Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Spider-Man: Far From Home

When you boil it down, every Spider-Man film has the same central themes: what it means to be a hero, how to take responsibility, and how to live up to a legacy. The rest is just smoke and mirrors.

That's pretty appropriate for this latest film in the franchise (more on Mysterio later). Following directly from Avengers: Endgame, the death of Iron Man/Tony Stark hangs heavy over the entire world. The question on everyone's lips: who will be his successor? And - ignoring Don Cheadle's War Machine, that kid who made a surprise appearance at Stark's funeral, or following the comics with a black female version of the character - Tom Holland's Spider-Man is the unlikely but apparently most fitting person.

Flipping that on its head too, the film is as much about who will take Stark's place as Peter Parker's father figure. The result is a filler film that's enjoyable on its own, but is more of a transition into the next phase of Marvel's cinematic universe.

One of those potential father figures is Jake Gyllenhaal's Mysterio. He's a warm and slightly eccentric presence who initially develops a kinship with Parker, but after a predictable twist is revealed to be the film's villain, a man using drones and projections to simulate an Avengers level threat from which he can save the day. That mix of reality and projection makes for some creative special effects and set pieces, but once you know it's smoke and mirrors the film loses some impact. The stakes are relatively low here, which does make for a refreshing change after such big event films.

It's also suitable for what is ultimately a teen drama. Parker just wants to enjoy his summer vacation and kiss the girl of his dreams, Zendaya's MJ. She makes for a droll, blasé yet endearing feminist who's far from a damsel in distress. Holland, meanwhile, is probably the best cinematic representation of Spider-Man: youthful, cheeky and likeable. Together they make a particularly modern and relatable pair of protagonists.

The plot is also an excuse to reveal what Americans think Europe is like. Not only is it full of a thousand years of history and monuments to be recklessly destroyed, but quirky people, funny languages and stereotypes, and it's small enough to travel great distances between countries in a matter of hours on a bus. Some of the inconsistencies are more laughable than the script.

Yet that's fitting for such a lighthearted piece of popcorn cinema. We may have lost some of the Avengers, but the Spider-Man plotline at least remains in good hands.

3/5

Watch: Spider-Man: Far From Home is out now.


Saturday, 6 July 2019

Mean Girls @ August Wilson Theatre, Broadway


Mean Girls @ August Wilson Theatre, Broadway

Teen films and musicals go hand in hand. So with its cult following and feminist message, it was almost inevitable that Tina Fey’s 2004 film Mean Girls would get the Broadway treatment. And it’s not alone: in 2018 Heathers: The Musical reached London (following an Off-Broadway run in 2014) and a new adaptation of Clueless premiered Off-Broadway late last year.

It’s Mean Girls, though, that’s reached the heights of Broadway, premiering in March 2018 and still going strong. Perhaps as the most recent film it’s clicked more with young theatregoers. But it’s also testament to Tina Fey’s writing that remains as snappy, funny and quotable as ever, even with a few small tweaks. That’s despite a plot of typical teen stuff: Cady Heron arrives as the new girl in school and infiltrates the cliquey “Plastics” who rule the hallways, to bring about their downfall.

In musical form, Mean Girls is camp fun. There remains a serious message beneath it all, teaching young women to support and respect one another. And that’s now been updated for the social media age – especially with Scott Pask’s scenic design that uses video screens for a modern, technological edge. Sometimes that message is lost amongst all the jokes and laughter, but the characters remain relatable.

Indeed, Mean Girls is a tour de force of character acting. Much of the characterisation has been exaggerated, but what the show loses in subtlety it gains in outlandish performances. As head of the Plastics and life ruiner Regina George, Taylor Louderman is the show’s queen bitch. She plays Regina as a femme fatale: fiercely sassy, manipulative and deadly. Vocally, too, she’s the strongest, showing off a dynamic range from gentle, sensual yearning to belting top notes. Grey Henson as the “too gay to function” Damien is also a delight, with the most quotable lines filled with musical and pop culture references.

Some parts have been expanded, but to the detriment of others compared with the film. Beyond a head full of secrets, Krystina Alabado makes Gretchen a more identifiable character with the ballad “What’s Wrong With Me?”, and Kate Rockwell’s Karen is lovable in her stupidity. Kyle Selig’s Aaron though barely sings, despite being a key part of the narrative, and as teacher Ms. Norbury Jennifer Simard’s role is much diminished from Tina Fey’s portrayal (though she doubles as other characters too). Then again, the show is really all about the Plastics, and when they're such a joy to watch in their delicious malevolence, who really cares?

As belly-achingly hilarious as the show is, if it has one flaw it’s Jeff Richmond's score. The individual numbers certainly emphasise each character, from Regina’s diva showstopper, to Damien’s tap number and Janis’ punk rock. But melodically the score isn’t the most memorable and the mix of Broadway styles doesn’t quite suit the youthful energy of the performances. That said, this is an incredibly slick production with exceptional singing from the entire cast and some brilliant dancing from the ensemble that adds colourful vibrancy.

It’s hardly the most serious show on Broadway, but sometimes some well-polished silliness is exactly what you want. The original film will likely be more enduring, but Mean Girls on Broadway is totally fetch – even if you’re not wearing pink.

4/5

Watch: Mean Girls runs at the August Wilson Theatre, Broadway, until March 2020.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Hamlet @ St. Paul's Church

Hamlet @ St. Paul's Church

Iris Theatre have built quite the reputation for their annual summer Shakespeare productions in the grounds of St. Paul's Church. Unfortunately, this latest Hamlet is a bit of a misfire though well-intentioned.

"Land of Hope and Glory" plays as we sit in the grounds of the church, imperial flags draped from the windows. This is a near-future dystopian vision of Britain, full of media, camera phones and surveillance. At one point it's even described as a "strong and stable nation". The women all wear bizarre caps or hoods, straight out of The Handmaid's Tale.

Counter to this conservatism is a queer counter-culture and it's here we meet the titular Hamlet, played by non-binary transgender actor Jenet Le Lacheur. It's an intriguing decision that sees the other characters misconstruing Hamlet's gender as madness, turning the character into even more of a misunderstood outcast. The characters all refer to Hamlet as he/him, except Horatio who uses feminine pronouns - he is her closest confidante, with hints of a more intimate relationship between them.

Yet while this is a clever play with gender, in some ways it's not taken far enough in the staging and direction. The monologues for instance, a key moment of self-reflection, don't obviously allude to the character's gender.

Equally though, the decision interferes with the narrative. If Hamlet's supposed madness stems from grief at their father's death, the addition of gender overcomplicates the central theme. Further, the relationship with Ophelia (Jenny Horsthuis) feels confused.

When the Tragedians arrive, they vogue in dressed as masked clowns in 90s rave gear, while images of the drag film Paris Is Burning play in the background. This feels misjudged and inauthentic, and while these are meant to be Hamlet's people, it aligns the character with a queer freak show at odds with the sensitivity of gender fluidity.

As Hamlet, Le Lacheur is an eccentric performer who revels in the comedy, but doesn't quite have the gravitas in the more emotive moments. Elsewhere the cast recite Shakespeare's verse well, but the sometimes frantic direction, mix of styles and ugly costumes don't quite mesh together.

2/5

Watch: Hamlet runs at St. Paul's Church until 27th July.

Hamlet @ St. Paul's Church

Hamlet @ St. Paul's Church

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Summer Rolls @ The Park Theatre


Summer Rolls @ The Park Theatre

Summer Rolls is a play of firsts: the first British-Vietnamese play to be staged in the UK and the debut play from actress Tuyen Do. Influenced by her British-Vietnamese roots, the play is a collision of East meets West that puts a new spin on the familiar.

In many ways, this is a kitchen sink drama, with its domestic setting and exploration of political ideas. But there’s a distinct Vietnamese twist. The plot follows the Nguyen family, refugee immigrants struggling to fit into British society. The Vietnam War haunts their past and colours their future. They long for a better life away from the grip of communism, yet cling to a sense of pride in their roots despite a traumatic past.

At the centre is daughter Mai (Anna Nguyen), struggling with her identity. She’s scolded by her mother when she speaks English though she struggles with Vietnamese; she’s forced to help with the family’s clothing business, though she’d rather be independent and spend time with her black British boyfriend David (Keon Martial-Philip) (something her racist parents disagree with). Nguyen’s performance encapsulates the character’s disorientation, flitting between two languages and the physicality of youthful subjugation and maturity.

The Vietnamese tropes may seem familiar, but here they’re presented with authenticity. Alongside family values, the importance of education and familial shame, there’s the conflict between the genders. The women moan and rant, yet are constantly working; the men are cool-headed negotiators given the privilege of play. That’s typified by Linh-Dan Pham as Mai’s mother, whose bitter tongue balances humour and authority. There are twists too about the family’s past, a son (Michael Phong Le) himself struggling to find a suitable career, and family friend Mr Dinh (David Lee-Jones) who seems to have some shady involvement.

There’s a lot going on, then, and in the first half especially the narrative sets up multiple story threads and themes that are not all fully explored. The second half focuses more clearly on Mai’s struggle to be her authentic self, though it skims through time too swiftly in an effort to wrap things up neatly.

Nicola Chang’s sound design captures both cultures in her evocative score and Do’s mix of languages, idioms and references in the script mirrors the cultural clash. This family saga is small in setting, vast in scope, and captivating to the end.

3/5

Watch: Summer Rolls runs at the Park Theatre until 13th July.



Summer Rolls @ The Park Theatre

Summer Rolls @ The Park Theatre
Photos: Danté Kim

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Pictures of Dorian Gray @ Jermyn Street Theatre

Pictures of Dorian Gray @ Jermyn Street Theatre

Oscar Wilde's timeless The Picture of Dorian Gray is often interpreted as social satire, a comment on the Victoria class system, or an obsession with image. But it's also something of a gothic horror novel. After all, it features a haunted, demonic painting and a protagonist who becomes increasingly psychologically deranged. And that's not to mention it's hedonistic underworld of homoeroticism.

It's that gothicism that director Tom Littler plays up in this production, Pictures of Dorian Gray, at the Jermyn Street Theatre. It's performed entirely in grand black costumes, the stage's black walls covered in what seem like white scratches. Moreover, there's a sense of mysticism to the cast of four: when not playing one of the leads, they creep and stalk around the stage repeating the script's most poetic lines with a heavy reverb effect, like a skulking greek chorus. It sounds almost comic, but it heightens the mystical, atmospheric qualities of the text.

Reduced to just 90 minutes by scriptwriter Lucy Shaw, this Dorian Gray hits all the key story beats, if a little too broadly. Similarly Littler's direction uses minimal stagecraft to great effect. Sure, the pool of water used to represent the painting may be a little on the nose for its self-reflection and the constant use of music feels a little too romantic. But it's overall a clear and evocative take on the story, though as a drama the pacing does drag.

The production's main conceit, though, is its gender-swapped cast. The 'pictures' of the title refers to the four configurations - on this occasion a female Dorian and Henry Wotton, with male Sybil Vane and Basil Hallward. On the one hand the gender-swapping highlights the universality of the story, while still retaining some of its homoerotic undertones. Yet neither does it add anything. A female Dorian is fine, but the production doesn't explore the differences in any meaningful way.

In the title role, Helen Reuben begins as youthful, arrogant, and somewhat petulant, becoming slowly more manipulative and evil over the course of the play. The rest of the cast give enjoyable performances, but whether the different configurations give fresh insight into the play...well you'll just have to watch it again.

3/5

Watch: Pictures of Dorian Gray runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 6th July.

Pictures of Dorian Gray @ Jermyn Street Theatre

Pictures of Dorian Gray @ Jermyn Street Theatre
Photos: S R Taylor Photography

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Afterglow @ Southwark Playhouse

Afterglow @ Southwark Playhouse

Afterglow really wants to shock. Written by S. Asher Gelman and arriving in London after a considerable run in New York, it aims to be a progressive look at homosexual (open) relationships. But it's more conventional than it purports.

The plot is fit for a postage stamp: married gay couple in open relationship shocker. One of them falls for the third guy, which consequently ruins their marriage - a conclusion that's obvious from the very beginning.

It's meant to be an open and raw portrayal of homosexual promiscuity, but the play seems to be grabbing attention for its nudity more than anything. Early on it seems each scene either begins or ends with sex and there's even an on-stage shower that's frequently used. It feels like titillation to draw in the crowds.

That's a shame because there are some interesting ideas weaved into the narrative. "Love is easy, relationships take work," notes one character. What exactly makes a meaningful relationship? How long should they last? Are humans (here, men specifically) capable of monogamy? These are worthy themes to be explored.

Yet Afterglow is let down by its characterisation that represents a glossy, attractive version of gay life. Josh (Sean Hart) and Alex (Danny Mahoney) are a married couple living in a sleek New York apartment (beautifully designed by Libby Todd). They're in the process of having a child. They're wealthy professionals. They have a hedonistic lifestyle of sex and champagne. Even third-wheeler Darius (Jesse Fox) isn't exactly living a bad life, despite struggling with rent. All three men wear designer underwear, when they're wearing any at all.

They're also young, typically attractive, fit, and white - an issue of casting more than script, though the actors do have great chemistry. They're blinded by their privilege. When one character claims "dating is hard" because he's "paralysed by the illusion of choice" it's hard to sympathise with such narcissism. Gelman's natural dialogue certainly fits the setting, but the only issue for these men is airing their, literal, dirty laundry.

It's all decidedly conservative. What would be more progressive would be diversity in its actors, their ethnicity and body shape. Or perhaps an ending in which polyamory does work, that doesn't rely on the hetero-normativity of marriage.

Instead, it leaves us questioning why we should even care for these self-absorbed characters. The narrative is ultimately boring, and no amount of nudity, shower sex or designer underwear can change that.

2/5

Watch: Afterglow runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 20th July.

Afterglow @ Southwark Playhouse

Afterglow @ Southwark Playhouse
Photos: Darren Bell

Saturday, 25 May 2019

Carly Rae Jepsen - Dedicated

Carly Rae Jepsen - Dedicated

'Emotion' began with a banger. You know it already: that blaring saxophone riff that launched into a thousand memes. From her humble beginnings on Canadian Idol, to one-hit-wonder, to cult idol and Queen Of...well...seemingly everything, Carly Rae Jepsen's career was set.

'Dedicated' is a more muted affair. Opener Julien is a mid-tempo 70s funk groove that's less immediately arresting than her past work, featuring haunting lyrics, crooning vocals, and subtly squelchy production. For an artist whose best work is truly iconic for certain corners of the internet, 'Dedicated' eschews all that, the vibrant pop colours of Cut To The Feeling, Run Away With Me, and I Really Like You swapped for blushing pastels.

It is, in its own way, a bold move. 'Dedicated' may not have the variety of her previous work, but in its place is sonic consistency - even with the plethora of songwriter and producer collaborators. This feels, more than ever, like a Carly Rae Jepsen album, from her heart to ours.

That sound is a melting pot of 70s and 80s pop. Funk grooves and weird synths predominate, all squeezed through a filter of polished modern production and Carly Rae's trademark quirkiness. Perhaps Want You In My Room exemplifies it best. Jangling guitars, stomping percussion, keytar solos, and Daft Punk-esque autotune underpin a song that's essentially about shagging. It's as cheeky yet polite, honest yet shy as she's ever been.

Other songs also stand out. The woozy No Drug Like Me features an intoxicatingly elastic bass. Happy Not Knowing stomps into blissful unawareness, all hand claps, processed drums and the album's catchiest chorus. The Sound starts delicately enough, before lurching into a strutting, bubbling chorus.

There are nods to the past too: Now That I Found You (as heard on the latest season of Queer Eye) is Carly in classic Cut To The Feeling mode of unfiltered joy; and (ahem) self-love anthem Party For One ends the album on a typically cutesy note.

Other songs don't quite have the impact of her best work, blurring into a ball of fluffy, heady, wistful pop. Even so, repeat listens reveal fun little details to ensure each song retains an individual personality. Still, 'Emotion' wasn't the commercial success it deserved to be and 'Dedicated' does little to rectify that.

It is, though, above all an album about falling in love. Gone are the boy problems for an emotion that's more genuine than before, with lyrics more quietly raw. From its longing opening, we see the rise and fall of a relationship through vulnerability, sex, jealousy and real, unconditional love. She doesn't just cut to the feeling, she revels in it. And as she falls in love, her fans will be falling with her.

4/5

Gizzle's Choice:
* Want You In My Room
* Happy Not Knowing
* The Sound

Listen: 'Dedicated' is out now.




Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Vincent River @ Trafalgar Studios

Vincent River @ Trafalgar Studios

When it was revived at the Park Theatre last year by director Robert Chevara, Philip Ridley's Vincent River was a poignant and powerful depiction of the aftermath of a homosexual hate crime. One year later, in its West End transfer to the Trafalgar Studios, that's as true as ever.

Premiering at the Hampstead Theatre in 2000, Vincent River is indicative of Ridley's style: confrontational and unafraid to pick away at the darker side of humanity with a wry grin. Davey (Thomas Mahy) arrives on the doorstep of Anita (Louise Jameson). It's clear that he had some involvement in the death of her son, the titular Vincent, and over the course of one act the night's events unravel with dire consequences.

Vincent is never seen or heard from, but he still feels like the protagonist of the play. Anita and Davey's descriptions of him are so potent and tangible, it's as if his ghost is right there on stage. His positive impact on both of their lives is abundantly clear; his absence now feels all the more tragic because of it.

In the tight confines of the studio theatre, Ridley's confrontational style is intensified. We are complicit in the narrative, mere inches away from the actors. We can see the whites of their furious eyes, the tears glistening in the stage lights. When Jameson unleashes a guttural scream, it cuts to the bone.

Indeed, these are two outstanding performances. Mahy is steadfast and intimidating, youthful yet knowing, with a secret that slowly unfurls. Jameson begins cold, sarcastic and defensive, yet her motherly instincts are unavoidable, later giving way to a girlish flirtatious side. These two actors give layered depictions of broken characters who feel devastatingly human, captivating from start to finish.

The play itself, too, is cleverly multi-layered. It might be a play about a hate crime. But it's also a play about grief. About coming out, from both a personal and a parental view. About life in East London. About two people whose lives cross paths, who both crave completeness and closure. About the unbreakable bond between mothers and sons and how easily surrogates can fill that void.

This is a play that rewards multiple viewings: intense and tragic and funny and immensely powerful.

4/5

Watch: Vincent River runs at the Trafalgar Studios until June 22nd.

Vincent River @ Trafalgar Studios

Vincent River @ Trafalgar Studios
Photos: Scott Rylander

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself @ The Ovalhouse

Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself @ The Ovalhouse

You've seen the title. "What's a guy doing at a play like this?" I hear you ask. But not only is this an intriguing piece of theatre, it's educational and truly thought-provoking as well. It's a chance to expand horizons.

Sure, if you've ever wondered where to find the clitoris, now you'll know. But the play is a deeper exploration of female sexuality that begins during puberty and continues into adulthood. It's written and performed by Bella Heesom as 'Ego', who's joined by Sara Alexander as her 'Appetite' - a personification of her sexuality. This is mirrored by their roles as 'Brain' and 'Clitoris', creating a distinction between sexuality and logic, society and culture.

If the general trajectory of a woman learning to reconnect to her sexuality seems like an oversimplification, it still provides a satisfying and emotional journey. It's divided up into smaller vignettes that debunk various myths about female sexuality projected on to the back screen: women don't masturbate, women must be objectified, women are either sluts or frigid. Through comedy, poetry and expressive movement, Heesom and Alexander deliver frank honesty that invites the audience as a whole to consider their own sexuality and consider the toxic patriarchal norms we've all become overly accustomed to - whether we have vulvas or not.

Some of these early vignettes feel a little feminism 101, but later the two actresses are stripped of all pretence as they reach womanhood. Here Heesom's poetic writing is in full bloom and moves into more uncharted territory. Schoolyard conflicts are one thing, but how can we help women now to be their most authentic selves?

Yet - without wanting to mansplain, this is a play focused on women after all - there are some universal themes here. We all, in our own way, can lack sexual confidence at times and, as a gay man, Heesom's writing on sexual shame strikes a chord. The play's final empowering moments are one of unity between mind, body, spirit, and sexuality and that's something we can all learn from. It's a call to silence our inner saboteur and embrace our sexuality, no matter what gender we may identify with.

3/5

Watch: Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself runs at the Ovalhouse until 25th May.

Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself @ The Ovalhouse

Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself @ The Ovalhouse
Photos: David Monteith

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Boom Bang-A-Bang @ Above The Stag Theatre

Boom Bang-A-Bang @ Above The Stag Theatre

A lack of guests; an interfering neighbour; infidelity; and a busted TV. This is a Eurovision party where everything that could possibly go wrong, does.

Jonathan Harvey (Gimme Gimme Gimme and multiple other TV shows and plays) first wrote Boom Bang-A-Bang back in 1995 and it's remarkable how well it holds up. The script is full of nods to the annual contest which is just as popular with the queer community now as it was back then. And it's still unlikely we'll win.

Yet Boom Bang-A-Bang isn't really a play about Eurovision, it's a play that touches on deeper themes: grief, internalised homophobia, and friendships between gay and straight men. The protagonist is party host Lee (Adam McCoy), who still grieves for his boyfriend who recently died from a brain tumour. For them, Eurovision was their special yearly event - hosting a party without him turns out to be a traumatic experience.

It's best mate Steph (Christopher Lane), though, who steals the limelight. A bitchy queen, he's jealous, bitter and manipulative, yet eminently watchable. He manages to consistently be the centre of attention to the detriment of the other characters, even though you suspect he has a heart of gold...somewhere deep down. Elsewhere, Sean Huddlestan plays a perennially positive (and high) Roy and Joshua Coley is the nerdy, nosy neighbour Norman. Sadly the female characters get something of a raw deal.

Together the cast make up a collection of queer stereotypes, as recognisable as they are over the top. This is camp and flamboyant soap opera drama, that plays out on a detailed set from director and designer Andrew Beckett. We all know people like these and the gossipy trials and tribulations of their lives are compelling to watch, even if the messiness spills into farce eventually.

There are still some tender moments though amongst all the jokes. Harvey's often hilarious script carefully balances witticisms and queer references with darker, human material. And just like Eurovision, it's wonderfully frothy entertainment that doesn't take itself too seriously.

4/5

Watch: Boom Bang-A-Bang runs at the Above The Stag Theatre until 9th June.

Boom Bang-A-Bang @ Above The Stag Theatre

Boom Bang-A-Bang @ Above The Stag Theatre
Photos: PBG Studios