Author: bobthebiker

What Girls Are Made Of

17/04/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

We missed What Girls Are Made Of at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, which is a shame because Cora Bissett’s autobiographical tale was a First Fringe winner there and enjoyed great word of mouth. This timely reshowing at the Traverse gives us an opportunity to catch up with it and boy, are we glad we do.

From the moment she wanders onto the stage carrying a cardboard box full of ‘memories,’ Bissett has us clutched in the palm of her hand – and she expertly delivers her picaresque story, relating her knockabout schooldays in Kirkcaldy, her early years in rock music and her exciting brush with fame when her newly formed band Darlingheart shared stages with the likes of Blur and Radiohead at the height of the Britpop phenomenon. Bissett is a superb raconteur and she knows exactly how to pull an audience into her world.

If you’re thinking that this is a piece that concentrates only on the good times, let me assure you that it also takes in the darker side of the music industry, demonstrating how a young musician’s hopes and dreams can be ground underfoot by unscrupulous record labels. There’s a reason you may not have heard much about Darlingheart, and Bisset reveals it all in excruciating detail. This part of her story speaks volumes to me: back in my teen years, I too was a hopeful in a rock band, and went through my own long dark night of the soul at the hands of the music moguls.

Lest I give the impression that this is just a solo performance, I should add that the three members of her band (Simon Donaldson, Harry Ward and Susan Bear) not only provide a kicking soundtrack for Bissett’s story, but also take on a multitude of roles, playing key characters on her journey with aplomb, Ward in particular evincing much laughter as her indomitable mother. Ward is an arresting performer, last seen by B&B in the superb Dark Carnival, also at The Traverse.

Bissett eventually emerged from the carnage of Darlingheart, learning how to survive, and finally carving out a career as a writer, performer and director. Her conclusion – that we are all a result of the various obstacles we overcome in our path through life – is cannily encompassed in a final, rousing song.

This is enervating stuff and the standing ovation the four performers receive as the last chords die away is well earned. If you can grab a ticket for What Girls Are Made Of, do so with all haste. It’s often said, but I’m saying it anyway: this is simply too good to miss.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

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Abigail’s Party

16/04/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Mike Leigh’s 1970s drama is one of those pieces everyone just seems to know. I was only six when it was first screened in 1977, far too young to have seen it then, and yet it feels like something I have grown up with, ever-present, with Alison Steadman’s Beverly the towering icon at its heart.

For those few the play has eluded, or whose memories need a jog, Abigail’s Party is a dark comedy, an agonising depiction of social embarrassment. When painfully polite divorcee, Sue (Rose Keegan), needs somewhere to spend the evening while her wayward daughter, Abigail, has the titular party, Beverly (Jodie Prenger) seizes the opportunity to play host, inviting gauche new neighbours, Angela (Vicky Binns) and Tony (Calum Callaghan), to make up the numbers. Beverly’s overworked estate agent husband, Laurence (Daniel Casey), is reluctant – he has business calls to make and has to be up early in the morning – but Beverly prevails. It’s clear that Beverly always prevails. And nothing will stand in the way of her desire to show off her cocktail cabinet and leather three-piece-suite.

It’s a sturdy piece of work, and one that stands the test of time, with far more to offer than the kitsch 70s-pastiche set and costumes might suggest. But these are just a kind of shorthand, a means of settling the audience comfortably into a recognisable time and place, before discomfiting us with the hubris and frailty of the characters on stage.

The acid nature of the couples’ relationships and their collective lack of self-awareness drive the humour here; we, like Sue, are baffled outsiders, blinking at the awfulness of the people before us. Rose Keegan is adroit at conveying a sense of mounting horror, her pleasant manners becoming an ever-less effective method of keeping Beverly at bay.

Prenger, as Beverly, is of course the key to the whole play, and she’s a formidable performer, who has the chops for the part. I can’t help wishing there was less of Steadman here though; director Sarah Esdaile asserts that “Alison is inextricably linked with Beverly’s voice” – she helped create the role – and I know that’s true, but I would prefer to see a different incarnation of Beverly, a new interpretation of this monstrous creature. After all, there are Beverlys everywhere.

Vicky Binns does a cracking turn as the gawky Angela, gamely weathering her taciturn husband’s scorn, and desperate to impress. The saddest moment in the play for me is when she decries her parents’ dreadful marriage, seemingly unaware that her own is a carbon copy; the funniest is her dance. At first, I find her style a bit declamatory but, as the drama progresses, it works: Angela is performing for Beverly.

Calum Callaghan might not have showy stuff to do as Tony, but his dark mood effectively puts a dampener on the evening, quelling every moment of  light-heartedness or potential joy. And Daniel Casey’s Laurence is a fascinating study, almost likeable, but for his desperate snobbishness, and his vengeful urge to humiliate his wife.

An excoriating social satire, Abigail’s Party might press the nostalgia buttons, but it’s still very relevant today.

4 stars 

Susan Singfield

 

The Sisters Brothers

15/04/19

The western movie has ridden some twisted trails over the years, but few of them are quite as strange as the one followed by The Sisters Brothers. The first feature in English by French director Jacques Audiard, it’s based on the acclaimed novel by Patrick De Witt. It’s a good deal more philosophical than your average oater and it takes it owns sweet time to relate a decidedly bizarre tale.

The titular brothers are hired guns, working for the mysterious Commodore (a thankless non-speaking role for Rutger Hauer). Eli (John C Reilly) is the shy, sensitive one, who’s clearly not cut out for this kind of work, but is nonetheless deadly with a revolver, whenever push comes to shove. He tends to play second fiddle to the more nihilistic Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), a habitual drunkard, who somehow manages to turn everything he touches into absolute chaos.

For their latest mission, the brothers are despatched to rendezvous with another hired gun, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), in order to apprehend the charismatic Herman Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a man with a spectacular (and, it would seem, almost magical) secret. But when Morris bumps into Warm, he soon falls under the man’s peculiar spell and the two of them quickly become business partners – a move which makes the brothers’ latest mission even more complicated than they expected.

This is a weirdly metaphorical film, where strange images loom out of mythic landscapes – a film where blazing horses career through the night and chunks of gold shimmer invitingly at the bottom of a creek – where opportunities pop up unexpectedly from the sagebrush only to metamorphose into death traps. As the brothers bicker and quarrel their way across the screen, we begin to learn that they are pioneers of their own misfortune, doomed to keep running from the seemingly endless adversaries that are pitched against them – and, even when they too find themselves partnering with their former target, it is only to unleash more dangers.

The Sisters Brothers certainly won’t be for everyone – and, with a running time of just over two hours, it will try the patience of those who want something more straightforward. But once settled into its peculiar rhythm, I find myself beguiled and occasionally startled by it. This is a Western the like of which I’ve never seen before and, trust me, I’ve seen many. I enjoy the ride.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Missing Link

14/04/19

Since its Oscar-winning debut feature Coraline in 2009, Laika Animation has resolutely ploughed its own furrow through the world of stop-motion, steadfastly avoiding the obvious and always maintaining the highest standards. Aardman may be the better-known company, but Laika are more consistent – and they seem to have perfected the trick of creating animations that really are suitable for all ages.

Missing Link is a good case in point. This is the story of fearless Victorian adventurer, Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), a man with an unshakable belief in his own brilliance and a matching resolve to hunt down the mythical creatures of the world. When his attempt to photograph the Loch Ness monster makes him a laughing stock at the Adventurers’ Club, he decides to go in search of the legendary American Sasquatch – and, in a plot strand that owes an unspoken debt to Around the World in 80 Days, even makes a bet with the society’s villainous leader, Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry), that he will prove that the creature is more than just a legend. If he succeeds, he will be granted membership. As insurance, Piggot-Dunceby sends evil assassin Willard Stenk (Timothy Oliphant) to ensure that Frost fails to make good on his wager.

Frost soon locates said Sasquatch, whom he quickly dubs Mr Link (Zach Galifianakis). But he is more than a little surprised to discover that this particular Bigfoot can talk, read and even write – indeed, he has penned the letter summoning Frost to meet up with him. He wants more than just an exchange of pleasantries. He wants Frost to take him to meet his closest cousins – the Yetis of far off Tibet…

Everything about Missing Link is spot on – the gorgeous, idiosyncratic animation, the astute characterisation, the fleet footed storyline that scrambles from one thrilling escapade to the next. There are some very funny scenes here, enough to get a Sunday afternoon audience laughing along throughout and there are also several eye-popping sequences that combine the stop-frame puppets with state of the art CGI work, a storm at sea being a particular standout.

It’s also great to note that Zoe Saldana’s adventurer, Adelina Fortnight, is given enough chops to compete on an equal footing with her male companions, whilst neatly sidestepping the possibility of being cast as (ho hum) the film’s love interest.

This is wildly entertaining stuff – and it’s been quite a while since I enjoyed an animated feature quite as much as this one. If you’re looking for the perfect family feature, you can’t go wrong with this.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Highwaymen

11/04/19

In 1967, director Arthur Penn created the unforgettable Bonnie and Clyde. Featuring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in career-defining roles, it treated the young outlaws as folk heroes and their bloody slow-mo deaths in a hail of bullets transformed them into martyrs. It was emotive stuff and few people emerged from a screening dry-eyed.

John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen takes an altogether more sober look at their three year reign of terror and concentrates on the two elderly men who ultimately brought them to justice. Indeed, here, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow are demoted to the periphery of the action, glimpsed only in longshot until the very end – an approach that somehow serves to accentuate their charisma.

Kevin Costner stars as former Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer, brought out of comfortable retirement in order to hunt down the seemingly unstoppable duo. He teams up with old comrade, Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), and the two ageing men embark on the long quest to find their elusive quarry. Their uncomfortable, odd couple relationship lies at the heart of this film, which is beautifully shot by John Schwartzman, the endless vistas of the American plains shimmering enticingly. This is, in many ways, an elegy for the old West, a world where new fangled automobiles struggle to deal with the kind of landscape where only horses previously ran.

Writer John Fusco is interested in the popularity of Bonnie and Clyde, the way they generated a huge fan following in a time of absolute poverty. They were widely seen as Robin Hood figures, outlaws who only ever stole from the rich. The scenes of mass hysteria when the couple’s bullet-riddled corpses are brought before the public are sobering indeed.

It’s interesting to read that the relatives of the real Frank Hamer successfully sued Warner Brothers for defamation of character over his depiction in the Arthur Penn classic. Costner sets the record straight here, playing him as a pragmatist, a man who takes no pleasure in killing them, but sees their deaths as a necessity – mad dogs to be put down in the public’s interest, even if the public don’t realise what’s good for them.

While The Highwaymen doesn’t have a lot to offer in the way of high drama, it’s nevertheless an interesting and very different take on a story you may already think you know well. Interested parties will find it on Netflix.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Scorrybreac

10/04/19

Bosville Terrace, Portree, Skye

We’re holidaying on the Isle of Skye, and we’re awed by its beauty. Our remote cottage has an uninterrupted view of Staffin Bay, and we’re happily spending our days walking the hills and cliff tops, our evenings barbecuing and drinking wine. But we love to eat out too, and so we spend a little time researching what’s available. Friends have recommended The Three Chimneys and Kinloch Lodge, but both are a little too far away; neither of us fancies a ninety-minute drive either side of dinner. And google has another suggestion.

Scorrybreac is a tiny restaurant in Portree, a manageable forty minutes down a winding mountain road. Situated above the harbour, its simple furnishings and minimalist menu bode very well indeed. This looks like just the kind of place we like. Indeed, it’s the kind of place a lot of people like, and friend google makes it very clear that advance booking is a must. We witness the truth of this advice from the comfort of our window seat, as disappointed potential diners are turned away in droves.

It’s a family affair, run by the Munro brothers, one of whom shoulders the entire front of house responsibility. Hats off to him: he’s friendly, taking time to answer questions and enthuse about the food, whilst still maintaining a brisk and efficient approach. In a place this small (there are only eighteen covers), the simple three course/three options menu makes perfect sense. And, at £45 a head, the pricing seems sensible too.

The wine list is short but nicely varied, but – as I’m driving – we don’t get to try it out. Philip has a glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc, which he says is good and ‘lemony.’

We’re given a bowl of smoked popcorn to graze as soon as we sit down and, soon after ordering, an amuse bouche appears. It’s a carrot and turmeric purée, topped with larch pines, which is an interesting touch. Next to arrive is a slice of warm soda bread with whipped caramelised butter. Yum. I’m impressed, and I haven’t even started my meal yet.

To start, we both order the monkfish carpaccio, which comes with beetroot, orange and crème fraîche. It’s the freshest tasting dish imaginable, the fish all melt-in-the-mouth loveliness, and the accompanying pea shoots adding a welcome zing. We’re informed that the oil on the plate is Douglas fir, and its piny flavour is something new to us. It’s good, complementing the dish perfectly.

For his main course, Philip has the lamb rump with wild garlic and Jerusalem artichoke. The meat is rich and soft, the flavours bold and intense. I opt for the cod with mussels, cabbage and vanilla. It’s beautiful: really light and delicate, although it does become a little watery after a few minutes.

We order everything on the pudding menu, and share what we receive. There’s dark chocolate, caramel and malt ice-cream, which turns out to be a cremeux type thing, almost viciously bitter, but artfully tempered by the ice cream and honeycomb. Then there’s sea buckthorn, meringue and almond, which is a slice of deliciously moist cake served with an orange mousse and a light Italian meringue. These are plate-lickingly good, although we refrain from actually doing so. Just.

To finish, we have cheese: generous slices of brie, blue cheese and smoked cheddar, with chunky oatcakes, fruit and (a simple but genius touch) honey.

Scorrybreac is a little treasure of a place, and definitely worth booking if you like fine dining without a fuss.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Black 47

08/04/19

A taciturn soldier deserts the army, heads back to his homeland  and finds that, in his absence, his family has been decimated. Powered by a hunger for revenge, he sets off to exact bloody mayhem on the people who have wronged him.

It sounds like the plot of a typical Clint Eastwood western, but here the army in question is the English forces in Afghanistan, the soldier is Feeney (James Frecheville), his family is based in County Connemara and the year is 1847, when the potato famine is wreaking mayhem on the Irish nation. What’s more, the English landlords are turfing out all tenants who cannot afford their rent, or will not ‘take the soup’ – a free handout that is only given to those who will renounce their Catholic faith and become protestants.

Once Feeney is embarked on his violent mission, old comrade, and former Connaught Ranger, Hannah (Hugo Weaving), is recruited to track him down, working alongside young English officer, Pope (Freddie Fox). But it’s a long journey to bring their man to justice and, as they progress along their corpse-littered route, Hannah begins to realise that the real enemy here is not Feeny, but the oppressive English landlords, who seem to regard the native population as vermin to be eradicated.

Lance Daly’s film, Black 47, was never going to be a big hitter at the box office but, like so many other mid-list titles, has found a home on Netflix. It’s a bleak, hard-hitting movie, beautifully filmed in desaturated colour by Declan Quinn and, while it pulls no punches with its political message, it focuses more on the action scenes, of which there are plenty. There are some superb actors in small roles. Stephen Rea shines as local opportunist, Coneely, and Jim Broadbent, usually such a jovial presence, makes a plausible villain as the sneering, venal Lord Kilmichael. There’s even the presence of rising star, Barry Keoghan, playing (of all things) an English soldier.

Perhaps the film can be accused of a certain heavy-handedness (virtually every English character we meet is a contemptible villain) but this is nonetheless a decent action film that keeps us suitably gripped to the final scene.

4 stars

Philip Caveney