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