Monday 28 December 2015

In The Heart Of The Sea (2015) - Ron Howard

In The Heart Of The Sea (2015) - Ron Howard

Depicting the true story that formed the basis for Herman Melville's Moby Dick, In The Heart Of The Sea (Nathaniel Philbrick) is a story of tenacity and determination; not of David besting Goliath, but of the two eventually respecting one another. Yet it's also a story of man's arrogance, his inability to admit defeat, his lust and greed - an easy parallel to today's society of financial overreaching and environmental apathy.

Now Philbrick's novel has been adapted for the screen and directed by Ron Howard, rich with themes and leaden with psychology. Not only do we witness the story of First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) aboard the Whaleship Essex hunting for the demon of the seas, there's a structured narrative focusing on Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) as he recounts some years later his story aboard the ship as a young cabin boy directly to Melville (Ben Whishaw). There's a sense of catharsis, then, as Nickerson's supressed feelings about the voyage - the trauma of oceanic hell, specifically cannibalism in the face of death - are finally unveiled. Nickerson is able to let go of the past, just as Chase eventually lets go of his whale pursuit.

How reliable, though, is Nickerson as a storyteller? Is his account more fiction than fact? It's a concept that Howard never really explores, his film drifting unsuccessfully between dull, gritty realism and the fanciful surrealism of Ang Lee's Life of Pi.

The main issue with the film, though, is that its themes are spread too thinly, the epic narrative lacking the intense focus of Melville's novel. Whilst the Melville/Nickerson scenes create a parallel, they mostly interrupt the flow of the story, stalling what is already a slow and tiresome plot - something Howard has already shown an affinity to with the likes of Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, as well as poor novel adaptations in The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons. That's especially disappointing after the thrill of Rush, also starring Hemsworth and with a far more grippingly fractious central pairing. For better or worse, In The Heart Of The Sea is perhaps the ultimate Howard film.

Further, we simply don't care for these men aboard the ship and that's as much the fault of the script as it is the acting. The only men given an ounce of characterisation are Hemsworth's Chase and Benjamin Walker's Captain George Pollard, a privileged man out of his depths who becomes as much Chase's adversary as the whale. Chase, meanwhile, is a man devoted more to his career than his family, driven by his desire to be captain and arrogant in the face of nature, displaying little compassion along the way. Hemsworth may be handsome and more likeable than the character he plays, but he simply doesn't have the gravitas to pull off this leading man role, lacking the substance and raw masculinity of, say, Russell Crowe. The remains of the cast only tick boxes for stereotyping, brim with overt manliness and deliver some dodgy accents.

It's ultimately the CGI whales that bring a sense of magnitude to the film, alongside Roque Banos' score. They're beautifully designed and the hunting action sequences are intense and brutal, though equally choppy and difficult to follow for both their close-up cinematography and a colour palette that may as well be black and white. When the whales are killed there's a sense not of elation, but of sadness, innocent creatures needlessly exploited. In this battle of David vs Goliath, I'm on the side of Goliath.


Watch: In The Heart Of The Sea is out now.

Tuesday 22 December 2015

The Gizzle Review's Top Theatre of 2015

With so much theatre in London, both on and off the West End, it's literally impossible to see it all. I've still been lucky enough to see some brilliant shows this year - the below are merely my personal highlights:

10. The Elephant Man @ Theatre Royal Haymarket

The Elephant Man @ Theatre Royal Haymarket

For some, this revival of Bernard Pomerance's 1977 Tony Award winning play was a little lacking in depth, skipping over multiple themes such as voyeurism, science vs religion and what it means to be a man in society. Yet this Frankenstein-inspired narrative was performed with subtlety and rich atmosphere, its dense script nonetheless offering clarity and a brisk pace. At the centre of it all was Bradley Cooper's remarkable performance as the titular Elephant Man, who used extreme physicality alone to suggest the character's disfigurement, ensuring we truly witness the man behind the myth.

Gizzle said: "Cooper really does offer a stunning turn – for once that star casting is wholeheartedly worthwhile."

9. Rotterdam @ Theatre 503

Rotterdam @ Theatre 503

Sometimes, no matter what the flaws, a play can get by on charm. And Rotterdam had that in spades. The narrative was a little forced and trite, but the story of Alice coming out as gay whilst her girlfriend simultaneously comes out as transgender was portrayed with warmth, tenderness and honesty, littered with amusing comedy and soundtracked with pulsing Eurodance. In a year where transgender issues became mainstream, Rotterdam was a timely and truly touching piece of drama.

Gizzle said: "...where you might expect high intensity, Jon Brittain’s play is a genuinely funny, light-hearted comedy that’s provocative only in its frank views and normalising of difference."

8. The Wasp @ Trafalgar Studios

The Wasp @ Trafalgar Studios

It's been a hugely successful year for the Hampstead Theatre who have had two shows transfer to the Trafalgar Studios (with more to come): Four Minutes Twelve Seconds and The Wasp. The latter was a disturbing watch, depicting a high school reunion with dark intent, slowly unfurling its layered narrative and shocking twists with superb pacing. To say anymore would ruin the plot, but this one act play bristled with nervous energy and explored some complex themes with thought-provoking power.

Gizzle said: "At its heart this is an exploration of the wickedly disturbing psyche of a woman unable to have children and unable to let go of the past, whilst simultaneously dissecting the impact of childhood psychological and physical trauma and the cyclical nature of violence."

7. Carrie: The Musical @ The Southwark Playhouse

Carrie: The Musical @ The Southwark Playhouse

I confess I'd only watched the 1976 film in preparation for this production, and whilst the musical diminishes some of the film's horror moments, it delivered a stunning and moving adaptation of Steven King's coming-of-age novel. Originally conceived in the 80s, the musical flopped but this production proved the strength of the core material and gave it a sleek and modern interpretation. Most of all, Evelyn Hoskins gave a memorable performance in the title role, introducing London to a new future star.

Gizzle said: "...this is a highly polished production that has clearly improved on the original flop extensively, turning it into a haunting teenage drama that deserves another chance."

6. The Sweethearts @ The Finborough Theatre

The Sweethearts @ The Finborough Theatre

In this new play from Sarah Page, heroes collide in a battle of the mind between soldiers in Afghanistan and a girl group who visit to boost morale. What begins as a comedy of two unlikely worlds colliding eventually descends shockingly into a truly disturbing climax as preconceptions are shattered. The Finborough excels at highlighting fresh and exciting new works and The Sweethearts delivered on that promise with an unexpectedly gripping and intense drama.

Gizzle said (for Exeunt): "The Sweethearts is a powerful drama with a powerful message, [Page's] characters contrasting and layered, her dialogue distinctive."

5. The State vs John Hayes @ The King's Head

The State vs John Hayes @ The King's Head

In this one act, one-woman play, Lucy Roslyn gave a striking performance as a female prisoner on Death Row suffering from multiple personality disorder. With her androgynous looks and masculine gait, Roslyn's character cleverly subverts gender stereotypes to become a frightening yet strangely alluring character, plentiful research clear in such a chillingly authentic performance. The play itself is a compelling exploration of what drives someone to psychopathic behaviour, but it was Roslyn's performance that had me transfixed throughout and has haunted me ever since.

Gizzle said: "Somehow her delivery makes us sympathise with a psychopath as we sit transfixed and daren’t move out of fear, fascination, or worse – attracting her own steely gaze and the powerful force for good and/or evil in those dark brown eyes."

4. Kinky Boots @ The Adelphi Theatre

Kinky Boots @ The Adelphi Theatre

Beginning the top run of musicals this year is a show set in the unlikeliest of settings: my hometown. Northampton is known predominantly for its shoe-making industry, but here this dreary setting is enlivened by a group of glitzy, glamorous drag queens. Cyndi Lauper's 80s-inspired score offers a whole string of smash hits and both Killian Donnelly and Matt Henry deliver in the lead roles. Mostly, in a show that's brimming with feelgood charm, it's the songs that offer a look at the men behind the make-up that outlast the sassy fun.

Gizzle said (for West End Wilma): "...Kinky Boots has everything: spectacle, infectious music, emotional performances, boundless razzle-dazzle, and lots and lots of shoes."

3. Showstopper! The Improvised Musical @ The Apollo Theatre

Showstopper! The Improvised Musical @ The Apollo Theatre

This year, if you were unable to decide which West End show to see, then Showstopper! was the one. This was the first full-length improvised musical to be performed on the West End (after massive success at the Edinburgh Fringe) and came hugely recommended. The troupe of intelligent performers have insanely deep knowledge of all theatre, able to think up witty referential dialogue and hilarious songs in seconds, yet still provide a credible narrative. Best of all, it's different every time you see it, like a Christmas gift that keeps on giving.

Gizzle said: "This is legitimately the funniest show on the West End with limitless entertainment value."

2. Miss Saigon @ The Prince Edward Theatre

Miss Saigon @ The Prince Edward Theatre

Technically it didn't debut this year, but it wasn't until 2015 that I was able to see this revival of Schönberg and Boublil's best work...twice. Yes, it's better than Les Mis. It focuses on a single love story of emotional turmoil with a thrilling score combining big Western tunes and enchanting Eastern orchestration, not to mention impressive spectacle. It has everything that musicals do best, but above all it has a heart-breaking turn from Eva Noblezada as Kim, whose angelic vocals are the main cause of all the sniffling from the audience (sorry everyone).

Gizzle said: "...Miss Saigon is the best production currently on the West End. Yes, it's blockbuster entertainment, but it puts every other show into perspective. This is how musicals should be done."

1. Gypsy @ The Savoy Theatre

Gypsy @ The Savoy Theatre

Yes Miss Saigon was the best production on the West End...until Gypsy. This revival, via the Chichester Festival Theatre, was simply a wonderful musical wonderfully performed. It may not have advanced theatre or pushed boundaries, but every aspect of this show was polished to perfection, telling a compelling story that rises above the usual West End froth. And then there's Imelda Staunton who gave the year's must-see performance as Mama Rose. Fiery, complex and tragic, it was a masterclass in acting and the most enduring, emotionally charged turn (ha!) of 2015. Outstanding.

Gizzle said: "It doesn't get much better than Imelda Staunton. Her performance is exceptional, capably balancing the extremes of the character, whilst delivering a strong vocal, brilliant comic timing and surprising sex appeal."

Friday 18 December 2015

The Gizzle Review's Films of 2015

I definitely haven't seen enough films this year. That needs to change imminently. Still, 2015 saw the release of some awesome cinematic gems that I did manage to see...

10. The Lobster

The second half turned out to be pretty bleak and depressing, but The Lobster sticks in the mind for its sheer weirdness. A film about humans turning into animals if they fail to find a romantic partner, its deadpan delivery makes for a hilariously satirical movie that poses some difficult questions about love, romance and the pursuit of 'the one'. It's an extraordinary, if disturbing, watch.

Gizzle said: "As a surreal satire of love, relationships and the modern obsession of finding our match, The Lobster is an extraordinary film. It explores the extreme lengths that people will go to in order to find love and asks us to question whether it’s easier to fake love when trapped in the wrong relationship, or to hide your true feelings for someone when you’re unable to commit."

9. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Part II)

It's always a surprise when a film series can surpass the books it's based on, but that's exactly what director Francis Lawrence has achieved with parts I and II of Mockingjay. Together, they form a grim yet compelling narrative that explores the psychological impact of war - not your typical young adult storyline. The ending is a confusing mess that disappoints, but with tense action sequences, a sombre outlook, strong performances (from Jennifer Lawrence especially) and a genuine point to make, this is a thrilling climax to the YA franchise of the decade.

Gizzle said: "What began as a series condemning the media, reality TV and class divides has evolved into a comment on war, its futility and its psychological impacts – something far beyond the aspirations of most emo young adult novels/films."

8. It Follows

The plot of It Follows is a thinly veiled metaphor for venereal disease, where the only way to stop being killed is to have sex and pass on the curse of impending death. It's a collection of horror tropes that preys on teenage sexuality, but they're twisted into something that feels fresh and original. The low-fi indie feel and general sense of ennui lend it the quality of an urban legend come to life that's genuinely tense, ensuring this is one of the best horror films in a long time.

Gizzle said: "It’s certainly silly at times, with plenty of illogical plot decisions being made. Yet that’s just one of the many horror tropes the film pays homage to, lovingly referencing teen horrors from Halloween to Scream. It’s a film that therefore works on multiple levels: horror pastiche, psychosexual exploration and a frighteningly good time."

7. Sicario

Sicario manages the impossible - turning a traffic jam into a tense action sequence. But that's just one example of director Denis Villeneuve keeping us on the edge of our seats. This is a brutal, bloody and gripping military thriller with mesmerising cinematography, a bold performance from Emily Blunt, and an ambiguously feminist twist that lingers long in the mind.

Gizzle said: "One shot in particular stands out: the soldiers filmed in silhouette sinking into an unknown horizon. It's a shot that sums up the danger and mystery of the film, the descent into a dark, murky underworld. Is this really suitable for a woman?"

6. Spectre

It disappointed some, but Spectre is a return to the old formula whilst maintaining Daniel Craig's brutal, modern Bond. It's got all the classic elements and plenty of throwbacks to 60s style, but delivers ferocious violence and spectacular action - even if the directing doesn't quite have the flair of Skyfall. It can't quite compete with that most successful film of the series, but it's a fitting end to Craig's tenure in the spy's sharp suit.

Gizzle said: "Spectre is often a thrilling retro ride with all the quips, glamour and tense action you’d expect, but it’s also somewhat predictable and doesn’t advance the formula it adheres to in any meaningful way..."

5. Inside Out

Visually, Inside Out isn't the most distinctive of Pixar's oeuvre, but its narrative still packs an emotional punch. As we venture inside the head of the young Riley, we witness a colourful world of pop psychology that seems complicated but is expertly unveiled, the quest of Joy and Sadness to rebuild Riley's mind paralleled with Riley herself learning to grow up. It's an effortlessly relatable drama that, as with the best of Pixar, adults and children will adore equally.

Gizzle said: "Inside Out doesn't quite have the distinct aesthetic charm of Pixar's best - the characters feel a little too generic - but it tells a thought-provoking story that's joyful and sad in equal measure. You will probably shed a tear."

4. Carol

If the two female leads in Todd Haynes' moving same-sex romance don't get nominated for Oscars next year, it will be a tragedy. Rooney Mara already won the Best Actress gong at Cannes for her portrayal of Therese, but Cate Blanchett's performance as the titular woman is equally engrossing. The setting and cinematography are beautifully done, but it's the performances that really draw us in to this study of love, its intoxicating allure and its devastating power.

Gizzle said: "Carol is exquisite. The 50s costumes are exquisite. The sets and furniture, the sense of time and place, are all exquisite. And so too is the acting."

3. Birdman

Few films are as cynical yet enjoyable as Birdman. Seemingly filmed in one continuous shot, it's an inward look at the acting profession with plenty of self-knowing references and jokes. Yet there's so much more to this densely packed film, as it explores the mindset of an actor on the edge, where (method) acting and reality collide with dire consequences. Throw in a maddening percussive soundtrack and incredible performances from the likes of Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone, and Birdman is easily one of the most unique and thought-provoking films of the year that thoroughly deserved its Oscar recognition.

Gizzle said: "Birdman is a divisive film. Some may even call it self-indulgent, but when the film's subject is vanity and self-obsession, that's somewhat the point. And it's all presented with a deliciously dark and knowing sense of humour."

2. Mad Max: Fury Road

In a year of edge-of-your-seat action films, it's Mad Max that delighted most for the sheer non-stop intensity of its action. It takes a fetishistic view of vehicle battles, explosions and savage violence that quite literally whips up a storm, all accompanied by THAT guitar player. The biggest surprise? That Mad Max is actually a pro-feminist film - Max might be in the title, but it's Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa who proved to be the film's main driving force. Most of all, it's just the coolest film of the year.

Gizzle said: "This Mad Max defies its marketing and the expectations of the audience - it's a macho action film, but with women pushed front and centre."

1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Yes, I'm a fanboy. Bite me.

Fellow nerds will come for the nostalgia hit of seeing the world they grew up with come to life all over again, the reuniting of special faces and the myriad nods to the past. Newcomers will come for the chance to start the series afresh with a compelling narrative and likeable new cast. Both will stay for the swooping space battles, glorious cinematography and the most adorable cinematic robot since Wall-E. And if you're not into Star Wars, who even are you?!

Whatever camp you fall into, The Force Awakens is undoubtedly the biggest cinematic event of the year, an event that thoroughly lived up to the hype.

Gizzle said: "The Force Awakens, then, is everything fans could want it to be – an absolute thrill that will have you grinning non-stop throughout. Though it doesn’t stray too far from established convention, this is a throwback to the best of the series whilst laying ground for the future in a cinematic passing of the torch from old to new."

Thursday 17 December 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) - J.J. Abrams

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) - J.J. Abrams

Never mind new director J.J. Abrams or the fact the franchise is now owned by Disney. From the opening scrolling credits and the glorious fanfare, it’s clear that this is the same galaxy far far away that you know and love. The Force Awakens looks like Star Wars, it sounds like Star Wars, and it plays out like Star Wars – perhaps more so than you might expect.

In almost every way, this is an ode to A New Hope – from the opening shot, to the climactic battle against a planet-sized ship (that’s definitely not the Death Star…). Along the way, the film is littered with nods and references to the original trilogy in its dialogue, cinematography, setting and characters. There are cocky heroes, a young scavenger discovered on a desert planet, a villain in a robotic mask, a cantina scene, plenty of screen wipes, and so much more, all underpinned by a fresh yet familiar score from John Williams.

And when certain characters reunite, you know they’re not really acting. The Force Awakens certainly gets the nostalgia juices flowing in its triumphant return to this well-trodden universe. Yet it’s a gritty view of a universe scarred by past battles, just as the film itself is haunted by its predecessors. Ruined spaceships lie like corpses on the ground, husks of their former glory pilfered by vulture-like scavengers, and returning characters are old and weary with the weight of their shared history. Far from simply retreading old ideas and ticking boxes, Abrams has created a new compelling narrative with a foot in the past and the future, containing all the swooping stomach-churning space battles and light sabre duels you could hope for, with a whole dose of family tragedy thrown in, appropriate use of CGI, and stunning inter-planetary vistas.

So what’s new? For starters, we finally get to see beneath the helmets of the stormtroopers, who have more personality this time around (and are far less inept than before). Specifically we have new hero Finn (John Boyega), who moves from dark side to light in a twist on Anakin Skywalker’s trajectory. In many ways he is the new Han Solo (though Oscar Isaac’s Poe gives him a run for his money), Boyega delivering comic quips alongside a naïve and likeable personality with just the right amount of conviction. Sadly Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma – the first female stormtrooper – doesn’t fare so well. A potentially intriguing character, she is criminally underused.

If you’re after strong female characters, then newcomer Daisy Ridley delivers as Rey. Despite looking and sounding like a young Keira Knightley, her Rey is a hero for everyone, a girl who can fend for herself and refuses to be rescued. Finally, the series has a female character worth celebrating. Speaking of which, Carrie Fisher’s Leia Organa has finally shed the shackles of that gold bikini, becoming the military leader she was always meant to be – even if it’s too late for any actual action.

On the dark side there’s Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. It’s a tough role, stuck in the inescapable shadow of Darth Vader, but Driver does a decent job in this one film growth of character. Ren shows true villainy in the film’s biggest shock, setting the scene for what is yet to come. The less said about Andy Serkis’ Snoke, though, the better.

And then there’s BB8. He might be the film’s primary comic sidekick, but wisely he is mute (beyond obligatory beeping), learning from the lessons of Jar Jar Binks. Far more than this year’s must-have toy, BB8 is the most expressive robot since Wall-E, providing adorable amusement consistently in a film that balances well the light and dark sides of humour and grandiose drama.

The Force Awakens, then, is everything fans could want it to be – an absolute thrill that will have you grinning non-stop throughout. Though it doesn’t stray too far from established convention, this is a throwback to the best of the series whilst laying ground for the future in a cinematic passing of the torch from old to new. This was the right move for the series, purging us of the memories of the prequel trilogy as Abrams takes us back full circle. Moreover, with its black and female leads, we finally have a Star Wars film that’s universal. And if this is the equivalent to A New Hope, I can’t wait to see what’s next. Hoth battle reprise anyone?


Watch: The Force Awakens is out now.

Wednesday 16 December 2015

Carol (2015) - Todd Haynes

Carol is exquisite. The 50s costumes are exquisite. The sets and furniture, the sense of time and place, are all exquisite. And so too is the acting.

Everything about this film is careful, measured, slow. The way Haynes' camera lingers over the two central actresses. The way a cigarette is placed between the lips, its smoke curling through long exhalation. The way a hairbrush separates each strand of hair. The way a gloved hand caresses the steering wheel of a car. Every action, no matter how small, is precisely carried out and charged with eroticism, lending the film an unparalleled sense of longing.

It sounds cliché - the eyes of two people meeting across a shop floor and the affair that ensues - but here it's beautifully portrayed. Carol is a long and slow film, the story of the titular wife and mother and her affair with a younger woman unfolding at a gradual and carefully planned pace. Nothing is forced, instead their attraction and romance plays out organically. When they do finally make love, it feels like a deserved climax (no pun intended), tender and loving, like two souls combining as one.

At its core are two subtle and nuanced performances, both worthy of Oscar recognition. Cate Blanchett's Carol shows great strength of character, balancing the dual role of caring mother and sexual lover. An enticing on-screen presence, she is glamorously depicted and her charm is inescapable, yet she is equally troubled - not by her own sexuality, but by the perception of her from patriarchal society. Then there's Rooney Mara's Therese, the naive ingenue who falls helplessly for Carol and is swept into her life - it's a sensitively played yet no less intriguing performance that's a world away from her role in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and already won her a Best Actress award at Cannes.

It's all underpinned by noirish intrigue - in its bristling orchestral score, in its abstract angles and use of light, in its mystery and eroticism. Carol herself is something of a femme fatale, a sexualised and enchanting woman who seems to inadvertently entice every man and woman she meets. Yet here, any sense of danger is implied in the background. This is no cautionary tale but a quietly confident film that focuses on the magnetic pull of attraction - it is an overpowering force that cannot be controlled.

Crucially, the 'l' word is never used. This is a study of love, not sexuality - its intoxicating allure and its devastating power.


Watch: Carol is out now.

Bewitchment on Black Ice @ The Landor Theatre

Bewitchment on Black Ice @ The Landor Theatre

You'd think that ice skating and musicals should be reserved for the likes of Disney On Ice rather than a small pub theatre in Clapham. And you'd be right.

Hang on - ice skating in a pub theatre? This isn't actual ice though, it's synthetic black flooring that's as slippy as the wet stuff. It is literal witchcraft. Sitting in a small room, sipping on mulled wine and watching actors skate across a seemingly innocuous floor is as strange as it is remarkable. There's some impressive work here, in particular from Tara Smart and Chantelle A'Court, but as a whole the "rink" is too small for anything too thrilling, proving that this show is just too ambitious. And no, nobody fell over.

Ultimately the skating is just a gimmick that interferes with the show itself, a show in which a voiceover narrates the action whilst the performers waft along gracefully enough. If the characters are mute, though, the sound at least needs to be of a high quality. Instead, it's poorly edited with crackling joins, erratic volume levels and laughably cartoonish voice work that doesn't always suit the characters we see. That's when we even see their faces, when too often they're bewitched by their own footwork.

The poster may hint at magical Gothicism, but in fact the show is thoroughly modern madness with a preoccupation for recreating YouTube videos - specifically the comedy work of Todrick Hall. It is utterly jarring, makes little sense in the context of the story and only heightens the gimmicky feel of the production. Modern musical choices like "Sexy Cinderella", "Fancy", "Crazy In Love" and "Uptown Funk" are further examples of antithetical decision making in this fairytale world, whilst the limited set and questionable effects lend it all a budget feel that only emphasises how expensive the skating flooring probably was.

Except the cast do speak! Some of them at least. The dialogue, though, is cringeworthy (a repeated reference of one character to chocolate fondue is especially awkward), the acting wooden and the singing shakier than the skating. As for the plot, it's a nonsensical mash-up of fairytales that makes little sense beyond serving each musical set-piece.

And yet, weirdly, there's a sense of chaotic charm to it all. This is a show that doesn't take itself too seriously, comprising a decent cast wrangling with shoddy material - not to mention their daring to perform it all on (black) ice. And one moment of singing and dancing to Beyoncé is genuinely moving, evidence of what the show could have been. Settle in and this is an entertaining, if not bewitching, little romp of high camp. "This isn't a pantomime", claims one character. Well not quite, but it sure is a farce.


Watch: Bewitchment on Black Ice runs at the Landor Theatre until 9th January.
N.B This review is of a preview performance.

Bewitchment on Black Ice @ The Landor Theatre

Tuesday 15 December 2015

The Gizzle Review's Albums of 2015

It’s fair to say that 2015 hasn’t exactly been a vintage year for pop music. That’s not to say there haven’t been some brilliant albums, but there’s been a distinct lack of some major players this year. And despite some incredible singles, albums haven’t quite managed to match their quality. Is the album dying? Probably not, but sporadic hits are definitely more widespread. To that end, choosing ten albums that reflect the year and putting them in some semblance of order is a tough task, but that’s what the end of the year is all about right?

10. Troye Sivan – Blue Neighbourhood

Troye Sivan – Blue Neighbourhood

Why it made the top 10:
2015 was the year that YouTube stardom reached new heights. Halsey may have got there first, but it was Troye Sivan who caused the biggest stir when his debut album was released this December, proving that being a YouTube star is far more than just silly viral vlogs. There’s genuine heart and emotion to Sivan’s music that, along with the downbeat synthy production, appeals to the sadface teen in all of us – even if the best songs were heard earlier on his ‘Wild’ EP. More so, as an out gay popstar with a huge following, the future is incredibly bright.

“…it’s the honesty of the songwriting that really impresses, wrapped up in nagging hooks and production that’s warm and comforting one minute and coldly modern the next. It’s no coincidence that a popstar whose fame has arisen on the internet would create an album full of computerised music, but there’s genuine heart here that pulls it all together.”

Best track: Wild

9. Kate Boy – One

Kate Boy – One

Why it made the top 10:
There was a tonne of brilliant Scandi-pop released in 2015, but Kate Boy stand out for their darker, grittier sound mixed with glittering melodies, whilst singer Kate Akhurst’s guttural vocal brings an earthy, almost animalistic quality. It’s perhaps a little disappointing that their sound hasn’t developed since the release of their debut EP in 2012 and ‘One’ does repeat a lot of similar ideas. Yet when the throbbing electronic beats consistently build to such thrilling, euphoric climaxes, it makes for an infectious listen.

“…the band display economy of sound, creating a whole album of urgent pop from a limited palette. With electro-pop so prevalent in Scandinavia, Kate Boy have managed to carve a sound that's all their own, full of nagging hooks, a unique vocal, and production with an alluringly dark edge.

Best track: Higher

8. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

Why it made the top 10:
“Every n***** is a star” goes the opening lyric. Yet some stars shine brighter than others and Kendrick Lamar is the central inferno to which all other rappers should turn to. Every element of ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ drips with racial politics, from the personal lyrics that depict his own place in society to the re-appropriation of traditionally black genres. Drake may have provided the rap anthem of the year in Hotline Bling, but Lamar’s album is a more mature, powerful and vital collection of songs, cementing his place as the year’s most important rapper.

There’s thematic depth here that requires repeated listening to comprehend, but it proves far more rewarding than the shouted rants of other similar hip hop artists. This is an album that surely resonates with a wider cultural context.

Best track: King Kunta

7. Björk – Vulnicura

Björk – Vulnicura

Why it made the top 10:
Björk does heartbreak. Need I say more? ‘Vulnicura’ is perhaps Björk’s most personal and candid album to date, inspired by the breakdown of her relationship with partner Matthew Barney. Lyrically this is raw stuff as she demands “show me emotional respect”, but the way the production – combining many elements from her previous work – integrates with the lyrics through word painting is beautiful to behold. In a year full of break-up albums, Björk’s stands as the most visceral of all.

As with all of her output, this is a musically and lyrically rich avant garde album in which to thoroughly lose yourself, blessed with her unique Icelandic magic. Heartbreak may be prevalent in all forms of music, but rarely is it depicted in such an emotionally affecting and strangely relatable way as here.

Best track: History of Touches

6. Years & Years – Communion

Years & Years – Communion

Why it made the top 10:
Years & Years began the year on a high after winning the BBC Sound of 2015 poll. They end the year somewhat critically panned. For some, debut album ‘Communion’ was a disappointment. For others, their music was simply overplayed. Yet Years & Years are surely worthy of a place on end of year lists for their combination of 2015’s hottest R&B/house/pop trends, but more so for their command of melody. King, first released way back in January, remains the best pop track of the year with its layers of joyously uplifting melodies – an approach that’s consistent with the album at large, if never quite matched.

Every track is built around an infectious hook, but King is a prime example, layering and developing its melodies right through to the final notes. Whether glorious, menacing, yearning or melancholic, emotion is key - every melody makes you feel something, overcoming any lyrical shortcomings.”

Best track: King

5. Adele – 25

Adele – 25

Why it made the top 10:
“Hello…it’s me”. Three words that sent the music industry in a frenzy. ‘25’ is amongst the biggest selling albums ever, let alone this year, and for good reason. Adele may re-tread familiar themes through safe production, but few singers can deliver such gut-punching ballads with this level of conviction. Adele succeeds because she is the everyman, a popstar who morphs personal feeling into relatable emotions that have a profound resonance with the listener. Other artists may have shown a greater willingness to experiment, but 2015 was the year that Adele - her soulful voice and hysterical laughter - rose to god levels of super-stardom.

Even “not quite as good” Adele, though, is still a remarkable singer-songwriter, who makes music out of personal tragedy and is a voice for us all, a voice that is deep and rich and powerful and loaded with feeling. She is a soul singer not just in that her voice is soulful, but in that it cuts through to our own souls and strips us to our core.

Best track: Hello

4. Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion

Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion

Why it made the top 10:
It’s frankly a crime against music that this album hasn’t performed better commercially. Perhaps it’s because of a poorly conceived album campaign. Perhaps it’s because the general public already reached peak Jepsen after the release of Call Me Maybe in 2012. Or perhaps it just sounds a bit too much like Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’. Either way, ‘Emotion’ is the culmination of some incredible pop talent creating an 80s inspired album that’s polished to near perfection and sung by a squeaky clean, adorable singer. From the giddy rush of Run Away With Me, to the nagging earworm of I Really Like You and beyond, this is sophisticated bubblegum pop that’s frothy but consistently enjoyable.

“…it's quite the team behind 'Emotion' - some of the best writers and producers in modern pop, in fact. The result is an impossibly polished 80s-influenced album, delivered through the effervescent personality of Carly Rae - just on the right side of adorable/nauseating.

Best track: Run Away With Me

3. Justin Bieber – Purpose

Justin Bieber – Purpose

Why it made the top 10:
Who would’ve predicted this at the start of the year? No matter what you think of Bieber personally, he’s become second only to Adele in the global superstar stakes. Finally dropping the childish stigma of Baby, ‘Purpose’ is a far more mature album than you may expect, with a specific sound that corners the market for happy-sad dance-pop (just ignore the soppy ballads). With Where Are Ü Now, What Do You Mean and Sorry, Bieber’s had three of the biggest singles of the year, finally living up to the potential he showed from such a young age. Finally, it’s cool to like Bieber.

The key song here is Sorry. Sure, it embodies this 2015 ‘Bieber sound’, but more so it’s an apology in more ways than one, summing up his career so far and marking a turning point for the future.”

Best track: Sorry

2. Emilie Nicolas – Like I’m A Warrior

Emilie Nicolas – Like I’m A Warrior

Why it made the top 10:
2015 was full of break-up albums, but it was Norway’s Emilie Nicolas (not Adele!) who created the most emotionally arresting collection of songs. With its widescreen electronic production drenched in intense melancholy, this is an album that transports us through sadness, anger, desperation, nostalgia and hope, all tinged with a cold darkness that exemplifies Nordic Noir. This is the sort of album you can lose yourself in for hours on repeat, where a single lyric can cut like a knife through lush, gloomy synths, where painful truth finds cathartic release.

“This is an album, then, that travels through the mixed emotions of an ending relationship...And alongside these emotions there's polished and detailed electronic production that shows restraint in the face of melodrama; pain and misery in the heavy beats, stabbing strings and icy synths; beauty in the breakdown.

Best track: Pstereo

1. Grimes – Art Angels

Grimes – Art Angels

Why it made the top 10:
To be honest, any of these albums could’ve taken the top spot in a year where no one album truly stood out above the rest. ‘Art Angels’ isn’t a perfect album, but it’s arguably the most unique and creative album on this list. Grimes is a wildly experimental artist who takes genres like punk, rock, folk, electro and K-pop, chews them up and spits them out into something glorious and new. That’s as true on ‘Art Angels’ as it’s been on any of her previous albums. Yet here that experimentation is underpinned by a strong pop sensibility, where crazy ideas are given strength through infectious hooks, where grand sweeping production is littered with tiny details, where challenging music slowly creeps under your skin and refuses to let go. In short, ‘Art Angels’ is a triumph of the individual, and in today’s industry of identikit pop music that’s something of a rarity.

“…Boucher has an ear for pop melody and that happy-sad thing that all good pop has, yet equally a complete punk disregard for style and genre. She doesn’t quite operate in a vacuum – after all, you can pick out her influences – but not once does she attempt to conform to expectations.

Best track: Flesh Without Blood

Honourable Mentions:

Tame Impala - Currents

Susanne Sundfør - Ten Love Songs

Jamie xx - In Colour

Lana Del Rey - Honeymoon

And here's a playlist of 2015's best songs...

Sunday 13 December 2015

The Wasp @ Trafalgar Studios

The Wasp @ Trafalgar Studios

The Wasp is the second show to transfer to Trafalgar Studios from the Hampstead Theatre, following last month's Four Minutes Twelve Seconds. Like that show, this is a tightly woven dramatic thriller but rather than revenge porn, we have a tale of entrapment through social media and revenge of a far more pre-mediated and sadistic nature.

It begins innocently enough as two childhood friends meet in a coffee shop. Heather (Laura Donnelly) was bullied at school by Carla (Myanna Buring), but now needs her help with a personal matter. There's a clear class divide between them, highlighting their opposing trajectories since school: Heather is a middle-class, financially successful and well-presented woman unable to have children, whilst Carla is a working class baby making machine. We make assumptions on each character based purely on appearance, just as they judge each other.

Yet this is a play where appearances are deceiving. Heather wants her husband dead and she wants Carla to do it. It's an absurd narrative jump from the calm opening that seems to cement the play as a black comedy - there are plenty of laughs as the two women propose methodologies. Peel back the layers, though, and The Wasp soon becomes truly horrifying with its tales of entrapment, sexual abuse, sickening ultimatums, and a metaphor based on the titular wasp, asking us to question who exactly is bullying whom?

To say any more would ruin the twists and turns of the ever-surprising plot. At its heart this is an exploration of the wickedly disturbing psyche of a woman unable to have children and unable to let go of the past, whilst simultaneously dissecting the impact of childhood psychological and physical trauma and the cyclical nature of violence.

It's quite a lot to take on, but author Morgan Lloyd Malcolm gradually unveils each grippingly disturbing plot point, making the ludicrous plausible. She has a keen ear for dialogue, the two characters contrasting in style and tone as they evolve before us into entirely different women to those of the opening scene. Donnelly gives Heather an initial awkwardness and politeness that slowly turns to unpredictability and a terrifying determination, whilst the bravado of Buring's swaggering Carla eventually melts in the face of adversity. Both performances haunt in what is a deeply affecting and powerful drama that bristles with nervous energy.

With one excellent transfer after another, the Hampstead Theatre is on a roll. As in this drama: what's coming next?


Watch: The Wasp runs at Trafalgar Studios until 16th January.

The Wasp @ Trafalgar Studios

The Wasp @ Trafalgar Studios
Photos: Ikin Yum

Friday 11 December 2015

Coldplay - A Head Full Of Dreams

Coldplay - A Head Full Of Dreams

You sort of have to feel sorry for Chris Martin and co. Over the years Coldplay have become the band everybody loves to hate. The fact that year on year they keep bringing out new music in the face of it all is admirable really. It’s as if the band don’t really care what people think, they still have their loyal fans.

But maybe they should start caring more. Maybe if they considered criticism they would actually improve. Instead, Martin has a head full of dreams and a reality that will send you to sleep.

It’s all too easily to listen to this latest album for hours on end and have not a single song, chorus, melody, chord or note strike you in any way whatsoever. ‘A Head Full Of Dreams’ is utterly generic, inessential and vapid. It’s as if Martin locked himself in a room, painted it beige, watched it dry and then wrote an album about it.

But let’s dig a little deeper. This is the second album released after the “conscious uncoupling” of Martin and ex-wife Gwyneth Paltrow, the first being last year’s ‘Ghost Stories’ – an interesting but poorly executed diversion into electronic music. ‘A Head Full Of Dreams’ continues that trajectory away from indie-rock and further into pop, with production from Stargate that sees the band generally returning to a livelier tempo. The opening title track is all glittery synths and a disco bassline that devolves into an obligatory “oooooh aaaahhh” ending that Coldplay do oh so well – what’s meant to represent wordless wonder simply epitomises the lack of creativity in their music. Take lead single Adventure Of A Lifetime: has anyone else noticed it’s lacking a chorus? In fact you’d be hard-pressed to find a memorable hook across the album’s eleven tracks. The sound might be dreamy, but snap out of it and all is forgotten.

The most memorable track is arguably the bizarrely spoken word Kaleidoscope, as if the voice of God is preaching to us. He could’ve at least warned us not to listen to this drivel. Admittedly Everglow is a pleasant enough ditty, though it showcases Martin’s whiny vocals and sounds like it was written in less than five minutes. Army of One is perhaps the most interesting track of all, transitioning from celestial organ to a menacing trap beat. Wait, Chris Martin singing over a trap beat? It’s as grating as it sounds (“you make my heart go boom ba boom boom”).

There are even features from Beyoncé on Hymn For The Weekend and Sweden’s Tove Lo on Fun. Yet when even they fail to inject some pop credibility, you know your album has disaster all over it. You’d think Beyoncé would’ve learnt her lesson after that dreadful Naughty Boy track, but apparently she’s happy to slap her name on anything these days.

Of course, Coldplay have such a loyal following that none of this even matters. It doesn’t even matter that the album wasn’t allowed on Spotify for its first week of release. It will sell to the masses regardless. And so we must go on suffering. A head full of dreams? This generically bland torture is the stuff of dystopian nightmares.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* A Head Full Of Dreams
* Everglow
* Army of One

Listen: ‘A Head Full Of Dreams’ is available now.

Tuesday 8 December 2015

Fleur East - Love, Sax and Flashbacks

Fleur East - Love, Sax and Flashbacks

If I’d wanted to listen to Uptown Funk on repeat, I would’ve bought the single.

Yet that’s pretty much what Fleur East’s debut has ended up being. Of course, it’s an understandable blueprint when East’s success is basically built on that cover. Debut single Sax features a similarly horn-heavy non-chorus, and both Gold Watch and Kitchen devolve into repeated middle-eights akin to “uptown funk you up”: the former riffing on “what’s the time Mr Wolf” and the latter bizarrely delivering an ode to Tina Turner (that’s somehow kind of genius). Once you finally get to the actual Uptown Funk at the end of the album, you’ll already be sick of it.

Then again, Ronson and Mars were clearly imitating the late 70s/early 80s funk of Michael Jackson and Prince; by following in their footsteps, East has essentially provided her own version of ‘Off The Wall’. And that’s no bad thing. ‘Love, Sax and Flashbacks’ is full to bursting with funk basslines, horn stabs and vocal ticks – “give it to me!” is basically the new “chamone!”. Of course, there’s a modern twist here, with East displaying her rapping skills (on Love Me or Leave Me Alone especially) as well as her husky vocals, and updating the production with some well-placed synths (particularly in the Chic-esque Over Getting Over). It’s practically impossible to listen to this album and not feel the urge to dance.

She’s at her best, though, when the funk is blended with glittering Whitney-esque pop. Breakfast is a fun and flirtatious nod to I Wanna Dance With Somebody that’s followed by the similarly inspired More and More. It’s hear that East relaxes a little more and proves her chops as a popstar. They’re also somewhat a continuation of the 80s pop style Little Mix brought back with Black Magic. In fact, just imagine what ‘Love, Sax and Flashbacks’ would sound like as a Little Mix album?

Instead, though, we have East. On X Factor she proved herself a consummate performer, but purely listening to the album reveals the weaknesses in her vocals as she strains for the higher notes. These are clearly songs to be seen performed and danced to, not merely heard. There’s also no room for emoting here, the sole ballad being a cover of Alicia Keys’ Girl on Fire that’s only available on the deluxe version (and is merely karaoke anyway). What’s left is a fun yet relentless album that after a handful of tracks is somewhat exhausting to listen to. Equally, it proves East’s future potential as a popstar. If this is her ‘Off The Wall’, I can’t wait to hear her ‘Thriller’.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* Breakfast
* More and More
* Kitchen

Listen: ‘Love, Sax and Flashbacks’ is available now.

Monday 7 December 2015

Troye Sivan - Blue Neighbourhood

Troye Sivan - Blue Neighbourhood

There’s a sadface teen inside us all. And with Troye Sivan’s debut album, we now have the means to indulge our teen fantasies.

It’s called ‘Blue Neighbourhood’ and it’s clear that Sivan himself is feeling pretty blue, wracked with teen anxiety. The Quiet, for instance, depicts a relationship ending in silence (“anything hurts less than the quiet”); on Cool, he’s just “tryna be cool” to impress his lover; “my youth is yours” he claims on Youth; and Lost Boy appropriately explores loss of identity and unknown feelings of love. The track titles alone should give an idea as to the pain, angst and inner turmoil present in each song.

Together, though, they paint an incredibly cinematic musical picture of the lives of millennial teens – in shades of blue no less. Sivan may have begun his career on YouTube, but it’s clear that his popularity has risen due to the relatable nature of his music. Even those past their teens can look back on these songs with a sense of nostalgia. And when Sivan does delve into other ideas, as on Suburbia that explores his rise to fame, it’s done through the lens of the everyman with its imagery of suburban life.

Yet Sivan achieves more: in his music, he’s normalising gay relationships. for him. is the most obvious love song here, but its title is enough to describe the subject. Bite, meanwhile, portrays Sivan’s trepidation after he first visited a gay club (“please don’t bite”). It’s in his videos that he’s making waves though – together they outline a same-sex relationship and the difficulties faced. It is comforting to know that in 2015, an openly gay popstar with a huge youthful following is free to explore his feelings in the public eye.

The extended narrative doesn’t quite work in the context of the album. In deluxe form, ‘Blue Neighbourhood’ is a lengthy collection of songs whose downbeat nature does become a slight dirge. The production is awash with trap beats and sombre synths that squelch and fizz, encapsulating the sounds of current pop. What is sometimes missing is the edginess of, say, Lorde (an obvious contemporary) and Sivan’s vocal is perhaps unremarkable. More so, anyone familiar with his recent EP ‘Wild’ will have heard the best on offer here.

Yet it’s the honesty of the songwriting that really impresses, wrapped up in nagging hooks and production that’s warm and comforting one minute and coldly modern the next. It’s no coincidence that a popstar whose fame has arisen on the internet would create an album full of computerised music, but there’s genuine heart here that pulls it all together.

When it works, it results in excellent pop like opener (and standout) Wild. It might focus on the rush of new love, but its downbeat production and yearning melodies create a thrilling juxtaposition – happy-sad pop at its finest that’s not just for internet savvy sadface teens to revel in.


Gizzle’s choice:
* Wild
* Fools
* The Quiet

Listen: 'Blue Neighbourhood' is available now.

Friday 4 December 2015

Kylie Minogue - Kylie Christmas

Kylie Minogue - Kylie Christmas

There comes a time in every popstar's career when they have to do a Christmas album. It's usually a few years in, sales have dipped, and they fully embrace their status as novelty act by belting out a few family favourites.

It's surprising really that Kylie hasn't done a Christmas album sooner...

To be fair, though, that's not because her career is failing - if anything she holds more popstar clout now than ever. It's just that it's built on a mixture of nostalgia and high camp, perfect for releasing a Christmas album. The album itself, though, doesn't quite live up to expectations.

Of course, it predominantly consists of covers more worn out than the limp fake Christmas tree you drag out each year. Mostly this is typical big band fair that not even Kylie's squeaky, bubbly vocals can bring anything new to. Christmas might be the most wonderful time of the year but this winter wonderland walks an awkward line between classy jazz classics and pop fun. "Let it snow", she sings, but unless you're a super fan, this version will simply sit alongside all the others you already own. And Santa Baby really is a repetitive bore, right?

The "duets" also don't add much to proceedings - the inverted commas a nod to Santa Claus Is Coming To Town where Kylie sings along to samples of Frank Sinatra (who does it better). Iggy Pop has taken a break from insurance adverts to talk along a bit to The Waitresses' Christmas Wrapping, a song that sees Kylie looking back to her 80s roots. Only You has a similar effect (The Flying Pickets version was number one at Christmas 1983), but James Corden's straining vocals are an unnecessary addition.

And then, amongst all this, Kylie throws in the best single she's done in ages: Every Day's Like Christmas. A gently pulsing electro-ballad written by Coldplay's Chris Martin and produced by Stargate, it's got a happy-sad modern-nostalgia vibe that makes this original a new classic. A Stock Aitken Waterman Remix that ramps up the cheesy 80s feel is being released as a single, but the album version is ultimately superior.

Elsewhere, both White December and Christmas Isn't Christmas 'Til You Get Here are originals that try a bit too hard to be typical festive songs. Fans will be most interested in 100 Degrees, a new song in collaboration with sister Dannii that's relegated to the deluxe edition. She may have wanted a Christmas song to reflect the Australian heat of her home, but really this is just an excuse to throw in a disco banger that pretty much epitomises the phrase "camp as Christmas".

It's unlikely that 'Kylie Christmas' will take over from your usual favourites (shout out to Cliff Richard), but really Kylie Minogue + Christmas = what's not to like?


Gizzle's Choice:
* Every Day's Like Christmas
* Christmas Isn't Christmas 'Til You Get Here
* 100 Degrees

Listen: 'Kylie Christmas' is out now.