The Belle’s Stratagem

21/02/18

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The chances are you may not have heard of playwright and poet, Hannah Cowley. I certainly hadn’t until I read the programme for the Lyceum’s latest offering. Back in the 1700s, however, her work was in great demand and, in 1780, her biggest success, The Belle’s Stratagem (a witty repost to George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem), was selling out the 2000 seater Drury Lane Theatre in London. Over the ensuing centuries, her name has passed into obscurity, so it’s particularly satisfying to see her work brought once more to the public attention in this sprightly adaptation, written and directed by Tony Cownie. The action has been relocated to Edinburgh, where the New Town is taking shape, and where the villainous Deacon Brodie is gleefully helping himself to the belongings of its inhabitants.

The belle of the title is Letitia (Angela Hardie), who is betrothed to the wealthy and handsome Doricourt (Angus Miller), much to the delight of her father, Provost Hardy (Steven McNicholl), who welcomes the financial advancement this will bring. But though Letitia is head-over-heels in love with Doricourt, he seems quite indifferent to her charms, so she devises a devious stratagem that will make him fully appreciate her qualities. The first step, however, is to make him despise her…

I don’t want to give the impression that this is a single-strand narrative. There are subplots aplenty, not least the story of Sir George Touchwood (Grant O’ Rourke), who has been deliberately keeping his naive wife, Lady Frances (Helen Mackay), away from the distractions of high society. There’s the newspaperman, Flutter (John Ramage), an unabashed gossip-monger, who loves nothing more than writing about the outrageous events of the well-to-do and who has no compunction in inventing much of his juicier material, and there’s Mrs Racket (Pauline Knowles), who is adept at arranging and organising the running of everyone’s lives from behind the scenes.

Cownie handles his material with a deft touch, consistently bringing his audience to gales of laughter as the various blunders, pratfalls and witty one-liners are unleashed. The production looks ravishing too, the brightly-hued costumes blazing against the simple monochrome set. Though many of the cast double up on their roles, there’s never any doubt about who is who at any given time and, as the events hurtle towards the delicious possibilities of a masked ball, the stage seems to virtually pulsate with energy. Fast, furious and frenetic, this is a real crowdpleaser. It’s also strangely prescient, as the women in the story refuse to conform to the conventions they’re constrained by, and forge their own paths towards happiness and fulfilment.

Don’t miss this – its a riotous and gleeful experience that will send you on your way with a great big smile on your face.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

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The Weir

20/02/18

Conor McPherson’s much-acclaimed play premiered at the tiny upstairs theatre of the Royal Court in 1997 and was something of an overnight sensation. Over twenty years later, it’s still going strong. This touring production from Colchester’s Mercury Theatre has much to recommend it, but, in the spacious environs of the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, it inevitably loses some of its intimacy. Predicated upon the Irish love of storytelling, it’s the tale of four men living in the wilds of County Leitrim – and a lone woman, who is invited into their most sacred stronghold, the titular local bar.

Jack (Sean Murray) is a garage owner, a cantankerous old batchelor with a fondness for Guinness and Silk Cut. Jim (John O’ Dowd) is his regular mechanic. Young Brendan (Sam O’ Mahoney) is the landlord of The Weir, which is replicated in every grimy detail and will be totally familiar to anyone who has ever experienced such establishments in rural Ireland. Finbar (Louis Dempsey) is a successful businessman and what passes for a big shot in these parts. He brings along Valerie (Natalie Radmall-Quirke) to introduce her to his friends. She is a ‘blow-in’, recently moved down from Dublin. The other men are convinced that Finbar, a married man, regards the new arrival as a potential romantic conquest, but that’s mostly conjecture on their part – and, as it turns out, she has other matters on her mind…

The scene is set for a series of unsettling ghost stories, recounted by each of the customers in turn. These are subtle affairs, brief inexplicable encounters, the kind of incidents discussed by drinkers the world over and ones that hint at the powerful pagan beliefs that still lurk behind the facade of modern sensibility. There are excellent performances from all five cast members and the characterisations seemed to me to be absolutely bang on. Sadly, however, it’s during these stories that I am most aware of the physical distance between the actors and large parts of the audience. I find myself holding my breath in an attempt to capture every word and, given that all the characters except Valerie deliver their lines in a broad Irish brogue, it isn’t always easy to be sure you’ve heard everything.

What’s the answer? A little more poke on the microphones, perhaps? And a little less of that eerie background music as each story approaches its conclusion? Hard to say. For sure, I want to be right up close to the actors, to feel that I am sitting in that bar alongside them, sharing the drink and the conversation.

Still, if a larger venue means the play is seen by a wider audience, then that’s no bad thing – and it may just be a worthwhile trade-off.

3.7 stars

Philip Caveney

 

I, Tonya

18/02/18

Just when you think  the Oscar race can’t get any tighter, in swaggers I, Tonya, straight out of left field and hits you with a hefty sucker punch, right in the kisser. This noisy, brazen biopic is wonderfully enervating and it’s clear that its claim to be ‘the Good Fellas of figure skating’  isn’t so very wide of the mark. Indeed, the constant jumping from time-frame to time-frame, the fake interviews, the occasional deadpan remarks delivered straight to camera and, above all else, the wonderful classic rock soundtrack – all serve to remind you of Martin Scorcese’s finest movie. But it’s much more than just a pale imitation of that film. There’s so much to admire here, not least Margot Robbie’s incendiary performance in the title role.

Tonya Harding, it seems, had a fight on her hands from her earliest days. Knocked around by her hard-as-nails, chain-smoking momma, LaVona (Alison Janney, in brilliant Oscar-baiting form), beaten up by her ne’er-do-well husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan), she manages to battle through, performing manoeuvres on the rink that no other skater has ever dared to try –  but her ‘wrong-side-of-the-tracks’ persona doesn’t stand her in good stead with the judges, who like to see a little more deportment doled out alongside the leaps, twirls and pirouettes.

Of course, we all know why she came to wider attention – through the notoriety of a vicious attack on her main rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), which left her hospitalised just as they were both preparing to skate in the Olympics. Despite being only tangentially involved in the incident – it was originally devised as a series of poison pen letters by Jeff and then pumped up out of all proportion by Tonya’s so-called ‘bodyguard,’ Shawn – Tonya ends up paying the highest price when Shawn decides to go a bit further with the plan and enlists the aid of some very dodgy people indeed. What follows is so bizarre, it can only be a true story…

Director Craig Gillespie handles the material with an edgy, almost experimental approach, throwing in slow-mo and jump cuts with glee – and the mesmerising skating sequences are so cleverly staged, you literally cannot see the joins. That appears to be Robbie on the screen, skating up a storm, but it can’t really be, can it? Like many other recent biopics, there’s a final sequence of interviews showing the real life protagonists, just so you can fully appreciate how close these characterisations keep to the originals, which is particularly surprising in the case of Paul Walter Hauser’s hilariously off-the-wall performance as the cartoonish Shawn. It’s an eye-opener.

Go and see this riotous, hard-hitting and occasionally hilarious film and enjoy what must qualify as one of the strangest sporting stories in recent history. And as for that rock soundtrack, if you can manage to sit in your seat without twitching and foot-tapping along in accompaniment, then you’re made of sterner stuff than me.

4.9 stars

Philip Caveney

Lady Bird

16/02/18

Greta Gerwig is a fascinating woman. After seemingly stumbling into the film business via a series of zero budget, mumblecore efforts, she has quickly demonstrated that she is a force to be reckoned with. The semi-autobiographical Frances Ha, written by Gerwig and directed by Noah Baumbach, plays like early Woody Allen and Lady Bird feels very much like a prequel to that film, with Saoirse Ronan stepping up to the plate to play a teenage version of Gerwig. From the opening sequence where Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson argues with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), in a moving car – and then throws herself out of it rather than continue the conversation – we are left in no doubt that this is the story of a troublesome teen, who is likely to get her own way in the end.

Christine lives in Sacramento but longs to go to college in New York, where she believes ‘culture lives’. But it isn’t as easy as that. Her father, Larry (Tracy Letts), recently lost his job, her adopted step brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), seems in no hurry to get one ,and its pretty much left to Marion, a psychiatric nurse, to bring home the bacon. Little wonder the thought of paying for a place at an Ivy League University doesn’t figure highly on her agenda. She and Christine have a troubled relationship and it’s this, more than anything else, that lies at the heart of this powerful and beguiling film, which Gerwig has chosen to direct herself. Typically, she handles it with great aplomb, somehow managing to make the running time fly past and coaxing wonderful performances from everyone involved, especially from Ronan and Metcalf, who make a winning combination.

The story is often very funny (a scene where the a drama group is run by a physical exercise coach is a particular stand out), but it’s powerful enough to occasionally tug at the heartstrings too. I particularly like Beanie Feldstein as Christine’s best friend, Julie, and there’s also a nice cameo from Timothee Chalomet as one of Christine’s patently unsuitable boyfriends. Oscar nominations have been announced and, who knows, in the present climate, the establishment might finally be ready to reward another female director, and Lady Bird could well be a surprise winner.

Whatever the outcome, this is a sublime piece of film-making that never puts a foot wrong and demonstrates only too clearly that Greta Gerwig is a talent to be reckoned with.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Pressure

13/01/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

The most momentous affairs of mankind can be influenced by the most unexpected elements. Take the weather, for instance. The British are seemingly obsessed with it and we all complain when the weathermen get it wrong – but some forecasts are way more important than others. Pressure tells the story of one of the many unheralded heroes of World War Two. It’s 1944 and Group Captain James Stagg (David Haig) is the meteorologist charged with the onerous task of predicting the conditions for D Day. He approaches the job weighed down by the certain knowledge that, if he gets it wrong, he could inadvertently cause the death of thousands of young allied troops.

This play, written by Haig and directed by John Dove, gives a fascinating insight into a little known historical incident. Stagg is presented as a gloomy and uncommunicative Scot, always reluctant to give a definitive answer (like most weathermen, I suppose) and simultaneously going through some personal pressures of his own. He lives in a world of isobars and barometer readings and has to answer directly to General Eisenhower (Malcolm Sinclair), who has 350,000 men standing by, waiting for the order to invade France. Luckily, Stagg also has Ike’s level-headed secretary Kay Summersby (Laura Rogers) on hand to guide him through the challenge of coming to the right decision and to help him argue against Ike’s own personal weatherman, who has a much more gung-ho approach to his work,

It’s to the play’s immense credit that all the talk about weather fronts and the constant unfurling of isometric maps never becomes boring – indeed the dialogue here often crackles with suspense and, as the time ticks steadily away towards D Day, we fully appreciate the enormity of Stagg’s ultimate decision, even though of course, history tells us that everything turned out all right in the end.

This is an absorbing story, cleverly told, and nicely acted by an ensemble cast – it’s well worth your time and money.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Rushmore

12/01/18

Wes Anderson is one of contemporary cinema’s most original talents. Although his subjects are diffuse and far-ranging, his movies are always shot through with an idiosyncratic sensibility that marks him out as a true auteur. With his new release, Isle of Dogs, looming on the horizon, this is clearly a great time for a retrospective of his work and Edinburgh’s Cameo Cinema have seized the moment by devoting Monday evenings to showings of all his full length films in chronological order. It also gives me the welcome opportunity to see the one Anderson film that has thus far eluded me.

After the incendiary calling card of Bottle Rocket, 1998’s Rushmore is the film that cemented Anderson’s reputation as a force to be reckoned with but, for a whole variety of reasons, I have never managed to catch up with it until now. It’s the story of Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) a fifteen-year-old student at the titular preparatory school who has an obsessive genius for organising clubs and societies, even if this means that his actual school work consistently falls short of its potential. He also writes and directs hilariously over-ambitious school plays – his adaptation of Serpico needs to be seen to be believed.

Max chances upon what he feels is a kindred spirit in Herman Blume (Bill Murray), a dispirited businessman who, despite considerable wealth, has become disillusioned with his loveless marriage and the antics of his two oafish sons. He is quite happy to fund some of Max’s madcap enterprises. Max’s acquisitive eye also falls on a new teacher, Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), whom he starts to pursue in reckless fashion, even attempting, as a declaration of his love for her, to build a massive aquarium on the school sports field, without even bothering to seek permission. When Rosemary and Herman start an affair, Max is devastated – and takes out his anger in ways that will have disastrous consequences for his future…

Rushmore is an unqualified delight from start to finish and Schwartzman’s performance in the lead role is an extraordinary tour de force. Max is an inspired creation, a charming maverick who, despite a surfeit of confidence, still has an appealing vulnerability. Bill Murray puts in a sanguine and understated effort as the jaded businessman and, as the film progresses, I find myself wondering why we haven’t seen a lot more of Olivia Williams on the big screen, because she offers a beguiling presence as Rosemary.

For me this is up there with Anderson’s finest work (and that’s praise indeed). The completist side of me is very happy to have finally had the chance to tick this off my ‘to see’ agenda. Any other Anderson fans who fancy catching up (or reconnecting) with his work on the big screen should keep their eyes peeled for subsequent showings. Even his slighter efforts are never less than interesting.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Ivy on the Square

11/02/18

St Andrew Square, Edinburgh

Let’s be honest, we’re here because of The Ivy, the famous London restaurant none of our party has ever visited, but which is synonymous with celebrity and exclusivity. Not that we’re expecting either of these tonight, but we’re keen to see what this Scottish outpost has to offer, and perhaps to gain some insight into why its progenitor is so talked about.

We’re with good friends, so we’re off to a promising start: we’re predisposed to enjoy ourselves when we’re in their company. True, we’ve looked at the menu on line and found it pretty uninspiring, and our companions have read some mixed reviews. But we’re here with open minds (and mouths); we’ll give it a fair chance.

And we’re glad we do, because it’s hard to find much fault. The decor is idiosyncratic, all busy prints and reflective surfaces, but it works: it’s modern and traditional and quirky all at once. Okay, so the tables are crammed a little closely together, and it’s busy and bustling so they’re a little slow with our drinks orders, but that’s no problem really; there’s a lively atmosphere and we’re in no rush. The service is attentive without being overbearing, and the food is really rather good.

I start with the tuna carpaccio, which is yellowfin tuna served with ponzu dressing, avocado purée, toasted sesame and coriander shoots. It’s a thing of beauty, and the standout of the meal for me. It’s spicy but delicate, and the fish is melt-in-the-mouth soft. Lovely! Philip has the warm crispy duck salad, which comes with five spice dressing, toasted cashews, watermelon, beansprouts, coriander and ginger. He’s especially impressed by the textures, and by the surprising addition of the watermelon, and declares it a winning way to begin.

His main is line-caught swordfish with red pepper sauce, Provencal black olives, fregola and chimichurri dressing. It’s a simple dish, but a well-executed one, the fish seared to perfection. I opt for the ‘classic’ Ivy on the Square shepherd’s pie, which comprises slow-braised lamb shoulder with beef and Isle of Mull Cheddar potato mash. It’s not like any shepherd’s pie I’ve had before, its elevation completed by the robust gravy that accompanies it, which is rich and densely flavoured.

Do we have  room for pudding? Of course we do. And, having seen it delivered to a neighbouring table, we both opt for the chocolate bombe,  a delicious dome of milk chocolate, which – under a torrent of hot butterscotch sauce – melts into a vanilla ice cream and honeycomb centre. It’s as theatrical as it is sinfully delicious, and we’re suitably impressed.

All in all, we’ve had a great evening, relaxed and unhurried, and we’ve thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Will we be back? I’d say it’s highly likely.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield