Month: December 2015

In the Heart of the Sea



Around a year ago, searching for a new story to write, I pitched an idea to my editor. Why not, I suggested, rewrite Moby Dick – or rather, base it around the true story of The Essex, the ship that inspired Herman Melville’s classic tale? And just to make it more relevant to younger readers, why not present it from the POV of the cabin boy?

For a variety of reasons, my editor said no and it  would now seem fortunate that she did, because this is exactly what In the Heart of the Sea is and I’d probably have found myself the author of an unreleasable book (or at the very least open to accusations of plagiarism). Ron Howard’s take on the story is a big, sprawling epic of a film, a gorgeous evocation of a lost era and I loved every minute of it.

The story starts some fifty years after the main event, when Melville (Ben Whishaw) visits the grown-up Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) in Nantucket to research the true story of the Essex. Nickerson grudgingly obliges and we flash back in time to meet Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) who despite being promised a captaincy for his next voyage is appointed first mate to the rather better connected George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). The Essex sets sail in search of sperm whale and the crew experience a series of disasters that would try the patience of Job, not least the malevolent intentions of a giant white whale, who seems intent on exacting a terrible revenge on the men who have dared to take him on. The whale itself is an incredibly convincing CGI creation and while the killing of such creatures will not sit easily with contemporary audiences, this is an issue that is addressed (albeit obliquely) in the film – and the truth is that men really did go after these marine giants in tiny rowing boats in search of the precious oil to light their lamps and you have to marvel at their courage and endurance in the face of such danger.

This is ultimately a story of survival against incredible odds and one, moreover that is based on real events. The word is that Howard’s film has failed at the box office and it’s certainly not for everyone, but I thought it a remarkable achievement that kept me enthralled from start to finish – a perfect choice for my birthday.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney





David O Russell seems to have the knack of creating great films from fairly unpromising material – Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle are two movies that rose far above their IMDB outlines. On paper, the true life story of Joy Mangano, the woman who invented the ‘Miracle Mop’, might suggest that the average viewer should take along a pillow in order to sleep comfortably through the whole experience. But Joy is actually a riveting slice of cinema, made especially enjoyable by a luminous central performance by Jennifer Lawrence.

When we first meet Joy she’s a child, obsessed with building imaginary worlds out of scraps of paper; but very soon, she’s grown up, stuck in a dead end job, and divorced from her husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) who still lives in the basement and shares parental responsibility for their young children. Joy’s soap-opera-obsessed Mother, Terry (Virginia Madsen) refuses to leave her room, while her wayward husband Rudy (Robert De Niro) has just insisted on moving back into the family home after breaking up with his latest partner. All-in-all, this has to be one of the most dysfunctional families in America and Joy is the one tasked with making everything run as smoothly as possible.

In the midst of the chaos, she gets an idea for a self-wringing mop and persuades the rest of the family, plus Rudy’s hard headed but minted new girlfriend, Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) to back her invention with hard cash. But the path to bringing it to reality is not an easy one and there are shady business people out there queuing up to steal her idea. Joy soon discovers that if she’s going to take her dream to fruition, she’s going to have to be as tough as the sharks she’s sharing the water with…

Russell’s take on the story is quirky, assured and never loses its sense of pace. There are great supporting performances from the ensemble cast (how lovely to see De Niro finally getting a decent role after a string of one-note cameos) and Bradley Cooper also shines as QVC pioneer, Neil Walker. But make no mistake, this is Lawrence’s movie and she makes the most of it. The camera loves her in this and you will too.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Extra Man



File this one under ‘films we missed first time around.’ Originally released in 2010 and based on the novel by Jonathan Ames, we only came across it by accident, because we bought the DVD as a Christmas stocking filler for my parents-in-law who adored the book, and we ended up watching it with them. I’m glad we did, because this is something of a little gem – featuring a great cast, brilliant acting and a quirky and engaging story.

Louis Ives (Paul Dano) is a hapless young teacher with a predilection for women’s clothing. When he’s caught trying on a bra at his rather stuffy school, he gets the boot and decides to head off to New York in search of a fresh start (he has vague aspirations of becoming a writer). Looking for somewhere to stay, he ends up as roommate to Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline) a totally unreconstructed ex-playwrite who after falling on hard times, has been reduced to acting as a male escort to older, more fiscally advantaged women. Henry refuses to accept that he is struggling, even when he has to apply boot polish to his ankles because he can’t afford to buy socks – and though his opinions are occasionally shockingly out of touch with any kind of reality, still his character is so charismatic that you can’t help liking the man.

With Henry acting as a sort of life coach, Louis finds himself inexorably drawn into the world of the male escort (or ‘Extra Man’ as Henry prefers to call it). The ensuing tale is a whimsical delight, though I can see exactly why it didn’t trouble the multiplexes – it’s far too offbeat to capture big audiences. There are superb performances from the two leads and excellent supporting roles from the likes of Katie Holmes, John Pankow and Dan Hedaya, but I did feel rather sorry for John C. Reilly, who as the mysterious Gershon Gruen was obliged to talk in a high-pitched comedy voice throughout the proceedings.

The Extra Man was never going to be a cinematic blockbuster but it’s certainly worth checking out on the small screen if you get the chance.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Fishers In The City




Thistle Street, Edinburgh

This restaurant came highly recommended and seemed like the perfect place to enjoy a pre-Christmas meal with a couple of friends. The venue was warm and welcoming, arranged on three levels, with subtly twinkling Christmas lights and friendly and attentive staff.

Annoyingly (at least for the purposes of this review) all four diners opted for the same starter – the Twice Baked Crayfish Fondue,  though there were several other temptations on offer. This proved to be a delight, rich, creamy and peppery, served on a bed of fresh rocket with tangy smoked tomato relish. It was simply delicious and all four portions were quickly polished off.

The main courses ended up as a 50-50 split. Two of us opted for the Fillet of Peterhead Halibut. The perfectly cooked fillet was served on a couple of spinach and ricotta rotolos, the pasta deliciously al dente, the layers of spinach rich with the tang of iron. There was a splash of orange and sage dressing to set the whole thing off perfectly. The other two diners chose the Whole Roast Sea Bass. Again, the fish perfectly cooked, the flesh falling from the bone and served with the head on, this came accompanied by a pea shoot pear and fennel salad, with a pecorino, maple syrup and caraway dressing, which was light and refreshing.

Did we have room for dessert? Well, it is nearly Christmas! Once again there was a two way split on this – two of us opted for  the Chocolate and Hazelnut Tart, which was dense and rich with bitter chocolate and came with a slice of salted praline crunch and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The other two diners had the Pear Parfait, a sweet and delicate confection served with liquorice jelly and mulled pear sorbet.

We drank a couple of bottles of a very decent house white and we all announced that we would recommend Fishers In The City as a lovely place to meet and eat.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney


Star Wars: The Force Awakens


Let’s start with something controversial. In my humble opinion, Star Wars is one of the most overrated movie franchises of all time. Seriously. Let’s examine the evidence. There were two decent original movies, a third that was spoiled by the overly-cute warrior teddy bears, the Ewoks and then three watching-paint-dry prequels that committed the cardinal sin of being dour and earnest, when they should have soared. And yet the return of Star Wars has been greeted with an unprecedented weight of expectation, with whole multiplexes devoting every screen to J.J. Abrams’ take on the story. I mean, really?

If there was ever a safe pair of hands into which to place this much-loved series, they were his. (Look, for instance, how he dealt with the moribund Star Trek franchise, delivering a great big kick up the backside that jolted it into new life.) So I’m happy to report that Abrams has pretty much nailed it here too, salvaging all the best bits from the original movies and throwing in some cannily judged updates of his own. The keen-eyed will spot a few ‘Easter egg’ references to the original movies liberally sprinkled throughout the film. I should also add that Abrams comes up with a plot twist that will have hard-line fans gasping in their seats.

The events take place some thirty years or so after Return of the Jedi. Rey (newcomer, Daisy Ridley) is a scavenger on a desert planet, eking out a precarious living from finding salvage from wrecked space ships. She encounters, Fin (John Boyega) a former storm trooper for the First Order, the new fascist dictators of the galaxy. Finn has become disillusioned by the cruelty of Kylo Renn (Adam Driver) and has done a runner, with his evil task masters in hot pursuit.

What follows is a series of chases, aerial dogfights and lightsabre battles but scriptwriters Abrams and old hand Lawrence Kasdan have cannily stitched everything together so that all the major characters are able to make an appearance without it feeling as though a crowbar has been used to jam them in to the proceedings – Han Solo, Princess Leia, C3PO, RTD2, Chewbaca… all the usual suspects are trotted out for inspection and it all works splendidly. Most importantly, Abrams has reinstated the humour that was prevalent in the first films and entirely absent from those po-faced prequels. Ridley, a kick-ass heroine from the new school manages to subvert a lot of the tropes that now make the originals feel vaguely misogynistic and Boyega and Oscar Isaac as fighter pilot Po Dameron, offer plenty of scope for the next instalment.

I might be in danger of damning the film with faint praise here but this just might be the best of the series so far.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney


The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe


The Lyceum, Edinburgh

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a well-loved and familiar tale with a guest spot for Santa Claus; no wonder it’s become a staple family Christmas show. And the Lyceum’s production starts off wonderfully; the design (by Becky Minto) is breathtaking: the all-important transition from Britain to Narnia eliciting an audible response from the audience.

The parallels between the two worlds (and Narnia’s appeal) are highlighted by the double casting: both places are being torn apart by war but, while in the real world the children are bystanders, exiled from their home with no option but to wait things out, in Narnia they play an active role; they are no longer helpless children, sidelined and ignored.

It’s a shame, then, that some elements of the play seem almost perfunctory. Peter’s battle with Maugrim, for example, lacks any real sense of menace. Some scenes, most notably Aslan’s murder – but there are others too – are crying out for a chorus: ‘Come, every spirit, every wraith,’ chants the White Witch, played with wonderful malevolence by Pauline Knowles. But no one comes, or hardly anyone: three makes for a very sparse crowd. In Manchester, student choruses seem quite the thing; we’ve seen actors-in-training from local universities employed in several professional productions there and this might have been an idea here. The Lyceum’s Narnia would be more convincing if it were more densely populated.

The children’s delivery is a bit stage-school and declamatory for my taste; they’re not actually kids, of course, but young adults, which might account for the vocal tics as they try to make themselves sound more youthful. And I wish that Aslan were more than just a man in a fur suit.

That said, it’s still a magical show in places, with spark and vim enough to keep a young audience entranced. The final battle scene is beautifully done, all lights and ribbons and roaring sound effects. At its best, this play is very good indeed. It’s just a bit uneven, I suppose.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

Tracks of the Winter Bear


Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s Christmas time, and the theatres are full of pantomimes and children’s tales. And that’s fine: I love a good panto, and some of my favourite stories are written (primarily) for a younger audience. But variety is the spice of life, they say, so the Traverse’s grown-up alternative is a very welcome thing.

Tracks of the Winter Bear comprises two short plays, companion pieces exploring the themes of love and loss. They’re separate yet linked, both intrinsically Edinburgian, set in the Abbeyhill district of the city. The same pub is referenced in both (The Regent Bar), and the two protagonists (Shula and Jackie) are  both lonely, middle-aged women, trying  – in their very different ways – to make some sense of their lives.

Act 1, by Stephen Greenhorn, is my favourite of the two. Using reverse chronology, it charts the tragic love affair of Shula (Deborah Arnott) and Avril (Karen Bartke). It’s a bleak but ultimately beautiful piece, with thoughtful, nuanced performances; Arnott, in particular, seems to embody the brittle hurt of grief.

Act 2 is an altogether stranger beast, telling the tale of a mangy polar bear and a washed-up Mother Christmas, both escapees from a tawdry Winter Wonderland theme park. The bear, cast adrift and hunted in an unknown land, speaks in the voices of those she has killed. Mother Christmas, or Jackie – played with bar-room swagger by the delightful Kathryn Howden – befriends her with promises of shortbread and love, and the two embark on an unlikely journey ‘home.’ It’s a fascinating premise and it’s very well-played (Caroline Deyga’s Bear is physically compelling), but it seems a little uncertain of its way, forsaking the early, earthy humour for a less engaging attempt at profundity.

Both pieces use what is essentially the same set, a narrow, snow-covered traverse stage (ironically, this is the first time we have seen this configuration at the, ahem, Traverse theatre). It’s curtained with a light gauze, which serves both to hint at snow in the air, and to create a misty, fairy-tale-like quality. The mirror-audience, visible throughout, magnifies my own reactions; it’s the perfect staging choice for this production, I think.

Overall, then, this is definitely one to watch. It’s interesting and original, and a welcome respite from all the feel-good fare.

4 stars

Susan Singfield



The Sound of Music


The Lowry Lyric Theatre, Salford Quays

There’s no other option but to own up on this one – I have always hated this musical. I appreciate that I’m in a minority here, because as blockbusters go, it’s one of the most successful of all time, with an ardent following of die hard fans, the kind of people who will happily camp out for weeks in order to secure a ticket – but I’ve always found its uneasy mix of syrupy songs, precocious children and the most unthreatening Nazis ever seen on stage or screen, somewhat hard to stomach. Just a few bars of ‘The Hills Are Alive…’ and I’m a kid again, trapped at home on a drizzly Sunday afternoon, with my parents watching the film on television and commenting on how ‘nice’ Julie Andrews seems.

So naturally, I approached this assignment with some trepidation. The Lyric theatre was packed with eager punters as the overture began and then the curtain rose and we were in a (pretty convincing) nunnery where four ladies in black habits were asking us how they could possibly solve a problem like Maria (The Voice finalist, Lucy O Byrne). The next thing we know, she’s been enlisted as governess to the seven children of war hero Captain Von Trapp (Gray O’ Brian) and is teaching them that doe is a female deer and ray, a drop of golden sun…

It’s pointless to go over the plot because unless you’ve lived as a hermit all your life, you’ll surely already know exactly what happens. And here’s the thing. Though I can appreciate how professionally this production is delivered – perfectly judged harmonies, elaborate sets that glide effortlessly into place, faultless choreography, this isn’t going to change my mind about Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest success. It still feels like treacle pudding with extra treacle. But neither can I reasonably criticise the way its been done (other than to observe that Mr O’ Brian was having a bit of a bad night of it in the vocal department) and neither can I deny the warmth of the standing ovation enjoyed by the cast at the end, with a particularly enthusiastic response given to Jan Hartley as the Mother Abbess, whose climactic rendition of Climb Every Mountain was delivered with enough energy to power the National Grid.

So I’ll simply say this. If The Sound of Music is already a favourite of yours, you’re unlikely to feel shortchanged by this production. If you’re coming to it with no expectations whatsoever, you may find yourself wondering what all the fuss is about.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney



Home, Manchester

‘Tis the season of theatrical family fayre, when children’s stories are plundered for festive productions, with often mixed results.

Inkheart started life as a novel by Cornelia Funke, evolved into a successful film, and now struts its stuff as a lively Christmas play. It tells the tale of twelve-year-old Meggie (Katherine Carlton) and her father, Mo (Paul McEwan), whose ‘Silvertongue’ status means that, when they read aloud, characters step from the pages of their books, and blunder into the real world. Meggie and Mo embark upon a desperate quest to save the last copy of the eponymous book, protecting it from the villains who wish to destroy it.

The set comprises a mountain of books, with shelves and steps cunningly concealed. It rotates and tips, and is used effectively to represent a home, a library, a beach and a car; it’s really quite a lovely thing. And the production starts well: the narration (provided by Kelly Hotten) is clear and engaging, and the disruption of Meggie’s world by the appearance of the mysterious Dustfinger (Andrew Sheridan) is nicely unsettling. Carlton is uncannily convincing as a twelve-year-old, and Rachel Atkins, as Elinor, is a comic delight.

Overall, it doesn’t quite work for me though. It’s not as light as it needs to be; it’s pedestrian when it needs to fly. The fire-juggling, for example, just  isn’t spectacular enough, and the panto-villain antics of Basta and Flatnose (Darryl Clark and Griffin Stevens), while competently done, seem at odds with the general tone. The magic isn’t… magical enough, the comedy too clumsy and the scary stuff just doesn’t scare.

Of course, as two adults, we are not the target audience. There were a lot of kids watching with us tonight, and they seemed to find it an utter joy. One for the children, then, but without much to commend it to the grown-ups accompanying them…

3 stars

Susan Singfield


Into The Woods



Royal Exchange Manchester

As Christmas draws inexorably nearer, the Royal Exchange have indulged themselves in the family-friendly epic that is Into The Woods. As ever, Manchester’s premier theatre aren’t doing things by halves. With a cast of nineteen and a running time of three hours, Stephen Sondheim’s celebrated fairytale mashup is a challenging production in every sense of the word.

I have to put my hand up at this stage and admit that Sondheim isn’t a great favourite in our household. Sure, James Lapine’s lyrics are quirky and clever but sometimes, I find myself wishing that Sondheim would just offer us a couple of great melodies, something to sing in the shower. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that this is a superb production and that Sondheim fans (of which there are many) are going to be delighted with what’s on offer here. It’s a big step up too from the recent lacklustre movie version. Certainly the audience on the night we attended were clearly thrilled by what they saw and, little wonder, because choreographing a cast of this size in and around the compact circular stage of the Exchange requires the kind of discipline normally reserved for synchronised swimming events.

ITW is essentially an amalgamation of all your favourite fairytales – Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Rapunzle… given a satirical twist. The first half of the show offers a traditional happy ending and the second, gleefully subverts that, pointing out that most situations don’t tend to fit into such a convenient format. In a strong ensemble cast it’s tough to pick out favourites but Gillian Bevan, as The Witch, certainly casts a compelling spell whenever she’s on stage, while Alex Gaumond as The Baker, is a likeable performer with a plaintive singing voice. A shout must also go to young David Moorst as Jack, who’s gormless manner garners much laughter.

There’s plenty here to delight an audience, not least the ingenious staging, which manages to make a convincing forest sprout up right in front of our eyes; and there’s a wolf-evisceration scene that genuinely made the audience gasp in a ‘how did they do that?’sort of way. Oh yes, there’s also a fleeting appearance by a golf buggy… well, why not?

This is a Christmas cracker of a show, suitable for people of all ages, even if you won’t go home singing any of the songs, because they’re just a bit too complicated for that. If you’re planning a seasonal family outing, this could be the perfect  thing to get you into the festive spirit. Book now while the going’s good.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney