Month: March 2018

This House

27/03/18

Politics. What’s it all about, eh?

Well, a viewing of This House will certainly make you feel a lot more informed on the subject. Not so much the more visible aspects of it – the ministers themselves –  as those who wheel and deal behind the scenes: the party Whips. There’s a live band up in the gallery, who offer a couple of spirited Bowie songs that eerily echo what’s happening down on the stage and, lest anybody assumes that politics inevitably make for dour viewing, please be aware that this is a lively, engaging piece, utilising humour to illuminate some grim facts. Ultimately, what the production does best is to demonstrate what an outmoded farce our political system is, and it’s very entertaining in the telling.

This play is a fiction, though it references many real players and actual events. It is the whips’ job to ensure that as many members as possible make themselves available to come in to the Commons and vote on the latest motion set before the house. Sometimes, they are called upon to make near superhuman efforts in order to effect a win – in some cases, even calling MPs in from their hospital beds! First performed at the NT’s 400 seat Cottesloe Theatre (or the Dorfman, as it’s now called)  in 2013, This House‘s success has created such demand that it’s now playing much larger venues, which obviously has something of a distancing effect, and I find myself envying the select band of spectators who are seated on green benches on the stage (in the House of Commons chamber) so that they’re woven into the very fabric of the piece. 

The action takes place in the years 1974 to 1979, when the UK famously had a ‘hung’ parliament and where the absence of a single voting member might result in the ruling Labour party having to vacate its seats. Everyone on the red side of the house is horribly aware that a certain Mrs Thatcher is waiting in the wings for her chance to rule the world… Oops, sorry, I mean, country. Obviously.

If the characters on both sides of the divide occasionally come across as caricatures – the Labour team all ‘eh up, lad, what’s ‘appenin’?’, the Tories as suave and slick as their Savile Row suits – I feel that’s entirely intentional on the part of writer James Graham. With such a big cast, it’s crucial that those time-worn divisions are made as broad and accessible as possible. In this, he succeeds admirably. With everybody on stage working their respective socks off, it’s difficult to single out individual performances, but I do like Martin Marquez’s turn as cockney wide boy, Bob Mellish, and Matthew Pidgeon’s ultra-groomed toff, Jack Weatherill, is also eminently watchable. Natalie Grady makes a big impression as the labour team’s ‘token’ female, Ann Taylor, ready to correct anyone who has the temerity to underestimate her abilities.

So, grab tickets for this and, if it’s at all possible, get yourselves as close to that stage as you can – perhaps, if you’re really lucky, even on it. Interestingly, it doesn’t cost more. You just need to ask when you make the booking.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Isle of Dogs

25/03/18

The arrival of a new Wes Anderson movie is generally a cause for excitement and Isle of Dogs has the added frisson of seeing him return to work with the London-based 3 Mills animation team, whom he employed to such great effect on Fantastic Mr Fox. It must be said, however, that this is an altogether more ambitious project than his previous stop-motion foray.

The story is set twenty years into the future in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki. After a recent dog-flu epidemic, Mayor Kobayashi (Komichi Nomura) orders all the city’s dogs to be rounded up and exiled to an offshore island, essentially a rat-infested repository for much of Japan’s unwanted garbage.

On the island, a group of dogs are struggling for survival, led by Chief (Bryan Cranston), a battle-scarred stray who sees himself very much as the alpha male of the pack. His followers  are voiced by a whole menagerie of A-List talent (Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, to name but three). The sudden arrival of Kobayashi’s twelve year old ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin), changes everything. Atari is in search of his beloved lost pet, Spot, who the mayor has insisted must follow the example of all the other four-legged offenders and be sent into quarantine off-shore. This sets Chief and his pack off on a quest to help Atari by locating the missing canine and, of course, they uncover some startling truths in the process. Meanwhile, a pro-dog student group led by the intrepid Tracy (Greta Gerwig) are leading an insurrection against Kobayashi, who, it seems, has not been as honest as he might have been…

Some critics of the film have accused it of cultural appropriation, but I can’t help hoping they are barking up the wrong tree. The love and respect for Japan and its traditions are evident in just about every frame of this delightful movie, from the Taisho drumming sequences to the visual references to veteran directors, Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Mizazaki. What’s more, the animation is so detailed and so brilliantly realised, it’s hard to suppress my gasps of admiration as the story scampers along at high speed from revelation to revelation. All the usual Anderson qualities are in evidence – witty one-liners, a steadfast refusal to get too sentimental about the characters and a delicious vein of dark humour that ties the whole package neatly together.

On the same day we viewed this, The Cameo Cinema hosted a dog-friendly screening, but, as we chose to attend the humans-only show, I cannot really comment on how it went down with its four-legged viewers.

But in my humble opinion, at least, this film is a howling success.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Chop House

 

 

25/03/18

 Bruntsfield, Edinburgh

The Bruntsfield Chop House is new. We’ve walked past the renovations countless times, and are keen to investigate this new addition to the local restaurant scene. It certainly looks inviting enough from the outside: all trendy industrial-style decor and some appetising smoky smells. So we book in for late lunch/early dinner on Sunday afternoon, and boy, are we hungry when we arrive!

Things don’t get off to an auspicious start though. The high tables and fixed booth-style seating look fantastic, but they’re not exactly super-accessible. It’s actually a bit of a scramble to climb up there: the design doesn’t seem to take much account of human anatomy. Still, once ensconced, we’re comfortable enough, and we’re soon drinking wine and perusing the menu.

Philip has crab cakes to start. There are two of them, generously filled with tender crab meat and served with a tangy chipotle hollandaise sauce. I opt for a single scallop served with pig cheek and an apple and celery slaw (I’m saving myself for the main course); the starter is small but it’s perfectly prepared, the pig cheek in particular ticking the ‘guilty pleasure’ box.

On to the main course. We’ve opted for a sharing cut of bone-in-rib steak with Sunday dinner trimmings, and we’re relishing the thought. Just as we’re expecting to be served, however, the waiter appears to tell us that the chef has prepared the wrong meat for us – he’s prepared a porterhouse instead. He’s very apologetic, but it’s fine – we don’t really mind – and opt to take the ‘wrong’ cut rather than wait for another to be prepared.

And honestly, it’s absolutely not a problem, because the steak we’re served is the best that either of us can ever remember having. Yes, it really is that good, medium rare, as requested, and so soft and succulent, it’s almost buttery. All the beef served here is 35 day aged and cooked over an open flame charcoal grill and, my goodness, it works! We’re in meat heaven. The sides of roast potato, al dente veg and Yorkshire pudding are delicious too – but the meat is very much the star of the show. Then there are the sauces: a decent peppercorn, a tangy béarnaise and, best of all, a delicious bone marrow gravy that’s as dark and rich as anyone could wish.

We devour every mouthful and are consequently too full for pudding but we do have more room for wine – and find that the cost of the bottle has been deducted from our bill to make up for the chef’s ‘mistake’. It’s a lovely gesture, and one we appreciate.

Would we come back? Well, maybe. The food is absolutely spot on and the service is friendly. But they really need to do something about those seats.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Princess Mononoke

25/03/18

The Cameo Cinema’s Studio Ghibli season continues with the 1997 film that many hail as its finest achievement – and it’s easy to understand where that reputation comes from. This superb production, inspired by Japanese mythology, has an epic look and feel that almost seems to transcend the format for which it has been created; indeed, it doesn’t feel an overstatement to claim that some of the battle scenes pictured here rival those of the master director, Akira Kurosawa. Praise indeed.

Princess Mononoke is the story of young warrior, Ashitaka (voiced by Yoji Matsuka), who, when defending his village from an attack by a gigantic possessed wild boar (a truly astonishing creation), finds himself stricken by a dark curse which will eventually claim his life. Taking the advice of a wise woman in his village, he rides into the West in search of the God of the Forest, who, the woman assures him, is the only creature powerful enough to lift the affliction that has claimed him. He sets out, riding his faithful red elk Yakul. On route to his destination, he encounters San (Yuriko Ishida, the Princess of the title), a feral young woman who has been adopted by the pack of wolves she was originally sacrificed to and who now bears a deep enmity for all humans.

Ashitaka travels on and arrives at a huge iron works, presided over by the powerful Lady Eboshi (Yuko Tanaka), a seemingly benign dictator who nonetheless uses muskets to enforce her rule over her rivals and the creatures that dwell in the surrounding forest, which she believes are constantly plotting to usurp her authority. She views the ancient Forest God as a potential threat and is prepared to go to ruthless lengths to ensure that she remains dominant – even if it means conquering this ancient creature with sheer force of weapons…

There’s a powerful environmental story here and also a comment on mankind’s insatiable lust for power. The film unleashes a series of powerful set pieces, each more jaw-dropping than the last and I love the fact that it effortlessly avoids the pat happy ending that would surely have ensued if this were a Disney project. I love the fact that Mononoke features strong, powerful women and that it is so reverent of Japan’s myths and legends. But mostly I am just awed by the incredible animation, the shimmering, transcendent beauty that seems to seep from every frame. Animation is always a labour of love and it’s rarely been more evident than it here here.

It’s interesting to note that every Ghibli films we’ve seen, so far, has been quite different from it’s predecessor – this one features scenes of violent conflict that are a million miles away from the charm and whimsy of something like My Neighbor Totoro – but, if I have to choose one film that stands above the rest, Princess Mononoke is certainly a strong contender for the title.

It’s absolutely stunning.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Rhinoceros

25/03/18

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

There are, I’m told, people who “don’t like” theatre. And, of course, those people are absolutely entitled to their opinion. But, oh, how I wish I could take them by the hand and guide them to the Royal Lyceum, where Edinburgh’s International Festival and Istanbul’s Dot Theatre have joined forces to create something I’m sure would change their minds.

I’ve read Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, but I’ve never seen it performed. And, in Turkish director Murat Daltaban’s hands, something magical happens in that leap from page to stage. This is inspirational theatre: at once lively, accessible, thought-provoking and funny. It’s clever, clever stuff – and, judging by the excited, enthusiastic buzz in the theatre bar, it’s crowd-pleasing as well.

Speaking of crowds, that’s pretty much what this play’s about; more specifically, to quote the Lyceum’s artistic director, David Grieg, it’s about “the fragility of the individual in a time of crowds.” Ionesco witnessed the rise of fascism in 1930s Romania, and this play – with bewildered everyman, Berenger (Robert Jack), at its core – highlights the unsettling horror he must have felt at watching his world change. And, of course, the timing of this production is no accident, with the rise of the ‘alt-right’ and the increasing polarisation of political debate.

As the play opens, all seems well. The sleepy French village comes to life like an animated postcard, all bright hues and exaggerated dimensions. Characters and relationships are quickly established, and there is humour and energy in the exchanges, even when they become heated. But the sight of a rhinoceros (or are there two?) rampaging through the town results in the first real tension, the first real rift.

As growing numbers of rhinoceroses appear, Berenger – a drifter with a drink problem – is horrified to learn that they are his friends and neighbours, that the townsfolk are literally turning into these braying beasts. As more and more of them join the herd, Berenger becomes ever more isolated, a predicament that is illustrated beautifully by the ingenious set, reminiscent of a Chinese puzzle box, shrinking his ‘safe place’ until it’s perilous and unworkable.

This is a truly glorious production, as witty and vivacious as it is prescient. There are some great comic turns, most notably from Myra McFadyen as Papillon and Steven McNicoll as Jean. It’s visually stunning, and the sensual, Middle Eastern-inflected music adds to the mood of transformation, with musician Oguz Kaplangi onstage throughout.

Seriously, grab a reluctant theatre-goer and head along to the Royal Lyceum tonight. You’ll be changing hearts and minds.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Tomb Raider

 

23/03/18

Has there ever been a decent video-game movie adaptation? From Super Mario to Assassin’s Creed, the concept seems somehow doomed  to failure. Tomb Raider has, of course, already been tried before – with middling results and Angelina Jolie in the title role. Now here’s Alicia Vikander staking her claim to that fabled bow and arrow, and to be fair to her, she certainly looks the part. She’s clearly put in hours down the gym honing the old biceps and triceps. She’s also ditched the ridiculous hot pants of her video avatar in favour of clothing more suitable for jungle exploration, which is, I think, a good thing. I’m not sure about the posh boarding school accent, though.

We first meet her in London, where she’s earning pennies as a bicycle courier, rather than signing the paperwork that will entitle her to the Croft mansion and its accompanying billions. (Yeah, right, like that would happen.) You see, her father, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), has been missing for seven years, but Lara, always a bit of a daddy’s girl, isn’t quite ready to give up on his possible return, despite her legal guardian, Ana (Kristen Scott Thomas), continually urging her to sign on the dotted line. It seems that Lord Richard has disappeared while looking for a legendary island off the coast of Japan, the last resting place of an evil Empress, reputed to have the power to destroy the world. When Lara discovers her father’s secret lair in the cellar of his stately home, she also finds a map of the island and a video of her father urging her to destroy it. Does she follow his advice? Well, it would be a pretty short and dull story if she did…

Instead, she heads to Japan and enlists the help of ship’s captain Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) – somebody else with father-issues – to take her to the island. Once there, she discovers that an evil organisation is also looking for the tomb of the Empress and has sent the ruthless (and very sweaty) Mathias Vogel (Walter Goggins) to oversee the operation. But who will reach the tomb first? And what kind of welcome are they likely to receive?

For all the running, leaping, swimming and fighting that Lara is regularly called upon to perform, the film feels curiously turgid and only fizzes into life intermittently. The blend of Indiana Jones-ish high adventure mixed with a touch of the paranormal is probably a fair encapsulation of the original game but, no matter how high the production values employed by director Roar Uthaug, there’s a terrible sense of ‘seen it all before’ hovering over nearly every scene. And… does it really matter that the storyline doesn’t make an awful lot of sense? It does to me, anyway. But I’m finicky like that.

This is a thick-eared slab of undemanding light entertainment that never really cooks up the necessary head of steam needed to power its own concept. A post-credits sequence optimistically sets up a possible sequel but, based on this, I certainly won’t be the first in the queue to watch it.

And I ask again. Has there ever been a decent video-game movie adaptation? If so, I haven’t seen it.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

That Face

22/03/18

Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

I have to say, I’m not a great fan of Polly Stenham’s debut play. Written when she was only nineteen, it certainly shows prodigious promise – there are some gloriously grotesque characters here – but it’s all just so much sound and fury, with a payoff that is curiously flat. That said, Edinburgh-based Anais Productions make a decent fist of it, with some strong performances. They’re playing to a packed house, with a younger, more vocally appreciative audience than we usually see, and successfully create the sense of claustrophobic isolation so central to the play.

We first meet Mia (Dora Davies-Evitt) at boarding school, where, along with classmate Izzy (Sara Harvey), she has drugged and tortured a younger student (Jane Link). This is a fascinating opening gambit, and I wish Stenham had given it more space within her play; instead, it’s just a springboard into Mia’s family, as she’s expelled, and has to return home.

And home is a strange place indeed. Her mother, Martha (Hannah Churchill), is an alcoholic, addicted to valium and manipulative in the extreme. She has no time for Mia, whose very presence she sees as an interruption, but is utterly devoted to her son, Henry (Barney Rule). Abandoned by her husband, Hugh (Michael Hajiantonis), Martha makes impossible demands of Henry, who is expected to take his father’s place as carer, protector and even lover. He drops out of school and focuses all his attention on his mother, whose warped expectations fuel a monstrous co-dependency.

Churchill and Rule perform these roles with real panache, clearly relishing the chance to explore such complex, twisted characters. Churchill is utterly engaging as Martha, her mirthless smirk particularly unnerving, and Rule brings such intensity to Henry’s suffering that we cannot help but empathise. They’re hampered only by the perennial problem of student productions, i.e. they’re all about the same age, so – if you didn’t know the play – it might take a while to realise that they’re mother and son, and some of the intergenerational oddity of the relationship is lost. (Similarly, Mia is a less sympathetic character than she might be if she were visibly younger, her vulnerability more apparent.)

The weak point is the final third, when Hugh arrives from Hong Kong to deal with his daughter’s expulsion. Michael Hajiantonis plays the part convincingly, but it’s a disappointingly ordinary denouement after all the high drama, and undermines the weirdness of all that has gone before. He seems to be the scapegoat, as if his leaving is the reason for Martha’s predatory ways. The play flounders here, and never really recovers.

Still, apart from some over-extended blackouts – which, for some reason, this particular audience sees as an opportunity for chat – this is a competent production, and a welcome chance to engage with a divisive, challenging play. Do take the opportunity to see it while you can.

3 stars

Susan Singfield