Wednesday, 19 April 2017
Remember when Bruno Mars used to be a cute doo-woppy popstar? "I'd catch a grenade for you." Aww thanks Bruno. "You're amazing just the way you are." Oh stop it, you're making me blush.
Now though, he stands onstage and orders his fans to "activate your sexy". He wants us to throw our Versace on the floor and "kiss 'till we're naked". He invites our asses to his condo to "pop it for a pimp...turn around and drop it for a pimp". And he sings an ode to the larger lady ("Girl, you better have your hair weave strapped on tight, 'cause once we get going, we rolling") with the word "CHUNKY" emblazoned on the screens behind him. Don't like it? Then you should "loosen them shoulders up...throw some perm on your attitude...you gotta lay it back...band, show her how to lay it back".
With third album '24k Magic', Bruno Mars has fully transformed from popstar next door to utter sleazebag. He may see himself as a ladies' man, but his lyrics come off as misogynistic as he sings vapid songs about sex and nothingness. The title track is the album's best, but does anyone have a clue what it's even about?
Sadly it's songs from '24k Magic' that make up the majority of the setlist for this world tour. Sparks fly, the stage is enveloped in bright colours, and the band bring plenty of energy as they frantically jump about the stage in an attempt to generate some interest. But nothing can elevate these songs, the seedy lyrics, or the constant crotch thrusting.
What's almost more offensive, though, is the complete lack of originality. For these songs, Mars has basically ripped off the 90s - Boyz II Men, Run DMC and everything in between. The smooth sex jams, the funk basslines, the chiming synths, the vocal harmonies. There's even a whole skit where he phones one of his countless (probably) female admirers for some sexy time. For the most part, it's laughable pastiche.
Mars is certainly a showman and he knows how to work an audience. His voice glides impressively to upper registers (accompanied by awesome backing singers) as he shows off some fancy footwork and oozes cool. Yet for all his showmanship, his act is 50% mediocre Michael Jackson impression and 50% Prince tribute, complete with purple lighting and average guitar playing. He's not a patch on either of the 24k idols he so desperately apes - he's bronze at best.
Towards the end, he eventually cracks out some of the older tracks: Grenade, Runaway Baby, Marry You and Locked Out Of Heaven. Noticeably it's these that get the audience on their feet, Uptown Funk most of all. They're fun and frivolous, suitable for the decidedly mixed audience of both teenage girls and middle-aged women.
Mars does try and claw back some credibility with an impassioned rendition of When I Was Your Man, seemingly close to tears. But with sexy well and truly activated, it's impossible to take this sincerity seriously - you can't be the player and the victim all at once.
Monday, 17 April 2017
Shit-faced Shakespeare is gimmick theatre, but the company throw themselves so whole-heartedly into it that you can't help but be swept along by its raucous entertainment.
As the bombastic voice-over introduction suggests, this is the X Factor of theatre: big, loud, Saturday night theatre that's watered down for the masses. Though there's nothing watery about the drinks. As the introduction continues, the rules are explained: the cast will attempt a wholly serious production (currently Much Ado About Nothing) but one of the actors is shit-faced, wasted, paralytically drunk.
That the production is shown in a comedy venue is fitting - this is an irreverent take on Shakespeare that's far more comedy show than it is serious theatre. Even less surprising is the success the company has had at fringe festivals across the country. At just over an hour long, it's a short burst of silliness that still leaves you time for a night of Woo Woos at the local Revs bar.
That said, the comedy is as polished as it is anarchic, presented by a cast of very capable actors. Whilst the text has been drastically cut, the verse is spoken well and the narrative (just about) stays intact. Yet plenty of modernisms slip through, largely owing to some improvisation around missed or - let's say - amended lines by the drunken actor, in this instance Rob Smythson as Claudio. Swearing and sexual innuendo ensue, but the cast mostly keep a straight face and cleverly interweave new lines with the actual script - Louise Lee's Leonata has a particular talent for this. Comic timing is excellent ensuring plenty of guffaws from the audience, whilst the use of traditional costumes and string versions of current pop songs only add to the anachronistic humour.
I do wonder how much of the comedy is staged, though. With eight years of similar productions, surely some jokes are repeated and some drunkenness is exaggerated. I usually end up asleep in a corner when drunk, never mind performing on-stage, but that probably says more about me than these performers. With such talent, it would be a joy to watch them in a serious production without gimmicks.
Yet they've found a successful niche, turning a sometimes impenetrable playwright into popular entertainment. Shit-faced Shakespeare is a rollicking time - and probably more so if you're shit-faced yourself.
Watch: Shit-faced Shakespeare runs at the Leicester Square Theatre until 16th September.
Friday, 14 April 2017
It was over a year ago that Dua Lipa was longlisted for the BBC Sound of award, and even longer since the release of debut single New Love back in 2015. A handful of songs later and here she is headlining the O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire before her debut album is even out. Welcome to the music industry 2017 - thanks streaming.
It's a feat even the star herself is surprised by, noting "I can't believe I'm doing a show like this before my album is released". It's as impressive a career move as it is frustrating for fans, who have been eagerly awaiting a full album while her label and management continue to push individual tracks up the streaming charts.
It also made this something of a strange gig, full of cheering fans familiar with only 60% of the setlist. It was essentially album promo before its release in June, giving these fans a taster of what's to come.
And what's that? More of the same: big pop hooks, dance beats, and a rich vocal that shows even more hints of her Albanian heritage in the sinuous melodies. "Let's keep this party going," she ordered enthusiastically, the fans expertly singing along to new music. That's as much down to the familiarity of her sound as it is well-written and catchy hooks. The self-titled album is certainly set to be a key pop release this year.
Still, you can't shake the fact we've heard the best already. But bangers like Hotter Than Hell and Blow Your Mind (Mwah) sound as good live as they do recorded, bold and loud pop tracks that deserved higher chart performance. And stripped back guitar versions of Thinkin' Bout You and New Love allowed for some sentimentality amongst the synths.
Surprisingly, though, it was Scared To Be Lonely, her duet with Dutch DJ Martin Garrix, that had the biggest reaction from the crowd, whilst a snippet of No Lies (on which she features with Sean Paul) had a similar response. These might be two of her biggest hits chart-wise, but a rousing finale of Be The One proved she can certainly command the stage alone.
It'll be interesting to see how the debut album performs in the chart considering it's predominantly a collection of singles we've already heard. Yet this gig was a resoundingly positive moment in Dua's career that demonstrated beyond doubt that she's proper pop star material.
Listen: 'Dua Lipa' is released on June 2nd.
Tuesday, 11 April 2017
Funny story: my dad once went to a party back in the 90s and was asked what music should be put on. His reply, in an attempt to look cool: "put some of that Jammyrocky on".
He was referring, of course, to space-pop acid-jazz sensation Jamiroquai, famous for hits like Cosmic Girl and Virtual Insanity as well as a penchant for headdresses (the name, incidentally, is a mix of "jam" and "Iroquai", a native American tribe). Dad was right - the band were pretty cool back in the day. But after changes in their sound, changes in record label and some unsuccessful releases, Jay Kay and co. seemed destined to remain a relic of the past.
As is typical of fashion, though, what was once cool tends to come back around. After the likes of Daft Punk, Justin Timberlake, Pharrell and DJ Todd Terje updated disco for 21st century tastes, Jamiroquai now return with a new album, 'Automaton'. It's something of a consolidation of their sound that sounds as fresh now as it ever did, all funk guitars, robotic synths and jazz-like lurches in harmony.
Opener Shake It On sets the tone with its space burbles and processed guitars, punctuated by smooth vocal harmonies and strings. Jay Kay's voice remains as instantly recognisable as ever and there's even a keytar solo. It really is the acid jazz of the early 90s as seen through the rose-tinted filter of today. The title track and lead single shifts into newer territory, its weird belching verses sounding like a robot vomiting before unfurling in a glittering chorus. This is Jamiroquai at their most daring, experimental and modern.
If the title track is representative of the rise of artificial intelligence that inspired the album, the remains of the album is slick, polished disco-funk that hits at the core of humanity: dancing. "I'm walking on air," claims Jay Kay on Cloud 9, whilst on Superfresh he asks "can I get another dance with you?" and on Something About You he feels "like dancin', takin' chances". From the shimmering Summer Girl to the cool midnight air of Dr Buzz, the stuttering jazz bass of We Can Do It to the metallic whirrs of Hot Property, Jamiroquai take us on a cosmic journey through their past highs into another galaxy.
You won't find the sort of pop hooks you remember from their heyday, but it barely matters. 'Automaton' is a complete world of irresistible dance rhythms and alien sounds that looks forward as much as it looks back - just like that new neon headdress. Free from previous label constraints and the high expectations of the pop charts, this is Jamiroquai revelling in exuberant joy. It's simple but it's fun.
But what does Jammyrocky's biggest fan have to say? Dad?
"It's the sort of disco they put on in a club at half time when everybody has tired of dancing and gone to the bar for a drink."
Oh. Please, somebody stop him before he starts a blog or something.
* Hot Property
* Dr Buzz
Listen: 'Automaton' is out now.
Wednesday, 5 April 2017
I’d love to know what Dominic Cavendish would think of this all-female version of Laura Wade’s Posh after his recent comments concerning the National Theatre's Twelfth Night starring Tamsin Greig.
Gender swapping roles is certainly in fashion at the moment, but with good reason. It’s something of a protest against the lack of female roles in theatre, but it’s also an experiment to see what extra this casting can bring to a text. In this instance, however, whether the female casting really adds something to the production or if it’s just following trends is up for debate.
Yes, the debate is about equality and opportunity. Yes, it’s about female actors being offered more substantial, typically ‘male’ roles. Yes, we may have a female Prime Minister (alongside other female political leaders), which is notable for such a political play. But I’m not sure if having women in the roles necessarily heightens the production in any meaningful way, beyond the initial shock factor of women acting in such a masculine (and disgraceful) manner.
Wade’s play centres on the male-only ‘Riot Club’ at Oxford University, a fictionalised version of the Bullingdon Club of which many of our recent political leaders have been members. They’re hosting one of their infamous dinners at a country pub, full of strange rituals, misogynist behaviour, and upper class pomposity at the expense of the working class (no pig heads were harmed here). Yet the play is an exploration of masculinity as much as it is white elitism and privilege. Here, the characters retain their male names and pronouns, but with women in the roles it feels too performative, a farcical parody of hyper-masculinity.
Perhaps this is the point – having women in these roles makes a mockery of masculinity. It certainly adds plentiful humour to the play. But it also lacks believability. If played straight, we would laugh at the absurdity of the situation yet be shocked at its potential realism. Here, the caricature performances are often played for laughs as we look down on these boys (they can hardly be considered men), but the play therefore lacks some bite and edge as a result. This is an alternate reality, not a bristling fictional recreation of our political climate.
One performance does stick out though: Serena Jennings as Alistair Ryle. She successfully finds a balance between mockery and believability, with a grounded performance that blurs the line between masculine and feminine. Spitting out soliloquies deriding “fucking poor people”, she is quite frankly terrifying. As the naïve Ed Montgomery, Verity Kirk offers a perfect comedic foil.
Elsewhere, the production has all the pros and cons of the original text: a cutting satire with a clever premise and often disturbing script, but a second half that moves too far into the fantastical with its ghostly apparition and cultish ending. Sara Perks’ revolving set spins us further and further into absurdity, whilst the music choices juxtapose classical grandeur with punk (Cherry Bomb by The Runaways is a particularly inspired choice). The use of slow motion and strobe lighting also ensure director Cressida Carré's production is a polished and stylish affair.
It’s debatable, then, whether Posh really transcends gender, but this production is certainly a thought-provoking and nonetheless enjoyable performance. It’s relevance is undeniable, if more for its views on women in theatre than for its politics.
Watch: Posh runs at the Pleasance Theatre London until 22nd April.
Images: Darren Bell
Wednesday, 29 March 2017
There's a parallel universe somewhere where Betty Who's debut album 'Take Me When You Go' got the recognition it deserves, where she's known as Betty Who and not Betty...Who?
As it stands, though, she's hovering in the pop niche, just on the verge of the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen, Robyn and Katy Perry. 'The Valley' should change that.
At first listen, it's a similar, fizzy-pop affair that does little to progress her sound from her debut. Buoyant funk rhythms, bright pop hooks and infectious production are in abundance, alongside simple lyrics that occasionally border on saccharine cliché.
But like those other artists, there's more going on here. The opening title track initially seems out of place - an a capella gospel ballad sung in a hushed, low register - but it sets up the heartbreak that simmers throughout the album. "I know that you don't love me anymore," she repeats at the start, layered with harmony. It's an arresting, nostalgic start, but we soon lurch into the bubbly, boisterous Some Kinda Wonderful. On its own, its an effervescent pop track, but after The Valley it feels more like a memory of a past love, tinged with subtle sadness.
From here, the album is a mix of fizzing positivity and upbeat sadness, though whether this is reminiscence or new love is ambiguous. Best of all is when these worlds collide: "when you hear our song at least pretend you're missing me" she pleads before her heart erupts into a neon drop that crackles and sputters angrily on Pretend You're Missing Me. Eventually Who does move on from past heartache with Make You Memories and Reunion, whilst penultimate track Beautiful rounds off the album with a self-empowerment 70s funk anthem that's pure joy.
Or maybe this narrative doesn't exist and 'The Valley' is simply a collection of great pop songs. The influence of other artists is clear and the lyrics are littered with references: Mama Say is Who's ode to Britney Spears, whilst Reunion has a nod to Adele ("I tried to call a thousand times but I'm so bad at apologising"). It even ends with her cover of I Love You Always Forever by Donna Lewis. The love songs and the heartbreak and the self-empowerment are your typical pop staples, but unoriginality be damned. They're done here with such confidence and polish it's impossible not to crack a smile.
* Some Kinda Wonderful
* Pretend You're Missing Me
Listen: 'The Valley' is out now.
Sunday, 26 March 2017
It was at Spaceworld 2001 that Nintendo first unveiled the cartoon style of their then latest Zelda game, The Wind Waker. It was quickly dubbed 'Celda' as the people bemoaned their precious series transforming into what they perceived to be a kid's game. In retrospect, however, Wind Waker was a mature piece of storytelling beneath its exterior.
Yet the Zelda series had always been a cartoon. 1992's SNES classic A Link To The Past is remembered as a hardcore adventure, but its art style was far from adult. Fast forward to 2013 when Nintendo released A Link Between Worlds for the 3DS, a game that takes the art of A Link To The Past and updates it for a modern audience.
The result is the kids aesthetic we always feared. Zelda, Link, Ganon et al look more cutesy than ever. There's a whimsical, fairytale feel but it lacks the distinction of the varying art styles of the home console games and instead feels bland and uninspired.
In combination with the twee and saccharine story, A Link Between Worlds feels like a Zelda game aimed at children. Link must traverse Hyrule and its dark parallel Lorule to save seven sages (given little introduction) who have been turned into paintings by the evil wizard Yuga. Link himself is disappointingly a characterless and silent cipher, while the remaining cast are given simple, clichéd dialogue. The game even prompts you to stop playing after a while to rest your eyes, like your mum would do when you were eight years old.
The kiddy image is intriguing when much of the game's appeal lies in nostalgia. A Link Between Worlds is a direct sequel to A Link To The Past, with the same art style, a world map and enemies that are practically identical, a story with similar beats and recognisable music. At times it does spark warm and fuzzy memories - a literal link to the past - but mostly it's disappointingly overfamiliar. On discovering a repeat of an infamously annoying boss at the top of one dungeon - that giant cross eyed bug thing *shudder* - I felt simultaneously comfort and despair.
Getting there, however, is a joy. That's because this Zelda features some of the most enjoyable dungeons in the series. Their names do repeat the past and often riff on familiar ideas - the multiple levels of the Tower of Hera; the rescue mechanic in Thieves Hideout; the exterior/interior dynamic of Skull Woods. And yet the designers have twisted the familiar. Each dungeon offers theme and variation, with clever puzzles just on the right side of tricky as you change water levels, manipulate columns of sand and use darkness to your advantage. I wasn't stumped for long in each relatively short dungeon but completing them was immensely satisfying.
The art may be childish but the use of 3D brought out the child in me. The world is like a little toy box to be played with and the 3D heightens the gameplay. This is to Zelda what Super Mario 3D World is to Mario, proving the worth of the console's 3D effects. Link falls to his death through the screen or leaps out of it before your eyes, and the puzzles make great use of this new depth. Enemies do too: the bosses often have an obvious weak spot (it's the eye!), but their imposing nature is enhanced by the 3D. And never have Floormasters been scarier, those creepy hands that hover over the screen before slamming down on top of you.
But it's perspective as a whole that the designers played with. The main twist for this game is Link's ability to turn into a 2D image to walk along walls, allowing for an extra layer to consider when solving puzzles. It adds up to an incredibly satisfying adventure with depth to its visuals as well as its gameplay. Rarely has a handheld game felt so immersive.
However, the game's attempts to shake up the Zelda formula are ironically flat, with changes to the structure that don't push the boundaries far enough. Dungeons can be completed in any order, creating a welcome freedom of progression, but instead of your weapons being discovered in the dungeons, they are rented from a cheeky chap in (what else?) a bunny suit. Die and you're forced to hand them back.
This is meant to add tension and allow for creativity in Link's equipment, though in execution this isn't a success. Each dungeon still focuses on one weapon which is usually signposted on entry. Is there really much difference between finding a weapon inside a dungeon rather than renting it beforehand? Rupees are spread liberally around the world, so soon you'll have enough cash to buy the weapons permanently instead, negating any fear of death. And rarely does the game reach the high difficulty of its predecessor. That'll keep the kids happy.
As Link traverses dark and light, 2D and 3D, Nintendo traversed old and new with A Link Between Worlds. The changes it brought weren't enough to refresh the series - fans would have to wait for Breath of the Wild for a true breath of fresh air. Yet as a fun and clever little puzzle-adventure game, A Link Between Worlds does the Zelda name proud.
Wednesday, 22 March 2017
Zara Larsson is quite the opinionated popstar. The Swede's Twitter and Instagram feeds are filled with feminism, swears, memes, cute selfies and a distinct lack of bullshit. Throw in the fact that the best pop music is made in Sweden and Larsson really is a cool, youthful popstar for our times. Her millions of social media followers would certainly agree.
How, then, is 'So Good' so average?
It's the sound of a winning personality and decent vocalist being sucked into a personality vacuum. If Larsson is the quintessential 2017 popstar, then this debut is something of a tick list of trends. I Would Like is the cheeky sex jam. So Good is a pop song in the Ariana Grande mould that's so breezy it simply wafts by uneventfully, with a Ty Dolla $ign rap to boot. Sundown taps into dancehall flavours. Ain't My Fault is standard R&B pop fare.
None of these are bad songs. Far from it - 'So Good' is full of solidly constructed pop with polished production. And with almost all the tracks ending around the three minute mark, they come and go easily enough. It makes for an enjoyable listen, but it's empty. What's missing is Larsson. Much of the album could be sung by any other generic singer and be no less enjoyable. Where's the wit and sass we've come to expect?
A few songs do capture Larsson's essence. Breakthrough hit Lush Life was one of 2016's best pop tracks, Larsson living life "the way I wanna" over buoyant rhythms. The sad-pop TG4M looks to Robyn's Dancing On My Own for inspiration. The raw vocal of Funeral mirrors a relationship being torn apart. And Never Forget You, released with MNEK, remains a banger. Yet when one of your best tracks was released two years ago, there's a problem.
These tracks hint at the popstar potential of Larsson. But it's ironic that it all ends with the brilliantly euphoric Symphony - a Clean Bandit track on which she features, released on the same day. The inevitable success of that track will likely overshadow this album, but Larsson deserves to be more than a featured artist. 'So Good' just doesn't quite cut it.
* Lush Life
Listen: 'So Good' is out now.
Sunday, 19 March 2017
Just last week theatre critic Lyn Gardner's column was cut from the Guardian website, one of many examples of cuts to arts funding from all sides in a time of political uncertainty, when really we need the arts more than ever. The Frogs, then, couldn't come at a more timely moment.
Based on a 405 BC comedy from Aristophanes freely adapted by Burt Shevelove and "even more freely adapted" by Nathan Lane with music from Stephen Sondheim, it's a musical that truly celebrates the arts and receives its UK premiere at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Set simultaneously in modern day and ancient Greece (yes that's correct), the narrative follows the god of drama and wine Dionysos (Michael Matus) and his slave Xanthias (George Rae) as they travel through the underworld to bring George Bernard Shaw (Martin Dickinson) back from the dead. Why? Because humanity will find solace in drama, saving the modern world from political strife (this modern version was written following the events of 9/11).
It's a singular political message that cleverly mirrors Aristophanes' work while updating it for a contemporary audience, filled with witty references to politics, musicals and culture. Each scene on the journey is a vignette that takes us deeper into the underworld, from a burly Herakles (Chris McGuigan), travelling aboard Charon's boat (Jonathan Wadey, having a lot of fun with the Johnny Depp meets Beetlejuice characterisation), a chorus of frightening frogs, through to a dominatrix Pluto (Emma Ralston). The show's climax is a wonderfully acted battle of words between Shaw and Shakespeare (Nigel Pilkington) to determine which playwright is most worthy to return to Earth. The theme of artists connecting across life and death adds a meta layer to the show that reflects the collaborative efforts of the writers and composer.
This may not be Sondheim's most original score, but it's enjoyable nonetheless. There are plenty of Sondheim-isms, from the wordy melodies (which the cast occasionally stumbled on) to the contrapuntal textures. There's more than a touch of Into the Woods here, while the frog chorus is suitably frightening and contrasts with some lush chorale singing.
Gregor Donnelly's set and costume design keeps things simple and modern with a few nods to Ancient Greece and director/producer Grace Wessels ensures this is a stylish and mostly polished production in the confines of the small theatre. It's certainly deserving of a larger space to fully-realise the imaginative scenes.
It's bookended, however, with scenes that directly address the audience. They may reflect Aristophanes and they may be entertaining, but they're also a little patronising and unnecessarily implore the message of the musical. It's important to ensure that art doesn't exist within a bubble, but The Frogs is essentially artists patting the backs of artists and it comes off as a little self-aggrandising. Yet with its layers of morality, philosophy and wit, it remains a deliciously intellectual production.
"Smile on us and bless our show", the cast sing to the audience in the opening number. Well I smiled plenty, so - for what it's worth - consider yourselves blessed.
Watch: The Frogs runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 8th April.
Photos: David Ovendon
Saturday, 11 March 2017
What's the difference between a mixtape and an album? Gone are the days of recording songs off the radio and on to a cassette to listen to later or impress a potential date. In hip-hop terms, a mixtape is generally an independently created and released recording, but nowadays it's pretty synonymous with the album. Except if it underperforms, well...it wasn't the "proper" album, right?
That's a shame because 'Number 1 Angel', Charli XCX's new mixtape, deserves to be considered a full album alongside 'True Romance' and 'Sucker'. This is more than just a stopgap until the next album. It marks a consolidation of her past records whilst looking to a new future.
Really, the mixtape label hints at the hip-hop influences on much of the record. The provocative cover alone drips with audacious, sexualised glamour, before opening track Dreamer sets a moody tone with its deep, booming synths, trap beats and rap-singing. Blame It On You, White Roses (a nod to Black Roses from her debut?) and Drugs all riff on the same sound, creating a structured sense of continuity and mirroring Aitchison's sexualised image. Features from Uffie, Abra and CupcakKe only add to the underground authenticity.
The darker sound also harks back to her debut and its gothic edge, but really 'Number 1 Angel' is packed with the pop hooks we've come to expect from Charli XCX. Babygirl fizzes with 80s glitter and juicy basslines, whilst ILY2 has a stomping rock vibe reminiscent of 'Sucker' that Sky Ferreira would be jealous of. Elsewhere, MØ - something of Aitchison's Danish equivalent - crops up on the buoyant 3AM (Pull Up), Roll With Me is full of vibrant, stabbing synths, and although Brit producer SOPHIE's influence (said to be involved in Aitchison's third album) is in much of this mixtape, it's most pronounced in the kinetic textures of closer Lipgloss.
Is 'Number 1 Angel' that third album in disguise, an album in mixtape clothing? It's clear that Charli XCX is an artist with a wealth of varied influences and a willingness to experiment. If this mixtape is just a quick release before the main event, it's deserving of a lot more fanfare.
Listen: 'Number 1 Angel' is out now.
Friday, 3 March 2017
Only Ed Sheeran could open an album with a grime track and end it with the soppiest of ballads.
In truth, all of his albums have been divided between opposing styles: the hip-hop influenced loop pedaller and the cheesy balladeer. Only now, on 'Divide', it's simply pronounced in the title. Predictably enough it's something of a mixed bag, an everyman singer serving everyone but lacking edge - a fitting metaphor for current British music from British music's biggest export in 2017.
For all the pomp of division, this album is remarkably safe. A handful of tracks may present a change of style, but really 'Divide' only nudges towards the boundaries of Sheeran's sound. That he can take varied genres and make them his own is impressive. That it still all sounds so familiar is a disappointment.
That's mostly true of the ballads, which merge social realism with a typical folk-tinge. Lead single Castle on the Hill set the tone here, merging reminiscence with U2 stadium guitars; later there's Supermarket Flowers, simple storytelling that's a clear ode to Sheeran's family. In between there's the likes of Dive, Perfect and How Would You Feel (Paean) - they're all nice enough songs, but as tearjerkers they're all so calculated towards the Adele demographic. Not even his raspy vocals can hide the schmaltz.
The exception is Happier, where Sheeran hits the jackpot of storytelling and Adele simplicity (even if it sounds a bit like Sam Smith). "Ain't nobody hurt you like I hurt you, but ain't nobody need you like I do," he sings in light falsetto over gentle guitar arpeggios, "baby you look happier, you do". It's a touching moment of acceptance that doesn't sound like he's trying too hard.
On the flip side are the uptempo tracks that borrow liberally from contemporary pop, sounding safely and inoffensively within current tastes. He spits rhymes on Eraser; he taps dancehall sounds on pop standout and other lead single Shape of You; he rap-sings verbosely over funk guitars on New Man, a song that could easily fit on any of his albums. This divider is a jack of all trades, but a master of none.
Yet we also get to hear Sheeran having some fun amongst all the tears and the relatability and the authenticity and the coolness. Galway Girl mixes rap with an Irish jig and some cheeky fiddle, something that makes a return on the folky Nancy Mulligan. Bibia Be Ye Ye is Sheeran's attempt at recreating Paul Simon's 'Graceland' album, inspired by his travels to Africa soon to be broadcast on Comic Relief. And Barcelona is just pure joy, with its infectious rhythms, whistling chorus and Spanish silliness in the final chorus.
It's on these tracks that Sheeran drops the authentic musician act, stops trying to sell records, stops trying to please everyone and just has fun. You get the impression that it's here we see the real Ed Sheeran.
* Shape of You
Listen: 'Divide' is out now.
Much has already been written about Taylor Swift's particular brand of feminism and popstar appeal. On the surface she seems genuine and relatable, singing songs of bullying and young love that immediately click with her young fans. But is this all narcissistic? When she connects directly with fans, is it only to boost her own image? Is it even possible to be simultaneously grounded and a flawless pop icon? And how does this star-fan relationship affect the psychology of her fans?
These themes are the focus of Swifties, a loose adaptation of Jean Genet's The Maids that sees two girls idolising Taylor Swift to the point of fetish. Whilst waiting at a meet and greet competition, the girls play out some strange fantasy where they get to become "Tay" - singing her songs, mimicking her style, and re-enacting her life. Yet this eventually devolves into a bizarre rape/murder fantasy involving Swift's (now ex-lover) Calvin Harris and a plot to kill Swift that inevitably goes wrong. The girls are highly unpredictable as they flit between sweet friendship and nastiness. Is this meant to reflect the sort of relationships young girls have with one another? And is this really the fault of Taylor Swift?
Between them, the girls represent two extremes of feminism. One seems brainwashed by the niceties of Swift's generosity and longs to be part of her "squad"; the other is more radical and violent in her approach.
Yet both come across as immature and irritating, meaning what's meant to be a chilling and profound piece of theatre is just silliness. The cartoonish acting of Isabella Niloufar and Tanya Cubric - whether intentional or not - undermines any semblance of sincerity, whilst Tom Stenton's script clunkily steers the drama with the finesse of a GCSE drama improvisation. It leaves these two girls as wholly unlikable and the audience either amused or bemused by their psychological drama.
Two sweet young girls drawn to terrible things by their adoration of a popstar. They're a nightmare dressed like a daydream, but for all the play's lofty aspirations we're simply left with a blank space, baby.
Watch: Swifties runs at Theatre N16 until March 11th.
Photo: Luke Davies
Sunday, 26 February 2017
Plenty of popcorn films have a political agenda, but can they win Oscars?
Because Hidden Figures really is a popcorn film. It's frothy and polished, its characters and sets bathed in a sunny glow that'll leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside when it's finished.
It's a period piece about one of America's greatest triumphs - the Space Race, specifically the mission of John Glenn and the Friendship 7. It follows three women proving their worth to NASA as mathematicians, rising to positions of prominence in calculations, engineering and coding. It's about underdogs overcoming adversity; the power of the human mind versus machines; the importance of study and knowledge in forward thinking. It's a celebration not of the brave male astronauts who were the face of space travel, but the female minds behind them who showed their own kind of bravery.
It's script is full of amusement, largely from its three sassy, wise-cracking female leads. A jovial soul soundtrack accompanies moments of lightheartedness. And it's denouement is predictable yet sweet, tying up each loose end with every character receiving the positive recognition they deserve. There's no doubt it'll have you punching the air with glee by its conclusion.
Yet there's more to Hidden Figures than just female empowerment. Those women? They're African-American.
In the domestic world, they are each pillars of their community. Family women, successful women, religious women. Even at work they speak out of turn only when absolutely necessary. Yet it is absolutely necessary. All three women are repeatedly met with adversity for their gender and their race, yet they take it all with a polite, graceful smile before showing those men who's boss.
The film doesn't sugarcoat the treatment of black people in the 60s, but with such likeable protagonists we can't help but smile with glee at their eventual triumph. That's also testament to the strong performances from Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae who together make the film such a joy to watch and far more than just an Oscar box-ticking exercise.
The film is based on true events that deserve to be told regardless, but seeing three black women in positions of power at the helm of an Oscar nominated film in today's turbulent America is a strong political statement. Frothy and enjoyable as it is, Hidden Figures simultaneously delivers a hard-hitting and much needed message of equality and diversity.
Now pass me the popcorn.
Watch: Hidden Figures is out now.
Thursday, 23 February 2017
The Other Palace hasn't changed all that much since its days as the St James Theatre. Now owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber as part of his Really Useful Theatres group, his plan is to turn The Other Palace into a haven for new work, where writers and directors can test and refine - before, presumedly, a successful production will transfer to the bigger West End stages.
The Wild Party opens the new theatre and whilst it's not exactly a daring choice in line with this new agenda - it's an established musical whose Broadway debut was nominated for a number of Tony's back in 2000 - it's certainly a provocative production. Directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie, it's a show that drips with sex appeal, its slinky cast writhing across the stage on just the right side of hedonistic debauchery.
Based on the 1928 narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March (and not to be confused with the Andrew Lippa penned musical of the same name based on the same source material), it depicts a particularly wild night hosted by vaudeville performers Queenie (Frances Ruffelle) and Burrs (John Owen-Jones). Theirs is a fiery love/hate relationship of lust, infidelity and violence. Throw in some bathtub gin, cocaine, and thirteen sexually liberal guests and carnage is bound to ensue.
The musical is artfully constructed as a series of individual vaudeville sketches, LaChiusa's music pastiching a variety of jazz styles with a modern twist and plenty of dissonance and chromaticism to match the sexual characterisation. There's even a certain air of Sondheim with its storytelling through music, spoken word rhythms and overlapping vocal lines. Each vignette recounts the personal tales of the fascinatingly dark characters, touching on sexual promiscuity, drug abuse, violence and paedophilia. Together they don't quite add up to an overarching, convincing narrative.
That's because the plot's success rests on the love triangle at the centre of it all between Queenie, Burrs and party guest Black (Simon Thomas) who comes as the date of Queenie's friend Kate (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt). Yet despite some show-stopping numbers from Owen-Jones as Burrs, this triangle is predictable and fails to compel. It's the periphery characters who prove the more intriguing.
They include some delicious performances. Hamilton-Barritt is on fiery form here, her gritty vocals whipping up a storm. Gloria Obianyo and Genesis Lynca are eminently watchable as the D'Armano brothers, forever in sync with their cool stylish movements, whilst Melanie Bright is an ethereal presence as the drug-addled Sally and Donna McKechnie owns the stage as the fading Dolores Montoya.
McOnie's direction just about keeps control of the often frantic chaos, with plenty of small touches on the periphery of the action as well as delivering an overall stylish and polished production. It's a strong start for The Other Palace - let's hope the wildness continues.
Watch: The Wild Party runs until 1st April.
Photos: Scott Rylander
With its opening number setting the scene, it’s a celebration of rural Yorkshire: bunting, tea drinking, village fetes, hill walking, and community. Originally performed as a play back in 2009, this new musical version – with score from Gary Barlow and lyrics from Tim Firth – premiered in 2015 at the Grand Theatre Leeds and clearly captured the minds of its local audience. It’s all as quaint and cheerful and unashamedly British as the 2003 Calendar Girls film on which this production is based (inspired by true events).
In a sleepy village, a group of W.I. women put together a (tasteful!) nude calendar to raise charity money after the death of a husband to cancer. In the process, they confound expectations of the W.I., the village, and women themselves. Here are a group of middle-aged women emancipated, standing up to the stern matriarchy of the W.I. and dragging it into the modern age.
Except, little about this production feels modern – from its small-scale set, to its simple score, to its politics. Success in regional theatre doesn’t necessarily equate to West End success and it’s questionable how relevant this production is to a London audience. In a post-Brexit world, an all-white, all-straight cast stuck in a time warp feels out of touch with modern tastes.
Yet there’s charm aplenty in this production, one filled with universal truths no matter what region you live in. The plot revolves around Joanna Riding’s Annie as she struggles with grief when her husband John (James Gaddas) dies of cancer. Her numbers prove to be the most emotive, Barlow’s simple music highlighting the little, quiet moments of this kitchen sink drama. There’s huge tragedy in something as straightforward as a visit to the supermarket alone, Riding delivering a potently poignant performance. Claire Moore also offers some belting vocals as Chris, whilst Claire Machin (Cora), Michele Dotrice (Jessie), Sophie-Louise Dann (Celia) and Debbie Chazen (Ruth) all amuse in their respective roles. These are real women with real problems serving female empowerment – a triumph of storytelling. And as the show seamlessly builds towards its inevitable naked climax, these women should be commended for their bravery in baring all for the audience.
Barlow’s score isn’t always up to much, the melodies following the rhythms of everyday speech but without much of a hook. The pop arrangements are simple and enjoyable enough, but lack the depth or complexity needed to really make a musical statement. And that’s a reflection of the show as a whole: a gently pleasant evening that will warm the heart but won’t challenge the mind.
Watch: The Girls runs until July 2017.
Photos: Matt Crockett
Tuesday, 21 February 2017
Victoria Palace Theatre
November 2017 - June 2018
This is the big one, the one we're all waiting for. Since its Broadway transfer in 2015, Lin-Manuel Miranda's rap musical has won 11 Tony awards and is seemingly forever sold out. In October this year, the production comes to the West End with a brand new cast and produced by Cameron Mackintosh. It's set to be the biggest hit of the year - not long now to "Wait For It".
Angels in America
April - August
Andrew Garfield, Russell Tovey and Nathan Lane star in this revival of Tony Kushner's multi-award winning two-part play at the National Theatre. If the cast isn't enough for you, its frank exploration of sex and relationships during the AIDS crisis of '80s New York should prove the importance and continued relevancy of this seminal play.
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane
March - July
This revival of the classic musical will be replacing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at Drury Lane. Directed by Mark Bramble and with new choreography from Randy Skinner, it's set to be a faithful production of familiar tunes and tap dancing wizardry. It stars Sheena Easton in the lead role, amongst a cast of 50!
Don Juan in Soho
March - June
Don Juan in Soho marks the return of David Tennant to the West End stage as the titular hedonistic lothario. Patrick Marber's take on the character is a dark comedy set in modern day London, here directed by Marber himself with design by the award winning Anna Fleischle. It's bound to be sexy as hell.
Now - June
If you're yet to see Showstopper! then get yourself to the theatre immediately. An Edinburgh Festival favourite, the cast improvise a full musical based on suggestions from the audience on story, style and characters. It's a marvel to watch, hysterically funny, and different every time!
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Old Vic Theatre
February - April
Tom Stoppard's comedy celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and features in Matthew Warchus' second season at the Old Vic following Kevin Spacey. Starring Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire, the play follows the events of Hamlet from a whole new and hilarious angle
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Now - May 2018
Speaking of Harry Potter, Cursed Child is still the hottest ticket on the West End. With its clever continuation of the franchise, dazzling technical effects and gripping time-travelling narrative, this is pure theatrical magic.
January - April
Based on Tim Firth's 2003 film Calendar Girls, Gary Barlow's musical is finally hitting the West End this spring after his success on Broadway with Finding Neverland. The film charmingly depicts a group of W.I. ladies who strip off for a charity calendar shoot - this musical is set to follow suit with a new score from Barlow.
On The Town
Regent's Park Open Air Theatre
May - July
Leonard Bernstein's hit musical that isn't West Side Story comes to the wonderful Regent's Park Open Air Theatre this summer, depicting three sailors visiting New York and falling in love. Directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie, whose credits include In The Heights and last year's Jesus Christ Superstar, the visuals should match Bernstein's brilliant score for the feelgood hit of the summer.
The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia?
Theatre Royal Haymarket
March - June
Another West End returnee this year is Damien Lewis, starring in Edward Albee's The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia. It's a bizarre play about the effects of sexual secrets on a troubled family, but with Lewis in the lead role and a score from none other than Mercury Prize winning rock artist PJ Harvey, this could be the most intriguing piece of theatre of the year.
This post is sponsored by TheatreTickets.uk, click here to buy West End theatre tickets.
Sunday, 19 February 2017
"My eyes don't shed tears but boy they ball when I'm thinkin' 'bout you," sang Frank Ocean on Thinkin Bout You from his 2012 album 'Channel Orange'. It was a watershed moment. Here was a young black man - a hip hop artist in an aggressively straight world - not only showing emotion, but showing emotion for another man.
Now, with the Oscar-nominated Moonlight, cinema has caught up. It's an exploration of African-American masculinity, following the life of Chiron from youth to adulthood (the connotations of his name from Greek mythology are surely no coincidence). In many ways, his life feels like a cinematic cliché: he's so shy he's practically mute, he's bullied at school, his mother is a drug addict, and with no father he lacks a male role model. Yet this sort of life is tragically commonplace in current day America.
Things pick up when the young Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert), known as 'Little', by chance meets Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan is a sympathetic figure, straddling the harsh world of drug dealing and a comfortable home life with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Together they provide Chiron with something his mother (Naomie Harris) could never provide: safety, comfort, acceptance.
As he grows up, Chiron struggles to dictate his own path as he navigates the alternate worlds Juan so effortlessly balances. He eventually ends up serving a prison sentence before becoming a drug dealer, but was this inevitable with such a selfish, emotionally abusive mother? Were Juan and Teresa powerless to stop this downfall?
It's telling that the film is divided into three sections for each of Chiron's identities: Little, Chiron and Black. No matter which identity he chooses - the shy child, the explorative teenager, the mask of an aggressive thug - he remains the same person underneath. His experiences shape him, but they do not dictate his identity.
That is the key message of this film: to be a man is to accept your identity, your flaws, your decisions and take responsibility for your life, no matter what your background. You can cry and still be a man. You can show vulnerability and still be a man. You can love and support your mother and still be a man. You can be gay and still be a man.
Barry Jenkins directs with tenderness and delicacy, the camera lingering on his subject questioningly but without judgement. Orchestral strings take the place of diagetic hip-hop - the soundtrack fittingly subverting masculine expectations - but mostly it's overwhelming silence that reflects the amount of noise inside Chiron's head.
The performances are indeed Oscar-worthy, in particular Ali's touching portrayal of Juan that's equal parts hard and soft, and Harris' frightening performance as Chiron's mother that's far removed from the Miss Moneypenny we know from Bond. And the three actors playing Chiron - Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes - do a remarkable job between them of depicting a single, confused man in crisis.
And to think, this film has been released in such a tumultuous time in US history. Crumbling relations between the black community and the police. The shooting at Orlando's gay nightclub Pulse. The country's first black president leaving office for...whatever Trump is. Even the #oscarssowhite debacle and the snubbing of black artists at music awards. Black identity, masculinity and homosexuality are in crisis and Moonlight encapsulates all this and more. It is the most Oscar-worthy film of the lot. An awards snub would be painfully ironic.
Watch: Moonlight is out now.
Saturday, 18 February 2017
Some friends of mine recently got a pet dog. Cute and cuddly as he may be, it's not easy looking after an animal. He runs wild, he barks, he's far from toilet trained, and he speaks about as much human as I speak dog. Training takes time and patience but the results are rewarding.
Video games have long had a fascination with pets, but The Last Guardian, from the mastermind behind Ico and Shadow of the Colossus Fumito Ueda, is the new standard. It brings together the best of those two games - the unique pairing and 'escape the castle' theme of Ico and the grand creatures of Shadow of the Colossus - and tasks a young boy with befriending a strange beast known as Trico.
Kitty looks majestic
This isn't just a squiggly polygon whose virtual poop needs cleaning up, nor a bouncing puppy whose fluffy face needs stroking with a stylus. Trico is a mythical amalgam of cat, dog and bird, but he feels like a real beast, one that needs regular feeding, petting and training. The animation and AI combine for one of the most expressive and emotive virtual characters yet seen: the way his mournful eyes follow the boy's movements, his howling when they become separated, his gleeful bounding upon reaching an open space, his little wiggle as he prepares to leap.
More so, it's the warm and charming bond between the beast and the boy that makes The Last Guardian so compelling, cleverly expressed through animation alone. They are, unexpectedly, dependant on one other. The boy feeds the beast special barrels of goop, removes spears to heal his wounds, and bravely leads the way when Trico is tentative to proceed. In turn, the beast can destroy the mechanical armoured enemies that litter the environment and can leap to new areas with the boy clinging on to his feathery back. The game's opening wonderfully portrays the wariness of these two characters around one another; by the end their relationship is symbiotic, their fates forever intertwined.
Kitty needs petting
Around this concept, SIE Japan Studio have built a beautiful environmental puzzle game, with imposing constructions to be navigated in a surreal world of crumbling ruins drenched in stark sunlight. It's a marvel of stone and green, mist and bright light, towering ruins and rustling leaves. Stylistically it is breathtaking, even if at times it shows its PS3 heritage.
However, the game does frustrate when it remembers it's a game and not just a pet simulator. The sense of weight and momentum add to the realism of the animation, but the controls are imprecise and too often lead to death. The game's camera is also utterly untameable, struggling to balance confined spaces with Trico's might.
Kitty runs free
And while Trico is a wild animal, puzzle solving is often stalled by his lack of understanding commands. It's a double-edged sword: what makes him feel real results in gameplay that doesn't run smoothly. Similarly, the boy is helpless to defeat enemies alone meaning much of the game is taken out of the hands of the player - an irritating decision that nevertheless forges a dependancy on the beast.
Hints are sometimes overstated, but on the whole the game has the same minimalist presentation that you'd expect from Ueda. On the one hand its narrative is intriguingly ambiguous, on the other it's bafflingly obtuse, sometimes illogical and requires plenty of trial and error.
Kitty got stuck
Yet the game's weaknesses are also its greatest strengths. The minimalist presentation and reliance on Trico's intelligence are stylistic choices that lend the game its enchanting sense of character, its poetry, its raison d'être. Just like a real pet, the boy affectionately strokes Trico's nose as the beast nuzzles against him and all is forgiven.
Wednesday, 15 February 2017
If there's one thing music reality TV has taught us, it's that audiences like to be surprised. When an unlikely superstar walks on to the audition stage, or when the judges turn to see a figure that's disconnected from the voice: a young girl singing mature opera, a boy with a smouldering timbre, or more typically a rags to riches story of the lower class singer with the impeccable voice. That's TV for you.
That sort of shock value is, initially, the appeal of Rag'n'Bone Man, an artist who appears to defy expectations. With his impressive beard and penchant for tattoos, you might expect him to be fronting a 00s nu metal band. But here he is singing pop-soul with a loud vocal that soars and crackles.
Strip away the aesthetic, however, and you're left with little more than the next Emeli Sandé or Sam Smith: nice voice, bland songs. It's fitting then that, like them, Rag N Bone Man has won this year's BRITs Critics' Choice award and is being touted as 2017's one to watch.
It's certainly a nice enough voice, as heard on the a capella Die Easy that sounds more like a negro spiritual. Indeed, there's a real mix of old and new on Human - best of all the Motown twist of Arrow and its earworm chorus, or lead single Human with its pulsating electronic bassline and gospel harmonies.
Elsewhere, though, this breakthrough album is unimaginative, unoriginal and unworthy of your time. It's as if this great voice has been discovered but neither the singer nor the label know what to do with it. The flimsy, nondescript songs simply do not do the voice justice, whilst the horn heavy soul production is nothing we haven't already heard countless times before.
Nice voice, bland songs and far from the best music 2017 will have to offer.
* Die Easy
Listen: 'Human' is out now.