Fences: Movie Review


I feel a little mean criticising a Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tony winning play that has now become a movie.   In the 2016 stage revival of the 1983 August Wilson play, both Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, the movie’s stars,  picked up best actor awards for their performances, alongside fellow actors Stephen Henderson (Bono), Mykelti Williamson (Gabe) and Russell Hornsby (Lyons).

But, and here’s the rub. This is very much a play.  Not a movie.

Ever seen a good movie version of All my Sons, A view from the Bridge, Death of a Salesman? (A minor success of the latter hit our screens in 2000, winning a couple of Golden Globes, but nothing of significance from the Miller pen has made the cut in the last 50 years.)

That’s because Miller, like Wilson, wrote for the stage.  Long, often deeply allegorical speeches populate both of their plays about life, the universe, family, honour, duty, human fragility and responsibility.  Meaty subjects that work in the intimacy of theatre where you can almost smell the actor’s vulnerability.

Hats off to Denzel Washington for taking a modern theatre classic, crafted very much in  the style of Arthur Miller, and attempting to recreate that dramatic tension on the screen. Incidentally it has taken 35 years to reach us because August Wilson strictly instructed that this ultimate of ‘Black’ plays could only be directed on screen by a ‘black’ director.

But, my overall criticism is that, from the opening extended and overly vernacular scene (for my ears) which is a dialogue between Troy (Washington) Bono (Henderson) and Rose (Davis), this feels like a stage production with a few wide angle shots and locations thrown in.

(As an aside, in the first scene the continuity person needs a rocket as the levels in the very obvious ‘pint’ of gin that Troy shares goes up and down like a yo-yo.  A criminal mistake given that the prop is central to illustrate Troy’s dependence on alcohol.)

The play’s title is a full-on allegory about the role of the fence that Troy laboriously builds throughout the play (something Donald Trump might surely prick his ears up to).  On the one hand it’s a physical and protective barrier (Trump’s not much cop at complex allegories so that’s him out of the way now) on the other it’s both an emotional barrier representing Troy’s inability to accept his sons’ affections and a shield to the Grim Reaper who stalks his life.

Both Washington and Davis are excellent in their roles, as are the supporting ensemble, but I could not escape, almost at any point, the fact that this felt a cheat. A pirate movie for those of us who couldn’t see it (like me) in the theatre, where it should be seen.  It made me distinctly uncomfortable.

It’s like watching pop stars mime in film studios.  Somehow fake, unreal, unworthy.

For all its strengths I’m reminded of a quote by a former Hibernian FC manager, Bobby Williamson, a dull and forgettable man in any other scheme of things.

He uttered the immortal sentence, after another 0 – 0 draw,  “If you want entertainment, go to the theatre.”

That’s how I saw this production.

T2: Review. So much better than the original.


On the day that the infamous ‘Banana Flats’ in Leith were accorded ‘A listed’ architectural heritage status I was in the cinema to see the sequel to the movie that contributed to the Brutalist building’s cultural credibility.

Trainspotting left me cold in 1996. Danny Boyle’s casting of Ewan McGregor as Renton sat extremely uncomfortably with his characterisation in Irvine Welsh’s mind-blowing source novel.  The stage adaptation that featured both Ewen Bremner and Susan Vidler was much more mind-blowing and credible than the movie.

A public schoolboy from Creiff simply did not fit my vision of an, albeit relatively educated compared to his peers, junkie from West Granton.

The low budget special effects were largely corny.

The baby on the ceiling?  Come on.

The filthiest toilet in Scotland?  With crystal clear water?  Come on.

But the music was outstanding and it clearly nailed a cultural moment (I hesitate to say zeitgeist).

So, my expectations of a sequal, especially of a cult youth movie, twenty years on, were hardly sky high.

They should have been, because in my view this is everything that Trainspotting was not.

“Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family…. “ Renton’s cynical rant in the original is a sardonic take on the AIDS campaign that fitted so perfectly with the drug addled HIV capital of Europe  moniker that Edinburgh ‘enjoyed’ in the mid 1990’s.  The city’s unique needle-sharing skag culture had contributed to a minor epidemic, and choosing life was  not a decision, merely a potential outcome.

This underclass had zero control.

Zero choice.

Only Renton (who at least had supportive parents) had the wherewithal to escape; not just from the vicious circle, but from the country itself. Set up with £12,000 of his mates’ money, the proceeds of a London drug sale that he had, admittedly, part funded (That gets overlooked and is a slight plot-hole for me.) he escaped to Amsterdam and a new life.

That he chose.

T2 opens on Renton’s return to the Promised Land, an Edinburgh where the airport meeter greeters are Eastern European.  A family without his mother (he didn’t make the funeral).  A Leith that is part-gentrified, although Sick Boy’s Salamader Street flat symbolically overlooks a massive scrap metal yard, the graveyard of dream cars.  A metaphor for life’s finite span.

The movie (very) roughly adapts Welch’s Porno, but with many flashbacks and additional scenes from the Trainspotting novel that could have been in the original (not least the scene in Leith Central Station).

The budget is six times the original and it shows.  In a good way.  The cinematography bristles from start to finish (Anthony Dod Mantle) and the script bristles with comedy and tragedy in almost equal measure.  The scene in the King William Bar (1690) is a classic.

Not all the characters have fared as well as Renton.

SickBoy, although lithe (thanks to the Charlie) owns his Aunty’s boozer (the beautifully named Port Sunshine – Hibees ya bass) it’s a doss house and in need of investment. His Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika is the only new character to join the fray and cleverly plays the tart with, half, a heart.

Spud’s still a, now suicidal, junkie.

Begbie’s still a fucking bampot on the run from the jail.

Spud, Sickboy and Renton join forces to turn the Port Sunshine into a cultural heritage landmark in Leith attracting considerable public investment.  (For cultural heritage read brothel, sorry, sauna.)

It turns into a hilarious revenge thriller with Begbie on the rampage.

In a turnkey scene Renton sits with Veronika in the fancy Harvey Nichols Forth [sic] floor restaurant.  He reminisces on the Choose Life soliloquy but reframes it, every bit as cynically, for 2017.

“Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone, somewhere cares … Choose reality TV, slut shaming, revenge porn. Choose a zero-hours contract, a two-hour journey to work. And choose the same for your kids, only worse …”

This is the point of the movie.  I don’t think it’s about nostalgia as so many reviews have said.  What was great about the foursome’s life in 1996?  Fuck all.

No, this is about regret and the search for middle aged redemption.  A new opportunity to escape the cycle of shit that the trio (Begbie couldnae give a fuck) have immersed themselves in.

It’s an echo of the 1996 dream that, for Sickboy and Begbie, was stolen from them in that London hotel room.  But you know, deep down, it’s not going to work out.  Is it?

Danny Boyle and John Hodge have created a monumental movie.  Poignant, funny, beautifully nuanced and reflecting (not nostalgically) their acknowledged masterpiece of 1996.  The weaving together of three generations of the key chartacters’ respective lives is effortless and the music mirrors that extremely subtly.

Ewen Bremner is the real star with his beautifully sad performance as Spud.  Ewan McGregor has grown into Renton’s skin and can finally be forgiven the original miscasting. Robert Carlyle’s Begbie just manages to steer clear of charicature, and delivers moments of high camp scary bastardness.

The whole thing is a fucking blast.

Go see it.

By the way, credit to Harvey Nichols for granting the rights to use, and adapt, their outstanding shoplifting commercial as part of the movie.

Ragtime at the Charing Cross Theatre


Ragtime is the greatest musical ever written.

Of that there is no question.

But how well it is performed is another question.

My fondness for the original cast recording on Broadway is muted.  My own youth theatre’s performance in the 2009 Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a lifetime high.  The Regents Park open air show was good, but odd.

Take four then.

Thom Southerland’s, off West End, production at The Charing Cross Theatre.

First off.  This is a brilliant theatre.  Great box office and bar staff.  Nice loos.  Reasonably priced drinks (and tickets).  All good.

Now for the bad news.

I travelled to London at short notice and paid £120 for my train ticket, such was my enthusiasm to see its penultimate performance, but having arrived at the theatre the show was delayed by 30 minutes because Nolan Frederick (Booker T. Washington) has been taken ill.  Rather than cancelling the show the cast, crew and production team had rapidly pulled together a compromise.  A semi staged concert performance.

That did not bode well.

But, and it’s a huge but, what followed was a performance that I feel sure had more, not less, gusto than its normal 5 star delivery as each actor sought to make the most of an unfortunate situation.

What transpired was a masterpiece.

The performances were, universally, outrageously brilliant and the stand in for Nolan Frederick, an ensemble tuba playing cast member, Lemuel Knights, was spot on from start to finish.

This is a great production.

A really great production.

With cast doubling up as orchestra playing everything from to Cello to Recorder (and that’s just Joanna Hickman as Evelyn Nesbitt).  Accordion, Tuba, Banjo, Guitar, Drums, Piano (of course), Flute, Piccolo all feature prominantly.

The political nous of the piece can never have been higher as Britain wallows in something approaching mass hysteria about immigration.  The rise of the immigrant Tateh (amazingly performed by Gary Tushaw) is like a two fingered salute to the evil that is Nigel Farage.

And the dignity and stoicism of Ako Mitchell’s Coalhouse (and metaphorically his and Sarah’s baby) sets the scene for the contribution of the ‘negroes’ that have risen to the ultimate prominence as Barack Obama vacates the White House for an ungracious white supremacist.

I cannot praise this highly enough.  E.L. Doctorow’s source novel is a classic,  and McNally, Flaherty and Ahren’s take on it cannot actually be performed any better than this.

A special mention to Samuel Peterson and Riya Vyas (adorable) as the little boy and girl.

A very, very special moment in my life that I will never forget.

My 8 years of Royal Lyceum Theatre bliss…



Amy Manson in Caucasian Chalk Circle

Bliss?  Blessed more like.

I have had the extreme privilege of spending 8 years on the board of The Royal Lyceum Theatre Company in Edinburgh and last night it came to a close.  Good governance rules said two terms of four years was my limit and so I’ve had to move on.

I have plenty of alternative pursuits to engage me but I wanted to publicly thank the staff and fellow board members of this venerable institution for making it eight years of sublime mental stimulation, a huge schoolroom, both artistically and professionally and the scene of more parties than anywhere else in my life.

It has been monumental.

Now, it would’t be me if I wasn’t to choose a few favourites and so my top ten from my period on the board are as follows…

Caucasian Chalk Circle: Mark Thomson (my all time favourite)

Waiting for Godot: Mark Thomson 

Educating Agnes: Tony Cownie

The Venetian Twins: Tony Cownie

Bondagers: Lu Kemp

Pressure: John Dove

The Crucible: John Dove

The Suppliant Women: Ramin Gray

Dunsinane: Roxana Silbert

Hidden (various directors for Lyceum Youth Theatre)

The James Plays. Part 3. James III.


You can read the concept behind the James Plays in my post of two days ago here.

James III completes the trilogy and in my opinion the best was saved for last.

It’s subtitled The True Mirror because writer Rona Munro uses the device of a gift of a ‘true’ mirror from James III to his, by this point in Act 2, estranged wife to show her how ugly she is. But Malin Crepin, the Swedish actor who plays the part, could hardy be described thus, and her character doesn’t fall for it.

It backfires dramatically.  The metaphor extends to the plays as a whole holding a mirror up to Scotland and asking it what it stands for and looks like.

What makes this the most enjoyable of the three plays in the trilogy is, firstly, the performances of Matthew Pigeon as James III and, secondly, of Crepin as his wife, the Danish Queen Margaret.

Munro writes it for laughs and she gets them in spades.

Unlike the first two plays, this time we meet the protagonist towards the end of his short life (he died aged 37).  But it’s debatable whether this play should be called Margaret, as it’s the Queen that dominates the proceedings, fulfilling many of James’ duties in running the country while he enjoys the life of Riley, including assignations both with his female dresser and his manservant.

And yet he still carries a cross for his beautiful queen.

At one point he loses the plot with her and after losing an argument about whether her father, the King of Denmark, had paid her dowry he screams at her. “What did I get as your dowry? Orkney!  And FUCKING Shetland.”

The same cannot be said for his relationship with his eldest son, Jamie, destined to be James IV.  It’s a kind of madness in that he is jealous of him because the future is his and he knows Jamie will one day fill his shoes.  He sets out to make his life a misery as a form of anticipatory punishment.

He is, in the true sense of the word, a 15th century luvvie with many affectations that leave his court speechless, not least his hiring of a choir to follow him in his duties and sing musical numbers appropriate to the task of the moment.    These moments are truly hilarious.

Music plays a big part in James III as both acts open with seemingly spontaneous, but perfectly choreographed, barn dances to contemporary songs like Pharrell Williams’  “Happy’ and The Human League’s “Don’t you want me”.

It’s a hoot.

Pigeon really is outstanding as the madness consumes him; his marriage breaks down and his affair with his manservant reaches shock proportions.  His coming out scene will live long in the memory.

As the play nears its conclusion Queen Margaret berates the audience with the houselights on.  She asks us what being Scottish means to us the accusation being that Scotland does’t actually know what she wants, doesn’t know if it can survive without the protection of our big neighbours.  This is clearly where the Independence agenda is most focussed, as is to be expected given its commission in August 2014.

Regicide/patricide follow.  But by now we are fully attuned to the vagaries of life in 15th century courts.  It’s just another death really.


Over these three productions we meet three excellent kings (particularly Matthew Pigeon) and three excellent queens (particularly Malin Crepin)and some excellent supporting performances from Sally Reid, Blyth Duff, Ali Craig and Peter Forbes.  But, so too, do we have a few disappointments (no names mentioned).

Overall the ensemble is good.

The 20 foot sword that dominates stage left throughout should go.  Frankly it’s a pain in the ass.

For me James III crackled and was both hilarious and absorbing throughout.  Act 1 of James I was every bit as good but Act II slipped a little.  James II was the lesser of the three, let down as it was by the performances of the parliamentary big wigs.

But taken as a whole it’s a big, bold, brave, brash and epic theatrical event like no other I have experienced.

My final word of congratulations goes to Rona Munro.  The writing throughout is stunning, the plotting brilliant and the ambition laudable.

Now, back to my day job.



Into the woods. Great, if you like Sondheim.


I must admit I approached this having only just survived Les Miserables a couple of years ago.  As a result I feared the worst – not helped by the fact that the critics had not exactly been swooning over it.  But these are film critics with a healthy disdain for other forms of entertainment such as theatre, and most especially musical theatre.  The Sondheim purists have also had the knives out, but, hey, that’s like being harangued by a group of trainspotters.

The best advice I can give is; if you don’t like musical theatre stay well away.  And if you’re a Musical Theatre purist you may have a few hackles up.  All I can say to you is “get over it.”

If, like me, you love great musical theatre and great performances (on the whole) this will fill your heart with joy.

It’s no ordinary Disney movie either – a bit more adult themed and certainly no vacuous Little Mermaid fodder – but, nevertheless, it’s glorious entertainment from start to finish.  (That said, the younger children in the audience became a bit restless.)

The two most obvious comparisons are Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, starring Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.  That’s a fine film, albeit neither Depp nor HBC are real singers.

The other is the aforementioned, ludicrously awful, Les Miserables.  That film should have been put behind bars and the keys thrown away for crimes against music.

On both fronts Into The Woods walks away with all the prizes.

It’s a glorious romp, pulling together the stories of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood into a completely new construct that pulls together the threads of what stands for goodness and badness in the land of fairy tale.

Wrapping it all together is the quest that a Baker (James Cordon; solid) and his wife (Emily Blunt; outstanding) go on at the behest of their neighbour, a witch, played show-stealingly by Meryl Streep. Depp’s cameo as the Wolf is passable.

The story cracks along at a furious pace for around an hour but slows somewhat in Act 2, nevertheless it’s an engaging and heartwarming tale underpinned by Sondheim’s astonishing score and hilarious and very clever lyrics.  It’s given great respect and delivered extremely well throughout by a great ensemble cast.

Another show stealer is the Princes’ performance of ‘Agony’ that’s hilariously OTT, as it should be.  And Frances De La Tour as the Giant’s wife raises many a chuckle.

It’s not absolutely true to the stage play (Disney sensitivities has softened some of its more adult themes) but Sondheim was engaged to write around this and the result does not spoil the story – although purists will argue this point.

In all, it’s not as challenging as the stage production and it seems to be undecided as to who its audience is – it’s quite surprising that Disney bought the rites given the above.

That said it’s a hugely enjoying distraction and two hours of wonderful escapism.