Month: March 2023



Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The A Play, A Pie and a Pint season continues its cracking run with this intriguing two-hander, written by Aodhan Gallagher and directed by Irene McDougall. It’s a play about writers and writing, so naturally I’m fascinated to see what it has to say about the subject – and, as it turns out, it has plenty. What’s more, I’m delighted to note how many unexpected twists and turns are packed into a brisk fifty-minute running time.

Freddie (Richard Conlon) is a long-established fiction writer, currently preparing to start work on a new novel – most of which is already a stack of crumpled notes in his wastebasket. He’s never seen the necessity for incorporating elements from his own life into the gritty psychological thrillers he’s made his reputation on. These are brutal tales filled with violence and action. But lately, Freddie’s publishers have become a little twitchy, pointing out that his earlier work is increasingly being perceived as ‘problematic’. 

With this in mind, they’ve suggested that this time around, he might want to employ a ‘sensitivity reader’, somebody more attuned to contemporary issues. Enter Ben (Bailey Newsome), the promising student of one of Freddie’s literary acquaintances. Ben is young, gay and confidently in touch with the zeitgeist. He sports a beanie hat and trendy footwear. He also has an unpublished novel of his own that he’s very keen to get noticed…

Write-Off’s acerbic dialogue hooks me from the get-go and my sympathies bounce from character to character as the two men, by turns adversaries and allies, discuss their respective ambitions, beliefs and motives. One moment I’m laughing out loud at Freddie’s caustic observations, the next I’m gasping at some new revelation from Ben, which I genuinely haven’t seen coming. Can these two men ever hope to settle their differences enough to work together on a project?

The performances of the two actors are utterly believable and while it could be argued that this is a piece that’s completely predicated on its quickfire dialogue – and might work just as effectively as a radio play – it’s nonetheless a compelling and challenging production that maintains its propulsive edge right up to the final scene.

I head straight from the play to The National Library of Scotland where – inevitably – I’m working on my new novel. Who says life doesn’t imitate art?

4 stars

Philip Caveney

To Leslie


Now TV

Ryan Binaco’s script for To Leslie doesn’t have a lot of plot: woman wins lottery, pisses the money and years away on booze, then finds her way to recovery. But that doesn’t matter, because this is essentially a character study – an examination of the impact of sudden wealth and (local) fame on a person ill-equipped to deal with it.

Andrea Riseborough is magnificent in the title role. Her best actress Oscar nomination might have come as a surprise, but it makes sense. She’s utterly compelling, embodying that recognisable mix of grit and vulnerability we’ve all seen in addicts. Under Michael Morris’s direction, we’re shown what lurks beneath the glamorous exterior of the world’s richest country – the shameful underbelly of the rural blue-collar folk, with their dilapidated, no-hope towns and miserable motel lives. When, having exhausted all other avenues, Leslie has to come ‘home’, it’s to a community that’s furious with her, because she’s exposed the lie they all live by. A winning ticket isn’t enough if you’ve already lost in the lottery of life. And Nancy (Alison Janney) isn’t going to let her off the hook.

It’s not a great film: there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before, no fresh insights or profound revelations. What’s more, there’s something a little uncomfortable about the spectacle of Leslie’s decline; it feels a bit like poverty tourism. “You wouldn’t want people watching you,” her son, James (Owen Teague), tells her, when she suggests going to the zoo. “They do,” she says. And we are – but there is much to admire too. I like the way that Leslie’s problems are solved within her own community, not by a middle-class outsider, or a big organisation. Instead, it’s down to her to make the change, to begin to see the possibility of a future where she can make peace with her failings. In this, she is aided by the kindly Sweeney (Marc Maron), who offers her a job cleaning up in his motel, and the quiet, non-judgemental friendship she so badly needs.

Riseborough veers between desperation and fury, hurt and vitriol, and the depiction is always nuanced and believable. Leslie’s burn-it-all-down attitude is heartbreaking to watch (there’s a clear exposé here of why a simple ‘roof over their head’ approach isn’t enough to solve the homelessness problem), and her redemption, when it comes, feels very well-earned – even if it is too heavily signposted early on.

In the end, To Leslie is a rather ordinary cautionary tale, elevated by an extraordinary performance. And that’s all I’ve got time to say, because I need to pop to the shops for a ticket for tonight’s lottery…

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Dulse by Dean Banks


Queensferry Street, Edinburgh

We rarely return to a restaurant so soon after reviewing it for the first time, but when we saw that Dulse was offering a five course seafood tasting menu for just £35 per head, it was a no brainer. Besides, we wondered, could anybody do the concept proud at such a great value price? Well, the answer to that question is a resounding ‘yes!’ Little wonder that the venue has started offering the menu on more nights of the week.

We start with some oysters – is there any better way to begin a seafood medley? There are just two apiece: fine, fleshy specimens, one doused in a citrusy sea buckthorn sauce, the other in a Bloody Mary mixture. Heads back, mouths open – they slip down perfectly, refreshing, appetising and redolent of the ocean. It’s an excellent start to the meal.

Next up there’s trout pastrami, finely-sliced slivers of smoky fish, served with whipped crème fraîche and crispy rye toast that supplies a satisfying crunch. Arranged on the plate it looks disconcertingly like a smiling clown, but that’s as far as the comedy goes, because this is seriously good, perfectly prepared and absolutely mouthwatering.

The next course is a bowl of Singapore mussels. For me it’s the standout, a rich fiery broth with that tantalising catch at the back of the throat – but then I’ve always been a pushover for those Asian flavours. This is when I’m glad we’ve opted for a side order of a miniature wholemeal loaf, which is absolutely perfect for mopping up the garlic and ginger-infused liquid at the bottom of the bowl, because you don’t want to miss any of that flavour, right?

Can it get any better? Well, how about a chunk of cod, meltingly soft underneath and perfectly seared on top to provide a crispy crunch, the whole thing nestled in a vivid green wild garlic sauce? Yep, once again, this is absolutely spot on.

Any pudding that can follow this needs to be light and appetising, so a deconstructed Eton mess seems the perfect answer – and so it proves to be, with a delightfully fizzy sorbet. It provides the final piece in a faultless tasting menu.

It’s hats off, once again, to Dean Banks, who gets another five star review from us. We make a mental note to visit Haar, his restaurant in St Andrews, when an opportunity arises, because that’s where he began his career and it will be interesting to see what’s on offer there. Interested parties should note that, at Dulse, there’s also the option of adding a half lobster to the selection for just £25 per head and that last orders for this menu are at 7 pm.

So don’t hang about.

5 stars

Philip Caveney



Cineworld, Edinburgh

The opening scenes of Pearl have the look of a 40s Technicolour Hollywood feature, right down to the swirling calligraphy of the titles. The remote farmstead where the main action takes place is eerily reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz. But it doesn’t take long to establish that the magic generated by rising horror star, Mia Goth, is going to be of a much darker variety than anything witnessed by Dorothy and the Munchkins. What might have happened to the girl from Kansas if she hadn’t been swept up by that whirlwind?

It’s 1919 and teenager Pearl (Goth) is struggling to come to terms with the harsh realities of the Spanish Flu pandemic. Her immigrant mother, Ruth (Tandi Wright), is constantly worried about anti-German sentiment from the people in town, and spends much of her time scolding Pearl for her fanciful notions. Pearl’s unnamed father (Matthew Sunderland) has suffered a stroke and is confined to a wheelchair, unable to move a muscle, while Pearl’s own husband is fighting in occupied France. She’s left with repetitive chores around the farm and, in her spare moments, some powerful fantasises about becoming a star of stage and screen. She’s convinced that she has what it takes to get there, if only somebody will give her a chance.

In town to pick up supplies, she meets a handsome young man (played by David Corenswet), a projectionist at the local cinema, who takes the opportunity to show her some of the pornographic clips from his private collection. He assures her that a girl with her looks has everything she needs to become a sensation. When a church in town announces that they are looking for a dancer for a new travelling show, Pearl senses an opportunity to shine – and Lord help anyone who gets in her way…

Pearl is a prequel to director Ti West’s earlier offering, X (which I confess I haven’t seen), and it’s eventually destined to be part of a trilogy, but it hardly matters because this assured film, co-written by Goth and West, is strong enough to stand alone. Essentially a vehicle for Goth to strut her stuff, it’s a simple but affecting tale of a young woman afflicted by mental health issues, who becomes increasingly unable to separate reality from dreams. She also has an unfortunate predilection for doing unspeakable things with a pitchfork, aided and abetted by a friendly local alligator – a useful addition when it comes to disposing of evidence.

There are some genuinely unnerving scenes here – a sequence where Pearl enjoys leisure time with a scarecrow is a particular stand out and I also love the dance sequence where what Pearl sees in her head is markedly different from what’s actually occurring. It’s this stark contrast between the real and the imagined that is the true strength of this remarkable feature, and it’s clear from the outset that Goth – if not Pearl – is destined for stardom.

Pearl won’t be for everyone – there are some bloodthirsty scenes in the mix that are not recommended for those of a nervous disposition – but the film is horribly compelling and maintains its momentum right up to its extraordinary final scene.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney



Cineworld, Edinburgh

This film boasts a starry cast. Indeed, with comedy queen Jennifer Saunders in the lead role, alongside British acting legends such as Judi Dench, Julia McKenzie, Derek Jacobi and David Bradley – not to mention the brightly-hued, smiling posters – it promises to be a clever-but-gentle affair, something pleasant for a Sunday afternoon.

It’s not.

Adapted (and updated) by Heidi Thomas from Alan Bennett’s 2018 stage play, Allelujah is an ode to the NHS, as gnarly and wonderful, inspiring and infuriating as the institution itself. I feel like I’ve been lured in by the publicity, before being punched in the gut by a polemic – but I’m not complaining. This is the movie equivalent of a protest song; it’s timely and vital.

Sister Gilpin (Saunders) and Dr Valentine (Bally Gill) work at ‘the Beth’ – a small, crumbling, Yorkshire hospital, specialising in geriatric care. They’re fighting a losing battle against closure, despite the fundraising efforts of local volunteers, but they forge on anyway, doing their best for the elderly patients who need them, offering them compassion and dignity in the last stages of their lives.

Joe (David Bradley) likes it in the Beth. He doesn’t want to go back to the Rowans, the care home where he’s miserable. But his son, Colin (Russell Tovey), is the film’s antagonist, the malevolent Tory hatchet man, who views the hospital dispassionately, from a purely numbers perspective. His relationship with his dad is thorny, but – as they soften towards one another – will he change his mind about the NHS?

Actually, it’s not as clear cut as that. Nothing here is. Under Richard Eyre’s directorship, Allelujah‘s narrative arc is awkward and jarring; it never leads where I anticipate. Instead, it keeps confounding my expectations, pulling me one way and then another, wrong-footing me. Some of the political grandstanding is a little clunky – there are speeches occasionally, in lieu of dialogue – but all of this adds up to something really impactful.

If Sister Gilpin is a microcosm of the Beth, embodying its best and worst, then the Beth is a microcosm of the NHS, encompassing its triumphs and its disasters, its shortcomings and its accomplishments. The final scenes, depicting the heroic work our doctors and nurses did during the pandemic, provide a stark reminder of why we have to fight to keep our health service. It might be troubled, but it’s glorious and it’s ours. “You dismantle it at your peril.”

As the credits roll, there’s a stunned silence in the cinema. Then someone begins to applaud. And we all join in.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Rye Lane


Cineworld, Edinburgh

Imagine, if you will, a Richard Curtis style romcom, where two young people meet, have a whirlwind romance and celebrate whichever part of London they happen to live in. But with a big difference, because in this film all the leading characters are Black, while a few well-known white actors are relegated to tiny cameo roles. What’s more, the area where the story is set is depicted in such exquisite detail it almost becomes a character itself. That is essentially what Rye Lane is: a love letter to Peckham, previously immortalised onscreen in er… Only Fools and Horses.

The film opens in a unisex public toilet stall at an art gallery, where Dom (David Jonsson) sits weeping loudly. He’s bewailing the breakup of his six year relationship with Gia (Karene Peter), who – it turns out – has been cheating with Dom’s best friend, the handsome but dim-witted Eric (Benjamin Sarpong-Broni). The cause of the breakup? Dom has spotted Eric’s distinctive private parts in the background of a Messenger call to Gia. Awkward.

Into the toilet wanders Yas (Vivian Oparah), a vivacious young woman with an unconventional worldview. She believes that people can be divided into two basic categories: those who wave at boats and those who don’t. Yas overhears Dom’s distress and notices his footwear, so when she encounters him later, she feels impelled to become involved in his situation. At first the two of them seem to have absolutely nothing in common, but when Yas comes to Dom’s rescue during an awkward conciliatory meeting with his ex, their budding friendship is given a considerable power charge. Throwing all caution to the wind, he and Yas head off for a wild, adventurous day out…

If this all sounds depressingly familiar, don’t be fooled. Debut director Raine Allen-Miller has crafted a delightful odyssey across South London, backed up with vivid cinematography and a witty (sometimes downright hilarious) script by Nathan Bryan and Tom Melia. But the film’s real trump card is its vibrant depictions of everyday life in Peckham, throwing a whole set of dazzling locations and eccentric local inhabitants into the mix. What we get is a riot of open-air markets, street performers, public parks and an adrenalin-charged karaoke session. The film never allows one set-up to overstay its welcome, but keeps moving restlessly onwards to its heartwarming conclusion.

Okay, at the end of the day, Rye Lane may just be a slice of entertaining fluff but it is realised with such vigour and ingenuity that, long before we hit the end credits, I’m totally sold (and talking of end credits, stay in your seat for a brief but very funny outtake!). Anybody looking for a recharge should check this out without further delay. It’s utterly charming and the best fun I’ve had in the cinema for quite some time.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney



Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

This week’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint is the pithily titled Babs by Morna Young. We’ve enjoyed Young’s work before – Lost at Sea and Aye, Elvis are both excellent examples of Scottish theatre – so we arrive at the Traverse this Tuesday lunch time with high expectations. The set, by Gemma Patchett and Jonny Scott, doesn’t give much away: there are a few fir trees, some pipes, a couple of skulls and a ukelele – an eclectic mix, promising something unusual.

We’re not disappointed.

Bethany Tennick plays Lisa, a troubled young quine from Aberdeen, who lives for her annual holiday with her best pal, Shelley. Apart from that, all Lisa has is her guitar, her tunes and a truckload of attitude. So when Shelley decides she’d rather go away with her new boyfriend, Gareth, Lisa is raging. How dare Shelley ditch her? Desperate and drunk, she signs up for a solo retreat, which turns out to be life-changing, because ‘Babs’, the mysterious host, is none other than Baba Yaga – she of the iron teeth and chicken-legged house… Why has she invited Lisa here?

Young’s decision to write the piece in Doric dialect gives it an urgent authenticity, underscoring Lisa’s need to be true to herself, even as she searches for a new identity. She is a bold, in-your-face character, and Tennick imbues her with such spark and vim that it’s impossible not to warm to her, even when she’s being completely unreasonable. The songs (composed by Tennick) add an extra dimension, showing us that Lisa has the potential to be more than ‘a sheep’, even if she can’t yet see it herself. The plaintive ode to her mother is especially emotive.

Despite its dark themes, Babs is essentially a comedy, and I spend much of the fifty-minute running time laughing at Lisa’s disproportionate outrage, or at her renditions of the other characters who populate the tale. Director Beth Morton keeps the pace snappy, and every joke lands well with the audience.

I’m fair-tricket to say this is another winner from 2023’s first PPP season.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield



Cineworld, Edinburgh

It was clear before 65 even arrived that something was amiss with this project. Two planned release dates were swiftly abandoned, as though the project were seeking a landing at a time when not much else was happening cinema-wise. On paper, the premise sounds good. Adam Driver versus dinosaurs? What could possibly go wrong?

From the get-go, 65 requires viewers to accept a pretty unlikely set-up – that somewhere in the universe, sixty-five million years ago, a planet existed where the inhabits looked human, acted human and some of them even spoke perfect English. This is by no means a spoiler, it’s spelled out in text in the film’s opening moments. Mills (Driver) is a spaceship pilot, who has recently been charged with the task of heading up a two-year mission (we’re never given any of the details of what he’s expected to achieve out there). He’s agreed to leave his – everyday sexism alert! – un-named wife (Nika King) and his daughter, Nevine (Chloe Coleman), back on his home planet because the latter is suffering from an unspecified illness and Mills will now be earning triple his usual wages, which will no doubt pay for all those pesky hospital bills.

A year or so later, he’s travelling through space in a ship that’s also carrying a group of anonymous passengers in suspended animation (again we’re not trusted with an explanation for this), when a sudden meteor strike sends the ship hurtling towards an unknown planet. Mills survives the subsequent crash, along with a nine-year-old girl, Koa (Ariana Greenblatt). Now the two of them must somehow make their way to the ship’s escape pod, which is inconveniently stranded on top of a mountain.

The planet? It’s Earth. And it’s heavily populated by dinosaurs…

The term ‘stripped-back’ has never felt more appropriate – and, while the set-up strains credulity, it’s simply and effectively done. But once Mills and Koa are installed on this hostile planet, the film has nothing left but a series of frantic chases as our two heroes are pursued hither and thither by a bunch of scaly co-stars with no higher ambition than to eat their visitors. While the film looks great (the scenes shot in the Florida Everglades are particularly eye-catching), the inevitable result is monotony.

Attempts to vary things up are mostly centred around Mill’s recorded memories of his daughter – though, curiously there are none of his wife. (Did they fall out? We don’t know!) I am asked to suspend my disbelief every time a miraculous event saves Mills and Koa, allowing them to escape apparently certain death by a hair’s breadth. Written and directed by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, who created the superior A Quiet Place, I can’t help feeling that at some point there must have been a lot more information built into this film, cut out piece-by-piece after successive test screenings, perhaps. This may account for the finished movie’s relatively lean running time, and I suspect that, somewhere in the archives, there’s a director’s cut, which features a lot more information than we’re offered here.

It’s by no means a terrible film. The dinosaurs are decently rendered in CGI and I’m genuinely excited by the first attack – but, by the seventh or eighth, I find myself looking at my watch, wondering when I’ll be able to achieve escape velocity.

2. 8 stars

Philip Caveney



Cineworld, Edinburgh

Léo (Eden Dambine) and Rémy (Gustav De Waele) have been friends for as long as they can remember. At the grand old age of age of thirteen they are pretty much inseparable, riding their bikes side-by-side through the lush Belgian countryside and enjoying adventures conjured from their combined imaginations. Léo’s parents are market gardeners, who work almost around the clock, planting, growing and harvesting fields of beautiful flowers. Léo often spends his nights at Remy’s house. His parents, Sophie (Émilie Dequenne) and Peter (Kevin Janssens), are always welcoming and Léo thinks nothing of sharing a bed with Rémy, or of telling him his deepest, darkest secrets.

But everything changes when the boys start high school. A casual question from a girl – ‘are you two a couple?’ – prompts Léo to reassess the friendship. Eager to fit in with his classmates, he begins to put up barriers between himself and Rémy, making a determined effort to distance himself and, as if to emphasise his masculine side, even joining the school’s rough and tumble ice hockey team. When Rémy considers following suit, Léo bluntly dissuades him.

These actions cause an ever-widening rift between the boys – one that has tragic consequences.

Directer Lucas Dhont (who co-wrote the screenplay with Angelo Tijssens) crafts a simple but deeply affecting narrative that unfolds across a year’s changing seasons. He coaxes extraordinary performances from his two young leads – particularly from Dambine, who features in just about every scene and whose angelic face seems able to fleetingly portray a whole host of conflicting emotions. He’s also able to convey Léo’s total inability to articulate his regret – and his desperate attempts to reconnect with Sophie are the stuff of tragedy.

Valentin Hadjadje’s mournful score accentuates the mounting sorrow, while Frank van den Eeden’s languorous cinematography bathes the whole enterprise in the warm, golden glow of childhood. The final sequences of Close are deeply compelling and – it must be said – utterly heartbreaking. It’s only as the end credits roll that the enormity of what’s happened fully hits home.

This is a powerful and evocative portrayal of growing up, and the complexities of male friendship. Catch it on the big screen if you can – and prepare to be devastated.

4. 6 stars

Philip Caveney

You Bury Me


Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

You Bury Me is a play about six young Egyptians coming of age in the aftermath of the Arab Spring – “a generation emerging from a national trauma, determined to live and love freely”. It’s a fascinating premise. I’m aware of the Arab Spring, of course; I read the news. But I don’t know anything about life in modern Egypt, nor of the ‘what happens next’. I’m keen to learn more.

Written by an anonymous playwright – under the alias ‘Ahlam’ – and directed by Katie Posner, the play is a co-production with the ever-dependable Paines Plough (among others), and the winner of 2020’s Women’s Prize for Playwriting. Its strength lies in the verve and vitality of the characters, all brimful of youthful energy, fighting to find their places in a changing world.

Alia (Hanna Khogali) and Tamer (Moe Bar-El) have both just graduated from university, but they’ve little experience of sex and relationships. They’re in love and want to get married, but it’s not as easy as all that. Alia is Muslim and Tamer is Christian; Alia’s family, who all work for the police, will not be pleased – and Cairo is a city where displeasing the police can have serious consequences…

Meanwhile, eighteen-year-old Maya (Yasemin Özdemir) is making the most of her last year of high school, attending every party she can, and making out with lots of guys. She’s bubbly and outgoing, and doesn’t care a jot about her ‘reputation’. New girl Lina (Eleanor Nawal) is shy and insecure, but opposites attract sometimes, and the two soon become firm friends – but is this enough for Lina?

Osman (Tarrick Benham) is Maya’s half brother, and he’s a political writer, publishing a blog that makes him a target for the authorities. We never see his girlfriend, Zeina, but we learn that she’s an activist too, so it’s no surprise to learn that Rafik (Nezar Alderazi) – who’s staying with Osman because his dad has kicked him out for being gay – thinks there are people watching the house. The two men fear for each other: Osman urges Rafik to delete Grindr, while Rafik wants Osman to stop writing his blog. But neither is prepared to sacrifice their sense of self in order to feel ‘safe’.

All six actors deliver lively and spirited performances, and I like the choral narration that provides context. Özdemir in particular really owns the stage; she is very charismatic, and Maya and Lina’s burgeoning friendship is always believable. Khogali and Bar-El make the most of the humour in Alia and Tamer’s fumbling sexual encounters, as well as inviting empathy for the lovers’ plight.

Although Benham and Alderazi both inhabit their roles well, their strand of the play is less satisfying, mainly because it is all told rather than shown. We don’t see any of Rafik’s dates, nor his family disowning him. Neither do we find out anything about what Osman is actually writing: the political discourse here is frustratingly vague. What is he saying that is so inflammatory, and how much danger is he really in? Without these details, Osman’s rage at his blog being deleted lacks context, and Rafik’s big emotional scene doesn’t elicit as much sympathy as it ought.

You Bury Me is eminently watchable – in the same way as an episode of Friends or Skins – and there are plenty of laughs, as well as moments of sadness. Ultimately, however, I don’t think it quite delivers on its political promise.

3.3 stars

Susan Singfield