Saturday, 16 November 2019

Touching The Void @ Duke Of York's Theatre

Touching The Void @ Duke Of York's Theatre

How do you put a mountain on the stage? It's a colossal task and an integral part of this adaptation of Joe Simpson's 1988 book (also a documentary film, 2003). The answer is to put the mountain in your mind.

Chairs, tables and other pub paraphernalia are strewn across the stage. The proscenium arch becomes a climbing wall. Snow blows in from the side of the stage. An abstract scaffold quivers ominously above the actors, jagged and harsh. The sound design (Jon Nicholls) is all howls and pulses. And then the perspective suddenly shifts as chairs and actors alike are swept back into the void of the stage. It's your imagination that puts the pieces together, the mountain forming like a terrifying, sublime jigsaw.

So why the pub stuff? Well it's not just the mountain that's in our minds. The entire narrative takes place within the mind of Joe (Josh Williams), a climber who ventures up the never-before-done Siula Grande mountain in the Andes with his fellow mountaineer Simon (Angus Yellowlees). When Joe breaks his leg during the descent and is left dangling, Simon makes the dire decision to cut the rope.

In his catatonic, delirious state, Joe's mind takes him back to his favourite pub where he and Simon are joined by their camp mate Richard (Patrick McNamee) and his sister Sarah (Fiona Hampton). So the play takes place both on the mountainside and the imaginary safety of the Clachaig Inn. It's a clever way for adapter David Greig to present this story on stage, a story that pivots between beautiful and ugly: from imaginary vistas and powerful landscapes, to inconceivable pain both emotional and physical.

Even for anyone already familiar with the plot, the narrative gradually ramps up to high intensity, drawing us in towards its climactic choice that has us questioning what we would do in such a situation. The second half is an incredible story of human endurance and willpower, harrowing, visceral and life-affirming.

There's warmth too amongst all the ice. Williams gives a superb physical performance as Joe, full of anguish, but as Sarah, Hampton embodies big sister energy as she taunts and motivates him on his daring descent. She is our emotional anchor too as we relive the journey through her eyes. As Richard, McNamee provides some welcome comic relief, and a beautiful singing voice.

Touching The Void is an extraordinary real life story, and an extraordinary piece of theatre.

5/5

Watch: Touching The Void runs at the Duke of York's Theatre until 29th February.

Touching The Void @ Duke Of York's Theatre

Touching The Void @ Duke Of York's Theatre
Photos: Michael Wharley

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Reputation @ The Other Palace

Reputation @ The Other Palace

Reputation initially seems timely. In a post #MeToo world of feminism, it's a new musical from Alick Glass that depicts a woman whose work is plagiarised by a man. The young Michelle Grant (Maddy Banks) is tricked into submitting her work to influential film director Freddy Larceny (Jeremy Secomb), who promptly steals the plot. And so, the young woman must regain her work and her dignity.

It's ironic, then, that it's narrated by a man. Larceny's direct addresses to the audience bookend the narrative, returning at key moments to provide further insight. Perhaps this parallel was intentional, as Larceny literally takes over Michelle's story. But it robs the musical of any sort of feminist power.

The cast is dominated by women, yet it's men who control the narrative. There are plenty of cute songs for the chorus girls, but no amount of prissy dance numbers about shopping can give these materialistic women any depth. Michelle herself is a pathetic character who, rather than being a strong career woman taking matters into her own hands, relies on her father and a young male lawyer to bail her out - a lawyer who she promptly falls in love with, obviously. The musical may be set in the 1930s but its politics don't have to be.

It's not helped by Secomb playing Larceny like a pantomime villain. His creepy schtick as an older man manipulating a young woman is uncomfortable to watch - one audience member even booed him out loud.

As a whole, Glass' work is derivative. The narrative has all the hallmarks of a 1930s musical - a meet cute, a soppy love story, a diva jazz singer - and his score is typical and repetitive jazz stuff, reprising numbers and musical phrases. It lacks the grit the plot deserves and the 1930s Hollywood setting is missing the glamorous razzle dazzle you'd expect.

It's all held together by a capable cast. The chorus girls sing some lovely harmonies and Banks especially stands out for her pure, Disney voice. As love interest Archie, Ed Wade joins her with a pleasingly light tenor, despite the saccharine writing.

The cabaret setting of The Other Palace's studio space is under-utilised here. It's the kind of musical that's aiming for grand sets and dance numbers, but the story at its core is too weak.

2/5

Watch: Reputation runs at The Other Palace until 14th November.

Reputation @ The Other Palace
Photo: Donato

Friday, 25 October 2019

Beryl @ The Arcola Theatre

Beryl @ The Arcola Theatre

It's fitting that Beryl is playing at the Arcola theatre in Dalston, not far from Cafe Beryl's that similarly commemorates the cyclist. Yet for many, Beryl Burton is an unknown.

The opening of this play from Maxine Peake, first performed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2014, admits and laments this. That's why the play, quite literally, aims to answer the question: who was Beryl Burton?

What ensues is a straightforward biographical depiction of Beryl's life, from childhood to her death in 1996. In that time she won numerous championship medals and held countless records (though sadly no Olympic medals, as women's cycling was only included from 1984 onwards). In addition to her life, the play also gives a potted history of the sport.

Yet what the play makes abundantly clear is the hardship she went through for such success. A woman in a man's world (who went on to exceed men's records), she endured farmwork and slowly rose through the ranks to reach the dizzying championship heights. And all with a lack of finances, done to earn money to look after her family as both mother and competitor. The play isn't overtly political, but it is an inherently feminist narrative.

As you'd expect from Peake, the script is funny. Much of this comes from fourth wall breaking moments where the actors banter and address the audience directly. It adds excitement to an otherwise simple piece of storytelling and the cast of four give buoyant performances as multiple characters both on and off their bikes - thighs of steel doesn't begin to cut it. There are plenty of small directorial touches too from Marieke Audsley, resulting in a polished and openly theatrical production.

It all speeds along at a fast pace that perhaps doesn't go into too much detail, instead focusing on the central protagonist with a smattering of secondary caricatures. But this is low stakes theatre, ideal for the Fringe, that's pleasantly enjoyable.

Above all this is an uplifting and wholesome story of a woman's fiery determination to overcome adversity. Who is Beryl Burton? An inspiration. Now there's a play to truly cement her place in sporting history.

3/5

Watch: Beryl runs at the Arcola Theatre until 16th November.

Beryl @ The Arcola Theatre
Photo: Alex Brenner

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Mites @ The Tristan Bates Theatre

Mites @ The Tristan Bates Theatre

It seems fitting to watch Mites on Mental Health Awareness Day. Written by James Mannion, this is a surreal, absurdist play that delves deep into psychosis in a visceral portrayal.

It starts innocently enough. Ruth (Claire Marie Hall) has been left by her husband and, when a pest control man named Ken (George Howard) arrives, she believes he's actually her husband returned to her. Why pest control? Because her home has been infested with dust mites. Oh and there's also a talking cat named Bartholomew (Richard Henderson).

This is (mostly) a comedy, with a hard-hitting message simmering beneath the surface, just out of our reach. It slowly becomes more and more bizarre, peeling back Inception-like layers as we delve into the psychological mystery, eventually meeting a family of dust mites themselves. Cecilia Trono's dusty set design similarly unveils itself in parallel with the narrative.

It's all very confusing, but also well-paced to draw us in. And that confusion is purposeful - it puts us (literally) inside Ruth's head so that we are just as confused as she is. We too are unsure what is real and what is fantasy, what's the truth and what is simply occurring in her mind.

Eventually the layers build up to a more lucid state. Yet there's an element of misogyny added towards the end which makes for uncomfortable viewing as both Ruth's husband and a psychiatric doctor appear to manipulate her and take advantage of her. This then morphs into a feminist revenge tale that feels tacked on, as if Mannion felt the play needed explaining, when its cleverness lies in its ambiguity.

What makes Mites so compelling though are the committed performances from the cast. As Ruth, Hall is particularly enthralling - her distress is palpable, her mood swings endearing. Despite the craziness around her, she's a character we immediately warm to from start to finish.

3/5

Watch: Mites runs at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 26th October.

Mites @ The Tristan Bates Theatre
Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

Monday, 7 October 2019

Karaoke Play @ The Bunker Theatre

Karaoke Play @ The Bunker Theatre

What could be more British than karaoke in a pub? That's the setting for this state of the nation play written by Annie Jenkins and produced by pluck. productions.

The four-strong cast deliver four monologues to the sounds of cheap instrumental karaoke songs, each bravely stepping up to tell their story. It's a clever idea, monologue and song in parallel as if revealing the internal thoughts of each character. The stories gradually interlink with internal references and callbacks, slowly weaving a web and drawing us in.

Yet despite some comedic moments, Karaoke Play has an oppressive, dismal tone. Collectively, the stories touch on rape, drugs, terrorism and violence, all told through vulgar and overtly sexual language. This may be a comment on our modern society, but it lacks nuance and feels as if trying too hard to shock.

What's more, the narrative is ultimately circular but lacks drive and urgency, meandering through each story before ramping up to a crescendo of shouting and bad singing (likely on purpose, but still unpleasant). By the end, the play has established an apocalyptic tone that thoroughly depresses, but it's unclear what Jenkins is trying to say beyond this.

There's some strong acting on stage from Philip Honeywell as Darren and Lucy Bromilow as Perri, though their characters remain wholly unlikeable and lack humanity. Perhaps that too is a comment on present day Britain, but Jenkins' play leaves us cold.

2/5

Watch: Karaoke Play runs at the Bunker Theatre until 14th October.

Karaoke Play @ The Bunker Theatre
Photo: Michael Lindall

Monday, 23 September 2019

Midlife Cowboy @ Pleasance Theatre

Midlife Cowboy @ Pleasance Theatre

If country music is about dramatizing the mundane, then Midlife Cowboy is country and western through and through. Written by Radio 4 comedian Tony Hawks, this new musical yee-haws its way to the Pleasance Theatre, but not our hearts.

The narrative is as mundane as they come, concerning a handful of Swindon residents and their local country and western club. It's led by a middle-aged couple whose marriage is facing difficulties, through a lack of children and potential infidelity. And their upcoming gala night performance piles on additional stress as they seek for new members and wrestle with their (lack of) talent during rehearsals. Drama!

It’s like some white middle class fantasy; small scale drama in small town Britain. The drama feels stiff and forced, not aided by a lack of energy in the performances. And Hawks' script has an absence of jokes, with tired innuendo and punchlines that fall flat, despite being explained by the characters in case we didn’t get them the first time. Later, the drama relies on a gay twist that’s played for laughs – what could have been a chance to challenge preconceptions is missed in lazy humour.

There is some fun to be had here with the jaunty tunes and lighthearted plot. The songs may be derivative, but they’re catchy enough and well performed by the five-strong cast alternating between various instruments as well as taking lead vocals. A few too many repetitive ballads tend to drag the pacing, however, and the lack of microphones leaves both singers and musicians exposed. A bit of editing would've tightened up this sagging cowboy.

Though largely in support roles, Georgina Field brings plenty of character and zaniness to the role of Penny, and James Thackeray shows off some strong vocals as Dan. Mainly, though, there’s not enough of a reason to care about these people or their relationships, and it all predictably ties up neatly in the end. As fluffy entertainment – and it’s not trying to be anything more – it’s enjoyable enough. But this cowboy with confidence is too bland to have us line dancing home.

2/5

Watch: Midlife Cowboy runs at the Pleasance Theatre until 6th October.

Photo: Adam Trigg

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Big: The Musical @ The Dominion Theatre

Big: The Musical @ The Dominion Theatre

It's fitting that everything about Big: The Musical has been super-sized: the programme, the venue, the production value. But the show itself - and the star cast - don't live up to the billing.

Based on the 1988 film starring Tom Hanks, the show fits neatly into the current 80s revival trend, from Stranger Things to IT and more. It's wholesome fun, a coming-of-age film blown out of proportion - literally. A young boy wishes to be big, a wish granted by a mysterious carnival game, allowing a kid to live in an adult world and urge us all to embrace our inner child. It's as typically 80s as they come - indeed, why are all parents in 80s culture so irresponsible?

Except this musical is far too shallow and soulless to fully explore any themes, no matter how family-friendly. John Weidman's book has a distinct lack of jokes, and those that are there don't land; David Shire's music - broadway toe-tappers meet 80s synths - is largely forgettable; and Morgan Young's direction is far too static. A few numbers feature Young's choreography, but they too fail to excite.

The set design (Simon Higlett) impresses, with great use of the revolving stage and towering video screens (with design by Ian William Galloway). Yet in the cavernous space of the Dominion, all is lost. The drama is, ironically, small, as are the performances. In the lead role Jay McGuiness (of The Wanted and Strictly fame) has a soft crooning voice and is an athletic dancer, but he's not quite leading man material. As love interest Susan, Kimberley Walsh (of Girls Aloud and Strictly fame) offers shaky vocals and a one dimensional delivery that misses the (minimal) comic potential of the lines. Matthew Kelly and Wendi Peters also feature.

In this world, even the adults act like children, dressed though they are in drab grey office-wear. They're mostly out-acted and out-danced by the cast of actual children - as best friend Billy, Jobe Hart deserves praise. On the whole, though, there's a criminal lack of energy on stage. Not even a defibrillator could jolt some life into this show.

The one scene everyone expects is the floor piano number. And it's cute, with some nice chemistry between McGuiness and Kelly. But it's hardly the show-stopping moment in a musical in dire need of one. An overly long first half leads to a show that drags and lacks dynamic range in its music, singing or narrative.

We watch musicals for their heightened drama and theatrical magic. But here we have a flat reflection of boring adult life. This Big is too big for its boots.

2/5

Watch: Big: The Musical runs at the Dominion Theatre until November 2nd.

Big: The Musical @ The Dominion Theatre

Big: The Musical @ The Dominion Theatre
Photos: Alastair Muir

Friday, 13 September 2019

Amsterdam @ Orange Tree Theatre

Amsterdam @ Orange Tree Theatre

Nowadays Amsterdam is known as a city of liberalism, of a diverse ethnic population, a thriving LGBT community. But the city has a dark history from during WWII - after all, it was the home of Anne Frank.

It's this dichotomy that Maya Arad Yasur's Amsterdam tackles, directed by Matthew Xia - his first production as Artistic Director of Actors Touring Company (co-producing with Theatre Royal Plymouth). The play has two parallel narratives linked together by, of all things, a gas bill - a bill that's gone unpaid from the '40s until now. In that time we witness prejudice and xenophobia across the generations, the legacy of the war.

It's in the storytelling that Amsterdam is unique. Four performers address the audience directly as they narrate the story in short fragments and snippets. Occasionally they'll ring a bell to signal a footnote or translation of non-English words - initially fun but eventually tiresome. The result is a dizzying, virtuosic display of interlocking lines and thoughts.

Yasur includes plenty of dry humour in her writing and isn't afraid to reveal inner thoughts and questions we would never vocalise. Amsterdam is a juxtaposition of shock and entertainment. What's clever too is the lack of dialogue, meaning the central protagonist - an Israeli female Jewish immigrant, typically 'other' - is left without a voice.

Yet for such a human subject matter, it's hard to empathise with the characters. That's due to the idiosyncratic delivery that seems to highlight the play's technical structure more than emotion. The pace is relentless and the fragmented lines are disorientating, making the plot difficult to follow. The narrators argue over tiny details but, despite their clear delivery, the play lacks dynamic range and emotive potency.

Instead, Amsterdam is a web of wordplay that makes us think - a little too much - rather than feel. It resonates, though, not only with the city's own history but that of current day Europe.

3/5

Watch: Amsterdam runs at the Orange Tree Theatre until 12th October.

Amsterdam @ Orange Tree Theatre
Photo: Helen Murray

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

World's End @ The Kings Head Theatre


World's End @ The Kings Head Theatre

It’s funny how things can take you back. Films, music, food – they can all be indicative of a certain time and place. In World’s End, the debut play from writer James Corley, it’s the references to a video game that immediately transport me back to 1998 when the latest game in the Zelda series was released, taking me on an epic quest across a mysterious fantasy realm. The play may be set in that year with the political backdrop of the Kosovan war, but it’s the references to this game and the use of its music that set the scene for me more than anything.

Corley draws parallels with the game’s coming-of-age themes and his lead characters – two young men who explore their sexuality as they bond over Nintendo. But life isn’t as simple as saving the princess. Ben (Tom Milligan) is a nervous, fidgeting presence with a stammer, patronised by his overbearing mother Viv (Patricia Potter). Besnik (Mirlind Bega) has an equally overbearing father in Ylli (Nikolaos Brahimllari), who doesn’t agree with his son's Anglicised, homosexual behaviour and is passionately embittered about the war in his home country of Kosovo.

The game’s character travels through time from a child to an adult in order to save the world; equally Ben and Besnik are forced to grow up in a world fraught with adult dangers like war and homophobia. Yet the play takes place entirely in the two family’s flats, a safe haven away from the outside world. Video games offer an extra dimension and become an important element not only in forging relationships, but in providing escapism. Where gaming too often hits the news headlines as it's blamed for violence and gun crimes, Corley’s play offers a positive message – here, gaming is the very antithesis of war.

The Kosovan war is little more than a backdrop to Corley’s main focus: the family drama. As such, Besnik and Ylli feel a little underwritten compared to their British counterparts. But it’s the relationship between Ben and Viv that provides the play’s most tender moments. There’s a great dynamic range between the two actors as their frustrations at one another boil over into arguments, before settling into apologetic compassion, reflecting the very tangible difficulties of two people living together in a one bed flat and the push-pull tension of their inter-locking lives. Both Milligan and Potter are excellent in their respective roles: Milligan likeable as the stuttering Ben who’s not as naïve as his mother suspects, Potter devastating in the play’s final moments as she’s torn between her own moral views and allowing her son independence.

There’s no fairytale ending here, no magical Triforce to put the world right again. But sometimes, it takes a little fantasy for us to truly find ourselves.

4/5

Watch: World’s End runs at The Kings Head Theatre until 21st September.


Photo: Bettina Adela

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Fleabag @ Wyndham's Theatre

Fleabag @ Wyndham's Theatre

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag is hilarious. But then, you knew that already.

The chances are you've already watched both series of the TV show based on this very play. Rarely does a show strike such a chord with the zeitgeist, its asides, meme-worthy moments and "hot priest" burned into the public's collective conscience. Fleabag is a phenomenon, catapulting Waller-Bridge into the stratosphere.

This play, then, is a chance to see where it all began. Originally performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 2013, it was later adapted into the TV series we know and love and arrives in London's West End for a limited run (and its last, with Hollywood knocking at Waller-Bridge's door). It means that you already know what happens here if you've seen the first series: the guinea pig themed cafe, meeting her sister at feminist talks, increasingly extreme sexual encounters, et al.

It's certainly interesting to spot differences, to see how the play was later adapted to the screen. Its story beats and jokes arrive in a different order but they're just as funny despite already knowing the punchlines. And that story still hits hard, with its themes of dealing with our mistakes in life, feelings of loneliness and worthlessness, feminism, the difficulties of (London) life in your 30s.

The way the script weaves these themes together and creeps up on you with both humour and sensitivity is genius. As a one-woman show (just Waller-Bridge, a chair and a spotlight) it's like one long aside to the camera, a window into Fleabag's intriguing life: raw, candid, and brutally honest. And she has a remarkable ability to deliver bathos, building us up before sidelining us with an amusing quip.

Even with its beautiful pacing and cleverly conversational structure, Waller-Bridge doesn't even need to speak to make us laugh. She has one of those malleable faces where a simple eyebrow movement is enough to have the audience in stitches; in full force, her facial expressions, storytelling and idiosyncratic delivery make for a unique experience that'll have you guffawing and questioning your life choices in equal measure.

But then, you knew all of that already, right? To see it live, though, is such a treat.

5/5

Watch: Fleabag runs at the Wyndham's Theatre until 14th September.

Fleabag @ Wyndham's Theatre
Photo: Matt Humphreys

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Das Rheingold @ Arcola Theatre

Das Rheingold @ Arcola Theatre

Wagner's Das Rheingold, the first opera in his Ring Cycle, is an ambitious choice for this year's Grimeborn opera festival at the Arcola Theatre. His works are known for their extravagance: their lush orchestration, eccentric costumes and lavish sets. Yet the festival is an opportunity to see opera in a different light, in small venues with reduced casts and orchestras.

For some intimate operas this approach works, but for Wagner it eschews the composer's predilection for opulence. In this production, directed by Julia Burbach and designed by Bettina John, everything is paired back from the run time (just 100 minutes), to the staging and the orchestra. The result lacks some of the magic you'd expect.

The aim, it seems, is to bring out the human side of this drama - a potentially interesting take. Based heavily on German mythology (somewhat stolen from Norse mythology), it's a tale of gods and giants, maidens and golden treasure. Here that plays out as a contemporary class battle between the rich and poor, about how power corrupts. In a move similar to American Gods, these gods seemingly live among us as relatable people.

Yet with its simple black and white costumes and drab cardboard set, it all feels plain and unfinished, lacking that magical inventiveness you'd expect from such a story. The acting, meanwhile, retains a melodramatic flair more suited to a grand opera house. It's too much for such a small space, which bursts at the seams to contain the drama, the actors pacing constantly. There is no room to breathe.

What is impressive is the balance of the orchestra and the singers, conducted by Peter Selwyn. Though a little tentative and lacking in dynamic impact, the reduced orchestra makes a fine accompaniment to the singers. The vocal standard is mostly strong, though Marianne Vidal stands out as Fricka for her subtlety and control. Seth Carico is also likeable as the dwarf Alberich. But for all the production's melodrama, it lacks the required grandeur and emotive force to keep us engaged.

3/5

Watch: Das Rheingold runs at the Arcola Theatre as part of the Grimeborn Festival until 10th August.

Das Rheingold @ Arcola Theatre

Das Rheingold @ Arcola Theatre
Photos: Lidia Crisafulli

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Midsommar

Midsommar

There are times when, walking out of the cinema, you feel lost and confused. You have more questions than answers. You’re maybe even a little disturbed. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film.

Midsommar is that film. Ari Aster’s latest is a wonder to watch, yet deeply unsettling. I think I liked it.

It is, above all, a masterpiece in mood. Set in northern Sweden (though actually filmed in Budapest), it takes inspiration from the region’s lack of night during the summer. This is a meditative, hallucinatory film with a timeless quality. Where most horror films revel in darkness, here we have perpetual light. It’s strangely disorientating.

The narrative follows a group of American students who visit their friend’s family in Sweden for the summer. It turns out they’re part of an old cult who meet for festivities every 90 years. It begins innocently enough: a pastoral, bucolic vision of life, full of freshly harvested food, singing, dancing and community. It’s idyllic even. But things take a bizarre turn during the various rituals that become increasingly deranged. In the midst of this is Dani (Florence Pugh), suffering from anxiety after her bipolar sister commits suicide and murders her family in the process. All she has left is her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) who’s emotionally distant. Their relationship on the brink of collapse, the trip seems like a make or break opportunity.

The setup and pagan rituals will be familiar to many. What sets Aster’s film apart is his cinematography and use of sound. What’s so unsettling is how things seem so normal, yet there’s something not quite right either, setting the film off-kilter. It’s in the way the camera loops upside down as it follows the students’ car; or a flower slowly and subtly pulsing in a headdress; or framing that slightly obscures the action. It replicates the hallucinatory quality of the film, as trees and grass shimmer either from drug consumption or simply the heat of the constant sun. The music, too, is eerie: harmonious drones that slowly distort with dissonance.

The uneasy atmosphere is then punctuated by moments of graphic violence and/or sex. These are intended to shock, a tactic that seems somewhat cheap within such artful mood-setting. But they also lend the story some dramatic weight – and, in all honesty, the odd moment to chuckle at absurdity.

That’s all very well if there’s a strong narrative underpinning it all. But it’s here where Midsommar begins to slip through Aster’s grip. His film is fuelled by anxieties: grief, death, cheating, emasculation, perhaps even a fear of foreigners. Yet what it all means is left entirely ambiguous. Is this a film about the need for community, that, no matter how deranged and bizarre, we all need a family to belong to? Or is this a straightforward revenge tale about a perverse break-up, a woman finding release from her partner in the most eccentric manner? Or maybe I’ve missed the mark?

Aster’s folk horror is a pensive meditation on a muddle of themes, one that satisfies for its craft more than its narrative and sits just on the right side of pretentious. For some, its ambiguity is a void. For others, the guessing is half the fun.

3/5

Watch: Midsommar is out now.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole: The Musical @ The Ambassadors Theatre


The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole: The Musical @ The Ambassadors Theatre

As a character, Adrian Mole is something of a relic. He might be only 13¾, but he is absolutely a product of his time. His secret diary was written by Sue Townsend and published in 1982, filled with Thatcherite politics and British social satire. Thirty five years later, the novel has now been adapted into a musical. But the question is: is it still relevant?

The themes at the heart of the novel are, of course, universal. It follows a year in the life of Adrian, a precocious teen struggling with the usual trials and tribulations of growing up, his relationship with his parents, finding a girlfriend and measuring his privates (something the books became known for but aren’t mentioned much here). The issue, though, is with the presentation of this story.

The book and lyrics, from Jake Brunger, remain close to the novel. That means it’s full of 80s references, from celebrities like Pebble Mill and Princess Diana, to shops like Woolworths and C&A. Pippa Cleary’s music has an old fashioned charm that feels warm and familiar, if not particularly fresh. No matter how relatable Adrian may be as a character, the musical and its references will likely fly way over the heads of most young people who may visit the show.

If anything, this is a musical for an older generation who read the books growing up and are now looking for a nostalgia fix. It’s a particularly British narrative, with a royal wedding and nativity play on the positive side and old fashioned misogynistic political views on the negative. Even the 80s pop songs played during the interval slather on a thick layer of nostalgia. Equally, though, the focus on young performers, a colourful set (Tom Rogers) that resembles an oversized notepad and opens up like a toy box, and pop choreography (Rebecca Howell) give the show a youthful family-friendly feel that may not click with adults. Instead, this musical falls into an awkward middle ground between young and old that doesn’t fully satisfy either group – the sort of show your grandparents would take you to see for some dated yet wholesome entertainment.

That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable. There’s plenty of charm here, from the young cast of performers (Rufus Kampa as Adrian deserves special mention for leading the show), to the adults amusingly playing children, and the overall cartoonish characterisation. The jokes are plentiful and the direction is generally polished, even if this feels more suited to a touring production than a West End destination. What’s most engaging is the subplot relationship between Adrian’s parents, Pauline (Amy Ellen Richardson) and George (Andrew Langtree). This is the emotional heart of the show, with Richardson in particular giving an emotive vocal performance. Though, as a thirtysomething, perhaps real adult problems are more appealing than reminiscing about a youth spent with a ruler firmly in hand.

3/5

Watch: Adrian Mole: The Musical runs at the AmbassadorsTheatre until 28th September.


Adrian Mole: The Musical @ The Ambassadors Theatre

Adrian Mole: The Musical @ The Ambassadors Theatre

Photos: Pamela Raith

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Spider-Man: Far From Home

When you boil it down, every Spider-Man film has the same central themes: what it means to be a hero, how to take responsibility, and how to live up to a legacy. The rest is just smoke and mirrors.

That's pretty appropriate for this latest film in the franchise (more on Mysterio later). Following directly from Avengers: Endgame, the death of Iron Man/Tony Stark hangs heavy over the entire world. The question on everyone's lips: who will be his successor? And - ignoring Don Cheadle's War Machine, that kid who made a surprise appearance at Stark's funeral, or following the comics with a black female version of the character - Tom Holland's Spider-Man is the unlikely but apparently most fitting person.

Flipping that on its head too, the film is as much about who will take Stark's place as Peter Parker's father figure. The result is a filler film that's enjoyable on its own, but is more of a transition into the next phase of Marvel's cinematic universe.

One of those potential father figures is Jake Gyllenhaal's Mysterio. He's a warm and slightly eccentric presence who initially develops a kinship with Parker, but after a predictable twist is revealed to be the film's villain, a man using drones and projections to simulate an Avengers level threat from which he can save the day. That mix of reality and projection makes for some creative special effects and set pieces, but once you know it's smoke and mirrors the film loses some impact. The stakes are relatively low here, which does make for a refreshing change after such big event films.

It's also suitable for what is ultimately a teen drama. Parker just wants to enjoy his summer vacation and kiss the girl of his dreams, Zendaya's MJ. She makes for a droll, blasé yet endearing feminist who's far from a damsel in distress. Holland, meanwhile, is probably the best cinematic representation of Spider-Man: youthful, cheeky and likeable. Together they make a particularly modern and relatable pair of protagonists.

The plot is also an excuse to reveal what Americans think Europe is like. Not only is it full of a thousand years of history and monuments to be recklessly destroyed, but quirky people, funny languages and stereotypes, and it's small enough to travel great distances between countries in a matter of hours on a bus. Some of the inconsistencies are more laughable than the script.

Yet that's fitting for such a lighthearted piece of popcorn cinema. We may have lost some of the Avengers, but the Spider-Man plotline at least remains in good hands.

3/5

Watch: Spider-Man: Far From Home is out now.


Saturday, 6 July 2019

Mean Girls @ August Wilson Theatre, Broadway


Mean Girls @ August Wilson Theatre, Broadway

Teen films and musicals go hand in hand. So with its cult following and feminist message, it was almost inevitable that Tina Fey’s 2004 film Mean Girls would get the Broadway treatment. And it’s not alone: in 2018 Heathers: The Musical reached London (following an Off-Broadway run in 2014) and a new adaptation of Clueless premiered Off-Broadway late last year.

It’s Mean Girls, though, that’s reached the heights of Broadway, premiering in March 2018 and still going strong. Perhaps as the most recent film it’s clicked more with young theatregoers. But it’s also testament to Tina Fey’s writing that remains as snappy, funny and quotable as ever, even with a few small tweaks. That’s despite a plot of typical teen stuff: Cady Heron arrives as the new girl in school and infiltrates the cliquey “Plastics” who rule the hallways, to bring about their downfall.

In musical form, Mean Girls is camp fun. There remains a serious message beneath it all, teaching young women to support and respect one another. And that’s now been updated for the social media age – especially with Scott Pask’s scenic design that uses video screens for a modern, technological edge. Sometimes that message is lost amongst all the jokes and laughter, but the characters remain relatable.

Indeed, Mean Girls is a tour de force of character acting. Much of the characterisation has been exaggerated, but what the show loses in subtlety it gains in outlandish performances. As head of the Plastics and life ruiner Regina George, Taylor Louderman is the show’s queen bitch. She plays Regina as a femme fatale: fiercely sassy, manipulative and deadly. Vocally, too, she’s the strongest, showing off a dynamic range from gentle, sensual yearning to belting top notes. Grey Henson as the “too gay to function” Damien is also a delight, with the most quotable lines filled with musical and pop culture references.

Some parts have been expanded, but to the detriment of others compared with the film. Beyond a head full of secrets, Krystina Alabado makes Gretchen a more identifiable character with the ballad “What’s Wrong With Me?”, and Kate Rockwell’s Karen is lovable in her stupidity. Kyle Selig’s Aaron though barely sings, despite being a key part of the narrative, and as teacher Ms. Norbury Jennifer Simard’s role is much diminished from Tina Fey’s portrayal (though she doubles as other characters too). Then again, the show is really all about the Plastics, and when they're such a joy to watch in their delicious malevolence, who really cares?

As belly-achingly hilarious as the show is, if it has one flaw it’s Jeff Richmond's score. The individual numbers certainly emphasise each character, from Regina’s diva showstopper, to Damien’s tap number and Janis’ punk rock. But melodically the score isn’t the most memorable and the mix of Broadway styles doesn’t quite suit the youthful energy of the performances. That said, this is an incredibly slick production with exceptional singing from the entire cast and some brilliant dancing from the ensemble that adds colourful vibrancy.

It’s hardly the most serious show on Broadway, but sometimes some well-polished silliness is exactly what you want. The original film will likely be more enduring, but Mean Girls on Broadway is totally fetch – even if you’re not wearing pink.

4/5

Watch: Mean Girls runs at the August Wilson Theatre, Broadway, until March 2020.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Hamlet @ St. Paul's Church

Hamlet @ St. Paul's Church

Iris Theatre have built quite the reputation for their annual summer Shakespeare productions in the grounds of St. Paul's Church. Unfortunately, this latest Hamlet is a bit of a misfire though well-intentioned.

"Land of Hope and Glory" plays as we sit in the grounds of the church, imperial flags draped from the windows. This is a near-future dystopian vision of Britain, full of media, camera phones and surveillance. At one point it's even described as a "strong and stable nation". The women all wear bizarre caps or hoods, straight out of The Handmaid's Tale.

Counter to this conservatism is a queer counter-culture and it's here we meet the titular Hamlet, played by non-binary transgender actor Jenet Le Lacheur. It's an intriguing decision that sees the other characters misconstruing Hamlet's gender as madness, turning the character into even more of a misunderstood outcast. The characters all refer to Hamlet as he/him, except Horatio who uses feminine pronouns - he is her closest confidante, with hints of a more intimate relationship between them.

Yet while this is a clever play with gender, in some ways it's not taken far enough in the staging and direction. The monologues for instance, a key moment of self-reflection, don't obviously allude to the character's gender.

Equally though, the decision interferes with the narrative. If Hamlet's supposed madness stems from grief at their father's death, the addition of gender overcomplicates the central theme. Further, the relationship with Ophelia (Jenny Horsthuis) feels confused.

When the Tragedians arrive, they vogue in dressed as masked clowns in 90s rave gear, while images of the drag film Paris Is Burning play in the background. This feels misjudged and inauthentic, and while these are meant to be Hamlet's people, it aligns the character with a queer freak show at odds with the sensitivity of gender fluidity.

As Hamlet, Le Lacheur is an eccentric performer who revels in the comedy, but doesn't quite have the gravitas in the more emotive moments. Elsewhere the cast recite Shakespeare's verse well, but the sometimes frantic direction, mix of styles and ugly costumes don't quite mesh together.

2/5

Watch: Hamlet runs at St. Paul's Church until 27th July.

Hamlet @ St. Paul's Church

Hamlet @ St. Paul's Church

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Summer Rolls @ The Park Theatre


Summer Rolls @ The Park Theatre

Summer Rolls is a play of firsts: the first British-Vietnamese play to be staged in the UK and the debut play from actress Tuyen Do. Influenced by her British-Vietnamese roots, the play is a collision of East meets West that puts a new spin on the familiar.

In many ways, this is a kitchen sink drama, with its domestic setting and exploration of political ideas. But there’s a distinct Vietnamese twist. The plot follows the Nguyen family, refugee immigrants struggling to fit into British society. The Vietnam War haunts their past and colours their future. They long for a better life away from the grip of communism, yet cling to a sense of pride in their roots despite a traumatic past.

At the centre is daughter Mai (Anna Nguyen), struggling with her identity. She’s scolded by her mother when she speaks English though she struggles with Vietnamese; she’s forced to help with the family’s clothing business, though she’d rather be independent and spend time with her black British boyfriend David (Keon Martial-Philip) (something her racist parents disagree with). Nguyen’s performance encapsulates the character’s disorientation, flitting between two languages and the physicality of youthful subjugation and maturity.

The Vietnamese tropes may seem familiar, but here they’re presented with authenticity. Alongside family values, the importance of education and familial shame, there’s the conflict between the genders. The women moan and rant, yet are constantly working; the men are cool-headed negotiators given the privilege of play. That’s typified by Linh-Dan Pham as Mai’s mother, whose bitter tongue balances humour and authority. There are twists too about the family’s past, a son (Michael Phong Le) himself struggling to find a suitable career, and family friend Mr Dinh (David Lee-Jones) who seems to have some shady involvement.

There’s a lot going on, then, and in the first half especially the narrative sets up multiple story threads and themes that are not all fully explored. The second half focuses more clearly on Mai’s struggle to be her authentic self, though it skims through time too swiftly in an effort to wrap things up neatly.

Nicola Chang’s sound design captures both cultures in her evocative score and Do’s mix of languages, idioms and references in the script mirrors the cultural clash. This family saga is small in setting, vast in scope, and captivating to the end.

3/5

Watch: Summer Rolls runs at the Park Theatre until 13th July.



Summer Rolls @ The Park Theatre

Summer Rolls @ The Park Theatre
Photos: Danté Kim

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Pictures of Dorian Gray @ Jermyn Street Theatre

Pictures of Dorian Gray @ Jermyn Street Theatre

Oscar Wilde's timeless The Picture of Dorian Gray is often interpreted as social satire, a comment on the Victoria class system, or an obsession with image. But it's also something of a gothic horror novel. After all, it features a haunted, demonic painting and a protagonist who becomes increasingly psychologically deranged. And that's not to mention it's hedonistic underworld of homoeroticism.

It's that gothicism that director Tom Littler plays up in this production, Pictures of Dorian Gray, at the Jermyn Street Theatre. It's performed entirely in grand black costumes, the stage's black walls covered in what seem like white scratches. Moreover, there's a sense of mysticism to the cast of four: when not playing one of the leads, they creep and stalk around the stage repeating the script's most poetic lines with a heavy reverb effect, like a skulking greek chorus. It sounds almost comic, but it heightens the mystical, atmospheric qualities of the text.

Reduced to just 90 minutes by scriptwriter Lucy Shaw, this Dorian Gray hits all the key story beats, if a little too broadly. Similarly Littler's direction uses minimal stagecraft to great effect. Sure, the pool of water used to represent the painting may be a little on the nose for its self-reflection and the constant use of music feels a little too romantic. But it's overall a clear and evocative take on the story, though as a drama the pacing does drag.

The production's main conceit, though, is its gender-swapped cast. The 'pictures' of the title refers to the four configurations - on this occasion a female Dorian and Henry Wotton, with male Sybil Vane and Basil Hallward. On the one hand the gender-swapping highlights the universality of the story, while still retaining some of its homoerotic undertones. Yet neither does it add anything. A female Dorian is fine, but the production doesn't explore the differences in any meaningful way.

In the title role, Helen Reuben begins as youthful, arrogant, and somewhat petulant, becoming slowly more manipulative and evil over the course of the play. The rest of the cast give enjoyable performances, but whether the different configurations give fresh insight into the play...well you'll just have to watch it again.

3/5

Watch: Pictures of Dorian Gray runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 6th July.

Pictures of Dorian Gray @ Jermyn Street Theatre

Pictures of Dorian Gray @ Jermyn Street Theatre
Photos: S R Taylor Photography

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Afterglow @ Southwark Playhouse

Afterglow @ Southwark Playhouse

Afterglow really wants to shock. Written by S. Asher Gelman and arriving in London after a considerable run in New York, it aims to be a progressive look at homosexual (open) relationships. But it's more conventional than it purports.

The plot is fit for a postage stamp: married gay couple in open relationship shocker. One of them falls for the third guy, which consequently ruins their marriage - a conclusion that's obvious from the very beginning.

It's meant to be an open and raw portrayal of homosexual promiscuity, but the play seems to be grabbing attention for its nudity more than anything. Early on it seems each scene either begins or ends with sex and there's even an on-stage shower that's frequently used. It feels like titillation to draw in the crowds.

That's a shame because there are some interesting ideas weaved into the narrative. "Love is easy, relationships take work," notes one character. What exactly makes a meaningful relationship? How long should they last? Are humans (here, men specifically) capable of monogamy? These are worthy themes to be explored.

Yet Afterglow is let down by its characterisation that represents a glossy, attractive version of gay life. Josh (Sean Hart) and Alex (Danny Mahoney) are a married couple living in a sleek New York apartment (beautifully designed by Libby Todd). They're in the process of having a child. They're wealthy professionals. They have a hedonistic lifestyle of sex and champagne. Even third-wheeler Darius (Jesse Fox) isn't exactly living a bad life, despite struggling with rent. All three men wear designer underwear, when they're wearing any at all.

They're also young, typically attractive, fit, and white - an issue of casting more than script, though the actors do have great chemistry. They're blinded by their privilege. When one character claims "dating is hard" because he's "paralysed by the illusion of choice" it's hard to sympathise with such narcissism. Gelman's natural dialogue certainly fits the setting, but the only issue for these men is airing their, literal, dirty laundry.

It's all decidedly conservative. What would be more progressive would be diversity in its actors, their ethnicity and body shape. Or perhaps an ending in which polyamory does work, that doesn't rely on the hetero-normativity of marriage.

Instead, it leaves us questioning why we should even care for these self-absorbed characters. The narrative is ultimately boring, and no amount of nudity, shower sex or designer underwear can change that.

2/5

Watch: Afterglow runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 20th July.

Afterglow @ Southwark Playhouse

Afterglow @ Southwark Playhouse
Photos: Darren Bell

Saturday, 25 May 2019

Carly Rae Jepsen - Dedicated

Carly Rae Jepsen - Dedicated

'Emotion' began with a banger. You know it already: that blaring saxophone riff that launched into a thousand memes. From her humble beginnings on Canadian Idol, to one-hit-wonder, to cult idol and Queen Of...well...seemingly everything, Carly Rae Jepsen's career was set.

'Dedicated' is a more muted affair. Opener Julien is a mid-tempo 70s funk groove that's less immediately arresting than her past work, featuring haunting lyrics, crooning vocals, and subtly squelchy production. For an artist whose best work is truly iconic for certain corners of the internet, 'Dedicated' eschews all that, the vibrant pop colours of Cut To The Feeling, Run Away With Me, and I Really Like You swapped for blushing pastels.

It is, in its own way, a bold move. 'Dedicated' may not have the variety of her previous work, but in its place is sonic consistency - even with the plethora of songwriter and producer collaborators. This feels, more than ever, like a Carly Rae Jepsen album, from her heart to ours.

That sound is a melting pot of 70s and 80s pop. Funk grooves and weird synths predominate, all squeezed through a filter of polished modern production and Carly Rae's trademark quirkiness. Perhaps Want You In My Room exemplifies it best. Jangling guitars, stomping percussion, keytar solos, and Daft Punk-esque autotune underpin a song that's essentially about shagging. It's as cheeky yet polite, honest yet shy as she's ever been.

Other songs also stand out. The woozy No Drug Like Me features an intoxicatingly elastic bass. Happy Not Knowing stomps into blissful unawareness, all hand claps, processed drums and the album's catchiest chorus. The Sound starts delicately enough, before lurching into a strutting, bubbling chorus.

There are nods to the past too: Now That I Found You (as heard on the latest season of Queer Eye) is Carly in classic Cut To The Feeling mode of unfiltered joy; and (ahem) self-love anthem Party For One ends the album on a typically cutesy note.

Other songs don't quite have the impact of her best work, blurring into a ball of fluffy, heady, wistful pop. Even so, repeat listens reveal fun little details to ensure each song retains an individual personality. Still, 'Emotion' wasn't the commercial success it deserved to be and 'Dedicated' does little to rectify that.

It is, though, above all an album about falling in love. Gone are the boy problems for an emotion that's more genuine than before, with lyrics more quietly raw. From its longing opening, we see the rise and fall of a relationship through vulnerability, sex, jealousy and real, unconditional love. She doesn't just cut to the feeling, she revels in it. And as she falls in love, her fans will be falling with her.

4/5

Gizzle's Choice:
* Want You In My Room
* Happy Not Knowing
* The Sound

Listen: 'Dedicated' is out now.




Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Vincent River @ Trafalgar Studios

Vincent River @ Trafalgar Studios

When it was revived at the Park Theatre last year by director Robert Chevara, Philip Ridley's Vincent River was a poignant and powerful depiction of the aftermath of a homosexual hate crime. One year later, in its West End transfer to the Trafalgar Studios, that's as true as ever.

Premiering at the Hampstead Theatre in 2000, Vincent River is indicative of Ridley's style: confrontational and unafraid to pick away at the darker side of humanity with a wry grin. Davey (Thomas Mahy) arrives on the doorstep of Anita (Louise Jameson). It's clear that he had some involvement in the death of her son, the titular Vincent, and over the course of one act the night's events unravel with dire consequences.

Vincent is never seen or heard from, but he still feels like the protagonist of the play. Anita and Davey's descriptions of him are so potent and tangible, it's as if his ghost is right there on stage. His positive impact on both of their lives is abundantly clear; his absence now feels all the more tragic because of it.

In the tight confines of the studio theatre, Ridley's confrontational style is intensified. We are complicit in the narrative, mere inches away from the actors. We can see the whites of their furious eyes, the tears glistening in the stage lights. When Jameson unleashes a guttural scream, it cuts to the bone.

Indeed, these are two outstanding performances. Mahy is steadfast and intimidating, youthful yet knowing, with a secret that slowly unfurls. Jameson begins cold, sarcastic and defensive, yet her motherly instincts are unavoidable, later giving way to a girlish flirtatious side. These two actors give layered depictions of broken characters who feel devastatingly human, captivating from start to finish.

The play itself, too, is cleverly multi-layered. It might be a play about a hate crime. But it's also a play about grief. About coming out, from both a personal and a parental view. About life in East London. About two people whose lives cross paths, who both crave completeness and closure. About the unbreakable bond between mothers and sons and how easily surrogates can fill that void.

This is a play that rewards multiple viewings: intense and tragic and funny and immensely powerful.

4/5

Watch: Vincent River runs at the Trafalgar Studios until June 22nd.

Vincent River @ Trafalgar Studios

Vincent River @ Trafalgar Studios
Photos: Scott Rylander

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself @ The Ovalhouse

Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself @ The Ovalhouse

You've seen the title. "What's a guy doing at a play like this?" I hear you ask. But not only is this an intriguing piece of theatre, it's educational and truly thought-provoking as well. It's a chance to expand horizons.

Sure, if you've ever wondered where to find the clitoris, now you'll know. But the play is a deeper exploration of female sexuality that begins during puberty and continues into adulthood. It's written and performed by Bella Heesom as 'Ego', who's joined by Sara Alexander as her 'Appetite' - a personification of her sexuality. This is mirrored by their roles as 'Brain' and 'Clitoris', creating a distinction between sexuality and logic, society and culture.

If the general trajectory of a woman learning to reconnect to her sexuality seems like an oversimplification, it still provides a satisfying and emotional journey. It's divided up into smaller vignettes that debunk various myths about female sexuality projected on to the back screen: women don't masturbate, women must be objectified, women are either sluts or frigid. Through comedy, poetry and expressive movement, Heesom and Alexander deliver frank honesty that invites the audience as a whole to consider their own sexuality and consider the toxic patriarchal norms we've all become overly accustomed to - whether we have vulvas or not.

Some of these early vignettes feel a little feminism 101, but later the two actresses are stripped of all pretence as they reach womanhood. Here Heesom's poetic writing is in full bloom and moves into more uncharted territory. Schoolyard conflicts are one thing, but how can we help women now to be their most authentic selves?

Yet - without wanting to mansplain, this is a play focused on women after all - there are some universal themes here. We all, in our own way, can lack sexual confidence at times and, as a gay man, Heesom's writing on sexual shame strikes a chord. The play's final empowering moments are one of unity between mind, body, spirit, and sexuality and that's something we can all learn from. It's a call to silence our inner saboteur and embrace our sexuality, no matter what gender we may identify with.

3/5

Watch: Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself runs at the Ovalhouse until 25th May.

Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself @ The Ovalhouse

Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself @ The Ovalhouse
Photos: David Monteith