Thursday, May 27, 2010

Flight of the Conchords, Wembley Arena

When Flight of the Conchords last appeared live in the UK, they were a cultish if celebrated musical comedy duo playing relatively modest rooms to those in the Edinburgh Fringe know. A few years later, with two HBO series behind them (admittedly tucked away on BBC Four), a few dates at the Hammersmith Apollo couldn’t meet demand in the capital – only Wembley Arena can hold them now.

Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie aren’t really the type of bombastic rockers or
big-production pop stars that normally fill this space though – they’re resolutely and charmingly lo-fi. There was one costume change - glittery cat-suits were unleashed for Bowie’s In Space and Demon Woman - some nifty lighting for the Daft Punk-esque stomper Too Many Dicks On The Dancefloor and the addition, for a few songs, of cello, drums and piano-playing Nigel (introduced as the travel size version of the New Zealand National Orchestra) but apart from that, it was just the two of them, sitting on stools, singing songs.

But what songs. Without many distractions, even in a barn like Wembley you got to really concentrate on the quality of the lyrics and the brilliance of the musicianship; FotC might be known as a comedy duo, but here they were a proper band. With Bret’s intricate guitar on The Most Beautiful Girl In The Room (a triumph in back-handed compliments), Inner City Pressure’s stunning synths and rhymes like “They call me the Hiphop-apotamus cause I got flows that glow like phosphorous”, these are finely crafted and consistently hilarious songs which, performed live, really get their chance to shine.

All of the tracks which have appeared in the TV show were rapturously received, especially Jemaine’s sublime Barry White slow-jam Business Time (complete with recorder solo) which was a real highlight, and most were dotted with different and extra lines to provide new laughs – the best being the introduction of “You could be a plus-size model” to The Most Beautiful Girl In The Room. But other songs which haven’t had the same exposure clearly won over the newer fans too. Jenny, a favourite from the Conchords’ pre-telly days about an awkward case of mistaken identity brought belly-laughs, and a song set in 1353 got one of the best reactions of the night.

Between the songs, it has to be said that Jemaine gives more of himself than laid-back Bret and as such gets more in return – the bulk of the protestations of love from the audience are aimed his way. But as is the case with all great double-acts, the magic lies in the chemistry and it’s the rapport based on years of obvious friendship that makes the banter (or ‘professional talking’ as they put it) such fun – most memorably a brilliant extended riff on the duo’s attempts to resist going down the slippery slope of rock and roll excess by accepting a free muffin.

When the inevitable calls for "Series three!" came, Jemaine made the good point that another series would mean not being able to come out on the road, and on this evidence that would be a real travesty. This gig was a showcase for the duo’s superlative songwriting skills, and the sooner they can return to the stage – where they are so clearly at home – with new material, the better.

Written for MusicOMH, where I couldn't really write OMG CONCHORDS WERE AS GREAT AS I'D HOPED. But I can here. Because they were.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Shambolic footy shenanigans with Mark - and Paul - Watson

NB this is riddled with errors (the worst being a reference to Mark Watson's "23 hour shows") for reasons which become clear in the first proper line of this entry. Huge apologies, and I'll be sure to sort them soon...

I'm writing this on my phone as my housemates watch the last ever Lost. I could go in there and get my laptop, but if someone had blocked my view even for a moment during the Ashes to Ashes finale, someone would have got hurt, so I'm doing the honourable thing.

Trying to write on here is a nightmare - typo per word ratio is currently 1:1 til I go back and edit - so I'll keep this brief. But last night's Mark Watson's Football Shambles, and the cause it was raising modest amounts of money for, is worth a few words. Mark Watson will be known to most of you (through me if not the ads he's appeared in, or through being a superb author and comedian) but he comes from what appears to be a sickeningly talented and uber-motivated family. His brother Paul is, astonishingly, the world's youngest international football manager - the recognised coach of the 'worlds worst football team': Pohnpei.

For him, as it would be for most people (including big bro) it is quite literally a dream come true. But this is not simply a case of a man picking a tiny team through whom he can live out his fantasy - Paul is making real changes at the Micronesian island, including getting formal physical activity on the curriculum in a country where obesity and diabetes are rife, and opportunities are scarce. He's making his players heroes and leaders. The next stage for the team is to get dome funding from Fifa, but in a "them that got are them that gets" type scenario, they need to go to Guam to play a friendly to do so, and that requires funds in the first place.

Which is where Mark comes in, doing what he does best; which is bringing out the very best in people. Like getting someone to pay £50 for a football signed by the Soccer AM team (fiver, tops), or the star of a hit TV show (Simon Bird, The Inbetweeners) to bumble off into the West End in the hope of bringing a professional footballer back (he, along with Jim Rosenthal's son actually found a few). All this occurred at last night's Football Shambles show at the Leicester Square Theatre plus a few actual stand up turns from the likes of Matt Forde and Chris Martin and a rather il thought out attempt to do a live e-Bay auction; if you're wondering how that works, well, it doesn't really. With the challenges and a tiny bit of singing (Three Lions, of couse) it was meant to have the feel of a 23 hour show in a 6th of the time, and that was the case - shambolic yes, but then that was in the title of the show.

I can't imagine masses amounts of money were raised, but it was pretty bizarre and pretty beautiful and it was great to see the two Watsons up there working together to push a shared dream even further, while doing a whole lot of good. You can follow Paul's travels and travails at the link below, and even throw a couple of quid Pohnpei's way should the mood take you.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Hang around The Inkwell

Dear readers, big bro Paul Fuzz and I require your knowledge, opinions and five minutes of your time, if you please!

Paul's in the process of setting up a rockin' coffee, gifts and records store in York - The Inkwell (name that reference) - and you are such a discerning lot that we think your views are not just welcome but imperative, dammit. There's a survey here and it really doesn't take long to fill in, but the feedback will be genuinely valued, and genuinely listened to.

Many thanks!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Mark Watson + Basden, Epithemiou & Hughes at Live At The Chapel

Written for the British Comedy Guide

Those of us who live in the capital may have to shell out 90% of our income on rent, but the upside is a plethora of amazing comedy. One of the very best regular comedy nights, unsurprisingly arranged by The Invisible Dot's head honcho Simon Pearce, is the monthly Live at the Chapel - three or four really top comics MC'd by, well, another top comic in Islington's stunning Union Chapel. In the past, the likes of Noel Fielding, Tim Minchin, Daniel Kitson and Simon Amstell have all headlined, with the wonderful David O'Doherty up next, and the most recent night featured Arthur Smith introducing Tom Basden, Angelos Epithemiou, Sean Hughes and Mark Watson.

Basden - who won the Edinburgh Comedy Award (if.comedy? Perrier?) back in 2007 for his Tom Basden Won't Say Anything show - actually says quite a lot these days. Short, beautiful, and messed up songs about the cast of Neighbours and stalking Paula Radcliffe are still his main stock in trade (aspiring guitarists should see him for a lesson in fingerpicking) and he still gets the overhead projector out on occasion to display his witty cartoons, but he has now added one more string to his ever-growing bow: reading extracts from his unfinished novel. Deliberately awful, tonally inconsistent and written in the wrong order, Hot Moon is a bad novel, but among the best material Basden has ever written - hopefully it will become an important and permanent element of his act.

Most will know Angelos Epithemiou from his regular appearances on Shooting Stars - the apparently random member of the public who didn't much want to be there, and certainly didn't have time for the general 'messing about' that the show revels in. In reality, of course, he's the creation of Dutch Elm Conservatoire's Renton Skinner. As Angelos, he's a comic who only has three jokes - so it's lucky that Skinner is such a great physical comic that his character is funny without saying a word. And who could possibly not enjoy an act that finishes with a dance routine, complete with costume change?

Sean Hughes, meanwhile, is in a grumpy mood, and has been so ever since he heroically overcame a heavy smoking habit, only to find that he was rewarded with "a fat face." Another Perrier award winner, age has not so much mellowed Hughes as made his already dark humour even more pointed.

I suspect that a 10 minute club set is not really the best showcase for Hughes's comedy, but this truncated tirade showed that middle age may bring its problems, but it also provides great fodder for a comedian who loves to rant.

Headliner Mark Watson is often trailed as one of the 'best-reviewed comics of the 21sts century', and I'm happy to have contributed in a small way to the veracity of that impressive claim. Watson, intelligent and frenetic in equal parts, is simply one of our greatest comics and, perhaps perversely, it's a particular joy to see him trying out new material, as here - it means that you get to see the cogs whirring; a proper comedy brain in action.

As a new dad, much of Watson's new material is based on the change in priorities that such responsibility brings, and the fears that must cross the mind of many young fathers: 1) how do I keep this little thing alive and 2) how do I avoid screwing him up? He also covered the unresolved political situation, the joy of chasing people and, thanks to an extraordinary sneeze from the balcony, a fine bit of improv about his father-in-law's own remarkable sternutation. Watson is doing a full run at this year's Edinburgh Fringe, and on this evidence things bode very well indeed for a superlative show.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Divine Comedy - The Tabernacle, 12/05/10

'Everybody Knows' and 'I Like', at The Tabernacle

Something rarer than hens' teeth and blue moons happened on Wednesday: at a gig in a residential corner of West London, the new songs were highlights. But then, the man performing those songs, Neil Hannon, is in himself rarer than hens' teeth and blue moons, so it figures.

This week, The Divine Comedy - as Neil Hannon only - played The Tabernacle, and while it's beautiful from the outside, (and has a delightful foyer, no complaints there) the auditorium itself does alas have the feel of a school hall. The stage is raised barely a foot off the ground and when the only performer is sitting at a piano most of the time, and therefore at chest height of the audience, well, that's not especially great except for those literally right at the front. "Chairs would have been a good idea" our host said, apologetically.

Luckily, Hannon is a warm, witty, and winning kinda guy, and the logistical problems were quickly forgotten, as he got the crowd onside with opener 'The Complete Banker' (no need to explain what that one's about), from the as-yet-unreleased Bang Goes The Knighthood. Funny and sniping, it set a high benchmark for the new songs to emulate, but in fact was out-shone by most: 'Down In The Street Below' is an atmospheric, story-telling track reminiscent of Promenade's 'When The Lights Go Out All Over Europe', and 'Have You Ever Been In Love' touching and heart-felt.

None, however, quite match the hedonistic power-pop that is 'I Like' - written, he told us, as a response to 'Everybody Knows' because he now considers its narrator 'a dick' for not just being honest with his lady-love. It has, I think, the most hummable, heart-squeezing, smile-inducing chorus Hannon has ever written, and that's saying something.

Dotted between the new songs, every album The Divine Comedy have/has released was represented, from Liberation's 'Pop Singer's Fear Of The Pollen Count', through 'Becoming More Like Alfie' and 'Mastermind' right up to 'A Lady Of A Certain Age'. Personally, it was a delight as ever to see 'Our Mutual Friend' performed live, (stripped down to piano-only it loses none of its grandeur), and 'Songs Of Love' and 'A Drinking Song' were augmented by hearty audience participation.

Hannon is a great orchestrator, but this solo show meant losing those layers of sound that help make his songs so great in order to gain space to really concentrate on the lyrics, and time for him to be a funny and charming raconteur - and that's a trade that more than paid off. Truly beautiful stuff.

Big thanks to Dean who bagged the tickets, by the way, for which I am ever-thankful; I'm sure he'll have a gig review up on his blog in due course...

Ashes To Ashes - what the 2-part finale must tell us...!

Yes, it would have been handy to get this cross-posted from Dork Adore *before* the first part aired, but.... well, I didn't. No questions were properly answered though, so apart from the fact that Chris has had his Life On Mars moment and is now seeing stars, *most* of this holds true. Most.

When Ashes To Ashes came to our screens in 2008, there was a general ‘meh’ reaction, with the odd ‘really angry’ thrown in there for good measure. Most were simply annoyed that it wasn’t just like Life On Mars, while others really disliked our new hero, Alex Drake. But me, I loved it. I saw that it has its problems, but I loved that Alex wasn’t actually that different to Gene, I loved the addition of fearless Shaz, I loved Chris’s new hair, dammit, I loved the opening credits. And now, the facts have caught up with me, and it’s genuinely, consistently good as well! I knew it would get there eventually. Unfortunately, it’s got there just as the series comes to a decisive end, with just one double-parter left to air… and so many strands are still left unresolved! Here are the five questions that must be answered for those of us who have stuck with this fun, inventive series right to the bitter end…

1) What happened to Sam Tyler?

The heart of this season is the growing suspicion that Sam Tyler’s death in Gene-land (that’s what we all call this version of the past right? Just me then?) was not the simple car-accident it was made out to be. And, more than that, that Gene actually killed him. We know – or at least hope – that the latter can’t be true, but if not him, who? Enticingly, the resolution of this storyline is ripe for some returning characters – perhaps Annie has some information to add, perhaps Simm will have filmed something new for a flashback (a girl can hope), perhaps Sam isn’t dead at all and he’ll walk into Fenchurch East Police station!

2) Who is the young policeman haunting Alex?

A young Gene? My other, rather far-fetched theory is that this is someone Sam Tyler killed, leading Gene to help Sam fake his own death…

3) Why are Shaz, Ray and Alex seeing stars?

Over the course of series three, Alex, Shaz and Ray have all looked out into the night sky and seen stars – not just one or two defying the light pollution, but thousands, millions even, as if looking straight into the heart of the Milky Way. Why, and why them in particular?

4) What are the ‘Life On Mars’ moments?

When Shaz was granted what she had always wanted – to properly join the team in civvies – she stared straight at the camera, everything around her faded to black, and we heard a short snatch of Life On Mars. Similarly, when Ray was granted his greatest wish – to hear those three little words ‘well done Ray’ – the same thing happened. What does it all mean?! Again, Chris is notable by his exclusion in these moments… Doesn’t look good for him, I have to say.

5) Who really is Jim Keats?

One of the greatest additions to this series is Daniel Mays as the modernising Jim Keats – part charming, part loathsome, he’s the antagonist that will surely provide many of the answers. Importantly, he has held two cops who have ‘betrayed’ the force as they lay dying, and his apparent comfort provokes something like blind fear on their faces. The Devil incarnate? The idea that Gene-land is some sort of purgatory becomes more and more plausible, but are the religious references, which are coming thick and fast now, the answer, or the language being used to describe something else entirely?

Well, there’s only 120 minutes left for these questions to be answered; 120 minutes of what I genuinely think is the best thing on television at the moment. But for now – let the speculation run riot!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Holding The Man - Trafalgar Studios

Written for

Adapted from the Australian dramatist Tim Conigrave’s memoirs of the same name, Holding The Man has a few gimmicks up its sleeve but is fundamentally a simple but ultimately tragic love story. So while the posters advertising this production may all bear the image of celebrated Kath and Kim writer/performer Jane Turner, its success in fact depends on the two male leads who play out that relationship from faltering first kiss to eventual heartbreak.

Here, there can be no complaints. The play follows Tim and John Caleo, two lads from Western Australia who fall in love very young during the 1970s.
They face parental disapproval (John more so than Tim) and a general ignorance, but more often than not prejudice is put to one side simply because they are hugely likable - and importantly that warmth of personality comes across in waves thanks to actors Guy Edmonds and Matt Zemeres who excel as Tim and John respectively. Nice guys do not have to be dull, and this story is engrossing precisely because Edmonds and Zemeres make you care for them and the relationship; you laugh along when they playfully tease each other at the start of their relationship, and the audience audibly groan with disappointment when Tim later admits he has played away.

This being a play about a gay couple during the 1970s, 80s and 90s, it follows a grimly predictable path – both Tim and John are diagnosed HIV positive in 1985 – so while the whole production is imbued with Tim’s wonderful sense of humour, the second act does not seek to offer the same level of laughs as the first. Some scenes lack the emotional punch they strive for, notably when Tim tells his parents of his illness, but others are heartbreaking in their simplicity; a romantic meal in which the two men calmly discuss their greatest regrets and achievements is particularly affecting.

Writer Tommy Murphy has ensured that the stage production of Holding The Man retains the sense of the memoir in that it everything is seen through the eyes of Tim himself – in fact Edmonds never leaves the stage. Tim’s own love of the theatre (he trained at Australia’s respected National Institute of Dramatic Art and wrote and devised several original pieces) opens the door for overt theatricality in the play and this is one of its great strengths. The lighting, all based on the idea of individual bulbs around a dressing room mirror, is consistently inventive, and puppetry appears throughout and to great effect, especially when a gaunt puppet stands in place of the ailing John. Plus, costume changes regularly occur on stage, giving the excellent supporting cast the chance to show off their dramatic range, in particular Turner who gets many of the biggest laughs, and Simon Burke who plays everything from a homosexual, politicised hippie student to an uptight 70-something.

This play may have nothing new to say about AIDS or homophobia, but then politics is not at its heart. What is important to the production is what was clearly most important to Tim and John, and so it is simply a love story, but one that is genuinely funny, impressively performed and imaginatively staged.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Doctor Who - The Vampires of Venice

"They're not vampires, they're aliens!" "Classic."

"We're not her boys." "Yeah, we are." "Yeah...."

I know I'm a lost cause but that's what I want from Doctor Who. Hapless but not unintelligent boyfriend changing the dynamic, great one-liners, no obvious WTF moments, wonderful interplay between our heroes, good direction and Helen McCrory being brilliant. It wasn't complicated and I've read that it lacked menace but I'm sick of everything being "it's the end of the world!" anyway. Personally, I sat there having a whale of a time for the full 45 minutes, and I can see myself watching it time and again. I know that Stephen Moffat is massively clever, and moments that felt odd during the Weeping Angels story will undoubtedly pay off beautifully later on but hey, I'm impatient.

As for the newbie, I know Marie's not a fan, but I do love the beatnik physicality of Matt Smith's Doctor and the fact that, as has been widely noted, he's a lot less human than Ten. Can't hear a word he says at times, of course... that really needs to be sorted.

Next week - creepy dreamworld. Can't wait.

EDIT: Does the Doctor break the fourth wall in this episode by the way? When he says that asking the baddies to reveal the whole plan will work one time, it feels like he catches the eye of the viewer ...