Wednesday, 30 July 2014

6 A New Musical - Twentysomething Productions @ The London Theatre Workshop


6 A New Musical is the perfect fringe musical – handy when the company are soon to be performing at the Edinburgh Fringe.  This is a song cycle following the lives of six people living in New York.  The intimate venue of the London Theatre Workshop (for this preview performance) resembles that of a New York apartment; the clever use of a ladder and suitcases for minimal staging is well choreographed; the focus on twenty-something characters is well suited to the festival’s main demographic (hence the company name); and although it’s concise, it still packs an emotional punch.

Though set in New York, the stories apply to any city.  There’s a young businessman climbing up the corporate ladder; a medical student having an affair with her professor; a single mum unable to pay rent; and a priest losing faith after the death of a loved one, to name four.  Each character is struggling to find meaning in their lives, struggling to find their place in the vast isolating metropolis – a theme that’s easily relatable.  The result is a series of human stories full of both laughter and tears.

The score, from Zack Zadek (who also wrote the book and lyrics), combines pop with contemporary musical theatre – imagine hearing a Jason Robert Brown song on the radio and you’re part way there.  The songs work individually as standalone numbers, but eventually they come together in a hook-laden finale.  The cast offer some wonderful singing, in particular the smooth effortless tone of Steffan Lloyd-Evans, the confident Ben Vivian-Jones and the tender voice of Chloe Nicolson. 

If there’s one criticism it’s that the stories are too fragmented – many individual strands aren’t given a satisfying conclusion and the characters’ paths don’t cross as often as you’d like.  Further, this means that musically the score relies too much on solo ballads.  Not only would some more upbeat numbers provide balance, but more chorus numbers would allow the singers and the audience to revel in beautiful harmonies that are too rarely on display here.

That said, 6 provides a contrast to the huge amount of comedy at the festival.  It’s honesty is commendable, whilst its beautiful melodies and emotional performances make it easy to love.  If you’re heading up to Edinburgh this summer, this is not to be missed.

4/5


Watch: 6 A New Musical runs at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in theSpace throughout August.


Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Jessie J, Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj - Bang Bang


When your album flops, what better way to usher in a new era than by shouting over two other well-known and popular artists?

As ever, on new single Bang Bang, Jessie J lacks any form of subtlety.  She makes Sia swinging on a chandelier sound like a mute.

The powerhouse production of the track is decent (from Max Martin no less - though this is far from his best work), the minimal textures providing an infectious groove and letting the vocals take the fore.  Yet it’s with the vocals that issues arise. 

We all know that Jessie J has a remarkable voice.  She’s got the range.  She’s got the power.  She’s got the quirky inflections and impressive riffs.  Sometimes, though, you want some softness, some musicality, a chance to give your ears a rest.  Thankfully that’s what Ariana Grande brings, but she sounds utterly lost and underused within the whole song.  It seems she’s got one more problem with Jessie.

The lyrics too lack any subtlety.  Bang Bang is the vocal equivalent of “Jessie, Ari [and] Nicki” slut dropping on the dancefloor in a shameless attention-grabbing routine.  “I can give it to you all the time”, shouts Jessie “you need a good girl to blow your mind”.  “You’ve got a very big sshh”, claims Ariana, before Nicki spits out “ride us up like a Harley…if he hanging we banging”.  It’s hardly intelligent songwriting.

Desperate much?

2/5

Listen: Bang Bang is released on 28th September.


Friday, 25 July 2014

Wolf Kisses @ The Old Red Lion Theatre, Islington


Wolf Kisses, a newly translated piece from Spanish playwright Paloma Pedrero, presents an incredibly pessimistic view of love as a prison.  It is a powerful emotion that can even drive us insane.

The nature of that prison is different for the varying characters within the play.  The main protagonist is Ana (Katerina Watson), a young woman returning home to her family in the country whilst she waits for her lover to join her.  She is (in a rather clichéd turn) a dreamer, lost in a fantasy world of passionate novels.  Her life is quite literally a fairytale: she scorns other suitors and the wishes of her father (a tender portrayal from Jon Millington), exiling herself in a prison of her own mind as she awaits her prince – but does he even exist?  Or has she written the letters he sends her herself?  This is left open for interpretation as Pedrero explores the boundaries between love and illusion.

The main issue, however, is that Ana is simply not a sympathetic character.  Wolf Kisses is meant to be a poetic morality tale, but Ana is a fantastical construction in a world of naturalism.  Rather than us believing in her plight, she comes across instead as a weak and petulant girl who doesn’t have the strength to confront her issues – even with an, at times, touching performance from Watson.  You can’t help but feel for her father trying to shake her into life.

Of far more interest is Ana’s friend Luciano, sensitively portrayed by Patrick Holt, who struggles with his own sexuality.  Where her prison is imaginary and self-inflicted, Luciano is forced to conform to the prison of society as he buries his feelings and, under the demands of his mother, gets married.  This is a real and tangible issue – Ana, by comparison, seems absurd.

The minimal set presents a simple backdrop to the narrative; Spanish guitar from Andrei Ionescu gives an enjoyable hint of context; the translation from Roxana Silbert is lucid and direct; and the cast offer some fine performances.  At its core, though, Pedrero’s play is imbalanced and flawed.

3/5

Watch: Wolf Kisses runs until 27th July.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Up From Paradise @ New Wimbledon Studio Theatre



It’s remarkable that, just as The Crucible runs to rave reviews at The Old Vic, Arthur Miller’s one and only musical (with score from celebrated US composer Stanley Silverman) simultaneously receives its London debut at the New Wimbledon Studio Theatre courtesy of PK Productions.  Up From Paradise is a musical take on the story of Adam and Eve that originally played off-Broadway in 1983, but has never received the attention of Miller’s more celebrated plays.

But why is this?  Up From Paradise is very much of its time and place as an intrinsically American and satirical view of religion – something of an acquired taste.  The script is full of American colloquialisms, for instance comparing Adam and Eve to “apple pie and ice cream”, whilst the central family are presented as a not-so-perfect American family.  Adam is depicted (quite literally) as an all-American golden boy, whilst Eve develops from inquisitive and headstrong to doting mother and wife despite frequently being referred to simply as “woman”.  God, meanwhile, is a struggling painterly artist who struggles to fully accept the adoration of man (“it was so peaceful before there was man”).  Through this, Miller takes a rather biting look at religion and man’s dependency on God, perhaps a more palatable theme for a detached modern audience.

There is plenty of comedy in the piece – refreshing for such a serious subject.  Much of this stems from modernisms in the script, such as Eve’s reply of “there wasn’t much choice” after Adam compliments her beauty, but also from the direction of Patrick Kennedy.  The show is full of comic flourishes, often involving the chorus of three angels (Louie Westwood, Steve Graney, David Herzog) and a great deal of homoeroticism with their overt feelings towards both Adam and God.  It’s certainly a new take on a familiar tale.

The music too is inherently American, ranging from gospel and barbershop, to jazz, folk and baroque – each style bringing its own religious undertones.  It’s a highly experimental score with some difficult melodic lines and chromaticism that the cast here cope well with, especially with purely piano accompaniment.  Individually there are some beautiful tunes, in particular God’s solo ‘It Was So Peaceful Before There Was Man’ (sung by crooning baritone Niccolo Curradi), Eve’s punchy gospel number ‘All Love’ (Susanna Squires) and Cain’s lamenting ‘Why Can’t I See God’ (Anthony Pinnick).  The score doesn’t quite come together as a whole however, bearing resemblance to Bernstein’s Candide with its philosophical musings and sometimes inconsistent music.  It’s the sort of score that will get musical theatre experts giddy with excitement, full of depth that demands to be further studied.

What’s also notable is that these numbers all take place in the second act.  Up From Paradise is certainly a show of two halves, the introduction of the brooding and conflicted Cain (in a stunning turn from Anthony Pinnick) and his pure younger brother Abel (Perry Brookes Jr) providing much needed thematic focus.  It’s clear that Miller empathises with the troubled Cain and his lack of faith in God, the suitably provocative Alex Wingfield as Lucifer questioning “why do you go on kissing his ass?”.  The view of the piece is ultimately that belief and trust in God is a personal and moral choice, something Cain deals with passionately especially compared to the blind faith of his parents and brother. 

As a standalone piece, Up From Paradise is inconsistent yet thought-provoking with an intriguing musical score, posing questions that can long be pondered after the final curtain.  As part of Miller’s oeuvre, it is a curious work that undoubtedly deserves to be explored further.

3/5

Watch: Up From Paradise runs at the New Wimbledon Studio Theatre until 26th July.


Tuesday, 22 July 2014

La Roux - Trouble In Paradise


Nine?  Only nine tracks?  Is that it?

Well, yes actually.  ‘Trouble In Paradise’ has been five years in the making and at first glance its track list may seem a bit underwhelming.  Yet surely a tight and concise album of pop gems is preferable to an overly long album packed with filler?

That’s exactly what La Roux have delivered.  Now the solo project of the quiffed androgynous singer Elly Jackson, in one respect little has changed since the self-titled debut – her soft, restrained vocals are still just as distinctive and the 80s synthpop production is as clean and precise as before.  Since the departure of Ben Langmaid on production however, ‘Trouble In Paradise’ is very much the voice of a single artist and it’s all the better for it.

Jackson covers some dark territory on this album, but there remains a playfulness in the production.  Specifically, this is evident in the buoyant playground melodies of Kiss And Not Tell or the catchy “money money money” hook in Sexotheque.  Even on a broader scale, there’s a greater willingness to vary the stylistic formula: from the funky guitars of opener Uptight Downtown that establishes less reliance on pure synths, to the melancholic ballad Paradise Is You, the exoticism of Tropical Chancer, and the 80s stomp of Silent Partner.  The MIDI sounds of the latter especially are so 80s they may as well have been ripped straight from an arcade machine. 

Mostly, though, ‘Trouble In Paradise’ offers far greater sophistication and maturity in the songwriting (as clichéd as that sounds).  Cruel Sexuality, for instance, could easily be read as an exploration of conflicted sexuality summed up with the line “you make me happy in my everyday life, why do you keep me in a prison at night?” – although Jackson has preferred not to bow to the pressures of society and has avoided questions regarding her sexual orientation.  And of course it’s wrapped up in a sumptuous pop groove that builds its layers towards the final chorus.  Followed by the ironically titled Paradise Is You, it’s clear that love is never simple, no matter what your sexuality.  Indeed, one of the major themes of the album is the emptiness of lost love – something that the upbeat Sexotheque provides a different slant on (“she wants to know why he’s not home…he’s at the sexotheque”). 

The masterpiece of the album, though, is Let Me Down Gently.  Jackson perfectly encapsulates the pain of a break-up with someone you admire, respect and ultimately still love.  “But when you let me down gently, it still feels hard”, she mourns, “you’re not my life but I want you in it”.  That emptiness rears its head in one of the best breaks of recent pop – an empty void at the song’s core like a silent scream, before plunging us into the beat-heavy second half and its saxophone outcry.  Vocally too, Jackson’s performance is imbued with raw feeling.  This is simply sublime sad-pop.

So yes, ‘Trouble In Paradise’ may only be nine tracks long.  But with less bleeps and bloops and more warmth and human emotion, this is a consistently brilliant and honest pop package that pairs truthfulness with undeniable hooks.  It’s one of the finest pop albums of the year.

5/5

Gizzle’s Choice:
* Cruel Sexuality
* Silent Partner
* Let Me Down Gently

Listen: ‘Trouble In Paradise’ is available now.


Monday, 21 July 2014

Little Dragon @ Somerset House, Summer Series


Closing this year’s Summer Series at Somerset House were Little Dragon, whose experimental electro provided a spectacular ending as they played to an enthusiastic crowd who braved the rain – despite never really having a mainstream hit.

There’s undoubtedly something incredibly alluring about their music.  Perhaps it’s their use of moody synths, the setlist comprising tracks from their recent album ‘Nabuma Rubberband’ as well as their past material.  A hypnotic opening led into the evocative Mirror and its curiously dissonant chiming, whilst the techno atmospherics of Only One that closed the show gradually evolved into a full rave.  In between, were the sombre calls of current single Pretty Girls, the menacing basslines of Killing Me and Please Turn, and the neon bleeps and bloops of Ritual Union and My Step, amongst others.  Swinging from ethereal minimalism to sparkling alt-pop, the sounds are as enchantingly mesmeric as they are deeply sensual.

Or perhaps it’s the powerfully rhythmic beats that shudder through the body, from the thunderous crashes of Mirror or Killing Me, to the industrial funk shuffles of Shuffle A Dream and Test, the glitchy Ritual Union, and the erotically charged tribal crashes of Klapp Klapp.  The crowd were, of course, dancing throughout.  The extended length of certain songs was the only major criticism, leaving no time for the excellent Paris from their most recent release (or the radio-friendly Sunshine).

The setting certainly helped the ambience, the twilit courtyard of Somerset House presenting a clash of neo-classical architecture and ultra-modern sounds.  Smoke rose over the audience in the fading sunlight, punctuated by sombre blue hues, a full spectrum of rainbow neon and shimmering coloured lasers.  It was the perfect backdrop to the band’s seductive, nocturnal evocations.

Most of all, the band’s appeal comes from Swedish-Japanese frontwoman Yukimi Nagano, who personifies their icy Scandinavian cool and quirky oriental futurism.  Her vocals range from soft coos and breathy sighs to soulful guttural utterances, whilst she slinks and shuffles around the stage conducting each beat and pulse with her tambourine.  She is the little dragon, and not even the rain could extinguish her fire.

4/5

Listen: 'Nabuma Rubberband' is available now.




Sunday, 20 July 2014

Hotel @ The National Theatre


There's trouble in paradise.

Except this paradise is an all-white, clinical hotel room in Kenya - in total contrast to the idyllic ocean seascape just outside the door.  It forms the backdrop to what begins as a drama about a dysfunctional middle class family, typical of playwright Polly Stenham's style.

It's the children who hold the power here: the handsome, rebellious Ralph (Tom Rhys Harries) and his somewhat manipulative sister Frankie (Shannon Tarbet).  The play begins with them conspiring, a secret on the brink of being revealed, before they playfully joke about alcohol and dance to Destiny's Child.  Their inadequate parents have their own issues: Vivienne (Hermione Gulliford) has lost her government job after sexual images of husband Robert (Tom Beard) were leaked online.  Yet after a shocking revelation of Freudian proportions, it's clear that the teenagers aren't as innocent as they seem.

It sets up an interesting narrative of a broken family with deep psychological issues - in particular the relationship between father and son - but these are never explored.  The play suddenly takes a dramatic and savage turn with the entrance of chambermaid Nala (a frighteningly calm Susan Wokoma), steering the narrative away from its beginnings and headfirst into colonialism, aid and Somali pirates.  A fair amount of explanation is required that slows the pace, before the action quickly becomes violent and harrowing, the pure white set thoroughly destroyed.  Throughout, Hotel is never less than gripping.

Yet it's as if Stenham got bored halfway through writing her family drama (or purposefully wanted to disrupt her own formula) and tacked on an entirely new play.  Perhaps this is to diminish the first world problems of this family, positioning their troubles within a much wider context to reflect the sudden and shocking damage that terrorism causes, but it brings with it an overly jarring change of tone.  Plot threads are left frustratingly unanswered (especially from the opening scenes) and as a whole the play lacks a satisfying conclusion.  As essentially two plays in one, the first proves to be the more intriguing yet underdeveloped.

Amongst excellent performances, Rhys Harries particularly stands out.  His Ralph is a surprisingly mature teenager on the brink of adulthood - the only character to undergo any real development in a play that can certainly be read as an exploration of the loss of innocence.

3/5

Watch: Hotel is performed at the Temporary Theatre at the National Theatre.



Thursday, 17 July 2014

Shakespeare In Love @ The Noel Coward Theatre


A new play, based on an Oscar winning film that celebrates the works of Shakespeare, produced by Disney.  It’s a match made in theatrical heaven, right?

Following the same fictional narrative as the film, Shakespeare In Love presents a young Will (the handsome Tom Bateman) suffering from writers block – that is, until he meets his muse in the form of noblewoman Viola De Lesseps (the amusing Lucy Briggs-Owen).  Together they strike up a forbidden romance that forms the backbone to arguably his best known work, Romeo and Juliet.

As one character notes during a rehearsal scene for the play (within the play), “this is not just entertainment, it’s art”.  In fact, for Shakespeare In Love, the opposite is true.  As you’d expect from Disney, this is light-hearted fluff that’s pure entertainment with little depth.  The script is the epitome of trite, scraping the surface of Shakespeare’s oeuvre for countless references and direct quotes that result only in embarrassed groans from the audience.  Much of the play’s humour stems from this snigger-worthy irony: poking fun at Shakespeare is simply too easy.  And like in the film, the Marlovian theory that Christopher Marlowe assisted Shakespeare is perhaps hard to swallow.

It’s not helped by a cast that insist on hammy over-acting, as if ridiculing the RSC school of drama.  With all the silliness of the script the play often descends into pantomime, with cartoonish action, little depth of emotion and a lot of cross dressing.  This is a play where the second act awkwardly opens to the sound of bawdy sex noises; a play where the most celebrated on-stage actor is a dog.  The actual Shakespeare scenes are well acted, which makes you wish the cast would just put on one of his classics instead.

This, however, is the cynic’s view.  If you can embrace the camp, then Shakespeare In Love becomes a highly enjoyable piece of feel-good fluff.  The constant references do offer some clever nods and witticisms, weaving a simple tale that draws in the best of the Bard’s work.  This is a celebration of his writing, with all the tropes and conventions we’ve come to admire – there’s even a song and dance at the end.  The acting might be over the top, but the cast provide plenty of laughs whether from Anna Carteret’s stern yet underused Queen Elizabeth, Doug Rao’s foppish Ned Alleyn, or Paul Chahidi’s bumbling Henslowe.  There are also plenty of period touches, from the set design that replicates the Rose Theatre and transports us from backstage to onstage action, to the onstage musicians that provide suitably courtly music, and dance captain Sandy Murray jigging his away across the stage to set various props.  The play might be mindless, but it’s incredibly easy to sit back and let it all wash over you like a big blockbuster theatrical hug, making up for its lack of affectation with amusement and charm.

Oh, and did I mention there’s a dog?

3/5

Watch: Shakespeare In Love runs at the Noel Coward Theatre until 25th October.

A massive thank you to the team at Official Theatre for the ticket, visit their site here.



Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Jungle - Jungle


Though music critics and fans may try, the sound of Jungle is difficult to define.  Is it jungle, as per their namesake?  Or is it soul?  Funk?  Psychedelia?  Hip-hop?  Or is it easier to define in terms of other bands: Rudimental meets Jai Paul, MGMT, Justice and Django Django?

It barely matters.  Above all, ‘Jungle’ is dance music, with propulsive rhythms and an infectious swagger that simply cannot fail to get your body moving in all the right ways.  As the duo themselves noted in a recent interview (in the Sunday Times), “dance is the simplest way for humans to interpret music”.  Perhaps it’s for this reason that the videos for their singles all heavily feature dance, whether the routine of Busy Earnin’ or the six year old breakdancer in Platoon

And like that other great dance duo, Daft Punk, Jungle have so far remained anonymous – just without the robot heads.  Known simply as J and T, the duo are London-based friends who quietly put their music online to some very loud critical acclaim, resulting in a nod in the BBC’s Sound Of 2014 list at the start of the year.  It’s all led up to one of the most anticipated and best debuts of 2014 so far.

Much of the duo’s appeal comes from their slipperiness when defining their sound.  Sure, there are funky riffs, new wave guitars, driving bass lines, processed beats, falsetto vocals, harmonious brass stabs and glittering sparkles of electronica.  But their music is so much more than the sum of its parts.  Each track is a rich tapestry of warm layered textures that combine to create something unique, something effortlessly cool.  With such depth to the production, it’s almost impossible to tire of the album.

Opener The Heat is an urban scorcher, its sweaty summer vibes punctuated with police sirens and hip-hop beats.  From there the tracks just keep getting better.  The new wave guitars of Accelerate are far more laidback than the name may suggest.  Busy Earnin’ has already become a hugely recognisable track with its bright horn melodies and slick grooves.  Julia features electronic organs and a soulful shuffle.  And for a more blissful take on their sound, Crumbler sees their falsetto vocals floating over funky guitar patterns and syncopated bass.  Each track is as infectious as the last – as a whole ‘Jungle’ is incredibly addictive.

It’s not all uptempo dance though.  There’s a darker side to the duo that rears up in the slower tracks.  Smoking Pixels offers a brief interlude at the centre of the album with a Morricone-esque whistling motif that’s almost sinister.  And penultimate track Lucky I Got What I Want offers a take on melancholic disco, pulsing like a heartbeat beneath the sighs of “don’t you forget about me”.  It’s followed by the relaxed Lemonade Lake and its lamenting chorus “I don’t know what went wrong, I miss you”.  Even the brighter tracks often have a mournful undertone, whether Busy Earnin’s ode to the 9-5 grind, or Julia’s outcries of “Julia I don’t know a thing about you”. 

It ensures that this is a well-rounded dance record with a sound all its own.  However you want to define it, ‘Jungle’ is the coolest album you’ll hear this summer.

5/5

Gizzle’s Choice:
* The Heat
* Julia
* Crumbler

Listen: ‘Jungle’ is available now.



Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Sheppard - Geronimo


Yes, this one starts a bit Mumford/Passenger-esque with its strumming guitars and thumping percussion.

But this is not a track to be easily dismissed.  Far from a twee piece of folk, this soon develops into pure pop joy.  The guitars soar into Temper Trap style noodling.  The vocals build into a gospel sing-along.  The hooks come thick and fast in the chorus.  And you’ll be hard-pressed to get the “bombs away” female vocal out of your head within seconds (incidentally that's the name of their debut album due later this year).  This is pop at its best: infectiously rhythmic and uplifting, with memorable melodies and a sense of immediacy that begs for mainstream radio appeal.  It’s hugely addictive.

Geronimo has proven to be a massive hit in Sheppard’s native Australia (I mean, it knocked Pharrell’s Happy off the top spot after all) and, with a wealth of support, is set to be huge across the world over the summer.  It’s not hard to see why.

4/5

Listen: Geronimo is released on August 25th.