Friday, 31 July 2015

Operation Crucible @ The Finborough Theatre

Operation Crucible @ The Finborough Theatre

It's amazing that twelve decades after WWII, there are still personal, human stories to be uncovered.

Operation Crucible is based on real events during the war: on 12th December 1940, Germany's Luftwaffe bombed Sheffield's steel works, the heart of Britain's munitions manufacturing industry. Four men survived by hiding in the basement of a nearby hotel, and the play tells of their plight.

This is a production that bristles with masculine energy, with high energy physical performances from an incredibly strong cast. The dialogue is sharp and snappy, lines overlapping as the men finish each other's sentences to set a frantic tempo. It immediately instills a sense of male camaraderie and banter, cramming a huge amount of exposition into a short amount of time. Within minutes we feel like we know each distinct character - Arthur's introduction to the steelworks by his dad, Phil meeting his future wife for instance - and so we're invested in their stories, even if some details of plot are lost or occasionally rushed through.

Of course, the tragic events that unfold are inevitable, but the characters nevertheless rush headlong towards their fate. The pace of their dialogue quickens further, reaching an almighty crescendo before the bombing suddenly occurs. Here, the pace slows as laughter turns to fear and friendships are tested. The men reminisce on their lives as they group together beneath the rubble.

The use of light - or rather darkness - from Seth Rook Williams is integral to creating such an oppressive, harrowing atmosphere. The many juxtapositions of bright light and hellish darkness lit only by matches causes confusion, whilst Dan Foxsmith's subtle sound design adds to the frightening ambience and the bare stage allows the four actors to truly command the space. Their performances are moving, with just the right amount of comedic humanity - from Salvatore D'Aquila's Bob especially. As both playwright and cast member (Tommy), Kieran Knowles has done a sterling job of presenting this powerful story - it may focus on one small moment within the war, but it's no less tragic.

4/5

Watch: Operation Crucible runs at the Finborough Theatre until 22nd August.

Operation Crucible @ The Finborough Theatre
Photos: Benjamin Macintosh

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Jekyll & Hyde - Chung Ying Theatre Company @ The Platform Theatre

Jekyll & Hyde - Chung Ying Theatre Company

With the theme of transformation at the heart of Stevenson's narrative, an exploration of gender practically writes itself. In this adaptation of Jekyll & Hyde, the doctor is a female scientist who turns herself into a man, but the sexual power play within the character blurs the boundaries between human and monster.

Whether director Jonathan Holloway has achieved his ambition of reinvigorating the story for contemporary audiences is, however, debatable. His programme notes explain that Jekyll is an "East European research scientist...who has experienced unspeakable abuse in far off war zones" and finds safety in transforming herself into a man - no doubt meant to be a tragic story. This isn't well explained within the play itself, though, so it's difficult to sympathise with the character and see her as anything other than a vampish villain, though she remains an alluring seductress all the same.

If anything, then, this Jekyll & Hyde is more noir thriller set in a 19th century gothic horror world, with a mysterious woman at its heart who uses sexuality to lure in her prey: a young lawyer who falls for her dangerous charm. The aesthetic is truly chilling: designer Neil Irish's set tilts ominously towards the audience, Holloway's eerie lighting casts grim shadows, and accordion music provides a macabre soundtrack.

Coming from Hong Kong's Chung Ying Theatre Company, the cast is a mix of HK and UK actors. However, they all perform with porcelain white painted faces - this may add to the gothic performance (and alludes to China's equivalent to geishas), but it ignores the ethnicity of the actors which could have added an extra level of interest. As such, setting the play within London's Chinatown feels like a forced way of incorporating the theatre company. In addition, the story is framed as a play within a play that unnecessary complicates the narrative.

Yet although the adaptation doesn't always work and doesn't quite explore gender in the detail it could, it hardly matters - the atmosphere is stunning and disturbing, drawing us into a compelling narrative. That's only aided by some superb performances, in particular Olivia Winteringham's sexually charged Jekyll/Hyde and Michael Edwards as lawyer Henry Utterson who succumbs to her whim.

This production comes from Chung Ying in partnership with (UK based) Red Shift Theatre Productions; if such a partnership can bring such dark and intriguing theatre to the UK, long may it continue.

3/5

Watch: Jekyll & Hyde runs at the Platform Theatre until the 8th August.

Jekyll & Hyde - Chung Ying Theatre Company

Monday, 27 July 2015

12 Songs for Summer

It may not seem like it looking outside, but it's finally summertime. That means holidays, sunshine and a lot of drinking, but it also means festival season, paparazzi shots of celebrities on private boats, and not a lot of new music out.

So in the name of #content, here are twelve songs (in no particular order) that should be on your summer playlist to get you in the sunny mood:

Madonna - Holiday

Even if you're not going away, you probably wish you were. So whether you're on your way to the airport or on your way to the office, Madonna's classic gives off such summer vibes it is absolutely guaranteed to lift your mood. Remember these wise words: "you need a holiday".



Daft Punk - Digital Love

With 'Discovery' being one of the best albums ever made, it's basically required listening at any time of year. Digital Love sounds especially vibrant in the summer though, with its funky production, robot vocals and THAT middle eight synth solo. (N.B Get Lucky also a solid choice)



Capital Cities feat. André 3000 - Farrah Fawcett Hair

Every summer brings with it a song of utter nonsense, but few sound as cool as 2014's Farrah Fawcett Hair from Capital Cities. Maybe it's the influence of André 3000, the drag remix from the American Apparel Ad Girls, or simply the jazz-funk production, but this really is good sh*t.



Years & Years - King

Everyone's favourite new band already brought summer to a cold winter when they released King at the start of the year. No other song sounds as joyous - as long as you're not sick of it yet (HOW VERY DARE YOU).



Kygo & Kyla La Grange - Cut Your Teeth Remix

And if we're going with current artists, then Kygo's tropical dance production is probably the sound of summer 2015. Yes, the Norwegian DJ's songs all sound the same, but this remix of Kyla La Grange's underrated comeback single from 2014 is a personal favourite.



Groove Armada - At The River

After all that uptempo stuff, you'll be wanting to chill out. At The River, therefore, is a must. Because nothing says 'sunset beach vibes' like the relaxed beat, Patti Page vocal sample and lazy trombone solo of this piece of summer genius from way back in 1997.



Empire of the Sun - Walking On A Dream

If there's any country that knows how to 'do' summer, it's Australia. So if you prefer to relax in more electronic fashion then this is the track for you: the icy synths, jangling guitars and cooing falsetto vocals will put you in the summer mood quicker than you can make some sort of shrimp/barbie joke.



Lana Del Rey - Summertime Sadness

And then it all gets a bit too much. The sun gives you sweat rash. You've got sand stuck up your arse. Those free Club Tropicana drinks have gone to your head. And your summer crush is off bonking someone else.

Cue Lana.



Katy Perry feat. Snoop Dogg - California Gurls

There's no pick-me-up like Katy Perry though, especially if you fancy squirting cream out of your chest and eating jelly babies. "Nothing comes close to the golden coast" - Katy kindly reminds us all of this important fact of life. Bonus points if you can do the whole rap off by heart.



Basement Jaxx - Romeo

Frankly, you could put any of Basement Jaxx's back catalogue on a summer playlist (Raindrops was a close second choice), but Romeo was basically the sound of summer 2001 and deserves to be the sound of every summer since. For a more relaxed vibe choose the acoustic version. Either way, sassy Bollywood dancing is not optional.



Röyksopp - Eple

Forgive me an indulgence for a moment. You know how music often takes you back to a specific time and place? Well it was in 2003 that I not only finally bought a copy of 'Melody AM', but I also treated myself to a spangly PS2 and Final Fantasy X mere days before heading off on holiday to southern Spain with the parentals. And so at 3am one August morning I was transported to the tropical fantasy paradise of Spira before jetting off to my own paradise where I preceded to listen to this album on repeat. Any track will do, but the dizzying whirl of Eple will forever hold this memory.



Nicole Scherzinger - Wet

"Let's get a little wet" - isn't that what we all do in summer?




Todrick Hall presents The Toddlerz Ball @ Leicester Square Theatre

Todrick Hall presents The Toddlerz Ball

In a week where a new magazine dedicated to vloggers sent a jolt of fear through anyone over the age of consent, YouTube sensation Todrick Hall brought his 'Toddlerz Ball' show to London. Judging by the screaming hordes of teenagers who crammed into the tiny cabaret venue of the Leicester Square Theatre to give Hall a rockstar reception, the crown he wore in the opening number was justified. Hall is the King of YouTube.

For the uninitiated, Hall rose to fame on the ninth season of American Idol (reaching the semi-finals) and has since forged a hugely successful YouTube channel. Delivering viral videos by the bucketload to his 1.6 million subscribers, he specialises in parody Disney videos ("90s Disney", "Beauty and the Beat"), film parody trailers ("Mean Gurlz") and, of course, Beyoncé songs ("4 Beyoncé").

It's these videos that form the backbone of the 'Toddlerz Ball'. Introduced by YouTube comedy star Glozell who, dressed as a witch, places a curse on Hall, he must obtain a number of fairytale items to break the curse (Into The Woods style), all symbolising his most popular videos. Each section is introduced by fellow YouTube stars, proving Hall has the fans and famous friends to match his talent.

And talent he has in spades. Right from the off the energy is electrifying, with sharp choreography, riffing aplenty, and colourful Disney-esque costumes. The result is akin to Mickey Mouse starring in Nicki Minaj's Anaconda video. Audience members beg to be allowed on stage to participate in the recreation of his "McDonalds Drive Thru" song; his "4 Beyoncé" sees the whole cast performing intricate chair choreography; and the level of high camp and drag puts RuPaul to shame. At the centre of it all is Hall himself, with a velvety voice, perfect pirouettes and excellent comic timing, for a night of fun that's genuinely hilarious.

Not all of these happen at once, however. Gradually, it soon becomes clear that Hall's performances are best seen on screen. On stage we simply have budget recreations, where the sets are projected on to screens, the cast are under-rehearsed, and the performances too often rely on lip-syncing rather than live singing. His performance and personality are too huge for such a small venue - he should be performing at the O2 with the budget he deserves. His rendition of new single Low, proves that popstar potential.

Aiming towards teenagers does have its drawbacks: in a section that makes Taylor Swift look like the Wicked Witch of the West, Todrick sings saccharine ballads and performs an over-egged interpretive dance to inspire his fans. Then again, witnessing teenagers screaming with glee when images of America's Equal Marriage bill accompany one song is hugely encouraging. If YouTube stars like Hall are the future, then maybe we should all stop worrying. It seems we're in safe (and hugely entertaining) hands.

4/5

Watch: 'The Toddlerz Ball' tours across the UK and USA.



Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Nick Jonas - Nick Jonas

Nick Jonas

The fresh-faced Disney poster boy is all grown up and has started his solo career with one of the best pop tracks of the year: Jealous. The slick pop-R&B production, catchy falsetto vocals and sexy vibe give the track instant appeal, proving Jonas has the potential to be the next big male popstar, in Justin Timberlake's absence especially.

That potential is tough to sustain over a full album, however.

It starts off well, with opener Chains establishing a dark R&B tone, heavily influenced by The Weeknd, Drake, Miguel and the like (it's later given a brilliant remix on the deluxe edition). Teacher also offers a fun, funky throwback that's pure Timberlake. From here, though, the album soon dips.

The obvious R&B influences are dripping from every beat and falsetto croon, so much that Jonas' own personality never really shines through. The stomping gospel feel of Wildnerness stands out (though it's trying hard to be a OneRepublic track), as do the driving guitar rhythms of I Want You. Yet the songwriting and hooks just aren't strong enough - especially after the success of Jealous.

If anything represents his identity crisis, it's his choice of collaborators. Demi Lovato features on saccharine ballad Avalanche, whilst Angel Haze raps on the (comparatively) harder Numb. The two artists represent Jonas' clean-cut past and the gritty future he's aiming for, but at present he is torn between the two. If he's to prove successful, he needs to build upon his breakout single and establish a musical identity for himself, rather than collating popular influences.

As it stands, 'Nick Jonas' is a decent debut, but it fails to capitalise on his true potential.

It's also criminal that the Tinashé remix of Jealous is nowhere to be seen...

3/5

Listen: 'Nick Jonas' is available now.




Lovett + Todd @ The King's Head Theatre

Lovett + Todd @ The King's Head Theatre

Have you ever watched Sweeney Todd and wondered "where did Mrs Lovett come from?".

No, me neither.

In many ways, ol' Nelly is the more interesting character in Sondheim's show. More than any other she personifies the tension between comedy and horror: a charming, lovable woman with a psychotic mind. Her additional lyrics in "My Friends" suggest her romantic interest in Todd, whilst the menacing counter melody during her rendition of "Nothing's Gonna Harm You" undermines her apparent motherly tendencies. Crucially, these are subtly underplayed in the music, leaving her motives and background for the audience to interpret.

And so we have Lovett + Todd from Another Soup, a theatre company known for their immersive productions. It's a drastic reimagining of the plot from Lovett's point of view that attempts to give depth to the character, but plays fast and loose with the original material and is ultimately unnecessary.

The opening gives Lovett a superhero-esque origin story involving her mother dying, leaving Nelly and her sister Amelia to set up business making meat pies using orphan children - a weak conceit that copies the original, minus the intensity of Sweeney's revenge plot. 

Yet when the sister's are caught, they move to Holborn where the familiar narrative beats of Sweeney Todd unfold. Here, though, Lovett (Louise Torres-Ryan) is a flirtatious femme fatale who seduces a timid, shy and unassuming barber (Daniel Collard) to do her bidding, the plot mostly told by a narrator (Eddie Mann, with an excellent spoken voice). It plays out like a noir thriller, but contains little of the intelligent macabre humour of Sondheim's book, nor the frightening horror tone. Using his show as a platform for an inferior piece simply feels like a cheap marketing ploy.

More so, for a show meant to explore Lovett's motives, there's very little reason given for her psychotic plans. Instead, she is merely a monstrous seductress lacking the charm or wit of Sondheim's creation. 

Musically the two shows simply don't compare. Lovett + Todd consists predominantly of folk songs and dance numbers that might be fun, but fail to advance the narrative in any meaningful way, brimming with awkward rhymes and word setting. And there are some odd stylistic choices: the equivalent "A Little Priest" epiphany moment is sung to a melodic ballad, whilst the whole show ends with a tango between its central pairing. Both are anachronistic to the Victorian setting.

It might seem unfair to compare the two shows - Lovett + Todd is a fun piece of entertainment with some capable performances and amusing moments of audience participation to bash down the fourth wall - but comparison is impossible to avoid. This is not an autonomous piece. Instead it's dependent on Sondheim, but I fear he was present only in the meat pies.

2/5

Watch: Lovett + Todd runs at the King's Head Theatre until 1st August.


Monday, 20 July 2015

Hecuba @ White Bear Theatre

Hecuba @ White Bear Theatre

With writer Chris Vlachopoulos originating from Corfu and director Justin Murray having a degree in Classics, it stands to reason that the pair would have a great understanding of the ancient Greek tragedy from Euripides.

It's also understandable that they would use the play as a political statement for a modern world. Where the original play sees the Trojan Queen mourning the loss of her two children, this adaptation draws a parallel with fictional characters in current day. Willow (Lucinda Lloyd) is a single mother whose daughter Pol (Roisin Keogh) is suffering from a life threatening illness, yet due to cuts in government funding she is unable to afford the necessary medication. Her son Ollie (Ben Scheck), meanwhile, is killed in a police attack. When Willow befriends the cop who murdered her son, she enacts her bloody revenge.

The two stories are intertwined as if the modern characters are possessed by the past. It's a clever concept, even if it's perhaps worrying how easy modern examples fit into the narrative. Yet although Hecuba is an interesting and informative reimagining of the original, it does feel like more of an A-level drama piece serving some educational brief rather than an enjoyable play in its own right. The modern day parallel only works in tandem with the Euripides story, rather than as an autonomous piece.

This idea bleeds into the set design. Constructed solely from piles of newspapers and paper boats, it imaginatively conveys both a Mediterranean seascape and a messy London flat, as well as representing an ever present modern media. It's conceptual over functional.

Thankfully there are some enjoyable performances. The cast bring a surprising amount of comedy to multiple roles, but they're led by a hugely capable performance from Lucinda Lloyd. Her Willow/Hecuba is a desperate woman drawn to desperate measures - even her murderous revenge is easy to sympathise with. This Hecuba may not stand alone, but it's an intelligently produced piece with excellent acting.

3/5

Watch: Hecuba runs at the White Bear Theatre until 18th July.


Friday, 17 July 2015

The Supreme Fabulettes @ The Leicester Square Theatre

The Supreme Fabulettes @ The Leicester Square Theatre

"The time has come...for you to lip sync...for your life!"

Ru Paul's famous Drag Race phrase is starting to feel pretty ironic - more than ever, it seems that singing is becoming a prerequisite to drag success. The vast majority of the show's contestants have since released singles and albums, some better than others.

And so to the UK and singing drag foursome the Supreme Fabulettes. The difference is that where the US queens rely on autotune, these talented girls can actually sing. Individually, it's Portia De Fosse who has the strongest vocal (and the highest kicks), even though Silver Summers is given the only solo number of the evening. Together with Vicki Vivacious and Vanilla Lush, they sing a variety of hit songs in tight harmony.

The show loosely follows the (fictional) history of the girl group: from their Supremes-esque conception in the '60s, through '70s disco, their downfall and imprisonment in the '90s, and their reforming in current day via 'The Screech' (a take on The Voice). The songs are interspersed with comic interludes from drag mother Sheila Simmonds, with some slightly awkward audience participation and tired jokes. She's joined by guest star Sam Buttery (a finalist in the first series of The Voice), whose performance is amusing and vocally impressive.

Despite the talent of the girls, the song choices are fairly clichéd: from Chaka Khan's "I'm Every Woman", to Madonna's "Express Yourself", ABBA's "Gimme Gimme Gimme" and "One Night Only" from Dream Girls. The renditions are fun crowd-pleasers, but it borders on glorified karaoke. Between songs there's great chemistry between the girls as they banter and quip, and they're dressed in some sparkling costumes and towering head-pieces designed by Kylie Minogue's Creative Director, William Baker. It's clear, though, that the music and visuals are the main focus - there's an overall lack of biting comedy and originality.

That said, this is a solid and enjoyable old fashioned drag cabaret show that's far away from the modern perception of drag popularised by Ru Paul's Drag Race. There's plenty of glitz and glamour on show and the girls' performance provides real feelgood entertainment - these are singing drag queens with talent.

3/5

Watch: The Supreme Fabulettes perform at the Leicester Square Theatre throughout August.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Prides - The Way Back Up

Prides - The Way Back Up

Chvrches meets The 1975. That's one way to describe the sound of Prides. Like the former, they hail from Glasgow and operate on the bright electro-pop end of the spectrum; but like the Manchester band, the all-male Prides centre on bold melodies and a youthful, perhaps even laddish, tone.

It's not the most original sound, then, but the result is a brash debut that's hard to ignore. After opener I Should Know You Better that sets the kaleidoscopic feel, it's Messiah that really leads the charge: stomping rhythms, synth licks and the staccato, breathless (and at times almost strained) vocal of lead singer Stewart Brock. Previous single Out Of The Blue follows the same template, alongside the likes of stadium-sized It's Not Gonna Change and the infectious "I wanna be" lyric of Little Danger.

The three-piece band are at their best on these tracks, delivering short, sharp hooks and an overwhelmingly catchy pop sound that's ideal for festivals (they sounded great at Glastonbury). Dig just a little deeper, though, and the formulaic nature of their songwriting is clear. The volume is too often cranked up to eleven - a bullish approach that lacks the delicacy of their electro-pop contemporaries.

When they do write a ballad, it falls at the opposite extreme. The softly bubbling Let It Go provides a welcome change of pace, but Brock's gruff vocal doesn't lend itself to this sort of music. Later, Same Mistakes sounds like a boyband off-cut, and closer The Kite String And The Anchor Rope moves worryingly into folk territory.

Skip those tracks, though, and 'The Way Back Up' is an enjoyable record full of masculine energy and powerful hooks - one that's best served in small doses.

3/5

Gizzle's Choice:
* Messiah
* Higher Love
* Little Danger

Listen: 'The Way Back Up' is available now.


Thursday, 9 July 2015

As Is @ Trafalgar Studios

As Is @ Trafalgar Studios

There remains a huge stigma surrounding those suffering from HIV/AIDS. For all the advances in medical care and early deaths prevented, that's one thing that has changed little in the thirty years since the AIDS crisis of the '80s.

Debuting in 1985 as the first play written about the disease, William M. Hoffman's As Is tackles this stigma head-on. There's an urgency to his writing that not only reflects a call for action, but creates a tightly gripping drama. Sharp dialogue overlaps and layers to generate a frenetic pace - early on it reaches a crescendo before the shared line "don't touch me", biting in its simplicity and heavy with meaning.

What perpetuated the myth of AIDS was fear, ignorance and lack of knowledge - all summed up in that one phrase. From there, Hoffman lifts the veil and delivers a well written and affecting drama to boot. The plot follows Rich (Steven Webb) as he returns to his ex-lover Saul (David Poynor) after contracting the disease. Yet there's a bright accompanying ensemble of varying roles, so we witness not only Rich's deteriorating health, but also the impact on those around him.

At times, the central couple dwell too much on philosophising mortality, but for the most part this is a hugely touching portrayal of a homosexual relationship. That's down to the honesty of the writing and the sensitivity of the actors. Hoffman doesn't shy away from the horrors of the situation, whilst Webb and Poynor offer believable and nuanced performances with an often comical touch. This is raw and at times harrowing storytelling with a heavy dose of humanity - a reality check for its audience.

In this production, director Andrew Keates captures the essence of '80s living: the dizzying drug and alcohol fuelled parties; the hedonistic, sexual freedom; the simmering fear. He directs a talented and accomplished cast, making creative use of a small space yet allowing the central relationship to breathe. Neill Brinkworth's lighting design and Matthew Strachan's music are colourful and evocative additions to what is a life-affirming, rather than bleak, play.

If As Is shows one thing, though, it's the power of theatre to educate - something that Keates (himself a HIV/AIDS campaigner) is keen to extend with Q&As, seminars and testing alongside the show, supported by notable charities like the Terence Higgins Trust. Despite being 'the first AIDS play', As Is remains a vital, powerful and relevant piece of theatre thirty years later.

4/5

Watch: As Is runs at the Trafalgar Studios until 1st August.


Photos: Scott Rylander