Bar Italia

27/05/18

Lothian Road, Edinburgh

We’re out with friends for dinner and we’ve ended up at Bar Italia, largely because our usual haunts are over-subscribed on a busy Sunday evening, and this place can accommodate us. We’ve passed it many times over the past two years and never given it a second thought – which only goes to show that some of the best restaurants can be hiding in plain sight, right on your doorstep.

It’s a good job we’ve booked in advance. When we arrive, there’re already a lot of people queuing by the entrance and the spacious interior is busy, with a large party expected at any minute. The atmosphere is buzzy and convivial and we can see the waiters are having to work hard to get everybody served. The proprietor is keeping a watchful eye on things and he’s easy to spot, since he features prominently in one of the large (and rather good) murals that decorate the dining area.

We order drinks, peruse the menu and make our orders; while we wait, we watch appreciatively as the chefs create some pretty fancy-looking pizzas and some calzones that boast the general dimensions of beached dolphins. (Mental note: must come back and sample that dough!) It all looks very appetising and by the time our starters arrive we’re salivating.

I have opted for gamberoni ecapesante – grilled king prawns and scallops – served with a salmoriglio sauce. The generously proportioned prawns are sliced open for easy access and are cooked perfectly, the flesh tender and succulent. The sauce is rich with pomegranate which adds a fruity tang and the result is absolutely mouthwatering. Susan’s mussels in tomato sauce are equally good, a generous portion of decently sized shellfish nestling in a rich, garlic-infused stock that’s so good, you want to pick up the bowl and drink it like soup. And so she does.

For the main course, we both  want the spaghetti carbonara – useless for review purposes, but hey, that’s what we both want! Carbonara is always my default order in Italian restaurants, largely because my attempts to reproduce the dish at home have been ill-fated, leaving me with something resembling scrambled egg on pasta. No fear of that here. This is perfectly executed, rich and creamy, with a generous scattering of crispy bacon and plenty of parmesan cheese – though our attempts to photograph it simply can’t do it justice. Our guests have also opted for pasta dishes (the chefs make their own on the premises so why wouldn’t you?). We share a portion of garlic bread, which is simply done, thick slices of sourdough spread with garlic butter and lightly toasted.

This is Italian food exactly as it should be – superb ingredients, freshly prepared and nicely cooked – just what you need when you feel like spoiling yourself. Really, there’s nothing to fault here and, considering how busy the place is, the staff handle their side of things admirably.

Bar Italia is, we’re reliably informed, also famous for its Martone ice cream (they’ve won several awards for it) but we’re much too full to indulge in the multi-layered sundaes they are offering, so opt instead for a couple of simple scoops apiece. I choose salted caramel and fresh strawberry and Susan goes for salted caramel and marscapone, amearen cherry and balsamic. Perhaps predictably,  it makes the perfect end to an enjoyable meal – sweet, creamy and very nice thank you!

At about thirty pounds a head, including several drinks, there’s nothing unexpected lurking at the meal’s end to spoil things. So, yes, this is  a recommendation – and at some point we’ll definitely be back to give those pizzas a whirl.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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On Chesil Beach

 

27/05/18

I’m surprised to realise I haven’t read On Chesil Beach. I’ve read most of Ian McEwan’s ouvre, but not this slim novella. Maybe I’ve just balked at paying a standard paperback price for so few pages. Whatever. When friends suggest we meet up and make a day of it – a film in the afternoon; a meal in the evening – I’m more than happy to give this one a go.

It’s a decent movie, adapted by the author. Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle give excellent central performances as Florence and Edward, the clever young couple whose love for one another is evident, but who cannot negotiate the weight of expectation on their wedding night. They are wounded and humiliated by their failure to consummate their marriage; their naivety and innocence is heartbreaking to see. Too angry, too proud, too fragile, they don’t give themselves a chance, and their relationship is over before it’s even really begun. Their excruciating attempts to initiate sex are depicted here in agonising detail, their awkwardness and vulnerability cleverly conveyed.

We learn their history through flashbacks, which is quite effective in slowing down the pace and emphasising the couple’s interminable embarrassment. They meet when Edward blunders into an Oxford student CND meeting, bursting with the news that he’s gained a first in his degree. With no one to tell, he turns to a stranger – and Florence, who has just graduated with the same grade, is happy to help him celebrate. They come from very different backgrounds: she from the status-obsessed upper middle-classes, with an academic mother (Emily Watson) and an angrily competitive father (Samuel West); he from a more bohemian country life – his mild-mannered father (Adrian Scarborough) is head teacher of the village school; his mother (Anne-Marie Duff) is an artist, ‘brain-damaged’ after an accident. No matter; Florence and Edward fall in love. And, after their disastrous wedding night, they fall apart.

Much has been made of McEwan’s ingenuity in condensing the rest of the couple’s lives to a kind of footnote, thus highlighting the significance of their failure on that fateful day. But –  for me at least – this is the film’s failing. It feels like a careful set-up followed by a sketchy summary, and I am disappointed by the broad strokes of the final third.

Still, I’m glad I’ve seen it. It’s a sad tale of an experience that is hopefully far less commonplace, now that the silly notion of ‘saving oneself’ for a wedding night is a thing of the distant past.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Voices From the Moon

26/05/18

I shall begin this review with a question: who was the third astronaut who accompanied Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on their famous moon mission?  If you answer, ‘Mike Collins,’ well done. If you say that you haven’t the foggiest idea, well, you’re not alone. His name has pretty much disappeared from people’s memory, including mine.

We’re at the Hidden Door Festival and we’re here, specifically, to see Public Burning Theatre’s production of James Harker’s play, Voices From the Moon. We first became aware of Harker’s work through Manchester’s 24/7 Festival in 2015, where we really rated his poignant play Gary: A Love Story. And when we moved to Edinburgh, we told him that if he was ever up our way, he should get in touch…

Hence our visit to the gloriously ramshackle Hidden Door, where several very different offerings are taking place in a couple of semi-derelict buildings in Leith. The festival has managed to pull in a sizeable and enthusiastic crowd, but it quickly becomes apparent that organisation isn’t their strongest point. After a few mix-ups, we finally arrive at the right venue in time to watch the play.

It’s a monologue, the story of Steph (Steph Reynolds), confined to her bedroom by agoraphobia, where she has compiled a sizeable collection of books, tapes and videos concerning her main obsession – the NASA moon landing of July 1969. Meanwhile, she tries to apply herself to the idea of taking her own personal giant leap for mankind – convincing herself that she has the right stuff to actually set foot outside her Mother’s house. The parallels are clear – and Reynolds is a confident and appealing performer, who makes the best of playing a venue where the sound from another production taking place right next door is sometimes disconcertingly intrusive. I like the idea that Steph’s ‘Mother’ is in the audience tonight, her part played by an unsuspecting member of the public, but I am less keen on the staging of the play, which obliges Steph to constantly move three step ladders around in order to illustrate individual scenes – a device that occasionally feels distracting.

But the play shines through. Not only do I learn more about the moon landing than I had previously known – the name of that third astronaut, for example – I also find myself being increasingly drawn into Steph’s world and caring more and more about her disabling predicament.

Voices From the Moon is compelling stuff, confirming James Harker as a writer to look out for.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Sunshine On Leith

23/05/18

A show set in Edinburgh, about Edinburgh people, with music by two of the city’s most celebrated sons… little wonder the King’s Theatre is rammed to the rafters this evening and even less wonder that the audience is lapping up every line of Stephen Greenhorn’s earthy script. Which is not to take anything away from Sunshine On Leith. This exuberant, warm-hearted musical has much to recommend it.

Davy (played tonight by John McLarnon) and Ally (Paul James Corrigan) are two young friends, recently returned from a punishing tour of duty with the British army in Afghanistan. Delighted to have emerged in one piece, they head back to their homes in Leith (not Edinburgh, mind you. The script takes great pains to point out that there’s a big difference). Ally is going out with Davy’s sister, Liz (Neshla Caplan), a nurse dreaming of a brighter future, and she arranges a blind date for Davy with a colleague, English girl Yvonne (Jocasta Almgill). The two soon strike up a relationship but how far is Davy prepared to go in order to secure their future? Meanwhile, Davy’s parents, Rab (Phil McKee) and Jean (Hilary Maclean), are approaching their 30th anniversary and preparing to celebrate – but something from Rab’s past appears like a bolt from the blue, threatening to jeopardise the couple’s long-standing relationship.

Sunshine On Leith is an absolute charmer, a celebration of working class experiences and aspirations. It’s beautifully and economically staged, the revolving sets giving a genuine feel for the various locations and there’s a band onstage throughout the show from which key members interact with the cast and, at times, even establish characters in their own right.  And of course, there’s the music of The Proclaimers, which is cleverly tied to the story and, unlike many pop-culture musicals I can think of, is never allowed to feel superfluous. Even if they’re not your cup of Irn Bru, you cannot deny the power of the Reid brothers’ music and, from the opening chords of the climactic I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), the entire audience is delightedly clapping hands and stamping feet with a force that seems to shake the beautiful old theatre to its very foundations. I’ve seen standing ovations here before, but they have rarely felt as well-earned or heartfelt as the one we witness tonight.

And if you don’t come out humming that poignant title song, well, there’s clearly something very wrong with you.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

Withnail and I

22/05/18

It’s always interesting to revisit an old favourite. You’re never entirely sure how well it’s going to hold up after the passage of so many years. Withnail and I (1987), shown here in a spanking new high resolution print, is a good case in point. I saw it on its first release when working as a reviewer for Manchester’s City Life Magazine and fully remember being absolutely blown away by it, laughing hysterically from start to finish. Though I’ve seen it a few times on TV over the years, it is great to have the opportunity to watch it again, as it was always intended to be seen.

Set in 1969, at the fag end of the hippie movement, it concerns two ‘resting’ actors residing in a dilapidated London flat, both of them dreaming of theatrical success and in the meanwhile going about the nearly full time task of getting themselves thoroughly wasted. After which, needing a break, they go on holiday in the country ‘by mistake.’

The role of Withnail provided Richard E. Grant with a stunning cinematic swansong and launched him on a long and varied career which continues to this day (though it’s sobering to reflect that in everything he’s done since, he never again had a role as downright memorable as this one). As his friend and flatmate, Paul McGann is so much more than just a foil. His bleak voiceovers are the glue that holds this shambolic series of misadventures together and his total incomprehension of his friend’s selfish, venal and manipulative habits is always a source of considerable merriment. Whilst we’re handing out the plaudits, let’s not forget Ralph Brown’s inspired turn as drug dealer and philosophiser Danny, which also provided him with a career high. Most telling of all, can there be any other film that features so many downright quotable one-liners? I seriously doubt it.

If there’s a problem with viewing a film that is so  ‘of its time’, it inevitably comes with the late Richard Griffiths’ portrayal of the predatory Uncle Monty, a rich homosexual who has set his sites on ‘I’ and means to have him by any means at his disposal. There’s nothing wrong with Griffiths’ performance, of course. Like most of his screen work,  it’s exemplary and he somehow manages to evoke genuine sympathy for a tragic character who is, more than anything else, lonely – but all that talk about buggery by force does make you feel rather uncomfortable. Is the film homophobic? Yes, undoubtedly – and I’m quite sure that, were it being shot in this day and age, writer/director Bruce Robinson would be obliged to rein in certain aspects of his script. Sadly, Robinson too never fulfilled the potential he demonstrated here – How To Get Ahead in Advertising, also starring Grant, was a much-anticipated misfire and the two films he’s made since then have failed to demonstrate his flair for whip-smart dialogue.

Ultimately, Withnail and I still works, even if – these days – I’m laughing more from familiarity than anything else. How great it would be to go back and view it, once again, for the very first time. It may, with the gift of hindsight, be a flawed classic – but a classic it undoubtedly remains.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

14/05/18

How To Talk to Girls at Parties has been openly derided by many reviewers, the main criticism being that it tries to cover too many genres. On the other hand, its rare – in these movie-saturated times – to find a slice of cinema that’s trying for something truly original and, for this at least, the film deserves some respect. Partially based on a Neil Gaiman short story and directed by John Cameron Mitchell (of Hedwig and the Angry Inch fame), it feels  – more than anything else – like a gutsy little independent production, but one that’s somehow managed to persuade an A-list cast to climb aboard for the voyage.

It’s 1977, the year of the Queen’s Jubilee, and Enn (Alex Sharp) is a teenage punk, disgusted with what’s happening around him and currently running a fanzine which he does with the help of his mates, John (Ethan Lawrence) and Vic (Abraham Lewis). In their down time, they eagerly discuss the great issues of the day, such as the Clash signing to CBS and, of course, most baffling of all, the age-old problem identified in the film’s title. Meanwhile, they attend punk rock concerts helmed by local icon, Queen Boudicea (Nicole Kidman sporting a blonde wig and a faintly dodgy cockney accent). But when the three friends go in search of an ‘after-show’ party, they chance upon a gathering of what they first take to be American art students, but what actually turns out to be a crowd of visiting cannibalistic aliens.

Amidst the confusion, Enn bumps into disaffected young extra-terrestrial, Zan (Elle Fanning doing that sleepy–eyed wild-child thing she does so brilliantly), and she asks Enn to teach her more about ‘the punk.’ Which he gleefully agrees to do. It’s not long before the two of them start to fall for each other. But it appears that their time together is to be short, because the leader of the alien visitors is planning something very drastic indeed…

HTTTGAT is undeniably ramshackle and the plot machinations are, frankly, of the fruit-loop variety – but, having said that, the film has a gutsy charm that makes you forgive its excesses and it somehow manages to capture the exuberance of the Punk Rock movement in a way few other films have. Sharp and Fanning make an agreeable twosome and the off-the-wall alien costumes, created by veteran designer Sandy Powell, are delightfully eye-popping. This certainly won’t be for everyone – it’s very quirky – but I thought it was great fun, no matter how many genres it gleefully straddled.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

I Feel Pretty

13/05/18

I have to admit, my expectations are low for I Feel Pretty. I’ve seen the trailer, and it all looks a bit… silly. I’ve read reviews too, and they’ve not been kind. Amy Schumer, according to some critics, is just too conventionally pretty and relatively slim to convince as an ugly duckling. To these commentators I say just this: I think that’s the whole point.

Because Renée (Schumacher) isn’t supposed to be hideous. She’s just ordinary. She looks fine. But she doesn’t look the way she wants to; she doesn’t fit the image she sees held up as an ideal – an image she’s exposed to even more than most people, because she works for a cosmetics company. Her self-esteem is so low she can’t look people in the eye, whether she’s trying to order drinks in a bar or give her shoe size to a clerk. But a drunken trip to a wishing well followed by a bang to the head in an exercise class give Renée a new-found confidence: when she looks in the mirror, she sees a supermodel. To everybody else she looks just the same; her friends are dumb-founded when she talks about how much she’s changed. But her self-belief yields positive results: the new, bold version of Renée is go-getting and popular. The message, it seems, is a simple one: believe in yourself and others will follow suit.

It’s a sensible message, and Schumer is a strong performer: funny and engaging and easy to like. A shame, then, that the film is so muddled, that – after a strong opening third – it flounders, and seems to lose its way. Take Renée’s first date with Ethan (Rory Scovel), for example. He’s a great character, and their relationship is touching. But the bikini contest (which Renée enters on a whim) is a baffling mis-step, which seems to undermine any positive message about female body image and empowerment that the film lays claim to. How can this ‘baying-men-decide-who’s-the-hottest-girl’ competition fit with that narrative?

There are other issues, mostly of credibility. Why is Renée so needlessly cruel to her friends (Aidy Bryant and Busy Philipps)? It doesn’t seem in keeping with the character (I know she’s been transformed, but it doesn’t match any of her other behaviour, even after the change). And the saccharine ‘we’re all beautiful’ ending makes me want to puke. I mean, c’mon. All this for that?  It’s depressingly trite.

Still, there are redeeming features. Michelle Williams shows once again what a chameleon she is; I hardly recognise her at first as squeaky-voiced company director, Avery LeClaire. A lot of clichés are successfully avoided: the fashion folk are not all vacuous and bitchy; the ‘beautiful’ women are as real as the ‘plainer’ ones. It’s eminently watchable. It’s just not very good.

3 stars

Susan Singfield