Thursday 30 January 2014

12 Years A Slave (2014) - Steve McQueen

There’s a moment towards the end of 12 Years A Slave that sums up the whole movie – everything that’s good and bad about Steve McQueen’s picture.  A single extended shot lingers on the face of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and as he stares down the barrel of the camera, his expression shows every moment of hurt, pain, torment, torture and suffering the character has endured.  It’s an extraordinary performance and a powerful and emotionally charged image that remains locked in the mind long after the credits have ended.

There’s something else in that expression though: anger.  It lends the image an accusatory tone, that one stare a wordless address directed squarely at the audience, forcing us to question our own values and beliefs.  It’s also an overblown image (literally, in close-up) as McQueen places this man’s suffering explicitly front and centre in what is an emotionally manipulative film that somewhat patronises the audience with its lack of subtlety.  In a film filled with so much pain, is the audience’s shame and horror not implicit enough without this single accusatory stare – the stare not of Solomon, Ejiofor or McQueen, but of every slave in history?

If McQueen’s last film was entitled Shame, then this film should be named ‘Guilt’.  No other film has inspired such overwhelming emotions.  It’s for this reason that 12 Years A Slave will sweep the board at the awards shows, striking guilty fear into the hearts of every voter.

Those nominations are not, however, unwarranted.  12 Years A Slave is an incredible film – both in its production and in its historical importance.  Based on a true story, we witness the kidnap of Solomon Northup as he is sold into slavery and forced to work on sugar cane and cotton plantations; witness the mistreatment of the black population under white supremacy.  The film pulls into question the (im)morality of every white character and their varying degrees of racism.  There may be a lack of characterisation with Solomon, but this is a man reduced to only the thin clothes on his heavily scarred back.  Ejiofor’s performance is utterly heart-wrenching, outdone only by Lupita Nyong’o as the tragically suicidal Patsey.  It’s Michael Fassbender who puts in the bravest performance, however, as plantation owner Edwin Epps – an unflinching portrayal of an abhorrent man who reduces these men and women to simply his “property”.

Unflinching is the best word to described McQueen’s cinematography, too.  His claustrophobic camera lingers on every hurt expression, every whip crack, every act of brutal and/or sexual violence.  Just when you think things can’t get any more horrific, they do.  We are there witnessing Solomon’s story at every step of this visceral, harrowing journey, its raw emotional power simply unequivocal.  Yet whilst the eventual emotional payoff is huge, it’s a terrifying ordeal to get there.  This is, of course, McQueen’s intention for the audience to feel alongside his protagonist, but it’s as if he’s trying too hard to shock, to trigger an emotional response.  He is ramming history down our throats and forcing the audience to feel a certain way, without any degree of subtlety or ambiguity.  His film is, quite literally, black and white.

But there’s a flipside to this – with such a subject matter, is there any other way to feel?  And as a result, is there any need for McQueen to be so emotionally heavy handed?  Does his film go too far in its portrayal of the cruelty of humankind – or is that even possible?  Will there ever be a time when this story doesn’t need to be told?  It’s for this reason that 12 Years A Slave is such an important film.  The suffering of black slaves can never be replicated on celluloid, but this film comes closest.


Wednesday 29 January 2014

Ásgeir - In The Silence

By the amount of attention he’s receiving over here, you’d think that Ásgeir Trausti Einarsson (known simply as Ásgeir) was the next big thing to come out of Iceland and ‘make it’ internationally.  And you’d be absolutely right.

The singer-songwriter has one foot in folk territory and the other in electronica.  Folky guitar and piano riffs are the main component of his sound, coupled with jaunty rhythms, rich brass and sumptuous vocal harmonies, whilst Ásgeir’s soft tenor purrs gently over the top.  In The Silence and Was There Nothing?, for example, are pure folk tracks, the former slowly developing to incorporate militaristic drums, the latter a hushed ballad based on a lilting guitar pattern.  At times it borders on Bon Iver territory.

It’s a world away from his most notorious Icelandic contemporaries – the weird and wonderful Björk and the majestic Sigur Rós.  Unlike Sigur Rós, though, Ásgeir does sing in English – at least in this reworking of the album, originally entitled 'Dýrð í dauðaþögn' in his homeland (winning him the Album of the Year at the 2012 Icelandic Music Awards).  Whilst the English lyrics certainly lose some of the poetic mystery of the original language, the music loses none of its potency.

It’s the electronic inflections, however, that set him apart from other folk acts and add an avant garde air that those other Icelandic acts are known for.  The album is bookended by Higher and Soothe This Pain, which both have an almost James Blake feel about them with their processed beats and distorted organ, creating an overall framework in which Ásgeir becomes slowly more experimental.  Summer Guest keeps things simple, beginning as a lively folk tune but eventually introducing a whirring synth melody upon its icy breeze; and the spine of lead single King and Cross is its spiky guitar riff, with touches of alien synths and beats.  Torrent marks the halfway point of the album – with grittier, louder production – before it all descends into darker, moody territory with the melancholic Going Home and the breezy, glitchy Head in the Snow, before the frosty electric guitars of the album’s closer – its most experimental track.

The electronic influences are all subtle and underplayed and don’t impinge on the overall folk aesthetic.  In this way, Ásgeir is bringing the genre into the modern era by crafting his own unique sound.  Those songs relying more heavily on pure folk are lacking that unique quality, whilst his songwriting at times is missing a bit of gusto.  Yet the quiet, contemplative feel is part of the charm of this beautiful and evocative album.


Gizzle's Choice:
* King And Cross
* Going Home
* Soothe This Pain

Listen: 'In The Silence' is available now.

Tuesday 28 January 2014

Half A Person: My Life As Told By The Smiths @ The Kings Head

Morrissey is well known for being something of a melancholic character, albeit one with a penchant for biting political humour.  The protagonist of Half A Person: My Life As Told By The Smiths, from Cross Cut Theatre, is no different.  William (it was really nothing) is a twentysomething, sexually ambiguous hipster whose vices include red wine and listening to The Smiths on LP whilst noting how miserable his life is.  The narrative of this one man production is a coming-of-age story about a dying friend, unrequited love and a lost girlfriend (Sheila – take a bow) whose lips were as red as “blood from a freshly slit wrist”.

Yes, as you’d expect from a play that takes inspiration from The Smiths, the plot is fairly morbid.  Yet this is offset nicely by some wry humour in the script, full of self-deprecating one liners that poke fun at the band – from that weird “Joan of Arc” lyric on Bigmouth Strikes Again (you know the one), to bassist Andy Rourke being known as “the other one”.  This is complemented by a terrific performance from Joe Presley as William who balances the many elements of the character through sensitive storytelling – from comedy to tragedy, and with some fine Morrissey-esque singing and awkward mannerisms.  The performance is ultimately very touching.

Yet Half A Person is somewhat flawed.  The production itself is overly minimal with Presley often accompanied by a void of silence.  For a play inspired so heavily by music, there is not enough of it and, when it does arrive, the songs are performed by Presley (with music re-created) in a jarring shift of tone from Morrissey enthusiast to Morrissey impersonator.  Half A Person is indebted to the band, but we never actually hear their own music.

Moreover, the narrative is a little shallow, seemingly satisfied with referencing and imitating The Smiths within its own story rather than using the source material to make a valid point about the band or Morrissey himself.  A few inconsistencies also hold the show back – what twenty-first century Smiths fan wouldn’t know the band split up years ago?  Half A Person, however, remains a charming play with a charming man in the lead role.


Watch: Half A Person is performed on Sundays and Mondays at the Kings Head Theatre.

Photography: Michelle Walsh

Monday 27 January 2014

Kylie Minogue - Into The Blue

It’s not that Into The Blue is a bad song.  Far from it – it’s a perfectly solid, fizzing synth-pop track with a rising chorus and catchy beat that’s perfectly suited to the pop princess (has she hit queen status yet?).

But is this really the big return we were expecting from one of the most successful popstars on the planet?

Into The Blue is taken from Kylie’s forthcoming album ‘Kiss Me Once’ (pictured), the first original album since 2010’s ‘Aphrodite’.  Since then she’s released ‘The Abbey Road Sessions’ (her most Radio 2 friendly offering), signed to Roc Nation – through which she released the divisive Skirt – and has revealed more of her bubbly personality on the UK’s The Voice.  Judging by Into The Blue, Kylie will be embracing her youth with her new material rather than becoming a bore – something I’m all for.

Yet this new single could easily be taken from ‘Aphrodite’ and, as good as that album is, surely you’d expect Kylie to have moved on a little since 2010, especially with the Roc Nation influence?  Kylie’s often been one to shock: from her change to indie-pop with Confide In Me, to those gold hot pants, and last year’s Skirt (which, incidentally, won’t be appearing on the new album).  By comparison, Into The Blue just feels a little staid and safe.  Perhaps she’s waiting for the album tracks to blow our socks off (on a side note, ‘Kiss Me Once’ will feature a reworked version of Tom Aspaul’s Indiana, which should be all sorts of amazing).

As a standalone single, though, Into The Blue is good, but not great.


Listen: ‘Kiss Me Once’ is released on March 18th.

Friday 24 January 2014

Matilda The Musical @ The Cambridge Theatre

I’ll admit, I had my reservations about Matilda The Musical.  After its opening in 2011, would it still live up to the hype?  Is it just a glorified kids show?  Would all the revolting children simply get on my nerves?

All it took was one number and I was hooked.

Matilda The Musical is that rare thing – a piece of pure family entertainment with a universal story for all ages.  It might be based on a children’s story and performed by a cast predominantly made up of children, but the show is so cleverly put together and the performances so polished that it’s impossible not to fall in love no matter what your age.  It is a faultless celebration of childhood and the fears of growing up, whether you’re a five year old girl attending school for the first time, or a twentysomething finding your feet in the real world.

Of course, being adapted from Roald Dahl’s book, there is plenty of mischievous humour and gruesome violence that kids and big kids will delight in.  Tim Minchin’s witty lyrics are full of clever rhymes and daring toilet humour that prove consistently hilarious, whilst his music ranges from nostalgic and whimsical to “a little bit naughty”, simultaneously sympathetic to the show’s Dahl origins and reminiscent of Minchin’s own comedy songs.  Childlike wonder, something Dahl revels in, extends to Rob Howell’s set design and Matthew Warchus’ direction that frequently use the full theatre space.  The letter tiles of the set cascade into the audience, the lighting (from Hugh Vanstone) glows like neon in all directions, the cast swing gloriously over the stalls (timed with soaring melodies), and at one point a girl falls from the ceiling (RIGHT next to me!).  Audience’s attend the theatre for magic and amazement, something Matilda accomplishes magnificently, reducing everyone to children.

This would be nothing without the cast who are consistently superb.  Continuing the Dahl theme, the performances are grotesque caricatures and the singing full of character.  With the Wormwood family we have an absurd reflection of the modern family – Kay Murphy’s squawking Mrs Wormwood, Mike Denman’s money-driven Mr Wormwood and the random outbursts of Joshua Wyatt’s Michael Wormwood, not forgetting Joshua Lay as flamboyant salsa teacher Rudolpho.  No performance is more grotesque than Alex Gaumond’s Miss Trunchbull, surely one of the greatest stage villains in modern musical theatre – tyrannical and ever so slightly camp, he is warted and thwarted by those pesky kids at every turn.  As for the children themselves, they perform the complex choreography like consummate professionals with just the right amount of brash brattiness, though it’s Robbie Warke who stands out for his excellent singing as the cake-eating Bruce Bogtrotter.

At the heart of the show, though, is the relationship between Matilda (on this occasion Lollie McKenzie) and Haley Flaherty’s Miss Honey.  McKenzie is simply adorable and holds her own amongst the adult leads (her rendition of ‘Quiet’ was wonderful), whilst Flaherty puts in a beautifully subtle performance as the kind, meek Miss Honey.  Together their relationship blossoms over the course of the show in charming, heart-warming fashion.

Matilda The Musical is the very definition of feel-good theatre that will have you grinning from ear to ear and wishing you never have to grow up, even if that does mean eating sweets every day and going to bed late every night.  It is quite simply a joy to watch.


Watch: Matilda The Musical runs at the Cambridge Theatre for the foreseeable future. 

Thursday 23 January 2014

I Break Horses - Chiaroscuro

Chiaroscuro: in art, the bold opposition between light and dark.

In the case of I Break Horses, it’s the Swedish duo’s second album, the titular notion manifesting in melancholic disco: all moody atmospherics and glittering synths.  And as everybody knows, the best kind of pop music balances emotional lyrics with upbeat production.  It’s something the Swedes do incredibly well – look no further than Robyn’s seminal Dancing On My Own.

That said, ‘Chiaroscuro’ is also the antithesis of the duo’s debut, ‘Hearts’.  If that album was full of upbeat, dreamy shoegaze, then this is its nightmarish follow-up.  Gone are the indie guitars of the first album in favour of icy electronics, the sound less expansive but no less intricate.  It certainly leans towards the darker side of chiaroscuro, with its brooding production, abrasive beats and Maria Lindén’s haunting vocals, her lyrics frequently obscured beneath rich textures as if being swallowed up by the surrounding cacophony. 

Still, a minor key is no barrier for a pop aesthetic and the duo certainly flex that muscle here.  Faith may whir menacingly with its alien like melodies, but its hooky bass doesn’t stray too far from the dancefloor.  Even the darkest tracks like Berceuse and Disclosure are littered with sparkling light and memorable riffs; Ascension, by contrast, sounds positively angelic.  Denial and Weigh True Words are the closest to true pop songs though - the former having a more laidback beat and a soaring modulation in its final moments; the latter featuring clattering percussive effects that lead into its expansive chorus.  On the flipside, Medicine Brush and Heart To Know have their merits but at seven minutes long stray too far into shoegaze territory and outstay their welcome.

“Not more Swedish melancholic disco” I hear you cry.  In truth, ‘Chiaroscuro’ most closely resembles the work of Austra or Grimes – both of which are Canadian.  Besides, there may be plenty of moody electronic music around, but I Break Horses are very good at what they do – this album is not to be dismissed.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* Faith
* Denial
* Weigh True Words

Listen: 'Chiaroscuro' is available now.

Wednesday 22 January 2014

Warpaint - Warpaint

It’s official – girls do music better than guys.  It’s something that’s been clear in pop music for some time, with most of the big names and exciting new acts being female.  And now, with the likes of Warpaint, Haim and Savages, women are kicking rock music back into gear, a genre that’s traditionally masculine.  ‘Warpaint’ is the second album from the LA, all-female, four-piece and the self-title is a clear statement of their confidence.

As with their debut, ‘The Fool’, Warpaint’s sound merges shoegaze and psychedelia into a hypnotic haze of woozy guitars that slowly unfurls and weaves its magic.  The album was produced by Flood (whose work includes PJ Harvey, Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails amongst others) and mixed by Nigel Godrich (who worked with Radiohead), their influence immediately apparent in the album’s heavy mood and experimental feel.  Hi, for instance, wouldn’t sound out of place on ‘OK Computer’ with its fuzzy, menacing bass and space-age outro.  Indeed, it’s the bass that most often gives each track its character: from the squelching electronics of Biggy, to the walking bass of Go In that lends an experimental jazz flavour.  Add to that the free-form structure and abstract nature of each track, and it’s easy to get swept along by this heady, intoxicating music – an elderly neighbour of the band even complained to the police of the noise, claiming it was causing nausea.

Most of all, though, it’s the dreamy vocals of Emily Kokal that draw in the listener.  In a high breathless voice she sings her muffled lyrics smothered in creepy reverb and delay, weaving snake-like around each melody.  It’s at once deeply sensual yet disturbingly eerie; deliciously chromatic yet distant and haunting.

The twelve tracks of ‘Warpaint’ are just different enough within the band’s aesthetic, from the dark Intro, to the gentle acoustic opening of Teese, and the beautifully evocative (and more electronic) DriveLove Is To Die stands out as the closest the band have come to a pop song with its hooky chorus, but for the most part the music blurs into one smoky atmosphere.  It’s for this reason that some criticise the band of making background music.

Yet it’s the transporting, slow-burning nature of their sound that sets the band apart from their peers.  Sure, they might not have the immediate, energetic impact of Savages or the pop hooks of Haim, but ‘Warpaint’ slowly coils around your ears and refuses to let go.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Love Is To Die
* Biggy
* Drive

Listen: 'Warpaint' is available now.

Tuesday 21 January 2014

Sophie Ellis-Bextor - Wanderlust

Sophie Ellis-Bextor is back but has shied away from another album of disco tinged pop in favour of a more subtle affair with elements of Eastern European flavourings scattered throughout. ‘Wanderlust’ is more Murder On The Cossack Dancefloor than anything else we might have come to expect from her and probably falls closer to her output as part of 90s indie band Theaudience than it does solo SEB.

There is still a great deal of sumptuous pop melody contained within, especially on the first half of the album, specifically on Runaway Dreamer and The Deer & the WolfUntil the Stars Collide is almost  Bond theme-lite, if Bond went back in time to when the Cold War was still a threat to all human existence. It is only the production that steers these songs away from pop into a different and sometimes more beige direction.

The latter stages of ‘Wanderlust’ is where the album revels in its Eastern European flourishes. 13 Little Dolls is an eerie, mythological, number fuelled romp. Album highlight Love Is a Camera starts life as a delicious waltz that conjures up images of a ball scene from Anna Karenina but evolves into something resembling A Complete History Of The Soviet Union As Told By A Humble Worker, Arranged To The Melody Of Tetris and is all the better for that. Where these flourishes don’t exist is where the songs sometimes become forgettable and seem to fail to serve any purpose other than fleshing out the project into full album territory. 

Sophie Ellis-Bextor is lucky enough (or unlucky enough, depending on your perspective) to exist in a world where her music is seemingly only released to please herself and her fans. She hasn’t breached the UK top 20 since 2009 and rarely receives radio support here so it is easy to see why she has opted to work on a project that she holds value in and is rich in the sounds of a market where she is popular (her last album, ‘Make A Scene’ went Gold in Russia). It’s an almost pressure free environment that should suit all concerned.

Work started on ‘Wanderlust’ before SEBs appearance on Strictly Come Dancing and you would have forgiven her for shelving this album in favour of more upbeat pop numbers in order to trade on her re-emergence from the show as a nations darling (I certainly would have) but she has stuck to her guns because she clearly believes in this project and at times Wanderlust does make for an interesting listen, if not a very exciting one.

Now after all that I’m off to twirl around my bedroom as I listen to Heartbreak (Make Me A Dancer).


Gizzle's Choice:
* Runaway Dreamer
* The Deer & The Wolf
* Love Is A Camera

Listen: 'Wanderlust' is available now.

Review written by Stefan Jackson - follow him on Twitter @stefanatical

Monday 20 January 2014

James Vincent McMorrow - Post Tropical

‘Post Tropical’ is, essentially, the love child of Bon Iver and James Blake.  McMorrow is best known for his cover of Steve Winwood’s Higher Love; his debut album ‘Early In The Morning’ being predominantly folky acoustic tracks.  Now he’s adapted his sound, adding the Americana tinges of Bon Iver and the precision of Blake to his trademark falsetto vocals.  If spectral minimalism is your jam, then ‘Post Tropical’ should be top of your listening list.

The production of the album is best described as painterly.  Washes of acoustic guitars and piano are the prominent instrumentation, songs coloured with warm brass, tinkling autoharp, ghostly clarinet, woozy slide guitar, and touches of electronic effects, all punctuated by both live percussion and processed beats.  In the corner is McMorrow’s signature vocal, delicately floating and cracking with each melody, occasionally enriched with harmony.  The textures of each song have been impeccably crafted, the overall effect stunningly beautiful.

It is, perhaps, a little too precise in its construction.  On the one hand, ‘Post Tropical’ does have its moments that tug at the heartstrings, essentially forming a series of lamentations and torch songs.  Opening track Cavalier revels in downbeat misery, whilst some lyrics capture melancholy beautifully, such as Red Dust’s “I will not cave under you for my heart is an unending tomb” (a song that also includes a beautifully yearning high note in its final moments).  On the other hand, for the most part the album’s lyrics are too abstract and the melodies too fragile to be memorable – an obvious exception being All Points, the album’s most hooky track with its repeated “I was in the dark” refrain.  You just wish McMorrow would let loose a little and offer something less restrained and more emotionally raw, even if the minimalist production is incredibly exposing.  Only the title track dares to beef up the sound.

The comparisons to Blake and Bon Iver really can’t be helped, McMorrow’s sound having neither the electronic originality of the former, nor the aching melodies of the latter.  ‘Post Tropical’ remains a stunning album, but McMorrow’s restraint and lack of daring hold it back from greatness.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Cavalier
* Red Dust
* All Points

Listen: 'Post Tropical' is available now.

Sunday 19 January 2014

The Wolf Of Wall Street (2014) - Martin Scorsese

Leonardo DiCaprio's lack of an Oscar win has become a huge ongoing joke.  Between both the Oscars and the BAFTAs, he's been nominated for best actor seven times but is still yet to win the coveted honour.  If anyone is going to give him the best platform possible, it's multi-Oscar winning director Martin Scorsese.  They've worked together on a number of films over the past decade, but The Wolf Of Wall Street is their best collaboration yet.  Could this finally be DiCaprio's year?

Based on a true story, the film has DiCaprio playing Jordan Belfort, a stock broker in late 80s Wall Street.  As a character, Belfort is a few murders short of American Psycho's Patrick Bateman.  Driven by greed, cold hard cash is his drug in a corporate world of suits, prostitutes and heavy pill and cocaine use.

Unlike Bateman, though, Belfort is a far more charismatic leader.  We watch as he develops his start-up company from selling penny stocks, to a multi-million dollar business, running Stratton Oakmont like the leader of some sort of fanatical, religious cult.  As he gives rousing, inspirational speeches to his employees (and directly addressing the audience) like a crazed, devout church speaker, his office resembles a jungle of desks, phones and chest-beating apes; an animalistic, testosterone-fuelled world of hyperbolic machismo.  Here, the women are utterly periphery, predominantly flesh for sniffing cocaine.

It's a role that DiCaprio excels at, balancing conniving manipulation, drug-induced comedy and Belfort's inevitable breakdown.  He might have the money, the house, the boat and the women that many people aspire to, but Scorsese's camera doesn't shy away from his destructive and debauched lifestyle: from Gatsby-style parties to horrendous drug-driving.  This might amount to some hilariously entertaining set-pieces (with a great performance from Jonah Hill as the toothy Donnie Azoff, Belfort's right-hand man), but Belfort is fundamentally not a likeable protagonist.

The film is certainly a black comedy, but it also resembles Goodfellas in its epic scope, with Belfort almost positioned like a mobster boss - but without the unpredictable sense of danger.  Although long, the film must set up what Belfort has to lose and the pace of the lengthy yet memorable scenes is always swift and gripping, all directed as slickly as DiCaprio's hair.

Ultimately, though, The Wolf Of Wall Street is a cautionary tale on living to excess, the effects of greed and the darker side of the American Dream.  Whether the film revels too far in its hedonistic debauchery is simply a matter of taste.


Saturday 18 January 2014

Lost Boy @ Charing Cross Theatre

"I wanted to kick things off by exploring an aspect of the conflict that particularly fascinates me - the death of innocence", explains writer/director Phil Willmott in his Director's Note.  His new musical, Lost Boy, reimagines J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan within WWI, using adult rather than child characters.  It's a sound concept that could have drawn clever, sinister parallels between war and a children's story.

In Willmott's hands, however, Lost Boy is a theatrical mess.  The confused plot blurs fantasy and reality in a bizarre mix that sees the plot introduced by the author himself and soldiers dreaming of an alternative reality that parallels the classic tale.  This might be based on a children's story, but the script is overtly childish in both dialogue and song, with shoddy innuendo and clunky rhymes.  The 'lost boys' are immature men who discuss farting and sex, their only threat being an STD from a Parisian prostitute ("ooh la la"), whilst a whoreish Tinkerbell seduces Pan and commands him to "release the beast inside".  This is the sort of script where "I have a bad feeling about this" is considered high drama.

Added to this is a gay subplot shoehorned in unnecessarily, with one character running away from his disapproving father to the circus (it's WWI, of course he disapproves).  There's even room for some Jungian pop psychology ("dreamy!"), with one jazz number imploring us not to "be a Freud".  It all culminates in a high kicking cabaret number in which the pantomime villain Hook is shot, before (spoiler alert!) it was all just a dream.  It quite simply makes an insensitive mockery of some tragic themes.

Then there's the score, which combines music hall with contemporary song.  Through ballad after ballad, Willmott and his co-composer Mark Collins display a predilection for melodic suspensions that make little harmonic sense and plenty of hackneyed modulations.  The minimal orchestra also need to become acquainted with a tuning fork.

Given the right material the cast could succeed.  As it stands, Grace Gardner as Wendy is the only cast member to offer some impassioned singing - but of course her romantic reminiscence number in the second act is distractingly accompanied by some expressive dance.  And that's not the only number with clichéd choreography - cheesy is an understatement.

Everything about Lost Boy screams amateurish.  Not only is this a shoddy musical in itself, it makes a mockery of WW1 and Barrie's legacy.  It certainly won't be empowering any "insecure teenage boys" as Willmott has predicted.


Watch: Lost Boy runs at the Charing Cross Theatre until the end of January.

Friday 17 January 2014

Don Gil of the Green Breeches @ The Arcola Theatre

Don Gil of the Green Breeches is the first in a series of three plays at the Arcola Theatre (performed by one ensemble) as part of the Spanish Golden Age Season with the Theatre Royal Bath and Belgrade Theatre Coventry, celebrating the works of two Baroque dramatists: Tirso de Molina and Lope de Vega.  The former was the dramatist behind the first known presentation of the Don Juan legend on stage (El Burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra) and is thus one of Spain’s most celebrated theatrical leaders. 

De Molina's Don Gil bears some similarity to Don Juan, including character names, scorned lovers and mistaken identities, but this is very much an eccentric comedy filled with hyperbolic characters as colourful as their costumes – the titular green breeches especially.  When Dona Juana’s lover, the dashing Don Martin, leaves her for the wealthy dowry of Dona Ines, she follows him to Madrid dressed as a man to woo his new lover and thwart his plans.  What follows is an intricate and entangled web of lies and deceit full of cross-dressing, mistaken identities and manipulation – a world in which the women have power.  As such, De Vega’s work pushes the boundaries of his theatrical form to question social injustice and gender relations.

This production from director Mehmet Ergen (presented in witty and authentic translation from Sean O’Brien) is a hilarious romp filled with passionate Spanish flair – from the rainbow of period costumes, to the flamenco style dancing and Spanish guitar soundtrack.  The cast are wonderfully expressive, though their cartoonish behaviour does sometimes border on over-the-top, with some modernisms creeping in.  At the centre is Hedydd Dylan as the scheming Dona Juana, ably aided by the comically camp Quintana (Chris Andrew Melion), together always one step ahead of Doug Rao’s moustachioed Don Martin.  It’s the peripheral characters who most amuse however, from Katie Lightfoot’s brilliantly stompy and bratty Ines, to Annie Hemingway’s fidgety bespectacled Donna Clara, Simon Scardifield’s hapless Don Juan constantly adjusting his rosette, and Jim Bywater’s crude servant Caramanchel whose asides to the audience are filled with racy innuendo.

De Molina perhaps didn’t imagine his play to be performed in quite such a camp manner, though it’s certainly warranted by the gender role-reversals at the play’s core.  Don Gil is an uproarious night of entertainment and, alongside the remaining two plays of the season, pays suitable homage to Spain’s theatrical legacy.


Watch: Don Gil runs alongside Punishment Without Revenge and A Lady of Little Sense at the Arcola Theatre from January 9th to March 15th.

Thursday 16 January 2014

Henry V @ The Noël Coward Theatre

Henry V, a man with the trust of a nation upon him; a man expected to be a great and motivational leader to his troops; a man forced to set aside his personal views in favour of his country.  It’s not easy being king.

Likewise it’s a tough gig for Jude Law, taking on the lead protagonist in one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated history plays.  The plot of Henry V is relatively simple, the play essentially forming a character study of kingship, what it means to be a good leader, or a hero. 

Law deals with the pressure as admirably as the king himself. Despite his slender frame and graceful movement across the stage, his Henry is a charismatic leader – charming during court scenes, yet equally commanding and inspirational in battle.  His is a ruthless king, angry at those who defy him yet mournful of those who die in battle.  Henry V contains some of Shakespeare’s grandest speeches, which Law rousingly performs with impeccable diction.  The final scene sees Henry wooing his future queen, Catherine – here Law reverts to the typically hapless and endearing romantic hero we’ve seen him play in so many rom-coms, but it works in context for a thoroughly amusing and entertaining scene that contrasts with the machismo of the previous acts.  Law certainly lives up to his star-billing.

The supporting cast provide much hilarity, in particular Matt Ryan’s bumbling Fluellen and Ron Cook’s cynical Pistol.  Ashley Zhangazha is an eloquent Chorus, clearly delineating the play’s structure, though his unnecessary doubling as the Boy is a little confusing.

Yet, whilst Grandage has teased some superb, colourful performances from his cast, visually the production is bare and a little dreary.  Christopher Oram’s wooden stockade set provides a Globe-like backdrop to the period costumes, doorways and Neil Austin’s subtle lighting design hinting at a world beyond the stage.  As Chorus implores in his opening Prologue, the audience are required to use their imagination – something this production takes too literally.  The lighting and ambient music (Adam Cork) certainly provide atmosphere, but the production feels too static, the actors either stood still or running from scene to scene.  It makes you wish Grandage had taken a few more creative risks rather than relying on his star cast.

That said, this remains a lucid and engaging (if safe) Henry V that might be aimed squarely at mainstream audiences, but proves Law is a great interpreter of Shakespeare’s verse.


Watch: Henry V is the final play in the Grandage Season and runs until 15th February.

Wednesday 15 January 2014

Scandi-pop 2014 update

Some of the best music from the past few years has come from Scandinavia and that trend is set to continue well into 2014.  So whether you're looking for music from new artists or eagerly awaiting the return of some star names, here are some of the biggest Scandinavian acts to look out for in the coming months...

Tove Lo

Heartbreak is at the core of this Swedish singer-songwriter's material.  Yet where first single Habits was a more personal, intimate affair ("I've got to stay high all the time to keep you off my mind" she laments), latest single Out Of Mind sees the singer addressing her ex directly with the soaring "you're out of your mind" chorus.  This is intelligent pop with direct lyrics grounded in reality, epic production that scales impossible highs and a brilliant sense of melody.  Then there's this live acoustic version that proves she's got the voice to match the music.  This year, Lo deserves to be as big as her songs.


Another Swedish singer on the rise is XOV.  As with many hip-hop inspired artists, he grew up in a ghetto (Tensta, with the highest crime rates in Stockholm) yet found solace in music.  What sets him apart is his dark subject matter and mentoring from Swedish songwriting god Max Martin in LA last year.  

Lucifer is taken from his EP 'Boys Don't Cry' that's being released in two parts - a stripped down effort and a full studio offering.  The minimal, haunting production and hip-hop beats are paired with a pop sensibility, with XOV expressing regret over his past ("I used to kick it with Lucifer and he still lingers in the dark").  If this is what he's capable of with just a synth and a drum machine, just imagine what he'll do with a full studio at his disposal - he's currently recording his debut album due later this year.

Stine Bramsen

Remember Alphabeat and their phenomenal debut single Fascination? Well fear not, the Danish band have not split, but female singer Stine Bramsen has been working on some solo material.  Prototypical is the first release, so far only available as a 'live session' that's a little disappointing at first.  Yet what begins with a slow piano-led verse soon launches into a stomping chorus of hand-claps and Bramsen's unmistakeable voice.  When the final studio version hits it will probably be full of brooding synths and, if it's anything like Alphabeat's own work, will be worth looking forward to.


Ola Svensson is already a huge name in Sweden.  Since winning Swedish Idol in 2005 he's released three albums and had a number of hits in his native country, but hasn't quite found that same traction in the UK.  

That said, his most recent single, Tonight I'm Yours, proves why he's such a star.  Following a sweeping string-based intro, the song evolves into a synthy banger with plenty of euphoric appeal.  It's the kind of Europop that Swedish artists do so well, but could easily appeal across the globe.  Could 2014 be the year that Ola goes truly international?

Neneh Cherry

That's right, the Neneh Cherry returns this year with her first album in eighteen years, entitled 'Blank Project'.  However, anyone expecting another Buffalo Stance, 7 Seconds or Manchild may be disappointed.  It's clear from latest track Everything that this latest work will be far more experimental - seven minutes of sparse beats, odd vocal samples, and nary a soulful chorus in earshot.  Produced by Four-Tet, it's tribal, abstract and slightly menacing, but perhaps the album will include a pop hook somewhere?  There's a collaboration with Robyn, so...


Norwegian-British boy-girl duo Meow released their first track Radio Silence in summer last year.  Since then it's been a little quiet, until the very recent uploading of four new tracks to their Soundcloud page.  The pair are sure to be making a lot more noise this year.

And quite literally too.  Their electropop fizzes with noisy beats, heavy bass lines and dreamy vocals.  The best song of the batch, Betting On You, is closer to the pop end of the spectrum with its endearing chorus lyric "I'm laying down my money and I'm betting on you".  Skeletons, meanwhile, is a heavier techno track with elastic bass and thundering beats, whilst That's How I Won The War and Supersonic continue their frenetic electro pop sound.  Anyone who enjoyed Margaret Berger's Eurovision entry for Norway last year will find much to enjoy in Meow.

They're also ridiculously good-looking, which is always a bonus.


Another Swedish export, NONONO had their impossibly upbeat track Pumpin Blood used on a recent Samsung GALAXY phone advert.  You might not know their name but you've almost certainly heard their music.  And like that song, the band name is actually a positive - "It's so scary to say no, to close a door", said lead singer Stina Wäppling in a recent interview.  "I think it's more probable that you'll find something you really want to do when you give yourself space."

It's not all optimistic whistling ditties though.  Their other material includes the gloomy Like The Wind - all jerky beats, spectral guitars and Wäppling's characterful "wa ah ah" vocals - whilst Down Under is a folky acoustic effort.  Hopefully their forthcoming album will bring together these contrasting styles.

And for those interested, DJs The Chainsmokers have just released their remix of Pumpin Blood and it's available for free on their Soundcloud which is very nice of them.

Dream Lake

This Stockholm-based duo have an incredibly fitting name.  Having just released their self-titled debut EP, their music is characterised by liquid piano, frosty guitars and the heavenly vocals of Isabella Svärdstam.  Lead single In My Head pairs an exotic snake-like verse melody with a more expansive chorus.  It sets the tone for the EP at large, comprising dreamy and hypnotic pop songs that might be a little one level, but suggest this is just the suitably shimmering start for the duo.

Satellite Stories

If you prefer your Scandi-pop with a little less electro (but no less compelling), then Finnish indie-pop band Satellite Stories may be more your style.  Already hotly-tipped by the likes of NME and Q, their sound resembles Two Door Cinema Club and Bombay Bicycle Club but with a frosty Scandinavian touch.  Upbeat first single Campfire has already proven a success with bloggers and current single Lights Go Low is set to do the same.  Both songs are taken from the band's second album 'Pine Trails', released late last year - it's well worth a listen.


Ok ok, there might not be any actual new music from Robyn at the moment, but the Queen of Swedish pop will definitely be making an eagerly-anticipated return this year following her incredible 2010 album 'Body Talk'.  Whilst information is very much thin on the ground, we do at least know that she'll be collaborating with Norwegian dance superstars Röyksopp at the Øya Festival in Oslo in August and at Latitude Festival as part of their 'Do It Again' 2014 tour.  And that alone is cause for celebration.

In the meantime, let's all just remind ourselves why she's a pop genius.

Monday 13 January 2014

New Pop Roundup

Typical. You’re waiting for a big pop single to start the year with and then three hit at once, from four of the biggest women in pop (yes, one track is a duet).  Who will come out on top?

Lily Allen – Air Balloon

Premiered this morning on Radio 1, Air Balloon is the next single from Allen’s forthcoming album after 2013’s biting Hard Out Here.  And it couldn’t be more different.  Where that track was a cutting parody of current music trends and women in modern pop, Air Balloon is its antithesis: nursery-rhyme melodies, silly lyrics and a generally breezy tone that fits with the whole daydreaming theme.  Co-written by Swedish songwriter Shellback, it’s all very nice, all very catchy, but it’s a far cry from the sarcastic popstar we’re so used to. 

“Did I ever tell you my uncle’s monkey ran away from the zoo” is a million miles away from “Lily Allen has a baggy p*ssy”.  Let’s hope the album has more of the latter.


Listen: Air Balloon is released on March 2nd.

Shakira feat. Rihanna – Can’t Remember To Forget You

It’s been a long while since we’ve heard from either Shakira or Rihanna.  The last major single from the Colombian star was her soundtrack to the 2010 World Cup, Waka Waka (This Time For Africa) - let’s just forget the horrible Pitbull collaboration Get It Started from 2012 – and she’s since been focused on motherhood.  For Rihanna, meanwhile, 2013 was the first year since 2008 without a new album (perhaps something of a relief), though there’s still been room for some filthy videos.

Written by Kid Harpoon (whose work includes writing for Florence & The Machine) and Erik Hassle (because all the best songwriters are Swedes), Can’t Remember To Forget You in theory brings together the best of both singers in a new wave, Sting-esque package: the quirky guitar-tinged pop of Shakira and the reggae beats of Rihanna.  It’s certainly a welcome change from EDM and the lyrics are very Rihanna-appropriate (“I go back again, fall off the train, land in his bed, repeat yesterday’s mistakes”), but the simple guitar-heavy chorus hooks are more annoying than catchy.  It’s proof that, not only are these two artists better off separated, but the best Shakira duet is still Beautiful Liar with Beyoncé (of course).


Listen: Can’t Remember To Forget You is released tomorrow (January 14th).

Paloma Faith – Can’t Rely On You

I’ll tell you who you can rely on – Pharrell Williams.  The pair wrote and recorded Can’t Rely On You together in Miami and Williams’ influence is clear in the funk R&B feel.  Faith croons over the cowbell beat like a female Robin Thicke or Justin Timberlake, though the track maintains her penchant for high drama – from her impassioned vocals, to the spoken Italian that bookends the track and the period styling of the video. 

2012’s ‘Fall To Grace’ was one of the biggest selling albums of the year.  Yet with forthcoming release ‘A Perfect Contradiction’, Faith is moving away from the overwrought ballads to her more soulful roots.  It’s apparently “the most upbeat Paloma has ever made”, so should be one to look out for.


Listen: Can’t Rely On You is released on 23rd February, with the album to follow on March 3rd.

Sunday 12 January 2014

An Evening with Sylvester Stallone @ The London Palladium

Rocky. Rambo. Barney Ross of The Expendables.  Sly Stallone has made a career playing the 'tough nut', meathead action hero, known as much for his ripped body and unique voice as for his acting ability - being punched, thrown, shot at and blown up with alarming frequency.

It comes as a surprise, then, that in person he is such an articulate, charming and charismatic gentleman.  Interviewed by the ever-amusing and knowledgable Jonathan Ross, Stallone spoke candidly about his rough childhood in Hells Kitchen, the early inspirations behind his career and had plenty of light-hearted stories and anecdotes about his five decade long career as an actor, writer and director, from the beginnings of Rocky to poking fun at his rivalry with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Indeed, it's easy to forget what a successful career Stallone has had.  Not only did he write and star in his breakthrough movie, Rocky (1976), it received ten Oscar nominations and won three: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Film Editing.  Since then, he's starred in numerous action and non-action films and has directed and written sequels, originals and even a musical (Staying Alive).  Stallone is the third person in Hollywood history to receive two Academy Award nominations for the same film (after Charlie Chaplin and Orson Wells) and is the only person to have had a No.1 box-office hit in five consecutive decades.  Quite a career for a simple action hero.

As well as being treated to clips of his best work, including forthcoming films Escape Plan and Grudge Match (also starring Robert De Niro), the floor was eventually opened to the audience for a Q&A.  Stallone was met with rapturous applause from a crowd of adoring fans (some screaming perhaps too enthusiastically - this was a classy evening after all, not a pop concert), but he remained humble, perhaps overwhelmed, throughout.  Appreciative and supportive of his fans, he answered each question like a true motivational speaker.  Maybe that will be the next step in his career.

As the evening came to a close, Stallone became the first artist to be inducted live on-stage to the Palladium's Hall Of Fame, which was of course met with a standing ovation by the audience.  In this, Stallone joins the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Sammy Davis Jr.  It was a fitting end to an enjoyable evening celebrating the career of a cinematic legend.


Photos from Jonathan Brady/PA