Edinburgh

Love Song to Lavender Menace

12/10/19

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Love Song to Lavender Menace is a charming piece of metatheatre: an homage to a book shop disguised as… an homage to a book shop. Not just any old book shop, mind. This is Lavender Menace, the iconic gay/lesbian/feminist book shop that served Edinburgh’s queer community for five years in the ’80s.

Lewis (Pierce Reid) and Glen (Matthew McVarish) are packing up; the shop as they know it is going; it’s being renamed and relocated – and Lewis too is moving on. He’s sad and anxious, so focuses his attention on rehearsing the performance he and Glen have prepared as a parting gift for owners Bob and Sigrid, telling the story of the store and what it’s meant to so many marginalised people. The quirky direction by Ros Philips sees Lewis playing Sigrid ‘as a statue’ – arms aloft – and Glen being inventive with a roll of parcel tape.

The set is delightful: all chalkboard bookshelves backlit with blank white spines. It’s both playful and uncluttered, suggestive of a place where people can write their own lives.

It’s a funny, poignant play, and it’s no surprise to see a packed auditorium as it returns to the Lyceum, this time on the main stage. Playwright James Ley’s affection for Lavender Menace and what it represents shines through in every scene, evoking a sense of nostalgia even for those of us who were never there. For those who were, this must be a powerful draw indeed.

Cleverly, despite the claustrophobic lens through which we view this intimate memoir, we are offered a wider perspective, as Sigrid Nielson’s voice emanates from a cassette deck, ethereal and portentous. It gets better, then it gets worse, she says. Then better, then worse, then better again. We’re reminded of how bad things can be: of Clause 28 and gay-bashing, of the incendiary homophobic rhetoric that prevailed in the ’80s.

Nevertheless, the disturbing backdrop notwithstanding, this is not a tragic tale. It is a buoyant, vibrant celebration of a sanctuary, of a radical space in a conservative city.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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On Your Feet

 

07/10/19

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

On Your Feet is the story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, following the well-trodden path of using bands’ back catalogues to create a musical. Unlike its precedessors however, Miami Sound Machine’s greatest hits are not playfully shoe-horned into a corny piece of fiction; instead they’re used to illustrate the band’s history.

It’s partially successful. There’s no denying the rousing nature of the music: the feel-good, toe-tapping, hip-swinging joy of it. This is an extravaganza of a show, with dazzling costumes (by Emilio Sosa), fizzing dance routines and a sense of well-earned pride in what the Estefans achieved. There’s a buzz in the auditorium; people are excited to be here, enjoying themselves.

Their history is interesting: as Cuban immigrants living in Miami, Gloria and Emilio struggled to break into the American music scene, despite their huge success in South America. But their fusion-tunes made a lot of sense, reflecting both their heritage and their assimilation. Their dedication to proving there was an appetite for ‘cross-over’ music is heartening to see realised.

The storytelling is somewhat artless though – surprisingly so from Alexander Dinelaris, the writer of Birdman – a chocolate-box depiction of the band’s rise to fame. The dialogue is clunkily expository in places, and perhaps there’s not quite enough plot. Gloria’s near-fatal traffic accident in the second act is supposed to provide the jeopardy, I suppose, but – as told here – it doesn’t have enough dramatic resonance, and the self-congratulatory tone of her recovery is truly cringe-inducing. Do we really need to have sycophantic fan letters read (and sung) aloud to us?

Still, there are some gutsy performances here tonight, not least from Philippa Stefani as Gloria. The ensemble work is beautifully choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, and the on-stage musicians are  seriously good.

We head out into the night singing and smiling – and that really can’t be bad. In the end the rhythm gets us.

3.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Clybourne Park

04/10/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

According to Rapture Theatre’s artistic director Michael Emans, Bruce Norris’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner is all about “exposing the hypocrisy of middle-class, educated people, who will happily uphold the principles of fairness and equality – unless and until those principles impinge on their own interests.” If this is the intention behind Clybourne Park, then it is wholly successful. This play is tragic, profound, and uproariously funny – but it’s also an uncomfortable watch, skewering the liberal self-image of the typical theatre-goer.

The action takes place in the living room of a large house in a Chicago suburb, with two acts separated by fifty years. In 1959, affluent white couple Bev (Jackie Morrison) and Russ (Robin Kingsland) are selling up. They need to escape the home where their son killed himself; they can’t bear to stay. But their neighbour, Karl (Jack Lord), is dismayed to learn that, because of the cheap asking price, the purchasers are a black family; he doesn’t want ‘colored’ people moving in and lowering the tone – or the house prices.

This first act is easy for a white liberal audience member like me: as expected, I’m appalled by Karl’s racism, embarrassed by his appeal to black servant, Francine (Adelaide Obeng), and her husband, Albert (Vinta Morgan), to back him up. I’m drawn to Bev and Russ, stricken by loss, dragged unwillingly into Karl’s drama.

The second act is both more playful and more challenging. It’s 2009, and the neighbourhood is now mostly black. Young white couple, Lindsey (Frances McNamee) and Steve (Jack Lord) have bought the house; they want to bulldoze it and rebuild from scratch. Community group members, Lena (Adelaide Obeng) and Kevin (Vinta Morgan), have objected to the plans. The neighbourhood has historical significance, Lena maintains. People like Lindsey and Steve can’t just trample over that.

Steve is quick to feel the slight; he’s certain he knows what Lena really means. She doesn’t want them there because they’re white.

And, before we know it, a huge row has erupted, and no one is safe from the fallout. It’s excruciating and toe-curling, as one line after another is crossed.

In essence, Clybourne Park is a comedy of manners, a satirical examination of societal standards and behaviour in the US. Has anything really changed since the 1950s? It would seem not, and the doubling of roles highlights this. Steve clearly thinks all anti-racist talk is fake, a façade belying people’s real beliefs. Lindsey’s painfully right-on posturing is exposed as a fragile edifice, while lawyer Kathy (Jackie Morrison)’s paper-thin skin prevents her from ever seeing beyond her own nose. Lena, on the other hand,  clearly delights in stirring things up; her politeness is only a veneer; she wants to rattle Steve and Lindsey out of their self-satisfaction.

The performances are excellent, Lord in particular wringing every ounce of comic potential from his angry-white-man routine. The script is expertly realised in this production, every line given the space to breathe, each joke and jibe the chance to land.

It’s classy, thought-provoking stuff.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Black Men Walking

18/09/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Eclipse Theatre Company’s Black Men Walking tells the tale of Thomas (Ben Onwukwe), Matthew (Patrick Regis) and Richard (Tonderai Munyevu), three disparate friends on a monthly mountain walk. What they have in common is their race, and their need to connect with other black men living in their area.

The oldest, Thomas, is fascinated by his ancestry, by black people’s place in British history. Matthew, a doctor, is more concerned about his family life: his wife, Vicky, is resentful of the time he’s spending with his friends; she wants him home with her and the kids. Richard is placid, a computer programmer/Trekkie with a penchant for snacks. Sometimes, Richard explains, there are a lot more of them in the walking group. Today’s trio are the hardiest though, or the ones who need the expedition most. Because today’s weather conditions are treacherous.

As the men share stories and bicker and lose their way in the gathering fog, we’re drawn into their world, offered some insight into their experiences. And, just as we’re beginning to wonder where this is all heading, their easy camaraderie is punctured by the appearance of Ayeesha (Dorcas Sebuyange), a teenage rapper who’s fled to the hills for solace, following a racist encounter in a fast food outlet.

Written by Testament and directed by Dawn Walton, this is a lyrical play with a lot to say,  unusual in its positioning of middle-aged black men at the centre of its narrative. The poetic voices of the ancestors add a welcome layer of history to the piece, thrown into sharp relief by Ayeesha’s teenage cynicism and dismissal of Thomas’s most rhapsodic musings.

The staging is unfussy: a green covered slope suggesting a hill: a glass panel that acts, variously, as mirror, fissure and portal; a collection of millstones representing the past. I like the simplicity of the on-the-spot walking that hints at longer distances covered, and the placing of all four in a landscape that is clearly, physically, theirs – an answer to Thomas’s anguished question: ‘How long do we have to be here to be English?’

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Maxies

12/09/19

Johnston Terrace, Edinburgh

Maxies is a bit of an Edinburgh institution, but we’ve sort of dismissed it as ‘a tourist place’ and not bothered to check it out. This attitude makes some sense now that we’re actually living here, but – let’s face it – we were regular tourists to this fabulous city for a good seven years before we made the move, so I’m not quite sure what made us turn our noses up, especially as it boasts an impressive outside terrace with views over picturesque Victoria Street. But now it’s time to rectify the situation: a too-good-to-ignore Groupon offer has come to our attention, and we decide to take the opportunity to see what we have missed.

We’re getting two courses and a glass of Prosecco each for £32, so we’re not expecting high end ingredients or fancy flourishes. We’re hoping for tasty food and a lovely atmosphere, and – to be fair – we do get some of that.

The restaurant is surprisingly small, a series of stone-walled rooms and corridors, a fascinating warren of an old building. It’s cosy: an old-fashioned bar nestles next to the main seating area, where benches are covered in embroidered cushions and throws. I like the look of the place, although it could be a bit cleaner (the surfaces are all okay, and we see the tables being thoroughly wiped, but it doesn’t look like the woodwork has had a good scrub down in quite some time, and the loos leave quite a lot to be desired).

The food isn’t bad for the price; it’s the details that let it down. Philip’s starter of warm duck and mango salad is really tasty, the duck cooked very well. My deep-fried crispy brie with cranberry jelly is also nice, if uninspiring, but the accompanying salad has no dressing at all. The bread we order is fresh, but the butter is straight from the fridge, hard as rock and completely unspreadable. That’s a rookie error, isn’t it?

My main (vegetarian enchilada with hot chilli sauce) is delicious: spicy and generously portioned. It’s a simple dish, but they do it well. Philip opts for a special: lamb chops with haggis, neeps and tatties. The chops are a crispy, fatty, lip-smacking indulgence, and the haggis a savoury delight with real depth of flavour. The spuds are a bit lack-lustre though, and he can barely tell the neeps are there.

It’s a school night, so we don’t drink much: just a bottle of Peroni and a small Pinot Grigio between us besides the glass of fizz. It’s a good job, because there are no draft beers, and the wine is expensive compared to the food; the two price lists don’t seem to match.

We’re impressed with the service, which is friendly and unfussy, the staff clearly well-motivated and good at their jobs. But it seems a shame that so many tourists will have this meh experience as their lasting impression of Scottish cuisine, when there is so much better to be had in Edinburgh.

2.9 stars

Susan Singfield

The Play of Light upon the Earth: A Reading

05/09/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The Play of Light upon the Earth by Sally Hobson is an unusual piece of writing: a play structured into twenty-seven chapters, representing the psychological fragmentation that follows trauma. For the protagonist, Innocence (Jessica Hardwick), Bloody Friday is the trigger. The shock of this childhood experience, long-repressed, explodes into her adult life, forcing her to confront its impact.

It feels like a genuine privilege to be here at this stage of the creative process: the play is still being developed, still seeking its perfect form. In this rehearsed reading, directed by Muriel Romanes, we get a sense of what it could become. Because there is little movement (the actors are seated behind a trestle table), the focus is inevitably on the language, which is dense and lyrical, packed with literary references, Joycean in its verbal inventiveness.

Maureen Beattie’s reading (as narrator and Mother) is particularly engaging, delivered with intensity and vigour. Benny Young (narrator and Father) is good too: very funny, despite the gravity of what’s being said. There is, in fact, a lot of humour in this play: the light that shows the shade for what it really is.

This is a thought-provoking, intellectually-demanding piece, and I’m fascinated to see how it turns out. Post-show discussion about staging throws up various options, from a grand, large-scale production with a cast of hundreds, to a more minimalist notion, with a few key characters inhabiting a huge stage. I’m struck by the idea of a multi-media approach, which I think might suit this spoken-word/performance-art/play hybrid.

Whatever. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out to see where this goes.

Susan Singfield

Tasty Buns

Bread Street, Edinburgh

It turns out Scotland’s Bakery of the Year is less than 200m from our flat. How can we have overlooked it in the three years we’ve been here? I love cake (and Philip tolerates it happily); what wonders have escaped our gluttony?

We’ve walked past Tasty Buns countless times, but the unprepossessing exterior offers little clue as to what’s within. True, there’s often an intriguing sandwich board outside advertising the day’s offerings, but as we can’t actually see them, we’ve ignored what’s before our eyes.

We’ve not, however, found the recent press coverage so easy to ignore: since winning The Food Awards Scotland 2019’s coveted prize, this little bakery has been firmly in our sights. Their speciality, we learn online, is ‘boozy bakes’ – and this dismays us a little, as – although we’re definitely fans of booze – we don’t tend to like it in our puds. Still, it seems silly not to take a look at a the temptation on our doorstep, so we decide to head on in and take a look.

Tasty Buns is much bigger than it looks from the outside, the narrow interior stretching back, with space for twenty-something cake-lovers. It’s attractive, all whitewashed brick and fancy mirrors – and the display cabinet at the front reveals the wonders we have missed. There are about eight bakes on offer – not all boozy – and all of them look quite divine. We order coffee (an Americano and a latte, single shot by request and very good indeed), and two cakes to share.

The Tunnock’s caramel wafer brownie is the best brownie I’ve ever had – and I’ve had many. It’s rich and moist and decadent: a paragon; exquisite. A generous slice of spiced apple and salted caramel cake offers a light sponge with a robust flavour, the richness of the butter cream complemented by the tart apple filling. It’s exactly what cake ought to be: at once fresh and indulgent, a genuine treat.

The service is brisk and friendly; the atmosphere relaxed. It might have taken us a while to find, but we’ll be back again before too long.

If you’re after cake and a cuppa, I really can’t think of anywhere better you could go than Louise Campbell’s marvellous bakery. It’s easy to see how Tasty Buns has earned its accolades.

5 stars

Susan Singfield