Month: December 2018

Theatre Bouquets 2018

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

Another year, another plethora of exciting theatre. We’ve been moved, motivated and mesmerised by so much of what we’ve seen. And here, in order of viewing, are our favourites of 2018.

The Belle’s Stratagem – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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This production looked ravishing, the brightly-hued costumes blazing against the simple monochrome set. Fast, furious and frenetic, this was a real crowd-pleaser.

Rhinoceros – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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A truly glorious production, as witty and vivacious as it was prescient. There were some great comic turns, and the sensual, Middle Eastern-inflected music added to the mood of transformation.

Creditors – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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We thought we’d seen all we wanted of Strindberg, but Creditors made us think again. Because this production was a prime example of the director’s art: the realisation of a vision that illuminated and animated the playwright’s words, breathing new life into old ideas.

Sunshine on Leith – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

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Sunshine On Leith was an absolute charmer. From the opening chords of the climactic I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), the entire audience was delightedly clapping hands and stamping feet with a force that seemed to shake the beautiful old theatre to its very foundations.

Home, I’m Darling – Theatr Clwyd, Yr Wyddgrug

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A clever play, with a lot to say. Katherine Parkinson starred as Judy, a woman obsessed with the 1950s. Through her brittle fetishisation of the past, the script laid bare the problem with rose-tinted reminiscence and looked at the present with an eye that matched Judy’s gimlet cocktail.

Not in Our Neighbourhood – Gilded Balloon, Rose Theatre, Edinburgh

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This powerful and compelling production, written and directed by Jamie McCaskill, tackled the difficult subject of domestic abuse and featured an astonishing central performance from Kali Kopae. We saw some superb acting at the Fringe this year, but this was singularly impressive.

Six the Musical – Udderbelly, Edinburgh

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An inventive and exuberant pop-opera, which felt like the most exciting, vibrant history lesson ever. The band and actors powered effortlessly through a whole range of different musical styles, from straight pop to power ballad, from soul to Germanic disco. The songs featured witty lyrics which related the women’s experiences in modern day terms – and we’ve been obsessed with them ever since.

The Swell Mob – Assembly George Square, Edinburgh

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The most genuinely immersive theatrical experience we’ve ever been part of. We were free to wander the 1830s tap room, replete with a real bar, and mix with a whole host of extraordinary characters: a crooked American doctor, a fortune teller, a soldier, a card-player… The more we engaged, the more was revealed… Superb and truly innovative.

Macbeth – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

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We were relieved and delighted that this touring production was so good. We knew that this interpretation of the play had been quite controversial, but it really worked for us. It captured the very essence of Macbeth and illuminated the themes and characters with great clarity.

The Unreturning – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

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A tale about young men and the shattering effect that war can have on them, simultaneously a requiem for the past and a chilling warning for our potential future. The haunting prose was augmented by incredible physicality as the actors ran, leapt, clambered and whirled around the stage in a series of perfectly choreographed moves.

Beauty and the Beast – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

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There’s panto – and then there’s panto at the King’s, where the ante is well and truly upped. Here, we were treated to an absolute master class in the form: there’s an art to making the precise look shambolic, the crafted seem accidental. And it was so funny – even the oldest, daftest jokes had us roaring with laughter.

Mouthpiece – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

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Powered by searing performances from Neve Macintosh and Lorn MacDonald, Mouthpiece was, quite simply, an astonishing play. Kieran Hurley’s ingenious circular narrative eventually brought the two protagonists head-to-head in a brilliant fourth-wall breaking climax.

Susan Singfield & Philip Caveney

 

 

Film Bouquets 2018

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

2018 has yielded a lot of interesting films, and it’s been hard to choose which most deserve Bouquets. Still, we’ve managed it, and here – in order of viewing – are those that made the cut.

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Alexander Payne’s brilliant satire had its detractors, mostly people who had expected a knockabout comedy –  but we thought it was perfectly judged and beautifully played by Matt Damon and Hong Chau.

Coco

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A dazzling, inventive and sometimes surreal love letter to Mexico, this Pixar animation got everything absolutely right, from the stunning artwork to the vibrant musical score. In a word, ravishing.

The Shape of Water

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Guillermo del Toro’s spellbinding fantasy chronicled the most unlikely love affair possible with great aplomb. Endlessly stylish, bursting with creativity, it also featured a wonderful performance from Sally Hawkins.

Lady Bird

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This semi-autobiographical story featured Saoirse Ronan as a self-centred teenager, endlessly at war with her harassed mother (Laurie Metcalfe). Scathingly funny but at times heart-rending, this was an assured directorial debut from Greta Gerwig.

I, Tonya

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Imagine Good Fellas on ice skates and you’ll just about have the measure of this stunning biopic of ice skater Tonya Harding, built around an incandescent performance from Margot Robbie, and featuring a soundtrack to die for.

A Quiet Place

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This film had audiences around the world too self-conscious to unwrap a sweet or slurp their cola. Written and directed by John Kransinski and starring Emily Blunt, it was one of the most original horror films in a very long time – and we loved it.

The Breadwinner

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Set in Kabul, this stunning film offered a totally different approach to animation, and a heart-wrenching tale of a young woman’s fight for survival in a war-torn society. To say that it was gripping would be something of an understatement.

American Animals

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Based on a true story and skilfully intercutting actors with real life protagonists, Bart Layton’s film was a little masterpiece that gleefully played with the audience’s point of view to create something rather unique.

Bad Times at the El Royale

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Drew Goddard’s noir tale brought together a brilliant cast in a unique location, and promptly set about pulling the rug from under our feet, again and again. There was a superb Motown soundtrack and a career making performance from Cynthia Erivo.

Wildlife

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Based on a Richard Ford novel, this subtle but powerful slow-burner was the directorial debut of Paul Dano and featured superb performances from Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal and newcomer, Ed Oxenbould.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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The Coen brothers were in exquisite form with this beautifully styled Western, which featured six separate tales of doom and despair, enlivened by a shot of dark humour. But, not for the first (or the last) time, we heard those dreaded words ‘straight to Netflix.’

Roma

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Another Netflix Original (and one that’s hotly tipped for the Oscars), this was Alfonso Cuaron’s lovingly crafted semi-autobiographical tale off his childhood in Mexico, and of the nanny who looked after him and his siblings. It was absolutely extraordinary.

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield

Mary Poppins Returns

 

23/12/18

Sporting a ‘what it says on the can’ title, Mary Poppins Returns is a thoroughly decent and handsomely mounted sequel to one of Disney’s most iconic films. I’ll ‘fess up right here and now and say that I don’t hold the original movie in the kind of esteem that some of my friends evidently do – but I entirely understand that, with its combination of whimsy and fantasy, it’s become a popular Christmas perennial.

The sequel takes place in depression-era London, some twenty years after the events of the first film, where the Banks children have grown up to a rather more depressing reality than they’ve been used to. Michael (Ben Whishaw) is a recently bereaved widower with three adorable young children to look after, while his sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer), has devoted her life to working for worthy causes. Michael hasn’t been too diligent about paying the bills and is now in danger of losing the beloved family home to the very bank he works for, after failing to keep up the repayments on a loan. The bank’s dastardly new manager, Wilkins (Colin Firth), is taking every step to ensure that the family home will soon be subject to repossession.

Into this troubled scenario, floats Mary (Emily Blunt), hanging onto the tail of a passing kite. Blunt is perhaps the logical actor to fill those famous red shoes,  but her incarnation is sterner and, it has be said, a good deal more mischievous than her predecessor. She is clearly in cahoots with local lamplighter, Jack (Lin Manuel-Miranda), and together the two of them lead the Banks children into a whole series of magical situations.

If this sounds familiar, it ought to. The sequel sticks pretty closely to the format of the first film, replete with song and dance numbers – one of which is rather more fruity than you’d ever have expected from Julie Andrews – cleverly animated sequences (an underwater spectacle is perhaps the standout) and brief appearances from high calibre guest stars like Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury and a very spry Dick Van Dyke.

As I said, it’s all decently done, but perhaps, in the end, that over-familiarity works against it. Nothing here comes as a surprise and some of the plot strands are so needlessly over-complicated, they can only be solved by Mary – but she does have an infuriating habit of hanging back until the last possible moment. Also, sadly, none of the songs here are quite as memorable as the likes of Go Fly A Kite or A Spoonful of Sugar.

If you’re looking for a suitable Christmas film for all the family, this is probably the logical one to aim for, but be warned, you may not come out singing one of the songs.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

20/12/18

You have to feel a little bit sorry for Andy Serkis. This film was his brainchild and he worked on it for something like five years, only to find himself pipped at the post by Jon Favreau’s (admittedly, impressive) live action Jungle Book, made for Disney. After that, the projected release dates for Mowgli were repeatedly pushed back by Warner Brothers, who clearly believed the public wasn’t quite ready for yet another version of such a familiar tale – and then, of course, along came Netflix, waving a chequebook and everything changed.

The first thing to say about Serkis’s film is that it’s a much darker and more feral beast than either of the Disney incarnations. This has a 12 certificate, so those parents thinking of sitting their toddlers down in front of it while they get on with the Christmas dinner might want to think twice. Screenwriter Callie Kloves, for the most part, sticks closely to Rudyard Kipling’s original short stories, so within a few minutes of the film’s opening I’ve witnessed the slaughter of Mowgli’s parents by man-eating tiger, Shere Kahn (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), a scene that little children may find too red in tooth and claw for comfort. Kipling’s story was always a brutal one, reflecting the abandonment he felt as a youngster when his parents left him in the care of ruthless guardians while they headed back to India, and this film reflects that wildness.

Baby Mowgli grows up to be young Mowgli (Rohan Chand), who lives with wolves headed by Akela (Peter Mullan), but he never feels as though he’s a full member of the pack. As he grows, he is tutored by good-natured bear, Baloo (Andy Serkis, and by stern black panther, Bagheera (Christian Bale), both of whom try to teach him the basic laws of the jungle. (Happily they achieve this without ever bursting into song, something that Favreau’s version couldn’t quite resist.) Meanwhile, Mowgli can’t help casting an enquiring eye in the direction of the ever-encroaching humans, who day-by-day are venturing closer to the wolves’ hideout.

It’s when Mowgli visits the human’s village that the biggest changes to the original story occur. The presence of big game hunter, Lockwood (Matthew Rhys), is clearly intended to be a comment on white imperialism (though why it was decided to give this character the same name as Kipling’s father remains an enigma). Lockwood gives the impression of being a benevolent saviour, always ready to hand out gifts to the local villagers, but his home is full of grisly hunting trophies, one of which provides the film with its most poignant moment. Ultimately, Mowgli learns that while he isn’t an animal, he isn’t exactly a human either. He must somehow be the bridge that unites the different species and the only way to achieve this aim is for him to take on his greatest foe.

Once again, here’s a Netflix Original that really deserves to be seen on the biggest screen available. There are lush landscapes, stunning aerial shots and dramatic chases. The animal characterisations are particularly interesting, eschewing the photo-realistic approach of Favreau’s effort in favour of more stylised creatures that really do reflect the expressions of the actors that play them. Cate Blanchett as Kaa, the snake? She’s right there and, weirdly, you can tell it’s her.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a remarkable creation in its own right and one that deserves to exist proudly alongside those earlier screen versions of Kipling’s classic tale. But be warned, this has teeth and isn’t afraid to use them.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney   

Bertie’s Proper Fish & Chips

19/12/18

Victoria Street, Edinburgh

Fish and chips.

Those three short words come laden with so many expectations, don’t they? We all have treasured memories of childhood seaside trips, where those scalding fried potatoes, drenched in salt and vinegar were exactly what we wanted after a day of splashing about in the surf. But of course, in these troubled times, whenever the mood for a traditional fish supper looms into view (as it inevitably will from time to time), it’s an ambition that often comes fraught with disappointment.

Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. Greasy chips, soggy batter, and a lump of fish so stale you don’t know whether to eat it or sing happy birthday to it.

As you might infer from the name, Bertie’s is dedicated to this most British of institutions. Opened just a week ago and occupying a spacious couple of floors in a converted building on one of Edinburgh’s most picturesque streets, Bertie’s is all decked out in handsome, seaside-themed livery, weathered wood, glossy tiles and cheeky postcards. There’s plenty of room in here, a lively ambience and the staff are friendly and helpful. So far, so good.

There are some enticing starters on offer but we’re here for the main event, so I order the most traditional thing I can find on the menu, a portion of battered haddock served with twice-fried chips and tartare sauce – and, since I’m in that kind of mood, I opt to go large because hey, that’s just the way I roll. Susan, who’s never been that keen on batter, chooses a regular portion of baked cod with lemon and herb butter and the same accompaniments. For side dishes, we ask for a bowl of the old Manchester caviar (mushy peas) and some white bread and butter, because -let’s face it – if you can’t work a chip butty into the proceedings, it’s a pretty poor show, right?

As we wait, I peruse the condiments tray and notice a bottle of something called ‘chippy sauce,’ which is a new one on me, but a quick enquiry on social media has my Scottish pals assuring me that this is a famous Edinburgh delicacy, a kind of cross between brown sauce and vinegar – and how can I have lived here for over two years and never experienced it before? Good question. I feel thoroughly rebuked.

The main courses arrive and it’s clear from the first mouthful that the people behind that stainless steel counter know exactly what they’re doing. The fish portion has the approximate dimensions of a small dolphin, the batter is crunchy even when sprinkled with malt vinegar, and the tender white flesh yields beautifully beneath a knife. The chips are perfectly cooked with crispy exteriors and soft buttery inners. The tartare sauce is also a hit, even with Susan, who was convinced she didn’t like the stuff. Her baked cod is also impeccably done, melt-in-the-mouth tender. I try some of the aforementioned chippy sauce and have to agree, it goes down rather well.

Bertie’s have clearly succeeded in their chief aim: to remind diners how good fish and chips can taste when they’re ‘proper.’

We’re pretty full but can’t quite resist sampling the sharing dessert platter, a pudding that’s unabashedly aiming for nostalgia on a plate. It’s essentially a trip back to childhood (right down to the plastic bucket and spade) and comprises two miniature 99 ice cream cones with raspberry sauce, chunks of chalky Edinburgh rock, two miniature candy flosses, some warm donuts with a saucer of dipping chocolate and, most wicked of all, a fried and battered fun-sized chocolate bar (yes, I can picture the health freaks out there, shaking their heads in despair but, luckily, this isn’t something we intend to eat too often!). It’s a light-hearted frivolity, and in that sense works well, but it must be said that this pudding is a bit unbalanced: it needs more ice-cream and less rock, and fewer of those slightly heavy donuts. Still, we polish it all off with smiles on our faces.

It’s interesting to note that Bertie’s menu also takes in more sophisticated seafood dishes – there are fresh mussels, chowder, even a Malaysian fish curry, but our simple fish’n’chips are an impressive introduction to what they do and, certainly, the next time a desire for a chippy tea hits home, we’ll know exactly where to come.

Perhaps we’ll see you there?

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Stan & Ollie

18/12/18

I’m no Laurel and Hardy aficionado, but of course I know who they were and the nature of their work; I haven’t spent my life under a stone! And I’m a fan of clowning, generally, and a sucker for a biopic. So, off I go to the local multiplex, to catch a preview screening of this much-talked-about movie.

It’s a gentle film, lovingly created, with two stellar performances at its heart. John C Reilly (Hardy) and Steve Coogan (Laurel) are note-perfect in their roles, embodying their real-life counterparts with obvious relish.

This is a bittersweet chronicle, detailing the latter years of the duo’s partnership. Their glory days behind them, they leave Hollywood to embark on a tour of Britain, hopeful that this will entice an eminent producer to get behind their latest movie idea: a comic retelling of Robin Hood. But audience figures are low, even in small, regional theatres, and the pair are left to face the fact that their careers are largely history.

It’s beautifully played, and the pathos is at times unbearable, but I can’t help feeling it’s all a little… subdued. I’d like everything dialled up a notch, and more focus on the emotional consequences of what happens to the pair. The script (by Jeff Pope) is terribly restrained; I’d prefer it if the leash were loosened just a tad.

Still, this is eminently watchable, with some cracking moments to relish. The interplay between the comics’ wives is particularly enjoyable: Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Kitaeva Laurel (Nina Arianda) were evidently as chalk and cheese as their husbands, and their reluctant friendship is a highlight of the film.

A good movie, then, but not a brilliant one, despite those fine impersonations of two comedy legends.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Roma

18/12/18

At first, our aims are simple enough. We want to view Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma on a big screen, rather than on the iMac that is the closest thing we have to a TV – but finding a cinema in Edinburgh that is actually showing this Netflix Original is problematic. Then we discover that The Filmhouse has managed to obtain it for a few days, so we book seats. Our first attempt to view it is effectively snookered by a badly-timed power cut in our area and it takes some pretty frantic rejigging to get ourselves booked in for the following day, but we manage it; and I’m happy to report that the effort is worthwhile, not least because of the film’s stunning deep focus black and white cinematography (Cuaron acting as his own DP in the absence of regular collaborator, Emanuel Lubezki), but also because the film’s catharsis is so powerful when it finally hits, that I sit in the darkened cinema quietly sobbing away.

This autobiographical story is set in the early seventies in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City. It concerns a middle class family and their young, live-in maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) who goes placidly through her daily grind of washing clothes, preparing food, and wiping up the seemingly endless mounds of dog poo deposited by the resident mutt, whilst giving as much time and attention as she can, to the family’s four children. For the first twenty minutes or so, this is pretty much all we see and beautifully filmed though it is, I find myself wondering what all the fuss is about. Why all the Oscar buzz? But then, more important issues begin to rear their heads and pretty soon, the film is stretching its muscles and I am totally hooked.

The first incident of note is when the father of the family, university lecturer Pepe (Marco Graf) goes off to a conference in Quebec and decides not to return to his wife and children. In the ensuing uncertainty, his wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira) struggles to make ends meet and hides the truth from her kids, telling them that Pepe’s work in Canada is taking longer than expected, even though he is occasionally glimpsed running around the city with his latest conquest. Cleo, meanwhile, becomes emotionally entangled with Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), an aggressive young man who is obsessed with martial arts. It’s clear that the relationship is going precisely nowhere but before that realisation sinks in, Cleo is confronted with an unforeseen problem of her own.

As the film steadily unfolds, so events become ever more dramatic – there’s a New Year’s Eve forest fire, that must be coped with by a collection of (mostly drunk) party guests – a violent student protest that is bloodily overpowered by the local military – and a heart-stopping sequence in a hospital where the mounting drama of a situation spills over into absolute tragedy. Through the escalating chaos, Cleo moves with incredible calm and dignity and Roma is quite clearly a love letter to her, (or rather, to ‘Libo,’ the real life woman who cared for the young Cuaron and his siblings), showing that despite her perilous position as an employee, she is an important member of the family unit, indeed, the very hub around which it operates. Aparicio’s performance is extraordinary. A schoolteacher, who has never acted before, she is quite simply enchanting in the central role and it will be interesting to see where she goes from here.

Roma is undoubtedly a slow-burner, but it’s lovingly and lavishly mounted, the era evoked in a whole series of scenes that capture the essence of what it must have been been like to live in 1970s Mexico. It’s interesting to note that one sequence depicts a family visit to the cinema where the film on the screen is Marooned, a low budget space adventure that was clearly a huge influence on Cuaron’s blockbuster, Gravity. There’s every reason to suspect that Roma could very well be rewarded with a gong at next year’s Oscars, an occurrence that would  undoubtedly raise interesting questions about the future of movie-making itself.

Meanwhile, if no cinema near you is showing it, then do watch it on the biggest TV you have access to. It’s a fabulous piece of work and proof, if it were needed, that Cuaron is one of our most interesting and gifted filmmakers.

5 stars

Philip Caveney