Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The Best Medicine

I don't know about you, but I'm in need of some smile therapy right now. Newly single, I am reminded of the moment in the SATC movie when jilted Carrie asks 'Will I ever laugh again?' and Miranda advises her that she will - 'When something is really, really funny.' As I'm not prepared to sit around waiting for my friends to soil themselves, I have to make my own amusement, and here are some of my quick-fix remedies to give you an instant lift:

Glee. Every line, every song - the whole concept is absolute gold. Become a Gleek and every week will get off to a better start.

Reading snippets from spoof US News site The Onion at your desk. Silly, perfectly crafted and an instant laughter drug. Also loving my horoscope on there this week: 'You'll find happiness at the end of the rainbow this week, though to be fair, it's the kind often found hanging outside of gay clubs.'

Really creamy, cinammon-laced hot chocolate. Not laughter exactly, but a smile and a warming glow from top to toe can't hurt.

Reading badly written erotic literature with your bestest girl friends (you know who you are.)

Chick flicks with a twist - I recommend mockumentary Drop Dead Gorgeous, high school Heathfest 10 Things I Hate About You and Tina Fey-scripted Mean Girls.

Extra-curricular fun: No, not playing away, but joining a club or team. Rehearsing with the choir I am part of is one of the most laughter-filled evenings of my week. Slightly music-geeky joking and the fact that we don't take ourselves too seriously means it's less work, more play.

Dave on TV - Russell Howard's little-boy delight in the world makes Mock The Week the prozac of panel shows, and the sharp minds and witty one-liners on Have I Got News for You and QI also do the trick.

Revisiting an old favourite. I am re-reading Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason on the train, and had forgotten how funny it is. Brilliant for realizing you're not the cringiest of females quite yet.

Overhearing the bizarre dialogue or phone conversation of a fellow train passenger. I'm not sure why this works for me, but the weirder the better.

Catching yourself in a moment of extra-strength crazy - think imaginary scenarios, almost-sent texts, facebook stalking or being overly riled by the tone of a Starbucks barista. It's oddly reassuring to laugh at yourself.

Do comment with smile-inducing tips and tricks if you can - the tiny things in life can really make or break your day, and mine are looking a little bleak at the moment...

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Don't Rain on My Parade!

I was browsing the weekend's newspapers when I read Amy Jenkins' column in the Independent with interest. She makes some good points about 'women's entertainment' being a separate concept from other TV shows, films and plays, but I was riled by the judgemental tone towards 'the sort of women that go and see these things'. It was all sparked by Legally Blonde (which I reviewed not long ago.) Jenkins had been irked by descriptions of the hordes of screaming fans, and started wondering why female-marketed entertainment has become so tied up in hysteria. Along the way, she lets slip that she doesn't like the concept of LB in the first place:

...the whole thing masquerades so well as a story of female empowerment... But, as with all these "girl power" franchises, there's also something not at all empowering and much more subversive in the mix. It's the "What's wrong with a bit of lipstick" mentality – by which I mean that these films and TV shows put themselves forward as "celebrating femininity" but actually reinforce feminine subjugation.

She also drives home the point that someone like Elle Woods would not get anywhere in the legal world in real life. Ok, it's not realism. But it's also not claiming to be. How many courtrooms have you been in where the witness's sexuality has been discussed by a group of singing lawyers? It's also not claiming to be at all feminist - Elle's success in law is entirely accidental, other than perhaps her foundation of confidence. The hordes of silly fans have nothing to do with the pink and fluffy content of the play. Plenty of people went to those first few shows that didn't scream, or cry, or wolf whistle. The fact is, it's a teen story and attracts a teen crowd - along with already extrovert theatrical types, gay men and Blue fans who haven't moved on. If anything, it's the tabloidy casting that's to blame. Jenkins then name-checks several examples of female bonding over TV and film that I felt rather stung by:

All this started in a small way, I seem to remember, way back in 1995 when women were reported to be gathering around their TV sets with bottles of chardonnay to watch re-runs of Colin Firth in his wet shirt in the BBC's Pride and Prejudice. Then there was Bridget Jones and the whole Sex and the City sisterhood thing. That culminated in women reportedly making the (horrible) 2008 film a party event and drinking cosmopolitans together as they watched... Finally, of course, there was Mamma Mia!, the worldwide phenomenon that traded on the dream of middle-aged women getting their mojos back and still having some kind of clout in the sexual marketplace.

What sort of sisterhood hating is this?! Yes, I enjoyed Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice (I was too young at the time for Chardonnay, but I remember reading Bridget Jones and appreciating that as a great girls' night in.) Yes, I saw Bridget Jones in a girly crowd and loved every minute - as did a lot of men, I happen to know. Yes, I went to see Sex and the City after a tribute day of shopping and cosmo drinking... I had loved the show for its six-year run and wanted to celebrate its fun, fashionable, fabulous spirit. And guilty again, I saw Mamma Mia at the cinema with my sister and mum, who is from the original Abba-loving generation, and laughed and sang along with the whole screening room. All of these brilliant memories of great times with fellow females were suddenly tarnished with disapproval. Having fun, en masse, perhaps drinking (whisper it) alcohol? What were we thinking?!

I'm not surprised Jenkins found the Sex and the City Movie 'horrible'; she probably couldn't relate to the main characters' experiences of love, friendship, heartbreak and the ultimate alien concept, having fun. Similarly, she was probably left cold by the sisterly spirit of the main girls in Legally Blonde, although she should have recognised herself in the initially snobby, humourless Harvard students. If anything, Sex and the City and Legally Blonde: The Musical are unrealistic mainly because they show women supporting and encouraging each other through mistakes and victories. Certain educated British women have been taught that manicures and girls' nights out only dumb us down, and the only true way to succeed is to see every woman around you as competition. This makes me sadder than any 'anti-feminist' plot could... As a culprit of the aforementioned "What's wrong with a bit of lipstick" mentality, I feel you can miss out on so much of life by taking your career, your gender, yourself too seriously.

One of the enjoyable things Bridget Jones, SATC and Legally Blonde had in common for me is that women became real, three-dimensonal figures of fun. When Helen Fielding wrote Bridget Jones, some people were horrified by the sight of a woman getting drunk, focusing on a man rather than work, going back to a cheating lover and, more often than not, just scribbling 'I blurry love Daniel' in her diary before passing out. Many, however, just saw themselves. We are not perfectly poised creatures, and we are sadly programmed (not just convinced by the media) to seek a mate and on the way, make ourselves look attractive in order to do so. I don't understand this idea that in order to be a powerful woman, you must eschew anything light-hearted, romantic, silly or exciting. The single woman drinking a cocktail with girl friends and objectifying the hot man on the screen is a hell of a lot more enlightened than the young married woman keeping house for her man and watching what he wants to watch while fixing him a drink. SATC and Legally Blonde both suggested that we might be a little pickier than that in our twenties and thirties, especially if we were lucky enough to have other women for companionship, laughs and conversation.

I'm not in the staunch 'Who needs a man?' camp but I can't stand this other extreme, the idea that groups of women bonding make the world a stupider place. There is something enchanting, wonderful and yes, shoot me, EMPOWERING about being in a roomful of women all having fun and being entertained. I felt it when spontaneous cheering, singing and clapping all broke out in the usually-mute cinema during Mamma Mia, I felt it in the relieved and knowing laughter at Bridget's hapless antics and I thought I would feel it at Legally Blonde, having listened to the witty lyrics and touching character friendships via the soundtrack. But it was a mixed group the night I went - and both the men and women present laughed, cheered and even booed. I think Jenkins needs to go back and read her own piece, where she describes the play in the title as 'the opium of the lasses.' While 'opium' suggests underlying danger and influence, it primarily represents a high, a boost and heady escapism. These shows may not change the world, but they've certainly lifted my mood, even just for a moment. Just as in this post, I take exception to anyone telling me that "celebrating femininity" - translation: having fun or feeling pretty - is a waste of time. There is enough crap in the world without these people draining all the colour from it.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Two-timing hussy... but only before 8am

I am not a morning person. I need to leave at least an hour and a half between blearily stabbing 'snooze' on my alarm and actually leaving for the station, glossy and blow-dried. After hitting snooze once or twice depending on the night before and the prospect of the day ahead, I have a very polished regime. This roughly allows fifteen minutes for a hot wake-me-up shower, ten minutes or so for wandering around the kitchen, stopping at intervals to stare blankly at the contents of the fridge before remembering what I'm doing, and to make a cup of tea. Then post-caffeine, I have around half an hour of watching breakfast TV and eating toast in order to fully switch on before I can get anywhere near my wardrobe or hairbrush. This may seem completely bizarre, but I've been waking up around the same early hour for eighteen months now, and since I show no signs of being able to spring up immediately, don a perfectly chic outfit and dance down the street singing like Julie Andrews, I'm sticking to it.

During my half-hour toast munch, I drop any pretence of intellectual loyalty and flick promiscuously between BBC Breakfast and GMTV. This feels vaguely like having an affair with Jeremy Paxman and David Beckham simultaneously: you don't feel good about it afterwards, but it's oddly decadent at the time. I can watch the headlines on Breakfast (pounding dramatic music, blood-red graphics, harrowing images) and then flick to 'What's Wills wearing Down Under?!' on GMTV, as a Minogue-esque brunette contemplates where Prince William might party while he's in Sydney. I know I should want journalism at its hard-hitting finest, but somehow at this hour I just can't stomach it. Just like some people can't do breakfast itself, breakfast news needs to be diluted with light-hearted trash and bad puns just for me to get through it. So I flit from recession figures and politician grillings to pre-recorded Alexandra Burke interviews and 'fun' news stories, and it suits me fine.

A little Krispy Kreme with your espresso, if you will.

I like the quality of the BBC, but they do manage to sound fusty about any subject that they haven't covered in their Oxbridge education. Twitter, drugs and Lady Gaga are all covered with an excruciating awkwardness, as though verbally picking them up with latex gloves. Or worse (and often the male presenter is the culprit) whilst trying to sound down with the kids, blud. At least Ben Shephard and Emma Crosby can give you the hard facts up front and then move on to marijuana or Perez Hilton as if they've at least come into contact with them. Saying that, their weather section is more than a little spoofy, often padded out with unnecessary comment (today the mist and fog around London was 'a bit depressing'. Thanks for slapping that on my day before I've even opened the curtains, love.) I like the BBC's mumsy Scottish weathergirl (you can see how their names are less memorable) but the minute their business or sport guy comes on, they can kiss me goodbye. I like the fact that GMTV snared Martin Lewis, who can keep my attention on money for a minute or two just by cutting out the high-faluting lingo and concentrating on what we all deal with: bills, charges, saving, spending. I do not need to know how the Yen is doing this week.

As the day goes on, I make it my business to read the broadsheets, browse the websites and deal with the decay and misery in the world. But, like consciousness, that needs easing into. I guess you could say GMTV is my sNews button...

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Blondes definitely have more fun

Ohmygod, ohmygod you guys.

I was lucky (and well-connected) enough to go to the press night of the new West End incarnation of Legally Blonde, and I'm now ashamed to say my expectations weren't that high. This is odd for two reasons: First, I absolutely love the original 2001 movie (a total Witherspoonful of sugar) and second, I have adored the Broadway soundtrack of the musical version for well over a year now, and think it's work of genius. So why the hesitation? I sometimes feel that British producers and directors can take a good thing and overthink it. I thought so with Wicked when it first arrived (again, love it, have seen it three times, but what was with the British accents and obvious cultural tweaks?) It's not as if we can't handle a little US drawl over here; many cultural references have seeped into our consciousness from years of sitcoms and romcoms anyway. The other thing is our bizarre need to cast 'faces' rather than talent. Denise van Outen, Jon from S Club, Gareth Gates and anyone from a soap can all stick to their day jobs, as far as I'm concerned. Despite many 'faces', Legally Blonde has remained delightfully all-American, thankfully, as so much of the story is based on East- and West-coast stereotype. If anything, I felt more informed than the cast in this respect: one of the only things that bugged me throughout was Sheridan Smith's very New York-y twang, especially when her 'California girl' character came up against Emmett, supposedly from the Boston slums, but audibly more West-coast than her. But elocutionary pedantry aside, there was very little to be irked by.

Sheridan Smith is sheer dynamite*, carrying the show on her perky little shoulders without even breaking a sweat. Elle Woods leads 16 of the show's 18 numbers, and the range and movement involved make for a hardcore singathon, but she did admirably well. I just wanted to give her a hug and hand her a sports drink afterwards. Duncan FromBlue rises to the challenge and gives a smooth vocal performance, although his acting could use a little work. It is to the credit of the rest of the cast that he stands out as pronouncing each word a little unnaturally, as though learning to be human rather than American, but the superficiality of the character makes even that forgivable. A great supporting turn from Chris Ellis-Stanton as the UPS dreamhunk (with accompanying porn theme) and astounding skipping-and-belting action from How do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?'s Aoife Mulholland, transformed from demure governess to aerobics queen Brooke, all rock-hard abs and platinum hair. I was expecting to love Alex Gaumond as Emmett, one of the few unknown main cast members (which usually translates as the only musical theatre professional), but I found him a little weak and not nearly charming enough. The material serves him impassioned lyrics, high romance and lush melodies on a silver platter, but while never musically 'off', he was never exactly 'on', either. He showed a glimmer of greatness in one of my favourite numbers, Take It Like a Man, but didn't make enough of his big notes and snappy lyrics.

This by no means spoilt my fun, as Smith had more than enough chutzpah for the both of them, and another complete and utter surprise was Jill Halfpenny as trailer-trash hairstylist Paulette. The US cast featured Broadway diva Orfeh in this comedic gem of a role, and I have to say, I didn't see how a former Eastender and Strictly contestant could possibly live up to it. Yes, she's done Chicago, but who hasn't these days? It just goes to show you shouldn't judge a gal by her CV, because she was actually one of the highlights. Charming, gutsy, but not stealing the show, she made Paulette less of a caricature and more of a sweetie. She made Ireland, the show's most baffling track, funny and moving, and her bend and snap was truly brilliant. My favourite, favourite part of this show, the Delta Nu Greek Chorus girls, more than exceeded my expectations. Grease's Susan McFadden and newcomer Ibinabo Jack were a powerful pair as Serena and Pilar, but Amy Lennox as Margot was the standout performance for me - her voice and moves were flawless, and she risked out-singing Sheridan 'off-the-telly' Smith on a couple of occasions. What I love best about ensemble musicals is when the chorus really milk their small parts, and militant Enid Hoops and closeted pool boy Nikos were also a fine example of this.

Song-wise..the surreal brilliance of Gay or European? in the second act cannot accurately be described... you will just have to go and see for yourself. It was also very refreshing to see a gay clinch or two choreographed into a mainstream musical. The comedy definitely worked better than the tragedy - while Bend and Snap, What You Want and Ohmigod You Guys were pinker and perkier than I could ever have predicted, the lone moment of sensitivity in Legally Blonde was a little lost. While Smith has all the energy and humour the role demands, her voice is a little harsh and lacks the softness needed in this one song. Light and shade is not her strong point, and as lots of her 'backup girls' seemed to have that edge on her I would be interested to see an understudy performance just for that one song. Relationship meltdown Serious was inevitably hilarious, and the only downer was Professor Callaghan's Blood in the Water, which I never really liked anyway. Stage Callaghan is creepy and smarmy enough without taking up too much of your time, which is ideal.

I could actually go on for pages about this, but I don't want to completely ruin the experience for you. This show works because it's unashamedly camp, tongue-in-cheek and escapist; the score and book are a witty romp through girl power, romance and chihuahuas (LOVED the dogs). Production magic such as Elle's 'Ohmigod' dress change, the department store scenery emerging from two plain doors, the courtroom/bathroom madness and the orange hue of the prison workout scene just make it even more of a visual feast. A note to the costume department - Sheridan's hot pink courtroom dress was beyond fabulous, but how on earth did her clashing coral pink shoes get overlooked? As Elle would say, truly heinous. Despite this fashion slip-up, you will come out tapping your toes and feeling great about the world, having laughed your mascara right off. Take your mum, take your daughter, take your hen party, safe in the knowledge that it will be money well spent. Snaps to all involved.

*My misconceptions about her musical abilities may have something to do with this:

Friday, 8 January 2010

The whole package?

After the now-standard year of top secret X Factor grooming and recording, Alexandra Burke was unleashed on the world last autumn in a glossy, choreographed whirlwind of slick R'n'B. Record execs probably hoped that in her ten month absence we'd forgotten the tear-stained, overwhelmed girl who appeared on the audition shows, but to me it seems a massive image overhaul. You could see the dollar signs in Simon Cowell's eyes as the formerly au natrel, make-up free, demurely dressed auditionee donned a sequinned minidress and scraped back ponytail to perform Toxic in the live rounds; while former winner Leona Lewis refused to play the plastic popstar game, this was a girl to be moulded and shaped from Islington clay into a world-class diva. 

She had a suitably Whitney-esque tone, luminous dark skin, and the confident, girl-next-door charm that is every PR's dream. Unlike shy Leona, with her dull vegetarian views and family values, Alex's PR mission is clear - be as loud, proud, single and fierce as you can. Her Twitter page is all interviews, gigs and 'let's partay!' optimism, communicated in a baffling flurry of exclamation marks and OMGs. Modest Management, who also represent Leona Lewis, couldn't have found a better money-spinner if they'd designed her themselves and grown her in a pod. Still, it's all a little transparent: the demographics (teens, gay men, Beyonce fans) the look (wet-look, slicked-back, high-heeled, fierce) the press persona (giggling, extrovert homegirl). Still, I'm not really being fair to Miss Burke; I enjoy her music and her performances, particularly the appearance with JLS on last year's X Factor - I just resent the image machine it takes for a decent singer to make it into the charts at the moment. 

However decent, Alex's talent isn't quite remarkable enough to give her leverage with her record label. If Leona wants to carry on wearing ethereal Vivienne Westwood frocks, she will. If she wants to stand still on a platform, letting her vocals do all the work, she can. If she wants to stay a curvilicious size 12, she damn well will, because everyone will still pause a moment to hear that voice - however tawdry the songs (excepting her cover of Run and break-out hit Bleeding Love). That girl can do things with her limitless, caramel voice that make the very laziest pop composition ipod-worthy. She is even better live, with a poise and control that makes subsequent X Factor winners look like redcoats. 

It drives some people mad that Leona has 'failed' on the PR front; audiences invariably tune out when she speaks, and who didn't cringe at the simpering  'I don't want to pick a favourite' speech when she returned to the show that made her? No one's that nice, surely. But I'm secretly rooting for team Lewis. For every time she makes her record bosses sigh in exasperation, she gains a little more power. People keep buying her albums and booking her appearances whether she's wearing Herve Leger or Topshop, whether she's bubbly or bland, and whether she's outrageous or innocuous... and that really says something in our image-obsessed music industry. 

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Hate the Mayer, not the game

Just to revisit my review of John Mayer's latest album, there was an excruciating piece on him in Saturday's Times review section. In a profile which openly aims to give some background to the artist as he is so little known (musically) this side of the pond, what the writer was essentially trying to say was much the same as me. He may come across as a tabloidy, god-complexy, celebrity-shagging douche bag, but the guy has made some pretty exceptional music. Unfortunately, the feature involved an interview with Mayer (promoting his UK tour starting this month) and he couldn't have ruined that core message more perfectly if he'd just dumbly stated, 'I'm a twat, I'm a twat, I'm a twat' over and over again. The writer reveals his humble beginnings in blues bars during high school and his attendance of a Boston music college renowned for its jazz. She suggests this album is a little more mainstream...

"I don't pay as much attention to being good as to being liked. I don't know that Battle Studies is the best record I've ever made, but I think it's going to be one of the most-liked records I ever made, and that's all I care about," he says.

Now correct me if I'm wrong, but that just summed up what I said in the review. It's lazy, calculating and plays on his tabloid image. I start to gag a little as I realize that I BOUGHT THIS ALBUM. Trying to salvage the profile, the writer then brings up his brilliant Tweets, quoting a few for effect. But then he starts describing Twitter as a major threat to his human relationships:

"It's questions of, do I want to share my desires with someone else or do I want to sate them myself with my laptop and my Twitter account?"

Actually, it's not a question of that for many people. But we'll take another shot at boosting your UK image. At this point the writer gives up and asks a broad, sympathetic question about how he is portrayed in our tabloids, and the man actually has a rant about her going off subject and how he's sick of everyone's "unbelievable curiosity about what it's like to be me." All in all, total interview suicide. I could have forgiven the self-conscious ramblings, the dismissal of relationships as less real than Twitter, the stunning insincerity of his replies, but his total agreement that this fourth album is nothing more than a tactical bid to attract a mainstream audience just makes him ridiculous.

"This time I just wanted to make a pop record, and I hope there are some people who are annoyed by that... I hope there are people who say "Why wouldn't you come out swinging with the guitar and the grit?" and I'll be like, "Well, why are you humming track five?"

.... yeah. I wasn't humming track five when I first listened, and I'm not now. Try harder next time, Mayer. In a world where many brilliant, honest unknowns are out there singing and playing their guts out with nowhere near his level of financial backing, this admission of laziness is in poor taste. But nice to know my reaction to the album was so accurate.

Mayer: Put down the blonde and pick up a guitar.