Fun and games

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It’s every bit as good as you thought it would be. Go and see it now… oh, wait, you can’t, it closed yesterday. Keep an eye out of the NT Live encore screening, because if you admire the play at all this is something you need to see.

Beyond that, actually, I don’t have a huge amount to say about it. I’ve said before that this is a play I admire rather than love, and that’s true this time as well, but this revival – directed beautifully by James Macdonald – is a bit more of a roller-coaster ride than the last one I saw. Usually, productions of this play are a bit like ordering off a set menu where you can have one item from each column – so you can have the laughs and the viciousness, or the deep hurt and the vulnerability, or the rage and the regret, but you can’t have them all together. Not this time. This time, thanks to a stunning quartet of actors, you get the lot. Imelda Staunton, as you’d expect, is a perfect Martha, and she does a staggering job of capturing all of the character’s oppositions (fierce/pathetic, funny/vicious, loving/hateful, wounded/wounding and all the rest), but in this production it’s really George’s play, which is by no means always the case. Conleth Hill is extraordinary – very, very funny, he somehow manages the odd trick of dominating while (or possibly by) being downtrodden, and he’s exceptionally moving when he allows George’s sardonic mask to slip.

As the younger couple, Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots are also spectacularly good. Treadaway’s Nick is slick, ambitious, and somewhat lacking a moral compass – he can barely be bothered to disguise how much he dislikes his wife, and he doesn’t appear to have any qualms at all about making out with Martha while George is in the room. And Imogen Poots’s Honey is a riot until she sobers up and starts to dimly grasp the truth about her own marriage; this is Poots’s professional stage debut, and it’s a very fine performance indeed.

There’s fine, unobtrusive direction from James Macdonald and a handsome/worn-around-the-edges Craftsman living-room set from Tom Pye, but you don’t go to this play for the set design or for directorial tricks. You go to hear four great actors dish out Albee’s spectacularly brittle dialogue, and this production delivers all the fireworks you could want. There’s music in this play’s dialogue, and these actors find all of it.

Do I have any complaints? Only one: it’s great that this was filmed for NT Live, but I wish that, like Staunton’s Gypsy, it had been taped for television.

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Better to be dead

whisper house other palace

What to make of Whisper House, the new(ish) musical currently running at The Other Palace? Well… not much. For a start, it’s very short. The Thursday matinée I attended last week began fairly promptly at just after 2.30pm, and including a (completely unnecessary) 20-minute intermission we were out of the theatre more or less on the dot of 4. Signs in the lobby suggested it ran an hour and 45 minutes. They lie.

Beyond that, it’s an odd piece, and it doesn’t remotely add up to a satisfying piece of theatre. Set in and around a lighthouse on the coast of Maine during World War Two Whisper House is a ghost story of sorts: a young boy is taken in by his aunt after his parents are lost to the war, the aunt has a secret which may or may not have something to do with the singing ghosts that haunt the lighthouse she keeps, and the aunt’s Japanese handyman puts her and the young boy on a collision course with the local sheriff when the US government orders that Japanese residents be kept away from sensitive coastal installations like lighthouses. To say the show has a ‘plot’ would be to lend the writing a dignity it doesn’t deserve; there’s a rather too on-the-nose programme note from the lyricist/librettist (Kyle Jarrow) drawing a link between Trump’s xenophobia and World War Two internment camps, with a coy suggestion that “xenophobia isn’t unique to the US” – tell us about it, we’ve all lived through last year’s appalling referendum campaign and the even more appalling aftermath – and that, unfortunately, is more interesting than any of the lines Mr. Jarrow gives his “characters” (I’m using that word in the very loosest sense). The ghosts sing, the sheriff broods, the aunt limps around the stage like a depressive cross between Katharine Hepburn and Jake the Peg, the kid behaves like a perfect little proto-fascist, and after about an hour and a quarter of stage time you’re out on the street looking for a coffee. It’s true that brevity is supposed to be the soul of wit, but unfortunately Mr. Jarrow’s book and lyrics don’t contain any.

There’s some interesting (if occasionally repetitive) music by Duncan Sheik, though, and the cast, led by Dianne Pilkington as the limping aunt, are all beyond reproach. Playing the two ghosts, Simon Bailey and Naimh Perry get the bulk of the singing, and they’re both superb, even when the words they’re singing are not (‘Better to be Dead’, the opening number, gets reprised so often that it makes the recurring ‘Marilyn Monroe’ in Blood Brothers look like a monument to subtlety and restraint). The show looks good, too, with a suitably evocative set (Andrew Riley) and projections (Mark Holthusen). It’s a pity Gregory Clarke’s sound design is so muddy… except given Mr. Jarrow’s lyrics, which are terrible, perhaps it isn’t (sorry, Kyle – ‘Japan’ does not rhyme with ‘land’).

Put simply, the show is a mess. It isn’t a dead loss, because the cast are worth the cost of the ticket (assuming you sat in the cheap seats) and the physical production, sound design aside, is flawless, but for all the pleasures in the performances and (some of) the music, it just doesn’t work. It’s far too slight a piece to stand alone; there isn’t enough story here to sustain two acts, and shoehorning in an interval, which blows a great big hole in the tiny little scrap of tension director Adam Lenson has managed to establish during the first forty minutes, is not the solution. Whisper House might – might – work a little better as half of a double-bill, but it might work better still if it was (re)written by someone who isn’t Kyle Jarrow.

Reviews of the premiere production in San Diego in 2010 suggest the show had all the same problems the first time around; that given, it’s difficult to see why The Other Palace put it on the schedule in the first place, since it’s clear that no serious attempt has been made since 2010 to fix the show’s (many) weak spots. It’s an interesting curiosity, and I’m grateful I got to see it, but I’m not sure the other 36 people in the audience last Thursday afternoon all felt the same way, since the tepid applause barely lasted through the bows. The cast deserved better; the material, I’m afraid, did not. On The Other Palace’s website, their mission statement informs us that “discovering, developing and reimagining musical theatre is at the heart of what The Other Palace is about.” That’s a laudable goal – but given the talent that’s out there, surely they could have found something better than this?

I kraine, you kraine, he/she/it kraines…

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Don’t mention the… everything.

Live – if I wasn’t actually too chickenshit to watch it live – from sunny Kyiv, there’s a whole galaxy of political subtext surrounding this year’s Eurovision, what with Putin sticking his dick in all kinds of places it doesn’t belong, from Crimea to (apparently) several foreign elections. Russia were supposed to be competing, which is hilarious given their recent history with Ukraine – but, oops, their contestant had previously travelled directly from Russia to Crimea instead of entering Crimea via Ukraine, which now leads to an automatic ban on entering Ukraine. So, no Russia… which probably saves a great deal of unpleasantness in the green room. Never mind.

Otherwise, it’s more or less business as usual. There’ll be glitter, flames, the kind of lighting effects that make the late, lamented Debbie Allen Dance Numbers from the Oscars look like something you’d see staged in a fringe theatre on a budget of £1.50, and music will die several times during the course of the evening. The theme this year, apparently, is ‘celebrating diversity’ – presumably unless you’re representing a country whose president likes occupying stuff that isn’t his, in which case you can just fuck back off home, which is understandable enough.

The parade of flags/contestants at the beginning is demented as ever. I am, as I said, not watching this live, because it’s foolish to put yourself through this kind of trauma without the ability to resort to the fast-forward button when things get too painful. I am also WATCHING THIS SHIT COMPLETELY STONE-COLD SOBER. I don’t drink, and staring down Eurovision is one of the few times I regret that. I have paracetamol and Maltesers, and that’s as rock and roll as I get.

While I am not watching this live, though, I have managed to remain spoiler-free. And of course I didn’t watch the semifinals, because there’s already enough suffering in the world.

We’re celebrating diversity by welcoming three white men as hosts. Well, I say “men”; that probably needs to be confirmed by some kind of independent observer. They are painfully terrible, and I can’t remember their names – a reminder, again, that Sweden’s fabulous Petra Mede is the only decent host the show has seen in at least a decade (with all due respect to Graham Norton snarking in the background).

So… the songs.

One. Israel. Imri, ‘I Feel Alive’.

Imri obviously prioritises the gym over singing lessons. That’s a valid lifestyle choice for most people, but maybe not if you’re planning to participate in a televised international singing contest. The song is a slab of generic Mediterranean disco, Imri’s permagrin is slightly terrifying, and there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before. The opening slot is a killer – this isn’t going to win, and it doesn’t deserve to. Bye, Imri, have a lovely flight back to Tel Aviv.

Two. Poland. Kasia Mos, ‘Flashlight’.

In the pre-song video clip, we see Kasia jumping into a muddy puddle. That’s the good bit. Her song is an oddly tuneless power ballad, there’s a lone violinist cavorting around the stage behind her, her white dress seems to be mostly made of bandage, and the lyrics are completely unintelligible. As she pelts into her final chorus, she looks, more than anything else, like she’s being controlled by wires from the grid above the stage.

Three. Belarus, Naviband, ‘Story Of My Life’.

Boy/girl couple who look as though they’ve escaped from the chorus of ‘Half a Sixpence’. For some reason they’re standing in a boat with big fans on the back. I have no idea what language they’re singing in, but it’s a pleasingly eccentric, energetic performance. The song is genuinely infectious, they’re obviously having a good time, and it’s FUN. They end with a bout of full-on snogging centre-stage.

Four. Austria, Nathan Trent, ‘Running On Air’

He opens sitting in a glitterball moon. The song seems to be aiming for a kind of breezy la-la-land jazz vibe, but it misses by a mile and ends up sounding like a Take That reject. There’s nothing in Mr. Trent’s cheesetastic performance that sells the material, although he seems to have borrowed Imri’s permagrin. He isn’t going to pull a Conchita Wurst.

Five. Armenia, Artsvik, ‘Fly With Me’

Flamenco dancer from hell surrounded by an eternity of dry ice. She’s wearing chainmail and a lot of silver, and the song exists somewhere in the musical intersection between Enya and middle-era Depeche Mode. To sell this properly, I suspect she’d need to grin less. Fast forward time.

Oh no. There’s a dance break. And flames. And wailing. Thank you, Armenia, that was (ahem) lovely. It’s weird enough that it might actually do well.

Six. Netherlands, Og3ne, ‘Lights and Shadows’

Girl trio. They can sing, they’ve got nice matching outfits, and their song is boring as hell. Moving on…

The Ukrainian hosts are attempting a meet-the-audience moment between songs. You may want to hide behind a cushion. Or self-immolate. “Let’s meet somebody!”, says Mr. Plastic #1. No, let’s not.

Seven. Moldova, Sunstroke Project, “Hey Mamma”

They also represented Moldova in 2010. I have completely blanked them.

Oh, bloody hell. One of them has a saxophone, another has a violin, and there is no hope. The chorus sounds like they’re singing “mamma mamma don’t piss too hard” over and over again. It’s an extraordinarily irritating song, and they’re giving an extraordinarily irritating performance – but I watch to the end, because unlike Og3ne, at least they aren’t boring as shit.

Eight. Hungary, Joci Papai, “Origo”

Mr. Papai has a man-bun. Why is there never a trapdoor when you need one? He beats out a rhythm on a milk churn as he sings the opening verse, and he’s costumed as the Kralahome in a low-budget touring production of ‘The King and I’. In the middle of the song, he starts to rap, and an overwrought dancer imitates a whirling dervish next to him. Whoever conceived this act was doing a lot of drugs.

Nine. Italy, Francesco Gabbani, ‘Occidentali’s Karma’

Catchy slab of Europop. Mr. Gabbani looks a bit like he’s arrived via a direct portal from 1985, and the hands-in-the-air dance with a man in a gorilla suit on the chorus is endearingly crazy. It’s completely batshit insane, tremendous fun, and ends to wild applause from the audience.

Ten. Denmark, Anja, ‘Where I Am’

Anja is apparently Australian, and according to Mr. Norton she moved to Denmark “suspiciously recently”. Lucky Denmark. Anja’s generic midtempo power ballad is just about as dismal as these things get, and her mannerisms make me long for the subtlety of a Jane McDonald. She’ll have a lovely career singing on cruise ships.

Sorry, no. A cascading waterfall of sparks behind the singer doesn’t make the song any more exciting. Try harder next time.

Eleven. Portugal. Salvador Sobral, ‘Amor Pelos Dois’

The evening’s second man-bun. We’re back in La-La-Land territory, but far more convincingly this time. It’s rather sweet, though I wish he’d stop hunching his shoulders. The song is determinedly old-fashioned, and it’s sung simply and sincerely, with no big special effects in the staging. It’s apparently the favourite to win; it’s absolutely charming, he ends to huge applause, and it’s completely unlike the kind of performance that usually does well at Eurovision – which is no bad thing.

One of the plastic presenters tells us that there is SO MUCH LOVE IN THIS ROOM. The suggestion might be more convincing if we were sure he had the equipment to deliver.

Twelve. Azerbaijan, Dihaj, ‘Skeletons’.

Woman in a black lipstick and a studded collar in front of a blackboard with random s&m safe words scribbled on it, next to a guy in a plastic horse head standing on top of a stepladder. In terms of attitude, they remind me a little of Propaganda – except the music is a bit crap. On the second chorus, dancers in black trenchcoats pull the blackboards down and she scribbles an X in chalk on each of their backs. I’m sure it’s all terribly meaningful.

Thirteen. Croatia, Jacques Houdek, ‘My Friend’

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
And dreams are made of emotion?

Great big cheesy-listening ballad, sung by a guy who looks a bit like Meatloaf, if Meatloaf spent a lot of time getting his hair blow-dried. Mr. Houdek’s voice is weirdly double-jointed – a legitimate baritone and a shreiking pop falsetto, with nothing in between. The overall effect is a lit like Il Divo on LSD. It’s completely riveting and utterly bonkers.

Fourteen. Australia*, Isiah, ‘Don’t Come Easy’

Nice ballad. Nice voice. Big hair. Weirdly, when his face moves his eyebrows stay still. Imagine a cross between a random member of Hanson and Josh Groban and you’re on the right track. It’s neither good nor bad enough to win, but he doesn’t disgrace himself.

*Yeah, yeah. Israel isn’t in Europe either.

The plastic hosts are back. Has someone got a flamethrower? No? Damn.

“Guys, give yourselves a cheer!”
[crickets]

“Here everyone is free to cut loose and express themselves however they wish!”
[but, oops, let’s not mention Ukraine’s less-than-completely-stellar record re: LGBT rights.]

Fifteen. Greece, Demy, ‘This Is Love’.

She’s very pretty, she has a decent voice, and the song is another slab of written-by-numbers Eurodisco. She manages not to giggle while two nearly-naked male dancers writhe in a paddling pool at her feet as she sings, which probably deserves a prize in itself; the song, however, is not going to win anything, but you’ll hear it over and over again in every disco in Mykonos this summer.

Sixteen. Spain, Manel Navarro, ‘Do It For Your Lover’

I assume he doesn’t mean DIY. Subtly, the backdrop has a projected graphic of a VW camper rocking from side to side. It’s breezy, summery, acoustic guitar-driven pop – but for a song about sex, it’s a remarkably unsexy performance. There are also many, many bum notes.

Seventeen. Norway, Jowst, ‘Grab the Moment’.

Jowst is the guy in the mask. The singer is someone else – himself apparently a late replacement for someone else. The mask is the only interesting thing on the stage; as a group, they come across as a kind of cash-and-carry A-ha. They keep telling us they’re going to grab the moment, and I’m hoping one of them – any of them – will grab a live cable and MAKE THIS END.

Brief interlude in which the lesser of last year’s hosts, Mans Zelmerlow, tries to train this year’s plastic pod people to host the show. Mostly it reminds us how terribly unfunny this year’s hosts are… and also that Mr. Zelmerlow is only about half as funny as Petra Mede.

(Have I mentioned that I miss Petra Mede?)

Eighteen. UK, Lucie Jones, ‘Never Give Up On You’

Don’t mention Brexit. Don’t mention Brexit. DON’T MENTION BREXIT.

She’s not bad. The song’s not bad. I mean, most of our last several entries have been terrible, and it’s not like this is a brand-new pop classic, but she can sing and the song isn’t a disgrace. We might not finish in the bottom ten. Not quite sure about the staging, though; from a couple of camera angles, it looks like projected flames are shooting from her bottom, and that’s not anyone’s best look.

Nineteen. Cyprus, Hovig, ‘Gravity’.

He wants to be your gravity, apparently. God help us all, the song reminded me of Bros. I lasted one verse and one chorus, and I hope you’re grateful.

Twenty. Romania, Ilinca featuring Alex Florea, ‘Yodel It!’

NO. White hipster rapper and improbably slim yodelling woman in a red minidress, mindlessly catchy chorus, and for some reason there’s a cannon on each side of the stage pointing at the singers. I suppose it’s too much to hope that the canons will fire at some point in the next thirty seconds. Swiz. On the last beat of the song, hipster rapper guy plants a smacker on minidress-lady’s face. She looks slightly horrified, and I think we can all sympathise.

Twenty-one. Germany, Levena, ‘Perfect Life’

Levena is very nice and very clean-cut and so very happy to be here, and she’s used every can of styling mousse in Kyiv to reinforce her strangely rigid hairdo. Her song is very bland, and so is her voice. It’s sort of the musical equivalent of the Frankfurt U-Bahn; it’s very clean and it won’t break down, but there’s not much to remember after you’ve finished.

…and we’ve a brief promo film for July’s Eurovision Choir of the Year competition, which I sadly won’t be able to watch because I’m away that day. As you can imagine, I’m completely gutted.

Twenty-two. Ukraine, O.Torvald, ‘Time’

Are you ready to RAWK? No of course you aren’t, this is Eurovision. This is the please-don’t-make-us-have-to-pay-to-host-the-show-again-next-year entry. They’ve paid more attention to their sleeve tattoos than to their song, and it shows: the giant disembodied plastic head in the middle of the stage is more interesting than they are, and it isn’t very interesting.

Twenty-three. Belgium, Blanche, ‘City Lights’

She’s very young and very pretty, and the song has apparently been a big hit on the radio across Europe. Blanche has a touch of the Lana Del Rey about her, and not in a good way. It’s moody and angsty and she mumbles the lyrics; the crowd loves it, but God only knows why.

Twenty-four. Sweden, Robin Bengtsson, ‘I Can’t Go On’.

Smooth smile, lilac suit, retro electropop with a great big catchy hook, slickly sung by a lounge lizard with an efficient but undistinctive voice. It’s very… competent, the choreography is impeccable, and you’ll forget it as soon as it’s over.

Twenty-five. Bulgaria, Kristian Kostov, ‘Beautiful Mess’

Maudlin pop ballad, young singer channeling his inner Morten Harket, lots of flashing lights. The sort of deep and meaningless song that sometimes does very well; I suspect it isn’t quite overwrought enough to go all the way to the top. Given how young he is, though – barely 17 – it’s a very impressive performance.

Twenty-six. The last song. France, Alma, ‘Requiem’.

Alma is lovely. The CGI cityscapes projected behind her are dazzling. The song itself is less dazzling, and she’s not the best singer we’ve heard this evening, although she has a certain charm. It’s the sort of thing you might expect to hear over the PA in Nando’s; the crowd loves it, but it isn’t going to win.

So that’s it. We’ve heard all 26 acts, and I haven’t reached for the paracetamol (yet). I’ve eaten all the Maltesers, though.

Now we have a very special guest: Verka Serduchka, a previous Ukrainian Eurovision competitor, who once taught us what would happen if Rosa Klebb collided with an exploding glitterball. If you need a bathroom break, now would be a very good time. Voting is open now all songs have been performed – or rather was open, I’m not watching this live. Waiting until all the songs have been performed before opening the voting is a recent-ish innovation. We can skip the recap of all 26 performances, because life’s too short.

Now the interval act – a mashup of traditional Ukrainian instruments and thumping Europop. It’s not unpleasant, but I miss the self-mocking sense of fun we saw in the Swedish interval act last year. The singer sounds a bit like Kate Bush, if Kate Bush played the pan flute.

(I think we’re all grateful she doesn’t.)

Time to meet more fans. An Australian tells us it has been awesome. This is his fifth Eurovision. I’m wasting my life here, aren’t I? He thinks the UK will win. Nope.

And now another clip – this time, of the kid who won Young Eurovision. She’s charming when she speaks, and terrifying when she sings. Imagine a cross between Andrea McArdle in ‘Annie’ and Céline Dion, only screechier.

Aaaand another recap.

Jamala’s back. Last year’s winner, huge star in Ukraine, premiering her new single. Security escorts someone from the stage as she starts singing. Her new single is a lot more upbeat than the song she won with last year. That shouldn’t necessarily be taken to mean it’s good.

In voiceover while Jamala’s singing, Mr. Norton informs us that we may have witnessed a bare bottom earlier on during the performance. No, missed it. Bummer.

The voting closes in 10 seconds. 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, finito. Jury votes announced first, before audience votes. Cut to Jon Ola Sand, Eurovision’s charisma-free executive supervisor, who… no, I couldn’t be bothered to listen either.

I’ll be fast-forwarding a lot while the jury votes are announced, because really, who has time to sit through an hour of this?

(Anyone who actually watched it live, presumably, which is one reason I didn’t.)

The UK’s jury points are announced by Katrina Leskanich, whose facelift looks as if it’s about to pop a rivet. She reminds us that she won 20 years ago, like we didn’t know. Some of us were watching. We give Portugal 12 points, and they’re comfortably in the lead.

At the end of the jury votes, Portugal is in the lead and the UK is two-thirds of the way up the board – very respectable compared to our last several efforts. Spain, thus far, have nul points. Not surprising. Audience voting – complicated explanation of how it works, and I couldn’t really give a shit. Just get on with it.

Spain get five audience points. Nobody gets nul points this year. Spain deserved it. Germany second-to-bottom, which is also not surprising. You don’t win this thing by being bland. You win it by being different, by standing out, by being memorable – and this year’s German entry just wasn’t. The audience votes are pushing some countries from near the bottom of the board into the top 10, and this does, at least, make it seem like a bit more of a race.

Bulgaria second, Portugal wins – for the first time ever, and it’s also the first time in years that the best song won.

Overall: not a banner year, though the winning song is charming. Too much bland Europop, not enough OMGWTF – but the right act won, and how often does that happen? So… Lisbon next year, presumably. Better get started building the wind machines.