Monday 30 June 2014

How I Survived Glastonbury 2014

Anyone who knows me will know the following:

I hate mud
I hate rain
I hate camping
I hate tents (tent sex? No thanks)
I hate public toilets
I hate crowds of people

By all accounts Glastonbury should be hell on earth. But we suffer and endure these hardships for the sakes of the music. As Madonna once wisely noted, “music makes the people come together”.

So I camped it up, sleeping in my luxury sweaty two-man tent alone, in the same rain-drenched, mud/sh*t splattered clothes, showering in wet wipes, and enduring a bit lot of rain and the sticky, sucky, boggy fields of mud, all for the music. I’m pretty sure I have gangrene, but it was worth it.

The absence of Prince was sorely missed amongst the headliners. For many they are the main event, but for me I steered clear of all three. Arcade Fire aren’t a big enough band despite some decent tunes, Metallica only vaguely appeal to the ten year old metal head in me, and don’t even get me started on Kasabian’s psychedelic lad-rock.

They were symptomatic of an overall line-up that relied heavily on nostalgia, whether for classic acts now past their prime or 00s indie bands that weren’t that great in the first place. This was epitomized by Friday morning on the Other Stage: a secret opening from the Kaiser Chiefs that got the crowd cheering  along to I Predict A Riot like drunken students at 11am, followed by Blondie with Debbie Harry spending as much time moodily pouting as she did straining to sing.

Thankfully there was enough music from newer and more interesting bands and for that, it was all about the John Peel Stage. Chvrches set the tent ablaze with lasers and neon synths, whilst Lykke Li brought some Swedish drama with a moody, beautifully emotive performance. Continuing the Scandinavian theme, Little Dragon offered a tight set of rave beats and euphoric synths that was simply awesome. Clean Bandit drew a huge crowd, despite being predominantly popular for one song – their brilliant performance of Rather Be was only matched by their cover of Robin S’s Show Me Love. Likewise, MGMT are still resting on the success of two massive songs – Electric Feel and Kids – amongst a set of psychedelic filler. Later on the Sunday, Chance The Rapper provided some much needed hip hop with a soulful flavour and finally, London Grammar closed the festival in phenomenal fashion, their stunning trip-hop meets Daughter-esque sound creating an intense, blissful experience.

As usual there were plenty of secret gigs, with The 1975 getting the festival off to a great start (despite frontman Matthew Healy having a can thrown in his face) that they repeated on the Pyramid Stage, followed by Metronomy playing some new songs amongst old favourites like The Look and The Bay.

Elsewhere, the Other Stage had plenty of thrills. Haim offered yet another blistering set accompanied by some Californian sunshine and not even poor sound quality could deter Este’s crazy bass face. Ellie Goulding added a rockier edge to her electro pop, with a set that was second-album heavy and notable for her breathy vocals, an acoustic performance of Guns And Horses, euphoric renditions of Lights and Anything Can Happen, and some pervy camerawork that frequently rested on her barely covered chest. It was her ex-boyfriend Skrillex who really tore up the stage though, his huge womping basslines and beats emanating from an alien spaceship/insect-like construction shooting lasers over the crowd. And over on the Sonic Stage, Charli XCX assembled a sizable crowd with I Love It and Fancy that she wrote with Icona Pop and Iggy Azalea respectively, though her own pop-punk songs proved she had more than enough energy by herself.

Then there was the Pyramid Stage that wasn’t just an arena for the headliners. Lily Allen ironically began her set with LDN, its chorus of “sun is in the sky” laughable after Rudimental were rained off due to storms – it was hard out there for an audience member. The following day Kelis and her deeply powerful vocals brought some tropical sunshine with a laidback set that reworked her older hits to match her new soulful material. She was followed by Lana Del Rey whose Summertime Sadness couldn’t have been more fitting, her vocal sighs lilting over cinematic guitars. And whilst Dolly Parton was a difficult act to follow, Ed Sheeran proved he’s a consummate performer and had the crowd singing and dancing along to his new songs nestled amongst his usual live set performed completely acoustically.

It’s at night that the festival truly comes alive though – if your sore wrinkled feet can stand it. Block 9 was an apocalyptically run-down block of buildings that housed multiple clubs, including NYC Downlow that recreated a New York drag club - but entry relied on having a moustache. The Arcadia mechanical spider visited the festival again, with DJ sets including Nero and Disclosure, shooting flames whilst surrounded by an automaton dragon, a dancer shooting electricity from a staff, a giant hand throwing old cars and more. And this year Shangri-La had a corporate-themed hell with office departments of various surprises, whilst heaven was a psychedelic, drug-fuelled sexual haven. As a whole the southeast corner of the site was one huge adult hedonistic playground that’s worth the entry fee alone.

That’s not all. The tipi field had an opening ceremony with totem pole, magic cauldron and pagan rituals; the craft field offered the opportunity for woodwork, ironwork, glasswork and so much more; the healing field was filled with massage tents and various therapy classes; and the theatre and circus areas were crammed with weird and wonderful delights both in and outside of the tents.

To an extent Glastonbury is a somewhat stressful experience. It’s not a music festival but a performing arts festival; there’s so much going on that it’s impossible to see and do everything. FOMO is as dreaded as the rain and mud, but swapping stories with fellow campers never fails to surprise and amuse – from a man with clay covering his head that he molded blindly into a chicken, to a woman playing three flutes from her nostrils, spying on the nudists in the tipi field from the mound, watching drag queens spread baby oil over a half naked woman through a window in hell, a man juggling ping pong balls with his mouth, a raving family at Arcadia whose mother was properly going for it and dancing on the podium to soul and 90s tracks until 6am in an American style diner.

However, the weekend belonged to Dolly Parton. Essentially a mid-afternoon headliner, she undoubtedly drew the biggest crowd of the weekend. Her country, honky-tonk songs and trademark squeaky vocals had everyone hoe-downing on the hill and could even be heard referenced in the sets of other acts – Nine To Five was the anthem of the festival. She was even joined by Bon Jovi’s Richie Sambora for her gospel performance that entered us all into the church of Dolly. It was her anecdotes, banter and self-deprecating humour that really charmed, creating a family atmosphere that was warm and bubbly, like a great group hug – and that’s what the festival’s all about. In her own words, “I know that was corny, but that was fun”.

And so, despite some lows (mainly from the weather and the camping - someone PLEASE get me a tipi next time), the incredible music, the surreal experiences, some tasty food, a whole load of wet wipes and an invaluable pair of wellies got me through.

And that’s how I survived Glastonbury 2014.

Tuesday 24 June 2014

Carousel @ The Arcola Theatre

Rodgers and Hammerstein sure knew how to write a good tune.  Carousel, one of their most celebrated works, is positively full of them, the score brimming with fairground waltzes, love duets, comic ensemble pieces and, of course, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. 

Yet underneath it all is a dark story of redemption, fuelled by domestic violence, murder and the helplessness of the female characters.  Carousel is a raw and emotional drama, something this production from Morphic Graffiti seeks to emphasise and whilst the sudden shift to heaven in the second act still requires a great leap of faith from the audience and the ending is a little rushed, the company mostly succeed in creating a gripping drama.

In part this comes from the reimagined setting.  Shifting the action from its original 1875 setting to the Depression certainly lends the piece greater dramatic weight, highlighting the themes of crime and the struggles of poverty.  It’s these themes that still resonate with a modern audience, proving its timelessness.  The set design, from Stewart Charlesworth, is gritty and industrial with archways covered in rust and costumes smothered in grime and dirt, suggesting a believable sense of realism that’s somewhat undermined by the fantasy of the second act. 

Problems do arise with the space at the Arcola.  The set design may blend with the surroundings, but the floor space is incredibly cramped for a musical.  The cast size has been reduced and director Luke Fredericks has intended to bring a sense of intimacy to the piece, but during the bustling balletic sequences the performers are in danger of hitting the audience with legs and sweat, let alone each other.  And with audience placed on three sides, the action is busy and constantly moving for all to see.  It’s in moments where the drama is allowed to breath, as in the stunning performance of the climactic “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, that the production works best and soars to an emotional high.

As a whole, though, the drama is slow moving, each song and dance predominantly serving as spectacle between scenes.  On the flipside, the talented cast do revel in these numbers.  Of particular note are Gemma Sutton’s soft and controlled soprano as the headstrong Julie Jordan, Tim Rogers’ bullish Billy Bigelow and Vicki Lee Taylor’s comic timing as the cute and bubbly Carrie Pipperidge.  Most impressive of all, though, is the exceptional ensemble dancing, choreographed by Lee Proud.  Performing in such a small space is admirable, but the storytelling and sheer technical ability of the cast in the balletic sequences is stunning.  Musically, however, they do feel a little empty due to the reduced orchestra; indeed the sparse arrangements overall only highlight tuning and timing issues between the singers and players.

Although it might be a little rough around the edges, that’s all part of the charm of this raw, if flawed, musical.  After all, this fairground ride is no fairytale.


Watch: Carousel runs at the Arcola Theatre until July 19th.

Monday 23 June 2014

Ed Sheeran - x

Ed Sheeran has always excelled in a live setting.  After all, he only got signed after trudging the boards at gig after gig and his tours (where he performs without a backing band) have been hugely popular across both sides of the pond.

The production of ‘x’ has attempted to capture this, bringing his skills as a singer and guitarist to the fore in almost every track - something that’s immediately apparent from the opening.  Rather than beginning with current single Sing, One and I’m A Mess are typical examples of his acoustic balladry.  It starts the album on a bit of whimper, but the hits do kick in.

Sheeran is stuck in something of a dichotomy between acoustic love songs and hip-hop, two styles that don’t really join together.  It’s on the two Pharrell produced tracks that the latter takes prominence: Sing and Runaway.  Both fuse funk riffs with hip-hop beats in a clear attempt to replicate the success of Justin Timberlake’s early hits, but Sheeran just doesn’t have the sex appeal to pull it off in the same way.  Then on The Man he delivers a full on rapping monologue.  It’s meant to be a hard-hitting aesthetic, but with lines like “I stay more celibate than in a monastery” and “but when I broke the industry that’s when I broke your heart” he’s hardly Eminem or The Streets.

And that’s not the only impression he offers.  Thinking Out Loud is pure John Mayer; Nina is essentially Sheeran covering Michael Jackson’s Dirty Diana; and Photograph is the sort of storytelling balladry that’s made Taylor Swift so popular.  Since the release of his debut, Sheeran has worked with various collaborators whose influences have clearly rubbed off on him.  With ‘x’ he’s gently pushing the boundaries of his own sound to create a coherent album, but the results are mixed.

The main dichotomy though, is between Sheeran wanting to be taken seriously as an artist and wanting to please his legions of female pop fans.  For every track that focuses on a more provocative subject (Bloodstream or the spiteful Don’t), there’s a Photograph, a Tenerife Sea or an Afire Love – soppy, vomit-inducing love songs.  His songwriting ability may have matured since ‘+’ – you won’t find a “blu-ray, true say” here – and his lyrics are certainly more personal, but the clunky rhymes are far from the heights of sophisticated wordplay, the best hooks often simply “oohs” and “aahs” (as on Sing).  Throughout the album, his vocal delivery is content with being gentle and soft and is in need of a bit of bite and attitude.

Occasionally he finds a sweet spot to appease everyone with some great pop moments.  The final third of I’m A Mess is one long hand-clap fuelled crescendo that’s sure to get fans singing along; the moody Nina similarly breaks down in the bridge; Don’t and Runaway do have a certain infectious swagger to them; and if you can swallow the vomit, Tenerife Sea is quite a sweet little song.  The deluxe version also features I See Fire from the soundtrack to The Hobbit, which sees Sheeran at his most beautiful and haunting.  No doubt when the inevitable tour comes around, Sheeran’s talents as a live act will give these songs the boost they need.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* I’m A Mess
* Runaway
* I See Fire

Listen: ‘x’ is available now.

Thursday 19 June 2014

New Pop Roundup

There's plenty of new music around at the moment, least of all the return of Jessie Ware on her sublime Tough Love.  Here's the best of the rest:

Broods – Mother & Father

New Zealand’s brooding Broods are back to brood in their new single – and it’s an absolute stunner.  A meditation on life on the road, vocalist Georgia Nott sighs “ever since I left my mother it’s much harder to know how to make my own life here, how to make my own home” before soaring into the sad-pop chorus “I don’t wanna wake up lonely, I don’t wanna just be fine”.  Production-wise this is part Lorde (the duo share producer Joel Little) and part CHVRCHES: melancholic synths and clattering beats with a clear pop sensibility.  Full album ‘Evergreen’, due later this year, can’t come soon enough.


Listen: Mother & Father is available now, with album ‘Evergreen’ due later this year.

Chloe Howl – Disappointed

Another hot new act with an album due this year is Chloe Howl.  Disappointed is another of her signature synth pop gems fuelled by honest lyrics – disappointment is always a more difficult emotion to deal with than anger or frustration.  It doesn’t hit quite as hard as the bitter sounds of No Strings or Rumour, but at least Howl is getting some proper videos now.  This one sees a roller skating team turning against their male coach: hoorah for feminism.


Listen: Disappointed is released on 27th July.

Little Daylight – Mona Lisa

Brooklyn’s Little Daylight are yet to make much of an impact here in the UK, but Mona Lisa is their most accessible track to date.  The opening builds layers of syncopation, the synthy middle eight hypnotises and the chorus sparkles even more than previous single Glitter & Gold.  This is bright, breezy indie pop that’s perfect for the summer weather.


Listen: The band’s debut album ‘Hello Memory’ is due out on July 15th.

Nicole Scherzinger – Your Love

TV personality Nicole Scherzinger has finally returned to what she does best – being Nicole Scherzinger the popstar.  Thankfully Your Love is not your typical EDM pop banger.  It’s percussive, with little electronic sparkles and it all breaks down in the final third for a very danceable change of pace.  It’s in drastic need of some bass though, and the “do do do” chorus hook is more annoying than catchy.  It’s no Don’t Hold Your Breath, but it’s a hell of an improvement on Boomerang.


Listen: Your Love is released on July 13th.

Alt-J – Hunger Of The Pine

Alt-J have done little since winning the Mercury Prize in 2012, besides selling a lot more albums than anyone expected and losing a band member.  But sampling a Miley Cyrus track?  That’s something nobody could have predicted.  “I’m a female rebel” she chants, taken from her track 4x4, amidst meditative electronica and falsetto vocals.  It’s a far cry from her own work and the injected sample feels a little forced, but it’ll be interesting to see if the band pursue a greater pop focus in their forthcoming second album.


Listen: Hunger Of The Pine is available now, whilst album 'This Is All Yours' arrives on September 22nd.

Indiana - Heart On Fire

It's fair to say that the success of Indiana's debut Solo Dancing took everyone by surprise.  Heart On Fire is more than a worthy follow-up.  Where the former track was a quiet slow-burner, this new track is a slice of melancholic disco perfection - you can cry to it ("don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge") or you can dance to it.  Basically Indiana's on the verge of out-Robyning Robyn and there's nothing wrong with a bit of healthy competition.


Listen: Indiana's debut album is due on August 11th.

Ferras - Legends Never Die (feat. Katy Perry)

So Katy Perry has started her own record label.  Whilst this may come as a shock, what's no surprise is that her first signing has a slushy debut single that might as well be one of her offcuts.  In fact, she even sings on it herself - and it sounds far better when she joins in.  That's not to say Ferras is a bad singer, but he's got a ways ahead if he's going to differentiate himself from the pack rather than jumping on Perry's success.


Listen: Legends Never Die is available now.

Psy - Hangover feat. Snoop Dogg

This is a thing. HOW IS THIS A THING?


Listen: Only if you must.

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Jennifer Lopez - A.K.A

“This is not the girl you used to know”, sings Jennifer Lopez on the opening title track of ‘A.K.A’.

She’s right.  Is this really Jennifer Lopez?  J-Lo?  Jenny from the Block?

Quite frankly, ‘A.K.A’ is so devoid of personality it could be anyone.  As on the title track, the album is predominantly lowest common denominator, EDM and R&B tinged pop.  For the most part, Lopez could be any old featured singer, so weak and flat is her obviously auto-tuned vocal.

A couple of tracks are halfway decent.  The Max Martin written First Love fizzes and froths, but Lopez’s delivery offers little to elevate the song beyond three and a half minutes of ‘nice’.  Lead single I Luh Ya Papi has some truly terrible and unintelligible lyrics (that require serious translating), but at the least its summer vibe is catchy enough (even to the point of annoyance).  Elsewhere So Good is the best of the wannabe-Rihanna tracks.

The rest of ‘A.K.A’ is a series of banal mid-tempo ‘jams’ that see Lopez switching from pop-ballad singer (Never Satisfied, Emotions) to posing as some clichéd hip-hop star.  For the latter tracks she nearly always has assistance from some obvious choices: A.K.A features T.I, Acting Like That features Iggy Azalea, Worry No More features Rick Ross (and the lyric “all them other bitches stab you”).  It all sounds utterly forced, attempting to catch listeners with generic production alongside a provocative album cover.  Only Let It Be Me provides a hint as to Lopez’s Latin roots with its Spanish guitar, but it’s merely a token effort for fans of her previous material.

And then it all ends (at long last) with Booty.  If the title alone wasn’t warning enough, the track includes the following: the repeated refrain “big big booty, what you got a big booty” in some sort of tongue-in-cheek reference to Lopez’s famous ass; a chorus that demands the listener to “work”, clearly aimed at Britney fans; the pre-chorus lyric “Go on let them jeans touch you while you’re dancing, it’s his birthday, give him what he asked for” (say no more); all to dancefloor production stolen directly from her ‘hit’ On The Floor.

And it also features that bald rapping wonder Pitbull – they’re practically inseparable these days.  Some choice lines of his include “booty, booty, booty, booty, booty everywhere, look at her booty, stop, stare”, “she got a booty that’ll swallow a thong” and “I wanna pick it up and put that booty in my car”.  It’s crass, crude and unnecessary – when will these two just give up on this appalling partnership?

It’s clear, then, from ‘A.K.A’ that Lopez has lost all semblance of class, talent and relevance.  What happened to Jenny from the Block?  The girl who’s waiting for tonight?  The girl who screamed “play my mother f*cking song”?

Who cares?


Gizzle’s Choice:
* First Love
* I Luh Ya Papi
* So Good

Listen: ‘A.K.A’ is available now.

Monday 16 June 2014

Jessie Ware - Tough Love

Here are some facts:

* Ware's debut album 'Devotion' was 100% amazing.

* Tough Love is taken from its as yet unnamed follow-up.

* It was produced by 'BenZel' - that's Benny Blanco and Two Inch Punch to you and me.

* The production channels a bit of Cyndi Lauper's Time After Time and a bit of Prince, but with the same smooth, sleek and soulful R&B sound Ware's known for.

* Ware describes the song as "me experimenting with my voice and having fun with it".  She soars with a whispering, sensual falsetto before dropping for the chorus line "that's called tough love".  It's Ware at her typically expressive best.

* This is as spacious, evocative and magical as her past material: all bubbling, whirring synths and subtly textured layers of beats, sub bass and moody keys.

* Basically this is 100% amazing.  And that's a fact.


Listen: Tough Love is released on 3rd August.

Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence

Lana Del Rey’s cover of Blue Velvet from the ‘Paradise’ edition of her debut album was a turning point for the singer. As performed in David Lynch’s infamous film of the same name, it saw the singer slide further into the clichéd Lynchian nightmare that many had trapped her in.  

‘Ultraviolence’, by comparison, feels far more authentic – like the glamorous yet downtrodden film-noir performer she was born to be.  It’s in part from the low-fi production from Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and in part due to her lyrics that touch on some torturous (and perhaps worrying) themes.  Del Rey has always wanted to be taken seriously – ‘Ultraviolence’ is her manifesto.

Gone are the hip hop beats in favour of a West Coast sensibility: bluesy guitars and effortless cool drenched in sunset.  It’s exemplified by woozy lead single West Coast and its moody changes of tempo, sounding like Chris Isaak sung by Anna Calvi.  On Shades of Cool a blazing guitar solo cuts through the smoky haze, whilst much of Pretty When You Cry is based on evocatively reverbed guitar arpeggios, slowly building towards its own guitar solo conclusion.

It’s the perfect fit for Del Rey’s drawling, sepia-soaked vocal: nonchalant, almost despondent, like some vampy noir siren who’s given up on life. “I’m your jazz singer” she says on Ultraviolence, “and you’re my cult leader”.   The chorus of that songs colours her voice with breathy, magical harmonies on the word “ultraviolence”, encapsulating the dreamy/nightmarish quality of her music.

That’s something that continues in her lyrics, whether based on a doomed love affair, fading beauty or her love affair with violence, suffering and death that permeates the whole album.  Her debut ‘Born To Die’ seems positively tame by comparison.  ‘Ultraviolence’ aches with tragedy.  On the title track alone she purrs “he hit me and it felt like a kiss” (surely a reference to this trackby The Crystals), creating a haunting image of submission and fetish.  Sad Girl sees her noting breathlessly “being a mistress on the side, it might not appeal to fools like you” before chanting “I’m a sad girl…I’m a bad girl” in a similarly submissive pose, continued in her cover of The Other Woman.  The gorgeous Old Money, meanwhile, is an ode to lost youth as she laments “Will you still love me when I shine from words but not from beauty?” - perhaps a nod to her previous song Young And Beautiful from the soundtrack to The Great Gatsby – whilst on Money, Power, Glory she spits at her critics “Hallelujah, I wanna take you for all that you got” .

At times she does give in to cliché, most prominently on Brooklyn Baby that references Lou Reed, “feathers in my hair” and “my jazz collection’s rare”, though as a whole the song broods, almost disturbingly, on a relationship with an older man: “they say I’m too young to love you…I’m a Brooklyn baby”.  Many listeners will also be drawn to Fucked My Way Up To The Top and its opening line “Life is awesome I confess, what I do I do best”.  It’s typical Del Rey – the poppy, amusing and eye-catching title a thin veil for a tragic subject, here feminism (even if she herself has noted that “feminism is just not an interesting concept”).  And if her frequent references to death may seem like part of an over-arching doomed femme fatale act, her recent interview in The Guardian paints a rather bleaker picture: “I wish I was dead already”.  It’s clear that Del Rey is far from the pop construct many had pigeon-holed her as following her debut; on ‘Ultraviolence’ she is singing from the heart.

At its peak, ‘Ultraviolence’ doesn’t quite hit the sublime high of Video Games, but it captures an artist forever on the edge of a breakdown.  It makes for a strangely beautiful listen that’s disturbing, provocative and sumptuous in all the right ways.  But can someone please give her a hug?


Gizzle’s Choice:
* Money Power Glory
* Fucked My Way Up To The Top
* Old Money

Listen: ‘Ultraviolence’ is available now.

Sunday 15 June 2014

Kasabian - 48:13

Since the release of lead single eez-eh, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Kasabian's new album '48:13' would give 48 minutes and 13 seconds worth of reasons why this album is dreadful and why the band shouldn't be headlining Glastonbury (you won't find me at the Pyramid Stage on Sunday).

In fact, it's easy to see why the band's music is festival-appropriate: it's loud, brash and is sure to get hoards of festival-goers jumping, moshing and shouting in an intoxicated fury.

For the most part, though, this is all '48:13' has to offer: loud noise.  The new album rarely deviates from the band's lad-rock sound that blends indie and psychedelia in a brash package full of thumping drums, simple yet aggressive guitar riffs and Tom Meighan's monotone whiny vocals.  The production is constantly threatening to drown out the vocals - perhaps a blessing in disguise as the childish lyrics are barely worth hearing anyway.  The album's title alone is a hint at their lack of creativity.  As a whole, the album is kind of like Madness meets Oasis - a compliment to nobody.

'48:13' does have its rare moments of calm, thankfully letting us all have a quick breather.  treat for example whirrs away in electronic psychedelia; glass switches off the amps to fuse acoustic guitars with space age effects and a spoken monologue in its final third; whilst album closer s.p.s ends it all with a folky ballad (and it's boring as all hell).  It's in these tracks that the band have at least bothered to deviate from their usual sound, even if the results are merely a little quieter.

That's not to say that '48:13' is a particularly nuanced album.  In all, Kasabian have all the subtlety of a crowd of English football hooligans at the World Cup - loud, brutish and infuriating.  The album offers a complete lack of melody writing; their songs are only catchy for the repetitive riffs that bludgeon the mind into submission.  That might be fine for a rowdy festival crowd, but once the tents have collapsed and everyone's treated themselves to a sh*t and a shave, it'll be far too easy to switch this off.


Gizzle's Choice:
* None

Listen: '48:13' is available now.

Friday 13 June 2014

The Diary Of A Nobody @ The White Bear Theatre

The Diary Of A Nobody, seems like an odd choice for a theatrical adaptation.  Based on the work of the same name from George and Weedon Grossmith first published in 1888, the relevance of the piece and its sense of comedy was completely lost on me.

The fictional diary details the life of Charles Pooter, a Victorian gent with ideas far above his station.  Living with his wife Carrie and son Lupin, the play deals with their struggles living in high society.  The only constant is that his mustard and cress seeds refuse to grow – attempting high drama out of the mundane.  This is the point of the piece, but it makes for an unremarkable and banal narrative amidst farcical humour.

What’s more the narrative gets lost in comic chaos.  In part this is due to the actors playing multiple parts as they jump rapidly from scene to scene – it certainly takes time for the audience to settle into the play’s hectic rhythm.  As Pooter himself notes at one point after attending the theatre, “I could barely follow the play”.  The script has its witticisms but mostly lacks comic punchlines, despite the actors offering knowing looks to the audience.  Perhaps to compensate for this, the humour relies on bizarre characterisation, silly accents, cross-dressing and amusing physicality to generate laughs – something that quickly descends into silliness.

It starts well enough.  The set and prop design from Carin Nakanishi is cleverly cartoon-like, its monochrome hand-drawn feel providing the perfect backdrop for the colourful characters.  Jake Curran cuts an imposing stage presence as the eloquent Charles Pooter with excellent comic timing and Jordan Mallory-Skinner is more than just a one-note cross-dressing joke as Pooter’s wife, flipping from weeping to laughter with cartoonish ease.  Other characters amuse, such as a spitting French waiter and an actor forever quoting Shakespeare, whilst a séance scene in the second act is a highlight.  And there are a handful of genuine laughs peppering the play as a whole, mostly stemming from the juxtaposition between the on-stage action and diary entries narrated by the peripheral characters in quips to the audience.

Too quickly, however, it all descends into madness.  The frantic pace of the production rushes by in a blur, with some action occurring to the extreme sides of the stage or behind poorly constructed props that’s difficult for the audience to follow.  By the end of the production, the set is falling apart, whilst props, confetti and items of costume are strewn across the stage in a messy aftermath.  It’s an exasperating watch that’s lacking in both polish and clever humour.


Watch: The Diary Of A Nobody runs at the White Bear Theatre until 21st June.

Thursday 12 June 2014

The Book of Mormon @ The Prince of Wales Theatre

Yes, I’m a little latter day to the Mormon party, but even over a year since it opened on the West End, after countless awards and sell-out shows, The Book of Mormon remains the biggest show on the West End at the moment.  From Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the creators of South Park) and Robert Lopez (co-composer/co-lyricist of Avenue Q), it tells the tale of a naive pair of Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda to spread the word of the titular book.  It’s brash, crude and obscenely hilarious, yet underneath it all is a slick and incredibly well written musical.  Here’s four reasons you need to see it immediately:

It’s typical Parker and Stone
Fans of Parker and Stone’s previous work (namely South Park and Team America: World Police) will be instantly familiar with the boundary pushing humour that The Book of Mormon offers.  Jam-packed with racism, sexism and prejudice, it’s certainly on the extreme end of the spectrum, yet despite touching upon some dark issues it remains totally light-hearted in its gentle mockery of religion that's full of warmth and reverence.  The book might be highly satirical, but its jokes and one-liners are never less than pant-wettingly amusing and have the audience gasping “where can they go from here?!”.

Mostly, it’s the references that amuse – not only to musical theatre and wider pop culture, but to Parker and Stone’s own work.  The ‘Spooky Mormon Hell Dream’ for instance, with its oversized Satan character and historical villains, is straight out of South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut, whilst the flailing puppet-like choreography and frequent references to Aids will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Team America.  As such, The Book of Mormon may not be as original as it first seems, but ultimately this is the Parker and Stone show to end all shows.

The Music
In a world of classic revivals and jukebox pop musicals, it’s refreshing to see a new musical with such a well-written score (even if it is full of clever clichés).  Every single song is not only hilarious but equally memorable for its catchy tunes: from cheeky opener ‘Hello’, to the hilarious mis-pronunciation of Salt Lake City in ‘Sal Tlay Ka Siti’, the soaring ballad ‘I Believe’ at the heart of the show, and the collection of African stereotypes in ‘I Am Africa’.  You WILL come out singing the songs and you WILL want to listen to the soundtrack immediately afterwards – if that’s not the sign of a good musical I don’t know what is. 

The references continue in the score too.  ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ is a clear parody of the Lion King’s ‘Hakuna Matata’ (though it’s FAR ruder), ‘You And Me (But Mostly Me)’ lampoons Wicked’s ‘Defying Gravity’ and the way ‘Man Up’ fuses together previous songs to end the first act resembles the ‘Quintet’ from West Side Story.  Regular theatre-goers will find plenty to laugh at in the score, but the songs are individually amusing in their own right too.

The Performances
The high camp, hyperactive, hyperbolic style of the production is like watching a cartoon on-stage and it’s down to the hugely talented cast that the show is such a joy to watch.  The seemingly-animated ensemble will have you crying with laughter, juxtaposing the wide-eyed perpetual positivity of the over the top Mormon missionaries with the down-trodden, disbelieving Africans and the tyrannical General.  Gavin Creel and Jared Gertner reprise their roles as Elder Price and Elder Cunningham from performing in the US – Creel is vocally outstanding with a high tenor to match the naivety of Price, whilst Gertner’s comic timing is impeccable as Cunningham.  They’re joined by Alexia Khadime as Nabulungi, who presents a different type of innocence as the daughter to the African chief with a powerful voice and consistently funny accent.  As a whole, the high-energy performances will not disappoint.

There’s nothing else like it
Where most musicals are seen as family entertainment, The Book of Mormon is wholeheartedly an adult show.  No other show would dare to poke fun at religion, Aids, rape, homosexuality, musical history or drop a c-bomb.  This is a musical comedy in the most literal sense, aimed squarely at a modern adult audience – only Avenue Q can compare.  It is breathtakingly funny and silly, but it’s got the music, comedic book and talented cast to back it up.  In fact, it’s got everything you could want from a musical that will make you jump in the air, shout “I believe!” and stump up the cash for another ticket - no wonder it's so frickin' popular.  Tomorrow might be a latter day, but don't wait until then to see it.


Watch: The Book of Mormon is booking at the Prince of Wales Theatre until September 2014.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

A Simple Space @ The Udderbelly Festival

The Udderbelly Festival at Southbank really is a little slice of Edinburgh in London.  And just like at the Fringe Festival, it’s an opportunity to see something a little different, something you wouldn’t normally see in a theatre space, something like A Simple Space.

Gravity & Other Myths are a young troupe of acrobats from Australia with extraordinary skill.  Since forming in 2009 they have performed and won awards across the globe and now bring their performance to London for the first time.

As the title suggests, the show takes place in a blank space with only simple lighting to highlight each feat of the human body.  Nothing more is needed to dazzle the audience besides their incredible strength, impressive flexibility, amazing agility and utter bravery.  The performers really do push themselves to their physical limits, using minimal apparatus as well as their bodies: the two girls traverse the stage by only setting foot on the men who align themselves in increasingly elaborate positions; the performers flip and throw themselves around the space with seemingly reckless abandon; they stand three people tall on each other’s heads; one performer solves a Rubik’s cube whilst balancing upside down on his head; and much more.  It’s as unbelievable as you can imagine, all performed to the rhythmic propulsions of a live drummer.

With no narrative as such, this is a performance of pure skill.  Yet the seven performers create an air of honesty and amusement that permeates the whole show, each ‘scene’ performed with a knowing wink to the audience, daring us to even imagine what they’ll do next.  The audience’s constant gasps of disbelief add an extra layer to the show’s soundtrack, alongside grunts and heavy breathing from the performers under the physical strains of the act.  It makes for a show that’s as erotic as it is entertaining, exhausting for audience and performers alike.

A Simple Space is an amazing display of acrobatic skill – whether you’re in London or are visiting Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival this year, this is a must-see.


Watch: A Simple Space runs at the Udderbelly Festival, Southbank until 6th July before moving up to Edinburgh.

Tuesday 10 June 2014

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory @ Theatre Royal Drury Lane

There’s no denying that this musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is a magical experience.  Directed by Sam Mendes and with set and costume design from Mark Thompson, the show is pure spectacle that truly proves the visual power of theatre.

Once we step inside the infamous Willy Wonka Factory, the show is a veritable feast for the eyes.  Moving graphics lead us through its mechanical hallways with cinematic flair; Oompa-Loompa’s tap-dance through some clever puppetry and skitter across the stage in neon costumes; oversized squirrels perform a Nutcracker-esque balletic sequence; we witness a garden of edible delights, a technological room of televisual wonder and, of course, see the glass elevator hovering over the stage.  It’s through this stunning set design that the factory comes to life, with enough vibrancy, whizzes and bangs to keep the kids entertained, whilst adults will marvel with childlike wonder at the oversized sets that make even the adult actors look small. 

It’s a shame, then, that it takes so long to get there.  All of this occurs in the second act, forcing us to wade through a lengthy and dreary first act of melancholic exposition, the biggest laugh coming from the line “I hope we don’t die in our sleep”.  It might be necessary in the narrative to set up Charlie’s plight, but too many ballads slow the pace to a crawl.  The second act, too, isn’t devoid of flat moments – even Veruca Salt’s father notes “this tempo is preposterous”.  As wonderful as the factory is, it doesn’t quite offer the pay-off the audience might expect after such a long build-up.

Most of all, though, this is a show that looks better than it sounds – a criticism that extends to almost every level of the production.  Marc Shaiman’s music is functional at best, offering no standout numbers whatsoever.  The up-tempo songs (in the second act especially) are fun, but the slower ballads are like a screeching handbrake to the action.  And whilst the cast do their best with diction, it’s an uphill struggle against the sound levels of the live band and poor orchestration.  The result is a show that is almost entirely unintelligible.  Poor Rhianna Dorris tries her best to rap as Violet Beauregarde, but I couldn’t tell you a single word she said – through no fault of her own.  For a show that is so wordy and un-melodic, with a book that’s (probably) full of witticisms, rhymes and satire, the lack of vocal clarity is practically a criminal offence.  Moreover, this is something its main rival Matilda achieves with aplomb.

Led by an outstanding Ewan Rutherford as Charlie, the precocious child cast are brilliant: from the aforementioned Rhianna Dorris as cool kid Violet, to Amy Carter as the bossy Veruca Salt, Vincent Finch as the yodelling Augustus Gloop and Jay Heyman as the hyperactive Mike Teavee.  The adults mainly take a backseat by comparison, all except Alex Jennings as Willy Wonka.  He certainly looks the part and performs with zany characterisation and amusing accents and quips, but he lacks the warmth that Gene Wilder brought to the role in the 1971 film.  And whilst a rendition of ‘Pure Imagination’ should provide the show’s musical highlight, Jennings simply doesn’t have the lyrical voice to pull it off.

Even despite these major flaws, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a technically impressive feat that’s busy, energetic and fantastically colourful.  It cannot fail to put a gleeful smile on anyone’s face.


Watch: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is booking at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane until May 2015.

Ticket courtesy of

Saturday 7 June 2014

Lorde @ Brixton Academy

The New Zealand popstar has seen a meteoric rise to fame over the last few months since the release of her debut album, 'Pure Heroine'.  This has predominantly been off the back of her ubiquitous single Royals amidst a wave of hype.  And you know you've made it when you're referenced in a Lily Allen song.  But how does her brand of teenage ennui translate to a live show?

Lorde belongs to a modern wave of female artists, including the likes of Lana Del Rey, Charli XCX and Sky Ferreira.  Eschewing the usual bubblegum teen fare, they embrace darkness, nonchalance and effortless cool.  They are the new wave of teen idols, rebelling against pop norms.  Their music might be mainstream, but they aspire to be anything but.

Lorde is a prime example.  On hearing she would be playing Brixton she "did a tiny little jump in the air...maybe", not wanting to shake her steely cool facade.  Her music is ostensibly for a youthful crowd, as she launched into a lengthy diatribe about how she's "always been frightened of growing up" before singing "it feels so scary getting old" on Ribs.  The 90% female teen audience seemed to agree, drinking and dancing with abandon and insisting on watching the entire gig through their phones.  If Snapchat crashed last night, this is why.

On-stage, Lorde is all about gothicism for a modern, electronic age.  The stark lighting gave her the appearance of a ghost as she performed in front of a black curtain that, after the first song, was lifted to reveal her backing drummer and keys, a chandelier shimmering in the neon light.  It was merely a hint of grandeur to match the minimalist nature of her music: cold, sparse and metallic.

And Lorde herself performs like some possessed demon.  Clad in a black suit with her trademark noir lips, she jerked amongst the strobes and the shadows in her own world, utterly commanding the stage.  That great mane of curly hair is as much a part of her act as her deep drawling vocals, flipped dramatically to stop from smothering her smouldering face.  When she arrived back on stage for her final song in a sparkling gold cape, she had more than a hint of Kate Bush about her.  The fierce image was only dropped when she soaked up the final applause, unbelieving and humble.

You do wish she would let loose a little more vocally to match her movements, but the overall effect is captivating and cooly haunting as she snarls into the microphone amongst spectral beats.  It's easy to see how her fans are so mesmerised.


Thursday 5 June 2014

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels @ The Savoy Theatre

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is full of clashes, oxymorons and anachronisms that make it something of a theatrical mess, albeit one that remains hugely entertaining.

It’s best described as classy yet crude.  Based on the comedy film starring Michael Caine, the narrative revolves around two conmen in the French Riviera - Lawrence Jameson (Roberty Lindsay) and Freddy Benson (Rufus Hound) – who compete to win the affection and money of a rich heiress.  The two actors’ performances reflect these extremes: Lindsay floats and thrusts around the stage with suave sophistication and sings in a light croon, whilst Hound resorts to vulgarity and toilet humour like a schoolboy, barking his vocals with a distinct lack of subtlety.  The rapport between them is electric, their timing spot on and their comedy effortlessly amusing, but by frequently breaking the fourth wall their routines descend into pantomime shtick.  Stylistically, their performances undermine each other.  Thankfully, Samantha Bond and Alice Fearn (understudy to Katherine Kingsley) provide plenty of class as the two women being swindled – Fearn's vocals are especially impressive – whilst John Marquez amuses as Lawrence’s French assistant Andre Thibault.

This juxtaposition runs throughout the production.  The show begins as a pastiche of the old big band musicals with slinky ballroom choreography, girls in gowns and a delicately intricate set that’s well suited to the Art Deco interior of the Savoy.  It immediately gives a sense of 40s glamour that is soon undercut by frequent modern references in the script that confuses the timeframe.  Soon the chorus erupt in a hillbilly line dance routine (led by a hilarious Lizzy Connolly), French maids wear some provocatively revealing outfits and the plot quickly descends into silliness before an oddly contemporary conclusion.  Perhaps this is to purposefully undermine the faux-sophistication of the setting, but the production becomes as jarring as the fluctuating accents, lacking coherency. 

The music, too, is a pastiche of old jazz standards.  The tunes are functional at best, offering no show-stopping numbers, and only Fearn sings with the passion and technique you’d expect from this style of show.  Yet nothing more than that is necessary – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels simply aspires to be a fun night out at the theatre.  The production is as slick as Lindsay's hat flicks, the music is pleasant enough and the slapstick performances thoroughly hilarious.  For frothy, classy yet crude amusement, the show is perfectly entertaining.


Watch: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is booking at the Savoy Theatre until March 2015.

Wednesday 4 June 2014

Thebans - ENO @ The Coliseum

For its basis on dramas that have proven so influential, Julian Anderson’s Thebans – a new operatic adaptation of Sophocles’ dramas on Oedipus and Antigone – feels thoroughly undramatic.  The triptych of stories are presented out of chronological order, apparently to afford Oedipus’ death a more climactic dramatic moment, but in both Anderson’s score and Pierre Audi’s direction the opera is stagnant.

That’s not to say it’s slow-paced.  Cramming three dramas into three short acts is a difficult task, but it results in a piece that’s all narrative and exposition.  As the drama rolls along at a brisk pace, it never once pauses to allow any depth of emotion or characterisation.  The audience never cares about these characters and the music never allows them to shine – aria is non-existent. 

Frank McGuinness provides a libretto that’s direct and concise with perfect lucidity of plot, but there’s little poetry or spark.  The same can be said for Anderson’s score that never reaches its potential.  The focus is very much on rhythm and texture, allowing for the odd beautiful moment of shimmering harp, rich chorus harmony, or an unaccompanied monologue at the start of the second act.  Yet any semblance of melody is never allowed to develop into lyricism and any sense of climax is forced; instead the score is constant and contained, never pausing to revel in sonorous beauty, never allowing the drama to breathe.  With little to compel the audience, boredom quickly sets in.

It’s not aided by the dull set design.  With so many modern operas creating lavishly artistic sets, it’s surprising that Tom Pye has opted for something so static and lifeless, whilst Audi’s direction is pedestrian and full of disparity between the libretto and stage action.  The ‘future’ set in the second act is the most successful, with its all black costume design, stark lighting and frightening use of projection.  Overall, however, Thebans offers little to excite the eyes or the ears.

There are, thankfully, some gems in the cast, particularly from the women who all offer perfect diction – namely Susan Bickley as Jocasta and Julia Sporsen as Antigone, though neither are given a full opportunity to let their voices soar.  Roland Wood offers a strong performance as Oedipus and Jonathan McGovern shines as the young Polynices.  Elsewhere the cast often struggle against the orchestra, particularly in the lower registers – perhaps an issue with orchestration rather than vocal projection.

Ultimately the focus on narrative above all is the downfall of Thebans – a more exciting production to match the thrill of the drama alongside some sparkling music would enrich this otherwise dry opera.


Watch: This run of Thebans at the London Coliseum has now ended.