Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Once

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Having been one of the approximately 6 people who saw the film version of Once upon it’s release in 2007 [other than film critics], I was fairly sceptical when I found out they’d made a musical version of it. The film is brilliant, but pretty much built on understatement, subtle changes in facial expression and small, intimate moments – I couldn’t understand how they could possibly transfer this into the format of a traditional musical. For that very reason, this review is pretty late to the party – Once has been on the West End now for over a year –  but on hearing good things from friends and reviewers I decided to give it a go.

Overall, I’m still not completely convinced by the musical version of Once. Although it was a sensitive adaptation with a lot of great elements, I felt that it didn’t quite capture the mood of the film well enough to do it justice. The script was clever, but subtleties don’t work so well in a musical and on a lot of occasions I felt the female lead was overacting. I have no doubt that this was necessary in order for her to reach those at the very back of the audience, but for those of us in the stalls it seemed a bit hammed up for such a low key production. I suppose what I’m really saying here is that the show would probably be better in much smaller venue where the actors wouldn’t have to try so hard to convey emotions.

Undoubtedly, the main thing this musical has going for it is cracking songs – they’re all written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who starred in the original film, and ‘Falling Slowly’ even won Best Song at the 2007 Oscars – deservedly so. Well written, memorable and heartfelt, the songs of Once form the basis of the plot as well as the emotional heart of the musical, and even better is that they aren’t the usual cheesy belters you find in musicals. Instead, they offer something a bit different – think guitars rather than synths – which is in keeping with the mood of the show as a whole.

Along with the songs themselves, the way the music is ‘organised’ in this musical is brilliant. All of the musicians are on stage throughout the whole show, and between them form the chorus and secondary characters as well as providing scene changes, props and incidental music. Their ability to switch between these multiple roles with complete fluidity is really quite impressive, and at one point there was even a man dancing with a cello strapped to his chest, which is an automatic win in my book.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

That brings me nicely to one of the things about this musical that I didn’t enjoy so much – the weird interpretive-dance-style choreography. This isn’t the kind of show that really needs dancing at all, being pretty low key with mostly folk rock / indie musical numbers, but it felt like they’d been obliged to find a way to squeeze some in, resulting in some slightly bizarre hand-wavy moments a la Kate Bush. Despite being used sparingly, this did occasionally ruin a poignant musical moment as I tried not to giggle at (for example) the bank clerk’s slightly camp swirly hand motions, which I’m sure the show could have coped perfectly well without.

Another aspect of the show that was slightly clunky was the use of accents. A Czech accent is very difficult to do, and there were a fair amount of moments when the lead female’s accent just wasn’t strong enough to be convincing, either sounding Russian or vaguely American. What was a really nifty trick, however, was the use of scrolling text on a screen along the top of the bar, which displayed the Czech translation whenever the foreign characters were conversing amongst themselves on stage. This was a great way of reminding the audience (alongside the accents, of course) that they were only speaking in English for the sake of the English-speaking audience, without being too much of a distraction from the plot.

Despite it’s flaws, Once is definitely up there with some of the best of the West End at the moment. It’s unique, well written, with a great soundtrack and an array of interesting characters. Add to that some cracking pre-show entertainment, and you can’t go wrong – just don’t watch the film before you go!

 

 

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Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Theatre Royal, London

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Rating: 3/5

I don’t know whether I’ve just been spoilt by the musicals I’ve seen in the last few months – Matilda, The Book of Mormon – but for me, this new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s much-loved book didn’t quite hit the spot.

The acting was solid, particularly from the adult cast, and there was some excellent work from the child cast – my personal favourite was Violet Beauregard, AKA the “Double Bubble Duchess”. However, a lot of this was lost due to a combination of VERY up-tempo songs and terrible diction. Whilst I’m sure the lyrics here were excellent, it was impossible to appreciate them and this was a real shame. It also meant that it was difficult to connect with the five golden ticket holders [sure, most of them aren’t meant to be liked, but it still would have been nice to know the particulars of why we were disliking them] because there was no chance of understanding their central character songs.

The pace overall was quite slow, and I was surprised to discover that we had only just arrived at the factory by the end of the first half. The first half could have been much snappier, particularly the large amount of time spent introducing us to the Bucket family. More could have been made of the Grandparents, who used what material they had to great comic effect, whilst the song “If your mother were here” was completely redundant.

 

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Photo by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

The second half , however, was generally much better, with some excellent use of staging and great musical numbers from the Oompa-Loompas, who were cleverly managed throughout. A particular favourite moment of mine was the clever reference to The Nutcracker as Veruca Salt met her nutty demise – but I won’t spoil the surprise any further by describing it.

However, the inclusion of ‘Pure Imagination‘ towards the end of the show smacked of gimmick, and I wonder whether this was included to try and remind audiences of their affection for the original film adaptation, and sweeten (no pun intended) their opinions of this new version. In any case, it was certainly the most memorable song of the whole show.

Overall, I just felt that it didn’t have the heart or depth of other Dahl adaptations – when compared to Tim Minchin’s dark and very witty adaptation of Matilda or Henry Selick’s 1996 film version of James and the Giant Peach, it just doesn’t come close.

Review: Muse at the Etihad

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Well, where to begin…?

There was a giant lightbulb. There was a woman drinking petrol. There was a banker throwing “money” into the crowd. But most of all, there were some rockin’ tunes.

The support acts – Bastille and Dizzee Rascal – whilst slightly unexpected choices, were excellent. Bastille’s performance was energetic and polished. Their front man – clearly a very talented and versatile musician – made me tired just watching, as he constantly ran around the stage, at different times playing keyboard, drums and guitar as well as singing. I only wished that i’d listened to their album prior to the gig, as I was unfamiliar with most of their songs. Their euphoric, upbeat synth-pop was a great mood-setter for the rest of the concert, and needless to say, I’ve now bought their album.

Up next was Dizzee Rascal. A veteran of the British rap scene [in relative terms], I was expecting good things. He did not disappoint, performing a mix of his best known hits and newer material and managing to keep a crowd who could have easily turned against him – let’s face it, were here for a rock gig – on his side. He had a really excellent vocalist, back-up and DJ with him, which, given how giant the stage (and venue) was, seemed like a good move. My one qualm with his performance was that his language was atrocious for the entire set. I’m not really a fan of gratuitous swearing at the best of times, and much as he gave a great performance to which I sang and danced along with gusto, the teacher in me struggled to let his constant use of the F word go – considering he’s a rapper, his use of language was definitely not as creative as it could have been!
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So, the main event. Muse. This was a set permeated with political and social comment. As ever, their performance was excellent, and the crowd was not disappointed by their two hour set. And their new material – very different to their older albums – was received with almost as much enthusiasm as old favourites such as Plug In Baby or Feeling Good. The show was fairly impressive – at various points there was a giant lightbulb floating across the stage with an acrobat hanging from it, a huge robot, lots of fire canons and a silver grand piano with LEDs in the lid – but it was clear that they wanted to draw the audience’s attention to the political message contained on their latest album.

They opened and closed their set with a pair of songs (although i might be tempted to call them soundscapes) from their new album, The 2nd Law: ‘Unsustainable’ and ‘Isolated System’, in which there is a fairly obvious use of media reports of global economic issues and environmental problems. This was combined with short dramatic scenes at various points during the set, which would start on the big screens before bursting out and on to the stage, bringing them to the very forefront of the show – at these points, the music was clearly not meant to be the main focus, but a backdrop. The first of these (i’m not including a quirky animation in which leading politicians danced along to a Muse song, entertaining as it was) involved a board room, a smirking banker, and the collapse of the stock exchange. He then burst on to the stage, and proceeded to throw money into the crowd before dying at the end of the stage, in the middle of the crowd. With the song ‘Animal’ playing alongside this, and the demonic facial expressions of the characters in the film, this was clearly meant to be a statement about the negative effect of bankers on our current economic situation. The second short was of a woman in a business suit attached to a mobile phone – this time on the stage – who dramatically walks to a petrol pump at the end of the stage, drinks a few gallons of petrol and keels over, accompanied by the song ‘Feeling Good’.

Whilst I am completely in agreement with both of these political statements – I assume the latter was about waste, gluttony, greed – take your pick – I was somewhat baffled by the obvious contradiction between these messages and the fact that a bottom price ticket for this tour cost £50. I am well aware that this is the going rate for an arena tour, but with around 50,000 people in attendance at every gig, I suspect that the band could charge a little less for tickets and still make a fairly good chunk of profit out of the proceeds of this tour. They didn’t exactly shy away from using (presumably petrol fuelled) fire cannons at every available opportunity either. The show and music were undoubtedly excellent, but I was left a little puzzled by this apparent attempt at political messaging – it just didn’t ring true with the rest of the show and its setting in what is arguably the home of greed – a premiership football stadium.

And the light bulb wasn’t even an energy saving bulb.

Book of Mormon…? Book of AWESOME, more like.

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I know it’s been said many times before, but this really is a great musical. Irreverant, sweet, funny and imaginative, with great songs and great staging. I mean, you couldn’t really ask for much more.

I bought the tickets months ago and was super excited, having seen posters declaring rave reviews all over London. I was determined to read / watch / listen to as little of the show as possible before I saw it – in my experience, musicals are always better if you see them for the first time live and with no (or as few as possible) preconceptions about the show – this was certainly the case with Matilda, Wicked, and Avenue Q. But when the designated evening finally rolled around, I was exhausted and grumpy, in the middle of a stressful final week of my PGCE placement, and really didn’t feel in the mood to watch a show full of crude, insensitive jokes about religion and sexuality. I prepared myself to be underwhelmed.

From the very first moment, however, I was captivated. The opening number – “hello”, a song about evangelists going to door to door, something most of us have experienced from the other side of the door – was a catchy, well written tune, cleverly choreographed and with great charm. And there wasn’t a single curse word or crude joke! This was most definitely not what i was expecting of the creators of South Park  – although they made up for it later with ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ [F*** You, God] which caused me a serious moral conundrum that went something like this: “Should i clap? Am i allowed to clap? What would my dad think?! Aargh. It was a really good song, I really want to clap, but if i clap this song will i go straight to hell? Darn that Christian upbringing! Darn those excellent songwriters!”

The laughs were frequent, and I can’t praise the writing enough – it was intelligent and witty, not just close to the bone. Although the Mormon religion is obviously the main focus, the derision was indiscriminate, with jokes about everything from AIDs to Disneyland, and that made the show a lot easier to enjoy – there was no uncomfortable “us and them” feeling to it. I was impressed at how well researched a lot of the writing was: from Mormon undergarments, to the history and geography of the Mormon church, it was all there. I actually learned a lot about Mormonism just from watching the show. For example, did you know that Mormons believe that the Garden of Eden is in Missouri? One to make a note of for any future pub quiz questions…

Alongside the comedy, though, there was a surprising depth to The Book of Mormon. There’re the obvious themes about religion and people blindly following faith, but I wasn’t prepared for how much focus there would be on the plight of the Ugandan villagers. There are a couple of genuinely shocking moments of violence, and the writers didn’t shy away (of course!) from more hard-hitting and controversial topics such as AIDs, female mutilation and civil war. In fact, as a tool against such violence and oppression, the over-arching moral of this musical is that religion can be a source of hope, and give people the strength to live their lives in difficult circumstances. Yes, it can seem to make no sense, cause conflict, be based on flimsy circumstantial evidence, and you might not want to take some of the stories too literally… But it does have it’s strengths. And if it’s giving people the strength to stand up to oppressors, it can’t be all bad.

…Although you should probably bear in mind that it’s a musical. It pretty much has to have a happy ending. It’s not Opera, y’know…

That poster I saw as I travelled down an escalator at Vauxhall tube station sums it up pretty nicely: “I loved this show. It’s completely bonkers. It has a beautiful heart.”

Actually, maybe i should have just posted that quote and saved you all the bother of reading this essay. Soz.

The Book of Mormon (musical)

The Book of Mormon (musical) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

EUROVISION… better than Christmas??!

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So, in honour of my favourite weekend of the year, here’s my list of Top Ten  Five Six Eurovision Moments:

1. 1996: One of my earliest memories of Eurovision is Gina G and her classic Eurovision tune ‘Ooh Aah Just A Little Bit‘. I was 7, not allowed to stay up past the songs, and have loved Eurovision ever since. She came in 8th place overall, but reached number 1 in the UK charts – the last Eurovision song to do so. Bring back Gina, that’s what I say!

2. 1997: WE WON! Not quite sure what Katrina and the Waves had that Gina G didn’t (she was robbed!), but still a great achievement. Even at 8, I was fiercely competitive. 1996 was also the year of the Boyzone school bag, and so that year’s Eurovision ranks doubly highly due to the presence of Ronan Keating as host… In fact, it could only have been improved to my 8 year old mind by the presence of dancing leprechauns. Nice work, Ireland.

3. 1994: My absolute earliest memory of Eurovision – Riverdance performing during the interval. I spent the next year practicing my moves in front of the Riverdance video that my mum bought for me… I even had a copycat black velvet dress (from ASDA – the things you remember!). Michael Flatley became my second favourite Irishman. But remember, don’t move those arms!

4. 2010: Skipping ahead a bit here. There were some CRACKING songs this year, and I watched the show with some CRACKING people, too. Lena’s song ‘Satellite’ was a deserving winner, and there’s a special shout out to Tom Dice’s ‘Me and My Guitar’ which got my housemates and I through a traumatic all-nighter, spent making a scrapbook for a very special Frenchman before he abandoned us to move to Australia [Yes, we bought the album and we’re not ashamed to say so!!!]. Sob. Altogether now: “Bought new underwear for you, light blue – wore it just the other day!” …Actually on second thoughts, that quote probably gives the wrong impression of our relationship with said Frenchman.


5. 1998: Dana International. Eurovision proves that music can overcome prejudice once again – Dana International, a transgender woman from Israel, wins with her song Diva. Can someone please explain to me why Israel gets to enter a European song competition though? I’ve been a devoted follower of Eurovision for 15 years and I still don’t know!

6. 2011: This was the year of Moldova’s crazed, unicycling, trumpet-playing Gnomes. Their song ‘So Lucky’ perfectly sums up all of the reasons I love watching Eurovision: catchy, creative and just a little bit wacky! This was also the first year I’ve had a proper Eurovision party – a great idea that I recommend if you are a Eurovision fan. Each guest picked a country, came dressed in national garb (or in my case, a Union Jack dress a la Geri Halliwell) and brought native food. Epic. My personal highlight was a friend who decided to represent Germany discovering that the Lederhosen he ordered online were made of PVC, and wearing them anyway. Hot 😉

What is your favourite Eurovision moment?