LIVE REVIEW: Jake Bugg

Touring since October, local Notts boy Jake Bugg has already had quite a year, with his appeal quickly gaining momentum after making appearances stateside and performing to sell-out crowds across England. As a result, his rescheduled show at Birmingham’s Institute was greeted with high expectations.

Opening for the eponymous eighteen-year-old were folky Dubliners Hudson Taylor. No doubt riding on the crest that is the ‘Mumford movement’, their acoustic riffs and harmonies were toe-tapplingly catchy. Their charming Irish lilts came through strongly on the vocals – especially on the likes of ‘Chasing Rubies’ – and each song of their set was pacy and passionate, interrupted only by their repeatedly thanking the audience.

Tennessee-born Valerie June then took to the stage, with her feisty presence usurped only by her eye-catching Medusa-like hair. That is, until she started singing. Her voice was magnificently distinctive, reaching a volume one could hardly have expected. Her Deep South accent and roots were wonderfully palpable throughout as she combined playing on acoustic and electric guitars, as well as her “baby” banjo, on which she performed melodic gospel song ‘Somebody to Love’. Finishing on ‘Pushing Against The Stone’, the bass line seared through the audience as her sultry, almost-piercing voice continued to captivate: a delight to behold.

Jake-Bugg-albumThen arrived the boy we’d all been waiting for. Jake Bugg hardly acknowledged the audience’s cheers and hoots, instead fiddling with his guitar and launching straight into ‘Fire’. With his vocals as raw and sublime as they sound on record, he switched between acoustic and electric instruments with astonishing efficiency (if anything, he could have lingered on each crowd’s enjoyment of each number). Mesmerised and occasionally rowdy, the audience (of a surprisingly mixed age) sang along with zeal; at one point, a small group broke out with what I assume was a local Nottingham chant.

The atmosphere changed with each new song: mellow, tender tunes such as ‘Trouble Town’, ‘Simple As This’ and ‘Someplace’ were stripped back and evocative, sung under an ethereal spotlight and with a poignancy that belies Bugg’s age. He too transformed as the set ensued. He began almost-taciturn, if not just shy, speaking very little between each song, but he gradually warmed up to compliment the audience on their accompanying vocals, also introducing new single ‘Seen It All’. Barely moving from his central spot on the stage, he managed to transfix nonetheless with his Dylan-esque troubadour image and gritty vocal style.

With a flawless and beguiling confidence, Bugg went on to flow from the bluesy ‘Ballad Of Mr. Jones’ to the hypnotic ‘Slide’. Both were consistently brilliant and magnetic, but the addictive riffs of ‘Two Fingers’ and ‘Taste It’ found Bugg at his best. ‘Two Fingers’ in particular displayed his talent for complexity, opening with acoustic strumming before the tempo gradually kicked it up to a notch that saw the crowd dancing along enthusiastically.

What we’d really been waiting for, though, was the Olympic anthem that accompanied most of Usain’s triumphs in summer 2012: the utterly raucous ‘Lightning Bolt’, which Bugg rightly saved for last. This marked the only time that the crowd became particularly rowdy, and with riffs that electric, one could hardly blame them.

Bugg departed the stage to rapturous applause, quickly followed by chants for his return. Politely obliging, he returned to perform a mesmeric encore of ‘Broken’ and ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, both of which showcased his country influences, as well as confirming that this young man is definitely a talent to watch

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Theatre Review: Fiesta

A matador enters dressed in an ornate jacket and revealingly well-fitted tights. As he slowly, rhythmically drags his feet along the ground he takes a dominant stance, as if killing his bull. Meanwhile, Jake (Gideon Turner) sits centre stage and, in a low, gravelly voice, speaks about dying. 

This is how the latest adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises begins. In the intimate, minimalist space of the Trafalgar Studios, three actors and the live jazz band Trio Farouche, recreate the quaint streets of Paris, with its brooding, smoky atmosphere and the frenzy of Pamplona, with its excess and chaos.

The walls are lined with rustic corrugated iron and the floor is a speckled, stained wood. Plush Broadway this is not. However, when coupled with loud jazz and the fact you are literally sharing the stage with the actors, it is perhaps the best setting for emulating Hemingway’s ability to transport you into the scene.

Lady Brett Ashley (Josie Taylor) explodes onto the scene in a frenetic, volatile, sensuous and alcoholic style: flirting with the drummer, Charleston-ing with Jake and promptly sleeping with his best friend, Robert (Jye Frasca). Director Alex Helfrecht struggles however with the material once we get beyond aesthetics.

Much of the context; the aimlessness of the lost generation, male fragility and the subsequent immorality is glossed over with drink, dancing and debauchery. The sense of the text is there, but the meaning is lost. Having said that, there is something uniquely voyeuristic, authentic and exhilarating to a theatre where the rows are four-deep and you can see each tassel on the actress’ dress shimmy as she cavorts about the stage, or as beads of sweat roll down the face of a drummer who has just hit his loudest beat.

It certainly manages to reproduce the energy and ferocity of Paris and Spain in the 1920s that Hemingway evoked. Turner’s Jake is given the most to work with and (no pun intended) turns in a haunting and aggressive performance, whilst Taylor’s Lady Ashley is at times shrill, but mostly fierce and captivating. Unfortunately, to fit the expanse of the novel into a two hour production, the director seems to have altered many of their interactions so that their love and jealousy for each other isn’t enitrely believable.

Moreover, some of the other directorial choices are rather strange. For all the sense of reality Helfrecht chooses to evoke by having a live band, the actors then mime drinking from wine glasses suspended from the ceiling, momentarily breaking the continuity of the scene to then continue with their dialogue. It’s jarring and slightly awkward and one gets the feeling it was an interesting idea on paper, but one that doesn’t quite translate onto stage.

After a short interval when Jake decides to relocate to the Spanish countryside and take Brett with him, the audience re-enter the room as a barefoot saxophonist serenades them to their seats. The floors have been doused in vinegar and the hanging glasses are now filled with wine. We are in Pamplona.

9595_fullThe bull-fighting scenes are interestingly executed. Red lighting illuminates the matador we saw during the opening scenes, as he mesmerizingly emulates the dramatic movements of a man preparing to kill his prey. However, Lady Ashley then transforms into the bull in a bizarrely choreographed sequence that results in the actress displaying some nasty bruises all down her legs and arms. Once again continuity and absorption have been seemingly sacrificed for stylistic experiments.

At one point, after participating in the bull run (which resembles children running about in a playground), Lady Ashley declares that it’s “completely mad”, words which ring true for the adaptation itself.

It is certainly one of the most sensual and evocative plays I have ever been privy to, however the substance of the play is as lost as the generation it’s based upon. Characters are reduced to stereotypes – Jake’s best friend Robert is a Jewish intellectual, who throws away his life after a one night stand with Brett, but his romanticism and clinging onto tragic pre-war values are never once touched upon. Similarly, when we meet champion bull-fighter Pedro Romero; a figure of youth, purity and strength, he is boiled down to a kid with a crush on Brett.

The play itself is immensely entertaining and you can’t help but get caught up in the frivolity and tension of it all. However, when considered as an adaptation of one of the classic novels of the twentieth century, it doesn’t quite rise to the occasion.

Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Players: Kathryn Bigelow (DIR), Jessica Chastain, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Elhe, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YxC_JNz5Vbg (link to the trailer, if this review doesn’t convince you to go and see it).

Before going to see this film I decided I had better brush up on my knowledge on the search for Bin Laden. It having gone on for a decade or so, I figured there were a few things I might need to know prior to watching one of the most controversial films of the year so far. So whilst sitting in Cafe Nero, trying to obscure the words ‘torture porn’ and ‘terrorism’ from the people sitting next to me, I quickly crammed in all that I could read about ‘The Saudi Group, ‘Tora Bora’ and ‘Black Sites’.

Whilst a little bit of background info certainly helps when political and CIA jargon is being fired at you faster than a round of bullets, it’s not imperative to understanding the film. Director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, The Hurt Locker) creates a sort of docudrama that is edge of your seat gripping. One might think that the days, turning to months, turning to years of investigations, false leads and waiting for sources, opportunities or evidence would make for a drawn out and insufferable film. Bigelow however, does a fantastic job of selecting exactly what you need to know – covering both the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks in a tasteful, victim-oriented way, as well as the methods used in the manhunt.
She shows enough that you gather it’s a central part to the search for Bin Laden, without over-sentimentalising it, as well as focusing on the process as it changes. From the political decisions made, i.e. the ending of detainee project/extraordinary rendition policy to the changing of government from Republican to Democratic, Bigelow has a timeline constantly in the background – reminding us of its basis in facts, but providing us with a human connection to this debilitating, frustrating and alienating struggle for a world terrorist target through her protagonist Maya, played with fierce restraint and conviction by Jessica Chastain.
Maya is a heroine you root for. She’s a ballsy ‘motherfucker’ (as she tells White House aide James Gandolfini) who has sacrificed friends, a social life and any sense of normality to chase the bad guy for 12 long years. It’s jarring when Maya and a female colleague exchange IM’s expressing excitement about a source-turned-suicide bomber who might have provided information in the same way you and a friend might chat about your plans for a girl’s night in. They have devoted their existence to this search. But at the same time it’s not saccharine in its portrayal of this; we don’t see photos of missed relatives and the only tears shed are at the end of the long process when the sole aim motivating Maya’s career has finally been killed. Where does one go from there?
It is also ballsy filmmaking. Bigelow has become the industry’s go-to-girl for politically charged war movies that look at things from a different perspective. This isn’t fighting from the frontline, nor from behind the desk – it’s not afraid to limit the action when there isn’t any, nor detail the failures when they happen. The final sequence when the ‘kill-team’ breaks into Bin Laden’s suspected compound is excruciatingly tense; most of us know what happened, but not how and apart from a few unexpected explosions, the film is free from fancy pyrotechnics or crowd-pleasing thrills. This is cold, calculating objectivity, still seen through the lens of patriotism and seeking rightful vengeance for the homeland, but without the added doses of demagogy and liberalism that have peppered various other productions on similar topics. And before you get all hot under your collar about how it endorses the use of torture – fuck right off. It doesn’t. Not in the slightest. It shows torture to be part of the process, it doesn’t overplay the interrogation techniques or show them to be utterly vital in capturing OBL. Bigelow couldn’t have made this film without mentioning that the detainee policy was an integral part to CIA operations both pre and post 9/11. Perhaps it is a seedy and shameful underbelly to a country that considers itself to be morally righteous and advocates of democracy with a capital D, but Bigelow doesn’t glamorise this process. It emotionally destroys the character of Dan whom we first meet water-boarding a captured prisoner and eventually leaves to take a more removed job at CIA HQ Langley and ultimately it doesn’t provide Maya or the operatives with the information they want or need. The first victim Anmar reveals intelligence about a courier after being deprived, humiliated and abused; the scenes in which he is tied by ropes, crammed into a box or stripped naked are not easy to watch – if anything they serve as deterrents of torture techniques than support for it. It then takes years for Maya to prove that this courier even knew or worked for Bin Laden or that he was important to al-Quaeda. Torture was not indispensable to the search for Bin Laden, but it is an inherent part to the film’s honesty about it.
Those who actually work in the CIA may find it to be over-dramatised or over-simplified, with a whip-smart protagonist and ineffective leadership pandering to the cliché of ‘Maya against the world’. But polished, glitzy Hollywood filmmaking this is not. It is at once a compelling spy thriller and a realistic documentary. John Barrowmen’s cameo momentarily sucks you out of thinking it the latter, but on the whole the performances reaffirm this notion. Chastain’s is a powerhouse, career-changing performance. She is introduced to us as a rookie; softly spoken, wearing her best suit to an interrogation and nervously playing with her hands as she participates in her first act of torture. The manhunt hardens her; she shuts off from human interaction (the one time we see her ‘socialising’ ends in a bombing of the restaurant) and rejects the idea of sleeping with a colleague. At once an emotional fortress and achingly fragile, she proves herself just as smart, focused and forceful as any man on the team and the haunting intensity that Chastain gives Maya – during the ending especially, really evokes the film’s central question of whether it was all worth it. Does the end justify the means?

Reliable support is provided from Kyle Chandler as Maya’s boss; the official bureaucrat who struggles to devote himself or the government’s money in the same way Maya does, as well as Jennifer Elhe and Jason Clarke as the colleagues who suffer the burden of duty in different ways.

I left the cinema feeling a little emotionally drained and exhausted, but utterly impressed with the filmmaking. Don’t expect party poppers or fireworks as the climax occurs; this is not a film that necessarily celebrates the death of Osama Bin Laden. Instead it holds up a magnifying glass to how it happened. It depicts the complicity and controversy of morally ambiguous policies – weaving its way effectively through the nitty gritty of the 9/11 aftermath and America’s conscience, but without ever swaying you towards a side. It’s a risky tactic, as debates about the film’s stance on torture have proved – but one that I think pays off in dividends.
As technically proficient as it is compelling, the use of a grainy camera feel adds to the stripped back realism of the film, whilst the framing and costuming of Maya show her to become more and more embroiled in the manhunt. Equally, the editing builds suspense in the right places; you can sense when something isn’t quite right, but without resorting to sensationalism. The pacing could be said to be patchy in places, however the 157 minute running time never drags and if anything it adds to the feeling of tedium that embodied the wild-goose chase. Not as visceral or searing as The Hurt Locker, but once again Bigelow proves herself a master of the provocative, pared down and politically relevant.
Verdict: Taut, clinical and well-executed, it lays down the facts and lets you make a judgement.