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Thursday, November 27, 2014

'The Libertine has Left the Building' at Mimetic Festival, 25th November 2014

Thursday, November 27, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

About midway through The Libertine has Left the Building, Michael Twaits explains that the most terrifying affliction an artist can be struck with is happiness.  His example is Adele; a baby, a loving husband and fabulous riches have left her with precious little inspiration for heartbreaking music.  His argument is that personal turmoil is the crucial ingredient in producing wonderful art, and so, trapped in prison with the whole country hating him, Rolf Harris must be producing a series of utter masterpieces.

It's an astute observation and one that applies all too easily to Twaits himself.  At 33 he has a steady relationship, a well-regarded arts practice and (as he repeatedly reminds us) a mortgage.  Good for him.  He looks like he's earned a spot of domestic bliss.  Problem is, as with Adele, happiness hasn't left him with much to say.  

This results in a show that's a series of dislocated segments touching on things that Twaits is vaguely interested in.  We get an exploration of different styles of drag, a potted life history, a segue into philosophical mathematics, some ponderings on a painting, a lengthy poem and finally a "cabaroke" drag number.

Whatever he's doing Twaits is always a charismatic speaker.  He slides effortlessly from poignancy to irreverence, constantly making self-deprecating asides as he improvises his way through the loose material.  His personality is the main attraction; looking wholly confident in front of an audience and navigating his way through wordy material as nimbly as a mountain goat picking its way through dangerous crags.

But charisma can only carry him so far and doesn't come close to compensating for a weird absence of passion.  It's as if he's working from a memory of righteous indignation, trying to recapture what he used to feel so intensely but now slips through his fingers like mercury. What's left is a series of vaguely trivial jabs at the periphery of subjects.  For example he criticises the popularisation of drag terminology resulting from RuPaul's Drag Race, annoyed that now everyone knows what 'tucking' is.  This is extremely low-hanging fruit and has the whiff of a performer annoyed that what used to be underground are now mainstream.

The nadir is a lengthy poem about the miseries of being gay, in your 30s, well off and popular.  Moans include being expected to be constantly witty and dry, having women expect you to be their best friend and generally fitting into the proscribed heteronormative idea of what a gay man should be.  Granted these things must be deeply annoying (and fair enough they are symptoms of bigger problems) but as a subject for dramatic soliloquy it sounds unpleasantly like self-obsessed bourgeois whining.

It's as if having run out of issues that he really cares about, Twaits has settled into going through the motions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the slightly depressing climax in which he dons drag before our eyes.  He perfunctorily slaps on foundation, false eyelashes and lipgloss, explaining that he doesn't even need to put much effort into making it work. Then he sings through A Whole New World from The Little Mermaid and calls it a night. He even admits that he's ending the show this way because he can't think of anything else to do.

Maybe I'm a touch naive, but I'd like to imagine the process of getting into drag as a faintly magical transformation; an illustration of how apparently concrete things like personality, appearance and gender are pliable and plasticine. Twaits treats the process with as much passion as brushing his teeth.

If the Libertine really has left the building I wish he would come back.  What's left in his absence is an occasionally amusing but curiously hollow experience.

The Libertine has Left the Building is at Mimetic Festival on 27, 28 & 29 November 2014
Time: 9:40:pm.  Tickets available here.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

'Marion Deprez is Gorgeous' at Mimetic Festival, 25th November 2014

Wednesday, November 26, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Can you be beautiful and funny?  Cast your eyes around the dressing room of the average comedy club and you'll see a dowdy group of distinctly average looking bozos. Is being funny a way for those who'll never grace a catwalk to stand out from the crowd?  After all, if they won't respect you for your lumpy, misshapen body then surely they'll pay bow down to your razorblade wit and pinpoint comedy timing? And if you are beautiful, why make the effort to be funny when people will hang on your every word, no matter what you say?

This question lies at the root of Marion Deprez is Gorgeous, a show as smart as it is frustrating.  You see, Marion Deprez is gorgeous.  From the tips of her toes to the top of her head she's looks like she's stepped off the front of a yé-yé album. Throughout the show she continually strikes 'cutie poses', giving us a sugar-sweet smile and widening her eyes to gaze off at some indeterminate point in the upper right corner of the room.

Watching her is like leafing through a particularly stylish fashion magazine, becoming slowly intoxicated on her confidence, presence and beauty.  She strikes a series of coquettish poses, granting and denying permission for members of the audience to drool over her.  This is all done in a faintly comic hyper-cute French accent, allowing us an easy route to not only adore Deprez, but to fetishise her. 

But then this is supposed to be a comedy show and (in her words): "I don't need to be funny. Men need to be funny all the time.  I'm not funny."  She's (kinda) right, Marion Deprez isn't very funny.  Her miming is half-assed, her anecdotes trail off right before the punchlines and her skits are long-winded and predictable.  This makes for a slightly uncomfortable audience experience.  The laughs are few and far between and when they come, rather polite; some in the audience becoming palpably uncomfortable at this Kaufmanesque anti-humour.

You see, Deprez is being unfunny on purpose.  The idea is that we'll put with an awful amount of shit just because she strikes sweet poses, giggles girlishly and flutters her eyelashes.  It's a sophisticated concept for a routine and slightly brave in that for it to 'work' relies on the audience putting up with something that's purposefully crap.

Tucked away within all the sweetness and light are some rather acidic moments; the best being a moment where she picks someone from the audience she considers beautiful. Telling him to stand up she instructs us to look at him and marvel about how handsome he is; explaining that she wishes a hunk like this could be her boyfriend.  Then she asks him to take his top off.  Understandably he bridles at the prospect so Deprez shoots back the tart one-liner: "you're just not used to being objectified like me."

This cuts to the quick of what Deprez is getting at.  While "I don't need to be funny" could be considered a plus, it cuts both ways.  When she is being funny people still gaze on adoringly; preoccupied with the plumpness of her lips rather than the words that trip from them. 

What's most frustrating about this is that she's absolutely right, and I know this because I was doing that exact thing.  Frankly I would have enjoyed watching her read the phone book, and I was more than prepared to tolerate some shitty sketches purely because the person skipping through them was attractive. 

It's an odd experience to end a show feeling disappointed with your own shallowness, but that's what Marion Deprez is going for.  In those terms it's an unreserved success, but one that's more intellectual than actually funny. 

Marion Deprez is Gorgeous is at Mimetic Festival on the 26, 27, 28, 29, November 2014 Time: 8:20:pm. Tickets £9.50 available here.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

'Paddington' (2014) directed by Paul King

Tuesday, November 25, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

At first sight, Paddington Bear looks monstrous, his creepy photorealistic fur bringing to mind 2010’s astonishingly misconceived Yogi Bear. You can almost hear the soft, squelching sound as audience’s hearts sink, the sound of teeth gritting as they prepare for yet another sacrilegious plundering of a beloved children’s classic. What nightmares are we going to have to endure? Is Paddington Bear going to have an attitude? Is he going to wear a puffa jacket? Oh god.. he’s going to rap, isn’t he?

This consuming sense of dread isn’t director Paul King’s fault. It’s just that we’ve been burned so many times by overblown, gagless, soulless cinematic abortions that we expect the worst; to look into the eyes of a CG bear is to see a grinning studio exec staring back (probably doing some warped approximation of the hated “Dreamworks face”).

This is a pity, because Paddington is secretly and surprisingly, really pretty wonderful.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

'Baby Lame: Don't Call It a Comeback' at Mimetic Festival, 20th

Sunday, November 23, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

I suspect my perspective on what's normal and what's not has become irretrievably skewed. By way of an example: I'm sitting in a damp tunnel underneath Waterloo station watching an intensely bearded man screeching maniacally into a microphone.  He's smeared in clownish drag makeup, is wearing a Little Miss Muffet wig and a white wedding dress with shit-smears of Nutella down the sides and is vigorously pumping two very hairy arms. Accompanying him are two burly yet feminine slaves in moth-eaten, stained animal masks who periodically grimace from pools of darkness.  The soundtrack?  Miley Cyrus' Bangerz.

It's like Paul Dacre's nightmare brought to horrible life; a kaleidoscope of genderfucked midnight-movie sexuality and punk rock rotten-ness.  Me?  I'm sitting there in the front row drinking a beer and having a remarkably pleasant time.  Where oh where did it all go wrong?
Baby Lame exists within a very particular subset of trash exploitation.  The ur-example is obviously John Waters movies, Baby Lame aiming at being the spiritual successor to the outstandingly successful Divine.  These are big heels to fill; Divine having left in her trail a litany of self destruction, drugged/boozed out chaos and intensely sexually aggressive filth. There's also odd notes of Divine David aka David Hoyle peppered through the glitter, sweat and goo that fills the act.

To be disgusting and repellent on stage isn't as easy as you might think.  Audiences can smell fear a mile away, if you don't hurl yourself into this with palpable abandon then people might suspect that your heart's not in it, causing to terror to transform into its polar opposite, pity. Baby Lame doesn't have to worry about that though, the domineering, ultra surety that fills this performance has the effect of transforming her into a lion and us into frightened sheep.

In contrast with some of the other acts I'd seen at Mimetic who quickly built a chummy rapport with their audience, Baby Lame eyes them more as a resource to exploit and humiliate.  Two men are dragged on stage as part of the performance; one is given a face distortingly ugly half face mask and duct-taped to a chair while monstrosities cavort around, and the other is press-ganged into a warped marriage ceremony while Nutella is smeared over his face in an approximation of excrement.

Bubbling under the surface is a skewering of celebrity.  With the towering ego, tasteless attire and entourage of yes-things Baby Lame works as the logical conclusion to the shit you see on the front page of crappy celeb rags.  Video segments splice together Lame and Winfrey; responding to her sensitive questions by vomiting chewed up cake from her crimson lips and laughing like a clogged up drain.

It's nauseating, nasty and sinister stuff, the audience departing with the kinds of stares you see in the eyes of soldiers returning from wars.  But you can develop strange tastes over time.  Some sing the tasty praises of crunching down bull testicles.  Some find beauty in endless, industrially obnoxious, machinelike techno.  Some get their thrills from being trussed up and pissed on.  Some (like me) get their illicit thrills from mad-mental performances like this. 

By now you can probably judge whether you'd enjoy Baby Lame or not. I certainly did.  This kind of stuff is totally up my street.  But then I do live in a bad part of town.

'The Ruby Darlings' at Mimetic Festival, 19th November 2014

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

As I walked home I was cheerily singing; "you can put it in my front-bum, but not in my bum-bum".  Thisearned me a few sideways glances but, well, when you've got an earworm you can't really help yourself.  This was what I was left with after The Ruby Darlings: a cheeky, sexy and very, very funny cabaret.  They are Ruby (Rachel Le Moeligou) and Darling (Lily Phillips), ably supported by David Tims, who provides both musical accompaniment and an excellent straight man.

Feminism and fun are two words that (unfairly in my book) don't tend to be found in the same sentence.  All too often tabloids, shit TV and arsehole media in general paint a picture of some hatchet-faced, humourless harridan out to spoil everyone's fun. Yet here, with smiles as smooth as quicksilver, machine gun fast innuendos and subject matter that leaves suspicious stains, we see a feminism that easily dazzles and thrills the crowd.

Ruby and Darling aren't ladettes, they aren't caricatured horny slappers and they certainly aren't sexually submissive waifs - they're simply open and honest about their sexual pleasures.  Capturing this tone successfully is like trying to pinch a housefly between chopsticks: trickier than it sounds.  Travel too far into depravity and you become a lech; relying in mere gross-out humour to earn your giggles.  Keep things too prim and proper and what's the point?

The critical factor at play here is intelligence, specifically in constructing wonderful feats of sexy wordplay.  Rhymes stack upon each other, the songs reaching to dizzying heights of cleverness and complexity.  In particular, a folk-esque pastiche about dongs (which sounds like it might have been sung by a drunk Joan Baez) seriously impressed; being simultaneously musically excellent, lyrically complex and funny as all hell.  

With a set list that covers pubic hair, naming vaginas, cocks, STIs, anal sex, bestiality, and queefing The Ruby Darlings are never going to get booked for children's parties and weddings (maybe really fun weddings), but it's worthwhile having a think about precisely which tradition they fall into.  With the sexy costumes and fucking-focussed tunes there's obvious parallels with burlesque, but they prevent such an easy classification.  Layered on are hints of the saucy beachside postcard, end-of-the-pier variety shows and Carry On films - all of which adds up an act that's intensely, powerfully, wonderful British.  We're reminded that we like talking about sex, especially when its wreathed in irony and humour.

I had a wonderful time at this show. All three performers were friendly, open and intensely charismatic.  They developed a conspiratorial rapport with the audience almost immediately; and unlike so many acts nobody looks terrified when they're asked to participate.  By the time we're in the final song about anal sex, the whole room is on its feet waving placards in the air.  The warm spaces under Waterloo are filled with drunk smiles and happy.

I laughed my ass off.  Be sure to check them out if you get the chance.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

'Hoke's Bluff' at Shoreditch Town Hall, 19th November 2014

Thursday, November 20, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Cultural osmosis is a strange thing.  I've never laid eyes on an American football player in full uniform, never watched a cheerleading demonstration and certainly never been yelled at by a grumpy yet also compellingly paternal coach.  And yet I've experienced all this countless times in film, television, literature and now on stage.  I know this iconography like the back of my hand and yet it's like something I've only dreamt about.

Hoke's Bluff is the theatrical realisation of that dream.  Every item of clothing, turn of phrase and social interaction relevant to high school sports has been fed into a kind of dramatic blender.  The company, Action Hero, hit frappe, and what oozes out is a kaleidoscope of ritualistic behaviours and intensely codified behaviours.  Given that high school sports is one of the purest manifestations of WASPish conformity it's faintly ironic that such an outright weird piece of theatre has been made out of it, let alone seeing it through a alien prism of Britishness.

The barebones plot revolves around the Hoke's Bluff Wildcats; a high school sports team in Everytown, USA.  The precise sport they're playing is slippery to pin down; one moment they're talking about quarterbacks and the next they're laying down on the ice.  Central to the plot is Tyler Purdem (James Stenhouse), star of the sports team and his cheerleader girlfriend Connie (Gemma Paintin).  Both are experiencing their own psychological turmoil. Tyler is under intense pressure to win this year, yet is finding it difficult to "release the ball" and Connie feels sidelined in her boyfriend's affections and objectified by cheerleading.

The two performers bring to life an extensive cast of characters; the entire cheerleading squad, the players on the team, the energetic mascot and the grizzled, motivationally addicted coach.  The only other person on stage is the Referee, played as a quixotic Greek chorus that communicates only in semaphore and garbled sportspeak.  Both Paintin and Stenhouse stay in constant, slightly sweaty, motion - always limbering up or running laps around the performance space (which is styled like a US high school gym). 

Easing into the warped world of Hoke's Bluff is a gradual process.  As the play starts you assume that this is going to a relatively straight performance of American rituals.  But then you begin to notice the cracks; none of the terminology really makes sense, the markings on the floor appear to spell out some kind of magical sigil and that everything is translated into some hyperreal distillation of reality.

There are constant digressions to strange poetic repetition.  Cheerleaders listing acrobatic moves or coaches laying out sports plays (my favourite being "The Immaculate Reception"). This is taken to a whole other level in the long, plaintive, slightly creepy, listing of names of places "Did you ever get blind drunk in Newtown?  Did you ever speak to a bereaved father in Barrel Gorge" and so on.  This shift into repetition is disorientating and, again, reminiscent of the cut-up half-thoughts that swim through a tired mind on the verge of dreaming.

These gentle drifts into the bizarre were some of my favourite moments in the play, closely followed swiftly by the intoxicating dance scene set to Major Lazer's Get Free.  It's in these stylistic flights of fancy that Hoke's Bluff comes close to nailing down the ambient sea of hormones, ambitions and fears that permeate this very alien world.  Dissecting small town Americana and presenting the mangled remains reminds me a bit of Twin Peaks; taking the melodramata and folksy, small town big heartedness as sincerely as possible without descending into mockery.

Not everyone is going to enjoy a show this fragmented.  The narrative is more suggested than shown and the characters are (intentionally) bland archetypes we've seen a thousand times before.  This means that if you want to get anything worthwhile out of Hoke's Bluff you're going to have to engage emotionally and analytically with the images, language and aesthetics on stage. 

Fortunately I love that stuff, so I had a great time.  This is maybe a bit too weird for mass consumption, but for me it was compelling, unique stuff.

Hoke's Bluff is at Shoreditch Town Hall until the 29th of November. Tickets £11, available here.

'Mummy' by Amy Gwilliam at Mimetic Festival, 18th November 2014

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Watching someone rummage about in an attic for an hour doesn't sound like the most immediately tantalising prospect in the world.  Yet Amy Gwilliam's one woman show makes this process into a miniature psychological epic; complete with fierce battles against memory, delusion and procrastination.  

Skinny, spectacled and sporting a tousled blonde bedhead Gwilliam has a striking stage presence.   Her bony body is all angular jutting elbows and knees, her face rubbery and expressive, all capped off by two hugely expressive eyes that make you feel like you're caught in high-beam headlights.  She makes for an elastic, almost cartoonish, figure; one moment embodying a confident, independent woman in her late 20s and the next regressing down until we can spot the mischievous ten year old she once was.

The Spartan attic set comprises a handful of boxes labelled things like 'Elizabeth', 'Books', 'Home Vids' and 'Fancy Dress' together with a desk and an incongruous looking laptop. She's up here in an effort to find a calm, quiet spot to write the conclusion of her thesis, due in the following morning.  But with rain hammering down on the roof and the detritus of her past lying all around, she's easily distracted and falls into an archaeological investigation of her life.

Along the way she'll play hits from her parent's old record collection, dress up in her dead mother's clothes and become dismayed when she realises that her father has thrown away all her old Spice Girls merchandise.  More importantly she'll exhume the ghost of her childhood imaginary friend; a cheeky Australian goat named Cliff.  This all adds up to an episodic trawl through a life, with dramatic tension created by the pressure of an impending deadline hovering over her.

With this focus on procrastination, the appearance of dead relatives and the faint hints of craziness that run through the show, there's whiff of Hamlet at play here.  It's a very faint whiff, but it's there.  Sure there's no sword fights, murders or poisonings, yet the dramatic pressure of finding excuses to avoid doing doing something important, wrapped up with familial turmoil echoes similar pressures found in Shakespeare's play. That said, Hamlet never popped on velour leggings and a sequinned shawl and danced around to Madonna's Ray of Light.

There's a lot of consistent thematic meat to enjoy in Mummy; the thesis that's not being concluded is about formalising the process of death and dying, taking Cleopatra's efforts to immortalise her memory as a focal point.  In the attic Gwilliam is of course surrounded by the quasi-forgotten flotsam and jetsam that accumulates around a person - coming to playing Lara Croft as she raids her parent's tombs.  

It all ties together into the dual meaning of Mummy (as in ancient Egypt) and Mummy (as in mother); allowing us to get to grips with death and how objects can retain memory even after their owner is six feet under. This realisation layers in a decent amount of pathos, underlined by Gwilliam's emotionally accessible and vulnerable performance.  This, combined with some excellent lighting and sound cues makes for an occasionally powerful experience.

That said this is a work in progress and it's not without flaws.  The episodic structure means we move between dramatic ideas without a huge amount of continuity.  Not every segment of the performance is as successful as the rest; it takes a while to get into gear at the beginning and a fourth wall breaking bit of audience interaction is well played, but doesn't really gel with the rest of the performance.

Nonetheless I enjoyed myself.  I found it easy to get sucked into this dusty (well, talcumy) psychological microcosm.  Notably, every time I stopped to note that I thought things were getting a bit dull, something interesting happened mid pen-stroke and I changed my mind. Right now it's a good piece; with some judicious editing and the willingness to 'kill your darlings' it could be a great piece.

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