Saturday, 20 October 2012

Theatre review: Loserville at the Garrick Theatre

(From left) Daniel Buckley, Richard Lowe, Lil' Chris & Aaron Sidwell in Loserville. Picture: Tristram Kenton
Do you like your musicals poppy, fun and bright? Then Loserville is for you (and me).

Poptastic, while not a real word, is actually the perfect word to describe this show.

Set in 1971 (although a very fictional 1971), Loserville is a bright, bubbly, fizzy production full of catchy pop songs and plenty of colour.

If you didn’t know it was written by former Busted member James Bourne, you could probably guess, since nearly all the numbers have that recognisable Busted/McFly edge to them, but that’s no bad thing (most of the time) when you find your foot tapping and a smile spreading across your face during the songs. 

Loserville follows computer geek Michael Dork and his misfit friends Lucas, Marvin and Francis (these are my kind of people), who are about to change the world. Bullied for being slackers, they refuse to change their ways.

When new girl Holly arrives in town, all of Michael’s dreams seem to be coming true, but it’s more complicated than he thinks, as rich kid Eddie discovers Holly’s dark secret (spoiler alert: it's really not that dark) and plans to use it to his advantage.

The young cast are fun to watch, particularly Lil’ Chris as Francis and Daniel Buckley as Marvin, whose geek tendencies ooze out of every pore, and Stewart Clarke as Eddie, who is odious but compelling all the same (and he has a great singing voice... and great abs).

Eliza Hope Bennett (Holly) and Aaron Sidwell (Michael Dork). Picture: Tristram Kenton
Lead characters Michael, played by Aaron Sidwell, and Holly, played by Eliza Hope Bennett, are sweet to watch as they traverse through their burgeoning romance, although the two don’t have the strongest singing voices in the cast.

Sometimes there's too much going on. There are eight characters who all have significant plots, and I can't help but think one or two of them could have been dispensed with. Still, they're all characters you can relate to, and the good ones are definitely characters you spend the whole play rooting for. 

Loserville isn’t afraid to break free of the constraints of traditional musicals (there's no stuffiness here), and does so by happily introducing its cast and the characters they play at the beginning, and then letting credits roll at the end.

Imagine the opening scene of Grease, where Frankie Valli sings Grease while cartoon credits roll by - that’s Loserville. Its imaginative staging includes a lot of props and sets drawn on large pieces of cardboard, cleverly moved round or held up by the cast members themselves. And the main set, an industrial looking moveable contraption to represent Arch Systems, is futuristic without looking cold - reflecting one of the plot threads in the production. 

There’s a lot of movement, with plenty of energetic dance numbers, although the one down side of these is the sometimes unnecessary dance troupe always hovering in the background. They’re needed for some songs, but others would be just as good with just the main cast members on stage, as the troupe flinging themselves around in the back distracts from the main emotions of some songs. 

Loserville contains plenty of “geek” references, heavy on the Star Trek and Star Wars in particular, but the play is by no means exclusively for geeks. I know next to nothing about the aforementioned, and I still got all the references, and laughed at most of them. 

There are lots of good musical numbers. Brains and Looks introduces you quickly to characters but gives a great insight into them at the same time, while Holly I’m The One is more mournful and Sick is a mix of angry and sad. And there are plenty of others that will have you humming along. 

Loserville is fun, fearless and not afraid to be a bit different - and inspires you to be the same.

Loserville is at the Garrick Theatre, Charing Cross Road.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Review: Idina Menzel at the Apollo Theatre

Idina Menzel. Picture: Robin Wong
The lights go down, the band starts playing, and then through the darkness a voice starts singing and shivers go up my spine.

I'm sitting in the Apollo Theatre, where Broadway legend Idina Menzel is performing as part of a week long residency.

She starts with Somewhere Over the Rainbow, singing the famous lines while we in the crowd desperately try to work out where she is. 

And then, suddenly, she's bouncing, actually bouncing like Tigger, out onto the stage looking gorgeous in a ballgown with bare feet, a look she's become known for.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow seagues into The Wizard And I from Wicked, which is a song I absolutely love, but is often overlooked or put aside so crowd favourite Defying Gravity can be performed instead. It's a great choice, and with its powerful notes really gets the crowd smiling.

I saw Menzel last year at the Royal Albert Hall, a venue that's at least 10 times the size of the Apollo. She had no problem filling the Hall with her voice, but seeing her in a more intimate venue also works.

Most people would probably expect a musical theatre actress like Menzel to spend most of her concert performing show tunes, but she surprises by singing a host of songs from a host of genres - from the Barbra Streisand classic Don’t Rain on My Parade (which she sang at the Royal Albert Hall) to Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now to U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.

Peppered in between the songs are stories about Menzel's life and career, and I appreciated the fact that she didn't repeat any of the tales she told last year, even though she performed a few of the same numbers.

Some of her anecdotes are funny, some poignant, some both. One sees Menzel refer to her friend and mentor Marvin Hamlisch, who died recently and who conducted the Royal Philharmonic when she performed with them last year.

She speaks about his influence on her, before performing At The Ballet from A Chorus Line, which Menzel says she sang at Hamlisch’s funeral at the request of his family. She finishes the segment with another tale about Hamlisch and how he was a mentor to her, and allowed her to sit at the piano bench with him and sing. A bench is brought out and Menzel sits herself down, leaving a space where Hamlisch would have been, and sings an emotional rendition of What I Did For Love.

Happier moments come when Menzel sings Take Me Or Leave Me from Rent, the musical which was her first Broadway show (she also sings No Day But Today). In a great moment of crowd interaction three members of the audience are picked at random to sing Take Me Or Leave Me with Menzel. They rush out of the crowd, and include a girl who can’t be more than 13 and has a voice that more than stands up to Menzel’s - definitely a star of the future. I have to admit I'm more than a bit jealous of the singers, not just because they get to perform with Menzel, but because when I sing I sound like 10 cats yowling while 20 people run their fingernails down a blackboard.

Happily, she performs her version of Love For Sale mixed with Roxanne, which I will never get tired of hearing her sing, as well as Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes and snippets of Katy Perry's Firework and Beyonce's Single Ladies, which are great fun.
As well as well known standards Menzel performs two original numbers, both of which are touching, plus the afore-mentioned Defying Gravity. From Wicked she also sings For Good in tribute to the crowd, and is forced back on stage for an encore which ends with her “favourite song ever”, Somewhere from West Side Story, with its lyrics: “There’s a place for us/Somewhere a place for us”.

The standing ovation that greets Menzel shows her fans have found their place - right there cheering her on.

•Idina Menzel is at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, until Sunday, October 14.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Glee recap/review: The Break Up

Makeover recap/review

Oh Glee, why do you stomp on my heart? And why do you do it in such a messy, disorganised, frustrating way?

This week's episode of Glee was, in my opinion, not very well put together and had a complete lack of consistency, but was still absolutely heartbreaking.

Let's get one thing straight before I get into this - Blaine and Kurt have not broken up. They're in a far from healthy relationship, Kurt is rightly very, very hurt and angry, Blaine is rightly very confused and hurt, but they're not broken up. Glee's writers even made a point of putting the words "I'm not even sure we're broken up" into Blaine's mouth, so until I see something official on my screen, I'm in the camp that says they are together. They might only technically be together, but my heart needs any hope it can lay its hands on right now.

This recap and review is going to be a little different to the rest, because I'm going to brush over large parts of the episode.

Here's a quick summary of what went down - Rachel and Finn broke up, Santana and Brittany broke up, Blaine cheated on Kurt and they've almost broken up, Marley and Jake are about to get together, Kitty's crazy, Finn's back at McKinley, Mr Schue and Emma are on the outs, and the glee club will be putting on the musical Grease.

So, apart from Kurt and Blaine, and to an extent Santana and Brittany, I'm not going to spend more than a few paragraphs on the other stories.

I thought Rachel and Finn were already broken up, so let's not waste time on that except to say that Rachel's speech telling Finn she's done is one of her best scenes ever, and that Finn needs to stop hanging around McKinley being a wastrel and do something with his life.

Do we care about Marley and Jake and Kitty? Or Mr Schue and Emma? Or Grease? Not at the moment, not when there's other, more important stuff going on.

So to Santana and Brittany. I thought their dynamic was lovely this episode. I love Santana and Brittany individually but as a couple they've never quite convinced me because they've always seemed unequal, apart from during Sexy in season two, when Santana and Brittany sang Landslide to each other.

Here, they referenced the feelings of that earlier episode. We know Brittany has been missing Santana, but until this episode we didn't see how much Santana had been missing Brittany. Her confession that doing her laundry at home meant she was guaranteed to see Brittany was a sweet one. The whole Brittany obsessed by books/Kitty's weird cult thing storyline was thoroughly stupid, right up until Brittany pointed at the girl breaking apart in the corner and said that's what she felt like, and then my heart cracked. And then when Santana sang to Brittany it cracked a bit more.

For me it was unexpected that these two would be the ones to end their relationship in the most mature way, but it was fitting. They got together in an unconventional way, but once they were in a relationship there were no outside factors that could affect them, so it's only right that one of the two of them decided to bring their relationship to an end, before something else happened to tear them apart.

Not so for Kurt and Blaine, who were for me the real focus of the episode. Let me say first that I don't entirely buy Blaine cheating on Kurt, for the following reasons:
  • Blaine has always had a strong moral compass. He stood up for Kurt against Karofsky, he thought it was wrong Sam was stripping for money, he thought texting was cheating.
  • When Blaine thought Kurt was cheating on him, he was incredibly hurt and couldn't believe there was any excuse, so why would Blaine want to make Kurt, who he loves so much, feel like that?
  • Although Blaine has always been more open about sex than Kurt (talking about it, saying they should "just do it" when he was drunk, the masturbation comment, the way he usually instigates physical contact) he still doesn't seem like the type to throw his body away on a random "hook up". He never gave in to Sebastian. Also, see the earlier point about Sam's stripping.

But, if we're to believe the episode we've just seen, Blaine did cheat. Here's why I could believe that Blaine would cheat in this situation:
  • He's so alone. He has no one to talk to, no one to confide in, and when he does try, he's shut down. (Read this amazing analysis of Blaine's loneliness this episode.)
  • For him physicality has always been a big way to show love ("I miss messing around with you") and affection and companionship and to combat loneliness - the first time he met Kurt he grabbed his hand, when he hugs Kurt he holds on for dear life, he was the one that started to head towards Kurt after the latter gave him flowers on the stairs, and so on. 
  • He's hurting, and he's young, and when you're hurting and you're young (and even when you're hurting and you're older) you sometimes do stupid, out of character things like cheat on someone.
Mostly, the Blaine cheating plot jars on me because I want to know who Eli is, and why he, of all people, could tempt Blaine. I feel the writers have thrown in another character, and it's a curve ball that's come from nowhere, and I want to know more. For me Blaine cheating was not a bad plot, it was just a badly constructed plot.

Now let's get down to the nitty gritty. What Blaine did is not unforgiveable, but it's very wrong. There are reasons he cheated, but no excuses. Yes, Kurt was not around, yes, Kurt should have realised something was wrong when Blaine told him he missed him, yes, Kurt should realise he's done some wrong things too, but Blaine deciding to cheat is still not right. You aren't driven to cheat, not even when you feel so alone that your only suggestion to not seeing your boyfriend for two weeks is to stop breathing, you choose to cheat to make yourself feel something (in Blaine's case to feel less alone, and it did the complete opposite). Blaine didn't cheat because of Kurt, he cheated because how he felt, and while some of that is because of Kurt's actions, it's still not an excuse.

Even though what Blaine has done is completely wrong, I do feel for him incredibly. He's not just lonely, he's isolated. It was telling that when Blaine imagined Kurt during Barely Breathing he was imagining him in the outfit he first saw him in, and that when he looked back to the start during The Scientist he thought back to them running through the halls at Dalton. That's the Kurt that Blaine wants and needs right now, a Kurt who understands him and is there for him, and a Kurt who needs similar things from Blaine. 

But that's not who Kurt is anymore, and I think Blaine needs to learn that, and learn who he is without Kurt. I mentioned this last week, that Blaine has relied too much on Kurt, and that he needs to learn to live without Kurt, so that he can then learn to live with Kurt again.

And Kurt too needs to come to some realisations. His behaviour is not an excuse for Blaine cheating, but he needs to face up to the realities of his relationship with Blaine. Kurt can promise all he likes that nothing will come between them, but promises aren't enough, he needs to work at it if that's what he really wants (and since he still loves Blaine, I would hope that he does). Ignoring Blaine won't help (although why Kurt went from waiting for Blaine to wake up and then not talking to him, as we found out from Blaine, is another writing anomaly). However, for the moment, Kurt is very hurt, and ignoring Blaine is what he needs to do. I just hope he doesn't do it for too long, because Blaine needs someone, even if that's just his friend Kurt from Dalton and not his boyfriend Kurt from McKinley.

As a side point, I thought the acting from Chris Colfer this episode was stunning. Kurt's face when Blaine told him he'd been with someone was heartbreaking, you could see his heart cracking in his eyes. He was also great during his interaction with Finn, you could see he was in the worst state we've ever seen him, even worse than when his dad had a heart attack. He physically looked like he was breaking, as well as wearing the simplest outfit we've seen him in yet.

The staging highlight this week was when the characters sang The Scientist. The lighting, the placing of all the characters, reflected exactly how they were all feeling, in particular Kurt and Blaine, and added to the loneliness many of them are feeling now.

As a last note, where does this episode leave Kurt and Blaine? I'm not quite sure, and while I hate them hurting and apart, I'm intrigued to see where it goes next. I'm just not sure my heart can take it.

Best scene
Blaine singing Teenage Dream. Props to Darren Criss for doing this live on set. How could anyone watch this not be moved, even once you know Blaine's cheated? It clued us in to how Blaine was feeling, how Kurt was feeling, and gave us a glimpse of how we would be feeling moments later when we watched Blaine and Kurt tearing apart.


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