Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Showstopper! The Improvised Musical @ The Apollo Theatre

It’s difficult to write a review of Showstopper!. After all, as an improvised musical, it is totally different every night. Like Forest Gump and his box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.

That, though, is the beauty of the production. Eight years in the making, after gaining huge popularity touring the UK (at the Edinburgh Fringe especially), the troupe have finally hit the West End for a limited run – the first full-length improvised musical to do so. It is, basically, every West End musical in one, plus a whole lot more.

Where else would you see a musical entitled “Making Sparks”, set in Marks & Spencers in 1883? Where a love triangle forms between founder Mr Marks, cleaner Polly and the Prime Minister? Where characters confess to their feelings in the style of Sondheim, Rent, AC-DC and more? Where the PM is introduced in a sassy Dreamgirls number? And where he eventually falls in love with a packet of Percy Pigs?

That’s what we were treated to on this particular performance. It works like so: settings, musical styles and a title are selected from options pitted by the audience, before the cast of six (and the on-stage band of musicians) must develop character, lines and songs on the spot. More pressure is applied when the action is occasionally paused for further ideas to be thrown into the mix. Surely there are faint structures in place and familiar, vaguely practiced ideas? Still, this is incredible stuff.

The cast are such intelligent, masterful performers. Not only are they quick-witted enough to think up comedy lines and lyrics on the spot, but their knowledge of theatre is so in-depth they can easily flit between styles on the fly with plenty of subtle (and not so subtle) in-jokes. This is both pastiche and parody all at once, with droll links to current affairs (from cast and audience alike) thrown in for good measure. Even if the cast aren’t always the strongest singers, they more than make up for it with comic timing, creative ideas and a sense of camaraderie that proves they are utterly in sync with one another. This is legitimately the funniest show on the West End with limitless entertainment value.

That the improvising genuinely results in a credible narrative too is testament to the skill and quick-thinking of the cast and band. And if there’s one way to judge a musical, it’s by the strength of its songs and infectious melodies – the walk-out-of-the-theatre-humming-the-tunes factor. Considering three days later I still can’t get “he’s coming, he’s coming, he’s coming to Marks and Spencer” (Dreamgirls style) or theme song “What fun! What larks! We are making sparks!” out of my head, I’d say Showstopper! is an almighty hit.


Watch: Showstopper! runs at the Apollo Theatre until 29th November.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Disclosure - Caracal

Disclosure - Caracal

Remember when dance music used to come with a radio edit? When the tracks were long and drawn out, ready to be remixed, chopped and sampled? Nowadays dance music is so common in the charts it comes in handy three minute, bite size pieces. Yet by courting the charts and not the clubs, is it really dance music anymore?

Disclosure’s latest album, ‘Caracal’, sure sounds like dance music. The tracks are structured with percussive intros and outros, and have that vibrant deep house sound the duo have become known for. Yet in interviews they’re eager to distance themselves from the dance scene – they’re producers not DJs; their new material has more of a traditional pop structure; and their influences stretch beyond deep house and garage into R&B and pop.

So is ‘Caracal’ dance masquerading as pop, or vice versa? Really, Disclosure are a pop act using their name and position as dance-influenced auteur producers as a springboard for the vocal talents of others. Would the likes of Sam Smith and AlunaGeorge have found success without featuring on the duo’s 2013 debut?

Now, however, they’ve reached such a respected position they can work with established and up-and-coming artists alike. Here Sam Smith of course makes a return on overly-familiar lead single Omen, whilst big names like The Weeknd, Miguel and Lorde all make appearances, alongside tracks from lesser-known artists including LION BABE, Kwabs, Nao and Jordan Rakei. The results, though, are a mixed bag. At their best, Disclosure are able to collaborate with artists and amalgamate varying styles. Opener Nocturnal, for instance, has a smoother R&B feel that fits with The Weeknd’s latest hit Can’t Feel My Face; Lorde’s unmistakable vocal adds an edginess to the otherwise sun-dappled synths of Magnets; and Good Intentions is as lushly produced as any of Miguel’s own work. Other tracks, though, sound like typical Disclosure with a featured vocalist: Hourglass featuring LION BABE and Holding On featuring jazz singer Gregory Porter are already dated.

And that’s the main issue with ‘Caracal’. In many ways this is simply Disclosure in default mode, an album of safe tracks that doesn’t advance their sound in any meaningful way. As a dance act, this is standard deep house music that fails to stand out from the crowd; as a pop act, they have failed to convincingly transfer their house sound into a varied pop aesthetic. Dance or pop, they are both and neither, landing in an awkward middle ground that is unlikely to appease either fanbase. It’s telling, too, that the least interesting tracks are those missing featured vocalists – Disclosure are dependent on their collaborators, not the other way around.

Occasionally they do dip a toe outside of their comfort zone. Superego shuffles in a laidback groove beneath Nao’s sultry vocals, whilst Masterpiece shows a sense of subtlety in the delicate production that’s missing elsewhere. Both tracks hint at where the duo could go next, yet are indicative of an album that overall settles in a mellow mid-tempo. This is not a genre-defying comeback; it’s less urgent, less exciting, and less vital than their seminal debut.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* Magnets
* Good Intentions
* Masterpiece

Listen: ‘Caracal’ is available now.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Chvrches - Every Open Eye

Chvrches - Every Open Eye

‘Every Open Eye’ is a disappointment.

There. I’ve said it. It’s one of those albums that you want to like more than you do, especially after the critical success of debut ‘The Bones Of What You Believe’. Yet this follow up falls at that clichéd hurdle: the difficult second album. Have the Glaswegian three-piece run out of steam?

That debut has informed the “Chvrches formula” that’s rife across ‘Every Open Eye’. And it goes a little something like this:

Introductory riff that sets up the vibe of the track. Choppy, rhythmic verse. Sometimes a building pre-chorus. Expansive, anthemic chorus. Evocative, atmospheric middle eight. Rinse. Repeat.

Now, this is hardly an original formula of course. In fact, a lot of very good pop is built on it. And Chvrches still make very good pop. It’s just they used to make brilliant pop. Now it’s become formulaic.

Understandably, some of the band’s initial lustre has vanished, but ‘Every Open Eye’ feels like too much of a continuation of their debut as they adhere stoically to this formula. Sonically, too, this new music is all too familiar. It’s bold, crisp and colourful, with a heavy 80s feel. In places it’s filled with intricate details, fizzing with electric spark. In others it feels too clinical, too stark, too obviously aping their influences. And in some tracks (namely Clearest Blue and Bury It) there’s less an influence of Depeche Mode as an outright copy. It suggests a band who have run out of ideas of their own, clinging to their formula and sound.

Part of the appeal of the band’s debut was the juxtaposition of the electronic synth production with singer Lauren Mayberry’s vocal, ever sweet as she spits out venomous lyrics. Much of that grit is missing from this album. As on Bury It with its refrain “bury it and rise above”, the album’s theme is about overcoming the emotional difficulties explored in their first album. Yet it’s those difficulties that lent ‘The Bones…’ its emotional weight. ‘Every Open Eye’, by contrast, is a brighter, more positive album but it’s less arresting and lacks personality.

At least, writing to a formula has allowed the band to create some tightly formed pop. There’s the breathless Leave A Trace; the pulsing, shuddering Keep You On My Side; the fizzing Make Them Gold; and the almost bubblegum appeal of Empty Threat. Individually these are great tracks filled with earworms, but they’re undermined by that repeated formula and lack of emotional punch.

On occasion the band branch out of their confines, but with mixed results. High Enough To Carry You Over features the vocals of Martin Doherty, who fails to ignite the same spark as Mayberry. Down Side Of Me provides a welcome moment of softness, with its repeated mournful mantra of “not the same” over clipped beats – sad-pop at its best. Final track Afterglow also takes a gentle approach with its warm glow of synths, but it comes too late.

For all its failures, this isn’t a bad album by any means but by sticking to an established formula, Chvrches have become criminally predictable. ‘The Bones…’ was an unexpected joy; ‘Every Open Eye’ fails to live up to expectation.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* Leave A Trace
* Empty Threat
* Down Side Of Me

Listen: ‘Every Open Eye’ is available from 25th September.

Sam Smith - Writing's On The Wall

Sam Smith - Writing's On The Wall

The last Bond theme by a male solo artist was Tom Jones’ Thunderball in 1965.

Of course, that’s not the last time we’ve heard a male voice on a Bond theme – Paul McCartney, Duran Duran, A-ha and Chris Cornell have all followed. Yet apparently being male (let alone openly gay) is reason enough for Sam Smith to be chosen for the latest film, Spectre. It’s a lazy and obvious choice, as if the producers just looked to whoever was at the top of the charts with a vaguely soulful voice.

And then you hear the song. And it makes sense.

What Smith’s managed to do, as all the best Bond themes do, is marry his own style to that classic Bond sound. As such, this is an intimate love ballad (not necessarily what you’d expect for Bond) but with lush orchestral production. Strings cascade and swirl, underpinned by deep, bombastic brass, over which Smith’s falsetto lilts gently and delicately.

If there’s one word to describe Writing’s On The Wall, though, it’s dramatic. With its contrasting sections, sudden shifts in tone and pitch, it pulls around emotion as much as Smith’s vocal leaps. It takes us on a journey. After all, this is accompanying a film. It’s meant to have drama. Smith’s song fits the bill.

Yes, it has its faults. It doesn’t particularly stray away from conventional soulful bombast. It's arresting for its mood more than an infectious melody. The end of the verses sounds like Michael Jackson's Earth Song. And Smith’s falsetto is on occasion unintelligible. But if Adele can rhyme “sky fall” and “crumble”, then Smith’s doing alright. If Spectre is anything like Writing’s On The Wall, there’s a tense emotional rollercoaster on the horizon.


Listen: Writing’s On The Wall is available now. Spectre is in cinemas from 26th October.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Lana Del Rey - Honeymoon

Lana Del Rey - Honeymoon

Has Lana Del Rey finally become a self-consuming parody of herself? If last year's ‘Ultraviolence’ coloured the singer as a disturbingly death-obsessed femme fatale, then ‘Honeymoon’ sees her falling further into a cinematic noir nightmare. Gone is the gritty authenticity of West Coast guitars in favour of swooning orchestral strings, like the soundtrack to her own 50s biopic drenched in monochrome. Vocally, too, she breathlessly sighs over the silken production, like a despondent Marilyn Monroe consumed by melancholy.

It’s in the lyrics, though, that ‘Honeymoon’ occasionally borders on the absurd. “I still got jazz when I got the blues”, she sings on Terrence Loves You, before quoting David Bowie’s Space Oddity (“ground control to Major Tom”). And that’s far from the only reference: “Put on that Hotel California” (God Knows I Tried); “All I hear is Billie Holiday” (The Blackest Day); the reciting of a T.S Eliot poem in interlude Burnt Norton; covering Nina Simone’s Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood in an attempt to align herself with the great singer. From here things only get weirder, reaching a peak with Salvatore that slowly descends into a repeated burble of “ahhh soft ice cream”. There’s no denying that Del Rey frequently indulges in pretentiousness as much as she revels in the luxurious production.

You get the sense, though, that she’s equally self-knowing. After all, the album as a whole opens with the lyric “We both know that it’s not fashionable to love me” on the lavishly introductory title track, whilst on Freak she invites us alluringly to “be a freak like [her], too”. Buy into her cinematic world and it’s all too easy to fall for her charm. Indeed, you can take ‘Honeymoon’ as a concept album for the femme fatale character trope, seducing you towards a post-wedding vacation that you may not ever see. As she self-references on Art Deco, “Club queen on the downtown scene prowling around at night”. Del Rey is playing a character and it’s up to you if you take her seriously.

Musically, ‘Honeymoon’ sees her in typically brooding territory, even if the downbeat mood is a little too consistent across its overly long fourteen tracks. Violins and vocals intertwine beautifully, underpinned by light hip-hop beats. There’s a grace and timelessness to her sound that haunts as much as it seduces – like her siren character it’s disturbing, sexy, and fatal. Vocally, too, she’s capable of delivering depth of emotion; throughout the album she mourns and laments as much as she knowingly coos.

And if Del Rey is herself haunted by the legacy of breakthrough hit Video Games, she’s still capable of some sublime moments of retro pop. Lead single High By The Beach is the track most obviously courting mainstream tastes with its heavy trap rhythms, but Music To Watch Boys To sets the tone of the album early on with its downwardly spiralling chorus melodies suggesting lustful inevitability accompanied by ghostly flutes. Terrence Loves You is a genuinely devastating ballad that subverts the clichéd saxophone of so many noir scores. The nagging chromaticism of Freak and its swirling synths are deliciously dangerous. And in Swan Song icy synths reflect the album's air of mystery, in what could easily be a future Bond theme.

In fact, in many ways ‘Honeymoon’ sounds like Del Rey’s bid to sing for the British spy. But it’s more than that. It’s the ode to faded noir glamour that she’s always been striving for. Far from becoming a parody, she’s reached her pinnacle, creating a complete cinematic sound world. Listen if you dare.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* Music To Watch Boys To
* Freak
* Swan Song

Listen: ‘Honeymoon’ is available now.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Everest (2015) - Baltasar Kormákur

Everest (2015) - Baltasar Kormákur

Why? Why would anyone choose to scale Everest? It’s a question I pondered at the start of Everest, and one the film fails to answer.

It all begins as something of a travelogue. Back in 1996 (this is based on a true story), plucky New Zealander Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), a seemingly sensible extreme sports fanatic, has set up a business in leading hiking expeditions up Mount Everest under the name Adventure Consultants. He’s not alone though. Rival companies (including one led by Scott Fischer (a heavily bearded Jake Gyllenhaal)) are also taking up groups of clients, clients that are little more than men and women taking a gap year style trip in the midst of mid-life crisis – and have paid $64,000 for the privilege. Who exactly would pay that sort of money to risk their lives?

Honestly, we never really find out. Aside from a few brief scenes that focus on the homelife of these clients (in which Keira Knightley’s chin offers an interesting Kiwi accent, and Claire Underwood from House of Cards makes an appearance), the characters are given little backstory. What’s more, once they’re up on the mountain they’re simply faceless figures in coloured mountaineering gear and oxygen masks – it’s practically impossible to tell them apart, or to care about what happens to them.

Early on we witness these people trekking to base camp and making a series of small expeditions to acclimatise themselves. So far, so little drama. There’s one key scene, though, in which journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly, another House of Cards alumni) probes the group on their reasons for the climb. Fittingly, none of them can really give a suitable answer. Sure, Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) has already scaled six of the seven major peaks, but that’s a non-answer. And as a journalist, Krakauer’s own reasons are obvious. But really, only Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) has a concrete reason for being there – to prove to his schoolchildren that great feats can be overcome. The scene is left open-ended, with any notion of dramatic impetus left out in the cold.

Admittedly there is some breathtaking cinematography that illustrates the awesome power of the mountain, sweeping overhead shots as impressive as a BBC nature documentary. Yet this is a disaster movie where the disaster is difficult to dramatize, or visualize. Aside from a violent snowstorm, the key dangers are hypothermia, lack of oxygen, freezing, or are psychological. The film, though, never delves into the minds of these characters, nor does it deliver high-octane action. Instead, these dangers are given to us early on, acting like a checklist for each of the film’s deaths.

Yes, there is a lot of death here – aside from one character who miraculously survives, amusingly emerging from the snow like a zombiefied white walker from Game of Thrones. The horrible deaths of the characters feel crushingly inevitable, further sapping dramatic energy from the narrative. And that’s before director Baltasar Kormákur drags out the plot with attempts at emotional heft. It’s far too late though, the bland narrative failing to make us care for the cast of bland characters. If anything, the film’s agenda seems to be actively dissuading the public to attempt such a disaster-filled climb.

And so I ask again: why would anyone choose to scale Everest?


Watch: Everest is out now.

The White Feather @ The Union Theatre

The White Feather @ The Union Theatre

At times, The White Feather is a gentle, beautiful drama that explores cowardice and injustice in WWI. However, it also suffers from a lack of narrative focus that hampers enjoyment.

Set in 1940s Suffolk, this is the story of a rural community coming to terms with the impact of war. Young boys sign up to the war effort, noble men try to escape their duty, and women are left to pick up the pieces. When her brother Harry leaves for war, young Georgina Briggs must hold together her family and is eventually bullied by her community when news breaks her brother was executed as a coward. Worse, she’s unwittingly married her brother’s executioner. What follows is her quest for justice.

Yet this plot plays out in a variety of time periods as a cyclical narrative, but these feel less than distinct and only serve to confuse. Moreover, there is no clear lead protagonist to guide us through. The programme suggests it should be Georgina, but the plot flits between her, Harry, her husband and other members of the cast. Who’s story is this? Really this is the story of a woman seeking posthumous justice for a terrible tragedy, but it meanders in long-winded fashion along the way. And whilst the second act is more focussed on Georgina’s quest for justice, writers Ross Clark and Andrew Keates have still managed to shoehorn in a forced gay narrative, as well as a token song for women’s’ rights. There are some incredibly poignant themes here, but the show doesn’t reach its full potential.

Fittingly, this is very much an ensemble performance and the cast are strong. There is some spirited and passionate singing, most of all from Abigail Matthews as Georgina, whose soprano voice is light and pure, yet with an emotional punch. Katie Brennan also excels as Georgina’s bolshy, sisterly friend Edith to bring some light comedy, whilst Adam Pettigrew offer a sensitive portrayal as Harry.

It’s in its mood that The White Feather transcends its script. There’s a great sense of hushed reverence about the piece, with simple yet effective staging and evocative lighting setting the scene. The music (from Ross Clark, with arrangements by Dustin Conrad and Martin Coslett) is the main attraction here though, creating subtle ambience with just piano, cello and violin. The lilting folk melodies are not only authentic to the setting, but are tenderly sung by the young cast and gracefully accompanied by mournful strings. Together with Andrew Keates’ direction, there are some powerful moments – one particular song in which a letter is censored through silence is especially effective.

For all the failures of its overly ambitious book, The White Feather is a delicate depiction of a wartime tragedy that is often beautifully played.


Watch: The White Feather runs at the Union Theatre until 17th October.

The White Feather @ The Union Theatre

The White Feather @ The Union Theatre
Photos: Scott Rylander

Thursday, 17 September 2015

The Sum of Us @ Above The Stag Theatre

The Sum of Us @ Above The Stag Theatre

Imagine: after a night on the town and a fair few drinks, you bring home your prospective lover for some sexytime and who pops into the room but your dad. Who sits with you. Makes conversation. Makes sex jokes. And doesn’t get the hint to leave.

That cringeworthy awkwardness is the worst nightmare of many young people, no matter what their sexuality. Yet in his Australian comedy The Sum of Us (later made into a film starring Russell Crowe), playwright David Stevens unusually tackles homosexuality from the point of view of a totally accepting father. When so many parents have difficulty accepting the sexuality of their children, it’s refreshing – almost disconcertingly so – to meet a parent so open and comfortable with homosexuality. And when so much LGBTQ theatre focuses on tragic relationships and issues of identity, The Sum of Us is a warm, amusing and above all progressive counterpoint. And all this from a play written in 1990!

Yet this is a play all about being comfortable and open in yourself. After the death of his wife, widower Harry (Stephen Connery-Brown) lives alone with his gay son Jeff (Tim McFarland). Their world is a sort of domestic utopia, their cosy house (designed in detail by David Shields) a home free of secrets or shame. Through naturalistic Aussie dialogue, Stevens conveys a perfect father-son relationship that’s tenderly played by the two lead actors under the assured direction of Gene David Kirk. Sure, they may bicker, but it’s truly heartwarming to see the love between them, in their shared history and mutual acceptance and understanding.

For the audience it’s a pleasurable wonder, but for the play’s outsiders it’s all too much. When Jeff brings home Greg (Rory Hawkins), the father-son relationship represents everything Greg doesn’t have. The overwhelming warmth is too much to bear. For Joyce (Annabel Pemberton), a woman Harry meets through a dating hotline, homosexuality is an alien world she simply doesn’t understand. It’s easy to take a misogynist view and see Joyce as a villainous character, but Harry’s love towards her is all too easily dropped, only serving to highlight the strength of his bond with Jeff. Perhaps, though, there is such a thing as being too perfect.

The overall tone, though, is light-hearted and comic. Much of this comes from direct addresses and inner-monologues from the characters, which at times feels overly theatrical and purposefully played for laughs, somewhat at odds with the naturalistic feel of the play and the way it normalises homosexuality. That said, these addresses do serve a purpose in the play’s final and tragic scene, allowing for a surprising amount of comedy and truth. After all, this is a piece of theatre, not a soap opera.

In fact, it’s the final scene that’s crucial to the play’s message. Throughout the play are speeches about living in the moment, not waiting for tomorrow, making the most of life (an understandable subject after the death of a wife/mother). Yet the play’s tragic final twist puts this theme into sharp perspective, owing predominantly to Conner-Brown’s delicate performance as Harry. Ultimately there are far greater concerns in life than sexuality. And that’s as true now as it was in 1990.


Watch: The Sum of Us runs at the Above The Stag Theatre until 4th October.

The Sum of Us @ Above The Stag Theatre

The Sum of Us @ Above The Stag Theatre
Photos: Pics by Gaz

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Kwabs - Love + War

Kwabs - Love + War

‘Love + War’ comes as something of a surprise. The closest Kwabs has got to success so far in the UK is a place on the BBC Sound of 2015 longlist and a number 71 UK “hit” with Walk. It’s fair to say that for most people, he’s an artist simmering away on the fringes of their radar, rather than a bona fide hit-maker. In Europe, on the other hand, he’s quite the star.

Yet it’s clear listening to this debut album that Kwabs has it in him to go the distance. A jazz alumni of the Royal Academy of Music, often such a technical and studied path doesn’t always relate to pop audiences more concerned with raw talent and “X factor”. Kwabs, however, has applied his training to a pop sound, resulting in an intelligently crafted album.

Vocally he’s far from just a typical soul singer. There’s a husky, dark timbre to his voice that provides a more interesting edge beyond sickly sweet warbling. And that darkness seems to have informed much of the electronic sound of ‘Love + War’. Throughout there’s a grand sense of mood and drama, with its heavy basslines, yearning melodies and predilection for a minor key.

Further, it’s a clever amalgamation of genres that circles pop, R&B, gospel, funk and soul. The stomping beats and piano stabs of Walk may be Kwabs at his most pop, but the opening title track is an atmospheric slice of electro-soul that sets up the feel of the remainder of the album. Fight For Love has more of a dance beat in its chorus that later spills into the disco-funk of Make You Mine. The R&B vibe of My Own is given a futuristic jazz makeover in the beautiful Layback. Best of all are the gritty MIDI sounds and sombre mood of Look Over Your Shoulder. In many ways, this is the sort of album Jamie Woon should have released.

At the core of these uptempo tracks is Perfect Ruin, proving Kwabs knows how to deliver delicate balladry with tenderness, dynamics and gut-wrenching emotion. It’s followed by Forgiven, a ballad in disguise with its bluesy opening and soaring chorus, in which Kwabs lets loose with his vocal. Later there’s the gospel flavour of Father Figure – a refreshingly open and personal song – that continues with the Emeli Sandé-esque Cheating On Me.

This may seem schizophrenic, but the varied influences ultimately come together as a coherent whole, contrasting a smoky vocal with synth-led production that stands out amongst other soul artists. And when his life story consists of a childhood in social care, discovering his Ghanaian roots and a scholarship at one of the UK’s top music conservatoires, that mix of influences begins to make sense.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* Fight For Love
* Look Over Your Shoulder
* Perfect Ruin

Listen: ‘Love + War’ is available now.

Monday, 14 September 2015

See What I Wanna See @ The Jermyn Street Theatre

See What I Wanna See @ The Jermyn Street Theatre

See What I Wanna See has quite the pedigree. From composer Michael John LaChiusa (best known for his Tony Award winning Broadway hits The Wild Party, Marie Christine and Chronicle of a Death Foretold), the show premiered at New York’s Public Theatre in 2005 and starred Idinza Menzel in her first role since creating the part of Elphaba in Wicked. This production marks its European premiere.

It’s a musical all about perspective, about points of view, about how our experiences affect how we see things. LaChiusa has paralleled three different stories from Japanese writer Ryu Akutagawa. Together, there are thematic links on the nature of truth that pose some intriguing questions. Individually, though, they’re flawed.

The first story is a tale about two lovers set in Feudal Japan that’s deliciously sensual, establishing an almost dreamlike and provocative mood – it’s immediately apparent this is no jazz hands musical. However, it’s used merely as a framing device to open each act, so is too slight to make a further impression.

The second is set in 1950s New York and plays out like a noir thriller as we hear different testimonies in a murder case. It’s perhaps an obvious set-up to explore perspective and it relies on clichéd noir tropes – the jazz singing femme fatale, the sleazy nightclub, the dodgy dealings of shady male characters. It’s little more than a murder mystery that structurally is overlong and becomes tedious re-treading the same story on repeat.

The final tale, set in post-9/11 New York, is an exploration of religion – perhaps the ultimate form of perspective and a very literal interpretation of the show’s title. Here, a priest who has lost faith sets up a hoax miracle in New York’s Central Park, playing on the gullible nature of humanity and the mass hysteria that faith can cause. In miracles, we really do see what we want to see. Thematically, this is the most loaded of the stories but it feels too shallow and relies on stock characters – it surely deserves a more thorough study in a standalone piece.

Above all, though, there’s one perspective that is ignored: that of the audience. See What I Wanna See lacks ambiguity in its storytelling, robbing the show of a potential extra dimension by inviting the audience in so that we too can see what we want to see. Instead, we merely watch a multi-stranded story play out before us.

Musically, too, the show does little to draw us in. There are some moments of sumptuous vocal harmonies and some beautifully soaring melodies. Yet for the most part this is an abstract and experimental score that merges styles from the different periods – jazz and orientalism especially – but any musical links between the three narrative strands are too subtle. It lacks the fiery tunes that made, say, The Wild Party so popular. Sure, this is a different type of musical: it’s striving for Sondheim but doesn’t quite make it.

Director Adam Lenson’s production is sadly a slave to the limitations of the venue. Using simple staging may have been intentional to allow the narrative complexities to take the fore, but it feels stilted and static. The lighting, too, is simplistic, with down lighting often leaving the cast in shadow – again this could be intentional to evoke mystery, but it doesn’t have the stylish mood required.

The ensemble is excellent throughout, but two performances stand out: Cassie Compton’s powerful vocal cuts across the band without amplification, able to soulfully and lithely interpret some difficult melodic material; and Sarah Ingram delivers a performance of both comedy and truth in a variety of roles.

See What I Wanna See is certainly an interesting piece of theatre, attempting to tackle a complex subject in both form and content. It’s just not as clever as it could be.


Watch: See What I Wanna See runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 3rd October.

See What I Wanna See @ The Jermyn Street Theatre

See What I Wanna See @ The Jermyn Street Theatre
Photos: Jamie Scott-Smith

Friday, 11 September 2015

Foals - What Went Down

Foals - What Went Down

Really, it’s a two horse race to become the UK’s premiere rock band between Muse and Foals. The former may have had a longer career that includes experimenting/meandering into other genres, but Foals have gone from strength to strength. ‘What Went Down’ isn’t likely to be as popular as 2013’s ‘Holy Fire’ and its ubiquitous single My Number, but it sees the band continue to refine their sound with supreme confidence – even if they seem to stoically stick within their own boundaries.

If anything, ‘What Went Down’ is a more subdued offering than before, melding the differing styles of their pop efforts and their sumptuous ballads. In many ways it’s an attempt to recapture the magic of Spanish Sahara, a track that continues to represent the band at their peak. This album unveils a softer side to the band, one that’s often drenched in melancholy. Tracks like Mountain At My Gate, Birch Tree and London Thunder pair evocative guitars with sad melodies sung in a lighter timbre than we’re used to from frontman Yannis Philippakis (ironically the band recently cancelled a Live Lounge session after he injured his vocals). Give It All, meanwhile, sees the band succumbing fully to ambiance as it shimmers, mourns and crescendos.

Don’t worry, though, Foals haven’t suddenly turned into Coldplay. The guitars may have been dampened a little, but their spirit hasn’t. Really, this is a compendium of the varying styles of their past three albums. Amongst the downbeat ‘Total Life Forever’ esque tracks, the title track opens the album in a forceful blaze of ‘Holy Fire’; Albatross is a stadium-ready epic; Snake Oil is reminiscent of the spikier sound of their debut ‘Antidotes’; and Mountain At My Gates and Night Swimmers are the closest this album gets to radio-friendly pop rock with their jangling guitars, funk influenced bass and subtle electronics. You get the sense overall that the band are looking backwards rather than forwards, and much of the lyrical content follows this reflective theme (Lonely Hunter especially).

For the most part, though, this isn’t a radio-friendly album (unless you’re planning on listening to Radio X) to send the band stratospheric in the same way as ‘Holy Fire’. Instead it’s a sombre album that sees the band consolidating their sound and regrouping, whilst still proving their dominance. If tracks like What Went Down, Mountain At My Gates and Give It All prove anything, it’s that Foals are perfectly capable of pleasing a whole host of fans, be it with heavy rock, crowd-pleasing pop, or emotive atmospherics. ‘What Went Down’ isn’t quite a classic, but its tracks will settle very neatly within the band’s live set – someone give them a Glastonbury headline slot immediately.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* What Went Down
* Give It All
* Night Swimmers

Listen: ‘What Went Down’ is available now.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Dusty @ The Charing Cross Theatre

Dusty @ The Charing Cross Theatre

Dusty – a unique “fusion musical” (whatever that is) about the life of Dusty Springfield - has been in the making for over a decade, whilst previews have already lasted for three months. What exactly were the producers waiting for? If the answer is a decent script, they should’ve waited a little longer.

Perhaps the show eventually took its cue from Sinatra that opened on the West End a few weeks ago. Like that show, Dusty doesn’t place trust in its cast of performers, nor the power of the songs alone. Just as Sinatra utilises a flying, singing video projection of the great crooner, Dusty does the same with video performances taken from Springfield’s 60s heyday. In fact, the show goes one better (if you can call it that) by using a 3D hologram. It’s like Dusty Springfield has come back to life! Except…not at all.

For starters, this weird ghost Dusty (like the show overall) is plagued with technical issues. She jerks awkwardly, shimmering in the stage lights and frequently faces the back of the stage as if coquettishly refusing to show us her face. That’s probably to cover up the terrible lip syncing. Speaking of which, the video projections are totally out of sync with the sound recording – either the sound was extracted from a different live version to what we end up seeing, or Dusty was terrible at miming.

Then there are the sound levels. The musicians (themselves under-rehearsed) totally overpower the singers who are, in turn, overpowered by ghost Dusty whose implementation utterly undermines the whole point of a live performance. The different sonic elements have in no way been blended to an acceptable volume. Instead, ghost Dusty blasts in during the middle of a song when we’re trying to enjoy some actual live singing as opposed to a recording we could quite happily go and listen to at home. Pipe down Dusty!

Further, Dusty fails on a narrative level as well as a technical one. Now admittedly the life of Dusty Springfield isn’t the most dramatic of tales, at least not until her career took a downturn after the release of Son Of A Preacher Man in 1969, she turned to drink and drugs, and eventually, after a brief comeback in the late 80s and 90s, died of breast cancer in 1999. Except Dusty doesn’t even begin to touch on this part of her life, instead beginning with her early years singing with her brothers and ending with that famous single from 1969. Very little happens within this time besides the petulant, perfectionist and childish Dusty pushing all her loved ones away in her rise to fame. The central conceit is that it’s all narrated by her childhood friend Nancy in flashback, but with her own blonde ‘do’ the show becomes just as much about her and takes the focus away from the show’s namesake.

Biographies of her life claim she had something of a split personality – the sweet Mary O’Brien from Ealing with a troubled personal life and Dusty Springfield the star. Except the only bit of drama in Dusty is the revelation that she had a homosexual affair, causing gasps of “I didn’t know she was a lesbian!” from the audience. The problem is, the writers don’t have the confidence to make this lesbian drama the focus of the narrative; instead it feels like a shoehorned in plotline purely for shock value. Equally Dusty is a tale of lost friendships, about the price of fame, about the conflict between public and private personas. It’s also none of these things.

At the very least there are some spirited vocal performances, even if the cast lazily phone in some cringe-worthy dialogue. Alison Arnopp as Dusty and Francesca Jackson as Nancy, in particular, deliver powerful versions of Springfield’s output (when they can be heard), even though some weirdly modern and sexual choreography from the ensemble dancers threatens to steal their thunder. It’s Witney White as Martha Reeves who eventually shows some true star power – just as in real life, it takes a black soul singer to show these white girls how it’s done. Perhaps the cast are incapable of actually performing underneath the hilariously gargantuan wigs they’ve been dressed in?

Dusty is trying to be a reverent homage to the late pop-soul singer. Instead, it’s just offensively bland. More than anything, that’s just sad.


Watch: Dusty runs at the Charing Cross Theatre until 21st November.

Photo: Elliott Franks

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Ryn Weaver - The Fool

Ryn Weaver - The Fool

A light, fluttering vibrato of a vocal with twinkling, breezy production that leans towards the alternative end of pop.

That’s Ryn Weaver’s debut album ‘The Fool’ in a nutshell, a formula that she established on last year’s enchanting breakthrough single OctaHate. That track remains Weaver’s best work, a pop track that quivers and stomps all at once in beguiling fashion. Its bite and power can perhaps be attributed to co-writer Charli XCX and co-producer Cashmere Cat, as the album (without them) fails to sustain the song’s momentum. Spread thin, Weaver’s music loses some of its charm.

Interestingly enough, opening track Runaway is one of few songs to break from the formula – dark and percussive, it subverts the expectations that OctaHate instilled. Soon, though, the album settles into an all too familiar rhythm. The Argentinian-born singer-songwriter has worked with Passion Pit frontman Michael Angelakos and producer Benny Blanco, and their influences are stamped all across ‘The Fool’. From Blanco there’s the bright polished pop he’s known for; from Angelakos there are the glittering, fairy-like touches that are littered throughout Passion Pit’s work.

It’s certainly a consistent sound, sitting somewhere between alt-pop and folktronica, and it’s changed up just enough across the album to retain interest. There are the folk melodies of Pierre, the electronic stomp of Stay Low, the evocative guitars of Sail On, the warm melancholy of Promises, and the widescreen joy of Free. Travelling Song strips back the production with an acoustic ballad that proves Weaver’s vocal isn’t short on emotion, when elsewhere it frequently sounds timid and unsure.

Yet ‘The Fool’ is short on big melodies and the addictive quality of the best of pop. Instead, Weaver has delivered an album of quiet introspection that’s not quite angst-ridden popstar, nor sylph-like folk singer. At times it’s beautiful, with a distinct sound full of tiny details that sometimes borders on magic; but for those expecting Weaver to deliver an album of punchy pop tracks on a par with OctaHate, ‘The Fool’ falls short.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* OctaHate
* Sail On
* Promises

Listen: ‘The Fool’ is available now.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

When We Were Women @ The Orange Tree Theatre

When We Were Women @ The Orange Tree Theatre

2014/15 was one of the Orange Tree Theatre’s most successful seasons, not least for critical sensation Pomona that will now be hitting the West End and Manchester via the National Theatre. And so now their 2015/16 season begins, beginning with a perhaps unlikely play in co-production with Snapdragon: Sharman Macdonald’s When We Were Women.

Macdonald was one of many eminent feminist writers in the 80s, but is perhaps now best known as the mother of Keira Knightley. Her debut play, When I Was a Girl, I Used To Scream and Shout was award-winning, but her subsequent play When We Were Women was less successful. Perhaps this is because it apes some of the themes of the former play: the role of women in the family and the relationship between mother and daughter.

It’s also a quiet, understated piece, something that still rings true in this production – its first major revival. The narrative may be set in Scotland during WWII, but the war is merely a backdrop to MacDonald’s feminist agenda as her family drama slowly unfolds in non-linear fashion. Abigail Lawrie (BBC’s The Casual Vacancy) gives a confident performance as the headstrong Isla, a young woman trapped in a patriarchal society. She may be able to drink like her father but she can’t live like him; as he explains, men lose everything in marriage whereas women have everything to gain, it is their ultimate fate to be tied to a man. The man in question is the charming Mackenzie (Mark Edel-Hunt, who surely knows how to deliver a monologue), himself haunted by his ex-wife Cath (Sarah-Jayne Butler).

Macdonald certainly has a poetic sense for the rhythm and phrasing of the Glaswegian accent and her dialogue feels authentic to the time period, but in narrative terms the plot isn’t always lucid and rolls along at a slow pace with little dramatic impetus. It’s a detailed exploration of family values in wartime Scotland that’s particularly gloomy – a stark antithesis to a more positive new wave of feminism present in today’s society.

This production, though, is a study in atmosphere. In particular, Mike Robertson’s side and under-floor lighting not only provide grim mood in their suggestion of Blitz-torn streets, but reflect Isla’s world physically crumbling beneath her. Rainwater adds to the symbolism, whilst David Gregory’s sound design is minimal yet effective. This is an evocative piece in an intimate space, something The Orange Tree does well.

Yet When We Were Women makes for a cold and downbeat start to the theatre’s new season. Equally controversial yet exciting boundary-pushing works are surely yet to come.


Watch: When We Were Women runs at the Orange Tree Theatre until 3rd October.

When We Were Women @ The Orange Tree Theatre

When We Were Women @ The Orange Tree Theatre
Photos: Ben Broomfield

Monday, 7 September 2015

New Pop Roundup

It's that time again...

Justin Bieber – What Do You Mean

Yes it’s Bieber. And yes he has ridiculous hair. But it’s clear that a more serious Bieber is making a comeback this Autumn. We’ve already had the excellent Where Are Ü Now (even if his vocals were superfluous compared to the slick beats of Diplo and Skrillex) and now there’s What Do You Mean, with its tropical synths, syncopated dance beats and sad melodies. It’s both upbeat and downbeat, happy and sad – in other words, it’s great pop. Who knows what else he’ll be questioning on his forthcoming album…


Listen: What Do You Mean is available now.

XYconstant – Do It Well (feat. Tom Aspaul)

It seems that every singer worth their salt at the moment has to feature as a vocalist on a dance single. This track is sadly not a cover of J-Lo’s similarly titled hit, but its warm tropical sound is very 2015 and should extend the summer a little further. More so, it’s yet another piece of funky, soulful pop from Mr Aspaul, a singer who deserves far more attention. If a dance single is the favoured route these days, let’s hope Do It Well does in fact do well.


Listen: Do It Well is available now.

Kygo – Here For You (feat. Ella Henderson)

The reason for the tropical sound of the last two tracks? It’s largely down to the success of this guy, Norwegian producer Kygo, whose career has been built on endlessly repeating a successful (and admittedly enjoyable) formula. This time he’s joined by Ella Henderson, who seems to have found a second wind as dance featured vocalist of the moment (see also: Sigma’s Glitterball). But has this formula run its course? Can we really stand yet another Kygo single? Which dance producer will Henderson work with next?


Listen: Here For You is available now.

Janet Jackson – Unbreakable

Unbreakable you say? It seems Janet Jackson the forward thinking artist was broken a long time ago. Nowadays we’re left with Janet Jackson living in the past. Unbreakable, the title track from her forthcoming comeback album, is a slick, polished R&B jam that arrives about ten years too late. There’s little of the fierceness of the Rhythm Nation era, or the creativity of ‘The Velvet Rope’. Perhaps this track will all make sense in the context of the album. On its own, it just sound generic. One to file next to Madonna on the “probably past it” shelf.


Listen: Album ‘Unbreakable’ is released on October 2nd.

Little Mix – Hair

Artists often release their best music after a break-up (cue Adele reference), but they don’t get much more public than X Factor graduates Perrie Edwards and Zayn Malik. Hair may have been written and recorded long before the two singers split, but Little Mix are releasing this track at just the right time. Bold and sassy, it’s a case of right song right time for both Edwards and the band as a whole. It’s just not quite a pop banger on a par with Move or Black Magic.


Listen: Hair is available now.

Alesha Dixon – Tallest Girl

Dixon is still trying to make a comeback happen. What’s frustrating is that whilst the music is actually decent, nobody is listening. Is she really past it already? Previous single Just The Way You Are failed to ignite the charts and although Tallest Girl is a fun 90s dance throwback, it’s likely to follow the same fate. Perhaps we’ll have to wait until the next series of Britain’s Got Talent before we see Dixon on our screens again.
Listen: Tallest Girl is available now.

TĀLĀ & Sylas – Praise

This is basically sex for your ears. TĀLĀ’s music brings a middle eastern flavour to London electronica; London duo and Brian Eno protégés Sylas create haunting, experimental electronica. Put them together and the result is the richly layered Praise, their varied influences and vocal styles unifying in glorious harmony. Praiseworthy indeed.


Listen: Praise is available now.

The Neighbourhood – R.I.P 2 My Youth

California’s The Neighbourhood are still yet to best their brilliant Sweater Weather, but this new track comes close. As with Miss Del Rey, the band blend hazy West Coast beach vibes with a slight hip-hop twist and ghostly, whirring electronics, the sort of music that sounds nostalgic and futuristic at once – so pretty suitable for the end of summer (RIP). It’s not quite the emotive earworm of their breakthrough hit, but it does signal the way towards a decent second album.


Listen: Forthcoming album ‘Wiped Out!’ is released on October 30th.

Frida Sundemo – Stay Young

To finish, a little Scandi-pop. Sundemo is known for her bright, colourful sad-pop and Stay Young is no different with its yearning, anthemic chorus. After a string of EPs and singles over the last couple of years, it’s about time she released a full album – her highly polished pop is too good not to be heard as one coherent collection.


Listen: Stay Young comes ahead of a new EP due later this year.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Troye Sivan - WILD

Troye Sivan - WILD

South-African born Troye Sivan is to music, what Zoella is to writing: a hugely successful YouTube star on the brink of breaking into mainstream culture. So far he’s predominantly popular with only a certain demographic, but millions of followers can’t be wrong can they?

No, they most certainly are not. Ever since Troye released his first EP ‘TRYXE’ last year and its excellent single Happy Little Pill, it’s been clear that he’s set for pop stardom. ‘WILD’ only affirms this.

Warm synths, yearning melodies and poignant lyrics are the order of the day. But what makes this collection of songs special is the effortlessness and polish. Take lead single and title track WILD (don’t ask me why everything is in caps): it’s a track based on the initial rush of a relationship and the production follows suit, with a haze of synth pads, children chanting and a gradually escalating melody, but it’s all tinged with a sense of gloomy sadness. There’s a personal touch to the songwriting that makes it wholly relatable – and not just for teenage fans.

Follow-up song BITE (chill out Troye) is a menacing track that he wrote from fear of visiting his first gay club (“please don’t bite”); FOOLS (enough now) is an intoxicating whir of a track; THE QUIET (yes we get the idea Troye) begins gently enough with organ melodies, but soon expands into fizzing synths to match its core melancholic lyric “anything hurts less than the quiet”. Then there’s EASE (oh come on now) and DKLA (stop shouting, please) – the former featuring vocals from New Zealand’s brooding Broods, the latter featuring a rap from Tkay Maidza. Both continue the dark, gloomy aesthetic, although Troye is best on his own.

Yet these tracks also highlight the talents of other up-and-coming artists. Troye has worked with the likes of Allie X and Alex Hope on the songwriting, and with a full length album potentially on the way soon bringing opportunity to collaborate with more young musicians on the rise, he is slowly collating a musical army to take over your ears. Resistance is futile.


Listen: ‘WILD’ is available now. 

Thursday, 3 September 2015

The Weeknd - Beauty Behind The Madness

The Weeknd - Beauty Behind The Madness

The influence of The Weeknd cannot be underestimated over the last couple of years. There’s been a new wave of sad, emotional R&B songs - full of moody, futuristic synths, slow tempos and plaintive lyrics – coming from a range of artists and permeating the charts. That’s as much down to The Weeknd and his three mixtapes released in 2011, as it is the likes of Drake or Frank Ocean.

Except The Weeknd (a.k.a Abel Tesfaye) released his mixtapes for free, his music remaining largely underground until he was picked up by Universal in 2012, who subsequently re-released them in the album ‘Trilogy’. 2013’s follow up ‘Kiss Land’ proved an awkward major label debut, his edgy sound smoothed and polished as he dipped his toes into the waters of more chart-friendly material. That’s a trajectory that only continues with ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’, an album that feels a little uncomfortable despite flashes of brilliance.

Since ‘Kiss Land’, Tesfaye has thrown himself into the world of pop: he featured on Ariana Grande’s Love Me Harder, as well as two film soundtracks (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and 50 Shades of Grey). ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’, accordingly, sees Tesfaye working with a number of popular collaborators. Losers includes additional vocals from Labrinth, whilst Dark Times features Ed Sheeran, and Prisoner features Lana Del Rey. Tell Your Friends, meanwhile, is pure Kanye West and is crying out for a rap verse. No doubt Tesfaye is soon destined to become a household name, especially as his music is best suited to his own yearning, cooing falsetto rather than the voices of others.

The album is actually at its best when pop is wholeheartedly embraced, providing some development in Tesfaye’s sound as he warps familiar R&B tropes. Earned It will be familiar to anyone who’s seen 50 Shades (so, the whole population), but better still As You Are is a twist on typical slow jams, Can’t Feel My Face sees him tackling dance music (resulting in one of the tracks of the year and, fittingly, the only track without an 'explicit' marking) and In The Night is a shuffling, bubbling slice of synth-pop. These tracks simply aren’t what you’d expect from this artist and offer an enjoyable surprise - it’s fitting that the latter two were produced by Max Martin, pop’s great hitmaker. ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’ is a far more positive collection of songs than Tesfaye has ever released; as his A&R recently stated in an interview, “Sometimes humans feel good and want to dance, and so does Abel”.

Yet despite this positive stylistic movement, Tesfaye continues to cling desperately to his past. The triptych of Often, The Hills and Acquainted sound all too familiar – menacing synths, trap-influenced beats – that simply don’t match the creativity of his past material (namely ‘House of Balloons’). His newfound popularity has long since polished the edge from his sound and, as Can’t Feel My Face proves, it’s time he accepted this and moved on.

The same goes for his lyrics. His unique brand of gritty x-rated storytelling laced with sex, drugs and misogyny found an obvious home in the moody noir sounds of his earliest work. Here, he continues to sing this narrative (as on Tell Your Friends: “I’m that nigga with the hair, singing ‘bout popping pills, fucking bitches, living life so trill”), but it feels at odds with his new pop aesthetic. Clearly there remains a tension in his music between hip-hop, R&B and pop, yet rather than pushing genre boundaries, ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’ feels too confused to be coherent.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Can't Feel My Face
* In The Night
* As You Are

Listen: 'Beauty Behind The Madness' is available now.

Hatched 'n' Dispatched @ The Park Theatre

Hatched 'n' Dispatched @ The Park Theatre

For many theatrical productions, the key draw is its cast. That’s certainly the case for Hatched 'n' Dispatched, with performances from Coronation Street’s Wendi Peters & Vicky Binns, as well as popstar and X Factor graduate Diana Vickers.

It’s fitting that soapstars lead the cast. Written by Gemma Page and Michael Kirk, this is kitchen-sink drama that’s brimming with problematic characters, as a not-so-happy family is brought together when they host both a christening and funeral on the same day (hence the title). The domesticated Madeleine and her infantile husband Oliver are struggling to have a baby. The ditzy, tottering Susan, meanwhile, is pregnant and believes the father may be a black gentleman. The aggressive Kenny is molly coddled by his overbearing mother Dorothy, putting stress on his marriage to the headstrong, flirtatious Corinne. And Dorothy’s husband Teddy has been having an affair with her sister Irene, whose husband Arthur has just died. Keeping up? It certainly gives Corrie a run for its money.

Set in 1950s Derbyshire, Hatched 'n' Dispatched has been created through Kirk’s observations of living up north (of Watford) and provides a snapshot of life at the time. Its themes revolve predominantly around a clash of generations. At the head of the family is dominant matriarch Dorothy: patronising and manipulative. Part doting mother and part strict school teacher, she favours the harsh masculinity of her son (who in turn despises his father in a clear Oedipal relationship) over the meek domesticated femininity of her daughter. In her values she is a relic of war time Britain – a woman taking control, whilst remaining uptight and submissive to the constraints of patriarchal society. By contrast, the younger females openly discuss sex (with a black man no less), pregnancy and their favourite popstars like giggling teenagers. The men are largely side-lined – it’s the women who head up this family. And you wouldn’t want to mess with them.

Hatched 'n' Dispatched, then, is very much a period piece that captures the essence of post-war Britain. As a narrative, though, it plays out exactly as you’d expect. The familial structure and characterisation is typical of this form of kitchen sink drama, with a lead matriarchal figure who is eventually overruled by the younger generation – see Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County (and the film adaptation with Meryl Streep) for a recent example of how this plays out. Yet by setting the play in the 50s, it feels archaic, old fashioned, staid. The second half takes a sudden dark turn as events unravel, and it’s here the play reaches an appropriate climax whilst settling into a familiar formula. It’s certainly well written, with authentic dialogue, high tension and layers of dramatic irony, and it’s frequently amusing, although much of its bawdy humour and most dramatic moments come off a little cheap (the sweary climax particularly).

Again, it’s fitting that soapstars lead the cast. Peters’ Dorothy is a truly tyrannical figure, the sort of character you love and loathe in equal measure. She delivers a powerhouse performance that’s frustrating to watch for all the right reasons – imagine having Imelda Staunton’s Dolores Umbridge as your mother and you get the idea. Matthew Fraser Holland’s Oliver proves to be her highly amusing foil, whilst Danielle Flett’s Corrine is an easy character to root for, and Vickers offers a likeable performance as Susan. Hatched 'n' Dispatched may be formulaic, but it still provides a satisfying and enjoyable drama that plays on our voyeuristic tendencies – you can’t help but watch.


Watch: Hatched N Dispatched runs at the Park Theatre until 26th September.

Hatched 'n' Dispatched @ The Park Theatre
Photo: Philip Lyons

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

McQueen @ Theatre Royal Haymarket

McQueen @ Theatre Royal Haymarket

Now sadly closed, the V&A’s ‘Savage Beauty’ exhibition of designer Alexander McQueen was the best way of experiencing his work this summer. It explored his taste for the macabre, the fantastical, the controversial, the theatrical, and the dark twisted influences beneath each exquisitely created piece of clothing. In essence, it explored the man behind the dresses.

McQueen has little of this “savage beauty”: little of his fetishising of darkness, nor anything particularly beautiful. Instead this is a cold and lifeless piece that lacks theatricality and drama.

At times it is a brilliant, multi-media production. Visited by the ghostly, girlish Dahlia (Carly Bawden), the play presents a dreamlike snapshot of the designer’s life, as McQueen (Stephen Wight) promises to make Dahlia a dress and takes her on a journey that involves his likeable mentor Mr Hitchcock (Michael Bertenshaw), a nosy journalist (in this instance understudy Abby Cassidy), and motherly fashion diva Isabella Blow (Tracy-Ann Oberman) with whom he has a weird Oedipal relationship. In the process he is forced to explore his talents and question his mortality. This dream world is haunted by mannequin models come to life, who construct each set piece, catwalk around the stage and stare almost threateningly at the protagonist. Some excellent lighting (David Howe) and video design (Timothy Bird) provide mood and atmosphere.

Yet James Phillips’ script meanders laboriously from the pretentious and poetic, to clunky narrative devices. As such, the pacing drags and the set pieces lack the flair or theatricality McQueen was known for. It’s also riddled with clichés. For one, the whole concept of being haunted by a ghost to question one’s life is hackneyed and lacks creative implementation. The character of Dahlia herself is an irritating, internet-obsessive - it's difficult to see why she would become McQueen's muse. And at times the use of music is laughable. Sure, all of the songs chosen were used in his fashion shows, but here pairing the character’s final epiphany with Handel’s Zadok The Priest is farcical and trite, whilst that same composer’s Sarabande fails to inject a sense of grandeur into the production.

In a cast of (perhaps intentionally, yet ludicrously) overacting cartoonish characters, Wight offers a convincing, naturalistic performance as McQueen. One moment all Cockney swagger and the next aggressive, his McQueen is subtly tormented and plagued by fidgety mannerisms.

Yet tormented by what? Who is this man behind the designer? By the end of the play, we’ve endured flouncing artistry without truly exploring the core of the character, the essence of McQueen. It’s for this reason the play feels so lifeless, like the mannequins littered around the stage. Its predominant symbolism is that of “the dress”: not just a piece of clothing, but a physical representation of the woman who wears it. Ironically enough, this play is just a play; a high street frock masquerading as couture.


Watch: McQueen runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 7th November.

McQueen @ Theatre Royal Haymarket
Photo: Specular