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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

'G.E.M. - The XXX Tour' at the SSE Arena, 22nd November 2015

Tuesday, November 24, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Going to an arena pop concert for someone you've never heard of is a surreal experience. After all, a good pop concert should present the performer as a kind of minor deity - descending from their digital Mount Olympus in a hazy cloud of dry ice. But when the performer is someone you don't know - it feels like you've wandered into an alternate reality.

Such was the experience of seeing G.E.M., one of China's biggest pop stars. G.E.M. (an acronym for 'Get Everybody Moving') is the stage name of Tang Tsz-kei, who is dubbed 巨肺小天后 (the Girl with the Giant Lungs) in her native land. After this gig I can see why. She can belt out a ballad like nobody's business, not to mention tightly choreographed dancing, playing the guitar, piano and drums and making soulful speeches to a rapt crowd.

The XXX Tour is a decently sized pop-production, boasting with gigantic video projections, glitter cannons, strobe lights, CO2 jets and a squadron of dancers who move in such perfect synchronisation you suspect they may be bionically enhanced. This is a slickly professional pop product where every glittery millimeter is honed to mass appeal.

Well, mass appeal to Chinese audiences at any rate. Perhaps understandably, G.E.M. makes little or no concession to English speaking audiences. When she's singing this isn't too much of a problem. Her songs are performed in a mixture of Mandarin and Cantonese (though I have no idea which is which), but while I can't understand the particulars of her lyrics, you can appreciate the sledgehammer emotions that power them. 

More vexing is her habit of launching into long spoken word segues between numbers. These speeches being greeted with rapturous applause and general merriment from an audience that was 99.9% of Chinese origin. My reaction was mild confusion, having no idea she's on about. Brief snatches of English punctuate the speeches, but a sudden garbled "Thank-you Jesus!" only added to the cryptic atmosphere. By the end of the gig G.E.M. was in floods of tears, engaged in an incomprehensible (to me) act of emotional self-flagellation.

That said, The XXX Tour was still an undeniably fun time. The language of pop transcends international and language barriers: who can resist a troupe of Backstreet Boys-a-like backing dancers strutting around in hot pursuit of the starlet, G.E.M.'s emerging in an impressive sequined catsuit with a big red cape on, or simply the moment where she emits a Whitney Houston-esque sustained bellow in the middle of some particularly baroque number?

Further highlights come in a lovely ballad accompanied by imagery of a red balloon rising up to the stars - I may not know the lyrical content but I can still appreciate a lovely piano melody. There's also the inevitable dubstep-tinged breakdown that feels ever-so-slightly naff in 2015 - but which I secretly still very much enjoy. She even throws in a couple of covers toward the closing moments of the gig; going hell for leather with a muscular rendition of Rolling in the Deep and an all-too-brief snatch of We Will Rock You.

After three encores and nearly three hours of pop-fun, G.E.M. leaves the stage. By this point I'd surrendered - gleefully participating in the ultra cheesy simple pleasure of "Gimme a G! Gimme an E! Gimme an M! - G.E.M.!". 

The XXX Tour is, perhaps, some undiluted essence of pop. Because I can't understand anything G.E.M. is saying I can only experience the broad swathes of her music - which is entirely clear as it commands the audience to wiggle their butts and wave their hands in the air (like they just don't care). 

It's a high-sugar / zero fibre kind of show: one that whistles through the muscles rather than the mind. G.E.M. is a pop star's pop star - and wears it well.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

'Dude Looks Like a Lady' at the Etcetera Theatre, 18th November 2015

Thursday, November 19, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Dude Looks Like a Lady is a pleasantly unpretentious experience. Shorn of frippery and glitz, the show is 'merely' four extremely funny comedians ricocheting off one another like they're in a pinball machine. The four, Amanda Stauffer, Juliet Catton, Jessica Ashworth and Leanne Davis, work through just over an hour of absurd sketch comedy, displaying an uncanny skill in skewering gender roles in society.

A highlight comes early on in a sketch that pokes fun at both romantic comedies and creepily romantic "milady *doffs fedora*" types. A woman rides the tube, a man gets on and 'accidentally' drops his papers on the floor. As the woman bends down to help him pick them up he hits play on Wet Wet Wet's Love Is All Around. Their fingers touch. Their eyes lock. It's a classic 'meet-cute'! But this is real-life, where there aren't any Hugh Grants (well, okay, there's one), so his starry-eyed advances become more Lars von Trier than Richard Curtis.

The group have identified a rich seam of comedy and they're determined to mine it for all its worth. I'm not going to list all my favourites - I don't spoil the punchlines, the best of which zoom in unexpectedly from leftfield. They broadly share territory with current feminist comedy kingpin Amy Schumer (and draw from the same tradition as Smack the Pony) - highlighting incongruities in male/female relationships, poking fun inwards as well as outwards.

This self deprecating streak results in a pleasingly conspiratorial relationship with the audience. The Etcetera Theatre is a small venue, yet was filled with a good natured, optimistic crowd who were obviously fans of the group. This easy relationship between audience and performer resulted in a lovely communal atmosphere, even extending to the brief moments of audience participation. 

Generally the reaction to seeing comedians scan the front row for a target is soul-consuming dread. Everyone averts their eyes as if they're suddenly antelopes in front of a lion. Not here. As they pepper random audience members with questions, there's no cruelty or malice. The guy sitting next to me even gets given a pint of beer for participating! Honestly, I've been to a boatload of comedy gigs and never have I seen the performers supplying the front row with free booze.

But, as with practically all sketch shows, there are a couple of sketches that either run on a bit long or simply don't work that well. A repeating sketch in which a police officer mishears words isn't funny the first time (the gag: her boss says "badge" and she hears "vag") and is even less funnier the third - even with a semi-predictable twist. Less egregiously there's a couple of sketches that inch into self-indulgence and could use a bit of a trim. There's also a scrappiness to the proceedings that, if you're feeling charitable, you can write off as contributing to the personable friendliness of the show, but could just as easily be an indicator that a smidge bit more polish is needed.

Even so, I can't deny I didn't have a good time. If a comedy show makes me chuckle three or four times I'll mark it a success, and Dude Looks Like a Lady wrung countless head-thrown-back guffaws from me. These four have the enviable combination of writing and performance skills, bound up in an irresistibly infectious good-time chemistry. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

'Europe is Kaput. Long live Europe!' at the South Bank Centre, 16th November 2015

Tuesday, November 17, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The Paris atrocity has drawn many worms from the mud. Stomping over the backs of murdered civilians come the nationalists, racists, authoritarians and warmongers. Hurrying to meet violence with violence, they're quick to demonise Muslims of all stripes, blame refugees and explain that, beyond all doubt, the best solution to ISIS is to drop thousands of high-explosive bombs on an already beleaguered Syria. 

Naturally these events dominated the discussion between philosopher Slavoj Žižek and former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. The evening was chaired by Croatian philosopher Srecko Horvat and featured a surprise appearance by Julian Assange, appearing via videolink from the Ecuadorian Embassy.

Both Žižek and Varoufakis are fearless speakers - their arguments laid down on firm ideological bedrock. Both are quick to mourn the deaths and decry the perpetrators as "ISIS thugs", but they come with a passionate critique of mawkish sentimentalism and knee-jerk reacionts. Achingly public displays of grief - like overlaying the French flag on your Facebook pictures - is merely a trite display of vanity, an effort to prove the veracity of your liberal empathy.

Varoufakis explains how he was asked to observe a minute's silence in memory of the 129 murdered in Paris. Of course, a moment's quiet remembrance for them is appropriate, but where's the silent remembrance for the bombings in Beirut two days before that claimed 43 lives, or the suicide blasts in Baghdad that killed 26? Both men criticise a Western insularity that's assembled from race, religion, class and economics.

Žižek refers to this as Europe's glass "cupola". He argues that the Western perspective on world events is almost completely insulated. We're aware of third-world atrocities yet we experience them at extreme distance, tempered by the gloss of media interpretation. Atrocities, chaos and societal collapse are something that happens to other (usually non-white) people - who subconsciously dismiss them as the 'other'. Events like Paris shatter the cupola, rudely awakening us as to what it's like to live under the shadow of the suicide bomber and the masked gunman. 

Theoretically attacks like these should encourage an empathy with those in wartorn countries. If even the briefest taste of carnage repels us to this degree, then logically we should redouble our efforts into ensuring that violence ends - whether in Beirut or Paris. Depressingly the opposite happens. All too easily the media whip up a xenophobic panic, and soon even the most milquetoast liberal thinks paranoid thoughts when they see a man with brown-skin carrying a large bag on public transport.

In one of the most cogent points of the evening, Žižek identifies the cruel irony in the blame and suspicion that was immediately heaped upon Syrian refugees. These are people who have lost almost everything to the violent theocratic fascism of ISIS, choosing to flee, often with just the clothes on their back, across oceans and along lonely rain-swept roads in the hope of finding a safe haven in Europe. They arrive and instantly the very thing they were escaping overtakes them.

Varoufakis' and Žižek's arguments are layered with internationalist universalism. At one point the argument that we should care about the Syrian refugees because "they're just like us" is bashed to smithereens by the simple retort: "Well what if they weren't like us? Would that make it okay not to care?"

Inevitably we crawl towards the thorniest issue for the modern left - what the hell do we do about this? When faced with bombs and guns its instinctive to reach for our own weapons, vowing to enact bloody retribution on those behind this. Yet, as Varoufakis explains, this is precisely what ISIS want: the organisation arises from and thrives in the chaos of military campaigns - even Tony Blair admits that the failed invasion of Iraq provided the perfect incubation chamber them.

Even if impersonal destruction from the sky didn't directly fuel their propaganda its military effectiveness is questionable at best. ISIS are a mobile force disseminated over a wide area and firmly embedded into civilian populations - how are we eliminate them from a mile up without also killing the very people we're ostensibly trying to liberate? This then feeds into their propaganda of Muslim nations being persecuted by the cruel West.

Their answer is to identify the European traditions that most strongly define us: socialism, feminism, free thought, free press and democracy and then ally ourselves with those fighting for that in their countries . This is the one area in the night where the rhetoric got a little flaky - it's all too easy to say all this - putting into practice is different kettle of fish. Personally, I don't know what the hell should be done about ISIS, but recent history teaches us that sending tens of thousands of pounds of high explosive raining down on the Middle East is going to achieve precisely fuck all.

Paris wasn't the only topic under discussion; the rangy three hour discussion encompassed European monetary policy, Israel/Palestine, TTIP, the rise of high-tech liberalism in Silicon Valley and the origins of the European Union. All three men: Varoufakis, Žižek and Assange made novel, intelligent points about contemporary Europe that help clear the mind of the gunk that accumulates after time spent inadvertently absorbing the opinions of vast corporate conglomerates.

A hell of an enjoyable night - and a much needed one.

Friday, November 13, 2015

'Four Minutes Twelve Seconds' at Trafalgar Studios, 12th November 2015

Friday, November 13, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The internet allows us to fully realise our lives as narrative. Every experience we have can be converted into a 'milestone' to be disseminated to showcase our personal development, quantify our happiness and display our various successes. Four Minutes Twelve Seconds examines the darkly logical conclusion to this process: grappling with consequences of the 'culture of sharing'.

Sandwiched between two monolithic abstractions of OLED screens, writer James Fritz tells us a tangled tale of Jack, a 17 year old dealing with an online video of him having sex with his girlfriend. Jack, is an off-stage presence throughout, with the central characters his increasingly desperate parents Di and David (Kate Maravan and Jonathan McGuinness). 

Written as an unfolding series of revelations, the parents slowly work through denial, bargaining, anger as they navigate a constant stream of revelations that gradually give them (and us) the full picture of what's happened. Along the way we meet their son's best friend Nick (Anyebe Godwin), struggling to square what he knows with his friendship, and ex-girlfriend Cara (Ria Zmitrowicz), bristling with a potent combination of shame and spikiness.

A lot of enjoyment comes in the gradual reveal of the truth, so I will avoid spoilers for the most part, but it quickly becomes apparent that the situation is far more problematic and complex than it first seems. Along the way a mother's pride in her son is shaken to the core, the father reveals a worryingly utilitarian streak and, before our eyes, a hitherto happy marriage crumbles into ash.

Fritz zeroes in on powerfully contemporary social issues: touching upon the effect of hardcore porn on teenage boys, the permanence of online content and, most pertinently, the psychological validation effect of sharing every experience you have with others. Rumbling away in the background are deep undercurrents of class division and family loyalty, thrown into new configurations by a networked society.

Problem is, while it successfully identifies these concerns the play doesn't explore them with any great depth. The mutation of teenage sexuality by free access to hardcore porn (and the subsequent societal reverberations that causes) is a fascinating issue and one worthy of deep inquiry. But Four Minutes Twelve Seconds is content to skim over the surface, slightly hobbling itself with the dramatic choice of keeping Jack, narratively the central character, offstage throughout.

Further flies in the ointment come in the need for a constant drip of revelations. Right up until the final scenes Fritz has been getting away with it - though you half wonder why nobody ever says what they mean - but the performances and writing are naturalistic enough to skim over it. Yet in the final scenes, where Fritz is eager to get his pieces in place for a stalemate conclusion, he twists a twist too far (resulting in snickering from the audience). In a play hitherto composed of recognisable, believable and empathetic choices, a character makes a revelation that simply doesn't wash with what we know of them.

Fortunately, these moments of creakiness are ably papered over by Maravan and McGuinness' superb double act. They prowl around each other on stage, their arguments pushing each other to the corners, circling each other as they grapple with the enormity of what's happening to their son. Maravan in particular hits the emotional high notes with confident brilliance, making some of the character's later (somewhat outlandish) decisions weirdly believable. They also have a neatly honed sense of timing, artfully conveying Fritz's downtempo humour.

Four Minutes Twelve Seconds is a good play. It's not a great play - it proves unable maintain it's early tension and suffers from a surfeit of revelations. That said, it's eyecatchingly staged, excellently performed and the writing crams in an admirable sense of foreboding leavened with splodges of genuine wit. It's lean and muscular - a promising piece of theatre.


Four Minutes Twelve Seconds is at Trafalgar Studios until 5th December. Tickets here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

'Vampire Hospital Waiting Room' at the Arts Theatre,

Wednesday, November 11, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

"Vampire Hospital Waiting Room" is fun to say out loud: each syllable tripping off the tongue in pleasurably tongue-twisting manner. It's apparently even more fun to sing; the musical opening and closing with a perfectly enunciated, doom-laden repetition of the four surprisingly catchy words.  By the end of the night you'll humming the tune as you step out into the night.

Set in an NHS hospital, the (extremely silly) plot revolves around Dr Bloom's (Joe McArdle) quest for vampiredom. A textbook mad scientist, he's become obsessed with being bitten by the 'vampire lord', thus gaining not just the ability to pull of a full-leather outfit, but also immortality. To this end he's been poring over dusty old tomes looking for omens that will herald the lord's arrival.

And he thinks tonight's the night! Unfortunately, threatening to spoil his excitement are a smattering of boring non-vampire patients. A soused rockabilly Scot (Martin MacLennan) s is soon joined by a polite priest (John Rushton) suffering an embarrassing case of the stab wounds, each querying the frazzled 'Sexy Nurse' (Abby Jackson) when, exactly, the doctor will be ready to treat them.

Things come to a head with the arrival of the comatose Artie (Craig Methven). A louche millionaire, he was driving around romancing his bubbly secretary (Imogen Brabant) when a wall came out of nowhere and rendered him insensate. Matters are complicated when his wife (Roz Ford) arrives, sinisterly rattling on about how horrible it would be if he died and all his lovely money would be inherited by her. More pertinently for Dr. Bloom - are those scratches on Artie's wrists a symbol of arcane power? Could this drooling vegetable secretly be his much-longed for Vampire Lord?

It's an understatement to say that the show doesn't take itself particularly seriously. At a svelte hour and fifteen minutes, Vampire Hospital Waiting Room doesn't muck about. Performed as if trying to beat the clock, the show delivers a high-energy shot of slapstick, scenery-chewing overacting, catchy tunes, groan-worthy puns and characters that're so archetypal most of them don't even have names.

The light-hearted breeziness pays off and you quickly understand why this went down so well at the Edinburgh Fringe. The lion's share of the success is down to the cast's comfort in performing with one another. For example, Joe McArdle's doctor goes off on some very strange performative tangents; constantly playing out  some facial expression or vocal tic at the expense of whoever he's playing against - yet though his interactions are somewhat sadistic there's a cool camaraderie and trust visible at all times in the rest of the cast.

This loose improvisational style reaches its peak when Dr Bloom is 'testing' the comatose Artie to see if he's really a vampire - if he is then he shouldn't react to anything. As he's tickled with a sweaty rubber glove a smile appears on Craig Methven's face, soon followed by quivering shoulders and tears from his eyes as he does his level best not to react to anything that's happening to him. All too soon the audience is in stitches, his suppressed laughter infectious.

Though that's the high point, Vampire Hospital Waiting Room never truly puts a foot wrong. Sure there's gags that skim by sans-laughter, but the fun mood is maintained from start to finish, helped by a handful of toe-tapping songs - the best being Love is like a Car Crash (though Let's Put the Fun in Funeral isn't far behind). Each of these is built around repeated rhyming lyrical flourishes, most enjoyable when you're all but certain what the next line is going to be - but confounded.

Simply put, Vampire Hospital Waiting Room is a damn good time. The cast are charismatic and possessed of admirable comic timing, the music is jauntily written and the plot lands on just the right side of barmy. Theatrically it's more of an amuse-bouche than a main course, but nonetheless extremely satisfying.


Vampire Hospital Waiting Room is at the Arts Theatre until 21 November 2015. Tickets here.

Monday, November 9, 2015

'Tom Jones and Van Morrison' at the o2, 8th November 2015

Monday, November 9, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Someone screwed up at the Prudential BluesFest. You'd think a twofer gig featuring Van Morrison and Tom Jones, musicians with hundreds of millions records sold between them over the last 50 years, would be an easy sell. Apparently not; whether it be a failure of marketing, pricing or simply that there wasn't as much audience overlap between the two as anticipated.

Whatever the reason, there was a gargantuan queue snaking its way around the o2 hungry for freely distributed comp tickets. I'd snaffled one up myself, figuring that while I'd never go out of my way to attend a Tom Jones or Van Morrison gig, it sure beats sitting at home doing nothing.

So that's how I found myself squeezed into the vertigo inducing fourth tier of the o2 Arena watching men with a combined age of 145 plough their way through two idiosyncratic setlists. The nosebleed seat I was given was as far away from the action as you're able to get: 'Row U, Seat 835'. From my lofty vantage point the stage was maybe a kilometre away - even the jumbotron video screens were difficult to make out.

This hangar-like performance space is generally best suited to theatrical pop spectacles with huge props, big costumes and thumping great basslines. Sadly, this meant that Van Morrison (who I saw and enjoyed at Glastonbury in 2005) was less than thrilling. Within the vast space his band sounded reedy and muted, with Van himself cutting an indistinct figure in the centre of it all. As he meandered his way through a setlist of samey sounding R&B muzak, attention began to wane.

I suspect I'd be more positive if I'd seen this exact gig in a more intimate setting. There you'd be able to see the band truly at work and piece together the jigsaw of each musical interaction, and properly watch how Morrison's style as band leader dictates pace and mood. All that was lost in the cavernous emptiness between performer and audience, resulting in a disappointingly impersonal and bland experience.

It was at about the halfway point that an early tube home started to seem attractive. By now, Tom Jones had even joined Morrison on stage for a couple of not-particularly-inspiring duets - if this was to be the peak of the night then....

But, curious to what Jones' act is like after more than fifty years in the business, I stuck around. I'm glad I did. Tom Jones has apparently reached the 'Johnny Cash' stage in his career: his age, rumbling voice and onstage making him an unlikely harbinger of old-school-Christian apocalyptic Judgement Day drama.

Opening with Burning Hell, followed swiftly by God's Gonna Cut You Down and 'Til My Back Ain't Got No Bone, the setlist swiftly transforms the hitherto harmless crooner into an ominous omen of doom. He's helped by a band firmly locked into down-at-heel doom rock, the chugging, hypnotic guitar riffs sounding like they're chiming in the four horsemen and a lighting design that covers the stage in sickly low-lit neon - a faux draped curtain backdrop making things look all Twin Peaks red-roomsy.

And this is Tom Jones! Lovely, huggable, reality TV crooner, national institute Sir Tom "Granny's bit of rough" Jones! He seems to take pleasure in playing against type, taking advantage of the opportunity to headline a highbrow Blues festival and largely skip over the expected hits. Granted, he reverts to his usual gregarious personality between songs, but his faintly aged but still powerfully sonorous voice fuels an intense set that even manages to  partially redeem Sex Bomb.

The highlight is a cover of Leonard Cohen's Tower of Song. Watching Jones perform you feel like you're participating in a chain of musical history. Leaving aside Jones' iconic songs, he's associated with the best and brightest - from Presley to Portishead. Tower of Song cements him in this company, feeling like it's been written for him to solemnly boom out lyrics like:
"I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice
And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond
They tied me to this table right here in the Tower of Song"
It's a neat bit of self-mythologising, painting Jones as passenger to his prodigious vocal talents - managing to both humanise and deify him all at once. It's such a shivers up the spine moment that following it with It's Not Unusual comes across as a little cheap. I'm not going to deny that I didn't have fun watching him work through his signature tune, but switching gears into this crowdpleaser immediately dissipated all the atmosphere he'd painstakingly built throughout the set.  Oh well, the audience seemed happy. 

This marks the end of his solo set, after which he's rejoined by Van Morrison for a couple more iffy duets. By this point they look like they're having fun, but it proves to be a rather anti-climactic end to the evening, with the audience steadily leaking out into the drizzly London night.  

Van Morrison I can take or leave, but I don't think he's best suited to a venue of this size. Conversely, Tom Jones more than fills it, delivering a portentous musical performance that's refreshingly (and surprisingly) low on cheese. Top stuff, Tom.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

'The Hallow' (2015) directed by Corin Hardy

Thursday, November 5, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

"The Hallow opens with a radio broadcast about shrinking forests, our hero kicks off the plot by marking trees to be chopped down and laid over the top of the credits is footage of chainsaw wielding lumberjacks mercilessly picking over bare stumps. I’m detecting a distinct anti-logging message. Thing is, The Hallow eventually posits that this forest is home to terrifying killer fungus monsters and after the finale, I was firmly on the side of the loggers: they should burn the trees down and salt the ground so nothing will ever grow here again."


The Hallow opens Friday 6th November.

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