Month: February 2017

Lyceum Variety Night 2

26/02/17

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Those enterprising people at Flint & Pitch have been busy putting together another night of  entertainment at the Lyceum Theatre, featuring the best of spoken word, theatre and music. Hosted by genial regulars Sian Bevan and Jenny Lindsay, this eclectic second helping kicks off with the jazz-inflected rhythms of Pronto Mama, a band who revel in slippery time signatures and who soon have everybody bopping along in their seats.

Next up, poet Aidan Moffat treats us to some of his wry and rather saucy poems (plus some rather wonderful extracts from his son’s diary). He finishes his section with a dedication to all the people he’s canoodled with down the years, complete with a raised can of Tenants Lager at the end. I’ll drink to that!

Actress/musician/singer/author Gerda Stevenson offers us a varied selection of items – a traditional Scottish ballad accompanied by one of those strange droning instruments that resembles a wooden suitcase (and which I’ve annoyingly never learned the name of), a trio of prose pieces commemorating great Scottish women, and a final song for which she enlists the help of a couple of friends for the harmonies.

After a short break, festival favourites, The Creative Martyrs take to the stage, looking like a cross between Estragon & Vladimir and Laurel & Hardy. Incredibly, they soon have us chanting along to the suggestion that we should ‘Burn The Books’, while their song about drowned refugees is also incredibly provocative and revealing, the final line leaving the audience temporarily too stunned to applaud. These two performers are really quite brilliant.

Tonight being the anniversary of Johnny Cash’s death, singer/songwriter Rachel Sermanni kicks off her segment with a haunting cover of one of the great man’s most famous songs, A Thing Called Love, and then offers a couple of songs of her own. Her voice is remarkable – ethereal, haunting, quietly amazing. I fully expect to hear more of her soon.

The advertised act, Don Paterson, is down with the flu, but Colin McGuire fearlessly steps in at the last moment to give us an extract from his work-in-progress play, which is all about that most important of subjects – sleep. He goes down a storm with the Lyceum audience.

Last up, American poet (and BBC slam-champion), Adele Hampton offers us some of her wry and distinctive poems. She admits that she is feeling a little nervous but despite that, acquits herself well with tales of weight-lifting and belonging. She leaves the stage to heartfelt applause.

It is left to Pronto Mama to finish off the night, which they do not with the usual pounding rock song, but with a plaintive acapella tune, which sends everyone home feeling happy and thoroughly entertained.

The next variety night is penciled in for Sunday 4th June. Miss it and you’ll only have yourselves to blame.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

B’est

26/02/17

B’est, Drummond Street, Edinburgh

A quick glance around the deceptively spacious interior of B’est leaves us feeling slightly puzzled. There’s a somewhat hokey, unfocused feel to the place. The large framed prints of The Arc De Triomphe and The Eiffel Tower, would suggest that we’re in for some French-style cuisine tonight but, if that’s the case, what are we to make of the collection of Toby jugs dotted around the shelves? What’s brought us here is not a tip-off from a friend or decent word-of-mouth, but what looks like an unbelievably good Groupon deal. And we’re not averse to using them as a way of trying out new places.

The restaurant is located on Drummond Street, a stone’s throw from the Festival Theatre and it’s been here for around a decade. During the Ed Fest it’s the regular setting for The Fawlty Towers Experience, a dining opportunity with added slapstick – although we’re hopeful there won’t be too much of that tonight. The fact that we spot one of Susan’s colleagues dining here we take as a good sign. An attentive and friendly waiter brings us the menu and we see that the concise selection of dishes on offer comes from all over Europe, with the odd dash of classic Scots thrown in for good measure.

The first starter really couldn’t be any more traditional – a Haggis and Black Pudding Tower with neeps and tatties. This turns out to be a melt-in-the-mouth savoury delight, steeped in a thick, lip-smacking gravy. Susan opts for the Goats Cheese Tartlet and this too is simply cracking, the generously sized slice of tangy cheese resting on sweet beetroot and accompanied by a salad dressed with summer fruit coulis. It’s clear that whoever’s out  in the kitchen knows a thing or three about flavours.

My main course is a Pork Valdestar with bacon and cheddar gratin, and again it’s a winner, tender enough to slice with a table knife, layered with a crispy cheese topping and smothered in a tangy sauce. It’s accompanied by al dente broccoli and a heap of tiny roast potatoes. All good stuff. Susan goes for a real classic, Beef Lasagne, which of course we’ve eaten many times before, but even this has a distinctive flavour, unlike any lasagne we’ve had elsewhere.

Have we got room for puddings? Well, the deal we’ve gone for comprises three courses for one price so that’s an automatic yes. I opt for a Crepe with raspberry filling, which is just as it should be, light as you like and tasty as anything. Susan’s Apple Pie has an unmistakably Dutch feel to it, the apple liberally mixed with raisins (which makes it a no-go area in my book) but she reports herself well pleased with it. Both desserts come with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Okay, so B’est isn’t going to win any awards for its interior design, and the look of the food may not be as stylish as it could be, but everything we try tastes way better than the average and, when the price of two three course meals comes to slightly less than the bottle of Pinot Grigio we’ve chosen to accompany them, we can hardly complain about not getting value for money. Given a bit of a makeover, B’est could be up there with the (forgive me) best of them but, as it stands, if you’re in the market for good wholesome cooking at an absolutely knock-down price, I’d advise you to walk in the direction of Drummond Street and try it for yourself.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Patriots Day

25/02/17

Oh, that missing apostrophe! It’s threatening to derail my review; it just looks like a mistake and I’m itching to add it. Why have they left it out, I wonder? It must be a deliberate choice (there are enough people involved in the making of a film to rule out simple ignorance, and it is included in the captions telling us when and where events take place). A design issue, maybe? Whatever, it’s annoying, and it’s distracting me.

Which is a shame, because this is actually a very good movie, addressing issues far more important than errant punctuation. It’s a docudrama, detailing the police response to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, which killed three people and injured hundreds more. Mark Wahlberg is the ideal actor for the role of ‘everycop’ Tommy Saunders: he’s convincingly ordinary, driven by a mixture of ideals and selfishness, a flawed and sometimes self-destructive individual. The bombing tests him – and he comes up trumps. When it matters, he – and Boston – have what it takes.

Really, this is a film about humanity. We are introduced to all the main players – victims, police officers and terrorists alike –  in their domestic settings, so that we see what drives them and what they have to lose. Brothers Dzokhar (Alex Wolff) and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze) are depicted as nihilistic individuals, more akin to school-shooters than organised terrorists. Their affiliations are only to each other; they’ve self-radicalised, spurred each other on, building their bombs in Tamerlan’s kitchen, while his daughter plays in full view of them. Dzokhar’s childishness is especially poignant: he’s a little boy, despite his nineteen years. He whines and whinges at his older brother: I want to hold the gun. I want to drive the car. He’s a brat, whose teenage rebellion has been warped – and made him dangerous. He’s only a little bit different from his stoner friends, but that small difference is everything. It makes me wonder how he might have been saved.

But the heroes here are the police and FBI, working painstakingly to catch the bombers before they kill anyone else: reportedly, they’re on their way to New York to wreak more havoc there. The processes are made explicit in a way I haven’t seen before: it’s all logic and collation, sifting through potential evidence. The tension wracks up unbearably, even though the story is familiar, and the outcome is well-known. It’s the personal stuff that generates the suspense: will these people come out of this okay?

During her police interview, Tamerlan’s wife, Katherine (Melissa Benoist) remains tight-lipped, saying little. She does, however, contend that “worse things happen in Syria every day.” The tragedy is that she’s right. And goodness knows how those people cope, because this – one bombing, one day – is awful, and will have a profound impact on Boston’s population for many years to come. It’s a terrible excuse, of course: only a twisted logic justifies one atrocity by referring to another. But it should be enough to make us care, to make us want to help those for whom such events are devastatingly commonplace.

Writer/director Peter Berg maximises the impact by incorporating genuine CCTV and news footage into the mix, giving his film a realism and authenticity that makes it hit home.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

A Cure for Wellness

24/02/17

Pirates of the Caribbean director, Gore Verbinski sets a course for even darker waters with  this 18 certificate mystery movie, giving us a twisted fairy tale that evokes plenty of other great films, yet still somehow manages to retain its own identity. This is the kind of thing that Tim Burton does, only, dare I say it? Better. Much better.

Ambitious young executive, Lockhart (Dane Dehaan) is sent by his employers to a remote sanitarium in the Swiss Alps, where he is instructed to locate and bring back the company’s head honcho, Pembroke (Harry Groener), who went out there for the ‘cure’ and has subsequently gone AWOL. No sooner has Lockhart arrived than he’s presented with a whole host of unanswered questions. Why is the sanitarium’s mysterious director, Volman (Jason Isaac, sporting a Germanic accent) so oily and evasive? What’s going on with the weirdly enigmatic Hannah (an engaging turn from the appropriately named Mia Goth)? And what exactly is in that special spa water that everybody seems addicted to drinking?

Verbinski takes his time answering those questions and, even if some of the convoluted plot’s loose ends are never satisfactorily tied up, it’s nevertheless an intriguing and sometimes suspenseful journey getting there. Despite a running time of two and a half hours, the film never drags and switches smoothly from one deeply creepy set-piece to the next. A sequence in a dentist’s chair is likely to put you off ever sitting in one again, while other scenes here will doubtless dissuade you from eating jellied eels for life. Along the way, some of the best horror films in history are cleverly recalled – Rosemary’s Baby, Dance of the Vampires, The Shining… and there’s even a strand that put me in mind of vintage TV series, The Prisoner (which to my mind is the ultimate praise).  If everything goes a bit Hammer Horror at the conclusion, it’s by no means a bad thing.

Not everyone will like this. It’s probably far too weird for mass approbation and there’s a complete refusal to take the easy path when the scenic route has so much for offer – and speaking of scenery, the location photography is particularly sumptuous. But be careful. Behind every pretty thing, there’s something sinister waiting to jump out at you.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Great Wall

23/02/17

The Great Wall is an American/Chinese co-production and it’s reputedly the most expensive film ever made in China. It’s plain to see where all the money went. As you might expect from Zhang Yimou, director of House of Flying Daggers and Hero, this is all about spectacle, depicted on a gigantic scale. There are epic battle scenes galore and the recreation of the wall itself is absolutely jaw-dropping. A pity then, that the storyline is built on rather less robust foundations. It’s rambling, to say the least, at times quite nonsensical and it’s staggering to think that it took three screenwriters (one of them the very talented Tony Gilroy) to put it all together.

William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are a couple of soldiers of fortune who have ventured deep into the wilds of China in search of the fabled black powder. (Not a hallucinogenic drug but the stuff you blow things up with). After a run-in with an unseen adversary, they are taken captive by an army who’s task it is to defend the Great Wall against the Taotie, waves of ravening lizard like beasts who for reasons best known to themselves, regenerate and attack the wall every sixty years. When the newcomers prove themselves in a skirmish against the beasts, their lives are spared and Commander Lin (Tian Jing) starts to flutter her eyelashes at William, initiating a deepening (but perfectly chaste) relationship between them. Meanwhile, another captive, Ballard, (Willem Dafoe) who has lived behind the wall for twenty five years has devised an elaborate escape plan and hopes that William and Tovar will join him…

To be honest, nobody is going to watch this for the convincing plot. If you like Zhang Yimou’s unrivalled visuals then the chances are you will find this as aesthetically thrilling as I did. But it also has to be said that brilliant though the CGI beasties are, there are simply way too many of them. Half a dozen fearsome creatures would have had way more impact than the millions that we see swarming over every battle scene. Clearly the director does not subscribe to the old adage that ‘less is more.’ And I might also add that none of the Taotie are quite as fearsome as Damon’s attempt at an English accent… at least, I think it’s meant to be English. Or possibly Irish?

An important slice of American-Chinese cooperation or a somewhat flawed attempt at a credible blockbuster? You choose.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Titanic: the Musical

21/02/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

The King’s Theatre has a long and proud tradition of working with amateur companies; but it’s clear from the opening scenes of Southern Light’s production of Titanic, that we’re going to need to redefine the word ‘amateur,’ because this lavishly produced musical is certainly more assured than the term might lead you to expect. Indeed, the overall look and feel of it would give many professional companies a good run for their money.

Of course, we all know – or at least, think we know, the story of the ill-fated White Star liner which struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage in 1912 and sank, resulting in the deaths of over one thousand, five hundred passengers. The story has retained its fascination ever since and little wonder, as it serves as a powerful metaphor for the world’s obsession with the class system and the symbolic end of the British Empire. It has been the inspiration for a whole clutch of novels and films- eerily, it seems, even for a book that was written in 1898, called The Wreck of the Titan, which seemed to predict everything that would happen fourteen years later.

The Southern Light Opera Company’s production fairly bristles with ambition and much like the titular vessel, it’s a colossal undertaking. At one point I counted over seventy performers on stage, moving around in perfectly synchronised choreography, their massed voices soaring in thrilling harmony. A dining room sequence in the first half had three tables full of costumed actors, being served what looked like real food by a battalion of waitresses. (I’d have loved to watch the rehearsals for that!)

As this is so much an ensemble piece, it’s hard to single out individuals for praise, though Chris MacFarlane was very impressive as ‘the Stevedore,’ and Keith Kilgore as the ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews, also shone. Look out too, for a sprightly performance by Judith Walker as would-be social climber, Alice Beane. The musical’s first half, when everyone is optimistic and thrilled with their voyage is by far the most enjoyable. The second half, as we know only too well, heads into darker waters, and at times the sheer impossibility of depicting such a momentous incident onstage threatens to overpower the proceedings -but I did enjoy the moving epilogue where projections of the names of the dead played across the cast as they delivered a final song.

A lot of care and attention to detail has been lavished upon this musical – and the fact that tonight’s performance is dedicated to one of the members of the cast who died just a few days ago, makes it all the more poignant. Don’t let the word ‘amateur’ put you off. This is well worth your attention and it’s on at the King’s Theatre until Saturday the 25th of February.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Founder

20/02/17

The Founder may well be the perfect film for the era of Donald Trump – it’s all about crass commercialism, overarching ambition and a multi-billion dollar empire that was founded upon so-called ‘alternative facts’ – or ‘lies’, as we might more accurately call them. Michael Keaton’s triumphantly reptilian performance personifies the very essence of the current state of America, even if this true-life tale happened more than sixty years ago.

When we first meet Ray Kroc (Keaton) in 1954, he’s a down-at-heel travelling salesman, riding the highways and byways of Illinois, trying to sell multi-milkshake makers to the managers of drive-in diners and meeting with total indifference from everyone he approaches; so when he hears that a new burger joint has just ordered six of his machines, his interest is piqued, even though it means driving all the way to San Bernadino, California, for a closer look. There he meets the McDonald brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch), two likeable entrepreneurs who have devised a new and speedier method of feeding burgers and fries to their appreciative customers.

Sensing that the brothers have unwittingly stumbled upon something that could be absolutely huge, Kroc persuades them to go into business with him, offering out the McDonald model as a franchise. But he soon discovers that the brothers have some annoying traits:  a genuine pride in their product, for instance; and a stubborn refusal to cut corners in the manufacture of any food that has their name on it. What’s more, the tiny percentage that Ray is able to rake off from each new franchise he sets up is barely enough to keep him solvent… it soon becomes clear there will have to be some changes.

John Lee Hancock’s film is a sobering story of the triumph of corporate greed over common decency. Kroc emerges as a thoroughly nasty piece of work, obsessed with furthering his own ends, horribly dismissive of his long-suffering wife, Ethel (Laura Dern) and transparently greedy when it comes to the acquisition of somebody to take her place – that dubious honour going to  Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), a woman clearly every bit as corrupt as Kroc. It’s to Keaton’s credit that despite it all, he manages to keep us interested in the man, as we witness his callous treatment of the poor suckers whose idea he stole and made his own.

It’s hardly what you’d call pleasant viewing, but as a demonstration of what’s gone wrong with the American Dream, it succeeds on just about every level. Keaton’s classy performance is simply the icing on the cake or, if you prefer, the pickle on the burger.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney