Fame: The Musical – The Show Must Go On

Book by Jose Fernandez 

Music & Lyrics by Steve Margoshes & Jacques Levy

Directed by Nick Winston

Rating: 2 out of 5.

2020 has solidified one particularly nasty fact concerning the arts industry – its fickleness. A career in this industry is far from a secure path, where the merriments and passion for creativity are always at the mercy of financial strain, competition, and continuing inadequacies of representation. Looking to the future, the prospect of studying arts and entering the industry has never been quite as unpredictable. Adapted from the film of the same name, Fame: The Musical attempts to look into the underbelly of class, race, and poverty in the arts, but let’s face it – Fame is horrifically outdated.

Seemingly riding on a free pass as a “classic”, Nick Winston’s 30th-anniversary production fails to understand the necessity of pursuing excellence in a dated production. A show which has done the rounds and has little chance of altering the old script has to commit to every moment and make them shine. Fame never left the eighties, and where other productions of a similar ilk continue to either adapt or challenge themselves, Fame trundles along at a slowing pace, watering itself down, utilising the same energy it’s been banking on for thirty years.

What struggles most is the writing, which was never stellar to start with, as it limits many of the performers. With a smorgasbord of relationships, turmoil, and branching narratives, the school dynamic (if anything) hinders the story. Pursuits for chemistry seem largely fruitless as the cast aren’t able to spend enough time together for an authentic relationship to form, and the duets tend to have weaker lyrics than the solo performances.

For a production which centres itself in the creative cauldron of tomorrow, the choreography may be averaging Bs, but the singing and acting is likely to re-sit the final exam. Capable vocalists and dancers find themselves hampered by the numbing humour which falls flat, but not as flat as some of the vocals – save for powerhouses like Hayley Johnston or Jamal Crawford who are adept in carrying their character as well as a note.

And lord helps them, Johnston is by far one of the principal performers. With a terrific physicality to the comedy and a clear diction behind her voice, it’s just a shame that the entire existence of Mabel is one big fat joke. What’s worse, in an industry which violates people’s self-worth, the gags at Mabel’s weight aren’t even satirical – they aren’t a commentary on the outlandish abuses dancers put their bodies through to achieve an ‘ideal’ weight. They’re just cheap, washed out gags, and worst of all? They aren’t even funny.

Then it happens. As with Johnston, an underwritten and under-utilised character has a breaking moment: A performance that keeps Fame from bowing out. Mica Paris has thus far been waiting, biding her time as Miss Sherman, the homework teacher. Pernickety, stern but fair, the character has little association to the story until the second act where Paris’ rendition of These Are My Children demonstrates the difficulties of the education sector and is deservedly the belting audience-pleaser of the evening.

If you’re not bringing anything fresh to the production, ensure that in delivering musical theatre to new audiences that it’s at the top of its game. Fame isn’t even top of the class. The move to the digital format highlights errors in the anniversary production’s direction and flow, amplifying them with unnecessary close-ups and edits. Save for stand-out performances from Johnston, Paris, and Crawford, The Shows Must Go Online’s most recent addition to bringing theatre to the masses is likely to flunk at the back of the class.

Review published for The Reviews Hub

Breakfast Plays: Matterhorn – Traverse Festival

Written by Amy Rhianne Milton

Rating: 3 out of 5.

With the promise of a sensational work of otherworldly fantasy, Amy Rhianne Milton’s piece for the Traverse Festival’s Breakfast Plays may set itself on the outer reaches of reality, but at its centre is a deeply pertinent story. On the outskirts of time, as reality crumbles, a cathedral sits as humanity’s final bastion. A citadel looming on the precipice, its stone walls act as the terminal line of defence for humanity from the encroaching darkness. As the bell tolls, it serves as both a beacon of safety and a colossal Matterhorn, inviting those seeking salvation, but also those with ill-intent.

This is a story that builds itself around the encroaching devastation of the UK driving itself inwards from a global presence, as residents turn on one another with no foreign bodies left to blame.

Profoundly poetic, much of Milton’s writing works wonders for an audio drama in the imaginative sense, finding no problems in conjuring a wealth of imagery to create a feast for listeners. The dedication to forming the cathedral and the language involved in crafting a tangible notion of concepts such as light, darkness, chaos and reality is impressive. Unfortunately, as superbly inventive as Milton’s writing is, there are severe issues with the play’s comprehension.

The irony is that for a premise about the end of time, Milton struggles to secure enough to achieve coherency across the production. Too little light is shone on the overcasting shadows surrounding the initial premise, and the introduction of multiple realities muddles any traditional sense of structure. As a result, Matterhorn frequently entangles itself, beginning a thread which soon alters course and becomes indistinguishable from the rest of the story.

Providing some form of coherence are the three performers: Karen FishwickHelen Katamba and Laura Lovemore as Freya, Casey and Morrigan. Individually the three serve different narrative roles in each strand of reality that Milton weaves. It enables each to have a spotlight as well as a crescendo moment; but the three alternating realities (acts) are told out of order, and layer on top of one another, and ultimately failing to allow any character growth.

Notably, the more prevalent voice, Karen Fishwick finds a great balance in accentuating her voice for an audio drama without pushing emphasis and sounding hokey. Fishwick captures the essence of Milton’s script the clearest, and direction from Debbie Hannan aids in bringing life to the role.

Katamba breaks away from Fishwick’s poignancy and Lovemore’s more stern performance with a brand of Scottish charm that grounds the production and ties its fantastical elements into a distinct regional experience. With this, of course, is humour which keeps the narrative from becoming too lofty and inaccessible. Where required, however, Katamba also achieves an emotional note, particularly when reacting to Fishwick.

Kim Moore is unafraid to utilise more Gothic horror elements in her sound design, thereby bringing a much needed element of dread to Matterhorn. Ominous groans, bell tones and celestial ripples all have a part to play in carrying the story along and helping to convey time bending to an unfamiliar rhythm.

Matterhorn is a paradox, at only 45 minutes it frustratingly lacks the time to build on the foundations it establishes early on, yet somehow feels longer than its run-time as the audience wraps their heads around the multiple-reality angle. Where Milton’s writing excels is in the visual imagery of a fantastical world; one that reflects rising concerns across both the UK and Scotland. Sadly, the poetic language can’t sugar-coat an often messy script that has too much to say and achieve with very little time to do so cleanly.

Review published for The Wee Review

Image Rights: Mihaela Bodlovic

Sleep – Fantasia Film Festival

Written by Thomas FriedrichMichael Venus 

Directed by Michael Venus

Germany/ 2019/ 102 mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The answers in Sleep seemingly lie in a peculiar hotel, cast deep into the woodlands of a remote village. The residents have checked-out, and the staff are as unhinged as the dreams which haunt Mona’s (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) nights, following her mother’s confinement to a hospital; plagued by nightmares and crippling mental effects. Retracing her family’s history and her mother’s last movements, gradually, Mona discovers that not even our dreams can concoct something more twisted than reality.

A cautious piece of advice – stick with it. At times, the opening of Sleep will perplex even seasoned fans of psychological horror with its near glacial pacing and refusal to rush into exposition or drama. Everything in Michael Venus’ film happens precisely where required and when necessary. Bold filmmaking, it makes for a tremendous payoff, but will potentially turn away general audiences.

Principally, the writing of Venus and Thomas Friedrich falls victim to its own intelligence, which leaps and bounds ahead as their direction scrambles to maintain pacing. Breathless, singular plot threads coil around themselves, and though they can be unravelled, it takes a moment to truly appreciate what is going on, slowing momentum but still sharpening intrigue. By the time the direction (almost) matches the quality of the writing, towards the film’s climax, Venus’ influence over the cast still surrenders to superior writing, affecting intensity somewhat as it takes a split second longer than it should for things to click and for performances to fall in line.

For what may appear as an emotionless performance at first gives way to a sombre take on the anxieties Mona suffers and exceptional stresses she undergoes. Kohlhof taps into a depth of psychological mechanics in her characterisation, which at first seems aloof, but gradually makes narrative sense. By the film’s final twenty minutes, the extraordinary range on display blows any naysayers out of their seats.

A trait echoed differently with the remainder of the cast, who dip between eccentric or blasé, helping blur the lines of reality and absurdist dream. In particular, Otto, the hotel owner who has ties with Mona’s family, but won’t reveal how. August Schmölzer is an imposing presence who can manifest both threat and comfort with alarming ease. Paired with Marion Kracht, as his wife Lore, the two share many of the film’s more substantial moments.

The transitions to and from these dream sequences are one of the key strengths Silke Olthoff utilises in maintaining focus and forgiving the initial jarring motions, slipping in and out of the subconscious. Often quick and occasionally brutal, the methods and the repercussions of sleeping in this film come with seamless edits, unnerving in their dread without resulting to cheap shots and jump scares.

Utilising spiral staircases, perception manipulation and low angles across the hotel, Marius von Felbert‘s cinematography ticks all the horror clichés, but with honest intentions. Standing in solidarity with the film’s soundtrack, the visuals are equally as quiet and unfiltered. Whiplash, though, is then a possibility with how suddenly the visual dynamics turn in the dream-sequences, where colour and contrast are injected into the scene for a delightfully unnerving switch from the humdrum.

Sleep is a film where viewers will figure out their enjoyment quickly, and there is little doubt this will limit its scope which in truth is a shame. One thing is for certain, those keen to discover the secrets of this unscrupulous hotel will find plenty reason to stay wide awake for the conclusion of a slow-burning film with plenty of intrigues, surprises, and an adept level of suspenseful filmmaking.

Screened as part of Fantasia Festival 2020

Review published for The Wee Review