Month: June 2017

Ricci’s Place

16/06/17

Crossley Street, Halifax

For writerly reasons, I’m in Halifax, a town I honestly don’t think I’ve ever visited  before. I’m staying at the White Swan hotel, so I put out a Facebook call for recommendations for somewhere to eat. Ricci’s Place proves to be one minute’s walk from my hotel, so I can hardly complain that it’s inaccessible. As I walk, I can’t help reflecting that Halifax will be much nicer once it’s finished. At the moment, huge swathes of it seem to be under reconstruction and travelling any distance requires the unwary traveller to side-step cement mixers, road drills and various other items of machinery. Ricci’s Place turns out to be one of those industrial chic establishments, all stripped floorboards and neon signs. It bills itself as a ‘modern kitchen.’ It’s still early so there are only ten or twelve diners in evidence.

For starters, I choose the crispy baby squid, served with rocket, chilli, lemon and alioli. It arrives almost before I finished ordering it, as though the chefs were waiting on starting blocks. For a moment I think that they’ve mistakenly prepared a main course, because this is a very hearty portion indeed, even by my gargantuan standards. I guess the term ‘crunchy’ should have tipped me off  to the fact that the squid would be coated with something, in this case a rather bland breadcrumb affair which unfortunately serves to mask the delicate flavour of the squid itself, but the accompanying salad is nicely spiced with a powerful punch of chilli, while the alioli is very garlicky indeed and makes me fear for the olfactory safety of the schoolchildren I shall be talking with tomorrow.

For the main course, I opt for ‘lasagna with a difference,’ mostly because I’m intrigued by the name. Changing the traditional recipe? Look what happened to Jamie Oliver when he dared to tweak the ingredients for spaghetti bolognese! There were riots in the streets! There were moves to have his head served on a plate! Clearly, Ricci (if he even exists) has no reservations whatsoever about playing fast and loose with tradition. This lasagna is made with wild boar and has an intense gamey flavour. It’s layered with buffalo mozzarella, duck eggs, speck (whatever the hell that is) and San Marzano tomatoes. It’s not exactly the handsomest meal you’ve ever seen but I have to say, it’s very satisfying indeed, particularly when you have a side order of hand cut chips to mop up that spectacularly herby sauce.

Again, the hefty portion size means I struggle to finish and though the sweets sound enticing, I am sadly quite beyond sampling them, so I head out into the half-finished streets and make the long, arduous trek back to my hotel.

So, a reasonably decent starter and a very satisfying main course. If you should happen to find  yourself in Halifax, for whatever reason, (perhaps you live there!) this is a decent dining experience – something to take your mind off all that building work.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Churchill

11/06/17

Biopics are notoriously hard to bring off successfully. Jonathan Teblitzsky, better known perhaps for his work on Broadchurch, should therefore be heartily congratulated for what he has achieved here, creating a film that not only shows us aspects of an iconic man that we’ve never really witnessed before, but also one that includes several scenes that are genuinely affecting. (Trust me, take some hankies.)

Set in the three days leading up to Operation Overlord, we are shown a Churchill who is being completely marginalised by Eisenhower (John Slattery) and by Montgomery (Julian Wadham), both of whom feel he is hopelessly out of touch and well past his sell-by date. Moreover, we are shown a Churchill who is bitterly opposed to the invasion of France, fearing a repetition of the disastrous events of Gallipoli, which he sanctioned during the First World War.

Brian Cox’s performance in the lead role is extraordinary; more than just an uncanny impersonation, it goes to the heart of the man behind the public image, showing not just the irascible old tyrant we’ve all seen before, but also a man haunted by the ghosts of the thousands of young troops he sent to their deaths. As the long-suffering Clementine, Miranda Richardson provides just the right degree of steely determination, as she manages her difficult husband from the wings, smoothing over his many outbursts, and helping those who have to deal with him get their messages home. One of those maligned is his young secretary, Helen (a touching performance by Ella Purnell), who suffers from his harsh words more than most – and who has more reason than most to be fearful of the outcome of Operation Overlord.

I fully expect to see Cox’s efforts awarded prizes next time these things are handed out – but the film is more than just that remarkable performance.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Mummy

10/05/17

When I heard this was looming on the cinematic horizon, my first thought was, ‘What, again?’

But then I realised it was actually as far back as 1999 and 2001 respectively that Steven Sommers enjoyed box-office hits with his two instalments of sarcophagus-bothering and, as it transpires, this is something rather different: the opening salvo in a series of ‘Dark Universe’ films. Inspired, no doubt, by what Marvel and DC are currently doing with their back catalogue, the bigwigs at Universal have clearly decided to raid their vaults and resurrect some of their most celebrated monster-themed hits. This initial offering has Tom Cruise attached, which is probably as close as you can get, in these troubled times, to a guarantee of bums-on-seats.

Here, Cruise plays Nick Morton, a not altogether honourable guy, who spends his time in war zones, ‘liberating’ antiquities (i.e. nicking them and flogging them on the black market). In war torn Iraq, with his sidekick, Chris (Jake Johnson), he stumbles upon a tomb – an Egyptian tomb, which is around a thousand miles away from where it ought to be. The audience has already been tipped off in a pre-credits sequence as to the provenance of said tomb (there’s a lengthy preamble about crusaders and murdered pharaohs), but what Nick doesn’t know is that this place is actually a repository for the undead soul of Ahmanet (Sofia Boutell), who has been waiting five thousand years to be reborn. What’s more, one glance at Nick and she’s smitten by him – probably because, just like her, Cruise is somewhat older than he looks and incredibly well-preserved.

At any rate, Nick quickly finds himself possessed by Ahmanet and suffering from confusing visions of shifting sands and a mysterious jewel-handled dagger. Antiquities expert (and convenient love interest) Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) promptly whisks him over to London for a meeting with Dr Jekyll – yes, that Dr Jekyll (Russell Crowe) and many supernatural shenanigans ensue, replete with all the usual suspects – rats, spiders and scarab beetles.

This is actually a bit of a romp and, though there are some fairly grisly sequences, scattered throughout the proceedings, the accent is mostly on humour. Director Alex Kurtzman keeps the pot bubbling and never lets things get too bogged down in detail. The film occasionally borrows quite shamelessly from other hit movies– a repeated trope with Nick talking to an undead companion could have been lifted directly from John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London – but there is at least a decent script that actually displays a modicum of knowledge about Egyptian mythology. The more eagle-eyed viewers may spot items on display in Dr Jekyll’s laboratory that hint at other Universal products waiting in the wings for their chance to step back into the spotlight. Is that a vampire’s skull in a glass jar? I wonder, who can that belong to? And that scaly hand… The Creature From the Black Lagoon? At any rate, next for this treatment is The Bride of Frankenstein, so don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Horror movie purists will undoubtedly find themselves disappointed by The Mummy – it never really conjures up enough menace to totally creep you out – but those who, like me, go along with very low expectations, could actually wind up pleasantly surprised by what’s on offer. Give it a chance. It might be just your cup of mercury.

4 Stars

Philip Caveney

My Cousin Rachel

10/06/17

I’ll admit to a soft spot for Daphne du Maurier, despite the melodrama and the bodice-ripping. Okay, so her books are essentially pot-boilers, all over-hyped emotion and bald sensationalism. However, I read them first as a teenager, and just couldn’t put them down. They’re exciting, engaging stories, whatever literary merit they lack. But, though I devoured all those my local library stocked, My Cousin Rachel didn’t grace their shelves. So I approach this film in the unusual position of a fan who doesn’t really know the source material.

It’s typical du Maurier though; this doesn’t challenge my expectations. And director Roger Michell embraces her style, filling in the expository details with remarkable economy, and focusing on the growing fears of Philip Ashley (Sam Clafin), as the eponymous Rachel (Rachel Weisz), his uncle’s widow, beguiles him with her charms.

It’s the ambiguity that makes this film: is Rachel a femme fatale, a ruthless gold-digger who wants to destroy Philip? Or is she, instead, held to account for her beauty, made to carry the blame for men’s desires, accused of destroying them if she does not reciprocate?  This duality is what creates the tension here, and it’s meticulously rendered throughout. I tend towards the latter theory, but it’s really not clear cut.

A fascinating movie then: slow-paced but exhilarating; schlocky but sophisticated. The Cornish locations are beautifully evoked, Rachel Weisz is glorious in the lead role (of course she is), and the supporting cast is decent too. Well worth a watch – and now I’m off to buy the book. It’s about time I read it, after all.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

The Wedding Singer

06/06/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

I’ll be honest, I’m not expecting much of The Wedding Singer. Its tagline (“The Hilarious Musical Based on the Hit Film”) seems designed to put me off: I didn’t much care for the film and am suspicious of anything that calls itself funny. Still, if I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s to give stuff a chance; joy is often found in the most unlikely places.

And The Wedding Singer is really very good. It’s an energetic, riotous show, with some great set pieces and strong performances throughout. The tone is set before the lights go down, with a skewed cinema screen projecting trailers from 1980s classics: there’s The Goonies! Oh, and Desperately Seeking Susan! It’s a real nostalgia-fest, and makes one thing absolutely clear: this is a period piece.

And it needs to be, because the unquestioning conformity to gender roles would surely raise an eyebrow nowadays. Girls just want to get married, you see; they like dresses and rings and crockery. As for homosexuality, it’s the punchline to a lot of jokes in this play – and I don’t think that would fly in a contemporary piece, however affectionate the quips. (Maybe it shouldn’t work here either, but the crowd seems to lap it up; surely some of them are feeling as uncomfortable as I am though?)

Despite these issues, this is undoubtedly a feel-good musical with a lot of heart. It’s easy to engage with the two main characters, Robbie and Julia, who are played with warmth and good humour by Jon Robyns and Cassie Compton respectively. Both have lovely voices, ideally suited to the songs they sing. They make a delightful pair.

Ray Quinn, as Julia’s love-rat fiancé, Glen Gulia, is a standout: his dancing in particular is really impressive. And Ruth Madoc’s turn as Robbie’s young-at-heart grandma, Rosie, is the stuff that comic dreams are made of: sure, it’s a pantomime-ish caricature of a role, but her evident enthusiasm for the sheer silliness of it all is absolutely catching.

So yeah, if you’re after something to make you ponder, to broaden your understanding of the world, then this probably isn’t the play for you. But if you’re up for an evening of unabashed fun, then make your way to the King’s Theatre, and prepare to feel the buzz.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Wonder Woman

05/06/17

The character of Wonder Woman first appeared, in comic form, in 1942. In 1976, portrayed by Linda Carter, she was the star of a TV series, which ran for a perfectly respectable three seasons. The inevitable question is, why has it taken so long for her to star in a big screen adaptation of her story? (I’m going to discount the brief appearance she made in last year’s Batman vs Superman.) Is it simply that the superhero genre has always been associated with ‘films for the lads?’ Did the powers-that-be actually believe that a woman wasn’t capable of carrying an entire movie? The last time it was tried was in 2004, with Catwoman – which, it has to be admitted, wasn’t exactly a success.

Whatever the reason, the wait has been worthwhile – because unlike most of DC’s other recent output, this film benefits from a great big shot of fun. The plot may occasionally raise your eyebrows but it’s hard to deny just how enjoyable a ride this is – at least until the final twenty minutes or so.

We first encounter our eponymous heroine in the modern day, as she receives a communication from Wayne Enterprises. This is DC trying to open out their shared universe, taking their lead, no doubt, from Marvel’s more confident approach. Then we are quickly whisked back in time to the mysterious island of Themiscyra, where the Amazons dwell. Young Diana is the only child on an island inhabited entirely by women – and before you ask the obvious question, she was fashioned from clay by her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), with a little help from Zeus.  Hippolyta wants to protect her daughter from the evils of the outside world, and tries to steer her away from anything too physical, but Diana’s auntie, (Robin Wright) secretly coaches Diana in the ways of warfare so she will be able to fulfil her destiny and, pretty soon, she has grown up to be former physical training instructor Gal Gadot, a woman of such stunning physical beauty and strength, she might have descended from thoroughbred race horses.

Then one fateful day, a plane crashes on the island and Diana rescues the pilot, who turns out to be doe-eyed hunk, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Steve is a spy and, it turns out,  one who is carrying a very important notebook – something that he believes will help to end the First World War – for out in the real world it is 1916, and evil German officer, Ludendorff (Danny Huston, who, if not exactly chewing the scenery, is definitely giving it a pretty thorough nibble) is working alongside disfigured scientist, Dr Maru (Elena Anaya) to create a deadly nerve gas, one that Ludendorff thinks will turn the tide of the war and make his country victorious.

Pretty soon, Diana and Steve are on their way to London, with a tall order to fulfil – to end the war, once and for all. Okay, so this isn’t going to win any prizes for being the most convincing story ever written (indeed there are plot holes here you could comfortably drive an Amazon chariot through) but there’s real chemistry between Gadot and Pine and it does feel refreshingly empowering to see a woman handling the kind of kick-ass moves usually commandeered by the boys in spandex. There’s nicely judged comedy relief from Lucy Davis as Steve’s secretary, Etta, and some genuinely funny scenes where Diana’s gung ho attitude crashes headlong into the patriarchal conventions of the age. Despite what the naysayers are muttering, neither Diana nor Steve call the shots in this enterprise. They work together as a team.

My only beef with the film are those final twenty minutes, when inevitably, the limitations of the genre kick in and we’re plunged headlong into yet another over-pixilated punch up. As Diana and her nemesis, Ares, start picking up tanks and throwing them at each other, it simply serves to emphasise the point that what’s so good about this film is the way in which a superhero interacts with real people. But that quibble aside, there’s much to enjoy here and the news that director Patty Jenkins has already scored a record opening weekend for a female director is simply the icing on an already tasty cinematic confection.

If, like me, you’re a little tired of seeing moody blokes in capes thumping seven bells out of each other, this may be just the film for you.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Lyceum Variety Night 3

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04/06/17

Lyceum, Edinburgh

Flint and Pitch’s Variety Nights are fast becoming a thing of legend. Hosts Jenny Lindsay and Sian Bevan are as engaging and irreverent as ever, setting the tone for another fun-filled evening in their company.

Tonight’s proceedings kick off with a song from Maud the Moth, an interesting jazz-classical-fusion band built around the distinctive vocal stylings of Amaya Lopez-Carromero, featuring keyboards, drums, violins and, on the opening number, Queen Maud, electric guitar. It makes for a haunting start and I’m already looking forward to hearing more from them later.

Up next is Kieran Hurley, a storyteller whose schtick, he tells us, doesn’t really lend itself to ten-minute pieces, shorn of context. Still, he manages to contextualise tonight’s reading with wit and brevity, and it’s a real treat: an excerpt from his 2013 play, Beats. Two intertwining monologues tell us the story of an illegal rave – and we’re hanging on to his every word.

Audrey Tait and Michelle Lowe are The Miss’s, a Scottish singing/songwriting duo with a compelling set tonight. Tait’s plaintive voice is the perfect foil for Lowe’s more gutsy vocals, and they absolutely take my breath away. I love these two and could listen all night.

But it’s a variety night, so of course we are moved swiftly on. And it’s fine, because Caroline Bird’s performance poetry is a delight; in fact, she’s our favourite act of the evening. Her diffident, unshowy persona allows her poems to shine – and shine they do. They’re as charming as she is, illuminating dark truths about love, life and mental illness with cheerfulness and compassion. We’ll certainly be seeking out more of her work.

Jack Webb is the first dancer/choreographer to grace the Lyceum Variety Night’s stage, and this is certainly a very striking piece. Let’s be honest, interpretive dance isn’t an area we know much about, and we’re not sure we fully understand all this performance wants to say, but it is nevertheless clearly a corporal feat, all precision and control, conveying pain and a heightened sense of physicality.

It’s safe to say that Mairi Campbell is unique – she plays the viola and sings which is a pretty unusual combination, but she makes it work really effectively. She gives us a brace of memorable folk-tinged songs, the last one involving us all singing along on the chorus, and it’s evident why she won the Instrumentalist of the Year award in 2016.

Kathleen Jamie is a poet in the most traditional sense. She offers us a collection of lyrical pieces based around the beauty of the Scottish landscape and her childhood memories. The one that covers stamp collecting is a particular delight (and that’s not a line you get to say very often). Weirdly, despite winning a whole plethora of awards since her first in 1981, she doesn’t come across as the most confident of performers – but there’s no doubting the quality of her work.

It’s left to Maud the Moth to come on and finish off the night with three more of their excellent songs and highly original songs, before we head back to (as Jenny and Sian point out) the harsh reality of the world. An excellent night then and we only have one minor quibble – why have we still not managed to win the raffle?

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield and Philip Caveney