Bar + Block Steakhouse


Princes Street, Edinburgh

Whitbread’s Bar + Block is the kind of restaurant that those of us with foodie pretensions like to dismiss: it’s a chain; it’s attached to a Premier Inn. The food is bound to be pre-packaged, we tell ourselves; it’s surely a soulless place. But even we have to admit that this Edinburgh branch, situated on Princes Street with its iconic view of the castle, is very nicely styled. It looks inviting. And, after a morning of shopping (which is absolutely our least favourite kind of morning), we find ourselves drawn to the lunch and early dinner menu advertised in the window. Three courses for £14.95? It’s hard to resist.

The menu is short, but reads well. Philip starts with Korean chicken wings, which are charcoal cooked and generously flavoured with barbecue sauce and chilli. I have the tomato bruschetta, which isn’t perhaps the most exciting choice, but I just love tomatoes, and I like the sound of the the stone-baked flatbread they come on. As expected, it tastes good, enhanced by a sweet balsamic-heavy dressing.

For his main, Philip chooses the steak sandwich with fries. This looks really attractive, and he’s pleasantly surprised by the quality of the meat, which surpasses his expectations for this price point. It’s served on more of that stone-baked flatbread, and garnished with cheese, onions, tomato and rocket. The chips aren’t great – just frozen skinny fries – but they’re piping hot, which makes them edible at least. I have the seabass fillet, which comes with a delicious Greek salad and – yes, you’ve guessed it – a piece of stone-baked flatbread. Apart from the over-reliance on that particular carb, this is a pleasant dish: the fish is well-cooked, the skin pleasingly crispy, and the salad is generously strewn with feta cheese.

Do we have room for pudding? You bet we do. I have the Eton Mess sundae, a pleasing concoction of berries, ice cream, cream and meringue, while Philip opts for a triple chocolate brownie, served warm with vanilla ice cream. Both slip down far too easily.

Add in a couple of alcohol-free drinks (a Peroni and a Rekorderlig fruit cider), and we’re feeling pretty satisfied. Okay, so our assumptions haven’t exactly been disproved: Bar + Block is exactly what we knew it would be. But the service is pleasant, we’ve had a decent lunch, and it hasn’t cost us much. I’m not sure we’ll be in a rush to return, but I’m glad we’ve given it a go.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

Love the Sinner


Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The seven deadly sins have been a source of inspiration for many writers over the centuries. This fabulous interpretation from poet/performer Imogen Stirling gives them a powerful contemporary relevance. Conceived during lockdown, it’s an assured piece of gig theatre, which takes those seven infamous traits and reimagines them as everyday people, living in a contemporary city beset by a near-apocalyptic rainstorm. We’re in Glasgow and the Clyde is threatening to burst its banks.

It’s here that our protagonist, Sloth, finally stirs herself from the bed she’s been lying in for far too long and ventures out onto the rain-lashed streets to attend a party hosted by her friend, Gluttony. Stirling’s playful and incisive words evoke a whole series of familiar tropes – the social-media obsessed millennial, the guilt-afflicted porn addict, the business-centred entrepreneur intent on looking good at all times. But these are more than just stock characters: Stirling’s astute words skewer them, imbuing each of them with a cinematic clarity, bringing them to life as she reveals their flaws and strengths.

This is by no means a solo endeavour. Stirling’s verbal observations are accompanied by musician Sonia Killmann’s ominous soundscapes. She sits front of stage, conjuring pulsing, vibrant music and occasionally lending her vocals to Stirling as they sing together in lilting harmony. Behind the performers, Ellie Thompson’s enthralling video and projection designs offer atmospheric images of the city at night and tantalising glimpses of out-of-focus characters reacting to Stirling’s monologue. Matthew Lenton directs the whole endeavour with great skill, helming the piece to its powerful and frenetic conclusion.

As the last chords fade, I find myself applauding enthusiastically with the rest of the packed audience and wishing there could be some kind of encore – but how would you follow this?

Love the Sinner is a mesmerising piece of theatre. Catch it if you can.

4. 6 stars

Philip Caveney



Amazon Prime

After a brief and unspectacular appearance at UK cinemas, Air moves swiftly onto streaming and is now available on Amazon Prime. It’s hard to understand what attracted Ben Affleck to this story in the first place. It’s essentially an expensive puff-piece for Nike – a film that conveniently ignores the company’s dubious track record of sweatshops and child labour and, instead, offers a story about one man’s ‘heroic’ gamble to launch a new product.

It’s 1984 and, while Nike are doing excellent business in the running shoe stakes, their basketball division is trailing behind Adidas and Converse. The company’s resident talent scout, Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), is keen to find a young basketball star to help boost sales, but company CEO, Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), can only find a measly $250k for him to spend on the project – for which he’s expected to engage the services of three or four players.

But Vaccaro decides instead to spend the entire amount on one rising star, Michael Jordan – and, what’s more, to design a shoe based around the young player’s identity: the Air Jordan. But how can he convince the man not to sign with one of Nike’s powerful competitors? Vaccaro directs his pitch to Jordan’s influential mother, Deloris (Viola Davis), sensing that she’s the real power behind the throne.

Directed by Affleck and written by Alex Convery, Air captures the look and feel of the early 80s, with plenty of bad haircuts, nasty brown furniture and some truly horrible fashions. It also offers a propulsive soundtrack of MOR hits – Springsteen, ZZ Top… what could possibly go wrong? Well, plenty as it turns out. The main problem is that Air sets itself up as an edgy game of chance. Will Vaccaro’s risky gamble actually pay off? Or will it go tumbling down in flames? The problem, of course, is that we all know the outcome from the word go, a fact that effectively robs the story of any sense of jeopardy it might have hoped for.

The overriding result is that it’s very hard to care about what happens.

It’s also galling to see a true story that revolves around a young, Black sportsman peopled almost entirely by prosperous white males. These unlikeable figures spend most of their time hurling insults at each other, especially powerful sports agent, David Falk (Chris Messina). Oddly, Michael Jordan himself appears only as a voiceless figure with his back turned to the camera (apart from a brief post-credits sequence with Jordan eulogising his mother in a speech). This only serves to emphasise how little authority he has in a business deal that will earn him – and Nike – billions of dollars in revenue.

And no amount of placatory strap lines about charity donations and sports foundations can lessen the fact that this is a rather sordid story about rampant capitalism, which comes cunningly disguised as a tale of maverick heroism.

Jog on, Nike.

2. 4 stars

Philip Caveney

Who Killed My Father


Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Who Killed My Father is based on Édouard Louis’s 2018 autobiographical novel, Qui a tué mon père. Adapted and directed by Nora Wardell, it’s an eviscerating piece. Part polemic, part memoir, this monologue is presented as an address to Édouard (Michael Marcus)’s invisible father, thus casting the audience in the paternal role. It’s an interesting conceit.

Édouard’s father is disabled, thanks to his (literally) back-breaking work in a factory. But Édouard’s relationship with his dad is complicated: although he feels sympathy for the dependent old man he has become, he remains angry with the alcoholic homophobe, who made growing up gay in their small French village so very difficult. Still, now that he is an adult, Édouard is able to take a step back, and finally recognise the systemic inequalities that have shaped his father’s destiny, and to extrapolate from that the myriad ways in which so many marginalised people’s lives are damaged by political figures, uncaring and oblivious to the consequences of their acts. This play – where he denunciates these figures – is Édouard’s revenge.

It’s a compelling idea, but – for me – it doesn’t quite come off. For starters, there’s nothing to indicate that we’re in France until the very end, when a number of French politicians are named and shamed. This should be a powerful moment, but instead it momentarily confuses me, so that I’m mentally relocating the story rather than focusing on the point being made. In addition, the stage is cluttered with a vast array of props that just aren’t used, including a fabulously complex Scalextric. (I only had the figure-eight version when I was young; this one is the stuff of dreams, so it’s particularly frustrating that it’s given such prominence but never called into play.)

In the end, the message feels a little muddled, lost in a scattershot of anecdotes and directorial flourishes.

2.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret


Cineworld, Edinburgh

I was an avid reader as a child, so of course I devoured Judy Blume’s novels. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret was the first one I chanced upon in our village library, its long title drawing my eye. I’d never seen a book with a name like that before, and – I soon realised as I scanned the blurb – I’d never read one that dealt with such subjects either. Periods, bras and… God?

I wasn’t especially interested in the God stuff. I don’t think that has as much resonance here in Britain as it does in Blume’s native USA; we’re a much more secular place, and there are loads of kids in every classroom who don’t know or care what religion they are. Periods, however, and breast acquisition: they were just as relevant in my Welsh primary school as in Margaret’s New Jersey one.

Blume’s novels work because she doesn’t trivialise kids’ experiences. Sure, menstruation and supportive underwear soon lose their allure and become mundane once you’ve got them, but when you’re young and they’re ahead of you, their mystery looms large.

Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig’s adaptation is faithful to its source material, and bound to be a smash with the novel’s ninety-million readers. It’s a simple tale: the eponymous Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) is eleven years old and living her best life. She’s just enjoyed a fun time at summer camp, and is excited to be returning home to her family in New York – her mom, Barbara (Rachel McAdams), her dad, Herb (Benny Safdie), and her Grandma, Sylvia (Kathy Bates). As far as Margaret and Sylvia are concerned, things are fine exactly the way they are – but Barbara and Herb have other ideas. They want to move out of their cramped apartment to a house in the suburbs, where Herb has found a better job, and Barbara can try out being a stay-at-home-mom.

At first, life in New Jersey seems okay. Precocious pre-teen Nancy (whose verve and sparkle is marvellously captured by Elle Graham) makes a beeline for Margaret, and invites her to join her friendship group. Unlike Margaret’s old friends, these girls are obsessed with growing up, and she is soon initiated into a world of body-consciousness and crushes, not to mention fashion rules. “No socks!” says Nancy, “And you have to wear a bra!”

Margaret follows obediently, although she’s not entirely on board. She’s still trying to figure out who she is. Herb is Jewish and Barbara is Christian, and they’ve never taken Margaret to any kind of church, telling her she can choose her own path when she’s old enough. So when her new teacher suggests she might research different religions for her sixth-grade project, Margaret is intrigued. Maybe this way she’ll find some of the answers she needs. And so she embarks on her quest, visiting the synagogue with Sylvia, a Presbyterian church with her pal, Janie (Amari Alexis Price), a Methodist church with Nancy and a Catholic confessional with her classmate, Laura (Isol Young). But God proves elusive, and Margaret eventually realises there are some problems she needs to sort out on her own…

This is a delightful movie, the characterisations bold but convincing, avoiding easy caricature. Fortson is perfectly cast as Margaret, imbuing her with just the right amount of self-consciousness and uncertainty. Bates shines as the slightly overbearing Sylvia, entirely redeemed by her devotion to her granddaughter, while McAdams exudes kindness and sensitivity. It’s a slight tale, but it’s beautifully told, and I’m taken right back to my own childhood. As a piece of nostalgia, it absolutely works, but I’m sure its appeal is wider than that. Today’s adolescents are bound to love it too.

4. 4 stars

Susan Singfield

Sichuan House


George VI Bridge, Edinburgh

There are all kinds of reasons for deciding to visit an unfamiliar restaurant. It could be a friend’s recommendation; a well-timed discount offer; an enticing smell issuing from an open doorway. In the case of Sichuan House, the main motivator is my eyes. Walking along George IV Bridge to my regular writing haunt, The National Library of Scotland, I keep passing the window of the venue where I can’t fail to notice the crowds of (predominantly Chinese) customers, enthusiastically chowing down on a succession of enticingly vibrant meals. The food looks quite different from the kind of Mandarin cuisine I’m familiar with.

So, after a long and tiring drive from North Wales to Edinburgh, on an evening when neither of us feel like cooking, I suggest we might call in there and try it out. It’s around seven thirty on a bank holiday Monday when we rock up and the place is already buzzing. A charming waiter leads us to a vacant table by the window (as far as we’re aware, you can’t book in advance) and hey presto! We’re the people chowing down as passers-by gaze enviously in.

We start by sharing a plate of pork and chive dumplings, a deceptively simple meal, ten soft parcels stuffed with a delicious savoury filling and served with a bowl of black vinegar, into which said parcels can be dipped. To say that they’re delicious would be something of an understatement. They are among the best I’ve ever tasted, absolutely bursting with flavour.

For the main course, Susan chooses prawns with ginger, and that’s pretty much what arrives – a generous serving of large, juicy prawns in a glutinous savoury sauce, which includes lashings of slow cooked onions and crispy spring onions. As you might expect there’s a rich punch of ginger in there and once again, this is a perfectly executed dish.

The same can be said for my sizzling beef with chilli, tender chunks of meat in a rich sauce which features red and green peppers and again those wonderfully gloopy onions. As you’d expect the course is fiercely spiced, just enough to give that wonderful warmth at the back of the throat (and even to clear the sinuses), but not so severe that the effect becomes too overwhelming.

We also share a portion of egg fried rice and though this is entirely familiar, it’s been expertly prepared, with not a hint of greasiness about it.

Despite being right in the middle of Edinburgh’s tourist route, the food is very reasonably priced. Sichuan House may not be the venue for a lavish, family occasion, but for those seeking authentic Chinese cuisine at great value prices, this is a great place to look for it. We’ll be back – and next time, we’ll make sure we’ve left enough room for more.

4. 4 Stars

Philip Caveney

The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry


Cineworld, Edinburgh

Adapted from her own novel by Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a curious confection, occasionally poignant and life-affirming, but just as often stepping into quasi-religious territory and offering moments that can most charitably be described as ‘twee’. And it must also be said that the most pertinent word in the title is ‘Unlikely’.

Harold (Jim Broadbent ) and Maureen (Penelope Wilton) are living a life of quiet desperation somewhere in Devon, when a letter arrives from Harold’s old friend, Queenie, who is now in a hospice in Berwick-on-Tweed, approaching the end of her life. It’s clear from Maureen’s reaction that there’s something about her husband’s relationship with this woman that disturbs her, but she stays quiet as he pens a hasty reply to Queenie and then sets off to post his letter. But a chance conversation with a young assistant in the garage, where Harold stops to buy milk, prompts him to make a decision. He will deliver his reply by hand – and he will walk all the way there, a distance of nearly five hundred miles, with no special equipment and no preparation.

At various points along the way, Harold encounters a series of strangers, who in various ways help him to accomplish his self-imposed pilgrimage, but none of these characters is given enough to do to make this anything other than a two-hander – and every step of the way, Harold is haunted by memories of the awful tragedy that changed his life forever…

Watching this is a strangely unsettling experience. One moment I’m thinking that it’s doing something really clever, the next I’m close to tears as a genuinely affecting moment tugs at my heartstrings – but then, all too often, I’m wincing as a really banal revelation comes leaping out of left field to slap me right in the kisser. Both Broadbent and Wilton are seasoned performers, and do the best they can with the material, but I can’t help feeling sorry for Wilton, who – as Maureen – is reduced to spending the first half of this film sulking at home while her husband strides off on what feels like a capricious whim.

The uneven tone coupled with the glacial pace conspire to make the film feel longer than its moderate running time. I haven’t read the source novel, so I don’t know how faithful an adaptation this is but, at the end of the day, there’s something here that doesn’t quite come off. File this one under S for ‘Should-Have-Been-Better’.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3


Cineworld, Edinburgh

Marvel Studios have had a lean time of it lately, with audiences and critics alike underwhelmed by their offerings, even if they do continue to generate huge profits. From their many properties, only two have continued to hold any allure for me: Spider-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy, mostly by virtue of the fact that neither of them takes itself too seriously.

Of course, since the previous GOTG, a lot of water has gone under the proverbial bridge. Writer/director James Gunn has been cancelled, sacked by Marvel and then installed at DC films, where he’s risen through the ranks like a meteor. He’s finally back at Marvel as a revered guest to helm the third (and allegedly final) instalment of the franchise he created.

But the fact that Volume 3 has a running time of two-and-a-half hours gives me cause for suspicion. Is it going to go all earnest on us? Well, yes and no.

When we hook up with The Guardians, they are struggling to get on with their everyday lives in a place called Knowhere – a quirky new colony they’ve set up. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is mourning the death of Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who Marvel fans will remember was one of the many characters snapped out of existence by Thanos in Avengers: Endgame. A version of her still exists, mind you, but she has no memory of her previous life and is now a Ravager under the command of Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone, who appears to be cruising through his role on autopilot). Gamora has no memory of the fact that she and Quill were once lovers, which is… awkward to say the least.

Volume 3 devotes a large part of its running time to an origin story for the team’s most enigmatic member, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and for me – against all expectations – these are the scenes that have the most impact, effectively adding heartbreak to a story that previously relied more on its comedy chops. There’s still plenty of the latter in evidence, especially in the bickering between Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and the endearingly dim-witted Drax (Dave Bautista). Meanwhile, Nebula (Karen Gillan) seems to have beef with just about everybody she encounters, which can get a bit wearing.

But the Guardians’ everyday life is rudely disrupted by the arrival of a remarkably buff Will Poulter as genetically-engineered golden boy, Adam Warlock. He’s been sent by megalomaniac geneticist, The High Evolutionary (Chuckwudi Iwuji) to collect Rocket (with whom The High Ev has an old score to settle). Pretty soon, there’s a major battle going on.

While I appreciate this is a comic book movie and there have to be some large scale punch-ups, I surely can’t be the only viewer who’s getting a little tired of watching spandex-clad characters being repeatedly smashed through brick walls, causing multiple explosions as they go? Sadly there’s an awful lot of that going on, and another issue for me is that, as the story progresses and the Guardians get split up, I’m not always sure where said punch-ups are taking place at any given time. Indeed, there’s so much fighting going on that, even with that portentous running time, the film sometimes feels curiously over-stuffed.

I know I’m fond of using the curate’s egg analogy but it’s never felt more appropriate than it does for Volume 3. Yes, there’s plenty to enjoy here; I won’t argue the point. But there are also some extended action set-pieces that have me wishing for access to a fast-forward button. Maybe it’s just me. Perhaps there are people out there who want more of that and less of anything new. I don’t know. Die hard Guardians fans will probably want to sit through till the bitter end for the by now obligatory post-credit sequences, the first of which is slightly baffling, while the second can only have significance for the kind of people who would choose GOTG as a specialist subject on Mastermind. (I confess I had to Google it. It helps if you’ve seen the Guardians Holiday Special on Disney + – apparently.)

Despite my grumpiness, I like a lot of this – but not quite enough of it to merit a four-star review. And a final caption announcing that ‘The Star-Lord Will Return’ does not exactly fill me with anticipation. Maybe that’s enough Guardians for one lifetime.

3. 8 stars

Philip Caveney

Polite Society


Cineworld, Edinburgh

Sixteen-year-old Ria (Priya Kansara) and her older sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), have always had big plans: Ria will be a stuntwoman, and Lena an artist. But, while Ria remains committed to a kickass future, Lena’s given up. She’s dropped out of art school, and spends her days lying listlessly in her room. Then, at an Eid ceremony, Lena meets Salim (Akshay Khanna) and she’s smitten. He’s rich, handsome, kind and devoted – what’s not to love? Before long, the couple are engaged.

Ria is distraught: Lena is her role model. If Lena’s dreams can be so easily derailed, what does that say about her own chances? What’s more, there’s something decidedly fishy about Salim. Surely sabotaging the wedding is the right thing to do…

Written and directed by Nida Manzoor, Polite Society is a chaotic delight. A mash-up of martial arts, romcom and coming-of-age genres, it’s engaging, cartoonish, funny and exciting. It’s also a warm-hearted and affectionate portrayal of the British-Pakistani community.

Everything here is dialled up to eleven. When Ria and Lena fight, they really fight: heads crack, blood pours, doors and mirrors break. But the extreme violence, bright colours and melodramatic storyline work well to symbolise the heightened emotions of adolescence, where everything feels like the end of the world.

It’s a densely-packed piece, with some more nuanced details too. I like the fact that we never discover whether Lena actually is ‘good enough’ at art: she clearly has some talent, but maybe she’s right to drop out of art school. Not everyone can realise their early promise; not everyone retains the same ambitions as they age. While Ria’s still in her Matilda-When-I-Grow-Up phase, Lena has moved on… I also like the depiction of the girls’ kind-hearted parents (Shobu Kapoor and Jeff Mirza), indulging their daughters’ aspirations, but much happier when Lena decides to get married. It feels believable. Raheela (Nimra Bucha) makes a wonderfully chilling villain, while Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri (as Ria’s schoolfriends, Clara and Alba) are charming as the comic relief.

Polite Society is a delicious modern fairy-tale: Prince Charming is put firmly in his place, and the damsel takes charge of her own destiny. We’re left believing that Ria really might actually leap and kick her way into her fantasy future.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield



Morrison Street, Edinburgh

Fava has been on our radar for quite a while. We’re fans of Greek cuisine and every time we walk past their attractive premises on Morrison Street, we say, ‘We must try that place soon.’ So when I notice a My Ideals offer, which pretty much buys us a meal at half the usual price, it’s a no-brainer.

It’s 7.45pm on a Sunday evening and the place is bustling with diners. The staff are friendly and the atmosphere convivial, even if the combination of a high ceiling and the inevitable jangling bouzouki soundtrack makes conversation difficult. For starters, we choose to share a baked feta cheese and a Fava salad. The latter is delightful: handsomely presented with edible flowers, it’s a tasty mix of avocado, cucumber, leaves and pomegranate, drizzled with a honey and mustard dressing. The feta is delicious too, flavoured with oregano, tomato, peppers and chilli, but I’m rather less enthused by the presentation. The feta has been baked on a sheet of foil, which means that a lot of it adheres to the backing and proves very, VERY difficult to separate. Of course, we’ve ordered a side of pitta bread (there has to be pitta bread, right?) and this is also nicely done – salty and buttery, just as we like it.

For my main course, I’ve chosen Kleftiko – a generously-sized slow-cooked lamb joint, flavoured with lemon and rosemary, the flesh so succulently tender it comes effortlessly away from the bone with the merest touch of a knife. It’s served with subtly spiced rice (though you can opt for new potatoes, if preferred). Susan has the Kotopoulo Lemanato, a tender chicken fillet, delicately seasoned with lemon, garlic and olive oil. This is accompanied by rice and salad. Both dishes are accomplished and we make short work of them.

For the pudding, it has to be the Portokalopita – a traditional Greek honey and orange cake, which we decide to share as we’re really quite full from the main courses. Not only does does this particular sweet feature prominently in the novel I’m currently editing (so it seems like a good omen) but it’s already a long established favourite of mine. Again, it’s nicely executed, the soft sponge oozing the zesty mixture it’s been liberally doused with. A scoop of Greek yoghurt ice cream makes the perfect accompaniment.

All in all, Fava is a pleasant place to dine: it’s lively and accommodating and the food’s good too. Throw in that My Ideals offer (still available at time of writing) and it’s simply too good to miss.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney