra special was when Angus spontaneously chose to sing Draw Your Swords, a song they don’t usually perform live but has resonated with me ever since I first heard it eight years ago. It was unforgettable. I’m seeing them for the fourth time next Sunday at the Royal Albert Hall (they’ve come a long way), yet nothing will beat that wonderful night in Glasgow.
In my first run at reviewing the Fringe in 2016, I was lucky enough to see festival legends Derevo bring back their much-loved show, Once…. An unconventional rollercoaster of physical theatre, the show explores themes of love and loss, hope and despair, intergalactic car chases and feats of daring bravado. It might be a little too off-the-wall for everyone’s tastes, but it remains the best thing I’ve ever seen on a stage (with the possible exception of The Book of Mormon). If you ever get a chance to catch Once… again, don’t waste a second in snapping up a seat.
In 2013, I nabbed a seat at the Usher Hall, intrigued to see a comedy celebrity do stand up. Russell Brand’s Messiah Complex made an impression. I was taken aback at just how good he was live – hilariously riffing off the audience with his unique marmite persona and razor wit, while presenting relatively (for a comedy show) complex and ideas and themes. This was a comedy improv master and expert orator at work. Brand showed himself to be far more skilled and talented than I had previously given him credit for, assuming him to be an amusing but lucky – and smutty – lad. A bizarre mix of ego and humility, the cleverly crafted piece was thought-provoking, insightful, deeply relevant and one of the funniest shows I’ve seen.
When you see at least 50 shows every Fringe, trying to whittle down one over 10 years is no easy task but the show that has had a lasting impression on me was Nirbhaya (Assembly, 2013), directed by Yael Farber. Hard-hitting, this play inspired by the brutal gang-rape of the 23-year-old medical student Jyoti Singh Pandey on a Delhi bus in December 2012 was played out by seven performers – six women and one man – who wove the appalling facts of Pandey’s ordeal with their own true stories of violence and sexual abuse. More than just a piece of theatre, even five years on, this play broke the silence and moved audiences to tears, provoked debate, action and won many awards and as is as relevant today as it was then.
“Guys, relax, everything’s fine. I have cancer.” Recorded just days after she received a diagnosis of Stage 2 breast cancer, Tig Notaro: Live is a brutally honest and brilliantly funny dissection of the artifice of stand-up comedy itself. At the same time, it perfectly encapsulates the joy of live performance – the atmosphere is palpably electric, with the audience (and, seemingly at times, Notaro herself) having no idea what’s going to happen next. “This is amazing!” shouts one audience member halfway through. One could point to stand-up specials that are funnier, that are more technically accomplished, or more ambitious than Live, but if you want to hear a comedian leveling up live on stage and finally gaining her superpowers, it doesn’t get better than this.
One of the most moving pieces of theatre I have seen at the Fringe has to be Cell, performed as a collaboration between Smoking Apples and Dogfish Theatre, in 2015. The puppetry production brought to life the story of an old pensioner Ted, who is diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, and decides to take a “trip of his lifetime” with his pet goldfish. His story ends up being a poignant piece about the reality of the disease but also an uplifting one about Carpe Diem. It was definitely a unique show both in terms of the skill in the puppetry and the alternative use of light and art.
Ten years ago T in the Park was the premium Scottish festival, tickets selling out in a matter of hours, but for a number of reasons interest in the event started to dwindle and instead, in recent years, Scotland has embraced the rise of the small festival. The Tiree Music Festival was born in 2010, the brainchild of Stewart MacLennan and Daniel Gillespie, and there is no better setting. Miles of golden beaches, open space and the unofficial tagline of the “Hawaii of the North” make this the perfect place for traditional musicians and their fans to descend en masse in July. The festival has won a number of awards and provides the family feel and intimacy that larger festivals just can’t replicate and if you are really lucky the sun will even shine!
Before RuPaul’s Drag Race had sashayed its way into the millennial zeitgeist, Californian drag artist Taylor Mac was dropping glitter bombs on theatre in the US and UK. His 2009 show The Be(A)st of Taylor Mac combined his genius for songwriting, punk glamour and performance and was a genuine revelation for me. At 25 I thought I was a seasoned theatre-goer, but I’d never been moved like this – and hadn’t expected to be by a one-man drag show in the dingy vaults of The Arches in Glasgow. Mac used the deceptive sparkle of manic makeup and off-kilter wigs to excavate epic and topical issues and to provoke on a deep level. He’s performed twice in Scotland since and later this month I’ll be travelling to London to see his latest show. Worth every penny of train fare.
Moving to Edinburgh six years ago was made special by the revival production of South Pacific at the Playhouse. My favourite Rogers & Hammerstein musical since I was a child it’s based on Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener and covers bold post-war themes like inter-racial relationships, racism, cultural displacement and the effects of imperialism. With a killer soundtrack, South Pacific remains fresh and topical (tropical?) today. As soon as the orchestra struck up the overture, I was in tears. It was like coming home, yet there was I, like nurse Ensign Nellie Forbush a long way from home in an unfamiliar place (minus the palm trees) to make a new life. It was the start of a very mixed theatrical journey about which it’s my pleasure to write.
Scotland’s poetry and spoken word scene has flourished over the past handful of years. Not only do we boast the current World Poetry Slam champion Sam Small, but the differing styles, content, and ages of those involved make it one of the most diverse and welcoming communities to become part of. Regular spoken word support slots are now appearing before bands take the stage, and even the business sector has recruited some of our country’s flourishing bards for television and radio commercials (Nationwide, Skoda, Talk Talk, etc). It ain’t just about Burns anymore.
Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here feels like the grown up, fully realised version of my erstwhile favourite film, Scorsese’s iconic Taxi Driver. Its violence is even more raw, stark and uncompromising, but justified and balanced by a deeply sensitive and nuanced psychological portrait of the protagonist. Ramsay makes the depiction of PTSD explicit, demonstrating an understanding of an emotional landscape that Scorsese, Schrader and DeNiro were able to convey a sense of, but for which no-one in the 1970s had the precise lexicon to explore fully. The film’s main triumph is its remarkable economy – complex back stories and plot twists are conveyed within seconds in one or two perfect shots. And the soundtrack: juxtaposing saccharine songs with brutal and harrowing visuals may not be a new trick, but I’ve yet to see it employed with such haunting success.
Nothing has impressed me over the last 10 years quite as much as Bryan Fuller’s majestically gory TV masterpiece Hannibal. Following in the footsteps of a successful series of novels and films (including what many consider to be a Horror/Thriller masterpiece in Silence of the Lambs), the show felt somewhat unnecessary and cheap. Oh, how wrong we were! Mikkelsen is the definitive Dr. Lecter & the pipe-dream of a season 4 will – much like poor Raul Esparza’s Frederick Chilton – never die.
As someone who tends to devour books faster than a high speed shredder, I often forget the last book I’ve read halfway through the next one, so it’s great to be able to say that the work of fiction that’s made the most lasting impression on me is the outspoken Scary Old Sex, a debut collection of matter-of-factly frank short stories by Arlene Heyman – gripping, enthralling and funny in the blackest possible way, this is the definitive comment on the viagra generation and – despite negative reviews from one-handed Amazon readers – the must-read book of the decade.
The National Theatre of Scotland have done some cracking shows over the past ten years. Last year’s Fringe hits, Adam and Eve score pretty highly in my book for topic and topicality. But as Blackwatch is (horrifyingly) now more than ten years old, I’d plump for Glasgow Girls. Based on a true story of a group of Glasgow teenagers who set out to fight for asylum for their friend and her family, the concept was full of promise. And with words by David Grieg and music by Cora Bissett and fearless, feisty performances, it was one of those shows that I can still remember, extremely vividly, enjoying in Assembly on the Mound in the Fringe in 2016.
October 7, 2008 saw Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon launch Spotify. There may have been MP3 players with ridiculous capacities, digital music stores that would sell you a single track for 79p, and libraries at the edge of legality… but the Swedish streaming service was the first to deliver a “global jukebox” that just worked. Any musical track you wanted was a single search box away. Music was no longer a precious resource, it was an all you can eat buffet. Yet Ed Sheeran’s The Shape Of You is the most played track of all time on the service? Sigh…