Month: April 2018

Gut

28/04/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Frances Poet’s lean and powerful psychological drama was shortlisted for the Bruntwood Prize for playwriting in 2015, and it’s easy to see what appealed to the judges. This tense  and affecting four-hander examines the entirely natural fears that can lurk in the minds of any parent – the worry that something bad might happen to their children – and it demonstrates how such fears, allowed to fester, can grow out of all proportion.

After a night away, young couple, Maddy (Kirsty Stewart) and Rory (Peter Collins), return home, where Peter’s mother, Morvern (Lorraine McIntosh), is babysitting their three year old son, Josh. Morvern tells them about an incident the previous day, when she took Josh to a cafe for his lunch. Josh needed to go to the toilet and, when a male customer offered to take him, Morvern was grateful for his help. Nothing sinister appears to have happened, but Maddy and Rory are understandably perturbed. The man was a complete stranger – how could Morvern have been so trusting? Terse words are exchanged and apologies made.

Rory soon gets over the situation but, for Maddy, the event has a much deeper resonance,  driving a wedge between her and Morvern and firing up a powerful distrust of any men she subsequently comes into contact with: the father of one of Josh’s schoolmates; Rory’s colleague from work; a man who comes to the door delivering leaflets  – all played by a wonderfully sinister George Anton. As her paranoia intensifies, it soon becomes apparent that Maddy’s fears are leading her and her son to a very dark place indeed…

Simply and effectively staged, with strong naturalistic performances from all the actors and adept direction by Zinnie Harris, Gut exerts a powerful grip on the audience’s emotions. The almost bare set thrusts the play’s themes into stark focus, with the occasional scattering of large boxes of brightly coloured children’s toys across the stage, hinting at the increasing disintegration of the family unit. An eerily lit doorway at the rear of the stage occasionally allows distorted shadows to be glimpsed through an opaque screen and a sombre musical score adds to an all-pervading sense of unease. It’s demanding stuff, but an unexpected reveal in the play’s closing moments offers some respite and actually brings audible gasps of relief from the audience.

This is a challenging and intriguing piece of theatre that keeps me hooked to the very end. The Traverse has a reputation for bringing exciting new work to public attention and Gut deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Daliso Chaponda: What the African Said

27/04/18

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

There’s a curious dilemma to be considered whenever you are planning to write a review of somebody you know. Daliso Chaponda is a longtime friend of Bouquets & Brickbats and, naturally, we worry that people are going to think that we’ll inevitably big him up, because… well, he’s a mate. On the other hand, do we choose to ignore one of the funniest comedy shows we’ve seen in ages? In the end, we decide to review and be damned. Hey, what’s the worst that can happen? Some mean remarks on Twitter? We can live with that.

Of course, we’ve followed Daliso’s career since earlier days, when he was gamely plugging his way around the intimate comedy venues of the UK. But a lot has changed since then. In 2017, he came third in the 11th series of Britain’s Got Talent and naturally, it brought him to much wider attention – hence this UK tour entitled What the African Said. The Queen’s Hall is packed out with eager punters and, from the moment he walks onto the stage, he has the audience in the palm of his hand.

I find myself pondering what has changed since those early days. Not that much, really. His delivery is perhaps a little more exaggerated, allowing him to milk every line for ultimate comic effect and, though he’s always been supremely confident, he now has the kind of ease with an audience that surely only comes from steady touring. His material still ranges from the controversial (an always amusing – and sometimes challenging – African perspective on our cosy white privilege) to the mildly saucy (the trials and tribulations of dating, replete with descriptions of a sexual nature). He gets away with the latter, mostly because of his appealing persona – did he really say that? I think he did! He’s adept too at making you see familiar situations in an entirely different light.

He gives us a lengthy and very wide-ranging set, a good eighty minutes in duration, and it doesn’t flag for a moment. Indeed, he leaves the audience vociferously shouting for more and, when all is said and done, that’s the ultimate sign of a successful comedy show.

His  tour continues across the UK, culminating in August with a week at the Edinburgh Festival. If he comes to a venue near you, do yourself a favour. Grab a ticket and head down there. I’m willing to bet you’ll have a very good time… unless of course, you’re one of those people who doesn’t enjoy a good laugh. In which case, this really isn’t for you.

5 stars

Philip Caveney 

 

 

Love, Simon

25/04/18

We came rather late to this, deterred mostly by its trailer, which appeared to pitch a very different kind of film indeed, making it look like a lame, ‘ten years too late’ attempt at a coming-out movie. But after hearing very good word of mouth, we decide to give it a chance and, as it turns out, Greg Berlanti’s  Love, Simon, is actually a sprightly, wittily-scripted film, which (unusually for a teen vehicle) seems to really understand the characters it’s depicting. This isn’t the first film that’s suffered from an underwhelming trailer but I’ve rarely seen such a poor attempt to convey a movie’s evident strengths.

Simon (Nick Robinson – no, not that Nick Robinson!) is a handsome, likeable teenager, currently going through his final year at high school. He has a trio of close friends and is currently rehearsing for the school’s production of Cabaret. But he has a secret. He’s gay, something he’s known about for several years. He’s certainly not the only gay pupil at the school. For instance, there’s Ethan (Clark Moore), who is happily out of the closet and makes no secret of his sexual orientation, but Simon just can’t bring himself to tell anyone, particularly his liberal and totally open-minded parents (played by Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel). He doesn’t want anything to change; he’s comfortable with his image and the way he fits in. It’s not that he thinks he will face any overt homophobia (well, maybe from a couple of ne-er-do-wells, but not from anyone who matters), just that he’s not ready to share this part of who he is.

Still, when he discovers some posts on school gossip blog, Craig’s Secrets, from another secretly gay boy calling himself ‘Blue,’ Simon responds enthusiastically, and the two of them begin to correspond regularly. But who is Blue? Will Simon ever meet him in real life? And will either of them ever come out into the open? In Simon’s case, the matter is taken out of his hands when a classmate chances upon his secret and threatens to expose him, unless he helps the blackmailer out with a certain situation. In the resulting scramble to keep a lid on things, Simon risks alienating himself from his closest friends…

Everything here is so deftly handled. There are engaging performances from all concerned (look out for Tony Hale as well-meaning, but totally hapless teacher, Mr Worth); there’s a fresh lively look to the cinematography, a zingy soundtrack and a couple of scenes that are genuinely affecting – I find myself welling up at two key points. Robinson is perfect in the title role and Logan Miller does a great job of depicting the nerdish and extremely needy Martin, the kid who all the others make an effort to avoid and who is handed the film’s most toe-curling scene.

Best of all, this doesn’t come across as some forty -year-old writer’s idea of what teenagers are all about. It nails them perfectly and manages to be effortlessly entertaining – and informative – in the process. Result.

So, the moral of this story is, I suppose, always take a trailer with a large pinch of salt, otherwise you could just end up missing a treat.

Love, Simon is just such a treat. Don’t miss it.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

23/04/18

Based on a bestselling novel and handsomely filmed on location by veteran director, Mike Newell, it’s hard to dislike this clunkily-titled romance. It’s handsomely produced and nicely acted by an ensemble cast and, if occasionally it wanders a little into the land of the twee, well, that’s no great hardship, because the story is interesting enough to keep us engaged to the end.

It’s 1946 and the world is recovering from the devastating effects of the second World War. Unfeasibly successful young author, Juliet Ashton (Lily James), already has a best-selling book under her belt, and is being vigorously courted by rich and handsome American, Mark Reynolds (Glen Powell). But then a letter arrives from somebody she has never met. Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman) has chanced upon her name and address in a second-hand book by Charles Lamb, and mentions that he is a member of the titular society, hastily formed and named back in 1941, when Guernsey was under Nazi occupation.

After exchanging several letters with Dawsey, Juliet decides to head over to the island to attend the society’s next meeting, much to the consternation of her publisher – and best mate – Sidney Stark (Matthew Goode), who needs her on the mainland to do an extensive book tour. Once on Guernsey, Juliet quickly discovers that the events of the war have left many wounds that have yet to heal and a bit of a mystery that’s desperately in need of a solution. Moreover, when she meets Dawsey in the flesh, she finds herself becoming more and more interested in him…

Okay, so there are no great surprises in the story, but when you have actors of the calibre of Tom Courtenay and Penelope Wilton in supporting roles, you aren’t going to be disappointed with their efforts – and Katherine Parkinson is a particular delight as the oddly named Isola Pribby, a member of the society who is constantly tipsy on the homemade gin she distils and sells. The parts of the story that deal with the Nazi occupation could doubtless have been handled with a little more abrasiveness but, more than anything else, this feels like a lushly filmed advertisement for the joys of Guernsey itself, with a host of gorgeous locations that are sure to encourage plenty of tourists to pay the place a visit this summer – which is rather ironic when you consider that all the filming was actually done in Devon!

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is unlikely to thrill you, but – if you’re a romantic soul who fancies a nice warm hug of a film – I’m sure this is just the ticket.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Funny Cow

22/04/18

If Adrian Shergold’s film tells us anything about life in 1970s England, the overriding message is that being a female standup comedian was clearly no laughing matter. Take the eponymous Funny Cow for example – we are never told the character’s actual name and indeed, when we first meet her, she’s still Funny Calf (Macy Shackleton), a self-assured youngster with a tendency to live in a dream world and tell tall stories, something that earns her the undisguised hatred of her peers. She is going through what might be called a troubled childhood. Her mother (Christine Bottomley – and later in the film, Lindsey Coulson) is a hopeless alcoholic and her father (Stephen Graham) a short-tempered bully, but none of this is enough to subdue her fighting spirit.

Pretty soon, FC has grown up to be Maxine Peake and has acquired her own short-tempered bully of a husband, Bob (Tony Pitts, who also wrote the script). Bob is an aggressive slob, ever ready with a foul-mouthed put-down and a helpful head-butt whenever his wife steps out of line. But FC remains indomitable, and at a working men’s club one evening, has a kind of epiphany when she witnesses veteran comic, Lenny (Alun Armstrong), toiling his way through a time-worn routine to the undisguised derision of the audience. She is the one person there who finds him funny. She decides this is the life she is destined for and, whatever it takes, she’ll make it happen. The two of them form an uneasy alliance, as she follows him from gig-to-gig, watching his inexorable slide into oblivion while honing her own craft.

Funny Cow is a strangely unsettling film – it tells its story though a series of vignettes and cuts back and forth in time with a kind of gleeful exuberance, each section marked by hand written title cards. The stand-up routines we’re offered aren’t generally all that amusing – indeed, most of them are more like tortured confessionals, as FC talks direct to camera. It certainly isn’t a recruiting campaign for would be stand-ups. Even when she’s made a success of her chosen career, FC is shunned by virtually everyone she knows. A scene where she makes an uncomfortable visit to her brother, Mike (also played by Stephen Graham), and his family is particularly toe-curling.

It’s by no means a perfect film. The usually dependable Paddy Considine struggles somewhat as Angus, the middle class bookshop owner to whom FC runs when she realises she can no longer live with Bob. There’s nothing wrong with his performance per se, but the script somehow fails to give him a single line that convinces, making him little more a caricature, all vintage brandy and visits to the thee-ay-tah. It’s one of the film’s few missteps.

But one thing is for sure: Peake is an extraordinary presence in the lead role, displaying an almost luminous quality that seems to light up the screen whenever she appears. Here is a brilliant actor at the very height of her powers and this performance confirms her as one of the best and most versatile of her generation. It’s also a film that stays with me long after I’ve left the cinema, aided no doubt by Richard Hawley’s memorable theme song; he also makes a cameo here as a would-be performer at FC’s first disastrous audition.

Eagle-eyed viewers will spot some genuine comics in cameo roles: Dianne Morgan, Vic Reeves and John Bishop to name but three. Keep your eyes peeled for others.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Fat Friends

20/04/18

Edinburgh Playhouse

There’s a lot to like about Fat Friends, not least its cast of disparate characters, whose lives are all dominated – in one way or another – by the slimming club that some of them attend. It’s refreshing to see such diverse body types represented on the stage, and for the larger characters to be just as fashionable and attractive as their slimmer counterparts. It feels very human, and there’s an appealing honesty that pervades throughout.

Our protagonist is Kelly (Jodie Prenger), who enjoys living above her parents’ chip shop and doesn’t worry one jot about her weight. Why should she? She’s happily engaged to Kevin (Joel Montague), and he loves her just the way she is. She’s proud of her mum (the rather marvellous Elaine C Smith), of course – Betty has lost five stone on her weight-loss plan, and is a contender for the prestigious Slimmer of the Year award – but Kelly doesn’t feel inclined to follow her lead. Until, that is, she discovers that her dream wedding dress isn’t available in her size. Determined that her big day should be perfect, she decides there’s only one thing for it: she’ll join Lauren (Natalie Anderson)’s slimming class, and enter into a race against time to fit into the dress.

The play is written and directed by Kay Mellor, and the characters are convincingly realised. Kevin Kennedy’s turn as Kelly’s hapless father, Fergus, is most enjoyable, but this is definitely the women’s tale, and the actors make the most of these boisterous, raucous roles. Elaine C Smith is a particular delight, and Jodie Prenger leaves no one in any doubt as to why she stays in work: she’s a bold performer, commanding our attention at every turn.

It’s not a perfect musical: the lyrics are quite simplistic, and the songs tend to comment on the action rather than informing it. That said, the music is lively and engaging, and it’s all very well sung. Some of the humour is a bit bawdy for my taste (think Loose Women and you’ll be in the right territory; if you’re a fan of that, you’ll enjoy this one) but there are people laughing all around me, so that’s probably just me. I love the set – a quirky facade of tipsy windows and shop fronts, which turn to reveal what’s behind the doors (the wedding dress shop, the church hall, etc.).

All in all, this is a bit of fun, with some great performances. It’s well worth seeking out.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Beast

16/04/18

Beast is a well-crafted psychological thriller with a twisty-turny storyline that keeps you gripped and guessing right up to the very last frame. The first full-length feature from writer/director Michael Pearce, it’s set on Jersey and exploits the island’s unique atmosphere to great effect. Make no mistake, this is an assured debut from a talented young film maker.

Moll (Jessie Buckley) is a troubled young woman haunted by a violent incident in her childhood. Years later, she’s still paying for her youthful transgressions, tethered to the family home by her domineering mother, Hilary (Geraldine James), and forced to provide care for her father, who is going through the early stages of dementia. Little wonder then that she chooses to bail out of her own birthday party in order to head to the local nightclub to chase up some drinks and a little action. On her way home, she bumps into Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a rough-hewn local handyman, who, it transpires, has also broken a few rules in the past. To Moll, he personifies the idea of escape and the two of them begin a passionate affair, much to the undisguised disgust of Moll’s mother and her straight-laced older sister, Polly (Sharon Tarbet). They are all too aware that a spate of brutal murders is currently unfolding on the island and they make no secret of the fact that Pascal is their number one suspect…

What might so easily have been a run-of-the-mill murder mystery is elevated into something much more profound as Moll’s dreams, preoccupations and hangups are expertly brought into the mix, maintaining a hazy borderline between what’s real and what might only be imagined. At various points in the story, I find my suspicions switching back and forth like a ride on a roller coaster with malfunctioning brakes – and, if there’s a certain ambiguity about the film’s conclusion, it’s no bad thing, offering plenty to discuss – and maybe even argue about – long after the closing credits have rolled. Both Buckley and Flynn (the latter also currently carving out a successful career as a folk singer) acquit themselves well and, as the ice-cold, uptight mother, Geraldine James is her usual brilliant self.

Shown here in an Unlimited screening, the film gets a regular release towards the end of the month and is well worth your attention.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney