I, Daniel Blake



If everything had gone to plan, this film wouldn’t have seen the light of day. Ken Loach’s previous movie, Jimmy’s Hall, was intended to be his swan song. And though that was a decent enough film, it was hardly up there with his finest work.But clearly, a look around ‘Benefits Britain’  – as engendered by the Tory party’s heartless policies – has stirred the veteran director out of retirement. I, Daniel Blake is not so much a film as a protracted howl of anger – and it’s one of the finest polemics I’ve seen on the cinema screen.

Dan (stand-up comedian, Dave Johns) is a carpenter who has recently suffered a serious heart attack. Told by his doctor that he’s not fit to go back to work, he signs on, but soon discovers that  the ‘decision-maker’ has deemed him ‘fit for work.’ Of course, he has no income, so if he wants money, he’ll have to apply for Jobseeker’s Allowance. This obliges him to trudge around Newcastle looking for jobs that he isn’t fit enough to accept even in the unlikely event that he gets them. During one trip to the Job Centre, he encounters Katie (Hayley Squires) a young single mother with two kids to look after. She’s recently been relocated from London to Newcastle and is desperately trying to find work. Dan befriends her, and becomes a kind of surrogate grandfather to the two children.

All the familiar Loach tropes are here – non actors, giving every scene a shot of verité, semi-improvised dialogue and a story that meanders from incident to incident with little in the way of a traditional story arc. But what there is in abundance is a sense of simmering anger, an incomprehension that life in this green and pleasant land could have come to this sorry state of affairs. There are scenes here that would move the most implacable viewer to tears (a scene set in a food bank is particularly affecting). If this should prove to be Loach’s final film, it’s a hell of a leaving card.

This should be required viewing for every politician in the land.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Walking On Walls



Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Walking On Walls by Morna Pearson is part of the Traverse’s latest ‘A Play, A Pie and A Pint’ season. There are five plays, each one shown at 1pm from Tuesday to Saturday, with one later performance on a Friday evening. It’s a successful concept and clearly very popular; today’s show is sold out. And really, what’s not to like about a £12.50 theatre ticket that also includes a savoury pie and a pint of ale (wine or soft drinks are also available)?

We’ve extolled the virtues of the Traverse and have invited friends to join us today, so we’re extra keen for this one to be good. And (quite by chance) Philip met one the actors at an event in Glasgow, last night, which adds another level of pressure; he wants to be able to offer genuine praise!

Luckily, we’re not disappointed. Morna Pearson’s script is sharp and liberally laced with dark humour. It tells the tale of Claire, a young woman still traumatised by the bullying she experienced at school. Her solution is to become a masked vigilante; after work each evening, she stalks the city’s streets, looking for people to help and reporting ‘criminals’ to the police.

As the lights go up, she is keeping an eye on her latest project: a man, bound and gagged, sits listening to her, growing more and more agitated. She’s called the police, she says; they’ll be here soon. But we quickly learn more about Fraser and how his past interconnects with Claire’s.

It’s a simple two-hander in a black box studio, with minimal props and a basic set (two desks, two  chairs, a scattering of stationery). But the simplicity absolutely suits the piece.  Both actors (Helen Mackay and Andy Clark) inhabit their characters convincingly. Their relationship – with all its tensions and revelations – is deliciously  uncomfortable, but there are plenty of laughs amid the heartache and despair.

It might be tough to get a ticket for this, but I do urge you to try. It’s a cracking little play – and the pies are pretty good too.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

The Mousetrap



King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been on this planet for sixty-four years and I’ve never seen a stage production of Agatha Christies’s The Mousetrap beforeIronically, the play has been around for exactly the same length of time as I have. It was first performed  in 1952 and has been running in the West End ever since. This touring production, directed by Ian Watt-Smith, is at the King’s Theatre until the 22nd of October.

It’s a single-room drama and the events take place in an extraordinarily naturalistic set, which looks as though it was tailor-made to fit the stage of the King’s (although, of course, it wasn’t, and will shortly move on).  The detail is meticulous – even the smattering of snow on the characters’ coats melts as they warm up by the fire. We are in Monkswell Manor, an old country pile, where Mollie Ralston (Ann Anderson) and her husband Giles (Nick Barclay) are attempting to set up a guest house. As the play opens, a terrible snowstorm is in progress and we learn very quickly that there has been a brutal murder nearby. As the first clutch of guests begin to arrive, it is apparent that each of them can be considered a suspect – especially the histrionic ‘Christopher Wren’ (a deliciously revved-up performance by Oliver Gully), whose ill-considered utterances make him look more suspicious by the moment, and the mysterious Mr Paravicini (Gregory Cox), who wears makeup to appear older than he really is – why? The first half closes with the murder of one of the guests and, in the second act, it is up to Sergeant Trotter, who has arrived on skis in the middle of the storm, to attempt to unravel which of the Manor’s inhabitants is guilty of murder most foul.

This is unashamedly old-fashioned in its style and ambitions (how could it not be?) and fans of Agatha Christie will revel in the avalanche of red herrings unleashed here. At times, it’s like being caught up in a game of Cluedo, with characters conveniently slipping away to a variety of locations throughout the house, just as something important happens. Of course, the play is famous for it’s ‘twist’ ending and it’s impossible not to play armchair detective as you try to unravel the possibilities of who might be hiding something. The play’s revelation (which audiences are always entreated not to reveal) must have seemed pretty incredible back in the day, but those well-versed in detective stories may find themselves guessing the eventual outcome early in the proceedings.

It doesn’t matter. This is an enjoyable slice of classic theatre and it’s easy to see why it has remained in the public gaze for so long. Why not drop in and see if you can work it out for yourself?

4 stars

Philip Caveney


A Bench On The Road



Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

A Bench On The Road, is quite clearly a passion project for writer/director Laura Passetti – and how gratifying it must have be for her to see the Assembly Roxy packed (almost literally) to the rafters with tonight’s eager and appreciative audience. This is a slice of verbatim theatre, based on the testimonies of female immigrants who travelled from Italy to Scotland to begin new lives. Here are their stories plucked from different points in one hundred years of history – twenty five million Italians left their homeland between 1850 and 1950 and thousands of them chose to settle in Scotland – and yet, with what’s currently happening in the Mediterranean, this really could not be a more prescient production, examining exactly what it means to be a migrant, how it feels  to leave the land of your birth in search of a new life. As Passetti (an Italian immigrant herself) told me during the brief chat we had earlier this month, history has a habit of repeating itself.

Perhaps the play’s most effective sequences are those set during the Second World War when the rise of fascism under Mussolini impacted on those Italians who had already relocated to Scotland, where parents were forcibly separated from those children who had been born in their new homeland.

Simply but effectively staged, by Charioteer Theatre, the play features three Italian and three Scottish actors with accordian player, Caroline Anderson Hussey. Jaunty Italian dance songs are counterpointed by plaintive Scottish airs, cleverly underlining the clash of cultures. The performances are all exemplary and the harmonies as the six actors join together in song are sometimes exquisite. If there’s an occasional problem with catching lines of dialogue, it’s more to do with being perched right at the back of the sizable theatre space than with any shortcomings on the actor’s part. This is powerful stuff and my only regret is that we caught it at the very end of its short tour, instead of at the beginning, where we could have urged more people to see it..

The performance concludes to an ecstatic standing ovation and I can’t help feeling that this is a production that deserves a wider audience. Looking around at the delighted faces of tonight’s crowd, there’s every reason to believe that A Bench On The Road could just find it.

4 stars

Philip Caveney


My Scientology Movie/Going Clear


With its unusual release scheduling, it was actually quite difficult to see Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie. Most cinemas seemed to be showing it as a one-off on Monday 10th October and, we were dismayed to discover, tickets had sold out across all venues in Edinburgh, days in advance.

Really? Were we not going to be able to see it? Luckily our local indie – the lovely Cameo Picture House – eventually decided to put on a couple of extra showings, so we trooped along last night, late to the party but glad to have blagged a pass. And these extra shows all sold out too, so it seems odd that it’s not been given more of an airing, unless the scarcity is a strategy in itself. If it is, it’s working…

The film itself is a bit of a curate’s egg. It’s hard not to enjoy Theroux’s antics: he’s immensely likeable – quirky, funny,serious, demanding, self-reflective – and the film is never less than entertaining, engaging my attention throughout.

But… well, it’s impossible to ignore the emptiness at the film’s core. It’s supposed to be a documentary about Scientology, and it isn’t really. Not much is illuminated here.

I’m minded, this morning, to watch Alex Gibney’s 2015 Scientology documentary, Going Clear, referenced by Louis Theroux in the Q & A session broadcast after his film. So I rent it from amazon – and the comparison is stark. Gibney’s film is a much richer affair, explanatory and revelatory in a way Theroux’s is not. It’s clear that Gibney’s movie has impacted on Theroux’s, made him realise he needs a different angle to give it a USP – but, honestly, I don’t think his solution really works.

Going Clear is truly an exposé. It traces the origins of Scientology, reveals plenty about L Ron Hubbard’s motives (primarily to make a lot of money and pay no tax) and raises a lot of important issues that Theroux just doesn’t touch upon. There’re those Sea Org members, for example, who work for 40c per hour, a slave wage that has led to the FBI investigating  the church on suspicion of human trafficking.

From Theroux, I learn that the Scientologists are neurotic about their privacy, that they don’t welcome journalists, that they go out of their way to intimidate those who speak out against them. I learn that new recruits sign up for classes and pay their way up the scale, and that those who reach the upper echelons become members of the elite Sea Org (no mention here of the menial work they are expected to do). I learn that the church is rich and litigious. I don’t learn much else.

And this vacuum is a fatal flaw. Okay, so it’s fascinating to watch former Inspector General Marty Rathbun run the full gamut of emotions, to witness the mixture of contempt and awe he still feels for Scientology. It’s painful to witness his inability to examine his own culpability and the naked defensiveness that emerges when he’s questioned. But even here, Gibney elicits more than Theroux. In Going Clear, Rathbun admits to feeling shame, to regrets that haunt him all the time. We also gain a greater understanding of why people choose to stay in a cult that bullies and abuses them: some have grown up within its confines; others can’t bear to admit that they have been so duped, so compromised. Some are frightened, not just of the persecution they know follows those who leave, but also of what might be revealed: the regular ‘audits,’ where their deepest, darkest thoughts are analysed, are all recorded and kept on file. And they all know that these can be used against them, should they try to break free of their cage.

Theroux does succeed in showing us clear evidence of the Scientologists’ stonewalling technique: by talking to him only about trespass and private vs. public access, they manage to dominate the conversation and stymy all efforts to find out more. He attempts to fill the space left by their silence, hiring actors to recreate some of the church’s practices as described to him by Marty. But it’s not clear to see what these achieve: the young hopefuls are game and give it all they’ve got, but it isn’t real, and it certainly doesn’t have the impact of the reenactments in, say, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, where the subjects were telling their own tales. Nor does it carry as much weight as the testimony of Tom Cruise’s ‘arranged’ girlfriend, Nazanin Boniadi, or Sara Northrup’s painful description of being cut off from her daughter, who chose to stay with the church when her family left.

Theroux’s My Scientology Movie is thoroughly enjoyable, but curiously dissatisfying as a documentary, revealing little, leaving the church’s shiny facade pristine and unscratched. If you want to be entertained and amused, then Theroux’s film will deliver the goods. But if you really want to learn about Scientology and its dodgy practices, then Gibney’s is the one to watch.

My Scientology Movie: 3.3 stars

Going Clear: 4.6 stars

Susan Singfield



If the Gallagher brothers hadn’t existed somebody would probably have had to invent them. The story of their meteoric rise from two monobrowed wannabes living on a council estate in Burnage to one of the most successful rock bands in history makes for enjoyable, sometimes hilarious, viewing.

This fast paced rock doc, culled mostly from home movie footage, interviews and news clips,  looks at the three eventful years where Noel, Liam and the other members of the band went from playing to half a dozen people at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow to headlining at Knebworth.

It’s all here, spiced with that irrepressible Manc wit – the rehearsals, the recording sessions and, above all, those great songs from Definitely Maybe and (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? which, as Noel correctly asserts, are going to be played for many years to come. The film wisely eschews going beyond the glories of 1996 – the disappointing third album, Be Here Now, doesn’t even merit a mention and we’re not privy to footage of that final tour where the brothers fell out so violently that they are no longer on speaking terms. (They are both billed,  separately, as executive producers on this film.) But it’s not all sunshine and roses – there’s a section about Noel’s abusive relationship with his father and the cool dismissal of first drummer, Tony McCarroll, is examined in unflinching detail.

Talks of a possible reunion linger on but surely it’s better to remember them as they were in those first few years – swaggering scallies with their collective gaze fixed unerringly on the glittering prizes. That they managed to achieve their goal in such a short space of time is remarkable – and as rock docs go, this is one of the better ones.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Girl on the Train


The Girl on the Train‘s transition from page to screen was inevitable: Paula Hawkins’ novel has been a huge hit, its popularity earning its author over ten million dollars, and pretty much guaranteeing that this film adaptation will attract a large audience.

It’s a thriller, of sorts, unpicking the tangled lives of three women. Rachel (Emily Blunt) is a tragic figure, an alcoholic, obsessed with her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), and the baby she never had. Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) is Tom’s new wife, and Megan (Haley Bennett), is a neighbour who works as Tom and Anna’s nanny  (yes, they do have a baby) and seems to have the perfect life – at least, as far as Rachel can tell from what she glimpses from the train. Let’s be honest, the story stretches credulity at times, and it’s kind of irritating that the women are all defined by their motherhood – or lack thereof. It verges on the histrionic in places, and there are moments where it lacks pace or drive. But, where it works, it does work well.

There’s a change of location: we’re in New York instead of London, but this isn’t detrimental to the film. In fact, the cinematography is lovely; the contrasts between the urban mayhem and the glassy smoothness of the lake help add a layer of eeriness and tension to the piece. And the shift is only geographical: the social and sexual mores of affluent white suburbanites seem similar in both locales.

Emily Blunt in particular deserves some accolades: she absolutely convinces as the drunken, broken Rachel, desperately searching for a way back to herself. And there’s a stellar supporting cast, including the ever fabulous Allison Janney and the ‘why-doesn’t-she-do-more?’ Lisa Kudrow.

Overall, then, it’s kind of… okay. There’s a soggy middle section where your mind might wander, but you’ll be pulled back in for the rather racier (if somewhat predictable) ending.

If you liked the book, you’ll probably like this.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield