Edinburgh

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

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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

Southside Scran

 

13/11/18

Bruntsfield Place, Edinburgh

We can’t help but notice the smell of fresh paint as we enter Southside Scran. It’s rare that we visit such a recently-finished venue, but, over the past few months, we’ve watched with mounting excitement as Tom Kitchin’s latest project has taken shape in Bruntsfield. ‘As soon as we’ve got something to celebrate,’ we tell ourselves, ‘we’ll give this place a whirl.’ The opportunity arrives sooner than we think.

It’s clear from the outset that the venue is still going through that ‘settling in’ phase. When we arrive, the person on the front desk is locked into a long phone conversation, but a friendly waiter ushers us to the bar and supplies us with complimentary glasses of prosecco, whilst our table is ‘sorted out.’ Clearly, this man knows the quickest route to our hearts. It’s a Tuesday evening and during this bedding-in process, covers are restricted to 26 diners, so its relatively quiet tonight – but there’s a cheery wood burner on the go, a rotisserie is filling the place with the appetising aroma of cooked chicken and we’re perfectly content to sit perusing the menu and sipping our drinks.

Once at our table, we’re presented with chunks of fresh sourdough, some butter and a delicious pot of intensely flavoured chicken liver parfait. We try valiantly to hold ourselves back for the actual meal, but it’s difficult, especially when they replace the bread we’ve already eaten.

For my starter, I’ve chosen the Borders game pithivier, a delightfully crispy pie which is surrounded by a rich and fruity jus. It’s note perfect. Susan has the West coast shellfish ravioli, liberally doused in a delightful seafood bisque. In both cases the plates are virtually licked clean.

My main course is Clash Farm pork belly, with apple sauce. It’s soft, and sticky with a chewy, rather than crispy skin, good, if perhaps a little over-salted. Susan’s Orkney scallops with herb butter are nicely judged, just firm enough to offer a little ‘bite.’ For sides, we’ve chosen a bowl of macaroni cheese (I know, I know, it doesn’t really go with anything but, whenever we see it we somehow can’t resist ordering it and this is exactly as we like it, thick and gooey with a nice crispy top.) There’s also an earthy ragout of lentils and lardons and a green salad, which, in its own way, is a bit of a stand out. Perhaps you’re thinking, ‘oh, it’s just a green salad, a few leaves, a bit of cucumber, right?’ No, this is a little masterpiece, incorporating avocado, endives and pumpkin seeds, crunchy, and zesty and very nice indeed. So often, it’s the details that lift a meal above the run-of-the-mill.

We’re pretty full, by now, but the rice pudding with pumpkin, orange and salted caramel sauce sounds too good to ignore, so we opt to share a bowl – and we’re glad we do, because in many ways, this little belter is the other star of the show, so rich, so satisfying, that it makes the plate of strongly flavoured cheeses we finish up with a bit of a let down – nothing wrong with them, you understand, but that pudding is a tough act to follow, and perhaps more the kind of flavour my taste buds want to remember.

When it comes time to pay the bill our waiter informs us that because everything this evening hasn’t been ‘absolutely perfect,’ they’ve discounted the wine we ordered. It turns out that they haven’t charged us one penny for a bottle of Marlborough sauvignon blanc, which is very noble of them and a move that’s guaranteed to prompt me to return, once things are more settled. But really, I have no complaints anyway. I’m full and happy, a perfect combination.

It’s early days of course, but this first visit augers well for the restaurant’s future. Southside Scran offers really clever food, a sizeable step up from mere pub grub. The fact that the place is ten minutes walk from where we live is simply the icing on the cake – or, if you prefer, the sauce on the pudding.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Last Witch

 

10/11/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s 1727, and Janet Horne (Deirdre Davis) is eking out a living in the Scottish Highlands with her teenage daughter, Helen (Fiona Wood). Times are tough: they have no peat for their fire and very little food. But Janet knows what to do: a few incantations, some good luck charms and a venomous tongue are all she needs. If the neighbours think she’s a witch, then they will try to keep her sweet…

And, by and large, it seems to work. The people of Dornoch might fear Janet, but they like her too, for her healing hands and her lively spirit. Even the local clergyman (Graham Mackey-Bruce) seems content to turn a blind eye her way. But, when Douglas Begg (Alan Steele)’s cattle succumb to sickness, he blames Janet and, in his anger, reports her to the sheriff, David Ross (David Rankine). And the wheels are set in motion for what turns out to be Britain’s last ever legal execution for witchcraft.

This revival of Rona Munro’s 2009 play has been designed by Ken Harrison, with two huge discs dominating the acting space. The first forms a stage, raked at a steep angle, cracked like dry earth; the second is suspended above, a moon, sometimes reflecting the ground below, sometimes projecting other images. It’s stark and atmospheric, ingenious in its simplicity – and the brutal beauty of the final scene is really something to behold, especially the light on Elspeth Begg (Helen Logan)’s face as she shouts her cryptic message of support.

Deirdre Davis is superb in the lead role, a beguiling, unapologetic rebel, forging her own path. Janet Horne is a strong woman: sensual, clever, brave and charismatic – and Davis’s performance brings her forcibly to life. She might cling a little too closely to her daughter, afraid to let her go, but she loves her fiercely nonetheless; she only wants to keep her safe. Because the world – as Janet knows – is cruel, and Helen’s claw-like hands and feet will be seen by some as the devil’s mark. Their spiky relationship is delightfully depicted, Fiona Wood subtly teasing out Helen’s frustration and naivety. Little wonder she’s such easy prey for the enigmatic Nick (Alan Mirren).

Richard Baron’s direction is faultless: this is a fluid, unsettling piece, carefully choreographed and visually arresting. But the real magic lies in the writing, Munro’s lyrical script an absolute delight.

It’s a shame that this is such a short tour. There’s only one more chance to see this production; if you’re free, head to the Traverse tonight. Otherwise, you really have missed out.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Stuff

06/05/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Sylvia Dow’s Stuff, the story of Magda, a woman who struggles with a hoarding disorder, really resonates with me. Not that I have the same affliction – I don’t; I’m definitely on the ‘minimalist’ side of the spectrum – but I did have an uncle who lived a life a lot like hers. The play reminds me of him, and it makes me sad. Mainly because I miss him, but also because of how much he missed out.

Directed by Muriel Romanes, this is a subtle, nuanced piece, told with tenderness and care, and never judgemental: not about Magda and her teetering piles of junk; not about her daughter, Chrissie (Romana Abercromby), who’s never once phoned since she left home; not about Jackie (Pauline Lockhart), the social worker assigned to ensure Magda clears her home because the neighbours have complained.

Carol Ann Crawford’s Magda is at the centre of the piece, and it’s a lovely performance. Magda’s sadness and vulnerability are palpable throughout, but so are her humour and her humanity. And Rosemary Nairne’s opera-singing Mama-ghost adds an extra dimension, physicalising the memories Magda can’t let go, not least her childhood in war-torn Ukraine. The singing is haunting and beautiful.

The set is rather special too. It doesn’t seem so at first: just a pile of boxes and scattered sheet music. But the boxes begin to reveal a doll’s house of recollections, cleverly constructed miniatures, designed by John and Jeanine Byrne. There’s a graveyard, a grand piano, a teetering pile of chairs: eight boxes, eight spaces, eight specific memories. No wonder Magda struggles to give up her precious things.

Tonight is Stuff‘s last night at the Traverse, and it’s sold out – but, if you can get hold of a return ticket, it’s certainly worth your while. This is a thoughtful, thought-provoking play, and I know that it will stay with me.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield