El Camino

18/10/19

Billed as ‘a Breaking Bad Movie,’ this Netflix orginal plays more like an extended episode of the much-loved television series, but that’s no bad thing. There are some loose ends that need tying up and writer/director Vince Gilligan gives it his best shot here. The titular vehicle is, of course, the one in which Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) finally makes his escape from the evil Nazi villains who have kept him locked up for so long.

Immediately, there are a few problems. The actors have clearly aged considerably more than the few minutes that are supposed to have elapsed since we last saw the characters. This is particularly evident in the case of Todd (Jesse Plemons), who now has an entirely different physique. However, once this abberation has been taken on board, the film motors along at full throttle, as Jesse sets about trying to engineer his disappearance off the face of the planet.

His first port of call is with old comrades, Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), the latter delivering what is probably the film’s most poignant line. As Jesse struggles to put together enough money to fund his disappearing act, the narrative becomes ever more convoluted, ever more dangerous – and there are regular flashbacks that allow deceased characters to make cameo appearances. Some fare better than others, and its a shame to note that the one we wanted to see more than any other, doesn’t really have an awful lot to add to the story. And fans of Better Call Saul are, I’m afraid, set for disappointment.

Gilligan’s familiar tropes are here: the big skies and sun-blasted landscapes of Alburquerque; the focus on the endearing oddities of the characters; the idiosyncratic dialogue. Despite his changed appearance, it’s Plemons who shines most as the psycopathic Todd, never more interesting than when he’s at the wheel of his car, singing serenely along to a slushy ballad while he transports the body of his latest victim to its last resting place. Sad too, to note the final performance from the recently deceased Robert Forster as the mysterious Ed.

This keeps me engaged right through to its tender and rather touching conclusion but, while it serves as a decent curtain-closer to the series, it doesn’t exactly blow me away. Perhaps too much time has elapsed since I last engaged with Mr Pinkman and co – or maybe those loose ends just don’t offer enough knots to unravel.

3.9 stars

Philip Caveney

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The Stornoway Way

12/10/19

Studio Theatre, Edinburgh

Adapted by Kevin MacNeil from his 2005 novel, The Stornoway Way is the story of Roman (Naomi Stirrat), a would-be singer-songwriter living on the remote Isle of Lewis. Roman dreams of making the big time, but can’t seem to prise himself away from the whisky bottle long enough to put any constructive plans into action.

When his best friend Eilidh (Rachel Kennedy) offers to fund a trip to Edinburgh so Roman can spend time in a recording studio, he happily goes along with the scheme – but then he meets Hungarian student, Eva (Chloe-Ann Taylor), in an Edinburgh bar, and things become more complicated. And the whisky bottle is still exerting its tenacious pull.

The three actors put in spirited performances here but are hampered by a script that never manages to rise above the inescapable fact that the central character is a self-pitying wreck of a man. It’s usual in such stories to expect a little redemption along the way, but it’s in short supply here.

Still. it’s not all bad news.

There are pleasing elements: the folky songs featuring Gaelic lyrics (with an onscreen English translation) give proceedings an occasional lift, and the sly quips exchanged by the Lewis islanders in the first half elicit knowing laughter from the audience. Matthew Zajac’s direction is nicely done and there’s a handsome set courtesy of Ali Maclaurin. But it’s puzzling that, despite its title, most of the story unfolds not on the Isle of Lewis, but in Edinburgh. And in the second half, Roman’s relentless journey towards self-destruction begins to pall.

I’ve no doubt that the novel, written from the lead character’s cynical point of view, works a good deal more successfully than this rather scattershot adaptation. And, no matter how spirited a performance Stirrat gives us, she cannot convince me that anybody would offer this toxic male the time of day.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Love Song to Lavender Menace

12/10/19

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Love Song to Lavender Menace is a charming piece of metatheatre: an homage to a book shop disguised as… an homage to a book shop. Not just any old book shop, mind. This is Lavender Menace, the iconic gay/lesbian/feminist book shop that served Edinburgh’s queer community for five years in the ’80s.

Lewis (Pierce Reid) and Glen (Matthew McVarish) are packing up; the shop as they know it is going; it’s being renamed and relocated – and Lewis too is moving on. He’s sad and anxious, so focuses his attention on rehearsing the performance he and Glen have prepared as a parting gift for owners Bob and Sigrid, telling the story of the store and what it’s meant to so many marginalised people. The quirky direction by Ros Philips sees Lewis playing Sigrid ‘as a statue’ – arms aloft – and Glen being inventive with a roll of parcel tape.

The set is delightful: all chalkboard bookshelves backlit with blank white spines. It’s both playful and uncluttered, suggestive of a place where people can write their own lives.

It’s a funny, poignant play, and it’s no surprise to see a packed auditorium as it returns to the Lyceum, this time on the main stage. Playwright James Ley’s affection for Lavender Menace and what it represents shines through in every scene, evoking a sense of nostalgia even for those of us who were never there. For those who were, this must be a powerful draw indeed.

Cleverly, despite the claustrophobic lens through which we view this intimate memoir, we are offered a wider perspective, as Sigrid Nielson’s voice emanates from a cassette deck, ethereal and portentous. It gets better, then it gets worse, she says. Then better, then worse, then better again. We’re reminded of how bad things can be: of Clause 28 and gay-bashing, of the incendiary homophobic rhetoric that prevailed in the ’80s.

Nevertheless, the disturbing backdrop notwithstanding, this is not a tragic tale. It is a buoyant, vibrant celebration of a sanctuary, of a radical space in a conservative city.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Things I Know to be True

09/10/19

Bedlam Theatre, Edinburgh

This thoughtful and bitter-sweet play by Andrew Bovell is all about family: the everyday sacrifices made by parents, and the difficulties experienced by their offspring when they try to escape those powerful familial ties.

Rosie Price (Maddy Chisholm-Scott) is midway through a backpacking tour of Europe, when something goes horribly wrong in Berlin. Devastated, she heads back to Australia, to 25, Windarie Avenue, the family home. Here, Bob (Matthew Storey) presides over his immaculately tended rose garden, where he’s spent all his time since taking early retirement. His wife, Fran (Amelia Watson), continues to put in long and punishing shifts at the local hospital, where she is a nurse.

Rosie’s early return from her travels brings her siblings to the house to ask a few difficult questions – though it soon becomes apparent that they all have their own problems to deal with.  There’s Pip (Erin Bushe), currently going through a messy separation from her husband and children. There’s Ben (Liam Bradbury), desperately trying to make his name in the cut-throat world of big business, and there’s Mark (Matthew Sedman), who is contemplating a life change that will have repercussions for the whole family.

This is an accomplished piece from these student actors, with Story and Watson managing – with the aid of some expertly applied makeup – to convince us that they’re actually a couple in their 60s. The direction by Marie Rimolsronning and Alice Foley is assured, and the elaborate set works well, creating a sense of the seasons passing as the various story strands unravel. If the play’s first half feels a little overlong and would benefit from some judicious pruning, the second half is leaner and more powerful.

There’s only one notable misstep, where Mark is obliged to deliver some lines from ‘up a tree.’ Somewhat let down by the scale of the props, he looks like a comical giant, so that the gravity of the scene is compromised. It would work so much better if he were to remain grounded!

There’s a tragic and genuinely heartbreaking conclusion: it’s this climactic moment, where Bob’s seemingly indominatable composure is finally and irrevocably shattered, that lingers in the memory.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

On Your Feet

 

07/10/19

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

On Your Feet is the story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, following the well-trodden path of using bands’ back catalogues to create a musical. Unlike its precedessors however, Miami Sound Machine’s greatest hits are not playfully shoe-horned into a corny piece of fiction; instead they’re used to illustrate the band’s history.

It’s partially successful. There’s no denying the rousing nature of the music: the feel-good, toe-tapping, hip-swinging joy of it. This is an extravaganza of a show, with dazzling costumes (by Emilio Sosa), fizzing dance routines and a sense of well-earned pride in what the Estefans achieved. There’s a buzz in the auditorium; people are excited to be here, enjoying themselves.

Their history is interesting: as Cuban immigrants living in Miami, Gloria and Emilio struggled to break into the American music scene, despite their huge success in South America. But their fusion-tunes made a lot of sense, reflecting both their heritage and their assimilation. Their dedication to proving there was an appetite for ‘cross-over’ music is heartening to see realised.

The storytelling is somewhat artless though – surprisingly so from Alexander Dinelaris, the writer of Birdman – a chocolate-box depiction of the band’s rise to fame. The dialogue is clunkily expository in places, and perhaps there’s not quite enough plot. Gloria’s near-fatal traffic accident in the second act is supposed to provide the jeopardy, I suppose, but – as told here – it doesn’t have enough dramatic resonance, and the self-congratulatory tone of her recovery is truly cringe-inducing. Do we really need to have sycophantic fan letters read (and sung) aloud to us?

Still, there are some gutsy performances here tonight, not least from Philippa Stefani as Gloria. The ensemble work is beautifully choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, and the on-stage musicians are  seriously good.

We head out into the night singing and smiling – and that really can’t be bad. In the end the rhythm gets us.

3.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Joker

05/10/19

Joker arrives in the UK amidst a deluge of controversy. To some minds, it’s a work of genius. To others, it’s a dangerous and divisive polemic that invites troubled souls to indulge in their darkest, most dangerous fantasies. To my mind, the film belongs fully in the former slot, but it would be naïve to suggest that it’s not a searing indictment of American society, and that it doesn’t feel suspiciously like a call to arms. Though the names of a couple of films on a cinema marquee place the action in 1981, make no mistake: this is all about the America of today – and it’s not a pretty picture. The rich corporations rule this Gotham while the poor, the sick and the dispossessed are marginalised and brushed under the carpet.

Joaquin Phoenix puts in an extraordinary performance in the central role. He’s Arthur Fleck, a scrawny, malnourished loser, living with his ageing mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), in a dilapidated apartment in Gotham City. Arthur dreams of being a successful comedian, but lacks the ability to understand jokes or even deliver the routines he writes, since he suffers from a condition that makes him laugh involuntarily at random intervals. He earns a crust as a street-clown and children’s entertainer but, even in these roles, he’s beset by problems, picked on by street gangs and openly mocked by his fellow clowns. Meanwhile, he fantasises hopelessly about his neighbour, Sophie (Zazie Beets), and fills the empty hours watching his chat show idol, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), on TV. But the cruelty he experiences on an almost daily basis is building something uncontrollable deep within him… something that will eventually inspire others to follow him.

Director and co-writer Todd Philips, previously best known for lame buddy comedy The Hangover, has really struck a powerful chord here. His reimagining of the Joker’s origin story is bleak but compelling stuff and, despite Phoenix’s dazzling starburst at the film’s core, the supporting characters are all well drawn and the hellish cityscapes in which the story unfolds are strikingly shot. Throw in a brooding musical score by Hildur Guönadóttir and you have a movie that grips like a vice from start to finish. The influences are evident and clearly not accidental. Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy are both openly referenced, and eagle-eyed film fans will also spot a brief homage to Sidney Lumet’s Network. It’s lovely also to see De Niro in a serious role for the first time in what seems like ages.

It’s ironic to note that this film goes straight to the top of my favourite DC movies, particularly as it doesn’t feature a superhero of any description – unless you count a glimpse of the infant Bruce Wayne, who will of course grow up to be Joker’s main adversary – and, doubly ironic, when you consider that my previous favourite was The Dark Knight, which also featured a memorable Joker in Heath Ledger. I guess the simple truth is that the Joker has overshadowed Batman in most of the films they’ve featured in together; he’s just a more interesting character.

Joker is a must-see: a brilliant evocation of an American city at flashpoint. The central message may trouble you – indeed, it really should trouble you – but this is giant steps ahead of most of the superhero stuff that’s currently out there.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

 

Clybourne Park

04/10/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

According to Rapture Theatre’s artistic director Michael Emans, Bruce Norris’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner is all about “exposing the hypocrisy of middle-class, educated people, who will happily uphold the principles of fairness and equality – unless and until those principles impinge on their own interests.” If this is the intention behind Clybourne Park, then it is wholly successful. This play is tragic, profound, and uproariously funny – but it’s also an uncomfortable watch, skewering the liberal self-image of the typical theatre-goer.

The action takes place in the living room of a large house in a Chicago suburb, with two acts separated by fifty years. In 1959, affluent white couple Bev (Jackie Morrison) and Russ (Robin Kingsland) are selling up. They need to escape the home where their son killed himself; they can’t bear to stay. But their neighbour, Karl (Jack Lord), is dismayed to learn that, because of the cheap asking price, the purchasers are a black family; he doesn’t want ‘colored’ people moving in and lowering the tone – or the house prices.

This first act is easy for a white liberal audience member like me: as expected, I’m appalled by Karl’s racism, embarrassed by his appeal to black servant, Francine (Adelaide Obeng), and her husband, Albert (Vinta Morgan), to back him up. I’m drawn to Bev and Russ, stricken by loss, dragged unwillingly into Karl’s drama.

The second act is both more playful and more challenging. It’s 2009, and the neighbourhood is now mostly black. Young white couple, Lindsey (Frances McNamee) and Steve (Jack Lord) have bought the house; they want to bulldoze it and rebuild from scratch. Community group members, Lena (Adelaide Obeng) and Kevin (Vinta Morgan), have objected to the plans. The neighbourhood has historical significance, Lena maintains. People like Lindsey and Steve can’t just trample over that.

Steve is quick to feel the slight; he’s certain he knows what Lena really means. She doesn’t want them there because they’re white.

And, before we know it, a huge row has erupted, and no one is safe from the fallout. It’s excruciating and toe-curling, as one line after another is crossed.

In essence, Clybourne Park is a comedy of manners, a satirical examination of societal standards and behaviour in the US. Has anything really changed since the 1950s? It would seem not, and the doubling of roles highlights this. Steve clearly thinks all anti-racist talk is fake, a façade belying people’s real beliefs. Lindsey’s painfully right-on posturing is exposed as a fragile edifice, while lawyer Kathy (Jackie Morrison)’s paper-thin skin prevents her from ever seeing beyond her own nose. Lena, on the other hand,  clearly delights in stirring things up; her politeness is only a veneer; she wants to rattle Steve and Lindsey out of their self-satisfaction.

The performances are excellent, Lord in particular wringing every ounce of comic potential from his angry-white-man routine. The script is expertly realised in this production, every line given the space to breathe, each joke and jibe the chance to land.

It’s classy, thought-provoking stuff.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield