Month: May 2019

The Duchess (of Malfi)

21/05/19

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

As we take our seats in the Lyceum, we’re aware of an almost palpable air of expectation. After all, this is John Webster’s most infamous play and it’s a dead certainty that, by curtain down, the pale grey set is going to be liberally splattered with Kensington Gore. I’m expecting a hard, dour ride, so I’m glad to note that, in this adaptation by Zinnie Harris, the feel is definitely sprightly – and I’m grateful for the huge illuminated titles, that introduce all the main characters as they enter, making it very easy to keep track of the ensuing mayhem.

When we first meet The Duchess (Kirsty Stuart), she is attempting to sing, her voice faltering at first but rapidly growing in confidence, until she is rudely interrupted by the arrival of her manipulative brothers, Ferdinand (Angus Miller) and The Cardinal (George Costigan). We quickly learn that The Duchess is a young widow, newly liberated from a loveless marriage. She is young, she has money and she’s ready to express herself in a male-dominated world. Her brothers, on the other hand, want her to make a suitable marriage, to somebody rich and respectable, in order to enhance her (and their) status. However, she is in love with her humble young secretary, Antonio (Graham McKay-Bruce), and – all too aware that her brothers will not approve of the union – she marries him in secret, aided by her maid, Cariola (Fletcher Mather). All is well and good until The Duchess falls pregnant with twins; when her brothers learn of the deception via their carefully planted spy, Bosola (Adam Best), their desire for revenge has no limits…

This is beautifully staged and cleverly directed. Stuart is a delight in the title role and I particularly relish George Costigan as the oleaginous Cardinal, outwardly devout and sanctimonious, yet happy to quote the scriptures even when performing the most depraved of acts on his unfortunate mistress, Julia (Leah Walker). The play’s first half positively scampers along, and – dutifully reinforced with a glass of something alcoholic – we return for act two, where carnage promptly ensues.

I mean it in the nicest possible way when I say it works in spite of the hokey material – and largely by virtue of the fact that the bloodshed is played as the darkest of comedies, the rapidly rising body count coaxing laughter from the audience rather than silent dread. This is, I think, the only way to play it in these unshockable times, a sort of Comedy of Terrors. It’s left to hired hand Bosola to salvage something from the chaos he has engineered on behalf of his wicked employers, and it’s his redemption that lies at the very heart of this rollicking revenge tragedy.

It’s all here. Romance, comedy and lashings of Type O. How can you resist?

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

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Lost At Sea

20/05/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Morna Young’s seafaring play is a searing, tempestuous examination of fishing communities in the Northeast of Scotland. From the heydays of the 1980s, when the money was rolling in, to the more elitist issues of the early 2000s, when only a select few were still living it large, we are shown the strengths and divisions within these close-knit neighbourhoods and the cruel toll the sea exacts on them.

Journalist Shona (Sophia McLean) returns to the fishing village she left when she was just a child. She is looking for answers: her father, Jock (Ali Craig), died, lost at sea, and she needs to find out more, to know what happened on that fateful day. But the locals close ranks on her: they’ve lost too many; suffered too much; accepted the Faustian exchange that keeps them all in work.

Young’s own father was lost at sea, and this piece blends fiction with that reality. There are verbatim voices – telling of the fishermen’s arduous days at sea and their families’ agonising waits on land – interwoven with constructed dialogue; the authentic details of a fishing life and a fictional account of one woman’s family. It’s a powerful mixture.

There are politics here too: the cameradie and team spirit of the 1980s gives way to a far more cynical individualism and – by 2012 – the community is bitterly divided. Shona’s Uncle Kevin (Andy Clark) has taken advantage of the UK’s strange decision to enable its fishermen to sell their EU quotas to the highest bidder, often to foreign investors. (No other EU country allowed this – for obvious reasons.) In Kevin’s case, it means he’s safe, no longer endangering his life at sea, just staying home and waiting for the money to pour in. But, as Skipper (Tam Dean Burn) reminds him, this means that those around him are risking their lives for an ever diminishing slice of the pie. What price community?

This could be a heavy, sombre tale, but Ian Brown’s nimble direction ensures that it is fleet of foot, as restless as the sea itself. The ensemble work is precise and light, the movement (by Jim Manganello) evoking rolling waves, and turbulent emotions. The spare set (designed by Karen Tennent) lends the piece a stark brutality, with restless projections of a dark and ominous sea.

If we don’t quite get the cathartic thrill of a dramatic climax, we do at least get a thought-provoking piece of theatre, straddling introspection and social commentary. It’s not exactly an easy watch, but it’s certainly most worthwhile.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

The Lookout by Gardener’s Cottage

19/05/19

Calton Hill, Edinburgh

We often visit Calton Hill; prowling the city is one of our greatest joys. In the three years we’ve lived here, we’ve watched with interest as the scaffold-clad City Observatory has been restored, and the new-build restaurant – sister to the highly-regarded Gardener’s Cottage – has taken shape. Naturally, now that the site has been revealed in all its glory, we’re eager to sample what promises to be excellent fare.

We persuade some friends to join us for Sunday lunch; they arrive before us, and we’re pleased to see they’ve secured a window seat. To be fair, most of the seats fit that description: it’s a small, square room and two whole walls are made of glass. Its cantilever construction means that the restaurant juts out over the edge, and the views across the Firth of Forth are stunning.

We have to wait a while before we’re brought menus; the manager explains that this is because the chef has made some last minute changes, so they’re being reprinted. We’re not in a hurry so it doesn’t really matter, but we appreciate the complementary glasses of Prosecco we’re offered to compensate. A plate of sourdough bread is also very welcome, especially as it’s accompanied by whipped herb butter.

When the menus do arrive, we briefly consider the five-course tasting option before deciding instead on a three-course à la carte. We order red wine by the glass (it’s early), and are happy with the rich tones of the French grenache we choose.

For his starter, Philip has the rabbit with wild garlic and mushrooms. The meat is intensely flavoured, and the accompaniments light and refreshing. I have the egg yolk raviolo with Tunworth and burnt leek. This is a technical delight: the pasta thin and delicate, the yolk creamy, the cheese sauce robust and full-flavoured. The ‘potato hay’ on top provides some welcome crunch.

For my main, I have venison with hispi cabbage, apple and fennel and a side of salt-baked root vegetables. The meat is soft and tender, and the accompanying flavours subtly complement it. Philip’s skate with razor clam, asparagus velouté and sea veg is beautifully presented and well-cooked, the flesh falling cleanly from the bone. The clam lends the dish a salty tang.

My pudding is rhubarb, rosemary and yesterday’s bread. It’s delicious: a dainty, elegant way to finish a meal, even if ‘yesterday’s bread’ is hard to discern (it’s in the ice cream, apparently). Philip’s salted caramel, clotted cream and chocolate is rather less impressive, the only mis-step on our menu. It’s pleasant enough but it doesn’t taste of very much other than a general creamy sweetness.

There’s a bit of an issue when we come to pay, when the simple transposition of two numbers means we’re overcharged by a whopping £108! Still, this is easily and speedily resolved, and we leave sated and content. This is clever and intricate food, well worth the walk to the top of the hill.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Shine

16/05/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Actor/rapper Kema Sikazwe is perhaps best known for his role as China in Ken Loach’s, I, Daniel Blake. But the young artiste is busy forging a name for himself in his own right too, first with his music, and now with this autobiographical piece of gig theatre.

Sikazwe is an engaging performer with an appealing vulnerability. This apparent openness lends the work a stark authenticity, and it’s impossible not to feel for the troubled youth in this tale.

Through music and spoken word, Sikazwe takes us through his childhood: his emigration, aged three, from Zambia to the UK; his struggles to adapt to the Geordie accent in Newcastle Upon Tyne; his sense of being an outsider, of never fitting in; the emotional cost of being isolated at home and at school; the discovery of music as a cathartic outlet.

It’s a compelling story, and the music especially is arresting, performed with easy confidence, Sikazwe singing live over a lushly recorded and multilayered backing. It’s not a perfect piece: the script needs tightening up in places – too much repetition, banal phraseology – and, perhaps a rather predictable linear route through the narrative, as Sikazwe struggles to overcome his demons before ultimately finding redemption through the healing power of music.

Nevertheless, it’s a powerful tale, told with real heart, and one which would almost certainly resonate even more with a school-age audience. A schools’ tour might not be where Sikazwe sees this piece going, but it could have a huge impact there.

3.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Electrolyte

14/05/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Electrolyte is not so much a musical as an extended piece of performance poetry set to music – what has recently come to be termed ‘gig theatre.’ I’ve only occasionally seen examples of it and, to be honest, I’ve rarely seen it done as convincingly as it is here by Wildcard Theatre’s six-strong cast of actor/musicians. It’s enervating stuff, full of fire and emotion, a blitzkrieg of sound and light that barely pauses to take a breath, yet never allows all that energy to get in the way of telling a powerful and important story.

It’s the story of Jess (Olivia Sweeney), a young, would-be artist living a hedonistic lifestyle with her friends in Leeds, and trying as best she can to shrug off a recent family tragedy. At one particular party, she hooks up with Allie Touch (Robyn Sinclair), a charismatic singer/songwriter whose star is clearly on the rise. She invites Jess to be her guest at a showcase she’s doing in London and Jess gleefully goes along for the ride, partly because she’s a little bit obsessed with Allie, but mostly because she’s anxious to reconnect with someone who lives there, someone she hasn’t seen in a while…

It would be wrong of me to give any more of the plot away; suffice to say that Jess is not the most reliable of narrators, but – as personified by the hyperactive Sweeney – we’re with her every step of the way, willing her to succeed as she careers headlong towards her goal.

But this is more than just a showcase for the lead performer – all the actor musicians in the ensemble have plenty of opportunities to shine and the whole piece is expertly knitted together, encompassing a whole range of musical genres and moods. The script, by James Meteyard, is terrific: witty, playful and occasionally devastating, taking in genuine emotional moments, whilst never allowing itself to wallow in sentimentality.

At this point, I’d usually be urging the citizens of Edinburgh to run out and grab tickets but, sadly, this was a ‘one night only’ appearance at the Traverse. However, Electrolyte is still in the early stages of a ten-week tour of the UK and, chances are, somewhere between now and early July, it could well be coming to a venue near you. If it does, and you miss your chance to book for it, you’ll only have yourselves to blame.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

High Life

13/05/19

The first English language production by French auteur Claire Denis, High Life uses the conventions of a science fiction film to tell its rather bleak story, though there is little in the way of the kind of visual splendour you might expect to find in this genre. Here is a nuts and bolts future where space ships look like packing crates and space suits resemble things you might pick up in Gap. Monte (Robert Pattison) is a former Death Row inmate who, when we first meet him, is alone on a space ship with a baby. We then learn, through a series of flashbacks, how the two of them came to be there.

Monte, it turns out, was part of a team of prisoners, sent on a journey to a black hole deep in space in order to harness its energy. This crew of misfits is presided over by Doctor Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who – presumably spurred on by the knowledge that the mission is going to take longer than the average human life span – has become obsessed with the idea of starting new life aboard the ship. But instead of letting the crew just pursue things in the usual way of procreation, she keeps everyone heavily sedated. The male crew members have to submit a daily sperm sample to her, which she, in turn,  administers to the females.

Hardly surprising then, that deep resentment begins to simmer, and it’s only a matter of time before things kick off.

Denis has quite a reputation and it might be this, more than anything else, that has initiated the slew of glowing reviews this film has already garnered – but for the life of me, I can’t share this enthusiasm for it. It soon becomes apparent that, while the film’s setting might be futuristic, its sexual politics remain deeply entrenched in the stone age. And this prompts some worrying questions.

Why does Binoche’s character wander around the spaceship in a nurses’s outfit that is clearly several sizes too small for her? And why, in the extended sequence when she pleasures herself in the ship’s ‘fuckbox,’ does it look as though it has been choreographed to please some unseen male gaze, even though it’s been co-authored by Denis herself? There’s also a particularly nasty rape scene, later in the film, which culminates in the bloody death of the perpetrator, but which adds precisely nothing of value to the story. Presented as it is, it just feels salacious.

These are not the only problems I have with High Life. I learn very little about Monte and even less about his crew mates, which makes it hard for me to care about them when they end up as so much flotsam. I think that Monte has some feelings for Boyse (Mia Goth) but can’t be entirely sure – and what exactly is the story behind Monte’s childhood crime, only partially revealed in flashback? Finally… that harnessing of the black hole’s power… how was that supposed to work exactly? It seems a bit cavalier to use the conventions of a genre without properly thinking it through.

If High Life was the product of a debut director, it would be panned and quickly forgotten. But I fear it’s become one of those ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ movies, with few people prepared to step up to the plate and denounce it as the wrong-headed, misogynistic muddle that it surely is.

Unless I’m missing something? Answers on a  postcard, please…

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Long Shot

12/05/19

Long Shot takes place in an alternative version of America, where Charlize Theron could conceivably be Secretary of State and where she just might be having a covert affair with Seth Rogan’s amiable slacker of a journalist. Think, if you will, of a US version of a Richard Curtis film. It might have a perfectly preposterous story line but, if you turn a blind eye to that, it’s nonetheless pretty entertaining.

Theron is S of S Charlotte Field, looking towards turning her current situation into a bid to become America’s first female POTUS, having received an endorsement from  incumbent President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk), who has decided he wants to get out of politics and become a film star. At an upmarket party, Charlotte reconnects with Gonzo journalist, Fred Flarsky (Rogan), for whom she used to babysit back in the day, and with whom she clearly has unfinished business. Flarsky is newly unemployed after the paper he works for has been bought out by the odious capitalist, Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis), and it just so happens that Charlotte is looking for a speechwriter to help her launch her bid for the presidency.

With Flarsky on board, Charlotte sets off on a world tour in an attempt to sell herself as the next president of America but, inevitably, romantic sparks soon begin to fly between the odd couple. Problem is, Flarsky’s image may not be a suitable fit for somebody looking to be taking seriously as a politician…

As I said, Long Shot might not have the most convincing plot you’ve ever encountered, but it’s smart, clever, and – for most of its duration – very funny. Theron and Rogan manage to generate some convincing chemistry together, and somewhere in here there’s the age-old message about being true to yourself and never compromising on your beliefs.

So – fun while it’s happening, but probably not destined to linger in the memory for very long. And as for that title, I have no idea what it refers to.

3.9 stars

Philip Caveney