Posted by: Richard Frost | 10 Apr 2020

The Magic Numbers: Those the Brokes album review

Logo for UK news website In The NewsOriginal publication date: November 2006
Outlet: In The News

In a nutshell
Melodic, Nice, Sugary, Insubstantial, Flabby

What’s it all about?
Let me take you back 17 short months. 25th June 2005. Glastonbury. You’re standing outside the John Peel Stage – waste-high in rainwater, mud and other people – desperately trying to snatch snippets of two-part harmonies and acoustic guitarwork. Somewhere beyond the sea of heads, The Magic Numbers are onstage having just released their eponymous debut album. Lush, melodic and warm, this is the soundtrack of the summer.

Fast-forward a few months and suddenly The Magic Numbers are back in the spotlight for a wholly different reason. They’ve just become the only band in the history of long-running BBC staple Top of the Pops to storm offstage immediately prior to performing. The cause? Richard Bacon, and an ill-judged pun about the *ahem* flabbiness of the performers.

Now we’re back for the follow-up album, Those the Brokes. Curiously for the world’s most summery band, the release date has been buried away in the wintery bleakness of November.

Surely, the stage is set for a radical change of direction? For a move away from eternal sunshine, careering wildly towards spiteful introspection? For songs arousing a sense of indignant fury, with cuttingly sarcastic titles like Roll, Bacon, Roll and Don’t Call me Piggy?

Who’s it by?
The Magic Numbers are a pair of brothers and sisters. Romeo (vocals) and Michele Stodart (bass) perform alongside Sean (drums) and Angela Gannon (everything else). The two halves finally met following a convoluted Stodart family odyssey. Born in Trinidad, a failed military group forced Romeo and Michele to relocate to New York, before finally settling in west London. There, they met their new neighbours, Sean and Angela, and quickly began to write their first fledgling melodies.

But as with so many bands, The Magic Numbers’ roots show most glaringly in their musical support roles. Warm-up slots for The Flaming Lips, Travis and Brian Wilson point exactly to where the band is coming from.

As an example…
“But then you dance, dance, dance with the woman that’s let you / How’s it gonna feel until I catch you? / What you gonna do when she turns around / And says you broke another heart that was broken down?” (Take a Chance). Like every Magic Numbers song to date, Take a Chance sees gnawingly infectious melodica offset by unrequited love in the lyrics department.

Indie-rock band The Magic Numbers' second album Those the Brokes

Likelihood of a trip to the Grammy’s
Well, they’ve got previous of sorts. It was a nomination for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize that cemented them in the nation’s hearts. And two of them lived (briefly) in New York, so they’ve maybe got connections. Oh, who are we kidding? The Magic Numbers are never going to trouble Bono in the Grammy-magnet stakes.

What the others say
“It worked once, so they’ve done it again” (Q4 Music)

“When you go in for variation as little as Romeo Stodart and co do, it gets a bit…well, it gets a bit boring” (NME)

So is it any good?
The jibes of a certain pork-based former Blue Peter presenter should really have inspired them. But, alas, Richard Bacon remains unscathed on an album that focuses exclusively on those lyrical staples – unrequited love, loneliness, sadness and heartache. In other words, pretty much exactly the same furrow ploughed by their last album.

Except that Those the Brokes is a far patchier effort than their self-titled debut. Sure, there are good points. At times, this LP reminds you of that fuzzy warm glow you felt when first listening to Love Me Like You or Love’s a Game. This is a Song, Runnin’ Out and first single Take a Chance all bury themselves deep inside your cranium, resting there, lurking, ready to burst into summery life when you’re scrabbling for consciousness in the dark wintery mornings.

And, appallingly, there’s even some shoots of musical growth tucked away in the middle of the album. Undecided sees multitalented Angela Gannon try her hand at an improbable Arethra Franklin impersonation. It’s daring, disconcerting and provides a welcome aural depth to an album that all too frequently runs for cover behind a wall of oohs, aahs and laments from a man called Romeo.

For the majority of the album, though, The Magic Numbers revert to type. Indeed, the sheer underwhelming safeness of everything is plain for all to see. Ask anyone over the age of 40 who’s playing on the radio and I bet they’ll swear blind it’s The Mamas And The Papas. If pressed further, they might mutter something about The Beach Boys or a professional Love impersonator. Now, these are all good bands, but do we really need them again?

Those the Brokes disappoints. But what has gone so terribly wrong? Maybe it’s the stomach-turning sugariness of it all. Or the refusal to challenge anybody through daring songsmanship, discordant melodies or celebrity-baiting lyrics. Or perhaps, ultimately, it’s the fact that Those the Brokes fails to engage your attention over the course of 60 elongated minutes (that’s 3,600 seconds, by the way, of which I felt every single one).

Don’t tell Richard Bacon, then, but maybe…just maybe…The Magic Numbers really have become a bit flabby.


Posted by: Richard Frost | 9 Apr 2020

El Presidente gig review

Logo of award-winning student magazine Durham21Original publication date: August 2005
Outlet: Durham21

Richard Frost gets all excited about the uber-camp, mincing Glaswegian glam displayed by El Presidente in York, and also gets to see The Federals and The Upper Room…

They say image is everything. They say bands need:

  1. Charismatic singers
  2. Cool-as-fuck bassists
  3. Guitarists majoring in masturbatory guitar solos

They say throw all these ingredients together and you may, just may, have yourselves a marketable pop commodity.

Then again, how much do they really know?

Noise, Riffage and 80s Revivalism
First up trying to dispel the pop-marketing myth is The Federals. Featuring an improbably paunchy guitarist amongst an otherwise non-descript assortment of skinny grungers, the band hardly look like, well, a band.

This sense is no doubt strengthened by their chilled-out banter on the pre-gig sofa. It’s a real plus about Fibbers in York – think the New Inn but playing host to rising superstars such as Franz Ferdinand, Babyshambles and Kaiser Chiefs – that the pub is so small, bands can freely mingle with the 30-odd paying punters. This leads to great moments like seeing headliners queuing patiently at the bar, and the anonymous lads on the sofa saying “lets do it” before jumping onstage and into The Federals’ opening number.

Yet this is where it all goes wrong, as chugging, monster riffs are undermined by sheer contempt for vocal melodies. It’s a deflating distance that verges on being rock ‘n’ roll in signature tune ‘The City’, but elsewhere just descends into a wall of noise and riffage.

Rocketing up the style quotient, meanwhile, are next band The Upper Room. In this fearful music culture of 80s revivalism – yes, The Killers had one good album, but have we forgotten the lesson of A Flock of Seagulls people?! – The Upper Room should be cashing in. Vocals that are one-part Morrissey, three-parts Pet Shop Boys, backed by incessant drumbeats and pre-recorded synths, they seem to neatly encapsulate the decade.

Problem is, they actually embody what’s worst about the 80s. This is all smooth edges, unintrusive beats, tinny drums and bass with so little bite you could flip it over, tickle its belly and call it Flumpsy. Style yes – but less substance than a paracetamol.

Photo of glam-rock band El Presidente

And now for Something Completely Different
High time for El Presidente’s military coup, methinks. Anticipating dictatorial fervour from their fans, the bandmembers really ham up talk of La Revolución in their interviews. But can they really deliver on their ambitious promises to revolutionise music?

Well for starters, it’s no surprise the Scottish five-piece were recently plastered all over MTV’s New Bands Week. They seem tailormade for music videos, in fact, with a degree of image-consciousness that even Mussolini and Big Brother (nope, the other one) would baulk at.

Just look at them – a distant oriental drummer in grossly impractical mini-dress; a keyboardist with acute eyeliner fixation; a stomping, dreadlocked, cool-as-fuck bassist; and an uber-camp mincing guitarist.

It’s not quite Scissor Sisters, though comparisons are inevitable, but instead a fiercely individualistic and (yes) camp backing group that would overshadow any singer. Almost any singer. Any singer except the improbably named Dante Gizzi.

Whether in his all-in-one lime-green suit – last spotted stealing the plaudits at Newcastle’s Orange Evolution Festival – or his equally hideous lollipop-orange get-up, charismatic Gizzi dominates the limelight. Disowned as the oh-so-camp offspring of the Fun Lovin’ Criminals and Marc Bolan, Gizzi is a microphone-waving, pouting, twirling, finger-trembling behemoth of a showman who puts even Jake Shears to shame.

Style v Substance
But doesn’t so much style drown out the songs themselves, I hear the hecklers cry. Well, yes and no. YES because the melodies are hardly rocket science, with songs like ‘Rocket’ and ‘100 mph’ hardly stretching the brain lyrically. But ultimately NO because this isn’t Bob Dylan, but good-time party hi-jinx that reclaims euphoria for the indie-dance kids.

Whether it’s the zany singer somehow making “oo-ee-oo” sound like a great lyric, or the stomping bassist with his stomping bass lines or, yes, the masturbatory guitar solo, even a manic depressive has to admit El Presidente’s songs are FUN! It’s the sort of entertainment that will launch the Scots supernova in the coming months.

Style over substance, they say? Rubbish, say El Presidente, substance is all part of the style.

Posted by: Richard Frost | 9 Apr 2020

Stiff Little Fingers gig review

Logo of award-winning student magazine Durham21Original publication date: May 2005
Outlet: Durham21

Richard Frost gets on old-school punk education courtesy of Stiff Little Fingers at Newcastle University

Never Mind the Bus*ed
Despite what you may read in music magazines, punk music didn’t just skip from The Sex Pistols and The Clash through to Blink-182 and Sum 41. Liking the little bits of old-school punk that I’d heard on CD, I decided to check out one of the less critically fashionable bands to see if they could still cut it live.

They duly confirmed what I’d always suspected – old-school punk bands have been writing and performing good songs ever since 1979. But more than that, Stiff Little Fingers (SLF) gave me a true punk education, and prove Good Charlotte and Busted will NEVER EVER be punk!

Oldies but Goodies
As the band emerges onstage, I find myself locked in a heated argument with my rock-loving gig buddy as to whether they’re actually Irish or English.

However, perhaps the very fact that we can even argue about this just goes to show how much SLF have been written out of music history, despite enduring for over 25 years. Our argument is finally settled when singer/songwriter Jake Burns dedicates the opening song “to all our friends back home who got caught up in the conflict, joined the IRA and are now either dead or in prison”. SLF, it appears, are as Irish as they come.

Formed after watching an incendiary live performance of The Clash, the band’s roots shine through on the night, as they mould The Clash’s tunes and catchy choruses with political themes that are unmistakably Irish.

Standout early song ‘Is That What You Fought the War For?’ from way back in 1982 immediately sends a shiver down the spine, as Burns cries out “Britain’s flag is a badge of hate”. They clearly still recognise their strengths too, and don’t insist on only playing their last two albums à la Radiohead, constantly revisiting the songs of their early 1980’s heyday and even encoring with 1979 debut ‘Johnny Was’.

Nothing to Write Home About
Perhaps though, this also highlights the difficulty SLF are now finding in remaining relevant.

Their albums from the 1990s, up to their current 11th studio album ‘Guitar and Drum’, have met with a far more indifferent response, as they seemingly struggle to find a new direction. Some tracks from this era hark back to the Irish conflict, but the decreasing threat of violence back home leaves them lacking conviction somewhat. On the other hand, songs such as ‘Honeyed Words’ and ‘All the Rest’ are glaringly short on edginess, instead exploring vague, non-political worries.

Stiff Little Fingers band photo

It’s a difficulty that’s unlikely to go away soon – and suggests they’ll never recapture the brilliance of their old songs in newer material.

However, this is surely why their set focuses on the classics, and it’s rapturously received by their dedicated fanbase.

Incidentally, I was curious about the make-up of the crowd beforehand – would it be youths in Green Day t-shirts curious about punk history, or the type that first watched them back in 1979? On the night, the latter definitely dominated, as the 40-somethings swamped a sold-out Newcastle University Students’ Union.

A bit of a surprise then to find that the seasoned veterans showed more liveliness than you’ll find in most student audiences, with the hardcore pogo-ers (is that even a word?) bouncing non-stop throughout the lengthy set.

Cruel and Unusual Punishment
SLF also refreshingly overturned the common belief (since Busted anyway) that punk music has to feature musicians who play instruments badly and have poor songmanship.

Yes, I realise I’m picking on these pop-punk bands quite a lot today, but they actually ARE terrible, and scientists have proven they can provoke acute physical nausea. US interrogators may famously have used Metallica songs to break the resistance of Iraqi prisoners, but their record of 15 hours could surely be smashed by a couple of plays of ‘What I Go to School For’.

Anyway, back to SLF, as they hone the time-honoured punk format of raw verse/catchy chorus in memorable performances of ‘Tin Soldiers’ and ‘Fly the Flag’. Such is their accessibility that, by the end, even I can work out the lyrics and sing along with the dedicated fans down at the front.

All in all then, a pretty good night with SLF, as they mix the brilliance of their early material with an assured performance onstage that doubtless comes from spending a quarter of a century on tour. Who knows, in 25 years’ time, perhaps even Busted will have stumbled upon a few good songs; and if they can mix it with a genuine stage presence, perhaps they’ll finally banish the memory of their awful performance for Durham students last year, and deserve the well-earnt respect given to SLF here.

Nope, I don’t think so either, but it’s the closest I can come to saying something nice about pop-punk. Maybe I’ll just stick to SLF…

Posted by: Richard Frost | 9 Apr 2020

Hatfield College Hockey Club tournament review

Logo for Durham University's student newspaper PalatinateOriginal publication date: May 2005
Outlet: Palatinate

Hatfield’s hockey team triumph against the odds

Hatfield College Hockey Club emphatically staked their claim as the best college hockey side in Durham – by winning a national intercollegiate cup!

Ahead of a crucial domestic title decider, they recorded a morale-boosting triumph at the expense of domestic college league winners from as far away as Oxford and Cambridge. But this incredible achievement was far from a stroll in the park for the Hatfielders, as they overcame a string of setbacks to win the cup.

Hatfield did remarkably well to qualify in second during the initial phase of the cup. In a hotly contested competition, the battling Hatfielders had seemingly surpassed themselves.

As it turned out, greater triumphs lay just over the horizon, yet the road to the final looked a long, long way off as the Durhamites were pitted against a powerful Cambridge side. Winners of the Cambridge college league, their hard-hitting opponents’ well-executed gameplan was complemented by a level of flair that could easily have overpowered and overawed Hatfield.

However, the boys from the Bailey rose to the task admirably in a predictably intense battle. Hatfield’s goalscoring heroes were Xab Reynoso and Duncan Odds as they recorded a 2-0 victory over the Cambridge giants. But the exploits of key player Odds would soon be overshadowed by some even more heroic performances in the final.

Squad photo of the 2005 Hatfield College Hockey Club at Durham University

Hatfield were on a high and the impending final received added spice by the qualification of their local rivals. While some sports fans could have been forgiven for thinking Liverpool v Chelsea in the Champions League was the ultimate battle for domestic pride, we were about to go one better: Hatfield would be taking on holders Queen’s Campus Hockey Club in the cup final to decide, once and for all, whether Durham or Stockton was the pride of Durham University.

There could be only one winner. Sadly for Durham-lovers, Hatfield promptly fell 1-0 down. It was clearly time for Hatfield’s first heroic moment of the match. Step forward Louis Parkinson, who had never even played hockey before! But the shock inclusion justified his place on the biggest stage possible as he slotted in the equaliser, only for personal glory to be snatched away as Stockton took command again. 2-1 and full-time was looming. However, Duncan Odds returned to upset the odds again and slot home a last-minute equaliser.

Extra time was inevitable, forcing inspirational captain Joe Walton to rally his troops with visions of another unlikely victory. And it was the Durhamites who kept their concentration, making the most of their set-piece dominance.

But the scorer was a surprise as another hero emerged ready-made in the form of Sam Bide. Slotting home two penalty flicks, Bide finished off Queen’s Campus to become the toast of Hatfield. A 4-2 victory for the Durham team then, and Hatfield had done more than enough to merit their trophy.

However, they’ll have to go easy on the celebrations for now at least. Following on from their unexpected victory, Hatfield will be looking to complete a league and cup double at the weekend. The cup winners will take on Van Mildert in a titanic college league title decider on Sunday, 8th May 2005.

Posted by: Richard Frost | 8 Apr 2020

Interview with Idlewild frontman Roddy Woomble

Logo for Purple Radio, Durham University's in-house radio stationOriginal publication date: April 2005
Outlet: Purple Radio

Idlewild frontman Roddy Woomble spills the beans to Richard Frost about the indie-rock band’s new album Warnings/Promises and their upcoming nationwide tour.

So Roddy, Idlewild spent the whole of 2004 recording the new album. It’s the longest period you’ve been away from regular gigging since you formed in 1995. Do you feel slightly nervous about getting back out on the road after all this time, or have you got past the nerves now?
Roddy Woomble: Yeah it’s been quite a while, I guess. But I still wouldn’t say we’re all that nervous. We’ve been doing this for such a long time that I don’t think we really get that nervous about gigs anymore.

Casting your mind back to the mid-1990s, Idlewild first built their reputation on explosive live performances. Do you feel that your albums have become progressively more important as you’ve developed as a band?
RW: Definitely. This album, and the last one [The Remote Part], have become a lot more relaxed. So we’ve really had to rethink what we were doing live. It wasn’t so much that the songs weren’t working, but generally in our early years we’d write the album and then think ‘which songs can we actually play live?’ Now though, we’ve tried to only write songs that we’re confident we can do full justice to onstage, and so that’s put a lot more pressure on the albums.

Is it true you’ve got an acoustic gig lined up at the Cambridge Folk Festival? What was the thinking behind that?
RW: Yeah. We did a low-key acoustic tour of Britain a couple of months ago and it all stemmed from that really. I guess a lot of people expected us to just bash the songs out on an acoustic guitar. But we’ve always had a lot of folk influences in our music. Most of our music is actually written on an acoustic guitar and then hardened up, so it just made sense to revert back to the songs in their original forms.

So can we take it that the folk influences will increasingly shape your music, either live or on future albums?
RW: It’s something we’ve always been hinting at, it’s just that we’ve gradually got more confident over time. Now I think we’ve actually reached the stage where we’re more confident acoustically than normally. But it’s not the case that we’re trying to abandon the other side of the band. We just need to remember how to play the heavier side again.

Is it fair to say that Warnings/ Promises is your most mellow album to date? Was this a conscious decision?
RW: I don’t know about mellow. It’s definitely our most direct and honest album to date though. We prefer to think about it as less cluttered. Yeah, less cluttered and confusing than our previous records.

Having said that, potential single I Want a Warning feels like a nod back to your heavier punk roots. Do you ever feel like revisiting the heavier sound for a full album?
RW: I think we still have moments of all-out thrashing music on every record – A Modern Way of Letting Go on our last record is one of the heaviest songs we’ve ever done. Really, we enjoy playing both folk music and making as much noise as humanly possible about equally. It’s just that the extremities have widened as the band have progressed.

Artwork from Idlewild's 2005 LP Warnings/Promises

Over the years, you’ve progressed from frenzied, thrashing punk – NME famously described you as a ‘spitting, mewling hellcat of a band’ – to the crowd-pleasing anthems of Warnings/Promises. Do you think these two sides fit well together live and on recordings?
RW: I guess we’ve changed so much because we’ve just been learning how to be in a band. Lots of people forget that we’ve been together for ten years now. I guess our horizons and our musical abilities have just broadened out over that time.

Now that you’re back here in the North-East, what do you think of the hotly tipped local bands that have sprung up, led by The Futureheads and Maximo Park?
RW: I think that there’s a lot of really good bands out there at the moment. But the problem is that there’s still too much emphasis put on where bands are from. A good band is a good band – it doesn’t matter where they’re from. Having said that, I guess the newer Scottish bands like Franz Ferdinand have quite a distinctive sound. But then, people forget that there’s always been good music outside of London. Actually, I think you tend to find that bands outside the capital have more longevity because there’s much less hyping and pressure to conform to the trends.

The new wave of British bands has been received really well in America recently, particularly at the South by Southwest Festival. How important do you think it is for British bands to succeed in the States?
RW: I think that there’s too much emphasis on bands doing well in America. Take us, for example. We had a few great gigs supporting Pearl Jam over there and suddenly people back home were hyping us up way too much. It seems that you only need to sell a thousand records over there before people start saying that you’ve broken America. Even the idea of breaking America is a bit weird – it sounds like you’re beating them over the head with your music!

Obviously though, I guess the goalposts have moved a bit with the number of albums that bands like Coldplay, Snow Patrol and Franz Ferdinand are selling in the States now. I know Idlewild have always had a cult fanbase over there, which is great. But really we’re just happy to keep travelling and playing gigs to fans in as many new places as possible.

With the current trend for jerky art-rock bands like Franz and Bloc Party, do you ever worry about Idlewild being left behind?
RW: We do laugh about it. I mean American indie-rock seems to be coming right back in at the moment, but we were doing that two or three years ago. Actually, we’ve just started leaving that behind on the new record. So I guess you could say our timing isn’t the best, really! Then again, perhaps that’s one of the reasons for our success as we’ve never tried to get involved with the latest short-lived trends. I don’t think we’ve ever been considered part of that scene really.

Scottish poet laureate Edwin Morgan contributed lyrics to your last album The Remote Part and your sleevenotes urged us to ‘Support your Local Poet’. With the increasing emphasis on lyrics in your recent albums, are you deliberately setting yourself up as new Scottish poets?
RW: Not at all, no! It was all kind of tongue-in-cheek, we never meant it seriously. Basically, everyone saw us as hermits in Scotland writing folk songs. We were always seen as a little bit twee and I guess that’s partly our fault for staying around the Scottish Highlands. But for this record, we were given the opportunity to work over in Los Angeles and I think it really gave a new side to the band. Hopefully, it’ll finally get us away from that twee stereotype.

Your new album had a difficult recording process. What went wrong with the recordings in Sweden?
RW: I think it was just the same thing as always. Ever since the second record (Hope is Important), we’ve been a bit too keen to get back in the studio and record some new stuff. But then we end up recording stuff that would probably be better off on the last record. We definitely needed a change but it wasn’t the fault of the producer, it was just that we needed to try an uncomfortable situation. Well, at the very least an unusual situation with a new setting, and a new producer, and a new way of doing things. I think it’s important to keep growing as a band, and with Idlewild that means every so often giving ourselves a slap on the wrist!

The recording of Warnings/Promises ultimately spanned several locations – Sweden, Scotland, England and the States. Do you think this contributed to the sense of alienation running through the record?
RW: I really don’t know, actually. We tend to write our songs on the tourbus or up in the Highlands. But then you find that a song has different meanings when you play them in a hut up in the Highlands or driving down Sunset Boulevard. Where you are shapes the sort of sound that you want. I’ve always thought that songs are a reflection of your personality as a writer.

Any hints as to what you’ve got planned for the new tour, and specifically Newcastle tonight?
RW: As it’s the first night, I suppose we’ll be keeping it fairly straightforward. Most of the songs will be from the new record. You have to remember that we have a back catalogue of 30 or 40 songs now, so we’ll be looking at changing the setlist from gig to gig. Next time, we might also try an acoustic section or even do a whole acoustic show. But for tonight, I think we’ll be sticking with the ones that we’re most comfortable with – just to get back into the swing of things. Hopefully, they’ll be the ones people want to hear too.

Posted by: Richard Frost | 7 Apr 2020

Sports feature: Death of the maverick footballer

Logo for Durham University's student newspaper PalatinateOriginal publication date: February 2005
Outlet: Palatinate

Sports Editor Richard Frost investigates the malaise of Newcastle United and wonders if the temperamental star player has become a thing of the past…

Mavericks, fruitcakes, oddballs, eccentrics. Whatever their name, it’s a fact that every football fan idolises them.

They’re the players who bring a game to life, whether it be an act of breath-taking skill (Gazza’s volley against Scotland) or astonishing stupidity (Eric Cantona’s kung-fu kick). The moments that fans will remember in 50 years’ time when even the league winners are forgotten.

Yet are these characters disappearing from our Premiership? Take Newcastle United. Less than 10 years ago, they were the official Home of the Maverick Genius (see Tino Asprilla, David Ginola), the Improbably Ugly but Talented (Peter Beardsley) and the Psychotic Fruitcake (Temuri Ketsbaia). After scoring against Bolton Wanderers in 1997/98, for example, Georgia’s most entertaining export Ketsbaia stripped off his shirt then proceeded to unlace his boots, start a fight with his teammate and savage a McDonald’s advertising hoarding!

Toon and out
Fast-forward to the present, though, and the current Toon Army are growing increasingly restless at the dour result-grinding approach of new manager Graeme Souness. Surely a few maverick performances would liven up the fans?

Interestingly, the Magpies still seem to possess the required eccentricity on paper. For Asprilla, Ginola and Beardsley, read Patrick Kluivert, Laurent Robert and Kieron ‘King of Bling’ Dyer. OK, Ketsbaia was thankfully a one-off. Although in Patrick Kluivert, they have a onetime night club-owner who has been convicted of manslaughter – and a player who scored the only goal in a Champions League final at the tender age of 18.

Such eccentricity has never been a problem at St James’ Park – until now. Kluivert has been vilified by fans, as has Dyer for refusing to play on the wing, whilst Robert has splinters from his customary seat on the bench.

Brazil legend Socrates with a Tino Asprilla figurine

Maverick Brazilian Socrates with a figure of kindred spirit Tino Asprilla…in Hull

Moving on the mavericks
Indeed, across the Premiership the mavericks are increasingly being branded as unreliable primadonnas. Arsenal’s Jermaine Pennant has been outlawed for a string of colourful misdemeanours, culminating in his drunken car crash whilst banned from driving. It’s a million miles away from the drink-drug-gambling-prison culture of Paul Merson and Tony Adams back when Arsenal used to field 16 Englishmen.

Meanwhile, serial-spitter El-Hadji Diouf, who also crashed a car whilst uninsured, has been widely condemned by both fans and his two previous managers at Liverpool. After outspoken criticism of his playboy antics by both Gerard Houllier and Rafael Benitez, Diouf is currently languishing on loan at Bolton. Disappearing too is the Spice Boys image of Mr Louise Redknapp, Stan Collymore and Robbie ‘snorting-the-touchline’ Fowler, nicknamed God by an adoring Kop.

Perhaps gone forever then are the days when George Best could wager bets with team-mates over whether he could nutmeg the opposing right-back 20 times in a match (for the record, he only managed 14 and duly paid up). And you can forget seeing another Socrates, the legendary World Cup-winning, back-heeling Brazilian, who recently played for Garforth Town and still smokes three packs a day.

Playing The Blues
These maverick talents are now out of favour in the top echelons of football. Taking their place are team players. For all Chelski’s money, what’s often been overlooked is that teamwork is the defining quality of their current crop of stars.

Previously, Chelsea had always bought maverick individuals from playboy Mario Stanic and cocaine-users Adrian Mutu and Mark Bosnich to whinging Emmanuel Petit. Yet now their money is spent on young, hungry players with an impeccable team ethic such as Frank Lampard, Damien Duff and Arjen Robben. Undoubtedly skilful, but the emphasis has shifted from great mavericks to squeaky-clean players who value the team above individual flair.

Nowhere is this more evident than in manager Jose Mourinho. He has brought the same team mentality to Chelsea’s players that saw him unexpectedly triumph in the European Cup with Porto. It was a mentality ironically lacking in his Portuguese compatriots, as superior individual talents like Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo succumbed to the workmanlike Greece in Euro 2004.

King Eric
This team ethic is admirable, yet somehow it fails to inspire in the same way as say Cantona’s isolated genius. It was a genius that saw the colourful Frenchman’s off-pitch career veer from expressionist painter and philosophical poet to outspoken martyr, banished from the national side after calling manager Henri Michel ‘a bag of shit’. Forever quoting his favourite French symbolist, Cantona seemingly embodied Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘outcast’ philosophy, yet he nevertheless thrilled a generation.

Perhaps the key to this maverick appeal lies with what they can do on the pitch, and specifically with their ability to single-handedly alter games, or even championships. So a newly signed Cantona could inspire Leeds United to the championship in 1992, and disrupt Man United’s title bid with his kung-fu ban in 1994/95, before returning to lead the Red Devils to the Double with 9 goals in the final 13 games of the following season. An outcast undoubtedly, but the truly inspiring mavericks simultaneously became the team’s heartbeat in a way that is impossible in the modern team game.

Ultimately, if Newcastle United, or anyone else for that matter, want to challenge for trophies again, they must accept one fundamental truth. It is that, regrettably, the Time of the Maverick Genius is now confined to history.

Posted by: Richard Frost | 6 Apr 2020

Pilot Theatre Company: Lord of the Flies review

Logo of award-winning student magazine Durham21Original publication date: February 2005
Outlet: Durham21

Richard Frost finds William Golding’s novel is more relevant than ever as its 50th anniversary is commemorated with a Gala performance

Anniversaries of famous books are usually fairly innocuous occasions. The book is praised, its author eulogised and it often undergoes an uncontroversial and stiflingly faithful adaptation for film or theatre. Such is the background for William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, first published 50 years ago and now revived at Gala Theatre as part of Pilot Theatre Company’s 100-date British tour.

Yet Lord of the Flies is not the easiest candidate for a tame, mediocre reworking. Thrusting a group of schoolchildren onto a desert island and showing their inevitable collapse into anarchy, Golding’s seminal debut novel became the darkest and most chilling statement of mankind’s inherent evil from the WWII generation.

Industrial Strength
Thankfully, Marcus Romer’s direction emphasises this darkness instead of belittling its importance in an edgy, contemporary version of the novel.

It’s an edginess that immediately strikes the audience as the opening plane crash is accompanied by startlingly intense industrial noise. Sandy Nuttgen’s original score lays down a powerful but effective marker for the show’s tone; it’s always a daring idea to accompany a classic novel with fiercely contemporary music, yet here it worked brilliantly to emphasise both the unsettling terror of the production and its continuing relevance.

However, this music merely set the tone for the bitter rivalry that dominated proceedings, skilfully brought to life by actors Andrew Falvey and Alan Park. Playing Ralph and Jack respectively, the pair effectively represent the alternative political creeds of democratic pacifism and war-mongering totalitarianism.

Democracy v Totalitarianism
In the democratic camp, Falvey was an excellent choice as the reluctant tribal chief Ralph.

His monologues and nervous smile brilliantly captured the internal conflict as he struggled to reconcile his belief in human equality with the children’s innate need for leadership. Falvey’s development was cleverly represented in his increasing sympathy for the outcast Piggy, who trod the fine line between being admirable and irritating in Jesse Inman’s subtle portrayal.

Unquestionably though, the most eye-catching performance showcased Jack’s descent from obnoxious choirmaster to cruel and sadistic dictator. Park’s trademark sneer throughout the production emphasised that his evil traits were evident from the outset; Golding’s character is no demonic and sinister freak then, but merely a man increasingly able to fulfil his darkest fantasies.

Promotional image for Pilot Theatre Company's Lord of the Flies production

It was a believable portrayal of mankind’s inherent evil – cleverly symbolised by his progression from disturbing face-painting with pig blood to assisting in the terrifying murder of Piggy himself. But despite his horrific actions, it’s a testament to Park’s acting skill that his charismatic presence continued to enrapture the audience even as events spiralled out of control.

Mirroring the boys onstage, he became a timely warning of the dangerous appeal of authoritarian leaders.

A Buddhist Christ?
The dominance of the Ralph v Jack conflict inevitably marginalises Golding’s other themes but, surprisingly, this was barely noticeable – apart from one key element.

The role of Simon, ably played by Mitesh Soni, was perhaps a lost opportunity in Nigel Williams’ adaptation. His Buddhist roots are initially mocked by the other characters to seemingly add contemporary relevance, and yet its implications are never fully explored. Less forgivably, his Christ-like traits in the novel are actively eradicated to seemingly fit this new non-Christian role.

Consequently, Simon’s exploration of an alternative political philosophy built upon nature and Christian sympathy is ignored by the production, as Williams partially corrupts Golding’s message.

All too Relevant
Still, Lord of the Flies was unquestionably a successful adaptation.

Indeed, the claustrophobia of the small island lends itself well to the congested confines of the stage – a claustrophobia enhanced by the set. From the initial crash to the mountain fire and Piggy’s fatal fall, this set proved surprisingly versatile in recreating the varied locations of the novel, and created a truly memorable spectacle.

Furthermore, the plane wreckage excellently complemented the industrial music to symbolise Golding’s “long scar smashed into the jungle”, in which humanity threatens the idyllic natural world. As a metaphor for man’s inherent self-destructiveness, it proved a fittingly dark backdrop to the clash between Ralph and Jack.

Ultimately, the stylish set helped draw attention to the key motif of Man v Nature, whilst Ralph and Jack furthermore explored the conflict of Democracy v Totalitarianism, Peace v War and Good v Evil – themes that are perhaps more relevant for modern audiences than for any generation since the 1950s.

Posted by: Richard Frost | 6 Apr 2020

Chris Kamara Q&A and OKTC gig review

Logo for Durham University's student newspaper PalatinateOriginal publication date: February 2005
Outlet: Palatinate

Durham had a brush with sporting royalty recently as the inimitable Chris Kamara himself graced Walkabout with his presence. Billed as the star attraction on the day Arsenal hosted Manchester United in the Premiership, the Sky Sports presenter certainly didn’t disappoint.

Kamara made the appearance in support of Durham University Football Club, of which his son Ben is a member. But the obligatory raffle, which even featured Thierry Henry’s shirt from the clash, paled into insignificance next to Kamara’s half-time analysis. The defensive hardman – a member of the 1992 championship-winning Leeds United side – answered a wide-ranging series of questions from a packed Walkabout crowd, coming out vehemently in support of Ashley Cole (‘the best left-back in the country’) while assessing the latest Chelsea transfer saga, before proceeding to lavish praise upon Ryan Giggs’ goal.

After the final whistle blew on the Red Devils’ epic 4-2 victory, meanwhile, Kamara declared ‘that was the best match of the season’ to a cheer from the onlookers. However, his ensuing claim ‘I think we can all agree that United were worthy winners’ went down rather less well, as most of the crowd had adopted Arsenal colours for the night.

But he won back the doubters by continuing the entertainment far into the night. The former footballer, manager, radio and television commentator added another string to his bow by putting in a stellar singing performance alongside ‘the best band in Yorkshire’ OKTC. Producing more cheese than your average dairy, the band didn’t quite live up to such extravagant billing. But Kamara & co did do more than enough to get the remaining punters on the dancefloor.

In particular, they created the night’s standout moment as the Arsenal-supporting Geordies belatedly recalled their one true allegiance. Collectively straining their vocal chords to deliver a rousing rendition of Cheer up Peter Reid, for one song Kamara and the Durham crowd were perfectly united in abuse of the ex-Sunderland manager.

Chris Kamara, we salute you!

Posted by: Richard Frost | 5 Apr 2020

Royal Shakespeare Company: King Lear review

Logo of award-winning student magazine Durham21Original publication date: November 2004
Outlet: Durham21
Photo: John Haynes © RSC

Richard Frost sees the Royal Shakespeare Company largely redeem themselves with King Lear, although he has some reservations about Corin Redgrave’s portrayal of the title character

Completing their season of Shakespeare’s great tragedies for Newcastle Theatre Royal, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) here sought to compensate for a slightly underwhelming response to Hamlet and Macbeth with a mammoth 4-hour production of King Lear.

King of the Hill?
As one of Shakespeare’s most psychologically developed characters, perhaps the best place to start in any review is the portrayal of Lear himself.

For such a daunting role, the RSC have unsurprisingly turned to an internationally renowned name in Corin Redgrave (pictured below). With former credits including film roles in Four Weddings and a Funeral and Persuasion, there can be no argument that he is an experienced and, in truth, excellent actor. And like the play in general, it must be said that on the whole his performance was impressive…although he struggled to overcome some glaring obstacles.

Engaging, entertaining and at times heartbreakingly believable, Redgrave nevertheless consistently failed to reach the level of a truly definitive or landmark performance.

The heart of the problem is that Redgrave just didn’t quite seem to fit Lear’s near superhuman ego, perhaps simply due to his relatively slight physique, or more fundamentally because of his acting background in modern theatre and relatable characterisations. This was never more apparent than in the opening scenes, where he is drowned under so many furs that physically it is hard to believe he was once an omnipotent force as both king and father.

Admittedly this was excellently compensated for, as Redgrave made the most of Lear’s inherent absurdity in renouncing power to create a funnier Lear than I’d thought possible.

For instance, as he petulantly dashes paint whilst dividing his kingdom at the outset, Redgrave brilliantly suggests his childishness, and so averted the need to create a truly epic and charismatic Lear. And yet, perhaps this very absurdity left his descent into madness slightly less surprising, and the sense of his increasingly nihilistic world view, whilst impeccably acted, less shocking.

Corin Redgrave as King Lear in a 2004 production by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Acting Speaks Louder than Words
This is not to belittle an almost uniformly excellent acting display elsewhere though, as Louis Hilyer forged a powerful onstage bond with Redgrave and really captured the character Kent’s loyalty and devoted honesty to his master.

Matthew Rhys as Edmund was also a truly charismatic villain who drew unlikely admiration for a man who declares “now, gods, stand up for bastards”, whilst David Hargreaves excelled himself after the cruel gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes. His gut-wrenching blank stares really enabled him to bring out the close parallels between the sickening betrayals of Gloucester and Lear by their own children.

Credit too must go to the ever-brilliant RSC effects team for the believable enactment of scenes like Gloucester’s torture.

However, perhaps the most interesting innovations amongst the supporting crew stemmed from set designer Tom Piper. With an unpromisingly plain set of 4 pine tables and 3 benches, Piper managed to give each scene a true sense of individuality, as the arrangements varied starkly between an imposing dining hall, a more casual meeting area and even a towering, covered platform. This gave the perfect balance between a sense of variation and individuality crucial to a 4-hour show, whilst managing to avoid overwhelming the themes of madness and justice that dominate the production.

Even better was the skilful coordination of Piper’s vision with that of fight director Michael Ranson. Although a far less violent play than last season’s Titus Andronicus, for example, Ranson’s memorably arranged choreography truly came to the fore in the dynamic duel between Edmund and Edgar (Pal Aron). Their believably aggressive sword strokes are played out in a fight scene that makes the most of the set’s varying levels, as they clash on tables and roll expertly around seemingly haphazard bench layouts.

Back in Black Stereotypes
If there was a standout criticism though it would have to centre on Leo Wringer’s controversial characterisation of Lear’s Fool.

Stepping in as understudy for the absent John Normington, Wringer thus found himself playing the Fool whilst also being the show’s only black man. This should not have been a problem since, of all Shakespeare’s plays, the Fool in King Lear is probably the wisest and most perceptive as he blurs the boundary between foolishness and misused power, memorably asserting that “if thou follow him, thou must needs wear my coxcomb”.

However, rather than inverting 19th-century stereotypes of foolish black men, Wringer revelled in exaggerating his character’s stupidity. Dressed in a jester’s outfit and consciously using a heavily affected Caribbean accent, Wringer transformed himself into a caricature of racial inferiority and foolishness without a trace of irony. This stereotyping cannot really be sustained by moderate 21st-century theatre, and so stand-in Wringer’s total reworking of the character left him feeling out of place in the RSC’s production.

Playing to their Strengths
This aside, it must be emphasised that the RSC put on a largely excellent production of King Lear; it’s a feat in itself to keep audiences involved for a full 4-hour show.

Credit must go to Bill Alexander who achieved this by emphasising the universal questions raised in King Lear, rather than simply directing the fall of the title character. By heavily emphasising the nihilistic madness of the excellent supporting characters Gloucester, Edmund and Edgar, Alexander sensibly diverted Lear away from the need for an imposing and grand stature that Redgrave was unable to provide.

Perhaps not perfect then, but the RSC must be highly commended for providing an absorbing and entertaining production. King Lear made the most of an unparalleled level of talent both in front and behind the stage…and never more so than in minimising the significance of its minor flaws.

Posted by: Richard Frost | 5 Apr 2020

Mark Thomas comedy gig review

Logo of award-winning student magazine Durham21Original publication date: November 2004
Outlet: Durham21

Richard Frost is caught in the crossfire as Mark Thomas battles between two shows – but can Mark live with Thomas?

Mark Thomas is something of a puzzle in the stand-up world. Here’s a comedian with a six-series back-catalogue at Channel 4, but who seems increasingly to downplay the role he’s created of a stand-up with a political edge.

Rapidly disappearing is the politicised Dom Joly who turned up to a cabinet minister’s house at 7am in a tank, asking for the best way to export military arms to Iraq. Instead, the Mark Thomas that emerged at Gala Theatre is a slightly uneasy comedy animal, torn between delivering crowd-pleasing politically tinged humour and meticulously researched political activism offset by the odd joke.

David ‘Sex Bomb’ Blunkett
This is not to dismiss the ability of Mark Thomas as an entertainer, however, as the man continues to engage throughout a surprisingly long 2-hour set. It’s a remarkable achievement to build an immediate audience rapport and bring them to hysterics for a full hour in the 1st half, whilst also being intermittently hilarious in the 2nd.

Here is a man with a gift for satire, as he begins by taking the audience through bizarre but entertaining visions of David Blunkett as a Big Brother figure, whose totalitarian visions are restrained only by his insatiable sexual appetite. As he dwells on the cruder elements of Blunkett’s sex life in his swear-filled rants, it’s our first reminder that Thomas is unafraid to court controversy.

Promotional material for a tour by stand-up comic Mark Thomas

In truth, Thomas’ conversational style is part of his carefully constructed persona as a true man-of-the-people, delivering jokey asides aplenty to create a real sense of intimacy with the audience. This is brilliantly exploited for political effect when he wittily summarises Israel’s willingness to withdraw from the Gaza Strip whilst retaining the West Bank: “It’s the equivalent of somebody bombing the whole of the North-East, launching a hostile invasion and then describing themselves as men of peace because they’ll let us keep Peterlee.”

As well as political messages, he also delivers some killer one-liners as he plays up to the largely student audience by asking the price of the show, and then responding “£12.50 – that’s about £200 in student loans!”

However, his semblance of being up to date – crucial to all cutting-edge political satirists – was sometimes found lacking, such as in his disappointing failure to acknowledge the US elections. For a comedian who has emphasised his anti-Americanisation attitude throughout the show and who will undoubtedly target George Bush for future satires, this was a hugely surprising omission.

Pub Talk
Nevertheless, what he does talk about is generally both absorbing and entertaining. Particularly evident is his love of absurdity as he gleefully recounts the spontaneous sing-song whilst chained to a coachload of arms dealers, and the armada of paddle boats used to block their arms ship from docking. And perhaps the performance’s most memorable moments come through his characterisations here, as he imitates all-action fiery Scottish activists and hopelessly bewildered policemen.

This kind of Peter Kay-style observational comedy built on character sketches is terrifically funny and would be perfect material for an unambitiously funny stand-up routine. And yet this bloke-down-the-pub persona jars noticeably with his political activist assault on Coca-Cola in the 2nd act, in which Thomas moves from purely comic aims to what is effectively a political rant, explaining to us with the assistance of an avalanche of facts and personal experiences why the soft drinks king is evil.

Admittedly, many of these facts were fascinating – did you know, for example, that Fanta was created for the Nazis because cola syrup was impossible to get in WWII Germany?!! However, it becomes increasingly apparent as the rant builds that this maturely developed political activism is Thomas’ new love, leaving me feeling that the comedy of the 1st half is merely there to bring in the punters.

Someone Old, Someone New…
Quite simply, this painstakingly researched, brilliantly convincing political activism doesn’t tally with the easy-going experience-seeker and joker of the 1st act – leaving audiences divided between the Old and New Mark Thomas. Both are brilliant in their own way and each could easily carry a show on their own, whether it be funny and biting political satire or persuasive political activism.

His attempts to merge the two just aren’t as convincing though, which suggests to me that Mark Thomas has now hit a crossroads. If he’s to avoid alienating his huge fanbase in both camps, tonight’s star will soon need to decide between a career as a light-hearted political stand-up and a serious political activist.

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