Month: November 2019

Alex & Eliza

13/11/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Alex & Eliza, written and performed by Umar Butt, is inspired by the true story of his grandparents, who give the play its title. Zubair (Butt) works in a corner shop in Glasgow. Raised a muslim, he obeys the strict rules of his religion in public, but secretly enjoys playing music when he’s alone and even plans to audition for an amateur production of Fame. He also strikes up an unlikely friendship with a troubled alcoholic customer (Danny Charles), who regularly calls to the shop for cigarettes and booze.

When his parents head off to Manchester to attend a muslim convention, Zubair is handed the job of picking up his grandmother, Eliza (Seweryna Dudzińska), at the airport and looking after her for a few days. Zubair is astonished to learn that this enigmatic white woman is also an accomplished musician and, after playing him some traditional tunes on a harmonium, she tells him her story: how she and her Sikh husband, Alex, endured  the harsh rigours of partition in 1946, and how they were obliged to change their religions in order to survive.

There’s no doubting the sincerity of Butt’s story and this works best when we are watching the misadventures of the titular duo, particularly during their desperate attempts to flee India for Pakistan. Other scenes feel somewhat less assured (a couple of lengthy interludes between Zubair and his freewheeling friend feel like an intrusion on the more compelling central story). And, like so many true-life tales, there are elements here that really are stranger than fiction. Eliza’s introduction to the young man who will become her husband is a good case in point. As it stands, it doesn’t entirely convince. Eliza’s father seems to happily hand his daughter over to a complete stranger.

Still, there are many powerful moments throughout the play and the onstage action is augmented by the presence of musician Laura Stutter, who, under the musical direction of Ross Clark, adds evocative flourishes on guitar and keyboards, as well as interracting with the other characters. Dudzińska offers stirring vocals at key moments – she has an extraordinary voice.

At the play’s heartfelt conclusion, Butt is reduced to tears and a quick glance around the audience confirms that he’s not alone.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Doctor Sleep

11/11/19

Stephen King famously disliked Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his 1980 novel, The Shining – so much so that, in the 90s, he scripted a television series with the same name, one which he felt stuck closer to his original concept. (I haven’t seen it but the general opinion seems to be that it was lacklustre.) So it’s odd to see him executive producing this adaptation of the sequel, Doctor Sleep, considering it has a whole section devoted to Kubrick’s vision, complete with convincing lookalikes of Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duval. Go figure.

It’s many years after the events of The Shining and little Danny Torrence has, improbably, grown up to be the dead spit of Ewan McGregor. Now called Dan Torrence (see what he did there?), he’s understandably a troubled soul, addicted to alcohol and cocaine and still haunted  by visions of his time at The Overlook Hotel – indeed, he has regular conversations with the late Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly standing in for Scatman Crothers). Driven to desperate measures, Dan decides he has to change, so he takes off to a new town where nobody knows him, and where he has a chance of starting over. As the months pass, he cleans up his act and eventually takes a job as a hospital orderly, where he soon develops a reputation for easing the passing of dying patients and where he acquires the nickname of Doctor Sleep.

But trouble is coming in the shape of Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and her band of travelling vapour junkies, addicted to murdering anyone with telepathic abilities and inhaling their unique aura in order to keep themselves alive, long past the time when they should be shuffling off to oblivion. When they fix their hungry sights on a talented teenager called Abra (Kyliegh Curran), she reaches out to Dan, who has been a kind of psychic pen-pal of hers for years, asking for his help. He reluctantly answers her call but the desperate struggle to elude these murderous wanderers inevitably leads back to a very familiar location…

Writer/director Mike Flanagan has done something more than the usual cheapie horror adaptation here. He takes his own sweet time to unload the various strands of the story, cross-cutting effortlessly from Dan to Abra to Rose and giving a very real sense of the events unfolding over the years. There are a few eerie moments along the way, but the supposedly scary scenes never connect as solidly as they might. The overall feel is one of unease rather than out-and out terror. Both McGregor and Ferguson submit nuanced performances and Curran has an appealing presence.

The main problem, however, lies in the film’s final act when Dan, Abra and Rose go hotfoot to Colorado for what feels suspiciously like The Overlook’s Greatest Hits.  Flanagan’s team have done an uncanny job of recreating the look of Kubrick’s horror masterpiece, but the internal logic feels decidedly off: there’s never any real justification for them going there in the first place and I find myself asking too many awkward questions of the how, when and where variety as events gallop headlong towards a climactic cosmic punch-up.

It would have been braver, I think, to give us an Overlook that doesn’t already feel way too familiar. As it stands, this decision delivers a fatal wound to the proceedings, making the adventure’s final stretches a bit of an ordeal – and with a hefty running time of two hours and thirty-two minutes, sleep feels, at times, too close for comfort.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Good Liar

10/11/19

The Good Liar is a pacy thriller, set in the unlikely world of silver dating. Helen Mirren is Betty McLeish, a retired Oxford professor, recently widowed and seeking companionship. She meets up with Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen), who, despite appearances, is quickly exposed to the audience as all rogue and no charm – indeed, a thoroughly bad egg. He’s a conman, masterminding sneaky schemes to ensnare gullible businessmen, and keen to relieve Betty of her rather impressive savings.

Before long, Roy has moved in to Betty’s suburban bungalow. This is a platonic arrangement, necessitated by Roy’s supposedly bad knee, which means he can’t climb the stairs to his top-floor apartment. He invites his ‘accountant’ sidekick, Vincent (Jim Carter), to visit, and together they prepare the ground for their great robbery. But Betty isn’t stupid, and she has her grandson, Steven (Russell Tovey), to look out for her…

The plot (based on Nicholas Searle’s novel)  is gripping, and it’s refreshing to see older actors in such meaty roles – and, indeed, to see this kind of dark thriller targeting an older audience. The Good Liar is a long way from the cosy middle-class japes of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; these are complex characters, played with wit and vivacity.

There are some issues. Some of the so-called twists are apparent early on, and the extended flashback sequences are a tad too expositional. The final revelation comes out of the blue, and doesn’t feel like it’s been adequately set up. And I do have a problem with aspects of the film’s worldview, where illness and infirmity are served up as karma, and where the type of house you can afford to buy determines how ‘interesting’ you are.

Still, this is a lively, slick movie, as sprightly as its veteran leads.

3.7 stars

Susan Singfield

The Aeronauts

09/11/19

This ‘inspired by a true story’ film is pitched as a family-friendly affair in the trailer, but actually plays more like a hair-raising tale of (literally) high adventure. It’s based around a genuine hot air balloon ascent made in 1862 by two men, but here, one of the men has been replaced by fictional female balloonist, Amelia Rennes (Felicity Jones). It has to be said that her character is one of the best elements in this production and anyway, women have been callously written out of the history books so often, it’s actually refreshing to witness one actually being written into it.

Meteorologist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) has a burning ambition to venture higher than any man has done before, mainly because he fervently believes it will advance the fledgling science of weather prediction. Glaisher seeks out ‘the widow Rennes,’ a woman still in mourning for her husband, who died in an earlier balloon ascent. He somehow manages to persuade her to be his pilot, though he is quietly appalled by all the carnival razzmatazz she brings to the public launch.

Once up in the air, the film settles into a series of alarming and genuinely vertiginous escapades as the duo battle storms, winds and freezing temperatures. There are some stunning ariel shots and occasional flashbacks to the couple’s respective stories – Glaisher trying to come to terms with the advancing senility that is overtaking his father, Arthur (Tom Courtenay), and Rennes dwelling on that earlier ascent which cost her so dearly. While the action scenes are enough to put me right on the edge of my seat, the flashbacks are rather less successful and I’m particularly disappointed to see brilliant character actors like Anne Reid and Tim McInnery given so little to do.

A couple of questions I can’t help but ponder after seeing this. When balloonists throw stuff out of the gondola in order to ‘lose weight,’ what happens to those unfortunates who happen to be wandering around thousands of feet below them? And, if Glaisher went through such hell advancing the science of weather prediction, why do I find myself walking to the cinema through a rainstorm that completely failed to show up on my weather app?

The Aeronauts is certainly worth seeing, not least for Jones’ delightfully gritty  performance in the lead role. But don’t expect to see the jolly, easygoing film promised by the trailer. This is made of sterner stuff and those who suffer from vertigo might just decide to give this one a wide berth.

3.9 stars

Philip Caveney

Cabaret

06/11/19

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

I think I know Cabaret because I’ve seen the movie. I love the movie. But tonight, at the Festival Theatre, I quickly learn that the stage version is very different. At first I’m disappointed. One of the things I like most about the movie is that it’s a musical where the songs are all supposed to be songs, performed in a club or at a rally. Here, characters sing instead of speaking, break into song to declare their love. In short, it’s a more traditional musical. And, as it goes on, I come to appreciate it.

Cabaret the movie is very much Sally Bowles’ story – and, of course, it’s Liza Minelli’s film. Here, Sally (Kara Lily Hayworth) has to share the limelight with two other leads: Emcee (John Partridge) and Fräulein Schneider (Anita Harris). It’s New Year’s Eve, a breath away from 1931; we’re in Berlin – and American wannabe novelist, Cliff (Charles Hagerty), is seeking inspiration.  At the train station, he meets the charming, erudite Ernst Ludwig (Nick Tizzard), who recommends Fräulein Schneider’s boarding house, and arranges to meet him at the bawdy Kit Kat Club, where English Sally is a dancer. It’s an intoxicating, hedonistic place,  but – even within these walls – the creeping march of Nazism cannot be avoided forever…

The choreography (by Javier de Frutos) is stunning: sexy, vibrant, funny and spectacular. Indeed, in the first act, the big number club scenes almost eclipse the story. Standout routines include the lewdly hilarious Two Ladies and the unsettling Tomorrow Belongs to Me. The orchestra are integrated with the action, on an upper tier, visible when we’re in the Kit Kat Club, but otherwise behind a screen. This works well, implying that they’re employees of the club.

The relationship between Sally and Cliff seems a bit muted, which makes sense, I suppose, as – in this version – she’s only staying with him because she’s lost her job and has nowhere else to go. Of course, he’s gay and she’s not one for commitment, so it was never going to be a forever thing, but I would like to see a bit more spark. Otherwise, Hayworth makes a lovely Sally – all wit and vivacity, with a beautiful singing voice – and Hagerty does a decent job as Cliff.

The storyline between the elderly Fräulein Schneider and her beau, Herr Schulz (James Paterson), is particularly emotive, their tentative steps towards romance thwarted by anti-Semitism. Harris and Paterson are nicely understated in these roles: they show the fortitude of those who’ve learned not to expect much; they’ve already survived one war and lived through hyper-inflation. Their pragmatism is heartbreaking, and provides an interesting counterpoint to both Cliff’s naïve idealism and Sally’s determined ignorance.

The second act is more compelling than the first: by now, we care about the characters, and the Nazi undercurrent is getting stronger. Partridge’s Emcee is getting visibly more edgy, his playfulness takes on a desperate tone. And we watch, horrified, as it all unravels, waiting for the inevitable horror we know must come.

The final scene is awful in the truest sense; it’s a powerful set piece, exemplifying Rufus Norris’ directing prowess. I won’t describe it here, because I think its impact relies on some element of surprise; suffice to say, the applause is accompanied by a sense of unease, the usual whoops and cheers that follow a rumbustious musical take a little while to erupt. And it takes a craftsman to achieve that.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

 

The Exorcist

05/11/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Pah! Who needs to see a bonfire and fireworks in November in Edinburgh? There’s a surfeit in August and at New Year – and The Exorcist is on at the King’s. Yes, The Exorcist. So how can I resist that?

William Peter Blatty’s 1971 schlocky horror story seems quite old-fashioned now, but it’s still pretty compelling. For those who’ve never read the book or seen the film, it’s about a girl called Regan (Susannah Edgley), who – on her twelfth birthday – is possessed by a demon. Her film star mother, Chris (Sophie Ward), is at a loss: what has happened to her sweet daughter? She calls in doctors and psychiatrists, but they make little progress. So Chris appeals to the Catholic church, begging them to arrange an exorcism. Father Merrin (Paul Nicholas) has met Regan’s demon before, and the battle to save her is a brutal one. Pubescent girls are a recurring theme for horror writers, from Snow White (and yes, I contend that is a horror) to Carrie, but Blatty’s depiction of emerging sexuality is the least subtle I know. I’m pleased to report that this adaptation doesn’t shy away from the more blatantly shocking elements, indulging the demon’s potty-mouth and the misuse of Christian imagery. Bravo.

Technically, this production is very good indeed. The lights (by Philip Gladwell) are utilised to excellent effect, blinding the audience during some jump scares, and creating a queasy, uncomfortable atmosphere. Likewise the sound (by Adam Cork), which perpetuates a sense of uneasiness throughout. The special effects are cunningly achieved, and the timing of the voiceovers is impressively precise. This ensures the all-important scare factor, without which this play would die a death.

There are some issues though. The set, although it looks magnificent, seems unnecessarily complicated, with stairs leading up to a bedroom that is clearly beneath them. I like the two-storey idea, and both the stairs and the attic space accommodate important dramatic moments, but the pointless complexity of the lounge and bedroom being on separate floors is both disorientating and distracting.

There are also a few too many characters. In the novel and film versions, this doesn’t feel like a problem, but here, the stage feels cluttered with people who don’t add much to the tale. Both Joseph Wilkins (Father Joe) and Stephen Billington (Dr Strong) perform well, but their presence seems extraneous.

The second act is tighter than the first, maybe because the story is more distilled here, and there’s less of a disconnect between the highly technical production and the hokey dialogue and plot.

Whatever. It’s not perfect. But it’s a genuinely engaging, scary piece of theatre – and that’s not easy to achieve.

3.7 stars

Susan Singfield

Gaucho

Gaucho looks as though it were built primarily to illustrate what the word ‘sleek’ might look like. It’s a combination of dark grey and mirrored surfaces, glitzy lights that hang low over the diners, quiet Latin American music pulsing in the background. It’s early evening in Edinburgh on a particularly dreich night, and we arrive like two half-drowned cats, dripping helplessly onto the carpet. A friendly attendant takes our coats and brings us a couple of tall glasses of Prosecco, which we consume in the upstairs bar, before descending to the dining area. Here, our waiter brings us a tray, where various cuts of meat are laid out for our inspection, so we can properly appreciate the differences between them.

We are brought a plate of bread and some herb butter. The slices of wholemeal are fine but there’s a couple of crunchy white rolls that have a satisfyingly homemade flavour to them, particularly when they’re plastered in that butter.

I start with a potato and salmon salad – the salmon flakey and perfectly poached, surrounded by crispy Ratte potatoes, endives and onion purée, the whole thing drenched in tangy lemon mayo. It’s an excellent start. Susan opts for an Empanada, a dainty pastry parcel filled with sweet corn and mozzarella. This is also nice, though I suspect mine is the more satisfying of the two

Next up, for me it has to be a steak. I choose what the Argentinians call a chorizo, which is just a succulent sirloin, served medium rare and bordered by a strip of juicy crackling. It cuts easily with an ordinary knife (always a good sign) and has a pleasing strip of crispy fat along one edge. I’ve certainly had more impressive steaks than this around Edinburgh, but I make short work of it and have no complaints. It’s accompanied by a side of chips, cooked with the skin on and there’s  a pleasantly spicy pepper sauce. There’s nothing wrong with Susan’s chicken Milanese, topped with a fried egg and garnished with rocket and Parmesan, but it’s perhaps a little too redolent of the deep fat fryer for her taste. 

We both order a side of mac’n’cheese – I know, I know, it doesn’t really go, but we’ve have a crap couple of days and we both feel like being indulgent. These are fairly hearty portions and perfectly nice in their own way, but not quite as spectacular as those offered at The Bruntsfield Chop House, where the sauce is thick and gooey and loaded with cheese. (You don’t order this dish for its health benefits.)

However, when it comes to the puddings, ‘indulgent’ is definitely the word to choose when describing them. My sticky toffee pudding comes with a generous helping of dulce de leche sauce, a dollop of clotted cream and delicious chunks of honeycomb. It’s absolutely mouthwatering. Susan’s salted dulce de leche cheesecake is also a winner, super sweet and so filling, I have to help her with the last couple of spoonfuls. (I’m useful like that).

We’re thoroughly sated and reluctantly head back out into the downpour as full as two ticks. 

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney