Monday, 16 January 2017

La La Land - Damien Chazelle

La La Land - Damien Chazelle

After the hypnotic Whiplash and its dynamic, percussive exploration of jazz and musicianship, there's no better director than Damien Chazelle to helm this new kind of movie musical.

La La Land, like his previous film, is an ode to jazz. It's there in the intimate jazz clubs that form the backdrop to many scenes, it's there in the passion of Ryan Gosling's Seb - a jazz pianist who idolises the greats and dreams of similar success - and it's there in the rhythmic camerawork that mirrors the textures of everyday life. Above all it's in Justin Hurwitz's glorious score, which uses jazz to reflect the film's multitude themes: the bustle of city living, the giddy fluttering rush of new love, and the slow melancholy of romance.

As an ode to movie musicals, the film revels in the transporting power of music. Each song is a dreamlike sequence, light of touch, bright of colour and wonderfully surreal. The film is a playful reminiscence on classical Hollywood, with all the glamour and enchantment that brings, and filled with references bold and subtle. It all comes together in a climactic dream ballet montage that encapsulates the awesome power of music, film, romance and - above all - nostalgia. It's here that Chazelle revels in filmmaking with some brilliant direction.

Equally, however, the film is a criticism of those old movies and works instead as an ode to modern relationships. Despite its surreal music and soft cinematography, this is a harshly realistic take on romance through the lens of a musical. Emma Stone's struggling actress Mia is a thoroughly modern woman, Stone giving a typically quirky, goofy and sarcastic performance. Gosling's Seb is an old-fashioned dreamer. Neither are particularly good singers (the wispy Stone nor the flatly crooning Gosling, whose piano miming needs work) but that only adds to the film's everyday realism. Regardless, both actors are immensely likeable with believable chemistry, but their romance doesn't always run smoothly. Ironically enough, love isn't like the movies.

La La Land, then, is a sometimes awkward collision of old and new - just like its protagonists. Mia worries her one woman play is too nostalgic; Seb is a traditionalist who joins a band diluting jazz with futuristic synths. They tug in opposite directions, yet they pull together magnetically. In the twenty-first century, though, you can't have it all. Personal dreams don't allow for romance. Romance isn't always a dream.

That's a jarring but welcome message for a movie musical, though its heartbreaking realism is beautifully scripted and acted. La La Land is a clever, pensive and bittersweet film that's reflective and thought-provoking, but more likely to capture the mind than the heart.

4/5

Watch: La La Land is out now.

Friday, 13 January 2017

The Kite Runner @ Wyndham's Theatre

The Kite Runner @ Wyndham's Theatre

It was Alexander The Great who first observed the importance of Afghanistan as a link between East and West. Ever since, the country has seen political and religious turmoil, strife and war, not least between the varying indigenous ethnicities of the Pashtun, Tajiks and Hazaras.

That's not to say there haven't been times of truce. In 1919 the British and Indian empires recognised the country's independence and in the year's following under the rule of Zahir Shah there was relative peace. It's in the early 1970s that the plot of The Kite Runner begins, just as unrest stirred up once again.

Based on Khaled Hosseini's novel of the same name, this theatrical adaptation from Matthew Spangler shows the beautiful good, the horrifying bad and the strikingly ugly sides of Afghan culture. Its focus is the life of Amir (Ben Turner), a boy from a well-off family who fails to live up to the expectations of his father Baba (Emilio Doorgasingh), but finds friendship in his Hazara servant Hassan (Andrei Costin). As a multi-million selling book, the plot will be familiar to many. It's as powerful, touching and poignant here, delivering an extraordinary tale of friendship, fatherhood, cultural divides and guilt.

The success of the play falls on the shoulders of Turner's Amir, who impressively remains on-stage at all times as narrator. It's an exceptional, captivating performance, drawing us into the story with the mannerisms of a child and slowly morphing into an adult wracked with shame from the traumatic events he witnesses as a boy. He's supported by Costin's Hassan: innocent, endearing and tragically loyal.

As an adaptation, however, this production feels lacklustre. As Turner narrates, the story unfolds literally as a series of chronological events. There's real depth in the plot and potential for rich theatricality, but Spangler remains stoically tied to the novel's first person narrative and adds little beyond an audiobook delivery. Narration - scene - narration - scene: it's a pedestrian structure that never quite manages to bring the book alive off the page.

Further, it bears the hallmarks of a touring production: the set is simple and subtle, lighting is minimal, and the small cast awkwardly double up on roles (with one questionable depiction of a Vietnamese woman standing out in an otherwise BAME cast). It all serves the story efficiently, but lacks the magic theatre can provide.

Yet with such a heartfelt and emotive story at the core of this production, it's impossible to dislike. And with its message that humanity knows no boundaries of country, religion or culture, it couldn't have come at a better time. It may not prove the power of theatre, but its story remains deeply moving.

3/5

Watch: The Kite Runner runs at the Wyndham's Theatre until March 11th.

The Kite Runner @ Wyndham's Theatre

The Kite Runner @ Wyndham's Theatre
Photos: Robert Workman

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Ed Sheeran - Shape Of You / Castle On The Hill

Ed Sheeran - Divide

Ed Sheeran has now fully divided his music in this, the first major comeback of 2017.

He’s always had two differing styles: the acoustic, slushy balladeer and the hip-hop courting loop pedaller. In this return, we have not one but two singles that make that split explicit.

Everyone will have a favourite. For me, it’s the dancehall-infused Shape Of You that brings Sheeran’s style into more modern tastes with its infectious syncopations, even if the idea of a Sheeran sex-jam may seem distinctly unappealing to some. The counter single, Castle On The Hill, sees Sheeran turning to the stadiums he’s so eager to fill on tour, though the jangling guitars and mawkish lyrics veer dangerously close to U2 territory.

Yet this divided approach seems to have only solidified his fanbase. Where a double single release may have been a risk by splitting streaming numbers as opposed to focusing on a sole track, he’s instead simply launched to the top of every chart with both hits. Shape Of You is slightly outperforming Castle On The Hill, but to have two singles on a par with one another dominating global charts whilst breaking almost every streaming record going is a phenomenal achievement (he’s receiving an unprecedented 7m daily streams worldwide). It’s a marketing strategy that’s paying off, building up huge anticipation for the forthcoming album and with two solid tracks to boot.

I wonder what the inevitable ‘Subtract’ will bring in a couple of years time…





Saturday, 17 December 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) - Gareth Edwards

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) - Gareth Edwards

It doesn't even begin with the theme tune.

But then it's clear from the title alone that this isn't a proper Star Wars film, though neither is it a bold new direction. There are enough familiar elements, but there's an undeniable sparkle missing. The force is not so strong with this one.

After an intriguing opening with similarities to every other leading Star Wars character in the series, the film gets off to a choppy start. With so many new characters to introduce, the film jumps between multiple scenes as it attempts to set up its story threads but they're too quick and don't allow for enough characterisation. It takes a while for Rogue One to find its rhythm.

Once it does, we're treated to an exceptional looking film with pristine CGI effects and high-stakes action. There have always been parallels to Samurai culture in the films, but here they come to the fore in hand-to-hand combat - mainly from newcomer Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen). Him aside, there's little use of the magical Force with barely a lightsaber to be seen, leading to a pleasingly more grounded film that genuinely feels like a tense suicide mission, the odds stacked high against the Rebels.

Despite this, it's hard to invest in these characters. Partly, they're simply not given enough screen time to develop, yet they also lack the charm of those we know and love. Felicity Jones is a stoic and underused lead as Jyn Erso, an orphan whose father (Galen Erso - Mads Mikkelsen) built the infamous Death Star but double-crossed the Empire by installing a design flaw. Female lead aside, the remaining characters fail to escape their archetypes: from Diego Luna's rugged pilot Cassian Andor, to robot K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) whose comedy schtick feels out of place in this darker world.

Further, more than anything they all seem to get by on luck and coincidence. That may be part of the series' swashbuckling appeal, but it's starting to get tiresome, especially for a film aiming for a more realistic take on this universe.

What's also tiresome are the links to the other films. Whilst The Force Awakens fully embraced its parallels to the original trilogy as a soft-reboot of the series, here nods in the cinematography feel clichéd. And whilst the film segues straight into the events of A New Hope to cement its place in the canon, the inclusion of certain characters are wholly unnecessary. There's always one annoying CGI character and here it's a recreation of Peter Cushing's Grand Moff Tarkin, though he looks more like Dobby the House Elf. In the final scenes another certain someone turns up in laughable fashion...

At least the Rebels here feel like a proper underground Guerilla unit, a band of misfit soldiers risking their lives for the universe. The climactic battle at the end is brilliantly done, marrying gun battles and space fights, but the film as a whole - like its characters - is dispensable. The plot may give some interesting back story, but we all know how it ends anyway, leading to a finale of mixed emotions. But a Rebel Alliance who aren't simply 'the good guys' and do some actual proper rebelling? That's something to get behind.

Oh and all the 'boycott Rogue One' equality stuff going around? Bullshit.

3/5

Watch: Rogue One is out now.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Rent @ St James Theatre

Rent @ St James Theatre

Rent may have reached peak parody in the Team America: World Police film, but there's a reason it's become such a beloved musical over the last two decades: it remains a hugely powerful piece of storytelling.

That's as true as ever in this new 20th anniversary production at the St James Theatre that's soon to tour the country. It's rough, it's grimy, it's sexy and it's wonderfully imperfect.

It's cliché to see yet another 'raw and gritty' show, but that's absolutely the case here under the direction of Bruce Guthrie. The cast slither and pace across Anna Fleischle's detailed set that looks like it would genuinely smell if you got close enough (absolutely a compliment). Loren Elstein's costume and Betty Marini's hair and makeup design are also suitably rough yet creative for this bunch of artists, drag queens, lap dancers and vagabonds.

Yet it's the performances that show true grit, grounding the operatic melodrama (thanks to Puccini's La Bohème) in a dark and dangerous metropolis. From the depths of drug abuse, incurable disease and joblessness, a group of bohemians find sanctuary in each other. It's an arresting and riotous display of humanity with joyous highs, tragic lows and everything in between.

Layton Williams is a joy to watch as he slays his dance routines as the sassy cross-dressing Angel, but it's his relationship with Ryan O'Gorman's Tom Collins that's sensitive and deeply touching. Their partnership ripples across the remaining characters: the magnetic Maureen and Joanne (Lucie Jones and Shanay Holmes, offering awesome vocals), the flirtatious Mimi (Philippa Stefani) and conflicted Roger (Ross Hunter), and Billy Cullum's Mark Cohen still finding his feet in the world. They may tick boxes for equality and diversity, but rarely do musical theatre characters feel so real and with such current relevancy, even twenty years after the show premiered.

Musically, the cast and band certainly do justice to Larson's incredible score, wringing out every ounce of feeling amongst sweat and tears. Each song is not just an infectious hit but an explosion of emotion sung with clarity and soul, and accompanied by some emphatic choreography from Lee Proud. It's not always perfectly polished but that only adds to the show's appeal: the cracks only make the characters more human, the actors' performances more real.

This Rent is a goosebump inducing ride, a gut-wrenching production that's as life-affirming as it is tragic, as draining for the audience as it is for the actors. Seize the moment and see this show - there's no day but today.

4/5

Watch: Rent runs at the St James Theatre until 28th January, before touring the country.


Dreamgirls @ The Savoy Theatre

Dreamgirls @ The Savoy Theatre

Over the years, Dreamgirls has become associated with some huge names - from its breakout star Jennifer Holliday (who went on to win a Tony for her performance), to the likes of Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson. In this new production at the Savoy - the first in the West End - it's the turn of Glee's Amber Riley to take on the formidable role of Effie White.

Does she do the role justice? Hell yes, and then some.

Far more than just a flashy diva with a powerhouse vocal, Riley's Effie embodies female empowerment - a woman determined to reach stardom off her own back, yet tragically self-sabotaged by her own ambition. She's a character who resonates some thirty-five years after the show premiered on Broadway, fighting against a patriarchal music industry and refusing to be manipulated into another's success.

Yet there's more to Dreamgirls than the struggles of one would-be star. It's a show about showbiz and a cutthroat music industry; about the clash of business and relationships; about the power of sisterhood and female emancipation; and about black sexuality in a white-dominated world. And as a backbone there's the rise of R&B music through the 60s girls groups that inspired the plot (namely The Supremes), embedding the show in the history of pop music.

Still, nothing can distract from Riley's stunning vocal performance. Sitting somewhere between the raw depth of Holliday and the smoother pop sound of Hudson, her voice is technical perfection with precise runs and crystal top notes. She balances sweetness and sass in an endearingly youthful concoction that belies a strength and maturity bubbling beneath the surface. That erupts in her impassioned, gut-wrenching rendition of "And I Am Telling You..." that quite rightly had the audience roaring with appreciation at this particular performance and for the remaining showtime the merest quiver of her lips was enough to draw gasps.

Supporting her are a hugely talented cast who stand strong in their own right. Liisa LaFontaine is an arrestingly beautiful Deena Jones whose pure voice is the ideal foil to Riley's Effie, whilst Ibinabo Jack's Lorrell Robinson is far from the 'poor Michelle' of this sensational trio. Then there's Adam J Bernard's Jimmy Early proving the men can entertain as much as the women, and Tyrone Huntley offers silky vocals as C.C. White.

Matching the narrative is a set that cleverly changes perspective as we glimpse behind the scenes of each show-stopping performance, the characters wearing beautifully crafted costumes dripping with jewels and sequins. Alongside a tight band, the show is an aural and visual spectacle that marries the best of live theatre and pop music. It is simply unmatched in the West End and after such a huge wait, audiences are likely to be hungry for quite some time.

Dreamgirls works on every level, from a richly layered narrative to pure entertainment. It's a production that shows the glamour and hardship of showbiz in every element. Polished choreography and high production values dazzle, but it's the raw performances that prove this dream of a show has real soul.

5/5

Watch: Dreamgirls runs at the Savoy Theatre until May 2017.

Dreamgirls @ The Savoy Theatre

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (2016) - David Yates

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (2016) - David Yates


This is not a Harry Potter film.

That might seem obvious from the title, but it bears repeating. Since the release of the first book way back in 1997, the fans have grown up. Now there's a more serious, adult film that caters to them.

Yes, there are plenty of magical creatures to please little ones (even though it's a 12A film). There are cuddly critters, majestic beasts and some very strange looking insect-things, all produced with sensational CGI and effects. And the film is littered with amusing touches that add some much needed light-hearted humour.

But there's a dark underbelly here. This isn't a film about a children's school, with loveable teachers and lessons (both literal and philosophical) to be learnt. This is a film about child abuse. About racism. And very dark magic.

Set in America in the 1920s, we follow Newt Scamander (a jittery, awkward Eddie Redmayne with an irritating pout), a wizard with a very special briefcase full of magical creatures. A mix up leads to these creatures being released into the city and what follows is a Ghostbusters style rescue mission.

Yet this America, much like today, is rife with hate. Wizards live undercover and fear revealing their world to the No-Majs (the American equivalent to Muggles); the No-Majs hunt the wizards (not unlike the Salem witch trials); the wizards have banned magical creatures through lack of understanding; and they even hate themselves. The plot hinges on an obvious parallel to gay conversion therapy - when wizards attempt to suppress their powers instead of being true to themselves, it festers into powerful dark magic that wrecks havoc. Freud would have a field day.

And that's on top of the obvious ecological message of caring for the environment and endangered species. Like Newt's briefcase, the film is stuffed to bursting point with layered meaning and sociological themes - it's just not very subtle about it.

Thankfully, Fantastic Beasts remains a throughly enjoyable watch that allows us to view Rowling's universe from a very different perspective. There's wizards, magic, wands, creatures and a Magical Congress, but its real world setting of New York is a long way from the beloved fantasy school. The sets and costumes are stunningly created, but the cinematography has a washed out feel as if we're watching history - fitting considering the film is based on a school text book. With its seedy underground, corrupt governments, stark lighting and heavy air of mystery, it has the air of a noir thriller, but filled with colourful characters - Rowling's Robert Galbraith books meets Potter. The creatures have far more personality than the mostly likeable leads, though Colin Farrell makes a gruff Auror as Percival Graves and Ezra Miller is disturbing as Credence Barebone. Dan Fogler's No-Maj Jacob Kowalski steals the film though, not only as our portal into this magical world, but providing most of the film's laughs.

Somehow Rowling and director David Yates have achieved the impossible, by making a film for everyone: fans and newcomers, young and old. The plot may be predictable and ultimately a little cheesy whilst setting up the inevitable sequels, but its irresistible concoction of warm storytelling and delectable darkness make this film's magic undeniable.

4/5

Watch: Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is out now.


Saturday, 12 November 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child @ The Palace Theatre

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child @ The Palace Theatre

Anyone who follows JK Rowling on Twitter will be aware of her political views. She is a champion of the outsider, a notion that threads its way through her Harry Potter novels. Her unlikely heroes may be magical, but they're not only outsiders to our real world, they're considered freaks in their own: from Hermione's "mudblood" roots, to the working class Weasleys, the triumph of the meek Neville Longbottom, and of course Harry and his miraculous scar.

That notion is as true as ever in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a play that is considered the eighth story in the series. Here, outsiders are literally known as "spares", periphery characters who unexpectedly have the power to change their fate. Without spoiling anything, the narrative revolves around time travel, which allows Rowling and co-writer Jack Thorne to retrace key plot points from the series seen from a new angle. It's incredibly clever and works in multiple ways: as a reminder of the past, as a nostalgic device, and a way to add new layers to an existing story. It feels like a credible story within Rowling's world and a part of the main canon, not just a tacked on story for financial gain.

Yet the spell doesn't quite last. Much has already been said about the decision to split the play into two parts and, really, it's unnecessary. Whilst it allows fans to revel in the world for that bit longer, the narrative's plausibility feels stretched. There are plot holes in abundance, characters are either dropped or mentioned but never seen, and the twist in Part Two on which it all rests upon is predictable and (for this fan at least) unrealistic. At this point it starts to feel a little forced. Perhaps Rowling should learn from these characters and know that playing with time gets very, very messy.

It's not all about time travel though. There's a continuation here of the series' main theme of conquering death: here it's about accepting death as part of fate and that tampering with the past has dire consequences. The real story, though, is between Harry (Jamie Parker) and his second son Albus (Sam Clemmett). There's a disconnect between them, Harry struggling to deal with fatherhood and Albus unable to live up to both his father's legacy and his expectations. The plot therefore encapsulates teenage angst better than the books did and however much it loses its way, this father-son story is told with warmth and sincerity and is the real heart of the show.

The plot of Cursed Child, then, is true to the books in the best and the worst way. It's clever and imaginative, it's a little flawed, and it's not always brilliantly written. There are cheesy one-liners and cheap laughs for the audience that crucially break the magic, but these moments are forgivable in the grand scheme of things.

Really, the magic of Cursed Child comes from the production and John Tiffany's direction. What's so special here is the restraint. The show is undoubtedly a spectacle, but it's often done through minimal staging that leaves much to the imagination. In that sense, it's truer to the books than the films could ever be - there's no CGI effects here, just the magic of live theatre. From the genius use of moving staircases and old suitcases to represent sets, to the subtle changes of lighting, and the authentic costumes, this is literally the world of Potter in your mind come to life.

Special mention must go to Steven Hoggett's movement direction. Each scene change is carefully choreographed with swooshes of capes as new scenes materialise before our eyes. And the dance sequences, whilst perhaps a little eccentric, add sparkle and flair. The magical effects are at times astounding, even though regular theatre-goers are sure to see the mechanics. Ignore the use of shadows and people, and a little suspension of disbelief goes a long way.

It's all soundtracked by a score from popstar Imogen Heap, arranged by Martin Lowe. Whilst the music itself is beautiful - full of lush chorales and glittering electronics - it sometimes feels too anachronistic to the look and feel of the play, a modern touch in a world otherwise steeped in tradition. The music is also mostly reworkings of Heap's existing songs, which is a disappointment, even if it mirrors the narrative's retelling of familiar ideas.

As for the cast, their performances certainly reflect the personalities of the books. Noma Dumezweni is a brilliantly bossy Hermione, Paul Thornley is an amusing (if underused) Ron, and Jamie Parker leads the cast as a slightly temperamental Harry. It really is the old gang back in action, just now a little older and wiser. Plus, the time-travelling story allows for some fun changes - a rebellious Hermione was particularly enjoyable. Other characters (no spoilers) make a return, whilst the new characters slot nicely into the story - the pairing of Anthony Boyle's Scorpius Malfoy and Sam Clemmett's Albus Potter have obvious character traits, but they have great chemistry on-stage.

Through the story of Cursed Child, Albus learns that your heroes aren't invincible - especially when it's your dad. Likewise, fans will learn that Rowling too isn't invincible. In the words of Dumbledore himself, "Perfection is beyond the reach of humankind, beyond the reach of magic". From a theatrical point of view, Cursed Child is a wonderful spectacle with some narrative flaws that remains one of the most exciting experiences on London's West End. But from a fan point of view, this is literally Harry Potter on stage. That, in itself, is an almost perfect dream.

5/5

Watch: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child runs at the Palace Theatre until December 2017.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child @ The Palace Theatre


Henry I @ St James Church, Reading

I visited the St James Church, Reading, to interview Hal Chambers, director of Henry I, a new play from theatre company Reading Between The Lines.

Here's a video, created solely on mobile, of the interview...


Monday, 7 November 2016

The Last Five Years @ St James Theatre

The Last Five Years @ St James Theatre

Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years remains relatively unknown to mainstream theatregoers in the UK, so this production at the St James Theatre in Victoria, featuring a well known cast and directed by the man himself no less, is simply a theatrical treat.

This is the definitive production of the musical, with its clever narrative that depicts the relationship between an author and an actress in opposite directions through time. The direction is full of clever touches that reflect the subtle mirror imagery littered throughout as the show's beginning and end connect in circular fashion.

Really, it's a production of simplicity. The minimal set and clear staging allow the actors and the music to take the fore through lucid storytelling - as cliché as that sounds.

And what storytelling! The temporal structure may be abstract, but the raw emotion and intelligent writing are beautiful. There's ambiguity in the characterisation that allows the audience to consider the opposing views of each, even if the climax leans a little too heavily on victim and villain roles. Jamie and Cathy are two flawed humans whose relationship is unbearably tragic and loaded with dramatic irony.

Equally, it's a show about the pressures of career - specifically those in the arts - and how personal gains must be balanced with love. Does struggling in your career mean you lean too heavily on a loved one? Does success make you neglect your partner and take them for granted?

The score, with its delicate string arrangements and amusing Jewish inflections, utterly encapsulates the harmony, discord and rhythms of human relationships. Together with the fluctuating narrative, we feel every moment of pain and joy, the show not only an insular mirror but reflecting our own experiences and insecurities.

That also comes through the outstanding cast. Jonathan Bailey's Jamie offers rich storytelling in each number, whether literally, in diffusing an argument, or grappling with guilt and shame. He is full of such charm and warmth that we can't help but fall for him, tragically, just as Cathy does.

Samantha Banks is the more vocally capable of the two as Cathy, making it all seem so effortless. It's a well-rounded performance that begins gently mournful and broken but soon finds power, with comedy audition songs and flirtation, and ends with wide-eyed innocence that, in hindsight, cuts deep.

This production isn't quite perfect. There are vocal cracks, a lack of polish between the singers and the band, and the sliding set feels clunky. But none of that detracts from the arresting relationship that's laid bare on stage and will consume you for 90 minutes. This is theatre that's moving to the very core.

4/5

Watch: The Last Five Years runs at the St James Theatre until 26th November.

The Last Five Years @ St James Theatre

The Last Five Years @ St James Theatre
Photos: Scott Rylander