Saturday, February 27, 2010

Jonny Sweet's Mostly About Arthur and Enron

They're not linked in any way, other than the fact that I've seen them both relatively recently (but only relatively in the cosmic sense as Calvin would say; in the case of Sweet especially I'm positively tardy) and that they are both very good.

Sweet - you might have seen him in The Inbetweeners or as young Dave Cameron in When Boris Met Dave - won the Best Newcomer prize at last year's Edinburgh Comedy Awards, and while I happily supported his nomination having seen him excel in Party and with fellow Inbetweeners stars Simon Bird and Joe Thomas as sketch group The House of Windsor, I have to admit I'd missed his show. Nice of the Soho Theatre, then, to have Sweet and Tim Key playing the same run, making for a lovely double-bill; two shows in one night - it's a little taste of the Fringe in deepest, darkest February!

The show is a delight, as I fully expected it to be. Jonny plays a version of himself who has lost a brother, the finest blurbist (writer of blurbs, natch) of his generation, savagely eaten to death by an average sized dog. Jonny's aim is to get his brother more recognition, and does this through a dodgy PowerPoint presentation, readings of the best blurbs and a short play involving members of the audience as a table and coffee machine. What's especially great about this production, (as well as the heavy involvement of the word blurbist, which is inherently funny) is Jonny's willingness to come across as a complete, if not unlikeable, tool - he is self-obsessed and prone to lengthy digression; nice, you might say, but dim.

Dim is not something of which you could accuse anyone involved in the Enron scandal (smooooooth). Money-grabbing, delusional and desperate for sure, but these were highly intelligent people corrupted by power, but willingly and, this play suggests, knowingly so. The reviews of this have been almost uniformly glowing, and it's hard not to be boringly concordant - the lead performances from Sam West, Tim Piggot-Smith, Amanda Drew and (always a favourite of mine, and generally underrated I think) Tom Goodman-Hill are all engrossing and it is consistently hugely entertaining, and often very funny. Which, for a show about economics (and it really is; personal relationships are in there, but it's the rise and fall of the company that is really foregrounded) is pretty impressive.

My only complaint might be that writer Lucy Prebble is so anxious to Make Economics Fun that she throws almost a bit too much at this - it's entertaining enough without a barbershop quartet and the Lehman brothers in a single oversized suit, I think - but that's real nit-picking, and probably churlish. Enron portrays ridiculous highs and devastating lows equally well, looks stunning, makes some nice pop culture references and acts as a stark and affecting warning against unchecked greed.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

No more We Need Answers, no more Newswipe...

...thank goodness for Bellamy's People and its 8-episode-instead-of-6-episode season! Pure character comedy, nothing on telly makes me giggle quite so much as this at the moment, and I'm not sure it's getting the recognition it deserves. A conversation about the show recently had me fighting with myself over which is my favourite character (white van man? old Humphrey Milner who's right about everything? the "reformed" criminal? every one Felix Dexter plays?) and which is my favourite performer (Lucy Montgomery is rather special, it has to be said). It's nothing ground-breaking, and not everything works, but it's impeccably performed, and it has a lovely tone about it. If you haven't caught it so far, take a quick look right here... (This clip doesn't exactly show it in its best light, so maybe just watch an entire episode on iPlayer instead.)

Lost Soul Music, White Rose Theatre - Pleasance Theatre

Written for MusicOMH.com

White Rose Theatre – who rose to a certain prominence thanks to their sparky and intelligent re-telling of Tony Blair’s time in government and beyond in Tony! The Blair Musical and Tony of Arabia – do not like to do things by halves.

Their current project, Lost Soul Music, not only comprises six hours worth of material, but the programme boldly states that “Lost Soul Music is our attempt to save the musical” – its reputation, rather than the genre itself, which box office stats will attest doesn’t really need saving.

So, flashy staging and huge casts are here eschewed for something altogether more intimate and quiet – simply plays with songs.

The opening night featured two of the six stories in the cycle – none of which, we’re told, feature anything approaching a happy ending, but which all deal with the battle for a character’s soul.

The Devil You Know follows Helen, truly a tortured soul who believes that she has always done the right thing, despite having been cursed by the demons carved into the bed in which she was born. If Helen sounds slightly unhinged – she is. She is haunted by the physical manifestations of her own inner demons – incongruously named Morris and Maude – and as she attempts to tell her story of woe, through words and bluesy song, her anger at never having been recognised for having good intentions becomes increasingly apparent, her stoic exterior occasionally breaking to reveal fury, regret and deep-seated jealousy. Kristin Atherton has a fittingly soulful voice, but it is her portrayal of a woman on the edge, a "crazy lady" as Morris and Maude call her, that is more impressive.

Helen is too introspective and moody to provide much comedy, but this does come from both of the demons. Morris, played by Alex Forsythe, is a louche, New Romantic kind of demon, the sort you could easily be seduced by, while Maude, played by the very funny Roxanna Klimaszewska, is reminiscent of Miranda Richardson’s Queenie – usually playful but occasionally rather terrifying. All three though - while fine performances - are overshadowed by moments of brilliance in the script; Helen’s visceral description of a spring in that bedstead tearing the flesh of her brother’s foot, or sawing off those devils’ heads in rage, will not be quickly forgotten.

And it is writer Chris Bush’s truly remarkable way with words which also lifts single-hander Simon Says. James Duckworth, while the lead in the Tony musicals, does not have the strongest voice and as such the most probably isn’t made of the music hall, Flanders and Swann-style songs which punctuate his monologue. But he has one fantastic script to deliver, and he delivers it with such aplomb.

As Thomas J Malloy – waistcoat, Italian shoes, pocketwatch – he is truly a man out of time; he exists in the 21st century but his aversion to jeans and Yates’s wine-bars means he does not exactly thrive there. But it does mean that his speech is fabulously Wildean, never using a single syllable word where a long, preferably French-rooted one will do, as if he has just emerged from a light Sheridan comedy. His is a 'careful what you wish for' tale, but the middling storyline comes a distant second to the delightfully histrionic descriptions of 'his beloved.'

There is something genuinely odd about both the concept of these six stories in general and the tone in which they are delivered – especially The Devil You Know which flips a little ungainly between throwaway comic lines and deep tragedy – and that can leave you more than a little uncomfortable, unsure how to react. But the love of language evident in both scripts is appealing and the turn of phrase genuinely impressive – the devil may have all the best tunes, but if these two stories are anything to go by, Lost Soul Music’s worth lies in its wonderful words.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Housekeeping

You'll see that I'm now keeping my reviews together in the new-fangled Reviews pages over on the left there. I've just updated them all, so you can FINALLY go through them easily and discover the gems you might have missed first time round (hee).

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Karaoke Circus built just for me...

I realise it probably gets quite dull, me constantly saying that Karaoke Circus is one of the finest things, in general, to grace God's green Earth, but the fact is - the fact - is that's precisely what it is so I shall continue to say it and continue to bore you. Sorry bout that.

As I very subtly hinted in the title of this blog, this was a Karaoke Circus built, apparently, just for me, thanks to the inclusion of some of my very favourite songs. The foremost of these was The Beatles' Oh Darling, a song I love dearly, and which is certainly in my top ten of all time - and to see it performed by the KC Band (Martin, Danielle, Foz and Dave), and sung but Hattie Hayridge (you know) and an audience made up of people I really, really like... well, there's a strong possibility I won't ever actually see The Beatles perform it, so this was a pretty wonderful replacement.

Added to this, audience members bravely stepped up to sing a couple of songs which equally mean a lot to me: Dream A Little Dream Of Me, which the brilliant Hayley Hutchinson sang while my big bro signed the marriage register (said audience member was great, so I admit to having a lump in my throat); and the Huey Lewis version of The Power Of Love. Not sung at my brother's wedding, admittedly, but I damn well played it at the reception - its bombastic opening and, above all of course, its association with one of my favourite movies, means it makes me stupidly happy. I rather cherished the chance to sing it at the top of my voice...

Then there's just the fact that I got to share a few hours with lots of people I like very much. The performers, which comprised *breathe* Josie Long, Andrew Collins, Kevin Eldon and Liza Tarbuck, Laurence Howarth, Garry Richardson, Thom Tuck, Robin Ince, Waen Shepherd and Tony Gardner, are all brilliant people; the judges Baron (Foz's other half as it were) and Dan Maier (brilliant co-brains behind TV Burp) are the perfect good-cop, bad-cop combination; the band can apparently turn their hand to anything; and the audience is just wonderful both in the collective sense, and the in terms of the individuals within it whom I have the pleasure of knowing.

Sigh... just two months to wait til the next one, then.... far too long, of course, but you wouldn't to wear out something as delightful as Karaoke Circus through over-use, now, would you?

[There's a great, and rather more thorough round-up of the evening over at A Year In Amateur Music, by the way - enjoy!]

Monday, February 08, 2010

Film review: Beyond The Pole

written for the British Comedy Guide

Climate change isn't just all over the news, it's also all over the cinema. There are the worthy documentaries and docu-dramas of course, such as The Age of Stupid and An Inconvenient Truth but Hollywood has certainly got in on the act too, giving its big-budget disaster movies the moral warning edge that WE WILL BRING THIS ON OURSELVES. I think it is fair to say, however, that Beyond The Pole is the first British, climate change, buddy comedy movie.

This new indie from Shooting Pictures sees Stephen Mangan and Rhys Thomas play a couple of rather endearing idiots, Mark and Brian, who have seen The Day After Tomorrow and a few terrifying stats on the news and decided that something simply must be done to save the planet. They could settle for refusing the offer of a plastic bag or leaving the car at home, but thanks to a rather incendiary mix of frustrated home lives, a thrill-seeking streak and a complete lack of understanding of the dangers involved, they instead decide to walk to the North Pole completely unaided. Oh, and the trip will be carbon neutral, organic and vegetarian too. Naturally.

They've never done anything like this before - although Mark feels qualified thanks to his adventurer great-grandfather, and Brian does love a bit of extreme sports on the X-Box and that's kinda similar, right? Plus, they have arctic cameraman Steve at their side, but when he's attacked by a polar bear (earlier described by Brian as 'cuddly-looking') they put him out of action somewhat by firing a warning shot straight into his leg. Unbowed, the boys continue, but news from home for both of them takes their eyes off the prize, and with a couple of rather more professional Norwegians on their tail, it looks like they won't even make the Guinness Book of Records, let alone save the world.

Beyond The Pole may not have the backing of a big studio - it was built on private funding and a hell of a lot of persistence - but it does have three important assets on its side: Stephen Mangan, Rhys Thomas and one stunning landscape. Working backwards then: for this film to work you genuinely have to believe that the guys are living and struggling in this harsh environment, and what better way to achieve that than to actually shoot it there?

The apparently never-ending Greenlandic ice floes that provide the back-drop for Beyond The Pole give this film an impressive scale and provide a real sense of threat that you simply can't recreate in the studio.

And then there's the film's leads, Mangan and Thomas. Stephen Mangan has made this particular brand of well-intentioned fool his stock in trade (never better than in, well Never Better, the sadly un-recommissioned BBC Two sitcom from a couple of years back) but here there is the great addition of a slightly dangerous side fostered by disappointment with how his life has worked out so far, and the frustration that no-one seems to see the urgency of the world's dire situation. Thomas - currently excelling in Bellamy's People which gets better and better every week - shows Brian to be the rather more stable of the pair, but still utterly deluded as to the enormity of the task in front of him, which he greets with a cheeky smile for the camera.

There are some great lines along the way - I particularly enjoyed the exchange "When Bono and Geldof saw those starving kids, they couldn't just keep making hit records, could they?" "Geldof certainly couldn't...", although it has to be said that the belly-laugh count could be higher. Another quibble - certainly not one that modern films often fall foul of - is that the film could simply be longer; Mark's decent into insanity happens a bit too quickly and, quite frankly, I could watch Brian flailing about in knee-deep snow for hours (Thomas shows a real capacity for physical comedy).

With Mangan and Thomas at the helm, though, a trip to the North Pole is one you're more than happy to take - their rapport is great, especially when bickering like an old, admittedly potty-mouthed married couple, and for all their characters' idiocy you're always behind them because their dedication to the cause is genuine and therefore infectious. And in the end, I know that a nicely-made Britcom with great lead performances and its heart firmly in the right place is going to do a better job than an Al Gore doc at getting me to turn the thermostat down...

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Feature Spot brilliance, Gloomy comedy and the magnificent Pajama Men

Well well well, here we are in February and I officially suck at blogging. In my defence, January was probably my busiest month so far work-wise, and was topped off by a rather lovely virus last week that had me laid up in bed in a way I haven't experienced for years and years... Still, I continued to make the most of what London has to offer, of course, and I saw some real stunners.

Early on, as well as seeing James Sherwood, I returned to the legendary 100 Club; this time not for one of those Karaoke Circuses, but for a relatively new club night from Feature Spot which is quickly and rightly getting a reputation for putting together some of the best bills in the capital. This night had Perrier-winning Phil Nichol on MC duties (yes, he did 'Only Gay Eskimo', something I will NEVER complain about, no matter how many times I see it), along with the fabulous character comic Colin Hoult, Rufus Hound trying out some new material and a couple of Penny Dreadfuls being utterly charming as ever. We Are Klang's Greg Davies headlined, and absolutely slayed the room with his sprawling, bizarre and utterly hilarious stories. Brilliant.

The following Monday was apparently the year's gloomiest, and so to raise a bit of cash for Depression Alliance, 'Gloom Aid' was held at the Islington Academy, with Mark Watson at the helm. Now, if I had my way, Watson would MC every single gig ever - quick, clever, self-aware and with the ability to make everyone feel involved and at ease, he's the reason a 24 Hour show is at all possible. It was also great to see Alex Horne (Wordwatcher and We Need Answers host) do stand up for the first time, and it was my first experience of the much-loved musical comedy duo Frisky and Mannish. They are clearly brilliant musically, and Wuthering Heights as sung by Lily Allen is particularly inspired - but I think I need to see a fill show to really fall for them.

Later that week I had booked a single ticket for the Pajama Men at the Soho Theatre on a bit of whim, and I am so glad I did: their show 'Last Stand To Reason' is quite simply one of the best - comedy or theatre - that I have ever seen. It isn't often that a show lives up to such huge hype (it has had almost universal critical adoration) but sometimes things are just as good as everyone says it is. The two men in flannel pyjamas - or pAjamas, they are Yanks after all - act out lots of characters on a train, and they inhabit them all so brilliantly, and so funnily; combining the script and vague storyline with left-field, improvised flights of fancy. Part theatre, part comedy and, with no props other than two chairs, part mime, it's all performed with consumate professionalism without ever feeling forced, and I felt genuinely involved with many of the characters. I'm going again, and I can't wait.

The Little Dog Laughed, Garrick Theatre

Douglas Carter Beane's The Little Dog Laughed was a smash on Broadway – it received a couple of Tony Award nominations and a win for Julie White in the Leading Actress category – and, for a couple of reasons, it is easy to see why.

On one hand, it boasts a bright, sparky script that gives some great material to White’s (and here in the West End, Tamsin Greig’s) character especially; and on the other, rather importantly you suspect, it is all about ambitious actors, cut-throat agents and the skin-deep world of Hollywood buying up successful plays like this one.

The play follows up-and-coming Tinsletown actor Mitch (Rupert Friend), a handsome guy-next-door type whom you’d like your daughter to bring home – at least, that’s the high-gloss image his long term agent and best friend Diane would like to portray.

In fact, he has what she flippantly refers to as ‘a slight recurring case of homosexuality’, something which Diane is desperate to keep a secret, lest his ever-growing female fanbase should desert him before he even makes it to the top. In this buisness, only older English actors with a knighthood are allowed to be openly gay, she says.

So when Mitch falls for hustler Alex (Harry Lloyd), and seems to be getting tired of pretending that Diane herself is the love of his life, Diane goes into hyperdrive (not that she’s a laid-back character ordinarily), snapping up the rights to a hot Broadway play with the intention of cutting out its gay love story – naturally – and flying Mitch back to Hollywood, away from any ‘distractions’, to star in a big screen adaptation.

Diane, with her acid tongue, keen eye for the ridiculousness of the Hollywood game and yet overwhelming desire to win it, is without doubt the play’s richest and most enjoyable character, and Greig is brilliant in the role. She opens the production with a long monologue, setting the scene and speaking straight out to the audience, and she delivers it with the ad-libbing ease of a stand-up, making reference to the fact that we were a pretty good crowd for a Thursday, and reacting to particularly loud individual laughs.

Not all of the actors on stage are treated to such great material however – a couple of the early scenes between Mitch and Alex in particular feel overlong, rather leaving the audience actively awaiting Diane’s return to the stage. The pace picks up in the second half, though, as Mitch starts to reassess what he really wants - and not in the ‘love-conquers-all’ way one might expect - and Alex’s on-off girlfriend Ellen (Gemma Arteton shining in something of a slight role) becomes more involved in the action.

In the end, this play does not say a whole lot beyond the obvious: that Hollywood is a shallow place - and mindset - that ranks appearance high above reality and is full of people who air-kiss their way to the top, treading on whoever necessary. It is still rather charming and a lot of fun, however, and this production in particular benefits from an impressive and utterly assured performance from Greig.

written for MusicOMH.com