Jack and the Beanstalk

cfk-panto-beanstalk-header

30/11/16

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

I thought I knew what to expect with this one. I’ve seen a lot of pantos in my time (and even performed in a few amateur productions when I was a kid). But I have never – NEVER – seen one as accomplished as this. The sheer scale and spectacle of it is genuinely awesome. I left the theatre feeling light as air and full of joy. And surely this is what pantomime is all about?

Allan Stewart (Dame Trot), Andy Gray (Hector) and Grant Stott (Fleshcreep) have made their collective mark as King’s Theatre panto regulars – and it’s easy to see why they’re so popular. They have an easy rapport with each other, as well as with the crowd, and they’re genuinely funny, milking the script for all its worth, as well as ad-libbing profusely to excellent effect. And the supporting cast are all good too, with no weak link among them.

It’s nice to see a pantomime that values its host city; typically, they seem to make jokes at the town’s expense, rather than celebrating its fabulousness as this one does. The good fairy, for example, is presented as ‘The Spirit of the Castle’ (Lisa Lynch), which rather obviously implies that the city itself is a protective one, with goodness at its heart. It’s a lovely touch.

The production values are very high. There’s clearly been no expense spared, and every penny has been well spent. From the superb costuming (the animals are particularly appealing) to the special effects, this is truly a spectacular piece of theatre. The giant, for example, is extraordinarily rendered, a looming monstrosity of a prop, prompting the whole audience to gasp – although even this pales in comparison to Dame Trot’s jaw-dropping beanstalk ascent.

If there’s a criticism, it’s a tiny one: the giant’s demise is perhaps a little underwhelming after everything that has gone before. But honestly, it doesn’t matter. With a show where everything – the music, the choreography, the acting, the writing, the jokes, the scenery – is this impressive, it seems churlish to criticise.

By far the best pantomime I have ever seen: a standout production.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Mascots

26/11/16

This latest film from Christopher Guest (Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel) takes a tongue-in-cheek look at the world of professional mascots, those stalwart individuals who don outlandish costumes and help to promote football teams/organisations/products around the world, usually by prancing about to a musical backing.  This is a Netflix original, but Guest’s methods seem to be largely unchanged from the likes of earlier films, Best In Show and A Mighty Wind. Like so many of his ‘mockumentaries’ this follows a bunch of random characters as they prepare themselves for the equivalent of their Oscars, the Fluffies, cutting effortlessly from scene to scene as the action unfolds.

The Mascots themselves include: young Englishman, Owen Golly Jr. (Tom Bennett), carrying on a family tradition as football mascot, Sid the Hedgehog, under the baleful glare of his dad, who formerly played the role; Mike and Mindy Murray (Zach Woods and Sarah Baker), a middle-aged couple desperately trying to rock their double act despite the fact that their marriage is falling apart; and art-obsessed Cindi Babineaux (Parker Posey), whose armadillo character seems aimed at an entirely different audience. And, of course, the judges and organisers prove to be a thorny bunch, most of them coming to the competition with their own hidden agendas. Guest himself performs a cameo as Corky St Clair, a pretentious dance trainer helping to put Cindi through her paces. British comic Kerry Godliman also makes an appearance as Owen’s delightful and supportive wife – making them pretty much the only non-dysfunctional couple in the entire movie.

This is wry, whimsical stuff, not exactly laugh-out-loud funny, but nicely judged and constantly amusing. It’s evident just how many artists – from Ricky Gervais to Larry David – have taken inspiration from the Spinal Tap model, which –  back in 1984 – was one of the first feature films to venture down the spoof documentary trail.

Mascots is right there on Netflix, and, if you’re already a customer, you’d be crazy not to check it out.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

A United Kingdom

maxresdefault

25/11/16

Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom tells the true story of Prince Seretse Khama of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), and the extraordinary international response to his marriage to Ruth Williams, a white, middle-class Londoner. Ruth’s father (Nicholas Lyndhurst) isn’t happy and vows to disown her; Seretse’s uncle, Tshekedi (Vusi Kenene), believes it renders his nephew unfit to rule. But their combined disapproval is nothing compared to the horror of colonial might, and the crushing forces of British and South African politics. It’s a disturbing account of late imperialism, laying bare some awful truths about our not so distant past.

David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike are perfectly cast as the central couple, committed as much to their ideals as to each other. They are at once proud and humble, resolved and open-minded. The film’s focus on Khama’s emotional reactions personalises colonialism in a way I have never seen before, illuminating the brazen greed, hypocrisy and gross sense of entitlement of those seizing rule of lands that are not their own. Jack Davenport, as the brutal, arrogant Alistair Canning, embodies this with ease.

The post-war era is beautifully evoked, with both London and Botswana rendered real and immediate; the cinematography is very good indeed. If there’s a problem, it is perhaps in the feelgood cosiness that somehow permeates this film, despite its immersion in some very ugly deeds. Nevertheless, this is a mightily important tale, and definitely one worth going to see.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

The Cottage Kitchen

25/11/16

Logies Lane, St Andrews

We’re in Dundee for an event which finishes around midday, so we decide to call in at St Andrews on the way back to Edinburgh. It’s a crisp, bright afternoon and we arrive feeling hungry, so we decide we’ll eat first and explore later. There are plenty of ‘chain’ restaurants and cafes around, but we soon spot the Cottage Kitchen, tucked away on Logies Lane. It’s busy but we notice a small unoccupied table and make a beeline for it.

The interior is intimate, rustic and there’s a friendly atmosphere. There’s a basic menu on the table and a selection of specials on a chalkboard above the counter. We don’t want to spend ages perusing the menu, so we choose quickly, deciding that we will share the two meals between us.

These comprise a homemade Puddledub pork sausage roll and a marinated bavette steak sandwich. The former is definitely the star of the show, a generous hunk of nicely seasoned meat wrapped in flaky pastry. The steak bavette is decent too, a chunk of medium rare meat, ladled with a horseradish sauce and served on crumbly focaccia. It comes with a choice of a side salad (there are four to choose from) and we opt for the roasted chorizo and mixed pepper which is delicious going down, but is clearly destined to repeat itself later on. As it’s a chilly day, we also order an accompanying mug of tomato and lentil soup apiece, which is hearty and warming,  but a lot bigger than we bargained for. It may seem surly to complain that there is a bit too too much of everything, but we’re left far too full to investigate the selection of delicious-looking cakes and pastries (all made on the premises, I’m told), so we decide we’ll investigate them another time.

All in all, a decent lunch venue, offering something a little bit different.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Lucy Porter: Consequences

6861.jpg

23/11/16

The Stand, Edinburgh

Lucy Porter’s Consequences is a slyly clever show. We’re beguiled in the first half by her friendly, chatty persona; it’s a conversational, observational three-quarters of an hour, consistently funny but never challenging, focusing on ageing, class status, and suburban family life. There are chocolates and there is port, given liberally to audience members who respond to her questions. There are some gentle comparisons between young and old (Philip is called upon to represent the old, but he’s not very good at it: he doesn’t  – it transpires – even know what an A road is). There’s wit and warmth, and it’s easy to enjoy. And then there is the second half. And that’s very different.

Because the second half interrogates all that we have heard before. The consequences, so to speak. The acknowledgement that sixteen-year-old Lucy would likely launch a blistering attack on her forty-three-year-old future self, for selling out and not living up to all of her ideals. And then an endearingly honest self-examination: what does current Lucy think she needs to change? Her attitude to trans rights, for example, is analysed and found wanting, so she educates herself, talks to people who know more: older Lucy still wants to get it right, is still prepared to learn. Oh yeah, and she’s still funny. And charming. And far more demanding than that first half led us to believe. It’s a neat conceit, and beautifully done.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Paterson

20/11/16

Jim Jarmusch is one of America’s most respected indie directors. After the somewhat disappointing Only Lovers Left Alive, he’s back on more confident form with this quirky tale of a would-be poet and the daily grind which he must endure, whilst filling all of his available down-time with his cerebral scribblings.

Paterson (Adam Driver) lives in Paterson, New Jersey – in typical Jarmusch fashion, this is presented as mere coincidence. By day he’s a bus driver and the film follows a week in his life, starting each morning with him waking up beside his partner, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and then following him to work, sharing his bus route and after he has returned to one of Laura’s nightmarish attempts at cooking,  accompanying him on his evening walk with Marvin (the couple’s bulldog) which inevitably ends with Paterson having a beer at his local bar. If this sounds dull, rest assured, it’s not. Through Paterson’s eyes we meet a host of fascinating local characters and experience their disparate stories – and we also share Paterson’s attempts to write new poems, which announce themselves onscreen as lines of text. His poems aren’t exactly earth-shattering, (his writing hero is William Carlos Williams, and the influence is apparent) but they do show a real intellect at work, and the fragmentary quality of them is strangely beguiling. I’ve rarely seen a more convincing onscreen portrayal of the writing method.

Back at home, Laura seems completely obsessed with making it big as something – a cake maker, an interior designer, a fashionista, a country and western singer – she’s not fussy, she’ll try anything, despite the fact that she never really rises above the ‘fairly accomplished’ in each successive project she takes on; and in the end, this is essentially what Paterson is about; the way in which people nurture some particular talent they have (or think they have) as a way of dealing with the mundanity of everyday existence.

The film throws us a late googlie-ball in an incident that really is any writer’s worst nightmare.  I  wish Jarmusch had resisted signposting it quite as much as he does; although the gasps from the row behind us suggested that not everyone had seen it coming. This however, is a minor niggle. As a celebration of the creative spirit, Paterson is a little delight, and one that deserves your consideration.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

19/11/16

Question: how do you turn a rather slim World Book Day volume into not one, not three, but five big movies? Answer. Ring up JK Rowling. She has elaborated extensively on said slim volume to create a wizarding tale set, not in the familiar confines of Hogwarts, but in New York city in the year 1926. The more cynical amongst us will be tempted to dub this with an alternative title – Newt Scamander and the Cow of Cash – but to give the film its due, it is undoubtedly a serious attempt to step away from the path already trodden and for that, at least, it should be applauded; and the attention to detail that’s been applied to the creation of the wizard world is truly impressive. But the ranks of parents accompanied by bewildered looking youngsters as the credits rolled on the afternoon show we attended, spoke volumes. Despite that 12A certificate, this is not a film for the very young, simply because there’s no child protagonist here to fully engage their attention.

Instead we have English wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arriving in New York city carrying a magical case of strange creatures with him and it’s no great surprise when some of those creatures escape and start running amok in the (beautifully recreated) city. These range from tiny, cute and obsessed with stealing shiny things, to large, rhinoceros-like and ready to mate with something (seriously – you need to prepare yourself for Scamander’s mating dance). Newt soon falls under the watchful gaze of ministry of magic jobs worth, Tina (Katherine Waterston) and things take a more complicated turn when ‘No-Maj’  (the American term for a Muggle) Kowalski (Dan Fogle) inadvertently ends up with the wrong suitcase. Much hilarity ensues, and many landmark buildings are spectacularly destroyed…

Which is all well and good, but it has to be said that something in this mix doesn’t quite work. The resulting film is neither fish nor fowl. Surely, the parade of beautifully rendered CGI creatures are aimed at children, while the human characters behave in a manner that’s more appropriate for their parents – but because neither aspect fully coheres with the other, both sides of the audience are somehow left wanting. Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty here to enjoy, not least the delightful Queenie (Alison Sudal, channeling her inner Marilyn Monroe) and Fogle’s winning turn as the poor schlep who finds himself suddenly immersed in a world of wizarding is good too. Redmayne rather overdoes it as Scamander – sure, he’s meant to be shy and introverted but he gurns his way through this first film and I can only hope that he’ll dial it down a bit for episodes 2,3,4 and 5. Whether I’ll be watching any of them is another matter.The major villain here is Graves (Colin Farrell), a powerful wizard with a hidden agenda, but he really doesn’t have all that much to do and seems a poor exchange for the villainous Voldemort.

A lot of money and huge amounts of technical skill has clearly been lavished on this project – and it’s by no means the worst thing you’ll see this year – but for me at least, it fails to live up to its famous progenitor. And I can’t help thinking – how are they going to string this out for another four movies?

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney