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No Such Thing As A Fish

24/03/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

We initially hummed and haahed about this one. A podcast? Live? Would that actually work? But of course, in the end, we were always going to go along to it, because NSTAAF is pretty much our favourite podcast. We have now listened to every available episode and what’s more, we sleep with these people almost every night.

(Ahem. Allow me to quantify that statement. When we settle down in bed each night, we have an episode running to lull us to sleep. If we nod off before we reach the end, we listen to the second half the following night, and so on). This is not to suggest that the show is soporific – anything but. It’s endlessly fascinating. But those four voices are now an integral part of our lives.

So here we are at the King’s Theatre and it’s clear from the get-go that a lot of other people like NSTAAF – the place is rammed. The show is divided into two sections. The first half has the team taking turns to deliver a presentation about potential ways in which the podcast might develop in the future. It’s good-natured if undemanding stuff, with James Harkin’s reimagined Shark Song the best of the bunch. (Little known fact: Harkin was working as an accountant in a Portakabin in Eccles when Dan and producer John Lloyd lured him to London to join the QI team.)

But of course, it’s the second half of the show that provides the main course – the recording of a live podcast with the team contributing their meticulously researched collection of weird facts. It’s great to have the opportunity to watch them at work. Obviously, the foursome have been doing this for quite a while now and it’s immediately apparent that what makes this work so well is that their four very disparate personalities slot seamlessly together to create the whole – so there’s Dan’s puppyish enthusiasm, Anna’s witty cynicism, Andy’s droll wisecracks and James’ uncanny ability to locate a pun in just about any material he’s offered. Put them together and it’s little wonder that the show has generated such a faithful following.

As we leave the theatre we spot them at a signing table, besieged by legions of ardent fans, clearly destined to be there for hours after the event. And later that night, what podcast do we choose to drift off to?

Take a wild guess.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

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The Spotty Bag Shop

17/02/19

Old Market Place, Banff

We’re in Aberdeenshire for the weekend because Philip’s visiting a school here tomorrow. We’re staying in a beautiful converted barn in Fordyce: it’s luxuriously appointed and has a stunning view of the coast. But although Fordyce is undoubtedly a lovely place – all winding streets and historic buildings, it’s tiny, and we saw it all yesterday. So today, we decide, we’ll head into Banff, and investigate what the seaside town has to offer.

A quick Google search informs us that there’s an aquarium in nearby Macduff, so we go there first and, after we’ve enjoyed the sea life, the helpful young receptionist answers our request for ‘somewhere good for lunch’ with four words we’re really not expecting to hear. “The Spotty Bag Shop,” he says.

“The…?” I trail off. “For lunch?”

He smiles. “Yes, the Spotty Bag Shop.”

This oddly named restaurant turns out to be based in a large, if unprepossessing building, tucked away behind the Co-op. Downstairs it’s all logs and pet food and outdoor pursuits equipment. If you want a Regatta fleece or a dog bed, this is certainly the place to come. But lunch? But then, we spot a staircase and when we follow it up, we find ourselves in a large dining area. It’s packed, and there’s quite a queue too. We’re handed a pager and advised to ‘have a look around the shop’ while we wait. This oddly named venue is certainly popular!

The service is brisk and friendly, and the menu pleasing – if a little predictable. There’s a Sunday roast on offer, but neither of us is in the mood for that. Instead, Philip opts for haddock and chips, and I have a quiche with salad and baked potato.

Look, this isn’t fancy food. The chips are frozen, and the sauce comes in sachets. But the fish is perfectly cooked – all soft flakes of flesh encased in hot, crispy batter, while the homemade quiche is also very flavoursome. The portions are large: perhaps too large, because not even I can face a pudding after this. Which is a shame, because the sweet treats in the display cabinet look really good, especially the scones and the millionaire’s brownie. I suspect that pastry may be this cafe’s real strength.

If you’re in Banff and you fancy a bite to eat, the Spotty Bag Shop will fulfil your needs. It’s a friendly, pleasant place, with a bustling atmosphere.

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Cyrano de Bergerac

13/10/18

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Since its debut in 1897, Edmond Rostand’s most celebrated play has seen many reboots, reimaginings and reinterpretations – perhaps most unusually in Steve Martin’s 1980s movie, Roxanne, which pitched the American comedian as the head of a fire station, opposite cinematic newcomer Darryl Hannah – and of course, many will remember a more traditional movie version of the tale starring a never-better Gerard Depardieu.

This co-production with The National Theatre of Scotland and Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, directed by Dominic Hill, is a revival of Edwin Morgan’s 1992 translation, which envisions Rostand’s celebrated hero as a Glaswegian, complete with unflinchingly authentic dialect. Why? Well, Morgan felt the character of swashbuckling soldier-poet Cyrano was perfectly suited for such a transformation, and who am I to argue with him? Ihave to confess though, that it takes me a little while to adjust to this particular aspect. Despite living in Scotland for over two years, some of Brian Ferguson’s earlier utterances in the leading role are initially hard for me to decipher, something that isn’t helped by the huge false nose he’s obliged to wear. However, as I gradually adjust to that undiluted accent, so I begin to warm to the character and there’s no denying that Ferguson’s performance here is a veritable tour de force, as Cyrano jokes, swaggers and bellows his way through the proceedings, barely offstage for more than a few moments at a time. One can only wonder if his voice will hold up to such a battering.

Of course, the central premise of this story is one of unrequited love. Cyrano is madly in love with his cousin, Roxane (Jessica Hardwick), but she has eyes only for the handsome Christian (Scott Mackie), the new recruit to Cyrano’s regiment. She begs Cyrano to help her win the newcomer’s heart. So besotted is Cyrano that he is powerless to resist her entreaties and so pledges to do his level best to help her achieve her aims. Christian, of course, is a plain speaking sort of fellow, so Cyrano uses his poet’s intellect to open a series of heartfelt letters to Roxane, passing off his own devotion as Christian’s. The deceit works like a charm, but of course, tragedy is always waiting in the wings to throw a well-timed spanner into the works.

This rumbustious production has much to recommend it, not least the spectacular set designs of Tom Piper and Pam Hogg’s eye-catching costumes, which combine traditional elements with an irreverent dash of punk rock. There are live musicians onstage throughout the proceedings, that infamous ‘nose-insults’ routine is delivered into a microphone in standup style and there’s a beautifully executed sword fight to help to keep the action flowing.

But there’s no denying that this is a long play, a full three hours in the telling – and, with most of the most memorable scenes occurring in the first half, it feels as though a little judicious editing in the second would make this feel a wee bit more fleet-footed. See this for Ferguson’s barnstorming performance and for those audacious costume designs. And whatever you do, don’t mention the size of Cyrano’s nose. He’s touchy about that kind of thing.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Edfest Bouquets 2018

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It’s that exciting time of year again, when we award bouquets to the very best shows we’ve seen at this year’s Fringe. We’ve seen some amazing productions, and our final choices reflect a mixture of old favourites and new delights. Congratulations to all concerned.

Theatre

The Swell Mob – Flabbergast Theatre

Not in our Neighbourhood – Jamie McCaskill / Kali Kopae / Tikapa Productions

Velvet – Tom Ratcliffe / Andrew Twyman / @workTheatre

Are There More of You? – Alison Skilbeck / Hint of Lime Productions

The Basement Tapes – Stella Reid / Zanetti Productions

Big Aftermath of a Small Disclosure – Alice Malin / ATC

Gulliver Returns – Dan Coleman / Dawn State Theatre

Gutted – Sharon Byrne

 

Comedy

A Serious Play About World War II – Willis & Vere

Flies – Oliver Lansley/ Les Enfants Terribles / Pins and Needles

Beetlemania: Kafka for Kids – Tom Parry / Russel Bolam / Punchline

Either Side of Everything – Wil Greenway

 

Special Mentions

Six the Musical – Lucy Moss / Tony Marlowe

Stardust – Miguel Hernando Torres Umba / Blackboard Theatre

Up Close! – Chris Dugdale

 

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield

 

 

Chris Dugdale: Up Close!

26/08/18

Assembly Rooms, George Street, Edinburgh

The three week blitz that is the Edinburgh Fringe is finally, tragically, coming to a close. On George Street, workers are already taking down the helter skelter and dismantling the outdoor bars. We can’t help feeling a twinge of sadness. For us, this is the busiest time of year, but also the most exciting. In all likelihood, the next show we see will be the last one of Edfringe 2018.

With this in mind, we’re not taking any chances. We want to be sure that our final show will be something that will amaze and delight us. We need a shot of something magical – and Chris Dugdale is a pretty safe bet to deliver the goods. Born in France, based in New York and a regular visitor to the Fringe, his shows combine dazzling sleight of hand, with mind bending manipulation and a slick, polished delivery. We love his droll delivery, his winning way with the people he brings onto the stage.

OK, so this year’s show incorporates many of the elements from last year’s – there are those complex card tricks, performed mere inches from disbelieving onlookers. There’s that little tin that somehow magically refills itself with different contents. There’s that thing he does with a Rubik’s cube… I mean, how? Somebody tell me how! And for 2018, he’s added a brand new illusion called ‘The Triangle,’ in which he manages to manipulate three people picked from the sell-out audience into arriving at the same conclusion.

It’s a phenomenally entertaining hour, so packed with incident that it sprints by like an athlete at full stretch. We gasp, we shake our heads, we applaud. And I tell myself that this year, there’s no way he’s going to make me put the tips of my index fingers together… no way at all. And once again, he makes me do it.

It’s already too late for me to urge you to go and see this show – but I’m looking forward to Edinburgh 2019.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

Edinburgh Fringe Magic Gala

 

15/08/18

Gilded Balloon Teviot, Debating Hall, Edinburgh

Ah, magic! With the weather in Edinburgh taking a sudden nosedive and the threat of Fringe fatigue constantly hovering in the background, a bit of magic is surely going to help matters – and what better way to sample it than this handy package, which offers visitors a taste of five different acts every day at 4.30pm?

Our host for the event is Elliot Bibby, voted Scottish Comedy Magician of the Year 2017. You can easily see why he won the title. He has a nice line in engaging patter (particularly in his interplay with a truculent audience member) and is very good at the old sleight of hand stuff. He takes the truculent one’s ten pound note, turns it into a worthless scrap of paper and hands it back to him. (Don’t worry, after a bit of persuasion, he changes it back again!)

The first guest is Tomas McCabe, who calls himself a mind reader. He brings a young woman up from the crowd and invites her to slam the flat of her hand down on a series of paper cups, one of which we are assured has a deadly metal spike hidden in it. To give the lady her due, she manages this without turning a hair, but most of the audience is holding its collective breath.

Next up is Polly Hoops, who  – as her name might suggest – does things with hula hoops (not the edible variety). She’s soon striding around the stage whirling several plastic hoops from various parts of her anatomy. It’s incredibly skilful and must takes hours of practice, but, I can’t help feeling, it isn’t really magic. ‘More like highly evolved PE,’ whispers Susan, and I have to agree with her.

Tom Crosbie is very quick to point out that he isn’t a magician either, just a full blown nerd. Mind you, what this man can do with a Rubik’s cube is nobody’s business and it certainly looks pretty magical. At one point he manages to ‘solve’ a cube while it’s in mid air. He assures us that anybody can do this provided they put in the requisite study time, which in my case would be 24 hours a day for the rest of my life.

The final act is Ben Hart and, happily, there’s no doubting this young man’s abilities in the abracadabra stakes. He performs an astonishing routine with a pack of cards, that keep getting smaller and smaller and smaller – until he’s able to blow them away in a puff of dust. He then borrows three rings from three members of the public and somehow manages to fuse them together. We have good seats near the front and I watch him like a hawk, but… no, no idea how he did that. Astonishing stuff.

All of these acts can be seen in their own shows elsewhere on the Fringe and, let’s face it, we all need a little more magic in our lives.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Michael Wilson: My Adventures in Mental Health

15/08/18

Three Broomsticks, South Bridge, Edinburgh

We’ve been looking forward to this event. We’ve been familiar with Michael Wilson’s keenly-observed lyrical poetry for a long time now: we’ve heard drafts of earlier pieces in workshops, and have seen him perform several times in Manchester. No doubt about it, he has real talent, and we’re keen to see what he’s been working on in recent years.

As the title suggests, My Adventures in Mental Health is a personal chronicle of mental illness. In his brief introduction, Michael is keen to point out that his own experiences are just that – his own; he’s not claiming any kind of universal insight. And yet, this deeply personal collection of poems is genuinely revelatory: there is an appealing Everyman quality to it, despite uncommon individual circumstances. I think it’s in the humanity, the vulnerability, that shines through every line.

The narrative is thematic rather than chronological, leading us through a cycle of depression, mania, hyper mania, hospitalisation, drugs – and finally to wellness, to hope, to love. It’s strangely uplifting – the structure allowing us the relief of a happy ending, the ability to smile at the man sitting in front of us, who has just laid bare the horrors of a severe illness. This is the sort of writing that should make it easier for others to talk, to open up. Michael makes it look easy. His poems make it beautiful.

Take these lines, for example:

His hand on my shoulder holds little in it…

But I thought if I could describe this pain

it would transfer –

like the ones we had as kids.

Apply water.

Apply pressure.

Lift and reveal.

But temporary.

Colour smudge bright.

His hand on my shoulder

leaves a tattoo on my skin.

I love the wistful nature of this section, the brightness of the child’s memory suffusing the present pain. Michael’s poetry is all like this: pain made palatable through gentle imagery, savagery tempered through the beauty of sound.

The venue isn’t ideal for his performance – the open window and the busy road combined with Michael’s melodic Northern Irish accent and soft voice mean that it’s hard to hear at times – but it’s worth leaning in and concentrating hard. This is a lovely piece of work.

5 stars

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield