Edinburgh

Alice in Wonderland

06/06/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Alice in Wonderland is something of a phenomenon, famous more for its cast of extraordinary characters than for its storyline. Anyone who grew up reading English novels (or watching the films based on them) knows the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee. Lewis Carroll’s 1865 creations are an illustrator’s dream; indeed, John Tenniel’s drawings are at least as powerful as the author’s words, and surely party responsible for propelling Alice to stardom. Responsible too, perhaps, for sidelining the protagonist, who slides into insignificance in many adaptations of the work.

And there are many adaptations of the work. I’m almost weary at the thought of seeing another one. I know the story well: I read both books as a child, and have seen countless stage and cinematic versions. I’ve even directed a school production – the Disney Junior one – so I’m well-versed in its lore.

Esteemed Irish theatre company, Blue Raincoat, are well-versed too: this is a revival of their own 1999 production, adapted by Jocelyn Clark. I didn’t see their original, so I can’t compare the two, but I can say that this interpretation is the closest I’ve seen to the novel, with young Alice (Miriam Needham) placed firmly centre-stage, her internal monologue brought to life by her older self (Hilary Bowen-Walsh)’s narration.

This is a shabby, degraded Wonderland, seen through the adult eyes of a jaded Alice. But the bold, frenetic, questing nature of the child is captured perfectly, as is the perplexity of growing up, where one minute she is like a little girl, the next too big for the confines of her world. The people and creatures this Alice meets are (rightly, I think) peripheral: she’s the hero of her own tale; they exist only insofar as they relate to her. Her intelligence and curiosity shine brightly in this production; she demands answers to everything, but is offered nothing satisfactory. Only when she takes charge and asserts herself is she able to wake up from the dream.

With such emphasis on Alice, it’s safe to say that this is an intense piece of theatre, with both Needham and Bowen-Walsh surely pushing themselves to exhaustion. But the supporting cast are strong as well; the portrayal of the Duchess (Sandra O’Malley) is particularly interesting, especially as her baby morphs into a pig.

The set design (by Paul McDonnell) is ingenious: adult Alice’s basement transformed into Wonderland, all broken picture frames and stepladders and old bits of wood, and (of course) a series of different-sized tables used to great effect.

Under  Niall Henry’s frantic, physically-focused direction, this show is something of a tour de force.  Not a new take, exactly, but certainly a refreshing one.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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Drone

04/06/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

A tiny drone whirs into life and rises smoothly from the studio floor to survey the audience. An instant later, we see ourselves projected onto a big screen at the back of the room, our bemused faces staring straight back at our ourselves. Electronic music throbs and jitters, steadily rising in volume. And then Harry Josephine Giles walks onto the stage and begins to speak…

Drone describes itself as ‘a jam of sound, visuals and poetry,’ but the ensuing show is a lot more controlled than that suggests. Giles’ words tell the unfolding story of ‘a drone,’ part weapons system, part office worker. It explores the central theme both in realistic and abstract terms, while Neil Simpson’s music provides a pulsing sonic backdrop, and the visual designs of Jamie Wardrop are projected onto a screen behind the performers, a mixture of psychedelic landscapes, obscure images and found film extracts.

My first impression is that I’m not going to enjoy this very much – it seems a little too arch, a little too pleased with itself – and yet, inexorably, it pulls me into its orbit and I’m soon entranced by what I’m seeing and hearing. Giles’ assured, controlled performance is compelling, unleashing a torrent of visual metaphors that build to a maelstrom. This, the narrative seems to say, is symptomatic of the age in which we are live, a bleak, compassionless society, hurtling headlong to oblivion.

Sharp, provocative and challenging, Drone certainly won’t be for everyone, but those who seek something truly original and idiosyncratic should find plenty here to enthrall them. When, at the end of the performance, the drone goes haywire and careers into the audience, it’s hard to know if it’s intentional or not – and that, in a strange way, pretty much sums up what this piece is all about.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Brasserie Prince by Alain Roux

03/06/19

Princes Street, Edinburgh

We’re here today because… well, we haven’t really got a reason. It’s a run-of-the-mill Monday (we don’t work Mondays). It’s lunch time. Usually, this would signal some kind of soup or salad eaten in our own kitchen, but today we feel like eating out.

So here we are. Brasserie Prince is a relative newcomer (it opened last year, in the renowned Balmoral hotel), but its pedigree is excellent, being a joint venture between veteran chef Michel Roux and his son, Alain. We’re keen to see what they have to offer.

As you’d expect from this cooking dynasty, the focus is on classic French food, with a healthy respect for local produce. There’s an extensive à la carte selection but, as this is an impromptu visit with little to justify it, we decide to stick to the express menu, where two courses cost £19.50 and three £25 per head. The options here look perfectly acceptable.

We order a small glass each of Pinot Grigio, and tuck into the tapenade and crispbreads that are placed on the table. Delicious! Who can resist the salty tang of an olive dip? Not us, that’s for sure.

The pace here is leisurely, which we like, so it’s a little while before our starters arrive. Not too long, just long enough to make the meal feel like an event. I have the Quinoa, sunflower seed and spring vegetable salad with minted soya yoghurt dressing, which is fresh and delicate with a lovely zing. Philip has the beetroot and goat’s cheese salad with red pepper vinaigrette, which is an absolute delight. It’s deceptively simple looking, but the beetroots – both red and golden – are served in a variety of ways (pickled, roasted and crisped) and the goat’s cheese is mellow and creamy. So far, so (very) good.

Philip has the Armoricaine monkfish, Camargue wild rice and tenderstem broccoli for his main. The fish is well cooked, deliciously meaty, and served with a lip-smackingly savoury sauce. My Shetland mussels with white wine and parsley are pretty good, although, coming so soon after last week’s mussels extraordinaire at the Edinburgh Food Studio, perhaps they are destined not to wow. Still, it’s a generous portion – more than I can eat – and the sauce is rich and decadent. I order a side of fries to accompany the shellfish, and these are fine too (although suspiciously akin to the frozen variety…).

We go off-piste for pud, because the à la carte options are just too appealing. Philip has the classic tarte tatin with a scoop of vanilla ice cream; this is faultless, exactly as you’d expect. I opt for the warm lemon madeleines and cherry compote; this unassuming-sounding dish turns out to be today’s star. There are five madeleines (we could easily have shared; we do, in fact, share…), all hot lemony loveliness, the sponge as light as can be, and the thick sweetness of the cherry compote contrasts with it perfectly.

We order a second (small) glass of wine, and sit contentedly for a while, enjoying the ambience and bustle of this friendly, attractive restaurant. It’s formal without being fussy, busy without being loud. All in all a lovely place to while away an early afternoon.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Edinburgh Food Studio

26/05/19

Dalkeith Road, Edinburgh

Let me begin this review with a question. When was the last time you ate out and were genuinely surprised by the food you were offered? The Edinburgh Food Studio manages to surprise us on many levels and, I’m happy to say, always in a positive way. We’ve been hearing promising word-of-mouth about the place for a while, so when we spot a really timely Groupon offer –  a four course lunch for just £25 a head – we’re straight onto it.

We arrive right on time and take our seats in the large, light, open plan café. The first thing we notice is that the room is dominated by two long wooden tables with chairs arranged along each side, so it’s probably important to say is that, if you’re the kind of diner who demands your own space to enjoy your meal, this may not be the place for you. It’s a Sunday afternoon, and there’s a pleasant, relaxed buzz in the room, people enjoying their meals and maybe a cheeky drink or three. We order a bottle of reasonably priced French Muscadet and the chatty, super-friendly waitress brings us a plate of fresh ciabatta and some whipped, cultured butter.

Another thing to mention is that you don’t choose from the lunch menu; rather, you are brought what has been prepared that day and is still available. The first course arrives and it’s instantly clear that both the wine and the bread will make perfect accompaniments for a generously sized bowl of mussels and cider butter. I’ll level with you and admit that I rarely choose mussels in normal situations, because it all feels like a lot of effort for not much return, but these particular ones are spectacularly plump, and melt-in-the-mouth tender, sitting in a tangy broth that just cries out to be mopped up with hunks of fresh bread. I’ll go so far as to say these may be the nicest mussels I can remember having and I’ll also add that, by the time we’re finished, the white bowl they were originally housed in looks like it’s already been through the dishwasher.

Surprise number two comes, apropriately enough, with the second course, which is something we’ve never eaten before. This is Passatelli, with St George mushrooms and new season garlic. Passetelli is rather like pasta, except that it’s made from a mixture of bread, eggs and parmesan cheese. Resting in a delicious savoury broth, its unusual, slightly crunchy texture proves an instant hit and, pretty soon, it’s been devoured.

The third surprise is that the next course is rather special, in that it is 12-year-old rump steak, with aliums & yoghurt. (Please note, the twelve here relates to the age of the cow from which the meat comes, not how long its been stored in a deep freeze!) Thinly sliced and lightly seared, the meat is full flavoured and as tender as the night, sliceable with an ordinary knife. At first, I’m slightly suspicious about the pool of natural yoghurt on one side of the plate but, once dipped into it, the meat becomes even more delicious. ‘Inspired by kebabs,’ the waitress informs us and we have to admit, though on paper it sounds strange, it works a treat.

And so we end, as all things must, with pudding – and we are brought lemon thyme & butterscotch, which sounds fantastic but, once again, my first impression is one of profound disappointment. Can this bland-looking white mound actually taste of anything very much at all? Well, as it turns out, yes it can! The revelation here is when you dig into that snowy heap with a spoon to discover hidden layers of zesty ice cream built over the top of a crunchy, chewy butterscotch base and a tangy lemon cake. Turns out the final surprise is the best one of all (and please note our rather poor photograph doesn’t even come close to doing this dessert justice).

The Edinburgh Food Studio somehow manages to cut through all the pretensions of high end dining, offering brilliantly inventive food with the emphasis firmly on flavour. Will we go again? Well, we’ve already noted on a whiteboard above us a seven-course evening tasting menu, and this is something we mentally file away as a possibility for the next time we’re looking for an excuse to celebrate. Birthday, wedding anniversary… Thursday? We’ll think of something!

So go along, enjoy the atmosphere – and be prepared for some surprises!

5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Lookout by Gardener’s Cottage

19/05/19

Calton Hill, Edinburgh

We often visit Calton Hill; prowling the city is one of our greatest joys. In the three years we’ve lived here, we’ve watched with interest as the scaffold-clad City Observatory has been restored, and the new-build restaurant – sister to the highly-regarded Gardener’s Cottage – has taken shape. Naturally, now that the site has been revealed in all its glory, we’re eager to sample what promises to be excellent fare.

We persuade some friends to join us for Sunday lunch; they arrive before us, and we’re pleased to see they’ve secured a window seat. To be fair, most of the seats fit that description: it’s a small, square room and two whole walls are made of glass. Its cantilever construction means that the restaurant juts out over the edge, and the views across the Firth of Forth are stunning.

We have to wait a while before we’re brought menus; the manager explains that this is because the chef has made some last minute changes, so they’re being reprinted. We’re not in a hurry so it doesn’t really matter, but we appreciate the complementary glasses of Prosecco we’re offered to compensate. A plate of sourdough bread is also very welcome, especially as it’s accompanied by whipped herb butter.

When the menus do arrive, we briefly consider the five-course tasting option before deciding instead on a three-course à la carte. We order red wine by the glass (it’s early), and are happy with the rich tones of the French grenache we choose.

For his starter, Philip has the rabbit with wild garlic and mushrooms. The meat is intensely flavoured, and the accompaniments light and refreshing. I have the egg yolk raviolo with Tunworth and burnt leek. This is a technical delight: the pasta thin and delicate, the yolk creamy, the cheese sauce robust and full-flavoured. The ‘potato hay’ on top provides some welcome crunch.

For my main, I have venison with hispi cabbage, apple and fennel and a side of salt-baked root vegetables. The meat is soft and tender, and the accompanying flavours subtly complement it. Philip’s skate with razor clam, asparagus velouté and sea veg is beautifully presented and well-cooked, the flesh falling cleanly from the bone. The clam lends the dish a salty tang.

My pudding is rhubarb, rosemary and yesterday’s bread. It’s delicious: a dainty, elegant way to finish a meal, even if ‘yesterday’s bread’ is hard to discern (it’s in the ice cream, apparently). Philip’s salted caramel, clotted cream and chocolate is rather less impressive, the only mis-step on our menu. It’s pleasant enough but it doesn’t taste of very much other than a general creamy sweetness.

There’s a bit of an issue when we come to pay, when the simple transposition of two numbers means we’re overcharged by a whopping £108! Still, this is easily and speedily resolved, and we leave sated and content. This is clever and intricate food, well worth the walk to the top of the hill.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Grazing by Mark Greenaway

11/05/19

The Caledonian, Rutland Street, Edinburgh

We were excited to learn that Mark Greenaway was taking over the space vacated by the Galvin brothers in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Greenaway’s food holds a special place in our hearts: we ate at his short-lived Stockbridge Bistro on our (very low key) wedding day, and rather marvellous it was too. We also enjoyed his flagship restaurant on North Castle Street, and – when that closed – kept an eye on the local press to see what he’d do next.

And Grazing is it. This new project is a more casual affair, with a hearty-sounding menu and a breezy, friendly atmosphere. It’s Saturday night, and we’ve been busy all day. We’re hungry and looking forward to an enjoyable evening.

Things get off to a promising start with the arrival of some stout and treacle bread and duck skin butter. The lightness of the bread belies the density of the flavour, and we’re both mightily impressed. We eat it far too quickly, and the waiter brings us more. We endeavour to approach the second portion with more circumspection; we don’t want to fill up before we’ve sampled the menu.

We both go for the same starter, because it sounds so enticing. Who could resist a crumpet with smoked trout and a poached egg? Not us! And it is absolutely fabulous: packing a real punch, yet somehow delicate. This is the kind of dish that gets people talking. (But only once they’ve cleared their plates.)

For the main, we decide to try one of the ‘grazing for two’ sharing dishes, the fish pie. This comes with two sides. The ugly potatoes sound delicious, but – we reason – there will be mash on our pie, and we don’t want double-spud. So we opt instead for Kentucky fried cauliflower and green beans with hazelnuts and goat’s cheese. The green beans are delicious, complemented well by the crunch of the nuts and the creamy, salty cheese. I’m less keen on the cauliflower, but then I rarely enjoy breaded/battered/deep-fried things, so it’s probably more me than it. Philip likes it well enough, and polishes it off.

Our reaction to the fish pie is a bit mixed. There’s no mash topping; it’s a naked pie. We should have ordered those potatoes after all; it might have been nice to be warned. The chunks of fish are large and perfectly cooked; there’s egg in there, and the white sauce is rich and piquant. But it doesn’t feel very indulgent; it’s not that we need a bigger portion, exactly; we just need to feel like we’re being spoiled. And this is somehow meagre, a little mean. A shame.

For dessert, Philip has the sticky toffee pudding soufflé, which is the standout dish of the evening. I wish I’d chosen it too. It looks magnificent, and has the substance to back up its style. It’s a light take on a stodgy dish, all the datey, caramelly, sticky joyousness without the heavy carbs. It comes with a hot caramel sauce and honeycomb ice cream, and is a knockout.

I’ve ordered the brown sugar cheesecake, mainly because it comes with tomato, and I’m fascinated to see how this works. In reality, it’s a little disappointing: there’s nothing wrong with it per se, but I can’t really taste tomato (presumably it’s in the syrupy sauce drizzled on my plate); the cheesecake is pleasant, but not memorable.

There’s a decent wine list, from which we select the a French Touraine sauvignon blanc. It’s fresh and clean tasting, exactly what we want.

All in all, our experience of Grazing is a bit hit and miss. I’m sure it’s possible to have a 5 star meal here, if you chance upon the right dishes. We’ve had a lovely evening, and I’m sure that we’ll come back. But we’ll know what not to order, too.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

Keep on Walking Federico

09/05/19

Keep on Walking Federico is a monologue, written and performed by Mark Lockyer and apparently based around an experience from his own family history. There’s a simple set: a chair, a table, and a floor covered in sand, from which Lockyer periodically unearths items that relate to the story he unfolds. This is all about incidents buried in the past, so that makes perfect sense.

After a family tragedy, Mark arrives in a sleepy little Spanish village, where he has gone to attempt to find a resolution to his sorrows. Lockyer is an accomplished raconteur and he skilfully embodies the various people he encounters during his stay, flitting effortlessly from one to the other: the worldly-wise proprietor of the local bar; the mysterious handsome GP who appears to have criminal connections; a tragic flamenco-dancing female neighbour and a portly Dutchman with a liking for baklava and Miss World pageants. Lockyer also offers us conversations with his mother, who, we slowly begin to realise, is the source of much of Mark’s distress.

Though the performance is strong, the material is perhaps a little too introspective, a little too precious. Though this offers a pleasant enough diversion for an hour or so, it’s conclusion doesn’t really carry sufficient resonance to make it truly memorable.

As for the title, you’ll have to wait until the very end for an explanation.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney