Sunday, 31 December 2017

Star Wars sees Leia remind us to keep on fighting

Star Wars is Star Wars is Star Wars. Some may deride such a suggestion, but while it’s an oversimplification, it also contains more than a grain of truth. After all, the second trilogy pushed many of the original fans away from the initial trio of movies precisely because, however much George Lucas wanted to explore trade wars in those outings, that was not what fans felt was ‘real’ Star Wars. Jar Jar Binks was simply the sickly icing on an unappetising cake.

Two years ago, I came out of a cinema and said – after I’d stopped shaking – that JJ Abrams had ‘given us back Star Wars’.

However much The Force Awakens was effectively a remake of 1977’s A New Hope, the utterly vital thing was that it contained the spirit of Star Wars that fans recognised from the first movies, wanted again and instantly warmed to, as opposed to soul-sapping tedium of the second trilogy. It really was a ‘new hope’.

Last year’s Rogue One was still recognisably Star Wars, but with added grittiness.

And so we arrive at at the tail end of 2017 and The Last Jedi – the sequel to The Force Awakens.

If I don’t feel as overtly euphoric as I did when exiting the Waterloo IMAX two years ago, it’s because my expectations have already moved way beyond fearing the worst.

As Rey seeks the help of Luke Skywalker, the Resistance is close to being wiped out by the First Order.

But Luke, who has been in self-imposed exile on the craggy island of Ahch-To, has no intention of returning or of helping Rey learn how to use the Force that has stirred in her.

Writer and director Rian Johnson has done a top job here, creating a tense roller-coaster of a cinematic ride that allows for many things.

It all has an added gravity – and poignancy – with every sight of the late Carrie Fisher, to whom the film is dedicated.

But while it absolutely has the ‘feel’ of true Star Wars, there are also differences.

There is a darker mood and even a (slightly) more philosophical one, with many of the actors having the opportunity to explore more nuanced aspects of their characters.

Of course, while the Empire has always been fascistic, current events give this aspect of the films a certain increased power. 

But have no fear, there are lighter moments.

These include Chewbacca and the porgs – small birds on Ahch-To. If they remind you a tad of puffins, that’s because they are. Filming on Skellig Michael, the crew was faced with a plethora of the birds and, since it’s a World Heritage Site and they’re protected, it was decided that the best way to deal with this was to use CGI to turn them into part of the film.

I really do want a vulptex – a crystal snow fox (Swarovski could make billions) and the space horses (fathiers) manage to be cute without that being a distraction.

It hit me, while watching, that I cannot recall an action film with so many female characters. But what’s important here is that, in general, these are not specifically male or female roles, so it really makes no difference.

Points are suggested about gender – the macho approach of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) versus Leia and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo’s more considered one – but this is just divas on the right side of being overplayed.

And besides, it has triggered further fits in those whose very sense of masculinity is so fragile that it shatters at the mere sight of a few more women in a few more roles in a few more films.

Of the cast, Daisy Ridley as Rey and John Boyega as Finn grow further into their roles, while Mark Hamill’s acting range seems to have broadened. 

Supreme Leader Snoke gives Andy Serkis, Hollywood’s go-to performance capture expert, another chance to strut his stuff.

Adam Driver is definitely making Kylo Ren more interesting and slightly less than a spoilt brat, while Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, a Resistance maintenance worker, and Laura Dern as Holdo give solid supporting performances.

Make no mistake – this is Star Wars. And this is Leia’s film. It was a shock last year when she died and it was a surprise to realise how much it upset me personally. Seeing her on screen here is particularly moving.

This is not the greatest film ever made. But in this final performance, Fisher reminds us to leave the sentiment until after the enemy is defeated.

How very apt that feels. And it packs a powerful punch too.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

A tin drum signifying nothing very much

Günter Grass’s Nobel-cited 1959 debut novel, The Tin Drum, is a sprawling monster of a book – published as three books in one and in reality, pretty much two books. By turns epic, tragic and comic, disturbing and fantastical, anyone hoping to stage something under its name will have their work cut out.

Carl Grose decided to attempt precisely that for Cornish theatre company, Kneehigh. Staged in conjunction with the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Liverpool’s Everyman, it has been touring since October and, on the final leg of that tour, is playing at Shoreditch Town Hall in Hackney until this Saturday.

It would be as absurd to imagine that anyone could cram the entire book into a show of under three hours as to expect to see a literalist interpretation. It’s easy to realise that a range of performance styles – puppetry, song, dance, burlesqueue, cabaret etc – could be employed in such an Herculean task.

Perhaps precisely because one can see the potential, it’s particularly disappointing that this misses the mark by some considerable way.

The obvious problems are clear – and have been evident (and noted) since it opened in a different venue, but have not apparently taken on board. Many of the lyrics cannot be heard because the music is far too loud – it’s amped up to a ridiculous level. And since there so much ‘music,’ it would have been nice if Charles Hazlewood’s score had at least some variety or discernible quality. As things stand, it is largely an exercise in homogenised noise with a thumping bass.

The puppet Oskar has much going for it – an eerie quality, certainly – but the use of different actors to voice the boy who won’t grow up, miked and often from quite a physical distance, doesn’t help. This also ensures that he comes across as a sort of demon child who is utterly unsympathetic. But being able to have sympathy with Oskar is important, because it draws us in. It is part of showing us how easy it is to fall for the extremism – how easy it is to become complicit – and how we must take responsibility.

Without that, Grass’s lesson is nowhere near as powerful.

Grose decided to strip the story away from its time and place, telling us at the start that this could be about “any war”. So what is acted out before us could be the Balkans, it could be Syria, it could be Yemen. His text emphasises the idea of tribalism creating conflict and that we’re really all both different and the same – ‘viva complexity’. That’s all well and good, yet in having Sigismund Markus, the kindly Jewish toymaker, be targeted for being a Pole rather than a Jew, he rids what is served up of any specific comment on anti-semitism.

In a world where a far-right poster boy like Nigel Farage can feel confident enough to use his LBC radio show to talk of a “Jewish lobby” in the US, this is not a matter of polite semantics.

When Alfred Matzerath dies, it is no longer by swallowing his Nazi badge in an effort to avoid detection by Soviet troops – as clear a metaphor for falling for extremist rhetoric as anyone could come up with – but in gunfire. 

The Nazis have here become the ‘Order’ and could have dropped straight out of something by Mel Brooks – ‘Hitler’ is a Lady Gagaesque figure whose salute becomes a sort of voguing as she belts out something or other to more of Hazelwood’s monotone faux rock.

Grose was always going to have to substantially trim his source material, but in the context of the apparent aim of highlighting current global tensions and making a general anti-racist statement, his concentration of such a vast amount of stage time on the love triangle that is Oskar’s family background seems oddly unbalanced – not least as decisions noted above mean that the Nazi threat is frankly reduced.

If the music is rather one note, then the pace of the performance feels the same. There are good ideas on display (the chase Oskar’s grandfather leads the police is very clever) and some good performances from the ensemble cast, but greater variety of pace might also help move this from being a whirling – wearying – experience to one that actually engages the emotions.

At the present, it singularly fails to do that. This is a tin drum beating nothing more than sound and fury, signifying nothing very much at all.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Ludwig van offers up a culinary ode to joy

After a difficult year, a pre-Christmas trip to Vienna for some culture and shopping seemed like the perfect way to bring 2017 to a climax.

Food would, of course, feature and, in a perfect example of serendipity, just a few weeks before we flew out, a friend pointed out that Rick Stein’s recent series of food-oriented weekend breaks included the Austrian capital.

Thus, with the aid of iPlayer, we began the trip with culinary expectations that went beyond the iconic Wiener schnitzel and the apple strudel to include such delights as Viennese goulash and tafelspitz – the latter being but one among the many versions of boiled beef in Germanic cuisine.

In the event, our first meal – lunch on a grey, drizzly afternoon, in a café on the legendary Naschmarkt – saw The Other Half try the goulash, while I opted for sliced liver that came in a big, rich gravy and was utterly scrummy.

Goulash followed again during the trip, giving evidence (were it needed) that like so many other dishes, there are as many variations on the way it can be made as there are people who make it. Varying amounts of paprika and little or lots of onion are just two of the possible variables.

But just as we’d settled into such hearty, down-to-earth eating, The Other Half spotted an interesting-looking establishment not far from our hotel.

Ludwig van, we were to learn, only opened its doors in January this year, but it’s already essential to book.

Presumably, our looking genuinely upset at there being no tables available, our instantly asking if we could make a reservation for the following evening (and trying this in German) produced sympathy – and with amazing good fortune, a table in the bar area.

It’s a snug space in an old, old building, with dark wood everywhere and a feeling of being an inn.

Host Oliver Jauk found us a corner and guided us through the menu.

Such was the briefness of what was listed – with so much that tempted – that we both decided to go down the route of the tasting menu.

After gorgeous bread, with the best butter I’ve ever tasted and wafer thin slices of a sausage from a 10-year-old “calf” that were packed with flavor but still tender, our taste buds were further tickled by a tiny dish of kimchee-style vegetables, accompanied by a local wine infused with herbs.

The first of our ‘proper’ courses was salsify, with butternut, parsley and hazelnut. Lovely tastes – the parsley, for instance, was a perfect illustration of being so much more than a garnish, while fresh tomato shot through a light-as-silk sauce.

The bar was set high.

Next up was trout with cauliflower, grapefruit and chervil.

Standards maintained.

Then a dish of oatmeal ‘risotto’, with chanterelle mushrooms, that called up the autumn forest as though by sourcery rather than saucery.

Pike-perch (zander) from Lake Neusiedl followed, perched atop red cabbage, followed by a noisette of calf, with a rich gravy and spinach leaves that burst with flavour.

Elvis van
To finish, we were served ‘Elvis van’ – a dessert that combined banana, a peanut mousse and bacon wafers and somehow worked.

This was simply fabulous food: rich, yet light, with great textures and astounding flavour. Head chef Walter Leidenfrost and sous chef Julia Pimingstorfer are reinventing traditional Austrian cuisine in a thrilling way.

Ludwig van’s ethos means that drinks are sourced from smaller producers who might well be less-known producers and as locally as possible. We enjoyed a variety of white wines – all of which were exemplary, but which displayed an astonishing variety of tastes.

At the end, with most other diners having finished and left, Oliver offered us a choice of schnapps from unlabelled bottles.

We both chose one flavoured with pine: it was a smooth delight – and continued that underlying sense of the forest.

Ludwig van is far from cheap – but it was worth every cent. This place is going to win awards and I wouldn’t hesitate to dine there again – though I’d certainly book well in advance!

Find out more at For information and booking, contact

Sunday, 19 November 2017

The Salt Room – winning deserved recognition

Pig's head
For the last couple of years, a trip to Brighton has meant one non-working thing: a visit to The Salt Room for a top-class meal.

Many eateries could learn a great deal from this place – menus that change regularly to reflect the alchemical fusion of season and place are an unfailing incentive to revisit.

After arriving in time to watch a stunning sunset that saw the sky to the west slashed with red and the magical sight of a murmuration of starlings fluidly circling over the silhouetted skeleton of the West Pier, it was time to get ready for dinner.

There are occasions when I wonder when, why or how Britain lost its understanding of seasonality in food.

We have the ridiculousness of asparagus and strawberries all year round, and people have simply come to expect that, apparently little noticing what that means for actual taste.

In October, The Salt Room was named as the UK winner in the 2017 Seafood Restaurant of the Year competition, organized by Seafish and The Caterer.

The competition, in its third year, was launched to highlight creative use of seafood and businesses’ knowledge of often under-used species in all types of restaurants.

Such recognition could hardly be more deserved.

A number of times when visiting, I’ve plumped for a mackerel dish to start – a fish that is so often ignored, but is always impeccably fresh here and cooked superbly, with innovative accompaniments.

However, this time I began with pig’s head, salt-baked parsnip, plum and miso.

The pork was soft and flaky, sitting atop a fat slice of parsnip that had just enough bite. Half a plum added a hint of tartness and firmer texture, while plum purée continued the theme. The miso was a little thread of flavor below.

Tiny pieces of nut on the side had somehow been given a light texture that made them a divine nut popcorn. Simply gorgeous and absolutely full of warm autumnal flavours.

This was accompanied by a glass of Tandem Ars Nova from Spain – a combination of Tempranillo, Cabernet, Merlot – which continued the earthy themes.

Next up was a superb piece of hake, with cauliflower presented in a number of ways, with chanterelles and lightly pickled chestnuts – a dish that illustrates perfectly why The Salt Room picked up that award.

A blackberry delight
It was accompanied by a very pleasant Sancerre, Domaine de la Rossignole.

For dessert, a blackberry meringue ball that opened to reveal a quenelle of crème fraîche, with fresh blackberries, lemon curd and lemon thyme.

This was positively a symphony of richness, tartness and texture – incredible flavours. And yet again, totally in keeping with the season.

The Salt Room is not cheap – but you get what you pay for and given that, just a few doors down the road, a plate of frozen scampi, frozen chips and mushy peas with a soft drink costs over £12, real quality is bound to cost more.

Very helpfully, they have an excellent range of wines that are available by the glass.

So there you have it: once again, The Salt Rooms illustrates the joy of seasonal food, locally sourced and cooked flawlessly. That is why it has been named the top fish restaurant in the UK. And why I think it is only a matter of time before it wins yet more plaudits.

If you’re in Brighton do visit – but booking is essential.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Follies is simply a bittersweet masterpiece

In the last 30 years, London’s West End has seen all too many musical follies and, in a previous life as a regular theatre reviewer, I’ve had the misfortune to see a few – Children of Eden and the execrable Robin, Prince of Sherwood spring all-too-rapidly to mind.

But 29 years ago, as a birthday present, I took my mother to the Shaftsbury Theatre to see the star-studded first London production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies.

Diana Rigg, Julia McKenzie, Daniel Massey, Eartha Kitt, Lynda Baron, Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson – I said it was a glittering array of talent.

This introduction to Sondheim catapulted him into my pantheon of household gods, where he has remained ever since.

In the years since, A Little Night Music introduced The Other Half to his work – and to the idea that the musical theatre might not be totally naff after all.

I’ve had the fortune to catch a rare production of Frogs in a south London public baths and seen Imelda Staunton in the West End production of Into the Woods. There was the utterly magnificent National Theatre production of Sweeney Todd as a Cottesloe chamber opera, with McKenzie once more and Alun Armstrong, and Staunton in the recent Gypsy.

But as the clock ticked down to my visit to the National Theatre’s revival of Follies, it is hard to describe the excitement that was mixed with slight trepidation at the fear that it might prove a disappointment.

Pared back to the original one-act version and with the overly optimistic 1987 ending ditched, it is better than ever.

James Goldman’s book has often been criticised as lacking much of a story. He continued revising it until his death and it’s noted that, of the relatively limited number of productions that there have been, no two are the same. For that 1987 London production, for instance, Sondheim wrote two replacement songs on the basis of the casting – Diana Rigg not being a dancer was the reason behind one of these.

Certainly there’s little story, but within the context of this work, that actually helps.

The hook on which Follies hangs is a party that is being thrown in a decrepit old Broadway theatre that’s about to be demolished. In the interwar years, it had played host to the Weismann Follies (based on the Ziegfeld Follies) and the guests on this final night are mainly former showgirls.

The two central former chorines, Sally and Phyllis, had been good friends, but with WWII they had drifted apart, marrying Buddy and Ben respectively – friends who had courted them when they were on stage.

But neither couple is happy, with Sally having spent years nursing a flame for Ben that threatens to consume her.

At the theatre once more, as the ghosts of their young selves mill around them, the tensions come to a head.

So, that’s the ‘plot’. In which case, how does the show as a whole  overcome such a slender storyline to be such a masterpiece?

Simply because, in removing any distraction of a more complex plot, it becomes a meditation on age, regret, missed opportunities, lost dreams, middle-aged cynicism and more.

And this is also why we’re drawn to the characters and why Follies demands such a top-notch cast.

Here, Dominic Cooke has given each present-day character a ghost – not just the central two couples – and it gives greater emphasis to this sense of being haunted by our pasts.

But of course the other thing that makes this such a masterpiece is the music. There are essentially two scores: the first features the numbers Sondheim wrote for the women to sing, reprising their glory days.

They are fabulous pastiches of various composers’ styles – pastiche, but never, ever parody – and Sondheim’s genius shines through in both music and lyrics. There are several showstoppers here.

Stella’s Who’s That Woman, with most of the other women, is one. Hattie’s Broadway Baby another and, of course, Carlotta’s I’m Still Here, given further poignancy in this production as the character starts singing it to various other party guests, almost as amusing anecdote, before they leave her and she is left to finish it alone, more brittle than ever.

But for me, the goosebumps really come as the elderly Heidi sings her Leharesque old hit, One More Kiss. Her voice quakes, but is then joined to the crystal clear coloratura of her younger self. It’s enough to make the eyes prick even thinking about it.

The second score is the book songs – classic Sondheim numbers such as Losing My Mind.

As the show moves to it’s finale, the differences between these two scores blur a little.

Follies, quite simply, leaves most other musical theatre mired in Earthbound mud as it soars above.

Cooke’s direction is superb, as is Vicki Mortimer’s design.

The cast is flawless. Staunton as Sally does, as always these days, hit the heights. But this is no solo piece. Janie Dee is a wonderfully acerbic Phyllis, Philip Quast is excellent as a man realising that his life is utterly lacking in any depth and Peter Forbes is every bit his equal as the confused and sad Buddy.

Alex Young, Zizi Strallen, Adam Rhys-Charles and Fred Haig all deserve praise as their respective ghosts.

It seems almost churlish not simply to reel off the rest of the cast. But particular standouts from the rest of what is, in so many ways, an ensemble, include Di Botcher as Hattie, Tracie Bennett as Carlotta and Dawn Hope as Stella.

And absolutely not forgetting operatic soprano Josephine Barstow – who has worked with the likes of Herbert von Karajan – as Heidi, with Alison Langer as her younger self.

The orchestra, under Nigel Lilley, is also excellent.

And if you want one final indicator of just how good this is – I’ve managed to get tickets to see it once again.

If you can’t make it to the theatre – it’s on until 3 January – then there is a live cinema screening next week, on 16 November; find your nearest venue here. I simply cannot recommend this enough.