Month: October 2017

Cockpit

10/10/17

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

If you want to see the Lyceum in a completely different light, then now is the time to do so, as the whole place has been transformed for a timely production of Bridget Boland’s Cockpit, a challenging political piece set in the aftermath of World War Two.

It’s hard to make truly immersive theatre in a Victorian proscenium arch, but the design here is radical. There is raked seating on the stage, facing the auditorium, making the performance space effectively traverse. There are suitcases spilling their guts onto random seats; ladders leading up to (and down from) the boxes; the gantry is exposed. Even the trap-room is utilised. And yet, despite being rendered almost unrecognisable, the theatre building is also given a central role in this production, which is – cleverly – site-specific. For we are all (actors and audience) cast as displaced people (DPs), released from prisons and concentration camps across Germany but not yet able to celebrate our liberation. Instead we are cooped up in a provincial German theatre, which has been requisitioned by the British Army to serve as a holding pen before we are repatriated.

There’s a strong reminder here of the complexity of war: the common enemy may have been defeated but there are other grievances just as entrenched, which may never be resolved. This exploration of European history and relations seems especially prescient, as – outside the theatre – we try to navigate the choppy waters of Brexit. Divisions within our own country are deep and rancorous; our relationships with others have yet to be determined. Cockpit feels as though it could have been written last week, although in fact it was penned in 1948. These are interesting times in which to consider the notions of idealism versus pragmatism, hope versus despair.

Cockpit  is a witty, clever play. Forcing people of different nationalities and political persuasions to co-exist in a confined space allows the arguments put forward to appear spontaneous and natural, while the plot device of a suspected plague outbreak ensures we also see the characters’ common humanity, as they put aside their differences to focus on survival. The enormity of the task faced by Captain Ridley (Peter Hannah) is made very clear. A workable exit strategy seems nigh on impossible, as tensions rise between the various factions, and no one is prepared to compromise.

There is comedy here too: Dylan Read (who also plays French farmer Duval) excels as Bauer, the uptight stage manager, who prizes saving his beloved building above all else. His pomposity is funny: he fusses over petty details, takes great delight in providing props, bristles at the suggestion he might be ‘front of house.’ Through him, Boland also explores the redemptive power of theatre, a thread which culminates in an awe-inspiring performance from La Traviata by singer Sandra Kassman. Bauer might seem ridiculous, but preserving art and culture is important, we are shown.

Director Wils Wilson has served up a fascinating piece of theatre, which, if not exactly enjoyable, is nevertheless arresting and thought-provoking. It’s provocative and demanding; it’s not an easy piece to watch. But it’s certainly worth the effort, and will have you thinking long after the curtain falls.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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The Kite Runner

09/10/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel, set against the changing face of Afghanistan through the nineteen-seventies and beyond, gets an assured if slightly pedestrian adaptation by Matthew Spengler, who opts to use the same first person narration as the book. It’s a powerful and deeply affecting story about friendship and rivalry and how the events of childhood serve to shape the adult psyche.

David Ahmad takes the central role of Amir – and it must be a punishing performance, as he is involved in every single scene. This is the story of young Amir who lives with his father Baba (Emilio Doorgasingh) in a fine house in Afghanistan. It is also the story of the two servants who live and work in the household, Ali (Ezra Foroque Khan) and his son, Hassan (Jo Ben Ayed). Amir and Hassan are friends who play together every day, unmindful of the fact that they are on opposite sides of the Sunni/Shia divide. When the Taliban take control of the country, that divide causes incredible tensions – and when Amir witnesses an act of barbaric cruelty enacted on Hassan by some Sunni boys, he chooses to look the other way… something that in the fullness of time, he comes to bitterly regret.

The play is simply and effectively staged. I love the device of the giant kite-shaped screen that descends from time to time with images projected onto it and shadows swarming behind it. The scene where it is used to mask the story’s most heinous moment is a brilliant piece of theatre – making the event infinitely more horrible, simply because we do not see it. The imagination always paints the most terrible pictures.

I also love the presence of tabla player Hanif Khan on stage, his urgent rhythms serving to propel the story along at key moments. If some scenes occasionally feel a little exposition-heavy, this is perhaps an inevitable consequence of the narrative – but those who love the novel (and they are many) will surely appreciate how much care and attention has gone into adapting this for the stage.

The rapturous applause at the play’s conclusion is ample evidence of how much the audience in the packed auditorium enjoy this performance.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Mountain Between Us

08/10/17

This handsomely mounted movie, directed by Hany Abu-Assad, is a story of survival against all the odds in remote mountain locations. Nicely acted and decently filmed, it’s hampered somewhat by an all-pervading sense of predictability and by the conviction that it could have been a whole lot better if it had been willing to take a few more risks, particularly in the gender-stereotyping department. 

Photojournalist Alex (Kate Winslet) is desperate to get to Denver, where she’s scheduled to marry her partner, Mark (Dermot Mulroney). But impending bad weather leads to the cancellation of her flight. At the airport, she overhears surgeon Ben Bass (Idris Elba) telling a flight attendant that he too is desperate to get to Denver in order to carry out an urgent operation on a young patient. Alex talks him into sharing the cost of chartering a small private plane, flown by aging pilot, Walter (Beau Bridges), a man who clearly hasn’t spent an awful lot of time reading up on his health and safety procedures. Almost before you can say ‘bad idea,’ Walter has suffered a fatal stroke and the couple find themselves involved in a messy crash-landing on a snow-covered mountain peak. Worse still, Walter hasn’t bothered to inform anybody about the flight so nobody knows where they are – oh, and one more thing: Alex has only gone and fractured her leg…

All the usual tropes of a survival movie are present and correct – the couple overcome the problems of staying warm (mostly it would seem, by burning credit card bills) of finding food (a couple of packets of almonds) and of healing their wounds. Ben somehow finds the necessary tools to fix Alex’s broken leg and generally patch her up. If there’s a real criticism here, it’s that Ben is pretty much the ingenious hero throughout this scenario, solving nearly all of the couple’s problems single-handedly – even, at one stage, dragging Alex along behind him like an encumbrance. A hungry cougar adds a bit of much-needed menace (and eventually ends up supplementing the food supply) but eventually, the hapless couple realise that, if they are going to make it out alive, they will have to descend the mountain on foot – and, as they travel, it becomes increasingly apparent that the two of them are falling for each other, big time. Which is awkward, to say the very least.

This would be all well and good, but the film then overstays its welcome by looking at what happens after the events on the mountain, dragging out proceedings and holding off on an ending that we all know is waiting in the wings. Winslet and Elba make an agreeable couple and manage to strike plenty of sparks off each other, but she should have been given a bit more to do on that mountain.

All in all, this is watchable stuff – but not exactly ground-breaking.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Sixteen Candles

08/10/17

In general, The Cameo’s John Hughes season is a Very Good Thing. I jumped at the chance to see The Breakfast Club on the big screen last Sunday, and already have my ticket for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off next month. But today is a little different: I’ve never seen Sixteen Candles before, so I’m not wallowing in nostalgia. I’m here to see what I have missed.

And, it turns out, what I’ve missed is something rather different. Sixteen Candles is very uncomfortable to watch. To put it bluntly, this is a racist, sexist embarrassment, which seems to endorse rape. Oh dear.

It stars Molly Ringwald as Sam, a sparky teenager whose parents are so caught up in her sister’s wedding plans that they forget her sixteenth birthday. To make matters worse, the boy Sam has a crush on, Jake (Michael Schoeffling), doesn’t seem to know she exists and anyway, he’s dating Caroline (Haviland Morris), the hottest girl in school. Meanwhile, she has to fend off the unwanted attentions of uber-geek Farmer Ted (Anthony Michael Hall), and sleep on the sofa because her grandparents have comandeered her room. So far, so what I’d expect: some excellently observed insights into the teenage mind, and that trademark understanding of the all-consuming emotions that are part of growing up. Okay, so there are way too many characters, a sprawling cast of family members and schoolkids clogging up the plot and confusing things without really adding much (two sets of grandparents, in-laws, two younger siblings, the geek’s friends, Sam’s best friend, a girl in a neck-brace, a Chinese exchange student – more about him later) but that’s okay; it’s the work of a young film-maker after all, and Hughes certainly learns to pare things back for his next movie, The Breakfast Club.

But it’s impossible to ignore the racism and misogyny that pervade this piece. I wonder if it seemed so blatant on its release in 1984? I like to think I would have been affronted even then (I was thirteen, and quite politically aware); certainly, in 2017, it’s awkward in the extreme. The Chinese exchange student, Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe), for example: what’s his purpose here? Every time his name is mentioned, there’s a wince-inducing gong; I think he’s supposed to be funny just because he’s foreign and has a suggestive name. Urgh. Then there’s Jake, who’s supposedly a ‘good guy’ because he’d like a real relationship with a girl like Sam, instead of the regular sex he’s currently having with prom queen Caroline, who, he complains, likes to party too much. Poor Jake. Still, in the aftermath of a drunken house-party, Jake says that, if Farmer Ted agrees to give him Sam’s knickers (don’t ask), he will repay  him by allowing Ted to drive the unconscious Caroline home, and ‘have some fun’ with her. What a hero. Less sinister but perhaps more baffling is what happens to Sam’s sister, Ginny (Blanche Baker), who – shock horror! – gets her period on her wedding day. Ginny seems to be in her twenties, so she’s likely to have experienced this phenomena every month for a good few years. And about a quarter of brides are probably menstruating as they say their vows – because… biology. So, it really shouldn’t be that big a deal. And yet, somehow, it derails Ginny’s whole day, sending her into a frenzy, and causing her to take ‘muscle relaxants’ that have the effect of a bottle of vodka, rendering her completely helpless. It’s not funny, it’s just odd.

So, yeah. Not such a resounding success, this one, despite Ringwald’s charm and Hall’s delicious awkwardness. It really hasn’t stood the test of time.

2.4 stars

Susan Singfield

The Sunshine Ghost

07/10/17

The Studio, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

The Sunshine Ghost, a co-production between Scottish Theatre Producers and the Festival and King’s Theatres in Edinburgh, is a brand-spanking new musical, performed with wit and vigour by its small cast.

Directed by Ken Alexander, it’s a convoluted, melodramatic tale, featuring love and loss, castles and ghosts – with lots of laughs along the way. We meet the cursed ghost Ranald MacKinnon (John Kielty), two hundred years dead, and doomed to haunt his family’s castle until an old wrong is avenged. And we meet the woman he falls in love with, the very-much-alive American archaeologist, Jacqueline Duval (Neshla Caplan), daughter of billionaire property tycoon, Glen Duval (Barrie Hunter). Before Jacqueline can stop him, her boorish father is buying MacKinnon Castle and shipping it stone-by-stone to the USA, all to curry favour with his latest amour, the repulsive media-astrologer, Astrobeth (played with real relish by Helen Logan). Can Ranald save his ancestral home and break the curse that binds him to it? Can the hapless caretaker, Lachlan (Andy Cannon, who co-wrote the play), do anything to help? Here, nothing is as it seems, and the resolution, when it comes, is sure to take you by surprise.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of musical theatre, hindered only by a peponderance of exposition in the first act, and the inevitable limitations of a single piano (masterfully played by Richard Ferguson, who also wrote the score, but without the depth of a full band or orchestra). It’s a silly spoof, a daft extravagance, and the cast play up these elements with obvious glee. There are lots of cheeky little techniques employed with a knowing wink: a sheet cunningly moved to allow a shock reveal; a homage to Beetlejuice in the possession scene. Helen Logan’s Astrobeth is the standout performance (it’s a gift of a role, perfect for comic exaggeration), but the whole cast works well, and it’s a whole lot of fun.

A most enjoyable evening at the theatre.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Maki & Ramen – Omakase Sushi Bar

06/10/17

Fountainbridge, Edinburgh

I was rather disappointed when Kampung Ali announced its imminent closure a while ago. This unassuming Malaysian cafe, though very basic in decor, offered great value rice and noodle dishes and was only a short walk from my home. Amongst other things, it did a fantastic coconut rice, one of the best I’ve ever tasted. Here’s what we said about the place back in 2015.*

https://bouquetsbrickbatsreviews.com/2015/04/09/kampung-ali-fountainbridge-edinburgh/

The premises didn’t stand empty for long. Pretty soon it was transformed into the Maki & Ramen – Omakase Sushi Bar. (A bit of a long-winded title, I’ll grant you, but the place seems to answer to both names and has an online listing under each of them. Go figure.) I kept promising myself that we would drop by and check it out but, for one reason or another, the time was never right. But now, for reasons too complicated to mention, I find myself alone on a Saturday evening and decide that here is my ideal opportunity to give the place a whirl.

The first thing to say is that the management have effected an astonishing transformation here. What was once a hokey, ramshackle diner with cheesy photographic dioramas on its walls, is now a sleek, dramatically-lit dining space with a selection of different-sized tables to cater for large groups, smaller ones and, luckily for me, individuals. It’s already pretty busy when I arrive and the place is buzzing, but they soon find me a spot and I’m left to peruse the menu and admire the extensive collection of Post It notes left by the appreciative (and often rather talented) diners who have preceded me. I go in there planning to eat ramen, but then I spot chicken katsu curry on the menu and decide that this is exactly what I am in the mood for. I also order a portion of  pork gyoza and a bottle of Sapporo lager.

The service is friendly and efficient and the food, which arrives in double-quick time, is piping hot. Those of you who are familiar with the katsu curry at Wagamama’s should note that this is a chunkier, earthier version of the meal, the piquant sauce thick and studded with vegetables. There’s a mound of sticky rice and (nice touch this) a chunk of al dente broccoli. The generously-sized portion looks so inviting, I quite forget to photograph it before I start tucking in. Doh! The same goes for the gyoza – these are moist and succulent, with soft, paper-thin cases that virtually melt in the mouth. There are five dumplings in the portion and I eat the lot. Oh yes, every meal comes with a little bowl of savoury miso soup, which is another nice touch.

Tonight is just a try out – I will go back, hopefully with friends, and sample some of the more adventurous items on the menu, but I have to say that this is a very promising first visit. Go and check it out. If you’re at all artistically inclined, leave an illustrated Post It note. You’ll be in good company.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

*I should also add that there is another Kampung Ali (or Ah Lee, as it’s spelled on the website) on Clerk Street, Edinburgh, still apparently going strong.

Blade Runner 2049

 

 

05/10/17

The original Blade Runner (1982) is widely regarded as a classic of the sci fi genre. People forget that on its release, it didn’t receive much acclaim. The critics were distinctly sniffy about it and, for that matter, it didn’t exactly pack out the multiplexes. But, over the intervening years, its stature has grown, especially as original director Ridley Scott couldn’t seem to stop tinkering with it. This must surely be the only film where the Director’s Cut is actually shorter than the theatrical release?

When the news broke that there would be a sequel – and furthermore, that Scott would only be producing, rather than directing, expectations plummeted. But the appointment of Denis Villeneauve to the director’s seat definitely helped to bolster confidence; (his Arrival was one of the most acclaimed films of last year) and besides, Scott’s recent return to another of his franchises, with Alien Covenant, hadn’t exactly been the massive success everybody had predicted. Maybe it was the right thing to go forward with a new hand on the helm. Then the advance reviews for Blade Runner 2049 broke and it was, apparently, a masterpiece, a jaw-dropping work of staggering genius. The truth of course, is that it isn’t quite that, but it is an assured and credible sequel to the original film, which is pretty much all we could have hoped for.

It’s thirty years since the events of Blade Runner and a new generation of replicants – ones that are supposedly incapable of insurrection, are now taking on the work that humans disdain, including hunting down and ‘retiring’ the last remaining Nexus 6 models, who are still insisting on going about their business. ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling) is one of the new breed of ‘skin job’, working as a Blade Runner for the LAPD, under the direction of Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). While hunting down renegade replicant Sapper Morten (Dave Bautista), K makes an unexpected discovery. Buried in a box beneath one of the world’s last surviving trees, are the remains of a woman. The pathology department soon establishes that she died in childbirth. The problem is, a serial number hidden in her bones identifies her as a replicant. And replicants are supposedly incapable of procreation. This is news that threatens to have world-changing repercussions and one, when you think about it, that is the basis for most religions.

If Villeneauve’s brief was to mirror the look and feel of the original movie, then this has to be regarded as a success. The squalid grandeur of the cityscapes are breathtakingly realised, the recreation of a smog laden, overcrowded dystopian Los Angeles is perfectly achieved – even Hans Zimmer’s eerie score manages to echo the feel of the Vangelis original while still somehow managing to be its own beast. The references to the first story are all cleverly integrated. Nothing ever feels tacked on.

But this is more than just an accomplished rehash. I particularly liked the concept of Joi (Ama de Armas), K’s virtual reality companion, which gives you an idea of where the likes of Siri and Alexa are eventually going to wind up. A VR creation capable of feeling love for its owner? This element is the film’s strongest card, (and a scene where Joi ‘borrows’ the body of another woman in order to make love to K is a standout); but there are plenty of other thought-provoking ideas in here, much more than the usual cartoonish ones we’ve become used to in this genre. They will have you discussing their implications long after the credits have rolled.

What exactly does it mean to be human? How important are memories to our evolution and to what degree can we trust them? And perhaps, most baffling of all… why does Harrison Ford never seem to get any older?

Okay, so the film isn’t quite perfect. Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace  – the man who has inherited and improved upon the Tyrell Corporation’s achievements – is a bit wearisome, to tell you the truth, given to intoning his lines like an Old Testament prophet; and while I appreciate that there must be fight scenes in a film like this, the climactic punch up between K and a supercharged female adversary seems to go on for just about forever. But the ending is cool. I really didn’t see that coming…

Inevitably, arguments will rage about this one. Some people are going to hate it. Some are going to insist that it’s way better than the original. But for me that will always be a solid gold five star picture, while this one? Close, but no cigar. Maybe just a slim panetella.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney