A Midsummer Night’s Dream

27/06/20

National Theatre Live

Watching immersive theatre via a screen, especially a small screen, is always going to be oxymoronic. My first thought, as Egeus (Kevin McMonagle) drags his errant daughter, Hermia (Isis Hainsworth), through the Bridge Theatre’s standing audience to face the judgement of Theseus (Oliver Chris) is, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to work…’ By which I mean, this isn’t going to work for me. Because sometimes you really do have to be there.

This production, directed by Nicholas Hytner and Ross MacGibbon, is all about the live experience. I can only imagine how exhilarating it must have been in that auditorium, at once spectator and spectacle. Instead I’m at home (for the millionth night running), sitting on my sofa, watching via a computer.

It’s still very good, and I soon get over feeling distanced. I suppose we’ve all had to get over a lot stranger things in recent times. The chilling opening scene – where father-of-the-year Egeus seeks permission to put his daughter to death if she refuses to marry a man she doesn’t love – highlights the importance of the midsummer madness in the woods. Away from the strict patriarchal rule of Athens, the characters are free to explore their deepest desires, able to give rein to their true selves.

The story – for those who need reminding – is of four young lovers who run away into the forest. Also present is a group of amateur actors, seeking a quiet place to rehearse their latest play, and – of course – the resident fairies, who view these human interlopers as playthings, to be teased and manipulated just for fun. In this version, Oberon (Chris) and Titania (Gwendoline Christie)’s roles are switched, with Titania orchestrating the action.

Bunny Christie’s design is bold and daring, all flying beds and shifting green floors. The audience is called upon to move with the action, to pass a parachute above their heads, to dance; they become the forest’s shadows, the Athenian court. I’ve seen a lot of immersive theatre, but rarely anything as well-integrated as this, where the audience action feels purposeful and not just grafted on. The beds are especially clever, highlighting the dual themes of sex and dreaming; it’s not subtle, but why should it be? This is not a subtle play.

There’s not a bum note here, but there are some standout performances, not least from Hammed Animashaun, who plays Bottom as a wide-eyed enthusiast rather than a bumptious fool. He’s utterly endearing, so I’m delighted with Hytner’s decision to make his drug-fuelled tryst with Oberon a tender one, ill-advised but not risible. David Moorst’s Puck is also a delight, all twisty movements and Mancunian patter.

In short, I wish I’d been there; a show like this reminds me exactly why I love live theatre. But seeing it like this is much, much better than not seeing it at all.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

L’alba D’oro

l-alba-d-oro

27/06/20

 Henderson Row, Edinburgh

It should be simple enough, right?  We haven’t eaten fish and chips since well before lockdown began, three months ago, and we really, really fancy some. But good fish and chips, you understand, not the greasy lukewarm sludge that sometimes masquerades under that description around Britain’s fair cities. We certainly don’t want to repeat the experience we once had, when, fuelled by a few drinks at The Cameo, we called at a high street chippy (which shall remain nameless), waited ages for some ‘freshly prepared’ nosh, took one bite each and promptly threw the lot into the nearest food recycling bin.

I mean, how difficult can it be?

Of course, in usual circumstances, there’s an easy solution. A quick trip to Berties on Victoria Street and the problem is solved, plus you get to dine in a swish, open-plan restaurant. But these are unusual times, so who can deliver a tasty fish supper direct to our door? We put out a call for help on Facebook and three friends come straight back with the same answer. L’alba D’oro in Stockbridge is the establishment we are looking for. These are all people we trust, so we order online and the food soon arrives, packaged in cardboard and smelling suitably enticing. As the establishment doesn’t offer any Manchester Caviar (mushy peas), we take the opportunity to heat up a can from our larder. We’ve also got our own swanky home-made tomato ketchup (we’ve had time on our hands, okay?), so we are all ready to dine.

Our friends were correct. This is exactly what we’ve been craving. A generously sized portion of haddock, encased in light, crunchy batter, the fish perfectly cooked: white, flaky and aromatic. The chips are crispy on the outside, and all soft and flavoursome within. You’d think it would take quite a while to down such a massive portion, but we demolish it in no time at all.

So, in short, if you’re in Edinburgh and you’re longing for perfect fish and chips, you know where to order from. (L’alba D’oro also offer other tasty treats, plus a different fish special every day.)

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Eurovision Song Contest : The Story of Fire Saga

26/06/20

Netflix

There’s a wonderful idea at the heart of Will Ferrell’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga – even if it does boast one of the most unwieldy titles in recent cinematic history. Ferrell plays Icelander Lars Erickssong, a petulant man-child with a determination to win the world’s biggest song contest, an ambition nurtured since childhood when he saw first Abba performing Waterloo. He and his best friend, Sigrit Ericksdottir (Rachel McAdams), perform as pop duo Fire Saga, who play regularly in their local bar to the complete indifference of their neighbours. Even Lars’ father, Erick Erikssong (Pierce Brosnan) – a no-nonsense fisherman – makes it clear that it’s time his son stopped fooling around with music and got a proper job.

But when a series of complex misadventures results in Fire Saga being picked to appear in the regional heats for Eurovision, Lars has his eyes so firmly on the big prize, he is blithely unaware of Sigrit’s long held desire to make their relationship more than just a musical one.

Perhaps the film’s strongest suit is the songs, composed by Atli Övarsson and Savan Kotecha, which, with their “accidentally” suggestive lyrics and bombastic singalong choruses are convincing enough to pass muster as genuine Eurovision entries, whilst still consistently hitting the funny button. But not everything is quite as satisfying here. Having Icelandic characters played by American and English actors might invite accusations of cultural appropriation, especially when those characters are depicted as simplistic, superstitious oafs who believe in the existence of elves. Having genuine Icelanders in supporting roles, including the wonderful Ólafur Darri Ólaffsson, isn’t really enough to stave off those accusations.

On a similar note, Dan Stevens appears as Russian mega-star Alexander Lemtov, who soon begins to pursue Sigrit with singular determination. Again, he’s entertaining, but his motives are never really clear. Perhaps Ferrell, who co-wrote the script, was thinking of some real-life gay musical icons who went through the pretence of heterosexuality in order to placate their fans? Whatever the reasoning, this doesn’t quite come off.

But those reservations aside, I have to admit I am mightily entertained by ESCTSOFS and even feel somewhat moved by its final act. I am also delighted to note that much of the action is set in my home city of Edinburgh (it’s the host for the Eurovision final). Furthermore it’s good to see Ferrell back on some kind of form. If I’m honest, it’s a long time since any of his efforts have made me laugh. A shout out here should go to Molly Sanden who provides the vocals for Sigrit’s performances – and there’s me thinking, ‘Wow, McAdams really can sing!’

If you’re looking for an undemanding, good-time film to while away a couple of hours, you could do a lot worse than this.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Small Island

19/06/20

National Theatre Live

Anyone who’s still clinging to the notion that #BLM protests are not needed in the UK would do well to watch this latest screening from the National Theatre, and remind themselves of the shameful way black British subjects from Caribbean countries have been treated here.

Andrea Levy’s novel, adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson, is set in the 1940s, so does not directly address the 2018 Windrush scandal – where at least eighty-three people were wrongly deported – but it does show very clearly how they came to be here in the first place, encouraged to embrace their Britishness by fighting for ‘their’ country in the war, then helping to rebuild a battered Britain afterwards. ‘Used’ is the first word that comes to mind. ‘Abused’ is the second.

The play, directed by Rufus Norris, is at once an expansive, epic sweep of a project, and a deeply intimate portrayal of three people, cast adrift and then brought together, an intricate web linking their lives.

Leah Harvey is Hortense, a prim, ambitious Jamaican school teacher, desperate to escape the confines of her upbringing and live amongst the china tea cups and cream teas that define Britain for her. The love of her life is her ‘cousin’ Michael (CJ Beckford), but he doesn’t feel the same way about her. Spurned, Hortense realises that, by paying for his passage to England,  she can persuade RAF airman Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr) to marry her, and offer her the life she dreams of.

But when she arrives in London, Hortense is horrified to discover that their accommodation is a tiny room in a rundown boarding house, that she is subjected daily to the most appalling racism, and that no one will employ her as a teacher, or even recognise the qualifications she’s worked so hard to acquire. The landlady, Queenie (Aisling Loftus), is their one ally, but even her support seems less assured when her bigoted husband, Bernard (Andrew Rothney), finally returns home from the war.

The acting from all is superb, although it is Harvey’s performance that lingers in the memory, a study in rigid reserve and masked disappointment.

I love Katrina Lindsay’s set design, which is perfectly complemented by Jon Driscoll’s projections, making full use of the enormous Olivier stage. The storm scenes in particular seem immersive, and the size of the Windrush boat (and thus the scale of the ensuing scandal) is cleverly conveyed.

The first act is more complex than the first, cutting between countries and characters, but we always know exactly where we are, and all the disparate strands are brought together skilfully in a more cohesive second act.

This is a timely release from the National Theatre, and reinforces the need for more BAME representation in the arts.

You have until next Thursday to watch it.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

The Blues Brothers

18/06/20

Netflix

Continuing our (very ) occasional reappraisal of classic movies, I find this beauty lurking on Netflix and immediately feel a powerful need to reconnect with it. The Blues Brothers first emerged in 1980 and I know I watched it in the cinema on its release, but, nearly forty years later, I can no longer recall exactly where I was at the time, nor which particular establishment I viewed it in. No matter.

John Landis’s film came hot off his success with Animal House and is very much a love letter to rhythm and blues. It features a whole host of celebrated performers in cameo roles: Cab Galloway, Ray Charles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin; they are all trotted out to perform a song apiece as ‘Joliet’ Jake (John Bellshill) and his brother Elwood (Dan Akroyd) go about their ‘mission from God,’ trying to raise $5000 dollars to save the orphanage they grew up in from being closed down. $5000 dollars probably seemed a lot of money back then.

The overall feel here is of a cartoon made flesh. No matter what outlandish events befall our heroes (they are shot at with bazookas and flamethrowers and, at one point Elwood’s entire apartment block collapses around them), they don’t even raise an eyebrow – and they never remove their sunglasses, even at night. Well, apart from one famous bit…

The action sequences are amped up to eleven. You want a car chase? Sure, but why use four vehicles when you can use one hundred and four? You want to destroy an entire shopping mall in the process? Go on, the budget’s right there, spend it!

Much of the fun here is in revisiting those glorious set pieces. As somebody who played in bands throughout much of my youth and who often found himself performing in unsuitable venues, I will always relish the BB’s comeback gig where they are obliged to take the stage at a country and western bar posing as The Good Ol’ Boys. When their opening number, Gimme Some Loving, causes a riot, they are reduced to bashing out a version of the theme from Rawhide, swiftly followed by a tearjerking Stand By Your Man. Priceless. And of course, who doesn’t relish the scene where the boys drive straight at a group of Nazis forcing them to jump off a bridge into a river? 

Carrie Fisher makes a memorable appearance as the woman who Jake left at the altar and who has pledged to destroy him and his brother, by any means possible.  Something I didn’t expect when rewatching this film was to notice how many great movie actors featured here are no longer with us – and how much I miss them.

Sure, you can argue that the film is decidedly rough around the edges. Many of those featured musicians can’t act for toffee and the guest appearance by Twiggy (who presumably just happened to be around) feels entirely gratuitous. Some of the special effects are very much of their time, i.e. not that special.

But nevertheless The Blues Brothers still rocks, still makes me laugh out loud and provides a perfect tonic for these troubled times. And who could ever forget that famous quote, which in the 1980s, we repeated again and again?

Elwood: “There’s one hundred and six miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes and we’re wearing sunglasses.”

Jake: “Hit it!”

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Madness of King George

16/06/20

National Theatre Live

This adaptation of Alan Bennett’s acclaimed 1991 play, a co-production between The National Theatre and the Nottingham Playhouse, stars Mark Gatiss as George III, the much-loved and admired monarch whose reign was nearly destroyed by a protracted battle with mental illness. We now know that George suffered from porphyria, a condition that comes with a whole raft of punishing symptoms – and it’s clear from the outset that the illness itself is worsened by the ill-informed efforts of the court physicians, who set about inflicting a whole series of what can only be described as tortures on the luckless monarch. They bleed him, they ply him with laxatives, they even spill boiling hot wax onto his head and back, convinced that these remedies will drive out his ‘ill humours.’  Little wonder, then, that their efforts are instrumental in pushing the king deeper into delirium. Bennett’s script walks a perilous tightrope between hilarity and the full blown tragedy of watching a man degraded and humbled in front of his family and his courtiers. 

It’s only when Prime Minister William Pitt (Nicholas Bishop) engages the services of Doctor Willis (Adrian Scarborough) that a possible light appears on the horizon. Willis’s approach to the problem is a tough, rigorous routine that seems more appropriate to the breaking of a horse than the nurturing of a stricken human being but, against all the odds, it starts to pay dividends.

Meanwhile, the Whigs see the king’s situation as an opportunity to oust Pitt’s Tories by allying themselves to the ambitious Prince of Wales (Wilf Scolding), who longs for some kind of power and doesn’t mind how he gets it.

This is a handsomely mounted production, which takes off at a gallop and never allows the pace to flag. Each scene segues effortlessly to the next and there’s solid work from the supporting cast, but this is essentially an opportunity for Gatiss to shine and he rises to the challenge with considerable aplomb, managing to bring out George’s innate likeability even as he is reduced to a gibbering, gesticulating wreck by his steadily mounting symptoms.

This is an object lesson in how to present a period piece. Everything here – the costumes, the sets, the actors’ comic timing, the machinations of the various political players, is presented with absolute authority and skilfully directed by Adam Penford.

It’s often said that fact is stranger than fiction and The Madness of King George seems to illustrate this point perfectly. 

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Dine at Home

13/06/20

dineedinburgh.co.uk

We know the drill by now; this is the third lockdown ‘restaurant meal in your own home’ we’ve had, so we’re feeling like old hands. This one has a lot of heavy lifting to do though: it’s my birthday treat.

It’s not actually my birthday until Tuesday but, like most of the fine dining establishments offering takeaways for the first time, Dine are limiting themselves to Fridays and Saturdays, which is probably a sensible move. And I’m more than happy to stretch out even weird, isolated celebrations over a few days.

The food arrives at 1pm in a socially-distanced drop-off. It’s in two neat boxes, and there’s a bottle of Prosecco too (did I mention it’s my birthday?). For £49 we’re getting three courses for two people and a bottle of wine, although there is a £2.75 delivery charge, and the upgrade to Prosecco costs us another £7.50. Still, for just under £60, this is a nicely indulgent meal, and it’s well thought out in terms of the amount (and complexity) of cooking we’re required to do.

There are some olives to nibble, which is a nice touch, and then we kick off with our starters. These are both cold, and just require assembling on the plate. Philip has smoked salmon and cream cheese, which is served with a beetroot and charred shallot salad and a slice of Pumpernickel. It’s delicious, very rich and creamy, but there’s not enough Pumpernickel for the generous portion of salmon pâté, so he adds a couple of crackers to his plate (the salmon is too tasty to leave, but definitely needs some kind of base to carry it). My cured ham, melon and mozzarella is the prettiest dish of the night, and again the portions are far from meagre. There are two slices of ham, a big piece of mozzarella, and a scrumptious caper and white sultana purée. Weirdly, the biggest revelation is the grissini, which are the only bread sticks I’ve ever had that have tasted of anything. We’re off to a cracking start.

My main is a seafood, chorizo and summer vegetable stew served with a lemon and herb rice. It tastes fresh and clean, and is liberally stuffed with clams, prawns and squid. Philip’s Asian style sticky pork belly comes with pak choi and sweet potato, and is bursting with flavour. Both can be microwaved, but we choose to cook them in the oven. The menu has clearly been designed carefully to minimise our workload: both meals require 20 minutes at 170°. Easy!

Puddings are also cold, so we only need deal with presentation (and, having finished off the Prosecco by this stage, we’re honestly not too concerned about what they look like). Philip’s cranachan comes with candied hazelnuts and a satisfying raspberry sauce; my carrot cake has frosted icing, and a side helping of orange and praline cream. I’m sure they’re both perfectly fine individually, but that’s not what happens here. We split them in half and make a hybrid dessert that tastes utterly divine. Well, we are in our own home; we can do what we like, right?

All in all, this is the best of the ‘at home’ meals we’ve had so far, with every course a hit.

Hurrah. And happy birthday to me.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Da 5 Bloods

12/06/20

A new Spike Lee film is generally a cause for considerable excitement. From She’s Gotta Have It, way back in 1986, to Do the Right Thing and his recent renaissance with BlackKkKLansman, Lee has always been the master of righteous indignation, a director whose beliefs are right at the forefront of his work and who never backs down from uncomfortable truths. And of course, in the time of Black Lives Matter, his voice carries extra authority.

And now here’s Da 5 Bloods, released without much trumpeting onto Netflix. It opens like a documentary, complete with vintage footage of Muhammed Ali and Malcolm X and shocking images from the war in Vietnam – indeed, the references come so thick and fast over the opening credits, it’s hard to keep up with them.

Yet, this is no documentary. The meat of the film is a story about four Vietnam veterans, who reunite to go back to their old battleground on a seemingly altruistic mission to recover the remains of their late comrade, ‘Stormin” Norman (Chadwick Boseman), buried somewhere deep in the jungle. But there’s another, less laudable reason for their return.  Concealed near his grave is a cache of American gold bullion, originally intended to pay South Vietnamese allies. The four amigos, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jnr), see no reason why they shouldn’t collect that at the same time. After all, haven’t they paid for it in blood, sweat and tears?

At the last instant, they are joined by Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors), who is cut in for a share. And off they go into deep jungle, assisted by a Vietnamese guide, Vinh (Johnny Nguyen), and financed by shady French entrepreneur, Leroche (Jean Reno), in a story that openly references the likes of Apocalypse Now and, more specifically, John Huston’s classic adventure,  The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

As ever with Lee, there’s no doubting the sincerity of his vision, and it’s clear that his anger about the way black troops were used as cannon fodder during the war is the heat that fuels this adventure – but it also has to be said that much of what goes on in deep jungle feels decidedly far-fetched and at times (dare I say it?) a crushingly predictable take on The Pardoner’s Tale. We also witness flashbacks to the foursome’s time as soldiers, where the eponymous bloods look exactly the same as they do now and Norman, young enough to be their son. Of course, this is intentional (it’s them looking back on the events) but it’s a bold move that takes a little getting used to.

Ultimately, Da 5 Bloods is neither fish nor fowl. It could either have been a powerful documentary about the exploitation of black lives at a time of war, or a gung-ho rumble- in-the-jungle adventure, mixing laughter and violence in equal measure. With typical ambition, Lee tries for both with the result that neither strand feels entirely convincing. It’s also puzzling when a director with such a breadth of experience allows an absolutely risible plot point to make it on to the screen. (You’ll know it when you see it.)

Da 5 Bloods has already been garlanded with high praise from several quarters, but for me, at least, it’s not up there with Lee’s finest work. What’s more, with a running time of two hours and thirty four minutes, there are sections here that feel more gruelling than they needed to.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

A Monster Calls

05/06/20

Old Vic/YouTube

Looking back through my diary of another life, in another time, I note that I was due to see the touring production of this play at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, in early April 2020. It now seems unlikely that this was ever a possibility. Sitting in a crowded auditorium, enjoying a live performance? Is that really how we used to carry on?

Some productions have added resonance because of personal experience. Back in 2006 when I’d just embarked on my career as a children’s author, I was fortunate enough to meet Siobhan Dowd, when our respective debut novels were nominated for the same award. She was utterly charming and I had no inkling then that she was only a year away from her untimely death from breast cancer. A Monster Calls was an outline for a future novel that she didn’t live long enough to deliver to her publishers. It was subsequently completed by Patrick Ness and became a huge success in 2012.

I also loved the film version, directed by J A Bayona in 2017, which (another coincidence) featured one of Susan’s drama school pupils in the lead role (although she didn’t actually teach him). Even without these connections, this would still be a powerful and affecting story. I remember leaving the cinema, red-eyed from weeping.

This production, filmed onstage at the Old Vic in 2018, is now available for a limited run on YouTube. Though perhaps not as slickly filmed as many of the recent  ‘live’ theatre performances, there’s no doubting the emotional heft of the story. The central premise, clearly inspired by Siobhan’s own circumstances, is utterly heartbreaking.

Thirteen-year-old Conor McGregor (Matthew Tennyson) is in meltdown. His beloved Mother (Marianne Oldham) is gradually succumbing to cancer and he doesn’t know how to handle it. Estranged from his father (Felix Hayes), who now lives in America with his new family, Conor has nobody to confide in. He is being perpetually bullied at school and is resisting all attempts by his well-meaning grandmother (Selina Cadell) to make him accept that his life is about to undergo a massive change.

When his mother points out an ancient yew tree near to the family home, Conor begins to experience a series of bizarre visitations from The Monster (Stuart Goodwin) who lives within the tree. He relates a series of bizarre fairy stories and encourages Conor to face up to an awful truth…

There’s so much to relish here: the exquisite staging which ranges from stripped-back simplicity to explosions of almost pyschedellic colour; the ingenious use of ropes to evoke a whole series of images and settings; and there’s a sumptuous electronic soundtrack played live by Will and Benji Bower that adds a lush, dreamlike quality to the proceedings. The thirteen-strong cast all offer exemplary performances, though of course it’s Tennyson, in the lead role, who carries the heaviest load.

Is it as good as witnessing the play live? No. Am I glad it exists? Damn right!

Those who haven’t experienced A Monster Calls should catch this while it’s still available (you have until 12th June). And those who already love it could do a lot worse than indulging in another helping, just to relish those bitter-sweet flavours.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Wise Children

04/06/20

BBC iPlayer

Emma Rice’s glorious stage adaptation of Angela Carter’s Wise Children is the most exciting theatrical production I’ve seen in my own living room, since lockdown began and I started trawling online offerings. Filmed at the York Theatre Royal, it’s right there on iPlayer (until July 9th), nestling amongst the Zoom panel shows and re-runs of old series, just waiting for you to click that mouse and let the mayhem begin.

It’s wild and wonderful, bawdy and tawdry – like watching Carter’s story come tumbling from the book, the word made flesh. Emma Rice’s adaptation revels in the novel’s magnificent excesses, amping up the theatricality, highlighting the slippery nature of identity and what it means to know who we are.

This is the story of illegitimate twins Dora and Nora Chance, who are celebrating their seventy-fifth birthday as the play opens. In this iteration, they are played by Gareth Snook and Etta Murfitt, who remain on stage throughout, narrating and commenting on  the tale as it unfolds. Their mother dies giving birth to them; their father, the preposterously successful Shakespearean actor, Melchior Hazard (Ankur Bahl/Paul Hunter) refuses to acknowledge them, and they are taken in by their mother’s landlady, Grandma Chance (Katy Owen), a shouty naturist, who puts them to work in the music halls as soon as possible. Their father’s twin brother, Peregrine (Sam Archer/Mike Shepherd), looks after them financially, and spoils them with presents whenever he visits. But the Hazards’ debauched extravagance means that nothing is immutable, and there are stepmothers, half-siblings and, yes, more twins at every turn. The Chances’ lives are never dull.

But this is an ode to theatre as well as the twins’ story. We are backstage and on stage as well as in the auditorium. There’s puppetry and physical theatre, Shakespearean tragedy and end-of-pier comedy. ‘What a joy it is to dance and sing,’ says Dora, and we see this realised in the fabulous teenage Dora and Nora (Melissa James and Omari Douglas), as they relish their showgirl flamboyance and explore their sexuality.

Vicki Mortimer’s design is as audacious and vibrant as the characters: a little touring caravan and ‘Wise Children’ spelled out in lights – all bright vivacity, a carnival of colour. The costumes are gaudy and unapologetically showbiz; Grandma Chance’s naked body suit is cartoonish, exaggerated and silly. It all works, a cacophony of artifice and illusion.

If you like theatre, then you will like this.

iPlayer. Now.

5 stars

Susan Singfield