Small Island

19/06/20

National Theatre Live

Anyone who’s still clinging to the notion that #BLM protests are not needed in the UK would do well to watch this latest screening from the National Theatre, and remind themselves of the shameful way black British subjects from Caribbean countries have been treated here.

Andrea Levy’s novel, adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson, is set in the 1940s, so does not directly address the 2018 Windrush scandal – where at least eighty-three people were wrongly deported – but it does show very clearly how they came to be here in the first place, encouraged to embrace their Britishness by fighting for ‘their’ country in the war, then helping to rebuild a battered Britain afterwards. ‘Used’ is the first word that comes to mind. ‘Abused’ is the second.

The play, directed by Rufus Norris, is at once an expansive, epic sweep of a project, and a deeply intimate portrayal of three people, cast adrift and then brought together, an intricate web linking their lives.

Leah Harvey is Hortense, a prim, ambitious Jamaican school teacher, desperate to escape the confines of her upbringing and live amongst the china tea cups and cream teas that define Britain for her. The love of her life is her ‘cousin’ Michael (CJ Beckford), but he doesn’t feel the same way about her. Spurned, Hortense realises that, by paying for his passage to England,  she can persuade RAF airman Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr) to marry her, and offer her the life she dreams of.

But when she arrives in London, Hortense is horrified to discover that their accommodation is a tiny room in a rundown boarding house, that she is subjected daily to the most appalling racism, and that no one will employ her as a teacher, or even recognise the qualifications she’s worked so hard to acquire. The landlady, Queenie (Aisling Loftus), is their one ally, but even her support seems less assured when her bigoted husband, Bernard (Andrew Rothney), finally returns home from the war.

The acting from all is superb, although it is Harvey’s performance that lingers in the memory, a study in rigid reserve and masked disappointment.

I love Katrina Lindsay’s set design, which is perfectly complemented by Jon Driscoll’s projections, making full use of the enormous Olivier stage. The storm scenes in particular seem immersive, and the size of the Windrush boat (and thus the scale of the ensuing scandal) is cleverly conveyed.

The first act is more complex than the first, cutting between countries and characters, but we always know exactly where we are, and all the disparate strands are brought together skilfully in a more cohesive second act.

This is a timely release from the National Theatre, and reinforces the need for more BAME representation in the arts.

You have until next Thursday to watch it.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

The Blues Brothers

18/06/20

Netflix

Continuing our (very ) occasional reappraisal of classic movies, I find this beauty lurking on Netflix and immediately feel a powerful need to reconnect with it. The Blues Brothers first emerged in 1980 and I know I watched it in the cinema on its release, but, nearly forty years later, I can no longer recall exactly where I was at the time, nor which particular establishment I viewed it in. No matter.

John Landis’s film came hot off his success with Animal House and is very much a love letter to rhythm and blues. It features a whole host of celebrated performers in cameo roles: Cab Galloway, Ray Charles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin; they are all trotted out to perform a song apiece as ‘Joliet’ Jake (John Bellshill) and his brother Elwood (Dan Akroyd) go about their ‘mission from God,’ trying to raise $5000 dollars to save the orphanage they grew up in from being closed down. $5000 dollars probably seemed a lot of money back then.

The overall feel here is of a cartoon made flesh. No matter what outlandish events befall our heroes (they are shot at with bazookas and flamethrowers and, at one point Elwood’s entire apartment block collapses around them), they don’t even raise an eyebrow – and they never remove their sunglasses, even at night. Well, apart from one famous bit…

The action sequences are amped up to eleven. You want a car chase? Sure, but why use four vehicles when you can use one hundred and four? You want to destroy an entire shopping mall in the process? Go on, the budget’s right there, spend it!

Much of the fun here is in revisiting those glorious set pieces. As somebody who played in bands throughout much of my youth and who often found himself performing in unsuitable venues, I will always relish the BB’s comeback gig where they are obliged to take the stage at a country and western bar posing as The Good Ol’ Boys. When their opening number, Gimme Some Loving, causes a riot, they are reduced to bashing out a version of the theme from Rawhide, swiftly followed by a tearjerking Stand By Your Man. Priceless. And of course, who doesn’t relish the scene where the boys drive straight at a group of Nazis forcing them to jump off a bridge into a river? 

Carrie Fisher makes a memorable appearance as the woman who Jake left at the altar and who has pledged to destroy him and his brother, by any means possible.  Something I didn’t expect when rewatching this film was to notice how many great movie actors featured here are no longer with us – and how much I miss them.

Sure, you can argue that the film is decidedly rough around the edges. Many of those featured musicians can’t act for toffee and the guest appearance by Twiggy (who presumably just happened to be around) feels entirely gratuitous. Some of the special effects are very much of their time, i.e. not that special.

But nevertheless The Blues Brothers still rocks, still makes me laugh out loud and provides a perfect tonic for these troubled times. And who could ever forget that famous quote, which in the 1980s, we repeated again and again?

Elwood: “There’s one hundred and six miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes and we’re wearing sunglasses.”

Jake: “Hit it!”

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Madness of King George

16/06/20

National Theatre Live

This adaptation of Alan Bennett’s acclaimed 1991 play, a co-production between The National Theatre and the Nottingham Playhouse, stars Mark Gatiss as George III, the much-loved and admired monarch whose reign was nearly destroyed by a protracted battle with mental illness. We now know that George suffered from porphyria, a condition that comes with a whole raft of punishing symptoms – and it’s clear from the outset that the illness itself is worsened by the ill-informed efforts of the court physicians, who set about inflicting a whole series of what can only be described as tortures on the luckless monarch. They bleed him, they ply him with laxatives, they even spill boiling hot wax onto his head and back, convinced that these remedies will drive out his ‘ill humours.’  Little wonder, then, that their efforts are instrumental in pushing the king deeper into delirium. Bennett’s script walks a perilous tightrope between hilarity and the full blown tragedy of watching a man degraded and humbled in front of his family and his courtiers. 

It’s only when Prime Minister William Pitt (Nicholas Bishop) engages the services of Doctor Willis (Adrian Scarborough) that a possible light appears on the horizon. Willis’s approach to the problem is a tough, rigorous routine that seems more appropriate to the breaking of a horse than the nurturing of a stricken human being but, against all the odds, it starts to pay dividends.

Meanwhile, the Whigs see the king’s situation as an opportunity to oust Pitt’s Tories by allying themselves to the ambitious Prince of Wales (Wilf Scolding), who longs for some kind of power and doesn’t mind how he gets it.

This is a handsomely mounted production, which takes off at a gallop and never allows the pace to flag. Each scene segues effortlessly to the next and there’s solid work from the supporting cast, but this is essentially an opportunity for Gatiss to shine and he rises to the challenge with considerable aplomb, managing to bring out George’s innate likeability even as he is reduced to a gibbering, gesticulating wreck by his steadily mounting symptoms.

This is an object lesson in how to present a period piece. Everything here – the costumes, the sets, the actors’ comic timing, the machinations of the various political players, is presented with absolute authority and skilfully directed by Adam Penford.

It’s often said that fact is stranger than fiction and The Madness of King George seems to illustrate this point perfectly. 

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Dine at Home

13/06/20

dineedinburgh.co.uk

We know the drill by now; this is the third lockdown ‘restaurant meal in your own home’ we’ve had, so we’re feeling like old hands. This one has a lot of heavy lifting to do though: it’s my birthday treat.

It’s not actually my birthday until Tuesday but, like most of the fine dining establishments offering takeaways for the first time, Dine are limiting themselves to Fridays and Saturdays, which is probably a sensible move. And I’m more than happy to stretch out even weird, isolated celebrations over a few days.

The food arrives at 1pm in a socially-distanced drop-off. It’s in two neat boxes, and there’s a bottle of Prosecco too (did I mention it’s my birthday?). For £49 we’re getting three courses for two people and a bottle of wine, although there is a £2.75 delivery charge, and the upgrade to Prosecco costs us another £7.50. Still, for just under £60, this is a nicely indulgent meal, and it’s well thought out in terms of the amount (and complexity) of cooking we’re required to do.

There are some olives to nibble, which is a nice touch, and then we kick off with our starters. These are both cold, and just require assembling on the plate. Philip has smoked salmon and cream cheese, which is served with a beetroot and charred shallot salad and a slice of Pumpernickel. It’s delicious, very rich and creamy, but there’s not enough Pumpernickel for the generous portion of salmon pâté, so he adds a couple of crackers to his plate (the salmon is too tasty to leave, but definitely needs some kind of base to carry it). My cured ham, melon and mozzarella is the prettiest dish of the night, and again the portions are far from meagre. There are two slices of ham, a big piece of mozzarella, and a scrumptious caper and white sultana purée. Weirdly, the biggest revelation is the grissini, which are the only bread sticks I’ve ever had that have tasted of anything. We’re off to a cracking start.

My main is a seafood, chorizo and summer vegetable stew served with a lemon and herb rice. It tastes fresh and clean, and is liberally stuffed with clams, prawns and squid. Philip’s Asian style sticky pork belly comes with pak choi and sweet potato, and is bursting with flavour. Both can be microwaved, but we choose to cook them in the oven. The menu has clearly been designed carefully to minimise our workload: both meals require 20 minutes at 170°. Easy!

Puddings are also cold, so we only need deal with presentation (and, having finished off the Prosecco by this stage, we’re honestly not too concerned about what they look like). Philip’s cranachan comes with candied hazelnuts and a satisfying raspberry sauce; my carrot cake has frosted icing, and a side helping of orange and praline cream. I’m sure they’re both perfectly fine individually, but that’s not what happens here. We split them in half and make a hybrid dessert that tastes utterly divine. Well, we are in our own home; we can do what we like, right?

All in all, this is the best of the ‘at home’ meals we’ve had so far, with every course a hit.

Hurrah. And happy birthday to me.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Da 5 Bloods

12/06/20

A new Spike Lee film is generally a cause for considerable excitement. From She’s Gotta Have It, way back in 1986, to Do the Right Thing and his recent renaissance with BlackKkKLansman, Lee has always been the master of righteous indignation, a director whose beliefs are right at the forefront of his work and who never backs down from uncomfortable truths. And of course, in the time of Black Lives Matter, his voice carries extra authority.

And now here’s Da 5 Bloods, released without much trumpeting onto Netflix. It opens like a documentary, complete with vintage footage of Muhammed Ali and Malcolm X and shocking images from the war in Vietnam – indeed, the references come so thick and fast over the opening credits, it’s hard to keep up with them.

Yet, this is no documentary. The meat of the film is a story about four Vietnam veterans, who reunite to go back to their old battleground on a seemingly altruistic mission to recover the remains of their late comrade, ‘Stormin” Norman (Chadwick Boseman), buried somewhere deep in the jungle. But there’s another, less laudable reason for their return.  Concealed near his grave is a cache of American gold bullion, originally intended to pay South Vietnamese allies. The four amigos, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jnr), see no reason why they shouldn’t collect that at the same time. After all, haven’t they paid for it in blood, sweat and tears?

At the last instant, they are joined by Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors), who is cut in for a share. And off they go into deep jungle, assisted by a Vietnamese guide, Vinh (Johnny Nguyen), and financed by shady French entrepreneur, Leroche (Jean Reno), in a story that openly references the likes of Apocalypse Now and, more specifically, John Huston’s classic adventure,  The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

As ever with Lee, there’s no doubting the sincerity of his vision, and it’s clear that his anger about the way black troops were used as cannon fodder during the war is the heat that fuels this adventure – but it also has to be said that much of what goes on in deep jungle feels decidedly far-fetched and at times (dare I say it?) a crushingly predictable take on The Pardoner’s Tale. We also witness flashbacks to the foursome’s time as soldiers, where the eponymous bloods look exactly the same as they do now and Norman, young enough to be their son. Of course, this is intentional (it’s them looking back on the events) but it’s a bold move that takes a little getting used to.

Ultimately, Da 5 Bloods is neither fish nor fowl. It could either have been a powerful documentary about the exploitation of black lives at a time of war, or a gung-ho rumble- in-the-jungle adventure, mixing laughter and violence in equal measure. With typical ambition, Lee tries for both with the result that neither strand feels entirely convincing. It’s also puzzling when a director with such a breadth of experience allows an absolutely risible plot point to make it on to the screen. (You’ll know it when you see it.)

Da 5 Bloods has already been garlanded with high praise from several quarters, but for me, at least, it’s not up there with Lee’s finest work. What’s more, with a running time of two hours and thirty four minutes, there are sections here that feel more gruelling than they needed to.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

A Monster Calls

05/06/20

Old Vic/YouTube

Looking back through my diary of another life, in another time, I note that I was due to see the touring production of this play at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, in early April 2020. It now seems unlikely that this was ever a possibility. Sitting in a crowded auditorium, enjoying a live performance? Is that really how we used to carry on?

Some productions have added resonance because of personal experience. Back in 2006 when I’d just embarked on my career as a children’s author, I was fortunate enough to meet Siobhan Dowd, when our respective debut novels were nominated for the same award. She was utterly charming and I had no inkling then that she was only a year away from her untimely death from breast cancer. A Monster Calls was an outline for a future novel that she didn’t live long enough to deliver to her publishers. It was subsequently completed by Patrick Ness and became a huge success in 2012.

I also loved the film version, directed by J A Bayona in 2017, which (another coincidence) featured one of Susan’s drama school pupils in the lead role (although she didn’t actually teach him). Even without these connections, this would still be a powerful and affecting story. I remember leaving the cinema, red-eyed from weeping.

This production, filmed onstage at the Old Vic in 2018, is now available for a limited run on YouTube. Though perhaps not as slickly filmed as many of the recent  ‘live’ theatre performances, there’s no doubting the emotional heft of the story. The central premise, clearly inspired by Siobhan’s own circumstances, is utterly heartbreaking.

Thirteen-year-old Conor McGregor (Matthew Tennyson) is in meltdown. His beloved Mother (Marianne Oldham) is gradually succumbing to cancer and he doesn’t know how to handle it. Estranged from his father (Felix Hayes), who now lives in America with his new family, Conor has nobody to confide in. He is being perpetually bullied at school and is resisting all attempts by his well-meaning grandmother (Selina Cadell) to make him accept that his life is about to undergo a massive change.

When his mother points out an ancient yew tree near to the family home, Conor begins to experience a series of bizarre visitations from The Monster (Stuart Goodwin) who lives within the tree. He relates a series of bizarre fairy stories and encourages Conor to face up to an awful truth…

There’s so much to relish here: the exquisite staging which ranges from stripped-back simplicity to explosions of almost pyschedellic colour; the ingenious use of ropes to evoke a whole series of images and settings; and there’s a sumptuous electronic soundtrack played live by Will and Benji Bower that adds a lush, dreamlike quality to the proceedings. The thirteen-strong cast all offer exemplary performances, though of course it’s Tennyson, in the lead role, who carries the heaviest load.

Is it as good as witnessing the play live? No. Am I glad it exists? Damn right!

Those who haven’t experienced A Monster Calls should catch this while it’s still available (you have until 12th June). And those who already love it could do a lot worse than indulging in another helping, just to relish those bitter-sweet flavours.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Wise Children

04/06/20

BBC iPlayer

Emma Rice’s glorious stage adaptation of Angela Carter’s Wise Children is the most exciting theatrical production I’ve seen in my own living room, since lockdown began and I started trawling online offerings. Filmed at the York Theatre Royal, it’s right there on iPlayer (until July 9th), nestling amongst the Zoom panel shows and re-runs of old series, just waiting for you to click that mouse and let the mayhem begin.

It’s wild and wonderful, bawdy and tawdry – like watching Carter’s story come tumbling from the book, the word made flesh. Emma Rice’s adaptation revels in the novel’s magnificent excesses, amping up the theatricality, highlighting the slippery nature of identity and what it means to know who we are.

This is the story of illegitimate twins Dora and Nora Chance, who are celebrating their seventy-fifth birthday as the play opens. In this iteration, they are played by Gareth Snook and Etta Murfitt, who remain on stage throughout, narrating and commenting on  the tale as it unfolds. Their mother dies giving birth to them; their father, the preposterously successful Shakespearean actor, Melchior Hazard (Ankur Bahl/Paul Hunter) refuses to acknowledge them, and they are taken in by their mother’s landlady, Grandma Chance (Katy Owen), a shouty naturist, who puts them to work in the music halls as soon as possible. Their father’s twin brother, Peregrine (Sam Archer/Mike Shepherd), looks after them financially, and spoils them with presents whenever he visits. But the Hazards’ debauched extravagance means that nothing is immutable, and there are stepmothers, half-siblings and, yes, more twins at every turn. The Chances’ lives are never dull.

But this is an ode to theatre as well as the twins’ story. We are backstage and on stage as well as in the auditorium. There’s puppetry and physical theatre, Shakespearean tragedy and end-of-pier comedy. ‘What a joy it is to dance and sing,’ says Dora, and we see this realised in the fabulous teenage Dora and Nora (Melissa James and Omari Douglas), as they relish their showgirl flamboyance and explore their sexuality.

Vicki Mortimer’s design is as audacious and vibrant as the characters: a little touring caravan and ‘Wise Children’ spelled out in lights – all bright vivacity, a carnival of colour. The costumes are gaudy and unapologetically showbiz; Grandma Chance’s naked body suit is cartoonish, exaggerated and silly. It all works, a cacophony of artifice and illusion.

If you like theatre, then you will like this.

iPlayer. Now.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Brexit: The Uncivil War

31/05/20

Netflix

As an unabashed remainer (and a sore loser), I didn’t bother to seek this out on its theatrical release. But enough political water has passed under the bridge for it to pique my interest when I spot it still lurking on Netflix. Besides, it’s interesting to look back on this story at a time when Dominic Cummings has become arguably the most loathed man in the UK. He’s played here by Benedict Cumberbatch, who doesn’t look anything like the real McCoy, but who delivers a pretty good impersonation nonetheless.

Any fears I might have that the film would portray Cummings as some kind of maverick hero figure are soon dismissed. It’s clear that writer James Graham has no particular love for his subject. Indeed, Cummings is depicted as a self-serving nihilist, a man handed a difficult job, plus complete autonomy, who is determined to win at any cost, no matter how many lies and misdirections he needs to spin. The Cummings depicted here has no political convictions whatsoever, just the all-consuming need to demonstrate that he knows how to bend the voting masses to his will.

The film does a pretty good job of nailing the sequence of events that led to the ‘Leave’ victory and uses a combination of lookalike actors – Richard Goulding is a pretty convincing Boris Johnson and Paul Ryan spot on as Nigel Farage – with occasional glimpses of some of the real players thrown in for good measure. It’s left to Rory Kinnear as Craig Oliver, leader of the ‘Remain’ movement, to portray one of the few sympathetic (if inept) characters in this story. His bewilderment as he sees the possibility of winning the campaign rapidly slipping away from him is palpable and there’s a lovely scene where he and Cummings have a pint together and realise just how much of a game-changer the referendum has been – and how little the two men have in common.

It’s to the film’s credit that it never really takes sides. The Remain campaign is shown to be out of touch, unable or unwilling to change its traditional approach to suit the social-media-dominated times. Leave voters aren’t demonised either – they demonstrate legitimate concerns about the way they’ve been increasingly sidelined over the years.

If nothing else, this is eloquent proof that Cummings, a man who cares not a jot about political values might have no hesitation in flouting a set of rules he helped to create – and why Johnson and his crew might be so desperate to hang onto him, no matter what the cost to their credibility.

While I can’t say I enjoy this film – it feels suspiciously like having my nose rubbed in something rather nasty – it’s a thoroughly decent investigation of recent political history. And those seeking answers will find them here.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Wedgwood at Home

24/05/20

wedgwoodtherestaurant.co.uk

It’s Week Ten in the Year of Our Lockdown, and I am missing eating out. I love the whole restaurant experience: the theatre, the bustle. But, if that’s not available, I’ll settle for just the food.

Like many establishments across the country, the normally premises-bound Wedgwood Restaurant (Canongate, Royal Mile, Edinburgh) is offering a takeaway service at the moment: a three course meal for £22. This is a ‘cook at home’ menu and, to be honest, there’s a little bit too much cooking involved: we have to write down the timings so we don’t mess it up, and it doesn’t feel very relaxing. Maybe it would work better if we had an open-plan kitchen-diner, but we don’t, so we’re scuttling between the table and the stove, conversations left hanging or shouted between two rooms.

Still, the food is very good, and the evening does feel special.

To start, Philip has a smoked salmon and dill paté, which is served with crumbed oatcake, blistered tomatoes, baby gem and toast. The paté has a pleasant citrusy flavour, but there’s a lot of it and not much toast. I have roast cauliflower velouté with a coriander and cashew crumb and red pepper oil. It’s lovely: a creamy, indulgent delight.

My main is roast smoked mackerel, with a spring onion and black olive potato cake, green beans and a chorizo hollandaise. It’s perfectly judged, the intensely flavoured fish well complemented by the robustness of the olives and chorizo. Philip has a lemon and thyme scented confit chicken leg with braised fennel, lentils and a gorgeously shiny honey and grain mustard jus. The whole meal is delicious, but it’s the jus that makes it.

We add in our own cheese course, because we want to, because this is our ‘date night’ and we want it to last. We have a subscription to Pong cheese, so we share three small pieces, with some onion chutney and home-made crackers.

Then pudding. We share a sticky toffee pudding with butterscotch sauce and a dark chocolate brownie with milk chocolate cremeaux, white chocolate and sweet cicely pesto and raspberries. This final course is the winner: every mouthful feels like a treat. It’s sticky and sweet and wonderful.

Wedgwood offer wine with their menu, but we have laid in a good stock from Majestic, so we open a bottle (okay, two) of Chenin Blanc (La Baume de La Grande Oliviette), and enjoy.

And, all in all, for a night in, this is pretty good.

But I’d still prefer a night out. Without the washing up.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

From Up On Poppy Hill

20/05/20

Netflix

In these troubled times, isn’t it great to have something dependable to tune in to? Looking through the crop of Studio Ghibli animations on Netflix, we find another one we failed to catch on its release. From Up on Poppy Hill first graced screens in 2011. It’s scripted by the legendary Hiyao Miyazaki, directed by his son, Gorô, and is set in the early 60s, when Japan was readying itself to host the Olympic Games. Unlike many Ghibli films, the setting (Yokohama) is authentically Japanese in just abut every detail.

Predictably, the story focuses on a plucky teenage girl. Umi (Masami Nagasawa) is a hardworking sixteen-year-old. Her father died during the Korean war and her mother, a medical professor, is away studying in America. So Umi is helping to run the family’s boarding house, cooking and cleaning whenever she’s not attending High School. It’s here that she first encounters, Shun (Jun’chi Okada), a fellow student. It’s clear from the outset that the two of them have an attraction.  Shun is an enthusiastic supporter of the school’s club house, the Quartier Latin, where various societies pursue their myriad interests. When the shabby old building where everything happens is threatened with demolition, Umi and Shun work together to try and avert disaster and, inevitably, their relationship deepens.

But a series of tragic events that occurred during the Korean war threatens to destroy any chance of a relationship between them…

This may not be one of Ghibli’s big-hitters but it’s nonetheless an appealing tale, sensitively told – and, as ever with this studio, the magic is all in the detail. There are some truly breathtaking images here, particularly in the depictions of the city at night; I especially enjoy a delightful extended sequence that begins just before twilight and effortlessly moves through a ravishing sunset and into the evening.

It’s true that the story’s resolution provides no great surprises but I like the realism of it, and the emotional clarity of the storytelling.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney