Friday, October 17, 2008

Tim Minchin - Ready For This, Sheffield City Hall

Despite an explosion in the size of his fanbase since standing out a country mile on a distinctly ho-hum Secret Policeman's Ball earlier this month, Tim Minchin is not quite yet at a level to fill the main auditorium of Sheffield's City Hall. As such, he appeared in the small memorial hall at the back of the building last Wednesday (and occasionally fought against the bass-heavy sounds of Level 42 playing next door), an unhelpfully semi-circular room which meant many audience members were looking at the back of his head whenever he was sitting at the piano. "I've done my hair really well so you have something to look at!" he said, with characteristic generosity, "and I'll keep swiveling round."

That bit of housekeeping out of the way, Minchin got stuck into the show proper, which, it has to be said, has come a hell of a long way since it was debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer. In its 60 minute form, Ready For This had a strong theme of humanist rationalism - and fate, religion and spiritualism all still get a musical (and poetic) kicking - but expanded to two hours, the sillier side of the Aussie maestro is allowed to shine through. The show, I think, now gives a more rounded view of the range of material Minchin has to offer, which, as a confirmed fan, is a good thing to see.

The centrepiece of the new show (which he performed on Secret Policeman's Ball and therefore was greeted with a ripple of recognition and excitement) is "If I Didn't Have You", and this song is the most wonderful coming together of those two sides. A parodic R&B power ballad, this song explains that if events in his life had occurred even very slightly differently, he may not have married the girl he met as a teenager, and, moreover, he probably would have met someone else and been perfectly happy. "It's obtuse to deduce that I met my soul-mate at the age of seventeen" he says, matter-of-factly. The genius of this song, though, is that it is not just an attack on the idea of fate, but also a veiled love song and includes a silly fantasy sequence in which he outlines the other life he may have lived had things worked out differently.

If I Didn't Have You hasn't changed a bit since Edinburgh, and neither should it have done, but other aspects of the show have evolved massively. In particular, Minchin has tweaked the performance of his technically stunning nine-minute beat poem "Storm" to make his attacks on a ditzy new-ager of the same name less direct, and to make "himself" as much a figure of fun as the hair-flicking hippy herself - less sure of himself, and, importantly, more pissed. On a selfish level, it's a joy to see this poem change in precisely the way I wanted.

It is a testament to Minchin that the highlights of this show are all completely new material, as along with If I Didn't Have You, the song I heard most audience members waxing lyrical about as they left the auditorium is "Prejudice", a song with a killer twist to rival any M. Night Shyamalan flick, and more puns than The News Of The World. This isn't to say, however, that it isn't a delight to see Darkside at the end of the show.

Minchin has clearly gained a lot of confidence as a performer over the last year, and the more audacious he becomes in the ideas he feels comfortable discussing and indeed promoting in his work, the better he is. In the So Rock show from last year, (and especially in the older songs he included) there was a lot of "I's" and "me's" but in fact the less Minchin talks about himself - the less he makes himself a character in his own songs - and the more he discusses things that clearly mean so much to him, the more, I feel, we get to know about him as a person.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Spyski!, Lyric Hammersmith

written for MusicOMH (yes! I'm alive!)

It is easy to get confused when you arrive at the Lyric Hammersmith for this new production by the comedy theatre group Peepolykus. I had been led to believe – not least by the promotional material – that I would be seeing a new play called Spyski!, but on receipt of my tickets and programme, it was clear that something else altogether was going on: the programme has the words “The Importance Of Being Earnest (Absolutely not Spyski!... no way... no spies al all)” on the front, and the cast are listed as playing Gwendolen, Algernon, Lady Bracknell et al. Odd.

As the play gets underway, however, things quickly become (slightly) clearer. The performance of The Importance Of Being Earnest is actually a sham, a cover story, and so as soon as the rather conspicuous guy in the front row sporting a balaclava and walkie-talkie leaves the auditorium, the actors throw off their costumes and tell us, conspiratorially, why they’re really here.

They are going to use their talents to explain to the world, through the medium of a hastily put-together reconstruction, how they became caught up in a global conspiracy involving double agents, intrigue, murder, a genetically modified baby, and a hell of a lot of furry Russian hats. Oh, and some seriously bad accents.

The idea that this reconstruction has been cobbled together by the actors themselves in just three days means that there is a lot of fun to be had in terms of handmade wobbly sets, improvised props (using a brass gramophone horn as a Chinese hat is particularly memorable) and the doubling and tripling up of parts.

Of course, making something look as though it has been thrown together actually takes a lot of effort – the Reduced Shakespeare Company have been masters of this for nearly twenty years now - and while there were a few stumbles over words and names, the technical side of this production worked beautifully.

Spyski! is, above all else, a farce (there is a lot of the obligatory door-slamming and drawn-out misunderstandings) and without that level of rehearsal it would be a seriously clunky production, but as it is director David Farr deserves a lot of praise for such creative use of props, and the cast deserve praise for making it all so slick.

It is clear that real care and joy has been taken in the conception and creation of Spyski!; the energy is sky-high, the pace is lightning-quick, and the sheer inventiveness of the production means that it is a truly enjoyable night out. But I think that is all it is. As light as a feather and as frothy as your morning cappuccino, it is two-hour’s worth of well-constructed silliness, and if you are looking for something to make you think, or hoping to see something, dare I say it, even particularly memorable, then this isn’t for you. If, however, your theatre-going also includes rather more cerebral fare, then there’s no reason not to add this to your wish-list, and just have a jolly good laugh.