james debate
james debate

Monday, 27 November 2017

Directed by Rupert Goold
Written by Mike Bartlett
Starring Victoria Hamilton, Helen Schlesinger, Charlotte Hope, Christopher Fairbank
Theatre Almeida

albion almeida mike bartlett brexit boris theresa may corbyn trump king charles

Once in a while comes an artistic work that perfectly encapsulates the times in which we live. Mike Bartlett, a playwright best known for the excellent King Charles III, is a writer of astute observation, and a penchant for having his thumb on the societal pulse. King Charles asked questions as to the relevance of an archaic Monarchy in an age of YouTube and celebrity culture, Albion is perhaps even more poignant in its addressing of the challenges currently facing the United Kingdom.

Albion tells the story of Audrey Walters, who takes ownership of a historic and once beautiful garden, now overgrown and a shade of its former self, with the intention of restoring it to the former glory that she remembers from her younger days. In doing so, she implements tighter restrictions on when her neighbours can and can't enter the garden, and makes decisions that detrimentally impact the futures of the local youth. Her blind zeal ultimately ends up alienating her neighbours, her liberal intellectual friends, and her children, leaving Audrey alone, economically ruined, and with a garden of which people no longer want any part. The garden is named Albion (an archaic name for Great Britain).

I don't think it will surprise you too much to hear that this is a metaphor for Brexit, and one which is not exactly awash with ambiguity at that. At times the use of metaphor can be a little bit on the nose, be it the replacing of the doddering old British caretakers with a far more industrious Polish worker, or the scene where Audrey is lambasted for idealising a past which no longer exists, while whitewashing the negative aspects of that same past (an allusion to British Imperial guilt).

This allegory forms the backdrop to a more traditional narrative. A rural setting, familial drama, wider socioeconomic tensions between the established values of the past, and an oncoming future that threatens upheaval. It's all very much in the mould of an Anton Chekhov play, in particular the Cherry Orchard, and that comparison is presumably no accident. There is after all no reason to set a Brexit allegory in so deliberate a Chekhovian setting, and one has to wonder if the influence of a Russian author on this setting is intended as a commentary on the Russian influence over its subject matter.

Indeed one could write a whole essay on the subtext at play here, but I don't wish to spoil everything. Suffice it to say, each character fills a clear role in this metaphor, from Audrey's detached "intellectual elite" friend Katherine, to the directionless youth "Zara", or the ineffectual but steadfast husband Paul, who perhaps not so coincidentally happens to look and speak a lot like Prince Charles, and fulfil a support role not incomparable to that of the monarchy in modern day Britain.

Fortunately, if the overly deliberate attempt at political commentary can be a bit off-putting, it's more than compensated for by the quality of its execution. Aside from the occasional clumsy analogy, the writing here is sharp and to the point, occasionally hilarious. The production is bold and stylish, with striking setpieces punctuating the key moments of drama. Rupert Goold is on a roll this year at the Almeida, and Albion continues to establish his name as one of the great artistic directors in the game today.

The performances are particularly worthy of note. Victoria Hamilton's portrayal of Audrey is remarkable; the scene feels electrified every time she is on stage, and she will surely be a frontrunner in this year's theatre accolades.

But ultimately this is a play of its themes, and in my view one that succeeds. While Albion will no doubt draw most of the discussion to its commentary on Brexit, the core of its message really lies with the British people, and the divisions in today's society. I mentioned earlier the roles of the individual characters, and indeed each of these roles essentially pertains to a particular demographic, and explores the way in which the politics of today has affected those people. This is where the production really feels invaluable as a commentary on our times.

It's been a very strong year for new plays, but Bartlett's latest is as good as any I've seen all year. Essential viewing.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

It has been two decades since Phillip Pullman wrote the first entry in the His Dark Materials trilogy, The Northern Lights (known as The Golden Compass in the US). The novel's standing during this time has risen to the point where it is considered by many to be among the most important pieces of children's/young adult fiction ever written. Now Pullman returns to the series with his new Book of Dust trilogy. Let's mark this occasion by taking a look at why Pullman's work still resonates to such an extent.

his dark materials golden compass northern lights philip pullman book of dust belle sauvage influential classic harry potter

Few artistic works manage to attain high levels of both critical and commercial success, but in the case of His Dark Materials, the praise coming from professional observers has been equally matched by the adulation of its readers. Indeed the series has garnered enduring acclaim, and literary awards including the Carnegie Medal, the Whitbread book of the year (the first time the award has gone to a children's novel), and the Astrid Lindgren award, a prize considered to be second only to the Nobel prize in literature. The series has spawned an award winning National Theatre production, an upcoming BBC adaptation, and a film that we'll just pretend doesn't exist. For many of us who grew up during the 1990s, and especially in the United Kingdom, The Northern Lights represents a dear part of our childhood, and is the essential novel that drew a generation into reading.

It's easy to see why the series so successfully engaged its readers, with its imaginative, yet tangible setting and full-bodied characters. This world is imbued with a formidably rich mythology, mesmerising and varied locations, and rewarding story arcs that draw the reader in and make them genuinely care about what happens. From the moment we first join young protagonist Lyra and Pantalaimon sneaking through the halls of Oxford we are hooked through the stories to come, be they delightful or heartbreaking.

But the appeal of this work goes beyond its narrative thrill. Plenty of other novels of the genre feature exciting adventures and likeable characters, Harry Potter comes to mind. What makes His Dark Materials stand out is the way its surreal worlds convey a deeper reflection of our own reality. The series' Magisterium offers a clear and scathing critique of the Catholic Church, and its war against the ambiguous property referred to as Dust can be seen as many things; a war on knowledge and enlightenment, a war on decadence and independence, or simply a resistance to change and growth. These novels are not merely some secular smear on religiosity, but a powerful rebuke of any dogma that values power and ignorance over truth. These themes of corruption and authoritarianism are more relevant than ever today.

Even beyond the politics and philosophy, there's something altogether more fundamental at the core of the series. These elements provide the intellectual backdrop to what is ultimately the classic coming of age story. Through the pre-adolescent eyes of Lyra the series explores the nature of friendship, the confusion of love, and comes to terms with the inevitability of loss. Unlike, for example, Harry Potter, this is not some fantasy power-trip of a powerful wizard fighting another powerful wizard to defeat evil and then they all live happily ever after. Lyra is a child entering a world dominated by forces far more powerful than her that she can't possibly understand. Just like the rest of us, Lyra cares less for the obscure machinations of the world around her than for the deeper personal drives which motivate us; rescuing a friend, reuniting with a lost parent.

So for all its fantastical tropes, His Dark Materials is a series that seeks to awaken its young audience to the real and overwhelming aspects of the world we live in. It's a series that by its premise encourages its developing minds to engage in critical thinking and to place value on knowledge and truth. But for all of its complexity, this is above all a series that helps those at a critical juncture to explore the very personal dilemmas of growing up that they themselves are faced with. Less of a magical diversion, and more a lifting of the veil. At the time, it was radical reading for impressionable young minds, and a revelatory experience. So it remains. As an artistic work, this is still an essential read for the new generation about to enter the wider world, and its status among the most influential literature of our time is well deserved.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Genre Alternative rock
Label Island
Producers Jacknife Lee, The Killers, Erol Alkan, Stuart Price

the killers wonderful wonderful 2017 the man

It's been five years and one solo album since The Killers’ most recent and most divisive album, Battle Born. Battle Born was certainly not a bad album by any means, but its mixed reception at the time rightly drew unfavourable comparisons to the band’s previous work, as fans expressed disappointment at the relatively derivative nature of the music. The album still spawned hits and platinum singles, but that couldn't shake the feeling that The Killers had found themselves in something of a rut creatively. So began the longest hiatus in the band's history.

But rather than take a holiday, frontman and lead songwriter Brandon Flowers decided to use that time to refresh his process. With a new production team and a wider range of musical influences, Flowers has since entered a period of great creative output.

A year after Battle Born, The Killers released the promising single Shot at the Night, mixed by guest producer (and musical star in his own right) M83. Two years after that Brandon released his second solo album, The Desired Effect, in another first time collaboration with prominent producer Ariel Rechtshaid. Praised for its creative variety and slick production, the Desired Effect received critical acclaim. Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone described it the best pop album in recent memory.

Creatively reinvigorated and enjoying a second wind of success, Brandon Flowers now returns to the band that made him a star with The Killers’ fifth studio album, Wonderful Wonderful. The result is something quite different to anything The Killers has done before.

Wonderful Wonderful sees the band trade their signature high tempo rock and roll for a sound that is much slower and heavier in tone. They follow suit thematically, abandoning the tales of Hollywood, Vegas glamour, and cheesy Americana for topics that are far more meditative than we have come to expect. Instead we get what is ostensibly an exploration of Flowers' own psyche, his self-doubt, questions of masculinity, his legacy in music. Such raw introspection is a new angle for The Killers, and while the music may not necessarily sparkle in the same way their best tracks do, this lends a greater sense of poignancy and reality that you might not expect from this band.

This is something that I can see turning a lot of long time fans off the album. Such a sedate tone from a band known for their energetic stadium lifters can be quite jarring for those who came hoping for the next set of radio-friendly hits. But give the album a chance, and you will be well rewarded with a piece of work that is complex and beautiful in its own right, if not at all what we were expecting.

The album can be roughly divided into a series of thematic pairings of tracks.

Opening and title track Wonderful Wonderful serves as the thematic introduction, the "id" of the album presented as a swirling tempest of the insecurities and concerns that weigh heavily. This contrasts heavily with lead single The Man, the super ego of hyper-masculine braggadocio. The track itself is an enjoyable enough homage to the funk-era of 1980s David Bowie and to a lesser extent Roxy Music, borrowing heavily from the bass-line of Bowie's Fashion, and directly referencing Fame. Still, it's surprisingly forgettable for a lead single from The Killers.

Next, the duo of Rut and Life to Come delve into personal tragedy, drawing inspiration from Flowers' own struggles and in particular the ongoing health problems facing his wife Tana. The former is a slow builder of a track teeming with defiant insecurity, while the latter swells into a full-on U2-esque declaration. Knowing the context of this one-two hit makes it difficult not to tear up a little when listening, but more than that this connection to a very real and human feeling of devotion and loss.

Flowers returns to themes that have historically been fertile ground for his songwriting, career and legacy in Tyson vs Douglas and Out of My Mind, religion and faith in Some Kind of Love and The Calling. Tyson vs Douglas and Some Kind of Love in particular are arguably the two best tracks on the album. The former is a creative flip on the classic "underdog beats the champion" story, putting you in the perspective of the defeated champion. A breathless ride through the champ's state of mind ensues, a veritable storm of fear and shame. The latter, co-written with the legendary Brian Eno, is a dreamy star of a tune that evokes shades of Coldplay, as well as Eno's own earlier work.

The odd one out is second single Run for Cover, itself one of the most crowd-pleasing tracks on the album. Originally written for The Killers' third album Day & Age, Run for Cover doesn't fit neatly with the themes or structure of Wonderful Wonderful. One suspects that it has been brought in to make up for the lack of upbeat songs on the album. The album then finishes on a fittingly introspective note with the knowingly titled Have All the Songs Been Written.

Wonderful Wonderful is an album that, as a whole, stacks up favourably with The Killers' previous efforts. Artistically, some might even say it's a step up, and I can see critics responding very strongly. Still, I came away feeling underwhelmed. This is an album that lacks a standout track.

Run for Cover is a fine single, but does it really stack up individually with Mr. Brightside, Human, or even Runaways? You'd have to say the answer is no. Tyson vs Douglas is a better song, but one that might only just make the top 15 songs written by Brandon Flowers. Some Kind of Love is probably the strongest track on the album, and it's a slow burner of a track that I can see flying under the radar of most people. There isn't really a bad song on this album, but equally there is little that seems likely to live long in the memory in terms of individual songs.

This is an album that reminds us what a strong songwriter Brandon Flowers can be, and demonstrates an extra dimension of the band's talents that we have not seen before. The days of Hot Fuss' pretty-boys with makeup seems long ago, Wonderful Wonderful cements The Killers' status as one of the prestige rock groups of modern music. While these may not be the best songs they've written, they represent another fine addition to a growing body of work.

Must Listen :
Some Kind of Love
Tyson vs Douglas
Run for Cover

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Genre Art-rock
Label Columbia
Producers Arcade Fire, Thomas Bangalter (ie half of Daft Punk), Geoff Barrow, Markus Dravs, Eric Hegle, Steve Mackey

arcade fire everything now 2017 electric blue

Music is an art-form. Not just by virtue of how pretty it sounds, but the message, the lyrics, the context, it all contributes to the work. Yet for the vast majority of people who listen to the song, the main (if not the only) thing that will be noticed is simply "does this feel good in my ear-holes?". And so there is always this balance in music between producing something that sounds pleasing, and something that delivers whatever larger meaning the artist has in mind.

Where this balance lies is often simply a matter of taste. Some people couldn't care less about the meaning or subtext, and just want to listen to whatever serotonin-releasing crowd-pleaser is currently riding high in the charts. Others see a song as more akin to a painting, appreciating its composition or message as much as what it actually sounds like. The truly great artists are the ones who successfully manage to marry both aspects.

Arcade Fire have always been a band who take the artistic side of their work seriously. More so than most of their contemporaries, the band's work invariably has a complex and thought-out conceptual basis behind it. It was this that first grabbed the attention of many of Arcade Fire's early promoters, perhaps most famously David Bowie (himself considered a trailblazer in the idea of mainstream music as a form of intellectual exploration) whose patronage played a significant role in the band's early history.

With their last album, Reflektor, Arcade Fire lent the conceptual side of their work an even greater prominence. For the release of that album a fake band, The Reflektors, was created, along with a fake website, fake album, and a series of secret shows under their new moniker. This was accompanied by a short film which tied into the album's larger themes of isolation in the digital age. A lot of work had been done around the concept of Reflektor, but crucially the music was given the same level of care, and the album was ultimately met with great critical acclaim.

For Everything Now, Arcade Fire have re-used many of the same gags. A fake website, this time a "global e-commerce platform", was joined by a variety of fake infomercial videos and products, all boosted by a significant effort on social media. Fake news, Russian spambots, trying very much to be a reflection of our anxious times, but in a hazy, unfocused way. Frankly as a critique of consumerism and the instant gratification of social media, the whole thing comes off as a bit obvious, and sophomoric. It doesn't help that Everything Now re-treads much of the same ground as Reflektor, without adding much in the way of new ideas. That which is new has already been articulated many times before, and done better, by others.

The album's worst offender is the track Infinite Content, which essentially boils down to the lyric "infinite content, infinite content, we're infinitely content" being said over and over. An idea they were apparently so pleased with that they decided to put two versions of this track on the album. It's painfully obvious what they were going for, and that pretty much typifies an album which gives the impression of thinking itself to be far deeper and more intellectual than it actually is.

So the concept falls a bit flat, but can the undoubted musical talents of the band save the day? It's a bit of a mixed bag. Just as the conceptual basis of the album feels tired and re-used, so do many of the tracks on this album. Far too much of the music here feels like a less clever rehash of Reflektor. Frontman Win Butler seems stuck in "monotone snarl" mode, sounding almost like Reflektor B-sides. Fortunately in those few moments where Arcade Fire break free and try something new, the music really shines.

The title track Everything Now is a bit of a treasure, a rich composition of strings and choir. The base melody sounds almost like it could be a TV jingle, tying in with the core concept, but the underlying progression and clever tonal shifts elevate the track into something that is quite dazzling as a statement piece for the album.

Arguably the standout track is Electric Blue, a groggy slice of ethereal disco-funk led by the under-utilised vocal talents of Régine Chassagne into something reminiscent of The Suburbs' excellent Sprawl II.

But my personal favourite of the album is the spectacular Put Your Money on Me, a track that begins with a deliciously subversive funky riff before building into a soaring denouement of classic rock. It's an electrifying piece of pop-rock and the moment which thankfully feels most liberated from the album's conceptual constraints.

Author's note: coincidentally, these three standout tracks are the three tracks produced by Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter. Maybe Arcade Fire should just have him lead production on their next album.

These highlights are not enough to make Arcade Fire's new LP a great album, but they do make it a "good enough" album. Everything Now suffers from a conceptual smugness that is all too obvious and ultimately derivative of the band's earlier work. Fortunately the few standout tracks make Everything Now worthy of your attention.

Must Listen :
Put Your Money on Me
Electric Blue
Everything Now

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Welcome back football fans.  I hope everyone had a great summer, but it is time to get back to business. A new season of Premier League football is approaching, and once again it looks like a corker, promising fake drama, real tears, and hopefully some good football. As per usual the Ephemeric is here to run the rule over every team in the Premier League and render a few inevitably accurate predictions. Read on for the ultimate preview of what awaits us these next nine months.

premier league 2015/16 preview

Premier League 2017/18 Predictions in a nutshell:
Champions: Manchester United
Champions League qualifiers: Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham, Liverpool
Relegated: Swansea, Crystal Palace, Brighton
Golden Boot winner: Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur)
Golden Glove winner: David de Gea (Manchester United)
Player to watch: Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspur)
New signing to watch: Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United)
Young player to watch: Tammy Abraham (Swansea)
First manager to get the sack: Craig Shakespeare (Leicester City)
Shock of the season: Arsene Wenger leaves Arsenal


Nickname: The Gunners
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Position last season: 5th
Manager: Arsene Wenger

Fifteen years without a league title, and now for the first time in Wenger's Arsenal tenure, no Champions League football. It's going from bad to worse for Arsenal, and it's no surprise that the calls to replace manager Arsene Wenger have increased and reached a fever pitch. Many expected him to go after last year's failures, but he has stuck around for another year. Make no mistake though, there can be no excuse for a repeat performance this season.

Typically the problem with Arsenal has been money, not that they don't have it, but that they refuse to spend it. Whether by some misplaced morality, or the simple greed of the club's board, the club has become typified by a lack of ambition. Now with massive recent outlays on transfer spending, including the £50 million deals for Ozil and Sanchez, £40 million on Granit Xhaka, and this year a cool £50 million for Lacazette, the club seems finally to have accepted this new reality. The money has been flowing, now the question is whether they waited too long and are simply too far off the pace to seriously challenge the big clubs. Based on last year's showing, it would appear that this may be the case.

The headline signing of the summer has been French striker Alexandre Lacazette. It's a excellent start, but won't be enough in itself to paper over the deficiencies elsewhere in the squad. More concerning for Gunners is the ongoing saga over Alexis Sanchez, by far their best player of the last few years. At a time when they need to be retaining their key personnel and building a squad, losing Sanchez would come as a bitter blow to their chances.

Key Signing: Alexandre Lacazette
Key Man: Alexis Sanchez (if he stays)

Verdict: A lot of question marks, they face a tough challenge to break back into the top 4.


Nickname: The Cherries
Ground: Dean Court
Capacity: 11,700
Last season: 9th
Manager: Eddie Howe

An impressive season for Bournemouth saw the side secure a top half finish in only their second Premier League campaign. Great credit has to go to manager Eddie Howe for his constant drive to exceed expectations. No time to rest on laurels though, two good seasons doesn't guarantee sustained success.

Their meteoric rise through the leagues (League One just five years ago!) is only part of the feel-good story surrounding the club right now. Progress has been made on a new stadium, while their summer's transfer activity has been ambitious, and astute. The signing of Aké from Chelsea could be one of the signings of the season, while the addition of experienced goalkeeper Begovic is a smart purchase. Jermain Defoe also joins this summer, a player who, despite his advancing years, still inevitably brings goals.

Equally, they have done a good job in retaining their key players from last year. It's not the league's deepest squad, particularly at the back, but they are well stocked in the midfield and up front. Striker Joshua King riding a wave of goalscoring form from last season, and could form a deadly partnership with Defoe. There is no doubting the difficulty of what lies ahead, but Eddie Howe is a good manager and on paper they don't look worse off than last year.

Key Signing: Nathan Aké
Key Man: Joshua King

Verdict: A tough ask for them to repeat last season's feats, but who would bet against them? We're going for a solid mid table finish.


Nickname: The Seagulls
Ground: Falmer Stadium
Capacity: 30,750
Last season: Promoted (2nd)
Manager: Chris Hughton

These Premier Legaue debutants may have been unexpected runners up in last year's Championship, but will need to adapt quickly if they are to navigate the colossal step up to the Premier League. At a time when even the league's smaller clubs command great financial resources and high quality on the pitch, there is no room for hesitance or inexperience. Brighton will require great strengthening just to survive.

It is to their credit that they have at the helm the experienced management of Chris Hughton, and players such as Anthony Knockaert and Liam Rosenior who are familiar with the league. But otherwise there remains a great question mark over much their squad.

They have been active in the transfer market within the confines of their financial means, the most notable of which will be the key signing of goalkeeper Mathew Ryan from Valencia. The additional depth will serve them well and ensure that they are no pushovers in this league, but have they made the kind of moves, and brought in the kind of experience that new clubs need to succeed in this league? I'm not so sure.

The Seagulls understandably begin the season on a wave of enthusiasm, but they know they face an uphill struggle in order to survive. Away fans best enjoy the opportunity for football trips to the beach while they can.

Key Signing: Mathew Ryan
Key Man: Anthony Knockaert

Verdict: No pushovers by any means, but among the favourites for the drop.


Nickname: The Clarets
Ground: Turf Moor
Capacity: 21,800
Last season: 16th
Manager: Sean Dyche

Sean Dyche is a fine manager and has done very well to survive last season with such meagre resources at his disposal. Burnley now heads into a second consecutive season in the Premier League and will be looking to consolidate their position.

To this end they have reinforced with some solid Premier League experience in Jack Cork and Phil Bardsley, but with key player Andre Gray going in the other direction. They will be looking for players like Sam Vokes to take up the mantle of main goal threat, while doing everything to keep ahold of key players like Steven Defour and Benjamin Mee.

Many pundits have favoured Burnley for relegation this season, but I think this does them a disservice. Make no mistake, this is not an especially strong squad, and with another manager they may be favourites for the drop, but with Dyche at the helm they stand a good chance of survival.

Key Signing: Jack Cork
Key Man: Sam Vokes

Verdict: Tough battle for survival, but one they can win.


Nickname: Blues
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Capacity: 41,837
Last season: Champions
Manager: Antonio Conte

It's difficult not to feel a sense of deja vu. Two years ago Chelsea were champions, but after a summer of stagnation, incompetent transfer policy, and complacency, they ended their title defence in 10th. They scapegoated the manager and swept the failure of that season under the rug. Duly they strengthened, bounced back, and are champions once more. Well surprise surprise, they didn't learn from their mistake. History is set to repeat itself.

Chelsea's squad last season was already among the smallest in the league. They owe much of their title win to the fact that they missed out on Europe, and thus had fewer games than their competition. So the fact that they have reduced the size of their squad over the summer is hard to understand. They have signed three decent players, Alvaro Morata from Real Madrid, Antonio Rudiger from Roma, and Tiemoue Bakayoko from Monaco, but they have sold twice as many players as they have brought in. The result is a squad which currently has only 14 senior outfield players, barely enough to fill a subs bench, and no proven striker.  Sure, they still have Eden Hazard and N'golo Kante, but two players can't carry a team. A single injury or suspension here could send the squad into a crisis. Just look at the bench of their opening fixture, populated almost entirely by youth products.

Even more inexplicable is the lack of a pre-season. They have played just three pre-season games this summer, compared to 6 - 8 that they ordinarily play. It is no wonder then that they looked so sluggish and unfit in the Community Shield game.

I've never seen a team of champions enter a title defence with such pessimism. This is a squad that is clearly insufficient in depth and quality for a title challenge, and perhaps for a top four finish. It is also a squad that is bizarrely unprepared for a new season, with little in the way of warm up to pull them out of their summer holidays. Two years ago, I made a bold prediction that the champions could miss out on top four, a prediction which was widely mocked, and yet turned out to be highly prescient. All signs indicate that this season could be just as bad.

Key Signing: Alvaro Morata
Key Man: Eden Hazard

Verdict: Any notion of a title defence is absurd, without at least 3 more signings top four will be a struggle.


Nickname: Eagles, Glaziers
Ground: Selhurst Park
Capacity: 25,456
Last season: 14th
Manager: Frank de Boer

Stability has been tricky to come by for Crystal Palace in recent times, through a slew of managerial changes and squad upheaval. Yet they will be hearted by the fact that they enter a 5th consecutive season in the top flight. Now with the appointment of Frank de Boer, a manager with genuine status, there is the hope that the club is starting to be seen as a Premier League mainstay, rather than one concerned with mere survival. This is a mistake, their position is far more tenuous than it appears.

It's not just luck that has led to this managerial merry-go-round. There is work that needs to be done to build consistency. Yet the club has let go of a whopping 13 players this summer, and brought in just 1 on a permanent basis. The club with nevertheless be buoyed by the promising loan moves for Chelsea youngster Ruben Loftus Cheek and Manchester United youth Timothy Fosu-Mensah, both very intriguing additions who will be interesting to see gaining regular Premier League football.

The rest of the team is not bad by any means, with the likes of Christian Benteke, Wilfried Zaha and Patrick van Aanholt in the first XI, but beyond that the depth of the squad seems a little suspect for a Premier League campaign, and one would hope that they bring in additional new faces before the end of the transfer window.

There is much to be intrigued by this Crystal Palace team, but it's clear that they have not addressed the main concerns with the squad, and seem increasingly reliant on unproven quality. The lack of squad depth makes a battle for survival a very real possibility this season. They must avoid complacency.

Key Signing: Ruben Loftus Cheek
Key Man: Wilfried Zaha

Verdict: Not safe by any means, relegation a very real possibility.


Nickname: Toffees
Ground: Goodison Park
Capacity: 40,170
Last season: 7th
Manager: Ronald Koeman

Premier League mainstays Everton enter this season in an unfamiliar position, with serious financial backing from their board. The famously frugal management has splashed a cool hundred million this summer in order to back manager Ronald Koeman. That's the kind of money one would expect of a side that's pushing very much for Champions League qualification.

Serious money has been spent on Jordan Pickford, Davy Klaassen and Michael Keane, while former youth star Wayne Rooney has been resigned from Manchester United. They will, of course, be missing the goalscoring threat of Romelu Lukaku, who went in the other direction.

So what are their prospect this season? They're a good side, one of the best in the league and with decent depth. There is an absence of players who can offer real penetration, particularly among their extended squad, and of course they miss a frontman with the calibre of their outgoing Lukaku. Of their signings, Pickford has potential but still has much to prove, while with Rooney Koeman is gambling that the former England captain was written off too soon at United. They'll make a good showing of it, but unlikely to trouble the top four this season.

Key Signing: Michael Keane
Key Man: Morgan Schneiderlin

Verdict: Probably looking at a similar finish to last year, just outside the top four.


Nickname: The Terriers
Ground: John Smith's Stadium
Capacity: 24,500
Last season: Promoted (Play-off)
Manager: David Wagner

The league's "biggest underdogs", "certain for the drop". These are all things being said about Huddersfield. And sure, they're nobody's favourite. They're Premier League newcomers, with little in the way of Premier League talent, but that also means low pressure, and belies the fact that they have actually made some pretty solid transfer moves this summer.

Steve Mounie and Mathias Jorgensen will provide decent talent for a low level Premier League side, but the most significant new face is Tom Ince, a highly talented player with plenty of top flight experience. Frankly it's surprising that no bigger side has moved for him sooner given the promise shown during his Blackpool years, but Huddersfield will reap the benefits.

Make no mistake, a monumental challenge faces this team in the coming year, but then no one fancied them for promotion last year either and look where we are. This is a club with a manager who can motivate his team and get more out of them than one might expect. They have strengthened shrewdly and reinforced in precisely the right areas. I think they could surprise people.

Key Signing: Tom Ince
Key Man: Christopher Schindler

Verdict: Everyone's favourite for relegation, I think they could surprise, and maybe survive.


Nickname: The Foxes
Ground: King Power Stadium
Capacity: 32,315
Last season: 12th
Manager: Craig Shakespeare

It is not at all a surprise that Leicester City failed to live up to their previous season's billing. Their title winning heroics were among the most astonishing feats in sporting history, and a subsequent slump to mid table is mere reversion to the mean. So where does that leave them? Hard to say. Is mid table the natural place for this club, or can they push on again into the top tier of clubs. Might they even be at risk of relegation as one might expect of a club with such limited top flight experience? It's hard to say.

There are warning signs for sure. Shakespeare does not look a longterm solution in the dugout. A change in management usually leads to a temporary resurgence in form, but beyond that it's hard to see what he brings to the table that his title winning predecessor did not.

More promising is the club's positive activity in the summer transfer market, which has seen some fairly big money moves for the likes of Harry Maguire, now set to start in the heart of defence, and Kelechi Iheanacho, the former Manchester City striker. They will complement the largely intact core of this Leicester team, which includes the likes of Jamie Vardy, Wes Morgan and Riyad Mahrez. These are all quality players who could thrive in just about any team in the league. The trouble is that beyond them the squad still looks closer to a second tier team than a top of the table side.

Ultimately Leicester have the look of a side that have marginally improved upon last season, but still face a number of challenges if they are to progress. Pre-season has not been promising, there is still a lot of work to be done if Leicester are going to consolidate their position. A top half finish will do them just fine.

Key Signing: Harry Maguire
Key Man: Jamie Vardy

Verdict: Will push for a top half finish, but face significant risk from teams lower down the table.


Nickname: Reds
Ground: Anfield
Capacity: 54,074
Last season: 4th
Manager: Jurgen Klopp

Last season saw a marked improvement for Liverpool, and a return to the Champions League. With Jurgen Klopp, one of the hottest managers in the world today, the feeling at the club is finally one of genuine optimism and direction. Can he take this club back to the top?

Now it might seem like such statements are made every season, and there is something to that, especially with the dominance of ex Liverpool players in the pundit class, but the things Klopp accomplished at Dortmund are not to be sniffed at, when faced with the total monopoly of German football and sponsorship that is Bayern Munich. That they won the title and damn near won the Champions League should not be understated.

More importantly, this is a Liverpool team bristling with quality, from Mané to Firmino, and the new big money signing of Mo Salah. Then there is the story of Philippe Coutinho, still the essential Liverpool player. Coutinho currently looks dead set on pushing through a Barcelona transfer, though Liverpool are holding firm at the time of writing. His loss would be a big blow to the team

So what is the target for this season? The title is always on the mind of Liverpool fans. More realistic is another top four finish, and this year that looks a very achievable goal.

Key Signing: Mo Salah
Key Man: Sadio Mané

Verdict: Another top four finish on the cards.


Nickname: Blues
Ground: Etihad Stadium
Capacity: 55,097
Last season: 3rd
Manager: Pep Guardiola

So what to make of this Manchester City team? On paper one of the deepest and strongest squads in the country. They finished a disappointing 3rd last season, with no major silverware, after spending a whopping £200 million in the transfer market. They have spent yet another £200 million this summer.

I've long been a vocal critic of Pep Guardiola, a manager who has only ever succeeded when inheriting a team that was already the best in the world, and has invariably left his club worse off than when they hired him. Regardless of whether you acknowledge these facts or buy into the hype, the simple fact is he has not gotten results, despite the fact that he has every resource in the world at his disposal.

He has the players. Sergio Aguero remains one of the world's best goalscorers. Kevin de Bruyne has joined a long list of neglected Chelsea youngsters to go on to become world class elsewhere. Kompany, Silva, Sané, Sterling... this is a squad packed to the rafters with quality in every position, and they have added to that abundance with the likes of Kyle Walker and Danilo, Benjamin Mendy and Bernardo Silva.

It's a squad that's up there with the best in the world on paper, with the money and facilities to accomplish anything. The only question mark remains the manager. Surely the club will not tolerate another season of failure. It's the title or bust for Pep.

Key Signing: Kyle Walker
Key Man: Sergio Agüero

Verdict: A title favourite, anything less would be a failure.


Nickname: Red Devils
Ground: Old Trafford
Capacity: 75, 643
Last season: 6th
Manager: Jose Mourinho

It seems as though the stars are beginning to align for Manchester United. They have capitalised on the foolishness of their competitors to acquire one of the best managers in the world in Jose Mourinho, one of the best young strikers in the world in Romelu Lukaku, and to top it all off they have added the hugely underrated midfield general Nemanja Matic. Add to this an already strong squad of Juan Mata, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and others, and this is starting to look like it could be their year.

Really, the only weakness remains their defence. Man U currently rely on Phil Jones, Eric Bailly, an ageing Antonio Valencia and Daley Blind, none of whom have really proven themselves as top class defenders. Victor Lindelof has been signed to bolster that backline, but had not have the most auspicious of starts in red. It is fortunate that they have one of the world's best goalkeepers in David de Gea to pick up the slack.

The current imperfections in the squad suggest that any ambitions of challenging the top clubs in Europe are still a ways off, but there will be time for that later. The target this season is very much to reclaim the Premier League title. Reassert domestic ascendancy, and then build on that to compete in Europe. That's what a big club is supposed to do, take note Chelsea board.

Key Signing: Romelu Lukaku
Key Man: David de Gea

Verdict: Genuine title contenders, should be there or thereabouts.


Nickname: The Magpies, Toon
Ground: St James' Park
Capacity: 52,354
Last season: Promoted (1st)
Manager: Rafa Benitez

The Newcastle rollercoaster ride continues. Up and down and up again. This time, however, there is an altogether more positive atmosphere about the club. Mike Ashley has reconciled with the fans. Rafa is doing a decent job keeping everything together, and now they're back in the top flight, with a solid chance of staying up this time.

Do they have the squad to compete at this level? There is certainly talent in this side, particularly the mercurial Jonjo Shelvey, and he is joined by the likes of Matt Ritchie, Dwight Gayle and Jamaal Lascelles. These are solid players, but going into this summer there was the clear impression that reinforcement was needed, and it's not clear that they have really done enough.

The signings of Christian Atsu and Javier Manquillo are good additions for sure, but they have been unable to add the dependable top flight striker they were after, having failed to bring in Tammy Abraham as expected.

Where is all this going? Who knows. Newcastle on paper are a side that can achieve survival, but it's going to be difficult.

Key Signing: Christian Atsu
Key Man: Jonjo Shelvey

Verdict: A tough fight for survival awaits, but they should have enough about them.


Nickname: Saints
Ground: St. Mary's Stadium
Capacity: 32,690
Last season: 8th
Manager: Mauricio Pellegrino

One of the Premier League's great success stories in recent years, Southampton's rise to the top has been hugely impressive. But a series of managerial changes and player departures has started to leave them looking a bit disjointed. A club that wishes to remain at the top needs to at some point consolidate what they have, and yet Southampton continue to turnover at a rate more befitting a club of less promise. Last season we predicted a slight regression into mid table, and they duly delivered. Now the challenge is for them to reverse the decline and build.

Mauricio Pellegrino, formerly of Manchester City, is the man now charged with taking the club forward. A fine choice with a history of success behind him. General consensus has it that he was hard done by at Manchester City, but at Southampton he'll have the patience and time to get his vision into practice.

In terms of signings, it's been a quiet summer compared to the rest of the Premier League. Mario Lemina from Juventus is the most notable of the signings. Instead the focus has been on keeping ahold of their key players, in particular Virgil van Dijk who has been linked with just about every top club in Europe and also Liverpool.

Fortunately for the most part Southampton have managed to maintain the key squad elements, the likes of Ryan Bertrand, Cedric, Fraser Forster, and striker Manolo Gabbiadini. The latter in particular will need to have a good season if Southampton are to meet expectations. The team's main flaw last season was a lack of goals. With Gabbiadini now entering a first full season with the club, fans will be hoping that he solves that particular problem.

Key Signing: Mario Lemina
Key Man: Manolo Gabbiadini

Verdict: Pellegrino to steady the ship, but too soon to push further up that table.


Nickname: Potters
Ground: Britannia Stadium
Capacity: 28,384
Last season: 13th
Manager: Mark Hughes

After a good few years of incremental improvement, Stoke had seemed to be becoming a bit of a hot thing in the Premier League, with many expecting a push into the top 10 last season. So to have ultimately slumped to a 13th place finish is being seen as something of a disappointment, and a step backwards. Certainly one can't argue that Mark Hughes has done a very impressive job with this team. Stoke are after all no longer a team merely fighting for survival every season, and in shaking off the utilitarian ways of Tony Pulis they have managed to build a side that can play real football and play it well. Still even fans will have to admit that they have lost some of their recent lustre, and worrying times may lie ahead.

Perhaps spurred on by last season's unmet expectations, the club have been fairly active in the summer transfer market. They have made a solid 6 signings, most notably for Dutch defender Bruno Martins Indy, as well as former Manchester United and West Brom midfielder Darren Fletcher. They have also made two highly shrewd loan moves for Jese of PSG and Kurt Zouma of Chelsea. At the same time, the loss of key player Marko Arnautovic is a bitter blow, and perhaps an indication that even players are worried about the direction of the club.

So what to expect this season? Based on the strength of the squad and the track record of Mark Hughes, one would have to think they're too good to get sucked into the relegation battle. Still I'd fancy them for a slump back into the lower half of the table.

Key Signing: Bruno Martins Indi
Key Man: Joe Allen

Verdict: Could be a tricky season for Mark Hughes and his team.


Nickname: The Swans
Ground: Liberty Stadium
Capacity: 21,088
Last season: 15th
Manager: Paul Clement

It's all starting to go pear-shaped for Swansea City. The club has made a good account of itself over what has been a very solid top flight run, playing good football, claiming a few giant scalps, and generally becoming a real fixture in this league. But now the frustration is starting to seep through, with more backwards movement in the league and upheaval on and off the pitch yet again (a whopping 15 players out and 9 in over the summer).

Great credit to new manager Paul Clement, who came in part way through the last season and really turned around what could have been an even worse season, but he'll have his work cut out for him this year.

The loss of Gylfi Sigurdsson is a massive blow, and one that could push the club into a relegation tussle over the coming year. That Fernando Llorente might follow him out the door makes matters even worse. Loan signing Tammy Abraham looks like he'll have a great deal more pressure on him than might have been expected. The youngster broke all kinds of teenage goalscoring records in the Championship last season, let's see if he can bring that form to the top flight. If their options look thin up front, then at least they have solid depth to fall back on in the midfield, with the likes of Jordan Ayew, and last season's inspired signing of Tom Carroll.

There's a lot of new faces, and one would have to assume there will be a gelling process before we see this Swansea team come together. The question is do they have the time to develop, or will it all be too much for them this season?

Key Signing: Tammy Abraham
Key Man: Jordan Ayew

Verdict: Could find themselves sucked into a relegation battle of not careful.


Nickname: Spurs
Ground: Wembley
Capacity: 90,000
Last season: 2nd
Manager: Mauricio Pochettino

There's not much more than needs to be said about manager Mauricio Pochettino. The man was a phenomenal success at Southampton and he has carried that midas touch on to Tottenham. Last season was a remarkable feat, achingly close to the title, and another year of Champions League football to come.

With Chelsea taking their foot off the gas, one might have suspected that Tottenham would leap on the opportunity to stake their claim for their surrendered title. Yet this summer we have seen a strangely unambitious Tottenham, incredibly still yet to make any new signings. However unlike Chelsea they have managed to keep ahold of most of their key players, with only Kyle Walker so far moving for the exit. As such, their lack of activity may not necessarily be a problem, after all this was a very fine team last year and retains the same depth of quality as before.

The squad undoubtedly ranks among the strongest in the league, with the likes of Lloris, Dier, and Christian Eriksen all performers of the highest quality. But the keys to this team undoubtedly belong to Dele Alli and Harry Kane. Picking one out of the two of them as a key man for this team is a difficult task, so central are they both to the way this club plays. With a squad this good, and still largely intact from last season, anything really is possible.

Key Signing: N/A
Key Man: Harry Kane

Verdict: Will be right up there, top four and likely title contenders.


Nickname: Hornets
Ground: Vicarage Road
Capacity: 21,577
Last season: 13th
Manager: Marco Silva

The rollercoaster continues, another managerial change, and another summer of mass squad upheaval. This summer has seen them sign 9 new players and sell 11. Despite this madness, the team actually performed fairly decently last season, coming comfortably in the mid table and never really looking at danger of relegation. New manager Marco Silva has created a sense of calm about the club and looks the right man to take this club forward.

Indeed they have signed well this summer, bringing in the likes of Tom Cleverley on a permanent basis, as well as Nathanial Chalobah and Burnley's Andre Gray. The addition of former hot prospect Will Hughes is also a tantalising move, if he can recapture the promise that was shown prior to the cruciate ligament injury he could be one of the finds of the season. The addition of so many central midfielders suggests a switch to a 4-3-3, which will give their lead man Stefano Okaka room to shine. At the moment this squad looks a little thin at the back, but their quality in midfield and attack should make them good fun to watch this season.

They won't have an easy going of it this season, but they should survive. It's important to hit the ground running or they could find themselves sucked into the relegation battle early on.

Key Signing: Tom Cleverley
Key Man: Stefano Okaka

Verdict: Lower half of the table but should survive.


Nickname: Baggies
Ground: The Hawthorns
Capacity: 26,852
Last season: 10th
Manager: Tony Pulis

The Tony Pulis project continues, and indeed the nails from Wales appears to have worked his magic on West Brom. From previous relegation battlers, Pulis has built his customary solid mid table side, and ultimately ended up squeaking into the top half last season. History tells us that pushing beyond that will be a tricky ask, but West Brom have built a fine team and should give a good account of themselves again.

Tony Pulis is one of the very best when it comes to winning Premier League points with only meager resources at your disposal. He did it with Stoke, and he did it with Crystal Palace. With Pulis at the helm, West Brom will be safe from relegation. The question now is can they push on and make a case for the top half of the table.

The loss of Darren Fletcher is a big blow, but they have replaced experience with experience by signing Gareth Barry, who now becomes arguably the key player in this West Brom side. Meanwhile the club's move for Jay Rodriguez may well solve their goalscoring issues. Those familiar with Pulis teams will however point out that great emphasis is rarely placed on the front man.

The extra spice to the tale is the upcoming expiration of Pulis, and the relatively new club owner Guochuan Lai. How will that play out? Does Lai want to keep this a Pulis team, or is the ambition somewhere else? Time, and good results, will tell.

Key Signing: Gareth Barry
Key Man: Gareth Barry

Verdict: A comfortable mid table but unlikely to break the top 10 again.


Nickname: The Hammers
Ground: London Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Last season: 11th
Manager: Slaven Bilić

A solid mid table finish was perhaps not what was expected following the previous season's heroics. Many had been expecting the Hammers to inaugurate their new home at the Olympic stadium, now inexplicably renamed London Stadium, with a genuine push to the next level. European qualification was the aim, and with bumper crowds and the resources for squad building, it looked a realistic one.

Bilić has been getting a lot of credit for the fine work that he has done during his tenure as West Ham manager, but he'll be under pressure this season to keep the momentum going. West Ham has always been a club with ambition, and that is the case again this year as they step back out into the transfer market. The signing of experienced Man City defender Pablo Zabaleta will be a fine move, but the key additions here are the signings of Marko Arnautovic and Javier Hernandez (Chicharito). Joe Hart joining the club on loan is also a very fine choice. Mark Noble is still a key figure at this club, along with Andre Ayew. Indeed they look reasonably well stocked up front, while their summer business will hopefully shore up that thin defence.

So when will everything settle down? That remains to be seen. While this squad is by no means bad, it perhaps has not improved enough to suggest that a renewed push into the top tier of the league is a realistic goal for this season. With increased scrutiny on his job, Bilic is unlikely to have much leeway either. This will perhaps be another season of consolidation, rather than progress.

Key Signing: Javier Hernandez
Key Man: Mark Noble

Verdict: Another mid table finish on the cards.

Predicted table:
1. Manchester United
2. Manchester City
3. Tottenham
4. Liverpool
5. Chelsea
6. Arsenal
7. Everton
8. Southampton
9. West Ham
10. West Brom
11. Leicester
12. Bournemouth
13. Watford
14. Newcastle
15. Stoke
16. Burnley
17. Huddersfield
18. Swansea
19. Crystal Palace
20. Brighton

Monday, 14 August 2017

Directed by Rupert Goold
Written by James Graham
Starring Bertie Carvel, Richard Coyle
Theatre Almeida / Duke of York

ink rupert murdoch the sun almeida west end james graham this house

When you're writing a play about politics, there is a danger in turning your script into a soapbox. Many writers give in to this temptation, using the opportunity to press an obvious personal agenda in a way that's often naked and self-serving. But audiences don't go to the theatre to watch a cartoon. Excessive pandering can be a turn off, even where I actually agree with the opinion being expressed.

So you can imagine that when a play is dealing with a particularly prominent and controversial figure, that danger is even greater. Rupert Murdoch is undoubtedly one such figure, and it would have been entirely too easy to pander to the liberal London theatre crowd by portraying the man as some kind of monster. Murdoch has spent a career building the vast media empire News Corporation, and in doing so has earned himself no small share of revulsion for ethically questionable activities like phone-hacking, fake news, and a troubling influence over British politicians. Deserved though the public's general animosity may be, if I had walked into this theatre and spent 3 hours watching some anti-Murdoch circlejerk, I'd have been disappointed. Fortunately, James Graham is far too deft a writer to take such an obvious approach to this story.

Anyone who has seen This House, probably Graham's most famous work, will know roughly what to expect. Graham has shown himself to be a playwright singularly capable of bringing dry subjects as politics to life in a way that's both crowd-pleasing and insightful, whilst never feeling preachy. With Ink, Graham delivers yet again, with a production that's as energetic and funny as anything you will see this year.

The focus is on Murdoch's early years in the UK, his acquisition of the struggling The Sun newspaper, and the tumultuous road to turning it into the biggest paper in the country. At most the script only lightly alludes to his future controversies and political ambitions. Instead Murdoch is portrayed as an outsider, an irreverent upstart looking to shake up the old boys' club in the journalistic industry, and whose single-mindedness and ruthless business instincts allow him to succeed.

Murdoch is certainly not portrayed as some kind of saint; he's unashamedly arrogant and frequently puts his ethical views secondary to his ambitions, but Graham finds the kernel of humanity that motivates this drive, and presents us with an individual that is neither likeable nor detestable, but simply is. Taking such an approach is a wise decision by the writer, presenting a story that's less controversial, and yet still cuts to the core of what makes Rupert Murdoch so notable. It's also a far more entertaining story than what might otherwise have been. True to form, Graham packs his script full of wit, pithy observations, ostentatious montages... this is rock and roll politics with the tone and style to match.

Equally important to Ink's success is the quality of the performances, most notably Bertie Carvel whose Murdoch portrayal leaves an indelible impression. More than simply some likeness or impression, Carvel's performance is an entirely distinct creation, yet captures such an essence of the character that it becomes impossible to separate the two in the mind. Every now and then you see a portrayal so captivating that it replaces your mental image of that person. Carvel has achieved that here, and will surely be a contender for the Oliviers.

The combination of strong script, memorable acting and adventurous production make this an easy recommendation. This is an excellent play, possibly the best in what has been a very strong year for theatre so far. Bertie Carvel is sure to be decorated for his performance, while James Graham further establishes himself as unequalled in political storytelling. Ink is now set to transfer to the West End. Go get yourself some tickets.

Friday, 28 July 2017

The first months of the Donald Trump presidency have seen little in the way of legislative accomplishment. Without getting too speculative, there are many reasons why this Congress and this White House have not been especially productive, but chief among those reasons would have to be the heavy focus to date on healthcare. Indeed it has been all over the news, to the point where even the politically apathetic are probably aware that Trump and the Republicans are trying to do something with healthcare. The headlines have been full of buzzwords like "Trumpcare",  and "Obamacare repeal". Indeed Trump himself has declared frequently that Obamacare is already "dead". But what does all this actually mean, what exactly is/has/will be done, and what does it mean for the American patient?

trump obamacare trumpcare make america sick incompetence repeal death panels mccain

What is Obamacare?
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ("ACA"), frequently referred to as "Obamacare" was a wide-ranging reform of American healthcare passed into law by then President Barack Obama. I will refer to it as Obamacare in this article, as this is the term with which most will be familiar.

Without getting too bogged down in the detail provisions of this law include children being able to stay on their parents' healthcare plan until the age of 26, greater protections for patients who would otherwise be refused insurance for having "pre-existing conditions", and tighter regulations on when patients can and can't be refused care. It greatly expanded the existing Medicaid program to cover anyone below a certain income threshold, and provided significant investment to medical research and healthcare infrastructure in order to bring the system into the 21st Century (these included, for example, online health insurance exchanges to give people greater freedom to find a plan that fits their needs).

All of this was paid for through a combination of new taxes, mostly targeted at the wealthy, and through a so-called "insurance mandate", which ultimately was more of a tax on people who did not buy health insurance, therefore incentivising otherwise healthy people to buy insurance and therefore contribute to the insurance pool for those who need it.

The effect of this law has been to expand healthcare coverage in the United States, achieving nearly universal coverage, and to control rising premium costs, which have largely stabilised since the law's passage. As a result of these benefits, Obamacare is generally a very popular law, scoring a high plurality or low majority of support in most recent polls, comparable with most laws that get passed. The specific provisions themselves have proven to be wildly popular in polls.

Obamacare is fairly popular, so why do Republicans oppose?
Describing the Republican opposition to Obamacare is difficult. For sure there are many things that can be improved with Obamacare, many things that need to be fixed, many bugs to be remedied. Strangely, these problems never get mentioned by Republicans, instead they have objected to the law from its inception for other reasons, including:

  • It was rushed into law, despite being debated over a 10 month period;
  • It was passed without any Republican input, despite the fact that votes were held on over 100 Republican amendments, many of which were ultimately included in the law, and despite the fact that many of the law's key provisions were based on previous Republican proposals;
  • The so-called "insurance mandate", despite this having been a key pillar of Republican healthcare policy since the 1960s, part of their national proposal in the 1990s, and part of many Republican Governor's statewide policies;
  • The expansion of Medicaid as an overreach of Government, despite many Republican Governors opting into the new expansion, and doggedly defending it during the current "repeal" debates;
  • New taxes.
As you can see, the logic behind many of these objections can be a bit inconsistent, and that's without even mentioning the ones like "death panels" and "Government takeover", which in retrospect are probably even embarrassing to the Republicans who used them. The only one on that list which doesn't require doing a complete 180 on longstanding Republican policy is the objection to new taxes. Strangely, there has been almost no noise about the actual flaws with the law, like the Medicare Part D donut-hole. Many more cynical observers have suggested the real reason has more to do with simple tribalism; Obama did it, therefore we oppose it. 

Whatever the reason, a full repeal of the law has been a core part of the Republican platform these past eight years, and now that they are in power with the White House and both chambers of Congress, many had expected them to follow through on this ambition.

The Republican Healthcare Plan
So what exactly have Republicans been proposing? What have they accomplished so far? Is Obamacare "dead" as Trump claims?

First thing is first. Obamacare is most certainly not "dead" despite the President's soundbite. It is still very much law, and that won't change until a full repeal of the law is passed by the House of Representatives, by the Senate (almost certainly requiring a filibuster-proof 60 vote majority), and then signed by the House. This has not happened yet, and as such the law is still law, and essentially unchanged from its status under Democratic governance.

So far, the House of Representatives has passed the American Healthcare Act of 2017 ("AHA"). The Senate has voted against this bill, and has also voted against two additional healthcare bills, the Better Care Reconciliation Act ("BCRA") and Health Care Freedom Act ("HCFA"), the so-called "skinny repeal". So at the moment, the Senate has voted "no" on three separate bills. If they vote yes on the House-approved AHA they can send it straight to the President for signature. If they vote yes on either of the other two, the House then needs to vote on it first. If the House and Senate can't agree on legislation, the two will enter a committee process in order to come up with a compromise bill, if one is possible.

So the current state of play is... not much has changed. The Republican controlled Congress so far can't agree on a bill to pass into law, and therefore the law remains unchanged.

But Obamacare WILL be dead, right?
So Republicans can't agree on a way to repeal Obamacare, but surely it's just a matter of time. After all they control the White House and both chambers of Congress. Surely they will eventually come up with a compromise and repeal that Obamacare once and for all, right?

Well actually, none of these bills, literally none of these bills, will repeal Obamacare. 

A repeal of Obamacare, actually removing it from law, will require 60 votes in the Senate. Republicans currently have 51, and no Democrat has shown themselves so far to be interested in cutting back people's access to healthcare. As a result, all of these proposals so far are so-called "budgetary reconciliation" bills, effectively just a budgetary adjustment of existing law, which only requires 51 votes to pass the Senate. 

So they're not even voting to repeal Obamacare?
Nope, they're voting to defund specific parts of it, a process which can be just as easily undone by the next Government, and has absolutely no longstanding effect on the Obamacare law itself. None of these laws repeal Obamacare, they just defund healthcare in America.

So why is Trump calling Obamacare "dead"?
Because he's a salesman, and he knows that the only thing voters care about is the perception. Make no mistake, if he could repeal Obamacare and replace it with an identical law called "Trumpcare", he would do it.

So do these bills actually do anything?
Yes, still very much so. The actual impact depends on the bill in question, but range from taking away access to healthcare from 22 million people (in AHA and BCRA) to 16 million people (in HCFA). All the bills in question would increase premiums significantly.

So these bills may not be an actual repeal of Obamacare, but their effect on sick people would still be significant. The good news is they can be easily undone by the next Government.

So where do we go from here?
Hard to say. The two likely scenarios are:
  1. Republicans pass some form of minor budgetary adjustment, declare Obamacare "dead". Next President just refunds Obamacare and we forget all about this charade.
  2. Republicans are unable to come up with a compromise and move on, defund healthcare services and then blame "Obamacare" for the deficiency.

What can we learn from all this?
The current Government is fairly incompetent, and they think the American voters are really stupid.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by Jez Butterworth
Starring Paddy Considine, Laura Donnelly, Stuart Graham, Fra Fee
Theatre Royal Court/Gielgud Theatre

ferryman royal court theatre gielgud butterworth sam mendes

It's by far the hottest ticket of the year so far. The Ferryman sold out instantly when it began its original run at the Royal Court Theatre. Now thanks to a mix of glowing reviews and the desire to thoroughly milk a cash-cow, Ferryman is transferring to the Gielgud Theatre on Shaftesbury, meaning those of us not fortunate enough to catch the fever first time around have a second chance to see what all the fuss is about.

Undoubtedly, part of the reason tickets sold out so quickly (and presumably one of the reasons they are so keen to recoup their expenses) is that Ferryman marks the much vaunted return to theatre of director Sam Mendes, former artistic director of the Donmar, more recently the Academy Award winning director of American Beauty and, of course, the recent James Bond movies. But for those of us who really love our theatre, Ferryman is at least as exciting for having been written by Jez Butterworth, last seen at the Royal Court with his excellent 2008 production Jerusalem. Does this ultimately justify being the fastest selling play in Royal Court history? Not necessarily, but hype aside Ferryman proves itself to be well worth the price of admission.

Set in 1980s Ireland against the backdrop of hunger strikes and IRA violence. The focus is on Considine's Quinn Carney, an ex IRA man now retired to life on his farm, surrounded by extended family and a bevy of foul-mouthed kids taking whisky with their breakfast. The core of the tension surrounds his relationship with Laura Donnelly's Caitlin, married to Carney's brother who has been missing for a decade, presumed killed by the IRA.

The quality of production is outstanding right from the start. The elaborate set design feels lived in and familiar. The lighting is ingeniously choreographed to unobtrusively create atmosphere, casting dancing shadows around the stage at key moments. The most striking example comes during an early moment of tenderness between the two lead characters, sharing a blindfolded slow dance by the light of the early morning. The heavily detailed set remains constant over the course of the evening, and yet the production team manage to introduce a remarkable level of flexibility, shifting mood and changing scenes between night and day, different furniture configurations and entrances, all in a seamless dream-like fashion. Sam Mendes shows here that he is still imposingly confident on a theatre stage, a man who knows exactly what he wants the audience to see and experience down to the smallest detail.

The cast is impressive, both in size and quality. A lovable noise of Irish characters, dancing, singing and sharing in bucolic family moments. It could easily have come off as a lazy parade of stereotypes, but it all gives way to a script far more deft and ambitious in scope than another writer might have delivered. Everything is presented in a larger context of history, tradition, familial tragedies, ancient feuds. At times it feels like there's so much baggage weighing these people down, that no wonder there are so many of them on stage, they simply can't leave.

Through the various weaving narratives and character arcs, a sense of profound loss unites their stories. The missing husband and brother, the doddering firebrand Republican who never stopped idealising a missing brother from childhood, the sleepy great aunt who intermittently emerges from senility to reminisce of lost romances, and lost history. By the end of the evening it will be clear why the name Ferryman has been chosen; an entire cast of characters appearing stagnant in a state of emotional limbo, waiting for something to snap so that they can finally move on.

As with Butterworth's other plays, this exceeds the sum of its narrative parts. More than just the family drama or period piece politics, this is a story that plays with your sense of nostalgia, evokes an all too relatable sense of hopeless longing, and builds a relentless intensity right until its denouement.

A play like this runs every risk of being dismissed as just another hype production, a fad of the moment, but that would do a disservice to what is ultimately another very fine addition to Butterworth's body of work. There is brilliance here, an excellent piece of theatre that I can wholly recommend anyone to take the time to enjoy. It's run at the Gielgud has just been extended, and if the tickets keep flying out the doors there's every reason to believe it will extend yet again. Make sure you catch it before it ends.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Genre Trip-hop
Label Parlophone
Producers Gorillaz, The Twilite Tone, Remi Kabaka Jr, Fraser T Smith

gorillaz damon albarn humanz new album phase 4 2017 garbage terrible bad

Gorillaz, once the party-album mainstay of radio charts the world over, have gone a full seven years since releasing their last real album, Plastic Beach (unless you count The Fall, which we don't). After much speculation, the lengthy hiatus has come to an end, and the result is Humanz.

The last time we saw them, this brainchild of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett were at something of a crossroad. Plastic Beach, arguably the best Gorillaz album, marked a shift away from their more crowd-pleasing, radio-friendly roots towards something with a bit more political and intellectual direction behind it. This shift was reflected in the notably greater variety and experimentation in the music, something which was applauded by critics, but alienated some longterm fans. With Humanz now upon us, my first question was what direction they have taken in the time since.

The first thing you notice with this album? This is a long album, some 26 tracks. Back when I was a lad, 20-track albums were common, but in recent years the trend has very much been for quality over quantity, with 10 or so songs seeming to be a popular consensus. So the quantity of music that has been produced here is quite notable in itself.

So it is surprising, considering the great variety and experimentation of Plastic Beach, that their considerably longer follow up somehow ends up feeling more one-note and unadventurous. This is very much a move back in the hip-hop direction for Gorillaz. The problem is that the band was never really pure hip-hop, it was the mix of hip-hop sensibilities with catchy pop hooks and clever genre blending that made their early work so memorable, and there is a distinct lack of this trademark creativity in Humanz.

Now of course, there's nothing wrong with making a more traditional hip-hop album, but these are just bland songs. You could easily eliminate a good 10-15 of these tracks without anybody noticing, such is the derivative nature of so much of this work. Instead, the highlights come on the few occasions when Gorillaz does try to move into more unconventional, experimental genres.

Andromeda is the clear stand-out of the album, sounding a bit like a darker, more apathetic refrain of Melancholy Hill, with some really great funk vocals thrown in. It's the only track that really compares to some of their older material. We Got the Power is probably the next best, standing out for its energy and driving beat, but even that track ultimately ends up going nowhere in its short 2 minute running time.

That's not to say that these songs are bad. Strobelite is a nice retro throwback, while Busted and Blue is a sweet, if strangely out of place acoustic track. Hallelujah Money is the marmite equivalent of music, "interesting" to some, "weird ass" to others, and generally off-putting for its overt political nature. The best that can really be said about the music is that there are plenty of interesting moments, most of which end up going nowhere, and get bogged down by the relentless tedium of the rest of the album. One gets the impression that Albarn came up with a handful of decent hooks, couldn't think of how to finish them, and just threw in some generic hip-hop beat to fill in the gaps.

One also gets the impression that Albarn is trying a bit too hard to come up with an album concept for our times and political situation. These songs are the most overtly political Gorillaz have ever done, with references to the corruption of wealth, and "building walls". Allegedly the record label made them remove many explicit Trump references before release. Don't get me wrong, I sympathise with the message, but this is just so heavy handed. So apocalyptic and dreary. And that's probably why the music sounds so dreary and bland, it's part of the concept. This is ultimately an album of dystopia and pessimism, and the music seems so focused on pushing that aesthetic that it lacks any real heart or inspiration.

So this is perhaps an example of a musician putting the message before the music. The best artists find ways to marry the artform to the message in ways that complement one another, but Gorillaz have not managed to do that here. Most of these tracks are so indistinguishable and bland, and the fact that there are so many of them means the album just drags and drags. This album would be twice as good if you just cut it down to 10 songs long, but even then, the simple fact is that there is little here anyone will remember in a year's time.

Gorillaz's workmanlike new album Humanz sets dutifully about creating a party-album for the end of the world, but lacks the band's trademark sparkle or creativity. The result is a largely forgettable collection of musical musings that are never quite as profound as the intend to be, never quite as cohesive as they would like to be. I've been waiting patiently for new Gorillaz, but this feels like an album that did not need to be made.

Must Listen :
We Got the Power

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Created by Aziz Ansari, Alan Yang
Network Netflix
Starring Aziz Ansari
Genre Comedy-drama
Running Time Varies

master of none season 2 two netflix aziz ansari amazing

It is not often that I feel moved to write about TV shows here. A beginning of year preview, an end of year round-up, but actual reviews? The Ephemeric probably only has about a handful of them. Part of the reason for this is that a TV show is an ongoing thing, and reviewing something that hasn't ended and is still subject to change is inherently riddled with problems. For this same reason, it's even more unusual for me to review a second season of a TV show; in fact I'm pretty sure I have never done so. Well today I am going to make an exception, because the second season of Master of None really needs to be discussed.

This is, of course, the second season of the Netflix Original, written by and starring Aziz Ansari. I have to preface any review of this show by saying that I have never been a particularly big fan of Ansari. Never found his stand-up all that funny, always found his characters one-note and annoying. The only thing I have ever really appreciated him in was Parks and Recreation, and even there he was mostly playing the standard Ansari character: a shrill and metrosexual parody of the 2010s male. Master of None has changed my view.

The show's first season was a perfectly solid season of TV. Ansari and his co-writer Alan Yang set out to work Ansari's observational wit into a narrative format, and the result was hard not to like. The episodes were a little inconsistent to be fair, and far too often felt like a forced and ill-fitting vehicle for the material. Nevertheless they managed to portray what life is like in the 2010s for young adults, probably better than any other show had done before. Each episode initiated a conversation on contemporary topics like social media, modern dating, and of course the show's recurring theme of foodie culture. It is a commentary on the modern phenomenon of optimisation culture, the fixation we have on going to the top restaurants on Yelp, the hottest vacation spots on TripAdvisor, the trendiest outfits on Pinterest, etc and then sharing our adventures with those around us. It was far from perfect, but very much a show of its time. As much as I enjoyed season 1, the second season easily surpasses its predecessor in just about every way, and so much so that honestly I am a little bit blown away.

The first thing that comes to mind upon watching the second season is that this writing team has become considerably more proficient at crafting a story. This was already in evidence towards the end of season 1, but this year they absolutely nail it right from the first moment. Gone are the days when episodes would seem to exist solely to provide a platform for the jokes, the episodes here are all entirely meaningful, relevant, and successfully complemented by Ansari's sense of humour.

What's more remarkable is just how adventurous they have become with the format of the show. The first episode is filmed entirely in black and white, in Italian with subtitles. Another episode barely even features Ansari, but instead is split between three independent settings with random people in the city of New York. Another episode takes a break from the main narrative to explore 10 years worth of Thanksgivings between Ansari's character and his best friend. Throughout the season, the writers show great audacity to play with the structure and tone of episodes in ways that would never be done on regular television. While a more traditional plotline certainly runs through the season, each episode ultimately feels like its own thing, and are all the more memorable for it. Simply put, this is the boldest television I've seen in a very long time; a continual series of moments and ideas that will stick with you long after the episode ends.

Ansari himself has even matured as an actor. A more toned down Ansari is more relatable and likeable, without losing any of his signature quirks and charisma. Surprisingly, they even manage to reinvent Ansari as a credible romantic lead, with a romantic subplot that in all honesty is one of the most engaging I can remember in a TV series. A great deal of credit for this needs to go to Ansari's co-star Alessandra Mastronardi, who is an absolutely captivating presence whenever she is on-screen, a beguiling star turn from an actress I suspect we will be seeing a lot more of from this point hence.

But an extremely underrated component of what makes this show so good is its high quality of production. There is some remarkable filmmaking on show in these episodes, gorgeous visuals and cinematography, and highly inventive direction. One episode features a series of moments from Ansari's adventures on Tinder, spliced together into a single evening. Another stunning moment features a four minute long-take of Ansari's Uber ride home following a particularly emotional revelation, to devastating effect. The soundtrack and general use of music is among the best I've ever seen in a TV show, while the casting has been brilliant, right down to the smallest role (my girlfriend informs me that the Italian actors used are fairly prominent stars in Europe - an indication of just how meticulous they have been). Even the somewhat awkward presence of Ansari's real parents instead of actual actors can't put a blemish on the show; so finely balanced is the tone of the writing that these moments come across as charming rather than cringe-worthy.

This is prestige television at its finest. Master of None is a dramatic improvement on its first season, establishing itself as probably the best comedy on TV in many years, and arguably the best show of any genre on TV at the moment. Ansari is establishing himself as one of the finest writers in the industry today, and a man of impeccable sensibilities. This is a crowning achievement, and a star-making turn for those involved.

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