Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Killing It @ The Vaults

Killing It @ The Vaults

There's a mystery at the heart of Killing It - written by Josephine Starte - that remains unsolved by the play's end. That may seem frustrating, but it puts the audience right in the position of its three characters mourning the loss of a young man lost at sea. It's their desire for closure that propels the drama as they deal with their grief; the intimacy and tension in Starte's script is palpable.

It doesn't quite begin that way though. Following three interlinking stories - the man's girlfriend, mother and grandmother - it feels fragmented, reflecting their now fragmented lives. Characters interrupt one another, nothing quite flows. Death haunts these characters, but initially no one seems overly upset about it.

There's plenty of macabre humour here, mainly centered on girlfriend Molly (also played by Starte). Her method of coping is to create a stand-up show based on her feelings. Here Starte's writing shines with raw and relatable comedy and an almost Fleabag-esque delivery - it's this plotline that ties the piece together and makes you wish to watch a full set of stand-up. The other fragments feel underdeveloped by comparison.

Yet slowly Killing It creeps up on you, like the subtle drips and sloshes in Julian Starr's sound design. All the props are situated in water-filled containers around the stage: water, here symbolic of death, soaks everything, droplets of memory splashing on to the stage. The real triumph of the piece is its relationships between three women of different generations - the relationship between Molly and grandmother Margot (Janet Henfrey) is amusingly quirky yet surprisingly tender in the end.

That goes for Killing It as a whole. What begins as an offbeat dark comedy catches you by surprise with its heartfelt conclusion.


Watch: Killing It is performed at The Vaults Festival on 25th and 26th February.

Killing It @ The Vaults
Photo: Toby Parker Rees

Monday, 10 February 2020

Carly Rae Jepsen @ Brixton Academy

Carly Rae Jepsen @ Brixton Academy

Squeaky, bubblegum pop. A tiny popstar with an unremarkable voice. Hordes of gay fans.

No, it's not a Kylie Minogue gig. It's Carly Rae Jepsen, the gay man's current popstar of choice. Call Me Maybe may have been a worldwide hit, but Jepsen has since remained something of a cult favourite, delivering underrated pop albums and becoming the queen of memes.

At a live gig, though, you'd be forgiven for thinking she's the biggest star on the planet, such is the devotion of her fans. Every song is known by the mere intro, every lyric chanted back, every moment met with a scream.

It's Jepsen's ordinariness that makes her so appealing. Hers are frothy songs about love and relationships, never too deep, just on the right side of emotional, her simple lyrics easy to relate to. Each is anchored to an undeniable hook, ensuring they're all memorable. There's no weak link; every song is a banger.

Perhaps that's best demonstrated by the cutesy I Really Like You and its repeated chorus lyric that bubbles with the excitement of lust. Or the fizzy rush of love in Run Away With Me. Or sex jam Want You In My Room. Or cheeky breakup anthem Store. Every stage of a relationship is covered.

Regardless of your favourite, Jepsen never takes herself too seriously in her songs. And that tongue in cheek tone translates to her onstage persona as she bounds across the stage full of zeal. Her joy is as infectious as her melodies.

The setlist is some 24 songs long, racing through each three minute track in a relentless, vibrant confection, rarely pausing for breath. There's little chat or banter, no set dressing, no extravagance. It's just earworm after earworm after earworm...

And it's the music we're here for, Jepsen merely a conduit of its power. You could argue it's all lowest common denominator pop, as frivolous as it is flirty fun, relatable to the point of being basic. Yet, like the best pop, it's pure escapism, its energy lifting the heart and soul.

Case in point: Cut To The Feeling comes on, the confetti cannons burst and for three joyous minutes everything is right with the world.


Friday, 31 January 2020

Persona @ Riverside Studios

Persona, Riverside Studios

This theatrical adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's Persona opens the newly refurbished Riverside Studios in West London. Where the theatre is snazzy and futuristic, this opening is decidedly arthouse.

Bergman's 1966 film is a psychological drama, his style the epitome of art cinema. He aimed to make a poem in images with his tale of two women - a nurse and her patient - who move to a remote part of Sweden and explore their identities. It doesn't quite translate to the stage, however.

The play, adapted by Paul Schoolman (who also plays the narrator), certainly has a pensive, mournful mood. Yet the various dialogues don't quite hang together into a cohesive narrative, instead becoming separate disparate conversations. The inclusion of the narrator character doesn't manage to bring structure, so the story feels more obtuse than poetic.

Where film brings poetry through imagery and editing, on stage Persona falls flat. The use of a large screen does provide moments of beauty though, and in the role of nurse Alma, Alice Krige is a captivating presence. Still, the actors are too quiet and the action too distant for us to feel the required intimacy of the piece.

What, initially, elevates the piece is the use of the Earth Harp, played by William Close. This novel instrument is installed on the stage with long strings that cascade over the audience like threads. Close pulls on the strings, rather than plucking, for a sound almost akin to an organ; it adds plenty of eerie drama to the stage. Yet with only a small number of strings the instrument has a limited melodic range, so the accompaniment soon becomes repetitive.

At times impenetrable, at others confusing, Persona is a bewilderingly abstract production that ultimately rings hollow.


Watch: Persona runs at the Riverside Studios until 23rd February.

Photo: Pamela Raith

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

RAGS: The Musical @ The Park Theatre

RAGS: The Musical

When RAGS first opened on Broadway in 1986, with book from Joseph Stein, score from Charles Strouse, and lyrics from Stephen Schwartz, it ran for just four performances - yet still managed to receive a Tony Award nomination for Best Musical. Since then it's been revised numerous times, but didn't reach the UK until 2019 in a new version from David Thompson produced at Manchester's Hope Mill Theatre.

It's this version that's arrived at London's Park Theatre with a fresh cast, marking the musical's debut in the capital, once again directed by Bronagh Lagan in an accomplished production.

RAGS follows in the footsteps of Fiddler On The Roof with its focus on Jewish characters, here Russian immigrant Rebecca who arrives in New York City at the turn of the century with her son David. Together they struggle to assimilate into American culture and face prejudice outside their immediate Jewish community.

The immigration theme is a pertinent one to present day America, but more so the musical is an interrogation of the American Dream - exposing the xenophobia lurking behind a melting pot of cultures celebrated for their similarities and differences. In Adam Crossley and Matthew Gent's gaily dressed parading Americans we witness America in all its false glamour, in contrast to the heartwarming immigrant family at the narrative's core.

For a musical with such a downbeat subject, it is surprisingly humorous. There are cute romantic subplots and the cast are characterised by bumbling older men and pushy know-it-all women who are all lovably argumentative. It does, however, lend the musical a sheen of romance - beyond some shock moments, prejudice is largely kept in the background.

Strouse's score, likewise, struggles to assimilate. It combines elements of Yiddish traditions, jazz, ragtime and modern musicals, sometimes lurching between styles. The clash of cultures makes sense and there are some standout moments, but it doesn't quite coalesce. Including musicians on-stage, though, adds a welcome touch of colour and intimacy.

Gregor Donnelly's design uses suitcases to great effect, despite being a slightly trite representation of the characters' journey. And while the second half pulls emotional punches, it does err on schmaltzy melodrama. For all its hidden menace and serious themes, RAGS still relies on musical traditions and predictable love stories for tension.

What raises this production, though, is the quality of the cast. Performances throughout are polished, with exceptional singing and musicianship. From the bustling, sometimes dizzying, ensemble emerges Carolyn Maitland who leads the cast as the strong and determined Rebecca with warmth and a subtle soprano. Her rendition of 'Children of the Wind' at the climactic end ensures this production soars.


Watch: RAGS: The Musical runs at the Park Theatre until 8th February.

RAGS: The Musical

RAGS: The Musical
Photos: Pamela Raith