Death of a Salesman

20/06/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

There’s no doubting the power and tragic beauty of this Arthur Miller play: I remember its strength from sixth-form English lessons; even reading around the classroom, it seemed to come alive. On stage and film, I have always found it utterly compelling, a desperately sad – and sadly desperate – illumination of our times.

Okay, so the specifics are late-forties New York, but Willy Loman is an everyman, and his predicament still common to those of us who live in capitalist societies around the world.  We are sold a dream: we are in charge of our own destinies. Work hard, and you will get somewhere. Compete, and you can be the best. Buy these products; owning them will show others what you’re worth. But for Willy, the dream he’s bought in to is crumbling: he isn’t great; he’s ordinary. And he’s lost his edge. He’s a salesman who no longer sells, and corporate America spits him out. Willy is outraged to discover he’s been had, and rails against the boss that now deems him obsolete: “You can’t eat the orange, and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit.” But his rage is impotent: the odds are stacked against him. Howard does indeed discard him, and Willy is left bereft, forced to confront the reality that his life has been a sham. His house is small and crumbling; his children haven’t changed the world. He can’t even grow beets in his yard, for pity’s sake. And now, when he’s old and tired, he’s left frantic and worried: how can he make ends meet?

This touring production (by Royal & Derngate, Northampton, in association with Cambridge Arts Theatre) has a thoroughly modern feel. It’s not that the period has changed, exactly, it’s just been made less prominent. The minimalist stage, with its fizzing neon illumination – THE LAND OF THE FREE – gives an eerie sense of transience and flimsiness. Costumes are subtly contemporary in style; Howard’s voice-recorder is tiny and looks like today’s technology, but there’s no suggestion it has more than one function. Howard’s reaction to this piece of kit is illustrative too: Thom Tuck (last seen by Bouquets & Brickbats as the excellent Scaramouche Jones) is delightfully brash and insensitive, showing off about how much money he’s spent on this vanity item, even as he refuses to grant Willy a living wage. “Ask your sons,” he tells Willy, blissfully unaware of his own hypocrisy. “Now’s no time for pride.”

Nicholas Woodeson is perfect for the lead role, conveying Willy’s struggle with warmth and vitality. We are frustrated by his refusal to accept a job offer from Charley (Geff Francis), but we understand it too: Howard is wrong; Willy’s pride is all he has left. The anger that spills out of him in response to Linda’s concern is utterly convincing too: he doesn’t want her to worry about him, to prop him up because he’s down. He wants her to be impressed by him, and he’s self-aware enough to know she pities him these days. Tricia Kelly plays Linda with real heart; her anguish, although quieter, is every bit as real as her husband’s, and her epilogue speech is delivered with unbearable dignity. It makes me weep.

I think it’s the direction that makes this production so good: Abigail Graham has done a wonderful job of clarifying everybody’s pain. We know what they’re all feeling, and can’t help but empathise, even when they’re behaving as badly as they can. Indeed, George Taylor’s dysfunctional Biff is the most fully realised I have ever seen. Infidelities, theft, cruelty: none of these are hidden from our view. Because flawed people are people too, and we’re all deserving of respect.

This is a superb production of a truly great play. It’s on at the King’s until 24th June, and the tour continues elsewhere until 15th July. I urge you to try to catch it if you can.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Gifted

18/06/17

In this enjoyable tearjerker, Chris Evans hangs up his Captain America outfit in order to play something a little more down to earth – an ordinary joe. He’s Frank Adler, a freelance ‘boat-builder’ who has appointed himself guardian of his young niece, Mary (an extraordinarily accomplished performance from McKenna Grace) after her mother’s suicide. The two of them live together in a Florida trailer park with one-eyed ginger cat, Fred. Next-door neighbour, Roberta (Octavia Spencer) pitches in to help out with babysitting duties when Frank needs to hit the local bar. But problems occur when he decides he needs to enroll Mary in elementary school – up to now he’s been tutoring her at home. There’s a reason why Frank has been holding off on this. Mary’s mother, Diane, was a mathematical genius who devoted her life to trying to solve one of the infamous Millennium Prize Equations – and it soon becomes apparent that her daughter has inherited her skills, when Mary finds her school maths lessons laughably easy and treats them with contempt.

Her teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate) recognises her new student’s potential and informs the school’s principal. Before anyone has time to think about the implications of this, Mary’s Grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan, playing a solid gold, pole-up-the-ass Brit) appears on the scene with plans to whisk Mary off to a special school where she can devote her life to  completing Diane’s unfinished project. Frank’s view is that Mary deserves to have an ordinary childhood and wants to keep her suitably grounded. Inevitably, he and Evelyn end up in court, fighting for custody of Mary.

This is undeniably emotionally manipulative stuff – and I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t have me in tears at a couple of key points. But there’s plenty here to admire, not least Tom Flynn’s witty and acerbic script, which knows just when to lift the tension with a well-placed zinger. Director, Marc Webb (best known for the 2012 Spiderman reboot) handles the subject with skill, managing to stay just the right side of mawkishness and always ensuring that his characters are believable – even Evelyn (herself a gifted mathematician who sacrificed her own career to have a family) has reasons for acting the way she does.

But ultimately it’s McKenna Grace who makes this fly. I’ve no doubt that she has a huge future ahead of her. Meanwhile, this is well worth catching if only for the novelty of seeing Evans wearing blue jeans instead of spandex.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Cucina at G & V Hotel

17/06/17

Royal Mile, Edinburgh

It was my birthday yesterday, but events conspired to prevent us from celebrating together then (Philip was working in Yorkshire while I was at home in Edinburgh). No matter: the date is only a number, and an excuse for a treat. We’re happy to postpone our pleasure for a day.

We’re lured to Cucina with another bookatable deal (seriously, they’re hard to resist), and are soon happily perusing the Star Menu, drinking our complementary Prosecco  (this is becoming a habit; if we’re not careful, we’ll start expecting a free glass of fizz wherever we go). The decor is quirky: all bright colours and modern surfaces, not as in-your-face ‘designer’ as it used to be in its Hotel Missoni days, but definitely drawing on its previous incarnation’s style. And we’re looking forward to some stylish Italian nosh.

We’re not disappointed. The bread arrives promptly, and there’s a choice (we always appreciate a choice). I opt for a pumpkin seed, while Philip takes the sun-dried tomato. Both are lovely: fresh and chewy and distinctly naughty. We accept the offer of a second slice.

For starters, I choose steamed mussels; these are served in a light tomato sauce with garlic and chilli. They’re exactly as they should be: plump and tender and as moreish as can be. Philip’s homemade conchiglie with pork ragu is also very good indeed, the pasta served al dente with just the right amount of bite, and a deliciously herby pork sauce.

Our mains are good too, although maybe not quite as impressive as the starters. Philip’s BBQ chicken comes with roast potato and spinach, and he’s really impressed with the sauce, which is sweet and densely flavoured without being all thick and sticky and overpowering the dish. My cod with Savoy cabbage, chorizo, potatoes and lemon sauce is – in the main – beautifully cooked, although I don’t eat the skin, which is soft and flabby, and not crispy as I’d like. Still, that’s hardly a meal-ruining issue, and the rest of it is mouthwateringly good.

Would we like a pudding? Of course we would. At first, I’m disappointed with my tiramisu: it’s a light, delicate frothy thing, served in a cocktail glass, all sweetness and air. I’ve been looking forward to a thick slab of marscapone and soggy sponge, and this just doesn’t tick the boxes in my head. But it tastes divine and, actually, once I’ve eaten a few mouthfuls and got down to the sponge, I’m kind of glad it’s what it is. It’s less ‘gromphy’ for sure, but it’s a better ending to the meal we’ve had. Philip has no such qualms about his pud: it’s ice-cream. Readers of this blog might not be aware that, in some circles, Philip is renowned for being the world’s second best ice-cream eater, and he’s keen to try the liquorice, cocoa and pistachio flavours on offer here. He declares them bowl-lickingly good, although he does manage to refrain from actually demonstrating this.

Our bookatable deal even includes coffee and petit fours. Okay, so the tiny pieces of biscotti we receive are somewhat underwhelming, but we’re more than pleased with what we’ve had. Even with the (extra) bottle of Prosecco we’ve consumed, this all comes in at a very reasonable £88. Not bad at all.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Ricci’s Place

16/06/17

Crossley Street, Halifax

For writerly reasons, I’m in Halifax, a town I honestly don’t think I’ve ever visited  before. I’m staying at the White Swan hotel, so I put out a Facebook call for recommendations for somewhere to eat. Ricci’s Place proves to be one minute’s walk from my hotel, so I can hardly complain that it’s inaccessible. As I walk, I can’t help reflecting that Halifax will be much nicer once it’s finished. At the moment, huge swathes of it seem to be under reconstruction and travelling any distance requires the unwary traveller to side-step cement mixers, road drills and various other items of machinery. Ricci’s Place turns out to be one of those industrial chic establishments, all stripped floorboards and neon signs. It bills itself as a ‘modern kitchen.’ It’s still early so there are only ten or twelve diners in evidence.

For starters, I choose the crispy baby squid, served with rocket, chilli, lemon and alioli. It arrives almost before I finished ordering it, as though the chefs were waiting on starting blocks. For a moment I think that they’ve mistakenly prepared a main course, because this is a very hearty portion indeed, even by my gargantuan standards. I guess the term ‘crunchy’ should have tipped me off  to the fact that the squid would be coated with something, in this case a rather bland breadcrumb affair which unfortunately serves to mask the delicate flavour of the squid itself, but the accompanying salad is nicely spiced with a powerful punch of chilli, while the alioli is very garlicky indeed and makes me fear for the olfactory safety of the schoolchildren I shall be talking with tomorrow.

For the main course, I opt for ‘lasagna with a difference,’ mostly because I’m intrigued by the name. Changing the traditional recipe? Look what happened to Jamie Oliver when he dared to tweak the ingredients for spaghetti bolognese! There were riots in the streets! There were moves to have his head served on a plate! Clearly, Ricci (if he even exists) has no reservations whatsoever about playing fast and loose with tradition. This lasagna is made with wild boar and has an intense gamey flavour. It’s layered with buffalo mozzarella, duck eggs, speck (whatever the hell that is) and San Marzano tomatoes. It’s not exactly the handsomest meal you’ve ever seen but I have to say, it’s very satisfying indeed, particularly when you have a side order of hand cut chips to mop up that spectacularly herby sauce.

Again, the hefty portion size means I struggle to finish and though the sweets sound enticing, I am sadly quite beyond sampling them, so I head out into the half-finished streets and make the long, arduous trek back to my hotel.

So, a reasonably decent starter and a very satisfying main course. If you should happen to find  yourself in Halifax, for whatever reason, (perhaps you live there!) this is a decent dining experience – something to take your mind off all that building work.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Churchill

11/06/17

Biopics are notoriously hard to bring off successfully. Jonathan Teblitzsky, better known perhaps for his work on Broadchurch, should therefore be heartily congratulated for what he has achieved here, creating a film that not only shows us aspects of an iconic man that we’ve never really witnessed before, but also one that includes several scenes that are genuinely affecting. (Trust me, take some hankies.)

Set in the three days leading up to Operation Overlord, we are shown a Churchill who is being completely marginalised by Eisenhower (John Slattery) and by Montgomery (Julian Wadham), both of whom feel he is hopelessly out of touch and well past his sell-by date. Moreover, we are shown a Churchill who is bitterly opposed to the invasion of France, fearing a repetition of the disastrous events of Gallipoli, which he sanctioned during the First World War.

Brian Cox’s performance in the lead role is extraordinary; more than just an uncanny impersonation, it goes to the heart of the man behind the public image, showing not just the irascible old tyrant we’ve all seen before, but also a man haunted by the ghosts of the thousands of young troops he sent to their deaths. As the long-suffering Clementine, Miranda Richardson provides just the right degree of steely determination, as she manages her difficult husband from the wings, smoothing over his many outbursts, and helping those who have to deal with him get their messages home. One of those maligned is his young secretary, Helen (a touching performance by Ella Purnell), who suffers from his harsh words more than most – and who has more reason than most to be fearful of the outcome of Operation Overlord.

I fully expect to see Cox’s efforts awarded prizes next time these things are handed out – but the film is more than just that remarkable performance.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Mummy

10/05/17

When I heard this was looming on the cinematic horizon, my first thought was, ‘What, again?’

But then I realised it was actually as far back as 1999 and 2001 respectively that Steven Sommers enjoyed box-office hits with his two instalments of sarcophagus-bothering and, as it transpires, this is something rather different: the opening salvo in a series of ‘Dark Universe’ films. Inspired, no doubt, by what Marvel and DC are currently doing with their back catalogue, the bigwigs at Universal have clearly decided to raid their vaults and resurrect some of their most celebrated monster-themed hits. This initial offering has Tom Cruise attached, which is probably as close as you can get, in these troubled times, to a guarantee of bums-on-seats.

Here, Cruise plays Nick Morton, a not altogether honourable guy, who spends his time in war zones, ‘liberating’ antiquities (i.e. nicking them and flogging them on the black market). In war torn Iraq, with his sidekick, Chris (Jake Johnson), he stumbles upon a tomb – an Egyptian tomb, which is around a thousand miles away from where it ought to be. The audience has already been tipped off in a pre-credits sequence as to the provenance of said tomb (there’s a lengthy preamble about crusaders and murdered pharaohs), but what Nick doesn’t know is that this place is actually a repository for the undead soul of Ahmanet (Sofia Boutell), who has been waiting five thousand years to be reborn. What’s more, one glance at Nick and she’s smitten by him – probably because, just like her, Cruise is somewhat older than he looks and incredibly well-preserved.

At any rate, Nick quickly finds himself possessed by Ahmanet and suffering from confusing visions of shifting sands and a mysterious jewel-handled dagger. Antiquities expert (and convenient love interest) Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) promptly whisks him over to London for a meeting with Dr Jekyll – yes, that Dr Jekyll (Russell Crowe) and many supernatural shenanigans ensue, replete with all the usual suspects – rats, spiders and scarab beetles.

This is actually a bit of a romp and, though there are some fairly grisly sequences, scattered throughout the proceedings, the accent is mostly on humour. Director Alex Kurtzman keeps the pot bubbling and never lets things get too bogged down in detail. The film occasionally borrows quite shamelessly from other hit movies– a repeated trope with Nick talking to an undead companion could have been lifted directly from John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London – but there is at least a decent script that actually displays a modicum of knowledge about Egyptian mythology. The more eagle-eyed viewers may spot items on display in Dr Jekyll’s laboratory that hint at other Universal products waiting in the wings for their chance to step back into the spotlight. Is that a vampire’s skull in a glass jar? I wonder, who can that belong to? And that scaly hand… The Creature From the Black Lagoon? At any rate, next for this treatment is The Bride of Frankenstein, so don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Horror movie purists will undoubtedly find themselves disappointed by The Mummy – it never really conjures up enough menace to totally creep you out – but those who, like me, go along with very low expectations, could actually wind up pleasantly surprised by what’s on offer. Give it a chance. It might be just your cup of mercury.

4 Stars

Philip Caveney

My Cousin Rachel

10/06/17

I’ll admit to a soft spot for Daphne du Maurier, despite the melodrama and the bodice-ripping. Okay, so her books are essentially pot-boilers, all over-hyped emotion and bald sensationalism. However, I read them first as a teenager, and just couldn’t put them down. They’re exciting, engaging stories, whatever literary merit they lack. But, though I devoured all those my local library stocked, My Cousin Rachel didn’t grace their shelves. So I approach this film in the unusual position of a fan who doesn’t really know the source material.

It’s typical du Maurier though; this doesn’t challenge my expectations. And director Roger Michell embraces her style, filling in the expository details with remarkable economy, and focusing on the growing fears of Philip Ashley (Sam Clafin), as the eponymous Rachel (Rachel Weisz), his uncle’s widow, beguiles him with her charms.

It’s the ambiguity that makes this film: is Rachel a femme fatale, a ruthless gold-digger who wants to destroy Philip? Or is she, instead, held to account for her beauty, made to carry the blame for men’s desires, accused of destroying them if she does not reciprocate?  This duality is what creates the tension here, and it’s meticulously rendered throughout. I tend towards the latter theory, but it’s really not clear cut.

A fascinating movie then: slow-paced but exhilarating; schlocky but sophisticated. The Cornish locations are beautifully evoked, Rachel Weisz is glorious in the lead role (of course she is), and the supporting cast is decent too. Well worth a watch – and now I’m off to buy the book. It’s about time I read it, after all.

4 stars

Susan Singfield