The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel


Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

I was a big fan of Deborah Moggach’s books back in the 80s and 90s. You Must Be Sisters, in particular, made an indelible impression. Although I didn’t read These Foolish Things, when it hit the silver screen in 2011 as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, I was primed to enjoy it – and I kind of did. Under John Madden’s direction and with a stellar cast, it struck me as a good-natured, feel-good slice of cinema.

It seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that a successful, ‘uplifting’ film should be adapted into a touring play, so it’s no surprise to find TBEMH added to the roll call. This gentle comedy tells the tale of the widowed Mrs Kapoor (Rekha John-Cheryan) and her hapless son, Sonny (Nishad More), owners of the dilapidated titular hotel. His mother wants to sell the failing business, but Sonny has another idea. He’s been reading about the way old people are treated in the UK: abandoned by their families; ripped off by care homes. Why not repurpose their building as a residential hotel, where elderly white English people can see out their days?

Enter a rag-tag of pensioners: mousy Evelyn (Tessa Peake-Jones), recently widowed and terribly timid; smug married “been-there-done-that” know-it-alls Jean (Eileen Battye) and Douglas (Paul Nicholas); mysterious ex-broadcaster Dorothy (Paola Dionisotti); would-be comedian Norman (Graham Seed); sexy Madge (Belinda Lang), on the hunt for a fourth husband; and Muriel (Marlene Sidaway), ex-cleaner and current bigot. Of course, they’re all on journeys of self-discovery, and India provides the perfect exotic backdrop…

The jokes land well with tonight’s audience and there is much laughter in the auditorium but, in all honesty, it’s an uncomfortable watch. It’s 2023, and we’re all more aware than we were back in 2011. Now, the white saviour narrative feels dated and horribly self-aggrandising. I wince as Muriel points out the inequity of the caste system, thus enlightening Mrs Kapoor and convincing her to promote the ‘Untouchable’ sweeper (Anant Varman). I cringe as the old white women solve Sonny’s relationship problems by telling him to marry for love and reject the idea of an arranged marriage. I squirm as Evelyn educates the lively call-centre workers (Shila Iqbal and Kerena Jagpal), smashing their sales targets with a bit of good English common sense. There is the occasional attempt to temper this (“It was the young people’s idea”), etc., but – basically – it’s the Indians’ role to inspire the Brits by smiling through adversity, and it’s the Brits’ role to show the Indians how to get things done. Sigh.

I’ll file this one under ‘A’ for ‘Awkward’.

2.5 stars

Susan Singfield

The Stamping Ground


Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

As jukebox musicals go, The Stamping Ground – inspired by the back catalogue of the near legendary (and now, sadly defunct) Gaelic rock band, Runrig – is more coherent than most. Writer Morna Young has skilfully repurposed twenty of the band’s songs into the story of a community of contemporary villagers struggling to save their way of life.

Euan (Ali Watt) is the author of a series of bodice-ripping novels set in the Scottish Highlands, but his career has stalled. After his teenage daughter, Fiona (Caitlin Forbes), is beaten up by a gang of bullies, he and his wife, Annie (Jenny Hulse), decide to relocate from their home in London to Glenbeag, (‘Little Valley” in Gaelic), the remote village where they were raised, and where his widowed mother, Mary (Annie Grace), still lives. But Euan is horrified to discover that Mary is now close friends with Summer (Naomi Stirrat), the daughter of the man who, years ago was responsible for Euan’s father’s death.

The family have arrived at a turbulent time for the village. The local inhabitants, who have already lost their cafe and post office, are now reeling from the news that their beloved pub may be the next thing to go, repurposed into holiday flats for visiting tourists. They all put their heads together to think of ways to raise money and it’s Annie who comes up with the idea of hosting a harvest festival. But when bad weather intervenes, its clear that a solution to the problem is not going to be easily found…

The Stamping Ground is, quite simply, a love letter to Scotland, a paean to the concept of people’s relationship to the land in which they live. It’s bold and vivacious, filled with likeable characters and fuelled by a mixture of plaintive melodies and rousing reels powered along by Stuart Semple’s propulsive drumming, John Mckenzie’s guitar and John Kielty’s keyboards. Members of the talented cast regularly grab other instruments to augment the songs as the story unfolds. While events occasionally come perilously close to sentimentality, I’d be lying if I denied filling up during Summer’s emotive ballad about leaving her friends – and, likewise, if I denied laughing out loud at some of the villager’s mischievous banter.

There’s a lot more here to enjoy. Kenneth McLoud’s fabulous set design, centred around the broken remains of an ancient standing stone, is a particular delight, while Jade Adams choreography and Luke Kernaghan’s direction keeps the whole enterprise bubbling to its stirring conclusion. By the end of the night the audience is on its feet clapping joyfully along to a rousing rendition of Loch Lomond.

The Stamping Ground is Scottish to its roots and never shies away from proudly saying so.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Anna Karenina


Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

As dares go, this one – from Scottish writer Lesley Hart to British-Russian director Polina Kalinina – has turned out rather well, resulting in this sparky adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic novel. It certainly disproves Kalinina’s original contention that Russian texts tend to “lose vigour and immediacy in translation”: this piece is both vigorous and immediate.

The plot is well-known. Anna (Lindsey Campbell) – bored society wife and loving mother – visits her sister-in-law Dolly (Jamie Marie Leary)’s family estate, hoping to persuade her to forgive Anna’s feckless brother, Stiva (Angus Miller), for his affair with a governess. But it’s a fateful visit, because it’s here that Anna meets Vronsky (Robert Akodoto) – and embarks upon a tumultuous affair that will have a terrible impact. The story is pared back here, of course – four-hundred-thousand words of prose are condensed into a tight two-and-a-half-hours of drama – and it’s all the better for it. The book’s lengthy histrionics are economically conveyed by Xana’s deliberately grating sound design, which feels akin to being in a dentist’s chair, the screeching somehow inside your head. It’s not pleasant, but it’s strikingly effective.

Hart’s script highlights the biting unfairness of a patriarchal order, where Stiva’s many sexual transgressions cause him only minor trouble when they’re revealed, while Anna’s single affair turns her into a social pariah, shunned by her former peers, and – most painfully – banned from seeing her own son (played tonight by Noah Osmani). Her tragic end, prefigured by a brutal train accident at the start of the play, hangs literally over her head throughout: Emma Bailey’s stark design is dominated by this sword of Damocles, a huge screw-like ceiling pendant, each action causing it to turn another notch, embedding itself into Anna’s heart.

I love the urgency of the opening: a dinner party tableau that stutters and lurches into life. The characters are boldly drawn and instantly recognisable, from Karenin (Stephen McCole)’s supercilious reserve to Stiva’s self-indulgence and Levin (Ray Sesay)’s naïve modesty. The sliding screen upstage is ingenious too, opening to reveal a snowy railway platform, or pastoral wheat fields that seem to offer the hope of a simpler life.

Campbell’s Anna is a believable creation, beautiful and confident and relatively content – until she’s blindsided by her attraction for Vronsky. The tragedy here is as much about the corruption of their love as it about her death. What they have is real, but it’s destroyed by social mores and jealousy. It’s not their relationship that ruins Anna; it’s the stifling rules we humans impose upon ourselves.

So is Tolstoy still relevant and appealing in the twenty-first century? If this Royal Lyceum and Bristol Old Vic production is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding yes!

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

Dear Billy


Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Gary McNair’s Dear Billy is a charming and affectionate love letter to the much adored comedian/musician, Billy Connolly. McNair is a self-confessed fan – and, it must be said, that there’s something about his looks and general demeanour that chime with The Big Yin’s own personality. But rest assured, this isn’t some kind of a tribute act.

Instead, McNair has wandered the highways and byways of Scotland, talking to Connolly’s fans – and, over ninety minutes, he recounts the various things they’ve said about the man they (mostly) idolise, assuming their voices and mannerisms to comic effect. If this sounds like an unpromising premise, don’t be fooled. Mostly because of McNair’s consummate skills as a raconteur, I find myself laughing pretty much throughout the proceedings.

He’s joined onstage by musicians Simon Liddell and Jill O’ Sullivan (the latter occasionally given the opportunity to sing some of her own songs in a truly astonishing voice) and it’s fun to note the struggles they have to keep straight faces as McNair lets rip. But this is essentially a showcase for his comic skills, as he strides fearlessly back and forth between four microphones, inhabiting a whole range of personae, from grandmothers to dockers, with testimonies that range from the heartrending to the hilarious.

There may not be an awful lot of substance here, but it’s certainly an entertaining show. McNair references many of Connolly’s most iconic routines, so fans of the Big Yin in particular, will have a field day. But it’s worth saying that you don’t have to be a fan in order to enjoy what’s on offer.

Anyone looking for a much-needed giggle will find what they’re looking for right here.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Who Killed My Father


Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Who Killed My Father is based on Édouard Louis’s 2018 autobiographical novel, Qui a tué mon père. Adapted and directed by Nora Wardell, it’s an eviscerating piece. Part polemic, part memoir, this monologue is presented as an address to Édouard (Michael Marcus)’s invisible father, thus casting the audience in the paternal role. It’s an interesting conceit.

Édouard’s father is disabled, thanks to his (literally) back-breaking work in a factory. But Édouard’s relationship with his dad is complicated: although he feels sympathy for the dependent old man he has become, he remains angry with the alcoholic homophobe, who made growing up gay in their small French village so very difficult. Still, now that he is an adult, Édouard is able to take a step back, and finally recognise the systemic inequalities that have shaped his father’s destiny, and to extrapolate from that the myriad ways in which so many marginalised people’s lives are damaged by political figures, uncaring and oblivious to the consequences of their acts. This play – where he denunciates these figures – is Édouard’s revenge.

It’s a compelling idea, but – for me – it doesn’t quite come off. For starters, there’s nothing to indicate that we’re in France until the very end, when a number of French politicians are named and shamed. This should be a powerful moment, but instead it momentarily confuses me, so that I’m mentally relocating the story rather than focusing on the point being made. In addition, the stage is cluttered with a vast array of props that just aren’t used, including a fabulously complex Scalextric. (I only had the figure-eight version when I was young; this one is the stuff of dreams, so it’s particularly frustrating that it’s given such prominence but never called into play.)

In the end, the message feels a little muddled, lost in a scattershot of anecdotes and directorial flourishes.

2.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Good: NT Live


Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh

We miss the first screening of Good due to health issues and are resigned to our fate, but happily The Cameo Cinema offers this encore screening just as we’re scratching our heads and wondering what we should see tonight.

Written by the comparatively little known C P Taylor (who tragically died soon after Good had its London premiere in 1981) this excoriating piece of theatre feels weirdly askew from the opening scene. Why has set designer, Vicki Mortimer opted to use so little of the Harold Pinter Theatre’s stage, confining the action to a narrow, wedge shaped, performance space, which only really opens up at the play’s startling conclusion?

Well, it’s this confined quality which emphasises the chilling claustrophobia of the piece, the story of a man consumed by his own hubris and his willingness to repeatedly spin his own heinous crimes as the actions of a ‘good’ person.

The man in question is Halder (David Tennant), a German literary professor whose published works catch the eyes of important people in the rising Nazi party, and who is invited to join their swelling ranks. But there’s an obvious problem with this suggestion: Halder’s best friend, psychiatrist Maurice (Elliot Levey), is Jewish and doesn’t see why he should be expected to hide the fact. Meanwhile, Halder is struggling to maintain a marriage to his hapless wife, Helen (Sharon Small), whilst looking after his mother, who is stricken by dementia – and he’s also starting an affair with one of his students, Anne. How is he going to square all these issues to his own satisfaction whilst proudly taking his place in the ranks of the SS? And at what point will he decide that he’s being asked to go too far?

Tennant, making his long awaited return to the West End, is incredibly assured in the complex role of Halder, switching from slyly funny to chillingly mercenary with aplomb. At one point, he even sings and dances with absolute authority, personifying the charmer with a steely inner self. Levy too is excellent, both as Maurice and in the other roles he inhabit, but for me it’s Small who really commands the stage, flicking effortlessly between her three female characters – and the persona of an alpha male SS commandant – simply by changing her voice and her posture. It’s a superbly nuanced performance that ensures I’m always fully aware of who she is embodying at any given moment.

Essentially a three-hander (although the play does feature other performers in its final stages), Good is an ambitious and original piece of theatre that makes me wonder what Taylor might have achieved if only he’d lived longer.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Shawshank Redemption


Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s been a long journey for The Shawshank Redemption. Stephen King’s novella, first published in his Different Seasons collection in 1982 was adapted into a feature film in 1994. Nominated for a clutch of Oscars (none of which it won), the film became a slow burner and has often featured on critics’ ‘best of’ lists. This adaptation, by comedians Owen O’ Neill and Dave Johns, premiered at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin in 2009, and then reappeared in Edinburgh in 2013 (where coincidentally, we saw it on one of our first forays to the Fringe). Now, in a significantly rewritten version, it lands at the Festival Theatre.

It’s the tough and relentless tale of Andy Dufresne (Jo Absolom), who – wrongly accused of murdering his wife and her lover – finds himself incarcerated in the titular prison in the 1950s. Quiet and unassuming, Andy is repeatedly bullied (and even sexually abused) by a couple of hard cases he’s obliged to share space with. But he makes one real friend in the prison, Ellis ‘Red’ Redding (Ben Onwukwe), the Shawshank’s resident fixer. You need something bringing in, something that’s not officially available? Red’s the guy who can get it for you… at a price.

As the years slip inexorably by, the timescale effortlessly enforced by a series of popular songs from the period, Andy keeps his head down, doing his time and ingratiating himself with the prison’s crooked ruler, Warden Stammas (Mark Heenahan). Through it all, his Andy’s determination to escape from this hellhole never diminishes…

This is a dour and workmanlike retelling of what must rank as one of King’s bleakest stories. Gary McCann’s stark set design, coupled with David Esbjornson’s taut direction, reflects the hopelessness and depravation of prison life well enough, but the action feels somewhat dwarfed by the enormity of the Festival Theatre. This would surely have been better suited to the more intimate surroundings of The King’s but, for obvious reasons, that isn’t a possibility right now. There’s a distancing effect in that huge auditorium and I find myself wanting to be closer to the action, to feel more of the the physicality of the piece. Furthermore, I become increasingly aware of the many, quite complicated, scene changes that punctuate the proceedings and I feel unconvinced at what is revealed when that famous poster of Rita Hayworth is ripped away.

The performances are strong, though it’s the two central characters who dominate. Absalom handles the quieter, more restrained role of Andy Dufresne with ease, but its Onwukwe, as the story’s acerbic narrator, who is given more of an opportunity to shine, particularly in the second act, as events build to a stirring and optimistic conclusion. Of course, the latter was always intended to come as a startling revelation, but the tale is so well known by now, there surely can’t be a soul in the theatre who doesn’t know what’s coming in the end.

3. 5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Ocean at the End of the Lane


Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Neil Gaiman’s novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is a complicated beast – the story of a man reliving his childhood experiences of a series of bewildering supernatural happenings. This adaptation, by Joel Horwood, sticks pretty closely to the original, picking up the tale when, many years later and now grown to adulthood, the man returns to his old stamping ground to attend a funeral. Whilst there, he takes the opportunity to visit a farm, where he encounters its matriarch, Old Mrs Hempstock (Finty Williams). But why does she look exactly the same as he remembers? And how does she know so much about him?

Suddenly, effortlessly, the man is replaced by Boy (Keir Oglivy), the man becomes Dad (Trevor Fox), and Boy relives the tragic events of 1986, when he made his first visit to the farm, meeting Mrs Hempstock’s daughter, Ginnie (Kemi-Bo Jacobs), and Ginnie’s teenage daughter, Lettie (Millie Hikasa), with whom he instantly has a connection. Lettie is a precocious child, who claims to be skilled in magic. She offers to take Boy on a dangerous journey in search of ‘The Flea’, but warns him that, if she allows him to accompany her, he must never, NEVER let go of her hand…

And of course, he does.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot because this is the kind of story that’s entirely open to personal interpretation. You can take the magical rituals and the weird demon-like creatures at face value, or you can choose to interpret them as allegories, the experiences of a troubled boy, a boy moreover who is completely addicted to fantasy fiction and who is haunted by his own childhood imaginings. But what really makes TOatEotL fly is the soaring magnificence of the production. The astonishing set designs by Fly Davis and the vibrant lighting effects by Paule Constable conspire to transform the Festival Theatre into a mysterious labyrinth, utilising every single inch of the large stage.

I also love the way the team of supporting players, all dressed in black, assume the role of stage hands, making the scene transitions an integral part of the story.

Katy Rudd directs with consummate skill, particularly with the arrival of sinister lodger, Ursula (Charlie Brooks), who worms her way into the affections of Dad and Boy’s ‘Sis’ (Laurie Ogden). A sequence featuring a whole series of illuminated doorways through which Ursula disappears and reappears is so brilliantly played that I find myself gasping aloud at each new revelation. Be warned, things get very spooky in the later stages and the production’s suggested thirteen plus recommendation is not just there for show. Impressionable younger viewers could find themselves disturbed by some of the scenes enacted here.

National Theatre productions are renowned for the ingenuity of their stagecraft and this is no exception. It’s triumphantly spectacular. Currently on tour, if it should come to a theatre near you, don’t miss your chance to see it. It’ll blow you away.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Family Tree


Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Henrietta Lacks is not a household name – but she should be. The cervical cancer that killed her also produced one of the most important cell lines in medical research, HeLa. Harvested from her tumour without consent, Lacks’ immortal cells (which continue to divide when most would die) have been crucial in the development of the polio vaccine, AIDS and cancer treatments, IVF and more. She died in 1951, but her cells live on, even proving invaluable in the fight against COVID.

So why haven’t we heard of her? The answer is sadly obvious: because she was a Black woman.

Mojisola Adebayo’s play sets out to right this wrong, to give Lacks the recognition she deserves. It also raises some very important questions about consent and compensation. This isn’t just an historic issue. Sure, the USA now has the ‘Common Rule’ clarifying the principles of ethical research, but certain biotech companies have made huge profits from patenting HeLa cell products – and none of the money has ever found its way to her descendants.

Directed by Matthew Xia, Family Tree is a challenging and confrontational piece of theatre, Adebayo’s writing poetic and arresting. Lacks (Aminita Francis) rises from her grave to undo her erasure, to demand we hear her version of the tale. She’s not alone in the graveyard: three slave women also rest there, finally at peace after enduring years of intrusive experimentation at the hands of the so-called father of modern gynaecology, Dr J Marion Sims. There are three Black NHS nurses too, felled by the pandemic in 2020. Ain (Mofetoluwa Akande) is full of righteous anger, mostly against the ‘Why People’ who claim to be allies until it’s inconvenient. Lyn (Aimée Powell) and Bibi (Keziah Joseph) are quieter and more philosophical, the latter using the leisure time that death affords her to finally read Toni Morrison. Although Lacks’ is certainly the most compelling narrative – she is, quite literally, centre stage – the other women’s stories are important too, contextualising Lacks’ experiences, and showing how she is just one link in a shocking, still ongoing chain. The actors are all electric, their performances poised and bold, intense and heartfelt.

However, despite the painful subject matter, this is not a piece of trauma porn. Although the story is about the horrendous ways Black women have been abused, Adebayo also shows the women’s strength and joy, turning them into dancing goddesses, recognising them for the queens they are.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

The Spark


Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s hard to believe it’s taken until now – the 2020s – for the term ‘perimenopause’ to enter popular discourse, although, ironically, my computer has just underlined it in red, signalling an unknown word – so maybe we’ve still got a way to go. Nevertheless, we’re moving inexorably away from hushed murmurings about ‘the change’ and oblique references to ‘hot flushes’, and instead naming all of the physical and mental symptoms of this life-altering process. It turns out it’s not just your periods petering to a halt. No such luck. Instead it’s some or all of the following: joint pain, exhaustion, menstrual cramps, decreased (or increased) libido, mood swings, anger, vaginal dryness, brain fog… it’s quite the gut punch. Almost literally.

In The Spark, playwright Kathy McKean explores the impact of the perimenopause on a politician. Robin (the brilliant Nicole Cooper) is struggling in a system that seems designed to constrain her. And whereas, in her younger years, she might have bitten her lip and done what needed to be done in order to get ahead, she’s at ‘that age’ now, and the fuck-it factor has set in. No, she won’t stand by while a group of men harass a young girl at a bus stop. No, she won’t deliver the anodyne presentation her speech-writer, James (Johnny Panchaud), has concocted – a bowdlerised version of her own from-the-heart first draft. No, she won’t accept that she’s powerless to affect change. Because otherwise, what’s it all for?

Directed by Gordon Barr, the three actors effortlessly illuminate the chaos inside Robin’s head, as her adversarial discussions with both James and her long-suffering GP, Maggie (Beth Marshall), build to a cacophony. Maggie’s got enough problems of her own – and she blames Robin for some of them. After all, Robin was, until recently, the minister for health. She knows how over-worked the nation’s doctors are; how can she possibly think Maggie has time to deal with what seems on the surface like a pretty bog-standard set of symptoms? Except that Robin’s menopausal heat seems to manifesting itself outside her body, and who knows where that will end…

The writing here is sharp and the delivery fast-paced and engaging. The Spark seems like a fitting finale to what has been a particularly strong season of A Play, a Pie and a Pint. It’s not perfect – it’s a simple idea that builds well at first, but doesn’t deliver the shocking crescendo it perhaps should, and maybe takes aim at the wrong target (I can think of many institutions more deserving of a middle-aged woman’s ire than the parliament at Holyrood). But it’s good to see this subject aired, and in such a witty, thought-provoking way.

4 stars

Susan Singfield