Present Laughter: NT Live


Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s hard to believe that National Theatre Live is already celebrating its 10th anniversary. This brilliant initiative, which makes the very best theatrical productions accessible to a much wider audience than they could ever reach on the stage, has been a resounding success. Like many people, we usually view them at the cinema – but there’s something very fitting about seeing this West End winner on the big screen at the Festival Theatre.

The play invites us to witness a few turbulent days in the life of highly successful actor, Garry Essendine (Andrew Scott). Recently turned forty and about to embark on a prestigious tour of Africa, Gary is suffering something of a mid-life crisis and, at the play’s opening, wakes up after a night of drunken debauchery to discover that he has slept with ingenue Daphne Stillington (Kitty Archer). Unfortunately, she is still hanging around his swish apartment, hoping for breakfast and that meaningful relationship he promised her last night.

Her presence is tolerated with little more than a raised eyebrow by Garry’s long-suffering assistant, Monica (Sophie Thompson), and by his ex wife, Liz (Indira Varma), who has long ago abandoned her personal feelings in favour of managing and protecting the Garry Essendine ‘brand.’ Both women know that such indiscretions are parr for the course.

But further complications rear their heads when Garry’s married business associate, Morris (Abdul Salis) confesses to having an affair with Joe (Enzo Cilenti), and it isn’t long before the self-same Joe has arrived at the apartment and is making flirtatious advances to Garry.

Coward fans will know that in the original play, Joe was Joanna, but this gender-swap is an astute move on the part of director, Matthew Warchus, reminding us that Coward was a closeted gay man at a time when such inclinations could never be expressed onstage. As the tempo steadily rises, and the play careers like an out-of-control vehicle from one frenetic scene to the next, it’s no surprise to hear the complaint, ‘I feel like a character in a French farce.’

The actors are all pretty much note-perfect: Luke Thallon is particularly assured as a sycophantic fan prepared to move heaven and earth to be near his idol, while Sophie Thompson is an absolute delight as Monica, enmeshed in a love-hate relationship with her employer and sometimes in danger of veering towards the former. But make no mistake, this show belongs to Scott and his undeniable talent. His embodiment of the vain, childish and self-obsessed Garry Essendine is an absolute comic tour de force. I’ve seen plenty of Noel Coward plays over the years but I’ve never laughed as uproariously as I do at this one.

I think he’d be thoroughly delighted by this version, though, which is fresh and vivacious enough to make me think that I’d like to see more of The Master’s plays reimagined for our times.

There are more top flight theatrical productions scheduled to view at the Festival Theatre. Why not treat yourself?

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney





Once upon a time, Luc Besson was France’s foremost action director. Recently, he’s been more successful as a writer/producer, with guilty pleasures like Taken and Transporter to his credit, but it’s a long time since he directed anything of the calibre of Leon or The Fifth Element. Lucy is his attempt to swagger his way back into the big league and while it lacks the kinetic pleasures of his best efforts, it’s nonetheless an entertaining film with an intriguing premise.

Scarlett Johansson plays the eponymous heroine, a luckless student who finds herself tricked by her loser boyfriend into taking a suitcase stuffed with drugs to the hotel room of ruthless crime lord, Mr Jang (Min Sik-Choi). The assignment doesn’t go at all well and these early scenes of Lucy in the dragon’s den, intercut with images of prowling cheetahs hunting their prey, are confidently put together and the strongest moments in the film. Things get rather more complicated when Lucy finds herself the victim of a illicit operation with a bag full of drugs sewn into her intestine. When the bag ruptures, the contents spill through her system and (for reasons that aren’t convincingly explained) Lucy begins to use more and more of her brain’s capacity. Whereupon amazing things begin to happen…

Conveniently, Morgan Freeman is on hand as Professor Norman, an expert on human evolution, to deliver a lecture about what might happen should a human being’s brain power ever be increased. He is at pains to point out that at present, we only use 10 percent of our brains’ potential capacity. This is (apparently) complete nonsense, but don’t let that bother you too much, since it’s merely a device to enable Luc Besson to experiment with the old special effects. Apparently, taking too much of the mysterious drug can turn a meek young student into a kick-ass fighter, able to murder people without raising so much as an eyebrow and to make heavy objects move just by thinking about it.

I’ll be honest, this isn’t Luc Besson’s best film, not by a long shot, but it galumphs along like nobody’s business and it never drags. Meanwhile, Johansson is rapidly becoming this generation’s Marilyn Monroe – the camera adores her and she glides through the proceedings with such assurance, that the viewer barely has time to notice how silly the plot is. Ultimately, this is a partial return to glory for the Gallic action man, but we all know he can do better than this. Still, until another Leon comes along, this will have to do.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Guardians of the Galaxy



The creators of Guardians of the Galaxy would probably like to think that their film is a cut above your average space opera – and indeed, there is much about it that I absolutely loved. But I would also have to admit that there are several elements that seem horribly cliched. The plus points: an unusual cast that includes a talking racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a monosyllabic talking tree (Vin Deisel). Hero Chris Pratt’s nicely sardonic patter neatly undercuts the film’s more pompous passages, and for once here’s a kick-ass heroine (Zoe Saldana) who has a bit more depth than your average green-skinned alien. And then there’s that sublime soundtrack of 80’s classics…

But there are several not so good points. A needlessly complicated plot. Everyone seems to be chasing a metal orb with the power to destroy the galaxy, but at times, it’s hard to fathom anyone’s motivation. The inevitable evil villain (Lee Pace as Ronan) who talks as though he’s just swallowed a bottle of rohypnol and spends most of his time smiting his enemies. The occasional walk-on megastar – Glenn Close and Beniccio Del Toro, dressed up to the nines but given very little to do. And one of those huge special effect climactic battles where the ‘Guardians’ seem to destroy half of a city in their attempts to save it. (See Team America: World Police.)

Of course, the runaway success of this first instalment means that the series will have a sequel and it will probably be even bigger, louder and just as prone to cliche. For me, this is a film in opposition with itself and the score reflects that imbalance.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Begin Again



Writer/director John Carney is, of course, the man who created the phenomenon that is Once. Begin Again, is basically a better-heeled version of the same story. Man meets woman, they make a record together, the lyrics of the songs reflect on the story.

So, not exactly a stellar jump for Carney but one that nonetheless has charms of its own. Mark Ruffalo is Dan, an independent record producer who’s career has taken a nosedive after the breakup of his marriage to Miriam (Catherine Keener). One night, drunk in a club, he witnesses a song by singer/songwriter Greta (Keira Knightly) and decides he wants to make an album with her. But she too is damaged goods, having recently been dumped by her partner, Dave (Adam Levine) a self-centred musician currently making a meteoric breakthrough into the big time. Against all the odds, Dan and Greta manage to record their record live on the streets of New York…

OK, leaving aside the sheer impossibility of actually doing that, this is an entertaining movie that demonstrates a real understanding of the current music industry. Knightly makes more than a decent fist of performing the songs (anyone who saw her in the Edge of Love will already know that she can carry a tune) and the ‘will they. won’t they?’ relationship with Ruffalo cooks up some fair chemistry. The scene where Ruffalo visualises the production he’s going to do of Greta’s song is fabulous and probably worth the price of admission alone. This is a entertaining film, but next time out, Carney is definitely going to have to spread his net a little wider.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney




Richard Linklater is what used to be known, in the classic days of Hollywood, as a maverick director. Which pretty much means that you never know what to expect from him next. From his assured debut with Dazed and Confused, through School of Rock and the various animated experiments he’s done, he’s kept his viewing public well and truly unbalanced. But who could have anticipated Boyhood?

The USP of this movie is that Linklater filmed his scenes over a twelve year period, using the same cast. The boy of the title is Mason (Ellar Coltrane). When we first meet him he’s a six year old, desperately trying to come to terms with the breakup of his parent’s marriage. Mom, is Patricia Arquette, an independent woman who longs for a career but is hampered by her unerring ability to choose the wrong man every time. Dad is Ethan Hawke, wild, feckless but incredibly likeable. And Mason’s sister is Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s own daughter). Storywise, what we get is a series of episodic vignettes that follows Mason and his extended family across the years, seeing everyone literally age 12 years in the process. The result is as delicious and it is extraordinarily magical. How many times have we seen three different kids brought in to represent one character? And how often have we seen actors buried under layers of latex to indicate the passing years.

Boyhood is a triumphant film, one that elicits genuine emotions, following as it does the (quite literal) rites of passage as a boy passes from childhood into manhood. And what a superbly eclectic soundtrack! After a recent drought in the cinema, this comes as a much needed drink of cool, refreshing water. Absolutely unmissable.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Theatre Of Blood



Many people have a favourite Vincent Price movie and for me, it’s always been his 1973 horror-romp, Theatre of Blood. Price plays veteran actor, Edward Lionheart, seemingly returned from the dead to enact grisly vengeance upon the critics who derided his performances, each murder enacted in the style of a Shakespeare play. With a witty screenplay by Anthony Greville-Bell and suitably quirky direction from Douglas Hickcox, the movie serves as a spiritual boost for every artist who has ever suffered at the hands of critics.

A superb seventies ensemble cast includes Ian Hendry, Diana Rigg (as Lionheart’s equally unhinged daughter, Edwina) Robert Morley, Arthur Lowe, Coral Browne (or Mrs Price, as she was sometimes known), Michael Hordern and many more, while Price has great fun hamming up some of the immortal bards best-known lines. Newly released on DVD, this is too good to miss, but be warned. The scene where one character chokes to death on a pie containing his own pet poodles is not for the faint-hearted.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Ace In The Hole



In 1951, writer/director Billy Wilder was riding the crest of the wave he’d generated with Sunset Boulevarde, a critically acclaimed and very successful movie. But his next film, Ace In The Hole, featured a story so vitriolic and poisonous that it almost sank his career forever.

Now rereleased in a spanking new black and white print, it couldn’t be more prescient and thoroughly deserves re-evaluation. Kirk Douglas, at the height of his considerable powers plays Chuck Tatum, a former big shot reporter who finds himself all washed up in Alberqurque and forced to take a post on a local newspaper. He’s constantly on the lookout for the big story that will propel him back to former glories and thinks he’s found it when he chances upon an accident in an old Indian mine where a luckless restaurant owner, Leo Minosa has been trapped by a cave-in. Chuck sets about creating a ‘human interest’ story about the attempt to rescue Leo and proceeds to milk it for all its worth, even taking steps to ensure that the process takes longer than it needs to.

Though nominated for an Oscar, the American public didn’t take kindly to a film that suggested that newspapers sold lies, that the general public would flock like vultures to a catastrophe and that the lure of easy money will always win out over common decency. Tatum is a vile creation, a man who will stop at nothing to further his career and pretty much every other character around him is revealed as a self-serving, gutless wonder, including Leo’s shrewish wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling). Despite it’s 1950’s setting, this is a film that still resonates today and ranks amongst Wilder’s finest achievements.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Nathan Penlington’s Choose Your Own Documentary


19/08/14 Gilded Balloon Teviot, Edinburgh

I kind of know Nathan Penlington – or, at least,  there’s a tenuous connection. We come from the same home town. My brother was friends with his brother for a while, and – when I started my very first teaching job in North Wales – Nathan was in the sixth form. I didn’t teach him, but he wasn’t a kid you could fail to notice: long hair, a penchant for tartan, and a regular performer of magic tricks and poetry. I still have a CD of his poems somewhere, sold at the end of a school event. So, when we saw Choose Your Own Documentary advertised, I was interested to see what he’d ended up doing. And ‘making rather good documentaries’ seems to be at least part of the answer, alongside ‘writing books’ and ‘reflecting on the past.’

Choose Your Own Documentary is an innovative blend of film and spoken word, with a twist of audience participation. Nathan, it transpires, is a long-time fan of Choose Your Own Adventure books, and the documentary tells us of the bulk purchase he made of second-hand copies. Inside the books were the twenty-year old private scribblings of a troubled young boy, whose fragments of diary haunted Penlington, and pre-empted the film: he decided to track down the boy and see what sort of man he had become. For many film-makers, that would be enough.

But Penlington is trickier than that: he doesn’t reveal the whole story. We, the audience, have to decide which parts we want to see. We are given little remote controls, and we have to vote for what comes next. We are inside the frustrating world of the Choose Your Own Adventure series, knowing that there are other – maybe better – permutations. If we want to see those, we have to attend the show again (I think I would, if it weren’t at the Fringe, and there weren’t so many other things I want to catch). It’s clever, it’s original, and it’s also strangely moving. Luckily, there’s a book (The Boy in the Book by Nathan Penlington, published by Headline), which contains the whole story. So we buy that, and leave content.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield