The Wedding Singer

06/06/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

I’ll be honest, I’m not expecting much of The Wedding Singer. Its tagline (“The Hilarious Musical Based on the Hit Film”) seems designed to put me off: I didn’t much care for the film and am suspicious of anything that calls itself funny. Still, if I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s to give stuff a chance; joy is often found in the most unlikely places.

And The Wedding Singer is really very good. It’s an energetic, riotous show, with some great set pieces and strong performances throughout. The tone is set before the lights go down, with a skewed cinema screen projecting trailers from 1980s classics: there’s The Goonies! Oh, and Desperately Seeking Susan! It’s a real nostalgia-fest, and makes one thing absolutely clear: this is a period piece.

And it needs to be, because the unquestioning conformity to gender roles would surely raise an eyebrow nowadays. Girls just want to get married, you see; they like dresses and rings and crockery. As for homosexuality, it’s the punchline to a lot of jokes in this play – and I don’t think that would fly in a contemporary piece, however affectionate the quips. (Maybe it shouldn’t work here either, but the crowd seems to lap it up; surely some of them are feeling as uncomfortable as I am though?)

Despite these issues, this is undoubtedly a feel-good musical with a lot of heart. It’s easy to engage with the two main characters, Robbie and Julia, who are played with warmth and good humour by Jon Robyns and Cassie Compton respectively. Both have lovely voices, ideally suited to the songs they sing. They make a delightful pair.

Ray Quinn, as Julia’s love-rat fiancé, Glen Gulia, is a standout: his dancing in particular is really impressive. And Ruth Madoc’s turn as Robbie’s young-at-heart grandma, Rosie, is the stuff that comic dreams are made of: sure, it’s a pantomime-ish caricature of a role, but her evident enthusiasm for the sheer silliness of it all is absolutely catching.

So yeah, if you’re after something to make you ponder, to broaden your understanding of the world, then this probably isn’t the play for you. But if you’re up for an evening of unabashed fun, then make your way to the King’s Theatre, and prepare to feel the buzz.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Wonder Woman

05/06/17

The character of Wonder Woman first appeared, in comic form, in 1942. In 1976, portrayed by Linda Carter, she was the star of a TV series, which ran for a perfectly respectable three seasons. The inevitable question is, why has it taken so long for her to star in a big screen adaptation of her story? (I’m going to discount the brief appearance she made in last year’s Batman vs Superman.) Is it simply that the superhero genre has always been associated with ‘films for the lads?’ Did the powers-that-be actually believe that a woman wasn’t capable of carrying an entire movie? The last time it was tried was in 2004, with Catwoman – which, it has to be admitted, wasn’t exactly a success.

Whatever the reason, the wait has been worthwhile – because unlike most of DC’s other recent output, this film benefits from a great big shot of fun. The plot may occasionally raise your eyebrows but it’s hard to deny just how enjoyable a ride this is – at least until the final twenty minutes or so.

We first encounter our eponymous heroine in the modern day, as she receives a communication from Wayne Enterprises. This is DC trying to open out their shared universe, taking their lead, no doubt, from Marvel’s more confident approach. Then we are quickly whisked back in time to the mysterious island of Themiscyra, where the Amazons dwell. Young Diana is the only child on an island inhabited entirely by women – and before you ask the obvious question, she was fashioned from clay by her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), with a little help from Zeus.  Hippolyta wants to protect her daughter from the evils of the outside world, and tries to steer her away from anything too physical, but Diana’s auntie, (Robin Wright) secretly coaches Diana in the ways of warfare so she will be able to fulfil her destiny and, pretty soon, she has grown up to be former physical training instructor Gal Gadot, a woman of such stunning physical beauty and strength, she might have descended from thoroughbred race horses.

Then one fateful day, a plane crashes on the island and Diana rescues the pilot, who turns out to be doe-eyed hunk, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Steve is a spy and, it turns out,  one who is carrying a very important notebook – something that he believes will help to end the First World War – for out in the real world it is 1916, and evil German officer, Ludendorff (Danny Huston, who, if not exactly chewing the scenery, is definitely giving it a pretty thorough nibble) is working alongside disfigured scientist, Dr Maru (Elena Anaya) to create a deadly nerve gas, one that Ludendorff thinks will turn the tide of the war and make his country victorious.

Pretty soon, Diana and Steve are on their way to London, with a tall order to fulfil – to end the war, once and for all. Okay, so this isn’t going to win any prizes for being the most convincing story ever written (indeed there are plot holes here you could comfortably drive an Amazon chariot through) but there’s real chemistry between Gadot and Pine and it does feel refreshingly empowering to see a woman handling the kind of kick-ass moves usually commandeered by the boys in spandex. There’s nicely judged comedy relief from Lucy Davis as Steve’s secretary, Etta, and some genuinely funny scenes where Diana’s gung ho attitude crashes headlong into the patriarchal conventions of the age. Despite what the naysayers are muttering, neither Diana nor Steve call the shots in this enterprise. They work together as a team.

My only beef with the film are those final twenty minutes, when inevitably, the limitations of the genre kick in and we’re plunged headlong into yet another over-pixilated punch up. As Diana and her nemesis, Ares, start picking up tanks and throwing them at each other, it simply serves to emphasise the point that what’s so good about this film is the way in which a superhero interacts with real people. But that quibble aside, there’s much to enjoy here and the news that director Patty Jenkins has already scored a record opening weekend for a female director is simply the icing on an already tasty cinematic confection.

If, like me, you’re a little tired of seeing moody blokes in capes thumping seven bells out of each other, this may be just the film for you.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Lyceum Variety Night 3

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04/06/17

Lyceum, Edinburgh

Flint and Pitch’s Variety Nights are fast becoming a thing of legend. Hosts Jenny Lindsay and Sian Bevan are as engaging and irreverent as ever, setting the tone for another fun-filled evening in their company.

Tonight’s proceedings kick off with a song from Maud the Moth, an interesting jazz-classical-fusion band built around the distinctive vocal stylings of Amaya Lopez-Carromero, featuring keyboards, drums, violins and, on the opening number, Queen Maud, electric guitar. It makes for a haunting start and I’m already looking forward to hearing more from them later.

Up next is Kieran Hurley, a storyteller whose schtick, he tells us, doesn’t really lend itself to ten-minute pieces, shorn of context. Still, he manages to contextualise tonight’s reading with wit and brevity, and it’s a real treat: an excerpt from his 2013 play, Beats. Two intertwining monologues tell us the story of an illegal rave – and we’re hanging on to his every word.

Audrey Tait and Michelle Lowe are The Miss’s, a Scottish singing/songwriting duo with a compelling set tonight. Tait’s plaintive voice is the perfect foil for Lowe’s more gutsy vocals, and they absolutely take my breath away. I love these two and could listen all night.

But it’s a variety night, so of course we are moved swiftly on. And it’s fine, because Caroline Bird’s performance poetry is a delight; in fact, she’s our favourite act of the evening. Her diffident, unshowy persona allows her poems to shine – and shine they do. They’re as charming as she is, illuminating dark truths about love, life and mental illness with cheerfulness and compassion. We’ll certainly be seeking out more of her work.

Jack Webb is the first dancer/choreographer to grace the Lyceum Variety Night’s stage, and this is certainly a very striking piece. Let’s be honest, interpretive dance isn’t an area we know much about, and we’re not sure we fully understand all this performance wants to say, but it is nevertheless clearly a corporal feat, all precision and control, conveying pain and a heightened sense of physicality.

It’s safe to say that Mairi Campbell is unique – she plays the viola and sings which is a pretty unusual combination, but she makes it work really effectively. She gives us a brace of memorable folk-tinged songs, the last one involving us all singing along on the chorus, and it’s evident why she won the Instrumentalist of the Year award in 2016.

Kathleen Jamie is a poet in the most traditional sense. She offers us a collection of lyrical pieces based around the beauty of the Scottish landscape and her childhood memories. The one that covers stamp collecting is a particular delight (and that’s not a line you get to say very often). Weirdly, despite winning a whole plethora of awards since her first in 1981, she doesn’t come across as the most confident of performers – but there’s no doubting the quality of her work.

It’s left to Maud the Moth to come on and finish off the night with three more of their excellent songs and highly original songs, before we head back to (as Jenny and Sian point out) the harsh reality of the world. An excellent night then and we only have one minor quibble – why have we still not managed to win the raffle?

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield and Philip Caveney

 

 

 

My Life as a Courgette

02/06/17

This animated feature by Claude Barras was considered classy enough to earn itself an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film earlier this year, alongside the likes of The Red Turtle – and it’s won a whole clutch of awards across Europe. For a variety of reasons, I don’t feel it’s in quite the same league as its Oscar stablemate, though few would deny the attractions of the quirky stop-frame animation, and even fewer would argue that its heart isn’t in the right place.

Icare (voiced by Gaspard Schlatter) is an eight-year-old boy who has been neglected by his alcoholic mother and (in a beautifully understated scene) is also partially responsible for her death. Since nobody knows what happened to his father, he is taken to an orphanage, where, because of his preference for being called ‘Courgette’ (the nick-name his mother gave him), he quickly comes to the attention of Simon (Paulin Jaccoud), the school’s resident bully. But pretty soon, the arrival of Camille (Sixtine Murat) gives Icare something more positive to focus his attentions on; meanwhile, Raymond (Michel Vuillermoz), the policeman who assigned Icare to the orphanage in the first place, is starting to bond with him…

The film certainly deals with an interesting subject, but it never really pushes the envelope far enough to hammer home its points, with the result that, ultimately, it’s no more hard-hitting than your average Jacqueline Wilson novel. Though the script occasionally flirts with controversy – the children discussing sex; Camille’s hard-hearted aunt trying to take custody of her niece so she can make money on the deal – the problems are too easily resolved to totally convince and, with a running time of just over sixty minutes, there really isn’t enough room to fully explore the dramatic possibilities, which makes the film feel rather like an over-extended ‘short.’

In the end, it’s undeniably charming and the stop-motion work is exquisite (a sequence where Icare, Camille and Raymond visit a funfair is a particular stand out), but you can’t help feeling that it could have been so much more than that.

3.9 stars

Philip Caveney

The Thursday Show

01/06/17

The Stand, Edinburgh

We have friends staying for a few days, and of course we want to show off our adopted city. In the daytime, we take them sightseeing in the Old Town, and then walking in Holyrood Park. As night falls, we lead them towards Edinburgh’s iconic comedy club, with the promise of a Thursday show that is sure to entertain.

In all honesty, we’re not au fait with any of the advertised acts, but that’s no bad thing. There are a lot of comedians working the circuit, and they can’t all be household names. We’re always happy to see something new (even if it’s only new to us), and our only fear is arriving too late to secure a seat. We’re just about in time to avert that particular disaster, although we’re perched on high stools at the very back. That’s the only drawback with this venue, really: arriving ninety minutes before the show begins is an irritating necessity.

Our compere is Jellybean Martinez, alter-ego of Matthew Ellis, and as high-octane a character as I’ve ever seen. He’s a tartan-and-frill-clad ball of energy, all bitchy campery and squealing laughs. He works the audience expertly, and – if he’s sometimes a bit much for me – the students on the front row lap up his attention. It’s adroitly done, and sets the tone for an evening we can all enjoy.

The opener is Rachel Fairburn, a Mancunian whose deadpan laconic style is bitingly funny. Her speech is laced with sweetened bile, turning humdrum tales of sibling rivalry into deliciously dark bon mots. I’d like to see what else she can do, and will make a point of seeing her show at the Fringe this year (Her Majesty, Just the Tonic at the Community Project).

Next up is Donald Alexander, a relative newcomer with a twitchy, nerdy persona, talking about being a primary school teacher and having sex with girls. It works: he’s likeable and engaging, and the crowd is on his side.

After the interval, there’s a surprise appearance from Danny Bhoy, who’s clearly working up material for his new show, Make Something Great Again For A Stronger Better Future Tomorrow Together. He is a welcome addition to the line-up, an astute and assured comedian with a lot to say. He’s our favourite of the evening, his political observations being both refreshing and dismaying – as well as funny, of course.

Glaswegian John Ross has the unenviable task of following Danny Bhoy, but he’s up to the job, making us laugh with his witty observations about enemas and railings. Yes, really. Enemas. And railings. He’s a hit with the students too; they’re raucous in their appreciation. Good stuff.

And then, before we know it, it’s already time for the headliner. Imran Yusuf‘s edgy set takes us into uncomfortable territory, but it’s excellent from start to finish. He’s very sharp indeed, making us confront the issues surrounding terrorism, as well as his frustration at always having to discuss this stuff, just because of his ethnicity. He’s certainly a comedian I’d like to see again, and I’ll be looking out for a full-length show.

All in all, we’ve had another great evening at The Stand. Our guests are happy and so are we.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Shirley Valentine

30/05/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Willy Russell’s 1998 play has endured largely because of the strength of the writing and the fact that so many women identify with the character of Shirley Valentine. Essentially a comic monologue, the play was opened out for film in 1989 and this is how most people remember it – but the play has more power, simply because we view everything through the eyes of jaded working-class mother, Shirley, a woman so marginalised by her husband, Joe, that she has resorted to having conversations with her kitchen wall.

Jodie Prenger – who first came to the public’s attention when she won the BBC’s I’ll Do Anything, and went on to land the coveted role of Nancy in a revival of Oliver! at the Year Royal, Drury Lane – has a field day with the role of Shirley. She’s funny, assured and has an evident gift for physical theatre: many of the evening’s biggest laughs come from the way she deports herself as she talks. We spend the first two acts in Shirley’s kitchen as she initially cooks her husband’s dinner (an unscheduled plate of chips and egg) and then prepares to go on holiday to Greece with her friend. The final act takes place on the beach itself, where we learn that Shirley has had a brief fling wth a local barman and that she has now graduated to having conversations with a rock. What’s more, having reinvented herself in the sunshine, she has no intention of returning to her former life…

This is a charming slice of theatre, hugely appreciated by an enthusiastic audience and, while it must now be considered a period piece, it nonetheless offers a highly entertaining night at the theatre.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Red Turtle

29/05/17

I have to confess to having a bit of a blind spot for animation.  I sometimes have to cajole myself into going along to see one, even though I invariably enjoy myself when I make the effort. I loved Inside Out, for instance – heck, I really liked Frozen, before it became so… over-exposed.

The Red Turtle is more than just another cartoon – it’s a game changer, quite unlike any animated film I’ve seen before. This canny co-production between Japan’s Studio Ghibli and Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit seems to exemplify the best traditions of east and west. The Japanese influences are there in the sumptuous forests and the watercolour-like depictions of the landscape – yet the graphic characters could have stepped straight out of the pages of a Herge cartoon. Almost completely wordless but blessed with a sumptuous soundtrack to make up for it, this is fabulous stuff – a powerful and affecting meditation on life, love and adversity.

A man finds himself a castaway on a remote desert island. He spends a lot of time looking for signs of life and when he fails to find another human there, he starts building rafts in an attempt to escape – but his encounters with a mysterious red turtle ensure that he repeatedly ends up right back where he started. As the story unfolds, the man begins to realise that the turtle isn’t what he first thought it was…

It would be criminal to give away more of the plot. Suffice to say that this beautiful allegory, which clocks in at a pacy 80 minutes, will thrill you, amaze you and, unless you’re the most stoic person on the planet, have you in tears at its heartfelt conclusion. For this is a parable about life and there will be elements here that every viewer will identify with. Just in case I’m making this sound a bit too po-faced, let me tell you that there are a family of crabs living on the island, whose playful antics deliver regular doses of comic relief.

The Red Turtle may well be the perfect antidote for people who don’t much care for animation. But those who love the format will have a field day too, because this is an absolute delight that deserves to reach the widest possible audience.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney