Friday 31 August 2018

Fun Home @ The Young Vic

Fun Home @ The Young Vic

The beautiful Fun Home might not be the musical we deserve, but it's the musical we need. In many ways it serves as a powerful warning to promote the importance of mental health, in the LGBT community especially.

This is the musical's first appearance in the UK since winning five Tony Awards on Broadway when it opened in 2015. With music from Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics from Lisa Kron, it's based on a graphic novel from Alison Bechdel that explores both her own sexuality and that of her father who tragically commits suicide.

The narrative is presented as a series of fragmented memories, the adult Alison (Kaisa Hammarlund) looking back on her life to answer the questions around her father's death. The show's central theme is that of grief, Alison searching through faded memories to create a comic strip of her relationship with her father as a method of coping. That she draws comics is significant - not only in a reference to Bechdel's graphic novel, but in that they often use humour to cover a deeply serious message.

Fun Home, as the title suggests, does the same. Up-tempo songs and moments of sweet comedy cover up what is a dysfunctional family. Gradually the narrative layers with tension as we await the inevitable crushing conclusion where this family life comes crumbling down.

It's also the parallel story of two people coming out - Alison and her father Bruce (Zubin Varla) - and the differences in how they cope. Alison's story is told in three parts: as an adult, a child (Harriet Turnbull/Brooke Haynes) and as a teen in college (Eleanor Kane). We see her development from innocence and naivety, to wise cynicism with clear consistency of character. It's Kane's depiction, though, that's most compelling, initial insecurity making way for the sheer glee of finding herself before the shocking revelation of her father's sexuality drags her down.

Bruce's coming out is far more painful. Here is a man who absolutely struggles with his sense of self, closeted and only exploring his sexuality in the seediness of night. More so, he overcompensates through his busy work and interests in art, imposing his views upon his daughter and living vicariously through her. He is somewhat painted as a typically troubled homosexual with shades of paedophilia, but the focus is the relationship with his daughter, equally fractured and loving. There are parallels and dissonances between them at all stages in Alison's life, early stages filled with small touches that cleverly only make sense later on.

There's also the devastating subplot of Helen Bechdel (Jenna Russell), Bruce's wife who knows full well that he's a homosexual but is powerless to change her life. Her warning to Alison about her father - a scene of crushing honesty when he himself is incapable - is perhaps the most heart-wrenching moment in a show that's full of them, owing to Russell's subtle and relatable performance.

Tesori's music is perhaps a little unremarkable. The contemporary chamber music score is full of catchy upbeat tunes and gently mournful string and clarinet melodies, but its purpose is always to serve the intimacy of the drama and not to stop the show. In that sense, the music is very much woven into the fabric of the narrative, songs used as inner monologues.

That's important in a show about mental health. In some ways, it reflects a cheery side to tragedy, but the writing is exceptionally relatable. There's the rush of thoughts with the excitement of coming out. There's the pleading to speak when no words will come. And there's the sensitivity to stop words altogether when they seem impossible, feelings left unspoken.

There are so many layers to the domestic drama of Fun Home. It is an outstanding musical of human empathy, tugging on the heart strings in the most earnest, raw way. You cannot fail to be touched.

5/5

Watch: Fun Home runs at The Young Vic theatre until 1st September.

Fun Home @ The Young Vic

Saturday 25 August 2018

New Music Friday 24/08

Disclosure - Funky Sensation (feat. Gwen McCrae)

Disclosure - Funky Sensation (feat. Gwen McCrae)

All week dance duo Disclosure have been releasing a track a day, putting their own spin on some classics. Funky Sensation twists Gwen McCrae's 1981 disco original by ramping up the tempo, chopping up the funk and injecting a new level of cool.

Worth a listen.



Jason Derulo & David Guetta - Goodbye (feat. Nicki Minaj & Willy William)

 Jason Derulo & David Guetta - Goodbye (feat. Nicki Minaj & Willy William)

Guetta has just announced the release of his seventh album next month and it's called, imaginatively, '7'. To celebrate there's a new track featuring Jason Derulo, Nicki Minaj and Willy William rapping and singing along to Sara Brightman and Andrea Bocelli's Time To Say Goodbye. It is bizarre to say the least...

Don't bother.



Bring Me The Horizon - MANTRA

Bring Me The Horizon - MANTRA

The Sheffield rock band have released this new single just in time for Reading & Leeds Festival this weekend - they're doing a secret set for those looking at the line-up. Expect this track to sound pretty awesome cranked up to full volume: it's the band's hardest sounding track, but it's no less catchy and melodic.

Worth a listen.



Kiiara - Gloe

Kiiara - Gloe

Breakout hit Gold - with its stark, Lord-esque production - is still Kiiara's best known work. But this year she's already released the catchy Messy and with Gloe she's leaning towards the darkly seductive. "I'ma swallow all these diamonds, never spit 'em out," she sings in the chorus, "thinkin' 'bout how, how you taste now." Written by Natalia Kills, it's a heady concoction of lip-smacking sexual fetish and trap production delivered with breathless fervour.

Worth a listen.



Nick Jonas vs Robin Schulz - Right Now

Nick Jonas vs Robin Schulz - Right Now

Pop music doesn't get more basic than this. Male singer struggling to find his own sound meets generic EDM producer. That Eurodance chorus is kind of catchy, but nobody will remember it in a few months time.

Worth a listen.



Thursday 23 August 2018

Ariana Grande - Sweetener

Ariana Grande - Sweetener

'Sweetener' is one of, if not the most anticipated pop album of the year. This is the latest (fourth) album from pop's newest diva and the comeback of Grande after the devastating terrorist attack that took place at her concert in Manchester in 2017.

That anticipation has been spurred on by the unquestionably brilliant lead single no tears left to cry, a euphoric pop track that epitomises the need to lose yourself in music in the face of adversity. "I'm lovin', I'm livin', I'm pickin' it up," she repeats breathlessly over synth stabs and a playful, skipping beat. It's the perfect message to her young fans, especially those affected by Manchester.

And yet, the end product of 'Sweetener' is almost crushingly disappointing. Where each of her previous albums has seen her grow as an artist, here she takes the lead on songwriting but stagnates sonically, pushing into a more futuristic direction yet holding on to the same old collaborators.

Opening track raindrops (an angel cried) is a beautiful a capella opening that immediately showcases Grande's sumptuous vocals. It's taken from a song written by Bob Gaudio and performed by the Four Seasons - a song she apparently had in her head one day in the studio. And it sums up much of 'Sweetener': a beautifully sung insight into Grande as an artist that nevertheless relies too much on others.

While the production - predominantly from the Swedish team of Max Martin and Ilya Salmanzadeh - is impeccably polished, the album as a whole feels lazy. Melodies are monotonous and half-rapped, failing to make the most of Grande's voice. Pharrell Williams crops up on boring second track blazed - an obvious choice of collaborator who fails to excite, and whose minimalist, funk R&B informs multiple tracks. Later there's goodnight n go that's heavily inspired by Imogen Heap's song of the same name, a sweet ode to a favourite artist that's too indebted to the original.

The inclusion of Williams is one of a handful of half-arsed features. Nicki Minaj arrives for yet another duet on the light is coming for one quick forgettable verse that's swept aside by the incessant beat. And Missy Elliott is similarly wasted on borderline with a stuttering rap that's totally phoned in.

That's not to say there isn't some intelligent pop here. Aside from no tears left to cry, God is a woman is a real highlight: a feminist sex anthem that blends trap, gospel and celestial harmonies into one heavenly, sensual mix. On the addictive everytime she juxtaposes Drake-inspired production with cutesy lyrics of love like "something out of Shakespeare" that has her weak "like a teenager"; it's followed by breathin that seems to have literally lifted the beat from Drake's Hold On, We're Going Home but soars with its keytar solo in the middle eight.

The title track, meanwhile, is a sugary confection full of eye-rolling double entendres like "I like the way you lick the bowl", while the equally syrupy successful sees her reflecting on how it feels to be "so young and have this fun and be successful." 'Sweetener' is at times a stunning pop album, but it's also formulaic and saccharine, just too inconsistent to leave a satisfying taste in the mouth. "I'm so successful," she notes with a knowing wink. Commercially, perhaps, but this album is far from her best work.

3/5

Gizzle's Choice:
* God is a woman
* everyime
* no tears left to cry

Listen: 'Sweetener' is out now.




Wednesday 15 August 2018

Onegin and Tatiana @ The Arcola Theatre


The idea of fiction and reality is a key theme of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Take for instance the moment Tatiana visits Onegin’s mansion and questions his character, an amalgam of literary heroes.

This newly devised piece from director Guido Martin-Brandis is based predominantly on Tchaikovsky’s opera, but like Onegin it is a fabrication of personas – here musical heroes. The plot is reduced to its central couple of Onegin and Tatiana, narrated in English by Joan Plunkett to drive the story with clarity for the audience. Musical pieces are then taken from both Tchaikovsky and a number of later composers – Mahler, Debussy, Strauss and Rachmaninov – which add depth to the characterisation and some musical variety. It is a well-constructed opera that offers Pushkin’s story in miniature: an intense and melodramatic portrayal of unrequited love between an arrogant dandy and a shy landowner’s daughter.

The production’s main gimmick, though, is that of projection. Director Martin-Brandis cites, in his programme notes, his interest in psychological projection – in particular positive projection where characters are upheld as a paragon of goodness in an almost spiritual manner. Here, this manifests as literal projection on the back wall to reflect the inner-psychology of the characters; the choice of composers, too, are direct contemporaries of Freud and Jung and were influenced by the psychologically suggestive poems and novels of the time.

The idea of projection is an intriguing one, but in practice it is an inelegant solution to surtitles. Three overhead projectors are utilised, with images, poetry and the libretto adding setting and literary context to the songs (sung in their varying native languages: Russian, German and French). This requires the narrator to frequently and distractingly switch the projectors on and off to, essentially, turn the page of the libretto. At times there are clever parallels drawn through the choice of images, and letters written by characters are blown up for all to see. That is, when they can be read – the projections are often too small for the full audience to view. A more polished production is required here to not only offer surtitles to the audience, but to really dig into the psychology of these characters as Martin-Brandis so keenly wishes to.

The musical choices are also predominantly solos as we follow the thoughts of each character. This is very much about the Romantic idea of individuals wrestling with their feelings as opposed to a couple drawn together through fierce chemistry, magnetic attraction and sexual desire. The climax of the piece is a duet where these feelings eventually spill out of their heads through their words, but the structure overall doesn’t allow for a development of their relationship.

But then, this is a more abstract portrayal of psychology than a true depiction of a passionate relationship – with some beautiful music to boot. There is fine dramatic singing here from both Isolde Roxby (Tatiana) and Nicolas Dwyer (Onegin), who expertly navigate a mixture of languages and composers to create consistent characterisation. Pianist Richard Hall is also excellent, ensuring this production is a delight to listen to.

3/5

Watch: Onegin and Tatiana was performed at the Arcola Theatre as part of the Grimeborn Opera Festival.

Onegin and Tatiana @ The Arcola Theatre

Onegin and Tatiana @ The Arcola Theatre

Saturday 11 August 2018

New Music Friday 10/08

Nina Nesbitt - Loyal To Me

Nina Nesbitt - Loyal To Me

Nesbitt has been slowly building up a collection of pop bops, miles away from her folky beginnings. Loyal To Me is the most pop of the lot, hailed as a return to the 90s with its staccato beats and guitar hooks. In reality, it's an above average Meghan Trainor song that's only top of NMF because it's an otherwise disappointing week.

Worth a listen.



Troye Sivan - Animal

Troye Sivan - Animal

Sivan's second album 'Bloom' is due out at the end of the month and the drip-feed release of singles is making the wait unbearable. Animal is an atmospheric jam - in his own words an "80s stadium love song" - that juxtaposes clipped beats and sparse production with the sexually charged chorus lyric "I am an animal with you." There are strong Frank Ocean vibes here too, suggesting 'Bloom' will comprise the full gamut of queer influences.

Add to playlist.



RAY BLK - Run Run

RAY BLK - Run Run

The lyrics of Run Run comprise real stories of London life, highlighting gun and knife crime in the capital. "Run, run if you wanna see the sun / We don't wanna lose another one," she sings in the chorus, though whether that's running for your life or from the police is ambiguous. All that over an addictive syncopated beat for a sound that's straddles underground and mainstream tastes.

Worth a listen.



Broods - Peach

Broods - Peach

The NZ sibling duo are back with a new song and a new sound. The synths and vocal ennui remain, but this is an altogether more buoyant, upbeat and positive single than the...well...brooding sound of their debut. They've now signed to Neon Gold/Atlantic, so we can perhaps expect a push for the mainstream - things are looking pretty peach indeed.

Worth a listen.



RÜFÜS DU SOL - Underwater

RÜFÜS DU SOL - Underwater

This is the sort of song you just get lost in. Fusing euphoric house and indie rock, the Sydney trio's new single pulses with liquid synths and driving beats that wash over and take control, held together by a lofty chant-like vocal sample. The group's new album is due out later this year and is definitely one to keep an ear out for.

Add to playlist.



Jake Shears - Clothes Off

Jake Shears - Clothes Off

This is taken from Shears' new album as a solo artist, though you'd be forgiven for assuming it's just another Scissor Sisters record. Squelching, scuzzy bass, funk guitars and that wild falsetto predominate, ensuring this slice of 70s throwback disco-glam will please fans of his previous material.

Worth a listen.



Cher - Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)

Cher - Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)

You can debate all you want whether certain soundtracks deserve to be in the album charts (goodbye 'The Greatest Showman'), but you cannot deny that Cher covering ABBA after her appearance in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is the campest most brilliant thing to happen. Ever.

Add to playlist.



Friday 3 August 2018

Broken Wings @ Theatre Royal Haymarket

Broken Wings @ Theatre Royal Haymarket

The work of Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese-American poet, is known for its themes of universal love. His poetic novel of 1912 Broken Wings may be set in Beirut and details the forbidden love between a poet and a young woman betrothed to another through arranged marriage, but his illustrative descriptions of romantic longing are relatable to us all. If Gibran is the Shakespeare of the Middle East, then Broken Wings is his Romeo and Juliet – a relatively simple love story that’s ripe for reinterpretation.

And yet, while Broken Wings has been adapted to the stage and screen before, this production from Nadim Naaman and Dad Al Fardan marks the first reworking as a musical. It also marks an original Middle Eastern musical performed on the West End, produced and performed by a majority Middle Eastern cast and crew, and for simply offering something different Broken Wings deserves to be seen.

Paralleling Gibran (and named after himself), the lead character is a poet who returns to his native Beirut after years abroad in America. There he rediscovers his home, reconnects with old friends, and meets Selma – the daughter of his father’s best friend who treats him as his own son. Gibran and Selma soon fall in love, but their love is forbidden once Selma is set to marry the seedy nephew of the local bishop.

The story itself, no doubt progressive at the time and particularly so for its feminist themes, feels a little rote today. Gibran, played by Nadim Naaman and Rob Houchen as both an older and younger man, is a typical brooding Romantic tied to his books (though both men sing in impressively rich tenors), while Irvine Iqbal’s evil Bishop Bulos Galib and Sami Lamine’s sleazy playboy Mansour Bey Galib feel like pantomime villains. As Selma, Nikita Johal displays the necessary fragility of a young woman caught between her desires and the duty of marriage, but her voice reveals great inner strength during the musical numbers. The remaining periphery cast are sadly underwritten and the lengthy plot eventually winds up at a predictable end.

What this adaptation does retain, though, is the strength of Gibran’s writing. The book brims with beautiful poetry that, along with Mira Abad’s simple yet effective set design and Nik Corrall’s costumes, depict turn of the century Beirut as a place of warmth and beauty yet held back by tradition.

Arguably, the adaptation is a little too strict with Gibran’s words. Each song is essentially a soliloquy with little repetition in its lyrics, denying the audience a hook to hold on to. The show is at its best during the full ensemble numbers led by Soophia Foroughi as Mother where we finally get a tune and some rousing singing – the impact is stunning. Elsewhere, Fardan and Naaman’s score is a beautiful mix of East meets West that’s overwhelmingly melancholic. Though performed on Western instruments, many of the melodies are distinctly Arabic with the hammered dulcimer the only Arabic instrument – more of this would have been welcome.

There’s no denying the heart of this production, but it is a melodramatic work of sweeping emotion and sentimentality, each song exhaustingly performed with head to the sky and arms aloft. It’s all too easy, though, to be swept up in that emotion, in the operatic grandeur of it all. It might be lacking a lightness of touch, but the story and the new music have a timeless and universal appeal that’s in-keeping with Gibran himself.

3/5

Watch: Broken Wings runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 4th August.


Broken Wings @ Theatre Royal Haymarket
 Photos: Marc Brenner

Thursday 2 August 2018

Riot Act @ The Kings Head Theatre


Riot Act @ The Kings Head Theatre

Sometimes, just being gay can feel like a riotous act. But in Alexis Gregory’s new verbatim play Riot Act, he details the lives of three queer heroes who were all, in their own way, revolutionary.

Gregory interviewed three men – Michael-Anthony Nozzi, Lavinia Co-op and Paul Burston – and has used their exact words (and, significantly, their real names) to tell their stories. Nozzi was present at the Stonewall riots of 1969 that led to the gay liberation movement. Lavinia was a radical drag queen throughout 1980s London. Burston was an AIDs activist in London in the 80s and 90s. Through each monologue, Gregory explores political themes, queer life, the relationships between queer men and women, and highlighting the importance of this pivotal era in queer history.

The stories themselves are fascinating. There’s Nozzi, still a teenager, visiting the Stonewall Inn for the first time and telling in detail the brutal, horrifying violence that occurred that night. There’s Lavinia’s nights in various clubs, providing politically charged entertainment when close friends succumbed to illness. And there’s Burston barricading roads in pursuit of justice. Gregory gives each storyteller a distinct personality, with mannerisms and nuance that capture the presumed exactness of the three men he interviewed.

Yet this is recounting more than creative storytelling. The speeches are word-for-word from the interviews; that includes little bits of conversational dialogue that certainly add personality and humour, but also suggest a lack of specificity for the theatre. The stories aren’t interlinked in any way, besides overarching themes, which does provide clarity of voice. But perhaps this material would make for a more interesting film documentary with the original men, as accomplished as Gregory’s performance surely is.

What does particularly come through is the generational gap between those gay men who lived through this time and the gay youth of today. The speeches suggest a complacency in young people, neglecting the history that allows us to be so liberated in 2018. That’s what makes these stories so vital: as entertaining and tragic as they are, these are the lives of three heroes whose contribution to history deserves to be heard.

3/5

Watch: Riot Act runs at the Kings Head Theatre as part of their Queer Season until 5th August.


Riot Act @ The Kings Head Theatre

Riot Act @ The Kings Head Theatre
Photos: Dawson James

Robyn - Missing U


It’s hard to believe this is actually here. Fans have been waiting eight years since the release of ‘Body Talk’ for more solo Robyn and then out of nowhere (leak aside) a new song has finally arrived. And boy was it worth the wait.

Not much has changed over eight years. Robyn is still crying in the club, now mourning the “empty space you left behind, now you’re not here with me”. It’s a sad banger, matching melancholic lyrics with thumping production that’s polished, crystalline, euphoric. It might be typical Robyn – and it’s a template that many have copied since – but nobody else makes music quite like this.

There are so many standout musical moments in Missing U. That synth fanfare at the start and deep bass rumble announcing her return. The way that cascade of synths drops in pitch at the song’s close adding a sense of weight and finality. Those warm synth pads in the verse that never resolve. The way the melody lifts yearningly with “there’s an empty space” that opens the chorus. How the extended second verse drifts off into thoughts and dreams, “thinking how it could been”, before dropping abruptly back into the chorus. The lengthy outro that slowly breaks down and fades into nothing. 

Lyrically, too, it’s so simple yet so effective. “Now your scent on my pillow’s faded,” she sings in the first verse, “at least you left me with something”: something personal and intimate, yet so intangible, so temporary. The raw simplicity of the chorus: “Now you’re not here with me…I miss you”. By the end, all that’s left is “this residue” – a smear, impermanent.

And then there’s that final “I miss you” after the second chorus, a half shout half sigh, exasperated, desperate, tragic. This is pop at its most sublime.