Thursday, 30 October 2014

La Bohéme - ENO @ The Coliseum


Is there an opera more Romantic than La Bohéme?  Not just a tragic, doomed love story, the whole notion of heroic bohemian artists working outside of mainstream tastes in relative poverty is built on the foundations of Romanticism.

In Jonathan Miller’s realistically portrayed production of Puccini’s opera (now in its third revival), it’s the latter that’s emphasised.  Isabella Bywater’s multi-tiered, rotating set design has a suitably cold palette, transporting us from shabby interiors to atmospheric snow covered cobbled streets.  It’s brought to life by the scurrying, ever-busy chorus – the bustling Café Momus scene of Act II is a particular highlight.  This isn’t a radical production; the setting has been updated to 1930s era Paris, but the clear and traditional aesthetic ensures the narrative is lucid and the music is the key focus.  That’s a welcome trait – Bohéme is not to be messed with.

That balance can’t be said of conductor Gianluca Marciano.  The English translation of the libretto from Amanda Holden (no not that one) is full of comedy as well as pathos, even if the rhyming is sometimes stilted.  It’s a shame, though, that the words are so frequently overpowered by the sometimes indulgent orchestra.  Balance and diction are both issues here.

If the setting is evocative, the acting doesn’t quite have the necessary passion.  American soprano Angel Blue sings the role of Mimi beautifully, delivering a rich tone and subtle fragility, yet her characterisation is too meek to make an impact and her singing is easily overpowered by the orchestra.  On the other hand, David Butt Philip offers an impassioned and tender sing as Rodolfo with a stunning upper register.  Together, the central pair don’t quite have the necessary chemistry.  That’s especially true by comparison to Jennifer Holloway’s flirtatious Musetta and George von Bergen’s hot-blooded Marcello.  Other periphery characters are a little underdeveloped, but the ensemble produce a brilliant sound.

Despite its flaws, there are frequent moments where vocal lyricsm and the sweeping orchestra join harmoniously.  That’s testament to Puccini’s sumtuous score and lush orchestration, which remain incredibly moving.

4/5

Watch: La Bohéme runs until the 6th December.


Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Jessie J - Sweet Talker


“I’mma do it like it ain’t been done”, Jessie J sings on the opening track of her latest album.  If by “ain’t been done” she means release an album that won’t flop, she’s thoroughly mistaken.

The thing is, ‘Sweet Talker’ isn’t necessarily a bad album.  There are catchy hooks, some heartfelt lyrics and, most of all, some impressive and passionate vocals.  If there’s one thing that Jessie J does better than most it’s sing.  And she really can SANG.

Yet, three albums in, it’s clear that she just doesn’t know what sort of artist to be anymore.  Criticised at every turn, her previous albums have contained hip-hop anthems, pop anthems, ballad anthems, feminist anthems and everything in between.  Now the anthems are running thin, offering nothing we haven’t heard before.  ‘Sweet Talker’ falls into an odd safe zone that accomplishes nothing.  But where else can she go?

Seal Me With A Kiss is an album highlight that at least offers something different (for Jessie at least).  Featuring De La Soul, it’s a 90s style funk banger that proves to be a decent fit for her vocal riffs and ticks – even if the middle eight rap from De La Soul is terrible (“girl you know I can’t sleep ‘till I poke”).  Elsewhere Burnin’ Up is another attempt to recapture the essence of Do It Like A Dude; Keep Us Together is a catchy piano-led mid-tempo pop track; the title track falls into the EDM trap; and Bang Bang is as shouty as pop tracks come.

For the most part, the album is a series of (supposedly) powerful ballads.  Fire soars like an unstoppable inferno, her vocal becoming increasingly crazed.  The raw emotion of Personal is lost in typically over-cooked singing.  Get Away finally ends the album on a much needed quiet note.  The main criticism against Jessie J is that her singing is emphatic to the point of hyperbole, her music so overblown it slips into melodrama.  ‘Sweet Talker’ does nothing to address this issue.  She’s always been at her best when she doesn’t take herself so seriously – Do It Like A Dude, Domino and, here, Seal Me With A Kiss – but in her desire to be taken seriously by both critics and public she’s taken things too far.  A frequent occurrence.

Her response is the dramatic Masterpiece.  “If you don’t like my sound, you can turn it down”, she spits, “Sometimes I mess up, I eff up, I hit and miss, but I’m ok, I’m cool with it”.  Is she?  Over the course of the three albums, you get the impression that Jessie J is something of a perfectionist, yet by constantly striving for perfection she’s shooting herself in the foot by releasing an endless string of ‘bangers’ that never quite hit the mark.  In the search for her enigmatic masterpiece she should probably take her own advice: nobody’s perfect.

2/5

Gizzle’s Choice
* Personal
* Seal Me With A Kiss
* Keep Us Together

Listen: ‘Sweet Talker’ is available now.



Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Grand Guignol @ The Southwark Playhouse


There’s a fine line between horror and humour.  Too much gore and screaming and the audience will be lost in fits of laughter.  Grand Guignol, however, manages to balance things, serving shocks and laughs in equal doses.

The Theatre du Grand-Guignol in Paris (1897-1962) was known for its horror dramas.  Its plays were filled with so much explicit violence and frights aplenty that a resident doctor was employed to care for the audience.  Tales of murder, revenge and sadism delighted audiences, effectively delivering the torture porn in many of today’s horror films.

This particular play, written by Carl Grose and transferring from the Theatre Royal Plymouth, is a fictionalised account of the theatre in its heyday.  It focuses on playwright Andre De Lorde (Jonathan Broadbent), a tortured artist whose sick mind conjures up gruesome, macabre stories for his adoring audience.  He is met by psychologist Dr Alfred Binet (Matthew Pearson) whose interest in the theatre extends to De Lorde himself – what kind of man could write such stories?  Hilariously, De Lorde is haunted by the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe who provides him with inspiration, though there’s also a wealth of childhood trauma for the doctor to uncover.  It’s all wrapped up in a murder mystery, with a series of grisly murders taking place outside of the theatre walls.  It asks us to question: does art imitate life, or is life imitating art?

With this production, it’s very much art imitating life.  Presenting numerous sections of De Lorde’s plays like dissected corpses, we are literally the audience within the theatre of the play, the fourth wall as transparent as a ghost.  The ceiling above the audience literally shudders at the entrance of Poe, whilst the script is full of actorly jokes that climax with an evil critic (I don’t know what they could possibly mean…).  Some audience members on the front row were even sprayed with blood in this performance.

And there’s enough blood here to make Sweeney Todd look like a pussycat.  As one of the characters jokes, what sells is “guts and tits”.  The play does have a certain creepy atmosphere to it, but it’s soon filled with blood splatters, tongues being cut out, intestines sprawling across the floor and eyeballs being…removed. 

The violence, though, all fits into the melodramatic style of intentionally hammy acting – even if it borders on silly at times.  The story builds on horror clichés, delivered to the audience by the superb cast with a knowing wink and a nudge.  Robert Portal's eyebrows alone bring a sinister edge to the multiple characters he plays, and Emily Raymond is hugely entertaining as Maxa, ‘the world’s most assassinated woman’.  This is a horror play that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  That may deter some people looking for a genuine thrill and, certainly, the play somewhat oversimplifies its psychoanalytical elements.  Yet Grand Guignol is full of gory visual delights that provide laughs at the twisted end of the spectrum this Halloween.

3/5

Watch: Grand Guignol runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 22nd November.

Ticket courtesy of Official Theatre, visit their website here.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Taylor Swift - 1989


This is it.  This is the moment that 2014 has been waiting for.  By comparison to last year’s deluge of comeback albums from huge artists (Beyoncé, Daft Punk, Katy Perry, Gaga, Britney, Justin, Kanye and Eminem to name just a handful), this year has been a veritable desert.  Instead, 2014 has mostly been the year of the debut.  Until now.  Unless Rihanna Beyoncé’s an album, this is the best we’re going to get.  That’s no bad thing.

This is also the moment that Swift herself has been waiting for.  2012’s ‘Red’ was the album that saw her rise from country star to popstar, but ‘1989’ is her real pop breakthrough.  As she said herself at the reveal of lead single Shake It Off a couple of months back, the album has stemmed from “not wanting but needing to write a new style of music”.  The result is not only her best album, but probably the best pop album of the year.

That “new style” is in fact late 80s pop, hence the album title (also her year of birth).  Yet the 80s have been mined for years now by pop musicians – all epic synth waves, bleeps and bloops and processed beats.  Is Swift simply playing catch up?

Oh no, this is no pastiche.  She’s far too savvy for that.  ‘1989’ is a consolidation of all the best pop music from the past few years mixed with that unique Swift sound.  Listening to the album, there are shades of everyone from Katy Perry to CHVRCHES, Haim, Lorde and Twin Shadow amongst others.  The intro of opener Welcome To New York immediately establishes the glittery synthy sound; the sparse production of Blank Space wouldn’t sound out of place on Lorde’s ‘Pure Heroine’; Style features plenty of soaring guitar solos amidst pulsing synth bass that brings to mind Don Henley’s The Boys of Summer; and the widescreen feel of Out of the Woods is Swift’s twist on CHVRCHES style electro pop.  And that’s just the first four tracks.  Later, ballads like This Love and Clean slow the tempo, fusing country guitars with evocative, nocturnal moods (the layered vocals of the former are an especially beautiful moment).

As if Swift herself wasn’t a competent songwriter, one look at the credits is enough to get pop fans excited: Max Martin, Shellback, Ryan Tedder and even Imogen Heap all assisted with writing and producing ‘1989’.  That’s the dream team right there, the first two especially ensuring the album has that polished Scandi quality that’s pretty much integral to all modern pop music of note.

Amongst all of this, though, ‘1989’ is still very much a Taylor Swift album – indeed it’s a natural extension of her biggest hits from ‘Red’.  The deluxe version of the album includes some voice memos that give insight into her songwriting process.  Strip back the production to just piano and/or guitar and this is the same Swift that fans know and love.  The lyrics remain as honest, truthful and candid as ever, ensuring this is an album with heart and soul rather than just another cold electronic 80s knock-off.  Shake It Off is the only major exception with its jokey lyrics (“this sick beat”, “hella good hair”), but even Swift allows herself a pure pop moment of joy.

In fact, lyrics are at the heart of Swift’s style.  She simply has an uncanny ability to capture youthful love in all its forms.  Here, her lyrics certainly have greater maturity and melancholy than before, but she’s now a woman of 24 rather than a love-struck teenager.  Known for writing about her ex-lovers, Blank Space is perhaps her most self-referential with its chorus lyric “got a long list of ex-lovers / they’ll tell you I’m insane / but I got a blank space baby / and I’ll write your name”.  New Romantics ends the deluxe version with a title that transcends both the 80s genre and Swift's own propensity for romance.  Elsewhere, the lyrics have an urgent cinematic quality (Out of the Woods for instance) and are filled with poetic imagery (Wildest Dreams - “say you’ll remember me standing in a nice dress, staring at the sunset”, or Bad Blood – “band-aids don’t fix bullet holes”).  Mostly, Swift proves herself to be a master storyteller through her lyrics.  That’s something that comes from her country heritage; now it’s simply applied to an electronic pop aesthetic.

In that respect, ‘1989’ is an evolution, not a revolution.  It’s also the pinnacle of 00s pop, taking all the clichés of 80s music that have influenced current trends and smacking a big Swift stamp across it all to rise above the competition.  It’s clear, then, that she’s the biggest popstar of 2014.  And with good reason.

5/5

Gizzle’s Choice:
* Style
* Out of the Woods
* This Love

Listen: '1989' is available now.

My Lifelong Love - An Evening With Georgia Stitt and Friends @ The Garrick Theatre


Making her West End debut with My Lifelong Love, composer Georgia Stitt is still probably best known as the wife of that other composer of modern musical theatre: Jason Robert Brown.  Yet in this one-off evening celebrating her music, she proved that she’s certainly his equal.

Stylistically there are clear similarities between their music.  Both follow a comparable dramatic rhythm, merge word painting and a sense of classical composition with accessible pop melodies, and hold storytelling as a core focus.  Every song is a story in its own right, both composers having a penchant for contemporary subjects – brutally honest and believable love stories in our modern world.  Yet where so many New York composers attempt to replicate JRB’s sound, only Stitt can truly compete.

Stitt isn’t afraid to put herself into her music.  ‘Palimpsest’, for instance, is a song that details her love affair with New York City – her most biographical song – whilst her encore was a song dedicated to her husband.  On a broader scale, her songs of human relationships are relatable and deeply moving – songs like ‘The Wanting Of You’ from Alphabet City Cycle and ‘I Lay My Armour Down’ from This Ordinary Sunday.  Even her setting of Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet XXIX’ puts a modern spin on his poetry, with beautiful orchestration.  These songs were all performed in the first half of the concert.  Taken out of context from their respective shows and song cycles, the art song quality ensured they remained dramatically sound (theatre auditionees take note).  The second half featured a work in progress, The Danger Year, a song cycle exploring the need for human connections.  The technological opening number ‘Connect’, the dramatic twists of ‘The Baby Song’, and the amusing ‘A Platonic Affair’ particularly stood out.

This was also an evening to show off the incredible talent currently on the West End.  Simon Bailey, Norman Bowman and Jamie Muscato all gave convincing performances with some beautiful vocals.  Bailey was able to let loose with the rhythm and blues flavoured ‘At This Turn In The Road Again’, whilst Bowman and Muscato both delivered sincere emotion – particularly ‘Sonnet XXIX’ and ‘Light Of The World’.

However, Stitt surely knows how to compose for the female voice; it was the three female performers who truly stood out.  Caroline Sheen’s theatrical vocal ensured her delivery of each song was always imbued with dramatic emotion, whilst Eva Noblezada has a likeable pop tone to her voice that matches her youthful exuberance (especially on the amusing ‘My Lifelong Love’ from The Danger Year).  However, it was Cynthia Erivo who gave the outstanding performance of the night.  Her singing is quite simply sublime: a sumptuous tone, effortless control and the stage presence of a superstar. 

In all, this was an evening of heartfelt storytelling, stunning vocals and an abundance of on-stage talent.  This shouldn’t be the last time Stitt’s music is heard on a West End stage.

5/5

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Spine @ The Soho Theatre


On the surface, Spine is a hilarious little monologue.  Performed by Rosie Wyatt, this is the story of a proper Laaandaaan girl - the crude and aggressive Amy.  She falls out with friends, sleeps with men she probably shouldn't, and has a particularly rocky relationship with her mother.  Wyatt's vivid characterisation - both vocally and physically - is hugely entertaining, delivering Clara Brennan's often vulgar script at amusingly high velocity.  It's a portrayal that carefully balances realism and fiction.

Yet there's more to Amy than meets the eye.  She soon befriends an elderly widow and the two women strike up an unlikely friendship over stolen library books, with more in common than expected.  An activist in her younger days, Mrs Glenda is keen to pass on the baton of political power, proving herself to be far more than just a helpless old woman.  Spine thus becomes a story of inter-generational feminist power; of a misunderstood young girl learning to reach her potential.

It's the sort of thematic richness you'd expect from a longer play, but this one-act monologue is concise and layered, providing plenty of thought-provoking talking points.  Some of the finer details may get lost amongst the characterisation and the plot feels a touch conceited at times, but the pacing is well thought out and the narrative style is intense and gripping.

It's Wyatt's tour-de-force performance that truly impresses - a feat of both memory and acting skill.  Playing both women distinctly, her delivery is brash, comic and surprisingly touching.  This is simply brilliant and engaging storytelling.

4/5

Watch: Spine runs at the Soho Theatre until 2nd November.



Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Rivals @ The Arcola Theatre


On its opening night in 1775, The Rivals was criticised by one actor in the audience as “intolerably long”.  That may still be the case 240 years later, but it remains an enjoyable Restoration romp.

The plot itself is typical of the genre, full of romance and marriage proposals, mistaken identity, deceiving letters and class reputations across its lengthy five acts.  The wealthy Lydia Languish longs for her life to mirror the romance novels she eagerly devours; soon she gets more than she bargained for.  That the programme comes with a detailed synopsis is a very welcome addition.  Yet Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play is often considered one of the masterpieces of the age and that remains clear centuries later.  The narrative is thematically strong and easy enough to follow, the characters colourful and distinctive, and the language – so integral to the genre - is full of wit and humour, proving Sheridan to be a master wordsmith.

The main success of this production, from director Selina Cadell, is its authenticity.  Emma Bailey’s minimal set design has a pleasingly hand-crafted feel, whilst the scene changes are accompanied by sprightly dance music performed by the actor-musicians (under the musical direction of Eliza Thompson).  Rosalind Ebbutt’s costume design is also of note, balancing authentic wigs and dresses with modern colour coordination to match the characters.

Yet it’s the acting that truly takes centre stage here.  The cast is led by Gemma Jones (perhaps best known as Madame Pomfrey in the Harry Potter films, amongst numerous theatre credits) who plays the hilarious Mrs Malaprop.  Her misuse of words and sayings provides frequent laughs; her character is Sheridan’s main conduit for wordplay.  The acting style across the cast is full of eccentricities – from the love-struck Lydia (Jennifer Rainsford) and her melodramatic flouncing, to the pathetically wet Faulkland (Adam Jackson-Smith) and the contrasting servants Fag and David (both played by Carl Prekopp).  Nicholas Le Prevost is also a joy to watch as the comically naughty Sir Anthony Absolute. 

Cadell gently pokes at the farcical nature of the play, with plenty of asides and audience participation providing opportunity for humour – eyebrows are raised, actors bow at every entrance and costumes and props are temporarily stored amongst the stalls.  It may be long, but The Rivals never fails to entertain.

4/5

Watch: The Rivals runs at the Arcola Theatre until 15th November.




Nicole Scherzinger - Big Fat Lie



Nicole Scherzinger Popstar has been pretty busy over the last couple of years since her last album, 2011’s ‘Killer Love’.  She’s been playing judge on The X Factor, shampooing her locks for Herbal Essences, snuffling yoghurts for Muller and will soon be appearing in Cats on the West End stage.  Listening to ‘Big Fat Lie’, though, you do wish she’d have concentrated a little more on the music rather than getting her nose covered in Greek whipped liquid fluff.

Lead single and opening track Your Love could have marked the start of something decent.  It’s certainly a little different for the 2014 charts, all percussive beats and electronic sparkles (even if it’s lacking in the bass department).  Sadly it massively underperformed on release.  That it was followed by the incredibly dull On The Rocks is indicative of a music career stuck in a downward spiral.

Scherzinger is so much better than this.  She’s one of the sexiest women on the planet.  She can dance and perform onstage better than most.  And she’s got a decent set of pipes.  So why settle for this album of trite?

Electric Blue, featuring rapper T.I., is the only other track on ‘Big Fat Lie’ worth listening to.  Its syncopated beats and retro synths, coupled with her breathless falsetto, make for one hell of a sexy track that successfully borders both pop R&B and hip-hop.

The remains of the album, though, is generic pop R&B at best, devoid of hooks.  The monotonous Heartbreaker revolves around a single, repetitive bassline; God of War is notable only for its sweary chorus (“I’m so glad you’re gone / You’re so f*cking annoying”); the title track is a typical “oh woe is me I’m rich and famous and heartbroken” slow jam; and Run is a snore-inducing piano-led ballad that doesn’t show off Scherzinger’s vocal as much as it should.

For the most part, ‘Big Fat Lie’ meanders through a series of tracks attempting to replicate the same futuristic R&B sound that everyone else is doing so much better – the sparse Bang; the autotuned Just A Girl.  It’s about time Scherzinger took control of her career and released an album of forward-thinking pop.  She’s certainly capable of it.

Instead she’s released an album that’s essentially a bad Cheryl F-V record.  To say anything else would be a big fat lie.

2/5

Listen: 'Big Fat Lie' is available now.


Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Scottsboro Boys @ The Garrick Theatre



Kander and Ebb always merged their entertaining musicals with a strong social message.  The Scottsboro Boys is no exception, even if it leans a little heavily on its message to the detriment of entertainment.

The show follows the true story of nine young black men in 1930s Alabama, falsely accused of raping two white women.  The actual plot is fairly basic, following the men through multiple trials and the injustice they face purely for their skin colour.  Hayward Patterson (Brandon Victor Dixon) emerges as the leader of the group – a determined man wedded to the truth - but really this is a stunning piece of ensemble work from a consistently strong cast.

What makes the show, though, is its form, with the narrative ironically framed as a minstrel show.  The juxtaposition of a dark comedic tone and serious issues twists the form into unnerving satire, the cast mimicking bigoted white folk through grotesque, cartoonish characterisation.  The two white women, for instance, are played by James T Lane and Dex Lee with hilarious effect, which only emphasises the shock factor.  It’s an incredibly provocative show: you will laugh and question in equal measure.  And in solemn moments where the humour pauses (the ending especially), the show proves its worth through powerful imagery and storytelling.

The set design, from Beowulf Boritt, is barebones, cleverly using just a set of chairs to evoke everything from a cell to a bus.  Whilst this does provide focus, the show does lack a little in its visual stimulus.  The all-white costumes, too, are a little contrived.  Likewise, the score is brilliant but is missing the big tunes of Chicago and Cabaret.  Instead, Kander and Ebb settle for vaudeville pastiche to serve the style rather than provide pure musical entertainment.

It’s in the performances that the show truly shines.  Susan Stroman’s direction and choreography is superb, the cast offering some terrific physical performances alongside some of the best dance sequences in the West End.  Colman Domingo (Mr Bones) and Forrest McClendon (Mr Tambo) are particularly enjoyable to watch as the amusing comperes of the show, playing a variety of physically distinctive characters.  Vocally, too, the cast is excellent – one a capella moment especially shows off their voices to gorgeous effect.

The Scottsboro Boys may not be the strongest show in the Kander and Ebb canon, but this production still packs an emotional punch with its earnest social agenda.

4/5

Watch: The Scottsboro Boys runs at the Garrick Theatre until February 2015.


Monday, 20 October 2014

Fury (2014) - David Ayer


If there’s one thing that Fury does well, it’s depict a terrifying vision of the horrors of war.  Set in WWII, this is an unflinching and brutal film: men are stabbed in the eyes, shot at numerous times and frequently burnt alive.  It is far from a pleasant watch.

What’s more terrifying, though, is the abhorrent characterisation.  The plot follows an American tank crew journeying through Nazi Germany as they gleefully and sadistically pummel the enemy with machine gun fire.  Almost every man on screen is motivated by testosterone-fuelled machismo, manly posturing substituted for deep acting.  The claustrophobic camerawork inside the tank forces us to question the morality of each flimsy, stereotypical character: the religious man, the violent man, the token Mexican.  Brad Pitt’s crew leader Don Collier at least shows some emotion and fragility away from the rest of the crew, but it’s hardly a complex role.  The generic performances would be bearable if the actors stopped persistently mumbling their lines.  They are simply bullies who see murdering the “mother f*cking Nazis” as sport.

The audience witnesses the narrative through the eyes of Norman (Logan Lerman): a young, naïve boy newly assigned as assistant driver on the tank.  He is a good person, a conduit for our reasoned morality who refuses to pull the trigger and treats women with kindness.  Yet this is a film about how war turns good men into monsters.  We are meant to question who the real enemy is – the predominantly faceless, silhouetted Nazis, or the monsters the camera forces us to confront.  Soon (too quickly) even Norman is swept up in the war, swearing and firing with abandon.  This may make sense thematically, but narratively it leaves us with nobody to sympathise with.  For these men, killing is “the best job I ever had”.  You may start to wish the Nazis were winning.

Mostly, this is a film that tells us how to feel.  It’s emotionally charged with an eminently quotable script and a cast of hateful characters.  We have no choice but to dislike every man on the screen, to feel guilty about the atrocities that occurred.  This is not a subtly thought-provoking film; this is a film that explicitly presents us with grim violence to funnel our thoughts down a specific path.  Steven Price’s emotive score only fuels the fire.  Over the course of the film, we become desensitised to the sheer amount of brutality but we never warm to the characters.

Director David Ayer proves his worth with the action sequences that ensure Fury is an exhilarating, visceral and tense watch, but it lacks the developed characters to hold the emotional weight of the narrative.  “You’re a hero buddy” Norman is told at the end of the film.  You’ll feel like one for sitting through it.

2/5

Watch: Fury is released on 22nd October.