Month: November 2018

The Producers

 

29/11/18

Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s hard to imagine the kind of outrage that must have been generated by Mel Brooks’ The Producers on it’s original release in 1967, when it’s tap-dancing Nazi stormtroopers and flamboyantly gay directors must have touched a whole bunch of raw nerves. Adapted as a musical by Brooks and Thomas Meehan in the early naughties, it’s one of those rare creatures, a brilliant film, that became an excellent musical, that became a superb musical film. The Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group have some very big jackboots to fill here, but I’m happy to say that they rise to that daunting undertaking with their usual brio.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, this is the tale of struggling theatre impresario, Max Bialystock (Max McLaughlin) and shy, nervy accountant Leo Bloom (Rob Merriam). The two men form an unlikely alliance when Bloom casually points out that a producer might easily take a bigger profit from a disastrous flop than from a major success, provided the account ledgers are suitably cooked. With this in mind, Bialystock sets about procuring two million dollars to fund a new musical by seducing every elderly lady in his little black book – and, once they have the budget, Bialystock and Bloom go in search of the worst show ever written, plus the worst actors to perform it. Pretty soon, they settle on a little piece promisingly entitled Springtime for Hitler

This is unashamedly a creation of its era and happily, there’s been no attempt to soften the outrageous content to suit more modern sensibilities. The cast play it exactly as written, which leads to the only false note, when Bloom insults Bialystok by calling him ‘Fatty,’ (something that worked well enough for Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane, but is simply puzzling when applied to the lithe figure of McLaughlin). But that’s a minor niggle in what is, otherwise, a very satisfying production.

McLaughlin and Merriam make an appealing duo, while Georgie Rogers plays Swedish wannabe Ulla with the volume turned up to 11 and Will Peppercorn is a suitably deranged Franz Liebkind, a man who thinks nothing of wearing a German steel helmet and a swastika as leisurewear. Supporting actors make the most of their smaller roles (I particularly like Gordon Stackhouse’s turn as Carmen Ghia, a performance so archly camp that every gesture manages to evoke a belly laugh). But this musical is, of course, the very definition of an ensemble piece with twenty-two actors confidently moving around the small stage, singing and dancing up an absolute storm, even when incorporating their zimmer frames. And let’s not forget, there’s a seventeen piece band in this show, conducted by Caitlin Morgan, who deliver an assured musical accompaniment throughout.

Yes, this is a student show and of course, they don’t have the budget for fancy effects and state-of-the-art scenery, but when it comes to talent, The Producers is positively bursting with the stuff. If you like the original film, you’ll love this and you’re certain to come out, like me, with a great big smile on your face.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Nativity! the Musical

28/11/18

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s that time of year when families go looking for a heartwarming slice of entertainment, something that will be suitable for kids, parents and grandparents alike. There’s always panto, of course, but not everyone enjoys that kind of thing… (Oh yes they do! Oh no they don’t! Sorry.)

That’s when Nativity! the Musical may be just what Santa ordered. After all, what could be more Christmassy than a school nativity play? This of course, started life in 2009 as a successful film starring Martin Freeman. There have been further spin-offs, with the latest landing any day now. The first movie was adapted into a stage musical in 2017 by original author, Debbie Isitt.

This is the story of Mr Maddens (Scott Garnham), former wannabe actor turned primary school teacher, and his rivalry with his one-time best friend, Mr Shakespeare (Andy Brady), who teaches drama at a much more upmarket private school. After the love of his life, Jennifer (Ashleigh Grey), runs off to Hollywood to pursue her dream of being a film producer, his first attempt at a school Nativity receives a drubbing at the hands of a local theatre critic (played here by Jo Brand), and Mr Maddens swears never to direct again – but then along comes supply teacher, arrested adolescent Mr Poppy (Simon Lipkin), who is simply itching to bring his talents to this year’s production – and when Mr Maddens is overheard boasting that he can arrange to bring a ‘film producer friend from Hollywood’ to watch the show, things get a little out of hand…

Despite some worrying implications in the script – I’m sure primary school teachers in the audience aren’t delighted to hear that their chosen vocation is only suitable for those who have failed at loftier ambitions – this is nonetheless guaranteed to win over all but the sternest of critics, mostly by virtue of its irrepressible sense of fun. Lipkin is quite fabulous as Mr Poppy, his seemingly improvised asides earning big laughs from viewers of all ages – but best of all are his interactions with the younger members of the cast, aged from 9 to 12 years, who work their socks off up on the stage and somehow manage to steer a path clear of any saccharine. Twelve of them are local kids, specially recruited for this production and it’s a genuine delight to watch them strutting their stuff so effectively.

I’m usually a bit of a Scrooge about this kind of show, but I have to admit that Nativity! the Musical quickly wins me over. The slick scene changes, the clapalong songs and the general air of exuberance from everyone concerned soon manage to get me onside, which, given my usual levels of Yule-related grumpiness, is no mean feat. There are even a couple of moments where I feel my eyes brimming with something suspiciously like tears. By the end, I am on my feet and applauding as enthusiastically as everyone else.

Those looking for a festive fun night out should look no further than this. It’s a Christmas cracker.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

They Shall Not Grow Old

 

27/11/18

I’ve come to this one rather late in the day, partly because of other commitments and partly because I really wanted to wait until I had the opportunity to see it on a cinema screen. I’m glad I waited.

Peter Jackson’s First World War documentary is, of course, a considerable technical achievement, featuring state-of-the-art colourisation processes – but it’s also a powerful evocation of a brutal military campaign. Using archive footage from the Imperial War Museum (much of it getting its first public airing here), They Shall Not Grow Old is primarily the chronological story of the British ‘Tommy,’ following his tortuous path from enlistment to armistice.

Jackson cannily holds back the film’s trump card for a good twenty minutes or so. The images we are first presented with are in a square framed ratio, those speeded-up monochrome visions that we’re already familiar with, the kind that somehow contrive to demote the Great War to the level of a Charlie Chaplin comedy routine. We watch as ranks of new recruits skitter haphazardly across the screen, marching as though auditioning for Mack Sennett. We see countless numbers of young men answering the call of duty, doing their basic training, boarding troop ships to cross the channel, and still Jackson holds back.

And then there’s a spellbinding change when battalions of troops arrive at the Western Front to prepare for the upcoming conflict. Quite without warning, the pace suddenly slows, the screen floods with naturalistic colour and we hear the sounds of mobilisation – the relentless trudge of boots through mud, the rumble of engines, the whinnying of horses – and off in the distance, the forbidding rumble of explosions, the nagging rattle of gunfire. It’s a chilling transition, one that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention. Quite suddenly, one hundred years of history have evaporated in the blink of an eye and I realise I am looking at real people, many of them just teenagers, who turn their mournful, apprehensive faces to the camera as they stumble by, knowing they are almost certainly going to their deaths.

It’s the film’s most unforgettable moment.

Which is not to denigrate the rest of it, not at all. I listen to the accounts of real veterans who went through the ordeal and somehow survived; and I’m shown the inevitable consequences of war: the heaps of dismembered, bloated bodies; the shattered buildings; the splintered trees; the twisted hell of No Man’s Land. And through it all these young men continue to grin for the camera, give it a sly wave, mumble a quick ‘Hello Mum,’ as they pass by. I feel humbled by seeing them and by experiencing just a little of what they had to go through.

How does the rest of that famous stanza go? ‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we shall remember them.

And we do – now. But back then, when those men returned, no one wanted to acknowledge the truth of what they had been through. And I’m still not sure we’ve learned the lessons that would prevent such a horror from ever happening again.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Overlord

26/11/18

War makes monsters of men.’ In Julius Avery’s Overlord, this adage is taken to its logical conclusion as a bunch of evil Nazis, occupying a small village in France, carry out a series of rather nasty experiments on the local population. This canny blend of war movie and 18 certificate body horror is undoubtedly a mash-up, but such beasts are rarely as well handled as this, or as downright entertaining. Indeed, here’s a movie that hits the ground running and goes galumphing gloriously along to its final blood-drenched moments.

Of course, because of the presence of JJ Abrams as executive producer, the film was widely expected to be a fourth instalment in the Cloverfield franchise, but I’m happy to say the C-word is never mentioned here and it’s just as well, since this has its own agenda and fulfils it very effectively.

It’s 1945, the eve of D Day, and we join Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo) in a crowded transport plane, preparing to bale out over German-occupied France. Boyce and his fellow paratroopers have been tasked with an important mission. They are to destroy a church steeple in the aforementioned French village, which the Germans are currently using as a communications centre. The success of Operation Overlord depends on its timely destruction (so no pressure there). But within minutes of the film’s start, the plane is taking on fire and, in a totally immersive and nerve-shredding sequence, all hell breaks loose. Boyce barely escapes with his life.

A little later, approaching the village accompanied by a few other survivors, including hard-bitten veteran, Ford (Wyatt Russell), Boyce encounters Chloe (Mathilde Olivier), a young woman struggling to survive under the predations of the ruthless Nazi Commandant Wafner (Pilou Asbaek). She takes the American soldiers into hiding at her aunt’s house… but what exactly is happening in the compound that houses that all-important church tower? Why are so many prisoners being taken there? And why is Chloe’s aunt making all those strange noises in her room?

The gradual metamorphosis from action film to horror movie is effectively done, pushing the envelope a little further with each new revelation, until our disbelief is well and truly suspended – and the very real horrors of war seem to lend extra gravitas to the fantasy elements of the story. The presence of deadly explosive charges adds an extra layer of suspense to the final furlong. It’s breathless stuff. More squeamish viewers should be warned that there are scenes here that may test their resolve to the limit, but those who fancy a B-Movie plot married to A-Movie production values are going to have a whale of a time with this. I know I did.

That said, anyone scheduled to undergo a medical procedure in the near future might want to give this one a miss. It gets very messy.

4.3 stars

Philip Caveney

Hawksmoor

25/11/18

West Register Street, Edinburgh

It’s a cold, grey, gloomy Sunday, the kind that makes a roast dinner seem very attractive. And it’s a while since we’ve had one. There are some excellent Sunday roasts to be had in Edinburgh (Kyloe is a reliable 5 star experience), but the well-regarded Hawksmoor  chain opened its doors here in July, and we’ve been meaning to give it a try. So we put on our hats and gloves and waterproofs, and head down to West Register Street to see what all the fuss is about.

Housed in an old bank, Hawksmoor is certainly an imposing venue, but it does feel somewhat austere: the architecture is impressive, but it’s like a blank canvas. There’s no colour, no warmth, no personality. It needs some artwork, or some clever lighting. As it stands, it feels curiously dark and unfinished.

The service is friendly and efficient. We both order the slow cooked rump of beef at £20 per head, which comes with all the usual trimmings (cabbage, carrots, roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding) and some roasted onion and garlic too. There’s a rich, meaty gravy on the side, and we can see from nearby diners that the portions are generous. Still, we stick with our tradition of ordering a side of mac’n’cheese whenever we spy it on a menu, because – well, because that’s what we do.

We don’t eat meat very often, so we like it to be good quality. And this is: it’s a lovely piece of beef, served pink and oozing with flavour. The vegetables are buttery and the spuds the ideal combination of crispy and soft. The Yorkshire is a good’un, huge and light and pillowy. The mac’n’cheese is decent too: sticky and mustardy. We’re glad we’ve ordered it.

We also have a bottle of Domaine du Haut Bourg Sauvignon Blanc, a fresh-tasting French wine that serves us very well. But we eschew the starters (they look like they’ll fill us up too much before the main) and we’re too full to entertain the idea of pudding.

There’s nothing to complain about: this is a meat-focused restaurant that knows its chops, and the food is rather good. But it’s lacking something – some theatre or spirit – that makes it seem special. I know I’ve had a good dinner, but I don’t feel like I’ve had a treat.

Next time we feel the urge for a Sunday roast, I think we’ll head back to Kyloe, where it’s warm and lively – and they carve the meat for you at the table.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield

Assassination Nation

24/11/18

Salem. Teenage girls. Mass hysteria. And death. Assassination Nation‘s parallels with the witch trials are not subtle. But they are bold and audacious, timely and provocative. This is a fascinating film.

It’s not a retelling of The Crucible, but it riffs on the themes: a society bound by rules so strict that no one really follows them; the chaos that’s unleashed when the underbelly is exposed. And the teenage girls, easy scapegoats for the mob. Why look for someone else to blame when there are sassy, sexy young women strutting about the town, showing off their nubile bodies and their high intellects?

Lily (Odessa Young) is our heroine: an eighteen-year-old with attitude. Her parents are Mr and Mrs Uptight, squarer than a box, but Lily has opinions of her own. She’s smart: when the school principal (Colman Domingo) takes her to task for submitting pornographic drawings for an art assignment, she argues eloquently; these are not mindless ‘shock-the-system’ images, but a considered response to the world she knows. Taken aback, the principal acknowledges she’s right, but asks her to concede: ‘This is high school; it’s not appropriate here.’

And that’s kind of the point of the whole film: that we all collude in pretending reality is something else. We wear our masks and present public selves that are very different from our private selves, and (some of us) outwardly condemn others who are seen to do the very things that we do too. Writer-director Sam Levinson clearly has something to say about this, and he’s not shy about saying it. The utter absurdity of modern American life is mercilessly exposed.

Things begin to fall apart in Salem when an anonymous hacker starts uploading everybody’s secrets: texts and emails, photographic caches, google searches, everything. It’s no longer possible to maintain the illusion that everyone follows the creeds laid out for them, and the fallout is huge. At first it doesn’t seem to matter too much: the mayor is rightly exposed as a hypocrite, standing on a ‘family values’ platform, denying LGBT+ rights, while secretly cross-dressing. But we soon learn that he’s a victim too, that no one can flourish in a world that condemns individuals when they reveal the truth about themselves.

And then, as more people have their private lives revealed, we discover that the mob is hungry for blood. Even the most innocuous photographs are seen as proof of corruption; we’re back in Crucible territory now: if you’re accused, you’re guilty; there’s really no way out. Eventually, inevitably, Lily’s own phone is hacked. She’s been sexting with a married neighbour, so the townsfolk have a lot to say. The baying crowd turns on her and her friends: they are literally out to kill.

This is a vibrant, pulsating movie, that screams its message loudly and proudly – and largely successfully. Oddly, I detest the first fifteen minutes or so, and am actually contemplating walking out of the cinema (something I haven’t done since Heat) but I’m glad I sit it out, because – once that frantic, in-yer-face, split-screen throbbing is over – it all starts to fall into place, and the opening makes sense in context too.

It’s a film for our times, that’s for sure. There are tongue-in-cheek trigger warnings that seem at first to be poking fun at ‘snowflakes’ but turn out to foreshadow scenes that show how relevant these issues really are. There’s a chilling moment where a mob is chanting, ‘Lock him up!’ about an innocent man: no prizes for making the connection here. I said it’s not subtle. But why should it be? Sometimes the most affecting art is created using broad strokes.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say the girls become avengers – it’s clear from the posters, after all, but I have some qualms about the way in which weapons are used in this final third. It’s all a bit glamorous, a bit ‘good-guy-with-a-gun’ for my liking. But then, I suppose, the truth is this: in a society as rigid and divided as modern America, the suits who make the rules really had better look out. Because the guns are out there. And those they seek to victimise know how to use them too.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

Outlaw King

 

23/11/18

In a move that is happening with increasing regularity, Outlaw King has gone straight to Netflix. When this first started, I imagined it would only be an occasional thing, but now, it seems, the streaming company have their eyes on the Oscars. The inevitable result is that brilliant films like the Coen Brothers’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs have been afforded the same treatment; and Alfonso Cuaron’s upcoming release, the Oscar-tipped Roma, looks certain to follow an identical path. Oh sure, it will have a ‘limited theatrical release,’ but that may only amount to one week in a few cinemas in London in order to qualify for competition. Ultimately, it means that British cinema goers are going to miss out and this worries me. I love cinema and I want to see it supported not sidelined.

Ironically, this powerful action movie, based around the life of Robert the Bruce is yet another film that really deserves to be viewed on the big screen. There’s sumptuous location photography, filmed (in what is becoming the exception rather than the rule) in the places where the story actually happened. The time is clearly right for the subject. Consigned to a supporting role in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, Robert the Bruce is an important figure in Scottish history, and the man chiefly responsible for securing its independence from England.

When we first meet Robert (Chris Pine), he is renewing his fealty to King Edward the First of England (Stephen Dillane), mostly at the insistence of his elderly father, Robert Senior (James Cosmo), who feels he’s seen enough bloodshed for one lifetime and fears the consequences of taking on his country’s occupiers. Robert reluctantly toes the line, paying his exorbitant taxes and even agreeing to marry Edward’s daughter, Elizabeth (Florence Pugh, building on her star making role in Lady Macbeth), a woman he has never even met before. But the capture and murder of Scottish rebel leader, William Wallace, brings about a change of heart in Robert and, against all contrary advice, he takes up his sword and sets about trying to unite Scotland against a common enemy. It’s no easy matter and he has plenty of defeats to overcome before he can make any progress. But as the saying goes, ‘if at first you don’t succeed…’

David Mackenzie makes an assured job of all this, handling the more intimate scenes and the epic battles with equal aplomb. The growing relationship between Robert and Elizabeth is sensitively handled but the film is unflinching when it comes to the visceral – a scene where one character is hung, drawn and quartered is certainly not for the faint-hearted. A climactic cavalry charge is so brilliantly immersive, I find myself wincing at every hack of a claymore, every thrust of a lance. Again, this really needs the scale of a cinema screen to fully bring Barry Ackroyd’s superb cinematography to life – even the biggest of home screens cannot hope to do it justice.

Pine handles the Scots accent convincingly enough and there’s nice supporting work by Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the pugnacious James Douglas, one of Robert’s closest allies. Those hoping for an appearance by the infamous spider of legend will be sadly disappointed, but lovers of stirring action will find plenty to enjoy here.

4 stars

Philip Caveney