Wednesday 20 November 2019

Björk - Cornucopia @ O2 London

Björk - Cornucopia Live @ O2 London

Björk takes us to another planet.

It is beautiful and terrifying. It is filled with creatures and mutations, darkness and luminescence, all feathers, tentacles and limbs morphing and merging like bubbling lava. A curtain of shimmering projections curls around the stage.

Björk is at the centre of it all. She is our mythological guide, singing in spiritual, hushed whispers. She is Mother Earth, crying out in agony, in a guttural, yearning song. She is the planet itself, petals and growths and tendrils. She is a god.

Around her is a futuristic rural idyll. A collection of nymphs play flutes while dancing balletically around the stage. A young choir release a wash of polyphonous textures and harmonies before jumping and raving wildly. It's like the Rite of Spring for a sci-fi age. Delicate melodies and birdsong are countered with deep percussion that bellows from the depths of the earth and shudders around us.

It is an otherworldly, out of body and out of mind experience. A hallucination. It's the familiar sound of harps and flutes, with a technical undercurrent that distorts. Above it, Björk sings poetry in broken melodies.

Though older songs are included - often in beautiful new arrangements to match the sound of the latest album - we hear songs for a new world. Songs of love, songs loaded with politics, songs that empower us, songs that urge us to do better. These are songs for a world we need to create, a world we need to protect, performed with space and urgency. She is apocalyptic, but she is also rebirth.

Björk takes us to utopia.

Take me back.


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.


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.


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

Reputation @ The Other Palace
Photo: Donato