Friday, 24 April 2015

Eurovision 2015: Ones To Watch

Eurovision 2015 Vienna

I’ve watched all the Eurovision entries, so you don’t have to.

If you want to hear them all, visit the official Eurovision site. Otherwise, here are some thoughts, with the best tracks in bold.

SWEDEN FTW.


Albania: Elhaida Dani - I'm Alive
We start proceedings with a ballad. Get used to it, there are plenty more to come.

Armenia: Genealogy - Face The Shadow
Six singers; piano ballad; rock guitars; opera warbling. Sometimes less is more guys.

Australia: Guy Sebastian - Tonight Again
Sure, they’re not in Europe. And what exactly will happen if they win? Time changes and long-haul flights aplenty. But still, this soul-pop effort is the song the UK should’ve entered with.



Austria: The Makemakes - I Am Yours
They’ve already made a point with Conchita, so this year the host nation are phoning in their entry with a piano-playing James Bay. It’s as interesting as that sounds.

Azerbaijan: Elnur Huseynov - Hour Of The Wolf
He’s certainly trying hard with a voice that just keeps on rising. Let’s hope he does that gif-worthy spin at the key change during the live performance.



Belarus: Uzari&Maimuna - Time
The wide-eyed panic of this girl stuck in a sand timer says it all.



Belgium: Loïc Nottet - Rhythm Inside
Altogether now: “And we’ll never be Royyaaaaaaals”.



Cyprus: John Karayiannis - One Thing I Should Have Done
Look at that face. Look at that heartbreak. You will feel feelings.



Czech Republic: Marta Jandová and Václav Noid Bárta - Hope Never Dies
All hope is gone.

Denmark: Anti Social Media - The Way You Are
It might be the 60th anniversary of Eurovision, but that doesn’t mean your entry should also come from that time. Still, it is catchy.

Estonia: Elina Born & Stig Rästa - Goodbye To Yesterday
If Morrissey did Eurovision (with a pretty naked girl for good measure – stay classy Estonia).

F.Y.R Macedonia: Daniel Kajmakoski - Autumn Leaves
The video’s cute, but the lack of a catchy chorus means this will drown in a series of ballads. Next.

Finland: Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät - Aina Mun Pitää
Good Lordi.

France: Lisa Angell - N'oubliez Pas
So arty. So evocative. So Français. Le yawn.

Georgia: Nina Sublatti - Warrior
I’m not sure Game of Thrones realness is necessarily an appropriate Eurovision message.



Germany: Ann Sophie - Black Smoke
“How long can we pretennnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnDAH”. Make it stop. MAKE IT STOP.

Greece: Maria Elena Kyriakou - One Last Breath
Time to put the kettle on everyone.

Hungary: Boggie - Wars For Nothing
Once: The Musical have arrived. Now I’m falling slowly…into a coma.

Iceland: Maria Olafs - Unbroken
For a country that’s spawned Björk and Sigur Rós, Iceland have rarely done particularly well in Eurovision. This is, however, one of the better entries this year: cute and pleasant.



Ireland: Molly Sterling - Playing With Numbers
Oh come on Ireland, you can do better than this drivel.

Israel: Nadav Guedj - Golden Boy
Great, another slow ballad. But wait! Skip to 30 seconds in and prepare yourself for pure JOY. Timberlake guitars, sexy dancing and a key change. All that’s missing is a Pitbull rap.



Italy: Il Volo - Grande Amore
What’s hotter than an Italian in a suit? Phallic pottery. And who doesn’t love a bit of pop-opera? Oh, and the video includes some horrifically bad acting and a revolting wink at 2’12.



Latvia: Aminata - Love Injected
This year’s Latvian offering stands apart with a dark, industrial electronic sound and a soaring vocal. Then again, Norway did the same thing in 2013.

Lithuania: Monika Linkytė and Vaidas Baumila - This Time
On the surface this is a cute little ditty, but it's rife with sexual tension. The two singers are clearly banging. And the video includes a very lucky guy having a threesome in a sea of couples. When did Lithuania become such a hotbed of sexual activity?



Malta: Amber - Warrior
Two songs called Warrior? Is that even allowed? I’m sceptical to hear this one live though.
Georgia > Malta

Moldova: Eduard Romanyuta - I Want Your Love
Where did Moldova drag up this thug Bieber from?



Montenegro: Knez - Adio
Ooo look at the pretty mountainzzzzzzzzzz.

Norway: Mørland & Debrah Scarlett - A Monster Like Me
Once again, Norway have one of the more interesting entries: a dramatic string-laden track set around a terrible dinner party. Still, it could’ve been this from Karin Park.



Poland: Monika Kuszyńska - In The Name Of Love
Sorry lads, no butter churning this year. Instead, Poland have gone the serious route with a sleep-inducing ballad. Time for another cuppa. Need milk?



Portugal: Leonor Andrade - Há Um Mar Que Nos Separa
Portugal never do well. This mid-tempo power ballad won’t help their cause.

Romania: Voltaj - De La Capat/ All Over Again
“I see dead people” (To be fair, this actually has a decent chorus courtesy of Uncle Fester and Darius Danesh’s love child).



Russia: Polina Gagarina - A Million Voices
Aww bless, it’s a Russian anthem for world peace. Presumably, though, that doesn’t include anyone outside of their white, Christian, heterosexual norm, thereby discounting 98% of Eurovision’s key audience.

San Marino: Anita Simoncini & Michele Perniola - Chain of Lights
The first word is “no”. Sounds about right.

Serbia: Bojana Stamenov - Beauty Never Lies
Neither does Gizzle: this is terrible.

Slovenia: Maraaya - Here For You
I have no time for this sub-par Set Fire To The Rain wannabe.

Spain: Edurne - Amanecer
How are Spanish people so good looking? And that’s not including the best use of CGI in the videos of this year’s competition. Oh wait….were they singing?



Sweden: Måns Zelmerlöw - Heroes
PUT ALL OF YOUR MONEY ON SWEDEN. This is the best song of Eurovision 2015 by an absolute MILE. Yes the verses are initially a bit twangy, but the chorus. THE CHORUS. It’s not quite Loreen, but expect this to win by a landslide.




Switzerland: Mélanie René - Time To Shine
Budget Bat For Lashes.



The Netherlands: Trijntje Oosterhuis - Walk Along
Oh come on love, you’re old enough to be his mother.



United Kingdom: Electro Velvet - Still In Love With You
Hell no. Even Scooch are shocked.



Watch: Eurovision 2015 comes live from Vienna on 23rd May.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Clarion @ The Arcola Theatre

Clarion The Arcola Theatre

Just as every good play needs a tyrannical villain, every poisonous tabloid needs a bigoted right-wing editor.

Enter Morris stage right. As the megalomaniac editor of the Daily Mail Clarion in this satire of current-day journalism, Morris is a terrifying figure – a volatile, paranoid, ticking time bomb. He belittles and bullies his staff in meetings. He shouts vile expletives left right and centre. His views are offensively xenophobic. And he marches around the office clutching a Roman Centurion helmet. He’s the kind of man who makes Katie Hopkins and Nigel Farage look as threatening as a pair of pussycats.

Greg Hicks seems to relish in the comic aspects of the role. Mark Jagasia’s provocative script is highly quotable, and Hicks spits out the lines with ferocity and comic timing. Though his performance occasionally borders on pantomime, Hicks also brings a sense of sympathy and heart – deep down Morris is as frightened as he is frightening, and he does indeed care for his journalistic family, in particular foreign correspondent and veteran journalist Verity (Clare Higgins). As with J.K. Simmons’ Oscar-winning turn as the monstrous Fletcher in Whiplash, Morris is similarly a foul-mouthed villain you love to hate.

Morris may be the spearhead of the narrative, but it’s Verity who proves the more interesting character. Where Morris is all extreme characterisation, Verity operates in a political grey area. Whilst fiercely opinionated and devastatingly cutting – seemingly necessary qualities to survive at the Clarion – she is ultimately a martyr. When she is handed a letter that could put the whole paper in jeopardy, her hand is forced to do the right thing. She hands the letter to rival paper The Guardian Sentinel, with shocking, if slightly predictable, consequences. Higgins is exceptional in the role, delivering her lines with dry wit and a knowing glance to the audience.

The unsubtle plot is something of a farce, with most of the characters easily diminished to cartoonish caricature. Ryan Wichert plays a somewhat naïve and wide-eyed Josh, the immigration reporter forced to write articles that defy his own beliefs. Then there’s Jim Bywater as Albert, a hapless lapdog of a news editor; Peter Bourke as the religious executive Clive; John Atterbury as flamboyant astrologer Dickie; and Laura Smithers as the hilariously dim-witted intern Pritti. As a whole the cast are excellent in their roles, bringing plenty of life and colour to this cutthroat, laugh out loud world.

Yet beneath the comical exterior is a savage dissection of the corruption at the heart of the media, its nationalistic themes ripe in the current political climate. Clarion may represent a heightened version of journalism, but is its narrative really that far-fetched? As a former journalist writing his debut play, there must be some frightening truths hidden away in the depths of Jagasia’s words. You’ll laugh, but you’ll be questioning yourself nonetheless.

4/5

Watch: Clarion runs at the Arcola Theatre until 16th May.


Photos: Simon Annand

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) - Joss Whedon

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Right from the off, Age of Ultron is a more cohesive film than Assemble ever was. Where the previous film struggled to pull together the disparate worlds of its heroes, this second film in the series sets the tone with an explosive opening. Attacking a secret base in Russia, the Avengers use their powers with intense force: vehicles are driven with skill; arrows are fired with pinpoint accuracy; fancy Frisbees are thrown; and HULK SMASH happens a lot. It’s when powers are combined that the action hits full throttle – the shockwave from Thor banging Captain America’s shield like a drum sends hordes of enemies flying. And it all ends in that shot from the trailer. Teamwork, then, is key.

The high octane action is of a superb quality throughout the film, intense and exciting. Yet there are plenty of quieter moments too that prove just as rewarding. In the early portion especially, the team bond with warmth and humour, establishing small jokes that thread their way through the narrative. One scene where the heroes take it in turns to lift Thor’s hammer (none are worthy) is a particular highlight. No longer is this a collision of personalities, but a real assembly of distinct characters in a homogenous whole.

That, of course, is the point, with the film’s plot constantly threatening to tear the Avengers apart. This time they’ve teamed up against Ultron (James Spader), a sentient robot initially constructed from Iron Man’s seemingly endless supply of metallic friends (and money), imbued with intelligence from Loki’s staff (remember him?), and who creates an army hewn from the same strong metal as Captain America’s shield. There’s also a Russian brother-sister duo (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who threaten to rip apart the Avengers with psychic powers (and some very cool effects). It’s a little convoluted and the sentient AI conceit is a clichéd one, but there’s plenty of fan service littered throughout.

The focus, though, is on the relationships between the team. Crucially, that means more Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Bit parts in the previous film, they now feel like fully-fledged members of the team with some actual character development; in particular, the romance between Widow and Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is a welcome touch of beauty and the beast humanity. The sacrifice, though, is Ultron. He is mostly an evil counterpart to Iron Man, who spends more time quipping than actually being villainous.

Still, Whedon has finally found a balance between humour and poignancy. As ever, there are plenty of one-liners and witty moments, many of which are knowingly self-deprecating. Yet these moments now feel earned since we can relate so much more to the characters. Of course, there are some terrible lines too amongst some very cheesy shots, but this is a Marvel film after all. There are more hits than misses.

That said, the film does threaten to implode under its own weight. The Marvel universe is simply too big to squeeze into one film and Age of Ultron is full of references to both previous films and the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Knowledge of these is somewhat necessary to fill in some of the gaping plot holes, but these gaps are seemingly as necessary to Marvel’s films as the characters themselves. This film also introduces new characters to the mix ready for the next Avengers film, though they’re far less iconic than the central group. With future films clearly centering on some mystical infinity stone bullshit, this already fit-to-bursting series is set to play out on an impossibly broad scale.

Then again, when you’re having so much fun watching these heroes stylishly beating the crap out of a load of robots in true blockbuster fashion, who really cares about anything else?

4/5

Watch: Avengers: Age of Ultron is out now.


Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Passion Pit - Kindred

Passion Pit Kindred

There’s a simple formula for this new album from Massachusetts indie-pop darlings Passion Pit: all the best tracks have brackets in the title.

It begins with Lifted Up (1985). The video may be set at a rave to compliment the euphoric production, but lyrically this is a love song to lead singer Michael Angelakos’s wife told through images of faith: “the sky broke apart then you appeared out from the heavens”. That tension between cutesy, vibrant music and serious lyrical content has always been at the heart of Passion Pit’s sound, reaching a peak with their last album ‘Gossamer’ that explored Angelakos coping with depression. Lifted Up (1985) sets the scene for an altogether more positive album that lacks the grit of their past material.

Next up is Five Foot Ten (I), that’s later paired with Ten Feet Tall (II). In typical Passion Pit fashion, the production of the former is littered with funk rhythms and a multitude of tiny flourishes, whilst the latter is more expansive but no less catchy. At the album's centre is Until We Can’t (Let’s Go), a song full of punchy beats and whizzing, whirring production. Again, it’s typical of the band’s style, but these songs represent them at their catchiest, most joyful and electrifying best.

The formula does have some exceptions. Whole Life Story is a fun little clap-along and Where the Sky Hangs slows the pace with a more open sound than the usual kitchen-sink production. My Brother Taught Me How to Swim is also a late highlight, the obvious baptism metaphor paired with up-tempo synths and an enjoyable middle eight breakdown. As ever, these songs have heart and soul beneath the colourful exterior.

Yet between these songs the pace is slowed to a crawl: the meandering All I Want, the melancholic (for Passion Pit) Dancing on the Grave, and the pedestrian Looks Like Rain. These songs are, frankly, dull. And that’s not a word usually associated with Passion Pit, a band known for their exciting, kaleidoscopic production. They may offer respite from the whizz-bang of the rest of the album, but they’re mostly forgettable.

The main criticism of ‘Kindred’, though, is that it doesn’t really offer anything new beyond the childlike melodies and vivacious energy the band are known for. Where debut ‘Manners’ introduced us to their upbeat sound and ‘Gossamer’ both expanded the richness of the production and added more personal, intimate lyrics, ‘Kindred’ hangs in an awkward middle ground. As such it’s impossible to avoid comparison: the faster tracks can’t compete with the neon joy of The Reeling or Little Secrets; the slower tracks have nothing on the glittering Sleepyhead or Constant Conversations; and there’s nothing as politically charged as Take a Walk or as euphorically self-loathing as I’ll Be Alright. Instead this is enjoyable, but not essential.

If you’re looking for the best Passion Pit song of 2015, then switch over to Madeon’s ‘Adventure’ where the band feature on Pay No Mind. Every other song on ‘Kindred’ pales in comparison.

3/5

Gizzle’s Choice:
* Lifted Up (1985)
* Five Foot Ten (I)
* Until We Can’t (Let’s Go)

Listen: ‘Kindred’ is available now.


Tuesday, 21 April 2015

New Pop Roundup

Adam Lambert – Ghost Town

Adam Lambert – Ghost Town

Here in the UK, Lambert is mostly known as “that guy from American Idol who sings with Queen”. He’s yet to have a fully-fledged solo hit, but with this Max Martin-penned track that’s set to change.

At first listen this isn’t what you’d expect. It’s EDM. It’s EDM by numbers. It’s EDM by numbers that limits Lambert’s considerable vocal range.

Yet after a few listens it all clicks into place. The sombre, guitar-led verses make way for a sticky, syncopated bassline and Morricone-esque whistle hook, before launching into a brilliantly euphoric middle eight. It might be unexpected, but this is the banger that Lambert deserves.

N.B Not to be confused with Madonna’s Ghosttown.  Lambert > Madonna

4/5

Listen: Ghost Town is available across the world. Except in the UK, where it’s released on the 7th June just before forthcoming album ‘The Original High’. Because of course.




Rihanna – American Oxygen

Rihanna – American Oxygen

Rihanna has somewhat shot herself in the foot by releasing hit after hit over her career. She’ll never release another We Found Love so let’s just get over that shall we? It’s no wonder, then, that she’s experimenting with her sound for #R8 far more than in the past. Yes it’s been a mixed bag – a glorified demo and an acoustic snore-fest - but it’s also resulted in this track.

With American Oxygen, Rihanna is far less concerned with hooks and beats. This is Rihanna making a political statement with her music. This is Rihanna making a video that actually compliments the music beyond rave lights and a new 'do. This is Rihanna living up to her iconic status.

This is also Rihanna seemingly becoming a female Kanye West. Whether that’s a good thing is up to you.

4/5

Listen: American Oxygen is available now.




Giorgio Moroder – Déjà vu (feat Sia)

Giorgio Moroder – Déjà vu (feat Sia)

Funky Moroder production with lush strings and jangling disco guitars? Check.

Impassioned vocal from everyone’s favourite faceless singer-songwriter? Check.

Feelgood, electrifyingly joyful track that’s perfectly timed for the summer? Absolutely.

4/5

Listen: Déjà vu is available now.




Ty Dollar $ign – Drop That Kitty feat. Charli XCX and Tinashe

Ty Dollar $ign – Drop That Kitty feat. Charli XCX and Tinashe

This is kind of terrible. Ty’s rap is nothing to write home about. The “drop that kitty” conceit is slightly gross. And the cat gif video is just bizarre.

Yet if you’re going to release a pop R&B banger, then you may as well collaborate with two of the coolest female stars on the planet. Charli XCX brings some British punk attitude to proceedings, whilst Tinashe adds a retro 00s flavour with her sung chorus and dance routine. No doubt we’ll all be slut dropping to this for months to come.

It’s kind of terrible. But it’s also kind of amazing.

4/5

Listen: Drop That Kitty is available now.




Erik Hassle – No Words

Erik Hassle – No Words

Hassle’s previous EP was essentially an ode to Frank Ocean. This new track is essentially indebted to Daft Punk’s Get Lucky.

Neither of these statements are negative. The Swede sure as hell knows how to deliver a catchy pop track and No Words could well follow its inspiration to become one of the top tracks of summer 2015.

4/5

Listen: No Words is available now.




Janelle Monáe, Jidenna – Yoga

Janelle Monáe, Jidenna – Yoga

Yes Monáe can do sexy. And she can do it well.

But she’s also so much better than this. Her music is usually far more inventive and progressive than this sub-standard R&B rubbish. Can someone tell her that girls look way sexier in suits?

2/5

Listen: Yoga is available now.




Jones – Indulge

Jones – Indulge

Indulge is the title track from London-based electro-R&B singer Jones’s debut EP. It is, essentially, pure sex. A slow, languorous hand-clap beat; a seductive concoction of guitar lines and heavy synths; and a delicate vocal that flutters over the production. Once the bass kicks in for the first chorus, you’ll want to indulge in this again and again.

4/5

Listen: Indulge is available now.




Aquilo – Better Off Without You

Aquilo – Better Off Without You

The previous tracks from Lake District duo Aquilo have all been dark and sombre electronic affairs. Whilst beautifully evocative in their own right, for this new track they’ve gone full on Balearic. Sunny beach vibes emanate from the relaxed beat, warm synths and trumpet calls. It’s a sexy, funky twist on their sound that deserves plenty of attention.

4/5

Listen: Better Off Without You features on the duo’s forthcoming EP ‘Calling Me’ released on 31st May.




Ryn Weaver – The Fool


Ryn Weaver – The Fool

So far, Weaver has come to the fore for one song alone – Octohate. Since then, she’s failed to reach the same heights. The Fool is the title track from her forthcoming debut album – it’s cutesy pop, with a driving bass and fluttering vocal, but it doesn’t really get going until the stuttering final third. Let’s hope the rest of the album doesn’t follow that same trajectory.

3/5

Listen: The Fool features on the forthcoming album of the same name released on 7th August.




OMI – Cheerleader

OMI – Cheerleader

Song of the summer. End of.

4/5

Listen: Cheerleader is available now.

Monday, 20 April 2015

The Pirates of Penzance @ The Richmond Theatre

The Pirates of Penzance The Richmond Theatre

G&S is certainly something of an acquired taste. The light music is often an overly simple Mozart-inspired affair; the plotlines are bizarre; the traditional British humour hasn’t aged well; and many productions, no matter how slick, fail to rise above the level of am-dram. Embrace that silliness, though, and there is undoubtedly some fun to be had – even if the duo’s operettas seem increasingly archaic in today’s theatrical world.

Sasha Regan’s production of The Pirates of Penzance, first performed at the Union Theatre in 2009, embraces the silliness – with an all-male cast. Watching men prance around the stage in dresses with exaggerated and stereotypically girlish mannerisms is initially jarring, yet the show soon settles into its stride. Sure, it turns something that’s already a marmite show into an even more divisive production, but this Pirates is camp as Christmas and frequently hilarious.

Silliness aside, one worry is that of vocal balance, but it’s testament to the cast that this is never an issue. Even with a full cast singing in harmony, the “female” lines can still be heard clearly. Chris Theo-Cook (Isabelle), Ben Irish (Edith), Richard Edwards (Hebe) and Dale Page (Kate) make for an amusing quartet of ladies performing with tongue firmly in cheek, but Alan Richardson’s Mabel is the real standout performance, with a powerful falsetto and surprising vocal dexterity in the ornamental sections that equals many a soprano. Alex Weatherhill also amuses as Ruth, the pirates’ busty maid, with effortless comic timing. Elsewhere, Neil Moors plays a strapping Pirate King and Miles Western copes well with the vocal demands of the famous “I am the very model of a modern Major-General”, whilst Samuel Nunn croons his way through the role of Frederic.

As with Sullivan’s score, this production is simple yet effective. This works both ways. At times, Regan’s direction and staging feels a little stilted and uninspired, yet this is mostly overshadowed by some creative effects – subtly coloured lighting, candlelight, and the use of cloths and other props – that makes surprisingly atmospheric use of minimal set and predominantly white costumes. Lizzi Gee’s choreography is also slick and adds plenty of humour, from the (not so) manly pirates, to the giggling ladies and the amusing marching of the policemen complete with oversized moustaches.

There are a few issues with the operetta itself – the nonsensical plot and denouement, and a lack of tunes in the second half. Yet look past these shortcomings (and the frilly dresses) and there’s an entertaining show here, with a talented cast, some inventive comic moments and a gimmick that doesn’t overshadow the typical G&S charm that’s in abundance.

3/5

Watch: The Pirates of Penzance is on tour around the country until the end of June.





Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Animals @ Theatre 503

Animals Theatre 503

It’s always good to see theatre being used as a forum to explore difficult topics and give a voice to underrepresented sections of society. In the case of Animals, the latest play from Emma Adams performed at Theatre 503, it’s the elderly who are put centre stage. It’s rare to see many actors over the age of sixty on stage beyond bit-parts, so Adams should certainly be commended for her work here, with a very capable cast.

The crumbling, burnt and decaying set inside a bungalow gives an immediate sense of the dystopia the audience are thrown into. This is (according to the script) a “once respectable market town in North Yorkshire” in the year 2046 after “the ‘sea arrived’”. In this future world, the population are graded on their ability to contribute to society. For the young, they are wrapped (literally) in bubble wrap until their eighteenth birthday where a test will determine their worth. For those over sixty, coloured permits are handed out by the ‘Utility Force’ – red means involuntary euthanasia, unless they can pass a ‘reading’ (often aided by some Class A drugs). Psychological conditioning is rife; language is heavily scrutinised; and the elderly are far more intelligent, cunning and devious than the government give them credit for.

There are, then, some interesting concepts hidden away in the depths of Adams’ script, but Animals is something of a theatrical mess. For starters, many of the above details are not clearly defined for the audience. Instead, we must piece together this dystopia for ourselves. It’s not only confusing, it lacks credibility. Despite some intriguing ideas, this is not ultimately a believable world, which somewhat undermines the plot.

The plot, too, is confusing. Adams has attempted to construct a grim, futuristic fairytale involving three witch-like old women and some real-life cannibalism. Then there’s an oddly girlish teenager obsessed with a balloon, her patronising Utility Force father, and a huge dose of surreal weirdness. Thanks to a clunky and wordy script, the interactions between characters don’t feel believable – something that’s not helped by actors frequently stumbling over lines. This is a bizarre script that’s in dire need of editing.

Mostly, it’s the juxtapositions and shifts of tone that are predominantly at fault. There are moments of black comedy, mixed with a murderous thriller and a dark fairytale, accompanied by a chip tune soundtrack. But Sweeney Todd this isn’t. The tonal concoction of satire and anger shatters any sympathy we may have for the characters and never finds a balanced middle ground. Instead, Animals feels awkward and fails to put its topical points across in a lucid manner.

2/5

Watch: Animals runs at Theatre 503 until 2nd May.



Photos: Richard Davenport

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Gypsy @ The Savoy Theatre

Gypsy The Savoy Theatre

What's interesting about the plot of Gypsy is its subversion of expectations. Based on the 1957 memoirs of striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee (with book from Arthur Laurents and lyrics from Stephen Sondheim), the musical focuses on her mother Rose as she struggles to bring up her two daughters alone and is determined to make them stars. In their childish vaudeville act, the squeaky June is pushed to centre stage whilst the shy Louise merely provides support. Yet rather than following the rise to fame of June or, later, Louise, Rose is the real star of the show.

She is the ultimate pushy parent: brassy, bossy and with steely determination. She has the gift of the gab, worming her way into auditions to get every possible opportunity for her daughters - or is it for herself and her sense of self-worth? A monster she may be, but as the protagonist of the show she must simultaneously be sympathetic. By the end, she has become a tragic figure - her desperation laughable, her dreams crazed.

Such a fiery, complex character requires a skilled actress. It doesn't get much better than Imelda Staunton. Her performance is exceptional, capably balancing the extremes of the character, whilst delivering a strong vocal, brilliant comic timing and surprising sex appeal. The show's finale, "Rose's Turn", makes for a hugely dramatic climax as Staunton's emotionally charged performance sees the character shatter and break before our eyes. She is simply outstanding.

Staunton leads an incredibly strong cast. Lara Pulver naturally evolves from the awkward and introverted Louise into the seductive Gypsy Rose Lee with a touch of Eva Green about her, whilst Gemma Sutton is a bold June despite the character quickly falling by the wayside. The rest of the ensemble are brilliantly polished, whilst the accompanying orchestra play superbly.

That polish can be said of the musical as a whole. It may not bring any novel ideas to the West End, but this is simply an old fashioned musical performed to a wonderfully high standard. Every element of the show is excellent, from the memorable tunes, to the grand and lucid design, and the entertaining choreography. Yet mostly, Gypsy excels with its narrative and characterisation: the thematically rich mother-daughter plot and the subtle criticism of show business that remains relevant today. Staunton's powerhouse performance is a joy to watch yet equally haunting, ensuring this production really is a must-see.

5/5

Watch: Gypsy runs at the Savoy Theatre until May.



For more reviews of Gypsy, check out this round-up from Official Theatre.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story @ The Greenwich Theatre

Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story

Whilst Kevin Spacey is busy thrilling audiences with his portrayal of lawyer Clarence Darrow at the Old Vic, Thrill Me comes to the Greenwich Theatre to tell the story of Leopold and Loeb – two Chicago students whom Darrow defended after they committed “the crime of the century”. It’s a musical adaptation from Stephen Dolginoff that’s quietly brooding, if not as thrilling as the title might suggest.

The plot is an intriguing one. Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold were two law students at the University of Chicago who, in 1924, murdered a fourteen year old boy. Why? To display their intellectual superiority by committing the perfect crime. Loeb, in particular, is here portrayed as a particularly loathsome character: a pyromaniac for whom petty crimes aren’t enough. He easily seduces the submissive Leopold and a secret romance ensues, escalating towards the inevitable and spurred on by a secret that proves Leopold isn’t quite the innocent man he seems.

It’s testament to the performances of Jo Parsons (Leopold) and Ben Woods (Loeb) that the two murderers are compelling: Parsons wide-eyed and naïve, Woods suave and charming. Together, their voices blend beautifully. Yet in uncovering the mystery behind these characters, Dolginoff relies too heavily on cliché. The ‘what I did for love’ theme feels like a let-down after an initially gripping story, whilst the lyrics are brimming with clunky rhymes. For all the narrative’s psychosexual politics and homoeroticism, it doesn’t quite bristle with chilling tension as it should and the frequent references to the philosopher Nietzsche (mainly his championing of the individual) are not fully explored.

Much of this criticism stems from the music, which has a tendency to pause the drama and drag out what could have been a tight drama. Performed solely on piano by Tom Turner, it’s certainly hypnotic as it churns like clockwork, but much of the melody is simply dialogue set to music and never builds towards a dramatic crescendo. The most successful moments of the show are those without music, where the actors are given the space to breathe and really get to grips with the characters. Perhaps Thrill Me would’ve worked better instead as a play with incidental music.

James Turner’s simple set design, paired with some stark lighting from Richard Williamson, provides a cage-like backdrop on which the story plays out, gradually creeping up on the audience. The two actors are eminently watchable, seductively lit in spotlight as cigarette smoke curls around them. The noir style – the show’s tone, lighting and mesmeric music – is certainly befitting of the story, but the individual elements never quite come together into the thriller this should be.

3/5

Watch: Thrill Me runs at the Greenwich Theatre until 18th April.

Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story

Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story
Photos: Nick Rutter

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Trainspotting @ The Kings Head Theatre

Trainspotting The Kings Head Theatre

The narrative of Trainspotting is best known to most people from Danny Boyle's 1996 film starring Ewan McGregor. For all its crazy surreal moments and quotable dialogue, it offers a compelling story of drug addicts in Edinburgh and characters we care about.

This sixty minute production from In Your Face Theatre acts like a 'best of' of the film. It's got most of the memorable scenes you remember, but it's disjointed and doesn't flow together, attempting to cram a wealth of plot and characterisation into a short amount of time.

You wouldn't want it to last any longer, though. This production is something of a harrowing experience - intentionally so.  The company name is fitting: this is an aggressively immersive production that quite literally gets up in the face of the audience. We're invited to sit on the floor of this crack den as the action occurs in and around us and we become part of the play whether we like it or not.

What is thrilling for a few minutes, though, soon becomes gimmicky and the production falls short in the dramatic stakes. On a basic level the staging is distracting with sightlines too easily obscured, ironically confounding immersion. More so, the production boils down to little more than shock tactics; sixty minutes bursting with profanities, nudity, violence and drug use. Visceral it may be, but pleasant it isn't. Immersive theatre may demand a certain level of audience interaction, but when people are hit in the face with pool cues and have shit quite literally flung at them, a line has clearly been crossed.

The reasons for this style are obvious. Welsh's novel is hedonistic, brutal and disturbing, filled with grimly dark humour - something In Your Face have attempted to capture. The end result, though, is overly confrontational and borderline offensive.

It would be more palatable with sympathetic characters, but the cast spend most of their time shouting their lines with little subtlety. Gavin Ross doesn't quite have the magnetism to lead the cast as Renton, though every actor is commendably committed to their respective roles and deliver quick-witted improvisation. As a whole, though, the narrative simply doesn't have any depth beyond some humorous anecdotes on life as a junkie. Boyle's film added a pulsing, youthful pop soundtrack to his film (often copied here) and an overall style that elevated the narrative. Here, though, it's simply style over substance.

2/5

Watch: Trainspotting runs at the Kings Head Theatre until 11th April.