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Thursday, October 5, 2017

Review: 'Ink' at the Duke of York Theatre, 3rd October 2017

Thursday, October 5, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Ink reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

I hate The Sun. It's a tumour at the heart of British discourse: a lying, hateful and occasionally criminal publication whose mission appears to be to keep the working class under the thumb of their Conservative masters. It absolutely deserves its nickname: The Scum.

So why, in James Graham's Ink, did I find myself occasionally rooting for its success? Set in the late 60s, we begin with Rupert Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) eager to expand his British newspaper business. He already owns the Sunday paper, The News of the World and is on the hunt for a daily publication. He finds a promising candidate in The Sun, a failing Labour-backing daily with a dismal circulation.

Murdoch aims to wipe The Sun's slate clean and produce a newspaper that'll blow the doors out of the calcified and deferential British press. His primary partner in this soon-to-be editor Larry Lamb (Richard Coyle), who's nursing a grudge against his former employers at The Daily Mirror. Fuelled both by the freedom to create whatever newspaper he wants and the challenge to make it the most read paper in Britain by the end of the year, Lamb assembles a 'dirty dozen' gang of disgruntled journalists and launches a paper that screams onto newsstands with the headline "HORSE DOPE SCANDAL".

What follows is a multi-levelled dissection of what The Sun really means. It bills itself as reflecting what the British public want, and not what some haughty establishment thinks they should want. So the new Sun is funny, cheeky, sex-obsessed, sporty and is constantly giving away freebies. Both Murdoch and Lamb measure a newspaper's success by its sales figures, and their formula soon pays off gangbusters. But the wrinkle at the core of Ink is the difference between reflecting the existing desires of the readership and creating new and dangerous desires that must be fulfilled.

Ink shows us a newspaper caught in a Red Queen's race: it must keep running as fast as it can in order to stay in the same place, and continually crank up the controversy and excitement in order to sate its increasingly voracious readership. Though set nearly a half-century in the past, we're still actively going through the same process today.

What's especially interesting about Ink is the way it makes the beginning of Murdoch's dominance of the British media exciting. It's incredibly difficult not to sympathise with him when he rails against the closed doors of an establishment that thinks it knows best for the British public - best illustrated by his explanation of the planned military coup against Harold Wilson's government. This network of public schoolboys with a narrow view of the world and parochial moralities presents an inviting target, with Ink's Murdoch wholly righteous in his attempts to demolish it.

Throughout the play, there is much talk of The Sun 'disrupting' Fleet Street, the word foreshadowing of the disruption concept we see all around us emanating from Silicon Valley, and seen in companies like Uber, Netflix, Airbnb and Amazon, all of whom have torn up the rulebooks of existing business structures. Watching the paranoiac and desperate reactions of the competing newspapers to The Sun's brash take-no-prisoners style is what you imagine going on in the boardrooms of dinosauric companies around the world.

This trickles down into a wider overview of free-market capitalism: a creed that runs through the marrow of Rupert Murdoch's bones. He is almost an embodiment of capitalism, constantly seeking to expand into new markets, create new products and expand his powers. Some of Ink's most interesting moments come when Murdoch's economics clash with his morality - finding himself momentarily lost when his disgust at the first Page 3 girl battles against the inarguable fact of boosted readership. Bubbling away in the background is Murdoch's future victory over the printer's union, his full-blooded support of Thatcherism and the cooling of his revolutionary fervour as he supercedes the old establishment with a fresh one of his own creation.

So yeah, there's a lot going on in Ink. I loved it: it's funny, informative and bristling with things to say. Performances are uniformly excellent, with Bertie Carvel's three-dimensional and vividly complex Murdoch my highlight. Then you've got Bunny Christie's vertiginous set, an Escher-like mountain of fag-stained desks and tatty office chairs, with the liquid metal industrial printing presses 
Satanically lurking below. What else can I say? It's brill, go check it out.

Ink is booking at the Duke of York Theatre until 6th January. Press tickets provided by

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Review: 'Toxic Avenger The Musical' at the Arts Theatre, 2nd October 2017

Tuesday, October 3, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Toxic Avenger the Musical reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Ah Troma, my old friend. For a kid growing up in the 90s Troma Studios films were like crack: gross-out bonkers B-movies with a loveable punky aesthetic. Get hold of one of these videotapes and you felt like you were doing something illicit. I adored their trash classics, having particular soft spots for Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD, Rabid Grannies, The Class of Nuke 'Em High and, my favourite, Tromeo and Juliet (in which Juliet is accidentally transformed into a hideous cow monster with a three-foot penis).

But you can't talk Troma without talking Toxie. First introduced in 1984's The Toxic Avenger, this environmentally conscious mutant superhero parody gave Troma a rare bona fide hit, launching a film franchise, a children's cartoon series (I had a Toxic Avenger action figure that palled around with my Ninja Turtles) and, in 2008, a stage musical written by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan (Bon Jovi's keyboardist).

Now Toxic Avenger The Musical has opened at the Arts Theatre, hot off for last year's production at the Southwark Playhouse, and it's pretty damn great. Hewing pretty closely to the original movie, we meet the twisted inhabitants of Tromaville, New Jersey, where glowing nuclear waste oozes from pipes, the tap water is flammable and the fish are deformed monstrosities. Dorky wimp Melvin (Mark Anderson) and his crush, blind librarian Sarah (Emma Salvo) scratch out a living in his nightmare. In an effort to impress Sarah, Melvin decides to fight the town's pollution, threatening to expose the Mayor's (Natalie Hope) corruption. Instead, she pays some hired goons to dunk him in mutagenic goo, but rather than kill him it merely transforms him into... The Toxic Avenger!

What follows is appropriately Troma-y descent into bad taste, full of gags that dare you to be offended, cranked-up sexuality, ludicrously broad stereotypes and Itchy and Scratchy-esque violence. As the director's note in the programme explains, the West End is a very safe place full of shows that, hoping to appeal to the widest possible audience, are desperate not to offend or challenge. The consequence is bland, safe sludgy theatre loaded with saccharine morals.

Toxic Avenger the Musical certainly isn't that. For example, there's a constant rain of jokes at the expense of a blind character that had me guiltily laughing. That air of 'should I be laughing at this' continues throughout the show - landing pretty much at same tone as the average episode of South Park. But this show gets away with it, partially because it's always 'punching up'.

Troma itself is an underdog movie studio and Toxie is an underdog superhero. The musical runs with this baton, painting itself as an underdog musical and repeatedly contrasting itself against its glossy West End neighbours. It trips itself up a little by being so musically, performatively and aesthetically solid, but by and large, the show still feels like a scrappy, homegrown passion project with a gleefully twisted sensibility. It is after all, rare to see a West End show in which the moral conclusion is that we should decapitate polluting industrialists, not to mention one in which a man's intestines are played like a guitar.

Anyway, it's easy to like a show with such a toe-tapping soundtrack - it's always a good sign when you can't get the songs out of your head the next day. Bryan's Bon Jovi heritage shines through in most of the numbers, ranging from 80s inspired hair metal to demented power ballads, all incredibly dense with lyrical gags. 

The energetic cast also excels. Highlights are Natalie Hope's ultraslutty mayor, forever ready to tear her dress upon in a display of weaponised sexuality, Emma Salvo's hilarious commitment to stage blindness and impressive set of pipes, and the double act of Che Francis and Oscar Conlon-Morrey in a variety of supporting roles. But it's Mark Anderson's Toxie that'll stick in my mind - a winning combo of charisma and costume that perfectly brings the character to life.

By now you can probably tell that I enjoyed the hell out of this show. I often feel out of step when it comes to musical theatre - when other critics praise absolute guff like Braille Legacy or Titanic: The Musical (not a parody) I end up scratching my head - but this is my kinda night out. All hail Troma! All hail Toxie! May Toxic Avenger the Musical play long and loud!

Toxic Avenger the Musical is at the Arts Theatre until 3rd December.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Review: 'Otelo' at the Southwark Playhouse, 26th September 2017

Wednesday, September 27, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Otelo reviewed by David James

Rating: 2 Stars

Of all Shakespeare's plays, Othello could be the most appropriate to be performed by puppets. After all, the titular character is nudged and prodded into a bloodthirsty rage by the manipulative Iago and how better to convey this than having him shove his hand up the character's jacksy and whirl him about the stage? This is Otelo, an abbreviated reworking of Othello by 'Chile's leading puppetry company', Viajeinm├│vil and part of CASA Latin American Theatre Festival 2017.

Kicking off somewhere around the middle of the original play, Otelo boils the action down to its skeleton. Nicole Espinoza and Jaime Lorca play Emilia and Iago, who puppeteer the disembodied heads of Othello, Desdemona and Cassius. The two performers intertwine around one another, providing limbs and bodies for their characters, modulating their voices depending on which character they are and navigating a rotating bed set.

At its best, Otelo achieves a neat unity of performance, aesthetic and atmosphere. The disembodied head of Othello has exaggerated features which are accentuated by strong lighting - you could swear its dispassionate features change depending on the emotion of the scene - in the beginning, he is loving, but by the end, he is monstrous and broken - and the plastic visage remains the exactly the same. It's a fierce, pop-infected visual style and when combined with large sheets of primary coloured fabric proceedings take on the faint aura of Dario Argento's giallo.

Espinoza and Lorca are fantastic performers. There's no great sleight of hand here - they remain visible behind their puppets at all times. Yet rather than distracting us, their presence helps convey the emotions the puppets lack. Lorca in particular delivers up a believably frayed Iago riddled with guilt, corruption and ambition - sweatily realising he's in over his head as his plans come to fruition.

Otelo largely achieves its aims and is undoubtedly a singular piece of theatre. However, no matter how appropriate the puppetry translation is to the themes of the play and no matter how skilled the puppeteering, I couldn't help but feel as if there was something lost in translation from the original work. It turns out that there are limits to what can be achieved with mannequin heads, exemplified through the blank, almost sex-doll-like visage of Desdemona, whom Otelo literally objectifies and reduces to a figure of fun. That led to the frequent giggles the play received from the audience whenever the puppetry inched into melodrama. The show bills itself as 'darkly funny', but the moments of surreal silliness puncture the passion of Othello

In addition, the play is in Spanish. That's not a criticism, but it is one more barrier between the audience (well, me at least) and the poetry of the play. Surtitles are projected above the stage, but frustratingly the person in charge seemed to be having an off night. They'd freeze for a couple of minutes then quickly cycle through the lines until we'd catch up, or fall out of sync with what the two actors were actually doing. 

Otelo is an interesting and well-performed dramatic experiment, albeit one that I don't think is wholly successful. Oodles of care and effort have gone into this and Viajeinm├│vil are undoubtedly incredibly talented puppeteers, but just I don't think the meat of Othello translates that well into a 75-minute puppet show.

Otelo is at Southwark Playhouse until September 30. Tickets here.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Review: 'Le Grand Mort' at Trafalgar Studios 2, 25th September 2017

Tuesday, September 26, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Le Grand Mort reviewed by David James

Rating: 3 Stars

Sex and death go together as well eggs and bacon. Female praying mantises famously consume the heads of their paramours, the male anglerfish is entirely absorbed into the female after sex, and orb weaver spiders of the Argiope genus die after inserting their sperm-transfer organs into the female. It was perhaps while observing nature in all its fucked up glory that some French dude decided that 'la petite mort' was a great name for orgasm. 

Working on similar lines is Stephen Clark's Le Grand Mort, a twisted little play studded with knives, bodily fluids, wine, incest, murderous intent and where the air is infused with the smell of frying onions. Except for a couple of short flashbacks, the play takes place entirely within the (fully functioning) kitchen of middle-aged architect Michael (Julian Clary). It's all brushed metal and vaguely OCD cleanliness, each pot, pan and surface appearing surgically sterilised. On the wall is a life-size statue of Da Vinci's Vitruvian man, a bit of interior decor that's so homoerotic it borders on parody.

Michael is expecting company. In a bar that evening he was propositioned by the confident, wordy and intriguing Tim (James Nelson-Joyce). He's a scouser with a lot to say, approaching conversation like a swordsman, forever ducking, feinting and parrying whatever's said back at him. He's also built like a brick shithouse and (somehow inevitably) ends up strutting about buck naked.

The first act is given over entirely to Michael as he prepares dinner (pasta puttanesca - the 'whore's pasta') and delivers a rangy, poetic monologue on sex, death and the cocktail the two add up to - necrophilia. We hear how the beautiful wives of Pharaohs would be left to rot for a couple of days in order to prevent those trusted to mummify her from getting off, which quickly dovetails into a mega-gross urban legend that the mortician entrusted with Marilyn Monroe's body was charging Hollywood's finest perverts a handsome sum to defile her Nembutal swollen corpse.

The monologue is as well written as it is bizarre. The part was written specifically for Clary and he takes obvious relish in delivering the strange subject material, accompanied by the rhythmic chop-chop of knife on board as he precisely bisects some suspiciously glans-like peeled tomatoes. Clary's Michael is measured and compelling, so much so that it's a bit of a shock to the system when the far more outre Tim shows up and ushers in chaos.

From here the play expands outward to encompass incest and child abuse, tumbling into a confused and slightly dream-like repeated reversal of fortunes. Each man wields a knife against the other, the weapon repeatedly swapping hands and the threats feeling more like extremely kinky foreplay than any actual danger of death. 

So what do all these ingredients add up to? Clark keeps things purposefully vague, which on one hand gives the play its disorientating wine n' semen haze, but on the other, you sense that these characters are mere vehicles for the playwright's discourse on the relationship between sex and death. Clark identifies the thread that binds them as the desire for ultimate, true intimacy - the penetration of the body by another - be it by cock, blade or hand (a highlight is Michael relating the story of Howard Carter desecrating the body of Tutankhamun). I am generally loath to tie down the content of a play to what I know of the writer's personal circumstances, but it is difficult not to conclude that the morbid subject matter springs from the illness Clark suffered from while writing it, which resulted in his untimely death last October.

Le Grand Mort is not a perfect play. Clary and Nelson-Joyce give it some welly, but both characters are built on wobbly foundations. This leaves the narrative stunted - those who watch theatre with the desire to emotionally engage with the characters will most likely be left in the cold. That said, it's undoubtedly interesting, entertaining and multi-faceted, with the binding together of sex and death lent weight by the circumstances surrounding its writing.

Le Grand Mort is at Trafalgar Studios 2 until October 28. Tickets here.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Review: 'Mother!' (2017) directed by Darren Aronofsky

Tuesday, September 19, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Mother! reviewed by David James

Rating: 5 Stars

It was somewhere in the middle of the third act that I realised that Mother! is not going to be financially successful. Darren Aronofsky is no stranger to weird film-making, the excellent Noah primarily baffling audiences and his criminally over-looked The Fountain vanishing without a trace. But Mother! might be one of the craziest films ever to get a major release.

Watching the trailer after seeing the full feature, you realise that Aronofsky has executed a cinematic sucker punch, reeling in the audience with the promise of a sleek psychological horror studded with A-listers and then hitting the gas and careening straight into crazytown. What audiences actually receive (and there's going to be heavy spoilers from here on out) is a movie that hates God and Christianity, arguing that it has warped humanity into something monstrous and that institutionalised religion has poisoned the world.

To achieve this, Aronofsky reworks the Bible into a creepy domestic drama. The world is reduced to an isolated house, occupied only by a frustrated poet God (Javier Bardem) and a female personification of Gaia, Mother (Jennifer Lawrence). Their relative peace is disturbed by the arrival of the first man (Ed Harris), who moves in uninvited and quickly makes himself at home.

Soon after we see him with a suspiciously rib-shaped wound in his side, his wife (Michelle Pfieffer) shows up: a similarly destructive presence who alienates and scares Gaia, culminating in the pair plucking the forbidden fruit, incurring God's wrath and being kicked out of Eden. 

Soon after, Cain and Abel arrive and commit the first murder, leaving behind an indelible stain of violence that gradually corrodes the whole world. We descend into a nightmare house party that's only ended with a cataclysmic flood that drives the uninvited guests from the house. It is not in the least bit subtle, but then subtlety is highly over-rated.

The film concludes with one of the most insane sequences I've seen in cinema. Mother gives birth to the infant Jesus, who is soon snatched from her grasp by God and delivered to a crazed mob, who pointlessly kill it and then devour the corpse in a demented cannibal nightmare. The West is culturally inoculated against how freakin' weird Christianity is, but this violently strips all the liturgical mystery away and (exactly as the Catholic Church does) takes the Bible at its literal flesh-munchin', blood drinkin', word. 

At this point, it's understandable at this point why audiences have rejected Mother! so violently. After all, your average moviegoer is probably not up for seeing a newborn baby being torn apart and eaten by psychos. But this imagery and these ideas comprise the core of our culture and Aronofsky makes a persuasive argument that the ecological destruction that threatens our very civilisation is a symptom of it.

As the film accelerates towards its apocalyptic conclusion, we finally understand the relationship between the patriarchal God and the feminine Mother as a theological separation of Creator from 'creature': institutionalised religion providing the philosophical framework upon which nature is brutally subjugated to man's will. 

Aronofsky is frantically yelling that humanity is on the precipice of catastrophe and chaos, trapped in a cycle of narcissism and consumption and poisoned by false dreams of spirituality and immortality. The only possible conclusion to all this comes in cleansing waves of fire: Mother Nature's reset button.

It's light years beyond its cinematic contemporaries (it's also objectively a technical marvel) and once the dumb-ass reactionary negativity dies down, is going to be recognised as a modern classic (at which point certain people will claim to have secretly liked it all along). Honestly, if you have the slightest interest in cinema as an art form you owe it to yourself to see this: films like this simply do not come along very often.

Right now the world feels like a chaotic, scary place with a real 'last days of Rome' vibe. Watching Mother! isn't going to get rid of those sleepless nights you've been having, but it will provide the context for them. 

Friday, September 1, 2017

Review: 'Talk Radio' at the Old Red Lion, 31st August 2017

Friday, September 1, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Talk Radio reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

"When you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you." This is Barry Champlain's life in a nutshell. Fuelled by nicotine, cocaine and whiskey, he's a late night talk radio host who dishes out constant verbal pummellings to his listeners. First, they're ridiculed, then they're lectured, and finally a slap on a big red 'end call' button consigns them back to the anonymity from whence they came.

Champlain's callers either hate or worship him, running the gamut from Nazis that accuse him of being part of a global Zionist conspiracy funded by Israel to the batty old ladies who just want to talk about their pets. Gradually we understand his callers as a kind of hydra, each caller a different head on a Reagan-era gestalt, bristling with racism, sexism, paranoia, mental illness, perversion and masochism. 

Each night he wrestles this beast, his unbridled fury bolstering his listening figures as the public tunes in to hear what the hell the wild man of radio is going say next. They know him as a disembodied voice, we in the audience see him as something more feral - a wolf in a zoo pacing a soundproofed cage, his eyes gradually hollowing out as he slowly comprehends the barbarity and banality of the general public.

Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio is now 30 years old, and this revival is set to the background of a completely transformed media landscape. American Talk Radio is now the stomping ground of grumpy old conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, with the real pulse of society now throbbing away on Twitter where each person makes their own contribution to the global consciousness, 140 characters at a time. 

Viewing Champlain through a contemporary lens leads to some uncomfortable conclusions. Back in the 80s, the shock jock was kicking back against a sanitised mass media that embodied Nancy Reagan's good old fashioned American values. This world is now dead, sacrificed in the name of the self-worship and narcissism that has reached its zenith in President Donald J. Trump. It's now easy to see Champlain's shock jock as a harbinger of Trump himself. It's sad, but all-too-easy to imagine Champlain approaching his sixties with a red MAGA cap firmly jammed down upon his now thinning head.

Talk Radio almost entirely relies on the talents of whoever's playing Champlain and Matthew Jure more than delivers. He's scarily committed to the role, embodying the character as much with his furious ranting as when he's frustratedly searching for a cigarette in the studio. Frankly, it's nice to see an actor come at a role as hard as Jure does here, playing him without a trace of irony, parody or satire. When the most unconvincing part of the performance is a dodgy wig, you're doing something right.

Bolstering all this is one of the finest sets I've seen all year, courtesy of Max Dorey (whose work I've admired in many prior productions). It's an exhaustively detailed recreation of a period era radio set, everything from the analogue broadcasting equipment right through to the Reagan/Bush bumper stickers at the rear of the stage and the Cleveland Indians 'Chief Wahoo' sticker on the wall of the studio. Even if the play weren't much cop, audiences would probably get their money's worth poring over the exquisite care with which this place has been constructed.

Perhaps the only real downside is a lack of narrative propulsion. Bogosian teases us with promises of melodrama, before quickly snatching it away and poking fun at our naivety for believing in it. Even the overarching plot that tonight is Champlain's one shot at national syndication eventually sputters out and is largely forgotten. 

What we're left with are a man and a microphone, and when this man is as compellingly written and expertly performed, that's all you need.

Talk Radio is at the Old Red Lion until 23rd September. Tickets and details here.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: 'Reprehensible Men Part II' at the Tristan Bates Theatre, 16th August 2017

Thursday, August 17, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reprehensible Men Part II reviewed by David James

Rating: 2 Stars

Dan Horrigan's Reprehensible Men Part II consists of five short monologues performed by various actors. As you can probably guess from the title, all are men, and all the characters they perform all fall on the wrong side of the moral compass. 

With an empty stage populated by a solitary chair (a second eventually arriving), director Phil Setren clearly wants to avoid any distractions that might get in the way of the performances and script. This proves a double-edged sword as performances run the gamut from intense to hammy and the writing has a nasty habit of disappearing up its own arse. 

The worst offender is the opening piece. Christopher Preston is lumbered with an absolute dog of a monologue that opts for self-conscious verbosity to defining character or telling a story. It's a real teeth-gritter, bombarding the audience with literary flourishes and half-assed rhetoric that reminded me of Harrison Ford's famous comment to George Lucas on the set of Star Wars: "George, you can type this shit, but you can't say it!".

Fortunately, it's all uphill from there. Each performer recognises the opportunity to show off their particular skills. Jamie Pigott gives a rangy, wounded performance as a guilt-ridden lover, with his monologue containing a particularly nice observation about concealing the intensity of past loves from your current squeeze. He's followed by Gareth Radcliffe, who does an excellent job of directly interacting with audience members and subsequently cranking up the tension.

But the best of the bunch comes last. Christopher Sherwood is an excellent actor and benefits from having one of the more straightforward stories to tell. He's all lean muscle and frustration, pacing the stage like a caged animal. In a successful dramatic flourish, he invites a member of the audience up on stage to read a crucial part of the piece. This is a gamble, but it paid off last night.

Five back to back monologues over the space of just over an hour proves to be a difficult writing exercise. Over just 10-15 minutes you have to introduce the character, set up, tell and conclude the narrative and, well, be interesting

Reprehensible Men Part II just doesn't achieve that consistently - the choice to sacrifice clarity for style making it difficult to properly get to grips with the characters or their stories. On top of that, despite the characters coming from a wide range of social and educational backgrounds, they all drop ten-dollar words as if they've guzzled a Thesaurus, unnecessarily revealing the author's hand.

If the best of these were expanded, maybe something with a bit of nuance and room for a bit of literary experimentation could arise. As it stands this is a painfully cramped show, the brief time we spend with each character and the unfocused writing preventing any real engagement.

Reprehensible Men Part II is at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 19 August. Tickets here.

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