Saturday, 19 September 2020

Pippin @ Garden Theatre

Pippin @ Garden Theatre


The plot of Pippin is surprisingly fitting for lockdown life in 2020. As we sit indoors watching the world implode, it's easy to empathise with the son of Charlamagne. Pippin is seeking enlightenment (a lofty aspiration): a purpose, a fulfilling life. The lesson learned is to live in the moment and appreciate the ordinary, something we're all forced to do right now.


Originating on Broadway in 1972 - with music from Stephen Schwartz, book by Roger O. Hirson, and direction from Bob Fosse - the musical is presented as short fragments of revue that give snippets of an overarching narrative. It's an absurd coming of age story, framed by a fourth wall breaking narrator (Tsemaye Bob-Egbe), with Pippin developing from naivety to spoilt brat and finally enlightenment, rebelling against the script (fate? religion?) in the process.


Despite its themes of war, despair, patricide and a climax that glorifies suicide, Pippin is a surprisingly joyous and uplifting watch. The ensemble sing of magic and urge Pippin to revel in simple pleasures (mainly sexual); there are amusing scenes with Pippin's family and a tragi-comic moment with a duck;  a heartwarming love story rounds it out. Part Candide and part Hair, this production led by director Steven Dexter revels in its 70s heritage, with vibrant tye-died costumes and choreography from Nick Winston that turns war into a sensual dance by way of Fosse.


Schwartz's psychedlic score is full of glorious harmonies and demanding solos, but the cast of West End performers rise to the challenge. As Pippin, Ryan Anderson is a dynamic performer with a high tenor; Joanne Clifton amuses as Pippin's grandma; and Bob-Egbe leads the ensemble with some impressive vocal runs. And even with minimal instrumentation, the score is full of colour.


It is a production worthy of a larger venue, the outdoor Garden Theatre bringing obvious challenges like sound levels and road noise. Yet the cast cope well with projection, directing their lines to both sides of the audience around the traverse stage so nothing is missed. What's more, they're undeterred by us masked audience members facelessly reacting.


In another time, this production would be performed with a larger cast, full orchestration and an extravagant set design. But even without these trappings, the core of the show is fantastically enjoyable. It feels good to be back in a theatre.


4/5


Watch: Pippin runs at the Garden Theatre until 11th October.


Pippin @ Garden Theatre



Sunday, 23 August 2020

The Last Of Us Part II

"Press L1 to gallop". It's the first prompt you're given in The Last Of Us Part II, a prompt to race ahead on your horse. But why would you? The low sun hovers in the sky casting golden shadows through the tranquil trees. The animation feels more lifelike than anything before. The textures are sumptuous. This is a world to immerse yourself in, an Americana somehow more lush and grotesque than the game that came before.

By the end, you'll wish you could've galloped through a lot quicker.

Until then, you revel in the details. The paraphernalia in Ellie's room that hints at the woman she's become since the events of the first game. The way snow cascades off a tree as you brush past. Crackling footsteps in snow. The dirt under Ellie's fingernails. There are frequent moments to simply pause and take in the view - whether in photo mode or just in-game - accompanied by the gentle plucking of a banjo for punctuation. 

It's these quiet moments that highlight the humanity at the heart of The Last Of Us Part II. It can be tender and sweet and loving, catharsis between all the shooting and stabbing. This is the game at its best, when it makes you care about these human beings. The core relationship between Joel and Ellie is truly affecting, fuelled by father-daughter awkwardness and nostalgia for the first game. That giraffe moment is extended to whole scenes, cementing the characters more than ever in moments of levity and laughter that become decidedly less frequent as the story progresses.

And the characters are authentically portrayed, reflecting the world in all its diversity - even if some secondary characters are underdeveloped. Queer relationships are wonderfully normalised, even if a trans character is used primarily for dramatic effect. These are humans who love and hate in equal measure. You will too.

There are some subtle changes to gameplay compared with the original. Ellie is more mobile than Joel was; the ability to crawl adds another (literal) layer to stealth; the inclusion of enemy dogs instills more panic than the undead ever do. More so, the game leans further into horror elements. It is a masterclass in atmosphere and suspense as you frequently wander in the dark and crawl through cramped air ducts waiting for the next jump scare, the fantastically eerie sound design sending tingles down the spine.

It's a game about love, grief, forgiveness and revenge. It's about religion and faith, the destruction it brings but also the hope and strength it provides to rise above loss. But more than anything, it's a meditation on violence. It forces you to question every character you kill, whether dramatically through storytelling or almost comically through the cries of named NPCs. Where so many video games rely on violence for action - not least of all Naughty Dog's own Uncharted series - The Last Of Us Part II has you confronting every death you commit. 

But how far is too far?

The game's biggest flaw is its lack of editing. It's so jam-packed with themes, twists and horribly gruesome deaths it's simply exhausting. While the narrative concepts are worthwhile exploring, the game's lack of any subtlety eventually numbs you. There are no heroes or villains here but it's so intent on telling you this, in indelicately painted shades of grey, it hits you brutally over the head repeatedly to let you know. Humans are flawed. Ok, we get it.

The pacing is off for a number of reasons. The storytelling lacks the singular focus of the first game. The flashback structure drags. The gameplay isn't shaken up enough across the overlong runtime and is instead just relentless. When the multiple consecutive endings reach finality the narrative does eventually land. But it takes so long to get there, the whole experience is a draining, laborious slog. The setup doesn't quite feel worth it. 

And it really is an experience. This is not a game to enjoy. It is amongst the most depressing and bleak pieces of media in existence, plunging the depths of human depravity and cruelty. It will leave you disgusted and heartbroken in equal measure. It will leave you questioning what it was all for, this ultra-violence dressed up with a poignant score.

That a game has such an ability to make you feel is remarkable. It's almost impossible to not be invested in its storytelling and it will stay with you long after the credits roll. But to make us feel this bad for the violence the game forces you to enact feels like punishment. It's a masterpiece in grim storytelling. There's no other experience quite like it, for good and for bad. If only you could gallop through a little quicker.


Saturday, 4 July 2020

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga

Anyone who's watched Eurovision in the last few years will know the competition has changed. What the UK once saw as a joke is now a much more serious music competition full of genuine talent, though some of that camp and flamboyance certainly remains.

So the news of a Will Ferrell comedy film rings alarm bells for Eurovision fans for whom the contest is serious business. What to some seems an obvious fit is to others a worrying piss-take.

The plot at least aims to hit the right notes. Ferrell plays Lars Erickssong who, from a young age, has dreamt of performing at Eurovision for Iceland with his (could be, probably not sister) musical partner Sigrit Ericksdóttir (Rachel McAdams). Together they are the musical duo Fire Saga who, through a series of unpredictable events, predictably have their dreams come true. At its core it follows a similar thread to Ferrell's biggest success Elf, with Lars aiming to please his grumpy, ashamed father (Pierce Brosnan). But really it's Sigrit's story of self-confidence that grips.

Of course, it's all a parody of Eurovision that picks up on the worst, most humorous parts of the competition. There are viking costumes, terrible accents and stereotypes, and Dan Stevens playing an operatic Russian entrant who's song "Lion Of Love" is camp Eurovision to a T. The film turns a well-produced globally loved show into a Pitch Perfect spin-off - there's even a "song-a-long" moment, though this can be excused for its multiple cameos from actual Eurovision contestants like Loreen, Conchita Wurst and Netta amongst others.

Yet despite some grating moments, there's still something loveable about it all. Perhaps it's the small town story: Iceland have indeed never won the contest and, despite the silliness, we do love an underdog story.

Perhaps it's the music. Written by Icelandic film composer Atli Örvarsson, plus writing and production by pop producer Savan Kotecha, the music is full of infectious Europop. There may be some purposefully terrible moments, but these wouldn't be out of place at Eurovision. "Lion of Love" would probably win.

Or perhaps it's Rachel McAdams, who's living her Björk fantasy and somehow maintains a straight face throughout the film. Her singing voice has been merged with 2006 Swedish Junior Eurovision contest Molly Sandén, and the final big number is a genuine delight.

There are plenty of flaws for Eurovision fanatics to pick over. The film is not faithful at all to the rules of the contest, the opening scene shows ABBA's 1974 win despite Iceland not broadcasting the contest until 1983, and the host city is Edinburgh despite the UK not previously winning. Ferrell was apparently seen researching at the last couple of contests, though he's taken plenty of liberties here.

For all its parody, though, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga is a loving tribute to Eurovision that makes for perfect popcorn entertainment, even if it's not quite douze points.

3/5

Watch: Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga is available to watch now on Netflix.


Thursday, 4 June 2020

Reasons To Be Cheerful @ Theatre Royal Stratford

Reasons To Be Cheerful @ Theatre Royal Stratford

When Graeae Theatre Company staged their Ian Dury musical Reasons To Be Cheerful at the Theatre Royal Stratford in 2017 it became one of their biggest successes. First performed in 2010, the cast went on to perform at the 2012 Paralympic Games, with the 2017 production including a newly-penned protest song by members of The Blockheads. Now they're giving us another reason to be cheerful, by releasing the performance online.

Featuring the music of Ian Dury and The Blockheads (best known for Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick), the show is a coming of age story that's part-gig part-musical. Graeae are the UK's leading disabled-led theatre company, so creating a show inspired by Dury - who contracted polio at a young age and whose 1981 song Spasticus Autisticus was banned by the BBC - is an ideal pairing. The result is a joyous celebration of disabled performers, of young people finding their voice.

The plot itself isn't anything to write home about: a group of young people in the late 70s intent on watching Ian Dury himself live at the Hammersmith Apollo. Predictably they don't make it to the gig, but it's about the journey along the way.

The sense of mundanity is befitting Dury's lyrics, but as a drama it lacks peaks, troughs and characterisation. With plenty of swearing in its basic storytelling, it feels a little immature and one-note. What's more, it's laced with misogyny and sexism that may be indicative of the period, but feels uncomfortable to watch now. The show's sense of nostalgic Britishness is a snapshot in time. At least the frequent anti-Conservative sentiment somewhat rings true today.

Dury's music is also something of an acquired taste. Praised for his wordplay, the clever rhymes are full of wry, biting humour that's politically incorrect. Musically, though, it's monotonous spoken word, kazoos and grating instrumentation.

Still, the cast's performance is commendable for maintaining Dury's spirit: his musical style, his challenging of perceptions. Stephen Lloyd leads the storytelling well as Vinnie, but its Gerard McDermott and Karen Spicer as Vinnie's parents who provide the emotional anchor, before we're swept into another stomping, anarchic musical number.

For all its plot flaws, Reasons To Be Cheerful is an inspiring watch that brings a diverse cast to the stage. Accessibility is Graeae's raison d'etre, and here we have cast members signing and subtitles both as on-stage projections and now video subtitles. It ensures that, no matter who you are, the unique energy of this show can be appreciated by all.


Reasons To Be Cheerful is available online from June 3rd - August 3rd.

Reasons To Be Cheerful @ Theatre Royal Stratford

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

&Juliet @ Shaftesbury Theatre

&Juliet @ Shaftesbury Theatre

If you're going to do a jukebox musical, you might as well use the music of the godfather of pop. Sure, we've had ABBA, Queen, Carole King, Tina Turner and so many others. But now we have...Max Martin.

Ok, so that name may not mean much to everyone. But the artists he's worked with surely will, considering he helped launch the careers of some of the biggest names in pop: Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, and loads more. Forget ABBA, Martin is Sweden's most important musical export.

The result is a musical where every song is an outright banger. Every. Single. Song.

Its plot is a little weird. As the title suggests, it's based on Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet - if Juliet hadn't actually died and instead ran away from home with her queer best friend to party, fall in and out of love again and stand alone as a strong independent woman. It's like a teenage fever dream for girls, a distillation of modern pop music, three minutes of melodrama stretched into an entire show. Somehow, it kinda works.

There is a slight whiff of adults trying a little too hard to be cool, of not quite being an authentic teen story. Shakespeare himself (Oliver Tompsett) is on-stage with wife Anne Hathaway (Cassidy Janson) as they compete to rewrite the story on the fly. It adds another layer of gender politics to the show, but also of adults re-living their youth (as much of the audience will be).

It also ensures the show doesn't take itself too seriously. As with other jukebox musicals, the plot and songs are wrenched around one another lacking any semblance of subtlety, but &Juliet plays into this with excellent comic timing. "I think I did it again," sings Miriam-Teak Lee as Juliet, Britney's 'Oops I Did It Again' hilariously encapsulating her rollercoaster love life; later Kelly Clarkson's 'Since U Been Gone' is used to similar effect. A slowed down version of Ariana Grande's 'Problem' brings new emotion to the lyrics. And Katy Perry's 'Teenage Dream' is given a comedic overhaul when sung by two adults - Melanie La Barrie and David Bedella as Juliet's Nurse and her love interest Lance respectively.

At times, then, the plot and music merge ingeniously. At others, though, things misfire. That 'Problem' rendition is mashed-up with The Weeknd's 'I Can't Feel My Face' and is sonically messy, though its lyrical intention is clear. Some songs sung by male and female characters are in keys either too high or low for both performers. Most awkward is the show's LGBT subplot that sees best friend and non-binary character May (Arun Blair-Mangat) singing Britney's 'I'm Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman' - it's simply too on the nose. Worse, the character is later revealed as essentially a long-running Justin Timberlake joke and Blair-Mangat struggles bringing the character to life.

Regardless of its flaws, though, &Juliet is an exuberant new musical with an outstanding central performance from Lee as Juliet. She embodies the youthful energy, sass, and strong vocals required to pull off Martin's music. As Anne Hathaway, Janson is surprisingly emotive, while Tompsett's vocals soar as the cocky Shakespeare. The design, too, is a vibrant mix of Shakespearean and modern style, while Jennifer Weber's choreography feels like a music video come to life.

Questions are raised as to the intended audience. Its plot, fuelled by female empowerment, is certainly aimed at teens but the music hits more of a nostalgic nerve for parents. Yet, as with Shakespeare, there's a universality to the show that subverts our expectations of love, gender and sexuality. It truly is a modern love story.

4/5

Watch: &Juliet runs at the Shaftesbury Theatre until October 2020.


Saturday, 7 March 2020

CORPSE! @ The Park Theatre

CORPSE! @ The Park Theatre

Gerald Moon's CORPSE! premiered back in 1983 in the states before coming to London in 1984. Over three decades later and it remains an entertaining farce that feels very much of its time.

The play is set on the eve of Edward VIII's abdication speech in 1936, though its plot is far removed. It sees actor Evelyn Farrant - an eccentric and flamboyant Tom York - plotting to kill his twin brother Rupert - also York, in more poised and sophisticated mode - with the help of bumbling drunk criminal Major Powell (Paul Kemp). What follows is a farcical whodunnit that takes double-crossing to the extreme with its twin brothers conceit - the characters are never quite sure who they're talking to, and neither are we.

There are barely concealed homoerotic undertones to it all. Evelyn epitomises the camp effeminate actor, all charm and faux refinement in his rundown bohemian flat - especially compared with his straight(laced) and rich twin. When he poses as his brother, Evelyn literally recedes into the closet. Perhaps it's all a metaphor for gay revenge, for gay men to take centre stage yet closeting themselves in the process.

More so it's a play about acting, written by an actor, for actors. Evelyn readily quotes Shakespeare - the plot is given away by its allusions to Hamlet - and the script is full of self-deprecating jokes about actors likely to have regular theatre-going audiences guffawing. The knowingness of it all, though, does eventually become tiresome.

This particular production is well realised, with a strong central performance from York that clearly delineates the two brothers. Director Clive Brill includes some clever recurrences and deftly handles York's amusing switches of characters to keep us on our toes. And while Beth Colley's staging initially seems cramped, it's soon revealed to be an ingenious revolve.

It all amounts to a silly but fun play that draws a thin line between old fashioned and nostalgic.

3/5

Watch: CORPSE! runs at the Park Theatre until 28th March.

CORPSE! @ The Park Theatre

CORPSE! @ The Park Theatre
Photos: Anna Urik

Monday, 2 March 2020

This Queer House @ The Vaults

This Queer House @ The Vaults

There are some great ideas in This Queer House, from the OPIA Collective. As the title suggests, it's about a queer couple navigating the heteronormativity of domestic life - they inherit a new home but the pressures of family tear them apart. It begins in a sort of sitcom style, with amusing lines, canned laughter and short snappy scenes, with knowing self-referential humour. This couple are subversive and break the mould, but they also argue like any other couple and must integrate into their community no matter what their sexuality or gender.

A third character is thrown into the mix too, the actress playing a number of roles including a hyper-masculine builder, a robotic Stepford wife, and even a talking dog. The aim is to personify the heteronormativity the queer couple face, a foil to their paranoia.

Then things get weird. A mid-play interlude takes us to a sort of fantastical dreamworld of a pair of children meeting a witch and it all takes a turn towards the symbolic, the bizarre, the absurd. The couple are haunted by ghosts of the past, but it all gets too surreal, frantic and shouty.

There are simply too many ideas at play here: the fear of living with a partner; the varying levels of normality and queerness; mourning the loss of the past when a trans person transitions. All of these are worthy of focus, but This Queer House is in need of script editing to really give clarity to its clever ideas. Instead, with its denial of heteronormativity, the play is so concerned with what it's not, it forgets what it is.

2/5

Watch: This Queer House ran at the Vault Festival from 27th Feb - 1st March.

This Queer House @ The Vaults
Photo: Tara Rooney

Thursday, 27 February 2020

The Prince Of Egypt @ The Dominion Theatre

The Prince Of Egypt @ The Dominion Theatre


The sets are lavish; the costumes sumptuous; there's fire and projections and special effects. The Prince Of Egypt is a spectacle of magical theatrics. But what's happening underneath it all?

Based on the 1998 Dreamworks animated film of the same name (mainly remembered for its Mariah and Whitney duet), it's not just the story of Moses saving the Hebrews from the Egyptians but of two brothers in conflict and the tension between family and duty. Luke Brady and Liam Tamne are strong leading men as the proudly responsible Moses and spoilt Ramses, but they cannot escape the cartoon characterisation of the film. Neither can Christine Allado as stroppy love interest Tzipporah.

The Lion King set the bar for animated theatrical adaptations over two decades ago, a bar that is yet to be matched. The Prince Of Egypt is remarkably similar: an outcast member of the royal family who must return to his people to make amends, complete with a spirit guide to show the way (here voiced by the people rather than a lion). There's a healthy dash of Wicked too and not only for Stephen Schwartz's score - Moses' story is a similar triumph of the outsider.

Speaking of the score, it mostly follows that from the film with some new additions. There's plenty of typical Egyptian flair and Jewish melodic writing to provide character, where memorable tunes are missing. Up-tempo dance numbers are when the show is at its best, but as soon as emotions rise to the surface, it all descends into gushing melodies and slushy Hollywood romance that loses what makes the music distinctive.

Director Scott Schwartz's aim was to bring humanity to the story. That's been taken literally by choreographer Sean Cheesman. The ensemble are used to great effect, morphing into chariots, undulating rivers, and shifting sands. It lends the production a balletic quality with some beautiful stagecraft, matched by shimmering lighting and effects. It's surely a visual feast.

Yet the first half is leaden with exposition that lasts far too long, while the second half races through plagues and drama alike in a swift montage. There's a glimpse of real emotion eventually with a string of ballads that has Moses questioning his faith, the mourning of tragic deaths, and the predictable climax of 'When You Believe' that Allado and Alexia Khadime assuredly nail. Finally this Prince of Egypt tugs at the heartstrings and both Schwartzs are given a chance to stretch their musical muscles outside of the film's confines.

Until then it feels a little soulless, its focus on visual spectacle more than the real emotion the narrative deserves. As blockbuster theatre with brilliant performances of somewhat shallow material though, it's surely a success.

3/5

Watch: The Prince Of Egypt runs at the Dominion Theatre until October 2020.

The Prince Of Egypt @ The Dominion Theatre

The Prince Of Egypt @ The Dominion Theatre
Photos: Tristram Kenton

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Killing It @ The Vaults

Killing It @ The Vaults

There's a mystery at the heart of Killing It - written by Josephine Starte - that remains unsolved by the play's end. That may seem frustrating, but it puts the audience right in the position of its three characters mourning the loss of a young man lost at sea. It's their desire for closure that propels the drama as they deal with their grief; the intimacy and tension in Starte's script is palpable.

It doesn't quite begin that way though. Following three interlinking stories - the man's girlfriend, mother and grandmother - it feels fragmented, reflecting their now fragmented lives. Characters interrupt one another, nothing quite flows. Death haunts these characters, but initially no one seems overly upset about it.

There's plenty of macabre humour here, mainly centered on girlfriend Molly (also played by Starte). Her method of coping is to create a stand-up show based on her feelings. Here Starte's writing shines with raw and relatable comedy and an almost Fleabag-esque delivery - it's this plotline that ties the piece together and makes you wish to watch a full set of stand-up. The other fragments feel underdeveloped by comparison.

Yet slowly Killing It creeps up on you, like the subtle drips and sloshes in Julian Starr's sound design. All the props are situated in water-filled containers around the stage: water, here symbolic of death, soaks everything, droplets of memory splashing on to the stage. The real triumph of the piece is its relationships between three women of different generations - the relationship between Molly and grandmother Margot (Janet Henfrey) is amusingly quirky yet surprisingly tender in the end.

That goes for Killing It as a whole. What begins as an offbeat dark comedy catches you by surprise with its heartfelt conclusion.

3/5

Watch: Killing It is performed at The Vaults Festival on 25th and 26th February.

Killing It @ The Vaults
Photo: Toby Parker Rees

Monday, 10 February 2020

Carly Rae Jepsen @ Brixton Academy

Carly Rae Jepsen @ Brixton Academy

Squeaky, bubblegum pop. A tiny popstar with an unremarkable voice. Hordes of gay fans.

No, it's not a Kylie Minogue gig. It's Carly Rae Jepsen, the gay man's current popstar of choice. Call Me Maybe may have been a worldwide hit, but Jepsen has since remained something of a cult favourite, delivering underrated pop albums and becoming the queen of memes.

At a live gig, though, you'd be forgiven for thinking she's the biggest star on the planet, such is the devotion of her fans. Every song is known by the mere intro, every lyric chanted back, every moment met with a scream.

It's Jepsen's ordinariness that makes her so appealing. Hers are frothy songs about love and relationships, never too deep, just on the right side of emotional, her simple lyrics easy to relate to. Each is anchored to an undeniable hook, ensuring they're all memorable. There's no weak link; every song is a banger.

Perhaps that's best demonstrated by the cutesy I Really Like You and its repeated chorus lyric that bubbles with the excitement of lust. Or the fizzy rush of love in Run Away With Me. Or sex jam Want You In My Room. Or cheeky breakup anthem Store. Every stage of a relationship is covered.

Regardless of your favourite, Jepsen never takes herself too seriously in her songs. And that tongue in cheek tone translates to her onstage persona as she bounds across the stage full of zeal. Her joy is as infectious as her melodies.

The setlist is some 24 songs long, racing through each three minute track in a relentless, vibrant confection, rarely pausing for breath. There's little chat or banter, no set dressing, no extravagance. It's just earworm after earworm after earworm...

And it's the music we're here for, Jepsen merely a conduit of its power. You could argue it's all lowest common denominator pop, as frivolous as it is flirty fun, relatable to the point of being basic. Yet, like the best pop, it's pure escapism, its energy lifting the heart and soul.

Case in point: Cut To The Feeling comes on, the confetti cannons burst and for three joyous minutes everything is right with the world.

4/5