An Edinburgh Christmas Carol at The Royal Lyceum Edinburgh.


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Ahhhh, The Lyceum Christmas Show is upon us once again and Tony Cownie and his regular core of performers have taken the right decision of NOT descending into pantomime, because the Lyceum doesn’t do panto.  You’ll get that at The Kings.

Instead what he has cleverly done is merged the stories of Greyfriar’s Bobby with Dickens’ perennial favourite, thus giving it a life of its own and a new reason to visit a story that we can all probably recite in our sleep.

And it works a treat.

Bobby is a central character and Cownie gets round the problem of teaching dogs to act by making him (and Tiny Tim) puppets adding a further dimension to an already novel take on the novel.  It’s charming and the puppeteers invest real sympathy into Tiny Tim’s character and zest, bounce and good comedy into Bobby’s.

And because the cast includes Nicola Roy, Steve McNicoll and Grant O’Rourke (pulling off an impressive 13 roles between them and a flurry of costumes) it’s hilarious, with Nicola Roy getting the lion’s share of tasty one-liners. They often feel familiar but are mostly, in fact, new.

He knows his way around a gag does Tony Cownie.  “Aye [Scrooge], he’s so mean if he found a crutch in the street he’d go home and break his leg.”  (Which reminds me of an old favourite of mine: A man sees that dog food is half price in the supermarket, turns to his wife and says “We must buy a dog.”)

Crawford Logan takes the lead as the humbugerous Ebenezer Scrooge and carries the part off with aplomb, transforming beautifully from miser to philanthropist at the drop of a hat.

It barrels along, not allowing any particular sequence to outstay its welcome. The Ghost of Christmas Past sequence is particularly eye-catching and good for the storytelling, Eva Traynor is strong in the role in a spectacular green costume.

It’s all done and dusted by 9pm so time for a few seasonal libations.  Merry Christmas.

 

 

 

 

Doctor Sleep: Movie Review.


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This is a direct follow up to the Shining.

Indeed, the opening scenes star a young Danny Torrance and his mum Wendy (with Alex Essoe playing Shelley Duvall playing Wendy Torrance).  At a later point in the movie a Jack Nicholson impersonator also joins the proceedings (only it’s an uncredited, in IMDB, actor playing Nicholson playing the barman Lloyd).  These could, of course, have been terrible missteps but director Mike Flanagan adeptly carries it off, just.

In fact the entire movie is a dangerous exercise in, just, getting away with it.

It neatly explains some of the mysteries of the much cherished The Shining movie, but steps away from the mostly unspoken horror of Kubrick’s classic to become a sort of Harry Potter fantasy.

So, strangely the first 20 minutes and the last thirty (both truest to the original) are the most satisfying.

In the middle lies a pretty stodgy lump of twaddle really (Flanagan both directs and edits, which contributes to the stodge) and centres on a curious interplay between Ewan MacGregor, as the whisky soaked but recovering alcoholic that Danny has turned into, another shiner, played well enough by 13 year old Kyleigh Curran (her character name Abra is a pretty clunky pun) and a radiant Rebecca Ferguson, as the arch villain and leader of gang of bad ‘shiners’,

McGregor is tolerable, not something I’d often say, playing the part understatedly.

It is what it is.

This is not even a patch on its predecessor but there are just about enough pluses to keep you involved for its challenging 210 minute run time.

A curiosity, I’d say, that committed Shining fans, like me, should on balance, go see.

Just.

 

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.


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I am a lifelong Atwood fan, but she blows hot and cold (in this case, I’d say, warm).

I love her sci-fi and future-gazing stuff most, but I also was mesmerised by The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace.

Some of her more hippy stuff leaves me a bit cool.

This, the 35 years later follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale (THT), bagged her her second Booker Prize (shared) but, amazingly THT wasn’t the other, it was the aforementioned Blind Assassin.

She wrote this, the follow up to THT in response to endless requests from fans to explain how THT played out and decided to make it both a prequel (from Aunt Lydia’s point of view) and a sequel (from Baby Nicole’s point of view – Ofred’s daughter that she smuggled out of Gilead at the end of THT).

Another key character shares the storytelling duties but I shall leave that to you to find out who it is, if you care to indulge.

It’s very different to THT (and less satisfying as a result) because what made THT such a treat was the shock and the graphic detail in which Atwood brought her excellent brand of feminism to a dystopian tale that was truly horrifying.

The Testaments is a completely different vehicle.  She’s done the shock: this time she’s simply telling a story, a thriller really, to explain what lay behind THT.

Gilead is a key character in the plot.  It’s the state that has created these vile, corrupt, religious extremist men and it turns out that far from being the worst enforcer imaginable in Gilead Aunt Lydia is, in fact, a rather more complex, and sympathetic, character.

Essentially Lydia has realised that the concept of Gilead has gone too far.  It has run away with itself and it’s time for some reparation, how this is carried out is both complex and, at times, confusing (particularly in the first half of the novel).

It gradually unfolds as a rip-roaring story, well told, but for me it lacks the terrifying set pieces that makes THT so brilliant.  It slowly becomes a page-turner but that, for me, isn’t what makes prize-winning writing.

Atwood has a real ability to personify her characters, and the novel benefits greatly from most of its readers (surely) having watched Ann Dowd’s awesome portrayal of Aunt Lydia on MGM TV’s outstanding THT.

Atwood’s ability to switch character from niaive wife-to-be, to angsty teenage rebel, to elderly overseer is notable, but some of the naivety of the characters’ talk, written in a first person vernacular, renders elements of the book quite simplistic and, so, less engaging than it might have been if written in the third person.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a good book, but is it Booker winning standard?

Not in my book.

 

Joker: Movie review


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“A gritty character study of Arthur Fleck, a man disregarded by society” is IMDB’s excellent byline description of this deep exploration of disintegrating (disintegrated?) mental health.

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It’s described as taking place in the ‘Scorseseverse’ by some critics, in that Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck appears to be an homage to many of Scorsese’s monumental 70’s characters.  And what’s more, De Niro has a supporting role that shows he still can deliver the goods when not just taking a part for the money.

So I’ve already used the M word and in this Academy Award winning performance (of that there is no doubt) Joaquim Phoenix’s monumental performance will put the Academy back on track after their laughable decision to recognise Rami Malek for impersonating Freddie Mercury last year.

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I detest impersonation movies on the whole, but this is no impersonation, this is a character crafted out of magic.  It’s not a superhero movie in the slightest and all the better for it. It’s simply a character study of great depth and extreme nuance.

One thing I loved about this intense study of a disintegrating man is the extreme close ups that shows Phoenix in all his imperfections, his upper lip, his wonky teeth, his chewed finger nails, his nicotine stained fingers (possibly make-up).  It’s glorious.

It is unquestionably a masterpiece, not just for Phoenix’s performance, but for every SINGLE aspect of cinema:  music (White Room by Cream blasts out of the screen in the final apocalyptic act to tremendous effect – but it’s outstanding throughout), make-up (stunning), costume (stunning), cinematography (stunning – the dance on the steps and the aerial train track shot particularly blew me away), design (epic) and direction (Todd Phillips follows up his epic production, but not direction, of A Star Is Born remarkably It’s interesting looking at Todd Phillips’ Filmography though – a real mixed bag with much of it centred on comedy – The Hangover in particular.)

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But you don’t need me to tell you  how good this movie is – you don’t get a 9.1 rating on IMDB without reason.

See it and bathe in its mastery.

Child of God by Cormac McCarthy: Book Review.


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Did you think No Country For Old Men was terrifyingly and completely impassively violent?

Did you think The Road was a dystopia like no other?

You did?

Well, you have experienced nothing until you enter the depraved world of Lester Ballard.  A Cormac McCarthy character that makes Hannibal Lector seem like Micky Mouse.

Except, the point is, this horror of a being could only get away with it, as a piece of ‘entertainment’ by being created by Cormac McCarthy.  A man whose dexterity with the written word has no peer.

I assumed I’d missed the recent publication of this short novel, so vibrant is its prose (its poetry), because it is so adept, so crafted, so gifted, so mature; but in fact, it turns out it was published (once banned) in 1973.

It’s early work FFS.

It’s a man learning his craft.

The quality of his writing is colossal.  Seriously, when you read about a man this depraved going about his depravity, yet you marvel at its beauty, it’s hard to reconcile.

I won’t spoil the plot for you, but approach with caution because a teacher was once fired for approving this as A-level (well the American equivalent) study material.

It’s that bad, yet it’s that great.

Middle England, by Jonathan Coe.


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When Jonathan Coe discussed with his novelist friend, Alice Adams, what should be the subject of his 13th novel he was encouraged to dig up The Trotter family that had appeared in his classic novel, The Rotters Club, and  The Closed Circle and to set them against the context of Brexit.

And so Benjamin Trotter and co are once again with us, living their life from 2010 to September 2018.

Had Coe waited three years to put pen to paper he could probably not have conceived what would happen beyond his already agog writing.

This for example.

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“Sit up man.”

The most despicable symbolic pose by one of the most odious men to have ever stridden the corridors of Eton or Westminster.

Or this?

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The leaders of the free world.  Admittedly slightly playing it for laughs.

Or one of these?

  • The firing of the father of the House
  • the firing of a very recent Chancellor of the Exchequer
  • the firing of Churchill’s grandson
  • a minority government
  • the total reliance of the DUP to try to hold together a majority, and failing
  • the most populist opposition parties in living memory – some would say fascists vs Trotskyites
  • the complete collapse of the Labour party in Scotland

The list goes on and on and on.

Coe sets his story against the background of the unfolding of David (Dave) Cameron’s legacy – the unbelievable outcome that resulted in this mess.

It’s not Coe’s best novel, it starts and ends weakly, slowly.  But in the central 3rd and 4th acts he creates a vivid satire on the outcomes of the political madness that has engulfed, and internationally embarrassed, this once-great nation.

The murder of Jo Cox, the rise of hate crime, the twitching of middle England’s middle class curtains as Tories tut and huff about the way middle England has ‘changed’.  His main platform is one of increasing racial intolerance that may, or may not, be the foundations of this new populist politics and the central reason for the Brexit decision.

“They” are bad.  Europe stinks. and yet his cast holiday “there”, hire “them” as their orderlies, maids, drivers.

When this book is good it’s page-turningly so.  There are many laugh out loud moments.  But when he goes off the boil, it quickly becomes tepid.

Saying that, Coe is one of our great writers and even a decent, rather than great, Coe is better than most writers’ career highlights.

 

Becoming: by Michelle Obama. Book review.


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As we live through life under the Donald and, perhaps even worse, the Boris, it takes the breath away to read this account of an ordinary, but extraordinary, woman who rose to global prominence by a mixture of serendipity, love and intelligence.

This is the story of a woman of colour who reached unexpected levels of influence but never forgot where she came from.

It is also a true love story, not just of her wonderful husband and family, but of humanity.

And it’s a story of activism, on fairly extreme levels; activism for the rights of women and black Americans but mainly both.

From the first page we uncover a person, bit by bit, that was never prepared to accept the status quo.  Brought up on the rough side of black Chicago, in, essentially, a ghetto with a disabled dad she was fortunate enough to have parents that strove for her and her brother to pay for an Ivy League education.  This is not a normal outcome for this demographic.

Even as she becomes a wealthy lawyer she knows this is not right for her and gradually reduces her income by taking challenging but emotionally rewarding jobs in human rights and fairness.

She meets Barack, her husband, through work.  He too is an oddity in his demographic.  A mixed race Kenyan Hawaiian.  They’re made for each other but strangely and movingly they are not 100% compatible.  Conceiving their children is a challenge.

The book talks much of Obama’s success and we enjoy the Primary’s, hustings, presidential races and victories in some detail.

But this is not about Michelle’s role as a dutiful First Lady, it’s about her life story as a black woman and how she was able to use her influence to make a difference.

It’s breathtaking throughout.  Frequently I was close to tears, partly because viewing the world through the eyes of Michelle one realises that there is humanity in politics and then stepping back and asking oneself, ‘Would Trump do/think that?” one is left with an inevitable response in the negative.

It puts Melania and Donald Trump’s motives into perspective.

It makes us realise just how evil and selfish both he, and his English buffoon-like contemporary, are.

It makes us extraordinarily grateful for having lived through the greatest presidency in history.