Edinburgh

Songs of Friendship 3: Revelations

13/03/20

It’s likely that James Rowland’s trilogy will be the last stage performance we see for a while, thanks to a certain wee virus up-ending life as we know it. As mass gatherings are banned and large theatres begin to shut, we’re here, slathered in hand-sanitiser, hoping that the small, clean Traverse 2 is a safe enough space.

This is part three of the trilogy, but – at the time of watching – we hadn’t yet seen part two. That has now been rectified, which is good because it means I’m writing with full knowledge of the story – but bad because it’s playing havoc with our house-style of writing in the present tense…

Anyway.

Revelations is about an older, sadder James. The shock of losing a best friend to cancer; the awkward sadness of an inevitable break-up – these heartaches belonged to a young man, not quite fully-fledged, whatever his birth certificate might have said. This final instalment is altogether more grown up, although, of course, James is still James, so ‘maturity’ isn’t the first word that springs to mind. Still, he’s forced to confront some pretty adult issues, and there’s an endearing frankness to the way he details his response.

The main focus is parenthood, specifically the idea of being a sperm donor for his best friend and her wife. He wouldn’t be the baby’s father (it would have two mothers), but he would be an active presence in its life. And, he worries, maybe too active a presence: is he getting in the way of Sarah and Emma’s relationship?

This final instalment is, without doubt, a tragedy, albeit told with humour – and without clothes. Yes, that’s right – without clothes. Because Rowland spends the last twenty minutes stark-bollock naked. It’s a shame that we need trigger warnings (and I do understand why; I’m not arguing against them in principle) because the shock-factor is somewhat undermined by a ‘THIS SHOW CONTAINS FULL-FRONTAL NUDITY’ poster that greets us as we enter. Instead of being startling, the undressing is more: ‘Oh, okay then; here it is…’

It’s definitely brave, although I’m not sure why he doesn’t pop on a dressing gown after the key moment of revelation. Except that there’s a sense throughout the trilogy of a character who always pushes things too far, and maybe this is just the final iteration of that trait.

All in all, Songs of Friendship establishes Rowland as an accomplished and empathetic storyteller, whose friendly bumblings through life will retain a place in many hearts.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Within Sight

05/03/20

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Ellen Renton’s Within Sight is a beautifully written piece, following a disabled athlete’s failed attempt to qualify for the paralympics. Like Renton, the protagonist has albinism, and is angry at the way the world seems set to trip her up.

Renton is clearly a talented poet: the language is rich and rhythmic, engaging and provocative. The video projections (by filmmaker Kiana Kalanter Hormoz) complement the narrative well, providing sighted members of the audience with a sense of the protagonist’s experience. And I like the running, the physical exertion, the beats that match the words. There’s a real sense of battle here, of exhaustion, of how it feels when simple, everyday actions are rendered difficult.

If there’s a problem, it’s that there’s not quite enough of anything: the play is very short (about forty minutes), and there’s certainly space within the story for more detail, more emotion, more elucidation. There’s plenty of scope for another twenty minutes’ worth, I think – although Renton might not relish the extra running that would entail…

Nevertheless, this is a thought-provoking performance, drawing much needed attention to the casual able-ism that permeates society.

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Dial M For Murder

24/02/20

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

For a playwright who purportedly ‘hated writing,’ Frederick Knott has certainly had a lasting impact. True, he didn’t write a lot but his 1951 stage thriller, Dial M For Murder, is still packing in the punters almost seventy years after its creation, and is a classic of its kind.

Predictably, the King’s Theatre is full tonight; this one is almost guaranteed to be a crowd-pleaser. But it’s subtly done: Anthony Banks’ direction avoids the arch high-campery that’s all-too pervasive in period crime dramas these days. Sure, he embraces (and even highlights) the nonsensical aspects of the plot, but not at the expense of credible characters.

Still, there’s no getting away from it: this is a schlocky tale of murder and intrigue. Beautiful heriress, Margot (Sally Bretton), has been having an affair with dashing young writer, Max (Michael Salami), and has worked hard to keep her tennis-player husband, Tony (Tom Chambers), in the dark. She has no intention of leaving her marriage, and thinks she can keep everyone happy. But Tony is onto her, and has a yearning for revenge… His plan is cunning and convoluted; can he contrive the outcome he desires?

The four-strong cast (Christopher Harper, dual-roling as Captain Lesgate and Inspector Hubbard, completes the quad) deliver slick, believable performances, even managing to sustain my interest in the overly-expositional opening half hour. After that, things become more action-packed, and we’re less reliant on hearing the detailed back story.

I really like the bold lighting and sound design (by Lizzie Powell and Ben and Max Ringham respectively), which works especially well in the scene transitions. The passing of time following the fateful incident at the core of the play is beautifully evoked, and the use of The Beatles’  Tomorrow Never Knows is perfect here.

So yes, Dial M For Murder is a well-worn piece, and it won’t win any innovation prizes in 2020. But it’s a classic for a reason, and this production does it proud.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Home is Not the Place

21/02/20

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

 

In Home is Not the Place, poet/dramatist Annie George explores the story of her own childhood and that of her grandfather, the Malayalam poet, PM John. If his name doesn’t exactly resonate with contemporary audiences, that’s hardly surprising. He died in 1945 at the age of 40 and, a couple of years later, nearly all of his writing was destroyed in a house fire. As a novelist myself, the idea fills me with horror – I still have a huge trunk of my early work, which I have stubbornly dragged from location to location. It’s unpublishable but losing it would be a nightmare.

And it’s this lack of substance that makes for a slightly frustrating experience – the sections that deal with George’s own story are far more compelling than the slightly nebulous narrative concerning her grandfather. We hear recollections of George’s childhood journey to London from India, how she eventually found refuge in the more nurturing nature of Scottish society and how she developed as a writer herself. But of PM John there are only vague impressions, built around an old portrait of him, which has been badly ‘restored.’ (I would have loved to hear one of his poems, for instance, which would give a clearer picture of who he was and what he represented. Presumably this absence is even more irksome for George.)

HINTP uses still images, short pieces of film and atmospheric bursts of Indian music to illustrate the various themes. The central thrust of the narrative is about the way our experiences shape us as individuals and about what the term ‘home’ really means to each person. This comes through eloquently. George is a compelling narrator and once she’s settled into her stride, she pulls me into the poignant sweep of the piece. 

But I’m left wanting to know more about PM John – I spend some time afterwards fruitlessly searching for more information about him on the internet. Perhaps that’s been George’s intention all along.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Vesta

20/02/20

Queensferry Street, Edinburgh

We’ve long been impressed by Social Bite, the Edinburgh-based charity with a mission to end homelessness in Scotland. The whole enterprise is an object lesson in how much individuals can achieve – so long as they have vision, tenacity and drive. And compassion, of course. From a sandwich shop in Rose Street to a nationwide endeavour spanning sleep outs, a training academy and even its own village, Alice Thompson and Josh Littlejohn have made a real difference.

And tonight, we’re eating at Vesta, the second incarnation of the charity’s restaurant (you can read our review of Social Bite’s previous partnership with Maison Bleue here: https://bouquetsbrickbatsreviews.com/2016/12/31/home/). We have family visiting, which gives us the perfect excuse to check out the menu.

It’s not as fancy as it used to be – more gastro pub than fine dining. But that’s okay by us. I don’t want a starter tonight (I’m saving room for pudding), so I sip at a glass of Pinot Grigio while Philip eats his chilli & coriander crab cakes, served with a courgette & red pepper remoulade. They’re lovely: robust and well flavoured, and a very generous portion. 

For his main, Philip opts for the roast rump of lamb, which comes with aubergine ratatouille, pommes anna, salsa verde, garlic & spinach puree. The meat is nicely pink and succulent, and the accompaniments work well. I have a poached fillet of hake with roasted pumpkin, savoy cabbage & a watercress butter sauce, and it’s pretty near perfect. We order a side of mac’n’cheese just because, and that’s okay, although maybe not as indulgent and cheesy as the very best of its kind. 

For pudding, I have the oreo cheesecake with macerated berries and ice cream (instead of the Chantilly cream that’s on the menu). It’s delicious, in a too-sweet-kids’d-love-it-lip-smacking kind of way. Philip’s vegan dark chocolate mousse with honeycomb & salted caramel is an altogether more grown-up affair, with a rich, intense flavour.

We’re done. It’s time to head off for a quick drink, and then home. But before we go, of course, we need to add a little something to the bill. You can’t come here and ignore the pay it forward option, which enables the restaurant to open on Mondays for an exclusively homeless clientele. Food with a conscience. It feels good.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

Ondine

13/02/20

George IV Bridge, Edinburgh

It’s almost Valentine’s day and Ondine has been on our ‘go to’ list for quite a while. (And by the way, we haven’t got the date wrong, it’s just that we never go out to eat on February the 14th, when every restaurant is packed to the rafters and standards inevitably suffer.)

We’ve read good things about Ondine, though – mostly from Jay Rayner, who says that he always eats here whenever he’s in Edinburgh. So we decide to act on his advice and here we sit in the calm, spacious dining area, sipping glasses of Sauvignon Blanc and all ready for a gastronomic blitzkreig. We’re brought a couple of slices of good wholemeal bread to keep us going and there are cod balls as an amuse bouche, although they are a little too redolent of the deep fat fryer for my liking.

The starters are reassuring though: a light and citrusy baked brown crab, with cheddar crumb, served on miniature crumpets, which manages to taste a whole lot better than it looks (like a pair of demented eyeballs). There’s also a delicious treacle-cured salmon, with horseradish sauce, though the chunk of treacle bread that accompanies it isn’t quite as fresh as I want it to be.

For the main course, there’s a generously sized chunk of roasted halibut with creamed potato; the fish is perfectly cooked, soft, flakey and pleasingly charred. There’s also a half lobster with fine herbs and butter sauce. The latter is accompanied by a small helping of triple cooked chips and there’s also a side dish of creamed spinach, the latter served disagreeably cold.

And, oh dear, is there any other meal that’s quite as disappointing as lobster? It squats on your plate, looking like something from the late jurassic period and you’re provided with a set of metal tools that wouldn’t seem out of place on a medieval torturer’s bench. You set about the creature with much gusto, scattering fragments in every direction but it all comes down to a couple of spoonfuls of (admittedly delicious) flesh, after which you’re reduced to searching disconsolately through the debris in search of a few more scraps of anything edible.

(This isn’t a criticism of the restaurant, by the way, but of the very nature of lobster itself. So much effort for so little return. Ah well…)

For puddings we have a treacle tart served with a scoop of ice cream – actually, we can’t help noticing that it’s half a treacle tart, which niggles a little when the price is eight pounds – and there’s a light, tangy rhubarb and custard dessert, encased in soft meringue. Both of these are nice enough, but somehow fail to deliver the triumphant knockout punch that we are hoping for.

It’s been a perfectly agreeable evening, and the food is mostly good, even if some of the details could be improved upon. I can’t help wondering what Mr Rayner sees in this place that I’m missing. Unlike him, I won’t be in a great hurry to return.

3. 8 stars

Philip Caveney

Oor Wullie: The Musical

28/01/20

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Jings and crivvens!

Wullie and I are old acquaintances. He appeared every week in the comics I read as a child back in the 1960s, but he first saw the light of day in 1936 and has endured over the decades, recently clocking up his eightieth anniversary. Last year, his image made millions for charity with the Big Bucket Trail, which featured individually decorated statues of the iconic kid from Auchenshoogle in various locations around Scotland.

This musical, by the same team who brought The Broons to the stage, features  a sprightly and raucous collection of songs in a wide range of styles. The simplicity of the storyline would seem to make it a good fit for a younger audience. Indeed, the kids in the auditorium tonight are clearly enjoying the proceedings (especially when Wullie’s pet mouse, Jeemy, makes an appearance), but the majority of the audience are older people, here to reconnect with something fondly remembered from their childhoods.

Wahid (Eklovey Kashyap) is a teenage boy, born in Scotland to Pakistani parents. He’s having a hard time fitting in, forever being asked if he ‘likes his new home.’ Well-meaning neighbours ask him where he’s really from, while the school bullies enjoy making fun of him at every opportunity. Wahid is Scottish, but somehow, ‘not-Scottish,’ and he’s beginning to struggle with his own identity.

In the school library, he meets up with the mysterious librarian (George Brennan), who gives him an Oor Wullie annual to read, telling him it’s the perfect introduction to ‘being Scottish.’ Wahid is somewhat taken aback when Wullie (Martin Quinn) appears in his bedroom, claiming to be in search of his famous bucket, which has unexpectedly gone missing. Wahid remembers that he saw just such a bucket in the school library, so the two of them set off in search of it.

It isn’t long before Wullie is joined by his gang – Bob (Dan Buckley), Wee Eck (Grant McIntyre), Soapy Soutar (Bailey Newsome) and Primrose (Leah Byrne). They are not surprised to discover that the bucket has been purloined by arch enemy, Basher McKenzie (Leanne Traynor), and the kids enlist their old adversary PC Murdoch (Ann Louise Ross) to help them retrieve it. In the second half, the comic book characters take Wahid into the fictional world of Auchenshoogle, where their clothes transform from black and white into full colour.

Valiant attempts are made to make Wullie more relevant to a modern day audience. There’s a song that features him performing a duet with Alexa, for instance and there’s a nice bit of inclusivity where the cast put on saris and leap about to a bhangra-style tune. PC Murdoch gets an opportunity to strut his stuff to a rock song and there’s some funny interplay between him and an amorous teacher (Irene MacDougall).

If there’s an over-riding problem, however, it’s that the drama fails to generate any genuine sense of peril. Wullie wants his bucket back, but we’re never entirely sure why its so important to him, nor indeed what will happen if he doesn’t get it. The result is never less than knockabout fun, but here’s a musical that doesn’t seem entirely sure about what kind of audience it’s trying to appeal to.

To my mind, it’s surely one for the kids, assuming you can get them away from their phones and tablets for a couple of hours. Wullie has been an enduring character over the decades and there’s no reason why a new generation of youngsters shouldn’t fall for his charms, given half a chance.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney