Martin Freeman

Nativity! the Musical


Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s that time of year when families go looking for a heartwarming slice of entertainment, something that will be suitable for kids, parents and grandparents alike. There’s always panto, of course, but not everyone enjoys that kind of thing… (Oh yes they do! Oh no they don’t! Sorry.)

That’s when Nativity! the Musical may be just what Santa ordered. After all, what could be more Christmassy than a school nativity play? This of course, started life in 2009 as a successful film starring Martin Freeman. There have been further spin-offs, with the latest landing any day now. The first movie was adapted into a stage musical in 2017 by original author, Debbie Isitt.

This is the story of Mr Maddens (Scott Garnham), former wannabe actor turned primary school teacher, and his rivalry with his one-time best friend, Mr Shakespeare (Andy Brady), who teaches drama at a much more upmarket private school. After the love of his life, Jennifer (Ashleigh Grey), runs off to Hollywood to pursue her dream of being a film producer, his first attempt at a school Nativity receives a drubbing at the hands of a local theatre critic (played here by Jo Brand), and Mr Maddens swears never to direct again – but then along comes supply teacher, arrested adolescent Mr Poppy (Simon Lipkin), who is simply itching to bring his talents to this year’s production – and when Mr Maddens is overheard boasting that he can arrange to bring a ‘film producer friend from Hollywood’ to watch the show, things get a little out of hand…

Despite some worrying implications in the script – I’m sure primary school teachers in the audience aren’t delighted to hear that their chosen vocation is only suitable for those who have failed at loftier ambitions – this is nonetheless guaranteed to win over all but the sternest of critics, mostly by virtue of its irrepressible sense of fun. Lipkin is quite fabulous as Mr Poppy, his seemingly improvised asides earning big laughs from viewers of all ages – but best of all are his interactions with the younger members of the cast, aged from 9 to 12 years, who work their socks off up on the stage and somehow manage to steer a path clear of any saccharine. Twelve of them are local kids, specially recruited for this production and it’s a genuine delight to watch them strutting their stuff so effectively.

I’m usually a bit of a Scrooge about this kind of show, but I have to admit that Nativity! the Musical quickly wins me over. The slick scene changes, the clapalong songs and the general air of exuberance from everyone concerned soon manage to get me onside, which, given my usual levels of Yule-related grumpiness, is no mean feat. There are even a couple of moments where I feel my eyes brimming with something suspiciously like tears. By the end, I am on my feet and applauding as enthusiastically as everyone else.

Those looking for a festive fun night out should look no further than this. It’s a Christmas cracker.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney



Just when you think you’ve seen quite enough zombie movies for one lifetime, along comes A Quiet Place. And no sooner have you said, ‘okay, great stuff, but that really is enough now,’ than this film appears ready-to-stream on Netflix and you find yourself thinking, ‘You know what? Maybe there is room for just one more.’

Despite a depressingly over-familiar premise, Cargo succeeds largely by putting a new twist on the old ‘Apocalyptic epidemic of the undead’ scenario and by casting Tim from The Office in the lead role. He’s frankly nobody’s idea of an action hero and, somehow, that really works in the film’s favour. We care about him before he’s said so much as a word.

We are in the Australian outback and ex-pat Andy (Martin Freeman) and his Aussie wife, Kay (Susie Porter), are puttering along a river in their spacious houseboat, with their baby daughter, Rosie, at their side. But this is no holiday cruise. The couple are staying well away from the river banks which are now infested with cannibalistic zombies (yes, I know, but bear with me).  Of course, the constant search for food means that they do have to take some chances occasionally and, when Andy spots a wrecked yacht up ahead, he knows they’ll have to row across to it and investigate. The yacht provides some much-needed rations, but also something rather less welcome – a bite from one of the ‘infected.’ In this world, people in such a predicament are provided with a special medical kit which includes a handy sort of ‘illness tracker.’ This gives the victim a 48 hour countdown to their own doom – and, for those who can’t handle it, the manufacturers have thoughtfully included a lethal injection. The problem is that Andy and Kay’s main priority is Rosie and they soon realise that they need to get her to safety before they succumb to their own impending bloodlust.

Meanwhile, on shore, eleven-year-old aboriginal girl, Thoomy (Simone Landers), is trying to come to terms with the fact that her father, Willie (Bruce R. Carter), is himself rapidly succumbing to the same infection. She has come up with her own unusual methods of keeping him under control…

Writer/directors Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke have fleshed out their 2013 short of the same title and have managed to create something which, against all the odds, feels fresh and gripping. I love the fact that the zombies themselves are not given centre stage in this film. Indeed, for the first half of it we barely glimpse them; they remain a terrifying offscreen presence – but we are aware at all times of the possibility of their imminent arrival. (Zombie purists might like to know that these creatures are of the George Romero persuasion – i.e. slow and shambling, rather than their more recent fleet-footed iterations).

What Cargo has in abundance is suspense, which ramps steadily up from the opening scenes and at various points has me shouting ‘don’t go in there!’ at the screen. But of course, people do go in there, repeatedly, which works brilliantly. I love the fact that the film incorporates aboriginal mythology and shows the native Australians to be the ones who clearly know how best to handle the zombie situation (there’s a clear colonial allegory here). Also, the ‘48 hours to doom’ scenario lends the proceedings a breathless, race against time quality that keeps me hooked throughout.

You’d think, that with such a doomed and downbeat premise, it would be impossible to pull a feelgood ending out of the bag and yet, somehow, they’ve kind of managed that too.

So, yes, good stuff… but… that really is enough zombie movies now.

Isn’t it?

4.3 stars

Philip Caveney


Ghost Stories


Anyone who was lucky enough to see the original theatre production of Ghost Stories will know that it was an accomplished exercise in rapidly mounting dread, with a brilliant conclusion that cleverly pulled the rug from under the audience’s collective feet. We saw it in 2011 and came away raving about it. The news that it was to be turned into a movie was obviously of interest, but as the release date approached, we did wonder if they could ever hope to replicate the unique look and feel of the original.

Well, since it’s both adapted and directed by its creators, Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, it’s made a credible transition to the big screen and manages to generate almost unbearable levels of tension throughout, largely because the duo have taken heed of a universal truth – that what you only glimpse is far more unsettling than what the camera actually lingers on. In this deliciously old-fashioned British fright movie, Nyman plays Professor Philip Goodman, a man who has devoted his life to exposing fake mediums and debunking claims of supernatural experiences. But when he is contacted out-of-the-blue by one of his old heroes, Charles Cameron – another paranormal investigator and a man who seemingly disappeared without trace many years ago – he is intrigued enough to go along and meet him.

Cameron gives Goodman three unsolved cases to look into and challenges him to find a rational explanation for each of them. Using a classic portmanteau format, Goodman meets with the three men and hears their stories – they are Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), a former nightwatchman, who experiences a terrifying evening at work; Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther, for me, the stand out performance of the film) as a nervous youngster who has a run-in with something inexplicable on a quiet country road; and Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman), a successful businessman who discovers that the path to parenthood isn’t quite the joyful romp he anticipated. The film exploits its dark and dreary locations to great effect, largely thanks to the work of cinematographer Ole Brett Birkeland and effects palpable reactions to seemingly innocuous things – a cup of tea left in an open doorway, two people standing motionless at a kitchen sink, a pile of nappies that suddenly leaps from a table onto the floor…

The original ending has made it through intact and it’s here that I almost find myself wishing that I hadn’t seen the stage production, because, inevitably, I miss out on the chills that I experienced first time around. But perhaps that’s just silly, because I’m quite sure I’d be even more disappointed if they changed the ending.

Overall, this is a very strong and affecting slice of the supernatural. If there’s a criticism to be made (and there usually is), it’s simply that Ghost Stories is an overpoweringly white male production. The only female or POC roles on offer here are ‘blink and you’ll miss ’em’ jump scares – and in 2018, surely at least one of the main characters could have been reinterpreted?

This is not to detract from the film itself, which manages to hold me in a chilly embrace from start to finish. I also love the very clever marketing posters they are using to promote the film, currently adorning the sides of buses around the UK. Look more closely at them.

And don’t forget. The brain sees what it it wants to see.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot



War and comedy can make uncomfortable bedfellows; it’s not very often that filmmakers get the mix right, but that’s hardly surprising when your potential laughs are inevitably punctuated by regular doses of death and devastation. Whiskey  Tango Foxtrot is co-written by former news reporter Kim Baker, based on her book The Taliban Shuffle and essentially, it’s used here as a vehicle for the comedy talents of Tina Fey. Though she has a likeable persona, this is a somewhat hit and miss affair, mostly falling short of real humour and failing to imbue the proceedings with any hint of real peril.

When we first meet Kim, she’s forging a safe but humdrum career as a copy editor at a TV news station in New York. The escalating tensions in Afghanistan, however, create opportunities for ‘the unmarried and childless’ to head out to the war zone and ‘raise their profiles.’ Despite being in a long term relationship, Baker accepts the offer and the next thing she knows, she’s based in Kabul (or as the news teams refer to it, the Ka-bubble) trying to make waves as a news presenter. Her main competition comes from the reckless and highly photogenic Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) the only other woman reporter on the scene and someone who has flung herself headlong into the hedonistic lifestyle that reporters follow when they’re not out shooting footage.

Baker’s long-distance relationship soon goes belly-up, but she finds some consolation in the arms of veteran Scottish photographer, Iain McKelpie (Martin Freeman) and meanwhile she’s also come to the attention of Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina), a powerful local politician with an eye for Western females. For the first year or so,  Kim does fine, but by the third year audiences back home are tiring of news from the war zone. Only the most dangerous and hair-rising assignments are going to keep her on the screens back in America… but how far is she prepared to go to ensure that happens?

It’s not a terrible film, but neither is it powerful enough or focused enough to hold the attention for very long. More damningly, I don’t feel I really learned anything new about Afghanistan, because everything on the screen was shown from the perspective of a privileged white American, and somehow that didn’t feel like enough. One of these days, Fey is going to find a role that’s worthy of her undoubted talents but this doesn’t really feel like the one to do it for her. This isn’t so much M.A.S.H, as lukewarm spuds.

Maybe the acrostic in the title – WTF – should have acted as a warning.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride


The recent small-screen success of the BBC television series, Sherlock has prompted its creators to try something a little different this time around; after successfully updating the concept, they’ve decided to present a standalone episode as a period piece and moreover, to simultaneously release The Abominable Bride in cinemas across the UK in a series of exclusive one-off screenings; all things, no doubt designed to generate excitement in the hearts and minds of its huge army of ardent followers.

The problem is, of course, we’re not quite sure how this switch in time has been achieved – (is it the result of one of Sherlock’s cocaine-adulterated dreams? Or are we simply inhabiting one of the scenarios dreamed up by Doctor Watson in his role as an author of detective fiction?) The fact that we’re never really sure is one of the blades that fatally stabs this enterprise, even as it sprints merrily out of the starting gate, but infinitely more worrying is the ensuing surfeit of intolerable smugness that seems to drip from every sly in-joke and ‘clever’ character interplay we’re presented with. Authors Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss seem to be hovering in the background, proudly announcing how very arch they’ve been with Conan Doyle’s legacy, but I have to confess that after careful viewing and much consideration, I’m still really not sure what was supposed to be happening in the story and can’t help feeling that the writers have been rather less clever than they suppose.

Anyway, the plot revolves around the case of Emilia Ricoletti (Emily O’ Keefe) dressed in a bridal gown, who appears in a public place, indiscriminately firing pistols at passers-by before committing an apparent suicide; only to reappear shortly afterwards, complete with a large hole in her head, to murder her husband. She then promptly disappears. Baffling? Well, yes. Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman), go gamely into detection mode, but the eventual solution for the murder is so risible, it’s hard to believe that the authors thought it would pass muster as anything more than a joke. Blaming it on the Suffragettes? Oh, please… A late appearance by Professor Moriaty (Andrew Scott) at the Reichenbach Falls, has been crowbarred into the story with a total absence of subtlety, which just about puts the deerstalker hat on it.

Of course, Sherlock fans are usually a notoriously loyal regiment, so it must be extremely worrying for Moffat and Gatiss, that amidst the onslaught of social media pronouncements, posted shortly after transmission, only a very few scribes have arisen to defend this debacle and the ones that have, seem to be channelling a definite whiff of the Emperor’s New Clothes (take a bow Lucy Mangan of the Guardian). I’ll admit, I haven’t been a massive fan of the series before now, but this ‘event’ has pretty much put me off investigating further instalments. I’d have loved to have finished this review with the word ‘elementary,’ but sadly, that’s a quality that was missing here.

2 stars

Philip Caveney