Edinburgh

Art

11/02/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

I’ve been going to the theatre for a very long time now and, over the years, I must have seen literally thousands of productions.

But I’ve never seen Art. Which is faintly puzzling when you consider how ubiquitous this clever three-hander is. Written by French playwright Yasmina Reza and translated by Christopher Hampton, it first hit the UK in 1996, and enjoyed a residence at London’s Wyndham Theatre that lasted for eight years. Since then, it has had many revivals in a variety of locations and featured a whole host of celebrity names. But, for whatever reasons, I have somehow comprehensively failed to catch up with it – so this touring production from the Old Vic provides an ideal opportunity to rectify the situation.

Serge (Nigel Havers) has recently bought a painting, an original by a much celebrated contemporary artist. What’s more, he has paid two hundred thousand pounds for it, much to the disgust of his long-time friend, Marc (Dennis Lawson). When he looks at the picture, all he can see is a large white rectangle, which he immediately brands as a piece of ‘white merde.’ Marc wants Serge to admit that he’s been duped and, to this end, he enlists the help of their mutual friend Yvan (Stephen Tompkinson, in what is arguably the play’s showiest role) to convince Serge of his mistake. Yvan is one of those mild-mannered souls who basically wants to please everybody all of the time, so it’s a delight to watch as he attempts to walk a precarious tightrope strung between his two best friends’ unshakeable egos. There’s one nervy extended monologue from him that earns a round of applause all of its own.

This is a play about art, about how we perceive it in different ways. It is also, to some extent about class, but it’s mostly about friendship and the importance of having people we can trust. And how, oddly, our friends’ responses to a plain white canvas can feel uncomfortably personal, a judgement on us all.

As the three old friends embark on a doomed attempt to enjoy a night out, their various differences come looming like flotsam to the stormy surface and the result is fast, frenetic and very funny. There’s an extended silent sequence where the three men sit in Serge’s living room eating olives that is so perfectly delivered it has me in fits of laughter at every clink of an olive pit.

Don’t go the King’s expecting a slow, leisurely unfolding of the plot. This is a lean, lively sprint, peppered with witty dialogue and delivered by three seasoned actors who have clearly played these characters enough times to know them like old friends – which, in a way, is the raison d’être for seeing this.

It’s only taken me twenty-two years to catch up but I’m glad I’ve finally ticked this one off my ‘to see’ list. Don’t leave it as long as I have.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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The Cat in the Hat

06/02/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

We went to the theatre to see a new show:
The Cat in the Hat – we were happy to go!
The venue was heaving with Dr Seuss fans,
Lots of kids and their parents, who’d clearly made plans
To have a good laugh and a really nice time –
And this being Suess it was mostly in rhyme.
Now I know that I’m old and the stuff on the stage
Was aimed at those fans of a much younger age,
But the thing about Seuss (and the cast get this right) –
It needs to be pacy and racy and light.
The staging was clever, the effects were supreme
(Though the songs weren’t as catchy as they might have been).
The parts that worked best were the bits that were busy,
When Things One and Two made us all feel quite dizzy!
And the Cat in the Hat had to clean up the mess
That was causing the little ones so much distress.
I’d say this works best for the youngest ones present
(The older kids may not find things quite so pleasant).
So if you have youngsters who need entertaining,
You could do much worse – on a day when it’s raining!

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Bertie’s Proper Fish & Chips

19/12/18

Victoria Street, Edinburgh

Fish and chips.

Those three short words come laden with so many expectations, don’t they? We all have treasured memories of childhood seaside trips, where those scalding fried potatoes, drenched in salt and vinegar were exactly what we wanted after a day of splashing about in the surf. But of course, in these troubled times, whenever the mood for a traditional fish supper looms into view (as it inevitably will from time to time), it’s an ambition that often comes fraught with disappointment.

Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. Greasy chips, soggy batter, and a lump of fish so stale you don’t know whether to eat it or sing happy birthday to it.

As you might infer from the name, Bertie’s is dedicated to this most British of institutions. Opened just a week ago and occupying a spacious couple of floors in a converted building on one of Edinburgh’s most picturesque streets, Bertie’s is all decked out in handsome, seaside-themed livery, weathered wood, glossy tiles and cheeky postcards. There’s plenty of room in here, a lively ambience and the staff are friendly and helpful. So far, so good.

There are some enticing starters on offer but we’re here for the main event, so I order the most traditional thing I can find on the menu, a portion of battered haddock served with twice-fried chips and tartare sauce – and, since I’m in that kind of mood, I opt to go large because hey, that’s just the way I roll. Susan, who’s never been that keen on batter, chooses a regular portion of baked cod with lemon and herb butter and the same accompaniments. For side dishes, we ask for a bowl of the old Manchester caviar (mushy peas) and some white bread and butter, because -let’s face it – if you can’t work a chip butty into the proceedings, it’s a pretty poor show, right?

As we wait, I peruse the condiments tray and notice a bottle of something called ‘chippy sauce,’ which is a new one on me, but a quick enquiry on social media has my Scottish pals assuring me that this is a famous Edinburgh delicacy, a kind of cross between brown sauce and vinegar – and how can I have lived here for over two years and never experienced it before? Good question. I feel thoroughly rebuked.

The main courses arrive and it’s clear from the first mouthful that the people behind that stainless steel counter know exactly what they’re doing. The fish portion has the approximate dimensions of a small dolphin, the batter is crunchy even when sprinkled with malt vinegar, and the tender white flesh yields beautifully beneath a knife. The chips are perfectly cooked with crispy exteriors and soft buttery inners. The tartare sauce is also a hit, even with Susan, who was convinced she didn’t like the stuff. Her baked cod is also impeccably done, melt-in-the-mouth tender. I try some of the aforementioned chippy sauce and have to agree, it goes down rather well.

Bertie’s have clearly succeeded in their chief aim: to remind diners how good fish and chips can taste when they’re ‘proper.’

We’re pretty full but can’t quite resist sampling the sharing dessert platter, a pudding that’s unabashedly aiming for nostalgia on a plate. It’s essentially a trip back to childhood (right down to the plastic bucket and spade) and comprises two miniature 99 ice cream cones with raspberry sauce, chunks of chalky Edinburgh rock, two miniature candy flosses, some warm donuts with a saucer of dipping chocolate and, most wicked of all, a fried and battered fun-sized chocolate bar (yes, I can picture the health freaks out there, shaking their heads in despair but, luckily, this isn’t something we intend to eat too often!). It’s a light-hearted frivolity, and in that sense works well, but it must be said that this pudding is a bit unbalanced: it needs more ice-cream and less rock, and fewer of those slightly heavy donuts. Still, we polish it all off with smiles on our faces.

It’s interesting to note that Bertie’s menu also takes in more sophisticated seafood dishes – there are fresh mussels, chowder, even a Malaysian fish curry, but our simple fish’n’chips are an impressive introduction to what they do and, certainly, the next time a desire for a chippy tea hits home, we’ll know exactly where to come.

Perhaps we’ll see you there?

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Mouthpiece

 

06/12/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

When an author creates a character for a play, to whom does that character belong? The writer, yes? But what if the character is based on a living person – somebody who exists outside of the fiction? Does the author then have a responsibility to that person? And, if they change certain details of the character’s life, does that constitute a betrayal of trust?

It’s questions like this that permeate Kieran Hurley’s powerful and compelling play, Mouthpiece. As a creator of fiction myself, I find it particularly intriguing, though – judging by the intense silence in the Traverse Theatre on the evening I attend – I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.

Libby (Neve McIntosh) is a struggling playwright, recently returned to her home city of Edinburgh. Once fêted as the ‘next big thing,’ she has lost her way in London and is back living with her mother, unsure of what to do next. Her unhappiness leads her up to Salisbury Crags, where, fuelled by liquor, she rashly decides to fling herself from the heights and be done with it. But she’s been observed by disaffected teenager, Declan (Lorn Macdonald), who pulls her back from the edge. Declan too is unhappy, angry with his brutish stepfather’s treatment of his mother and of the infant daughter that Declan dotes on. He has come up to the Crags to work on one of his surreal drawings, undisturbed. The last thing he needs is this kind of interruption.

Fascinated by the boy, Libby seeks him out the following day, asking if he’ll meet up with her again, ‘just to talk.’ Already, her writer’s instincts have kicked in and she is beginning to plan a new project, one in which Declan will figure prominently.

Powered by searing performances from Macintosh and Macdonald, and simply staged within a skewed rectangular frame (which seems to perfectly showcase the ‘head-movie’ evolving in Libby’s mind), Mouthpiece occasionally breaks aside from the action for Libby to deliver short lectures on how successful plays are put together – and we start to notice how the writer changes those elements of Declan’s life that don’t quite fit with her plans. Even the parts lifted directly from reality must be reshaped, restructured, the jagged edges smoothed. This is how fiction is created and, it’s clear, these observations have been arrived at through personal experience.

Hurley’s ingenious circular narrative eventually brings Libby and Declan head-to-head in a brilliant fourth-wall breaking climax. As Declan sneeringly observes, it’s ‘all really meta.’

And, you know what? It is. And it’s wonderful to behold.

By this point I am absolutely riveted by what’s unfolding in front of me, barely daring to draw breath, in case I miss a word. Hurley has created something very special here, something that deserves to reach the widest possible audience.

It’s quite simply one of the best new plays I’ve seen in quite a while. Should you go and see it? Yes, I really think you should.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Hawksmoor

25/11/18

West Register Street, Edinburgh

It’s a cold, grey, gloomy Sunday, the kind that makes a roast dinner seem very attractive. And it’s a while since we’ve had one. There are some excellent Sunday roasts to be had in Edinburgh (Kyloe is a reliable 5 star experience), but the well-regarded Hawksmoor  chain opened its doors here in July, and we’ve been meaning to give it a try. So we put on our hats and gloves and waterproofs, and head down to West Register Street to see what all the fuss is about.

Housed in an old bank, Hawksmoor is certainly an imposing venue, but it does feel somewhat austere: the architecture is impressive, but it’s like a blank canvas. There’s no colour, no warmth, no personality. It needs some artwork, or some clever lighting. As it stands, it feels curiously dark and unfinished.

The service is friendly and efficient. We both order the slow cooked rump of beef at £20 per head, which comes with all the usual trimmings (cabbage, carrots, roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding) and some roasted onion and garlic too. There’s a rich, meaty gravy on the side, and we can see from nearby diners that the portions are generous. Still, we stick with our tradition of ordering a side of mac’n’cheese whenever we spy it on a menu, because – well, because that’s what we do.

We don’t eat meat very often, so we like it to be good quality. And this is: it’s a lovely piece of beef, served pink and oozing with flavour. The vegetables are buttery and the spuds the ideal combination of crispy and soft. The Yorkshire is a good’un, huge and light and pillowy. The mac’n’cheese is decent too: sticky and mustardy. We’re glad we’ve ordered it.

We also have a bottle of Domaine du Haut Bourg Sauvignon Blanc, a fresh-tasting French wine that serves us very well. But we eschew the starters (they look like they’ll fill us up too much before the main) and we’re too full to entertain the idea of pudding.

There’s nothing to complain about: this is a meat-focused restaurant that knows its chops, and the food is rather good. But it’s lacking something – some theatre or spirit – that makes it seem special. I know I’ve had a good dinner, but I don’t feel like I’ve had a treat.

Next time we feel the urge for a Sunday roast, I think we’ll head back to Kyloe, where it’s warm and lively – and they carve the meat for you at the table.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield

There is a Globe Stuck in my Throat

15/11/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

There is a Globe Stuck in My Throat is an unusual piece of work, devised by Germany’s Junges Ensemble Marabu, and presented by the Traverse as part of the Chrysalis festival. The festival is in its fourth year, and has an exciting remit: to offer a platform to young theatre makers, allowing them to experiment with form and content in a professional environment.

On the form side, There is a Globe… certainly shakes things up successfully: we ricochet from conference to competition, from space-hopper silliness to images of tragedy. The Junges Ensemble Marabu are an engaging crew, their costumes all colour and sparkle, their space-age make-up both startling and oddly distancing. The direction is deft and confident, and there are some strong images created: the drone ‘copters flying in coloured clouds of oxytocin; the lines of children-in-need photographs that stretch across the stage. This is something of a scattergun approach, but it’s bold and fresh; I like the look and feel of it.

The content, however, is less persuasive: there is a rambling and sometimes incoherent quality that offers little new insight. Of course, this seems to be the point: that we in the privileged western world sit around talking, prioritising our own feelings, doling out charity and shrugging our shoulders, unable to distinguish between real tragedy and the dog shit in the street. Meanwhile, elsewhere, millions are starving; thousands are displaced and seeking refuge. We switch off the TV and look away; we fiddle while Rome burns. But this is clear from the first twenty minutes; after that, it’s all just more of the same, dressed up in different clothes.

I’d have liked the ideas to have been pushed further: to dig deeper, say more.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Education, Education, Education

 

14/11/18

Bedlam Theatre, Edinburgh

This quirky little play, originally devised by The Wardrobe Ensemble, is the perfect vehicle for the EUTC, offering a real opportunity for these talented students to show their acting chops.

It’s 1997, and it’s Tobias (Max Prentice)’s first day at Wordsworth Comprehensive, where he’ll be working as a German language assistant. But this is no normal day: Tony Blair was elected as Prime Minister last night, and there’s a strange emotion pervading the staffroom. Could it be… hope? Might the ‘education, education, education’ mantra that’s propelled Blair to the top job actually translate into something real, like new textbooks, or permanent classrooms, or reduced class sizes?

Whatever. It’s still a school day. The bell still rings; there are still lunch duties and lesson covers – and the small matter of ‘muck-up day,’ as the Year 11s seize their opportunity to cause consequence-free chaos: they’re leaving this afternoon. And, amidst all this, there’s Lauren: troubled, angry, vulnerable Lauren (Lauren Robinson), who wants to go on a history trip to York, but who’s been told her past behaviour precludes her from such treats.

This is a lively, energetic production, with all actors (except Prentice) dual-rolling as staff members and pupils. Tobias’s outsider’s eye exposes the vagaries of our education system; he’s a positive, engaging character, a Brit-o-phile, more gently observant than sharply critical. The performances are all strong, but standouts include Fergus Head as ineffective head teacher, Hugh Mills, and Lauren Robinson as the self-destructive teen mentioned above. Robinson in particular excels at portraying a heartbreaking mix of fragility and bravado, the all-too-recognisable frustration of those who have too little autonomy.

The Brit-pop music provides a dynamic aural backdrop, and the high-octane dance moves and scene transitions all help this small cast to convince us we’re in a busy, bustling school. There are some sombre moments: Tobias’s flash-forward narrative reminds us that, although Blair did indeed inject a lot of much-needed money into the system, and things did improve considerably, this too has now passed: schools are academised and closing, begging parents for provisions, dropping ‘frivolous’ subjects from their timetables.

Don’t get me started. This one’s personal for me. I was a teacher for twenty-two years; I left because of what the job became. I’ve been a foreign language teaching assistant too (in Germany), so this play really speaks to me.

But even if your own experiences are vastly different from these, this is a piece well worth seeing. What happens in education affects us all.

And this is fun. So, you know – win, win.

4 stars

Susan Singfield