Review: The Marriage of Kim K

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am in no way unbiased towards this production. I am friends with most of the cast and crew, although I should note I was a fan of their work before I knew most of them personally. I also had a minor role in it, helping out with marketing in the run up to its first performance, and I sat in on roughly two weeks’ worth of rehearsals. As such, while I will strive be objective in my criticism, there’s no way I can actually write about this show objectively. Consider this review a biased opinion from someone involved, and I advise you check out some other reviews from less biased sources.

The Marriage of Kim K might be best described as Channel Surfing: The Musical. Mashing up the stories of Kim Kardashian, The Marriage of Figaro, and a couple arguing about which of the two to watch on television, fledgeling company leoe&hyde have produced a witty and engaging piece of theatre. Its clever structure, vigorous performances, and ambitious music make this a play well worth catching, even if the elaborate technical challenges sometimes threaten to overwhelm the team.

The play tells three overlapping stories which interact and comment on each other as the show progresses. We open with Amelia and Stephen, a lovely if slightly passive aggressive couple chilling out in front of the television. We are then introduced to Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, in a condensed version of their infamously failed 2011 marriage. Finally, we have the Count and Countess from Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro. Amelia wants to watch Kim. Stephen wants to watch Mozart. Arguments, inevitably, ensue.

As Stephen and Amelia bicker, we switch back and forth between them and the shows they are watching. The effect, while jarring at first, is the baseline from which the show pulls several clever tricks, and the music makes the most of this juxtaposition. The live band switches between electronica and classical music at the drop of a powdered wig, and there’s some fun to be had spotting the show’s many quotes from contemporary pop songs.

But these quotations are still in service of the larger show. They create dramatic irony, such as when Amelia sings about her unhappy marriage to a sample of ‘Happy’, or hint at the world beyond the stage, like when ‘N****s in Paris’ is used to signal the approach of Kanye West. This is a show about the detritus of culture, both high and pop, but while the juxtapositions are all terribly clever, the script can feel a little bit timid.

It takes the best part of twenty minutes for all three narrative tracks to get up and running, which feels like quite a slow run up to the play’s real premise. Similarly, the decision to give every cast member a solo does not do wonders for the show’s pacing. The Count and Countess’s in particular feel underwhelming, and audio problems are a frequent occurence. The performance I saw had some real trouble with microphones, including a particularly nasty bit of feedback during Kim’s solo. There was also a real problem with audio levels, as the band frequently threatened to drown out the singing.

This is not a knock on the performers, however, who are good across the board. Stephen Hyde and Amelia Gabriel are impeccable as themselves, full of warmth and humanity, while effectively conveying their respective flaws of egotism and control freakery. [I should stress here that I am referring to the characters’ egotism and control freakery]. Yasemin Mireille is a classic diva as Kim K, while James Edge is pure id as Kris Humphries, his wild gyrating and asides to the audience almost taking him into panto territory. Nathan Bellis and Emily Burnett are similarly impressive as the Count and Countess, their skilled opera tones a marked contrast with the high-pitched pop antics of Kim’n’Kris.

The Marriage of Kim K is a sprawling, ridiculous contraption of a show, but at a mere 72 minutes it also manages to be energetic and concise. While it occasionally threatens to collapse under its own ambition, on its own merits it’s a funny, heartwarming, and downright clever piece of work, whose finer touches you will still be realising several days later.

Oh, and it has possibly the greatest title drop in the history of theatre.

 

The Marriage of Kim K is in London until 29 July, and the Edinburgh Festival in August. Tickets are available to buy here.

 

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Review: Merlot and Royal

This article first appeared on Oxford Opening Night on 30 May 2017.

Merlot and Royal is a new musical being staged at Tingewick Hall this week. While it demonstrates genuine effort and no small degree of skill, it gives me no pleasure to say that the piece unfortunately falls completely flat. A period musical with no laughs, no tears, and no memorable tunes, it’s surprising that so many talented actors and musicians have managed such a mediocre display.

The plot feels both contrived and poorly-paced. Our hero is Robert Merlot, heir to the titular Merlot and Royal Banking Firm. After the death of his father he finds himself thrust into a world of high-powered meetings and luxurious parties, while also falling for a waitress ‘below his station’. You can probably guess the rest, but that summary does not do justice to the tangled mess that is the play’s structure. A mountain of undeveloped sub-plots, the play lurches awkwardly from scene to scene, lacking drive and panache. There are hardly any jokes, and the few there are struggle to raise a smile.

The production focuses entirely on the music, at the expense of character, plot, and charm. While the music is beautifully played by the impressive ensemble, opening night saw near-debilitating audio problems. The band were frequently too loud to hear the songs’ lyrics, and microphones seemed to stutter and cut out with every alternate word. Though competent, the music is ultimately forgettable, with not a single catchy melody. The blocking and choreography are also too static and unimaginative to make any of it memorable.

The actors are poorly served by a wooden script, but most of them manage acceptable performances. Sammy Breen has plenty of leading man charm, and Amelia Gabriel almost manages to wring some pathos out of her frequent passionate confrontations. The real standout is Alex Buchanan as a slimy bank clerk turned traitor turned bank robber (why?) who plays a scene of sudden contrition and suicide with such conviction as to almost distract from its sheer contrivance.

The rest of the cast are perfectly adequate, and the singing is good across the board, but the fact remains that there is no spark of life in this production. The setting is unusual, but feels bland and generic; the ambition is admirable, but the execution is timid and dull. The sad fact is that these actors, these musicians, and these concepts, all deserve a much better play.

Review: Anything Goes

This article first appeared on the Oxford Opening Night website on 12 October 2016.

With the Playhouse newly redecorated for Michaelmas term, where better to start than a musical from the 1930s? Anything Goes is a retro-cool season-opener, and it delivers all the colour and style we’ve come to expect from Playhouse musicals, even if it’s a tad unpolished in places. Upbeat, funny, and energetic to a fault, it’s a jolly romp of a show that will surely make a delightful introduction for the many students getting their first taste of Oxford theatre this week.

Our hero is Billy Crocker, a young stockbroker in love with an heiress engaged to an English earl. With the help of his friend Reno, as well as a helpful tip from a passing gangster, he winds up on a cruise ship with all of the above, as well as being on the run from the law. Hilarity ensues (obviously), and the production team deserve credit for managing the play’s laundry list of elements as stylishly as they do. There’s a lot going on here, but the show hums along admirably, the scenes cleverly interwoven to give a sense of several plots developing at once. This helps maintain a brisk pace, as well as the shared space of the cruise liner itself.

The set is marvelous, with the band sitting up on the bridge like a kind of omniscient narrator. This is a show defined by song, so it’s great to see the musicians paced centre stage rather than cast into the pit. It’s also very much an ensemble piece, so it’s difficult to call anyone the ‘star’, but the all-cast musical numbers are stellar. The ‘Blow, Gabriel, Blow’ sequence which kicks off act two is a masterpiece of choreography, a perfectly-paced bit of dance and gymnastics which goes on for fifteen minutes, running the gamut from joy to heartbreak, with plenty of laughs along the way.

The individual parts are mostly unflashy, but the actors are a treat nonetheless. Toby Chapman is a capable straight man as Billy, reacting dryly to the madness around him, and Josh Blunsden is perfect as the ship’s put-upon captain (watch out for his final scene). Nils Behling is an adept physical comedian, and Laurence Belcher nails the part of the oblivious aristocrat, his cringeworthy love poetry forming the basis of the play’s most quietly brilliant set-piece. But the real standout is Kathy Peacock as Reno; agile, charming, and bursting with charisma, she may also be the best singer of the bunch.

It’s not a flawless show: the opening night saw severe audio problems, and several of the jokes fell flat. There was a sense of attempting to speed through the awkward material, rather than relaxing in its ridiculousness, a feeling not helped by occasionally rushed line readings. But these problems largely fell away by the second act, once awkward banter gave way to elaborate showtunes and personal confessions. Anything Goes is bubblegum theatre; it’s bright, cheerful, and drives away the academic blues, even if the memory of being pleased lasts longer than its actual pleasures. It’s a big, frothy delight, and for the year’s first major student play, that’s one hell of an achievement.

Review: Queueue: A Coffee-Shop Musical

Yes, I know this is terribly late. But then a thing happened and then another thing, and then there was a referendum which you might have heard about. So here it is, a month late, my review of Queueue: A Coffee Shop Musical. I also wrote about it here and here, and later this week I’ll be interviewing the composer, Stephen Hyde. So that’s something to look forward to.

From the title onwards, Queueue is a play that messes with your expectations. Staged in the large but cramped cafe at Modern Art Oxford, this promised to be ‘The Greatest Musical Since Hamilton’, detailing the lives of the various digital citizens who flock daily to the artisan coffee shops of the land. Writer Leo Mercer set out with the task of ‘adapting the internet’, and he imbues Queueue with the chaotic, free-associative quality of casual surfing, bolstered by imaginative direction and a versatile score. As is often the case with Mercer’s shows, Queueue is freewheeling, clever, and massively indisciplined, but with a production team as talented as this, there’s only one major place where that indiscipline is a problem.

The plot consists of a series of vignettes set in the titular coffee shop, centred on the various people sitting inside it on their laptops and smartphones. There’s Alice, our nominal heroine, a young professional trawling the net for business opportunities. Then there’s Zoe, a wannabe YouTube star in the making, and Cody, a bank clerk/L33t Haxor who gets bored and starts causing trouble. All of them are watched over by the cafe’s owner, Jazz, who also acts as omniscient narrator. The action unfolds at, between, and around the cafe’s tables and chairs, an interesting theatrical decision which further implicates the audience in the troubles of the digital petty bourgeois.

This kind of staging is tricky to pull off, and requires a very good cast to get it right. Queueue can thus count itself extremely lucky. Jemimah Taylor is brilliant as Alice, conveying emotional depth with a character written as a bit of a cipher, and Ben Christopher is good fun as Jazz, displaying a bit less range but an equal amount of charm. Jess Bollands is similarly good as Zoe, displaying all the charisma and vulnerability of the YouTube star, and hitting the high notes like no-one else in the cast. Finally, there’s Charles Styles as Cody, whose sleazy persona and slick fashion sense perfectly complement his shady hacking and inept socialising, a performance as gloriously hammy as it is occasionally creepy.

All this is aided by a slick score from composer Stephen Hyde. The sound is all synth-heavy contemporary pop, shifting effortlessly from the quietly atmospheric to the intense and emotionally charged. Particular highlights include the rousing intro ‘Young Blood’, the psychedelic ‘Coffee Shop On The Moon’, and the Andrew Lloyd Webber riff ‘Queen of the Cats’, which accompanies a wonderfully bonkers descent into the dark web, an underworld populated with feral LOLcats. Scott Bolohan’s direction helps keep things nice and dynamic, even if the blocking feels a bit awkward as the actors constantly shift to avoid tripping over table-legs. Mercer credits The Lego Movie as a source of inspiration, and Queueue‘s playfully appropriative style does a good job capturing the mad, self-referential nature of life on the web.

Having said that, Queueue does make one major slip-up in its depiction of the internet. There’s a sequence in which Zoe is viciously trolled, demonstrating the harm that internet harassers can cause, but the play’s one self-confessed troll is ultimately rewarded with a relationship with Zoe at the end. Trolling is presented as, at best, impolite, and at worst is actively rewarded, a dangerously cavalier attitude towards the material the show seeks to adapt. But that’s only the start of the problems with the ending. Having climaxed on a massive downer, with pretty much every character in the play alienated from everyone else, the ending features every character simultaneously deciding that the events of the last two hours don’t really matter, and then pairing off in romantic bliss. On its own merits it’s quite a good sequence, featuring a witty song parody of the clickbait listicle by way of David Bowie’s ‘Changes’. But in terms of the play overall it’s a disaster. Setting aside the dubious gender politics, to see such a subversive, imaginative show collapse into the most cliché, heteronormative ending possible is deeply disappointing.

But while it doesn’t quite stick the landing, Queueue is still a landmark bit of student theatre, and represents a risk worth taking. The best analogy is a prog rock album; this is a show of bold, striking ideas and skilled performances, rather than narrative clarity or coherence. As the title implies, Queueue is a bit too strange and a bit too long. But it’s also self-aware, and it uses that excess to its advantage.

Plus it contains the single best use of ‘Charlie bit my finger’ in theatre history.