Month: February 2020

True History of the Kelly Gang

28/02/20

True confession. When I was a much younger man, I was obsessed with the story of Ned Kelly. I read several accounts of his exploits, which gripped my imagination and, in 1970, saw Tony Richardson’s underrated biopic, which – once I got used to Mick Jagger’s alarming ‘Oirish’ accent – had me fully onboard. I even watched Heath Ledger’s fairly forgettable attempt to embody Australia’s best known folk hero in 2003. What is it about the infamous outlaw that continues to exert such a powerful hold?

In True History of the Kelly Gang (loosely based on Peter Carey’s Booker-winning novel, which I’ve also read), director Justin Kurzel doesn’t so much reinvent Kelly’s history as place a bomb under all that we know about the man and blow it to smithereens.

To give him his due, the resulting film, which is neatly divided into three chapters, is for the most part gripping. We open in the 1860s, where a young Ned (Orlando Schwert) is living in the outback in absolute squalor. He’s in thrall to his manipulative mother, Ellen (Essie Davis), who is turning tricks for the local constabulary in the shape of Sgt O’ Neil (Charlie Hunnam) in order to put food into the mouths of her children. Ned soon finds himself apprenticed to the outwardly charming bush ranger, Harry Power (an excellent Russell Crowe), and is schooled in the ways of the outlaw and the doctrines of toxic masculinity.

In the second section, the adult Ned (George Mckay) returns from a long spell in prison to find his mother still ruling the roost and living with a Californian horse thief, who has enlisted Ned’s brother into his trade. During a visit to the local brothel, Ned meets up with Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult) and with Mary Hearn (an underused Thomasin McKenzie), with whom he promptly falls in love. This second section is already starting to feel rather strange. Ned appears to be dressed in suspiciously contemporary style: he sports a dodgy mullet and has a predilection for writhing around half naked, like an embryonic Iggy Pop. Kurzel seems to be invoking parallels with the British punk rock movement here and images of Kelly looking suitably aggressive in front of a Union Jack reinforce this notion. Still, so far, the conceit works brilliantly.

It’s in the third section where everything becomes spectacularly unhinged. Kelly’s sudden descent into apparent madness overwhelms the material. The Kelly gang run around in dresses – seemingly a reference to groups of Irish agrarian rebels, known as The Sons of Sieve. They blacken their faces, enlist followers and launch an ill conceived attempt to attack a train full of police officers. The famous suits of armour (always, I think, the most fascinating aspect of Kelly’s story) barely get a look in. Mayhem descends but, unfortunately, so does bewilderment.

In the end, it all feels too self-consciously weird – and apparent luminosity of the ranks of police officers, appearing in the climactic gun battle, is just too opaque for comfort. While I applaud Kurzel for having the guts to take on such a revered Australian institution in so fearless a manner, I have to conclude that this feels like a bold experiment that doesn’t quite work.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney 

The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff

27/02/20

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The Young ‘Uns are a curiously named trio of singers, three middle-aged guys in plain shirts and jeans, who amble amiably onto the stage and explain that they first acquired their name many years’ ago, when they really were the youngest members of a Teeside folk club. Then they start to sing in glorious three part harmony and it’s easy to see why Sean Cooney, David Eagle and Michael Hughes have already won three prestigious folk awards. The sound they make together is sublime.

But who is Johnny Longstaff, you may ask? He was a teenager from Stockton-on-Tees who, back in the 1930s, found himself unemployed and hungry. Along with thousands of others, he took part  in the infamous hunger marches to London,  protesting the plight of the Northern working classes. Later, he participated in the Mass Trespass movement and the battle of Cable Street, where he and his friends violently opposed the marches of Oswald Mosely’s Brown Shirts. And later still, he was one of the many who volunteered to fight Franco in the Spanish Civil War only to find, after Franco’s eventual victory, that their very existence had been erased from history. It’s a memorable story even without the music.

We hear testimony from the man himself via a series of recordings he made when he was in his sixties – and his recollections are punctuated by pieces from the trio ranging from stirring marching songs, to rambunctious drinking ditties and melancholic melodies. As they perform, a series of carefully chosen images appear on the screens behind them. A particular high point for me is the plaintive ballad that unfolds as an old photograph of Longstaff and his comrades gradually filters onto the screen. As the image finally comes onto focus, there’s the chilling realisation of how young the protagonists of this story actually were – and of the horrors they endured in the name of freedom.

This is more than just a folk concert. It’s a powerful slice of gig theatre, that deserves attention from a wider audience than just the folk purists – and judging by the packed crows at the Traverse, it appears to be reaching one. The Young ‘Uns are only around for a couple of days before they march triumphantly on to Hull and Liverpool. Grab some tickets if you can get them.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Importance of Being Earnest

26/02/20

Bedlam Theatre, Edinburgh

We’re a little late to this because of conflicting dates in our calendar and, it must be said, that in the depths of a very chill February, Bedlam Theatre is not a venue for the faint-hearted. But, suitably wrapped up in layers of winter clothing, we soon discover that this is a production worth braving the elements for.

The Importance of Being Earnest is probably Oscar Wilde’s funniest play. It’s certainly his most quotable effort, fairly bristling with those witty, erudite one-liners that he’s justifiably acclaimed for. It marked the climax of his career – at the opening night in 1895, Wilde was presented with that infamous bouquet by the Marquess of Queensberry, and the rest is tragedy.

The play is, of course, mostly about the titular character, who is Jack in the city and Ernest in the country, largely because he’s an orphan who was discovered, as a baby, in the left luggage department of Victoria station. In a handbag. (A handbag?). He’s played here by Gordon Stackhouse, with just the right amount of angel-faced insouciance, delivering a deadpan double-act with his best friend, Algernon (Fergus Head – last seen by B&B in the thought-provoking, Education, Education, Education).

Ernest/Jack is wildly in love with Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolyn (Aine Higgins), but must first convince her overbearing mother, Lady Bracknell (Ishbell McLachlan), that he has what it takes to be a suitable husband. Lady B is, of course, a gift for any actor and McLachlan makes the most of the opportunity, firing on all cylinders and portraying her as magnificently awful, with a voice that could stop a runaway ox in its stride.

Algernon meanwhile (who is also pretending to be Ernest – don’t ask) takes one look at Jack’s young ward, Cecily (Georgie Carey), and proposes marriage to her. How the ensuing complications are untangled is the stuff of wild(e) farce, and this jaunty three-act play virtually rockets along, coaxing much laughter from the audience along the way. It’s a student production, so the props are on the rickety side, but they’ve done wonders with what they’ve got (somebody please give these people a bigger budget!). I’m onside from the opening salvo of Smiths/Pulp/Beastie Boys tracks that precede the first act. A final scene where the cast dance gleefully along to Primal Scream’s Rocks is frankly an inspired touch.

I think Oscar would have approved.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Dial M For Murder

24/02/20

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

For a playwright who purportedly ‘hated writing,’ Frederick Knott has certainly had a lasting impact. True, he didn’t write a lot but his 1951 stage thriller, Dial M For Murder, is still packing in the punters almost seventy years after its creation, and is a classic of its kind.

Predictably, the King’s Theatre is full tonight; this one is almost guaranteed to be a crowd-pleaser. But it’s subtly done: Anthony Banks’ direction avoids the arch high-campery that’s all-too pervasive in period crime dramas these days. Sure, he embraces (and even highlights) the nonsensical aspects of the plot, but not at the expense of credible characters.

Still, there’s no getting away from it: this is a schlocky tale of murder and intrigue. Beautiful heriress, Margot (Sally Bretton), has been having an affair with dashing young writer, Max (Michael Salami), and has worked hard to keep her tennis-player husband, Tony (Tom Chambers), in the dark. She has no intention of leaving her marriage, and thinks she can keep everyone happy. But Tony is onto her, and has a yearning for revenge… His plan is cunning and convoluted; can he contrive the outcome he desires?

The four-strong cast (Christopher Harper, dual-roling as Captain Lesgate and Inspector Hubbard, completes the quad) deliver slick, believable performances, even managing to sustain my interest in the overly-expositional opening half hour. After that, things become more action-packed, and we’re less reliant on hearing the detailed back story.

I really like the bold lighting and sound design (by Lizzie Powell and Ben and Max Ringham respectively), which works especially well in the scene transitions. The passing of time following the fateful incident at the core of the play is beautifully evoked, and the use of The Beatles’  Tomorrow Never Knows is perfect here.

So yes, Dial M For Murder is a well-worn piece, and it won’t win any innovation prizes in 2020. But it’s a classic for a reason, and this production does it proud.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

The Call of the Wild

23/02/20

Jack London’s 1903 novel, The Call of the Wild is a classic adventure story – though I suspect it’s much better known in America than it is here in the UK. It’s been filmed several times over the years, but what makes Chris Sanders’ 2020 version different from its predecessors is that all the canines featured here are CGI creations. (At least there’s no need for a ‘no animals were harmed in the making of this film’ caption.) For the most part, you wouldn’t know it if you hadn’t been told, but there are ocasional moments when something doesn’t look quite right, usually when the filmmaker’s desire to anthropomorphise his doggy cast slightly oversteps the mark.

It’s 1897 and Buck, a St Bernard/Collie cross, is the beloved pet of a California-based judge. Buck is adorable but extremely clumsy, always managing to leave a trail of devastation in his wake. It’s therefore hard to believe that his owner sheds too many tears when Buck is dog-napped and sent to Alaska, where the gold rush has created a lively market for his sort.

Initially Buck becomes a member of a sled team, taking the mail to far flung parts of the Yukon, under the command of the kindly Perrault (Omar Sy) and Françoise (Cara Gee). But a dog’s fortunes can change and he soon finds himself owned by the cruel, dastardly, gold-obsessed Hal (Dan Stevens), and  – later on – by the (much nicer) John Thornton (Harrison Ford), who has come out to the wilderness after a family tragedy.

It’s all handsomely mounted with sweeping landscapes and big skies and you’ll probably  find yourself pining for the wide open spaces and the Northern Lights. The story however, is somewhat fitful, most exciting in its earlier stretches (a sequence where the mail sled has to outrun an avalanche is so thrilling that it unbalances the movie somewhat). Later on, the tale becomes decidedly more somnolent as Thornton seeks solace in drink and Buck acts as his canine conscience. Those familiar with the novel will know that, through the last act, Buck is increasingly impelled to interract with the local timber wolves. This final stretch has, for understandable reasons, been changed somewhat from the original tale, but – as a result – feels a little too foreshadowed for comfort.

Niggles aside, this is a thoroughly decent adaptation, particularly suitable for younger viewers, though I can’t see it dragging too many of them away from the comic book franchises which still hold sway over their affections. Lovers of the orginal novel will, I’m sure, feel that Jack London’s brainchild has been treated with the respect it deserves.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Greed

22/02/20

Steve Coogan’s regular collaborations with director Michael Winterbottom always yield interesting results. There’s the iconic 24 Hour Party People, the various iterations of The Trip, the splendidly labyrinthine A Cock and Bull Story – but none of these can quite prepare a viewer for the caustic evisceration of venture capitalism that is Greed. The film isn’t subtle in its approach; on the contrary, it goes in with all guns blazing and neatly obliterates its chosen targets.

Coogan plays Sir Richard ‘Greedy’ McCreadie, a man who has positioned himself as a major player in the fashion industry, mostly by virtue of being meaner and crueller than the competition. As he approaches his sixtieth birthday, he finds his image smeared by bad publicity, so he decides to throw a Gladiator-themed birthday bash on the Greek island of Mykonos. He invites his ex-wife – and titular head of his company – Samantha (Isla Fisher), his new partner (Shanina Shaik), his aged mother (Shirley Henderson), his son, Finn (Asa Butterfield), and a whole host of VIPs. The event will be staged as a gladitorial extravaganza, which naturally involves building a Roman ampitheatre and will even feature a lion called Clarence. What could go wrong?

Through the ensuing confusion wanders the hapless Nick (David Mitchell, pretty much playing himself). He’s Sir Richard’s chosen biographer, clearly struggling to put together a sympathetic portrait of an odious subject – though he does find some solace in his brief exchanges with personal assistant, Cathy (Pearl Mackie), who has her own reasons for hating her boss. McCreadie is a man who complains that the local beach is occupied by ‘unsightly’ Syrian refugees, a man who – instead of paying them to make themselves scarce (which would be bad enough) – tricks them into working as his waiters, complete with Roman slave costumes. With his slicked back grey hair and outlandishly capped teeth, McCreadie is quite clearly styled on Sir Philip Green, right down to the appropriation of his workers’ pension funds, the profits from which go straight into the purchase of yet another luxury yacht. If anybody on the planet had an ounce of sympathy left for Green, this film will neatly extinguish it.

Winterbottom (who also wrote the screenplay) makes no bones about his utter contempt for his subject. Though he examines McCreadie’s formative years, when he was card-sharping his way through boarding school, there’s never any attempt to create sympathy for the character. He is, quite simply, the product of privilege – an arrogant, hateful man addicted to the aquisition of more and more wealth, for no better reason than the fact that he has a natural ability for it. Though Coogan often has some amusing lines, its easier to laugh at McCreadie than with him.

Greed has been widely criticised for a scattershot approach to its central subject, but it’s fueled by an almost incandescent sense of anger, a disgust that creatures like McCready are allowed to exist and prosper in a world that ought to have the sense to depose them The closing credits offer a horrifying list of statistics about the world’s wealth, but they are hardly necessary. The film has already instilled a feeling of utter shame.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Home is Not the Place

21/02/20

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

 

In Home is Not the Place, poet/dramatist Annie George explores the story of her own childhood and that of her grandfather, the Malayalam poet, PM John. If his name doesn’t exactly resonate with contemporary audiences, that’s hardly surprising. He died in 1945 at the age of 40 and, a couple of years later, nearly all of his writing was destroyed in a house fire. As a novelist myself, the idea fills me with horror – I still have a huge trunk of my early work, which I have stubbornly dragged from location to location. It’s unpublishable but losing it would be a nightmare.

And it’s this lack of substance that makes for a slightly frustrating experience – the sections that deal with George’s own story are far more compelling than the slightly nebulous narrative concerning her grandfather. We hear recollections of George’s childhood journey to London from India, how she eventually found refuge in the more nurturing nature of Scottish society and how she developed as a writer herself. But of PM John there are only vague impressions, built around an old portrait of him, which has been badly ‘restored.’ (I would have loved to hear one of his poems, for instance, which would give a clearer picture of who he was and what he represented. Presumably this absence is even more irksome for George.)

HINTP uses still images, short pieces of film and atmospheric bursts of Indian music to illustrate the various themes. The central thrust of the narrative is about the way our experiences shape us as individuals and about what the term ‘home’ really means to each person. This comes through eloquently. George is a compelling narrator and once she’s settled into her stride, she pulls me into the poignant sweep of the piece. 

But I’m left wanting to know more about PM John – I spend some time afterwards fruitlessly searching for more information about him on the internet. Perhaps that’s been George’s intention all along.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Vesta

20/02/20

Queensferry Street, Edinburgh

We’ve long been impressed by Social Bite, the Edinburgh-based charity with a mission to end homelessness in Scotland. The whole enterprise is an object lesson in how much individuals can achieve – so long as they have vision, tenacity and drive. And compassion, of course. From a sandwich shop in Rose Street to a nationwide endeavour spanning sleep outs, a training academy and even its own village, Alice Thompson and Josh Littlejohn have made a real difference.

And tonight, we’re eating at Vesta, the second incarnation of the charity’s restaurant (you can read our review of Social Bite’s previous partnership with Maison Bleue here: https://bouquetsbrickbatsreviews.com/2016/12/31/home/). We have family visiting, which gives us the perfect excuse to check out the menu.

It’s not as fancy as it used to be – more gastro pub than fine dining. But that’s okay by us. I don’t want a starter tonight (I’m saving room for pudding), so I sip at a glass of Pinot Grigio while Philip eats his chilli & coriander crab cakes, served with a courgette & red pepper remoulade. They’re lovely: robust and well flavoured, and a very generous portion. 

For his main, Philip opts for the roast rump of lamb, which comes with aubergine ratatouille, pommes anna, salsa verde, garlic & spinach puree. The meat is nicely pink and succulent, and the accompaniments work well. I have a poached fillet of hake with roasted pumpkin, savoy cabbage & a watercress butter sauce, and it’s pretty near perfect. We order a side of mac’n’cheese just because, and that’s okay, although maybe not as indulgent and cheesy as the very best of its kind. 

For pudding, I have the oreo cheesecake with macerated berries and ice cream (instead of the Chantilly cream that’s on the menu). It’s delicious, in a too-sweet-kids’d-love-it-lip-smacking kind of way. Philip’s vegan dark chocolate mousse with honeycomb & salted caramel is an altogether more grown-up affair, with a rich, intense flavour.

We’re done. It’s time to head off for a quick drink, and then home. But before we go, of course, we need to add a little something to the bill. You can’t come here and ignore the pay it forward option, which enables the restaurant to open on Mondays for an exclusively homeless clientele. Food with a conscience. It feels good.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

I Think We Are Alone

18/02/20

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

I Think We Are Alone is all about compartmentalisation: about the boxes we create in which we hide our deepest fears, our greatest losses, our inner conflicts. In this brilliantly choreographed show, those boxes are represented quite literally by big translucent rectangles, mounted on wheels and expertly moved around the stage by the cast to create a whole series of settings. They are the doors of a hospice, the walls of a dance club – sometimes they shimmer and pulsate with light, sometimes the ghosts of past memories stare mournfully through them, as if entreating us to help.

And sometimes those same rectangles crowd suffocatingly in upon the performers, encircling them, crushing them, sealing them off from salvation.

It would be easy in the midst of all this spectacle to lose track of the performances, but Sally Abbott’s meticulously crafted script never allows that to happen. We are introduced to six seemingly unconnected characters and then gradually, expertly, Abbott pulls the threads of the disparate tales together, showing us how characters interconnect with other, the elements they have in common, the things that separate them. As one revelation unfolds in the second act, I actually slap my forehead, wondering how I can have failed to see it coming. But I have, and that’s down to the skill of the writing.

Clare (Polly Frame) and Ange (Charlotte Bate) are struggling to get past a dark secret they have shared since childhood, a secret that threats to drive them apart forever. Josie (Chizzy Akudolu), the proud mother of Cambridge student, Manny (Caleb Roberts), wants her son to have all the advantages of a classic education, something she always longed for but never had. And sad loner Graham (Andrew Turner) drives a night taxi from destination to destination, desperately searching for missing connections. As for Bex (Simone Saunders)… ah, now that would be telling.

Co-directed by Kathy Burke and Scott Graham, I Think We Are Alone is more than just a series of monologues and duologues. It’s a splendid example of contemporary theatre, replete with beautifully nuanced acting and Frantic Assembly’s trademark choreographed transitions. A particular nod should be given to Paul Keogan, whose sublime lighting gives the piece a dazzling sheen.

This is thrilling stuff. Miss it and weep.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Emma.

14/02/20

Some people bemoan their prevalence, but I don’t object to remakes of classics, so long as they’re done well. Little Women was one of my favourite films of 2019, with Greta Gerwig demonstrating exactly how worthwhile such revisitings can be. I like the vim and vigour that seems to be on-trend, the opening up of old favourites to a brand new audience.

Admittedly, I’m puzzled – and a little irked – by the addition of a full stop to Emma.. It seems affected, a bit try-hard. I’m hardly mollified by the explanations I find on-line either: there’s a ‘period’ because it’s a period drama (doh!) or – worse – this is the final, definitive version of the tale. (No, that would be the book.)

Still, I’m keen to see Emma., particularly as the poster, trailer and cast list hint at something sprightly and fun. I love Jane Austen’s novel, and have enjoyed a range of adaptations (Clueless, obviously, is the best). Eleanor Catton is also a writer I admire. But, sadly, neither her script nor Autumn de Wilde’s direction offer us anything more than a pretty confection.

Speaking of which, there is a lot of pretty confectionary in this film, with towering four or five-layer cakes present on almost every table (disappointingly, we never see them cut; I’d like to know what they look like inside). The dresses are gorgeous too, and the furnishings. In fact, it’s all rather ravishing, but there’s almost no substance – an empty edifice, just like the cakes.

It never feels real. Every emotion seems transient, every slight soon forgotten. Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) is, as we know, handsome, clever and rich. She’s unbound by the need to marry, as she is financially secure, and anyway, her father (Bill Nighy) needs her at home. To stave off the boredom of wandering around a big posh house and wearing nice frocks, she decides to indulge in a spot of match-making. But it takes Emma some time to realise that other people aren’t as privileged as her, and that her meddling can cause them actual hardship. For a modern audience, this is a problematic narrative, with its underlying assertion that we should all know our place. But this is never addressed, not even obliquely; in fact, if I didn’t know the source material, I don’t think I’d be able to ascertain the social hierarchy at all. The costumes don’t make it clear, nor do the characters’ interactions. Just sometimes we are told that a character is poor, or that their prospects aren’t too good.

The characters aren’t defined enough, either, especially the men. The differences between Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn), Mr Elton (Josh O’Connor) and Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) are barely perceptible; in the novel, the three are worlds apart. In fact, although Flynn performs well in the role, I don’t think the script even makes clear who Knightley is; I’ll wager many a newcomer to the story assumes he’s Emma’s brother at first.

Mia Goth is the standout, imbuing the unfortunate Harriet Smith with real charm and naïvety. Her nervous reverence for Emma is perfectly drawn. Miranda Hart also puts in a decent turn as Miss Bates, offering us the film’s only real moment of authentic emotion and poignancy.

All in all, this feels like an opportunity missed, a waste of talent and potential.

2.9 stars

Susan Singfield