Month: November 2017

Oliver!

 

29/11/17

Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh

Ah, Oliver! Beloved by schools and youth groups, its jaunty sing-a-long-a-songs and larger-than-life characters mean that we often forget what it’s really about, the squalor and violence of Dickens’ London romanticised beyond recognition: all cute kids and bright handkerchiefs, the focus on the (frankly dubious) rags to riches element of the tale.

EUSOG’S version, directed by Erica Belton, works hard to avoid this trap. Of course, this being a student production, there are no sweet little eight-year-old performers who might need protecting from the grim realities of Victorian poverty, and so we’re free to see the savagery of the poorhouse in an electrifying opening scene, where the desperate inmates swarm through the auditorium towards their meagre meal, a starving horde reduced to zombies, caring solely about sustenance, and fighting for their share. Little wonder that Oliver (Yann Davies) asks for more: even his tiny helping of gruel has been snatched and devoured by others; he’s starving and has nothing to lose. His recklessness makes sense in this context – he’s not new to the workhouse; he knows his request will not be welcome – but this is a moment of rebellion born of deprivation.

I don’t need to outline the story – the musical’s ubiquity means there can be no surprises with the plot – but there are new interpretations of some of the characters. Fagin, for example, is played with wit and empathy by Kathryn Salmond. She shows the softer side of the avaricious old leech, ensuring we see that he is also a victim of a cruelly unfair society.   Reviewing the Situation is an absolute triumph, revealing much about the man.

Ashleigh More’s Artful Dodger is also interesting. More is an arresting performer: cheeky and lively and engaging as can be. Dodger’s heartbreak over Nancy’s death is beautifully bleak.

Grace Dickson (Nancy) also deserves a mention. She strikes just the right balance between strength and vulnerability, making us believe in and understand her doomed relationship with the evil Bill Sykes (Saul Garrett). I’m crying when she sings As Long As He Needs Me: willing her to leave, although of course I know she won’t; wishing she lived in a world where there was somewhere else for her to go.

Not everything about this production is perfect: perhaps more could have been made of the Sowerberrys’ scene, and of the stark contrast  between Oliver’s life so far and the luxury and opulence Mr Brownlow represents. Then there’s the inherent problem of a story where the hero is the least interesting person in it, almost a cypher, on whom we can project our own emotions and through whose eyes we see events unfold; this works well in Dickens’ novel, but is less successful on the stage.

Still, none of this prevents it from being a resounding success; it’s a lively, thought-provoking interpretation, with strong performances throughout. The choreography is very good indeed, and the orchestra plays beautifully (the violins are particularly memorable). This is definitely a show worth seeing, and it’s on until Saturday, so get yourself a ticket and go along. A note of caution though: take an extra sweater. The temperature in the Pleasance is positively Dickensian.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

Advertisements

Legally Blonde: The Musical

27/11/17

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Legally Blonde began life as a movie in 2001, based on a semi-autobiographical (unpublished) manuscript by Amanda Brown. It became the subject of a Hollywood bidding war, made a star of Reese Witherspoon and went on to earn over one-hundred-and-forty million dollars at the box office (and this at a time when one-hundred-and-forty million dollars was considered a lot of money!). Perhaps it was inevitable that it would be turned into a musical but what few people could have anticipated was the fact that the resulting show would actually improve upon the film.

From the opening chords of the first song, this version – slickly directed and choreographed by Anthony Williams – is a bright, shiny bauble that virtually dares you not to enjoy its outrageous antics. Okay, so it’s double fluff with a side order of fluff but, my word, what brilliantly acted, superbly choreographed fluff it is!

Elle (Lucie Jones) is a style icon, the one that her friends seek out whenever they need tips about what clothes to wear and which make-up to team it with. When her long-term boyfriend, Warner (Liam Doyle), invites her out for a special meal, she confidently expects him to ask for her hand in marriage – so she’s absolutely devastated when he announces that he actually wants to dump her so he can devote more time to his studies at Harvard Law School. Desperate to win him back, Elle embarks on a daring mission. She will enrol at Harvard too and prove to him that she’s more than just a ditzy blonde…

Once there, she meets up with shy-but-caring fellow student, Emmett (David Barrett), the mendacious and influential Professor Callahan, (Bill Ward), and her rival for Warner’s affections, Vivienne (Laura Harrison). She also enlists a secret weapon: the much put-upon hairdresser and occasional muse, Paulette (Rita Simons), who helps Elle to achieve everything she wants and more.

At a time when the subject of women’s rights is receiving more attention than ever before, it seems particularly appropriate that this story is all about a woman triumphing over adversity and over men’s preconceptions about who she is and what she is capable of. The ‘Harvey Weinstein’ moment at the start of the second act is genuinely hard-hitting, prompting a moment of uncomfortable silence in amongst the candyfloss. It’s surprisingly effective. If I’m making it sound a bit po-faced, please don’t be fooled. The messages are all served up with huge dollops of fun. The script is often laugh-out-loud funny and there’re some eye-popping dance sequences (the one where a large group of dancers indulge in synchronised skipping is a particular stand-out). I also love the fact that, even with a cast of over twenty actors, everybody has their moment to shine.

If you’re in the mood for an enjoyable night at the theatre, you really won’t do much better than this. Only the stoniest-faced curmudgeons will be able to resist its charms. I used to think of myself as one of these… but there I was, clapping gleefully along with the rest of the audience.

Note to self: I really must try harder.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Gathering

26/11/17

Glencoe, Scotland

We’re in Glencoe, where we’ve spent the days climbing hills and being generally gobsmacked by the amazing scenery that waits at every turn. After last night’s fine dining at the Loch Leven Hotel, we’re in the mood for something a little more straightforward. The Gathering catches our eye, a green painted wooden building off the main road with a prominent welcome sign, which promises ‘fish and chips and more’ (it’s the ‘more’ that gets our attention). After a quick glance at the menu, we decide that a bit of lobster is exactly what we fancy, so in we go and, as it’s a rather chilly night, we locate a table as close as we can to the roaring multi-fuel stove which is doing its level best to heat up the large and attractive open-plan dining area.

The deal here is very no-nonsense. Fifteen pounds buys you half a char-grilled lobster and, for a couple of quid extra, they’ll throw in a bowl of chips – and that’s pretty much what we go for. After a short wait, the platters arrive and there they are, exactly what we ordered – the decently-sized half-lobsters accompanied by some nicely dressed rocket and a large bowl of garlic butter in which to dunk the meat. Mmm.

Okay, so lobster can be a bit of a faff. Once you’ve picked out the easy bit, there’s a lot of wrestling with medieval-looking implements in order to break open those claws and seek out their tasty interiors. For some it’s just too much effort for too little return, but the lobster is a tasty beast, and we have time on our hands, so we’re prepared to give it our best shot. The chips, by the way,  are perfect: crispy on the outside and nice and soft within. We ask for a bowl of mayonnaise in which to dip them and it is promptly provided.

Afterwards, we’ve still room for some pudding so we order a warm chocolate fudge cake with a couple of scoops of salted caramel ice cream, which we share, and which finishes the meal off to our satisfaction. With a couple of drinks the bill comes in at under fifty pounds which feels like a result.

If you’re in Glencoe and you’re in the mood for fish and chips (and more), this may be just the place for you.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Loch Leven Hotel

25/11/17

Old Ferry Road, North Ballachulish

We’ve been living in Edinburgh full-time for eighteen months now, and we’re horribly aware of how little we still know of our adopted country. So we make the most of a free weekend, and head up to Glencoe, to explore a portion of the Highlands. We find what looks like a decent deal for a couple of nights at the Loch Leven Hotel in North Ballachulish, check out the tripadvisor reviews and make our booking.

And, my word, we’re glad we do.

Because the hotel’s location is nothing short of magnificent. Situated on the shores of the loch, it boasts an enviable view, all snow-capped mountains and autumnal trees. Our room opens out onto a veranda, with a path that leads directly down to the water. It’s breathtaking. Add to that a warm, friendly vibe and clean, comfortable rooms, and you’ve got yourself a great hotel. The gin experts’ bar and the fine-dining restaurant are the icing on the proverbial cake.

They’re justifiably proud of what they’re achieving at the Loch Leven Hotel. It’s a small, family-run establishment, and they’re clearly an ambitious clan. When we praise the food, the manager, Henry, tells us that they’re ‘going for an AA rosette’; on the basis of what we eat tonight, I’d say the award’s not far away.

I start with the pan-seared Isle of Mull scallops, which are simply perfect. They’re melt-in-the-mouth, with a backnote of chargrill; it’d be hard to better this. Philip has the smoked and dry-cured grouse breast; this is the first time he’s eaten grouse prepared this way, but he says it will not be the last. It’s bold and flavoursome, a revelation of a dish.

Philip has the Scottish herb-crusted lamb rack for his main, which comes with Dauphinoise potatoes, butternut squash puree, heritage carrots, and the richest stickiest berry jus either of us have ever tried. It’s all lovely, but the jus is the killer. We ask the waiter what’s in it, and are surprised to note there’s Pernod in the mix. It seems there’s life in the 80s throwback still. Meanwhile, I’m tucking in to the Scottish venison steak, which is served rare, with braised cabbage, white wine and cream spinach and some carrot crisps. It’s delicious, and makes me resolve to buy some venison next time I visit the butchers.

And then there’s pudding, of course; we’re not ones to say no. Philip decides to sample the salted caramel and dark chocolate torte, while I have the sticky toffee pudding, both of which we have with vanilla ice cream. They’re lovely: dark, sweet and gooey as can be, but perhaps not as noteworthy as what has gone before.

We share a bottle of the house white – a perfectly decent chenin blanc, then retire to our room, a mere ten feet away from the table, declaring ourselves more than happy with all we have consumed.

Would we come back again? You bet we would – for myriad reasons.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Mudbound

25/11/17

It’s getting to that time of year when rumblings are made about potential Oscar material and it must be said that some of those rumblings have already been directed towards Mudbound. This slow burning historical drama, co-written and directed by Dee Rees and based upon a novel by Hillary Jordan, certainly features the kind of material that often attracts those all-important votes. The fact that it’s a Netflix Original will doubtless cloud the waters somewhat, but the film has received a limited theatrical release (presumably to ensure that it can be considered eligible for such awards), despite the fact that it’s ready to stream right now for anyone willing to stump up their monthly subscription.

The Second World War is in full swing and, with so many able-bodied men away from home, Laura (Carey Mulligan), already in her mid-thirties, finds herself in danger of being left an ‘old maid’. So she’s pleased when she meets up with Henry McCallan (Jason Clarke), a small town businessman with big ambitions, who throws an agreeable look in her direction and hits paydirt. He promptly introduces Laura to his younger, more handsome brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), and it’s evident from the outset that the two of them are instantly attracted to each other, but Laura and Henry marry nonetheless and shortly afterwards start a family. One day, Henry casually announces that he’s purchased a farm in Mississippi (as you do) and that the McCallums will soon be relocating there. Oh yes, one other thing. They will also be taking along Harry’s widower father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks of Breaking Bad fame). Pappy proves to have all the inherent charm of a grizzly bear with a bad case of hemorrhoids, but Laura decides that she’ll just have to try and make the best of things. Suffering is something she clearly has an aptitude for.

Once in Mississippi, the McCallums discover that Henry has been duped. The palatial home they expected to occupy actually belongs to somebody else and they must make the best of a dilapidated shotgun shack on the farm. They will also be the employers of a black family that works the land – Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) and their many children. From this point, a life of utter misery ensues for pretty much everyone in the story and matters become more complicated when Jamie decides to join the air force and the Jackson’s oldest boy, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), enlists in a tank battalion. Both men endure terrible experiences in the war, but ironically, for Ronsel at least, he is finally free of the Jim Crow laws that still hold sway in rural Mississippi. For the first time in his life, he is treated as an equal.

When the war finishes and the two men return to their respective families, it’s hard for Ronsel to accept that he must once again resume his former position in life – he can no longer even use the front door of his local general store. Traumatised by their shared experiences, Ronsel and Jamie strike up an unlikely friendship – but of course, in this bigoted world, white men and black men are not permitted to be friends – and when word of Ronsel’s adventures in Europe are accidentally made public, there is a terrible price to pay…

If Mudbound occasionally feels a little ponderous, there’s no denying the power of the narrative and the importance of the film’s inherent message. Its penultimate act is as gripping as it is devastating. There are also some nice performances here (Blige seems to be getting most of the Oscar-buzz but Banks’ portrait of a racist, misogynistic scumbag is also chillingly memorable). With its glacially slow pace and unusual attention to areas that don’t usually receive the opportunity of screen time, perhaps the film is actually more suited to being viewed on the small screen, where it’s something you can take a short break from and come back to.

Oscars? Well, if I’m honest, there are already several films I would deem more deserving of next year’s awards, but this isn’t at all bad and it certainly goes a long way to dispel the notion that Netflix are only interested in financing mindless entertainment. Mudbound is a long way from that. Interested parties can check it out at the click of a button – or the eagle-eyed might even spot one of those rare cinematic showings.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Justice League

 

24/11/17

After a massive jump in the right direction with Wonder Woman, DC, with director Zack Snyder at the helm, take ten supersteps backwards with Justice League. Where WW was a breezy soufflé packed with humour and cheesy romance, JL takes itself incredibly seriously and this, most of all, is what makes it a terrible thing to behold.

At the start of the film, Superman (Henry Cavill) is dead – don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler – and Batman (Ben Affleck) is feeling the weight of trying to fill those size 11 superhero boots. He’s also rather perturbed by the appearance in Gotham City of some weird winged beasties, which he assumes are of extra terrestrial origin. With this in mind, he sets about assembling a crack team of superheroes with the idea of defending the planet from these new arrivals. The team comprises Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa – for best results just add water), the Flash (Ezra Miller, the film’s best component by a country mile) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a man/machine affair, who appears to have been assembled by committee.

The threat to life as we know it comes from Steppenwolf – not the 70s rock band who recorded Born To Be Wild (who actually weren’t that bad in retrospect), but a great big dude in a horned helmet, voiced by Ciaran Hinds, who – in the best DC tradition – speaks like he’s swallowed a bottle of Rohypnol and who, you just know, would be a really dull drinking companion. He commands the weird winged beasties, The Parademons, who remind me, more than anything else, of the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz. For reasons best known to himself, Steppenwolf is trying to locate three magical boxes in order to bring about the destruction of the world as we know it, ushering in Doomsday. Why? Good question. I guess it’s just what big dudes in horned helmets feel they need to do. But why do they have to be so damned earnest about it?

Inevitably, what it all comes down to is yet another seemingly endless cosmic punch up, brilliantly rendered by the technical team, but incredibly dull and completely lacking in any sense of danger, since everyone involved is seemingly incapable of being seriously injured; even Batman, who we are repeatedly reminded is a mere mortal, seems to survive being thrown though buildings and automobiles without incurring more than a few token bruises. As I mentioned, Miller’s sparky turn as a nervy, possibly autistic young wannabe is the only element that offers any light relief in this maelstrom of misery, but his offerings are too occasional to lift this more than a few centimetres out of the doldrums.

Just when it appears that Steppenwolf is actually getting the upper hand, somebody comes to the aid of the team. Who is it? I’ll give you three guesses.

I know there are many out there who like their DC done with gravitas – and the three Christopher Nolan Batman movies are testament to the fact that it can work in the right hands. But sadly, those hands are not Zach Snyder’s, and this is a turgid, bloated train-wreck of a movie, that will surely have all but the most committed DC diehards turning up their noses.

1.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Battle of the Sexes

 

20/11/17

It’s the early 1970s and rising tennis star Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is fighting to establish equal pay for female players. Why is it, she reasonably asks, that the men are being paid eight times as much as the women? American Lawn Tennis president Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), tells her that it’s simply because the men are just ‘more interesting to watch.’ King’s answer is to pull all women players out of Kramer’s organisation and to help them to form their own, seeking sponsorship wherever they can find it. It’s mostly because of her unprecedented efforts that such appalling sexism in the sport was challenged and soundly defeated, even though it meant getting involved with some strange partners. A scene where Billie Jean’s agent, Gladys (Sarah Silverman) urges the players to smoke cigarettes because they are being sponsored by Philip Morris is a particular delight.

This fascinating film, scripted by The Full Monty’s Simon Beaufoy, is based around a real event in 1973, when King was goaded into playing a match against ex-champion player, Bobby Riggs (engagingly played here by Steve Carell), whose vociferous claim that no woman could ever beat a man at tennis, still resonates today – people are forever trying to push Andy Murray and Serena Williams into playing against each other. Beaufoy’s script cleverly displays the levels of inherent sexism that existed at the time – most of the remarks and attitudes of the commentators of the period now seem positively prehistoric. The film is aided by the fact that Stone and Carell look so convincing as their characters that genuine footage of the original match is used in long shot with the actors effortlessly spliced in for close-ups. Weirdly, although I already know the outcome of the game, the footage still somehow manages to generate considerable levels of suspense. For my money, this is perhaps the best attempt thus far to put my favourite sport up on the big screen.

The film is about more than just tennis, though. Riggs is struggling with personal demons – a powerful addiction to gambling is pushing his marriage to his socialite wife, Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue) onto the rocks – while King, married to the incredibly supportive Larry (Austin Stowells), finds herself irresistibly drawn to hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Their burgeoning romance is sensitively handled by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who never fall into the trap of sensationalising it.

But perhaps what the film does best of all is to display the unbelievable levels of all-American razzmatazz that accompanied the contest, right down to Riggs being sponsored by a lollipop company called… wait for it… ‘Sugar Daddy.’ (And if you think the filmmakers have exaggerated for comic effect, you only need to glance at footage of the real event  to see that it has been reproduced with extraordinary attention to detail.)

It would be all too easy to paint Riggs as the villain of this piece, but he actually emerges as a likeable clown, whose outrageous comments are mostly done to generate interest (and large amounts of money) for the match. It’s the everyday, ingrained sexism of characters like Jack Kramer where the real problem lies – and it’s particularly satisfying to watch him get his comeuppance.

Do you need to be a tennis fan to enjoy this film? Well it certainly helps, but I don’t think it’s essential. Its powerful message about equal rights for everyone, regardless of their sexuality, rings out loud and clear. In tennis terms, this one serves an ace.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney