Author: Bouquets & Brickbats

Small Axe: Mangrove

20/11/20

BBC iPlayer

The first release in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, Mangrove, plays a little like a British version of Aaron Sorkin’s recent American project, The Trial of the Chicago 7. It relates an all-too-familiar story of police persecuting black people, in this case, the proprietors and customers of Mangrove, a West Indian restaurant in Notting Hill, established in the late 60s.

Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) sets the place up in an attempt to give his neighbours a community hub, where they can enjoy traditional Jamaican cuisine, the odd game of cards and some playful banter – but, as the new decade looms, he regularly suffers at the hands of the local Metropolitan police force, in particular PC Pulley (Sam Spruell), an unabashed racist who seizes every opportunity to raid the establishment, beating up customers and gleefully trashing whatever comes to hand, simply because there’s nobody to stop him.

But Pulley has reckoned without Black Panther member Altheia Jones (Letitia Wright) and her activist friend, Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby). Together, they encourage Frank to organise a peaceful protest march to complain about the rough treatment they are receiving. When the police’s heavy-handed attempts to control proceedings ensure that the march erupts into violence, it soon becomes clear that the only way the matter can be properly resolved is in court.

McQueen manages to capture the heady atmosphere as the inhabitants of Notting Hill spread their wings and take their first flights in the direction of a perceived freedom, little realising what a long and arduous trip it is going to be. There are strong performances from an ensemble cast, with Kirby and Rochenda Sandall particularly impressive as Howe and his girlfriend, Barbara Beese, and Spruell brilliantly loathsome as the odious Pulley.

There’s a vibrant soundtrack of early 70s hits, ranging from ska classics to the mellow tones of Jim Reeves, and McQueen’s team has a good eye for period detail. At times shaming – Alex Jennings’ portrayal of Judge Clarke offers a toe-curling depiction of a privileged white man seemingly oblivious to his own innate racism – Mangrove is a timely reminder that, though things surely have improved to some degree, there’s still a very long way to go before the UK achieves anything approaching equality for all.

With another four episodes to follow, each one featuring a different story, this is a powerful opening salvo in the Small Axe series, and makes it clear that McQueen is determined to take no prisoners. Bring it on.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

How To Build a Girl

13/11/20

Apple TV

Caitlin Moran’s 90s-set semi-autobiographical novel makes an awkward transition to film, with Moran handling screenplay duties and Coky Giedroyc directing. I say ‘awkward,’ because there’s quite a lot here that I like, but there are also elements that, to my mind, don’t quite come off. Moran’s own beginnings are well-documented (as are those of a young Julie Burchill, whose very similar formative years may also, I think, have provided some of the inspiration for this tale) and it’s inevitable that I spend much of the film speculating about who certain characters might be based on.

Beanie Feldstein stars as Johanna Morrigan, a literature-obsessed teenager who struggles to make friends in her hard-knock state school and whose only ally is her English teacher, Mrs Belling (Joanna Scanlan), who recognises her star pupil’s talent despite spending much of her time trying to rein her in. Johanna lives in a crowded council house alongside her knackered mum, Angie (Sarah Solemani), her jazz musician father, Pat (Paddy Considine), her brother, Krissi (Laurie Kynaston), and a whole clutch of squalling babies.

But when she enters and wins a local writing competition, it isn’t long before the world of music journalism beckons… and, almost before she knows it, she’s attending rock concerts and acquiring a reputation as the new hip gunslinger on the block, able to slay famous musicians with a single line of sarcasm.

But of course, all that careless bitching is sure to have repercussions somewhere further down the line…

Feldstein is a terrific talent, as her work in Booksmart attests, but, who decided to place her in a story set in Wolverhampton? To give Feldstein her due, she really does her best with what’s she’s been given, but her accent strays, inevitably, from Cardiff to Liverpool and all points in between, occasionally even paying visits to sunny California.

Furthermore, I’m not always entirely convinced by the depictions of working-class life on Johanna’s council estate, which at times feel distinctly caricatured, the memories of somebody who’s spent too many years in London’s hipster hangouts to achieve total recall.

But perhaps I’m being too harsh. For the most part, How To Build a Girl galumphs merrily along, liberally peppered with cameo roles from a whole raft of well-known actors, many of whom are afforded barely a line of dialogue. (Clearly Moran and Giedroyc made full use of their address books.) Alfie Allen offers a nice performance as John Kite, the doomy, gloomy rock star whom Johanna falls head over heels for and there are some neat observations about the male-dominated world of music journalism in the 90s.

The overall result is pleasant enough, but the conviction remains that this would have flown more convincingly with an unknown in the lead role – preferably somebody from the Black Country.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Greyhound

12/11/20

Apple TV

Not only does Tom Hanks star in this Apple Original as the harassed captain of a second World War American destroyer, he also wrote the screenplay, basing it on C. S. Forester’s classic novel, The Good Shepherd.

Hanks plays Captain Ernest Krause, charged with the monumental task of leading a huge supply convoy across the Atlantic, carrying much-needed provisions for the allied war effort. Krause knows that every man on the ship is looking to him for leadership and he’s also painfully aware that, beneath those restless waves, German U boats are waiting in ambush with the aim of sinking as many ships as possible. The pressure is palpable.

It’s evident from the start that formidable amounts of money have been lavished on this production. The depictions of life aboard ship are queasily authentic and there’s no denying the steadily mounting suspense that’s generated whenever a torpedo is launched in the general direction of Krause’s ship, The Greyhound. The shock and awe of naval warfare is brilliantly replicated, too, but that dogged dedication to authenticity makes everything a bit too technical for comfort, with Krause’s every directive being repeated ad infinitum by various members of his crew.

If there’s a major failing here, it stems from the fact that we learn precious little about any of the characters in the story. All we really know about Krause is that he prays every morning and that he never has time to eat. The excellent Stephen Graham, second-billed here as the ship’s navigator, has little opportunity to strut his stuff, while the equally excellent Elizabeth Shue, briefly glimpsed in a couple of flashbacks, has even less.

It’s clear that in his screenplay, Hanks wants to concentrate on the notion that the exploits of real heroes are largely unsung: that courage often comes from the most quiet and unassuming people – but the problem is, this leaves me wanting more than this film is ultimately able to deliver. It’s hard to care about people you don’t know and no amount of weaponry can ever hope to make up for that deficit.

There are admittedly some lovely details – a scene where Krause quietly removes his blood-stained shoes and puts on a pair of carpet slippers is strangely moving – and I like the moment when he unwittingly calls a member of his crew by the name of the man’s predecessor, recently killed in action – but such moments are not quite enough to make this cinematic vessel suitably seaworthy.

Don’t get me wrong. This film doesn’t exactly sink without trace, but the beating heart of the story is, sadly, missing in action.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

What a Carve Up!

11/11/20

Barn Theatre Online

Jonathan Coe’s acclaimed satirical novel of the early 90s is an intriguing choice for a theatrical adaptation, especially when it has been filmed during lockdown with a socially distanced cast. Indeed, it’s hard to know quite how to categorise this co-production between the Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley Theatre and New Wolsey Theatre – though the word uppermost in my mind is ‘ingenious.’

It’s essentially a film – it had to be – and yet it feels unmistakably theatrical. There are just three physically present actors on this virtual stage, and indeed only two of them actually share a scene (even then, I can’t be sure they didn’t use a special effect). But, through clever use of stock footage, memorabilia, posters and still images – and with character voiceovers supplied by stalwarts like Derek Jacobi, Rebecca Front, Griff Rhys Jones and Stephen Fry, it feels somehow like a big cast is at work here.

Staged rather like one of those amateur ‘true crime’ shows to be found on social media, Alfred Enoch stars as Raymond Owen, who, years after the event, is re-examining an old murder case for which his father, the novelist Michael Owen, was been widely blamed. The victims were six members of the rich and powerful Winshaw family, movers and shakers in the Thatcher era, all of them killed in highly theatrical ways (much like the critics murdered by Vincent Price’s character in Theatre of Blood).

But Raymond feels he has uncovered new evidence that proves his father couldn’t have been the killer. Elsewhere, The Journalist (Tamzin Outhwaite) interviews the sole surviving member of the Winshaw clan, Josephine Winshaw-Eaves (Fiona Button) about some of the strange irregularities of the case. Button is excellent, all wide-eyed innocence at on moment and then cuttingly vitriolic the next.

What ensues is a labyrinthine story that drags the viewer from one possibility to the next. Coe’s tale has been brought bang up to date with mentions of Dominic Cummings and Covid and makes it quite clear that not much has changed since the nineties, with the rich and privileged still exerting a malign influence over the world of politics.

Tickets for this show can be booked online and once downloaded, viewers have 48 hours to watch the piece before the link expires. While it’s not as good as an actual live visit to a show, it’s certainly the closest we can hope for at the moment and all profits will go to supporting regional theatres.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Shirley

06/11/20

Curzon Home Cinema

The Shirley of the title is, of course, Shirley Jackson, the much lauded author of short horror stories and novels, now back in the public consciousness after the recent success of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House.

As portrayed by Elisabeth Moss, the author is a bundle of neuroses, afflicted by agoraphobia, alcoholism and a seeming inability to stop smoking for more than ten seconds at a time. It’s the 1960s and Jackson is living with her pompous and manipulative university lecturer husband, Stanley (Michael Stulhbarg, brilliantly insufferable). She’s also struggling to rediscover her writing mojo.

And then along comes Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman), an aspiring junior professor and his pregnant wife, Rose (Odessa Young). Fred is seeking Stanley’s endorsement for a post at his college in Vermont and the young couple have been invited to live in the rambling family home. This initially seems appealing, but the upshot is that poor Rose finds herself cast as a kind of housekeeper, cooking meals and cleaning up around the place, while her husband throws himself headlong into the world of academia, (which seems to mean throwing himself at some of his young female students into the bargain.)

Rose also finds herself fascinated and disturbed in equal measure by Shirley’s writing, and it isn’t long before she’s become some kind of muse to the older woman. As their relationship deepens, it initiates changes in Rose’s persona and prompts her to look more deeply into the ‘based-on-true-life’ story that Shirley is currently working on…

This is a complex piece that takes its own sweet time to set out its stall and, in the process, it manages to create a convincing and suffocating world that is shot through with toxic domesticity. However, though it occasionally seems to hint at revelations hovering just out of our reach, it never seems to quite deliver them. This is a shame, but there are compensations, not least the performances, which are all accomplished.

Moss gets the showier role, portraying a character who can be as sweet as apple pie one moment and spitting venom the next, but it’s arguably Young who has the most difficult part, showing Rose’s gradual transition from a glamorous, passionate young woman into the twitchy, nervy receptacle of all of Shirley’s insecurities.

Based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell and adapted by Sarah Gubbins, the plot also seems to take a few liberties with the truth, but – when the main subject is a writer of fiction – perhaps this is excusable. In many ways, the film reminds me of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, another story where an older university lecturer and his alcoholic wife leech all of the life out of a younger, more optimistic couple.

Shirley may not quite add up to a perfect movie, but its nonetheless worth your attention, if only to relish those fine performances.

3.7 stars

Philip Caveney

His House

05/11/20

Netflix

The ghosts and demons that regularly haunt people in supernatural stories are rarely as terrifying as those that are generated by their victims’ own bad experiences. That’s the central theme of Remi Weekes’ assured ‘ghost’ story, His House, newly arrived on Netflix. It relates a powerful – sometimes terrifying – tale that uses all the familiar tropes of the classic ghost story, yet offers us something more than the average scare-fest.

Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wummi Mosaku) are asylum seekers, newly arrived in Britain after a nightmarish experience in their native South Sudan. They have managed to survive a perilous sea crossing, suffering a terrible loss along the way. They now reside in a detention centre that is, to all intents and purposes, a prison. But fresh hope arrives in the offer of a home of their own, a place where they can live while they wait to see if they will be granted sanctuary.

They are met at the property by housing officer, Mark Essworth (Matt Smith), a man so ground down by the drudgery of his work that he seems barely capable of summoning the energy to answer their questions. But he does remind them that they are not, under any circumstances, allowed to live anywhere else until their case is closed. Which wouldn’t be a problem… but, as the couple soon discover, something malevolent is living behind the mouldering walls that enclose them… something that is rapidly marshalling its powers.

This is a lean and compelling narrative, which somehow manages to find fresh strengths in familiar techniques, and there’s a major surprise waiting in the wings, that – once revealed – leads viewers to reassess what they think they already know. Jo Willems’ cinematography offers memorable imagery and some of the dream landscapes he creates linger in the mind long after the closing credits.

His House not only provides a cracking thrill ride, packed with cleverly executed jump scares, it also makes you think deeply about the plight of people obliged to run from real life terrors, and the weight of the baggage that inevitably accompanies such circumstances.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

Crave

04/11/20

Chichester Festival Theatre (Live Streaming)

The title feels apt, because we have been craving live theatre. And this production of Sarah Kane’s bleakly poetic play, directed by Tinuke Craig, is the closest we can get. It’s actually playing as we speak, not recorded live and then shown again. It’s real! And somehow, with the lights turned low, some of that theatrical magic makes it through our computer monitor and we’re transfixed.

Our sense of immersion owes a lot to Alex Lowde’s set design. It’s stark and minimalistic: just four conveyer belts driving the characters onwards, enlarged footage of their faces projected onto the screen behind. The stage revolves too, adding to the sense that none of these characters has any control over what happens to them. They’re stuck on their individual treadmills, too consumed by the inexorable motion to look around or make any real connections.

Kane’s play famously has no stage directions; nor are there any character names or notes; nor does the text make clear who is speaking to whom at any point. Here, they mostly speak into the void, four disparate figures, each desperate to be heard. When they do make contact with one another, it’s fleeting, and ultimately unhelpful. At first, it’s confusing: a cacophony of sound and imagery. But, in the end, it’s like an incomplete jigsaw. Yes, there are gaps; no, we don’t have all the pieces and there are no easy answers. But a compelling picture has emerged, and we are utterly engaged.

Erin Docherty (C) and Jonathan Slinger (A) have the showiest of the parts: as an abused child and a self-pitying paedophile. They’re both terrific. Wendy Kweh (M) and Alfred Enoch (B) are great too, but their roles are more understated and so less memorable.

In the end, it just feels wonderful to experience challenging theatre again. As lockdowns – either full or partial – look set to continue for some time yet, I hope we can at least look forward to more of this.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

Hotel Du Vin

04/11/20

Bristo Place, Edinburgh

It hardly seems possible, but a quick glance back through the diary confirms it: we haven’t visited a proper restaurant since March.

Yes, that’s right. March.

Oh, yes, we’ve been in socially-distanced cafes and we’ve had swanky restaurants deliver food to our door to be heated up and consumed at home, but really, enough is enough. Another lockdown’s looming and we’re determined that it’s high time we dined out, so we cast around for places where we can possibly eat al fresco in November. In Scotland. Then we remember that the Hotel Du Vin does have a very pleasant courtyard and, what’s more, it is even equipped with patio heaters should the weather prove too brisk.

So here we are, at a table in said courtyard, nibbling at warm bread dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar and discussing the unfolding horror story that is the American presidential election. Meanwhile, we lament the fact that today our discussion cannot be lubricated with something containing alcohol, but hey, them’s the rules – and you can’t have everything. The staff are friendly and attentive, and ensure that they observe social distancing at all times. We feel very relaxed.

For my starter, I choose sautéed mushrooms on toasted sourdough and it turns out to be a good choice. The generously sized mushrooms are soaked in a rich Madeira sauce and virtually melt in the mouth, while the crispy toast provides a perfect contrast. Susan has a baked St Marcellin cheese fondue which is rich and creamy and is accompanied by new potatoes, cornichons and croutons. It only takes a mouthful of our respective starters to make us appreciate how much we’ve missed doing this and, happily, we’ve chosen a good place to break our fast because both meals are pretty much note perfect.

Next up for me is haddock and king prawn gratin, baked in a cream sauce and glazed under breadcrumbs with thick, stringy layers of Gruyère. It’s a gooey, aromatic treat, generously stuffed with chunky prawns and accompanied by sides of frites and cauliflower cheese. Susan opts for mussels frites, a big bowl of moules marinère steamed in white wine, cream, shallots and garlic. Despite me selflessly helping her to eat it, the portion is too generous to finish.

After this, we’re feeling pretty full but we’re not ready to leave, so we have coffee and more chat, just to ensure that we’re absolutely certain there’s definitely no room for pudding.

And of course, in the fullness of time, it turns out there is room, and who knows when we’ll have this opportunity again? So I order an apple and blackberry crumble, the fruit still with a little bite left in it and served with an indulgent hot custard. Susan finishes off with a perfectly executed crème brûlée, the top scorched just enough that it breaks with a satisfying snap when tapped with a spoon. Voila!

By the time we head for home, the evening is already descending and we find ourselves thinking of all the incredible meals we’ve enjoyed since we first moved to Edinburgh. For now, we can only cross our fingers and hope that one day soon, those happy times will return, and that visits to places like Hotel Du Vin will once again be commonplace.

But right now, this was really just what we needed.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Bike Project: Jokes and Spokes

03/11/20

It’s my brother who tells us that The Bike Project’s Jokes and Spokes annual charity comedy night is streaming live. Like many others, our family is spread out around the country and, with Scotland, England and Wales all following different lockdown timetables, who knows how long it’ll be before we can see each other again? So he suggests we ‘attend’ this event together, and we (and my parents) are more than happy to comply.

We know it’s bound to a be a little odd. Stand ups need their live audiences more than other performers (theatre link-ups aren’t as good as the real thing, but they can still be wonderful); as an audience member, I need the buzz of shared laughter too, the sense of complicity that comes from sitting in a darkened room, ideally being challenged and surprised. But still. That’s not available, and we all have to adapt.

And The Bike Project is a very worthwhile cause: all money raised goes towards refurbishing old bicycles and giving them to refugees. I love this: ethical, environmental, achievable and genuinely useful.

Jen Brister compères, and she’s good at it: briskly funny, with a warm and generous manner. She puts us at our ease, and we settle in.

It’s a bit of a mixed bag, quality wise. To be fair, not only are the comedians dealing with an unfriendly format, they’re also out of practice, and haven’t had much chance to hone their work.

Still, Suzi Ruffell gets us off to a good start. She’s so twinkly and charming, it almost doesn’t matter if she’s telling jokes or not, but she is, and they’re funny – so that’s good. True, we’ve all seem some of this material before, but that’s inevitable to some extent, and there’s new stuff in there too.

I’m a little disappointed with Andy Zaltzman – whose comedy I usually like – because he’s reading from a script, so there’s no eye contact at all. Also, he reads so quickly that I miss a lot of it. If we were in the same room, he’d be able to gauge that better, I guess, and slow himself down. I can’t really review the content, because I didn’t catch it. A real shame.

Next up is Evelyn Mok. I haven’t seen her before and I want to cut her some slack because lockdown is hard on all of us, and I know she’s appearing for free (like all the comics here). But she doesn’t seem to have any material at all, not even a basic bit of WIP, and she’s just chatting to the ‘front row’ audience members who are visible on our screens. ‘This is like being at somebody else’s family get together,’ my brother messages our group. There are some rare raconteurs who can just shoot the breeze and keep us entertained. But Evelyn Mok doesn’t do it for me tonight. If I get the chance to see her live, I’ll take it; I’d like to know what she’s like in a more natural environment.

Although I’ve never seen Athena Kugblenu, I’m primed to like her because I listen to The Guilty Feminist and I know her well from that. She doesn’t disappoint. Yes, it’s a low energy performance, but she’s cheery and engaged, and she makes us laugh. Oddly, it’s her stuff about how difficult it is to do comedy online that really hits the mark. It’s a relief to mock the elephant in the Zoom.

We’re all big fans of Richard Herring in our family, and he’s his usual cheeky, ramshackle self. But, although he’s set himself the laudable challenge of not performing any of his pre-lockdown material again, we’ve still all heard this set before. It’s not his fault, though, that we listen to all of his podcasts and read his blog; we’re bound to encounter his ideas along the way. Things pick up when he introduces his ventriloquist dummy, Ally, and embarks on a ridiculous improvisation.

Kemah Bob gives us the most honed performance of the night. She seems very comfortable performing online, and she establishes an easy intimacy. This is clearly well practised material, but it’s new to us, and we’re laughing out loud most of the time.

Last but not least is headliner Frankie Boyle. He’s great: his tone is very natural, and he’s as acerbic and cantankerous as you’d expect. This is classic Frankie, albeit with the invective dialled down a notch.

The show ends and our group call begins. It’s been great, we all agree: three households ‘meeting’ remotely to share an experience. Not as good, nowhere near as good, as going out together would be. But a fair compromise in a compromised world. And charitable to boot.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Rocks

30/10/20

Netlix

In one of those weird examples of synchronicity, I’ve just finished writing a monologue about a fifteen-year-old girl whose mum takes off, leaving her home alone and frantically trying to avoid the prying eyes of social workers. And then we come across Rocks on Netflix, and decide to give it a go.

Ah. It’s about a teenage girl whose mum takes off, leaving her home alone, etc.

Bucky Bakray plays Shola, known to her friends as Rocks. When her mum, Funke (Layo-Christina Akinlude), takes off ‘to clear her head,’ Rocks knows the score. It’s not the first time it’s happened. Funke has mental health problems; it’s not that she doesn’t care. She leaves Rocks some money, after all.

But there’s Rocks’ little brother, Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu), to consider too. He’s still at primary school, and he takes a lot of looking after. It’s too much for Rocks, and she starts to lose her way, falling out with her best friend, Sumaya (Kosar Ali), and taking up with loose-cannon new girl, Roshé (Shaneigha-Monik Greyson). Things soon get out of hand, and Rocks’ world comes crashing down.

Rocks is a lovely, heartfelt movie. It’s tragic, yes, but it’s also warm and life-affirming. It’s great to see a film set in London’s sprawling council estates that recognises inner-city poverty without wallowing in it, and that depicts the city’s working-class residents as rounded human beings. It’s beautifully performed by this troupe of teenage actors, and is utterly believable. I’m especially moved by the realistic depiction of friendship here: the girls quarrel, they tell each other unwelcome truths; they cry, they laugh, they are frequently out of their depth – but, ultimately, they care, and that’s enough.

Directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Theresa Ikoko, Rocks is a wonderful coming-of-age story, and well worth your attention.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield