The Taming of the Shrew

 

13/03/19

Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh

I’ve never seen The Taming of the Shrew. I know the play, of course (I’ve even written essays about it), and I’ve been entertained by a number of intriguing reinterpretations in various forms: Kiss Me Kate, 10 Things I Hate About You, Vinegar Girl. But I’ve never seen it staged. Maybe because it’s arguably Shakespeare’s most contentious play – although The Merchant of Venice certainly has its issues too – and difficult to reconcile with modern sensibilities.

For those readers who need a quick reminder, the ‘shrew’ of the title is Kate, a wayward young woman, whose volatility deters any would-be beaux. Her father – based on some labyrinthine reasoning – imposes a bizarre rule: her sweet-natured sister, Bianca, cannot marry before Kate. But Bianca is a popular girl, and her suitors do not want to wait. Enter Petruchio, with a plan to break the older girl’s spirit. He bullies, half starves, gaslights and manipulates her into submission. In a modern play, this would be the midway point; we’d see Kate regain her equilibrium and Petruchio punished. But here, this is the denouement. It’s most uncomfortable.

And it’s not just the gender politics that make TTOTS problematic. The plot is convoluted and over-contrived, the humour weirdly at odds with the central relationship. It’s a tough call for any theatre company, let alone one so young as the EUSC.

But, under Tilly Botsford’s direction, this is a marked success. We’re never in any doubt that Petruchio (played with chilling self-righteousness by Michael Hajiantonis) is an awful man: he treats his servants with the same foul aggression as his wife. I applaud the decision to cast women as the servants too, emphasising the power of the patriarchal structure, and underscoring the theme of domestic violence.

Sally MacAlister is marvellous as Grumio. She clearly relishes the role, and imbues the much put-upon servant with humour and brio. Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller also stands out as Vincentio: he inhabits this small role with a natural ease that is very impressive.

Of course, Anna Swinton has the hardest job: she’s Kate, and it’s a tough part to play. Perhaps, in some earlier scenes, her body language could be less languid and more combative, but this is a small point. Because her often mute response to Pertuchio’s bullying is nuanced as well as unequivocal, and – in that final moment – when she delivers her speech about why a wife should submit to her husband – the desperation of this broken woman is heartbreaking to witness.

This EUSC production shows then that it is perfectly possible to deliver this controversial play exactly as it stands, without compromising our changed values. A difficult undertaking, but most worthwhile.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

The Aftermath

11/03/19

There have been plenty of movies that concentrate on torrid wartime romances but, as you might guess from its title, The Aftermath is based in that uncertain period just after the end of World War II, when the victorious allied forces were trying to manage their defeated enemy and get them back into some semblance of order – after all but destroying them.

Based amidst the devastated ruins of Hamburg, Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) is one of the luckless officers charged with heading up those efforts and, to ensure that his wife, Rachel (Keira Knightly), can live comfortably alongside him, he commandeers the palatial home of German architect, Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgard), and his teenage daughter, Freda (Flora Thiemann).

Stephen claims he has never been a Nazi sympathiser and he is grieving the loss of his wife, who was killed during the allied bombing of Hamburg. Obliged to live up in the attic, Stephen and Freda can only watch in silent dismay as the British couple attempt to make themselves at home in the main part of their house.

But Rachel is mourning a loss of her own – and it’s quickly apparent that she and her husband are not exactly your average happily married couple. There’s a yawning chasm between them, one that they seem totally unable to cross – and it doesn’t help that Stephen is an attractive young man, who soon begins to cast alluring looks in Rachel’s direction – ones that she cannot help responding to.

The Aftermath is, ultimately,  a somewhat slight melodrama. It’s beautifully acted by the three leads – particularly Knightly, who once again effortlessly disproves the legions of critics who claim her career is based entirely on her looks  – and its evocations of post war Hamburg are convincingly mounted. But the film is lacking in any real depth beyond the tortured love triangle at the core of the story. We are never shown enough of the lives of the other characters who occasionally inhabit the screen. There’s a brief subplot that sees Freda becoming involved with young Hitler supporter, Albert (Jannik Schümann), but that feels underdeveloped – while Martin Compston has a fairly thankless role as Burnham, one of Lewis’s colleagues, a man who clearly thinks that all Germans should be treated as harshly as possible. He’s simply not given enough to do.

There are three credible outcomes for the situation and it’s probably true to say that the scriptwriters have opted for the least daring of them. Ultimately, The Aftermath is perfectly watchable film with a couple of genuinely tear-jerking moments, but I cannot help feeling that, properly handled, it could be so much more than that.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Bistro Franc

10/03/18

Hanover Street, Liverpool

We’re with my parents, visiting the city they hail from: the legend that is Liverpool. We’ve been to Matthew Street (aka Memory Lane), taken photographs outside the Cavern, and listened to tales of how they used to go there in their school lunch hours to listen to the bands. Philip’s actually played here once, so he has his own stories to share, of being the lead singer with Hieronymus Bosch. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed our morning, but now we’re hungry and it’s time for some lunch.

Mum’s booked us into Bistro Franc, because it’s central and she’s heard good things. When we arrive, though, we’re worried. The place looks fine, but the lunch menu seems suspiciously cheap. £11.90 for three courses? Really? What are we in for here?

Miraculously, we’re in for some decent scran: the low prices don’t correlate with low standards. Hurrah! And the service is friendly and unfussy, as chummily sarcastic as you’d expect from Scousers, but never intrusive and always well-judged.

None of us is drinking: it’s lunch time, two of us are driving and the others are keen to stick with tap water. But the wine list looks comprehensive enough; maybe we’ll give it a go another time.

To start, I have the brie and pine nut salad. It’s fresh, crunchy, and generously dotted with chunks of cheese. It would certainly benefit from a zingy dressing of some sort – a raspberry  or pomegranate vinaigrette, maybe? – but it’s a pleasant way to begin my meal. Philip has the chicken liver paté, which is creamy and rich, served on toasted baguette.

We both have the pork belly roast for our main, which incurs a £3 surcharge. This seems eminently fair: the square of meat is perfectly cooked, all soft flesh and crispy, sticky skin. The accompanying Yorkshire (although I suspect it’s not home-made) is light and fluffy and serves us well. There are roast potatoes too, which are beautifully done, and the broccoli, red cabbage and carrots are spot on. (We don’t eat the new potatoes, because there’s too much food here, and something has to give.)

I don’t even try to resist the bread and butter pudding with custard; why would I? It’s luscious: sweet and chocolatey and comforting. Yum. Philip opts for the rather more refined blackberry and hazelnut tart: the base is crisp, and the filling zesty. A big dollop of Chantilly cream cuts through the sharp fruit, and he’s smiling as he clears his plate.

We’re not in a rush, so we linger over coffee and fresh mint tea; there’s a relaxed atmosphere here, and we’re happy to stay a while.

And the bill, when it comes, is £63. In total. For four of us. I don’t know how they do it. But I’m glad they do.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

The Funeral Director

08/03/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

A fascinating conundrum lies at the heart of Iman Qureshi’s The Funeral Director. How far should people allow their chosen religion to dictate their actions… particularly when that religion instructs them to go against anti-discrimination laws?

Ayesha (Aryana Ramkhalwon) and her husband, Zeyd (Assad Zaman) are the Pakistani proprietors of a Muslim funeral parlour in the north of England. The business has been inherited from Ayesha’s mother and the young couple are struggling to keep the place solvent, whilst putting their personal ambitions on the back burner. Their five year marriage is clearly struggling, something that Zeyd tries to overcome with a disastrous choice of a present for his wife’s birthday.

But the normal order of business is rudely disputed when a distraught young man, Tom (Edward Stone), calls to the parlour, looking to arrange the burial of his recently deceased Muslim boyfriend. Ayesha and Zeyd feel they have to turn him away, since homosexuality is expressly forbidden by their religion. To go along with Tom’s wishes will doubtless be badly received by the Pakistani community which they serve – and would likely affect their already struggling business. Soon after, Ayesha reconnects with childhood friend, Janie (Francesca Zoutewelle), a barrister who has returned from London to care for her invalid mother. It’s clear from the outset Ayesha and Janie have some unfinished business – and, just to make things even more tricky, Janie’s new occupation may come in very useful when Tom decides to sue the funeral parlour for sexual orientation discrimination.

This is a nicely nuanced piece that inevitably recalls the recent case of the Northern Irish bakers who refused to create a cake bearing a pro-gay message – and, just as in that situation, the arguments for and against their decision are incredibly complicated. What’s particularly impressive about this play is that it steadfastly refuses to opt for straightforward answers. It soon becomes apparent that Ayesha’s original opposition to Tom’s request is not for the obvious reasons. I also love the fact Qureshi refuses to turn Zeyd into a stereotype: he’s kind, supportive and ready to try anything to put matters right.

There are some nice performances here and a genuinely moving conclusion, where Ayesha finally gains the courage to confront the obstacle that has been afflicting her marriage for so long. This is a play that will have you discussing its central premise for hours after you’ve left the theatre.

4.1 stars

Philip Caveney

The Dark Carnival

06/03/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The Dark Carnival is all about death. If that sounds a bit off-putting, let me add that it somehow contrives to be a great big warm hug of a production (all about death). It’s brilliantly written by Matthew Lenton and gloriously performed by a fourteen-strong cast. Throw in the excellent Kurt Weill-ish songs of the charismatic Biff Smith, plus the music of urban folk band A New International and you have something that is as close to unique as it’s possible to be in a contemporary theatre. Oh, did I mention that the witty script is delivered entirely in verse? Well, it is – and that’s quite a feat all on its own.

The action mostly takes place below ground in Dickinson’s Brae cemetery, Glasgow, where many of the inhabitants enter and exit from their respective coffins, but there’s also a raised proscenium arch which gives occasional glimpses into what’s happening above the soil. It even offers tantalising glimpses of the doorway to heaven, though – due to austerity – that door is now kept well and truly locked, guarded by a fag-smoking, wine-imbibing angel (Natalie McCleary), intent on keeping out the riff-raff.  There’s a clever socialist edge to the narrative and I love the observation that the only deceased who have any hope of lingering in the memories of the living are those that have statues and shrines devoted to them.

We are greeted first by a narrator (Elicia Daly), who has some delightful interplay with members of the audience – Fraser, I’m sure she was exaggerating your exploits! – before introducing us to the other characters. There’s Mrs Eugenia Mark (Ann Louise Ross), a whisky-swilling Victorian lady; Major Montgomery Toast (Harry Ward), who has traded his military exploits for an electric guitar; and there’s the restless John (Malcolm Cumming), who still has unfinished business above ground. We are also introduced to tragic new member of the Necropolitans, Little Annie (Olivia Barrowclough, who uncannily inhabits the persona of a bewildered young child with total conviction).

There’s so much here to enjoy that I find myself increasingly dazzled by the scale and ambition of the piece, which has been drilled to perfection. The design, the lighting, the sound: it’s all spot on. The creators describe it as a ‘music and theatre spectacle’ and I’d say that pretty much hits the coffin nail on the skull. Suffice to say that my attention doesn’t wander for a moment and I leave the theatre humming the final song.

On the night we attend, The Traverse is pretty rammed but, if there are still tickets to be had, grab them now before the carnival moves on in the direction of Dundee.

Don’t miss this. It’s a spirited production in every sense of the word.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

 

What Men Want

04/03/19

Some readers may remember a film from the year 2000, entitled What Women Want. It starred (the yet to be disgraced) Mel Gibson, as a chauvinistic advertising executive, who, after an unfortunate accident involving a bath and an electric hair dryer, was suddenly granted the dubious gift of hearing what women thought about him. (Spoiler alert. They didn’t like him very much.)

This remake sticks pretty closely to the original story, but simply reverses the genders. The results, it must be said, are interesting – if somewhat patchy.

Ali Davis (Taraji B. Henson) works in the cutthroat world of sports management, where her modus operandi is to be every bit as arrogant, self-centred and downright unpleasant as the many competitive males who work alongside her. Her ultimate goal is to become a partner of the firm and she’s prepared to go to any lengths to secure that ambition. Indeed, she’s so repellant a character in these opening stretches that pretty soon, I’m honestly wondering if I really want to stay to the end.

However,  the film takes a sizeable step up when, after suffering a concussion at a nightclub, Ali wakes up with the ability to hear the thoughts of every male she encounters. This results in some genuinely funny scenes. The sequence where she stumbles through her open-plan workplace, assailed by an onslaught of unpleasant cerebral utterances is a hoot and Henson gives these broadly comic routines everything she’s got. But it’s not all plain sailing from here.

Pretty soon, Ali comes to terms with her ‘gift’ and realises that she can turn it to her advantage. In her attempts to sign rising  basketball star, Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie), to her agency, she enlists the unwitting help of a recent romantic conquest, Will (Aldis Hodge), and his little boy Ben (Austin Jon Moore), who she callously passes off as her husband and  son, something she entirely neglects to tell them about. When Will discovers the truth, he’s less than delighted. Ali needs to learn the error of her ways…

There’s a neat story about sexual politics bound up in all this and an overriding message that, at the end of the day, what both men and women want are fairly similar things – respect, loyalty and appreciation – but unfortunately there’s an unfocused tone to the film that prevents it from properly settling into a groove. The presence of phoney psychic, Sister (Erykah Badu), feels like a major misstep, since her caricatured persona and inane utterances are nowhere near as funny as the filmmakers seem to think they are. But to make up for it there’s also a nicely nuanced performance from Brandon Wallace as Ali’s much-put-upon PA, Josh. Old timers like me will delight in spotting that the actor playing Ali’s father is none other than Richard Roundtree, who in 1971 played Detective John Shaft. (Right on!)

This is very much a game of swings and roundabouts. Each laugh-out-loud scene we are offered (and to be fair, there are several) is deflated by others that are rather less convincing – and I must confess that, with a less assured actor than Henson in the lead role, this might not fly at all.

It by no means terrible, but it fails to fully capitalise on its considerable potential.

3.3 stars

Philip Caveney