Edinburgh

What Girls Are Made Of

17/04/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

We missed What Girls Are Made Of at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, which is a shame because Cora Bissett’s autobiographical tale was a First Fringe winner there and enjoyed great word of mouth. This timely reshowing at the Traverse gives us an opportunity to catch up with it and boy, are we glad we do.

From the moment she wanders onto the stage carrying a cardboard box full of ‘memories,’ Bissett has us clutched in the palm of her hand – and she expertly delivers her picaresque story, relating her knockabout schooldays in Kirkcaldy, her early years in rock music and her exciting brush with fame when her newly formed band Darlingheart shared stages with the likes of Blur and Radiohead at the height of the Britpop phenomenon. Bissett is a superb raconteur and she knows exactly how to pull an audience into her world.

If you’re thinking that this is a piece that concentrates only on the good times, let me assure you that it also takes in the darker side of the music industry, demonstrating how a young musician’s hopes and dreams can be ground underfoot by unscrupulous record labels. There’s a reason you may not have heard much about Darlingheart, and Bisset reveals it all in excruciating detail. This part of her story speaks volumes to me: back in my teen years, I too was a hopeful in a rock band, and went through my own long dark night of the soul at the hands of the music moguls.

Lest I give the impression that this is just a solo performance, I should add that the three members of her band (Simon Donaldson, Harry Ward and Susan Bear) not only provide a kicking soundtrack for Bissett’s story, but also take on a multitude of roles, playing key characters on her journey with aplomb, Ward in particular evincing much laughter as her indomitable mother. Ward is an arresting performer, last seen by B&B in the superb Dark Carnival, also at The Traverse.

Bissett eventually emerged from the carnage of Darlingheart, learning how to survive, and finally carving out a career as a writer, performer and director. Her conclusion – that we are all a result of the various obstacles we overcome in our path through life – is cannily encompassed in a final, rousing song.

This is enervating stuff and the standing ovation the four performers receive as the last chords die away is well earned. If you can grab a ticket for What Girls Are Made Of, do so with all haste. It’s often said, but I’m saying it anyway: this is simply too good to miss.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

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Abigail’s Party

16/04/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Mike Leigh’s 1970s drama is one of those pieces everyone just seems to know. I was only six when it was first screened in 1977, far too young to have seen it then, and yet it feels like something I have grown up with, ever-present, with Alison Steadman’s Beverly the towering icon at its heart.

For those few the play has eluded, or whose memories need a jog, Abigail’s Party is a dark comedy, an agonising depiction of social embarrassment. When painfully polite divorcee, Sue (Rose Keegan), needs somewhere to spend the evening while her wayward daughter, Abigail, has the titular party, Beverly (Jodie Prenger) seizes the opportunity to play host, inviting gauche new neighbours, Angela (Vicky Binns) and Tony (Calum Callaghan), to make up the numbers. Beverly’s overworked estate agent husband, Laurence (Daniel Casey), is reluctant – he has business calls to make and has to be up early in the morning – but Beverly prevails. It’s clear that Beverly always prevails. And nothing will stand in the way of her desire to show off her cocktail cabinet and leather three-piece-suite.

It’s a sturdy piece of work, and one that stands the test of time, with far more to offer than the kitsch 70s-pastiche set and costumes might suggest. But these are just a kind of shorthand, a means of settling the audience comfortably into a recognisable time and place, before discomfiting us with the hubris and frailty of the characters on stage.

The acid nature of the couples’ relationships and their collective lack of self-awareness drive the humour here; we, like Sue, are baffled outsiders, blinking at the awfulness of the people before us. Rose Keegan is adroit at conveying a sense of mounting horror, her pleasant manners becoming an ever-less effective method of keeping Beverly at bay.

Prenger, as Beverly, is of course the key to the whole play, and she’s a formidable performer, who has the chops for the part. I can’t help wishing there was less of Steadman here though; director Sarah Esdaile asserts that “Alison is inextricably linked with Beverly’s voice” – she helped create the role – and I know that’s true, but I would prefer to see a different incarnation of Beverly, a new interpretation of this monstrous creature. After all, there are Beverlys everywhere.

Vicky Binns does a cracking turn as the gawky Angela, gamely weathering her taciturn husband’s scorn, and desperate to impress. The saddest moment in the play for me is when she decries her parents’ dreadful marriage, seemingly unaware that her own is a carbon copy; the funniest is her dance. At first, I find her style a bit declamatory but, as the drama progresses, it works: Angela is performing for Beverly.

Calum Callaghan might not have showy stuff to do as Tony, but his dark mood effectively puts a dampener on the evening, quelling every moment of  light-heartedness or potential joy. And Daniel Casey’s Laurence is a fascinating study, almost likeable, but for his desperate snobbishness, and his vengeful urge to humiliate his wife.

An excoriating social satire, Abigail’s Party might press the nostalgia buttons, but it’s still very relevant today.

4 stars 

Susan Singfield

 

China Red Buffet Restaurant

30/03/19

Grindlay Street, Edinburgh

China Red has been on our radar for a while now. Not only was it the winner of the Edinburgh Evening News’s 2018 Chinese Restaurant of the Year award, it’s also situated conveniently near to where we live. We’ve often walked past, remarking, “We really ought to come here some time.” Tonight, at last, that time has come.

It’s Saturday, and we’ve had a couple of drinks before we arrive. I think this is a good thing: a buffet is suited to such circumstances. We order a glass of sauvignon blanc for me and a bottle of Tsing Tsao for Philip, and then set off to explore the vast cornucopia of edible items on offer. We’re paying £16.50 each, which seems eminently fair with such an array laid out before us.

We sample tiny bits of lots of things, far too many to detail here, but we barely scratch the surface of what’s available. Nothing we try is terrible. Some is average. And much is really very good.

I enjoy the sushi, particularly the cooked salmon and crab, which are delicate and really fresh. I also like the steamed broccoli and prawn dish, cooked in a light oyster sauce. The shellfish are firm and sturdy, and the vegetables retain their bite.

Philip’s especially impressed by the selection of noodles; he tries them several different ways. The Singapore vermicelli is his favourite, packed with ginger and spice. He also loves the salt and pepper ribs and the roast duck, which are rich and densely flavoured.

We’re both fans of the teppanyaki bar, where a friendly chef cooks us small portions of king prawns, lamb chops and steak, before setting them on fire for a bit of theatre. The prawns and the chops are perfect; the steak isn’t as good but, on reflection, we were never going to get a prime cut for the price they’re charging here.

There are lots of puddings available, but we both decide to try a made-to-order banana and chocolate crêpe, which is every bit as delicious as it sounds, albeit not very Chinese. Ça ne fait rien. We eschew any further sweet stuff, because we’re full, and because the pancake seems an ideal final course.

Will we come back? Probably, on a weekend night with a bit of booze inside us. It’s a convivial, relaxed place, and there’s enough choice here to satisfy even the fussiest of folk.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield

Velvet Petal

23/03/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Velvet Petal, choreographed by Fleur Darkin, is a compelling piece about identity and self-image, emergence and self-discovery. Performed by twelve dancers, it’s as much performance art as it is dance theatre, a series of thematically linked ideas and images, overlapping to create a sensation rather than a story.

Inspired by Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography, Patti Smith’s poetry and the migration of Monarch butterflies, the characters veer between languid and frenetic, assured and tentative. These are young people, in a bedroom or at a house party, trying poses and costumes,  selecting and rejecting a range of personae. Who are they, and how do they want to be seen?

They rarely work together (although when they do, moving mechanically, as if by rote, to a nightclub hit, it is singularly arresting). Instead, the stage is filled with micro-tales, vignettes of love and sex, of sadness and joy, with bystanders occupying the edges, watching or cuddling, or changing outfit for the seventh time. Sometimes, the lighting directs us to a key moment: two lovers slowly removing their clothes, hesitant, making themselves vulnerable; a young woman contorting herself to fit into a suit hanging on a rail, assuming an identity that seems uncomfortable, then summarily swept aside, despite all her effort. At other times, it’s hard to know where to look, there’s so much going on: one thing is certain, no two audience members will have seen exactly the same show.

The dancers’ physical control is extraordinary; for all its sensual punk-rebel attitude, this is a perfectly drilled piece, precise and disciplined. And the soundtrack, from Leonard Cohen to The Cure, is oddly powerful, mirroring and magnifying both anxiety and desire.

My inclination is towards more narrative art forms; I tend to favour story over concept. But when a production is as absorbing as Velvet Petal, I’ll take it exactly as it comes.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

In Other Words

01/03/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

‘A play about dementia set to the music of Frank Sinatra.’

On paper, it doesn’t sound like the most appealing proposition, does it? But this clever piece, written by Matthew Seager, is an affecting study of the ways in which dementia, that most insidious of illnesses, can gradually overtake someone’s life. It also examines the pressures placed upon partners, who increasingly find themselves becoming carers. I have some personal experience here, because the last ten years of my mother’s life were affected by Alzheimer’s – and watching the way Arthur (Seager) and Jane (Angela Hardie)’s close and  loving relationship is gradually destroyed by the inexorable onset of dementia is, of course, tragic and compelling.

We first encounter the couple at their clumsy introduction in a bar, back when they were young and carefree – and we watch their first tentative dance to the titular Sinatra song, the one that is destined to become a touchstone in their lives – but, almost immediately, we slip forward to their harrowing present as Arthur deteriorates before our eyes, transforming into a mute, quivering figure in a chair, the unpalatable reality signalled by a flickering standard lamp and ominous, echoing sound effects. The performances from the two leads are exemplary, and the simple but effective staging works well, snapping me backwards and forwards in time without ever confusing me. It’s poignant to see present day Arthur suddenly transform to his younger, more vital self.

If there’s anything missing from the story, it’s a look into the the characters’ external lives. We learn very little about what they do outside of their relationship. Where, for instance, do they work? What are their interests (other than the music of Mr Sinatra)?And there’s only one brief scene that has a passing reference to any friends they might have. Perhaps Seager wants to concentrate all his attention on the couple’s mutual dependency, but it’s harder to mourn what’s been lost when we haven’t been shown a full picture of it. I’m also a little unsure of how old Arthur is supposed to be when he first begins to exhibit signs of the illness.

But there’s no doubting the sincerity of the story or the fact that it tackles a very important subject with sensitivity and understanding. Seager first became interested in the idea when he worked alongside people with dementia and noticed how regular exposure to music served to calm their mounting terrors. I also know from personal experience that people in the grip of dementia can be perfectly lucid about events that happened decades earlier, but have no memory of what happened minutes ago – a condition that is expertly conveyed here. I cry quite a lot during this performance as it evokes personal memories.

After this brief showing at the Traverse, In Other Words moves on to The Tron Theatre in Glasgow. See it if you can and be prepared to weep.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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