Month: September 2017

Victoria and Abdul

27/09/17

It’s 1887 and Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) has completely lost her zest for life. A widow for something like thirty years (and missing the attention of her much-loved Ghillie, the late Mr Brown,) she suffers silently through a daily onslaught of official functions, signing papers and attending dinners – all under the baleful gaze of a whole retinue of servants who feed her, dress her and even keep watch on the Royal bowel movements. And then along comes Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a handsome young servant despatched from his hometown of Agra in India in order to present the Queen with a rather unprepossessing commemorative coin. In so doing, he breaks with protocol and actually dares to look her in the eye. Something clicks between them. Pretty soon, Abdul has been appointed as her personal servant and, not long after that, as her ‘Munshi’ or teacher, when she decides she’d like to learn to speak Urdu.

Predictably, the appointment causes much consternation in the Royal Household, not least to Edward, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard), who feels that a servant – and a Muslim one, to boot – does not make a suitable companion for his mother. Despite this, when Victoria learns that Abdul is a married man, she insists that he send for his wife and daughter immediately and has the family installed in their own cottage on the palace grounds.

This is an interesting true life story in which Dame Judi does her usual seemingly effortless magic, while director Stephen Frears takes the opportunity to nail the jealousy, spite and hypocrisy that always simmers under the polite surface of the aristocracy. Karim, however, remains something of an enigma. Was he a genuinely devoted servant or, like so many others in the Royal household, simply looking to exploit the situation to his own ends? We’re never really sure – and Victoria doesn’t seem to care. Whatever, it’s clear the real exploitation was visited upon the colonies, so who could blame Karim for trying to turn the tables to his own advantage?

Whatever the truth of the situation, he was clearly shabbily treated by Edward and by the supercilious Lord Henry Ponsonby (a lovely swan song from the late Tim Pigott-Smith). There’s also an appealing turn from Adeel Akhtar as Karim’s politically-astute friend, Mohammed, who, shorter and less handsome than his celebrated companion, is doomed to be forever in his shadow. This is an assured little film, beautifully performed by a stellar cast and, while the world doesn’t exactly move for me (a bit like the Royal bowels, I suppose), it’s nonetheless well worth watching, if only to fill me in on a little bit of history I wasn’t previously aware of.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Monty Python’s Spamalot

 

26/09/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

‘Your father is a hamster and your mother smells of elderberries!’

With dialogue like that,  it can only be Monty Python’s Spamalot, the show that creator Eric Idle claims was ‘lovingly ripped off from the motion picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Since it opened on Broadway in 2005, this musical has played all over the world with a whole string of actors in the central role of King Arthur.

Tonight, in Edinburgh, Arthur is played by Bob Harms and his grubby assistant, Patsy, by Rhys Owen. From the moment they enter on horseback (or rather, on foot, accompanied by the sound of coconut shells) the audience is laughing helplessly, a state they remain in throughout the show. Lovers of Python – and they are many – will have a field day with this, because it features plenty of scenes from the film, together with songs specially composed for the musical (The Song That Goes Like This, which parodies the Andrew Lloyd Webber school of composition, is a particular standout) and, of course, since it’s simply too good to leave out, we are also treated to a version of Always Look On The Bright Side of Life from The Life of Brian, which has us all whistling happily along.

I won’t pretend this is anything more than a piece of fluff but, my goodness, what beautifully presented fluff! The production values here are spot on. Sarah Harlington as The Lady of the Lake submits some astonishing vocals and the various members of the chorus leap and pirouette around the stage for all they are worth. There’s also a fabulous moment where the fourth wall is well and truly broken. It would be a crime to reveal what actually happens but suffice to say one unsuspecting member of the audience is in for a real treat.

Was I entertained? Yes, massively. Could I tell you what the story is actually about? Well, no, but that’s kind of the point. Python always was a celebration of the ridiculous and Spamalot doesn’t change the formula all that much – so of course there are mystical knights desperately in search of a shrubbery. Of course there are interruptions from the voice of God (John Cleese). And of course there’s a killer rabbit – come on, it doesn’t get much better than a killer rabbit!

If you’re feeling a bit down or in need of a tonic, this show could be exactly what you are looking for. I came out with a great big grin on my face. Chances are, you will too.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Borg vs McEnroe

 

25/09/17

Tennis has never fared particularly well on the big screen (Wimbledon, anybody? Thought not). But this film, which focuses on the tumultuous 1980 tussle between ‘iceman’ Bjorn Borg and ‘superbrat’ John McEnroe, at least manages to capture the enduring appeal of the sport – that weird synthesis of action and psychological torture that has so many of us in its thrall. Sverrir Gudnasson offers an uncanny performance as Borg, capturing the man’s look and moves with absolute precision, while Shia LeBeouf isn’t a million miles away with his impersonation of McEnroe. Though the newspapers of the time loved to play up the essential differences between the two players, what’s interesting here are the similarities between them.

We first meet Borg as an obsessive youngster, given to losing his temper at every turn and throwing tantrums every bit as bad as those that would be displayed by his opponent, years later. But it is the intervention of tennis coach (and former Wimbledon finalist) Lennart Bergolin (Stellan Skarsgard), that convinces Borg to become the man the world would fall for – a silent, brooding introvert who never displays his emotions. McEnroe’s childhood proves to be equally interesting. He was some kind of mathematics prodigy. Who knew?

Naturally, the main part of the film concentrates on that famous game, where Borg is going for his fifth title and McEnroe is the upstart the public loves to hate, threatening to overturn a champion who has all the charisma of a pop idol. It’s to director Janus Metz’s credit that he manages to generate some real levels of tension here, even if we already know the outcome of the match. (Mind you, I’ve misremembered it. I thought we were watching the fateful game of the following year, the one that prompted Borg to retire from the sport at the tender age of twenty six – so the end actually comes as a complete surprise to me.)

I’ve seen a lot of poor reviews for this but as a tennis lover (and as somebody who watched enthralled as the original match played out) I rather enjoy it. Then again, if tennis really isn’t your thing, this clearly isn’t for you.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Bite Me!

25/09/17

Haymarket Terrace, Edinburgh

Whenever we’re trudging up Morrison Street into the city centre – usually on our way back home from the Haymarket tram stop – we comment on bite me!, a delightful-looking sandwich shop on the corner of Haymarket Terrace. It just looks so inviting: all gleaming white tiles, perfectly-shaped scones and clean, vibrant decor. But we rarely have an excuse to stop – we’re never passing at a meal time or when we’re sufficiently exhausted to think we need a break.

Today is different though. Today, we’ve had to get up early to take our car in for a service. We slept in later than we meant to, so we’ve not had time for breakfast: we’re tired, hungry and a little hungover from last night’s visit to the pub. We’re fantasising about food, and then – like a mirage – bite me! looms ahead. We look at each other; we’re of one accord. We don’t even need to speak. Wordless, we head through the door.

It’s as appealing inside as it is from the kerb. There’s a chalkboard behind the counter; the counter itself is stuffed full of sandwiches and cakes, all so appetising it’s hard to know what to order. But then I spot ‘breakfast rolls’ on the menu, and it’s clear what direction this treat is taking. We both order coffee with egg and bacon rolls – his with brown sauce, mine with red – and take a seat in the pretty bird-themed annexe.

Before long, the rolls arrive. They’re wrapped in paper, and the coffee is in cardboard cups. But the food inside the wrapper is spot on: a soft, fresh bap, crispy smoked bacon and a perfectly fried egg. It’s not greasy at all, and it’s piping hot. It’s a simple meal, but a very satisfying one.

We don’t like the coffee quite as much, but suspect that’s our own fault. We’ve learned since moving to Edinburgh that we need to request a ‘single shot’ – the norm here is a double and that’s too strong for us. We forgot to ask this time, which is a shame.

Still, for warm friendly service and a pleasant place to eat a decent snack, bite me! would be hard to beat. And we’ll be back some time to try those scones!

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Kingsman: the Golden Circle

24/09/17

Marmite movies – you wait for ages and then two come along at once.

No sooner has the Twitterverse stopped ranting about Darren Aronfsky’s mother! than they are virtually foaming at the mouth over this sequel to Kingsman: the Secret Service. The way people talk about it, you’d think the original was some kind of cinematic masterpiece. It certainly wasn’t that, but it was, in my opinion, great fun – an adrenalin-fuelled Bond spoof. This first film covered the induction of straight talking street-kid, Eggsy into the suave and sartorially elegant ranks of the Kingsmen, a secret society pledged to defend the world from evil.

Inevitably perhaps, the sequel is bigger and flashier, with such a starry cast that Taron Egerton finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being third-billed in what is ostensibly his movie. Director Matthew Vaughan and writer Jane Goldman have clearly decided, this time out, to pursue an even more audacious plot line, cranking the old silly-o-metre up to maximum override – in the process, I’m afraid, making the whole thing a tad too ridiculous even for my taste.

Drug kingpin, Poppy (Julianne Moore), based in a secret hideout in the South American jungle (aren’t they all?), is seeking to enslave the world with her own brand of opiates. She even inserts a special ingredient into her produce that turns its users into blue-veined freaks with a life expectancy of just a few days. While she’s at it, she also unleashes a series of vicious attacks on the Kingsman headquarters, killing off most of its key operatives. The only two survivors, Eggsy  (Egerton) and Merlin (Mark Strong), head off to Kentucky and the headquarters of Statesman, the American equivalent of their own organisation. There, they team up with Tequila (Channing Tatum), Ginger (Halle Berry) and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) in a bid to find an antidote to Poppy’s drugs and save millions of people from an untimely death…

As I said, the plot is so borderline-deranged, it’s hard for an audience to feel any sense of jeopardy – and no amount of guest appearances from the likes of Elton John, Jeff Bridges or Poppy Delevingne can prevent this from feeling like an over-inflated soufflé, all style and very little substance. It’s not a total write-off, mind you. Vaughan still has a winning way with an action set-piece and there are several here that periodically ramp up the excitement, but all too soon we’re back to robot dogs, people being made into hamburgers, Eggsy knocking around with a princess and introducing her to all his mates on the estate… and then there’s the little matter of a character who was murdered in the previous film still being alive. How do they explain that one? Well, they do try. I can’t help feeling that a storyline that kept a little closer to some kind of reality would help no end.

Look, here’s the bottom line. If you didn’t like the first film, you’ll hate this – and if, like me, you enjoyed the first one, you might just be willing to accept everything being ramped up to number eleven. But as far as I’m concerned, this is where I bale out.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

(By the way, what’s with the John Denver thing? Here’s yet another movie that employs Take Me Home, Country Roads for one of its key scenes – about the fourth or fifth I’ve seen in as many months.)

Twelfth Night

21/09/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Following Philip’s enthusiastic review of their Romeo & Juliet last night, I’m primed to expect good things from Merely Theatre, with their gender-blind double casting and sprightly interpretations of the Bard. And I’m not disappointed: Twelfth Night is an absolute delight, and an interesting counterpoint to the star-crossed lovers’ tragedy. To those who claim Shakespeare’s comedies just aren’t funny (Sir Richard Eyre, amongst others), I say: watch this. It’s hilarious. Even the too-cool-for-school teenage girls sitting in front of me – with their teacher and ‘response to live performance’ booklets – can’t help but laugh after a while. I mean, they give eye-rolling indifference a decent go, but it proves impossible in the face of Tamara Astor’s foolish musical antics (she’s playing the fool – conflated with Maria – so it all makes perfect sense).

The plot’s too well-known for me to detail it here, and – to some extent – this production relies on that familiarity. I’m never in any doubt as to who is who, but I might be, if I didn’t know the play. Hannah Ellis, for example, plays the drunken sot, Sir Toby Belch, as well as Orsino, but the only difference in costume is the addition of a tweed jacket and a bow-tie to denote Olivia’s wayward uncle, and – although Ellis plays them very differently – I think there’s a danger the Duke might appear to be the same man, albeit sobered up. Still, her performance is undoubtedly excellent, as is Robert Myles’ turn as the unfortunate Malvolio, not so much cross-gartered as high-Y-fronted, and stupidly amusing. Sarah Peachey and Emmy Rose deliver the ‘straight-man’ roles of Olivia and Viola with aplomb; there’s not a single weak link here.

It’s a lively, pacy piece of theatre: deliciously daft, revelling in its silliness. Scott Ellis’s direction is sublime: this show is fast and funny and entertaining all the time. The simple set works extremely well: there’re no unnecessary props or scenery to slow things down. This is seriously good comedy. Do try to catch it if you can.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Romeo & Juliet

 

 

20/09/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Merely Theatre have a pretty unique approach to staging what they call ‘stripped-back’ Shakespeare. Each play they produce features only five actors and the casting is gender-blind. On this tour, for instance, they are performing Romeo & Juliet and Twelfth Night in rep – so the version of R & J I see features four female actors and one male. It all makes for an interesting dynamic and prompts the viewer to examine really familiar scenes with a fresh eye.

I won’t insult readers by outlining the full plot of R & J – only to observe that a play that so many people think of as the ultimate love story is, in fact, pure tragedy – the tale of a flighty, impetuous youth who becomes infatuated with somebody he’s only just met and, in wooing her, unwittingly leaves a trail of devastation in his wake. Some love story! For once, the two lead characters here are young enough to convince us that they could be so impetuous and the pared-down nature of this production means that it moves like the proverbial tiger on vaseline, with characters dashing back and forth through a series of curtained doorways, slipping in and out of costume as they go.

With so few actors to carry so many roles, the danger is always that an audience won’t be entirely sure who is who, but the simple costume changes (where, for instance, the Capulets are always decked out in Bay City Roller-style flourishes of tartan) means that we’re never confused. Almost before I know it, we’ve hit the interval and, after a short break, the second half fairly scampers by. Sarah Peachey and Emmy Rose make appealing star-crossed lovers and I particularly enjoy Tamara Astor’s performance as the Nurse. Hannah Ellis deftly handles three roles, while Robert Myles manages four.

If you’re trying to encourage reluctant youngsters to embrace a bit of the bard of Stratford-upon-Avon, this is a great way to start them off. It’s pacy and exuberant but doesn’t pull any punches when dealing with the tragedy.

All-in-all, a very satisfying production.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney