Edinburgh

She Said

29/11/22

Cineworld. Edinburgh

She Said sets out its stall in the first few minutes. New York Times journalist Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) is about to publish a story about women being sexually abused by a presidential candidate, and the accused man calls to refute the claims. He’s boorish and threatening. The story is published, and the victims learn they were right to be afraid of speaking up. While they get death threats and envelopes of dog shit through the post, Donald Trump gets elected president.

So when Twohey and her colleague, Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan), begin to investigate rumours about Harvey Weinstein, they know what an uphill battle they face. The system is skewed in favour of powerful men. Uncovering the truth is relatively easy; acquiring sufficient evidence to publish it is horribly complex. As if persuading understandably anxious women to out themselves to a global audience weren’t difficult enough, there are also NDAs to contend with. How are these malignant settlements even allowed to exist? They’re just get-out-of-jail-free cards for rich arseholes, who can easily afford to spaff megabucks on silencing the people they abuse. But Twohey and Kantor are tenacious, and refuse to give up. It’s not easy for either of them. Kantor has a young family, and Twohey is in the throes of post-natal depression. Calls come at all times of the day and night – both threats from trolls and revelations from sources – but still, they can’t let go. It matters too much. So they grit their teeth and crack on, relying on their partners to do the lion’s share of parenting. (It’s refreshing, actually, to see Ron Lieber and Tom Pelphrey in these peripheral, domestic roles that are usually reserved for women.)

Maria Schrader’s understated direction works well, illuminating the sheer grit required to bring a prolific sex offender to account. The screenplay, by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, draws on the book written by the two journalists, and focuses on the painful process rather than the assaults. This is one instance where telling is better than showing: we don’t need to see these women being abused. Instead, we see the aftermath. We see how, while Weinstein continued to live the high life, perpetuating his attacks over and over again, any woman who dared to reject him or, worse, complain about his behaviour, had her life turned upside down. From Ashley Judd (appearing here as herself) being blacklisted and branded ‘a nightmare to work with’ to Zelda Perkins (Samantha Morton) fleeing to Guatemala, the fallout was immense.

The performances are detailed and meticulous. Kazan and Mulligan both fizz with pent-up energy, and the supporting cast are just as committed. Jennifer Ehle stands out as Laura Madden, attacked by Weinstein back when she was a young assistant, naïve and excited to be working for him. Thirty years later, she has a double mastectomy to deal with, so speaking out seems urgent, not least to show her daughters that they don’t need to internalise abuse.

She Said does a good job of highlighting the inherent power discrepancies in our society, and how ‘consent’ is problematic if one party holds the other’s prospects in their hands. It also shows how we can fight back.

#MeToo.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Tim Minchin: BACK

23/11/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

The tagline for BACK promises “old songs, new songs and fuck you songs” – and that’s exactly what we get. It’s great to see Minchin ‘back’ on the stage, albeit – for today – via the medium of screen. I loved Matilda, and am truly sorry his animated movie was so cruelly canned, but I did miss Tim-the-performer while he was working on those other projects, and BACK is a triumphant return.

I admire his resilience. Whatever private tears were shed over the Hollywood let-down, his public self is irrepressible. And I imagine live performances as popular as these provide quite the tonic for a bruised ego.

BACK is wide-ranging – both topically and musically. There’s an ode to cheese, a rant about progressives’ infighting and a plaintive memorial to a lost loved one; there’s a capella, solo piano and an accomplished eight-piece band. This makes sense: after all, the show is loosely constructed as a memoir, looking back at almost thirty years of an unusual career.

Three hours seem to fly by. Minchin’s ebullience makes him fascinating to watch, as well as listen to: this is as much a spectacle as it is an evening of song. As if his trademark bare feet, big hair and eyeliner weren’t arresting enough, he’s rarely still, jumping on and off the piano, doing backward rolls off the stool, and even sweeping broken glass off the stage (his own glass, I should add; the crowd is on his side).

Standout moments include If I Didn’t Have You, for it’s cheeky observations, and I’ll Take Lonely Tonight, for its wistful honesty, but the whole show works well. I find myself impressed anew by Minchin’s witty lyrics and musical dexterity, and I’m also engaged by his attempt to confront the thorny issue of ‘cancel culture’ from a liberal standpoint, highlighting the hypocrisy of promoting empathy via rage.

The tour is over, but this recording remains, and – if you get the chance to see it – do. Minchin is a joy.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Jinnistan

08/11/22

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Jinnistan, directed by Niloo-Far Khan, is the last of this season’s PPP productions, and – in a break with the norm – it’s in the ‘big theatre’, aka Traverse One. This seems fitting, as the play’s parameters are bigger than normal too, encompassing not just the world as we know it, but the spirit realm as well. The Jinnistan of the title co-exists with Pakistan – but relations are strained, to say the least.

Malik (Taqi Nazeer, who also wrote the script) moved from Scotland to Pakistan a year ago. His wife, Layla (Avita Jay), and teenage daughter, Asiya (Iman Akhtar), have followed him there. Asiya’s not happy, and neither is Malik. She wanted to stay at home with her pals. and he – well, he isn’t saying. I guess it isn’t easy to tell your family that it’s your destiny to be a genie-fighter, and that there are annual rituals you need to perform in order to save lives.

This is essentially a low-fi horror, and all the genre’s tropes are in evidence here. Spooky graveyard? Check. Family secret? Check. Wayward teenage girl possessed by an evil spirit? Check. Nazeer keeps things fresh by transposing the action to a different culture, seamlessly blending Arabic and English to give a clear sense of place. The setting is enhanced by special effects, which – though obviously constrained by budget – are serviceable enough, conveying a feeling of unease.

Akhtar delivers an impressive performance, imbuing Ayisa with a convincing mix of swagger and insecurity. The sound design (by Niroshini Thambar) is also excellent: the jinn’s voice truly seems to emanate from somewhere beyond the here and now.

I do have some quibbles: the script is a little uneven, for example, and there are jarring moments of humour that undermine the building tension, so that – ultimately – the stakes are never really raised. The recorded voices, though well-delivered, are over-used: all too often, I find myself listening to a block of exposition, while looking at a blank or static stage.

Nonetheless, Jinnistan is an entertaining piece of lunchtime theatre, and a fitting end to this round of PPP’s lunchtime offerings.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

Decision to Leave

26/10/22

Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh

A new release from Park Chan-wook is always a cause for celebration, but anyone expecting the unbridled sexuality of The Handmaiden may be surprised to learn that Decision to Leave is a much more chaste affair. Yes, there’s passion here, but it’s portrayed almost entirely in words (in some cases via a Chinese-Korean translation app) and in discreet sidelong glances.

Workaholic Detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) is summoned to investigate the death of a mountain climber who has fallen from a great height. But did the man jump or was he pushed? Suspicion soon falls on his Chinese wife, Seo-rei (Tang Wei), and Hae-jun, who is already suffering from chronic insomnia, starts to spend his nights surveilling her. He follows her around Busan, studies her routines and chronicles her every move. And then he begins to realise that he is falling in love with her and that what began as professional interest is turning into something much more compelling…

This is one of those films where it would be criminal to give too much of the plot away – and besides, the ensuing story is so labyrinthine, so full of unexpected twists and turns, it would be pretty much impossible to do that even if I wanted to. Armchair detectives will have a field day trying to figure out the mysteries wrapped up in this story and I’m fairly certain that very few are likely to guess at the baffling solution to this strange, enigmatic puzzle of a film.

Park Chan-wook’s distinctive visual style – aided and abetted by cinematographer Kin Je-yong – is to the fore throughout and, as ever, he relishes playing tricks on the viewer, constantly tinkering with our perceptions and expectations. Both the leads dazzle in their roles, and are ably supported by a fine cast, particularly by Lee Jung-hyun as Hae-jun’s statistic-obsessed wife, Jung-an – but this is essentially a two-hander.

With a running time of two hours and nineteen minutes, I do occasionally find myself wishing that the pace wasn’t quite so glacial, but the great director has never been one to hurry himself over anything and, despite my reservations, Decision to Leave manages to hold me in a powerful grip right up to its chilling final frame.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Crocodile Rock

25/10/22

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Seventeen-year-old Stephen McPhail feels marooned in his tiny island hometown, Millport. Sure, the mainland is only a short ferry-hop across the water, but the distance seems insurmountable. Stephen’s faither owns a pub, and his maw a B&B, and he’s expected to follow them into the family businesses. But the blokey banter at the bar leaves Stephen tongue-tied and blushing, and he dreams of something more. It’s only when handsome newcomer Henry Thomas arrives that Stephen finally figures out why he doesn’t fit in: he’s gay. The realisation brings him little comfort: Henry not only rejects him, but also makes sure he’s ostracised by his peers. Because being gay in 1997 – especially in a small town, and even more especially when you’re still at school – is a long, long way from easy. Things only improve when the annual Country and Western festival rolls into town, and a keyboard-playing drag queen offers Stephen a way out…

Andy McGregor’s one-man (and a band) musical is a delight. The writing nails the open homophobia still so prevalent in the late 90s; I was a teacher then, and Clause 28 was crippling. Coming-out tales are far from rare, but this one soars: the songs are bold yet nuanced, and actor Stephen Arden really brings to life the young man’s loneliness and yearning. It’s always apparent that Stephen is a caterpillar, waiting to grow his wings, and – when he does – his exuberance is catching. There’s a real sense of celebration in the final act, and we leave smiling, sharing some of Stephen’s catharsis. Arden has an impressive vocal range, and the three-piece band (Kim Shepherd and Simon Donaldson, led by musical director Andy Manning) produce an impressively full sound. Arden acknowledges their presence, interacting with them occasionally, so that they are seamlessly integrated into the play.

The set (by Kenny Miller) is simple but very effective. A large photograph of Millport’s famous but – sorry – undeniably awful Crocodile Rock serves as a background, contrasting wonderfully with the sequinned glamour Stephen eventually embraces. The photo not only hides a sliding door, but also some hinged boards that open up to show us Stephen’s cartoon-themed bedroom, reminding us of just how young he is, poised on the cusp between boy and man.

Crocodile Rock is on tour. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’ve missed your chance in Edinburgh, but you can still catch it at the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen on 4th November. It’s a real treat.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of)

20/10/22

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s a real treat to revisit writer/director Isobel McArthur’s rambunctious retelling of Jane Austen’s best-loved novel. Since we last saw it in January 2020, a lot has happened – and I’m not referring to the pandemic. Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) has wowed the West End and bagged itself a well-deserved Olivier award. McArthur must be buzzing.

This adaptation is actually pretty faithful to the original. The set-up is intact: we have the Bennett family facing financial ruin, and Mrs Bennett (McArthur) desperately trying to marry off her five daughters. And the central romance is intact too: we have sparky, reckless Lizzy (Leah Jamieson), determined to marry for love or not at all – consequences be damned – and we have Darcy (McArthur again). Her portrayal of the enigmatic, uptight ‘hero’ is as exquisite as I remember. She nails his inarticulacy, highlighting his inability to express himself, rendering him sympathetic, despite his brusque manner.

The difference lies in the telling. The conceit is that five servants are dressing up, playing, showing us what they’ve observed in the houses where they work. Thus class barriers are broken down, and so is the gap between the 19th century gentry and the theatre-goers of the 21st. McArthur’s talent lies in unveiling the jokes, so that Austen’s satire – hidden from a modern audience behind bonnets and mannered language – is exposed to the light. Via karaoke and biting sarcasm.

Hannah Jarrett-Scott almost steals the show: she’s a natural clown, clearly relishing the twin roles of Caroline and Charles Bingley, but also flashing her acting chops in a nuanced depiction of Charlotte Lucas, repressing her feelings for Lizzy. Christina Gordon (as Jane, Wickham and Lady Catherine) and Tori Burgess (as Lydia, Mary and Mr Collins) are both excellent too. I’ve nothing negative to say.

Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) is at the Lyceum until November 5th, which seems appropriate for such a dazzling firecracker of a show.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Dine Murrayfield – Wine Club

12/10/22

Murrayfield Place, Edinburgh

We’re already familiar with the Dine in Saltire Court, conveniently situated above the Traverse Theatre, a three minute walk from our apartment – and okay, when I first receive the invitation to this combined wine-tasting and four course meal, I’m under the impression that’s where I’m actually going. No matter, the Murrayfield branch is just a twenty-five minute stroll away and proves to be as delightful as its sister restaurant. One of the friendly waiters informs me that a new branch has just opened in Cannon Mills, so I make a mental note to check that out in due course too.

Pretty soon, we’re sipping a delicious glass of Loimer Brut Rosé and our host for the evening, Mike from Liberty Wines, sings its praises and points out details like the fact that it has a delicate ‘puff pastry’ aroma. (Weirdly, it actually does!) Mike pops up at regular intervals during the evening, telling us more about the joys of Austrian wines, of which – until now – I know nothing. He’s keen to point out that all but one of tonight’s offerings are certified organic and biodynamic, the latter of which he helpfully describes as ‘organic on steroids’. 

In comes the appetiser, a pretzel cheese fondue, which features a full size pretzel with rocket and port gel and a generous bowl of hot creamy, cheesy dip, which is absolutely delicious. Too big for a starter? Possibly, though I’m certainly not complaining!

Next up there’s the fish course, a Gulasch sea bream, which turns out to be my star meal of the evening, a mouthwatering stew featuring chunks of potato, carrot and bell peppers and, best of all, a fillet of bream with a delightful crispy skin. The paprika-laced broth causes a delightful catch at the back of the throat. A slice of sourdough is perfect for mopping up the last of it. This course is accompanied by a Südsteiermark Sauvignon Blanc, a subtle but zesty wine with gooseberry and pear notes.

Next up, the glasses arrive charged with Wieninger Pino Noir Select, heralding the fact that a meat course is coming. On paper, the Tafelspiz sounds unprepossessing: boiled beef in a broth of vegetables and spices. Can anybody make boiled beef appetising? It turns out they can. The meat is melt-in-the-mouth tender; there are a couple of perfectly cooked roast potatoes and an accompanying mixture of minced apples and horseradish, which I enjoy despite my initial reservations. What’s more, though I rarely enjoy red wine, the Wieninger’s robust tannin structure with flavours of red and black cherries makes an ideal accompaniment to the dish.

I’ve said it many times before: the pudding is often the crowning glory of many a good meal – but sadly, there’s no pudding here, just an Austrian cheese selection, which – though perfectly agreeable – seems like the one real misstep. Let’s be honest, we began with a cheese dish and Austria has no shortage of great puddings. A fruit strudel would surely be a better companion for the sweet Heidi Schröck Welschriesling that accompanies the final dish. I could also suggest that the courses are all a bit heavy on the carbs and might benefit from the presence of a few greens, but I can’t deny that I find all of this (even the cheese) utterly delicious and, at just £59 per head, exceptional value for money.

Another of these events is planned for the new year. 

Are we going to be there? Hell, yes!

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Tantra

08/10/22

Castle Street, Edinburgh

Tantra has been on our radar for a while now. Its promise of ‘progressive Indian cuisine’ is alluring, and the restaurant looks enticing too: all glass, shiny surfaces and fancy wine fridges. So, when we’re looking for somewhere to meet friends for a long overdue catch-up, it seems like the obvious choice.

The restaurant’s mission is “to change people’s perceptions of Indian cuisine” and “provide a multi-sensory experience”. I think it succeeds. The food is ambitious, delicious – and certainly different from what I’ve come to expect from a regular curry house.

To begin, we share a Tantra Crisp Board, which comprises a selection of crisps and seven different dips. It’s interesting, and the dips are really tasty – but there’s a problem. We need a well-trained waiter to talk us through what we’ve been given, but what we get is a succession of keen, friendly sixth-formers, all of whom are obviously doing their best, but haven’t been taught to explain the dishes. So I can’t tell you what any of the dips are made of, but I can say that I especially like ‘the tomatoey one’, and that ‘the tamarind one’ is lovely too.

Philip’s starter, the Trio Tibetian Mog, is the standout dish of the evening. It’s just three chicken dumplings, but they’re beautifully presented, and delicately spiced. I have the Fuchka Xplosions, which is as theatrical as it sounds. There’s a pattern emerging though: these stuffed-puffed pooris are served with a glass full of corked test tubes, over which liquid is poured to create a perfumed dry ice. It looks amazing, but I don’t know what to do with it. I guess that the test tubes are just there to create the appetising fruity smell, and I eat the pooris as they stand. They’re fresh and zingy, but later I notice diners at a different table pouring the test-tube contents over theirs, and wonder if I’ve missed a trick. I wish someone had told me…

For my main, I opt for a Dum Hyderabadi Gosht (lamb biriyani). One of our friends asks for the vegetarian jackfruit version. They arrive looking identical, and topped with naan. Breaking open the bread reveals a layer of rice and vegetables, so we’ve both eaten a fair quantity before we delve deeper and realise we’ve been given the wrong meals. Luckily, he’s not actually veggie, so we just accept that we’ve got something different from what we wanted and soldier on. I’m happy to report that the Zafrani Echor Biriyani is a delight: vibrant, hot and full of flavour. Just, you know, not what I ordered…

Philip has the Chemmeen [Prawn] Mappas, which proves to be a luxurious, mild, coconut-milk based curry, and the Plain Naan he orders to go with it is light and well-baked too. This meal is perhaps a bit on the small side, which doesn’t matter as we’re sharing and he has half of my biriyani, but a more alert waiter might have advised him to order rice.

Our other friend orders the Spiced Lamb Rack, which deserves a mention just for being so pretty. She says it’s very good (and I certainly like the sound of the pistachio crumb), if a little difficult to cut.

We all eschew pudding. The dessert menu is intriguing and inventive but we’re full, so we decide to do without. The bill arrives. It’s surprisingly reasonable given the standard of the cuisine, working out at about £40 a head, including drinks (between us, we imbibe two glasses of wine, two Tiger beers, two non-alcoholic lagers and a diet Coke).

So it’s a thumbs up for the food, and a thumbs down for the service. This isn’t a slight on the individual waiters, but on the way they have been trained. Half of the joy of a fancy meal comes from a more holistic approach to the dining experience, and – although we like what we eat and have a lovely time with our friends – something is lacking here (and I don’t just mean the tap water that never appears, despite us asking twice).

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Don’t. Make. Tea.

06/10/22

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Chris (Gillian Dean) is feeling understandably nervous. It’s the year 2030 and today she’s having her assessment. Chris has OPMD, which means that she is partially sighted, has trouble walking and is in constant pain. This rare condition is degenerative, so things are only going to get worse – but, under a recently implemented system, claimants are assessed ‘positively’, i.e. on what they can do rather than on what they can’t do.

The process will be depressingly familiar to those who have been through a PIP assessment. Points are awarded throughout the frustratingly opaque interview. If Chris scores five, she will be expected to take on part-time work. Score ten and she can go full-time! All Chris knows is that she has no money in her account and her electricity supply is set to switch itself off when the meter hits zero. She’s desperate. Meanwhile, her life is supervised by ‘Able’, an Alexa-like hub that offers a commentary on everything she says and does… and may just be capable of informing on her should she ever step out of line.

Enter Ralph (Aidan Scott), the sly, smirking interrogator who will determine Chris’s future. ‘We listened,’ he keeps telling her, and then proceeds to turn her words against her. His questions are cunningly designed to trip her up and he’s on to all the received wisdom that has served her up to now (‘be you on your worst day’; ‘don’t show them you can make a cup of tea’).

This clever and prescient piece from Birds of Paradise Theatre, written by Rob Drummond and directed by Robert Softly Gale, is designed to be as accessible as possible. Able’s irksome commentary acts as a kind of audio description, while on a huge TV screen that dominates one wall, Francis (the engagingly comic Emery Hunter) helpfully translates everything into sign language. An overhead video display also offers viewers the text. I’ve rarely seen audio-visual aids so skilfully integrated; indeed, they are characters in their own right.

It’s a show of two halves. The first is essentially a taut two-hander as Chris and Ralph go through the various hoops and hurdles of the assessment. The narrative becomes increasingly adversarial and the interview builds to a frantic conclusion. As the lights go down for the interval, I ask myself where this can possibly go next.

The second act is an entirely different kind of beast, a high-powered slice of farce as new figures appear, seemingly out of nowhere. It would be wrong to give too much away but there are some wildly funny moments here, though the piece never forgets that it has an important message about disability rights to get across – something it skilfully manages without thumping me over the head.

Don’t. Make.Tea. is a dystopian vision of an all-too credible near future, a play laced with dark humour and some genuine surprises. Cleverly crafted to be accessible to the widest possible audience, it’s an exciting slice of contemporary theatre.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

He Who Opens the Door

04/10/22

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The ‘Play Pie Pint’ season continues, and this week’s offering is a dark comedy by Ukrainian playwright, Neda Nezhdana. The morgue where Vera (Louise Stewart) works is situated in an underground bunker, originally built as a bomb shelter. For Vera, this is just a normal, boring nightshift, babysitting the dead: filling out paperwork, flicking through a magazine and half-heartedly exercising – anything to pass the time. But then Vika (Yolanda Mitchell) stumbles from the freezer into the office, still drunk from the night before. She doesn’t know where she is, or why there’s a tag on her foot. Vera faints at the sight of a walking corpse and, when she comes round, she’s confused. Is Vika alive, or is Vera dead? Suddenly, shockingly, the two women realise the doors are locked and Vera’s phone has no signal. And then the landline rings…

He Who Opens the Door has been adapted by John Faradon, and – although the setting is still Ukraine – there’s a distinctly Scottish flavour to this production. I can see what director Becky Hope-Palmer is aiming for but, for me, this muddies things somewhat. It’s a metaphorical play, “reflecting the limbo for some people in eastern Ukraine, caught between opposing forces”, but I’m not immediately aware of where I am supposed to be: the signs, flags and magazine title tell me one thing, while the tone tells me another. Likewise, the programme says ‘present day’ but that’s not quite true: the script pre-dates the Russian invasion. This adds to my confusion, as I try to piece together what it all means. Not all of the jokes land, either, although the more serious points are eloquently made. I have to confess I’m a bit uncomfortable with Vera’s anti-abortion rhetoric (in particular, the assertion that women are always damaged by the process), and I’m not sure how this particular revelation contributes to the discourse. Still, this is only one idea amid a kaleidoscope of other, more enticing hypotheses about autonomy and independence.

In truth, there’s a lot of good stuff here. Both Stewart and Mitchell deliver strong, compelling performances, and it’s a lively, engaging piece. There are echos of Beckett in the waiting and uncertainty, and of Pinter too: those enigmatic phone calls reminiscent of the notes the dumb waiter delivers to hitmen Ben and Gus. Impressively, Hope-Palmer manages to convey a sense of time passing inexorably, as the women await their fates, while simultaneously offering us a play that gallops along at pace. Amidst the existential dread, there is dancing and singing; in the darkness, there is light.

He Who Opens the Door is not an easy play, but it is a fascinating one, and I can’t think of a more fruitful way to spend a lunchtime.

3 stars

Susan Singfield