Month: April 2017

Lady Macbeth


The ancestral origins of this movie are vaunted by its title, which leads us from Shakespeare’s ruthless anti-heroine to Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District. This film, adapted from Leskov’s 1865 novel by Alice Birch and set, this time, in the northeast of England, is a dark and unnerving piece of work, as chilling as it is spare.

Florence Pugh is Katherine, a young Victorian woman sold into marriage. Her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton), has no interest in her at all, and his father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), is a brutal tyrant. Both men are often absent from home, and Katherine is alone and bored. At first she sleeps the days away; then she seeks solace in alcohol. And then she encounters Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a farmhand, and they begin a passionate affair. So passionate, in fact, that it is dangerous, in a Heathcliff-Cathy kind of way; it’s surely no coincidence that these two women share a name. There is nothing Katherine won’t do to protect her illicit relationship,  and no one she won’t sacrifice. Even Sebastian himself isn’t safe: “I’d rather kill you than not have you with me,” she says.

This is an extraordinary debut by director, William Oldroyd (he’s made a couple of critically acclaimed shorts in the past, but this is his first full-length film), one of stark originality. It looks like other costume dramas, but it doesn’t feel like them at all. There’s no sound track, which is oddly disconcerting, and accentuates every noise in the horribly quiet house: the cat chewing, the floorboards creaking; everything grates and enervates. Katherine’s frustration is palpable.

This isn’t an easy watch: there is violence and savagery throughout. Katherine’s response to oppression is spirited to say the least; she refuses to be confined. Race and class are important themes here too: mixed-race Sebastian knows he – not she  – will be hanged if their crimes are discovered; black housemaid, Anna, is abused and exploited throughout. Katherine might be isolated, forced into a marriage she doesn’t want, but she has far more power and privilege than those with whom she spends her time.

Unlike her namesake, Katherine never wavers, never feels remorse. She’s powerful and subversive: loud when she’s supposed to be quiet; rebellious to the very end. Florence Pugh has an earthy vitality, and her performance is the foundation on which this remarkable film is built.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

The Addams Family


Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

The Addams Family have had a long and varied gestation to get to this point. Originally created by cartoonist and namesake, Charles Addams, they first saw the light of day in 1938 as a series of single frame cartoons in The New Yorker, though in those days none of the characters had names and the term ‘Addams Family’ hadn’t even been coined. That happened in 1964, when the family became the subject of a long running TV series. In the 70s, they joined Scooby Doo in an animation and then were given their own cartoon series. In 1991, they got the big screen live action treatment, a huge hit which was followed by another successful movie – and then one straight-to-video instalment that nobody seems to want to talk about. And finally, in 2010, this musical by Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice and Andrew Lippa debuted on Broadway, where it ran for 722 performances. Which brings us to the Festival Theatre, the show’s first stop on a major tour of the UK.

This is evidently a franchise with enduring appeal and it’s clear from tonight’s packed auditorium that the audience isn’t just comprised of old timers out to relive a childhood favourite. The majority of the crowd is made up of people in their 20s, proof it ever it were needed that some concepts will always find a new audience. The overriding appeal of this fictional family is, of course that, weird and unconventional as they are, they actually exemplify good old-fashioned values. Gomez (Cameron Blakely) is an excellent father, Morticia (Samantha Womack) is the consummate mother and the two of them really do have the interests of their extended family close to their hearts. Actually, it’s sobering to note that as time time goes by, their weirdness seems to diminish when set against what’s happening in the real world.

In this version of the tale, Wednesday Addams (Carrie Hope Fletcher) is at that dangerous age and has fallen in love with a (whisper it) ordinary guy called Lucas (Oliver Ormson). She’s even talking about marrying him. Gomez’s instinct is to hide the news from his wife, who he knows will not be pleased at the idea, but how can he do that when Wednesday has invited Lucas and his straight-laced parents round for dinner? What will they make of Wednesday’s odd little brother, Pugsley (Grant McIntyre), who worries that he will miss out on those sibling torture sessions he enjoys so much? What will they think of the potion-dispensing Grandma (Valda Aviks) or Gomez’s weird brother, Fester (a barely recognisable Les Dennis) who spends most of his time trying to work out how he can get to his own true love… the moon? And Lurch… what about Lurch?

It’s a promising concept and, of course, it’s brilliantly conceived and presented, with faultless performances, note-perfect singing, brilliantly choreographed dancing and a host of eye-catching costumes. If I have a criticism, it’s simply that having set up such a delicious idea, the writers somehow fail to develop it any further and what we get is a series of beautifully realised set pieces that fail to progress the story any further. But, having said that, there’s still plenty here to enjoy, not least the performance of Charlotte Page as Lucas’s uptight Mom, Alice, who conceals an entirely different persona behind that meek and mild front.

And there’s certainly no doubting the enthusiasm of the standing ovation the cast receive as they take their final bows. It’s clear that, despite being in existence for something like seventy years, there’s life in this franchise yet. What next, I wonder? The Addams Family on Mars? Don’t laugh, it could happen.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Not Dead Enough


King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Murder mysteries are extremely popular, particularly, it seems, when presented in book or TV form: police procedurals regularly top the TV rankings, and crime novels – especially series with returning detectives – are big-hitters too. Peter James, for example, has sold over 18 million copies of his books worldwide.

In my experience, however, such stories tend to be less successful when performed on stage, unless they’re played for melodrama and for laughs. Because, let’s face it, the stories are often ludicrous, featuring crimes of such demented complexity and ingenuity that they require a very strong suspension of disbelief. And the schlocky side of things is more exposed on stage than it is in other forms: there’s no easy cutting away, no close-ups, no internal dialogue.

There are non-naturalistic techniques, of course, which could more than compensate for the shortcomings, but in this production – and in others I’ve seen – these are eschewed for a more realistic approach. But, while I sometimes think this is a shame, in this particular instance, it seems to work. Okay, so there are a few awkward moments which provoke incongruous laughter from the audience but, for the most part, playing it straight serves the production well.

Bill Ward plays Superintendent Roy Grace, the central character in James’ “Dead” series. He suits the role, displaying just the right balance between gravitas and levity. He’s ably assisted by Laura Whitmore as Cleo Morey, who serves as both love interest and pathologist. But the starring role is – of course – the chief suspect Brian Bishop, played with absolute relish by Stephen Billington.

The piece is pacy, well-structured and very engaging. The two-tier set keeps us firmly in the world of work, switching between the police station and the path lab, with the domestic sphere very much off-stage.

And, if the final pay-off is as preposterous as it is audacious, it really doesn’t seem to matter, as this is a genuinely exciting tale – a cracking good night at the theatre.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Blackwoods Bar & Grill


Gloucester Place, Edinburgh

One of the nicest things about dining in the Scottish capital is that  so many of the venues we visit have illustrious histories to consider. Take Blackwoods Bar and Grill, for instance, tucked away on an almost eerily quiet Stockbridge street. Could this place possibly have anything to do with Blackwood’s Magazine, the venerated literary quarterly founded in the early 1800s – the  magazine that counted amongst its regular contributors writers of the calibre of George Eliot, Joseph Conrad and Samuel Taylor Coleridge? A vintage print on the wall as we enter seems to hint at the possibility and the young waitress I ask about it is proud to confirm my suspicions – and even brings me some printed material about the magazine to peruse while we await our meal.

But of course, we’re not here to consider literary history but to enjoy one of Blackwoods’  specialities, Chateaubriand for two. This is a term used to describe a four inch chunk of tenderloin filet, thickly sliced, crisply seared on the outside but with a pleasingly rare centre. Since the meal has a reputation for heartiness, we decide to eschew starters and we’re glad we do because when the meal arrives, pleasingly presented on a wooden board, it does indeed look like it’s going to be everything we expected. It’s accompanied by thick, flavoursome, hand-cut chips, al dente green beans, pea shoots, a lovely moist pile of mushrooms and a sprig of vine tomatoes, gently roasted and as flavoursome as you could possibly ask. Oh yes, and two pots, one featuring a thick sauce Bernaise and another a tangy red wine jus. Okay, so it’s not the most adventurous cuisine we’ve ever tasted, but sometimes you just want something simple done well, and this fits the bill nicely.

We are, for once, too full for pudding, but Blackwoods does offer an intriguing selection of alcohol based puddings – a raspberry and Bourbon creme brûlée, for instance and a chocolate and Nira Caledonia whiskey marmalade tart. There’s also a selection of Scottish and International cheeses by George Mewes, but all that will have to wait for another time. If you’re looking for a hearty dining experience, the Chateaubriand could be just the thing. And while you’re there, you can also swot up on Edinburgh’s rich literary history – and ponder what might have happened to the apostrophe in Blackwood’s.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

I Am Not Your Negro


In the late nineteen seventies, author and playwright James Baldwin began work on a memoir entitled Remember This House. He worked on it fitfully through the 80s and, by the time of his death in 1987, had only amassed some thirty pages. The piece was never published – indeed, the would-be publishers sued Baldwin’s family in order o to get back the advance they’d paid for the work – but, when director Raoul Peck chanced upon the manuscript, he realised that he had the basis for a powerful polemic.

I Am Not Your Negro is the resulting film – an extraordinarily excoriating and affecting documentary that looks at the treatment of black people in America over the centuries, focusing especially on the murders of three of Baldwin’s closest friends – civil activists Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jnr and Malcolm X. Baldwin’s original text is narrated by Samuel L Jackson and there are several filmed appearances of the author himself, an eloquent and erudite speaker, making clear the injustice and infamy handed out to people of colour on an everyday basis. These interviews are interspersed with a profusion of found footage: the homogenised depictions of black people in early Hollywood movies and in the advertising industry through the 50s and 60s; shocking newsreel footage of riots, where black demonstrators are being beaten and brutalised by the police; even hideous period photographs of lynch mobs in the deep South of America posing proudly in front of their victims.

This is by no means comfortable viewing. Indeed, I sat through the film’s duration feeling the oppressive weight of my privilege upon my white shoulders. At times I felt close to tears and I couldn’t help thinking that this film ought to  be mandatory viewing for all those white people who complain that the whole race issue is ‘overdone,’ that there are more important issues on which to concentrate. Peck’s film makes a mockery of that claim. It also shows that Baldwin was way ahead of his time, a lone plaintive voice crying out to an indifferent world.

Thank goodness we now have the opportunity to consider his words in all their wisdom. I would urge you to go and see this important documentary. I’ve rarely seen a more affecting piece of cinema.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Nell Gwynn


King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Nell Gwynn is one of those historical characters that most of us know a little bit about. I knew, for instance, that she was a former prostitute with a sideline in selling oranges and I also knew that she had a famous affair with King Charles II, the ‘Merry Monarch’. I didn’t know that she was one of the first female actors ever to grace the English stage and that in her short meteoric career, she was acclaimed as something of a ground-breaker. And I didn’t know that a history lesson could be so enjoyable.,

This superb production from the English Touring Theatre of Jessica Swales’ Olivier Award-winning comedy is a delight in just about every respect. From the superbly realised set, through the opulent costumes and the lively period music, this is fabulous to behold, while Swales’ incredibly witty script, replete with double entendres and bawdy observations galore, will have you laughing heartily all the way through.

We are first treated to a brief excerpt from the latest production of the Theatre Royal, where the infamous actor Charles Hart (Sam Marks) is showing us examples of his celebrated stagecraft. He’s interrupted by a voice from the stalls and onto the stage wanders Nell (Laura Pitt-Pulford) and Hart quickly realises that she has some real potential as an actress. He takes her under his wing (and into his bed) and, pretty much overnight, a new star of the stage is born, much to the disgust of  Edward Kynaston (Esh Alladi), who up this point has managed to monopolise all the Theatre’s plum female roles. Nell becomes an overnight sensation but, of course, it isn’t long before King Charles II (Ben Righton) pays the theatre a visit and he too becomes somewhat enamoured of this new talent. Whereupon matters become rather complicated…

Nell Gwynn is proof, if ever it were needed, that historical costume drama doesn’t have to be dull and fusty – indeed, this is as bright and brilliant as you could possibly wish. Christopher Luscombe’s direction is accomplished and Laura Pitt-Pulford is sensational in the lead role but, if I’m honest, there isn’t a weak link in what really is an ensemble piece. And, should you find some of the antics on display hard to believe, a quick online search will reassure you that pretty much everything that happens here is supported by genuine historical evidence.

If you’re in the mood for a great night’s entertainment, this is one you really shouldn’t miss. Form an orderly queue.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney


Their Finest


Ah,the British movie – still out there and still fitfully showing occasional signs of life, thank goodness. And trust me, films do not come much more British than Their Finest. (Terrible title, by the way, but based on a book called Their Finest Hour and a Half, which frankly isn’t very good either). However, the resulting film is much better than either title might lead you to expect.

It’s the early 1940s and London is suffering the worst excesses of the Blitz. Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) arrives for an interview at the Ministry of Information (Film Division) thinking that she’s applied for nothing more than a secretarial post, but she soon learns that she will be expected to write the ‘slop’ for the informational films the unit is currently producing. Slop, by the way, is the far from sympathetic term for anything uttered by the female actors in the films. Furthermore, Catrin is told, she obviously can’t be paid the same money as ‘the chaps in the unit’, but £2 a week sounds attractive to her, because she’s currently paying the rent on the flat she shares with her partner.

Ellis (Jack Huston), is a struggling artist who was badly injured in the Spanish Civil War and who moonlights as an (unpaid) ARP warden. The problem is he doesn’t much like the fact that Catrin is the money earner.  She finds herself seated at a desk next to opinionated young writer, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and she’s soon caught up in the struggle to get across a woman’s point of view into the scripts they are producing. It’s clear too that Catrin and Sam are probably made for each other, if they would only realise it. Then, the unit’s boss, Roger Swaine (Richard E Grant), announces that a more ambitious project is in the pipeline – a true life story set against the turmoil of the evacuation of Dunkirk…

OK, there’s nothing particularly ground-breaking about this film, though it does have some decent ammunition in its armoury, not least the presence of Bill Nighy as over-the-hill actor, Ambrose Hilliard. Nighy’s scenes are probably worth the price of admission alone. He is fast approaching the role of National Treasure, an actor for whom the term ‘louche’ seems to have been specially created. His outrage at being asked to play the role of alcoholic old timer, Uncle Frank, is a joy to behold.

There are other pleasures too. The recreations of London during the blitz are nicely done, Arterton is as charming as ever and the film excels at demonstrating the arbitrary nature of life during wartime. A scene where Catrin chances on the aftermath of the bombing of a department store is very affecting. To lighten the mood, there are hilarious clips from the feature film that the unit is making, complete with dodgy miniature boats, unconvincing glass paintings of the evacuated troops and even the terrible acting of American war hero, Wyndham Best (Hubert Burton), drafted in to the movie to try and encourage the Yanks to engage with the war, raised a chuckle to two. And, just in case I’m in danger of painting this as a total laughter fest, the film also manages to lob in an unexpectedly heartbreaking emotional grenade that consequently had me in floods of tears.

All in all, this is a delightful film, well worth seeking out.

4.3 stars

Philip Caveney