Month: June 2019

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

18/06/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Louis de Bernière’s novel was a huge hit when it was first published back in 1995, but – despite being something of a bookworm – I didn’t read it. The blurb just didn’t appeal; I’ve never been one for sentimentality. I didn’t see the film either, which – by all accounts – was even more schmaltzy. But, twenty-five years on, I’m feeling a bit more mellow and forgiving, and looking forward to finding out what the fuss was all about.

And I love this theatrical production, adapted by Rona Munro and directed by Melly Still. That is to say, I love the way it’s done: the kooky choreography and Mayou Trikerioti’s ingenious design. I’m not keen on the story – a predictably mawkish affair, covering every war-romance cliché out there – but the telling is rather wonderful.

We’re in Cephalonia, represented here by a huge rumpled metal backdrop, hanging skew-iff above the Iannis’s dainty herb garden, its sharp edges poised to destroy what they have grown. It dominates the stage, with light and video projections capturing the impact of war and natural disasters on the islanders’ lives.

Madison Clare is Pelagia Iannis, a young Greek woman whose first beau, Mandras (Ashley Gayle) leaves the island to join the war. When Cephalonia is occupied by the Italian army, Captain Antonio Corelli (Alex Mugnaioni) moves in to her home, and – despite their initial hostility – the pair soon fall in love.

There’s more to it, of course – this is a saga that spans fifty years – but theirs is the central story, the focus of the tale. Which is a shame, in a way, because some of the subplots seem more interesting: the gay soldiers, for example, or young Lemoni (Kezrena James)’s money-making schemes. Still, both Clare and Mugnaioni give compelling performances, and their affair is tender and believable.

What makes this, though, is the sheer theatricality, the way it revels in its form. The transparent white sheets, for example, that capture the horrific images of soldiers frozen in ice; the lazer-beam-like strings conducting the actors through the caves; the brutality of the firing squad in all its strobe-lit choreographed glory.

I like the animals too: Luisa Guerreiro’s goat, with its plaintive bleating and simple crutch-aided walk; Elizabeth Mary Williams’ lithe and playful pine martin, Psipsina, with its trusting nature and comic responsiveness. These add a light touch to a sad tale, providing warmth and humour, and representing innocence.

The lighting (by Malcolm Rippeth) is inspired: all coppers and golds, evoking the gorgeousness of the Ionian sea and the might of a volcano, the reflections from the metal backdrop rippling across the auditorium.

This is an accomplished production, that soars above its source material.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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Brightburn

17/06/19

I have often lamented the over-preponderence of superhero movies currently dominating the multiplexes. Those who share my misgivings may take some solace in Brightburn, which, although an unashamed slice of shlock, at least gives this increasingly played-out genre a fresh coat of paint (even if the colour in question is undoubtedly a dark shade of crimson). Produced by James Gunn, written by his brother, Brian, and his cousin, Mark, Brightburn is founded upon a simple question. What if somebody with superpowers was actually a psychopath?

Tori and Kyle Brever (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) are the long married couple living in the wilds of Kansas, who have been trying for years to have a baby, with zero success. The late night crash-landing of a vehicle from outer space gives them the unexpected opportunity to adopt its sole passenger, a newborn baby. If this sounds familiar, it should do. It’s a cheeky borrowing of the Superman origin story.

The child, whom they name Brandon (Jackson Dunne), is fairly ‘normal’ until he hits puberty, when he starts to experience anger issues. Quite typical of an adolescent, I’ll grant you, but Brandon also begins to discover that he has some pretty amazing super powers – and, as they develop, so do various unsavoury habits that would give Clark Kent an attack of the vapours – like wearing a seedy-looking costume, spying on any girl who is unlucky enough to pique his interest, unleashing bloody mayhem on those who are rash enough to cross him, and leaving his monicker at the scene of the crime. (Be warned. The film focuses unflinchingly on visceral injury detail. Anyone who is twitchy about eyes and broken glass may want to look away at a key moment in the story.)

So yes, this is shlock, but it’s better produced and acted than most of the films that occupy this genre and manages to generate enough suspense to keep you hooked throughout. There are jump-scares too for those who like that kind of thing. Whilst the storyline doesn’t stand up to an awful lot of scrutiny, you do at least identify with Tori and Kyle’s inner conflict. Coming to terms with the fact that your adopted son is a brutal killer is not the kind of thing anybody would want to have to deal with, but deal with it they must.

And, as the body count steadily rises, they realise it’s time to take a stand…

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Sometimes Always Never

16/06/19

Scrabble can be a hard lesson for people like me, who are in love with language. We initially approach it, don’t we, thinking it will be an exercise in showing off our vocabulary, a chance to demonstrate how erudite we are? But we quickly learn that it’s really a brutal game of mathematics and that those players who have memorised a series of obscure, high-scoring two letter words are going to wipe the floor with us.

It’s this condumdrum that lies at the heart of Sometimes Always Never, a quirky and bitter-sweet story, written by Frank Cotterall Boyce and directed by Frank Hunter. It’s set in and around Formby, where Anthony Gormley’s distinctive sculptures haunt the sands, looking for all the world like bit-part players waiting for a chance to step into the action.

Alan (Bill Nighy) is a fascinating character, a retired tailor (the film’s title refers to the three buttons on a jacket and how you should wear them). He’s also a part time Scrabble-hustler. In the film’s downbeat opening, he meets up with his estranged son, Peter (Sam Riley) and the two of them go to have a look at the body of a dead man. Alan’s other son, Michael, you see, went missing years ago, following a heated argument over a game of… Scrabble, and Alan’s life since then has been dominated by his absence. The dead man turns out to be the missing son of Margaret (Jenny Agutter) and Arthur (Tim Mcinnery),  and, relieved, Alan heads home. But a couple of days later,  he arrives unnanounced at Peter’s house, where he pretty much moves in, much to the bafflement of Peter’s affable wife, Sue (Alice Lowe), and her teenage son, Jack (Louis Healy), with whom Alan ends up sharing a room. As the days pass and there is no sign of Alan going home, he begins to exert a peculiar influence over the family…

This is a deliciously oddball concoction which finds plenty of fun in the strange rituals that people employ in order to rub through their days. Nighy is as terrific as ever, though it does take a little while to adjust to the shock of hearing him speak with a Merseyside accent. Mind you, that also goes for Jenny Agutter, who manages to hide her own painfully plummy tones in a similar manner. It’s apparent from their first meeting that Alan and Margaret  have some chemistry between them.

Despite its charms, the film suffers a little from an inconsistency of tone. For instance, an early scene where Alan and Peter appear to be driving in a cardboard cutout car is a delight, but this approach isn’t used anywhere else – and a scene featuring Alexi Sayle as a random fisherman doesn’t really add anything to the story. Furthermore, any film that’s lucky enough to have Alice Lowe in the cast really ought to find a little more for her to do but, these reservations aside, this is mostly a cleverly judged cocktail of wry chuckles and poignant observations.

Not exactly earth-shattering stuff, then, but – in its own way – a satisfying and rather unique cinematic experience.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

21212

15/06/19

Royal Terrace, Edinburgh

It’s my birthday. Actually, it’s my birthday tomorrow, but Paul Kitching’s Michelin starred restaurant isn’t open on Sundays, so we’re celebrating a day early. We’re booked in for a one-thirty lunch, and enjoy the walk through the city and across Calton Hill.

21212 is a ‘restaurant with rooms’ – a quirky boutique hotel, with a clear emphasis on the food. We don’t see the rooms, because we’re just here to eat, but the whole place is charming: a tall townhouse, with a pretty garden and beautiful decor. The dining room is formal, but there’s a relaxed atmosphere nonetheless. The service is friendly and unstuffy, informed but not intrusive.

The conceit here is simple: the numbers in the name refer to the choices on offer for each course. So there are two starters available, then a soup, two mains, cheese, and two puds. The kitchen (screened off by a glass wall) is small; perfecting a limited number of dishes makes absolute sense. We opt for the full five courses, because what’s the point in coming here unless you’re going to embrace the experience? We apply the same logic to the drinks menu, and go for a package of matched wines. And, for good measure, a glass of rosé cava to kick things off.

Olives are swiftly brought to our table: eye-watering, so-strong-they’re-almost-unpleasant olives that work well with the pink fizz we’re sipping. Then there’s bread, a brioche topped with a medley of Mediterranean vegetables – tomatoes, courgettes, etc. It’s delicious and utterly irresistible.

To start, I have pigeon cree, which is not, in fact, pigeon at all. “It’s made from the stuff you feed pigeons,” explains our waitress – thus summing up the idiosyncratic nature of the entire menu. Pigeon cree, it emerges, is a kind of barley risotto, studded with seeds and… um, blueberries. There’s also a mozzarella bonbon and some cubes of intensely flavoured pork, neither of which I’m certain feature prominently in a pigeon’s diet. No matter: this is a stellar dish, each mouthful a little adventure.

Philip has ‘Kidnapped’ in Scotland, which is haggis, served with salmon caviar and a beetroot pancake. Again, it’s not a combination we’ve ever heard of, let alone sampled, but it’s weirdly rather wonderful.

Next up for us both is rainy allotment soup: a curry base with white cabbage and pasta, topped with a carrot and saffron froth. It’s delicate and creamy, and we’re both enchanted by it. This course also comes with the standout wine of the day: a sparkling chenin blanc from the Loire Valley. I’ve already got my parents on the case, trying to source some more for us while they’re in France.

My main is bass and peas, which turns out to be sea bass topped with a scallop, with egg mayo and peanuts on the side. There’s a mustard crisp too, and radishes, and a sauce whose ingredients I can’t recall. This is complex food, with daring combinations. I eat every morsel. I’m enjoying the challenge.

Philip has chicken ‘surprise’ – but I’m not sure which element constitutes the surprise as, predictably, none of it is predictable. There’s a succulent piece of perfectly cooked chicken, with hazelnuts, pear mayo, and – wait for it – honeycomb. It’s all superb.

The cheese course (‘A Fine Brexit Selection’) comprises twelve small cubes of a wide variety of cheeses, served with crackers and dried pears. The pears are an inspired addition, but the crackers provide the only off-note of the day. True, there are two delightful slivers made from the bread we tasted earlier, but the rest are of the shop-bought kind, and disappointing in comparison with everything else. Still, it’s a minor quibble, and we make short work of the plate. The creamy Langres is our favourite.

Before pudding, we’re brought a little cow-shaped jug of malted banana milk, which is poured into tiny paper cups, and drunk like it’s a shot. We’re cynical, but it tastes great. The disposable cups are an odd choice, though… surely reusable tableware makes more environmental sense?

For pud, we both have yellow, pink, white. As ever, the title reveals little, but we’re confident by now that we’ll be wowed by whatever this is. And we’re right. There’s a little glass of strawberry something-or-other to drink, and a portion of rice pudding, layered with lemon sauce. There’s a strawberry meringue on top: it’s a medley of sweet and tart, creamy and fresh. A very good way to end the meal.

The wines all work well too, a series of excellent suggestions, complementing each course effectively.

Will we come back? Oh yes – once we’ve saved up our pennies again. If you haven’t tried Paul Kitching’s cooking yet, I urge you to give it a go. I can promise that you won’t be bored!

5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Late Night

12/06/19

Mindy Kaling’s feature debut is a warm, witty and timely tale, a gentle rebuke to those who bemoan positive discrimination, blind to the privilege that underlines their own positions. To Kaling’s credit, the overt message in no way impedes the film’s humour or likability.

Kaling stars as Molly, an Indian-American woman, who’s been working as an admin assistant in a factory – sorry, chemical plant. An essay-writing competition affords her the chance of a lifetime, the opportunity to write for her hero, late night TV host, Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson). But, while Katherine is keen to improve  her show’s ratings by shaking up her all-white, all-male writing team, the men themselves are less accommodating, threatened by the presence of an outsider. It doesn’t help that one unfortunate latecomer is literally fired as Molly hovers near his seat.

Thompson is magnificent as the imperious, demanding Katherine. Our view of her is softened by the tenderness of her relationship with her husband, Walter (John Lithgow), who is struggling to come to terms with the effects of Parkinson’s disease. This strand offers us an insight into Katherine’s psyche, and helps us to appreciate the sheer talent and drive that has led to her success, and the potential cost of failure. No wonder she is exacting and difficult.

It turns out Molly is exactly what Katherine needs. Not because she is a genius; not because she’s better than all the guys. But because she is as good as them, and she has something different to offer, a less comfortable, tried-and-tested approach. In her innocence, she questions their assumptions and, in time, makes them question themselves.

It’s not all one way though; Molly is not a one-woman saviour – she has lessons to learn too. Veteran writer, Burditt (Max Casella), and conceited ‘head of monologues’, Tom Campbell (Reid Scott), as well as Walter and Katherine themselves, all have sage advice to offer her. The lesson here is simple: we all benefit from inclusivity.

If this makes the film sound dull, then I’m doing it a disservice. It’s properly funny, with Kaling’s genial charm a perfect foil for Thompson’s acerbic wit. Molly’s quiet determination proves a force to be reckoned with, and provides plenty of laughs along the way.

Late Night is a cracking story – a political rom-com for our times.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War

 

07/06/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War isn’t exactly what you’d call subtle: in a small pub in Prestonpans, the parallels between four disgruntled millennials and their 1936 counterparts are explicitly drawn.

The 2017 quartet are somewhat disaffected, ground down by austerity and disillusioned with democracy. George (Robbie Gordon), who was famed at school for being the political one, isn’t going to bother voting in the next election. What’s the point? The others disagree, but that doesn’t mean they’re of one mind. They’re angry, polarised; either silent or shouting; held together only by proximity and a shared past.

But, during a powercut, Old George (Michael Mackenzie) appears briefly and then  vanishes, leaving behind a mysterious suitcase. Bar manager Ellen (Rebekah Lumsden) seizes the opportunity to school the boys, telling them that Old George is long dead, and that his suitcase contains mementoes of his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War.

George Watters joins the legendary International Brigade in 1936, spurred on by his deeply held belief that fascism must be thwarted, no matter what the cost. He persuades his mates and his brother-in-law too: Jock (Josh Whitelaw) is keen because he wants to spread his wings, to see the world beyond East Lothian; Bill (Cristian Ortega) is an innocent, young and easily swayed, who just wants to meet some Spanish girls; Jimmy (Nicholas Ralph) is in it for the money. Their ideologies differ, but they bond over the fight.

As Ellen tells the story, the men enact it, using whatever they can find in the bar to represent the tale. Their guns are snooker cues; their barriers bar tables. The lighting (by Benny Goodman) is unusual and most effective: there are banks of brightly coloured pink and yellow spots, almost blinding at times, denoting the present day, while an atmospheric orange gloom settles over much of the past action. It’s a quirky palette, but somehow it makes perfect sense.

The physicality of the drama is excellent, with some inventive set pieces, particularly the bike ride and the battles. The small space feels crowded by soldiers; the pace never lets up, and the characters are well drawn. This is true ensemble work, and very nicely done.

And, in a testament to the power of theatre, the simple reenactment of the tale has a profound impact on the boys, shaking them out of their torpor. I know, I said it wasn’t subtle. But this isn’t the place for subtlety. Maybe, in these troubling times, as the far right rears its head again, we all need to wake up and realise what’s worth fighting for.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Alice in Wonderland

06/06/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Alice in Wonderland is something of a phenomenon, famous more for its cast of extraordinary characters than for its storyline. Anyone who grew up reading English novels (or watching the films based on them) knows the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee. Lewis Carroll’s 1865 creations are an illustrator’s dream; indeed, John Tenniel’s drawings are at least as powerful as the author’s words, and surely party responsible for propelling Alice to stardom. Responsible too, perhaps, for sidelining the protagonist, who slides into insignificance in many adaptations of the work.

And there are many adaptations of the work. I’m almost weary at the thought of seeing another one. I know the story well: I read both books as a child, and have seen countless stage and cinematic versions. I’ve even directed a school production – the Disney Junior one – so I’m well-versed in its lore.

Esteemed Irish theatre company, Blue Raincoat, are well-versed too: this is a revival of their own 1999 production, adapted by Jocelyn Clark. I didn’t see their original, so I can’t compare the two, but I can say that this interpretation is the closest I’ve seen to the novel, with young Alice (Miriam Needham) placed firmly centre-stage, her internal monologue brought to life by her older self (Hilary Bowen-Walsh)’s narration.

This is a shabby, degraded Wonderland, seen through the adult eyes of a jaded Alice. But the bold, frenetic, questing nature of the child is captured perfectly, as is the perplexity of growing up, where one minute she is like a little girl, the next too big for the confines of her world. The people and creatures this Alice meets are (rightly, I think) peripheral: she’s the hero of her own tale; they exist only insofar as they relate to her. Her intelligence and curiosity shine brightly in this production; she demands answers to everything, but is offered nothing satisfactory. Only when she takes charge and asserts herself is she able to wake up from the dream.

With such emphasis on Alice, it’s safe to say that this is an intense piece of theatre, with both Needham and Bowen-Walsh surely pushing themselves to exhaustion. But the supporting cast are strong as well; the portrayal of the Duchess (Sandra O’Malley) is particularly interesting, especially as her baby morphs into a pig.

The set design (by Paul McDonnell) is ingenious: adult Alice’s basement transformed into Wonderland, all broken picture frames and stepladders and old bits of wood, and (of course) a series of different-sized tables used to great effect.

Under  Niall Henry’s frantic, physically-focused direction, this show is something of a tour de force.  Not a new take, exactly, but certainly a refreshing one.

4 stars

Susan Singfield