Songs of Friendship 1: Team Viking

11/03/20

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Writer/performer James Rowland is on stage at the Traverse, dressed in a shabby suit and telling us a delightful shaggy dog story. This is Team Viking, the first part of a trilogy, though we are assured that each one is stand-alone. (We’re booked in to see the other two as well – although, because of other commitments, not in the right order.)

Rowland is an aimiable and affable storyteller, who knows how to handle a joke and has us laughing at some pretty unlikely events. Somebody’s mother being run over and killed by an ambulance? That’s not funny! And yet… somehow… you don’t want to laugh but…

James relates how, eight years ago, his best friend from childhood, Tom, was diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer (also not the kind of thing that comedy gold is generally inspired by)  – and how Tom’s dying wish was to be given a proper funeral, just like the one Kirk Douglas’s Einar had in the 1958 film, The Vikings. You know the kind of thing. A longboat drifting out to sea, set ablaze by fiery arrows while that unforgettable theme music plays. He assigns a very reluctant James and another friend, Sarah to organise it for him.

So, no pressure there.

Exactly how they achieve this memorable send-off provides an hour of pleasurable storytelling, with Rowland breaking off every so often to add another layer to a looped song he is gradually putting together as the tale unfolds. There’s a message in the song, but we won’t fully appreciate it until the end…

As it’s fairly unusual to be reviewing a trilogy, we’ll wait until we’ve seen the next two instalments to issue the requisite stars. Those who would like to immerse themselves in the full experience can book to see the complete trilogy on Saturday night.

Team Viking is an encouraging start – and, considering recent world events, this cheery, relaxed session may be just the kind of thing we’re all in need of.

Philip Caveney

The Secret Garden

06/03/20

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden is a much beloved children’s classic, a popular subject for TV and film – indeed, a new big screen version looms on the horizon even as I write. This Red Bridge Arts production approaches the story from a fresh and unusual direction, the three-strong cast using clowning techniques to skilfully mine the humour hidden within the text. And before you ask, yes, there is humour there, if you look for it.

After the tragic deaths of her parents in India, (not funny so far!) Mary Lennox (Itxaso Moreno), is sent to England to live in a bleak manor house in Scotland (yes, I know; it’s Yorkshire in the book). Having been raised by family servants, she can barely speak any English and the opening sequence neatly illustrates her bewilderment as she travels by ship to a country that is totally unfamiliar to her. This depiction of Mary as a truculent, obstinate outsider is effectively done – we’re much more used to seeing her portrayed as slightly subdued and uncommunicative, but here her refugee status is more clearly drawn.

Mary is looked after by the family housemaid, Martha (Sarah Mielle), and soon she encounters her twelve-year-old brother, Dickon (Gavin Jon Wright), who seems to have a Dr Doolittle affinity with animals. And then, of course, she meets up with Colin (also played by Mielle), the reclusive son of the house’s widowed owner, Mr Craven. Colin has spent so long indoors, he has become convinced that he cannot walk and consequently never goes outside. But Mary has discovered the titular garden, originally planted by the late Mrs Craven. In his grief, Mr Craven has locked it away from human gaze for years. But nature, it seems, once rediscovered, has amazing transformative powers…

It’s a charming, sprightly and wonderfully prickly production but, with a running time of just one hour, the story virtually sprints past and this adaptation, written and directed by Rosalind Sydney, omits the final, redemptive act. We never encounter the broken-hearted Mr Craven  – we’re simply told he’s ‘away on business’ – and surely his transformation is a key feature of the story. I’d love to see this revisited with a longer running time and with that final piece of the puzzle dropped into place.

The youngsters in the audience (at whom this is, of course, aimed) clearly enjoy what they see. I, on the other hand, a somewhat older child, am left wanting more.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Within Sight

05/03/20

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Ellen Renton’s Within Sight is a beautifully written piece, following a disabled athlete’s failed attempt to qualify for the paralympics. Like Renton, the protagonist has albinism, and is angry at the way the world seems set to trip her up.

Renton is clearly a talented poet: the language is rich and rhythmic, engaging and provocative. The video projections (by filmmaker Kiana Kalanter Hormoz) complement the narrative well, providing sighted members of the audience with a sense of the protagonist’s experience. And I like the running, the physical exertion, the beats that match the words. There’s a real sense of battle here, of exhaustion, of how it feels when simple, everyday actions are rendered difficult.

If there’s a problem, it’s that there’s not quite enough of anything: the play is very short (about forty minutes), and there’s certainly space within the story for more detail, more emotion, more elucidation. There’s plenty of scope for another twenty minutes’ worth, I think – although Renton might not relish the extra running that would entail…

Nevertheless, this is a thought-provoking performance, drawing much needed attention to the casual able-ism that permeates society.

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield

 

We Are in Time

04/03/20

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

About ten minutes into the performance of We Are in Time, Susan taps me on the shoulder. She leans in close and whispers two words into my ear.

‘It’s tosh!’

I stare at her in bewilderment. I mean, there are many words I would use to describe this show – unique, audacious, beautiful – but ‘tosh’ certainly isn’t one of them. She notes my puzzled expression and shakes her head, then points surreptitiously to The Narrator, a young woman whose face has been naggingly familiar from the moment she walked onstage. The penny drops. Of course! It’s Alison O’Donnell, best known for playing DS Alison ‘Tosh’ McIntosh in the TV detective drama, Shetland. And I have to say, ‘Tosh’ is a long way from her regular beat.

I relax and go back to being enraptured.

It’s hard to describe exactly what this show is, but I’ll try. The set has all the stark, clinical lines of an operating theatre, complete with two illuminated tables. Instead of being peopled by a team of surgeons, however, there are a dozen musicians, sawing industriously away at their respective instruments – violin, viola, cello, double bass – creating a series of mournful, haunting melodies. Meanwhile, the recently deceased Jay (Jodie Landau) wanders calmly amongst them, singing lines that seem to have originated in a medical textbook, while Stella (Ruby Philogene) gratefully prepares to receive his donated heart. Every so often, O’Donnell chimes in with detailed information about the various procedures that are observed in such situations. Behind the performers, a large screen conveys a series of related images.

Through the various streams of information, we follow the progress of the heart, which travels from Jay’s chest cavity, halfway across the globe, until it finally finds its new home in Stella. In the process, a compelling and complex human drama is enacted through music, song and imagery. The result is eerily haunting, surprisingly informative and even suspenseful.

Written by Pamela Carter, with music composed by Valgeir Siguròsson and beautifully performed by the Scottish Ensemble, We Are in Time is quite simply an extraordinary theatrical experience. In all my years of theatre-going, I can honesty say that have never seen anything quite like it before.

And that, in my book, is a major recommendation.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

03/03/20

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Nobody’s talking about sixteen-year-old Jamie New (Layton Williams). There’s nothing remarkable about him. His careers teacher, Miss Hedge (Lara Denning), predicts a future for him as a forklift truck driver. His friend, Pritti (Sharan Phull), does her best to help him to revise. Sure, class eejit Dean Paxton (George Sampson) enjoys a bit of homophobic bullying, but Jamie doesn’t let it get to him. It’s not like his sexuality is a secret.

He does have a secret though: he knows exactly what he wants to do when he leaves school – and it doesn’t involve any forklift trucks. Jamie wants to be a drag queen. But  Miss Hedge keeps banging on about being realistic, and Jamie doesn’t have the confidence to believe that he can realise his dream. Until his lovely mum (Amy Ellen Richardson) buys him some red high heels for his birthday, and Pritti challenges him to drag up for prom – if that’s what he wants to do.

And Jamie realises he’s going to have to come out for a second time.

This is a heartwarming story by Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae, reminiscent of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing in its positive depiction of a young gay man, also called Jamie, loved and supported by his family and friends – although, of course, this one is true. Jamie New experiences very few obstacles: his dad (Cameron Johnson)’s a shit, but so what? He’s got Ray (Shobna Gulati), his mum’s gloriously gobby best mate, who’s always on hand to offer knock-off lippy and sage advice. He doesn’t need his dad. And if Miss Hedge is set against Jamie drawing attention to himself by wearing a dress to prom, clearly the only thing to do is to show her why she’s wrong.

Williams is very appealing in the lead role, and utterly convincing as the conflicted teen, veering between bravado and fear as he works out what kind of adult he wants to be. Shane Richie is hilarious, both as drag shop owner Hugo and his alter ego Loco Chanelle: he’s a seasoned performer with perfect comic timing, and he really knows how to elicit a big laugh. But the standouts are Phull and Gulati: the former’s plaintive singing is beautifully emotive, while the latter’s well-timed profanities are both audacious and refreshing.

It’s a shame the score is kind of meh, with only a couple of notable tunes and no real bangers that linger in the memory. Still, Katie Prince’s lively choreography complements Matt Ryan’s direction well, and I leave the theatre smiling, and glad to see that the real Jamie (Jamie Campbell) is clearly living his best life, posing for photos in a fabulous show gown, a million miles away from a fork lift truck.

 4 stars

Susan Singfield

The Invisible Man

01/03/20

HG Wells’ landmark novel first appeared in serial form in 1896. Since it’s screen debut in 1933, it has become one of the most adopted stories in movie history. Leigh Whanell’s version of the tale has little in common with Wells’ brainchild. If anything, it’s closest to Paul Verhoeven’s The Hollow Man (2000), in which Kevin Bacon took on the titular role. But where that film was unforgivably salacious in tone, Whannell, rather astutely, uses the central idea as a metaphor for the way in which certain men can exert a powerful and malign influence over their female partners.

Here is a version of the story that chimes perfectly with #metoo – yet boasts all the thrills and jump-scares of a traditional fright movie. No mean achievement.

When we first encounter Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss), she is already on the run from an abusive relationship with Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). He is an ultra-successful inventor, working on a top secret project. The couple live in a super-swish home on a remote clifftop, where Adrian controls every aspect of Cecilia’s life – what she says, what she does, what she wears, what she eats – and he’s quick with his fists if she’s slow to obey him. She’s had more than enough. So she slips her husband a tranquilliser, grabs her pre-packed bag and makes a run for it. The film is taut with tension from the opening scene. The mere act of accidentally kicking a metal dog bowl is enough to make me almost jump out of my seat.

Two months later, Cecilia is lodging at the house of friendly cop, James (Aldis Hodge), a close friend of her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer). When news comes through that Adrian has killed himself, Cecilia starts to believe that her long nightmare is finally over – but then inexplicable things begin to happen around the house, incidents that threaten Cecilia and her developing friendship with James’ teenage daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid). Cecilia gradually begins to understand that Adrian is still somehow holding the reins that govern her life. But she can’t see him. And the problem is, when she tries telling others that she’s being hounded by her invisible, dead partner, eyebrows are inevitably raised.

It’s strangely reassuring in this CGI-addicted era to see how much suspense Whannell manages to generate with what is mostly a traditional, low-tech approach. Shadowy corners, unexplained sounds in the night, brief glimpses of ‘something’ glimpsed from the corner of an eye … all of these are used to great effect to ramp up the steadily building tension to almost unbearable levels. Furthermore, there are enough twists and turns in this retelling to keep an audience guessing. It’s only as the film thunders into the final stretch that we actually get to ‘see’ the villain’s invisibility… if that makes sense – and to realise that the only person who can help Cecilia out of this sitation is Cecilia herself.

Moss is, as you might expect, superb here, convincingly showing us a character pushed to the very edge of sanity by the machinations of a vengeful and highly inventive partner.

Originally concieved as part of Universal’s planned (and promptly abandoned) ‘Dark Universe’ series, The Invisible Man is strong enough to stand on its own two feet. And then some. Be warned. This is not one for those of a nervous disposition.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Dark Waters

01/03/20

This film is something of a departure for director Todd Haynes, a far cry from the languid luminosity of Carol or Far From Heaven. Instead, he offers us a compelling exposé, a true story told with a devastating urgency.

Because there’s no getting away from it: this is urgent. Based on Nathaniel Rich’s New York Times article, The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare, it tells of corporate greed and negligence on a shocking scale. So far, so depressingly predictable. But there’s more: a dastardly cover-up designed to protect profits at all costs. And the costs are high.

DuPont is a massive company, and one of their most successful products is Teflon. Yes, that Teflon, the stuff that makes your pans non-stick and waterproofs your raincoat. There’s no denying its usefulness, nor its ubiquity. Unfortunately, it also turns out that there’s no denying the toxic nature of one of its components, namely PFOA, a ‘forever chemical’ that is very difficult to break down, no matter how it is disposed of. Not that DuPont have proved themselves too worried about its disposal: they’ve just dumped it in landfill, allowing it to pollute the water.

I should confess here that chemistry is not my strong point. Luckily, the script makes clear that hero lawyer Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is also a bit deficient in the arena of scientific-understanding; he needs the basics explaining, which gives us the chance to learn alongside him. Where Bilott does excel, though, is in the law – and in tenacity, morality and grit.

The movie is unflinching in its revelations, detailing Bilott’s response to farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp)’s out-of-the-blue request for help. Tennant is not Bilott’s typical client; he’s an environmental lawyer, yes, but of the corporate variety, more used to defending chemical companies than suing them. But Tennant’s evidence is both disturbing and irrefutable: DuPont’s landfill, bordering his farm, has visibly contaminated his creek; his cattle are sick and mad and dying at an alarming rate.

Despite DuPont’s attempt to forestall and stymie his investigations, Bilott persists, and discovers that DuPont have known about the potentially lethal nature of their product for decades. And it’s not just the cows: women working on the Teflon line have given birth to babies with distinctive facial deformities. It’s a poison.

It’s terrifying.

PFOA wasn’t a banned substance then. It is now. But lots of other, similar substances are not. And surely no one on earth is naïve enough to believe that there aren’t countless other companies committing countless other atrocities in pursuit of the mighty dollar, no matter how many of us are endangered by their greed? The 1% don’t even see the rest of us; we’re incidental to them, and if we’re damaged, we’re just collateral.

Yup, this is a spectacularly squalid and depressing tale, as dark and dingy as the cinematography. But there are a few beacons of hope: there is the irascible, taciturn Tennant; there is Bilott, his wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway), and his boss, Tim Perp (Tim Robbins) – all determined to do the right thing despite the personal costs. A few good people really can make a difference.

And at least in the US they can reach a wide audience, via the robust journalism in some of their broadsheets and through their powerful movie industry. No wonder Todd Haynes felt he had no choice but to make this vital, disturbing film.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield