Sunday 3 December 2023

Stage: Spilling the beans

The RVT Panto
by Tim Benzie, Paul Joseph
director Tim McArthur
musical director Vicki Calver 
with Ed Cooke, Leigh Pollard, Grace Kelly Miller, Ada Campe, Ben Hutt
Royal Vauxhall Tavern, London • 29.Nov.23-5.Jan.24

Taking their usual hilarious approach to the Christmas pantomime, Royal Vauxhall Tavern follows Rubbed, Slipped, Goosed, Pricked and Cracked with Tossed, a delightfully deranged sequel to Jack and the Beanstalk. While the structure is very familiar, the cast has been completely refreshed with a wonderfully up-for-it ensemble, and the jokes are right up to date with the messy reality of British politics. It's a perfect antidote to the usual holiday sweetness, although there's some of that too.

Narrated by the now-talking cow Daisy (Miller), the plot is fairly irrelevant, set after Jack (Cooke) has risen to social media fame as a giant killer, but he's wondering what he should do next. Meanwhile, his overambitious mother Spriggins (Hutt) is angling for him to marry into even more money, and the most likely candidate is Gina T (Pollard), a human-sized giant who is on a mission to avenge her fallen relative. And then there's Sorcererer (Campe), an endlessly mischievous magician who is happy to meddle.

Livening all of this up is a steady barrage of innuendo, rude jokes and knowingly hilarious references to things like reality TV, Britain's disastrous Tory government (including the ghost of Liz Truss) and the scandal-plagued royal family. Among the flurry of sharply performed songs that have been adapted to tell this story, there are new hits like Kylie's Padam Padam and Sam Ryder's Space Man, iconic tunes like Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It), Love Shack and (I've Had) The Time of My Life, belters like Don't Stop Believin' and Mamma Mia, and the Barry Manilow/Take That classic Could It Be Magic (plus a bit of on-stage magic).

As always, the audience participation elements feel rather repetitive, including a witty and enjoyably frantic variation on 12 Days of Christmas and a climactic singalong. And each character's call-and-response gag kind of gets lost in the shuffle, as it should. But there are also riotously amusing running gags, such as Dame Spriggins pointlessly begging the audience to please not boo her. And the hilarious choreography and snappy wordplay livens up the bonkers plot, as does the chaotic slapstick and a late connection to the enduring queer scene in Vauxhall.

For information, ROYAL VAUXHALL TAVERN >

photos by Chris Jepson • 1.Dec.23 

Friday 1 December 2023

Dance: Celestial bodies

Lunar Halo
Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan
choreographer Cheng Tsung-lung
music Sigur Rós
dancers Chan Pui-pui, Chen Tsung-chiao, Chou Chen-yeh, Fan Chia-hsuan, Hsu Chih-hen, Huang Lu-kai, Huang Mei-ya, Huang Po-kai, Lee Tzu-chun, Liao Chin-ting, Shao Hsing-wen, Wang Chun-hung, Wu Jui-ying
design/direction Jam Wu • lighting Shen Po-hung
costumes Chen Shao-yen • video Ethan Wang
Sadler's Wells • 30.Nov-2.Dec.23 ★★★★

Inspired by the celestial phenomenon in which ice crystals in the atmosphere create a shimmering circle around the moon, this performance explores how our bodies change and interact with an increasingly technological world. This mix of nature and human ingenuity is bracingly unusual, performed by Cloud Gate with an astonishing physicality that continually takes the breath away. It's a bit enigmatic but also exhilarating, like a painting that comes to breathing, heart-pounding life.

The dancers are lean, strong and remarkably controlled as they dive into Cheng Tsung-lung's demanding choreography. Movement is fluid at a variety of speeds, as the performers shift in and out of positions, both on their own and in unison. Pairs display spectacularly fluid, gravity-defying lifts while solos involve intense flexibility, including precise, controlled movements standing on one foot. Costumes shift from flowing trousers to skin-coloured underpants.

All of this is performed with vivid, sometimes extreme lighting and a set of video screens that continually offer visual surprises, whether it's the appearance of a towering figure, a torso as a landscape or mirrored maze that captures the dancers inside. The effect is often jaw-dropping, but everything plays into a soulful exploration of humanity as it exists among nature, alone or in community. Or the feeling of sitting with the glow of a screen as our only company.

The score by Sigur Rós often feels more like a soundscape than music, but it also provides an intriguingly sharp musicality to the movement. Gender is often a factor, with men and women sometimes adopting specific positions that play on sexuality and roles. Perhaps the most striking image is the extended opening sequence in which the male dancers link to form a single organism, stretching and bending and reaching toward the sky.

For information, visit SADLER'S WELLS >

photos by Cheng Chen-chou, Tristram Kenton • 30.Nov.23

Thursday 30 November 2023

Critical Week: Make a wish

Awards season is in peak flow, with multiple screenings and Q&As every day, forcing us to choose carefully. One easy choice was attending the world premiere of Wonka, attended by filmmaker Paul King and the entire cast. The party was astonishing (so much candy!), and the film is a lot of fun too. There was also the musical remake of The Color Purple, a finely made film even if the songs create an uneven tone. Eddie Murphy takes on Christmas in Candy Cane Lane, an enjoyably goofy comedy fantasy that's slight but watchable. That's pretty much the same way to describe Melissa McCarthy in Genie.

May December • Femme
Fallen Leaves • Totem
We Dare to Dream
A bit more high brow, there's Jeffrey Wright in the fiercely intelligent comedy American Fiction, taking on cancel culture with complexity and nuance. George MacKay and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett are excellent in the dark British drama Femme, a provocative exploration of masculinity. Isabelle Huppert is as good as always in The Sitting Duck (La Syndicaliste), an otherwise rather dry and talky drama. The slickly made Hong Kong crime thriller The Goldfinger reunites the great Tony Leung and Andy Lau, although the film gets bogged down in details. And there were two riveting docs: High and Low traces the life of disgraced fashion icon John Galliano, while We Dare to Dream is an intimate journey with members of the Olympic refugee team.

And as voting deadlines get closer, screenings are getting even busier. Movies this week include Pierce Brosnan in Fast Charlie, acclaimed foreign films The Taste of Things, The Peasants, Monica and Green Border, plus on-stage performances of Lunar Halo at Sadler's Wells, Tossed at Royal Vauxhall Tavern and Gary Starr at Southwark Playhouse.

Friday 24 November 2023

Dance: Duets in the dark

Young Associates: Mixed Bill
Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells • 22-23.Nov.23

This year's Young Associates showcase features four very different duets, each with its own distinctive tone. They are all performed on a dark stage with very strong lighting, as seen in the images...

Falling Forwards
choreography Maiya Leeke
dancers Joshua Hawkins, Emily Lue-Fong
music Randolph Matthews

Maiya Leeke's work emerges from her background as a jazz saxophonist, and as a dancer she appeared in Barbie. This piece features a range of intriguing juxtapositions between two dancers, a male and female wearing loose, flowing costumes that sometimes seem to get in the way. They move against each other, on their own and sometimes in unison, creating eye-catching shapes. On the soundtrack, breathy rhythms give way to music as the choreography shifts from sharp movement into much more musical expression. The couple comes together to perform a series of lovely moves before separating again. The movement is demanding, beautifully performed to create engaging characters and a story that's involving and even moving. 

Ida’s Solace
choreography Elisabeth Mulenga
dancers Laurie Ward, Steffi Fashokun
music by Travis Yu

Elisabeth Mulenga takes inspiration from cinema as she explores the human psyche. This piece is challenging and sometimes abrasive, as two women in calf-length dresses writhe in unison and then separate to strike poses that have echoes of horror, sometimes juddering or breaking into huge facial expressions. Performance art rather than dance, the movement is often awkward and difficult, deliberately revealing the strain both in the individual and in the way they try to interact with each other. It also sometimes feels aggressive and violent. Much of this is alienating and even disturbing, but it's also eerily intimate. So even as it pushes us away, we are intrigued.

At the Foot of the Brae
choreography Roseann & Sula
dancers Yu-Chien Cheng, Naissa Bjørn
sound design Jan Brzezinski

With a plinth in the centre of the stage, this piece features two androgynous dancers who are both male and female, performing in ways that suggest a queer struggle for connection and meaning in life. It's a moving piece, choreographed theatrically by Roseann and Sula to echo their experiences growing up in central Scotland. This involves evocatively staged extended solo sections that include enormous movement, revealing huge effort and big emotional outbursts. Then when the dancers are together, they fly around the stage with real power. But there's always a struggle, a push and pull. It's a lovely depiction of gender fluidity, a cry for hope.

My Glimmer Boo
choreography Blue Makwana
dancers Lauren Jenkins, Tanisha Addicott
lighting Amelia Hawkes

Dedicated to Matthew Perry, this cheeky piece uses friendship as its central theme, opening with a voiceover introduction to two social media stars. They emerge grinning and snapping selfies, adeptly performing a riotously athletic TikTok style routine before shifting their costumes for a modern dance section. This includes emotional turns on their own and as a pair, leading into a more classical dance piece that's elegant and empowering. Then the phone is back as they merge all three styles in a whizzy, inventive way, performed with intricate skill to a remixed version of the Friends theme. The music all the way through is clever, and the red and black colour scheme inventively interacts with the lighting. It's also very sweet.

For information, visit SADLER'S WELLS >

photos courtesy Sadler's Wells • 22.Nov.23

Thursday 23 November 2023

Critical Week: What you wish for

Things have shifted up a gear here in film awards season, with more screenings and links than it's possible to watch. Everyone wants us to consider their movies, and there simply isn't time to watch everything, so we're all making lists and watching what we can. It can be a bit overwhelming, but there are of course worse jobs out there. The big movie this week was Disney's new animated feature Wish, and I was invited to the gala UK premiere in Leicester Square and also a Christmas party the next day. The film is sweet and entertaining, but there's not much to it. A more satisfying animated movie is Adam Sandler's Leo, a nutty romp about a classroom lizard who helping the students with their problems. It's both silly and smart, and also very funny. 

Robot Dreams • Napoleon • Monster
Totem • American Symphony
Bridging between arthouse and blockbuster, Michael Mann's Ferrari recounts a pivotal period in the life of the car maker, played by Adam Driver. The entire cast is excellent (including Penelope Cruz and Shailene Woodley), and the film is strikingly well shot and edited. Tilda Swinton gets a superb double role as mother and daughter in The Eternal Daughter, an enigmatic haunted house movie from Joanna Hogg. I loved its atmospherics. Finnish master Aki Kaurismaki's Fallen Leaves has won some big awards this year, and it's easy to see why. It's a wonderfully deadpan romantic comedy, fiercely original with topical touches. And another award-winner, Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda's Monster is a gorgeously constructed drama that carries a huge emotional kick.

And then there was the Mexican mystery thriller Lost in the Night, a riveting offbeat thriller that refuses to be what we want it to be. The wacky German satire Captain Faggotron Saves the Universe is amateurish but has its own charm. And the lively documentary Scala!!! is a delight, tracing London's iconic repertory cinema with style, humour and insight. Away from the cinema, I also saw Lovetrain2020 and the new Young Associates mixed bill (review up soon) at Sadler's Wells and Connor Burns: Vertigo at Soho Theatre.

Things keep getting busier this week, with films including the musical remake of The Colour Purple, Timothee Chalamet in Wonka, Eddie Murphy in Candy Cane Lane, George Clooney's The Boys in the Boat, Jeffrey Wright in American Fiction, Isabelle Huppert in The Sitting Duck, Melissa McCarthy in Genie, George MacKay in Femme, Hong Kong crime thriller The Goldfinger, the John Galliano doc High & Low and the Olympics doc We Dare to Dream.

Sunday 19 November 2023

Stage: Charmingly transgressive

Connor Burns
Soho Theatre, London • 16-18.Nov.23
UK tour 6.Oct.23-23.Mar.24

Scottish stand-up Connor Burns takes his acclaimed Fringe show on the road, travelling to pretty much every corner of Great Britain (plus a stop in New York), ending up back home in Glasgow in March. His offhanded style of delivery and deliberately edgy material make him thoroughly engaging, especially as he continually apologises for each transgressive gag. Then he says something even more outrageous, which leaves us laughing conspiratorially.

Most of all, Burns is lightning fast, quickly picking up on what's happening in the theatre, and weaving razor-sharp punchlines into each throwaway comment. He delights in skating close to the edge of controversial subjects, mischievously riffing on things like female empowerment, gender identity and Oscar Pistorius, and he miraculously manages to do this without ever losing the audience. He has a gift for accents, and joyfully lampoons a wide range of people, starting with his own Scottish brogue before mercilessly taking on Australia.

What makes this so engaging is that he delivers every jab with expert timing, as if he's having a private chat with us, confiding his politically incorrect opinions, even though we know that he's joking (and he reminds us just to be sure). His jaggedly hilarious comments about shifting genertional attitudes, as a Millennial looking at Baby Boomers and Gen Z, are wonderfully observed to add unexpected depth to the material. And through all of this, his cheeky, knowing smile is utterly charming, undercutting our ability to be offended by even his rudest material. This is a rare gift, so we can only hope that Burns never gives into pressure to tone things down.

For information, visit CONNOR BURNS >
photos by Melody Joy • 18.Nov.23

Saturday 18 November 2023

Dance: Sowing the seeds of love

Emanuel Gat Dance
choreography & lighting Emanuel Gat
with Eglantine Bart, Tara Dalli, Noé Girard, Nikoline Due Iversen, Gilad Jerusalmy, Péter Juhasz, Michael Loehr, Emma Mouton, Rindra Rasoaveloson, Abel Rojo Pupo, Karolina Szymura, Sara Wilhelmsson
music Tears For Fears
costumes Thomas Bradley, Wim Muyllaert
Sadler's Wells, London • 17-18.Nov.23 ★★★

Emanuel Gat takes such a loose approach to choreography that this show can't help but be entertaining, especially for fans of the 1980s pop band Tears For Fears, whose songs underscore the show. Performers run around the stage with abandon, using improvisational techniques that stretch their muscled bodies in expressive directions either along with the music or in complete silence. But while it's visually impressive, and the dancers are seriously talented, there's a nagging sense that the show is essentially pointless.

The dancers appear on stage one by one, in somewhat indulgent fashion dressed colourfully and individualistically in what seem to be bunched up sheets and curtains. These look very cool, but are perhaps impractical for physical movement, so it makes sense that costumes are shed layer by layer until a joyful number later on in which everyone is skipping around in underpants. This finally allows us to see the sheer strength these performers are deploying to strike these various controlled poses, which sometimes evoke children at play or contestants in a voguing ball. 

Gat describes the show as an invitation "to come and join a community of individuals, as they make their way along constantly changing landscapes". Indeed, there is the strong sense here of how people come together and maintain their identities in a company, performing in unison while still having their own individual flourishes. Even so, the approach never taps into the deeper emotions, leaving the audience impressed but unmoved.

While all of it is eye-catching and often sexy, only a few numbers manage to find a more resonant impact. The most powerful piece is a pas de deux between two men who create a vivid tension that pushes and pulls between them. And several solos are performed with astonishing physicality and a hint of internal emotion. But most of this feels rather random, even if it's always beautiful.
For information, visit SADLER'S WELLS >

photos by Julia Gat • 17.Nov.23