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]