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.

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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"....