Edinburgh

Home is Not the Place

21/02/20

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

 

In Home is Not the Place, poet/dramatist Annie George explores the story of her own childhood and that of her grandfather, the Malayalam poet, PM John. If his name doesn’t exactly resonate with contemporary audiences, that’s hardly surprising. He died in 1945 at the age of 40 and, a couple of years later, nearly all of his writing was destroyed in a house fire. As a novelist myself, the idea fills me with horror – I still have a huge trunk of my early work, which I have stubbornly dragged from location to location. It’s unpublishable but losing it would be a nightmare.

And it’s this lack of substance that makes for a slightly frustrating experience – the sections that deal with George’s own story are far more compelling than the slightly nebulous narrative concerning her grandfather. We hear recollections of George’s childhood journey to London from India, how she eventually found refuge in the more nurturing nature of Scottish society and how she developed as a writer herself. But of PM John there are only vague impressions, built around an old portrait of him, which has been badly ‘restored.’ (I would have loved to hear one of his poems, for instance, which would give a clearer picture of who he was and what he represented. Presumably this absence is even more irksome for George.)

HINTP uses still images, short pieces of film and atmospheric bursts of Indian music to illustrate the various themes. The central thrust of the narrative is about the way our experiences shape us as individuals and about what the term ‘home’ really means to each person. This comes through eloquently. George is a compelling narrator and once she’s settled into her stride, she pulls me into the poignant sweep of the piece. 

But I’m left wanting to know more about PM John – I spend some time afterwards fruitlessly searching for more information about him on the internet. Perhaps that’s been George’s intention all along.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Vesta

20/02/20

Queensferry Street, Edinburgh

We’ve long been impressed by Social Bite, the Edinburgh-based charity with a mission to end homelessness in Scotland. The whole enterprise is an object lesson in how much individuals can achieve – so long as they have vision, tenacity and drive. And compassion, of course. From a sandwich shop in Rose Street to a nationwide endeavour spanning sleep outs, a training academy and even its own village, Alice Thompson and Josh Littlejohn have made a real difference.

And tonight, we’re eating at Vesta, the second incarnation of the charity’s restaurant (you can read our review of Social Bite’s previous partnership with Maison Bleue here: https://bouquetsbrickbatsreviews.com/2016/12/31/home/). We have family visiting, which gives us the perfect excuse to check out the menu.

It’s not as fancy as it used to be – more gastro pub than fine dining. But that’s okay by us. I don’t want a starter tonight (I’m saving room for pudding), so I sip at a glass of Pinot Grigio while Philip eats his chilli & coriander crab cakes, served with a courgette & red pepper remoulade. They’re lovely: robust and well flavoured, and a very generous portion. 

For his main, Philip opts for the roast rump of lamb, which comes with aubergine ratatouille, pommes anna, salsa verde, garlic & spinach puree. The meat is nicely pink and succulent, and the accompaniments work well. I have a poached fillet of hake with roasted pumpkin, savoy cabbage & a watercress butter sauce, and it’s pretty near perfect. We order a side of mac’n’cheese just because, and that’s okay, although maybe not as indulgent and cheesy as the very best of its kind. 

For pudding, I have the oreo cheesecake with macerated berries and ice cream (instead of the Chantilly cream that’s on the menu). It’s delicious, in a too-sweet-kids’d-love-it-lip-smacking kind of way. Philip’s vegan dark chocolate mousse with honeycomb & salted caramel is an altogether more grown-up affair, with a rich, intense flavour.

We’re done. It’s time to head off for a quick drink, and then home. But before we go, of course, we need to add a little something to the bill. You can’t come here and ignore the pay it forward option, which enables the restaurant to open on Mondays for an exclusively homeless clientele. Food with a conscience. It feels good.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

Ondine

13/02/20

George IV Bridge, Edinburgh

It’s almost Valentine’s day and Ondine has been on our ‘go to’ list for quite a while. (And by the way, we haven’t got the date wrong, it’s just that we never go out to eat on February the 14th, when every restaurant is packed to the rafters and standards inevitably suffer.)

We’ve read good things about Ondine, though – mostly from Jay Rayner, who says that he always eats here whenever he’s in Edinburgh. So we decide to act on his advice and here we sit in the calm, spacious dining area, sipping glasses of Sauvignon Blanc and all ready for a gastronomic blitzkreig. We’re brought a couple of slices of good wholemeal bread to keep us going and there are cod balls as an amuse bouche, although they are a little too redolent of the deep fat fryer for my liking.

The starters are reassuring though: a light and citrusy baked brown crab, with cheddar crumb, served on miniature crumpets, which manages to taste a whole lot better than it looks (like a pair of demented eyeballs). There’s also a delicious treacle-cured salmon, with horseradish sauce, though the chunk of treacle bread that accompanies it isn’t quite as fresh as I want it to be.

For the main course, there’s a generously sized chunk of roasted halibut with creamed potato; the fish is perfectly cooked, soft, flakey and pleasingly charred. There’s also a half lobster with fine herbs and butter sauce. The latter is accompanied by a small helping of triple cooked chips and there’s also a side dish of creamed spinach, the latter served disagreeably cold.

And, oh dear, is there any other meal that’s quite as disappointing as lobster? It squats on your plate, looking like something from the late jurassic period and you’re provided with a set of metal tools that wouldn’t seem out of place on a medieval torturer’s bench. You set about the creature with much gusto, scattering fragments in every direction but it all comes down to a couple of spoonfuls of (admittedly delicious) flesh, after which you’re reduced to searching disconsolately through the debris in search of a few more scraps of anything edible.

(This isn’t a criticism of the restaurant, by the way, but of the very nature of lobster itself. So much effort for so little return. Ah well…)

For puddings we have a treacle tart served with a scoop of ice cream – actually, we can’t help noticing that it’s half a treacle tart, which niggles a little when the price is eight pounds – and there’s a light, tangy rhubarb and custard dessert, encased in soft meringue. Both of these are nice enough, but somehow fail to deliver the triumphant knockout punch that we are hoping for.

It’s been a perfectly agreeable evening, and the food is mostly good, even if some of the details could be improved upon. I can’t help wondering what Mr Rayner sees in this place that I’m missing. Unlike him, I won’t be in a great hurry to return.

3. 8 stars

Philip Caveney

Oor Wullie: The Musical

28/01/20

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Jings and crivvens!

Wullie and I are old acquaintances. He appeared every week in the comics I read as a child back in the 1960s, but he first saw the light of day in 1936 and has endured over the decades, recently clocking up his eightieth anniversary. Last year, his image made millions for charity with the Big Bucket Trail, which featured individually decorated statues of the iconic kid from Auchenshoogle in various locations around Scotland.

This musical, by the same team who brought The Broons to the stage, features  a sprightly and raucous collection of songs in a wide range of styles. The simplicity of the storyline would seem to make it a good fit for a younger audience. Indeed, the kids in the auditorium tonight are clearly enjoying the proceedings (especially when Wullie’s pet mouse, Jeemy, makes an appearance), but the majority of the audience are older people, here to reconnect with something fondly remembered from their childhoods.

Wahid (Eklovey Kashyap) is a teenage boy, born in Scotland to Pakistani parents. He’s having a hard time fitting in, forever being asked if he ‘likes his new home.’ Well-meaning neighbours ask him where he’s really from, while the school bullies enjoy making fun of him at every opportunity. Wahid is Scottish, but somehow, ‘not-Scottish,’ and he’s beginning to struggle with his own identity.

In the school library, he meets up with the mysterious librarian (George Brennan), who gives him an Oor Wullie annual to read, telling him it’s the perfect introduction to ‘being Scottish.’ Wahid is somewhat taken aback when Wullie (Martin Quinn) appears in his bedroom, claiming to be in search of his famous bucket, which has unexpectedly gone missing. Wahid remembers that he saw just such a bucket in the school library, so the two of them set off in search of it.

It isn’t long before Wullie is joined by his gang – Bob (Dan Buckley), Wee Eck (Grant McIntyre), Soapy Soutar (Bailey Newsome) and Primrose (Leah Byrne). They are not surprised to discover that the bucket has been purloined by arch enemy, Basher McKenzie (Leanne Traynor), and the kids enlist their old adversary PC Murdoch (Ann Louise Ross) to help them retrieve it. In the second half, the comic book characters take Wahid into the fictional world of Auchenshoogle, where their clothes transform from black and white into full colour.

Valiant attempts are made to make Wullie more relevant to a modern day audience. There’s a song that features him performing a duet with Alexa, for instance and there’s a nice bit of inclusivity where the cast put on saris and leap about to a bhangra-style tune. PC Murdoch gets an opportunity to strut his stuff to a rock song and there’s some funny interplay between him and an amorous teacher (Irene MacDougall).

If there’s an over-riding problem, however, it’s that the drama fails to generate any genuine sense of peril. Wullie wants his bucket back, but we’re never entirely sure why its so important to him, nor indeed what will happen if he doesn’t get it. The result is never less than knockabout fun, but here’s a musical that doesn’t seem entirely sure about what kind of audience it’s trying to appeal to.

To my mind, it’s surely one for the kids, assuming you can get them away from their phones and tablets for a couple of hours. Wullie has been an enduring character over the decades and there’s no reason why a new generation of youngsters shouldn’t fall for his charms, given half a chance.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

L’Escargot Blanc

25/01/20

Queensferry Street, Edinburgh

Edinburgh boasts so many good restaurants it’s sometimes hard to know where to try next. So recommendations are always useful and L’Escargot Blanc has recently been mentioned by top Scottish chef, Tom Kitchin, in a roundup of his favourite places to eat. So, here we are on a busy Saturday night, suited and booted and ready to dine.

Fred Berkmiller’s restaurant is located at the top of a steep flight of stairs, above his wine bar, Bar À Vin. When we arrive, the restaurant is already bustling with eager customers and it’s clear that it has many fans. Waiters hurry back and forth, talking French to each other, which somehow adds to the atmosphere. We find ourselves seated by the window, sipping the first glass from a bottle of Domains Des Lauriers and enjoying the amuse bouche that’s promptly put in front of us, a couple of slices of crispy bread, topped with garlicky goat’s cheese mousse.

We peruse the menu. It would help the review, of course, if we each wanted something different for a starter, but we soon discover that we’re both fixated on the Soupe de Poisson and neither of us is willing to budge on the matter. Ah well, c’est la vie.

The soup  arrives in double quick time, a hearty portion, accompanied by crispy croutons which we are invited to cover with rouille and grated Comté cheese and float on the surface of the soup. This is richly flavoured, satisfying and exactly the kind of fish soup you’ll find in those little cafés scattered across the South of France, only there, they are accompanied by better weather conditions. Still, it’s a promising start.

Susan’s main course is camembert en gratin, and it’s clear by now that the style of this place is one of rustic simplicity, rather than haute cuisine. There’s a huge wedge of oven cooked cheese, with chunks of potato and mushrooms scattered across it and an accompanying bowl of green salad. It’s good, but the dish lacks finesse and it’s probably worth mentioning that this appears to be the only vegetarian main course available.

I have opted for le lapin à la moutarde, which arrives in its own cast iron dish, bubbling enticingly and aromatically. (Non-carnivores should look away now.) The dish comprises a slow-baked organic rabbit in a strong Dijon mustard sauce, accompanied by red and white potatoes and button mushrooms. The waiter brings me chunks of wholemeal bread, which he tells me I’ll need to mop up the sauce and he’s absolutely right on that score. This is a stunning dish, quite possibly the nicest rabbit I’ve eaten outside of France and certainly the star of the show tonight. It’s a cliché to say that the meat just falls off the bone, but I do wonder why I’ve been issued with a sharp, serrated knife, when a gentle prod with a fork does the job perfectly.

Is there room for pudding? Mais oui! But we’ll certainly skip that cheese course we’ve been planning – blame it on the hearty portions!

Once again, we’ve both taken a shine to the same thing, the chef’s special which is a pear far Breton, a lovely custardy flan, sprinkled with fresh almonds and served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It’s nicely done, even if it lacks that certain wow factor that makes the best puddings stand out from the crowd.

Overall, this has been a very enjoyable meal, though it would be nice to see a few more vegetarian options on the menu. Lovers of lapin, this is something you really need to sample!

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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Pride & Prejudice* (*Sort Of)

24/01/20

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

I’m enjoying the current flush of period drama adaptations on both stage and screen: Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, Zinnie Harris’s The Duchess (Of Malfi). The staid and starchy interpretations I remember from my youth are long gone. Now there’s verve, vigour and a sense of fun, an assertion of the protagonists’ youth and the authors’ humour, a sharp incision that takes us to the beating heart of classic texts.

And Jane Austen is especially funny, isn’t she? (I come to this version as, if not quite a Janeite, then at least a fan of her writing.) It’s easy to lose sight of how bitingly satirical she was because her sarcasm is couched in antiquated politenesses, her characters’ bound by alien social mores. Here, writer Isobel McArthur strips away these obstacles to modern understanding, offering us a cast of refreshingly familiar wine-quaffing, lustful young women, whose potty-mouths are endearing and hilarious. Hurrah! These are people we can recognise and revel with, whose broken hearts and thwarted ambitions we can really care about.

It’s Pride & Prejudice through and through; we don’t really need the ‘sort of’ to qualify anything; the changes here are only superficial. The story is intact: the five Bennett girls and their parents are hostages to a dodgy will that determines only a man can inherit their father’s home and (modest) fortune. If he dies, the women will be destitute. No wonder Mrs Bennett is desperate to see her daughters married: their very livelihoods depend on it. No wonder either that a rich man is preferred; if he has a good income, he can take care of all of them. A shame, then, that they live in Meryton, where eligible bachelors are few and far between, and that firebrand Lizzie (Meghan Tyler) is so choosy about who she’ll shack up with. Until she meets the enigmatic Darcy (Isobel McArthur), and their love-hate relationship begins…

Directed by Paul Brotherston, Pride & Prejudice* (*Sort Of) is a glorious, riotous romp of a play, a bawdy, feminist iteration of the tale. The deployment of a karaoke machine is inspired, a perfect reimagining of the piano and singing performances required of young ladies in Austen’s time. The six-strong cast are all magnificent, but the standout moments belong to Hannah Jarrett-Scott, who switches effortlessly between a Tim-Nice-But-Dim-style Bingley and a tragic, lovelorn Charlotte Lucas. McArthur’s repressed, inarticulate Darcy is also a sheer delight, and props too to Mr Bennett, performed by a backward-facing armchair and an ever-present newspaper.

The only false note for me is the servant girl conceit. At the play’s opening, we’re introduced to the domestic help, reminded of their presence in the novels, told of how they are ignored. From thereon in, what we’re witnessing is supposed to be their play-acting, their impersonations of their employers, their interpretation of the landed gentry’s world. But we don’t learn anything about them, nor about their opinions, their deprivations, their own hopes and dreams. We just get Austen’s story; the working class is still ignored.

Still, it doesn’t detract too much. This is a sprightly, engaging, laugh-out-loud piece of theatre, richly deserving of tonight’s standing ovation.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

I Can Go Anywhere

10/12/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Douglas Maxwell’s I Can Go Anywhere takes its title from The Who’s 1965 single, Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere, one of the earliest musical celebrations of Mod identity. This sharply written two-hander also explores identity, but approaches the subject from a refreshingly original angle.

Stevie Thomas (Paul McCole) is a disillusioned college lecturer, the author of a barely read book called Beat Surrender, a study of mod culture. He is currently going through the worst ordeal of his life. When his doorbell rings, he’s hoping that his partner might be having second thoughts about leaving him. But instead, he’s confronted by Jimmy (Nebli Basani), a mod – well, not just that, but a young man who Stevie asserts looks like he’s escaped from the 1981 room of the Paul Weller Museum. He has the works: the oversized fishtail parka, a fitted mohair suit, even a pork pie hat. “Even his socks are works of art.”

Asylum seeker Jimmy has tracked Stevie down via the jacket blurb on his book, and wants his help with something. In three days’ time he has a hearing at the Home Office to establish whether he will be allowed to stay in the UK. Jimmy wants Stevie to write him a letter of recommendation, one that asserts his ‘mod-ness,’ which Jimmy believes will be enough to assure him a rightful place in British society. Stevie is doubtful. But as the two men talk over the situation, it begins to emerge that Jimmy has very powerful reasons for not wanting to return to the country of his birth… and they go far beyond the world of youth culture.

I Can Go Anywhere is a compelling play, that crackles and fizzes with witty dialogue. The two actors offer telling performances. At first, I feel that Basani is rather overstating Jimmy, who initially appears to be a twitching, gurning mass of neuroses – but, as the story develops, I begin to appreciate exactly why he’s the way he is, and I warm to him. McCole is assured too, showing us a man on the verge of losing everything, unwillingly pushed into a corner by this insistent, assertive youth, who has burst into his fractured life with all the delicacy of a drum kit falling down a flight of stairs. As Stevie seeks refuge in several glasses of red wine, so his true nature begins to rise to the surface.

The other bonus here is the music; even the songs that play while we’re waiting for the show to start are a series of brilliant offerings: the Kinks, the Small Faces… Spot on, man! I also like the fact that the play doesn’t give you too much information. We never learn which country Jimmy comes from, or even his real name; though the horrors he has experienced in his youth are never spelled out, they are nonetheless tellingly glimpsed.

This is a little gem. Those who are already suffering from a surfeit of festive offerings might prefer to opt for this menu instead. It offers a tasty alternative.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney