Thursday, August 21, 2008

My first ever article for the Guardian...

Yup, that's right, I write for the Guardian now. Ha! And, to answer Stu_N's point in the previous post on this topic, I have to admit it's a nice photo :D I'm doing tomorrow's previews as well, and the same two days again next week, and then every Friday in September. Beyond that... we'll have to see.

Watch this
Anna Lowman

Olympics 2008
From 6am, BBC1

It's scary to contemplate what percentage of our licence fee is being spent on the BBC's coverage of the Beijing Olympics at the expense of, well, everything else, but when the action is this good, it feels churlish to complain. Pretty much everything has been dazzling, from the sprints to the Greco-Roman wrestling. OK, especially that. Highlights of the 13th day of competition include the modern pentathlon and the sadly Liu Xiang-less 110m hurdles final.

9pm, BBC1

Professor Robert Winston is the go-to guy for all things medical on television, so it's no surprise to see him presenting this new three-part series on pioneering doctors and surgical techniques. This fascinating first episode focuses on robotic technology, and Winston is sceptical to say the least - his initial feeling is that robots in theatre, or on the ward, are "completely contrary to what medicine is all about". The research is impressive and it's all scrupulously even-handed, but that suspicious frown is never far away.

The Cup
9.30pm, BBC2

BBC2's often troubled quest to prove that Thursdays Are Inherently Funny continues with this, a strangely unnatural-looking mockumentary based on a kids' football team in Bolton, and one particularly monstrous football dad. The quest will, alas, have to continue, as apart from an all-too-brief appearance from the team's intense coach and a brilliantly sweary little girl, The Cup is a largely joyless affair filled with thoroughly dislikable people.

The Edinburgh Festival Show
11.20pm, BBC2

Last week's edition of the Culture Show's yearly jaunt to the Scottish capital included reports on the Tracey Emin retrospective and the Guardian critic-bashing (and brilliant) comedian Tim Minchin, proving that the programme's usual eclecticism is well suited to the chaos of the Fringe. Tonight, in the second of just three measly hours' worth of television dedicated to the world's largest arts festival, Lauren Laverne talks to Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

If.comedy award nominees

And all round wonderful list, I'd say! (Yes, I know I gave Russell Kane a rather middling review, but he's a great performer) I'm sure Dean will be giving his reaction over on FringeBlogs real soon.

Main Award:

David O’Doherty: Let’s Comedy
Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler: Double Down Hearts
Rhod Gilbert and the Award Winning Mince Pie
Russell Kane: Gaping Flaws

Best Newcomer:

Mike Wozniak
Pippa Evans and Other Lonely People
Sarah Millican’s Not Nice


Ben Folds and Regina Spektor: You Don't Know Me

Not only do they not know me, but that is also the name of their collaboration on Benny's forthcoming (and so far excellent-sounding) album, Way To Normal. The track is currently on Folds's myspace. Have a listen!

Check your Guardian TV listings tomorrow...

...and you might just see a familiar name. And, mortifyingly, face.

Monday, August 18, 2008


Hey all, more of those wondrously exciting Fringe reviews to come, but for now here's a link to a rather long but intermittently entertain podcast that me and Dean did just before Edinburgh -

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Bitesize Fringe Review #3: David O'Doherty - Let's Comedy

When a comic can make your jaw ache from laughing before they even take to the stage, you can pretty safely put large amounts of money on the fact that you're in for a good night. David O'Doherty sets the bar high right from the off, very conscious, I think, of the rather soulless and sterile room he has been placed in this year. He explains that when he'd been asked whether he'd like to perform in a basement, he had visions of The Beatles at the Cavern in '62, not conference chairs and a doctor's surgery-esque entrance.

Perhaps the feeling that he has to work that little bit harder to keep the audience onside has been a blessing in disguise, however, as this is a massively fun show that never falls from those initial off-stage heights. When I've seen O'Doherty before he's always been utterly laid-back, and the perfect fulfillment of his promise of "very low energy musical whimsy." But no more - just like Dylan and his own new toothbrush, O'Doherty has gone electric. He's still the charming, thoroughly likable performer he has always been, but this year he has turned things up to eleven, and it really works.

The territory that O'Doherty covers may not be especially innovative, but he moves from topic to topic, gag to gag, and witty observation to witty observation with such ease and joy that you simply don't care. This is a comedian hitting his stride, and I feel that an if.comedy nomination could easily be forthcoming - and would be thoroughly deserved.

Bitesize Fringe Review #2: Tim Minchin - Ready For This?

Tim Minchin, AKA the coolest rock and roll nerd in the western world, has come to the Edinburgh Fringe with a completely new show, but the themes that we have come to expect from this astonishingly talented entertainer - comedian doesn't quite cover it - are all in evidence. Ready For This? is an unashamed love letter to rationalism; nothing gets this Aussie going like facts, evidence, and methodical analysis (except being thoroughly silly once and a while, of course, and thank goodness for that).

Among the topics suffering the slings and arrows of Minchin's musical ire this year are those who refer only to the Bible for their moral compass because they've been told that "it's a Good Book, and it's good, and it's a book", and the idea that love is anything other than a combination of shared experience and circumstance. When you realise that Minchin has actually been with the same woman since the age of 17, the song "If I Didn't Have You (Someone Else Would Do)" instantly takes on an extra piquancy, but it is testament to his lyrical dexterity that a song which contains the line "I don't think you're special" can also be touchingly romantic.

The only slight quibble one could have about this show comes, I think, from a quirk of the British psyche as much as any flaw on Minchin's part. It can be quite hard, sometimes, to have a guy with a microphone telling you how right he is about certain things, without a really healthy sprinkling of "but what do I knows" and "I could be wrongs". We just don't trust it. I suspect, however, that this minor issue will be sorted out on tour when the show is lengthened, and perhaps a couple of Minchin's self-parodistic songs are added.

But in the end, there's no real need for Minchin to be modest. This show is achingly funny and thoughtful, with a good dose of frivolity, and to watch Tim Minchin, one of comedy's most gifted performers, is always as much a privilege as a joy.

Bitesize Fringe Review #1: Russell Kane - Gaping Flaws

In a recent interview, I heard Russell Kane say that he's happy to do work for anyone kind enough to offer it to him, whether it's E4 or BBC Four - "I have the hair for one and the mind for the other" he said, with a flourish reminiscent of his namesake, Mr Brand.

I was looking forward to this then, expecting some wonderful collision of high and low culture, and while that's clearly what Kane is aiming for, I'm not sure it really comes off. The show's title refers to the fact that we British like people to be imperfect, in direct opposition to, say, Americans, who openly strive for perfection in all walks of life. When you're taking this rather commonplace conceit as the focus of your show, you've got to be pretty darn innovative in how you expand on it, and I just don't think Kane went far enough beyond the obvious.

This isn't to say that Kane isn't incredibly fun to watch, however. The most energetic comic I have seen at the Fringe, he bounces around the stage constantly, matching every line to a physical movement - related or not. He's clearly a talented performer who delights in letting his intelligence slip through in little asides every now and then, but he is here unfortunately restricted by a rather uninspiring theme.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Hamlet, RSC, 4/8/08

Even for a theatre-lover, seeing in the programme that you have three and half hours' worth of tragedy to sit through can be a slightly daunting prospect, especially if, like me, the last tragedy you saw was a particularly grisly and downright difficult production of Edward Bond's Lear. But when you're in the hands of such a confident production, of such a beautifully written play, and of such an engaging, mad, hilarious Hamlet, you should believe me when I say that three and a half hours can fly by in a moment.

I've never seen or studied Hamlet, (although I knew the storyline - thanks Reduced Shakespeare Company! - and the key speeches, like all good English students) and so I was fully expecting to have to listen very carefully to follow the thread of conversations and soliloquies. In fact, Gregory Doran's production is a breeze to watch and follow, easy on the ear as well as the eye. Much of this is down to the fact that this version of Shakespeare's great tragedy is not afraid to draw out humour from every available source. And why not, when you have a master of comic timing as your lead?

David Tennant's Hamlet, I have no doubt whatsoever, will be remembered as the wittiest, silliest, and most intelligent in years. When we first meet Hamlet, as his mother and uncle celebrate their marriage, he is small, neat, and quiet; stood in the corner of the stage, an audience who is generally here to see him and him alone barely notice him. This is a genuinely depressed man who has been emotionally drained white by his father's death and the perceived treachery of his mother. When he starts his first speech ("Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt/ Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew"), he is balled up on the stage, howling with sorrow, but sighing the words. He is not angry here, he is just grieving, and broken.

The anger comes when the Ghost of his father (Patrick Stewart, who also plays Claudius) tells him of his murder by his brother's hand. Suddenly, Hamlet is alive again. He jokes with Horatio and the guards, bounds around the stage, animated by the adrenaline caused by fury and a newfound mission. From this point on, we get the impression that this Hamlet is much closer to the one who hung around with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at university than the shadow of a man we met at the start of the play. With an added, mad, 10%, of course. He is cleverer than everyone else in the court put together, funnier too, and more agile in both body and mind. Rather than his madness being tragic, it is here a release for him, and his genius mind flows out, uncensored by etiquette or regulation.

Tennant's quick and witty Hamlet has clearly been taken as a keystone of the production, as humour can be found everywhere. Polonius, for example, far from a wise if doddery old sage, is absolutely a comedy character. His whole demeanour, from the ruffled hair to the teacher-ly cardigan he wears, is one of an academic, whose voice can't quite keep up with his intellect. His speeches trail off into silence, as he tries to unpick his arguments and advice which really did make sense in his head. Hamlet loves debating with Polonius because he can mimic him - and outwit him. When Polonius announces "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't", he delivers the line as if impressed with a particularly gifted student. Which, of course, in another life, is exactly what Hamlet should have been.

This tragedy is not the fall of Hamlet - his progression is too engaging, too active, too much fun to be a fall - but of the collateral damage caused by his own behaviour, and that of his uncle. It is Gertrude's death which is sad, and Ophelia's; Hamlet was on a destructive path from the moment he found out that Claudius had killed his father, but they didn't need to die. Ophelia (Mariah Gale), in particular, is where the real tragedy lies in this production. Her descent into madness is like a horrible parody of Hamlet's - she too bounds around the stage, singing and waving her arms in the air, but this is in no way a release. It's just disturbing and sad.

Claudius, in this production, is the anti-Hamlet. Dull, smarmy, and above all unnervingly calm at all times, he does what he has to out of a desire to cover his tracks. He doesn't hate Hamlet so much as see him as a nuisance, and whether he is killed or sent to England makes very little difference to him. You think that perhaps he really does love Gertrude, but when she drinks from the poisoned cup, he says "it is too late" with little more than a shrug.

It was interesting, however, that Doran decided to keep in the secondary storyline concerning Denmark's constant battles with Norway in his production. It seemed, at first, to have little bearing on the main plot, but by the end we found that maybe the point was being made that while Claudius's coldness was a failing in familial relations, it was exactly what was needed in international relations. We hear that before Claudius became king, Norway was eating away at Denmark's borders, but Claudius sends a pair of diplomats to Prince Fortinbrass and the dispute is settled quickly. It is only when Claudius is dead that Fortinbrass arrives at the palace - and all the courtiers bow to him, quickly understanding where power now lies. Perhaps Claudius is a very bad man, but a very good king.

The set and lighting were impressive and creatively used, too. Great mirrors at the back of the stage are shattered when the first, and most critical death occurs - that of Polonius, which of course drives Ophelia to madness and suicide and in turn Laertes to murder. And right at the beginning, the mirror-like flooring is used to bounce the guards' beams of light onto each other's faces.

But really, this is a production which showcases some outstanding performances. Gale's Ophelia is heart-breaking, Penny Downie's Gertrude is agonisingly torn apart by conflicting loyalties, and Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius is a wonderful comic turn. And Tennant's Hamlet is everything we would expect - energetic, big hair, clever, messy, occasionally bound with fear and anger, and above all very, very funny. Doran's Hamlet is a tragedy you watch with a smile on your face, and that's absolutely no bad thing.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

I have seen Tennant!Hamlet

And it is goooooood. Review tomorrow :)