Month: September 2018

Trenchtown

 

29/09/18

Gilmore Place, Edinburgh

‘Good things come to those who wait.’

How many times have I heard that said? The thought crosses my mind more than once as we sit in Trenchtown waiting for our food to arrive. Okay, it’s a Saturday night and the place is packed with hungry punters, so we’re not expecting miracles here, but…. maybe I need to get into the Jamaican vibe a little more. Everything in it’s own time, right? Only, I’m hungry.

We’ve been meaning to try this Caribbean eaterie for some time and tonight, in the company of good friends, seems a propitious time to give it a whirl. We are initially charmed. We like the lively, bustling ambiance of the place, we enjoy the eclectic design replete with vibrant murals and shanty town/beach hut trappings. We enjoy the pulsing reggae music that throbs urgently in the background and the staff are as cheerful and friendly as you could reasonably expect of people who are dashing back and forth trying to feed battalions of diners. But it’s still a good hour before anything more nutritious than Red Stripe lager arrives at our table.

Luckily, the food, when it finally comes is well worth waiting for, simply served on enamelled plates or from stainless steel mess tins. Nice touch. There are four of us so we decide to maximise our options and share a range of starters. There’s fiery fried squid, light and crispy, coated in panko crumb and sprinkled with mango mole, coriander and lime mayonnaise. There’s a bowl of jerk wings, marinated for 24 hours in a finger-lickingly sticky sauce. There are Trinidadian doubles – bara roti flatbreads coated with spiced chickpeas, mango chutney and shredded coconut (these are quite the ugliest things on the table, but have a lovely earthy flavour that more than makes up for their homely appearance). And there are sweetcorn fritters, liberally coated with spiced mango and lime sauce, as light and crunchy as you like, but challengingly spiced, so that even the most hardened of us can’t resist letting out an ‘oof’ when we take a bite. Those who prefer milder things, please take note: these may be too much for you!

So far, so good. For the main course, I have chosen jerk beef ribs and when they eventually arrive, I’m very pleased with the look of them. There are two thick lengths of rib on the plate, thickly coated with meat so tender it’s virtually sliding off the bone. They are garnished with sweet onion chutney, there’s some crunchy lime and coriander chow, a dressed salad and a side of spicy French fries. The latter are a bit ‘meh,’ evidently frozen and sprinkled with paprika, but the rest of it is very nice indeed. Susan opts for the Trini chicken curry, which comprises a chicken breast cooked in coconut milk with mango. This comes with a side of rice and peas. Again, its nicely executed. The meat is succulently tender and the rice is fluffy and delicious. The portions are all on the generous side, so much so that we find ourselves unable to even contemplate a pudding. Which is a rare occurrence but maybe no bad thing.

The bill comes and we’re genuinely surprised at the price, which – with two rounds of drinks – comes in at less than £25 per head. We’ve enjoyed our visit to Trenchtown, despite that long wait for service. Maybe the answer is to visit earlier in the week, when it’s less rammed. Or maybe they need to put on some more staff at the weekends. Or maybe I just need to chill.

Because the food is really very good.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Repo Man

28/09/18

Some films are evergreen.

A recent viewing of The Big Lebowski, for instance, reconfirms for me its absolute quality, unaffected by the passage of time, and its worthiness to be considered a true cult movie. Other films do not weather the years quite so convincingly.

I first saw Alex Cox’s Repo Man on its release in 1984, when it felt edgy and ground-breaking. I certainly wasn’t the only critic with that opinion. Cox, of course, went on to consolidate its considerable success with his next film, Sid and Nancy, before flushing his career spectacularly down the toilet with the awesomely bad Straight to Hell (perhaps Straight to Video would have been a more appropriate title).

But a midnight screening at the Cameo is enough to persuade me that an opportunity to reassess Repo Man on the big screen is something I shouldn’t let slip. Oh dear.

This is the story of disaffected punk, Otto (Emilio Estevez), who quits his safe job at a supermarket in order to work with Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), the titular antihero who earns his bread and butter by snatching back automobiles from owners who have failed to keep up their repayments. At first, Otto is hostile to his co-workers, who he views as establishment figures, but as he comes to know them, so he begins to settle into their unconventional routine. We also meet some of Otto’s former punk friends, who are happily robbing and brawling their way around LA, with no apparent motivation other than to avoid boredom. Meanwhile, the rather strange Doctor Parnell (Fox Harris) is driving a 1964 Chevrolet Malibu around the city. There’s something hidden in the boot of his car that a lot of people, including Bud, are very eager to get their hands on. Could it be the evidence of an approaching alien invasion?

What seemed so subversive back in the day, now looks kind of clunky and artless. The action sequences are decidedly sloppy and there are sections where the actors are clearly improvising their lines and not making a very good job of it. Sure, there are still some nice touches peppered throughout – I love the world building here: the anonymous packaging in the supermarket with some canned products simply labelled ‘food,’ a clever attack on the rise of consumerism – and I still rather like Tracey Walter’s turn as Miller, the ex-hippie car mechanic who seems to have the answers to all of life’s mysteries at his oil-stained fingertips. Estevez is a beguiling presence too, but sadly not beguiling enough to carry the film.

Watching it again after so many years, I can’t help noticing that for long stretches of time, my attention is wandering (and not just because it’s past midnight). Frankly, this isn’t anything like as good as I remember from my first viewing. It may simply be that I’ve changed over the intervening years, that I’ve become more demanding, but whatever the reason, this really isn’t working for me.

And that’s a shame. We often like to carry a torch for the movies that first sparked our passion for the cinema, but in this case the torch has been well and truly extinguished.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Scotties

27/09/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Michael (Ryan Hunter) is fifteen years old, and he’s got homework to do. He’s been told to write an essay on local history, but he’s not sure where to start. The library’s shut because it’s a bank holiday, and his dad (Stephen McCole) is annoyed with him for being so disorganised. There’s tension in the air. Michael’s mum (Mairi Morrison) speaks to him in Gaelic, but Michael responds pointedly in English. He’s feeling rebellious, rejecting his roots. Only his gran seems to understand him.

But then he remembers the plaque at Kirkintilloch, commemorating the young Irish migrant workers – or ‘Scotties’ – who died in a bothy fire in 1937. His interest piqued, he opens up his laptop, and begins to research the conditions in which these people lived…

…and then he’s there, amongst them, working the potato fields with Molly (Faoileann Cunningham) and her compatriots from the island of Achill. He learns about their back-breaking work, about their customs; how they’re treated as outsiders and how they long for home.

And he also learns some uncomfortable truths about his own family.

Scotties – written and conceived by Muireann Kelly and Frances Poet – is a satisfying play, fascinating in its illumination of a moment in history, and uncompromising as it draws parallels with the way migrants are still treated today. Not so much bi-lingual as trilingual (Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and English), this is a clear demonstration of how language shapes us and informs us, links us to our past and our future: it is integral to our sense of self. The scripting is clever – I don’t know any Gaelic, but I can always understand what’s happening; I don’t feel I’m missing out (although, no doubt, there is a deeper resonance for those whose mother tongue this is). Theatre Gu Leòr’s mission to bring Gaelic theatre to a diverse audience is perfectly served by Scotties: it’s accessible and engaging and makes me want to know more.

The play’s structure is effective, like high quality YA fiction brought to life on the stage. Seeing everything from the young protagonist’s point of view means that we can learn with him, and his innocence is beguiling. The music (by Laoise Kelly) is vivid and  atmospheric, taking us from the giddy delights of an impromptu ceilidh down to mournful funereal pipes.

I like the set too: the gossamer-thin gauze between past and present showing how our history never really leaves us, is always there, informing what we do.

Scotties is in Edinburgh until Saturday 29th September – and it’s well worth seeking out. After that, it’s moving on to Achill Island (5th-6th October), where – no doubt – it will have an even more profound impact.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Manpower

26/09/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

As we sit in the semi-darkness, a man in a plaid shirt (Alistair Lownie) is extolling the virtues of expensive stereo systems. He wants to be sure that we don’t allow ‘the salesman in the Next suit’ to fob us off with something inferior. The cables we use are every bit as important as the hardware, he assures us. Whatever we do, we should never use the cables that actually come with the system; they are rubbish! As he talks, the lights come slowly up to reveal a stage that is littered with great chunks of firewood, a table containing a hi-fi and what looks like several items of flatpack furniture. We are in the realms of experimental theatre here, and anyone looking for a straightforward narrative is going to be bitterly disappointed.

Then a woman (Katherina Radeva) appears. She’s dressed in a slinky red dress, her makeup is artlessly overdone and she’s gurning and winking suggestively at the audience. As the man plays a series of MOR tracks, she reveals that she’s a Bulgarian immigrant, and launches into a rambling speech about the history of the UK as it appears to her – all jumbled and confused because of her indiscriminate reading of the news. She is a staunch fan of Mrs Thatcher, concerned about the state of modern masculinity, and is convinced that Brexit is an inevitable result of the proliferation of DIY stores like B & Q and Homebase. Her views are lifted from various publications, but they are awkwardly, sometimes comically, skewed. As the speech progresses, becoming ever more tortuous, the man embarks on a DIY project of his own, building the framework of what looks suspiciously like a man cave and pausing occasionally to cue up the next track – Emerson Lake and Palmer, Elton John, Dire Straits, Pulp…

In truth, I’m not entirely sure what I’m supposed to be taking from this – so I’m glad of the opportunity afterwards to have an informal chat with Lownie and Radeva, who explain how the project came about and what the thinking is behind it. Radeva’s character is intended to be an unreliable narrator, she says. Born in Bulgaria under a Communist dictator and now living in Scotland, Radeva’s background is in performance art, rather than in acting and this is certainly reflected in the chaotic set and the exaggerated posturing.  Lownie’s character, he reveals, is desperately trying to cling on to outmoded aspects of the traditional male role model. A powerful sequence towards the end of the production is nothing more than a string of familiar clichés, each one more vacuous than the last, but performed in this way they seem to offer something of genuine authority.

Two Destination Language’s Manpower is certainly thought-provoking stuff, even if my main thought is ‘what the hell does this all mean?’ I think it’s also quite a brave undertaking by the duo, who have been performing and reshaping this piece for something like two years. When they started, Trump was just coming to power. Now the inexorable approach of Brexit means they are genuinely worried for their future together. Manpower has one more performance at the Traverse before embarking on a nine date tour of the UK.

If it comes your way, do go and see it – and please let us know what you think. I’d be fascinated to hear your opinions. I’m not sure this entirely works, but I’m nonetheless pleased to have had the opportunity to view this uncompromising and challenging production.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney 

The Lottery Ticket

26/09/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh 

We’re always being told that theatre should be as accessible as possible. Few initiatives exemplify this ideal more successfully than the Traverse Theatre’s A Play, a Pie and a Pint seasons. For just £13.50, punters can enjoy an original hour-long piece of theatre, a tasty snack and a drink of their choice. During a grey Edinburgh lunch hour, it’s certainly gratifying to see the auditorium packed with eager theatre-goers, making the most of the opportunity.

The Lottery Ticket, by Donna Franceschild, has the air of a whimsical contemporary fable. Two homeless men wake up after spending the night in somebody’s garden bin shed. They have been violently ejected from a shelter the night before and one of them has sustained serious injuries in the altercation. They are Salih (Nebli Bassani), a Turkish/Kurdish asylum seeker and his friend, Jacek (Steven Duffy), a Polish handyman, now suffering from a couple of broken ribs. Both of them desperately need money  – Jacek to send home to his loved ones and Salih to facilitate his return to his homeland – but neither of them can see a way to solve their respective predicaments.

When Jacek discovers that a current lottery ticket has mysteriously found its way into his pocket, the fervently religious Salih decides that this is a sign from Allah that their luck is about to change for the better. But then they are discovered by house owner, Rhona (Helen Mallon), who has a very pressing need of her own. She’s in desperate need of a plumber but it’s a Saturday and she can’t get anyone to come out to deal with the issue. If only she could find somebody to fix the problem…

Watching this wry and sometimes challenging story play out is a rewarding way to spend an hour. Bassani and Duffy are charismatic performers who make an engaging double act, while Mallon’s character is more acerbic and adds a little acid to the mix. As the two men struggle with the intricacies of her overflowing toilet, we learn more about their backgrounds: about the circumstances that have brought them to where they are today – and we come to appreciate that good fortune can appear in many different guises.

This is a charming and immensely likeable slice of theatre. As I head for the exit afterwards, I can’t help thinking that all lunch times should be as fulfilling as this one.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Still Alice

25/09/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Still Alice started life as a novel, self-published by Harvard neuroscientist Lisa Genova in 2007. It tells the story of Dr Alice Howland, a – wait for it – Harvard neuroscientist with young onset dementia, charting the impact of this terrible disease on both Alice and her family. Its success led first to commercial publication, and then – such was its appeal – to adaptations for both stage and screen. The movie version (which we reviewed in 2015: https://bouquetsbrickbatsreviews.com/2015/03/17/still-alice/) secured Julianne Moore an Oscar, and it’s clear that the eponymous Alice requires a strong performer.

In fact, this touring production by the Leeds Playhouse utilises two strong performers in the central role. This is playwright Christine Mary Dunford’s masterstroke: Alice’s inner self (Herself) is played by Eva Pope, while her physical manifestation belongs to Sharon Small. The two start off almost identical, dressed in the same clothes, mirroring each other’s moves. Herself does not have much to say, because Alice can articulate her thoughts. As her condition worsens, however, Herself becomes louder and more vocal, speaking up when Alice can not. They become separate entities with bigger spaces between them, but Herself is never less than nurturing and protective. It’s an effective device, performed in an understated and unfussy way that makes it really powerful.

Of course, Alice is not the only one affected by her diagnosis and deterioration: the play focuses too on her family’s struggle to deal with this new version of their wife and mom. She’s no longer a fit and healthy high-achiever, a Harvard professor with an enviable career. Her son, Thomas (Mark Armstrong), who’s about to become a father, is especially troubled: he wants his mother back. He’s confused and angry; refuses to accept reality. Her daughter, Lydia (Ruth Ollman), seems to be coping better. She hasn’t always seen eye to eye with Alice (she’s chosen acting over academia, and Alice thinks this is a mistake), but she’s able to support her mother through her illness with an open mind and gentle acceptance.

But it’s Alice’s husband, John (Martin Marquez), who bears the brunt of the responsibility, and he does his best to care for his wife, while – sensibly – ensuring he looks after himself too. He’s a research scientist, and he doesn’t let his home life impinge on his career. Why should he? Alice has always been a careerist too; she wouldn’t want him to abandon his passions. This tension is beautifully realised, with sensitive direction from David Grindley, and a subtle, convincing performance by Marquez.

The set, designed by Jonathan Fensom, manages to be both naturalistic and metaphorical: we start with a cluttered stage, filled with the detailed trappings of a family home – a fitted kitchen, a three-piece suite – but, slowly, scene by scene, this paraphernalia is stripped away, until we’re left with an empty space, all we – and Alice – can see reduced to the present moment: two chairs, a handsome man with a checked shirt. What’s startling is that this is not an unhappy place; Alice has found peace and acceptance of a sort.

It’s a heart-breaking and thought-provoking piece, with much to recommend it. If I’ve a quibble, it’s the moment when Alice delivers a speech at an international conference. I want this to be more of a battle cry, or at least to illuminate something new; it doesn’t tell us anything we haven’t already learned by this point in the play. It’s a climactic scene,  pregnant with possibility, and I don’t feel it achieves all that it could.

Still, that doesn’t prevent this from being an important piece of theatre, and well worth going to see. It’s at the King’s until the 29th September, and will be at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow from the 13th to 17th November.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

The Big Lebowski

24/09/18

The news that The Big Lebowski is celebrating its twentieth anniversary has a strangely sobering effect on me. Can it really be that long since I first saw it?  Twenty years? And then comes the knockout punch: my interest in the films of the Coen Brothers goes back much further than that.

In 1984, as a film reviewer and broadcaster for Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio, I saw their brilliant debut film, Blood Simple, and was lucky enough to interview them afterwards. They were a revelation, Joel and Ethan, these two nerdy kids with weird Minnesotan accents, who gleefully told me how they’d raised enough money to shoot the first three minutes of the film – and how they’d then shown that footage to a bunch of investors and asked them for the money to shoot the next three minutes – and so on and so forth.

I remember thinking that these two would go a long way, but I couldn’t then have guessed at the prodigious output they would eventually be responsible for – how their names would become the closest thing to a seal of quality that the movie world has to offer. Oh sure, we can all name Coen Brothers films that haven’t quite hit all the targets – The Ladykillers, anyone? Intolerable Cruelty? But the truth is, the Coens at their least effective are better than many directors at the top of their game.

Hell, The Big Lebowski isn’t even their best film, but it’s surely their most loved and the one most likely to be accorded the term ‘cult movie.’  At its heart is Jeff Bridge’s iconic performance as The Dude, a man who has developed slacking into a fine art. He may stand for many things we wouldn’t personally encourage, but we cannot help but adore him as he stumbles haplessly through this tale of mistaken identity, cowboy monologues, naked performance art and tenpin bowling. Mind you, there’s more than just Bridges’ efforts behind this beauty. John Goodman as Walter, a man perpetually boiling over with anger management issues, has surely never been better. And there are other, smaller roles featuring brilliant actors all giving it their absolute best – Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, all nailing what amount to little more than cameo roles and giving their characters life beyond the screen. There’s even a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ appearance by David Thewlis that’s nearly worth the price of admission alone.

The plot? Well, now, that’s so throwaway, it barely merits a mention. It’s essentially an excuse to link together a series of comic set pieces, Busby Berkely-inspired dance routines and some of the most quotable one-liners in film history.

I’m clearly not alone in my admiration for Lebowski. The biggest screen at the Cameo Cinema is pretty much sold out on a Monday evening, proof if it were ever needed of the high esteem in which this film is held. When I originally heard about the re-release, I thought, ‘Nah, I’ve seen it so many times before… what’s the point?’

But who was I kidding? The chance of watching it again on the big screen overruled common sense. What else was there to do but put on my ‘Dude’ T-shirt and get on down there? Because this is a film you can watch time and time again, and still find fresh revelations. Plus, viewing it with an audience just reminds you how good it really is.

The Dude abides. He really does.

5 stars

Philip Caveney