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Chris Dugdale: Up Close

17/08/17

Assembly Rooms, George Street, Edinburgh

There’s no other explanation: Chris Dugdale is actually a sorcerer. He’s not a performer who’s learned a load of tricks; he can’t be, because some of what he’s doing is simply impossible. Okay, so he’s a showman and he plays along with the schtick, delivering a few crowd-pleasers that we’ve seen elsewhere and can conceive of what the trickery might be (although we still don’t know how, but we can’t have everything), but there are elements here that simply don’t make any sense – unless we accept that he’s a wizard of some sort.

I mean, I don’t know how he does that stuff with the Rubik’s cubes, but I can go along with the idea that it’s a relatively simple blend of maths or dexterity – or, indeed, trick cubes of some sort. But the tiny tin of Altoids that never leaves the table… I won’t give any spoilers, but THERE’S NO WAY A MERE HUMAN CAN ACHIEVE WHAT HE DOES HERE! 

This is the third time we’ve seen Dugdale perform, and he gets better every time (or maybe he’s just making us think that with his mind control techniques?). This year’s show, Up Close, is much more dazzling and show-bizzy; there’s an energy and pace that has us buzzing from the start. He’s clearly enjoying himself, and his enthusiasm is infectious: the crowd is lapping up his act.

If you’ve had a busy day and are feeling tired or lethargic, get yourself along to the Assembly Rooms and see Chris Dugdale if you can. He’ll have you pepped up and grinning within a few minutes – although he may leave you doubting everything you think you know…

5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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A Number

08/04/17

Caryl Churchill’s play is a meditation on the nature of identity, presented here in partnership with Edinburgh’s International Science Festival. Concise, punchy and extraordinarily thought-provoking, it’s set somewhere in the near future and consists of a series of conversations between two characters… or more accurately, between four characters because the play is about cloning and its implications.

The staging is sparse and unsettling. A claustrophobic boxlike space is inset onto the bigger stage of The Lyceum Theatre. The floor inclines sharply upwards and there is little in the way of props: a couple of wooden chairs, three doorways, a bare light bulb. As we join the story, Bernard 1 (Brian Ferguson) is midway through a conversation with his ‘father’, Salter (Peter Forbes). Bernard has just discovered that he is not Salter’s original birth son but a clone created from the genes of an original child, who, Salter tells him, died in a car crash. More unsettlingly, Bernard is not a singular clone but one of ‘a number’ (probably more than twenty) that were created at the same time, without Salter’s knowledge or permission. Bernard is just coming to the realisation that there’s a score of identical copies of him somewhere out there and the thought of it is driving him mad…

Churchill’s dialogue is, as ever, beautifully crafted, lots of overlapping thoughts and fragmented sentences, ideas hinted at but never overstated. Scenes are interrupted by sudden flares of light, which surprise the audience every time they occur. The two actors portray their characters brilliantly and if there’s a disappointment here, it’s only that the play is over too quickly – I was left wishing that there could be another hour of this to relish and that I could have met a few more of those clones. But as the saying goes, that’s all she wrote.

Those who love Churchill’s writing should take the opportunity to catch this rarely seen work. It will stay with you long after the cast have taken their bows.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Certain Women

08/03/17

Certain Women seems like an appropriate choice for International Women’s Day. Our expectations are buoyed by the stellar cast (and yes, I’m including Kristen Stewart in that; we can’t hold Twilight against her forever), and we are not disappointed. This quiet little film is a lovely, lovely thing.

There are three (largely) unrelated stories here, all set in the same Montana town. First up is Laura (Laura Dern), a stressed-out lawyer with an unhappy client. The hyper-realism of the film means that even the most dramatic moments are beautifully understated: there is no sensationalism, only humanity and warmth. There is nothing so simple as a baddy, just flawed people, doing the best they can – and carrying on when things go wrong. Dern excels as the overworked, harassed professional, berating herself for her failings, and always striving to do more. It’s compelling stuff.

The second tale is Gina’s. Michelle Williams plays the role with customary skill, imbuing the ambitious businesswoman with vulnerability as well as zeal. We know her solid-seeming relationship is flawed, because we’ve already seen her husband (James Le Gros) in the first story, leaving Laura’s bed, but again writer-director Kelly Reichardt eschews the cliched route, and nothing much is made of this. There’s no discovery, no showdown, no climactic denouement. Instead, we are shown the minutiae of their house-building project, the moral compromises they make to source some local stone. It sounds dull, but it isn’t. It’s a real slice of life, a perfect example of a (sandstone) fourth wall being gently lifted so that we can peek inside.

The third story is the best of the bunch, utterly heartbreaking in its simplicity. Kristen Stewart plays Beth, a newly qualified lawyer, who works for the same firm as Laura. In need of extra money, she’s conned into taking an evening job teaching school law in a town that’s a four-hour drive away – an unsustainable arrangement that leaves her exhausted. A lonely rancher (Lily Gladstone) chances on the class – “I just saw the people going in” – and begins to rely on her weekly trips to the diner with her teacher. Gladstone’s beatific smile when Beth rides with her on her horse is so touching it hurts. Her neediness is naked, and her disappointment inevitable. It’s all the more devastating because of the way the narrative confounds our expectations: we are movie literate; we know there’s supposed to be a last-minute knock-on-the-door or change of heart. But there isn’t, of course. Just sorrow for what might have been, and the resumption of routine.

This is a wonderful film, full of sympathy and heart.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Lyceum Variety Night 2

26/02/17

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Those enterprising people at Flint & Pitch have been busy putting together another night of  entertainment at the Lyceum Theatre, featuring the best of spoken word, theatre and music. Hosted by genial regulars Sian Bevan and Jenny Lindsay, this eclectic second helping kicks off with the jazz-inflected rhythms of Pronto Mama, a band who revel in slippery time signatures and who soon have everybody bopping along in their seats.

Next up, poet Aidan Moffat treats us to some of his wry and rather saucy poems (plus some rather wonderful extracts from his son’s diary). He finishes his section with a dedication to all the people he’s canoodled with down the years, complete with a raised can of Tenants Lager at the end. I’ll drink to that!

Actress/musician/singer/author Gerda Stevenson offers us a varied selection of items – a traditional Scottish ballad accompanied by one of those strange droning instruments that resembles a wooden suitcase (and which I’ve annoyingly never learned the name of), a trio of prose pieces commemorating great Scottish women, and a final song for which she enlists the help of a couple of friends for the harmonies.

After a short break, festival favourites, The Creative Martyrs take to the stage, looking like a cross between Estragon & Vladimir and Laurel & Hardy. Incredibly, they soon have us chanting along to the suggestion that we should ‘Burn The Books’, while their song about drowned refugees is also incredibly provocative and revealing, the final line leaving the audience temporarily too stunned to applaud. These two performers are really quite brilliant.

Tonight being the anniversary of Johnny Cash’s death, singer/songwriter Rachel Sermanni kicks off her segment with a haunting cover of one of the great man’s most famous songs, A Thing Called Love, and then offers a couple of songs of her own. Her voice is remarkable – ethereal, haunting, quietly amazing. I fully expect to hear more of her soon.

The advertised act, Don Paterson, is down with the flu, but Colin McGuire fearlessly steps in at the last moment to give us an extract from his work-in-progress play, which is all about that most important of subjects – sleep. He goes down a storm with the Lyceum audience.

Last up, American poet (and BBC slam-champion), Adele Hampton offers us some of her wry and distinctive poems. She admits that she is feeling a little nervous but despite that, acquits herself well with tales of weight-lifting and belonging. She leaves the stage to heartfelt applause.

It is left to Pronto Mama to finish off the night, which they do not with the usual pounding rock song, but with a plaintive acapella tune, which sends everyone home feeling happy and thoroughly entertained.

The next variety night is penciled in for Sunday 4th June. Miss it and you’ll only have yourselves to blame.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Gold

04/02/17

We’re getting used to those Matthew McConaughey mega-performances. In Gold, he goes full Jake La Motta, transforming himself into an overweight, balding, snaggletoothed chain-smoking alcoholic and yes, it’s the kind of impressive tour de force we’ve come to expect from the man, who used to make a living taking his shirt off in Jennifer Aniston comedies; but you can’t help wondering why he’s gone to such extreme lengths when the character he plays is semi-fictional anyway.

In Gold, he plays Kenny Wells, a down-on-his-luck prospector who gambles everything on one last-ditch expedition after having a dream about striking gold in Indonesia. (Let’s face it, we’ve all had that dream!) He hooks up with geologist, Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), a man who talks a good game and Wells raises the money to finance a trip to the Indonesian rain forest. Once there they pitch their tents and settle down to the wearisome task of drilling soil samples and having them assayed. For a long, long time, nothing happens, (unless you count Wells’ debilitating bout of malaria) but then they do find gold and almost before you can say ‘yippee’ the entire might of Wall Street is rushing in to get their hands on a piece of the action…

We’ve all seem films that are ‘based on a true story.’ This one is ‘inspired by real events’ and sure enough, a little searching on the internet pulls up the story of a man called David Walsh, who founded a tiny mining company called Bre-X in 1989. In the early 90’s he and one Michael Guzman discovered gold in Indonesia and generated billions of dollars off the back of it, before it was discovered that the whole thing was built on a lie. Gold alters some of the facts and shifts the events firmly into the 1980s (which if nothing else, does give the excuse for a cracking soundtrack) but the film is rather dominated by McConaughey, relegating most of his fellow-actors to the sidelines (including Bryce Dallas Howard as his long-suffering wife, Kay) and, rather like the star’s waistline, the film does get a bit lumpy towards the middle section.

A firmer hand in the editing suite would have helped to streamline proceedings, but this is nothing like as bad as some critics have suggested and here and there, the film does manage to fizz into life. Mind you, if you were looking for something to improve your opinion of the American financial system, this one isn’t for you. You’ll leave the cinema with the impression that every last person in the industry is a venal, money-grubbing back-stabbing piece of excrement.

Just sayin’.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Paterson

20/11/16

Jim Jarmusch is one of America’s most respected indie directors. After the somewhat disappointing Only Lovers Left Alive, he’s back on more confident form with this quirky tale of a would-be poet and the daily grind which he must endure, whilst filling all of his available down-time with his cerebral scribblings.

Paterson (Adam Driver) lives in Paterson, New Jersey – in typical Jarmusch fashion, this is presented as mere coincidence. By day he’s a bus driver and the film follows a week in his life, starting each morning with him waking up beside his partner, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and then following him to work, sharing his bus route and after he has returned to one of Laura’s nightmarish attempts at cooking,  accompanying him on his evening walk with Marvin (the couple’s bulldog) which inevitably ends with Paterson having a beer at his local bar. If this sounds dull, rest assured, it’s not. Through Paterson’s eyes we meet a host of fascinating local characters and experience their disparate stories – and we also share Paterson’s attempts to write new poems, which announce themselves onscreen as lines of text. His poems aren’t exactly earth-shattering, (his writing hero is William Carlos Williams, and the influence is apparent) but they do show a real intellect at work, and the fragmentary quality of them is strangely beguiling. I’ve rarely seen a more convincing onscreen portrayal of the writing method.

Back at home, Laura seems completely obsessed with making it big as something – a cake maker, an interior designer, a fashionista, a country and western singer – she’s not fussy, she’ll try anything, despite the fact that she never really rises above the ‘fairly accomplished’ in each successive project she takes on; and in the end, this is essentially what Paterson is about; the way in which people nurture some particular talent they have (or think they have) as a way of dealing with the mundanity of everyday existence.

The film throws us a late googlie-ball in an incident that really is any writer’s worst nightmare.  I  wish Jarmusch had resisted signposting it quite as much as he does; although the gasps from the row behind us suggested that not everyone had seen it coming. This however, is a minor niggle. As a celebration of the creative spirit, Paterson is a little delight, and one that deserves your consideration.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

19/11/16

Question: how do you turn a rather slim World Book Day volume into not one, not three, but five big movies? Answer. Ring up JK Rowling. She has elaborated extensively on said slim volume to create a wizarding tale set, not in the familiar confines of Hogwarts, but in New York city in the year 1926. The more cynical amongst us will be tempted to dub this with an alternative title – Newt Scamander and the Cow of Cash – but to give the film its due, it is undoubtedly a serious attempt to step away from the path already trodden and for that, at least, it should be applauded; and the attention to detail that’s been applied to the creation of the wizard world is truly impressive. But the ranks of parents accompanied by bewildered looking youngsters as the credits rolled on the afternoon show we attended, spoke volumes. Despite that 12A certificate, this is not a film for the very young, simply because there’s no child protagonist here to fully engage their attention.

Instead we have English wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arriving in New York city carrying a magical case of strange creatures with him and it’s no great surprise when some of those creatures escape and start running amok in the (beautifully recreated) city. These range from tiny, cute and obsessed with stealing shiny things, to large, rhinoceros-like and ready to mate with something (seriously – you need to prepare yourself for Scamander’s mating dance). Newt soon falls under the watchful gaze of ministry of magic jobs worth, Tina (Katherine Waterston) and things take a more complicated turn when ‘No-Maj’  (the American term for a Muggle) Kowalski (Dan Fogle) inadvertently ends up with the wrong suitcase. Much hilarity ensues, and many landmark buildings are spectacularly destroyed…

Which is all well and good, but it has to be said that something in this mix doesn’t quite work. The resulting film is neither fish nor fowl. Surely, the parade of beautifully rendered CGI creatures are aimed at children, while the human characters behave in a manner that’s more appropriate for their parents – but because neither aspect fully coheres with the other, both sides of the audience are somehow left wanting. Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty here to enjoy, not least the delightful Queenie (Alison Sudal, channeling her inner Marilyn Monroe) and Fogle’s winning turn as the poor schlep who finds himself suddenly immersed in a world of wizarding is good too. Redmayne rather overdoes it as Scamander – sure, he’s meant to be shy and introverted but he gurns his way through this first film and I can only hope that he’ll dial it down a bit for episodes 2,3,4 and 5. Whether I’ll be watching any of them is another matter.The major villain here is Graves (Colin Farrell), a powerful wizard with a hidden agenda, but he really doesn’t have all that much to do and seems a poor exchange for the villainous Voldemort.

A lot of money and huge amounts of technical skill has clearly been lavished on this project – and it’s by no means the worst thing you’ll see this year – but for me at least, it fails to live up to its famous progenitor. And I can’t help thinking – how are they going to string this out for another four movies?

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney