Edinburgh

The Kite Runner

09/10/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel, set against the changing face of Afghanistan through the nineteen-seventies and beyond, gets an assured if slightly pedestrian adaptation by Matthew Spengler, who opts to use the same first person narration as the book. It’s a powerful and deeply affecting story about friendship and rivalry and how the events of childhood serve to shape the adult psyche.

David Ahmad takes the central role of Amir – and it must be a punishing performance, as he is involved in every single scene. This is the story of young Amir who lives with his father Baba (Emilio Doorgasingh) in a fine house in Afghanistan. It is also the story of the two servants who live and work in the household, Ali (Ezra Foroque Khan) and his son, Hassan (Jo Ben Ayed). Amir and Hassan are friends who play together every day, unmindful of the fact that they are on opposite sides of the Sunni/Shia divide. When the Taliban take control of the country, that divide causes incredible tensions – and when Amir witnesses an act of barbaric cruelty enacted on Hassan by some Sunni boys, he chooses to look the other way… something that in the fullness of time, he comes to bitterly regret.

The play is simply and effectively staged. I love the device of the giant kite-shaped screen that descends from time to time with images projected onto it and shadows swarming behind it. The scene where it is used to mask the story’s most heinous moment is a brilliant piece of theatre – making the event infinitely more horrible, simply because we do not see it. The imagination always paints the most terrible pictures.

I also love the presence of tabla player Hanif Khan on stage, his urgent rhythms serving to propel the story along at key moments. If some scenes occasionally feel a little exposition-heavy, this is perhaps an inevitable consequence of the narrative – but those who love the novel (and they are many) will surely appreciate how much care and attention has gone into adapting this for the stage.

The rapturous applause at the play’s conclusion is ample evidence of how much the audience in the packed auditorium enjoy this performance.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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The Sunshine Ghost

07/10/17

The Studio, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

The Sunshine Ghost, a co-production between Scottish Theatre Producers and the Festival and King’s Theatres in Edinburgh, is a brand-spanking new musical, performed with wit and vigour by its small cast.

Directed by Ken Alexander, it’s a convoluted, melodramatic tale, featuring love and loss, castles and ghosts – with lots of laughs along the way. We meet the cursed ghost Ranald MacKinnon (John Kielty), two hundred years dead, and doomed to haunt his family’s castle until an old wrong is avenged. And we meet the woman he falls in love with, the very-much-alive American archaeologist, Jacqueline Duval (Neshla Caplan), daughter of billionaire property tycoon, Glen Duval (Barrie Hunter). Before Jacqueline can stop him, her boorish father is buying MacKinnon Castle and shipping it stone-by-stone to the USA, all to curry favour with his latest amour, the repulsive media-astrologer, Astrobeth (played with real relish by Helen Logan). Can Ranald save his ancestral home and break the curse that binds him to it? Can the hapless caretaker, Lachlan (Andy Cannon, who co-wrote the play), do anything to help? Here, nothing is as it seems, and the resolution, when it comes, is sure to take you by surprise.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of musical theatre, hindered only by a peponderance of exposition in the first act, and the inevitable limitations of a single piano (masterfully played by Richard Ferguson, who also wrote the score, but without the depth of a full band or orchestra). It’s a silly spoof, a daft extravagance, and the cast play up these elements with obvious glee. There are lots of cheeky little techniques employed with a knowing wink: a sheet cunningly moved to allow a shock reveal; a homage to Beetlejuice in the possession scene. Helen Logan’s Astrobeth is the standout performance (it’s a gift of a role, perfect for comic exaggeration), but the whole cast works well, and it’s a whole lot of fun.

A most enjoyable evening at the theatre.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Maki & Ramen – Omakase Sushi Bar

06/10/17

Fountainbridge, Edinburgh

I was rather disappointed when Kampung Ali announced its imminent closure a while ago. This unassuming Malaysian cafe, though very basic in decor, offered great value rice and noodle dishes and was only a short walk from my home. Amongst other things, it did a fantastic coconut rice, one of the best I’ve ever tasted. Here’s what we said about the place back in 2015.*

https://bouquetsbrickbatsreviews.com/2015/04/09/kampung-ali-fountainbridge-edinburgh/

The premises didn’t stand empty for long. Pretty soon it was transformed into the Maki & Ramen – Omakase Sushi Bar. (A bit of a long-winded title, I’ll grant you, but the place seems to answer to both names and has an online listing under each of them. Go figure.) I kept promising myself that we would drop by and check it out but, for one reason or another, the time was never right. But now, for reasons too complicated to mention, I find myself alone on a Saturday evening and decide that here is my ideal opportunity to give the place a whirl.

The first thing to say is that the management have effected an astonishing transformation here. What was once a hokey, ramshackle diner with cheesy photographic dioramas on its walls, is now a sleek, dramatically-lit dining space with a selection of different-sized tables to cater for large groups, smaller ones and, luckily for me, individuals. It’s already pretty busy when I arrive and the place is buzzing, but they soon find me a spot and I’m left to peruse the menu and admire the extensive collection of Post It notes left by the appreciative (and often rather talented) diners who have preceded me. I go in there planning to eat ramen, but then I spot chicken katsu curry on the menu and decide that this is exactly what I am in the mood for. I also order a portion of  pork gyoza and a bottle of Sapporo lager.

The service is friendly and efficient and the food, which arrives in double-quick time, is piping hot. Those of you who are familiar with the katsu curry at Wagamama’s should note that this is a chunkier, earthier version of the meal, the piquant sauce thick and studded with vegetables. There’s a mound of sticky rice and (nice touch this) a chunk of al dente broccoli. The generously-sized portion looks so inviting, I quite forget to photograph it before I start tucking in. Doh! The same goes for the gyoza – these are moist and succulent, with soft, paper-thin cases that virtually melt in the mouth. There are five dumplings in the portion and I eat the lot. Oh yes, every meal comes with a little bowl of savoury miso soup, which is another nice touch.

Tonight is just a try out – I will go back, hopefully with friends, and sample some of the more adventurous items on the menu, but I have to say that this is a very promising first visit. Go and check it out. If you’re at all artistically inclined, leave an illustrated Post It note. You’ll be in good company.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

*I should also add that there is another Kampung Ali (or Ah Lee, as it’s spelled on the website) on Clerk Street, Edinburgh, still apparently going strong.

A Streetcar Named Desire

03/10/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Rapture Theatre’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire is as intense and uncomfortable as it should be, with a towering central performance by Gina Isaac as Blanche DuBois, who absolutely captures the oxymoronic tigress/moth nature of Tennessee Williams’ most complex anti-heroine.

The story is well-known: Blanche visits her sister and brother-in-law, Stella and Stanley, in New Orleans, where she soon overstays her welcome, drinking their liquor and sneering at their two-room home. However, despite her airs and graces, it transpires that Blanche has nowhere else to go: the plantation her family owned is gone; there is no money left and she’s lost her teaching job. She’s a tragic creature, as desperate as she is beautiful, as damaged as she is damaging. She clings to the old order, where she had youth and status and respect; she can’t accept that it is gone.

The casting of a black actor (Joseph Black) as Stanley Kowalski adds the suggestion that Blanche’s snobbery is tinged with racism: her descriptions of him as an ‘animal’ or an ‘ape’ mirror the racist language deployed by white supremacists. She feels instinctively superior to him, and is condescending even as she relies on him for the very basics of her existence. Under Michael Emans’ direction, the claustrophobia of their lives is central, emphasised by the small set, which squats at the front of the large stage space. There may well be a world out there, but the characters in this play aren’t able to enjoy it. They’re all trapped, bound together in their misery; it’s a crackling tinderbox.

And when it catches, the fire destroys everything. Stanley rapes Blanche and it’s brutal: Isaac’s depiction of drunken vulnerability makes the moment stark and clear. There is no way this woman is capable of consent. Whatever humiliations she has heaped upon Stanley, in this moment, he is entirely at fault. It’s horrible to watch and it’s very powerful indeed.

I’m not sure about the music, which I think is supposed to be inside Blanche’s head, played at a volume where I can just about catch it. I’m guessing this is the point, but I find it distracting and not a little irritating at times. Still, this is a strong production, which does real justice to Williams’ play, and never shirks from the complexity of the characters portrayed.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Bite Me!

25/09/17

Haymarket Terrace, Edinburgh

Whenever we’re trudging up Morrison Street into the city centre – usually on our way back home from the Haymarket tram stop – we comment on bite me!, a delightful-looking sandwich shop on the corner of Haymarket Terrace. It just looks so inviting: all gleaming white tiles, perfectly-shaped scones and clean, vibrant decor. But we rarely have an excuse to stop – we’re never passing at a meal time or when we’re sufficiently exhausted to think we need a break.

Today is different though. Today, we’ve had to get up early to take our car in for a service. We slept in later than we meant to, so we’ve not had time for breakfast: we’re tired, hungry and a little hungover from last night’s visit to the pub. We’re fantasising about food, and then – like a mirage – bite me! looms ahead. We look at each other; we’re of one accord. We don’t even need to speak. Wordless, we head through the door.

It’s as appealing inside as it is from the kerb. There’s a chalkboard behind the counter; the counter itself is stuffed full of sandwiches and cakes, all so appetising it’s hard to know what to order. But then I spot ‘breakfast rolls’ on the menu, and it’s clear what direction this treat is taking. We both order coffee with egg and bacon rolls – his with brown sauce, mine with red – and take a seat in the pretty bird-themed annexe.

Before long, the rolls arrive. They’re wrapped in paper, and the coffee is in cardboard cups. But the food inside the wrapper is spot on: a soft, fresh bap, crispy smoked bacon and a perfectly fried egg. It’s not greasy at all, and it’s piping hot. It’s a simple meal, but a very satisfying one.

We don’t like the coffee quite as much, but suspect that’s our own fault. We’ve learned since moving to Edinburgh that we need to request a ‘single shot’ – the norm here is a double and that’s too strong for us. We forgot to ask this time, which is a shame.

Still, for warm friendly service and a pleasant place to eat a decent snack, bite me! would be hard to beat. And we’ll be back some time to try those scones!

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Twelfth Night

21/09/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Following Philip’s enthusiastic review of their Romeo & Juliet last night, I’m primed to expect good things from Merely Theatre, with their gender-blind double casting and sprightly interpretations of the Bard. And I’m not disappointed: Twelfth Night is an absolute delight, and an interesting counterpoint to the star-crossed lovers’ tragedy. To those who claim Shakespeare’s comedies just aren’t funny (Sir Richard Eyre, amongst others), I say: watch this. It’s hilarious. Even the too-cool-for-school teenage girls sitting in front of me – with their teacher and ‘response to live performance’ booklets – can’t help but laugh after a while. I mean, they give eye-rolling indifference a decent go, but it proves impossible in the face of Tamara Astor’s foolish musical antics (she’s playing the fool – conflated with Maria – so it all makes perfect sense).

The plot’s too well-known for me to detail it here, and – to some extent – this production relies on that familiarity. I’m never in any doubt as to who is who, but I might be, if I didn’t know the play. Hannah Ellis, for example, plays the drunken sot, Sir Toby Belch, as well as Orsino, but the only difference in costume is the addition of a tweed jacket and a bow-tie to denote Olivia’s wayward uncle, and – although Ellis plays them very differently – I think there’s a danger the Duke might appear to be the same man, albeit sobered up. Still, her performance is undoubtedly excellent, as is Robert Myles’ turn as the unfortunate Malvolio, not so much cross-gartered as high-Y-fronted, and stupidly amusing. Sarah Peachey and Emmy Rose deliver the ‘straight-man’ roles of Olivia and Viola with aplomb; there’s not a single weak link here.

It’s a lively, pacy piece of theatre: deliciously daft, revelling in its silliness. Scott Ellis’s direction is sublime: this show is fast and funny and entertaining all the time. The simple set works extremely well: there’re no unnecessary props or scenery to slow things down. This is seriously good comedy. Do try to catch it if you can.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Romeo & Juliet

 

 

20/09/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Merely Theatre have a pretty unique approach to staging what they call ‘stripped-back’ Shakespeare. Each play they produce features only five actors and the casting is gender-blind. On this tour, for instance, they are performing Romeo & Juliet and Twelfth Night in rep – so the version of R & J I see features four female actors and one male. It all makes for an interesting dynamic and prompts the viewer to examine really familiar scenes with a fresh eye.

I won’t insult readers by outlining the full plot of R & J – only to observe that a play that so many people think of as the ultimate love story is, in fact, pure tragedy – the tale of a flighty, impetuous youth who becomes infatuated with somebody he’s only just met and, in wooing her, unwittingly leaves a trail of devastation in his wake. Some love story! For once, the two lead characters here are young enough to convince us that they could be so impetuous and the pared-down nature of this production means that it moves like the proverbial tiger on vaseline, with characters dashing back and forth through a series of curtained doorways, slipping in and out of costume as they go.

With so few actors to carry so many roles, the danger is always that an audience won’t be entirely sure who is who, but the simple costume changes (where, for instance, the Capulets are always decked out in Bay City Roller-style flourishes of tartan) means that we’re never confused. Almost before I know it, we’ve hit the interval and, after a short break, the second half fairly scampers by. Sarah Peachey and Emmy Rose make appealing star-crossed lovers and I particularly enjoy Tamara Astor’s performance as the Nurse. Hannah Ellis deftly handles three roles, while Robert Myles manages four.

If you’re trying to encourage reluctant youngsters to embrace a bit of the bard of Stratford-upon-Avon, this is a great way to start them off. It’s pacy and exuberant but doesn’t pull any punches when dealing with the tragedy.

All-in-all, a very satisfying production.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney