Saturday, 3 August 2019

Das Rheingold @ Arcola Theatre

Das Rheingold @ Arcola Theatre

Wagner's Das Rheingold, the first opera in his Ring Cycle, is an ambitious choice for this year's Grimeborn opera festival at the Arcola Theatre. His works are known for their extravagance: their lush orchestration, eccentric costumes and lavish sets. Yet the festival is an opportunity to see opera in a different light, in small venues with reduced casts and orchestras.

For some intimate operas this approach works, but for Wagner it eschews the composer's predilection for opulence. In this production, directed by Julia Burbach and designed by Bettina John, everything is paired back from the run time (just 100 minutes), to the staging and the orchestra. The result lacks some of the magic you'd expect.

The aim, it seems, is to bring out the human side of this drama - a potentially interesting take. Based heavily on German mythology (somewhat stolen from Norse mythology), it's a tale of gods and giants, maidens and golden treasure. Here that plays out as a contemporary class battle between the rich and poor, about how power corrupts. In a move similar to American Gods, these gods seemingly live among us as relatable people.

Yet with its simple black and white costumes and drab cardboard set, it all feels plain and unfinished, lacking that magical inventiveness you'd expect from such a story. The acting, meanwhile, retains a melodramatic flair more suited to a grand opera house. It's too much for such a small space, which bursts at the seams to contain the drama, the actors pacing constantly. There is no room to breathe.

What is impressive is the balance of the orchestra and the singers, conducted by Peter Selwyn. Though a little tentative and lacking in dynamic impact, the reduced orchestra makes a fine accompaniment to the singers. The vocal standard is mostly strong, though Marianne Vidal stands out as Fricka for her subtlety and control. Seth Carico is also likeable as the dwarf Alberich. But for all the production's melodrama, it lacks the required grandeur and emotive force to keep us engaged.

3/5

Watch: Das Rheingold runs at the Arcola Theatre as part of the Grimeborn Festival until 10th August.

Das Rheingold @ Arcola Theatre

Das Rheingold @ Arcola Theatre
Photos: Lidia Crisafulli

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Midsommar

Midsommar

There are times when, walking out of the cinema, you feel lost and confused. You have more questions than answers. You’re maybe even a little disturbed. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film.

Midsommar is that film. Ari Aster’s latest is a wonder to watch, yet deeply unsettling. I think I liked it.

It is, above all, a masterpiece in mood. Set in northern Sweden (though actually filmed in Budapest), it takes inspiration from the region’s lack of night during the summer. This is a meditative, hallucinatory film with a timeless quality. Where most horror films revel in darkness, here we have perpetual light. It’s strangely disorientating.

The narrative follows a group of American students who visit their friend’s family in Sweden for the summer. It turns out they’re part of an old cult who meet for festivities every 90 years. It begins innocently enough: a pastoral, bucolic vision of life, full of freshly harvested food, singing, dancing and community. It’s idyllic even. But things take a bizarre turn during the various rituals that become increasingly deranged. In the midst of this is Dani (Florence Pugh), suffering from anxiety after her bipolar sister commits suicide and murders her family in the process. All she has left is her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) who’s emotionally distant. Their relationship on the brink of collapse, the trip seems like a make or break opportunity.

The setup and pagan rituals will be familiar to many. What sets Aster’s film apart is his cinematography and use of sound. What’s so unsettling is how things seem so normal, yet there’s something not quite right either, setting the film off-kilter. It’s in the way the camera loops upside down as it follows the students’ car; or a flower slowly and subtly pulsing in a headdress; or framing that slightly obscures the action. It replicates the hallucinatory quality of the film, as trees and grass shimmer either from drug consumption or simply the heat of the constant sun. The music, too, is eerie: harmonious drones that slowly distort with dissonance.

The uneasy atmosphere is then punctuated by moments of graphic violence and/or sex. These are intended to shock, a tactic that seems somewhat cheap within such artful mood-setting. But they also lend the story some dramatic weight – and, in all honesty, the odd moment to chuckle at absurdity.

That’s all very well if there’s a strong narrative underpinning it all. But it’s here where Midsommar begins to slip through Aster’s grip. His film is fuelled by anxieties: grief, death, cheating, emasculation, perhaps even a fear of foreigners. Yet what it all means is left entirely ambiguous. Is this a film about the need for community, that, no matter how deranged and bizarre, we all need a family to belong to? Or is this a straightforward revenge tale about a perverse break-up, a woman finding release from her partner in the most eccentric manner? Or maybe I’ve missed the mark?

Aster’s folk horror is a pensive meditation on a muddle of themes, one that satisfies for its craft more than its narrative and sits just on the right side of pretentious. For some, its ambiguity is a void. For others, the guessing is half the fun.

3/5

Watch: Midsommar is out now.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole: The Musical @ The Ambassadors Theatre


The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole: The Musical @ The Ambassadors Theatre

As a character, Adrian Mole is something of a relic. He might be only 13¾, but he is absolutely a product of his time. His secret diary was written by Sue Townsend and published in 1982, filled with Thatcherite politics and British social satire. Thirty five years later, the novel has now been adapted into a musical. But the question is: is it still relevant?

The themes at the heart of the novel are, of course, universal. It follows a year in the life of Adrian, a precocious teen struggling with the usual trials and tribulations of growing up, his relationship with his parents, finding a girlfriend and measuring his privates (something the books became known for but aren’t mentioned much here). The issue, though, is with the presentation of this story.

The book and lyrics, from Jake Brunger, remain close to the novel. That means it’s full of 80s references, from celebrities like Pebble Mill and Princess Diana, to shops like Woolworths and C&A. Pippa Cleary’s music has an old fashioned charm that feels warm and familiar, if not particularly fresh. No matter how relatable Adrian may be as a character, the musical and its references will likely fly way over the heads of most young people who may visit the show.

If anything, this is a musical for an older generation who read the books growing up and are now looking for a nostalgia fix. It’s a particularly British narrative, with a royal wedding and nativity play on the positive side and old fashioned misogynistic political views on the negative. Even the 80s pop songs played during the interval slather on a thick layer of nostalgia. Equally, though, the focus on young performers, a colourful set (Tom Rogers) that resembles an oversized notepad and opens up like a toy box, and pop choreography (Rebecca Howell) give the show a youthful family-friendly feel that may not click with adults. Instead, this musical falls into an awkward middle ground between young and old that doesn’t fully satisfy either group – the sort of show your grandparents would take you to see for some dated yet wholesome entertainment.

That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable. There’s plenty of charm here, from the young cast of performers (Rufus Kampa as Adrian deserves special mention for leading the show), to the adults amusingly playing children, and the overall cartoonish characterisation. The jokes are plentiful and the direction is generally polished, even if this feels more suited to a touring production than a West End destination. What’s most engaging is the subplot relationship between Adrian’s parents, Pauline (Amy Ellen Richardson) and George (Andrew Langtree). This is the emotional heart of the show, with Richardson in particular giving an emotive vocal performance. Though, as a thirtysomething, perhaps real adult problems are more appealing than reminiscing about a youth spent with a ruler firmly in hand.

3/5

Watch: Adrian Mole: The Musical runs at the Ambassadors Theatre until 28th September.


Adrian Mole: The Musical @ The Ambassadors Theatre

Adrian Mole: The Musical @ The Ambassadors Theatre

Photos: Pamela Raith

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Spider-Man: Far From Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3/5

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


Saturday, 6 July 2019

Mean Girls @ August Wilson Theatre, Broadway


Mean Girls @ August Wilson Theatre, Broadway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5

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

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Hamlet @ St. Paul's Church

Hamlet @ St. Paul's Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2/5

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

Hamlet @ St. Paul's Church

Hamlet @ St. Paul's Church

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Summer Rolls @ The Park Theatre


Summer Rolls @ The Park Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

3/5

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



Summer Rolls @ The Park Theatre

Summer Rolls @ The Park Theatre
Photos: Danté Kim

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Pictures of Dorian Gray @ Jermyn Street Theatre

Pictures of Dorian Gray @ Jermyn Street Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

3/5

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

Pictures of Dorian Gray @ Jermyn Street Theatre

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

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Afterglow @ Southwark Playhouse

Afterglow @ Southwark Playhouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2/5

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

Afterglow @ Southwark Playhouse

Afterglow @ Southwark Playhouse
Photos: Darren Bell

Saturday, 25 May 2019

Carly Rae Jepsen - Dedicated

Carly Rae Jepsen - Dedicated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5

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

Listen: 'Dedicated' is out now.