MIA

Just a quick update to apologise for the radio silence here at Pop Arts lately; lots of stuff happening offline that has needed the majority of my time. BUT I hope to be back to regularly scheduled programming very soon.

Many thanks x

Throwback Thursday: Pop Arts Revisits…Speak for Yourself!

Important fact about me: I love love love Imogen Heap. She is a goddess of musical invention and magic and I will listen to her anytime, anyplace. Today’s throwback is to Imogen’s second solo album, Speak for Yourself and the special place it holds in my heart.

Imogen’s first album, iMegaphone is kind of dark and spidery, with her voice sounding very stark and British on each track. Her third effort, Ellipse, is dreamy and full of longing. There’s loads of experimentation with sound here too. Speak for Yourself is the middle child, and is full of songs about love, family and mystery.

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Hi guys, apologies for the lack of a Pop Arts Revisits post in honour of throwback Thursday yesterday. Life stuff and busyness got in the way I’m afraid.

HOWEVER: There will be a new review up later today and posts over the weekend.
We will be resuming our normal schedule next week and in the meantime have an awesome weekend!

J.C

Theatre Review: Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins

When: 27th Han 2014 / Where: Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe

Shakespeare’s Globe has recently added another performance space to their site: the Sam Wanamaker playhouse, so named for the man that started the campaign to rebuild the Globe. One of the first performances to be shown is Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins, which I went to see last Monday.

First off, the playhouse is utterly beautiful. It has been painstakingly designed and built and, in true Globe fashion, is built in the mould of a 16th century playhouse. It is an intimate, candlelit venue that apparently seats 350, but seems smaller than that.

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 (contraband photo taken from my seat)

I sat in the ‘pit’ which had benches that curved around the ‘pit’ space, meaning that all audience members sat there had to turn to see the stage. Luckily for me, I had the seat at the end of the row, so could completely turn to face the stage. I was also less than a metre away from the edge of the stage, which was a little intimidating at times! The performance was Eileen Atkins, playing Ellen Terry, giving a lecture on Shakespeare, and particularly Shakespearean roles for women. The source material is a series of lectures actually written and given by Terry in her lifetime, which Atkins has combined into an impressive one woman show stopper. What we frequently got was the rather magical trick of Eileen Atkins playing Ellen Terry while also playing Juliet. Or Rosalind. Or Desdemona.

From the moment Dame Eileen (as I will refer to her from now on – it’s more fun) strode on stage, with a magnificent grey curled wig and wearing an electric blue velvet suit, I had a feeling we were in for something a bit special. We were treated to Ellen Terry ruminating on her acting career from a child onwards (including a wonderful story about a miscalculated stage trap door) and talking about Shakespeare and the roles he wrote for women. From there on in, we get a Shakespearean lady acting masterclass, both from our imagined version of Ellen Terry and from Dame Eileen, who performs at least 11 major female roles (plus a few of the major male ones too, and some more minor characters). She doesn’t just stick to monologues, but enacts whole scenes before us, switching from character to character, making alterations in voice, stance, body language, mannerisms, accent and attitude to convey the differences. Dame Eileen (who is 79) convincingly manages to portray Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing), Rosalind (As You Like It), Viola and Olivia (Twelfth Night), Portia (Merchant of Venice), Cordelia (King Lear), Ophelia (Hamlet), Desdemona and Emilia (Othello) and Juliet (Romeo and Juliet). She also includes portrayals of Othello and Lear, along with several others.

Watching Dame Eileen move from character to character is extraordinary. She snaps right back out of character very suddenly and often to comic effect, which just adds to the impressiveness of her performance. There was a very real sense that we were watching an actress still at the top of her game at nearly 80. The audience hung on her every word and the electric effect of her presence endured throughout (despite mobile phones ringing and some sort of odd beeping coming from the ceiling). An unusual performance, in an unusual space; the performance was a brisk 75 minutes and well worth a watch, if you get the opportunity.

Book review: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & Park has to be one of the loveliest books I’ve read in a long time. I bought it as a Christmas present for myself (What? People can do that) and took it away on holiday, consequently staying up half the night to finish it.

Eleanor & Park is primarily a love story between two teenagers, neither of whom feels like they fit in, either with their families or at school. Eleanor is the new girl at school and Park is begrudgingly kind when the other kids turn on her. This kindness turns into friendship between them and gradually into a tentative romance.

The story is set from 1986/’87 and alternately told from both Eleanor and Park’s points of view. Park’s dad is American, while his mum is Korean and he feels slightly separate from his peers due to his mixed ethnicity. Their casual racism only heightens his feeling of distance. He feels like a disappointment to his father, for not being as traditionally ‘macho’ as his dad.

Eleanor is a tall (the description of her makes me think Amazonian, truthfully), eccentrically dressed redhead who is living with her four younger brothers and sisters, mother and step-father. Eleanor has recently returned from living away for a year, kicked out by her step-father, who is a constant menacing presence. Both Park and Eleanor feel isolated and unable to be themselves. After Park allows Eleanor to sit next to him on the school bus, they begin to bond over a combination of comic books and music, Park delighting in sharing all of his favourite things with someone who appreciates them as much as he does and Eleanor giddy that someone would so willingly share with her.

The slow drip feed of friendship into love is realistic and incredibly sweet. The excitement each gets from just holding hands is evocatively described and Rowell beautifully captures the aching agony and joy of teenage romance. What’s really brilliant about this book is that this is more than boy meets girl, happily ever after hurrah. Both characters gain something from the other; become better and stronger. They each love the other for all the things they dislike in themselves.

Park finds strength from Eleanor to come out of his shell and be who he wants to be. Eleanor finds in Park some self-belief and reliance, reminding her that she is special and doesn’t deserve the cruel taunts she gets at school or the terrifying malevolence of Richie, her step-father. Rowell builds the aura of fear surrounding Eleanor’s home and Richie slowly; dropping hints here and there, each new bit of information more awful than the last. The more you know of her home life, the more you feel the warmth of Park’s family, who are kind and loving. The more you understand what Eleanor is hiding from, the more precious her time with Park.

Rowell has written not only a great love story, but a great story about what it is to be a teenager and to feel alone and how much brighter the world seems when you find someone who understands and makes you that little bit less lonely. The story is funny, moving and intelligent and lingers with the reader long after you’ve finished.

Pop Arts Recommends… Friday Night Lights

A new feature for a new year! On the last Friday of each month (although, technically this post just missed that Friday deadline), I will be posting a recommendation of stuff I love; TV, film, music, books etc. We kick off with what might be the greatest TV show ever – Friday Night Lights

For the uninitiated, Friday Night Lights is a US TV show that was originally a film, which was based on a book (Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream by H. G. Bissinger). The show ran from 2006 – 2011, lasting five seasons. It was – ostensibly – about a high school football team in rural Texas. Oh, but it’s really about so much more than that!

People who watch FNL tend to be fanatical. It’s not a show that you tune into when there’s not much else on, it’s a show you watch an entire season of in one day, not stopping until 3am (true story). One of the wonderful things about the show is how utterly involving and compelling it is, despite seeming not to be about much in particular.

Our central dynamic is the Taylor family. As the show opens, Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) has been appointed head coach of the high school football team, the Dillon Panthers. In the town of Dillon, this team is the heart of everything. It is the pride, their glory and builds a sense of community. As with all things people are passionate about, there is some ruthlessness to the lengths fans will go to, to protect ‘their’ team and what they feel it stands for. The show does a great job of exploring why the success of that team means what it does to the wider community and how dangerous it can be to forget the players (the oldest of whom would be 18) while thinking of the ideal of the team.

And this is why Coach Taylor is our way in, the show’s true hero: because he never forgets that the kids he’s coaching are still kids. As much as he’s teaching them how to be great players, he’s also teaching them how to be adults. Friday Night Lights has become famous for Coach Taylor’s inspirational speeches and there is a danger they could be cheesy, but somehow, they always seem unforced and kind, rather than grandstanding. I think much of this is due to Kyle Chandler being totally brilliant in this role, for which he (eventually) won an Emmy.

The foil to our Coach is his wife, Tami (beautifully played by Connie Britton). Tami is never just ‘the wife’ character, there for our hero to tell his problems to. She has her own career, which progresses across the duration of the show, a complicated relationship with her teenaged daughter, Julie (Aimee Teegarden) and is juggling the strains and stresses of being the coach’s wife. Coaching the team brings with it a bright spotlight, not just for Coach Taylor but for his whole family.

They are our central point, our anchor throughout. For the purposes of the show, the rest of Dillon exists around them. This means that many of our other lead characters are high school footballers. But as I said, this is not really a show about football. How they behave on the field and within the team often correlates with what’s happening elsewhere in their lives. These are young men, glorified for their sporting skills, but struggling to cope with the demands of the real world. We have Jason Street, former star quarterback, navigating a life very different to the one intended for him; Tim Riggins, bad, lacklustre attitude towards…almost everything, more concerned with partying than his future and with only his older brother around, he lacks any sense of responsibility – except on the field; Matt Saracen, shy and sensitive, caring for his ailing Grandmother and nursing a crush on the coach’s daughter, Smash Williams, full of bravado and ego but carrying the weight of expectation and Vince Howard, criminal record and a troubled background, but with the opportunity to make a better future for himself.

But it’s not just about the boys: Lyla Garrity, cheerleader, perfect girlfriend, now struggling to cope with major changes; Tyra Collette, self-styled ‘bad girl’ who nobody expects to do anything with her life and Julie Taylor, rebelling against her image as the coach’s daughter and carving out a role distinct from her parents’.

I could go on and on; other major and minor characters that populate the team and town throughout the run of the show, each one fully realised and nuanced. The show does it’s best to show the complexity of human nature – characters frequently make decisions that you know will cause problems, but are true to their nature. Things don’t always work out, because in real life, we don’t always get what we want or live up to our full potential. But somehow, this isn’t depressing and FNL remains one of the most uplifting shows on TV. The show advocates for kindness, fairness and the idea that people can change and achieve, if given the opportunity. In the Taylors, the show has two people who are simultaneously realists, while maintaining great optimism for the young people they look after.

This is not a show about football. It’s a show about real life and real people. With a wide and talented ensemble cast, there really is something for everyone to relate to. I really, really love this show and I will continue to tell everyone I know how good it is. Plus, it has the best opening theme ever:

Go watch it!

Don’t just take my word for it, see below for more parise for Friday Night Lights

The Guardian

Women and Hollywood

HuffPost

Boston.com

Theatre Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Where: Theatre Royal, Drury Lane / When: December 2013

I was very excited to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I was a big Roald Dahl fan growing up and C&TCF stands out in my memory. I wasn’t sure I could imagine anything more exciting as a child than a tour of a chocolate factory. I had recently been to Cadbury World when I read it, so it felt like it could actually be true. What’s more, Dahl’s descriptions of the different Wonka Chocolate bars are positively mouth-watering and I was looking forward to seeing them come to life (they sounded far better than the distinctly underwhelming Wonka bars Nestle recently released) .

A full summary of the book can be found here. In brief, Willy Wonka is a reclusive chocolate-making impresario, who one day announces that there will be the opportunity for members of the public to win five golden tickets, hidden in Wonka bars, to take an exclusive tour round his chocolate factory. Our hero – Charlie Bucket – is from a loving but desperately poor family, who dreams of meeting Wonka and going in the factory. As each golden ticket gets found (by increasingly obnoxious children) his chances look slim, but fate may be on Charlie’s side…

I had high hopes for Charlie and The Chocolate Factory – The Musical. It had a number of things going for it: well-loved source material, directed by Sam Mendes and the great Douglas Hodge in the role of Willy Wonka. It was also following hot on the heels of the success of the RSC’s wonderful adaptation of Matilda, which I saw earlier this year, which proved that Dahl could be successfully updated for musical theatre.

After the performance, I came away thinking it was quite a good show, with a few great elements (see below) but was ultimately unsatisfied and rather disappointed. The friends I saw it with had the same feeling. It wasn’t the fact that we couldn’t see part of the stage (necessity and late booking meant we were seated on one side of the balcony, meaning a whole corner of the stage was lost) as the children around us seemed to be delighted. It wasn’t the air conditioning blasting down our necks, forcing us to put our coats back on (I think the Theatre Royal may have slightly over-compensated for how full the theatre was) and it wasn’t even not being able to understand much of what the characters were singing. I think the disappointment has two causes. One is the aforementioned Matilda. One of my companions, with whom I’d seen Matilda in August, pointed out that that show was so resoundingly clever, witty and impressive, you couldn’t help but compare the two, both being adaptations of Dahl novels. Unfortunately for C&TCF, it came up rather short in this comparison, rather blasting us in the face with how jolly, and naughty and eccentric it all was, rather than relying on the story to sell itself. There is a reason the books are still so popular after all.

The other issue was in the HUGENESS of everything. The show is visually spectacular, with some truly amazing set pieces – the glass elevator and TV room were particular standouts – but seems to use the visual elements of the story as a crutch, hoping we’ll be so blown away with what we’re looking at, we won’t notice much else. The music roared out of the speakers, practically drowning out the singers, so that for most of the show I could hear there was singing but had great difficulty discerning the actual words. Half the joy in Dahl is the silly and fizzy language used (Tim Minchin makes great use of this in Matilda) and it’s all lost in the volume of everything else. It’s not helped by the fact that the songs are completely forgettable and considering it was musical, I felt quite impatient whenever the singing started, finding those parts rather boring in comparison to the rest of the show.

I enjoyed the introduction of the four rather nasty children who would be joining Charlie on the tour. Dahl always delighted in giving people their comeuppance and the more badly behaved the characters are, the worse off you know they’re ultimately going to be. The kids put an enormous amount of energy and colour into their characters, obviously enjoying their misbehaviour. It being some time since I had read the book, I was reminded how brutal some of the punishments are (Veruca Salt is sent on a journey to the incinerator, for example), with Wonka leaving it deliberately vague as to whether the parents will be able to reach them in time (the sight of Augustus Gloop’s face popping up at various intervals while being sucked through a waste pipe was delightfully ghoulish). It was refreshing to see that the show stuck with the venom of Dahl’s original plot.

The show picks up considerably with the appearance of Willy Wonka, by far the most interesting character, delightfully played by Douglas Hodge. Hodge brings class and elegance to everything he does and manages to make Wonka both mysterious and exciting and rather chilling and menacing. Wonka is a prickly character who fails to relate to (or play nicely with) others and who is quite clearly not someone you would entrust your child to, such is his disregard for others. Hodge lends a credible edge to the disposal of the other children, adding a hint of glee whenever he has to explain where they’ve gone to their parents. He also sings the only number I remember, Pure Imagination beautifully, (the only non-original song in the show, written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley and appearing originally in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) creating a lovely moment of wonder, right at the end of the show.

Special mentions must go to the four actors playing Charlie’s grandparents, who were as crotchety and creaking as I imagined, and to Iris Roberts, the actress playing Mrs TeeVee, who produced a great comic performance in amongst jostling child performers.

There was a great deal of potential in this as a musical and I am disappointed that it failed to deliver (though it never even touched the depths of misery that was watching the doomed Viva Forever). However, the children in the audience seemed truly delighted – there was a lovely moment when a little girl sat behind us practically shouted ‘it’s a GOLDEN TICKET!’ towards the end of the first half – so it definitely stands up as successful family entertainment. It was full of energy and visually spectacular, but didn’t linger in the Pop Arts heart.

Theatre Review: The Light Princess

When: Dec 2013 / Where: National Theatre

The Light Princess is a new musical, with music and lyrics by Tori Amos, who I suspect has been part of the draw for many people. Her music is individualistic and highly poetic in nature – the language and storytelling used suggest that her style would lend itself well to a musical. She rarely writes or sings about the ‘expected’ and her work often has a feminist leaning. I felt it would be a safe bet that her involvement here meant that we would be in for something a little more unusual.

The plot summary is as follows: There are two, warring kingdoms, with two motherless children at the heart of them. Upon the death of her mother, Princess Althea decides she never wants to feel sad or cry again and that everything in life must be light. As a consequence, she loses her own gravity and floats around, untouchable in the sky. The King locks her away in a tower and focuses all his efforts on his son as the kingdom’s future leader. The other side of the forest, Prince Digby becomes so weighed down by his sadness at the loss of his mother, that he never smiles again.

When Althea’s brother is murdered, her father turns to her in desperation, asking her to lead the country. But years of his neglect and Althea’s distance from others leads to her running away, rather than becoming Queen. In the woods, she runs into Digby, sent on a mission to find and kill her. He finds he is unable to, enchanted by her, and so a Romeo & Juliet-esque love story begins. They must now decide whether to face their destinies and if they can face them together and bring an end to the war.

The Light Princess had all the hallmarks of a traditional fairy tale, with a few modern elements thrown in. The fairy tale setting gave way to some incredible, wondrous staging. Words almost can’t do justice to how lovely and inventive the work of the design and technical teams was. The sets and costumes were bursting with life and colour; particularly well done was a secret lake teeming with wildlife, which was imaginatively evoked. The opening preface to the story was done through shadow projections onto the back of the stage (much like this). It gave the impression of the audience being told an epic, classical, story and fit nicely with the overarching themes of the show.

Billed as a family show, the basic fairy tale was suitable for children to enjoy, while other, more complex themes were explored for the adults in the audience. The show examined father-child relationships; particularly fathers and daughters and how important those core familial relationships are to a child’s development. It looked at the place of women within patriarchal societies – Althea rejects societal norms and longs to be free from the constraints of her life as a royal daughter – and is subjected to cruel and violent attempts by her father to (literally) ground her. It is widely considered that a husband will solve the crisis and encourage the people to have faith in Althea’s power to lead… (Ahem). Interestingly, it also took a look at why we need emotional balance. Althea struggled with emotions that dug too deep, or weighed her spirit down; Digby resisted happiness. Neither could achieve harmony or freedom while failing to acknowledge core parts of the human experience.

No review of a musical would be complete without mention of the music. Alas, the songs were, I found, not especially memorable. I didn’t leave humming any of them, no scraps of music or harmony got lodged in my brain. But then, I’m not sure that Tori Amos has ever really written what you’d call ‘catchy’ music, so why start now? I did find some songs overlong and repetitive – the point of most songs in musicals is to forward the plot and I felt that they went past that mark several times. The music did contain an ethereal, mystical quality to it, blending well with the fairy tale atmosphere and the singing was excellent; the cast coping admirably with sometimes sudden changes in pitch, note or tempo (as noted above, Amos’ music is often full of the unexpected). Special notice must go to Clive Rowe for doing this particularly well in his major solo.

It was good to see a musical with such an impetuous, wilful – and not always likeable – heroine at the centre. Althea’s refusal to engage with others and her fury at Digby whenever he disagrees with her are infuriating, but her spirit and enthusiasm for the joys in life are wonderfully engaging and make you root for her survival. Much of the credit for the vividness of Althea as a character must go to Rosalie Craig, who absolutely dazzles in this role. Standing out amongst the rest of the cast with a shock of resolutely red hair (a reflection of our composer) she infuses Althea with a strength and effervescence that fill up the stage. Her emotional journey is realistically portrayed and Craig particularly impressed with her command of the dramatic acrobatics her character (who has no gravity and is always drifting and floating) must do. Craig sings at length while turning upside down and back round again, without a note ever slipping or wavering.

I felt that the acrobatics were the most impressive thing about the show. The conceit that Althea cannot ever quite touch the ground is an intriguing one, playing a fantastical role (to complete our fairy tale) and a metaphorical one: Althea cannot cope with reality and fears being on the ground with everyone else; fears their sadness, their anger, their deceit. She believes that by staying elevated and away from them, she will escape the sadness in life. It is a high-concept idea and demanded ingenuity to put into practice. I had assumed, prior to the show, that the ‘light’ part of the princess would be done using wires. In actuality, it is much more exciting than that. I don’t want to explain too much, as I enjoyed the fact that it was a surprise, but while wire work is involved, there is also a very gifted (and strong!) acrobatics team at work here. They, coupled with Craig, must have worked incredibly hard on making Althea’s movements seem light and ethereal. No one shows any sign of working to create that impression –least of all Craig. The effect they manage to produce is utterly magical. Not once do Althea’s feet touch the ground, with the mechanics needed to do so seemingly invisible.

As mentioned above, I did feel that the songs sometimes erred on the long side and in fact, one of my only criticisms would be that I felt the show was too long in general. It might have benefitted from being trimmed down by about 10 minutes, to keep the energy from flagging a bit at the end. However, that being said, I really liked The Light Princess. It was unusual, well-acted, well sung, absolutely sumptuous to look at and phenomenally well staged. It’s playing for limited number of weeks – more information can be found here.

Welcome to 2014!

Apologies for the radio silence over the last couple of weeks – I’ve been busy eating, drinking and being merry over the festive period. I managed to see and read a few things in those weeks though, so new reviews will be up shortly.

I hope you all had a great start to the New Year; lets hope 2014 is a good one!