Month: March 2017

Chess: The Musical

30/03/17

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Of all the big West End musicals, Chess is a bit of an anomaly. Based around an idea by lyricist Tim Rice, with music by Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (who, let’s face it, know more than a thing or two about composing a catchy song), it was initially a concept album, before being adapted into this theatrical version. It’s a real ensemble piece that presents a considerable challenge to anybody reckless enough to mount a production. Luckily, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is more than up to the task and they thrill a packed audience at the Festival Theatre with a skilful display of all things theatrical that is breathtakingly good. Indeed, I have to keep reminding myself all the way through, that I’m watching the work of students here – albeit from one of the most famous theatre schools in the world – because this demonstrates degrees of professionalism that would rival many of the biggest names in theatre.

Inspired by the real life story of chess grandmasters Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, it’s the story of American chess player Freddie Trumper (Barney Wilkinson) and Russian player Anotoly Sergievsky (Jamie Pritchard) – and a rivalry that extends beyond the game, when Freddie’s long time muse, Florence Vassay (Daisy Ann Fletcher), becomes romantically entangled with Anotoly. Based around two world championships and presided over by The Arbiter (Emma Torrens) the stage is set for some human life subterfuge that mirrors the complexity of the central game.

It’s all masterfully done – the three lead actors sing brilliantly, there’s some incredibly complex and sophisticated choreography (often incorporating the real time use of video cameras, à la Katie Mitchell) and choral singing that sends chills down the spine. If there’s a criticism, it’s simply that during the first half of the show, the overall volume is occasionally a little too loud, but this is sorted by the second half, which features the show’s best known songs (including, of course, the sublime I Know Him So Well, with Daisy Ann Fletcher harmonising effortlessly with Hayley VerValin as Anatoly’s Russian wife Svetlana).

All-in-all, this is a fabulous show, and director Andrew Panton and choreographer Darragh O Leary can both take a well-deserved bow – and, to be honest, you won’t find a weak element in any department of this marvellous show. It all makes for a brilliant night at the theatre.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Life

29/03/17

A spaceship visits a distant planet and discovers an alien life form. At first the crew are delighted, and they bring it aboard to study it in more detail. But as the creature begins to grow in size and cunning, they realise that they have invited something deadly into their midst. Pretty soon, they are involved in a desperate struggle for survival as the alien begins to pick them off, one-by-one…

Okay, who thought I was talking about Alien? There are startling similarities here and with Alien Covenant soon to hit big screens across the country, I can’t help feeling that Daniel Espinosa’s film, Life, has chosen a really unfortunate release date. Handsomely mounted though it is and blessed with considerable star power, it nonetheless can’t help but invite comparisons with its more famous cousin.

Here, the space ship in question is the International Space Station and the extraterrestrial life form (dubbed ‘Calvin’ by some well-meaning kids back on earth), has come via a soil sample from Mars. At first, it’s an innocuous scrap of fluff that responds weakly to heat and light. Science officer Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) quickly falls in love with the thing and starts conducting a few casual experiments on it. Before you can mutter ‘bad idea,’ it’s free from its incubation pod and is growing bigger and more vicious by the second. Captain Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) is faced with the daunting task of trying to contain it aboard, rather than let it escape to earth where it will wreak untold havoc. She’s aided and abetted by Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sonada and Olga Diovichnaya as the other members of the crew. Clearly no expense has been spared here. The space vistas are  superbly rendered and the constant gravity-free environment is convincingly conveyed – apparently they used wire work rather than the infamous ‘vomit comet.’

I’ll be honest and say that there’s quite a lot to admire here (not least an unexpected switcheroo, that actually has me shouting out loud at the screen), – and Calvin is undoubtedly his own beast, with a particularly revolting method of seeing off his prey – but try as I might, I can’t rid myself of the notion that a salivating xenomorph might lurch out of the shadows at any moment. If the Alien franchise didn’t exist, I’d doubtless be upping the stars on this a couple of notches, but as it stands, this feels like an unfortunate rerun of a good idea. And no matter how polished it is, that’s never quite enough.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Anita and Me

28/03/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Meera Syal really knows how to spin a yarn. I read and enjoyed Anita and Me when it was first published, back in 1996. I watched the 2002 movie adaptation too, which was okay, although more superficial than the source novel. So I am interested to see this musical stage production, which is a collaborative effort by The Touring Consortium Theatre Company and Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

And it’s a lively, energetic piece, with an animated central performance from Aasiya Shah as Meena. The story of a young British-Indian girl, coming of age in a time of overt racism, is nicely told. There is anger here – Meena’s fury at local heart-throb Sam’s bigotry and ignorance, for example, and her refusal to allow him to get away with saying “I don’t mean you; I mean those other ones” – but there is humour, sadness, and forgiveness too. Sam’s anger is misdirected, but it’s understandable. He’s at the bottom of the pile, and he’s just lashing out. Far more important is Meena’s internal struggle to come to terms with who she is and who she wants to be.

It doesn’t work as well as the novel: the brush strokes are too broad and the nuances are lost. Without Meena’s internal monologue to temper our impressions, we’re left with a lot of stock characters behaving in predictable ways, declaiming their positions in loud, stagey voices. The Black Country accents feel overdone; it all needs toning down a bit. The novel has the same naivety, but it’s more credible on the page, when it’s told from a ten-year-old’s point of view. Here, we see the adults on their own terms, not Meena’s, and they are just too exaggerated to convince. It’s a shame, because the amplification hides the heart.

Despite this, there are some lovely moments, and some strong performances. Shobna Gulati and Robert Mountford, as Meena’s parents, give the subtlest characterisations, and these are easiest to believe. Nanima is a gift of a comic role, and Rina Fatania clearly revels in it. Meena’s sung letters to agony aunts Cathy and Claire are a nifty device, allowing us some insight into how she feels. And the set is impressively detailed, with some clever scene changes incorporated.

All in all, this is an enjoyable show, with much to recommend it. But it’s not as good as the book.

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Signatures

25/03/17

Signatures, Aberconwy Park, Conwy

We’re in North Wales to visit family and are invited out for lunch. The venue comes highly recommended by our hosts but I’m slightly disconcerted when I hear that the restaurant is in an unusual location – a holiday park in Conwy. All manner of unfavourable memories come crowding in, of the kind of ‘egg and chip’ greasy spoon hellholes visited in my youth. But one glance around the interior of Signatures quickly sets my mind at rest. This is a luxurious contemporary dining establishment and one that clearly already enjoys a devoted following.

We settle ourselves in and decide to order from the set menu which offers two courses for £17.95 and three for £22.95. It’s a lovely sunny day and there are pleasant views of the immaculately tended gardens. The staff are very friendly, meeting us as if we’re old friends and going the extra mile to make sure we’re happy. In a perfect world, it would always be like this, but of course, we don’t live in a perfect world, which is pretty much our lunchtime conversation.

For my starter I choose the Signatures’ eggs Benedict, which instead of the more usual bacon features a slice of smoked haddock. It works beautifully, the flakey fish mingling perfectly with the soft poached egg and a thick, tangy Hollandaise sauce. Susan has the crispy belly pork which is served with a quenelle of sage mash, with apple purée and elegant strips of crunchy crackling. For us, that’s a clear round.

For my main course, I have the roast breast of chicken, which is accompanied by carrot and swede mash, sticky red cabbage, Lyonnaise potatoes and a Madeira cream. The chicken is soft and moist and isn’t overpowered by the Madeira, while that sticky red cabbage is so lovely, I could happily indulge in a whole bowl of it. Susan’s pan fried sea bass is also a delight, sitting upon a bed of creamy shrimp and pea risotto and accompanied by asparagus. Me, I’m starting to envy the people on this luxury site who have an establishment like this only a few steps away.

Puddings? Don’t mind if we do, particularly when the sticky toffee is as mouth-watering (and as abundant) as it is here. It’s accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a very nice butterscotch sauce. Susan samples the classic creme brûlée which comes with homemade shortbread and an intensely flavoured strawberry sorbet.

I guess this is a lesson on how expectations can often be so misleading. Signatures may be in an unprepossessing location, but this is cuisine that would give many grander, more expensive establishments a run for their money. We couldn’t find a single thing wrong with the food or the service here – and it’s not every day you can make a claim like that.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Miller & Carter Steakhouse

24/03/17

Mirfield, Yorkshire

We’re visiting family in Huddersfield and in need of some sustenance. This place comes highly recommended by my favourite daughter and her charming partner, so the four of us take the short trip to Mirfield to check it out. A steak dinner is many people’s idea of the perfect default dining option, but it’s depressingly difficult to find a decent one. Those ‘tough-as-shoeleather-dry-as-the Sahara’ offerings are so often the norm, we begin to see them as inevitable. So it’s truly heartening to discover a place that actually gets the formula right.

At first glance, I’m somewhat doubtful, because the dining area is huge – room after room, packed with eager punters – and it’s also part of a sizeable chain, which is often an indication of impending mediocrity. With this many covers, how are they ever going to maintain their standards, I wonder? Well, I needn’t have worried. Our companions have warned us that portions here are on the hearty scale, so for starters the four of us share a plate of nachos. The hand cut tortilla chips come laced with Cheddar cheese sauce, tomato salsa, sour cream, guacamole and some decently punchy jalapeños – just enough to get our taste buds going and to accompany our opening salvo of drinks.

We’re fans of ribeye steak, so we both order the 12 oz variety, while our companions opt for slices of rump. To be honest, the menu offers just about every cut you could possibly think of, including on the bone, off the bone and all points in between. The steaks arrive promptly, each accompanied by our individual choice of sauce in a separate jug. We also get a ‘wedge’ – a hefty chunk of iceberg lettuce, which comes with a choice of four dressings (I go for bacon and honey mustard, which is terrific). There are regular or sweet potato fries and a generous slice of what the restaurant calls ‘onion loaf’, which is sweet and crunchy and really nice to have on the plate. Just for interest’s sake we also try a side portion of lobster mac n’ cheese, which is everything you’d expect it to be, gooey and comforting, with hefty chunks of crustacean thrown in for good measure. The steaks themselves are perfectly cooked, thick and succulent, tender enough to cut with an ordinary knife (though we are supplied with sharper ones). All steaks are premium graded and matured for at least 30 days. What else can I tell you? It works, totally and at a decent price – a ribeye steak comes in at just under £20.

After that, we’re pretty satiated but selflessly (and purely, you understand, for the sake of this review) we order a sharing plate of four desserts and play that game of ‘not wanting to be the last person to take a spoonful’, so we each take smaller and smaller amounts until one brave individual (not me, I promise!) shame-facedly snatches up the last crumb. By this time we’re well in to the second bottle of prosecco, so I barely remember what the pudding actually comprises, but it hardly matters – the real story here is the steak experience, which is done with absolute authority. What else can we do but award it full marks?

The next time you’re in West Yorkshire and that Neolithic need for fresh meat comes over you, you’ll know a good place to go in order to satisfy it.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Richard Herring: The Best

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22/03/17

The Stand, Edinburgh

Let’s face it, it takes some chutzpah for a comedian to label his show ‘the best’ knowing full well the torrent of caustic putdowns that could inevitably follow such an outrageous claim. But after some discussion, we have to admit that there probably isn’t another stand up out there who is more deserving of the description. Herring has given us so much sheer enjoyment over the years.

We first encountered him at the Edinburgh Festival in 2010 with Christ On a Bike: The Second Coming and every year after that, the first show we would book would be his. We were distraught when he decided not to do the festival in 2015 and 2016, and delighted when we heard that he’s going to give it another shot this year. All in all, we’ve seen six of his shows and the beauty of it is, of course, that every one of them is completely different.

So here he is at Edinburgh’s most iconic comedy venue, offering 90 minutes selected from all 12 of his Edinburgh shows and we figure, if anybody has earned the right to perform a ‘best of’ compilation it’s the UK’s most hardworking (and in many ways, most criminally underrated) stand up comedian. He strolls onto the tiny stage, dressed more casually than we’ve seen him in a long time and launches headlong into his infamous Ferraro Rocher routine and as each successive clip segues into the next, the time just flies by while we sit there helpless with laughter.

It’s not rocket science. Obviously if you pick out all the funniest bits from over twenty hours of material, you’re going to be left with real quality and that’s pretty much what we get tonight, the perfect mix of silly, rude and cerebral. He keeps his Christ On A Bike material for the end and I still think that asked to pick my all time favourite, it would be this show, a dazzling tour de force of wit and invention, coupled with an amazing feat of memory – but that’s not to demean the rest of it. Herring at his least effective can still knock spots off most of his peers.

If you’re still unfamiliar with his work, we would urge you to seek him out at your earliest opportunity. If you can’t make it to a live slot, don’t forget there’s a whole raft of podcasts out there from his Leicester Square Theatre interviews, through As It Occurs To Me, right down to his Me1 vs Me2 snooker games. It’s all easily accessible and he leaves it up to you to decide if you ‘d like to pay him for the privilege of enjoying it.

There are precious few comedians who can offer such high output and fewer still who can maintain this level of quality. The Best? Yeah, we’re happy to go with that.

5 stars

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield

Galvin Brasserie De Luxe

19/03/17

The Caledonian is of course, home to the Galvins’ Pompadour, a superb fine-dining restaurant we’ve already reviewed and loved. But the brothers have another venue housed in the same hotel, this one with a less formal, more bistro-like ambience, so we decide to head along and try out one of their special deals, which offers two courses and a glass of prosecco for just £17.50 a head. (Three courses: £21.50)

There’s a nice bustling atmosphere on the Sunday evening we choose to visit, though we note that the special deal doesn’t exactly give us a great deal of choice – just two starters and two mains from their seasonal menu, but they both sound suitably enticing, so we make our respective selections. I have the carrot & coriander velouté, served with pickled carrot and coriander oil. This is beautifully done, the thick sweet soup making a perfect contrast to the crunchy vinegary pickle and I use some of the excellent sourdough we’ve been greeted with, to mop the plate clean.  The confit chicken roulade is also nicely cooked and presented, a tasty savoury dish dressed with a thick tarragon mayonnaise.

No sooner have the plates been cleared than the main courses appear and it’s hard not to feel a little rushed. The coley fillet, with cauliflower and almond cous cous is very good indeed, the fish virtually melting in the mouth; bit I must confess to being rather less pleased with the lamb shank with aubergine caviar, courgette and fennel and basil puree, mostly because the lamb has been ‘pulled.’ Pulled meat seems to be everywhere these days but it makes for a less satisfying eating experience, because no matter how flavoursome it might be (and this surely is), there’s no real texture to it. To confound matters, the side order of fries we order doesn’t appear until we’ve actually finished eating and when it finally does show up, it’s just a tin container filled with the kind of tasteless frozen fries you’ll find pretty much anywhere. To be fair to the restaurant, because of the delay they don’t charge for these, but their absence means we’re waiting instead of relaxing while we eat, and this puts a bit of a crimp on the meal.

We eschew a pudding and indulge ourselves with a second glass of prosecco. A quick perusal of the wine list shows that there isn’t a decent bottle of plonk under £40 and this strikes us as a failing. While we’d be happy to spend that if we were having a more expensive meal, there should surely be a range of lower cost wines to accompany the bistro experience?

All-in-all, we’d go back to The Pompidour in a heartbeat, but the Brasserie probably needs to up its game a little if it hopes to compete with its more sophisticated neighbour.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney