Edinburgh

L’Escargot Blanc

25/01/20

Queensferry Street, Edinburgh

Edinburgh boasts so many good restaurants it’s sometimes hard to know where to try next. So recommendations are always useful and L’Escargot Blanc has recently been mentioned by top Scottish chef, Tom Kitchin, in a roundup of his favourite places to eat. So, here we are on a busy Saturday night, suited and booted and ready to dine.

Fred Berkmiller’s restaurant is located at the top of a steep flight of stairs, above his wine bar, Bar À Vin. When we arrive, the restaurant is already bustling with eager customers and it’s clear that it has many fans. Waiters hurry back and forth, talking French to each other, which somehow adds to the atmosphere. We find ourselves seated by the window, sipping the first glass from a bottle of Domains Des Lauriers and enjoying the amuse bouche that’s promptly put in front of us, a couple of slices of crispy bread, topped with garlicky goat’s cheese mousse.

We peruse the menu. It would help the review, of course, if we each wanted something different for a starter, but we soon discover that we’re both fixated on the Soupe de Poisson and neither of us is willing to budge on the matter. Ah well, c’est la vie.

The soup  arrives in double quick time, a hearty portion, accompanied by crispy croutons which we are invited to cover with rouille and grated Comté cheese and float on the surface of the soup. This is richly flavoured, satisfying and exactly the kind of fish soup you’ll find in those little cafés scattered across the South of France, only there, they are accompanied by better weather conditions. Still, it’s a promising start.

Susan’s main course is camembert en gratin, and it’s clear by now that the style of this place is one of rustic simplicity, rather than haute cuisine. There’s a huge wedge of oven cooked cheese, with chunks of potato and mushrooms scattered across it and an accompanying bowl of green salad. It’s good, but the dish lacks finesse and it’s probably worth mentioning that this appears to be the only vegetarian main course available.

I have opted for le lapin à la moutarde, which arrives in its own cast iron dish, bubbling enticingly and aromatically. (Non-carnivores should look away now.) The dish comprises a slow-baked organic rabbit in a strong Dijon mustard sauce, accompanied by red and white potatoes and button mushrooms. The waiter brings me chunks of wholemeal bread, which he tells me I’ll need to mop up the sauce and he’s absolutely right on that score. This is a stunning dish, quite possibly the nicest rabbit I’ve eaten outside of France and certainly the star of the show tonight. It’s a cliché to say that the meat just falls off the bone, but I do wonder why I’ve been issued with a sharp, serrated knife, when a gentle prod with a fork does the job perfectly.

Is there room for pudding? Mais oui! But we’ll certainly skip that cheese course we’ve been planning – blame it on the hearty portions!

Once again, we’ve both taken a shine to the same thing, the chef’s special which is a pear far Breton, a lovely custardy flan, sprinkled with fresh almonds and served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It’s nicely done, even if it lacks that certain wow factor that makes the best puddings stand out from the crowd.

Overall, this has been a very enjoyable meal, though it would be nice to see a few more vegetarian options on the menu. Lovers of lapin, this is something you really need to sample!

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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Pride & Prejudice* (*Sort Of)

24/01/20

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

I’m enjoying the current flush of period drama adaptations on both stage and screen: Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, Zinnie Harris’s The Duchess (Of Malfi). The staid and starchy interpretations I remember from my youth are long gone. Now there’s verve, vigour and a sense of fun, an assertion of the protagonists’ youth and the authors’ humour, a sharp incision that takes us to the beating heart of classic texts.

And Jane Austen is especially funny, isn’t she? (I come to this version as, if not quite a Janeite, then at least a fan of her writing.) It’s easy to lose sight of how bitingly satirical she was because her sarcasm is couched in antiquated politenesses, her characters’ bound by alien social mores. Here, writer Isobel McArthur strips away these obstacles to modern understanding, offering us a cast of refreshingly familiar wine-quaffing, lustful young women, whose potty-mouths are endearing and hilarious. Hurrah! These are people we can recognise and revel with, whose broken hearts and thwarted ambitions we can really care about.

It’s Pride & Prejudice through and through; we don’t really need the ‘sort of’ to qualify anything; the changes here are only superficial. The story is intact: the five Bennett girls and their parents are hostages to a dodgy will that determines only a man can inherit their father’s home and (modest) fortune. If he dies, the women will be destitute. No wonder Mrs Bennett is desperate to see her daughters married: their very livelihoods depend on it. No wonder either that a rich man is preferred; if he has a good income, he can take care of all of them. A shame, then, that they live in Meryton, where eligible bachelors are few and far between, and that firebrand Lizzie (Meghan Tyler) is so choosy about who she’ll shack up with. Until she meets the enigmatic Darcy (Isobel McArthur), and their love-hate relationship begins…

Directed by Paul Brotherston, Pride & Prejudice* (*Sort Of) is a glorious, riotous romp of a play, a bawdy, feminist iteration of the tale. The deployment of a karaoke machine is inspired, a perfect reimagining of the piano and singing performances required of young ladies in Austen’s time. The six-strong cast are all magnificent, but the standout moments belong to Hannah Jarrett-Scott, who switches effortlessly between a Tim-Nice-But-Dim-style Bingley and a tragic, lovelorn Charlotte Lucas. McArthur’s repressed, inarticulate Darcy is also a sheer delight, and props too to Mr Bennett, performed by a backward-facing armchair and an ever-present newspaper.

The only false note for me is the servant girl conceit. At the play’s opening, we’re introduced to the domestic help, reminded of their presence in the novels, told of how they are ignored. From thereon in, what we’re witnessing is supposed to be their play-acting, their impersonations of their employers, their interpretation of the landed gentry’s world. But we don’t learn anything about them, nor about their opinions, their deprivations, their own hopes and dreams. We just get Austen’s story; the working class is still ignored.

Still, it doesn’t detract too much. This is a sprightly, engaging, laugh-out-loud piece of theatre, richly deserving of tonight’s standing ovation.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

I Can Go Anywhere

10/12/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Douglas Maxwell’s I Can Go Anywhere takes its title from The Who’s 1965 single, Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere, one of the earliest musical celebrations of Mod identity. This sharply written two-hander also explores identity, but approaches the subject from a refreshingly original angle.

Stevie Thomas (Paul McCole) is a disillusioned college lecturer, the author of a barely read book called Beat Surrender, a study of mod culture. He is currently going through the worst ordeal of his life. When his doorbell rings, he’s hoping that his partner might be having second thoughts about leaving him. But instead, he’s confronted by Jimmy (Nebli Basani), a mod – well, not just that, but a young man who Stevie asserts looks like he’s escaped from the 1981 room of the Paul Weller Museum. He has the works: the oversized fishtail parka, a fitted mohair suit, even a pork pie hat. “Even his socks are works of art.”

Asylum seeker Jimmy has tracked Stevie down via the jacket blurb on his book, and wants his help with something. In three days’ time he has a hearing at the Home Office to establish whether he will be allowed to stay in the UK. Jimmy wants Stevie to write him a letter of recommendation, one that asserts his ‘mod-ness,’ which Jimmy believes will be enough to assure him a rightful place in British society. Stevie is doubtful. But as the two men talk over the situation, it begins to emerge that Jimmy has very powerful reasons for not wanting to return to the country of his birth… and they go far beyond the world of youth culture.

I Can Go Anywhere is a compelling play, that crackles and fizzes with witty dialogue. The two actors offer telling performances. At first, I feel that Basani is rather overstating Jimmy, who initially appears to be a twitching, gurning mass of neuroses – but, as the story develops, I begin to appreciate exactly why he’s the way he is, and I warm to him. McCole is assured too, showing us a man on the verge of losing everything, unwillingly pushed into a corner by this insistent, assertive youth, who has burst into his fractured life with all the delicacy of a drum kit falling down a flight of stairs. As Stevie seeks refuge in several glasses of red wine, so his true nature begins to rise to the surface.

The other bonus here is the music; even the songs that play while we’re waiting for the show to start are a series of brilliant offerings: the Kinks, the Small Faces… Spot on, man! I also like the fact that the play doesn’t give you too much information. We never learn which country Jimmy comes from, or even his real name; though the horrors he has experienced in his youth are never spelled out, they are nonetheless tellingly glimpsed.

This is a little gem. Those who are already suffering from a surfeit of festive offerings might prefer to opt for this menu instead. It offers a tasty alternative.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Southside Scran: Festive Set Menu

01/12/19

Bruntsfield Place, Edinburgh

‘Tis the season for festive dining, and here at B&B, we’re always on the lookout for good deals, so the announcement of a new festive set menu at the Southside Scran is something that needs to be investigated at our earliest opportunity. So here we are at lunchtime on December 1st (can’t get any earlier than that!), all ready to eat, despite the fact that the two friends due to accompany us have bailed at the last moment because of a not-so-festive lurgy.

We love the Scran; part of the Tom Kitchin group, not only is it a short walk from where we live, but – more importantly – we’ve never come away from this place disappointed. We take our seats and enjoy the fresh ciabatta, butter and goose liver paté that’s always served here. Then the starters arrive. I’ve been missing paté, due to the fact that it seems impossible to buy in this country, unless it’s encased in layers of plastic. So I’m happy to opt for the rabbit rillette, which proves to be light and creamy and full of flavour. It’s accompanied by salad and toast. Susan has the goat’s cheese vol-au-vent, a delightfully flakey pie, which comes with tangy red onion marmalade and drops of basalmic vinegar.

We both want the turkey ballotine for the main course (though we’re torn between that and the roasted pumpkin risotto, which we’ve had before and loved.) But turkey wins the day and it looks and tastes amazing, with chunks of brussel sprout, potato, crispy salty lardons and a pretty heritage carrot on the top. There’s a jug of rich, red wine gravy to finish things off. Those who feel a roast dinner should occupy half an acre of plate may look down on this, but it encompasses all the flavours of a Christmas dinner and is suprisingly filling.

Room for pudding? Well, go on then. It’s almost Christmas!

I choose the chocolate mousse & citrus sablé, which is satisfyingly rich, while Susan opts for the mincemeat and frangipane tart, served with brandy crème Anglaise. This too is an utter delight and I say that as somebody who has only been able to eat mincemeat for a relatively short while, due to a long childhood aversion to the stuff, now conquered.

The three course set menu (£30 per head) comes with tea or coffee, and those hearty types who still have some room to spare can add a cheese course for a little extra. Of course, you can also mix and match. We add a couple of sides from the bistro menu at £4.50 each – some warm, crunchy French beans with hazelnuts and shallots and, as ever,  a bowl of macaroni cheese, because… well, because we’re hopelessly addicted to the stuff. And don’t tell me it doesn’t go with turkey. Macaroni cheese goes with everything. Fact.

All in all, this is a superbly satisfying way to get the festive season off to a perfect start. And it’s also excellent value for money.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

How the Grinch Stole Christmas: The Musical

26/11/19

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Goodness, is it that time of year already? That time when entire families run frantically around the shops loading up on presents for the family? That time when baubles, tinsel and unecessary plastic objects appear in every window? Bah! You know, when I think about it, the Grinch and I have quite a bit in common.

However, one Christmas tradition well worth preserving is the annual family trip to the theatre and, this year, first off the starting block in Edinburgh is the Festival Theatre, with this lush and lively adaptation of the Dr Seuss classic, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Of course, the problem with Seuss is that his slim volumes are so deceptively simple, they manage to effortlessly pack each complex tale into just a few cartoons and some amusing verse. This can create problems for those seeking to adapt his work for the stage. In order to achieve the necessary running time, it can often feel like too much padding has been added to the mix. But tonight, this is not the case: a musical is clearly an ideal way to spin the format out without loads of repetition.

First off, there’s a short introduction from Gregor Fisher, who reads a few pages of the book to a bunch of youngsters recruited from the audience. It’s not a particularly auspicious start, because the children aren’t really given anything to do but sit there and listen. However, as soon as the music strikes up and the Whos dance onto the stage, it’s clear that we’re in for an exhilerating ride. The songs are charming, and the choreography a delight. The costumes are eye-popping and the set design (based on the good Dr’s distinctive illustrations) provides a riot of festive colours.

Then on comes Old Max (Steve Fortune), the Grinch’s faithful hound who tells us the story of when he was Young Max (Matt Terry) and how, one fateful night, he was enlisted to aid the Grinch (Edward Baker-Duly) is his devious plan to kidnap Christmas and leave the Whos of Whoville bereft of Christmas cheer. Suess’s central message about the perils of consumerism is properly conveyed, together with the conclusion that Christmas should be (and can be) something much deeper than a mere trip to the shops. Whenever there’s a danger of it all becoming a little too sentimental, the script manages to pull things back to the right side of the line.

Baker-Duly gives us a splendid Grinch, slyly snarky and deliciously devious, thrilling the youngest members of the audience, while sneakily throwing in jokes for their parents. Special mention should be made of Isla Gie, playing Cindy Lou Who on the night we attend. The Grinch in me hates to use the word ‘adorable,’ but after some consideration, I really can’t think of a more apropriate one, and Gie comes dangerously close to walking off with the entire show.

As you’d expect from any Christmas production, TGWSC has all the pyrotechnics you could reasonably ask for, including a pretty convincing snowfall (I’d hate to be handed the task of cleaning it up afterwards).

Those looking for an enchanting festive night out for all the family will surely find what they want right here.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Cabaret

06/11/19

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

I think I know Cabaret because I’ve seen the movie. I love the movie. But tonight, at the Festival Theatre, I quickly learn that the stage version is very different. At first I’m disappointed. One of the things I like most about the movie is that it’s a musical where the songs are all supposed to be songs, performed in a club or at a rally. Here, characters sing instead of speaking, break into song to declare their love. In short, it’s a more traditional musical. And, as it goes on, I come to appreciate it.

Cabaret the movie is very much Sally Bowles’ story – and, of course, it’s Liza Minelli’s film. Here, Sally (Kara Lily Hayworth) has to share the limelight with two other leads: Emcee (John Partridge) and Fräulein Schneider (Anita Harris). It’s New Year’s Eve, a breath away from 1931; we’re in Berlin – and American wannabe novelist, Cliff (Charles Hagerty), is seeking inspiration.  At the train station, he meets the charming, erudite Ernst Ludwig (Nick Tizzard), who recommends Fräulein Schneider’s boarding house, and arranges to meet him at the bawdy Kit Kat Club, where English Sally is a dancer. It’s an intoxicating, hedonistic place,  but – even within these walls – the creeping march of Nazism cannot be avoided forever…

The choreography (by Javier de Frutos) is stunning: sexy, vibrant, funny and spectacular. Indeed, in the first act, the big number club scenes almost eclipse the story. Standout routines include the lewdly hilarious Two Ladies and the unsettling Tomorrow Belongs to Me. The orchestra are integrated with the action, on an upper tier, visible when we’re in the Kit Kat Club, but otherwise behind a screen. This works well, implying that they’re employees of the club.

The relationship between Sally and Cliff seems a bit muted, which makes sense, I suppose, as – in this version – she’s only staying with him because she’s lost her job and has nowhere else to go. Of course, he’s gay and she’s not one for commitment, so it was never going to be a forever thing, but I would like to see a bit more spark. Otherwise, Hayworth makes a lovely Sally – all wit and vivacity, with a beautiful singing voice – and Hagerty does a decent job as Cliff.

The storyline between the elderly Fräulein Schneider and her beau, Herr Schulz (James Paterson), is particularly emotive, their tentative steps towards romance thwarted by anti-Semitism. Harris and Paterson are nicely understated in these roles: they show the fortitude of those who’ve learned not to expect much; they’ve already survived one war and lived through hyper-inflation. Their pragmatism is heartbreaking, and provides an interesting counterpoint to both Cliff’s naïve idealism and Sally’s determined ignorance.

The second act is more compelling than the first: by now, we care about the characters, and the Nazi undercurrent is getting stronger. Partridge’s Emcee is getting visibly more edgy, his playfulness takes on a desperate tone. And we watch, horrified, as it all unravels, waiting for the inevitable horror we know must come.

The final scene is awful in the truest sense; it’s a powerful set piece, exemplifying Rufus Norris’ directing prowess. I won’t describe it here, because I think its impact relies on some element of surprise; suffice to say, the applause is accompanied by a sense of unease, the usual whoops and cheers that follow a rumbustious musical take a little while to erupt. And it takes a craftsman to achieve that.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

 

The Exorcist

05/11/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Pah! Who needs to see a bonfire and fireworks in November in Edinburgh? There’s a surfeit in August and at New Year – and The Exorcist is on at the King’s. Yes, The Exorcist. So how can I resist that?

William Peter Blatty’s 1971 schlocky horror story seems quite old-fashioned now, but it’s still pretty compelling. For those who’ve never read the book or seen the film, it’s about a girl called Regan (Susannah Edgley), who – on her twelfth birthday – is possessed by a demon. Her film star mother, Chris (Sophie Ward), is at a loss: what has happened to her sweet daughter? She calls in doctors and psychiatrists, but they make little progress. So Chris appeals to the Catholic church, begging them to arrange an exorcism. Father Merrin (Paul Nicholas) has met Regan’s demon before, and the battle to save her is a brutal one. Pubescent girls are a recurring theme for horror writers, from Snow White (and yes, I contend that is a horror) to Carrie, but Blatty’s depiction of emerging sexuality is the least subtle I know. I’m pleased to report that this adaptation doesn’t shy away from the more blatantly shocking elements, indulging the demon’s potty-mouth and the misuse of Christian imagery. Bravo.

Technically, this production is very good indeed. The lights (by Philip Gladwell) are utilised to excellent effect, blinding the audience during some jump scares, and creating a queasy, uncomfortable atmosphere. Likewise the sound (by Adam Cork), which perpetuates a sense of uneasiness throughout. The special effects are cunningly achieved, and the timing of the voiceovers is impressively precise. This ensures the all-important scare factor, without which this play would die a death.

There are some issues though. The set, although it looks magnificent, seems unnecessarily complicated, with stairs leading up to a bedroom that is clearly beneath them. I like the two-storey idea, and both the stairs and the attic space accommodate important dramatic moments, but the pointless complexity of the lounge and bedroom being on separate floors is both disorientating and distracting.

There are also a few too many characters. In the novel and film versions, this doesn’t feel like a problem, but here, the stage feels cluttered with people who don’t add much to the tale. Both Joseph Wilkins (Father Joe) and Stephen Billington (Dr Strong) perform well, but their presence seems extraneous.

The second act is tighter than the first, maybe because the story is more distilled here, and there’s less of a disconnect between the highly technical production and the hokey dialogue and plot.

Whatever. It’s not perfect. But it’s a genuinely engaging, scary piece of theatre – and that’s not easy to achieve.

3.7 stars

Susan Singfield