Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Violet @ The Charing Cross Theatre


Violet @ The Charing Cross Theatre

This is a truly global proposition. A very American musical – both in subject and in writing team – in a Japanese co-production receiving it’s UK premiere in London. It’s themes though are universal: a young girl on a journey of self-discovery.

What’s immediately apparent is Morgan Large’s set design. You’ve never seen the Charing Cross Theatre like this before, transformed into a traverse stage complete with revolving floor. There are plenty of details in the side panels too, but this type of staging isn’t necessarily well-suited to the space – the audience are seated too far from the stage to appreciate the finer intricacies of the set and the performances, impressive though they are.

The score is from composer Jeanine Tesori, most famous for Caroline, or Change (currently showing at the Playhouse Theatre) and Fun Home (which recently ran at the Young Vic). Violet, then, is nothing if not timely. Here, Tesori’s music takes on a multitude of American styles, from country ballads and rock ‘n’ roll, to blues harmony and gospel choirs. There are some gorgeous choral harmonies in what is overall an uplifting chamber score. Early on, though, there’s an over-reliance on polyphony, multiple characters singing their stories over one another, that doesn’t exactly lend itself to a clear exposition.

It’s difficult, therefore, to warm immediately to the story. The titular Violet boards a bus to journey across the deep south of America. Her goal is to meet an evangelist who can miraculously cure the facial scarring she endured as a child. Along the journey she meets two soldiers – one black, one white – forming a half-baked love triangle. There are hints of the civil rights movement and themes of religion and race, but this is ultimately a coming-of-age tale of a young girl learning to accept her scars, both physical and psychological. The denouement, though, feels saccharine and the final message - of not judging by appearances - seems to awkwardly equate facial disfigurement and race, with two people scarred by society finding companionship together.

Violet, though, is a compelling character. Brash and headstrong, yet utterly naïve, she feels like an authentic country girl finding her place in the wider world. Hammarlund (who incidentally just performed in Fun Home) is a wonderful leading lady, vocally strong and delivering a clearly defined and characterful performance. Elsewhere the cast are talented – there are great vocals from Angelica Allen, Jay Marsh and Simbi Akande especially, while Kenneth Avery Clark brings plenty of energy as the preacher – but the peripheral characters feel underwritten and incidental. This is, ultimately, Violet’s story.

Despite a bold and polished production, the plot doesn’t quite have the drive or clarity to be dramatically engaging and stalls with each musical number. With Hammarlund centre stage, though, Violet is warm, endearing and very well sung.

3/5

Watch: Violet runs at the Charing Cross Theatre until 6th April.


Violet @ The Charing Cross Theatre

Violet @ The Charing Cross Theatre
Photos: Scott Rylander

Saturday, 19 January 2019

New Music Friday 18/01/19

Sigrid - Don't Feel Like Crying

Sigrid - Don't Feel Like Crying

At this point Sigrid's songs are all blurring together. When her debut album 'Sucker Punch' does eventually arrive in March it'll probably just be a string of singles. But the short, uplifting Don't Feel Like Crying does stand out above the rest, especially for the trill on "nooo" that takes us soaring into the melismatic chorus, before a sassy little rap section. It's exactly what Sigrid is known for - brilliant pop.

Add to playlist.



Ariana Grande - 7 rings

Ariana Grande - 7 rings

At this point Ariana is an unstoppable force, undoubtedly the biggest popstar on the planet. 7 rings embodies that with its braggadocio lyrics and repeated "I want it / I got it" in the chorus, leaning further into hip-hop with its sparse production and trap beat. The hook, though, is a riff on My Favourite Things - a trite reference - and it's hard to shake the feeling this has all been done better before, Ariana morphing to fit a Rihanna-shaped hole.

Worth a listen.



Mabel - Don't Call Me Up

Mabel - Don't Call Me Up

Mabel has so far largely seen success alongside other artists. But Don't Call Me Up sees her going alone in more ways than one, with a catchy slice of tropical dance-pop that's a middle finger to an ex. "'Cause the truth is, without you boy I'm stronger," she sings in the chorus, before an emphatic "I'm over you." It's her boldest, catchiest moment yet.

Worth a listen.



Call Me Loop - Silly Boy

 Call Me Loop - Silly Boy

Yet another bop from Call Me Loop. Silly Boy has a sparse, bubbly Scandi vibe (likely due to production from Swedish duo TEOFRANS) as she scalds her beau for overthinking and getting cold feet. It's sugary sweet yet sexy, coy and honest. Listen to it again when her forthcoming EP is out in March.

Worth a listen.



MIO - With Love

MIO - With Love

With Love is taken from the Swedish newcomer's new EP 'So What Do We Do Now?' and it's as bold and clean and addictive as the best Scandi-pop. The verses are heartfelt before lurching into a mid-tempo chorus that gently bubbles with staccato bass synth. The remains of the EP is as stylistically varied as it is enjoyable, though With Love is the real crowning jewel.

Worth a listen.



Papa Roach - Come Around

Papa Roach - Come Around

Look, allow me my emo moment, ok?



Wednesday, 16 January 2019

The Daughter-in-Law @ The Arcola Theatre


The Daughter-in-Law @ The Arcola Theatre

D.H. Lawrence is best remembered for his novels and poetry but he wrote a number of plays too, most of which weren’t performed in his lifetime. Indeed, The Daughter-in-Law was first performed in 1967, some 54 years after he wrote it. Though unpopular back in 1913, it is exemplary of his style of working-class British drama and, far from a dusty period piece, remains insightful to this day.

This particular production, directed by Jack Gamble, returns to the Arcola Theatre following success last year. Louie Whitemore’s set places the dining table at the centre as emblematic of this family drama that somewhat foreshadows the kitchen sink realism of the 50s and 60s; much of the play occurs at dinnertime, the core of family life. And it’s the female characters – the matriarchs who run the household and cook said dinner – who dominate throughout the narrative.

The plot is a relatively straightforward tale of a husband cheating on his wife and the fallout of his philandering. There are secret plans to provide money to the ‘other woman’; women suffocated by misogynistic views; and boisterous adult men molly-coddled by their mother. The bonds of marriage are in competition with a mother’s overbearing love for her sons.

It’s set to the backdrop of the 1912 miners’ strike that adds another layer of friction. This is a working class family struggling financially, the men pressured to bring in a salary, the women pressured to make ends meet. Yet what’s remarkable is how relevant it all is. This is the sort of drama that wouldn’t be out of place today (minus the mining part), only proving the universality of Lawrence’s themes. He was a writer ahead of his time as he explores a pathetic masculinity, upturns traditional gender roles, and interrogates the nature of marriage. The lesson at the heart of the play is that marriage is based on trust.

The script is written phonetically in a dialect Lawrence had grown up hearing in his home of Eastwood, Nottinghamshire. It is initially tough to tune into, but the use of specific sayings, quirks and metaphors brings authentic character to the drama and a sense of familial warmth as they banter around the dining table. Props too to the cast who speak Lawrence’s words with clarity, and to dialect coach Penny Dyer. As the titular daughter-in-law Minnie Gascoyne, Ellie Nunn offers an assured performance that deftly handles the character’s swings from frustration to desperation and, eventually, overwhelming love for her husband. Tessa Bell-Briggs charms as the bumbling Mrs Purdy, and Veronica Roberts is a perpetually flustered mother as Mrs Gascoyne.

The pace plods a little, but this simultaneously allows us to settle into the language and relish both the play’s humour and high drama. This is a layered piece, presented with lucidity and attention to detail, that will resonate with a new audience.

4/5

Watch: The Daughter-in-Law runs at the Arcola theatre until 2nd February.


The Daughter-in-Law @ The Arcola Theatre

The Daughter-in-Law @ The Arcola Theatre
Photos: Idil Sukan

Saturday, 12 January 2019

The Favourite

The Favourite

This is a world away from the usual po-faced, stuffy period dramas. The Favourite is a playful film that distorts the tropes of the genre into something quite unexpected. But then, if you're familiar with the work of director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster especially), you'll have some idea of what you're getting into.

His style is utterly idiosyncratic. High seriousness is juxtaposed with black comedy. Period elements are undercut by modernism. A dance scene sees characters practically voguing to Baroque music. The high stakes manipulation of nobility and royalty plays out in a contemporary script full of swearing. The male characters are sidelined and effeminate; here it's the women who hold power.

Yet for all its comedic moments - and there are plenty - Lanthimos blindsides you with darkness, seriousness, thoughtfulness. The Favourite is a film that toys with you. Lanthimos takes great liberty with history, layers on the eccentricity, then pulls you in a different direction to offer a stern lesson in love and servitude. It's a remarkable, twisted, psychological film.

At the centre is Queen Anne, in a fabulously childlike turn from Olivia Colman, all petulance and impulsiveness. She is served by Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), to advise her, to love her, to relieve her gout. Sarah soon has competition in the form of her cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) and the two women vie for the queen's affections and favour. The screenplay, written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, is full of deliciously snide comments and manipulations, particularly in the shooting scenes. The performances of all three women are stunning, despite Colman leading the film - they are powerful equals to the detriment of the male characters (Nicholas Hoult aside as Robert Harley).

The setting, too, is exquisite. Filmed at Hatfield House and Hampton Court Palace, the camera luxuriates in the fine details of the homes and costumes. The bizarre circus of the court is filmed through low angle shots and sweeping fish eye that only emphasises its grandeur and the status of these women. The tension between them fizzes and the music - a mix of Baroque and modern composers in a reflection of the film's tone - rises and falls in parallel.

The film does eventually run out of steam and the sombre ending arrives quite suddenly. Despite its comedy, this is far from uplifting - but anyone anticipating a happy ending has come to the wrong place.

The Favourite is Lanthimos' most mainstream film, his unique style - and a lesbian romance no less - making waves and winning awards. It's weird, divisive and features spectacular performances; together it's the best kind of madness.

4/5

Watch: The Favourite is out now.


Friday, 11 January 2019

New Music Friday 11/01/2019

Gesaffelstein feat. The Weeknd - Lost in the Fire

Gesaffelstein feat. The Weeknd - Lost in the Fire

The bassline in this new track from French techno artist Gesaffelstein and The Weeknd is absolutely delicious. It's typically moody stuff from the Canadian hip-hop artist, the production icy cold. But then you listen to the lyrics, revealing the artist to have the sexual maturity of a horny twelve year old. "I used to have a girl a day," he brags, offering the "type of sex you could never put a price on." Worse is his teenage fascination with female same-sex couples: "you said you might be into girls...well, baby, you can bring a friend / she can ride on top your face / while I fuck you straight." It's this type of stuff that ruins the music, that leaves a sour taste in the mouth and proves how far hip-hop still has to go.

Worth a listen.



Sam Smith with Normani - Dancing With A Stranger

Sam Smith with Normani - Dancing With A Stranger

This partnership came about after a chance meeting in an LA recording studio. They're certainly an unlikely pairing but the end results work. It might be typical Drake-esque sultry R&B, but this is probably Smith's coolest song since Latch, while for Normani this should give her the increased exposure she deserves.

Worth a listen.



Calvin Harris with Rag'n'Bone Man - Giant

Calvin Harris with Rag'n'Bone Man - Giant

There's very little to say about this. It is exactly what you expect. House production, with a few horns thrown in for good measure, and that reedy, gravelly voice too many people bought into in 2017. It's banal and generic and most likely will be soundtracking your Saturday nights for the foreseeable.

Don't bother.



Lana Del Rey - hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have - but I have it

Lana Del Rey - hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have - but I have it

This might just be Lana's most feminist track yet. Partly for the title, partly for the Sylvia Plath reference, partly for its sheer honesty. Produced by Jack Antonoff, who had the sense to leave this as sparse as possible, the track is pensive, intimate, deeply personal and amongst her most arresting.

Worth a listen.



Billie Eilish - WHEN I WAS OLDER

Billie Eilish - WHEN I WAS OLDER

This new track from Billie Eilish, an artist on the cusp of superstardom, was directly inspired by Alfonso Cuarón's award-nominated film Roma. Even if you're yet to see the film, the song remains a haunting listen, all auto-tuned vocals, meandering melodies and menacing beats. Forget all the 2019 lists, Billie Eilish is the one to watch.

Worth a listen.



Lauren Jauregui - More Than That

Lauren Jauregui - More Than That

Normani's not the only ex-Fifth Harmony member to release a single this week. Yet while Jauregui might have the better cover art, her song isn't destined to top the charts. "You gon' have to come stronger than this liquor," she flirts at her admirers over seductive R&B production that's sexy but unoriginal. It'll take more to stand out in future.

Worth a listen.



Broods - Hospitalized

Broods - Hospitalized

The New Zealand duo have never sounded so upbeat. Vibrant synths, funk rhythms and lyrics that reveal a desire to live life to the full and push the limits - before a trip to the hospital at least. The track is taken from their forthcoming album 'Don't Feed The Pop Monster' due in February - keep an eye out for that.

Worth a listen.



Betty Who - I Remember

Betty Who - I Remember

Betty Who is such a reliable popstar, barely putting a foot wrong yet never quite hitting the heights of super stardom. I Remember is an ode to imperfect relationships, revelling in the good and the bad over buoyant synths and catchy, sing-along hooks. It's everything you could want in a pop song - can we finally give her a break?

Worth a listen.


Thursday, 10 January 2019

An Enemy Of The People @ The Union Theatre


An Enemy Of The People @ The Union Theatre

Arthur Miller’s An Enemy Of The People, based on an 1882 play of the same name by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, was written in 1950 and is contemporaneous with his best known work The Crucible. It’s a play where the public, politicians and the press clash catastrophically, each spinning their own version of the truth be it for money, political power, or the honourable truth.

Sound familiar? Miller may have had McCarthyism in his sights, but An Enemy Of The People seems remarkably prescient to present day America – all Trumpian bombast and fake news.

Director Phil Willmott certainly thinks so, with Miller’s play leading the new Enemies of the People season at the Union Theatre. It translates elegantly to present day with little fuss or need for tweaking, Miller’s language already sounding all too relatable to our modern ears. It is the story of a local doctor in smalltown America who discovers the local water supply is poisoned, scuppering plans for the new springs resort and potentially damaging government reputation. Yet rather than taking his advice, the local mayor (also the doctor’s sibling) pits him against the public and threatens to raise taxes to pay for water sanitation. The editor of the local newspaper, meanwhile, is stuck between them both with only money and circulation on his mind.

In this production, with its sparse staging of a construction site, the twisting of the truth has obvious parallels with the notion of fake news. The play becomes something of an absurd comedy, full of over the top American caricatures; but one that’s tragically close to reality. This is America in microcosm, albeit one that lacks in diversity. One welcome update is the switch to a female mayor, played by Mary Stewart as a nightmarish amalgam of Sarah Palin and Trump, with all the smarm you can imagine. That aside, this is a fairly straightforward interpretation that simply shifts the setting to increase the play’s modern relevance.

It’s a clever interpretation, then, but one that’s not always well executed. As a whole the staging seems restless, with too many characters pacing, arguing, or delivering their lines to the back of the stage (plus some dodgy accents). It certainly reflects the whirlwind of clashing ideals and the difficulty in being heard above the noise (literally). But it also lacks focus and clarity. As a result we side with none of these shamelessly desperate people – not the selfish, backstabbing mayor; the sleazy newspaper editor; nor even the noble doctor, who’s such a martyr for the truth he commits himself and his family to a life of persecution. After a first half that drags, in the second the doctor (David Mildon) gives a supposedly rousing and thought-provoking speech criticising the true nature of democracy, but it’s lost in the hubbub of debate. This painting characters in shades of grey is likely intentional, but it does make for a frustrating drama lacking in necessary punch.

It’s Emily Byrt as the doctor’s wife who stands out as a voice of reason – despite having few lines, she mostly stands still to deliver her lines with a commanding presence. It’s she who speaks the line at the core of the play: “without power, what good is truth?”. Here, the characters in Miller’s play wrestle so much with power that the truth is lost in a chaotic production that reflects the messiness of modern politics.

3/5

Watch: An Enemy Of The People runs at the Union Theatre until the 2nd February.


An Enemy Of The People @ The Union Theatre

An Enemy Of The People @ The Union Theatre
Photos: Scott Rylander

Friday, 4 January 2019

New Music Friday 04/01/19

Fleur East – Favourite Thing

Fleur East – Favourite Thing

Fresh from appearing on I’m A Celebrity and having ended her post-X Factor contract with Syco Records, Fleur East returns with this banger. Less in your face than Sax, but also not as incessant, Favourite Thing gives the current dance-pop sound a twist with tribal rhythms from her Ghanaian roots. After a muted start it slowly layers up the hooks for a sound that’s instantly radio-friendly. Finally, she can get the proper break she deserves. And that break before “…thing!” in the pre-chorus is everything.

Worth a listen.



Lizzo – Juice

Lizzo – Juice

Hip-hop artist Lizzo turns to Prince for her new single Juice. 80s funk guitars predominate for a sugary confection with tonnes of fun and personality. That extends to the video, starting 2019 with one sexy workout. Playful pop that’s hugely enjoyable.

Add to playlist.



Bring Me The Horizon – medicine

Bring Me The Horizon – medicine

Who says rock songs can’t have pop hooks? Bring Me The Horizon are masters of both, proven by this new track from their forthcoming album ‘amo’ due later this month. The video might be vomit-worthy, but like MANTRA before it medicine is loaded with hooks, a sing-along chorus and solid, rhythmic guitar riffs.

Worth a listen.



Chaka Khan – Hello Happiness

Chaka Khan – Hello Happiness

Chaka Khan is synonymous with 70s disco, but the genre is as prevalent as ever this decade – if not directly then at least influencing a whole host of artists. It makes sense then that Chaka Khan would make a return with this, the title track to a new album. Her vocals are unmistakable, here smooth and sultry over shivering strings and an infectious beat given a futuristic edge with ultra-polished modern production.

Worth a listen.



Robbie Williams - I Just Want People To Like Me

 Robbie Williams - I Just Want People To Like Me

Has there ever been a less ironic title to a song? Having failed to win over the X Factor audience as a judge, he's now released this derivative rock shite aimed squarely at Radio X. Desperate.

Don't bother.