The Play That Goes Wrong


Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

The clue is most definitely in the title. When we arrive at the King’s, members of Mischief Theatre’s ‘technical crew’ are making frantic last-minute repairs to an elaborate 1920s country house set. A member of the audience is recruited to help them and is furnished with booby-trapped equipment that malfunctions whenever he tries to use it, eliciting much laughter from the audience and serving as an indicator of what is to follow. And then, the lights dim and the leader of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society strides on to introduce, The Murder at Haversham Manor. He explains that the society has recently been the recipient of an unexpected bequest, one that has allowed them to put on a much more ambitious play than their earlier efforts…

Then the  play itself, a hoary old murder mystery in the tradition of Agatha Christie, gets under way – and it’s hardly a spoiler to tell you that yes, it does go wrong in just about every way imaginable – actors forget their lines, a ‘corpse’ keeps making inappropriate noises, important pieces of scenery repeatedly fall down and at one point, a key member of the cast is knocked unconscious and has to be replaced by a stage hand – who is then reluctant to relinquish the role when the original actor unexpectedly recovers.

Ironically, in order to depict a show going so badly, the cast are called upon to maintain absolute control; they display excellent comic timing and, as the play gathers pace in the second half, we are treated to some truly spectacular (and dangerous-looking) disasters, including one that seems to have drawn its inspiration from the work of Buster Keaton.

All right, it’s fair to say, I suppose, that this is all a bit one-note – it does pretty much what it says on the can and repeats the same basic joke ad infinitum – but it’s all presented with such zeal and precision that it succeeds spectacularly on that score. By the time I stumble away into the night, my face is aching from a surfeit of hilarity. Those of you who are in dire need of cheering up – and goodness knows there seems to be plenty of things to feel morose about lately – should look no further than this Olivier Award winning comedy.

It’s a cracker.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney


My Neighbor Totoro


After the harrowing Grave of the Fireflies, the next film in the Cameo Cinema’s Studio Ghibli season comes as a slice of light relief. My Neighbor Totoro is the enchanting story of two intrepid young girls from the city, Satsuki (voiced by Noriko Hadaka) and her little sister, Mei (Chika Sakamoto). In the opening scenes, we watch as the girls move with their father to a dilapidated house in the Japanese countryside in order to be closer to their mother, who is ill in hospital (with what, exactly, we are never told).

The old house harbours some fascinating secrets, including the little creatures called ‘Soot Spreaders’, who haunt the dark corners of each room and scatter away whenever humans approach; but Satsuki and Mei seem to greet such visitors with interest and delight, rather than dread. If there’s a central message here it seems to be ‘embrace the inexplicable’ and that’s exactly what the girls do, encouraged by the enthusiasm and positivity of their father. They soon make friends with Granny (Tania Kitabayashi) an old lady who lives nearby and even with Kanta (Toshiyuki Amagasa), a teenage boy who initially appears to be unfriendly but who proves to be a friend when push comes to shove. The girls also discover that the nearby forest is home to a collection of mystical creatures, not least the strange shambling clawed beast known as Totoro, who unlike most monsters turns out to friendly and helpful.

As in ‘Fireflies,’ this story perfectly captures the essence of a moody but resourceful  little girl (Mei) and her interplay with Totoro provides much of the humour here. Their antics are often laugh-out-loud funny. The storyline has strong echoes of Alice In Wonderland, particularly in Mei’s pursuit of a rabbit-like creature down an underground opening and in the form of a Cheshire Cat-headed magical ‘coach’ summoned by Totoro to take the girls off on fantastic adventures. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, this is a delightful film that has genuine appeal for all ages. It’s also quite beautiful to look at – some of the gorgeous woodland vistas captured here would not look out of place on the walls of an art gallery.

Utterly beguiling. The Cameo’s season continues on Sunday 18th of March with Kiki’s Delivery Service. Get those tickets booked now!!

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

You Were Never Really Here


There’s plenty to admire in You Were Never Really Here. Lynne Ramsay’s edgy, coiled-spring of an action movie, based on a novella by Jonathan Ames, is deeply unsettling, even if I can’t help drawing comparisons with an even better film, Taxi Driver, with which it shares a central premise.

Ramsay’s take on the idea is a much more fragmentary affair than Martin Scorcese’s 1976 masterpiece, flickering eerily in and out of past trauma and often showing us images that turn out to be no more than sick fantasies in the head of the central character.

That character is Joe (Joaquin Phoenix),  a shambling, bearlike presence in this film, muttering in monosyllables and wandering morosely from scene to scene as he metes out grim retribution to those he believes are beyond saving. He’s a traumatised ex-soldier and former FBI agent, who now earns a crust  tracking down missing girls – and sadly there seems to be no shortage of them in the cities of America. In his down time, Joe cares for his aging mother (Judith Roberts), with whom he shares a touching, almost childlike bond.

Joe has a healthy paranoia about being seen by others (hence the title) and always does his level best to stay off the radar. His services are enlisted by Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette), whose teenage daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) has been kidnapped by a well-connected paedophile. She is being held hostage in a city hotel room, so Joe goes in to rescue her, armed with his favourite weapon, a ball-peen hammer. But he soon comes to fully appreciate just how powerful Nina’s kidnapper is – and it isn’t long before he has become a target for the man’s deadly enforcers.

This is an uncompromisingly brutal film, the many scenes of violence somehow made even more affecting by the fact that we glimpse them from a distance, or through the impassive monochrome gaze of a hotel’s security cameras. The action is liberally crosscut with harrowing memories of Joe’s troubled childhood, when he and his mother were regularly terrorised by Joe’s abusive father. It soon becomes apparent that what Joe is seeking more than anything else is some kind of redemption for his own suffering.

This is not an easy film to watch, but it’s nonetheless mesmerising. Phoenix is utterly convincing in the central role, there’s a bruising score by Johnny Greenwood, and Ramsay directs with a confident, almost hallucinatory style, never over-explaining the story, allowing her viewers to reach their own conclusions through the barrage of conflicting images she immerses them in.

It’s a powerful brew, not for the faint-hearted.

4.5 stars



Assembly Hall, Mound Place, Edinburgh

A joint production by renowned theatre companies, Grid Iron and Stellar Quines, this comedy musical is an ambitious project. It’s not easy to stage a riotous musical with a small cast and no live band or orchestra. Given these limitations, Bingo! punches well above its weight, with gutsy, energetic songs and performances to match.

Set (where else?) in a bingo hall – staffed by the lovely Betty (Jane McCarry) and her sidekick, Donny (Darren Brownlie) – it tells the tale of world-weary travel agent, Daniella (Louise McCarthy). She’s fed up of living at home with her mother, Mary (Wendy Seager), and feels left-behind by her best friend, Ruth (Jo Freer), who’s not only been to university but has got herself a teaching job, a husband and a baby. Daniella is bitter and sad; she wants a bit of glamour and excitement in her life – and that’s what a bingo win can offer her. Oh yeah, and it just might provide an answer to a more pressing problem too, such as how she might replace the money she’s ‘borrowed’ from the holiday kitty she’s been entrusted with. Throw drunken old lady Joanna (Barbara Rafferty) and her Henry Hoover into the mix, and you’ve got yourself a perfect set-up. Sit back and see what happens next!

There’s a whole lot of lovely in this show. I’m especially impressed by Jo Freer, who has an easy naturalism; there is real depth to her portrayal of Ruth, which goes well beyond ‘convincing.’ But she’s in good company: these are all skilled practitioners, showing their acting chops. The choreography is good, and I really like the lighting and the set. There’s a bit of a problem with the sound towards the end of the first act, but it’s all back on track after the interval, so it’s not a big issue.

But there are some negatives, not least the fact that Bingo! sometimes seems unsure of what it is. The dark comedy juxtaposed with tender relationships works well; the social commentary is less convincing (Daniella bemoaning how little money she earns doesn’t make me feel particularly sympathetic, for example; she still has money over after she’s paid for rent, bills, food, take-aways, nights out, clothes, etc.). And there are some details that stretch credulity, such as the big money prize being paid in cash, making the recipient a target for anyone who wants to get their hands on it.  (I asked a reliable source – a regular bingo player – who told me it’d definitely be paid directly into the winner’s bank account.)

Still, these niggles aside, this is a funny, enjoyable production, and you could certainly do worse things with your evening than spend it in the company of these hopeful gamblers.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield



Lothian Road, Edinburgh

When we first decided to feature food reviews on this blog, we agreed that we wouldn’t be covering any chain restaurants. We really didn’t think there was much point. But I suppose there has to be a notable exception to every rule and when, after a particularly fraught day’s work, we decide there’s really only one place we both fancy dining, then this review becomes inevitable. Because as chain restaurants go, Wagamama is, in our humble opinion, the best of the bunch. You can see the food being freshly prepared in the open kitchen, the staff are friendly and attentive and I love their open approach to specialist tastes – there’s a huge choice of both vegetarian and vegan meals and even some gluten-free options. We have eaten in Wagamama venues all over the country and the quality of the food never falters.

It’s a Thursday evening and the Lothian Road branch is pleasantly bustling with post-work diners. We take our seats, order drinks and peruse the menu, though I already have long-established firm favourites here. One of them is the chicken katsu curry. To me, this is the ultimate ‘hug on a plate,’ not at all challenging, you understand, but so very satisfying. There’s something about that big mound of sticky rice bathed in a kind of gloopy ‘chip shop curry’ sauce that is so compelling. There’s also the tender strips of chicken in their breadcrumb coating and that perfectly judged crispy salad dressed in a zesty sauce. I’ve often said that, when I find myself on Death Row (presumably sent there for crimes against humanity), this is the dish I will send out for.

I will also ask for a portion of duck gyoza, those succulent, flavoursome steamed parcels which are so delicious on their own and taste even more so when dipped into the accompanying bowl of  sweet chilli sauce – my mouth is watering just describing it!

We also order a portion of yasai yaki soba, a big plate of sizzling noodles with mushrooms, egg, peppers, bean sprouts and much more. There’s a fabulous gingery kick to this dish and a wonderful contrast between the softness of the noodles and the crunchiness of the vegetables that just compels you to keep eating until the plate is clean. Sprinkle it with soy sauce and it’s even better!

One more main dish, we decide, something we haven’t tried before and it’s prawn raikusaree, a mild coconut and citrus curry, served with a mound of white rice, peppers, red onion, red chillies and lime. The decently sized prawns are perfectly cooked and almost melt in the mouth. It’s sublime, and we realise that we’ve just discovered what’s destined to be another firm favourite.

After all that, can we possibly find room for pudding? Well, it has been a particularly tiring day… we were up at 5am for goodness sake! We decide to share a coconut and fig cheescake and a bowl of salted caramel ice cream. The former is light and adorable, based on a crunchy biscuit base and, of course, ice cream is just ice cream, right? Well no, as it happens, even this has its own unique flavour, sprinkled with caramelised sesame seeds and liberally dressed with a chilli toffee and ginger sauce. Yum!

Wagamama seems to me to be almost unique amongst chain restaurants, displaying levels of invention married to standards of quality you won’t find in many  establishments. Oh, and did I mention it’s also excellent value for money? Little wonder you rarely see the restaurants empty.

This was a great idea and it certainly won’t be the last time we dine here.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney


Red Sparrow


There’s no doubt that Red Sparrow is a problematic film. The controversy over its apparent misogyny (with graphic depictions of rape and sexual violence) has been loud, and I have to admit I’m not predisposed to like it.

Still, I try to keep an open mind and, actually, I don’t find it particularly anti-feminist. There’s no denying the sexism of the culture portrayed, nor of many of the characters, but this feels more like a comment on what women have to do to succeed within a system that denies them any power than an endorsement of the patriarchy.

Jennifer Lawrence is Dominika, a Russian ballerina, who – after a horrific dancing ‘accident’ – is coerced by her Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) into attending “whore school,” where the Matron (Charlotte Rampling) teaches her recruits to respond to the sexual desires of targeted others in the name of patriotism. Once graduated, Dominika is given her first mission – to seduce American CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Egerton), and the double-dealing shenanigans  begin.

It starts well. There’s a great sequence where Dominika’s fateful ballet performance is cross cut with Nate’s skirmish in Gorki Park, the pace of both segments growing ever faster and more frantic as the tension builds. And the ending is decent too, with a satisfying pay-off that I won’t reveal.

But there are problems with the lumpen stuff  that’s in-between. Firstly, the Red Sparrow Academy, the concept of which is – quite frankly – risible. I find myself stifling giggles as Matron impassively tweaks the cadets’ nipples, or orders  them to perform lewd acts on each other. And the stuff that follows – the actual spying – is, dare I say it, deadly dull. It’s probably a more accurate depiction of the life of a secret agent than the high-octane thrills we get from, say, a Jason Bourne movie, but it’s a lot more boring too. And then there’s the violence, which is extreme and often feels gratuitous. One lengthy torture scene in particular is very hard to watch, and the detail doesn’t add much to my understanding of the film.

The performances are as excellent as you’d expect; her recent tabloid fall-from-grace notwithstanding, Lawrence is, I think, a fine actor and she has total command of this role. Edgerton and Schoenaerts provide efficient support and the cinematography is more than just decent.

But still. It’s not enough to make this particular bird fly.

2.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Grave of the Fireflies


I like to think that I have a fairly broad knowledge of most things cinematic but if there’s a weak spot in my armoury, it’s definitely animation – and in particular, the large body of work created by Japan’s Studio Ghibli. This is not intentional, merely the fact that such work is hard to find on the big screen, which I feel is the best place to view it. But The Red Turtle, Ghibli’s co-production with Michael Dudok de Wit featured in our ‘best of 2017’ selection, so I was definitely in the market to see more of it – and then I heard that Edinburgh’s Cameo Cinema were planning a Ghibli retrospective. Perfect.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988) is set in Japan towards the end of World War 2 as Allied bombers move in to decimate any last traces of opposition. (Yes, Walt Disney this most emphatically is not). A teenage boy, Seita (voiced by Tsutomu Tatsumi) is faced with the tricky task of looking after his little sister, Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi), when their mother dies after a devastating bombing raid. Their father, a battleship commander, is nowhere to be seen and they have no way of contacting him. In the aftermath of the war, even finding food is a major problem. At first, the two youngsters move in with their aunt and uncle, who are ready to fulfil their familial obligations, but resentment soon begins to smoulder and Seita and Setsuko eventually decide that they will be much happier looking after themselves…

As an introduction to Studio Ghibli, this is an inspired choice. The film is curiously bleak, shot through with an almost overwhelming sense of melancholy, yet for all that, there are moments of genuine enchantment here. The characterisation of  Setsuko is particularly engaging, effortlessly capturing the bewilderment of a little girl cruelly torn from her parents, yet still capable of finding wonder in the simplest of things. And of course, every frame looks absolutely sumptuous. I also loved the circular narrative of the story. When we first encounter the two youngsters, they are vintage ghosts, haunting the streets of modern city – and there’s the clever device of a sweet tin containing marbles that only begins to fully make sense as the story builds. The film’s overpoweringly sad conclusion will wring tears from all but the most stoic of viewers, but that’s no bad thing – and it’s easy to appreciate the love and care that has gone in to every frame of this lovely and haunting film.

The Cameo will be screening a Studio Ghibli classic every Sunday afternoon for the next five weeks. Next up, My Neighbour Totorro. Can’t wait.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney