Saturday, 31 May 2014

Between Us @ The Arcola Theatre

The title of Between Us, the new play from British feminist playwright Sarah Daniels, is an immediate indicator of the therapy sessions at the heart of the narrative.  Through monologue the audience is privy to private sessions as two characters (one male, one female) discuss their differing experiences of adoption.

Yet the title is also ironic as private becomes public.  The therapist moonlights as a stand-up comedian, who uses these sessions as inspiration for her comic routines.  It's through these scenes that Daniels cleverly breaks the fourth wall: the opening comic scene alone is a biting view of fringe theatre with the line "I bet you'd rather be at Mama Mia".

It's the structure, then, that most impresses with this comedy-drama.  Scene by scene we piece together the stories of Julia (Charlotte Cornwell), Dave (Callum Dixon) and Teresa (Georgina Rich).  Dave is a typical London macho geezer depressed after the birth of his daughter; Teresa is a well-to-do Waitrose shopper struggling to look after her troubled adopted children; Julia is the therapist/stand-up who reconnects with her own daughter she gave up for adoption.  It soon becomes clear that their lives are inexplicably linked.

Daniels further layers her narrative with themes tackling sexist taboos.  Dave is actually a new aged man worried for the safety of his daughter in a modern sexist world; Teresa was talked out of her child bearing years by her husband, slowly driving her to madness.  It's Teresa who provides commentary through her stand-up: "biology gets in the way of equality" she notes, "but now we can talk about it".

Further, is it possible to love children who aren't biologically ours?  Is it fair to treat children as a commodity, to give up on them when life becomes too hard?  Or is it a sort of vanity to hold onto them, to appear charitable?

"We all do stupid things when we're young" remarks Teresa, but it's how we deal with guilt that shapes us as people.  It's only through black comedy that Daniels is able to be so brutally honest about her themes, which hang together tightly in an amusingly and touchingly human drama that's thought-provoking and wonderfully acted.  Forget Mama Mia, this intricate piece of theatre shouldn't be kept between us.


Watch: Between Us runs at the Arcola Theatre until 21st June.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Clean Bandit - New Eyes

"So you think dance music is boring?" the vocals ask on album opener Mozart's House.  Clean Bandit are here to prove you wrong.

The album's lead single Rather Be may have gone stratospheric, but it's Mozart's House that's the blueprint for the band's sound, fusing a Mozart string quartet with garage beats and listing musical terms as proof of their classical credentials.  It shouldn't work but the Cambridge-based group have the musicality and the style to create a truly unique sound that can storm the charts.

That they've already proved with their singles.  If Rather Be is their big pop hit, then Extraordinary is its more melancholic cousin with a downbeat introduction that soon erupts into a typically euphoric beat.  Dust Clears marries sombre piano chords with a soaring violin melody, glitchy beats and a dirty bass line, whilst A&E opens with a mournful string quartet chorale that leads into a series of contemporary bleeps and bloops.  Throw some up-and-coming British vocal talent into the mix and you've got a hugely refreshing album that brilliantly fuses old and new.

Fans of the band will already be familiar with these tracks though, so what else does 'New Eyes' offer?  It's not just classical and garage music that have influenced the band, but hip-hop, electronica and reggae.  The vibrant Come Over, for instance, features British reggae artist Stylo G in its mix of infectious dancehall beats, calypso steel drums and syncopated strings, whilst Heart On Fire is pure 00s garage with its skittering rhythms and deep bass.  Album closer Outro Movement III is an abstract piece of instrumental electronica, but it's clear that this album is far more dance than classical, erring on the side of pop rather than experimental and arguably playing it safe.

The album does trail off towards the end though, in direct correlation with an increase in electronic and hip-hop influences.  The title track, with rap from Lizzo, just doesn't have the hooks of their best work and Birch is more of a slow-burning, intimate track amongst club bangers (though its cello line is beautiful).

Lyrics aren't a strong point either.  Whilst Rather Be's simple lyrics are charmingly effective, Cologne is just a typical dance track about 808 drums and "whatever happens tonight stays in the crowd" (though the thrilling production is anything but stereotypical).  The worst offender though is Telephone Banking that rhymes "check my clothes I wear chinos" with "spent all your cash on cappuccinos".

Even at its lowest moments though, 'New Eyes' remains a slickly produced and utterly unique proposition with a distinct summer vibe.  You may have already heard the best the album has to offer, but taken as a whole you've likely never heard anything like this before.  Forget Sam Smith, this is the sound of 2014.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Mozart's House
* Rather Be
* Dust Clears

Listen: 'New Eyes' is released on 2nd June.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Mariah Carey - Me. I Am Mariah...The Elusive Chanteuse

If being a diva was measured in egotism then Mariah would win.  Only she could come up with an album title like 'Me. I Am Mariah...The Elusive Chanteuse'.  This, even when interest in her music is waning (in mainstream UK charts at least).

And if singing was measured in high notes and fast flashy runs then Mariah would undoubtedly win.  No really - this article proves it.

Except being egotistical doesn't make you a great popstar.  Singing higher than everyone else doesn't make you a better singer.  These things mean nothing without music to back it up and thankfully the 'elusive chanteuse' has some decent songs here to support her self-appointed title.

This album will do nothing to endear non-fans, however.  Mariah trills, riffs and squeaks her way through fourteen songs, melody as elusive as the chanteuse herself in a wave of perpetual arpeggios.  Sometimes a simple tune is more effective than endless runs.

Her vocals are just one reason for this album being so self-indulgent.  This is not the immediate pop album you might be expecting.  It all begins with Cry, a five minute long gospel ballad of sickening schmaltz, whilst final track Heavenly is another overly long track incorporating traditional gospel songs and an admittedly impressive vocal.  It's preceded by a cover of George Michael's One More Try that fails to excite in any way.

Needless to say it's the more uptempo tracks that are most successful.  Mariah has worked with some top talent, from the likes of Nas, Miguel and Wale, to numerous in-demand producers.  Dedicated settles into a mid-tempo R&B groove; previous single #Beautiful is a cool yet sweet duet with Miguel; Thirsty is an aggressive concoction of clipped hip-hop beats and Mariah claiming (in typical Mariah fashion) "the best thing to happen to your ass was me"; and Make It Look Good features a skipping beat beneath the soulful vocals and retro production.

You Don't Know What To Do is exactly what you'd expect from a Mariah track, beginning with an elaborate introduction (and intrusive rapping from Wale) before soaring into a pop gem.  The throbbing disco of Meteorite is the real album highlight though, with its magical orchestral inflections and a more restrained vocal (by Mariah standards).

The album lacks a real standout single, but this is Mariah's attempt to create a full body of work rather than an individual hit.  For the most part she succeeds, with an album that covers the full gamut of her career, covering gospel, soul, R&B, hip-hop, funk and ballads, as well as personal lyrics and guest appearances from her twin children.  As such this is something of a concept album, the concept being Mariah herself.  Only she could produce such a self-assured album, which is somewhat expected after thirteen previous albums.

Which brings us back to that elaborate title.  This is Mariah.  Take it or leave it.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Thirsty
* You Don't Know What To Do
* Meteorite

Listen: 'Me. I Am Mariah...The Elusive Chanteuse' is available now.

Katy Perry - Prismatic Tour @ The O2

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Katy Perry has a weak vocal judging by her various TV performances.  Surprisingly, you’d be wrong.  Perhaps her music just sounds better in an arena environment rather than on screen, but she sure as hell makes up for any doubts with production value.

It all started with Perry taking us on a trip through ancient (neon) civilisations – opener Roar saw her accompanied by an army of Roman centurions whose costumes and skipping ropes lit up in the dark, continuing with Part Of Me and Wide Awake (in dance remix form).  For Dark Horse we moved, Stargate-style through space, to Egypt, where Perry emerged from the stage riding a mechanical puppet horse; for ET she took a page out of Pink’s book with some impressive acrobatics; the sexy I Kissed A Girl led us inside the on-screen pyramid to witness twerking mummies with oversized breasts and bums, and flying guitarists shooting sparks during a blazing solo.

From here things only got weirder.  A trip to “Kittywood” had tap-dancers dressed as cats for a Broadway version of Hot N Cold that Lloyd Webber would be proud of, followed by International Smile that had bizarre cartoon cat imagery on the screen (playing keyboards, shopping and attending “Yoga Puss” - meow meow anyone?) and a middle eight that mashed in Madonna’s Vogue, before Perry poured fake glittery milk over herself and the dancers chased a cartoon mouse.  A mega mix of 90s dance hits (complete with big-headed smiling DJ and ‘Dance Cam’ on the audience) led into Walking On Air where Perry flew across the stage; a giant inflatable emoji poo (amongst others) floated over the audience during the frothy fun of This Is How We Do as Perry sang from an inflatable car; and on California Gurls the arena erupted in neon disco, before she performed current single Birthday where she literally brought out the big balloons and soared over the audience after inviting one lucky bitch fan on stage to be strapped into a giant cake and sung to.

One video short, to the soundtrack of Peacock, had Perry seemingly trapped in the Jackson’s Scream video before the white walls exploded in a shower of paint.  Likewise, for the two hour gig the whole arena was a volcano of neon – from light up costumes, to quirky imagery, a thick mist of balloons and ticker tape, and Perry’s ever-changing coloured wigs and costumes.  There was perhaps an over-reliance on the screen and a lack of large-scale set pieces, but this is Katy Perry not Gaga levels of crazy.  Or Miley for that matter.

In the middle of it all she proved her critics wrong.  As is now becoming customary at so many pop gigs, she performed an acoustic set on the B-stage (“I get to talk to you like we’re in my room eating pizza”), with beautiful renditions of By The Grace Of God, The One That Got Away and Unconditional.  The former especially was an arrestingly emotional (and vocally exposed) moment, Perry thanking her fans whilst her boyfriends “come and go”.  Not only does she have a great set of pipes and a zany personality, but she accompanied herself on guitar and showed some real vulnerability beneath the costumes - “As a popstar you’re supposed to be invincible and I’m not”, she claimed.  Perry is far more than just a blue-haired cartoon character squirting cream out of her breasts at jelly babies.

But if the gig as a whole was a battle between Katy ‘the serious musician’ and Katy ‘the popstar’, what really showed was the quality of her music.  The songs may be mostly bubblegum fun, but the full setlist consisted of hit after hit after hit.  The finale was Firework, the stage lit up in dazzling fiery explosions for a fittingly vibrant ending to the ultimate feelgood gig.  Isn’t that what being a popstar is all about?


Sunday, 25 May 2014

X Men: Days Of Future Past (2014) - Bryan Singer

Time is a troublesome thing.

Whether in films, books, games or comics, time travel has the capacity to provide a clever crutch for a narrative.  It also has the capacity to overcomplicate things.  Massively.

In the case of Days Of Future Past, it allows for the new reboot of the series to be temporally linked to the previous X Men trilogy.  In a bleak future where robotic sentinels are sent to destroy all mutants, Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time Terminator style to meet their younger selves (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) and stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from murdering Dr. Trask (Peter Dinklage) before he can create the sentinels that destroy them, allowing for plenty of Inception influenced action within action.

Following?  Good, because I don't think even Hugh Jackman knows what he's doing here.

On a cynical level, the narrative works for three reasons.  Firstly it allows for plenty of geek fan service with fleeting and inconsequential cameos from characters across all the films.  Secondly, it shoehorns the most popular character (Wolverine) into the new reboot.  And thirdly it hinges its storyline around the hottest actress of the moment (Jennifer Lawrence), despite her character having a small part in the original trilogy.

At the least the future of the franchise is in the safe hands of a talented cast.  Fassbender and McAvoy take over from their Shakespearean forbears and bring some welcome ambiguity to their roles: McAvoy as the foul-mouthed Charles Xavier hooked on drugs that suppress his powers; Fassbender as the impassioned but ruthless Magneto.  Lawrence, too, ensures that Mystique is more than just a slinky blue naked body.

The main issue, however, is that with so many mutants there's a distinct lack of characterisation.  Instead the film assumes a substantial amount of prior knowledge without developing its characters beyond the muddled time travelling plot.  Some inadvertently amusing moments and shoddy one-liners don't help the script.

The X-Men aren't given much of a chance to flex their mutant muscles either.  Sure, those in the future struggle to fight an army of incoming sentinels with a multitude of powers but with limited screen time we're not invested in their battle.  Elsewhere it's mainly Magneto at the centre of the action, proving he's the most badass of the lot.  That said, it's Even Peters as Quicksilver who's given the coolest moment as he uses his super speed to destroy a whole room of guards in slow motion, before being shamelessly dropped for the rest of the film.

Most of all, the producers have shot themselves in the foot.  A reboot of a series works in isolation, but Days Of Future Past doesn't stand alone.  By mixing the various films together, the overall timeline has been well and truly ruined.  It's not just the mutants messing with time, but the producers as well.


Saturday, 24 May 2014

New Pop Roundup

Rejoice!  Summer is nearly here!  Which means you want to know what songs you'll be listening to over the next few months, right?

La Roux - Let Me Down Gently

Now this has been a long time coming - since 2009 in fact.  Thankfully Let Me Down Gently doesn't disappoint.  As with previous singles In For The Kill, Bulletproof and I'm Not Your Toy, this is another synthpop gem, yet there's a greater degree of emotional weight here.  "When you let me down gently, it still feels hard" singer Elly Jackson yearningly laments over evocative, pulsing production, "let me in for a minute, you're not my life but I want you in it".  And just when you think it's over, it comes crashing back with its layered production, mournful songwriting and a sax solo.  Elly, it's good to have you back.


Listen: Let Me Down Gently is available now, with the forthcoming album 'Trouble In Paradise' released on July 7th.

Nicki Minaj - Pills N Potions

It's fair to say that Pills N Potions isn't the comeback single that fans were expecting.  The last thing you expect from a rapper who spits out rapid fire rhymes like a machine gun is a ballad.  And even though Minaj has frequently courted the mainstream with the likes of Superbass and Starships, this new track is a major change of pace.  That's not to say the Dr Luke produced track is bad, it's just far less exciting than her previous material and her biggest new rival: Iggy Azalea.


Listen: Pills N Potions is taken from Minaj's forthcoming album 'The Pink Print' due later in the year.

Tove Styrke - Even If I'm Loud It Doesn't Mean I'm Talking To You

Tove Lo isn't the only Swedish Tove with new songs.  And where Lo is ballsy for her sincerity, Styrke is ballsy for her brash, punky attitude.  Far from the electro of her previous album, this track is all Ting Tings-esque guitars and drums layered up with weird electronics and clipped vocals.  The Swedish Idol finalist mixes this fire with bubblegum appeal for a track that could well take over the summer.


Listen: Even If I'm Loud It Doesn't Mean I'm Talking To You is available now.

Chris Malinchak feat. Mikky Ekko - Stranger

And here's another summer banger.  Following on from last year's So Good To Me, Stranger is a complete change of pace for Malinchak: funk guitars, squelching bass and Mikky Ekko doing a great Michael Jackson impression.  Perfect for some sun-kissed grooving.


Listen: Stranger is released 

Will.I.Am - Birthday

Sadly this isn't a cover of Katy Perry's latest single.  Yet if you forget about the fact it's Will.I.Am, this track is actually pretty palatable.  Its host of producers includes DJ Ammo (Black Eyed Peas, Sean Paul), Keith Harris (Robin Thicke, Madonna) and A.R.Rahman of all people, and features vocals from Cody Wise.  It's Rahman whose influence is strongest though, Birthday sampling this track from the Bollywood film Kadhalan that he scored, lending the track a welcome Bhangra flavour.  Though the full song is yet to be released, you can hear a snippet below.


Listen: Birthday is released on July 6th.

Danity Kane - Lemonade

Yet another band making a comeback, this time minus founding member Aundrea Fimbres.  Still, Shannon Bex, Aubrey O'Day and Dawn Richard (whose album 'Goldenheart' released last year is brilliant) are still on board, releasing this dirty, percussive R&B jam featuring a rap from Tyga.  The band, who formed on MTV's 'Making The Band' in 2005, have never reached a huge audience in the UK but this could finally be the track to bring them overseas success.  Thirsty?


Listen: Lemonade is released soon.

2NE1 - Gotta Be You

Few things in life are as vibrant and catchy as K-Pop.  And few K-Pop artists are as vibrant and catchy as top girl band 2NE1.  A sort of halfway point between the sheer exuberance of most J-Pop artists and Western hip-hop, only the video can match the song for colourful character.  Don't let Psy put you off - K-Pop is here to stay and 2NE1 are at the forefront.


Listen: Gotta Be You is available now (in Korea at least).

Austra - Habitat

"I want you, I need you" vocalist Katie Stelmanist chants over hypnotic dance production.  Habitat, the title track of the Canadian band's new EP, is a clear continuation of the melancholic disco of their underrated 2013 album 'Olympia'.  Its sound is perhaps more straightforward than on their quirky album, but Stelmanist's unique voice ensures this is pure Austra - and that's no bad thing at all.


Listen: The full 'Habitat' EP is released on June 17th.

Jess Glynne - Right Here

Clean Bandit vocalist in 'song that sounds like Clean Bandit' shocker.  Glynne lent her vocals to the Cambridge band's massive hit Rather Be and is now releasing solo material.  Right Here follows on from that track, but without the classical inflections that have made Clean Bandit such a success.  Vocally Glynne is as soulful as ever, but this track lacks distinction.


Listen: Right Here is released on July 16th.

Pitbull - We Are One (Ole Ola)

Yep, this track (featuring Jennfier Lopez and Claudia Leitte) is the official anthem to the FIFA World Cup 2014.  I mean, who else could create such catchy and annoying rubbish?


Listen: We Are One (Ole Ola) is available now.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Röyksopp & Robyn - Do It Again

‘Do It Again’ is, of course, not the first time these two Nordic musical giants have collaborated.  Amongst others, Robyn provided vocals for Röyksopp’s The Girl And The Robot, whilst in return they produced her track None of Dem.  This new mini-album (accompanied by a tour) is a much moodier, and heavily dance-influenced set of five songs than we’re used to.

Is it what we want from a Robyn album?  It’s been four years since her phenomenal ‘Body Talk’ and whilst that album had a strong dance influence, it’s her melancholic pop anthems that fans revere.

Equally, is this what we want from a Röyksopp album?  The Norwegian duo shot to fame with their debut ‘Melody AM’ (from way back in 2001), and since then they’ve continued to develop their playful upbeat and melodic dance music.   

‘Do It Again’ isn’t quite the best of both worlds.

Opener Monument sets the tone: ten minutes of mesmeric downbeat synths, breathy woodwind and Robyn declaring “I will let this monument, represent a moment of my life”.  Hopefully it won’t be representative of her next solo album.  It’s followed by Sayit, a rave track of bubbling alien synths that you wish Robyn would sing rather than say.  A melody at all would be preferable.

Later on, though, things pick up.  The space age ballad Every Little Thing features a rumbling bass hook beneath Robyn’s desperate “Every little thing I say, everything little thing I do, you should know by now, it’s for you” – typical of her mournful lyrics, but here in a more sombre setting.  The album then closes with Inside The Idle Hour Club, a cinematic instrumental that gradually layers up a chilling concoction of electronic melodies, a yawning bass line and warm strings.  It might not have the immediacy of their best work, but as atmospheric background music this is expertly produced and sounds beautiful.

Nestled in the centre, however, is an incredible pop song that’s up there with the best of both Robyn and Röyksopp’s material (and the main reason for the review score below).  It’s telling, too, that the most successful track of the album is the one that features Robyn most heavily.  The pounding dance rhythms fused with sad lyrics are pure Robyn (“don’t care what they say, it hurts so good”, “we should not be friends, we’ll just do it again”), whilst the production is Röyksopp at their slick best.  The brilliance of this track just highlights how as a whole the mini-album is in desperate need of some hooks.  Instead ‘Do It Again’ is more representative of the potential of this collaboration rather than a great listen in and of itself.  Its title track, however, remains an essential listen – let’s hope they can do that again.


Listen: 'Do It Again' is released on 26th May.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Frank (2014) - Lenny Abrahamson

It’s a while before we first meet the titular Frank.  He’s the guy with the weird fake head, played by Michael Fassbender and loosely based on comedy musician Frank Sidebottom, on whose zany personality the film hinges.  Firstly, however, we’re introduced to Jon (Domhnall Gleeson – soon to be seen in the next Star Wars), a failing songwriter and musician.  We watch him go about his dismal life, working in an office and attempting to find inspiration in his dreary surroundings.  We witness him excitedly rush home to write down a song idea, before it falls apart and he realises it’s simply a copy of It Must Be Love by Madness that he’d heard earlier.  In only a few moments, director Lenny Abrahamson encapsulates the struggling artist; a young man devoid of inspiration yet striving to live his dream.

He’s soon given the opportunity.  A chance encounter on a beach leads him to join the band “Soronprfbs” as the keyboard player when they visit his home town for a gig.  He quits his job and moves with them to secluded lodgings in Wales where they attempt to write their album, filled with odd electronics and recorded sounds from their environment.  Thrilled to be on his way to stardom, Jon logs the band’s progress on blogs and Twitter.

Soronprfbs are fronted by the titular Frank, a strange and enigmatic man who finds inspiration in the smallest of things.  His fellow bandmates, including the aggressive Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), are enamoured by Frank’s apparent genius and Jon is soon sucked into their crazy world.  This despite never seeing Frank’s face – “How does he brush his teeth?” Jon inquires at one point. 

Up to this point the film is based very much on the real events of Jon Ronson, the actual keyboardist in Frank Sidebottom’s band.  It’s frequently hilarious with a particularly quirky sense of British humour – least of all the immediate hilarity of a man with a fake cartoon head.  We may not understand the progressive, psychedelic music that Frank inspires, or why this unique character is so appealing, yet as a whimsical look at the bonkers creative songwriting process, Frank is full of charm.

In its final act the action moves to the SXSW Festival in Texas, turning fact to fiction.  The pressures of performing live soon tear the band apart; their reliance on Frank’s head as a gimmick and Jon’s social media marketing is a clear comment on the music industry and its dependence on image over musicality, as well as a satire on festival audiences eagerly anticipating the next big thing.

It becomes clear that Soronprfbs are not the next big thing.  Instead, the film becomes a more psychological tale as we finally meet the man behind the mask – a fragile man scared of reality, tenderly portrayed by Fassbender.  Like so many geniuses in history, Frank is the typically tortured artist – is it this that makes him so talented?  Is he even a genius at all?  Is his work even music?  And does the film warrant this serious denouement after so much offbeat humour earlier on? 

The mask is a clear metaphor, an image of Frank’s intangibility and ambiguity, and it’s symbolic of the film too.  Like the band’s weird music, Frank is difficult to categorise.  Instead it’s a bizarre and unique indie experience that may or may not be utter genius.


Tuesday, 20 May 2014

In The Heights @ The Southwark Playhouse

How In The Heights is only now, six years after its Tony-winning Broadway run, debuting in the UK is beyond me.  I haven’t smiled so much in a theatre in a long time.

One reason is perhaps for its subject matter and fears it may not translate to a UK audience.  Set in the Washington Heights neighbourhood of New York known for its Dominican community, the show is essentially Rent meets West Side Story and explores the lives of Hispanic people living with poverty and crime.  Though they all aspire to leave, their only way out is based on pure luck: to win the Lottery.  

This is hardly a hard-hitting drama however.  The light-hearted narrative focuses on two main characters, Usnavi (Sam Mackay) and Nina (Christina Modestou): the former the owner of a local bodega (convenience store) in love with the provocative Vanessa (Emma Kingston); the latter a typical good girl arriving home from college to her dominating parents - Kevin (David Bedella) and Camila (Josie Benson) – and her lover Benny (Wayne Robinson).  It’s the usual youthful story of young love and overbearing parents that isn’t particularly original, whilst what little drama and danger there is takes a while to kick in.

Yet despite its slew of Spanish in-jokes, the scorching Latin fire and passion of In The Heights is nothing short of infectious.  It’s the dazzling score and choreography of this production that makes it such unadulterated fun far beyond the narrative, set off by such a talented young cast.  Lin-Manuel Miranda’s original and catchy score is a fusion of Latin rhythms and American hip-hop, not only reflecting the plot but both traditional and contemporary tastes.  In this mix Usnavi raps all his lines, filled with the usual braggadocio and comical rhymes associated with the genre – Mackay delivers these like a West End Eminem, with both style and clarity.  

Elsewhere Modestou and Kingston offer some spine-tingling vocals as Nina and Vanessa in some stunning pop ballads; Eve Polucarpou offers a powerhouse performance as local matriarch Abuela Claudia; Robinson proves he’s got a smooth vocal alongside his pecks as Benny; and Victoria Hamilton-Barrit is hilarious as the gossiping, volcanic salon owner Daniela.

The music is complemented by Drew McOnie’s electrifying choreography.  Again fusing the two styles, the cast slink and sashay from salsa and samba to breakdancing, negotiating the intimate space with effortless cool.  The skill, stamina and sheer energy of the cast is unmatched in any current West End production, resulting in a musical that’s lively and vibrant like no other.

All of this culminates in a heady, sexually charged atmosphere that’s hotter than the sun (quite literally in the theatre space).  In The Heights is all of the best ‘s’ words: sassy yet sensual, sweaty, smouldering and simply superb.


Watch: In The Heights runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 7th June.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Coldplay - Ghost Stories

Some of the most celebrated albums in pop music history have been the result of a break-up: from Frank Sinatra’s ‘In the Wee Small Hours’, Bob Dylan’s ‘Blood on the Tracks’ and Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’, to ABBA’s ‘The Visitors’, Alanis Morisette’s ‘Jagged Little Pill’ and most recently Adele’s ‘21’.  Even Rihanna’s post-Chris Brown album ‘Rated R’ is probably her most interesting.

But what effect does a “conscious uncoupling” have?  What insights can we gain from Chris Martin’s lyrics? 

Does anyone even care?

The most immediate change for Coldplay on ‘Ghost Stories’ is their evolution in sound.  Over the course of their career they’ve steadily been incorporating more and more synth elements into their music, but with ‘Ghost Stories’ they’ve gone full-on electronic.  This is hardly a Radiohead jump from ‘OK Computer’ to ‘Kid A’ though.  Instead, it sounds more like a band struggling to remain relevant in an increasingly electronic musical landscape.  The overall tone is downbeat and sombre, reflecting the obvious subject matter, but for the most part it lacks personality.

Midnight and A Sky Full of Stars represent the two extremes of their new sound.  The former is an introspective, slow-burning mood-piece with auto-tuned vocals that sound as beautiful and ghostly as you might expect, only introducing a pulsing beat in its final third.  The latter was produced by Avicii, turning a delicate song into a massive club banger that’s at odds with the rest of the album.  It sounds more like a dance remix of an existing Coldplay track rather than an original.

Most of the tracks sit somewhere in between, the whole album settling into an unremarkable mid-tempo groove.  Magic is a tender little song of raw emotion (“I just got broken, broken into two”); Ink pairs nocturnal guitars with a bossa hand clap beat; True Love shuffles along like a corpse, despite its abrasively dissonant guitar solo; and acoustic ballad Oceans harks back to the band’s ‘Parachutes’ heyday, but like so many of the songs on ‘Ghost Stories’ it’s melodically stagnant.

Moreover, it’s Martin’s lyrics that disappoint, lacking poetry, sophistication or any depth of emotion.  In the case of Magic, the song’s charm lies in its simplicity: “And I don’t… want anybody else but you”.  Elsewhere though he relies on trite metaphor (Ink’s “got a tattoo and the pain’s alright, just one way of keeping you inside” and O’s “a flock of birds hovering above…that’s how you think of love”), or settles into mundanity (as on Anothers Arms – “late night watching TV, wish that you were here beside me”), made all the worse by his whiny vocals too often devoid of hooks.

‘Ghost Stories’ ends up being an electronic dirge with Martin dispassionately wallowing in his own misery.  It’s about as bland and tasteless as Gwyneth’s cookery.  Maybe all that flaxseed oil has addled his mind.  Chris, it’s about time you ate a burger and got a rush of blood to the head.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* Magic
* Midnight
* Oceans

Listen: ‘Ghost Stories’ is available now.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Godzilla (2014) - Gareth Edwards

The creature Godzilla (or Gojira) was originally conceived in Japan post-WWII as a metaphor for the dangers of nuclear power.  Over the years the King of the Monsters has been bastardised adopted by US audiences and its original meaning diluted.  In this new and messy incarnation Godzilla becomes symbolic of nuclear dread and environmentalism in a modern world - "the arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control".  The result is an atomically god awful film.

Disaster films are meant to be melodramatic, but Godzilla just piles on cliché after cliché.  It takes far too long for the action to get going; instead we're first introduced to crazy scientist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston - him from Breaking Bad) and his boring family, leading to an overly complicated narrative that's laughably full of plot holes.  It's literally a checklist of everything you'd expect in a disaster film: slow motion 'it's behind you' shots; characters making endlessly bad (but apparently dramatically right) decisions; a dog that gets saved; hordes of extras running away from peril into the camera (run to the side!); a script full of blatant foreshadowing spoken by gruff empty shells of machismo; a globetrotting plot that still results in America saving the day; and young children being saved at every turn just to increase the melodrama to hyperbolic levels.

This extends to the characterisation.  Inept military leaders clash with crazy scientists spouting philosophical drivel (Ken Watanabe), whilst most everyone stands gormlessly staring at the action around them.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Ford Brody is just another jarhead solider; Cranston is underused; and not even Elizabeth Olsen can overcome the limitations of her role as Brody's wife.

And what's better than one monster?  Three, apparently.  Godzilla actually arrives on the scene to destroy two 'MUTOs' that appear purely to throw the viewers off the scent of 'the big monster reveal'.  Edwards' motto seems to be the more monsters on screen the more exciting the action becomes.  He's wrong, not least of all due to the character design.  Watching a realistically portrayed Chewitt's monster attempting to destroy some oversized alien-like cockroaches and everything else in its path with its freakishly small T-Rex arms is nothing short of hilarious. Why not chuck in some other monsters whilst you're at it: Alien, Predator, King Kong and the alien from Cloverfield?  And why do so many people either lose sight of the monsters or seem shocked at their appearance when they're so damn big?

It's just one of many preposterous questions in what is the disaster movie to end all disaster movies.

No really.  Please make it stop.


Little Dragon - Nabuma Rubberband

Since their 2009 debut 'Machine Dreams', Swedish band Little Dragon's output has been a little inconsistent.  For instance, their 2011 breakthrough 'Ritual Union' featured the excellent title track alongside some less interesting filler, later followed by the brilliant standalone single Sunshine.  It's perhaps for this reason that the band are yet to hit mainstream audiences and remain best known for singer Yukimi Nagano's guest appearance on SBTRKT's Wildfire.

'Nabuma Rubberband' similarly features a couple of particularly standout tracks, but is overall their most consistent and strongest album to date.  For the most part, the band have taken a turn towards nocturnal atmospherics, the overall sound a deeply sensual concoction of fuzzy sub-bass, clattering beats and Nagano's uniquely raspy and soulful vocal.  Tracks like Pretty Girls, Underbart and the title track skirt around the edges of mainstream tastes with their memorable pop sensibilities.

However, many of the tracks are more content with mood and hypnotic textures.  Opening track Mirror sets the tone with its minimalist production, weird effects and cold emptiness between phrases, whilst Cat Rider and Killing Me take a gentler approach with their oscillating synth riffs and silken vocals.  The result is a downbeat album (alongside Nagano's pensive lyrics) that's certainly cohesive in its soundscapes, but with a sumptuous closing track entitled Let Go, you can't help but wish the band would do this a little more often.

Thankfully the album is saved by its two lead singles Klapp Klapp and Paris.  The former features a heavy rumbling bass, infectious beat and space aged synths that accompany its sinister, ritualistic video.  The latter is the soundtrack to a late night city drive, its sombre atmosphere and lyrical sadness ("Remember it was Paris you said we were gonna meet, why's your answering machine still on?") juxtaposed with a dancefloor beat.  With these tracks the band flirt with a mainstream pop audience, but this isn't an accessible album designed for major success.  Instead, the album provides a strong musical aesthetic firmly on the artistic end of the electronic pop spectrum.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Klapp Klapp
* Pretty Girls
* Paris

Listen: 'Nabumba Rubberband' is available now.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Let The Right One In @ The Apollo Theatre

On a basic level, Let The Right One In is a simple coming of age tale of a young sweet boy dealing with puberty, adult relationships and school bullies.  Yet through its stylish Nordic noir theatricality, it becomes a study in bleak loneliness.

Based on the novel and 2008 film of the same name from Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist, this theatrical adaptation was originally produced by the National Theatre of Scotland which transported the film's events from icy Sweden to the nightmarish snowy highlands.  The stark and minimalist set depicts an eternal winter of endlessly tall moonlit trees and a floor littered with snow that's equally magical and frightening.  This is only enhanced by the sumptuous score that marries melancholic strings with frosty techno beats.  As with the best Nordic dramas, the effect is wonderfully atmospheric.

Within this ominous staging a tender and awkward teen drama plays out.  It consists of a number of disturbing relationships that portray a community caught in the grip of fear after a series of murders take place in the forest.  Here the children must learn to deal with authority, whether from inadequate parents, unnerving carers or bullying older brothers.

And so an unlikely friendship forms between the relatable Oskar (Martin Quinn) and the distant Eli (Rebecca Benson).  Both are outsiders that become oddly co-dependant: the former an innocent boy molly-coddled by his insecure mother and bullied cruelly at school; the latter a strange, vulnerable otherworldly girl with a secret - she's actually a vampire.  As their relationship develops, Eli gives Oskar the confidence to deal with the bullies.  In return, Oskar offers her protection from the light as she sleeps.  Has he simply swapped one wintery hell for another?

This painfully sad narrative unfolds at a glacial pace, slowly drawing us in with its sombre mood and hypnotic choreographed movement.  It's testament to the duo's performances that the story feels so believable.  Quinn brings light touches of humour to the role of Oskar that's wholeheartedly endearing, whilst Benson manages to make the vampiric Eli a sympathetic character - as she violently devours her victims with plenty of blood and gore, it's clear this is purely out of desperate necessity rather than any sick enjoyment.

The supporting cast shuffle, downbeat, across the stage.  In particular, Clive Mendus is deliciously disturbing as Hakan, Eli's possessive carer.  He is a stark representation of Oskar's desolate and crushing future living with a partner who suffers from eternal life.

Though it has its fair share of horrifying, jump out of your seat moments, Let The Right One In is ultimately a tender yet chilling love story.  Its stunning production elevates this twisted tale of the outsider into something strangely and tragically beautiful.


Watch: Let The Right One In is booking until September 2014 at the Apollo Theatre.

Lit @ Electric Ballroom, Camden

“You make me come.  You make complete.  You make me completely miserable.”

Lyrics don’t get more emo than that, do they?  And for people of a certain age, Lit’s Miserable was the soundtrack to teenage heartbreak.  Everyone goes through a punk stage in their teens and Lit’s ‘A Place In The Sun’ from 1999 was a seminal album in my friendship group.  Not only was its collection of twelve pop-punk songs near flawless (in my fourteen year old mind at least), but their songs appeared in the American Pie films and episodes of Malcolm in the Middle, whilst the video for Miserable sees the band performing on Pamela Anderson.  ‘A Place In The Sun’ really is tied up in late ‘90s American teen youth culture.

Now, fifteen years later, the band have reunited for an anniversary tour and the fans remain as enthusiastic as ever – a little older than before, able to legally drink and holding phones aloft rather than lighters, but still moshing like teenagers as a haze of b.o collects over the crowd.  “You make my job too easy” shouted frontman A-Jay Popoff as the audience screamed out every word to every track, punching the air with relentless abandon.  They’re definitely a little less cool now though – when one audience member appeared to be injured in the mosh, the band literally stopped playing to check he was alright.  Awkward.

The first part of the set consisted solely of ‘A Place In The Sun’, played in order from start to finish.  Sure, you could simply press play on the CD, but you’d be missing the visceral experience of the gig – the performance a little rusty, but the punchy riffs and simple melodies as catchy as ever.  The only issue is that the album was always a little front heavy, with its biggest singles My Own Worst Enemy, Miserable and Zip-Lock all in the first half.  There are some underrated tracks towards the end, but these singles should’ve been massive encore tracks; instead the band blew their load too early.

More so, Lit are very much a one album band.  ‘A Place In The Sun’ (their second album) was followed in 2001 by ‘Atomic’ and in 2012 by ‘The View From the Bottom’, but it’s that 1999 release that is most fondly remembered.  The second part of the set included songs from these other albums and whilst they’re decent enough pop-rock efforts, it fell flat in comparison to the earlier highs.

Still, this tour is designed purely for nostalgia, allowing both the band and the audience to relive their youth.  For a short time I was fourteen again (albeit one with a sore head the following day).


Thursday, 15 May 2014

Foxes - Glorious

Foxes debut has been a long time coming.  Though the Southampton singer (a.k.a Louisa Rose Allen) hit the mainstream on Zedd’s Clarity in 2013, that track was actually originally released in 2012, as were her own singles Echo, Youth and her ‘Warrior’ EP.  ‘Glorious’ comes off the back of two recent singles, Holding Onto Heaven and Let Go For Tonight – all of which are included here, resulting in a very solid pop effort.

Perhaps even too solid.  To an extent ‘Glorious’ is pop 101, rarely deviating from the pop rulebook.  There’s the breakthrough hit (Youth) with its dark synths and euphoric chorus; the piano-led power pop single (Let Go For Tonight); the bubbling, Goldfrapp-esque slice of weird electro (White Coats); the soaring, epic power ballad (Glorious); the woozy youthful anthem (Shaking Heads); the collaboration (Clarity – here in live form).

Aesthetically speaking ‘Glorious’ does tick a lot of boxes, incorporating quirky electro-pop with soul, dance and light dubstep.  Yet this sort of cynical view does the album a disservice.  For starters, although each track is produced for maximum epic impact with soaring strings and pounding beats, it never overpowers Allen’s vocals that remain pleasantly delicate and vulnerable throughout, with enough strength for some truly emotive moments without the need for vocal gymnastics.  Tracks like Let Go For Tonight and Glorious, for instance, allow her to spread her vocal wings, whilst her live version of Clarity provides a sense of fragility that’s missing from the original.  The writing is also full of pop hooks, leading to an album that is absolutely devoid of bad tracks or filler – choosing a favourite is an impossible task.

And don’t let the pink cover fool you – Foxes’ output is far from bubblegum.  Citing the likes of Kate Bush, Björk and Bat for Lashes as major influences, Allen’s sound has a twist of welcome ethereal darkness.  “And if the men in white coats are coming I know you’ll still be there for me” she sings on the chorus of White Coats amongst wordless reversed vocal samples and ominous piano, whilst on the atmospheric Night Glo a steady beat shatters in the distance supporting her wandering vocal – it’s straight out of Natasha Khan’s book.  And on Shaking Heads the youthful lyrics (“we are young, we’re foolish tonight”) are supported by fragmented synth lines and layered percussion, the production elevating it from the usual pop fare.

It’s a crowded market for female pop vocalists but Foxes do just enough to stand out from the pack.  This is an album that flirts with risk-taking rather than offering a truly original output, but under Allen’s vocals ‘Glorious’ is coherent and consistently strong – one of the best pop albums of the year so far.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* Youth
* Night Glo
* Shaking Heads

Listen: ‘Glorious’ is available now.

Yesterday's Tomorrow @ The Drayton Arms Theatre

Gene David Kirk’s exploration of homosexuality in the army is, expectedly, a tragic and harrowing experience.  Yesterday’s Tomorrow follows the growing relationship between two soldiers: the softly spoken, polite Ian (Ben Carpenter) and the brash, aggressive John (Matthew Schmolle).  The events unfold during an unspecified, modern war (Kosovo or Iraq perhaps) – together with the abstract sound and cardboard box set, it’s clear that the play’s themes are applicable to any and all wars.

Through its characterisation, the play explores perceptions of homosexuality and masculinity within the army – a place where the men must fight homophobia in the ranks as well as the enemy.  The two central protagonists are closeted, their relationship only possible as a glimmer of hope after their service concludes.   They are bullied by the other typically macho and bigoted characters who spend their time discussing raping the local women, in particular the crude and churlish Simon (Nicholas Waters) boasting to the green and innocent young Paul (River Hawkins).  Individually the characters feel too stereotypical, but together they provide a worryingly truthful cross-section of male soldiers (the play is based on actual events).  Kirk’s scriptwriting is suitably contrasting, from John’s macho geezer language to Ian’s poetic lines that beautifully describe such bloody events, but the central relationship lacks chemistry, only offering a tender moment in Ian’s final monologue. 

More so, the play is a comment on memory and post-traumatic stress.  “Imagine there’s something in your memory you can’t shift”, says John early on.  The play itself take the form of flashback as we follow Ian through his past, haunted by his time in the army and struggling to deal with the after effects.  Different perceptions of the same events are told simultaneously, whilst abstract sound effects and stark lighting guide us from scene to scene.  In this way, the play is structured more as a fragmented series of memories and ideas rather than a traditional narrative.

As such, Yesterday’s Tomorrow perhaps skims over its themes a little swiftly during its single act, but the emotional performances from a very strong cast ensure this is a gripping, intense and frightening depiction of the horrors of war.


Watch: Yesterday's Tomorrow runs at the Drayton Arms Theatre until 31st May.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Michael Jackson - Xscape

You’d be forgiven for expecting this album to be a cheap and shameless cash-in, especially following the terrible ‘Michael’ from 2010.  But you’d be wrong.  ‘Xscape’ is a respectful and intriguing imagining of what Michael Jackson’s sound may have been like in 2014.

Essentially, it’s two albums in one.  First are eight brand new MJ tracks reimagined by producer Timbaland (alongside others) and executive producer L.A Reid.  They’re followed by the eight tracks in their original form.  Let’s start in reverse.

The original tracks appear to be taken from a variety of MJ eras; together they don’t really form a complete album.  As curiosities, though, they’re an exciting prospect, if only to place each song within an MJ canon – it’s easy to see how these tracks inspired (or were inspired by) official releases.  Love Never Felt So Good is pure ‘Off The Wall’ funk; Chicago is sombre 80’s electro that could easily have seen release on ‘Bad’; Slave To The Rhythm has a stonking retro hand-clap beat and synth bass combo that stands up to released material; Xscape was recorded for 2001's 'Invincible' but sounds more like an offcut from ‘Dangerous’ owing to its striking resemblance to Jam, in the extended outro especially.

It’s also easy to see why these tracks weren’t originally released.  Love Never Felt So Good, for instance, is a very rough demo that obviously wasn’t developed.  Other tracks were likely discarded during album development: Loving You, Slave To The Rhythm, XscapeA Place With No Name samples America’s A Horse With No Name, so perhaps encountered licensing difficulties.  And it’s not difficult to see why a song called Do You Know Where Your Children Are that references child abuse in one lyric wouldn’t see release.  In the case of Blue Gangsta, though, it’s simply not very good.

Together these tracks provide little more than fan service.  It’s for this reason that Timbaland has been employed to update each track to create a coherent and current album.  Some tracks are more successful than others, but the production is instantly recognisable as Timbaland’s work whilst cherry-picking inspiration from across MJ’s output.  Opening track Love Never Felt So Good is transformed from a basic demo to a fairly generic funk groove – the additional duet version with Justin Timberlake is also unnecessary.  Loving You also feels bland and loses the intimacy of the original, whilst the squelching bass of Chicago is less atmospheric than its original counterpart.

In many cases, though, Timbaland’s efforts make MJ’s work more palatable for contemporary ears.  On A Place With No Name, producers Stargate remove the America sample and slot in a funk bassline somewhat stolen from Leave Me Alone, resulting in a track whose hooky chorus really dazzles.  Slave To The Rhythm is pure Timbaland dance with its deep moody bass, clipped beats and oscillating electronics.  Do You Know Where Your Children Are has been transformed with a more forceful hip-hop beat and noodling guitars.  Xscape has been utterly modernised with sub-bass and live brass.  Even Blue Gangsta has seen a vast improvement.

‘Xscape’ is therefore as much a Timbaland album as it is MJ, which is great news for anyone anticipating ‘FutureSex/LoveSounds’ Part II.  As an MJ album the tracks are fairly average, but that alone is far better than a lot of contemporary pop and only highlights his genius.  This is essential listening for all MJ fans.  And if you’re not a fan of MJ, what the hell have you been doing all your life?


Gizzle’s Choice:
* Chicago
* A Place With No Name
* Slave To The Rhythm

Listen: ‘Xscape’ is available now.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Earthquakes in London @ The Broadway Theatre, Catford

According to the programme, there is a film version of Earthquakes in London in development, so it only seems appropriate that Adam Bo Boland has directed this production of Mike Bartlett’s 2010 play with cinematic flair.  This very modern British drama slowly unfolds on a purposefully shabby looking set, with various platforms, stairs and compartments allowing the multiple storylines to segue from one to the next with the smoothness of a fade cut.  Danny Boyle is a clear inspiration, the production fuelled by high kinetic energy from its young cast and a pumping soundtrack of modern pop.  That the opening restaurant scene plays outside the main studio theatre space is yet another example of the production’s modern theatricality.

The narrative resembles a Richard Curtis film with its multiple character arcs and inter-locking stories – something that Boland and movement director Scarlet Wilderink have successfully replicated on stage with the ensemble moving from scene to scene and often playing multiple characters, providing continuity within the complex narrative web.  This is far from Love Actually, however; in fact it’s the antithesis.  Set in a dystopian, apocalyptic vision of present day Britain, the narrative follows three sisters in the lead up to impending environmental doom: the elder politician (an uptight Ursula Campbell) and her geeky husband (Jerry Marwood); the middle, pregnant sister (an emotional turn from Sarah Savage) and her caring husband (John Hicks); and the younger, rebellious sister (an amusingly quick-witted Natalie Law).  All three are struggling to come to terms with their estranged father (Alexander Gordon-Wood), a climate change scientist who has predicted the apocalypse (revealed in flashback).

It’s an overly complicated narrative that takes on too many themes, painted in broad strokes.  It touches on family reconciliation in the face of the apocalypse, as well as a depressing and morbid look at parenthood and the politics of environmentalism: what exactly are we leaving behind for our children?  Is it even worth giving birth and bringing them into this world?  And at the end of the (already over-long) play we must endure a tacked on, quasi-religious sci-fi ending that feels out of place.  Boland has attempted to provide clarity, but it’s a tough gig.

Thankfully the talented cast keep the audience entertained across the three hours.  Whilst the core protagonists provide some emotional performances, the ensemble as a whole bring the piece alive: from Jamie Biddle and Miri Gellert’s comic turns in multiple roles, to Natalie Law’s brazen one-liners and Jenni Stacy’s wisecracking performance as Peter.  The play itself might not be earth-shattering, but this production is a solid, and at times thrilling, interpretation.


Watch: Earthquakes in London runs at the Broadway Theatre, Catford until 25th May.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Janelle Monáe @ O2 Brixton Academy

Is there a performer with as much on-stage energy as Janelle Monáe?

I don't think so.  Set to a classy all-white backdrop, she sings, struts and thrusts her away around the stage as if possessed by her android alter-ego.  Vocally she is flawless and she oozes star quality, sex appeal and sass - she may not be as successful as she deserves to be but she acts like a true superstar.  Her energy and enthusiasm is infectious; this superhuman Electric Lady practically sparks electricity.

The stage is shared with her sizeable band for a gig with a somewhat old-fashioned soul feel.  Her connection with the band is robotically precise, both in terms of her vocals and fancy footwork.  Each member of the band is introduced and given their own solo: particularly impressive is the Prince-esque guitars of Kellindo Parker.  It always remains, however, the Janelle Monáe show.

At times, however, the theatrics of her android conceit get in the way of the music.  She's initially wheeled on to the stage in a strait jacket; frequently she crowd surfs and disappears amongst the fans; later she orders the audience to "get down" before throwing pillows into the audience for a pillow fight that doesn't warrant the extensive build-up.  She also emphasises the feminist message behind her music, at one point throwing banners with #bringbackourgirls into the audience (the campaign for the missing Nigerian schoolgirls).

Important issues aside, Monáe ultimately spends too much time faffing on-stage, with the music repeating in endless refrains.  This is especially disappointing when many songs (taken from both her debut 'The ArchAndroid' and its follow-up 'The Electric Lady') were missing from the setlist, instead replaced by unnecessary covers of The Jackson Five's I Want You Back and Prince's Let's Go Crazy.

Overwhelmingly, however, her talent, passion and high energy turn this gig into a fanatical semi-religious musical experience that make her songs truly come alive.  As she states in her final encore, "what an experience".


Friday, 9 May 2014

Scottish Widows @ The White Bear Theatre

We don’t normally think of the elderly as sexual beings, but by tackling taboos like this Grae Cleugh’s latest comedy is as poignant as it is amusing.

Inspired by Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, Scottish Widows comprises four monologues that depict the lives of four people struggling to cope with the loss of their loved ones and the extreme lengths they go to when they crave human contact.  The zany characters are performed brilliantly by the three-strong cast – together with Cleugh’s cleverly unfolding storytelling that keeps the audience on their toes, the play is captivating from start to finish (though perhaps one monologue too long). 

Andrea Miller performs two monologues.  She first appears as a sweet old lady who fondly remembers her husband with girlish glee and smutty humour.  Her rambling storytelling is reminiscent of the warmth and comfort of listening to a grandparent, yet her obsession with her husband’s glass eye merely hints at the craziness of this seemingly sweet and innocent old lady.  Later, Miller returns as a brash and glamorous lady who embarks on an affair with a younger man whilst on holiday, telling her tale with a glass of Martini Rosso firmly in her grasp.  In both instances sex plays a large part and whilst that may at first seem uncomfortable, it’s symptomatic of Cleugh’s open and honest scriptwriting.  “You’ve brought me back to life”, claims the second of Miller’s characters, proving there is life after death.

Being the only male in the cast, Billy Riddoch’s monologue shows it’s not always the women who are left behind.  A sweet and unassuming old man, he recounts how after the death of his wife he was propositioned at the local boules club.  Torn between that age old dilemma of the wife and the whore, he does what any good man would do: he dates both.  Like a teenager flirting at a party, his story is similarly warm-hearted in its positive depiction of moving on.

It’s Laura Glover who provides the most arresting performance, however.  Taking a turn for the melancholic, her story depicts a young widow who becomes addicted to the drug Temazepam to assist with her insomnia as it causes her to hallucinate her husband.  All pale and gaunt, her powerful performance is frighteningly believable as Cleugh stretches his scriptwriting muscle and takes the play to its logical thematic conclusion.  After all, whilst the central message of Scottish Widows is one of positivity, the death of a loved one leaves a gaping wound that cannot be easily healed.


Watch: Scottish Widows runs at the White Bear Theatre until May 24th.