Month: February 2019

Ulster American

21/02/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

We missed Ulster American at the Fringe last year, but we couldn’t miss the buzz surrounding David Ireland’s latest play: the high praise and the damning criticism, the controversy, the hype. So we’re delighted that it’s back at the Traverse for a ten-day run. Now we can see for ourselves precisely what the fuss was all about.

Right from the start. we know we’re in the ‘high praise’ camp. Darrell D’Silva swaggers into action as Jay, an alpha-male Hollywood star, expecting deference and devotion, used to being fêted but in denial about his privilege. He’s visiting Leigh (Robert Jack), a mild-mannered London theatre director, who’s clearly desperate to please the celebrity who’ll ensure his latest project is a sell-out. As they await the arrival of Ruth (Lucianne McEvoy), the Northern Irish playwright in whose drama Jay will take the lead, the two men make conversation, with Jay predictably dominating proceedings. His intense, naval-gazing prattle discomfits Leigh, and the scene is genuinely hilarious – as well as shocking.

The humour here derives mainly from Jay’s lack of self-awareness, and from Leigh’s awkward attempts to disagree without offending him. Jay’s a self-proclaimed nice guy; he loves women. He refuses to see how reductive his hypothetical rape questions might be, and Leigh is no better, colluding as he eventually does. I find myself perplexed by critics who’ve condemned the piece for joking about rape. I’m a feminist; I’m primed to bristle. But the joke is never about rape. It’s about two deluded men and their blind spots, about their tone-deaf ignorance. Jay’s forcefulness juxtaposed with Leigh’s nervy twitching is a fascinating dynamic, and the performances heighten these characteristics to great effect.

When Ruth arrives, their hubris is further exposed. Her play – which both men claim to love – is about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and its protagonist is a Unionist terrorist. American Jay, despite identifying as an Irish-Catholic, has never actually been to Ireland, and is having trouble grasping the basic details. What does Ulster mean, exactly? And what’s a Fenian? It soon becomes clear that he has accepted the part without understanding it, and that he’s not at all happy about the themes that Ruth reveals.

From here, mayhem ensues, as the three pursue their own disparate agenda. Ruth and Jay are at loggerheads, while Leigh is stuck in the middle, tying himself in knots to appease them both, and failing miserably. He claims he’s a feminist, that women’s voices need to be heard, but misses the disconnect between these assertions and his constant interruptions and shushing of Ruth; his mansplaining, “What she really means is…”; his rebuttal of her declaration that she’s British (“She’s not.”).

Still, neither man is wholly repugnant: Jay, despite his bombast and bluster, is well-meaning really; Leigh is weak and obsequious, but he’s not unlikeable. Nor is Ruth a stainless heroine; she’s more than capable of using the situation to further her own ends. But she is the only one with a clear sense of who she is – and it’s she who drives the play to its shocking conclusion. McEvoy portrays her as a force to be reckoned with, all jaw-clenched determination and self-assurance. It’s a remarkable performance.

This is a visceral, explosive piece of drama, reminiscent of early Martin McDonagh with its bloody violence and dark humour, and the direction (by Gareth Nicholls) is flawless. The fights (choreographed by EmmaClaire Brightlyn) are the most horribly convincing I’ve ever seen, forcing me to watch through my fingers, and gasp in revulsion. (I see this as a positive.) All three actors are compelling in their roles; the tension between them is palpable.

We leave the theatre talking about the issues raised, and we’re still discussing them  hours later. This is riveting stuff and an important addition to the #metoo dialogue.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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The Kid Who Would Be King

20/02/19

When I was just a nipper and there was such a thing as ‘Saturday Morning Pictures,’ I would often watch features from the Children’s Film Foundation. These were stories about gangs of plucky kids, coming together to solve a crime or save a theatre or take on invading aliens – you name it. I mention this mostly because there’s something about The Kid Who Would Be King that rather reminds me of those films – albeit this time with the advantage of a sixty-million-dollar budget.

Joe Cornish made an impressive directorial debut with Attack the Block seven years ago and, after some messing about in Hollywood, he’s gone back to an idea he first came up with as a teenager, and which has been bubbling around in his head ever since.

This is the story of Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), a mild mannered twelve-year-old, who, together with his best mate, Bedders (Dean Chambo), is the subject of bullying at his secondary school, mostly at the hands of Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Doris). (The bullying, by the way, is the unconvincing sort you only ever see in movies – holding somebody upside down to shake the coins from his pockets, etc.) One night, chased into a building site by his oppressors, Alex finds an old sword embedded in a stone and easily plucks it out. Pretty soon, he’s approached by Merlin (played by Angus Imrie and, occasionally Sir Patrick Stewart), who informs him that he is now ‘the once and future king,’ and that ‘divided Britain’ is at the mercy of evil witch, Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) and her armies of the undead. Only a hero of epic proportions can save the world from disaster. By the way, those who think they are spotting a Brexit allegory here should be aware that Cornish claims it’s just a coincidence. You decide.

The film has a pleasing, amiable feel about it with plenty of in-jokes mixed in with the admittedly impressive action sequences. For the most part, it works a treat. If there’s an occasional tendency towards mawkishness, well, those bits are mercifully brief and soon enough, we’re flung headlong back into the action.

However, though the legions of flaming skeleton knights are initially pretty impressive, they are perhaps somewhat overused. A final confrontation between a bunch of school kids and the forces of darkness feels unnecessarily protracted and I think TBWWBK could easily had shed thirty minutes in the telling to ensure it keeps a firmer grip on an audience’s attention. I also can’t help feeling a little bit sorry for Rebecca Ferguson, chained to a wall for half the movie and spending the rest of it morphing into a hideous lizard-like monster. Well, that’s show business.

But quibbles aside, this is a film that is squarely aimed at a young audience, who will surely enjoy its deft blend of thrills, chills and chuckles. So it’s somewhat disappointing to note that at the afternoon performance we attend, there are perhaps only two kids in the rather sparse crowd. The film has already had a disappointing showing at the American box office where Arthurian mythology doesn’t mean an awful lot to the average viewer. It would be nice to see this do a whole lot better here.

If you have youngsters in need of entertainment, get them to a screening of this before it turns into an owl and flies away.

4 Stars

Philip Caveney

The Lady Vanishes

18/02/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 film, The Lady Vanishes, is one of those perennial Sunday afternoon treasures, a rollicking spoof packed full of plucky Brits, braving the rise of the Nazis with a stiff gin and an even stiffer upper lip. The Classic Thriller Theatre Company specialises in translating such films into stage productions and here the original script by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder has been adapted by Anthony Lampard. The cast is headed by husband and wife duo, Juliet Mills and Maxwell Caulfield. At this point I should probably disclose that I have a tenuous connection with Mr Caulfield, as he provided the voice for the audio book of my 2007 children’s book, Sebastian Darke: Prince of Fools. He did a darned good job of it, too, and I’m pleased to say his performance here is also rather fine.

The action begins in Austria, where a motley collection of travellers are about to board a train for Switzerland. The station concourse is decorated with ominous swastika flags, while forbidding looking Nazis swagger importantly back and forth, as they enjoy their rising influence on the world’s stage. In the general chaos, young Iris Henderson (Lorna Fitzgerald), who is travelling back to London to meet up with her fiancée, suffers a blow to the head and is promptly taken under the wing of Miss Froy (Juliet Mills), a friendly older lady who helps her aboard the train, dispenses some of the special tea she always carries with her and then, just as it says on the can, rather mysteriously… vanishes. When Iris asks her fellow passengers if they have seen Miss Froy, they all claim there was never any such person. Iris, they insist, got on the train alone.

Only young musical historian, Max (Matt Barber), with whom Iris has already had a less than promising encounter, takes the trouble to help with her inquiries, but it soon becomes clear that the train is packed not so much with travellers as with crates of red herring. There are so many suspects here it’s frankly bewildering. Could it be the two British cricket enthusiasts, Charters (Robert Duncan) and Caldicott (Ben Nealon)? And what about the mysterious brain surgeon, Doctor Hartz (Maxwell Caulfield)? Why does he have somebody swathed in bandages in his compartment? And what’s going on with that secretive couple a few compartments down? We are soon in Agatha Christie territory as the train thunders ever nearer to the Swiss border.

The problem of setting a stage production aboard a moving locomotive is simply and niftily dealt with by an ingenious set change – and there’s no doubting the skill and expertise of the twelve-strong cast as they gamely set about convincing us that we really are aboard a train and this really is something that might happen.

If there’s an overriding issue here, however, it’s with the story itself. What doubtless passed for an amusing and in many ways groundbreaking tale in 1938, now feels faintly preposterous. We are asked, for example, to accept that many passengers on the train will deny the existence of a person, not because they’re involved in a plot, but because they just don’t want to be involved. Hmm.

Perhaps this could have been played more for laughs, but instead, the director has opted to do it straight-faced, even when events are bordering on the risible. And, try as I might, I cannot make every element of the convoluted story fall comfortably into place. What about the Italian illusionist, Signor Doppo (Mark Carlisle)? At one point he attacks Iris and Max with a knife, but even now, a day after I saw the play, I’m not entirely sure why.

Fans of the original film will doubtless have a good time with this. It’s a nostalgic recreation of the original, complete with that familiar feel-good conclusion. Hitchcock has many fans and this production is clearly aimed directly at them. However, whilst I enjoy several parts of the journey, I’m not, I’m afraid, a totally contented passenger.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

A Private War

17/02/19

Marie Colvin was an extraordinary woman, and Rosamund Pike, it turns out, is exactly the right actor to convey her strength and singularity. Her performance as the celebrated war reporter is gutsy and bold, nuanced and considered – quite possibly a career best.

A Private War is a biopic, detailing the last ten years of Colvin’s life, following her from war zone to war zone, highlighting the personal toll – both physical and mental – of uncovering and revealing so many unpalatable truths. It’s a worthwhile endeavour, but it doesn’t quite pay off.

Maybe it’s because Colvin is famous as an observer and interpreter of stories; as the central character, she seems misplaced. It’s as if the important stuff – the stuff she’d want to focus on – is happening off-screen, and we’re reduced to watching her reactions instead. Of course it matters what happens to those who chronicle events, but their narrative is inevitably secondary to the events themselves. Here, that order is subverted, and I don’t think it wholly succeeds. I feel curiously distanced, from the wars as well as Colvin, never emotionally engaged.

Still, there’s much to praise here too. Pike isn’t the only one to deliver a great performance: Jamie Dornan does a sterling job as Colvin’s sidekick, photographer Paul Conroy, and Tom Hollander injects warmth and like-ability into his portrayal of otherwise hard-headed newspaper editor Sean Ryan. Stanley Tucci provides the much-needed – both in the movie and, I imagine, in Colvin’s real life – light relief, as her London lover, the only person with whom we see her truly relax.

We are shown the horrors of war – a mass grave in Iraq, besieged towns in Syria – and the awful relentlessness of it all, the despair of those affected. But it never gets personal; we never learn enough about the individuals. ‘Find the people,’ Colvin tells rookie journalist, Kate Richardson (Faye Marsay), ‘and tell their stories.’

It’s a shame the movie doesn’t take its protagonist’s advice.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Alita: Battle Angel

17/02/18

This one has been a long time coming.

Back in the early 2000s, James Cameron had two pet projects he was planning to direct. The first was Alita: Battle Angel, based on Manga comic, Gunnm. The other was a little thing called Avatar. We all know what happened with the second option and (unless you’ve been living in a hole for a good while) we also know that, after much humming and hawing, Cameron has committed himself to filming four Avatar sequels. But clearly he wasn’t ready to give up on that other project. Enter Robert Rodriguez to take up the directorial reins as Cameron’s er… avatar… while he contents himself with co-writing and producing duties on Alita. What could go wrong?

Well, the word on the street is that the resulting film is a bit of a dog’s dinner and one that looks certain to lose an awful lot of money. But, if there’s one thing I do know, it’s that it’s unwise to underestimate Cameron, who has managed to confound expectations several times before. Most people predicted that Titanic would sink without a trace…

In the year 2563, the earth has been reduced to a devastated post-war shambles. Most people live in the ramshackle chaos of Iron City, while high above them, in a floating sky palace called Zalem, a mysterious ruling class look disdainfully down whilst quite literally dropping their trash on the less fortunate below them. A metaphor perhaps for the way in which the affluent West offloads it’s garbage on the poorer countries of the world? Quite probably.

Whilst searching through a rubbish dump, cyborg scientist Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the head and spinal column of a young female cyborg. His scanners detect signs of life in it. So he whips it back to his laboratory, where he conveniently happens to have an artificial female body all primed and ready to go, the one he actually built for his wheelchair-bound daughter Alita, but which she never got to use.

The new version of Alita (played by a GGI augmented Rosa Salazar) wakes up with a powerful new body that works a treat but oddly, she has no memories of her previous existence. However, it isn’t long before she discovers that one thing she can do really well is fight, using an ancient martial art called Panzer Kunst… and fight she does. A lot.

Of course, given the genre, this is probably inevitable but it’s in the film’s early stretches that it is at its most accomplished. Alita is a genuinely exciting CGI creation (I hope to see Salazar in some less tweaked roles in the future) and the basic premise, with its shades of Frankenstein and even Pinocchio, is initially alluring. But why do so many action movies have such one-note lead characters? Think how refreshing it would be if Alita was good at music… or poetry… or… well, something other than kicking people repeatedly in the face. Rodriguez, by the way, somehow succeeds in giving us an ultra-violent movie that manages to hang on to its 12A certificate, mostly by virtue of lopping off artificial limbs and robotic heads rather than flesh and blood. A bit disingenuous, I think.

From this point the film is a decidedly mixed bag. We meet Ido’s ex wife, Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), a fellow cyborg scientist who is desperately trying to earn her passage back to Zalem, mostly by buttering up the mysterious Vector (Mahershala Ali, proving that he’s not afraid to wallow in less hallowed projects than his recent Oscar-nominated films). There are some decent action sequences (the one where Alita is pursued by a murderous pack of weirdly constructed cyborg killers plays like a cross between Mad Max and The Wacky Races, but manages to generate some genuine thrills in the process). If there’s an overlying problem here it’s simply that the plot feels rather nebulous. I am never really sure why so many people are keen to kill Alita, nor quite what to make of the occasional flashbacks she encounters.

I do however like the fact that the mysterious overlord briefly glimpsed looking down on all the shennaningins from the safety of Zalem really looks like James Cameron himself – which would have been a brilliant idea. (Someone in the know assures me that it is actually Ed Norton, but I like my idea better.)

Alita isn’t the disaster that so many have predicted – but neither is it a triumph. It’s a curate’s egg of a film. Good in parts but, in others, indigestible.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Bryn Williams at Porth Eirias

15/02/19

The Promenade, Colywn Bay

We’re in North Wales, visiting my parents, and we’re all eager to try renowned Welsh chef Bryn Williams’ new(ish) enterprise at Porth Eirias. Philip and I have had a sneaky peak – we met a friend here for coffee last time we were over – but we’ve not yet sampled the food.

These days, Colwyn Bay’s promenade is a delightful place to be: as well as revamped cycle paths, there are clean sands, quirky beach art, and, of course, Porth Eirias itself: a square, modern building, with a huge roof terrace. Fittingly, it houses a water sports centre as well as Bryn Williams’ restaurant, which somehow helps to give the place a real community feel: it’s here for people to enjoy. Inside, it’s bright and airy, all industrial pipework and high ceilings, with a glass wall facing out to sea. It’s frankly stunning.

We’re seated in the window, with a perfect view. It’s a remarkably sunny day for February, and the beach is looking fabulous. The service is friendly and relaxed. We order wine and sit back to peruse what’s on offer.

Mum, dad and I all opt for the set menu, which changes every week. Two courses cost a very reasonable £17, but naturally we all want three, which takes it up to £21. Today, our starter is scallops, served with salted grapes and a saffron emulsion. They’re perfectly cooked: charred just the right amount, with a delicious almost caramel aroma. The salted grapes are interesting too, a tangy counterpoint to the delicate fish.

Philip goes à la carte, and chooses the salt and pepper squid, which comes with spring onions, mint and a lime mayonnaise. It’s a generous portion: light, crispy and not at all greasy. He’s a happy chap.

The set menu’s main course is a beautiful piece of monkfish, with purple potatoes, charred leeks and a chicken beurre blanc that has me wanting to lick my plate, although I do manage to resist (well, I’m next to the window; anyone might see). We share some sides, of fries and roasted cabbage, and they are pretty decent too. Philip’s burger is an unusual choice for him, but he declares himself satisfied: it’s a juicy, meaty patty served in a brioche bun with lots of gherkins, and comes with fries & coleslaw. It hits the spot, he says, and eats it all.

For pudding, my parents and I have a pistachio parfait with chocolate and rhubarb, while Philip has vanilla rice pudding with a fruit compote and candied nuts. Both have the requisite naughty-but-nice factor that makes sweet food such a joy to eat. Yum yum!

We’re impressed with the restaurant’s accessibility too, and with the easy, breezy way the staff deal with my parents’ physical requirements (mum needs a seat with a lot of leg room, and somewhere to store her zimmer frame; dad struggles to cut up food, so they slice his into bite-size pieces in the kitchen: no fuss, just happy to help).

It’s a lovely place, and a really welcome addition to the area. We enjoy a gentle stroll along the prom, and pronounce ourselves content.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

 

The Dark

12/02/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Nick Mahona’s story, set in Idi Amin’s Uganda in 1979, is based on his personal experience of being smuggled across the border to Kenya by his mother when he was just a small child. Performed by two actors, who take on a whole host of roles, the story is set mostly aboard a crowded matatu (or minibus) as it travels along deserted country roads after curfew, the passengers all risking possible execution if they are caught by Amin’s soldiers.

Michael Balogun makes an engaging narrator for the tale and he’s ably supported  by Akiya Henry, who plays Nick’s mother, several other passengers and various people who are encountered at stops along the way. It’s an ambitious undertaking, that mostly works. There are occasional moments as the story unfolds when it is not always immediately apparent which particular character is talking – an effect that is sometimes  heightened when both actors take turns at the same character – but it’s nonetheless an affecting narrative.

The staging is simply done with a variety of seats being moved about to represent various locations en route, and the bus roof looks like a huge overhead bedstead, suspended on ropes – perhaps symbolising a safe house somewhere in the world. There is also an OHP, which displays a series of vintage photographs and headings to let us know exactly where we are on the journey.

The atmosphere of fear and suspicion is chillingly conveyed and the actors give it everything they have. And this matters, because Mahona’s story is an undoubtedly powerful one and moreover, one that absolutely needs to be told.

3.7 stars

Philip Caveney