Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ward & White's Karaoke Circus

Don't you just love those evenings that send you on your way with a literal spring in your step? That's what the Karaoke Circus can do for you. Presented by ringmasters extraordinaire Martin White (leader of the Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra and all round wonder) and Danielle Ward (comedian, writer and mean bass player), the idea is simple: why do karaoke to a backing track when you could be supported by a band - with occasional strings - instead? And why just have the man on the street up there when you can have the man on the street and people with varying degrees of fame?

It's such a wonderful idea that it's amazing that it hasn't been done before... in fact, there's every chance that it has been done before, but I would happily bet never with such a talented line-up both in the band and at the mic, such a warm, generous audience, or such a lovely atmosphere.

Song choice is the key for generating this atmosphere, I think (though having the likes of Bens Miller and Goldacre in the room helps) and every one was a winner. Plucky, and generally very good, members of the audience sang tracks that guaranteed they would never be singing on their own, including Eternal Flame, Love Machine and Don't Stop Me Now, and the celebrities (all of whom would probably hate the word) got to indulge, I suspect, personal passions. For Miles Jupp, that was the Divine Comedy's National Express (arch), for Ben Miller, Life On Mars (majestic), and for Chris Addison, Tiny Dancer (can't... breathe... too.... excited).

Add in a panto villain in the shape of judge and comedy writer/performed Daniel Maier, fellow judge 'The Baron' (I don't know), and an audience willing to have, and contributing to The Best Night Ever, and you've got something rather special. So far, the Karaoke Circus has taken place downstairs at the Albany pub on Great Portland Street, but little gems like this can't be kept secret forever, and demand is now such that the night will take place in a bigger venue next time round. I'll be there, and Andrew Collins is threatening to rap... Brilliant.

Shout! The Musical

Thanks to a combination of the Mamma Mia effect (which promotes the idea of a fun, feelgood night where you know all the words in advance) and the credit crunch (which promotes caution), shows based on pre-existing films or musical back-catalogues can be found dotted all over the West End at the moment.

Entering the crowded market place following a UK tour this week is Shout!, a musical worked around some of the biggest pop anthems of the 1960s, originally performed by the likes of Lulu (hence the title), Cilla Black, Petula Clark and Dusty Springfield. Lots of Dusty in fact - seven of the musical numbers in the show were made famous by her, including Wishin’ and Hoping, Son of a Preacher Man, Little By Little, and You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me.

The songs are the key here, of course - no-one has come for the story or character development, and that, to be honest, is a good thing. There is some semblance of a plot – three Northern girls head to the bright lights of London in 1960 to make a new life for themselves, with Su Pollard’s slightly batty Aunt Yvonne as their protector and guide. Betty is the sensible one who therefore inevitably finds herself in the most trouble, Georgina wants to be a movie star, and Ruby... well, she just likes men.

The acting scenes are really little more than stopgaps between the songs, however, and on more than one occasion the convoluted segues used to shoe-horn in a particular track prompted audible groans from the audience. But that is to take nothing away from the strength of the songs – these are all classics for a reason - or from the performances put in by the three main girls.

Marissa Dunlop as Ruby especially shone; her rich voice suits a lot of the big numbers, and as such she performs some great renditions of Dusty belters including I Close My Eyes and Count To Ten. Su Pollard’s voice is well worth a mention, too, however – despite being the main comedy character, she is also given a couple of the more tender numbers such as You’re My World and Yesterday When I Was Young which she performs with passion and warmth.

But while there is nothing terribly wrong with this production, it is full of little niggles which overall tend to outweigh the positives. Some of the gags are just embarrassingly bad, and even the songs, wonderful as they are, only give the narrowest of snapshots of the groundbreaking music which came out in the 1960s. And while the musical is supposed to take us through the whole decade, the passing of time is only superficially alluded to through the odd reference here and there to, say, the first Beatles record or hippie culture to denote 1967’s Summer of Love.

Shout! is a glossy, rather stereotyped look at the 1960s which makes you yearn for bit of Rolling Stones grit, and while the high-energy, classic songs and great voices ensure you will be singing along at some point or another, it simply doesn’t add up to all that much.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

In The Loop - very slightly spoilery

It was always rather inevitable that I would go and see In The Loop - Armando Iannucci has barely ever put a foot wrong, Peter Capaldi and Tom Hollander are such commanding actors, and I am a big fan of Chris Addison's stand-up.

But they have also had great PR behind them, and some stunning reviews, all of which meant expectations were high. It is great to be able to say, then that the film lived up to them - in fact, it is one of those films that compel you to smile constantly and splutter with laughter frequently.

Iannucci has tried to distance the film from too intellectual a label by describing it as a 'screwball comedy' as opposed to a political satire, but in fact it lies somewhere between the two and does both very, very well.

On one hand, it is certainly a 'how it could have happened (and very probably did)' look at the lead up to the war in Iraq, and it captures brilliantly that feeling a lot of us had at the time that the conflict was going to happen one way or another, because those in power had decided it was going to go ahead. And in this film, too, just-about-anti-war cabinet member Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) is placated, cajoled and buffeted back and forth while those with real influence on both sides of the pond get on with the real business of planning for war.

On the other hand, though, there is an element of farce here (which is perhaps inherent in any film about politics, but played up here), plenty of brilliant schoolboy sniping, and a real joy about much of the film despite the subject matter - a joy which only recedes in the rather sombre last quarter when it becomes obvious that nothing is going to stop the war.

Simon Foster, it should be said, is just a wonderful character. At first a hapless, ineffectual, and possibly rather dim minister, whom we laugh at for being way out of his depth, he slowly turns into something almost heroic as those around them lose their nerve and switch allegiance. His aide, Toby (Addison), seems harmless enough, but ultimately displays a particularly nasty combination of cowardice and self-preservation, and the delightfully sweary spin doctor Malcolm (Capaldi) is just far too ruthless for the likes of Foster to pose him any sort of challenge. In this company, you can't help but throw your support behind Foster, despite all his muddled bumbling.

Thanks to a combination of sparky but thoughtful writing and great performances (the rapport between Hollander and Addison, who probably have the most screen-time, is especially wonderful), this is a film that is funny, clever, really quite warm, and which has something to say without being preachy. And, as such, it deserves a second viewing.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead

For TVScoop...

It's easy to get jaded and cynical about Doctor Who. Since Russell T Davies revived it, it has had such universal adoration that a backlash was inevitable, and yes, some of the complaints have been thoroughly justified. What we needed then, was a great episode, something to remind us why we all got so excited about this little show in the first place. Thank goodness for Planet of the Dead.

We start with a good old fashioned heist, all alarms, incompetent security guards and skin-tight catsuits. The wearer of said catsuit is Lady Christina de Souza, AKA Michelle Ryan, an aristocratic thief with a Daddy who 'lost everything in the Icelandic banks' and a look on her face that says she's not just doing this for the money. She lives a life filled with adventure, and as such she's on a crash course with the Doctor - she finally meets him on her getaway vehicle of choice, a Routemaster bus.

And already I'm hooked. Murray Gold's doing some sub-Bond thing in the background, the Doctor's got a handheld device with a tiny satellite dish (and, fabulously, using his psychic paper as an Oyster card), there's some likely looking lads in the background, and a lady spouting nonsense about screaming voices. Classic.

There's also a jobsworth cop on Christina's tail but she's in luck - a wormhole has opened up and the bus and all its contents are going through. 'We're surrounded by the dead!' says the lady with the low-level telepathic ability - could this BE any better?

Well yes, actually. Because back on Earth UNIT have been called, and they've got a technical expert by the name of Malcolm. I was enjoying myself so much, you see, what with the Tritovores being all helpful (and untranslated, since the TARDIS isn't there) and the other passengers so interesting (RTD loves to turn ordinary 'chops and gravy' people into heroes) that I'd completely forgotten that, fifteen minutes in, we were still waiting for Lee Evans to turn up.

But there he is, in big goggles and fingerless gloves, doing his best Rhod Gilbert-meets-Moley impression and being generally wonderful as the techy genius who's going to bring the Doctor, Christina and the rest back home. And what a great turn it is - he's ridiculously excited to speak to the Doctor, and the two have a great chemistry despite most of their conversations being conducted over the phone. 'No you're *my* best friend!'

Back to that Planet of the Dead, and a swarm of metallic, flying stingray type things are on the way - they're what low-level telepathic ability lady was on about, of course. Suddenly the pace, which has slowed for a while, increases, and the race to get back through the wormhole speeds up. Christina uses her thieving skills to take an energy-boosting crystal from deep inside the Tritovores' spaceship (presumably they wouldn't be needing it...), UNIT order the hole to be closed as soon as possible, and Malcolm, brilliant Malcolm, refuses to do so before the Doctor's back, even with a gun pointed at him.

A bit of Doctor-ish mechanical jiggery-pokery later, and the Routemaster is flying through the air, straight back to Earth. Hoorah! It's not one of those episodes where the Doctor learns something, or loses someone important, or has to face the loneliness of being the last Time Lord. Nothing like that. And of course there are niggles, such as another unnecessary kiss for the Doctor, but really, we're nit-picking here.

I thought, what with us having such a brief time left with Mr. Ten, that I would resent one of the episodes being 'wasted' on a romp. But I'd forgotten how much fun this type of episode can be! Just lots and lots of fun with a great story, Ryan on good form as the slightly smug but ultimately charming Christina, Brilliant Malcolm (did I mention him?) and, in any case, we did get a little taster of things to come: Who will knock four times and why? An episode, in other words, to make you fall in love with Doctor Who all over again. One down, three to go...

Friday, April 10, 2009

Another comedy round-up

There are some rubbishy things about living in London, but it has to be said that it has its positives too - and the fact that I can go to great comedy gigs all the time is pretty cool.

Last week I saw Chris Addison at the Bloomsbury, and having only seen a ten minute set from him before (and Lab Rats, which still frazzles my brain by being awful and entertaining and charming and groan-inducing all at the same time) I was really interested to see how a full show would work. The thing that's most striking about his delivery is that he never stops for breath; he's either excited or enraged about the things he discusses, and as such he goes like a train. It's exhausting for us let alone him, and makes the show go incredibly quickly - not that you want that to be the case, he's an engaging guy. It's easy to see why his work is constantly described as 'cerebral' - he does talk about big, important things - but, as Lab Rats showed all too well, he loves silliness too, and he'll often take the big issues and twist them into something much more ludicrous, even surreal at times. Yes he knows some words with more than three syllables, but on stage his physicality is as important as his intellect, and in the end, you feel he's up there because he finds it lots of fun.

Then there were a couple of Invisible Dot gigs, the first at a sold-out Union Chapel with Tom Basden, Hans Teeuwen, We Are Klang and MC Phil Nichol; the second, another night of Freeze in a Camden office. It was interesting to see Basden do a longer set on his own, and hold a big (and, thanks to Nichol, very up-for-it) crowd with that quiet demeanour of his - he's not quite the put upon character of Freeze, but he still doesn't exactly grab the audience by the scruff of its neck. That doesn't mean they weren't hanging off every word and every song, however, and it was nice to have him say he was 'willfully ignoring' the time, as he was enjoying the gig so much. Along with Nichol (whom it seemed we all wanted to do a proper set), he got the best reaction of the night.

Hans Teeuwen, meanwhile, did what Hans Teeuwen always does (and I mean that quite literally; he did precisely the same set I saw at Edinburgh's Amnesty gig last summer) and while I appreciate him as a performer, I can't love what he does - which, for the uninitiated, includes having a sock puppet eat a Mars bar as he sings Knights In White Satin, and a song about Nostradamus. Finally we came to We Are Klang. I've only seen them do little sketches on TV before, and it has to be said that they make a hell of a lot more sense live. Again, I'm not their biggest fan, but they're a lot of fun to watch, and getting the audience to hurl insults at them threw up some outrageously smutty lines - given an extra frisson by the venue, of course.

And so to Freeze (again, sorry Dean). Tim Key and Tom Basden continued to try out new material, and it seemed that they played up the odd couple dynamic even more so this time - Tim gave Tom a good kick near the start of the show, and trampled all over the punchlines in one of Tom's songs by insisting on singing along. The more they push that relationship, the better it is, in my opinion. The little film clips they show are a highlight (especially a parody of shampoo adverts), but it has to be said that a lot of the magic of these shows is generated by the intimacy of the room, and the shambolic nature of the performance. They're on a bill at Bush Hall in June with Richard Herring and Robin Ince, so it'll be interesting to see how their comedy translates to that kind of environment.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Stage Podcast - hear me interview interesting people

Had a lovely day at the Globe Theatre on Sunday with Scott Matthewman, who'd invited me to contribute to a Stage podcast about the Sam Wanamaker Festival. It's a great weekend; two students from each of the Conference of Drama School's 22 member schools take part in seminars and workshops, and it all culminates in a huge performance - the standard of which was *really* impressive.

I talked to the Globe's Head of Education, Head of Text, the CDS Chair and two of the students, who performed a scene from Merchant of Venice which you hear at the end of the podcast. Of course, it's awful hearing your own voice, but Scott's done a wonderful job putting it together, so have a listen...

Lots of lovely info from Ain't It Cool at ShoWest 2009

Little snippets about Toy Story 3, Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland, Beauty and the Beast in 3D and Tron 2... all interesting stuff.

Monday, April 06, 2009

From Lisa... the Humour Quiz!

Lisa finds the best quizzes :) And the results here are pretty darn accurate...

Your result for The 3 Variable Funny Test...

the Wit

(57% dark, 38% spontaneous, 26% vulgar)

your humor style:

You like things edgy, subtle, and smart. I guess that means you're probably an intellectual, but don't take that to mean pretentious. You realize 'dumb' can be witty--after all isn't that the Simpsons' philosophy?--but rudeness for its own sake, 'gross-out' humor and most other things found in a fraternity leave you totally flat.

I guess you just have a more cerebral approach than most. You have the perfect mindset for a joke writer or staff writer.

Your sense of humor takes the most thought to appreciate, but it's also the best, in my opinion.

You probably loved the Office. If you don't know what I'm
talking about, check it out here:

PEOPLE LIKE YOU: Jon Stewart - Woody Allen - Ricky Gervais


The 3-Variable Funny Test!
- it rules -

Take The 3 Variable Funny Test
at HelloQuizzy

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

In defence of Musical Comedy

Nice little article from Brian Logan - but he really needs to get listening to some Tom Lehrer!