Month: October 2019

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

 

21/10/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Frankenstein is an integral part of our cultural landscape, its imagery known to all, even those who’ve never read the book or seen a movie version of the tale. I love it, but it’s been adapted and interpreted so many times that I’m almost reluctant to see it again. What else is there to say? Playwright Rona Munro had the same misgivings: ‘What version of Frankenstein hadn’t I seen already?’

Her conclusion – a version that places a punky teenage Shelley (Eilidh Loan) on stage with her creations – is inspired, extending the duality so central to the novel. For who is Mary if not Victor Frankenstein (Ben Castle-Gibb)? Is she not the creature’s maker, alongside the young scientist? All the hubris Frankenstein displays (the frenetic, obsession with his work; the rejection of accepted norms; the willingness to unleash horror to realise his dreams) is Mary’s conceit too. And if the monster (Michael Moreland) represents the darkness in the doctor’s soul, he surely also embodies the destructive nature of the writer who conceived them both.

In a weird way, the horror is both negated and amplified by Shelley’s presence: we always know it’s a fiction, each death or salvation dependent on a scribble from a pencil pulled impatiently from the writer’s hair – and yet, as we’re reminded, this monster really lives; he is immortal, long outlasting both of his creators.

Becky Minto’s design is gorgeously stylised, all stark and glacial, with bare white roots and branches used to hint at wires, hearts and veins. The monotone costumes add to the abstraction; there’s a suggestion of the period, but no attempt at naturalistic portrayal. Patricia Benecke’s direction makes clear that this is an exploration of the novel’s heart, not a faithful retelling of the story as it stands.

Occasionally it feels a little rushed; the scene where the creature meets the old man (Greg Powrie) suffers particularly in this respect. And Natalie McCleary (who plays Elizabeth) feels a little under-used: she has a strong stage presence and her character could easily be given more to do. The only other issue for me is the excessive use of dry ice. It’s one thing to create a misty, creepy atmosphere, but come on… It’s October; half of the audience are struggling with colds. It doesn’t seem sensible to tickle our throats to this extent.

Despite these minor niggles, I’m really impressed by this play. Munro’s quirky adaptation exposes and illuminates ideas I hadn’t thought of in a story I thought I knew too well.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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Official Secrets

20/10/19

Official Secrets is based on a true story; the fact that it’s one of the most shameful events in our recent history makes it worth seeing, even if the film itself doesn’t quite match up to Keira Knightley’s sterling performance in the central role.

She plays Katharine Gun, a translator at GCHQ in Cheltenham, a British intelligence agency. She’s paid to snoop on emails and recorded phone calls, in order to seek out those individuals who might represent a danger to the people of Great Britain – but what she stumbles upon emanates from a close ally and fills her with dismay.

It’s 2003 and the western world is moving ever closer to armed conflict with Iraq. Katharine spots an email from somebody called Frank Koza of the American-based National Security Agency, who is masterminding a (clearly illegal) plan to bug the offices of the United Nations in order to put pressure on politicians, ‘encouraging’ them to vote for an invasion of Iraq. Appalled by the thought of so many people dying in the ensuing conflict, Katharine secretly makes a copy of the email and passes it on to an anti-war activist she knows. The email eventually finds its way into the hands of Observer journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith), who publishes the piece. But when MI6 come looking for the whistleblower, it’s soon apparent that Katherine has put herself – and her Muslim husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri) – in terrible jeopardy.

The central message of Gavin Hood’s film is all too evident. We cannot trust the institutions that purport to have our best intentions at heart; too many of them are ready to cover up their dodgy deals by any means possible and throw to the wolves all who oppose them.

As I said, Knightley gives a remarkable performance here, but the bitty screenplay means that a whole procession of top-notch character actors are reduced to what amount to little more than cameo appearances. It says something when Ralph Fiennes, playing Kathrine’s defence lawyer, Ben Emerson, has little to do other than stand on a beach gazing mournfully at his fishing rod; throw in fleeting appearances from the likes of Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode and Tamsin Greig to name but three, and it’s clear that something is amiss.

Furthermore, the rather dry nature of the ensuing events occasionally prompts the writers to sex things up a little: it seems unlikely, for instance, that Yasar would have come quite so close to deportation as is depicted here – but nevertheless, this is an important story, one that should serve as a warning to anyone who believes in the sanctity of democracy. As the film points out, thousands of innocent people died because of the conflict in Iraq – a war that is now widely seen as an illegal violation of human rights. Katharine Gun was trying, in her own way, to prevent it from happening.

Tony Blair is not going to like what’s depicted here – and his is not the only political name that’s given a thorough kicking. Furthermore, recent developments in Syria make this all too prescient.

3.9 stars

Philip Caveney

El Camino

18/10/19

Billed as ‘a Breaking Bad Movie,’ this Netflix orginal plays more like an extended episode of the much-loved television series, but that’s no bad thing. There are some loose ends that need tying up and writer/director Vince Gilligan gives it his best shot here. The titular vehicle is, of course, the one in which Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) finally makes his escape from the evil Nazi villains who have kept him locked up for so long.

Immediately, there are a few problems. The actors have clearly aged considerably more than the few minutes that are supposed to have elapsed since we last saw the characters. This is particularly evident in the case of Todd (Jesse Plemons), who now has an entirely different physique. However, once this abberation has been taken on board, the film motors along at full throttle, as Jesse sets about trying to engineer his disappearance off the face of the planet.

His first port of call is with old comrades, Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), the latter delivering what is probably the film’s most poignant line. As Jesse struggles to put together enough money to fund his disappearing act, the narrative becomes ever more convoluted, ever more dangerous – and there are regular flashbacks that allow deceased characters to make cameo appearances. Some fare better than others, and its a shame to note that the one we wanted to see more than any other, doesn’t really have an awful lot to add to the story. And fans of Better Call Saul are, I’m afraid, set for disappointment.

Gilligan’s familiar tropes are here: the big skies and sun-blasted landscapes of Alburquerque; the focus on the endearing oddities of the characters; the idiosyncratic dialogue. Despite his changed appearance, it’s Plemons who shines most as the psycopathic Todd, never more interesting than when he’s at the wheel of his car, singing serenely along to a slushy ballad while he transports the body of his latest victim to its last resting place. Sad too, to note the final performance from the recently deceased Robert Forster as the mysterious Ed.

This keeps me engaged right through to its tender and rather touching conclusion but, while it serves as a decent curtain-closer to the series, it doesn’t exactly blow me away. Perhaps too much time has elapsed since I last engaged with Mr Pinkman and co – or maybe those loose ends just don’t offer enough knots to unravel.

3.9 stars

Philip Caveney

The Stornoway Way

12/10/19

Studio Theatre, Edinburgh

Adapted by Kevin MacNeil from his 2005 novel, The Stornoway Way is the story of Roman (Naomi Stirrat), a would-be singer-songwriter living on the remote Isle of Lewis. Roman dreams of making the big time, but can’t seem to prise himself away from the whisky bottle long enough to put any constructive plans into action.

When his best friend Eilidh (Rachel Kennedy) offers to fund a trip to Edinburgh so Roman can spend time in a recording studio, he happily goes along with the scheme – but then he meets Hungarian student, Eva (Chloe-Ann Taylor), in an Edinburgh bar, and things become more complicated. And the whisky bottle is still exerting its tenacious pull.

The three actors put in spirited performances here but are hampered by a script that never manages to rise above the inescapable fact that the central character is a self-pitying wreck of a man. It’s usual in such stories to expect a little redemption along the way, but it’s in short supply here.

Still. it’s not all bad news.

There are pleasing elements: the folky songs featuring Gaelic lyrics (with an onscreen English translation) give proceedings an occasional lift, and the sly quips exchanged by the Lewis islanders in the first half elicit knowing laughter from the audience. Matthew Zajac’s direction is nicely done and there’s a handsome set courtesy of Ali Maclaurin. But it’s puzzling that, despite its title, most of the story unfolds not on the Isle of Lewis, but in Edinburgh. And in the second half, Roman’s relentless journey towards self-destruction begins to pall.

I’ve no doubt that the novel, written from the lead character’s cynical point of view, works a good deal more successfully than this rather scattershot adaptation. And, no matter how spirited a performance Stirrat gives us, she cannot convince me that anybody would offer this toxic male the time of day.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Love Song to Lavender Menace

12/10/19

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Love Song to Lavender Menace is a charming piece of metatheatre: an homage to a book shop disguised as… an homage to a book shop. Not just any old book shop, mind. This is Lavender Menace, the iconic gay/lesbian/feminist book shop that served Edinburgh’s queer community for five years in the ’80s.

Lewis (Pierce Reid) and Glen (Matthew McVarish) are packing up; the shop as they know it is going; it’s being renamed and relocated – and Lewis too is moving on. He’s sad and anxious, so focuses his attention on rehearsing the performance he and Glen have prepared as a parting gift for owners Bob and Sigrid, telling the story of the store and what it’s meant to so many marginalised people. The quirky direction by Ros Philips sees Lewis playing Sigrid ‘as a statue’ – arms aloft – and Glen being inventive with a roll of parcel tape.

The set is delightful: all chalkboard bookshelves backlit with blank white spines. It’s both playful and uncluttered, suggestive of a place where people can write their own lives.

It’s a funny, poignant play, and it’s no surprise to see a packed auditorium as it returns to the Lyceum, this time on the main stage. Playwright James Ley’s affection for Lavender Menace and what it represents shines through in every scene, evoking a sense of nostalgia even for those of us who were never there. For those who were, this must be a powerful draw indeed.

Cleverly, despite the claustrophobic lens through which we view this intimate memoir, we are offered a wider perspective, as Sigrid Nielson’s voice emanates from a cassette deck, ethereal and portentous. It gets better, then it gets worse, she says. Then better, then worse, then better again. We’re reminded of how bad things can be: of Clause 28 and gay-bashing, of the incendiary homophobic rhetoric that prevailed in the ’80s.

Nevertheless, the disturbing backdrop notwithstanding, this is not a tragic tale. It is a buoyant, vibrant celebration of a sanctuary, of a radical space in a conservative city.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Things I Know to be True

09/10/19

Bedlam Theatre, Edinburgh

This thoughtful and bitter-sweet play by Andrew Bovell is all about family: the everyday sacrifices made by parents, and the difficulties experienced by their offspring when they try to escape those powerful familial ties.

Rosie Price (Maddy Chisholm-Scott) is midway through a backpacking tour of Europe, when something goes horribly wrong in Berlin. Devastated, she heads back to Australia, to 25, Windarie Avenue, the family home. Here, Bob (Matthew Storey) presides over his immaculately tended rose garden, where he’s spent all his time since taking early retirement. His wife, Fran (Amelia Watson), continues to put in long and punishing shifts at the local hospital, where she is a nurse.

Rosie’s early return from her travels brings her siblings to the house to ask a few difficult questions – though it soon becomes apparent that they all have their own problems to deal with.  There’s Pip (Erin Bushe), currently going through a messy separation from her husband and children. There’s Ben (Liam Bradbury), desperately trying to make his name in the cut-throat world of big business, and there’s Mark (Matthew Sedman), who is contemplating a life change that will have repercussions for the whole family.

This is an accomplished piece from these student actors, with Story and Watson managing – with the aid of some expertly applied makeup – to convince us that they’re actually a couple in their 60s. The direction by Marie Rimolsronning and Alice Foley is assured, and the elaborate set works well, creating a sense of the seasons passing as the various story strands unravel. If the play’s first half feels a little overlong and would benefit from some judicious pruning, the second half is leaner and more powerful.

There’s only one notable misstep, where Mark is obliged to deliver some lines from ‘up a tree.’ Somewhat let down by the scale of the props, he looks like a comical giant, so that the gravity of the scene is compromised. It would work so much better if he were to remain grounded!

There’s a tragic and genuinely heartbreaking conclusion: it’s this climactic moment, where Bob’s seemingly indominatable composure is finally and irrevocably shattered, that lingers in the memory.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

On Your Feet

 

07/10/19

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

On Your Feet is the story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, following the well-trodden path of using bands’ back catalogues to create a musical. Unlike its precedessors however, Miami Sound Machine’s greatest hits are not playfully shoe-horned into a corny piece of fiction; instead they’re used to illustrate the band’s history.

It’s partially successful. There’s no denying the rousing nature of the music: the feel-good, toe-tapping, hip-swinging joy of it. This is an extravaganza of a show, with dazzling costumes (by Emilio Sosa), fizzing dance routines and a sense of well-earned pride in what the Estefans achieved. There’s a buzz in the auditorium; people are excited to be here, enjoying themselves.

Their history is interesting: as Cuban immigrants living in Miami, Gloria and Emilio struggled to break into the American music scene, despite their huge success in South America. But their fusion-tunes made a lot of sense, reflecting both their heritage and their assimilation. Their dedication to proving there was an appetite for ‘cross-over’ music is heartening to see realised.

The storytelling is somewhat artless though – surprisingly so from Alexander Dinelaris, the writer of Birdman – a chocolate-box depiction of the band’s rise to fame. The dialogue is clunkily expository in places, and perhaps there’s not quite enough plot. Gloria’s near-fatal traffic accident in the second act is supposed to provide the jeopardy, I suppose, but – as told here – it doesn’t have enough dramatic resonance, and the self-congratulatory tone of her recovery is truly cringe-inducing. Do we really need to have sycophantic fan letters read (and sung) aloud to us?

Still, there are some gutsy performances here tonight, not least from Philippa Stefani as Gloria. The ensemble work is beautifully choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, and the on-stage musicians are  seriously good.

We head out into the night singing and smiling – and that really can’t be bad. In the end the rhythm gets us.

3.5 stars

Susan Singfield