Month: January 2020

Heroine

30/01/20

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Heroine is not for the faint hearted and the various trigger-warnings posted around the foyer of The Traverse are not just for show. This powerful one-woman drama, written and performed by Mary Jane Wells, is the true story of Danna Davis, a lesbian who joined the American army in the 1990s – before the infamous ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy was repealed. While stationed in Germany, she was subjected to a horrific rape at the hands of four fellow soldiers, one of whom was her commanding officer. Davis then had to serve alongside the same men in combat situations in Iraq, until eventually, she was badly wounded and discharged from the Army.

Wells’ drama takes the form of a monologue as she recounts the awful attack and then examines the long and arduous fight that came in its aftermath, as Davis struggles to come to turns with what has happened to her. It’s a raw and compelling performance and is made all the more stark when we learn that the situation is distressingly common in the American armed forces (there are 19,000 cases of sexual assault a year), and even has its own official terminology: MST (military sexual trauma).

This is nobody’s idea of a pleasant evening at the theatre – indeed, it’s shocking and brutal, a shaming indictment of the army’s policy – but it’s also an important subject that fully deserves to be exposed and explored. In the era of #MeToo, Davis’s story is finally reaching wider audiences. Heroine, created and developed with help from the King’s and Festival Theatre in Edinburgh is soon to be staged at the John F. Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington DC.

Tonight there’s an after-show discussion which examines the case of a British soldier who after reporting a similar incident, had her allegation summarily dismissed and tragically took her own life. Only the intervention of Emma Norton (lawyer for soldier’s rights firm, Liberty), managed to ensure a proper investigation. The more light that can be directed at such injustice, the more chance we’ll have of ensuring it can be identified and dealt with.

So, do go and watch this harrowing and challenging piece of theatre.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Oor Wullie: The Musical

28/01/20

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Jings and crivvens!

Wullie and I are old acquaintances. He appeared every week in the comics I read as a child back in the 1960s, but he first saw the light of day in 1936 and has endured over the decades, recently clocking up his eightieth anniversary. Last year, his image made millions for charity with the Big Bucket Trail, which featured individually decorated statues of the iconic kid from Auchenshoogle in various locations around Scotland.

This musical, by the same team who brought The Broons to the stage, features  a sprightly and raucous collection of songs in a wide range of styles. The simplicity of the storyline would seem to make it a good fit for a younger audience. Indeed, the kids in the auditorium tonight are clearly enjoying the proceedings (especially when Wullie’s pet mouse, Jeemy, makes an appearance), but the majority of the audience are older people, here to reconnect with something fondly remembered from their childhoods.

Wahid (Eklovey Kashyap) is a teenage boy, born in Scotland to Pakistani parents. He’s having a hard time fitting in, forever being asked if he ‘likes his new home.’ Well-meaning neighbours ask him where he’s really from, while the school bullies enjoy making fun of him at every opportunity. Wahid is Scottish, but somehow, ‘not-Scottish,’ and he’s beginning to struggle with his own identity.

In the school library, he meets up with the mysterious librarian (George Brennan), who gives him an Oor Wullie annual to read, telling him it’s the perfect introduction to ‘being Scottish.’ Wahid is somewhat taken aback when Wullie (Martin Quinn) appears in his bedroom, claiming to be in search of his famous bucket, which has unexpectedly gone missing. Wahid remembers that he saw just such a bucket in the school library, so the two of them set off in search of it.

It isn’t long before Wullie is joined by his gang – Bob (Dan Buckley), Wee Eck (Grant McIntyre), Soapy Soutar (Bailey Newsome) and Primrose (Leah Byrne). They are not surprised to discover that the bucket has been purloined by arch enemy, Basher McKenzie (Leanne Traynor), and the kids enlist their old adversary PC Murdoch (Ann Louise Ross) to help them retrieve it. In the second half, the comic book characters take Wahid into the fictional world of Auchenshoogle, where their clothes transform from black and white into full colour.

Valiant attempts are made to make Wullie more relevant to a modern day audience. There’s a song that features him performing a duet with Alexa, for instance and there’s a nice bit of inclusivity where the cast put on saris and leap about to a bhangra-style tune. PC Murdoch gets an opportunity to strut his stuff to a rock song and there’s some funny interplay between him and an amorous teacher (Irene MacDougall).

If there’s an over-riding problem, however, it’s that the drama fails to generate any genuine sense of peril. Wullie wants his bucket back, but we’re never entirely sure why its so important to him, nor indeed what will happen if he doesn’t get it. The result is never less than knockabout fun, but here’s a musical that doesn’t seem entirely sure about what kind of audience it’s trying to appeal to.

To my mind, it’s surely one for the kids, assuming you can get them away from their phones and tablets for a couple of hours. Wullie has been an enduring character over the decades and there’s no reason why a new generation of youngsters shouldn’t fall for his charms, given half a chance.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Anne Frank: Parallel Stories

27/01/20

It’s Holocaust Memorial Day and watching this documentary seems a fitting way to mark it. Anne Frank would have been ninety this year, had her life not been stolen by a repugnant ideology, had she not been murdered at sixteen because she was Jewish.

She’s just one, of course: a single, accessible representative of the unimaginable six million WWII victims of genocide. But her remarkable diaries provide a powerful insight, humanising those who were dehumanised, her singular narrative a worthy stand-in for those who cannot speak.

In this documentary by Sabina Fideli and Anna Migotto, other voices are added to the mix. We hear from five survivors (Arianna Szörenyi, Sarah Lichtsztejn-Montard, Helga Weiss and sisters Andra and Tatiana Bucci), and their testimonies are heartbreaking. It’s impossible not to cry whilst listening to these dignified, thoughtful old women, all of whom have managed to build good lives for themselves, despite the horrors they endured: taken from their families, imprisoned, starved, brutalised, experimented on. As Nazi atrocities fade from living memory, it’s imperative that we should bear witness to these remaining first-hand narratives, because we cannot afford to forget. This is what happens when the far right ascend to power; this is why we need to be alert.

If the survivors were this film’s main focus, I think its impact would be immense. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of filler too, additional elements that weaken its effect. There’s a young girl, for example (Martina), travelling around Europe, purportedly learning about Anne Frank. But she never gets to speak or respond emotionally to what she discovers. Instead, we get a lot of artful shots of her looking sad with on fleek eyes, posting vapid photo-messages on social media (‘What were you thinking, Anne?’) with a rash of hashtags attached (#emotional). This seems like a terrible waste: we know from Anne’s own diary how intelligent and erudite young people can be; why is Martina reduced to such banality? I can’t work out what we, the audience, are supposed to gain from her presence.

I’m not sure about Helen Mirren either. She’s reading excerpts from the diary, sitting in a mock-up of Anne’s bedroom in the tiny Annexe where she hid for two long years. She reads beautifully – of course she does; she’s Helen Mirren – but I can’t help feeling this section would be stronger if the reader were someone with a closer connection to Anne Frank and the Holocaust.

Nevertheless, for the survivors’ stories alone, this is a must-see. Because their stories really matter. As one of the marvellous youngsters featured in the opening sequence makes clear: we need to be open to refugees, to people fleeing fear and oppression. Because every time we turn our backs or close our doors, another Anne Frank is condemned to die, and we reveal just how little we have learned.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Present Laughter: NT Live

26/01/20

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s hard to believe that National Theatre Live is already celebrating its 10th anniversary. This brilliant initiative, which makes the very best theatrical productions accessible to a much wider audience than they could ever reach on the stage, has been a resounding success. Like many people, we usually view them at the cinema – but there’s something very fitting about seeing this West End winner on the big screen at the Festival Theatre.

The play invites us to witness a few turbulent days in the life of highly successful actor, Garry Essendine (Andrew Scott). Recently turned forty and about to embark on a prestigious tour of Africa, Gary is suffering something of a mid-life crisis and, at the play’s opening, wakes up after a night of drunken debauchery to discover that he has slept with ingenue Daphne Stillington (Kitty Archer). Unfortunately, she is still hanging around his swish apartment, hoping for breakfast and that meaningful relationship he promised her last night.

Her presence is tolerated with little more than a raised eyebrow by Garry’s long-suffering assistant, Monica (Sophie Thompson), and by his ex wife, Liz (Indira Varma), who has long ago abandoned her personal feelings in favour of managing and protecting the Garry Essendine ‘brand.’ Both women know that such indiscretions are parr for the course.

But further complications rear their heads when Garry’s married business associate, Morris (Abdul Salis) confesses to having an affair with Joe (Enzo Cilenti), and it isn’t long before the self-same Joe has arrived at the apartment and is making flirtatious advances to Garry.

Coward fans will know that in the original play, Joe was Joanna, but this gender-swap is an astute move on the part of director, Matthew Warchus, reminding us that Coward was a closeted gay man at a time when such inclinations could never be expressed onstage. As the tempo steadily rises, and the play careers like an out-of-control vehicle from one frenetic scene to the next, it’s no surprise to hear the complaint, ‘I feel like a character in a French farce.’

The actors are all pretty much note-perfect: Luke Thallon is particularly assured as a sycophantic fan prepared to move heaven and earth to be near his idol, while Sophie Thompson is an absolute delight as Monica, enmeshed in a love-hate relationship with her employer and sometimes in danger of veering towards the former. But make no mistake, this show belongs to Scott and his undeniable talent. His embodiment of the vain, childish and self-obsessed Garry Essendine is an absolute comic tour de force. I’ve seen plenty of Noel Coward plays over the years but I’ve never laughed as uproariously as I do at this one.

I think he’d be thoroughly delighted by this version, though, which is fresh and vivacious enough to make me think that I’d like to see more of The Master’s plays reimagined for our times.

There are more top flight theatrical productions scheduled to view at the Festival Theatre. Why not treat yourself?

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

L’Escargot Blanc

25/01/20

Queensferry Street, Edinburgh

Edinburgh boasts so many good restaurants it’s sometimes hard to know where to try next. So recommendations are always useful and L’Escargot Blanc has recently been mentioned by top Scottish chef, Tom Kitchin, in a roundup of his favourite places to eat. So, here we are on a busy Saturday night, suited and booted and ready to dine.

Fred Berkmiller’s restaurant is located at the top of a steep flight of stairs, above his wine bar, Bar À Vin. When we arrive, the restaurant is already bustling with eager customers and it’s clear that it has many fans. Waiters hurry back and forth, talking French to each other, which somehow adds to the atmosphere. We find ourselves seated by the window, sipping the first glass from a bottle of Domains Des Lauriers and enjoying the amuse bouche that’s promptly put in front of us, a couple of slices of crispy bread, topped with garlicky goat’s cheese mousse.

We peruse the menu. It would help the review, of course, if we each wanted something different for a starter, but we soon discover that we’re both fixated on the Soupe de Poisson and neither of us is willing to budge on the matter. Ah well, c’est la vie.

The soup  arrives in double quick time, a hearty portion, accompanied by crispy croutons which we are invited to cover with rouille and grated Comté cheese and float on the surface of the soup. This is richly flavoured, satisfying and exactly the kind of fish soup you’ll find in those little cafés scattered across the South of France, only there, they are accompanied by better weather conditions. Still, it’s a promising start.

Susan’s main course is camembert en gratin, and it’s clear by now that the style of this place is one of rustic simplicity, rather than haute cuisine. There’s a huge wedge of oven cooked cheese, with chunks of potato and mushrooms scattered across it and an accompanying bowl of green salad. It’s good, but the dish lacks finesse and it’s probably worth mentioning that this appears to be the only vegetarian main course available.

I have opted for le lapin à la moutarde, which arrives in its own cast iron dish, bubbling enticingly and aromatically. (Non-carnivores should look away now.) The dish comprises a slow-baked organic rabbit in a strong Dijon mustard sauce, accompanied by red and white potatoes and button mushrooms. The waiter brings me chunks of wholemeal bread, which he tells me I’ll need to mop up the sauce and he’s absolutely right on that score. This is a stunning dish, quite possibly the nicest rabbit I’ve eaten outside of France and certainly the star of the show tonight. It’s a cliché to say that the meat just falls off the bone, but I do wonder why I’ve been issued with a sharp, serrated knife, when a gentle prod with a fork does the job perfectly.

Is there room for pudding? Mais oui! But we’ll certainly skip that cheese course we’ve been planning – blame it on the hearty portions!

Once again, we’ve both taken a shine to the same thing, the chef’s special which is a pear far Breton, a lovely custardy flan, sprinkled with fresh almonds and served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It’s nicely done, even if it lacks that certain wow factor that makes the best puddings stand out from the crowd.

Overall, this has been a very enjoyable meal, though it would be nice to see a few more vegetarian options on the menu. Lovers of lapin, this is something you really need to sample!

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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Pride & Prejudice* (*Sort Of)

24/01/20

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

I’m enjoying the current flush of period drama adaptations on both stage and screen: Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, Zinnie Harris’s The Duchess (Of Malfi). The staid and starchy interpretations I remember from my youth are long gone. Now there’s verve, vigour and a sense of fun, an assertion of the protagonists’ youth and the authors’ humour, a sharp incision that takes us to the beating heart of classic texts.

And Jane Austen is especially funny, isn’t she? (I come to this version as, if not quite a Janeite, then at least a fan of her writing.) It’s easy to lose sight of how bitingly satirical she was because her sarcasm is couched in antiquated politenesses, her characters’ bound by alien social mores. Here, writer Isobel McArthur strips away these obstacles to modern understanding, offering us a cast of refreshingly familiar wine-quaffing, lustful young women, whose potty-mouths are endearing and hilarious. Hurrah! These are people we can recognise and revel with, whose broken hearts and thwarted ambitions we can really care about.

It’s Pride & Prejudice through and through; we don’t really need the ‘sort of’ to qualify anything; the changes here are only superficial. The story is intact: the five Bennett girls and their parents are hostages to a dodgy will that determines only a man can inherit their father’s home and (modest) fortune. If he dies, the women will be destitute. No wonder Mrs Bennett is desperate to see her daughters married: their very livelihoods depend on it. No wonder either that a rich man is preferred; if he has a good income, he can take care of all of them. A shame, then, that they live in Meryton, where eligible bachelors are few and far between, and that firebrand Lizzie (Meghan Tyler) is so choosy about who she’ll shack up with. Until she meets the enigmatic Darcy (Isobel McArthur), and their love-hate relationship begins…

Directed by Paul Brotherston, Pride & Prejudice* (*Sort Of) is a glorious, riotous romp of a play, a bawdy, feminist iteration of the tale. The deployment of a karaoke machine is inspired, a perfect reimagining of the piano and singing performances required of young ladies in Austen’s time. The six-strong cast are all magnificent, but the standout moments belong to Hannah Jarrett-Scott, who switches effortlessly between a Tim-Nice-But-Dim-style Bingley and a tragic, lovelorn Charlotte Lucas. McArthur’s repressed, inarticulate Darcy is also a sheer delight, and props too to Mr Bennett, performed by a backward-facing armchair and an ever-present newspaper.

The only false note for me is the servant girl conceit. At the play’s opening, we’re introduced to the domestic help, reminded of their presence in the novels, told of how they are ignored. From thereon in, what we’re witnessing is supposed to be their play-acting, their impersonations of their employers, their interpretation of the landed gentry’s world. But we don’t learn anything about them, nor about their opinions, their deprivations, their own hopes and dreams. We just get Austen’s story; the working class is still ignored.

Still, it doesn’t detract too much. This is a sprightly, engaging, laugh-out-loud piece of theatre, richly deserving of tonight’s standing ovation.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

The Personal History of David Copperfield

21/01/20

I arrive at the cinema expecting great things. The trailer for Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield promises a rollicking ride through one of Dickens’ best loved tales, and I’m excited to see how it unfolds.

The promise is kept: it is a rollicking ride. A bit too rollicking, if I’m honest, careening  through the 350,000 word novel at breakneck speed. Well, it’s a lot to fit into two hours. There’s nothing here I’d lose – no padding or filler required – but I’d be tempted to add an extra thirty minutes to the running time, just to give the story space to breathe.

Dev Patel is the eponymous hero of his own life, and very good he is too, all genial affability despite his social-climbing and urgent need to impress. Born a gentleman, he’s forced into poverty when his widowed mother remarries, and his stepfather (Darren Boyd) takes against the boy. Young David is not too worried at first: the poverty he’s witnessed so far – visiting Peggotty’s quirky, loving family in their upturned boat/house – has given him a romanticised impression of the working person’s lot. A back-breaking job in a bottle factory soon disabuses him of this worldview, and he determines to find a way to live a better life.

Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie form a show-stealing double-act as David’s aunt Betsey Trotwood and her cousin Mr Dick respectively; in fact, there are almost too many perfectly-captured vignettes featuring too many wonderful actors. There’s Anna Maxwell Martin playing school mistress Mrs Strong – whoosh! There’s Benedict Wong as the ever-thirsty Mr Wickfield, and Rosalind Eleazar as his daughter, Agnes – whoosh! Daisy May Cooper’s Peggotty is warmly, wittily portrayed; Morfydd Clark’s Dora Spenlow a frothy, silly delight. I do like the sense of breathless chaos: the lack of deference to period drama genre-norms; the diverse casting that proves it can (and should) be done. There’s just no time to focus in on anything before it’s gone.

In short, each scene is beautifully rendered; each character cleverly drawn. But the story feels a little superficial, with none of the darkness or political poignancy of Dickens’ semi-autobiographical novel.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield