Education, Education, Education

14/11/18

Bedlam Theatre, Edinburgh

This quirky little play, originally devised by The Wardrobe Ensemble, is the perfect vehicle for the EUTC, offering a real opportunity for these talented students to show their acting chops.

It’s 1997, and it’s Tobias (Max Prentice)’s first day at Wordsworth Comprehensive, where he’ll be working as a German language assistant. But this is no normal day: Tony Blair was elected as Prime Minister last night, and there’s a strange emotion pervading the staffroom. Could it be… hope? Might the ‘education. education, education’ mantra that’s propelled Blair to the top job actually translate into something real, like new textbooks, or permanent classrooms, or reduced class sizes?

Whatever. It’s still a school day. The bell still rings; there are still lunch duties and lesson covers – and the small matter of ‘muck-up day,’ as the Year 11s seize their opportunity to cause consequence-free chaos: they’re leaving this afternoon. And, amidst all this, there’s Lauren: troubled, angry, vulnerable Lauren (Lauren Robinson), who wants to go on a history trip to York, but who’s been told her past behaviour precludes her from such treats.

This is a lively, energetic production, with all actors (except Prentice) dual-rolling as staff members and pupils. Tobias’s outsider’s eye exposes the vagaries of our education system; he’s a positive, engaging character, a Brit-o-phile, more gently observant than sharply critical. The performances are all strong, but standouts include Fergus Head as ineffective head teacher, Hugh Mills, and Lauren Robinson as the self-destructive teen mentioned above. Robinson in particular excels at portraying a heartbreaking mix of fragility and bravado, the all-too-recognisable frustration of those who have too little autonomy.

The Brit-pop music provides a dynamic aural backdrop, and the high-octane dance moves and scene transitions all help this small cast to convince us we’re in a busy, bustling school. There are some sombre moments: Tobias’s flash-forward narrative reminds us that, although Blair did indeed inject a lot of much-needed money into the system, and things did improve considerably, this too has now passed: schools are academised and closing, begging parents for provisions, dropping ‘frivolous’ subjects from their timetables.

Don’t get me started. This one’s personal for me. I was a teacher for twenty-two years; I left because of what the job became. I’ve been a foreign language teaching assistant too (in Germany), so this play really speaks to me.

But even if your own experiences are vastly different from these, this is a piece well worth seeing. What happens in education affects us all.

And this is fun. So, you know – win, win.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Advertisements

Slaughterhouse Rulez

14/11/18

Comedy-horror is a notoriously tricky beast to master and few have had better results in this genre than Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Both Shaun of the Dead and World’s End fall squarely into this category and even Hot Fuzz (their very best film) sports a handful of horror elements expertly woven into the action. For this first release from their production company, Stolen Picture, they content themselves with supporting roles, but their handprints are all over Slaughterhouse Rulez, even if they are missing Edgar Wright’s sure-footed directorial skills.

After the death of his father, working class lad Don Wallace (Finn Cole) is sent off by his well-meaning mum to the imposing Slaughterhouse Public School, where she hopes he will have the benefit of a superior education. Once there, he finds himself sharing a dorm room with Willoughby Blake (Asa Butterfield), a louche, moody character who seems to be housing a whole clutch of secrets.

Don’s acquisitive eye soon falls on posh girl Clemsie Lawrence (Hermione Corfield), but she seems to have eyes for somebody else – and besides, most of Don’s time is spent coping with the predations of the school bullies, chief amongst them the sadistic Clegg (Tom Rhys Harris). Meanwhile, the preening headmaster, known to the pupils only as ‘The Bat’ (Michael Sheen), has given permission for a fracking rig to operate in the forest that borders the school playing fields, a move that dismays troubled teacher, Meredith Houseman (Pegg), and which leads a band of anti-fracking protesters, led by Woody (Frost), to set up camp in the woods.

As the drill descends into the ancient stones beneath the school, it releases something darker and even more dangerous than shale gas…

The set up here is nicely handled and captures the cruel and venal world of the boarding school all too well (trust me, I speak from personal experience). The large cast of characters are well drawn and engaging and, for the most part, the punch lines land pretty much where they should. It’s only when the film moves into its final third that things start to feel a little too protracted, too teased-out by attempts to tie the plot back to earlier events in the school’s history.

A more direct approach would have paid dividends here and kept the pace from flagging, which it undoubtedly does in places; but this is nonetheless a decent entertainment with some gloriously visceral carnage that’s never allowed to be so icky that it overpowers the humour. Those hoping for a Pegg-Frost reunion will have to be content with the one brief scene they share – but, for their first offering as producers, this really isn’t a bad start.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Southside Scran

13/11/18

Bruntsfield Place, Edinburgh

We can’t help but notice the smell of fresh paint as we enter Southside Scran. It’s rare that we visit such a recently-finished venue, but, over the past few months, we’ve watched with mounting excitement as Tom Kitchin’s latest project has taken shape in Bruntsfield. ‘As soon as we’ve got something to celebrate,’ we tell ourselves, ‘we’ll give this place a whirl.’ The opportunity arrives sooner than we think.

It’s clear from the outset that the venue is still going through that ‘settling in’ phase. When we arrive, the person on the front desk is locked into a long phone conversation, but a friendly waiter ushers us to the bar and supplies us with complimentary glasses of prosecco, whilst our table is ‘sorted out.’ Clearly, this man knows the quickest route to our hearts. It’s a Tuesday evening and during this bedding-in process, covers are restricted to 26 diners, so its relatively quiet tonight – but there’s a cheery wood burner on the go, a rotisserie is filling the place with the appetising aroma of cooked chicken and we’re perfectly content to sit perusing the menu and sipping our drinks.

Once at our table, we’re presented with chunks of fresh sourdough, some butter and a delicious pot of intensely flavoured chicken liver parfait. We try valiantly to hold ourselves back for the actual meal, but it’s difficult, especially when they replace the bread we’ve already eaten.

For my starter, I’ve chosen the Borders game pithivier, a delightfully crispy pie which is surrounded by a rich and fruity jus. It’s note perfect. Susan has the West coast shellfish ravioli, liberally doused in a delightful seafood bisque. In both cases the plates are virtually licked clean.

My main course is Clash Farm pork belly, with apple sauce. It’s soft, and sticky with a chewy, rather than crispy skin, good, if perhaps a little over-salted. Susan’s Orkney scallops with herb butter are nicely judged, just firm enough to offer a little ‘bite.’ For sides, we’ve chosen a bowl of macaroni cheese (I know, I know, it doesn’t really go with anything but, whenever we see it we somehow can’t resist ordering it and this is exactly as we like it, thick and gooey with a nice crispy top.) There’s also an earthy ragout of lentils and lardons and a green salad, which, in its own way, is a bit of a stand out. Perhaps you’re thinking, ‘oh, it’s just a green salad, a few leaves, a bit of cucumber, right?’ No, this is a little masterpiece, incorporating avocado, endives and pumpkin seeds, crunchy, and zesty and very nice indeed. So often, it’s the little details that lift a meal above the run-of-the-mill.

We’re pretty full, by now, but the rice pudding with pumpkin, orange and salted caramel sauce sounds too good to ignore, so we opt to share a bowl – and we’re glad we do, because in many ways, this little belter is the other star of the show, so rich, so satisfying, that it makes the plate of strongly flavoured cheeses we finish up with a bit of a let down – nothing wrong with them, you understand, but that pudding is a tough act to follow, and perhaps more the kind of flavour my taste buds want to remember.

When it comes time to pay the bill our waiter informs us that because everything this evening hasn’t been ‘absolutely perfect,’ they’ve discounted the wine we ordered. It turns out that they haven’t charged us one penny for a bottle of Marlborough sauvignon blanc, which is very noble of them and a move that’s guaranteed to prompt me to return, once things are more settled. But really, I have no complaints anyway. I’m full and happy, a perfect combination.

It’s early days of course, but this first visit augers well for the restaurant’s future. Southside Scran offers really clever food, a sizeable step up from mere pub grub. The fact that the place is ten minutes walk from where we live is simply the icing on the cake – or, if you prefer, the sauce on the pudding.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Shakespeare In Love

 

12/11/18

We’re seeing more and more screenplays being turned into stage adaptations these days, but Shakespeare In Love has a stronger claim than most to be afforded such treatment. Originally penned by Marc Norman and theatrical legend Tom Stoppard, it won seven Oscars in 1998 (one of them for Judy Dench, who was onscreen for all of six minutes). It also made the careers of Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes. This adaptation by Lee Hall was first produced in the West End and has a rumbustious musical score by Paddy Cuneen thrown in for good measure.

Set in the year 1564, we first encounter Will Shakespeare (Pierro Nel-Mee) at the Rose Theatre. He’s mostly a jobbing actor, only recently embarked on his career as a playwright and struggling to create his latest commission – a comedy escapade entailed Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. It doesn’t help that his friend, Kit Marlowe (Edmund Kingsley), is currently enjoying stellar success as a writer, seemingly able to pluck words from the air with a minimum of effort. He often finds himself acting as Will’s muse.

Meanwhile, Viola de Lesseps (Imogen Daines), a noblewoman destined for an arranged marriage with the contemptible Lord Wessex (Bill Ward), dreams of a career on the stage at a time when women never get to tread the boards and where their roles are generally played by willowy young men in drag. When she hears that open auditions are being held for the new Shakespeare play, she disguises herself as a young chap and goes along to give it her best shot. As it happens, Viola is a huge fan of Will’s work and he, in turn, is so impressed by the way she reads his lines, he impulsively casts her as his Romeo. As their working relationship develops and he begins to suspect that this young actor is not exactly what ‘he’ appears to be, the play becomes less the comic romp that Will’s patrons have envisaged and more the romantic tragedy that audiences have come to know. That said, Shakespeare in Love is full of delicious humour with plenty of knowing nods and winks to many of Shakespeare’s other works, especially Twelfth Night.

A sizeable ensemble cast work their doublets and hoses off to keep the action bubbling away while an ingenious revolving stage provides a whole variety of locations, most effectively when it contrives to offer both a backstage and a front-of-house look at the same scenes. Cuneen’s music regularly supplies a series of jaunty, hand-clapping interludes and everything scampers along at such a sprightly pace there’s never time to pause and reflect on how unlikely the story is – but then, isn’t that the very essence of Shakespeare in the first place?

This is a delicious treat for Shakespeare fans and lovers of comedy alike, an ingenious and jocund adaptation that provides a most satisfying night at the theatre.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

11/11/18

It’s early November and I’ve just been to see what is, for me, the first Christmas-themed movie of the year. Perhaps it’s more of a reflection on me than the season in question, but it still feels much too soon. However, I buckle myself in and watch Disney’s latest release, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. The first thing to say about the film is that it’s undeniably opulent. The screen virtually pulsates with light and colour and general sparkliness. Overall, however, it puts me in mind of a gigantic glittering Christmas bauble, delightful to look at – but completely empty at its core.

This is the story of Clara Stahlbaum (McKenzie Foy), a teenage girl still mourning the recent death of her mother and feeling somewhat aggrieved when her gloomy father (Matthew MacFadyen) expects her to attend the huge Christmas ball they go to every year and look as though she’s enjoying herself. Before they leave for the ball, Mr Stahlbaum hands out presents to Clara and her siblings, gifts that have been left for them by their mother, who, it turns out, was an inventor. Clara is bequeathed some kind of a jewelled egg with a lock on it – but alas, there’s no key. However, if anyone knows how to unlock the egg’s secret, it’s the mysterious toymaker, Mr Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), who’s hosting the ball tonight.

At the party, there’s a hunt for the various gifts that Mr Drosselmeyer has created for the visiting children. In search of her own present, Clara follows a length of ribbon out into the garden, through a maze and into a mysterious alternate world, where lie the Four Realms of the title. She soon discovers that her late Mother once ruled as Queen here. Now, with the help of Nutcracker Soldier, Philip (Jaden Fowara-Knight),  ‘Princess Clara’ has to resolve a quarrel that has plunged the different realms in to war.

There’s a ridiculously starry cast involved in these shenanigans  – Keira Knightly as Sugarplum, Helen Mirren as Mother Ginger and Richard E Grant as er… Shiver. Lots of other big names make fleeting appearances too, albeit for no good reason. The special effects are, of course, beautifully realised, but there’s little contrast between the magical world and the one that Clara has recently vacated. Furthermore, there’s no disguising the fact that this is just sumptuous fluff that doesn’t manage to field one single, original idea, repeatedly falling back on over-used fridge magnet messages – ‘the power is within you, Clara… you just need to learn to love yourself…’ and so on and so forth. Ad infinitum.

Look, I fully appreciate that this film isn’t aimed at somebody like me and, if I were an eight-year-old child, it’s quite possible I’d emerge from this feeling that I’d been thoroughly entertained. As it stands, I find TNATFR as tedious as its overworked title. There is a nice ballet sequence to accompany the end credits but, since members of the audience decide to chatter all the way through it, that’s a little squandered too.

A treat for young children only. Accompanying adults (and even discerning teens) might prefer to seek out something more original for their festive entertainment.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Wildlife

11/11/18

Wildlife is Paul Dano’s directorial debut, and its an impressive opening gambit from the quirky young (ish) actor. He’s co-written the screenplay too (adapted from Richard Ford’s 1990 novel), his second collaboration with his real-life partner, Zoe Kazan. I like it. A lot. It’s a quiet, understated piece of work, and it gives the actors space to develop their roles.

It’s 1960-something. Joe (Ed Oxenbould) is fourteen, and he’s moved with his family to Great Falls, Montana. We soon learn that he is used to new beginnings, that his dad, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), is a dreamer; he finds it hard to hold down a job. Joe’s mom, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), indulges Jerry’s fecklessness: she loves him. So she and Joe follow him from town to town, never putting down roots.

But when Jerry is fired for being over-familiar with the members of the golf club where he works, he decides he wants to join the firefighters tackling the flames devouring the Montana forests. Jeanette begs him not to take the job: it means leaving his family, and they’ve never been apart before. She’ll deal with anything, it seems, as long as they’re together. If he goes, he risks the whole relationship, but he can’t seem to stop himself. Never mind that Jeanette can earn more than him, as a substitute teacher or a swimming coach; never mind that there are other jobs in town; he’s too proud to take them. He’s set on his course, determined to see it through.

Gyllenhaal is a gifted actor, no doubt about it, but it’s at this point – as he leaves – that the film begins to flower. Joe’s pained, inarticulate response to the disintegration of his parents’ marriage is excruciating; Oxenbould excels at conveying discomfort without saying anything.

And Mulligan is magnificent as the aggrieved Jeanette, bitter and resentful that her sacrifices haven’t been enough. She’s stuck with Jerry through thick and thin, but now he’s abandoned her. She reacts with self-destructive fury, seeking to recover the girl she used to be, dressing up and acting up, flirting with men she doesn’t even like. There’s a vulnerability at the heart of the performance that keeps us onside, even when she’s making Joe’s (and our) toes curl, with the kind of sexual and emotional revelations no teenager ever wants to hear from a parent.

And Gyllenhaal gets his chance to shine too, on his return, when the inevitable consequences creep up on them all. No one’s behaving well, but no one means any harm: it’s a sad tale of human frailty, an affecting tragedy.

The Montana backdrop is beautifully filmed, the hazy smoke a constant reminder of the dual threat the fires pose. There is a slow, almost dreamy quality to the storytelling here, an emotional depth that draws us in with no sensationalism. Mulligan has been widely tipped for an Oscar nomination, and I can absolutely see why. Jeanette is a character of great complexity, the performance nuanced and intricate.

A must-see, I’d say.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Bohemian Rhapsody

10/11/18

There seems to be a bit of a Greatest Showman buzz about this film. Most critics have been decidedly sniffy about it, accusing it of glossing over some of Freddie Mercury’s darker traits, as well as his bisexuality. Audiences, on the other hand, have eagerly embraced it, claiming it as a five star picture. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between these extremes.

It’s a competent biopic, with a mesmerising central performance from Rami Malek that goes way beyond mere impersonation. He fully inhabits the character of Freddie Mercury and it’s interesting to conjecture how the film might have fared if it had stuck with its original lead, Sacha Baron Cohen. It’s hard to believe anyone could have done it more justice. Still, for all that, there are missteps in the mix and, just like The Greatest Showman, this so-called ‘true story’ takes some sizeable liberties.

We first meet Freddie in 1970, when he’s still Farrokh Bulsara, working as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport and, in his spare time, virtually stalking local band, Smile, which features Brian May (Gwilym Lee) on lead guitar and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) on drums. When the band’s singer departs to join another outfit, the way is open for Freddie to offer his services as vocalist and songwriter. After a slightly shaky start, and the addition of bass player, John Deacon (Ray Mazello), the band soon have a record deal and are on the way to a brilliant career. Freddie, of course, woos and marries the ‘love of his life,’ Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), something that proves rather awkward when he latterly arrives at the conclusion that he’s bisexual.

To give the screenwriters their due, they don’t exactly ignore Mercury’s darker side, particularly during the period where he leaves the band to embark on an ill-fated solo career (although, in reality, that break up never actually happened). He is shown to be a loose canon, indulging in the excessive lifestyle that ultimately led to his untimely death. Even here there are untruths. The film wants us to believe that Freddie had his HIV diagnosis before he appeared at Live Aid. He didn’t. Also, the gig, which took place in 1985, is depicted here as some kind of a reunion for the band, but actually they’d been recording their album The Works only the year before and had just toured it all over the world.

Of course, changing the truth for dramatic effect is not exactly a new phenomenon, but what about those missteps I mentioned? Well, for one thing, the other members of Queen seem incapable of speaking any of their lines without throwing in some exposition, just in case we’re unsure of what’s happening at any given time. For another, the clunky scenes where Freddie interacts with his Zoroastrian parents, Bomi and Ger, are decidedly mawkish. There’s also a cameo by Mike Myers as (fictional) EMI record executive ‘Ray Foster’, who denounces the titular single as ‘too long for the radio’ in a cod Northern accent that borders on caricature. This leads to the band walking out on their record label. (Again, this didn’t happen.) In the end, it’s these liberties that niggle me more than anything else. When you’ve got a story as amazing as this one, why muddy the waters by adding stuff that never actually occurred?

Of course, you can forgive a lot when you have the kind of soundtrack that’s offered here, featuring pretty much all of Queen’s biggest hits – and the decision to end the film with an uncanny twenty minute recreation of the band’s appearance at Live Aid is a clever mood, sending audiences out on a high. Rami Malek’s performance is the kind of flashy role that can attract Oscar attention, and I won’t be remotely surprised if he gets a nomination next year – but to my mind,  Bohemian Rhapsody represents a bit of a missed opportunity.

In the end, it’s a decent biopic, but not an entirely convincing one.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney