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Friday, September 30, 2016

'Fordlandia' at the London School of Fashion

Friday, September 30, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

"Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? 'No!' says the man in Washington, 'It belongs to the poor.' 'No!' says the man in the Vatican, 'It belongs to God.' 'No!' says the man in Moscow, 'It belongs to everyone.' I rejected those answers; instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose... Fordlandia."
So said Henry Ford, christening his secluded utopian city, located deep in the heart of the Amazon. Here, far from the prying eyes of Big Government, the philosophical concepts that powered Ford's company could blossom, and a pure technological, moral and cultural revolution would ensue. Optimism fizzed as the ground was broken and first buildings erected. Hopeful workers journed to the rainforest in droves, eager for a taste of Ford's bright new future. Yet now the dream is in ruins; machinery clogged up with muck, roofs caved under the weight of vines; the jungle having reclaimed its land.

Okay, okay. Henry Ford didn't actually say the quote up above. It's from the videogame Bioshock, in which a 20th century industrialist sets up a secluded utopian city, Rapture, based on his own philosophical principles. The city is run under strict behavioural controls. Everything quickly goes to hell, and the city ends up ruined and reconquered by nature. Also it's full of crazed genetic mutants. The similarities are striking*, Fordlandia a powerful symbol of reliance on ideology, mankind's hubris and the nature's indifference to men's dreams.

*Okay there's currently no evidence of hordes of crazed genetic mutants in Fordlandia

The city once more proves its inspirational worth in Studio Swine's Fordlandia exhibition, at the London College of Fashion. The concept behind the collection is to imagine what Fordlandia might have been like if it had succeeded. To this end it uses materials from the rainforest - primarily the abundance of natural rubber, but also woods, animal skins and tribal inspired designs. 

Thing is, Fordlandia posits that for Ford's project to have succeeded, nature and industry would have had to have entered a symbiotic relationship, each taking inspiration from the other. This is the world that Fordlandia presents: a sustainable, ecologically minded hand-made paradise of natural fibres, organic forms and hand-crafted objects. Now, you can go back and forth as to whether this would be how a working jungle-city might look, but one thing's for sure - Ford would have hated it.

From what I can gather from Greg Grandin's excellent book Fordlandia: the Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City, the place was intended to dominate and pacify nature rather than work with it. The jungle was slashed and burned, the bulldozed level -  as if Ford were trying to exorcise some untamed spirit from the soil. Sewn into the fabric of the city was an aggressive sense of industry, the city and its citizens part of some giant machine dedicated to churning out rubber. This rigidity can be seen in the way Ford envisaged his workers living: strict work schedules, uniforms, a ban on alcohol consumption, dietary controls on unhealthy food and (perhaps most monstrous of all) enforced square dancing *shudder*. 

But perhaps the clearest example is the failure of Fordlandia's raison d'etre: rubber production. The monetary and industrial justification for the place was that it would solve the problem of farming rubber trees. Whilst experiments had been made in transplanting them elsewhere, botanists figured their natural climate would be most successful. What they didn't understand was the rubber tree's place in an ecosystem. Their regimented rows of trees generally failed to take roots and those that did were ruined by blight.

Fordlandia was so fiercely geared  to conquering nature through human ingenuity that I just can't connect the philosophy of this exhibition to the history. A 'successful' Fordlandia would have somehow pummelled the jungle into submission through the application of science, managed to harness industrial production of rubber and created a wholly artificial, synthetic society that existed in hermetic seclusion in the rainforest. For it to become ecologically minded, with an arts and crafts aesthetic simply doesn't make sense.

What this exhibition has come up with isn't an extension of Fordlandia, it merely shares a root idea: what would a sustainable urban environment within the rainforest look like (we'll ignore Manaus for the moment). The exhibition blurb says that it "imagines a world where Fordlandia is a success". It doesn't. That would probably look like an unfriendly, near-totalitarian misery-fest. What Fordlandia proves to be is a slightly underwhelming collection of rainforest-influenced furniture and clothes that don't really have much connection to the historical Fordlandia at all.

Fordlandia is at the London College of Fashion until 10 December. Details here.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

'London and the History of Videogames' at the Museum of London, 26th September 2016

Tuesday, September 27, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Encountering London in videogames is often winceworthy. Whether it by design or technological limitations, games often present a tourist's guide to London - taking in the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace and Piccadilly Circus with a couple of badly voice-acted cockneys thrown in for good measure.

It's rare that a game manages to capture even a smidge of London reality; glass and aluminium dominating imperial Portland stone and the vestiges of medieval buildings; that distinctively London psychic mood of short-term impatience and long-term tolerance; the class, religious and racial divisions that carve up the neighhourhoods and the simple Darwinian scrabble for shelter, food and money that fuels the human engine of the city.

At last night's lecture, panelists Jack Gosling, Jordan Erica Webber and Tristan Donovan attempted to pin down what makes London tick in videogames, giving us a guided tour through the city's appearances in the medium, from the bedroom coders of the 80s to modern triple A blockbusters.

Promising beginnings.
Tristan Donovan kicks things off by dragging us back into gaming's primordial ooze with the 1978 text adventure Pirate Island. Our capital's first appearance in the digital medium is the inauspicious introductory sentence "I am in a flat in London". It goes on to explain that you can see a bottle of rum, some trainers and a sack of crackers (now that's a scene I can relate to). Similar text adventures followed, most notably social satire Hampstead, which skewered Thatcherism and set the stage for a continuing theme of gamified London-set class struggles.

Lara explores Aldwych Tube Station
Text gave way to single colour sprites, which gave way to 16-bit colours and parallax scrolling, which eventually ceded to texture mapped polygons. It's here designers and developer first had the irresistible urge to translate some glimmer of London reality into games. An interesting entry is Core Design's 1998 Tomb Raider III, in which the impeccably British adventurer returns home to explore blocky renderings of the British Museum, the (then relatively recently) abandoned Aldwych tube station and the rooftops around St Paul's Cathedral.

This lit the touchpaper for the still-ongoing trend to create realistic virtual Londons to fight, race and generally cause havoc in. A notable entry was Team Soho's 2002 release The Getaway, which is essentially Grand Theft Auto by way of Guy Ritchie. The game itself is a bit of a dog, but it's at least impressive for trying to accurately model central London from Hyde Park all the way up to Shoreditch High Street. Problem is, the PS2 couldn't render the hustle and bustle of the city, leaving the streets sterile and bereft of life - falling into a kind of urban uncanny valley.

I preferred Nanda Parbat.
Most modern games, outlined by Jack Gosling, opt to present a tightly choreographed smaller areas, sidelining scope in favour of attention to detail. A prime example is Naughty Dog's 2011 Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, in which Nathan Drake begins his adventure fighting skinheads in an East London boozer, before descending into an abandoned tube station/secret occult library. Though the game gives us a 'wow moment' with its neon vision of the City of London's skyline, Jordan Erica Webber explains just how much work into virtually recreating the stained urinals of some crappy pub. Though the player will probably be more occupied with the tracksuited thug punching them in the face, the level is crammed with location appropriate graffiti, grotty props and general dank. You can practically smell the stale piss..

Other London set games exploit its history. Countless Sherlock Holmes games have conjured up foggy gas-lit Victorian streets, and other titles offer a smattering of alternative Londons invaded by Nazis, aliens or sometimes alien Nazis. Most prominent is Ubisoft's 2015 globe and time-trotting Assassin's Creed series winding up in Victorian London. The game map encompasses vast swathes of the city, giving people a peek at London past. On top of that, we're allowed to frolic with luminaries like Dickens, Darwin and Queen Victoria - even undertaking missions alongside Karl Marx as a kind of ragged trousered exsanguinist.

It's weird to look at real-life buildings and think "I stabbed someone on top of that thing".
In a perverse twist, a believable virtual historical London is more achievable than contemporary virtual London. For one, we're all tourists in the past, the haze of time neatly sidestepping nitpickers whose immersion might be shattered by a phone box being on the wrong corner. For another, perhaps it is simply impossible to render a believable London in a videogame - and even if you could would the tangled street layout, crammed pavements and neverending traffic even make for a fun gaming space?

For my part, I find encountering London in games fascinating. It's one of the few ways you can explore the city through other people's eyes: finding myself curious as to what neighbourhoods they choose to render, what architecture caught their attention, what litters the streets or simply what dreams London sparks inside them. The duller ones manacle you to the top of a tour bus, but the best come within a whisker of capturing what it feels like to walk these grey streets. And who knows what the future may hold.

An excellent talk and a great introduction to what looks like a fascinating programme.

London and the History of Videogames is part of CITY | SPACE | VIDEOGAMES. More information here.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Preview: 'Lazarus' at the King's Cross Theatre

Wednesday, September 21, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

I'm not normally given over to hyping things up too much, but the imminent arrival of David Bowie's Lazarus in London gives me butterflies in all the right places. I mean, not only is it inspired by The Man Who Fell to Earth, a personal favourite film of mine, not only does it feature Bowie's music, not only does it star the perma-excellent Michael C Hall, but it is apparently absolutely goddamn insane. How could I, or any other bold theatregoer, possibly turn down the chance to see what New York critics described as:

"I can confidently report that David Bowie has landed on East Fourth Street with a work of blistering nihilism, no small sum of inscrutable foolishness and a fistful of the most brilliant contemporary rock you will hear anywhere." - Jeremy Gerard, Deadline
"People splash through milk. Others pop dozens of balloons. Strange women sniff others’ lingerie (frequently). Impromptu kabuki actors invade the stage." - Kory Grow, Rolling Stone
"Ice-cold bolts of ecstasy shoot like novas through the glamorous muddle and murk of Lazarus, the great-sounding, great-looking and mind-numbing new musical." - Ben Brantley, the New York Times
What more do you want from life?

It's opening in previews at the brand spanking new King's Cross Theatre on the 25th of October and currently scheduled to run until the 22nd of January. Tickets for this are going to be hot hot hot, so get 'em while you can.

Directed by Ivo van Hove, Lazarus includes songs from Bowie’s iconic catalogue as well as brand new music written for the stage. The Lazarus Cast Album will be released on 21 October on RCA / ISO Records and features performances by the original NYTW company as well as three of Bowie’s final studio recordings.

Michael C Hall plays Newton. Prior to appearing in Lazarus at New York Theatre Workshop, Michael portrayed the title character in the Broadway production of Hedwig And The Angry Inch and starred in Will Eno’s Broadway production of The Realistic Jones (Drama League Award nomination) directed by Sam Gold and co-starring Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, and Marisa Tomei. Michael made his Broadway debut in 1999 as the Master of Ceremonies in Sam Mendes' revival of Cabaret and portrayed Billy Flynn in 2002 in the revival of Chicago. Off-Broadway, his credits include the Roundabout Theatre Company's Mr. MarmaladeCymbelineMacbethTimon Of Athens, and Henry V at the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, The English Teachers for MCC, the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Corpus Christi,Romeo And Juliet at Center Stage, R Shoman at Williamstown and Skylight at the Mark Taper Forum. Michael’s television credits include Dexter (SAG, Golden Globe awards; five Emmy nominations) and Six Feet Under (two SAG ensemble awards, Emmy nomination). On film, Hall co-starred in Jim Mickle’s Cold in July and John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings. He will next be seen in Antonio Campos’ Christine (which premiered in Dramatic Competition at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival) with Rebecca Hall. Michael is currently shooting Peter Landesmans Felt, a political thriller about Watergate, told from the vantage point of Deep Throat. Hall plays White House Counsel John Dean.

Michael Esper plays Valentine. Michael’s previous stage work on Broadway includes Sting’s musical The Last ShipAmerican Idiot, The Lyons and A Man For All Seasons opposite Frank Langella. Winner of the Clarence Derwent Award for Most Promising Male, Michael has also appeared in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide To Capitalism And Socialism With A Key To The Scriptures (The Guthrie and Public Theaters), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Druid Theatre Company and Dublin Theatre Festival), Bif Bill(Lincoln Center Theatre) and Tales From Red Vienna (Manhattan Theater Club). Michael’s recent feature film work includes Brad Furman’s Runner, RunnerFrances Ha, and The Drop. Additional film credits include the Andrew Jarecki feature, All Good ThingsA Beautiful Mind, and Loggerheads, which competed at the Sundance Film Festival. Lazarus will be Michael’s London stage debut.

Sophia Anne Caruso plays Girl. Sophia recently made her Broadway debut in Joe Mantello’s Blackbirdopposite Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams. Previous stage credits include Runaways (New York City Center), The Nether (MCC Theater, New York) and Little Dancer (Kennedy Center, Washington DC). For her performance in Lazarus at New York Theatre Workshop, Sophia received a 2016 Lucille Lortel Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical. Her screenwork includes the films 37 and Jack Of The Red Hearts, and on television The Sound Of Music Live and Smash.

Amy Lennox plays Elly. Amy most recently starred as Lauren in the London production of Kinky Boots(Adelphi Theatre), for which she was nominated for an Olivier Award. Other stage work includes Legally Blonde (Savoy Theatre and UK Tour), 9 To 5 (UK Tour), The Sound Of Music (London Palladium), Soho Cinders (Soho Theatre), Decade (Headlong), Tracks (Arcola Theatre), The Secret Garden (Birmingham Rep) The Last Five Years (Lyric Theatre, Belfast) and The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie (Royal & Derngate/Assembly Rooms). Amy’s film credits include Never Let Me Go alongside Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield, Wrong Turn 5 and The Cab Ride. 

Gabrielle Brooks plays Teenage Girl. Gabrielle’s previous work on stage includes The Book Of Mormon(Prince of Wales), I Can’t Sing (London Palladium), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (London Palladium),Redsnapper (Belgrade Theatre), Hairspray (Cork Opera House and UK Tour), Our House 10th Anniversary Concert (Savoy), Whistle Down The Wind (Aldwych) and The Stranger’s Case (Liverpool Everyman). In addition to her work on stage, Gabrielle has also appeared in workshops for Love Me Tender, Perfect Pitch, Big Fish and Becoming Nancy. Gabrielle has appeared on television in The Royal Variety Show, The Paul O’Grady Show, Grange HillComing Down The Mountain and her film credits include Notes On A Scandal.

Sydnie Christmas plays Teenage Girl. Sydnie is a recent graduate from D&B Academy of Performing Arts in Musical Theatre. Her previous credits include the feature film Kick Ass 2 and short film Can You Keep A Secret.

Richard Hansell plays Zach. Richard recently worked with Ivo van Hove in the Young Vic production of A View From The Bridge, in which he appeared both in the West End and on Broadway. Other stage work includes Jamie Lloyd’s Macbeth opposite James McAvoy (Trafalgar Studios), Tonight At 8.30 (Chichester Festival Theatre), The Madness Of King George (Apollo Theatre), Troilus And Cressida (Shakespeare’s Globe) and Sam Mendes’ productions of As You Like It and The Tempest for The Bridge Project (Old Vic/BAM). Richard’s screen credits include roles in Downton AbbeyThe RoyalSpooksAnd Then There Were None and Shine.

Maimuna Memon plays Teenage Girl. Maimuna recently graduated from The Oxford School of Drama. She made her professional debut in Into The Woods at The Manchester Royal Exchange in December 2015 and recently performed in The Buskers Opera at London’s Park Theatre.  

Jamie Muscato plays Ben. Jamie most recently played Joe in Bend it Like Beckham (Phoenix Theatre). Other stage credits include The Light Princess (National Theatre), Rock Of Ages (Duchess Theatre),Spring Awakening (Lyric Hammersmith and Novello Theatre) and Sweeney Todd (Welsh National Opera). Screen work includes Les Miserables (Working Title), Cilla (ITV) and My Parents Are Aliens (ITV).

Tom Parsons plays Michael. Tom’s recent theatre work includes Guy in Once (Princess Theatre, Melbourne, The Olympia Theatre, Dublin, Charlotte Theatre, Seoul), Peter in Jesus Christ Superstar(Arena World Tour, including the UK and Australia), Monkee Business at the Manchester Opera House,Avenue Q  (Noel Coward, Wyndham’s and Gielgud Theatres) and Mamma Mia at (Prince of Wales Theatre).

Julie Yammanee plays Maemi. Julie’s previous theatre credits include Priscilla Queen Of The Desert (UK Tour), Here Lies Love (National Theatre), Avenue Q (UK Tour), The World Goes Round (Yellow Glass Theatre), Aladdin (The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury) and Peter Pan (Towngate Theatre). In addition to her performances on stage, Julie has also appeared on screen in The Sleepover Club, Streetsmartz, Angriest Video Store Clerk and The Potato House.

Monday, September 19, 2016

'The Art of Caring' at St Pancras Hospital, 18th September 2016

Monday, September 19, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

You feel a weird combination of reassurance and worry walking through the doors of an NHS clinic. The staff are busy yet friendly, the walls are festooned with upbeat primary coloured posters and there's a pleasantly paternalistic atmosphere. This is a place designed to make you well, doing its level best to send you out the door in better shape than you walked in. 

But then you notice the damp on the walls, the peeling paint and furniture that hasn't been replaced in 20 years. The NHS is suffering the death of a thousand cuts: the victim of a government ideologically opposed to a free at the point of use publicly owned health service. Jeremy Hunt assures us that they're merely 'modernising' the NHS when anyone with a glimmer of sense can see that he's setting it up to fail, its carcass fodder for the circling corporate vultures of the American healthcare industry. I mean, if it's not making investors any money, what's the point of it?

So it's wonderful to see an exhibition like The Art of Caring - a collection of work from nurses, patients and artists depicting their ideas on the theme of caring, specifically nursing. The exhibition is collaboration between Kingston University, The Arts Project and Camden & Islington NHS Foundation Trust, featuring work that ranges from photography, painting, performance and sculpture. Some of it is professional and polished, some is rough and passionate, but all displays a tenderness and empathy that perfectly suits the surroundings.

(Fractured Memories) Doll Therapy by Aran Illingworth
There's a lot to take in here, but I particularly enjoyed the following. (Fractured Memories) Doll Therapy by Aran Illingworth. It's a quietly devastating canvas piece about Alzheimers, capturing a painful morsel of misery in the eyes of someone whose memory is gradually eroding away. The arts n crafts textile look adds to the emotional wallop, not only looking like something a kindly grandmother might make, but the rough shapes and soft fabric underlining the subjects humanity and increasingly blurry edges.

Comfort and Joy - Susie Mendelsson
On a slightly different wavelength is Susie Mendelsson's Comfort and Joy, a bizarre mixed-media sculpture of a creepily wizened homunculus approaching a baby from behind while a tiny man stares on in horror. It's disturbing stuff, the soft manufactured plastic of the doll contrasting with the hand-carved chaos of the monster. That title has got to be a joke, because there's precious little comfort or joy in this. If I had to pick out a meaning, it seems to speak of a mother's trauma at losing a baby, then feeling guilt that the next one survives. Even as she cares for her healthy baby, she cannot help but imagine the forgotten one, balefully staring on in jealousy.

One Day at a Time - Susie Mendelsson
Also by Mendelsson is One Day at a Time, depicting a worried looking person weighed down by faceless little men. This is a little easier to parse, but no less effective. Here the effect of the paranoias, traumas and miseries of the past is literalised, showing them crawling all over an apparently normal person going about their day to day life. It looks suitably nightmarish, the haunted expression of the central figure conveying a palpable desperation.

Charlotte CHW
Sunday's event was capped off by a live performance from Charlotte CHW, who was also exhibiting photographs. Dressed in a suit that perfectly matched the brickwork of the building, she writhed about against the walls and on the floor accompanied by a soundtrack of breaking glass. Watching this it's difficult not to look up at the gently spooky Victorian brickwork and wonder just how long this hospital is going to last. Generations of Londoners have walked through these halls, each with their own individual ailments and stories to tell.

The performance understands this history, treating the building like a psychological sponge that's sucked up a century of trauma and needs to be squeezed dry.  Charlotte's movements are slow, painful and precise - it's like you can see dust crumbling from her joints as she repeatedly collapses and rises, trapped in some infinite loop of pain, healing and more pain. I dug it.

Anyhow, The Art of Caring is well worth checking out, demonstrating not only the public's affection for the NHS and its nurses, but just how critical its long-term support systems are. Whether you've sprained your ankle, suffered trauma in Blair's oil wars or are watching an elderly relative succumb to dementia, the NHS will always be there. But it also needs us to fight for it.

Art is Caring is at The Conference Centre, St Pancras Hospital, 4 St Pancras Way, London NW1 OPE (9am-5pm) until 13 October 2016.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Review: 'dreamplay' at the Vaults, 13th September 2016

Wednesday, September 14, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

There's nothing quite like being sat in a pitch-black room while an angry bald man berates you for not having any ambition. Takes me right back to my school days. That's just one of many delights peppered throughout Baz Theatre's strange and intense dreamplay

Formed as a response to Strindberg's seminal 1905 The Dream Play, which follows the daughter of a god as she chronicles various forms of human suffering on earth, dreamplay is a promenade piece that guides us through the stygian tunnels under Waterloo Station. I'm no stranger to these gloomy passages, but the venue has an indelible, faintly sinister atmosphere. It's composed of small boxy constructs combined with vast vaulted ceilings, the stillness punctuated only by the distant rumble of trains overhead. If you're going to probe the border of dream and reality, this is definitely the place to do it.

So what exactly is dreamplay? Well, you're led between various rooms where you watch various surreal scenes. You see a jagged piss-take of the French New Wave, led by a woman going bananas. A guy sat in a bath of cold water in his pants muttering an improvised fairytale. A cyclist in hi-vis gear on the toilet promising not to piss herself again (I think). A room full of people screeching and rolling around on the floor. A guy talking us through his 'beach', which consists of sheet metal and a space heater.

You get the picture. On top of that, dreamplay does its best to keep the audience in a heightened state of tension. Cast members often pick on people in the audience, berating them for standing in the wrong place, asking them to read stuff from cards or even simply walking over to them and fixing them with an aggressive stare. They even go so far as to fake it a couple of times, mixing in a touch of paranoia as the lines between cast and audience blur. This is hugely effective - I'm usually pretty relaxed about having to interact with a piece of drama, but here I found myself hoping they'd leave me alone - imagining being dragged off to some dark cupboard and being psychologically humiliated by a grinning cellist.

Given all that, it's safe to say that dreamplay is probably a bad show to take a first date to. Even a seasoned consumer of purestrain barminess like me found it tough going at times, especially considering the sadistic glee with which the production repeatedly yanks the carpet out from under you. 

On top of that, it's never quite clear exactly what's going on. I knew it was a response to Strindberg going in, and I'm vaguely familiar with The Dream Play (though I've never seen it performed). Yet even with this (admittedly pretty skeletal) knowledge I had absolutely no idea what the hell was going on. The narrative throughline weaves and wanders freely, the presences in the play so foggily defined that it's difficult to term them characters in the traditional sense.

Being completely baffled isn't such a bad thing, but it does somewhat limit any emotional engagement. The quintet of performers, Colin Hurley, Michelle Luther, Laura Moody, Jade Ogugua and Jack Wilkinson, all give it the full welly, with Moody's darkly sexualised cello accompaniment a particular highlight. Still, I wish the show wasn't quite so wilfully cryptic - 105 minutes of not knowing what the fuck is a long time, and consequentially I found myself tuning out a bit towards the end.

It's a really passionate, memorable and well-performed piece of drama, but (though I'm embarrassed to admit this) I outright don't understand what they're trying to say. A teeny-tiny pinch more clarity would go a long long way. 


dreamplay is at the Vaults until 1st October 2016. Tickets here.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Review: '27: The Rise of a Falling Star' at the Cockpit Theatre, 12th September 2016

Tuesday, September 13, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

27: The Rise of a Falling Star feels like the kind of musical an evangelical baptist church might put on to scare the kids away from sex, drugs and rock n' roll. It is a rare and fascinating brand of dreadful: as badly conceived and written as it is performed. 

Now trust me, I don't take that much pleasure in coming at a show with teeth bared. Think of me as an experienced rural vet that's been called to attend to a horse with a broken leg. I look down at the stricken beast: foam flecks its mouth, flanks are wet with sweat and it wheezes horrifically. As I gaze into the panicked brown wetness of its eye I solemnly remove my pistol from its holster, aim it at the centre of its skull and blow the poor bastard's brains out.

It may look cruel, but it's necessary. This godforsaken rock musical deserves the same treatment.

Named for the '27 Club' of dead musicians, the show follows the fortunes of Orpheus (Greg Oliver), lead singer of The Argonauts, a band hungry for megastardom. Thanks to a deal with the devil, they get it. Orpheus then becomes a screwed up drug addict, alienates his bandmates and his nice girlfriend Amy (Cassie Compton) overdoses. He then takes a quest through the underworld to retrieve her and... Ah bollocks to it, I'm almost as tired of typing up this garbled gaggle of cliches as I was watching the damn thing.

The core of the show is the romance between Orpheus and Amy, which they warble about at length to each other. It's brutally hamstrung by a number of simple factors. The prime one is that Orpheus is an unlikeable, uncharismatic and apparently talentless dick. Even before his ego swells it's a mystery what Amy sees in him. Then again, Amy isn't really a character at all, she's an anonymous feminine prize for the men in the play to moon after. Having your female lead entirely defined in terms of her relationships with men is really disappointing these days (not to mention unceremoniously killing her off during the interval, further literalising her as a prize to be won). 

The rest of it feels exceedingly over-familiar. The satanic record exec thing is played out, the intra-band conflicts are dull and the eventual supernatural trek through the underworld is both visually naff and mythologically jumbled. As if to rub salt into the wound, in the final scenes one of the characters reflects "well, it's a good story". Mate. It really wasn't.

Musically, 27 wouldn't know rock n' roll if it bit it in the arse. I've heard episodes of The Archers with more of a rebellious streak and sense of devil-may-care danger than this. Much of this is down to a songbook liberally strewn with mushy ballads where the characters wail their little hearts out about their feelings, while demonstrating none of them in their performances. I feel duty bound to point out that there's also a bit where the show mangles its way through a rap number, which smashes traditional standards of good and bad so thoroughly that it ends up feeling like a Dadaist experiment in music.

Perhaps most emblematic is that this is a rock musical about a band making it to the heights of stardom AND WE NEVER HEAR THEM PLAY A FUCKING SONG. I mean... did no-one notice this in rehearsals? Granted, given the musical standards of the rest of the show I have no doubt that if they did play a song it'd be awful, but dammit, at least try.

This extends right into the ridiculous way in which the show treats drugs use. The characters talk about drug use in terms of: "one bad trip, that's all it takes...", sounding like a vicar solemnly warning a Sunday school about the dangers of getting high. By the mid-way point, our lead character is frantically sniffing, rubbing his nose and generally acting like someone who's only heard about drug use through an elaborate game of Chinese whispers. 

Enduring this while dancers wave plates of mind-altering substances in front of you is like taunting a dying man in the desert with an ice-cold glass of water. I found myself lost in hazy fantasies of solidly packing my sinuses with the finest uncut cocaine, a glassy smile on my face as I imagined that one perfect smack spike, all cued up to wrap me up in a blissy/fuzzy duvet and send me far far away from the Cockpit Theatre.

Sadly it was not to be. I watched two and a half painful hours of this shite. The mind boggles when you imagine how much time, money and talent has been squandered bringing this garbage to life. 27: The Rise of a Falling Star might be the most dispiriting theatrical experience I've had in four years of theatre criticism.

27: The Rise of a Falling Star is at the Cockpit Theatre until 22nd October. Tickets here.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Review: 'Lottery' at the New Diorama Theatre, 11th September 2016

Monday, September 12, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

It's been a while since we had a Prime Minister that wasn't either incompetent or monstrously evil (or both!). The jury is currently out on Theresa May, but honestly, "we will encourage mono-racial schools" does not bode well. After a while, politics begins to look like an endless procession of besuited bozos strip-mining everything of worth from the country, before quitting to sit on the boards of the companies that coincidentally bought all that stuff at a knock-down price.

Sometimes you just wish a normal person could take over. I guess wanting to be PM indicates a certain amount of megalomania, but still, do they all have to look weirdly like lizard people uncomfortably stuffed into flesh suits?

Simon Paris posits a solution; a lottery in which random members of the public are selected to run the country for a five year term. Whilst the problems of picking some random dude (or dudette) are obvious, there's also positives. Firstly, chances are slim that they'd be beholden to corporate interests and not be feathering their business portfolio while they're in office. Also, they'd theoretically have a genuine insight into normal life and would be able to empathise more directly with the population at large.

And so, Fictive Theatre's Lottery. A satirical play taking place in a UK not too dissimilar from our own. In the opening scene we meet two young people (Ava Pickett and Elliot Bornemann) stuck on a real administrative lottery - jury service. They uneasily make friends, the woman awkwardly making her way through a jokey conversation like a drunkard navigating a minefield. She's all twitches and elbows, randomly breaking off the conversation to stare into space with a glazed expression and giggling manically at inopportune moments.

She spends the play wobbling along the tightrope between lovable and disturbing - basically a decent person, but given to worrying fantasies about stabbing people in the eye and burning faces off with acid. She is our new Prime Minister. Still she can't be worse than Prime Minister Barry, who went on a killing spree and is now confined to a maximum security prison.

Fortunately she has a more than capable advisor (Rhys Tees), who guides her through the particulars of governance and makes her policy ideas ("More buses, and bigger ones.") a reality. But soon our new PM is discovering that her office isn't simply smiles, speeches and giving money away - tough decisions need to be made. And isn't it a little strange that her friendly advisor keeps prodding her towards cutting funding for the poor while bolstering the finances of the rich?

Lottery is razor-sharp satire, taking aim at the corruption at the heart of modern politics and the idea that there's 'common sense' answers to incredibly complex problems. Representing the political classes is the diabolical advisor: proposing impossibly sinister supervillainish plans with a smile and acting like it's no big deal. Meanwhile Elliot Bornemann's 'normal bloke' threatens to overturn the applecart with the simple application of honesty.

Along the way Paris touches on the UK's economic reliance on selling weapons to shady regimes, 'sweetheart' corporate tax deals, reasons for picking on the already disadvantaged ("they're so resilient!"), the ways in which government money is doled out and the current trend for making law-on-the-hoof without consideration of the consequences. There's an ice-cold core of seriousness in Lottery's heart, and a correctly directed anger towards a political class detached from the reality of their decisions.

But it's also very very funny. The sheer absurdity, bizarre humour and willingness to push boundaries reminded me of two of my comedy faves, Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris. The dialogue has a particularly Chris Morris-esque flavour: characters launching into terrifyingly furious outbursts and then lapsing into preternatural calmness, the ways in which everyone seems to be frantically suppressing their inner psychopath or the simple straightforward sobriety in dealing with the deeply surreal.

This is all bolstered by a pair of fantastic comedy performances by Pickett and Tees. It's probably arguable that Pickett is playing the role a touch too weirdly, but she got me laughing so much it's difficult to pick holes. She's possessed of impressively precise comic timing; especially in the meandering flirtatious conversations she has with Bornemann. And she makes some marvellously funny faces, as if the character's neurons aren't quite hooked up right and she suffers the occasional short circuit. Tees' Luciferian advisor is also fantastic, the character snowballing from shy to domineering over the run-time and delivering a show-stopping vocals only rendition of Stayin' Alive.

Lottery is a great bit of writing, strikingly staged and excellently performed. My only criticism is that the situation it presents is so pregnant with possibilities that I wanted to explore more of the strange alterna-Britain that Simon Paris presents us with. Then again, leaving the audience wanting more is a great technique. Can't wait to see what this company comes up with next!


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