Month: April 2022

All My Sons


Teviot Underground, Edinburgh

There are good playwrights and there are great ones. Arthur Miller definitely belongs in the latter category. It’s a brave student theatre group that dares to tackle one of his works but, down in the crowded basement of the Teviot Underground, EUTC take on his 1947 play All My Sons and, with great skill and determination, make it their own.

This is the story of the Keller family and it takes place entirely in the garden of their home. It’s the night after a storm has uprooted a beloved tree, planted three years earlier in memory of the family’s youngest son, Larry, a fighter pilot who went missing in the war. Patriarch and factory owner, Joe (Ted Ackery), has survived accusations of shipping defective airplane parts to the military during the conflict and has subsequently prospered, even though his partner, Steve, still languishes in jail, found guilty of the charge.

Joe’s devoted son, Chris (Conor O’ Cuinn), is in line to take over the family business, but it’s not going to be plain sailing. He is hopelessly in love with Ann Deever (Olivia Carpenter), Larry’s former fiancée and she, in turn, has feelings for him. But Chris’s mother, Kate (Lucy Melrose), steadfastly refuses to give up hope that her lost son will one day return – and accepting this new union would, for her, be the final nail in her missing son’s coffin.

As ever with student theatre, the staging here is clearly constrained by budget, but the set designers have applied themselves to the task with great ingenuity; and using the canteen area at the back of the stage to depict the interior of the family home is a terrific idea. Interestingly, the costuming evokes the late 1960s and snatches of Bob Dylan and The Doors on the soundtrack accentuate the idea that this is a tragedy that could just as easily be applied to the Vietnam War – or any other one, come to that. The spectre of profiteering from war is, I’m afraid, universal.

But what really comes across in this production are the performances, with the four leads in particular submitting thrilling interpretations of their roles. And it doesn’t end there. The supporting roles of the family’s neighbours – who all know that Joe is guilty but have conspired to overlook the fact – are also delivered with utter conviction. There’s no weak link here – and there’s a palpable moment in the middle of the first act, when you sense these young performers coming to the realisation that they have their characters nailed and are going to make them fly.

Into this volatile atmosphere comes George (Priya Basra), Ann’s older brother, now a successful lawyer, who has previously accepted Joe’s acquittal and refused to see his own father ever since the trial – until now, that is. Now he has talked to his father and the wool has finally been pulled from his eyes. He visits the Kellers intent on seeking revenge.

The slowly rising tension builds steadily to a climax of extraordinary power. It’s a hard-hearted soul indeed who won’t be moved to tears by its shattering conclusion. EUTC have achieved something here that they can be truly proud of and, if you have the chance to catch this performance, then I’d advise you to take it.

It’s an assured interpretation of one of Arthur Miller’s greatest works.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Singin’ in the Rain


Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Of all Hollywood’s great movie musicals, only one has consistently featured in critics ‘best film’ polls down the years and it is, of course, Singin’ in the Rain.

Released in 1952, at a time when the film industry was already starting to look back to its beginnings for inspiration, it had a lot going for it: Gene Kelly at the height of his terpsichorean powers, a nineteen-year-old Debbie Reynolds just beginning her ascent to stardom and the ever-dependable Donald O’ Connor providing inspirational comic relief. (Even now, if I’m down in the dumps, a viewing of his Make ’em Laugh routine is guaranteed to lift my spirits.) Throw in some top flight songs by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, a sprightly screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and and it’s no wonder that the film is so fondly remembered.

Of course a movie and a play are very different creatures. Suffice to say that any stage adaptation has some very big tap shoes to fill – so I’m delighted to report that this production, directed by Jonathan Church, is one of the most supremely entertaining shows I’ve seen in a very long time. Slick, assured, technically brilliant – it never puts a hoof wrong.

Don Lockwood (Sam Lips) and Lina Lamont (Faye Tozer) are the stars of a series of silent movies, swashbuckling romances beloved by the masses. Thanks to the publicity machine, everybody believes they are lovers in real life but, though Lina is under the impression this is actually true, Don is far from keen on the idea. As he tells his best friend, Cosmo Brown (Ross McLaren), he’s still looking for the right woman. He thinks he might have found her when he bumps into Kathy Selden (Charlotte Gooch), but is dismayed to discover that she’s not at all impressed by his movie star status. She tells him she’s a serious actor, who hopes one day to tread the boards of the New York stage. Ooh, hoity-toity!

But the year is 1927 and Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer – the first talking picture – has just been released. Don thinks it’s a fad that will soon be forgotten but, of course, it signals a seismic change in the industry. Within days it is breaking box office records and it quickly becomes clear that the latest Lockwood and Lamont epic, The Duelling Cavalier, is going to need some drastic remodelling before it can be successfully released. The only problem is Lamont, who has a broad Brooklyn accent delivered in a screeching tone.

Actually, this is the one part of the story that could raise hackles. Making fun of a regional accent would be a no-go zone in the contemporary world, but the fact that this is a period piece just about excuses it – and Tozer plays her part with such adept comic timing that I find myself laughing uproariously at her mangled intonation, particularly when she’s working with her ‘dialect coach’ (Sandra Dickinson).

But that’s my only caveat. Both Lips and Gooch have splendid chemistry together and McLaren manages to own the Make ’em Laugh routine, without attempting to deliver a carbon copy of the original. There are some very funny film extracts, the ensemble dance numbers are thrillingly executed and even the film’s extended Broadway Melody sequence is lovingly recreated, right down to the vibrant costumes, with Harriet Samuel-Gray handling the Cyd Charisse role with aplomb.

And to have so many memorable songs in one show seems almost unfair on the competition.

But of course, you might argue, how can this hope to work onstage without any actual rain? Rest assured, rain there is, in abundance. I can only marvel at the ingenuity involved in taking a travelling production around the country and adapting each and every venue so that water can bucket down onto the cast without causing major devastation. It’s no surprise that the orchestra are safely located backstage instead of in their usual pit. Their brief unveiling during the second overture foreshadows Kathy Selden’s famous moment of glory, as well as highlighting the frantic unseen action that underpins any theatrical production.

Singin’ in the Rain is a delight from start to finish. It never falters, never loses pace and manages to honour the great film that inspired it. Wandering out of the Festival Theatre, humming that famous signature tune, I’m almost disappointed to discover that it’s a cold, clear evening, with no hint of rain.

Well, I did say ‘almost.’

5 Stars

Philip Caveney

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World


King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

I almost don’t make it to tonight’s production of Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World. The drama class I’m teaching doesn’t finish until 6.30pm, and FGWWCTW starts at 7pm. That’s half an hour to get from Fairmilehead to Tollcross, which ought to be do-able but – well, this is Edinburgh – there are roadworks. It’s 6.57pm when I park up, and then dash breathlessly to the King’s Theatre, charging into the box office, hollering ‘thanks’ as I hurtle through to the foyer, before racing to the auditorium. I slump into my seat next to Philip, only for the end of an umbrella to appear before my eyes. “Phones off!” says a voice. There’s a woman in a raincoat and glasses, all mock severity, and that’s it. The show’s begun. She marches onto the stage, barking instructions. The lights go down…

Aaand relax?

Well, no. FGWWCTW is not a relaxing show at all. In fact, the frantic urgency of my arrival serves well to set the mood. This is a dynamic, fast-paced gallop of a show, as bold and spirited as can be – like SIX’s little sister. I love it.

Based on Kate Pankhurst’s 2016 nonfiction best-seller of the same name and directed by Amy Hodge, the musical has a simple premise. Jade (Kudzai Mangombe) is on a school trip to a museum. Ever the ‘good girl,’ she has helpfully stopped to retrieve other students’ misplaced items, only to be forgotten in the chaos – and left behind. This, we learn, is typical: Jade’s quiet obedience means that she is often ignored or overlooked. A disembodied tannoy voice tells her that the museum is closing, urges her to leave, and forbids her from entering the Gallery of Greatness she’s standing outside. But Jade has had enough of doing as she’s told. This time, she’s going to do what she wants to do – so into the Gallery she goes.

It’s a good decision. Inside, Jade meets a host of inspiring women, who share their stories with her, and urge her to find her own greatness. There’s Sacagawea, Frida Kahlo and Marie Curie (Jade Kennedy); Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks and Mary Seacole (Renée Lamb); Gertrude Ederle, Jane Austen and Mary Anning (Christina Modestou) – not to mention Emmeline Pankhurst and Agent Fifi (Kirstie Skivington). Anne Frank puts in an appearance too (she’s played with charm and grace by young actor, Lana Turner, who shares her name, of course, with another ‘fantastically great woman’.) The women are all wise in their own ways: some are funny and some are serious; some are gentle and some are fierce. But they are all, without exception, exceptional. “Take up space,” they tell Jade; “find a way to make yourself heard.” Jade doesn’t know what she’s good at or what she wants to do, but they tell her that doesn’t matter. All she has to do is exist, be true to herself and stand up for what she believes is right – and she will change the world.

The target audience is a young one (6+), and the theatre tonight is full of enthusiastic kids. It’s heartwarming to witness: they’re enraptured by the audacious performances and the maverick message. Even as an adult, I’m totally engaged, caught up in the drama, delighted that Jade is being encouraged to dare. Mangombe’s performance is central, of course, and she’s mightily impressive. When I consult the programme, I’m genuinely shocked to realise she’s an adult, as she embodies a conflicted eleven-year-old so well.

The songs (by Miranda Cooper, Chris Bush and Jennifer Decilveo) and choreography (Dannielle ‘Rhimes’ Lecointe) are great. None of it’s subtle: this is as in-your-face and brazen as it gets. It works. It’s impossible not to feel energised and, yes, empowered.

“A better world for everyone begins with dreams.” And “deeds, not words.” If you have children, there’s an easy first step: take them to see this.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

Six by Nico


Hanover Street, Edinburgh

This one’s been a long time coming. When Six by Nico first opened in Edinburgh, way back in 2018, our lovely friends mooted it as an option for an evening out. But it was so popular, we couldn’t get a booking. We kept trying to find a suitable date, but to no avail. Then the pandemic happened and everything was put on hold. We ate a couple of Nico’s ‘at home’ meals, which were very nice, but the authentic Six experience still eluded us. Even tonight – when, finally, both we and our pals are free, and the restaurant is open – we’ve had to settle for a 9.15pm booking, which is definitely too late for us, but we can’t let this opportunity slide. This rendezvous carries a weight of expectation…

Six by Nico‘s concept is well known by now: it’s become a mini-chain, firmly established in eight cities around the UK and Ireland. It’s a fresh, simple idea: a themed tasting menu of six courses, which changes every six weeks. The presentation is very much ‘fine dining’, but the prices really are not. It’s £32 all in, and £27 for five matched wines. There’s no denying this is cheap.

Sadly, however, it appears that sometimes the old adage is true: you do get what you pay for. The current menu is called Ancient Rome, and it sounds promising on paper. But, although there are glimmers of excellence, it doesn’t cohere to make a pleasant meal.

Philip and both of our friends opt for the standard menu, which includes meat and fish. I go veggie for the evening, because I want to. The first course is the same for everyone: it’s ‘Cacio e Pepe, which is crispy pasta , black pepper and parmesan royale. (Mine’s supposed to be goat’s cheese, apparently, but it tastes of parmesan, so I don’t think it is. I’m not actually vegetarian though, so I’m not too worried, and I like the flavour anyway.) This is a tasty little morsel, if a little too creamy for my liking, and it bodes well for the meal.

Next up is ‘From Eggs to Nuts’ for all of us. This comprises a crispy egg, some white asparagus, hazelnuts and brown butter. The eggs, nuts and asparagus are good, but the ‘brown butter’ takes the form of a creamy sauce again, which proves a tad rich.

Cream seems to be a bit of a recurring thing. Did the ancient Romans really eat so much of it? The third (veggie for all) course is ‘Cavolo Hispi Arrostito’ and, honestly, I’m starting to feel a bit queasy now. The dish consists of pasta (again), roasted hispi cabbage, pickled girolle mushrooms, truffle foam and pecorino sardo. I’m expecting the mushrooms to have a vinegary tang, so that they cut through the dairy fat, but they don’t really. The acidic wine (this one’s Duas Margens) helps, but our friends have soft drinks, so there’s no such respite for them.

Course four (‘The Bay of Naples’) brings my favourite of the savoury dishes: a risotto of parsley, garlic and porcini mushrooms. It’s a bit repetitive with the fungi, but the risotto is delicious, with bold flavours and nicely firm rice – and there’s no cream, which is definitely a bonus. The others aren’t so lucky. They have sole, smoked mussels, lovage, white turnip and mussel… cream. This looks great, and there’s a theatrical flourish, as it arrives wreathed in smoke and covered by a glass cloche. Once the smoke has cleared, the fish turns out to be well-cooked and the smoked mussels are a hit, but none of them likes the pairing of sole with turnip, especially as the neeps are deemed ‘uncooked’ and ‘rock hard.’ “Unpleasant” isn’t a word you want to associate with your dinner.

The fifth course is called ‘The Great Feast of AD14’. For the meat-eaters, this means a small plate of pork (belly, rib and fillet), with fennel, bean ragu and a date and apple sauce. The pork fillet is very pink, which makes one of our friends uncomfortable, and the meat in general is declared ‘underwhelming.’ The date sauce gives it a boost, but the bean ragu has something creamy mixed in, so no one’s much in the mood for that. It’s a mean-looking dish, which doesn’t conjure up images of a great feast of any kind. Not that we want more. We’ve kind of had enough.

Again, I fare better. The veggie option is baked globe artichoke, with leak, curd, toasted hazelnut and walnut foam. There’s bean ragu on my plate too, but the creamy stuff is next to it rather than mixed in, so I can just leave it – and the ragu is delicious without, all tomatoey-smoky loveliness.

We’re disappointed and we’re flagging, but there’s still a course to go. Our young waitress is lovely – she’s trying really hard, and is all gauche charm and friendliness – so we rally, give her a smile as she rattles through her memorised lines about the wine, and wait to see what pudding brings.

It brings a ray of sunshine. At last! The finale is excellent. The simple title (‘Honey and Cheese’) is deceptive. This is a honey parfait, served with ricotta cheese, preserved quince, fizzy grapes, pear and citrus. It’s bursting with fresh, zingy flavours – all complementing each other, each mouthful a delight. It shows us what this meal could have been.

But it’s not enough to save it. All in all, the menu just doesn’t work for us. There is no logical progression between the courses, no awareness that the dishes need to be more distinct (two courses with mushrooms, two with pasta, two with hazelnuts, five with cream). The next menu is ‘Hollywood’ and it reads well, but I don’t think we’ll be back. There are too many good restaurants in this city for us to bother with this again.

2.9 stars

Susan Singfield

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent


Cineworld, Edinburgh

As most cinema-goers will testify there are actually two Nicholas Cages. One of them is the skilled actor who won an Oscar for Leaving Last Vegas and starred in a whole string of superior action movies like Face/Off and Con Air. Then there’s his more recent incarnation, the wild-eyed weirdo who seems happy to turn up for any old film, so long as there’s a pay cheque and a handy chainsaw. Unfortunately, we’ve been seeing rather too much of the latter Cage over the past few years.

TUWOMT takes this basic idea and runs with it, creating something that’s both incredibly meta and perfectly happy to hold the long-cherished values of Hollywood up to ridicule. Sometimes, a great idea comes from out of the blue and, luckily, director/writer Tom Gormican and co-writer Kevin Etten managed to persuade Cage to sign on for this bizarre project, because it really couldn’t have worked without him. The result is one of the most immensely likeable movies I’ve seen in quite a while.

Actor ‘Nick Cage’ is on his uppers. He’s starred in a few too many stinkers and has failed to land the role he thinks might change his career for the better. He’s getting desperate – and it doesn’t help that his younger alter ego, ‘Nicky Coppola,’ keeps popping out of the woodwork to berate him for forgetting that he’s a film star first and an actor second. Meanwhile, he’s living in a hotel (where he owes $600,000 in back rent), he’s divorced from his long-suffering wife, Olivia (Sharon Horgan), and he’s rapidly losing the affection of his teenage daughter, Addy (Lily Mo Sheen).

When Cage’s agent, Richard (Neil Patrick Harris), mentions that Nick has just been offered a million dollars to attend a birthday party in Mallorca, he reluctantly accepts and is whisked off to the mansion of Javi Guttierrez (Pedro Pascal). Javi is Nick’s number one fan and has a collection of Cage-related movie memorabilia to prove it. He’s also written a screenplay that he wants Nick to star in. Awkward.

Almost before you can draw a breath, events start to pile in from the wings. CIA operative Vivian (Tiffany Haddish) informs Nick that Javi is a dangerous criminal who may just have kidnapped the daughter of a prominent anti-corruption politician. She wants Nick to work with her to find out where the girl has been hidden. It doesn’t help that he and Javi are getting along like a house on fire, sharing an affection for great films like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and er… Paddington 2. Oh, and one other thing. They’re planning to write a screenplay together…

If this is starting to sound distinctly unhinged, that’s exactly what TUWOMT is all about, but it’s crazy like a fox. There’s something infectiously funny about the idea of undermining the pomposity of Hollywood and Cage never holds back, investing his character – himself – with a whole raft of pretentious interests and self-destructive urges. He doesn’t actually play his part for laughs but attacks it with genuine acting skill and the film is all the funnier for it.

He and Pascal cook up a fine old bromance amidst the mayhem and, as their planned screenplay develops, so the film hurtles breathlessly from one set-piece to the next. Amidst the resulting onslaught of shoot-outs and car chases, there really isn’t time to stop for a moment and consider how unlikely it all is, but it hardly matters. While TUWOMT is unlikely to feature on future lists of ‘the best Nicolas Cage Movies of all time,’ it’s nonetheless a hoot from start to finish.

And it’s also proof that Paddington 2 – awarded a full 5 stars here on B&B – is one of the greatest films ever made.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Great Gatsby


Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Regular readers of B&B may be somewhat surprised to see this review. We haven’t previously covered ballet, mainly because of a reluctance to show our general ignorance of the subject. But it is theatre, when all is said and done and, when we see that Northern Ballet’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is to visit the city, it seems the logical choice for a starting point. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel is a story we already know, so we should have no problem following the action. And so it proves.

Actually, on reflection, Gatsby seems an inspired choice for the tricky metamorphosis of literature-into-dance. For one thing, those jazz-age excesses are perfectly suited to the medium and, for another, many of the novel’s most memorable scenes are built around visual motifs: the blinking green light of the Buchanan’s home on the horizon; those lavish parties frequented by alcohol-fuelled celebrities; the distorted reflections in the infamous room of mirrors.

Jay Gatsby (Joseph Taylor) spends his days reminiscing about his lost relationship with Daisy Buchanan (Abigail Prudames), back when he was a young soldier. He even gets to dance alongside his younger self (Harris Beatty), before four men in black raincoats and derby hats step out of the shadows and neatly illustrate how criminal activities turn Gatsby into the rich socialite he is today.

But wealth and success haven’t dulled the longing he still harbours for Daisy, who now lives with her husband, Tom (Lorenzo Trossello), and their little daughter – an adorable performance by Rosa Di Rollo – in their home across the bay (cue that blinking green light).

Into this turbo-charged atmosphere dances Daisy’s naive cousin, Nick Carraway (Sean Bates), who soon befriends Gatsby and then can only watch in dismay as he and Daisy become ever more entangled in a relationship that will surely end in tragedy.

This stirring adaptation also feels curiously cinematic, an effect heightened by Jérôme Kaplan’s brilliant set design, which contrives to present physical events – even an entirely convincing road accident – with absolute authority. And the dancing, of course, is sublime. While I freely admit that I don’t know the difference between an arabesque and a jeté, I’m still enraptured by the cavalcade of physical perfection that whirls and leaps and pirouettes around the stage with apparent ease. I particularly enjoy the earthy physicality of Riko Ito as garage mechanic George Wilson, driven to distraction by his wife Myrtle (Minju Kang)’s affair with Tom Buchanan – and also the wonderfully accomplished ensemble pieces, where those epic parties of the roaring twenties are lavishly enacted in perfectly-tailored suits and glittering cocktail dresses.

The music of the late Sir Richard Rodney Bennett provides the perfect accompaniment for the story, encompassing as it does elements of jazz, ragtime and sweeping, soulful grandeur. We even get to hear the great composer sing in the production’s penultimate piece, a heartfelt rendition of I Never Went Away, which offers a poignant preface to a brutal and shattering conclusion.

So there we have it it. As an introduction to an art form, The Great Gatsby offers everything I was hoping for. Also, it proves a propitious night for a first foray into ballet, as long time choreographer and director David Nixon OBE is about to step down from the role he’s occupied for twenty-one years.

An emotional onstage presentation duly ensues and a heartfelt standing ovation caps an evening that will linger in my memory.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Meaning of Zong


Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The Meaning of Zong opens in a contemporary UK bookshop, where Gloria, a young black woman (Kiera Lester), attempts to tell the white staff that they have misclassified a book about the Atlantic slave trade. They’re mystified. “It’s in African history,” they tell her. “But it’s British history,” she replies. They don’t understand, prevaricating with platitudes about ‘being allies,’ while vaguely insinuating that such decisions are taken by a distant boss. Gloria’s frustrated, but help is at hand, in the form of Olaudah Equiano (Giles Terera), a former slave, who steps out of the history book to tell Gloria (and us) his tale.

And the tale he tells is truly shocking: a shame-inducing account of an event so appalling it ought to be common knowledge. That it is not speaks volumes, illuminating the importance of that opening scene. If we don’t even acknowledge our history, how can we hope to learn from it?

In 1793, Oloudah tells Gloria, there was a massacre on board a British slave ship called The Zong. 132 slaves were thrown into the sea and left to drown, jettisoned because – so it was claimed – there was a shortage of drinking water, and so their killing was a “necessary” act. Not only did they commit murder, the ship’s owners also put in an insurance claim for the loss of their “property.” The insurers disputed the claim, of course (because some things are immutable), but not before Oloudah chanced upon the case, and joined forces with anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp (Paul Higgins) and shorthand secretary Annie Greenwood (Eliza Smith) to ensure the case was brought to public attention. The slave owners’ blatant dismissal of human beings as “cargo” caused outrage, and proved to be a significant step on the path towards abolition.

Although it’s an ensemble piece, this is very much Terera’s project: as well as playing Oloudah, he is both writer and co-director (along with Tom Morris). It’s a spectacular achievement, making bold social and political points, while still being playful and overtly theatrical. He pulls no punches and yet we’re on his side; he never lets us off the hook, but we feel galvanised rather than defensive.

We never witness the massacre. Instead, we are shown the legal struggle Oloudah and Granville mount to have the court’s ruling overturned. Instead, we are shown the strength of three female slaves (Lester, Bethan Mary-James and Alice Vilanculo), recounting the story of Anansi, the spider god, calling on the spirits to save them. And one of them – unnamed – is saved, clinging to a rope, reaching through the years to become Terera’s inspiration for this devastating reminder of our collective guilt.

Jean Chan’s set is a thing of beauty, reinforcing the notion that everything is connected, that we can’t escape our past just by shutting our ears and hiding things away. Thus Westminster Hall’s magnificent wooden ceiling is also the slave ship’s hull; the judge’s bench is also a Waterstones bookshelf. The furniture we sit on, the cutlery we use, the sugar we sprinkle in our tea: these things are all linked to slavery, Oloudah tells Gloria – and the truth will out.

Sidiki Dembele’s onstage drumming is both powerful and provocative, first bringing the audience together then silencing us with its force. It’s the perfect accompaniment to a story that demands to be heard.

The Meaning of Zong has already finished its run at the Bristol Old Vic, and only has a few more days here in Edinburgh before it moves on to Liverpool. It’s worth seeking out. We mustn’t let this story fade away. It belongs in the bookshop’s window, not relegated to a forgotten shelf.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield

The Northman


Cineworld, Edinburgh

It seems suspiciously like fate. Here I am – only just returned from a week in Shetland, where I’ve been researching Vikings – and this film is waiting for me at the local cineplex. Of course I have to see it. I can’t not see it. But I have some reservations. For one thing, despite the film’s almost indecent rash of five star reviews, I haven’t been exactly enamoured by Robert Egger’s previous offerings, The Witch and (more especially) The Lighthouse, both of which felt like cases of style over content.

It’s clear from the get-go, that The Northman is a big step up for Eggers (who co-wrote the screenplay with Sjon). His evocation of Viking life is vividly painted in freshly-spilled viscera across a massive landscape. The world-building here is dirty, ugly and thoroughly convincing. In the opening scenes, we meet young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak), welcoming his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), back from his conquests. Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), is rather less welcoming and the reason for that soon becomes clear. She has secretly allied with Aurvandil’s brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who is determined to kill Aurvandil and his son, and take Gudrún as his wife.

If the story seems familiar, it ought to. The ancient Scandinavian legend of Amleth is the tale that initially inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet.

Amleth manages to escape from the bloody mutiny and, when next we meet him, he’s grown into a thoroughly buff Alexander Skarsgård, who, adopted by another tribe, has become a fully-fledged wolf warrior, a berserker. An ensuing battle sequence leaves no femur unshattered, no skull uncleft. Those viewers who wince at bloody violence may prefer to avoid this film at all costs – or spend a lot of time looking away from the screen.

Amleth learns that his uncle Fjölnir has had his stolen kingdom taken from him and has been exiled to Iceland, where he’s attempting to make a new life for himself as a sheep farmer. Gudrún has gone with him and Amleth knows that he must follow. So he disguises himself as a slave (by first branding his chest with a hot coal) and stows aboard a boat taking a consignment of workers over to Fjölnir. On the hazardous journey across the ocean, he meets up with Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy), a self-professed earth witch, and quickly falls under her spell.

But can this new love quell the thirst for vengeance that has consumed him since childhood?

The Northman is by no means perfect. It’s at its best when depicting the savage lifestyle of the Vikings and I also love the hallucinatory images that often flood the screen, particularly Amleth’s repeated visions of the legendary Tree of Yggdrasill, where family members are suspended like ripening fruit from its entwined branches. There’s also a spectacular Valkerie ride that carries me headlong to Valhalla.

Kidman, though initially underused, does get one scene that puts an entirely different spin on circumstances and makes me appreciate why she’s a director’s go-to for so many difficult roles. I would also have liked to see more of Willem Dafoe who, as Heimar the Fool, has clearly been drafted in to fill the Yorrick-shaped hole in the piece.

If I have a criticism, it’s simply that the age-old theme of revenge offers little in the way of surprise – indeed, there’s one point in the film’s later stages that seems to offer a braver and less conventional solution to Amleth’s torture, should he be man enough to take it – but, perhaps inevitably, it’s thrown aside and our rugged hero goes back to the well-worn path he’s always been destined to tread. Which makes the final fiery confrontation a little underwhelming.

Still, there’s no doubt that this is Eggers’ most assured film thus far – and I’m definitely interested to see where he goes next.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Hermit of Treig


Mareel, Lerwick, Shetland

When we book our tickets for the The Hermit of Treig, it seems very fitting: we’ll be watching a documentary about a recluse living in a remote Scottish location, while we’re in a remote Scottish location! Such perfect symmetry! And it’d be a good idea, if it weren’t for the fact that Mareel – despite being the UK’s most northerly music, cinema and creative industries centre – doesn’t feel remote at all. It’s a bustling, vibrant place, and the Thursday evening showing is all but sold out.

Not that we’re complaining. We feel right at home. (In fact, Mareel is very much like HOME, one of our favourite Manchester venues). We sit in the sun-soaked, glass-walled bar for an hour before showtime, sipping beer and Prosecco, enjoying the buzz. The staff are friendly and the place pristine. It’s a real find.

And Lizzie MacKenzie’s debut film is a find too. She’s spent ten years following Ken Smith, the eponymous hermit. And, over those years, a real friendship seems to have emerged. He may have turned his back on civilisation, but he’s an amiable sort: chatty and engaging and happy to share his musings.

When he was twenty-six, Ken was viciously attacked, and suffered a brain haemorrhage as a result. His doctors feared he would never speak or walk again. But Ken pulled through and, as soon as he was well enough, he set off to live his life on his own terms. He went to Canada and lived wild in Yukon for a few years, before returning to the UK and heading north to Scotland. He walked the length and breadth of the country he says, before finally deciding to stay put near Loch Treig. And this is where the young film-maker finds him, living off-grid in a home-made wooden cabin, far far from any beaten track, foraging for food and revelling in his splendid isolation.

It’s a lovingly crafted film, with a tender heart; it’s easy to see why MacKenzie won the audience award at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival. It’s not just the cinematography (MacKenzie’s) and photography (Smith’s) that dazzle with their natural beauty; the documentary shimmers with kindness and humanity too. Ken is seventy-two years old now. He’s not as strong as he was. He’s had a stroke. How long will he be able to manage?

It’s heart-warming to see the local (okay, local-ish) community rally round. Everyone’s so respectful of Ken’s way of life. They try to help him, but they don’t dictate; they don’t attempt to change him. And Ken’s pretty accepting too: hopeful that he’ll be able to continue living independently in his beloved hut, but pragmatic about the possibility that he might not.

There are some gaps in the narrative that I’d like explained. Is Ken allowed to just build a home in the woods? How does he get his photographs developed? What was the story behind his first cabin being destroyed? There are tantalising hints at avenues left unexplored.

Still, just like Mareel, The Hermit of Treig isn’t what we expect. And, like Mareel, that’s absolutely a good thing.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

The Dowry


Commercial Street, Lerwick

We’re in Shetland, mainly for the purposes of researching a book I’m working on. But it would be rude, wouldn’t it, to pass up the opportunity to try out some of the local dining venues? We’re based in Lerwick and a wander around the town doesn’t reveal anywhere that looks particularly promising. However, an online check reveals that a place called The Dowry has several good reviews, and it turns out the place is only a short walk away from where we’re staying.

It’s a lively cafe bar, run by friendly young people and we’re soon enjoying a convivial drink while we peruse the menu and listen to a selection of Manchester music. Hang on, isn’t that Blossoms? Susan used to teach drama to the keyboard player! A case of synchronicity, I suppose.

The concept here is shared plates so we order a starter of Gordal olives, sweet bell peppers and smoked almonds. Of course, there isn’t much preparation involved here but it’s a little triumph, the huge firm smoked olives making all other olives seem meh by comparison, the bell peppers sweet and stuffed with a creamy cheese filling and the almonds – though the first spicy/salty mouthful is disconcerting – quickly grow on me until they’ve become incredibly more-ish.

Next up we share a small plate of sesame Halloumi, which comes on a bed of Tabouleh, and is liberally decorated with blobs of yoghurt. There are two generously-sized chunks of cheese and, while this is a little bland, it’s more than made up for by the rich Moroccan flavours of the tabouleh and that tangy yoghurt.

Two large, colourful plates follow. There’s a lovely pan-fried halibut which comes with brown rice, pickled veg and a deliciously sweet red pepper purée. The fish is perfectly cooked, a delightful flakiness under the crispy fried coating. There’s also a seafood stew, which features a couple of langoustines, some exemplary mussels, several beautifully cooked scallops, ling and monk – all ladled with a sublime lemongrass and coconut sauce. Everything on the plate is good save for the langoustines (and this is by no means the fault of The Dowry), which offer the usual dispiriting evisceration of heads, legs, carapace, only to leave an insubstantial scrap of flesh, which is gone in seconds. I’m beginning to feel the same way about lobster. It always looks so imposing on the plate yet hardly seems worth the effort. But I digress.

Overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable dining experience: the food adventurous, the atmosphere buzzing and it’s excellent value for money. Unusually, we’re both too full to sample the puddings, though they sound worthy of further investigation another time.

So, if in Lerwick, do check out the Dowry. It’s worth your while.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney