Sunday, December 26, 2010

Anna's Twitter-inspired Review of the Year

My favourite 'things' of the year, in tweet-sized, 140-character summations...

Play: La Bete
David Hyde Pierce proves himself the king of re-acting during Mark Rylance's achingly funny 25 minute monologue.
Honourable mention: Joseph K
Franz Kafka with laughs, absurdity and lots of menace, in a new adaptation of The Trial

Musical: Matilda
Practically perfect in every way - funny script; sublime, intricate songs and glorious staging. Not just for kids.
Honourable mention: Err...
Didn't really see any others apart from Hair... and I wasn't into it. Sorry, mum.

Some of his best songs ever (The Fence, Beauty, Thank You God, Rock&Roll Nerd, Not Perfect) made even more stunning by a 55-piece orchestra.
Honourable mentions: Ben Folds and Nick Hornby - Lonely Avenue; The Divine Comedy - Bang Goes The Knighthood; Rufus Wainwright - All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu
Each of my three favourite artists bring out superb albums that prove they are still at the top of their respective games.

Neil Hannon holds court with nothing but piano & guitar for company in surroundings that suit him & with an audience that knows every word.
The Beatles hero keeps rocking for three full hours playing All My Loving, Jet, Lady Madonna and Back in the USSR along the way.

Comedy gig: The Horne Section
Highlights of this wonderful show across the year include Tom Basden's Champagne on the piano, Battleships song& Tim Key singing in Russian.
Aussie comic provides the most magical moment on the Fringe in this funny and splendidly-performed show.

Practically perfect in every way (again). Spanish Buzz is inspired, the monkey is terrifying, Barbie's a hero & the ending is heartbreaking.
Honourable mention: Back to the Future
One of the greatest family films of all time looks even better on the big screen.

Complex, humane, funny and engrossing, this inventively-written novel is beautiful from start to shocking finish.
An audacious and ambitious allegory that doesn't feel like preaching to the (un)converted.

TV drama: Ashes to Ashes
The show's best series comes to a bombastic end with a proper, unequivocal resolution that brought the best out in Hawes, Glenister & Mays.
Honourable mentions: Downton Abbey, Doctor Who
ITV beats BBC at its own game with a fabulous costume drama; and Moffat, Smith & Gillan combine for an inconsistent but enjoyable series.

TV comedy: The Trip
Brydon and Coogan deliver belly-laughs and bromance in the beautiful North West in this clever and stylish comedy.
A stupidly strong sketch show bursting with ideas; and an excellent comedy with something to say from Higson and Whitehouse.

The Daily Show's champion of moderation tries to cover for Obama's rhetorical error with the greatest of all jovial epithets.
They couldn't do it *again* could they? Oh wait, they just did.

One to watch: Tom Basden
A playwright and comic with a sell-out play (Joseph K) and prime-time series (Armstrong & Miller) to his name. 2011 could be a big one.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Tim Minchin and his Orchestra, Live at the O2

When Tim Minchin wrote "Nothing ruins comedy like arenas" he didn't just stumble across the perfect line to open a comedy arena show, but also the perfect line to open any review/blog/bit of writing about it. So, thanks Tim. I'm In A Cage - the song from which this uber-self-aware lyric comes - is an ironic screw you to his audience now that he's 'quite famous' (as he puts it), and sees comedy's rockingest star dance in a cage while singing about hanging out in trendy bars, flogging DVDs, and drinking himself to death in the Four Seasons.

The reason Minchin can do this song without the possibility of being accused of hypocrisy is that he has done everything within his talents and power to make this a show that not only works in an arena, but couldn't work anywhere else. When Ricky Gervais records a 'thank you' message for some British award ceremony saying he's too big to bother coming these days, the joke is undermined by the fact that he genuinely hasn't come - Minchin, on the other hand, has got a 55-piece orchestra on board, and written massive songs that need them. The idea that he doesn't care about his audience any more is laughable.

And despite the fact that Minchin has also written an insanely (but absolutely deservedly) well-reviewed musical in Matilda this year, there are seven new songs in this show. Tim treads his favoured ground in Thank You God, a track which expertly and relentlessly picks apart the idea of the power of prayer, belittling the apparent 'miracle' of a white Australian woman's improved sight through repeating the banal line 'Thank you God for fixing the cataracts of Sam's mum', and contrasting it against the sum total of global human suffering which God seems less anxious to remedy.

Then there's Cont, one of those 'oooh, you're a clever so-and-so' Minchin songs that it would be churlish to reveal too much about (but sounds like it's from the most insane musical ever), and a joyous disco coda to Pope Song; "I don't really know what that's about" he says of the added section, "but it makes me happy". Plus - perhaps to some people's surprise - there's a pop song (with a chorus and everything) in defence of taking a nuanced and ambivalent view of things, and the deceptively gorgeous, waltzing Lullabye about a baby that just won't go to sleep.

And pushing into the 'really not a comedy song at all' territory is Beauty, which seems to be a deeply personal song about the struggle between giving the audience the ire and satire they expect and being seduced by the 'easy lay' of a beautiful melody. The fact that this song just happens to boast one of the most beautiful melodies Minchin has ever written suggests he's perfectly willing to succumb to her charms every once in a while. Of the older songs that feature in this show, it's great to hear Rock 'n' Roll Nerd with the Ben Folds-esque drums and bass for which you suspect it may have been originally conceived, but it is the ballads You Grew On Me and Not Perfect that - with an orchestra behind them - are genuinely better than they've ever been.

Throw in a keytar, eulogies to cheese, perfectly pitched orchestrations and the Ko'ran and you have a show that proves that arenas don't necessarily ruin comedy; in the end, an arena comedy show's success - as with everything in stand-up - depends on one thing and one thing alone, it's all down to guy with the mic. And this guy's pretty darn good.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Christmas Karaoke Circus and Squeeze at the Kentish Town Forum

These two are lumped together purely because they happened on consecutive days, but do I suspect that the Karaoke Circus regulars - with their love of a good melody-driven indie pop song - are something of a Squeeze loving crowd in any case...

Thursday was Christmas Karaoke Circus, although the Yuletide theme was not always that apparent, especially when Robin Ince took to the stage to sing the deeply unfestive Mercy Seat by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. This was evened out, however, by sketch group Pappy's enveloping themselves in wrapping paper, spraying each other in silly string, handing out party poppers and singing I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day by way of a lovely, messy finale. Along the way, we had some big old power ballads - Against All Odds and I Don't Wanna Miss A Thing - from members of the audience, but, as is often the case, the night was well and truly stolen by Kevin Eldon and Chris Addison, who sang I Am The Walrus and the marvellous Centerfold (wouldn't have known the name, certainly knew the tune). Too much fun.


Along with ELO, Blood, Sweat and Tears, The Beatles, several 60s collections and, oddly, Cher, Squeeze regularly featured on the Lowmans' car stereo during long journeys when I was younger, and so it's no wonder that their songs have a rather dear place in my heart. My admiration for the band has only grown over time, however, and so I was pretty darn excited to go and see them at the HMV Forum, a venue that lies literally about 90 seconds' walk from my flat. Nice, too, that The Lightning Seeds were supporting, a band that clearly have a similar philosophy when it comes to songwriting as Messers Difford and Tolbrook, and who were more than happy to do the big singles - Pure, Life of Riley, Sugar Coated Iceberg, and my particular favourite Lucky You.

The main act came on, bizarrely, to a hiphop track, and this theme was picked up a little later when they band performed a little streetdance type thing - I'm guessing it's some in-joke... an in-joke that I'm not in on. Odd choreographed moments aside, this was a set again packed with the big hits. Go on, name one, I bet they played it. Tempted? Yup, closed the main set with it. Black Coffee In Bed? Opened the show. Slap and Tickle, Another Nail In My Heart, Pulling Mussels? All formed the encore. And yes, Cool For Cats, Goodbye Girl and the sublime Up The Junction were all in there too.

It has to be said that these songs are so brilliantly, tightly written that they do not necessarily gain a whole lot from being played live, but that isn't to say that it's not a joy to completely wear your voice out singing along to those fabulous choruses - with Chris Difford's amazing storytelling lyrics and Glenn Tilbrook's wonderful tunes (and still-brilliant voice, of course). The very notable exception is Slap and Tickle though, which saw Tilbrook violently pound a keyboard for those opening chords and has that great, heavy section for 'if you ever change your mind...' It was made to be played live. Otherwise, this was a generous, fun performance that was just another piece of evidence in the file marked 'Squeeze are a brilliant but underrated band.'

Joseph K, The Gate Theatre

It might surprise you to hear that a new adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Trial will make you laugh (a lot), but it's less of a shock when you realise that this version, Joseph K, is written by stand-up, songwriter, playwright and all-round-too-talented-by-half Tom Basden.

Transposing the plot - which I won't pretend to be very familiar with - to a contemporary setting, Basden takes the storyline of a man under arrest for an unknown crime that he, presumably, didn't commit, and mixes in very modern preoccupations such as 24-hour surveillance, office politics, and layers upon layers of impenetrable bureaucracy. And it is very, very funny.

Importantly, Basden fills the script with great comic lines, but a sense of the darkly absurd is maintained throughout, meaning that - like Joseph - you can never really get comfortable. In fact, you are constantly infuriated on his behalf as he comes up against an unfathomable process that won't tell him what he's meant to have done, let alone who is accusing him or how he can defend himself. And which, perhaps most annoyingly of all, couches resistance in terms like "in a sec, amigo" and "mistakes aren't really our vibe".

As Joseph tries to clear his name, he becomes increasingly erratic, to the point that we can't work out whether his hot and cold taps really have swapped round or if he's just cracking under the pressure. Pip Carter plays the part brilliantly - making you empathise with his character without actually liking him - and Basden himself shines in a couple of the more out-and-out comic roles. Overall, it's a very impressive piece, and so it's great to see that it is has been so widely, and positively, reviewed; it's only on until 18th December though, so let's hope for a transfer.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Matilda, Royal Shakespeare Company

When you consider the elements that make Roald Dahl’s Matilda such a well-loved book – a smart lead who is far from a goody-goody, a monsterish villain (or three) and a touch of magic – it's surprising that the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new version, with a book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by comedian Tim Minchin, is its first musical adaptation.

Before the action even starts you are absorbed by the impressive set, which comprises a flood of Scrabble tiles that tumble down from the rafters, bringing to mind 5-year-old Matilda’s passion for books and language – the same passion that means her headteacher Miss Trunchbull, and even her parents, the air-headed Mrs Wormwood and the cheating car-dealer Mr Wormwood, distrust and dislike her. From there, the staging is consistently bold and frequently truly dazzling.

Having Trunchbull keep an eye on dozens of TV screens in her office (some showing her own hammer-throwing successes) gives her the feel of a deranged totalitarian, and set-pieces such as when she swings a little girl around by her pigtails are particularly well done - not to mention very, very funny.

It is the opening scene from the second act that really sticks with you though, when the children ride on swings which are attached to the theatre roof and swing right out into the auditorium. A moment of genuine wonder, this scene is accompanied by one of comedian – and experienced musical composer – Minchin’s finest songs, ‘When I Grow Up’, which tugs at the heartstrings with its innocent, child’s-eye view of what adult life will be like (going to bed late every day and eating sweets on the way to work feature heavily).

This is just one among many sublime songs however – lyrically complex and packed with instantly hummable melodies, the frankly faultless score is by turns funny, tender and clever. ‘Loud’, Mrs Wormwood’s paean to style over substance is a bombastic crowd-pleaser, and acts as a great counterweight to ‘Quiet’, which charts Matilda’s confusion and eventual calm as she discovers her telekinetic powers for the first time, and which was a highlight of a lovely, controlled performance from Adrianna Bertola as Matilda (Josie Griffiths and Kerry Ingram take the role on other nights). Minchin’s trademark ‘how did he ever think of that?’ moment comes in ‘The School Song’ – a track which contains a fantastic lyrical trick that I won’t give away, but had murmurs of admiration rumbling around the audience.

Dahl aficionados will be anxious to learn how closely this musical sticks to the original novel, and thanks to the dark, twisted humour that Kelly and Minchin inject into the show, it is certainly much closer in both content and feel to the novel than the 90s film version without being slavish. Matilda’s ‘magic’ powers, for example, are here given the same importance as they are in the book (ie, not overwhelming) but on the other hand a whole new character is introduced in the form of Mrs Wormwood’s inappropriately bendy dance partner Rudolpho.

The only possible issue is that Trunchbull – played by Bertie Carvel – is too funny to be truly scary. Carvel delivers a massive, consistently scene-stealing performance, but Trunchbull is certainly a figure of fun in this version and some will feel that she is not the terrifying grotesque that she could be. Moments of real menace do come from Paul Kaye as Mr Wormwood, however – and ultimately any child asked would say that a mean father is infinitely more upsetting than a mean headteacher.

This production ticks a multitude of boxes – inventive staging, wonderful songs, humour and heart – and does it all in such a way that enchants the adults in the audience without ever alienating the very people that this novel, and musical, ultimately celebrates: children. A delight.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

The Art of Germany and The Trip

If you want telly that is as beautiful as form as it is in content, just check out BBC Two's The Trip - which shows off the Lake District in all its bleak, frost-encrusted magnificence, and Andrew Graham-Dixon's The Art of Germany on BBC Four - beautifully shot, it's a little masterpiece in itself and presented with passion and insight. Do have a watch.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The RSC's Matilda - get a taster...

With an orchestral tour, DVD and Royal Shakespeare Company musical to promote, you might have seen Tim Minchin quite a bit lately. Always a good thing, eh? If you haven't decided whether you should go see Matilda yet, this clip might help - my review of the show will be on MusicOMH after the press night on the 9th, so stay "tuned"....

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Rivals, Theatre Royal Haymarket, 12/11/10

When you book for a period comedy, there is always the worrying chance that it will be funny only in the knowing 'oh yes, that must have been so very clever at the time' kind of way, like when people laugh at the 'fowl/foul' type jokes in Shakespeare. No, people, just no. What a joy, then, for a production of Sheridan's The Rivals to be properly, charmingly laugh-out-loud funny, as the one currently playing in preview at the Theatre Royal Haymarket most certainly is.

Admittedly, the first ten or fifteen minutes are exposition central, so the play does not get a blistering start out of the blocks, but once it hits its stride these performers wring every laugh possible out of every line. In particular, the scene in which country bumpkin Bob Acres unintentionally drives Faulkland to distraction with tales of how happy Julia has been while away from him is sublime. Performed by two actors with impeccable comic timing - Keiron Self as the cuddly, over-enthusiastic Acres and Tony Gardner as the tortured, earnest and slightly haughty Faulkland - these two roles could not be more perfectly cast, and the actors clearly have a ball performing together.

In fact, the over-arching sense of fun is something for which director Peter Hall must be praised. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this production is that the breaking of the fourth wall established in the asides is actually extended to other parts of the play, and by giving the actors licence to riff off the audience reaction, you feel that you are seeing a very unique performance - and for a play that's almost 250 years old, that's quite some feat.

Of course, much of the pre-publicity has concentrated on the fact that Peter Bowles and Penelope Keith (as Sir Anthony Absolute and Mrs Malaprop) are appearing on stage together for the first time since the televisual phenomenon To The Manor Born, but in fact, Bowles here has much more rapport with his on-stage son Tam Williams who plays Captain Absolute as a clever jack-the-lad that you can't help but love. Bowles's performance is bordering on the bizarre but in the most wonderful way - the part could easily be panto, but instead he underplays it, giving Absolute a real sense of menace one moment, and a jokey lightness the next.

Hall's The Rivals is a perfect storm of three huge positives: casting, direction and performance, all of which are brilliantly pitched. Classy and very, very funny.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Ben Folds in the UK!

Woo and also hoo people! Benny comes back to the UK in February!

(Sorry for being so absent recently, work has been full on....)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Simon Pegg at Forbidden Planet (and Jess Hynes on Spaced)

There aren't many people I'd queue up in the freezing cold for, simply to exchange a matter of nine or ten words and get a book signed, but the wonderful Simon Pegg - co-creator of what I maintain is one of the greatest television shows ever, Spaced, not to mention the brilliant Big Train, Shaun of the Dead and a whole host of ridiculously high profile, Hollywood roles - is certainly one of them. And I proved that yesterday when I, well, queued up in the freezing cold just to exchange (etc etc).

The meeting - which, let's face it, I've been waiting about eleven years for - was hardly historic, but I thanked him for the all the laughs he's provided me, and said that Spaced has picked me up countless times when I've felt a bit down; to which he responded "I'm glad, that's what we're here for." Which is lovely.

Of course, with his autobiography Nerd Do Well out, Burke and Hare about to 'hit' cinemas, and the trailer for Paul just having been released, Simon's pretty ubiquitous at the moment, but frankly, I count a Pegg-filled week as a very good one indeed.

As an aside, Jessica Hynes was on Something for the Weekend this morning (again, promoting Burke and Hare) and when Tim Lovejoy asked a viewer's question 'Will there be any more Spaced', I scoffed, expecting the answer to be a blank no. But I was wrong... in fact, Jess said that not only could they write more, but that she would like to because she knows how much people love the characters! Amazing! The inevitable caveat, of course, is that Simon Pegg appears to have little interest in returning to Tim and Daisy. Sigh. If I believed that those two would mess it up, I'd say it's for the best. Unfortunately, I genuinely don't think that'd be the case.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Special Relationship III @ The Invisible Dot

Just time for a few words on another night at The Invisible Dot; another little bit of low-fi magic sprinkled in the north Camden area. 'The Special Relationship' is hosted by Tom Basden, and it's rather really lovely to see him centre of attention at the Dot, seeing as though he plays such a downtrodden, low-status character as part of his double act with Tim Key, Freeze. Also integral in the night's success are The American Twins, AKA purveyors of the finest short stories, Jarred McGinnis and Sam Taradash, and together the three presented a transatlantic mix of music, stand-up, story-telling, short films and poetry.

Matthew Robins and his beautiful combination of shadow puppetry and harmonium - truly lovely and inventive - kicked things off, and then there was poetry from Melissa Mann, short stories from the American Twins (both really impressive) a great little play written by Tim Key and performed with Isy Suttie, and the most atmospheric short film I have ever seen: Off Season, by Jonathan van Tulleken. To even tell you its genre is probably to give too much away, but I think it's still doing the rounds at film festivals so if you get the chance to see it - go. Highlight of the evening: extracts from Tom Basden's intentionally confused and over-explained novel 'Hot Moon' (there's a brilliant chapter here). It takes someone with truly fine writing skills to craft something that wonderfully ridiculous and funny - genuinely excellent.

I haven't made it to the two previous 'Special Relationship' nights, but I'll certainly be clearing a space for it in my diary (ok, Google Calendar) from here on in. Next one is 27th October.

Ben Folds & Nick Hornby - Lonely Avenue

A new Ben Folds album! Ah, it's a thing to cherish, isn't it? And especially intriguing this time, with Nick Hornby on board to provide the lyrics, an aspect of songwriting that Ben has always said is secondary for him - he's all about the tunes, and while that's fine by me, I know his lyrics are a barrier for some.

Lonely Avenue is, after just a couple of listens, already my favourite Ben Folds album since Rockin' The Suburbs. Just like his first solo album there is a wonderful mix of the big and goofy, and the quiet and beautiful - both of which he's a real master at. There are bombastic numbers stuffed with layer upon layer of instrumentation and backing vocals like the frankly insane ode to poet Saskia Hamilton, and the radio-friendly 'From Above' about missed-opportunities ("sure we all have soul-mates but we walk past them everyday"). And then there are the smaller, simpler tracks like 'Belinda' - check out the lyrics to see the callbacks (forward?) to Juliet, Naked - and stand-out number 'Picture Window'; and it's on these tracks in particular that Nick's words and Ben's melodies work together wonderfully well.

What ties both types of song together on this album though, is that they are both equally blessed with some of the best choruses Ben has ever written. Perhaps it's because he has been able to work solely on the tunes, he has made them as instantly hummable as he can, and it means that even the tracks that aren't up to the standard of, say, 'Picture Window' still get kickass choruses - especially 'Doc Pomus' and 'Your Dogs.'

Listening to the album again as I type, I'm shamelessly flip-flopping in terms of which is my favourite song. 'Levi Johnston's Blues', written from the point of the view of the Alaskan teen who - as Hornby puts it - "knocked up the VP nominee's daughter" during the last presidential election, is a whole heap of fun, but then 'From Above' has an amazing middle-eight, 'Picture Window' is heartbreaking, and 'Password', about a boyfriend's attempts to hack into his partner's email account, has a real feeling of 'Rockin' The Suburbs' B-side 'Girl' about it - and that's a very good thing indeed. This isn't a new direction for Ben Folds - and if you're not already a fan, it's unlikely to convert you now - but it's a great showcase for what he does best: amazing tunes.

Friday, October 01, 2010

New on Dork Adore - my weekly WWBW column

What? You don't know what WWBW is? Where have you been?! It's a hashtag and everything!

Ha. Ok, basically it stands for 'What we've been watching' and I'll be doing weekly round-up of precisely that on Dork Adore every Friday for the foreseeable. I'd forgotten how much fun blogging about telly is... Please point your eyes in the direction of the first of hopefully many right here.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Hand-drawn Ben Folds is a bit too cool...

Review of the new album (wheeee!) this weekend...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Preview: Bill Bailey's Dandelion Mind, Leicester Square Theatre

When I saw Bill Bailey for the first time in Edinburgh last year, having watched and re-watched my Part Troll and Bewilderness DVDs to death, I had fully expected the show to be a highlight. Like a lot of people I know, however, I found that particular show a bit... flat. Far from bad, and I was glad to have seen him, but nowhere near the level I had - perhaps unfairly - expected of him.

How heartening, then, to go to a preview of his new show Dandylion Mind last night at the Leicester Square Theatre and, to a go a bit Simon Cowell on you, be completely blown away. I'm sure seeing him a smaller venue helped (the main room holds around 250) but I think the show itself generally works better too. There are fewer set-pieces, and more rambling shaggy dog stories that don't seem to have much to do with each other - going to deepest Colombia with Sean Lock armed with nothing but a few biscuits and some weed, for example, and an impassioned rant against Michael Winner - but are actually beautifully tied together in the last moments of the show. In other words, it has all the satisfaction of well thought-out structure with none of the constriction.

There is also fun for fun's sake - we sing California Dreaming for no apparent reason - and are introduced to Bailey's new toy, the Tenori-on, an electronic device that turns any image or pattern you draw into music. There is also a moment of superlative musicianship during his version of Gary Numan's Cars that I won't spoil, but is so impressive and so joyful that it's probably Worth The Ticket Price Alone.

With a bad back and clearly suffering from a nasty cold, Bailey could have been forgiven for being a bit below par, but on the contrary he seemed really up for it, and was clearly bouyed by what was an incredibly appreciative Saturday night audience. An early, random shout of "giddy-up!" from the fourth row became a running joke, and a hearty "THANKS FOR COMING!" near the end also got him giggling - always a delight. (Good heckling should be encouraged at Bill Bailey gigs by the way - his impromptu flights of whimsical fancy are a privilege to be witness to.)

A master of clever, bizarre imagery and, of course, a musical maestro, Dandelion Mind showcases Bailey at his very best. He's at the Wyndham's Theatre throughout November, and I'm already planning on going again. Wonderful stuff.

EDIT: I was planning to use the phrase "This show has more fake-endings than Hampton Court Palace maze" but I forgot. Dammit. Not a complaint, by the way; the show builds brilliantly towards the 'proper' end.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Feature Spot presents... Rufus Hound, Tim Key, Adam Buxton & MC Carl Donnelly

The ace Carrie Matthews, under the guise of Feature Spot, puts on some of the most stellar comedy nights in London, usually bringing together three or four acts who would all be impressive headliners. Tuesday's night in the West London theatre venue The Tabernacle was a particularly exciting line-up: Rufus Hound, Tim Key, Adam Buxton and MC Carl Donnelly, plus a 'big telly name' who, incidentally, didn't turn up. No matter, though.

It's literally years - well, two and a half - since I last, and first, saw Carl Donnelly, opening for Rhod Gilbert at the Doncaster gig which has since provided the Welsh comic with so much material (he seemingly never got over the fact that we had the temerity to name our airport after Robin Hood, to whom we have precisely no claim). I enjoyed him then, but have never bumped into him since on my comedy travels and, to my retrospective shame, never actively sought him out - that changed after seeing this video of him from the Edinburgh Fringe however. I just found something about his demeanour, turn of phrase and, well, shades so appealing and cool and - despite my well-documented fondness for Mr Key - it was his presence on the bill that finally kicked my ticket-buying arse into gear for this show. Far from the wind-em-up-and-let-em-go style MC, he just hung off him mic, chatted to people on the front row - dealing deftly with one guy who would gave away absolutely nothing - and generally created a lovely atmosphere.

A lovely atmosphere but not, perhaps, an uproarious one, though there were several reasons for that; the Tabernacle is a big old space for one, and the cabaret tables set-up means that the audience are quite spread out. Plus, as my friends and I commented before the gig, it felt more like a theatre crowd than a comedy one, and all this culminated in the fact that when Rufus Hound came to stage, shouting - as is his wont - 'waheeeyy!' no-one joined in.

As such, he did his usual club set about the differences between groups of men and groups of women and the non-existence of God, but deconstructed it - telling us the mechanics behind each joke, and explaining what reaction he would have been getting, were he performing his set in front of 'real' people, as opposed to the lumberjack shirt-clad, iPad-owning, media twits that faced him. Now, performed with tongue firmly wedged in cheek, Hound would have undoubtedly had the audience in the palm of his hand - we *were* a bit reserved and would have been up for being ribbed about it. Performed, as it was, with a straight face it was rather hard to love. Hound has since said on Twitter that it was an experiment that yielded no results but I doubt that's true (the results bit), and it'll be interesting to see if and how the set continues to evolve.

Tim Key was up after the interval, and rather than leaping straight into his poems, he instead followed up one of Carl Donnelly's stories with his own tales of being alone in Asia: "I was travelling, and I'd heard that you made friends with people along the way, at hostels... didn't happen." It's hard to explain just how Key can regularly reduce an audience to literal tears of laughter, as he did at this point, but it's certainly true to say that it's often these off the cuff moments that are the most special. He seems more willing to go off-script at smaller gigs, but he seemed to enjoy this, so hopefully we'll see more of it. Travelling tales done, he got down to poem-reciting business including a good dose of fairly new ones and a couple of longer stand-up skits that have worked their way into his sets of late and a fabulous video I hadn't seen before featuring the lovely Kristen Schaal.

Headliner Adam Buxton has a hugely loyal following thanks to The Adam and Joe Show, both on Channel 4 and now 6Music (they're back in November, he told us), but while I am au fait with Stephenage I can hardly claim to be a massive fan. Luckily for me then, the in-jokes were kept to a minimum, and Buxton is a whole heap of fun. With his laptop screen projected onto the back wall of the stage, he showed us little videos, his rejected ideas for the replacement name for 'Charmin' (including "Luxuriarse" which, you suspect, he's genuinely proud of) and - most brilliant and successfully of all - some choice comments to a couple of his clips on YouTube. Revealed one at a time thanks to the wonder of Photoshop, the comments are by turns wrong-headed, furious, sweet and inspired and it makes for a sublime set-piece.

Feature Spot returned to the 100 Club on Thursday with MC Dan Atkinson, Ginger and Black, Tom Basden, Andrew Lawrence and Russell Howard - again, brilliant. Why did I miss it? No idea. Won't make that mistake again.

*Wonderful photos courtesy of Edward Moore.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Paul Fuzz on the Toy Story trilogy

By complete coincidence, big brother Paul has just posted a blog about Toy Story too - if you've seen the film (spoilers) go have a read forthwith right here. It's a proper and properly brilliant review.

Dogs Can't Look Up - it's an excellent blog

I went to Jonny's blog Don't Can't Look Up to give you the link to a lovely post he did for We Are Cardiff - "a voluntary project... collecting the stories of people that live in this fine capital city of Wales." I did that - it's here - but I also spent a good hour browsing through lots of the great things he's posted. You should do the same.

Childhood favourites at Empire Cinema Leicester Square

To say I work for a company promoting the importance of film and film clubs, and their place in education, I actually get to the cinema very rarely. But in the past month I have been to the same cinema twice and both experiences have been among my best ever in front of the 'frenzy on the wall'.

The Empire Cinema in Leicester Square is, unsurprisingly given its location, a little pricey, but when you're seated in Screen 1, a mammoth auditorium with two tiers and an enormous screen, you can't help but feel it's worth it. It feels special, a proper event just like the glory days of Purple Rose of Cairo-era cinema. It's not arthouse, it's big and brash and I love it.

Of course, what you're watching helps, and the two films I have seen in this screen are Toy Story 3 and Back To The Future. Admittedly, these are films that would gladden the heart when viewed on a stuttery mobile phone. But I've no doubt that it was the surroundings, the extra frisson you get with a truly huge audience, that means I have experienced no fewer than four rounds of applause in a cinema in the last month, having previously never been privy to such a thing. (I did clap in joyous anticipation when the opening credits started rolling on The Phantom Menace but my excitement did not prove infectious and unfortunately one person clapping does not constitute a 'round'.)

But yes, the films are superb. I have been actively waiting for Toy Story 3's release since the moment I came out of the cinema having seen Toy Story 2 ten years ago. I am saying nothing controversial when I suggest that the Toy Story films are among the greatest ever made - CGI or otherwise - but I was lucky enough to have been born at just the right time to both enjoy them as rollicking, very funny adventures, and appreciate the deeper sadness and subtlety that make them so special. There was quite a lot of pressure on the third instalment then (I'm sure director Lee Unkrich and his colleagues felt my expectation keenly) but I was genuinely never that concerned that I would be disappointed. And I wasn't.

I will have to see it again in the rather less atmospheric surroundings of my own bedroom on a small screen to really compare it with 1 and 2, but in the moment, it felt right up there, and probably better than 2. It is, for one thing, downright hilarious - there are moments of inspired physical comedy, Buzz being reset to a Spanish-language version is brilliant, and the introduction of (Barbie's) Ken a masterstroke. And yes, it will have you crying buckets - twice, if you're like me. There is one utterly devastating moment (believe me, you'll know it when you see it) and one bittersweet moment - both handled beautifully by a creative team whose heart and care is evident in every single frame. It's one hell of a film, and received two of those spontaneous rounds of applause; one at the end and one after a particularly brilliant bonus scene which screens during the end credits.

And so to Back To The Future, remastered and back in cinemas for a wide but brief release in October. A colleague managed to wangle me a ticket for this preview, and so the long-held wish to see the film firmly ensconced in my Top 5 list on the big screen was fulfilled. And it was great. Cleaned up but not overworked it looks stunning, and sharing this film with a load of fans was a real joy. It was interesting to see what got the biggest reactions and almost without fail it was performance rather than script that got the big laughs - Glover in particular, but also Doc's eye-rolls as Lorraine gets Marty to ask her to the dance, and Marty's squirming whenever she comes near him. We cheered when George laid out Biff, and gave Marty the big response those 1950s squares don't - that's EXACTLY what I wanted.

Up next: A New Hope, Labyrinth, High Fidelity and The Wizard of Oz. Maybe.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

My Comedy Highlights piece for

Having seen only one of the acts nominated for any of the Foster's Comedy Award – the musical talent who turned 20 during the festival, Bo Burnham – I am not, I think it’s safe to say, much of a barometer for what’s been “hot” at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. But such is the scope and scale of the Fringe nowadays, there were of course dozens if not hundreds of outstanding acts which did not make the shortlists, and it’s a pleasure to have the chance to celebrate just a few of them here.

Sketch comedy may not have featured on either of those lists this year, but three sketch acts – all very different - were real highlights of my time in the Scottish capital. First up were the oddly-named Delete The Banjax, a four-man (well, three-man-and-one-woman) troupe who are simply fun incarnate. Great songs, a winning mix of personas, an abundance of silly ideas and an excess of charm, their show is lo-fi joy, and I’ve no doubt they’ll come back with something even stronger next year.
The Penny Dreadfuls –David Reed, Thom Tuck and Humphrey Ker - have been around rather longer, to the extent that they have undergone a major, Madonna-esque reinvention for this year’s show. Their Victorian garb and sketches gone, they’re now decked out all in yellow and black, and have allowed themselves the freedom to write sketches on any topic their imaginations can muster – anything from backstreet wrestling broadcast live on the net to the Twilight saga, as it turns out. These extended skits are brilliantly written but it’s the performances – proper acting chops combined with perfect timing and a lovely rapport – that really put them at the very top of the sketch comedy game.

The three gents also put in scene-stealing turns in Martin White and Danielle Ward’s excellent new musical Gutted – which was no mean feat, considering they were having to do the stealing away from this year’s stand-out character comedian Colin Hoult.

Diane Morgan and Joe Wilkinson meanwhile are excellent stand-up comics in their own right, but come together as Two Episodes of MASH to deliver sketches which they say ‘tend to peter out’. They do themselves a disservice, however; this show is actually packed full of “proper” set-up and punchline jokes. Unusually for a sketch show, however, this is understated, quiet stuff – a real change of pace and hugely appealing.

Away from the sketch comedy, there are several one-man performances that have emerged from the pack when asked – as I have been dozens of times since returning from Scotland – which was the ‘best’ show I saw. Just like last year, David O’Doherty’s metamorphosis as a performer continues to astound and delight. Now playing in the proper theatre surroundings of Pleasance One – and not, as he says at the top of the show, some STD clinic commandeered by the Fringe – he, Boyle’s Law- like, has grown to fill his surroundings, and elicited the best audience reaction I experienced on the Fringe this year with his songs about Shakira, animal facts and the offer of practical help on bicycle maintenance.

In complete opposite to David O’Doherty’s shaggy dog stories but just as wonderful, another of my favourite shows featured ream upon ream of stunning one-liners. John-Luke Roberts Distracts You From A Murder sees Roberts attempt to keep our mind off the blood-curdling screams emanating from the wings by insulting every member of the audience with pre-written insults which range from “your hair looks like you borrowed it” to my personal favourite “you laugh at adverts in the places they want you to laugh.” A creative concept, genius writing and spot-on delivery means Roberts will have gained legions of fans with this debut solo show – oh, and he certainly wins the as yet non-existent award for best flyer.

Another show I have found myself recommending to anyone expressing even the slightest interest is Terry Saunders’ Six and a Half Loves, a story of perfect and imperfect love between three couples, accompanied by Saunders’ own animations. Simply performed and with some wonderful throwaway lines, this is an engrossing and intelligently written show. Aussie Claudia O’Doherty meanwhile (no relation, although she did co-write 100 Facts About Pandas with David) brought her award-winning show Monster Of The Deep 3D to the Fringe, and what a magical and very funny show it is. She tells the tale of a now-defunct underwater community ‘Aquaplex’ through flashcards, Blue Peter models and verbatim theatre, and there is a lovely twist at the end of the show which kept me beaming for days.

Let's return to those Comedy Awards, won - many would argue deservedly - by Russell Kane after three nominations in a row, while Best Newcomer went to the endearing Roisin Conaty for her meandering but likeable and astute set. Ironically her material hangs around the fact that she felt she wasn't sufficiently successful in life to give advice to anyone younger than herself; now that she's an award winner that will be a harder case to make.

There have been rumblings that Bo Burnham, while unarguably prodigiously talented, did not really do anything beyond the call of duty, as you might expect of the recipient of the Panel Prize for someone who captures the spirit of the Fringe. Personally my opinions on this are mixed with the fact that (whisper it) I didn’t actually enjoy his show that much, despite being hugely impressed by his songwriting, but as an alternative, may I offer comedy production and publishing company The Invisible Dot. As well as bringing several regular shows, they also took around 400 audience members on a magical mystery tour for a show by the sea, hosted an album launch for Tim Key at Avalanche Records, arranged the wonderful ‘Inaugural 3-Sided Football Tournament’ on the Meadows and placed four specially-adapted telephone boxes around Edinburgh in which you could listen to short stories by the likes of DBC Pierre, Will Self and Mark Watson, for free. Beyond the call of duty, I’d say.

[Original article]

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Edinburgh Fringe 2010: John-Luke Roberts Distracts You From A Murder

[Original British Comedy Guide review here]

The main problem with reviewing John-Luke Roberts' impressive show ...Distracts You From A Murder is that you are constantly tempted to forego critical prose and instead simply quote reams of his one-liners verbatim. While that would undoubtedly make for entertaining reading, though, it wouldn't be especially fair on Roberts, who has clearly lovingly crafted and honed his quips to the distilled state in which they are performed, so (with one exception that I just can't resist) I shall try to keep this spoiler-free.

In ...Distracts You From A Murder Roberts has created for himself a lovely niche that brilliantly shows off his talent for clever one-liner comedy. The puns and word play - much of which takes a good few seconds for the audience to fully digest before laughing - comes in a torrent, but it is all framed within the 'storyline' of the show, which is the grizzly murder mentioned in the title. "It's not a whodunnit" he says, "it's more a whatdidhedo" - the answer to which only becomes clear in the last few minutes of the show.

As he establishes early on, a murderer's observational comedy lacks the universality necessary for its success, so instead Roberts spends much of the show insulting every single member of the audience, in order, using generic put-downs written down on a set of cards. What you get, then, is pot luck, and they are creative, generally very mild insults that range from the wildly convoluted to the pithily concise - my favourite, I think, has to be: "You laugh at adverts in the places they want you to laugh." Ouch. It is an ingenious vehicle for his comedy and while perhaps not every one garners an uproarious response, literally dozens are real winners that keep you giggling long after the show has ended.

Between the insults we also get a public health video, (slightly) longer jokes told from the comfort of an 'Anecdote Chair' and, of course, the murder itself. The calmly calculating character Roberts plays means that there is not much room left for banter or adlibbing here, and while that is understandable given the structure of the show, Roberts is such a confident and distinctive performer that it's also something of a shame. Luckily - for him and us - there will be many more Edinburghs for Roberts to try out different ways of showcasing his obvious talent; which is more than can be said for his poor victim.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Edinburgh Fringe 2010: The Invisible Dot bonus features

As you might cleverly discern from the slew of reviews I just cross-posted here, I've been at the Edinburgh Fringe this last week, and doing some reviews for British Comedy Guide. It's been a brilliant week, and I like to think that the reviews of some of the excellent shows I have seen will translate into one or two more well-deserved bums on seats. Camden's wonderfully enigmatic and creative Invisible Dot Ltd have several 'regular' shows up there - Jonny Sweet's Let's All Just Have Some Fun (and Learn Something For Once), The Horne Section, John-Luke Roberts Distracts You From A Murder (review to come) and Tim Key's The Slutcracker - but, as tends to be the way, they have also graced the Fringe with one or two 'one-off' bonus features.

Way back on 15th August (it feels a long time ago now...), the Dot staged the inaugural Three-Sided Football Tournament, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Three teams play on a pitch with three nets, with the winner being the team which conceded the fewest goals, rather than scoring the most and you know what, the game works really well. What a joy it was to sit on the Meadows on a Sunday afternoon in the blazing sunshine watching comedy's brightest stars display some serious skills - Thomas Craine dancing past the defence(s), Thom Tuck darting between the opposition, Sara Pascoe a safe pair of hands in goal and David O'Doherty the team's talismanic and vociferous leader. Photo by the love Simone:

Five days later came the long-awaited sequel to the original Invisible Dot Club which took place at Proud Galleries in Camden a good 18 months ago and featured a stellar line-up of Tims Key and Minchin, Kevin Eldon, Daniel Kitson, Pippa Evans, Simon Munnery and Arthur Smith. This time, the club relocated to 'a secret location by the sea', a location that was only revealed to the audience on arrival. In a feat of impressive logistics and organisation, a good 300 people were coached out of Edinburgh and into nearby Portobello, taken on an ultimately superfluous but wonderful walk by the sea and guided into Portobello's Town Hall. Unfortunately, headliner Stewart Lee's set was, if not ruined certainly disrupted by an incredibly rude audience member but Kitson was a brilliant host as ever, Eldon mind-bogglingly clever, Colin Hoult a superlative character comedian, Josie Long delightful, and Key typically hilarious. A unique concept, The Invisible Dot Club By The Sea was ambitious and magical.

On 22nd August it was time for Key to take the centre of a very small stage, at the back of uber-cool record shop Avalanche on Cockburn Street. Being a comic, poet and author is clearly not enough for Tim, and so he has recorded an album with a string quartet (obviously), the 'sneaky launch' for which took place in the store packed with friends, fans and fellow comics. The Tim Key Album Launch may have been short - comprising of one sketch with the ace Alex Horne, and one and a quarter poems (cut short by O'Doherty who cited factual inaccuracy, leading Key to stop in his tracks, screw up the paper on which the poem was written, and move on) - but it was perfectly formed. The album itself is a thing of beauty too.

And throughout all this, indeed throughout the entire month of the Fringe, four inconspicuous red telephone boxes, the physical manifestation of The Invisible Dot Communuications Ltd, stood in various locations around Edinburgh. Those who entered had the chance to pick up the receiver and listen to short stories by the likes of Mark Watson, DBC Pierre and Jack Thorne, for free. Ace.

Edinburgh Fringe 2010: Claudia O'Doherty - Monster of the Deep 3D

[Original British Comedy Guide review here]

Claudia O'Doherty's show Monster of the Deep 3D has been laden with awards over in her native Australia and, if there's any justice, that happy trend will continue here at the Edinburgh Fringe.

The show takes the premise that Claudia is the last surviving inhabitant of a now blown-to-smithereens underwater base 'Aquaplex' which was established in the 1970s by a pan-continental committee in order to ready humankind for the coming apocalypse, whatever shape it may take (assuming it involves some sort of massive flood.) With Aquaplex destroyed, she has now taken it upon herself to explain her former home, its people and culture, through the medium of a one-woman presentation complete with flashcards and a Q&A session she has written herself. It's a 'high concept' show, you might say.

The word 'whimsy' hangs heavy (well, as heavy as whimsy can hang) in the air and while to me there is no shame in that, for some it has become a rather mockable word. It is a whimsical premise of course, but those allergic to the idea should realise that Claudia is no shrinking violet, whispering her way through the set; instead she is a hugely dynamic, larger than life performer who fills her venue with energy. And the laughs are big and frequent - whether dancing along to Toto's Africa, doing a bit of verbatim theatre or giving us a guided tour of her self-made model of Aquaplex her turn of phrase, physical comedy and attention to the detail of her invented world are consistently funny and impressive.

All aspects of Aquaplegian (yup) life are covered, from the use of virtual reality 'Dream Helmets' to allow those more used to living on land to imagine they are back in a beautiful meadow to 'Emotionas', the underwater version of Christmas, which Claudia only slowly realises may have had previously undetected dark overtones actually during the presentation. The whole show is inventive and fun but there is one moment in particular that I would bravely state must be one of the most magical on the Fringe. To even hint at it would be a travesty - no-one should be denied the sense of wonder it evokes when a complete and beautiful surprise - but rest assured it is something genuinely special. And while you're resting assured, perhaps book a ticket.

Edinburgh Fringe 2010: Two Episodes of MASH

[Original British Comedy Guide review here]

There are a lot of great sketch shows at the Fringe this year, and Two Episodes of MASH - aka Diane Morgan and Joe Wilkinson - are right up there. The likes of The Penny Dreadfuls perform expansive sketches which go on for minutes, however, in the main TEofM eschew big characters and storylines in favour of quickfire gags. The press release may say "don't expect any hefty punchlines" but the show is, in fact, full of them; between the punchline-less absurdist situations there are plenty of sketches which are essentially one-liners acted out.

Of course, this type of comedy requires a large store of killer ideas, but that is something Morgan and Wilkinson clearly possess. Like any good one-liner comic, they take you down one path only to flip the situation on its head, and, such is their imagination and creativity, even when you know there is going to be a twist at the end of a sketch, you can never guess what that twist might be. When they do resort to a cheesy, "and then I got off the bus" type-punchline, they ironically exclaim "a proper joke, ladies and gentlemen!" - but in fact the show has jokes in bucket loads.

Luckily, the sketches come so thick and fast that I feel I can indulge you with the details of one or two without ruining it. Favourites included a tortured game of Eye Spy in which Wilkinson can't imagine anything beginning with R other than rats or the roof of his own mouth, and an aggressive couple who turn the air blue while sitting on the front row for a recording of Songs of Praise.

Directed by Stefan Golaszewski of Cowards fame, you see shades of his fellow performers Tim Key and Tom Basden in Wilkinson's nervy mannerisms and brilliant timing, and while Morgan is frequently the 'straight man', her subtle expressions often upstage her comedy partner. The sketches may be silly, but if you want shouting, gesticulating and general running around you will certainly have to look elsewhere. In the main this is a nice change of pace but, call me unsophisticated, I couldn't help hoping to see a little giggle - something of the real Wilkinson and Morgan beneath their considered performances which might add a touch of warmth to their otherwise excellent sketches.

Edinburgh Fringe 2010: The Penny Dreadfuls

[Original British Comedy Guide review here]

Thoroughly rebranded from bleak Victoriana to bright yellow and black, The Penny Dreadfuls - Thom Tuck, Humphrey Ker and David Reed - have broken away from their traditionally 19th-century themed sketches into new exciting territory. Now unconstrained by corsets and breeches, the world is their oyster and the Dreadfuls are clearly having a ball - and judging from the whoops and cheers emitted from the audience during this performance, so are they.

Of course what works so well, and what has always worked in the Dreadful's favour, is that they are all such wonderful performers who draw out the very best in each other, each bringing something different to the sketches. Thom Tuck's fantastic physical comedy is called upon throughout the show, but showed off particularly well in a sketch in which he plays a wrestler, keen - for some reason - to take on a Gulf War veteran. David's finest Yorkshire-accented moment comes in a recurring sketch about a car race with the keys to a Honda Jazz at stake, while Humphrey's genuinely great acting skills - and floppy hair - are put to excellent use in an angst-ridden parody of the Twilight series.

There were technical issues with this show meaning that the Dreadfuls were plunged into darkness on a couple of occasions, something which only added to David's rather charming tendency towards barely-concealed corpsing. Of course, it also gave them the chance to ad-lib a little - always a joy for an audience - and it gave rise to a great line at the end of the show: "if you want your money back, just go to the box office and remember, we've been Pappy's Fun Club."

In the main, the sketches are given plenty of time to develop, and they do not exist in isolation but frequently reference each other, with characters and ideas cropping up time and again. As such this is superlative sketch comedy, created with care and performed with real flair by super-talented comics.

Edinburgh Fringe 2010: Nat Luurtsema - In My Head I'm A Hero

[Original British Comedy Guide review here]

Nat Luurtsema came to many people's attention in the fantastic sketch show Superclump at last year's Fringe where she performed alongside the likes of Mike Wozniak and Henry Paker, and it's fantastic to see that she is back in Edinburgh, striking out on her own in this accomplished solo debut.

"This is dangerously close to conversation" she says at the top of the show, referencing the few empty stools, but in fact 'conversation' is precisely what Luurtsema does best - it is one-sided conversation admittedly, but her style is so comfortable, so chatty and informal that, despite our lack of involvement it does feel like a good old chinwag with a close and very funny friend. The title of the show In My Head I'm A Hero comes from Nat's assertion that she spends most of her time daydreaming about coming to the aid of dozens in some huge disaster, just like in the movies - but the nearest she's actually come to fulfilling the dream is doing something approaching triage after seeing a bus very slowly career into a wall, resulting in precisely no casualties.

These opening discussions are enjoyable but not especially laugh-out-loud hilarious and it takes some time for the show to really kick into gear. Eventually though, we move away from Nat's current daydreams and back into her childhood, and it's here that the laughs really come - it's just a shame we do not get to this fertile territory sooner. Because fertile it is; Nat was a lonely child and to prove the point, she brings along her 'By Myself Book' outlining the rather sad activities that a young nerdy girl can go do on her own - and spins an excellent routine around it. She also gets great stuff from having been sent to a Freemasons school, where she took part in 'drill', aka rather spooky formation marching reminiscent of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony on a severe budget. And yes, we are treated to a mini live performance.

Surprisingly, the story takes a rather serious turn, and we discover that while Luurtsema is forever fantasising about raging fires and kids trapped down a well, she was actually at the centre of a very personal crisis at the age of just twelve. The revelation sneaks up on you and gives the narrative a real edge - but again, the show might benefit from it coming a little earlier. Overall, though, this is a hugely enjoyable hour performed by a warm, witty comic with a vivid imagination, some lovely lines, and, you suspect, much more to come.

Edinburgh Fringe 2010: Terry Saunders - Six and a Half Loves

[Original British Comedy Guide review here]

Terry Saunders is a comic, animator and storyteller and while all three of these bow-strings are in evidence in his new show, Six And A Half Loves, it is without doubt his genius for storytelling - and, of course, writing - which shines the brightest.

The show comprises the tale of three perfect couples; six people who are absolutely meant to be together, and how they love and lose each other, and fall into the arms of others. There are fewer than a hundred of these perfect couples in the world, we are told at the very start, but even these do not always end up together in happy ever afters - life, circumstance and the odd stupid decision can often get in the way. Saunders tells us their stories as his animations scroll through on the big screen, and the names of the three main men involved - Sean, Nigel and Lenny - are projected onto his white t-shirt (which he sports with white trousers, for the sartorially-minded).

For the first twenty minutes, the stories of three couples - I won't divulge whether these are actually the 'perfect' couples or not - are quite distinct. There's Sean quietly simpering after best friend Natalie, poor Nigel who has made his flat a shrine to ex-girlfriend Sue, and Lenny and Kim, the comfy couple who've simply grown apart. As the story unfolds though, their lives intertwine in all sorts of ways, from passionate one night stands which somehow last for months, to brief meetings in bars and stations. The strands are deftly and impressively woven together, but even more brilliant are the tiny motifs - songs, tears, even milk - that subtly crop up at key moments to remind you of previous scenes and situations. In fact, I felt I'd like to have been handed a script at the end, just to go back and check I hadn't missed any clever little connections.

This may not be a show to make you consistently laugh out loud, but the laughs are certainly there if you keep your wits about you; lines such as "the weekends were long, and the weeks even longer" are delivered with a sparkle in the eye but could easily be missed. The only slight issue with this show then is that the animations - while providing some nice visual gags along the way and always lovely to look at - do not add as much to the story as one might hope. Luckily, the story is so finely conceived and beautifully written, very little needs adding.

Edinburgh Fringe 2010: The Golden Lizard

[Original British Comedy Guide review here]

Following on from the big success of the Pajama Men's excellent two-man theatre-slash-sketch comedy show Last Stand To Reason comes this excellent two-man theatre-slash-sketch comedy show The Golden Lizard starring two comics who are celebrated in their own right: Mike Wozniak and Henry Paker.

With the aid of just one chair, a pair of clip-on spectacles, some Aviators and a visor, the two comics play out the tale of Roy - a lowly librarian trainee with a fear of ladders, but a prodigious genius for alphabetising. If only he could overcome his irrational ladder phobia, he would be the greatest librarian there ever was; as it is, he is destined to a dull, ground-level-bound life among the As, Bs and Cs, silently lusting after his mentor Susan, who, for whatever reason, speaks with a manly southern drawl. It is only when a menacing stranger with, what else, a German accent comes into the library requesting The Golden Lizard by Floyd Vernon, that his life takes a more exciting turn.

The story is essentially a series of very physical, very silly, but hugely funny vignettes that give Wozniak and Paker the chance to give full flight to their clearly expansive imaginations and precise comic timing. Throughout the show, the professor and author of the all-important book, Floyd Vernon pops up - played by whichever of the two happens to have the spectacles - to give us one of his latest theories; be it the fact that we only really need five numbers, whether a tree that falls when no-one's around really does make a sound, or working out the average name of the audience (it's as convoluted a process as you would expect). These moments are among the most creative and funniest of the whole show.

Between the mini-lectures the story unfolds, and we travel from the library - by plane, ship and Emperor Goose - to Bolivia in search of the book, with the performers taking the roles of assorted, generally mad men and women along the way. It is a little slow to get off the ground and ends abruptly, but in between there is a massive amount of fun to be had here and importantly, both Wozniak and Paker are really engaging performers - Paker clearly loves a bit of verbal invention, ad libbing his way through some killer throwaway lines, while Wozniak is a brilliant physical performer who is a constant joy to watch.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Edinburgh Fringe 2010: Chris Addison

One of the really lovely things about the recent renaissance in comedy on television - stoked by a plethora of panel shows and the re-emergence of stand-up in primetime slots - is that its stars seem keener than their predecessors to keep their live work central to what they do. So, while Chris Addison regularly appears on - and generally brings something very different to - the likes of Mock The Week and Have I Got News For You, we still have the chance to see him in his natural environment on a very regular basis.

And thank goodness. Despite his oft-mentioned youthful looks, Addison has been in comedy for fifteen years now, and in that time he has simply got better - angrier, maybe, more frustrated at the world around him, but definitely better. His stand-up is frequently described as 'cerebral', and his frenetic bounciness around the stage often praised, and while both of these are eminently valid observations, the most important thing to say about this show is simply that it packs in a frankly astonishing number of laughs per minute. The afternoon leading up to the show had seen Addison in A&E having torn a ligament, but he still delivered a storming set; the evident pain only knocking him off his stride in the literal sense.

The thrust of this impressive show is that while the West in the early 21st century is the very best place and time to be alive, we can't help but spend all our time complaining about it. The world is filled with miracles, he tells us - a civilisation's worth of information is beamed straight to our laptops 'through the dust of our living rooms', as he says in one of his lovelier lines - and yet we love nothing more than a good moan.

Not that Addison is immune from this modern affliction of course, and his thesis gives him the opportunity to wax lyrical on his own pet hates, which include Ugg boots, the BNP, golfers, the UK's inability to deal with snow and the phrase "the thing about me is..." All are discussed and decried with a glorious accuracy and the rants are punctuated by proper, quotable jokes that elicit belly laughs between the general beaming and nodding-in-agreement that his observations provoke.

Chris Addison is unashamedly middle class - that injury was caused by jumping down the stairs in a desperate bid to catch the Sainsbury's delivery man - and here he has distilled middle class anxieties, annoyances and preoccupations into a fine and assured show driven by an obviously genuine passion for the things he talks about, and delivered by a comic at the top of his game.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

My Edinburgh Fringe debut

Yes, it's Preview #1 for a lot of acts today, so now seems as good a time as any to let you know that I will actually be making my Edinburgh Fringe debut this year. Kind of. Pop along to John-Luke Roberts Distracts You From A Murder, and you'll catch a very, very brief glimpse of me in the background of a video being shown; filmed at the Invisible Dot last month. Though really, you should pop along to John-Luke Roberts's Distracts You From A Murder show because it's
very good, but you can consider me a bonus.

In other Ed Fringe news, I'll be reviewing a few shows of British Comedy Guide, and cannot wait to get up there in ten days' time...

Sunday, August 01, 2010

A good week for telly

Doctor Who holds such an unusually dominant position in the telly-lover's mind that when a series comes to an end, it always feels like, urrgggh, there's just nothing good on TV any more. And for a few weeks, to be fair, that was probably pretty much the case.

Last week, however, was a noticeably good one. Twitter went slightly mental for Sherlock, of course. It would have been a big telly event in any case, but in that particular sphere the excitement was almost certainly heightened by the fact that co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss themselves had recently joined the Twitterati. It took me until yesterday to catch up with the opener, in fact but, perhaps predictably given the talent both behind and in front of the camera, it was well worth the wait. The updating, importantly, worked brilliantly thanks to some nifty direction (the on-screen text a particularly nice touch), and the dialogue zipped along at a fantastic pace. Not that Stevie comes out of this with an entirely blemish-free copy book; for a sociopathic genius, Sherlock wasn't half-thick in one notable instance. Luckily, when you have Benedict Cumberbatch on such sparkling, exciting form, Martin Freeman showing Watson coming alive so very well, and Stevie and Gatiss having such fun (check Gatiss's BBC TV blog to see just how much), you are prepared to excuse much.

I also caught up on Alex Horne's The Games That Time Forgot yesterday, a documentary about as BBC Four as it is possible for a show to be. Not only was We Need Answers's Powerpoint maestro Horne at the helm, his question-master co-host and good friend Tim Key also popped up. The hour long programme was about sports that have failed to stay the course - notably Quintain (jousting without a horse), which he attempts to rebrand and cricket on horseback, a game which was once mentioned in a 19th century newspaper and has caught Horne's imagination. Some of it was, let's face it, an excuse for Horne to mess around a bit, but that's not to say it wasn't fun to watch, and the culmination of the programme - a full (if reduced-overs) game of Cricket on horseback - was genuinely quite moving. Surely any game that involves the phrase "horse before wicket" deserves to be played on a much more regular basis than once every 150 years...

Last in my iPlayer marathon - and, like The Games That Time Forgot, part of BBC Four's The Call Of The Wild strand - was new sitcom The Great Outdoors. The fact that it's written by Andy Riley and Kevin Cecil (who have written for the likes of Big Train, Black Books, Armstrong and Miller) meant it was always going to be worth a look, but it's also got a strong cast, led by Ruth Jones, Katherine Parkinson and the ever-wonderful Mark Heap. Filmed entirely in the rather beautiful-looking English countryside, it follows a group of ramblers, and while it started off rather slowly, the last ten minutes had me laughing out loud a couple of times, and the people involved mean it's going to be worth sticking with.

Educating Rita, Trafalgar Studios

In recent times it has become the accepted norm that, at any given time, there will be at least one successful Menier Chocolate Factory production running in the West End.

At the moment there are two in the same building in fact – this, Educating Rita, and the one-woman-showShirley Valentine starring Meera Syal, which together form the Trafalgar Studios’ Willy Russell Season.

The story of Educating Rita is, thanks to the film starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters, fairly well-known, though here the minor characters are only talked about, not seen, and all of the action takes place in just one room. Frank is a sixty-something university professor of English who spends his days – and the whole play – holed up in his comfy but care-worn office-come-library (lovingly designed by Peter McKintosh), tired of the same routine, bored of intellectual pretensions and very often drunk. Rita is forty years his junior and his first ever Open University student – a brash hairdresser steeped in Liverpool working class culture but, like her new tutor, bored to tears by her current lot.

The great strength of Willy Russell’s play is the relationship between the nurturing, funny university don and his new passionate student, hungry, as she puts it, to learn and experience more than her life, friends and circumstances have thus far allowed. The relationship is endearing in its simplicity –they are just genuinely good people who find much to like in one other right from the off, despite their differences, and who look forward to their tutorials as a highlight of the week.

Their mutual, though very different, quick-wittedness makes for some very funny banter, and you just enjoy watching this process of learning unfold in front of you. It is a process, of course, that is clearly beneficial to both parties; from the moment Rita bursts into the office for her first lesson and immediately makes Frank look differently at a painting he has had hanging on his wall for decades, it is evident that he won’t be the only one doing the teaching.

A two-hander, the play is hugely reliant on engaging performances that make it obvious why these two characters get on so well; it is nothing without chemistry. Tim Piggot-Smith, straight from the excellent Enron, and relative newcomer Laura Dos Santos are perfectly cast in that not only are their individual performances very good but, crucially, they bounce off each other wonderfully. When Frank is explaining the theatrical meaning of ‘tragedy’ or Rita declaring her hatred of Howards Way, the other often just beams. Dos Santos does get a special mention, though, for portraying such a sincere and deep-rooted desire for education, the physicality of her performance showing that the longing comes from her very gut.

Educating Rita is undoubtedly about the important role that learning and knowledge can play in providing people with choices in life. This production in particular, however, also demonstrates how much a friendship – perhaps especially one found in unlikely quarters – can be equally vital, nourishing, and freeing.

Written for

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Burn The Floor - Shaftesbury Theatre

Like Scott, I headed to Burn The Floor on Wednesday, but unlike him, it has taken me four days to actually getting around to writing about it...

Despite spending a ridiculous amount of my formative years in dance classes or at festivals and competitions held in various northern seaside resorts, I don't actually go to see much dance these days, something this show certainly persuaded me to rectify. Although it's Strictly Come Dancing's Brian Fortuna and Ali Bastian's faces which are emblazoned across the posters, the stars of this show are the large chorus of dancers, made up of couples from the across the world (they were all introduced by name in the finale, a nice touch). As Scott said, Fortuna and Bastian have rather little stage-time and Bastian, while a good dancer, does suffer from being showcased among professionals at the top of their game.

The dances - a good mix of solos, duets, small groups and whole company - are on the whole thematically unrelated, but they flow from one to another with really impressive and inventive ease. Many are driven solely by the fantastic percussionist and drummer who feature on stage throughout the show, meaning the majority are Latin; especially samba and jive and their variations. Understandably so - the talent for those dances in particular on show here is massive. It does mean, though, that pure ballroom is rather under-represented here, and the two big group ballroom dances are not well served by the music: Knights in White Satin and another power ballad I couldn't place. Impressive, then, that one of the most enjoyable and memorable dances of the night is a classic, and un-showy Viennese Waltz.

The best thing about this show, though, (creeping in just ahead of the astonishing energy on display from start to finish) is definitely the choreography. It's hugely creative and shows off individual talent and the magic that comes from a perfectly honed group dance equally well. Burn The Floor has a couple of cheesy moments, but overall it's a lot of fun, the dancing is top notch, and the live music and singing lift the show to a level that makes it deserving of the big audiences that the Strictly faces on the posters will provide.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Divine Comedy - Somerset House... again

Back in 2006 (when, it seems from a casual glance through the posts, I blogged little and often - the pre-Twitter age, y'see - making me feel very guilty) I went to see The Divine Comedy at Somerset House. Then, in 2010, I went to see The Divine Comedy at Somerset House. Again. How far I've come. Now, I rather waxed lyrical about the gig last time, and, surprise surprise, I rather waxed lyrical about the Tabernacle gig too, so I'm desperate not to simply bang on about how wonderful Neil Hannon is. But the fact is he just doesn't leave me any choice.

In terms of the songs, the new album Bang Goes The Knighthood boasts some instant classics (notably Down In The Street Below, When A Man Cries and I Like, which several audience members actually shouted out for) and, as everything 'required' for these new tracks is there in the piano, at these solo gigs we are hearing them just as they were written. As Neil said himself, this was also a 'Promenade-fest', with Geronimo, Don't Look Down, and, of course, Tonight We Fly all appearing, along with the sublime Our Mutual Friend and Your Daddy's Car. There were nice touches particular to this gig too, like an extended segue into Blue Monday during At The Indie Disco ("we probably don't have a licence for this!"). And in terms of showmanship, Neil clearly revels being alone with the audience - drawing enjoyment and enthusiasm from his fans, who here happily harmonised and provided backing vocals on the likes of Songs of Love and Pop Singer's Fear of the Pollen Count.

Two PSs to this: 1) I went to this gig with lovely Momma Waits (the original Divine Comedy fan in the family), and we both passed Neil in Leicester Square a few hours before the gig, much to our repressed excitement and 2) Concert Live recorded the gig, and if you preordered a CD, you could pick it up the moment the last note was played. So I did. Which is nice.

Edinburgh Previews - Alex Horne and Jonny Sweet

Unlike my last tenuous effort, these shows were genuine Edinburgh Previews; they were advertised as such and everything. And we even got a BBQ in between so win, win... win.

I've seen Alex Horne on We Need Answers (lots and lots), doing a teeny club set at Gloom Aid, and I loved The Horne Section a few weeks back, but I've never actually seen a full show from him before. He tells us right at the start of his Edinburgh show Odds that it only contains three jokes - when someone shuffles in 10 minutes late, he has to inform them that they've already missed 33% of them - but they're good ones (read: delightfully groany) and in any case, Odds is more about the story and its telling. Accompanied by his trusty Powerpoint and clicker, Horne takes us through his genuine bet that he would make a hole in one - on a "proper golf course", as the betting slip stated - before his 32nd birthday. During the show he discusses his favourite bets (he really does have them) and even manages to explain a Stephen Hawkins theory in a way that makes complete sense. The show is beautifully paced, has a wonderful story arc and, a month ahead of the Fringe, already pretty much fully-formed.

Another Powerpoint aficionado is last year's Comedy Awards Best Newcomer Jonny Sweet, and his new show has an even odder premise than his winning one - a one hour talk on the merits and eventual fall from grace of HMS Nottingham, from crew to, er, plumbing. Again, he plays a nerdier, egotistical and slightly unhinged version of himself, but to say any more would, I'm afraid to be giving rather a lot away. Suffice to say it has a VERY big twist that I am sure will have Edinburgh tongues a-wagging come August.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Meeting Niles Crane

What I forgot to include in my review - but is probably best kept separate in any case - was the fact that we hung around the Stage Door after the show with around forty others. Well, David Hyde Pierce is the co-creator of one of the best comedy characters ever to appear on television so he's worth a twenty minute wait, I reckon.

Joanna Lumley, of course, also got a huge reception, and spent a good quarter of an hour talking, signing and posing for photos. She didn't exactly pose for this one, but it's quite nice...

When David came out, I moved with more purpose towards the throng, and he was kind enough to sign my programme. Whenever I meet people I admire, I'm always anxious to take the opportunity to not just compliment but thank. It makes you sound a bit of an tool, but he responded to my lame line "That was a brilliant performance... and, er, thanks for the years of laughter" with "thank you, I appreciate that" which is good enough for me.

La Bête - Comedy Theatre

There are some performers in all fields that just seem special; the ones that you can't help but think will genuinely be remembered beyond their lifetime as one of the best. David Hyde Pierce - Niles Crane to you and me, and physical comedian extraordinaire to US theatre-lovers - has to be one those performers, right? A master of comic timing, but also blessed with the capacity to create moments of heart-rending drama, his 11-year turn in Frasier was, pretty much, a succession of genius looks, phrasing and pratfalls. I am, you might have worked out, something of a fan.

It's a love very much fostered by my dad, so we dutifully bought tickets for his West End debut as soon as they were released - a decision made easier by the fact that his chosen production, La Bête, would also star the superlative Mark Rylance who gave that barnstorming performance in Jerusalem last year.

You wouldn't know it from the publicity shots, but this play, though only twenty years old, is written in rhyming verse and set in 17th century (or somewhere thereabouts) France. As Elomire, Pierce is a passionate, serious and rather self-important playwright working under the patronage of the nameless 'Princess' (Joanna Lumley) who tells him that - to keep her support - he must admit a popular street clown into his troupe of players.

Where Elomire is wedded to innovation, aesthetic virtue and above all ideas and integrity, Valere (Rylance) is a shameless populist - as well as egocentric, immune to criticism and verbose to the point of verbal diarrhoea. In fact, verbal diarrhoea doesn't really cover it; the fact that Rylance has to remember a twenty-five minute uninterrupted speech probably does. Just. The two stars are undoubtedly superbly cast - Rylance has the chance to be huge, crude and ridiculously over the top, and Pierce channels a little of that Cranian pomposity and incredulity while Valere rambles on (and on and on) about himself, how loved he is, and how he is the great literary genius of the age.

Pierce's brilliance is such that, even while Rylance is stomping around chewing up the scenery, you always keep one eye on him to make sure you don't miss any exasperated reactions. And it's a good job, because his role, perhaps inevitably, is sometimes overwhelmed by Rylance's. Perhaps nothing could ever really compete with an expansive and consistently funny near-half hour speech, but when Elomire's repost - though cutting - finally comes, it rather pales into insignificance, when what you really want is something majestic, operatic in its criticism and in proportion.

All in all, La Bête is something of a Problem Play; both in the sense that it has its problems, and that it literally shares with the likes of The Winter's Tale a propensity to veer from the broadest comedy to moments of real ambiguity and awkwardness. There is, for example, a rather heavy-handed moment when the audience is meant to consider whether it really is Valere who is 'the beast', but then the ending (which I won't give away) seems to drag the audience in one particular direction. And the beauty and brilliance of that long speech - both in the dense imagery of the writing and mesmeric performance - means that the play is top-heavy.

It must be admitted, though, that these problems only really reveal themselves, and indeed intensify, on reflection, far from the auditorium, and some of the uncomfortable moments are certainly intended. While in your seat, you are simply rapt by the central performances and that speech - and Pierce's mute response - has to be one of the most fun 25 minutes to be found in the West End at the moment. An oddity, yes; flawed, certainly; but entertaining? Hugely.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Short blog #3: Karaoke Circus @ The 100 Club (with full orchestra)

It's Karaoke Circus time again, but just a quick snapshot I assure you. The nomadic night found itself back in The 100 Club this time round, complete with Martin White's mammoth Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra and, as ever, its wonderful atmosphere means that it is probably best seen rather than described... So first up, here's the great Tony Gardner putting the imaginary R into Sha(r)ft - a tune which it's an absolute joy to hear played live:

And here's Karaoke Circus deity (oh yes) Chris Addison matching up to a frankly majestic orchestral backing on Pet Shop Boys's Left To My Own Devices:

Also on show among many others were Tim Vine making his KC debut (quite the crooner), Robin Ince bringing a tear to the eye (maybe) with Two Little Boys, Andrew Collins (secret) dancing his way through Uptown Top Ranking, Lizzie Roper blasting out Call Me and assorted plucky punters attempting the likes of Bat Out Of Hell, Design For Life, These Boots Are Made For Walking and - in the winning performance - Take Me Out.

NB. I have not written anything for ten minutes. Instead I have been reliving my first Karaoke Circus experience (Albany, April 2009) by singing along to a karaoke version of Tiny Dancer on YouTube. This is the power or Karaoke Circus people. Embrace it.